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27 November 2011 @ 05:02 pm
How to sway them - Part 2  
More of my very much unedited, hurriedly thrown together NaNo! Feedback much appreciated :D

Go here for a synopsis and part 1.

Another round over here!” Owain crowed, flagging down a passing barmaid, who gave him an exasperated look. This might have been due to the fact that he was standing on the table they'd all seated themselves around. Again.

Glaw couldn't help giggling at the sight of him, as the barmaid gently but firmly tugged him back down to the floor. Owain had always been gangly, more bones and tendons than muscles, but at this moment he looked like a pink wading birds - though an unusually graceful one. Despite is awkward built, Owain had never made a clumsy move in his life (or if he had, Glaw had never been there to witness it).

To prevent Owain's antics from making him snort wine out his nose, Glaw took a moment to watch the other people around the table; the ones who were actually sitting down and enjoying drinks. It was quite a good turn-up, all things considered. Most of the members of his squad had showed, as had Huw and a few of his friends all the way from Search.

They were all laughing, just this side of drunk to not have gotten rowdy or nauseous yet, and their happy faces were at once comforting and frustrating; Glaw didn't know if he wanted to embrace them or punch them, especially as people were having trouble addressing him directly. It was as if he was attending his own memorial service.

...and that's when Glaw said 'because he's got a face like one'!” Huw said, finishing up a story he'd told hundreds upon hundreds of times. “And that's how his sister started calling me 'bear'.” At which point he broke down, guffawing at his own tale and getting beer in both his beard and his lap.

Around him the others joined in, giggling and wrapping their arms around their bellies; even though most of them knew the story by heart.

<A toast to Glaw!> Owain shouted, having gotten steady on his feet again, switching language as fluidly as he jumped up on a nearby chair. He'd grabbed a glass of ale, which most likely wasn't his, from the myriad of cups and mugs cluttering the table and now raised it above his head, spilling foam in the barmaid's hair. <A brave soul, who->

Stop that!” The barked command came from the owner of the establishment, a heavyset little man with a balding head and a skinny mustache. He'd been standing behind the bar from the moment their group had entered, watching them like a hawk, but had remained silent until this moment. “I'll have none of that filthy demon speak in my bar!”

<Ignore him!> Gethin - a soldier girl Glaw barely knew, but who'd tagged along because she was a friend of a friend and there was free alcohol to be had - said and gave the bar owner a wide grin. <He's just worried Glaw will request all his finest wines for the journey to Outer Camps.>

This comment instantly stopped all the laughter and cheers. A somber cloud made its way over the table, killing the happy mood as painfully and inevitably as the bite of a soul-maker snake. Owain even got down from the chair and instead curled up on it, as if he were a small child seeking warmth by a fire on a cold winter day.

Gethin quickly got up and hurried over to the bar, where the bar owner too had fallen silent, once more satisfied with just staring at them. She grabbed a few of the bottles lining the counter and returned to the group, not looking at anyone. Glaw accepted a refill of his glass and hurried to empty it, attempting to wash away the lump in his throat. He nearly spat it all out when he glanced over at the wall clock and noticed what time it was.

Outside the sound of dozens of clock towers simultaneously striking noon rang out, drowning all conversation for twelve swings of the bells.

All eyes turned to the door. Glaw held his breath.

For a second, it almost looked like nothing was going to happen. The ringing of the bells died away, leaving the chatter around the bar's other tables to resume its previous volume. For a few moments, a few torturous moments, Glaw had the time to think: I shouldn't have lied to Dylis.

Then the door opened. The man and woman who stepped inside wore identical, wide smiles and neat uniforms. They looked more like the escorts for a wedding than the drivers of a carriage to Outer Camps, but that was only to be expected.

Is Private Glaw Nevett here?”

Glaw stood up, shaking only slightly. There was no point in delaying any longer - the military always knew where their soldiers were. Always. The question was just a formality.

Here,” he answered, surprised that his voice carried so well. “I'm ready.”

Great!” the woman chirped, “then follow us and we'll get you where you're supposed to be in comfort and style!” She wasn't shouting, but Glaw got the feeling she would have been, had he taken one moment longer to get moving. Her grin, though by no means hostile, sent a shiver down his spine. It looked dead somehow, like she'd been smiling so long she'd forgotten how to stop.

The entire table followed him out, carrying as many bottles as they could get their hands on, as well as bags with gifts and other trinkets they'd brought with them. They all boarded the same barge, empty of any other passengers, and sat as quiet as a group of mice hiding from a hungry cat as it passed down the main road-channel.

Other boats made way for their barge without protest; some even waved to them and wished them good luck, to which the drivers waved back and cheerfully expressed gratitude for their kind words. Glaw had to bite down on his tongue to prevent himself from yelling at them to shut up.

Land came closer at a snail's pace. He had no concept of how much time passed from the moment he spotted the jetty leading up to the market place by the city gate, to the moment the barged anchored by it, but it felt like forever; one endless moment of anguish and regret and hope that it never would be over.

But it was. The drivers threw a crude weight into the water, secured the barge by the jetty with a simple but firm knot and disembarked. They didn't as much as look over their shoulders to see if the rest of the passengers would follow them.

The market place was as lively as ever as they entered it; packed to the brim with stalls of fresh foods and fine wines, toys and
confectionery, sculptures and knick-knacks from all corners of the world – though as usual no foreign traders to be seen.

Along the vague boarder of market and road, several carriages stood parked, horses busy eating and drivers either repairing broken wheels or off somewhere on business. One of them stood out more than the others. It was painted a dusty gray and drawn by two horses with pelts to match, an it had the symbol of the Imperial Military – a golden sword – painted as a crest on each side.

The drivers came to a halt by it and while the man saw to the horses, the woman opened the carriage door and turned her ever-smiling face to the small crowd. The insides were very impressive to look upon; nothing but silk and finely brocaded drapes, fit for any person of taste and class to travel comfortably in. With enough denial, one could even ignore the bars on the windows.

As Glaw stood facing the very last carriage ride he'd ever go on, he felt his knees buckle. He wasn't prepared. Not even close.

A comforting hand landed on his back with a soft thud, unbalancing him momentarily. “Be brave, boy,” Huw said, his rumbling growl of a voice strangely gentle, barely above a whisper.

Glaw managed a stiff nod and without looking back he stepped inside, ignoring the smiling woman and the calls of farewell from his friends. Bags and bottles soon followed him in, but he didn't turn around to look at them until the door was closed and bolted behind him.

He lost his footing as the carriage jolted forward and had to brace himself against the only furniture there was; a bed covered in black velvet, with more pillows than there really was room for. From the wrong – right? – angle , it looked like an open coffin. Fighting back the urge to gag, he whirled around and put his hands on the window bars, staring out at the market and the people going about their daily lives.

The carriage grew darker as the city gates drew nearer, casting shadows over his bolstered prison. High up above, where the flags and banners waved slowly in the midday breeze, small silhouettes wandered back and forth, occasionally waving colored rags to signal to each other or to their comrades on the ground.

Glaw closed his eyes and took a deep breath, concentrating on remembering the view from up there in perfect detail. There had never been a more breathtaking sight in his life, than to look at the city from the top of the gates at noon. The sun would be reflecting on all the copper coated roofs, everywhere people dressed in all colors imaginable would be making their way from one walkway to another, crossing over the road-channels where boats languidly would be floating by and far, far in the distance he'd be able to see the harbor and the endless sea, spread out like a glittering carpet of pure blue.

He bit back a sob and cursed, squeezing his eyes shut even further, until his eyelids ached. When he opened them again, it was to the sight of grasslands and open sky, and one final glimpse of the great city wall. And then there was only the main road-channel to watch, flowing parallel with the paved road he was traveling on.

And as traders yelled orders and nobles enjoyed the sunshine on the decks of their finely decorated boats, Glaw sank down in his far too soft bed and cried until he had no tears left.

****

The sun was setting. Dylis felt it glare at her on its way down back into the sea, like a disappointed drill sergeant who'd caught a squad of new recruits relaxing in the grass instead of practicing their sword skills.

She glared right back at it, before she realized how ridiculous she must look. With a terse shake of her head she brushed off the sensation of being watched and returned to her work. Books had piled up on the right side of the table she still was seated at, thrown into a haphazard mess. The ones on the left were more organized and fewer in number, and with far strangers titles; some unintelligible, worn down due to age, and some with titles in dialects no one had spoken in centuries.

Three of the books stood out from both piles, opened as they lay right in front of her, half hidden by a dozen pieces of parchment. Said parchment was covered in jumbled notes in Dylis' not too neat handwriting, arrows connecting some to each other and angry black scribbles covering some.

Dylis rubbed at her bleary eyes, smearing the ink stain under one of them wider across her cheek. She still had another hour. She only had another hour.

An arm appeared at the edge of her field of vision She jumped in her
seat and twisted enough to the left to get a full view of whoever had interrupted her; and was fairly embarrassed to realize Rhian had been able to sneak up on her. Again.

'Done,' Rhian mouthed as soon as their eyes met. Her forced smile made what little hope Dylis had been fostering die a quick, painful death. Curling her hands into fists she did her best to not say or do anything for the seconds it took before the panic could be forced away. That done, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

A gentle warmth suddenly closing over her left hand made her eyes fly open. The sight of Rhian's hand on hers was both thrilling and frustrating – why now of all times? Why couldn't this have happened on a day when she had a clearer head? When she wasn't preparing to leave the library empty-handed, to go and tell her poor brother she had absolutely no way of helping him?

Rhian gave the back of Dylis' hand a soft, encouraging pat, and then reached out for a piece of parchment and a quill. My mentor has met several soldiers who've returned from Outer Camps.

Well-meaning as they were, the words made Dylis want to smash her head against the table. And what state were they in? she scribbled in the corner of one of her many papers she'd covered with her useless notes.

Some regain the will to eat and walk pretty quickly, Rhian hurried to write, her lips drawn upward into something that lacked far too much joy to be called a smile.


And then they're shipped right back! The words were angry, stilted things with harsh angles and careless stains of superfluous ink surrounding them like an uneven halo. Dylis resisted the urge to tear the paper to tiny pieces and throwing them into the fireplace; the effort would have been futile anyways, seeing as she'd never seen a fire lit there, not even on the coldest days of winter.


Rhian hovered by her side for another few seconds, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Dylis looked up at her with was she hoped was an apologetic expression – though she suspected she appeared more impatient than actually repentant – and then gave her a nod. Rhian nodded back and made another attempt at a smile, before hurrying off back among the bookshelves.

Dylis opened another book and glared at the first page, swearing to hunt down and yell at the authors listed there, if it turned out to be yet another dead end. As she turned to the second page, Siani passed by the table and liberated some of the books from the right pile. She was probably glaring and muttering about the barbaric handling of her precious texts, but Dylis couldn't find it in herself to even look at her to find out.


The last rays of the sun fell through the window. Dylis strained her eyes, trying to make out the words written in a decorative and quite small hand. Asking for candles would be pointless, unless she wanted another fight with Siani – for which she had no time – and try as she might she couldn't work up the courage to ask Rhian for safe light.

A firm pat on the back started her out trying to interpret yet another court-martial hearing. She whirled around, ready to give whoever had disturbed her a piece of her mind, only to come face to face with a unusually somber Huw.


'So this is where you've been hiding,' he signed, a look of pure disapproval on his face. 'Couldn't even come say goodbye. Really Dylis, I hadn't thought you were such a coward.'

Dread began to claw at the inside of Dylis' gut, building slowly like the barely visible crest of a far off tsunami. 'What?' she asked, getting out of her seat so quickly and carelessly that it toppled over. 'Say goodbye to who?'

The faint light of anger in Huw's eyes died away, snuffed out like the flame of a candle. He took a step back, eyes darting to fix on a point to the left of her head. 'I thought-'

Her fingers trembled so badly that she nearly couldn't shape them into the sign for bird, no matter how familiar a gesture it was; the closest she'd come to a stutter in all her life. She gave Huw a searching look, clenching her teeth with such force that each one of them ached.

Huw echoed the sign with a steady, careful hand. Pity had taken over his eyes.


For a long moment they just stared at each other. Dimly, Dylis took note of several curious onlookers peaking out from between shelves and looking over the edge of books. Rhian and Siani were both over by the entrance desk; Siani with her back turned, rearranging a stack of papers, and Rhian just staring, her eyes wide, next to a costumer who looked equally shocked.

None of that mattered, of course. Not now.

'He said he'd be called at midnight!' Dylis signed, her gestures jerky and violent. 'Midnight,' she repeated, as if the mere thought of it being incorrect had turned her whole world upside down.


Huw's mouth shaped itself into a small “o”. 'They came for him at noon.'

An image of Glaw, alone in a dark, locked carriage somewhere on the main land road, flashed before her mind's eye. It felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach.

'I should have asked for you, but I thought...' Huw signed, trying to catch her eyes with his again. 'Never mind what I thought, I'm an idiot. We...'

She didn't wait for him to finish. Grabbing her uniform coat from the floor she bolted for the door, running out on the walkway outside. She elbowed her way through the crowd and jumped onto the nearest passenger barge.

No one looked at her or questioned her, not even the man whose bags her landing knocked over – her uniform took care of that – and when she barked at the driver to steer the barge closer to the other side of the road-channel, he did so without a word.

Dylis leaped into the air as soon as the walkway was within reach and grabbed it, heaving herself over the railing. She landed on her feet and set off at a dead run once more, unthinking and uncaring of who she was pushing out of her way.

The clock tower was the first part of the barracks to come into view, its rickety scaffolding as permanent a part of the environment as the water in the channels. One of the repair crew made to wave at her as she ran passed, but halted herself when the fellow next to her shook his head in warning.

Dylis made her way over to the men's barracks without greeting anyone and tore the door open with all the force she could muster. It must have made quite a loud bang when it struck against the wall.

Inside the light was dim. There were a small group of young soldiers gathered by the tables at the far corner of the large room, engaged in some form of card game her noisy entrance seemed to have interrupted, if the cards and coins on the floor where anything to by. Otherwise the room was empty, beds made and candles unlit.

One of the boys by the table got up in a domineering fashion, his broad shoulders and confident stride proclaiming him the leader of the new recruits. He squinted at her, hands at his sides, and said something to her that, judging by his expression, was far from kind and friendly.

Dylis grinned at him, baring her teeth not unlike an angered wolf would, with just enough insanity in her eyes to unsettle him. She took a step further inside, making sure the spares light fell on her scars and the rank markings on her uniform jacket, where it dangled, slung over her arm.

The boys' gaze flickered between the two like a hare cornered by two foxes. He quickly composed himself and saluted, before hurrying back to the table. The other boys didn't look at her; they sat with their shoulders hunched up to their ears and stared at their cards as if they held the secrets to the universe.

With a last ice-cold glare in their direction, Dylis turned her back to the table and began walking further into the room. It was built to house one hundred soldiers at any give time, with fifty bunk beds lined up in five parallel rows.


Perhaps it wasn't the cleanest of places – one hundred soldiers with little free time did cause more dirt to get dragged into the building than out of it – or the most luxurious, but it had a lived-in feel to it, a history, that made it more of a home than any of the richer houses Dylis had ever visited (though that was, admittedly, a limited number).

Making her way to Glaw's bunk in the middle of the third row, she could have done in her sleep; a task made vastly easier by the decorations it apparently had acquired quite recently. There were flower garlands hung at each end, and small but colorful bouquets arranged on the pillow; farewell gifts Glaw would have received in person, if he'd been present to do so.

Dylis stood by the bed's foot end for a got minute, just taking in the sight and fighting to keep her breathing steady and calm. She gritted her teeth. She curled her hands into fists until her fingers ached from the pressure. She did everything but scream and cry.

Panic and despair were her enemy. They could never bring victory, never solve a problem. She had to think.

She sank down on the bed, crushing a few stray petals without really noticing. Staring into the darkness around her she tried to formulate a plan, any kind of plan. She concentrated on the drum of her own heartbeat, grounding herself. It wasn't over, not by a long shot. Just because the trouble had gotten a little out of hand, it didn't mean she'd lost – hardly any battle was as easy as that.


She picked up one of the dying flowers and twirled it slowly between her fingers. It was a bright yellow thing without any particularly strong scent; loud and cheerful without being invasive, as Owain once had put it. The flower must have come from him, or someone who took his fanciful descriptions of his fellow men far too literally.

But Glaw wasn't a flower, thank the gods. He wouldn't wilt away just because he'd been tore from his roots and put in the dark for a bit. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became. Her brother had never been a forceful person, not one well suited for command, but that didn't have to mean he'd curl up and die because of this. He'd even pulled off a stupid act like tricking her about his time of reassignment, without tipping her off, hadn't he?

Dylis found herself smiling down at the flower, unsure of when exactly she'd gone from toying with it to cupping it in her hand. Her brother was strong and there was still time before he reached the Outer Camps. Six more days before he'd even have to leave the carriage; she still had time.

Her resolve restored, she got up, narrowly avoiding hitting her head on the underside of the top bunk. Glaw would take care of himself, and she would take care of getting him back and that was that.

Now she only needed to think of a way to apologize to Rhian.

****

The days passed at the pace of drunken mule marching up a hill. The carriage was not build for speed in any sense of the word - had Glaw not been so busy feeling sorry for himself, he might have felt a twinge of pity for the poor horses forced to drag the cursed thing - and the land road wasn't meant for fast travel either.

Outside the barred windows the same view of the main road-channel and grasslands rolled passed, the monotony only broken a handful of times when less tactful onlookers decided to approach and talk to him, either keeping pace with the carriage or asking the drivers to stop.

The drivers never refused.

The conversations were always the same: "You're doing a great service to your country!" and "Have you been to Outer Camps before?", always spoken with the air of an easy chat, like they'd just run into each other at the theater or a restaurant. One old salesman even gave him a bag of some rare tea sort from over seas, reaching in between the bars without commenting on them and depositing it into Glaw's trembling hands, with a smile and a "Good luck, boy!"

Glaw had never had to study torture techniques, thankfully, but as the days turned to nights, and more and more boats breezed by down the road-channel, thoughts of them took up more and more of his waking hours.

There was nothing to do in the carriage, other than trying to read the books he'd been given by his friends (which he had neither the presence of mind nor the light to do) and the only breaks in traveling were the few times a day when the drivers let him out to relieve himself. Even on the rare evenings that they ended up at an inn, he was made to sleep in the carriage, 'for his own safety', as they put it.

It had to be a thought out way to break him. That was the only explanation. A way to show him that no matter how dearly he wished for it, he'd never get to go home.

The amounting dread grew heavier for each turn of the carriage wheels. The walls were closing in on him, the food he was given tasted of nothing and he nearly lost count of the passage of time. But whenever that feeling of hopelessness came over him, he sat down on the floor, pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his forehead against them. With his eyes closed he did his best to recall the view from the top of the city gate, the windy spot on the wall opposite the hangar where the military was building airplanes.

When the rain started falling on the sixth day, he spent all his waking time remembering the sword lessons Dylis had given him the week before. The ground had been slippery with mud and they'd laughed at each other just as much as they'd actually practiced, and they'd gone back to the barracks soaked to the bone and grinning like idiots. The memory was enough to keep the panic away for a little while longer.

On the seventh day, he blinked awake to find that the carriage had come to a stand still, the door left unbolted and open. He hesitated, taking in the deceitfully blue sky and green grass that beckoned him.

"You coming out?" The female driver stuck her head into his field of view, smile still in place.

He gave her a curt nod and hastily gathered his bags, hugging them to his chest to managed to carry them all at once.

The first thing to catch his eye were the trees. He'd seen some before of course, in the parks of Search, but they had been small, tame things, with slender branches decorated with flowers or colorful leaves. Compared to them, the things growing here were more towers than trees. They dwarfed Outer Camps itself - a gathering of barracks ten times the size of the military housing back in Trade, boxed in by a three meter high timber wall - and some of the branches looked sturdy enough to support the weight of a full grown ox.

"Close your mouth or the birds will lay eggs down your throat," a gruff and clearly amused voice said, starting Glaw out of his staring. He immediately straightened to stand at attention, which unsettled the contents of his bags badly enough for several of the books inside to make an escape for the ground.

"Colonel Hari Blevins," the owner of the voice introduced himself, circling around so they ended up facing each other. The man was dressed in a uniform fitting for his rank, though decidedly less cared for than those of the Colonels in Trade, with an unshaven face to match.

Glaw did his best to salute without dropping more of his belongings. "You've got quite the welcoming committee waiting for you private; I'd suggest you hurry up and get inside."

The gates - if two large wooden doors in an equally wooden palisade could be called that - stood open, revealing barracks and soldiers by the hundreds. Glaw's feet started moving on their own, used to obeying commands without having to take a detour by the brain first. Behind him he heard the carriage start rolling again, the sound of hooves hitting mud growing fainter by the second.

"Are you going to leave those there to rot, Private?"

The question halted him in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder, spotting the five books now decorating the ground in an uneven line. "O-of course not, sir. I'm terribly sorry, sir!"

The rest of the walk Glaw did everything he could to keep his eyes on his bags, doing his best to ignore the hush that fell around him. The Colonel kept up a brisk pace, so there wasn't much time to notice, but everywhere they passed all soldiers stopped what they were doing and stared without even pretending to be busy with something else.


Just as they were about to enter one of the bigger buildings, when a man his own age could be heard grumbling from a small gathering of people dressed in uniforms without rank markings: <Hey, why do you think he getting special treatment, while we've had stand around here for the past two hours?>


Colonel Blevins stopped in his tracks immediately and Glaw had to jump a step to the right to avoid crashing into him. The hush that fell over the crowd this time was far heavier, more oppressive than curious. The gathered soldiers all stood at attention, leaving a ring of free space around the man who'd spoken.

"Listen up!" Colonel Blevins voice echoed in the compact silence. "People back home might be impressed with your demon chatter, but out here we only use human language, understood?" No one spoke. "You're not proving yourself by babbling on like the idiots you are, you're just giving away information to the enemy. No one is to speak the demon tongue unless given a direct order to do so! This goes for all of you." He paused and simply looked at them all, taking time to meet the gaze of the few brave or stupid enough to keep their heads held high.

"Yes, sir!" came the unanimous answer. Glaw joined in on it too, keeping an eye on the Colonel from the cover of his bags.

Colonel Blevins got down from the steps leading up to the door he'd been about to enter and made his way over to the soldier who'd spoken earlier, at a slow pace, dragging each and every second out until the man quivered in his boots.

"As for special treatment," the Colonel said once he'd gone one turn around the soldier, eying him as if he were an insect, "I hardly think that's your place to question, is it Private?"

The soldier shook his head, then nodded, then shook it again, his face as pale as a sheet.

"Have you any idea who's being kept waiting right now by your little snide comment?"

This time there was only a nod.

"You're going out on patrol early, dog." The amusement in the Colonel's voice was back with full force, shadowed by something darker Glaw wished he could make himself ignore. "You're luck that's all the punishment I have time for. Back in line!"

The soldier scurried away and quickly blended in with his fellows again, without protest. As one, the ranking officers at the scene began to direct the men and women present into smaller groups, leading them away towards different barracks.

"New recruits," Colonel Belvins commented to Glaw, as he turned his back to the crowd. His tone light and airy, though somewhat exasperated, like a parent who'd gotten fed up with the antics of their young child. "But you're a well behaved sort, aren't you?"

He squinted his eyes and suddenly brought his face up far too close to Glaw's, nearly bumping their foreheads together. Glaw did his best not to flinch away. "Yes, military born, aren't you? Or at least joined young. Oh, and you're free to answer my questions."

"Yes, sir," Glaw said, doing his best to not meet the Colone's eyes, without obviously avoiding doing so. "Since I was five, sir."

"Then you'll know how to act in the presence of a Brigadier, I bet."

It took him a moment to give it due consideration, but ended up nodding a 'yes'.

The Colonel's entertained expression withdrew a hand's breadth. "How about the Field Marshal?"

Glaw's blood ran cold. The panic that had been building up until that moment was nothing compared to the numb horror that struck him now, making his cheeks pale to rival the ghostly hue of the soldier a moment earlier.

"I'm taking that as a no," Colonel Blevins laughed. "But no worries, I'll give you the quick lesson." He stepped back fully, leaving Glaw room to move again, and set off down the wide corridor they'd entered. Glaw followed suit on shaky legs. "Don't speak unless spoken to, address him as Field Marshal or Field Marshal Warlow and look him directly in the eyes when he's talking to you."

This time, Glaw's answering nod was absent-minded, his thoughts running empty circles in his head.

The rest of the way, short though it was, they walked in silence. Colonel Blevins pushed open an unremarkable door at the end of the hallway and saluted, before stepping inside. Glaw followed, hunched over with his bags held as close to his face as they would go.

The room they'd entered was about as unremarkable as the door they'd passed through. There were two small windows, a desk covered in paperwork and beakers, a table and a bookcase, as well as two occupied chairs and two unoccupied ones. The occupants, however, were as far from unremarkable as one could get.

"Put your things on the table, Private."

Glaw hurried to obey, hardly daring to look at the woman who'd spoken. She wore the silver stripes of a brigadier and was a tall, slender woman with an angular face, set in a stern expression. Unlike the Colonel, her clothes were well kept, pristine almost, like she spent hours everyday polishing the buttons and medals - or rather, had someone else do it for her.

Still, no matter how immaculate and domineering she looked, or how unnerving the smirk plastered on the Colonel's face was, Glaw's attention was drawn away from them, to the room's fourth occupant; the man lounging in the chair by the desk.

Field Marshal Warlow stood out like a peacock in a hen house, his finely gold brocaded coat of royal deep blue and his wavy blond hair granting him an air of grace and presence Glaw previously only had seen possessed by the best of actors. The sword and dagger at his side were equally impressive, decorated not in the gaudy fashion of so money rich young men playing at being war heroes, but with delicate carvings on the hilt that must have taken a very skilled smith months to finish.

"You're Glaw?" The lack of his surname or any sort of title brought Glaw up short and he almost forgot to add a 'Field Marshal' to his stuttered 'yes'. "Good, then let us get started!"

He laughed at the curt nod he got in reply, which was followed by more stuttering and apologies. "My, my, Hari here seems to have gotten you quite worked up about seeing me." The words, as well as the smile that accompanied them, were surprisingly pleasant and friendly, as if Glaw was a visiting relative.

The Brigadier and Colonel Blevins had both taken up position by the door, flanking it as if they were on guard duty. Blevins still wore the same amused expression he'd had since they'd entered the building, and the Brigadier was as blank as a statue, staring straight a head at nothing.

The Field Marshal leaned forward over the desk and laced his gloved fingers together, to rest his chin on the back of his hands. "No need to look so shocked," he said in an almost teasing tone of voice, "just give me your documents and the formalities will be over before you know it."

Something in his light tone of voice set the few parts of Glaw's mind not numbed by panic on edge, but he nevertheless stuck his hand into his pocket and produced his slightly crumpled credentials.

The Field Marshal accepted them with a pleased smile and began eying through them. He had a handsome face, one fit for the old fairy tale knights in shining armor, but there was something almost uncanny about his eyes. To say they looked old would have been a lie, as they were just as youthful as the rest of his face, but there was something off, something that Glaw couldn't quite place.

For a second Glaw wondered if he too would have looked as unnatural, had he been alive for the better part of two millennia.

"Oh, how time flies," the Field Marshal said, as he put the documents down. "Last time I saw you, you were barely three apples tall and a great deal louder, yet here you are, fully grown."

The image of a mask made of bird bones appeared like a shadow in Glaw's mind, but it didn't seem to fit the Field Marshal.

"You'd really think I'd be used to this by now," the Field Marshal continued, either ignoring or not noticing the distant look in Glaw's eyes, "but I dare say not even the Emperor will ever get used to standing outside the passage of time, so how could I expect to do better?"

Murmured agreement came from the doorway, starting Glaw into remembering that he wasn't alone with the Field Marshal.

"Hari, would you do the honors?"

Glaw suddenly found Colonel Blevin's calloused hand wrapped around his left wrist, pulling up the arm of his uniform. Wide-eyed, all Glaw could do was watch, as the Colonel gave his arm a tug, so he had to lean over the desk, putting his arm in place over one of the small glass bowls standing there. The Colonel drew a knife from his belt and without as much as a word of warning, put it to use on Glaw's exposed skin.

The knife stung in a way that couldn't possibly have been just the steel cutting through his skin. It felt like a thousand nettle stings, crawling up the inside of his skin from the wound along the inside of his wrist, all the way to his shoulder.

A thin brook of blood dripped down into the bowl, staining it more than filling it. Glaw clamped his jaw shut, fighting not to make a sound.

"That should do."

At the Field Marshal's command, Colonel Blevins released his hold on Glaw's arm - careless, like a child might have dropped a colorful leaf when a parent called that it was time for dinner - and went back to his post by the door.

Glaw immediately cradled his arm close and gently brushed the fingertips of his right hand over the damaged skin, feeling the strange heat radiating form the cut. The burning inside his skin was dying down, draining away and leaving such relief in its wake that he couldn't but sigh out loud.

On the desk, the glass bowl had begun spinning slowly. The Field Marshal held his hand above it, like a puppeteer guiding the strings of a marionette, twisting it this way and that with only muttered words and the gentle play of his fingers in the air.

The glass began to bulge inwards, folding itself double and forming a lens around the blood, before twisting even further. Grooves appeared in the former bowl's surface, deepening to form an even spiral pattern, mimicking the dozen of seashells like Emperor's Signs that hung on a gold chain around the Field Marshal's neck. The blood followed the change, staining the transparent shell's grooves with thin, dark red veins.

The Field Marshal lifted it from the desk, cradling it as if could break at any moment and held it out, beckoning the Brigadier with his free hand. She at once stepped forward and accepted the small glass trinket.

"Put it with the others, would you Meinir?" the Field Marshal said, his smile serene. "It wouldn't do for anyone to get too curious about our dear friend here."

The Brigadier hurried out of the room, back so straight it looked like she was leading the march for the Day to Remember parade. Glaw watched her go, unable to tear his eyes from the small glass shell.

"There's that anxious look again." The Field Marshal's voice wasn't as much disapproving as it was exasperated and Glaw felt his cheeks redden.

"You should trust more in your superiors, Glaw," the Field Marshal went on, shaking his head in exaggerated disappointment. "What I did just now was merely a more advanced tracking spell than the one than the one we usually use. Demons are tricky creatures, you know - wouldn't do to take unnecessary risks."

Glaw took in the sight before him; the bejeweled coat sleeves, the silvery sword hilt glittering in the grasp of an equally fine sheath and the unsettling eyes above that friendly, calming smile. A part of Glaw wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but nothing had happened yet to make him that suicidal.

"You should feel honored!" The assurance in the Field Marshal's voice sounded sincere and steady as a rock. "This mission means a lot to both the Emperor and me. Know that I will do anything in my power to make sure you succeed. I'll even let you use my dagger, for good luck." He unsheathed said weapon and handed it over, hilt first, into Glaw's shaking hands.

"Thank you, Field Marshal Warlow, sir!" The words, as his voice, were unsteady, but Glaw had a feeling no one in the room could have cared less if it had crossed over into the falsetto region.

"You are most welcome!" The Field Marshal leaned back, returning to the languid position he'd been sitting in when Glaw entered the room. He took off his gloves and placed them neatly on the table, the white silk just avoiding being stained by a forgotten dot of ink on the back of a book. "Now, I'm sure your long journey has exhausted you. Hari, please show him to his room."

That was the extent of the farewell. Glaw saluted and bowed, then saluted again before he dared to turn around, only to be faced with Colonel Belvins' mocking grin. Had the Field Marshal not been present, Glaw suspected the man would have laughed out loud.

The room the Colonel led him to was not five steps down the hall and well furnished, not unlike the carriage, though somewhat bigger. Glaw hesitantly left his bags on one of the many bookcases, feeling like an intruder, a burglar in the bedroom of a nobleman.

"Cheer up, boy!" The encouragement and the enthusiastic pat on his back felt like a mockery of Huw's kind words. "Tomorrow you go the woods!"

The woods. It was the only thing he'd been hearing for the past weeks, a thought that wouldn't leave his head no matter how many distractions he invented for himself. As he stood in the dusty room and heard the lock click into place, he really wished he'd had the courage to ask the Field Marshal what his orders were beyond that.



Part 3
 
 
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