tagMind ControlA War Dawning Ch. 04

A War Dawning Ch. 04

bySaddleRider©

Lystra hadn't left her work in days, save walks around the compound. Even now she ate at a small metal table to the left of the console that had now taken up the whole of her life. She forced herself to eat, not looking at the meal really because it was pretty lavish all things considered. Here she was eating well and living well while her people suffered. Drax came back with stories. There were small victories here and there, but the best they did was buy her people time. The collapse was inevitable. She had seen the burned out villages and seen the dead and broken with her own eyes in her rare getaways from this place. It was so an ordeal for her that it was only with the help of Drax's spellcasting that she could sleep at all.

Her people needed her and she was dawdling with her good meal. But she was no good to them collapsed in a heap, and she may as well use that time productively while she was essentially slaved to that machine, trying to understand it and learn to speak to it, then get it to do what she commanded. It was maddening. Things would progress rapidly, then grind to a halt with no hint of where to go from there, only to find out later that a single symbol in the wrong place was the culprit. It felt like one step forward and three steps back as she tried to write the machine's language and then just wait to see what came of it.

A series of tones snapped her from her melancholy, particularly in that they were the sounds of a positive result. She practically leaped from her table to settle into the high-backed chair before the terminal to begin typing to it. She was quite quick with the odd alphabet. There were indications early on that she could eventually speak to the machine, but she dismissed it almost immediately. It would be next to impossible to get her point across in the long dead language. Indeed, it just begged for disaster, so the written bits of the machine language it would be. She let the system scroll its figures before her and she smiled. It was giving her information that she understood and that told her that the systems were coming slowly to life to life.

She waited for the scrolling text to finally stop and waited for a prompt before entering, CMD:L1diag.ex and waited anxiously. She even spared herself a muttered prayer, not for herself, but for all the people that were suffering, dying and depending upon her to save them. Seconds ticked as the machine before her conversed with the one far above her in ways she seemed to grasp far better than Drax or her father. We each have our gifts.

L1diag.ex-ing...

She put her palms together and finally remembered to breathe. Luck, too.

Lystra could finally give her people hope.

***

Neral left home later that evening to check on the progress of getting the company ready to ride. Making her way through the armory and stables she saw that provisions were being loaded to the pack with the usual sounds of objecting horses and the various supply specialists making sure that nothing was missed or double packed. The officers and enlisted performing those tasks gave her nods in salute as a matter of course, as their hands were usually full in one way or other. Otherwise they went about their business unless she spoke to them because that was her wish. Outfitting an army was the most important part of even having one and she had no interest in everything stopping so they could salute and grovel at her feet as some of her predecessors had. The gesture of respect that she wanted from them was for everything to be as it should be before she set out. Dion would be there somewhere, she knew, and it brought her comfort.

She walked through the barracks to find the men and women commiserating, occasionally raucously as they vented tension and prepared themselves, some physically by exercising with one rather sculpted dark-skinned woman doing pull-ups with the metal bars that protruded above the door for just that purpose. Kaled. The name popped into Neral's head unbidden. The white linens she wore bore hints of sweat and her arms and legs glistened from it. She remained feminine even though Neral suspected she was stronger than some of the men, two fine specimens of which were apparently competing with one another seeing who could manage the most push-ups.

Some were more contemplative, talking to one another at their bunks, wondering what they would find or talking about the revenge that would be meted out to the bandits. Others simply oiled their bows, sharpened their blades, and readied their equipment silently as islands unto themselves. She remembered her days in the barracks and remembered she was more the quiet talker or island. She was so focused on pushing ahead and making her House proud she came off as cold to many back in the day, but she forged deep friendships with those that had the will to put the time in.

One of the men saw her and did a double take as he didn't immediately recognize her in more civilian clothing, in this case a long charcoal skirt, pristine white blouse, and matching vest with gold buttons. Her rank insignia rested on the right side, mostly inconspicuously. "General Jaye."

She raised her voice to be heard over the rustle of soldiers jumping to attention, "As you were." She waved them off. "I just wanted to see that you are on the path to ready."

The response reverberated throughout the room and rattled the windows. "Yes, General!"

"Excellent. Carry on."

She left them be and, almost without thinking of it, made her way through the streets and to the castle. White Guard soldiers saluted throughout and she engaged them now and then as she made her way to the queen's inner chambers. She could see and took note of all the ways security had been enhanced. One of the new handmaidens moved very normally, but there was military in her eyes. But that was not the queen's servant that rushed forward to get ahead enough to gently tap the knocker three times to the door. This one looked like a shout would make her vanish.

"Yes?"

"General Neral Jaye to see you, Majesty."

Neral put her chin to her chest to quell her amusement at the formality.

"Enter."

The young girl opened the door quickly fearful that she'd actually offended and was somewhat shocked to find the queen already in a long, black nightgown of the finest silk. Lace adorned the bottom just above the ankles and the cleavage. Neral thought that everything she wore seemed more revealing because the queen was plump and that extra thickness seemed necessary to hold up a rather substantial bustline. Her hair was combed straight and her lips carried a sheen with the fire, as she simply felt wrong going completely without makeup.

The young hand maiden was clearly at a loss. "Do you...might you... wish to change, Majesty"

Evaline waved it away, looking at Neral as she made her way to the liqueur sort of enjoying the new maiden taken so off balance. She had much to learn about life in the royal house. "If it mattered officially she would have sent word ahead. Since she's here otherwise, and in plain dress, it doesn't, and our good general doesn't care that I'm not wrapped up in pomp for her or anyone else's benefit, do you, Neral?"

Nowhere on her person were any trappings of her position and that was all the message that was needed as she stepped to the middle of the room, "Not at all, Evie. In fact, I have no earthly idea how you keep sanity with the endless fussing. I'd drive my dagger through my eye the first time I heard them arguing about how best to pile my hair."

"We can't all spend our lives as muck-swimmers while we look for people to stab, can we Bootsie?" She looked to the doe-eyed maiden who was now at a complete loss at the lack of what she saw as even loose civility as Evaline spoke. "Ankle boots, thigh boots, hard leather, soft leather, suede; since I've known her she's always seemed three pairs away from needing a new manor to store them all."

She looked down at the soft gray suede ankle boots she wore now "It's a harmless vice all things considered."

"Save except to anything with a hide." With a grin, she finally chose to have mercy on her servant. "Thank you, you can go."

After a quick, deep bow she hustled for the door and pulled it closed behind her. Evaline looked at the door for a few seconds. "She really is a sweet young girl. Sadness touched her. "I hope this place doesn't ruin her."

"Court is not an easy place for anyone."

"It is not." Evaline deftly handled one of the crystal decanters before her, this one uniquely etched with a serpent's eye on each side, "May I get your usual?"

"Yes, thank you." She glanced back toward the door before watching the liquid be poured, "You should have let her stay long enough for her to see you serving me."

The queen dismissed it. "She would snap, I'd have to call a healer...or several. It'd be terrible." She glanced to the still stained floor. "I've had enough of them for now." She poured a second glass for herself and handed Neral the one in her right hand before going back to retrieve the decanter to place on the table between them. Sitting down in the chair across from her, "Speaking of healers, any word from yours?" She waved her wrist in the air, letting the light make the woven gold strands look for a moment like they were conducting energy.

"Initial leads did not turn into what they had hoped. They now pursue others. Fortunately, the pool for the skills used against you is somewhat limited. They will not give up."

"Good. I have faith in yours, dear."

"As do I."

"On my own investigatory front, Bae tells me that the more she digs, the more ties to the Draleth she reveals. While there is nothing definitive yet upon which to call it an act of war sanctioned by them and to respond in kind, the future may not be so bright for little Draleth. Ambasssador Xi has promised full cooperation, of course, but, I suspect that he's full of shit up to his eyes."

Evaline pondered her friend. "I'm always glad to see you, but tonight I would have thought that you would spend every moment possible with little Khylen."

"I told her I was leaving tonight. We played, had a good dinner, played some more, I read her stories and we said our goodbyes. It's easier than saying them tonight, then her having a more fitful sleep because she doesn't want the day to come, and then have to say goodbye again before she watches me ride away."

"Easier for her, or for you, Bootsie."

She took a deeper drink, letting the sweet burn of her throat soothe her. "For both." She held the glass, swirling the liquid within it. "I have been on her side of it...Watching father leave cut like it did the first time, every time."

"But you saw him off, as I recall."

"Because it was always my duty. I felt it. I did it, in part, because he needed it. He needed to know his daughters were behind him. Me? I know she is there. She is with me now. Knowing she is behind me and seeing her pain when her father and Bryana left and knowing it is there behind me as I leave? I have always believed that nothing could make me shirk my duty, but part of me wants to turn around, scoop her up, and take her pain away by simply not leaving." She poured more wine into her glass and swirled that, too.

"But I have a duty and, at moments like this, when I'm called to not just defend her, but defend everyone," she took a sip, resisting the urge to gulp, "I just can't turn around, and that shames me too. It's a battle I lose either way."

Evaline sighed."Sometimes you are dim, dear. The why you don't is because you've always seen more than yourself, Bootsie. You go off to fight and you see all the children. You see weddings and days at the park and everyone's stuff of life. You see it and you can't not see it. That's why you have to go. She doesn't shriek when you go, or claw at you as she begs you to stay. You didn't and she doesn't. She has her spine already."

She snorted before another sip, "Deres says the same thing."

"Listen to him. Fathers have wisdom, too. Occasionally." She raised her glass to the painting in front of her. "To fathers and their occasional wisdom. Yours had much even if he was unremarkable on the field." She caught the words only after they'd been said and looked at Neral apologetically. "Forgive me, Neral. That was...father's appraisal and I shouldn't have said it."

Neral thought about it and knew he would own it himself. "It's not untrue. As a soldier he was solid and dependable, and he had people around him to make up for his lack of imagination. But there were better soldiers. He lacked the ability to...make the kill, I think. And, not even the ability, so much as the will. It held him back in Court, too."

Evaline laughed at the memories that bubbled to the surface. "It was your mother who drew the long knives there. I think I learned as much from her as my own."

"She wields them still." Both hands relished the weight of the glass, "The heart that kept him from standing out on the field made him an exemplary husband and father. He molded us by letting us be who we would be. Family, yes, responsibility, yes, but, unlike many around us, he never tried to jam us into a mould. When he and mother did occasionally disagree about that..." She grinned now with understanding at memories of those arguments, which, at the time, had troubled her, "there was his fire."

Evaline concluded the story for her."She handled Court, he handled home in his own fashion, and thus, all his daughters found their fire everywhere in life. Her voice rose, "And Neral Jaye stands as a fine officer and a fine mother."

"For now. There are many years for me to find millions of ways to ruin that girl." Her brown eyes searched for glimpses into the future in the amber liquid as they had many times before. She snapped herself from it and looked around the room to the stain that seemed like its own shadow, "Tell me to shut up as my queen or my friend and I will, but, why haven't you had the floor repaired; or at least moved yourself to one of the other bedrooms?"

Evaline looked over her shoulder, then looked afraid to speak the words. But, once she gave permission to the first few, she couldn't make them stop "Because then I would forget. I would stop thinking of him and lying to myself and then I'd forget."

Neral's brow furrowed, "Lying to yourself?" She came to a conclusion and spoke, "His death was not your fault."

Evaline threw back the rest of her glass and took the decanter with a hint of unsteadiness from either the emotion at play, the alcohol, or both, and poured another. "I was prepared for his parents to hate me. I was prepared for her to scream in my face and spit and wish that it had been me. I told them how kind and eager he was. I told them about the friends he made in the castle and I waited for her to scream that I be silent,scream that I had no right to speak of him when I didn't know him."

"But she collapsed into me and sobbed uncontrollably. The guards had no idea how to respond. I just let her sob. His father just looked at me, jaw quivering, and thanked me for coming. He thanked me...sincerely...for coming to them myself." The tone turned bitter, "He praised me for taking the time to know him; said it was why Erette loves me."

She downed that glass, too, quickly enough that she had to catch her breath after. "He was a strapping young man who did his job and, while he was always a bit anxious at first, he certainly knew how to fuck. That's all I could tell them about him. I just...repeated to them the things those around him told me about him as if the words came from me."

She sat the glass down before rising with the decanter in hand, her words carrying deeper pain, "They told me stories about him for two hours, and since then...I've found myself daydreaming over what I might have 'lost.' Wil, the sweet soul who might have been the one I loved if only he hadn't been torn from me in an act of pure evil. The gallant would-be love who gave his life for me before that truth could blossom."

She laughed bitterly. "What utter bullshit. Even if he hadn't been too far beneath me to make the match possible, it would never be." She took two steps towards the bed before turning and raising the liqueur to his painting, "But love freely given is not what my father taught me. That young man was something to use and discard as soon as he bored me and a new one came along. Father meted out his affections like little rewards for proper behavior. What did I learn? Love is a weapon, and you don't give people weapons to use against you."

Spent, she dropped her weight on the side of the bed and sat the decanter on the floor, having a vision of a spill followed by a castle-engulfing fire. And wouldn't that be terrible. With a heavy sigh she looked over at Neral who was already coming to sit next to her. "I hate you, Bootsie." There was no hate in her voice or her eyes, only fatigue. "I see you with that girl and I hate you."

She leaned into the arm that went around her. "You won't ruin her. I've seen you with her. I've seen how you two engage one another. You don't hide your feelings or dole out your love in morsels after she's begged enough or behaved with perfect propriety. And you don't spoil her to buy her love. You won't ruin her in any way that she won't forgive you for later."

"Court has been pushing me for an heir for some time. More so now as you might imagine."

"I'm not surprised. A queen one gold bracelet from death is a cause for concern."

Evaline followed the lightened tone, patting Neral's knee. That they don't need to know about. They do have a right to be concerned," she admitted. "I do have a duty, but...I'm scared of it, too." She looked to his visage one more time. Letting those words into the world was no easy task and there were too few in the world she trusted to hear them that wouldn't see it as weakness."I do not want to be him. I don't want my children to...shed the requisite number of tears when I pass while they scream inside for all the opportunities missed and the fact that there won't be any more."

Neral said, with granite certainty, "That will never be you."

"No royal seal to be found," Evaline teased."You don't need to kiss my ass."

"And without the seal in sight I never would. I know how this works. Your father never would have gone to his home, let his mother cry upon him, or listened to their stories so their son could live again. You care, Evie. I cannot see the woman I know looking into her child's eyes and chipping away at their heart as he chipped at yours. I'm certain you'd be a good mother."

"That sure of me?" Evaline was not sure sometimes that she had that much faith in herself.

"I am." Neral considered the possibilities. "And if I do see otherwise, I will remove your royal trappings and then I will slap you."

She looked at Neral, knowing it was true and had been true for almost as long as they'd known one another. Neral, when push came to shove, put Evaline the person over her role as queen. Even with the trappings Neral would put her in her place when need be; only the sense of formality changed. Neral and Bae were her anchors more than either knew. "You have my leave to do so, even if it's in open Court."

"Wouldn't that be the event of the year for them."

Evaline loved the thought. The shock value would be a joy, but it would be more. Evaline much liked knowing any children that came would have at least one fearless advocate if and when they needed one. How many of Court would become statues at the sight of Neral bringing her open hand to the queen's cheek? It was better to think about that than the stained floor and all that went with it.

You can wake up whenever you please, but I have to ride tomorrow. Since it's that time and I'm feeling rather...mellow from the wine, I'm going to sleep." She reached down, pulling the boots from her feet and tossing them towards the chairs. They made it more or less next to each other before Neral scooted to the left side of the bed and stretched out, head sinking into the plush pillow of maroon with a gold vine pattern.

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