Standing proud, one hand on her spear, watching the people passing in and out of Corbulate’s recently replaced gates, Oluvia kept her expression neutral.  It was a skill all Corbs learned in their militia training, and she was better than most.  During her training, her cadre gave up on trying to break her facial discipline.  If only her heart were as controlled; it was presently doing somersaults in her chest that she would have sworn could be heard by everyone on the street.

               “Just think about it, alright?  That’s all I ask.”  The voice was quiet, pernicious.  It wasn’t in her head, it wasn’t a figment of her imagination; it was very real, coming from a fellow guardsman standing next to her.  “All you’d need to do is leave the door unlocked, look the other way.  That’s all.”

               It was hot, hotter than it felt a moment ago; maybe that was why her companion was sweating.  Oluvia was sweating too, but she was too disciplined to wipe the glistening beads from her brow.  “Our duty…” she protested.

               “Is to Corbulate, to our people,” her companion insisted.  Then he was quiet for a time as he stopped to give directions to a family entering the city.  When they were gone, he resumed.  “It’s not to some distant Prime over in Merolate who helps witches and lizards more than he does his own people.”

               Oluvia squeezed her eyes shut.  A small expression, and all she would allow herself in public.  “I said I’d think about it, Corl.  Please, let’s not talk about this anymore.”

               Corl subsided, much to Oluvia’s relief.  They finished their shift at the gates without further incident, and both went to the barracks to rest.  Oluvia knew it was only a temporary relief, though.  She would be on guard duty at the castle in just three days, and she would have to make a decision before then.  It was so little time, and so much would change.  All she wanted was for things to stay the same, stable, just as they had for most of her life.

               Yet, that was the point.  The world was changing, no matter how much she might like to stand athwart it and demand that it stop.  A distant Prime in Merolate had changed the Blood Decrees, loosened protections that had helped the continent flourish and prosper in the years since the collapse of the Blood Empire.  Nothing could be the same after that, but Corl’s people were willing to do something about it, something that their own general, who was supposed to protect and defend them, seemed unwilling to do.  Maybe she should help them.

               She quailed just thinking about it, though.  It was a little thing they asked, such a little thing.  Just leave a door unbarred, don’t pay too close attention for a moment, and then it would all be over, one way or the other.  She didn’t have to commit beyond that, she didn’t have to go further.  That little thing felt enormous to her, though.  Treason: that was what they were asking of her, a violation of her oaths, of her honor and her duty.  Besides, she could not trust the words of traitors.  A small ask now could become a larger obligation later.  Or were they patriots?

               Her oaths and her duty demanded that she march into the castle and report Corl.  She couldn’t report the rest of his group, since he was the only one she knew for certain, but she could ensure he didn’t have the chance to besmirch himself further with underhanded plots and schemes.  Doing nothing wasn’t an option, either.  She knew, now.  Maybe she didn’t know all of the details, but she knew enough.  There was no room for her to remain an innocent bystander, blithely unaware of these machinations.  Corl had probably done that intentionally; he must be confident in his judgement of her.

               More confident than Oluvia, certainly, because she still didn’t know what she should do.  Loyalty to her unit, to Corl, to her identity as a Corb, whispered that betraying one of her own, a man she’d fought beside, alongside whom she’d defended the city and the province, was just as wrong as what he asked her to do, if not more.  It was such a simple thing, really.  All she had to do was stay quiet, passive.  It wasn’t like she was being asked to pick up a sword and march on the castle.

               This was General Parl’s fault.  He should have fought back, argued harder, convinced the Prime, somehow, not to pursue such folly as changing the Blood Decrees.  If Corl and his people intended to replace the General, well, then that was the General’s own fault.  Corbs respected hierarchy and discipline, but they didn’t follow blindly.  Yet, outright rebellion?  That was a step too far.  But she didn’t have to do much.  Just stand there, leave a door unlocked, pretend not to see anything untoward.  Such a little thing, and so much easier than turning poor Corl into the authorities.  How could she even contemplate doing that to her brother-in-arms?

               Three days later, she was still debating.  Several times she resolved to report Corl to her lieutenant, but she never quite found the time or the courage to follow through, and the opportunity always slipped away.  There was always tomorrow.

               Until there wasn’t tomorrow.  Corl accosted her on her way to her shift.  “Tonight,” was all he said, but it sent a thrill of fear through Oluvia.  Then he squeezed her arm and was gone, and she felt a flush of relief.  This was better, actually.  The decision was taken from her.  There was no time to tell anyone about what was going to happen, no time to issue a warning, to decide if she was going to betray her comrade.  All she had to do was her duty.

               Such a little thing, leaving the door unlocked when she stepped outside to stand watch in the night.  A mistake, yes, but an understandable one, a small one, one that everyone made a few times.  It was late, and what real threat was there that could get past her on the castle walls?  She leaned against her spear and peered into the darkness, resolutely not looking towards the corner by which she expected the dissidents to enter.

               When she heard the grappling iron’s muffled ping against the stone and saw the tension in the rope to which it was affixed, indicative of someone climbing up, all of her fear and indecision returned.  This was it.  They were really here, they were really going to depose General Parl.  The reality was far different from the hypotheticals she had revolved to no avail in her mind, but it was too late to do anything now.  Certainly, she was not about to fight her fellows, nor pry free their grappling hook and send them to their deaths on the stones below.

               Corl was not amongst those who ascended onto her watch platform, though Oluvia stole furtive glances at the darkly clad figures as they crept without much real stealth behind her back to the door she left unlocked when she began her shift.  They just as studiously ignored her, passing through the door one at a time.  Then it was closed, and they were gone, taking their grappling iron and rope with them.  It was over, with no sign of their presence remaining.  Oluvia realized she was holding her breath and let it out in a rush.

               Though there was no way that Oluvia would be able to hear anything from within the castle through the colossal stone walls, she strained her ears for any hint of what was happening inside.  She wondered if the rebels would encounter resistance, if brother would be forced to fight brother.  No, that wouldn’t happen, surely.  If there were risk of that, Corl and whoever was leading the effort against General Parl would not have proceeded.  All through her shift, she suffered worry after worry about what the morning might bring.

               Dawn finally broke.  Milna took over for the next shift, and Oluvia hurried to the barracks, wondering what she would find.  Maybe the attempt had failed.  If it failed, would General Parl have Corl and his allies arrested?  Executed?  She didn’t know, and nothing in the barracks could tell her what happened in the night.  Nothing and no one, until Corl came and sat down next to her.

               “Well?” Oluvia asked.  Her knee kept shaking, though she tried to tell it to be still, and her stomach was doing uncomfortable acrobatics.

               Corl grinned, though he hid it behind his hand.  “We did it!”  It was a quiet answer, but an elated one.  “There’ll be an official announcement later today, but we did it.”

               His excitement was contagious, although in truth Oluvia still wasn’t certain how she felt about the whole affair.  She was just glad it was over.  Later…later she would worry about what came next.

               “This is a mess.”  Twiol frowned down at the haphazard hillock of correspondence that spilt over Ulurush’s desk.  Granted, it had been Guardcaptain Vere’s desk until three days ago.

               Ulurush agreed, but she could not come out and say as much; the new rank on her shoulders was still too weighty, and too shiny.  She allowed herself only a moment’s hesitation.  “You can help?”

               “I’m hardly Advisor Doil; I hear he’s some kind of paperwork savant,” Twiol hedged, but he sat down at the desk and began sorting papers into piles.  He realized what he was doing and looked up at Guardcaptain Ulurush.  “But yes, I think I can help.”

               “Good.”  Ulurush gave Twiol a curt nod.  “Inform me if anything is important.”  She left before Twiol could ask her what she meant by ‘important,’ because she knew she did not have a satisfactory answer.

               Accepting the Prime’s appointment to Guardcaptain was an easy decision.  Like most of her decisions, Ulurush did not think long about it.  Unlike most of her decisions, she began to wonder if she’d made a mistake.  She could fight, she could lead troops, she could handle crises, but she’d not realized how much management, logistics, and paperwork made up Vere’s job.

               She was stuck now, though.  No point in looking backward.  Though her eyes flicked about as she strode down the hallway, informing her of her surroundings, her head remained forward, and she did not deviate.  Guardsmen who shared the hallway got out of her way with salutes and murmured greetings that she returned perfunctorily.

               Light struck her when she stepped outside, but she hardly noticed it.  Even after some twenty years, Merolate’s sunlight struck her as weak.  It could get warm in the summer, but even that was nothing compared to noon on a Nycheril savannah.  Returning a few more salutes, she left the barracks and broke into a jog.

               Soon it would be another dreary autumn.  Just the thought of it made Ulurush grimace.  Of all the seasons, of all she had experienced since coming to Lufilna, it was the autumns that were almost enough to make her regret following Vere across the Aprina Sea.

               Not slowing when she reached the ragged walls, still being repaired after the Ipemav attacks, Ulurush ran up the stairs and proceeded to run around the city.  It wasn’t a short circuit, and Ulurush hated running long distances – it reminded her too much of her old life – but she needed to be seen.  More guards greeted her as she ran by.

               For now, there were few grumbles about her promotion.  No one was pleased at Vere’s demise, but they respected Ulurush, and most believed Vere would have chosen her to replace him, had he the chance.  That would change once she began making unpopular decisions, but she would accept the goodwill whilst it endured.  One challenge less about which to worry.

               Not that the guards worried her.  Of all the aspects of her new role, leading her troops was of the least concern.  Ulurush did not allow herself to be nervous – it was just a waste of energy that led to slower response times – but if she did, she would be nervous about the managerial side of her role, and about the minister meetings.

               Vere might have carved an active role in those meetings, but traditionally any inputs from the guardcaptain should be filtered through the Minister of Public Defense and Civil Order or the Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.  For all that Ulurush now reported directly to the Prime, for almost all purposes her immediate superior was Admiral Ferl.  So, it wasn’t as if she would be expected to debate with the ministers.

               Her role would be to provide answers, responses to questions, options when asked.  No matter how many times she reassured herself that she was perfectly capable of doing that, and that she had presented just such thoughts to Guardcaptain Vere on myriad occasions, there was still something different about facing the Prime’s Council of Ministers.  The Prime himself, and his Advisor, were even more intimidating.

               Being late would only make the situation worse, so Ulurush increased her pace.  When she returned to the barracks, she found time for a quick sponge bath, and changed into her dress uniform, the same one she had worn to her interview for guardcaptain.

               She was halfway out the door on her way to the castle when Twiol caught her.  “Guardcaptain, do you have a moment?  I think I may have found something of importance, or rather, not found it…”

               “Not now, Guardsman.”  Ulurush brushed past him.  “Inform me when I return from the minister meeting.”

               Then she was out the door, ignoring whatever Twiol tried to call after her.  Her crimson cloak swirled behind her even at a brisk walk, and her spear butt thumped against the ground in time with her steps.  The guards at the castle gate saluted her, and she strode into the castle.  She refused to be unsettled by servants opening the doors before her, and then she was there: the conference chamber.

               Although she was early, all but two seats were filled.  Prime Kiluron and Advisor Doil were present, their heads close together as they engaged in a whispered conference.  Minister Borivat and Admiral Ferl chatted nearby, the elder shuffling papers around and frowning.  Minister Regicio was a puffed-up presence in the rightmost corner.  Ministers Olidryn and Adima seemed to be arguing.  Only Minister Inpernuth and Chief Inventor Arval were missing.

               “Ah, good, you’ve arrived.”  Admiral Ferl broke off his conversation with Minister Borivat to greet Ulurush and guide her to a seat on the room’s periphery.  She thought about protesting that she preferred to stand but determined this was not the time for it.  “I hope you’ve a plan worked out.”

               His tone was quietly serious, and Ulurush realized that whatever he had been discussing with Minister Borivat had been no idle chatter, but she had no idea about what he was speaking.  Before she could ask, Minister Inpernuth and Chief Inventor Arval arrived, Inpernuth with an aggrieved sigh and Arval with a stench of smoke and sodden clothes, and Prime Kiluron started the meeting.

               “Due to some recent intelligence, the Prime has ordered a change to the established agenda.”  Doil eyed each minister in turn.  “Unless anyone has particularly urgent business to present to the council, I will cede the floor to Admiral Ferl.”

               Silence, until Minister Inpernuth raised his hand.  Minister Olidryn covered her face with her hand.  “I have two matters of the gravest importance to bring before this most august body, lok.  First: two cases have now been tried testing the limits of the revised Blood Decrees, helping to establish the precedent in Merolate common law.  Second, and most important: I had a meatball inside of a piece of bread for lunch, and it was delicious.”

               Minister Borivat sighed.  “Minister Inpernuth, I hardly think this is an appropriate time for such inanity.  If you would please restrain yourself?”

               “I’m done anyway, lok.”  Minister Inpernuth leaned back and plopped his feet upon the triangular table.

               “Ahem.  Admiral Ferl?” Doil prompted, forestalling the brewing argument.

               Admiral Ferl cleared his throat.  He looked around at the assembled ministers, and the Prime and his Advisor, and at Ulurush.  “There’s no good way to say this,” he muttered.  Aloud: “There’s been a rebellion in Corbulate.”

               Silence.  No shouts of outrage, no denials of the statement, just silence.  Everyone stared at Ferl with expressions cycling through shock, disbelief, anger, fear, and incredulity.  Ferl returned their stares while Ulurush’s heart hammered in her throat.  This was what she’d dreaded, exactly what she’d feared might happen.

               “Governor Parl’s status is unknown,” Admiral Ferl continued into the ringing silence.  “A man proclaiming himself General Razus controls the castle and the city.  This has been…” he swallowed, as if his next statement would somehow make the situation worse, “this has been the case for at least twenty days.”

               “Twenty days!” Minister Regicio exclaimed, spluttering.  “That’s…that’s outrageous!  How did we not know sooner?  And rebellion?  There hasn’t been a full-scale rebellion against the Union since, since…”

               Minister Borivat leaned forward in his chair.  “Since twenty-four SU, Minister Regicio.  Smaller uprisings have occurred, but none that could claim governance of a province.”

               Admiral Ferl nodded.  “As for the timing, well, I’m afraid that Guardcaptain Vere’s intelligence network was rather ad hoc.  No one knows how it worked or who his contacts were, and he left no instructions.”

               Mutters and knowing groans greeted his explanation.  Prime Kiluron rubbed his temples and muttered something to Doil about ‘another crisis’ before he turned to Admiral Ferl.  “Do you have a plan?”

               “Well, obviously we cannot allow this rebellion to spread to other provinces,” Admiral Ferl began, “and the Union ought to issue a proclamation condemning the action and refusing to acknowledge the rebel government under General Ravus.”

               He continued, but Ulurush realized he was stalling.  He had no plan.  This was doubtless what he’d been asking her about before the meeting began, but she hadn’t even known until he made his initial announcement.  She stood up from her chair, and everyone looked at her.  Admiral Ferl fell silent.  “No plan.”  She admitted that readily.  It was impossible for her to come up with a plan on so little information.  “I will dispatch a team to assess the situation and report back.”  She would also lead the team.

               Advisor Doil hesitated.  “Very well.”

               The meeting continued, but Ulurush was occupied in planning the mission to Corbulate in her head.  She barely noticed the meeting was ending until the Prime and his Advisor approached her, and she found that everyone else was gone.

               “Guardcaptain?  I’d like to ask that you send someone in whom you have to utmost confidence in their ability to act independently and with discretion to lead this team.”  Advisor Doil glanced at his Prime.

               Prime Kiluron nodded.  “This can’t just be an information-gathering mission, Ulurush.  If they have the opportunity, I want them to rescue Governor Parl, and take out this rebellion’s leadership.  I know it’s a lot to ask, but we have to try.  If this spreads…”

               In her mind, Ulurush shifted the composition of her team.  She nodded.  “I will lead the team myself, Sir.  Guardsman Twiol can manage the guards here in my absence.”

               “Guardsman Twiol…hm, good choice.  Probably ought to promote him to Guardlieutenant or something if we’re going to be saddling him with that kind of responsibility.”  Ulurush was too busy thinking to be surprised that the Prime would know Guardsman Twiol.  “Alright.  Good luck.”

               Only when she returned to Guardcaptain Vere’s – her – office did she let a little of the tension out of her trembling muscles.  “Bleeding Jeynkas!” she shouted.  A strange curse, and perhaps one no one else in the world would make.  “Twiol!”

               “I did try to tell you, Guardcaptain.  I found a letter from one of Guardcaptain Vere’s contacts in Corbulate from ten days ago reporting on the situation there, and one from ten days before that describing the deteriorating political climate on account of the changes to the Blood Decrees.”

               Ulurush smacked the desk with her hand.  “I do not blame you.  We need those contacts.  Try to learn how Vere did it.”

               “I will.”  Guardsman Twiol hesitated.  “What about you?”

               “I’m going to Corbulate,” Ulurush growled.  She snatched up her spear again and stalked out the door to assemble her team.

               It couldn’t be a large team, but that was Ulurush’s preference, anyway; it was no coincidence that her answer to one of Admiral Ferl’s interview questions favored small team tactics.  If she were still a guardlieutenant, she would pull from her unit – she knew their strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities – but she was Guardcaptain now, and needed to pull from the whole force.

               Nine people, including her.  Olvidan, because he was the strongest guardsman who could keep up with a rapid strike force.  Verna, because her archery skills were unparalleled and she knew knots, climbing, and acrobatics.  Nouria and Blide as the best fighters other than her.  Flime, who knew about architecture and tunneling, if that proved necessary, and he could handle an axe well in a brawl.  Iperia and Iperio, thieves-turned-scouts with a knowledge of lockpicking and knife fighting.  Ninth, Glith, because he was dependable and a Corbulate native.

               Nodding to herself, Ulurush gathered her team.  There was no way to keep it completely quiet, but she was as subtle as she could manage; they met at night, and in a deserted part of the city near where the docks were yet to be repaired.

               “We’re going to Corbulate.  I’ve arranged horses.  Need to rescue the governor, depose the rebels if we can.  Questions?”  That was the extent of her briefing.

               Iperio jerked his head towards a shadowy, empty building.  “Is he coming, too?”

               His presence revealed, Admiral Ferl stepped out of the darkness, not that the dim lantern Ulurush kept lit did much to push back the night.  “Only part of the way,” he answered.  He looked at Ulurush.  “Horses aren’t fast enough, and there’s too much risk.  I’ve prepared a vessel, stocked it with supplies, and got it rigged up.  I’ll sail you to Corbulate, but you’ll be on your own to make it back.”

               Ulurush frowned, but Ferl forestalled her arguments.  “I knew you would insist on going yourself, but this is my responsibility, too.  And going by sea is the better option.”

               As the only argument she could think of was that she hated the sea, Ulurush consented.  Now ten of them, they traipsed down the shattered and fragmented dock to where Admiral Ferl’s promised boat was waiting and piled into it.  Ulurush eyed it with some trepidation, but she got in alongside her team, and Admiral Ferl pushed them away from the docks.  Four nights later, they reached Corbulate.

               With her spear clutched in one hand and her knuckles white, Oluvia stared into the eyes of the crowd and begged them not to try anything rash.  Not aloud, of course: she was on duty and not nearly so emotive as to engage directly with people in that manner.  Yet, she looked into their eyes and hoped they would understand.

               Behind her, General Razus stood upon a wooden platform and addressed Corbulate’s assembled citizens.  The whole city was out, though not all could fit in the square or the rooftops close enough to hear Razus’s words for themselves; designated messengers with Razus’s speech memorized were stationed throughout the city to ensure no one was left wondering.  People pressed inwards nonetheless, straining to hear from the General himself.  The new general, not the familiar General Parl from whom they had heard many times before.

               “General Parl betrayed the Corbs!” General Razus declared, although Oluvia noted that he still used Parl’s title, even while the man languished in what had been, until two nights ago, his own dungeons.  “He bowed to soft politicians in Merolate, far from here, who do not know us and would have us accept filthy Blood Magic being practiced openly in our streets!”

               The crowd roared at his words, but it was not a hostile sound towards their new leader.  Since it was a crowd of Corbs, they roared in unison, the sound clipped and cogent.  Oluvia shifted her grip on her spear and watched for signs of unrest, listening with a fragment of her attention to General Razus speaking behind her.

               “We Corbs deserve better.  We know ourselves, we can make our own decisions, not some distant Prime.  What has the Prime ever done for us?  Prime Wezzix was one thing – he understood us Corbs and the importance of order and discipline and structure – but this boy Prime?  Kiluron?  There has been nothing but disaster after disaster since he became Prime.”  General Razus spat.  “Not with me.  Together, we’ll make Corbulate strong again!”

               Most of the crowd cheered.  From the back, a voice shouted “traitor!” and a few more voices took up the call, but they were few and scattered.  General Razus launched into another justification for his actions and why he was no traitor, but a true Corb patriot.  Oluvia saw Corl circulating to some of the other guards on duty, signing for them to find those speaking ill of their new general; Oluvia was relieved he did not come to her.  She wondered how many were in on the original scheme.

               The speech ended with more applause and a declaration to ‘keep those filthy Blood Worshippers out of our city.”  Then the crowd dispersed, and Oluvia returned to the barracks.  She was off duty now, so after honing her spearhead on a strop, polishing her boots, and oiling her armor, she headed for the mess hall.

               A tension infected the place.  Bellicose and boisterous voices were a normal feature, but now those who raised their voices were an anomaly, and there was nothing congenial in their arguments.  Though the long tables and bench seating encouraged comradery, those already eating managed to form their own cliques and huddles.

               Only one reason accounted for the different dynamic, and Oluvia bit her lip as she took a tray and filed through the line to receive her portion of mashed potatoes, braised cabbage, and peppered blummox.  Looking around, she wondered if this was her fault.  If she had told Corl she wouldn’t do it, or if she had just warned someone, or if she’d called the alarm when the grappling hook fell…there was no way to know.

               No single dividing line separated the mess into diametric factions, but it felt to Oluvia like each of the disparate groups coalesced around some nexus of agreement or disagreement with General Razus’s actions.  Taking her tray, she found a quiet stretch of table at which to sit alone.  Though she was hungry, she ate only halfheartedly while she listened vaguely to the conversations at the tables around her.

               “…of his place.  General Parl hasn’t been always perfect, but he understands what it means to be a Corb.  There should’ve been some other option than to toss him in a dungeon and usurp him.”  A blond man with slim hands and well-pressed clothes even when off-duty looked around at his friends for support, and they nodded obligingly.  “Things are better being part of Merolate, even if it’s not perfect.”

               Another speaker in a different group struck a less moderate tone.  “About time we got rid of that pompous politician.  Just because Parl’s uncle was the last general don’t mean he’s got a shred of the same ability.  We should’ve done this years ago.”

               It made Oluvia want to cover her ears or take her dinner somewhere else where she could be alone.  This was never what she’d wanted, but she didn’t know what else she could have done.  She scarfed down her food, scraped her tray clean, and headed for the door.

               Her path diverted when General Razus himself marched into the mess, surrounded by a gleaming escort of soldiers; she found herself pressed against a wall while they filed into the center of the hall and surveyed those inhabiting it.  Everyone stopped eating and leapt to their feet, standing rigid at attention.

               Without speaking, General Razus met each pair of eyes in the room, lingering on each individual for a few moments before progressing to the next person.  Oluvia held herself still and forced herself not to look away when his gaze found hers.  It seemed he lingered on her longer than the rest, but perhaps that was just her perception.  He made no comment as he turned to face the room at large.

               “My fellow Corbs, citizens, soldiers,” he greeted.  “We’ve won a great victory.  I know not all of you are convinced of that, yet, but you will be in time.  I don’t ask for your loyalty now, for I know loyalty can only be earned.  What I do ask for is your patience.  The days to come will be a challenge for all of us, but I know we are up to the task.”

               A grunt of approval met his words, but he forestalled further comment as he continued to speak.  “Regardless of what each of you might think about how this change of command took place, a fact on which we can all agree is that it should never have been able to happen.”  Nods all around the room.  “Our defenses must be tightened.  Our walls are strong, our locks are good, but our people are always both our strength and our weakness.”

               Oluvia’s stomach clenched, and her eyes clouded with panic.  She thought she could sense where this was heading, and she feared it.  After all her indecision and agonizing…she forced herself to concentrate on General Razus’s words.  “There are those who supported our efforts because they believed in our cause, believed in a better future for Corbulate.  I know they are loyal.”

               There was a pause while everyone digested this statement.  “There were others who stayed true to General Parl until the end.  These, also, I can trust.  Perhaps not right away, but that is loyalty I can admire.  I can only strive to in time earn such loyalty myself.”  General Razus paused, and the mess hall was silent, waiting on his words.  “There is a third group, however: those who supported neither cause with the fullness of their hearts.  Those who turned a blind eye to our efforts rather than confront them, those who could not decide whether to abet or oppose my movement.”

               Murmurs.  General Razus, whatever his flaws, knew Corbs, he understood them; he knew the one matter on which they could agree were those who failed to uphold their duty.  It might be one thing to compromise that duty in favor of a higher one, but to do neither was the greatest disgrace.  His eyes found Oluvia’s again, and she quailed inside, though she held herself steady as she sought Corl’s eyes, but Corl could not return her gaze.

               It wasn’t her fault, though.  She had done her duty as best she could: her duty to Corbulate, to her fellow soldiers and Corbs.  She’d agonized over her decision to ensure it was the correct one until the decision was forced upon her.  There was no time to say any of that, and Oluvia did not need a soldier’s situational awareness to notice the two members of General Razus’s honor guard flanking her.

               “Soldier Oluvia stood guard outside the General’s chambers on the night of our mission.  She watched as our team climbed to her tower, and she’d left the door open.  Not once did she attempt to raise an alarm.  If she had not done these things, perhaps we would not be speaking together like this.  But neither did she move to ensure our mission would be a success.”  General Razus looked around the room, gauging his audience, and then focused on Oluvia.  His honor guard moved in and seized her arms; she did not bother to struggle.  “For these failures, I name you a traitor, and no true Corb.  Take her from my sight!”

               She did struggle, then, as General Razus’s honor guard dragged her out of the mess hall and down the hallway with not a word on where they were going or what they intended to do with her, but her efforts were futile.  Panting, she was numb as her shins bounced down the stone steps, senseless to the sunshine that briefly beat upon her hair, inured to the dank corridor which followed.  Nothing fully registered until she was tossed into a cell in the castle dungeon.  Half-rotten straw stuck in her hair and to her skinned palms as she pushed herself up, and she gagged at the stench.  The door to her cell slammed shut, and she was alone.

               For the first time in years, Oluvia cried.  There seemed no other response as appropriate, and there was no one there to see or hear her disgrace.  Besides, there was little more disgrace she could achieve after being condemned to the dungeon by Corbulate’s general before an audience of her fellow soldiers.  She wondered if others would share her fate, or if she was merely an example, a lone case of what happened to those who failed to be loyal, even if, in her mind, she still had done nothing wrong.  She wished she’d never listened to Corl, or that she had informed her lieutenant as soon as she understood for what Corl was asking.

               A raspy voice disturbed her misery, faint through the thick stones, but there was a grate near the floor between the cells.  “Melda, is that you?  I’m sorry.  I ought to have sent you to safety when I realized what was evolving here.”

               Any Corb would know that voice, and no matter what General Razus claimed, Oluvia was a Corb.  She snapped herself out of her misery and took a steadying breath.  “General Parl?  I’m not Melda, Sir.  I don’t know what may have become of her, Sir, I’m sorry.”

               A pause from the adjoining cell.  “That’s alright, Soldier.  What’s your name?”

               “Oluvia, Sir,” she answered.  She hoped he wouldn’t ask why she’d been imprisoned with him; Oluvia wasn’t certain how she could answer.

               Maybe he knew better than to ask, or maybe he didn’t think it was important.  “Oluvia.  You were in my castle guard, correct?”

               Oluvia bobbed her head before she realized that General Parl wouldn’t be able to tell.  “Yes Sir.”  A traitorous tremble infected her voice, but Parl did not comment on it.

               “I guess all of us could have done better that night.”  A distant door screeching across the stone floor interrupted the conversation, and General Parl’s voice acquired a fresh urgency.  “Guards are coming.  Don’t struggle.  We’ll talk more when they leave.”

               That did little to calm Oluvia’s pounding heart or alleviate the terror she felt, but she turned to face the door and swallowed as she braced herself.  Somehow, knowing that General Parl was in the cell beside her lent her strength, and the dungeon seemed just a little less oppressive than when she’d been alone.

               Whatever changes the rebel government might have made, they’d not reduced the traditional vigilance at the docks, so Admiral Ferl put them into a natural harbor a quarter day’s hiking away from the city.  Ulurush and her team disembarked, the new Guardcaptain grateful for solid ground beneath her feet, and Verna immediately set to plotting a climbing route up the cliffs surrounding the harbor.

               “Good luck,” Admiral Ferl whispered, nodding to Ulurush.  “If it’s too dangerous for your team, don’t be afraid to pull out without all of the objectives.  Governor Parl’s safety is most important, but we can’t afford for you to be caught, either.  Don’t do anything Vere wouldn’t do.”  He hesitated as he thought about his last statement.  “Actually, don’t do some of the things Vere would do, either.”

               “We’re ready over here,” Verna reported from the base of the cliff.

               Forcing herself not to tense up, Ulurush saluted Admiral Ferl, and the man pushed off of the beach and began sailing back towards Merolate.  Ulurush turned back to her team and nodded to Verna, who began scaling the cliff.  Iperio and Iperia followed close behind, then Nouria, Blide, Flime, and Glith, following by Ulurush herself.  When they reached the top, they used a rope to help Olvidan up the façade.

               They trekked mostly in silence then, except for Glith’s whispered commentary on the Corbulate castle layout and the city walls.  It was almost dawn when they came in sight of Corbulate, so Ulurush called a halt and ordered a camp set up; they would wait until nightfall to make their attempt.

               Walls, for all their effectiveness, were not intended to keep out a small, determined team, at least not outer city walls, even ones like Corbulate’s.  Glith and Flime coordinated to identify a small passage leading into the city less than halfway up the wall.  It was a drainage spout to keep the wall stable and the battlements dry during battle, and it was barely large enough for Olvidan to fit through, but it was enough for their team to slip into the city undetected.

               Once they were in the city, Ulurush split the team.  She sent Flime, Olvidan, Nouria, and Verna to find a place in the city where they could hole up and retreat to during their mission, while she, Glith, Iperio, Iperia, and Blide went to scout the situation.

               “Never trusted Corbs, anyway,” Iperia muttered.  “Bloody stuck up, the lot of ‘em.”

               Glith frowned.  “We find strength in discipline and order, although I realize you would be unlikely to understand that.”

               Iperio glared.  “What’re you saying about my sister?”

               “Stuff it, the three of you,” Blide snapped.  “Glith, Corbs are unimaginative martial drones who rely on formations instead of real skill to maintain their military edge.  Iperio, Iperia, you’re converted street filth and could use some of that discipline.  Especially if you’re going to pass for a Corb.”

               All three of those addressed rounded on Blide, who ignored them as he marched on down the street, confident in his garb and his stride to make him appear as one of the populace.  Ulurush wondered if she should say something, bring her team together somehow, but she did not know what to say, and after their argument all four of them were blending in without difficulty. 

               In fact, she was the most distinctive of all of them, and she wondered if she should have joined the other group.  Corbulate was still a port city, though, so people from Nycheril were not an unknown sight, and her presence went unchallenged.  Whether it went unnoted, Ulurush wished she could say.

               “Seems normal so far,” Glith noted.  “That’s what I expected.”

               “There was a Bloody rebellion!” Iperio retorted, though he stifled his exclamation before he could draw undue attention.  “That’s hardly normal.”

               That did seem odd, but Glith explained.  “You’re all too used to the Merolate Guard.  We’re a small force, so our highest leadership has very direct influence on us.  In a normal military, most people don’t care who their general is most of the time.  And Corbulate is a very traditional military society.  After whatever initial furor surrounded the change, it follows that everyone would return to their routines.”

               “Your people are weird,” Iperia remarked.  Ulurush hushed them all before another argument began.

               They walked down another street, moving closer to the castle, but there were few overt signs to see.  Perhaps the streets were more subdued, or perhaps arguments erupted more readily between neighbors and passersby, but that was subtle thing, as easily attributed to the cloud coverage as to who occupied the castle.  “Rejoin the others,” Ulurush decided.  “Iperio, Iperia, Glith: you three will go out separately to interact with people.  Find out what the sentiments are and where the Governor is.”

               By their return, Flime, Olvidan, Nouria, and Verna had secured them lodging near the western gate in the form of a rundown inn with only two other patrons.  The innkeeper was a scrawny woman who sat slumped, half-drunk, on a stool behind the bar, though it was only midafternoon.  She waved without looking at her new guests, but neither did she seem curious why nine armed, fighting-age people happened to be travelling together.

               Nouria gestured towards the innkeeper.  “Her name’s Loona.  I told her we’re mercenaries between jobs.”

               “Mercs aren’t popular in Corbulate,” Glith warned.

               “All the better.  They won’t want to bother with us,” Nouria said.  Glith looked skeptical, but he did not argue further.

               Iperio, Iperia, and Glith filed out together around suppertime before going their separate ways to learn what they could of Corbulate’s situation.  The rest of the team remained at the inn.  They sharpened weapons, checked their armor, but there was little for them to do besides wait.

               Normally, Ulurush would have no problem waiting.  She’d grown up a hunter, and hunting was all about waiting; even years removed, she could hold herself perfectly still in a shadowy corner while the sun traced its path across the sky, if only she were confident her prey would come.

               This was different.  There was no plan, and there was no plan to make until she had more information about where Governor Parl was, if he was alive, and the disposition of forces in the castle.  Nor was it a simple matter of eliminating this Razus – Admiral Ferl had warned her during transit that killing him risked creating a martyr and enhancing the rebel cause.

               It could remain an intelligence mission, but that was not Ulurush’s intent.  Guardcaptain Vere would never have settled for such an outcome, and she could do no less.  At the very least, she intended to rescue Governor Parl.

               Glith, Iperia, and Iperio returned late, but no one went to sleep before they did, and Ulurush called everyone together to hear their reports.

               “Parl’s alive,” Iperio announced.  “Sounds like he’s being kept in the castle dungeon – they’re not exactly making much of a secret of it.”

               “City’s tense, though.  Disagreements, but it’s all below the surface, and people who don’t agree with this Razus fellow are being wary.”  Iperia frowned.  “I think something happened recently, but I don’t know what.”

               Verna pursed her lips.  “I suppose Razus made some kind of crackdown on dissent.  It’s the natural progression after a usurpation of this nature.”

               “No one is pleased,” Glith explained.  “They’re angry at the Prime, at Merolate, at Parl, at Razus.  Corbs like order, so they’re not comfortable with what Razus did, but they do like what he stands for.”

               Ulurush grimaced.  “Focus on Parl first,” she directed.  “How do we get him out?  Glith, castle security?”

               Glith cleared his throat.  “Er, assuming that it hasn’t changed from when I lived here, which is a reasonable assumption, knowing Corbs…” he started sketching a crude diagram of the castle.  “There will be guards here, here, and here.  Mostly pairs, singles there and there, and groups of six near the throne room and the gates.”  He marked places on his diagram.  “Rotations are staggered, and there are four per day, starting at dawn, noon, dusk, and midnight.”

               “And the dungeon?” Ulurush asked.

               “I’m not sure,” Glith admitted.  “The castle dungeons are rarely used.”

               “Is there any way we can get information on that question?  Or a more current disposition of forces?” Verna asked.

               Iperio smirked.  “Let me watch the castle for a few days.  There’ll be patterns that give it away – waste removal, food preparation, servants – there’re always signs.”

               His sister smacked him on the head.  “How’ll you watch the castle like that?  You’d need a source inside, and we don’t have one.”

               More arguments.  Ulurush struggled to bring the discussion back on track.  “Glith, how can we get into the dungeon covertly?”

               “It’s a Corb dungeon,” Glith protested.  “There’s only one way in or out, and it’s bound to be guarded.”

               Olvidan cracked his knuckles.  “So?  We can take a few guards.”

               “But not fight our way through the whole castle,” Verna retorted.  “Getting in might not even be the problem – it’s getting out.”

               “Vere would’ve just gone in.”  Blide was standing at the edge of the room, looking bored.  Everyone looked at him.  “What?  You know I’m right.”

               It wasn’t that Vere wouldn’t have made a plan.  It was that he would have already known what he needed and been less concerned with strategy.  His genius was tactical, not strategic, but it was tactical thinking that Ulurush now needed.  She feared she could not match him.

               “Well, Vere’s not here,” Verna snapped.  “Or do you think you can do as well as him?”

               “I got close to beating him a couple times.”  Blide crossed his arms sullenly.  “That’s as much as anyone can claim.  Unless the stories are true, Guardcaptain?”

               Expectant eyes turned to Ulurush.  It was a challenge, and Ulurush wondered if she should ignore Blide’s comment.  It was a challenge to her authority.  She could reprimand him, but that would only make the situation worse.  Better to be simple.  “Yes.”

               It was an answer, but not one that satisfied anyone in the room, no matter how assertively Ulurush delivered it.  No one else challenged her further, though, and as she held Blide’s gaze he finally grunted and turned away from her.  A concession, then, if not an acceptance.

               Marching straight in was foolish.  They would be torn apart, and no tactician would consider the idea, not even Vere.  Except, with Blide and the others looking at her, Ulurush was thinking about it, and she realized something.

               Yes, marching in was tactically unsound, but strategically it was a different question.  At question in this whole disastrous affair was Merolate’s authority over Corbulate.  Ulurush was Guardcaptain, and she and her team were specifically authorized by Merolate’s Prime.

               “We will go in,” she announced, and everyone looked at her.  Even Blide was surprised.  “Glith, Olvidan, Nouria, and I will go to the castle gates tomorrow morning and demand an immediate audience with the false governor.  Verna will lead the rest of you into the castle covertly during the chaos.”

               “That’s a crazy plan,” Iperio declared.

               “I like it,” Iperia agreed.

               Ulurush didn’t need discussion or approval, though; she was confident in her decision.  Maybe there were better tactics to employ, and maybe Vere would have done this differently, but this plan would work, and it would work on a strategic level, too, to accomplish the Prime’s desires.  She nodded.  They were ready.

               Her cell was cold, especially at night, but all Oluvia could do was huddle in the corner with her knees against her chest and try not to move.  She was not burrowing into moldy straw for warmth, nor would she ask the guards for a blanket.  They might not have mistreated her, but neither were they considerate; she was as likely to get another pitchfork of moldering straw as she was a lice-infested, threadbare blanket.

               During the day, when guards walked up and down the steps at the front of the dungeon, Oluvia forced herself to present herself as dignified as she could manage in her lowbrow confines.  Only at night, when she was alone, did she allow herself to cry, quietly so as to not let General Parl hear her.  He never cried, though he’d been imprisoned longer than her and she could tell from his voice that he was weakened and sick.

               Oddly, the worst part was being ignored.  Neither General Razus, nor any of his underlings, came to visit the dungeon to tell Oluvia or General Parl of their fates, or of what was happening above, or to gloat, or anything.  They seemed completely forgotten, save for the twice-a-day meals that the guards dumped into their respective cells.  If only she could feel like her imprisonment mattered, as odd as that seemed.

               It felt like a fortnight or longer, but by the meals she was only in the dungeon three days when Corl visited in the afternoon.  At least, Oluvia assumed it was afternoon, since it was between the morning and evening feedings; no daylight filtered down into the dungeon.  He opened the flap on the cell door and peered in at her.  “Hello, Oluvia,” he said.

               Blinking against the bright square of lantern light unexpectedly beating into her cell, Oluvia heard the voice and froze.  So many times, she had imagined this meeting.  She had imagined Corl coming down here to tell her it had all been a mistake.  She’d imagined him coming down to visit her, and then she would drag him into the cell and beat him to death with her bare hands while the guards tried to drag her off of him.  She’d imagined spitting in his face, cursing him, pleading with him to free her.  Sometimes it had been General Razus, instead.  “Corl.”  The word came out, and even she wasn’t certain how it sounded.

               Corl might have been the one to come visit her, but he seemed unsure what to say for a long moment while Oluvia’s eyes adjusted to the light, and she tried to make out his expression in the shadows of his silhouette.  “I’m…sorry.  I didn’t know he was going to do that to you.”

               “You didn’t know?!”  She felt weak from her imprisonment, but Oluvia’s voice still echoed in the dungeon.  “That’s your excuse?  You promised me!  You didn’t say anything!”

               “What was I supposed to say?” Corl demanded.

               “That that’s not how it happened!  That they can’t just throw me in the dungeon!” Oluvia shouted.

               Corl backed up a step.  “General Razus explained it.  He needed an example, a way to ensure loyalty to him.  I’m sure that he’ll see fit to release you once things have settled down.”

               Oluvia’s mouth worked silently before she could respond coherently.  “You think that makes it better?”

               “I’m doing the best I can!” Corl protested.  He ran a hand through his hair and leaned closer to the bars.  “Look, General Razus is going too far – I don’t dare say too much, or I might end up down here, too!  Or worse.  He just hanged a captain who refused to acknowledge his new leadership.”

               Another time, Oluvia would have paled, she would have been shocked.  Now, the news barely moved her.  “Your best.  I see.”  She licked her lips.  “I thought I was doing the right thing, being loyal to my comrades, not turning you in and getting your little movement in trouble.”  She sneered.  “I guess I was wrong.  I should’ve gone straight to General Parl and had you all executed.”

               “Look, I came to say I was sorry,” Corl insisted.  “I’m trying to help, I swear, it’s all for the best in the long run.  Is there anything I can get for you?  I – I have some influence, maybe I can help make things more comfortable for you…”

               Oluvia spat in his face.  “That’s what I think of your ‘help.’”

               Corl blinked.  He wiped his face, his expression betrayed, and gently closed the door flap.  Oluvia heard the lock click back into place, and then his footsteps receding out of the dungeon.  Only when the bar thumped home on the distant dungeon door did she realize she was trembling.  She slumped down where she stood, but she didn’t cry.  It was like she had no emotion left to spare.  All she could do was stare at the door of her cell, eyes blank, not even thinking.  General Parl tried to say something to her, but she ignored him, and eventually he was quiet.

               A commotion in the cell beside her awakened Oluvia.  “When will Razus have me executed?” General Parl demanded.  “Or is he too much of a coward to commit, preferring to leave me down here to rot and pretend he can ignore the true General of Corbulate?”

                “Shut it, traitor.”  A thump, and Oluvia could hear General Parl wheezing from the blow.  The guard grunted.  “You’d’ve had us all worshipping Blood and Balance.”

               General Parl did not bother explaining the Blood Decrees to the guards.  “The Union will not allow this rebellion to continue,” he warned.

               Another guard spat.  “Like to see them try.  We’re Corbs.”

                “No,” General Parl retorted, “you stopped being Corbs when you joined a rebellion.”

               There was a snarl, and a scuffle while two guards tried to hold back a third; Oluvia wished she could see what was happening.  Steps faded, and then the thud of the bar over the distant dungeon door reported that Oluvia and Parl were again alone.

               After a pause while she picked at her breakfast, Oluvia looked up at the wall separating her cell from General Parl’s.  “Do you really believe that the Union will come?”

                “Yes.”  There was no hesitation in General Parl’s response.  “The Prime will not allow a rebellion to grow in Union lands.”

                “Is that why you’ve not tried to escape?” Oluvia asked.

                “Yes.  There are no doubt many who would still be loyal to me, and it would not be that difficult to get word to them.  But the only word I’ve given them is to bide their time and wait for a sign from me.  If my faction starts warring with Razus’s, it will be a Corbulate civil war, and that benefits no one, least of all Corbulate itself.  If the Union defeats a rebellion, though, it will increase the Union’s power and leave Corbulate strong.  Not stronger than if this had never happened, but a better outcome than a civil war.”  General Parl sighed.  “That is my fear, Oluvia.  Not that this Razus will remain in control of Corbulate, nor for my life, but for the strength of Corbulate.”

                “But the Prime…”  Oluvia didn’t form a whole argument.

               She didn’t have to form one.  “I trust the Prime,” General Parl asserted.  “He may be young, unpredictable, chaotic, impetuous, but he has earned my trust, perhaps more so even than Prime Wezzix.”

               Oluvia grimaced.  “But the Blood Decrees…”

                “Do not say what you have been told they do,” General Parl noted.  “I may not agree with the Prime’s decision on this, but part of trusting him is trusting that he has made the best decision, even when that may not seem obvious to me or to you.”

               Leaning back against the wall, Oluvia sighed.  “Well, I just hope that your Prime comes soon,” she muttered.  She didn’t know if General Parl heard her, and he didn’t answer.  She allowed the conversation to lapse.

               At least the Corbulate dungeon was clean, devoid of rats, insects, or the kind of periodic dripping of water that could drive a prisoner insane with its rhythmic, invisible plopping.  Oluvia still hated it.  She wasn’t supposed to be here because she hadn’t really done anything wrong.  No, she had done the best she could, and still she was punished for it.

               Except that the longer she stayed in the dungeon the more she began to wonder; there was little enough else to occupy her mind.  Maybe she was disloyal.  No, never that, but then maybe she was unreliable.  That wasn’t something to be thrown in the dungeon for, but if she really had done wrong to not do more to support Razus’s mission, or by not turning Corl and his allies into General Parl, then maybe she did deserve it.

               Those doubts scared her more than being condemned to the dungeon in the first place frightened her.  It was one thing to know she was wrongfully being punished, but something quite different to wonder if maybe she deserved to be punished.  That wasn’t her – she’d always been hardworking, consistent, dutiful – but what if it now was?  Her place had never been at the top of her cohorts, but to fall so far…she shuddered.

               General Parl did not seem to blame her for what happened, but perhaps he did not know fully what her role was and why she’d been thrown into the dungeon with him.  Or maybe he knew, and did hold her responsible, but did not wish to alienate her while they were confined together in the dungeon.  Maybe rescue would come for him, and she would be left to languish on in her cramped cell.

               There was no point in counting the days, so Oluvia didn’t count them.  Each one was more or less the same.  She would wake up when the guards delivered breakfast to their cells, she might try to exercise, or maybe she and General Parl would converse for a time, then dinner would be brought, and it would be time to sleep again, fitfully upon the moldering straw or the cold, stone floor.  No other changes marked the passage of time: no signs of the dawn or the gloaming, no shifting shadows progressing through the day, no moon arcing through the sky at night, just her plain box of a cell.

               When she heard a commotion one morning at the top of the stairs, after the slop that constituted breakfast was already consumed, she allowed herself to think that General Parl’s expected rescue was finally come, or maybe that General Razus finally decided what to do with his prisoners.  Instead, a new prisoner was delivered into the third cell down the row, protesting the treatment even as the guards disappeared up the stairs and barred the door.  Oluvia had no words of sympathy to offer; her new companion in the dungeon was Corl.

               Though it was brisk in the morning, the sun’s rays already promised a warm day ahead.  Not warm enough for Ulurush; she had to fight against her shivers and goosebumps as she marched up Corbulate’s streets, flanked by Olvidan, Nouria, and Glith.  Iperia, Iperio, Verna, Blide, and Flime were already waiting near a side entrance to the castle for the opening Ulurush’s approach would grant them.

               Everything was in place.  Ulurush’s spear shaft rapped upon the road’s paving stones with a confidence that she did not feel, but she projected it masterfully; her plan’s success depended on her presentation.  Up the ramp she marched, her gold accents glinting, until the guards at the gate barred her way.

               Ulurush delivered a glare at the interruption, which alone was enough to fluster the guards.  “Ah, what is your business in the castle?  We weren’t informed of any visitors this morning…”

               “I am Guardcaptain of Merolate and working under direct authority of Prime Kiluron.  No notifications are necessary,” Ulurush asserted.

               The guards blanched, exchanging glances, and Ulurush watched grips shift on weapons.  She wondered how many bows were aiming for her at that moment.  One of the guards retreated to take hasty conference with his fellows before rejoining his companion at the front.  “We don’t answer to Merolate no more.”  It would have been a more authoritative rendering if he didn’t squeak and stammer as he said it.  “Be gone!”

               On que, Olvidan cracked his knuckles and took a step forward, while Nouria and Glith both drew their swords halfway from their sheaths.  Ulurush lowered her spear slightly.  “Prime Kiluron disagrees,” she told the trembling guard.

               “There’re only four of ‘em!” someone exclaimed from further back, out of immediate range.  “Does the boy Prime think he can defeat Corbulate with four people?”

               Ulurush’s spear swept the closest guard’s feet from under him, sending him crashing to the stones.  Olvidan hammered two guards over their helmets, and they collapsed with ringing heads.  Nouria disarmed two more guards who rushed forward, and then Ulurush was holding her spear to the guard who thought four people would not be enough to take Corbulate.  His throat worked as he stared at the glittering spearhead.  At Ulurush’s literal prodding, he dropped to his knees and allowed Glith to take his weapons.

               “Leave them,” Ulurush ordered.  “Make for the throne room.”

               Maybe it would have served their legitimacy better to continue at a deliberate march, but Ulurush wanted to be in the throne room before the entire castle was mustered to oppose them.  Getting past the guards at the gate had been as much a matter of surprise and uncertainty on their part as anything.  Corbulate’s castle was full of choke points and danger zones designed to deter and defeat an invader, so haste was essential.

               At a side entrance to the castle, the other half of the team’s approach was far subtler.  Verna sniped a bored guard with a blunted arrow, Iperio got the door unlocked, and then all five of them were inside.  Blide took point, but this wing of the castle was quiet.  Iperio took out another solitary guard at a junction, and they turned towards the dungeon.

               “Ready?” Blide signed to the others when they reached the final turn before they expected the dungeon guards.  He waited for affirmatives, and then rounded the corner.

               Six guards were sitting in a breakroom, just as Glith described.  The first one received Blide’s pommel to his face before he could gain his feet and slumped back into his chair.  Iperio garroted a second guard, leaving an opening for Flime to knock down a rising sword.  Blide parried another attack, Iperia tackled a guard and put her in a headlock, and Flime stabbed his opponent.

               “Flime!”  Blide’s tone managed to convey that he would have been shouting if he were anywhere else.  “Guardcaptain said avoid killing!”

               “Sorry, Sir,” Flime muttered, cleaning his blade.  “He was better than I expected.  You know how it goes.”

               Blide made a frustrated noise, but he turned his attention to the dungeon door.  Verna retrieved the keys for the cells.  They left Iperia and Iperio standing guard in the breakroom while the rest of them descended into the dungeon.

               “Governor Parl?” Verna asked, approaching the first cell and opening it.  The grimy, bruised occupant shielded his eyes against the sudden luminance and nodded.  “I’m Guardswoman Verna, from Merolate.”

               Governor Parl’s voice was raspy, but he stood as proud as ever when Verna released his manacles.  “Excellent.  It’s about Bloody time.  Did you take the castle?  I didn’t hear much fighting…”

               Verna shrugged.  “Guardcaptain Ulurush should be at the throne room soon, if she’s not already, but we’ll need to hurry if we want her plan to work.  You’re needed there, Governor.”

               Flime meanwhile released Corl and Oluvia from their cells, and Blide pressed weapons into all three former prisoners’ hands.  “Come on.  Guardcaptain can’t hold the throne room forever.”

               “How many people did you bring?” Governor Parl asked.

               Verna glanced back at him.  “Nine.”

               Oluvia choked.  Corl tried to pound her on the back, and she whirled to punch him.  Governor Parl paused.  “Just nine?  Not nine hundred?”

               “Just nine,” Verna confirmed.  “Don’t worry.  The Guardcaptain has a plan.  But we do need to hurry.”

               By the time Ulurush and her half of the team reached the corridor leading to the throne room, a dozen guards were blocking the double doors, and more were hurrying in from either side.  The confusion that had served Ulurush at the castle entrance would not serve here, but she did not charge in immediately.

               “Step aside, in the Prime’s name,” she ordered, forcing all the conviction she could muster into her voice, as if she fully expected that these guards would obey, instead of the opposite.

               A few wavered, but the Corbs held firm.  Ulurush charged forward, leading with the butt of her spear; minimizing casualties was key to her plan’s success.  Wading through blood to secure the throne room would not enhance Parl’s authority, or the Prime’s.  With Olvidan at her side and Nouria and Glith completing the formation of four, they punched into the knot of guards blocking the doors to the throne room.

               The guards were well-trained, but Nouria and Ulurush were among the best fighters in Merolate’s Guard.  To Ulurush, the hardest part was avoiding killing anyone, but she was helped in that the guards seemed reluctant to kill her team, too.  Both sides kept pulling away from fatal blows, and all Ulurush needed was to get into the throne room, not to defeat everyone outside of it.  She pressed the attack, and guards fell back from her.

               At the doors, Olvidan smashed through a hasty barricade and wrenched them open.  An arrow thudded into his chest, and he stumbled back out into the hallway.  Glith covered his retreat as more arrows flew.  Ulurush swore.  She glanced at Nouria, and the woman nodded back to her.  They charged into the throne room with their weapons spinning.

               Spinning weapons wouldn’t necessarily deflect an arrow, but it did make it harder to aim, and that bought the two woman the moment they needed.  Ulurush skidded down the polished floor and threw her spear; it punched into an archer’s chest.  She followed the weapon, wrenching it free and sweeping the legs out from under two more bowmen.

               Across the room, Nouria disarmed her trio of opponents.  Glith dragged the wounded Olvidan into the room and guarded him in a corner, barring the door behind him.  Everyone in the throne room was silent as Razus stood up, staring.

               “Razus, you are under arrest for treason against the Merolate Union.”  Ulurush didn’t give him a chance to speak.  “As Guardcaptain of Merolate, I order you to stand down.  Now.”

               Razus put a hand on his sword.  “I am Corbulate’s General, and I do not recognize Merolate’s authority here.”  He would have been more convincing if his guards weren’t all weaponless and nursing their injuries on the ground around the throne room.

               “Actually, I am.”  A side door opened beside the throne.  The first people to emerge were a pair of guards with their hands on their heads and their weapons missing.  Iperia followed them, and then General Parl stepped into the throne room.  It was him who’d spoken.

               After Ulurush’s arrival, Razus seemed incapable of being more surprised.  He sneered at Parl.  “You’re more a traitor than I.  If it weren’t for these meddlesome fools from Merolate, you’d still be rotting in my dungeon.”  He stepped forward and drew his sword.  Ulurush tensed, but the rebel general was still speaking.  “I invoke the ancient tradition.  We shall duel, you and I, to determine who ought to lead.”

               This was not part of Ulurush’s plan.  Everything was going well, but now…Parl looked too weakened from his time in the dungeon to put up a fair fight, never mind that he was at least two decades older than Razus.  Her hand tightened on her spear.  She could strike Razus down, but it would likely mean fighting their way out through the entire city.

               Governor Parl stepped forward, shaking off Iperio’s and Flime’s support.  “I accept your challenge, in accordance with the ancient tradition.  Who shall stand forth as my champion?”  He stared at Ulurush, not bothering with subtlety.

               It wasn’t the plan, but perhaps it would serve.  She had no idea if this was a real tradition, but both men were treating it as one.  Ulurush stepped forward.  “I stand,” she declared.

               Razus sneered.  “I need no champion, old man.”  He stepped down from the dais on which the throne was set and unclasped his cape.  His sword was a streak of metal when he unsheathed it.

               Before Ulurush could step forward to meet him, Governor Parl caught her arm.  “I hope you’re up to this.  He’s a skilled duelist.”

               Glancing towards Razus, who was stretching, Ulurush kept her expression neutral.  “I’ll manage.”  She stepped forward, rolled her spear across her shoulders, and held it with the butt by her armpit and the tip extended downward at an angle.  She glanced at Governor Parl.  “Dead or alive?”

               A smile quirked on Governor Parl’s lips.  “Alive, if you please, Champion.”

               Ulurush nodded, and Razus attacked.  The Guardcaptain swayed to the side, moved her leg out of the way, and dropped into a lower stance.  Razus stabbed for her chest, and this time Ulurush swatted the blade aside with her spear shaft.  Two aggressive steps forward, and the spear swung around, forcing Razus to dodge backwards to avoid the blade; it still tore his tunic.

               Back and forth Razus and Ulurush battled across the silent throne room, with only their breathing and the occasional clash of their weapons breaking the breathless quiet.  Razus was skilled, Ulurush had to admit.  She’d expected to disarm him within a few moments, but instead the duel stretched from exchange to exchange.

               It was still clear that Ulurush was better, though.  Ululrush could tell, her audience could tell, and Razus could tell.  His strikes grew more aggressive, his defenses more desperate.  Razus lashed out, and Ulurush whirled away.  She tripped him, knocked his wrist with her spear shaft hard enough to send his sword tumbling away, and spun her weapon around so that the point hovered at Razus’s throat.

               “At least grant me a noble death,” Razus growled, “not some show trial for the boy Prime’s arrogance.”

               As answer, Ulurush lowered her spear.  Razus tried to dash forward, but she stuck her spear shaft in his path, whirled it around, and brought it down on his head.  The rebel general slumped to the ground, unconscious.

               In a throne room that was not his own, Prime Kiluron stood in judgement.  It was not a comfortable place in which to stand for him; he was not Prime Wezzix, who embodied judgement and the law during his reign.  Still, though the duty was unpleasant, he was confident in his decisions.

               Sitting in Corbulate’s throne was Governor Parl.  A woman introduced as Captain Oluvia stood just behind and to the right of the throne.  That was appropriate, since Corbulate was still Parl’s province.  He ruled here, but he was not supreme.  The Prime standing to his left, with his Advisor at his left and Guardcaptain Ulurush at his right, demanded his loyalty.

               In front of the platform on which resided Kiluron, Doil, Ulurush, Parl, and Oluvia, there knelt a man in chains, flanked by two Corbulate soldiers.  They were far from the only ones in the room, though, for a throng filled the remaining space, held back by more Corbulate soldiers, and spilt out into the courtyard.  Criers stood by to repeat whatever transpired in the throne room to those too distant to witness it for themselves.  Everyone in Corbulate would know that day what transpired, and the news would spread from there all through the Union.

               Looking little the worse for wear, Governor Parl glanced at Prime Kiluron.  “Ready?”  Kiluron nodded, and the judgement began.

               “Since the fall of the Blood Empire, we Corbs have prided ourselves on our sense of duty, our loyalty, our discipline, and our honor,” Governor Parl declaimed.  “We are Lufilna’s fighters, ever vigilant, the best of friends and the worst of enemies.  Almost a century ago, my predecessor swore an oath to bind Corbulate into something larger, a Union of states.  Each new General of Corbulate has sworn the same oath upon taking that role, and each has reaffirmed that oath upon the ascension of a new Prime.  I gave my oath to Prime Kiluron not yet two years past.”

               He nodded towards Kiluron, who returned the nod.  Kiluron resisted the urge to fidget as he awaited his part of the proceedings.  “Nor is that just my oath, or the General’s oath.  It is the oath of all Corbs, and to foreswear it brings shame upon all of us.  To break that oath is to become that most abhorrent of things, a traitor.  Razus has foresworn himself and brought shame upon all Corbs with his treason.  But though he attacked and imprisoned me, his crime was not merely against his General.  It was against the Union, against the Prime.  So, traitor, your fate will be decided not by me, but by Prime Kiluron.”

               Doil’s nudge reminded Kiluron that this was his que, and he stepped forward to speak.  “Does anyone here doubt that the Union makes all of the provinces stronger?  Without working together, which province could alone have overcome the Guardian?  Without pooling our resources, could any province have stood so strong after suffering through the Nycheril contaminant?  If we were not unified, would not the Pifechans have crushed one province after another, giving us no chance to resist them?  Or what of the recent Ipemav crisis?  Was it Corbulate, standing alone, that could close the rift and defeat the Ipemav?”

               A few murmurs, but Kiluron did not wait for answers to his rhetorical questions.  “We are stronger when we are unified, but only if there is trust.  I trust Parl, and Parl trusts me.  And I trust all of you.  But I hope that you will trust me in return, because otherwise, all of this breaks down.  Some say you rebelled because of my changes to the Blood Decrees.  Some of my advisors urged me to rescind it as a result.”  Not Doil, fortunately.  “I’m not going to do that.  Neither am I going to station Merolate guardsmen in Corbulate, which I was also advised to do.  I’m not going to do that, because I trust that this won’t happen again.  And I ask you to trust me on the Blood Decrees.”

               People would be dissatisfied by that, but not as many as might have been before the rebellion.  In a way, Razus’s rebellion and subsequent defeat actually strengthened support for Kiluron’s position.  He turned his attention to the kneeling Razus.  “As for Razus, Governor Parl informs me that the traditional punishment for traitors in Corbulate is starvation unto death.  Maybe this traitor deserves it, but that is not my intention.  Corbulate is part of the Union, and putting Razus to death in such a protracted way will not heal anything.  I want this over with, so that we can move on from this incident together.  The traitor will be hanged tonight at dusk.  No one else will be punished for what transpired.”

               Kiluron looked around, wondering what would happen next.  “I’m counting on all of you,” he said, looking around at the crowd.  “The Union is not Merolate, Corbulate, Welate, Dervate, or Tirate.  It is all of us, together, unified.  And yes, it’s been one crisis after another recently, but we grow stronger with each, and we recover, and we keep going.  And when the next crisis comes – and it will come, whether in a year or a decade or a century – we will be able to face it because we have the strength of the whole Union to do it.”

               That was his speech.  He knew it wasn’t an excellent speech, and he knew that it sounded more scripted than he usually did, but it would suffice.  It communicated what he needed to say, and no one was rushing at the throne.  Razus was dealt with, or would be, once the hanging took place.  He exchanged a few pleasantries with Governor Parl and his new captain, witnessed Razus’ execution, and the next morning he boarded a ship back to Merolate.

               Standing on the rail with Doil at his side, Kiluron looked back at the city receding into the distance.  “I’m glad that’s over.  I just hope it’s actually over, and that there isn’t more trouble.”

               Doil nodded.  “You handled that very well, my lord.  Governor Parl should be able to keep Corbulate stable now, especially with the guards you left behind.”

               Kiluron snorted.  “You planned most of it.  I just had to go talk.  Speaking of which, I didn’t realize I was going to have to flat-out lie about leaving troops stationed in Corbulate.”

               “It’s not strictly a lie,” Doil wheedled.  “They’re stationed there as Corbs.  Besides, do you really want to risk being blindsided by another rebellion?”

               “I guess not.”  Kiluron squinted against a gust of sea breeze.  “’Trust but verify,’ you said?  Seems like just trusting would be better.”

               “That might work on the interpersonal level, but not on the level of Union and international politics,” Doil observed.

               Kiluron shrugged.  “I guess.  At least the rebellion is done, and it didn’t spread.  Ulurush did a pretty good job, don’t you think?”

               “Remarkable.  And without any of Guardcaptain Vere’s distractions,” Doil remarked.  “Although I don’t expect to see a report from her at all until Twiol writes it for her.”

               There was a bite to the wind, and Kiluron tightened his cloak; autumn was coming.  “Come on.  Speaking of trust but verify, why don’t you try to explain those reports to me again that Arval gave us on Evry’s progress?  It’s not like I can run off while we’re stuck on this ship.”

               “I still say you should get Arval to explain it to you.  I barely understand it, myself,” Doil protested.

               “Yes, but you know me better,” Kiluron replied.  “Come on.  It won’t be fun for both of us.  But it’s better than dealing with rebellions.”

The end of Blood Magic S3:E8: Trust but Verify. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode goes live on September 30th, 2022.

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