“You look like shit.”
Anzi Anzi Anzi raised her head to see Pierro standing in the hallway outside her open door. She hadn’t noticed his approach because of the irritating noise that this barracks building tolerated, the humming of constant conversation leaking through the cabin walls and even occasional shouting. In the Imperial City, noise beyond a whisper was never tolerated in sleeping quarters. If soldiers wanted to socialize and speak freely, they went to the recreational buildings. No discipline here at all. Desert garrisons really were disorganized.
“You don’t look so good either,” she told the other soldier, making sure to look him up and down with a deliberate, pointed expression from where she sat on her low cot. “You could have left the trash talking behind when I knocked you out, by the way.”
He sidled into the tiny room with his hands clasped behind his back, He sidled into the tiny room with his hands clasped behind his back, looking around from left to right and floor to ceiling with casual innocence She stared at him all the while, but he pretended not to notice as he turned to explore the suddenly-very-interesting corners of her quarters.
“If you don’t have anything to say, leave.”
He threw her a glance over his shoulder at long last. “Oh, come on. You’re not mad, are you? That was all friendly banter. I don’t know why you let me get you so worked up all the time.”
“And why do you try to work me up all the time?”
He rolled his eyes and turned away again. “If you’re done feeling disrespected, have you heard anything?”
She pressed her lips together. Of course. Pierro wasn’t the sort of person to come back and try to make amends with anyone, even badly. She should have known he had come only to try to find out what was coming next. He had been the most good-natured in their squadron at first, but ever since the group had arrived here last week, his easygoing and playful demeanor had become blotted with a competitive, belligerent streak. It was a shame fellow soldiers couldn’t get along. She’d had high hopes for everyone. Too high.
“No,” she said. “Colonel hasn’t come back from the Gauntlet site. He and the garrison captain are taking care of the wyrm problem.”
“Yeah, speaking of which, the size of that thing, right?”
She didn’t answer. He was still on her shit list. But yes, he was right. She was still marveling at how one of that size had showed up all the way on the outer edges of the desert. They had only begun reappearing a scant decade ago, nymphs that were a meter or two long at most, no more than that. Who would have thought things could change so rapidly? After two hundred years of tame peace, beasts were reappearing on the Empire’s desert doorstep again. Unprecedented.
Well, with the exception of that one time all those years ago. But she didn’t like thinking about that encounter. The incident. She quickly shelved it away again, queasy at the mere memory of pitch black scales and knowing eyes, flashing golden in the night…
“…llo? Come back to us. Hello, hello.”
Anzi frowned and shot Pierro an irritated glare. “We’re not talking right now. I want to rest. Go away.”
“So even the amazing Anzi needs a breather sometimes. That’s incredible, someone fetch the town crier.” He waved his hands with mock excitement. “I can’t believe it. Next, you’ll say you’re only human like the rest of us.”
“I’m just kidding. You know I am.”
“Are you? Because it seems like you only ever say that when you want to annoy me.” She pointed at the door. “Go away. Aimee and Doufan might appreciate your company more.”
He turned slowly and carefully until his whole body was facing her. In such a small room as this, his large stature took up more space than it should - not to mention his demeanor had suddenly become frosty and more stifling than his bulk. “You know,” he said, “you haven’t even asked about the other two at all.”
She lowered her eyebrows hard. “They’re fine. Just banged up.”
“You know that for a fact?”
“If they’re not, then they shouldn’t have been here in the first place.” Did he think he was going to make her feel guilty just because they had done what they were supposed to do? This wasn’t a game, and they weren’t here to play. She was simply the last one left standing - that didn’t make her wrong.
“See, normally…” He paused, holding his tongue in a way she knew was supposed to be at least mildly offensive. “…you would check to see how everyone’s doing, just in case. Which is why I came here, actually.”
“You didn’t need to.”
“It’s the nice thing to do.”
“Then thank you.”
Pierro still looked unsatisfied, however, and she was fast losing her patience. She was tired and in pain, even though she had assured the colonel she was fine earlier. But what choice had she had? It would have been embarrassing to request medical attention after all of that, especially since the others were in worse condition than she was. What would be the point of victory if it wasn’t graceful? What would be the point in standing out if she was only going to whine about it afterward? Pierro should be thinking this way, too. Or was he not a soldier?
“Another thing,” he said in the silence. “Just because you expect it from yourself doesn’t mean you get to demand the same from everyone else. You might think you’re better than us, but we all came here as equals. Don’t forget that.”
“Are you posturing on me? I’ve never said I’m better than any of you.”
“But you think it, and you act like it.”
“I’m acting the way we all should. We shouldn’t be coddling each other.”
“And there you go again, being patronizing. This is pointless. You make it hard to be your friend.”
Something flared up inside her, hot and hard. “I didn’t ask you to be.”
“No, because you’re too good for that. All you do is try to win, win, win to prove you’re more devoted and deserving than everyone else. That’s all you do.”
“What I do is act like a soldier!”
He snorted. “Well, just so you know, one soldier doesn’t make an army. See you later, winner.”
Forget it. If he wanted to act like a child, that was his choice. She didn’t have to humor his bruised pride and pretend to sympathize. Obviously, he was acting high and mighty to disguise his bitterness at his total loss. And the others, Aimee and Doufan, had he already stopped by to see them? Maybe they had all talked among themselves already, and Pierro had come to see her after they had convened and decided to send him to confront her. She wouldn’t be surprised. She had never had anyone on her side since the day she entered the Service, so why would that change now? Just because she had expected better from the top echelon of candidates for the Premier Guard? Well, clearly she was the idiot for it. From now on, she would be sure to expect abominably little from the others just like Pierro apparently wanted. She swung her legs up onto the bed, ignoring the throbbing of her muscles as she forcibly settled into the worn dip of her cot. She was going to get her rest while she could. The others would be smart to do the same, even if they were going to be staying right here until they completed their training while she went on ahead of them.
Her fingers dug into the fabric of the scratchy blanket underneath her. Damn Pierro. The Service was no place for soft feelings and weakness. Wasn’t he ashamed of himself? So what if she hadn’t gone to see how Doufan and Aimee were doing in the infirmary? They weren’t dead, and any injuries they had sustained would be fixed by the garrison healer. If they blamed her in any way, let them. She didn’t care. She had done what she needed to do and as the training intended. If they held that against her, that would only hinder their own progress. They should learn from this experience instead of being bitter over it.
She lifted then banged the side of her fist down upon the cot by her hip. Damn them.
* * *
Shifting sands. The smell of cinnamon. The hot, curling breath of the desert wind against her face. She remembered this. It had been so long, but this was home. She was facing the direction of the deep sands, though, the east. She would have to turn back if she wanted to head home. And she did turn, but too much. Home was due north from here, up the desert fringes, not to the west. The west was toward the Imperial City. She had turned too far. But her body didn’t belong to her, and she failed to divert her own course. What was happening? Was she possessed? No, it was more like she was the one trapped inside someone else. She could feel every movement, but none of them were of her own volition, and she struggled inside her mind to try to squeeze out of this uncanny prison.
The body she inhabited paused, and she was forced to stand there in pure discomfort as her disobedient hand rose toward her face. Stop it, she demanded, but she had no voice to speak with. Still, she struggled. Stop! But the hand didn’t stop and she glimpsed its shadow just before it began stroking her left temple. The touch stung, and she remembered vaguely that she was hurt there. She couldn’t remember when or why, but it hurt anyway, and she thrashed in her consciousness in indignant outrage. Out, she demanded. Let me out!
It occured to her suddenly that she didn’t recognize this touch. These callused fingers were not her own, and the hand was too large. Masculine. What? But try as she might, she couldn’t turn her head to get a better look at the offending hand. Even her eyes were frozen in place, staring straight ahead at the golden dunes touched by the sun, and she was forced to endure the irritating stroking for another long moment.
…Strangely, the paine eased away until only a dull throbbing remained instead of sharp, acrid stings. Afterward, she was left only with confused suspicion when a ribbon of pleased relief spun through her, radiating from the fingers gently running along the side of her forehead.
I’m here, someone whispered. I’m coming to find you.
* * *
Anzi awoke with a start and a frustrated growl burning at the back of her throat. Awful, awful. She turned her head to check the iridescent timecatcher she had hung by the window, and two knotted threads glowed in the middle of the small circle of netted fabric. It was still half-past eight, barely an hour since she had fallen asleep. What kind of dream had that been? She was more exhausted now than when she had lain down. She threw another glare at the timecatcher, which continued to sparkle faintly in the sunlight that powered its minor magic. She didn’t like it, but the colonel had told them all to carry one while they were out here with the desert garrison. He had given her a pointed look in particular, and she’d known there was no point arguing that she didn’t like carrying magic trinkets.
Magic. Why was she even more apprehensive about it all of a sudden? It was only a dream. Not real. She rolled her shoulders and settled back into the cot, but her eyes remained wide open and staring at the ceiling. Magic. She had never liked it. Made her nervous. She curled the fingers of her left hand at her side, uncharacteristically hesitant. She didn’t like this feeling. What was she, a coward? A superstitious idiot? How could she be so unsettled by a mere dream? Like a child, she was confusing it with reality. But still, she had to be sure. She lifted her fingers to her forehead and pressed the tips to her temple in a cautious probe, testing the ugly, scraped wound that one of Aimee’s rocks had left earlier.
Her jaw tightened. The skin had healed over. It still felt heavily bruised and throbbed under her touch, but the abraded surface had become smooth as if it had never been touched.
She let her hand fall back down to her side and continued to stare up at the ceiling, seeing nothing.
“Sir!” Anzi shoved herself off the cot and leaped to her feet to stand at attention, arms locked at her sides and back ramrod-straight in military fashion. She faced the doorway where the colonel stood in all his imposing, white-haired dignity. He was clothed in his formal, dark blue and white Service regalia as always - of course he would never strip himself of any of it, even in this sweltering heat. Colonel Alexandre Bisset, dragon rider, Premier Guard. His bristling white brow suggested advanced age, and yet his face was smooth and unlined. He looked not a day over forty, if that, and yet it was well known that the man had been a loyal member of the Service for over eighty years. This was the youth imbued by a deep bond with an immortal dragon, evidence of his unwavering devotion and prodigious skill. “Get dressed and prepare to leave,” he said, voice curt and raspy as he stared at her with his usual glow
The Imperial City, from whence every good thing flowed. This was the cradle of the nation that had unified every divided territory from the western edge of the Adaraat Desert all the way to the sea. This was the birthplace of all things just and fair, all things meant for greatness. And of course, the seat of the Emperor’s power could be nothing less than grand and breathtakingly beautiful. Far below, the colors of the sprawling city blended and rippled into each other like threads in a great tapestry, the red banners of the various districts twining all about with splendid, curated groves of exotic trees lining every roadway. Many generations before, this place once had another name, but the Emperor had decreed long ago that it would simply become the Imperial City. The Empire was therefore simply the Empire for that reason as well. Instead of attaching a name to it and making it only one of many, this reign was meant to be the one and only. Not an empire, but The Empire. And that wa
“Anzi, greet the Emperor’s guest.” Colonel Bisset’s voice grated in her ear as if he were speaking right into it, and the gravelly anger buried there managed to bring her out of her stunned reverie. Dark hells, what was she doing? Still disoriented, she nearly presented Kaizat with a military salute, only managing to catch herself in time because she saw Bisset’s twitch out of the corner of her eye. He was a foreign guest, a chieftain, not an officer. With a smooth flourish, she brought her hand down from where it had been raised halfway and stepped back so she could bend at the waist in a respectful bow. There was no doubt that the colonel had spotted her near-mistake. He was going to have something to say about that later. She grimaced before returning her face to a neutral expression and rising again. To her utter distaste, however, Kaizat bowed as well. Not at the waist, thankfully, but with his golden gaze fixed on her, he inclined his head as deeply as it could go without takin
Anzi had never been in the palace before, which meant she had no pass token to flash at whoever might stop and interrogate her. Would the guards at the front gates open them for her so she could leave? They weren’t supposed to, but with an important foreign chieftain at her side, maybe they would make an exception. Exiting the palace unauthorized had to be easier than getting in. But lesson learned: maybe she should have thought about that before rushing out of the throne room. “How long have you been a soldier?” She looked back at the man and resisted the urge to take a sidling step away from him as they walked down the hallway. She had pulled her hand out of his grasp long ago, but he was sticking too close for comfort. Surely he didn’t have to walk so close that their hands threatened to brush against each other with every step, and surely he didn’t have to stare at her that way, either. His unnatural golden gaze felt like it was boring straight through her and melting her down li
Anzi and Kaizat stood patiently by the enormous stone barrier that made up one of the six massive gates leading out the city. Just beyond the barrier would be a bridge made of the same heavy stone as well, solid and true. The gate guards were the same way. No ordinary beasts, these: while Anzi had her doubts about non-humans, control of the impossibly heavy gates had to fall into the capable hands of the enormous stone golems and no one else. Somewhat man-shaped, just vaguely, while bearing the rippling, coarse texture of rocky earth, the hunched-over creatures stood thrice as high as the tallest human and as many times wide. They had no eyes nor mouth nor ears, but they had a sizable, featureless lump where the head might be on a man along with two arms and two legs as wide around as tree trunks. Mottled gray, black, and white, if they stood stationary, someone who knew no better would mistake them for massive statues chiseled out of a mountainside. But of course, everyone in the Imp
She should have known these knuckle-draggers would be here. “Welcome back, Anzi, didn’t expect to see you so soon. Fell off, did you? Passing muster for the Premier Guard harder than you thought?” “If I fell off, then you should be worried about where you’ll end up,” she said flatly, but she didn’t bother putting on a frosty front otherwise. Blunt words were enough to get her point across when it came to this gaggle of malcontent soldiers who thought she was a wise target to heckle. Oscar had never been very smart though, so while his friends would know better than to do much more than sneer in her direction, he was the one who would be raising hell soon enough. Too bad all the other training grounds were already reserved for drills. She had come up the hill to check with the quartermaster before escorting Kaizat over, knowing there would be trouble-making loiterers about. Like Oscar and his friends.
“What do you think you’re doing.” Anzi had no choice but to remain in place since she didn’t dare step in front of the chieftain, but if she could, she would have been in Oscar’s face in an eye blink. Was he crazy or stupid or both? Didn’t he recognize what kind of guest she was escorting by the priceless regalia he wore? Her eyes narrowed to sharp slits as she glared at her fellow soldier, violently willing him to move back. “I’m just welcoming -” “It’s all right, Anzi. I’m sure he means no harm.” She couldn’t bring herself to look over at Kaizat, not even when she felt a soothing hand rest upon the leather guard over her shoulder. This was humiliating. No discipline, she seethed. And what was Oscar’s plan, exactly? What did he think was going to happen? Now that he had issued what was little more than a poorly disguised challenge, the honor of the Empire’s entire military rested on a pair of shoulders more suitable for posing for portraits than fighting. And yet even if he won, th
“So you get sent back here, and the first thing they make you do is give a tour to some barbarian nomad princeling?” Anzi said nothing in response to the haughty sneer that came from her left. She had no idea which one of Oscar’s friends was speaking, but it was all the same to her. He wasn’t worth responding to. “Stop that,” someone else said. A feminine voice this time, softer but no less lofty. “It must have felt awful coming back like this. It’s alright, Anzi…you’re five or ten years too early for the Premier Guard, anyway. It would have been ridiculous if you managed it, don’t you think? Now that you’re back, you can train some more and prepare better. Next time, if you work harder, you’ll definitely make it.” The snide, backhanded pretense at encouragement was even more annoying than the outright taunting. If she were allowed to speak of the Gauntlet or the Running at all, she would have shot back with a cold assurance that she had exceeded all expectations, but Colonel Bisset