The tip of Rochefort’s sword glanced off of the beastling’s scaled chest before, chance-like, plunging into the creature’s armpit. Rochefort revelled in the way the tight sinew gave before her thrust. The beastling shuddered twice, then slumped to the ice, dead.
It was the latest of many easy kills. The multiplying horde of beastlings were set on making it into the temple, not engaging in combat. In the monsters’ preoccupation Rochefort and her Pursuivants had cut down dozens from behind, but they still streamed up the waterfall and across the frozen lake by the hundred. Angels knew how many had made it inside the Temple, where the captives had been taken. Where Dorotea surely was.
One step at a time, Rochefort.
Rochefort skidded on the ice, reloading her pistol as she went. She heard Derambouillet give a shout and knew that by cutting ahead of her troop she was most certainly abandoning good tactics and good sense. There was little for it. Attack formation meant little when you were so clearly running out of time.
She cut down another beastling with a flurry of quick stabs. Only one of them struck deep and true, but it was enough.
Letting the beastling fall from her sword, Rochefort checked her blind-spot, for she was so far ahead of her Pursuivants that no one was watching her back – and found herself in the line of sight of a pack of beastlings…Or, on second glance, just one, one which was simply massive. Long and muscular, with the body of a pack horse but the claws and jaws of something much more ferocious. Eight legs, or arms, all thick and knotted and scrabbling on the ice but nonetheless propelling the beastling’s great hulk. Nay, not a beastling, but a beast.
Sometimes, it seemed the beastlings were driven by pure, blinkered instinct, as in the way the creatures were desperately forcing their way to the temple with little mind for their Pursuivant attackers. Other times, Rochefort could have sworn they exhibited the behaviour of a more intelligent animal, or that she could see a slight glint of independent thought in their otherwise blank black eyes. The larger beast was of the former, dully animalistic kind. It was thrice the size of any other beastling. Not only that, but it had taken several rounds from a musket, stirring it into further rage and desperation. Rochefort, rather than pursuing it from its vulnerable, or at least unthreatening, back, was in its line of sight. Between it and its destination, its single-minded goal.
“Pursuivants! To me!” Rochefort shouted, with some sense of futility. The beastling would be on her in seconds, and the closest Pursuivant was fifty feet away on the slippery ice. Rochefort instinctively fingered one of the bigger icon rings on her left hand. Janaelle would have crushed this a creature such as this without effort, and cost her a few months only....
Not daring to sheath her sword, Rochefort let a round fly from her pistol, then another, and another, all the while knowing she was nowhere near lucky enough for even her precisely aimed bullets to down this massive, hulking creature. Besides, any luck she might have would preferably be spent saving the life of another.
It was to be beast-hide against steel, then.
The only viable approach for a beastling of such size was to attack first, Rochefort knew, and to attack quickly. At that strategy, Rochefort had more than enough practice. In, and out. Slick. Savage. Merciless.
For a short moment, Rochefort watched the beast race towards her. Trained eyes noticed the tilt of its gait, the twist of its limbs, keeping the beast’s underside to the ice and blocked from pistol fire. There, there it was, her chance.
One deep breath, and she was racing across the ice, muscles fast and loose. Feinting to the beast’s right flank, or one of its right flanks, there were at least four of them, she abruptly changed course, boots skidding on the ice. She ducked a grasping set of claws, arm up, braced for resistance, and thrustdiagonally into the beast’s great abdomen. The sword-point sank into fur and flesh, but Rochefort withdrew just as quickly. She jump-fell backwards, out of reach of those strong and swinging claws.
The beast, failing to catch her in its deathly eight-limbed embrace, appeared unbothered. In fact, it growled, and turned, shifting its heaving weight. It put its back to its attacker, driven by an alien instinct, and began to gallop away—to the Temple.
Rochefort was running again before she even ordered her body to do so. She couldn’t let this beastling reach its destination. Its club-like limbs, claws like broadswords, and sheer bulk would make short work of the temple’s outer walls, angel-made or no, not to mention the souls inside.
Pistol up, three more shots in quick succession landed just as a round of musket-fire from the Pursuivants also sank into the beast’s hide. This slowed but did not stop the beast. Just enough time for Rochefort to make up the last few feet and dive, knees burning on the ice, beneath the creature’s claws, beneath its bulk, bringing her sword-arm up and plunging her blade into the spot where two limbs met, this had to be a weak-spot, it had to, she wouldn’t get many more chances—
The beastling’s form blocked out the sun. Rochefort pulled her sword from its hide only to narrowly block a lunging maw. Her arm strained to keep the sharp teeth, each as long as her hand, at bay. Her sword, leveraged against the roof of its mouth, threatened to buckle. Pommel braced against her hip, neither she nor the sword could bear the strength of those powerful jaws for long.
Her grip slipped. Teeth, dull but heavy and inch-thick, punctured her sword-arm. The pain was peripheral. The weight of many tons of beastly muscle pressed her into the ice. Jaws snapped, teeth dripped just inches from her throat. Either her sword would snap, or her arm would.
Rochefort’s vision blurred. Her eyes burned from the effort, the tight sprain of her scar from forehead to chin, the heat and stench of the beastling’s open maw.
The jaws crunched, and Rochefort slipped. Her sword punctured clear through the roof of the beast’s mouth and it screeched like the sound of steel on steel and its closest limb fell heavily onto Rochefort’s sword-arm. She heard bones crack, but felt nothing, nothing but the straining of her lungs and her free hand clenching the sword’s hilt to her stomach.
Rochefort heard a growl, perhaps her own. Her lungs choked on the stink of animal and blood and saliva, then as she gasped and squinted she caught a glimpse, a blur, of light...
Dorotea? No, the light was in the beast, a burning glow in the centre of its chest. A heart? A weak-point?
She couldn’t move, pinned as she was against the ice which burned through the tears in her coat and breeches. She dug the sword harder, deeper into the beastling’s mouth, much more difficult with only one hand with which to steady it and felt its jaws strain to clamp around her bicep. Rochefort braced, squeezed her eyes tight for less than a moment; Iwillnotletyoubehurt.
In a fluid motion that took her every sinew of muscle, every lick of courage, every bead of sweat, she pulled the sword from the beast’s maw in a flash, and in the beast’s sudden confusion she thrust the blade into the pulse of light. Her sword sank cleanly and then stuck.
It was a long moment waiting for those jaws to close upon her, surely to cut her clean in two. Then the beast thrashed, quivered, slackened, and sank onto the ice. Its bulk dragged down her sword, attached arm along with it, weighing more heavily on top of bones which were surely broken.
She had slain it. She had done what had needed to be done, or a step of it.
But in that same instant she heard a shout, felt a tremor somewhere deep, and the beastling twitching on top of her changed. The instant took a long time to end, but when it did Rochefort was not dead. Neither was the beastling…because…it was not a beastling.
There was a man skewered on the end of her sword. The hilt pressed against skin and muscle, veins as blue as any human’s and spurting just as red.
His eyes were wide, hands flapping weakly against Rochefort’s where she had plunged her blade to the crossguard to the left of his sternum. He spat blood, not ash but dark wet blood that steamed on Rochefort’s skin. She snatched her hand from the hilt. The man fell back onto the ice and moved no more.
The rococco beat of gunfire had lapsed into eerie stillness. Upon the ice, thousands of naked bodies lay, crouched, and stood alone. A few were being helped up and wrapped in Pursuivant cloaks. A trio of Pursuivants reached Rochefort, finally, and made to help her up.
She didn’t immediately stand. She crouched, clutching her dead arm to her chest. The beastlings were human again. The transformation was reversible…had this always been possible?
She looked back at her sword. At the body it pierced straight through, limp and dead on the ice. No trace of any beast, nor of life. For a scant second Rochefort thought of lying back down on the ice to curl around her throbbing arm and simply…
But no, Rochefort had the only command. She, and only she, was responsible for what happened here today. For who lived, who died…With the help of the Pursuivants, she stood. She took the torn half of a tabard Delon offered to wrap around her bleeding arm, and tied the useless limb tight enough to her chest that the pain numbed fractionally.
“Derambouillet, gather two squads, the least wounded, with me. The Temple. I’ll forge ahead in the meantime. Delon, everyone else…” she directed, waving generally at the ice and the…hundreds of helpless people, “do what you can for them.”
She shrugged off the arms of the Pursuivants, and then shrugged off their protests that she should wait to push through as a unit. Derambouillet even grasped her arm to halt her, but Rochefort shook it away and immediately set off across the ice.
Each step jolted the torn ligaments and pulsing wounds but she only increased her pace, long legs carrying her fast as she could will them to.
Skidding and sliding atop the ice, Rochefort stopped only to scoop up a sword left in the snow. Derambouillet followed with two dozen Pursuivants, a little behind, surely slowed by wounds and confusion…Rochefort felt a slight pang. Derambouillet was too loyal by far, she’d take badly to Rochefort’s unilateral and unguarded push ahead. She should have stayed with her troop, should at least have explained, but the force pushing her onward made little sense to even her. It felt like duty and responsibility and Dorotea…Derambouillet would surely understand.
The temple door was little more than splinters, but a few planks of wood clung to a metal bar which still held fast. Using the found sword as a crowbar, she groaned mightily as she exerted all her remaining strength on the half-rotted wood. Finally, it gave, and she ducked under the bar and tripped inside.
She scanned the room quickly enough to notice that the body in the corner wore the stolen tabard of a Pursuivant, the three on the floor were clothed in grey. Several feathered and scaled corpses littered the room, one slumped through a broken window. Beastlings had already infiltrated the temple. Their twisted remains and ash-blood intermingled with the bodily fluids of the dead refusers. The smell smarted as it soaked into the hardwood floors.
Rochefort took the steps, two in each bound.
As she climbed, her arm ached with pain that echoed in every muscle and bone. Improbably, impossibly, she felt fear rise to burn the back of her throat, prick the backs of her eyes, colluding with adrenaline to make her hands shake. Fear unlike the thoughtless place she frequented in battle, and unlike the missed-step horror of seeing the beastlings become men. Fear not for her troop, for her objective, or for the state. For something else; it was unsettling, unfamiliar, and unwelcome to Rochefort.
With some effort, she swallowed the bile rising in her throat, and took the next steps three at a time.
She heard not a sound from above. How many floors were there, again? She was too late. She was too late. Her hands shook, she couldn’t aim like this, couldn’t fight like this. Starting on the next flight, she repeated her objective. Iwillnotletyoubehurt.
Rochefort leapt the next four steps and through the doorway, heels skidding on blood, sweat and dust, looking wildly around at the litter of corpses and bloodied floors. One small body in the corner wore the black Musketeer tabard, and Rochefort moved towards it, thinking I will not I will not -
Until a word tore her attention away.
The word: “Camille.” Soft-spoken. Unbelievably casual, wistful, like a greeting in the street.
The four Bascons crowded on the next flight of stairs, with a man she recognised – a Refuser, suspected to have some authority among the Night Crew. Weapons, steel and makeshift alike, still clutched in bruised fingers. Dorotea looked dazed, swaying slightly, blood dripping from her hand to pool at her feet.
No beastlings. No Liliath. Rochefort expected relief, or suchlike feeling, but was treated only with bile welling again to the back of her tongue. There was a sound from the floor below, but when she looked back it was merely Derambouillet, who nodded and stood at attention halfway down the stair.
“I—“ Rochefort swallowed. “You—“ On with it, Rochefort, did a Pursuivant’s education do nothing for your ability to string a sentence? “Liliath? The danger...”
“Is passed,” said the tall one, Doctor MacNeel, who was bleeding profusely down his face. The Musketeer girl, Descaray, that true Musketeer—by the angels, she got on Rochefort’s nerves—kept a tight grip on her sword. The clerk simply continued to look pale and slightly forlorn. The Refuser stepped awkwardly around Rochefort and gestured down the stairs.
“I’m…just going to…” he trailed off and simply exited. Rochefort had no mind for him.
All eyes met Rochefort’s but Dorotea’s. There was a faraway glow swimming in her gaze, as if she looked not into the distance but right through the skin of the world and into the heavens.
Her scar felt stretched, tight, almost painfully pulling at her eye and mouth and chin. “Musketeers.” She swallowed, straightened, absurdly went to doff a hat she had long since lost in the melee. “I—am relieved to see you not only living but standing. You will report to me and my seconds, once they arrive. I can only assume that...much has happened, since. You left us.”
Descaray shifted like she was about to protest Rochefort’s order. MacNeel got there first, “We have much to report. Or, Dorotea does. Are there any more wounded? I must get to work, find a medical kit…”
Rochefort was caught in a fit of aberrance. She wasn’t thinking on gathering the wounded, rounding up the beastlings, containing the battle’s aftermath. She wanted nothing more than to stride past Dupallidin’s judging stare, past the Musketeer’s duel-ready stance, to fall forwards and to sweep Dorotea up, to clutch her head to her chest. To smooth that broken, bleeding skin. To kiss the place where bruises were purpling the crown of her head...
The three other musketeers were staring between Rochefort and Dorotea, as if they expected her to do just that. The burn in Rochefort’s throat threatened to spill into the open air. Her mind’s eye flashed to another place, another time, a neck on a chopping block at the top of a tower.
Swallowing painfully, spit like poison, “Dorotea—“
A squad of Pursuivants crashed through the doorway, visibly panting and babbling in that post-battle madness.
“Captain! Thank the Cardinal. Our aforeplanned tactical approach to capture the Temple would have been a wiser...” the young Pursuivant, Barroult it was, trailed off at Rochefort’s glare. At least, Rochefort assumed she was glaring. She rarely glared intentionally; it was more a natural consequence of someone else’s stupidity. “Apologies, Captain. All seems to have ended well. Very good, ser.”
Rochefort’s right arm pounded, her left arm limply clutched the borrowed rapier. She simply stood, struck with uncharacteristic uncertainty, though managed to give Barroult a sharp nod.
“Capitain, how should we proceed?” Derambouillet stood to attention, shuffling Barroult out of her sight.
Rochefort felt herself settle into a state of terse command in response to the question, and at that she finally felt relief. The problems before her now were the problems of a Captain with a wounded and weary troop in the wake of a trying but successful battle. The problems of a leader who did what had to be done.
“Clear the ground floor for a debrief—no, the second floor, with the library, we’ll want some height. God forbid we meet any more beastlings, but success is no time for complacence. Escort these four down there. Get them a medic and a meal. They cannot rest yet, I am afraid, we must plan our retreat down the mountain. The beastlings…there must two thousand of them, plus a few hundred Refusers. Assign each to a Pursuivant in even measures. All of you will be responsible for finding them clothes, food, medical aid. Find Vautier, if he lives, and—“
Rochefort’s stomach twisted. That name. And here, in front of her Pursuivants. It would not do. It could not do.
Was Dorotea looking at her? Rochefort was looking at the blood soaking through her makeshift bandage, at her Pursuivants awaiting orders, at the Refuser in the corner wearing the stolen tabard of a Musketeer.
“I must tell you what happened. To Liliath,” Dorotea said, casting a glance at the Pursuivants by the doorway. “To...us. To the things we two can see.”
Dorotea gestured up the stairs to what must have been the attic room. “What’s up there, it changes everything thought to be known about angels, and icons. I can feel the shift in heavenly forces even now, I…” she hesitated. “it is a matter for the highest temple authority, and thus for your ears alone.”
Still, that suspicion, that caution around the Cardinal’s people. Not without good reason, Rochefort knew, but even now...Rochefort recalled her own sinking realisation of the heretical reaches of her angelic magic, of what she could see and sense in Dorotea and her friends, in the Refusers.
“Find Vautier, he will lead our descent,” Rochefort ordered. “These three will be cared for down below. Dorotea will join them, once she has given me her report.”
“I think I’ll hang about up there as well, actually,” said Descaray, with considerable pomp. Rochefort had to give it to the girl. She possessed nearly as much courage as she lacked sense.
“That is an order.” Rochefort felt the words grumble like rocks in her throat.
“Agnez, go, it’s alright,” Dorotea said in a low murmur that Rochefort could only just hear. “She has to know what Liliath did. Besides, Captain Rochefort is merely attempting to speak to me alone and thus to ease her obvious embarrassment.”
Her Pursuivants were already on their way out of the room. Rochefort didn’t miss the clerk’s raised eyebrows as he left, nor the raised-chin glare from the musketeer before she nodded to Dorotea and followed the others downstairs. Dorotea led the way into the attic, Rochefort clunking up the steps behind her.
Sun streamed into the large room from above. The space felt holy even before Rochefort saw the object on which Dorotea’s was immediately focused.
Dorotea was inspecting a charcoal drawing, raised on an easel. The drawing hinted at wings, at a halo: an icon. It was imbued with such power that it might have been either the icon or the dregs of adrenaline that made her knees feel weak. Was that another halo, a second visage nestled within the first?
Dorotea said nothing, still gazing pensively at the drawing. Rochefort worked her jaw.
Why were they here again? Where had Derambouillet gone? Oh, Dorotea had something to report. Temple business, Liliath. Something colossal had transpired in the heavenly realm, had transformed the beastlings, something to do with the lights Dorotea saw inside her friends and in the refusers and the beastlings, about the things Rochefort saw but could never disclose...
Dorotea tore away from the easel and finally, awfully, looked straight at Rochefort. How she looked, how she stared as if deep into Rochefort’s chest, squeezing her lungs, pulling at her stomach, stuffing a fist up her throat...
Dorotea stepped closer, and there was her hand, bloodied and torn, but palm soft on Rochefort’s cheek, the press of a thumb to the corner of her mouth. Rochefort could not but lean into her touch, gather up Dorotea with her good arm, clutch her head to her chest and squeeze her eyes tight against the pressure on her broken arm.
“Do you want me to tell you about Liliath?” Dorotea’s voice against her breastbone. “The world of angels is transformed...of humans too...I have to trust you to help me set it right...”
Rochefort breathed. “In a minute,” she croaked. “In a minute.”
“She’s Pursuivant-Captain, you’re a Musketeer, it’s just not...” Descaray’s voice snatched down to Rochefort upon a down-draught.
Rochefort was painstakingly aware of Dorotea a few dozen paces behind her on the track, could’ve sworn she felt a gaze hot on her back. If she were not Captain of the Pursuivants, she would be with her, preferably with arms linked as they were the day she’d escorted her to the Cardinal’s interrogation. If she were not the Cardinal’s right hand, she would draw her sword and take Descaray to a repeat of their earlier duel.
As it was, Rochefort was the Captain of this troop and the leader upon whom the hopes of all her Pursuivants and a good many Ystarans relied. As it was, Rochefort kept pace near the front of the expedition, surrounded on all sides by loyal Pursuivants who had been hit hard by their failure to protect their Captain in her recklessness during the battle upon the ice. She was their Captain and she would lead, as she always did.
An laugh echoed to Rochefort on a scrap of wind. She thought she could pick out Dorotea’s sweet chuckle. Had Rochefort ever made Dorotea laugh? She didn’t think so.
Rochefort fought the urge to sigh, and, winning the fight, steeled her features against the ache of her scar in the bitter air.
The Pursuivants were frozen and weary in their trek back down to the mountain pass. Having shed half their clothes to share with the beastling-humans, the troop shivered their way through wounds both minor and lethal. Vautier hadn’t made it, and neither had Dubois, or Sylvestre, or twenty others. A dozen more wounded were being helped down the mountain, but most had mere hours. Many of the ex-beastlings—the Ystarans, Dorotea called them—had caught frostbite, and Rochefort feared the total of two thousand and ninety ex-beastlings would quickly dwindle. The battle was won, but without angelic healing many more would be lost this day.
Perhaps the most painful thing was the necessity of stripping all their dead, for two thousand Ystarans needed the clothes more dearly.
Rochefort allowed the troop to share around the last of the wine as they descended the slope. The cold posed more of a threat than the terrain in their current state, and divided fairly there wasn’t enough wine to intoxicate a strong-livered Pursuivant (as Pursuivants tended to be). But it livened the dwindling group, warmed both their spirits and their extremities, and it got her Pursuivants talking to the Ystarans. An hour into the wineskins, the trek felt like a little less of a death march.
As it turned out, most Ystarans had no memory of their time as beastlings. A few recalled flashes, but in these memories they were trapped, crushed in their own minds. A young boy had compared the feeling to asphyxiation, though he lacked not air but freedom of thought. A heavenly power—and it still made Rochefort wince to imagine that an angel could be so corrupted—had taken their minds and bodies to spread its lust for destruction.
On Rochefort’s orders, informed to no small degree by Dorotea’s advice, the Pursuivants aided the Ystarans with every available courtesy, which to be fair was very little. Ahead of her, Leroux was passing a wineskin around a group of blanket-wrapped Ystarans. One of them shouted in delight, the sound thin upon the wind. There was little to laugh about, but it seems they’d all missed living as themselves.
Rochefort’s boots crunched with each methodical step. Was it so bad, was it really heretical, that all Rochefort wanted to do was turn around to glimpse that burning light within Dorotea again, to let it warm the parts of her that the cold now claimed?
“Derambouillet,” Rochefort called ahead. “Do you see the shelter down below?”
“Yes, ser! Another half mile, as the crow flies. More like a mile on the switchbacks.”
“Good. We will rest there an hour. If there remain any full wineskins, I’ll be taking them to fuel our fires.”
The wineskins were all returned without a drop remaining. As the troop settled down to rest, stoking fires and conversations and card games, tending to wounds, Rochefort sat and was reminded of her earlier promise.
I will not let you be hurt.
Had she succeeded, in her objective? Dorotea had been hurt, all be they surface injuries. Dorotea’s mind had been invaded by a corrupt archangel. And yet here she was, drinking wine and laughing with her Bascon friends as they trekked through ice and snow.
Rochefort wasn’t usually one to interrogate her own motivations. But she suspected her promise, at its base, concerned a more immediate danger to Dorotea: Rochefort herself.
Their embrace at the temple did little to erase the memory of the fear in Dorotea’s eyes back in Rochefort’s tent, just days ago. She hadn’t meant...would never have...but then, what did that matter? All thought of that moment...Rochefort should just rid herself of this body, with its muscle memory of brutality and violence. If she could—erase her mind, so hardwired for obedience and duty and that terrible temper. If only her hands could be anything but awkward when set to tasks which did not involve the cold steel of a weapon.
She remembered her hands holding Dorotea’s shoulders on the landing of the Tower. Her hands smashing the camp table into two, to Dorotea’s alarm. Her good hand buried to the wrist in Dorotea’s hair as Rochefort held her head to her chest, her broken one smarting as Dorotea leaned upon it, the pressure of Dorotea’s breasts against the backs of Rochefort’s bruised fingers...
She suddenly slid on a patch of melting snow before righting herself. Besides. The Musketeer, perhaps, was correct. Musketeers and Pursuivants fraternised, to be sure, but deep-set political and philosophical divergences typically kept them apart when it came to serious courting.
Dorotea had made a choice, had she not, by accepting the offer to join the Musketeers and not Rochefort’s Pursuivants? That made matters easier for them both. Rochefort had other things to worry about. Simmering mutiny, for example.
Speak of an angel. There came a few of the suspected insurrectionists now.
“Captain, ser!” Barroult stamped beside Rochefort’s fire and saluted, snappy as ever. The cluster of Pursuivants behind him – cadets, most of them – mirrored the movement.
Rochefort pressed her lips into a thin line. “What is it,” she said curtly.
“Ser, we’ve catalogued our supplies. We have rations to feed two hundred or so for the journey down the pass and back into Sarance, and medical supplies are also dangerously low.”
“Very well. Take twenty of our best shots and trappers and go ahead down the pass, I saw goats and rabbits on our way up. Roots, berries, anything, and take Rosiere with you. He studied botanics at the Belhalle in his youth. And that Musketeer doctor too, so he might forage for plants or seeds with some medical utility.”
Barroult shifted his weight, fingering the hilt of his rapier. He replied, “…it will be difficult, ser. I – we suspect, as I'm sure the Captain also suspects, that the rest of the expedition has continued into Sarance…they won’t be awaiting us at the bottom of the pass. The pursuit up the mountain, it was a suicide mission, we knew that, so did Captain Dartagnan…”
“Get to the point.”
“Ser, we won’t find proper food, supplies or shelter until we reach the outskirts of Monthallard, that’s at least a week on foot. So, you’ll find some of us are ill at ease with your decision to take the remaining Refusers and the beastling…people with us back into Sarance.”
Rochefort had seen some of her Pursuivants whispering, casting odd glances at their Captain. There’d been some reluctance, within certain small circles, to share clothing and supplies with the Ystarans. She noticed that Barroult and several of his fellows had managed to retain their fox-fur cloaks.
Rochefort let her stare scan across the faces of the Pursuivants accompanying Barroult. None of them met her eyes. They were afraid of her, but a more primal fear won out. Rochefort understood. Charging into battle with a horde of beastlings was one thing; adrenaline, righteousness, and years of training fuelled you. Marching yourself into the grave, weak and injured and cold-sick, was quite another.
But she was their Captain.
“You question my decision?” she asked slowly.
“We question the basis upon which the decision was made, ser, merely that. I noticed you consulted the Musketeer scholar, for instance, and not – “
“You question my decision,” Rochefort hissed, standing. “You question the advice I choose to take. You question your Captain.”
“Ser, you misunderstand, we are only concerned – “ Rochefort moved one finger to the butt of her pistol. Barroult stopped talking.
“I am willing to forgive this offence, and do not mistake that I do not view it as half a step towards mutiny. I know only too well that the Cardinal has long advocated for a resolution to the problems the Refusers pose. You were told…I was told that Ystarans were heretics and criminals. That has yet to be proven. We have two thousand helpless people who were unwittingly and unwillingly corrupted. Two thousand lost, hungry people, most of whom the doctors tell me suffer from battle-sickness. You would leave them to die, instead of taking them to stand before Her Eminence’s judgement and Sarancian law?”
Barroult opened his mouth, but Rochefort stepped closer and spat her next words an inch from his nose. “Do as you are told.”
She was surprised that the man returned her stare for a full second before turning and retreating, the dozen other Pursuivants following behind. Rochefort unclenched her fists. This was all she needed. The problem was, she herself would have taken some dissident action, in Barroult’s position, if she had known no better…something more strategic than direct confrontation, but nonetheless…
Another laugh carried across the campsite on the cold wind, making Rochefort shiver. She hadn’t partaken in the wine, and had given her coat to a Ystaran woman. Her hands were purpling in the chill. The kiss of wind on her neck summoned a flash: a cold nose against her collarbone...
She upended the last of her waterskin over the fire to douse it and stamped on the hot ashes. “Pursuivants! Onwards!”
“I apologise that we have you doing this. We’re severely low on good pairs of hands...” She gestured between the silver pistols nestled in Dorotea’s lap and her own broken arm. “It is appreciated. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of any foe on our descent, nor a whisper of dissent amongst the Refusers, but caution pays out.”
Dorotea shrugged. She had a strange way of shrugging. She’d lift one shoulder, then the other, in a slow rolling motion, a calm ripple of the body. “I’d rather be reading Musings on Angelic Origins, or any other of the books we retrieved from the temple, though that one is proving to be a wealth of empirical material on which to build my own theories about angel-making. Oh. This is not bad work. It gives me plenty of time to think.”
Rochefort couldn’t help but smile. Such words would have had Dorotea jailed for heresy a few months ago...likely Rochefort herself would have ordered the arrest. So many changes, in Rochefort, in the angels, in the world at large...
Dorotea’s motions with the oiled cloth were light and random; Rochefort admired the tilt and flow of these movements before realising she’d stared at Dorotea’s small, thin fingers for far too long. Dorotea didn’t seem to have noticed, her wandering gaze, as it often was, on something in the dusty heavens. Rochefort was loath to return to the camp proper. Its aura was draining, she was helpless against the threats of illness and infection. The troop had just finished building rows and rows of cairns around the many dead they could not carry back into Sarance.
“Traditionally, good polishing requires circular motions. Clockwise, anti-clockwise. A little more muscle,” Rochefort said, settling beside her. Dorotea appeared not to hear, or at least didn’t answer or tear her eyes from whatever she was contemplating just above the darkening horizon.
“Here, let me...” Rochefort danced the tips of her fingers above Dorotea’s working hand, before draping her hand atop the cloth and those thin brown fingers. Dorotea’s looked up, and her unattended gaze pulled at Rochefort’s throat.
“Clockwise...” She adjusted her hand more firmly atop Dorotea’s and fell into those familiar motions. The feel of skin against her palm was unfamiliar, without her gloves. “Anticlockwise. This kind of pressure, see.”
“Yes. I see.” Dorotea seemed amused.
Why, it seemed, did Dorotea make her own wooing so difficult? Each touch, each word, should’ve been easy, but those sharp eyes would stop Rochefort if she were a bullet fired from this very pistol.
A sharp whistle startled Dorotea, which in turn startled Rochefort. She tightened her hold on Dorotea’s hand.
“Change of watch,” she murmured, checking the pocket watch in her coat. “I’m on the rounds...haven’t taken a watch in years, we’re so short on officers.” She reluctantly withdrew her hand and quickly found a place for it on the hilt of her sword.
Rochefort stood, doffed her hat. “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
She didn’t see Dorotea smiling at her as she went, but she did hear her call waftily, with a tint of cheek, “Thank you for your assistance, Rochefort.”
Hunger was not a thing Rochefort often felt.
She supposed she rarely had the time to be hungry. There were always riots to quell, criminals to catch, plots against the Cardinal to be sniffed out and thwarted. She had a routine, in Sarance. She was provided with three hearty meals a day, straight from the Cardinal’s kitchen. It was something she stuck to, a necessity in her line of work and to maintain the required physical form.
Rochefort’s stomach flopped queasily. She hadn’t eaten since her last night with the expedition, before Liliath had shown herself and Dorotea had been taken. Derambouillet kept trying to force stale biscuits into her hand, and pieces of the stringy game they caught and cooked, but it would sicken Rochefort more to know that she had taken food that could have gone to one of her more wounded Pursuivants, or to the Ystarans she had taken under her responsibility.
They were slow-going. There were dozens of wounded who could only be carried, and hundreds more who probably should have been and so could only walk at a snail’s pace. Several of the Ystarans, with their makeshift shoes, had frostbitten feet and the beginnings of even more serious illnesses from exposure. None of the troop’s injuries could be entirely healed while they were in Ystara and their angels could not, or would not, answer them.
Half the group were dead on their feet, but they just kept walking.
Walking, so slowly, with no immediate threat but rather a slowly dawning one, gave Rochefort far too much time to think. Her Pursuivants, too, she thought, as Derambouillet fell into step with her.
“Barroult has been canvassing, ser,” Derambouillet reported. “Several Pursuivants have come to warn me of his dissidence. I do believe he may only have won a few more of the cadets over to back him. Around twenty-five in total. I can personally vouch, although admittedly cannot guarantee, that all your senior officers are opposed to his organising.”
“Good,” Rochefort huffed, her breath white in the air before her. “Keep an eye.”
“Any further action?”
Rochefort considered. “No. No, await my order. We are nearing a more precarious part of the descent, it would not do to raise a disturbance now.”
Derambouillet nodded and turned to march away but stopped at Rochefort’s call.
“Ensure this dissident group are not…punished or belittled by any other Pursuivants. They…” Rochefort sighed. “I must admit, their concerns are not immaterial. They are concerns I have weighed up myself.”
“Your command is the only command, Captain. I need not see the logic in it to follow it, but I assure you that I and your other senior officers have accepted your orders for what they are. Necessary, reasoned, and in keeping with charitable code.”
“Thank you, Derambouillet.”
The Pursuivant nodded again and increased her pace to catch up with the walkers a few yards ahead.
Rochefort suppressed another sigh, turning it into a sharp grimace. Her own faith in the prospect of Dartagnan and the Expedition waiting for them at the bottom of the pass was fading. If they reached the border and found no one, no supplies nor food nor medical aid, and were forced to extend their march another week across the badlands as winter crept in…with this ailing group, it was almost unthinkable. Rochefort’s command would not survive, and likely neither would she.
Rochefort found Dorotea at the very back of the trail of mixed Pursuivants and refugees, chatting amiably with the three Bascons. They adopted slightly alarmed looks as she approached, except for Descaray who puffed up considerably, and Dorotea who smiled.
“Musketeers,” she said, falling into step with the four friends. “Dorotea.”
Dorotea’s “Hello” overlaid numerous mutterings of “Captain”, “ser” and a grumbling from Descaray she couldn’t catch.
“Dorotea, though I regret to take you from your friends...I require your advice. Please.”
Dorotea’s expression immediately shifted. Nodding, she farewelled her friends and followed Rochefort to walk a short way out of earshot of the other journeyers.
They walked in silence for a while. Their feet crunched on rock, dead undergrowth and the remnants of snow.
Rochefort finally spoke.
“I expect mutiny,” she murmured. “Any day now. Tonight, tomorrow, and if the expedition is not waiting for us...then likely after we reach Sarance. My most trusted officers are aware, but I wanted you...”
Rochefort let her sentence trail off, to shift her eyes from her feet to Dorotea beside her. She was paying Rochefort full attention, and slipped a little on a patch of snow. Rochefort offered an arm and fought back a sigh when Dorotea took it and shuffled closer.
“There is a small group of dissidents,” she continued, “who purport to follow the Cardinal’s law to the letter. What with my recent...dalliances...from traditional temple maxim, well, the situation is precarious. These mutineers are not numerous, but they are determined. And I have not the capacity to deal with them here. In Lutace, they’d be jailed, or I’d duel the damned rogues. But we are suffering already. I can’t afford to lose any more Pursuivants, not if we want to take the Ystarans to safety. Alive.”
“I understand,” Dorotea intoned. “You are bound by forces beyond your control, but also within it - duty, morality. I am beginning to suspect that an angel’s scope works much the same.”
Rochefort nodded. As good a way to put it as any. “There will be a challenge. A duel, likely. If no duel, I will start one.”
Dorotea leaned closer and spoke into Rochefort’s shoulder. “There’s another one. Pride,” she hummed.
“Yes,” she replied after a pause, considering. “Yes, my pride, my authority, my duty...everything I have is at stake. I will not take it without some steel in my hand. And, if circumstances were different, I would assure you that my victory in such a duel would be a practical certainty. As it is, I am injured. My sword-arm. I can fight better than most with my left, but...”
“You won’t take a champion, to duel on your behalf.”
“No,” Rochefort said heavily. “I cannot. I will not. It will be me, or I do not deserve my Captaincy at all. So. I wished that you should know of the danger. The risk I face. I don’t know where I will be...if I shall be, tomorrow. You deserve to know.”
Dorotea gave her a tight-lipped smile. “I appreciate that it is my advice that led to this, somewhat, to help the Ystarans - “
“No. My Pursuivants are my own responsibility. I made the decision, and I thank you for assisting me in making the correct one.”
Dorotea shifted so that her forearm lay flat across Rochefort’s, and curled her fingers around Rochefort’s wrist. Those fingers were cold against her pulse-point; Rochefort had given her gloves to an elderly Ystaran.
They proceeded down the track in silence. Rochefort steered them both away from others who passed, keeping them out of earshot though she did not speak. She took advantage of Dorotea misstepping slightly, losing her balance, to pull her closer. To an observer, she was merely assisting the young scholar with a particularly perilous section of mountain track.
“I want to tell you about my childhood.” She hadn’t planned on saying that, but suddenly there it was, out in the air and out of her control.
Rochefort took a slow breath and continued.
“It is popular knowledge that Her Eminence recruited me from my jail cell. Riversedge, a year, for theft and public disruption. But few know the full story.”
She could feel Dorotea squinting at her but kept her own gaze on the uneven track ahead.
“I was twelve. Riversedge is as damp and dull as you might imagine, but moreso it was boring. I spent my days pacing my cell. Visiting times were few and far between, but I had no one to visit me. Nor to write letters. I fell in with the priests and other devotees who often came, not just to pray with us but sometimes merely to talk. I never spoke much, at that age, but I would sit and listen to their talk of angels and the heavens and the great Cardinal who kept all of Sarance pointing due north.”
She paused to gather her thoughts again. This was necessary, as she had not told this story often.
“Now, I had heard and seen little of angels before Riversedge and the visitors from the temple. Very few people have icons in the streets to the south of the river, and even fewer know how to use them. I was a step above a Refuser, and that was a step I exploited all that I could. For every meal I found or warm bed I slept in meant a meal or bed forgone for another child on the streets of Sarance, so if I had to fight a Refuser to get my only scrap of food that week then I would do so and I would do so gladly, fiercely…”
Rochefort felt she should be embarrassed telling Dorotea this, but she did not. Her thoughts were sinking in cold stone, gritty bread, the sting of scabbed knees and knuckles.
A question from Dorotea brought her back to the surface. “Why are you telling me this?”
Rochefort glanced at her quickly, then back to her feet. “I feel you must know me.”
“Do you know me?” Rochefort looked back to catch Dorotea’s musing smile. “I am not sure this is a fair trade.”
“You did tell me of your family once before. I feel I know a great deal about you, Dorotea, though I am sure some of the things I think I know may be proven wrong and I do not know you well enough as I would like, which is completely.”
Rochefort wasn’t sure where that statement had come from, but it came and it went and she knew it was true. It was difficult to read Dorotea’s expression, so she continued.
“As I said, I knew little of angels. I’d seen a handful of summonings in my lifetime, but of Cherubim at the greatest. The visiting priests were forbidden from using icons within the prison walls. There was one day, though, that a riot broke out. Riots weren't uncommon, but on this day there were visitors from the temple. I was with them, listening and praying...and when the bells rang out one of them summoned Ezethiam to lock and bar the doors to the small chapel. A Throne, you know, and likely overkill for the appointed task but Ezethiam nonetheless came from on high. And Ezethiam came in…in a burst of light so bright and golden that my eyes burned after months within the dim, dank walls of Riversedge…I believe I shouted, or ran, or had some physical response to the sight of the angel, so terrifyingly alien to me, spinning concentric golden rings and the afterimage of great wings, right before my eyes…”
The memory rose in her, vivid, a catch in Rochefort’s throat. She continued, “The priests noticed, of course. I knew nothing of angels, and less of heresy. In my awe and fear I told them just what I saw, so unlike the few lesser angels I had encountered before. They had half a mind to drag me back to the courts and triple my sentence. I was dragged from my cell the next day, I was certain to the gallows, but instead found myself before Her Eminence. That is what I remember most. Kneeling before the Cardinal, her authority, her wisdom. I was judged worthy and I joined the ranks of her Pursuivants. I am more grateful for Her Eminence’s charity that day than I have been for…little else, before or since.”
“That is quite the origin story,” Dorotea said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about origins, and beginnings, Camille. You are very on theme.”
The tension in Rochefort’s shoulders rolled away as she chuckled and readjusted her grip to spread her fingers along Dorotea’s wrist. “I am glad.”
Dorotea was silent for a moment, until she stopped, Rochefort stopping too.
“Thank you,” Dorotea said, gaze piercing, as she rested her hand on Rochefort’s side, likely in lieu of her broken arm.
Rochefort wasn’t sure what to say, but she let herself be pulled into an embrace that made the wire around her throat fall away. Rochefort could only allow her own indulgence to last a short moment, after which she pulled away and began walking again.
“I am sorry,” she murmured as they walked. Her hands, ungloved, felt cold and limp and useless, hanging in the air. “I daresay my...attachment to you has not escaped notice, but I cannot risk anything in the current situation. Anyone.”
Dorotea nodded, and Rochefort knew she understood.
A rousing cheer went up among the troop as they rounded the last ridge and saw a bustling camp of yellow and red at the base of the slope, just over the river border into Sarance. Rochefort herself felt a strained wash of relief. The troop were truly on their last legs and even Rochefort had begun to doubt whether the expedition would be waiting for them. Her Pursuivants had been quiet, and Rochefort could only be grateful for everything her senior officers had done to quell the suspected mutiny.
At this moment, Rochefort wanted little more than to share a drink and some companionable silence with Dartagnan. First, there was the wade through the shallow yet strong river. Rochefort took several trips across and back again. Even with one arm out of action, she was needed to help the more severely wounded.
Dartagnan met the wrung-out troop on the Sarancian riverbank.
“Ho, Dartagnan,” Rochefort doffed her hat—a slightly too large number with a great white feather, borrowed from a Pursuivant in place of her own which had been lost upon the mountain.
“Ho, indeed,” Dartagnan held out one calloused hand. Rochefort took it and shook, then – to her surprise – found herself pulled into a rough embrace.
Stepping back, Dartagnan smiled. “Oh, Camille. I maintain my Musketeers would have got the job done well enough.”
Dartagnan had only ever addressed her as Rochefort. “If all your Musketeers are anything like those four,” she gestured behind her and to the right, where the four friends stood, “I would have to believe you on that count.”
Doctors were promptly found and set upon the wounded, sick, and frostbitten. To Rochefort’s luck, Dartagnan procured Doctor MacNeel to heal her injured arm, for the “best the Musketeers can provide”. MacNeel had already treated Rochefort on the journey down, and soon had her in the Musketeer medical tent, readying several icons for use.
“Not Gwethiniel,” Rochefort heard herself say, as MacNeel reached for a large icon depicting a Virtue. “Nothing more powerful than a Cherubim.”
“Ser, there’s considerable risk of infection, and those puncture wounds will make for painful scars.” MacNeel did not appear to bear the same grudge against her that his friend Descaray did, but was nonetheless wary as most anyone was around Rochefort.
“Then it will scar. I’ll heal as naturally as I may. And...my comfort is not worth months of your young life. Believe you me.” Rochefort believed it herself, she just hoped he wouldn’t feel touched by the sentiment.
He wasn’t. MacNeel simply nodded and spent another minute mulling over the selection of icons. He picked Pedriuth, a Cherubim whose strangely beautiful old eyes gazed out from a small icon ring, and whose scope was bone.
As the doctor readied the summoning, Rochefort felt strangely compelled to say something. It was an unnatural feeling.
“MacNeel, I will be commending you to the Cardinal and Queen directly. Your service to this expedition, and to my Pursuivants in particular, has been invaluable. I expect you will be duly rewarded.”
“Thank you, ser. My parents will be pleased beyond measure to hear it,” MacNeel hesitated, holding the icon before him, as yet unsummoned. “If...I may ask...”
“Yes, you have earned that privilege.” Rochefort did have an odd liking for the man. It was his sheer competence at his chosen profession, she thought, and the clear and discerning head atop those broad shoulders.
“Dorotea—forgive me, I would not comment on such matters if Agnez hadn’t challenged me at gunpoint to do so—Dorotea seems...good to you. Ser. Good for you. I hope you will be the same, for her, but right now I am not sure.”
Rochefort shrugged her good shoulder. “Did you have a question?”
“More of a comment, to be honest.”
“Fair enough. Now please, Pedriuth waits. The sooner this is done, the sooner I may ponder your question.”
The heavenly harps, warm breeze, and golden glow were more welcome than they’d ever been. She let herself sigh as the angel brushed against her skin. The bones knitted, the pain faded to a numb ache. The puncture wounds remained, though they had already been starting to scab.
The angelic touch disappeared, and MacNeel carefully set the icons back in place. He re-wrapped her dressings and advised her to refrain from exerting her arm for at least a further week.
Rochefort stood to go. “By way of a preliminary answer to your question, Doctor: I only try. I’m well aware it isn’t enough for the likes of her,” she said, bowing her head before turning out into the sunlight.
Rochefort suspected she was drunk.
Dartagnan pressed another cup of wine into Rochefort’s hand. “Take it,” she said. She seemed overly amused. “You’ve earned this night.” Dartagnan turned back to the Musketeer seated to her left, chuckling mightily.
Rochefort took a sip. A more delicious wine she’d never tasted, for this blend was flavoured with a rush of melancholy at their losses and relief at an impossible mission achieved.
She shifted on the tree stump she shared with Dartagnan, a circle of officers eating and talking and drinking around a roaring fire—Pursuivant, Musketeer, the Refuser leader and two Ystarans. The Ystarans had been nominated to speak on behalf of the ex-beastling folk who were recuperating with the camp before they decided to accompany them to Lutace or make their own way back into Ystara. Some had the chance of finding family, some had a notion to rebuild their nation with the few tools and materials the expedition could spare them. Others merely wanted to go home.
“Captain.” This time for Rochefort. “More wine?” asked Dartagnan’s second, appearing to her right.
Rochefort looked into her cup, somehow already empty. “Yes, thank you, Boulet. I’m off to check the camp’s defences. Please keep an eye on the changes of watch.” She was working on manners.
Rochefort draped her hand briefly on Dartagnan’s broad shoulder before standing. It took slightly more effort to keep steady than she had expected.
The bite of the air did little to sober her as she left the fire in her wake. How many drinks had Dartagnan handed her over the past hour? She took another sip from the cup, which threatened to spill.
There was the North-East watch, just beyond the line of canvas tents. She circled the camp, nodding at those she passed, mostly King’s Guards. As she walked, she struggled to remember why she had set on this path. Why had she left the fire, the warmth, the wine and the company? She was rounding the site, cutting through a sparsely tented area dotted by gnarled trees, when Rochefort’s boot caught on something, a root, a rope? She lurched forward, the world tilting more than expected, only just catching herself on a tree branch.
“How kind of you to join me, Rochefort,” came a voice from below.
Rochefort straightened, realised she’d been looking ahead and not watching her marginally-less-coordinated-than-usual feet. Dorotea was sitting cross-legged against the tree, in utter darkness.
“I was looking for you,” Rochefort said, and in saying so realised that was in fact what she had been doing.
“And I, you,” Dorotea smiled.
“What, here? Like an ambush in shadow?” Rochefort dropped to a crouch, hoped that would make her head stop spinning.
“Mmm. Yes. We have much to talk about.”
Rochefort sighed. Liliath. Palleniel. The angels. The Ystarans, the Refusers. The Cardinal, the Queen, Musketeers and Pursuivants. The quick jolt to Rochefort’s heart when Dorotea rested a hand upon Rochefort’s knee. Much to talk about. She was both much too intoxicated and not nearly drunk enough.
Dorotea patted the packed earth beside her. Rochefort uncurled herself to sit heavily against the tree.
“When did you last rest?” Dorotea asked.
“I’m resting now.”
“You’re drunk now.”
Dorotea ‘mmm’ed again. “I was thinking about magic.”
Rochefort closed her eyes.
“About angelic magic,” Dorotea continued. “I’ve never really thought about it before, my abilities are merely tools…They allow me to do what I love most, to know angels, to create icons. But I was thinking about what we see, the angels’ physical forms, or some echo of them, and angels within people. It seems to me...angels and humans are not so different at all.”
Rochefort cracked an eye. “I thought you an angel, when first I saw the glow inside you.”
Dorotea rolled her eyes at at Rochefort’s inebriated state. Rochefort shut her eyes again and knocked her head back against the tree trunk.
“You will tell the Cardinal, won’t you?” Dorotea’s hand clutched Rochefort’s bicep. “All the truth? You’ll show her she has nothing to fear from the Refusers, or Ystarans...or me?”
Rochefort heard a sigh. It must have come from her.
After a minute of mangled thought, she grumbled, “I will. As always, you see the truth clearly, and I will do my best to make the Cardinal see the same.”
There was a pause, and then Rochefort spoke again, without consciously willing it.
“Command, you know, takes a lot from a person. More than years from my life and youth from my skin. What you said, about the Cardinal and myself mirroring summoner and angel...it wasn’t so far from the truth.”
Dorotea’s hand smoothed against Rochefort’s elbow. Rochefort found herself damning Dartagnan and her liking for strong berry wine. She watched through heavy eyelids as Dorotea drew out a book, match and candle from the folds of her robe, dug the candle into the dirt, lit it, and held the book reverently up to the light.
A sudden exhaustion had set into Rochefort’s heavy limbs. It really had been...days, weeks since she’d slept through the night. Not since well before the expedition first set foot in Ystara. This kind of talk, discussion which concerned the very basis of Sarancian religion, required a careful navigation that took the last reserves of her waking energy even in sobriety. She thought of Vautier, Dubois, Sylvestre, Adelida, Jacquinot, of forty-three lost Pursuivants in her care, of two hundred Ystarans dead before they could reach the Sarancian border.
“Read to me,” she murmured. Her head felt so heavy, seemingly magnetised to fall against Dorotea’s shoulder. Her vision swam slightly as the world tilted yet again.
Dorotea began without hesitation, her voice light and melodic, “Galael, one of Ystara’s nine principalities, is typically depicted as a woman of uncertain age. Older icons, particularly those from the time of Cardinal Caillat, paint her with a sceptre and a golden crown. More modern depictions have replaced the sceptre with a wand and the crown with a bright glow upon her brow.”
Dorotea shifted, drawing the thick blanket on her lap around Rochefort’s shoulders. She took a breath and continued.
“Galael’s scope is uncertain, but she is most often summoned to orchestrate the generation of heat, light, and sound. It has been reported that King Hugo II once called on Galael to bring a great wave to destroy a horde of Menorcan ships in the Lencia harbour. Alchemist Farimh, of Cadenz University, has hypothesised that Galael’s scope is the shape and frequency of waves, and thus speculated that heat, light, and sound move through the air in peaks and troughs imperceptible to the human eye…”
Rochefort imagined waves rocking her up, down, high, low, and was overcome by a swell of dizziness. She fumbled in the dark, tracing Dorotea’s hand on her arm, finding Dorotea’s shoulder, her neck. Some force pulled her forehead down to rest in that dip beside collarbone. Her limbs were so heavy, she wished the world to stop moving…She felt but the vibration of Dorotea’s recitation, could not concentrate on the words…She hoped the diligent scholar wasn’t bothered by the hot wine on her breath or the tight grip of Rochefort’s good hand around the crook of her elbow…
Surely it was only a few minutes later that she jolted awake, legs kicking, throwing a thick weight from her shoulders and reaching instinctively for the dagger in her boot - But her head knocked against something soft, something which gave a muffled “mph”. It was Dorotea, still sitting against the tree with the book in her lap. She re-adjusted the woollen blanket Rochefort had thrown off.
It was still dark, too, aside from a hint of dusky grey growing in the east. She’d slept for…it must have been six hours at the least. When had she last slept soundly for more than an hour at a time?
Rochefort savoured the heaviness in her limbs, the slight kink in her back that signalled a night’s deep rest. Then shame came to bite at her. A ranked officer, falling into a drunken sleep in a woman’s lap like a common King’s Guard? Forbid the Cardinal hear she’d shirked her duties and risked her person in such a manner. With reluctance, she gathered herself, stretched, and stood, locating her hat and righting her uniform.
“Was my reading that bad? And, good morning,” Dorotea said, clearly amused.
Rochefort could not but return her smile. “Certainly not. I’ve not slept that well in weeks. Did you read, the whole night?”
“I had to finish the chapter. And the next one. Well, the whole book…Not to worry, Rochefort, I’ll sleep some today on my horse.”
Rochefort pondered the growing clarity of Dorotea’s features in the dawn. “Be sure you do. I mean to say, I hope you rest. You are not a mere scholar on this expedition. The needs of the body, not just the mind, must be sated…” Rochefort trailed off, heading off the natural extension of that thought at the outset....and realised something strange about what Dorotea had just said.
“I like when you call me Camille,” she said, her brow furrowing. It was the sleep, the remnants of drink, talking.
How did Dorotea’s smile do that, grow wider and wider, brighter and brighter? “Camille. So do I.” With that, Dorotea seemed to dismiss her. The scholar retrieved yet another fraying tome from her robe and set to squinting at its pages in the fuzzy light.
Dorotea looked up again after a minute. “Not that I spurn your company, but do you not have duties? Captainly things to attend to?”
“I am…hoping my stomach might settle before I am forced to move.”
Dorotea hummed, and fingered a small icon pinned to her lapel. “Dramhiel. Would you prefer a full hangover, or just the headache?”
Rochefort took the headache. She made her appearance in the command test, newly cleansed by Dramhiel, and having donned clean and pressed clothes that didn’t waft of fire smoke or alcohol. The expedition was a cacophony of sound and movement as it gathered for another day on the road.
Dartagnan raised a sharp eyebrow as Rochefort ducked in to survey the map of their journey home. “Sleep well?” she asked, gruffly.
Rochefort pursed her lips. “Indeed.” She paused, lifted her chin to meet Dartagnan’s knowing, mirthful look. “I’ll pretend my pounding head is the consequence of a battle injury, shall I?”
Dartagnan chuckled, slapping Rochefort’s shoulder roughly. “’Twas I who plied you with drinks. There’s nothing quite like wine and a woman to close off a hard-earned victory, Rochefort. I’ll meet you on the road.”
Raised voices through the walls of her tent prompted Rochefort to put down her meal — a mere hunk of sourdough, though glistening with fresh honey. The expedition had failed to hunt enough meat to fed themselves this night, but the traders they met on the road had proven enough to replenish their food stores. She unbuckled her pistol, loosened her sword in its sheath.
“Barroult?” she called through the tent flap. The young Pursuivant lacked the late Dubois’ awareness and experience, but he’d needed the discipline of a place in Rochefort’s personal watch. Enemies close.
She nodded at Derambouillet, who stepped out of the tent before Rochefort.
“Rochefort,” said Dorotea, firmly. “I did tell you she expected me.” Barroult had Dorotea tightly by the arm and stood to attention, but did not let go, when Rochefort set her sights on them.
“Captain, ser,” he said snappily, “I have stopped this…this heretic from infiltrating your tent. I shall escort her back to the Musketeer encampment promptly.”
Easy, familiar rage rose in Rochefort, her jaw clenched, muscles suddenly tense. Derambouillet beat her to it. “Pursuivant Barroult. Scholar Imsel has right of admittance. Release her at once.”
Barroult stepped forward, dragged Dorotea with him. Rochefort’s hands might have shaken if they were not clenched on the hilt of her sword and the butt of a pistol, itching to draw. “With respect, Captain, Lieutenant; Scholar Imsel was overheard blaspheming the archangel Ashalael and with it the Cardinal’s authority.”
“The Rector at the Belhalle will not take kindly to the censorship of her scholars,” Dorotea commented mildly.
“Overheard? By whom?” Rochefort forcefully injected her question with steel.
“By our own Pursuivants, ser.”
“And they report to you, do they? Names?”
“I…do not believe it wise to share their names, Captain, for the good of the troop and the Cardinal’s service…”
“If it is only you I may duel, then so be it.” Rochefort drew her sword, its clear ring settling in her chest.
“The laws forbid—“
“You arrest a young, unarmed scholar who calls upon your Captain, and you hide behind laws, Barroult? Not to mention your earlier dissidence. I expect better of my Pursuivants.”
Derambouillet stepped aside, bowing to Dorotea who allowed herself to be led to a safe distance. “I am well, Camille,” she said to Rochefort as she passed. “I know what your pride demands, but pray don’t go to such lengths on my account.”
Rochefort merely nodded, shifting her weight into a duelling stance. It was hard to look at Dorotea when her vision swam red.
Barroult had his sword drawn, and called, “You are reckless, Captain, and spurning the will of the Cardinal. We lost five Pursuivants down the pass. They would have lived, should have lived, if we had taken the course for which I urged. I regret it must come to this. There are more civilised ways of settling disputes, in accordance with temple decree.”
But as Rochefort suspected, the man’s bearing did not suggest regret. The square of his shoulders showed only the arrogance of one who believed he had little to lose and everything to gain.
Rochefort would show him wrong.
She answered her opponent’s deep bow with a sharp dip of the chin, and barely waited for him to straighten before she struck. Barroult blocked the blow, and the next two slashes which she aimed in quick succession. She skipped forward in a ferocious dance. Within moments, she’d pushed him back several steps, and he hadn’t launched a single attack.
Rochefort was dimly aware of Dorotea and Derambouillet observing out of sword-reach, and of a small crowd gathering to watch. Rochefort’s duels were favoured entertainment among the people of Lutace. Some ran to the fight as soon as the first metallic screech cut through the camp. Coins changed hands.
Rochefort’s arm twinged painfully, not quite healed, and she overreached on her next blow. She was forced to take a direct hit at the crossguard. Her opponent was shorter, but muscled, and Rochefort was almost caught off balance as he pressed their locked blades tight between their bodies. He had some skill, considerable strength, and confidence rarely matched by any participant in Rochefort’s past duels.
But Rochefort was not only rage and bitterness, she was also the most capable duellist in all Lutace. In a practiced twist of the wrist, she reversed the balance of leverage. It took only one more quick wrench to disarm her opponent, then raise her blade to rest at the base of his throat.
Silence fell, interrupted only by a few gasps and one whistle from the observing crowd. They waited for the killing strike.
“Do I have your apology?” Rochefort asked quietly.
Barroult either could not, or would not, respond.
“Do I have your apology,” she repeated, louder. “for Scholar Imsel?”
Barroult stepped back from her sword-point, but Rochefort followed with the blade flat beneath his chin. He swallowed. “I beg your pardon, Scholar Imsel.” He knew he was done, teeth grinding. “And yours, my Captain.”
“Your Captain no longer.” Rochefort breathed slowly, clenching a fist. The eager crowd would not see the blood they awaited. “You will hand over your sword, pistol, and tabard. You will find Lieutenant Appell of the Watch. You will tell him the Pursuivant-Captain ordered you to take the currently vacant position of second lieutenant in his platoon, but you are not to take up arms ever again. You will study chivalry and strategy under Lieutenant Appell. You will be an administrator. When we return to Lutace, I will have a writ issued to enshrine this arrangement in your beloved law.”
For good measure, she whipped the tip of her sword across the man’s cheek. “You will let that scar, and you will not forget the cost of your arrogance.”
She sheathed her sword and turned her back on him. Derambouillet would ensure the City Watch’s new second lieutenant did what he was ordered. The crowd slowly and reluctantly dispersed, some disappointment evident. Rochefort kept her chin high - she would not let it fall until she was alone in her tent, or near as.
“You let him live,” Dorotea said, ducking through the tent opening which Rochefort held open. “He must be angry.”
“Yes, well. I’d fear genuine mutiny for killing one of my already dwindling Pursuivants on this expedition.” Rochefort drew out a chair for Dorotea, and herself sat on the other side of the flimsy table. “In any case, he wasn’t entirely wrong. It was your conviction that held me to my decision to aid the Ystarans into Sarance. I am now certain that was the correct one.”
For a moment they stared at each other. Rochefort was painfully reminded of their last interaction in this tent.
“Have you ever thought about retirement?” Dorotea asked, expression unreadable as it tended to be.
“Retirement?” The scoff came unbidden. The question surprised her. “I have a duty to the state. I am a mere twenty-seven years. The Cardinal expects a long term of service, barring death or incapacitation…”
Dorotea’s hands slid across the table to encase Rochefort’s own. Rochefort looked at them, small dark hands against her bruised, calloused skin. Dorotea’s eyes twinkled, eyebrow raised in suggestion, flirtation. “It’s of no mind, really, I just wondered…who might you be when not the Pursuivant-Captain?”
Rochefort felt her mouth harden as her stomach dropped. She had a Cardinal to serve, a state to protect…she’d damned herself and jeopardised her duty the moment she’d knocked on the door of Dorotea’s cell with wine to share…
Dorotea patted her hands, like a mother might when indulging a small child, and moved the conversation on to other things. What she was learning from the Ystaran texts, from speaking with the Ystarans. Rochefort offered bread and honey and watered-down wine. They wet their throats and filled their stomachs and spoke of the great picture of angels and icons and power, and Rochefort almost forgot the creeping anxiety in her gut.
When Dorotea finally rose to leave — the night was already short — Rochefort stood with her to bid farewell, spurs and scabbard jangling. She caught Dorotea’s hand, pressed her lips to skin and thought of other things.
Dorotea stepped closer and gripped Rochefort’s hand. “Good night, Camille.”
Rochefort opened her mouth to respond in turn. To her shock, but not surprise, her farewell was halted by a warm mouth, sugared with honey, atop her own. Dorotea raised onto her tiptoes, buried a firm hand in Rochefort’s hair, soft body pressed against her. Rochefort’s hands settled on Dorotea’s waist, her stomach settled somewhere near her feet. She barely halted a choked sound in her throat when Dorotea abruptly stepped away.
It took less than a second to regain her senses, and Dorotea was gone.
Rochefort manoeuvred around a rowdy, drunken group in the inn’s narrow hallway and stopped to knock upon the next room’s door. It was answered by the doctor, MacNeel. She nodded at him, he tipped his hat.
“Where is Dorotea?”
“She just went to barter some paints and parchment from some traders downstairs. She’ll be back in a moment.”
Rochefort nodded, and turned to leave.
“Please, ser. Dorotea’ll only be a moment. Sit, we have wine,” MacNeel implored. Descaray, lounging on a bed at the back of the room, shot him a fierce look which, ignored by the doctor, fell onto Rochefort.
Rochefort shook her head, but settled to stand awkwardly just inside the doorway, and accepted the offered cup from Dupallidin.
“That’s the last of the good wine,” Descaray lamented, “there are limits to Bascon hospitality, you know.”
“Not if your guest has the authority to grant you an officered position in the Loyal Royal Artillery Company, with accompanying monthly salary and stipend,” quipped the clerk.
“Not that I’m expecting any such generosity,” Dupallidin hastened to add. “The privilege to host the Cardinal’s right hand in our humble quarters,” he gestured around the cramped room, “is more than enough.”
Rochefort raised an eyebrow, pointedly sipping the wine. “As it is for any good servant of the Cardinal, I’m sure.” Descaray looked like she couldn’t decide whether to be furious at MacNeel, Dupallidin, or Rochefort.
“Actually, we Musketeers, along with the good citizens of Sarance, serve the Queen, first and foremost —“
Dupallidin cut across Descaray’s protest, “That wine was paid for by my salary in the service of the Cardinal—“
“Must we have this argument…” MacNeel sighed, and the three of them fell into amiable bickering. Rochefort leaned back against the doorframe, still vaguely wishing she had refused that initial offer of hospitality, and wondered at the easy way the friends traded jests and insults. It felt comfortable, familiar, though Rochefort wasn’t even party to the comradely banter. Rochefort couldn’t recall the last time her disputes ended with good-spirited verbal barbs instead of duelling blows.
The door opened. Rochefort straightened, dusted herself off, and tipped her hat to Dorotea. “Good evening.”
“Hello, Camille.” Dorotea bowed slightly. “Where are we off to?”
“I have a room in Soulliere’s,” Rochefort ignored a low whistle from Descaray, “and a table set for tea. I would be pleased if you joined me, should you care to do so.”
Dorotea nodded. “Of course. Henri has done well to find us this room, but I could not turn down a hot meal if it is on offer. This inn has only bread and cheese to serve tonight.”
“It is my pleasure, then.” Rochefort offered her an arm, which Dorotea took after gathering up her shoulder bag in which she tucked several rolls of new parchment.
“Soulliere's?” Dupallidin called. “They brew the best whiskey in all of Sarance! Supposedly. Bring back a bottle for us tonight, will you?”
“I don’t believe I will be back tonight, Henri. You may take my bed instead of the armchair.”
The room went deadly silent. Rochefort looked at the ceiling and wondered how it felt to faint, for she had not fainted before but was certain she might imminently do so.
Dorotea frowned. “Honestly. I merely mean that I slept all day on the road. I have more books from the Temple to study tonight, and don’t wish to bother you with my light. I’m sure any upstanding establishment which houses senior officers of the state and brews the best Sarancian whiskey would have a library or study in which I may work.”
Rochefort nodded to confirm this possibility. The three Musketeers nodded vigorously, with mutterings of “of course” and “yes, I’d thought as much” and other enthusiastic noises of assent.
Rochefort led the way out of the room and through the inn’s halls, which were busy with patrons both local and of the Ystaran expedition. Catching Dorotea’s bemused expression in the corner of her eye, Rochefort murmured, “Dorotea, I must ensure you are aware that I, as an officer of the Cardinal, do have somewhat of a reputation. Standards to uphold for the temple, and for the benefit of the Pursuivants I lead. I cannot have…whispers…over which I lack any control.”
“I know.” Dorotea nodded to herself, apparently satisfied of something.
“As I told you before, I tend towards taking people easily to bed…” Dorotea trailed off as they passed the threshold into the open air, catching her eye on the few stars just visible in the welling night. Likely searching for the new star risen in the east, brighter than bright, on the first night after Palleniath had been birthed. “…But you, as we both know, do not.”
“Charming,” Dorotea said. “Alas, I was looking forward to some more involved conversation over dinner. I should hope the monosyllabic responses cease or I may be forced to find another companion for the night…”
Rochefort pretended to ponder a considered response. “Hm,” she said, eloquently.
Dorotea laughed, and the sound rang through the night like the peal of church bells.
A messenger reached the Expedition the next day, looking messy and unslept and generally harangued. His horse was almost frothing at the mouth. As soon as Rochefort spotted his approach, kicking up clouds of dust in his haste, she steeled herself for news that was bound to be bad.
Rochefort took the messenger aside in a circle of her highest officers. He delivered his message.
“Her Eminence is dead.”
A few of her Pursuivants gasped and put hands to their hearts. Rochefort merely nodded. She had felt the great weight of the kingdom hanging threateningly since the Cardinal's health had begun to deteriorate, and now it crashed upon her shoulders.
The Cardinal was dead.
“Thank you for being swift,” she said. There was nothing for it, nothing but to get on. “I believe that, in lieu of the Queen choosing her successor as Chief Minister and the temple appointing the next Cardinal, it is I who will occupy both these positions in the interim. Has the Queen confirmed this arrangement?”
“Yes, ser. Er, Your Eminence.”
Her Pursuivants removed their hats, saluted and bowed where they stood. Rochefort sent one to spread the word throughout the expedition, and by the time they reached the next field to camp for the night every officer, cadet and Ystaran had heard the news.
An entire troop of mounted messengers reached the expedition in the evening. Rochefort accordingly spent the bulk of the night being caught up on matters of state. She barely broached the depths of the issue of the Ystaran refugees and the practicalities of an appropriate policy response, but even that one matter occupied hours of discussion. The moon was high, and the night just past its stillest hour, when the crowd of messengers and officers and advisers finally filed out of the command tent.
Alone – or as alone as she could ever get, being now the second-highest authority in all of Sarance and thus trailed by a squad of Pursuivants at all times – Rochefort retreated to her own tent, thinking of her bed and how little time she was going to be able to spend in it.
In the silence and stillness in the walk across the encampment, darker thoughts arose. She’d kept them at bay all day, there was too much to be done for her to consider thinking or feeling, but now they hooked in their claws.
What was awaiting her in Lutace? A Queen spurned by the betrayal of yet another favourite, and mourning the loss of her right-hand woman? A nation in flux with the revelation that the Refusers could no longer rightly be treated as second-class citizens? A church whose doctrines were now hopelessly inverted and upended? And the archangel Ashalael, to take more years from her life and possibly send her to her grave.
Cardinal Duplessis had not always been correct in her beliefs or directions. Rochefort saw that more and more. But she would almost certainly have succeeded in holding the state together at this turning point, whereas Rochefort could only do her base duty and exercise her judgement and hope she was enough.
She quickened her pace, thinking of blessed sleep, and coughed to clear the choking feeling in her throat. It might have been grief, though she had refrained from dwelling on such things until this moment. The Cardinal was dead…the woman who had lifted her from prison and abject poverty. The woman who gave her steel in her hand and angelic power at her breast. The woman Rochefort pledged to protect and serve until her dying breath…the grief in Rochefort's throat was tinged with failure in her chest and something like anger on her tongue…
Rochefort’s thoughts halted. There was a light glowing inside her tent.
“Scholar Imsel, Your Eminence,” said Derambouillet, standing by the tent flap. “She insisted on waiting for you. I hope you don’t mind that I allowed her to wait inside rather than out in the cold.”
“No. No, thank you.” Your Eminence. She’d been answering to that form of address all day, but this time it made her inexplicably angry. She swallowed the irritation sticking to her throat, with some difficulty, and ducked inside the tent.
Dorotea, seated on the bed, stood up and gave an awkward wave.
“Dorotea. It is late.”
“It is. But I’ve become somewhat nocturnal. It’s much easier to sleep on a horse than to read and write on one, so I’ve been devoting the nights to study. I’ve barely made a dent in all those books, but even the few I’ve read…the implications of this knowledge are more radical than I ever thought. I’d like to discuss it with you, another time…”
“Yes. I must get back to it, but…” Dorotea took something small from the pocket of her tabard. “This is for you.”
Rochefort took the object, which was soft leather but also promised hard edges and a flat surface. She did not look at it. She was too busy thinking of something to say, thinking of what she had to say. An apology? A plea for forgiveness? Something.
Cardinal Duplessis’ sudden onset of illness and subsequent passing had all happened too quickly, in the absence of an organised successor. With Sarance and the heavens in such turmoil, Rochefort knew that it would be a long while before another was found – if it all. But before this news, Rochefort had started to hope for…something. She was never sure what, exactly, but even the hoping was dangerous.
Here she was, bearing the consequences, bearing the weight of a kingdom that would surely age and kill her well before her time. In a few short days they would be in Sarance, Dorotea to her studies and her icons and Rochefort to the burden of a duty that would allow her no distraction, no diversion. Nothing that might make her think twice before doing the necessary thing for Sarance.
Rochefort said nothing. The sad way that Dorotea looked back at her seemed to suggest that she already understood. She lifted a hand, it seemed to reach for Rochefort, but lowered it just as quickly.
“Goodnight, Camille,” she said, and then was gone.
Rochefort sat heavily on the bed. The object Dorotea had given her was wrapped in dark red leather which turned out to be a new pair of gloves, a replacement for the pair she'd given away.
Nestled inside the gloves was a small icon carved from a soft wood, backed by a pin to be fastened to a hat or lapel. No, not an icon. It was hand-painted, in the style of an icon-maker, with the smallest brushes and the best paints, but the image was not that of an angel.
It was a picture of Rochefort, though she hardly recognised herself. It bore little resemblance to the woman she saw in the mirror. This woman had her dark hair, her dark eyes, her height. But she wore no hat, no golden sash, no icons, and no pistols at her waist. Merely a loose shirt and breeches and a naked sword. She looked young. A slight smile lifted the woman’s face as she looked at up at the sky which formed the background to the painting – deep blue and dotted with stars. Had Rochefort ever worn that expression? She couldn’t recall and thought not.
The wood cracked loudly, and she realised how tightly she’d been clenching the small gift. It was both a promise, she knew, and a peace offering – the gloves said something, but the painted icon said something else.
Rochefort wrapped the icon back inside the gloves and set them underneath her mattress. Despite her exhaustion, she stared at the black and sleep did not come. The tent felt cold, somehow, vast and empty. After hours, or perhaps minutes, she retrieved the gloves and slid them on; they fit well, but now her hands felt almost too warm. Rochefort wound herself tight.
The Cardinal was dead.
Long live the Cardinal, thought Rochefort.