Members of the other delegations stood up, and began speaking to their people in what I presumed were their native languages. Sir Hagan did the same. “All right. There’s plenty to do, and only an hour to do it in.”
“What’s happening?” Sir Lloyd asked him. “Is the meeting over? Do we have marching orders?”
“Not exactly,” Sir Hagan said. “We’re apparently to witness some new product of Euphentine philosophy, something to do with Fae magic. I’m not clear on the specifics, and I don’t think General Byrne or the others are either.” He began walking toward the door, and we all got up and fell in behind him. “Regardless, there’s work to be done in the mean time.”
We rounded the corner into the curved hallway. Sir Hagan’s voice dropped into a quick, firm staccato as he started handing out assignments; it was a voice I was much more accustomed to hearing than his more conversational tone. “Lloyd,” He said, not breaking his stride or turning back, “their quartermaster will supply us with anything he has on hand, and he’ll know where to get what he doesn’t have already if there’s something else we need. He’s camped south of here, look for a round shield with a man strangling a snake on it, done in gold and blue.”
“I’m sure I can find it,” Sir Lloyd said, “we know our own.”
“Good. Bliss, they’ve set aside a room for me in this building. I need you to get my desk and bring it back here, bring the papers from am Bathe’s pack as well but not the ones from your own.”
Sir Bliss sniffed. “Think someone’s going to go snooping?”
“I hope they won’t, but they don’t need to know any of the details about the situation at home if they do.”
We reached the fork in the curved hallway that lead back to the door outside. “Am Bathe, Mason, you’re headed back to camp with me. I’ll address the men, and then I need you to split them into groups of ten and send them to the tent just north of here to be…” he paused for a moment, “…seeded, I suppose would be the word for it?”
“If it’s the same thing Mason told me about,” Bat said, “‘planted’ was the word he used.”
Sir Hagan stared off into space for a moment, then shrugged. “Either would make sense. Whichever you prefer, I suppose.” He started walking again, toward the door. “General Byrne said that the process can be painful, but seems to be less so if you go in with no expectations, so try to keep those who’ve undergone the process and those who are still waiting separated.”
We passed through the doorway, back into the outside air, and Sir Lloyd and Sir Bliss both broke off from us with a wave from Sir Hagan. Bat frowned, squinting in the early afternoon sunlight. “Difficult to do, if we’re splitting tents to send them in tens.”
“Damn,” Sir Hagan said, “fair. Send eights, then, or ten when you can make the numbers work. Tell them I’ll be the first to go, if you think that’ll steel their resolve.”
“Aye, sir.” Bat cleared his throat. “And, ah, I didn’t really understand any of it, but were you talking to that Lares fellow about the forest spirits?”
Sir Hagan rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Not exactly. Mason can explain it to you on the way back.” He set off in the direction of camp, then stopped after only a couple of paces. “Spirits damn me with an absent mind. No, I guess I’ll explain it to you on the way back, while Mason goes back inside, finds Lares again, and asks him where exactly the Philosopher’s Guild is supposed to be.” He looked at me over his shoulder. “Got it, Mason?”
I jumped a little, and nodded. “Got it, sir,” I responded automatically, even though I’d only just registered that Sir Hagan to me in addition to talking about me.
“Go to it, then, and be quick.” Sir Hagan set off again, at a brisk march.
I shot a panicked look at Bat. He responded by gesturing back toward the building with his head and giving me a reassuring nod. Then he turned to follow Sir Hagan, leaving me standing alone on the dusty path.
I turned back toward the building, and took a deep breath. Going walking into the headquarters of the combined armies of the Concord had been fine when I’d been part of a delegation, with an escort and an expectation that I was supposed to be there. Walking in by myself and poking around until I could find someone to give me directions was an entirely different matter.
Then again, I thought, it wasn’t as if I could make a worse impression than the one I’d already made. I took another deep breath, and stepped back into the doorway.
With the meeting in the central chamber over and most of those who’d been here gone back to their camps, the building was eerily still. Only the sounds of my own footsteps and the occasional rustle of the canvas overhead seemed to break the quiet. I briefly considered just shouting Lares’ name into the open space above the walls, certain everyone still in the building would hear me, but I had no desire to draw more attention to myself than I already had. With no better idea where to start, I began checking doors one by one, hoping to find Lares before I ran into trouble.
Many of the doorways were empty even of doors, just open or curtained archways in the oddly-new brick walls that lead into storage areas or empty rooms. I pressed my palm to one of the marble pillars as I passed, wondering what purpose the building might have originally served, unable to think of anything even to compare it to.
I skipped past a pair of arches with wooden doors in them, doors painted with a white ram’s head that matched the one embroidered into the Escanan delegates’ robes, and approached another that was blocked only by a curtain. Still partially lost in thought about the origins of the building, I reached up to move the curtain aside, but instead of fabric I felt my hand touch warm skin, felt someone else’s hand in mine.
I started, pulling my hand back, and caught a brief glimpse of a set of pale, slender fingers pulling back inside the curtain. From just inside, I heard Irandrya’s voice. “Hello?”
Spirits curse every spirits-cursed piece of my spirits-cursed being. I took two steps backward. “I’m, ah, I’m sorry, miss,” I stammered, my Euphenti suddenly failing me, “I didn’t think- I wasn’t aware that- I was just looking for Lares, and I-”
“It’s all right, young soldier, be calm,” she said, in perfect Tillish. She pulled the curtain aside and looked out at me. Her eyes were golden-colored, and seemed to shine in the dim light. “Lares has an office down that way, the third door on the inside wall. Just before General Byrne’s, with the- oh, never mind, there he is.”
I turned my head to look; Lares had just emerged from the room Irandrya had described, and was looking over at us. I waved to him, and then quickly nodded back to her. “Thank you, miss. Sorry again.” I stepped away, trying to move away as fast as I could without breaking into a run.
“Young soldier, a moment?” she said, raising her voice a little. I stopped. “Could I…” she began, stepping out into the hallway. “I’m sorry to ask, but… your dagger, may I see it?”
I turned back toward her. She stared up at me, her face showing curiosity but also something else. Worry, maybe? “My dagger?”
“Yes. The one you drew at the meeting.” She took a step toward me. “May I look at it, please?”
I paused, unsure how to proceed. I glanced over my shoulder at Lares, who stood watching but made no gesture to either myself or Irandrya. Carefully, I reached down and pulled the blade and its sheath from my belt. I held it out in front of me, cupped between both hands, and she stepped forward and carefully lifted it from my outstretched palms.
The Fae woman turned the knife over slowly, running her fingers along the wood, her eyes studying the inlay. “This belonged to another Fae, a woman,” she said. Not a question, but a statement of fact. Then, after a moment, she asked, “How… how do you come to have it?”
I swallowed. “It is… that is to say…” My throat felt suddenly dry. “Its owner was in the group of those Fae who attacked the capitol of my homeland.”
“The group your men killed.”
“The group we defeated in battle, yes.”
Gently, slowly, she pulled the dagger halfway out of the sheath, looking down at the bronze blade. After a long, silent moment, she spoke again. “She died by your hand?” Her voice sounded tight, quavering.
A beautiful woman in a gold dress, pain and confusion in her green eyes. I swallowed again, wanting desperately to look to Lares for some sign of what I should do, unable to take my eyes from the elf and the blade in her hands. “Yes.”
“I see.” Irandrya’s hands began to tremble. “Was her death quick, or painful?”
Blood boiling from the wound, hands curled in useless agony. “Both, I think,” I said softly.
“I see,” she said again. Her fingers gripped the handle of the dagger tight. For a long moment, a moment that seemed to stretch out forever, I was unsure what she intended to do with the blade, and then she pushed the dagger back into the sheath and pressed the whole thing against my belly, releasing it almost before I could reach forward to take it back. She turned away from me, the rest of her words coming in a torrent. “Sorry-to-have-kept-you-thank-you-for-your-time-good-day.” She walked away, moving quickly back through the curtain, never looking up at me.
I looked from the curtain to the blade in my hands, and back again. After a moment, Lares placed a hand on my arm. “Not the first time, I’m afraid,” he said quietly. “Before Miss Irandrya left the enemy side she was a direct servant of their High Courts, which means she knows many of their commanders and generals personally.” He frowned. “I’m sorry to say it, but one of the reasons General Byrne trusts her as much as he does is that she continues to help us even though we keep killing those she cares about.”
We stood there, side by side in the hallway, for a few moments longer, and then Lares stepped in front of me. “Well,” he said, “I heard you say you were looking for me? What can I do to aid the Tillish delegation?”