Keys clinked in the lock.
The cell door opened.
Kaim looked up from his hands and met the eyes of the guard.
“Get up,” the middle-aged Tixerie said. “They want you on flight duty.” He jerked his hand back, thumb pointed over his shoulder, and stepped to the side of the open door.
So, the mutterings were true. The Empire had broken through and they needed everyone for defense. Even criminals.
Kaim stood up from the bench and stepped out of the small cell. He waited for a moment just outside as the guard removed the shackles binding his wings together and then headed down the hall, past the other cells, mostly empty, to the office at the end where they signed him out and told him where to go.
Half a mark later he was in his own clothes again, meeting up with his assigned unit at the armor facility of the palace workshops. They were all Tixeries. All women. The men had most likely been on the front lines.
The commander recognized him as quickly as he recognized her.
“Immilene,” Kaim said.
“That’s Gar Arisithil to you right now, Del Tavarin.”
The look the tiny woman gave him was cold. He glanced around but didn’t see Lahnria or Miri.
“What idiot put me in your unit?” he asked.
Immilene clenched her fists.
“I asked for you. You know how to fight.” She flipped her blue butterfly wings and settled her hands flat at her sides again. “And you usually know how to take orders. Now shut up and get in line for fitting, del.”
Kaim met her gaze for a long moment, then nodded and got in one of the lines leading toward the fitting stations set up in the workshop. At least fifty other Tixeries and a few other Shinalilts were waiting while crews of engineers fitted them with some kind of new flight armor. A mark passed in which the women chatted quietly and Kaim remained silent, looking at them.
From the faces and the conversations, many had husbands that likely weren’t coming home. Reports had been spotty from the pass as the units there pulled back together in the wake of the breakthrough, but the early casualty estimate was close to forty percent. Fifty among the flyers.
As much as a hundred thousand soldiers, lost in one day.
More since, as the imperial forces loose in Salshira ground toward the capital through militia forces intent on slowing them down.
When he reached the head of the line a pair of bloodshot violet eyes looked up at him.
“Kaim. They sent me your fitting numbers. Still the same?”
“I lost some weight in the hospital.”
Tala nodded and looked him over, then got up and approached with a tape measure.
He raised his arms and she went over him making measurements.
“So, it looks like I was right about what would happen.”
Tala said nothing. What was that twitch in her shoulder?
“Tell me I wasn’t right.”
She shook her head and bit her lip.
“The empire came because of her.”
“Just be quiet,” she whispered. “You’re an idiot. Nanli’s still in the hospital and Ember left on her own.”
“Just shut up!”
Kaim jerked back as Tala yelled. When the echoes faded he realized that the room had gone silent. He looked around and saw Immilene approaching.
“Is something wrong, Dahra Tavarin?”
Tala shook her head. Immilene watched her for a long moment, then turned to Kaim and studied him.
“We need everyone,” she said. “So both of you hold it together until the fighting is over. If we’re still alive and free then, you can blame whoever you want.”
She turned around and went back to checking on the other stations.
Kaim looked back at Tala and saw her shoulders going up and down as she hyperventilated.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt Nanli. Sweet Kai I didn’t.”
“That won’t help her walk again, will it?”
Kaim looked away. Tala was right on that. A kella passed before he felt her hands wrapping him with the tape measure again. Then she was calling for a runner and sending the measurements off while she fitted him with a standard set of armor padding. He glanced at her a few times during that, but she refused to meet his gaze.
Finally she met it by accident.
“They’re going to burn our cities again, Tala. It’s going to be like Telensgrove all over again. But everywhere.”
She paused, then nodded.
“I… wanted to stop that.”
“I know. So did I. And now Aihay is gone and our cities are full of tanirin.”
She smiled at him, and his stomach twisted with the sickness in that look.
She went back to adjusting the padding a moment later. They were both silent after that until the runner arrived with a box filled with the materials Tala had requested and set it down with a thump. Tala sent him off and pulled kren-composite plates out of the box, along with a metal mesh suit woven through with bright wires.
“Chainmail?” Kaim asked.
“Very light,” Tala said.
“It won’t stop an arrow.”
Tala shook her head.
“That’s not what it’s for. The steel is a base for the wires. Silver alloy. The whole suit will transmit electricity around you. The only real armor is the kren composite.”
Kaim nodded. “Ahh. For grabbing on to Garagrans.”
Nothing more was said while Tala fitted the mesh onto Kaim over the padding and attached the kren plates with crimped steel rings.
“Don’t die,” she said when she was finished.
Kaim nodded. He wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find it.
Immilene found him as soon as he left Tala and put him with the rest of her unit in a tent-walled section of a large warehouse. The unit included two other Shinalilts. Both of them avoided him.
“We’ll be guarding one of the main ballista batteries,” Immilene said when the whole unit was assembled, fifty soldiers in all. “We are to engage any Garagrans that try to attack the battery, but we are not to follow them once they leave or chase down Garagrans that aren’t coming after the battery. The battery itself will be a much more effective attack than anything we can muster on our own. All the reports from the pass confirm that. The batteries were the only reason those up in the hills survived. As long as we keep ours intact, the Garagrans will remain wary of attacking anything else near it.”
She pointed to a big crate sitting in the middle of the briefing room.
“This box contains fire and armor penetrating explosive arrows, as well as the new sticky-face satchel charges. I want each of you to fill up your quivers now and take one satchel charge. All of you already know not to take more than you can carry, so don’t even think about it. If you need more during the battle, there will be another crate at the battery site.”
Kaim saw that all of the other soldiers had quivers at their sides and wheelbows hooked around their bodies. He looked at Immilene and tried to catch her eye. She ignored him until the rest had filled their quivers, then pulled a full hip quiver and a standard wheel-bow out of the crate and handed them to him.
“This is tuned to your draw stats already. Fifty-fifty on the mix. Take a satchel charge and get in line with the others.”
Kaim grabbed one of the boxy brown mepi bags, built with clips that would hook onto his gear belt at the back of his waist. He was already familiar with them, but watched as Immilene demonstrated how it worked with a blue mepi practice version, peeling off the wax paper patch on one side to expose the adhesive and turning the clockwork timer and pulling the key on the top to set it.
After the demonstration she lead them out into a city that had changed radically in the month-and-a-half Kaim had been in jail. Ballista emplacements sprouted on top of every tall building with flat roofs, often taking the place of gardens that had been there before. The streets below were mostly empty, except for supply trucks moving to the buildings with ballistas and out toward the perimeter, and civilians moving toward the cliffs under the palace and the caves beneath.
As Immilene banked high over the city and Kaim followed, he cast his vision out to the forests, he saw many trees missing, mostly the tallest Hahrahxes yet to be made into towers. Further out he heard the sound of heavy machinery, pile-drivers and chainsaws. He saw another tree shake and fall as he watched. He had heard mention of a wall. That had to be it.
A wall around the entire capitol, six strads high.
The difference of that struck him. The capitol had never needed walls before. Not in all the history of Salshira. The mountains had always been enough.
But now it did.
Had they always been this unprotected?
Had their defense always been this flimsy?
Kaim struggled with the situation. With the speed of their fall.
If she hadn’t come…
Staying unnoticed had kept them safe for well over a thousand years. A millenium of peace ruined by one Garagran.
And by a prince who hadn’t seen what could happen by letting her in.
And perhaps by an armsman who hadn’t acted soon enough to stop it.
He had had a moment, one moment at the very beginning, when Ean was first approaching her… before she switched into her full form… He had had her in his sights, arrow knocked, drawn. He could have ended it then. Averted all this.
Even Nanli would still be safe.
Only he would have suffered.
If he’d known then what he knew now…
He saw their goal approaching, Immilene and the others drifting down to the circular roof of the Firtain Memorial Tower, home to half the civil service offices in Sunfire Falls. Eight ballista’s adorned it, facing in every direction and providing cover for a host of emplacements on shorter buildings.
Most of the women immediately found a place to sit with their wings spread so they could soak up the sunlight and recharge.
Kaim joined them with a dive that ended five strads before impact when he snapped his wings to full with a boom.
His boots hit the roof hard, sending a shock of pain up his legs, and the other glanced in his direction before mostly ignoring him.
It felt good to be out again, to be able to fly and dive and feel the impact of the ground under his feet.
He glanced at Immilene, saw she had other things to do, then turned and looked up at the distant palace, black and white polished stone facing glittering in the late afternoon sunlight.
If he had disobeyed Ean would things be better now?
Or had Ean been right, and would Aihay have destroyed them because of that?
And what of now? Could anything be worse than this?
Kaim tried to imagine it.