Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Page 641

Mariana’s brow lowered. “And what is it that you want to do?”

“Only to survive and continue protecting people,” said Salazar.

By working with Ex-Abolish,’ said Shenado.

“Well, I didn’t say it was ideal.”

Mariana glowered. The more she thought about it, the less she was surprised by Salazar’s decision. There was a reason this person was Mariana’s previous commanding officer. When she married Zeff, the couple had been confronted with a choice, because a Vanguardian family was not allowed to have split allegiances. It was either Zeff’s commanding officer or Mariana’s. And it was not a difficult decision for her. Rather, it was one of the things that had motivated her to finally tie the knot with Zeff.

The memory of that old mission was abruptly vivid in Mariana’s mind, a mission that had shaped over a decade of conflict to follow.

The president of Vaeland had only just won his election by a small margin, and his first act was to outlaw the practice of slavery. Noble, perhaps, but foolish, because he did not have the strength to support it.

And so the Vanguard came to his aid. Salazar was the first to arrive in the capital with thirty servants under her command, Mariana among them. The goal was only to hold out until their reinforcements could break through the Abolish-controlled southern isles and link up with them.

From all reports, progress was good. Jackson’s men were estimated to arrive in less than ten hours. Salazar’s troops had not even seen any fighting yet.

Then a name reached them.

Gohvis. Bearing down on them from the north.

And that was enough to make Salazar retreat without putting up any resistance. She allowed him to take the capital with ease, allowed Abolish to take root in the heart of the country. To the ruin of all its people.

Mariana wasn’t a fool. She knew they wouldn’t have been able to stop that monster. But they only needed to delay him until Jackson arrived. Yes, it would have been difficult. Yes, many of them would have died. But that was the Vanguard’s purpose. Sacrifice was what it meant to serve.

Page 640

You really think the situation is that bad?’ said Axiolis.

“When was the last time either of you went on a mission?” the General asked. “Three months? Longer? You’re isolated out here, because you have children. But once they’re grown, the Vanguard will return you both to active duty, and you’ll be lucky to see them once or twice a year.”

Mariana was unfazed by her words. “That is what it means to serve.”

You were right when you said that we were uncompromising,’ said Shenado. ‘That has not changed. In fact, after everything you’ve just said, we should take you captive and turn you over to our own general.

That remark left a stinging silence in its wake. For a time, no one moved.

Salazar smiled through the ill atmosphere. “Well, before you do anything you’ll regret, allow me to remind you that we are guests in your home. And as you mentioned earlier, we came here alone--which we didn’t have to do. We could have brought several followers with us, but we chose not to out of courtesy, respect, and peaceable intentions for you and your family. I would expect the honorable Elroys to not trample on our goodwill.” She held up her rice cake. “Not quite a ‘shared meal,’ but I believe it still captures the spirit of hospitality.”

Mariana saw her husband nod.

“That’s what I like about you Rainlords,” said Salazar. “Observers of the old customs. You take your promises seriously.”

“Yes, we do,” said Zeff. “Which should tell you that we will not be breaking the ones we have made to the Vanguard, either.”

“I figured as much,” said Salazar. “But I want you to know that there is no time limit on this invitation. If you change your mind one day, seek me out.”

Shenado shook her head. ‘I can’t believe you’re deserting. And why join the Vahgrakaanas, anyway?

For the freedom,’ said Armengél. ‘Even if we managed to get accepted into Sai-hee’s exclusive little club, we still wouldn’t be able to do what we want.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Page 639

“What are you saying?” said Zeff. “You intend to abandon the Vanguard?”

Yes,’ affirmed Armengél.

“Come with us,” said Salazar.

Mariana could hardly believe what she was hearing. “What? You must be joking.”

Salazar looked over everyone again, settling on Mariana. She had a rare gaze, this woman, thanks to her heterochromatic irises. Deeply brown on the left and brightly hazel on the right. “We’ve been thinking, lately, about who we trust the most,” she said. “Shenado and Mariana here came to mind. Maybe things’ve changed after all this time, but I remember you two being some of the most uncompromising individuals I have ever known. And yes, that made you a pain in my ass on more than one occasion, but it also helped me trust you when things went bad--as they often did.”

Armengél nodded. ‘We don’t know your husband quite so well, but the Elroys are renowned for their sense of duty, and if you were willing to marry him, then it’s a fair bet that he is trustworthy.

How can you spout such traitorous nonsense?’ said Axiolis. ‘You’re genuinely asking us to leave with you? Just like that?

“We know it is sudden,” said Salazar. “And we know you have a family to think about. Bring them with you. We will keep them safe. We won’t force them to fight for us, either.”

Shenado seemed more shaken than anyone. ‘Why are you leaving? Only because you fear a bit of corruption in our ranks? You’re a general! You say the problem facing us is organizational, but aren’t you in a position to change that?!

“We’ve tried,” said Salazar. “It’s too late.”

That’s not good enough!’ said Shenado. ‘What about Sermung?! Have you even lost faith in him?!

“Sermung is the most powerful person in the world,” the General said. “I still have faith in him. And in three of the top eight. Sanko, Lamont, Jackson. But everyone else? I don’t know. And that’s not enough anymore, because I no longer have faith in what they’ve built. I can’t tell if the Vanguard is crumbling, but I know that it is at least changing. And not for the better.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Page 638

“Many of the reapers joining us have been in isolation for ages,” said Salazar. “They’ve never chosen a side, because they’ve never needed to. Most of them originally died long before it was common practice for governments to record any meaningful details about the lives that their citizens lived. And as floating, imaginary beings, it’s easy to live beneath everyone’s radar, so a lot of the time, the only thing we have go on is word-of-mouth: what reapers tell us about each other. And that’s not much.”

It’s a simple matter for Abolish to sneak agents in as one of these “unknown” reapers,’ said Armengél.

“The Vanguard may be larger than ever, but it is definitely not stronger,” said Salazar. “It’s disorganized, and corruption has taken full advantage of that.”

Zeff’s gaze hardened. “Corruption? That is a bold accusation, General Salazar.”

“No, it isn’t,” Salazar said flatly. “The Vanguard has always had its share of eccentrics and troublemakers. I’m sure you’ve met plenty of them. They’re valuable assets, but they thrive in chaos. And they make it worse.”

Mariana found herself in agreement there, at least.

Armengél hovered behind his partner, nodding deeply. ‘Ideally, we would slow down the recruiting process in order to give ourselves time to adjust, but saying that now is like telling a dog to chew its food more.

At the ensuing discomforted silence, Salazar’s expression lightened again. She grabbed a rice cake from the tray beside her and took a bite. “Have any you heard of the Vahgrakaanas?” she asked.

The word was familiar, but Mariana couldn’t place it. She didn’t need to, though.

It’s a group of five rogue servants, all of moderate fame,’ said Shenado. ‘And the name. Vahgrakaanas. It means ‘vagrant lords’ in Old Mohssian.

“That’s right,” said Salazar. “They’re still small and comparatively weak, but they’re capitalizing on the times and gathering clout right now. A lot of people suspect that they’re trying to become a fourth major player, equal to the Vanguard, Abolish, and Sai-hee.”

Five deserters, is what I’ve heard,’ said Axiolis. ‘From both the Vanguard and Abolish, supposedly. Not sure I believe that, though.’

“It’s true,” said Salazar. “But they won’t be five for much longer. Because I will be the sixth.”

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Page 637

It’s always nice to see a friendly face and have a pleasant chat,’ said Axiolis, ‘but I get the impression that’s not really why you’re here now.

“It does seem odd that the two of you are traveling alone,” said Zeff.

“Why?” said Salazar. “Is it dangerous here?”

“Even with your level of strength, someone as important as you should have some kind of security detail,” said Zeff.

That left the General quiet, but after a moment, Armengél responded for her. ‘There aren’t that many people we trust right now.

“Why?” said Mariana.

“Let’s table that question for a bit,” said Salazar. “There are some other things we should discuss first.”

Do go on, then,’ said Shenado.

The butler chose that moment to arrive with the aforementioned snacks, which further delayed the discussion between the three servants as Salazar politely complained that there wasn’t anything alcoholic. The reapers, however, continued talking while Mariana and Zeff just listened.

In terms of raw manpower, the Vanguard is stronger now than it has ever been,’ said Armengél. ‘Twenty years ago, we hardly had five thousand active servants, but now we have ten times that. In the past year alone, we’ve gained over three thousand new recruits--many of them, reapers who have never taken on a servant before and therefore require considerable direction.

Startling numbers,’ said Axiolis. ‘Abolish must not be pleased. This business with aberrations has only ended up reinforcing our cause.

Poetic justice for not upholding the Old Law,’ said Shenado. ‘If they keep allowing their pets to break neutrality agreements, Sai-hee might even start helping us out.

“You’re being too optimistic,” said Salazar now that the butler had ventured off again. “It’s nice to imagine that the enemy’s plan has blown up in their face, but that’s not exactly the case here, unfortunately.”

Explain,’ said Shenado.

“As Armengél said, the Vanguard is larger than ever,” said Salazar. “Too large, in other words. Bloated. And still growing. All these new recruits--who’s to say some of them aren’t Abolish spies?’

That is why they are vetted,’ said Axiolis.

Which, at best, is a difficult process,’ argued Armengél.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Page 636

Juliana Salazar had always been unpredictable for as long as Mariana had known her, so it made a certain amount of sense that the woman would just show up unannounced like this. She was loud, obnoxious, and way too easy-going.

She was also a General of the Vanguard’s ground forces, as well as Mariana’s previous commanding officer.

As Mariana recalled, the first thing that anyone noticed when they looked at Salazar was her hair, and fifteen years later, she saw that had not changed as Salazar strode into the welcoming chamber with a rainbow falling around her face. On anyone else, Mariana imagined it would have looked ridiculous, but on Salazar, somehow, it seemed all too fitting.

Salazar’s reaper followed in behind her. Armengél was this one’s name, and even through the filter of perception that was every reaper’s appearance, he still managed to look dour. His flaming eyes rounded down, as if sullen about something, but Mariana knew that was just the way he usually was.

The rainbow woman smiled that giant smile of hers as she saw Mariana. “There you are! Oh, and Zeff! How are you?!” She didn’t wait for any responses and just moved in for a big hug.

Mariana still had her gun but was able to endure the hug without using it. “We are very well. What brings you to here?”

“Why, you, of course,” said Salazar. “No offense, but Aguarey isn’t exactly my ideal vacation spot. We wanted to talk to you.”

About what?’ said Shenado.

“Oh, lots of things. Got any snacks? I could go for some snacks.”

Mariana exchanged glances with her husband before waving to the butler by the door. The man scurried off, and they moved their conversation into the next room where they could all sit down on the cushioned furniture with silver embroidery.

Nice house,’ said Armengél. ‘You steal it?

“No,” said Mariana. “It’s been in Zeff’s family for generations.”

Salazar clicked her tongue. “Oh, that’s right. We never did visit you after the wedding. Always meant to.”

“I imagine you were very busy,” said Mariana.

“Aren’t we all?” said Salazar.