“Bunker is secure. I say again, bunker is secure. Minimal casualties, no friendlies down. Please advise disposition of prisoners. Over.”
The five of them crowded into the makeshift situation car exhale in unison. Vasuen puts an arm around Savren’s shoulder as Nishvir picks up the mic.
“Good work, everyone. Hold position under further notice. Command out.”
“Wilco. Breach team one out.”
“It never gets any easier, does it,” Savren murmurs.
Nishvir shakes his head. “It’s gut-wrenching every time. Sometimes I really wish they’d lead with ‘no friendlies down.’”
“This is why she hates being away from the action,” Vasuen interjected.
“I feel helpless giving orders from a fucking APC.”
“So do I sometimes.” Nishvir hooks the handset back onto his robe and rubs his forehead.
Savren runs a hand up and down the soft, sleek fabric of her uniform again, staring down at the black folds, eyes tracing the outline of the symbol on her armbands. She touches the green beads in her hair. Reassuring herself they’re all really there. That it’s all really real.
“I should head over there.”
“You should what?”
Savren clears her throat. “I need to get to the bunker. I can identify a lot of the prisoners. Who’s a risk, who’s not. Who we might be able to ransom. The people should see me there, too.”
“Didn’t you stand down?” Nishvir asks gently, a faintly amused look in his eyes.
“I’m not asking to be reinstated. That wouldn’t be good for the chain of command anyway. I’m asking to serve under you, temporarily.”
Nishvir glances at Vasuen, then turns on his handset. “Put through to Mirian.”
“Miri, is there any immediate physical risk to Savren-roshlas’ health if she walks around outside for a bit?”
“The only risk that comes to mind is rapid lead impaction,” the surgeon admits grudgingly. “But she’s not remotely combat-ready.”
“Acknowledged. Nishvir out.” The commander turns back to Savren, and hands her a handset. “You’ll get a sidearm and two bodyguards to accompany you. You will serve in an advisory role and withdraw immediately if any risk to your safety arises. You’ll keep me apprised of your movements. Does that sound reasonable to you?”
Savren nods, turning the handset over and over in her hands, clutching it tightly. “It does. Thank you.”
“You’re right that we need you out there. The prisoners here trust you. Maybe make some speeches before you head back?”
Savren makes a face. “I’m no good at those— uh, sir.”
“I was hoping one of us would be. Ah, well.” Nishvir issues an order into his handset. “Your guards will be waiting for you outside.”
Two armored soldiers step up to her as she clambers down from the coach. They salute.
“That’s me. You are?”
Savren nods. “With me, then. Otter!”
The boy looks up from where he’s sitting on the edge of the platform next to a field gun. His eyes widen.
“Oh, wow! Savi!” He jumps to his feet. She beckons, and he runs to her, hugging her gently. “You look so good. Wow, I never thought I’d actually get to see you in uniform.”
“Honestly, me neither.” Savren fingers her beads again. “It still doesn’t feel real. I keep thinking any minute I’m going to wake up alone on that horrible fucking cot—”
“It’s real, alright,” says Otter firmly. “It’s the realest thing I’ve ever seen. You’re awake, Savi. You really are.”
Savren smiles at him. “We’re heading back to the bunker. They’ve taken it. Everyone inside’s been killed or captured. Do you want to come with?”
“Y-you’ll take me?” Otter’s face lit up. “I thought — I thought with the Allies here you’d be… well. I didn’t think you’d have any more time for me.”
“I will always have time for you, Otter. Come on.” Savren extends a hand. “We need to go gloat at the intendant.”
Egret sits numbly against a wall. Her armor is bunching up and poking her in uncomfortable places. Her ears are still ringing, but her vision’s slowly coming back, enough to see Greens and Khmai rabble ransacking her office. And the girl handcuffed next to her, bawling her eyes out.
“Have some dignity, woman,” she rasps at the scribe. “What sort of servant of the Empress are you, mewling and burbling like a pien şai in a—”
“Quiet!” orders a soldier. Egret sneers.
“Or what? You’re going to kill us all anyway.”
The next thing she knows, she’s been hauled to her feet, and with inhuman strength and speed, thrown against a table. She screams as pain floods her nerves, something hot and sharp pressed to the nape of her neck; she thrashes wildly, trying to no avail to break free of the soldier’s iron grip.
“Why would we kill you, Intendant?” says a woman’s voice.
The soldier pulls the sparker away from Egret’s neck and hauls her to her feet, turning her to face…
The girl from before. Egret almost doesn’t recognize her. Gone are the tattered tunic and breeches of a camp prisoner. She’s dressed in a sleek black uniform. Standing tall for her small size. Eyes full of new steel. The symbol of the Greens on her arm. Egret pales.
She’s in charge.
She’s going to…
Savren flicks her fingers and the soldier immediately pushes Egret to her knees. She presses a switch on her radio. “Ac Savren solat. Uasvinana evessho se. Egret Sunshield. A uassheva ari. Owl-gansul. Vade.”
“Ac sol Savrenat; coshe, Savren. Esasshe.”
Savren glances around the office. “You’ve been living large, haven’t you, Intendant? Wine, a fireplace, a nice warm bed.” She takes a seat on Egret’s desk, clasping her hands in her lap as she stares down at the shaking officer. “While all your slaves are starving and freezing in cramped cots and dying in the mine. I’ll bet you even have your own cook, don’t you?”
This can’t be happening. God, this can’t be happening. I want to wake up.
“You won’t win,” Owl spits, trying to stand up despite her broken leg. “The Empress—”
Lismir immediately slams her against the wall.
“Your bravado is cute but really, spare me.” Savren hops down and walks over to the captain. “The camp is secure. All remaining resistance has been crushed. By the time anyone comes to your rescue, we’ll all be deep in Allied territory.”
“This is the captain?” Lismir interjects.
“The one who did that to your back?” Otter growls.
“Mm-hm.” Savren turns around, back to Egret. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you, Lady Sunshield?”
Egret can’t meet her eyes. Savren can hear her teeth chattering.
“After everything you did to me, Lady Sunshield?”
“…please. Please don’t.”
Savren laughs. “I’m not going to do anything to you, Lady Sunshield! In fact, I’m going to make absolutely sure you make it safely out of this camp. That you live a nice long life.” She pats Egret on the head. “Because when my people have finished… debriefing you, you’re going to spend the rest of your pathetic bourgeois existence repaying the debts you’ve accrued to the working class of this world. You and every other den tsuang parasite who’s unlucky enough to survive the War. You will never taste free air again. You will never know comfort again.” She kneels down, looking Egret in the eye. “You will never hurt anyone again.”
There’s a commotion by the door. Savren turns just in time to see a young woman in a blue and white robe, bruised and cuffed, make a run for the exit. Rashten moves to intercept her but the girl trips on her own feet and tumbles, toppling to the floor, unable to catch herself with her hands behind her back. She’s surrounded instantly, rifles aimed at her head. “Don’t move,” Rashten commands. “Or you will be fired upon.”
The girl begins to sob.
“Stand down!” Savren quickly gets to her feet and motions the troops back. “I don’t think she’s any threat.”
Reluctantly, they lower their weapons. Savren kneels down, helps the girl back into a sitting position. She curls up, pulling her legs close and burying her head in them.
Instinctual. Civilian responses.
“Why’s she injured?” Savren demands. “Did she resist?”
A soldier salutes. “No, ma’am. She was injured when we found her.”
“Oh, don’t bother with her.” Egret’s shaking voice finally musters a note of contempt. “Go right ahead and shoot her, the useless bitch. She’s never been good for anything.”
The girl’s shaking so hard now she looks like she’s about to start seizing. Savren reaches out a hand. “It’s okay. Nobody’s going to hurt you, you have my word. It’s okay.”
Still shaking, she looks up, timidly, eyes darting this way and that. She opens her mouth but no sound comes out.
Savren touches her gently on the shoulder. She flinches. “What’s your name, girl?”
“Hi, Swan. I’m Savren. …It’s okay if you can’t pronounce that. Can you tell me what happened to you? How you got hurt?”
“We’re not going to hurt you. Nobody’s going to hurt you, no matter what you say. Okay? You can tell me.”
“Sh-she… she hit m-me.”
“Who hit you?”
“L-Lady S-S-Sunshield, m-mistress.”
Savren frowns. “And why did she hit you, Swan?”
“I… I don’t know. She was angry. I don’t kn-know what I did wrong…”
“What do you do here, Swan?”
“I’m… I write. And I read. For— for Lady Sunshield.”
“You’re a scribe?”
“I’m gonna help you stand, okay?” Savren takes her by the arm. Slowly, cautiously, Swan stumbles to her feet. Savren motions to Rashten. “Her restraints.”
“…are you certain, ma’am?”
“Yes. She’s harmless.”
Rashten nods and secures her rifle. She takes Swan by the shoulder, slots a chip into her cuffs. They chirp a few times before springing open, and she pulls them off. The girl clutches her wrists, squeezing and massaging them.
Savren indicates the intendant’s desk. “Get some paper and a brush. I want you to write a short sentence for me. Can you do that? It doesn’t matter what it says.”
Swan nods quickly and sits behind the desk. Egret growls at the sight. Savren gives her a mocking smirk.
“I-is this… is this acceptable, m-mistress Sa-vu-len?” Swan holds up a piece of parchment.
Savren examines the sheet. The ideograms are illegible to her, but recognizably the Old Script. She sets it down.
“Tell me something, Swan. If I could promise you a job where you’d be fed well and treated well, just doing the things you already do, would you like that? Somewhere safe and warm?”
Swan stares at her. “W-why would you… I don’t understand…”
Savren takes a seat on the desk, looking down at the little scribe. “You can’t like being here, can you? In a prison camp where you’re beaten for no reason?”
Swan shakes her head.
“Why did you come here?”
“The Guild said I had to.”
“Why do you have to do what the Guild tells you?”
“B-because they trained me. It’s in the contract.” She pales. “If… if I didn’t, they could… they could have me put in the camps too.”
“Do they pay you?”
Swan scowls. “N-not half what I know House Sunshield pays them for me.”
“More than you’re worth!” growls Egret. Listar kicks her, sending her sprawling.
Savren ignores the interruption. “How much do you know about the War, Swan?”
“J-just that… they said the Greens were coming, to… to rape us and kill us. Our whole race. So we had to fight.” She frowns. “But… you’re not.”
“No. We’re not. We’re only here to fight the Empress and the nobles. To keep them from hurting more people. And we’re winning.” Savren takes Swan’s hand. “There are free cities where this Guild wouldn’t be able to touch you. You have valuable skills, and I know you’d be welcomed. I could have you sent there.”
“…they wouldn’t beat me?”
“It would be peaceful? I could… I could go to market and to taverns and things again?”
Savren nods. “And you’d be doing important work. You’d be helping make life better for billions of people, in a small way.”
“I…” Swan looks back and forth between Savren and the manacled intendant. “…I will, mistress.”
Savren smiles, and stands up. “Ground ops,” she says into her radio. “Low priority to ops actual.”
“Ops actual available. Putting you through now, over.”
“Sir, I’ve got a Rosie civvie here who reads and writes the Old Script,” Savren continues. “She wants to defect. I think she could be useful for intel work. Permission to bring her in?”
“Granted, Savren. Escort her to refugee processing. Nishvir out.”
Savren exhales. The weight of the handset on her uniform is more reassuring than a sidearm with a full mag. The little clicks of the switch, the occasional wide-band operational chatter. More than anything else, it’s making her feel alive again, safe again. Knowing that help, support, power, a friendly voice are one push of a button away… it’s a wonderful feeling, better than a shot of fent. She’s plugged back into the grid again. No more uncertainty. No more being alone.
“So how about that, Egret?” Savren turns back to her. “Your scribe is going to be an important woman. The girl you abused and beat is going to live a life of comfort in the heart of Allied territory. And you’re going to rot in a cell. Maybe you’ll see her again someday, dressed in fine silks and arm-in-arm with the lover of her dreams, walking past the hole you and the rest of the chain gang are digging. I hope you do. And I hope she spits in your face.”
Egret doesn’t look up. A single tear drips down her cheek. Savren turns away.
“Lismir, Rashten, Otter, with me. The rest of you, there are cells downstairs. Secure the prisoners there and await orders.”
“Swan, come here.” Savren extends a hand. “We’re going to get you out of here, okay?”
Swan nods mutely.
“Good girl.” Switching back to Ranuir, she adds, “Lismir, keep hold of her. I don’t want her bolting if there’s gunfire.”
“Coshvin, san.” Lismir takes the girl firmly by the arm. Swan whimpers.
Savren casts one more contemptuous glance around the room as the remaining Imperials are marched out into the hallway. Her gaze catches on the bloody rag in the corner, and she flinches.
“Move out,” she says quietly, turning away.