This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Discordant Harmonies 1: A Pitch of the Scale

“We don’t know what to do with you. We’ve done everything we can.”

Géta bowed his head, hands loosely clasped behind his back. His father pushed up a little on the bed, trying to prop himself against the pillows supporting him better, and collected the blankets closer to his chin. The room was unbearably hot—the stuffiest in the house, and a fire roared in the fireplace. If it hadn’t been the hottest weeks of summer, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but this heat was almost enough to suck the breath from Géta’s lungs and he panted a little.

“Well.” His father coughed a few times, a dry hack which made Géta wince a bit in reaction. It had come with the rest of his father’s illness: A weakening of the muscles, a lack of appetite with stomachache, and a general fading into sleep, accompanied by headache and an intermittent fever. It wasn’t far progressed yet, but death was guaranteed within the next two months. No one who got Wasting ever lasted a year once it struck, and his father had been fighting the illness for weeks already. “We’ve decided to send you on.”

“On?” It was almost a breathless word, a whisper, and Géta cleared his throat. “On to where, Father?”

“We’ve sent for a Priest to escort you to the Temple. Your indecisiveness and my health have given you a use at last. Maybe you’ll find a Calling. Maybe you won’t, but you are going. You are to leave two days hence. I suggest you spend your last hours here wisely.”

He bowed. That was all he could do. It wasn’t like he had much choice in this. He’d already wasted every other opportunity his parents had given and found for him and knew it well. It had been his father’s main complaint the past four months.

“You may go.” One of his father’s hands flicked, and the man’s eyes closed.

Géta backed up two paces, then turned and left the room, shutting the door behind himself quietly. No one was in the antechamber, and he stepped to the side to lean against the wall in the much cooler room, plucking at his shirt.

He couldn’t even feel afraid. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried to make a decision on what he wanted his life to be. Nothing appealed to him. Not following in his father’s footsteps and learning to be a merchant, not apprenticing to any of the other careers his parents had approved, not even, as his older brother Rolph had done, going to University in the capitol city. He wasn’t trying to be difficult, he simply couldn’t find anything that interested him enough to pursue. Well, nothing except his flute, but he knew perfectly well his father wouldn’t support him working in some theater as a musician, not even if he succeeded in getting hired in an upper-class theater. It wouldn’t be prestigious enough—or even as barely-acceptable as following three others of his older brothers into the army would be deemed. At least they’d made a decision.

Géta left the antechamber and descended the stairs as quietly as possible, pausing with his hand on the wall to listen for his mother. She wasn’t speaking, and he didn’t hear the phonograph playing, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t downstairs somewhere, and he had to pass two of the rooms where she spent most of her time. Either alone in the private parlor sewing another quilt for charity or visiting with friends in the front sitting room near the front door. The kitchen was definitely a place to be avoided at this hour, also—the cook and her assistants would be busy with supper preparations.

After a minute of indecision, Géta ventured down the hallway, peering into the rooms where his mother could be with care. Néevadi wasn’t present. He sighed a little and stepped into the summer afternoon. It actually felt cooler out here than it did in the house; his parents didn’t believe in “wasting” money on hiring a Mage to cool the interior. They wouldn’t even do it for the icebox in the kitchen.

The gate was closed, but not locked, a sure sign his mother had passed through while he was up with his father. She wasn’t forgetful or flutter-headed, but she’d never locked the gate after herself. A carriage passed by behind him as he locked the gate, and he glanced over his shoulder to see who it belonged to, but it was a rental without any indication of ownership. Géta finished locking the gate and checked to make sure children hadn’t tossed the end of the bell chain over the wall, then headed down the street.

He could have gone to his room to play his flute, but his first thought had actually been to go share the news of his coming departure with his best friend. Alénil would want to know this as soon as possible. Three houses down, west from his own home, and Géta pulled the bell chain to summon someone to the gate.

Alénil’s mother was a merchant as well, one who had occasionally gone into business with his father. Slightly more affluent, Madam Telée had welcomed the suggestion her son and Géta be brought up in close company. One did want suitable companions for one’s children, after all, and Géta’s father was a respectable, upstanding, fair-minded, and honest businessman. Alénil had one sister and one older brother, definitely not the brood Géta’s own parents had produced, and Alénil, unlike Géta, had been more than happy to learn his mother’s business. He wouldn’t have been free for a visit earlier, but at this hour, he should be available.

The house’s front door opened, and Alénil stepped out. He cheered Géta’s presence on his way down the path, and Géta shifted as his friend joined him. As soon as the gate was locked, Alénil stepped over, grabbed an arm to wrap one of his own around, and pulled Géta into a slow stroll away from both their homes.

“What did your father have to say?”

Géta tugged at the tall collar of his shirt, wishing now he could untie the cravat which held it close to his neck. “He’s sending me to the Priests.”

“The Priests!” Alénil halted. “Why?”

Unable to look at his friend, Géta stared at the cobbled street. “Because I can’t decide what I want to do.”

His friend huffed a breath. “That’s not fair!”

Shrugging, he shook his head, not having told Alénil about his secret dreams to drown himself in his flute’s music. “He denigrated my ‘bookish ways’ and then said his illness and my indecision created a use for me.”

“Maybe you should try to think of something to go to University for. That might save you since they don’t accept anybody who’s in apprenticeships and won’t take you until you’re eleven because of that.”

He shook his head again.

“It’s a year and a half.”

Pulling Alénil by their entwined arms, Géta started walking again. “It’s no use. Nothing University teaches attracts me. I see the offerings and am completely uninspired.”

“So you’re just going to let your father send you off to the Priests?”

“I don’t see I have much choice. It’s not like I can run away. I have no skills to speak of.” Except his flute, and he couldn’t rely on it. Knowing his luck, it would be stolen within a week, and then where would he be? Starving and homeless.

“What about your music? Your tutor says you’re good with that, doesn’t he?”

Géta sighed. “It’s just a hobby.” That was what he’d told his parents in order to ensure he could keep the music lessons. “Alé, you know Father wouldn’t listen to anything I could say about it. He doesn’t think music leads anywhere.”

“But you could get a degree in writing it at University and perhaps gain a place in the Imperial Court!” Alénil was enthusiastic with this suggestion, waving his free hand.

“Father won’t support a music degree, Alé! He almost didn’t agree to let Rolph go for a physician’s degree.” Géta shook his head again. “It’s no use. I’m to be Father’s atonement-tithing to the Gods.”

They walked for a few more paces before Alénil spoke again. It wasn’t a comfortable silence.

“When are you to leave?”

“In two days.”

Afterward, neither spoke for a long while.

Not knowing what to pack, Géta managed to keep everything to one trunk. He didn’t bother organizing the books he was leaving behind, and he loaded only his poorest clothes into the trunk, not wishing to flaunt his financial status at the Temple. Uncertain what to expect, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, and felt his finer clothing might. Though he’d been taught to defend himself, he honestly didn’t want to have any cause to do so. It was bad enough he was his father’s atonement-tithing. He didn’t want to cause trouble among the others he expected to find at his destination.

Though he left his books in their places, he did pack his music, his flute, and the little bits he’d begun composing a year ago. Just little odd notes, nothing concrete or sensible, but little riffs he’d created in letting his mind wander while playing the flute. He put them in his satchel, not wishing to risk losing any of it in transit, well aware his trunk may be misplaced because he’d heard horror stories of other travelers’ belongings taking side trips before arriving, sometimes in worse condition, at their proper destination. He’d have thought after as many years as the railroad had been operating, things would have been more organized, but apparently not.

Servants came for his trunk, and he made sure his satchel carried the most presentable of his old clothing, then followed his trunk down the stairs. He’d already said farewell to his father after breakfast, and now he paused long enough to embrace his two remaining brothers—eldest than himself and the youngest of them all—and their mother before stepping out the door. His mother came with him to the gate, her arm hooked around his, where the Priest was assisting with the placement of his trunk on the luggage shelf on the back of the carriage.

Géta observed his escort from lowered eyes. The Priest was an older fellow, with grey in his beard and clad in brown garments of a belted tunic and snug trousers. His shoes looked worn but not broken-down, and his tunic bore a two-armed spiral made of yellow and white felt. When he finished helping the carriage driver tie the trunk down, he faced them.

“Hello, Géta, I’m Shélan.”

He gave the Priest a soft greeting, feeling subdued in this stranger’s company, embraced his mother with a kiss on her cheek, and climbed into the carriage when the Priest waved him in. Shélan joined him, sitting beside him after closing and locking the door. The Priest rapped on the ceiling three times, and the carriage jerked into motion.

“Do you have any questions?”

Géta did, but he couldn’t find his voice just yet, so he shook his head. Smiling, the Priest gripped the handle hung in front of the window as the right wheels of the carriage dipped into a jarring hole. They rode in silence, with Géta sitting as tensely as possible on his seat, his satchel in his lap, the wooden lips on either side of the handles gripped in white-knuckled fists. It gave him a bit of a headache not to try to steady himself from the carriage’s rocking, but he didn’t reach for the handle above his window.

“We’re to go to Hédala by train.”

“Hédala?” He’d been expecting to go to the capitol of his country, where there was a major Temple, not to one of the cities on the shores of the Empire’s Capitol Lake.

“Yes.” The carriage rocked into another pothole as Shélan continued. “Your mother wrote in the tithing application you are somewhat practiced with the flute, and have spent many, many hours reading every nonfiction book you could get your hands on. We have need of studious souls such as you, particularly those with any skill in music. Some of our Mages work best with music to help them focus, so we feel you would best be trained to Serve them.”

Now Géta reached for the carriage-handle, hugging his satchel to his side with his other arm. “But my father believes music is a useless hobby.” The fact was, he couldn’t quite believe he’d be given license to do anything with music at the Temple. It just seemed impossible.

“Do you have plans of your own? A Calling perhaps?”

“No, but—”

“Do you wish to become a Mage?”

“No, but—”

Shélan smiled. “And you do have some small skill with the flute?”

“Yes, but—”

“Do you not wish to play?”

Géta closed his mouth and frowned a little. He’d had this dream of working with music so long, he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t break him to admit it. The Priest seemed sincere, however, and he did truly want to learn to play better and, perhaps, to compose. “Mages like working to music?”

“Some require it for their best concentration.”

“But there are phonographs—”

“True, and some can work with such music, but others are much more attached to people and thus require a living soul in their company. There is also the fact phonographs and records are difficult to transport to the borderlands, where some such Mages are stationed for defensive and observational purposes. For them, it truly is much easier to send a musician to play for them.”

“Oh.” Géta nodded a little, uncertain just what he felt at this moment. Joy at knowing he’d be given to music, or uncertain he could succeed? He hadn’t thought of succeeding when he’d spent those hours dreaming about what he’d do as a musician. It had been assumed. Faced with the certainty he’d be able to pursue it, however, made it seem much more likely he’d fail.

Shélan smiled as if he could sense Géta’s doubt. “You’ll do well.”

Maybe. Géta couldn’t find the will to protest further, so he kept his mouth shut.

Asthané remained with the casket. He had a report to give, but felt too guilty about the death of his companion to wish to see to it immediately. The Grand Matriarch could wait for a little while longer. She knew Asthané was back, but she was probably in Audience with the Empress right now, and she wouldn’t send for him.

It shouldn’t have been Siéda. It should have been him, or either of the two Custodians of the Devout who’d been their bodyguards, but the person who’d attacked had known where to strike first. Not for the first time, Asthané wished he could focus without music. Or at least, that phonographs and records were smaller and easier to transport. It would have been far better if he’d been able to stuff such a thing in a satchel and set it up where he needed it, instead of being forced to drag an innocent around with him like always.

Éethin, the Grand Matriarch, would not be pleased to hear the Ruphlan border was heating up again. They’d only just gotten out of one similar conflict, a little further south, a couple years ago. She’d probably send him out as soon as possible. Right back out there, where he’d lost Siéda, with a fresh lutist or gittern-player or vocalist. Someone he’d have to get to know under duress and who may not work well with him. Asthané wasn’t the easiest person to get along with in the best of times, and this was far from the best situation. He wasn’t the most powerful Mage there was, but he was the most powerful one here who was most familiar with the situation on Ruphlan’s border, so he didn’t think she’d spare him any time to find a musician he could get along with.

When the dimly-lit mausoleum’s door into the Temple proper opened both hinges squealed, making Asthané wince. The Priest who entered wore a tunic adorned with the Mage-sigil of a V-bent triangle through a crescent with corners pointing down, a spiral of Itai’s grey, marking a Necromancer, in the space between the bend in the arrow and bottom curve of the crescent. Asthané himself was an Elementalist, no hint of Itai’s Gift at all. He’d never wanted anything to do with death, still didn’t, and hated the fact he had to deal it out himself even for self-protection, never mind because he was required to in order to protect the Empire. He’d trained in the Gifts he had out of a misplaced sense of fascination with the four elements without thinking about what else may be required of him until he received his first assignment to a southern border.

“Asthané?”

With her word came recognition. “Lasée?”

She ran across the room to embrace him. “It’s good to see you back!”

“It’s good to be back. Any idea how long Éethin will let me stay?” He lifted her up a little.

She stepped back when they parted and shook her head. “I haven’t seen her in weeks—not since I gave my report on my station.” Her head turned and bowed as she touched the top of the casket. “Siéda?”

“Yes.” He sighed, rubbing his face with both hands. “I hate myself.”

“I’m sorry, Thané. I’d take your musicians’ places if I had any kind of hope with music at all.” Lasée patted his chest over his heart.

He dropped his hands to his sides and sighed. “Are you here to see to his body?”

She nodded, giving him a small smile. “You go eat and rest. I’ve checked—your things are in your suite, and I received a message from a page that says you are not to report to Éethin until you’ve at least eaten and bathed.”

“That’s a relief.”

“You go, Thané. Relax a little. Tell me what’s happening on Ruphlan’s border tonight at supper.”

“Certainly.” He embraced her again, kissed her temple, and released her. “I’m glad to see you. You have no idea. And thanks for taking this duty. It would have been harder if I’d had to hand Siéda over to someone who hadn’t known him.”

“I understand. You go now.”

He nodded and left her, closing the door with another squeal of the hinges.

The only things to wear in Asthané’s wardrobe were “official Mage” garments. Out of current style, not like his more mundane things weren’t, but at least in good repair and in much better condition than any of the clothes he’d dumped into the laundry chute before his bath. Though he didn’t especially want to wear anything with any sigils on them, he put them on. After spending most of a year on a border where it was unwise to wear anything betraying one’s magical abilities, he thought his feelings on these things was quite understandable. Ruphlan’s western border had never been particularly stable, and the reason why it had originally agreed to become part of the Empire had been because of that instability. Inski had been harrying the border on and off for generations, and it had worn Ruphlan’s resources down to nearly nothing by the time the Empire originally offered membership.

Asthané regarded himself in his mirror with a frown. Fashion didn’t often change, but when it did, new styles tended to be adopted rather quickly. The outmoded wide, pointed collar of his shirt spread over the collar-hem of his tunic. His trousers were loose in the legs, and his indoor boots probably didn’t match current style, either. While Asthané had never thought himself a peacock—when he’d been in training, he’d considered the garments issued by the temple completely suitable for himself—he nevertheless discovered now he didn’t particularly like the idea of being forced to wear out-of-style clothing. Not that he was all that certain he wanted to lock up his neck in a high collar and tied cravat, but the old style of his uniform made him uneasy.

“Never mind.”

He waved a hand at his reflection, trying to dismiss his unease, and stepped out of his bedchamber. A glance at the chair Siéda would have occupied had he been alive made Asthané shiver. Siéda would have had his lute, would have been idly plucking the strings as he waited to accompany Asthané to give the report. His observations would have been invaluable, for Siéda had been astute and he’d never had anything useless to say when it came to his job, Asthané’s skills and duties, and the execution of them. Siéda had not only been a valuable part of Asthané’s magical practices, he’d been an ally and a friend, something once rare for Asthané. The development of their deep friendship hadn’t always been easy or without issues, but it had cemented a trust in each other Asthané knew he’d have a difficult time finding with anyone else.

He’d had four musicians before finding Siéda—though at that time only one of any duration—and he didn’t think he’d ever find anyone else like him.

There was a meal on the table across from the fireplace which the loveseat and chair stood before, and Asthané hesitated before going to it. He brought a straight-backed wooden chair around so his back faced the fireplace and swallowed past the lump in his throat, remembering how there would have been two meals before, and Siéda would have joined him to eat, and they would have spoken of inconsequentials.

Now he’d have to watch himself, make sure he didn’t become more surly and short-tempered than usual. Asthané could feel the mood tightening his chest, combining with his dread of being sent back to Ruphlan’s border with someone new. He couldn’t expect “special treatment,” even if it meant the risk of his musician abandoning him due to personality clashes. Éethin needed him on Ruphlan’s border; he knew the problem inside-and-out, and there was no way anyone else would be able to duplicate that intimate knowledge, even with his advice, his report, and the assistance of the other Mages on the border.

Asthané swallowed the last in his cup of wine at the end of his meal, considered pouring more, then set the cup down firmly. No. He had a report to give, and getting half-drunk wasn’t the answer to his sadness about Siéda’s death. Besides, the worst of his grief was over. He’d suffered that breakdown after getting back to the place they’d been defending with Siéda’s body slung over a horse’s back. Asthané hadn’t even left the lute behind, knowing how much Siéda had valued it—almost over everything else Siéda had owned. Wounded himself, he’d been staggering with weariness, and weeping upon his return, having barely managed to defend himself with his sword after Siéda’s fall. The only thing that had given him the determination to fight and the will to get back with Siéda’s body had been the knowledge none of the others would have respected Siéda’s body and instrument as well as he did. None of Asthané’s peers in the post had understood his need for music and the depth of his friendship with Siéda.

It was late afternoon, and the halls were all deserted. The High Temple was on the Imperial Palace’s grounds, but somewhat distant from the palace. Doubting the Grand Matriarch would be in her office here at the Temple at this hour, Asthané left the building and followed the most direct cobbled path to the palace.

Actually, it was rather good Éethin was at the palace right now. With any luck, the Empress would be in her private office instead of the Audience Hall, and he could give his report to both of them at once, instead of having to make a repeat visit. If Audience had for some reason extended past the time limit Yulée had decreed for it, he’d have to wait.

Facing west, there was a garden around the near end of the palace. Asthané grumbled as he traversed the paths which wound through the garden, then threw the back door he reached open with a great deal of force. He hated switchback paths when he had to get somewhere, too. Stairs were just inside, and he climbed them, ignoring the doorway into a fine hall.

The stairs wound up a minaret shaft with doors off brief twice-the-width stairs, and he marked them as he climbed. At the fourth door up, he entered a chamber almost exactly alike the ground-floor one (it lacked a door to the outside for obvious reasons), and exited into the fine hall there. This put him on the level of the Ministry Offices complex, where the Empress’s office was.

Actually a back hall, it brought him on an almost direct path to a corridor next to the hall leading to the Empress’s office. He opened a door, allowed the Imperial Guards within to perform their verification of his identity, and entered the main hall. On the left side at the end, he knocked on the secretary’s door. A muffled invitation to enter reached his ears, so Asthané stepped in.

It was a new secretary, someone much younger than the previous one had been. His lack of recognition of Asthané was obvious, but he didn’t send Asthané right back out into the hall.

“I’m Asthané Étiée.”

The secretary checked a ledger on his desk and nodded. “Of course. The Empress is expecting you. The Grand Matriarch is already with her.” He rose and stepped to the door into the Empress’s office to softly knock and poke his head in to announce Asthané’s presence.

When motioned to enter the Empress’s office, Asthané stepped in. Empress Yulée was on her way to the seating arrangement to the left. The room was stuffy and warm despite the windows being open, which was an indication the Empress had only recently retired here from the Audience Chamber. Éethin sat in one of the wing-backed chairs facing the door near the empty fireplace, and the Empress took the other, leaving the sofa to Asthané.

“Have a seat, Thané,” Éethin said. “You must be weary after your journey.”

Empress Yulée untied the cravat at her neck and left the ends hanging, but didn’t unbutton the tall collar beneath. “Yes, do sit. Would you like some wine?”

“I’m not thirsty.” He ventured around the sofa and sank down in the precise center of it, placing himself across from the little table between the wing-backed chairs. “Éethin, I need to thank you for sending Lasée to tend to Siéda’s body.” He shifted a little and tugged on the collar of his shirt.

She gave him a sad smile. “I couldn’t allow someone who didn’t understand you to have such a duty, Thané. It wouldn’t have been kind.”

He nodded. “Well, for my report. It’s primarily the Borderfolk right now. None of us have been able to determine if they’ve been encouraged by Inski’s king, or if they’re acting on their own initiative. The sresaph Jalza at the post haven’t been able to scry anything about it and none of the Communicants of our sresaph Itai have heard or seen any indications of Utevsko’s will in this.”

The Grand Matriarch slouched back in her chair while the Empress thoughtfully tugged on the ends of her cravat back and forth. No one spoke for several minutes.

“What else can you tell us?” Yulée finally asked.

Combing a hand through his overgrown hair Asthané took a breath. “They’re using completely mundane methods right now—or they were when I left. It could have escalated since we’ve been sending Mages out to counteract their activities. Most at the post feel the Borderfolk are doing this on their own, but I have doubts. I did a lot of studying before I went out to the border last year, and this could be just another one of Inski’s sincere attempts at claiming land from Ruphlan. I know the king is something of an expansionist and he’s attempted to expand into the countries west of him, or north or south—particularly north or south, the theory being he’d like to create a corridor to the Halan Ocean. I know you’ve made offers to strike trade treaties with him, Your Majesty, and he’s refused them. He seems to think if he weakens our member country on his border, he’ll have some leeway into taking over some of our land.”

“Has there been any word on how his people feel about this?”

Asthané shook his head at Éethin’s question. “My guess is they’re in support of expansion. There certainly haven’t been any rumors of any uprisings or rebellions in response to his testing other borders. That’s why I think Utevsko is behind this. I don’t think he’d be letting the Borderfolk test our willingness to defend ourselves if he wasn’t supporting them, and I believe he’s hoping we’ll assume it’s just the Borderfolk in an effort to challenge us. I think he’s waiting to see if we’ll crush their efforts or merely go along with the henpecking until he decides to bring the regular army into it.”

The Empress frowned. “So you think he’ll eventually push hard.”

“Yes.” Asthané sighed. “It’s been Inski’s habit in the past. Instigate the Borderfolk to test our willingness and strength, then, if it looks like we’re being weak-willed or aren’t taking much notice of the problem, send an army to the border.”

A glance passed between the women, then both nodded. The Empress single-knotted her cravat, a frown on her face.

“What do you think, Éethin? Should I send an army to camp on the border?”

The Grand Matriarch chuckled without humor. “While the Imperial Council would agree, we both know the International Council won’t. They’ll want to see what Utevsko does first.”

Yulée nodded. “It was a thought. Just once I’d like to nip Inski’s efforts before they can escalate things into a battle, but you’re right. The International Council will want to wait first, and I can’t declare war without a full out attack on Inski’s part unless I want to lose half our monarchies, and I don’t.” Her gaze touched Asthané. “You give this report to my secretary so I can have it copied for the Council this evening, then spend a few days resting.” She looked at the Grand Matriarch. “What were your plans for him?”

Éethin smiled at him. “A rest period and finding him a musician he can get along with before sending him back to the Ruphlan-Inskiti border.”

Asthané sagged a little, then forced himself to straighten. Time to celebrate this later. Right now, he had duties to perform.

“How long will that take?”

“Some weeks. Perhaps a Secular Month or two, I suppose.” The Grand Matriarch gave Asthané a considering gaze. “We’ll need to introduce him to all the new musicians, even those who should be in training, and give them time to form some sort of alliance.”

He stifled a yawn, not at all upset about being talked about as if he weren’t there.

Éethin was still gazing at him with a leavened expression. “I don’t think things will escalate too much over the next few months.”

Asthané sat up a little. “Inski usually takes its time making a decision, so you’ll definitely have plenty of time for me to find someone I can work with.”

“How long usually?” the Empress asked.

“In my studies, they’ve been known to take anywhere from six months to a year, and things have only just started up. I’d say we’re about a Secular Month or seven weeks into the testing period, so there’s plenty of time, and if Utevsko follows his predecessors’ and his own previous habits, he won’t perform a real push until eight to ten months from now.”

Now he was actively arguing for the time he needed to find someone he could work with, but he was also being completely honest. Inski’s previous rulers hadn’t made a firm push against Ruphlan’s border prior to the six-month mark more than once or twice, and they had usually held back for an average of eight to ten months most of the times they’d made the test.

“Using the time to encourage his people to support a real war,” the Empress said.

Éethin nodded. “That would be my guess.”

Asthané raised a hand minutely, and both women focused on him again. “I should probably mention here that Utevsko’s tactics aren’t all that great. At least, from what I’ve been able to learn of his efforts to invade other countries, he’s been rather unimaginative, and will probably prepare his army for invading Ruphlan by removing anyone smarter than himself from any position of authority over the military.”

“Even so, if we can’t get our army out there quick enough, we’ll lose lives.” The Grand Matriarch added.

He nodded.

Yulée finished tying her cravat, her back straightening. “Very well. I think I’ve heard enough for now, Asthané. You dictate this information and anything else you have to my secretary, and then go take your rest.”

He rose and bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

She gave him a sad smile. “I’m sorry your companion had to die to bring you to us, but I am glad you’re here. It’s much easier to make decisions when someone who knows the Situation inside-and-out is here instead of restricted to the border.”

Asthané bowed again and returned to the secretary’s office, uncertain how he felt about the Empress’s pleasure.

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