The Coven, Part XCV

Read from the beginning.

 

The room designated “B1,” was a military-style barracks, filling one large, open room that was divided into thirds. The section nearest the door was filled with rows of cots, the furthest section was a mess area filled with tables and benches, and the section between was a wide, flat area with prayer rugs lined up before the symbols of Order, Chastity, and Reverence, which were painted in scarlet and gold on the grey walls.

There was as little privacy in the barracks as there had been in the Cathedral St. Blanc’s infirmary, but in the barracks, at least, there were cots available for everyone. For the duration of Hope’s trial, I had either curled up beside Hope on the edge of his cot, or else had forgone sleep altogether. Here, I was able to stretch out on my own cot, and this luxury was enough to overcome the effects of the strong tea I’d had moments before.

The lights in the barrack were extinguished, and I soon fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

#

 

 

The electric light of morning burst suddenly in the barracks. I sat up, trying to blink away the dreams danced at the edge of my brain like the  spots that danced in my eyes.

When my vision cleared, I saw that groups of soldiers were assembling in the center of the barracks. They had rolled up all of the prayer rugs, and were using the open space for drills.

I turned to the cot beside me. Despite the sudden burst of light, Hope lay still- his breath even and unperturbed. I moved quietly, though none of my movements could be as loud as the soldier’s chatter, and gently touched Hope’s forehead. He was not feverish, and his breathing was even. He sighed and buried his head in his arm to block the light- exhausted.

I felt under my cot, where I’d stowed my belongings the night before, and retrieved my sword. Then I stood and joined the ranks of soldiers in the center of the room.

I imagined that I understood how Miss Taris felt the day she joined Mercy’s lessons at del sol. I knew that I was not welcome, but I was determined to learn to use my new weapon, so I stood behind the back ranks of swordsmen and followed the exercise, ready to be admonished for my intrusion at any time. The commander, however, ignored me as he led the exercise, and I was able to follow along in peace.

My left shoulder twinged in protest at the exercise, even though I hefted the sword with my right arm. As my muscles grew warmer, however, my shoulder felt looser, and soon I found I had regained the full range of motion. I had hoped for an opportunity to examine my injured shoulder, but there had been no privacy for me to remove my shirt, or even to loosen it for fear of exposing my scars. When I touched my shoulder, however, it seemed less tender and less swollen, so I contented myself with this knowledge and kept my attention on my sword arm as much as I could.

After the preliminary exercises were done, the commander arranged his men into sparring groups of two. I stepped away from the group to rejoin Hope, who had awakened and was watching the drills. The commander, however, stopped me.

“Private Harrison, try your strength against the girl,” he barked.

Many of the men laughed as a bulky, awkward youth stepped forward. He blushed slightly, but he obeyed his commander.

The commander handed me a wooden practice sword, and gestured for me to move to the center of the room.

“I expect you to go all-out, private,” the commander snapped. “Don’t let her sex fool you; she is a trained Ancient warrior.”

The young man nodded, but he slid into his fighting stance slowly- reluctantly. When the commander called for us to begin, he made a halfhearted swing, which I easily parried before delivering a slap with the broadside of the sword to his side.

The men roared with laughter. “Go on, Harrison. You swing like a girl!”

Private Harrison’s face grew even redder, but he set his jaw determinedly. I found myself growing hot, as well.

We began to fight in earnest, even as laughter and jeers echoed around us. Private Harrison managed one stinging hit to my arm before I noticed his fighting pattern. It was not difficult to see- it was the exact pattern we had moved in during floor exercises. I easily countered his next few moves, and then delivered two quick blows.

“Hey- that’s not how you’re supposed to do it,” he complained.

I ignored his complaints and continued, trying to ignore the taunts from the other soldiers as we fought. This was nothing like sparring before the Sisters at del Sol- I was beating the private easily, but I got no cheers of encouragement from the crowd. Each point I scored was not my triumph, but my opponent’s failure, to be mocked and derided.

Finally, I’d had enough. I swept my opponents legs and, when he fell, held the fake sword to his throat.

“You aren’t supposed to sweep the leg,” Private Harrison groaned.

“There aren’t any rules on the battlefield,” I said, repeating Mercy’s lessons. “There’s just alive and dead.”

Then I held out my hand to help him stand. He waved it away in disgust and stood on his own, turning his back to me.

“That’s not quite how things work in the infantry,” the commander said. “The soldiers here are not warriors. They are rigid, like swords the command wields against the enemy. They are taught simple forms their captains can predict, adapt, and direct against the enemy when they move.”

“I see,” I said. I handed the wooden sword back to the commander.

“Still- that was well done.” The commander put the sword aside and shook my hand earnestly. “I suggest you train with the dragoons. They use many different weapons, they fight from horseback or on foot, and are therefore more adaptable. You will get a greater challenge from them.”

“Thank you for your advice,” I said.

There was no time to approach the dragoons, however. The morning drills were over, and the men were dispersing through a door in the side of the room, their postures relaxed, chatting as they went. Even in the relaxed atmosphere, however, remnants of the rigid hierarchy remained. No one spoke to anyone outside their own rank, and men of lower rank stood aside for their superiors to pass through the doors first.

I returned to Hope, who was watching me with a strange, calculating expression. Before I could speak to him, however, Raven approached- her red hair still rumpled from sleep. She was carrying two white robes, which she shoved toward us.

“They are pilgrim’s robes. There are cupboards full of them here, and I thought you would want to change,” she gestured vaguely toward Hope’s thin, fraying prisoner’s clothes.

“Thank you,” Hope said. He looked around. “Where…”

“The baths are through there,” Raven said, pointing to the door where the soldiers were filing out. “You can freshen up and change there.”

Hope nodded and stood as Raven took my hand, pulling me to the opposite side of the room.

“Come on- the women’s bath is over here, and we will have it all to ourselves.”

I opened my mouth to object, but I could summon no reasonable excuse to refuse. It had been ages since I’d had a proper bath. I’d both slept and exercised in Hope’s shirt and breeches, and the broadcloth clung to my sweaty skin.

I allowed Raven to haul me into the women’s bath, hoping I would find some way to secure privacy once we’d arrived. My hopes, however, were dashed as soon as I saw the room. Three was no screen to change behind, no curtains to separate bathers, or any other luxury of that sort. There was a section of latrines with a series of stalls to afford privacy, but the bath itself was a wide, open pool of water. Pleasantly scented steam rose from the bathwater, though not enough to conceal anything in the bright electric light.

“Here- you’re supposed to wash before getting into the bath,” Raven said, indicating a series of stools nearby, each of which was supplied a wash-bucket and fresh bar of soap. Then she began to undress, unselfconsciously shedding her layers of skirts and crinolines and hanging them on a hook on the wall.

Then she paused and looked at me.

“You’ve never used a public bath, before?”

“The bath was shared at del Sol,” I said, “but there were curtains for privacy.”

“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” Raven said cheerfully. “It’s just the two of us, and we’re both women.”

“There aren’t any- I believe you called them cameras?” I said, thinking of the ‘eyes’ Raven had been so careful of before.

“Oh no- I made sure of that the first time I used the bath. Don’t worry- we are perfectly alone.”

I sighed in resignation. “Raven, there are some scars on my body that- that may appear strange. Please do not ask about them, and please don’t tell anyone else.”

“I wouldn’t say anything about your scars. I promise.”

I nodded and slipped off Hope’s shirt.

Raven did not watch me as I undressed. I hung up my clothes, quickly removed the bandages from my shoulder, and we washed and rinsed in silence. As we slipped into the bath, however, Raven caught sight of the scar on my chest, and her eyes went wide.

“That isn’t-” she stopped and slapped her hand over her mouth.

“I really cannot talk about it,” I said. “Please-“

“I’m sorry. I promised not to ask, so I won’t. Am I allowed to ask about the bruise on your shoulder?”

“It’s not important,” I said.

Raven shrugged, and then cupped her hands, pouring the warm water over her neck and back. “So then- I’ll just change the subject, I guess. What do you think about Pride’s plan?”

“If you are referring to Pride’s battle plans, I have no idea. I haven’t learned anything about tactics, yet. If you are referring to his plan to ally with Sancti…”

I hesitated, unable to put my misgivings into words. Even so, Raven nodded as though in understanding.

“A lot of people in Aeterna think that Sancti is a beacon of enlightenment and liberality, but things in Sancti are really just as bad as they are in Aeterna,” Raven said quietly. “The slaves are free in name only. No support has been offered to them to help them start new lives, and no one wants to hire former slaves. Because of this, most former slaves have to work for their former masters for next to nothing, and their mistreatment continues just as before. Taxes in Sancti are generally low, and the higher classes hold to the old notion of noblesse oblige– giving pittances to she serfs and servants from time to time. But anyone who questions authority or steps outside of their rank are heavily punished.”

“How do you know all of this?” I asked. “Have you been to Sancti?”

“No but…” Raven bit her lip. “How do I explain this? You’ve seen the magic mirrors- how they allow you to see anything on the other side- right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, the mirrors can send all kind of information- not just images and sound. They can send books, for example, or pamphlets. You can send charts full of information, or scientific papers. On the moon, almost everyone has a magic mirror, and they use them to form a huge network of information.”

“Is information from Earth shared on this network?”

“Not on the near side of the moon- the side where demons live,” Raven said. “The church owns the magic mirrors on Earth, and they only send information to the angels. Luckily, we manage to break into the angelic network from time to time to see their information.

“There’s another way to get information from earth, but it’s less reliable. Magic can connect practitioners in an intimate way, creating a sort of network of minds. People who contract with demons, or sometimes even sing our chants, can share insights with us directly. Of course, the people who contact us are already unhappy, so the information we get from them may be biased, but even accounting for that, the picture of Sancti isn’t good.”

I opened my mouth to ask more questions about the networks, but Raven put her hand to her head.

“The steam is getting to me. I should get out.” Raven sighed deeply and poured a handful of water onto her face. “One thing before I go; I heard a commander suggest that you practice with the dragoons. When you do, keep an eye on Sir Beaumont. Don’t let him see your scars.”

Raven turned away and climbed out of the bath before I could ask any more questions. She swayed a little as she did so, as though she were dizzy from the steam, but she quickly steadied herself. I moved to follow her, and noticed that while my skin had grown red from the heat, hers was still like porcelain.

Part XCVI

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