Dae arrived back at the Dawn March barracks with Kael and Biago in tow only to find the place had been transformed into a maelstrom of activity.
The main gate that led into the barrack’s training yard was down and a full squad of a dozen young Dawn March soldiers were standing guard in front of it.
“What’s going on here?” Dae asked Squire Telfin.
“I don’t know, maybe I took too long to find you?” Telfin said. Dae could see he was mentally calculating his trip time to and from the safe house to see if he could be held responsible for whatever was occurring.
“Not likely,” Kael said. “They’re expecting trouble, and, from the looks of it, the commander’s intending to go out and find it before trouble comes knocking on our door.”
“Your guildmates are stepping up their game,” Dae said to Biago. The Inchesso assassin didn’t reply but the grim set of his jaw and the tightness around his eyes spoke volumes to Dae.
She offered him an apologetic shrug. Both she and the assassin had expected his guild to make an attempt on his life, and both were disappointed to learn the Denarius Consortium had opted for a different plan.
“Not everything revolves aren’t your pet projects,” Kael said. “The commander wouldn’t put the barracks on lockdown for a group of assassins who killed one kid.”
Dae paused as they walked down the avenue that led to the barracks and weighed Kael’s words. The wind shifted and carried with it the cool chill from the mountains to the north. Kael was right. That, more than the wind, sent ice skittering down to her fingertips.
Trying to shake off the horrible prospect of Kael being faster on the uptake than herself, Dae inspected the barracks. If the building was on lockdown, the metal shutters would be drawn over the windows.
Just like they were.
Each pair of metal screens were locked in place with only the thin arrow slits in their center allowing any light from the outside into the barrack’s battle rooms. As much as it could, the Dawn March barracks had transformed into a fortress. That only happened when people were about to attack it, or when the Dawn March needed to be elsewhere and didn’t want to return home to discover that their gear had been completely looted.
A crowd was gathering in front of the barracks, drawn by the spectacle of seeing a dozen soldiers in the Dawn March’s heraldry bearing both arms and armor. Apart from the brief civil war at the start of the Queen’s reign, Nath had been at peace for so long that the only military actions the citizens ever witnessed were parades and the irregular public dress reviews. They therefor lacked the natural sense to scatter and flee when an army began gearing up.
Not that the Dawn March was a proper army. Taken as a whole, the Dawn March was one of the largest and most powerful armies in Gallagrin, but it was sectionalized so thoroughly by being assigned to a barracks in each duchy that there was no practical method for the Dawn March to bring its full forces to bear at any one time. Despite the staff assigned to each barrack being considerably smaller than the forces controlled by the Duke whose territory they were nominally meant to oversee though, the Dawn March held roughly equal footing with the local armies thanks to the higher than usual percentage of Pact Warriors the Dawn March was able to boast among its troops.
Dae reflected on that and tried to see what sort of crisis could be severe enough to warrant the activation of so many in the Dawn March’s employ. It had to be something serious or Commander Ketel never would have authorized the expenditure.
“We can’t take Biago in there,” Dae said.
“The hell we can’t,” Kael said. “Those are orders straight from the commander. Simple, plain and nothing we can do about them.”
“There’s always something you can do about orders,” Dae said.
“Give me one reason to disobey them,” Kael said. “Just one. I want to hear this.”
“Simple,” Dae said. “You bring Biago back to the safe house and stay there with him and you don’t need to have anything to do with whatever mess is going on up there. If anything goes wrong, it’ll be my fault, not yours. If I’m right and Biago shouldn’t be here though? Then you get to take all the credit.”
Kael opened his mouth, a sharp comeback catching on the edge of his teeth for a moment before he deflated.
“Ok,” Kael said. “That’s a good reason.”
“Telfin, go with Officer Kael,” Dae said. “This prisoner is in significant danger. If anyone assaults him, your orders are to run and bring back the story of what happened so we can react to it properly. No heroics, no going out in a blaze of glory. Just stay alive and keep an eye on these two as long as you safely can.”
“Begging your pardon,” Telfin said, “But I can’t do that. My orders came straight from the commander.”
“I’m issuing you new orders based on a change in the tactical environment,” Dae said. “In accord with section 14, page 24, paragraph 5.1A. Have you read that?”
Telfin looked perplexed but nodded hesitantly nonetheless. Whether his squire training had included memorization of the official Dawn March regulations or not, he was bright enough to at least pretend he was familiar with them in face of a superior who was clearly willing to take the blame for the matter is she was making things up.
“Ok, then get out here before someone sees you,” Dae said.
Kael was all too eager to leave and dragged a struggling Biago away with Telfin following close behind them. That left Dae free to investigate whatever calamity had befallen the barracks. She was tempted to renew her transformation and walk in with her Pact Warrior regalia on display, but thought the better of it.
Assuming there was a problem that legitimately accounted for the massed troops and the heightened security, Dae knew she might need Kirios again and she’d already drawn more power from him in the last 24 hours than a Dawn March officer was supposed to be capable of. Not as much as she could draw perhaps, but more than was necessarily safe even with their close bond.
One of the soldiers assigned to guard the gates recognized Dae as she pushed through the crowd that was gathering.
“Officer Kor!” the guard called out. “The Commander wants you inside immediately.”
“What’s all this?” Dae asked.
“We’re mobilizing,” the guard said.
Dae wanted to press him further. It was obvious that the Dawn March was mobilizing, what she needed to know was why. She nodded to the guard and passed in through the small iron door in the great gate. Even if the guard knew the reason they were moving out, which was unlikely, discussing it in front of the growing populace would probably not have been the wisest of choices.
Inside the barracks, she found the kind of chaos that only rapid readiness maneuvers could bring. She’d seen similar mad scrambles in each of the companies that she’d served in, though judging by those experiences, the Dawn March ranked at the bottom of the training barrel, somewhere between woefully inept and miserably under-prepared.
Squires streaked by carrying forgotten pieces of armor, while soldiers struggled to strap on armor which they hadn’t maintained in months. Various personnel were yelling orders but only a few people seemed to be listening or responding with any meaningful actions. With her unhurried and almost external perspective on the proceedings, Dae noticed that most of the Dawn March personnel were trying very hard to appear too busy to interrupt while at the same time doing nothing for which they might later be chastised.
The one path that was clear in the building was the one that led to Commander Ketel’s office.
“Kor? Where the hell is your prisoner? For the love of the gods tell me you didn’t let him get killed,” Ketel said. Dae noticed that his armor had a few missing straps, sacrifices to the necessity of containing his somewhat expanded physique.
In a real battle, the Commander’s extra girth and reduced stamina wouldn’t play as large a role as it would for the regular soldiers. His pact spirit would handle the physical labor of fighting and so in that sense it did no harm for Ketel to indulge himself in whatever food or drink he chose. As Dae had suspected when she commanded troops though, the dedication of the commander to personal discipline had an effect on those who served below them, and in her mind at least, the poor state of the Dawn March barracks had an obvious point of origin.
“Biago is still at the safe house,” Dae said. “I came ahead to see if it was safe to move him.”
“Where’s Kael?” Ketel asked.
“Watching the prisoner with the squire you sent,” Dae said.
“Typical.” Ketel managed to put enough irritation into the word to make it sound like a curse.
“”What happened here?” Dae asked. “Did we receive word from Highcrest?”
Dae couldn’t bring herself to directly ask if the Queen had sent for them. It was too unlikely and equal parts of her both did and didn’t want it to occur.
“Highcrest?” Ketel asked. “No, no word from the Royals yet.”
Dae felt relieved and terrified to hear that. The currents of relief that flowed through her came from thoughts as divergent as the joy that nothing was explicitly wrong with Alari yet to the relief that she wouldn’t need to confront Alari again. The shocks of terror threatened to drown those thoughts out though.
If the Dawn March wasn’t moving for a Royal summons, then Dae had no guess what might have occurred that could necessitate the expense of bringing so many people onto full active duty at once.
“Did the Duke call up his troops?” Dae asked. If there was to be a battle against the Telli forces, she had no idea which side Ketel would chose to side with. He had a close connection to the Duke, but the only force that Dae could think of that assault Nath would be the Royal armies and even Ketel’s well-bought loyalty might not extend to treason against the crown.
“No,” the commander said. “The Inchesso ambassador is dead.”
“The…what?” Dae asked, her mind struggling to catch up with how that fit in with the problems she was already aware of.
“The Ambassador from Inchesso,” Ketel said. “The fine gentleman with whom we maintain diplomatic ties with one of our nearest neighbors? The same man who was going to question your prisoner? Yes, well, he sent word that he wanted to question that Briago fellow you caught and then, as he was coming here, his carriage rode off a bridge and he, according to our official report, drowned when it sank into the river.”
“That sounds like a terrible accident but what does it have to do with…” Dae stopped as the pieces fell into place. “Oh seven hells, the Denarius Consortium killed him? Didn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” Ketel said. “The word I got back from the scene was that the Ambassador looks like he was dead before the carriage hit the water.”
“How did he die?” Dae asked.
“Throat cut.” Ketel said. “Don’t usually find that in drowning victims, but I don’t need the stress of explaining that to the public just yet.”
“They’re sending a message. The Denarius Consortium,” she said. “It’s supposed to look close enough to Lorenzo’s murder that even an idiot can put the pieces together.”
“With the assault on you and Kael, everyone who’s looked into that case has come under attack,” Ketel said. “And do you know who we have looking into it now?”
Dae thought for a second.
“Lorenzo’s family!” she said. “They’re already traveling here!”
“Right into the hands of a group that seems to be very successful at eliminating Inchesso targets,” Ketel said.
“You’re mobilizing the Dawn March to protect them?” Dae asked.
“At the Duke’s request and expense,” Ketel said. “He’s coming with us to make sure the Inchesso Prince’s family is duly protected from harm.”
Something about that idea left Dae feeling like she’d been completely outflanked.