Chapter 30


source. date.

News of peace sent chaos through the fort. The following news, that they were, in fact, still at war only with the Itopasarians now, sent more confused chaos through the fort. Ever the populist, Tosetti sent word to the men that they would have a week or two's rest before the war continued. Celeste, however, got no such respite.

While the rest of the soldiers either prepared supplies for the future march west or simply relaxed, Celeste was forced to spend more time with Tosetti. The General and his high-ranking officers all had to travel further north with a small contingent of soldiers. At the news, she assumed she was being used to move supplies faster, like at the start of the war. Tosetti, however, was evasive about the true reasons.

“The only thing north of us is the enemy lines, why would we go there now?”

“Those are our ally’s lines now. This is top secret, which means I've got to keep the news from spreading through camp.” He sighed and sat up straight. “Hence why I can't tell you everything.”

Celeste crossed her arms. “So now you don't trust me? That is rich. I'm in no mood to trust you.”

“Fine, I suppose I have earned that distrust from your perspective. Tell no one, not even your unit. As far as they need to know, I have a personal mission for you, nothing more. The new peace is being ratified in a ceremony north of here and the King demands that all of his military leadership attends. We don't, however, want to let any spies that the Itsopasarians may have sneaking know about know what is going on.”

“And you don't think that spies would figure out what is going on when the entire leadership heads in the same direction?”

“I think it is highly likely they already know, obviously. But on the off chance that they haven't, I won't risk being the one who gives the information up. Now then!” He stood up and clapped his hands. “Go and get packed. You'll probably want to bring a fresh uniform.” He looked over her briefly as he spoke. “We don't want to give the King the wrong impression.”

The journey north was arduous. The general progress of the war had left the paths in a far worse state than they had once been, and the wagon trains spent their time bouncing from one hole to the next. Celeste soon grew sick of riding in one and managed to persuade one of the soldiers guarding the train to let her take his horse in exchange for her seat. He seemed happy to be out of the saddle. It had been nearly a year since she'd taken a horse. She'd only ridden one for the first time at the start of the war, but it quickly came back to her.

The horse was a calm mare that seemed to take to Celeste as well as she took to her. She grew quite attached to the horse in the couple of days she was allowed to ride. As they carried on their journey, they encountered other generals and their entourages also on their way to the peace meeting. Once their train joined with another, Tosetti forced her back into a wagon, claiming it was improper for her to be riding alongside common soldiers.

After four days of travel, they reached the site of the meeting. They were a day’s ride north of the forests, in an abandoned quarry. The camp was centred on a large, circular tent in the indent of the quarry that was still being put up when Tosetti's contingent arrived. On the northside of the quarry, on a high stone shelf, the Ofprovians had set up camp. Celeste didn't think it boded well for an alliance when one side felt the need to place themselves higher up. Not that she envied them having to make the walk down the quarry. It had been a long time since she'd had to walk down a hill.

As she waited for the meeting itself to take place, she spent her time riding south and exploring the rolling lowlands of Ofprovo. Whilst much of the recent fighting had taken place within the forests, the Ofprovian military had clearly had major encampments this far north. Fields that might once have been lush with grass or growing another year's crops had been churned up into muds. Discarded tents, rifles, and other military supplies littered the lands here.

When she returned to the camp in the evenings, she found Tosetti was spending much of his time meeting with other generals, from both sides. She had wondered if he might ask her to sit in, if he was serious about wanting to keep her around for his future plans. Maybe he didn't trust her as much anymore, just as she didn't trust him. Or maybe the other generals didn't want a peasant girl sitting in on their discussions. Either way, her evenings were mostly spent in the personal tent Tosetti had brought along for her. Lying under the canvas, the warm light of the camp filtering in, she let her mind wander freely as it was always trying to do.

As always, it was very obvious when the king arrived. The trumpets announcing him echoed through the quarry, and his entourage seemed to be bigger than the rest of the assembled military. Celeste was forced to stand with Tosetti as they watched the King's arrival. It was the fourth time she had seen him in the flesh, and every time the man in all his finery looked less impressive.

That evening, the meeting of the two nations was due to take place. Tosetti finally called Celeste into his tent. He was dressed in his full uniform, as he had done when he'd come to confront her weeks ago. Propped up on his desk was a small, silver mirror. He didn't turn to face her as she brushed through the tent flap.

“I never thought you would be one for preening,” Celeste said with a snort.

“As I have said, we are going to be meeting the King, you should get cleaned up as well. I was hoping you would braid my hair for me.”

“There are others who know how,” She said bluntly.

“Indeed, but I do wish to speak with you.”

“About what?” She reached down to take a comb off the desk and began to pull it through his hair. It had grown down to his shoulders. Not the best for a braid, but it would do.

“Today. You are, shall we say, temperamental. Ow!” He yelped, pulling his head away from her.

“If you combed your hair yourself once in a while I wouldn't have so many knots to deal with.”

“Just get on with it.”

“It needs to be combed first. Have you never managed your own hair?”

“I've always had other people to handle that,” He said in an aloof tone.

“Of course,” She grunted as she yanked the comb through another tangle of hair. “You're noble. I should have realised that.”

“Minor noble family. Disgraced really.” He spoke with a tone of indifference.

“Disgraced for what?”

“A couple of usurpation attempts. But that was a century ago, no one really holds a grudge that long. This is beside the point. Will you be able to keep it together tonight?”

“In what way?”

“You won't be trying to kill any of the Ofprovians.”

“That really depends, doesn't it,” She said coldly.

“Depends on what?”

“Whether they provoke me.” Tosetti turned his head to complain at that but she held his head and kept him facing forwards so she could tame his hair. “If I am such a liability, why are you even bringing me with you?”

Tosetti sighed. “Because it's politics. Everything I am doing here is. I'm never going to be promoted high just because I'm the greatest living strategist.” She groaned and he locked eyes with her in the mirror. “If you want to make it anywhere in the world, you're going to have to accept engaging with that.”

“And bringing me shows what? What is the hair for?”

“Well, I want to win the King's favour so...Hang on, I've seen your educational record. You are smart enough to work this out yourself.”

“You're really going to try and test me on this?” She sighed and kept combing. “Fine. Let me think. You want your hair in the style of the highlands, but it isn't your beliefs.” Her eyes scanned his desk, noticing the jewellery he had laid out. “And you're going to wear religious symbols. Laocienan, not Imperial style.” She considered the contrast for a moment. “You did talk about improving morale before. You want to be clear that you inspire loyalty from your men, from an army and nation that is eighty percent highland.”

“Exactly,” He said brightly. “Although when this war is over that number should begin to shift.”

“The army housing pensions.” Celeste nodding following along.

“Octavius has indicated that he wants to modernise, though his failure to keep up the missionary campaigns of his father shows he has other methods. I am not going to stand in the way of that, as should be clear. I do not believe that he should rule like the Ofprovians.”

“They're a confederation of smaller states, under their Emperor. Religion is what unifies them, it teaches them to praise Emperor Lanius as divinity on earth, it is why everyone else was concerned by their missionaries coming into our lands. Other nations sounded very concerned indeed.” She thought back, all those years ago, crouched in a small tunnel as she watched the ineffective discussions going on down below.

“How do you know that?” Tosetti sounded a little suspicious now.

“They held the talks about this war up at Tricapon.” She realised as she spoke that that wasn't enough of an answer. Students hadn't been allowed to attend. “There was talk, you know.”

“You do know how to sound suspicious, don't you?”

“And so,” She continued to change the subject. “Using distinctly Laocienan religious symbols shows that you aren't interested in ruling the country as Ofprovo is ruled.”

“The King is more liberal than our northern cousins. As long as the people serve, then he does not mind what they worship. And I get loyalty.”

“But then why am I here?” She finally asked as she was separating his hair into three strands.

“As I said, our King is more liberal than his cousins, and than his father was. I have heard rumours that he would be interested in expanding the role of women within the army. Showing you off, my own frontline operative, shows I am happy for women to serve.”

“I'm a wizard though, the military never seems to mind the gender of a wizard. We're too valuable.”

“That is true, of course, but I don't have to bring you. I could have picked another wizard who's been of good use to me. It all sends a message. If the King believes our values align, he's going to be far more likely to make me Field Marshall. He kept the old one on his council out of respect for his father, I believe. I show myself as willing to support his causes, he will be glad to have me on board.”

“You have put a lot of thought into this,” She said absentmindedly as she tied his hair up.

“I have to. This is my future. I'm not going to leave things to chance when I can help it. Which is why I need you well behaved.”

“I will be, General.”

“Good.” He stood up and spun around, trying to examine his hair in the mirror. “It's a bit short.”

Celeste blinked twice. “I worked with what I was given.”

“Hm...Well, get cleaned up, we don't want to be late.

Celeste managed to borrow a razor to shave the sides of her head. It had been a while and her hair was getting concerningly long where she didn't want it. She watched the strands of white and red drift off her with a strange pang of loss. She remembered having her father trim her hair as a child, the little fragments of brown drifting away. It wasn't exactly that she'd been in love with her hair, but it had been hers. It would be different forever now.

As evening approached, the assembled military commanders filtered into the grand tent. The evening sun was blocked out by the rim of the quarry, but the tent was illuminated by the warm light of lanterns hanging from the metal frame. As Celeste and Tosetti filtered in, they were directed by Ofprovian staff to their allocated positions for the ceremony.

Two writing desks had been set up at opposite ends of the tent, leaving a clear corridor between them where no one was allowed to stand. The guests were assembled into lines facing one another, one side for each army. A number of non-military dignitaries got the front row positions. On the Ofprovian side, Tosetti explained, were the kings and petty kings that ruled under Emperor Lanius. The Laocienans were fronted by more minor regional leaders, several mayors and other leaders of major cities.

The Field Marshall chose who to place in the second row with him, so they relegated Tosetti, and Celeste, to the third row. There were two more rows behind them, but it did still feel unfair to Celeste. Though she didn't like admitting it right now, her general had been the reason the war had been going so well for them. Surely he deserved a little more respect. From where they were stood, Celeste could only just make out the Ofprovian kings. She cursed Tosetti and his magically increased height.

Finally, announced by appropriate trumpeting, King Octavius and Emperor Lanius entered the tent. They bowed to one another before sitting at the desks and got to work signing a huge volume of documents.

“If they just needed to sign some papers, why did we all have to come here?” Celeste muttered out of the side of her mouth. There was a low level of babble going on anyway, but she didn't want to talk to loud and stand out.

“The ceremony is the point,” Tosetti said softly beside her. “The papers are of secondary importance. What matters is that we all witness the agreement. There will be foreign diplomats in the crowd too.”

“Couldn't we have done this on the border?” Celeste craned her neck to get a sense of how many people were there. “I mean, this could easily be a trick. They could just start firing at us.”

“Not while we're in the tent. Having both rulers here is about stopping tricks like that. We needed to be further north, I believe Lanius had been at the imperial capital so he would have had too far to come.”

“Okay, not right now. But what stops them just killing us here?”

“Me and you, for one thing.” He turned his head slightly and Celeste was sure she caught a wink from the corner of her eye. “More importantly, of course, it would make future family gatherings awkward.”

“Family gatherings? You mean...” She trailed off, looking between the two rulers.

“When I said cousins, I wasn't being metaphorical. They're...second cousins, if memory serves. On their mothers' sides. Possibly once removed. You'll have to find a genealogist.”

The Emperor and the King stood now, folding a piece of paper in their hands. As Celeste examined Lanius' face, she could see the similarities. He was older, greying significantly, but he had the same chiselled jawline.

“So you're saying this war was just-”

“Just a family dispute? That is a simplification. But, in effect, yes.”

The rulers met and solemnly handed one another papers. There were a few seconds of obedience to ceremony before they burst out laughing and embraced each other in a hug. There was a cheer from the crowd and the ceremony moved into a less formal phase.

Servants hurried in from outside and removed the desks and began to bring around plates of food and drink. Tosetti began to mingle with the other commanders from the Laocienan military. Celeste stuck to his side. He needed her there for his plans, but more importantly, she didn't know what she was expected to do here. It was a space for the military and the upper-classes to schmooze. She was a peasant and she didn't feel like a part of the military in the way Tosetti was.

So, she stood beside him, listening to the conversations with little interest. They complimented each other over tactics and plans and how they got their men to fight for them. Tosetti would occasionally laugh and say he couldn't have done it without his secret weapon, nudging Celeste forwards. She felt like a child being shown off. Tosetti could not be missing her dirty looks but still he persisted. He had more important issues than her discomfort, she was aware of that.

If that wasn't bad enough, the boredom of the whole event made her want to scoop her own eyes out. Normally in the quiet times where her mind wandered, she could do as she pleased. Here she had to pretend to be paying attention. Pretend she could focus and wanted to be here. She flexed her hands erratically, wanting something to do with them. She took a drink from a passing server, thanking them, but it tasted terrible so she just held it, hoping the cool metal in her hand would remind her brain enough of a sword to distract her.

That was a lie, actually, the drink, wine she thought, didn't taste bad. It tasted good, she supposed. It tasted like something that they would have stolen back at school. It tasted like nights laughing together. Like faces of love in the warm light of their rooms. Bittersweet, she supposed. A memory that she couldn't ever get back.

Finally, their turn came to talk to the King. Octavius had been working his way through the Generals, Celeste had noticed. He shook hands vigorously with Tosetti before turning his attention to her.

“So, this is the secret weapon you've spoken about?” He asked, holding his hand out to Celeste.

She reached out to shake when he seized her hand. It took some effort to remind herself who he was. She couldn't just yank her hand away, as much as she wanted to. He held it up and placed a kiss on the back of her hand, wet and all too personal. She kept her face level as she cringed internally.

“Captain Celeste. Your highness,” She said, not wanting to evoke his ire.

“I recognise you, do I not? A Tricapon student only a few years ago,” The King said with a jovial laugh.

“It is good of you to remember me.”

“But of course, wizards do stand out so strongly.” He tapped his chin before nodding. “Ah yes, and you were with that upstart. I assume she hasn't made it as far as you. I could feel it, no dedication in her. No loyalty, like you.”

Celeste gripped her fist tight, focusing on the pain of her nails pressing into her own skin. It was all she could do to hold herself in. How dare he speak about Sabina that way. She couldn't even figure out how to speak without shouting some profanity at him.

Behind the King, she noticed two wizards, one of who he their eyes locked on her. Could he tell what she was thinking? Had the King found a telepath and kept them close for matters like this? Regardless of their specific powers, she imagined they would be ready to kill her if she so much as raised her voice at the King.

“No doubt she is fulfilling some minor role,” Tosetti said to end the silence. “I am looking forward to fulfilling my role in helping us put down our new enemy as quickly as possible.”

“I am pleased to hear that. You have proven yourself very useful thus far.” The King leaned a little closer to Tosetti. “You must share some of your plans with me, I would love to learn a little something or two from you.”

Tosetti laughed and nodded, trying to keep a humble tone. “I am afraid you have over-exaggerated me in your own head. I could not plan how to win a war now. All strategy must be prepared to change to suit the current conditions. I could not lay down plans now and assure you they would succeed in good conscience.”

“Very good of you. Even so, the input of someone of your skill would be invaluable. You would earn my favour, that is for sure.” The King shot them both a winning smile before excusing himself.

When he was a good distance away, Tosetti muttered to her. “You really should learn how to be presentable to the King.”

“If things go as I want, I won't ever have to talk to him again,” She responded, rubbing the back of her hand on her jacket.

“That would be safer for the both of us, I'm sure.”

When they had circulated through most of the other Laocienans, they moved on to talking to the Ofprovians. Celeste had been distractedly looking at some passing plate of food when they were approached by an Ofprovian General.

“Will your little wizard here understand if we speak in Taoanid?” He asked in Taoanid, with a smug laugh.

“She does, she's Tricapon educated after all,” Tosetti said, matching the laugh.

“Ah, perfect.” As the other General spoke, Celeste looked up to see him. “Mine is as well.” He laughed again as Celeste brought her eyes up to meet Melanie's.

The other woman looked as she always did; immaculate. Her uniform was neater than her General's. Her headscarf, which was always a shade of blue, was a perfect shade of Ofprovian blue tonight, blending with her uniform. Her cool eyes were calm, fixed, even as Celeste felt herself bubbling with rage at the sight of her.

Tosetti must have noticed something change in Celeste because he reached out to hold tightly to her arm.

“I should have guessed. I had heard you had a very impressive water wizard.” Tosetti laughed, offering Melanie a slight nod which she returned. “Among wizards, there's plenty who resent those who attend Tricapon, and yet the two of you seem to be dominating this war.”

“That is very kind of you to say.” Even her voice was perfect, even and polite. She knew how to handle politics better than Celeste as well.

“At least this explains how you defeated that old-timer, Pesaro.”

“Oh please,” The other General said with a smirk. “If he had been Ofprovian, he would have been executed for his failures long ago.”

The generals laughed and kept talking for a while longer. Celeste could barely focus on the conversation, her eyes fixed on Melanie. The other woman ignored her, focusing all her attention on the two men. Could Melanie not even face her? Was she finally feeling some guilt for what she'd done?

At long last, the other General said a goodbye. Melanie's blue eyes briefly met Celeste's before she left. And that was all she gave her. Tosetti turned to Celeste and held her arms firmly.

“I really need you to calm down,” He hissed.

“Why now?” She said, louder than she intended.

“I'm sorry?”

“Why make peace now. I was thinking, after everything we've been through, after everything sh-” She hurriedly corrected herself. “They've done...why have they given up the fight with us?”

Tosetti grimaced and shrugged. “I can't say what made our King agree, but we've established you're smart. Why would they want peace?”

Celeste blinked for a moment. She hated being tested like she was a student again. She was beginning to realise it wasn't the studying she missed so much. But on being forced to think it out the pieces did slide into place.

“Food. Their agricultural production has always been lower than ours, we've destroyed some of their most fertile land on their southern borders.” She thought about the refugees she'd seen. People fleeing starvation in Ofprovo. Even if their land returned to its original owners, it would still have no one to work it. “And they've brought in extra troops from the east. They're at their limits.”

“You can have all the men and guns you want,” Tosetti said slowly. “But starving men won't fight.”

“And the winter was surprisingly hard. So, they needed to open up trade again.”

“Exactly. The Empire is having to realise they need us more than the rest of us need them. It is the way with Empire I suppose.”

Did anyone's convictions really matter? She came to fight this war because she was worried for her people's religion and culture. And now that part of the war was over, because eating was more important than the Ofprovian's religious zealotry. That made sense, of course, she knew that. But it felt wrong, after all she'd done. After the people she'd lost. The things she had seen. But she was bound to this conflict for as long as there were still men she needed to protect.

“I'm going outside,” She muttered.

“You may go outside, to get some air,” Tosetti responded, louder.

“I wasn't asking,” She spat back.

“But I was allowing.” He lowered her voice again. “It is all politics.” He gave her a small wink before waving her on her way.

As she stepped through the canvas flaps, out into the cool night air, she realised just how uncomfortable it was in the tent. It was a large enough space, but with all the people inside it, it had grown hot and humid. The crispness of the cold air was a relief. The coolness soothed her spirit, of course, and left her feeling calmer.

You could burn it all down. Destroy that tent and you will have killed all the men responsible for the war. It would all be over after that.

“I'm stable right now, don't even try it. Besides, I would probably be dead before you had a chance to consume me.” She gently sat on a large boulder that had evidently been too heavy to clear.

You can't blame me for trying. The spirit let out a rasping laugh. It can't be healthy, being so casually aware that I exist to kill you.

“It's good to be realistic about it, I think. It's not like we don't face death all the time in war.” She let out a weary sigh.

“Your spirit giving you trouble?” Came the delicate voice of Melanie.

Celeste spun around to look at her, for a moment feeling her heart race at the sound of a friendly voice. It had been so long since she'd spoken to Melanie without rage in her voice that for a moment, she felt the old familiarity. As she looked at Melanie, seeing the woman and knowing what she'd done, she could only feel the anger. She turned away without speaking.

“Do you mind if I sit with you?” Melanie asked.

“I'm not using the whole rock,” Celeste responded coldly.

Melanie let out a soft sigh as she sat on the rock. They were back to back, the fabric of their jackets rustling together in the night breeze. “We are not enemies anymore, you know.”

“I don't care about the war. I still know what you did.”

“If you don't care about the war, why are you still here?” She left the words hanging for a few moments before continuing. “I do wish you would consider how hypocritical it is for you to accuse me of doing something worse than you.”

“I did it for the right reasons. I am fighting to save my people.”

“And now the war has shifted? I don't know the specifics of the deal that the two nations are working out, but I understand there will be missionaries moving into your highlands again.”

“So you're here to gloat? You've won?”

“I didn't say that.” She spoke slower, more deliberately than normal. “We fight the same war, you know that. Ofprovo will wipe both of our peoples' out if they can.”

“How is your plan to fix that going then?”

There was a long, painfully long, pause before Melanie responded. “My parents wanted a wizard in the family because offering one up to the military would improve our standing. I spent all my time training so that I could be a good officer and work my way up. Earn distinction. Become Governor maybe, I don't know. I hadn't really planned it out as much as I thought I had. But...No one felt like telling me that you can't be an officer and a wizard in the Ofprovian military. No matter my skills or educational record, I'm just...” She let out a cry of despair and Celeste could feel her throwing her arms out. “Just a weapon of incompetent old men.”

“I would give you my commission if I could. I'm not suited to be an officer.” Celeste spoke quietly, almost not wanting anyone to hear it. Having her back turned definitely made it easier to voice how she felt.

“You're not suited for war. Tell me, why are you still fighting when your reason is gone?”

“Because I have people to protect.” She spoke with conviction now. It was the one thing she was sure of now. She had one man to protect, really, she just saw him in every young soldier forced out onto the battlefield.

“I expected that would be the answer.” There was a slight laugh in Melanie's voice.


“Because, though you might act like it never happened, I was your friend. I know you well enough. If you didn't care about protecting others you would have killed me on that mountainside.”

“I killed two men instead.”

“And let four live. Tactically stupid, but that is why you aren't suited for war.”

“I've killed plenty since then. You think you're made for this then? You were a scholar and a poet, not a soldier.” Celeste couldn't resist the smile in her mouth as she thought back to their nights together, in the warm light of the library.

“I have a responsibility,” Melanie snapped.

“So, what you want doesn't matter?”

“I want to fulfil my responsibility.”

“You just said it isn't working. They're still making you guard wagon trains, and parade you around like some pet.”

“Your general doesn't treat you much better.”

“Tosetti is...I don't know that he's a good man. But he has convictions. I can trust that he will follow his goal, whether or not that's a good thing to do is another matter I suppose.”

They sunk into silence for a few moments before Melanie asked, “How was Teodor? And Wolfram, for that matter.”

“Teodor asked the same thing.”

“Surely they already knew how they were doing.”

“Shut up,” Celeste said with a smile, bumping her elbow against Melanie's. “They're both...They're alright. Wolfram's taking is on the chin but it's definitely affecting him. He was always good at being aloof. Something you two have in common I suppose.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“I think it's the nobility thing. You were born into politics, acting very specifically. I've had a glimpse of that, I think I get why you both have trouble just saying what you mean.”


“It's just an observation. Teodor is...There's a look to them, something behind the eyes. I don't know everything they've seen, everything they've done, but it is affecting them.” She felt guilty as she spoke. Teodor had needed the comfort of friendly faces just as much as she did. And she had parted from them on bad terms. And now they were on opposing sides of the war.

“You have that look as well. Not that it is surprising. I know what you've been through. Heard the stories, about what happened to you at Audutain Pass. We lost some good men in that explosion. And to you.”

“I didn't cause the explosion,” Celeste protested. “I barely survived myself.”

“And I didn't suspect that. But I know you killed Matthias.”

“Who?” Celeste asked in confusion.

“He was bound to the spirit of a clock tower. They sent him out to kill you but the reports were he was consumed and you were escorted away by the Tricapon Headmaster.”

“I didn't know his name...” Celeste whispered.

“Celeste!” Tosetti barked her name and she stood up abruptly, turning towards the light of the tent where he stood.

“What do you want?” She asked.

“I need you back in here. You've had your break.”

Celeste nodded and moved to leave, walking around the rock and passed Melanie. She looked down at the other woman briefly before turning to leave. In that moment, she saw not the face she had grown to loath, but the young woman she had known at school. Her friend and confidant. As Tosetti held open the tent flap a little more, her face was properly illuminated. Like it had been on the mountainside, illuminated by Celeste's own fire. And she struggled to recall her friend once again.