Chapter 31


source. date.

As the war turned on the Itsopasarians, Celeste found herself lying to Tosetti more and more. Not that her reports needed to be honest. They were true enough about enemy movements, about routed units fleeing the battlefield. She lied about how victory was achieved.

Helping to hack through the enemy's soldiers wasn't something she could do. Not emotionally, anyway. Instead, she had learned to use a quieter approach. When a wizard spun out of the sky and killed a commander in front of you, many men struggled to hold their nerve.

It helped too that she rarely had to meet the enemy in open battle. Her orders were once again to sneak into the enemy's backline with her unit and destroy gun emplacements or cut their supply lines. It was the same twelve men who had been serving with her since the winter. She was going to keep them safe.

And so, she found herself sneaking up to an enemy position alone. She would strike first, eliminate any commanders, and then her men would rain fire on the camp from the treeline, not seeking to kill but merely frighten.

She perched atop a tree, watching the camp with her spyglass and feeling a sinking feeling. It was terribly still in the camp. An abandoned position was a good thing, she supposed. But it could be deceptive. She motioned for her men to hold their position as she leapt down and slowly advanced on the encampment.

Celeste hated the quiet from the enemy encampment. It had to be a trap, everything screamed at her. But as she emerged from the treeline, keeping low against the foliage, she couldn't see soldiers moving around. She only saw one soldier, stood alone in the centre of their camp. They appeared to be fiddling with a large tent. As she crept closer, Celeste realised it wasn't a tent but instead a giant owl.

Owl wasn't an accurate description of what Marine was, she knew that already. Yet the disk face and features conjured an owl in her mind still. She kept moving closer, watching as Teodor strapped a bag onto the side of the consumed wizard. They finished tightening a strap before sighing.

“Hello again, Celeste. It feels like only months ago we were fighting together.”

“How did you know it was me?” She asked, stepping forward unconcerned now.

“I could hear you coming,” They said, turning and leaning against the owl. “If it was anyone else, Marine would have been startled. But she already knows you.”

“Where are the soldiers? We were told there should be a full unit here.”

“I ordered them to desert.”

“Why?” Celeste asked, sounding more surprised than she knew she should.

“Because the war is lost. We've got no chance, to stand and fight now will just get more people killed. The Generals are obviously not going to consider that, and they don't have the resources to hunt down deserters.” They turned away, fiddling with their pack again. “It's the most I can do to protect my soldiers.”

“And you're just going to leave with Marine?”

“That is my plan. I'm not sure where she is going to take me.” They rested a hand in her feathers, looking up at her inhuman face. “Maybe this has been a long play and she's going to kill me. Maybe I'll find out where she's been living all these years. Or maybe she lives everywhere.”

“And the war? You're just abandoning it?”

“We didn't start this war. I came to fight because I knew it was protecting your people, and I felt I owed it to you. But your nation betrayed that support.” They let out a short, pained laugh. “There's war in the south too, the whole continent has plunged into chaos and everyone pretended it was about protecting your religion. That was never it, not for them.”

“What's that supposed to mean? You think I wanted this war, all this death and-”

“No.” Teodor raised their hand to silence her. “I don't think it's your fault. But it is the fault of your nation. And mine too, I suppose. I should have listened to Sabina, she said she wouldn't throw away her life for a nation like this.”

“We're still breathing aren't we.”

“Has all of you survived this war though?”

Celeste stood in silence for a moment. “I have done what I have to. And I still have men to keep safe.”

“Then fight, protect them. Maybe it would be too much of a risk for you to desert. But don't give up who you are to do it.” There was a slight hint of desperation in Teodor's voice. Did they believe she had already crossed that line?

“I should probably kill you here. Letting an enemy wizard live is a terrible idea, even if you claim to be running away.” She smiled weakly up at them. “But that's not the sort of order I've ever been good at obeying.”

“Thank you, Celeste.” Teodor reached out and lightly held her hand, pecking her on the cheek before stepping away and grabbing hold of Marine's feathers. “I'll look out for you, wherever I am.”

“I'll watch the skies for you.” She managed to hold her smile long enough for them to leap onto Marine's back. The mighty consumed wizard beat her wings and launched them both into the sky. The movement was unnatural, powered by magic not the actual beat of the wings.

It looked so freeing. Celeste could do it herself, of course, throw herself into the air, at the mercy of the winds. But not forever. And not now. Like she'd said, she had responsibilities to her men still. She stole one last look at the sky where they had been, before setting about with her duties.

She took a moment to dry her eyes and calm herself, before returning to her men.

“What do you mean, there was no one there?” Teo asked incredulously.

“I mean, it was abandoned. I guess there's a loss of morale in their ranks,” Celeste explained with a shrug. She wasn't going to tell them the truth. One person was very close to no one.

“We'd best report back,” Uberto said, picking up his gun. “The General is going to be very happy seeing you again this soon.”

“Not just yet. It looks like they left in a hurry, there might be supplies we can take.”

Searching the camp, it seemed Celeste's observation was wrong. The Itsopasarian soldiers had been quite meticulous in taking anything that might be of use to them away. Food, spare clothing that wasn't uniforms, and most of their weapons.

Most of, but not all. In one tent, Teo had come across a couple of stray bolt loading rifles. No ammunition to speak of. Celeste wasn't sure if the lack of any ammunition comforted her or not. Where had they got hold of the latest Ofprovian technology? Had they had no ammunition so they left the few rifles they had behind?

The only options that came to her mind were that either they had looted them from a battlefield or managed to steal them from an Ofprovian supply wagon. Both options were worrying in their own ways.

It was a long walk back to the joint command camp. When they were close, Celeste took off to report back to Tosetti as quickly as possible. She hopped over the tops of the tents, into the heart of the Laocienan section. When she had first tried this, Ofprovian guards had objected, but over time people had grown accustomed to her refusing to navigate the camp conventionally.

“You have a report for me?” Tosetti asked as she entered his tent. He didn't even look up from his notes.

“No, I just got back,” She said shortly.

“Then what are you troubling me for?” He continued to not lookup. He seemed to be consulting with a map now.

“I found this at the Itsopasarian camp.” As she spoke, she chucked the rifle onto his desk.

At that, he did lookup. His eyes scanned along the length of the weapon before he brushed it aside. “So, they had the spoils of a battlefield. What of it?”

“Doesn't it concern you that they had Ofprovian weapons?”

“Did they actually use them against you?” He asked, looking back at his notes.

Looking away meant Celeste didn't have to try so hard to hide the guilt of her lies on her face. “They did not.”

“Then I see no reason to be concerned. Did they have many?”

“Only the two.”

“No reason at all for concern. I will make a note of it, in case we do start seeing them in use. But I doubt they would, the Ofprovians are keeping their new toys under very careful watch, even from us.” He sighed before continued his writing. “If that is all, you are dismissed. Don't bother with the report. I have more important matters to concern myself with.”

Celeste stepped closer and glanced at his desk. He had a lot more on it than usual, which was an accomplishment. Stacks of reports, maps, pages and pages of his own notes. “Why have you been so distracted these last couple of weeks?” She asked.

He took a heavy breath, seeming to consider, before speaking. “I'm working on a grand strategy that should see us through the end of this war.”

“Just as the King asked?” Celeste narrowed her eyes at him.

“Yes.” He put down his pen now to look up at her. “You know my intentions in this. If anything can win his favour, then I am going to do it. And only I have the mind for this.”

Celeste rolled her eyes at his arrogance, but it was to be expected by now. “Didn't you say that a strategy like this wouldn't work, that it needed to be adapted as you go?”

“Of course. And I will be here to adapt it. But having a broad plan should be enough to impress the King.” Tosetti smiled a little, staring off into nothing behind Celeste. He snapped back to attention and nodded. “Get some rest. I don't want you getting consumed. You will be a big help to any strategy I can come up with.”

Celeste didn't find much comfort in that sentiment, but she nodded and left. She needed the rest.

With nothing else to do with her day, Celeste headed into the nearby woodlands. The joint command camp was far bigger than any previous one she'd stayed at, even after the Imperial and Royal contingents returned to their respective capitals. She didn't like the size. Maybe there had been a point where the idea of living in a city appealed to her, but now she couldn't even imagine being comfortable in a village. Solitude was all she longed for. In the early days of the war, she had taken to spending most of her evenings with her men. It was difficult to meet their eyes these days.

So, she set off through the dense woods, running, leaping high into the air, breathing in the fresh, damp air. The trees were covered over with moss and vines hung down around her. As summer crept in in earnest, the warmth let the forest flourish. Birds and deer and things too small for her to acknowledge scattered in her wake. As she burst above the treeline in an inhuman bound, she noticed a break in the trees where a river ran.

She didn't slow her pace until she was almost at the water's edge. The river widened for a dozen metres, forming a waist-high pool of slow-moving water. It was clear, crisp, inviting. Vines dangled into it, the gnarled roots of larger trees dipping into it for refreshment. And stood in the middle of it, was Melanie.

Although she'd removed her uniform, she was still dressed in clothes made of some light fabric. It pulled tight around her wrists and her head was wrapped in a scarf as usual. When Celeste had burst in, she had been scrubbing her body with a rough cloth.

The two paused for a moment on seeing each other. They looked intently, sizing each other up. Neither yet knew how they were supposed to interact, never mind in such an inopportune meeting. Finally, Celeste broke the silence.


“Your pronunciation is better than I remember.” Melanie's lips twitched into a very slight smile.

“What do you mean, my-” Celeste cut herself off when she realised that, unconsciously, she had slipped into the greeting of Melanie's language that she had been taught many years ago. “I didn't notice I had.”

“I'm glad that you remember.” She turned her attention back to scrubbing herself.

“What are you doing out here? This seems like the opposite of how you soothe,” Celeste said, moving to sit on a large root. It was harder to feel anger at Melanie here, in such a calming place. Maybe it was the coolness of the air soothing her spirit that did it. Maybe it was just the sight of water unlocking something deep in her subconscious.

“I'm not soothing,” Melanie said without looking up. “I'm just washing.”

“With all your clothes on?”

“We aren't all that far from camp, I didn't want to be stumbled upon nude. You're proving I was right to be concerned.”

“I would have thought war would have relaxed you a bit. I never did get why you always wear that scarf.”

“It's a religious thing, you wouldn't get it,” She said quickly, looking away from Celeste.

“Don't start with that. We're both heretics out here, remember?” Celeste ran a hand along her braid as she spoke to emphasise her point.

Melanie sighed but nodded. “Right. It is all part of a concept called, well there isn't an exact translation in a language you speak. Veiling is the best approximation, keeping your body hidden from wider society. The only people I would take it off around are my family and in a space with other women.”

Celeste sat forward, intrigued. “You never took it off when it was just me around though.”

Melanie turned her face away suddenly, shrugging. “We've never been somewhere that no one could walk in on us. The library was very public. Besides,” She seemed to regain some composure now. “We're of different faiths. That's part of it, you wouldn't understand so I couldn't trust you to be respectful.”

“I don't get why you bother just to keep men from seeing you.” Celeste shrugged. “I mean, it's just your hair.”

“I said you wouldn't understand. Hair means something different to you, right? It's a way of expressing your faith, through braiding and displaying that. Well, veiling is a way of expressing faith for me.”

Celeste hummed thoughtfully and nodded. “Okay, I can see that.”

“Like you said, we're both heretics here. Being so far from home, the symbols of my people mean a lot more than even they once did.” She let out a puff of air. “And in the face of the Ofprovians, I've always clung tighter to my beliefs.”

That made sense to Celeste. Fighting this war, fighting to protect her homeland and their beliefs, she had felt that connection stronger than before. As she had trained to fight at Tricapon, she had discarded her old uniform that had suited the styles of her homeland for a sleek, efficient uniform. She had barely thought to mark the traditional ceremonies she had grown up with. Yet now, even if they didn't get any time off for them, the soldiers marked every day of celebration as well as they could manage. Maybe it was that she wasn't a heretic among them, not like Melanie was around the Ofprovian soldiers.

“The Ofprovians brought in men from the east, has that helped?”

“Helped with what?”

“I don't know, that feeling, being the heretic.”

“I haven't had time to think of it like that. It's been all the more work for me, since we speak the same language they assumed I would be suited to convey their orders. It's not that simple. Many of their commanders don't respect a wizard to lead them.” She glanced up and saw the confusion on Celeste face, the confusion of a woman who had been met with almost nothing but respect as a wizard. “It is...Also more complicated.”

Celeste nodded, not wanting to push Melanie to explain any more than she was willing to. Instead, she reached down and pulled off her boots, tossing them aside.

“Do you mind if I join you in the water?”

Melanie turned her head away again, focusing on scrubbing herself again. “Why would I mind? It's not my water.”

“I meant...Well, you don't mind me taking clothes off?” She stopped with her fingers on the cold brass of her jacket buttons.

“It's my faith, not yours. Do whatever will make you comfortable.” She spoke more rapidly than usual.

Celeste hesitated for a moment more before slipping out of her outer uniform. She kept her undergarments on. It was hot enough that they would dry quickly when she got out. As she slipped into the water, she examined Melanie, her covered body half turned away. She rippled in her reflection, the movement reminding Celeste of how she moved in battle, the smooth darting of a master wizard.

It was strange to have left anything on, Celeste thought. She had no issue with Melanie seeing her naked yet she felt it was respectful. All interactions should be, after all, reciprocal. She reflected Melanie, making them more alike in how they communicated. It was why Celeste had greeted Melanie in her mother tongue. Why Celeste used more Ofprovian words when speaking to her, and why Melanie used more Laocienan in return. How they spoke, how they dressed, how they behaved, in all ways they had become more similar in the years they had known one another. Even down to what they were willing to do for what they believed in.

“You know,” Celeste said softly, running her palm along the surface of the water. “You're probably the reason I became such a good wizard.”

Melanie looked up at Celeste with a slightly stunned look. “What did I have to do with anything?”

“I trained so hard because I wanted to be better than you. You were like this...Burning light, someone so dedicated, so determined. I wished I could have had a clear aim in life. You always had that, or seemed to.”

Melanie was silent for a few moments and Celeste began to worry she had offended her in some way. Melanie's hand rose up through the water and for a moment Celeste thought she was going to take hold of hers. Instead, she brought it just above the surface, mirroring the other woman's action. As she brought her hand up high, breaking the surface of the water, a ball of water rose up with it, spinning slightly.

“It is...sweet of you to say, I suppose.” She didn't make eye contact in this time, instead focusing on her ball of water. “But we've both ended up here, in the same place, the same situation. Maybe you became too like me.” As she spoke, the ball morphed into a surprisingly accurate model of Celeste's head. “Do you still hate me?”

Celeste considered it, examining her own feelings closely, before nodding. “Peace between our nations doesn't change how I feel. I suppose you are going to call me a hypocrite.”

“I still believe you are, but that's isn't what I was planning to say.” She paused for a moment and the water morphed again into her own face. “But tell me, can you forgive yourself for what you've done?”

“Where are you going with this?” Celeste felt anger flaring up in her, her voice rising, though she didn't want to face why this made her so angry.

“I'm not going to tell you why you feel how you do. But I wonder, is anger at me a way to ignore the anger you feel for yourself?” She froze the water in her hand and spun it around, revealing both of their faces on either side.

It was an incredible piece of artwork, even if it had been aided by magic. Celeste plucked it from her hand. “You shouldn't try to tell me how I feel, because you have no idea.” She pelted the ice at the nearest tree and watched it shatter, ice sinking into the river.

You are only so angry now because she is right. Her spirit whispered with a smugness in its voice.

“I'm sorry, I didn't-”

Celeste raised a hand to cut Melanie off and drifted away. She moved to the edge of the river and sat on a rocky outcrop, letting the cold water rise up to cover her shoulders. They stayed like that for a while, ignoring one another. The sounds of the forest around them grew deafeningly loud for a moment in Celeste's mind. Relaxing was becoming something of a distant memory, even somewhere as calm as this.

“I like rivers a lot,” She said after a while, bringing her foot up to poke through the surface. “There aren't many in the highlands. They were always something remote, down in the valleys.”

“Where did you get your water from then?” Melanie asked, sounding more confused than anything.

“There were springs, or we dug wells.”

“You'd have to be digging for a while. I only saw your plateaus at a distance but they were taller than I expected.”

“There's plenty of underground water in them. You don't have to go especially deep. It always tasted better than the water at Tricapon,” She said wistfully.

“You know, there's not much I've had a choice in in my life. I've been duty-bound to take the path I'm on. But I did choose a river spirit to bind to.” Melanie raised her hand, cupping the clear water in it and watching it trickle out. “I suppose that makes it special.”

“Why did you pick a river?” Celeste leaned forwards, curious now.

“It's stupid.”

“All the more reason to tell me.”

Melanie sighed but explained, keeping her face turned away from Celeste. “It is so stupid, not at all logical. I didn't think it would be an especially strong spirit and it wasn't. But, well, blue is my favourite colour.”

Celeste blinked a couple of times before bursting into a fit of laughter. “I always thought you wore a blue headscarf because of the river spirit.”

“No, I've worn a blue one since I was a child, since I was old enough to pick one. Stop laughing!” She complained.

“But it's so funny.” Celeste took a quivering breath to steady herself. “You're so serious, such a perfect student and soldier and yet the most important decision you could make, one that affects everything you can do as a wizard, you based on something so simple.” She broke back into laughter and this time Melanie laughed with her. The water rippled out around them, disturbing insects that were darting along its surface.

“Fine,” Melanie said, breathing heavily to recover from the laughing. “It is funny. But don't tell anyone else.”

“It will be our secret.” Celeste took a while to recover, letting air fill her lungs again at last. Her chest ached. It had been too long since she'd found something to laugh like that about. “I don't think I've ever seen you laugh like that.” She added.

Having recovered from laughing, Melanie looked thoughtful for a moment. “I suppose you haven't. War does seems to have...relaxed me a bit, in some ways.”

“You seem to be the only one who can laugh more now,” Celeste said dryly.

“That's not exactly what I meant. I've never spent so much of my life around little people like you before. Even at Tricapon, you were only a minority there.”

“Little people?”

“You know what I mean. Commoners. Just, your lives are so simple, I'd never fully got that before.”

“I don't know what about this you think sounds good,” Celeste said, standing up.

She is out of touch. And unsoothed. You could kill her right here.

“No, I'm just trying to say-”

“Don't bother saying anything.” Celeste turned and grabbed her clothes. “I see you haven't changed so much.” And with that she leapt away, leaving Melanie alone and letting her rage cool off in the heat of the day.