Bears. At home in the Stilts, we barely had deer, let alone the fabled monsters of the backcountry. The lumberyards, logging teams, and river traffic were enough to drive away any animal bigger than a raccoon, but the Greatwoods region teems with wildlife. Great antlered stags, curious foxes, and the occasional howl of a wolf all haunt the hills and valleys. I’ve yet to see one of the lumbering bears, but Kilorn and the other hunters spotted one weeks ago. Only Farrah’s muffling abilities and Kilorn’s good sense to keep downwind kept them safe from its jaws.
“Where did you learn so much about bears?” I ask, if only to fill the air with idle conversation. Ada knows exactly what I’m doing, but humors me anyways.
“Governor Rhambos likes to hunt,” she replies with a shrug. “He had an estate outside the city, and his sons filled it with strange beasts for him to kill. Bears, especially. Beautiful creatures, with black fur and keen eyes. They were peaceful enough, if left alone, or attended to by our game warden. Little Rohr, the governor’s daughter, wanted a cub for her own, but the bears were killed before any could breed.”
I remember Rohr Rhambos. A strongarm who looked like a mouse but could pulverize stone with her own two hands. She competed in Queenstrial so long ago, when I was a maid just like Ada.
“I don’t suppose what the governor did could actually be called hunting,” Ada continues. Sadness poisons her voice. “He put them in a pit, where he could fight the animals and break their necks. His sons did it too, for their training.”
Bears sound like ferocious, fearsome beasts, but Ada’s manner tells me otherwise. Her glazed eyes can only mean she’s seen the pit herself, and remembers every second of it. “That’s awful.”
“You killed one of his sons, you know. Ryker was his name. He was one of your chosen executioners.”
I never wanted to know his name. I never asked about the ones I killed in the Bowl of Bones, and no one ever told me. Ryker Rhambos, electrocuted on the sand of the arena, reduced to nothing more than his blackened flesh.
“Beg pardon, miss. I did not mean to upset you.” Her calm mask has returned, and with it, the perfect manners of a woman raised as a servant. With her ability, I can only imagine how terrible it must have been, seeing but not speaking, never able to prove her worth or reveal her true self. But it’s even worse to think that, unlike me, she can’t hide behind the shield of an imperfect mind. She knows and feels so much that it threatens to pull her down. Like me, she must keep running.
“I’m only upset when you call me that. Miss, I mean.”
“A habit, I’m afraid.” She shifts, reaching for something inside her blankets. I hear the distinct sound of crinkling paper, and expect to see another news bulletin detailing Maven’s coronation tour. Instead, Ada reveals a very official-looking document, albeit a crumpled one with singed edges. It bears the red sword of the Nortan army. “Shade took this off that officer in Corvium.”
“The one I fried.” I trace the burned paper, feeling the rough, black material threatening to disintegrate. Strange, this survived where its holder could not. “Preparations,” I mutter, deciphering the order. “For relief legions.”
She nods. “Ten legions, to replace the nine holding the Choke trenches.”
Storm Legion, Hammer Legion, Sword Legion, Shield Legion—their names and numbers are listed plainly. Five thousand Red soldiers in each, with another five hundred Silver officers. They’re converging on Corvium before traveling together into the Choke, to relieve the soldiers on the lines. A terrible thing, but not something that interests me.
“Good that we’ve already checked Corvium” is all I can think to say. “At least we avoided a few thousand Silver officers passing through.”
But Ada puts a gentle hand on my arm, her long, able fingers cold even through my sleeve. “Ten to replace nine. Why?”
“A push?” Again, I don’t understand why this is my problem. “Maven might want to make a show of it, demonstrate what a warrior he is, to make everyone forget Cal—”
“Not likely. Trench assaults warrant at least fifteen legions, five to guard, ten to march.” Her eyes flicker back and forth, as if she can see a battle in her mind’s eye. I can’t help but raise my eyebrows. As far as I know, we don’t have any tactics guides lying around. “The prince is well versed in warfare,” she explains. “He’s a good teacher.”
“Have you shown Cal this?”
Her hesitation is the only answer I need.
“I believe it’s a kill order,” she murmurs, lowering her eyes. “Nine legions to take up their posts, and the tenth to die.”
But this is crazy, even for Maven. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone waste five thousand good soldiers?”
“Their official name is the Dagger Legion.” She points to the corresponding word on the paper. Like the others, it contains five thousand Reds, and is heading straight for the trenches. “But Governor Rhambos called them something else. The Little Legion.”
“The Little—?” My brain catches up. Suddenly I’m back on the island of Tuck, in the medical ward, with the Colonel breathing down my neck. He was planning to trade Cal, to use him to save the five thousand children now marching into an early grave. “The new conscripts. The kids.”
“Fifteen to seventeen years old. The Dagger is the first of the child legions the king has deemed ‘combat ready.’” She doesn’t bother to hide her scoff. “Barely two months of training, if that.”
I remember what I was like at fifteen. Even though I was still a thief, I was small and silly, more concerned with bothering my sister than with my future. I thought I still had a chance of escaping conscription. Rifles and ash-blown trenches had not yet begun to haunt my dreams.
“They’ll be slaughtered.”
Ada settles back into her blankets, her face grim. “I believe that’s the idea.”
I know what she wants, what many would want if they knew about Maven’s orders for the child army. The kids about to be sent into the Choke are a consequence of the Measures, a way to punish the kingdom for the Scarlet Guard’s insurrection. It feels as if I’ve sentenced them to death myself, and I don’t doubt many would agree. Soon there will be an ocean of blood on my hands, and I have no way of stopping it. Innocent blood, like the baby’s in Templyn.
“We can’t do anything for them.” I drop my gaze, not wanting to see the disappointment in Ada’s eyes. “We can’t fight whole legions.”
“Can you think of a way to help them?” I cut her off, my voice harsh with anger. It cows her into defeated silence. “Then how could I?”
“Of course. You’re right. Miss.”
The proper title stings, as she meant it to. “I leave you to your watch,” I mumble, standing up from the log, march order still in hand. Slowly, I fold it up and tuck it away, deep into a pocket.
Every body is a message to you
Surrender to me, and it will stop.
“We fly for Pitarus in a few hours.” Ada already knows our recruitment plans for the day, but telling her again gives me something to do. “Cal’s piloting, so give Shade a list of whatever supplies we might need.”
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