Constantia straightened up, tearing her eyes away from the task lying before her on the work surface. The polished vastness, which stared back at her six days out of seven, to seemingly eye-wateringly far horizons, had a dullness this late in the day, as she made herself stop looking at one more, just one more.
You are not a child, Constantia, she said internally, severity in her tone to self. Learn to know when it is time to stop.
So she put her hands out, flattened, on the surface, and pushed up, enjoying the sheer, near decadent pleasure of that first stretch which only comes after a long day’s concentration over small, intricate, tasks.
She felt the vertebrae in her neck click back into their rightful homes – snap snipper snipper snap – as she reached her arms high, high above her head, and yawned; a deep, satisfied, wideness, a noiseless bellowing, as if she could take freedom and fresh, clean air in through an act of tired.
Then she got up fully, went over to the hygiene station, and after, nodded almost imperceptibly at the motionless guard standing ready for her command. With her curious, gliding walk – often imitated, never bettered – she moved to her outdoor coverings, hanging on the stand beside the door. In one swift and precise movement her beauty was lightly veiled, hidden from the curious and the envious, the threatening and lustful eyes of the wider world; sable cloak firmly pulled in place around her shoulders, and buttoned to a wide swaddling close, high on her neck.
Constantia nodded once more to the guard. What an impenetrable concrete pylon he was, she said silently to herself, not for the first time, in the privacy of her own deeply quiet insides. Big boring pile of cement. Immutable. Immovable. Holding Fast. That was the motto of the Clarions. They were rock. You could think of them as personal fortresses, as forts; there to hold against the horror of the Banshee Ni’ild and their obsequious Kant Edda followers, their dull-metal armour giving an incomplete reflection of the sun. The thought of that ferrous-sheened hardness and all it implied made even her shiver, and pause for a moment; but she squared her shoulders and indicated to him her readiness to depart.
As they walked along the wide, echoing tunnel out to the street, where the Clarion had already summoned the transport module for their parse home, he uncharacteristically broke the silence. She jumped a little internally, hearing the cement block’s voice crack through the surface.
“If I may… I have a request.
She nodded, surprised at his ready use of her formal title. It was no secret the Clarions as a body thought themselves above even the highest-ranked civilian government officials, and rarely accorded them other than the token respect afforded their station. She couldn’t really blame them; most of the Senate and their toadies were unbearably arrogant.
“Of course, Clarion – I apologise, I don’t know your Phalanx?” This said in a smooth, cool, tone with a light query.
“No need to apologise”, his response came, in a tone she recognised with a startle of vague amusement as almost matching her own in its light frost, and also its accustom to command.
“It’s Alpha Phalanx, Judiciaris. My praenomen is Justinian.”
No wonder the frost-coated response, was her first thought. An Alpha Phalanx Clarion as her guard! What had he done to blot his copybook, she wondered, to keep him away from the usual front-line duties afforded his level of expertise? Despite her position, they rarely spared the best to protect her. After all, there was little real point. Then, as he gave his first name, she stopped. A gut reaction. He automatically stopped with her, the steel-strong planes of his face giving nothing away.
“Justinian? But why – never mind. Please, ask your question, Alpha Phalanx Clarion Commander Justinian.” This time, there was less of the smooth coolness, and far more straight ice.
He lifted the corner of his mouth in what, if he were an ordinary person, Constantia would have described as a smile. In him, she suspected it was more an acknowledgement of a direct hit.
“Thank you, Judiciaris. I would like to enquire, if I may, as to your findings. With this particular project, I mean. It may be evident” – and here, it was clear the words were being picked with a great deal of care – “that the Clarions as a whole will be affected by whatever outcome, or conclusion, you draw, and thus I have a personal… interest, may be the best way to express myself here.
“Yes. I think that is correct. Personal interest.”
He looked at her then. Really looked at her, as opposed to the usual style of her Clarion guards, which involved one-worded exchanges and their steadfast acknowledgement of a vague area somewhere over her right ear.
She stared at him.
“A personal interest, Alpha Phalanx Commander? Is this supposed to appeal to my feminine sensibilities in some way? What is it you think you are aware of, to believe using the word personal will end in my acquiescing, and telling you what you want to know?”
She knew she sounded irritated, and for once, she didn’t care. Let the ice queen mask drop a little; revealed the human underneath.
She realised, later, just how long it had been since she’d allowed herself the gift of showing any kind of emotion, let alone anger, and was both sorry and fiercely glad she’d buckled.
“I am aware, Judiciaris” – and she heard again the carefulness with which he spoke, the unheard words behind those aired – “of … shall we use the word personal here, too” – a touch of irony, laced with sadness (oh he did know, he did) – “of your own personal attachment to these proceedings.
“I do not ask lightly, or with intent to reveal what you tell me. This, I promise you. My word as a Clarion. My word as a soldier.”
He looked her squarely in the eye, and she saw determination, hard determination in his face, but also a glimmer of empathy.
She wasn’t sure whether to be disarmed or threatened by the latter. But the sincerity accompanying his look was real enough, so she considered a moment, made him wait ten beats more, and told him what she could.
“Here is the truth of it, Commander Justinian. So far, we have seen twenty-three deaths at the hands of the Banshee Ni’ild in one lunar cyclical alone.”
He interrupted, his voice strained.
“Twenty-three? The Clarion Call are only aware of fourteen!”
“Yes”, she agreed. “You are. But now at least one of your number is aware of more, so let’s move on, shall we?”
He conceded her point, gestured to her to please, continue.
She frowned, thinking of how to present the findings in a way that provided at least a shred of logic, of a connection somewhere between those taken.
“Each victim has been either a member of the Clarion Call, your own high command, or of the Senate. Ours. There have been some superficial links between a few, but not anything substantial. The bodies, or rather, the remains – that is where the relationship, if I am not being ludicrous in the way I put it – where the relationship lies.”
She had been striding forward again whilst talking, he easily keeping pace, a frown intent on that diamond hard face. She went on, quickly, efficiently, now fully in her Judiciaris persona, giving data. An automaton, unfeeling and unworried. She slipped into it almost subconsciously, as it gave her heart permission to speak without emotion.
“Each one was untouched, apart from two identical swipes through each side of the chest, and the shoulders. The women have been so deeply cut, their breasts have almost been severed from their rib cages. The men” – and here it was her turn to look straight at him, making him catch his breath, and almost stumble, so filled with darkness was that glance, even through her veil –
“The men were flayed to the bone.”
Blinking, she continued.
“Other than that, there is no sign of any interference, which in and of itself is unusual enough to present cause for concern. The concern of course is exacerbated by the high positions each victim held. We don’t know if this is an attempt, once and for all, to seize power. Whether the Banshee Ni’ild feel they finally have the numbers, with the dubious support of those cretins, the Kant Edda, to win. More frightening, naturally, and the reason there has been such secrecy in ensuring the numbers of those dead, is that they have finally found some way to overcome the obvious barriers to victory.
“I trust I don’t have to spell any more details out to you, Alpha Phalanx Commander Justinian.” She paused, and this time, she halted, and pulled her veil aside. Her look at him now was full of winter, of snow and steel and the cries of men dying as they fell, dying screaming in their own blood from the Banshee Ni’ild’s embrace.
He recognised the look. It was the look of a dog-tired veteran. Of someone who had fought and wished never to fight again. It was one he wore on days when the younger Clarions, the new intakes, were blasé in their watch, in their attention to detail. In their uniform and their arms.
“If the Banshee Ni’ild are systematically targeting the upper echelons, if they feel as confident in success as that…”
He answered for her.
“We don’t have a chance. Not a chance in hell.”
She pulled the veil back, nodded briskly, and told him it was time to be on their way. He nodded absently back, falling in behind, allowing her to again set the pace to the transport. He didn’t attempt to ask anything else. She’d told him all he needed to know. More than he needed to know.
Because how did the Judiciaris – the position representing the bastion of civilian civility, of bureaucratic thinking, sneered at by the entire Clarion Call even as they saluted, come to understand what battle meant? Internally he was intrigued, even as that concrete visage moved back in, ready to face the world ahead.
Blinking slightly, both of them, from the inevitable change in light as they came out of the tunnel to the transport bay, the usual crowds waited for the Judiciaris to appear. Waving, smiling, shrieking their approval. Most of them, anyway. Oh, there were the usual few rabble-rousers, one or two low-level Kant Edda thugs lurking in the background, waiting to see if there were any mental pickings to be had; but today it was evident there were no Cassandras or Narcissi in the crowd for them to glean predictions or beauty from, and their venture out from their foetid holes a wasted journey.
Justinian saw the Judiciaris, as he had already observed in their short time together, was as usual distant from the people, had withdrawn into herself, even as she waved, lightly, acknowledging their praise. Now he had some understanding as to why, her total coolness was less surprising, less so than it had been on his first day, watching as she calmly eviscerated the body of one of her own Senators on that immense steel surface, watching as she continued to post-mortem and report on those who had been attacked.
Watching, mercifully shielded from view, as she took apart the body of his best friend, Gaius, the commanding officer of Bravo Phalanx, second only to him in expectation of the Crown one day, and muttered her thoughts into an invisible device, drawing conclusions even as he stood resolute, and screamed inside.
Constantia, meanwhile, was present as it was possible to be behind the veiling, with the vision of twenty-three slain men and women dancing behind her eyes, like a macabre ballet, persistent in one thing; a plea to know why they were gone. She didn’t dare look at Justinian, was furious with herself for revealing even a shred of emotion. Furious she had allowed him to get under the guard of the Judiciaris, to see a hint of self. To see her, Constantia, rather than a position. He had almost gotten under her sc – under her skin! Vaguely, the cheers, the calls of “the Gods bless you, our Judiciaris!” penetrated, but it was through a fog of silk and regret. Careful, she told herself. Careful.
They were five steps from the transport, neither of them fully at home in their mental awareness, both of them readying themselves for the severity of a parse, when she felt it.
Felt the thrum, the edge of wind and noise and fire oh it was upon them it was beautiful it was horror oh it was death ridiculous mortals death to you today –
And she came back to herself in a blaze of realisation, the screams of the watching crowd breaking through her tired brain, and saw them.
Banshee Ni’ild. Five of them. Half their High Court. Coming in on the wing, ready for the kill.
Justinian tensed, his armour instantly going into attack frame, iron-clad scales shooting outwards from its semi-civilised facade, his silver-buttoned epaulets and chest plate looking out of place beside the bleaker metal, his iron greatsword appearing from nowhere to be gripped with ease and comfort. His eyes were hard, assessing, as he tried without success to push her down to safety behind him.
The Ni’ild were almost upon them, and she knew it was too late for it, twenty-three bodies too late, but a swirl of realisation went through her spine as she saw the sunlight winking off his shoulders, a frivolity which had no place here, not now. Then the Banshee Ni’ild burst through the parse field, the weakness in the sphere, and she no longer had time to contemplate her knowledge, but simply to react, react as she had always done, and watch as the public realised exactly what their cold, calm Judiciaris was made of.
She tore the veil, the sumptuous cloak from her, not even noticing as the wooden buttons fell from its embracing collar, as they danced and sang in the gutter. Not noticing anything but a need to protect her Clarion, to stop the high fey from taking their twenty-fourth souvenir.
The command razored its way into Justinian’s hindbrain, forcing him to his knees. No – I must not, he tried, but the mental presence huffed, repeated its order.
I said. Get. Down.
He had no choice. It was submission or explosion, nothing but shattered bones and blood from resisting a force he didn’t know was possible. He raised his head, shaking, and saw the Judiciaris — Constantia — stalk forward, even as the Banshee Ni’ild descended. Oh, God, no, no, no –
And the world was a blur of anger, of primitive heat, of iron-tinged light, as the Judiciaris revealed the reason she went veiled, why she seldom formed relationships, why she was known as a woman easy to guard, hard to fathom.
Then, just as suddenly or so it seemed days, months after, the blur of brilliant lizard anger winked out. The Banshee Ni’ild were gone. The crowd was silent — no, the crowd was frozen. And Constantia was back, by his side, smoothing the veil into place, asking him calmly to please, get up, as their transport slot would not be open forever.
He followed her numbly onto the platform, watched as she strapped herself into position. Watched as she took out a small device, spoke into it, and nodded, seemingly satisfied with the answer given. As she brushed what looked like – oh yes, it was, wasn’t it oh shit – fairy skin ash from her fur cloak, unconcerned.
He strapped himself in.
She nodded again, approvingly.
Six minutes, six thousand kilometres and an eternity later, they were at her front door. He had taken the hint from her silence in the parsing; he was simply a Clarion, irrespective of his rank. Of their connection. She would not tell him anything of her disposal of five royals of the Banshee Ni’ild. He would not ask about the nature of the infiltration and said disposal. In turn, he decided, she would never have the right to ask how he had known to not fight against her.
The dragon known as Constantia, as the Judiciaris, paused. Took the veil off, and sighed.
“Well”, she said. “I suppose you should come in, and I will tell you — if not all, then as much of myself as I can.
“But in turn, Clarion, you can tell me” and for a second the dragon, the iron-toothed, iron-clawed beast of nightmare, of wing and fang and prowling blood, peered out of her exasperated, suddenly panther-slitted green gaze –
“Why, exactly, it is, that so many apparently intelligent people would not realise how dangerous it was to wear gold and silver prominently displayed on their uniforms and clothing, when the cravings of the Banshee Ni’ild for the metals has never been higher? When every man and woman of the plebeian court knows to wear nothing but wood, or bronze, or iron?”
Her eyes glinted, then the cat pupils were gone, her eyes green as glass but otherwise normal, as she shook her head, placed her hand on the doorpad, and stepped through, beckoning him to follow.
“Honestly” her voice floated back to him, over her shoulder, as he realised with a certain degree of thrilled horror that he was stepping into a dragon’s hoard –
“Humans. Only humans could be torn apart for buttons. Buttons!! What vanity and waste!”
- and he remembered this dragon in front of him, a dragon who had just taken five of the highest life-forms and scattered their bones like twigs across the landscape, who had done that in a heartbeat, who had turned and struck again and again in a systemic display of restrained brutality without pausing and without regret.
Who was now laughing at him with a cheerful scorn for the truly ridiculous crime of wearing precious metals as ornamentation when high fey were at large.
Buttons. He looked sidelong at his own armour, where the iron had been scraped by a Banshee’s clawed hand, ready to burn for the sake of a pure silver buttoned epaulet, even as it retreated hissing. The ridiculousness of it all, the deaths of twenty-three for the sake of civilised dressing, hit him; and he snorted, lighter than he’d been in years, lighter than that mystical time before the first Fey Wars.
And he turned, and followed his dragon, his Judiciaris, as she huffed laughter at man’s hubris down into the depths of the earth.