The rain was, as rain does, falling on absolutely everybody and everything, but, as Minor did, she felt as though it was falling solely to make her life more difficult.
"Form up!" she barked. Her voice echoed cavernously within the helmet, which was two sizes too large, and had a spike on top. The helmet had been Drake's idea. "It makes you look bigger," he said. And somewhat more intimidating and commanding; the unspoken implication.
The officers under her scurried about through the driving rain, while the troops of Gold Division shuffled uneasily, slowly churning the earth of the battlefield into mud. Faintly, through the sluggish toil of the mist brought by the rain, she saw a white shape on a white horse, silver sword in hand, prancing back and forth in front of White Division. Random. Officially declared detoxed and hastily given a command equal to Minor's own. It galled. Like the rain, Random seemed in that moment solely to exist to make her life less pleasant.
Her own horse stood nearby, a towering black with white socks and slash of grey on its muzzle. It was new. She'd broken the back of the last in using it as a jumping-off point to reach one of the apparently innumerable Melnibonean dragons, which had been hosing down her left flank with fire. Its largest fang, along with a half-dozen others from previous kills, sat in a small pouch at the bottom of the chest in her tent.
I wish I was back in my tent right now, she thought. A drop of rain hit her in the open eye, bringing involuntary tears. She snarled her annoyance, blinking to clear it, then cast her head around. "Hurry up!" she snapped. Her voice sounded thin and shrill to her ears; in the distance, Random's troops were already advancing. "Get a move on! Keep it up with the plan, damn it!"
Useless, she thought, useless the whole lot of them. Just her luck, or maybe not luck, to have Drake stick her with the worst division in the whole army. The only explanation for the high casualties, the failed operations... she always came through just fine, and woe to any Melnibonean who got in her way...
Random's forces would engage the Melniboneans guarding the hilltop objective any moment now, and her forces were still...
"Go!" she snapped, grabbing the saddle horn and yanking herself up into the saddle. Her horse stumbled and nearly fell on her, but regained his balance. She snapped her heels against his flanks, and he winced, then broke into a trot. The troops followed behind her. Random's own troops were overrunning the Melnibonean lines like a flood eating away at a riverbank; slow, steady, inevitable. Up on the hill, the Melnibonean sorcerer- prince (or prince-sorcerer, or maybe sorcerer-priest, or perhaps a priest-prince; she only knew enough about the Melniboneans to recognize him as someone important by the ludicrously baroque ornament of his armour and his big dragon-winged helmet) gestured with his staff and howled something in their sorcerer's tongue. Fire licked through the air at Random, burning a steaming tunnel through the rain, and she canted her horse aside (darn, thought Minor) from the blast. Behind her, troops screamed and fell, armour fused and melting.
"Split the troops," Minor ordered, turning her head to her subordinates. "Hawk Battalion to the flank of the reinforcing division, with me; Lieutenant Colonel Markus, hit their rear with Dove Battalion after we engage."
"Yes, Colonel." Markus wheeled and swung his horse away, shouting orders. The agonizing slowness of infantry, their cloddish marching feet. If she didn't have to stay with her troops, she could be there already. Another drop of water hit her in the eye. Fuck this, she thought, and pulled off her helmet to toss it into the mud. Her braids uncoiled down her back; two of them, easier to roll up under the helmet. I must look about twelve years old, she thought, annoyed. She was certain she heard one of her officers snicker. Fuck this and fuck them all, she thought. She reached down and pulled her silver glove from her belt and slipped it on her left hand. Rain glistened on the mirrored surface, and she held it up to stare at her own face reflected murkily in the palm. There were dark circles under her eyes. Rain began to plaster her hair to her forehead.
Fifty feet. Forty. She drew the cavalry sabre her rank obligated her to carry. Thirty, twenty. Arrows began to fall upon her troops, and flung spears. She batted them aside with her gloved hand if they came too near her. Ten. There was a twanging sound she'd learned to recognize. She nudged her horse to the side and brought her right elbow down, hard; the ballista bolt snapped in half and fell in two pieces, digging deep into the muddy earth.
Contact. Black-armoured Melniboneans exchanged swordplay with the gold-edged green and white of her division. She made a few faint and obligatory blows with her sabre, demonstrating to a slightly-swordplay-superior sergeant of Melnibone (she thought he was a sergeant, he had a slightly bigger silly helmet than the rest) that slight superiority was inadequate when your opponent is many times stronger than you, then "lost" the sabre by throwing it through the head of a Melnibonean infantryman and began to swing from side to side in the saddle, breaking necks with blows from her heels and shattering armoured chests with an occasional thrust of her gloved hand.
Random was fighting the sorcerer-prince (or whatever he was) now. He was good. She was better. He overreached himself, and she thrust her sword through his heart, and he fell. Even at this distance, Minor could that her slightly-charred white uniform was covered in blood.
Someone howled invectives in Thari with a Melnibonean accent. She turned and threw out her gloved hand. Sparks flew as a whining (or weakly howling) off-white runesword with a guard that looked more suited to the spire of a Gothic cathedral than to a weapon bounced off of the surface. The big-helmeted Melnibonean (four dragon wings, she thought, how impressive) who wielded it looked very surprised (another sorcerer-prince? No way to tell, she couldn't properly judge the scale of this one's helmet against the one Random had just felled), and then she slapped him aside with her other hand and he fell into the midst of her troops. Then rose again, screeching and whipping his sword round his head in a wide arc, sending limbs and heads and men falling to mingle with earth and rain upon the ground.
"I proclaim mine self Earl Ergo of Melnibone!" he cried, spinning his sword in an impressive manner and stabbing one of her captains through a lung (or maybe both) as the man tried to rush him from behind. "Face me, whore of Amber, if thou dare!"
Minor shrugged. "Okay."
"Once Starshadower hath drunk thy soul, I shalt make thou a companion of mine bedchambers, where each night thou shall beg to pleasure me in ways thou cannot even imagine!"
Starshadower (the sword, she presumed) made a sound like an alley cat in heat.
Remember, she thought, Drake says to try and take important ones alive. She leapt down from her horse just as another ballista bolt took it through the neck. Hell, she thought. I sort of liked that horse.
"I am pleased you captured Earl Ergo during today's advance, Minor. He's somewhat important. The cousin of the nephew of a son of the king. Or something. We're still trying to sort it out."
"I am less pleased that in the process of chasing him down after you took his sword away you allowed your battalion to nearly be routed by the Melnibonean countercharge. Fortunately, Random was able to reinforce them while you held Earl Ego's head down in the mud and made him take back what he said about your mother."
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry. He ran surprisingly fast, and was able to hold his breath longer than I expected."
Drake looked at her over his steepled fingers for a moment longer, then unclasped them to rub his eyes. "And please stop losing horses."
"All right." He relaxed a little. "Remember that you are responsible for your troops as well as yourself."
"Look at how Random is. Don't make that face."
"Pardon me, sir, but I do not believe I am making one."
"It's important to be able to learn from people you don't like, Minor. Some people are born to command. You're not one of them. Random is. Learn from her."
There was a long pause.
"And you can call me Uncle Drake, you know."
"Yes, Uncle Drake."
Drake rubbed his eyes again, then put his hands down flat on the desk and stared at them. "You've got a long way to go."
"I know," she said quietly. "I know."
"Go back to your tent and get some rest. High command meeting at the usual time tomorrow."
Minor turned and walked out swiftly, nearly colliding (and not even on purpose) with Random's entrance.
"Excuse me there, Colonel MiNami?." Random grinned widely. As usual, Minor found herself oddly fixated on the even, white, and, to her eyes, slightly oversized teeth. "I've got a meeting with--hey, wait a tic, there."
Minor looked down at Random's hand on her arm as she would at a butterfly she was contemplating swatting. Then she realized Drake was undoubtedly watching them. "What is it, Colonel Random?" she said, sighing. The rain had gone from a torrential downpour to a spitting drizzle. Her hair was frizzing terribly.
"Colonel Random, yes." Random giggled. "Rather cute when you say that."
I loathe you, Minor thought. "Did you want something, Colonel Random?"
"I just wanted to say you were really great out there today. Showed that Earl Ego--"
"Whatever. Showed him what for, y'know?"
"Is that all?"
Random blinked at her, appearing surprised by the length of the conversation. "Well, we're having a card game tonight--"
"No thank you."
"Well, some other night, then."
You know perfectly well I will never willingly play a game of cards with you, Minor thought. Why do you torment me? "Perhaps."
"Be seeing you, then."
Minor took a step to walk away, then stopped. "How many dragon fangs do you have, Colonel Random?"
"How many dragon fangs? I have seven."
Random was silent for a moment. Her lips moved. "Four," she said eventually, holding up four fingers. "Two of them are from the same dragon, though."
"I see. Goodbye."
Minor went back to her tent smiling.
She carefully blew the tip of her right index finger dry and turned the page of Volume I of Tonkin's A General History of the War of the Dead.
Minor read the passage again, and again, and once more, then laid the book aside on the little table beside the portable copper tub.
What is the use, she thought, as she often did, of history, truly? So much of it is wrong. Not just the parts where the scholars can't agree, but the ones where they can all agree. Something being written in a book doesn't make it so. Poor Lord Franich, she thought, striving so hard to get at the truth. She remembered running with him as a giant squid tore a simulacrum of Ember to shreds. Poor foolish Lord Franich. There was no certainty. Forced to take a stand on the issue--the theory of it usually mattered little to her, only the power--she would have said that there was nothing out there in Shadow to find until someone with the strength wanted it found. That gave it life. That gave it existence. We bring worlds into being with each step we take, she thought.
She rose from the bath and dried her hair, then put it up wrapped in a towel and dried her body. Outside, beyond the thick canvas walls of her tent, she could hear the sounds of the gathered army; the talking, the coughing, the laughter, the clatter of dice. She pinned back her hair, then put on her pyjamas and robe, picked up Tonkin again, and settled back into her chair with a glass of wine. Beside her, wax dripped from the tall candle providing reading light, splashing into the glistening pool in the base.
Tonkin, she thought, you're a melodramatic idiot. She put the book aside and took van Gebler's Fearful Symmetry : Melnibonean Armour and Its Meanings from her pile. A first edition Panopticon University Press printing. Her parents had sent it to her for her birthday.
She flipped rapidly through the pages, trying to force herself to absorb information she thought was utterly useless. Why did she need to be able to distinguish a sorcerer-priest of Arioch from a sorcer-prince of Mashabak? Melniboneans were all the same anyway. Like oysters. You cracked the impressive shell, and found a disappointingly small amount of meat inside.
Half the story has never been told, she thought, unwillingly directing her eyes to the Tonkin volume again. Ha! What luck we'd be in if even half of it had. But the story can't be told. No one can know it. Ever. History was a map, and across it, over the entirety, blotting out any attempt to delineate a coastline, shape a continent, christen a city, trace the veined routes of trade, HERE THERE BE DRAGONS. She put van Gebler aside, atop Tonkin, then wet her index finger and thumb (from habit, not from need) and pinched out the candle with them. Then she sat in the dark, counting dragon's teeth.