Xenolith, Page 13A. Sparrow
They bounced and shimmied up a rugged road skirting the western fringes of Ubabaor, where the downs transitioned to forested foothills. Seor had never ridden in a carriage so fine. She fretted about the mess her mud-caked boots were making on its polished wooden floor. Spots of blood from her lacerated elbow beaded on the padded leather seat. She pulled a cloth from her pouch, moistened it with saliva and daubed it clean.
Hermash watched quietly from the facing bench, sporting a faint grin as she fussed with her cloth. The carriage halted. Seor looked out to see a sprawling meadow dotted with slender trees that looked like sentries at attention. A complex of stone buildings with tiled roofs dominated the crest of a hill.
“We’ll be walking from here,” said Hermash, rising.
Seor’s stomach began to churn. She dreaded meeting the Councilor. She had always been intimidated by authority of all types, never displaying grace around high officials. She wished she was back among her scouts, training in the wolds.
She stepped down into the muck, puzzled over how a Councilor could have such a poor road leading to his primary abode, so rutted and washed out that not even this sturdy, tall-wheeled carriage could traverse it. But her tactical sense made her wonder if the disrepair was intentional. Better perhaps to have enemies approach on foot rather than in swift carriages?
Hermash had tucked his fancy slippers in a carry pouch and greeted her on the other side wearing a pair of knee-length farmer’s muck boots that looked ridiculous against his finery. He led her to a muddy path that snaked up the hillside.
As they climbed the mud quickly transitioned to cobbles. Seor marveled at the stonework. Any sort of cobbling was a luxury in Tukha, her old village, but these had been shaped into hexagons and set carefully in beds of lime sand. Who had the time? Who had the funds to pay for such labors? She could only presume it had been made before the war.
She followed Hermash past hidden fortifications manned by militia soldiers wearing the yellow and green provincial bands that marked them as soldiers of Suul. She and her unit had worn the same markings before they were selected for training to become long range scouts. Now they were being groomed for the forces being sent to the frontiers of Gi to put pressure on Venen’s rear echelons, though rumors had been circulating that their deployment might be canceled for reasons unknown.
Seeing all those soldiers of Suul, a place no longer in Sesei’s dominion, made her sadder than proud. The Venep’o had controlled Suul for nearly two years now. Four of the seven provinces had fallen before the invasion could be stalled, though all except Diomet retained their seats on the Provincial Council. Diomet, the first to fall, had become a virtual satellite of Venen. Seor worried the same fate could soon befall Suul. She longed for the days when her fellow villagers had the luxury of harassing their Councilors about irrigation schedules and tithes, matters now rendered irrelevant by the invasion.
Beyond the bunkers, another group of soldiers camped in an orchard. The size of Gondelfi’s force astonished Seor. Councilors were entitled to draw security details from their Provincial militias, but Gondelfi’s guard seemed excessive, practically a private army. She wondered if the Inner Quorum, the Council leadership, were aware of its scale.
Gondelfi’s compound was even more imposing up close than it had seemed from below. A virtual castle, massive trapezoidal blocks of sandstone formed its walls. It loomed several stories tall, its heights pierced with fighting slots and studded with watchtowers.
Hermash led her around a stone wall into a garden bisected by a lazy trickle running into a small pond. A guard collected her weapons at the gate: a collapsible crossbow, a quiver of bolts, a short sword and a dagger. He led her to a cushioned bench. “Wait here,” said Hermash, and disappeared inside the house.
When Seor saw she was alone, she scurried over to the rivulet and tried to wash up, kicking her feet through the fish pond to soften the caked mud on her leggings, scrubbing dried blood from her elbow with a fistful of leaves torn from a planting and dunked. As she splashed water over her face, a booming voice resonated from the other side of the garden wall. She smoothed her frazzled hair and rushed back to the bench. She sat, hands folded in her lap, though she couldn’t keep them still, untwisting the straps of her carry pouch, smoothing the flap of cloth where her jacket had torn.
The Councilor appeared in the gateway, head turned away as he discussed some cryptic matter with his Secretary. He seemed older and weaker than she imagined, given his robust reputation. Tall, but soft in the belly, he walked with a marked limp. His cheek was cross-hatched with scars, apparently from the torture he endured post-invasion before being released in a prisoner exchange. His eyes did not immediately acknowledge her presence as he approached, as if his mind remained engaged elsewhere. He didn’t even look at her until he was several paces away, when he paused to study her for a few seconds before speaking.
“Welcome, Comrade … uh … Seor is it? Pity your deeds at Croega didn’t become known to us earlier. I congratulate you on your commendation.” His praise sounded oddly tepid and tinged with something that sounded like sarcasm.
Seor’s eyes flitted everywhere except into the Councilor’s steady gaze. “Sir, with all due respect, there’s been a mistake. I did nothing to warrant any decoration. I just did my job.”
“I know,” said Gondelfi. “And I don’t care. That’s not why you’re really here.”
Seor’s ears prickled. “What?”
“I’m not saying this to belittle you, but let me be frank. We needed an excuse to get you here without arousing suspicions among your trainers.”
“Suspicions about what? And … why me?”
“You’re a long range scout, aren’t you?” said Gondelfi, tongue poking around inside his cheek.
“You’re loyal to Suul?”
“Then you will suffice,” he said. He paused as if to study her reaction.
“So … I’m not here to receive a commendation?”
“Oh, you’ll get a commendation alright. We must, to keep up the pretense. And honestly, you did perform better at Croega than the average soldier. At least you did what you were trained and conducted yourself calmly through considerable chaos, which is more than many of your fellow soldiers did, some of whom who’ve received commendations far beyond what we propose for you. But that’s not why you’re here.”
She waited for him to explain.
“We have a task for you,” he said, finally.
“But I already have orders,” said Seor.
“And you’ll keep them,” said Gondelfi. “But you’ll execute mine instead.”
Seor’s nerves began to tingle.
“No one is to know about this alternative mission. Understood? Especially not your trainers.”
“What do you want us to do?”
“You say you’re a scout. So I want you to scout.”
“For what? Where?
“In Gi, just like your original orders. But instead of festering in some camp, I want you to find someone for me.”
“But these other orders … how can I just ignore them?”
“I’m a Councilor. I’m entitled to my Province’s militia. You serve at my discretion.”
“True, but I also serve my country.”
“The mission I have in mind is not incompatible with that desire.”
“But shouldn’t the cadre at least be told about this change in orders?”
“Not if the Cadre Command is as corrupt as I suspect.”
“Listen. I’m not asking you to assassinate anyone. I only seek information. If my suspicions are wrong. Then no harm done and I’ll send you on your way. But two years ago a group of cadre were sent to Gi to organize the Nalki resistance.”
“The First Gi Expeditionary. Or First Cadre, as most call them. This was to be the first stage of a back door counteroffensive against Venen. The second stage, as
you well know, involves infiltrating a large force of Provincial militia. They are there at an assembly point, waiting to coordinate with the Nalki force, but unfortunately all contact has been lost with the First Cadre.”
“What happened to them?” said Seor.
“That’s your job to find out,” said Gondelfi. “Depending on who you talk to, they’ve either gone native or were exterminated by the Venep’o occupation. I don’t believe either. I have reason to believe they’ve made attempts to communicate with Cadre Command, but their messages have been intercepted and stifled. I want you to find them or at least find out what happened to them, and report back to me.”
“Why don’t you simply ask the Cadre Command?”
Gondelfi rolled his eyes, and then gazed through hers as if they were foggy windows until she blinked away. “Because I don’t trust them,” he said.
“They’re … Cadre,” said Seor in disbelief. “Our best soldiers. The most loyal of the loyal.”
“So they say,” said Gondelfi. “Not all is what it seems anymore.”
“If we ignore our orders,” said Seor. “Wouldn’t that be desertion?”
“We’ll provide you with a cover,” said Gondelfi. “You can blame it on error, incompetence. You’re green enough to make it believable.”
“Why thank you.” said Seor, failing to restrain her sarcasm.
“It’s only the truth. Though, I have faith, based on your performance at Croega, that you are more than competent. So tell me, do you accept?”
Seor’s gaze fluttered about the garden. “Do I … do I have a choice?”
“Of course,” said Gondelfi.
“I serve Suul,” said Seor. “Suul is first in my heart. And you represent Suul.”
“That sounds like a yes. Excellent!”
But Seor, like any schoolgirl, knew that Suul was represented by six other Councilors besides Gondelfi. “Our other Councilors, are they with you?”
Gondelfi’s eyes lost their focus. “I’ve expressed my fears, but they discount them. I’m reluctant to draw them in any further, until I know more, until I have tangible evidence.”
He reached into his cloak and removed an oblong object wrapped in parchment and twine, sealed with a band of black wax.
“This contains a tabulator for a seldom-used xenolith, kept in reserve. You’ll be receiving a package of foodstuffs, ostensibly in honor of your award. I’ll make sure they pack it with some good things, some nice Suulep’o delicacies, skillet breads and such. This will be inside. You are to use this one instead of the one the Cadre will be issuing you. Understood?”
“What do I do with the other?”
“Destroy it,” said Gondelfi. “That one will guide you straight to the assembly point, a place you are to avoid like the depths of hell. You are to have no contact with the Second Cadre in Gi. Understood?”
“I do,” said Seor, although the condition disturbed her. The Second Cadre had military jurisdiction over all of Gi. This meant that she and her team would be going rogue, with no one to turn to if they ran into trouble with the enemy. Seor’s breaths came quickly. The Councilor was clearly misguided in selecting her for such a mission. But what could she do? He was her Councilor.
“Now, this is all I will say again on this matter. You are to find the First Cadre. Learn what they’ve been trying to tell us. Report back only to me. This could determine the fate of Sesei, understand?”
The word stuck in her throat, but out it came, meekly. “Yes.”
“Furthermore, you will not inform your scout team of any of this until you are safely in Gi and away from an active portal. After that, you can tell them everything or nothing, at your discretion.”
Seor’s stomach quivered. “When do we go?”
“When do you and your team complete training?”
“Our last exercise is next week. We graduate the week after that.”
“Plenty of time to finalize our arrangements,” said Gondelfi.
A queasiness gripped Seor. Everything was moving too fast. She searched for the courage to share her reservations with the Councilor, to ease out of this commitment, have Gondelfi find someone else better suited.
Gondelfi rose. She mirrored him. He touched her shoulder and winked. “I’ll see you at the celebration.”
“Celebration?” She had almost forgotten.
“For your commendation, of course. We won’t tell anyone it’s a send off.”