Jules could have thought of better ways to spend Ostara. Drinking at the tavern came to mind. So did being naked in a comfy bed beside a lovely young woman (with red hair and a bewitching smile — but I am not, under any circumstances, naming the vision in my fantasy, he thought determinedly, though that was no use). Tyvian, just relaxing at home — whether Atherton or Atton — with family or friends would have been preferable to riding into a battle at the worst or a very tricky situation at best, with a bellica he no longer liked very much and a very large absence of know-it-all healer to bicker with him.
Never mind they were on the rebellion’s side. Never mind they were an entire rebellion themselves. They still had to keep up pretenses, the alternative was unthinkable to Jules as a medic. Perhaps not to Yarrow or Caelum, for they are more ruthless than I. He could never justify doing away with Anita and Leala simply because they could not be trusted. Good thing I am not a major — I would have been terrible at it.
As it stood, they had to pretend to follow the Empress’s orders: rout the rebel leaders and bring them back for execution and reclaim the town for Athering. While not really following these commands, they had to get the town to play along as well. Jules couldn’t help but feel it promised to be a disaster.
As if to lend veracity to his ill thoughts, two people exited the hacienda then to meet the regimental force: a tall man with a chest like the trunk of a tree and arms like the masts of ships, and a young, slight woman who held a strange-looking weapon that put into Jules’ mind drawings from history books of the Second Age.
Second Age weaponry? Oh, yes — they were deep in the blood water now.
The young woman hailed them, then, and Jules rode closer to the front so he could hear the exchange.
“Halt!” she gestured meaningfully with her weapon. “The province of Aeril no longer recognises the Empress’ authority. We are now under the leadership of Aradia!”
There was a collective indrawn breath from most of the soldiers, but Yarrow and Anala showed no surprise.
“And who are you?” asked the first bellica.
The young woman inclined her head slightly. “Jester. I am second-in-command. Ewan here is our brute squad.” She gestured to the young man beside her, and Jules almost laughed. Yes, yes, the man was their brute squad. “I already know who you are and why you’re here, bellicas. It’s admirable that you continue to obey the orders of a corrupt government — but we no longer do, and I will not let you take this town back.”
“You have courage, I’ll admit as much,” responded Yarrow immediately. “But we stand three regiments strong, and you have a one-man brute squad. I’m curious how you intend to accomplish your aim.”
With absolutely no preamble Jester aimed her weapon at the oak tree that stood on the edge of town. Blue fire shot from the nose of the thing and the tree exploded into flame.
Jules’ heart leapt into his throat to see his fears confirmed; around him, horses shied and whinnied while soldiers cried out and exclaimed with fear. He began to soothe Suki automatically, but she gave him a look that said his efforts were wasted. Trust my horse to be more courageous than I.
Yarrow, ever calm, turned her attention back to Jester. “It appears we have underestimated your strength. Allow me to negotiate with your leaders — I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement that does not cause any more death.” She glanced pointedly at the fallen dead bodies of the animal denizens of the tree.
Jester mulled it over before she spoke. “I will consult with Aradia. Wait a moment,” she said, giving Ewan the lightning-gun before she disappeared into the hacienda.
Yarrow took the opportunity to give Anita her orders. “Take your regiment and a few units from mine and Anala’s and spread through the town,” she said, turning in her saddle to face the other bellica. “Don’t use too much force — I doubt everyone will have a weapon like that one. Anala, our majors, and I will negotiate with this ‘Aradia’.”
Anita looked at Yarrow so evenly Jules couldn’t tell a bit of what she was thinking. “And if it’s a trap?” She gestured to the hacienda.
Yarrow shrugged nonchalantly. “Then you and your regiment should be able to make it back to Atherton to grab reinforcements.” Anita saluted and summoned her troops to follow her into town. Yarrow turned the other way to address her and Anala’s troops: “Captains Adelle, Ianthe, Jacob, and Hyperion — take your units and join the Third Regiment.” The captains saluted and took their units off with them instantly.
The rest of them waited for Jester to reappear.
They didn’t have to wait long. “Alright,” she said, taking her weapon back from Ewan. “Six of you — no more — may enter the hacienda to negotiate with Aradia. Everyone else must stay out here.”
Yarrow inclined her head to Jester and gave her orders quietly and quickly. “Lt. James, take the door. Jules and Lares, you’ll join the four of us. Lt. Coalette, mind the horses.” Then as one they dismounted and headed towards the hacienda entrance.
Jules was close enough to Yarrow to hear what Jester almost-whispered to the bellica. “If it were not for your man inside, you’d all be dead already. Count your blessings.”
Yarrow only nodded at the woman and continued in the hacienda; having nothing to say, Jules followed bellicas and majors obediently, Lares beside him. He exchanged a look with his friend that said all either man wanted to say: Are you regretting coming along as much as I am?
Then they were past the door, inside the tall, dark building. The door closed behind them with an ominous ‘click’. Jules could see that pools of light cast by wall sconces brightened up the gloom. Not by much.
“Selina,” came a voice from the darkness, followed by a thunk-step, thunk-step as a woman with a very bad leg stepped into a patch of candlelight. She looked as if she’d been crying for a long time, but that was the only sight Jules got of her because Anala had stepped forward and embraced her in a tight hug. “I’d hoped you’d come,” the woman said, and then burst into tears.