He couldn’t believe himself. What on earth had possessed him to say that to the Empress?
“Am I insane?” he said out loud, and half-expected a voice in his head to answer him.
Jules jumped, and looked around. Behind him Lares was catching him up, and he sighed in relief. “Scared the starlights out of me. What are you doing?”
Lares looked at him calmly. Their pace did not slow as they walked down the hall. “The Empress has ordered me to keep you in the castle.”
Jules’ left hand drifted to his sword hilt. “And I suppose you’re going to try. You’ll have to use your blade to keep me from Atton, friend.”
“Well,” Lares said equably, his hand on his scimitar’s hilt, “I had planned on a good sword-fight. But not with you,” he added, and nodded to the end of the hall.
Several members of the twentieth regiment had stepped out from around the corner, swords drawn.
The leader nodded at Jules as he and Lares slowed to a stop. “Nothin’ personal, but we’ve been ordered to kill you.”
Jules drew his sword and heard an answering song come from the steel as Lares drew his scimitar and short-blade. “Nothing personal, but I don’t plan on letting you.”
The leader shrugged and lunged then; Jules easily beat him back. He and his friends attacked at once then, and things got decidedly harder. The odds were against them, no matter how much better he and Lares were. Lares took on the three that attacked him, executing flawless dual-wielding maneuvers that the soldiers weren’t expecting. Jules fought conventionally, but this did not put him at much of a disadvantage, as he was stronger and better than the women he fought and he fought dirty. Something as damned silly as honor is not going to get me killed now, he thought vehemently as he kneed the leader in the groin and punched another assailant in the face.
He glanced over and saw Lares disable one opponent with a slice to the back of the knees; the man fell screaming and Lares kicked his weapon away while parrying blows from the other two he fought.
His attention returned to the remaining three just in time to duck a blow from one of them. He punched the man in the stomach with all his might and the soldier crumpled to the floor, trying to breathe. A woman lunged at him and he knocked the sword out of her hand with a dazzling attack. He felt Lares back up into him then, and realised his friend was still engaged with the two he hadn’t disabled. One of the men to the left of Jules attacked Lares, and the crippled leader and the woman he’d just disarmed got up and joined the fray again.
Six to two. Surrounded. Not good.
Jules was bleeding already from several wounds. Lares was undoubtedly suffering the same. They barely had the strength to continue. One more tired parry, another riposte — their attackers saw they were weakening and were attacking harder now. “It has been an honour to fight beside you, Stout-Heart.”
“The honour has been mine, Jules of Tania, and I am grateful to die by your side.”
Wearily he parried another blow, but another hit on his rib cage. He hissed with pain and clutched his side. Looking up he could barely see for all the blood in his eyes. “Well,” he said, letting his sword drop from tired fingers, “this is it, then.”
The leader had a look of triumph on his face as he raised his sword for the killing blow. Jules stood, swaying on his feet, and waited. He conjured up an image of Ghia in his mind’s eye and held it, wanting her beauty to carry him to the Sisters of Mercy and the afterlife.
The leader swung his sword.
Before it connected, before Jules would fall to his knees, lifeless, a knife came sailing down the hall and landed Jules’ executioner dead between the eyes. The man’s head whipped back with the force of the throw as his sword fell from his hands and he dropped like a stone. A blur of red hair and silver steel came in then and cut down two more before she picked up Jules’ sword and tossed it to him.
He caught it by the hilt and they both turned to help Lares, who was bleeding profusely from several wounds and just barely keeping off his attackers. “I’ve never been so happy to see you in my life, Ma’am,” Jules said gratefully, a surge of new energy flooding him as his lady fought beside him.
Yarrow snorted as the three of them faced off the three remaining enemies. “I’ve never seen such shoddy fighting before, soldier. Mind telling me why you couldn’t beat back soldiers of the twentieth regiment?” she asked, cutting down one more.
“Well, Ma’am,” Jules said equably as the remaining two surrendered, dropping swords and falling to their knees, “they did outnumber us.” He hit both women with his sword hilt, knocking them unconscious. “And we wanted to save a few for you.”
Yarrow shrugged. “Whatever your reason — I’m grateful for the chance to break in my new sword.”
Jules raised his eyebrows in surprise as he cleaned and sheathed his own weapon, before helping his friend up and tending to Lares’ wounds. “First Blood? Really?”
Lovingly she wiped down the blade of her sword. “Didn’t draw any in Mudflat or Aeril. Haven’t had a chance since. But now it’s a weapon.” She held it up to gaze at it, smiling that Bellica’s smile that fit her so well. Stripped of her rank or not, she was a warrior to the core. “So, CMO,” she said, sheathing the blade she handled like a lover, “why were these arseholes trying to kill you?”
Now done looking after Lares, whose cuts were many but shallow, Jules shook his head and wiped the blood from his eyes. “I did something rather daft.”
Yarrow raised her eyebrows when he didn’t continue, and then Lares spoke. “He told your sister to go feck herself.”
Jules had never actually seen someone’s eyes bug out before that moment, but that was exactly what Yarrow’s were doing. “You did what? Sweet Aradia, man — you’ve got some serious eggs in you, you know that?”
“That or no brain,” he said, knowing she was thinking the same thing.
“Well, shite, Jules. I was going to travel alone but it looks like you’ll have to tag along now. Can’t leave you here to die.” She grinned, clapped him on the shoulder, and headed off down the hallway, where he saw a few bags and a cloak on the floor.
Seeing no alternative, he moved to follow her, but Lares stepped in front of him.
“I have my orders, Jules,” his friend said softly.
“Don’t make me hurt you, Lares,” Jules said, pain lancing his heart as salt stung his eyes.
Lares smiled, an expression filled with sorrow instead of joy. “You’ll have to. I’ll keep her safe for you.”
“Thank you,” Jules said, voice barely able to go above a whisper. He kissed Lares once on the lips, and then knocked the man out with a well-placed punch.
“What was that about?” Yarrow asked when Jules jog-trotted up to her.
“It was that or come with us, and he won’t leave Anala.”
Yarrow nodded and grabbed the rest of her stuff, swinging her bags onto her shoulder and holding her cloak over her arm. Things situated, she headed off towards the barracks.
“Come on. Let’s get your stuff and leave.”
There was a general chaos in the barracks, but it subsided when Yarrow stepped in and was replaced with calls of “Bellica! Bellica, what’s going on? Are the rumours true?”
Yarrow held her hands up for silence while Jules ran to his rack and began to pack his few belongings.
“Quiet. I know you have a lot of questions, and I’m going to try to answer them, but time is short for me. Yes, I have been exiled. I am not your bellica, or anyone’s bellica, anymore. Your new bellica is Anala; you will obey her as well as you have me in the past. Understood? Good!”
She gave them no chance to answer. “You will also have a new CMO, though I do not know who, and so far as I know Aro will be your major. Caelum is now the Royal Consort.” There was a pause there; Jules didn’t have to look at Yarrow to know its purpose was to give her a chance to keep back the tears. “Jules and I are leaving tonight; so I wish you all the best of luck. It’s been my very great pleasure and honour to be your bellica.”
She stepped to the door, and Jules hastened to finish grabbing his things, tying his bedroll up with some difficulty. A young Captain stepped forward then and asked Yarrow to stop, giving Jules some more time.
“Yes, Coalette?” Yarrow said, looking over at Jules impatiently. He gave the “almost” signal.
“Is it true, Ma’am? About the terrabane?”
Silence fell. A hundred-plus ears were trained on Yarrow’s answer; a hundred-plus lungs held in a long breath.
Yarrow clasped her hands behind her back and faced them all squarely. “There was terrabane on my sword, yes. I did not put it there, but I am as guilty as who did. My sword was my responsibility, and there is no excuse for my lapse in judgment. I hope you can forgive me that,” she said into the ensuing shock.
Jules tied up the last of his things then, including a small set of cooking-pots for the road, and swung his pack on his back. Yarrow tried to say farewell then, but another question caught her.
“Do you know who did put the terrabane on it, then?”
Her jaw twitched before she spoke. “No, I do not. That is all. Jules. Let’s go.”
They reached the door when a hand grabbed his arm. It was Chris, a friend of his from the medic-aux corps. “Wait. Why are you going, Jules?”
He shrugged. “Because I refuse to serve Empress Treecat, and I said about as much and where she could shove it to her face. Goodbye, friends. Stay safe.”
Then he and Yarrow were heading towards the stables, and towards their dubious freedom.