WITH THE THRUM of two hundred voices drifting from the far side of the hill, Troa stopped short of the summit and smoothed the wrinkles from her sleeveless uniform. She had a few minutes to spare before announcements began, and like Ruin would she show up to muster less than regulation-perfect. Especially not today.
After seeing to her shirt, she fished her commendation pins from a pocket and fastened on the awards in a tidy line, just below her unit-patch and rank insignia. She busted her ass for each commendation, and their weight on her chest made her toes curl. Last night, she polished the pins while waiting up for Mom, so their bronze faces caught the dawn’s warm glow and cast back a shine, making her own copper skin appear dull in comparison.
As she straightened her sword belt, she took in the morning. What a rotting beautiful day. Nowhere in the Sideerian Empire could a more lovely land be found, the wilderness here in Shinador untamed and alive. To the distant east, the first taste of the sun rimmed The Oracle’s grand peaks, slathering the sky above the mountains with apricot jam
and raspberry preserves. Base-West, the Shinador Ranger’s western-most command station, stood to the right, the layout of its campus identical to the two other bases in the region. There, in a gravel lot beside the sprawling complex of offices, equipment rooms, and training facilities, a multitude of readied horses awaited their riders, tethered to long hitching rails, all bearing crossbows and rucksacks.
To the left, the flat plains of yellow ochre spread for miles before giving way to an endless army of towering cedars. From the midst of the green arboreal velvet, rock formations thrust above the treetops, their strata painted in a hundred ribbons of variegated color.
Troa headed over the hill, winding her brown curls into a bun. Base-West’s amphitheater, a small, natural valley, teemed with people, some occupying the rows of wooden benches, more standing, others milling, everyone in uniform—a veritable sea of indigo. One could always pick a ranger out of a crowd, not only by their definitive blues, but unlike the wide-legged trousers favored by everyone else in the southern end of the Imperium, a ranger’s pants fit snug, all the way to the ankles.
She paused at the highest set of benches and searched for Mom. Three warm teacups stood on the table when she awoke this morning, so Mom and Allian must have come home after she finally went to bed. Troa twisted, surveying the clusters of rangers for a familiar swath of curls.
There. She found her.
A breeze mingled notes of dragontail blossoms with the invigorating tang of cedar as she weaved through the benches to reach the backs of Lieutenant Ashbrow and Captain Bombabay.
“We’ve looked everywhere,” Ashbrow told Mom as Troa drew to a stop behind him, “and I’ve combed the evidence lockers twice. Those weapons the kids seized last week are nowhere to be found.”
“Could they’ve been mistakenly sent to our armory?” Bombabay asked.
“I checked there, too.” Ashbrow wagged his head. “No sign of them. And someone would’ve noticed if Quartermaster Gillis issued those swords to our people. That’s blue steel. Radiant steel. Some of the finest I’ve ever seen. They’d stand out among our ranger gear.”
Troa’s good humor evaporated like a seasonal creek in late summer. They were talking about the weapons her squad seized from a smuggling caravan last week—a rotting fortune in artisan swords. She and her team turned the whole bust into the evidence room themselves, so no way did the blades get misplaced.
“Excuse me, sirs,” Troa said, Mom impossible to see from her short vantage. The two men moved aside, revealing a petite, hazel-eyed woman with perfect mahogany ringlets, her sleeveless uniform exposing her black-spotted shoulders, the markings similar to a savannah speed-cat’s. A near mirror-image of herself, Mom shared a smile that outshined the young sun. “Captain Travay,” Troa said as she saluted.
“First-Tracker Travay.” Mom returned the salute, displaying the Old Erridian script tattooed on her forearm: Yiaz Shovazi, nuz ama Shima—Choose that which is right, regardless of the cost. “I’ll catch up with you two later,” Mom told the men before slipping an arm around Troa’s waist and heading for the northern-most row of benches.
“Those weapons we seized are missing?” Troa asked once the men fell out of earshot. “Do you think we have a wolf in our fold?” She counted corrupt lawmen among the lowliest scum in the world, and the very prospect soured her stomach.
“They’re probably only misplaced. I’m sure they’ll turn up.” Mom’s smile took on an impish bend. “Is Cedar Squad ready for their first solo field deployment?”
Troa chuckled. Cedar Squad, her cadet unit, patrolled solo for the past year at the discretion of their field-supervisor—who conveniently happened to be Captain Travay. But now, ranger command had granted Mom’s recommendation to assign Cedar Squad their own missions and patrols, free of field-oversight. An allowance unheard of for cadets.
“We were ready,” she told Mom dryly, “before recruit camp.” And they had been. Their four-person unit had been riding the wilds of the Shinador Region since early childhood, and no cadets in the history of the rangers, both here in Shinador and throughout the whole Imperium, had earned as many commendations as they racked up in just three years. Her team planned to double that number this final year before graduating.
“You know I’m proud.” Mom rubbed Troa’s back, the familiar meter of her strokes soothing. “But a little humility would serve you well.”
Troa tried not to bristle. “I’m not a braggart.”
Mom sighed. “I know.” She pulled them to a stop for eye contact and dropped her voice. “But you never question yourself, adovee. You’re leading your squad alone now, so you’ll be wholly responsible for their actions and safety, and while good leaders should be decisive and act with confidence, they must also question themselves, because nobody else will.” She added wryly, “At least not to their face.”
The bristling won. Troa turned, freeing herself of Mom’s grasp. “Where were you last night?” she asked, an accusatory note clinging to the question. “It was past two when I went to bed.”
Tiny pleats appeared at the edges of Mom’s mouth. “Allian and I ran into the Wranic sisters and shot the breeze at Oel’s tavern.”
“That’s like the tenth time in eight weeks.” Troa’s eyes wedged. The double folds framing Mom’s lips boded poorly. “You’re not gambling again,” she whispered, “are you?”
Mom returned a flat look. “No. And I won’t. That was five years ago and merely a means of escape.” Her face softened. “Losing your father was…hard. In a way, I lost part of myself with him.” Troa’s conscious smarted with the sting of a hornet as Mom went on, cupping her cheek. “But I’ve found new pieces to patch those holes, so you needn’t worry. Okay?”
“I’m sorry.” Troa rolled a stone beneath the sole of her sandal.
“Don’t ever be sorry for caring.” Mom’s smile returned, and fine lines crinkled beside her eyes. “Assembly’s about to start. I need to find my unit. Don’t ride out without saying goodbye.”
“Alright.” Troa forced her mouth up and watched Mom go, ruing having dredged up the past. Shekyvah Travay was one of the ranger’s best captains—an expert in her field of rural law enforcement, an asset to the Imperium, and an idol to those in Shinador. And while Mom could hunt down and haul in the roughest outlaws, she possessed grace like a Radiant queen. In the winters, when warmer clothes hid the spots on her shoulders, the ones which announced her Erridian heritage and marked her among
the LowCastes, every stranger she met searched her ears for the studs of the higher castes. And when they discovered her lobes free of piercings, they still treated her with the respect her bearing commanded—even Governor Kienu, Shinador’s dashing young Radiant ruler.
Troa’s fake smile withered. She should’ve never brought up that miserable stretch of life from after Dad died. Mom didn’t deserve that. Not for a few late nights out.
While the wind picked up, Troa surveyed the crowd for her unit. There they were, all three of them, chatting with Oak Squad near the speaking platform at the bottom of the amphitheater. She hooked her thumb on her belt and headed their way.
“Tro!” Benn called as he spotted her, waving an arm. With Oak Squad’s four cadets melting into the indigo ocean, Troa pursed her lips to stay a grin. Tall and lithe, Benn naturally exuded enthusiasm, but with their first official mission on the horizon, he about burst with excitement. “Did you just get here?” he asked, gripping her arm as she joined her best friends. “I was worried you were gonna oversleep. Omi said you were still in bed when she left.”
Troa threw a finger east. “I got here a bit ago, but I’ve been talking with Mom.” She turned to Omi, her friend’s dark, haloing hair free of her usual braids. “Why didn’t you wake me?” They had shared a bedroom since Omi’s father passed away over a decade ago, and rarely did they not rouse the other when they awoke.
“I tried to.” Omi dug through one of the leather cases strapped to her legs and withdrew a small terra-cotta pot. “I shook you twice, but all you did was roll over. Did you stay up till Mom came home?”
“No. I went to bed.” Troa flicked yellow dust off her uniform, explaining to Sera and Benn, “I wanted to wheedle our new orders out of Mom, but she didn’t get in till late.”
“Did you ask her about…” Omi left the rest unspoken.
“Yeah.” Troa shifted. “She says she isn’t.”
“Isn’t what?” Benn looked from Omi to Troa, a wrinkle spreading on his brow.
Troa stalled, readying a lie, but Sera saved her from giving an account,
asking, “What about this morning? Did you get our orders out of her? Even a hint?”
“No.” Troa battled a wince. “I didn’t have a chance to ask.”
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough.” Omi slathered her umber arms with lotion from the little pot before handing it to Benn. “Get my shoulders, please.”
“Maybe they’ll assign us the Brigsby Trail,” Benn said, speaking of the rough, scenic road stretching north from Akkaraine’s Shinador Region to Palaco Valley in the center of the province—a secluded route favored by smugglers. He dabbed the lotion on Omi’s shoulder, where her own, less visible, black spots dappled her skin. Glee rolled off him in great waves as he moved onto her other shoulder. “This time of year, we’re bound to see action there. Everyone’s trying to get their contraband to the harbors before the summer ends.”
“Command won’t give us Brigsby,” Sera said, poking Benn’s naked arm, the warm undertones of her olive complexion showcased against his fair skin. “They’ll probably assign us the rotting Yemuda Canyon, or some equally boring patrol, where tumbleweeds are the only things to chase. We’ll have to watch the coyotes shrike if we wanna see action.”
“Ew.” Omi gifted Sera a cringe. “You can watch coyote-sex all by yourself.”
“I’ll chase the tumbleweeds,” Troa said with a grin, “but the coyotes are all yours, Sera.”
“Come on, you guys.” Benn rubbed his hands together. “Which assignment we get doesn’t matter. We’re fifth-period cadets and we’re running our own patrols. That, alone, makes any assignment awesome.”
While Omi and Sera murmured their agreement, Troa sobered. Time to address the unpleasant business of the missing armaments. “Those weapons we seized,” she told her squad, “have gone missing.”
“What?” Omi said while Benn’s face twisted.
Sera’s bearing hardened, accentuating her sharp features. “Missing or stolen?”
Troa delivered a casual shrug, careful not to fuel Sera’s vim. “Right now, they’re only missing.”
Sera spat to the side. “That’s the second weapons seizure to disappear in the last year. The third if you count the missing cavenite.” She wagged a finger. “And nobody misplaces cavenite. It’s too volatile of an explosive. There’s a rotting wolf about, I’m telling you. One of our own rangers has gone outlaw.”
“Not necessarily.” Troa spoke fast. She needed to defuse Sera’s temper before it cast a damper on the day. “It could be—” From across the amphitheater aisle, Fae Philosius headed toward their foursome, the girl a new cadet, fresh out of recruit camp. “Psst, Benn.” Troa smacked his arm with the back of her hand then subtly swung her chin at Fae as soon as he looked over.
“Cinders and Ashes,” Benn cursed under his breath.
“Hi, Benn,” Fae said with batting lashes when she drew to a stop before them.
“Hi, Fae.” Benn shared a crooked smile that hung on the cusp of a grimace.
Fae toyed with a wayward lock of gold hair, ignoring the rest of his squad. “Did you get your orders yet? Do you know where they’re sending you?”
He shifted, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Uh, no.”
Troa came to his rescue. “Have you been assigned a squad, Fae?”
The girl looked over with an air of annoyance. “Yeah. This year all the units are named after rocks, so I’m with Lapis Squad, along with my brother.” She returned her attention to Benn. “I like the name. Lapis is a lovely stone. So blue, just like your eyes.”
Poor Benn. A bouquet of pink roses bloomed on his ivory cheeks. He made to speak, but a bellow rang out from somewhere to the left, calling Fae by her surname.
“That’s Master Polk,” the girl said with a groan—as if they didn’t recognize the abrasive timbre of the Shinador Ranger’s infamous Training Master.
“You better get going.” Omi tipped her head east. “Polk’ll bust your chops if you’re not ready to muster before the bell rings.”
“See you around, Benn.” Fae shot him one last look of adoration
before jogging away.
Troa shook her head. “Sacred Makers, that girl doesn’t give up.”
“I know.” Benn’s lips shriveled. “Lieutenant Gnole had me supervise Fae and her brother, Harmy, at last week’s snake-bite class and Fae kept touching my leg.”
“Perhaps I should volunteer to help out Gnole.” Sera leaned to the side, watching Fae join her tall twin. “Maybe Harmy would touch my leg.”
Omi made a face. “He’s a first-period cadet, just like his sister.”
“So?” Sera pivoted, flashing a smirk. “They’re eighteen, the same as us. Adults. They just enlisted later.”
“Troa won’t be eighteen till next week,” Benn reminded her.
Troa dealt him a scoff and said to Sera, “But Harmy’s also a rotting ranger. It’s never a good idea to get involved with coworkers.” Mom drilled that into her head since before she enlisted.
“We spend most of our waking hours with the rangers.” Sera spread her hands. “If I didn’t involve myself with coworkers, I’d never get laid...like some other people I know.” She nudged Troa’s ribs and cast her voice to a stage whisper. “I won’t mention the three names that come to mind.”
Benn stepped between them and slung his arms over their shoulders. “Some people want to be swept off their feet, Sera.” A mop of tawny curls at the other end of the amphitheater’s platform held all his focus. “Something more meaningful than a casual shrike.”
Sera followed Benn’s gaze to the young man he watched. “So…” She kept her voice low. “You’re saying if Penji, there, hit you up for a casual shrike, you’d turn him down?”
“Well, no.” Benn’s eyes glittered. “But it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want more.”
Omi snorted. “You’d want something more with Princess Penji? That man couldn’t pull off a meaningful anything. He’s as shallow as they come.”
“Good point.” Benn rocked his head back and forth. “He’s nice to look at, though.”
Troa’s mouth turned down as she studied Penji’s strong jaw and ripped body, the latter displayed nicely in his snug ranger-blues. The man was pretty, yes, but his looks didn’t make up for his deficiencies. He spent the
last few years trying to weasel his way into her pants with flattery and heartbreaking smiles—all the while seducing half the local women. “Mom’s so pissed command assigned him to her unit,” she signed with flicks of her fingers, the tapping code developed by Sera last summer. “Says he’s so in love with himself, he probably rubs-off his pillar in front of a mirror.”
They all laughed, Benn among the loudest, but the warning bell rang, cutting their humor short. Their foursome planted their asses on the nearest open bench, and Troa wiped dust off her belt while waiting for announcements to start. Up on the platform, Colonel Hemes and Sergeant Li hauled file boxes to the lectern, the polished wood emblazoned with two intersecting red circles: The Eye-of-Olbra—the symbol of the Imperium.
Her brow crimped as she watched Li hobble back to the platform stairs. Less than a decade prior, Li was the crown jewel of the Shinador Rangers. They called him The Bloodhound, because no outlaw escaped him. When the Magi War broke out five years ago, the Imperium implemented an army draft, and Li, like so many other men throughout Sideer, deployed northeast to battle Zoranno the Liar and his dreaded Dark Legion.
A burst of magical energy struck Li on the battlefield, and he didn’t come back the same man. Now, a wooden peg stood in for his right leg, and his right arm ended mere inches from his shoulder. But an arm and a leg did not a man make. Damage to Li’s mind kept him from returning to active duty, both with the Imperium Army, and, later, with the rangers after he came home from war. For the past two years, he pushed papers for command.
As Li took the steps with care, Troa felt for the lump in her clavicle from a break long ago. Radiant kings and queens governed the Imperium’s provinces, but the Divine Order, the Magi Consortium’s highest echelon, ruled the Imperium as a whole. The war originally broke out among the Magi, those special few blessed by the Makers with the Gift of magic. One of their most lauded and obscenely powerful young Magi decided he wanted to rule the world not a year after his induction into the Divine Order. The man, Divinity Zoranno—or Zoranno the Liar as all Sideer now called him—raised up a rebellion among his fellow Magi and tried to overthrow the Order. Within months of his coup, his war devoured northeast Sideer,
and fathers, brothers, and sons from all over the Imperium soaked the land with their blood.
Troa averted her gaze from Li’s uneven gait and straightened her curling fingers. The Magi War—what a rotting joke. They should’ve called it the Civilian War, for drafted civilian men paid the brunt of its cost with their lives. For four terrible years, the conflict stretched on. So many died, the rangers ratified their enlistment requirements three years ago, dropping recruiting age from eighteen to fifteen due to the lack of able-bodied men.
Since childhood, she intended to become the youngest ranger to earn a captainship, so she enlisted the very day the ratifications took effect. But while the change granted her a head start on her goals, she would’ve gladly waited till eighteen to enlist if it spared her fellow Sideerians the heartache of Zoranno’s war. Doubtlessly, the bloodshed would’ve continued, but the Olbra—the immortal, earthly regents of the Makers and gods in their own right—finally killed the villain last year. Within a few months, the war fizzled out.
Troa’s gaze settled on the lectern’s Eye-of-Olbra. As only the Divine Order had contact with the Olbra, until Zoranno’s death, she doubted they really existed. No one ever saw an Olbra. They supposedly visited the temples in Sideer’s greatest cities, but they always stayed hidden, never revealing themselves to those who came to worship them. They’d never come here, that’s for sure. The most rural area in the whole province of Akkaraine, the Shinador Region housed only a single, tiny temple in each of its twelve townships, and none of the remote villages around here boasted places of worship. Hardly anything to tempt gods—or anyone else of consequence.
Really, nobody visited Shinador unless they had to. Every now and again, a Magi traveled through the region, but only with the army, and the few HighCastes who visited the area came only for official state business or to pay a call to Governor Kienu—and the governor’s guests didn’t wander off the grounds of his palatial estate. LowCastes comprised the bulk of Shinador’s people, though a handful of SecondCastes sprinkled the land. However, with the lawless country of The Bales two hundred miles southwest, and endless stretches of wilderness to the southeast, Shinador drew an abundance of outlaws.
And the rangers rounded them up.
Troa and her friends collectively straightened as Colonel Hemes mounted the platform with a file under her arm. Soon, Cedar Squad would have their very own assignment, and the anticipation drenched her palms. With perfect timing, Hemes reached the lectern right as the final bell rang, and every ranger present stood at attention.
Despite the amphitheater’s downgrade, Troa couldn’t see the platform for the people in front of her, so she stood on her toes while color guards raised the Imperium flag. Once the white canvas writhed aloft, its embroidered Eye-of-Olbra folding and snapping with the morning breeze, Colonel Hemes led the assembly first in the Makers’ Blessing, then the Declaration of Imperium Fidelity, and, lastly, the Ranger Oath of Justice.
At Hemes’ command, they all returned their asses to the benches, and Omi, seated at Troa’s left, gripped her fingers and squeezed. As the colonel read the monthly minutes, Troa bore down on her lip to keep an idiot’s smile at bay. She worked so hard for this, as did everyone in her squad, but she’d rot in Ruin before letting excitement rule her face. Austere and professional, that’s how she’d present herself. She’d—
A man came tearing down the aisle to her right, his gray uniform marking him with the army. Makers alive, it was Pedre Rumin—the local army liaison. Every head in the amphitheater swiveled towards Rumin, a pomegranate flush staining his cheeks, a long skinny paper in hand. The curl to the sheet suggested it came from a message tube, the ones carried by courier birds. While he mounted the platform, Troa spared a glance at her friends, all three coiled and tense, the same as she. As her squad took their cues from her, she hid her spiking anxiety beneath a mask of calm and returned her attention to Rumin.
Colonel Hemes met the man at the center of the stage, and seven other men and women, the local top brass, left their front-row benches to join them. Troa strained her ears to no avail, the words exchanged up there much too low. Rumin occupied an office at Base-West and coordinated all joint ranger-army maneuvers. Rot and Ruin, something big must’ve come up for the man to interrupt assembly. Please, Makers, don’t let it be the resurrection of the rotting Dark Legion.