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Authors: J. Patrick Black

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BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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“You mean like if he was talking bivvie or hellion?” I guess if Ubstia'd known that, we probably wouldn't have had a problem to begin with.

“No, a lot of hellions and bivvies have the same language, but there are a bunch of different ones out there. The tribes around here mostly speak English, but there's some Français and Español, too.”

That sort of surprises me. I'd always figured every hellion could talk to every other hellion, and the same for the bivvies, but maybe they have as hard a time understanding
each other
as we do understanding
them
.

“You ever consider being a militia captain?” Ubstia asks. “I could get you into training.”

“I just want to go home.”

Camareen is there, waiting in the Square when our truck pulls up. She's the only one around—the other squads have all been dismissed, but she waited for me. I guess her squad never even went out. I'm real glad
about that, so glad I don't even know what to say. While she kisses me, I write my next grievance in my head. It's about not being kissed enough.

I even forget about my satchel, sitting there in the arsenal locker, until she throws it over my shoulder. She went and got it as soon as they dismissed her squad, and the milk and bread are all still there.

NINE

VINNEAS

B
eing an eminently important person does have its benefits. You get your own private quarters overlooking the Forum, and you're allowed to skip to the front of just about any line you come across. Cadets are expected to salute you, which combined with line-cutting privileges can result in a few sparkling moments of comedy. There's also a special washroom—two, I've heard, though I haven't quite located the second one. Oh, and the food. The food can be rather spectacular at times.

Curator Ellmore made a special show of laying out all the wonderful perquisites I could expect, now that I'd been named Procurator of the Academy. It took all of thirty-seven seconds. Explanation of my new duties occupied the next four and a half hours. The Curator's point—aptly conveyed by the wry smile she wore while describing some of the more excruciating tasks I could look forward to enjoying—was that the privileges of power should never outweigh the obligations; if they do, there's something wrong. Sure, I'd have access to as many as two glossy and mostly private toilets, but I would also be responsible for every cadet at the Schools of Grammar and Rhetoric, as if they were my own personal Legion. It's hard to enjoy even the most regal toilet when you're facing the migraine-inducing hassles cadets produce on a daily basis. It's the same with all my other lovely perks: They just aren't worth it. Take the food. Occasionally, I am presented with some of the most exquisite delicacies Ninth City has to offer, and never do such remarkable meals in any way make up for the company of those with whom I'm forced to share them.

This evening's cuisine is beef and a kind of shellfish with potatoes and greens, each fresh and individually plated—quite a luxury, given that Academy food is prepared in batches of several hundred servings and without
much attention to flavor, presentation, or the distinctions in temperature between, say, soup and ice cream. I picture Kizabel and Imway eating together off their wooden trays, talking with their mouths full and having a wonderful time, then I revise the image, because Imway is on active duty now and would be eating with his escadrille, and Kizabel is likely asleep in her lab, snoring into a bowl of instant curry or noodles. Frankly, I'd rather be either place than here.

One of my duties as Procurator is to act as Curator Ellmore's attaché, which means dining a few times weekly with Command, Ninth City's ruling body, of which the Curator is a part. She's sitting at the head of the room, next to Princept Azemon, the most powerful person in Ninth City, and seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself.

Our venue for tonight's mess is a particularly grand function room at the Hall of the Principate. The ornate flourishes—the fluted columns, the arched ceilings, the densely textured patterns of stone—hearken back to some of the earlier, more exuberant demonstrations of irrational mechanics, before we settled, unimaginatively, on a plain, no-frills style deemed more appropriate for a time of war. No doubt my preference for places like this over Ninth City's more austere outer districts is a symptom of being a soft-bellied academic, as any one of my dinner companions would doubtless be glad to inform me.

I have been seated at a long table of lackeys and petty officers, all of them eagerly talking over the recent battle, playing up their part in our stunning victory. I should be boasting and bragging along with them, I know—part of being Procurator is preparing for command, and in a few years these young men and women will be my colleagues. We'll have to trust one another in combat, each of us staking our lives on the others' talent and ability, and it's a lot easier to take orders from someone you've gotten to know over a steak, I've heard. This is my future, the life I've been preparing for as long as I can remember, the prize for outlasting the cutthroat competition of the Academy's executive track, for being anointed a future leader of the Legion. I'll have a good deal of ambitious posturing in my future to go with my juicy tenderloins and shiny toilets.

But for some reason, I can't bring myself to join the froth of self-congratulation over the ass-kicking we gave Romeo during our most recent encounter. Part of the reason is that I'm not convinced we kicked
said ass quite as much as we think. That, and I'm distracted by the man sitting beside me.

He's about twice the age of anyone else at the table, and I haven't seen him at mess before, which means he's probably visiting from another city or else the Front. If that's true, however, he ought to be sitting up with Curator Ellmore, not down here. What really catches my attention, though, is his food. He's forgone tonight's fresh fare in favor of what appears to be pickled fish with sour cream, complemented by circles of brown bread covered—“smeared” is probably the better word—in some gooey white substance the consistency of glue. The effect, especially as he spackles the stuff on, is unsettling to say the least.

So overcome am I with mingled horror and fascination that I don't see Imperator Feeroy coming my way. My first clue that anything might be amiss is the abrupt cessation of all conversation around me. When I look for the source of this unexpected silence, I see the Imperator standing over me, wearing what passes for a smile on his long, thin face. Really, it more resembles the sort of grimace people make in especially cold weather: thin lips, mostly teeth.

“Procurator Vinneas,” Imperator Feeroy says, his voice surprisingly basso for such a reedy man. “I'm pleased you were able to attend tonight's mess.”

“Thank you, sir. It's an honor to be here.”

“I wanted to compliment you on your contribution to yesterday's discussion. You have an insightful mind, and your comments were quite helpful in our deliberations.”

“I'm pleased to have been of use.”

“Of use indeed.” The Imperator's cold-weather grin tightens. “It is encouraging to know we have someone like you in our ranks. You are an impressive young man, and will doubtless make a fine officer once you graduate to active duty. Perhaps sooner than you imagine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Imperator Feeroy offers me a stiff nod and departs to take his seat with Curator Ellmore and the rest of Command. The Imperator is one of the Legion's highest officers, second in Ninth City only to the Dux. To have received such praise from him, and publicly, is a major achievement. My tablemates, who have been watching me sidelong with alternating jealousy
and awe, return to their chatter, now inflating their part in the other day's action until minor contributions have become essential elements of our victory.

Only the man beside me seems unimpressed. He did not acknowledge Imperator Feeroy's arrival and continued eating throughout the short conversation and ensuing compensatory boasting. Now he wipes his mouth and says to me, low enough that only I hear, “So, what'd you do to
that
guy?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

He pats speculatively at his belly, a much rounder example than those found on most legionary officers. “The man clearly loathes you. So let's hear it. How'd you piss him off?”

It seems I wasn't the only one who'd noticed something sour in Feeroy's flattery. I know exactly why the Imperator is upset with me. After all, I've only spoken to him once before, and it turned out to be my first big mistake in Ninth City's circles of power.

It happened yesterday, at the Command briefing following the All Clear and subsequent cleanup effort. I would have much preferred a nap, but Curator Ellmore was expected at the Hall of the Principate, and she wanted me with her. I sat in the back, nursing a headache from Imway's extra-potent Fizz and listening to Imperator Feeroy, who had been directing Ninth City's defenses, describe the battle.

Overall, the impression he gave was of a ringing and unmitigated success. The enemy's first incursion was detected at 1437 hours, and by 1551, the last of Romeo's scattered forces had been eradicated. Despite the unusually large enemy contingent, very few of our legionaries were wounded or killed, and Romeo failed to strike a single population center or production facility. The only action my new pal Fontanus Jaxten saw was an ovation from the City Guns and an essentially one-sided wrestling match between Kizabel and Imway.

Most of Command seemed happy to accept the Imperator's account of the battle, but the more I listened, the more I became convinced there was something to this attack other than the glorious rout being paraded out for our admiration. If Feeroy's tallies were correct, Romeo's incursion force had been vastly larger than any we'd seen in recent memory. And yet nothing in Feeroy's report indicated anything more than our standard defensive response. Why hadn't the damage been worse?

I waited for someone to speak up, to ask Feeroy how exactly he'd managed so complete and categorical a victory. No one did. Even after Feeroy opened the room to questions, few people voiced any opinion that wasn't simply a compliment with a question mark at the end. So I raised my hand. “Yes, you there,” Feeroy said, pointing. “The young man at the back.”

“Vinneas, sir,” I answered. “Academy Procurator. I was wondering whether you remarked on any deviation from the enemy's typical behavior during this incursion. Novel or unusual tactics, perhaps, or some indication of a different choice of target.”

Feeroy blinked, assuming the baffled and mildly disgusted expression of a man who suspects he has stepped in something unpleasant. “Romeo's tactics have remained static for hundreds of years. This is a war of attrition,
Procurator
,” he added, emphasizing my academic title and assuming the air of a teacher weary with a particularly dim-witted student. “The enemy's objective is, and has always been, to cripple our ability to supply our forces at the Front. To that end, he will by necessity target our means of production, either in our cities or outlying settlements. In this instance, he failed in all respects.”

Another hand had risen several rows down, and Feeroy turned that way, but I persisted. “Excuse me, sir. You haven't answered my question.”

Feeroy now appeared certain there was something nasty on his boot. “My answer is no. There was no change in the enemy's usual pattern of attack, only the strength of his numbers.”

“But if that's the case, how do you explain such a tidy victory? If the enemy's tactics haven't changed, and our response hasn't changed, shouldn't a larger enemy force have caused more losses than usual?”

“Our ‘tidy victory,' as you call it, can be credited to the fighting spirit of our legionaries.” Feeroy was by this point quite unambiguously enraged. “I will say as well that the bravery and sacrifice our soldiers exhibited in this battle deserves better than the abstract musings of an untested academic. Perhaps after you've seen combat, you won't be so quick to criticize good soldiers for a battle they
won
.”

I would have liked to tell the Imperator I was criticizing him, not his soldiers, but I'd already used as much of Command's time as I dared, and I still had at least one unanswered question. Fortunately, someone else spoke up and asked just what I wanted to know. “If you please, Imperator,”
said Princept Azemon, “could you tell us what you mean by the ‘sacrifice our soldiers exhibited in this battle'?”

It turned out that there had indeed been something strange about this action. As Imperator Feeroy was forced to explain, the attack had proceeded identically to others in the past only somewhat more slowly. He offered no explanation for Romeo's unusual behavior except to say that the enemy force seemed to “linger.” As a result, our legionaries were able to engage far earlier into the attack than was typical and thus completely eradicate the invaders before they could reach any of their targets. The prolonged combat did, however, result in greater than usual cost to our defense capabilities, in terms of the number of units left disabled, even if very few legionaries were actually killed. Feeroy was careful to point out that such damage would in no way disrupt production or supply to the Front, and most of those present agreed that the Legion had nevertheless won a fine victory. Still, Feeroy's achievement had been marred, and it was all my fault.

“Can you tell me what you did wrong back there?” Curator Ellmore asked afterward as we crossed the Forum toward the Academy. I only muttered something more sarcastic than sensible, so she said, “You made Imperator Feeroy appear foolish. You might have learned what you wished to know in some other way, but instead you publicly exposed his ignorance, and that is something I fear he will not forgive.” I opened my mouth to tell her I didn't particularly care what Feeroy thought of me, but she said, “There will be times, Vinneas, when making enemies will be unavoidable, but this was not one of those times. Do not set others against you unnecessarily. We have enough enemies as it is.”

It looks now like the Curator was right. Feeroy is still angry with me, enough to make a complete stranger curious as to the nature of my offense. “I asked him a question” is the explanation I give the man beside me.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
12.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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