Cheloi heard sounds of industry from the kitchens as they entered the subterranean canteen. It was past mid-morning and preparations were already under way for lunch. For now, all the tables were unattended, the chairs unfilled, except for one.
A frown started gathering on Cheloi’s brow as the three of them approached the canteen’s lone customer, zigzagging through the rows of tables and hastily pushed back chairs. She felt a wave of impending doom lapping at her feet, surging higher the closer they got to the lone, occupied chair.
Had Koul somehow guessed…?
But how would he know? She kept that part of herself bottled up tight, vacuum-sealed against the world.
When they reached the inhabitant, in a rare moment of courtesy, Koul smiled and gestured with his hand. The stranger stood up. Correction, the woman stood up and turned around.
She was as tall as Cheloi with dark blonde hair, olive skin and hazel eyes. Unlike the Colonel, who sported a shorter more military cut, her longer hair was pulled back and pinned in a sleek bun, exposing streaks of pale gold. Cheloi imagined those golden streaks gleaming in the sunlight, as warm as the colour in her eyes, then quickly quelled the thought. What the hell was she thinking? Golden streaks? Warmth? What was wrong with her?
It was only the expression in those eyes that settled her again. She saw wariness, mixed with a degree of apprehension. That calmed her. Dislike, cynicism, anxiety, all these she could deal with, was comfortable with, although it made her wonder exactly what Koul had told her.
She knew what Koul thought of her in his private moments, because there were no truly private moments in the military, only relative ones. If Koul thought he was getting intelligence on Cheloi from intermediaries who were willing to talk, then it would be best for him to remember that it cut both ways.
Spraen. Cheloi’s lips twitched momentarily. Koul might think it an insult, but she enjoyed the comparison to one of the ravening scavengers of Perlim myth.
Coming to pick at your bones, eh Koul?
“Senior Colonel, may I present Senior Lieutenant Lith Yinalña.”
Cheloi clicked back to the present.
“Yinalña.” She rolled the name over her tongue, stressing the second syllable. It didn’t sound very Perlim-like.
The lieutenant, her soft military cap clutched in one hand, saluted smartly. Cheloi returned the salute and offered a handshake which, after a moment’s hesitation, was taken. Yinalña’s hands were warm but rough, indicating that the junior officer often dabbled in manual tasks. There was a sense of strength and capability in the short greeting, two traits that Cheloi usually admired.
Usually. She wasn’t liking any of this. She darted a quick glance at Koul but his expression was open and innocent. Or at least as innocent as an expression got on that particular face. She introduced Rumis, and they began a desultory conversation, but her eyes were still on Lith Yinalña, moving up and down her body in quick strokes, taking in the curves of her breasts and the swell of hips that the jacket couldn’t hide. The lieutenant’s pulled-back hair emphasised her high cheekbones and full lips. They may have been of the same height, but Yinalña was younger and less androgynous than Cheloi. The Colonel felt something flutter again, deep in her stomach. Her hand was still warm from the brief handshake, but the rest of her felt frozen and icy with premonition.
She was going to be trouble. Cheloi could feel it in her bones, a feeling compounded by the fact that it was Koul who brought her here. That figure, that hair, those lively welcoming eyes. Cheloi felt like she was standing on the edge of a dark precipice on a summer’s day, a glowing sun eclipsing disaster.
“Where did you find Lieutenant Yinalña?” Cheloi asked her second-in-command, making her voice casual.
“Quite by accident, while on a tour of Blue sector.”
So, last week. If I can believe him.
“If you recall, you sent me there to carry out an evaluation of the situation.”
Yes. It was not a happy time for the Empire. An entire company had been lured into a rebel ambush and killed almost to the last soldier. Koul had recommended withdrawing the company’s remnant to facilitate a regroup and injection of fresh soldiers. Cheloi agreed.
“Yinalña’s commander died during the retreat.”
“But the company’s Sergeant Major commended her diligence and engineering dexterity to me and I thought you would find that useful.”
It was only a slim straw but Cheloi grabbed it. It was nothing she wanted to articulate, but she had to get rid of her new staff officer as quickly as possible. “Won’t she be missed? After all, it’s the engineers that keep the wheels of the Empire turning.”
“She’s only had informal training.”
“So she’s not a formal member of the Engineers then?”
Cheloi tried not to let the disappointment show. “No safer posts available?”
No, that question came out too quickly. She knew she shouldn’t be pushing matters so hard and so soon. Even now, she saw a trace of speculation in Koul’s pale eyes and cursed herself for handling the conversation so ineptly. If she’d been thinking, she would have accepted the driver with an offhand negligence then quietly ordered Rumis to find some way of getting rid of her. But something about Lith Yinalña unbalanced her in a way that more than three years of combat in a war zone hadn’t.
Koul’s words were slow and deliberate, clear signs that there was much more going on in his head than he was willing to admit.
“She volunteered for a posting at the front. I thought it a natural solution to the problem. Was I incorrect in my assumption?”
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