2. Commander's Review
“-retention rate is around 45%, just as you’d guessed.” Catalin continued, flipping through pages tacked to the board she carried. “Which leaves us with a fairly even balance for either side, and a few who can train for both starting next year. If we’re lucky.”
“We so rarely are.” Ilmira murmured, leaning against one of the trees nearest the arena’s south entrance. Small copses lined a paved walkway that in turn led beneath a tall, wide arch, leaving her and her two companions a relatively clear view of the trainees within. It also allowed them to remain both in the shade and relatively hidden from the objects of their inspection.
She’d been touring the grounds, along with Catalin and Fio, as the first year of training came to a close. With no previous years to compare growth to, it was up to the three of them to determine if the program was proceeding properly, which meant more than just testing or higher stakes events. They needed to see how things progressed when students didn’t feel watched by those they considered heroes, at the very least, and they’d judged it too early for any sort of competition or demonstration. Still, a celebration of the year’s end was due - all the hopefuls would be given a chance to go home, with gifts of the capitol, for the early planting season.
Some, of course, had no home to return to. Ilmira spied a raven haired trainee wearing a black armband with a small bird embroidered on it, though she couldn’t identify the bird at this distance. Something pale: One of the northern villages then.
The boy had a trace of a burn visible on his shoulder. Ilmira winced and rubbed at her wrist.
“Then we’re due some.” Fio said tartly, calling her attention back to the present. He was leaned against the other tree, while Catalin paced between them. It took Ilmira a moment to place what he was talking about. Right, luck.
“I’d rather not bet on it, if it’s all the same.” She said mildly in reply, taking another drink from her flask. It held nothing more than water, but she preferred its metal tang to the aftertaste most canteens carried. Rumors of her becoming a drunkard could join the pile. “Any significant problem children? Or injury incidents, aside from that scuffle early on?”
The early divide between students who were present of their own free will, and those who felt they had no other choice, had escalated to violence on at least one occasion. Ilmira suspected there had been more, but after she’d conjured a line of fire between a group of trainees to split them apart, they had at least been more careful not to fight in front of her. She wasn’t sure if any of them remembered the lecture she’d given afterwards - all she remembered was sleeping for most of the next week.
Catalin shook her head, “Discipline wise, we terrify them.” She said flatly. “Or at least the other instructors do. Probably more physical punishment than my liking - only chores and exercises.” She clarified, when Ilmira gave her a sharp look. “No violence outside of spars and demonstrations.”
“Or magic.” Fio cut in, “The instructors know one of us would hear about it if they were ever so much as tempted, and we started the students with exercises in ‘magical morality’ - if they have enough energy to get involved in something after all that, I’ll eat war rations again for a month.”
Ilmira smiled at that. “You survived doing that for long enough. I’m sure another few weeks wouldn’t kill you.” She said with amusement, capping her flask again. Movement caught her eye - one trainee was running the track. Perhaps one of those punishments Catalin had mentioned.
“So, no discipline troubles.” She said, drawing herself back to the conversation and cutting over Fio’s scoffed protests. “What of any others? We discussed the funding earlier, but I trust no one has tried to interfere?”
Catalin answered this time, half distracted by some number in her lists of columns. “Coupl’a merchants hang around on their off days to try and sell them things, but we chase off the raucous ones.”
“Mostly minor things. Food stalls, bits and bobs, shiny things.” Fio added, shrugging. “Some of them buy small things to send to others, but we pretend not to know about it as long as its legal.”
Ilmira pulled a face at him. Given the current state of Theolin’s government, that was pretty much everything. Legality of various substances had been the topic occupying most of the fledgling kingdom’s leaders for the last two months, and Fio knew it. Things weren’t terribly out of hand, at least not yet, but debates over who was owed what cut of how much and when had to be haggled out three times over before anything could be codified.
The mage in question grinned, but before he could lead into his next bit of needling, Catalin had moved to push her board into his hands. “Fio, this trainee, are these scores right? I know his martial scores are low, but if the arcane are just as -“
Ilmira shook her head, then let it rest back against the tree bark. She’d tried to stay out of the business of individual trainee scores. She’d told them it was so that she could remain objective if asked to weigh in on one’s training, but not everyone had bought that excuse. Fio and Catalin were still too polite to call her on it; Juventia was not.
“They’re going to find out eventually.” She’d pointed out one morning. “And the declaration was your idea.”
“Yes.” Ilmira had sighed. “But there’s a difference between them knowing, and seeing firsthand.”
Juventia hadn’t disagreed with her, or argued. She’d only tapped Ilmira’s hand affectionately and changed the topic. That’d been months ago, and Ilmira had been careful ever since to keep her public appearances measured, in control. Calling up fire in front of several trainees hadn’t fit with that, but it was better than trying to physically intervene.
No one tried to fight through her fire. It would’ve been bad if a trainee had discovered they could knock her over without much effort.
A breeze rustled through, some dust stirring in the arena, the leaves rattling overhead. Ilmira took a deep breath of the fresh air, turning into it with her eyes closed. With her focus elsewhere, she was startled when Fio slumped against the tree next to her.
“So.” The Mage Commander said conversationally. “How’s your mystery working for you?”
He had reached up for the diadem Ilmira wore; a simple engraved metal band without gems or adornment. Fio knew runes when he saw them, and enchantments when he felt them, so there was no point deflecting or lying about its general purpose. He’d been after her to let him inspect the diadem since she’d first worn it openly. She’d yet to tell him - or anyone other than Juventia and Pyrion - anything about it. She didn’t intend to break that streak today.
Ilmira raised one hand to bat Fio’s away. “Mysteriously.” She warned him, adding a measured look to warn him off. Part of her felt guilty for keeping it from him, given he was the Mage Commander and supposedly the main magic authority in all of Theolin - a role she’d recommended him for in the first place. Some of that guilt bled into her voice, giving it an edge she didn’t intend.
Fio took it with grace and humor, however. “Another crown secret.” He sighed, gesturing to his own brow to emphasize the pun. “What’s a mage to do? You’re one of us Ilmira, you know we’re like cats. Give me something, before this curiosity kills me.” His tone had grown plaintive by the end. Catalin scowled at him.
Never one to keep her opinions to herself, the Knight Commander of Theolin lowered the pages of parchment, “Oh for - behave, Fio, or I’ll be the thing to kill you.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, dearest Catalin.” Fio widened his eyes and plucked a small dandelion from the earth near him. He might have intended to wish for protection from her, but the wish would go unrealized - the fluffy white wisps blew away in the wind before he could send them on their way.
Catalin waved the few tufts out of her face impatiently. “You’re one of the few Knights of the realm, Mage Commander of the Order of Theolin, not a - you can’t call yourself a cat!”
Fio tilted his head as though in thought. “I believe I referred more to all magekind with that statement.” He remarked. “So in point of fact, I was calling the Bastion a cat.”
Catalin pressed the heel of one hand to her forehead, for a moment not much different from her students. “That— that isn’t better.”
“But it is different.” He countered, as movement caught Ilmira’s eye again. Her fingers lingered near the band of her diadem, straightening it where Fio might’ve knocked it askew, so she felt it when the runes pulsed.
Contrary to popular belief, or at least as far as Fio was able to speculate, the diadem was not enchanted with defensive measures. If it was, Juventia and Pyrion would’ve worn identical ones. And belts, and amulets, and any other kind of jewelry that could bear the Magic’s weight. Frankly, even Ilmira didn’t know what precisely the diadem did. But she knew it never reacted to anyone but her, and that it made it possible for her to behave, for short periods of time, like the warrior she was meant to be.
So the feeling of warmth and magic tingling at her fingertips as she laid eyes on the running trainee again startled her. That concern only increased when the trainee promptly keeled over.
Given a moment, her mind would’ve recalled the boy had seemed to be struggling. His movements by that point could hardly have been called a run, but in that instant she knew only that the diadem and the boy’s condition overlapped somehow. And that he hadn’t so much fallen as collapsed.
Instinct took over from there.
In the days of the war, at the height of her service, General Ilmira was said to have been able to cross battlefields in an instant and put the swiftest of arrows to shame. Realistically, Ilmira had never outrun an arrow, but she had once kept pace with a horse at full gallop. She tapped into some of that speed now, a brief flare of light and heat marking her Magic’s calling, and then she was at the track before anyone else could even call for help.
The boy had fallen onto his back, and his chest was rising and falling with a heavy, labored wheeze. Ilmira dropped to one knee, ignoring the ache that was starting to set in around her calves. “Trainee.” She called, before catching how his eyes had rolled, unresponsive. Unconscious then.
Ilmira pressed her fingers to the key point under his jaw, searching for his pulse - rapid and present. Airway seemed clear. She’d moved to start running her hands carefully around the back of his head to check for lumps by the time the nearest sparring pair had stopped and curiously started over.
“Fetch your instructor.” She commanded, without even looking up. She wasn’t sure if the students recognized her or not - she wasn’t in armor today, nor bearing any other distinctive marks - but they did recognize the tone in her voice. They glanced at each other, and after exchanging whispers, took off in different directions. Ilmira paid them no mind once she knew they were moving.
A rustle of fabric and a shadow marked Fio’s arrival. He crouched on the unconscious trainee’s opposite side, speaking lowly so that only Ilmira could hear, “Shall I give us some privacy?”
Ilmira nodded, now satisfied that the trainee was in no immediate danger she could detect. Given, blunt trauma to the head was always difficult to diagnose from the outside, and his breathing was still ragged. A professional would have to clarify that. She lifted one hand, grimacing as she reached for her magic again. Fio’s hand on her wrist stilled her.
“Catalin’s gone to fetch Mari.” Fio told her, his other hand outstretched as he began shaping his own magic around them. Thin, translucent rectangles began to form walls without weight, darkening to something more opaque as he continued, “You don’t need to be using any more than you already have.”
Ilmira was silent for a moment, watching the barriers form. She met Fio’s eyes, saw the mixture of sympathy and censure there, and looked away again. With a soft exhale, she closed her hand and lowered it. She pretended she didn’t see Fio relax as she did. Instead, she busied herself with checking to make sure nothing about the trainee’s grays were inhibiting his breathing.
Behind her, someone cleared their throat. “You can walk through it.” Fio called absently, narrowing his eyes as he sat back on his heels. A hand cautiously probed at the barrier, passing through the barrier as if it were no more than mist. The color didn’t fluctuate - Fio was too skilled for that - but the body attached to the hand passed through a moment later.
This man was a bit older, in the blue version of the training uniform that marked him as an instructor. His posture was straight, hands clasped behind his back; Ilmira guessed he was one of the Orelli career soldiers who’d defected at some point. That was the only kind of instructor she could imagine running a trainee to collapse either. If she’d spared him the thought or turned her head, she might’ve placed him better, but she wasn’t inclined to be kind at the moment.
Thankfully Fio wasn’t quite as distracted. He nodded a greeting to the man and shifted to a better balanced crouch, “Instructor Davins.”
“Mage Commander.” The man returned. Ilmira could hear his weight shift as though he was stifling the urge to salute. Davins… one of Catalin’s people. She hadn’t had many dealings with him, but she felt as much as heard his resignation when he sighed, “Down again, is he?”
Ilmira went rigid, and only a sharp warning look from Fio kept her still. Davins shifted back, to poke his head out of the barriers. Because the barrier wasn’t a dome, his voice sounded muffled, but they could hear what he called to the student who must’ve fetched him, “Shiri - fetch the medic, Thergoode’s out again.”
“Aye, Sir.” Came a neutral reply, but Fio spoke up before Ilmira could.
“That won’t be necessary, Instructor. Catalin’s seeing to it.”
A brief pause, possibly while Davins regained his composure or the trainee asked a question. “Carry on, all of you.”
Once he was back within the barrier, Davins spoke more quietly. “I could’ve sent a runner for him, sir.”
“Better this way.” Fio replied, chipper. “Catalin’s fetching Lady Mari. Couldn’t have your students getting lost on the way to find her. And better to give her time before she asks you to explain why a student of yours has collapsed - again?” He perked a brow, something about his expression becoming sharper.
Davins was granted a brief reprieve, because another hand slipped through the barrier, followed by the rest of its owner. The other trainee Ilmira had sent off had returned, and apparently attempted to knock on the barrier. Finding it had no substance, they instead collided with their instructor’s back.
To Davins’s credit, he didn’t reprimand them, only set them back on their feet and remained silent. To the student’s, they recovered quickly, and after a murmured apology crouched down next to Ilmira to offer what they’d been off to retrieve - a waterskin and clean rag.
Ilmira nodded to them gratefully, taking both, and wetting the rag in the dirt off to one side of where she knelt. Her calves were agony, but she was doing her best not to focus on them. “Thank you, this is very helpful.” She said softly, beginning to wipe down the unconscious trainee’s face, keeping the skin uncovered. “Does this -“ She nodded to her patient, “-happen often?”
The trainee glanced up at Davins, hesitating a fraction. They’d realized that they’d become caught up in something beyond them, and like someone waking up in an unfamiliar room in the dark, were now frantically trying to sort out an escape without knocking anything over. Fio, clearing his throat, provided the equivalent of a lamp being lit.
“Not… not every day, Ma’am.” The trainee said slowly. Ilmira might’ve hurried them, but their expression was one of contemplation, not hesitation. “But… well, often enough. Once a week?” They glanced up at Davins to check their answer.
The instructor sighed, “Aye, thereabouts. Sometimes twice or more. He just doesn’t seem to have the constitution for it.”
Something about the pair’s nonchalance, the way their behavior implied this was not only common, but something they found inconvenient, flipped some deeply buried switch. Ilmira felt the surge of heat, the slight distortion of her surroundings, before any coherent thoughts came.
Memories overlapped, not quite fully realized but present at the forefront of her mind. She remembered a hundred similar dismissive phrases. A thousand similar looks of pity or disgust or resignation. The weary exhaustion of everyone’s patience and the pain it had caused her to try and win it back.
A part of her mind reminded her that this was not then, that she was not this boy. That she was on the verge of making a scene when her goal had been to be unobtrusive. But that voice was silenced by an overwhelming tide of fury grounded in years of fear.
The last time she’d been this angry, hundreds had died.
Luckily for Davins and his student, Ilmira was only an ember of what she’d once been. When her magic flared, pyrokinetics as temperamental as always and the diadem’s engravings responding to her touch, only heat rolled off of her instead of flames.
“’Mir.” Fio said quietly, calling her attention to the present reality. “Something caught your eye?”
The Mage Commander had flicked a small mirror from his pocket, turning it discretely to show Ilmira her own expression. She couldn’t suppress a shiver. There was a complex bundle of emotions that came from seeing her face lined with anger and eyes lit from within, one too complicated to try and decipher now, so she pushed it down, along with her magic. It was like trying to smother coals.
“No evident injury.” She murmured instead of snapping, re-wetting the cloth rag. His breathing was slowly stabilizing, but he still felt hot to the touch.. She couldn’t allow herself to be a furnace while trying to cool someone already overheated, so she had to let the heat go.
That line of thinking helped, at least a little.
Fio watched her warily. After a beat, when the light of her magic must’ve faded, he nodded. Then he leaned forward and reached for the boy’s hand, moving it where she could see. His fingertips had taken on a purple tint, and when Ilmira reached out, they were cold.
“It might not be.” She whispered, even as her grip tightened, as though her own now-cold fingers could press warmth into his.
Fio shrugged. “You’d know best.”
Ilmira drew her scattered thoughts together. “We need to get him inside.” He wouldn’t have a room of his own as a trainee. Their infirmary would draw too many questions or outside observers. And there was the matter of the runes. “Mari’s work station is closest to my quarters, and I’ve the room to spare. Take him there.”
The other trainee blinked for what might have been the first time since they’d answered Ilmira’s question. Frankly, she’d forgotten that they were there.
“Yes, General.” The trainee said automatically, moving as though to help lift their fellow. Thergoode, he’d been called. Was that a name or a nickname? She’d have to ask. And - General, the trainee had called her. So she’d been recognized after all.
As Fio dissuaded the trainee from touching Thergoode, and began to explain how they were going to handle things, Ilmira pushed to her feet. The enclosing barriers seemed much closer now that she was upright. She didn’t let herself dwell on the feeling. Instead, she turned around to face Davins.
“Instructor.” She couldn’t quite bring herself to friendliness, but she could manage cordiality. Particularly when she watched recognition jolt through his expression. “I trust there is more to this story than what I have heard. I look forward to hearing it, in full, by the end of tomorrow.”
Davins didn’t seem pleased, but he did nod. “Yes, General. May I ask when to expect his return?”
The question, on its own, would’ve annoyed Ilmira in the best of circumstances. Now, it rankled for such a mosaic of different, minor reasons that she couldn’t pin it to any singular facet. She should’ve given Davins more of the benefit of her doubt. She should’ve ensured they weren’t overheard. She should’ve checked the man’s expression when he asked to see if it was his version of well-meaning concern, or the callous and rude supposition she heard.
“Never.” The strength of her own voice startled her. Clearly, it startled them. There was a pause, where the meaning of her word swayed like a pendulum. Depending on her next phrase, she could send this downed trainee home. Or she could send Davins away instead, banishing him from the training grounds, the castle, the country.
Ilmira wasn’t watching to see if Davins realized that. Her gaze had already fallen back to the boy’s face, as though there would be an answer written there to a question asked a lifetime ago.
She nodded to Fio, who flicked his hands apart, and slowly rose to stand. The barrier that formed underneath the boy shaped to fit him exactly, providing support enough to keep even a broken spine stabilized. So long as Fio remained focused, he could move the improvised magical stretcher with them, no physical lifting required.
The barrier around them dissipated with the light hiss of a seal being broken. The trainees had given up on trying to seem productive by now, and stood trying to peer in to see what was going on. Lady Mari and Catalin had just reached the trees where Ilmira and the Commanders had been but moments earlier, moving as quickly as they could without causing alarm.
“What’s the boy’s name?” She asked Davins. Now that the worst flare of her anger had passed, she knew she’d seem cold to those who didn’t know her well. Who couldn’t feel the slow, controlled burn that she’d reigned in.
“Kavi Thergoode, General.” Davins seemed to relax slightly. It was probable that he assumed this meant Ilmira was sending the boy home instead of him. An ugly instinct made her want to turn the tables, to pull the rug from under this man she’d entrusted with the future of those who wanted to live in her example. Send one home. The boy or the man.
There was a third option. Ilmira took it.
Raising her voice to be heard clearly, Ilmira called, “Effective immediately, Kavi Thergoode is named Squire.”
“To - to whom?” Davins’s mask had broken. Strange as these events had been, this was evidently the line where his decorum failed. Behind him, Fio exhaled, but passed it off as adjusting his grip on his magic. The other trainees were a field of startled, wide eyes and rapt attention.
Ilmira met Davins’s eyes evenly. “To me, Instructor. General Ilmira Theosa.”