Captain Sarovy frowned at the man who lounged across from him, as comfortable in the camp chair as if in his own home. “Lancer Jonmel Stormfollower,” he said neutrally. “Here again.”
“Yessir,” said the man with a lopsided grin. “Guess I can’t help myself.”
“That is apparent,” said Sarovy, looking down at the man’s file. He had noted each time the young Jernizen had been sent to him for misbehavior, and thus far it seemed to be at least once a week. Never particularly heavy infractions—a few fights, petty theft that the man shrugged off as ‘pranks’, and several counts of contempt that had turned out to be smarting off to his officers in a rather perceptive manner. Nothing Sarovy was not used to handling, but not so constantly.
“First, Stormfollower, sit up straight,” he said as he penned another note in the file. The grinning man made an attempt to do so, but even with a stiff spine he looked more relaxed than half the army. It irked Sarovy, but he tried to ignore it.
“Second…” Sarovy trailed off in a sigh. “What am I supposed to do with you, Lancer? This is not the time or place for unprofessional behavior.”
“Too bad I’m the best lancer you’ve got, eh Captain?”
Sarovy gave him a flat look, but had to concede the point. All three of the Jernizen expatriates in his lancer group outperformed the others, but Stormfollower was clearly the frontrunner, able to control his Tasgard horse as if psychically attuned to it and utterly fearless on the field. Unfortunately that translated to bravado off the field, and though his fellow Jernizen were also braggarts and swaggerers, they usually managed to hold their tongues in front of their commanders.
“Your capabilities notwithstanding, there is only so much that I can tolerate,” said Sarovy. “Especially as our mission has evolved to require very little traditional lance-work…”
At that, Stormfollower’s grin finally wavered, and the man sat forward in his seat, fair brows furrowed. “Sir, you were a lancer yourself. Don’t tell me you’re gonna decommission us.”
“Ah, now you’re concerned?”
“No, heh, of course not, but…”
“You are here provisionally, after all. Being a native of our Empire’s enemy.”
Stormfollower blanched at that, easily noticeable despite his golden plainsland tan. “Hoi, sir, I pledged fealty to your Empire and let those mindwashers do their thing. I’m not going back to Jernizan. Can’t go back. You’re not gonna—“
“Make you? Certainly I could,” said Sarovy, tapping the feather of his quill-pen absently against his cheek. “You seem to enjoy antagonizing your fellow lancers, the Wynds in particular, and you do not respect your superiors. With our work being conducted in the tunnels, we no longer have need of your particular services.”
“Do you know what they’d do to me if I went back?” said Stormfollower.
Sarovy arched a brow.
The Jernizen sighed and ran a hand over his war-braided blond hair. “Probably not, since you folk didn’t even manage to dip your toes in there. All right, it’s like this. I’m here because I wanted to keep riding, sir, keep fighting even if it was alongside you guys. That’s what I enjoy. Back home, we ride against grass dragons and the like, and that’s fun but it’s not the same. Since the Mage-King united us all, we haven’t done much internal warring, so it’s just…dull for a fellow like me who doesn’t want to spend all his time hunting stupid lizards.
“But now that I’ve come here, sir, I can’t go back. They’d kill me. You don’t know what it’s like. The kingdom—it’s great when you’re a part of it. Plenty of freedom to roam, from the Tair through the grasslands down to the swamplands, all the cities and the ports… You can go anywhere you like, which is pretty different from your Empire as I hear. I was tramping around for years, just me and my horse, doing odd jobs and such, until you folk decided to invade us.
“But once you leave…” Stormfollower shuddered. “You should know we’re real closed to outsiders. Even before the war, we wouldn’t let anyone in without them being real closely watched, and we only really went out on raids, right? That’s because once you leave, you’re not one of us anymore. And if you came from outside, you never will be. No matter how long you stay.
“It’s even like that between towns, you know? People stay in the same town or the same herder’s collective for generations, and when the young folk leave, they’re not welcome back. They have to go make their own way, get their own herd and their own wagons or build their own homestead; the fact that they left means they weren’t one of us in the first place. Me, I got pushed out of my town because there was no reason for me to be there—my mother was the fourth wife so I wasn’t gonna inherit anything, all the girls my age were taken, and I didn’t want to be the lead herder’s hired man all my life. So I lit out for the countryside.
“Me and Seff and Irin, we’re all like that. Extra men no one needs—until wartime. So we joined up when you lot invaded, but when our bosses decided to just burn down the borderland instead of fight and you all retreated, well, what were we supposed to do? Go back to being wanderers, collecting bounties and stealing to eat? We were one step above outlaws as it was, so…”
He shrugged, then looked down at his hands. “It was probably a mistake but it’s not like I’ve got any family in Jernizan. None that’d take me back. I could go into a city but all that’s just business; the ladies are with the rich men, the herd bosses and big farmers and merchants, and that leaves none for us. No reason to settle anywhere, because nowhere will call me its own, and no real desire to go join the King’s Guard or the like. Not that I could; they all have to do magic too, and I haven’t got the spark.”
“So you betrayed your land,” said Sarovy.
Stormfollower made a face. “That’s what they’ll say, yeah. And the King’s Guard will tear me apart if I ever show myself to them. Pikes, the border guard might do the same. But what am I supposed to do? Pick some isolated stretch of grass, build myself a sod hut and raise beans ‘til I die of old age? Alone? I’d rather get killed in battle. At least then I won’t be one of those sad geezers you find sometimes, all desiccated or chewn down to bones in their little bachelor huts. And the sad part is, some other single fellow’s likely to just bury the previous tenant and set up housekeeping in that pre-made place. To do the exact same thing his predecessor did. It’s crap.”
“And what do you think you can accomplish here?”
“Well, I can find a girl, for one thing.”
“Surely there must be unattached women somewhere in Jernizan.”
Stormfollower looked at him like he had grown an extra head. “Haven’t you easterners ever heard of a harem?” he said. “The men with good money, with lots of land, lots of herds, or the mage folk up in the cities, they get women all over them. Dozens sometimes. It’s not fair, but I guess that’s what the ladies want. The king, I hear he has fifty wives. I dunno what he does with all of them—who has that kinda time?—but he’s sure not sharing. And you go after an unattached girl and her whole male family will come to kill you. Sometimes the women too, the mothers and grandmothers, because that’s how lots of them get out of just scraping by. Marrying their daughters to the rich folk.
“I’m sure there’s some here and there, but heh, you’ve seen moths swarm a lantern, right sir? Same bloody thing. Too many of us, too few of them.”
“So you would marry into the Empire.”
“Sir, I’d marry an ogress if she was nice enough. Here, I can stack up my pay and get citizenship and maybe find a lady who won’t laugh in my face. Settle down, have a family. Instead of dying alone in the grasslands, or getting ripped up by the King’s Guard for even thinking about leaving.”
Sarovy frowned, but could not think of much to say to that. He had not intended to send Stormfollower back to Jernizan; he had already seen too much of the Crimson Army, and considering Jernizan’s own use of mentalists, a simple mindwashing would not be enough to protect the information. Sending him to the Palace was the other option, but Sarovy was loath to do that to anyone. He had his own suspicions about what occurred there, and did not want to inflict it on anyone.
Beside that, Stormfollower’s misbehavior did not merit it. His loose understanding of the rules could be remedied with effort, and despite his own analysis, Sarovy had no intention of disbanding his lancers or reclassifying them into the infantry. It was impossible to know what the future held, and there was no reason to destroy an asset in the first moment it appeared to lose its value.
“I need you to understand something,” he told Stormfollower, and was gratified when the Jernizen leaned forward with a look of attention. Tapping the page, he said, “You are on thin ice. If you can not learn by the whip, you will learn by the gaol, and if that teaches you nothing, you will go to the Palace. It is unlikely that you will return. If you truly wish a life here in the east, I urge you to think twice about your entertainments, or you will soon reach the limit of my tolerance.”
“Do not think that your situation entitles you to different treatment. We are all here due to disciplinary issues, and my job is to see that we work together despite that. If you can not adapt to us….”
Stormfollower’s shoulders slumped, then straightened, and he nodded. “I guess it’s a fairer shot than I’d get inside Jernizan,” he said, then cracked another grin. “Pikes, I was surprised enough not to be shot dead at the border! Actually being here in the army is a great opportunity, sir—“
“Then do not squander it.”
“Yessir. Understood. I’ll do my best.”
“Try a notch or two better. Consider it a challenge.”
At the gleam in the young man’s eyes, Sarovy knew he had hit the mark.