Captain Sarovy steepled his fingers and stared across the desk at Archer-Corporal Kurengenothe. The corporal stared back, blinking in slow puzzlement.
For once, Sarovy was stymied by how to start.
Kurengenothe had done nothing wrong. He was a steady but unremarkable soldier who had risen to his rank as a matter of seniority; nearly fifty, he had served in the Crimson Army since its formation, and in the Gold Army before that, and his presence seemed to give his section a stability important for its mix of nationalities. He also worked alongside Corporal Arondeyl, a Trivestean from Sarovy’s home of Fort Igen, and Arondeyl had nothing scathing to say about him as a person. That was almost unheard-of.
But Kurengenothe was an Averognan–the highest-ranking Averognan in Blaze Company—and as Sarovy had been trying to understand his men’s agendas and comfort levels, he had finally come around to the problem that was them.
Averognans never got into trouble.
There were twenty Averognan men in Blaze Company, plus five more who were considered partials—either second-generation Jernizen immigrants or ogre-bloods or abominations—overall making up more than a tenth of the force. All were Imperial citizens, and most had been so for their entire lives; nearly thirty years had passed since Averogne submitted bloodlessly to the Emperor. Even those who had been alive during Averogne’s time of independence seemed to hold no grudge, nor bother to mention there had once been such a state of affairs.
So thoroughly had the Averognans accepted Imperial rule that they were now allowed their traditional leader—the Duke of Lagurnath—instead of being overseen by an Imperial regent. Only Riddian, Wyndon and Trivestes could say the same.
Yet while the Wynds, the Riddish and the Trivesteans were perpetually bogged down in fistfights and duels of honor, the Averognans were ever on the sidelines, calmly observing. Not one of the twenty-five Averognans had an infraction on his record—not even a drunk-and-disorderly. The only one he had ever called into his office before this was Archer-Sergeant Korr, and he did not even know if that man counted.
So he had called this one in: this affably baffled greybeard, a good fifteen years older than him but seeming as guileless as a new recruit. It made him wonder if perhaps all the so-called Averognans were in fact abominations designed to be bland and perceptive.
But then, the Empire already had the bodythieves.
“…I have questions, corporal,” he said at last, at a loss about how to continue otherwise. Subterfuge had never been a talent of his. “About your homeland.”
The corporal’s puzzled smile seemed to widen marginally at that, but it could have been a trick of the eye. “Yes, Captain?”
“You see, I am trying to understand why my men behave as they do,” Sarovy continued, that smile prodding at him to clarify. “Misbehavior is endemic among some, my own people not the least, and if information can smooth the wrinkles out before I am forced to hammer them down, I would like to see it done.”
“That sounds reasonable, sir.”
“To that end, I am trying to speak with representatives of each protectorate or extra-Imperial area to ascertain what can and should be done.”
“Of course, sir. And what would you ask of me?”
Sarovy focused on Kurengenothe, frowning slightly. In truth, he had not been calling in representatives of the other lands; they had just fallen into his lap for their various misbehaviors, and he had prodded them until they spilled their guts. It was easy to nudge along a vehement monologue. Not so for a mild, pleasant, slightly baffled inquiry.
He had been trying his best, but he was no mentalist, no practiced confidant. Having to work for this made him unsure.
“You and your fellow Averognans do not seem to conflict much with the other folk,” he started slowly, hands folded over his files. “I must admit that this is…unusual in the ranks. Do you have any explanation for your ability to evade conflict?”
Kurengenothe shrugged slightly, broad face untroubled. “We don’t like to fight with our allies, sir. Simple enough.”
“Yet surely no one can completely avoid conflict.”
“While it’s true that there will always be someone trying to start trouble, sir, all we do is not be their enemy.”
“Not be…” Sarovy shook his head slightly. “I doubt that it is always up to you.”
“You may be right, sir,” Kurengenothe accepted amiably, “but you’d be surprised at how many feisty types will calm right down if you agree with them. Or at least don’t match their yelling with your own. It’s a waste of breath on both sides, sir.”
“So what you are saying is that you do not get into trouble because you behave passively.” It was difficult for Sarovy to keep the scorn from his voice. A remnant of his own Trivestean upbringing, he knew, but he could not help looking down his nose at the plain, older man.
Kurengenothe just smiled mildly. Sarovy could swear that his dark eyes hid a glint of….something, but had no frame of reference for it.
“Sir, we’re good soldiers,” Kurengenothe said after a moment, “but when we’re not soldiering, we don’t feel the need to prove ourselves. Not in any way that would involve law-breaking. Forgive me for saying this, sir, but you outside folk aren’t too interesting to us, so we don’t feel much need to jostle for rank. What comes, comes.”
“Then what brought you to soldiering?” said Sarovy. “You personally, not your people; I know that Averogne has the same compulsory conscription as the rest of the Empire, but your file says you were in the militia before the conquest.”
He had expected a reaction at ‘conquest’, but got none. “I always liked the thought of it, ever since I was a boy,” said Kurengenothe with a shrug. “The Duchy, we go back all the way to the Altaeran Empire; that’s why we’re a duchy at all. The only place beside maybe the Tair that remembers those days of terrible glory. We’re taught all those stories of the Old Imperial wars as children, sir, and the stuff about knights always intrigued me, but since I live where I live, the bow was what I got. Not too bad at it, but I do wish I could ride with a lance.”
Sarovy glanced down at the file briefly, noting that indeed Kurengenothe had tried out for the lancers when the Crimson first started training them, but had been passed over. “Not much time to practice riding in Averogne?” he said.
“It’s thick forest, sir. We may be here on the low side of the Rift but that doesn’t make the land flat or good for horses.”
Pursing his lips, Sarovy considered what he knew of Averogne. It was not a small area; extending from the north edge of Illane to the broken foothills that guarded Gejara, it encompassed nearly as much territory as the Trivestes plateaus, and was reportedly more heavily populated. The problem was that verifying the population was nearly impossible, for Averogne was more thickly forested than northern Wyndon, and its people seemed ill-inclined to cut proper logging trails for Imperial inspectors to follow. Beside the castle-complex of Lagurnath and the few lakeshore villages that could not properly hide themselves, the entirety of the duchy looked like wilderness.
Secretive was an understatement.
“I suppose I’m too old for it now, sir,” said Kurengenothe with a sad smile. “But that’s the way of dreams. Sometimes they slip away from you.”
Sarovy nodded slightly, then tried another angle. “Your file says that you converted to the Imperial Light almost immediately upon entry into the Gold Army. You had no attachment to your original faith?”
“It’s not that, sir. It was more like…heh, enlightenment.” The elder soldier sat forward slightly, a brightness in his eyes as he said, “Living in the dark woods, of course we worshiped the Light. Only it was a different Light from the one your folk spoke of, at least on the surface. That’s why you call most of the non-Imperial folks around here ‘heretics’, you know… They follow a Light, just not your Light. But the way I see it, they’re all the same Light, just with a different name attached. So submitting to the Imperial Light is no different from worshiping the one I already followed; it’s just a matter of changing the name I call it by. The tenets aren’t all that different either.”
“And you never feel conflicted over this?”
“Well, when I was younger I did feel I was doing a dishonor to my ancestors, and to the wood-spirits we also revered. But the wood-spirits don’t need our worship, sir, and I don’t need to follow the ways of the honored dead; their time is over. I’m an Imperial now, sir, so I’ll act like one.”
Act, thought Sarovy, but there was nothing in the man’s face to say that he was being dishonest. “And your fellow Averognans likewise see no conflict in this?”
Kurengenothe laughed shortly and shrugged. “Most of them’ve been Imperial Light-followers since birth, sir. That was the first thing that happened once we joined the Empire, all the Light priests coming in to spread the Word. We may not have many temples but that’s just because it’s hard to build big in the woods. Some of the ones who come from villages by the lakes or the Rifts might venerate some of those spirits too, but that doesn’t get in the way of our proper worship.”
“And you bear no grudge against any of your fellow soldiers?”
“Of course not, sir. Why would we?”
Sarovy sighed faintly. It seemed too good to be true, but in a way, he could understand it. Averogne was isolated from the more aggressive peoples of the west—the Jernizen specifically—because of its thick forests, which made it nigh impassable to their forces. Its southern neighbor Illane was generally nonviolent, its northern neighbor Gejara the same, and though it technically shared a border with both Corvia and Wyndon in the east, that ‘border’ was the Rift wall. It was as isolated as any mid-continent land could be.
“If you worship the proper Light, why do you not clear the space for temples?” he said finally. He had not meant for this interview to be a religious inquisition, but it was the only foothold he seemed to have here.
“We’ve got to respect the forest, sir,” said Kurengenothe. “Our people have always lived in its shelter, accepting its bounty but not outright taking anything. Most of our towns are built right up to the bases of the trees. Cutting them down… You ever see a big tree fall, sir? Just one of them could crush half a village.”
“That does not explain why you could not clear an area outside of a village.”
Kurengenothe sighed. “The forest is old, sir, and full of darkness, but that darkness doesn’t bother anyone so long as it’s not disturbed. If we let it be, it lets us be in return. Going outside our villages just to cut a gap in the forest isn’t wise; in fact, it’s downright suicidal, as we learned years ago when we first tried to raise temples for the Light priests. Just as we’ve adapted to the Imperial Light, so the Imperial Light has to do some adapting to properly operate in Averogne, sir. There’s only so much that the forest will allow.”
Privately Sarovy thought that meant it was time to cut the whole forest down, but he remembered what that had gotten the Crimson Army when they had tried to log the Mist Forest fringe: a barrage of wraith arrows. “Does your forest shelter wraiths?” he said.
“No, sir. Goblins, spirits, wood-folk, lake-folk, but no wraiths.”
“And these creatures, they attack you for trying to clear patches of forest?”
“No, sir. No one attacks us. The forest just won’t allow it.”
“The trees, then? The trees resist you?”
Kurengenothe looked at him blankly. “They’re trees, sir. What’ll they do, swat us with their branches?”
Sarovy’s lips thinned, and he thought to reprimand the soldier for mocking him, but there was no hostility or amusement in his tone, just bafflement. He decided to let it pass. “Then what is it that makes clear-cutting so suicidal?”
“Well, sir, the fact that men who do it end up killing themselves.”
Sarovy blinked. “So not ‘suicidal’ because there is something out there that will kill them, but—“
“Actually doing it themselves, yes sir.”
“Some sort of mind-controlling forest force?”
“Not that I know of, sir. Had Imperial mentalists come through a few times and they never felt anything that I heard of.”
“A spiritual poison? Dark possession?”
“Could be. All I know is that men went out there planning to cut down trees, didn’t return, and were found all dead by their own hands when we went looking. Light priests included.”
That sent a chill up Sarovy’s spine, for if a Dark entity could slip into the mind of a Light priest and force him to kill himself, who was immune?
Fire. Burn down the entire duchy.
“But so long as we don’t clear away anything more than we need for our villages, no one suffers,” said Kurengenothe. “The Light priests get along just fine, and everyone prospers. So I figure there’s no reason to antagonize a darkness that keeps to itself.”
Sarovy wanted to argue that; after all, the Dark was likely just biding its time, waiting for a chance to flood out from the depths of the forest and extinguish all Light. But he was not here to argue religion with his men—especially those who already followed his faith—so he reluctantly forced himself to let it go.
“You will of course inform me if any of your men does feel uncomfortable here, or has an issue with another soldier,” he said. “After all, you are the senior officer among all the Averognans in the company; I imagine they come to you with their troubles.”
”Not that we have any troubles, sir, but if we did, that’d be true,” said Kurengenothe amiably. “And as you say, I’d tell you immediately.”
“Good.” Uncertain what else to say, Sarovy spent a moment just staring at the Averognan, who neither evaded his stare nor turned it into any kind of dominance struggle. He just smiled that mild, expectant smile and waited.
It pained Sarovy to realize that he had no more idea what to make of Kurengenothe and his kind than he had before the man came in.
“Dismissed, corporal,” he said, and once the door had clicked shut in the soldier’s wake, he sat back in his chair and rubbed at his temples. He had always hated mysteries, but now knew that he hated the unobjectionably affable ones most of all.