Marine felt like there was too much information in her mind for it to still be the same week. How could this be happening? She almost wanted to keep touching her own skin to check she was the same Tingion that she had been a few days ago before the mission.
Following her chat with Ezria she had headed back to her family home, barely noticing the streets passing as she made her way through. Her head swam with the speed at which her world had been turned upside down… Just hours ago she had been Topside retrieving the Lost Stone. They were supposed to have come home to accolades and relief from all Tingions. All anyone wanted was for the stone to be put in safe holdings, and surely that was what they had achieved? Now here she was, sitting in the quiet living room with the company disbanded, Ezria fired and herself entwined in a secret bid to expose whatever was going on behind closed doors with Vanweer.
So what was going on with Vanweer? Instinctively Marine trusted Ezria, but was she right to? Was it just that proximity to Ezria and serving under her was making Marine lean towards her rather than Vanweer? Could Vanweer be corrupt? To what end? She was already supreme ruler of the military, what more could there be to achieve?
There was no such thing as a Royal family in Tingion society - they had disbanded that long before they’d even moved beneath the ground. It had caused too many fights and wars and rifts to survive permanently in a society that craved peace and stability. Tingion government changed constantly - they had disbanded the idea of parties years ago after it was decided that rival parties got them too hot under the collar.
Everything in Tingion society was run by a minister with their own small team of civil servants. Each of these ministerial positions came up for re-election every two years, but all staggered so that there was never too much change at one time. Any Tingion could run but there were two stipulations; they must submit a plan for their 2year tenure should they win, detailing for the voters what they would be setting out to achieve. Secondly, they had to commit that should they win and fail to achieve 75% of what was in their manifesto then they would forefeit 75% of their life savings and salary. It wasn’t a foolproof system, but it was the best they had so far come up with to keep ministers honest and to keep elections from becoming fanfares of promise with very little basis in reality. Tingions liked their promises to be achievable, calm and not too ambitious. It was a system designed to keep constant waves of change coming through, but without paving the way for corruption by leaving someone in power for too long. Of course there were factions of the government that got on better than others, but since they had disbanded official parties in favour of all solo runners it had meant things got done a little quicker, with a much reduced level of spite.
Vanweer had been in the highest position in the Tingion military for just over a year. She was popular and had already tipped over her 75% attainment goal. Marine had never felt even a speck of friction between Vanweer and anybody else.
So if it was the stone, why would Vanweer be lying about it? What need did Vanweer have for pretending it wasn’t? And if it wasn’t the stone, why would Ezria be so convinced that it was? Also, why would Vanweer have fired Ezria for making the mistake? Several Captains and Scientists had agreed before they went Topside that there was a good chance this was the Stone. Worth risking all their lives on going up to retrieve it. Worth risking all of Tingion society being discovered to go Topside and retrieve it. Vanweer herself had given permission. So why fire Ezria when it turned out it was not? Surely better safe than sorry? That was practically a Tingion mantra.
Marine shook her head tiredly to try and disperse her muggy thoughts. She drained her cup. There were no answers to any of these questions in her head or home. She would sleep and meet Ezria at their appointed meeting place the next morning.
She awoke with dusty feeling eyes and a raging head, pulled on her boots and made her way to the appointed tavern before First Beats. It was a decent walk away from her house and she felt watched every step of the way. Marine was not a naturally brave Tingion. She often wondered what on earth had possessed her to join the forces in the first place. It certainly wasn’t a desire for danger or excitement. She could think of nothing more exciting than being at home knowing exactly what the next day would bring. She thought perhaps it was obstinacy that had led her into the military - a desperate desire to give her odd magic an outlet, a use, a purpose, or at the very least a disguise. The top had called her - moving air and lights that changed and bounced. She didn’t want to be near humans or animals if she could help it, but there was that magical frisson of knowing she was back where her ancestors had once lived.
She turned the last corner, looking about her for prying eyes before ducking into the tavern with her coat pulled as far up over her head as she could without looking too suspicious.
Her eyes adjusted to the different light in the tavern - the flickering of the glow lamps on the walls and tables was warm and moving. Her eyes jumped from table to table until she spotted Ezria sitting against the wall on the far side. She moved swiftly across the floor and slid into the spare seat behind Ezria. Ezria barely glanced up.
‘Were you followed?’ She muttered into the table.
‘I don’t think so.’ Marine murmured back, feeling her heart beating hard in every extremity of her body.
‘I will need you to know for sure next time.’ Was all Marine heard in return and she felt her ears burning with shame.
Ezria pushed a cup across the table to Marine and lifted her own to clink cups. Marine clinked, locked eyes with Ezria and then took a sip. It all felt very showy and she tried to scan the seats to see who Ezria was performing for. Ezria’s conversation was stilted and Marine joined in, knowing everything they were saying was fake and killing time. To what end she could only wonder.
She heard the door open behind her and Ezria got to her feet immediately. Marine’s head whipped around. Ezria’s Lieutenant Aysmar had entered the tavern and stood silently in the doorway.
‘Already drowning your sorrows you old sot?’ Came Aysmar’s gentle tones and Marine blanched. She had never heard a note of questioning from Aysmar before, the two had been thick as thieves.
‘What are you doing here?’ Came Ezria’s menacing growl.
‘I may go where I please. I have not displeased Vanweer. It’s you who should be hanging your hand in shame.’ Aysmar stayed stock still in the doorway. Marine wondered whether the two would fight. Would she need to join in? She’d never actually been in a fight before.
Ezria didn’t move. The two women were locked in a silent battle of wills. The few other customers in the tavern stayed very still and quiet in their seats. The barman didn’t move a muscle.
‘Aysmar, you know me. You know…’ Ezria began.
‘I know who I trust.’ Said Aysmar, ‘It is not you.’ She gave Ezria a sneering look up and down and then made her way to the bar to order a drink.
Marine looked at Ezria and her stomach lurched when she saw Ezria was trembling. Had Marine thrown her allegiance in with the wrong side. Just as the thought crossed her mind she heard Aysmar’s voice calling across the bar, ‘You are making a mistake Marine. I’ll give you until Sixth Beats to come crawling to me and tell me your allegiance is in the right place.’
Marine’s stomach turned to mush. She glanced up at Ezria who was looking at her coldly.
‘I am leaving.’ Said Ezria, ‘I will not stay in a tavern that serves rats. You can follow me, or her.’ She drained her cup and stalked out of the wooden door. Marine was frozen for a moment and the table. She tried to cool her heart and listen to her gut. The thought of publicly going against Vanweer was terrifying, but, she knew deep down that she trusted that solid look in Ezria’s eye. She downed her cup for courage, and dashed out after Ezria. As she emerged from the Tavern she looked left and right and didn’t see a sign of Ezria anywhere. She picked a direction and raced to the right, as she passed an alley an arm shot out and pulled her in.
‘Were you followed?’ Came Ezria’s voice from the darkness.
‘I don’t… I wasn’t.’ Said Marine, and she could swear she heard Ezria smile. She allowed Ezria to lead her down the alley into near perfect darkness, they twisted and turned and then suddenly the alley ended abruptly in a small wall of grass and flower stems.
They must be at Forstwire Square, Marine thought in amazement. It was one of the most beautiful spots in the city where the Tingions had recreated some of the flora of the Topside by putting tiny bore holes up so that rain and light could come down and grass and flowers could grow. It had produced a beautiful grassy square with towering daisies and the odd daffodil. An incredible feat. Marine had no idea you could reach it other than by the main thoroughfare that coursed through the high street towards it.
Ezria pulled Marine softly through the grassy blades, both taking care not to disturb it too much and draw attention to their presence.
‘We are alone now. I am glad that you came after me.’
Marine beamed. She couldn’t help feeling proud of herself whenever Ezria was impressed with her. She wondered what her life would be like by now if she had instead joined Aysmar at the tavern bar. So many possibilities.
‘Ezria, what is going on?’ Marine asked, wishing she had a more insightful question to ask.
‘I believe Vanweer is lying about the Stone. I think she wants it for something else and has dismissed me because I know it is the Stone.’
‘What makes you so sure?’ Asked Marine, wide eyed.
Ezria opened her mouth to reply but was silenced by a noise nearby. Marine froze. It could be a mouse or worse, a mole, as beautiful as this square was the smell of it often attracted wildlife. It was the constant focus of campaigns to get rid of it to prevent such dangerous nuisances. Personally Marine loved it. It was one of the few places in the Tingion City that wasn’t purely functional.
The rustling continued behind them and then Aysmar appeared from between the blades of grass and settled silently on the floor. Marine wondered if her heart rate would ever slow down again. She looked from Ezria to Aysmar, wondering which of them would kick off first, but they both seemed to be smiling.
‘I am so happy for you two for joining me.’ Ezria said, smiling at them both. ‘I believe our little performance in the tavern should have settled the minds of Vanweer’s spies that I have no-one more effectual than my least experienced who will trust me.’ Marine felt small: so that was why she was here.
‘Vanweer will have no idea of what you are capable of Marine. I’m not even sure if you or I know. The three of us will not be enough though, if we are to test the stone and have a hope of wrestling it from Vanweer’s grasp we will need more able bodies. Aysmar, which of the company do you think we can trust?’
Marine turned to look at Aysmar who pulled a list from inside her coat.
‘Of the entire company, I think we could choose from Lork, Kurann, Bissette, Mortglade, Rishekke, Tizzine, Jurias and Eleff. I think to get in and test the stone with Marine, we would want four of them.’
Aysmar finished delivering her report and looked at Ezria for confirmation of who she would choose. Marine thought over the list that Aysmar had read out.
There was Lork: friendly and jovial, loud by Tingion standards and an absolute powerhouse in the training ground.
Kurann: the only male in the squad - funny and quiet, he always had a comment that could get you into trouble for sniggering out of place.
Bissette: descended from the ancient Tingion Royal family - she was waify and strong, determined to prove herself beyond her family’s history.
Mortglade: the oldest in the company, a woman who seemed to have read every book and retained every fact. So quick with a smile and the right way to make you feel better about yourself.
Rishekke: a quiet, fast Tingion that Marine barely knew other than that she was always picked first for stealth jobs.
Tizzine: a brash Tingion who liked one too many Root ales. She was often in trouble for being late, but somehow her performance was always polished when they needed her and so she was never punished to the point of exclusion.
Jurias: she had joined the company at the same time as Marine. Something about her had always set Marine on edge: she was competitive, rude and focused. A brilliant mind, but not someone Marine was thrilled to be next to on the bench at the tavern.
Finally, Eleff, the gentlest soul Marine had ever met. She was soft, vague and quiet; almost ethereal. She was relaxed to the point that Marine had frequently wondered why on earth she wanted military life, but want it she did seem to.
Marine looked at Ezria to see who she would choose, but Ezria merely slowly turned her head to look at Marine,
‘Marine, who shall we take?’
Which four Tingions does Marine choose?
You choose your four, and the four with the highest individual votes will win.