Marine blinked at Ezria hoping this was some sort of test that she could pass easily. Perhaps she was supposed to deign to choose, bowing her experience to Ezria’s and insisting it was not her choice? But what if that just made Ezria lose all faith in her completely? She was still smarting from having not been entirely sure she was followed into the tavern. Her mouth felt very dry.
Ezria broke into a gentle smile. ‘You cannot get this wrong, Marine, you are choosing from the company I have formed and trained myself: if you think there is a single one of them I wouldn’t entrust my life to then you are crazy. I merely want your opinion, as someone who works with the team and not over them. Who should we choose?’
Marine took a deep breath and tried to think calmly. Her mind raced over the faces of her comrades the last time she had seen them: looking ashen faced outside Vanweer’s office before they had been dismissed. Who would she choose? Mortglade was by far the most knowledgeable, Lork was a block of strength when you were in a tight squeeze… She stopped suddenly and her head snapped up to face Ezria.
‘I can’t choose until I know what we will be doing.’ She said simply. Ezria and Aysmar broke out into identical smiles.
‘Good answer,’ Said Ezria, and proceeded to outlay the plan to Marine. Marine gaped at the sheer audacity. Ezria planned to break into the laboratory where the stone (or not stone) was held and test the stone. It was going to take all of their combined skills to disarm the guards, slip in with minimal fuss and to come away with a certain knowledge.
‘What happens when we know?’ Marine asked, ‘If Vanweer is lying… which I’m sure she is, if that’s what you think.’ Marine added hastily, ‘Then what are we going to do about it?’
‘That bit I don’t know.’ Said Ezria, her grey eyes looking cloudy for a moment, ‘But I can’t plan for that until I have all the tools I need. So, who are we taking?’
Marine settled down into her seated position and tried to think coolly and calmly. Instantly she knew she wanted Kurann in the squad. The man was a multi-tool - it didn’t matter what situation you were in, he would find a way to be extraordinarily useful in a manner you would never have guessed you needed. So, Kurann was in. Having someone decided made Marine feel confident. She would have liked Tizzine, for sheer confidence alone Tizzine was a brilliant comrade to have at your side. She could make you feel invincible with a word. But Marine knew Tizzine and Kurann clashed on an almost daily basis. Perhaps she shouldn’t take Kurann…? Marine shook her head. No. She had to stay firm on her decisions once she had made them or she would never get anywhere.
So, Kurann was in and Tizzine was out. Mortglade was a certainty, there was nothing Mortglade didn’t know that she couldn’t find out somehow and Marine felt like this was a mission that required knowledge rather than muscle. For that reason, she realised sadly that Lork was unlikely to make the final cut of her squad. The idea of Kurann and Mortglade by her side was wholesome though and already she could feel herself looking forward to seeing them.
Rishekke was the quietest, sneakiest of the crew. An absolute no-brainer. That left one spot. Her minds eye flicked from Bissette to Eleff… both were brilliant Tingions. She thought of both of them at the training ground - two of the most determined of the trainees, neither of them would leave an exercise until she had hit a personal best. They were both dogged, but in such different ways. Bissette was descended from Royal blood and had a manner about her that seemed to suggest she simply saw no reason why she couldn’t have what she wanted. Even if it was a thing she wanted from herself. Eleff on the other hand was cagey about her background; there was certainly no money in it from the look of the training clothes she had arrived in.
‘Take your time.’ Said Ezria.
Eleff or Bisette? Marine smiled to herself realising she had immediately discounted Jurias without much thought. Serves her right for never getting a round in thought Marine.
Eleff or Bisette? Bisette was perhaps the stronger of the two, but something about her royal connections made Marine shy of her. Perhaps it would be better to choose the Tingion with no family in the upper eschelons? What if Bisette knew someone related to Vanweer?
Marine nodded to Ezria.
‘I would choose Kurann, Rishekke, Mortglade and Eleff.’ She said confidently, and waited for Ezria’s thoughts.
Marine glanced up, hoping she looked slightly less ridiculous than she felt. As the smallest of the three, she Ezria and Aysmar had agreed that this role would be taken by Marine. Delivery drivers in the city tended to be young and agile so they could get through the tunnels and across outer walls without bother or aching joints. Marine stood in heavy street, with Tingions bustling past her and going about their business. She tried to force her heart rate to calm down. An old wives tale kept popping into her mind about how every Tingion heart only had so many beats and you should try and pace them out slowly to stay alive as long as you could. She hoped it was an old wives tale, for it was the truth then she was racing through her allotted beats and would be dead before her next birthday.
No one else on Heavy Street seemed to be noticing her at all and she began to relax that the disguise Ezria had provided for her was indeed good enough to succeed. Yesterday, they had sat in Forstwire Square devising their plan past Eighth Beats.
The Tingion day was divided into 7 sections, with each section marked by a low rumbling, vibration of the ground. Each district had a timekeeper in charge of a large machine that they would set off in synch with all the other timekeepers in the city. It vibrated just enough that every Tingion would feel the time marker, but not so much that it would cause property damage. With no natural light, and with a dislike of loud noises, it was felt that vibration was the easiest and least disruptive way of marking time passing. 1st Beats was generally wake up time, 2nd Beats the start of the working day and 8th Beats was the last Beat. Everyone raced to be home between 7th and 8th Beats for to be out after 8th Beats was in no way the norm. It wasn’t that there was exactly a curfew, more that nobody would agree publicly that there was any reason a Tingion should need to be out and about after 8th Beats. There was no passing of time through the night: a good Tingion should be asleep and not worried about what was going on in their sleeping hours. Only trouble happened between 8th and 1st Beats.
Marine had taken a deep breath and told Ezria who she would select for the mission.
‘I would choose Kurann, Rishekke, Mortglade and Eleff.’
Ezria had sat quietly for several moments and Marine feared she would never hear anything again except the adrenaline rushing through her ears. She’d looked from Aysmar’s face to Ezria’s and back again searching for some kind of sign that she had chosen well. Eventually, Ezria had looked up, ‘Not Jurias?’ Was all she said.
Marine burned. She knew she had left Jurias out of contention for her own personal reasons rather than because she felt her Tingion comrade was not capable. How could she explain that to Ezria without sounding petty?
‘I have a stronger bond with the others.’ She had said, hesitantly, craving a smile or a flicker of approval from Ezria.
‘And the team is centred upon you?’ Ezria said, a sharp note in the edges of her voice. She felt Aysmar tense beside her and felt her organs plummeting towards the ground. Marine hadn’t even considered how everyone else would work together, she had merely picked a team based around herself. How could she have been so shortsighted? This was a major slip up - she had just proved to Ezria beyond a shadow of a doubt that she wasn’t a team player. If she had thought, she would have realised that Mortglade and Jurias were inseparable in the tactical challenges during training: perhaps Mortglade would struggle without Jurias by her side? She tried to cool and calm and think of a good reason for why she had made the team all about her. Other than the obvious that she was here first and the others -
Marine stopped. Of course.
‘Yes,’ she said evenly, holding Ezria’s eyes, ‘The team is about me because I have the magic, or whatever this is,’ her voice faltered slightly as she held up her trembling hands, ‘And if I wasn’t the key component in the mission then I wouldn’t have been the first you had chosen yourself.’ Marine finished speaking and felt like the air around her had grown one thousand times heavier with every word she had uttered.
‘Good answer.’ Said Ezria, ‘We will go with your team if Aysmar consents?’
Aysmar merely nodded, Marine got the feeling that Aysmar was keen to be on with the plan. There was something about the way Ezria was testing Marine that made Marine feel calmer. If this was a test and training then it couldn’t be that serious could it? Obviously, the fact that Vanweer had fired Ezria costing her her life’s work stood to the contrary, but would Ezria use that as an opportunity for Marine? Yet another question Marine couldn’t even begin to answer.
‘We cannot simply stroll up to them and start discussions. Even if Vanweer doesn’t have covert spies, the news will be out all over the city that I am disgraced. We are going to have to reach them via subtler methods. Marine, you will go to Kurann disguised as a deliverer - you will take something to his door for which he needs to open up and then you will deliver him a message from me. For Eleff, you will be selling Chestnut Root at the market and wait for her to stop. Aysmar, you will go to Rishekke publicly and tell her that I am recruiting the others and that she is not to be turned.’
‘What about Mortglade?’ Said Aysmar and Marine at once.
‘Mortglade, I am hoping will come to us.’ Ezria said with a secretive smile.
And so here Marine was, on Heavy Street with a satchel and the vaguest outlines of a plan. She knew Kurann’s home very well - she had socialised with him and Lowes, his partner a hundred times since they had been cadets together. She had decided to go to Kurann’s house first. With every step she took nearer she felt like more and more eyes were on her. She desperately didn’t want to get Kurann and Lowes into any trouble, but there was no way to reach them without going to their home.
She hopped over the built up earth wall around the perimeter and headed up the path towards the door. She knocked carefully, trying not to glance around her and look suspicious. There was no reason why a delivery driver would be nervous of being seen, so why should Marine? Marine fleeting wished she was indeed simply a delivery driver. She heard footsteps on the other side of the door.
The wooden door opened and Marine saw Kurann in front of her, she was so glad it wasn’t Lowes.
‘Package for you.’ Said Marine, in a thick accent that she hoped would disguise her voice.
‘Who from?’ Kurann asked, already suspicious.
‘District 219.’ Said Marine, pretending to read the label on the package. She willed Kurann to recognise the District number as Ezria’s badge number. Kurann looked up.
‘219?’ He questioned, and Marine willed Kurann to recognise things a little less obviously.
‘According to the label,’ evaded Marine, ‘Seems to have a return address on it - in case there’s a package going back the other way.’
Kurann said nothing. Marine’s foot itched within her boot. Despite the cool, claggy air of Heavy Street with its clay layers, she felt a bead of sweat trickle down her neck.
‘Right. I would think I will want to send something back. What time is the last post?’
‘4th Beats.’ Said Marine, feeling bubbles dancing through her. She prayed on every shiny thing she had ever laid eyes on that Kurann understood and was not simply imagining himself sending a present back to an Aunt in the 219th District.
‘Do I need to sign?’ Said Kurann, his eyes flicking about the street. Marine hastily pulled up the clipboard that rested at her side and offered it up.
‘Thanks then.’ Said Kurann, and shut the door. Marine made her way back down the garden path and disappeared into the thong of people. She took the twistiest route she could think of home and when she was within 3 streets of her house she listened for Ezria’s call to confirm she had not been followed. There it was. Marine darted for home and a change of costume. She dashed her delivery uniform under her bed and reappeared out of the front door seconds later in her normal clothes, pulling a large trolley that had concealed within it a small basket full of strimmed chestnut root. This was Eleff’s favourite.
Marine made her way to the market and set up her basket simply on the floor like the other sellers. She sat and waited, selling a few strands here and there to passers by. It was really quite pleasant making small talk and talking about chestnut root. For the second time that day Marine wished she had chosen a career other than the military. She spotted Eleff waltzing through the market. Eleff had a slow gait - she moved like water, with her stark, strong frizzy hair sticking out like a beacon above her graceful body.
‘Strimmed Chestnut Root here!’ Marine called, trying to catch Eleff’s attention. She saw the green eyes flick her way. Bingo. ‘How much can I get you my love?’ Asked Marine, as Eleff stopped by her basket. Eleff was scrutinising the Chestnut Root.
‘How fresh is it?’ Eleff asked.
‘Picked it this morning - it comes from the top of a specifically delicious diversion.’ Marine said, trying to catch Eleff’s eye. But Eleff was intent on inspecting the contents of the basket.
‘Have you tested it for purity?’ Asked Eleff, and Marine began to panic. She had only thought of answers and questions that referred to the mission - she should have guessed Eleff would be this picky about what she ate.
‘I have yes, I would feed this to my newborn.’ Marine said and Eleff’s head snapped up at once.
‘You mustn’t EVER feed - oh -‘ Eleff stopped upon recognising Marine. Marine’s eyes widened under her hat, begging Eleff not to give her away. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw a man in a long waistcoat behind them turning to look at Eleff cautiously, ‘Oh, I see - you were making a joke.’ Eleff faltered.
‘More of an exaggeration than a joke - I just meant, these are the some of the finest Chestnut roots I’ve seen all season. I’m worried that the sudden change in water direction will have a bad effect for the rest of the growing season, but for this batch - I can honestly say it’s some of my best.’
‘May I try some?’ Asked Eleff.
‘Be my guest.’ Said Marine.
‘May I as well?’ The man in the long waistcoat spun on his heel and joined Eleff at Marine’s basket.
‘Go right ahead, if I can sell this basket before 3rd Beats my wife will be delighted.’ The man in the waistcoat reached down and picked up a strand, popping it into his mouth.
‘Third Beats?’ Said the man, narrowing his eyes at Marine, ‘That’s an ambitious target.’
‘It’s only a small basket,’ said Marine, swallowing - delighted that her mouth had provided an answer where her brain had been dryer than a husk.
‘Whereabouts did you gather it?’ Asked Eleff, taking care not to sound too interested. Strimmed Chestnut Root wasn’t exactly rare - it wouldn’t do to make too big a deal of it if the man was suspicious. Marine paused, she had been planning to say she’d gathered it at the place she wanted Eleff to meet her, but there was just something about the man she didn’t trust at all. He was being too careful, to light with his glances - too practisedly disinterested.
‘Well, usually, I would gather up on the wet - the new growth there can be spectacular. This year has been a little off though - so,’ Marine paused to give her next words weight, ‘this batch was from over on Crescent. There wasn’t much of it, but what there was was hand selected.’ She winked at Eleff and then felt her skin grow pale as she saw the man in the waistcoat see it. ‘Would you like a handful sir?’ She squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye. He paused,
‘It seems I’m in the market for more than a handful.’ He said jovially, ‘I’ll take a full round.’
Marine grinned and began to bundle up some strands for him. ‘And how about you my love?’
Eleff didn’t look at Marine, she was poking about in the basket choosing her own strands. ‘Yes, give me a minute - I’m looking for the lighter ones. I don’t like the thicker ends - I find that in a salad they’re too much. Too heavy.’
Marine nodded sagely, ‘I agree - we have the same taste I think. I’ve a new sickle that’s really good at thinning out. Here, let me tie those up for you. Looks like I will be home by Third Beats after all!’
She saw the man’s mouth turn up at the corner as she mentioned Third Beats for the second time. She swallowed a smile and continued.
‘That’s a lovely bunch you’ve picked there, but you missed one - let me throw another on. There you go. Perfect. From my sickle to you. Pleasure doing business with you. I may see you again, I hope.’
Eleff frowned at Marine, said her thanks and departed. The man lingered a moment longer.
‘Anything more I can do for you sir?’ Marine asked innocently.
The man shook his head, smiling, ‘No, no this will be plenty. You have my thanks.’ He moved on to the next stall - inspecting some dew cups with practised focus. Marine breathed a sigh of relief and began calling out to more passers by about the quality of her wares.