General Nevan’s head was floating over her when she awoke, having fallen hard onto the couch in the Guard room. She immediately put her hand up to her neck, where the aching should have been, as if she wasn’t sure it was still there at all. It didn’t hurt any more, she just hoped that was a good sign.
“General…’ She croaked, ‘it’s Murphy, he did it…he killed those people.”
He held a finger up to his wrinkled lips, “Hush child. I know, Ginger told me everything.”
“Yes, he even told me that he killed that man from earlier. He gave himself in.”
“He did?” Well wasn’t that surprising, she thought, sarcastically. So, he didn’t even have the guts to run away.
“Yes, he’s in custody now, though I hardly wanted to arrest the boy. It seems, from what I have heard, that he was completely under the control of our ‘murderer’.”
“So, you believe him then.” She looked him hard in his strange, pearly eyes. “You must believe him, it was Murphy, he did this, all of it.”
“I accept that it is Murphy now, but that is not my current concern. What really worries me is that we are expecting the Empire leaders to be here any minute now and there is a murderer whom the rebels believe is their hero and who, to make things all the worse, could be controlling anyone we come across. If there was a time for rebellion, now would be the perfect moment.”
“They think he is their hero?”
“They do, I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours.” She supposed she had, and that reminded her of another rumour she had heard.
“I don’t know if you know this Nevan, but that is not all they believe. They also seem to have got it into their heads that you are the murderer.” She hesitated and then spoke, quitter, “They even had me convinced for a moment, you were acting, how should I say it, rather suspicious.”
“Ah, yes. Unfortunately that was unavoidable. A by-product of the necessary information gathering I had to undergo. I couldn’t find out about their views without appearing suspicious, though I am glad you only suspected me for a moment, Lahel, I don’t think many of my other Guards would have been so trusting in me, the ‘blind general.’”
“They do…” she was going to say that they did trust him, but she couldn’t really argue that, after all the majority of them saw him as either a bumbling fool, or someone who was pretending to be one for some sort of nefarious purposes.
“They don’t. I know. But have no fear, Lahel, it does not concern me. Especially now I know I have such a loyal subject in you.”
She blushed at the compliment, and spoke quickly to cover her embarrassment. “Surely you don’t only have me. There is the Major Blackwood-Murphy also.”
The General frowned. “Well yes, though now that his son’s activities have come to light, his concerning behaviour as of late is all the more of a worry to me. If he is also being controlled by the boy, I would like to have him put in custody also before the Empire leaders arrive, so that I may figure out how to free him.”
“Well, we should do shall then.” She said hopefully, trying to add cheer to the General’s pessimistic tone.
“If only it were that easy.” He sighed. “I have not been able to find him since yesterday, I fear that you may have been the last to see him, in fact, Lahel. I worry as to what has come of him.”
She shivered, suddenly cold within the warmth of the Guard room. It was true that she hadn’t detected him in the house earlier on. “Surely he wouldn’t have hurt his own father.”
The General shook his head. “He is not his son and, if he is truly controlling him, I fear he has never considered him his father.”
They both sat in profound silence for a few minutes, considering this and hoping, desperately, that the Empire leaders would not arrive while they were still in such a mess.
Eventually, a trumpet sounded in the distance, and General Nevan spoke, suddenly too loud after the quiet they had occupied for so long. “I am afraid that that is them.”
She groaned. “It is?”
He stood up and smoothed down his clothes. She wondered why he cared what he looked like even though he couldn’t see, then laughed a little inside, maybe they were similar after all, considering she had done the same as she thought she was going to die. “Yes, Lahel. And I shall need your help if we are going to prevent this from going disastrously wrong.”
She shook her head desperately, “I can’t find them, there is no time…”
“No, Lahel. I understand. What I want you to do is stay with me while I am distracted by the Guard leaders, look out for any unusual activity in the crowd, and if you see Murphy or his father alert the Guards immediately, so we can have them arrested as quickly as possible. I trust that you can do this subtly, Lahel, but if the circumstances are desperate enough, you can do as you will to prevent uproar.”
She gulped, could she do it? Just keeping a watch of the crown and alerting the Guard, surely, she could. He was trusting her, so maybe this was her chance for her to improve her name within the Guard, and this way she could be the one to catch Murphy after all, even if not directly. How surprised he would be to see her standing with the Guard leaders in the town square! That would be a lesson to him not to underestimate her, that he should have killed her while he had a chance. “I will do it.” She said, determined. “To the best of my abilities.”
“It is wise to make no promises, Lahel. We have no way of knowing yet what he has planned, and, if the plan he has enacted so far is anything to go by, it may be truly unexpected.” He held out a tiny old hand to her, and after only a second of watching it quake, she took it and pulled herself up to stand next to him. “I have a horrible feeling that this problem does not lie only in our world of the rational, it is to the world of the supernatural, that in which your ancestors here in the Old Country believed, that we must look.”
She looked down at him, and through him at the fear she could see in the twist of his mouth and the sad set of his eyes, and knew she must look the same way. “He is not human, General, I know that for sure.”
“Curiously, Sergeant Clancy said the same thing. I think ‘vampire’ was the word he used for it: a term he had found in one of the old banned books from this country.”
“I don’t know what that is, but I saw him reading the book and whatever it was had scared him enough that I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Well,” he said with a gleam in his funny little eyes, “I have the book in my possession should you ever change your mind. I myself am tempted to have a flick through once all this business is over.”
“But it’s illegal!”
“Sometimes, Lahel, a little bending of the law is necessary, especially where the enemies are above abiding to such laws themselves. We have to give ourselves an advantage in some way, don’t we?”
Lahel wasn’t sure about that, yet, when he walked to the door and into the corridor beyond, she followed him without retort. She couldn’t deny that she was curious, but wondered what laws were there for if they were not followed, and if those who chose not to could still truly call themselves ‘good’.
“Well, well.” A tall man with dark empire colouring who was wearing the same uniform as the General turned towards them as they fell out into the street. “Late as ever. We were beginning to wonder if we should carry on to the square without you, Nevan.” There was a mocking edge to his tone that surprised Lahel. Even from one of equal rank, she would expect to hear some respect for his fellow officer. The man settled into a cross-armed pose as he shoved the reins of his horse into the waiting hands of a hunched servant.
The little Nevan came to a pause about a metre before the man and bent to a kneel in the dust of the street, looking like a child with his white head bowed and wrinkled hands and face hidden from her who stood behind him. She stood awkwardly, not sure what her role was in this, or whether she should kneel to. He stayed like that for what seemed like far too long, though the man before him continued looking down at him without emotion, as if this much was to be expected. When the General stood he addressed the man before him without humility. “General Kai. I’ve heard you’ve been doing well.”
The man grinned and lifted his chin. “Can’t say the same for you, unfortunately, Nevan. I’ve been getting word about the mess you have over here for a while now, it seems you’ve been struggling with your role.” He looked around, at the little streets and the few hard faces of the townspeople leaving late for the town square. “I guess even this little place was more trouble than you could deal with.”
Nevan blinked, mock innocently. “I don’t know who you heard that from, on the contrary, I feel like this town has been very easy to deal with. It’s nothing in comparison with your Imperial City, I’m sure.”
The man looked offended, but there wasn’t much he could say to retort that. He turned his head. “We don’t have time to waste here. I assume those people are heading in the direction of the square.”
“Yes, General.” Nevan replied, seemingly holding back a laugh.
“Well,” the General huffed, “We’ll be heading there then. Try to keep up, Nevan.” And with that, he turned on his heel and stomped off after the last few townsfolk, all the others turning to flank him as he passed. She watched the retreating blue capes as they billowed, rather angrily, after the marching men. Each, she noticed, looked almost identical: the black hair, the height, the skin all within the range of colours seen in drying hay, and those eyes so dark she couldn’t find a pupil within their endless depths no matter how hard she looked. She supposed Nevan had looked like that once, excepting the height difference. She glanced down at him, smiling with closed-eyes, and then looked back up, watching the golden palomino of the horse’s coats as it glowed like warm honey on their shifting hind-quarters even in the weak sunlight. They were like a glimpse of another world, one where the sun actually shone and everyone looked the same.
Nevan broke her reverie in his high-pitched voice. “Lahel, look closely at this group. Among them are the Generals of Terradonna, Toboe and the Imperial City of Isadora as well as their second in commands and servants. You can tell which the Generals are, can’t you?” Of course, he couldn’t see after all.
“Yes, they wear the same uniform as you, don’t they? Only there’s four of them, not three.”
“Yes, the one I was talking to is the General of the Imperial Army. Kai Oshima. You’ll notice he wears a jacket with slightly different decoration if you look closely.”
“I saw it very clearly.”
“I suppose he wouldn’t let you miss it.”
She grinned at his sardonic tone. “I’m guessing you don’t like him much.”
He made a small tutting noise, but smiled back regardless. “You mustn’t say that. I can handle him just fine.”
She raised an eyebrow. “He can’t handle you, though, can he?”
“I have noticed that. Unfortunately, he isn’t quite as good an actor as I am. If you must know, his job was once promised to me. I was sent here to this small town instead because of certain disagreements.” He shook his head. “For some reason the boy still seems to see me as competition of sorts, though I have no interest or will to take part in such things anymore.”
“Was it because you got blinded?” She said quickly, taken in by her curiosity and forgetting just who she was talking to.
“No.” He said, with a hard inflection to his voice. She waited but he didn’t elaborate.
“So…” She replied. “Are we to follow them?”
“Yes, I forget myself. We must go, quickly, before anything goes wrong. I may have no imperial ambition anymore, but that doesn’t mean I want to show him quite what a mess we have on our hands here. If rebellion breaks out while they are here, the Guard here could be done for. They will send in the army officers, and believe me, when they take over a town, things degrade very quickly. They favour a more violent effort than we gentle soldiers.”
She shook her head. “Rebels creating an embarrassing ruckus is not the only issue we have here. Murphy’s plan worries me, he knows they are here after all. If he kills one of them he will start a war.”
He started walking. “Somehow I don’t think the leaders are his target.”
That irked her slightly. Even if he didn’t believe they were, he shouldn’t just ignore the chance that they might be. It was her that had confronted Murphy, she knew he would do something, and, from the sound of it, that something was going to be huge. He had been anxious to leave when he heard the trumpets calling the townspeople to the square for the empire’s visit. He wanted to be there, and it was important enough to leave without killing her or Ginger. But she followed him regardless.