“Now…” Nevan, Major General in charge of the Gokheya division shuffled the papers on his desk. He didn’t have much need to do so but he thought it looked very official when he did and he liked that very much. After all, it was particularly difficult for him to look official, being a little under five-foot-tall and so delicately built that he looked like a child from behind. Sure, when he turned his face it was instantly obvious he was older than he appeared, ancient in fact, with a face so wrinkled he looked like he had dried up into a rather pathetic raisin with age. It was this, I supposed, that kept him from addressing the townsfolk: surely they would see this tiny man and begin to question the strength of the Empire. They would undoubtedly consider their chances in a rebellion, they would probably even think they could get their town back for good. But the dark elephant leather of his skin and the way his frail hands shook as he moved the sheets gave me no sense of security. Even the impressive amount of scar tissue that cut across the whole of his face couldn’t do that. It was proof that he had been blinded in the last, the second, rebellion but, to many, it was still a subject of debate as to just how blind he is. On numerous occasions the man had shown an unsettling amount of awareness: greeting people around him though they hadn’t made a word, spotting new furniture or if something had been moved with amazing accuracy. Sure, he walked into things often enough but it was always in a way that made me think it was on purpose. Why he would do such a thing, I couldn’t yet say, but I definitely wasn’t going take any chances with him before I found out what it was about him that unsettled me so much.
He certainly wasn’t doing anything to assure me now, his once dark irises, now pearly-skinned, glanced off me where I stood in the corner of his office though I was standing still and quiet, beside the door where it hinged. His eyes slipped past me like it was nothing, though I had seen the slightest of hesitations and something like a smile may have played on the corners of his lips too. Maybe I was being too paranoid, I was risking a lot to be in here instead of staying a safe distance. He was from the Empire after all, if he suspected something it would just take one message to the other Generals and my plan would be ruined. Everything I’d worked for this whole time would be over. Yet I had to be here, just to make sure absolutely nothing went wrong with this meeting.
“Major Blackwood-Murphy, please sit.” General Nevan said and clasped his little hands together with a glance at the man who stood stiffly several meters before his desk. “Some events,” he emphasised the word with a childish lisp, “have been brought to my attention. Or, more than just brought, they have been shoved in front of my eyes, so forcibly and repeatedly, by one ‘interested party’ that, quite frankly, I am sick of hearing about them.”
Blackwood didn’t move an inch, arms by his side and eyes fixed on the floor like he’d fallen asleep standing up. Somehow Nevan must have worked that out too, for he continued. “I rather hate all these formalities. Sit, friend, it is nothing to be concerned about, I just want to talk to you for a bit, have a chat, if you would.”
He pushed the chair away from the front of the desk and leaned his hand on the back of it heavily, murmuring: “Somehow I doubt you called me in here just for a ‘chat’. You never call anyone into your office for ‘chats’ unless you include the ones that involve such stimulating subjects as arson, robbery and murder, and in that case I’m not sure if I want to be included.”
“I’m sensing some hostility.” He grinned a little, closed-eye grin, one that could prompt an answering smile from even the most grumpy members of his force with its disarming lack of teeth, probably the root cause of his childish lisp.
“I just want to know what this is about.” He sighed.
The general leant back on his chair and put down his papers. “It’s your boy, I’m sure you’ve heard the talk.”
He laughed. “Ironic: I’ve heard nothing but it recently.”
His smile fell back at the lack of humour in his friend’s voice. “Recently, it seems I haven’t been told much of anything that’s going on.”
“You’re tired, Tadhg, you need to lay low a bit, recover.”
“Recover from what? I’m fine, Nevan, I’ve been fine for a long time!”
“You don’t seem fine to me.”
“Well maybe you don’t know me as well as you think.”
They paused for a bit, breathing hard, both with clenched fists. General Nevan was the first to break.
“Sit down, Tadhg.” His high voice was lowered, calm and placating after the harsh sound of his angry squeal. He flattened his palms on the desk and gestured one towards the chair. “You’re making the place look untidy.” As if he knew what he looked like at all.
Blackwood studied him for a bit, his concern looked genuine enough: sparse eyebrows pulled together and his eyes a little watery. What was it about that pitying face that drove me mad, made my fingernails bite deep into my palms and a shivering anger breathe on the back of my neck, pushing me to attack. Blackwood didn’t feel it though, he edged around the chair without turning from the General and sat carefully, as if scared the chair would disappear from underneath him, finally accepting its support for his shaking legs.
“So, what is it?” He whispered.
“Remember the day when you told me you found that kid.”
“What about it.”
He paused. “Where?…No, it’s nothing. More importantly, somebody has come to me with their concerns about your son’s, I think you can guess who.” He shook his head with a little smile. “The girls been annoying the hell out of me saying that he’s putting all his work onto the new recruit, Aedan Clancy. She wants him demoted, doesn’t think he’s responsible enough to have his own soldiers.”
“And you agree?”
“Well, that’s why I called you here; I wanted to ask if you agree, Tadhg. So, do you?”
“Obviously, I don’t. He’s my son, no matter where he came from, and I can see him going far in the Guard. It’s like he was made for it, I’ve never seen anyone in this job so enthusiastic to take on any jobs you throw his way, I mean he volunteered for the night patrol when no one else would, and he caught that murderer the other night alone. I want to see if you have any recruits you think could do what he’s done at such a young age.”
Nevan raised his hands, the universal symbol of giving up. “I didn’t mean to offend, Major, I simply wanted to know what you thought. I wasn’t thinking of it seriously since he’s been doing such a good job but I wanted to hear what you thought first.” He ventured his next sentence cautiously. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about this himself, to be honest. He knows Lieutenant Callahan’s opinion on him, she hasn’t exactly been subtle about it.”
He took a while to answer that. “No, he’s…quiet. Ah, I don’t know, I’ve been forgetting things recently.” He rubbed his forehead and raked his hand back over his tufted hair like the action was assuring him his head was still there at all.
He looked up at the man’s curious expression and groaned. He had caught hold of something now, and Nevan wasn’t one to give up before he’d divulged what he wanted to hear. “Ignore me, I’m just tired, like you said. It’s nothing.”
“Tadhg, we’ve been together a long time, haven’t we? In the Second Rebellion we fought together, I never would have gotten out of it unharmed if it wasn’t for you, I won’t forget what you did for me then, I would even say I trust you with my life. And I hope that you do too, even if I’m from the Empire and this is where you grew up, we are more similar than two brothers could be.”
“Where are you going with this?” He grumbled.
“I’m sure if I was acting as unstable as you at the moment, you would tell me too, that you’d make me take a break.”
“I am not going to take a break, Nevan. You’re right, you do know me. And because you do I’m sure you know that I will not take a break just because I’m a little tired. We didn’t win the war by taking breaks, we fought through our worst moments and just because it’s over now doesn’t mean we can stop fighting. There could still be another war, Nevan, I can feel it in the air. If we show weakness now, it’s all over.”
“I know it too, and that’s why we have to be at our strongest. Both of us do, and your son too. We have to mind our reputation in times like these, so that we appear so strongly in control that the rebels will not even consider fighting against us again. If word gets out about inward problems like the one between your son and the lieutenant peace will be all the more in danger.”
“He’s young, and he’s been through a lot. It is not his fault he doesn’t work well with people, particularly ones like Lieutenant Callahan that even you find hard to deal with.”
“Yes, I expect he does, Officer, he’s been through a lot. We all know that, that’s why we make…allowances for him.” His little voice was staying just as squeaky as ever, squeakier even, but there was something wrong with the lightness of his tone, something that put my hackles up.
“Don’t get me wrong, General. I assure you that I’m not trying to make excuses for the boy.”
“I believe that, just remember that you can’t look after him forever. There may be a day when you have to put yourself and your job first and let him go.”
“What are you trying to say? You think he won’t stay here because he’s not really my son?” There was maybe a touch too much sharpness in his voice for someone talking to his employer.
“Well, I have my suspicions, I just don’t know if you’re ready to hear them. By the sounds of it you aren’t.” He smiled and leaned forward in his chair, appearing completely unoffended by the Major’s pointed words. “You’ll forgive me one day, I hope. My priority is my job but that also involves you and making sure that you are prepared for whatever happens in the future. I can’t have my most trusted Officer preoccupied and distracted from his work.”
“Are you planning something, Nevan?”
“Not planning, no. I’m just worried about you. You never told me where you found him so forgive me if I jumped to the wrong conclusions, but I wonder if you got yourself involved in something bigger than what you were prepared for when you took him on, if that’s why you’re so unfocused at the moment, I encourage you to do something about it. If you’d tell me I could help, take some of the stress of off your shoulders. We could look into a transfer or other options and get this sorted out.”
“You know I can’t tell you. Look, it’s nothing dangerous, more personal than anything. It’s just best if you don’t know, trust me: I would tell you if it was something that was effecting my work. It’s really not, I’ve just been out of it lately, maybe I’m getting old.”
“You’re already old, Tadhg, as am I, but I can understand that. Just focus from now on, okay? The review is down the road and I don’t want any upsets before then. Anyway, I trust that you will deal with it, you’ve never failed me in the past. The Empire has more imminent problems on its hands when it comes to reputation anyway: the new commandant they’ve got in charge of the …. Prison, a Colonel, crazy apparently.”
“He’s been implementing some new plan, he thinks he can rehabilitate the criminals as Guards. Completely ridiculous, of course. Makes us look like idiots to the Old Country Folk, they’ll think they can get away with anything if all the punishment they get is to go into the Guard. And think of how useful it would be to rebels, they get a free trip right into where they want to be, naturally they’ll worm their way into our ranks before we know it.” He gasped a little. “I don’t mean all Old Country folk, of course. Your help has been invaluable throughout the wars, only the rebels are the problem and it’s hard to tell who is who when it gets like this. It really is something depressing to hear that the Empire’s funding such crazy experiments after all the effort we’ve been putting in all these years to improve relations between the Guard and the townsfolk: we’ll be going backwards if they’re not careful.”
The Major shook his head. “Some people don’t deserve a second chance, definitely not with a new identity in a position of power. I can’t see it lasting, something’s bound to go wrong.”
My ears pricked at this: an experiment, rehabilitation, a second chance. Who could believe in shit like that? People couldn’t change: through birth, life and death, everything was decided for them, each choice is a predestined part of their fate. That’s all it is, what she did was nothing special: not some ingrained condition of the human spirit. They just pretended to believe in stuff like morality, when really, when it came down to it, they were just animals like the rest. She was a fluke, nothing to be worried about. It didn’t mean a thing. I was going to show them what they were, it was just a matter of time.
Then a shouting came from the hall and broke my silent contemplations, and then the door slammed open, almost hitting me as it kicked against the wall behind. From the voice, I could already tell who it was: though it was low and slightly husky it had a feminine note that was hard to disguise and that have her away instantly. The only woman in the Guard Office, Lahel, Lahel Callahan. Some called her Lieutenant …. I didn’t, she was about the only person here I remembered the name of.
Black hair bundled around her head in its usual determined waves, strands falling across her face where she had abandoned them in her hurry despite her usual concerted neatness, and she was quite tall for a woman, about the same height as me. She had her hair cut shorter than hers though, she had chopped it off so it only reached her shoulders before it dissipated into flicked-out ends and longer, hacked chunks. I could only see her back as she marched into the room but she did so in such a way that even the blind man could see that her expression was one of fury, she then thumped her hands hard on the desk and leant down. I even knew she would be glaring him right in his milky eyes with her own beetle-black.
“What are you doing?” She fumed, there was almost a growl in her voice.
The little man didn’t even flinch, his eyes didn’t move an inch so as to at least pretend to be looking at her. “Lahel, can’t you see I’m having a meeting?”
“Obviously I can see that. That’s why I’m here!” She retorted before he’d even got the last word out.
“Well, I know I can’t see but it’s going to be kind of difficult to have a private meeting with you standing right in the middle of us, might get a bit distracting for the Major, don’t you think?”
“That’s not really my concern, General.” Her jaw clenched and the muscle in her neck twitched as she tried to keep her semblance of calm, I could tell it wasn’t working. “I reported my worries to you and not to the Major here…” She gestured to him without looking back, to which he just smiled as if he was finding this somehow entertaining. “because I wanted to avoid just this happening. I thought a higher-up, like yourself, would be able to make an unbiased decision on the demotion but from this I can see that clearly that won’t be possible!”
Nevan raised his long-haired eyebrows, making the creased skin hugging his eyes all the deeper. “Are you accusing the Major of being biased?”
Lahel thought for a bit, trying to gage if he was really angry or simply playing at it like he so often did. “Yes, I am.” So, she decided he was the latter, I would have played it safer just because of the catch in his tone, though I don’t think I’ve ever got an accurate read on him so far. She must have thought twice about it as well because she tried to backtrack: “I mean, he is his son after all. It’s only natural. I would do the same, only I wanted you to take this seriously and you can’t exactly do that if you let his father influence your decision like this.”
“So, you think I can’t make a decision on my own? That I called him in here to help make up my mind? As if I haven’t been a General in the Empire’s Army for forty long years and all the time been making my own decisions?”
She sighed and hung her head down, arms shaking as she held herself up. “That’s not what I meant.” Has she given up? No, that wasn’t like her. From what I knew she would keep at it, she was dog-minded, especially when it came to revenge. Yes, she pretended this was about the Guard, or justice, or something else equally unworthy her effort, but really it was about me, and revenge, and trying to protect herself by attacking. All her anger, obsession with order and bossiness was nothing but a mark of vulnerability and I could see it clear as day, without even a glance at her face, that something was eating her up inside, and I had a good idea what it was too.
“Get out, Lahel. We can talk later once you’ve thought over what you want to say and decided if it’s really worth it. Go on then.” He reverted to his old, shuffling papers act as she slowly took her hands from the desk and, with a glance at the Major, spoke again.
“But…” She took a shuddering breath and released it in a long gust. “But what did you decide?” I think she already knew the answer.
“He stays where he is, Lieutenant. Because he deserves it.” The Major let some of his anger leak into his voice, just a touch but it was enough to send Lahel into full-on shakes, though there was something more like fury in the way she clenched her hands into fists and chewed the inside of her cheek as she whirled around to face the door, and saw me.
I couldn’t disguise my grin as I slipped out the door at the shock on her freckled face and the little jump she did involuntarily as her instincts told her to run with just one look at my eyes.
She took her time coming out.
“What is wrong with them.” She muttered, walking out the door and closing it behind her with more than due force.
He was there. Waiting, leaning on the wall outside the door and looking at her with that self-satisfied smirk barely disguised.
“Causing trouble, Lahel?”
She knew she should stay quiet, she was higher-up after all. She was the one with authority here, yet still the words forced themselves, flowing, from her mouth. She swung around to face him. “No. I wasn’t causing anything, I’m just trying to work out what’s going on here and why you’re still around when anyone else would be long gone by now. And what I want to know is why you were in there because, if I remember correctly, the Chief called Blackwood for a private talk and one that did not involve you lurking in the background.”
Her words seemed to have all the effect of a half-hearted slap on the back, he was still smiling with all the confidence of earlier. If anything, he looked even more smug now he knew she had lost her temper. She pushed the dark hair back from her face and glared him in the eye, they were the same height after all, she had no idea what it was that made her feel like he was looking down on her regardless. Or maybe she did, he spoke as lazily as ever. “My father invited me in. He knew what it would be about and wanted me to hear what I’d done wrong from the Chief’s own mouth. He knows how much I…respect him.” He shook his grinning head as he said it then dropped the smile and leaned closer. “But what were you doing in there?” Every word sent shivers down her arms, she could suddenly feel how cold the air that chilled on the icy windows was, mottling her hands with dark blood. “I didn’t know that you were so interested in my fate.” Barely a whisper, no one around would hear it, even if they had been listening and not talking to the weeping parents of the dead girl down the road.
She didn’t answer, resolving herself to ignore him just as she always did and chewing on the inside of her lip until the rawness of the pain began to sting her. She gritted her jaw with a glare and tried to walk past. He grabbed her arm.
“Don’t be the hero.” The same throaty whisper but there was something else in it too, she could almost fool herself into thinking it was empathy if she didn’t know any better. Instead she took it as a warning, though it was unlike him to give the impression he was invested in anything enough to care about it, an outright declaration of guilt in her ears. He’d hurt those people and the Chief was going to let him get away with it.
Stalking away, she reached the door that led back to her office and glanced back momentarily. He’d already got to the parents, was holding the mother’s hands between his own pale ones and was nodding with careful sincerity. It was all fake, she knew, but who would believe it? He had been the one to report the girl’s death, the first one to find her: it was all too perfect. And here he was, smiling at her and making her heart leap, and she knew that, though it was fear, there was something else there too, something that made much less sense. And she hated it.
Nevan listened to the controlled breathing of his old friend, the slow release that he had taught him when he was just a young Guard thrown into the Second Rebellion with a promotion and no idea of what he was doing. It was used to calm oneself, whether they were scared or angry. Right now, he wasn’t sure what Tadhg was.
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
Tadhg took a breath to talk and then stopped, took another, and readied himself. “Yeah I am.” He began to get up, the sounds of his legs clicking as he got out of his chair was a new one; everyone was getting older, he felt like he had frozen in time when he had lost his sight. He got by, obviously, by using breathing, the little sounds around him, smells, touch. Sometimes he even thought he might have got so in tune with his environment that he knew who would walk in the door. That was maybe just because he spent so much time in this office though, he’d hardly left since he went blind, somehow he couldn’t face the outside world as easily. In here, he was in control, he knew where almost everything was and who was here too, outside he was worried everything might have changed so much that he wouldn’t know where he was anymore. Being out of control had always scared him, that’s why he went for such a troublesome job ordering people around and telling them what to do, but it had gotten worse than he ever could have thought.
He was useless out there, just a lost old man, blind and helpless, but in here he could help people, he was in charge. His friend needed him and it didn’t matter that he couldn’t see, he knew that something was very wrong with him and he knew it had worsened as soon as whoever was in the back of the room had gotten out. Maybe it was a sign that he was losing control even in here but he was not going to let this stop him. He had to do it, help his friend even if it meant going outside. If he could find out what was going on in this town, with these murders and the stink of rebellion in the air, he felt everything might resolve itself. He could control it, he would control it.
Tadhg sighed up to his feet and stretched, yawning. His feet shuffled away from the chair, scuffing against the stiff weave of the carpet in a noise that made his skin crawl. He didn’t stop to put on his hat, or jacket, like he usually did.
“And please, Tadhg, fix that uniform, I have to have some people who wear it properly, you now. We’re due a review soon and I don’t want my Officers, or my friends for that matter, to look like ragamuffins on the day.”
“I’ll fix it” Then he laughed. “Really, I’m sure I’ll never understand how you see so well with no eyes. It sure is a skill.”
“There’s no skill to it, Tadhg, I just listen, that’s all.”
“Another one of your mysteries then, I’ve never met a person who is so steeped in them: your sight, your past, your disappearances. It’s as if I know nothing about you sometimes.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
He huffed. “I am sure that I know almost nothing about you except from the person who stands right before me.”
“You know more about me than most, and I have a feeling there might be some in this Guard you know completely nothing about.”
“I suppose there could but they’re much less interesting than you, I’m sure. Most are too young to have done anything with their lives yet.”
“It would be nice if that were true but I have no doubt that I’m not the only one with secrets around here.”
He grinned. “I think I’ll agree with that. Thank you, Sir.” The material of his shirt brushed against itself in a swift noise, he was making a salute. Nevan copied the action and the smile and held it until he heard the door click shut. Now he had to plan how to take back control, finally away from the watchful eyes in this darkness. There was no noise now except the scratch of his pen against paper and the peck of a bird’s beak against the window as it stared through the glass with a curious look its bead-like eyes.