It shouldn’t have worked. I think the true God is watching over us, because there were so many places where the plan should have failed, and luck saved us.
The first part of the plan involved stealing uniforms. This was harder than it should have been because Jeddan is just so damned big. By the time we entered the camp, almost everyone was gone to the front, and we almost didn’t need to conceal ourselves to avoid being noticed. We searched tents and found a uniform for me almost immediately, minus the chain shirt, but I’d seen soldiers without them and judged I wouldn’t look too wrong. Those leather pants are really uncomfortable and stiff, and they make me walk funny, but I’m keeping them just in case we need to impersonate soldiers again.
I was more worried that I didn’t have the sword and knife, but we didn’t see a practical way of getting them, and in the end it was just another risk we had to take. I hate that kind of risk. Normally, if I were doing something like this, I’d spend a couple of days mapping out the camp, stealing pieces of the uniform until I looked right, then walk all over the camp making sure I’d fool people before making my theft. But we don’t have time for that.
It took us nearly an hour to find something to fit Jeddan, during which time I became increasingly anxious. We were nearly spotted twice—I love the concealment pouvra, but it’s not perfect, and all it takes is for one very observant person to look in the right direction and then you have to run for your life. But finally we were properly outfitted and could come out of concealment and walk openly.
I’d instructed Jeddan in some of the basics of sneaking around in plain sight:
- Move confidently.
- Don’t keep looking around to see if someone’s watching you.
- Meet people’s eyes and nod when you pass.
- Be prepared with a believable response if someone wants to know where you’re going.
That last had me worried, since Jeddan doesn’t speak Castaviran. We decided I’d speak for both of us and hope no one addressed him directly. But no one did. We passed any number of people and none of them wanted to talk to us or tell us to do something. It was so easy I became even more tense and had to calm myself. Bad to become complacent when it’s easy, but worse to be so on edge to overcompensate that you make mistakes.
Then we nearly did get caught. Someone called out, “You there!” I didn’t think he was addressing us until he repeated himself and added, “Don’t ignore me, soldier!” So we stopped and turned around, and I subtly positioned myself so the officer would direct his attention at me.
“Yes, sir?” I said. The man was probably in his fifties and had the kind of florid complexion that comes from a too-rich diet with too little exercise. My heart was pounding as I thought of all the possible mistakes I could make, starting with not knowing how to salute him. I went back over what I’d observed earlier that day and settled for what seemed to be the all-purpose gesture, right arm crossed over chest, right fist pressed to shoulder, sharp nod. It was acceptable and he didn’t draw his weapon and attack us right there.
“Where are you going, soldier?” he said.
“The front, sir, to join our unit,” I said.
“Why aren’t you there already? Malingering?” he said.
“No, sir, Weylan here was vomiting this morning and I was told off to wait with him until he recovered,” I said, bluffing with all my heart, “then escort him, just in case he wasn’t as well as they thought.”
The officer looked at us narrowly. “I want you to take a message to General Burris,” he said. “He’s to send a squad to wait on God at the pavilion.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“And move it along,” he said, then turned to Jeddan and said, “Big man like you, it’s shameful you should let illness interfere with the performance of your duties.”
“Yes, sir,” Jeddan managed in Castaviran, and I was impressed at his lack of accent—though it’s not hard to pronounce just a few words properly. Even so, it was good. This time, he joined me in saluting the officer, who (fortunately for us) turned and walked away without waiting to see where we went. Since he hadn’t told us how to find whoever it was, we were clearly expected to know, and walking off in the wrong direction could have been disastrous. We waited for him to move out of sight, then proceeded toward the command tent.
It was a lot busier than it had been that morning. Jeddan and I separated; he walked casually around to the rear of the command tent, and I turned and made a wide loop that took me to the far side of the God-Empress’s luxury abode. As I walked past, not looking at the tent, I set it on fire.
It was just a little fire, since I didn’t want it to look suspicious, but that meant I risked having someone see it when it was still small enough to be easily extinguished. So I set a few more fires at different places, and then I started screaming, “Fire! God’s tent is on fire!”
That caught everyone’s attention. People came pouring out of the command tent, soldiers came running from every direction, and everyone was squawking and calling out conflicting orders. Someone brought a swath of canvas and began beating at the nearest fire, so I started another one above her reach, all the time shouting and pointing.
I’d half hoped the God-Empress would be in her tent, just to add to the panic, but she didn’t appear. Probably a good thing, because she would certainly recognized me if she’d seen me. More people arrived with buckets of water, which helped—would have helped more if some crafty person hadn’t kept starting new fires in place of the old. Hahahaha.
“I’ve found it,” Jeddan said in my ear, startling me. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” I said. “There’s one more thing we’re going to do.”
We strolled away from the fire—easy enough, everyone was no doubt preoccupied with terror over what insanities the God-Empress might rain down upon them for letting her things be ruined—then went directly to the quartermaster’s tent. Tents, I should say. It takes a lot of food and supplies to run an army, and I’d seen (from a distance) supplies being brought in by a long train of wagons, supplies probably looted from Viravonian and Balaenic villages.
We went through the back of one of the supply tents that was divided in half, and though we could hear someone moving around in front, the back was unoccupied. We discovered it contained food, so I left Jeddan there to fill our rucksacks and I hunted around until I found a tent where I could get bedrolls, blankets, a pot and some utensils, and a heavy ground cloth I had trouble fitting into yet another pack, but it makes winter outdoors so much more comfortable. No tent, unfortunately, but I was heavily laden at that point anyway.
I concealed myself and sneaked back to find Jeddan, we distributed the load better, and hand in hand we walked off, practically invisible and ready for a long trip. We came out on the southern side of the camp, the far side from both our potential destinations. Jeddan said, “I found a map of the area. I didn’t recognize any landmarks except the river, but the marks on it say they’re heading north next.”
“Hasskian,” I said. “And then Venetry. Well.”
“I think she knows where the capital is,” Jeddan said. “I saw what I think was a map of Balaen. She must have taken it from one of these towns. Even if she can’t read Balaenic, the way it was marked, even I could tell which were the big cities. And there was one up in the northwest with a triple star over it, just like on the flag.”
“She has to eliminate Calassmir as a threat, or have them dogging her heels all the way north,” I said. “And they can probably hold out for a while. If we can get to Venetry quickly enough, they can send out the army to meet her, and from what little I saw, they outnumber her even without the forces at Calassmir.”
“Then let’s go,” Jeddan said, and shouldered his pack. He can carry about twice what I can, and I hate to think how rough I’d be living if I didn’t have him along. Plus, I like him, and not just because he’s the first mage like me I’ve ever met. He’s good company.
We took a very long route around the camp, then struck out northeast, following the Arinz River even though it took us in the wrong direction; the ground next to it was clearer, so we made good time, and having a source of water helped us stretch our provisions further. Though we’ll still need to find food long before we reach Hasskian—it’s about nine days’ travel from Calassmir if you take the direct overland route, so even longer for us, but I don’t think we’d make it through The Forest on the provisions we have.
We walked a good ways before camping for the night, and I feel that buzzing, elated feeling you get when you’ve pulled off a good theft without dying. I think we both also feel more confident: we have direction, we have a plan, and we had a hot meal tonight. Nice not to have to rely on matchlighters to start a fire.