I’d meant to write about Nessan’s exercise when I finished it, but it was nearly dawn when I did and I barely got back without being spotted. I met him well after midnight, and we ran the perimeter of the camp, dodging our sentries a little too easily—Nessan was annoyed about it, and when we were finished, he said, “I’m going to do something about that. Here.” He handed me a knobby sack and said, “You have three hours to put these back in the exact places where they belong. Same rules as before—insubstantial only to walk in and out of things, bonus points if you don’t use the pouvra at all. If you’re seen, you fail.”
“What’s the penalty if I fail?” I said.
“I mock you for the rest of the week,” Nessan said. “Your three hours started one minute ago. Move.”
The sack contained five objects I’d noticed many times before around the camp and one I couldn’t remember seeing before. I considered not using the walk-through-walls pouvra just to show off, but realized as I was about to return my first item (General Drussik’s pipe with the enormous carved bowl) that I should use every advantage I had, and the extra challenge was one of Nessan’s tricks to distract me from my goal. I set the pipe on Drussik’s table and was off with the second item.
It took me about half my allotted time to place the five objects I recognized. Then I had to find a hiding place so I could examine the sixth. It was a pocket watch on a silver chain, complete with fob that wasn’t much more than a lump of silver; expensive materials, not very good workmanship. I examined it more closely. No, it was made to look plain, but a lot of effort had gone into achieving that effect. There were no initials on the case or inside it, no engraved sentiment. The owner had had it for a long time, judging by the fine scratches on the case that indicated ordinary wear over the years—I opened it and looked at the innards again. Very old work. No, this was a family heirloom.
Something about it was familiar, and Nessan wouldn’t have given me anything I hadn’t seen before, though his definition of “seen before” might encompass a wide range of observations. I thought about what I could surmise about the owner. Male. Someone who had enough wealth to use this daily as opposed to keeping it safely out of harm’s way, as a poorer man would. Someone not interested in drawing attention to that wealth. This was narrowing down the possibilities quickly. Probably not noble, because almost all noblemen marked their jewelry with their names or personal sigils as an anti-theft measure. Hahahaha.
That left me with about seven members of the general staff, plus Colonel Ivalys, but he and two of those staffers were off with other Army regiments. Five men, all of whom I’d seen regularly since we started training with the army, none of whom wore pocket watches. So which of those men would bring along a valuable watch and then not wear it?
It took me ten minutes to reach Mattiak’s tent and then stop in dismay, because a tiny light was burning inside. Sneaking past him would be almost impossible; he was observant enough that he’d seen through the concealment pouvra, something even Cederic had trouble doing. And he was awake. And I wasn’t sure where he normally kept his watch. I checked that watch and discovered I had less than an hour before I’d have to endure Nessan’s taunts for the rest of the week. Then I concealed myself again and went as quietly as I could over the snow to the side of Mattiak’s tent, and peeked inside.
Mattiak was seated at his table with his sleeves rolled up, writing something in a book. I think it might have been a personal record, like this one, and I was seized with a tremendous desire to read it. Then I felt ashamed. I would hate it if he read this book, so was it fair to read his private thoughts?
I set the desire well to one side and surveyed the room. He has a bed and table and chair that aren’t more ornate than mine, so either he’s a humble man or our furnishings reflect the highest standard of living the army can provide. There’s a trunk at the foot of the bed and a totally incongruous skinny coatrack next to it that holds his uniform jacket. The light came from a small lantern that swung above his head.
As I watched, he laid the pen down, stretched, and began unbuttoning his shirt. I withdrew quickly and moved around to the front of the tent, near the trunk, and waited for the light to go out. Then I waited some more, hoping he was quick to fall asleep. I had half an hour left when I finally poked my head back into the tent, then dropped to my knees and crawled, so slowly, toward the trunk.
to be continued…