Masque Ball: Chapter VIII (cont.)

by Mallard

She said nothing for a while, and part of me welcomed the silence, while another fretted at each wasted second. Not that there was a damned thing I could do until the army found the pirates. And would I even be included in the operation once they did?

Finally, Hattie let out a sigh. She didn’t look at me, her eyes tracing a pattern in the ceiling that she could not possibly see.

“They aren’t pirates at all,” she began quietly. “At least, they didn’t start out that way. The men and woman from tonight were once known as the fourteenth infantry division. Of the Republican Guard. Stationed in–”

“Sainted Isles,” I breathed. And suddenly everything made sense. The many and varied mismatched pieces I had been trying to sort out all night suddenly fit together, and I liked not at all the picture they formed. “You bitch.”

“Watch yourself, Specialist,” her voice cracked like a whip, sharp with command. I forced my mouth closed. My fingers clenched tight on the armrests of my chair, digging painfully into unyielding wood. I said nothing, either in apology or defiance, and after a moment, Hattie continued.

“The so-called pirates have been causing us trouble for two weeks now, taking political prisoners from all levels of government. Mayor Downing and Minister Chorice were just the latest in their kidnappings. Messages from the pirates claim the prisoners are all being kept alive, but they have not demanded any ransom. The Council of Governors is worried that the group is planning a public execution, or to make some other spectacle of them.”

She shook her head, still avoiding my gaze. “They were supposed to be elsewhere. The festival in Mornova was tonight. Most of the Council was to be there; everyone agreed the pirates would not be able to pass up the opportunity.” Mornova was the capital city of Cest-Weldersheen, north and east of Kestral by many days travel. I had no idea what festival she was talking about, and did not care.

“So all the other Peace Workers were in Mornova, is that it?” I said. “All but one.” One who could not be trusted, and my fingers gripped the armrest tighter at the thought.

Hattie nodded. “Since the pirates are remnants of the Republican Guard, this falls under the purview of the PWs.” Mornova was too far north to have a branch of the Peace Workers; we were most useful, practically and politically, in those northern cities nearest the short-lived border. Because of its size, importance, and location, Kestral’s branch was one of the largest in the nation.

“And when the pirates didn’t show up, the army realized they had been played, and sent you that ‘anonymous tip.'” All the pieces made sense, all of it was coming together. Why no other PWs had been available for the mayor’s ball, why Hattie had been nervous at the beginning of the evening, cut off from the action, not knowing how the operation was going.

I forced my voice level. “I think I understand everything. All but one. Why was I not a part of this? Why did you have me on this idiotic ball duty?” I snorted before she could answer. “But it’s obvious, isn’t it? As soon as you mentioned the 14th. You couldn’t trust me.” The words tasted bitter.

Another thought struck me. “I wasn’t even supposed to be at the ball, was I? You wanted me out of this night entirely, only included me because of Martha Chorice. You found out she was going to visit. And you’re not a PW, not like I am, not a reformed soldier.” I spat these last two words. “So you needed a real representative and called me in last minute.”

Hattie nodded but said nothing.

“And you kept me in the dark. How long have I known you, Hattie? Over two years, I’d say? I think that, in that time, I’ve proven myself once or twice, don’t you? I’ve shown I’m loyal to your precious Kestral Armed Forces. I’ve taken down my own comrades, jailed more than a few. I’ve never balked at what’s been asked of me.” My mouth twisted. “What, did you think that, just because I knew the 14th personally, that I was once one of them, that I’d side with them? Or that I’d let them go?” I pounded the armchair suddenly, and Hattie jumped. “Or is it because I turned my back on them once? I’ve already proven myself a traitor, why wouldn’t I turn my coat again, is that it?

Hattie shook her head, slowly. “Your loyalty has never been in question, Victor,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Never once.”

“Then why?” I was pleading now, rigid in my chair, willing her to just look at me. If I had known, if I had been a part of this from the beginning, I could have done something. I could have been prepared. I could have saved Serah.

“Your loyalty was never in question,” she whispered again. “You have always gone above and beyond. I have no doubt that you would do your duty.” She took a deep breath. “But I could not be sure that you would stop there, would be satisfied with just imprisonment. Not in this case.”

It took me a moment to understand what she was saying, what she was implying that I might do. And when I did, I said nothing. I was too afraid, too afraid that my anger would boil up inside me, that I would scream at my sergeant, that I would strike a friend in rage at what she thought I was capable of.

And I was afraid that, maybe, she had been right to doubt me.

We sat in silence for a long time then, until exhaustion and Kristopher’s worried, wobbling flight caused the seething anger to leech away, leaving me spent.

When I at last spoke, my voice was dull and empty, devoid of rage and passion alike. “I want to be part of the mission, when you find the base.”

Hattie didn’t seem surprised. But nor did she consent. “You’ve done enough, Victor. Let the army handle it.” She glanced at the clock in the corner of the room. “Hells, it’s been enough time; maybe they’ve found the base and are rescuing the prisoners as we speak.”

I snorted. “Don’t lie to me. Not any more. You and I both know you would never sit by and let this operation happen without you. At the very least, without your knowledge. I deserve to be there.”

Hattie said nothing. I wanted to be angry, but I had no more energy for rage, and my words came out flat.

“Damnit, Hattie. You know I won’t back down on this. I’ll be there, consent or no. So either give in and make it official, or call up security to escort me out of here.” I leaned forward and made sure she was looking at me. “But do that, and I swear to you, this will be the last time I ever set foot in this office.”

After a long pause, Hattie snorted. “Don’t be melodramatic, Victor. Do whatever you want. You’re in.” In the lamplight, I could see the troubled look in her eyes, as if already reconsidering.

“Look,” I said quietly. “I’ve proven my loyalty. I promise you, whatever I feel for these people, whatever horrors I’ve seen them commit, whatever personal problems I have…I won’t do anything against your orders.”

She looked blankly at me. Then leaned on her elbows and dropped her head into her hands. “That,” she said between exhausted chuckles. “Will be a first.”

* * * * * * * *

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