Knight-Commander Sumen was full of bluster.
“So how about it, Bernie? You ready to find out how they do things, groundside?”
He addressed his squire, but Corporal Mark Robson suspected his voice was raised for the dubious benefit of the entire room. Then again, his voice was near-always raised, so it was hard to tell.
“Ah, hell yeah I am!” His teenage protégé answered, theatrically pumping a fist. “I’ve been waiting to plunge my sword into one of these bastards.”
The knight laughed: a barrel-chested boom. “A truly noble sentiment,” he encouraged, still chuckling. “But remember, I don’t want you running off. Anything happens to you, your dad’ll have my balls. Besides, down there, your job is to keep me clean and functional.
Robson tried to ignore them, to focus on the maps and tools he had spread out around him. There was plenty to study: the Talons and coastal ranges they’d left behind were the most geographically diverse region of Suam, but at least they had been thoroughly surveyed through a quarter century of dirty war. The West Reach, whose thick lowland jungles Robson could now make out now through a nearby viewport, had only recently been mapped via fly-by. Robson had been instructed to prepare a full expertise of both.
“I can’t wait to see you in action,” the youth was saying. They had walked across the debarksure, ignoring the orders to strap in for landing, and were now standing below a giant steel tripod. It was strapped to the inner frame of the blimp, secured with cords and chains. A double cockpit rose up from the tripod treads, like the compound eyes of a 10-foot spider. “I’ve been wanting to see what one of these things can do for a long time.”
“We’ve certainly trained with them long enough!” Sir Sumen complained. “Eight-meter vaporjets, three inch hull, full Eyrie capabilities… this baby puts old heavy cavalry to shame. And now we’ve got our own little firestarter to go with it. Eh, Metris?”
The last was directed at a gaunt, middle-aged officer who sat nearby. He didn’t look like a magic-man, Robson thought. No, nothing like the well-fed, robed Sorcerers that manned this very Skymarshall, nothing like the mysterious, infamous Patterners that Robson had seen back at Academy. He looked more like a short bureaucrat, and not even a particularly effective one. His only admission to the supernatural was the single large sunburst, emblazoned on the sleeve of his right shoulder.
But, he didn’t rise to the knight’s bait, and in Robson’s eyes, that was a victory. “We should make ready to land,” he said instead, simply. “We’ve almost arrived.”
“What clairvoyance!” Sumen shot back with wide eyes of exaggerated superstition. “I suppose they taught you fortune-telling, at Towers? Anyway, just have your boy prepare our bags.”
Fool, thought Robson. They give you an angel and you’d make him a dog, but Metris gave no answer to the knight.
The other legion-men had their totes ready, and Robson grabbed his. He had met a number of them, even befriended a few.
But, whether he willed it or not, he imagined that they felt as great a distance from him as he knew from a noble like Sumen. He was born with no better name than they, no wealthier, but Robson had been fast-tracked at Academy and was on the path to command. It could never be a high command, of course; he could never be Century. Not even Centaurion’s staff: that was for noble bastards and the scions of the wealthy. But a middle branch of the legion’s tall tree: that could be reached by merit alone. That would be acceptable. That would be enough to make his father proud.
“Sumen?” The voice was curt, but deep with command. It was the tone of a man who was too busy to waste time with undue haste.
Still laughing, Sumen glanced over his shoulder. It took him a moment. “Commandant!” he spun, half-tangling his legs as he saluted.
“Don’t look so surprised. It’s my ship, I go where I please. The boys can handle a little old landing like this.” As he said it, he glanced towards Robson and the surrounding legion-men, and nodded. He said nothing, but Robson felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise, as if the man had looked him in the eye and said, “I trust you to do your duty son. I trust that you won’t disappoint.” Now he knows command, Robson thought. Learn from him.
“Sumen, I came to see you off-” His voice was low, now. Of the legion-men,. Robson was closest, and he could only just make out the words.
“I’m honored, Sir!”
The Commandant waved down Sumen’s second salute. “Well. We’ve seen to pleasantries. Let’s to business. On paper, you’re a bondsman to my Century. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, Sir. It is an ancient trust, to serve a Centaurion on the field of battle. It-”
“No, Commander. It means that whatever you and your men do will reflect on my standing in the Century and the Basilic court. If your unit is destroyed, then I am weak. If you act the barbarian, then I’m the savage.”
The knight’s jaw almost visibly dropped. “Sir, we are both men of quality, and-”
“Are we?” The Commandant leaned in close. “I have no doubt that you have familiarized yourself with my military record. But you should know, too, that I make it a point to familiarize myself thoroughly with every officer who flies my banner.” Robson watched the color drain from Sumen’s face. His squire had long-since slunk away.
“So, Sir, make your Century proud, and hopefully you won’t take a dart to the throat, like my last ground commander.” He stepped back. “I’ll be watching,” he added, twirling the index finger of his right hand up toward the sky above.
Sumen’s eyes were squinted. “Yes, sir,” he managed.
The Commandant turned to go. “Ah,” he added as he stepped away, his voice again loud with command. He gestured towards the steel hulk behind the knight. “Please report back on the field responsiveness of the Korva as soon as you’ve had a chance to try it. We’re anxious to hear how it performs in actual combat.”
“Yes, sir!” The knight called after, still shaken. But he stood taller, now. He leaned a hand against one leg of the Korva Battlearmor as the Commandant walked away. It was almost a caress. What a master stroke, Robson thought. Take away his pride, and what’s left? His gun. The recipe to turn a braggart into a warrior. Or a bully, gods forbid.
“Dropping cables in 5,” Robson heard the Commandant’s voice still echoing from the corridors that that deeper led into the belly of the Skymarshall. “Get ready with the hatches.” He heard other voices call out, seemingly in answer. “Load up the ballast!” “Drop, grab, and out, boys, quick as you please!” Below, he watched the jungle filled in its details with a startling speed: a portrait whose painter was almost satisfied.
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