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Lerial looks up from the half-written report before him, thinking, Saltaryn, if you only knew how all your efforts to improve my writing with precise statements are being corroded by the requirements of being post captain. Then he concentrates on the words he has just written.
… the Afritan Guard continues to patrol the top of the ridge one kay north of Ensenla. They occasionally stray across the marked boundary. They do not stay on the south side of the boundary for long, and they refrain from crossing when a Mirror Lancer force larger or roughly equivalent to the Afritan force is present …
He shakes his head. They're not quite taunting us, but what can you do? At the same time, he worries about what he writes, because he had earlier sensed, not that much after dawn, a number of riders leaving the Afritan Guard post to the north, and now he waits for his scouts to return and report.
Lerial glances from the dispatch he is writing, the required summary of Eighth and Eleventh Companies' evolutions and other events occurring over the previous eightday, to the dispatch he had received two eightdays earlier.
From: Jhalet, Commander, Mirror Lancers
To: Lerial, Captain, Ensenla Post
Date: Third Twoday of Winter, 593 A.F.
Subject: Border Patrols
Please find attached a map of the border between Afrit and Cigoerne, as agreed to by Duke Kiedron and Duke Atroyan. These borders are to be respected. Duke Kiedron has affirmed that no Mirror Lancer company is to cross them, even under extreme provocation. All officers and squad leaders are to be familiar with the borders and to conduct patrols in such a fashion that no Mirror Lancer evolution can be taken as provocative or as an encroachment upon Afritan lands.
Duke Atroyan has issued a similar proclamation to the Afritan Guard. Should the Guard inadvertently trespass, all Mirror Lancer squads and/or companies should offer the Guard the opportunity to retreat before resorting to arms. That opportunity need not be offered should any Afritan force commence hostile actions on the lands of Cigoerne.
If such hostile action is commenced on the lands of Cigoerne by Afritan or other forces, whatever response may be necessary shall be determined by the officer or squad leader in command of the Mirror Lancer force so attacked. In no case, however, shall a Mirror Lancer force knowingly enter the lands of Afrit. The sole exception to this directive is that a company commander or more senior officer may commission a force to recover Mirror Lancers carried into Afritan territory.
Any attacks by Afritan forces are to be reported expeditiously to Mirror Lancer headquarters, as are any border crossings for the purpose of recovering personnel. Such reports must contain the time, the location, and the complete scope of forces, both Mirror Lancer and others, involved in the action.
Lerial returns his attention to his own report and continues to write. A third of a glass later, he signs the report and eases it aside to let the ink dry before folding and sealing it for dispatch. He considers all that has happened over the past four years—and all that has not—ever since the people of Ensenla all fled Afrit over less than an eightday and subsequently rebuilt the town, or much of it, in the duchy of Cigoerne … and then demanded the right to continue to till their lands and tend their flocks on their ancestral hills.
Duke Atroyan's response had been quick … and disastrous for the Afritan Guard. Lerial shakes his head, recalling the events that followed. Thankfully, over the last four years, he has not been required to use such force. The upside of the "effect" of such a storm has been that Duke Atroyan could suggest that the deceased field commander had been unwise to attack in such weather … and lay the blame there, with no word about the fact that the duke himself had ordered the attack while his brother, the arms-commander of Afrit, had been either inspecting the ironworks at Luba or ill with a severe flux … at least that is what Lerial has gathered over the years, from listening and from veiled hints from his aunt Emerya, who has her own sources. But the downside of letting a freak storm take most of the blame for the deaths of over five hundred men is that at least some officers in the Afritan Guard are wagering that such a freak storm is unlikely to occur again … and they are tired of being restrained from pursuing the growing numbers of refugees who have fled to Cigoerne, many of whom have been skilled crafters. Nor has Duke Atroyan grown more patient as time has passed … which is why Commander Jhalet issued the order that rests on Lerial's desk. It is also why Lerial has insisted on training one squad from each company to use horn bows similar to those used by the Verdyn Lancers—even if it took some pressure by his sire to get permission for that … and well over a year of training.
Lerial has no desire to unleash the power of unbinding linked order and chaos again … and he has been fortunate in not having to do so. But how long will you be able to refrain?
Cigoerne has grown to almost half again its size in five years, and places like Penecca, the "new" Ensenla, and Teilyn, as well as others that had been barely more that hamlets or small towns, now are far more than that, and the factors in Cigoerne have added two more river piers to handle the trade from all over Hamor, and even from Candar and Austra.
A rap on the study door breaks through his momentary musing. "Yes?"
"Captain, the watch reports the scouts are at the crossroads."
"Thank you. I'll be out in a moment."
Lerial checks the dispatch, thinks about folding and sealing it, then snorts softly. No point in doing that until you hear what the scouts have discovered … or not. He rises and leaves the study, stepping into the small anteroom of the Ensenla Post headquarters building and walking to the duty desk.
"Ser." The duty ranker looks up.
"I'll have something later for a dispatch rider. Let the duty squad know."
"Thank you." Lerial then walks out into the cold wind blowing out of the southwest and stands waiting for the scouts to ride into the post and report. He does not wait long.
The two Mirror Lancers in their greens and heavy riding jackets—and gray gloves—rein up outside the headquarters building. Both have red faces from the cold and wind. "Tie your mounts. You can report where it's warmer." Lerial smiles. He can recall every winter he has spent in Ensenla, and how much he appreciated the few days of leave spent at the palace in Cigoerne.
Once the three are seated in his study, Lerial nods to Vominen, the former Verdyn Lancer who transferred to the Mirror Lancers as soon as he could, even before the Verdyn Lancers became Mirror Lancers and ceased to exist as a separate force. "You look like something has happened." It's not that the scout looks that way, but that Lerial can sense the patterns of order and chaos that flow around him, and the turbulence of those patterns is suggestive.
"Ser … almost all of the Afritan Guard pulled out of the north Ensenla post just after dawn this morning."
"How do you know?" Lerial grins. "Or did you sneak over there?"
"Wouldn't call it sneaking, ser. Just rode over and asked one of the herders. Besides, there was no one about, and they do the same when they can."
"I rode almost to the gates. They're barred. No one's in the watchtower. No smoke from the chimneys. No smoke in midwinter, ser?" Vominen shakes his head.
"What did you see, Naedar?"
"Same as Vominen, ser. One of the herder boys said they took three wagons, too."
Lerial nods slowly.
After another third of a glass with the two scouts, Lerial feels they have told him everything they can recall, and he dismisses them. He looks to the dispatch he had written earlier. You'll need to rewrite that and send it off immediately.
Why & why in the name of the Rational Stars would Rhamuel pull three companies of guards from Ensenla when for the past two years those guards have been patrolling the border and looking for any excuse to provoke the Mirror Lancers into a skirmish?
Lerial can think of only two reasons—a crisis in Swartheld, even an armed uprising, since Duke Atroyan has been far from the most effective ruler of Afrit, or an attack on Afrit, most likely on Luba or even Swartheld itself, by the forces of Duke Khesyn of Heldya. Either of those events would be far worse for Cigoerne than another Afritan attack on Ensenla or anywhere else along Cigoerne's northern border.
Could there be other reasons? Quite possibly, although Lerial has no idea what they might be, only that it's unlikely that they would be any better than the alternatives that he already suspects are the reasons for the Afritan withdrawal.
Copyright © 2014 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.