Peeking out a slit in the window blinds, Jougs stared up the empty street. He ran a hand over his cropped hair and exhaled heavily through his nose. When he turned from the window, he found Vorant watching him. “What?”
“Just sent the old boy a message.”
“Plan A is a go,” Vorant said.
“Still? Okay. He hear from the others?”
“I didn’t ask. He didn’t tell.”
“We’ll know soon enough, won’t we?”
“Should we get moving?” Jougs asked.
“Takes ten minutes to get there. We got time for a snack,” Vorant said as he used his head to motion toward the kitchen.
“Man, you’re always fucking hungry.”
“You know when we’ll get another meal?”
“Then, shut the fuck up. Have a sandwich.”
Jougs laughed, “already made them, eh?”
“Always hungry,” Jougs muttered to himself. He followed Vorant into the kitchen and found his partner in crime had set up a veritable feast. On the dining table sat two plates covered by submarine sandwiches crammed full with four inches of sliced beef, onion, and spinach leaves, as well as a handful of potato chips each. “What the hell?”
“We didn’t get breakfast.”
“Dude, there’s enough food here to feed half the Poterits.”
“We didn’t get breakfast,” Vorant repeated.
Smiling, Jougs sat down at the table. He picked up his opened bottle of beer, raised it in salute, and then downed a quarter of it. Taking a minute to decide on the best way to attack his sub, Jougs smashed the sandwich and ripped it in half. Then he bit in, with his mouth full, he said, “damn, that’s good.”
Shaking his head and rolling his eyes, Vorant said, “thought you weren’t hungry.”
“We didn’t get breakfast,” Jougs retorted.
The light breeze rattled the piece of paper in General Tomlyn’s hand. His eyes narrowed, his nose wrinkled, and he pursed his mouth. I know these marks, he found the dots and dashes familiar somehow, but couldn’t place them. He took a moment to study the radio operator who wore her jet black hair in a regulation bun just below her olive green cap. Her uniform was overly starched, perfectly pressed, and still managed to accentuate her every curve. She held herself with a confidence that bordered on defiance. Approximately the same age as his two nieces, but quite unlike them, her eyes reflected profound sorrow. Perhaps it’s this place, he breathed in the putrid musk of Avalona’s recent destruction. “How many times have you heard this…this signal?”
“Twice, sir. But, it’s been different each time. I wasn’t prepared for the first,” she winced, before adding, “so, I didn’t write it down.”
“Not your fault, soldier,” General Tomlyn reassured her. “Be my ears. Keep listening.”
She perked up, “sir?”
“I don’t know what that message was, but the colonel looked sick after hearing it. I stepped out for a smoke and saw him with the soldier that brought the Justices here. They both took off after that. Uh, sir, you probably don’t need me to tell you this, but something ain’t right.”
Ignoring her last comment, General Tomlyn ordered, “keep listening and logging these,” he waved the paper at her. “You hear more, run the log to Captain Prescott.”
“Yes sir!” she said, knowing well the sound of dismissal.
“And, PFC,” he waited until she looked him in the eyes, “only myself or Captain Prescott. No one else. Understand?”
“Uh, I do sir. But, I can’t…I can’t monitor the frequency by myself. I fall asleep, I could miss another message.”
The general’s lips curled, in a curt little smile as he nodded understanding. He ran the rosters through his mind, without luck. “Who’s your supervisor?”
“Immediate is Reggie, uh, Corporal Bradley. And, overall is 2nd Lieutenant Carson.”
“How well do you know them?”
“Oh,” she blushed, ducked her head down, and stifled a grin, “I know the corporal. We just met the lieutenant.”
“You trust him?”
“Reggie? I mean Corporal Bradley?”
The look of annoyance that crossed General Tomlyn’s face, matched his tone, “yes, the corporal.”
“With my life,” she said.
“Good,” the general replied, “you two just got reassigned. Anyone give you grief, tell them to take the matter up with Captain Prescott. Get me?”
“I get you, sir!”
Slowly, Ensign Osborne raised the baton in his right hand, while his left hand parted the shrubbery. A pissed off squirrel darted passed him, up a nearby tree, and from a low branch turned to confront Osborne. Then, the flying rodent let out an indignant string of chirps that made Osborne chuckle. To the squirrel he said, “I hear that!”
“Well? What is it?”
Osborne turned back to the prone general, with vindication he said, “just a squirrel, sir.”
Groaning, General Michaels rolled his eyes and heaved himself into a sitting position. This gets out and they’ll send me to the old folks home, the general shook the thought off. “Osborne, what did you see?”
“Like I said, another arrow, then nothing.”
“Go back. Keep looking.”
“Back, sir? There’s nothing else to find.”
“Find Lara, damn you!” General Michaels shouted. “Find her! Find her! Find her!”
“Please, calm down,” Ensign Osborne said. “I’ll find her, sir. Just calm down.”
“Calm down? I can’t walk. My wom—friend is missing. A storm’s coming. And, you don’t know shit about tracking! That storm hits before we find her, we lose the trail. Tell me to calm down again, boy, and I’ll shove my cane so far up your ass they call you ‘Scarecrow.’”
In that instance, the puzzle pieces flew together and Ensign Osborne knew he wasn’t searching for Colonel Lara Thompson, retired leader of Mercury’s Elite Guard. No. He was searching a graveyard for a lost old lady whose elderly lover couldn’t look for her without his help. Osborne thought of his great grandfather, who’d been struck with the Forgettin. The whole family used to alternate nights on watch, just in case Grand Seamus woke up forgetting Grand Brigid had already taken the long walk. Osborne knelt down. “General Michaels,” he placed his hand on the general’s shoulder, looked him in the eye, and said, “I swear to you, I’ll find her. And, when I do, I’ll come back for you. In the meantime,” without warning, Osborne scooped the general up and carried him to the Caliber mausoleum. “Let’s get you out of the elements.”
Though General Michaels wanted to argue, he held his tongue. After Osborne set him down to struggle with the mausoleum door, Michaels said, “look for broken branches, footprints, arrows, anything out of the ordinary.”
“I will, sir,” Osborne said as he shoved the mausoleum doors open.
Surprised to find his front door locked, Patrick Field lifted up a flower pot and removed a spare key, “I didn’t see any reason to bring my keys. For Mercury’s sake, my living room was chock-full.”
Shrugging off the gardener’s explanation, Colonel Dagon tapped his foot while waiting for the door to open.
No sooner, did Field shove his door open then a hand dragged him into the house. Field yelled out, “this is my house, damn it! Let me go!”
“Let him go!” Colonel Dagon commanded as he rammed the door with his shoulder.
“Sorry, sir,” Santos shouted, releasing his grasp on the gardener and the door.
The colonel bulled through the door and into the middle of the living room, where he skidded to a halt, cursing, “sweet mother of Mercury, fuck me. A grif—.” Recognizing his error, Dagon, dropped to one knee, raised both his hands in offering and pledged, “my life, my liege.”
The young griffin king, muttered in bird talk, “not again.”
“The rest of our lives,” Cassie whispered.
“Please,” Archel begged the kneeling colonel, “don’t do that.” He, once again, gingerly placed a paw into waiting hands, “stand up, will you?”
Lightly touching the colonel’s shoulder, Cassie said, “stand.”
As she pulled her arm away, Dagon saw the bracelet, and fell back to his knees, whispering, “the Messenger.”
Sharing a moment’s exasperation, Cassie and Archel exchanged slightly amused looks. Finally, Cassie said, “please, sir. Stand up.” She didn’t know who the soldier was, but the tension in the others had eased. Even Archel seemed to relax a bit. “Who are you?” Cassie asked much to the chagrin of Santos.
“Colonel Gawain Dagon, Commander of Mercury’s Elite Guard, 1st of the Servants,” Dagon said as he stood.
“Oh, thank Mercury!” Cassie exclaimed.
“Why?” Archel wondered in bird.
Replying in kind, Cassie asked, “because he’s head of the Mercs. He should know how to help.”
Santos closed and locked the door while Dagon and Field helplessly watched the two youths carry on a conversation by squawking, chirping, and twittering.
“Do you think so?” Archel asked.
“I mean, I did. But, you tell me. You were raised in the Templus.”
“You’re probably right, after all, he was there when Kais—uh—when Kaiser Imler changed,” Archel stepped back into the living room, dropped onto his haunches, and lowered his head. “How long am I gonna be stuck like this?” he whined.
Speaking in her normal voice, Cassie asked, “Colonel, can you help us?”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Chief Justice Adonis snarled.
“I mean, ‘no.’” General Tomlyn calmly responded.
“As the Chief Justice of the Antigone Courts of Poterit Don, I demand you oblige the court and return us to Ambrosia City.”
“As General of Plains Region, with standing orders in hand, I refuse to oblige you.”
“Under whose authority?”
“The crown’s authority,” Tomlyn smiled at Adonis, before turning his attention to the other Justices. “Kaiser Rudolpho Imler has ordered you here until his arrival. He hasn’t arrived, therefore, you must stay.”
“This is ridiculous,” Adonis spit, it took everything in his power not to blurt out, a dead man can’t arrive. “Show me your orders.”
“Show me yours,” Tomlyn replied.
“Oh, for the love of all things holy,” Justice Seeley Songtree shouted, “if either of you starts waving your dicks around, I swear to Mercury, it’ll be the end of you both. Chief Justice, you well know that just because the court carries a motion, doesn’t mean the Regulars are bound by it. General, you know we’re here under orders. And, it appears, that we’ll all be here until those orders change. So, instead of you two sword fighting, why don’t you have someone show us to our rooms, tents, or back to the damned bus. I’d like sometime to contemplate.”
Lightly clapping his hands, Justice Levi Bayleaf bowed to Songtree, and then added, “I second the motion.”
“I third the motion,” Justice Jo Casta called from behind Adonis.
“I fourth,” Justice Moira Thibodeaux and Crimson Bohner said in unison.
“Oh, whatever,” Adonis threw his hands into the air.
“This is unreal,” Justice Mayfield whispered to Justice Scott.
Meanwhile, Justice Cal Davies stifled his laughter by holding his mouth and turning his head. For years, he’d longed to see someone check Adonis’ attitude and in the space of a minute, he’d watched two people do it.