Commander Maeb Len knows that, more than anything, an army needs hope in order to struggle onward. They need a vision to fight for and faith that the future will be better than the past. Better than the present.
The People’s Army itself is one such hope. The fall of the Tyrant is one such vision.
Commander Len also knows that people find hope in other, smaller things.
In the laughter that replaces the moaning of the wounded after a quiet winter of healing and souls put to rest.
In the green shoots of grass, wildflowers blooming in the untrampled fields around the army’s camp.
In the unwavering dedication of Commander Len and Quartermaster Omopria to each other, and to The People’s Army. Their teasing romance. The brilliance of their successes. Together, they can do anything.
Anything to remind the army that the world will go on, and that perhaps, they will, too.
Commander Len clasps arms and grips shoulders with the other officers as they gather in the command tent one last time before the final campaign against the Tyrant begins. (No one has said out loud that it is the final campaign. No one would dare.)
Captain Dhissik, the new leader of Len’s old company, gives her a fierce hug. High Commander Aulia does not. She nods gravely, warily. Lately, Len has been keeping her distance from her old sparring partner.
The new season brings new promotions, and it will take time to see how they fit.
Once they are all seated on the circle of blankets, High Commander Aulia raises a hand for quiet.
“Officers of The People’s Army.” Aulia looks at them each in turn, and Len feels the strength in Aulia’s certainty spread from officer to officer, commander and captain alike. “We’ve been fighting against the Tyrant for six years. He’s stolen our youth. He’s stolen our good looks.” She smiles, and the scar that splits from below her right eye to the left side of her sharp chin stretches. She sobers immediately, though. “He’s stolen the happier lives we might have lived, and the loved ones we might have spent them with.”
Solemn nods from all. Len isn’t the only one whose grip tightens around a sword hilt or into a fist. Here in this stuffy tent, they are the same. The People’s Fist. The Hand That Would Open the Cage.
“It’s time we steal from him.” The officers cheer Aulia’s words. “This spring, when the flowers bloom and the trees fruit, so do we.” They cheer again.
But as the high commander details the plan for the campaign, Len’s heart sinks. They will need the best quartermaster in the world for such a risky campaign. The Army’s standing supply caches had been targeted early in the war. Their quartermaster had worked without sleep to decentralize what remained. From then on, each unit became responsible for carrying a portion of the Army’s stores so the Tyrant couldn’t destroy them with a single blow. It is a delicate balance; one overlooked shortage or faulty supply line, and the entire Army risks slaughter or starvation.
And unlike everyone else in the room, Len knows in her bones that the best quartermaster in the world wants to leave The People’s Army and go home. She doesn’t think Quartermaster Omopria will last another full campaign.
The worst part about it is that Len can’t blame her, won’t blame her, if she leaves.
While the other officers leave the command tent feeling determined, Len finds herself drifting. Instead of convening with her captains, she stands outside of the tent and watches the camp shake off winter’s slumber. There, in the eastern corner, is the sparring square, bright with the clack of wood, the grunts of effort and laughter.
There, toward the center of the camp, the supply wagons, where Quartermaster Omopria and her staff would be, counting and loading, loading and counting. Someone is cooking the beans for lunch.
Then she looks to the north, toward the city where the Tyrant waits, not knowing he has rats in his larder, stealing hope for The People.
“Is everything all right?”
Len jumps at High Commander Aulia’s soft voice beside her. “Fifth,” Len greets her with her old company’s name.
Len knows that the smile she gives doesn’t pass muster. Aulia’s expression softens with understanding. Somehow, the scar on her face only makes the expression more tender.
“I know it’s none of my business, but the soldiers talk and—”
Len walls up her expression, and she looks balefully at the high commander of The People’s Army.
Aulia crosses her hands awkwardly behind her back, leather armor creaking. “Just. If you need anything, I’m here. I was married once, too.”
“Oh?” Len turns sharply, hungry for someone else’s answers. Someone else’s sorrow to show her what to do with her own. “What happened?”
“A little thing called a civil war.” A complicated grief crosses Aulia’s face.
Cold fills Len’s belly as realization dawns. “We’re fighting them.”
Aulia nods solemnly. “We’re fighting them.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“So am I.”
A long time ago, when The People’s Army was first born from the spark of rebellion against the Tyrant, Captain Maeb Len of the Third Company trudged back into camp on her own sore feet. Agno, her horse, had fallen, stabbed behind one of his legs, and she’d jumped from the saddle, praying for mercy and so much blind luck. She hadn’t even had time to cut his poor throat before she had to face the onslaught of the enemy. Maybe the very ones who’d brought down Agno.
The rage of the battle gone, her company limped into the marching camp after her, their faces drawn in pain or shame or exhaustion—likely a combination of it all. Truth to tell, Len felt more than a twist of shame herself. And not just because she hadn’t given Agno the mercy he deserved after faithfully carrying her for so long. But the battle was done, and ahead of her was a meal and her first bath in weeks, if she could make the walk to the stream. A dry scrub if she could not. But first, she would ki— No, she wasn’t sure that was true, that she would kill for a decent meal. Not right now. The memory of running her bloodied sword through another thick body, scraping it back out of a bone-caged heart, coating her hands in sticking blood—it made her want to bring up food instead of shovel it down. Luckily, she’d lost all the food she had to spare on the field amid the corpses. Many of her soldiers had. The sick still tasted sour in her mouth.
Water. A drink of water first.
She lined up at the officers’ soup queue, among other young captains and senior captains without the colors of distinction on their coats. Well—no color of distinction but the deep arterial red of close combat.
A woman, the quartermaster’s assistant, doled out the soup in carefully measured ladles, making sure each was equal. So careful, even here with the officers, to make sure that precious goods lasted. The sergeant wore her hair in a tight braid, but curls sprang free at her wide brow; some of them clung in sweat there. She looked thin, as if she should have her own rations doubled.
“Come on, missy, you cannot give me more than that?” A senior captain shook his bowl expectantly at the woman, stalling the entire line of weary and aching soldiers. The soup’s scent reached Len. Beans. Again. Thank the gods. Better than nothing at all, and though beans could wreak havoc in the communal tents, they would hold to your guts and keep you full. At that moment, Len could not have stomached meat.
“No, sir, I can’t.” And when he refused to move on, the quartermaster’s assistant shoved past him to the next officer with the next carefully measured bowl. That officer had the sense to move along quickly.
The senior captain did not. He pushed his way back in front of the assistant. “Excuse me? Do you not think you’re out of line?”
The quartermaster’s assistant met his glare with hers. “No, I do not, but I would be most glad if you were out of this one.” Then she beckoned the next person to the pot.
Captain Len stifled a smile as she watched the woman pour, watched the irritation creep into the set of her jaw. This close, the captain saw a streak of gray climbing through her hair. Surprising, as she didn’t look a day out of her second decade, cheeks round, skin unlined. Likewise, Len could smell the blood on the senior captain’s coat. Could trace the tension in his shoulders through the fabric, the bunching before a blow.
Captain Len reached up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sir! Sir, you were brilliant on the field today. I hope I’m half as good as you before I’m promoted. You’ll have a high commander’s cloak before we’re done here.”
The senior captain looked at her, disdain in his gaze for the interruption but courtesy toward a fellow winning out over it. The higher-ups looked on mentoring as favorable for promotions.
“Thank you, Captain...?”
“Len. Maeb Len. Do you want to share a drink?” She leaned close to his ear. “I’ve been hiding a stash of 798, if that interests you.”
His mood perked up instantly. “Now that I cannot turn down.” And Len led him away, past the other cookpots with other men and women on the quartermaster’s staff and around to where her company would pitch her tent.
Later, when the senior captain had gone, a slight stagger in his step, Len lay under the stars, stomach growling, still dirty and unwilling to sully her tent with her own filth. That was where the quartermaster’s assistant found her.
“You forgot your dinner.” The woman smiled, with a bowl of soup in each hand, and lowered herself down.
“Thank you.” Len sat up, taking the offered bowl. “I’m sorry he was an ass.”
The quartermaster’s assistant waved the apology away. “It comes with the post. The People’s Army welcomes all people, and so on. Thank you for getting rid of him.”
“It took almost an entire 798. Well worth it, I’d say.” Len waved the squat-bottomed bottle by its short neck, but the stars spun and her soup sloshed at the bowl’s rim.
“Steady on,” the quartermaster’s assistant said with a chuckle, easing the bottle from Len’s hand. “I’m Jissia Omopria.”
From the beginning, Jissia had taken care of Len.
Four years later, Captain Maeb Len knelt by Quartermaster Jissia Omopria’s side in her own tent. It was bigger than the quartermaster’s tent, and Len didn’t have to share it with subordinates like Jissia did. Still, it smelled sour with sweat and sick.
Jissia burned with fever. Her hand was clammy in Len’s, and she muttered to no one, delirious and barely conscious. Half the camp was.
The People’s Army had been fucked for four years, but this day had been an exceptionally bad day.
Her lieutenant’s voice was frantic outside the door. She startled upright, out of her almost-doze.
“What now, Balissen?” Len tried to shout it, but her voice was too hoarse. She’d been screaming retreat after retreat for weeks. The Tyrant wasn’t letting her people rest. That was the point. Harry them, and when they stopped to catch their breath, harry them again, until they collapsed from exhaustion. If Len let herself go to sleep now, she would never wake up, and she would be glad for it.
It wasn’t Balissen who came in. Len blinked blearily in the dim candles lighting the tent. Oh. Right. Balissen had taken an arrow through the throat three months ago. She hadn’t been the one to find his body or she would never have forgotten. So she told herself.
“What is it?” she croaked.
This new lieutenant’s name was Dhissik. Lieutenant Dhissik first handed her a small cup of what Len already knew was dirty water masquerading as coffee. Jissia had stretched the rations as far as she could so that the soldiers could keep moving, over and over again, but now the officers were hoarding it jealously. Jissia hadn’t approved, but how was Len supposed to make the decisions that would save their lives if she was more than half asleep?
Len sipped, to make the cup last.
“Captain Aulia found out what’s wrong.” The lieutenant swayed with exhaustion, but fear made her eyes wide. “It’s the water. They’re dumping corpses upriver. It’s running straight to us.”
Len’s eyes went down to her coffee. “Shit.”
“Not that water.”
The lieutenant didn’t leave.
“The Tyrant’s moving again. Not to chase us,” Dhissik said quickly, to forestall Len, “but something else. The Fourth and Fifth just arrived. They want to speak with you.”
Len turned back to Jissia. The fever hadn’t broken, but the murmuring had stopped. She didn’t once think of sending Dhissik in her place. Dhissik had been a corporal three months ago. She wouldn’t even have sent Balissen, who had been her lieutenant for three of the five years.
Four years. She turned Jissia’s right forearm over. The inked marriage mark matched the one on Len’s, so that when they clasped forearms the images made a whole.
There was duty, and then there was duty. Len heaved herself clumsily to her feet. Though the young lieutenant had to grab her by the arm to steady her, Len didn’t spill the coffee.
“Tell me where they’re meeting,” Len said. “You stay here with her.”
“Sir,” Dhissik said with a sigh. Her voice cracked. “I can’t. I have messages to run to the other two captains.”
“Why do they have my lieutenant doing everyone else’s job?” Len growled as she pulled her leather armor back on and buckled her sword belt.
But she knew the answer. Everyone else was dead.
And The People’s quartermaster lay alone in her sickbed.
How different that was from the beginning.
With her hand in Deputy Quartermaster Omopria’s, sneaking away from the army’s camp, Captain Len felt like she could climb the clouds. But the sky was clear and blue, and the quartermaster’s smile was bright and warm, and the captain was sinking hopelessly into it.
Back when the war was new and hope was sweet on the tongue. Freedom from the Tyrant. Rule by The People.
Len tugged Jissia’s hand again, smiling slyly. “They’ll be fine without us for ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes?” Jissia raised an arched eyebrow. “Is that all?”
Len blushed but, even so, pulled Jissia close. “I’m happy to draw this out longer if you are.”
Jissia’s body melted into hers as they kissed, delighting in the sensation of eyelashes on cheeks, noses nuzzling, hands holding tight at the wonder of it all. Len wanted it to last forever.
And so she asked, after they peeled apart and lay in the soft grass of the clearing they had claimed. Amid their strewn clothing there was even someone else’s jacket—neither of theirs but another lover, perhaps, who had forgotten it because they were too flush with the warmth of their own kindling. Len would bring it back to camp and tease the owner mercilessly, knowing she would be teased in return. But that, too, was the joy of it.
“What are you doing in a few months time?” Len rolled over to walk her fingers gently up Jissia’s sternum before tracing the lower curve of her right breast. “When this is all over?”
Jissia rolled over, tangling her boots with Len’s. She’d pulled her uniform trousers back up but they were still unlaced, and Len gave them a playful tug. “You think this will be over that soon?”
“No civil war on the entire continent has lasted longer than two years! We’re close. Look how easily we’ve routed them.” She met Jissia’s gaze and held it earnestly. “We have the people on our side. The Tyrant can’t stand against his own nation.”
Jissia raised both of her eyebrows this time and snorted. “The folly of youth.”
“You weren’t complaining about my youth a few minutes ago.” Len used their tangled legs as a lever to roll back on top Jissia and kiss her deeply. But when Jissia sank her hands into Len’s long braids, Len stopped. She stroked the thin streak of gray in Jissia’s dark hair. “Would you make a life with me, when it’s all done?”
Jissia’s face softened in surprise and then tenderness. “Are you sure you’d be happy? You’re a fighter. Even off the field.”
“I’ve had enough of trouble.” Squads of soldiers lost, the roughness of sleeping in cold tents, waking up knowing so clearly that the day could be her last. Len could walk away happily and never look back. “Let’s have something simple and easy.”
“And when you get bored, Maeb?”
Len bent down and kissed her on the forehead, then the nose, then the lips. “No one can fight forever.”
Much later, Captain Maeb Len will remember that day with the fever as the day it all broke because it was the day many things broke.
It was the day that she learned she would fail again and again and again. It was the day she learned that she never wanted to fail those she loved but she loved too many.
It was the day she truly felt in her bones that war is not kind to love. She had loved Lieutenant Balissen like a brother and had not even looked for his body after the report came in. She had tried not to let the deaths become rote, to force herself to feel disgust instead of numbness at bloody leathers, because that, too, was a failure of love.
Love was the only thing that held any of them together. The People’s Army went to fight for love of their neighbor, who the Tyrant would have let starve in the street. For love of the mothers, who died in childbirth rather than give birth in the fine hospitals that became debtors’ prisons. For love of the teachers, who starved rather than let their students go hungry.
War brought the captain and the quartermaster together, because they believed in love over the Tyrant. They had to love each other more than the war would have torn them apart.
It would not be one crack but many, and still Len would always try again.
After six years of civil war, Len sits at her travel desk to draft a letter to a potential ally recently freed from their own queen. That is the first task High Commander Aulia has given her. The words don’t come out right. If she sounds too desperate, they might balk; what use in sending troops to fight for a lost cause, no matter how just?
But The People’s Army is desperate. Six years. Even Len can see that there won’t be a year after this. Not with this army. Not these leaders.
Len looks down at the embroidered crimson fist on the breast of her jacket. She is a commander now. Aulia is counting on Len’s intelligence for the new campaign.
She feels a warm hand on her shoulder. Jissia hands her a cup of coffee that smells strong, black as pitch. Len’s eyes watered. It smells like hope.
“Where did you—”
Jissia shakes her head and kisses Len gently on the cheek.
“This is it, isn’t it?” Jissia asks softly. “Either we win or...”
Or. They both know the other would finish that sentence differently.
Len takes Jissia’s hand and kisses the knuckles gently.
Len also remembers a time, in the middle of the war, the third year, maybe the fourth? They had already been fighting longer than The People’s Army had prepared for. Longer than Len had prepared for. Still, Len thought they had turned a corner in the war. She’d had an idea for a new, more devastating munition.
“Jissia!” she called happily when she found the quartermaster in her domain. The unit’s supply wagons were nestled within the camp so that they couldn’t be easily picked off by the Tyrant’s raiders. Even though the ground around them had been trampled, green grass had begun to shoot up in tufts between the wheels.
Jissia pecked Len on the cheek, and Len caught one of the junior quartermasters hiding a smile. Len smiled tentatively at Jissia in turn.
“Yes?” Jissia said suspiciously.
“We’ve had an idea,” Len said, now almost shy. “We need to melt all of our extra iron into some kind of heavy impact projectile.”
Jissia’s face darkened immediately. “Extra iron? We don’t have any iron left.”
“Wait. What do you mean we’re out of iron?” Len pursued Jissia around the supply wagons while Jissia checked this thing and that thing in her inventory ledger. “Jiss, we’ve been doing shit-all for a whole season! What do you mean we’re out of iron?”
Jissia pressed the ledger to her forehead before enunciating slowly, as if Len were stupid. “I mean that between the reinforced shields, the re-shod horses, and the new wagon axles that you’ll need to start moving your army again—we’re left a bit short.” Jissia lowered her voice so the underlings couldn’t hear. “Besides, we don’t have the facilities for casting iron. If you stopped playing games and paid attention to the actual war, you’d know this.”
“Playing games?” Len was almost tempted to throw her sword into Jissia’s arms, to make her swing it. It would show her just how easy these games were. “This is why we have you. You help us make this possible. My job is to coordinate the ground strategy within the army. That includes knowing my soldiers and training them, too.”
She didn’t understand why Jissia begrudged her the time in the sparring square even though it brought Len some of the only peace she ever felt.
Jissia’s own outlet had soured. At first, she had painted, carrying small scraps of canvas and painting until she tired of the same dull colors, the same dull scenes. Len wondered if Jissia saw the same things she did, over and over again. Brown mud, grey-brown corpses, red-brown dried blood.
“I saw you with the captain of the Fifth.” Jissia didn’t look at Len when she said it.
Len didn’t look at her either. She felt the need to protect something small inside of herself. She dug the toe of her boot into the dirt.
“That wasn’t the vow we made.”
“She understands me. That’s all.”
“Good for her. I’m glad someone does.”
And the silence. Cold, lonely silence.
Len had also struggled to find her place, though Jissia perhaps hadn’t realized it. By the third year, Len finally understood the cycle of war: the wintering camps, the spring thaw into movement. When spring came, the fighting would start over again without care for those who needed time to catch their breath or whose legs and back had become too weak to carry the weight. She was still not used to the death, not exactly; she would regret the day the dead were nothing to her. Her body, however, could learn to tolerate the exhaustion.
And yet, she no longer thought of Balissen. There were the living to think of.
One day that third winter, the sparring square was full of soldiers trying to keep themselves sharp. And by sharpening herself here, Captain Len thought that, perhaps, she could forge herself into something better for Jissia.
Len pulled a practice blade and arced it across her body. Already she was able to replace thoughts of Jissia with the natural flow of her own body.
“Third!” A cheerful voice interrupted the flow. Captain Rix Aulia, of the Fifth. She was tall and narrow, with sharp eyes and a sharper chin. Her face was smooth and unlined despite a few sporadic gray hairs amid her cropped black curls.
“Fifth!” Len tapped Aulia’s bare blade with her own in an invitation.
They crashed together in a joy of panting. Each near miss, a curse tinged with laughter. In the end, Len slipped within Aulia’s longer reach to disarm her. They fell to the ground. She ended up weaponless beneath Aulia, whose forearm rested on her throat.
Aulia of the Fifth smiled, showing crooked eyeteeth.
Len left the sparring square with the flutter of finding cherished jewelry that she thought she’d lost.
Four months before High Commander Aulia gave the army its commands for the final campaign, Len and Jissia lay awake in the pitch-black tent. The candles were snuffed. Outside, the early winter wind howled like the hungry coyotes dogging the supply train. The Tyrant was pulling back for the season.
Len felt the hands-breadth of space between them like a wall. The effort it took to keep themselves distinct. And still, she could have drawn the shape of Jissia’s body beside her.
“I want you to go,” Len whispered. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Saying it felt like siphoning poison from her blood.
“What?” Jissia’s voice cut through the quiet.
“I know you want to leave. Go. There’s still time to live the life you dreamed of. I won’t steal it from you, like the Tyrant.”
“You have no idea what I’ve dreamed of. What I’ve given up for this war. Do you?”
“The same things we’ve all given up.”
“No. You’ve found glory. You’ve found friends. People who think and act like you. I’ve grown more and more isolated, with each passing year.”
“They’re not my friends any more than an unranked soldier is yours.”
“Some of them are my friends.”
“Then I’m not like you. It’s not easy for me.”
“You’re right. And it doesn’t have to be. You can go.”
“I stayed here for you. I’m not leaving now. We’ll see this through to the end. Together. Like we promised.”
Silence stretched, full of Len’s doubts. Jissia’s hand snuck over, hesitant. Len remembered times that the two of them had been as tightly laced as fingers, able to support more together than apart.
During that autumn campaign season, the captain and the quartermaster worked miracles together, even when they thought they couldn’t.
“There’s no way to get an extra two weeks’ worth of food all the way to a company you’ve stationed on the ass-end side of the world.” Jissia ran her hand through the snarl of her curls, a riot of gray and brown. She rounded on Len. “You’ve stationed them too far from us.”
“I know. I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to let it get like this, but it was our only option. They knew the risks and—”
“An army marches on its stomach. And its gear. You’ve stripped away my ability to provide for either. That is my job.” Jissia about-faced and strode away, leaving Len to trail, limping, after her.
“I know. Of course, I know.” Len searched for the words to soothe her quartermaster, but, as happened more and more often these days, she found herself at a loss. No matter how much she explained, it was never quite enough—or perhaps, never quite right. When they ducked into their tent, she added, “It’s my job to make sure this war is won.”
“And then we can stop, yes? Isn’t that what you said four years ago?” Jissia didn’t bother to light a candle. They were running low, and she limited them to strategy meetings only now. The officers needed to read missives and see the maps. Letters from home—such that they were—could be read by daylight or moonlight or not at all.
Len didn’t need a candle’s flickering flame to see the severe set of Jissia’s mouth.
“Part of me feels like you’d be fine for this to keep going forever,” Jissia said. “You thrive on this. I don’t.”
The remark stung. “No? You don’t thrive on the satisfaction of keeping our soldiers alive?” Len snorted. “I know the way you get when you solve a problem we couldn’t figure out.” Smug and beautiful with the sheer brilliance of her mind. Jissia had saved them more times than Len could count. The two of them could do it again, but only together.
Len could see Jissia gathering breath, like a snake coiling for a strike. As if granted a vision of the future, Len knew what could happen: they would strike and parry until there was nothing but silence between them. Tonight of all nights, she didn’t want that.
Len held up her hands in surrender. “I’m sorry.” She reached out to clasp Jissia’s forearm. Though their clothing covered it, their marriage marks lined up and reminded Len why they had bound themselves together.
Jissia clasped back, tentatively at first, as if she wasn’t sure she was allowed. “Me too.”
They slept together that night for the first time in many months, but it wasn’t until after Jissia rolled away that Len admitted to herself what she couldn’t during the act. Jissia had either forgotten how to touch her, or didn’t want to. The captain turned her back to the quartermaster. Her core felt hollowed out.
Two days after receiving High Commander Aulia’s orders and one day before The People’s Army marches, Quartermaster Jissia Omopria requisitions all of the sugar in the army. She calls it hope.
With her help and The People’s cooks, every soldier has one sweetened biscuit to eat.
It shouldn’t be enough to cry over, or enough to set a field army to carousing happily through the rows of tents as if at festival.
But it is. Jissia is right. Sugar is hope, and that’s what The People’s Army needs after six years of attrition. That’s what they need for one last push.
Commander Len and Quartermaster Omopria eat their biscuits with their closest friends. Captain Dhissik of the Third. The First. High Commander Aulia and the new captain of the Fifth. Deputy Quartermaster Chessian.
Len’s knee bumps Jissia’s, and when Jissia cups Len’s knee with her hand, Chessian giggles. He has a sweet laugh and dark doe eyes, and he idolizes Jissia. Len feels Aulia’s eyes on them.
“How long have you two been together?” Chessian asks. “Longer than the war?”
Jissia tears up a clod of dirt and tosses it at him as she laughs. It sounds as forced as Len’s own strained smile.
They share a knowing look before answering.
“We’re as old as the war.”
“We started because of the war.”
Chessian mock swoons, but when he recovers, he looks at them with a sugar-shine in his eyes. “It’s nice to know that something good can come out of this, after all.”
And behind the forced smiles, the silence still; now scalding to the touch and swollen, like a blister.
But a blister must be lanced before a march.
And in the morning, The People’s Army is on the move again.
Len helps Jissia saddle her placid horse and kneels to offer her a vaulting step onto its back. It is the horse least tempered for war that Len has ever seen. Jissia strokes its neck from the saddle.
High Commander Aulia rides over. She looks anxiously at the sky, judging the position of the sun, which has not even crested the horizon. The deep black of night is only just turning gray. It’s time to go.
Aulia sees Jissia’s saddlebags. They don’t have the familiar waxed ledger cases to keep the inventory books safe from rain and blood and whatever war would throw at them. “What’s going on, Commander?” Her eyes flick between Len on the ground and Jissia, on her horse. “Quartermaster?”
“Quartermaster Chessian has his orders,” Jissia says. “He’s more than up to the task.”
“We have a plan in place,” Len adds.
And though something inside Len is asking are you sure are you sure are you sure that you will not break without each other, Len knows that she has never been more sure of anything.
She sees the same certainty in Jissia’s face.
She expects Aulia to balk at losing the best quartermaster in the world; expects her to try and convince Jissia to stay.
Instead, Aulia turns her horse. She nods to Jissia in farewell and says to Len, “We move out in ten.” She leaves them their privacy.
“I always knew—”
“You know, I thought—”
They stop. They laugh. It feels as if they should weep.
Len holds her arm up one more time, and Jissia clasps her elbow. Len’s bare arm, her sleeve rolled up, shows one half of the marriage mark, tattooed in black.
“You’re my best friend.”
“We’ll be okay.”
There is nothing else to say, and their efforts to find the right words, the right last words, feel futile.
Nothing else to say but: “Thank you, Jissia.”
As Len looks up at Jissia, her face finds it hard to smile, even though it is all she wants to do, for Jissia’s sake.
Jissia squeezes Len’s arm. “Thank you, Maeb.”
They stay like that, arms linked, for eight more minutes, even though Jissia’s back must be straining and Len’s shoulder aches.
Then, when the former quartermaster is gone, the commander reaches for the reins of her own horse, pulls herself up, and rides after the high commander.
The night before, after the celebrations, they sat on their shared blanket amid their shared pillows. Years of words unspoken sat with them.
“That was well done, Jissia,” Len said. “Genius.”
Jissia smiled. “An army marches on its—”
Len rolled her eyes and gave the quartermaster a playful shove.
Len looked into Jissia’s eyes, startled to see them shining. Outside, the revel continued. Firelight and starlight crept in through the cracks of the tent.
Suddenly, it was as if there wasn’t enough air in the tent. Len could only say, “Mm?”
“Chessian is ready to take over.” Jissia let the weight of her words sink in.
“What happened?” By which Len meant, why now, how did you change your mind, are you sure?
“We’ve been the captain and the quartermaster for so long. I thought we couldn’t be anything else.” Jissia shrugged. “Tonight... I realized that may not be true. But if I stay, I won’t find out.”
And instead of pain and fear, Len felt the salt tears of relief.
For the first time in too long, the air felt truly easy between them.
“Here.” Jissia smiled through her own tears as she pulled out a tiny paper parcel.
Len knew what it was the moment she held it in her hand. She laughed. She pulled out her own small package for Jissia, this one wrapped in admittedly dingy cloth.
They opened them at the same time. Each parcel held the slightly crumbled half of a sweetened biscuit.
When the quartermaster and the commander go separate ways, no one will understand why. Commander Len will assure everyone that the Jissia is still a dear friend; they will exchange letters—when the war ends, when Jissia opens a school, when Len takes a seat on The People’s Council.
They will both remember things that they had forgotten, like how to walk on two legs instead of four, or how to take enough food just for one, not two. They will both love again; other people, other ways.
Len doesn’t weep until The People’s Army is riding away from their winter camp and her quartermaster is just a speck on the road, heading the other direction.
Life goes on. In their own corners of the world, they will go on, too.