As the morning went on the light seemed to go away. It didn't, of course. The day was as beautiful as it had ever been.
I washed, got dressed and used the latrines with Merran continually hovering in the background. I clipped my beard and caught a glimpse of my eyes in the piece of mirrored glass that I still used for the purpose. I didn't look right as rain. I looked like something was eating me from the inside out.
We went out to have breakfast. At the canteen's door Merran stopped me and asked whether I felt up to it.
"Sure", I said.
He touched my arm reassuringly. "It's the potion that Raynor gave you. It takes about a day for the effect to wear off. You'll feel better in a couple of hours."
I hadn't thought of that, but it made sense. I opened the door and we went in.
Although we were late for breakfast again nearly every seat at the long tables was still taken, and the low murmur of quiet conversation filled the room. Merran found me a seat between two older men and sat down a couple of seats away from me. Both men clearly noticed the lack of insignia on my uniform but said nothing.
I sat down. Somebody offered me food and I politely declined. I stared at my hands that were folded in my lap.
Then Merran was at my side, his hand on the back of my chair, chatting to the man on my right. They were talking about how Merran would go on leave in a month to see his sweetheart in Heartstone. Apparently they hadn't seen each other in five years. He had been missing and she had thought he was dead, and only in the last month had they been exchanging letters again. The thought of seeing her seemed to fill him with a mixture of hope and dread, and I told him that things would be just fine.
"I hope so," he said, smiling at me.
The conversation moved to life in Stillwater and speculation about the upcoming campaign. "I wish they'd give me something to do," I said. They looked at me and I gave a little laugh. "It's just that I'm beginning to feel like a cheap hanger-on here." The older man told me not to worry. "You'll make yourself useful."
The room went quiet, and Merran returned to his own seat. Lowanda was making her way to the head of the main table followed by Raynor and three people I hadn't seen before. Lowanda remained standing while the others sat down.
"I have a grave announcement to make," she said.
"Raynor returned from Heartstone yesterday. We all expected her to bring back Commander-in-chief Paulos's final instructions for our reconnaissance mission."
She glanced at Raynor.
"As it turned out our headquarters have been taken over by the Royal Guards. They claim to be holding Paulos there, for his own safety of course. Nobody has seen him since the Guards moved in. In fact, all of our high-ranking officers seem to be missing."
She swallowed. "The King is sending out summons to all local Commanders, ordering them to report to Heartstone and place themselves at his disposal. Raynor handed me my summons last night." She looked around the room and for a moment her eyes rested on me.
"Right now we're considering our options. That will be all." Amid a stunned silence her companions rose and followed her out.
It's the beast, I thought. It's swallowed the west and now it's hungry again. And it won't be satisfied while there's even one drop of unspilled blood left in this world.
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