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The Return

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-- Day 34 after the attack on Mír's scouter --

They would hear about Carel two days later, Mír decided. Carel had been captured before her scouter had been attacked, but for several months Mír had been interested in the strange, unshakable faith that the Empire had on its conventional information channels. It was shocking what centuries of unthinking tradition could do to a small, powerful, centralized structure as it grew and grew in size, while the elements that had contributed to its original success gradually receded to irrelevance. 

The Empire was weak.

Pirates roamed its borders, incompetence and gluttony rotted its centers of power, imitators had replaced the original philosophers and the rebels, slavery had been brought back from its coffins, and a heavily regulated, overtaxed economy was prostituted to the endless demands of the decadent.

The Empire was too bloated, too corrupt, and in Mír's opinion, far too unprepared for her.

She had started working the information channels as the last of a series of tests, and had been delighted by the possibilities. The Empire’s stations now learned about her expansions on a predetermined date, in a manner tightly controlled by her agents. The news of Carel's annexation hadn't leaked before the intended date and she was pleased with Yutvain's management at that sector. He was young and prone to enter into impetuous -- even arrogant -- engagements, but those were qualities Mír valued and even groomed in a Fleet General, and he had shown himself to be a patient bureaucrat at Carel.

Walking into the departure probe that would transfer her into her ship, watching the hundreds of spaceships glimmering in every direction, Mír realized that it was far easier than she had expected. She could not believe how long she had delayed this moment, devising excuse after excuse, as the days became weeks and the weeks merged into a month. It was over now. There were things to do, things that only Mír could do, things that were often hard and dangerous, and at other times delicate balancing acts of egoes and trade-offs. She felt a familiar exhilaration spread through her limbs like a slow fire, spurring her, and she forced herself to slow her pace and not sprint across the probe.

News of Ankar, Thell and Carel shall follow each other, followed by news from Clifft and Vrie of the Eastern Bloc. She pictured the image of omnipotence that a string of defeats in multiple directions would create within the Empire's heart, defeats that did not follow each other in such quick succession in reality.

Mír liked deception.

For all that she revelled in the vitality and urgency of combat, she knew that the most efficient victory was won in the tactical room long before the engagement started. She was only taking it a step further with this latest deception. It would be lovely to watch the morale of a station crumble from within, she thought, and lovely to watch another dismayed Fleet Marshall scramble to revise his formations while the mercenaries fled or surrendered even before the first warship bearing the sign of the Lily was visible on the station's terminals. She smiled. Maybe Flagmar could also be taken with this batch--

There was a jolt as the probe dislodged the ten passengers into a sealed corridor. Mír had a momentary view of Kraetan Three -- the station she was leaving -- before the freighter swallowed the corridor.

She had nearly forgotten where she was. She wondered what Andren was doing now. Probably crying. Mír had seen her break into two even as she spoke over the dinner table and bravely held it together, had wanted to reach out to her, and had almost envied her innocence, her capacity to trust Mír and permit Mír to break her heart.

Almost.

There was another jolt and Mír was thrown back into her seat by the sudden, dizzying acceleration that marked the beginning of an interstellar drive.

Andren would get over it, Mír decided. She would have to.

The freighter was a standard issue spaceship, not particularly interesting or important. There was room for fifty passengers on the first two levels. The captain and the three-member crew were on the third level. The fourth and the fifth levels held supplies that would help fifty people survive a decade, if necessary.

Mír briefly flirted with the idea of staging a takeover and abandoned it. She would never forgive herself if there were any more problems. The freighter would probably have infonets reception only for a few more minutes before it entered hyperspace.

She was aware of the eyes that followed her as she climbed to the second level where the terminals were hosted -- she was doing nothing extraordinary and yet heads turned as she walked past the cabins -- but it was an awareness that did not touch her anymore. She had long been used to being watched. She entered the newly acquired datachip that marked her status as a freed-woman into a terminal, and issued a direct command to the Thellian stationmaster in a short missive.

Thell's capture had followed Carell's, and the Empire would learn about both in good time. Until then, the communications to those sectors were unmonitored. At least, as unmonitored as it ever got. She could have written another criticism of the Thellian newsfeed editorial with an encoded message, but there was no need to employ that subterfuge any more than strictly necessary. Mír liked to use various avenues of communication, with varying degrees of security and obscurity, and with varying people at the other end.

Now that she was free to receive and send transmission, she discovered that she hadn't missed much. The two regular newsfeeds she had been reading had reported all the desultory news there was to report, and the third one had kept her periodically informed on routine things such as the Empire's movements, Mír's Fleet Readiness Scores, proposed maneuvers, station satisfaction scores, etc., in steganographic messages.

Anyone with a cheap datapad could have decoded them if they had known where to look. True, she hadn't been able to respond to any of that, but there had been nothing demanding her immediate consideration. She told herself that she would have left - would never have tarried like that, so unsettling in hindsight - had there been a real emergency, however minor.

The alternative was unthinkable.

Of course, with the self-imposed exile now behind her, she had plenty to say to her lieutenants, but the ship had entered hyperspace and there was nothing to do but wait.

It had begun the moment the freighter had entered Carel's sectorspace, precisely twenty five minutes after she had sent the command. The warships had been sighted four minutes before the attack had started. Nearly all the passengers had been asleep. The WatchHorn had gone off all over the freighter, of course, and in the time they had taken to wake up and gather their bearings, the freighter had changed ownership.

Mír climbed to the third level with a growing certainty. The whole thing had been quick, bloodless, and far too efficiently executed for a Fleet Captain. She walked into the captain's chamber and saw Yutvain going down on a knee at her entrance.

He was grinning.

"Of course," she murmured quietly.

"You did not specify which captain, and technically-"

"Yes", she smiled back at him.

Yutvain was a good looking man. He was said to have been born in a stormy, peripheral sector that was an early pirate stronghold -- born into piracy, just like Mír -- and grown to command a fleet of his own by the time he was twenty. Mír looked at him and wished he was older, with more scars and battles in his resume. God knew the Eastern Bloc needed a new commander, but it was unwise to shake things up just yet.

Yes, Mír thought, it was good to be back. The ship headed directly to a little known sector between Thell and Carel, where she had asked The Crown Lily to be stationed.

-- Day 1 --

The sentry knocked at the door and let her -- pushed her -- in. Mír studied the room carefully with a growing suspicion that she had walked into a prehistoric jungle. Someone made a sound, and she turned to find a girl -- a wisp of a girl -- looking at her anxiously.

Mír took in her appearance in a single, sweeping glance, famous for its ability to pierce armor and burn the skin beneath it. The girl was no more than twenty, dressed in mud splattered rags, clutching at an absurd little jar, and oddly, stammering an apology for the sentry's behavior. At least she matched her surroundings, Mír thought sourly.

The girl rambled on, offering Mír an introduction to a plant and coffee. Mír grew more annoyed by the second. She wished the girl would stop blathering and start explaining herself. And the jungle. The jungle was bothering Mír. There had been nothing in the sentry's manner to suggest that the girl was mad. It was obvious from her clothes that she was not a slave or a servant girl. Why was dressed in rags?

Soon it became clear that the girl was not in the middle of an episode of whatever ailed her. She had thought Mír was someone else. Now that wasn't something that happened often!

Mír noticed that it did not occur to her to retract the offer of the coffee. Suddenly at a loss as to how to proceed, the girl turned and fled into the jungle and returned with a branch -- a coffee branch! -- and ran into what seemed to be the kitchen, although it was doubling as the storage area for a large number of jars.

Then someone else walked into the room, someone that Mír recognized instantly. She saw everything in that instant. The fat man who had walked in was a botanist. The girl had mistaken Mír to be him. Mír tried to imagine being a botanist for a second and failed completely. The man bowed to Mír almost on cue, and she sighed. Will this day never end?

The sentry, who had been watching from the door -- any common captain would have fired a guard who dared to do that on her ships -- finally introduced Her Ladyship's new slave, captured off Mír's own private fleet, no less.

The girl was visibly pleased with the fat man, and they took off to the jungle at long last. Mír wasn't sure how long they would take, but they had mentioned a tour and she guessed she had enough time. She made quick work of the drawers, found what she was looking for and exited the room.

“Hey! You there! Where the fuck you think you’re goin’?”

The sentry was staring at her from a distance of ten feet.

“Back into the quarters, bit--. Ya hear me? Get back.”

Mír did not move. Nothing in her manner suggested anything other than the vacant indifference of a slave. And yet the sentry's voice lost its focus as if he physically sensed that something was wrong. She knew she was allowed to be out of the quarters, but she also knew that an argument would be futile. She called to the sentry, keeping her voice a low, carrying murmur. His eyes darted around her, evidently troubled by something that was setting off his evolutionary sensors, but he was at his home ground, and he approached her extremely warily, obviously irritated at the presumption of a slave.

He was not nearly wary enough.

She waited until he was within reaching distance, smiled sweetly at him, pointed to the end of the corridor with two fingers, started to say something, and jabbed her fingers into the side of his neck with deadly precision. Simultaneously, she hooked her heel and struck the back of his shin.

He went down without a sound.

Her movements were silent, economical, powered by a feline swiftness that was oddly sensual, but her beauty and skill was wasted on the empty corridor. She brought him to a standing position and made him lean him against a pillar.

She had maybe two hours before the sentry would wake up groggily, but hopefully with nothing more than a passing recollection of his fainting episode. She had been too quick for that. Two hours to find one of those unattended consoles she had seen on her way to this room, enter the datachip she had found in the drawers, compose and send a simple letter criticizing the editorial of a Thellian newsfeed, and return.

It took her three hours. To make it worse, she got lost in the myriad passageways on her way back.

"Hey, you!"

She turned and saw the same sentry running towards her. He looked pissed off, but not worried or terrified. Good. She did not want to kill him. That would complicate her position unnecessarily.

He was near her now, and it would take her all of four seconds to neutralize him. Instead, she loosened her body and let it happen.

He struck her face with the back of his hand.

She had always prided herself on her ability to use her body to do exactly what she wanted. It was a tool, an exquisite tool of force and precision that did not surprise her anymore.

The blow did not go as planned.

She instantly knew that the skin was cut, but could not feel the sting because a roaring had started in her ears, drowning out whatever it was that the sentry was saying. Her body had gone painfully rigid. She bit down her fury and rearranged her expression, blinking in surprise at her reaction. Killing him would be foolish, she told herself sternly, and marched past him in the direction he had come from.

He ran after her, his swearing vapid and lifeless, quite unlike the colorful curses that permeated her ships.

-- Day 35 --

Mír called a Fleet Generals conference as soon as she arrived. The three remaining generals of the Western Bloc were waiting for her, and went down on a knee when she entered with Yutvain at her side, and rose with tight half-smiles. It was not an official gesture anymore, but old habits died slowly. She had never been a gentle commander, far from it, but a month long absence was a rare occurrence.

That was all the acknowledgment that passed between them of her absence and they plunged into their reports as if there had been no break in the procedure.

She called an intelligence briefing immediately after the conference. Flagmar's defence would be fierce, she was told. A politician high in The Emperor's favour had taken over the station. Youthful. Ambitious. Volunteered to lead a thankless defence in a peripheral sector and seemed determined to win an unwinnable victory. A more subtle approach -- an assassin or a coup -- might be preferable. Mír scowled.

The intelligence briefing was followed by a briefing from the chief scientist. Mír studied the star-charts and remembered that if it was late afternoon here, it would be past midnight at Kraetan Three.

Well past bedtime, in fact.

She pushed the thought away.

She was annoyed at the star-charts she found suddenly lacking, annoyed at her generals, and annoyed at the new intelligence about Flagmar, but she reined it in for once.

Eventually, there were no more meetings for the day and Mír stayed alone in the Observatory, looking at the star-charts, and considered calling Proust again.

Proust was her second-in-command, currently leading the assault on the Eastern Bloc of the Empire. He was an old man, at least twice her age, with an almost supernatural instinct for seizing a military advantage in the middle of an engagement. She had always admired him, but it was just possible that old age was finally catching up with him. She had had a call with him just before she had landed on The Crown Lily, but maybe she could have another one? No, it would have to be a holo-conference of her stationmasters. She was at the terminal before deciding that there was nothing that would warrant an out-of-schedule meeting just now. She then considered calling a slave girl, chuckled bitterly and walked to her bedroom.

She was tired.

The bed was warm and yielding when she settled into it. She lazily moved her palm against its softness, prolonging this moment, simply watching her slender fingers, holding her thoughts in check. How had she not noticed just how vast this bed was until now? And how very white!

She was not tired enough. The report lying on top of the nightstand caught her eye. She snatched at it in relief and settled to read, occasionally speaking aloud various comments that automatically got recorded. It kept her occupied for two hours.

Her schedule would be full from the second she woke up the next morning, and she would get three hours of rest if she slept now, and sleep was nowhere in sight. An unexpected current of anger and frustration surged through her.

How could she let this happen? Who was this insignificant little nobody of a girl to disrupt her carefully structured schedule?

The slew of station lights flashed at her in a mocking rhythm as she approached the terminal. She zoomed in on various stations in turn, starting on the Eastern Bloc, Vrie, Fold, Clifft, Plysserian, Kleine. She moved to the Western Bloc, Thell, Ankar, Carel, Mertador, Uy, Kraetan.

Kraetan. Kraetan. Kraetan.

How small it appeared, she thought, how worthless!

She had the exact frontier layout now. She knew the defence control's schedule, the exact minutes when they changed shifts, the precise locations of The Hangar Bay and The Stationmaster's Chamber.

Had she not thought of it? Had she not thought of it every minute since the freighter had left The Hangar Bay? Had she not sat through the meetings with a defiant part of her mind constantly plotting, creating and discarding plausible reasons, stratagems?

"No," she almost raised her voice. No. No. No.

It would be an astonishingly foolish thing to do. There were four other stations close to Kraetan Three, all of them well-fortified and Mír did not even have a strong intelligence presence there. It would be the stupidest thing in the known universe to raid an inner station, even if it could be easily taken, which was by no means a given.

And what afterward? How would she defend it? Would she leave a precious little fleet back for the Empire to crush, or worse, capture?

She walked back to her bed. She wasn’t sure if she felt defeat or triumph. She simply felt exhausted, hollow. She lied down, closed her eyes and remembered the last time she had lain in Andren's arms, how Andren had come again and again, writhing around Mír's fingers, how Mír herself had come without even touching herself.

Only forty hours before. She remembered the low sound of Andren’s moans. Her face was drawn and every nerve in her was stretched tight.

She would go back, she decided. Not anytime soon, of course, not for several months yet, but she would go back and destroy that entire fucking sector.

In the meanwhile, there was Flagmar to ravage.

Subtler approaches can go to hell. Flagmar will be a lesson. This will be no peaceful annexation. It won’t even be a well-executed conquest. No, Flagmar will be ravaged, plundered and destroyed, and the holo-recordings of its rape will be distributed all over the Empire. And this new stationmaster close to the Emperor--

She licked her lips and sat up. Andren can go to hell, too, she thought, and got up once again and walked to the terminal that had been dedicated to the Flagmar Offensive. It was still two hours before day-break but she wasted no more thought on that and summoned Yutvain and Trux.

They came within minutes as if they were summoned every day in the middle of a peace night to a military discussion.

"We will attack three days from now," she said.

Neither of the generals betrayed their surprise but they looked at her for more information. None was forthcoming.

"Tell me, Trux," she said, "how would you attack Flagmar?".

Trux did not miss a beat. And he did not say "Not three days from now."

"Our reports say that Flagmar’s top is its weakest spot. Stay clear of the bottom, a wedge formation at the top, skirmish on the flanks--"

"Hmmm, yes, that's what I thought too," said Mír.

She watched his face while it dawned on him. He had just unwittingly played the role of a dummy opponent facing Mír. The General who had taken over Flagmar was a born conservative. A brilliant tactician, able to innovate when pressed, but only when pressed. Just like Trux. Both he and Trux would expect an attack on the top, and Mír had wanted to confirm her hypothesis.

"The charge will be from Flagmar’s bottom," Mír announced. "Trux will lead the right wing, Yutvain will be on the left and I will lead the bottom wing. No serious top this time, but we'll have a heavy feinting exercise with a single fleet on the top, just before the charge. Flagmar’s bottom defence is famously strong, and that's where we're expected the least. I want this offensive to be about mobility. Movement. On the sides, I want a relentless attack-and-retreat, attack-and-retreat, out-of-sync between left and right, with a skirmish on the top-"

What a relief to be planning this! It was a relief to immerse herself into the familiar problems of a three dimensional attack complicated by the fact that it was anticipated by the enemy. The two hours passed quickly with the three of them hunched over a large terminal screen, simulating the attack again and again and iterating over dozens of minor modifications. Neither Trux nor Yutvain had questioned the timeline of the attack because they had seen something in Mír's eyes that did not invite that question, but they pored over every other detail until they were satisfied.

-- Day 3 --

The girl was a recluse.

She took no noticeable pleasure in food or drink; there were no sons of officials interested in wooing the stationmaster's daughter; and her father never visited her. Her botanical work was tedious, but Mír was familiar with the peculiar obsessions of scientists. She usually went about it peacefully, contentedly, as though the Great War was not happening just outside the walls of her pitiful little station, oblivious to the march of the Kazir who would annihilate her plants without ever learning about them, oblivious to Mír's presence. She missed her meals and forgot to sleep on time, but she did not seem depressed or even unhappy.

In fact, she was one of the most contented people Mír had ever met. On the third night after Mír's arrival, Mír had woken up to find the girl's bed empty. She had looked immediately in the garden, as the girl called the jungle, and had found her curled up in a small cot in the middle of her precious plants, fast asleep.

She had sharp features, high cheekbones befitting her rank, and a pronounced chin, but she was not beautiful. Too young, too thin, too simple. Mír had had hundreds of slave girls in her ship, and she had never stopped to think about any of them except, of course, for sex. She would have taken one look at this girl and passed her on.

The girl knew nothing of life, least of all anything about the Empire's plans, and if one of Mír's fleets attacked this station, she would be promptly ransomed off for a fetching sum. Unless, of course, she was mistaken for a slave girl and left to the tender mercies of a common pirate. Then she would lose her innocence before she lost her clothes.

Mír paused in her thoughts.

Would she lose her innocence, truly? There was something about the girl, a quiet optimism and a sense of well-being that Mír found somewhat intriguing. She herself had grown up among pirates, looting and pillaging with the lowest of them from the day she could wield a SporeGun. Her clan had been constantly pursued by The Empire's forces and had constantly played a game of hide and seek with other pirate clans.

Some of the earliest pleasures that she had learned in life had nothing to do with contentment. They had to do with proving that she was not a little girl. They had to do with surviving, plotting revenge and thieving, and soon they had to do with killing and pillaging. At some point, they had become about wealth, and always, always they were about power.

The first time Mír killed a man, she had been twelve. She smiled fondly at the memory. She had led her first pirate attack on a warship when she was younger than the girl sleeping before her. They had been outnumbered and outmaneuvered -- she had been incredibly blind, not to mention incredibly young -- and knowing that a defeat would have ended her, she had feigned a controlled retreat, a very, very dangerous move for a beginner pirate captain.

A retreat as often as not turned into a rout, but she controlled it and turned it around, attacking and retreating, attacking and retreating, her favorite technique in those days, relentlessly turning and twisting around the superior warship in every direction, holding her crew and her ship together by a sheer force of will even as they lost fuel and the tail came tearing off her ship. That had almost broken the crew's spirit and a mutiny had been as imminent as death, and to her, one had been the same as the other. She had refused to turn around, refused to give in, and they had fought with her, unwilling to abandon her while she still stood at the helm, recognizing an unbreakable will in the slight woman with eyes of blue fire who was glaring at them without a trace of fear in her bearing while the ship disintegrated all around her, challenging them to defy her.

She had lost her ship but had gained the warship, and just the supplies and the slaves were worth more than her lost ship, not to mention the warship itself. Incredibly, the warship had carried a Fleet Marshall on his way to visit his family. He had gotten a hefty ransom.

Fortune had finally looked her way and she had risen through the clan, with a cultivated reputation for never losing a battle, bloodthirstiness and causeless violence.

The sleeping girl stirred and Mír walked back to her alcove. She had chased many things in her life. She thought about what she was chasing now. If anybody in the known universe was born for this task -- was trained from the very day of his birth for this very task -- it would be her.

-- Day 6 --

Mír was impressed with Kraetan Three for the first time since she had set foot on it. They were in the Observatory, and the star-charts were the work of masters. The four Kraetan stations, each of which was a congregation of hundreds of interconnected ships, could be zoomed in to the level of individual corridors and rooms. Sector frontier diagrams -- force fields marking the outermost periphery of sectors -- could be toggled on and off on the star-charts. Mír dragged her fingers back and forth across the timeline and watched the star-chart rearrange itself as the time changed. Each known station could be projected three dimensionally and you could rotate and transform the projection. That would come handy in low-level attack tactic iterations.

She wondered what riches the Military Observatory held in its bowels, if the Civilian Observatory promised so much. 'What fools,' she thought, flipping through the star-charts impatiently, 'what fools could hold on to this treasure and wait like a sitting duck for anyone who cared to infiltrate this station?'

"We can come back here again," the girl said. “As often as you like.”

Mír wanted to laugh out loud. Did she know that she was handing over to the pirate queen the only thing in her station that was of any real value? Except the girl herself, of course.

Mír stopped in her thoughts.

Scientific value, that is. Mír's own star-charts were terribly inadequate, as she had just discovered, and she didn't even have a botanist. Maybe there *was* value in that as well. Fuels, etc. She had no idea what else. She would have to talk to her chief scientist.

She bit her lip and looked at the girl. Mír had felt her eyes while she had sat poring over the star-charts, and had once found the girl looking out at the stars, with a light in her eyes. The stars had always beckoned Mír, of course, as they had beckoned the first man that had walked the virgin stretches of that lost star-rock and had raised his eyes to the heavens. Were they able to beckon this girl too, despite her plants and her life of simple peace? Did she feel their call?

"You are very generous in how you treat a slave." Mír said, and the girl blushed. She blushed frequently, easily. Anything might set her off. Plants were the only subject where she could hold her own.

"Really," she said, "don't say things like that. Please."

"But you are," Mír continued, teasing her. "You are far kinder to me than Mír would have been to you, for example."

She wondered, watching the girl's face, what she would do if Mír took her right now, forcing her to lie on top of all those star-charts right here in the Observatory, where anyone might walk in and discover them. What would she say? What would those eyes say? Would she struggle? Then again--

The girl laughed, fidgeting. Mír remembered she hated fidgeting.

"Well," the girl said, "I'm not exactly a pirate queen. Why shouldn't I be nice to you?"

"Why not, indeed," Mír said.

She pictured the girl seated among her generals, all of them men, all of them tall, gaunt and silent, carrying the scars of a hundred vicious battles, one of them lacking a limb and another an eye and a patch of forehead.

But the girl might like Yutvain.

"I'm trying to imagine the sort of pirate queen you'd make."

"A lousy one," Andren said. "I'd be awful. I don't think pirate queens get much chance to grow plants or do experiments," she added, nodding seriously. "And they probably have to be, you know, harsh."

"That they do," Mír said. "But not always." She let her eyes stray. "Even Mír can be gentle, or so I've heard. When she wishes."

"Well, of course, I guess everybody can. I mean, I hope everybody can. Nobody can be horrible all the time."

"As you say," Mír said.

"Oh, gosh!" The girl exclaimed suddenly. "We've got to go turn the lamps on, or the dellinses won't bloom!"

She reached and shut the book of star-charts over Mír's shocked protests.

"No time! Come on! We'll come back later, I promise!" she grabbed Mír's arm almost reflexively and dragged her towards the door.

Andren was a mix of politeness and thoughtfulness, but she often invaded Mír's personal space without invitation. Mír tried to get used to it, but it had been decades since she’d had to watch out for her person. She quietly disengaged her hand from the girl's hold.

-- Day 8 --

He leaned in, towering over her, his fingers curled almost casually around the knife, his eyes not really seeing her. Mír backed away to the wall, stumbling over the rug, and the man on the left reached and gripped her shoulder. She lashed out with vicious force, knocking him into the wall, intending to break his jaw with a single, whiplike crack because there was time for only one blow, and almost succeeded, but--

Her head spun. Something was wrong. Something had gone very, very wrong. She managed to freeze her arm mid-swing and stared into those large, stunned eyes.

Oh my god.

Oh. My. God.

She staggered back.

"Don't wake me up, don't do that!" she whispered. "I could have hurt you."

She realized she was trembling and stopped it immediately. 'I could have killed you,' she did not say. She shook her head. It was vital that the idiot girl understood this.

"Do not do that again, do you understand? Do you *understand*?"

"I," Andren said, evidently terrified. Not terrified enough. "I didn't, at first-"

"Do not that do that again," Mír repeated, praying for patience.

She could have killed the girl. Mír knew how fragile the human body was, how easily broken. Nobody knew it better than her. Andren could easily have been lying dead at her feet, and it was dumb luck that she was sitting there, massaging her slender throat where Mír could see her own fingerprints, staring at Mír with her large, round, stupid eyes, eyes that were already beginning to forget her terror.

"I'm sorry," the girl whispered.

It was the pointlessness of it that had gotten to her. It was dangerous, despite everything, to have killed the stationmaster's daughter. That was it! It was stupid, pointless, might have delayed things, might have killed--

"What did you want?" Mír said.

"Want?"

"You woke me for something, didn't you?"

"Cambrensium," Andren said. "Infusion. Nutrient infusion. It's...it's almost past the hour-"