“Commander Aeslin,” interrupted Bronns. “You might be the heir to our clan, but you’re not heir yet. In the meantime you are still subject to orders like any other soldier. I think it’s high time you remembered that. Consider yourself on probation until we decide what to do with you.”

“What if she brings in Borden in the meantime?” Luso Tayner asked. “Wouldn’t that exonerate her?”

Bronns glowered again. “It would, but I think putting her in that position again would be unwise.”

Adree broke in. “Sir –“

“Enough. We’ll find you a mission that fits your – current situation, and put it to your father’s judgement. In the meantime you have work here, including classes to teach and Archiving to do. Maybe once the results of the DNA analysis are back, we’ll have more to discuss.” Bronns got to his feet – the others rose, as if at a signal. “And off the record, commander, for your sake, I hope no one else dies because you were too soft-hearted to kill Borden when you had the chance.”

No one dismissed her. Adree stood rigidly, a lump in her throat, as the officers filed out. Luso paused as he passed her, as if to offer some word of comfort, then just shook his head and left.

 

* * *

They all but accused me of collusion. Of treason. They maligned my honour.

Adree listened as her students spoke, even framed questions for them and heeded the answers, but her mind was working furiously elsewhere.

The first time, I would have taken him. Yes. If I had got him across the river, I would have let him be killed. But the second time…

The second time I was grateful to have an excuse not to kill him. It was galling to admit it, but Adree forced herself to. But that proves only that I’m human. We were friends together. I had psyched myself up, but seeing him again cut my resistance down.

She looked over at her students – fourteen, fifteen year olds, loyal, intelligent, nodding while one of them made a point.

One day I will be their leader. And not just theirs – Nones is home to so many others, not just Evinthei but civilians as well, people who work hard to live here. They will all look to me to guide them, to set this crooked path straight at last. If the city is given to those others, the good work my father started will be betrayed or undone. I can be the guide Nones needs, the surgeon to excise its dying parts and coax new ones to life, its head, its heart. If those idiots won’t keep getting in the way…

I can’t betray that for my own reasons. My life is not my own. The next chance I have – I can’t fail. I mustn’t. I -

She coughed, getting the attention of the students. “Time to move on.” She had thought to leave the deeper, darker subjects for another day, but her mood seemed to demand that she face them now.

“We are a difficult society to classify. We have history, but as a people we’re relatively new, and our history isn't wholly concerned with humans - even now there are events we don't understand fully. We are soldiers, but our battle is against chaos and anarchy rather than some external enemy. We exist as the prime technological power, the representatives of science in a place condemned as demon-rotted, haunted, evil. It’s tough. But we remain here, as our ancestors did, because of the good we believe we can do.

She swallowed. “Unfortunately that puts a great burden on us. Our loyalty isn’t only to our superior officers. We are a family as well as an army, a corporation as well as stewards.

“All our Gating, all our research has shown us that Nones is unique in its position, in its defences, in its history. Despite everything, and never mind the fact so much of it is ruined, Nones has lost only a fraction of the great power it once held, and what remains is... unpredictable. If allowed to fall into the wrong hands, that power could be lethal. With Nones as a fortress and base, an occupying army could cut through half a dozen worlds with ease. That gives us a grave responsibility. Our very name means ‘the inheritors’. This city is our inheritance, our charge. We must yoke its strength while we restore it. And so we must remain strong, able, and alert. That means we must use discipline to hone our edge, because the alternative is to let weakness sneak in.

“We’ve already discussed penalties for misdemeanours, but when it comes to more serious infractions, the solutions are generally swift and to the point. We don’t have the time or resources for lengthy imprisonment, and considering how careless actions have grave consequences for both the individual and anyone they are responsible for, powerful deterrents are important for everyone’s sake. It isn’t pleasant. But it’s necessary.

“Our upper tier punishments are…” Adree wrote on the board, tapping it with the base of her pen. “The three ‘e’s. The first is expulsion – the criminal is expelled from our ranks, and sent to the civilian population in disgrace. The criminal loses home, family, friends. Their ancestral privileges are stripped, and their name removed from the genetic record.”

Her gaze swept the students, looking at their faces. They were solemn at the prospect, as she knew they would be. That was a serious business for any Evinthei. Civilian families sometimes competed to join their ranks. Being expelled from the clan was a dishonour only one step up from desertion. Removal from the genetic record meant their children and descendants could never mate or marry into the clan in the future either, because no one could calculate the danger of inbreeding, and they would be denied all the protection and prestige that the Evinthei provided, forever.

“The second is exile. First, the criminal is tattooed with our crest.” Adree ran her fingers down her slender cheekbone. “Here. Then the criminal is Gated out of Nones, by force if necessary. If he or she ever returns, the tattoo shows them for what they are, and we then move on to the final ‘e’. Execution.”

She settled on her chair, uncomfortable sitting for so long. “Accomplished by firing squad for the most part. The body is then cremated and thrown in the river. That's the standard, anyway. But for heinous crimes – treason, sabotage and murder – only one method is sufficiently harsh.” She hesitated before continuing.

“Again, the criminal is tattooed. Then they are bound with plastic ties, and transported to the tunnels near the river. They are left there, tied and helpless, for the Taugen to find them.”

The classroom was utterly silent.

“As they rejected our laws, and returned to a state befitting the demon-blooded,” Adree said softly, “so they are returned to the old ways of Nones, the underground, the Earthborn and the dark.”

A hand was hesitantly raised, sank back down again. Adree smiled kindly at the student. “Konna, I can get a feel for what you’re about to ask. It’s all right. Loud, so everyone can hear you.”

 

 

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