The confrontation promised to be interesting. The woman known as Fury wondered whether Alexandre had hand-picked his emissary to provoke her. DeBures was certainly arrogant enough. Arrogant and blind. His assassins had been clumsy; she hadn't even been marked. Surely there were better tools at the Great Eagle's disposal.
Keeping her face carefully neutral, Fury stepped into her briefing room on the Blood Eagle battleship Gladius Dei. The Circle of Fire-her name for her staff of oath-sworn advisors-rose as a man and saluted. One figure remained seated, an action clearly meant to be an insult, a message that she was not worthy of the rank she held. The Great Eagle's emissary, Pennant-Commander Ram DeBures, was a gray-haired war dog with a neck as stiff as the pikes he'd stuck his enemies' heads on. His arms folded across his massive chest, and his face held a barely-veiled expression of anger and surprise.
At first glance, she knew she looked unimposing next to a warrior like DeBures. A slender woman of indeterminate age, she wore her brown hair in a simple crew cut. No one would call her beautiful, but neither was she unattractive. Her skin was dark enough to suggest her ancestors had lived in sunny climes, but light enough to prevent an accurate assessment of her ethnic heritage. Her one memorable physical attribute was her single piercing blue eye. The other one had been lost in a duel with a Phoenix Lord during her youth. Eschewing any form of replacement, she covered the socket with a garnet-studded patch of leather made from the Phoenix Lord's manhood. Her uniform was a simple black one with a crimson sash. The only signs of her rank were the delicate gold eagles pinned to her collar and the ebon swagger stick she carried tucked under one arm. Unimposing, yes, but only on the surface.
She met the hostile stare of the Great Eagle's dog with a thin smile. She had already decided to how she would deal with him. The Bloodline DeBures prided themselves on adhering to the deepest tradition of honor with a capital "H." He was a dinosaur so far as she was concerned, worthless except for one thing: obeying his master. Still, he had potential. She planned to teach this old dog a new trick.
She seated herself and turned to her right, away from DeBures. "Narr-Captain Chalad. Report."
A powerfully-built woman who carried numerous scarred tattoos on her face, Chalad had a reputation for self-discipline almost as great as Fury's. She tapped a button on her bodycomp, and a hologram of a dusty brown planet appeared above the table. "Sirdar-Prime. We have debriefed all survivors from Shek Two. The yappers hit the Chapters with overwhelming force, at least forty thousand warriors." Red and green triangles winked onto the planetary surface. The red triangles were legion, the green ones mere speckles in comparison. Chalad's voice remained emotionless. "Nine Swords remained to cover the evacuation from the main Chapterhouse, but it was hopeless. No one made it to the pickup, though we understand the yappers took some prisoners. Other casualties were minimal."
Fury nodded. "Thank you. Sikkyn-Captain Sevaya. Rep-"
DeBures interrupted, his voice deep and gravelly. "Sirdar, I-"
"Sirdar-Prime, Sier," Fury corrected him icily.
DeBures shrugged impatiently. "Sirdar-Prime, then. Why did you garrison Shekerik Two with so few? With the forces you have here, you could easily have mounted a more effective defense. Is this the way you shepherd the worlds under the Great Eagle's wings?"
She turned again to Sevaya. "Sikkyn-Captain, explain matters to the Commander."
Sevaya jabbed at his bodycomp. The hologram changed to show a green and verdant world, the one that spun five hundred kilometers below them: Charybdis.
"Sier DeBures," he began, "we have deployed the entire assets of the Order of Wrath together with the assets of the allied independents who sent aid. Despite over thirty thousand hard-shell troops and twenty thousand soft-shells, we lack the strength to hold the world. DiVaragas has nursed a bloodfeud against us for many years, and she has now succeeded in mustering nearly the entire Starwolf tribe for a long-term offensive. We believe she has assembled over ten Thousand-Knives at Ymir, and troops continue to arrive from the Fringe and from the Starwolf's tribal allies. Their troop numbers surpass one hundred sixty thousand hard-shells according to our best estimates. We don't have an accurate figure on soft-shells, but I believe they can field at least fifty thousand."
"Raw God," DeBures grated. Just for a moment he looked shaken, then he slipped back behind the hardened demeanor he had worn since his arrival. "Surely the Diamond Sword and the Children of Phoenix would never allow such a threat to the balance of power unless they have changed their spots."
Good, Fury thought. The dog begins to learn.
"Thank you, Sikkyn-Captain." She looked at DeBures. "We obtained this information from intelligence assets on Shekerik Two. We left units in position to support our agents and to draw out DiVaragas so we could analyze the composition of her force and strategy." She steepled her fingers on the table. "Now, my Lord, as to your embassy. I requested assistance from the Great Eagle and the Exiled Bloodlines some time ago. I presume you bring me an answer."
DeBures frowned. "I was commanded to speak to you alone, Lady."
"Speak freely in front of my staff, or not at all." Her tone remained soft, but brooked no argument.
"If I must." He cleared his throat. "Greetings with honor to Sirdar Fury of the Order of Wrath. The Great Eagle commands you to return at once to Court at Outermost and explain your disobedience. Your troops will stand down while the Orders of the Black Star and Burning Steel assume command responsibilities on Charybdis."
The air in the room seemed to thicken. Someone coughed, and Fury heard Chalad whisper a profanity.
"And if I refuse, Sier DeBures?" she asked quietly.
"In that case, Sirdar, the Great Eagle declares you Traitor and Infidel. The other Orders will hunt you, Cardinal Spear will seek the lives of you and your blood relations, and any of your officer cadre who do not repudiate you will share your fate."
"I see. Regrettably, I refuse."
That caught him off-guard. The DeBures could never imagine disobedience, she thought wryly. Their rigid code of honor smothered independent thought.
"You're insane!" he said.
"No, my Lord, that would be the Great Eagle."
"You condemn us to another civil war, by Christ and Holy Hunter!"
"So be it." She looked around the table. "There is no time for political games, Siers. The wolf is at our door and it will not wait for us to settle our differences. Any of you who wish to accept the Great Eagle's terms are free to do so."
No one moved. She studied each face and nodded in approval. She hadn't expected anything else.
"Excellent. Pass the word down the chain of command. The offer holds for everyone, so long as any takers depart within twenty four hours standard." Sevaya saluted and left the room with a grim expression on his face.
DeBures jumped to his feet, red with anger. "I shall take your answer back to Court, madam. Perhaps we'll meet again when I return to take your head." Her staff members also jumped up at this, hands flying to weapons.
She rose slowly and caught DeBures's gaze with her own, her temper flowing into her words like a river of ice. "Sier DeBures, I had hoped you would take word of our situation back to the Exiled Houses and bend your efforts to assisting us, but I see you persist in habits of blind obedience. Your assassins are dead. I am alive." She waited for that to sink in before continuing, "Whether Providence is with us or not, I will do whatever is necessary to protect the tribe. I will sacrifice every last soldier here-including me-to keep the Starwolf from overrunning our entire nation. If that means defying the Great Eagle, so be it."
"But... but this defiance dishonors you!"
She laughed coldly. "And your point? Christ and Hunter, this is war, DeBures, not some pissant raid where everyone dances to the Tenets! We are not the Children of Phoenix, and this is not the bloody Firetruce! DiVaragas hates our guts, Sier, and she prepares to attack us with better than four to one odds! You're an idiot if you believe she tempers her decisions with honor."
"Take him," she ordered. Chalad and two others were ready and seized DeBures instantly.
"This is an outrage, by God! I came under flag of truce!" DeBures bellowed, struggling as his captors bound his hands.
"They were your assassins, Sier DeBures," Fury observed.
He drew himself up. "I will endure your knives bravely, traitor. I won't give you the satisfaction of hearing me beg for my life."
Fury laughed. "Raw God, man, killing you would be a waste! You're going planetside to command a Sword in service of the tribe. We'll put the word out that I've convinced you to go rogue with me. Who knows? We might have more assistance that way. If nothing else, the Great Eagle's trust in the House of DeBures will be diminished."
"What makes you think I'll fight for you?" he demanded.
"Why, Sier, you're a man of honor. You won't fight for me, but you'll damn well fight against the Starwolf when they come. I know you that well, at least."
Speechless, he simply glared at her, hatred blazing in his eyes. She waved her stick. "Get him out of my sight, Chalad. The rest of you are dismissed with my thanks." The dog will learn the rest of his lesson on Charybdis. Honor won't shield us when DiVaragas comes.
After everyone had left, she returned to her seat and examined the hologram of Charybdis. There was no way out. Only when she was completely alone could she let herself feel the enormity of that simple fact. Without the other Orders supporting her, the yappers would crush her forces like a dry nut in an industrial vice. After a time, she carefully turned off the display and the lights, put her head in her hands, and wept.
The brave speech she had given DeBures was only partly true; though she spurned the tribal notion of honor, she did believe in duty and responsibility. Fifty thousand troops and untold numbers of civilians were going to die on her watch, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
What could possibly make the Great Eagle so complacent?