Once the battle was over, Hana felt a feeling of satisfaction that she hadn’t felt in a long time. It was the satisfaction of a job well done. As a child, her father had always taught her to take pride in her work. He’d always told her that he didn’t care what she did with her life, as long as she did whatever she chose to do to the very best of her ability. Until his death, she had always lived by that principle. But after his death, she’d become so consumed with her quest for vengeance, so consumed with obtaining justice for her father, that she’d forgotten to honor his memory by living the way he wanted her to.
But even that quest had had a sense of purpose to it. Once Neminatrix was dead, and Hana’s vengeance was achieved, it was as if all purpose had been sucked out of her life. She’d spent so much time, and gained so little, and lost so much, that it made her feel as if accomplishing anything was worthless. How could she have been so wrong about her direction in life? How had she felt so right about something that turned out to be such a huge mistake? The loss of Arcten had paralyzed her, making her feel as if her judgment couldn’t be trusted.
But today, everything had changed. She had rediscovered her purpose. She had a job to do, and she was exceptionally good at it. Starfengt’s capture of the ridges had been spectacular, a brilliantly conceived plan that was executed perfectly. And once in control of the ridges, Starfengt had been so ruthlessly efficient at pinning down the Imperial troops in the valley that the regular army forces had been able to overrun them almost effortlessly. Because of Starfengt, the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin had captured the Arabesh Wastes, and its vast mineral wealth, with almost no casualties. Hana felt like a hero, and for the first time in a long time, she was being treated as one.
“I have to admit, Captain, I had some doubts about you and your squad, but you certainly proved me wrong,” said a voice behind her. She was standing on the ridge she and her team had taken, with her hands clasped behind her back, looking out over the troops of the 4th Battalion as they set up camp in the valley that had so recently belonged to the Empire. She didn’t need to turn around to see who it was.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Hana replied, as Colonel Vondamisk Latrafai stepped up to the edge of the ridge with her. He was a tall man with a standard military crewcut, penetrating gray eyes, and a clean-shaven face. He looked like a soldier’s soldier, and his reputation matched his look. “I have to admit, I took a little bit of offense to your attitude before the battle,” Hana continued, “so I’m glad to see that our actions changed your mind, without me having to resort to words.”
A small smile appeared on Latrafai’s chiseled face. “I should have known better,” he said, “but when the Council starts interfering in military matters, I get a little skeptical.”
“The feeling is mutual, Colonel,” Hana replied, glancing over at him, “but the Supreme Commander knows what he’s doing. When I try to convince him he’s wrong, I very rarely succeed, and when I do, I always regret it.”
“So you do report directly to the Supreme Commander,” Latrafai said, raising one eyebrow. “I thought that was just a rumor.”
“I’m afraid not,” Hana replied.
“Guess I’d better be on my best behavior,” Latrafai said, his small smile turning into a small grin.
“It couldn’t hurt,” Hana said with a shrug and a straight face, but there was a twinkle in her eyes as she said it. She held her poker face for as long as she could, but after a few moments a smile crept across her features. It felt good to smile. It’d been so long since she had anything to smile about that she could barely remember what it was like.
Latrafai’s own grin broadened as he looked at her. “Thank you for your assistance, Captain,” he said, giving her a respectful nod. “The lives of my men are more important to me than anything else. Because of you and your squad, I had smaller losses today than in any battle I’ve ever been a part of. I owe you more than I could ever repay for that.”
“That’s not necessary,” Hana said, shaking her head. “I was just doing my job, using the skills I have. I’m no savior. I’m just a soldier, like you.”
“Tell that to the men who lived today, the men who would have died if you hadn’t been here,” Latrafai said, regarding her seriously. “You saved their lives. I would say that makes you a savior.”
Hana snorted and rolled her eyes. “Stop it,” she said with a frown, but the twinkle was still in her eyes. “You’re gonna make me blush like a teenager.”
A warm smile appeared on Latrafai’s face. “Okay, I’ll stop,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass you. But don’t forget what I said. Whether you believe it or not, I owe you a debt that I can never repay. Whatever you need, whatever you want, if it’s within my power to grant, I will give it to you.”
Hana raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re making a tempting offer,” she said, and then she grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to take advantage of you.” They both laughed at this, and then once their laughter had faded, Latrafai took one of her hands in his, brought it up to his lips, and kissed it.
“It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Captain, but I’m afraid the work of a battalion commander never ends. If you will excuse me?”
Hana nodded, and watched him as he turned and walked back down the ridge. What an interesting man. Her initial assessment of him had certainly been off.
To be continued…