Modesty Clay and I were lovers, although I never really knew her.
Flocking gulls squawked over the marshland. Chill breezes blew, tossing the reed bed into motion, almost like breaking waves out at sea. Sunshine, dodging its way through a rift in the cloud bank, did little to warm the air. A cold blast assailed me, fiercer than the preceding gust. Against this freshening wind, I wrapped my cloak tighter about my person.
It was a Valday afternoon in late Glarehaze of Her Majesty’s fifth regnal year.
My chiffon scarf having worked loose—a turquoise flag flapping in the wind—I tucked it back into place. As I did so, my fingers brushed the golden goddess image about my neck, its associations reassuring to the touch. Thick salty mud, an enemy of leather, spattered my boots. Spending unaccustomed time in the saddle, my bottom hurt. After a sea voyage, my belly weighed heavily. Lingering in my mouth, and settled uneasily in my stomach—leaving me feeling bloated—lay an early lunch of beans and sausages.
“It’s supposed to be summer,” I said glumly.
“Yesterday was nice,” Bobbi replied brightly, but unhelpfully.
Comforting associations, evoked when I’d touched the religious image, naturally included notions of the protection and bounty one may receive from a goddess. Yet I have never been a fanatically devout person. Whilst honouring the goddesses, and keeping their festivals, I’d generally retained a distance from their worship. At that moment, more importantly than contact with divinity in any direct way, the image about my neck brought back childhood recollections of Mum taking me for blessing in the temple. When I was aged perhaps five or six, the priestess had at first seemed fierce, and I clung tightly to my mother’s side. Then, catching my eye, the holy woman had smiled and winked, and in the sunshine of her gaze the world grew momentarily golden.
The goddess figure also evoked the reassuring memory of my best friend Nicola presenting her to me. Vainly attempting not to appear worried, my mother had stood to one side. Clustered about were familiar faces from work—Lauren Good, Lisa Vanherring, Miss Frobisher, my boss—and so on. Somewhere in the background had been the sneering face of Julie Rhodes, the receptionist, but here on this foreign shore there was comfort in bringing even her to mind.
“Good luck, Jane,” Nicola had said, an unshed tear in her eye. “Goddess bless.”
“I’ll be back soon enough,” I replied, “don’t worry.”
“You better had, you minx!”
“There’s too much minxing to be done in Berenice for you to manage it all… But it’s time to go. See you, kid!”
We’d hugged. Mum had squeezed me. Then I’d boarded the Grave’s End coach. The driver flicked her reins, and the vehicle clattered out of Warrior Square, down Park Avenue towards Market Street.
Three days later, the meal, which sat so heavily in my stomach, had been presented to us by a surly waitress in a disreputable-looking crossroads tavern. A dirty table and filthy floor left me reluctant to eat. Better not to consider what kind of meat had been mixed with bread and herbs inside the sausage skins. But I was not a good sailor, had parted company with my breakfast, and now found myself hungry. My party of diners comprised six or seven soldiers—and me. The duty of one of our number, Corporal Bobbi West, was to escort me to Captain Clay’s camp from a shabby seaside settlement where a rickety pier allowed small ships to berth. The country was still too dangerous for a civilian to make her way without protection. In any case, the district was poorly charted, I was no map reader, and I’d certainly have lost my way.
Leaving the inn, Bobbi and I took the left-hand fork. The other soldiers rode straight onwards, their backs to the sea. Watching them pass into a small wood of hornbeam and stunted oak, I realised I’d no idea where they were going or why. Our lunchtime talk had centred on lovers—prospective, current and past—of persons both present and absent. No word had been uttered of military duties.
“They’re not riding with us,” I said to Bobbi.
“No, Jane, they’re not.”
“I thought… well—never mind what I thought. Do you know where they’re going?”
“No idea—it’s not my business. Come on—we still have a few miles to cover.”
Twenty minutes later, passing into a grove of gnarled oaks, I peered fearfully into the shadows between the trees. Who knew what might lie in wait?—Her Majesty’s enemies, fierce beasts, or worse. In bustling Berenice—perhaps on the University omnibus, returning from work—I’d have denied any belief in ghosts. Riding through a fragment of what appeared to be ancient woodland, in this barbaric realm, it was less easy to remain dismissive of such notions. Reaching under my scarf, I fingered the goddess image, which, as I’ve already mentioned, my friend Nicola had given me shortly before I’d departed for the shores of Essex. The image wasn’t a cheap one—her friend Lauren Good had also chipped in to cover the expense. Girls of our junior rank in the civil service aren’t well paid. Lisa Vanherring, who knows about such things, said that the divine image was a scaled down copy of one wrought by Fiona Frances long ago—in the fifth century of the Democracy.
Arriving in Captain Clay’s camp, I’d been reluctant to dismount—fearful that savage nazemen might lurk amid the tall reeds. My companion swung herself from the saddle with measured ease. She was a soldier, well armed and trained in the arts of war.
“Is this it?” I asked, turning from the wind-rippled reed beds to a cluster of white tents, where warriors busied themselves about domestic tasks.
“Yes, this is it,” Bobbi confirmed. “Do you doubt it?”
“Not exactly, but…”
“Well—remind me, why does our Empress want to conquer this goddess-forsaken place?”
“Strategy. You wouldn’t understand. You’re a civilian.”
“Yeah, I am a civilian, and I’ll have to take your word on strategy. Whatever. But I don’t see what I’m doing here.”
“Going through the books, isn’t it? You should know your job. Mostly to check on the distribution of prize money.”
“That’s what I’m wondering about—the prizes of war. What could there be in this place worth looting? It’s not worth the trouble of coming here to sort out a few penn’orth of nazepork.”
“Maybe you’ll be surprised.”
“I hope so.”
Although not a soldier, I’d been assigned to our army in Essex. Coming to it, my occupation seems so monstrously dull it’s small wonder I started by stating that Modesty and I were lovers. By nature, I am an ordinary person. While the Empire depends on us who keep tally of its transactions, my calling lacks glamour. Not for me to strut in thigh boots, gauntlets and cuirass—sometimes gleaming, sometimes deliberately dulled—in the manner of Modesty Clay. We served the Majesty of the same Empress, she as cavalry officer, me as a fiscal inspector.
There—I’ve said it. Nicola, my best friend, and I were fiscal inspectors. Whilst others slaughtered Her Imperial Majesty’s enemies on the field of blood, I merely counted the pennies paid to them. That was what brought me to Essex, and Modesty Clay’s independent company of light cavalry. It was not that I expected any misappropriation of the soldiers’ pay, although that needed to be checked. It is to be hoped that the honour of one of Her Majesty’s officers—and the good sense of our soldiery—would prevent such a thing. The penalty of enslavement provides a powerful additional argument in favour of an honest distribution of Her Majesty’s money.
Prizes, in the experience of Ministry officials, are far more likely to give rise to malpractice. In fully ninety-nine cases from a hundred, I am certain, this arises from simple arithmetic errors. Miss Lamb, our training officer, says that schoolmistresses should use greater vigour when spanking the principles of long division into their pupils. In this, she shows herself to be an old-fashioned person. It seems to me, and many others, that corporal punishment rightfully belonged to the bad old days of the Democracy, but should not trouble the daughters of our Empire.
Should we accept Miss Lamb’s antiquated point of view, we cannot blame a gallant officer for the laxity of her childhood tutors. In such cases, it is enough to redress the distribution of prize money, taking it from the overpaid to make necessary restitution. We aim to conduct ourselves as gently as possible.
Beyond the camp, where the ground rose a little, stretched a desolate scrubland dominated by gorse and bracken, interspersed with the occasional stunted thorn tree. There being little vegetation above knee height, I could see the returning patrol whilst they were half an hour’s ride distant. The captain, distinguished by her helmet plumes, rode with a straight back. My eyes aching after the first few minutes, I continued to stare at the cavalry detachment. The mounted figures exerted a fascination—it was hard to look away for more than a few seconds at a stretch. Although they were obviously riding towards us, for a surprisingly long time their apparent size failed to increase. Then, it seemed suddenly, the horses and young women were much larger, closer. Soon afterwards, they were with us.
“What’s this, Bobbi?” the captain asked, dismounting now. “The girl from the Ministry?”
“Yes, I’m from the Ministry,” I replied, ignoring the fact of her not having addressed me.
“She’s Jane Brewster, come to look through your prize accounts—seems to expect no more than a few rashers of nazepork.”
“Well, we have sent a few nazepork carcasses to be smoked and salted. We only get a few bob apiece for them—but when they run into the hundreds it mounts up.”
“You’ve killed nazemen by the hundred?” I asked.
“Yes, my cherub, hundreds,” those were the first words Modesty spoke to me. “I’m Captain Clay. Six hundred and seventy-two nazemen carcasses by my last count. And twelve hundred and forty-seven of Her Majesty’s enemies properly enslaved. Not to mention plunder from a couple of blasphemous chapels…”
“Blasphemous chapels, Captain?”
“Yeah, you’re better off not knowing about it, sweet little Jane. Horrible rites to do with the wicked godlings who ruled the Old Time…”
“But surely no one, in this modern age, believes in—what were they called?… Jusis, Ailor…?”
“Better not to say the names aloud, not here,” Captain Clay replied, forming the sign of the great goddess. “It’s well enough in civilisation, but in this place… Well—you never know.”
“Do you think… Captain Clay?”
“I think a lot, Jane, perhaps more than I should.”
“But the Old Time godlings?”
“I don’t exactly believe, but a soldier soon learns not to take unnecessary chances. We have the godlings’ treasure—that is enough.”
“I imagine that will be your most profitable loot, Captain. If you’ll lead me to your account books, it would make a good starting point for me.”
“You’re eager, Jane Brewster. Is this your first trip to a field unit?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Pretty much. While I’m sure that we’re all loyal to Her Majesty, older heads know that it’s well to rest after a long journey.”
“It has been a long journey. And it’s true that I’m tired. But Miss Frobisher showed so much trust in giving me this commission that…”
“My office manager… It wasn’t so many months ago that I was still Julie Rhodes’ runner.”
“The receptionist at the Ministry. She’s a real bitch. You wouldn’t believe how horrible she was to me.”
“I can believe a great many horrible things, believe me, young Jane.”
“Yes, I suppose you can…” I replied, uncomfortable to think of the terrible things a soldier must witness in the bloody tide of battle—anxious to change the subject. “Miss Frobisher said that she was making me the youngest field inspector ever.”
“How old are you, Jane?”
“You are young. Best get some rest after your journey. Sergeant Gates—show Miss Brewster to her tent.”
Moving closer, the captain placed a hand on my shoulder. It was in that moment that I first desired her. Modesty Clay’s touch was firm, but unexpectedly gentle. During the last year or two, I’d lain with several girls of about my own age, as was expected. They’d worn perfume, usually floral. The captain was different. She smelt of sweat, her horse, and of leather. Her scent, as well as her touch, bewitched me.