“Please, there’s no need to stand on ceremony for one such as you.”
She stood calmly outside the door, waiting to be invited in. There was a dull, throbbing ache running from a point just above her knee to her hip, but she ignored it. The old wound never really stopped reminding her that it was there. The door beside her opened and a younger officer marched out, pausing to salute when he noticed her. His face was fixed in a professional mask, but she could feel the release of nerves, relief and more than a little pride as he turned to leave down the corridor.
An orderly came to the door and beckoned her inside. The captain didn’t march: this wasn’t the parade ground. She took slow, measured strides, a compromise of a walk between her pride and wound.
The council sat at their wide table, the Empress at its head. The captain bowed, then stood to attention. “Greetings, Captain Zalya,” the Empress said, her voice low and musical. “Please, there’s no need to stand on ceremony for one such as you.”
Zalya fixed her eyes on that serene face beneath its cap of dark curls. The aid who stood behind the Empress drew a chair from somewhere and set it near Zalya’s elbow. She stood at ease but didn’t sit. Her leg might be bad, but this was still a formal occasion. “We wanted to take this opportunity to thank you personally for your service,” the man on the Empress' right told her. “In light of the tragic events of the month, it didn’t seem right to hold an official presentation.”
“But your sacrifice and those who served under you is foremost in our minds as we negotiate this hard won peace,” the elderly woman a few paces to the Empress' left agreed.
“The losses we sustain weigh heavy on me,” the Empress added.
Everyone shifted uncomfortably. It seemed she’d gone off script. But that was just like her: Zalya could remember when Kennet Tola (as she had been then) was a firebrand. An unflinching advocate, even a radical. Someone who would fight with tongue, fists and anything else that came to hand to defend someone who had been downtrodden. “Though,” Kennet added. “I know they can’t be nearly as great a sorrow as they are for you.”
Zalya met the woman who used to be Kennet’s very dark gaze and a spark of something profound passed between them for just a second. In a daze, she collected the medal for exemplary service, the bag of gold to be distributed to her own platoon and a scroll of thanks, marked with the Empress' own seal. She walked out, for the first time in a long time not really noticing the pain of that wound, sustained long ago in Kennet’s service. As the door closed behind her, Zalya realised she’d come to a decision in the short time she’d been inside: one that went against all that she’d done in her adult life. She would do anything to bring the Empress down.