Picking up the phone on the wall, Wilhelm dialed the headquarters’ number.
“What are your orders, sir?”
He didn’t bother with civilities. The soldier who had answered knew who was on the line, just as he knew Wilhelm wouldn’t have bothered calling if he did not need something.
“Prepare a map with the locations where the bodies were found. See if you can pinpoint where they were last seen alive, too. And send MPs to question people near those points, see if anyone noticed new neighbors.”
The request was a routine one, and the soldier did not ask for clarifications. Wilhelm hung up the phone and returned to his study of the bleak numbers.
The next lines identified the vampires that had been killed during the skirmishes with demons the previous night. These numbers were never as high as the ones on the second sheet of paper, which were human members of the Guard killed or seriously injured, but added together they always weakened the town’s defenses too much for comfort.
Already thinking about where he would start his search that night, he abandoned the grim reports and his half finished glass in the kitchen and went to lie on the battered sofa. Books were piled up just within arm’s reach and he picked one up at random. He had read each book in these untidy piles dozens of times and could recite parts of each from memory. This familiarity was exactly what he needed at that moment. With his mind filled with numbers and death, the flow of words would stop him from thinking for a little while, and maybe even stop him from wondering if the fight was hopeless.
He couldn’t have said how much time had passed when a sharp knock on the door startled him out of his reading. No one ever visited him, not even Bergsen, and if they needed him to go to the headquarters because of an emergency, they always called him.
His surprise only increased when he opened the door to find a glowering Ariadne behind it.
“You had no right to do that!” she began without warning. “I’ve wanted to fight with the Guard for six years, and with just a few words you robbed me of that!”
Her eyes were blazing with the same fire they had held when she had come to ask for his support almost two years earlier. The difference was that now she was tall enough to look straight into his eyes. Every time he saw her, it became more difficult to remember the young girl he had once found alone in a graveyard.
“I don’t know what—” he started, but a snort interrupted him.
“Don’t insult me on top of it.”
The anger in her gaze only strengthened, and Wilhelm gave a small nod, acknowledging it.
“See,” she started again, “the problem with putting me behind a desk is that it gives me access to my own file. And to the letter, signed by you and countersigned by Commander Bergsen, that requested this assignment for me. What happened to assignments in the Guard being decided at random?”
The initial outburst had calmed, but her voice was more compelling for it, her righteous anger giving it weight. Wilhelm had never seen her like this. He had seen her afraid, distressed, pouting, even happy, but never truly angry, and she seemed like an entirely different person in front of him. It made him realize that, even though he had kept a close eye on her over the years, making sure she was safe, then following her progress when she had joined the Cadets, he had no idea who the young woman in front of him was. All he knew was that her name was Ariadne, and he had pledged to himself to do his best to keep her alive.
“Come in,” he said, shaking himself out of his torpor, and stepped back to give her room to do so.
She frowned at him but walked in, taking a few steps inside the small apartment and looking around her with undisguised curiosity. Wilhelm wondered briefly what she thought, whether she had expected grander accommodations than what she saw, but she didn’t say anything and her face, when she turned to look at him, showed nothing but impatience.
Walking past her, he went to the kitchenette and picked up one of the reports he had been looking at earlier.
“Here,” he said, giving her the paper. “Look at those.”
She took the sheet, and Wilhelm watched as she scanned it. Her eyes tightened ever so slightly, even as she pinched her lips into a tight line.
“Some of these people were my friends,” she said, her voice raspy, when she looked up at him again. “But it doesn’t explain why you confined me to an office when I’ve trained for two years to be on the battlefront.”
“You’re stuck in an office so you won’t end up on this list. That’s all there is to it.”
She blinked once, and her eyes widened in incredulity that soon transformed into indignation and anger.
“How dare you! You have no right… I can’t believe you’d even think you can play with my life like that!”
“I’m not playing, Ariadne. I couldn’t be more serious. I told you before that I didn’t want you to join the Cadets, and I feel the same about the Guard.”
Her hand was shaking when she thrust the sheet of paper back at him.
“Too late for that. I’m in. And I’m not going anywhere, except to the front. And how well do you think I’ll fight when we have a big attack and they call everyone to help? Do you think I’ll still be able to fight, after spending my time seated behind a desk?”
For a moment, Wilhelm faltered; he had not thought of that possibility. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it.
“I’ll leak the papers to the entire Guard,” Ariadne continued when he didn’t answer. “If you don’t change my assignment, I’ll let everyone know, and no one will ever obey your orders again without thinking twice about the way you show favoritism. Because you know that’s how they’ll interpret it.”
Wilhelm’s resolution hardened again. Couldn’t she see he was trying to save her life?
“Threatening a superior is hardly the right way to have a long career in the Guard, child.”
The edge of her smile could have sliced his throat. “You’re not my superior. You don’t even have a rank. You’re just a man who thinks he knows better than the rest of us, and who ignores anyone he doesn’t have a use for. But I am part of the Guard, I earned my rank and the right to fight, and while you can ignore me all you want, you can’t take that away from me.”
There was a final challenge in her wavering voice and eyes—a final reproach—and then she saluted him, her posture perfect, before she turned on her heel and walked out of the apartment. The door banged shut behind her.
After her parting words, Wilhelm was left to wonder what she had been most upset about—that he had arranged for her to have an office job, or that he hadn’t said a word to her since he had, despite passing by her desk every day.
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