And dusk it was, or thereabouts. Iman could always tell by the way the sky lost its blue and turned either a charnel gray or diluted red, usually depending upon which direction he was facing. But regardless of the color, there was never any question that dusk had arrived. Out in the Sway, there always seemed to be more sky than elsewhere in the kingdom, splitting the typical field of view into one-third horizon and two-thirds sky.
     Thus, as Iman sat outside the officer’s tent at Westpost—his backside going numb on the wooden barrel that served as his chair—there was no chance he could miss the transition, no matter how gradual the fading light and no matter how subtle the blending hues. And so he sat and he watched and wondered miserably to himself how this dilemma had occurred.
     Talk about the rock and the hard place, he whined, lowering his eyes to the rock, which looked an awful lot like a lieutenant in the king’s army.
     The lieutenant was seated across from Iman on a barrel of his own, his bony fingers rapping impatiently at the table between them. Iman tried looking at the table—which was, in all actuality, a crate lid nailed to yet another uncomfortable wooden cask—but that didn’t help, not with the lieutenant’s chisel-like fingers rumbling on the surface.
     Iman opened his mouth to speak, hoping the words might come if only he primed his mind with the action of his tongue, but that didn’t help either. His attention seemed intent on avoiding the inner works of his mind and wafting, instead, through the sights and sounds of the camp, watching the sky lose a little more color, listening to the soldiers shouting at the tents, counting the embers as they snapped in the fire.
     Across from him, the fingers of the rock—or lieutenant—continued to thrum.
     Iman swung his eyes across Westpost and settled them on a wall of feed sacks, staring now at the hard place, or—as he preferred to call him—his dear old friend. But unlike the lieutenant, the woodsman paid the captain no mind. He just sat on the ground with his head against the feed sacks and his hands stroking the cat-thing.
     Occasionally, Jaysh’s cowl would lift and take in the colors of the sky, but that was rare and never lasted long. For the most part, he just sat there and caressed the mangled creature in his lap, running his hand over the scar tissue on its back and acting as though he had all the time in the world.
     Iman, of course, knew better. He knew that time was running out and that, any moment now, his dear old friend was going to leave him where he sat. And under normal circumstance, Iman wouldn’t have cared. He’d have bid his dear old friend farewell, listened to this last report from the lieutenant, and then stuck around for a few more games of cube. In the morning, he’d track down his dear old friend somewhere in the middle of Stick Day, or whatever it was, ask him why he looked like a porcupine slathered in strawberry jam, and all would be well.
     But unfortunately, these were not normal circumstances. Iman didn’t have a next day to track down his dear old friend. He was addressing the council either tonight or early in the morning and, due to the severity of the incident, they were awaiting his immediate response so as to send reinforcements if necessary.
     Some of the response Iman could have fabricated himself, like the prickly flora bristling from the Jaysh’s attire. Obviously, Jaysh had been down on all fours and crawling through the thistles and burs. As for the profusion of gore coating the flora and Jaysh’s attire, the captain couldn’t even hazard a guess.
     And was it gore? he wondered, beginning to have his doubts. Some of the mucus was red—Actually, a lot of it was red—but some of it was clear, or clearer, looking as though the fluid had started out as transparent and then had something crimson mixed in later. Oh, well. I suppose I’ll find out.   
     Iman flicked his eyes back to the rock—better known as the lieutenantand weighed his options. He could either disappoint the lieutenant and risk losing his position in the military, or he could plead his case to the hard place—better known as his dear old friendand beg for an extension.
     On the surface, and knowing what he knew about the hard place, he had to go with disappointing the rock. With Jaysh’s rigid routines and indomitable stubbornness, Iman could beg and plead all he wanted and never change his friend’s mind. He had no choice but to postpone the telling of the lieutenant’s account.
     The lieutenant, possibly sensing that this decision had come, stopped thrumming his fingers on the table and leaned forward. This gave Iman a better look at the man he was about to infuriate and, frankly, he didn’t like what he saw.
     The man had the look of an angry pontificator who knew every rule and standard in the military handbook and, by crow, was going to follow them to the letter. Iman deduced this last part from the man’s shaven head and twig-thin mustache, features that tended to go hand-in-hand with a militant mindset. The anger he deduced from the piercing blue eyes that had been glaring a hole through him ever since he sat down.
     “Listen,” Iman said, his voice placating, “it’s not that I don’t want to hear your report, because I do. I really do. It’s just that the other reports took longer than I expected and my scout’s getting ready to leave for the day and I just don’t—”
     “Have time?” the officer finished. “You don’t have time? To do your job?
     “Well, I…I did some of it,” Iman said. “Most of it,” he amended. What he wasn’t telling the lieutenant was that he had actually done a good deal more than his job. He had taken the four men he had interrogated into a tent at the southern fringe of the camp—due to the confidential nature of their reports, of course—and played cubes with them. Then, one thing led to another, the good captain began to lose his money and didn’t want to stop, and the next thing he knew it was dusk, or thereabouts.
     Raising his hands in supplication, Iman said, “Look, I have five reports from six witnesses. So it’s not like I’ve been standing around twiddling my thumbs. And normally I’d stay tonight and hear your report as well—I just can’t. I need to escort my scout to his sleeping quarters so I can hear his report along the way. I’ve heard Westport’s account of what took place and now I need to hear from an expert in the field. And I need to do that before that expert in the field falls asleep. I’m telling you,” he said, giving the befuddled lieutenant a wave, “it’s nothing personal. I’d love to hear your report, every last boring detail, but my—”
     “Hold up,” the lieutenant sneered, leaning forward and clutching the table. “Are you talking about a soldier in the king’s military?”
     Iman leaned back, suddenly aware that the guys at the Wound hadn’t been kidding. Before he’d left, several of the colleagues had told him that the commanding officer at Westpost, a Captain Tane, was a nice enough officer—not unlike General Branmore in many respects—but that his second in command, a lieutenant hardcase (apparently), was something of an idiot.
     Against his better judgment, Iman gestured at his dear old friend. The lieutenant jerked his head around and glared at what appeared to be a partially-skinned cat lying in the middle of a bloody, thistle-strewn cloak, the only evidence of life coming from thistle-strewn hood as it cocked itself back and took in the sky.
     With a mild expression of contempt, the lieutenant followed the scout’s gaze, lifting his eyes to the graying air above.
     In anticipation of the lieutenant’s question, Iman said, “He’s checking the light. He has to leave at dusk—We both have to leave at dusk. That’s why—”
     “You outrank him?” the officer asked, reasserting his glare on the captain.
     Iman’s eyes darted to the cloak. “I, uh…yes. In a way, yes…I do. But you know how the military is,” he said, shrugging as if there was nothing he could do. “Sometimes you have authority over someone, sometimes that person has authority over you, so it’s not like—”
     “You need to take control of your man,” the lieutenant said, staring straight through Iman. “I’ve worked very hard to prepare my report and I’m going to give it. It’s required by military protocol that I give it. And to not give it would be a breech of everything we stand for, so you either go over there and take control of your man,” he drummed his fingers on the table, “or I will.”
     Iman felt a momentary pang of discomfort as the rock and hard place converged from both sides. The rock had thrown up military protocol and accused Iman of breaking it, and even though Iman had no idea what protocol was, he was fairly certain—judging by the smug look in the rock’s eye—that breaking it would be a rather unhealthy career move. And although he hated—nay, despised—his career in the military, it was the best thing he had going. It certainly beat the time out of shoveling horse crap in the stables or mining ore in the Kilashan.
     On the other hand, he didn’t relish the idea of losing ties with Jaysh either. The council had already given Iman the Dome expedition tomorrow, the Leresh the day after, and the Mela the day after that. But each investigation had come with the stipulation that his dear old friend accompany him.
    And what are the chances Jaysh says yes, Iman wondered, if this raging idiot goes over there and calls all manner of attention to him?
     In the good captain’s mind, he saw the lieutenant moving for Jaysh, saw Jaysh throw a handful of straw at the man as he went scrambling to his feet and made for the corrals, then he saw the lieutenant running after him—because that’s what guys like him did—and saw Jaysh being tackled by some lesser idiot who was just doing his job and then the two of them—raging idiot and lesser idiot—slowly realizing what they’d done.
     After that, word would spread through Westpost like wildfire and, pretty soon, Jaysh would be standing in a whole the ring of idiots and watching as they all grinned and stared in that special way Jaysh so hated.
     And the only thing worse than that, Iman thought, turning and scanning the canvas and crates, would be for one of these idiots to see Jaysh’s watchful friend—old big, blue, and shiny—because if that happens we’re going to be here all night.
     Since being here all night would also infuriate his dear old friend, it was with an intense sigh of relief that Iman found the creature absent from camp. Of course, if he aimed to keep it that way…
     “Look,” he said, turning to the lieutenant and fixing him with a stare, realizing suddenly that he’d forgotten his name. When he asked for it, he watched the lieutenant wrinkle his quill-thin mustache.
     “It’s Batterolf,” the man said. “Lieutenant Batterolf.”
     Suppressing a grimace of his own, Iman said, “Right, right, Butterolf. Look, it’s like I was saying, my scout and I are in a bit of a hurry and we really need to go. Not to burden you with our sorry lives—because I know you have your own problems—but I do have a report to write and I do have a council to address and my colleague there is headed to the Shun to…to do whatever it is he does, so you can see that we both have early-morning engagements and it’s nothing personal.”
     Eyes like murder holes, Batterolf drummed his fingers on the table.
     “But anyhow,” Iman said, clasping his hands and rubbing them together, “here’s what I thought we could do: How about, instead of listening to your report and wasting everyone’s time, I just ask a few—” 
     “Questions?” Batterolf spat. “You want to ask me questions? Like an interrogation?
     Mouth gaping, Iman shook his head. “Oh, no. No, no. I…it wouldn’t be like that. No, it’s just that I’ve heard the incident five times already and—”
     Batterolf slapped his hand on the table, never taking his eyes from the captain. “Did you know,” he asked coldly, “that interviewing privates ahead of a commanding officer is a breach of military protocol?”
     Iman did not, as it turned out, but he said nothing. He only leaned back on his barrel and thanked Sira the man hadn’t heard about the cubes.
     Batterolf gave him a contemptuous look. “It’s hard to believe that a captain—in the king’s army—wouldn’t know that.”
     Iman’s look of confusion took on a decisively angry cast. “I guess I made a mistake,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He was aware of a thick pulsing in his right temple. “Can I ask my questions now?”
     Batterolf continued to stare daggers at him, his face as hard as the table between them and the barrel upon which it lay, but in the end he only shook his head. “Fine,” he said, sounding as though it were anything but fine. “I don’t know why I expected anything less.”
     Iman, who’d been about to ask his first question, closed his mouth and leaned forward on his makeshift chair. “What was that?” he said.
     “I said,” Batterolf snarled, leaning forward as well, “that everyone knows how you ascended the ranks…Captain.”
     “Do they,” Iman said, pulling his hands from the table and letting them hang at his waist.
     “They do,” Batterolf said, “and they think you’d know more about military protocol, if you’d been promoted to your position instead of having it handed to you.” His eyes darted to Iman’s flowing black locks. “Or maybe if you’d stop primping long enough to pick up a procedural manual.”
     Iman’s eyes fell to the lieutenant squiggle of a mustache. “Oh, yeah?” he sneered. “How long’s it take to trim that? Or can you not grow a real one?”
     “At least men wear mustaches, you beard-loving—” 
     “And if we’re talking about reputations,” Iman went on, coming to his feet, “did you know everyone out here calls you Buggeroff behind your back?”
     Batterolf came to his feet. “Well at least I didn’t get to where I am—
     “Fact is,” Iman said, raising his voice and stepping around the table, “the boys in the city call you Buggeroff too, and when they heard where I was going, and that someone out here had died, they told me they hoped it was YOU!” 
     Iman stopped yelling, suddenly aware of the heat running out of his cheeks and leaving his body, leaving him strangely cold and acutely aware of his surroundings: the flickering of the fire, the shouting of the privates, the hilt of his sword in the palm of his hand…
     He didn’t need to look down to know the rest of his body had assumed the stance. After feeling the hard leather of his grip, he was suddenly aware of the bend in his knees and the slight lean of his upper body. It was the stance all right, the very one he’d been practicing ever since he’d first noticed his father’s antique weaponry hanging in the trophy room and went inside to try them out; because although it was against the rules to enter the trophy room—let alone touch the trophies—his parents were never home and the swords were just hanging their, practically screaming at him to be taken down.
     So he’d done it. He’d taken one down, he’d given it a good swing, and nothing bad had happened. In fact, he felt pretty banning good about it. So he’d taken down another and given it a sound hefting and again nothing horrible had happened.
     What in the name of Sira? he remembered thinking. Father not only abandoned me, but he’s lied to me as well.
     Naturally, Iman had no choice but to start taking all the swords down and swinging them like mad. He’d wake up, find his mother reading one of her books in the bedroom, have himself some stale bread and jam, and then off to the trophy room he’d go. It was wonderful. He bandaged all of his cuts, hid most of the damaged furniture, and when he could do neither, he made up fantastic tales to explain them away.
     Of course, his parents never asked about the injuries, or the nicks in the furniture, but he had the excuses ready just in case, certain that one of these days they would notice the scabs on his forehead or the cuts on his shoulders or that the whole of their furnishing had been turned to face the wall and were covered in blankets and stacked high with his mother’s books…
     But they never did. His father just wasn’t around and his mother…Well, she wasn’t going to notice anything with her nose in a book.
     The lieutenant across from Iman, on the other hand—the one with the burred head and parchment-thin mustache—he was noticing just fine. He’d even taken a step back, Iman saw, and he had a look on his face that implied he’d heard more than one type of rumor about the good captain. Batterolf had not only heard about Iman’s ascension through the ranks, but he also appeared to have heard about the good captain’s many barroom tricks, the sort of tricks that involved pointed bits of steel and flying pieces of fruit and were only performed after the good captain had consumed way too many drinks and the patrons—who’d also consumed way too many drinks—began chanting: Do it! Do the thing with the sword! Come on! Do it! Do it!
     Slipping cautiously onto his barrel, Batterolf said, “Ask your questions.”