It was still a mercenary camp; there was a fundamental order to the place that the bivouacs of larger units lacked. And with several bands in the same space, far from succumbing to the disorder of those larger units, the divisions were only strengthened. Stepping from one band’s section of the camp to another’s brought a distinction as plain as that between night and day, even more so than that between the inside of the camp and the world beyond its border.

Gone, though, was the expectant tension. The work they’d been mustered for was done, and done well, by gods and ancestors and whatever else the disparate fighters held dear. None of these bands would never truly relax their discipline, not while they were still mustered – that discipline was part of what had made them the best, the most-esteemed, the most-sought-for warriors in the land. Sentries still watched the camp, looking outward, keeping an eye on the interior, even minding the skies. Officers and small cadres of armed fighters still roamed the camp and kept the peace.

But the mood in the camp was one of celebration. Freed captives, brought in for assessment and treatment by the mercenaries’ healers, now rested with their rescuers, and those who had not greatly suffered for their ordeal celebrated with them. Bands that had been wary and distrustful of one another had worked together and come to respect each other, and now, though each band had its district, the mercenaries all roamed freely between those districts, whether as residents or welcome guests.


Tension spread through the camp in the returning scout’s wake. She’d passed the challenges, and the guards at the edge of camp knew the cat and her mission; none sought to impede her. One of the skirmishers brought her a waterskin, which she drank from as she hustled; other than that, everybody stayed out of her way.

She reached the command tent without a word spoken since answering the sentries’ challenges, and the duty guard lifted the flap for her the moment she came into view. So it was that she ducked through and was still panting from her run when she found herself under the scrutiny of four very different people, no two of the same race, never mind the same insignia – the commanders of four different mercenary companies in joint council. Her salute wasn’t entirely regulation-crisp, but nobody in the tent much minded