The sound of a voice managed to penetrate the cloud of gray depression surrounding Nika Finmoralyn. She opened her eyes.
“You are alive, right? And an officer?”
The voice belonged to a man in the uniform of the Eagle Guard, Clerical Division. Nika nodded and struggled to her feet, trying to shake off the bleakness. The best she could do was push it aside a bit, enough to let her speak.
“Lieutenant-General Nika Finmoralyn. What do you need?”
The man, wearing insignia that marked him a Captain of his Division, sighed with relief. “You’re in charge now, aren’t you. Good. Tell me what in blackened hell I’m supposed to do with the payroll! Please.”
The despair came back, and Nika sagged back onto the bench. It overlooked the garden in front of the barracks, which had once been a pleasant, refreshing sight. Now the plants were straggly, untrimmed, with weeds sprouting all through the flower beds.
“Do whatever you want with it,” Nika said. “I don’t care. There’s no one left to pay.”
“What are you saying?”
Nika made herself look at the payroll officer. “The Eagle has fallen.”
The man shook his head in denial. “The Dominion is forever!”
“No.” Nika shook her own head slowly. “No, it isn’t. There is no more Dominion. I… I was assigned to complete a survey, a census, of the city and surroundings. Nine out of every ten people from the last report have died. The Blue Death has destroyed the Dominion.”
“But there are still people living! We can recover from this.”
“No.” She shook her head again, more emphatically. “I returned this morning, just in time to witness the death of the last Shining One. The Eagle has fallen. The Dominion is no more.”
“The Shining Ones… are gone?”
That news broke through to the payroll officer, and he sagged into a crouch, head hanging.
Nika felt the same. The Shining Ones had led the Dominion ever since the beginning. Without them, the Golden Eagle Dominion was nothing, a name without a meaning. Nothing but a rapidly dimming memory, doomed to fade into the dust of history.
“Right,” the man said, lifting his head. His face looked decades older than it had moments ago, haggard with sadness and despair. “The Shining Ones are gone. But we’re alive, you and I, and there’s a future ahead. It may not look like the future we’d expected, but I’m not going to lay down and give up. That’s not the Dominion way. Are you?”
Nika started to say yes. What did this world hold for her? Death. Everywhere. The city had suffered the worst, true, with nine out of every ten residents lost. But the Blue Death had chewed through the entire Dominion, nearly the whole known world, with a viciousness that left maybe a third of the world’s population alive, and it hadn’t finished yet. Who knew when the illness would run its course and leave humanity, whatever was left of it, to recover. The future looked unrelentingly bleak, and horrid. What point to living, when the force she stood second in command over had shrunk to less than a full division? She could take command, yes, because the true leader had fallen a week and more ago. But what was the point?
But then something stubborn, some little spark of life, flared up and Nika lifted her head higher. Officers in the elite Shining Home Division never gave up.
“Fine. No. I’m not going to lay down and die. But the Dominion is ended. I can see no future here, without the Shining Ones.”
“Good. Here’s what I propose. We can split the payroll between us, and use it to fund a future life. Go where you will, it won’t matter. I’ll record it properly in the books, no one will come hunting you as a thief. Is that a good plan for you?”
Nika shrugged. “Fine. I don’t care. Money is good.”
She followed the man out of the garden to a back gate into the Palace. A solidly built wagon stood there, drawn by a team of eight heavy draft horses. It held ten iron-bound lockboxes.
“That’s the payroll?” Nika said, incredulity beating out depression for a moment. She even felt a tiny spark of greed, having decided to live.
“Yes. Drawn from the vaults just this morning, that’s the normal amount to pay the entire Eagle Guard, from the Shining Home to the farthest-flung shock troops.”
“Mother of Eagles. And you offered me half?”
The man nodded.
“It’s too much,” Nika decided, despite the spark of greed. “If I’m to head away and start a new life, I mean to really head away. Out of the Dominion. Leave the past behind.”
“Fine. I’ll wager you can still carry more than enough to succeed. Here, look.”
The payroll officer hopped onto the tailgate of the wagon and opened one of the boxes with a key from his belt pouch. Nika tried to see, discovered the wagon sides were too high. So she scrambled onto the wagon beside the man.
“Mother of Eagles,” she said again. The box contained eight bags made from scaly ogroid skin, one of the strongest leathers known to humankind. “How much is in there?”
“Each bag holds a hundred thousand tarkins.”
Nika could scarcely imagine that much wealth all in one place, even while looking at it. Her own generous pay amounted to two tarkins a month, and she was the second in command of the whole damned army! “A hundred… Damn! I never knew there was so much money in the entire Dominion.”
“There is,” the man nodded, pulling one of the bags free with a grunt. “Here.”
Nika took it. Heavy, seriously heavy. Right at the edge of her ability to lift. “That’ll do,” she said quickly, catching his arm before he could pull out another. She had to set the bag down before she could move.
“You sure? I mean,” and he gestured at the other bags, the unopened boxes. “There’s more than enough to share. And just think, this is only three months’ worth. There’s a whole lot more where this came from.”
A hundred thousand tarkins. She opened the bag, looked inside at the fat gold coins. “This is plenty. Thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” the payroll officer shrugged, closing and locking the box. “Anybody left alive inside?”
“About half a dozen from the Shining Home Guard. The rest have deserted, or been sent out to various places throughout the Dominion, to see if they can help before they die.”
“Think I’ll share some of this out, then. Out of your half.”
He grinned, and Nika smiled back. “Go right ahead. And good luck in your new life.”
“Same to you.”
Nika picked up the bag and slung it over her shoulder. Why not, it didn’t weigh as much as a fallen comrade would, not that she’d been in the field recently. She staggered a little, shifted the load for balance, then started towards the stables at a slow, steady pace.
Started being the key word. She had to rest five times between the wagon and the stables. Not only was the bag beastly heavy, but the air was still thick with the smells of smoke and death, along with more ordinary stinks from garbage left uncollected and horseshit left to pile up on the streets. There was even a pyre out in front of the Shining Home Palace itself, watched over by a single gray-robed monk.
Yes, the Golden Eagle had truly fallen.