Chapter 22 can be read below the cut.
The Imperial Military Headquarters were located in an area of the Central District that was restricted to civilians. The entrance was guarded, but there was no door or gate to keep people in or out – just Imperial Guards standing on either side of the walkway. The headquarters were so close to the largest market of the Central District that the noise of the shopkeepers and civilians could easily be heard.
Lu dragged Hayésu around the corner. “Lu, let go of me,” Hayésu grumbled, trying and failing to wrench his arm out of her grasp. She ignored his words, as usual. Somehow, despite her having much shorter legs, she was walking way too fast for him to comfortably keep up.
“I wouldn’t have to drag you if you’d just walk faster!” said Lu.
Hayésu finally managed to slip his arm out of Lu’s hand. “Look, it’s not my fault we’re late,” he protested.
They headed up the stairs leading to the entrance of the Military Headquarters. Hayésu was actively aware that the Imperial Guards were watching them. They were supposed to watch everyone, even well-known soldiers. However, Hayésu suspected that the Guards were watching him and Lu because the two of them were making more of a scene than usual.
Lu turned back to glare at him, stopping right in front of the entrance and the Imperial Guards. “Oh? And whose job was it to wake up on time and get us here on time?” she said.
Hayésu looked indignant. “Onnarré’s supposed to do that. I don’t even know where he is.”
Lu pointed in his face. “Don’t blame this on him when you know it’s your fault-”
One of the Imperial Guards coughed. Lu looked shocked, like she’d forgotten entirely where she was. “I recognize the two of you,” said the Guard. “You’re in Commander Haruyéng’s division. Go on in to the smaller meeting room. I think the Commanders haven’t finished their meeting yet.”
“Really?” said Hayésu. “But we’re so late-”
Lu yanked the door open before Hayésu could finish his sentence. He followed her through the halls to the secondary meeting room. Onnarré and a few other soldiers from other divisions sat around the table.
Lu immediately pointed at Onnarré. “You! Why didn’t you wake us up like you were supposed to?” she demanded.
Onnarré looked confused. “That’s not my job,” he said.
“How long has the meeting been going on?” Hayésu asked. He took the chair next to Onnarré.
“Over an hour,” said Lhaminlha Sinsul, a tiger from the Swords Division. She leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed.
“Is that normal?” Hayésu asked.
Sinsul pinched her brow and sighed. “Hayésu, right? I know Commander Haruyéng picked his personal squad recently. You haven’t been through one of these meetings yet, have you?”
Hayésu shook his head. “Well, this is one of those meetings that all the Commanders have to be present for. It’s going to take quite a while,” said Sinsul.
Haruyéng was sure that at this point, he was the only one who wasn’t taking things seriously anymore. All the other Commanders were annoyed by his behavior, but he was too elated to care. His chair leaned back against the wall, which was annoying Díhminlha in particular.
“You need to cut that out,” said Díhminlha Rúsgah, commander of the Swords Division. “Heavenly Commander Hunyoung won’t be too happy when he gets here.”
Haruyéng let his chair fall flat on the ground. He leaned forward, arms on the table as he looked straight at Díhminlha. “I get that you think I’m being too unprofessional, but Hunyoung isn’t here right now! I’m going to keep being happy for as long as I can.”
Takumiyu Yéngling, the Archery Division Commander, finally spoke up. “Haruyéng, I’m agreeing with Commander Díhminlha. Your behavior isn’t the greatest right now.”
Haruyéng threw his arms up. “Just let me celebrate a little bit! I thought I was going to get fired or demoted, and it didn’t happen.”
Lila Minnarré, the commander of the Spells Division, raised an eyebrow at Haruyéng. “So did we,” she said. “We were taking bets, too.”
“You what?” said Haruyéng, startled. “You were taking bets?”
Minnarré chuckled. “We figured that the Heavenly Commander didn’t like you and sent you off on a mission you’d obviously fail.”
“I suspected that,” said Haruyéng. “But why? What did I do to prompt that?”
Minnarré shrugged and looked at Díhminlha. “He did say he wanted to get you out of the way for a while so he could research your background. He wouldn’t say why.” She grinned. “I mean, you are kind of a let down from the previous Firearms Commander. Maybe he was-”
The door slammed open at that exact moment. Yéngling jumped, Minnarré flinched, and everyone looked toward the door. Heavenly Commander Hunyoung stood in the doorway with a folder tucked under his arm. He was alone and looked embarrassed.
“Please excuse me,” said Hunyoung. “I didn’t want to be even later than I already am and overexerted myself.” He swiftly closed the door and sat down at the table. “Let’s get straight to the point. One of our spies discovered a Rebel plot, and others have confirmed it. A group of Rebels led by Lisel Tsensung are heading here to the Capital.”
Everyone was staring at Haruyéng now, but it still took him a few moments to realize that they were all expecting him to say something. “Uh, that’s a bit weird, I guess,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken Tsensung for the kind of person who would lead that kind of mission, whatever it is.”
Haruyéng was starting to become uncomfortable with the continued staring. “What? What do you want me to say? That I expected this? That it sounds like something Tsensung would do? Or that I’m completely blindsided and it makes no sense at all, which is what I’m actually thinking right now?”
Hunyoung smirked, but didn’t say anything. Everyone else was silent. “Why the hell are none of you saying anything?” Haruyéng demanded.
Minnarré giggled into her hand, hiding her face. “I was waiting for you to say something to incriminate yourself, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Hunyoung.
“Excuse me? Incriminate? What do you mean by that?” said Haruyéng. “Wait, is this what you were talking about when you said that Hunyoung wanted me out of the way to investigate me?”
Díhminlha shrugged. “Maybe. You should probably ask the Heavenly Commander.”
Hunyoung coughed, bringing attention back to him. “I suspected you were a spy for the Rebels,” he said.
“Because I was Tsensung’s second-in-command when she was Commander of the Firearms Division, right?” said Haruyéng.
Hunyoung nodded. “I thought she might have shared some of her plans to defect with you, or maybe that you were still in contact with her. But we found nothing, so that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.”
“Are you absolutely sure about that?” said Haruyéng. He regretted those words immediately after they left his mouth.
Hunyoung looked confused. So did everyone else. “You…want me to charge you with treason and execute you?” he asked.
“No, no!” said Haruyéng. “I just wanted to make sure that…that…I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a problem,” said Hunyoung. “Now, I haven’t quite figured out what to do about this Rebel problem. We don’t know why they’re coming here, but with such a small group, they can’t be trying to do something big.”
“Are you sure about that?” Yéngling asked.
“Of course not,” said Hunyoung. “Our spies haven’t managed to confirm anything. They’re just reporting any activity they see.”
Díhminlha sat up straight. “When was the last time they saw Tsensung’s group?” she asked.
Hunyoung pulled a sheet of paper from the folder. “Three days ago. They were entering the Forest of the Immortals,” he said.
Minnarré look surprised. “Huh. They’re going to cross the border there?”
“That’s problematic,” said Yéngling. “They’ll be there in a few days.”
Haruyéng frowned. “Why would that be problematic? We already have soldiers in that area and in the Graves of the Gods.”
“Let’s not underestimate Lisel Tsensung,” said Hunyoung. “I’m sure we all remember what she did when she defected. She’s more than capable of taking on multiple soldiers at once and emerging from the fight unscathed.”
Minnarré sighed. “All of us Commanders are.”
“Do you not remember what Tsensung did?” said Haruyéng. “She’s basically a monster in the form of an elf.”
“Of course I remember that,” Minnarré snapped. “But she doesn’t have access to the resources she did then. I don’t think we have to worry that much.”
“I disagree,” said Hunyoung. “We must take this situation as seriously as possible. We won’t be able to send additional soldiers to the border in time, but we will be able to put soldiers along their prospective future routes.”
He pulled a map out of the folder. “I want the four of you to work out how many of your soldiers you want to put along each route. You need to do this as a team. I don’t want any kind of overlap or any routes being missed.”
“Is that it?” Díhminlha asked. “That’s all we have to do?”
“Yes,” said Hunyoung.
Díhminlha blinked. “Are you sure?” she said cautiously.
Hunyoung frowned. “Of course. Before we end this meeting, is there anything anyone else would like to discuss?”
“This does mean that I’m not under investigation anymore, right?” said Haruyéng.
Hunyoung nodded. “Yes, Commander Haruyéng. You’re no longer under any sort of suspicion.”