Chapter 8 - By Your Leave
"Why is it oh-loud-thirty?"
"How long have you been watching me?"
"Do you know what today is? It's my brother's birthday."
"I miss Gavin so much."
Ric turned over in his top bunk as the alarm blared. He heard Lars grunt below, then the alarm died. Ric gave his head a shake, trying to clear out the cobwebs. As his eyes focused, he glanced down at the cot. The blankets were perfectly made, the pillow fluffed. "Lars, are you up?"
"Yeah. Morning, Ric."
The bottom bunk creaked. "Not here."
"Thanks, dude." Ric swung his bare feet over the edge of his bunk, then dropped down. He padded over to the empty cot and felt the blankets. "Dude, did she even come back last night?"
"I was asleep when you got back. Remember?" Lars got out of bed. "Probably for the best after last night."
Ric felt his stomach drop. He braved asking the question anyway. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure. No one gets that upset over cereal."
"I don't have enough coffee in me to figure this out right now, dude."
"There's not enough coffee on the planet." Lars shrugged. "Good luck."
"Oh, no, dude, I am not digging into this without backup."
"Whoa, you want me to be at ground zero? With out any armour?"
Ric grabbed Lars' arm and pulled him into the common area. Miyami was already dressed for physical training and sat at the table, a steaming mug of coffee in front of her. She waved to the two men before returning her attention to her tablet.
"Good morning, Miyami," Ric said. "Any coffee left?"
Miyami pointed in the general direction of the coffee maker. "Half a pot. Help yourself."
"Thanks." Ric walked over to the kitchenette. "Coward," he called as Lars disappeared into the bathroom. Ric poured himself a mug of coffee, adding cream and a double helping of sugar. "So, Miyami, I hear I missed the fireworks last night."
"What did she tell you?"
Miyami set down her tablet. "Tyler."
"See, that leads to my next question. Where is Dusty?"
"Lars was the last to see her last night."
Ric took a bracing gulp of his coffee before walking over to the bathroom door. "Hey!" He pounded on the door. "Where's Dusty?"
"Hang on!" The toilet flushed. The sink ran for a moment. Lars emerged, drying his hands with a towel. "I told you, Ric. I don't know."
"You saw her last," Miyami said. "I was helping Rhiannon."
Lars walked to the kitchenette. "Last I saw, she packed a bag and left."
Ric sighed. "And she didn't say where she was going?"
"No." Lars poured himself a mug of coffee, taking it black. Why? Do you think she went absent without leave?"
"AWOL?" Ric bit back several choice curses. "Just what happened last night?"
"Rhiannon got upset over cereal." Lars took a quick sip of his coffee.
Miyami shook her head. "She wasn't upset about cereal." She glanced at her bedroom door. "Yesterday was her brother's birthday," she said, her voice low. "She still misses him so much. Lars mentioned that Tyler picked up the groceries from the exchange and, well, you know."
"I'm getting the picture." Ric sat down at the table across from Miyami. "Rhiannon went off on Dusty."
"It got physical," Lars said. "Dusty wouldn't let me check her back."
Miyami stared at Lars. "What?"
"In case Rhiannon injured her." Lars pointed at the wall. "I'm surprised there isn't a mark there."
"Do you know how much that sounds like a pick up line?"
Lars blinked. "It does?"
Ric grinned. "Yeah, dude, it does. Try it on Susanna and see what happens."
"Okay, then." Lars took a moment to recover his focus. "But that fight was yesterday afternoon."
"And neither of you saw Dusty at all in classes?" Ric set down his mug. "Great. We have to find her."
Miyami held up her hand. "Why? If she's left, she's not our problem anymore."
Ric focused his stare on Miyami. "Okay, try this. The base patrol find her and take her in. Whoever is in charge there starts asking her why she left campus without permission. What do you think she'll say? That she had enough and was going, well, not home, but somewhere else? Or will she say that Rhiannon got upset over cereal and attacked her and she left for her own safety?"
Miyami wilted under Ric's attention. "We need to find her."
"Lars, go get changed. You and Miyami start looking for Dusty. Start in the mess hall. It'll be open."
Lars ran back into his bedroom. Miyami slumped in her chair. "What about you?"
"I'm going to have a private word with Rhiannon when she wakes up. She might not have a choice about when she does get out of bed."
Ric waited until Lars and Miyami had left before going over to the door to women's bedroom. He knocked, not heavy, not light. "Rhiannon?"
"I don't want to talk, Ric."
"Then you can listen."
Rhiannon opened the door. Her eyes were puffy. "Why do you care, Ric?"
"One of the squad disappears and no one cares? If I wanted that sort of thing, I'd be at a cutthroat business school." Ric softened his tone. "I don't want anyone in trouble, Rhiannon. I want to know what happened? Miyami said it was your brother's birthday yesterday?"
Rhiannon nodded. "It was."
"The same brother who died two years ago?"
"The only brother I had."
"So you beat up Dusty over cereal."
"What? No." Rhiannon sighed. "Maybe. Ric, that wasn't just cereal. Tyler, she bought it."
Ric took one of Rhiannon's hands and led her over to the couch. "Help me understand, Rhiannon. It still sounds like you attacked Dusty over cereal."
Rhiannon sat on the couch. "Gavin used to pick that brand up for me as a special treat. Having Tyler get it, well, it felt like a knife in my heart."
Ric gave Rhiannon's hand a squeeze. "And that's why you went off on her. She probably didn't know why that cereal's so special to you."
"She's watching us, Ric."
"Rhiannon, she saw you eating the cereal for breakfast and saw that you were out."
"Why would she bother?"
Ric sat down beside Rhiannon. "Have you seen the cupboards? I haven't been getting groceries. Someone has."
"Are you trying to guilt me?"
"Are you feeling guilty?"
Rhiannon couldn't meet Ric's eyes with hers. "Now what?"
"You're going to get dressed for morning exercise. I'll go look for Dusty and talk to her."
"You don't have to do that."
"Yes, I do." Ric pulled Rhiannon into an embrace. "I'll get Dusty to understand what happened and ask her to let someone else get the breakfast food from now on, so that you won't hurt."
"That sounds so--"
"Awesome and thoughtful?"
Rhiannon laughed. "Dumb. On my part."
Ric let go of Rhiannon. "Your brother, he meant a lot to you, right?"
"He did." Rhiannon snuffled.
"Then it's not dumb on your part."
The search for Dusty ended when the squads fell into formation in the courtyard. Dusty joined the rest of Theta Squad with nary a word to anyone else, either in her squad or in the others. Sergeant Chang led the first year students in a gruelling workout. Several students fell behind, only to be encouraged by Sergeant Chang at full volume to catch up. When the morning exercises were done, at least half of the first year students collapsed to the ground, exhausted, Ric and Miyami included. Lars looked like he could keep going at the same pace for at least another half hour, while Rhiannon were moving far slower. The three mobile members of split up, heading in their own directions. Lars got intercepted by Susanna, who used him to keep herself upright on the walk back to the residence building. Rhiannon threaded through the crowd, heading towards the gym. Dusty, though, lingered before wandering off.
Ric forced himself off the ground. Despite the protests of his muscles, he forced himself to half-walk, half-jog after Dusty. He caught up, panting. "Hey, wait," he huffed.
Dusty didn't stop walking, but she did slow her pace. "Ric."
"We need to talk."
"I don't think you can right now."
"Ha," Ric tried to catch his breath. "ha."
Dusty came to an abrupt stop. She turned to face her roommate. "Ric, I don't want to talk."
"No one does this morning." Ric tried to get his breathing back to normal. "You never returned to the dorm last night."
"No, I didn't."
"Where were you?"
"Does it matter?"
Ric raised himself to his full height. "It does. Dusty, you were out past curfew. I was worried that you left campus after yesterday.:"
"You left campus?" Ric's eyes widened.
Dusty rolled her eyes. "About the fight."
"Oh, right. Yes."
Dusty began walking again. "Then there's nothing else I can say."
"Dusty, I want to hear your side." Ric groaned as he tried to match his roommate's pace.
"There's nothing to hear."
"Okay, then how about this? I know why Rhiannon attacked you."
"So do I," Dusty said. "I'm responsible for her brother's death. There's nothing that I can do to fix that."
"Dusty, it was her brother's birthday yesterday."
Dusty stopped. She closed her eyes. "What do you want me to do, Ric? I am truly sorry that her brother died and that my family and I were the reason why. I don't think Cadet Tudor will ever accept that and, to be honest? I can't blame her. So maybe me disappearing is the best thing that I can do for her."
"So you're just going to hide somewhere until you graduate and just show up for class and training?"
"If that's I need to do."
Ric took one of Dusty's hands into his own. "Dusty, you're here. That counts for something, no? You're here, back in the Imperium, accepted in a military academy. You must have something going for you to get this far."
Dusty stared at Ric's hands holding her own. "Ric," she began before trailing off. "Thanks. Thanks for trying to understand. I'm going to give Cadet Tudor her space today. I didn't know that it was her brother's birthday yesterday. I would've kept clear of her if I had, for her. She didn't need me around."
"Thanks. And, one more thing."
Dusty arched an eyebrow. "What is it?"
"Let someone else get the breakfast foods." Ric shrugged. "The cereal you picked up for her, well, it turns out that it was part of something special with her brother. I know you couldn't have known, but to be safe in the future, you know?"
"Okay." Dusty gave Ric a brief smile. "I'll see you in class."
The afternoon classes saw the squads split into smaller groups, with Theta being joined by Lambda and Iota. The lecture covered the proper forms of address in the Royal Guard. The instructor, Captain Maria Ndiaye, went through the rank structure of the Royal Guard, pointing out the differences between the three branches, the Foot Guard, the Coast Guard, and the Star Guard. Captain Ndiaye then began covering how the nobles of the Imperium fit in. Rhiannon squirmed in her seat. The Captain noticed. "Cadet Tudor, you have a problem?"
"No, Captain," Rhiannon said.
"Good. Then, tell me, how would you address a noble in uniform?"
"May I use an example, Captain?"
"Of course." Captain Ndiaye leaned against her podium. "Please, enlighten us."
Rhiannon turned to Lars. "Cadet Thorensen, do you mind if I use you?"
"Um, no?" Lars shrugged.
"Thank you." Rhiannon cleared her throat. "If we assume that Cadet Thorensen is the Marquis of Tamar," she paused to make sure there were not objections, "then I would add his title after his rank, or, Cadet Marquis Lars Thorensen of Tamar. Or, possibly, Cadet Marquis Lars Tamar, depending on how he and his family prefer. In a formal receiving line, all of his titles would be used, so he would be called Cadet The Right Honorable Lars Thorensen, Marquis of Tamar, Baron Shelter Cove. Or possibly Cadet Lars, Marquis Tamar, Baron Shelter Cove." Rhiannon allowed herself a smile. "In the field and in day to day work, he would just be Cadet Thorensen. The degree of formality depends on the situation. The more critical it is to get an order or request out, the more succinct the rank usage. In any case, he is still subject to orders from superior officers, as long as the order is lawful. Major Novak covered those in her first lecture." Rhiannon nodded to the instructor. "Captain."
The Captain pushed away from her podium. "Okay, Cadet Tudor, you have done your homework."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Can you now tell me about the wearing of swords with a uniform?"
"I might, Captain."
"Take a shot at it, Cadet."
"There are a number of factors. First, the noble family's traditions come into play. Some families don't have a martial history, so swords wouldn't be worn just because they are nobles. For those families who do, the swords are ceremonial, so they wouldn't be worn with duty dress, combat dress, or even the base dress we're wearing. Swords might be worn with ceremonial and formal dress, unless the commanding officer says otherwise. Unit tradition is also a factor. I understand that the Starfighter Corps has swords as part of their kit. As armoured infantry, though, we'll be more likely to have a pistol strapped to our hip than a sword." Rhiannon smiled. "Captain."
Captain Ndiaye approached Rhiannon where she sat. "You do know a lot about this, Cadet. Let's try one more question. How would you address the Count whose fief includes Tamar?"
"Me? I'd call her Yount, after the county. Unless the event was military in nature and she was in her old Star Guard uniform, in which case I'd call her Commander."
"You wouldn't call her 'Lady Yount' or 'my lady'?"
Rhiannon tried not to wilt under the Captain's glare. "No, Captain, not in a social setting."
"Are you saying that she's not your better?"
"Captain, I've met the Count. She prefers Countess."
Captain Ndiaye's smile turned feral. "Go on, Cadet Tudor. Tell me more. Where did you meet the Countess."
Rhiannon coughed delicately. "In the Duke's court. Technically, the Countess and I are social equals, at least in the court."
"So what do we call you, Cadet Tudor? Formally, like if you graduate."
"Cadet the Most Honourable Rhiannon Tudor, the Countess of Filton, the Baroness Curren." Rhiannon felt a blush blooming on her cheeks. "Captain."
Captain Ndiaye backed up several steps. "Is there anyone else here with a title?" She waited but no hands raised. "So, Cadet, what would someone address you as?"
"Sure, let's start here in this room and work our way out."
Rhiannon felt every pair of eyes in the room staring at her. "Here, since I introduced myself as Cadet Rhiannon Tudor, that's how I get addressed. This isn't a formal situation and I am not here as Countess Filton. Graduation would use my full title. On the parade ground, I am still Cadet Tudor. If Countess Yount were to invite me to brunch and I was able to get the leave to go, she'd call me Filton like I would call her Yount. Other people would call me 'my lady'. However, I have the option of using my lesser title or no title at all. I'm sure there are terabytes written on the etiquette and all the side cases."
"That sounds like a great assignment," Captain Ndiaye said.
"Captain?" Rhiannon heard her classmates groan.
"Not the terabytes. Just the basics and how it will affect life in the armoured infantry." The Captain returned to the podium. "I want a seven hundred and fifty word report from each of you, due tomorrow at sixteen hundred hours. Don't forget to run checks for spelling and grammar. We need officers who are able to write coherently." Captain Ndiaye checked the time. "We still have ten minutes. I'm sure you'll appreciate having that extra time to get started on your reports. Class dismissed."
The young cadets packed up and filed out the door. Rhiannon lingered a bit, watching her classmates group up. Tyler slipped out the door first, not making eye contact with anyone. Susanna cornered Lars, talking to him in a low tone. With a resigned look on his face, he let Susanna lead him out of the classroom. Rhiannon figured she wouldn't see him again until after dinner, maybe not even until lights out. Ric and Miyami waited at the door, making an effort to not look her way. Amused, Rhiannon got up and joined them. "Waiting for me?"
"I wanted to make Lars jealous by having two good looking women with me," Ric said.
Miyami rolled her eyes. "He wants to pick your brain for the report."
"Ric, I'm not the best person to ask."
"Really? I'd have thought that someone who took five minutes to recite all her titles would be the perfect person to ask."
Rhiannon glared at Ric. "This is why I'm not using my title here. Besides, Miyami might know the etiquette better than me."
"Me?" Miyami blinked.
"You. You were the only one to recognize me and you addressed me properly." Rhiannon smiled. "I only have to worry about the proper way to speak to the Empress and her family."
"I-- I guess?"
"Look, I'll read over your reports if that will make you feel better."
Ric grinned. "And we'll get Marquis Lars to read them for a second opinion."
Rhiannon laughed. "If we see him again. Come on, you clowns."
"Sir, are we being timed individually or as a squad?"
"We don't need a pep talk."
"Give me your hand!"
"No one will fail."