Renata peeked around her blankets. Laurel's bed was empty. The young girl figured she would have to get used to Laurel leaving the room before dawn, almost as if Laurel felt intensely uncomfortable with the number of people (no, operatives; some were not human) in the house.
Indeed, even though Renata of all people (having grown up in a small cottage which she shared with her parents, two younger siblings, three Respertian pygmies and an Elf) should have had little problem sharing a mansion with only seven other people, they all seemed to invade each other's spaces at every given moment, whether physically, or by their actions.
"Atis!" she heard Carsius shout above the ferocious yowlings of the Kytarr, Gorrmunsa, "I will not repeat myself a third time: you must not set your traps in the house! It is difficult enough to find useful things in this ramshackle dump without having to watch for tripwires and triggers as well!"
Renata shuddered. Atis had only been in the house three days (two since they raided the schools), yet she was kept on a veritable knife's edge of paranoia with his evident penchant for pulling pranks and setting harmless but uncomfortable traps for his fellow occupants.
"A good operative must ever be developing his skills," Atis retorted. "Besides, a little extra motivation toward vigilance is good for everyone!"
"Vigilance, my hat!" Augustus grumbled as he passed Renata's bedroom door. "If we were any more vigilant we'd be too scared to move altogether!"
Renata certainly fit that category! As her habit had become, she leaned her head down over the bed to make sure Atis had not planted anything to grab her feet when she slipped out of bed.
Two days, and all they could manage to do was annoy each other and argue. Carsius had tried to capitalize on the victory of the schools by holding a war council the next day, but Atis would not cooperate, Augustus would not stop talking, and Laurel refused to speak unless everyone was silent and listening to her.
At least Barmier was not so obtrusive; his only fault was the way he could move so silently that he could sneak into the room behind anyone and watch them for several minutes before he was detected—and this was something he did out of habit. Gorrmunsa seemed to think Kytarr infinitely superior to Elves or humans, and thus he believed he had a right to demand his space. It did not help that the heat in Eillumaeia was making him shed all over the house. Renata had tried sweeping the hair out of the house and off the furniture, but the amount of work was too much for her, between cooking the meals and helping Deej prepare analthraxine, which process irrevocably soiled nearly every dish in the kitchen beyond repair.
Gorrmunsa reserved the gigantic pillars in the great hall for sharpening his claws, he slept—undisturbed—in the upstairs left-corner guest room, and when he desired to groom himself, one had to be extra-cautious not to burst in upon him unawares. Augustus did so once and almost could not retreat fast enough.
Renata threw on her clothes—checking the pockets for more booby traps—and ran downstairs. Atis and Augustus were arguing again. It was going to be a long day.
Carsius stopped her on the way to the kitchen.
"Good morning, fair maid," he saluted her, "Where is Laurel?"
"I have not seen her this morning," Renata hedged. She dropped an awkward curtsey and dashed away.
Carsius soon found Laurel on the gable below her window, staring toward the Temple University dominating the landscape.
"I take it you find the house too crowded now?"
Laurel flinched at his voice, but did not turn. "Does the Black Hand employ any female operatives? Surely then the headquarters would at least be clean, if not silent!"
Carsius sat upon the wide window ledge. "One of the first lessons I had to learn as a Black Hand initiate is that I would not always be able to pick my team."
Laurel huffed in irritation. "So that's it, you're stuck with a horde of nagleru*, so just live with it and try not to get killed by friendly fire?" *Andarian for "apes"
Carsius chuckled, "That's what I thought, too. But then my mentor helped me take a step back and, rather than focus on everything they were not good at, instead try and pinpoint the areas in which their skills—or lack thereof—could be put to the best use."
Laurel considered her situation. "Well, I suppose the Kytarr is the only operative with the ability to turn the analthraxine into vapor, and the Ewok is the one who knows how to make it," she conceded. "But the newcomers, Barmier and Atis—"
"Are the perfect pair of saboteurs," Carsius finished for her. "Atis, as he has so ably demonstrated, can fashion a booby trap or weapon out of ordinary household furnishings. Barmier can infiltrate any space big enough to hold him imperceptibly." He raised his eyebrows at her. "These are but hard skills, Laurel, the results of specialized training. I am told you have the ability to see a person's character from the very start. Such a thing takes most humans an extended amount of time to discover. What sorts of traits can you see in the others that make them valuable team members?"
Laurel closed her eyes and pictured each operative using her Elvish gift of Inner Sight.
"Well, Deej is wise and patient, and when he is not distracted with producing analthraxine, he can usually keep the others in line. Gorrmunsa...is cautious, and can sense danger early enough to avoid it."
"Very good," Carsius congratulated her, "Who else?"
"Well, you, Carsius, are an impartial and natural leader, able to orchestrate a strike that plays to each operative's strength, instead of only focusing on your target."
"And what of Barmier?"
"Barmier—is loyal, and obeys orders without question."
"What about Atis?"
Laurel opened her eyes; she did not want to think about the one person who at the moment invited the most scorn. "I don't think—"
"Hey, Cap and Gown!" Augustus poked his head through Laurel's door and spotted his captain sitting in the window. "Are we going to have a war council today?"
Carsius shook his head at his enthusiastic lieutenant. "We'll be there," he promised, "get everyone gathered if you can."
"Will do! Though I'm not sure if Gorrm will stand being in the same room as that truant, Atis! They're liable to be at each other's throats, so don't be too long!"
"Thank you, Augustus," Carsius dismissed him with a wave. Laurel returned along the roof-pitch, so Carsius stepped inside to let her return to the room.
"What about you, Carsius," she asked, "What did you see in him?"
Carsius smiled; he recalled the way he had looked down upon Augustus when the overeager young boy had applied to be his squire (only a distinguished squire could be initiated to Black Hand cadet-hood); he had been convinced of no good thing in him, that Augustus would prove a worthless squire and an empty-headed fool. "Augustus is no fool; he can be very shrewd, even if tact is not one of his strengths. He'll see loopholes in even plans that I make, and he will seek out a solution till he finds the best one. He may object to an initial order that seems unwise to him, but once he begins a task, he will see it through to the very end."
Carsius looked at the graceful Elf-maiden beside him, "Even one as difficult as protecting you from the demon-worshiping Elitinati."
Laurel nodded, but the pensive frown did not leave her face.
"What is it?" Carsius asked.
"Ra'dith," Laurel answered, "I wonder where she is staying."
"Have you not seem her since—"
"Since she saved my life twice in a single day? No," Laurel answered.
"I would be wary of her, Laurel," Carsius warned. "Free agents like this Ra'dith who can disappear at a moment's notice, and seem to come from nowhere at all may appear as guardian angels, but must not be relied upon. Do not worry about her; you have a team," he laid a hand on her shoulder, "and we won't disappear on you if we can help it!"
The two departed down the stairs to the "council" waiting in the parlor.
"Believe me," Laurel murmured, surveying the motley crew engaged in covertly teasing one another, "there have been times in the last week when I wished at least some of you would!"