I called Vasily Avosha Brobov a liar. I awaited the knife, the hand on my throat. Perhaps, because she had asked, I would have some time to heal. My assertion would come before the tevkas, but not until I was well. In a matter of weeks, I would be brought to an earthen circle surrounded by howling mercenaries, blessed with salt and blood and ice, and there would face Vasily Avosha Brobov in combat for the truth of my words.
Ivanyaska smiled at me then. “You fought and reclaimed our reputation. You dare speak against a tevka. You are strong spirited, as I said. I would hear the full tale from your mouth. Tonight, in my tent, we will drink tea.” I was reminded of Lady Oulesur, goddess of smoke and prophecy from my home. Ivanyaska’s smile was veiled as if by smoke or time, and then faded.
“He cannot arise for at least two days,” the healer said from the corner.
“He can and will, if he is as strong as I think.”
I lifted myself on one elbow, groaning, and gave as much bow as I could from my position. “I thank you, Ivanyaska Broveschka Prupov.” My ribs lit with new fire but I hid it as best I could, which, I suspect from the contorting of my face, was not well at all. I lay back, wheezing. My head throbbed. “It is fine,” I said. “I have several hours yet to heal before I must move.” Ivanyaska gave a little snort, as of amusement, and left, and the healer returned to his work.
He pushed and prodded. Bones shifted. He stitched, needle and thread, and the thread felt most curious indeed as it slid through skin and tugged. The man made another concoction, stewing herbs in ox milk over the small brazier, giving off a sour-smelling steam. I retched as he put the cup to my lips. “What for?” I asked.
“To dull your senses. Your tooth must come out or it will rot and you will have a fever.” He must have seen my face. “This is Skertah alchemy, not some hedge-healer’s tea. It will aid you.”
“I need my wits later. Take the tooth, but keep your potion.”
He stared at me, then put aside the draught and took up instead a pair of black metal tongs. “Open your mouth, then, brave boy.”
I should have had the potion. The sound of metal on my tooth, of what came after, a sound which I felt between my ears, was the worst of it.
For some hours I lay and twisted. Each movement wracked my bound ribs, but I was unable to lie still. The healer brought me packed snow to hold against my jaw. “It’s good you kept your wits,” he said as I wordlessly moaned and held snow to my aching but somehow still numb jaw. “Such a stimulating mind.”
“Go ride a stick,” I believe was my reply, at which he chuckled.
At sundown, I arose. Each movement was a labor. It took longer than I’d have liked to don my coat and furs and stinking boots.
Out in the dark roadway, the smashed wagon was mostly repaired. We would move on in the morning, but in the west high clouds had gathered and blocked the stars. Fading red and violet lit them in waves from below, and in the army I had learned that meant storms to follow. It would be a hard day to travel, but I would be in the cart, resting, with any luck. Rasakanova Zhrovocha could hardly afford to lose more fighters after the green woman’s attack.
Each step burned and pulled my ribs. I hadn’t realized yet, but my legs ached too, from running and fighting and falling. While I trudged through mud and snow along the road, looking for Ivanyaska’s tent, Estevo caught me.
“Heshim,” he said, patting my shoulder. I almost fell. “Mother of shit, Heshim, shouldn’t you be resting?” He spoke Serehvan. Too many of the Khalugnorians spoke Lonireilan.
“I’ve been summoned to Ivanyaska Broveschka Prupov’s tent, for tea.”
Estevo laughed. He struck my back and again I staggered in the rough road. “Ox-lover,” I wheezed. “I have broken ribs, you shit-lick.”
“You’re the shit-lick.” He leaned close, whispering. I could smell the smoke in his breath. “Ivanyaska’s going to break you in half if you can’t take my tapping on your shoulder.”
“Tea, not that kind of tea. She wants to talk.”
“She wants you to to wag your tongue, at least.”
“Ox-lover,” I repeated.
The wagons were staggered along the roadway. Provka with scarves up to their eyes and hats pulled low patrolled around the outside of them, and tents had been set up in the shelter of the wagons. Snow came in a gentle fall, like sugar at the baker’s in Naban, mounding on a confection. I suddenly missed home, my own bed, my house, my family who I had not seen in eight years. Punam, who Weckar, the Lacquer-faced woman, had killed; Punam, whose face I would never see again. I turned my mind, rather than let it be further addled. “You smell of smoke,” I told my friend. “Where did you get it?”
“I wagered you’d be the last back, after the rest of us gave up and returned from the road. I bet that lizard Ukya you’d be the last back or not come back at all.”
“I’m pleased you profited from my perseverance, my friend. So, do I get some?”
“I smoked it all,” he said. His yellowed teeth glowed at me in the glow of a fire glinting beside the roadway.
“You keep saying so, but you raised them, not me.” He stopped and pointed. “Ivanyaska’s camped there, the tent closest to the forest. So why, if not…?” He made a lewd gesture.
“I can’t say, now.” I hesitated. Did I want to risk all the provka hearing more of the meeting? “She has questions for me.” Even that may have been too much. “I will tell you later.”
“Don’t forget me,” Estevo said, suddenly serious.
“As you forgot me, like a khren in your smoke?” His face fell and I put out a hand. “I don’t mean it. What did we say, Estevo, when we left?”
“You and me.” He looked up, met my eyes in the dark. We had said the words a hundred times, since I was taken by Estevo’s company eight years past.
“And the rest can hang,” I finished our impromptu verse. He nodded, and I pushed through the deep snow beside the road to Ivanyaska’s tent.
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