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I left the tent with a glowing knot of warm light in my stomach doing battle with the cold void, like the void of the Seducer’s promises, like the cold suggestion and the feeling brought on by the unknown, by a priest’s warnings, drawing in from all sides around it. I stood a few paces from Ivanyaska’s tent with the sky clear overhead and the cold digging back into me through my exposed face with needle fingers. I stood and went over her propositions, her promises of fortune and glory, and the promises of danger ahead. We would become the rulers of the Bear’s Tooth, and we would kill Vasily Avosha Brobov and all those he commanded. A tall order indeed.
My nose was cold and my eyes watering almost immediately. I started back for the healer’s wagon, my wounds slowing my advance as I tromped through the heavy snow. I had killed, in the Lonireilan army. I had been forced, and I had also killed of my own accord. Why did I feel this was different? Was it the planning? The intent? That, indeed, I had not felt before, and something about it turned my stomach in a way that the killing before had not. In Weckar’s service, in the army I had been pressed into with other sad children from Serehvan, we had killed without thought. We had done much without thought. The thoughtless place had been our only refuge from our horror. The idea reminded me of the holy men of Ria Vancha, who give up passion and thought to be free, to attain peace. Was it the same? Had I, unknowingly, touched the Perfect Emptiness that spirituals seek, in my own small, sad attempt to escape what I had done, and what had been done to me?
A fire circle glowed between black silhouettes ahead and provka laughed, passing a bottle. Estevo’s ridiculous accent rose above the other voices, a jest in Kalughri at our tevkas which earned him another swig. I changed direction, to round the cold dark on the other side of the wagon, to return to the road without having to stop and pretend at not knowing what I knew. The mood to jest and laugh was not on me. I needed to return to the healer’s wagon, to rest. The drink in my stomach was not a pleasant warming, but a coal, smouldering, waiting. It would wait three months before it was blown up into a blaze.
The healer had gone to his small tent, set up beside his wagon, but had left the little heater and fuel inside for me. I stoked it up, added a little more coal, left it near the cloth curtain across the back of the wagon so the smoke might mostly travel out and rise away into the night. My feet would be warm, and the rest of me would take care of itself beneath furs and the healer’s old stained quilt. I slept immediately, though shallowly, the restless sleep of liquor and of being too weary.
A sound stirred me I know not how long after. In my state I reacted slowly, too slowly. A gloved hand covered my mouth, smashed the back of my head into the thin straw mattress. A cold edge dug at my throat beneath it. What I at first had taken for darkness resolved into a figure as I struggled. My limbs were lead, my breath taken from me. Even as I tried to arise, pain blossomed out of my ribs. A spark shot through my jaw from where the tooth had been pulled. I feebly struggled at the hands on me, unable to breathe, then sagged back.
“Stay still and quiet, Heshim Nashak Na,” a harsh whisper said above me. “Still.” I ceased struggling, lungs empty, and saw bright motes of light as I suffocated. However, because I’d gone still, the hand moved somewhat and I gasped in a cold, biting breath. “Stay quiet or they’ll find you dead, understand?” It was Vasily Avosha Brobov. He smiled at me, a joyless grin hanging in the darkness of the wagon. The faintest silver glow came from the snow outside through the gaps in the curtain behind him. “I know you met with Ivanyaska. That sow.”
He didn’t let the words out. He punched the side of my jaw and tears welled in my eyes as the shock echoed all through me. Blood rushed from the empty, swollen socket.
“I said quiet, dog.” He pressed the knife to my neck. “You’re mine, now, dog. You do as I say. What did she want, for you to be her provka? Fine. If she claims you, you’ll go with her but you’ll do as I say, understand? Nod if you understand. You’re my provka.” He hissed out the words. “My dog.”
With tears in my eyes, I nodded. Helpless. The shames and miseries of my past rushed back and I was a child again. Vasily Avosha Brobov’s knife moved at my throat.
“You’ll say nothing to her, or you’ll die. Nothing to the rasakanova, or you die. Do you understand?”
Again I nodded.
“Whine. Like a dog.” It was all I could do not too. I whimpered at his command, merely let myself make the noise that had been building inside me. Shame flooded my face, my chest, hot and foul just beneath my skin. Vasily moved the knife blade to my face, below my eye. “Weeping. Just like a foreigner. Weak, pathetic pup. Do as I say, and you’ll live. That’s all you need to know, coward. Keep quiet about this, and do what I say when I say. Impress me, and I might even reward you.” He got up, moved away in the wagon. Again, his teeth flashed. “You’re my dog now, Nashak Na.”
He left, and I lay hurting and crying in the back of the wagon, alone. I struggled against my own sobs to keep quiet. No one could know. I could not let anyone see.
His dog. Nashak Na. Fatherless, clanless.
I was not his dog. This I resolved. A cold rage, a coward’s rage I thought it at the time, came to me. I would not oppose him openly. I would be clever. Cleverer than he, and crueler. I would wait, and I would use my fear. I would find the right place and time. Position. That was the lesson of my time with the Bear’s Tooth in cold Kalughnor. The lesson was Position. In the dark, alone, I wept and resolved to wait to kill Vasily Avosha Brobov.
My shame, my weakness, brought back the years in the Lonireilan army that I had forgotten, that had gone past me like fog in the night. But this time, I would not wait years to escape.
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