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I went along the way, supported under the arm by one of my escorts, a Lonireilan with a clean-shaven face who gave me a friendly grin, but said nothing I could understand. He spoke too fast, then not at all, looking a little disappointed that I couldn’t follow his speech.
First, down the hill, through the fields, where workers paused or glanced up for only a second before going back to their duties. Teams of Serehvani workers, scoring blades in hand, moved in ranks through the high rows and carved lines that bled milky resin on the seed pods of the poppies. The flowers were gone, but after the rains it was thought we might get one more harvest of the poppy tears before the next squall, and so they carved into the tough green flesh. Most of them were already scored, bled, and bore brown, spiderweb scars over their husks.
Across the bridge, into Onappa-ka. One of the Lonireilan soldiers went ahead when we neared the gates of the walled barracks compound. By the time my aid brought me through the gates, the Hand of the Knife had assembled. My breath caught. All of them stared, watching me.
The Tash was to one side, quiet, staring into the distance. Not far from her, Estevo stood with eyes darting, but he flashed a grin at the sight of me. Our sergeant, Uruverres, shouted for the rest to come to attention from her place beside the line. All of them, Tash and Estevo, the sad young men and women too new for me to know their names, Ahdan and glowering Ecena, straightened and went quiet. Some faces were absent; I remembered seeing them fall in the mud during the attack.
My aid brought me forward. My feet scuffed at the baked earth in the quiet. Uruverres, chin high, seemingly unwilling to look at me, came forward and blocked my view of my compatriots with her wide, stiff-uniformed chest. She fixed a pin on me, a small brass star on my breastbone. Her white uniform had two stars and a circle enclosing them in the same spot. Stepping back, she announced me in accented Serehvani. “For duties served to the Enlightened Empire of Lonireil, the High Conclave, to Prime de Juaron of Avandeil, and to Imperator Loroantes IV, long may he live; we hereby recognize the bestowing of the rank of Corporal on recruit il-Lonireil. Salute!”
The Hand saluted; Uruverres turned to me again, grasped my shoulder in a gesture of congratulations. I winced at her touch, but only a little, and I don’t think she noticed. Pride burst from inside me. “Well done. Serve your country and your comrades with honor.” I looked back to the Hand. Standing, saluting me. Waiting. I took my time, letting the sight, the idea, linger. They waited. I nodded to Uruverres, unsure of what to say. I’m sure I beamed like an idiot. When I finally turned on the Hand, lifted my fingers in salute, they finished their gesture and then Estevo gave out an unseemly whoop. A few of them joined him, clapping, laughing, and a moment later they’d surrounded me to shake my hand, offer thanks. They began currying favor. I stood in the middle of our practice yard, shaking at the nearness of so many, unwilling to push them back, holding back the tears from my eyes with my heart full to bursting.
* * *
The next day I crawled, aching, from my bunk before first bell, urged out by a few terse whispers in the dark from the night guard. He spoke Lonireilan, but I knew enough to recognize what he was saying, and that he wasn’t being insulting. I shivered and sweated into my uniform, every movement a struggle, my mind flitting over and again through the list of new duties I’d been given. I sat for a moment longer than I should have, polishing the single brass star on my white uniform.
I awoke Uruverres, then mustered the Hand. Waking them was my duty, now. Swaggering on a cane like an old general, I shouted my way through their bunkhouse and rapped at bedrails. When they lined up, I peered at buttons and uniforms, sought out smudges and stains, slapped an unshaven face and jerked on a knot of out-of-place hair hard enough to make it’ owner yelp. There was no chance Uruverres would find anything wrong for her first inspection of my command. She didn’t. With a sniff, she congratulated me again.
Everyone got a run outside in the rain for the unshaven face and the yelping, everyone but Estevo and Tash. I had them stay behind and help me learn Lonireilan. Estevo went around the room, pointing at things and swearing till I said the name right. Tash sat in a chair (in Lonireilan, a cuego) and was silent (“pe avorir.” I was learning).
That afternoon, we were all summoned for an event at the fort. That event was a trial.
We trouped up the hill in our ranks, me out front with Sergeant Uruverres. Me. I leaned on my cane and gritted my teeth and hoped with a wild desperation that none of the other corporals or sergeants could see how much I hurt. I hoped I didn’t look so proud, but instead dignified, strong, resolute. I must have grinned like an ox that got into Lord Salat’s offerings.
We filed into the muster in the walled fort. The pit outside had been filled in. Within the walls, we took places and stood at attention. Weckar waited on a platform, staring, silent, and de Trastorces came out in his armor, flanked by guards. In chairs too fancy for mud and muck still stained dark with blood, a group of dignitaries from Onappa-ka and from the Lonireilan province of Avandeil sat and waited, looking nervous. They were wrapped in furs and wools, dressed in dark colors. Servants stood over them with umbrellas. I saw Yamurik, the rich poppy farm owner, amongst them, scowling, eyes flicking around him and up to de Trastorces.
The captain spoke, shouting so all might hear. The sky above him was darkening, clear, and all around him white lamps had been lit with too-bright, alchemical flames. He gleamed almost as sharp and cruel as Weckar.
“Bring forth the accused,” he finally said. Soldiers at the door of what used to be the stables of the former trading post threw open the doors. The building was no longer a stables; the windows had been boarded over, the walls reinforced, gates nailed and chained. From within, more guards emerged, wearing their white armor. Vapors issued from within the building; the soldiers emerging looked like holy khren coming out of Lord Salat’s halls, surrounded by whisps of cloud and mysterious fogs in the bright light. In truth, what drafted out around them was stinking damp, the collected steam of caged people sweating, pissing, breathing in a musty old stall, awaiting judgement by the ones they had come to kill. They came out after the guards, poor souls, already dead. They knew as well as we did. I pity them now. At the time, a jeer ripped from my throat along with the rest around me, a howl for blood, a chant of disgusted scorn.
Most of them were Nabani. They were lined up, hemmed in by ours, while de Trastorces accounted their crimes. Destruction. Murder. Treason. They would be tried, as was right and fair under the rule of the province of Avandeil, of the Empire of Lonireil. A Judicator would come from Lonireil, and it would be fair, and they would be found guilty.
Next, though, he called out some of our own. I hadn’t noticed them, dirty, bruised, beaten, foul. They stood amongst the others and were indistinguishable.
They’d refused to fight, or turned on their fellows and joined the Nabani. They were like me, youths and conscripts, or Lonireilans who’d been taken from their homes in Avandeil. They, too, were traitors, but worse, they’d fought against their fellows. Friends and kin who’d depended on them, and they’d stabbed them in the back. These, I hated all the more. Looking at them, standing before the blinding lights in the dark, I felt the brass star on my chest glow and pulse and nearly burn, but it was only my imagining.
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