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I raced down to meet Uruverres on the step, out of Yamurik’s earshot – but he followed. Before the shouting had finished he was there, listening, while my face burned and I winced back from Uruverres’ rage.
“You,” she said. “Are not a leader. You are a spoiled idiot child.” The words thudded into me, fists in my guts, slaps to the face. “Pathetic. Is this what Lonireil is? Your name is a joke, an insult. Lay in the mud.” I looked up at her, confused. She repeated it, and down I settled, laying in the mud. “That is what you are. Welcome home. I should call you son of the dirt.”
Without raising a hand, she diminished me. I felt tears, and only my desperation to hide them let me distract myself from what she said. Yamurik was watching. Ahdan and the others I was meant to command were watching. This time, though, I could not respond. I felt naked, a child, stripped and humiliated, small, pathetic, worthless. “It is not your place to beat conscripts, subordinates or not. It is mind. You are mine to beat, if I choose. My piece of meat in armor. If I tell you to die, you’ll do it. If I tell you to lay in the mud, you will.”
Uruverres blew out a breath, straightened, and lowered her voice. “Get up.” I did. “Where,” she asked, “is this Mire Storm, now?”
“Gone,” I said. I was staring at my feet. The words came out a whisper and my voice broke, flooding a new rush of color to my face. Another humiliation. It would be the talk of the barracks, along with that I couldn’t raise my hand to the conscripts. How would I command? Punish or correct?
“What?” I wasn’t looking, but I felt her gaze burn back to me.
I scarcely remember the rest of it. I rotted; my stomach, my heart, turned to wet filth inside me. She pointed into my face. “Once more, il-Lonireil. I won’t have incompetents as subordinates. Fail once more, and you’ll be a conscript again, if you’re lucky.”
Yamurik chuckled. Uruverres shot him a look and left, and conscripts who’d lingered nearby picked up speed in their patrols or suddenly took strong interest in the state of their armor coats or of the minutia of their duties as they turned away.Only Ahadan approached, grinning, as I stood on the steps of Yamurik’s grand house, as ashamed as if I’d just pissed myself.
I stared at the stone and waited, but Ahdan said nothing. It seemed I could hear him breathing. A light whistling came from one of his nostrils. We waited, and out beyond the walls shopkeeps began hocking their wares. Oxen bellowed, wagons trundled. Children played and folk chattered about the rain and when it would return and if the cold would come to stay this week or next. Lonireilans marched by. Behind me, inside, servants went about their chores. A man came out and began trimming back flowers for winter in a pot at the bottom of the steps, clipping away the long stems. He heaped straw over the pot, to help protect the roots.
Ahdan didn’t move, and, when I made made my breaths even, I looked over at him, at his fat grinning face.
“Don’t you have work to do?”
He lifted his chin and breathed out again. Again I heard that whistle, just at the edge of hearing, and I wanted to choke him till he never breathed again. “Bad day, corporal?”
“It’s not your business. Get to work.”
He leaned on his spear lazily. “You going to hit me?”
I didn’t know what to say. I glared and he grinned back and then finally his stood up straight and bounced the butt of his spear a few inches off the ground, caught it. “This is going to change things a little. I wonder if Ecena will hear before I get back, or if I get to tell her.”
“You’ll tell her nothing.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You going to hit me?” he asked again.
“I’ll…” I trailed off. My tongue had fled and rage and embarrassment were pulsing through me in equal measures, hot waves that needled my skin and scalp. What could I do?
He waited a moment, then turned away, and I was left to watch the front gates, mercifully alone. Out in Onappa-ka, I heard the horn calling for the morning prayers to Lord Salat. I hadn’t prayed, not the way I was meant to, for some months, and the blowing of that horn, I horn I only had heard once or twice when visiting the cities, seemed to scold me. It, too, was a sound of shame. I spat at that horn, at the god I had once revered. His teachings had not come to pass.
Half the day I stood, side aching, bandage itching. My mind wriggled and worked and fought itself. The drubbing I’d taken set into me like stitches in my brain, and at times I became so addled and desperate I thought I’d vomit. The thoughts, the shame, buzzed about my head like flies. I saw no sign of Mire Storm again.
After noon we went to the practice yard. I was still too wounded to train, so instead I watched. I watched Ahdan swing about with his spear, watched him smash others to the ground with his shield, thrust half-an-armslength farther, move faster, batter harder. He was too big. Too strong. My mind worked and a cloud grew in my mind, black and shadowing, and drew down over my eyes till I was looking through smoke.
Evening. Training done, we were to go back to the fort one last time. It was execution day.
There were drums as we crossed the bridge, the fields. The poppy stalks were all harvested and half the fields had been scythed down. The stalks lay in piles, broad arcs where they’d been cut and had fallen in ranks. We climbed the hill to the new fort and the bleak buildings atop it to the beat of dire drums while the sun fell and the clouds came on, red and burning. I led my troupe, and Ahdan’s maddening, whistling breath followed me.
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