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We marched back to Yamurik’s opium compound. I was numb. The dark closed me in and the sounds of my company behind me were muffled. What I saw and smelled and heard all came as through a thick wrapping of cloth, distant shapes and shadows of sound and life. My chest was constricted and my wound was warm, but also far away.
Uruverres was there. She had ridden ahead. Horses heaved in the yard, giving off steam in the light of lanterns.
The sight of her shook me from myself and I finally noticed the drizzle, motes dropping through the gold globes of light of the lanterns. The wind had come up and its gusts turned the rain on its side. I was soaked, shivering. My skin was ice.
Uruverres had brought a few of her subordinates, her personal slave, a few of the other corporals. She came forward as I halted my company and saluted, like a man possessed. I had no memory, no thought. I simply did. All I could feel was my pulsing wound and the cold pressing into me against it.
She took my hand, said something. I was an inspiration. My zeal was admirable. Lonireil needed people like me. To the rest, heed my example, and so on, and so forth. I smiled a little and thanked her as I strove to convince myself of the rightness. She and de Trastorces and the judicator had all been so pleased. Why was my heart cold? Because it was wrong. It was a failing. It was all that was left of what I had been, which was weak, a victim, worse than shit. I caught sight of my brass star glinting and I remembered.
I was afforded a little rest, after that. “Two days,” Uruverres said. “You are relieved. Rest. Heal. This is an order.”
I retired to the barracks and lay in my bunk, staring at the shadowed ceiling. I turned, rolled, the bed too hot, my bones unable to rest. Finally I arose and went to the little closet that was the barracks office, and I sat at the desk with an oil lamp and the smell of ink in my nostrils. I emptied an inkpot, writing Lonireilan words over and over and over, the pen’s scritch filling my ears, roaring, until the ink ran out and I was pressing the words into the paper. My mind raced even as my eyes closed against my will. When I awoke I was slumped over a ledger filled with meaningless repetitions of words. My words. My language.
The next day, Ecena got me my report, all in Lonireilan. I had the time to read it, and satisfaction set into me as a realized I could, or at least I could understand most of it. I made sure to comment on its contents to her, to let her know I had seen through her attempt to confound me. My confidence grew.
I followed Yamurik. Waiting, resting alone, was no good. When I did that, I remembered things. Instead, I followed him at his fine house, outside his office. I had no duties, so for a few days I was his shadow, and he hated me. I delighted in waiting in silence outside his door till he came out, or standing over his shoulder when he wrote.
When Mire Storm arrived the second morning after, they sat by a fire and drank coffee and spoke in low voices. It didn’t much matter what they said – just that they had to hide their words from me. When she left, I followed, remembering Weckar’s warning.
She went to the market and bought food. I thought she would lead me to something incriminating when she left, cutting down an alley into the worker’s housing district. The streets were narrow and the houses in disrepair, broken plaster and brick shored up with mud. Instead, she found a few children, two girls and a boy. They wore rags and were dirty. I guess their parents had died in the fighting. She gave half of her food to them and they went back into one of the hovels.
She walked by the river for a while. It was cold. Damp. The river was high with the recent rains and churned in a muddy torrent. The fields around were desolate and the hills in the south hidden in fog, the clouds a dull sheet. She sat a while while I shivered and tried to stay out of the cold some distance back, by a few shacks in one of the poppy fields.
I took my eyes off her for a matter of seconds. She was a hundred yards away across a mowed field, barren but for the fallen stalks of the poppies. Beyond the river was nothing but more fields and the Lonireilan fort some ways east. I stood in the ley of a wood shack, hugging my own arms for warmth, wrapped in a cloak. Behind me were more fields, hundreds of yards to the city. There was no possibility that what could have happened did so, but here we are.
My teeth chattered. I looked down, kicked the dirt, looked up, and she was gone. I strode out from the shack, staring around, but she had disappeared. I whirled back to run to the city, and there she was.
She thrust out a bare hand and made a sound, air through her teeth. I staggered as if my leg had been kicked. The straw of the fallen stalks stirred, as if in breeze, and scratched at my trousers and the mud and cold chased the warmth from my leg. Before I could even raise my head, a cold steel edge touched the base of my neck.
“I thought you’d go away if I sat for a while.” Her voice was stone on stone. “You’re a persistent little piece of shit.”
“It’s my duty.”
She snorted. “I’ll slice your head off.” My breath froze in my chest. “Properly, I might add, in just one stroke – and put up a flag with my picture on it on this spot, and do you know what would happen?” “She answered herself without waiting. “Nothing. And I wouldn’t even need the flag.”
The blade disappeared and my breath returned. I was on the verge of pissing myself. I glanced up and she stepped back a pace. “Get up. The mud’s cold.” I stood and she sheathed her curved sword and then stood, measuring me, while I tried to guess what to do. I was frozen. Run? Attack, try to take her by surprise? I was too close for her to draw her sword again, I knew that. Three paces, they had told us in practice. A man can run the distance of three paces in the time it takes another to draw his weapon. Something told me that rule did not apply to Mire Storm. So run. Or wait. She could have killed me already.
All my joints ached, not from the fall, but something else. In my mind, I saw again what she had done: she’d cast out a hand and hissed, or breathed, and my leg had flown back as if hit with a cudgel. So, instead of the things I had thought of, I asked a question.
“How,” I said, “did you do that?”
She smiled, a goblin smile. “Ask better questions. Do what?”
“The – ” I didn’t know any words for it. I thrust my hand out and staggered.
“Ah.” She lifted her chin. “A simple Crade technique. It’s in all the stories.” So it had been. I remembered Ecena’s report. The Crade were sword-mages, legends and tall tales. Their abilities were myriad, too fantastical to be true, and their order was so secret and sparse the entire report had consisted of tales and suppositions.
“And,” I said, “that is how you moved while appearing to remains still? I only thought I saw you by the river?”
“Oh, I was there. For most of that time.” She didn’t seem about to explain further. “Your brains aren’t entirely rotted shit. My turn.” She pointed, back toward the shack, and I gratefully returned to the ley, out of the wind. My steps were dogged by pain. My knees, hips, my back: all were sore as if I’d spent all day running. Every joint was rusted, and she hadn’t even touched me.
She leaned against the wall, watching me. “Do you know why she says for you to watch me?”
“Weckar?” I looked at the dirt. Her eyes were too much. “To report?” My confidence was shot, once again.
There was a space of silence, as if she was shaking her head. “You’re hers. She’s in you. That woman is ridden by a spirit, an old and powerful one. She shared your blood, yes? Killed one of your kin in sacrifice, and so, took part of you, too. She can see you, see through you. She’s watching me.” She went quiet. “Look at me, boy.”
I didn’t dare disobey. I looked up and Mire Storm stared through me. “She’s watching me through you, and now, she can be sure that I know.”
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