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I did not manage to speak to Yamurik before we made the checkpoint at the border of Avandeil the next day.
Until then, the Hand spoke little. A dark pall was over the caravan. Ecena and Ahdan rode at the front without waiting for my orders, and I didn’t think of giving them commands to the contrary. I suppose I hoped that some concessions would soften their memory of my failure.
At midmorning, with the heat rising, we neared the checkpoint. Ahead, the dry grasses greened as they rose into the foothills. I looked back to ensure the last of the caravan was coming without delay and that none of the raiders who had outwitted us were watching.
The road had risen more than I’d realized. It fell away below, a long, gentle slope of yellow in a waving, gray field. The plains were marred by the dots of trees and scrub plants, by dark cracks of arroyos, by seams like folds in a dun cloth. Behind us, the sky had grown dark as smoke as thunderheads built and roiled up. A storm, on its way south to the mountains to match my mood. A fitting portent.
At the base of the foothills, we found many workers in loincloths or sacklike trousers. They were hard at work on a wall, stretching away for leagues to east and west, five yards high. Lonireilans in white armor patrolled about them in fours, pale-faced men on camelback with long lances. There was a gap in the wall, a future gate but now just a way through the work where the road passed. Dozens, hundreds of wagons and hundreds more camels and oxen bore stone out of the mountains, wood for the walls. On high timber towers men kept watch with great handcannons, heavy iron weapons with silver filigree and little curls of smoke rising from their wicks. Their bearers watched us, the black mouths of their guns following us, lowered but ready, as the caravan processed up the hill and made way for stone-laden carts and braying camels and troupes of soldiers.
By the time we reached the checkpoint village, the wind was coming in strong, kicking up the dust of the square. Low timber buildings surrounded us, higher warehouses behind them, carriage houses and stables scattered throughout. Other traders were shouting and arguing with tariff men and customs officials in bright yellow robes. Squads of mercenaries loitered, some going about offering their services, others waiting to depart with their new, temporary masters. Above all the noise and furor, a house of yellow, cut stone looked down from a higher hill where it perched, narrow arching bridgeways and curling towers and pointed, elegant windows. Greenish sigils shone in the fading light from on the stone and brass ornaments hung above doorways. More Lonireilans patrolled the walls around it and stared down from the checkpoint customs-house rooftops and watched from towers. If I had raised a spear in anger, a dozen crossbow bolts and as many burning lead bullets would have tear me apart.
My soldiers went to the nearest barracks for supplies. Yamurik’s guards, the very few that remained, left after collecting their much-reduced pay. Ecena accompanied me as I followed Yamurik and his attendants to one of the customs houses.
The woman that greeted us was tall, skeletal, gray-haired. Her Lonireilan was so proper I could scarcely follow it. She stood on a timber porch and stared down imperiously, with her clerks at her sides and officers, men in white armor with short, sharp swords, watching carefully. She and Yamurik spoke and there was a good deal of talk of me and Ecena as well as blame cast on the Lonireilans.
Nabani raiders had carried off a portion of Yamurik’s opium on Lonireil’s doorstep. His shipment was late, and less than expected. Blame was cast, at the Lonireilans, and then at their representative in his contingent: me. There was little to say. That I had killed a handful of raiders? No. I had failed.
* * *
We waited while the thunderstorm blacked the sky and churned the dust to mud. We waited while sheets of hard rain lashed at our tent, for there was no room in the barracks.
Traveling back to Onappa-ka, we went with wagons half-laden, for Yamurik had not been able to buy all the supplies he wanted. This made his mood fouler, and we did not speak at all during the fortnight’s journey.
Onappa-ka was much the same. We had a barracks near Yamurik’s compound, which had grown larger and greater. He had fifty wagons and four hundred oxen just to pull them. A thousand laborers went to his fields in the day, a thousand to his opium vats at night. The fires never slept. Smoke belched from the towers. Now he spent little time at his offices, instead leaving that responsibility to clerks and partners. He stayed at his house and his gardens, or traveled, or entertained lofty guests and visiting businessmen from Lonireil and Canifar and Ria Vancha. Runners went to and fro all day, bearing him news and bearing back his decisions.
In the summer, it was hot and wet. The fields were green with ripening poppies, but they had not had their second bloom yet. Lonireilans guarded the walls of Onappa-ka, and new homes were being built for the settlers who had come up from the south to work and farm and till gold from the fields and squeeze it from Serehvani sweat.
When I arrived, I went straight to report, as I knew I must. Eventually, my report reached de Trastorces.
Estevo was called. Ecena and Ahdan. Finally I.
De Trastorces met me in his offices in the keep below the hill. Weckar was not there, thankfully. Two lieutenants stood by the captain.
He questioned me on the raiders and our attack. What we had found. What we gained. Why I had left the caravan, and what we’d lost.
His hard, pale eyes glared out from a hard, pale face. His brow reddened at my answers.
“So.” He drew a breath and blew it through his nostrils. The lieutenants stared straight ahead, but I thought one of them had been about to grin at me. “I am supposed to believe that you, a Nabani, did your utmost to defend our cargo when, to my mind, it appears that you led your force away in order to leave Lonireil’s interests unguarded?”
I was stricken. I must have opened my mouth and closed it, but made no sound.
“We lost thousands of impexas. Yamurik’s loss is even greater, and he is demanding recompense from us for it. How long do you think it will take for you to earn that money?”
“Sir, that is not what happened.” It occurred to me that I’d never thought to be paid. I had food and a place to sleep. I was alive. For now. “We didn’t leave them to be attacked. I swear, sir.”
He swatted the air and stood, thumping the table. “If your people’s stories didn’t corroborate yours, I wouldn’t believe it. As it is, it appears you only failed, sergeant, instead of betrayed. You don’t seem a traitor, but you seem incompetent.” I waited. He breathed again, then sat. “You’re relieved of command. Ecena will be sergeant. She saw the danger and went back and saved part of the caravan. You and your other corporal…” he looked aside at one of the lieutenants, who checked a paper in his hand as my heart turned to wet mud.
“Estevo Nabrera, captain.”
“Nabrera. You and he are to be lashed and retained in service as conscripts in your current unit. Three hundred lashes in the muster tomorrow. You’ll parade your unit up and transfer your authority to Ecena at noon.”
I must have been escorted out. The next thing I remembered was telling Estevo, back in the barracks.
We sat at our little officer’s table, a rickety wooden thing to one side of the small canteen. It was late and no one else was about. I wouldn’t tell Ecena. She could find out at the last moment. I didn’t need her smug face till then, and then I would have other things to pay mind to.
Estevo sat, wordless, till his cigarette burned to his fingertips and he swore and shook it away. He sucked his finger and gave me a sideways look.
“We could run. Tonight. You and me.”
I shook my head and studied the wood grain of the table. “They’d catch us.”
“Not if we took extra horses.”
“You’re scheming again.”
“No, I don’t want to be whipped again. Lick of shit. Hang this place, and hang de Trastorces.” I shushed him, in case someone might come in to hear, but he waved me off. “No, hang him. Hang this whole thing.” He subsided back into his seat.
I clenched my jaw. “Tomorrow I’ll try to… I’ll ask for your lashes. It wasn’t your fault.”
“They’ll just say I should have stopped you or disobeyed and ran off with Ecena.”
“No, it’s not right. It was my fault.”
We didn’t say anything for a minute. Estevo reached for his pouch, but had no more tobacco. He swore again.
“No. I’ll take my lashes, il-Lonireil. You and me.”
“And the rest can hang,” I finished. I meant it.
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