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Urnan grinned down at his work, but I could see the error I’d made in bringing bows. “He’s going to bleed to death.” I seized the man’s coat collar and lifted him. “Who were you going to meet? Who else is helping you? Tell me and we’ll help you.”
He groaned and spat. The hot flecks made me blink and I wiped with the back of my hand, bile rising in my throat even as I gasped from the effort of the fight and chase. Before I could say anything, he spoke.
“I’m not afraid to die. Lonnie ox-milkers. Do your worst, we won’t stop fighting you.”
His voice slurred. The blood from his leg was hot, damping my own trouser leg, filling a black circle beneath us. He was dying. The arrow had hit one of the vital channels and blood pumped out in thick spurts.
“Tell me what I want to know, or death will be far from the worst we can do,” I said, but his head was lolling. He slurred insults in response.
Urnan and I half-lifted, half-dragged him back to the intersection. His breathing grew weaker and his grip slacker. A grisly trail showed where we’d brought him from the alley. Urnan strutted and bragged, and I knew he could easily steal what glory remained of the night if our catch died. Then, the achievement would be the death of the smugglers, not the ending of the escapes. Urnan had abandoned me and almost gotten me killed. It was luck he’d come back when he did. Wasn’t it? The more I thought, the more convenient his arrival seemed. I had to deal with him.
Urnan watched over the dying smuggler while I went for aid. Soon, I found a crew of Lonireilan patrollers and told them where to meet me with a cart. Meanwhile, I ran back to Urnan and the smuggler, used my belt to tourniquet his leg, and we began carrying him up the road. The cart caught up with us halfway to the fort.
While we sat in the back, bouncing and jostling, the man stared. He stopped speaking. Blood made slippery the cart floor, and soon he was still. We arrived, but could not rouse him.
A sergeant in charge of the fort night watch ordered us to wait. Soon, Fahil and Hamed arrived along with the Tash, escorting the escapee family. They waited with us while the prisoners were taken away. Tash’s face was bleeding, and she went to the hospital.
Uruverres came, but stood some distance away and spoke to none of us. While the sky grew lighter and the snows let up, we waited, shivering and alone, beside a dying fire. None of us spoke. We were being watched, guarded, by a few members of the fortress garrison, who stood off from us a little.
I chanced a whisper to the others. “We have nothing to hide. If they ask where the equipment came from, just tell them it was me.” Fahil grinned and nodded enthusiastically. Urnan stared. Hamed gave a short nod. “Thanks, corporal,” he said under his breath.
“You look out for us,” Fahil agreed.
“I took them. I’ll take blame, and the rest of you will share the reward only. We did well tonight.” I looked at Urnan. “All of us.” His suspicious look cracked with a small upturning of his lip.
De Trastorces emerged, finally, from the fort. He spoke with Uruverres, then went back inside. She came to us and pointed at Fahil. “You first.”
“Sergeant.” I raised a hand. “Allow me to explain. They were following my orders.”
Uruverres raised a finger for silence, then pointed at Fahil again. “I said you first. Come on.” She led Fahil away in silence.
One by one she came for each of them. After their questioning, each left the fortress without a backward glance, headed back to town and our outpost in Yamurik’s compound. I was last.
Uruverres took me to a small room where de Trastorces waited. He was sipping coffee. The smell was intoxicating, but I knew I had to keep my wits.
The room was bare, the walls fresh planks. It was part of the new fort, the upper portion built atop the hill which had once been a cave house. Uruverres stood. De Trastorces sat at a small table in one corner, his legs crossed, facing me as if about to watch an entertainment. They sat me in a hard little chair at the center of the room, with a couple of lamps providing all the light. It was dim and stank of sweat and fear.
Uruverres’ broad, stiff-uniformed chest filled my view. She stood over me, glaring, in a long silence.
Finally she broke it with questions. I took responsibility for stockpiling unlisted equipment. I denied plans to sell it or give it to enemies.
She turned to de Trastorces. He nodded, and she returned her glare to me. “For stealing property of Lonireil, you’ll have two hundred lashes tonight at evening muster.”
My heart turned to cold dirt.
She turned her questions to the night’s events. Here was my chance to redeem myself, and to ensure my good effort was recognized. I put the lashes behind me and focused.
“Where did you learn of these smugglers and refugees?”
“Suspicion, ma’am. And I was told after the last escape that there were conspirators in Onappa-ka.”
“So the trap was yours.”
“And you did not inform me of your plans because…”
“Ma’am. Because…” I paused. Careful. My developing grasp of Lonireilan might betray me. I composed the next words in my head. “I wanted to show my plan was sound, alone.”
“Misguided, il-Lonireil.” I had no response. She said nothing more for a moment, then, “we had a report. The homes of the men you caught were searched. I have squads out rounding up three more of their compatriots based on information we found. We also discovered weapons and some of Yamurik’s opium, apparently stolen.”
I didn’t answer. It seemed like a test. What she was telling me was that I had been successful, despite the smuggler’s death, beyond my wildest hopes.
“What we’ve found is important.” She circled in front of me. De Trastorces stood up beside her and dabbed his mustache with a napkin. “This may have been the beginnings of an insurgent group. So that much was well done. And, because you’ve taken full responsibility for the theft of equipment, we’d like to reward the soldiers who followed your orders in helping bring these miscreants to justice.”
I named Fahil, Hamed, and of course, the Tash, as the ones who had aided me. “And Estevo.” They looked confused. “He didn’t aid directly, but he helped me plan. He is loyal and has a quick mind. He deserves some credit.”
Uruverres seemed to consider this. “And what of Urnan? He said he brought down the escaping smuggler.”
I shook my head and strove to come through as clear and honest. “He deserted us. Almost brought down the whole thing.”
“Indeed?” de Trastorces finally said. “But he claims to have been chosen to help.”
“He was, but he left.” I licked my lips. “The Tash can tell you. I mean, not tell you. But you can ask her. She was watching over me. She saw him leave. I killed the smuggler. Urnan returned in time to claim honor, unearned, for himself.”
They conferred, leaving me alone, and a moment later went to the door, called a runner, and gave him instruction. We waited in silence a long time.
When the runner finally returned, he whispered to Uruverres. She returned to me with a grave look. “Tash agrees that Urnan left just before the attack.”
It took all my effort not to blow out a breath of relief.
“For what you’ve done,” she paused. “We rescind the two hundred lashes.” This time, I did blow out that breath. “And sentence you to twenty-five.” My face must have fallen. “Your plan was good, but you should have informed me. What you did worked out well, but could have cost you and your team. Next time, bring me such a plan, and I will help you enact it.”
I set my jaw and nodded, and hoped they did not see me trembling. This was not the trembling of fear. It was rage. I was to be punished for my success. That they reduced the sentence was no matter.
I was escorted out to the yard. As I made for the fort gates, my pace slowed. My mind was racing, my fury high and hot. Punish me, when I had unearthed and led to the removal of an insurgent group? The reward of service was a light sentence, was to be whipped in front of the troupe.
I stopped and turned, instead of leaving, and went to the hospital.
The Tash wasn’t badly hurt, but her cut needed stitching. She sat, waiting, holding a reddening towel to her face, just inside. I took a place beside her in silence for a while. The tent was warm and full of strange, medicinal smells, not quite able to cover the lingering sweet-stench of rot, of sickness, of death. The medicos went about their business, attending to others.
“Uruverres talked to me.” I decided not to tell her the real story about Urnan. Better she had no idea. “You did well. As always.” The Tash made a brief grunt. Now, as usual, she sat staring at her knees, the ends of her hair in her eyes.
Her hand moved. On the chair’s arm, it shifted, and for a second I thought she was reaching out to me.
An adolescent impulse filled my mind, overtook my brain. A warmth that came to me only in my bunk, asleep, ignited and kindled inside me. I moved my fingers toward hers. Then, before they touched, we both drew away. The impulse in my head, so pleasant and urgent at first, rotted and grew foul. Our bodies, our skin touching… the very idea terrified me. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone touching me the way I had just imagined.
We sat in our chairs, drawn apart, but neither of us willing to move away.
* * *
Dear friends, thus ends the first chapter of my life, and the first part of my service to Lonireil. And though this is a sort of ending, the tale goes on.
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