Chapter Twenty Two: The Steps to War

 

Evandir 2 copy

Evandir (looking scruffy as he probably does more often than not- by Mell)

 

Everything went according to the usual way of things when no accommodation has been made for peace. A half day spent in expressions of mutual respect and hostility couched in the highest forms of language…. I paid rapt attention to the Knight Rebmun, fixing all my attention on him, instead of his companions, and I began to observe some small things about him that piqued my curiosity. Every time he looked towards the sun, a flash came from behind his visor, a small thing and very quick so I knew he wore lenses inside his helmet as Aquitan did. Also there was one moment when a minister handed him a sheaf of papers and fumbled. I thought for an instant that I saw Rebmun’s hand move at an impossible angle. A form of double-jointedness? It would be well to know these things in the coming days, especially were I to meet him on the battlefield.

The King sent summons for me before I left the Fortress, so I did not escort our enemies to the Gates that night.

“Sire,” I saluted him when we had closed the doors.

He seemed tired, although an excited gleam burned deep in his eyes.

“Corpsmaster Ti,” he said. “Tell me of the disposition of your troops for the morrow.”

#

I had my field masters around me. I had just laid before them the orders of the King. Big Macc cursed quietly in sentences, as if he carried on a conversation with himself.

“Well now, at least I understand Liit’s birds, ” Mell said dry as a bone.

“I am a little stupider, I guess, than the rest of you,” Berann admitted, her stoic features unmoved. “Explain this to me. In simple language, please, since I am so very lacking.”

“You see the disposition the King has directed for our fighters. It might seem reasonable to some, but given the difference in force between these two armies, it traps us, too close to the Wall for retreat.”

“Oh that,” Berann said. “That I understood. No, I meant the birds.”

“If a king gives orders that his troops should die it would be well that they know it is for a good cause. And is this a good cause?” Liit asked.

Mell straightened her shoulders and moved forward so I knew she wanted to answer.

“Our King has been negotiating with Saahr of the North, using the pigeons we have seen in such odd patterns of flight. Months before the week we guested our enemies, he had an understanding with King Saahr and with the Knight Rebmun that would end in peace, but not the peace of the little snail retreating into its shell, that I once recommended to our Corpsmaster,” Mell said. “He is selling his kingdom to Saahr of the North. Why? To make the peace he wants on terms that he sees as advantageous, he will force our surrender by killing off the main body of our forces before the wondering eyes of our own civilians, massed to watch from the Wall. Saahr will then reopen negotiations that will render to our King what he wants and give us over as a slave state to Saahr and his army. The good news,” she added bleakly, “is possibly we will avoid pillage, this time.”

“I want to know what you have learned,” I said to Mell, and I felt a greater anger towards her than I had ever before experienced. “Pray tell me how long you have been privy to knowledge you’ve concealed from your Corpsmaster. How do you know of this correspondence between our King and Saahr?”

“I told you that someone drew circles within circles,” she said. “Until I caught the third assassin who came to Prince Evandir’s room in the night, I had no proof.”

“Who was it?”

“You will remember him. Jaston, the man oathed to the Wall who cheated in the trials and had your mercy then.”

“And what did you with him?”

“He gave me only a fragment of my desired answers, and I killed him. I am sorry Ti,” she said, not using my title, intending the apology purely personally. “I pressed him too hard. I had great urgency. I should have waited, but I found him because Laymaster came to me and said he had information, and you continued ill even through last night yourself. So I went to gain knowledge.

“I thought I had better learned my trade than this proves. I do better when I am under obedience to another other than myself. He spilled more than his blood for me. The final proof I desired is obvious in these instructions from our King Matthew tonight.”

“Explain.”

“You, because of your skills as a healer, learned of the disease  Prince Daniel has. King Matthew presumed that since it was a type of disease passed from generation to generation, and he has it not, Queen Heme must have cuckolded him to conceive such a child. Since the King has no issue from his previous marriage he has the desperation of an old King who sees his lineage fail. So do not look to Prince Daniel having a long life, whatever the present outcome. He is forfeit,” Mell shook her head once as if to shed the thought or deny it.

“While the King may have believed for a time in your discretion, Corpsmaster, the more he thought on it the more certain he became that not only would a sickly bastard inherit his throne, but that you could not keep such a promising secret private. Of course you would share it with your fellows of the Corps, and your friends among the Burgmasters. He did not realize that rumor runs faster than any other messenger, and that through the years of Prince Daniel’s life the whole City has known of his illness. No indiscretion of yours would do more than add certainty to well-established suspicion, and because of human nature if you had ever been indiscrete, he would have heard long ago. However the King, focused upon himself and his pride, has ignored the frequency of such ills that show up in the offspring of the Guard, who spend so much time in his palace. These ills are not simply based upon breeding and lineage. Rumor speaks that there is something in the Fortress itself that affects the children born from its residents. Isolated as he is, our King does not realize that we all believe the Prince is his true son, and that our Queen was true.

“You stand too high in the affections of the City for him to dismiss you or execute you. He is canny enough to understand that very well. Therefore, the night we found the underground refuge, he made that arrangement for us to meet travelers who never existed, and that night sent assassins hired from the priest Kinspater’s militia and Northern bandits to kill us before our return to the safety of the Wall.

“How could he or any other imagine the magical solution that came to us? I suppose you still do not know where the knowledge of that hiding place under the rocks came from? Thane Gehir?” Mell raised her black eyebrow.

“No,” I said as the strange memory brushed my mind again. “No. It had to be my naiman, the older one, not the naiman child, with whom I entered contact that I might then cure its nacssssis.”

The unfamiliar word came out in a long hiss and for a moment no one spoke.

“Gods have mercy,” said Mell and Macc made a gesture against evil spirits.

“At any rate,” she went on, “no one could have guessed you would save us in such a way. But it happened, and the King, seeing further conspiracy where none lay, took out his anger on the next potential accomplice of the Queen, her friend and guard, Haemerick. Sylva came to you gambling you would help. You caused that body, living or dead, to disappear as with Sylva.

“He had you witness his execution of Queen Heme, and after that gave you the loaded responsibility of keeping the enemy Prince Evandir in your care. Evandir should have died the night of the assassins, and Knight Rebmun would have shed no tears. There is a contest between them that they conceal well in the audiences, but I have heard rumor that makes me believe that Prince Evandir is expendable, both to King Saahr and to the Knight, even though Evandir shares blood with his King.

“Had this gone as planned you would have been put to the Question and died for your failure to protect your guest. Or if you proved tough enough to provide a better end, you could have participated in an event in Methen Square. I am sure Kinspater and the Priest of Hua would have prayed for you right vigorously, by the King’s command.”

I think that it took all of us watching her a while to begin to feel how deep the anger in Master Mell ran, but from this point on, not one of us stirred a finger, or even nodded.

“You see that you presented a particular problem to the King. In normal times with a situation where he did not trust or like his Corpsmaster, he could simply order that person down from the post, or even have them tried and executed for some crime. Really very easy, but not with you. King Matthew is too aware of your peculiar relationship with the citizenry of this City. He knows of your dinners with the Quillmaster and Grassmaster; he knows of the coach ride you had for private talk with Quillmaster, he knows of the two long winter evenings Grassmaster and his crony, Westside Laymaster, spent with you in the inn of the Yellow Rose and elsewhere. And more. Things my Corpsmaster chose not to share with her officers, just as they chose not to share certain things with her. Choice is contagious, Master Ti, and we all now have the disease.

“He saw the tides of politics and so he supported the giving of the horse Kassh, also because that would keep you believing you had his trust. Now King Matthew has made some kind of a treaty he has not revealed. He may believe that the fecundity of the women of the North is superior to ours, and he may look to a new marriage, new children and powers beyond this land.

“Yet I believe it is simpler than that. He no longer trusts us because he has broken trust with us, so now he will betray us before we can betray him. Be sure that if we soldiers die in great numbers tomorrow on the field, he will frighten the people of the City and the Innerlands, ask them what they see in the will of the Gods, and force his settlement down their throats in guise of a great peace. And he will enjoy his final revenge upon the lad who has masqueraded as his son.”

Datch now was shaking her head.

“I have seen illnesses like this bleeding one show in families with no history of them. The Guards, as Mell said, have more of such problems in their families than the City folk. It always shows in boys, for they are weaker, and all families have few enough of them anyway,” Datch said. “But I do not think we should look for rationality any more in our liege lord. I have no stomach to persuade him of our faith in the lost Queen.”

“Still there is one thing I want to know,” Mell said, and considered me, her voice going soft. “My Corpsmaster, can you tell me, were all the officers and ministers of King Saahr privy to the plans by which our kingdom is made forfeit, or not?”

I remained silent, thinking.

“I must think. Consider. They came confident, and they came with fixed orders for the attack upon us, with no leeway to negotiate a peace other than the peace of our defeat,” I said. “Yet I think that is all they knew. I believe this Knight Rebmun holds orders from his King that the others do not possess. I do not think Saahr’s army expect us to be delivered into their hands tomorrow. Those soldiers expect a good fight and a hard one.”

“So, do we then disobey our King’s instructions for battle array?” Big Macc said, his voice deep and harsh; no one could answer him.

“One step after another,” I said, speaking my thought aloud. “Mistress Mell had the right of it that night we conferred in the rooms below the Arena. Look now where we are led.”

“To death tomorrow by the rings in our noses,” Cascada said bitterly.

“No,” I said. “We choose.”

Then I told them what I had thought in the Inn of the Crossroads, that our oath was to the Wall, not to the man. That we fought for our kingdom, our people, and not the King.

“You make this decision,” I said, and looked at their intent naked faces. I could not tell you even now what I hoped, for as soon as I hoped one thing, I reversed myself.

“To avoid the apparent but unsaid will of the King is one thing,” Zanel said. He let his breath out hard. “I still cannot disobey his direct order. I have an oath.” He opened his hand and looked down upon the diagonal scar.

“I will obey the King,” said Berann, making no explanation and no apology, stepping forward with Zanel.

“‘If we know we are the King’s subjects‘,” Macc quoted, hunching his shoulders.

“‘If his cause be wrong...'”

“‘…our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us,'” Mell finished for Liit and Ratcatcher as if they stood in church practicing liturgical responses.

“‘But if the cause is not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make‘,” Cascada finished as she joined them.

I unsheathed my sword and laid it on the floor between us, the hilts to them, and saluted.

“We carry our orders to our captains,” Mell said, returning my salute.

“I obey,” I said to them, but I did not break my salute until they had all left the room.

Then I recited names; Nathada, Glima, Hret and Eac, Nym and Grasshopper, and on. So many names, so many dead, but I said them all into the empty room, taking my time so that with each name came memory, clear and vivid. We fight for each other, and we do not forget.

“The only master of necessity,” I added aloud, “is obedience.”

#

I stood upon the Wall that night and watched the rosy glow of our enemies’ fires.

Some things abrogate all logic. Sounds like the shrilly vibration of the tiny frogs in early spring, filling that vast cold hollow of the swamplands with an ambitious chorus. Of course, none of them mean to be part of a chorus — in each little body lives a soloist, bursting his lungs. Each only hoping for the silence of all the others.

Some things, like Berann’s flute, or Liit’s voice singing a bawdy lyric as if to wring from it more beauty than a love ballad, or maybe the throaty growl of a man who has eaten too much dust in a lifetime of wars. Some things have power beyond what they are.

We can’t forget by choice. Not the smoky smell of a new-kindled fire with the promise we sense of hot food, charred potato skins and the sweet hot mealy insides with a dash of precious salt pricking our tongues. Cold water in a dry throat, on mud-crusted skin. Nor sleep itself, sweetest of the sisters of sin. Sleep bringing us in, no arguments delaying the final loss of everything even guilt; the deep molasses reception none can evade.

#

The morning broke beautifully over the Arena, as it so commonly does in our dry autumn months. We had already placed ourselves in the last of the night, and I heard a roar of acknowledgment mixed with great longing tear from the throats of our enemies as they gathered rank on rank. It stirred my blood. They marched to meet us, and I ordered our lines forward. I saw the Knight Rebmun, huge and dark, and Prince Evandir, his head bare and tawny hair flying as he shouted, his sword swinging forward in urgent command. First the arrows made free, until our forces nearly mingled. And then we were at it, the quick slash of swords occupying all the mind had to give.

It was good. I heard myself shouting for the free desperate joy of it. Easy, lovely, I felt power running in my arms, rooting deep in my heart. Nothing I wanted to do could fail. No one stood against me for long. When I came inevitably to Prince Evandir, I crossed swords, blocked him with my cutlass, and felt my mind leap ahead, foreseeing this blow and that, the sweet joy of a matched opponent. But someone came in from the side, interrupting our dance.

I saw it clear, in that instant, how the way to his throat lay open and unprotected thanks to that soldier who had distracted him. I could see my long sword slipping so cleanly through his lowered guard, running up straight through the soft part under the chin. I could feel the resistance of his skin, the perfection as the blade parted the way, and the grate and jar of his bone on my honed point as it pierced through up into his brain. I could see the blossoming blood as if I had already done this, as if I remembered an act already accomplished, and I hesitated. But no one else and nothing else paused, and before I could close the shift of my own weight and complete a counter block, Evandir’s sword ran under my arm and in through the arm pit. A good blow, I thought, and the edge of sharpness hurt. My mouth filled with warm salty blood. Then came an unbelievable pressure that I could not bear, and I lost all breath as the blade slid in, with Evandir’s eyes staring at me in a sudden insanity of betrayal.

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