Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VI: The Rift

Chapter 52

After the Battle

Monday, February 22, 2709

They thought to honor me by giving me space on a real mattress, in a real bedroom inside the mansion itself, but I feel sentenced to my bed.  The night crawls on, but I can't sleep.  The sounds of revelry outside seem to taunt me, and the snores around me infuriate me!  Time and again I stop myself from punching the nearest body stretched out on the floor, reminding myself that no, they're not thieves of my sleep, it's just that too much residual greenfire still crackles in me.  I can only pass out for minutes at a time, though everything in me aches for rest.

So I rise and in the dark I step around bodies of all those camping wherever they can spread a mat or bedroll.  I think it's safest for everyone if I leave.  It's not too hard to find stepping-places, for the mansion hasn't reached full capacity yet; a fair number still party outdoors. And none sleep so far in the kitchen, so I can turn on the light there.  I tear off a sheet of cooking-parchment, shove people's random gear out of the way to make space at the table, and try to put myself to sleep by starting the sketch of a map of the Altraus Coast that Kiril has asked me for, so that she can better understand some of my stories and reminiscences.  Feverishly I line out the intricate curls and whorls of the shore, layering detail upon detail obsessively, but sleep only goes farther and farther away.  And as I draw on years of memories of hiking, my legs scream to lift me up, carry me anywhere, anywhere, just go!

So now, after I have no more need to move, I can, in fact I must.  I leave the indoor light and the map unfinished, to amble through a battlefield made pitch-black from all the sulfur-stinking gunsmoke between us and the moon, far from the circles of lamplight where we divvy up prisoners for indentured servitude.  Yet sometimes a little wind blows through, and beams of moonlight spill down now and then when you least expect it.

(Ah, breathe that clean mountain air, my fellow climbers!  Far above the stink of civilization, pure of human smoke and dust and tawdriness, the cold, exacting beauty of the heights!  Everyone should climb at least once by moonlight, and hang the danger!  Leave earthbound cowering to the little chicken-farmers and cocoa-pickers, content in their simple ways—we are the daring ones who rise by virtue of our risks.  Let's prove our mettle, brothers of the piton and the rope!
            But okay, not much farther.  I'm tired, too.  I know of a good camping-place not too far ahead.  Climb beside me for a little while, brothers, and I shall see you snug.)

Now Alysha and Kiril walk beside me; I can't quite pinpoint the moment when they joined me.  Kiril insisted on coming down in a cart with the camp-followers, just behind the fighting force, though she's not well enough even for the lightest medical duty.  I should do medical duty, myself–Alexander always did it after battle, no matter how tired, and so he won the love of his soldiers beyond all sense.  But he didn't have greenfire shivering him so badly, brain and body.  I don't think Makhliya would risk putting a scalpel in my shaking hand tonight.

(Not that way–it's already claimed.  I have it on good information that smugglers hold that cave above the road.  Come over here a ways.  If my informant drew an accurate map, we should find another, smaller cave, a little higher up, just right for our number, out of sight of the road and the smugglers both, perfect for our base camp.  Oh, I have dreamed of this!)

Alysha and I pass a cigarette back and forth between us, but Kiril abstains; she struggles enough with the lingering smoke all around us.  She wheezes, "I had to see it for myself, where you fought.  I would've been right here beside you, Deirdre, watching your back, if I could.  You know that, don't you?"

"You just take care of yourself, honey, and never mind me."  I read what's in her eyes staring up at me, and it hurts, especially since I did start to feel annoyed by the slow pace that we have to keep for her—that girl is too perceptive for her own bloody good!  I take a deep breath, and hope that it doesn't sound like a sigh.  "Don't worry, Kiril–I know my friends from my enemies tonight."  I give the back of her head a caress, the way a mother might.  "You doing everything Makhliya tells you?"  Aside from coming down to join us, of course.

"Yes."  She makes a face.  "I never thought I'd learn to hate liver–I mean it's meat.  When did I get so spoiled that I could turn my nose up at meat?  But she makes me and the other anemia patients eat the livers of every animal they butcher, and has the smugglers bring in more."

"Good for her–and good for you.  Keep it up."

Fires still burn here and there, but the dim red glow doesn't go very far.  I feel like that, useless embers still burning inside me, and I can't smother them, nor can I derive enough light from them, I can only wait for them to die down.  We walk a ways beyond the torn-up mire that used to be a lawn, into what I remember as a pleasant little heath.  This didn't start out open land, but it sure looks open now.  A tree used to stand right over...there.  Stump, now.  I can see the rest of the trunk where a cannonball knocked it down.  The smoke parts enough to let a ray of moonlight sparkle on leaves that still don't yet know they're dead.

"Deirdre."  I shudder at the sound of Kief's voice, but turn around and see that Damien spoke, not my ghost.  He has blood splashed across the side of his face, black in the expanding moonlight as the winds clear still more smoke.  "Deirdre.  You killed her."  His voice sounds tight.  "You killed General Abojan."

"Yes."  I tremble to remember it all over again.

"The prisoners say that she shot Kanarik personally."

"Did she?"

His voice comes out choked.  "I should have been the one to kill her."

"And so you did, Bard," cuts in Cyran's smooth voice, coming up behind my shoulder.  "Every victorious stroke in the Charadocian Revolution comes from you, for your songs inspire us all." Cyran steps around me to where I can see hir.  "And tomorrow we will hold a proper funeral for Kanarik and all the fallen, so perhaps you had best get some rest to be fresh for it, if you want to sing for her."

Damien stumbles when he turns to Cyran, and looks confused.  I suddenly realize that more than battle fatigue befuddles him.  But then a lot of bottles have passed around tonight, after the biggest victory in our history–and still nobody seems to realize that I largely sat it out.  "I, I guess you're right, memsir.  Uh, thank you, Deirdre.  It needed done."  And with that he hands Cyran the flask that I didn't see him carrying and totters away into the darkness and the smoke.  Since when would I overlook a detail like that?

We wander over and sit on the trunk of the fallen tree.  Cyran takes a pull on the flask and passes it over to me.  "I missed the chance to toast the anniversary of our meeting.  I'd planned to mix the chaummin with wine coolers for the occasion, but serving it straight'll have to do."

I laugh, raise the flask in his honor, and tip it back for a sweet, sharp drink before handing it over to Alysha.  What the heck, maybe it'll help me sleep.

"So, Deirdre–how did it feel, when you arrived in my country?"

"Unreal."  The flask comes back my way, Kiril having refused it, so I take a swallow before continuing.  "I remember thinking that everything they showed me at the Peshawr Estate seemed all very lovely, very nice, and yet frighteningly insubstantial--a pretty veil that could whip away at any moment, too thin to support me."  Whoa–so little liquor hits me awful hard and fast!

E nods, not smiling any longer.  "And now?"

"Realer than I want it to be."


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