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27-28 Fervenis, 1140 – The Battle of Cimenarum
Lisel dat Peralts
I closed my eyes and pressed hard on the folded bandage, the only thing keeping this archer’s blood in her body. The wound was too high for a tourniquet. She had a bad break in her other leg, but it was below her knee and not through her skin.
“Lisel,” Sator Kya said calmly, just loud enough for me to hear over the din of fighting and the boom of trebuchet stones crashing through roofs.
I opened my eyes and looked only at my commander, not the hot, wet padding under my palms.
“Hold her body still. I need to reset her femur before I can heal this artery. If I can. Don’t let her hip move at all.”
The blood came faster when I let up pressure, but Kya had trained me for this. I put all of my weight on the archer’s pelvis, even though I knew we were hurting her. Her breath came in short pants as Kya pulled her leg straight.
Support Commander Kya Sator Archilia, priest of the Lady of Wisdom, Battle Healer, and personal spiritual confidante to Her Solemnity, was much stronger than she looked. She was only a bit taller than me, and in clothes, she looked almost delicate. She was the type of redhead who had to keep her skin covered, or she’d be permanently burnt and probably have malign spots before she turned forty. We both liked girly clothes and hats, even when we had to be practical. Someday, after this bloodbath, if we survived, we were going to spend half a tenday with a lady’s tailor, and it would be fabulous. In the last few tendays, anticipating that day sometimes kept me riding towards this war.
But her looks were deceptive. Kya was almost entirely muscle under her pastels and wide hats, and had been battle trained all of her life. She moved as fast as she dared, because this archer didn’t have much more time. As she said often enough, Healers can’t fix hearts, brains, or eyes, and we can’t replace blood. The woman’s leg stretched as Kya pulled, and the awful bulge where the bone ends had torn past each other vanished. I could feel the break grate together as they slid back into place, but I didn’t ease up.
Kya inhaled hard and placed her hands over the wound. Almost at once, a mass of shining fog came together in the woman’s flesh before settling into a large, silver scar. I’d seen Kya make prettier scars, but we were short on time. The archer wasn’t bleeding now, and her femur would hold for a while.
“Oi, Jax Fourth,” Kya called and one of our corpsmen ran over, carrying his box. “Splint both legs before you move her,” she said, “and get her under shelter. Keep her warm. Decessia, percusia.”
I hated hearing those words. That Porsirian was code we used among ourselves so we didn’t scare the patients, and they both meant a patient probably wouldn’t live — decessia for blood loss, percusia for shock. But we always tried, and sometimes, we got a surprise.
We stood up as Jax knelt, and we took a couple steps towards the next person. I didn’t recognize which blind alley we’d occupied, though I was pretty sure we were somewhere in the western Temple District. We had grey-brown brick walls on three sides; if we’d been here in better times, the doorways wouldn’t be bricked up, and the arched passages probably would have been open, not blocked by iron gates and sandbags. We’d posted two people at the mouth to guard against Savrin’s troops, while the rest of us tended the wounded from this quarter of the battle. There were unblocked windows four or five stories up, but down here, every opening had been barricaded, either boarded up or filled in with fresh bricks and new mortar. We had another pair working to sledge open a door Kya had pointed out for them. The rest of us were busy with injuries. And had been, since early afternoon.
Kya was not a full Healer. She’s close, but as she once explained to me, if it was the only thing she could do, she’d be an excellent Healer’s Assistant or a complete failure as a Healer. But she was not simply a Healer. She was a Wisdomian, which meant she had been trained to use her every ability to protect all wisdom and those who discovered it, and it also meant she was deadly if someone was trying to hurt her or the people around her.
She was a priest, and kind, and wry, and great fun to get drunk with. I was glad she was my boss in this army. She made me safe, even in the middle of a war, without being overprotective or judgmental about my calling. Which was not something I expected from most priests.
Kya took a single long moment to collect her strength, then checked me over. She knew I really didn’t like blood, and I hated hurting people even to mend them. I trusted her to not push me beyond my limits.
She also knew we were somewhere near my family and home, and I didn’t know if my parents had made it out of the city. And I couldn’t go look. Not now.
Another series of vibrations came up through our boots, and the booms followed just behind. “Bloody Mother’s tits, which asshat did we leave running the trebuchet?” she muttered. “That fuckstick’s going to kill us all.”
That made me smile, just a little, and helped me put away the sight of so much blood and the sound of decessia, percusia. I loved her for a lot, but swearing better than most carters was an unexpected prize. Her face went slightly blank as she said something in her head, by Evocata, to someone, somewhere, to hopefully get the fuckstick off the trebuchet.
I looked around for who was next.
We had sixteen people giving aid to a dozen wounded. So far, we were lucky. We had more broken bones from falls than arrow punctures or sword wounds from close fighting. I doubted we’d stay lucky. But for that moment, we didn’t have anyone new. Kya had already Healed the ones who would have died of blood loss.
Selfishly? None of the wounded were people I loved. I didn’t see my friends, or my lover, or any of my family. I didn’t even see anyone I’d tumbled during the last six tendays, while serving as the Rebellion Army’s first Courtesan. Nobody here was from the Foreti or Tiwendar. For every hour that stayed true, I thanked the Mistress of the Forge and the Lady of the Moon. It was hard enough to hurt someone for their own good during Healing, but I found it almost impossible if I loved them.
Of course, that lull didn’t last much longer than it took for Kya and me to wash up, get some food and water in us, and wash our hands again. I spotted the three bodies coming in the alley first — a man and a woman, supporting another person between them.
She was young, my age or maybe even a little less, and had an arrow in her chest. Our soldiers wore steel-plated coats as armor, but that arrow slipped between two plates. Not into her heart, but her right lung must be hurting. Her lips were going a little blue and she breathed in pained, shallow sips of air.
“Hallo, Girl-Sam,” I said gently, “Let’s get this handled.” We weren’t close, but I’d come to know almost everyone in the original army. Sam was one of at least twenty Sams in the Foresters, but the only woman with the name, and so had acquired her nickname. I couldn’t see her blood, which made this moment a little easier. Her two mates helped me get her sitting on a pile of sandbags, then I started cutting through her armor straps while Kya checked the arrow.
“Damned broad-head again,” she snarled as she stared into the distance inside Girl-Sam’s body, then said kindly, “It spiraled. Samiya, I can’t push it through, because your shoulder blade’s in the way. I’ll have to twist it and bring it out on the same route it took inwards, or it’ll tear your lung worse coming out, and you’ll drown in blood. Do you want to be awake or asleep?”
We’d prepared everyone for what could happen if they got seriously injured before we controlled Cimenarum. Putting a patient to sleep meant either sweet oil of vitriol, and they’d be groggy for hours afterwards, or solemnium, and they might not wake enough to stumble. If this battle turned into a rout and the Rebellion Army had to flee, we might not have enough people to evacuate the defenseless wounded.
Sam grimaced and said what almost everyone had said, because none of us trusted what Savrin the Usurper used instead of mercy. “Wake,” she gasped.
“I’ll go as fast as I can,” Kya promised. “One long stab, then a quick one, and then I’ll Heal you fast and dirty. We’ll probably have to redo some of this in a few tendays, though. I’m sorry.” She set up her tools on the clean inner lining of her Healer’s kit and handed me a bottle. I helped Girl-Sam drink stenhop, our only protection from infection, because an arrow penetrating dirty armor and clothes meant a wound that would want to putrefy even with Healing. I used my ink stick to write the time and date of her first dose on her free arm, and dabbed a blotch of blue dye on her left cheek so whoever treated her next would know she’d need more stenhop. Kya laid out her scalpel, a boiled clean reed, and peeled the waxed paper off a square patch of leather, to expose the sticky gum-glue painted on one half. She clipped off the fletched end of the arrow with the big clippers, and wrapped her palm around the remaining shaft. “One, two, three,” she said and twisted the arrow back out of Sam’s breast.
Girl-Sam couldn’t scream. She didn’t have enough air. I focused on her lips, because I would hurt her if I fainted, and she needed me holding her still.
Kya snatched up the scalpel and slid it between Sam’s ribs, then she inserted the reed in the incision. Frothy pink foam immediately started sputtering out of the reed, as Kya intended. Sam’s lung had collapsed, and air had filled the space. It needed to drain or Sam wouldn’t be able to breathe at all, and she could lose that lung entirely.
Then Kya pressed the patch onto Sam’s breast, where the arrow had torn the hole. It lay tight against her skin when she inhaled, just as it was supposed to. Between that one-way valve and the reed bleeding off the pressure, Sam’s color was already improving, though she would hurt for several days.
“Dammit,” Kya murmured, and got to work on the Healing. That, I can’t see, and to me, it just looks like she’s silently praying or thinking about something until I see the little silver fog. But it works, and about three minutes and six cycles later, Sam could take a deep, if ragged, breath. When she’d taken another one, Kya pulled the reed out and added a second silver scar to her chest.
Athan took over, and Kya stood up and pulled me away. “I’ve been summoned to the Karsai. I can refuse, if I must, but —”
“Rien wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important,” I finished.
Kya smiled and snorted. “If Rien was calling again, I’d tell her to shove it, she’s just being panicky, and she’ll be fine.” Then she turned grim. “That was Quin. I can’t find Rien right now,” she admitted.
That… wasn’t good. Rien was our Monarch, the only one left. She and Kya could almost always talk by Evocata if they were within a millia of each other, and we were all in the middle of Cimenarum. If Kya couldn’t find her, that meant she was hurt, or sick, or —
“He says she’s alive and it’s ingeniae. That’s all I’ve got. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, and she’s got Ben, that’s why he summoned me. You’ll be all right in command?”
“I can’t Heal anyone, but we’ll do our best to patch them,” I said. I knew I sounded dismayed. But Commander Kya was right. She had to go. I nodded and knelt to close up her case.
She shook her head and put her scalpel in its slot. “If you must cut, better you have the good tools. I’ll try to get Darav over here to take my place. As soon as I can.” She took my almost clean hands between her slightly bloody ones and pressed them together. “The Lady of Wisdom bless you and your work, and keep you, and watch over you all, for you serve Wisdom and the path She defined for this world. I turn over command, Sergeant dat Peralts.”
She let go and ran down the alley before I could even say thanks or ask if she knew where we were, or what I should do if —
Someone else was coming in, bloody.
I didn’t know how long Athan and Jax and I worked on the trickle of wounded who kept coming down our alleyway. At some point, I realized I hadn’t heard thumps and rumbles for a while, so either someone had set the trebuchet on fire, or whoever was running it was dead, or they’d finally been told off. I didn’t care which — it wasn’t launching stones anymore.
So I knew the blonde girl wasn’t friendly fire. I was pretty sure we didn’t hurt her.
Her comrade carried her in. I wouldn’t have known they were from Selenar from her armor, but his sigils weren’t soaked in blood. For just a second, I thought maybe somehow Rien had got in the wrong armor — but no, while this woman was almost as skinny and as blonde as our Razia, she was tiny in all her dimensions. Similar brows and nose, but not Rien’s jaw, and not Rien’s height.
We’re all relatives somehow, if you went back far enough.
Head wounds gush like a fountain, so that explained the blood. But she didn’t look good, under the blood. Her comrade and I got her on the ground, and I started checking her signs, as Kya taught me. She was breathing, but not well. And she had a pulse, but it wasn’t strong or regular. Her eyes weren’t promising at all. One pupil was wide open, the other a pinpoint, and neither reacted to light, nor followed movement.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“We were up on the roof a couple streets over, a Redcoat was hiding behind a chimney, when we went to cross to the next building, he grabbed her ankle, and they both fell to the street.”
The back of her head was wrong, wet and spongy instead of solid. And swelling. Her scalp was torn open. When I withdrew my hand, more than blood coated my fingers. Decessia. Percusia. I closed my eyes for as long as I dared, because the world was spinning on me, and I wouldn’t do anyone any good if I lost hold of myself. But I couldn’t do a damned thing for her. Nobody could. Even our best Healers couldn’t mend brains so broken they were oozing out.
“Did she kill the Redcoat?” I asked her comrade.
“Ayuh,” he said, his voice thick. “Lots of pieces, him. He hit first.” That told me he knew, too.
I supposed the blessing in her passing was the painlessness. It didn’t take long. Her breathing just slowed until it stopped. She didn’t seize or thrash, and I hoped she never knew anything after she fell.
I failed her, because I wasn’t a Healer, not even a real Healer’s Assistant. I was just a Courtesan who tried to help. I couldn’t even call for Healing or the comfort of a priest.
I left him to console his friend’s soul, now trapped in her lifeless body until we could lay her on a pyre. I washed her brain off my hands, but I could still feel it. Greasy and meaty, grainy with bone crushed into sand. On my hands, the second tool of my profession, right after my brain. My instruments of pleasure and solace, not of suffering and death. I hated the stupid, cruel men who forced this pointless war and corrupted everything. Even my hands. The sensation of her brain swelling through her broken skull would be part of me until my end of days.
I wanted my friends. I wanted my cousin Marli, just to know she was all right. I wanted Vaish. I wanted Mam and Pap and my brothers.
I couldn’t hold it longer in that minute. I scooped some water out of the alley’s fountain and held my face in it, and I cried for a long time.
A pair of arms was holding me. Two pair, actually. I found myself the human cheese in the middle of a stuffed bun, made of small, blonde Mai on my right and Harli on my left. My two best friends on the war road that brought us here. Harli was one of Her Solemnity’s Justiciars, and a battle Communicator; Maira dat Harker was both his apprentice and his clerk, and he’s her betrothed. Their comfort felt so good, so steadying. Neither one told me not to cry, or said anything about better places. They just let me be sad and angry so I could get back to my job.
I couldn’t have cried too long, because it wasn’t yet getting dark, but if Mai and Harli were in my alley, something wasn’t right. Which cut through all my anguish and made me snap back into this battle. I didn’t need to demand answers, though. As soon as I stiffened, they knew.
“You didn’t see?” Harli asked. He pointed into the sky, where a ball of rainbows was passing overhead. And then another, and another, circling over the center of the city.
Oi. Right. The signal. Mostly. We’d been told to watch the sky, and I’d completely forgotten.“Weren’t those supposed to be fire?” I asked, but kept looking up at the signal that meant the Army of the Rebellion now controlled the Karsai. They were beautiful, and completely outside of my understanding.
“Change of plans,” Harli said. He had a little halt in his voice, but not much. “It’s time to move. Draw the p-p-p —”
He’d gotten stuck on a word. He touched Mai’s hand and she said, in a deeper voice than her usual so I knew she was speaking for him, “Perimeter.”
“Drawing that thing in,” he finished.
“We’re not all coming?” I checked. “Somebody’s staying on the gates, guarding our backs?”
“Of course we’re guarding them,” Mai reassured, using her own voice. “It’s just getting noisy and dangerous for the Evocators, so General Tiwendar wants us all near enough that we can use runners instead of the Communicators.”
I know I looked puzzled then, because I thought we used Communicators so we didn’t need runners, who were slower and more likely to be shot than thoughts.
“Deaths are dangerous for us,” Harli admitted. “Lots of puissance. We can get caught in backlash when we’re tired. Lots of death right now. So we’re limiting traffic. Staying defended.” He gave me a half-smile that wasn’t happy at all. “Evocators and Observers don’t talk about it much. It’s… scary.”
I nodded. I supposed they also didn’t talk about it because they didn’t want to worry the rest of us. Our Communicators were practically guaranteed to break down, and they knew it. But… clearly they’d planned for it, too.
“Quin’s not too worried about us,” Harli said, and then a word wouldn’t come at all. His mouth contorted around it, and I could see the rising frustration in his sweet, almost puppyish face. He slapped the back of his left hand into his right palm, his start over gesture, but it didn’t work. He pressed on his eyes under his spectacles; he was running another headache. And still, the word wouldn’t come. He shoved his fingers through his curls, and snarled a wordless growl of frustration. This happened to him, now. Savrin had sent Lethians to occupy Tiwendar after the late Teregenitor Tiwendar died, and Harliander sune Arven had the misfortune to be the Advocate sent to manage the estate. The Lethians broke his skull, and a few dozen other bones, and I didn’t know what else. He’d spent more than a tenday without any real Healing after that beating, just the type of aid someone prosaic like me can give. He’d had a rough time of the last six tendays, even with three Healers working on him with every bit of puissance they could find, and he wasn’t fully Healed yet. Some things, like perfect speech, might never come back.
But he could always talk by Evocata, which meant Mai could translate, as long as she was with him. She took his hand and laced their fingers together.
“According to General Quin,” Mai said, while holding Harli’s hand, but speaking in her own Northern accent and voice, to tell me she was editing together a lot of information, “the Theater district, Dockside, and the Manufactury are quieter than he expected. Which is good. He thinks Savrin’s forces were about half-strength when we got through the gate. We’ve killed —”
“Another quarter, since,” Harli supplied, with a sigh of relief that the words came. “Feels like, anyway.”
Mai nodded. “The rest got driven inwards, and now seem to be looting the Financial District. Anyway, there’s something happening at the Karsai or Prava House. Quin wants us to gather up in the western Paper District, the south Temple District, and Curia Park. Wherever those are. This city makes no sense a’tall.”
“We’re in the Temple District,” I said. “Though I’m not sure where.”
Harli pointed up the alley, at a blank, curved brick wall. “Backside of Sardani temple.” He pointed to our dead end, where most of our living patients rested, and the busted open door. “One of the little Archilian Sanctas, not the main Conversatory.” He pointed to the cluster of buildings on either side. “Technically, Royal University’s classrooms, dormers and offices, shared with Archilians and Sardanis.”
Like me, Harli’s a city kid; he’s from Dockside, not the Theater district, but he knew this city as well as he knew his hands, and he studied law with the Sardanis, probably in these buildings. Once he oriented me, I knew where I was, too. Not that I’d ever been down this alley, but I’d walked past it at least a hundred times a year. I felt a tension release in my heart. I could walk up Temple Row to Rowand Gate Street, follow it northeast to the Snail Shell, turn left, turn right, and my parents’ inn was in the third circle. My Guild House would be on the fourth, left corner of the Snail Shell if I didn’t turn onto my parents’ street. If I stayed on Temple Row til it turned south, then went another quarter-millia, I’d come out at Ledgerer’s Circle in the West Paper District, and Vaish’s house. The Karsai was almost directly south of us, on the far side of some small temples and buildings of flats and shops, the large park that gives Curia Park its name, and Prava House.
“We better move everyone, then,” I said, not sure I’d sound as firm as I did. “Curia Park?” That was closest. It sounded like Quin wanted us along the east and north sides of the Karsai.
“Can we?” Harli asked. “Bad injuries? We need carts?”
I nodded. Mai and Harli had the little two-person trap and pony they’d been using since we arrived at Arisdal to prepare for this siege and invasion, and I had my pony, Sweetling. Jax and Athan had been sharing one horse hitched to a flat, make-shift medic’s cart. The twelve westerners who had been assisting had six horses between them, but two were hitched to a pair of four seat two-wheelers for their equipment. We’d need at least another full-sized cart and pair, or more single horse carts or carriages.
And we would have to leave the dead. Which, I now saw, included both the Selanar girl and the one with broken legs. Percusia. Shock. Maybe if she’d been in one of the Hospitals, or if I hadn’t wasted time crying…
Though now I understood why Commander Kya Sator Archilia had picked the bricked-up door she did. Archilian ethics might bend enough to permit her to break into someone else’s building, but she was entitled to open any Archilian door. The gossip I’d heard both before I left Cimenarum and after I joined the Army said the Archilians had intentionally bricked up their temples and evacuated Cimenarum. The Sancta was a holy place where we could leave our dead, and their souls would suffer less until we could free them entirely.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than just abandoning these souls trapped inside their dead bodies. Cimenarum was likely already full of furious, untempered souls, given how many people just vanished during Savrin’s years. We didn’t need to make more angry ghosts.
Apparently, some limited Evocator traffic was allowed, because Harli took on summoning carts, while everyone else in this unit got the living ready for a short drive. Which wouldn’t be easy on the wounded. Part of the reason we had so many broken legs and sprained ankles was because Cimenarum’s streets were in horrible condition. In the last twelve tendays, cobbles had been pried up, holes had been dug deep in the gravel, pavements were just missing. Rolling through these streets would hurt everyone, but especially those with open wounds.
So while we waited for transport, I made sure we triple-bandaged everyone with holes in their skin. I couldn’t do anything for internal bleeding, and that worried me for Girl-Sam and three others Kya had Healed. But we were out of choices.
Our luck held. We got a large, well-sprung shipping cart pulled by two giant carthorses, carrying a driver and another priest of Archilia. Darav, who was part of Kya’s family. To my knowledge, he wasn’t exactly a Healer, either, but he could make most Ingeniae work for him for a little while. And that’s all anyone here needed.
“Oi, Mama,” Harli said, startled. “Thought you were staying across the river —”
“We were needed,” the compact, brown woman in the driver’s seat called. “Hustle. We an’t supposed to linger.”
Darav checked everyone as we loaded them in, and there was room for some of the Westerners, to tend the wounded.
But they didn’t follow us towards Curia Park. I didn’t know why — maybe they had their own orders, or Harli’s Mam decided that moving the wounded out beyond the broken gates was better for them and us. As it turned out, they weren’t wrong.
We had four mounted westerners, Mai and Harli in their little trap, Athan and Jax on their cart, plus Sweetling and me. The little carts lurched over the destroyed streets and the riding horses reluctantly picked their paths. The streets just south of where we’d been holed up were completely wrecked, so we had to go back north to Temple Row, then east and eventually south, so we could join up in the Paper District. We were almost to the circle where Temple Row crossed Renara’s Drive, when Mai stood up and whistled a halt.
Something started speaking inside my head. It was definitely a voice, but I wasn’t an Evocator. My scrap of Intuition didn’t know how to interpret it into language I could understand. It was just loud and urgent and terrifying.
Mai could interpret for me and the other prosaics. “Take cover! Behind walls, down low! NOW!”
We weren’t quite past the Lunagan temple, so we all scrambled into their ornate niches and coves. We did our best to protect the hitched horses, but they couldn’t follow their shelter order while in harness, and the carts wouldn’t fit into those little quarter-spheres that once housed statues of the Lady of the Moon in all of her aspects. We could only hope the bulk of the temple itself would protect them, and having their heads and shoulders inside a cove would be enough.
We had barely enough time, but the waiting for what would follow was one of the longest, worst minutes of my life. Earthquakes were common enough in Galantier, even in Cimenarum. But earthquakes just happened. Somehow, having the warning that something was coming made what followed worse. Because we didn’t know what it would be. Just that it would be terrible.
Harli, Mai, Sweetling, their horse and I all crowded into the largest niche, the one closest to Razia Renea’s Drive. In better times, when we didn’t have a mad zealot on the throne, this niche sold flowers and incense as offerings for the ashes of the dead inside. Savrin had banned all tributes about a year and a half back, because Lethians didn’t worship false gods, and by his god, if all of Cimenarum wouldn’t behave like Lethians, we could die like them. Our choice. The stall had been empty since then, though it still smelled faintly of perfume. It should have been comforting — I’d known that smell all my life. And the feeling of my friends’ shoulders next to mine, and my horse blowing anxious breath into my face… if I had to die, it would not have been the worst death. We wouldn’t have been alone.
“What was that noise?” I asked, just to fill the waiting.
Mai never had a chance to answer.
The world began to shudder. The air seemed to recede from us. A sound passed through and over and around us, one too large for this world to contain. A roar. Like the booms from the trebuchet, but as if every quarried stone landed at once.
And it kept going. Out on the street, I saw the cobbles crack apart and start to dance. Gutter trash blew away from us. Then more crashes and booms, and the screams of terrified, wounded horses. And people.
Dust began to fall from above us, and billowed in clouds down the street. Hot dust. Today had been a pleasantly cool late summer day, until that wind came up like the worst of midsummer. I just kept my arms around Sweetling’s neck and kept whispering consolation to her. If she had panicked, she couldn’t back past the trap and its pony, so she would have reared, and she would have kicked all three of us. Probably to death.
Having to keep her calm kept me from panic, too. She trusted me to keep her safe, so I didn’t have another choice. Even when I saw the facade of the townhouse circle across from Lunaga’s Temple collapse. Even as the heat continued to rise towards bake-oven temperatures.
Inside my head, part of me cursed my cousin Marli for working at the Karsai until we had to fake her death so she could flee Cimenarum; and our family friend, Pols, for involving my family’s inn in high politics; and Quin, the Razia’s husband, for spying on Cimenarum from our inn, and Quin for taking me with him into war; and Kya for leaving us here; and Rien’s whole family for this stupid fight over my poor, tiny, mostly boring backwater of a country… and mostly myself for being so damned curious that I had to join up. But the rest of my head was just scared.
I think the roar went on for a couple hundred years. At least. It seemed forever, anyway. Time lost all meaning on that long day of the battle for Cimenarum. But the roar did stop. The wind mostly died down. Which left us with the heat and the screams.
The heat was dissipating, even as the screams got louder.
Mai was a farm girl from the North, and she’d been consoling their pony like I consoled Sweetling. She just kept murmuring gently through the roar, but almost as soon as it started to fade, she seemed to know it was time to go. “Back up, baby. That’s a girl, back up another step. One more.” She pushed on her pony’s chest, who backed the trap out into the street.
As soon as there was a gap he could fit through, Harli squeezed out behind her and limped towards the intersection. Where he stopped dead and just stared.
I couldn’t leave without Sweetling, and she couldn’t get out until Mai coaxed their horse out, so all I could do was watch Harli from thirty feet away. But even at that distance, I saw him go pale. His eyes went wide and his mouth hung slackly open.
I had just got Sweetling out and was about to remount when the second voice roared into my head. It carried more… power? Or maybe force of will behind it. And that time, the voice was certainly Rien’s. Or maybe it was the true voice of the Razia. It came with a sense of purpose and righteousness and safety, and most importantly, I could understand it. For the first time in my life, I understood what the Evocators meant when they talked about hearing voices in their head. It rang in mine, and if it had been real sound, my ears would have buzzed for days. My Chosen Army! Follow the blue and gold. Come to me!
Smoke was filling the air. Acrid, hot smoke. It smelled like burning wood and paper, but also like charring bone, and underneath, it carried the resin-stink of fire oil and old, rancid fuel oil. It made a thick, black smoke that would soon obscure everything, even Harli standing at the intersection and the broken stones off the building across the street.
Someone behind me grabbed onto my belt, and I took my eyes off Harli long enough to make sure the grabber wasn’t an enemy. It was Athan, with a string of people behind him, all of them holding on to each other and leading horses. “Guess we better find blue and gold,” he shouted.
I looked up, and there was something glowing to the west, from near the Karsai. It didn’t have much color through the smoke, but it was brightness. I urged Sweetling to walk, and we all went forward, to join Harli and Mai standing at the intersection.
Where I saw all eleven hells. And probably more.
The trees around Curia Park’s mansions had lost their leaves, though we hadn’t yet had first frost. The remaining skeleton of branches looked much thinner than I remembered from previous winters. Beyond the cluster of fine houses, through the naked trees, we could see the white marble Karsai. It looked slumped, like a wax sculpture left to half-melt in the sun. And across the square, Prava House billowed all of that killing smoke.
The blue and gold, though…. It was a column of light, more white-blue and white-gold than the royal and yellow of our uniforms, but clearly a spiral of light and energy that banished the smoke around it. And it was moving. North and east, almost towards us, but off to our right.
I glanced at Harli, who was still stunned and staring at the fire. I nudged him until he broke free. His eyes streamed tears behind his spectacles, but mine watered, too. That smoke was poison.
“The Curia Park pavilions,” I shouted, nodding at the pillar of light. Rich people had donated a bunch of decorative marble structures and fountains to the park. They got used for weddings and parties, and the temples used them to distribute charity. They were shelter, with water. And room for an army.
Harli looked at the moving light, then nodded. He turned around to shout directions, and his voice failed him. “Bloody fuck,” came out of his mouth instead of whatever he intended.
So Mai shouted it for him. They stood there, hand in hand, two short, skinny people who both looked too young to drink in a tavern. But they’re both formidable in their own ways, and she had him, and he had her. “Stay together,” Mai bellowed. “Keep one hand on the one in front of you. Turn right when you get to me, and right again in about four hundred steps, when you reach the fence.”
The terrifying part was walking towards that smoke. Before we got to the corner where Renea’s Drive met Curia Park Circle East, the pillar of light stopped, just a little west and north of us. It pulsed like it had a heartbeat, but it didn’t fade. It just kept spiraling up into the darkening sky.
Harli stumbled on a pothole, and Mai pushed me forward. “Keep leading. You know where we’re going. We’ll bring up the rear.” I reminded myself that only six tendays ago, the Lethians tried to turn one of Harli’s feet back to front, and broke the other leg, and he wasn’t yet fully Healed. We didn’t have a choice. I knew this city, and nobody else in my unit did. So I led, though everything in me wanted to refuse. Courtesans weren’t leaders.
Mai was getting him into their trap, so I kept walking, Sweetling’s reins in my hand and Athan holding onto my belt. I focused on that column of light and fire, the only bright spot in a world literally crumbling into ash around me. The fire was getting worse, more red now, and something in Prava House was crashing down.
The day hadn’t been too windy, but it had been present since morning, and it was blowing out of the northeast. And like it almost always did near sunset, it was picking up.
I stopped looking at the destruction when I turned us right, northwards, into the wind and towards the pillar that I hoped represented our Monarch.
It didn’t take too long until we ran into other people, and someone I knew slightly shouted into my ear, “Go up to Pavilion Four.” If I hadn’t been Cimenarum born and bred, that would have been a useless instruction, but I was a Cimmie brat. And Pavilion Four wasn’t far, on the outer edge of the eastern side of Curia Park, one of the furthest from the fire.
It had become a makeshift hospital, but I’m told all of the pavilions were hospitals that night.
There were wounded, of course, and dying, and everyone else trying to soothe them the best we could. All three of the medic boxes, including Kya’s box, had somehow managed to stay in Athan and Jax’s cart, and we put everything left to work. Early on, we mostly saw walking wounded who could reach this outer pavilion, but walking wounded meant burns and shock. Percusia. The real enemy.
We made a lot of cold compresses for faces and necks, and soaked burnt hands in helmets of cold water. It was what we had. When I had a heartbeat to think about it, I was just glad our uniforms were mostly leather and wool rather than linen, so we got burnt less than we might have. But I almost never had time.
We had cold, running water from the fountain for almost an hour, until something crashed nearby, and the water trickled to a stop. All we had left was what was in the basin, and that was draining fast.
Thank the whole Pantheon that Jax was faster and smarter than me, because he dived and found the drain while there was still a few feet of water left. The drains weren’t big, palm sized at most, so he could stand on it, and his boot provided enough of a seal to slow the leak, not stop it. Jax was just a little taller than me, and could barely keep his face out of the water, but I do not doubt he would have drowned himself to keep water in the basin. Athan picked up on the rest. He tore his metal helmet out of its leather cover, to use the flexible leather as a one-way valve, just like for sucking chest wounds. True heroes of the Rebellion, them.
They were the only reason Pavilion Four had some water for the rest of that long night. Not enough to wash much, but enough to soak burns and whoever needed a drink could fill their bottle.
At some point later, we stopped tending the walking wounded, and the people arriving didn’t have simple burns. Those who could were pulling people out of wreckage and bringing them in on stretchers made of plated coats and pikes, or simply carrying limp, crushed bodies to us.
I lost count of the people who died before I got to them or while I was trying to keep them alive. At least twenty. I wore blood up to my elbows and there was brain and bowel under my fingernails and I stopped being Lisel dat Peralts, licensed Courtesan of Cimenarum, and became… something empty that moved from person to person, muttering words of consolation, wrapping clean bandages until I ran out, then using whatever cloth I could scrounge off the dead.
In my memory, I wasn’t in my body. I just looked down at us from the rafters of the pavilion. I didn’t remember feeling anything except the blood drying on my arms, and the stinks of smoke and shit. I think I became one of the city’s ghosts for a little while that night. Not quite an angry, vengeful one, but it wouldn’t have taken much longer.
I couldn’t look at the faces. So many dead. Not many wearing blue and gold, either. Some were in the red coats of the Metropolita, and some wore Savrin’s grey and purple, but mostly the people brought to our care were just unlucky enough to live in Cimenarum and get trapped here. Like I would have been if I hadn’t followed my curiosity.
I didn’t see my mother, or my father, or my brothers, or Marli, but that’s also why I didn’t look at faces. I knew if I did and I saw someone I loved, I would break and I wouldn’t heal. And people needed me to help them more than I needed to panic.
I didn’t see Vaish, either, not until he took my hands off the person I was trying to bandage. “Dollie, he’s gone,” he said into my ear. I hadn’t noticed.
He wrapped me into an embrace and walked us over to an empty spot on the stone benches of the pavilion, made us sit, and just held me. He was limping on his dodgy left knee, and though I knew he’d started the day with his eye patch, that was gone, along with his helmet. He was covered in soot, and had a blackened bandage around one hand, but he was alive. And he held me until I stopped being the ghost watching myself, and became Lisel again. My beloved Pirate’s Dollie, both of us filthier than we’d ever been, both wounded, but both alive.
There were crashes all through that night, as the fire burned south and west. So many buildings collapsed when the fire ate through their wooden joists or melted the lead solder on the roofs. But the sound of devastation slowly got more distant, as the wind blew from northeast to southwest.
After about midnight, the flow of wounded stopped, too. We could still hear screams, but they mostly came from people already in Curia Park.
“You think they’d realize that if they’ve got enough life in them to scream, they’re probably going to live,” I heard myself say. At least, it felt like I said it, but the voice I heard was as bitter and acrid as the smoke. Maybe I wasn’t quite back in my body, because Lisel wouldn’t say something so cruel.
Vaish pulled me closer, almost forcing me to accept the cradle he made of his arms and chest. “You did everything you could, my love. You’re allowed to be furious that we asked this of you. I’m so sorry. Be angry at us, not them.”
I wanted to shrug, to remind him that I chose this, that I could have quit many times, that Quin tried to send me back, but I just didn’t have it in me to say anything else. Vaish was right. I was angry. But I was also exhausted. Mostly, I desperately wanted to lay eyes on everyone in this Army I cared about, and everyone else could go hang.
The advantage of my lover, the Thought Sniffer, was I almost never had to say what I truly needed him to know. He tried to always be polite about my thoughts, but he couldn’t help knowing what I shoved up his nose when my mind couldn’t be quiet. And the advantage of my lover also being an Evocator was that he could call the people I loved to us.
As the night wore on, and whatever work needed to be done came to an end, and there was nothing left to do but wait for the fire to burn out, people trickled in. I prefer to believe that the water lured most of them. It wasn’t for me. I was not and never will be that important. But I won’t say it wasn’t a consolation when Harli and Mai put themselves on the other half of the bench. Mai leaned into my left shoulder, and Harli laid his head on her lap.
“Was that big crash what I thought?” Vaish asked them, from over my other shoulder.
Harli nodded. I could barely see the glint of light from his spectacles, and nothing of his expression, but he sounded soul-sick. “North wing of the Judicatura collapsed. We think we lost the whole fucking Recordia. What isn’t burning is flooded or crushed.”
“That’s one way to force an economic restart,” Vaish said, but with fake cheer. Losing Prava House was bad, but it was just a building. Mourning all of the members of the Prava would be bad, but Rien often said the institution and the law mattered far more than which specific arses sat in those chairs. She’d never seemed enthusiastic in or about the Karsai, and might be secretly pleased if it couldn’t be repaired.
But the Recordia was… everything. Treasury records and legal decisions and leases and all of the Prava’s history. Back to the beginning of Galantier. Some of it might be duplicated elsewhere, but not all of it. The Karsai, the Judicatura, and Prava House were the safest places in Galantier. The Karsai was built to withstand a volcano.
“And legal,” Mai said, and she sounded just as sick.
Even with the fire raging to the south, and my dark suspicion that a good quarter of Cimenarum was gone, even I knew the Recordia was maybe a bigger disaster for Galantier than hundreds of collapsed buildings or thousands of people dead. The Recordia was our memory.
Sometime later, I heard another voice that I needed to hear. “Oi, you saved my box,” Kya said as she came out of the dark. Something that was once white hung around her neck. Her priest’s stole. I could bet what she’d been doing, and it wasn’t blessing babies.
“It’s empty,” I said. “I think the scalpel and the tiniest scissors are still in there.”
“The box would be the hardest to replace,” she said gently. “The lady who made it died a few years ago. Thank you.” She folded herself onto the pavilion floor, and leaned against one of the pillars. Cedri, her husband and another of Her Solemnity’s Justiciars, came out of the dark behind her, and sat beside her.
“We’re fucked,” Cedri said, almost cheerfully.
“Ayuh,” Harli said, but he sounded a little better this time. I was pretty sure he and Mai had been thinking together. It was what they did when everything went sideways. “Of course, we were fucked anyway, what with all the money stolen and the assurance funds confiscated and the bridge broken.”
“I don’t like it,” Rien’s voice said from off to my right. She sounded exhausted, too. She and her horse came through the flowerbeds behind the pavilion. Quin was just beyond her, leading his Ramperia. He tied ‘Peria to the same post as my Sweetling, because our horses got along. Rien took her brat of a warhorse further away, outside of my vision. “But the wicked part of me,” she said when she came back, “is delighted because now we have to make and use law, not some stupid precedent from nine hundred years ago when there were only three thousand of us, all living in this valley. We could have lost worse.”
“You’ve gone mad,” Cedri said. “Knew it would happen eventually.”
That made most of us laugh, at least a little, but we’d been inhaling smoke for hours. Everyone started coughing, and it took a long time to stop.
Rien’s voice sounded terrible when she did manage to speak, but she also sounded like herself. Like Rien, not the Razia. Not like that terrible, awesome voice inside my head. “No, really. We didn’t lose the libraries. Or at least, most of them. Mine’s gone, but I didn’t keep rare books in the Karsai anyway. I’m not saying it’s good, but if my choice is losing the Recordia, or losing a thousand more of you, well… let the paper burn.”
She and Quin found a couple square feet of floor just at the edge of my vision. They sat back to back, their knees drawn up to their chests, leaning into each other. They passed a bottle of water between them. I realized I probably wouldn’t hear her use her own voice in the future. Assuming we survived the next few tendays, there would be a coronation, and she would stop being the Supreme Commander who happened to be my friend’s wife. And my friend. She would be the Razia most of the time. I’d miss the woman who could be wry and angry and fierce and admit she had a wicked side.
“She’s learned to be herself in stolen moments,” Vaish whispered in my ear. “She won’t vanish entirely. That will be our job, all of us. To keep her here. And steal time for her.”
The night wore on, and slowly more people came and checked in — mostly with Rien or Quin or Cedri — and found places to sit or lie or huddle. Nekane came, and perched alone on a half-wall, quiet and tense, until her best friend, Fanik, and the man she was sweet with, Merek, both arrived at the same time. Pols and Jestis and Lady Ethene and Ben of the Comitae pulled handcarts full of rations through the pavilions. Rosa and Antol, the first two Comitae medics to work on Harli and the first Comitae I met, came into the circle and fell asleep almost before they were sitting. We tended the wounded and comforted those who could be comforted. And waited. But Marli and her husband Daval didn’t come.
I didn’t ask any of the Communicators to try to find them. I could tell the ones around me were tired, and being tired made them more vulnerable, and we just didn’t have anything to spare to also nurse backlash. Neither Marli nor Daval had much of an ingenia anyway, and not Evocata.
There was more light when we finally saw a last group straggling in from the north. Maybe two dozen people, but I could see glimpses of blue and gold in their uniforms. Ours.
“Report, Commanders Inswain,” Quin called, his eyes mostly closed.
“East Theater district and Manufactury are secure,” Daval said. “We rotated out the gate sentry, and there’s still water up there. Also…”
Marli had been carrying something over her shoulder. I recognized it. One of our inn’s blankets as a makeshift bag, and inside, a three gallon barrel. “Oi, Li,” she called over to me. “We still have a house. And most of our stuff.”
If the ground hadn’t been covered with people trying to rest and heal, I would have rushed her. I just wanted to know she was whole. She’s my cousin, but really? She’s the only sister I’ve ever had, and might be the only family I had left at all. “Mam and Pap?” I asked.
She shrugged as she set the barrel down and pulled her knife to tap it. “Not there. Looks like they left a while back, though. They plastered over the pantry door, and the lift doors, and half the guest rooms, and your workroom. I had to break Sammy’s pretty new wall to get this out. Note sealed inside the pantry hinted they went out to Auntie Pira’s.”
She’d brought one of Pap’s brandy barrels, and while none of us should have been drinking, that didn’t stop cups and bottles from being passed. However, if everything at home had been hidden, but Marli had been able to figure out where, and the brandy was still there? It confirmed our family left on purpose, and together. They hadn’t been incubilated or killed, and they would come back when they heard we’d won. That was my plan with Mam. A few thousand pounds of worry lifted off me and I came back a little more into myself.
I looked southwest, and though there were a couple of pavilions between me and that quarter of the city, I could anticipate how bad it was. Everything was black and smoking, and I could see a long way. Further than I should have been able to see.
The Prava was gone, fallen into its basement. The Karsai looked about half as tall as I remembered. The two south wings of the Judicatura still stood, but the north half was collapsed. The gardens and orchards that used to surround Welces’ Square were gone. The ministry buildings beyond were burnt stubs. The Metropolita had one wall left, with some twisted metal hanging at weird angles. The Financial District looked like a few rows of broken, rotted teeth in a shattered mouth.
Looking straight west, I shouldn’t have been able to see the shipyard across the river. Most of Government District should have been in the way. But it was burnt flat, and most of Dockside no longer existed, either.
We would rebuild. We’d have to. We didn’t dare bring all of this destruction and then not rebuild. If that’s who we were, we should have burnt ourselves.
When a bottle finally came back around to Rien, she just passed it on. I realized I’d never once seen her drink anything stronger than fondal. Probably because it’s never safe for a monarch to be drunk.
“Your Solemnity, how close do you want us all until morning?” Vaish asked.
“It is morning,” Rien said dryly. But she stood up and stretched, and Quin followed, with almost the same movements. “You’ll have orders shortly.”
“If you want to start trooping people through your several excessive bathries, I’ll allow it,” Quin said. “No more than twenty and no less than ten in a group. Watch your backs.”
“And a Communicator in every group,” Rien said, sounding more like the Razia than herself. “The worst of the dying has passed. Everyone who can, please reset your defenses.”
They picked their way out of the cluster we’d become. Dawn of the saddest day in Galantier’s history had broken, and we had work to do.
“How does Quin know where my house is? Or about my bathries?” Vaish asked himself. “I’ve never told him.”
“Let it go,” Kya said, and sounded sad. “We should have water up at the Sancta. Who wants to bathe in a holy hot spring?” she called.
“And at the inn,” Marli said. “Not holy, but there’s oats and jam, too. We can make porridge.”
It took us a while to get organized into slow, stiff, pained teams with an Evocator in each. Most of our units were broken, either scattered or wounded or dead, so we were resorting ourselves into our commands instead of making our senior leadership do it. That’s when Quin almost jogged back towards us. It wasn’t quite fast enough to be a run. He came directly to Vaish. And there was something… different. The spark in his eye had changed. Just a little. I’d spent a few tendays with him, round the clock. In a quarter-hour, something had changed. Not bad, just… different.
“Remember where Rien’s house is?” He asked Vaish, and offered him a key.
“Ayuh,” Vaish said. “You two should use that.”
Quin flinched. “We can’t, never again,” he said, without elaborating. “It’s not big enough anyway. But if you’ve got water —”
“It’s never failed before,” Vaish said.
“Then Rien’s townhouse will, too. When you find Reya and Sashi, assign them a Communicator and give them the key. Rien says it may not work. She’s been carrying it for three years, so it may be bent, or the locks may have been changed. Break in if it’s empty. If not, tell us later.” He shrugged. “Noon, back here. Assign your watches, rest in shifts. I need to go break up a conversation that’s going badly.”
“His accent’s almost gone,” Mai said, almost under her breath. She watched him hurry away, and she looked so young, even younger than her sixteen years. Like she’d just learned someone had died without warning. She looked hurt and lost and so very sad. Harli rested his chin on her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her, giving consolation as best he could, but his face had gone still and puzzled, too. His big brown eyes traced a path in the air.
“They’ll balance out over the next few tendays,” Kya said, still sounding like she might cry. “We didn’t lose them, they’re just… a slightly different composition right now. It will pass. I think.”
Cedri sighed and slipped an arm around her waist in comfort. “Let’s find those baths. Noon’s not that far.” He looked at us, in our little cluster. “This city needs us. Let’s not let everyone down.”
The Rebellion was over. The first day of the Restoration had begun.