I N M E M O R I A M M E I : I
Completed January 26, 2021 (♒)
Zalbag closed his eyes, and the world seemed to float with him—with the snow and the clouds and the great bird upon which he rode. Everything drifted north. A day of fasting had left him with a nervous, almost giddy euphoria, and he had tried as best he could to savor it. He had long ago discovered that the keenness of denial had its own pleasures.
They were less than a day off from Zeakden, and he was not yet thinking as to what they would do once they got there. Unlike Dycedarg, he had gotten to where he was by assuming that plans would go awry more often than they would stick to the course imagined for them. He supposed it made particular sense today; the end to the campaign had no good outcome that he could imagine. Scouts had given conflicting reports as to whether Wiegraf had circled back towards the windflats, and Zalbag still did not know if he could chase him there. Something bristled in him to think that all of this should happen at the fringes of Barrington’s territory, and he suddenly felt no more suited to his rank and position than he had as a boy of eighteen.
Zalbag opened his eyes, looking ahead into the deep grey of the valley. They’d passed this way back then too: so many Northern Sky gallants sent to bolster the Weapon King's defenses. Most of his men had been as overeager for glory as he had been. The thought that they might drive Romanda back across the sea as their fathers had chased Devanne’s men back to Viura was a very romantic one. None of them had really understood what it was like to have the enemy on their own soil. They were all westerners; none of them had yet been in a siege. Zalbag wondered if any of the Dead Men, who seemed to turn up and seemed to die nearly everywhere, had weathered one before.
The Wiegraf of ten years past certainly hadn’t.
Somebody called out to confirm that they were nearing Fovoham’s borders, and Zalbag shouted his acknowledgement. He spurred his bird on harder.
The dull shape of another hill came into sight, and he thought of the last act he'd undertaken prior to leaving Igros: of asking for the sacrament. He could hear himself even now, voice low, as he told the old man that there were sins he could not afford to risk dying in.
Everything was strange. It was probably the hunger. The present, the past, the confession joining the two: they all blent together. It was the opposite of what he’d wanted. He had wanted that the priest should hear him out and that everything would stop and be unmade. How else could he break with so many years of silence and then set himself on the road north an hour later? There should have been some reckoning—some transformation. The credo in old Ikoku, the sound of his staggered breath, the light that seemed cold through all the blood-colored glass of the chapel window: it should have been clean and full of finality. It should have severed him from the past and from the man who haunted it.
Zalbag looked behind him to see that they were now out of sight of the Gulg. He could still hear himself giving that account, and none of his words carried with them the import of those acts described. He might have named each incident in detail that would take the whole day to unfold, and it would not have given them their shape. Even now, even having recited the terms of his absolution and taken his penance, he grappled with how God could possibly forgive him for what he would never be able to explain.
Something in his flesh, writ deeper than his thoughts, ached beneath his armor and gambeson, and he laughed a little as he recognized the frosted shape of some wreckage of stonework just off the horizon. He knew it as the remnants of a little chapel that Romanda had put to the fire, and a decade’s worth of winters had not seen it topple.
He was moving steadily towards where Wiegraf Folles must be, and he knew with an increasing fatalism that neither of them would escape one another.
The sky over Riovanes had looked like old parchment, yellowed by the smoke of summoners’ arts. It had been twenty-eight days, and there had been no word from the east. Fighting was going poorly, but it was sporadic enough not to matter. The Romandans were learning to wait. Rationing was going poorly as well, however, and Zalbag had been too often charged with making the decisions Barrington ought to have made. He did not like to have the final word on what his men were allotted and what must go to the cowering Fovohamese: to the widows and war orphans. It did not seem his place to divide the loaves and make the tally. Most of the knights in the city were Hokuten then, and he only realized later that it had pleased the Grand Duke to make them a scapegoat for Fovoham’s privations.
The Dead Men, as they always had and always would, complicated everything. If the Northern Sky had been reticent in cutting too deeply into Riovanese stockpiles, it was not so with the commoner’s army, and there was no recourse anyone had but to appeal to him. The siege had lasted into August by then. People had been sick with the heat, and what bloodshed there was left its rot upon the air, reminding everyone that the crows would have meat if nobody else would. When Zalbag finally brought his grievances to Commander Folles, it should have seemed the natural course of things that they would come to blows.
They had not been friendly upon greeting, and the conversation as to the Dead Men’s “allocation” of city supplies did not leave either better disposed to one another. There had been a strange clarity as things went sour, and Zalbag had realized that all his talk would change nothing—that within Riovanes the forces of rank and title had already broken to the extent that he could not expect to be obeyed. Zalbag still needled Wiegraf anyways and still took great offense at its futility.
Wiegraf had told him at great length how little anybody needed the oversight of some untested child whose only claim to authority came from his father’s name. When Zalbag had drawn his sword, the only response it gained him was laughter.
“Are you going to run me through, then?” His pale hair was a mess in the summer heat. “Who would lead the Dead Men for you? What would you do, suddenly saddled with another gaggle of western knights you haven’t a clue how to manage?”
Zalbag had cuffed him then. He hadn’t said any of the myriad oaths and minor blasphemies that had fired through his brain, but it had been an instant in which he broke with reserve and allowed anger to master him. Whatever relief he might have had of it did little to prepare him for Wiegraf’s tackle. He’d been knocked against the wall before he could brace for it. He’d never been much of a boxer.
They had been in one of the rooms at the keep: some place far from the fighting that had been more often cluttered with courtiers than it had been with knights. Zalbag had a momentary, aimless worry that the blood from his split lip might stain one of the Grand Duke’s tapestries. When it registered that his sword had clattered to the floor, he did not dive after it.
He did not leave off in kicking against Wiegraf either. There was something almost joyful in having the dullness of so many days’ waiting cut off with violence. The blood that lay heavy on his lips was its own sort of meal to a hungry man. He fought wildly after that, and it did not serve him well—although he managed to get another few blows in before he was kicked into the edge of some piece of Riovanes’ ironwork.
His side throbbed. His head swam. When Wiegraf had him against the wall again, he could feel the other man’s heartbeat racing against his own, their bodies pressed close as he braced his arm against Zalbag’s neck. Wiegraf told him in a harsh whisper the that he hoped Barrington would sell him to Romanda for a truce—that if he had such an eye to economy he could damn well buy their lives with his pride—that he hoped they’d parade him through the capital and let the Empress’s guard find some means to quit his tongue of its sanctimony.
Even in the thick of the summer heat, Wiegraf’s breath had burned against his face. Truth be told it seemed some strange alchemy in the air between them—more so than anything that had been said—lent Zalbag the rage to cast him off and set upon him again. He managed to push him to the floor a little ways after.
There were—perhaps—any number of ways the fight might have gone that would have turned their course another way. Had one blow or fumble happened otherwise, it might not have ended as it had: with Zalbag straddling his opponent on the cold marble of Barrington’s castle, watching as the blood dripping from his own battered face fell stark upon Wiegraf’s pale lips.
When he looked back upon it later, Zalbag would tell himself that there could have been no precursor in that moment to the month that followed. There was no sin beyond violence in the configuration their bodies took then. He knew how that fight had ended. There had been no embrace. There had been no caresses. They had hated one another with the honesty of desperate men.
In that moment though, as Wiegraf gave himself over to more mocking laughter, it had felt like sin, and during a desperate winter morning’s confession to Igros’ palsied chaplain, Zalbag would start his account with that afternoon. He would try without success to explain how it seemed that all the crimes committed between the two of them had been compacted at that instant—that there had been some bargain struck: a strand of red connecting one mouth to another as if to bind them in a kiss.