I N M E M O R I A M M E I : I I
Completed January 26, 2021 (♒)
As poor Tansa did her best to sew up his shoulder, Wiegraf considered that it was a very stupid thing for him to die like this, caught in the hills along Fovoham and hounded by the Northern Sky. It was—of course—a stupid and dismal prospect to die anywhere, but after all the miseries that had been piled upon him, it seemed a final kick to the teeth to die on any pile of dirt that Gerrith Barrington could lay claim to... and to die at the hands of the Hokuten besides.
Wiegraf shook as Tansa tied off the last bit of catgut, and he didn’t respond when she asked if she should get him one of their remaining potions. He thought for a moment that if he were to speak to her like a reasoning human being it would drive him again to weeping. It would only be a handful of miles that separated them, but Wiegraf thought it a great betrayal to die in Fovoham while Miluda lay rotting in Gallione: more so than the betrayal of bothering to die or to live at all.
He moved his arm a little and told himself it didn’t hurt. Eventually Tansa returned with a corked vial, which she deposited into Wiegraf’s hand. He barely kept his grip on it, and she folded his fingers around it for him. She did not stay. He did a good job of not breaking down again even when there would be nobody to see him do so.
Miluda, wherever she was, would have something cutting to say about this miserable end they were facing; he was sure of it. She would remark on how he oughtn’t have leaned so heavy on Gustav or how he ought to have figured Gustav’s game out earlier; she’d point out that he shouldn’t have let Golagros take charge of anything more complex or dangerous than scraping the cookpot. Perhaps, if he wanted to imagine her as particularly biting, she’d remark that he’d gotten the whole of House Beoulve mixed up terribly in terms of how he should handle them.
“If you’d only managed to fuck the one with the brains or kill the one with the sword back then, this might have been at an end months ago.”
The real Miluda, whose body may well be feeding coeurls by now, had never said it—but he wouldn’t have faulted her if she had. He deserved to have the indiscretions of his youth thrown in his face. Even now, knowing that he was rapidly running out of decisions left to him, he thought it would have been good for somebody else to remind him that Zalbag Beoulve would not treat him with any sentimentality.
He stood up, looking out from his tent flap towards the ragged brush of the hills outside. He wondered if his most recent failure—beyond trusting Golagros with something bigger than a cookpot—was that he had directed his men to stab the Beoulve who wasn’t directing military operations against them.
The camp was in a lamentable state. Almost anyone with a head for putting things together was dead by now. They had been eating small game and tree bark the past few days, and he refused to let himself feel his hunger. Wiegraf heard somebody playing a flute of some sort: a melancholy tune that had been popular in Lesalia a decade or so prior. He hadn’t the will to tell whomever it was to damn well stop betraying their position by playing it. They were all moving to the same terminus now, and if someone wanted to mourn that, who was he anymore to intervene.
He closed the flap and lay down on the earth then. Looking upward at the grey canvas above him, he tried to let his vision drift to some point where there was nothing he could fix upon.
Miluda had been thirteen during that horrific summer, and he’d never asked her what she’d known. He wondered if he should have. She had weathered more than he had at that point, really. The Romandans had landed in the spring, and she’d had the wherewithal to trek the five leagues from where their village lay burnt to tell him about it. She’d managed at Riovanes better than men twice her age. She’d been marching with a sword the year after. Why should he think his little sister to be incapable of recognizing his idiocy?
Wiegraf closed his eyes and remembered that day when it seemed half the countryside was folding itself behind the city walls. The Grand Duke had made a speech about Fovohamese resilience. The Khamja had made some martial show or another: their red and gold ornaments flashing in the July sun as they waved their hooked bronze swords. Wiegraf had misgivings even then—even before there was a single Romandan flag on the horizon. He’d wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to pull the Dead Men together and make up some excuse to push south. They’d be no better off dying at Igros than dying at Riovanes, but at least they’d have better company. The Fovohamese were not at all guarded in their disdain for their southern neighbors.
He’d tried to keep calm though. He'd been very young, and he had wanted to seem brave. It was only when the gates finally closed that Miluda had told him she was afraid. She hadn’t wept or prayed or given herself over to any of the excesses of fear, but she was suddenly obvious to him as the child she was.
Wiegraf had given her as many bold lies and reassurances as he could after that. He had insisted to her that neither of them would die at Riovanes.
He almost chuckled to think that of all those promises he’d broken to her, that one had held. Even after every plan went wrong and every idiotic misfortune had loosed itself upon them, both of them would die miles away from that tomb of a castle. He told himself that whatever patch of field or foxhole they’d hunt him to, it would not be that awful darkness into which he would fall.
Wiegraf opened his eyes again and watched as his breath fogged the air above him. Somewhere, the music of the flute had died off.
There was a call from one of the girls watching the ridge, something like the low whoop of a grouse. Wiegraf pried himself up to standing; it was excruciatingly painful.
As he walked towards the open camp, he wondered if it hadn’t been another piece of mismanagement on his part to get clipped in the first place—if he hadn’t brought the injury upon himself by refusing to recognize which Beoulve it was with whom he was dealing.
Wiegraf called to Ariadna for his sword, hoping she’d set it to rights at least as well as Tansa had set the rest of him. There was a dizzying realization that he might well meet with the General of the Northern Sky in a little while.
Zalbag had tried to be kinder to the squire out of Limberry than the field had been to him at his age; he reminded himself that boys in these times had been reared for a world at peace. Even when Ordallia had marched as far as Lesalia’s borders, nobody in the academies was being trained up to spend decades of their life off in the east. In this new era then, he supposed that boys were wont to be freer in their speech and less cautious with their words: the natural consequence of hailing from a generation who would have more space to make mistakes and live through them.
All that being said, Zalbag did not like Algus Sadalfus very much. He did not—in fact—like him at all, and this was not in any way helped by how very very hard Algus had been trying to make himself likeable.
They were not moving at a leisurely pace by any means, and this made the amount of conversation that Algus could pack into any moment they were at rest all the more impressive. Despite having spent most of last autumn in Limberry proper, Zalbag had somehow learned more about the province over the course of the past four hours than he had in all those long months of having Elmdor glower at him.
He tried his best to remain patient throughout it all—through the boy’s discussions of the war, through his accounting of the history of his own house, through his speculations as to the motivations of the Marquis and his relations, through his opinions of the perpetual inclement weather that plagued his district, through his glorious retelling of the very campaign that Zalbag had been heading less than a year prior. Patience was an easy enough virtue to cultivate, Zalbag told himself: it largely consisted of being able to remain quiet.
It was only when Algus’ histories finally caught up to the present that things took an ill turn. Feeling that the day’s conversations had put them on familiar terms, the boy turned to him and asked very pointedly about the mission.
“Do we plan to kill all the rogues to the man, ser? Is Folles going to die on the field or do we need to take him back to Igros to be made example of.”
Nobody else riding alongside them would have put a question like that to him. Nobody else had the presumptuousness to imagine he would give a response before a decision had been made.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he said bluntly. “I’ll tell you my decisions when it’s your place to know them.”
Algus fell into a humiliated silence. Zalbag called for the men to pick up their pace again, recalling how Wiegraf had been at Igros last year, recalling how there was that brief moment where the war had been over and men weren’t yet fighting over what the crown could no longer provide.
It seemed like far more than a year. Everyone had been drunk. Singers were playing until well past the evening bell. He recalled Dycedarg, still in mourner’s black, clapping along to the rhythm of a tourdion.
When he caught Wiegraf in the midst of it, there was the strangest sense that time had looped back on itself: that as the two of them approached one another in the upper hall, it might well have fallen that they should come to blows. Even without reason this time. Even without cause.
What had happened had been very mundane. Wiegraf had offered his condolences as to his loss and his congratulations as to his new position. Zalbag had thanked him.
It had been such a plain and completely unremarkable interaction; Zalbag had thought for a moment that it might almost set a seal on the past. If both of them refused to mention or allude to the siege of Riovanes, it must mean that nothing between them had happened there.
That illusion broke the moment they clasped hands in parting. If skin and sinew has a memory, that small gesture carried with it all of the ghosts of their mingled flesh. Zalbag said nothing—felt nothing—in the moment, but later that night, when the sky was full of gold rockets and dragon’s eggs, he was absent from the crowds.
He had spent the rest of the night in fervent prayer, bowed before the altar of the manse’s small chapel until the dark hours before the dawn sounded with birdsong. He had prayed again and again that he might be freed of so many recollections, and in doing so he had further burnt each of them into the substance of his brain.