Ventus – Day 103 of 135

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Lavin walked. He had never felt so helpless. The doctor had ordered him to lie down, because his vertigo had returned with a vengeance. But though he had lost his lunch and felt he might never eat again, and though he often had to lean on the spear he carried when the world turned over, he couldn’t stop moving. There was only one thought in his head: She has escaped.

The troops thought he was inspecting camp. Lieutenants kept running up and asking for orders, their eyes tracking uneasily to the spires of flame that towered over the valley. He waved them aside irritably. He didn’t care about the Winds. He didn’t care that the summer palace had fallen due to their intervention. The queen’s forces were rounded up now, and Lavin’s own army seemed safe for the moment. He didn’t hold any illusions, of course; both defenders and attackers were at the mercy of the Diadem swans; they were all prisoners.

All that really mattered was that, when he awoke from the rockfall, Lavin had found, not the blade in his heart he would have expected after his treatment of Galas, but a lantern glowing by his head. The new dust from the rockfall was disturbed in only one direction; footsteps led out along the passage. She and General Armiger had left the palace.

When he finally pulled himself out into the cave-like antechamber to the tunnels, Lavin had found only a pair of young camp followers huddling in the dusk light.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

“An hour or so,” said one, a sunburnt boy almost old enough to enlist.

“Has anyone else come the way I did?”

They shook their heads. Lavin cursed, staggered past them, and emerged into the evening air to behold the Diadem swans for the first time.

The zenith was afire with aurora-light. Long thread-like lines descended from there, growing as they neared to become bright twisted cords of flame. The flames hovered just above the earth, and at that moment some were moving slowly through Lavin’s camp. His army was scattered, men cowering in groups in hastily-dug foxholes or under overturned wagons. Many must have run into the desert, because there were surprisingly few around.

There were no cheering defenders on the walls of the Summer Palace; the swans walked there too. As Lavin neared the camp he saw the terminus of those cords of fire more clearly: each cable of fire ended a meter or so above a human-shaped body of fire. These bodies walked like men, but their feet did not quite touch the ground. His skin crawled at the way they moved; they seemed like puppets, jerked to and fro by some unimaginable manipulator above the sky.

The swans were not massacring the soldiers. In fact, they seemed to be ignoring them, as they searched for something.

Well. He couldn’t have his men dying of exposure in the desert if the swans posed no real threat. Where was Hesty during all this?

The prerogative of leadership is to behave as though protected by invisible armor. Lavin made sure he was visible to a sizeable number of his men, and then walked right up to one of the swans.

“Excuse me, lord.” The thing turned its head in his direction, and he nearly turned and ran. It had no real features, just a sketch of flame shaped like a head. Lavin felt no heat, and though he held his breath expecting to be destroyed, it did nothing but wait.

Careful to plant his trembling feet and forget that the world was spinning, he said, “I am the leader of this army of men. How have we offended you?”

“One is here,” said a deep and resonant voice. The voice seemed to emanate from the hazy tail of fire above the swan’s head. “One we seek is here.”

“What is the name of the… person you seek?” Oh, let it not be Galas!

“We do not know names,” said the swan. “You are not it.” It turned away.

“Wait! May we help?”

It paused. Lavin cleared his throat and went on. “I need to consolidate my men, for their own safety. To do that I have to be able to issue commands, and come and go as needed. Will you let me do that, if I agree to help you find the one you’re after?”

“Yes,” said the swan.

An hour later, Lavin had approached the gates of the palace, two swans walking at his side. He had commanded the gates to open, and the queen’s men had meekly complied. The few hundred men Lavin been able to reassure so far had nervously marched into the keep. He kept expecting them to break and run; surely their ill-concealed panic must be apparent to the defenders behind their arrow-slits. They barely obeyed orders, and certainly didn’t march in step. As the queen’s men laid down their arms and surrendered, they gradually regained their confidence. Hesty appeared from somewhere, looking shamefaced. Lavin left him in charge, and walked out of the palace and into the night.

She has escaped.

And she let me live.

Lavin stopped walking, waited until his head steadied, then looked up past the swans, at the stars. Never, in all the long days of this war, had he imagined such an end as this. On the one hand, it was far from over. Two days ago he had hoped that tonight he might have her as his prisoner, hating him surely, but safe. He had feared she would be dead. But that she should be free! And had spared his life! He could not come to terms with it.

She must be riding now, somewhere in the darkness. Would she end that ride by bedding down in the arms of General Armiger? Lavin hugged himself and closed his eyes. He must not think of that. All that mattered was that, as dawn rose tomorrow, she would be alive.

And yet… she would not be safe. In some ways this was the worst outcome. He could pray that she would flee to another nation, and retire in anonymity in some town. Knowing Galas as he did, Lavin knew she would never do that.

No, there were only two possibilities now. Either she would run afoul of his outriders or pickets in the desert towns–and be killed–or she would find some pocket of supporters and try to rebuild her army. And then there would be another siege, this one much shorter and sharper–and she would probably be killed. Lavin knew she would die rather than surrender.

So far, no one knew she had escaped. That was his only card, and he would have to play it carefully.

“Sir!” He turned his head to find a battered-looking soldier puffing his way through the sands. “Commander Hesty has found the woman you were after.”

“Ah. Very good.” Lavin nodded sharply.

And fell down.

§

He was propped up in his camp chair, feeling pale and sure he looked it, when they brought her in. This was the woman he had seen attacking Armiger. She had used some sort of weapon that tore holes in the walls and ceiling. Rumor had it that she had killed a roomful of his men with it. He wasn’t sure he believed that, but the doctors who examined her said she had been shot at close range by a musket, but that the ball had not penetrated her skin. Indeed, nothing could, if you read the evidence of the numerous holes in her armor.

She had been found, heavily bound but alive, in a closet in the tower. The queen’s men thought she was one of Lavin’s invaders, and were surprised when she was not untied, but dragged out into the courtyard with them.

“Your name.” She had not looked at him until he spoke. Now she did, and her gaze was level and calm. It was like matching eyes with another general across the conference table.

“My name is Calandria May.” Her voice was rich and melodious.

“You are dressed in my colors.”

“I am with your army.”

“You are a woman.”

“Some women enlist. That has always happened.”

“Don’t be coy with me. You are not one of my people. You broke through the defenses of a castle under siege, slaughtered everyone in your path, and attempted to kill General Armiger using a weapon that could not have been made on this world.”

She cocked her head, as though he were the one under examination. Battered and scorched though she was, she was still in control of herself. Obviously of noble birth, he thought.

“General Armiger is a threat to your world,” she said.

Lavin barked a laugh. “He’s not that good, madam.”

“I don’t think you take my meaning–“

“I don’t care what you mean. It seems to me that you are the problem at this moment. We have a common enemy in Armiger, it’s true. You may or may not have done my men injury. That’s all beside the point. The Diadem swans are pacing my camp right now, turning over every rock looking for something. I think the thing they are looking for is you.”

Her composure cracked at last. “It’s him! Armiger’s the one they want.”

“In that case, if I offer you to them they will simply return you, and then there’s no harm done. Yes?” He leaned forward (dizziness soared and crashed) and smiled at her.

“You don’t understand! You can’t give me to them. It’s him they want. If they take me they stop searching, and they mustn’t!”

“Gag her.”

She fought. Lavin turned away in distaste, and gestured to Hesty, who waited in the shadows. “Call the swans. Tell them I may have something for them.”

The prisoner was on her knees now, gagged, and glaring at him. Not the first to do that, but the first woman.

He had felt this way the first few times he had ordered men killed. If giving this Lady May to the Winds guaranteed the safety of his men, then he had to do it. Lavin knew nonetheless that he would be thinking about this moment for weeks.

Light welled outside, converging from several directions. The camp fell silent. Seeing those swathes of light through the canvas of the tent made the hairs on Lavin’s neck rise. He clutched the arms of his chair, though he knew he was safe. The soldiers guarding May stood stock-still, their eyes wide. The prisoner had shut her eyes tightly.

Lavin swallowed. He suddenly regretted doing this. Better to have killed her than to hand her over to something so divine and hellish as this thing.

“Put her behind that screen,” he snapped. The soldiers blinked at him. “Hurry!” They quickly complied.

A figure appeared at the doorway. Flame-light washed through the tent from its skin. Though it stood right next to the canvas entrance flap, the cloth did not catch fire. The humans in the tent all stood still, breathing shallowly.

“What have you found?” asked the swan.

“I thought we had found something for you, lord. I was… mistaken.”

The swan turned its head to look directly at the screen behind which he’d hidden the prisoner.

“What is that? It is a pathology. There is pathology in its skin, and in its skull. This may be what we seek.” The swan stepped inside. A bright spot appeared on the tent’s roof directly above its head.

Lavin’s heart sank. He gestured to the soldiers. “Bring her out.” As they dragged her around the screen, the swan reached out and grabbed Calandria May’s arm. She shrieked around the gag.

The swan walked out of the tent, dragging the woman as though she weighed nothing. The light receded, but for a long while no one moved.

“Help me up,” Lavin whispered after a time. Leaning on Hesty, he went to the flap of the tent and looked out.

From horizon to horizon, the familiar, delicate stars blazed in a sky so cleanly black he might have wept, had he not outgrown tears on the battlefield.

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