Ventus – Day 69 of 135

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General Lavin laid his quill down wearily, and peered at the manacled prisoner Hesty had led in. “Why is this of interest?” he asked.

Hesty grimaced. “I hate to bother you with trivial matters. This man is a looter, we caught him skulking in the ruins of one of the outlying villages.”

“Yes? So execute him.” Lavin turned his attention back to his plans.

“He claims to have valuable information to sell. About the siege.”

“Torture it out of him.”

“We tried.”

Lavin looked up in surprise. The prisoner was a small man, wiry and grey-haired. He stood in an exhausted stoop, trembling slightly. His left arm was broken, and had not been set, and there were burn marks up and down his bare torso, and rope burns around his throat. He glared dully but defiantly at Lavin from his good eye; the other’s lid was bruised and swollen, as were his lips.

Lavin stood and walked around him. A large portion of the skin was missing from his back; the flesh there wept openly.

“He completely defied the torturer,” Hesty explained. “He insists on speaking only to you. And,” he shook his head in disbelief, “he wants to bargain!”

Lavin half-smiled, and came around to look the prisoner in the eye. “And why not? He obviously loves his life, Hesty. But there’s no reason to believe he knows anything.”

“Hear me out,” whispered the prisoner. He hunched, as if expecting a blow, but his gaze remained fixed on Lavin’s.

Lavin threw up his hands. “All right. Your torturers are incompetent, or this man has more character than they do.” He sat on a camp chair, and gestured for the prisoner to sit opposite. Awkwardly, as if his legs would not bend properly, the prisoner sat, hunching forward so as not touch the back of the chair. Hesty folded his arms and looked on in amusement.

“What is your name?”

“Enneas, lord Lavin.”

“You were caught looting, Enneas. We punish that with death, but we’re not cruel. Why did you choose to be tortured instead of letting us hang you quickly?”

Enneas breathed heavily, and seemed on the verge of fainting. He put his good arm on his knee to steady himself, and said, “I know something that will win you the siege without much bloodshed. But why should I tell you, if I’m going to die anyway?”

Lavin nearly laughed. The answer was self-evident: they would stop torturing him, that was why. But the torture hadn’t worked, and by the look of him, the man wouldn’t survive much more of it.

“I can’t believe you mean to bargain with us.”

Enneas tried to smile; it came across as a grotesque grimace. “What do I have to lose?”

“Your testicles,” said Hesty impatiently.

Lavin waved him silent. “I’m sure all that has been explained to Mister Enneas. Some of it done, too, by the looks of things.”

“I want to live!” Enneas glared fiercely at Lavin. “Free me, and I’ll tell you what I know. Kill me, and things go badly for you in the siege.”

“I don’t bargain.” Lavin stood. “Kill him.”

Hesty took Enneas by his broken arm and dragged him screaming to his feet. “Sorry to have bothered you,” Hesty grumbled as he pushed the prisoner through the flap of the tent.

Lavin sat brooding after they had left. He was preoccupied with plans for the siege, and it did look like it would be costly. There was an option yet to be tried but, much as he hated to admit it, that might not work. If it didn’t, a frontal assault would be his only choice.

Enneas had made a pitiful figure, sitting in his clean tent. He was a ruined man, and there would be many more like him before this was all over. Lavin had no compunction about sentencing a man like him to death; he would rather the money Enneas had taken go to feed wounded veterans, widows or children.

But sometimes he lost sight of why he was here. The siege would be bloody, and dangerous, not only to his men, but to the Queen. And that did not sit well with him.

He stood and left the tent. It was late afternoon, and cool and cloudy, but dry. A pall of smoke hung over the staggered tents of the encampment. Men bustled to and fro, carrying supplies and marching for exercise. Far away, on the outskirts of the camp, a simple scaffold stood. Someone was being hung even as he watched.

Hoping it was not Hesty’s prisoner, he picked up his pace, mindful to nod and acknowledge the greetings of his men as he went.

The scaffold disappeared behind some tents as he got closer. He hurried, but just as he was about to leave the edge of camp someone hailed him.

“Yes?” He waited impatiently as his chief mechanist ran over. The man was bowlegged and hirsute, and his helmet perched atop his head like some metallic bird. He bowed awkwardly, and pointed in the direction of the siege engines.

“General, sir! Someone punctured the water barrels last night! The supply’s shot–I mean, it’s leaked out! There isn’t enough left to run the steam cannon.”

Lavin hissed. “Sabotage? Is that what you’re saying?”

The mechanist backed away. “Yeah. Yeah, sabotage. What are we going to do?”

“What about our own rations?”

The man’s eyes widened. “The drinking water?”

Lavin nodded. “Is it safe?”

“Uh… not my department…”

“Find out. We will use it if we have to. Report back to me in an hour–and tell Hesty about this right away. Now excuse me.”

He rounded the tent in time to see them lower a body from the scaffold. Two soldiers heaved it up between them and carried it to a low pile of corpses nearby.

The rope had already been put around Enneas’ neck. The other end went up over the arm of the scaffold and to the halter of a bored horse. To hang Enneas, all they would have to do was walk the horse a few meters.

The thief’s eyes were closed. He seemed to be praying. But he didn’t beg, and he stayed on his feet, though he tottered.

Lavin was angry about the sabotage. It would cost him lives if the steam cannon were inoperable. He nearly turned and marched back his tent. Maybe though, just maybe, this man could make up for those potential casualties.

Still, he waited until the horse began to walk, just to see if the thief would break down. The rope tightened around his neck, but he didn’t struggle as he was lifted skyward.

“Stop! Cut him down!” Lavin strode over to the scaffold. Surprised soldiers jumped to untie the rope from the horse’s harness. Enneas fell to the ground, choking, dirt grinding into his bloody back.

They hauled him to his feet and unwound the rope. He coughed and gasped, and blinked at Lavin with his good eye.

“You have your life,” Lavin told him, “if you tell me what you know, and if I judge that it will be of use to me.”

Enneas’ knees buckled. He managed to croak, “Done!” before he fainted.

24

Through dusty, unventful days the passenger carriage had trundled its way south. Calandria May knew the shape of the seats intimately now; she felt her body had become moulded to conform to them, it certainly wasn’t the other way around. The primitive suspension of the vehicle sent every jolt and rattle of the wheels up her spine and into her throbbing head. And the thing was slow, stopping frequently at mail drops or to exchange horses.

Still, it was all they’d been able to afford with the last of their funds. This route would take them unobtrusively into Iapysia, where hopefully they could acquire some faster transportation. The country was in enough chaos that hopefully a couple of stolen horses wouldn’t be missed.

“My, you’ve become a paragon of caution,” Axel had said to her when she told him of this plan. “What happened to ‘get the hell down and find Armiger at all costs?’”

She’d shrugged. “What’s the point? We don’t have the weapons necessary to destroy him anymore. All we can do is observe until we can contact a passing ship and call in a strike.”

Their last reliable information had Armiger on his way to visit Queen Galas, who was either dead now, or still holed up in her palace, depending on who you talked to. Either way, it seemed unlikely that Armiger would still be going there, because her cause was doomed. They were rattling along in this carriage because the queen was their only lead. But there was no urgency to the journey now.

Axel was mostly recovered now, though you wouldn’t know it from the way he slept most of the day away. Without action to sustain him, he folded in on himself and became a dead weight. Calandria didn’t have the fight left herself to try to bring him out of his lethargy.

Consequently, when on a completely typical evening of jolting over rutted tracks, her skull computer said without warning Incoming transmission, Calandria May sat up straight and said, “Thank the gods!”

The passengers seated opposite them in the carriage didn’t look up; all three of them were nodding drowsily. They would have found it hard to hear Calandria over the noise of the wheels anyway.

She turned to find Axel staring back at her. She was just opening her mouth to ask him to please tell her he’d heard it to, when a different voice spoke in her mind.

“This is Marya Mounce of the research vessel Pan-Hellenia. Can anyone hear me?”

Axel’s face split in a wide grin. “A ride!” he said.

The other passenger on their side of the carriage mumbled something, and butted Axel with his shoulder.

The voice continued. “I’m on a reentry trajectory. The Winds are after me. The Diadem Swans went berserk a couple of days ago and they’ve either captured or driven away all ships in the system. I tried to ride it out but they’re on to me now. I’m going to try to land at the coordinates of the last transmission we received from our agent on the surface.

“Agent?” whispered Calandria. “So there really are some researchers down here right now?”

Axel looked uncomfortable. “Well, yes, but maybe not like you think,” he said.

It took her a minute to catch on. “You’re the agent she’s referring to?” Calandria said to him.

“Yeah, yeah. Look, I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t make some money on the side, so when those galactic researchers asked whether I could feed them regular observations while I was here, I jumped at it. Why not? I didn’t think the Winds would be jumping down our throats quite so enthusiastically.”

She had to laugh. “You are full of surprises, you know that?” Usually they were unpleasant, but if this Mounce person was on her way to this part of the continent…

Calandria reached out and rapped on the top of the doorframe. “Driver. You can let us out here, please.”

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