Ventus – Day 78 of 135

27

“Bring me some water, boy. What’s your name?”

“Cal,” she said.

The soldier grunted. “I’m Maenin. That’s Crouson, and the bastard across the fire is the Winckler. We been with this thing from the beginning. You’re pretty scrawny,” he observed. “How long you been with the army?”

“Not long,” she said shortly. Her voice was an octave lower than normal. She liked the way it reverberated in her chest.

Maenin was a huge, hairy man. Calandria thought he smelled as if something had crawled into his boots and died. She handed him a cup of water and sat back on the stone she had chosen as her seat.

A vista of campfires and tents spread out down the hillside, and in the distance the walls of the palace spread in black swathes across the plain. Diadem gleamed whitely, outshining the milky way. Somewhere up there, the Desert Voice was debris or imprisoned. She could only hope that someone would come to investigate when the ship failed to report in.

Meanwhile she had to concentrate on thinking and acting like a man. She spat at the fire and scratched the short hair on her head. On the way here she had modified her body in subtle ways; that and a layer of grime made her look like a young man. With all that, Maenin still seemed to see femininity in her, so it came down to how well she could act. Shakespeare had been uncommonly optimistic about a woman’s chance of successfully masquerading as male, she had decided.

“Oh ho! Seen any fighting? No, eh? Simple farmboy, off on an adventure, are we?”

Cal shrugged. “Soldiers burned our house. Father couldn’t afford to feed us all. I had to join.”

Maenin brayed a laugh. “Now that’s the way to recruit! Hey–you’re not from one of those pervert towns we burned, are you?”

“No. Just a town.”

“Good thing, ’cause if you were you’d be dog meat.”

“I heard they’re bad,” she said.

“Ho–you don’t know the half of it.”

“Have you been in one?”

“Boy, I been in ‘em all. Burned ‘em all, too. Burned ‘em right to the ground. Same as we’re gonna do that rockpile over there.” He flipped his hand in the direction of the palace.

“All because the queen built those towns?”

“No! Where you been through all this, boy? Don’t you know nothing?”

Calandria pretended to examine her boots. “It didn’t seem so important to know about it, before the soldiers came.”

“The queen, she knew about these oases in the desert for years. Never told anyone. We coulda moved out there, made a good living. She didn’t care, she wanted ‘em to house her damn perverts. So when Parliament found out about ‘em they ask her what she’s doing with ‘em. She tells Parliament it’s none of our business! Same time, she’s asking for all kinds of money, extra taxes, from the nobles. She been bleeding us good folk dry, to feed her perverts!

“So Parliament demands she give the towns back. Stop making these pervert things out there in the desert. And she says no.”

“She dissolved Parliament,” said the Winckler.

“Know what that means, boy? She told all ‘em nobles to get packing! She’d run the country directly.” Maenin shook his head. “She wanted to turn us all into perverts! The towns were just the start. After them, the cities, who knows what we’d be having to say? All I know is I’ll never take orders from no pervert.”

“The nobles who make up the Upper House formed an army,” said the Winckler. “They called on General Lavin to command it. Except he wasn’t a general, then. He was from one of the old families, they gave him the job because he had pull.”

Maenin stood up. “Shut up! The General’s a good man. He’s kept us alive right to the palace, and he’ll keep us alive when we go in. We’re gonna win, and it’s ’cause of him.”

The Winckler raised his hands apologetically. “You’re right, Maenin. You are indeed right. To start with, the queen’s army was bigger than ours. We licked ‘em, and it was ’cause of the General.”

“Damn right.” Maenin sat down.

“How did you do that?” Calandria asked, trying to project boyish curiosity.

Maenin and the Winckler told how Lavin had predicated his campaign on knowledge of stockpiles the queen kept in the desert. Summer was traditionally the time for campaigning; in northern Ventus, war stopped when the snows came. Iapysia’s southern desert remained warm, but the population was mostly concentrated along the northern border of the desert, and the seashore.

Lavin launched a phony campaign in summer, and drew the queen’s forces on a long retreat along the oceanside. He had the navy on his side, so the queen’s forces could not pursue his army too far.

Then he struck inland, and captured the desert stockpiles. When the end of the campaign season arrived, the queen’s forces had exhausted their supplies, but Lavin’s forces had several months’ worth of grain and dried fish. They drove north, as the queen’s forces suffered desertion and attrition. By the spring of this year, they had taken two-thirds of the country. The queen retreated to her summer palace, and Lavin marched a small force into the desert to clean out her experimental towns, and strike at her palace from the south. That force had encountered no resistance, and arrived here sooner than expected. The queen’s forces were engaged west of the palace by the bulk of Lavin’s army. He had no time for a decent siege of the walled summer palace. Lavin would have to throw them against the walls in a day or two, or face the retreating royal army.

“It’s okay, though,” drawled the Winckler. “He’s got a plan, as usual.”

Maenin squinted through the roiling wood smoke. “What? What plan?”

“Haven’t you heard? He’s going to meet the queen tomorrow, to get her to surrender. If he does it, we don’t have to fight at all. The war will be over!”

“Shit. Really?” Maenin shook his head. “That’d be something. Be too bad, though, I kinda wanted to taste one of those noble ladies she’s hiding there. The perverts were no fun. They had no spirit. I want a woman who’ll try and claw my eyes out!” He laughed, and the others joined in. Calandria showed her teeth.

They speculated for a while about how well the noble ladies would perform, and even the queen if they should catch her. They teased Cal for being a virgin, and promised to show the boy how to rape if they had to storm the palace.

Cal expressed her gratitude.

Maenin yawned. “Fine. Sleep time. The bastards ‘ll wake us up before dawn, and the Winds know what’ll happen tomorrow. Where you sleepin’, boy?”

“By the fire,” she said quickly.

“Wise.” Maenin glared at the Winckler. “Stay in sight, that’s my advice.” He stood, stretched, and walked scratching to his tent.

The others drifted away over the next hour, leaving Calandria to tend the fire. The supply of wood was meagre, but she built the fire up anyway–not because she was cold, but because she had a use for it.

When she was confident she would not be interrupted, she rummaged in her pack and brought out a slim metal tube. She uncapped it and poured a few small metal pills into her hand. She arranged these and peered at them in the firelight.

There was fine writing on the flat beads. When she had found the one she was looking for, she put the others back in the tube, and dropped the chosen one into the center of the fire. Using the tip of her sword, she maneuvered it onto the hottest coals at the core of the flames.

From another pouch, Calandria took some rusty metal rivets she had found on the way here. She dropped these into the fire near the metal bead. Then she sat back to wait.

It would take a couple of hours for the seed to sprout and grow, but she couldn’t afford to nap. If someone came, she would have to distract them, lest they look into the fire and see something impossible gleaming there.

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