77. So Shitty, So Hard

The rest of the day is a blur of misery. No wagons arrive from Liamelia, so the remaining critically ill patients will have to spend another night shivering in tents. The two of the three remaining Gypsies approach and say that they’re leaving. Inglorion can’t keep them, so he thanks them for their help and sends them on their way. And, indeed, they’ve worked hard to care for the slaves they carried, and for their own wounded and dead. He’s aware that they may complain of Valentine’s actions to the authorities, or gossip about various decisions that he, Inglorion, made.

As the captives regain their health and strength, many pitch in and help to draw water, prepare food, nurse the ill and dig graves. Others seem inclined to follow the Gypsies’ example, and to leave quietly. Inglorion makes the rounds and tells everyone that they’re free to go, of course, but to please check in with him first so that he can account for them to the Council of Elders. Several slaves have provided really critical services — two wood elves have been foraging, hunting and trapping very successfully, for instance — and he talks to them individually, thanking them, assuring them that the Council of Elders will help them to return home or settle in the area. Lucius is pained and uncomfortable but stable, and Ajax remains quiet and almost meek despite a dangerously high fever.

Inglorion fears that entropy is overtaking the shrinking camp. Food, water and firewood are scarce despite constant labor. No new cases of gaol fever are reported, but nursing the ill and injured requires unremitting labor — just ensuring a supply of clean linen and dressings requires forethought and planning. The temperature continues to drop. The privies are getting bad. Inglorion takes to barking at anyone he catches squatting in the woods. They’re low on morphine and winding sheets. Inglorion and Valentine have finished the coffee, and must strictly ration tea and tobacco.

Everyone’s tired, cold, filthy and hungry. Inglorion reminds himself constantly that the slaves’ ordeal has been much worse and dragged on longer. Most were captured overseas because they were on the losing side of a civil war or factional struggle. In some cases, they’ve been suffering and displaced for years. More than one slave has confessed to Inglorion that the refugee settlement seems like a land of peace and plenty. After all, they’re not being knifed, raped or tortured; the sick are nursed and the dead are buried.

Knowing this helps Inglorion to keep up with the endless planning and rationing and counting of people and things. Valentine and Virginia handle some of it, but he has to coordinate everyone’s labor, keep accounts and write daily, detailed reports. Inglorion knows administrative work is critical, but he loathes it with his entire being. He feels he does it badly and thoughtlessly, and fails to meet his own standard. He rather likes writing after-action reports, because the events are discrete and well-defined, and offer opportunities to exercise his eloquence. Daily life in the camp is a parade of squalor, trivia and absurdity. His reports take on the feel of Borges’s encyclopedia: Whimsical, mysterious, random to the point of incoherence. He keeps on because he knows he’ll have to account for the decisions he makes, and it’s almost impossible to know what will become significant. He knows that the Gypsies’s deaths will be investigated and there will probably be a scandal over burials. Even his most benign actions will be scrutinized, weighed, and misconstrued in ways that he can’t foresee or prevent.

All of this is usual for military commanders — for anyone in power, really. Inglorion likes combat because it raises the threshold for complaint: Routine grousing that you were inexcusably rude to someone’s wife and have been sneaking extra cups of tea to the elves is dismissed as trivial. The latter two are actual complaints that have been raised. The first is arguably true, though he did preface his remarks with “Madam, with all due respect…”; the second is so cruelly unjust that Inglorion had to excuse himself abruptly to refrain from rudeness that would draw censure even on a battlefield.

Sometime after midnight, he returns to the little tent. Lucius is quiet, apparently in peaceful trance. Virginia is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Inglorion drops down next to her. She takes his hand, asks, “Are you OK? You look tired.”

“I’m good. I’ll lie down in a moment.” After a time, he unrolls his bedroll, says, “Join me for a little while, OK? I’m having a hell of a time getting into trance.”

They curl up together. They’ve spent so few nights together that it’s unfamiliar and exciting and comforting all at once. Inglorion’s lying on his back, and Virginia rests her head on his shoulder. He listens to her breath and heartbeat, strokes her hair. He finds that he’s crying silently — just tears. After a long time he says, “Fuck, baby. This is so shitty, so hard.”

“I know.”

His breath finally slows, deepens. She eases away from him carefully, checks on Lucius, then slips out of the tent. It’s time to check on her other patients.

For the first episode of Inglorion’s adventures, click here.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of Inglorion and Valentine’s adventures, click here.

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