78. Bad Alternatives, Unpleasant Consequences

The following day, there’s still no sign of the wagons that will be used to transport the remaining slaves to Liamelia. Inglorion has to start looking at contingencies, and planning for the possibility that help isn’t coming. It seems absurd. They’re a half-day’s ride from a major city, on a Gypsy migration route, but they might as well be in the Antarctic.

He and Valentine are drinking morning tea. It is highly unsatisfactory: Weak, with no flavor aside from a vague tannic bitterness. Worst of all, the caffeine content is negligible, which means that they’re withdrawing from both nicotine and caffeine. This morning will be hazy, and they’re sure to be nursing headaches by noon.

“How long would it take you to ride to Liamelia by road, as opposed to cross-country?” asks Inglorion.

“Maybe 12 hours. Eighteen if I get lost. So, 18.”

“Is there a single route that any sensible driver would take? A known Gypsy route? There are for damn sure no post roads.”

“With no guide, if you didn’t know the area, you could waste a fair amount of time on back roads, asking farmers if that one turn-off is still ‘down a fair piece.’”

Inglorion grimaces. “Do you know the area?”

“Not at all,” says Valentine promptly. “Do you?”

“Nope. I mean, I can survive in these foothills and mountains — Sieia and I spent a fair amount of time doodling around on the far side of the range. But that was almost 100 years ago, and it’s not like I drew a map. So, the fact is, either our wagons are parked in some hamlet between here and Liamelia waiting for the wheelwright to come take a look at a broken axle — which would piss me off, because any person capable of rational thought and independent action would send an outrider ahead to tell us that — or they’re driving around in circles trying to figure out if they took the wrong fork in the road by Farmer Turnip-Tits’s duck pond.”

Valentine nods. “Farmer Turnip-Tits. Do you know the guy?”

“Nope, but I hear his second-eldest daughter can suck a golf ball through a garden hose.”

“That sounds uncomfortable.”

“I’m not recommending it. I’m just saying what I heard.” He sighs, takes a drag off the cigarette they’re sharing. “I have to get status on those wagons, and to start thinking about backup plans. The longer people sleep in the cold with poor sanitation, the more people will get sick and die. I think I want you to ride back to Liamelia on roads instead of overland. Find the wagons and see what the problem is. Help them if you can — find them a wheelwright or a guide, or whatever they need. If you can’t find them in — what do you think? 36 hours? — I’ll have you take a letter to the Council of Elders and return overland.”

Valentine finishes the cigarette, drawing a look of wistful envy from his cousin. “If I go to Liamelia, they might not let me leave again.”

“I know. If you have to go, send a courier to me with an interim report before you enter the city. Someone at Hairy’s Tattoos can find you a courier who knows the roads. I don’t have anyone else to send. Lucius and Ajax are ill, Aramil’s situation is precarious, and I can’t spare Sextus or Virginia. I don’t want to rely on any of the remaining Gypsies or wood elves. They’d do something stupid and waste a day. ‘Oh, I ran into my cousin and he had 15 rabbits to skin, so I had to stay and help him out.’ Some shit like that.”

“Or Farmer Turnip-Tits’s second-eldest daughter.”

“No, that should be quick. And I hear she wears all the right protective gear: Knee-pads, splashguard.” He gives a wicked grin.

“Can you go?”

“I considered it. I trust you guys to handle shit in my absence, but I should stay here and see it through. There will be hard questions to answer. This is cleaner, I think. They plan to arrest you when you get back, right? You’ve given them bail? So at the worst, they take you in early.”

“I’ll be fine. I just don’t want to leave you stranded out here.”

“We’re out of good choices, unfortunately.” He hands over a sealed note, and Valentine pockets it.

“I’ll leave now, and time-box the amount of time I spend searching without leads.”

“Yup. I trust your judgment. Thanks for everything — for sticking with this. It’s shitty.”

Valentine shrugs. “Isn’t it all? I’m sorry, Inglorion.”

“Everyone fucks up. I know I do.”

Valentine rides off, and Inglorion walks from tent to tent, checking in, talking to people. Two more patients have died. The humans want him to preside over a small funeral — apparently at least one of the dead belongs to a sect that believes that Father Nate and his type are apostles of the devil. Lucius looks about the same — thin, pale and sick. Ajax is silent and withdrawn, concealing his injuries like any tiny predator will. They’re short on food and water, so Inglorion organizes a supplemental foraging party, and sends Aramil and Sextus off to draw at least a day’s supply of water.

Inglorion heads off to forage on his own, mostly looking for greens and other edibles, but keeping an arrow nocked in case of small game. It’s awkward. There’s a reason individuals either hunt or gather.

As he moves deeper into the countryside, he feels his physical and mental exhaustion. He’s been nauseated for days, partly because the food is bad and the camp is crowded, but also just because he’s perpetually worried and tense. The landscape is picturesque. They’re in the low foothills, which are criss-crossed by a pattern of ridges and tiny creeks. He picks his way up a single wash, hoping animals will come to drink, and following a clear feature of the landscape to avoid getting lost.

As he works his way uphill, he feels some of the tension drain away. Birds are singing and flitting through the low branches. He startles a garter snake sunning itself, and it slips between two stones like water circling down a drain. He peers into the little crack it found, and wonders if it has some kind of nest there. In a few weeks it will be too cold for reptiles, even at midday.

As he scrambles along, hopping from rock to rock, crossing and re-crossing the creek, he begins to sing a song he picked up somewhere long ago. It’s pretty, and sounds a bit like a spiritual or hymn:

Ain’t no rest for the wicked
money don’t grow on trees
I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed
there ain’t nothing in this world for free

he can’t recall the first verse, so he sings through the chorus a few times instead, focusing on producing clear, pure, sustained tones. The low stone ridges on either side of the creek capture the sound nicely, so his volume increases, and he goes from singing under his breath to full-throated volume as the sheer, pleading beauty of the song overwhelms him. Now, of course, there’s no chance he’ll catch any game. This isn’t a Disney movie, where rabbits and swallows will join to form a choreographed musical number.

As he sings, he thinks of his father, how he would have felt during long periods of uncertainty and dread. Inglorion is not the type to stage impromptu horse races or drinking contests, and he’s not much for team-building exercises. He’s more prone to doubt and worry than Tereus was, gentler, kinder. Now, when he’s directly responsible for people’s lives and well-being, he feels close to his father. It’s a heady sensation to make decisions and be obeyed. In the aftermath, as he manages unpleasant consequences, Inglorion feels weighed down. He recognizes the sensation from inhabiting Tereus’s body and mind. Inglorion knows in his gut and heart the sensation of choosing among bad alternatives, the responsibility that comes with power. Now, as he sings, he seeks a form of physical solace familiar to both of them.

He sings the chorus one more time, wondering, as he often does, what drove his father then, how he would have acted now.

I can’t slow down, I can’t hold back
though you know I wish I could.
There ain’t no rest for the wicked
’til we close our eyes for good.

On that last, wistful note, he feels the pure, transcendent pleasure of his own voice, mingled with sadness, regret and wonder.

He returns from foraging soon after, hands empty, heart full. Luckily the others have caught a few rabbits, and gathered more than enough.

To read Inglorion’s visions of his father in combat and forced retirement, click here and here. Inglorion witnesses his father’s war crime here, and has a vision of his own birth here.

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

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