89. A Close-Run Thing

Consciousness returns unsteadily. Later it seems as if he was awake and lucid for long stretches, explaining complicated matters to people who wouldn’t listen. He feels that perhaps he was interrogated at some point, and that he may have had visions, none of them memorable, thank God.

When he’s first truly conscious, it’s evening, and Sieia is watching over him by candlelight. The room seems familiar. Perhaps he’s in the Wallace house? Fear grips him.

“Where’s Virginia? Is she OK?”

“She’s fine. She’ll be back presently. She was tired, so I took a shift. You’ve been very ill.”

“And Lucius?”

“Lucius is fine.”

“Is everyone OK? Were there more deaths among the slaves?”

“Two more passed away last week, but none since then.”

“Is Valentine in jail?”

“A kind of house arrest. Lucius, too. They’re bearing up well.” Inglorion is agitated, seems inclined to try to get up. “Inglorion, you’re still very weak. I’m going to give you something to drink. You have to rest.”

He makes an impatient gesture. “Very likely. I have to know — I have to see Valentine and Lucius, and I need you to send Virginia to me…” He breaks off, eyes her suspiciously. She’s turned away to mix a drought, and is adding a tincture from an eyedropper. “Sieia, what is that?”

“It’s tincture of laudanum mixed in water, and if you don’t drink it yourself quietly, I’ll get three footmen to hold you down while I pour it into you.”

“Sieia, I don’t want any fucking laudanum.” She brings it over to his bedside. “You wouldn’t dare.”

She smiles at him and says, “You know perfectly well that I would. You can drink it the hard way or the easy way.”

He gives her a measuring look, realizes that he does feel very weak and tired. “How long has it been?”

“Ten days.”

“Holy fuck.” He starts to sip the dose, wrinkling his nose.

“Drink it fast. Sipping is the worst possible way.” He slugs it down, gasping with disgust. When he finishes, she says, “Thank you, dear. I hate to be a tyrant, but you almost died. You’re a very bad patient — you know you are.”

He gives her a lopsided smile. In his weakened state, the drug works fast. “I’m a crazy motherfucker with good luck, my dear.”

“You have a wife and son, and a daughter, too. I don’t want your widow on my hands.” She leans over and kisses him.

“I love you, Sieia,” he says sleepily as he starts to drift off again.

Over the next few days, as Inglorion becomes more reliably conscious and lucid, he realizes that Virginia and Sieia are withholding facts from him, and barring visitors. At first he was under strict medical quarantine, confined to the suite Sieia set up for him long ago. Though his symptoms have eased, a doctor or surgeon has decided that he’s not to be agitated, so he’s still cut off from the outside world.

At first, Inglorion is too sick and tired to care. Influenza patients often suffer from morbid fancies, attacks of despair and self-loathing much like Lucius’s conviction that he was a bad, weak son. Though he strives to remain outwardly calm, Inglorion feels guilt, shame, horror, and an entirely unfamiliar nervous exhaustion. Inglorion is not always optimistic, but by default, he’s possessed of an uncomfortable mental and physical vigor. No more. Since regaining consciousness, he’s felt long stretches of indifference and lassitude, punctuated by anxiety.

Inglorion has always assumed that his actions are ill-considered at best, reckless to the point of madness at worst. He’s comfortable with his own recklessness because he’s always won through a combination of luck, endurance, brute strength and charisma. Now, in the wake of the last operation, Inglorion suffers from a loss of nerve. He feels that he misjudged badly, and his actions affected scores of innocent people. His own illness, pain and misery don’t worry him, but he feels sick when he thinks back on others’ suffering.

Lying in his sickbed, deprived of his usual activities, he remembers presiding over that first funeral — the orphaned elvish boy of 10 or 11 whom he tried to comfort with tea and a biscuit. Inglorion remembered most of the words to the funeral rite, but he didn’t know to lead the mourners away before Valentine and Aramil started filling the grave. The little boy heard two men shoveling dirt onto his father’s corpse. Inglorion, at least, will never forget that sound, and the boy’s riveted expression when he heard it.

The half-orcish woman lying with her skull smashed in, her face beaten beyond recognition. The other slaves in the caravan ignored her corpse, denied all knowledge of how she’d come by her injuries. He’s tried to imagine how and why they ganged up on her. It disturbs him that he doesn’t know, and that his imagination fails him.

The old woman whose irons were too tight. Her hands and feet were grotesquely swollen, and gangrene had set in.

The fever patients shivering in the caravans on that last, frigid day. A human boy of 16 or so died that afternoon — gave in to cold and fear and despair, and the exigencies of fever and infection. He was dead even as Inglorion was hectoring the sentries in a final burst of outraged impatience.

It was a close-run thing. They could easily have broken down just a few miles from safety. The strong would have been faced with an agonizing decision: Whether to leave the weak behind and go for help, or to try to nurse and comfort the weak as temperatures dropped. There would have been dozens more deaths, and not just among the slaves. He’s forced to admit privately, in the depths of his heart, that he came very close to dying himself.

Inglorion refuses to believe that the operation was a failure. They rescued many people from certain slavery and likely death. He admits that it required unremitting struggle, and they narrowly avoided disaster. He suspects that the Council of Elders knows this, and that they will be more inclined to count the cost and risk than they will to congratulate him on his hard-won victory.

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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