With the snow, Joras often could not fight his way out to the trade villages. He managed once more before the snow grew so deep the horses could not manage, even if he stamped a trail out for them. 2nd Amitzas wanted no trails to us, even from a plowed road.
The high road was plowed with oxen, and this year they were in short supply. Since the war had depleted the horse stocks, people turned to the slower, stronger oxen. Teams had to be trained to plow snow apparently. It became part of my economics lessons, with Ailadas. That also lead to the economics of winter war. In effect, unless one has a nearly bottomless treasury, don’t do it.
Especially if your opponents were more versed in using snow and ice against you. That was one reason the nearly conquered Yeolis had been able to hold out agains the more numerous and better equipped rejins, until Chevenga had won through to them, backed with allies and mercenaries.
Their woman general, Renaina Chaer, had held in the mountains the whole war and even gained ground once the pressure was taken off her troops by Arkan rejins being re-deployed to the north, out of necessity.
From that snowfall and that day the days settled into dreary gray. I did my ten tens in armour and found some comfort in the fact that 2nd Amitzas couldn’t smash me with his stick at all for being out of place. I read everything Ailadas could get for me, and wrote him essay after essay. I was polite by rote at this point and couldn’t feel anything. Ilesias was with the women and I felt more and more alone and more and more gray. Gannara kept trying to cheer me up.
The Solstice came and went, with me merely studying the ritual in the Imperial Book since there was no Temple for me to do the rite. When 2nd Amitzas had gone, I’d ritually lit a candle, not wanting to short the Gods their due.
I imagined Chevenga doing the rite, with his beloved son, the one I had never seen. The little boy would be somewhere around first threshold. I was sure they would do it with whole heart, for the people of Arko, even if they’d never done it before. I sat in the darkness with only the candle burning. It was getting cold since it was beneath 2nd Amitzas’s dignity to place anything on a brazier and he certainly wasn’t going to let me do it since I was the Splinter of the Ineffable Light. Gannara would be in soon with means to light it again.
General Cold ate in from the edges with the dark as its shieldman and sank itself into my spine and my gut. What good would my life be? What could I do? If I stayed... 2nd Amitzas would hammer me into the image of the monster he wanted me to be. This evening, one of his lessons had been about soliciting information from unwilling prisoners of war, if one had no access to the drugs and wished to leave no marks.
He’d brought out a withered red spike of a vegetable in his bare hand. “Everything is useable. Anything may be used in the service of Empire. Anything can be turned to persuasion and coercion.” He raised his bare hand and the sight frightened me. 2nd Amitzas only bared his hands for one thing. Echoes of Obedience burned in my memory. “Like so, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” He broke it in half and though it was dry there was still damp at the centre. He rubbed the juice on his fingers. It smelled sharp but nothing that I had to be frightened of.
“Just that?” I couldn’t help dismissing it. “How is that to make someone tell me anything?”
He paused and if he had been anyone else would have smiled. “Like so, Spark.” He seized my chin with one hand and rubbed his fingers into my suddenly clenched closed eyes with the other. “Imagine if there is a wound, Spark… or the sensitive genitals or other areas of skin.” The burning started as though he’d held a match to the corner of my eye.
I was free to plunge my face in the water bucket and rub soothing oil into the abused membranes, not locked to a table, forced to endure. It was a pod used in cooking and I learned it was the same that had me choking when I was seven.
Trust Mahid to use a food to cause agony. 2nd Amitzas watched my paroxysms quietly. “Repeat, Spark of the Divine Sun.”
“Anything may be used in the service of Empire. Anything can be turned to persuasion and coercion.”
“Excellent.” He’d pulled on his gloves again, and my gut unclenched. “Recite the Rite of the Returning Sun for me.”
He’d had me learn it by rote so I repeated it from memory. The Imperial Book lay open in front of him and he read along, though he did not offer to touch it and I had to turn the page for him. He would never overstep those boundaries. Of course he would believe the gruesome warnings inscribed inside the cover of what would happen to anyone not of the Imperial line who laid unsanctified hands on the Book.
Then, finally he’d left me. And I sat and stared at the candle burning in front of me. Darkness. Despair and Destruction. Doom. I reached out and pinched out the light with my bare fingers, scorching them slightly. Darkness and cold. This is what I could expect from Hayel and I shuddered as I sat. But for one difference. I must still be alive because I could still breathe.
“Spark? What are you doing sitting in the cold with the light out? I’ve brought you dinner.” Since the snow, the Mahid had tried to keep the formal dinner tent at first, but 2nd Amitzas had finally declared ‘field conditions’ and allowed the relaxation of the crazier things they wanted to do in the woods. The dish sat in a straw-padded bundle, fragrant steam coming out from under the lid. Goat stew.
I answered Gannara with as normal a voice as I could manage. “It went out. I’m sure you’ll have things warmed up in a moment.”
The last Pages we received were full of news of the end of the fighting. Even after the sack and after Chevenga’s Ten tens, the troops that had been filtering to the north coast of the Arkan Sea to embark to their mustering point at Marsae, had continued to come.
A solas... a man destined by his caste to never command more than a hundred... had found an Aitzas general to front for him. According to the Pages report the general, Malaradas, was not competent to stand trial. The solas had mustered and fielded forty thousand who’d been stripped from the western and northern garrisons.
I looked at the scrivened picture of Kallijas Itrean, standing with his gauntlet raised as he spoke to the troops, the ancient Imperial War Tower looming behind him with the Imperial Banner, ‘Sun on the Field’ floating above it, laid my hand over it though the ink came off in my hands. They had to have known. They must have known they could not succeed against an Imperator who had been acknowledged by the Temple, by the Gods.
Chevenga had done the Ten tens and had done it well and in full view of thousands. He’d won this last challenge, with minimal bloodshed, and the leader, the solas, was being brought to trial for treason. Kallijas Itrean had survived, and would live. It remained to be seen if he were finished as a warrior.
I found myself staring at my words and I couldn’t make sense of them. It didn’t matter if it were the Pages, or my texts, or written with my own hand. Everything swam together. What was the use? What good would it do? There was so little light, even now when the sun was supposedly ‘coming back’. In reality it was the earth’s path around the sun that was moving through its normal course. But for all of us here below, fallen from Selestialis, it seemed that the sun moved.
“Ahem.” I looked up and folded the Pages together and handed them to Ailadas.
“For you to read.” I said. It was odd to feel so calm, so... flat, in the face of the end of the fighting. If I allowed myself to pray it would be in thanksgiving that very few more Arkan lives would be spent to bring peace.
“Thank you, --ahem—Minis.” He and I were spending a great deal of time together, since there was not much else to do but study. Since we were not able to do more than shovel from tent to cabin to tent, I mostly studied, but ran through all the material that Ailadas had for me.
“Minis, I—ahem--believe the First of the Mahid may have miscalculated our hiding place,” Ailadas said quietly one evening.
“You think so?” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my tone but he ignored it and answered straightly.
“—ahem—It seems as though he was not prepared for this quantity of snow.”
“Yes.” I couldn’t think. I couldn’t bring myself to say any more. It was all gray and useless.
Next morning 2nd Amitzas hauled me out of bed early and, in armour, I stood next to the practice ‘floor’ marked into the wet and melting snow. I’d been doing my Ten’s practice every day but he hadn’t made me do the practice in my armour in at least two moons.
“The winter has made you slack, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. Spring is fast approaching and we shall be moving our camp shortly. I will have you in better shape by the time we can force our way out to the road.”
What was the use? What was the Selestialis forsaken use? This practice was empty. Empty and useless as I was. Useless as my own existence, as useless as my own eating and studying and working and shitting and breathing.
His stick flashed out to smack into the back of my head since in armour, though unhelmed, I could feel it nowhere else as effectively. A reddish haze misted down over my eyes and I grabbed his stick out of his hand and broke it in half.
“NO! I will not do this any longer! No! This is futile and hideous and wrong! The Gods have spoken and made the barbarian Imperator! This is blasphemy! It is wrong!”
I railed at his impassive face, screaming my frustration and anger at him, defying him and my father’s wish. “Condemn it to Hayel! This idea of my taking the Empire back is wrong and evil and twisted. My father ruined it, he destroyed it and now he’s trying to make me fix it from beyond his death, beyond his grave!”
When I finally ran down and stood panting, the dripping trees dropping wet snow on us both, staring at him, I was aware of people watching, peeking out of tents and through the cracks in the walls of the cabin. His face was the same as always but he had grown pale, his lips thinned slowly into something I would not call a smile as I stood and thought, What have I done? Oh Selestialis, why did I do that?