10 Seresstine, too early (continued)
We passed one of the other war wagons, and I saw an unconscious battle mage on the ground and another one perched on the seat, painting rapidly and swearing (I think; it was too loud to hear). The war wagon was silent. I stopped and circled around to where I could see what he was doing. The brass plate was a smeared mess of clay filling the grooves, and silver paint coated it above the engraved th’an. As I watched, the mage tried again to paint the activation th’an on the flat, gleaming surface; nothing happened.
“Have you lost your mind?” Nessan growled into my ear, grabbing my wrist and towing me along after him. After a few seconds, I regained my balance, and we began moving as if we were panicked soldiers and not ruthless spies. Even though we were still in the Castaviran camp and therefore still in danger, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved. I’d forgotten how difficult it is to scribe th’an without lots and lots of practice. Those mages might have the innate ability to scribe the magic that makes the war wagons work, but they still needed the pattern of the grooves to do it. Our raid wasn’t a waste of time, after all. Thank the true God. I don’t think I could have forgiven myself, otherwise.
We came out of the enemy camp on the southeast and circled around back to our camp. It was full dark at that point, and Nessan stumbled so often I eventually took his hand to lead him in the moonless, cloudy night. Neither of us said anything about it, me because I didn’t want to make him feel awkward and him, probably, because he didn’t like the route I’d chosen, not that it was a bad one—he just doesn’t like having to follow anyone.
Tobiak and Relania were at the picket line, our agreed-on meeting place, when we returned. “We only got four of our five,” Relania said. “There were more battle mages at the fifth, surrounding it, so we couldn’t get through. And I think one of them spotted us.”
“Fair enough,” Nessan said. “And it might be good they saw you, if they know you were concealed before that. Give them something to worry about.”
“Rutika and Alessabeka aren’t back, though,” Tobiak said. “Should we go after them?”
“Even if they aren’t concealed, you’d never find them in the dark,” Nessan said, “and as I told your fearless leader, you should give them credit for knowing what to do.”
“And they have farther to go, if they retreated north rather than trying to cross the entire camp to come out where we did,” I said, trying to make myself feel better. I don’t know how convincing I was.
We waited for a long time. Once or twice someone tried to start a conversation, but it never went anywhere. We were all too nervous, especially since after a while the pounding started up again, and we worked out there were three war wagons still active. If Rutika and Alessabeka hadn’t disabled two of theirs…
My stomach felt full of acid, and I realized none of us had eaten recently. I think I’d have thrown up anything I tried to eat at that point. Eventually, the pounding stopped with one last defiant blast, and then it was still and cold and black, thanks to the thick cloud cover that probably didn’t mean snow, which would have delayed the inevitable attack in the morning.
Then someone was approaching us, and I had just enough time to register it was only one person and think Why is she still concealed? when Alessabeka stumbled and caught herself on one of the picket ropes, and sobbed, “They killed her. They saw her breath, and she tried to get away but she tripped and hit her head and lost concealment, and we ran away but it was right into a couple of soldiers—I’m sorry I ran, I left her behind, I’m sorry I’m sorry—”
Relania put her arms around the weeping woman and said, “It would have been stupid for you to stay and be killed as well. Rutika would be the first to tell you that. Shh, shh.”
I was—I couldn’t even think. It had never occurred to me that Rutika might be the one to fall. She was so good at all of it, and—damn her, she relied too much on that damn pouvra and it got her killed. I’m so mad at her I can’t even s
I’m not mad. I’m grieving. What a waste. And they didn’t
I can’t believe I was about to blame a dead woman for failing to complete her job. The truth is, I’m irrationally blaming myself for not going after them the way I wanted to, the way Nessan told me not to. Irrational, because he was right, but I do this every time, think about what might have happened if I’d chosen differently.
All right. Suppose I’d gone north instead of south. We might all have been killed. I could have been drawn into a fight and been overwhelmed. Or worse, they could have captured me and dragged me to the God-Empress to be tortured to death. There’s no reason to believe a different choice might have been a better choice. So I’m not going to think like that anymore.
We made a difference. I wish we could have stopped them before they managed to fire any projectiles, because they did a lot of damage in the camp, just not as much as if they’d been allowed to attack unhindered. Mattiak finally looked at me the way he used to, as a friend and a respected colleague, and that helped. But mostly we’re all in mourning now.
It’s…I don’t know what time it is. Late. Or early. Nobody feels like sleeping, which is stupid because we’ll need to be fresh in the morning when the real battle begins. I wish I had Cederic’s th’an he used on me to help me sleep when I kept having those nightmares about everyone I love being killed by the God-Empress. We could all use it now.