Chapter 16

Chapter 16: III: Kirin

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Chapter 16: Generals

Section III

Kirin – A Beach: The Wings of Adonis

Silices wouldn’t shut up, which wouldn’t have been a problem except that his twin wouldn’t either. The pair of them sat across from Kirin around the modest campfire they’d built up on the narrow strip of beach where Varco Drenda had laid anchor. Hundreds more fires identical to theirs pimpled the sandy Erusi shore, protected on the landward side by high, sheer cliffs.

Kirin had never seen natural rock so straight and tall. When the rugged coastline had come into view of Varco’s trireme, Kirin had mistaken the cliffs for city walls. It had almost been enough to scare him away from making camp with the others, but the promise of water had been too great.

Three weeks of rowing on the Eralia, and Kirin’s daydreams were consumed with visions of fresh water and fantasies of any food that wasn’t the hard round bread, leeks, or onions that filled every corner of available space aboard ship.

Kirin nibbled at his bread ration, then quickly washed down the crumbs with a swig of stream water from his flask. After weeks rowing, he barely even noticed the pervading ache and burn every time he lifted his arms.

Scorching firelight bathed his cheeks, and he turned to survey the cliffs where freshwater cut through the stone. Even now, the grey-cloaked crews of the rest of the fleet lined up to fill flasks and barrels, ready for the final push to Zimrida.

In Lorar, water killed men as often as it saved them. That it could crack even these rock walls proved its power.

Kirin gazed out at the ocean, where smaller boats called celoces patrolled the coast. One celox had cut away from the others and was approaching the shore. A bright lantern hung upon the bow, where it illuminated the gold standard of the vessel. The banner on the standard wasn’t red or yellow like those of the fleet Kirin had sailed in on. Had the little celox come from elsewhere?

Kirin frowned over at the Eralia, which rested beached on the sand. There was movement aboard—men with lanterns of their own emerging onto the deck. Some of the other triremes and actuaria on the sand were bustling as well.

The celox must be a messenger.

Vasthes—Silices’s twin brother—snapped his fingers at Kirin. “Lupo. Lupo. Luuuupo.”

Kirin faced the boys and his vision flared with blinding firelight. He tilted his head back, eyes watering, taking in the clear night sky. The stars rotated above him, moving the way everything moved now whenever he was ashore. Maybe the stars had always been this way, and it was only when you became a sailor that you saw the truth.

He chuckled.

“Lupo.” Silices—Kirin thought it was Silices—sighed.

“What does a deep blue sky at night mean?” Kirin asked.

“Ask Drenda,” Silices scoffed with a laugh.

The brothers had only recently been assigned to the Eralia, much like the majority of Drenda’s century. The seaborne soldiers who made up Drenda’s crew were a motley collection of men from the towns and provinces outside Lorar proper. Silices and Vasthes were Vetish, and there were even a few Indasi men aboard. They hadn’t been sailing long enough for all Varco’s sailors’ sayings to have rubbed off on them yet.

“I heard it means we’re to meet a sea dragon the next morning,” Vasthes piped up.

Silices grinned. “heard it means the seafoam will be filled with jewels, but that if we steal them we’ll turn into crabs.”

The twins were barely fifteen years old, with freckles and feckless smiles, and the boyish energy that seemed to come so naturally before life sank you with its sorrows. Kirin had warmed to them immediately, but every smile seemed bordered by the promise of future grief.

Still, how good it was to be with mere men again, instead of senators and senator’s wives. Good, solid soldiers filled the beach, laughing and jeering, shouting and crying. By the sound of retching further off, a few had overindulged in the strong ship’s wine that Drenda plied them with when water was scarce.

Kirin took another hearty swig from his flask. The still-frigid water felt like a knife carving a stream in his throat.

“—once saw a dead crab that turned into a serpent, and then all the dead crabs on the beach sprang to life again and became serpents and that’s where snakes come from.”

At least Kirin was used to chatty friends.

Thought of Yakov only summoned the sight of his glazed eyes as he’d been swallowed by his attackers at the stadium. Kirin blinked, trying to draw himself back to the story Silices was regaling them with.

From one of the fires nearby, an old soldier lobbed a hunk of bread at the back of Silices’s head. “Shut up!”

“Watch it!” Silices snapped. “Unless you want your name on my blade by the end of the day.”

Supposedly, Silices scratched the names of his enemies into his axe handle, though Kirin suspected the names carved there were more likely the blade’s previous owners. Though the bulk of Lorar’s fighting men were outfitted with new kit, Varco’s century appeared fit only for leftovers.

“Anyway,” another soldier hollered from the nearby fire in a thick northwestern accent, “everyone knows snakes come from cows. They suckle at their teats just like calves.” He clucked his tongue and cocked his head disapprovingly. “It’s what happens when you let your cattle graze on holly.”

Kirin was certain snakes came from spilled blood on desert sand—Marianus had written about it in one of his histories—but he didn’t bother ruining the soldiers’ fun.

“Do you think we’ll see any dragons down south?” asked Vasthes.

“Definitely,” croaked the westerner from the other fire. “Elephants come from down south, and the elephant is the natural enemy of the dragon. Dragons wait in the rivers for elephants to come by—they thirst for the elephant’s chilly blood, you see? And when the elephant wades into the water—snap.” He clapped his hands. “The elephant is gone. But it topples onto the dragon and crushes it under its weight, so they both die.”

“What’s the difference between dragons and snakes?” Kirin asked.

“Dragons have crowns,” said Silices.

“No,” Vasthes snapped. “Only the king dragon has a crown. That’s how the other dragons know he’s the king. The difference between dragons and snakes is that dragons have legs.”

The angry man who’d thrown the bread turned around on the stone he was using for a seat. “Horsehit. Dragons are just huge snakes. If you really want to get down to it, they usually have at least two heads as well.” He spit onto the sand. “But Dragons or snakes, we ought to be careful on the southern shore. The spirit of a place can take the form of a snake, ready to defend its people. If they breathe their venom on you, you’ll melt into a puddle of blood and bone, or worse—your organs will grow until you’re big as an elephant yourself.”

He sounded so confident that Kirin was inclined to believe him.

“How do you know so much about snakes and dragons?” Kirin called to the man over the fire.

The old man turned properly and leaned forward so that his scraggly grey hair dangled to his knees. “Used to ship animals from all over for rich men’s menageries. The snakes weren’t the worst, but they were close.”

Maybe the old man had shipped the beasts Kirin had seen in the arena in years past. It was a strange thought—that between Kirin and this stranger there was some connection.

“What about bears?” asked Vasthes, an eagerness in his voice that suggested he’d either watched bear fights in a stadium, or wished he had.

The old man eased back, hands on his thighs as though rubbing out an ache. “Bears, snakes, basilisks, lions as black as night—you name it, I shipped it.”

“So what are you doing here?” Kirin asked. There must have been money in such a thing. Importing exotic beasts was something only the wealthy could afford. Most of the soldiers were men desperate for money, or for the reward of land Marianus had promised.

“Working for my bronze,” the man explained. “Same as you all.”

Kirin grunted. It wasn’t a real answer. A soldier’s bronze referred only to the engraved bronze plates received upon a man’s discharge. The old man was probably some criminal, or maybe a gambler with too much debt.

Silices and Vasthes were gabbing still, disinterested in Kirin’s conversation with the old man.

“—slammed right into him, took his head clean off!” The finishing statement was punctuated with a bang as Silices smashed his metal cup onto the rock beside him, sloshing water everywhere. “Sorry,” the boy added abashedly, quickly rambling off again as though it might make up for the mess. “And that wasn’t the first time I saw a man eaten by a bear. They get big where we’re from, see.”

“Bigger than a—” Vasthes fumbled. He seemed not to know what exactly bears were bigger than.

“A mouse?” offered Kirin with a grin.

Vasthes rolled his bright eyes. “Bigger than that, obviously.”

“Anyway,” Silices continued. “I saw a man get ate whole―all of him, gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”

The northwesterner at the other fire stumbled to his feet on wine-addled legs. “Going for a piss.”

The old man joined him, with a disparaging look at Vasthes and Silices.

Kirin smiled reassuringly at the twins. “I’ve seen bears in the stadium. Never fought one.” He paused, considering what and how much was safe to disclose. The city walls in Lorar had been plastered with graffiti bearing his likeness and naming him a wanted man. “Fought a lion though.”

Sort of.

Silices brightened. “Oh! I’ve seen a lion.”

“More than one lion!” added Vasthes excitedly.

“A man came to our village see. A foreign man.”

“A little old rat from the south.”

“An Anouti rat.”

“Had a lion on a chain.”

“Said we could pay a copper to pull his tail.”

Kirin raised an eyebrow. “Did you?”

“Did we what?”

“Pull it,” Kirin clarified.

“Of course I didn’t,” said Silices. “It was a sure scam.”

“I paid. Fucking rat. Lion nearly took my arm off. It was dangling by the bone!”

Kirin made a show of leaning to the side to take a look at Vasthes’s arms, which were completely fine.

Sussing Kirin’s complaint, the boy glared. “Well it got better.”

Kirin rested his elbows on knees, leaning in as close to the fire as he dared, as if he were about to confide a great and terrible secret. “I’ve seen a lot of men lose limbs in the arena―arms, legs, more important extremities.”

The boys’ eyes widened, rapt to attention.

“More important . . . .” Vasthes echoed.

“The worst was a Masseni soldier. I cut his arm almost clean through.” Kirin made a slicing motion with his hand. “His arm was dangling from a bone, but instead of just dying, he came at me, set on taking me with him.”

“Taking you where?”

Silices gave his brother a slap. “The underworld, of course. Now shut up. What happened next?”

“I put an axe in his neck. He died.”

Silices pressed his lips together. “Rats are weak.” He hefted his axe, turning it as though admiring the names on the handle. “They’ll scurry back to their nests when they see me coming.”

And there it was, that brazen certainty, that surety that the rest of his life would prove glorious and full.

“They don’t all scurry, and if they do it doesn’t stop them being dangerous.” Kirin turned his closed flask over and over in his hands, thinking on the people he’d met and lost, even Thanus the Thumper and Petro; even his blue-eyed child, long dead and supposedly forgotten.

The babe never even had a name, though what name he would have been given as the son of a slave, Kirin didn’t know or relish.

Kirin watched Silices and Vasthes, observed carefully their hungry expressions, their impressionable, open eyes. Many of the men on the Eralia would not come home. They might be trained as Varco had claimed, but they were unprepared all the same. The beach was a field of regulation-grey cloaks and blue tunics lit by warm and happy fires, but underneath that all Kirin saw were corpses.

Silices and Vasthes—well, Kirin would do all he could to ensure these two at least made it home safely. Kordelia and her family had their battles ahead of them back in Lorar, but Kirin had his, too, and not all of them, it turned out, had to do with Oran and revenge.

Oran would make a fine name for Kirin’s axe handle, assuming he lived to carve it.

“Lupo? Heron?”

Heron? Kirin couldn’t help himself, and he laughed. “Lupo is enough.”

“You went quiet,” said Vasthes.

“I’m surprised you didn’t fill the silence for me.”

Vasthes reddened. “You were going to say something else.”

Kirin nodded. “Don’t underestimate the southerners. They fight like madness because they are madness. They can’t help it. They know no other way.”

“But what are the women like?” Silices blurted.

“Hairy!” Someone bellowed from behind them. The old man had returned to his fire. He barked a laugh.

“I don’t know,” Kirin said honestly. “The slaves around Lorar seem decent to look at.”

“Fuckable,” Vasthes said assuredly, though how he’d seen one when his brother hadn’t was a mystery.

“Good,” said Silices, “because I’m going to catch one―Himala herself if I can.”

Himala, bitch-queen of the Masseni. Priscilla had been dressed up like the Masseni general when Marianus had damned her to the stadium to die.

Kirin stared out at the calm, dark sea. The celoces had disappeared from view—either around the headland or moored on the beach. With the Eralia and her sister ships hauled onto the shore, the ocean appeared vast, empty, and unbroken. It must be terrifying to live so close to such a beast, where who knew what monsters lurked beneath the waves. Perhaps the people of the southern shore, too, feared the water.

“I’m done for the night.” Kirin stood up and stretched. The sweat from the fire poured off him—he’d be more comfortable sleeping in the shade, away from the fire and further from the twins’ chatter.

Silices and Vasthes waved him off.

As Kirin let the nighttime swallow him, he shivered. There was more than enough space to sleep beneath the towering cliff face, but he didn’t fancy the cracks streaking across its upper ridges. The rocks that peppered the sand conjured images of awaking to find his legs crushed to bloody pulp.

Above the ridge, short, scraggly trees that Kirin couldn’t name crouched tight to the ground. They weren’t tall enough to hide in, and Varco had insisted the small island off the coast of the Wings of Adonis was uninhabited, but as Kirin drank in the sight he could swear that short, stunted shadows slipped in between the branches. It may be that no men dwelled here, but what of wolves? What of worse things? Things that were like men, but weren’t men at all?

They’d all laughed at Silices’s tall tales of king dragons, but such creatures had to live somewhere, and something had to live here, or why did the land sit empty? It would have made a perfect outpost for the Masseni at Zimrida. Beady, Masseni eyes could be spying on the soldiers now. Nimble, scratchy fingers could be twisting spy glasses and filling slings ready to blind their unsuspecting prey.

Kirin slung his heavy grey cloak over his shoulder and reached for the axe at his belt. His fingers scraped the bronze plates tied beside it—his own discharge, granted in expectation that Kirin would survive the siege on Zimrida and make it south.

Not far now, till Kirin’s feet touched down on southern soil.

“If we win.” He whispered the words, but they thundered in his ears. Ydelka hadn’t ever been so sure as Kirin was that Lorar would come out of this war unscathed.

But Lorar couldn’t lose because losing would mean Oran had won.

In the near darkness, the marines who huddled around the fires looked like gravestones. Their identical blue tunics were the blue of a blue rubaki, and the glint of metal standards thrusting from the earth was the gleam of a sharp sword, swung to kill.

Kirin sucked back a lungful of smokey air, flinching as harsh salt wind tickled his nose.

He ought to make an offering to Vors was what, but the army priest Varco had dragged along was tucked away inside the ship, no doubt asleep on much finer bedding then Kirin and the other soldiers would ever see.

Kirin walked southward, along the less crowded stretch of beach, where the soldiers’ fires grew patchier and the shore rockier. He would use his cloak as a pillow and find a rock to sleep against.

Just as Kirin’s mind began to drift again, sleep tugging at his eyes and his arms and his shoulders, the sharp blast of a military horn rang across the beach.

Kirin’s hand was on his axe hilt faster than the men at the fires could scramble to their feet. He turned left, right, back toward the ocean—no one. No obvious danger. Just a cluster of people around one of the larger triremes.

The trumpet called again.

“News! News from the West!” A man yelled out.

Back the way Kirin had come, toward the Eralia, men raced through the campfires, whooping, and shouting.

“Atlin has fallen!” The words reverberated across the cliffs. “The Feislands are ours. We’ve got Ossa in chains, and twenty Masseni ships!”

Kirin’s heart seemed to swell to fill his chest. He squeezed his axe as tight as he could, till his skin burned raw.

Lorar was winning. They were winning, and Kirin would win for Ydelka.

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