The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Eighteen

“Eza, what’s going on?” Though Eza knew that Polain wasn’t trying to, she felt like he was scolding her; not only was he talking to her in Jotiese, but he wasn’t using her title, as well. It was the equivalent of having a parent call their child by their full name. “You haven’t been yourself in the past few days.”

She folded her arms and looked over at Kael, who was talking with Silas and Olrick. They seemed just fine with treating him like one of their own; how could they just forget that he was a Gisken soldier? “I’m doing just fine, thanks.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him frowning, concerned.

“Come, now, Eza,” he said. “We both know that isn’t true. You haven’t been this volatile since… well, I can’t actually think of another time you’ve been like this.” She looked back at him. His face had softened, to the point where it almost reminded her of Mitrius. “I know there’s something wrong, and I need to know what.” She glanced back at the Gisken.

“It’s the Gisken,” she said bluntly. Polain nodded; it seemed that that was what he was thinking.

“What is it about him?” he asked. “I know that it isn’t simply because of his nationality; you get along just fine with the Giskens under your command.”

“I know that I can trust the Giskens under my command with my life,” Eza said, looking back at Polain. By the saints, how could he be so daft? “He’s playing you, Polain, and you seem quite content with it. You’re doing exactly what he wants by taking him to Semata, and when he gets there, he’s going to make everyone’s lives a living hell.”

“I can assure you, Eza, I’m not being played,” Polain assured her. “If I didn’t have a plan for him, he would still be in a prison cell in Asfalis, right now.” He looked over at the Gisken again, as if to make sure that he wasn’t listening, then looked back at her.

“There’s a woman in Semata, one that used to serve as a nursemaid to the royal family,” he said quietly. “They sent her here when the Giskens began hunting down foreigners, a few years before the war started. If this is Prince Kael, I think she’ll be able to recognize him, though he would’ve been four or five years old when she left.” Eza nodded.

“I still don’t think it’s a good idea, but I see the logic behind it,” Eza said. Polain’s frown deepened.

“That isn’t the only thing about him that’s bothering you, is it?” he asked. Eza debated lying, but thought better of it; she wasn’t a bad liar – far from it - but Polain had known her long enough to be able to see right through her.

“He was – is – a Gisken soldier,” she said. “From the looks of Olrick, he just stood by and watched as they came close to whipping and beating him to death. I can’t just sit here and act as though he were my brother, knowing that he just stood back; do you wish me to slap a smile on my face and pretend that I think he’s the greatest person I’ve ever met?”

“I understand, Eza, though I’m sure you don’t think I do,” he said. “However, I do not ask for you to call him brother; I only ask that you remain civil with him until we get this matter sorted out. Will you be able to do that, or will I need to keep you two separated?”

“I’ll be alright, sir,” Eza said, looking back at the Gisken. “I haven’t killed him, yet.” Polain sighed and ran a hand through his graying, black hair.

“That answer doesn’t put me at ease, but I suppose that that’s as close a reassuring answer as I’ll get from you,” he said. “You’re dismissed, commander.” She did a quick salute and walked back to her seat with everyone else.

When she got back to where everyone else was, Eza couldn’t help but notice how scared the Gisken seemed to be of her; it seemed that Silas had told him something that managed to shut him up.

Eza took a bite of water-soaked hard tack and swallowed the tasteless mush. He’d probably told him some tall tale involving her time in the Kurzhian Guard, likely something about disemboweling, scalping, or both.

“What did Silas tell you about me?” the Gisken looked over at her.

“Miss?” Eza swigged down some water.

“You were talking with Silas while I was with General Polain,” she said. “Now, you can’t seem to look me in the eye. What kind of story did he tell you about me?” The Gisken began to rub the back of his neck.

“He just told me that you’re a Kurzhian,” he said. He tried to take a bite from his hard tack, then recoiled, rubbing his jaw.

“You’ll want to soak that in water before you try to eat it,” Silas commented, eating his own soggy mess of hard tack. “Unless, of course, your teeth happen to made of metal.” The Gisken obediently began to pour water from his canteen onto his hard tack, beginning the process of turning it into mush.

“Were you really born in Kurzh, or were your parents from there?” the Gisken asked.

Why the hell do you care? “I was born and raised in Orovich,” she said.

“You really ought to eat that hard tack, before it ends up falling apart” Silas butted in. The Gisken put the mush in his mouth, and almost immediately began gagging on it. While Eza found herself annoyed more than anything, Silas began laughing, revealing a mouth filled with brown mush. By the saints, he could have at least swallowed it before he started laughing!

“What’s the matter with it, kid?” he asked once he was able to breathe, again. “You need something a little more flavorful?” The Gisken choked down the mush and began swigging water.

“That wasn’t quite what I expected,” he coughed.

“You’ll get used to it,” Olrick said reassuringly. Thank the saints, the conversation drifted away from her past in Kurzh and to other, more innocent things; however, the seed had been planted. Eza’s thoughts began to drift home, to Mitrius, to everything good and bad that had happened to her there.

And when she did, she realized that Kael looked eerily familiar.

She tried to dismiss that thought entirely. She’d met many Giskens in her time, there, and they all bore the face of Commandant Schneider, of whom the Gisken sitting next to looked nothing like. That night in the woods had been the first time she’d met him, she became sure of it.

That was, until she started thinking of fellow Kurzhians.

When Eza thought of that, a single face came to mind: it was one back-dropped on a gray sky, with a howling wind that blew sharp snowflakes across his reddening cheeks, one with a man standing behind it with a bundle of blankets in his arms. It was the day Mitrius had helped her escape the camp. A Stasyek man and his son, who was around her age, had found her in the snow half-dead and took her in while she recovered; they’d even helped her on a boat out of the country.

It couldn’t be him, though, could it?

The first thing Blair felt when he woke up that afternoon was pain. His entire right side throbbed painfully, to the point where he desperately wanted someone to give him ale, cocca leaves, something to make it go away; however, no doctors came his way. General Raul had just tried to take over a town north of Thaos, a town they didn’t realize was home to half a garrison, on leave from the nearby city of Lake Town. The army was, eventually, able to take over the town, but at a high cost: many injured soldiers had been carried into the tavern, which, since the disappearance of the Watchman and the Pyromancer, was serving as a hospital and command center. Since the battle, the sickly sweet scent of blood clung to everything in the tavern, to the point where it made Blair sick to his stomach, some days. That, combined with the paralyzing pain from his burns, his existence had become a living hell, one that he desperately wanted to get out of.

His opportunity would come in the form of his father.

That particular afternoon, he would wake up to the sounds of a heated argument. It was between Raul and one of the doctors.

“-I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid that he isn’t ready-“ There was a loud bang, as if someone had slammed their fist on a table. It was loud enough that Blair found himself flinching

“I don’t give a damn that he hasn’t perfectly healed, yet!” General Raul barked. Everyone in the room flinched at the sound of his voice, the doctor he was talking with cowering at his anger. “Is he well enough to stand on his own?” For a few brief seconds, they were both silent as the doctor considered his options.

“I-I don’t know, sir…”

“How the hell could you not know?!” One of the female nurses, who was caring to a man that needed his leg amputated, was on the verge of crying now, terrified of how angry the general was.

“H-he hasn’t gotten up in a week, sir,” the doctor said quickly, hoping that what he’d say would save his life. With how badly he was burned, he may never be able to stand on his own again.” Raul began to look around, searching for something. His eyes finally landed on Blair. To his discomfort, Blair realized that his face didn’t soften when his father saw him.

Raul began walking toward him. “Can you stand?”

Well, at least he didn’t yell at him like he did the doctor. He had a feeling that that would be the closest thing to sympathy he’d get from him that day.

Blair began to sit up. Searing pain shot through his body, but he did his best to ignore it. “Give me a minute, sir.” Raul nodded and simply stared at him as he tried to stand.

After he sat himself upright, a feat in itself, the real challenge began. He didn’t have much feeling in his leg (it had been burned to the point where he couldn’t feel anything but a steady numbness in it) and he wasn’t sure if it still, well, worked. For a few seconds, he found himself teetering on his bed frame, unsure of what would happen if he were to let go. Only the gods knew what would happen if he fell; Raul would probably disavow him, as he would be a cripple if he couldn’t stand on his own. His way of life depended on whether or not he could stand up on his own.

Finally, Blair let go of his bed frame.

For a brief moment, he thought that his worst nightmare was about to come true. His leg began to wobble beneath him, and it seemed that it would buckle beneath him; however, it stayed straight, thank the god.

Raul nodded, seemingly content. “Can you wield a sword?”

“I don’t know, sir,” he said. “In all honesty, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand up straight.”

“I suppose that’s something we can work on,” Raul said. “Besides, swordplay isn’t why I need you back.” He sat down on the stool, while Blair sat back down on his bed, hoping that it didn’t look too much like he’d fallen onto it.

“I need some help with that garrison by Lake Town,” he said. “I’m afraid that we don’t have very many gifted interrogators, and those Caithians are hard nuts to crack.” Blair frowned.

“Why are you asking me?” he asked. “With all due respect, I think Bram would be a better option; he got the closest to cracking the Watchman out of the two of us.”

“Because I have him set on other business,” Raul said. “Would you like to stay here and drink ale and chew coca leaves all day, or would you like to do something useful?” Blair nodded.

“I’ll go.” Raul stood up.

“Good,” he said. “Pack up your things; you’re leaving the second I can find you a horse.”

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