663 - The scribe in paper-pusher’s clothing
And so it begins, the writer’s leading questions window-dressed with gushing admiration, each answer from a guard almost buried in an avalanche of rapid-fire Yeoli cross-talk from the others. The writer wisely waited until they were about half-way into their cups before approaching them. One of them seems completely sober, however, and I notice he is nursing his cup. A standard practice, perhaps required by superiors, to make sure at least one of them will have his wits about him all night?
“You mean there’s going to be a trial?” the writer gasps. “They’re going to put you on trial, kere Kunarda? Or whoever it is, I mean?”
“Who knows if there’s going to be a trial?” the straight-haired man spits back.
“There’s going to be one less trial—Farnias’s!” Big laugh around the table.
“No one knows and even if we did, we wouldn’t be allowed to tell you.”
“We’re probably not allowed to tell anyone no one knows!”
“Ahh [Yeoli swearword]... I retract that.”
“I… what is the word? Redact that!”
Kunarda’s cup is refreshed, and he gulps it down in one draught. “Whoa, slow down, Kuna, you’re just going to puke, and you’ll never make it to the door first,” says the man beside him.
“Eat kyash,” he retorts. “I told you all that I was going out to get smashed, and that’s what I’m going to do!”
“Come on, brothers, you know me, I’m Rao Shae-Lemana, from the Diplomatic Records Department of Foreign Concerns,” the writer says. “I just really admire you all, you know? You have a hard job, and nobody ever gives you enough credit for it.”
“That’s not true,” says one of the women guards, as they all introduce themselves. Perha—the other guard rumoured to have been present when Farnias died. Alaecha, Sorala, Borai, Korai. Senala-e, the sober one. “Pull up a chair, bureaucratic brother!” He does.
“Kere Perha?” The writer widens his eyes in feigned mawkish admiration. “I heard you were there too… I will buy you another drink!”
“Look,” Perha says, without cracking a smile. “You cannot base the buying of drinks on the word of anonymous, unverified sources.” Big laugh from the group.
“Like you’re going to turn it down!” Bigger laugh.
“I’m not going to turn it down! But I disavow any claims to the honour of having been there.”
“Not true that no one gives us credit,” says the same woman. “Chevenga does.”
They all agree, both verbally and in the chalk gesture, going instantly serious. “I’ll drink to that.” They raise a toast to him.
“I just don’t think it’s fair, anyway, that whichever one of you it was, is going to wind up on trial for it,” the writer wheedles.
“You know, we kyashin miss him on the training ground,” one of the men says, with a distinct tone of whine in his voice.
“It’s not the same, not having your ass kicked by Cheng on a regular basis.”
“He gets rusty, we all do, too....”
“How do you know it’s one of us?” one of the women says to the writer, mysteriously.
“He means collectively, among the darasema.” Short-form for the Yeoli name for the wider unit of warriors close to the Yeoli leader: darya semanakraseyeni.
“Indeed, that’s what I meant,” the writer deftly recovers. “I mean, you’re just doing your duty, somebody tries to assassinate Chevenga, and you have to worry about being tried for it?”
“Holy Arkan-holes, did you read that [Yeoli swearword] thing in the Pages? Made Hurai and Krero both look like total idiots!”
“That was the Enchian version... makes you wonder what the Arkan version looks like.”
“You know what gets me? It was a [Yeoli swear-word] Yeoli who wrote it!”
“I saw that! That Shemeya Shae-Asila should be smacked, you ask me…”
“What’s up with that, what’s he got against us?”
“He used to be with Disseminatory. He’s writing like we’re in Yeola-e. Like we’re just in nice peaceful home where it doesn’t matter if you rip apart a politician. But we’re not there. We’re in [Yeoli swear-word] Arko.”
No one articulates the difference. They all seem to understand it, instinctively.
“Made Chevenga look like an idiot too, if you ask me. If I knew where that [Yeoli swear-word]-eater was, I’d give him... ehh, more than a talking-to.”
“Back of my hand.”
“Back of your hand? Flat of my sword-blade.”
“Beat the [Yeoli swear-word] out of him and make like Arkans did it.”
“He’s a Yeoli, not an Arkan! Imagine the flying excrement!” That was Kunarda, his words starting to slur.
“Rub his face in excrement.”
“Yeah, that’s not too violent.”
The writer raises his cup. “Here’s to pulling the [Yeoli swear-word] scribbler’s toenails out, one by one!” Laughing uproariously, they all drink to that. He signals the server: another round on him.
“I’ve got in enough trouble for being [Yeoli swear-word] too hard too fast,” says Kunarda.
“Ehh...” says the sober Senala-e. “All your life.”
The writer pounces on that, slurring his own words, eyes wide as an owl’s. “Trouble? What kind of trouble could you have gotten into?”
“None-of-your-business kind of trouble,” says Sena. “We don’t know you well enough to get all personal.”
“Ehh, c’mon, don’t be mean to Rao, he’s buying, and buying some more,” says Borai, I think.
“I just want to be friends, brothers,” the writer slurs. I see it’s a maudlin drunk he’s going to play. “Have no friends in this [Yeoli swear-word] city, just want some…”
“You mean no other pencil-necked poltroon bureau—aiighh!” A deft elbow in the ribs from beside the guard who said that silences him instantly.
“Rao, my brother!” Korai, next to him, puts a drunkenly-loving arm around the writer’s shoulders. “Let’s hear your sob-story... let it all out, my friend.”
“It’s nothing like you all… it’s just… I lost my wife during the war.” A chorus of “I know, I know!” and a litany of names, all people they lost in the war.
“So I came here after, to try to fix these Arkans… but I don’t know anybody here, and I just want to make friends with you warriors because I… I really look up to you.”
“[Yeoli swear-word] Marble [Yeoli swear-word] Palace... here’s to…” Alaecha raises her cup, and begins rattling off Yeoli names. Others join in. Even Senala-e raises his. “[Yeoli swear-word], you’re going to make me cry again, buttwipe!” It’s true, in a moment they are all in tears, the most demonstrative of the men pounding their fists on the table or clutching their hair.
The writer looks confused. Senala-e explains. “All the people mentioned here were killed in the fight to take the Marble Palace. We took very bad losses.”
“I don’t care when the wound I got there hurts,” says Sorala, the other woman. “I like it. Because whenever it does, I think of them, so that’s good.”
“See?” says the writer. “You people really do something that counts, and all I can do is shuffle paper around.”
“Yes, but we can’t do that [Yeoli swear-word], and someone has to,” Perha says comfortingly. “Everyone has their gift.”
“Takes all kinds to run an Empire.”
“Cheng’s paying you so you must be not just taking up space at a desk.”
Kunarda leans across the table to the writer in that heavily drunk way, thoroughly slurring now.
“Rao... y’know how Shhalao went? Corridor full of caltropshh... shprinkled all over... by Mahid ssho we jussht know there’sh poison on ’em... but we still have to take it. No [Yeoli swear-word] way I’m going to let Sssheng—”
“You said it like Kalicha does!” Big laugh, not even interrupting the tears for a moment.
“SsshhhhCheng! …even tiptoe over that. I ssshay to Sshhal, ‘You grab one leg I grab the other!’ and we hike him over. Half way, Ssshal goes ‘Ahhhh [Yeoli swear-word]’ and you know jusshht what that meansshh... all the ressht of the way he’s sshaying to himshelf ‘Ssshtrength, ssshtrength.’ Moment we’re on the other sshide and we’ve put Ssheng down, Sshhal goes down bam.” The table is being pounded again, by more than one. “Died in Cheng’s arms,” they say.
“But here’sshh the thing,” Kunarda says. He is one of those people who is naturally intense, I can tell, and mostly keeps it banked. But wine can let it out. His eyes seem to freeze the writer like a snake’s freeze a rabbit. “It could jussht as easily have been me. Sheer [Yeoli swear-word] chance it washh him, not me. Sshhometimesh I lie awake at night and wonder... why him, not me?”
“I honour his bravery,” the writer says solemnly.
They all raise their cups. “Salao’s bravery. And strength.”
“Isssh that ever fair?” Kunarda goes on. “Why, when sshho many died, am I alive?”
“You can’t think about that too much, Kuna,” says Senala-e. “Warrior’s path to madness.” The others assent, making the Yeoli chalk gesture all around.
“Isshh that ever fair?” Borai imitates him. “Why, when sshho many are sober, am I drunk?” The laughter is as intense as the tears.
“Why did I survive the occupation when my beloved Nyera died?” the writer says. “You just can’t ask that question, you know?”
“Her name was Nyera? We had a Nyera too... and she got killed in the war, too.”
“Cheng’s first girlfriend.”
The writer snuffles drunkenly, weeping himself. “I miss her… I miss her, so much!” They reach to comfort him, patting his back, stroking his shoulder, holding his hands.
“We’re a whole [Yeoli swear-word] nation that’ssh been through the grinder.”
“And we’re expected to be nice to Arkans!”
“Because we own them now; you can’t kick your property.”
“We should kill ’em all!” the writer says, with sudden drunken-style fervency. “We got a good start, right?”
“We killed enough of them,” Senala-e says evenly.
“I don’t want revenge on them—”
“I do.” Big laugh.
“It’s more like... they should [Yeoli swear-word] understand what they did to us.”
“That’s why I don’t regret the Sack, at all. That was making them understand.”
“The Earthsphere’s biggest chiravesa!” That’s a reference to the Yeoli practice of actively imagining oneself the other person in a dispute, so as to settle it.
“Hey! Official policy says, ‘Regret the Sack!’” Big laugh.
“No no, it’s just Cheng. We’re allowed to not regret it even if he does.”
“He’s regretting it for us so we don’t have to.” A lesser laugh.
“If sshho, we should start regretting,” Kunarda says, even more slurringly. “To sshhpread it around so he doesn’t carry all of it. ’Fore it kills him.”
The writer pounces on that, too. “Huh? What do you mean, kills him?”
“Kuna, that’s probably classified.”
“Are you the only person in all Arko who doesn’t know he jumped out a window?” Senala-e says to the writer.
“No! I know that, but . . . isn’t he supposed to be better now?”
“He’s flat on his back from an assassination attempt... do they lock you in closets to do bureaucrat work?”
“I know that, too! But what’s the asshhasshh… asshhaassh… murder attempt”—big laugh—“got to do with the Sshhack? Besides it may be was some Arkan pisshhed off about it?”
“No, you asked about him being better. He’s not going to be better for ages.” There’s a dance going on here: the writer drilling for answers, the sober guard making evasions. The writer has to be careful not to push it too far, not to let it become apparent he’s drilling for answers.
The writer chooses aggressiveness, at least this time. “Do I have to draw a [Yeoli swear-word] map? You shaid he was sshhuffering from regret. I shaid isn’t he better from the regret? Then you shaid he was flat on his back from an asshha… asshassh… you know! Sshho what’s regret got to do with flat on hish back from . . . somebody trying to kill him?”
“Nothing,” says Senala-e, and no more.
“What’s this wine..... got to do with my inebriation...?” another guard croons, to laughter all around.
“Kuna, you’re close to getting the pukes.” He’s gone suddenly pale.
“Not... clossssshhhe!” He springs up, almost staggering over, and runs for the door.
“Oh, oh, no, he’s got me going too!” says the writer, and chases him.
Hot on the writer’s heels is Senala-e, grabbing a longsword from a hook without even making sure it’s his. Definitely standard practice. In a moment they come back in. “Made it to the door!” Kunarda announces triumphantly. The writer catches sight of me and terror momentarily flashes across his face, until he realizes I don’t want to be revealed any more than he does. “Now my belly’s empty again!” Rao buys another round, this time to some protest. Kunarda downs another cup in one draught.
“Look,” Senala-e says to the writer, very serious. “Quit with the hero worship. We’re just like everyone else.”
“Subject to ssshhelf-indussshed alcohol poishoning, yesssh.” A loud belch.
“Except for Kuna… he’s weird.”
“I am [Yeoli swear-word] too!” the straight-haired Yeoli retorts. “How dare you deny my weirdness!”
The writer gets maudlin again, weeping into his glass, flattering, whining over his late wife. I don’t know him well enough to know whether that’s true or not. The guards comfort him. Somehow this turns into him asking: “Do you all think that guard, whoever he was, was wrong when he killed that [Yeoli swear-word] sshhtraw-hair general?”
“Back to that again,” says Senala-e. His eyes fix on the writer. “You know, Rao... you ask a lot of questions.”
Before he can answer, there’s a cracking thump on the table, that silences them all. Kunarda stands up so fast his chair goes over, stabs his finger like a sword at the writer’s face. “I call you out! I call you [Yeoli swear-word] out! You do chiravesa!” The two on either side of him get up themselves, grab his arms. “Kuna, no, you can’t ask that, you can’t get into that!” He throws off their arms apparently without effort.
“Imagine you’re that [Yeoli swear-word] guard yourself!” he roars, loud enough to be heard all through the House and, I would guess, a fair distance out into the street. “You are guarding someone... who has been everything to us! Who carried all of us when we were most down and destroyed, who came back and first freed us and then made us into conquerors and let us stamp our boots in the faces of those who stamped their boots in ours!” The House peace-keeper comes in quietly, tense; these will not be easy-to-remove rowdies, if he must. Alaecha reassures him in broken Arkan. “We… just Yeolis… waving arms.”
Senala-e tries to turn Kunarda around to speak with him, has as much luck as if he were a stone statue, and so turns to the writer. “Don’t you be doing [Yeoli swear-word] chiravesa, you can’t possibly understand!”
Kunarda has tears in his eyes now. “He just has that one weakness! That one [Yeoli swear-word] weakness—he’s too cursed good! He cares too [Yeoli swear-word] much! He felt like such [Yeoli swear-word] after the sack, took all the blame for it though we did it, he didn’t even rape or kill a single Arkan soul that wasn’t fighting us himself, blamed himself so much he tried to [Yeoli swear-word] kill himself! [String of Yeoli swear-words] ...and he still carries it, like a sickness in his heart!”
“Kuna, shut up!” They’re almost all saying it now. One who tries to put a hand over his mouth gets pushed away savagely.
“So then this Arkan… thing, this lower-than-the-lowest-belly-of-the-most-disgusting-bug so-called general... goes after him with words...! You can’t understand a thing, it’s all that ugly straw-hair talk, but he does and you can see by his face, he’s already flat on his cursed back, you see it killing him...”
“Kuna, that’s enough! Shut up! Shut the [Yeoli swear-word] up!”
“Just [Yeoli swear-word] imagine!!”
“You love Shhevenga,” says the writer. “You can’t shtand—”
“Oh no no no, that’s not good enough, that’s too [Yeoli swear-word] far away, Rao Shae-Lemana, you do not say ‘you,’ you say ME! ‘I’ am guarding him, DO IT RIGHT!!”
“He can’t get it, Kuna! He’s not even war-trained!”
“He can’t know how it is on the battlefield, how we all owe each other our lives a hundred times over!”
“I want to get it!” the writer yells, tears in his eyes. “Sshhomebody I love more than anybody elsh… and I have to shtand there and watch sshhomebody disgusting hurt them and not do anything about it . . .”
“SO WHAT DO YOU DO!!??” Kunarda bellows over all the others, loud as a war-cry.
“I… do what I have to do… whatever I can do… I guess, if I have a sword, I hit the bad person with it…”
“ALL RIGHT, THEN! DO YOU THINK IT WAS WRONG!!??”
“Kuna, shut the [Yeoli swear-word] up, you don’t know who everybody is in here!”
“No details! Internal matter!” says Sorala, trying to lighten it up.
“You’re leaving part out anyway!” says Perha. I’m taking notes openly, now. I realize that a man who came out of the bath a little earlier is doing the same… Inchera Tingani, Terera Pages. I didn’t recognize him in a House of Argentine Faces bathrobe. How many of us writers are in here?
‘Rao’ the writer is masterful. “If it… was… all you could do… all I could do… then I guesshh that’sh the right thing to do. You sshhaved… saved him, didn’t you, Kuna?”
“KUNA SHUT THE [Yeoli swear-word] UP! HE’S A [Yeoli swear-word] WRITER!” Senala-e, having finally twigged.
“YOU KNOW WHAT?” Kunarda bellows. “I DON’T [Yeoli swear-word] CARE WHO IN THE [Yeoli swear-word] GARDEN ORBICULAR KNOWS! THIS SECRECY [Yeoli swear-word], I’VE HAD IT WITH IT! YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW IF IT WAS ME, RAO [Yeoli swear-word] SHAE-LEMANA—WELL, YES IT [Yeoli swear-word] WAS! AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I WOULD DO IT OVER AGAIN! I WOULD DO IT TEN [Yeoli swear-word] TIMES OVER AGAIN! YOU’RE A WRITER? I DON’T CARE! [Yeoli swear-word] SECRECY, ARE THERE ANY OTHER WRITERS IN HERE? I’M GOING TO GO TO THE [Yeoli swear-word] PAGES AND BREAK IN AND SHAKE THEM UNTIL THEY RUN IT THROUGH THAT [Yeoli swear-word] MACHINE, YES I [Yeoli swear-word] DID IT AND I DON’T REGRET IT FOR ONE [Yeoli swear-word] MOMENT!”
Senala-e looks truly panicked. “Maybe if all the rest of us grab him and pick him up?” they’re saying. “Cold-cock him?”
“It’s too [Yeoli swear-word] late!” Perha yells. They all look very sobered up.
The writer is clasping Kunarda’s hands. “For saving Chevenga, thank you.”
“YOU’RE [Yeoli swear-word] WELCOME, YOU PIECE OF [Yeoli swear-word]! [Yeoli swear-word] on it, I’M GOING TO GO OUT AND YELL IT ALL DOWN THE STREET!” He starts striding out, and nothing any of the others can do, apparently, can stop him. The peace-keeper looks relieved. “WE’RE ALL PAID UP, AREN’T WE!? IF NOT, RAO CAN PAY THE REST, THANK YOU RAO, YES I [Yeoli swear-word] DID IT I DID IT I DID IT I DID IT I DID IT…”
I get up, go out after them. They run, turning left on Discernment Street… heading for Presentation Square? In a short time Inchera is with me, changed into his usual clothes, panting and puffing. Not the writer to whom we owe this, though; I have a feeling he’s played out. He must have been close to wetting himself with terror. I don’t blame him for feeling he has all the quotes he needs.
They do indeed go to Presentation Square, drawing a curious, quipping crowd as they go. Kunarda takes the dais and manages to declaim somewhat more along the same lines as his chiravesa challenge before Sorala, who has dashed off into the Marble Palace, can return. With her are enough Yeoli warriors to finally overpower Kunarda and carry him, declaiming unbroken, into the Steel Gate.
Guard confesses publicly to killing Farnias
Charges seem inevitable
By Shemeias Shaeasilas
Pages of Arko Special Edition
Mella 10, 54th-to-last YPA
For all I threw myself, always relaxed, into the healing work, I hated these days that drifted by hazily, this boredom, this fog around me that let me know nothing and that felt like it was seeping into my mind, making it weaker. I itched to move, to speak, to meet with the ministers, to take reports from the governors, to be out on the streets and in the country, to plan, to solve disputes, to disentangle tangles, to have my hands on the reins. Up until Farnias’s death and this full-rest order I’d had my hands partly on them, so I knew that there was no threat of war from anywhere, we were still on schedule for the abolition of slavery, the preparation for founding an Arkan Assembly was just about complete, and so forth. But it was not the same, I’d never felt I was seeing enough detail to keep fully in touch. That takes work, which I was not allowed.
Now it was worse; they were letting me decide nothing, and only bringing me odd reports and reading parts of the papers to me. How could I not wonder what was being left out, when I knew it was because those who had my care had decided it would put strain on me?
The pain of what Farnias had said was easing, with time and with Alchaen’s aid. About an eight-day afterwards, he told me, “I think you are strong enough now that I can tell you: there is actually a transcript of what he said. You gave it to us, verbatim, as far as we can tell, under truth-drug. If you had nothing else ailing you, we would be using that; you would be reading it over and over, until you were hardened to it. But you are not strong enough to read it at all, yet.”
“Something to look forward to,” I said. Farnias’s death, however, was haunting me increasingly. Mostly it bothered me that I had been there but could remember nothing of it. It seemed like an internal travesty, a soul-theft of sorts, that witnessing something so great as a prominent person’s death, for which it could be argued I was responsible, was erased from my mind.
Learning about the transcript made it worse. “There are not only things about it I don’t know,” I told Kaninjer that night. We’d decided to see if I could sleep without sedative, and now he was checking on me and finding I couldn’t, while everyone else in the bed happily snored. “There are things being hidden from me. Don’t ask me how I know... I can feel it. Don’t take me wrong, I trust everyone, I know the intent is for my good, or at least not for my ill. But it’s still... unsettling right to my bones. I know what the only solution is—I have to have my strength back, and that will take time, I know, I know.”
He signed chalk, looking away from me as if something had caught his attention, then put his hand on my shoulder. Something in me made me say, “Kan... is it you, too? Is there something you know that you’re not telling me?”
AN: Serious hat-tip to Shel for a beautifully-intrepid job of RP'ing the scribe in paper-pusher's clothing. "Pull out all my toenails! I'll drink to that!"