(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014
“Southern Deugan,” Janusz scoffed through a gulp of wine. The glass looked comically small in his large hands. “A bit cocky, don’t you think?”
“That’s our general,” Caryn said. “One minute he’s waxing eloquent about justice and liberty. The next he’s bragging about his conquests. He’s as much a mystery as — well, every other man I’ve known.” Lana and Janusz laughed at that; Marwin just looked confused.
“Well, at least he’s let us do our jobs,” Janusz said. “I was afraid he’d run more interference. My lady, what did you say to him that first night?”
“I made it clear that he wouldn’t intimidate me, and then I hinted that if he cooperated, we’d get him what he wanted — more troops for his garrison,” Caryn said. “That’s how you deal with people. You find out what they want.”
“It’ll be easy for you to deal with me, then,” Janusz announced. “All I want is more wine.” Lana grinned and passed him the bottle. His hand brushed hers as he took it.
Their work had indeed gone smoothly. The day after Caryn met with the general, they’d started inspections in earnest. They worked in teams of three, Caryn travelling with Marwin and Reimund while Lana and Janusz were escorted by Hans. Caryn was getting to like Marwin. He was bright, and his military knowledge made him a good person to bounce ideas off. She had also started to admire his enthusiasm. So many of the people she met in government were jaded, even the young ones. It was refreshing to work with someone who truly seemed to care.
“I can’t wait to see the northwest tomorrow,” he was saying now, excitement flashing in his eyes. The telegraph from Tomasburg had arrived the previous day, telling them that a train had been booked for them to continue onward and inspect their defences in the northwest, on the other side of the mountains and the desert. A day of furious writing and revising had ensued; Caryn had insisted on completing their report to the president before their departure. When she finally pronounced that their product was strong enough to cable back to Tomasburg, Caryn invited the entire team to Janusz and Marwin’s quarters, where she broke out the general’s wine in celebration. “I’ve never been to the northwest before,” Marwin said.
“I’ve lived there all my life,” Janusz told him. “There isn’t much to see. Some rich people out by the coast and a lot of poorer villages inland, working the oil wells or the mines.”
“I’ve heard the desert’s amazing,” Marwin continued. “They say the sand shifts and rolls as if the earth itself is alive.”
“The desert is beautiful,” Caryn agreed. She had travelled throughout Deugan in her public life. “I’ve always lived in large cities, but something draws me to that wilderness. That emptiness where all you see for leagues around are hills and valleys, and shadows playing with the golden light that reflects off the sand.”
Marwin nodded vigorously. “I went to Givanno once with my family. It was like that, without the sand. Rolling hills and valleys, and lights and shadows. We stayed in a tiny little town built into a hilltop, with stone steps and narrow, winding roads. It was incredible.”
“That sounds lovely,” Lana agreed. She was quiet among the men, as usual. Caryn wondered whether she and Janusz had found much to talk about while circling the satellites and storerooms of the Fort. Caryn found it difficult to carry on a conversation with the man. He always seemed to be testing her, or searching for something, something she could never identify.
“I’m glad Givanno’s on our side now,” Marwin added.
It was all the fort had talked about for days, and Caryn, thirsting for accurate news, had often sent Marwin to wait by the communications hub and demand to see reports as they came in. From what he had told her, Givanno’s declaration of independence from the New Empire had had an immediate impact. Trainloads of grain were rushing into Deugan from the southeast. Imperial soldiers and guns were streaming away from their trenches in Deugan, though enough remained behind to maintain the empire’s numerical superiority. The forts along the highway that linked Deugan to Givanno were being shelled intensely, but as Marwin liked to boast, his father had built them well and they were holding fast.
“Are you sure you don’t want any?” Janusz asked Marwin, gesturing at the wine. The boy shook his head, and Janusz shrugged. “More for me, I suppose.” He poured himself another glass. “My lady?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“I’ll take some before you finish it,” Hans shouted from the corner of the room where he and Reimund had broken out a deck of cards. Janusz passed him the bottle and Hans poured it. “There’s enough for one more glass,” Hans announced. “Reimund?”
“No way,” the other guard said. “You want me drunk so you can win your money back.”
“Nobody’s getting too drunk,” Caryn announced. “We still have work to do before we leave tomorrow morning.”
“I thought the report was done,” Marwin complained.
“Almost,” Caryn said. “I’m still concerned about a potential attack through the Well. I thought we might have another look at it.”
Marwin groaned, but Lana leapt to her feet. “Janusz and I have been inspecting the satellites all along, my lady. We can take another tour of Seppina.”
“Good,” Caryn said. “Marwin and I will do another run through the gun batteries in the main fort. The large howitzers are on rotating turrets but I can’t recall whether they will rotate quite far enough. It would be problematic if Seppina were left to fight on her own.”
Janusz stretched out on his bunk. Lana glanced at him, and then turned to Caryn. “My lady, if we must complete our inspections before the train departs, then perhaps it is time to turn in.”
“Very wise,” Caryn said. “We’ll see you all bright and early tomorrow.”
When the women were back in their own quarters with the door closed, Lana dropped her formal speech and flashed Caryn one of her mischievous grins. “That was wicked of you.”
Caryn was taken aback. “What was?”
Lana grinned again. “Janusz obviously had a thirst, and so did Hans. Yet you didn’t once mention that the general had given us a second bottle.” She pulled it out from under her bunk and found two glasses near the sink. “Shall we?”
“With pleasure.” Alcohol had been rationed for months now, and wine was a rare luxury. Lana poured and they both sipped slowly, savouring the taste. From outside, they could still hear the distant thudding as the shells crashed against the concrete walls of the fort. Caryn had started to get used to it, she noticed, even as it picked up in intensity. It was background noise. Normal. She brushed the thought aside, took another sip of wine, and commented, “I noticed you looking at Janusz.”
Lana hesitated and blushed. Then she started laughing. “I suppose that’s all the answer you need.”
“I suppose so.” Caryn drank again. She had been careful to pace herself in front of the men, but now, sitting here, all of her tensions were flowing away. She drank deeper and coughed.
“I know he’s a strange one,” Lana said, sounding embarrassed. “He is very competent, though.”
“And very handsome.”
“That too.” Lana took a sip of wine. “My lady —”
“Please, call me Caryn now.”
“It’s not a bad thing to sneak some glances at an attractive man,” Lana said. “Especially when there’s not much else to look at. Marwin’s a kid but the soldiers are only a year or two older than he is. They’re kids too. It’s ridiculous, them all being out here. Going through all of this.”
“I know.” Caryn sighed. “I can’t believe we’re out here. And I’ve snuck my share of glances at Janusz myself.” It was embarrassing, but the man was good-looking, and it had been a very long time. “There’s nothing wrong with looking, but — I worry about you, Lana. I know you two have been spending a lot of time together, and I just don’t trust him.”
“Do you remember how I told him that the key to diplomacy is finding out what the other person wants?” Lana nodded and looked at Caryn over her wine glass. “I feel that Janusz wants something. I sense it every time I look at him. But I can’t put my finger on what it is.”
“There’s one thing men usually want,” Lana suggested.
“Not with women who look like their mothers,” Caryn said bluntly. She took another drink. The glass was surprisingly close to emptiness. She refilled it. “Doesn’t he have a wife, anyhow?”
“That wouldn’t stop some men,” Lana replied, “but no. He told me that he did once, a daughter of a migrant worker from the northern continent. Her father returned home when his work visa expired, but she’d fallen in love with Janusz and stayed. Eventually she even got citizenship. Yet they still had trouble finding a temple that would marry them. The skin tone and all of that.”
“I can’t believe those sorts of things are still happening in Deugan,” Caryn said ruefully. What she really couldn’t believe was that while those things were happening, the entire country’s energy was being spent hurling shells and crawling through trenches, in the name of “liberating” Amim and the Fringes. Caryn knew firsthand that there was a great deal of work still to be done at home. They needed a peace, she thought for the thousandth time, but she had no idea how to achieve it.
“Janusz was away from home for several span at a time. That’s the nature of the oil business,” Lana explained. “They lived in a small town in the northwest where everybody looked like each other and looked down on her. She was alone with no friends and the constant stares. Finally she had enough, and she left him and went home.”
“A sad story,” Caryn said. “I wonder how much of it is true.”
Lana glared at her. “He’s really not that bad.”
“You can’t be blinded by those muscles.”
“Why not?” Lana asked. “I’m nearing twenty-five years in this life, most of my childhood friends have been married for ages, and it’s impossible to get anybody to take you seriously when you say that no, you’re not just going to give up this ‘politics phase’ when you settle down. To actually respect that this is important. It’s so damn depressing never to be taken seriously even when you try so hard to always be professional and competent, all the time, never show weakness. What is so wrong about doing something stupid and frivolous like pining for someone who’s really and truly gorgeous, at least on the outside? Sure, he’s probably hiding something, but these days who isn’t?”
Caryn took a long drink from her glass. “You’re right,” she said finally. “We’re all hiding something.” Lana froze and gave her a curious look. “I know better than most how hard it is to be taken seriously in this country. Eventually I learned not to mind. Some people will at least give you a chance, and that’s all you need. Who cares what the rest of them think? Pushing back is what makes them learn.”
“Sometimes,” Lana agreed. “It’s just so damn hard. I saw how they treated your policy. Not like how they argued the president’s tax increases or Dieter’s social programs. That was politicking and rhetoric and sometimes even personal attacks, but it wasn’t the ridicule that your doctrine had. They never would have done that to a male politician. And you were right, besides. Trying to broker a deal between the Fringes and the New Empire, pushing independence in some kind of commonwealth so the economic relationships don’t collapse? Getting the Fringes home rule through negotiation, to take all of the wind out of the Steffian movement? It was brilliant. Orastus should have jumped at the chance.”
“You’re too kind to me, Lana.”
“I’m not,” Lana insisted. “You were right, and you were ridiculed. Doesn’t it get to be too much? I mean, I know that you have that fire, that drive, to prove them wrong, to prove that a woman can do all this, that Deugan actually needs to mean something. But where does that come from? Were you just born with it?”
“Born with it?” Caryn started laughing, and soon she was laughing so hard she started coughing. “Lessandro’s name, no, it was exactly the opposite. I didn’t want this. Any of this.” She gulped down some more wine. The glass was almost empty again, and she felt it starting to go to her head. “My parents were very traditional. I grew up with their values. It’s all I knew and I was ready to do it all. Have the kids, take care of the house, find a good husband, everything they tell you about in the stories.”
“What made you change your mind?”
Caryn paused. You’re too relaxed, she told herself, you have to be careful. It’s dangerous to give too much away. “I didn’t, at first.”
“But the newspapers say you were never married,” Lana said.
“They were wrong,” Caryn said simply. “I was married, briefly.” It was a lie, but only a white one. She and Brenner — but he wasn’t Brenner anymore. He was Brenth, and a Steffian, and he probably hated her as most Steffians did.
Caryn had definitely drunk too quickly. The room was starting to wave before her eyes. Stick to the story, she told herself. “I couldn’t have children,” she said. “Finally a doctor told me I was infertile.” In fact, after six months in a Well there was no need to go to a doctor, but she had anyway, just to be certain. She’d asked innocently whether it would still be possible for a woman her age. She’d been told it had probably never been possible for her in the first place.
“He left me then,” Caryn continued, “and I was too old to remarry, and I was barren, and despoiled at that.” Except that he hadn’t left her — she had left him. They had finally escaped from the cavern, they were finally free, and she had left him, his pleas for her to stay echoing through her heart. “No man would ever want me, would ever look at me. Those things were taken seriously back then. In a lot of places they still are.” In Wassia, for instance. In ancient, backwards Wassia, she couldn’t have been raised any other way.
Lana nodded but stayed silent, waiting for Caryn to continue. Caryn took another sip of wine. A million thoughts chased themselves through her mind as she tried to keep the younger woman in focus. “My father ran a business,” she said. “My mother made him teach me about it, and he agreed, in his words, ‘in case you need to help your brothers.’ I became strong at accounting and finance. Then my mother insisted he send me to university. He agreed again, but only because it would let me make connections, let me meet boys from wealthy families.” That part was true. Caryn remembered the fights, the screaming matches, the sleepless nights. She did want to go to university, she remembered. Even before the Well and everything else, Jayla wanted that experience. But she’d accepted that it would be a one-time adventure, that the rest of her life would be as she and her parents had always planned.
“My mother did that for me too,” Lana said softly. “She made him send me to school. At first my dad would have none of it, but my mother believed that it was important, and she talked him into it. She didn’t back down.”
“You admire her, don’t you,” Caryn said, and Lana nodded.
“She’d have done it herself, if it was acceptable in her day,” Lana said. “If she’d been able to convince any of them that she could actually use an education.”
“The marriage cut short my education,” Caryn said. The Well cut short my education was what she thought. “After it ended, I started back up where I’d left off.”
It was a move born of desperation. Caryn was newly arrived in a strange country, with nowhere to go, no prospects and no childhood. She’d wanted that traditional life, or at least she thought she did, but no boy her age would look twice at her, and the men who did find her attractive seemed wrinkled and ancient to her young eyes. She had only lived seventeen years, and then eighteen, and nineteen, but she looked as though she’d lived forty or more, and she was alone. Those years were the hardest, learning to accept her aging body, to assume her new identity, to understand that Brenner would probably be the closest she would come to love. Over time, Caryn had learned to forget about family and marriage and the things that had seemed so important during her Wassian childhood. There was no use harping on things like that.
In those early years, though, Caryn had only been able to do what she’d done in the cavern: she used study to distract herself, and she immersed herself in it completely. A note from Professor Terial had convinced a Deugan university to admit her in the great coastal city of Carrak-on-Sea, and if it hadn’t, she shuddered to think what she would have done.
“Then one day it finally came to me,” Caryn whispered, and Lana moved closer to hear her. This was true, Caryn thought, the rest of her story could be told true. “I finally said to myself, why should my life be over just because I happened to be infertile? What sort of asinine, archaic society would tell me I was a useless human being because of one single thing I couldn’t do? Wassia, maybe, or Brealand, but this was Deugan. Deugan! Democracy and equality and opportunity and all of those buzzwords they write into all of their speeches. It would mean nothing if I couldn’t do this. So I swore that I would.” Not to be a trailblazer, or a groundbreaker, or a symbol. Not for power or prestige or political gain. Just to keep herself sane. Just to give life some meaning, in Lessandro’s name, some Gods-damned meaning. And this war — the war was destroying meaning. It was destroying hope.
“My lady — I —”
“Don’t apologize,” Caryn said, “and don’t ask me for advice either. Each person has to decide what’s right for herself. I had nothing else in my life but politics and I was damn well not going to let a bunch of traditionalists or religious airheads keep me out of it. But you may have something else in your life, something even more important.”
Lana shook her head. “No. This is what’s important. And I will stay strong. I promise you that.”
“That’s not why I told you this story,” Caryn said. The room was still spinning and she was fading toward exhaustion. She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them to see Lana grinning, the grin Caryn was learning to love.
“With respect, my lady, this isn’t about what you want,” Lana said sweetly. “It’s about the choice I’ll have to make for myself, and you’ve helped me make it. I’ll be careful, but I’ll also be strong.”
“And you’ll continue to be a friend, and listen to a middle-aged woman’s drunken ramblings?”
“With complete fascination,” Lana grinned. “Goodnight, Caryn.”
Next chapter: Chapter 6, Part A
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