Chapter 6 Interlude: Unforeseen Consequences [collab with @DotCom] Congealed, brown blood splashed into the chamber pot. A pair of hands gripped the sides of the wooden bowl, gasping, heaving, retching at intervals. A beetle raced around the lip of the bowl drunkenly. Eating was becoming progressively more difficult. His body was weakening. Swinging the rapier at his side was no longer as easy as it used to be. The psychic torture returned. Earlier "Nu ... Mu .. M ... NU!" Lut Sar swept the blankets off him. Sweat slicked his hair against his forehead, and bloodshot eyes gazed on the masked Wraiths peeking over the door's threshold. "Out. OUT. GET OUT!" He pushed himself upright against the headboard, hauling himself out of the bed. From where he slumped against the wall, his arm lashed out, whipping a knife into the mask of one of the Wraiths. The handle vibrated in the lacquered wood, and they both bowed low, exiting the room. "So .. uh, that means me too?" Shae had parked herself as tightly as she could into a corner, and slowly raised a finger to point at herself. Lut noticed her for the first time and recoiled, shielding his face with his arms. He collapsed at the foot of the bed, curled and shivering. For one, long minute, all Shae did was try to breath as quietly possible. Then, she peeled herself from the corner, sliding against the wall. She edged forward, one foot in front of the other. At the table next to his bed, she extended a shaking hand. Her trembling fingers touched the knife and it jangled, metal against the table. She jerked back, heart pounding in her chest. Paused, waited, and tried again, her fingers firmly wrapping around the knife this time. Holding the knife in her hand stilled her heart and steeled her resolve. If only he would move his arms to expose his face and neck - A chill wind swept down her nape. From above the arms that pulled his knees to his chest, Lut Sar gazed balefully at the knife clutched in Shae's hand. "You as well?" He stood up and Shae shivered. He took a step forward and she stepped back. He pinned her against the wall and she brought the knife up, the point steady and in between them. He leaned forward and she pushed back, the tip of the knife drawing a red dot over his heart. He pressed his forehead against hers and the knife slipped from her grip. "What do you hate me for, then? Do you know why Nu hates me? Because I killed her entire village. Are you surprised? You look surprised. It's a very good reason for her to hate me, right?" "But she doesn't have room to hate the Czar, who ordered me to conduct the purges. And she certainly doesn't hate the populace, every single person in Kaustir who feared the old gods enough to abhor any mention of them, whose black hands and faceless visages push the entirety of their fright onto me. No. She just hates me, the people's patsy." Heartbeats passed, and the red stain on his uniform grew. Shae made herself keep her breathing even, made herself look back at him, unblinking. She had Nu to thank for that. Stopless breath. She had no illusions in thinking she was fooling him. He would know she was afraid, no matter the effort she put forth to keep from shaking. He was like a dog, or a nightmare that way. He would smell her fear. "You flatter yourself," she said after an eternity. Her voice was little more than a whisper, but it did not tremble. That was something. "Hate...hate has nothing to do with it." She narrowed gray eyes at him. "You would say it's better that way, wouldn't you? Something about duty and necessity? That's what she would say." "Who else would do it?" He hissed. "The merchants will drown Kaustir in their avarice. Millions would die for a career soldier's petty ambitions. The Czar ... the Czar is the least fit to lead Kaustir's people to a new age." He pulled away from her, looking at the rose on his chest with disdain. He had his own flaws. Lut knew that he was not suited for Kaustir's future; he was too much of a slave to its law, too much a machine of order and terror. That was why he groomed Amalia. Shae let him go, her cheeks burning with shame or frustration. To her horror, she felt tears threatening at the back of her throat, and clutched the knife all the tighter, fully - mostly - ready to use it, should those treacherous tears begin to fall. This was nowhere she hadn't been before. "I don't care about the nation," she spat, her tone no longer quite so even now that it was laced with petulance and disdain. "The nation is a thing, like a rock, or a stool, or a sword, and it's one you're a slave to. You tried to make her a slave to it, and look what you did!" She fell silent, and for a moment, there was only the sound of her breathing, quiet, but labored, as though she had run to him across some distance. The small room stank, pressed close under a sudden heat, and she wanted to leave, only she didn't dare turn her back on him. "You think you're a soldier," she said, breathless, dizzy. "But you're like me. You're a liar. You're very good with words. And you think if you keep lying, maybe one day you'll believe yourself." She looked down, traced the tip of the blade along one long, pink scar that bridged her palm between her pinkie and thumb. "It doesn't work that way." "I made a mistake. I thought I could give her the tools to be free." He dragged his hands down his face, maybe to wipe away blood tears. Lut paused. He opened his mouth. His throat worked. The words froze at the back of his tongue. But they never came forward. Shae could see the cloak of duty forming on his shoulders, the specter of a million people clamping his mouth shut and forcing him to sit down on the bed, legs crossed and hands on knees. He looked grim. "I care about the nation," Lut's voice was deadly flat, "and even if I can sacrifice one to help two, I would do it." "You would throw me to the dogs then. And Nu." From the shadows, the Nocturne twitched. She would never see his expression. "Yes." Later Lut Sar sat before a mountain of paperwork. The last requisitions and shipments. Tomorrow, he would set out on yet another Long March - the last - with the 3rd Group. The Czar's steps echoed loudly in the now empty Grey Tower. Kaustir was originally formed to grow his army in size and discipline. An entire nation, paid in Avarath gold to dig iron from Dorgrad to be forged in Zirako. A hundred years later it served its purpose, and he dissolved the desert nation to return his army to its original state. In one night, half of Lut's life's work was undone in the blood of the bureaucrats, and Kaustir regressed from nation back to a warlord's band. Kaustir was only ever a temporary nation: the Czar had his sights on all of Sunne. A plan spanning a century that only Nocturne patience could ever hope to execute. Only a Nocturne could squeeze a desert dry like this. "Amalia failed." The Czar and the Inquisitor were alone in the Grey Tower. A gloved finger scratched a nose. "It was a unique idea. Too bad she did not react well to the Turbatus Forge." "Perhaps you made the trials too hard. Perhaps you failed me too." Moonlight framed the Czar's back. Lut remained silent. "No matter. Our groups are spirited and willing. She was only one of many ways I could have used to spur our Nocturnes." Lukesh turned to face Lut. "Kirtin will lead the 1st Group. And you ... Generalissimo Sar. You will stand behind him." Lut's heart sank. Lukesh had sniffed out his plan. The Czar's honour guard had already awakened the Turbatus Forge, sending Amalia into a drooling madness from which she would not recover for a lifetime. Every single trial Lut had prepared for her up until that point - the infestation of Dorgrad, the blood soiree, and the ykloid pits, trials to temper her compassion, to make her suitable to be Kaustir's new leader, was wasted. The Ipari, whom he thought were loyal to his cause, were secretly loyal to the Czar. Her party - K'Jol, Theo, Rakar, Arania, and Takeda, her foils, were dead, scattered, or missing at the Czar's hands. And as his reward, Lut was to oversee a new monsoon of blood that would rival his Purges in Kaustir. He would have to remember to do what he had done so well before. Lukesh saw through him perfectly, and executed the most ironic of punishments. The Czar's coal black eyes glittered as he clasped Lut's shoulders. Love and hate mixed indistinguishable. In this way Zirako marched from Zirako. Already, vultures soared in circles around the city. The aqueducts were dry. Now The army had already left Avarath, and Zirako's 1st was on the Long March. Cannons arrived in a steady stream from Dorgrad, and sulfur was shipped in wholesale from the volcanic pits. The merchants had long been forced into the ghettos near the docks; with the trade routes still shut down, only a few could eke out a living smuggling or doing scant business with Pegulis. The caverns below Avarath hummed in resonance. No one in the empty streets saw or heard entire roads crack open, the mud adobes on either side crumbling away for the gaping maw. Below, giant tubes of metal gleamed as the sun shot in. The wind fishes of the 2nd Engineering Group slowly rose into the air, on the borrowed power of the Alate fragments.