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Life, stripped of all luxuries

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There is a certain beauty to a life stripped of all luxuries.

Once I read a library full of books, burning white beeswax candles by the box.

"Sir, we're almost out of hay twists for fire arrows," Lieutenant dy Palliar said as he burst into Cazaril's quarters without knocking, "and the Roknari are moving another siege ladder into position along the west wall. What can we use?"

Hay, along with all the other 'non-essential' supplies, had been on the mule train, just four days behind Cazaril's men on the trail from Cardegoss. Unfortunately, the Roknari had arrived at Gotorget before it did. That was a mere three weeks ago, and already-

The lieutenant leaned forward over the desk, eyes urgent. His hands curled tight over the edge as if to force an answer from the wood.

Wood wouldn't do. They needed something light-weight that would burn. Cazaril's mind tried to match their needs to the materials he'd found in his inventory of the fortress's stifling hot storerooms. Wax? No. Cloth? Not enough. Paper? Yes, they had paper.

"Lieutenant, get some men and go up to the top of the north tower. The last commander must have been something of a scholar, there's a library of hundreds of books up there. Set them to ripping the pages out from the binding – neatly, so as not to waste any. Then pull Costi off the wall, and have him experiment with how best to make fire arrows with them."

"Yes sir," dy Palliar responded immediately, pushing off the desk and exiting the room with a graceful, athletic stride. All the speed of a run, but nothing that would transmit panic to the men. Cazaril approved.

They'd killed the horses two days ago, rather than watch them starve. Cazaril had asked for volunteers for the unpleasant duty, and had forced himself to oversee the slaughter. The horses' screams still rang in his ears. Cazaril wouldn't miss his own foul-tempered gelding, but for many of his men, losing the mount they'd ridden into the fortress was a financial disaster. A few viewed their horses as members of their family, and for them it had been a true sacrifice. There was plenty of salt, and Cazaril had ordered the horse meat preserved. If this siege continued, they might have need of it.

Moved by some obscure impulse, Cazaril rummaged through his saddle bags and pulled out the volume of classic Brajarn verse he'd carried with him for the past two decades. Its well-thumbed pages held many fond memories. And the potential for scores of fire arrows. He'd add it to Palli's pile tonight.

Once I sampled fine wines before choosing one that might suit my meal.

Cazaril stood, head back and mouth open. The first cool, fat drops of rain struck his face, and then his dry lips. A peal of thunder recalled him to his duty.

"Lieutenant dy Palliar, make sure the men keep a sharp eye out on the walls; the enemy might try a charge under cover of the storm. Sergeant Emerin, get the wounded under shelter. The rest of you put out pots, pans, helmets, anything water-tight. We need to fill the castle reservoirs."

The rain came down, steady and soaking, washing everything clean. Cazaril decided to make a sacrifice to the Bastard tonight – this sudden storm in the middle of the dry season could only be his doing. The Roknari had taken the well seven weeks into the siege. But with the reservoirs full, they could hold out until dy Jironal arrived with reinforcements.

Once I commanded a regiment of soldiers, a proud panoply of silver armor.

"Sir, Taver here has a few medical issues to bring to your attention," Palli said. "The first is the matter of the cesspit."

"Yes, I've noticed the smell," Cazaril said. Everyone was avoiding that part of the fortress, the stench and flies from the full cesspit driving off all but those with the most urgent need. The recent cooler weather had been a relief for those men quartered downwind. "Did you have a suggestion for a new location?"

"Aye, sir," Taver said, bobbing his head. Taver was an aged lay dedicat of the Mother, in charge of the regiment's field hospital. His green robe was speckled in red like a butcher's apron. "I was thinking of the south-west corner. That's uphill from the well, but unless you're planning on taking it back any time soon, I reckon that's the Roknari's look-out, not ours."

Cazaril nodded. "Good thinking." He turned to Palli. "Lieutenant – Aver was the one who fell asleep on duty last night, correct?" Palli nodded. "Have him fill in the old pit, and leave it up to whoever's next in the camp chores rotation to dig the new one."

Taver was still standing by Cazaril's side. "Was there anything else?" Taver glanced at Palli, and then jerked his chin at Cazaril's left hand. "Ah." He might have guessed this was Palli's motive in bringing a relatively simple question to his commanding officer. He held out his hand. Taver unwrapped the dressing and inspected the cauterized flesh where Cazaril had lost the tips of two fingers in a disagreement with a grappling rope.

"That's healing up nicely," Taver said with clear satisfaction, placing a new bandage over wounds. "No sign of infection. Just try to keep 'em clean."

"No crawling through the mud on night sorties for another week or two," Palli clarified.

"Understood," Cazaril fondly told his watchdog. He hesitated, and then asked, "Will Sergeant Emerin keep the leg?"

Taver shrugged, "It's up to the Mother now. But I can tell you he won't walk again."

Cazaril nodded. "Well, you can be sure none of the wounded will give you any trouble, with him in the tent. What else do you need from us?"

"Liquor," Taver said immediately. "If any of the men've been holding back, now's the time. More needle and thread for stitching up wounds. Clean cloth for bandages. Two more boys off the wall to help out. And I know we're rationed tight, but we need more water. Not just for drinking. The wounded need to be kept clean, and I must wash between each surgery, or I'll carry ill humors from one man to the next. We've lost a dozen this week to wound fever, and I don't want it spreading further."

Cazaril considered. "Right, you can have two of the walking wounded to help out. Anyone but Costi, I need those eagle eyes of his. Palli, have the sergeants ask if any of the men have alcohol or sewing kits. Cloth – each soldier will donate his spare blanket and his tabard. I know the Son won't mind. Water. Palli, can we spare an extra 10 urns per day?"

Palli, despite his avowed distaste for logistics when he first arrived, had a genius for such matters. His eyes grew distant for a moment as he calculated sums in his head. "After that rainstorm last month … yes. If the rainy season arrives on time, we can."

"Good." No mention of when reinforcements might arrive. They'd just celebrated Son's Day, after three months under siege, and were settled in for the long haul. Five gods grant we aren't here in another three, Cazaril prayed. Come winter, they might miss those blankets.

Once I debated mathematics late into the night, proof by contradiction and exhaustion.

What price a fortress, mused Cazaril, wrapping a blanket tightly around himself as he sat at his desk. The Roknari general had marked Father's Day with a third proffered bribe. He'd offered 50,000 gold nobles for Cazaril to march his men out of Gotorget.

Chalion had earned control of this fortress with a generation's bloody warfare. Cazaril had arrived in Gotorget six months ago with 512 men. 423 remained. The difference was 89 dead soldiers; their widows, mourning parents, and fatherless children. In the mathematics of war, this cost was divided by the benefit to Chalion of holding the mountain pass Gotorget commanded. Painful, but endurable. If they lost the fortress, the denominator would drop to zero, and the price become infinite.

Cazaril wrote a courteous refusal of the general's offer, and issued orders for the last of the grain to be served up at the Father's Feast tonight. Another week and it would be inedible – best the men enjoy some illusion of plenty on this, the longest night.

Once I picked at boar's tongue braised in sherry and roasted duck on a bed of figs.

Cazaril knew five ways to prepare a dish of rats.

The first, and still his favorite, was with the rat carefully skinned, spitted whole on a stiletto dagger, and roasted over an open flame. The second was pieces of meat grilled on a metal frame, easy enough for the smith to hammer out. The third was fried rat – skinned, cleaned, deboned, chopped into pieces, and fried in their own fat in a pan over embers. Tasty, but difficult to manage when even the rats got lean, in the chill of the fifth month.

The fourth dish they developed in the seventh month, once they were short of fire wood, of rats, of everything. You chop as many rats as you can find into tiny pieces. The entire rat. Skin, bones, fur, feet, skull, everything. You throw it in a stewpot along with anything else that might possibly be edible. Boil for four hours. Serve out precisely one cup to each man still standing, with the remainder going to the wounded. The final way of preparing rat Cazaril learned in the eighth month, from a young soldier named Deni who he found cowering in a corner, half-starved and sobbing, tearing with his teeth at a still-squirming rat he should have brought in for the central stewpot.

He hadn't the heart to order Deni whipped for it. Later Cazaril looked in on the wounded, and found him there. A true soldier, the boy had confessed to his company, and been meted out due punishment with boots and sword flats. Deni was back on duty, limping, three days later.

A rat squealed as Cazaril snapped its neck. As it should, he thought distantly. Every creature deserves a protest against death. Every rat. Every horse. Every young man whose death he'd felt as a shock up his sword arm in the unending battle for these walls. Perhaps Cazaril should compose a poem in response to the Roknari general's latest missive. The general had sworn that, when he took the fortress, any surviving defenders would be flayed alive and fed to his dogs.

Once I flirted with a dozen fine ladies at a royal ball.

Palli's body was blood warm under his, whipcord muscle and sharp, eager hipbones. They rutted against each other in the dark, all grunts and low curses.

"Caz," groaned Palli, his ragged fingernails cutting into Cazaril's shoulders as his cock pulsed between them. Cazaril gasped, mouthed blindly along Palli's salt-damp throat, and managed a few more thrusts against his slick stomach before shuddering to a finale. He rolled off and lay on his back on the pallet they shared.

The pleasant forgetfulness quickly faded, leaving Cazaril with a hollow belly, aching joints, and the weight of responsibility settling heavily onto his chest. Palli gave a pleased sigh and turned towards him, probably looking for a kiss. Such a romantic, Palli. Such a waste. Cazaril turned away, suddenly exhausted.

Palli said, cautiously, "A lesser man than I might be offended."

"We shouldn't be doing this," Cazaril muttered.

Palli sounded amused. "Why, have you converted to the Quadrene faith overnight? Or are you concerned about the impact our affair might have upon military discipline?"

Cazaril sat up. "Perhaps I should be. I'm your commanding officer, and –"

"Caz. Don't be a fool. There is no 'military discipline' in Gotorget. Not anymore."

"How can you say that? The men have behaved admirably at every turn." Cazaril groped dizzily for his clothes, and then cursed when Palli dragged him back down onto the pallet.

"They have," Palli agreed, voice rough with some emotion. "But not in service to Chalion, or the Roya, or the Son. They do it for you. And for each other. This is what matters, Caz." Palli embraced him, awkward in the dark, elbows and sticky skin. "This is what is real." Cazaril's hand was pulled to Palli's throat, to feel a pulse that pounded wildly under his fingertips.

"I've seen you offer a steadying word to a man at the limit of his courage, a hand to a soldier in pain," Palli said. "And when the healers had done all they could, I watched you hold a dying man in your arms so he needn't face the dark alone. Your men love you, Caz. We followed you into this Bastard's Hell, and we trust you to lead us out again."

Cazaril bit his lip to hold back his response. The simple, military fact was that, after nine months, Gotorget could not stand much longer. Palli must be willfully blind not to see it. No matter how valiant the men, how inspired his tactics, they were come to the end.

Once I thought love a pretty thing for a courtier to muse upon.

At moonrise that night, while walking his commander's round along the wall, Cazaril turned and looked down at them. At all his men. Grizzled Taver, caring for the wounded with nothing but cups of stagnant water, kind hands, and prayer. Sergeant Emerin, still bellowing orders with one leg and a hacking cough. Deni, a starveling boy trying to do the right thing. Palli, trusting, passionate, and undefeated. All of them, worn down by siege, by hunger and fatigue and the unrelenting threat of death by sudden violence or slow disease, until their heroic souls shone bright through frail flesh. The fierce love Cazaril felt for them, for every one of his brave, doomed men, burned hotter and hotter within his heart, until he trembled with the force of it.

He scrabbled under his shirt for the medal dedicating him to the Son, tore it from his neck, and flung it off the battlements. Something burst forth from him, less a prayer than a gauntlet thrown to the Gods. Save them, he swore, and you can do anything you like with me. Anything.

Ten days later, a well-fed courier arrived with word of a negotiated truce. "Dy Jironal got 300,000 royals for this fortress," the courier confided, sounding impressed. They were ordered to lay down arms and surrender.

Cazaril had the men form up in the courtyard under the raw blue sky. The walking wounded stood with their company for inspection. Those who could not stand were carried upon stretchers. Men instinctively left open spaces in the formation for their fallen comrades.

They were much diminished from the proud regiment that had filled this courtyard to overflowing when they entered the fortress last summer. The royal courier looked down his nose at the gaunt scarecrows who had held Gotorget against the cream of the Roknari army. But when Cazaril announced the treaty to his men, a low growl rose from the ranks. They had fought for this place, made it their own, and at a word from him they would have held it until the Roknari tore it from their bleeding fists.

Cazaril was proud beyond measure, honored beyond words, and so he silently led the regiment out of Gotorget. His men were saved. And Cazaril was set upon a different path.

Now I suck the marrow from the bones of life, each stolen moment a victory over death.