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Victorious

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She trusts me absolutely. I trust she does. And I, I trust her absolutely – to be absolutely human.

 

It was a happy circumstance, Jezal thought, a stroke of luck that he hadn't given in to that moronic impulse. It was a wretched thought inspired by drink; nothing more.

Standing at the top of the tower, he watched the miniature figures stirring and crawling along the wrecked city wall. Where his masons had started their work, the edges of the ruin were bristling with fresh blood red brick. It was all very sickly, and the brilliant sunlight pouring on the formerly magnificent stones only added to the general impression of a festering wound full of tiny flesh-gorged insects. Those of them who weren't masons were marauders; Varuz had ordered to arrest them, of course, but there weren't nearly enough uninjured soldiers to keep adequate watch.

An excellent favour he would've done to his friend Collem West if he'd made him Lord Marshal! With the defeat in the North and Adua in ruins, West would've started his career with the kind of dark stain that brands a man to the bone.

Jezal fingered the cold golden handle of the useless royal sword, then tugged nervously at his own starched lapel. He wouldn't have been in a much better position than West, come to think of it. His first decision as a king a fatal one! The meaningless slaughter in the North his doing; the screams and moans of the countless wounded all for him.

He found that at these thoughts his neck and shoulder-blades broke out in ice cold sweat. Trickles of it ran down his spine and soaked his fine silk shirt. He turned around, away from the sight of the wrecked city, and breathed a lungful of air in an attempt to calm himself.

Of course he wanted to make a difference. But what could he do?

 

When West had thought of Kroy and Poulder sending him to scrub latrines, he didn't mean for Fate to take that as a challenge. Yet he had to admit now that his present position was beyond anything he could've imagined.

His head ached from the acrid smoke and stone dust wafting over the city; his wounds itched so that he had the urge to claw into his flesh to soothe it. Perhaps it was for the best that his hands, which also smarted mercilessly, were tied behind his back.

Others like him sat and lay all around on the blistering white stones, murmuring curses and moaning for water. It was a colourful crowd; mostly Gurkish men, but a few Union soldiers, too, their faces brick red with heat. Someone among the Gurkish was wounded, and the smell of his flesh had attracted swarms of flies that buzzed overhead. One of them landed on the bridge of West's nose, and he growled and shook himself in a hopeless attepmt to swat it away.

His thoughts, when they weren't of water, were of Ardee and of Sand. Surely she'd be well taken care of now. That had been a good decision – a single good decision among dozens of wrong ones.

Come to think of it, he wasn't sure where it had all gone so awry. But what could he have done?

 

For once, Superior Sand dan Glokta had to concentrate on quantity over quality, and that didn't sit right with him. He hardly had the time to talk to his prisoners anymore; these days it was all shove the confession paper into a man's face, have Frost kick him, give him a pen, done, next.

This is starting to look less like torture and more like a speed beating competition. I could almost feel ashamed of having to be so dismissive with these poor people. Where are my manners, where is my famous capacity for personal approach?

Defeat in war had filled the House of Questions to the brim with boredom. The only prisoners coming in were spies, and none of them real. Faces of men, Gurkish, Union, Northern, passed in front of Glokta in a kind of painful haze. Where his own pain ended and theirs began he could no longer tell.

"I'm innocent! Innocent!" someone would scream, and the scream would resonate in Glokta's jaw and teeth, setting the muscles of his face aflutter. He'd cringe a little and rub at his eye, muttering of course, of course.

The people who are to blame for this defeat are the ones ordering your torture, you dolt. Your fucking innocence is what you're guilty of.

Severard opened the door and brought in yet another unfortunate, a rough canvas bag over his head. Glokta gave him a passing glance; a tall, broad-shouldered man in a worn blue uniform, about thirty years of age, perhaps.

Those of exceptional physical strength were often the easiest to break. The realization of their own helplessness undid them, somehow, and plunged them into terror and grief the way no battle wound could. I should know; I was like that once.

"Put him into that chair, will you, Severard."

The prisoner stumbled awkwardly when sitting down, his long legs failing to quite fit between the chair legs and the table. Glokta sighed and sat down himself, wincing at an excruciating twinge in his left hip. Ah, the surprises of crippled life. One never knows quite where the pain will come from.

"You are the thirty-eighth man I have to question today," Glokta informed the prisoner pleasantly. "I have not even seen your face yet, but I already know one thing pertinent to your case; namely, that I hate you."

The prisoner's large hands moved, groping at the table helplessly. His wrists were covered in golden hairs, and his knuckles were stiff with scar tissue. Glokta frowned. Not that easy to break, perhaps.

"Bag, Severard." He flicked his wrist lazily.

The canvas came off, and for a moment the air in Glokta's lungs stilled. He had to force a breath out to induce the useless sacks of flesh to work again. His hand shot up to his eye and pressed against it, as if trying to prevent it from falling out.

"West," he whispered.

"Sand."

West's rough scarred face was pale, his unkempt beard starting to curl into a pair of sideburns. He didn't look nearly as shocked as Glokta felt. His voice was quiet; there was some tension in his mouth, and his pupils were dilated in anxiety; but something was at work within him, something that made him look unflinchingly straight at his captor.

Glokta was painfully aware of the eyes of his practicals on him. Someone told Sult about Dagoska. Why did the old bastard question me about the disappearance of Carlot dan Eider?

"Superior, please," managed he. He was trying for a menacing purr, but missed by a mile.

The pre-written paper of confession was unpleasantly rough under his touch. Glokta skimmed it through, trailing his sensitive fingers down the lines of curling black ink.

These papers had never before held anything he might be interested in. High treason, sabotage, theft of imaginary military supplies, espionage for the Gurkish through equally imaginary channels; he didn't need to see any of this to know it was inane, poorly thought through nonsense. But West's confession was different. Taken down by the personal secretary of Lord Marshal Kroy, it was mercilessly specific about the alleged crime.

"You're accused," Glokta read, disbelieving, "of breaking men out of a penal colony in the vicinity of River Cumnur, thereby aiding and abetting a crime punishable by death."

Crunch. Frost's oversized fist connected with West's jaw, sending a broken tooth and a spray of blood flying through the air. West's head snapped back and rested awkwardly on his shoulder, scarlet soaking his beard. His eye rolled madly in its orbit, and for a moment it seemed as though he'd pass out; but with a visible effort, he regained control of his own body and sat still, his chest rising and falling in large convulsive breaths.

When they say "to feel someone's pain as your own", surely this is not what it means?.. Glokta's entire body was white hot agony. He shrank away, his nails digging into the mangled, bloodied wood of the table. He wasn't sure he wasn't crying; the bad eye made it devilish hard to tell these days.

"Are you all right, sir?" he heard Severard asking anxiously.

"Yes, damn it," hissed Glokta, squirming. “It’s the damn back giving me trouble.”

With a groan he all but sank against the table, clinging to its edge with one hand and wiping his cheeks with the other.

“Do you confess?”

And he waited, breath held, for the inevitable no.

“Yes,” lisped West. “I did that. Prince Ladisla’s troops needed smiths. There was nowhere I else I could turn. I am guilty, Superior.”

The room swam before Glokta’s eyes. Was that it? Could he be spared? He needed time; he needed to think-

“You understand, of course, that we will need names-”

“No names,” West shook his head vigorously, dripping blood on the front of his sky blue coat. Then he sighed a little. There was something vulnerable in his expression, and that vulnerability on the face of Collem West, of all people, struck Glokta as viscerally and nauseatingly wrong. “I expect you may torture them out of me, of course. But for now – no names.”

How like West that was. Ever the realist despite his idealistic exterior. Or is it the other way round?

Was that why Colonel Glokta had taken a liking to this man all those years ago? Because he could make heroics a harsh truth instead of the sugary hypocritical dream it was in Glokta’s own stupid head?

Clang. Frost put the leather bag with Glokta’s instruments right between him and West.

Glokta wished West would plead with him; scream about his innocence like every single one of those thirty-seven men he’d questioned since that morning. Perhaps that would’ve made it easier to simply stand up and say, “no; let this man go. I, Sand dan Glokta, will not suffer him to hurt.”

But West didn’t scream. His gaze followed Glokta’s hands as they clicked the bag open and set about digging through the stacks of scalpels, hatchels, and chisels that were clearly not a consequence of someone’s tender love for the arts of sculpture and yarn-spinning. He seemed mesmerized.

Out came a gouge and a miniature mallet.

Where can I hurt him that it’d cause the least damage? But every inch of that large, sure body that was so familiar to Glokta seemed equally vulnerable, equally terrifying to touch.

“There are fifteen more prisoners awaiting us, sir,” Severard said gently. His bony face behind the mask seemed relaxed; but oh, such indifference could not be trusted. Glokta glanced at Frost. The albino’s expression was impenetrable as ever.

Had one of them guessed at Glokta’s distress? Realized the reason behind it? Perhaps I am a dead man already. Perhaps I ought to be.

He couldn’t lose. Not ever. There was no giving up now, when he had murdered and betrayed so many others.

Come now, Sand. Are you not a monster? Are you not a reprehensible, ugly, insane torturer beyond any salvation or forgiveness? What difference could this possibly make?

“Left hand, if you please, Frost.”

West’s left hand was pinned to the table, Frost’s white fingers pressing down on it with force enough to crush bone. West grunted, his features growing pale with pain. This is only a fraction of what is to come.

Glokta carefully positioned the gouge above the tip of West’s little finger.

“Names, Colonel West,” he said softly. He meant it to be threatening, impressive; instead, it came out like like a shameful little plea. Don’t let me hurt you. Spare me.

West took a deep breath and shook his head.

“No.”

Bile rose in Glokta’s throat, and sour spit flooded his mouth. He raised the mallet a little-

Clink. No divine intervention stopped him. No miracle averted the blow. The gouge went deep into the wood, severing the tip of West’s finger like a hot knife might severe a stick of butter. The mallet fell from Glokta’s hands; and he was trembling much too hard to pick it up. All was hot and hazy before him.

On the other side of the table, West had bent in two. Rather than shouting in pain, he let out long guttural sobs – sounds that seemed to Glokta worse than anything he’d ever heard, worse than the squelching of violated flesh, than the crunching of breaking bones, than the dripping of draining blood.

Someone had picked up the mallet and the gouge and was offering them to him – Severard, it was Severard’s thin hands in squeaky mercurial leather – and Glokta heard his own cry of revulsion and fear.

“No! No!” he shrieked, backing away and nearly falling off his chair. West sobbed again, and Glokta was noisily sick on the floor.

Then there was a roar, a crunch, and he felt and knew nothing at all.

 

Colonel Sand dan Glokta rode his last charge in life the way a man should – without looking back. The even sound of his steed’s hooves hitting the ground was his war drum; the sunlit brilliant skies overhead his battle colours.

He could see the Gurkish troops ahead, thousands upon thousands of tiny dark figures swarming the plain; so small they were that it seemed to him that he’d trample them with his horse if he wanted to. With every moment they were closer, closer; and his heart beat faster, faster to a simple tune of joy and despair.

In his abandon he didn’t at once notice that someone else’s horse was slowly but surely overtaking his. It was a short bay stallion, bending his dappled neck against the wind, his legs working in a furious gallop. Glokta turned his head in alarm. The stallion gained another couple of feet on Glokta’s steed, and his mane flicked to the side, leaving his rider in clear view.

“No,” whispered Glokta, his heart sinking.

To his right, Collem West rode hard, his gaze trained on the swarms of Gurkish soldiers.

“West!” cried Glokta. “Turn back, damn you! I order you to turn back!”

But West couldn’t hear him behind the sound of the wind; or else, didn’t want to hear.

“West!” Glokta heeled his horse, his spurs piercing its sensitive skin. The horse cried out pitifully, and the hooves went faster – cataclop, cataclop – but not nearly, oh, not nearly fast enough.

“Please,” Glokta found himself whispering. “Please, no. Please, please, I’d rather lose.”

The horse’s coarse mane whipped his face, smearing his tears over his cheeks and temples. He ground his teeth.

“I’d rather lose,” he repeated, half-sobbing in helpless fury.

 

“Glokta!” someone called, gentle but firm. “Sand!”

“I’d rather lose. I’d rather-” Glokta came awake with a jerk. His face was wet. Soft twilight surrounded him. All was quiet; he was looking not at a field full of Gurkish but at a smooth white wall.

“Sand,” repeated the voice. He turned wildly, his hands clenching. Collem West sat there by his side, a sloppy bandage on his neck and newly-shaved jaw. His eyes were on Glokta, searching and anxious.

“Ah!” Glokta shrank away, half-sitting up and pressing his back against the wall. Nausea came over him, and he choked on bile.

Something in him noted silently that the pain in his body was lesser; not gone, but softer, gentler than it was on most of his mornings. Almost… merciful.

“You’re all right,” said West hastily. “You’re all right. Don’t worry.”

All right. Preposterous. I don’t remember last time I was all right.

West raised his hands in an attempt at a soothing gesture, but upon seeing the awkwardly bandaged little finger on the left one Glokta fell down from his half-vertical position and was sick all over his pillow. West shook his head.

“Easy, now,” murmured he, retrieving the soiled pillow. He looked around, evidently in search of something that’d work as an acceptable substitute; finally he settled on awkwardly stuffing his own coat under Glokta’s head. The coat felt uncomfortable and the coarse golden thread of the buttonholes rubbed against Glokta’s scalp.

“What happened?” Glokta forced out, in an uneven voice. The sick was sour on his gums.

“I was freed,” said West, “by that… white man of yours. He carried you out, too."

“Frost,” breathed Glokta, sinking back against West’s coat. There goes my little mystery.

“The other one may have… suffered a bit of an accident.” West’s mouth twisted. “Though he’d still managed to crack you over the head, I’m sorry to say, and as a consequence you’re concussed.”

“Ah.”

Safe for now, then.

“The confession paper?”

“Destroyed.” West shrugged his shoulders a little and offered something almost like a smile. “I’m no child, Sand. I know what it is you do.”

Glokta recoiled in shame, turning his head away from West as far as the pain in his neck would let him.

“Ardee and I took you in for now,” said West, sounding, for all the world, almost apologetic. “We’re paying Barnam, too. He’s already given you a bath today, as you were still unconscious. I hope that’s all right. I don’t really know how you live these days, you see-”

“West,” said Glokta, and paused, clearing his throat. “Collem, I- I realize you won’t forgive me for what I’ve done.”

West’s brows went up. Then he gave a sudden crooked smile, and a hard cold glint flashed in his eyes, for a brief moment transforming his expression into something unfamiliar.

“What, for this?” He raised his hand and wiggled the stump of his finger a little. “It is nothing I blame you for, Sand.”

“How do you mean?” asked Glokta hoarsely, his mouth turning very dry.

West looked calm; altogether too calm. This was not the man Glokta knew. Something must’ve come with him from the North and made its home within him. Or had it been there all along?

“You only did what you had to do,” West said, almost coldly. “Believe me, I know.”

He looked at Glokta for a few long moments, that same strange expression on his face. Then, suddenly, something softened in his eyes and the line of his mouth. He reached out and put his injured hand into one of Glokta’s.

Glokta flinched. West’s fingers were warm. Pain uncoiled and twisted in Glokta’s temples, making him wince, but he didn’t withdraw.

“Thanks for picking my left hand,” said West.

And so that is the best we can do for each other. Pick the left hand. Glokta chuckled mirthlessly, half-closing his eyes in exhaustion. The effort of staying awake was starting to make him dizzy.

As he slowly sank into hot, anxious oblivion, still conscious of West’s touch, one single thought stayed with him.

He was, once more, victorious.