ONE FORTY TWO
Ah-eee-eh, said Murac, and the insta-translate didn’t have to bother telling me that this was a kind of ‘yo, douchebag’ exclamation. I could feel it groping anxiously for an acceptable casual usage for ‘unpleasant person whom the speaker scorns’. It’s okay, I said to it. I get it.
Sah, said Murac, a short, sharp syllable, and this was a spitting noise. —And you will tell Defender (he continued) that the water initiated her into our company and the acceptance and assent of the Lady? Then you have bound me to her more closely still, as close as the sword in a warrior’s hand.
My insta-translate had been really embarrassingly well brought up. I heard this more along the lines of ‘as close as the manky hair grows on your ass’.
I will tell her what Defender needs to know, said Tulamaro, and then I will cut your lying tongue out of your ugly head.
The insta-translate let this pass, with relief, I thought, but I also thought that Tulamaro hadn’t stopped with Murac’s tongue.
I am still commander here, said Tulamaro, and you are a common soldier promoted past your merits and your paltry skills.
Or, I rule a troop of overweight geldings of whom you are the hindmost. And tying a red ribbon around your missing balls changes nothing.
I thought I heard the insta-translate weeping. Honey, it’s okay, I said. You were trained for tea parties and got sent to war. I’d’ve chosen the tea parties myself. Cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, I thought. Scones. Bread and butter and treacle. Dormouse tea. Food. I was so hungry I was imagining . . . But at that moment I did the stiffening like a sighthound sighting a rabbit thing because I wasn’t imagining it—I smelled food (oh, Sid, is anyone remembering to feed you? How long have I been gone?) and (nearly) everything else (except Sid) spilled out of my brain like pouring last night’s flat champagne down the drain—a disheartening and melancholy process in a life where such things occasionally happened. Oh for a life where the most disheartening and melancholy activity is pouring flat champagne down a drain. I was dizzy and my leg hurt, and sequential reasoning has never been a strong point. Ask my high school algebra teacher, who I believe had a midlife career change to stunt driving after my class graduated. Furthermore it wasn’t alarming enough that I had an insta-translate with a vocabulary like a Victorian governess who had read more Sir Walter Scott than was good for her, I could hear it weeping.
A small scruffy androgynous and possibly familiar person in leather and chain mail, who might have been the same one who had led Monster through the murk toward our first meeting, appeared in front of me, holding a bowl. Food. At this urgently desired but unexpected felicity my synapses all fired simultaneously and in the ensuing dazzle I went paralytic. I had no idea what to do nor how to do it, beginning with which hand to release to make a grab for this desideratum. Maybe I could just tip forward and slurp it up like a dog. . . . I stood there motionless for a second or two, my mouth having dropped open disguising my chattering teeth—and then snapping shut again to swallow all the drool—
And to my horror the small scruffy androgynous and possibly familiar person dropped to one knee, bowed its head and held the bowl up to me to the full reach of its arms.
“Oh, no,” I said, and unwisely let go both hands to snatch the bowl and yank the person back to its feet. If I’d had two working legs and/or wasn’t half dead with cold and hunger and battle fatigue and recent surgery this might have worked. I could remember in times past doing two different things with two hands: I could remember not that long ago feeding bits of muffin or sandwich or whatever was on offer to both myself and my dog simultaneously. . . .
As it was, I fell over. Mostly this was just me falling over, but I also got rather tangled up in my blanket. I had just time enough to think—don’t let me knock the bowl over, and dump the food on the ground—even I’m not that hungry—I don’t think—
When my arnehgh caught me. Fire and water and earth, I thought. Whatever. Maybe the stones chose him for his great reflexes.
I hung in his arms, too demoralised even to protest. What was there to protest? I was this feeble.
There was a growl, presumably from Tulamaro, and I thought faintly, oh, stow it, you thumping great lout—but there was a low reverberant thud just behind me and then Murac was easing me down on something like a box—a big wooden box—something I could sit on. The small person with the bowl was standing to one side, and as I sat down, came forward again, and placed the bowl gently on my lap. He—or she—bent low enough that he (or she) could look up into my face. And smiled.
It was a nice smile. I still couldn’t tell if it was a man’s smile or a woman’s. “Defender,” said the small smiling person. “We greet thee. We are glad of thee. Please now eat.”
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