Xenolith, Page 50A. Sparrow
Chapter 42: The Burial Ground
They lay amongst dead leaves, trussed like chickens hobbled for market as Baas argued with Baren in the next clearing. Seor couldn’t overhear much, but it sounded like they planned to take the stone upriver by some circuitous route that Baas had identified the night before, one that would bypass the turmoil in town. Clearly, she and the remnants of her squad would not be joining them.
The argument seemed to concern the fate of her little militia. Baas had apparently severely overestimated them, believing them to be an elite counterforce sent specifically to derail their mission. She overheard no details, but she knew that cadre doctrine allowed execution of prisoners for threat or inconvenience, and Baas believed they posed both.
Baas seemed to state a case compelling enough to force his commander to waffle and fidget. Baas’ vehemence in pressing his argument chilled her, as did the torment it inflicted on Baren. She prayed for Baren’s basic decency, or at least his squeamishness, to prevail.
One of Baren’s men brought over some hard biscuit. She hoped this was not a last meal, but a sign that Baas had not gotten his way. With their wrists bound, they ate awkwardly. Baren walked up and crouched down next to her, nestling the satchel bearing the stone in front, like a baby in a sling. He looked nervous. His mouth searched for words. Vul had no trouble finding some.
“Cadre swine, whoring with the Venep’o, may your genitalia rot and crumble off.”
“You should be kinder to one who advocates for you,” said Baren.
Vul squirmed at his bindings. “I’ll give you advocacy.”
“You must excuse Vul,” said Seor. “He’s a bit feverish.” Inside she agreed with his sentiments.
“No matter,” said Baren, exhaling abruptly. “Listen. You have us in a bit of a bind,” he said, quietly. “I suppose you know that we can’t bring you back to Ubabaor with us.”
“But can we return to Gi?” said Seor.
“Not without an escort,” said Baren. “And we have no one to spare.”
“Then what?” said Seor, voice catching.
Baren met her gaze directly. “Baas seems to think that you’re aligned with Andewordah or Gondelfi.”
Seor feigned ignorance, wrinkling her brow. Her palms dampened. She hoped the buzzing heat rising in her face didn’t show.
“Councilors?” he prompted. “From Diomet and Suul?”
Her heart pounded, but Seor kept her face blank.
"Regardless. Both have been deposed, but I see their treason still reverberates. These events are unfortunate. We could have finalized a treaty by now.” He sighed, and rose to his feet. “Anyhow, it’s a shame, all of this, the entire situation. I just wanted to tell you.”
He walked back to his clearing where his squad was preparing to travel, strapping on their satchels and bedrolls. Baas strode over with two others and rousted them. “Rise,” he said. They struggled to their feet. “To the burial ground.”
They filed slowly to the edge of the wood where he stopped them behind the stone wall that bordered a grassy verge. The cemetery was empty but for a young woman mourning beside a block of pink granite. She lay curled in the grass, stroking the stone gently, as if the granite itself embodied her lover. Dead flowers drooped, boots of taupe and tan, waited like obedient dogs for a master to leash them for a walk. A tiny flag protruded, askew in the dirt.
When finally she left in her vehicle, they passed out of the trees, taking small steps with their fettered ankles. A plain of grave monuments opened before them, crowded behind a narrow ring road like a herd of stone animals confined by an invisible fence. Both Ren and Pari looked confused but not particularly afraid. Vul, looking groggy, his hair sodden and limp with sweat, limped along with long pauses between each step.
Side by side, soaring obelisks of polished granite loomed over plaques half obscured by grass and scarcely larger than a footprint. The gravestones reminded her of those in Gi, though few there bothered with class distinctions. Families of the deceased simply selected a large river stone to mark a grave, knocking off a chip to keep on the hearth and carry back on pilgrimages to fit back into its ‘mother.’
In Sesei, families built crypts of fieldstone on their homesteads, to keep their loved ones close. Seor wondered how the bodies of Cudi and Alic had fared, if they lay exposed to scavenging beasts, or submerged in the river. Would the Urep’o, finding them, simply discard them, or inter them into graves like these? She wondered if she faced a similar fate after Baas was done with them.
They marched in single file to the base of a spire surrounded by a ring of paved roadway from which several other roads branched. Baas had them arranged on its plinth, seated with their backs against the stone. Thin, strong cords bound Seor to Ren on one side, Vul on the other, forming a human necklace around the base of the obelisk. Unlike the other markers in the graveyard, the obelisk seemed a tribute to death itself, devoid of any markings that would identify a person buried beneath.
“It’s a shame that we must do this,” said Baren. “But it’s the most benign option available. Whatever crimes you have committed, they do not deserve death.”
“How kind of you not to execute us,” said Seor, sarcastically, though in truth, her spirits soared with relief.
“Crimes?” howled Vul. “We’re not the one’s here committing treason.”
“Oh no?” said Baren, calmly. “So which of us, do you suppose, executes the wishes of our Inner Quorum? Who among us works to preserve what remains of Sesei, instead of squandering our forces in a suicidal rear offensive?”
“But you defy your own Council,” said Seor, hesitant to test his charity, but feeling compelled to answer. “You defy the Articles of Protocol that define Sesei.”
“The Council is no longer relevant,”said Baren. “Most of the Provinces have fallen. Why do their Councilors retain seats? They have nothing more to lose so they promote reckless, desperate measures that put the remainder of Sesei at risk. Why not surrender a stone or two and exchange some territory? The Sesei we knew is gone, anyways. Why not give up Diomet and Suul, so that the heart of Sesei can sustain?”
“My heart is ill for you,” said Seor, as her stomach churned. “For believing that the Venep’o are capable of honoring a treaty. And for giving up on our principles so easily.”
Baren smirked. “Why should we base our actions on a set of tablets engraved … how many generations ago? Could our Founders have foreseen that a group of insignificant, squabbling city-states across the sea would come together as a great power and threaten our shores? Be thankful that the Four who rule us don’t rely solely on such ossified wisdom. Their initiative will save us from ourselves.”
“The Articles of Protocol have withstood many challenges,” said Seor. “Their logic has always preserved us.” She paraphrased words that were drilled into every militia trainee. She truly believed them.
Baren smiled down on her, and shook his head. “How quaint, your faith,” he said. His condescension made her jaw clench. This man spoke like a traitor, like an enemy, yet he was cadre. Cadre! Her head spun. The order of the world as she thought she understood it had been turned upside down.
A heavy vehicle pulling a flat trailer roared into view on the road outside the cemetery. Baren and his group ducked and scuttled like roaches behind monuments. The vehicle decelerated near the entrance to the burial ground, but passed without turning. Baas reemerged first, circling the pillar, tugging at each of their bindings.
Baas pulled on Pari’s lashings. “Come tighten these, this one’s too loose,” he said to the two who had bound them. “She’ll wriggle free as soon as we’re gone. Use more cord if you need to.”
Seor felt the silk cut deeply into her wrists.
“Perhaps your presence will distract the Urep’o for a time, and allow us to pass with less notice,” said Baren. “I’m sure they’ll wonder where you came from, but let them have a mystery. What could you possibly tell them? Nothing about the stones, certainl
y. They’ll be transferred somewhere more secure.” He pulled the satchel holding the xenolith fragment close to his bosom.
Seor watched the cadre scatter across the burial ground, flowing, loose-limbed like a pack of wolves. They crossed a stone wall and disappeared into a hayfield. Seor and her comrades sat arrayed around the obelisk, each facing a different cardinal direction. Seor faced the cemetery entrance, the first of the sun splashing obliquely against the monuments.
“What do you suppose the Urep’o will do to us, when they find us here?” said Ren, her voice breaking a painful and prolonged silence.
“Give me some water to drink, I hope,” said Pari. “I’m terribly thirsty.”
“Maybe, they’ll take us where they took Canu,” said Seor. “It will save us the trouble of finding him.”
“If they don’t riddle us with holes first,” said Vul, his voice ragged. “I’ve seen what their weapons do to people.”
“Why should they harm us?” said Seor. “What threat do we pose in this condition?”
“They can stick me with as many bolts as they like, as long as they give me a drink of water,” said Pari.
A vehicle turned, creaking into the grounds. Its paint seemed duller than most, with dents and spots of rust. It swayed like an old cow. The head of its operator barely protruded above the steering wheel. It shuddered to a stop along a gravel shoulder, and an old woman emerged, holding a cane and a watering can.
“What’s going on?” said Ren, nervously from the other side of the obelisk.
“Don’t worry, Ren, it’s just a grandmother,” said Pari. “She looks … not so vicious.”
The old woman shuffled towards the obelisk, oblivious to their presence. She stopped by a metal pipe protruding from the grass, turned a red, mushroom-like cap. Water spilled into her vessel.
“Ah!” exclaimed Pari upon seeing the spring flow. “Please grandmother, bring some water for us. Please?”
“She can’t understand your words,” said Seor. “I don’t even think she hears you.”
The old woman stood erect and stretched her back. Her gaze wandered across the cemetery. She gave a start when she noticed Seor and the others arrayed around the plinth, squinting at them, nose twitching. She backed away, bumping into the watering can and knocking it over, sloshing its contents across the road. Water continued to gush from the pipe as she turned and hobbled back towards her vehicle.
“What happened?” said Ren, from the other side of the obelisk.
“We frightened her,” said Seor. “She’s running away.”
“All that water wasted! This is torture,” said Pari.
When she reached her vehicle, the old woman slowed her flight, paused, and turned back to them. Her panic evaporated. She opened her door calmly and emerged with a sharp-looking, green-handled implement. She stalked towards them, eyes alight with a righteous and determined fire.