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Xenolith, Page 38

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 30: Captive on the Mesa

  A fine tremor shivered Tezhay’s hands, belying his outward calm. He pressed his palms against his jeans to quell their shaking. His pulse pounded in his head as he realized the implications of this failure. His urgent business in Belize would go undone, his promise to Marizelle that he would be home shortly, unfulfilled.

  When a frantic Mer informed Tezhay of Doctor Frank’s escape, Tezhay was certain he would find the exile wandering one of Ubabaor’s abandoned city squares. Never did Tezhay imagine that this feeble man could have passed so far so quickly beyond the city gates and outer walls. A steady stream of witnesses sent Tezhay spiraling outward into the no man’s land beyond the zone of cultivation.

  Tezhay had plenty of chances to turn back. He saw the dust trails coming off the mesa. He could have let the Cuasars have their sport. What difference would it have made? Always obsessing over duty and detail, this time his diligence might prove fatal. Only his wits could save them now.

  Doctor Frank lay in the packed dirt and manure as limp as a corpse. But he was not dead yet. Fingers slowly curled and uncurled. Blades of brown grass bent against his breath.

  Tezhay spotted the ampoule of bolovo in the dirt, but he didn’t dare show interest while the officers were about. He waited until they walked away; the older man returning to his tent, while the younger officer spoke to some troops returning from stabling their mounts. The bowmen looked up and listened as their commander addressed the Cuasars.

  His hands not yet bound, Tezhay reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He edged closer to the ampoule lying broken in the dirt, reached and snatched it up in the cloth along with a fingerful of mud where some of the bolovo extract had dribbled out. He sopped up what else he could, scrunched the handkerchief in a ball, and slipped it into his pocket before the guards turned their attention back to him.

  One of them prodded Doctor Frank with the end of his bow, but he wouldn’t rouse. “I think this one’s dead or soon to be,” he said.

  “He’s fine,” said Tezhay in Venep’o. “He’s only fainted.” Tezhay worried that they might simply slash his throat and dispose of him. Instead, they called over two young Crasacs who were passing through. They dragged him over to the stables and loaded him up into a small hay cart.

  The guards shifted the binds from Tezhay’s legs to his wrists and shoved him in the direction of the stables. They passed a large complex of horse stalls with crude stone walls and frames of lashed timber covered with cloth that rippled in the wind. Behind them stretched a row of fetid kennels crowded with broad-shouldered hounds that strained at their tethers, snarling and snapping at each other, baying as they passed.

  War dogs, they were, mascots of the shock troops who spearheaded the invasion. Heavy boned and strong jawed, bred to absorb a bolt and keep on charging, relentless in quest of throats to rip. There was a time when Tezhay enjoyed being around dogs. That all changed after the invasion.

  Siege wagons lined both sides of a large avenue behind the stables. They had six wheels apiece, each wheel taller than a man, their exaggerated dimensions facilitating passage over marshy ground. A flywheel mechanism stored the energy that propelled iron-encased, spring-loaded rams like pistons against city walls. Heavy wings on hinges folded out to protect the Crasacs who manned them.

  Tezhay could also see workmen building a temple, a Likica, on a low rise in the center of the mesa. An open dome of mortared brick sat veiled beneath a lacework of scaffolds. Only a few gaps remained to be filled before it would be plastered with the brilliant white lime favored by the Venep’o for their places of worship. To Tezhay, this was a sign that they would not be leaving soon, despite the assurances they had given Sesep’o negotiators during the treaty discussions.

  They passed cluster after cluster of peaked tents, each surrounding a parade ground. Soldiers idled about everywhere, mending armor, fletching bolts, their numbers disproving the prevailing opinion in Ubabaor that the siege had decimated the enemy. If so, they had since been amply reinforced, with no hint that the militias assembled on the rear flank in Gi had dissuaded from extending their gains on this continent. Tezhay counted at least eight regiments encamped on the mesa, information valuable to the defense of Ubabaor, though the prospects for escape seemed negligible.

  They came to the far side of the mesa to a place where the camp’s refuse was dumped over the rim. They stopped before a dome-shaped holding pen, roofed over with bent saplings connected with rawhide and tarred rope into a tight latticework. The largest gap was barely wide enough to fit a head through. A pair of maimed and bedraggled guards emerged from a hut and unlatched the door. The two Crasacs pulled Doctor Frank out of the hay cart and dragged him into the pen, dumping him onto a clay floor pitted by thousands of feet and redolent with urine and rot.

  A small group of men and women huddled across the pen, cringing from the guards. An old man lay beside them drawing ragged breaths. He seemed in as bad or worse a shape as Doctor Frank, which Tezhay took as good news regarding their prospects for survival. Tezhay assumed they were pulse and spelt farmers from the plains, the main slave prey of the Venep’o garrisons these days. Some families took great risks in revisiting abandoned homesteads and attempting to plow and plant their old fields.

  The soldiers left, transferring custody to the holding pen’s own guards. One of them, missing his left arm below the elbow, strolled over to assess his new charges. He nudged Doctor Frank with his staff.

  “This one’s half-dead,” he said. “Don’t know why they bother bringing them here in such poor condition.”

  “He’ll be fine. He’s only sleeping,” said Tezhay, in Venep’o.

  “Sleeping? Hah! That’s a good one,” said the other guard, whose only debility seemed to be an acute lack of height. “So the old man over there must be taking a nap, then eh? Meat for the dogs, both of them.”

  “If not today, then tomorrow,” said the armless one. “At least while they breathe they stay fresh.”

  They left the pen and sealed its entrance with an iron chain and a bolt that could only be turned with a metal cap that fitted over it. Tezhay scrambled over to Doctor Frank’s side and pressed his ear against his chest. He had never heard a heart sputter so, with long gaps and flurries of beats merging into the next. Yet his blood still pumped. He could feel a thready pulse in the artery running up the side of his neck.

  Tezhay reached into his pocket and pulled out the muddy handkerchief. He found one clump of goo that seemed to contain more bolovo extract than soil, and scraped it off with his fingernail. He pried Doctor Frank’s jaw open and rubbed the mixture of mud and medicine all over the inside of his cheeks and gums. Worried that the dose would be too small and too slow to help, he took the soiled handkerchief and swabbed the inside of Doctor Frank’s mouth with it as well.

  Tezhay sat back and waited for a sign that the bolovo had taken effect. Bolovo acted quickly when ingested, but it could be an hour before enough was absorbed through the lining of the Doctor’s mouth to have any effect on his heart. Tezhay wasn’t sure why he bothered. It might have been more merciful to simply let Doctor Frank pass, or even to accelerate the process by smothering him. But Tezhay had witnessed too many premature deaths to sit by idly when a life could be extended, even if were only a few minutes or hours.

  But Doctor Frank’s condition only deteriorated as Tezhay watched. The exile’s lips turned blue. His skin blanched. Tezhay rushed over and knelt beside him, compressing his chest with both hands clasped, cursing that he didn’t think to provide some breath before administering the bolovo.