Azarola awoke with a startle. He lay on his side on a cot under a tan canvas ceiling. He sat up and sucked in a breath at the sharp stabs of pain reporting from all of his injuries. A persistent high tone rang in his ears. Under the long tent, dozens of soldiers lay on cots, all wounded. Doctors and nurses moved from patient to patient, checking on their wards. He waved to the nearest nurse, a young man in a white uniform. “Where am I?”
“The casualty clearing station,” the nurse replied. He tallied out Azarola’s injuries. “That’s a nasty gash on your head. Since there wasn’t a fragment stuck in your skull, I’m going to guess that’s from being tossed. You’re going to have a nice shiner tomorrow, too.” He circled around the soldier. “That shoulder is going to be ugly for a while, but the wound isn’t deep. We’ll have to get that fragment out of your back and the splinters out of the backside of your legs, too. You’re in for a wait, but we’ll get you stitched up as soon as we can.” The orderly moved on to the next wounded soldier.
Azarola sat patiently for his turn with the medics. Extracting shrapnel and stitching gashes ranked low on the priority list, compared to some of the other wounded. “Where are we?” he asked the soldier next to him.
The fair-haired soldier sported bandaging over his shins. “Didn’t you hear the nurse? We’re at the clearing station.”
“I meant, where is the clearing station?”
“You don’t know?”
He shook his head as much as his injuries would allow. “No. Last I remember, I was in Aestas, near Kaerras.”
“You’re a long way from that, buddy. Welcome to Karifiga.”
Azarola’s memory dug for a map image of the region. The Inexan protectorate was far to the south of Ixpoli and a place he never planned on visiting. “What am I doing here?”
“That’s one nasty hit to the head you took, if you don’t remember that. You do remember your name, right?”
“Azarola,” he answered. “And you are?”
“Kaden,” the young man answered, “We’re in the same unit. Seventeenth Combat Engineering Regiment. Same team, even.”
“What? We’re what?”
“Engineering regiment. You don’t remember that?”
“E-engineering? I’m not a soldier? I’m an engineer? Are you kidding me? How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you’re a mechanic?”
“Two months in a garage and I’m a mechanic? How’d I pull that one off?” He grinned at his own cleverness. His satisfaction evaporated when he looked at the gathering of wounded. “But if I’m a mechanic, why am I on the front line?”
“We’re not on the front line. We’re ahead of the front line.”
“What? What are engineers and mechanics doing here?”
“Building the roads and fortifications for the main force behind us. We also fix the equipment that breaks, which happens every time someone blinks. We also do some scouting while we’re at it, which means reporting anything trying to kill us.”
“How often does that happen?”
“Every other time someone blinks.” Kaden sat up, his gaze fixed on the tent entrance. “You remember Kemper, right?”
“No, never heard of him.”
“Don’t tell him that. He’s our sergeant. Think of him like our boss and you should be fine.” He pointed to a broad-shouldered and barrel-chested man approaching them. “See that man who looks like he could bend a crowbar like willow? That’s Sergeant Kemper.”
Kemper crossed his meaty, leathery arms and smirked at Azarola. “You should give a tribute to that goddess of yours. When I heard what happened to the front, I thought you were gone. I also heard you got yourself conked on the head so hard that you thought you were infantry.”
Azarola gingerly touched the bandage over his head and furrowed his eyebrows. “This is why I can’t remember how I got here?”
Kemper nodded and tapped two cigarettes out of a paper package. After putting one between his lips, he offered one to Azarola. “If a chunk of memory is all you lost after getting blasted, consider yourself lucky.” A well-practiced flick of his lighter produced a small flame to light the sticks. Kemper blew a plume a smoke high into the air and looked at the men sporting the bandaged stumps of limbs. “You can still fight.” Looking away, the corners of his dark eyes crinkled. “You seriously thought you were a commando out there?”
“All I knew was that I was getting shot at and I didn’t want to die. I couldn’t leave anyone else back there to die, either. Wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did that,” Azarola admitted. He stared at the drifting curls of smoke in front of his face and the lit cigarette in his hand. Again, his eyebrows drew together. “Since when do I smoke?”
Kemper shrugged, “As long as I’ve known you.”
“Learn something new about myself all the time,” Azarola remarked, “I just wish it wasn’t such a rank habit.”
“We have rank work,” retorted Kemper, “One more stink ain’t gonna make a difference.”
“I guess that’s true.” Azarola took another habitual drag from the cigarette and looked around the tent. Everything still seemed detached and unreal, like a nightmare from which he could not awaken. “When did this war start?”
Kemper and Kaden stared at Azarola in dumbfounded silence. Kemper tipped back his hat and blew another plume of smoke into the air. “I didn’t think it was this bad. You might have bought yourself a ticket home, if this isn’t an act.” He took another long drag from his smoke. “It’s been a little over a year since the declaration. Most of the fighting until recently was all navy and planes. Averna didn’t want us to give any material support to the other countries it’s trying to take and kept sinking our ships. The war at sea hasn’t gone well. Sometimes our ships just disappear and we still aren’t sure why. There’s talk of sea monsters and, until we got here, I didn’t believe a word of it. Then I saw these big beasts with armored hides and two giant horns coming out of their faces flip tanks. They’re not wild and no one’s ever seen or heard of them before. Maybe Averna’s got some sea monsters, after all.” The burly mechanic snuffed his cigarette butt under the heel of his boot. “I need to make sure Handon isn’t slacking on the tire patches. As soon as the two of you get out of here, I have wagons full of work for you to get done. It’s a mess out there.”
Kaden gave Kemper a breezy salute, “Yes, sir!”
Both Azarola and Kaden managed to snatch a few more hours of sleep before their turns with the surgeons came up. They were quick and efficient, despite the dark circles under their eyes. Once patched, the soldiers took a trip back to Inexa’s primary Karifigan base on the outskirts of the city called Gabessa. Both men received the news that they would have ten days of recovery time. If their wounds showed clean healing, then they would return to their unit.
Gabessa was an almost idyllic oasis in comparison to arid Bosirid. Palm fronds swayed in the light wind between flat-roofed buildings of white, soft pink, and pale blue. Golden stone walls marked the ruins of another age. The barracks of Gabessa nearly overflowed with tan uniformed soldiers and, when allowed, they spilled out onto the ancient streets in search of distractions. Azarola thought about walking out of the base, despite being told that he needed a leave pass to do so. There was a whole new city to explore, but his injuries advised him to wait. Besides, who was he to turn down a free bed and meal?
On the narrow steel cot next to his in the barracks, Kaden read a couple of magazines. As soon as he finished one, he stretched his arm out to hand one to Azarola. “Here, your favorite book. Be sure to pass it on after you’re done.”
Azarola accepted the thin paper magazine boldly titled “Exemplar Comics.” A stylized illustration of a woman in a fitted long white coat and bobbed white hair standing between Inexan soldiers and Avernan soldiers donned the cover. “Madame Maeva, Inexa’s wondrous witch!” announced the subtitle. His hands shook with an unbidden fury at the image. Surprised and alarmed at the sudden rage, he set the magazine down and took a steadying breath. Where did that burst of emotion come from?
While he could not remember his time in the Inexan army, he did remember the last time he saw Maeva Werranholst. It was at Ilelune’s table and the strange alabaster woman gave Maeva an offer. If she sacrificed her husband at the table, then she would save her own life and gain Ilelune’s blessing. Ilelune extended the same offer to Rohita, but the young woman worked a different deal.
The wounded soldier picked up the comic book and looked at the cover again. Was the illustration supposed to be of Maeva? Was it associated with one of her films? He opened the magazine and began to read the captions and word balloons that accompanied the sequential panels. He couldn’t decipher the tiny editor’s notes scribbled in between panels, but the rest of the text was just large enough for him to read. The beautiful and modest actress Maeva reported to duty to the Inexan army. They needed her magic to scry for the location of an Avernan special force trying to sneak past Inexa’s borders. She donned the long white coat seen on the cover and joined the Inexan soldiers on a strike. Madame Maeva teleported herself and the soldiers to the forest hiding the Avernans.
His hands trembled anew with rage at the next panel. “Oh, Ilelune, my goddess! Grant me the power to defeat these Avernan curs!” Azarola paused and let the unbidden flare subside. As soon as his hands stilled, he finished the story. Madame Maeva used her magic to mop up the Avernan brutes and save the day.
“So, what’s the deal with her?” Azarola asked as he pointed to the illustration of Maeva on the cover.
“You don’t remember her, either?” Kaden cradled the back of his head with the crook of his arm. “She was at the show right before we got sent out. Still not ringing any bells?”
“Not a one,” Azarola admitted, “So, that means she’s an actress?” He didn’t want to tip his hand just yet. By the sound of the conversation, he never mentioned meeting Maeva before, even though they saw her perform.
“Not just an actress,” Kaden grinned, “She really does have magic powers and works for the military. She also makes patriotic movies and she has a radio program. Her pinups aren’t half-bad, either.”
“I guess she got her fame and plenty of money to go with it.”
Kaden shrugged. “Well, she’s famous, all right, but she also gives away a lot of money. She must have half a dozen charities in her name. I’m surprised you don’t remember her. The two of you share the same goddess.”
Azarola muttered, “That’s no surprise.” His mind’s eye could still clearly see her stab her husband to death in Ilelune’s presence and gain the covenant. He studied the cover with greater scrutiny. “She probably knows how to find Rohita.”
“My…” Azarola paused, wondering what word to use to describe his relationship with the red-haired woman. “Ladyfriend. Um, we posed as married for a little while.”
Kaden’s eyebrows climbed high and a grin stretched on his face. “Never thought you were the type, Az.”
“It was her idea. She even told her father that we were married.”
“Sounds like a trap to me.”
Azarola smiled, remembering the warmth and comfort of Rohita’s embrace, the scent of her perfume, and the smooth touch of her curves. “It was a nice trap to be caught in.”
The mild surprise on Kaden’s face mirrored the tone of his voice. “You never mentioned that you had a girl back home.”
That was a surprise to Azarola. “Now, that’s strange. We never wrote to each other?”
“You never get any letters at all and you never write to anyone.”
That sounded even stranger to Azarola. Why wouldn’t he write to Rohita? She saved him from Ilelune, right? Else, he wouldn’t be awake and serving in the Inexan army. He noticed the date on the comic book cover and frowned. If it was right, then he wasn’t missing a year of memory. “I got about two and a half years knocked out of my head!”
“Yeah. Is this book recent?” Azarola handed the book back to Kaden.
The fair-haired man verified the date and nodded. “Yeah, it’s this month’s issue.”
Slowly shaking his head, Azarola rubbed his finger against the gauze wrapping over his eyebrow. His last memory stubbornly remained a scene of sitting at Ilelune’s table and the lovely Rohita cradling his head in her lap. “Maybe I’ll remember as I go. Maybe it will all come back as I heal up.” In the meanwhile, he needed to catch up on as much as he could, as fast as he could. “What was I doing before joining the army?”
“You were some sort of preacher for Ilelune,” Kaden replied, “That’s what you told me. You don’t remember that either?”
Azarola’s train of thought jumped its tracks. “Wait, what? I was what?”
“Yeah, every other word out of your mouth was Ilelune this and goddess that. You wouldn’t shut up about her and kept badgering us to join in prayers.” Kaden grinned, “You were damn near unbearable. Handon wanted to punch your teeth in.”
Azarola grimaced. “Don’t think I could blame him. I almost want to punch my teeth in.” He ran his hand through his short hair again, still in shock over the loss. “Why would I ever worship that false goddess, let alone try to get anyone else to? She’s a monster!”
“You’re blaspheming your own goddess?”
He bared his teeth in a savage snarl, “She ain’t my goddess!” He winced at the ferocity of his voice. “Didn’t mean to yell at you, there.” He took a steadying breath and released some of the tension building in his chest. “So, why would I join the army, if it wasn’t to get away from that?”
“You were brought in under the Vagabond Act. Anyone without an address was rounded up and put into service.”
Azarola’s jaw dropped. “What?!” He jerked forward, but a jolt of pain from his stitches encouraged him to relax. The metal frame of the bed squeaked as he shifted his weight. “Inexa did something like that?”
Kaden shrugged, “It cleaned up the streets and rails. We don’t even see much of the Senvira anywhere anymore.”
“I guess cutting their hair would make it a little harder to pick them out of the army.”
“There aren’t many in the army, either.”
“I can’t imagine that they all suddenly gained addresses all at once.” However, he couldn’t it put it past the wily nomads to come up with some sort of scheme to dodge the Vagabond Act. He thought of the Senviran mechanic and his tavern-owning friend in the respectable city of Kaerras. At least they would be safe from that particular law. The temperate pastoral hills and the cool spring breezes of Aestas province still beckoned to him. “Kaden’s an Aestan name, right?”
The other man nodded, “I’m really from Ixpoli, though. My family moved there when I was young.”
“I was hoping you had news about Kaerras,” Azarola admitted.
“You didn’t say you were from there.”
“I’m not, but that’s the last town I remember.”
“Sorry, got no news from there,” Kaden replied, “One of the volcanoes got a little restless last year, but that’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard from there in a long time.”
In a way, it was a relief. At least it meant that Kaerras still stood. Ilelune did not empty it of all of its residents. “It’s not a problem.”
The bed frame squeaked again as Azarola sat up and put his boots on the floor. “I’m going to find the toilet. There’s one in here, right?”
“Should be down that way.” Kaden pointed to a door at the far end of the room.
Every man in this particular building was walking wounded, waiting out his allotted recovery time before rejoining his unit. Some were sleeping, some were reading books or magazines, and some were writing letters home. Azarola’s purported silence about Rohita still bothered him, as did his public support of Ilelune. He had never been much of a religious man, not even for the paramount deity of Inexa, the sun goddess Maedra. If anything, his habits made him more of a devotee to the god of drink and celebration, Sabazen. Why would he support a false goddess that demanded sacrifices? Did anyone he preached to learn the costs for her blessings?
A visit to the building’s latrine brought him some pause. The row of toilets sat out in the open. A row of wall mounted sinks stood along another wall. Privacy was apparently of no concern to the Inexan military. He didn’t see anywhere to bathe nearby and guessed that there was a bathhouse elsewhere on the base. A good scrub and long soak sounded good to his aching muscles, but he was supposed to keep his bandages dry.
He washed his hands, appreciating the running water, instead of the basin and pitcher he was long used to. His palms and fingers sported a different set of callouses than he remembered having. No longer did he have the marks on his fingers from playing a guitar for hours every day. Instead, his skin thickened over the crest of his palm and the sides of his index fingers.
The square mirror hanging above the sink showed him a stranger’s face. After catching his breath, he looked closer. It was his face, after all. It was leaner, sharper, and darker, but it still sported the same straight nose, the same angular brow, and the same vivid green eyes. “Spent a lot of time under the Karifigan sun, did I?” The black hair above the gauze bandaging wrapped around his head stuck out with a mess of wild angles. If it weren’t for cutting his hair and his Inexan blood tempering the strong, hawkish lines typical of the Senvira, he would be hard to pick out of a crowd of the nomads. He could even pass for native Karifigan, as long as they didn’t pay attention to the verdant color of his eyes.
His arms and shoulders were thicker and more muscled that he remembered. Adult brawn replaced the sinewy and ever-hungry adolescence. “Plenty of hard labor, huh?” If he ever found his old busking jacket again, he was certain he would have some difficulty wearing it. Sleeves pinching his arms into numbness would not help him play guitar. Where was his guitar?
He returned to his bed and sat down. “Hey, did I have a guitar?”
Kaden looked up from his magazine. “A what? No. Do you play?”
“For a living, yeah. Used to, that is.” Azarola settled down on the thin mattress. “That just doesn’t seem right. Why would I give up my guitar?”
“You got me, pal. I don’t know your life story, either.”