Chapter 20

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The day following the forced march away from the battle with the Death Walker started with crystalline sunlight. High fleecy clouds arched up and over them as they walked. By late morning, however, the sky turned threatening. Almost on cue, the highway disappeared into a confusion of rubble with rusting steel erupting into frozen fountains of splintered metal. They spent the afternoon retracing false starts and bushwhacking new trails.

Long before his normal time, Jesse scouted out a bivouac on a slight rise in the lee of a stand of old trees and built a hut rather more generous and sturdy than usual. A cold wind set the woods to groaning and rattling in protest against the wind.

“We are in for some dirty weather, lass. With this high a wind, it should not last too long. Best we hunker down and ride it out for a day. I could use the rest.”

He coughed. After the rain started, Jesse built a small fire and lit the lamp as he sat, cooking stew. The rain added a frenzy of noise as wave after wave of the storm beat against the jury-rigged roof.

Malila started shivering. Jesse arose, unasked, to fetch a couple of deerskins to drape around her and himself before regaining his place by the fire, working another small patch of hide with the short knife as he stirred the pot.

A stray gust of wind whipped under the eaves and swirled the air with smoke and sparks. Blinded, her eyes stinging with tears, Malila coughed until she was exhausted.

In an instant, the whole grotesque burden of the day descended on Malila, the cold, the wet, the fatigue, the frustration, and now the smoke.

“You made a mess of this, old man! We are both going to die because a demented Sisi thinks he can beat the Unity! Why didn’t you kill me the first day?”

Jesse, recovering from another fit of his visceral coughing, wiped his mouth.

“Why indeed, lass? Be careful what you wish for. Dead is for life, I’m told.”

“You should know, Sisi; you must be half dead already!”

“I love you too, lass! But I wouldna be so anxious to end it all. You are tired. You will feel better after a night’s sleep, my friend.”

“I’m not your friend, Sisi! How would you have any idea how I feel?” she shrieked at the old man.

Jesse looked up, spearing her with his pallid eyes even in the dim light. He pulled the small pot off the flames, set it aside, and waved a finger under her nose before Malila could consider she might have gone too far.

“How would ah know? How am ah suppose ta be sae damned auld ’n’ ne’er hae bin young, once upon a time? Dae ye think ah wis born auld, ye arrogant boot pup? How much dae ye put inta th’ pot ye eat from, Acting Lieutenant Chiu?”

Malila inched away from his anger, antagonizing him further.

“Who dae ye think is keeping yer sorry bahookie dry richt noo? If it weren’t fur me, ye’d be cold and drookit in some hollow o’ a tree someplace!”

The old man dismissed her with a flourish of his hand when she gave him a bewildered look, turning his back on her as he replaced the pot on the fire.

“If I’m such a burden to you, why don’t you let me go?”

“Humph … You don’t mind being abandoned to die o’ starvation and exposure to the elements? Good to know, provender being at low ebb for the moment.”

“Is that why you tie me up every night? So you can find me when you want to butcher me?” She knew that was unfair, and it pleased her to say it.

“I tie you up because of you being an enemy soldier. I haven’t decide about roasting you … yet.”

“Look, Jesse, I’m a city girl. Even if I could get away, I don’t know how to get home. I’ll make you a deal. Don’t tie me up, and I promise not to try to get away. Let me loose, or let me go! Do one or the other, old man, if you are telling me the truth!”

There was silence for a second, and then the old man turned to look at her.

“Well said, lass. But how do I know you won’t try to kill me?”

“Would you believe me if I promised?”

“Your promises don’t mean much to you. You showed me as much back there. Why should they mean anything to me?”

Malila stopped. Her actions, when she had cut herself free at the hot spring, had not been to escape … at least she had not been sure she could escape. She had dismissed her promise to Jesse before she had made it. Jesse had not, apparently. For the old man, the promise had had actual substance. To him, she had betrayed him. It had never occurred to her. The new realization made her feel empty. She was left with no response for the old man except one. In grim determination, she stood. The Unity procedure was straightforward, even if Jesse did not know the long history of it. Over the weeks, Jesse’s restraint, despite his interest in her, had grown perplexing and, in its way, demeaning.

Malila faced him and waited for him to look up at her. She undressed herself. Jesse did not look away, and it gave Malila hope. When she finished, she remained standing, the cold wind plucking her flesh into tight peaks.

She announced the formulaic declaration in a voice made uncertain by the cold. “Jesse Johnstone, I offer you the freedom of my body and my faithful service in return for your protection and advice.”

In the Unity, the patron-elect would acknowledge her act and words with a session of animated pleasure-sex before announcing his or her decision. Malila waited. She had to admit to herself that the idea of a Sisi as patron was grotesque, but oddly, it no longer filled her with disgust.

“This is how we ask someone to become a patron. I offer myself to you in return for your looking out for my interests … Talk, old man. I’m getting cold!”

Jesse again moved the food off the fire and stood facing her. Malila gratefully took his hand and pressed it between her breasts, moving his dry, warm hand against her softness. Malila stepped closer, feeling warmed by his nearness, and smiled to herself.

The old man had finally shown himself to be no different than her other patrons. It had been difficult for a naive thirteen-year-old Malila to present herself the first time. Defenseless and friendless, the desirability of her body had bought her protection and power, of a sort. After weeks of uncertainty, life was becoming understandable again.

Jesse spoke without moving, low and unhurried. “We aren’t about ta dae this, lass. If ah dinna tak yer words, ah wouldna shame ye by taking yer body. Ah think ye should git dressed.”

Jesse’s words at first made no sense to her. She pressed herself against the old man and was reassured by his growing reaction. Malila touched him, feeling she had at last gotten a purchase on the rocky slope of the old man’s personality.

“Malila Chiu, git dressed!”

He spoke it as a command. It startled her. Cold air circled around her as she stepped back.

“But …”

“No, lass. Git dressed. Please.”

This time is was a plea. In turmoil and confusion, Malila stooped to gather her clothes. Jesse stood watching her, his face impassive and unmoving until she was dressed.

“The question was why I should believe a promise from you, Lieutenant Chiu.”

Malila looked up at the stolid face of the old man. “You should believe me because if I kill you, then I die alone. Everyone I’ve ever known will think I drowned in some river out here. I don’t want to die alone.”

After a few moments of silence, the old man gave her a wooden spoon and a cup of the stew he had been cooking.

“No one should die alone, lass. Mak’ me a promise nay ta escape or ta harm me or yourself, an’ I will take your parole.”

“I promise, Jesse.”

“Enough said, lass. Eat your stew.”

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