Stories / Spirals /

Counsel

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

There’s someone waiting for me when I return from dinner. A young man in a grey robe and beret is leaning against the wall typing something into a handset. He glances up as I approach and clips the handset to his robe, moving to intercept me. “You are Kestrel-ambassador, yes?” he asks in a warm, reassuring voice.

“I am. You are?”

He doffs his beret. “I am Shalvan. I am with the Consulariat. Comrade Soshten Mirvasi asked that I look in on you.”

“Oh! You’re a… she called you a ‘counselor?’”

“I am, yes. May I have a moment of your time?”

“Of course.” I unlock the door and show him inside. I sit down on the couch; he slides the office chair over and sits facing me.

“Before we talk about anything, there are some things I need to tell you,” he begins. “First, nothing you tell me, unless it reveals a threat to the security of the Embassy or the physical safety of a citizen, will be relayed to any other person, including my superiors, without your explicit, written approval. Everything said here is said in complete confidence.”

“I… okay. That sounds pretty serious.”

“You need to feel safe being honest with me, or there’s no point to any of this. Normally that rule doesn’t apply to noncitizens, but I’ve spoken with my superiors and have received special dispensation in this case.” He smiles gently. “Secondly, you should know that, while I have rudimentary skills in your trade language, I was stationed at this Embassy for the benefit of the citizens working here, and my knowledge of your cultural practices and norms is minimal. If at any point I say or do anything disrespectful to your customs, please tell me at once.”

“Okay. I will, thank you. Um. So what is it you do?”

“Oh. Are… do you not have counselors where you come from?”

“To me, ‘counselor’ means, like… an attaché or an advisor to a queen.”

“Ah. Well, the Ranuir term we were trying to translate is virtash. It means someone who helps others deal with difficulties of the mind. Sort of like a medic, but for emotional and social problems.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Nobody performs that role in your society?”

“Not that I’ve ever heard of. —Why won’t you people stop giving me that look?”

“I am sorry, I mean no disrespect! I simply am… I do not understand how a people can live happy lives without the assistance and monitoring we provide.”

“Up until recently my people haven’t lived very happy lives. The Imperial yoke is a cruel thing to be caught under.”

“Ah, yes, of course. You’re still in an early stage of development.”

“Yeah.” I hesitate. “Look, is this about what happened early? My… incident in the screening center?”

The counselor nods, leans forward. “Soshten was very concerned about you. She describe symptoms that sound like a very severe instance of… shanvol, sorry, I don’t know an equivalent term—”

“I know what shanvol means. Soshten explained; I’m… still processing that there’s a name for this.”

“She mentioned you thought you were the only person who ever experienced this reaction.”

“I did, yes. God, I thought… for years, I thought I was just… broken. A failure. Everyone was parading me around as this great war hero and here I was feeling like a cowardly fraud.”

“‘War hero?’” Shalvan tilts his head. “Can you back up a bit?”

“Wait, you don’t know who I am?”

“I’m afraid not, I’m sorry.”

“Wow. Fuck, finally.” I laugh shakily. “Ever since I fucking got here nobody’s been able to shut up about how honored they are to meet the great Kestrel Winterblossom or how much they admire me for my whatever during the thing. The only time I’ve been able to get a moment of peace is alone in my cabin.”

“Can you give me a basic outline of what your history is? I don’t want you to get into any details that take you back to the war, just… give me an idea what I’m looking at.”

“I was a commander during our revolution. My battallion went through a lot of rough shit. I spent a lot of time bleeding and listening to bullets fly and killing people and now people look up to me for it.”

Shalvan nods. “Tell me a little bit about how you feel when people try to talk to you about your time in the military. If you could just say whatever you wanted to, whatever was on your mind every time someone’s tried to talk to you about it, what would you say?”

“I feel like… like why can’t they just let the past be the past? Why can’t they let me be instead of forcing me to dig back through the worst moments of my life? I feel like I’m some kind of toy for their entertainment.”

“When people talk to you about your past, they mostly bring up things that set off your flashbacks?”

“I mean, nobody wants to know about the time we spent twiddling our thumbs in foxholes waiting for the enemy to show up. Nobody wants to hear about how many fucking card games I learned just to pass the downtime in that goddamn war. Or how we’d play pranks on each other in the showers. Or how I picked up Khmaira in the trenches. Nobody wants to know about the forced marches or the days and nights on trains shuttling from one side of the continent to another. They never want to know about the friends I made. Just how they died.”

Shalvan nods. “Earlier, when you talked about your experiences in the war, it sounded like you felt they were mostly negative. That you did traumatic, difficult, and destructive things.”

“God, did I ever.” I rub my face with my hands. “Do you know what it’s like to lose count of the people you’ve killed?”

“What kind of people did you kill during the war?”

“Local militias at first. Thugs with truncheons and rifles. Then things got serious and suddenly we were ass-deep in Imperial Guard.”

“So, other professional soldiers? People who were fighting for the Empire?”

“Mostly. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of my missed rounds killed a lot of civilians hiding in buildings behind enemy lines.”

“You don’t know that that’s the case, though?”

“It’s almost always the case in war.”

“The cities and towns you fought in weren’t evacuated?”

“I mean, we tried to evacuate them, but—” I shrug. “Even when there’s time, evac is never a simple thing and civvies never understand the risks. All they know is that you’re in their home telling them to get out and—” I can feel the shaking start. I grip the couch cushions tightly. “God, I forced families out of their homes at gunpoint. And they call me a hero for it.”

“It sounds like you saved their lives.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Did you save any lives in the war? Was it all just killing for the sake of killing?”

“It really felt that way sometimes.”

“Can you think of any people, any individual people whose life you saved?”

“I…” I stare at the ground, terrified to close my eyes in case Sparrow’s broken body is waiting in the darkness again. “Yeah.”

“Tell me about them.”

“There was… she…” The tears are streaming down and I’m having to fight against vocal cords that want to seize up and start sobbing. Shalvan passes me a cloth. I ignore it. “Lieutenant Sparrow Fenwild.”

“Tell me about Sparrow. But take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”

I take a couple of deep breaths, trying to focus on the words instead of the memory. “She… she was so goddamn passionate. She wasn’t the brightest of us but I mean, we were a bunch of illiterate irregulars held together by mud and prayers. None of us was too impressive back then.” I take a long, shaky breath, clench my teeth. “She’d always charge out first. She’d lead her squad from the front, every time. I always told her, Sparrow, one of these days you’re going to get yourself killed, and you know what she told me?”

“What did she tell you?”

“‘That’ll mean one less bullet for my team.’ She just shrugged it off like it was nothing. She’d risk her life every day dragging the wounded off battlefields. Her people, someone else’s, civilians, it didn’t matter. Took more than a few bullets for her trouble but that never seemed to slow her down. You ask me, she’s the one they should be calling a hero.”

“What happened to her?”

“There was a raid. The Guard, they liked taking people alive. War’s expensive and there’s good money in slaving. It was more profitable to haul us off in chains and work us to death than to kill us right then and there.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, it gets better. Because they’d always have their fun first. Especially if it was someone who’d been shooting at them. And Sparrow was in uniform when they found her.” I dig my fingernails into my arms as I speak. “So they raped her. And beat her. And cut on her. And raped her some more. Over and over and over. They had her for a whole week before we were able to break through and get her back. But we didn’t stop, because the Ninth never leaves a comrade behind. When… when I f-found her…” It’s happening again. It’s—

“Kestrel. Ambassador Kestrel.” Shalvan emphasises my title as he calls me back. “Look at me. Look at my face. Take some deep breaths. You are in the Society embassy. What you’re seeing happened a long time ago. Kestrel, look at me. You are not a soldier. You are a diplomat. Focus on the now.”

He keeps talking, keeping up a gentle, soothing patter, throwing me a rope and pulling me back to reality. Little flickers of the memory keep forcing their way through. Confusion seizes my mind. One moment I’m recounting a memory, the next I’m narrating what’s playing out in front of my eyes.

“When we found her,” I continue in a hoarse monotone, “they had her in a cage. A tiny c-cramped little cage. She w-was naked and covered in dried blood and she had so many scars that weren’t there before and so many broken bones and when I pulled her out she just clung to me like a f-frightened animal. She was never the same. Not after that. She started shooting opium. She overdosed so many times I thought she was going to die for sure. Looking back on it though, I think f-for a while the drug was the only thing keeping her alive.”

“But she lived?”

“She lived.”

“Do you know what happened to her after the war?”

“I found her. She’d been missing for months so I hopped on a train and spent a week tracking her down in Rook’s Glen. Found her in a filthy emergency housing unit, needles and vials and trash everywhere. She was crashing when I found her. Dopesick and sobbing.”

“What did you do?”

“I brought her back to the capital. Tracked down an old Khmai medicine-man we knew during the war and had him whip up a miracle cure for the shakes and the shivers. Then I hauled Sparrow in front of the Senate and demanded they give her the White Stripe. And they did. She has a penthouse now, looking out over Destiny Garden. She’s got servants and a live-in nurse to take care of her and a bodyguard to make sure nobody ever hurts her again.” I look down. “I hear she spends most days curled up in bed.”

“Kestrel, I am so sorry. I can only imagine what it must have been like to go through something like that. It sounds like you really did a lot for her.”

“I only went and got her life ruined.”

“Was it your fault she was taken?”

“I was her commander. She was my responsibility. Everything that happened to her is on me.”

“Did you send her against the Guard?”

“I— not that time, no. It was a night raid—”

“Could you have done anything to stop it from happening?”

“There were a million things I could have done different. Picked a different building. Left more people on guard. I could have sat by her through the night with a rifle at the ready and sent anyone who tried to touch her straight to the next life. I didn’t. And now, she’s…”

“How would you have known to do any of those things?”

“Does it matter?”

“It does. You can’t look back and judge yourself from hindsight. You made decisions on the ground based on the intelligence you had at hand. From what you told me, it sounds like your people’s safety was very important to you.”

“For all the good it did them.”

“You had reasons for making the decisions you did. Maybe in hindsight they were inadequate, but there was a reason you picked the building you did. For all you know, something worse could have happened if you’d picked a different one. More people might have been taken. You all might have died.” He clasps his hands. “I keep seeing you do the same thing again and again, Kestrel. You had to make complex, difficult decisions with a lot of effects on a lot of lives. And you keep fixating on the negative ones. There’s no such thing as a perfect decision in war. Whatever you do, people are going to get hurt. All you can do is minimize casualties and make sure that no lives are lost in vain. And, well. You won the war.”

I shrug. “I guess we did.”

“I want you to spend some time thinking about the positive outcomes from your decisions. Can you do that for me?”

“Like what?”

Shalvan rests his hands in his lap. “When you tell me about what you did and who you are, you make it sound like you’re a terrible person. A killer, a thug, a broken woman. But you know what I keep seeing? What keeps shining through your bias?”

“What’s that?”

“I keep seeing a woman who did what she believed was right. Who cared about her sisters in arms and did everything in her power to protect them, even on the battlefield. Who did emotionally brutal things to protect civilians who didn’t understand what they were up against, because their lives were more important to you than your ability to sleep at night.

“I mean. Honestly, Ambassador. A drug addict disappears in another city and what do you do? You jump on a train and give up a week of your hero’s life in the lap of luxury to track her down and bring her home, because she was your comrade. Kestrel, for all the cruel things you say about yourself, you are a selfless and loving woman who cares deeply for others. Who never hesitates to make enormous sacrifices for the mere chance that they’ll help someone in need. Even when you try, you can’t hide that.”

“I just… why won’t they let me move on?” I blurt out. “I’m not a soldier! I’m not. That life is over. It’s dead and buried and I’m trying to move on. Why won’t they let me be who my people need me to be?”

“What do you usually do when people ask you questions about the war?”

“I… I don’t know. I answer them and try to change the subject.”

“That doesn’t work very well, does it.”

“Not especially.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“Please.”

“You told me earlier about all the experiences nobody ever asks about. Like learning card games or playing pranks on each other. The little human moments you still found space for in the most inhuman landscape possible.”

I nod.

“When people try to get you to talk about the war, talk about those moments instead. Talk about something that won’t set off your shanvol. That won’t cut deeper into those old wounds. And that maybe will help you remember the good things that came from your fight.”

“What good things?”

“You won, didn’t you? And Sparrow lived. And you saved a lot of lives. Think of how many civilians lived because you did the hard work of getting them out before the fighting started. Think of how many people get to have real, fulfilling, comfortable lives because you broke the back of the bourgeoisie that was exploiting them. Think of everyone who would have worked themself to death in a noble’s factories, who now has a chance to make friends and learn about the world and be human. Think of how many soldiers will look up to you, the great Kestrel-commander, who laid down her arms and found a purpose away from the battlefield. Who showed a whole world that there is life after war. Think of how much hope you bring with every public appearance.”

He stands up. “I’m going to give you some space to think about what we’ve discussed. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Ambassador. I’d like to meet with you again before you leave the Embassy, if you have time?”

Numbly, I nod. I slowly get to my feet. He puts a gentle hand on my shoulder and I return the gesture.

“I want to ask you to do something for me, before you see me again.”

“Yeah?”

“I want you to make a list of every person you can name who survived the war because of you. Every life you’ve saved. Every person whose wounds you dressed, who you pulled out of the line of fire, who would have died if you hadn’t been there to protect them. Can you do that for me?”

“I… suppose I can.”

“Thank you.” He bows deeply. “I wish you the best of fortune until we meet again. Please take care, Ambassador.”

I smile weakly. “You too, Shalvan-virtash.