Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Chapter 12: Nothing Sadder than Spilled Beans
James noticed Clandestine had finished her food, and now set it to the side, giving him her full, undivided attention. She nodded solemnly.
"That sounds terrifying," she said.
She was trying to empathize. But all it did was make him feel even more guilty. He shook his head slightly, not wanting to travel down that path, knowing there was more story to tell and that they had other worries to address once they were done with this.
If this conversation would even end well. He didn't know.
He swallowed, trying to think of where to start again. But Clandestine seemed to choose for him.
"You went in, didn't you?" Clandestine asked as if she'd already deduced the end of the story.
It wasn't that hard to guess. He was still alive. So it had to end with him still standing. But that didn't account for the other soldiers.
"Yes," James answered.
But he still couldn't seem to bring himself to say more. For so long, it had felt like a dark secret he'd harbored for years - except it wasn't a secret. Not in the kingdom. It had been a heroic war story that people celebrated in and even congratulated him over - but that only ever intensified the horror of it all.
"Did you win?" Clandestine asked after another silence, her voice hesitant like a whisper.
And the question grated him, like sandpaper chafing against his skin. He found himself visibly frowning at the word win, no longer able to hide his own disdain at his own history and the way it'd been reframed for him. He hated how he'd lost control of his own story - how it'd been used as a political ploy, like one last hurrah at the "end of the war" that "ended" for the kingdom but continued to play out every day in the lives of mages who never had to stop fighting to stay alive.
There was no winning. There was only appeasement at best, and the illusion of peace that veiled the fear and control keeping another wave of trouble at bay.
"100 years ago, the ruins had been a guild for mages," James said slowly. "I imagine that, before the calamity, when the buildings were intact, they were full of life. But those same buildings became their grave at the start of the Great War. That day, in those isolated ruins on that quiet morning... I stood on the final battlefield of the Resurgence. I saved my troop, but that place became a grave once more. For Verna. For her comrades I never knew the names of. And for the resistance."
James wasn't used to having to explain the story to someone who didn't already have an idea of what happened. The last time he'd spoken of what happened on that day, he was still in the kingdom. It had been five years since he'd let himself ruminate on it out loud, and five years since he'd let anyone else think on it with him.
The guilt was just as heavy as it was back then, but the shame was even heavier.
He could remember, once, one quiet morning, trying to explain to Carter why it had all disturbed him so deeply.
At the time, Carter had been patient with him. But looking back, James realized many of Carter's answers had been an effort to sweep it under the rug.
He'd been told it would just take time. Time to heal. Time to recover. Time to return to 'normal.'
But that was before...
"What changed?" Clandestine asked softly, causing James's eyes to snap back into focus.
He realized, now, that he'd been staring intently at the now lukewarm bowl of beans in his lap.
He glanced up at Clandestine, not sure he understood what she meant.
"What changed?" she asked again when the pause went on for too long. "When did you stop fighting mages? Did you quit after that?"
Something inside of him writhed as Clandestine clarified. She wanted to know how he went from being the man who'd killed the leader of the mage's resistance to one on the run from the law, the most wanted man on earth, and one who now, quite vehemently, hated the regime that he was a part of. Though, he supposed, even the latter had yet to be expressed in clarity. But it felt like... she was beginning to understand.
Otherwise, she wouldn't have asked when things changed.
But the problem was, things hadn't changed. Not right away.
Things had begun to shift internally, but his expulsion and escape from the army and the kingdom hadn't been immediate.
"I didn't know what to do," he said honestly, staring back down at the bowl in his lap. "It was like everything I knew - everything I worked towards... it didn't mean anything at all. Everything I'd given up just to be a soldier, and everything I'd ever fought for... I didn't believe it anymore."
But it had taken weeks for that horrifying realization to sink in. And by then...
"So if you didn't quit," Clandestine continued softly. "What happened next?"
James's mind had been in a haze. They'd moved the bodies away from the ruins, burying all but Verna, whose body was ordered to be preserved as evidence. Her body had been bound and hidden away in a bag, hauled out through the half-intact door of the dilapidated building and its decaying walls. All that remained were the bricks of the lower layers and some of the rusting steel support beams. Behind the building's foundations, they'd all begun to dig.
Because, even in war, it was only right to put the dead to rest respectfully. And it was more respectful to bury the dead than to leave them to rot, letting their bodies be picked apart by buzzards.
At least, that was what James told himself. He wondered if that provision was only to convince soldiers that they still had a piece of humanity left inside them, even after taking the lives of others, over and over.
He found himself wondering what that even meant - to have respect for the dead if you were the one who killed them.
Why not have respect for the living?
He'd been digging for what felt like hours. Perhaps, it had only been one. He only stopped digging when he heard a loud thunk behind him. Turning around abruptly, he looked back at the other soldiers, all standing in half-dug-out graves, and saw a few of them gathered around one in particular. Their shouts carried over to him.
"I think I found something," Kirk said.
He'd been a friend once. His dark, curly hair was discolored with dust. He lifted his shovel, waving to James.
"Tiberius!" he shouted. "Get over here."
James hesitated, glancing down at his hands, now caked with blood and the mud of freshly dug-up earth. He looked at the dead body of the man beside him. The man's lifeless, half-lidded eyes stared up into the sky, still bloodshot from the smoke of the lumshade James had released.
James swallowed. He hastily closed the man's eyes and climbed out of the grave, leaving his shovel behind him as he ran over to Kirk.
Carter was there too, along with Hellen and Ingrid. Hellen stood with her hands on her hips, her full fiery red hair beginning to spill out of its bun. Ingrid was behind her, tall and stony, staring down into the grave Kirk stood in with her piercing blue eyes fixed on something at Kirk's feet.
James let his eyes follow hers, and he stared at the coffin, still half-buried, that Kirk had unearthed.
"It's a coffin," Kirk said, though they all could already see for themselves.
Some of the other soldiers had started to gather around, curiously looking down.
"It's just a coffin," Carter said, sounding disappointed, and weary. "Go back to digging."
And everyone listened because Carter was the commanding General. But Kirk reached out, grabbing James's wrist as James began to turn away.
"Wait," Kirk said. "There's writing on it. It's not in common."
That made Carter hesitate, turning back around even as the others dispersed.
James stared down at the coffin, eyes unable to focus on the dust-covered engraving that was carved onto the front.
He glanced at Carter. Carter turned to meet his eyes.
"It's an unmarked grave," James said quietly.
It was unusual, but not impossible.
Carter seemed to mull it over. Then he nodded, pointing his chin down to the coffin.
James hopped down beside Kirk, kneeling by the coffin. He reached down, brushing the engraving with his fingers to clear away some of the dirt crusted in the spaces between the different characters.
James wasn't the only one who spoke multiple languages among them, but he probably knew the most. He understood, upon seeing the letters, why Kirk hadn't recognized the language.
It was a dead one. One that had died along with several others during the calamity. He only recognized one character: one that he knew read: "dragon."