Posted by Darth Krzysztof
Josephine found the frozen ground as hard as the Motherland herself, but in time, it yielded enough to her pickaxe and shovel to form a tiny grave.
She spared an occasional glance back over her shoulder at the fortress they’d secured. She still had an hour before daybreak; with any luck, she’d be done before her men awoke. Some part of her wanted to rush through this, to get back inside and curl up beside the fire. The moaning wind simply ignored her winter cloak to numb her every nerve… but she had a job to do, and she would never, could never, place her own needs before duty.
And Aurelia deserved better.
She laid her tools next to the hole and trudged back to the gate, stamping to return sensation back to her feet. A Nyss elf would think nothing of this misery, she thought for the hundredth time… but Josephine was an Iosan elf. And Llaelese. And Khadoran. Truth be told, she didn’t know what she was.
“I’m a soldier,” she muttered aloud.
She took a knee and carefully pulled the linen-wrapped bundle up, draping it over her shoulder. Josephine wasn’t very strong, but Aurelia’s months of malnutrition had left little of her to carry. The elf’s legs wobbled a bit as she stood and turned to bear the girl to her final resting place.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she laid Aurelia beside the grave and kneeled beside it. “I can’t claim that I knew you… but I know you deserved so much more than this. We… I can’t take you back to Korsk. But I’ll find your family there, and I’ll tell them your story.” She would spare them the grisly details about what happened to Aurelia’s parents, and the horrors that Razor-Tooth and his crew had visited upon her… no, instead she would tell them about Aurelia’s cleverness and bravery. Khadoran hardiness was the stuff of legend, but not everyone could have survived what she had.
And to have all that stolen by a sniper, a sniper her unit could have stopped back in Ohk…
The tears came again, still unwelcome. Jo’s mistake (and she was responsible for her fireteam, which made it her mistake) had cost this young woman her life, and she would have to find a way to carry that.
“I’m so sorry,” the elf said again, reaching down to unwrap Aurelia’s face. The girl was pretty, or would have been, in a life less harsh. “I hope that Urcaen is kinder to you than this world was.” Aurelia worshiped Morrow, of course – and favored Ascendant Ellena, going by the simple wooden disc held around the dead girl’s neck by a leather cord – and was certain to find a place in the afterlife.
Of course, Iosans knew better than to expect such comfort when they died, for their gods had abandoned the Veld. Without Ayisla to weigh her worth, who could say what would happen to Josephine’s soul?
Her Seeker parents had left Ios hoping to answer that question, but only got as far as Llael before Mother’s death left her father with little choice but to settle down and raise their child. The Llaelese came to accept Josephine, in time, as did the invading Khadorans… accepted her, but never embraced her. It fell to Nastassia Sokolov to embrace Josephine, and both of them had paid dearly for the privilege.
“I think that’s what wounds me,” she told Aurelia. “Something about the way you spoke to me reminded me of her. You didn’t mind that I was an elf, or Llaelese. You didn’t know of my disgrace, and I doubt you would have cared if you did.” She dabbed the corners of her eyes with one gloved hand. “I wanted to save you… more than I wanted to complete my mission, even. But fate always reminds me that I should never want what I can’t have.
“You don’t know what I’ve sacrificed to prove my loyalty to the Motherland. My men don’t know. They can’t know.” Especially Specialist Ostavil, that knave. “I don’t dare speak of it, not even to you. But if I did, you would never doubt me again. And you would not begrudge me what I’ve been denied.”
It’s a Hell of your own making, Josephine reminded herself. And at least you’re still here. Poor Aurelia will never know a love like the one you’ve lost.
She knew better than to feel sorry for herself, but couldn’t keep herself from feeling sorry for Aurelia. Still kneeling, she leaned forward and kissed the girl’s mouth, the lips cold and pale as the moon. She stopped fighting back her tears.
“Farewell, Aurelia Dovenkoz,” Josephine said. “I will never forget you.”
She filled in the grave and headed back inside as the sun appeared behind the fortress.