Jonham, Lord Gyldrane runs into trouble when his gambit to deal with the threat from the railroad runs into a roadblock and he must figure out who his friends really are...
Chapter 4 of The Road to Mandalay sees Jon's world start to come apart as the various intrigues of his frontier outpost come home to roost. No smut here, sorry, but we'll return you to your regularly scheduled porn in the next chapter :) As always, the shepherd Spudz is responsible for all the good parts here; I take responsibility for the bad ones :)
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
The Road to Mandalay, by Rob Baird — Chapter 4, "Close to the sun, in lonely lands"
Previously, on the Road to Mandalay:
In the city of Jaikot, tensions are rising. The Carregan Transcontinental Railroad, the most powerful industrial concern of the Aernian Empire, has been hard at work. Its representative in Nishran, Rescat Carregan, shows little restraint in seizing territory for its own uses, and in currying favor with highborn castes — including the power-hungry Reth Kanda, leader of the Merchant's Guild. Lord Jonham, Royal Governor, wants to avoid conflict, and the Colonial Office is slow to respond — leaving many wondering where his sympathies truly lie.
Finally, to keep the peace, he barters with Kanda to keep the Guild in line, and negotiates an agreement with Rescat Carregan to disarm her fearsome, mercenary Iron Corps. For a moment, the city holds its breath as crisis seems to have been averted. But after disastrous omens mark a Dhamishi festival, town guard captain Vanao Barut brings word that Carregan's men have skirmished with a group of Jaikotans and that blood has been spilt. The die is cast: Jonham sends word to the authorities back home that he is taking action, and orders Vanao to arrest Rescat Carregan.
For the second night in a row, I slept little. In theory, Rescat Carregan had promised to turn over the Iron Corps' weapons that morning, but this was clearly no longer in the cards. What remained to be seen, however, was what she intended to do instead. My guess, since they were still substantially outnumbered, was that she intended to fortify her little encampment until some proper blood could be shed.
By the reports that I'd heard, the railroad had been extremely productive: in five weeks of construction, they'd put down a hundred and twenty miles of rail. Presuming they traveled a relatively straight line, that put them as far south as Turthen-Kaya, near the edge of Nishran. And if most of their work was being done outside Jaikot, that explained why they'd been causing so little trouble in the city.
But Turthen-Kaya was nearly far enough to make a railroad profitable, and that implied preparations for the first actual trains were now underway. How else to commemorate that besides blowing up a marketplace or two? And establishing a depot at Akkuram, to transfer goods barged down from the north and load them onto the railway cars.
As I pulled on my boots and headed out the door for the Colonial Office, it struck me that they were further along than I'd really grasped. Of course, it was easy going on the gentle banks of the Ajirandigarh; they would soon run into the valleys south of Nishran's border, and more thickly populated towns — but they still had plenty to show for what they'd done.
Outside the building, a horse had been tied up, which was one more horse than usual. That implied visitors. This was, alone, not a good sign — but the horse also appeared to be well taken care of, and that suggested its owner was of reasonably high station. Shishi nobility, or what passed for it.
Life, I was learning, was not inclined to grant me any favors.
Fortunately the visitor turned out to be Vanao Barut, who was waiting patiently in a rattan chair by the door. Raiza Serapuri lifted his head at my entrance; then, as though I had not noticed the big tiger lurking, he dipped his muzzle gently to indicate Vanao's presence. It scarcely seemed possible that it had been only twelve hours since I'd asked him to arrest Rescat Carregan, and Captain Vanao didn't look like he'd slept any better than I.
"Well?" I decided to start from an optimistic possibility. "Is it done?"
Fair enough. "Why not?"
"They've brought another platoon of men up, kajja. The park is... well-protected."
Yes, this made sense — from a strategic point of view, at least. Ever since Carregan had set her men up in Petrao, a park along the river near war Hadesh, I'd been watching their increasing segregation from Jaikot. "What do you intend to do about that?"
Captain Vanao looked over to Raiza — trying, I suspect, to decide how best to interpret the tone of the question. "I fear that, at present, they might choose to resist. There are enough of them, and they certainly have... impressive weapons..." I do not, he meant to say, enjoy the thought of dying senselessly on your account. Kajja Jonham.
While the sentiment was understandable, he had done little to answer my question. "And what, I ask again, do you intend to do about that?"
The tiger stretched out the fingers on his massive paws. He was examining the sharp claws that tipped them, and I knew how he felt — the gulf of powerlessness between the sharpness of one's fangs and the reality of one's condition. "Two of my patrols are still out. When they return, we'll outnumber the railroaders six to one. As a show of force, it ought to be enough..."
"Five days, kajja Jonham. Kajja, I don't want to wait any more than you do..."
I growled my displeasure. "Particularly since every day we wait means another day they can reinforce their position. Have you scouted it out, captain?"
He nodded, and reached into the pocket of the rather splendid greatcoat he wore in defiance of the rising temperature that morning. His paw returned holding a piece of paper, which he unfolded into an expertly sketched map.
By his reporting, the railroad numbered nearly a hundred men, and almost half of them were under arms. They had put up barracks of thick, roughly hewn wood and solid earth walls — insulation against the heat — and a solid wooden barricade that fenced the Petrao compound.
The good news was that the close quarters negated the traditional Iron Corps advantages in artillery and long-ranged firearms. The bad news was that it was still a fortress, and one never profited by assaulting those. "If we had to take it by force..." Vanao trailed off. "It would be a bloody affair, kajja, on both sides."
"Fire would do it."
"But with the unpredictable winds... it's rather close to the buildings nearby. I don't think we could prevent a fire from spreading to the surrounding neighborhoods, kajja."
"They can rebuild," I grunted. Again Vanao and Raiza exchanged glances, and this time the mongoose opened his muzzle to speak. I lifted a paw to cut him off. "Of course it's not an option. I know that. But the longer we tarry, the harder our task becomes. I'll be quite honest — between myself, you two, and the four walls here — I don't expect a decision from my homeland to come promptly. If they choose to help me at all."
Vanao nodded. "If I secured the harbor, and the southern roads, we could at least prevent them from moving in any additional supplies."
"Remember, kajja," Raiza added, "she's under the same limitations as you are. If she sends for aid, it's a day's ride to the next major town, and even if they have what she desires, it's at least another day back."
"But if we close the checkpoints we reveal our plans to them," I grumbled. "Though... I suppose they have to know there's going to be consequences." I shut my eyes and took a deep breath; the sigh that followed was mostly resignation. "You say five days for your patrols to return. That means you could be ready to move in six?"
I regretted authorizing the patrols in the first place, now — but it had seemed like such a good idea, months ago, when his men had needed work and putting a leash on the bandits and poachers in the lands around the city was a pressing concern. "Considering what happened last night, I don't think anyone would begrudge us the need for an arms embargo..."
"It would be in the best interests of the city, kajja," Vanao agreed.
"Mr. Raiza, please draft an order to that effect. For the security of Jaikot and its citizens, we'll be stopping all northbound traffic and confiscating any weapons or dangerous goods — all travelers are required to submit to inspection." It was better than nothing, anyway. "Have a second copy sent to the viceroy's office." Not that I knew what in the five hells the viceroy actually did; he had never visited Nishran during my tenure.
"Does this order also apply to the railroad?" Vanao asked. "I haven't seen a... what do you call them, kajja? A rail caravan? I have not seen a rail caravan, yet, but I've heard they're bringing one up the river... would it stop for us? Can we stop it at all?"
"A train," I said. "They're called trains, and they're nothing particularly magical. Park a wagon crosswise on the tracks, and fill it with ballast-stones. That ought to make them think twice — and yes, the order applies to them. If they think they can get a train into Jaikot unsearched, let's remind them who's in charge."
Raiza looked up from the paper on which he was writing. "Kajja Jonham, a question. You presume to search all incoming traffic, do you not?" I nodded. "Deference to the rule of law obliges me to remind you that freight inspections on non-river traffic are a privileged responsibility of the Merchant's Guild."
All I could think of, though, was the damned fortress Carregan's men were piecing together. "I'm not talking about the right to lift a few casks of wine from a caravan for your troubles, Mr. Raiza; I'm talking about the safety of the province."
"That being said, kajja..."
"Kajja, perhaps we could request the Guild carry out the inspections?"
I grunted, and shook my head firmly; by his look of relief, Vanao Barut had only made the suggestion as a formality. "I'm not letting Reth Kanda get his smirking little teeth in this one. Your men will take charge of the inspections — and I want you to make sure they're trustworthy."
"Well, the law —"
"No. Fuck the Guild, Mr. Raiza, and fuck the godsdamned law. Do you understand me?"
The mongoose stared at me, his ears wavering. Then he looked to the nib of his pen, hovering in ominous pregnancy above the crisp page — then to me again. His muzzle opened, as if to make reply, but without a word he returned his attention to his task, and began to write.
"Captain Vanao, you'll brief your men, please. The roadblocks are to be effective immediately — I'll let you know when we can open up unrestricted trade again."
He stood from the chair, and bowed his head. "Shishi, kajja." Then, turning crisply on his heel, he departed. Not for the first time I eyed the door, and its promises of escape, rather longingly.
I asked our peon to bring me a glass of kavur — alat without the rum; it was a bit early for that — and stared for a long time at the map Vanao had left. Perhaps Kanda was right: I was too nice, and too reserved. Certainly I had let the present situation slip beyond my control. Bringing it back to heel was not, I feared, going to prove terribly easy.
"Mr. Raiza." He looked up. "How are things going with the Raizari? Did you hear anything more, last night or this morning?"
"Raiza Iskainna did not last the night," he said. "That brings the total number of dead to six. My sister tells me that Raiza Arri will have to have his right arm removed. As skirmishes go, it appears to have been... somewhat one-sided, kajja gavanar."
"The Iron Corps is an elite army, Mr. Raiza. One does not face them down easily."
This, at least, was what I had heard. I had never seen the railroad's Iron Corps in operation; for the most part, they existed to protect the assets of Carregan Transcontinental, and that saw them posted out to the desert, and in the furthest reaches of the Aernian frontier. There they did not fight their equals, and perhaps it was not so surprising that they had earned a fearsome reputation as a result.
Of course, much of it was darker. There were, for example, rumors that they poisoned desert wells, and dynamited oases to force the natives to surrender. There were not, troublingly, any rumors of native prisoners, which set one's mind to wander as to what had become of them.
They were not a force that I would've chosen to provoke, in any case. "It's a little odd," I said, when my assistant did not reply, "that the Raizari would choose to form a citizen's council in the first place. It's not in their rights to do that. You said that they had heard Akal Bheez's killer had gone free, but... that wasn't public knowledge."
"Rumors travel quickly here, kajja."
"Rumors have to start somewhere."
The mongoose remained impassive. "I didn't start it." I lifted an eyebrow, keeping him fixed in my gaze. "Perhaps I failed to deny it with sufficient vigor, kajja, when asked. But it's hard to suppress such rumors when they are, after all, the truth."
"None of your caste sought sanction from you? You know, some might've assumed that having you in the Colonial Office would make it easier to overlook a transgression like forming their own committee. Particularly if they had been successful, rather than prematurely discovered."
"I didn't know it was happening before it happened, if that's what you're asking, kajja. My loyalty is to the Royal Governor and the governor's office, not to my shekh."
It strained credibility that Raiza Serapuri, who was always one step ahead of all the political games in the city, would not have known what his own caste was doing. But what would it profit to call the man on such a thing? I filed it away for my own reference, and we waited for news from the guard.
The air in the office had the same ominous, electrical tension as it had held at the festival the night before; Raiza had never been particularly garrulous, but the silence in which we ate our lunch was eerie, and eventually I found myself compelled to break it. "Mr. Raiza, where did it go wrong?"
The mongoose had his paw dipped in a bowl of rice; it was the habit of the shishis to eat without utensils. He ate carefully before answering. "When she came here, kajja, you asked me to stop you from tearing her throat out."
I tried to remember what slight, even, had brooked this response — doubtless something now trivial by comparison. "I should not have asked."
Raiza smiled: "And I should not have stopped you. Kajja, you've often asked me if I wanted to share some alat with you. Do you suppose now might be the time?"
Rather than having the assistant make it, he sent the otter down the street to purchase two mugs from the corner vendor. It gave us a few more minutes alone, and we passed the time in staring blankly at our desks. For once, even Raiza seemed unmoved by the dense bureaucratic paperwork.
Our peon returned, bowing graciously, and handed a mug to each of us in turn. "Your people offer some... some statement, before a drink, don't they, kajja? I propose we drink to all that we have done, and all that we will do..."
It was not without some sinister overtones, this toast, but neither of us seemed in a chipper mood. "To that, then," I consented. "Gods willing, we're making the right choices."
The mongoose lifted the mug to his lips, and downed half of it in one long, unhalting pull. When he set it down again, his whiskers were laden with alat. For once I was the more demure one; I took a careful sip, and savored the cool sweetness on my tongue. "Thirsty, Mr. Raiza?"
"I do not indulge often," he replied. "So when I do, I must make the most of it." A second drink polished off the mug, and he raised his voice to call our assistant back. "Nurun! You would, I think, do well to ensure our glasses are not dry. It is a task to be carried out with... great diligence."
Our young peon seemed at least as surprised as I had been, but he took the empty mug back and stepped towards the door. His paw was upon the handle when it turned of its own accord, and the door swung open. Vanao Barut stepped past the otter, nudging him aside roughly without offering apology and without bothering to shut the door.
"Captain?" I was not used to seeing him so agitated.
"We have a crisis," he said, flatly. So chillingly emotionless was the statement that our assistant paused on the office threshold to listen.
"You have a crisis," Raiza answered. "I have a drink. Or I did, before you interrupted kajja Jonham and myself in —"
Vanao gained the desk in two large strides, and pressed a folded piece of paper into Raiza's paw. When the mongoose was insufficiently hasty in taking it, the tiger growled sharply and shoved harder. "Read it."
Grumbling, Raiza Serapuri took it from the captain and unfolded it in deliberate movements. "What are you burdening us with, Barut?" But with every word he read, I could see his expression shift further from crossness into astonishment. "This is absurd."
"One of these was delivered to the central office of the town guard. And the bank. And the serai. And two dozen other places."
"Do either of you mind telling me what it says?" I asked.
"It's a short declaration, kajja. It reads... ah... how do I translate? ‘The ill omens have left us with no other option to protect ourselves. Owing to the illegitimacy of the Colonial Office, we the citizens of Jaikot have revoked its authority without further delay. A ruling council is hereby convened, and meets immediately in the atrium of the temple of Ajishama.' Some prayers follow. They are not meant sincerely."
There had been uprisings before, and in other towns, but this one came at the worst possible time. I felt my blood chilling my veins, and scarcely heard the conversation that followed — until Vanao explained the provenance of the declaration. "It was given to me by Reth Kanda's son. Along with this..."
Another document. Raiza read it over, and then raised his eyes to look between Vanao Barut and I. His expression did little to calm me. "What is ‘this'?"
"It is a warrant for your arrest, kajja. From said ruling council, apparently."
At least they were handling things bureaucratically, instead of fetching the torches and pitchforks immediately. "On whose authority," I asked, as coolly as I could manage under the circumstances, "are these orders being issued?"
Raiza furrowed his brow as he scanned the bottom of the warrant. "The signatures on this document come from shekh Reth, shekh Ivasha, and shekh Atta-Farash. So I presume, kajja Jonham, it would be the authority of the Merchant's Guild. Nor do I presume they act entirely alone."
"Carregan," I growled.
"Two Guard buildings have been seized," Vanao Barut confirmed, "by a mob armed with very powerful weapons. The Rethaya and their allies have also taken over the serai at Alan-Até and compelled the surrender of my men there. Skirmishes are reported in war Hadesh, war Kanhai, and the southern bridge."
"And the park in Petrao?"
The tiger set his jaw; his tail snaked and twitched. "I have been forced to withdraw two blocks to the north, at the edge of Hadesh. They fired warning shots from some sort of... cyclical cannon. My men described it as terrifying — they said remaining would have been... suicidal."
I drummed my fingers while my brain called up such mental maps of the city as I possessed. Alan-Até was at the north end of Jaikot; Hadesh, Petrao and the bridge were close together on the other side. This foretold encirclement, and that was a terrible position to be in. "How many men do you have?"
"Two hundred and forty, kajja. That I can rely on in this case, maybe a little under two hundred. Most of them have muskets, at least. We could send word to Fort Shandur..."
"This will long have been decided by the time the dragoons arrive," I told him grimly. "What of the militia you said the Raizari were raising?"
"Another thirty men, perhaps — most of them disorganized rabble. But if it's demanded of them, the Raizari will stay loyal. So will shekh Akal, shekh Krad, shekh Uchorita, shekh Matah — probably the Mazareenhalaya, as well. And the Vanaori, of course."
"Of course." Not that I could really trust anyone, but Vanao Barut had his heart in the right place and that made him the closest thing I had to an ally. "Against the wealthiest shekhs of the city, and their patrons — and the guns of the railroad. It'll be close-run..."
"The western towns are safe — the Rethaya don't have much influence there. But along the caravan routes... I would not be surprised, kajja, if they have already established control in Namchar Abbam and Aloro, to say nothing of Ghanur or Bharasit-Rai."
Bharasit-Rai, the home city of shekh Reth, had always been difficult to deal with. Vanao Barut was pessimistic, but likely correct. "Probably. What of the west, then? The farmers in Jaletka and Undruyal won't want to give any aid to Carregan or Reth Kanda. They could be armed relatively quickly."
"True," Vanao nodded. "We could get a runner to Jaletka and back in a day or two. I think we could hold out that long here."
My native liaison had remained quiet to this point; I had considered this a consequence of the alcohol. But in the urgency of the situation, the mug of alat had not slowed Raiza Serapuri's mind: the mongoose's voice was honed by deadly seriousness. "Kajja, with due respect. At best, you're talking about a power struggle between the poorer castes and the landed elite. At worst, what you're describing is outright warfare between the shekhi."
"What's the other option, Mr. Raiza?"
"I'm not speaking in terms of options, kajja gavanar," he said, more gently. "I'm merely pointing out that if you spark a conflict against the Rethaya and their allies, the city will collapse. The farms around us will burn; the irrigation channels will run red with Dhamishi blood. Reth Kanda will not go easily — nor, I think, will your vixen friend, kajja Jonham."
The image that suddenly filled my mind was of the ceremony from the night before — the lightning, and the driving rain, and the inexorable stain of the altar's mud spreading, snuffing out the candles that ringed it one by one. A storm, raging beyond the control of those who had willed it into being.
"— could at least make a good stand of it," Vanao was saying. "Perhaps long enough for the RFC to reinforce the town guard."
"But Mr. Raiza's right," I admitted; my voice sounded far softer than I'd wanted. Less sure of itself. "And how many of your men will stay loyal when they're asked to shoot their own kin?"
The tiger did not answer the question I had asked. Instead, he posed one of his own: "You mean to surrender?"
We of the Marches did not do such things; I shook my head. "No. As long as I'm a free man, the Royal Governor's office is the only legitimate authority in Jaikot, and the province beyond. But I'd be a damned poor governor if I set this city ablaze to prove it, and I'm hearing from you, captain, that you can't put Reth and Carregan down without drawing half the city into open combat. Or is that incorrect?"
"Not... with the men I have at my command now, no, kajja Gyldran."
"Then we'd just be throwing away lives. Carregan is seizing power — quite baldly, at that. Anyone can see it. My government will have to act. Until then, we can... broker a ceasefire to prevent any further bloodshed." If the shishis wanted to see that as a sign of weakness, so be it: I had no problems with making a final stand, but not for something so futile. "There's no point in fighting to the death — not if we don't have a chance of winning, and I'm not stupid enough to think we do. We should remove ourselves. To Surowa, perhaps."
"If you wish to withdraw, kajja, you'll have to move quickly. I'm sure they're coming here — and in quantity, My Guard will not be able to hold them off."
Fortunately there was little in the office that I truly cared about. I rose, and reached for my saber, feeling a momentary pleasure at its reassuring weight in my grasp. "Then let's go."
Vanao nodded crisply, and leaned his great body out the open door to glance down the street. I rummaged through my desk, grabbing my coin box and my pen and the maps I had been accumulating. It wasn't until I closed the drawer again that I noticed Raiza remained seated. When he saw me looking, he opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came for several seconds. "I... will not be joining you, kajja," he finally said.
"I can't leave this city to its fate, kajja. You're leaving, and you... you mean to bring war back to Jaikot when you return. I understand the reasons, but I have to do what I can to keep things safe here..."
Vanao Barut had stepped back inside, and now he narrowed his eyes warningly at the mongoose. "Marshaya kutha sar? Jonnam kshurana kao-da vahapni."
"Bulla Jonnam-ka ke... kelitatta, wa —"
The tiger lunged forward, and appeared to have just barely checked a desire to pounce. "Ahura vicha khurda, gunda shali! Ghurda ni rumuna kiprani hutha jat gaikom —" Sputtering, he cut himself off, and snarled through bared teeth. "Tell him what that means! Tell him what that means, Serapuri!"
Raiza did not sound happy. He spoke haltingly through his explanation. "Ghurda ni rumuna kiprana hutha jat, gaikom svatham kurakita rumunan? It's an old phrase. It means... it means, ‘bear the thunder with a smile when the cave growls the same.' They tell it to children. We tell them not to seek shelter from a monsoon downpour in a cave — it might flood, it might collapse; it might be home to wild beasts... and you already know what to expect from the thunderstorm."
The sentiment, if not the words, was something Aernian children had heard often, too. "Back home, we'd say... ‘better the devil you know, than the one you don't.'" More wisdom from my mother.
Not any more at ease, Raiza Serapuri dipped his head and avoided looking at either of us. "Yes, kajja. I... would not call you a devil. But still, I... I find that I can't leave my post here. I know it may not be the honorable thing to do, but —"
"And when were you known to care anything about honor, you grubby-pawed thief? Par hashti!" Vanao snorted.
I attempted to be more reasonable. "He's right, though, captain. Nobody knows the city as well as he does. If Carregan and Reth Kanda think they can keep their paws on the reins, they'll need somebody like him." And for all his faults, I couldn't think of someone I'd be inclined to trust more than the mongoose. "What of you, Captain Vanao? The same could be said for the Guard — they need leaders."
"The Guard will not obey. They might desert their posts, but they won't report in uniform to these usurpers." The tiger, who appeared to view Raiza's decision as an outright betrayal, kept staring through slitted eyes at the man. "There are still men left in this city with a sense of loyalty, kajja."
"We should be going, in that case. If we want to avoid causing a scene, we'll have to be careful."
"Before you depart," Raiza spoke softly; he reached into his desk, and handed me an envelope. "I think you'll pass through Alan-Paivir. If you do, give this to the mayor." It was stamped with a wax seal; I didn't bother to open it before sliding it into the pocket of my trousers.
"Ready?" Vanao demanded.
"Yes." And I patted the saber at my side, for effect.
"Kajja?" I was nearly at the door, and turned to find our young peon standing nervously next to my old desk. "I... I would also come with you. I've... never fought before, but I can carry a sword... or your messages... or..."
For a moment, I could think of nothing worthwhile to say. But before the young man could take this as a slight, I realized I lacked an answer to the most basic of questions. "What's your name?"
"Mazareenhal Nurun, kajja."
"How old are you, Nurun?"
The otter looked to his feet. "Eighteen, kajja."
I'm not sure why, exactly, the shishis felt the need to exaggerate their age to me; Kajrazi had done the same, but it wasn't as though I was a particularly aged man. Was I? Twenty-six hardly seemed ancient. "How old would your mother and the town records say that you were?"
Mazareenhal Nurun swallowed, and continued to examine his webbed toes. "Twelve, kajja." He had served as our peon for the last two years, at least.
I glanced over to Vanao, who shrugged his shoulders in a quick, impatient jerk. "Nurun, I won't say that twelve is too young to die for something. But it is too young to die for something without knowing what it is. Stay here and help keep Mr. Raiza in line. I'll send for you when the time is right."
It wasn't the answer he wanted, but it was the only possible answer with any modicum of sense. Capricious as we living gods were, it would not do to send a twelve year old into battle — no matter how eager. He bowed deeply. "Shishi, kajja."
So I did, at least, still have some allies. And, really, I didn't actually fault Raiza Serapuri for staying. Some of it was disloyalty, and some of it was cowardice, but no small measure was probably genuine: someone needed to keep the city from falling to pieces, and his scheming intellect was a good check on the baser forces of chaos.
Vanao Barut left me at the door to my compound, saying he was going to check in with the Guard. I paused before entering — the city seemed unusually on edge and, yes, if I listened carefully I could hear the distinct sound of distant gunfire.
Kajrazi leaned around the corner from the kitchen and then stepped out to meet me, her head at a slight cant. "Kajja? What's going on? A man was looking for you, a tiger — a Guardsman, I think."
"Vanao Barut, yes. He will be returning shortly." The firefox, demonstrating a perplexing failure of pattern recognition, was wearing a short-cut dress beyond which her thick tail curled in aimless patterns. But even had I been in the mood to give her another lesson, I lacked the time: "we're leaving."
"For... how long?"
"Indefinitely. Grab whatever you need to travel, and be ready to go in a few minutes. And get the horses." I left her behind while I went to the den to collect the few papers that had any meaning to me. I was stuffing them into a satchel bag when, on reflection, I realized I had no reason to be taking the firefox along with me. And, after all, she would only slow me down, her and her damnably short legs.
Of course, in all probability she had no great desire to accompany me, particularly down towards Surowa. She would be even less welcome in the Dhamishi capital than in Jaikot. Well, I would cross that bridge when I came to it. For now, I needed to settle my affairs. I unwrapped the aetherscope, aligning the runes to connect it to Atta-Farash Irzim, and waited.
"Good afternoon, kajja. Do you bring more good news from the city?"
"I must be getting too predictable, if you can tell already. Have you heard anything from the railroad up there, major? Has there been any more odd behavior by the mountain folk?"
"No, kajja." The panther turned his aetherscope, so that I could dimly see the map he maintained. "It's been quiet — only the usual from our patrols. Why do you ask?"
"Reth Kanda and Resc... and Carregan Rescat have decided that they are no longer allied with the colonial government. I believe it was Carregan's idea, but the Dhamishi muscle is coming from the Rethaya, and some of their less savory friends. They've taken over a few of the Guard offices, and the commander says he can't contain them without calling up the militias."
"What will you do, then?"
"I don't want to destroy the city. I'll decamp to Surowa for now, to speak to the viceroy, and consider my options from that point forward..."
"Then you haven't been... formally recalled?"
"No, major." As much as I wanted to, I couldn't quite keep the bitterness from my voice. "No, this is purely a citizen's endeavor. As I said, officially the Merchant's Guild has spearheaded a sudden movement to overthrow the local government — but Carregan's heavy weapons have been a key part of their persuasion, and she shares goals with Reth Kanda."
His brow furrowed deeply. "That sounds like a corporate coup..."
"Does it not?" I asked drily. "I will not officially yield the position of Royal Governor until I'm told to by the king, and King Chatherral has not seen fit to do that. ‘Coup' would definitely be a word one might use."
"And the viceroy will support you?"
This was not as easy to answer as I would've liked. I knew little of Næten Alenor Temisia except by what he had done in Dhamishaya, which was very little. The Temisians were one of the oldest families in Arrenshire, one of the western lands, and prominent in the Old Council — the western Aultland's answer to my own Gelandermote. But the Duke of Sidley himself was old, and ineffective. "I don't know where Lord Sidley's loyalties are, exactly. But challenging the royal government is a threat that will have to be answered."
"The Royal Army has a garrison at Surowa, do they not?"
"At Fort Marskirk, yes. All they would need is an order." As with anything in these troubled times, I could not guarantee what the King's Own Army would do — nor who commanded the unit. "I'll speak to them when I arrive."
"Might I suggest something, kajja Jonham?"
"What is it?"
From the intensity of the light that fell on him, the day was brighter where Atta-Farash was. I tried not to take this as metaphor, but it called attention to his eyes, and the clarity of the panther's gaze. "Whatever may be said for Surowa itself, the southern passages to get there aren't safe to travel. If the Rethaya and the railroad are conspiring, then they'll have patrols out on every road between Jaikot and Turthen-Kaya... probably watching for you specifically."
"I can take care of myself, Mr. Atta-Farash..."
"I have no doubt of that, kajja Jonham," the panther replied. "But the Colonial Governor would be a valuable prisoner, would he not?"
"A Hærex-Sutheray is a corpse before he is a prisoner," I answered with a growl. "And I intend to be neither." Although, even as I spoke to the major, I could hear the sounds of distant gunfire building in intensity. "Where would you have me go?"
"Fort Shandur is safe, and the Royal Frontier Corps is loyal. At least the conspirators have no sway here."
"An Atta-Farash has signed the declaration of self-rule, you know," I pointed out. "And Mr. Raiza told me once that the Merchant's Guild has the ear of your caste's elders..."
"Some of my shekh have... gone astray, no doubt..." Despite everything I could not help my smile at the way the panther phrased it, and the pained look in his face — I had felt the same way as a youth, defending the behavior of my clan to my betters at school. "But I am not one of them."
"Fair enough," I said. "I meant no slight. I'll consider your offer — for now, keep your men watching the great bridge, and stay alert. If Nishran comes to civil war, I don't know when reinforcements can be expected."
A curt nod answered me. "Shishi, kajja. Safe travels."
I packed the aetherscope away again, and left the den with my belongings wrapped in a tight bundle. I had brought little of value to Jaikot: the papers that assigned me to the governor's office, and a wax-sealed letter from my father to be opened on the event of his untimely demise, and the beginnings of the epic poem all men of the Marches are supposed to have cause to write on their accomplishments. Mine was rather scanty.
Some royal gold, my seal; an ornate compass that pointed the way back to Tabisthalia. A gvartel feather, secured in a silver locket engraved with my family's coat of arms. I rubbed it with my thumb, for luck, and closed the door behind me.
Kajrazi was waiting, with a bundle of her own and a confused look on her face. "The horses are saddled and ready to travel, kajja, but..." The firefox's ear flicked. "Kajja, are those... fireworks?"
"After a fashion. Reth Kanda and the Merchant's Guild have decided to seize power. Not everyone agrees with this decision — certainly I do not — but I am not in a position to fight them. So I'll be headed to Surowa, for a time."
"I... see, kajja."
I was about to explain that she did not need to feel compelled to come along with me when someone knocked sharply at the door. Hand on the hilt of my saber, I opened it to find Captain Vanao again, and a dozen of the Jaikotan Guard. "Kajja. You're leaving?"
"Good. Carregan Rescat is on her way, kajja, and she does not mean to let anyone stop her."
"Rescat? Not the Guild?"
He shook his head. "No. The woman herself, and several of her sujetaya. I attempted to contain them on Bhiran Jhateh Street, at Ka Dhoor. The Guard have a station there."
"They set fire to it. Three men of the Guard dead, and ten more injured. We've lost the Adrukhal bridge, and the heights of Ka Ulam. The Guard station in war Gani is under siege and will fall within the hour. If you intend to take your leave of Jaikot, kajja, the door is rapidly closing..."
"The road south of the city?"
Vanao Barut shook his head. "Rethaya men have set up a checkpoint just beyond the bridge, and I've not been able to raise anyone at Namchar Abbam." This was the next town to the south; Vanao Barut spelled out the problem, which I was already keenly aware of. "Every town along the main road is a caravan town, and they'll flock to shekh Reth and their allies without question. The only other way south would be by boat — or the railroad."
"Then they hold the highway to the north as well, I presume?"
"It is a safe assumption. Carregan's soldiers are gathering at the serai — you'd have to get by them, and I don't know what lies beyond."
If the river could not be crossed, and the main road was secured, there were not so many ways out of the city. "To the west, then?"
"Those roads are still contested. The Avenue of the Devarigunda is open at least as far as the northern slopes of Ka Ulam. You could ride west to Jaletka, and then..."
"And then what?" The Ajirandigarh formed the main artery of the province between Lake Ajira and everything downriver. From Jaletka Township there was no way to reach Surowa that did not bring me back to the river — only winding tracks that led to the farmland further west... and the northern frontier.
This was not a position of particular tactical advantage, but what choice did I really have? The noose was tightening around us, and the longer we waited, the more I asked Vanao and his men to sacrifice for my indecisiveness.
I cursed, beneath my breath, and told him my new plan: "Very well. We'll head to Fort Shandur, instead. Lord Coltharden may have a better idea of how to contact the royal government — or a response not developed at the spur of the moment."
A shot rang out, and by the crispness of the report it could not have been more than a few blocks distant. Captain Vanao glanced in the direction of the gunfire. "Shishi, kajja. If you hurry, they may not be able to seal the avenue off. I'll check them here for as long as I can. Two of my finest will accompany you; the rest shall stay here with me — enough to buy some time, at least."
Two more gunshots, and the sound of shouting, made it impractical to argue the point. While the tiger gave orders to his men, I pulled myself into the saddle. Two of the Guard had done the same; this left Kajrazi, looking somewhat bewildered, and it struck me that she would fare poorly under the regime of either Carregan or Reth Kanda.
It wouldn't do to leave her for Kanda's hunters, after all. "Saddle up, mountain girl," I ordered her, sharply enough to jar her from her confusion. Then I twisted around to catch Vanao Barut's attention one last time. "Captain, effect an orderly withdrawal from the city and order your men to regroup with me at Shandur."
"But keep our destination quiet, beyond those officers you trust — I don't want to spark a refugee exodus, nor any reprisals." He nodded. "I'll see you there."
This did not draw a nod, only an extremely grim smile. So it went. Taking up the reins, I spurred my mount into movement, guiding my small party onto the Avenue of the Devarigunda. This was one of Jaikot's wider streets, broad and tree-lined, and I could see clearly along its length.
Here I encountered two bits of remarkably good fortune. The first was that the avenue was nearly deserted — empty enough that I thought it unlikely some fool of a shishi would dart out in front of us. The second, and more significant, was that both of the Guardsmen, as well as Kajrazi, knew how to ride — or, at least, well enough.
Adjusting my position in the saddle to get comfortable, I picked up the pace to a canter. Now that I was riding again — not walking, or traveling by rickshaw — I gave thanks for the cobblestones that gave purchase to the rattling hoofbeats, and I bared my teeth to the wind that met us as we flew up and along the street. A momentary glance behind me showed that the others were following relatively close behind.
It was most of a mile to the end of the road proper — then it became a dirt track, through the slums that fringed Jaikot's western edge, and then there was nothing but the wide expanse of fields between the city and the next town.
We could make Jaletka Township in only a few hours. By evening, Undruyal, or... well, or even Alan-Paivir, if we rode quickly. Raiza, with his keen sense of Nishran's politics, had guessed the only possible route of our escape.
Damn him! Damn him, and his amra, and his wry smile, and the patronizing quietness he had always calmed me with. Kajrazi, though she had her uses, would make a poor substitute for him in the days ahead. But I would have to manage.
I was not really thinking in terms of days, anyway. Hours, perhaps. Or minutes: now that we were further away from the city center and its fighting, there were more natives about, and I had to slow to work through them, raising my voice to a shout. "Out of my way! Gods damn you, out of my bloody —"
"Sir!" Not ‘kajja,' though it came from one of Vanao's men. I turned: the guard, a bulky, scruffy-looking canine, had his pistol raised and was pointing it forward. "Ahead!"
I turned back. Shishis were hastening out of our path — but even in this chaos it was possible to see that not all of them were leaving. A handful were moving to block our way — one of them was shoving a cart whose recalcitrance stemmed from chocked wheels, and whose owner appeared to be gesticulating angrily at the usurpation.
Seeing that he would not be able to close off the road in time, the man abandoned the cart. Now he was reaching for something. A musket. His companions were scrambling to do the same. They looked to be spotted felines like Reth Kanda, which probably made them relatives. Not friendly, in that case.
And you don't point a gun at me without reprisal.
Heedless of the crowd, I spurred my horse into a gallop, loosening my body to let it take the stress of the quickening pace. Instinct gave orders to my muscles. I took the reins in my left hand. My right went to the saber. I withdrew it — leaning forward slightly to shift my balance, bracing myself —
He had lowered the musket — but who has time for fear, staring down a thing like that? Fired true, a bullet would end me before I had time for fear anyway. Sixty yards away. Fifty. I could see his young face — ears back, whiskers quivering — fingers unsteady at the trigger.
At forty yards, a puff of smoke and a spray of flame leapt from the barrel — I swear I could've almost seen the musket-ball, speeding its way to who-knows-where. Above the dying report, I heard a furious snarl, and knew that it was my own —
Just as I brought the saber down in a sweeping arc, chopping once at the unfortunate soul who had frozen in place at such a critical moment. I felt it meet resistance, and let the inertia of my horse's body help me to tug the blade free of its victim.
His companions, stunned by the speed of it all, had not bothered to fire, and with gaping eyes they turned to follow my passage — we were past them a hundred yards when I caught the crack of a second gunshot, uselessly wide, raising its impotent bark above a keening howl of shock or anguish or both.
And we were free.
An hour later, having met no further obstacles, we cantered through Jaletka Township. We drew little more than curious looks from the townspeople there, but it seemed to me that discretion would be the better part of valor. I waited until we had moved beyond Undruyal to call our first halt, in a clearing a few minutes past the town gate. I was pleasantly surprised at how natural the saddle felt, and how sore the ride had not left me.
Guiding my horse to the edge of a bubbling stream, I took a moment to pause, and collect myself. And, now that I remembered it, to take another look at my saber. I hadn't quite been certain of my aim — some years had, after all, elapsed since I'd used it last. But the keen edge was stained with red; offering a grim nod of satisfaction, I cleaned it carefully and turned back to see what the others were doing.
Now I had the chance to take in my companions for the first time. The one who had shouted looked older, and not all of his sizable bulk was muscle. He had a blunt, sandy muzzle that was starting to go grey, and when he smiled I could see that some of his teeth were missing, and many were chipped.
"Akal Shanwir," he announced. "Thirty years guard. A, ah... santharaddi padu kao diyagiri. Payak Barut-ka anga —"
"I don't speak Dhamishi," I admitted.
"He says he's the best... er..." Kajrazi, who had offered the translation, paused to consider a word. "Santharad is the Dhamishi handgun — do you know it, kajja?"
The Guardsman held out his gun for my inspection. Its barrel was long, and jet-black, lacquered to give the impression of depth. It did not seem to be a proper muzzle-loader; instead, he spun a cylinder, and as it turned I counted seven chambers, each with dull lead gleaming in them.
"He says he is the best shot with one of these in all of the Guard, for twenty years at least," Kajrazi said.
"It looks nice," I told him directly. I was not a fan of firearms, but it was hard to deny that it looked to be a fine piece of craftsmanship.
My earlier assessment of Akal Shanwir's teeth proved to be optimistic; fully a third of them were gone, but his grin that bared the rest was so eager that I forgave him for it. "He says," Kajrazi explained at the burst of Dhamishi that followed, "that he took it off the body of Karsi Tukyapitti, the famous bandit."
"I kill him," Akal Shanwir said. "With knife. Not so good with santharad. No deserve."
‘Deserve,' though, was such a foreign concept in the real world. I nodded my appreciation for the story, in any case, and turned to the other man. He was far younger, and a feline with huge spots — like I'd seen at Kanda's estate. It was a very curious look, and quite memorable, but when he introduced himself as Reth Modin my eyes narrowed.
"Does your shekh serve in the Guard? It almost seems a little too charitable of them, to do something like that..."
"No, kajja, we do not," he said; his Aernian was Ellagdran in accent, but flawless beyond that. "Or at best only rarely. I am Reth Kanda's nephew, but..."
I growled. "‘But' what?"
"We are not on good terms, kajja. My mother and Uncle Kanda are not friendly. I was to be a clerk in one of the family businesses, but... instead, now, I serve with the Guard."
"Your shekh has caused me a great deal of lost sleep," I muttered.
"I know, kajja," he said. "But I cannot apologize for them. I can only volunteer to serve with you, as I have done. Captain Vanao trusted me with his life — I led the fight against the bandits in Agiri... this morning he told me that there would be bloodshed, and that I must know what side I intended to be on..."
"And do you?"
The curiously spotted man nodded. "Yes, kajja."
In any case a man in my position could not really be choosy when it came to turning away friends. "Very well," I said. "I am Jonham Becynari Hærex-Sutheray, Viscount Gyldrane, current and future Colonial Governor of Nishran Province. I appreciate the assistance from you two in helping to mount a response to this... unfortunate setback."
"Shishi, kajja," Akal Shanwir said. He grinned again. "You fight good."
"When it comes to it," I nodded.
"Who your friend?"
His Aernian was a little uneven, and at first I thought he was asking a very broad question, indeed — and one I did not entirely wish to consider. "What do you mean?"
But it proved to be more limited in scope, for he pointed with a scarred paw in Kajrazi's direction. "Little araimura bitch. Your slave?"
The araimura in question lifted her ears, and looked between the dog and myself; when she didn't seem inclined to answer, I spoke for her. "Kajrazi is my servant. She's a native of the frontier, so I suppose in a way we are taking her home."
Akal Shanwir nodded, and then turned, nudging Reth Modin's side and muttering something in Dhamishi — the both of them laughed, and I looked expectantly to Kajrazi for a translation. The firefox had her ears pinned. "Uh. He says, kajja, that at least we will not go hungry, because ‘they make good food.' He does not refer to my cooking, kajja."
There was a rather brutal underside to Dhamishi culture that was new to me, and mostly seemed to emerge where the barbarians at their frontiers were concerned. "I'm the only one who gets to eat Kajrazi," I told Akal. "If it comes to that."
"You get us another Reth instead?" he grinned. "Cut him up like you did last one? Good too. I cook."
And this time it was Reth Modin's turn to frown, in the awkward silence that followed. I decided that we had mused long enough on the culinary predilections of shekh Akal, and returned us to the saddle.
The sun was setting quickly when we reached Alan-Paivir, named for the rapids that tumbled in agitated froth down a tributary of the Ajirandigarh. Unlike the falls at Alan-Até in Jaikot, these did not have any waterwheels adjoining them; the town was too small to have much use for such machinery.
Well, it wasn't much of a town, anyway — it couldn't have had more than a thousand residents. "Off the beaten track, at least," Modin offered. Less charitable descriptions could also have been used. But our horses were beginning to slow, and I didn't want to ride without the light.
As was shishi custom, the town's mayor had left his office for the night long before, so the meeting Raiza had suggested would need to wait. Instead, after some searching, I found an inn with a fire still burning. It was a hard, dirty place; for a moment I considered having Reth Modin pay for it, in Dhamishi coin, to avoid raising any suspicion.
But what would it do to be afraid of such things?
Unfortunately for my boldness, the innkeeper did not speak Aernian, and Modin had to speak for me anyway. One aram for the four of us, in two rooms, and with the horses provided for besides — on the cheap side, but then, we were well away from the caravan routes and they could not afford to be picky. Off the beaten track, indeed.
I was turning to leave when a figure stepped up, grabbing Reth Modin by the shoulder. The man, wearing a cloak that had once been quite expensive, looked to be a tiger. He spoke in Dhamishi, which I could not understand; Modin answered in Aernian. "It's none of your concern."
The interloper switched languages as well. "You of the Vanaori? Rethaya? Kradi?"
"I'm Reth Modin," the Guardsman said. "Why?"
"What is Reth doing with these gunda shalaya? Shame."
"Serving with a colonial town guard," I said curtly. "And under my protection."
"You?" The tiger sneered. "You is not welcome here."
"Kajja Krad Saniri," the innkeeper said, softly. "Niwar veddy kuhal..."
The tiger wheeled on her. "Quiet. You, iron man, you go. Not to stay here tonight."
I splayed my fingers, testing their limberness as long as I was testing my patience. "Perhaps another agreement could be found," I suggested.
I gave a thin smile, with bared teeth. "Perhaps you could get your sad little face out of this godsdamned room, and if I never see you again we can call it even."
"You let him to talk at me like that?" the tiger asked Reth Modin; from the way he slurred his words, I was starting to understand that he was probably drunk. "Where your honor?"
Modin looked at me, and I looked at him, and an unspoken agreement passed between us. The leopard narrowed his eyes: "Fuck. Off."
Krad Saniri, whoever he was, threw a punch that Modin dodged easily. I did not feel in the mood for theatrics: the tiger was off-balance, and so I swung at him as hard as I could, catching him in the solar plexus. He grunted, staggered back, and offered no protest when I dropped him with another blow to the head.
The innkeeper leaned over the counter to look at him, tilting her head curiously until he took a breath and she seemed satisfied that he was not deceased. I sighed. "Mr. Reth, how do you say ‘I'm sorry' in Dhamishi?"
"There are several ways," Reth Modin answered. "Not all of them verbal." Naturally. I pulled another aram out, and handed it to the innkeeper, who bowed appreciatively. And just like that, the room had gotten expensive. "Are you sorry, kajja?"
Modin kicked the prone tiger, and muttered in Dhamishi. "Jidur." This I knew, because it was a curse word. I may not have been able to apologize, but I damned well knew how to call someone a prick.
Once the horses were taken care of, I made my way up to one of the rooms — keeping an eye out that I was not being watched too closely in the aftermath of the excitement. Kajrazi followed, and sat quietly while I unwrapped my aetherscope and called out to Major Atta-Farash.
The major was not in; an older sergeant answered, and explained in somewhat broken Aernian that Atta-Farash had taken a small party south to explore the caravan checkpoints and probe their loyalty. They were also, he added, purchasing more supplies, to lay them in lest the fort be taken under attack.
Which was prudent, I had to admit. But gods, how had it come to this! How was the Royal Frontier Corps preparing for siege? How was I, the Royal Governor, fleeing from the seat of the provincial government? I had no answer to these questions, so I simply told the sergeant to send Atta-Farash my regards.
Kajrazi was being very quiet, and not terribly useful; I sent her to fetch dinner, and paced out my irritation until she returned. Walking back and forth in the dingy, ill-kept room that smelled of long years of unwashed travelers, I tried to plan out my moves.
By the end of the next day, we could be in Kshurigul Township; the day after that, Ka Malak-choti. These were small towns, well west of the main caravan track, and I could only hope that we would make sufficient progress on the old, weathered roads. Malak-choti marked the edge of civilization before the frontier — even then it would be another day's ride to Fort Shandur, and with my luck Carregan and Reth Kanda would've divined my intentions by then. If, by some miracle, they had not then I still had precious little lead on them...
And then what? At the fort, I would summon Etani Æmerlas, Marquess of Coltharden. Lord Coltharden would tell me that he had three hundred men of the RFC standing by at Fort Vindari...
And then what? With the company at Shandur, that gave us four hundred and eighty men. It would take three weeks at least to get them into fighting shape; by that time, Rescat Carregan could've put a whole division of the Iron Corps in Jaikot. But we could march down the Eastern Reach of the Ajirandigarh, away from the caravan track, and cross the river again near its mouth at Surowa...
And then what? Here I had no idea. Solicit Lord Sidley's help? Beg for men from my father? Retake Jaikot by force? Cede the whole damned province and return to Chauserlin to find something more productive to do? I had been given ample practice at being a fool, at least.
I was busy cursing again when the door reopened, and Kajrazi entered with a tray on which perched two bowls of soup and a quantity of rice. And what looked to be alat. Good girl.
"I hope you do not mind, kajja," she said softly, "that I requested a bowl for myself as well. I paid for it with my own coin."
I rolled my eyes, and when she set the tray down on a rickety wooden table I removed one of the two bowls from it. "I think I can forgive you. This time."
"Shishi, kajja," she murmured, and took the other bowl, slinking away to the far corner of the room and compacting herself into a small, ruddy presence that lapped quietly at the soup.
I attempted the same, and was immediately disappointed. But really, why would the soup have been any good? It was extremely spicy, because the shishis are too godsdamned simple for subtlety in their cooking, and there was not one thin ounce of meat in it. Some of that might've been the cheapness of the proprietor; some of it, though, was just their habit of eschewing flesh, although they could make some very nice lamb and chicken dishes when they put their minds to it.
This was made not of lamb or chicken but of tiny beans, and various vegetables, and although it was only lukewarm it still burned my tongue and throat strongly. After a few swallows I gave up, and picked at the rice instead. Even the alat was watery, and the rum was of the lowest possible quality.
"What the fuck is this?" I finally demanded.
Kajrazi looked up; her muzzle was half buried in the bowl of soup, so clearly it was not held in universal disdain. "Kajja? I do not know... what... you —"
"Do you suppose they're also feeding Modin and Shanwir like they were fucking invalids? Did they not have any meat? This is a farming town without any farm animals — is that it?"
"It... it was the soup that they had, kajja; there is nothing else from the kitchen tonight. Per... perhaps I could ask if they would be willing to make an exception, on account of your station, but —"
"Forget it," I growled. The soup was not the problem. The uncomfortable chair that I had wedged myself into was not the problem. Kajrazi was certainly not the problem. I didn't like the way the day was going, and I found irksome the thought that sabering that damned Reth boy had been the most productive thing I'd done in weeks. I took a deep breath, and tried to calm down. "Do you want mine?"
"Your... your soup, kajja?"
"No," I snapped, the effort abandoned. "My helmet, my boots, and my big swinging cock. Do you want those?"
"Yes, my fucking soup."
She was quiet for several seconds, and her ears were so far pinned I could not, under oath, have sworn that she still had any. "No, kajja, but thank you for the offer."
I slammed the bowl back on the table and got to my feet, returning to the more urgent business of pacing. "Fine. Maybe we'll get lucky and the flies will eat it for us."
Kajrazi nodded, but did not make any move to stop me. Nor did she protest when I took up my weapon again, testing my grip. Yes, irksome or not, the weight of the saber felt good in my paw. Well, at least I finally had something like a purpose in life. I set it back down heavily, and the shabby table wobbled unhappily.
There had been no artisanship in its creation, and no care taken in its upkeep. Alan-Paivir did not see many who cared about the quality of the furniture, I supposed. "Godsdamn this place," I growled, to no one in particular. And no one answered, so I said it again. "‘Off the beaten track' — far from the railroad — well, damn the fucking railroad, too."
Really I should've taken up the saber sooner. Whatever dark arts she was familiar with, Rescat Carregan would not be able to cast spells with her head removed. A missed opportunity, at which I swore, and kicked the wall in frustration. My boot left a shallow gouge in the wood, but the damage hardly seemed out of place in the disheveled inn.
Neither the destruction nor its lack of consequence made me feel any better. "Should've hung the bitch and saved us all the trouble," I muttered. That would've been decisive, if nothing else.
If I closed my eyes, I could see the vixen's patronizing smile, as she lied her way to securing just enough of a delay to execute her takeover. Which I had permitted her to do. As I had permitted Reth Kanda to sleaze his way into power. Because I had trusted that the needs of the province were paramount — and where had that gotten me? The loyalty of a few dozen Guardsmen, a horse that was just barely worthy of the term, and an unplanned vacation to the wilderness.
Ungrateful bastards. My paw clenched into a fist — still a little tender from its employment on the tiger at the bar — and I snarled my building rage to the congealing soup, and the wavering oil lamp, and the stinking confines of the room. "Damn every last one of the fucking —"
"Kajja, please don't hurt me!" My gaze shot to Kajrazi; her ears were still drawn back, and she was panting shallowly. As soon as she'd blurted this out she seemed to have decided that it was a mistake; curling her ringed tail about her front, she hugged it tightly and tried to draw further back into herself.
With me having acknowledged her outburst, she was now obliged to make reply. But it took a few seconds, and a few nervous swallows. "Kajja, p-please... do not strike me, I beg of you. O-or... or... if you must, at least, just... please do not hit my face."
For my part, I was mostly confused. "What in fuck's name are you on about?"
Had she been a little more canine, Kajrazi would've been whining; as it was, she cast her eyes down, and finally shook her head. "N-nothing, kajja. You... you may do what you like with me... I only..."
Now my anger, which had nothing to do with my servant girl to begin with, was shifting into bemusement. "I don't have any desire to beat you," I said, when ‘I only' trailed off into nothing but an uncomfortable fidgeting on the part of the firefox. "I'm not sure where you got the impression that I did."
She was still not meeting my eyes. "It is only that... in the past you had... limited yourself to... to more carnal ends. I had... become used to that, a little, and I had hoped that you might not... need to relieve your stress in more violent ways. But I know that... that I am yours to do what you want, so..."
With a pained growl, I sat heavily at the edge of the room's cot. I was beginning to gather a little of what Kajrazi's daily life was like, in Jaikot. Her previous owners could not have been especially kind: as much as I had no patience for the shishis, I at least did not nurture Nishran's hatred of the mountain folk and their predatory ways.
So I had never expressed a desire to run her down from horseback, or to kill and eat her, and I was a little perplexed that she had nonetheless perceived a secret desire to visit injury upon her. Which, presumably, the day's events had now shown me capable of doing.
"Come here," I ordered her. She flinched, and when for a moment she seemed unlikely to follow the command I repeated it more firmly. "Come here, Kajrazi." Gathering her feet beneath her, she got up, and padded over to me. "Sit."
Even more nervously, she did so, and she flinched again when I put a paw on her shoulder. Then I hugged her, gently. It was not a gesture I had practiced often, in fairness, and she resisted, her body tense. "Kajja..."
"I don't want to hurt you," I told her.
"You do not?"
"I promise, how's that?"
Very, very slowly, she looked up, and a few seconds later I felt her return the hug, the touch light and extremely halting. "I am sorry, kajja. I didn't... I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't really upset me, mountain girl. It was more confusing than anything else." A shy nod marked her answer. "You're on my good side. For the most part — I did get you out of Jaikot, didn't I? Though I'm not sure that was much of a favor..."
"It is! I was... worried," she admitted. "Urja Tinwira was happy to get rid of me. My previous owners did not keep me for long. I think... I think that if you had not been so willing... or naive of my status... I think perhaps he would simply have... disposed of me."
She flinched again. "I know you are more partial to the meat dishes of Dhamishi cuisine. But... you know, kajja, that there are... there are butcher's shops and restaurants at which a wise man does not shop..."
Maybe that was what the Carregans were doing with all their prisoners, too. I patted Kajrazi's shoulder in what I hoped was a soothing manner. "Perhaps let's come to an agreement, then. Because you do have certain uses for me..."
"Ah, kajja," she murmured. "It was not my intent to... to challenge you on this, nor to suggest otherwise. You... you may do with me as you like. I know my place..."
"Yes, yes," I agreed. "But in exchange, I promise that I will not hurt you, and anyone who desires it will have to go through me, first. And I'll keep you safe. Gods, somebody has to." Because, after all, to be the master of a thing was to accept responsibility for it.
"Until Fort Shandur?"
"Until we decide otherwise," I reassured her. We were both misfits, and outcasts need to look out for one another. Kajrazi seemed to agree, for the firefox abandoned her earlier reservation and clung to me tightly, until finally I had to push her away because I desired to breathe again. "And if you're satisfied that I'm not going to strike you, then I'm going to sleep, I think."
There was only one cot, and it was quite meager. She stood up when I did, watching me remove my jacket, and my pants, and when I dropped into the cot she remained close at hand. She was not quite to the point of looking at it longingly, but her face had a little of a begging housepet's hopeful desire to it.
I lifted an eyebrow. "What? What do you want?"
"Perhaps I..." She glanced around, looking for some alternative in the tiny room. "Perhaps I can... sleep in the chair, instead. It is only that the floor is... it is rather filthy, kajja."
"And you are, yourself, so terribly clean," I drawled. "As I've noticed."
"Don't bother with the chair." I shifted myself on the cot to make room. "You'll be uncomfortable enough in the saddle all day tomorrow."
It was a relatively small gesture of charity — small enough that I didn't have to cop to feeling slightly disturbed by the effect I had had on her earlier. And, though she perked up her ears, and her eyes brightened, she did not see fit to imbue it with any additional intimacy.
Instead, I was given a lesson in how the araimuri slept. Kajrazi tucked herself into a tight ball, curling her thick tail around her front and resting her head on it in the fashion of a fuzzy pillow. As a collie my own tail was far too short for such a thing, and I was insufficiently limber — but it was not a terrible idea, really. And, the practicality aside, even I had to admit it was profoundly adorable. Satisfied that we were both taken care of, I closed my eyes and willed myself to forget the day in its entirety.
When I awoke, Kajrazi was gone; I had my boots laced and was packing my bag again when she padded back into the room with a glass of water and some Dhamishi flatbread that would have to serve for breakfast. According to the firefox, Reth Modin and Akal Shanwir were already awake and tending to the horses.
Before we left, I intended to find the town's leader, which took us to a small building on the edge of a tiny, well-tended public square. If there had ever been an employee of the Lodestone Sovereign in Alan-Paivir, he had left long ago; now there was only the mayor, a muntjac of shekh Urja whose long fangs had been sharpened and, I thought, decorated with carvings as well. "Can I help you?"
I pulled out the letter Raiza had given me, still sealed. Slicing it open with one claw, I handed it across the desk to the seated deer. "I was asked to give this to you, by the native liaison in Jaikot."
He started to scan it; then his eyes flicked up to me, then back to the letter. As he read further, the glances became more and more frequent. The deer's mouth opened: "You are... kajja gavanar kuluniyan Herets-Suthray?"
Close enough. "Yes."
"Ah!" He clapped his paws together, practically dancing. "Kajja gavanar! By the gods! Oh, how fortunate we are to see you — when — when did you arrive?"
"Last night, just before twilight. You had gone home already."
"Apologies! A thousand apologies! So you slept... where?"
"At the inn, over... that way," I waved with my paw in its general direction; there could not have been that many places to spend a night in Alan-Paivir.
"No!" he gasped, and shook his head. "Oh, that would not have been appropriate — you should have come to my house! I would make room!"
It would probably, at least, have been a little more comfortable. In any event I did not really understand what was transpiring. "I'm not entirely certain that I follow, Mr. Urja. What does the letter say?"
"Oh, this." He picked it up. "A letter of introduction, that is all — but you wouldn't mind if I kept it, I hope? It is not so often that we entertain such visitors as this... I'm sorry, you probably do not even know who I am — you must have so many important things to do — but —"
"You saved our town, kajja gavanar. The floods, every year — it has been getting worse, without the dam upriver — but that failed before you came, many years ago. I asked to have the levees repaired. They were ancient when my father first began to tend them, and beyond ancient when I took over in this village. For fifteen years, I have been asking to the Colonial Office in Jaikot! The one before you, and the one before him, they did nothing. Three years ago the monsoon flooding destroyed half the buildings here... but then..."
He grinned. Yes, yes indeed his fangs had been carved, and all his teeth were polished to a gleaming white. It was a little unsettling. "That summer, men from the Jaikotan Engineering College arrived — a dozen of them! We gave them all the help they needed, of course, but it was their expertise, and their materials... and that rainy season, the levees held."
"Ah — very good," I said — though I did not remember ordering the engineers. That was not to suggest that I had not, only that it was one of probably two dozen petitions that had crossed my desk on whatever day I had authorized it.
"We owe you a great deal," Urja sighed. "We have a Royal Post office now, and a bank — they will bring the caravans here to carry our grain, I think, in a few years' time. We could put a mill on the falls! After all, we're halfway between Jaikot and the lands of the interior — a key crossroads if ever there was one! Northwest Nishran will turn about the axis of Alan-Paivir!"
This oversold the matter a little, but he was proud of his town, and there was no reason for me to doubt either his pride or his sincerity. "I'm glad that the Colonial Office has been able to assist you," I told him.
And once again I had cause to damn Raiza Serapuri's absence. He had used me, I think; used my lack of concern, and my naïveté, and my ignorance of his province's culture and history. But he had used it to get me to do things that needed to be done, because he was for the most part a decent individual. And, though I would not have believed it a few weeks prior, I found that I missed him.
Without my knowledge, I had had a legacy created for me, which was written in the histories of the little towns that had withered without attention from the governor, and the starving underclasses of Jaikot that Raiza had manipulated me into providing for. Even, really, in the way he had compelled me to leave the city, rather than fighting block by burning block to rule over the ruins of what would've remained.
Yes. Damn him. The mayor was talking again, and I perked a folded ear to listen. "—anywhere around and they will give you aid. I wish I could do more. Better horses, at least, than these things — completely unsuited for your journeying. The last part of the note... hmm..." He stared at it, and then called over someone from the other room, another one of those ‘mongooses' that Raiza claimed to be. A quick order, and the mongoose bowed and left the office.
"What did it say?"
"A request to withdraw a deposit at the bank. It is not in your name, for some reason — but the letter claims that it contains a passphrase, which is written here... so we shall see if they match, though I do not know why this Serapuri fellow would make deposits in a fictional name.
Because he was smart, or paranoid, or both, and knew that accounts under my own name could be traced — and raided, or otherwise disposed of. "He is an interesting man. Raiza Serapuri is Native Liaison, at the Colonial Office in Jaikot. You should meet him, one day."
"I should," the mayor agreed.
The mongoose returned, bearing a nondescript wooden box. "The phrases match," he said. "But if you agree, Urja Harruk, kajja the gavanar kuluniyan Jonnam should be the one to open it."
Not a little curious, I did so, flipping the lock with my thumb and opening it up. And, since it was a bank, I was not surprised when inside the box we found a quantity of coins. They looked different, though, from the aram coin I was used to seeing — the aram was the largest denomination of shishi currency I was aware of, and the roon was the smallest.
But apparently my awareness stemmed from a position of ignorance: "These are kep coins," the mayor breathed.
"What?" I picked one up to examine it: it was small, and made of a silvery ring around a ruby disc — the gem polished to sparkling clarity by, I imagined, thaumaturgic arts. "They're Dhamishi?"
"Of course, kajja. The rate is twelve aram to a kep. Kepi are not commonly in circulation, but some use them as a store of value, I suppose. They say the gemstone of a kep is from the great mines of Kammam Kuru."
And here, Raiza Serapuri had managed to put a few hundred of them to my name, and to spirit them away in the bank of an unknown town. It was relatively minor, in the grand balance of the provincial budget, but still I found their existence surprising. "I see..."
"You could buy a ship with this," Reth Modin said.
"A small one." I replaced the coin I'd taken. "Or I could cover the wages of the Royal Frontier Corps after the paymaster's account runs dry. Thank you for your help, mayor."
The muntjac nodded eagerly. "Of course. It was no trouble. We have... we've heard troubling rumors from the towns to the east. A rider from Undruyal arrived this morning — he spoke to me just before you did..."
"The rumors are probably true," I told him. "At least... for now."
"Alan-Paivir and the lands around us will never submit to a Reth pretender, kajja gavanar. If you need anything — certainly more than a dirty room at our worst inn — you ask us. We will be here for you, just like you were here for us. And I am honored by your presence, but if they come looking..." He grinned, and his exposed fangs were joined by more of his clean, white teeth. "Then I will be as blind and deaf as a mausoleum stone. Will you ride now?"
"Yes." It was time for us to get back on the road. I took the box of coins, and slipped it into my bag. "If you would indulge my curiosity — what was the passphrase? Was it magic?"
"No, just random words." And he repeated them, in Dhamishi spoken too quickly for me to understand. Urja didn't seem to think much of it, for he shrugged. "‘They do not beat unheard'? From a poem, I think."
"Yes," Kajrazi said, before I could confess my own ignorance. "Kajja Matah Patcharna, the official poet of the latter years of Bhiran Suthi's reign. My previous owner was a fan of his work, so he beat me until I could recite the epics. And kajja Matah was the official poet of Jaikot, when it still patronized the arts — under the bhirans, kajja Jonham, before we were born..."
"What does it mean?"
"That one in particular is about a great hero of the Dhamishi, who thought that he had accomplished nothing in life, because nobody seemed to recognize his deeds. So he became a bird of prey, and now he guards the mountain passes in the valleys towards Issenrik."
"Sort of," Kajrazi nodded. "He still doesn't know that people honor him. Kajja Matah said that this is why hawks call out: The circling hunter gives a piercing cry, in challenge to a boundless reach of sky. And when the meanest echo falls, as silence great in silent halls, he still to even greater heights is spurred: for eagles cannot beat their wings unheard."