The leader picked the head up off his lap and held it up for a closer look. Androkles saw no emotion on his face, although it might have been concealed by the winged helmet he wore. He gave Androkles a long careful look, holding the head off to one side to let the blood drip out. In a flat, emotionless, voice, he said, “You have made an enemy of the King, Androkles son of Paramonos.”
Androkles gave them a quick careful assessment to make sure they had no ranged weapons, then spat, turned scornfully, and walked back the twenty paces or so to the fire. He strained his hearing to its utmost to make sure they weren’t sneaking up on him, but they didn’t try. They collected the dead man’s horse and the rest of his body and rode away quickly, without another word. He collected Wolfscar from where he hovered nearby and held him against his chest, gently stroking the top of the fairy’s head between his ears.
Only Agurne wanted to look at him as he sat, and she gave him an inscrutable expression; the others stared somberly into the fire or off into the darkness.
“What?” he asked. Agurne snorted and looked away. He wasn’t sure how to react to that, exactly, and before he thought of something, Garbi rose and came to stand in front of him. She had her eyebrows raised and knotted in concern, with her arms rigid at her sides. Stray locks of her pale hair caught the firelight and glowed like bright embers as she spoke to him. “Papa, is the King really our enemy now? Is he going to send an army?”
His own heart was slightly uneasy on that matter, but he had no intention of letting her know that. He patted her head gently and pulled her into a one-arm hug. She remained rigid instead of hugging him back, showing just how disturbed she was.
Before he could come up with something appropriately comforting, Pepper said, “Papa could probably fight a whole army himself. Huh, Papa?”
Not wanting to lie, he dodged the question and said, “I doubt I’ll have to. We’ll be gone before anyone decides what to do with us. Even if they decide to send an army, we don’t have to worry. No army can march faster than we can go traveling by ourselves. They have to get all the soldiers together, and check all the equipment, and get supplies for the road. Stuff like that. Those things take time. We’ll just keep on like we have been. Got it? I doubt they’ll even bother with us.”
Garbi said, “I thought you said armies lived in a camp and could leave right away if they have to.”
“That’s a standing army, girl. There aren’t ten civilizations in the world who can afford to keep a real standing army. They’re too expensive for inferior peoples. These people are so poor they can’t even afford a day of leisure for themselves, let alone pay a bunch of soldiers to march around and train all day. Why do you think it’s all farms and no Cities? Because they’re poor. They’re barbarians.”
His family gazed quietly into the fire for a while, thinking. Finally, Flower quietly asked, “Papa, do you always have to kill everyone?” The kit’s voice was nearly a whisper, and he sort of shrank a bit against his brother, peering at Androkles sideways.
Arkos Oathfather, he thought. My own children are afraid of me. “Well…” he began, but couldn’t think of how to put it. “He threatened you. He was going to kill me and make you into slaves. Do you want Pepper to be a slave again?”
Garbi shuddered at the thought, and the boys both had something on their faces like shame, but it was hard to tell, exactly. Androkles was certain they were holding hands and had their tails wound together under the blanket.
“Well?” Androkles said, pressing him.
“No, Papa,” said Flower meekly, with emotion in his voice.
“Neither do I. Before I let that happen, I’ll face an army by myself and win. I’ll kill another god if I have to. I’ll fight a thousand demons at once. They can hack off my arms and I’ll fight with my teeth. They can break out my teeth and I’ll drown them with my spit. I’ll never fall, and you will all survive. Got it?” said Androkles. What could be more reassuring than a declaration like that, from a man like Androkles?
“Yes, Papa,” said Flower. He did not sound comforted.
“Got it, Papa,” said Garbi. Pepper said nothing.
Dyana asked, politely, “And what if the safer route is not to kill them?”
"Were you not paying attention, fool woman? Should I have let them take you? When I take back my home and put my spear over the hearth, I can stop fighting. Not before,” said Androkles, crossly. Dyana nodded and looked away, looking smugly calm like she was wiser than he was. Not that it bothered him. What would a barbarian know about such matters?
And then it struck him that that might be the problem—his family knew him as a brutal warrior, a capable man drenched in blood, with a soft spot for them but them only. They knew nothing of the civilized man he could allow himself to be, back in civilization. What had he given them to look forward to, if all they had seen was death and war?
His children were not Laophileans, nor had they ever seen the Glories. He had shared plenty of stories of his life in the army, and the acts of the gods and heroes, and a bit of history. But it occurred to him that he had never really told them about daily life. They should know what they were missing, and what all this struggle was truly for.
He decided to try sounding a bit like Agurne, since no one was better at placating children than she was. He said, “My precious children, do you know why we’re out here? Out in the cold, facing every danger? Do you know what it’s all for?”
He waited, and after a moment Pepper answered, “Because you have to do your oath. You have to find your old wife and get your money.” The kit said it with no emotion, which belied his disquiet; Pepper was only diplomatic when he was trying to hide something. And put that way, Androkles realized how selfish this whole affair sounded, even if that oath was more precious and undeniable than his own heartbeat.
How should he explain? Had he even really sorted it out in his own mind? Androkles slowly answered, “Yes, that’s part of it. But that’s only part of it. With that money, I can buy us a large, beautiful household, the one I was born in. The law says that as long as I live, I can buy it back at any time, if I can afford it. Did I ever tell you about that house?”
No one answered, so he continued, “It has two stories, like Gotzone’s inn and almost as large, but with a garden in front and another in back. One of the only houses in the City with a garden in front. Every day, you can look at flowers planted there. There are even bushes that flower in the winter. It gets cold there, but not like here, and it never snows, so some plants can stay green. My father had those planted along the road in front of the fence, to cheer any Dikaian who walks past. The fence, by the way, is all stone with carved decorations, and it’s just tall enough for Garbi to peek over if she stands on her toes.”
Androkles sighed while he thought about it. He really missed that house and sitting on a blanket on the frozen ground did nothing to alleviate his homesickness. He continued, “The front is all marble like a temple, carved in the shapes of heroes, and my ancestors. Your fathers too, now that I adopted you. Anyway, there are images of horses, animals, and beasts as well. And even several women, like Maressa, who rescued her husband from death by daring to argue in front of a jury, even though it was illegal. Remind me to tell you about her sometime. Our women are better than most men.” He shot a meaningful glance to Agurne, but she was looking elsewhere and missed it.
Androkles stroked Garbi’s hair gently as he spoke, and she was starting to relax. The boys’ eyes grew wide and distant as their minds filled with images, which he could almost see himself. “The house is near the top of a large hill, the center of the entire City. That hill is where the Agora is, the great market. And the house of judgment, and the people’s court, and several temples, each more glorious than the other. In just minutes, you can leave that house and see the finest that Dikaia has to offer, rich goods, and fine buildings, and noble people. You’ve never seen so many people, or so many colors of cloth. You could spend the whole day watching them and not see the same person twice.” That had gotten their attention, most notably Seff. His eyes gleamed with interest; the glowing firelight lit them unnaturally, almost like a cat’s eyes, but silver. That would take some getting used to.
“And the choirs!” said Androkles, trying to think of things they would like. “Everywhere, there is music. Always. Morning until late at night. Music at every festival, at every occasion you can think of. And the finest choirs, harpists, flautists, and so on, all gather on that hill to play for the crowds. The musicians are greeted like aristocracy everywhere they go, even if they’re poor, because of how Dikaia honors skill. And not just musicians. Athletes, poets, actors, speakers, priests and priestesses, oracles, strange men from every country. You cannot even imagine how glorious it is there. That’s why we Laophileans call our home the Glories. Our Cities are the glory of the whole earth, and all good things flow into them.” Wolfscar had left his perch and was hovering a few feet in front of Androkles’ face again, enraptured by the account. He started shivering in the cold, so Androkles grabbed him and stuck him back in the blanket with Garbi.
“There are places called schools, where they teach boys to read and write, do mathematics, learn poetry and history, and many other things besides. There are even a few secret schools for noble girls that teach them to be women and manage households and other things I don’t know about because I’m not a woman. The women of the Glories! Garbi, you would love them. The moment I first saw you, I knew you’d fit right in.” That was a lie, because his homeland had been the furthest thing from his mind at the time, but now that he said it aloud, he realized that the words had a different sort of truth.
“The aristocratic ladies wear their finest any time they go out, jewels and dresses and perfumes. Always accompanied by handsome young slaves with fine tunics and strong arms, and their children. They are a sight to see, and everyone turns to gawk. You, little one, will be more beautiful and mysterious than them all. You will shine brighter than the temple gold of all Dikaia. Did you know the women keep secret counsels? They do. They have an entire secret society for only women that the men must never learn about or speak of. How do you like the sound of that?”
Garbi quietly said, “I like it.” She was leaning against him now, and all the tension was gone from her body. Flower and Pepper were entranced, all prior concern now gone from their faces. Seff stared into the fire with a dreamy look on his face, listening intently.
“Boys, you can learn anything. You can be anything. As my sons, you can learn any trade. You could be anything from potters to men of letters, traveling the Cities to gather stories and write plays. You could even be philosophers. Do you know what a philosopher is?”
The kits were still for a moment, then shook their heads.
“They are… well, hard to describe, exactly. They’re men who know all sorts of mysteries, like times and seasons and the hidden things of the gods. Or at least they say they do, anyway. Everyone respects them and their wisdom.”
Androkles decided that it was time to drive the point home and hope they could understand. He said, “Now because I’m an aristocrat, or you could call me a noble, and you are my children, every door will be open to you. Fine clothing, fine food from all over the world, anything you want. You will learn to be part of a true Household, to live for the honor of the family name. The Agapatheid name, which is yours now. You and your children, and their children, all will be nobles, just like my own fathers going back many generations.” Androkles paused for a moment, his mind swimming with the recollection of too many things to recount. Conflicting emotions swirled inside him—homesickness coupled with the joy of pride.
“What about me, Papa?” asked Wolfscar, his dragonfly wings humming with interest as he hovered in midair.
“Well, you’re part of the family, and no one will keep you out of a school if you want to go. Perhaps you’ll simply want to sit on my shoulder and keep me company while I make sure our slaves are taking good care of the fields. It’s up to you. But no one in the Glories knows about fairies, so no one will want to eat you. I suspect you’ll be quite popular.”
For a while, the group sat quietly, watching the fire. The evil mood was gone like yesterday’s wood smoke, replaced by a pleasant warmth that Androkles could only suppose was what family life was supposed to feel like. But he wasn’t quite done yet. “So I hope you understand now why we’re out here. My old wife stole all of that from me, and made me a beggar. All those beautiful things, that glorious, rich life. The good name of my fathers, who built all those things and handed them down to me--that’s what I swore to get back. And you know what? I’m not even mad anymore that it happened. At least not very. Okay, maybe a little,” he said, smirking. The children all caught the humor and smiled along with him. That was a good sign.
He continued, “But if some wicked god hadn’t gotten her to do it, I would never have given my oath and come out here and saved all of you. Flower and Pepper, you would have starved to death. Garbi, you would have been eaten by the cyclops. Wolfscar, you would have had to watch, and then been left completely alone. Seff, I have no idea what would have happened with you or Dyana, but I bet you’d be frozen solid by now if it wasn’t for my oath. So be glad of that oath, little ones. It led me to you, and it’ll lead us all home again.”
Agurne caught his gaze, and something passed between them, something different than before. Something warmer, or friendlier. Not because they’d be rich someday, but because she so seldom saw the civilized side of him she hardly knew it was there.
His children didn’t take long to start overwhelming him with questions--they wanted to know far, far more than he had shared. Androkles found himself explaining everything from the food and clothing to festivals and burial rites.
The conversation lasted long into the night, but when Garbi nodded off with Wolfscar asleep on top of her head, the day was officially over. Androkles and Agurne hastily threw the bedding together and got the children into it. Seff was quite amused to see the little doll bed that Gotzone had given to Wolfscar, and when Agurne tucked the fairy in for the night even Dyana had to come watch.
After checking the fire to make sure it’d last the night, Androkles followed them into the world of dreams.