The river wound and curved its way through the grasslands, marked by occasional clumps of trees like beads on a string. The strangers had opted to camp by its bank about a kilometer away from where Ryou and Darius had stopped. Darius led the way through the darkness with such caution that it took them over an hour to creep nearer. For the last twenty minutes, Ryou could hear horses snort, stamp and whicker, and sporadic shouts and laughs. He had grown used to how dark the nights were in this land, and his eyes could lead him without too much stumbling and falling by the light of the quarter moon and stars. By contrast the pinpoint yellow light of a fire looked as alien in the distance as neon.
At one point Darius gestured at Ryou to stop and hunker down in the shadow of a dense thicket, then he crept away. He took nearly an hour to get back, stretching Ryou's nerves at every shout and outburst of laughter from the other camp.
Then Darius appeared at his side like a phantom, making him jump.
"Well?" whispered Ryou. "Are they bandits?"
Darius was staring blindly ahead in the direction of the campfire and appeared to be chewing something over. "No, worse. Deserters. Five of them. The three doing all the talking are not Imperials or Assyrian. From their Latin and the way they're drinking, my best guess is Jiroh."
"Oh. What are we going to do?"
Darius scratched his chin. Then he looked at Ryou. "We need horses, weapons and food, or we are not going to make it very far. Besides, I don't like knowing these wretches are roaming around the same countryside we are. If they ride us down in daylight, we're dead meat. It's better to take the fight to them now. They can't harm us once they're dead."
Ryou had had the feeling this was where all this was going, but Darius's curt outline of a plan to murder five people in cold blood before they could do the same to them still sent shockwaves through his mind. To think he'd once considered Darius's handling of the policeman back in Tokyo to be excessive...He really was far from home, far from law and order. But this was a fact, and one he had to deal with. So, "There's five of them," was all he said.
Darius was watching the distant fire again. "Yeah. Five bandits I could take, that kind of scumbag can't fight anything harder than helpless peasants. Five trained soldiers is a different matter. There's two standing watch, and the guy stationed near the horses knows what he's doing, at any rate. I can't get near him."
And then Darius smiled, the same smile that had haunted Ryou and dragged him to the Outlands in its wake. "It's going to be a gamble, but hell, it's a better way to go than slowly starving to death or rotting in an Imperial cell. Listen up, Ryou. Stay here and keep an ear peeled. If I beat them, I'll be back to fetch you."
"If I'm not, it'll be your turn to gamble. Use your powers to get out of here."
"The powers you specifically told me were too dangerous to use?" Ryou pointed out, keeping his voice low with an effort. "Why are you saying you'll do this all by yourself? There's five of them. And you're still injured."
"Do you know how to fight?"
"That's why I'm going by myself. And yeah, I'll be straight with you, you might end up on the outside of the world with the Furies all around you if you use your magic. But those fuckers will send you to much the same place, only it'll be longer and a lot more painful. Might as well take a shortcut. Hopefully you'll pull a real trick out of your hat and get back to your country. It could happen. You did it once before, even if it was only from the no man's land. The homing instinct is strong. Now stay here and-"
Darius broke off as Ryou grabbed him by the wrist and stopped him from getting to his feet. "Wait, there's got to be another way to deal with these people."
"Deal? Did you not see what they did to that summering camp back there?"
"You said it wasn't them."
"It'll be more of the same. Soldiers are dangerous men, magian. I've been in the army since I was fifteen, and living in barracks since I was eight. I've learned to command men, discipline them and earn their respect, and even I can't stop the occasional infighting and unsanctioned looting. Soldiers who've deserted and lost whatever control their leaders had over them are lower than dogs and more dangerous than rabid wolves."
"You were ready to cut a deal with the border dwellers," Ryou reminded him.
Darius frowned. "Yeah, because if they hadn't taken it, I could have beaten the shit out of them. They weren't fighters, just scavengers. At five against one, these guys are going to kill me if I don't get the drop on them. I'm good, but I'm not that damned good."
"So you're just going to attack them like that? Charge in and hack at them?"
"No," answered Darius with a heavy look, "I'm going to crawl nearer, wait until some of them are asleep, and then I'll try to creep in, score a weapon and slit a few throats before things get noisy."
Ryou pushed down the instinctive recoil of a civilized man at the notion of cutting anyone's throat in real life, and focused on more practical concerns. "How easy will that be? Didn't you just say you couldn't get near the one guarding the horses?"
"Not easy at all, which is why I'm telling you to get ready to run for it any way you can," answered Darius in a quiet yet steely voice.
"In the interest of both our safeties, can I offer another suggestion?" Ryou countered just as firmly.
They stared at each other for a few tense seconds, then Darius settled back down in the thicket. "I got some time to kill while I wait for them to get drunk and sleepy, so go ahead."
Darius told him his plan was perfectly stupid; so stupid it might even work, which was what Ryou was counting on. In his experience gleaned from dealing with the sales forces of multinational corporations, the bigger, bolder and more appealing the misdirection, the easier it was to get people to swallow it.
So instead of creeping towards the campfire, he stopped fifty yards away and shouted: "Help! Can you hear me? Help me!"
The sound of men getting ready to settle down for the night abruptly ceased. Then Ryou heard a succession of weapons being drawn.
"No, you stay here," someone barked in the camp up ahead. "You and you, come with me."
Ryou felt a flash of relief that he'd understood the harsh order. Darius was the only person he'd spoken to so far in this strange world, and though his traveling companion assured him that he had somehow broken the Curse of Babel, it was hard to believe. When Darius spoke, his lips moved in time with his words, yet Ryou could swear he was hearing Japanese. Hopefully the reverse was true too, and these men would not notice anything odd about his speech.
"Here, over here!" Ryou shouted helpfully, directing towards his position the feet finding their way through long grass and bracken in the dark.
Three men surrounded him a moment later. Two of them did no more than glance at him, then they turned away, eyes darting to the night around them. They were armed with strongly curved bows no longer than their arm, arrows already notched. The third man stopped in front of Ryou. He had a large chest like a barrel encased in boiled leather armor, but something about him reminded Ryou of the suit-and-tie VIPs he frequently dealt with; an air of self-assurance and command.
"Who the fuck are you?" he asked. He had a short sword pointed at Ryou's chest.
"Please- I'm unarmed." Ryou stayed kneeling, though he leaned away from the blade. "I- I'm lost, I've not eaten in days. Can you please help me? Just a bit of food..."
The large man split his time between staring suspiciously out into the night and giving Ryou a disbelieving look.
"Gex?" someone back at the camp shouted, making the horses whiny and stamp. "Don't stay out there, regroup."
Gex, if this was him, gave Ryou a piercing look. The latter met his gaze, trying to look pitiful. Finally Gex reached down and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Coming."
"What you got?"
"Fuck if I know."
Ryou made pained noises and exaggerated his limp as he was half walked, half dragged back to camp. Gex shoved him forward, sending him staggering until he almost fell into the campfire. The heat didn't dispel the chill he felt as he remembered four skulls near a smear of ashes in a pile of rubbish...
"Gex?" A man spoke tightly from off to Ryou's right, near where the horses were tethered. "If there's more, the fire makes us a target."
"I don't think there's more. Come look at this, Gaius. It's an odd one."
"Get him talking. I'm going to take a look around. Chozz, watch the horses."
One of the men grunted and marched off towards the animals without a backward glance, an arrow still notched in his bow. The last two were at the edge of where the campfire threw its light, looking dutifully out into the night. Ryou's heart was tight with tension. These men were more disciplined than he'd thought. Darius was right, this was a stupid plan. Too late to worry about that now though.
"Are you soldiers?" he asked, looking around. Three rolls of blankets were laid out around the fire, much more comfortable than the ground Ryou had been sleeping on for four nights now. The camp was littered with sacks, hobnailed sandals, a javelin resting against a stunted tree off to one side. A large uncorked jug and some flat metal squares with scrapes of food on them had been dropped near a pot blackened by the fire.
Ryou's question didn't earn him any friends. Gex acted as if Ryou had never opened his mouth, but the two men at the edge of the camp glanced back at him with scowls. One of them didn't have any front teeth left, it made the grimace even more sinister. These were certainly deserters, then, and did not like to be reminded of the fact. But it'd been a logical question to ask for someone who had not known about their camp beforehand.
"Who are you?" Gex asked him. In the light of the fire, his face and hair were filthy and he hadn't shaved in days. A huge pinkish wart the size of half a thumb hung from the side of one eye, twisting it out of shape. He stank as he leaned forward. In the light of the fire, Ryou guessed that this frightening fat man was only thirty, if that.
"Um, my name is Ujiie Ryou." He made sure to look his interrogator straight in the face and not let his eyes stray to the wart or to the other men around them. "I was traveling with an escort when we were attacked by enemies of my family. My guards were killed, but I managed to escape. I couldn't find the road again, my horse got away on the first night, um, I've been walking for days. My shoes disintegrated this morning...I didn't think I could go on, but then I saw your fire..."
Gex's gaze fell to Ryou's bare feet, the state of which did indeed bolster his claim. He looked appropriately wan and tired, and if Gex listened closely he'd hear the rumblings of Ryou's stomach at the smell of food from the pot, despite the clench of tension in his gut. But Gex seemed awfully intrigued by his outfit, too. Ryou had ditched the tie and jacket, but he'd kept the coat and shirt, and there wasn't much he could do about his pants. He didn't think he looked much like a native, especially compared to these men. There was not one piece of armor that matched another amongst these soldiers, but they definitely had more in common with the way Darius was dressed the first time Ryou had met him rather than with a Tokyo salaryman.
"Look..." Ryou licked his lips, his tension not at all faked, though he was deliberate in letting it show. "My family is rich. I don't have any money on me, I can't pay for food, but if you can- if you can escort me back to my country, my father will give you a rich reward."
"How much?" said one of the guards instantly, turning his way. Ryou felt a flutter of hope. He was here as a distraction, but the venal question itself might be a way of getting out of this without risk or bloodshed.
"Oh, my father is a rich merchant and I'm his oldest son. He'll pay one hundred aurei to get me back safely." It was the sum Darius had suggested when asked what kind of bribe would be both appealing yet believable. Ryou didn't know if this was pocket money and change he was talking about, or if it would hit the considerable limit of his visa card in local currency.
"Keep a watch out," Gex told the deserter who'd taken a couple of steps in towards the fire, eyes shining with sudden greed. The command was given absently, and he didn't repeat it when the man merely stopped where he was and only half turned back to his lookout. "So, where you from?"
"Assyria," answered Ryou. It was a gamble, but if these men could be bribed to get him and Darius back...
"Fuck," muttered the man near the horses. He'd drifted a little closer too.
Gex scratched his thick jowl, a rasping noise louder than the fire's crackle. "Hm."
"Maybe more than a hundred," said Ryou, a chill spreading through him as he felt the wisps of a chance slipping out of his hands. He didn't try to appeal to Gex's kindness. Gex had been staring at him all along, but he hadn't once looked at him in any way that suggested he thought of Ryou as a person in need of help or a fellow human being at all. If Ryou could not convince him, or if Gex thought he was in any way a danger, the man would slit his throat with less thought than he would eat a meal. Ryou had known, from the way Darius had talked about them, that these men were dangerous and callous, but now that he was the focus of Gex's attention, he felt the truth of it.
"Gex? You think he's telling the truth?" asked the toothless man.
"Does it matter?" his leader answered, eyes still moodily pinning Ryou where he sat.
"Huh? But, man, a hundred , Gex. A hundred hard ones!"
"Yeah, as long as we get him home to daddy," sneered Chozz, now standing near the rump of the nearest horse, facing outwards with a notched arrow in his bow but his attention towards the fire. "A hundred Emperors to get him back to Assyria and a nice clean rope thrown in by the Bitch King's men to go with it. We can get one aureus for him down the road, that's shorter."
"Did I hear that fucker right? Did he say he was from Assyria?" growled the fifth man, appearing out of the night near the end of the line of tethered horses. He patted one of them on the muzzle as he passed, then grabbed Chozz and shoved him off towards the back of the camp. "Stay at your post, asshole."
"Sorry, Gaius," said Chozz, cringing. He gripped his weapon and marched off towards the last horse in line.
Chozz and the two other unnamed soldiers were thin and had the fidgety movements of vermin; Gaius was more like Gex, someone used to giving orders. His square face was deeply lined, though he was probably in his late twenties, like Ryou. The right side of his face was a deeply ridged mess of pink scarring where his ear should have been. Over a long tunic he wore a chest plate of leather enforced with crudely decorated metal circles over chest and belly, a belt with leather bands hanging to his knees, and sandals strapped up the ankle. He was giving the intruder in their midst a look that suggested he instantly mistrusted and disliked him, but Ryou had seen him give Chozz the same, so it might not signify much.
"Says he's some rich bastard's son from Assyria." Gex straightened up and stepped back. "That buddy of yours, Aurelius Vibius Arvina, he'll pay twenty denarii for Alliance soldiers and an aureus for Assyrian and Aksumite, right? Think we can give him this one?"
It'd been decided so offhandedly, without even a glance his way, that Ryou took a second to figure out that Plan B had failed. This meant his life now depended on Plan A working...
Gaius came to a stop before Ryou and looked down at him. "Aurelius'd take any Assyrian, man, woman or child. He won't be picky as long as he and the Tribune get their cut."
"Works for me," said one of the others with a snicker, which he abruptly interrupted when Gaius tossed his short bow at him to hold with a bit more force than necessary.
Then Gaius took a step forward and punched Ryou square in the face.
Ryou hit the earth with a thump, stunned.
Strong hands grasped his coat's collar and pulled him up again. He twitched, mind lucid but his body unable to respond.
"If you bastards didn't have oysters for eyes, you'd see this fucker is as Assyrian as I am," said Gaius. "We ain't getting squat except for a reason why he's here. Talk. Who are you?"
Pain was unfurling from the left side of his face and radiating all the way down to his neck and shoulder. He couldn't open one of his eyes fully, and he couldn't bring Gaius's face into focus. Concussion? No, he'd lost his glasses, that's why everything looked fuzzy. That notched up his panic even more than the vicious punch.
He did see, in a blur, that hard fist drawing back again. He flinched and threw up his hands to protect his face. His legs were too rubbery to run away, or even let him stand, he was dangling from Gaius's hold. Every gasp of air through his mouth tasted of copper and adrenaline.
"Please-" the blow wasn't falling yet. "Please- I can pay you- just get me to-"
He didn't even see it this time, the world just jerked and went dark. When Ryou blinked it back again, he was a foot away from the nearest burning branch, face in the cinders. Then the pain came galloping forward, a second behind consciousness but gaining fast. Ryou wondered what Gaius had broken; the pain was too broad to tell, spreading from his jaw where the second punch had landed and over the whole left side of his face. He scrabbled in the dirt, trying to shove himself away.
The world turned right side up again as he was once more hauled up by the coat.
Gaius waited until Ryou had blinked away the sparkles of darkness and was focusing on him again. "Are there more of you out there?" he asked in a voice as menacing as another raised fist.
With every ounce of considerable self-control Ryou possessed, he kept his shortsighted eyes riveted on Gaius's. His gaze did not twitch away to see if help was coming. It would come, or it would not. Pain would come, or it would not. Fear was wracking his body, shaking in Gaius's grasp, but it didn't touch Ryou's mind, still clear and focused on what he had to do. Only the pain had breached his focus, and Ryou was doing his best to conquer that too. Despite the casual brutality, he felt instinctively that Gaius was not doing this randomly; he would be watching Ryou's expression and particularly his eyes right now, looking for the betraying flicker of a glance searching for outside intervention. Ryou did not look away. Beyond that, he didn't try to do any acting. He'd never been good at it. He showed Gaius what he'd showed the last bully who'd punched him in the face almost fifteen years ago. Absolutely nothing.
Gaius did not find that off-putting, but then again he was doing this for business, not for fun. He dropped Ryou, then his foot shot out and caught him in the stomach as the latter fell forward. Ryou hit the ground with a thud, fighting the pain and a surging rise of nausea. He was still in possession of his faculties, but the pain was gaining on that now, he was afraid he might slip up. He could not slip up.
He lay panting in the dirt, muscles clenching in anticipation. A footstep near his shoulder made him flinch and roll into a ball on instinct. Somebody nearby laughed.
Gaius didn't kick him again. He took three steps around Ryou, crouched near the fire and then came back. Ryou waited, still hunched over, but when nothing was said and the men around him fell silent, he finally looked up.
"These yours, right?" asked Gaius. He was holding out Ryou's glasses.
If Ryou had ever been an optimist, he'd have hoped at that point that his helplessness had convinced these men he was in earnest. As it were, he was not an optimist, but he still couldn't see what Gaius was getting at.
"Here, put them on." Gaius tossed them to the ground in front of Ryou.
Ryou licked his lips, tasted blood. He slowly reached towards his glasses, expecting a sandal to come crashing down on them or on his fingers, or on both. But Gaius didn't move. Ryou put on his glasses, his hands shaking so hard in reaction that it took him two tries. When he looked up, Gaius was watching him with an unreadable expression.
"Can you see better now?"
The simulacrum of consideration in his voice made Ryou's skin crawl. He tried to move his lips to once more repeat that he could pay, but Gaius reached out and caught his aching jaw in his fingers. Then there was a ching and Ryou was looking at a short knife hovering in front of his eyes; the wooden handle was crude and it'd been sharpened so many times the blade looked like whittled bamboo, but it was undoubtedly sharp. It was in front of his eyes long enough for him to get a good look at it, and then it was placed against his cheek. The metal was cold in the night air.
"Talk or I start cutting."