The horses continued to walk at a constant pace that sunk the kilometers behind them (or possibly the Roman miles) with only one small break for the riders to stretch themselves and have a swallow of water mixed with vinegar. Well, that was what it tasted like, though Darius insisted it was wine. Then Ryou was back in the saddle, once more with Darius's help. It was a relief to be off his feet, though after a few hours he'd figured out that riding a horse wasn't that much more comfortable than walking, it just ached in different places.
They reached the way station around two in the afternoon according to Ryou's watch. He had assumed that the sun rose at six AM in these parts and had set his Seiko accordingly days ago. He knew the small illusion of control this gave him was just that, an illusion, but he'd spent every moment of his adult life knowing what time it was to the second, and the idea of 'look up, see if it's past noon' just didn't fit into his world view.
The way station was in a dell near a brook and a pocket of trees, a pleasant little spot. Ryou was surprised by how long and narrow the building was. It was only when he got closer that he realized it wasn't intended for humans but for horses; a long line of stables with a paddock behind them. Visitors had to make do with an arbor hung with vines above crudely hewn wooden tables and benches. A mud-and-wattle shack halfway between the arbor and the stables was the only sign of habitation not meant for quadrupeds. The stables were empty, the shack's one window was shuttered, but the place wasn't deserted. A fire was burning in the pit in front of the shack, provisioned from the huge stack of logs kept dry beneath an extension of the roof. The pit was large; the fire using up only a small portion of the space looked small by comparison. A single pot hung from a swiveling iron pole and crossbeam over the cherry-red embers.
Darius dismounted a little way off, eyes darting around the place. There were only four people present; a fat man in front of the shack, sleeping on a blanket; a dirty grey-haired figure huddled deep in the depths of an off-green cloak on the bench closest to the fire; and two dark-skinned mustachioed men wrapped in layer after layer of cloth and fur until they were almost conical. They were packing or unpacking some items from one of several mules near the road. There was a conspicuous absence of armed troops, to Ryou's relief.
"They could still show up," said Darius when Ryou shared that observation. "That's what the stables are for. They're not keeping fresh animals for messengers or troops, which means they don't trust they won't be stolen by thieves, but the place is still open for business. That man" - he eyed the presumed cook, who'd woken up when the gelding whickered and was now sitting up on his blanket and scratching his armpit - "is almost certainly a veteran given this station to hold as a merit. A patrol could stop for provisions at any time, or a courier, or a whole cohort for all I know. Here, sit down, watch our stuff and try not to talk to anyone. If someone does ask, you're the hire of a fur trader from Jiroh and I'm your guard. We're traveling to Aksum to remove our boss's trade counter, because it's getting too dangerous for Imperial citizens to do business there. Did you get all that?"
Ryou obediently sat down on the crude bench while Darius tied their reins around stout poles near the corner of the arbor furthest from the cook. He had noted how his companion had tugged at the sleeves of his tunic, making sure they covered his bracers, an apt reminder that the two of them were in hostile territory and that others than Gaius might try to supplement their income with bounty hunting.
"Make sure you keep an eye on the horses," Darius cautioned him before heading towards the shack, hand on the purse he'd lifted from Gex and which he'd filled with tiny coins gathered from the deserters' various belongings.
Three minutes later he was back with a shallow bowl of some nameless stew, a chunk of flat unleavened bread and a pitcher. Ryou realized he was still hungry, even though they'd eaten only a few hours ago.
"Eat up," Darius advised him. "I'm going back to bargain for some better tack, and also get some information. I got you beer," he added when he caught Ryou's glance at the pitcher. "You didn't seem to like the wine this morning. Though the hosteller does have some, if that's more to your liking."
Ryou preferred sake or cognac, but he didn't mind beer. He didn't mind wine either. But he remembered this morning's vinegar. Darius had mentioned at some point in the past few days that Assyrian wine, for one, was made from grapes, fermented a short time, then 'ended' with a good shot of palm-tree liquor and kept in large skins made of cow hide.
Ryou said he didn't want any wine, and thanked Darius for the beer.
While his friend returned to the fire pit, Ryou looked around for any sign of cutlery and found none. They'd eaten the rabbit earlier using plundered knives and pieces of biscuit. Darius had known what a fork was when Ryou had mentioned it, but didn't see how it would be any more practical than what they had, while a description of chopsticks had left him bemused. Ryou was willing to adapt as much as he could to his given situation, but if there was a way of eating stew with a knife, it'd take a wiser 'magian' than him to find it. Presumably he would not look out of place if he pretended this was a ramen stand on the way home from the office instead of some antique picnic site from the back-end of history. He prosaically tipped up the bowl, took a sip- and winced as the heat touched off nerves in the tooth Gaius's first punch had loosened yesterday.
Ryou put the bowl down to cool, and ran his tongue over the sore part of his mouth, and then the rest of his teeth. He could swear they were getting fuzzy. Five days without brushing. A week ago, he would not have believed a neat freak like himself could survive that. Five days without soap, a proper shower or shaving. Stubble was cropping up on his face, not even regularly but in rough patches on either side of his chin and over his mouth. Another couple of weeks and he was going to look like he was auditioning for a remake of one of Mifune's scruffier bandit roles.
...Of course it wasn't that, or the gamey taste of the food, or his inability to indulge his compulsive email checking habit that was the most disturbing. Yesterday he'd stumbled upon the site of a massacre. Last night, five strangers had hurt him and planned to sell him as bounty. Then Darius had killed them. Ryou still felt prickles of shock and disbelief when his mind tripped over those facts, but it seemed counterproductive to think about it too much. This world's values were so very different from his, it skewed his perspective, as did Darius's sanguine view that they'd simply rid themselves of a threat and secured needed supplies rather than committed multiple homicides. The cold logic of the situation dictated that Ryou adapt and imitate him. He had to concentrate on the here and now, and be ready for the next crisis. When he got back to civilization, that would be the time to reassert his moral compass, reflect on what had happened and sort it all out. Maybe Yuki could refer him to a good psychiatrist at that point in time, because Ryou was probably going to need one, what with-
Ryou blinked and looked up in the direction of that sound which had been either a fake laugh or an interjection of some sort.
The dirty man wrapped in the huge green cloak was standing at the other end of the bench, a staff as high as his stooped shoulders held in both hands. He was bowing up and down in a way that looked subservient, though Ryou's finetuned senses for greetings, an essential requirement for salarymen, told him the man wasn't so much respectful as desirous of something.
"Ehe, ehe, greetings, my hand beneath your foot," he said, which Ryou could not make sense of. "Where are you going, sir?"
Ryou's mouth went dry with alarm...but then he noticed how the stranger's gaze darted towards the pitcher on the table between each bow. He re-evaluated the thick, reddened features, the way the eyes were swimming in their sockets, the sour smell.
"I hail from Tortora, I can tell you about the road up ahead," said the man, eyes getting more and more stuck on the beer. "I talk to everyone, I talk to everyone, and all travelers talk to this rhapsode. I know all about the roads, I do. Where are you going? The roads are not safe these days, it's good to know what's ahead. Good to know."
Indubitably. Ryou glanced over to the 'kitchen', but Darius was still deep in conversation with the cook, a mug of some beverage in one hand and a chunk of bread in the other.
When he looked back, the man had cringed. "No, no. No, no, I'm not being a bother," he said, backing away. "No need to call your man, no need."
After five days in Darius's company, Ryou had quite forgotten how intimidating his friend could look from a certain perspective, particularly now that he was out of the grey jogging top and clothed like some sword-bearing mercenary.
"It's okay, I'm not bothered. Do you want some beer?" he asked, making up his mind.
The wino's eyes flitted from Darius, to Ryou and then to the pitcher. Ryou pushed it towards him invitingly. There were no cups, it was possible the whole thing had been meant for him. He'd examined the flagon's contents before trying the stew; the 'beer' was as turbid as dirty dishwasher with a few lonely bubbles floating here and there in which, judging by the pungent smell, some hops had long ago rotten and disintegrated into mush. Ryou was glad to let the drunkard have it.
"I'm going to Aksum. What are the roads like?" Darius would decide if the information garnered was reliable or not.
The rhapsode - Ryou presumed that's what he was - had seated himself on the far end of the bench, the pitcher already in his hand. Half of it went down his throat in quick gulps before he looked up at Ryou. "Aksum? Oh, oh, not so good, not so good. Ehe. War, war everywhere. The surrounding countries have been ravaged. The eastern provinces of Aksum rose up against King Ka when they thought the Imperium's shadow would protect them. He has put them down in a rain of blood and fire. To the other side of their border, Assyria is moving too. People talk of reprisals against the lands that let the Roman wolf pass through to prey on Assyria's flock. Prey," he repeated as if particularly content with his word choice.
Ryou's ears pricked, though he went on sipping the stew as if he wasn't any more interested than that.
"Right now, the Gods of war have descended upon Essin. King Ka has overlooked the mutinous tendencies of his southernmost province for years. Some say he could not bear to bring his banners to the city where he'd been fostered as a child. But the Assyrians and their allies have no such compunction, and have entered into Aksum to hound their Imperial enemies. They met in two successive battles, and the forces of Essin were defeated by their numbers. But the Allies did not capture the lord of Essin, he escaped the field with his personal guard. Now the capital of the province is besieged by Alliance forces. I heard this was so just a twelveday ago." He made it sound like it was hot off the press. "The forces are led by Terentius the Traitor, Meromeidon of Bactria and Ghan the Beast. Essin is waiting for Imperial reinforcements, but I've heard of none. Men say that one way or another, that's the end of the Protectorate. The Bitch King himself said-...I- I mean," the rhapsode said in a strangled voice, "King Leyam. King Leyam, I mean."
He was staring up at Darius who'd approached the table at some point and was listening, hands on his hips and an unreadable expression on his face.
"Yes, I'm sure that's what you meant," said Darius. "Do you know if Essin is still under siege? What's the last you heard?"
The man licked his lips. He had shrunk into his seat until his green wrap seemed even bigger than before. "Um, I haven't heard of its fall. I was talking to Samarian traders three days ago and they'd not heard anything from Aksum's capital. If Essin had fallen, surely...surely the wreaths of victory, ehe, of victory would have been hung at the gates..."
"I see. Who did you say was at Essin?"
The bard seemed a little reassured, straightening moderately so that his dirty neck emerged from the huddle of cloak, like a turtle poking prudently out of its shell. "Terentius-...um-"
"Terentius the Traitor, yes, I heard that bit, though most people outside the Imperium refer to him as General Quintus Terentius Varro, the liberator of the Free Cities."
"That's right, that's right, the great battle of-"
"Skip it," said Darius. Then he relented, fished a small brown coin out of his purse and tossed it at the man, who made it disappear even faster than the beer. "Who else is at Essin?"
"Um, Lucius Minius Costa of the province of Gette brought a thousand men out in support of General Terentius, a thousand men. Terentius himself leads as many free men and Assyrian infantry. Meromeidon, the one they call the Lion's Head, yes, has rallied five hundred Bactrian skirmishers-" Darius nodded imperceptibly "-and the Free City of Belocia sent men and engineers. Ghan the- Lord Ghan is there as well with two hundred heads of Assyrian cavalry. It is said he has threatened to lay waste to Essin, submit every man, woman and child to the edge of the sword and sow the ground with salt if the city did not surrender."
Darius rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's what they always say. I doubt anyone's ever gone through with it. It'd be a bloody waste of salt, not to mention tribute. Even Plutius never actually did that, and that was one Roman who was used to handing out some pretty serious threats and carrying through with them too."
"Yes, that is the truth." The rhapsode had relaxed more and more, his unshaven grey jowls quivering as he nodded enthusiastically. "General Plutius, the one they called Cursed, lay waste the province of Shormo Eil until the ground could no longer grow barley, but only weep tears of blood-"
Ryou blinked and rubbed his ear. The rhapsode's voice had become deeper, more rhythmic...and Ryou was hearing an odd sort of echo. It was like listening to a radio with some feedback from another channel. He could hear clearly the descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by one General Q. Plutius Denter, Fourth Legion, but he could also hear the rhapsode talking in a foreign language, more guttural than Japanese, with regular sentences of similar length and beat, a song being spoken. It wasn't a pleasant sensation, and it reminded Ryou that he knew next to nothing about this gift of Zaratusra that was supposedly breaking the Curse of Babel and allowing him to communicate.
"For an entire day did the arrows fall like rain from the sky, until one could no longer walk across the fields of Nyo." The rhapsode was still spinning his tale without any of those previous repetitions or 'ehe's that had peppered his speech like a verbal nervous tic. Behind him, the two mustachioed men had left their pack mules and were listening with rapt interest. "And at the end of the day did Lord Ghan take the field with fleet cavalry to circle the reduced forces of Plutius. They went through the manipules like a well-whetted scythe through the stalks of wheat, until the Assyrian Hounds reached the Roman Eagle. Plutius, to whom his Emperor had given the golden arrows of bravery, drew his sword, but his horse was killed beneath him by the throw of a spear and he was felled to the ground. No honor, no, no honor at all in the death of the man who had killed the fruitful province of Shormo Eil! For Lord Ghan had him torn apart by a pack of dogs-"
"Yeah, the Assyrians sure didn't have cause to like Plutius," interrupted Darius, who'd been glancing at the angle of the sun in the sky several times during the tale. "And they don't call Ghan 'the Beast' for nothing."
"Wise are your words concerning the man they call the Killer of Alespis," said the rhapsode, changing tales and rhythm with barely a blink of an eye. "One thousand men cut down where they stood, even though they were not the ones who had sacked the great temple of Gushkin-Banda. No matter! No matter! Death does not judge, and death it was that came for them by the banks of that cursed river Alespis. "I offer no surrender," cried Prince Travenius. "I take none," answered Lord Ghan, and then the heavens split open at his command and rained fire on-"
"I was there actually, and it wasn't-" Darius started to say, then changed his mind. "So Ghan himself is at Essin, is he?"
The rhapsode looked ready to continue his tale regardless, but then he must have remembered who was paying. "Yes, generous patron," he answered in a normal voice.
"I don't give Essin very long, then, do I," said Darius with a wolfish grin.
The rhapsode laughed, a slightly forced sound which became more sincere when he caught another coin Darius tossed his way. The mule-herders also chortled in appreciation. When Ryou and Darius left a few minutes later, they were listening to the full tale of Alespis which the rhapsode was spinning for them, still clutching his now empty pitcher of beer.