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On the fourth day, Ryou saw a city take shape in the distance. He thought it was a rocky hill to start with, but it was entirely manmade; sand-colored square buildings climbing up tight streets and skirting a large, central oblong which was the King's palace. There was no wall around the city, he noticed with some surprise.

"The Greek mercenaries they hire will fight off any bandits or tribes that try to attack Palis," Darius explained. "They'll fight small armies from neighboring countries in the plains, on a proper ground of their own choosing, the old-fashioned way. That's if the army is puny, of course. Anything bigger, the Palisians will either buy them off or else let them in, pay tribute and then make a mountain of money off the men. Merchants, I told you. But that's the way things were done for a long time. The walls around Sura - the capital of my country - were only built at the time of my great-grandfather. Before that, you captured cities, you didn't attack them. Things change, though. Looks like the Games are still in full swing around the Temple of the Five Gods," he added, pointing to a hill some distance beyond Palis, with an imposing set of buildings like a second town collectively bigger than the King's palace. Around the hillock, a city of tents had sprung up. Ryou couldn't see where the Games were being held, but it certainly looked like a lot of people were taking advantage of them.

"Come on," said Darius, pulling on his bridle. "We still have a ways to go before we camp tonight. I want to get to Kazanstar before too many more days."

"So we're not going to Palis itself?" Not that Ryou had particularly wanted to visit this antique city bursting with people who might think he was from the Empire of Sung Ch'ao, enemy of free trade. But he would have liked to have the opportunity to wash his clothes in something other than river water and take a real bath in a public bathhouse; he still had mud in unexpected places.

"No, we'll stick to the hills like we've been doing up until now," said Darius. "We could go faster by taking the Path that starts near Palis to Kazanstar direct, but..."

But he didn't want to risk crossing more times than required, Ryou gathered. Remembering the old passer's unknown fate, he knew the feeling.

"Well, there's no saying for sure that we wouldn't have to wait a twelveday for the Path to Kazanstar to open from Palis. The footsteps of Zaratusra can lead us very far faster than they can lead us to our neighbor at time. By horse and hard riding, I know for sure we'll be where we need to be in three days time, and we'll be relying only on ourselves. Come on."

That night they slept beneath a full moon and the stars. Ryou watched the night wheel above them while it was his turn to stand guard, and didn't mind missing out on traveling a Path a little while longer.

---

"Have you ever seen the base of these continents?" Darius quizzed.

"Base? The continents are floating on giant magma beds, you can't see their base."

"So how do you know they're not resting on the belly of a goddess?" Darius asked reasonably, giving the fire a poke with a stick.

Ryou had had the feeling that question would come up sooner or later...He could explain physics and seismology to this soldier out of antiquity, or he could give up and ask Darius for another campfire tale.

Darius kept up a quick pace during the day, but he let Ryou and the horses get a fair amount of rest too. Since the humans were no longer quite so tired from walking on their own two feet, he and Ryou had time to sit by a fire for an hour in the evening, cooking up their rations of barley, tubers and jerky in the pot they'd looted off dead mercenaries over a week ago. And they'd entertain themselves. For Darius, that meant recounting all kinds of tales. His civilization didn't know television, internet or radio, only a select few could even read - and even those avid bibliophiles might prefer to have the latest painstakingly transcribed copy of a book read out loud by a scribe in the presence of friends to dissect it later. Solitary entertainments were rare in these lands. Board games, songs and stories were all ways of passing the time.

Ryou had wanted to know more about 'the onion', the world Zaratusra had apparently found or made, but Darius didn't have much information. Countries were just there; they were populated when people back Inland found them 'somehow', particularly during periods of expansion or while they were fleeing decimation. "That's how Assyria came about," Darius explained. "That's how Assyria came about," Darius explained. "Assyria - the old country - had been knocked back in a series of defeats. The Arameans, the Persians, the blasted Medes... we were being nibbled to death on all sides. So our people in the west of the country made their way to the Outlands. Not many, no, most migrations only consist of a thousand desperate bastards, no more. Sometimes less, only a dozen or a hundred. How do they make it here? How the hell should I know, ask the Path Maker if you can find him."

This led him to recount creation myths about both the original Assyria and the Outlands, stories that were definitely more entertaining than informational. Ryou was then badgered into reciprocating, digging up tales he'd forgotten since his early school years. What was interesting was that, for Ryou, they were myths. For Darius, they were a gilded version of real facts. Yet he asked Ryou for Japanese beliefs and seemed quite happy to let them coexist with his own.

Tonight their conversation was about 'real' matters. Darius told him about the campaign of Ur, in which he'd fought against the Romans. He told Ryou about it in detail. Great detail. He was using twigs and pebbles to represent the various units moving around when he must have realized he'd lost his audience somewhat.

Then he questioned Ryou some more about the Inlands. The latter was trying to oblige, but a lot was getting lost in translation.

Ryou idly picked up the piece of bark that had represented Terentius's advanced guard. "You said you were with a mobile unit that can easily harass Roman legions."

"Not 'easily'," Darius muttered. "Yeah, we're the Hounds of Assyria."

"Your leader is Lord Ghan which that rhapsode was telling us about back in Tot, right? The one who's with Terentius?"

"Ghan the Beast is the name, and well deserved," Darius snorted, staring into the fire. "There's not a single Lord in our unit, Ghan's no exception. We're a band made up of mercenaries, raiders and killers, and we all hate the Imperium and those who serve it. We're not a solid force like Terentius's units, but we can cut supply lines, sabotage walls, destroy small units and bait the bigger forces into an ambush by our infantry. And people fear us. They just need to hear that the Hounds have slipped their leash and are coming their way, and all those sodding farmers pull up stakes, make for the hills and stop feeding the Imperial armies."

"Why do they call him the Beast?"

"Because he's not a pleasant guy when crossed," grunted Darius, corking the jug of watered down wine they'd been drinking from. "In reality Terentius is the one who does all the work, but it's useful to have a guy around who can make grown men tremble at the mention of his name. It's all about winning in your enemy's head before you even get on the battlefield, like my brother says."

"Your brother? He's in the army too?"

Darius didn't answer right away. He fiddled with the hempen ties that kept the cork sealed while they traveled and from which the jug was suspended from a saddle. Ryou got the feeling Darius had said more than he'd wanted to. "He's not a grunt like me, if that's what you mean, but he's got a position of importance in this war, yeah," he finally said with a shrug. "Never mind. Maybe you'll meet him, assuming we make it through the countryside and get to where we're going in one piece. Tomorrow we'll be at the Kazanstar crossing, and hopefully in Essin soon after that. At that point Inder alone knows what's awaiting us. Come on, you need to sleep if you're going to spell me in five hours."

Ryou took off his glasses, rolled up in his blanket, and closed his eyes...trying to tell himself that Darius's refusal to tell him more than dribs and drabs about himself was not annoying (hurting?) him a little...

Darius was a few meters away, sitting on a stump facing the direction of the path they'd been following all day. He was singing softly to himself in a toneless way; he said it kept him awake. The man had a tin ear and a voice better suited for shouting orders. Ryou found himself smiling in a crooked way, expression hidden in the darkness. When Darius told fairy tales, he looked all of twenty five. It was easy to forget he was involved in something dangerous.

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A note from Mal Chants

A short chapter to accompany our two protagonists through the countyside and their developing relationship. Things will be somewhat calm in the next chapter or two, but you know that's not going to last... 


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Mal Chants

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