Ryou woke in an actual bed, or what passed for one here. No larger than a couch, the carved wooden frame had ropes strung across it supporting a cloth pallet, but it was comfortable enough. Rand had informed him in passing that he could make free use of the bed, the tent and everything in it; they'd belonged to some officer of the Assyrian army who died during the first part of the siege. Despite that somewhat morbid provenance, it was much better than sleeping on a bed of bracken wrapped in a blanket.

Rand had not taken him right back to the camp on the hill the preceding afternoon. He’d detoured to a small encampment in a copse of olive trees where wagons and tents had been set up in a clearing by a stream. Injured or sick soldiers occupied the pallets under the trees and in every tent. Ryou counted approximately two hundred. Young men and women, sometimes barely children, cared for them. All the attendants wore the same knee-length undyed linen tunics and a serious air as they bustled around, changing bandages, beddings and buckets.

Fetched by Rand, a matronly woman showed up to take direct charge of Ryou’s injuries. Her tunic was the same as the attendants, but the addition of a blue robe, open down the front, suggested she was of higher rank in the orders of priests in charge of this field hospital. She’d rolled up her sleeves in a businesslike manner when Rand deposited Ryou before her and explained the problem. Ryou had been swaying by then, and could not tear his eyes away from the snakes tattooed in circles around her beefy biceps. The priestess held Ryou's forearm for a good thirty minutes while she muttered prayers and intercessions on his behalf, before splinting it up to the fingers with polished sticks and stiff linen on which she painted sigils. He’d have to keep that on until the moon was full again, after which he’d be fit to throw the javelin in the twelveday after, according to her. Then she informed Ryou that he needed a bath and a shave.

Rand, who’d been standing behind him during the consultation, had taken her at her word. First he led Ryou to one of the camp barbers, who happened to also be the butcher and cook. Face newly scraped clean of bristle, as well as oiled, Ryou ended up in the dead man's tent with some water to wash in and the bed. Ryou had to admit that all these ministrations had left him feeling considerably better this morning. His broken arm still ached, but nowhere near as badly as it had yesterday, and he could move the fingers beneath the bandages by a few degrees with only some twinges.

The tent, too low for a man of his height to fully stand in, was a square of three meters by three, one side stacked with a couple of crates and some javelins. An oblong had been cut out of one side to form an entrance. The hide hanging there in lieu of door was askew. From where he sat, he could see a slice of camp life through the slit. Armed soldiers bustled around. He was in the middle of an army, and the safest he'd been since he'd first seen the Rajin monsters over two weeks ago. Forget the likes of Gex and Gaius, he was even safe from mysterious enemies from Kaides and further afield. He'd eaten his fill of a simple but filling barley and goat stew last night, served to him by a soldier who seemed to think it important that he be kept safe and comfortable. Rand had even shown up just before he went to bed to see if his arm was doing better and if there was anything he might need. Quite a difference from a mere twenty four hours ago.

Ryou, sitting on the bed, let his head sink into his uninjured right hand and fought an irrational little wish that it were still yesterday, when he was just a wanderer on a road with a companion he thought he knew...

"Excuse me?"

Ryou looked up. A shadow was hovering near the entrance to the small tent. "Yes?"

The same soldier who'd served him last night poked his head in. In the light of day and without the veil of pain and fatigue, Ryou noted that his helper could be no more than sixteen. "I beg your pardon, sir, but Lord Ghan would like to see you."

"Oh." Lord Ghan. Right. Ryou wished he'd had more time to get used to the idea. On the heels of that thought came the realization that all the time in the world would not be enough. "Fine, I'll get dressed."

"Yes sir."

"...Could I please ask you to wait outside?"

He waited until the tent's flap fell behind a puzzled-looking young soldier, then he dressed in the clothes he'd pillaged from dead deserters who'd tried to kill him. He pulled on the short woolen pants and linen shirt, tightened the belt one-handed, but didn't bother with the tunic that he usually wore over them. The weather was warm, he was presumably safe here, and he didn't fancy pulling his still-aching arm through the leather-reinforced sleeve. He slipped the limb into the scarf the Priestess had given him as a sling, dropped Rand's cloak on his shoulders and headed towards the new day.

He followed the young soldier to the large pavilion he'd seen yesterday, the crimson banner in front now unfurled by an early morning breeze. The possible permutations of the conversation he was about to have ran through Ryou's mind with every step. None of them led to a happy place where what was broken would be fixed. Ryou felt tired just thinking about discussing any of it, even as the questions he needed to ask lined up in his head.

"This way," said the young soldier, lifting the tent flap, then added "please," as if remembering an item in a set of instructions.

Ryou blinked at the sudden passage from the early morning sunlight to the dimness of the tent's interior. A flap, cut from the canvas near the highest peak of the tent, had been hauled back and tied into place like a crude sun-roof; on the other side of the tent squatted a metal box containing a surly fire, a pot smoking on its grill. Those two sources of light were the tent's only illuminations.

A rustle and a few mutters surrounded him. He stared without comprehension. There were over a dozen people in the tent, most of them armored and armed, all of them staring at him. Ryou stayed in the tent's entrance, wondering what the hell was going on.

At the far end of the tent stood two large men with spears, armor, shields, and the word 'guard' written all over them. One of them turned to a set of tapestries slung over a pole hanging from two of the pavilion's pillars, cordoning off one section; he lifted the tapestry a few centimeters to murmur something.

"Coming," came from the other side. A few words muffled by the thick cloth, then the corner of the tapestry swung aside to let someone through, and Ryou's expectations were further punctured when he recognized the tall figure, which was still not Darius.

"Good morning," said Rand, coming up to him without bothering to glance at the others in the tent. "I trust you slept well? Couldn't that whelp I sent to fetch you find you anything else to wear?"

"It's fine," was all Ryou said. The surroundings, these unknown people and the situation made him cautious and unwilling to ask any question.

Rand stood there with the ease of one who at least knew what they were both waiting for. Ryou wondered if he could find it in him to be annoyed...but it seemed counterproductive. Anyway, it was nice to have a slightly familiar face next to which to feel confused and adrift.

"So we agree then. Come on, let's do this before I die of old age." That crotchety tone, rising from the other side of the tapestry, was one that Ryou remembered. Operating on some unknown signal, the two guards each pulled aside one of the tapestries aside like theatre curtains and General Terentius stepped through followed by the man Ryou had known as Darius.

A small, dull shock registered in the pit of Ryou's stomach. Darius was dressed the way he'd been when Ryou first saw him; his beard was trimmed, his hair clean, knotted with small disks once more, and he was wearing a knee-length dark red tunic sewn with small scales of blackened steel and a wide belt of tooled leather, complemented by a black leather neck-guard around his throat that reminded Ryou of the scarves worn by his men. He looked both archaic and striking, once more the outlandish foreigner killing monsters with a sword in the middle of a deserted replica of Tokyo.

General Terentius preceded him, walking briskly even as he leaned on a cane. He was dressed in armor straight out of a history book, bronze breastplate emblazoned with a fearsome face, red epaulettes, a helmet with a horse's mane falling from its peak, an embroidered velvet skirt, greaves and covered sandals of white leather.

Darius nodded at the men as he made his way towards the entrance to the tent, and spoke to someone dressed much like the General. "Lucius."

"Yes, Lord."

"We talked it over. Your unit will be at the axis of the attack against the main gate."

The man, eyes gleaming, saluted with a fist pressed against his heart. "Thank you!"

"Thank the General, it's ultimately his decision," said Darius. "I'm just here to explain to the citizens of Essin what to expect if they oppose us."

Men around them snickered.

Terentius had a smile on his face that was almost as nasty. He looked younger today, his eyes shone with tension and anticipation. "I hear those Essinian goat-fuckers have an Imperially trained unit that call themselves a Legion. Lucius, you and I have renounced our heritage, but hearing them say that personally annoys me anyway. Go show them what a real formation is, will you?" Then he laughed, a mighty bellow startling coming from his old frame.

"Keitos, Arsipal-Safa, you'll flank Lucius as we discussed," he continued. "Keitos, make sure you're ready for any outing from their cavalry into Lucius's side."

"Meromeidon, your men are with me and my Hounds," Darius added.

"An honor, my lord," said a burly man with an elaborately curled black beard going down to his belt. "The fortress won't know what hit them. But you'll be wanting Sezerena for yourself, I warrant."

"Damn right." Darius's vicious smile made the men laugh again. They were putting on the helmets they'd been carrying; younger soldiers behind them hoisted up decorated shields. The atmosphere was electric in a way that made Ryou's nerves prickle with tension.

Darius was nearly at the tent's exit now. He stopped near two men dressed in long robes with only decorative pieces of armor on chest and shoulders. His eyes skipped ahead, rested briefly on Ryou, then his attention was back on them. "Thank you, noble emissaries, for attending us this morning. If Inder has His hand over us, you'll be able to bring back a wreath of victory to your master, King Ka, by late afternoon."

Both men bowed. "It is an inestimable pleasure to have you back, Lord Ghan," said the one in front with a touch of coldness that didn't match his words and elegant gesture. "Not that we'd been warned you were ever gone in the first place."

"And wasn't it better that way?" Darius asked dryly. "Think of the report you would have had to make to your master otherwise."

"Your words are rich with wisdom," said the emissary in a tone that Ryou, fine-tuned to all sorts of business discussions rife with subtext, interpreted as 'You're full of it, your men lied to us and hid your disappearance, my report to the king is now going to have to be carefully couched to avoid making me look like a gullible idiot, and I am not going to forget that.'

The sharpness of Darius's smile said he was well aware of the undertone himself, and didn't give a damn. He half bowed and moved on, stopping in front of Ryou.

"Thank you for bringing him, Rand," he said to the taller man. "As you might have guessed, I'm going to be busy this morning, Uchee Ryou, but I did want to see you and thank you before you go on your way."

"No thanks are necessary, I was the one who was a burden to you," said Ryou, the words of civility kicking in automatically.

"Essin is not a place for a civilized man such as yourself." Darius wasn't even looking at him, he was studying the camp outside through the open flap, the hundreds of soldiers already assembled at the bottom of the hill, gauging their readiness. "I've detached some men to escort you to the capital of Aksum. It's the safest route, according to Rand. From there, King Ka will contact the Per Gathas on my behalf and oversee your journey. If the fortunes of war are with us, Rand and Dionysodoros will be only a day or two behind you. I've tasked them with insuring you get back home. Godspeed, Uchee Ryou, in my name and that of King Leyam Sirrian."

Ryou bowed, a curt gesture that should have been a tad lower in deference to the offered protection of a king, but something had stiffened his neck at the words 'in my name'.

When he lifted his head, Darius was out of the tent and facing his troops. Ryou looked at the dark curls caught in the disks. That had been very proper and had avoided any eye contact or messy words; the president would have approved. So did Ryou on second thought. What good would it do to hash it out? What had been done, was done, what had been hidden had been revealed, and at least Ryou now had safe passage to the Per Gathas guaranteed, which would lead him back Inland.

He was going home.

A note from Mal Chants

We all know it's not going to be that easy...

About the author

Mal Chants


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