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While Ryou stood in the tent's entrance, mind churning over the past and future, the other leaders trailed outside to where Terentius was being helped onto a stolid horse by two aides. Once mounted, he drew his short, straight sword and swept it over the assembling troops and towards the city of Essin.

"You all know why we're here!" he shouted, once more startling Ryou with the strength of his voice. Below, the movement of men consolidated into disparate groups. Gleaming legions were already in position at the foot of the hill, standing in rigid square formation and listening stony-faced to their General. On either side, the troops were also in ordered lines, disciplined enough but their proximity to the General's picked troops made them look a bit slovenly by comparison. Ryou's rough headcount estimated the square formation at eighty men wide and as many deep; it was harder to count the others, especially when the front lines, bearing pikes, went down on one knee so the back lines could see as well, but it looked to be even more than the Legionaries. On the far side of all the tents, yet more soldiers were already marching away in a rectangular pattern, presumably to advance on the city from another angle. To one side, horses were being lined up and mounted, Darius had glanced that way as the General had started speaking.

"For too long has that pissant Sezerena let the Imperials through his border in dribs and drabs, gather on his land and then prance into ours. He's a bleeding traitor and all of Aksum knows it." A ragged noise of assent from the sidelines. The men in square formation said nothing. "But he's a powerful bleeding traitor, untouchable, with friends in high places. Right?”

A few laughs from below, but mainly an anticipatory hush as the General breathed in deeply and shouted: "Unfortunately for him, we don't care!"

The roar shook the earth beneath them. People around Ryou laughed. Terentius's horse, which must have been thoroughly trained, merely flicked an ear.

"I won't make any long speeches because we all want to be in Essin before too long!" Terentius gestured with his sword again, a conductor modulating the pitch of an orchestra with thousands of instruments. "At every turn, the Imperium and their friends tell us the same thing: we can’t form an army without their training, their unity, their god. And what do we do?!"

The multi-throated roar was almost impossible to make out, but Ryou gathered that the answer was something like 'We kick their asses!'

"This way," said Rand in his ear before ducking beneath the tent flaps. Ryou followed him around the back of the tent while all eyes were on Terentius.

"Let's go let these Essinian sores know what the Alliance army is worth!" shouted the General. "Let's show them how much a mix of good steel is better than pure Imperial gold!"

The words turned to meaningless jumble as they made their way down the hill to where three men and four horses waited. The soldiers had carefully neutral expressions as Rand looked them over. He had started to give their leader last minute instructions when a sudden clamor made the group turn. The pep talk must be over. After one last shout that rattled the heavens, the men started to stream out of the camp around them. The core of it was the forces Ryou could not help thinking of as the Legion. They marched in the same rigid lines in which they'd stood. The other troops advanced in a different formation, moving with intent on either side of the main strike force with remarkably good coordination for units that did not have radio communication, or even a country and a native tongue in common. Dust was rising from their march, a heavy grey dust torn from the vegetation clinging to the soil, and the ground vibrated faintly beneath Ryou's feet. Other clouds gathered around Essin as other forces moved into position.

Ryou's gaze wandered from the marching troops back towards the command center- and for a moment his stupid, traitorous feelings shook as he saw Darius run towards them. But it wasn't Darius...

The man jogging towards them was no longer dressed the same as yesterday, when Ryou had mistaken him for Darius's brother, he was equipped the same as the rest of the hounds: black scarf, a leather hauberk reinforced, metal greaves and bracers. With his hair tied back, the resemblance wasn't as striking as before.

"Sorry for the delay, I was getting the guard ready," he told Rand as he drew near. "Is that enough of an escort? Lord Ghan said-"

"It's fine. Ryou, this is Dionysodoros of Kalicee. He and I will be traveling to Aksum a day behind you to make sure Lord Ghan's will is properly expressed to the Per Gathas."

"Thank you, I'm under your guidance," said Ryou with a bow.

This seemed to surprise Dionysodoros, but then he smiled cheerfully - further dispelling his resemblance to Darius - and bowed in return, a hand against his heart. "It will be an honor. I wanted to thank you before you left. Lord Ghan told us how you saved his life and helped him get back to us. I would have escorted you personally to Aksum, but with the battle this morning, I'm needed in his personal guard. If the Fates decree, I will see you in two days time in the capital."

Then he put on his helmet and left at a quick walk in the direction in which resounded crude horn blasts. The camp was emptying at a remarkable rate. Ryou glanced at Rand.

"I will walk you to the outer fortifications," said Rand in response to the unvoiced question. "My presence is not needed until the walls are breached. That won't be until mid-day at best. You and your escort will wait with the rear guard for a few hours. The enemy might attempt a sortie. Once the fighting has gone past the riverbed, they'll lead you to the local crossing. Last I heard it was still void of a passer, but I haven't had a report yet this morning. That'd see you in Aksum by this evening, and spare you two days of travel and a night on the road."

While Rand was talking, Ryou glanced at his escort. They were trying to keep the neutral look going, but behind it he could see they were disgruntled. They'd wanted to join the battle, it seemed.

Rand picked up the bridle of the extra horse from one of the soldiers and gestured Ryou to follow him. "I apologize for making you ride again so soon after your journey here. And for the haste. Especially as you’re injured."

"There's a war going on. I understand."

They were silent for a few paces. Beneath Rand's curtain of sharp bangs, Ryou could feel the taller man studying him.

"Lord Ghan asked me to answer any questions you might have," he finally said. "You probably have a few."

"Not really, no," Ryou answered with a faint vindictive feeling.

"...Dionysodoros's appearance seemed to confuse you yesterday," Rand started, apparently fishing for those questions he was supposed to be answering.

Ryou shoved up his glasses. "I take it he's Darius's double. In my country, military and political leaders have also used them in the past."

There was the singular pause of one reorganizing his thoughts. "You're right. Dionysodoros is a Greek refugee who joined Ghan's Hounds, but when we noticed he looked so much like him, we put him on Ghan's personal guard to serve as stand-in should the need arise."

"Convenient. I'm sure it would have caused quite a stir if Darius's disappearance had been known."

"Yes, it would have," Rand conceded.

"Particularly since the Alliance army is here in Aksum with only the faintest nod from its King, to attack someone who has a lot of pull in this country. The campaign has to go as smoothly and quickly as possible, and suddenly losing the Assyrian commander in such a bizarre way would surely throw the whole army into confusion."

Rand snorted, eyes hidden by his bangs as he lowered his head. "Good thing he warned me."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Lord Ghan specifically told me that you would have figured most things out by yourself. He gave me some forewarning so that I wouldn’t listen to my more cautious instincts. They would otherwise bid me wonder how a stranger to our lands could know this much."

Ryou looked at him curiously. "Who are you?"

"Oh," said Rand with a small smile, "so you do have a question."

"You're not a soldier. But-..." Ryou stopped himself mid-speculation. Rand had no uniform, true; no title, no full name Ryou had heard of, no pomp or prestige. But he'd been with Terentius yesterday during the strategy meeting, he seemed to be in very close with Darius, and men throughout the army leapt to obey his orders without thought or need of explanation. Ryou wasn't sure what all these contradictory facts added up to, except to a man who might not like to be questioned too closely. "I'm sorry, that's not the kind of question you're here to answer, and it's certainly none of my business."

"I thought you might have some questions about Lord Ghan," said Rand, politely sidestepping the whole question about himself.

No, I'm pretty sure I figured out just how many cold-blooded risks and lies of omission separate us, thought Ryou.

"I understand that, to keep rumors of his reappearance from circulating, he told you as little as he could about himself. What is it that you do know?" Rand asked after a few seconds of a ponderous silence.

"I know he's a lot more than a simple soldier," Ryou muttered.

"Not at all, I believe a simple soldier describes him fairly well," said Rand contemplatively. "General Terentius is the real leader of the Alliance forces. Ghan is good at striking fear into his enemies and firing up the men he's formed into units, but he's always been better at scrimmages and small battle tactics rather than large scale warfare. Did he say anything else?"

Ryou couldn't figure out Rand's angle and didn't much care to guess. "No. He didn't tell me much of a personal nature, just that he lost both his parents and has a brother."

Rand's step faltered and he looked around quickly at the soldiers behind them.

"He mentioned his brother?" he asked, voice lower.

"Yes. Darius looks up to him a lot. Is he someone awfully important as well?" Ryou wished that unsaid the second it left his mouth. To start with, he'd stubbornly decided that he didn't want to ask Rand any questions. And Yrmah had mentioned Darius's brother in a moment of spite yesterday, so obviously this brother existed and was someone important enough to be known by Darius's enemies. More than the question, Ryou wished the undertone of acerbity taken back. Even if the questions and answers would have been fruitless, a small part of Ryou had still wanted to exchange them with Darius, and maybe find out why it'd been necessary to hide so much from him. He'd expected to have this conversation with Darius, but now he wasn't even sure Darius existed, and he didn't know what to think of Lord Ghan.

"It does seem as if he told you very little," mused Rand.

Yes, thank you for rubbing that in, thought Ryou, not bothering to look up from the sodden, rutted ground that was trying to strip him of his stolen shoes. They were at the level of the shrunken river now, and heading in that direction.

"On the face of it, anyway. Here, we're at the edge of the camp. The rear guard is half a mile away, near the dam. You'll ride from here. Let me help you onto your horse." There was a deep clamor somewhere behind their party, coming from the direction of the city of Essin. With a sense of surrealism, Ryou realized he was a few cannon shots away from a war. A war, something any civilized businessman should have nothing to do with if they had any choice in the matter. Getting out of here now was the best thing that could happen to him. What the hell did Rand mean, 'on the face of it'?

The other soldiers took Rand's words as a signal to leap onto their horses. Ryou couldn't have imitated them at the best of times. He struggled even with Rand's help. While he got into his saddle without too many jolts to his injuries, his escort rode past him with covert glances of curiosity and a little condescension.

Ryou looked down at the withers of yet another damned horse. His broken arm ached. He really hoped he'd be able to sleep in Aksum tonight.

Rand made sure of Ryou's feet in the crude stirrups, handed him the reins and then reached up and tugged on his good forearm to get Ryou to bend down. The man was so tall that Ryou could look Rand in the face even from this height. Rand's eyes behind the sharp dagger of bangs were lined with crow's-feet, he was older than Ryou had initially thought, mid to late thirties. His gaze was hard, direct, and Ryou suddenly remembered how frightening and single-minded he'd been yesterday.

"His brother is my master, King Leyam Sirrianus," Rand said conversationally. "Darius Bher Polenius is the by-blow of King Narseh-Allit Sirrian, Leyam's father. Though he's not officially part of the royal lineage, Darius has been faithful to his brother through difficult times and is now Leyam's right hand in many matters. I've known them both since they were children, and Darius is very important to both King Leyam and myself. Thank you for bringing him back to us."

Then Rand stepped away, giving the horse a clap on the flank to get it started before Ryou could ask a question, or even close his mouth.

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A note from Mal Chants

I took yesterday off for my birthday, but I did want to keep my posting routine up as far as possible. February overall was a beast, but next week should see my spare time freeing up finally, so I might actually post mid-week again. Thanks for reading!


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Mal Chants

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