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"We're here," said Targuta, spurring on his horse to move on ahead past a decorative pillar to the top of what appeared to be a plateau.

"Is the passer there?" Opiashal shouted after him, but Targuta was too far up ahead to make out his answer.

Fifty meters further up, Ryou, Opiashal and Cregan joined him on the plateau and could examine for themselves a circle of stone similar to the one Ryou had already crossed twice, except no buildings whatsoever decorated it.

"Bugger those Per Gathas cocksuckers," muttered Opiashal.

"No passer?" guessed Ryou.

"No bloody sanctuary, is there." Opiashal pulled his horse to the left with a moody tug of the reins.

So the inn indicated the presence of a passer? Ryou's mind went back to the old woman who'd disappeared back in Palis, along with the lean-to near her; how they'd both vanished when she'd been attacked by that dog-headed monster. Because he could manage to feel worse, it seemed.

...That reminded him of how Darius had tried to cheer him up after that incident in his own very unique way. Slapping Ryou on the shoulder, increasing the pace to keep their minds off things that could not be changed, but dropping a silver coin they should probably have saved onto a temple altar in passing...

A medley of shouts and cheers shattered Ryou's reflection. He twisted around in his saddle to see his escort gathered to one side of the hill, looking down at a spot marked by a pall of smoke.

"What's going on?" asked Ryou, pulling his horse around and nudging it in their direction.

The crossing turned out to be on a height not that far from the city, which sprawled out in the valley below, an island of one-story stone houses in a lake of churned mud. They were high up enough where the soldiers running around were the size of ants, vanishing in and between the buildings. It wasn't clear from here, but it didn't look like they were encountering any resistance. Somewhere further off, a few buildings were burning; it was pretty much the only indication that anything ontowards was happening, it could have otherwise been a busy market day down there. Above the small houses, a citadel surrounded by its own inner walls reared up, in a terracotta colour, wide windows staring out on all sides like unseeing eyes. Most of the ants converged around it, rushed in and out of its many wings and battlements, its porticos and courtyards, all the way up to the large flat roof where a few of the tiny insects were unrolling a large red flag bigger than three of them. It spooled limp on the stone, slithered down the side of the roof, and wafted a little when a breeze caught the weight of its fabric.

The three soldiers were grinning at each other. Targuta graciously turned to share the news. "It's the banner, sir! The red banner of the Beast is floating over the citadel."

Ryou passed that information through his memories of indifferent history lessons and his movie knowledge. "You mean Darius captured the fort already?"

They were so elated they didn't even pick up the gaffe on the name. "Like an arrow's flight, I tell you, like an arrow's flight," Opiashal was saying, leaning over to slap Cregan on the back. "Nobody stops Lord Ghan. Sezerena's head is on a pike right now or you can have my nuts in a bag."

"Is D- is your leader alright? Can you tell?" asked Ryou.

"What? Oh hell, sir, don't worry about Lord Ghan," Targuta answered. "He's invincible. Best sword in Assyria. Inder himself has His hand over that man's head."

Ryou studied their wide grins. They were completely confident in what they were saying. They really believed Darius was some kind of- of mythical figure of demigod proportions. Ryou had seen Darius chew on a squirrel when there was nothing else to eat, he'd seen the man covered in mud and sweat, seen him laugh, seen him worry in that somber way of his, he'd held Darius's bleeding body against his own after saving his life; Ryou knew Darius was just a man.

Just call me Darius.

And of course, once Ryou allowed himself to see the whole picture instead of dwelling on the personally painful bits, things suddenly looked quite different. Sure, Darius had told Ryou next to nothing about himself on the face of it, as Rand put it so well. Except for the tidbit of information, right off the bat, that he, Darius, was trouble, and that he didn't want to get Ryou mixed up in it. So he hadn't told him about Ghan or anything, no. But what he had done was share with Ryou his name, his real name which only a handful of people were even familiar with. He'd avoided mentioning his lineage, but he'd talked intimately about his family, his past, about getting Ryou to meet this brother he looked up to...And just before that bloody Yrmah came down on them, Ryou felt pretty sure that Darius had been about to tell him the truth, give him an explanation to all this, and yeah, now that Ryou cast his mind back past the shock of getting shot at with an arrow a few seconds later, he remembered Darius saying that he'd trusted Ryou for a long time now, but that he'd not said anything because he liked...liked what? Liked having a friend seeing something other than Ghan the Beast's reputation, maybe? Liked to see how he measured up as just a man in Ryou's eyes?

"Oh look, there's Meromeidon's banner. I think it is. Cregan, you've got the sharpest sight, is that the Lion's Head?"

"Yessir, and those are his men. See the way the sun catches their armour? Different than ours."

"But it's Lord Ghan who got Sezerena's head, personally and with pleasure, I warrant."

Darius...

The banner fluttered from the fortification, tiny yet clear in the dry air; the smoke from the burning gate was drifting the other way.

Why couldn't Darius have given Ryou a reason for dismissing him like that...? If Ryou only had a reason, it'd make all these things in his head make sense. It'd join facts like, 'you've known him less than a month', 'you have nothing in common', 'you've been in danger or in pain or both since you've met him' and 'maybe what you feel for him is just a form of emotional dependency formed under the effects of stress, isolation and the reliance on his protection for survival'. If only he knew what Darius wanted.

If only Ryou knew what he himself wanted. Instead he was way out here sitting on a horse, thinking of the last time he'd felt something this achingly deep inside, back when he and someone he loved were in the same room within touching distance, but not looking at each other as they cut all ties between them and walked away for reasons of duty, family and the safety of the other.

Ryou took a deep breath, pushed up his glasses and made the sudden but necessary decision. "Excuse me," he said to Targuta.

"Hm?"

"Can we go back down?"

"Oh, sorry, sir. We were just- come on, lads, we need to get moving. We have to go to the Anwat crossing, since this one's closed. It'll take us a couple of days. I hope there's some kind of hostel on the road."

"There isn't," said Ryou, who had good cause to know having made the journey the day before yesterday. "But I meant, can we go back down to the Alliance camp? I need to talk to D- to Lord-" oh to hell with it. "I need to talk to Darius."

All three soldiers stopped manoeuvring their mounts around to stare at him.

"Uh, what?" asked Targuta.

"I need to talk to Darius," repeated Ryou, who had the feeling something under considerable pressure was breaking down inside him. Probably his sanity.

"But-" Targuta looked around in the apparent hope common sense could be conjured up from his two colleagues, the captured citadel below, the empty stone circle or his horse. "No, sorry sir. We've been ordered to accompany you to Aksum. Come on, men," he said sharply, as if putting the blame for this random and unreasonable demand on the dawdling of Ryou's escort.

"I understand that, but I really need to go back down. We can go to Aksum afterwards. Probably. I mean-"

Up until now, he had been the package to bring to Aksum, and Targuta had obviously not considered too hard what his orders implied. Ryou could see himself in the soldier's eyes vacillating between the man who'd been rumored to have helped Lord Ghan, and the weird-looking foreigner taking liberties with Lord Ghan's name whom Rand the Khinite had ordered them to escort to King Ka's capital. In short, Targuta was now forced to wonder if those orders meant that Ryou was a V.I.P to be protected, or someone that was being marched to Aksum under guard.

Ryou should have helped sway that verdict in his favor, but his mind was whirling too hard to come up with any persuasive argument. His silence and dead-set expression tipped Targuta's decision, unfortunately.

"Apologies, sir," said Targuta with a curt gesture towards the road leading down the other side of the col, away from Essin and the crossing. "We have our orders. You can't see Lord Ghan even if you wanted to, he's in the midst of a battlefield and too busy for details. Stay in Aksum until Rand the Khinite comes, and you can discuss it with him. Sir."

"You don't understand, I need to-"

- to talk to Darius, or Lord Ghan or whatever, and not just to get his version of events. Because whatever had been going through Darius's head this morning, it wasn't the only thing that mattered here. It would influence what Ryou eventually got from him, but it should not influence what Ryou desired in the first place, which was something he'd yet to figure out. Damn it, Ryou had been like this ever since he was thirteen; 'I know I can't have it so it is wiser not to want it'. Now he was going back to that same mold like the- the obedient office drone he was, and he didn't even know what he wanted. What the hell was he doing here in the first place? What did he want?

He wanted to sit by a campfire and get teased and laugh and hear stories. He wanted to ride through sunshine and through rain with a goal ahead and nothing left behind. He wanted to do something crazy based on instinct and desire rather than duty or logic, he wanted to burn his bridges and smile like he had no regrets.

He wanted Darius back.

If Darius didn't want him around, well then he was going to have to tell Ryou to his face, tell him as his friend Darius, not as bloody Ghan the Whatever surrounded by a dozen men who knew nothing about the them.

Targuta had moved his horse forward to Ryou's right side; Opiashal had followed his lead and was boxing Ryou in from the left. Ryou's horse, not the brightest of creatures, took this as an indication that it was time to move on again and followed their lead, docile.

Ryou glanced back, past the soldiers herding him towards the road to distant Anwat and eventually Aksum. The path back to Essin would be patrolled by troops of mounted riders looking for escaped enemy soldiers. That road led to the besieged city behind its high walls, now full of Alliance soldiers possibly still fighting their opponents street by street around the citadel, which was also full of soldiers likely to strike first and ask questions later. In that respect Targuta was perfectly right, Ryou was never going to reach Darius that way.

Cregan gave him a warning look and jerked his horse's head to the right to close the gap, ready to leap forward and intercept Ryou should the latter turn and try to bolt. But Ryou was looking beyond him, at the fortress in the distance, the blood red banner floating over it.

Then he looked at the circle of stelae they were skirting.

To him, it was no longer a simple strip of ground with a bunch of upright stones planted around it. Ryou's inner sense was stronger after walking the Paths behind two passers. He could feel it now; this small circle was a crux of possibilities, constantly shifting and malleable to the human mind. The stream running through the circle was a mighty river of flux, leading to a multitude of other regions. Not that he needed to leave Essin at present, no. All Ryou needed to do was to go from here to over there, from this circle of beaten sod to that tower where a blood red banner floated, close enough in the still air where it seemed Ryou could almost lean over and touch it.

He'd just been thinking he wanted to burn his bridges and do something crazy; this undoubtedly counted. But it was that or lose two days going to Aksum, with the risk Rand would not listen anymore than these men, and then where would Ryou and Darius be?

Ryou leaned forward, squeezed his legs, kicked his horse's flanks and whipped the reins sharply. The animal, the most placid critter in the entire army that Rand must have picked out purposefully for him at Darius's instruction, snorted in shock and bounced forward, more like a bunny than a steeple-chaser.

Cregan shouted behind Ryou. Opiashal made a flailing grab at Ryou's reins and missed.

Ryou's horse got the picture, sorted out its legs and cantered forward, away from the three escorting soldiers and right into the crossing.

"Hey!"

"Oh shit!"

"No! Come back!"

Ryou ignored the dizzy feeling as he passed the border delineated by the stones. He sat back normally and pulled on the left rein, slowing his horse and tugging its head around. The circle was on a slope. The stream came from a natural spring that burbled up just beyond two of the stones and trickled across the empty space. But Ryou didn't want to cross the water. He didn’t want to leave this plane, just simply be in another spot of it. In Euclidian geometry - the local geometry of choice, no doubt - the shortest distance between two points was a straight line; in this instance, a straight line only a bird could fly. But that axiom only held true in the three rigid dimensions it was born in. Not only were those dimensions influenced by other factors the Greeks could not have known about, but if one went further into abstract geometry and plunged those three dimensions into a higher space, they could be bent like a napkin and then the shortest distance between here and there was really no distance at all.

His unnamed sense stirred. Ryou didn't know how, but he knew he could do this. There was certainly some risk. Quite a lot of it in fact, and Ryou's bypassed common sense was busy tabulating it and throwing up all sorts of red flags at each imponderable. But it was possible and that was all that mattered at this point.

Oddly enough, the thought that flashed through Ryou's mind as he kicked his horse into a run was of the president, his father. This, what he was doing here, was what the president had seen in Ryou back then, during that shameful incident. The old man had known somehow that his otherwise disciplined son had this madness deep inside him, that he was capable of doing exactly what he was doing right now (well, not in any detail of course-) It was an oversimplification to say his father felt no affection for Ryou, or that he'd not operated in what he thought was his son's best interest. He had forced Ryou down the narrowest path and held him on a tight leash because he was - they were both - afraid of what Ryou might do one day if he ever let his feelings take over fully and threw away all that he had accomplished.

Then again, since he was in the Outlands in the first place, hadn't he done that already?

The air around Ryou changed and his horse's hooves no longer touched ground.

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A note from Mal Chants

Now Ryou's started cooking with gas. Assuming he doesn't end up in the back of beyond again. Whee!


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Mal Chants

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