The room Ryou fled to was long and narrow, barely two meters wide. Footsteps in the larger space he'd just left prompted him to quickly pull the tapestry back into place like a door. A bit of light still snuck past it to illuminate rows of decorated wooden boxes, the larger ones on the floor, smaller ones lining two long shelves. Sandalwood and dried flowers scented the air, a relief from the charnel stink in the other room which Ryou was getting a little too good at not thinking about...he ditched that train of thought. It looked like he was going to have to reassert his moral compass here in the Outlands rather than in a shrink's office back home, and the result would undoubtedly be different, but one thing was certain: now was not the time to do it.

He'd stepped further into the room without thinking. He could barely see the chests anymore. At the far end of the walk-in wardrobe, another curtain was pulled aside, leading to yet another room, but that one was darkened and provided virtually no illumination. A sconce barely seen in the darkness held a candle, its creamy white wax a symbol of luxury in the Outlands, but Ryou had nothing to light it with, so he didn’t venture further. From Sezerena's room behind him he could hear Rand moving around near the marble desk. A shuffle of papers confirmed that the man was otherwise occupied, so Ryou dropped the embroidered blanket he'd been wearing and looked around for some actual clothes.

He flipped open the closest chest and found it filled with folded cloth. Ryou pulled out the top one, but it was just one large rectangular piece. So was the next. He opened the box to the right and pulled out yet another one. His fingertips could tell this one was a richer, smoother material, and there were embellishments embroidered on the edges. A cloak or a toga, he surmised. The chests on the top shelf were too small to hold clothes. He flipped open one of them out of curiosity, a lacquered box thirty centimeters wide for only a few high. It was filled with shallow clay pots, some open and revealing colored powders. It could be a cosmetic case or a medicine cabinet for all he knew. He closed it and investigated a large chest on the other side of the narrow room. Ah, finally some real clothes, he could tell from the way a hem caught his fingertips.

"Do you need assistance, sir?" Rand asked from right outside the dressing room.

"What? No," Ryou shot back, snatching up the article of clothing and fumbling it hastily, trying to find the way to put it on. He discerned the edges of a large hole at one end, and slipped it over his head.

"Allow me to come in." Rand lifted the side of the tapestry.

"I'm fine," Ryou answered from the folds of fabric he was pulling over his face. Fine linen slipped down his bare skin, unfortunately not fast enough to hide his nudity.

Rand was silent for a short moment, his head silhouetted in the hand-span of light from the main room. Then he pulled the curtain completely aside and walked in. "My pardon, but I think you do need my assistance."

"No, I can manage-"

"Since that is a woman's tunic you are putting on, and I'm fairly certain that was not your intent," Rand continued gravely, opening the first chest in the line.

Ryou looked down at what he'd slipped into. No, that hadn't been his intent. Besides, his selection was a soft tube of linen open both at the top and the bottom. He hadn't the faintest idea how this was supposed to be worn or held up.

"Did Darius tell you, ah...where I was from?"

"Yes, sir, from the Inlands." This seemed to perplex him not one iota, no more than finding Ryou undressed and alone with Darius in the first place. Ryou was trying to shake off the mental image of an imperturbable English butler...

"You can call me Ryou. If that's okay." He didn't have a clue where Rand featured in the Assyrian political landscape; he seemed to behave like a manservant, but armed soldiers jumped to obey him like he was a general. Rand also knew Darius's real name and could use it alongside the King from what Targuta had said. Ryou had the feeling there was a lot of power in those large unassuming hands. Having Rand call him 'sir' like he did Darius made Ryou nervous in an ill-defined way.

"If you wish," said Rand politely, holding up a plain brown tunic with long sleeves and a hem stitched in red thread. "This will have to do. The best clothes are in the Imperial style, which wouldn't be wise to wear right now. I'll look for something better for you at a later date, now we need to get out of here and back to Ghan's praetorium. The city has been declared safe by the General, but that makes the citadel fair game, and once precedence is sorted out and the tithes removed, things are going to get noisy."

"Noisy?" Ryou had taken off the woman's dress and was holding it against his body. "I can't hear anything. The fighting is over, isn't it?"

Rand studied Ryou in the dimness, eyes sober. "I've heard myths about the Inlands that recounted terrible wars, slaughtering numbers that would have decimated the Empire several times over. Is that true?"

"What? Well, I don't know about the numbers, but we've had wars of course. My country hasn't seen war on its soil in my lifetime, though."

Rand looked like he was contemplating that, eyes beneath the bangs wandering from Ryou to a shelf loaded with belts and shoes. "I see. My country has been at war all of my lifetime. Now I really do want to get you out of here." Rand didn't explain what he meant by that, he just pulled the unadorned brown tunic over Ryou's head. It smelled of old oak, and was probably meant to go under something more decorative. Rand grabbed an item from a small chest seemingly at random and looped a belt of metal links and a buckle inset with gems around Ryou's middle. Ryou didn't know about Aksumite or Assyrian style, but it was still pretty obvious this was the equivalent of putting a Rolex over the sleeve of a sweatshirt. Rand's hand on Ryou's elbow steered him out of the dressing room and back to the bed before Ryou could decide whether it made sense to say anything or not, about either the style or the absence of britches.

Ryou found himself sitting on the high bed before he could put together any comment. Rand's cloak, still with him since yesterday, was handed to him without a word. While he sorted that out, Rand knelt and laced up some new Roman-style sandals for him. Ryou was really going to have to find a way of asking the man who he was and what position he held in King Leyam's court.

Rand marched him just as ineluctably through the corridors and down the stairs of the citadel. There were soldiers in groups of six on every floor, eyes hard and weapons ready as if they expected an enemy attack still. There was a clamor from somewhere outside of the building. Ryou couldn't make anything of it out, it could have been a market-day brouhaha or the prelude to a counterattack for all he knew.

Rand seemed to know the citadel like his own home; he led the way without hesitation to a guarded side door. The men posted there stopped talking amongst themselves in eager whispers and saluted hastily when they saw the tall Assyrian. Rand did not pause, he opened the door and led Ryou out onto a fortification. It was a walkway built into a wall sided with wooden waist-high palisades. Ryou glanced over the left side to see a plunging view of the city. He hadn't had that good a look at Essin until now. The buildings near the palace looked Greek to his untutored eyes, but further down the street they changed almost abruptly to become the stacked squares of mud-bricks he'd seen in Palis. The three nearest streets were deserted. Near the wall a canvas awning had been torn down and trampled along with broken pots and a shattered stool, immediate signs of recent violence, but no people. Maybe they were hiding in their homes. Hadn't someone mentioned the city was to be kept safe?

"Tell me about the Inlands," said Rand, pulling him forward so fast that he staggered and had to hop to catch up.


"Lord Ghan was recounting a few anecdotes last night. It sounded fascinating."

'Who the hell are you, how much did Darius tell you, and aren't you the least bit surprised I showed up in bed with your boss after you saw me off in the opposite direction this morning?!' Ryou internally ranted, a fine thread of patience snapping from too many rapid changes in his situation accumulating since yesterday. Caution, ingrained composure and courtesy stopped him from showing any sign of his inner thoughts, of course. He wasn't really angry at Rand or at anybody, just...tired. He felt drained, now that he had the time to catch his breath after talking to Darius. It was an odd, internalized sensation of tiredness that was not physical. If felt- oh right. He'd felt this way before, when he'd moved the Honda through the dimensions, even though his fatigue wasn't anywhere quite as drastic after today's small hop. Made sense.

"How do your Inland chariots work? He described them, but he didn't know more about them."

"...You mean the cars?" Ryou glanced around as he heard someone shout a couple of streets away, a raucous cry that ended in an odd tremolo-

"Yes, those." Rand walked even faster, Ryou had to look straight ahead and trot to keep up with the taller man's strides.

"The border dwellers had a car. I don't see why this place is stuck in antiquity when-" that probably hadn't been diplomatic to say out loud.

"Border dwellers? Oh, those, yes. I've heard they find Inland wonders in the no man's land. They'll smuggle the smaller items as curios, but it's well known these treasures rapidly break down once the imprudent buyer has laid down good coin and the sellers have disappeared. Some say it is a curse. The Gods discourage those who seek magical means outside of the confines of their own soil. So do the Per Gathas," Rand added dryly, the tone telling Ryou whose strictures were more consequential. It seemed Rand was not an overly religious man.

"But Darius mentioned the Alliance has cannons." The wooden poles of the palisades rose and fell regularly, and sometimes came together to form little guard posts, empty at present. Ryou wondered how far they could go this way. From his view on the hillside, Ryou did remember the city of Essin had been divided into section by internal walls, doubling around the palace.

"Oh yes, but we make those weapons in Assyria. The Gods also encourage us to fight to the best of our abilities," Rand said with a touch of ironic humor.

"And the Per Gathas?" Ryou couldn't help but asking in much the same tone.

"They're either pretending we don't have them or that we invented them on our own." Rand's creased cheeks twitched, almost letting slip a smile. Ryou still wasn't sure about this man, but he thought he'd be able to get along with him.

They talked about cars, Gods and technology while the thin battlements gave way to a major one at the main wall. They walked along that until Rand lead him down into the fortifications and to the main gate, and from there on back to the camp Ryou had left behind only a few hours prior, though in terms of how far he'd come, both in distance and in burned bridges, it now felt like days. He stumbled after the taller man, ignoring curious looks from soldiers around them. Now that the adrenaline rush and endorphins were leaving his system, he was feeling increasingly tired, and his head was starting to throb. A migraine, it seemed, along with something akin to tinnitus... a distant scratching sound like static in his ears, heard only in the occasional lull between men shouting commands, the tromp of distant feet and the whinny of a recalcitrant horse.

Ryou shook his head to try to clear it, but it only made the ache worse. What he needed now was a nap. Then everything would be fine again.

A note from Mal Chants

Historically speaking, in the Greek and Roman epoch, cities that surrendered like Essin did were not too ransacked, though it's all pretty relative. Still, Rand has Ryou pegged as a civilized man who might not want to see the citadel itself get sacked by a bunch of loot-hungry soldiers...

About the author

Mal Chants


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