Journey to the South

1

    My name is Tamojahneeli Gharan Kii and this is the story of my journey to the lands of the Tainir.

     In the Fiftieth Year of the Reign of Moynama Pahnot Gharan Udo I was summoned back to the Imperial City of Kravnu from my post in Harran, the capital of the province of Mughri’i, where I had been serving as chief diplomat to both the Imperial Prefect and the Mughri’i High Chieftain for nearly thirteen years. My predecessor had left much work for me to do, though I cannot fully blame him as he had inherited an impossible situation himself: in the Twenty-Seventh Year of Pahnot’s reign nearly a decade’s worth of war had finally come to an end between the Moy and the Mughri’i Confederation with the signing of the Plateau Accords, which of course brought the Mughri’i lands into the Moy as an Imperial Province, but left the Ghavri Plateau that stood in between the two peoples its own, independent territory. Though there were some grumblings regarding this from the Clan Fathers, it was a wise decision on the part of Pahnot: even had the Moy not just ceased hostilities after nine years of warfare, threatening the Ghavri monks and nuns who occupy the plateau would be insanity of the highest degree. But, to think that the signing of a document meant a complete end to military actions in the new province would be naive – the transition from independent, sovereign nation to member-state of an empire is never so cut-and-dried. Even now, after nearly a century and a half of Imperial rule, the Yevijiri occasionally rise up in rebellion against the sovereignty of the Moynama in their own province, so it is foolish to think that the Mughri’i – those fierce, nomadic warriors and raiders – would so easily bend knee to the Throne of Tides.

     And so I had labored for thirteen years, trying to mend fences and pacify proud warriors and chieftains who chaffed at the reality of having to follow the orders of a man whom they had never seen, never fought alongside, whom they had no respect or fear for. It was the exact same labor that my predecessor had spent a decade doing before he had met his untimely end at the blade of an audacious chieftain whom he had insulted. Said chieftain had been executed by the Imperial Prefect – a good man by the name of Minjalah Kiimar’ee Itam, who had who led the Imperial Legions against the Mughri’i during the war and won a certain amount of grudging respect from them. After the execution, I had been dispatched to Harran to pick up the pieces. But, unlike my ill-fated predecessor, I had the presence of mind to listen to Prefect Itam’s advice and within a few short years had won the trust of the High Chieftain and some of his subordinates.

     It was a long and hard business, putting out the fires continually ignited by a rebellious and angry populace, or by those Kravri who had moved to the new province and felt the natives to be little more than animals. I will say this: while the Mughri’i may be barbaric, violent, and aggressive, we Kravri were little better in those years. Many attempted to swindle the Mughri’i or treat them as less than Men. And for every inflammatory incident caused by an unruly Mughri’i warrior, there was at least one incident caused by a disdainful Kravri settler. But, with time and effort peaceful coexistence was able to take root, thanks to the strivings and sacrifices of such as myself, Prefect Itam, and even the High Chieftain. Such was the state of the province when word came from Kravnu that the Minister of Foreign Relations, Udanni Minjohn Yal, was calling me back to the Imperial City for re-assignment.

     I said my farewells to the High Chieftain, who gifted me with a scepter made from the leg-bone of a horse, adorned with leather-strips of horse-hide and short braids of horse-hair. Such an object is a traditional fetish carried by those elders among the Mughri’i who act as arbiters between clans, and I was deeply honored to receive it. I then bid farewell to Prefect Itam on the night before I, my family, and our retinue of legionnary escorts were to leave. And though he begged me to stay – quipping that any other diplomat would be less than a quarter of my worth at most – we parted on good terms, like brothers in arms. For even though open warfare had halted a decade prior to my arrival in the province, he and I had waged a war for peace side-by-side, and had shared many sorrowful losses and many jubilant victories together.

     The journey from Harran to Kravnu was an uneventful, if long, one. Since it was autumn, we had to take a longer route along the northern coast of Namshivah as opposed to ascending the Ghavri plateau. During this time of the year, the plateau begins to accelerate its seasonal changes toward winter much quicker than the lower lands around it, and it would be dangerous to get caught upon the plateau should a strong autumn storm rear its ugly head. So, we traveled northwest from Harran and within a weeks’ time crossed into Kravam province along the coast of the Krav. The winds were cold and fierce that year, and all of us were forced to wear heavy traveling cloaks, even the legionnaries who accompanied us.

     We were lucky, though, to have passed through Gharnu during the Festival of the Taming. For those that have either never experienced the Festival or are not of the Gharan clan, it is a wonderful time of joyous excess before the coming deprivations of winter. It comemorates a Gharanese story concerning Bianulii and Alu, when the goddess of love brokered a deal with her sister to take pity on the mortal folk by abating from pummeling them with harsh storms during the winter. The storm-goddess agreed to do so, but only if the Gharanese folk in return offered her a week of riotous celebration. And so, to this day, the Gharanese comemorate the deal by feasting, drinking, making love, and with good-humored inversions of the social order. But nowhere in all the lands of the Moy is the celebration of the Festival of Taming as vibrant and powerful as it is in Gharnu, its home. I was glad that my children were able to experience the Festival, as they had never seen the homelands of our clan, having been born and raised in Harran. As well, it had been decades since I had been able to experience it first-hand in Gharnu, and I had missed the festive atmosphere.

2

After the Festival of Taming ended with the traditional sacrifice of toads to Alu, we made our way south toward Kravnu. The journey took another month’s travel due to early winter storms forcing our convoy to seek shelter and rest within the some of the numerous small villages along way. When we arrived in Kravnu, both my wife and my children were astounded by the city, as none of them had ever seen the capital before. I must admit, that even I felt some stirring of emotion as our retinue ascended the peak of the Mount of Vines and looked down upon the Imperial City.

    It had been nearly fourteen years since I had last seen the capital and at that time the Great Renovation to the city first started by Moynama Ikaru Gharan Udo a century prior was just coming to an end. The city had been newly reshaped and looked so pristine it had felt like it had been made for dolls to inhabit. But as we looked down from the Mount, Kravnu looked lived in. Not terribly so, of course, but it looked more like a city inhabited by men and women, and that in itself was heartening.

    “Father,” my son, Rakaj, asked me as our carriage began the slow descent of the Mount, “how did they make it look like that?”

    For those who have not had the blessing of visiting the Imperial City, during the course of the Great Renovation the land under and around the city had been molded and shaped by the Priesthood of Namshiir, while the natural waterways and bays had been re-directed by the Priesthood of Krinai. Prior to the reign of Moynama Ikaru Gharan Udo, the city had consisted of a small archipelago of five islands, connected to each other and the mainland at the base of the Mount of Vines by ferries and bridges. Ikaru Gharan Udo, as any amateur historian would know, was a man who loved orderliness and patterns, and he disliked the disarray of the natural-state of the city that had grown since time immemorial. His Great Renovation had intended to reshape the islands into four concentric rings separated by waterways. At the center of the rings, a circular island hosting the Imperial Palace and the buildings of the Imperial Council would sit, with island and rings connected by a series of bridges and ferries – much like the city had previously been, but with more of the structure and order that Ikaru so loved.

    And so, over a century of slow and deliberate effort, the best magicians of the Priesthoods of the Kritanoi toiled at reshaping the Imperial City. The priests and priestesses of Namshiir used their magics to slowly move the earth and rock of the archipelago into the shape dictated by Moynama Ikaru, the priests of Krinai used their knowledge to re-direct the flow of the rivers, and the Priesthood of Tule made sure that the new “islands” would be strong enough to serve as foundations for residences, markets, garrisons, smithies and foundries. It was a wonder that few can truly appreciate since the changes were so slow in coming, but the fact remains that a Moynama wished to change the very land itself, and he made his wish reality.

    At the base of the Mount of Vines – which behind us stood bare in the harsh daylight of winter, its many vineyards covered in a thin layer of frost and snow – we wound through the outermost neighborhoods of Kravnu. Rakaj gaped at the sight of the great Towers of Plentitude that rose up here and there among the residences and shops. The Towers are an ingenious and awe-inspiring feature that is credited to High Priestess Komallo Sarrit of the Priesthood of Tule, one of the closest advisors of Moynama Ikaru Gharan Udo. Knowing that the city was meant to be a growing hub of culture and political power for the Moy, the High Priestess recognized that that meant an ever-increasing population. For most cities in the Moy, that would mean an ever-increasing burden upon the farmers who tilled the lands around them. Realizing that such a situation for Kravnu would be unsustainable, High Priestess Komallo proposed a solution: bring the farms into the city. Using the knowledge and skills of the Priesthoods of Tule and Namshiir, she devised a plan for wide towers – nearly a mile on each side – that would rise ten-stories into the sky. On each story earth would be piled on and crops would be grown or livestock would be raised, with the watering and the light being provided by ingenious arrangements engineered by the Priesthood of Tule, and the fecundity of the soil attended to by the Priesthood of Namshiir. In this way, the population could grow without over-burdening the outlying farms, and also make sure that even during sieges the Imperial City would be guaranteed a source of food.

    Suffice it to say, that in the near two decades since the Great Renovation was completed, many of the other great cities of the Moy – Gharnu, Noharnu, Minjahr, and others – have petitioned the Imperial Council and the Priesthoods of the Kritanoi for the funds and manpower to build their own Towers.

    We boarded the ferry that goes direct to the inner ring of the city, known as Namshital, and I took a small amount of pleasure in the awed gaping of my wife and children as we passed along one of the four canals that penetrate the three outer rings of the city. The outermost ring of Kravnu is primarily set aside to residences, both individual homes and tall blocks of insulae, along with five Towers of Plentitude per quarter-ring. The next ring in is primarily given over toward workshops, smithies, foundries, and other activities of industry; the majority of slave-quarters are kept on this ring, as well, even if their masters live elsewhere. The next ring is primarily occupied by activities and centers given over toward commerce and entertainment, with colossei, circenses, and amphitheaters.

    Namshital, or “the Little Earth-Dragon”, is generally a bustling hub of activity, like a hive of bees, as it is where the Great Bureaucracy and its agents reside. I was most familiar with this part of the Imperial City, as it is where the Bureau of Foreign Relations is quartered, and prior to my assignment to Harran, I had spent most of my time in Kravnu scurrying about the streets of Namshital on Bureau errands.

    Once we had disembarked from the ferry, we said our farewells to the legionaries who had escorted us all the way from Mughri’i province, giving them our deepest thanks and an appropriate gift for their long efforts. I accompanied my family to temporary lodging accorded to us by the Bureau and from there took a carriage to the Bureau’s main halls. I was greeted by the Lesser Minister, a plucky man of some forty years named Lilu Krari’u Nam, who made pleasant small conversation as we wound our way through the labyrinthine halls of the building to the office of Minister Yal.

    “Tamojahneeli, you old silver-tongue,” Udanni Minjohn Yal greeted me as we entered his office. “I take it that the trip from Harran was not too horrible?”

    “Of course not,” I replied to him, “I have been through worse. Though, I cannot say that my children did not complain once or twice. Or a good dozen times.”

    “Oh, I remember my own boys complaining about the length of a ferry-ride from here to Kravtal to see the chariot races,” Udanni laughed heartily. “It is the nature of children to be impatient.”

    “Indeed,” I said. “Forgive me for setting aside pleasantries, but what is this new assignment for me?”

    Udanni had smiled at me, grabbing a scroll from his desk. “Ah, ever eager for new work. I am not surprised. As you may have heard, the border skirmishes along the Tijhor River have come to an end, Moynama Pahnot has signed a treaty with Queen Ni’aal of the Sirraşi. It has been decided that due to your deft and successful handling of the Mughri’i that you are the perfect man to be the new ambassador to them.”

    I looked over the scroll as Udanni spoke: it had been a letter written in the Moynama’s own hand insisting that Udanni assign me to this post. Apparently the Moynama had been quite impressed with my work in the eastern province. I say this not as a boast, but as a humble acknowledgement of how dedicated and serious work can be rewarded. “No…I was not aware of that,” I said, my attention primarily focused upon the finely written words before my eyes. Even in his eighties, the Moynama had exquisite and masterful penmanship.

    “No matter,” Udanni said. “You leave within the fortnight. You shall travel south into Tijhor province, then east to Akhem, then you shall take a ship south along the coastline to the Sirraşi capital of Sirr.” The Minister of Foreign Relations clasped my hand and shook it firmly. “Congratulations, Chief Ambassador Tamojahneeli Gharan Kii.”

3

I left Minister Udanni Minjohn Yal’s office with a continuing feeling of astonishment and surrealism.  The Moynama himself had picked me by name for this post – it was almost too much to believe. On the carriage ride back to the lodgings that the Bureau had provided I sat in a shocked silence, the weight of this revelation consuming my thoughts until the driver stirred me from my reflections with the announcement that we had arrived.

    I informed my wife, Viro, of the appointment and that it meant traveling to a land even more foreign and strange than Harran had been. For the Tainir are not Men, even though they bear a vague resemblance to us in their appearance and some of their customs, and the strain of such an alien environment might put such stresses upon my family that it worried me to have them accompany me. But, Viro – with a smile and a touch – assured me that she and the children were stronger than I gave credit, and that if they could survive the barbarism of the Mughri’i every day for thirteen years, this land of strange creatures would be no harder for them to adapt themselves.

    Over the following days our time was divided between making the arrangements for the journey south – confirming the itinerary, making sure that our provisions were sufficient, meeting with the legionary escort – as well as taking advantage of the opportunities of being in the capital. A few days after my meeting with Minister Yal, Udanni and his sons invited myself and Rajak to the chariot races on Kravtal. The boys raced about the ferry playing as Udanni and I shared stories of the past few years and conversed about politics and the state of the Moy. Once on Kravtal we rode a carriage to the circus and Rajak, I must say, was overjoyed to walk the stone halls of the circus, to climb up to the sectioned off seats that Udanni had procured for us, and to witness the excitement of the races. It warmed my heart to see the boy so astounded by the sights and activities of the Imperial City: all he had ever known was the makeshift city of Harran, raised up by the High Chieftain as part of the Plateau Accords. To see the majesties of Kravnu and of what his people could achieve, I knew that it would inspire the boy to achieve his own greatness.

    The day before we left was the Triumph of Krinai, the festival and parade commemorating the god’s victory over the giant, Yetimij, who was both his father and grandfather. Never before had I had the good fortune to be in the Imperial City during mid-winter when the festival takes place, symbolizing the consumption of Yetimij’s heart by the primordial fire-dragon, Tulaar, becoming the sun that shines down upon us all. The parade is initiated at the cavern-shrine at the base of the Mount of Vines that the Priesthood of Krinai holds that his mother-sister, Namshiir, hid him away in until he was grown; having him nursed and tutored and trained far from the jealous eye of Yetimij. A spearfish is offered to the god of sea and battle, since the stories tell of how his first weapon was made from the bill of the fish, and then the High Priest of Krinai leads a winding parade from the mainland across the rings of the city, crossing the open waterways by the many stone bridges that link them. Finally, the parade comes to an end at the Imperial Temple that lies upon the palace grounds, and a ritual re-enactment of the giant’s slaying is performed by priests of Krinai upon a great, clay effigy of Yetimij, which is filled with sweetmeats and other delicacies that are given out to the Imperial family and other, select attendees. With that climax to the parade, three days of festivities are begun in honor of the act that inaugurated the reign of the Kritanoi over the world.

    We were lucky that our lodging on Namshital overlooked the route that parade took on its last leg before crossing to the Isle of Sovereignty, and we could watch the procession from the terrace of our rooms. It was amazing to see the war-priests of Krinai, all dressed in their ritualistic lorica marching in lockstep formation, the movement one long cyclic ritualized dance that they repeated hundreds, if not thousands, of times between the Shrine of the Cave and the Imperial Temple. They were not the only ones, though: the priests of Krinai were followed by the priests and priestesses of Bianulii, dancing their seductive dances, symbolizing the aid and support the goddess gave to her brother as he went off to slay their tyrannical progenitor. Behind the devotees of Bianulii came wagons bearing the clerics of Tule, the wily smith-god, with them imitating their patron’s forging of the mighty weapons that he armed his siblings with prior to their battle with the giant. All of the Priesthoods had representatives in the parade, but as it went by the sights and sounds all blurred together into a riotous experience of emotion and awe at the displays of piety and exuberance.

    Of course, Viro and I – like many others – had shared several drinks of the holiday’s traditional corn-spirits. That may have blurred my recollection some, but I still look fondly back the memory of looking down from the terrace and seeing all of the denizens of the Imperial City gathered in the streets to celebrate the Kritanoi, and being awed by it.

4

In the morning we woke to find the carriage that would take us to the mainland already waiting outside our lodgings. As we dressed, slaves owned by the Bureau carted off to the carriage our belongings that had traveled with us from far-off Harran and would accompany us to far-off Sirr. It was still early morning when we departed the lodgings and the carriage began its trek through the streets of Namshital to the ferry docks, Tulaar’s light rosy and deep orange and barely peeking out past the peak of the Mount of Vines. The streets were relatively clear from the previous day and night’s festivities, which was not altogether surprising – the first day of the Triumph is the most enthusiastic and exciting of the three days of the holiday, and the morning of the second day is usually quiet as the revelers slowly nurse their way back to functionality.

    The waters of the Bay of Ikaru – renamed during the Great Renovation from the handful of rivers and bays that had previously occupied the land since time immemorial – were choppy and dark as we rode the ferry passed Kravtal, Keital, and Tulaatal prior to berthing at the docks in the deep shadow of the Mount of Vines. Mist crawled out of the bay and through the streets as our carriage took us back up the Mount, pausing for several moments at Viro’s request for us to look out over the expanse of the Imperial City one last time – for Keitu only knew when we would have the good graces to look upon it again – and take in its dawn beauty.

    We descended the Mount to the legionary garrison that stood at the foot of the mountain and there met our escort, a turma of cavalrymen who would see us safely to the port-city of Akhem in Yevij province. Their leader, a Decurio named Lilu Krari’u Amat, was a good-natured man, and with a bit of the philosopher in him I found during our journey. We did not tarry long within the walls of the garrison, pausing only to break our fast with the legionaries, and then headed out upon the Imperial Road while Tulaar was still only a few hand spans above the horizon. We took the road east, our destination being Tarahn, that old capital of the I’igaruu clan, where we would likely lodge for a few nights after nearly a week of travel before turning our course south. The journey to Tarahn was quiet, if a bit cold even within the comfortable confines of the carriage, all of us wrapped in thick, winter cloaks. We passed steadily through the rolling countryside of Kravam province, the heartland of our people’s ancestral home. Here it was, in ancient days that the Seven Great Clans of the Kravri would brush up against one another: either in trade, in worship, or in warfare. Here it was, centuries prior to now, that the warlord Jarutu Nohn Kriiv united the clans in a confederation against Tijhori conquerors from the south and then, less than two decades later, crowned himself the first Krava U’garichii – “Monarch of the People”. Here it was, more than five centuries after that first coronation that Hijamahneeli Gharan Udo took upon himself the mantle of Moynama and established the Krava Moy.

    This countryside was truly steeped in history and it was those thoughts that occupied much of my time as we journeyed forth toward Tarahn.

5

Despite the season, the weather did not impede us and we entered Tarahn five days after leaving Kravnu. While the Imperial City is magnificent and awe-inspiring due to its newness and the magnitude of its construction, Tarahn is a city steeped in the majesty of history. Its spires and temples rise high above the rooftops, marvellous not only for their size and architecture but for their age. The Towers of Tarahn were being raised at the same time that Jarutu Nohn Kriiv was uniting the clans, for the I’igaruu had been quite rich in metals and stone due to the hilly nature of their countryside, and ever since they had been meticulously cared for by the populace of Tarahn. In fact, it is said by scholars, that when Hijamahneeli Gharan Udo was uniting the Kravri beneath his banner during the Years of the Warring Clans, the Clan Fathers of the I’igaruu agreed to an armistice so as not to risk damage to the city. While many I’igaruu at the time felt the move cowardly and weak, it was at least wise in the respect that such priceless heirlooms of Kravri artistry and craftsmanship were preserved for future generations.

    And those heirlooms rose upward as we entered the city’s main gates, seeming to scrape against the steel-grey winter clouds that filled the sky above us and held the threat of snowfall. Decurio Amat led our convoy to an inn and hostelry that he informed us was regularly used to quarter legionary troops passing through the city, and that it would be acceptable lodgings for the next day or two as we replenished supplies for the journey south into Tijhor province. The legionaries were kind enough to haul our belongings up to our rooms as Amat negotiated with the innkeeper, the Decurio insisting that we rest by the inn’s main hearth-fire and fill our bellies. As we did so, one of the innkeeper’s children, a girl of no more than nine years and thus of an age with Rajak, appeared alongside her mother when the woman presented us with our meals. The two children quickly took to one another and when he was finished eating, my son was able to wheedle assent from me to let him go play with the girl, whose name was revealed to be Kamalla.

    I look back at that day and wonder if, perhaps, I had not let Rajak go play with the girl then perhaps some of the tragedy of our journey would have been averted. But, as it was, I did let the boy go play, thinking nothing of the games of children.

    However, when Rajak and Kamalla returned some two hours later, my son was covered in scrapes and bruises and the two children were escorted by one of the Gromothim. Though I think it unlikely due to their near ubiquitous presence within the Moy these past few centuries, for those who have never seen one of the Gromothim, I shall presently provide a description:

    Members of the race are by-and-large short of stature and this one was no taller than Rajak. Generally covered in a thick pelt of brown or black fur, the beings resemble some of the small apes of the Southern Yevij, and were it not for the fact – attested by some of the Moy’s most eminent scholars, mind you – that the Gromothim actually hail from the Encircling Mountains far from the shores of Namshivah, one might make the mistaken assumption that they were related to those impish beasts of the tropical forests. The Gromothim mostly dwell underground in caverns and caves that they make more hospitable with their own masterful stone-working, and thus when they walk the surface in the daylight they tend to wear goggles of leather with darkened lenses. Their dress is more akin to that of the Yevijiri than of the Kravri – again, a point of contention among the ignorant who believe them related to Yevijiri apes – in that both the males and females generally only wear sandals and skirts of linen cloth, usually dyed and covered in geometric patterns. Some adorn themselves with jewelry of obsidian and lapis lazuli and other stones, but this particular specimen was not adorned in such a manner. No, he wore a rather threadbare winter cloak over his people’s traditional skirt and sandals, and not much more from what I could ascertain at the time.

     “What has happened?!” I demanded, my gaze going from Rajak, to Kamalla, to the unknown Gromothim.

    It was the girl who spoke first, relating the following story:

    After the children excused themselves to go play, they left the inn and took to a vacant lot not far away. There, they played several games of seek-and-hide along with other banal entertainments that children invent to keep themselves occupied. But, before long, they were confronted by some other children in the neighborhood who did not like the wealthy look of Rajak’s apparel and attempted to intimidate him into handing the clothing over. My son – I must say with no small amount of pride – would have nothing of the sort and faced down the leader of the small, juvenile band. Unfortunately, while Rajak has the heart of veteran legionary, he had not the skills or strength, and the other boy soon had him on the ground, where Rajak was given a pummeling.

     It was then, Komalla said, that the Gromothim interceded and drove the young bullies away.

    “I happened to be walking by, on an errand for my master,” the male said, somewhat bashfully as his goggled eyes never left the floorboards of the inn’s main room. And then his head snapped up with realization. “My master!”

    One of the more impish servitors of Keitu must have been watching over us that day, for just as the Gromothim said this, the inn’s main door slammed open and in strode a furious looking man. He had a thick winter cloak of bear’s fur, trimmed with wolf’s fur, over his shoulders and covering the regal-looking robes he wore underneath. His hair was dark and long enough to have small ringlets, such is the style for I’igaruu men not serving in the legions, and his eyes while green blazed with a fiery-heat as they alighted upon the Gromothim.

    “Cuahuatec!” The man said angrily, striding over to the Gromothim male and towering over him. “I told you to go the butcher’s while I shopped for clothing, now I find you here?! Explain this adequately and I may go light on the lashings you receive, you cur.”

    At that point I felt moved to speak up, and cleared my throat which drew the man’s attention. “I believe your servant here–”

    “Slave,” the man said flatly. “This creature is not so graced as to be a ‘servant’.”

    Viro tells me that I grunted somewhat unhappily at this moment, but truth be told I do not quite recall. I do remember the following: “Well, sir, this slave of yours happened to be upon the errand which you sent him, when he came upon my son here and his friend being harassed and assaulted by some local youths. He came to their defense and I believe escorted them back to here so that they might be safe. Believe me, that he – and you, of course – have my gratitude.”

    The man made a somewhat disgusted sound. “And who are you that I should be thankful to have your gratitude?”

    I cleared my throat once again, standing from the chair that I had occupied and leveling my gaze with the man. “I am Chief Ambassador Tamojahneeli Gharan Kii, of the Bureau of Foreign Relations,” I said calmly and matter-of-factly. “Who, pray-tell, are you, good sir?”

    The man’s face fell ever so slightly, but he recovered quickly. Looking back, I assume that his temper gets the best of him quite often and he is no stranger to having to smooth over his actions around those of important station. “I beg your pardon, Ambassador,” the man said. “I am Natallu I’igaruu Jaa, eldest son of the late Martale I’igaruu Jaa, Father of the Jaa.” He glanced down at the Gromothim, Cuahuatec. “This creature vexes me quite often and raises my ire, but I know that I should not let my emotions control me so. Please, let me make it up to you in some way.”

    I held up a pacifying hand. “There is no need…”

    But Natallu was not listening, instead he was looking around the inn. “I know!” he crowed. “This is such meager accommodations for one such as yourself, I insist that for however long you are staying in Tarahn, that you stay with me. I have a small estate not far from the city that is quite a bit more…how should I say it?” he dragged the tip of his boot through some dust and dirt on the floorboards. “Equal to the expectations of one of your station?”

6

 Despite my polite declines and the protestations of Decurio Amat, we found ourselves reluctantly bundled into the carriage and our turma of legionaries escorting us to the estate of Natallu I’igaruu Jaa. While I had no deep desire to spend any more time with this haughty nobleman, and while the Decurio was quite right that it deviated from the approved itinerary, Natallu was the current Father of one of the I’igaruu clan’s major families and to insult him would not be a good idea.

     Our carriage and escorts followed behind Natallu’s carriage, weaving through the streets of Tarahn until we exited through its southern gates and took the Imperial Road through the rolling, snow-covered countryside. Natallu spoke honestly enough: his estate was not far from the city, only a handful of miles from the southern gate. As we approached closer, the main house of the estate rose up, it’s whitewashed walls and snow-laden tile roof standing in contrast to the surrounding firs and naked oaks. Beyond, we could glimpse several orchards, a few empty fields that no doubt would hold corn when the land began to warm, and an extensive vineyard. We passed through the gates of the main house and into the central courtyard, where we came to a stop behind Natallu’s carriage. Amat and a handful of his men entered the courtyard with us, but the main contingent of the turma circled around the house to the barn.

     “I humbly welcome you to the House of Jaa,” Natallu said with a flourish as we stepped out of our carriage, Viro and the children standing behind me. Natallu took one look at Rajak and frowned. Turning to Cuahuatec he glared down at the Gromothim. “You! What are you doing standing there? Go get Millaro and have her attend to the young master’s wounds. Quickly now!”

    Nodding fervently, the Gromothim slinked off through one of the doors leading off of the courtyard.

    “We appreciate the gesture,” I said to Natallu, trying to sound as grateful as possible.

    The young nobleman grinned broadly and gestured for us to follow. “Please, come. I will have the slaves take your belongings to your quarters while we sit down to supper.”

    We followed from the courtyard into the house’s atrium, which was decorated with several mosaics depicting the House of Jaa’s bravery during the conquest of the Tijhori peoples and during the Years of the Warring Clans, along with several abstract tapestries done in the Gharanese style. We were quickly shown the quarters where we would be staying – “we” including the Decurio, of course, but his men would be sleeping in the slave quarters and the barn. Amat and I were less than happy with this, but I counseled the legionary that we must be gracious guests to this uninvited host. After all, it would only be a night or two at most, and surely the men in his turma had slept in worse conditions.

    Supper was roasted goose, cornbread, a variety of cooked vegetables, and – I must admit – a wine of a particularly good vintage. Sadly, the food was the best part of the meal as Natallu insisted on regaling us with tales of how his ancestors had served the Moy, of how his dearly-departed father had led a legionary wing during the conquest of the Mughri’i which had led to him losing a leg in battle. After that, the elder Jaa had experienced declining health ever since he had returned from the eastern province, until five years prior he had slipped away from consumption and left the running of the House of Jaa to Natallu, his heir. Natallu told us all about his younger brother, a Tribune in the legions stationed along the Tijhori River the last that he had heard, and about his elder sister who had married into the House of Paniil, one of the other major families of the I’igaruu.

    However, Natallu said little about the accomplishments of himself – aside from the timely death of his aging father, that is. But, during supper we unfortunately got to see what it was that Natallu I’igaruu Jaa did best: act the part of petty tyrant to his slaves. He constantly redressed them for being too slow, for not showing enough respect to his “honored and distinguished guests”, and at one point offered to let me personally whip Cuahuatec for not bringing the matronly Millaro quickly enough to tend to my son’s wounds. Never mind the fact that master had not told slave where to bring the nurse, of course. In Natallu’s mind, it was obvious that if his slaves did not anticipate his every whim and choice, they were doing a terrible job.

    Looking back upon the man, I still find it baffling that his younger brother had not been called back from service to charge of the House, due to his elder sibling being found dead of poisoning.

    I, of course, declined the offer to whip the Gromothim male, but nevertheless we had to bear witness to the slave’s muffled cries of pain as Natallu applied his “firm and just hand”. While slavery is a reality of the Moy and the world, I despise any man who refuses to recognize the innate personhood of his slaves – whether they be Men or Gromothim. To treat a slave in the manner that Natallu treated his, lowers a man beneath even the type of creature who would abuse his own animals simply because he could. And so, my heart went out to Cuahuatec and the others owned by Natallu I’igaruu Jaa.

    No doubt, it was that empathy which forced my hand.

7

In the morning we broke our fast with Natallu, dining on pastries, porridge, and some jerked meat. As we ate and made small conversation with our host, Cuahuatec was among the slaves who served us, and it soured my stomach to see the drying wounds from the lash marring his skin and matting the fur on the Gromothim’s back. Luckily, I had satisfied my hunger by that point and my lack of eating raised no questions, but the sight disturbed me on a level that haunted me even while I, Viro, and Decurio Atam went riding with Natallu afterward.

    The young Father of House Jaa gave us a tour of the estate’s grounds, explaining how they primarily raised corn and grapes, but also husbanded sheep. Viro, who has always had more of the draw toward Namshiir and matters of agriculture, mainly engaged Natallu during this tour which gave Atam and I the opportunity to converse.

    “How much longer will it take to procure the supplies for the next leg of our journey, sir?” I asked in a hushed voice, riding alongside the Decurio.

    “Another day should be all, Ambassador,” he replied. “We could have left today if we had not had to move lodgings. It is taking a little longer to get everything shipped out to the estate.”

    I had frowned at that. “Would it be possible…to perhaps have the supplies meet us on the road?”

    The Decurio raised an eyebrow. “You would like to leave sooner, I take it?”

    My gaze had drifted off over the empty fields of the Jaa Estate, covered in snow that had fallen during the night. “Aye. Such a man as our host…I am soured by the way that he treats those beneath him.”

    Atam nodded. “I will send three of my men back to Tarahn as soon as we return to the house with the orders. When would you like to depart, sir?”

    I remember chuckling darkly. “I would like to have departed last night after hearing him whip that poor slave. There is discipline and then there is cruelty, and do not believe that Natallu cares about the difference. If he even knows what it is.”

    The legionary grunted. “You do not wish to witness such barbarism anymore, sir?”

    I frowned deeply at that. “I wish that the poor slave did not have to undergo such sadistic treatment. He saved my son, by Krinai! And I have seen nothing out of his behavior that seems to merit the punishments that our…respected host seems to dole out at a moment’s notice.”

    “Then why not take him with us?”

    I glanced at Atam with a questioning look. “What are you proposing, sir?”

    The Decurio shrugged. “Buy him off of Natallu, if you have to do so. If you feel for the creature and desire to change his circumstances, then why not do so, sir? We can easily support the additional mouth to feed. And we were going to keep the extra wagons for the supplies – he can ride in one of those, if that is your wish.”

    I grunted thoughtfully at the proposition. “I…I believe I will do so. Thank you for your counsel, Decurio.”

    When we returned to the house, the legionary officer departed to find his men and Cuahuatec approached with my children in his wake, quite happy to see myself and their mother. I drew aside the young Father of House Jaa, informing him of our imminent departure.

    “I am much saddened to hear that, Chief Ambassador,” Natallu said with a frown. “May I ask why?”

    “Timing,” I replied, lying only a little. “Unfortunately, we are to have a ship waiting for us in Akhem and we must continue our journey with haste. We thank you for the generosity of opening your house to us, of course.”

    Natallu’s face was neutral, but he nodded his agreement. “Indeed. It has been a pleasure, sir, and an honor.”

    “There is…” I hesitated a moment. “There is another matter: I wish to purchase Cuahuatec.”
“What?!” the nobleman asked, taken aback. “I…why?”

    “Well, the Gromothim has definitely shown loyalty, he seems like an able slave – of which I happen to be in need. And besides…it appears you may have too many on your hands. I simply wish to acquire a necessary servant and help lighten your load some.”

    “Well, I…” Natallu began, then he scowled. “This is because of last evening, is it not? Did that miserable cur say something to you? Cuahuatec, come here!” The Gromothim male approached cautiously, already beginning to shrink into himself. “Did you lie to this honored gentleman here? Did you beg for him to take you away from me?”

    The Gromothim shook his head in the negative, but seemed unable to speak he was so afraid. “Lies!” Natallu snarled, backhanding the little slave across the face and sending him tumbling backward into the snow.

    It surprises me to this day, but I found myself standing between the young Father of House Jaa and his slave, staring the man down. “I rescind my offer to buy him off of you, Natallu I’igaruu Jaa. I am commandeering him in the pursuit of Bureau duties. He will be coming with me.”

    “How dare you?!” snapped the nobleman, his eyes burning.

    “I dare because I can,” I replied levelly. “Do not tempt me into making sure that the Bureau of the Treasury decides that your House will be requiring a full and extensive audit of taxes due for the next decade or so. Trust me: I have more than enough friends there who would be happy to do so upon my recommendation.”

    The nobleman stared at me, the fury evident in his eyes, his nostrils flaring wildly. “Fine,” he said, then turned and walked toward the house. “Leave my estate within the hour. Otherwise I will consider you and you retinue trespassers.”

    Sighing, my heart drumming hard in my chest, I looked down at Cuahuatec and offered a hand to the slave. He meekly accepted it and stood up, wiping blood from his lips.

    “You did not need to do that, sir,” the Gromothim said softly.

    “Nor did you need to continue suffering underneath the tyranny of that…that boy,” I said, casting a glance toward the house. “But, come: we all must make ready to be on the road.”

8

We left the estate as swiftly as we could, both because of Natallu’s forceful request and because we had no desire to tarry there any longer than was necessary. We made our way south on the snow-dusted Imperial Road, the Gromothim slave, Cuahuatec, joining us in our carriage for the first day of travel until the supply wagons caught up with us.

    Viro continually surprises me at times, and this was leg of our journey was one of them. While the Gromothim shared our carriage, my wife applied the small amount of medical knowledge she learned during our years in Harran, when she would volunteer her time assisting the priests and priestesses of Jailii. She treated the slave’s wounds and bound them as best she could with the little supplies that Atam’s legionaries had available. Her empathy and willingness to care for those who need it is one of the ever-present traits Viro possesses that always reminds me of why exactly I love her.

    The rest of the journey was rather sedate and boring, I must admit. We traveled south through countryside that was almost continually white, though occasionally some greenery from a fir or a pine fight its way free from the snow that covered the land and other a brief splash of variety in the otherwise monotonous landscape. We nighted most often in various inns found along the roadside or in the small villages that clustered around the Imperial Road. It had been years, if not a decade or more since I had spent so much time away from the larger cities or centers of political power, and I found it refreshing to interact with so many of the common folk.

    Eventually, after three more weeks of travel, we eventually crossed into Tijhor province. For those who have never traveled there, the region is still heavily forested despite having been brought into the Moy even before Hijamahneeli Gharan Udo abdicated to his son. The country is much less hilly than Kravam province is and where there are not trees or villages or the occasional city, there are vast fields of grass. In fact, when I first caught sight of one of the Tijhoran grasslands, I was reminded of similar country in Mughri’i province; though, of course, there, the grasslands are smaller, due to the steppes.

    As we first entered the Tijhoran countryside, I couldn’t help but think of all the old histories that spoke of this southern land and its barbaric inhabitants. In the ancient days, before Jarutu Nohn Kriiv, the Tijhori – or, the Tijhorekyi, as they refer to themselves, the “Children of the Mother” – would regularly raid the lands of our ancestors. In fact, the academies of Noharnu, I am told, contain more than one history that lists one Tijhoran tribe or another as being the perpetrators of the sacking and pillaging of that old city. In my mind’s eye, as we passed into the darkened forests, I could see the ancient savages, wearing their animal furs, carrying spear and sword and axe, flitting from tree to tree. Their eyes always turned northward. Eyes filled with greed and envy.

    The image sent a shiver down my spine that I brushed off as simply the chill from outside. For I knew that the Tijhori had long been members of the Moy and were no longer the savages who precipitated the elevation of Jarutu Nohn Kriiv to the Throne of Tides. But, I would be lying if I did not admit to having dreams that first night filled with wolves, steel, and blood amongst the shadows of the trees.

9

My childish misgivings and fearful imaginings of dark, haunted forests filled with blood-thirsty savages proved to be so much useless worrying. The first settlement we came upon during our journey south through the snow-covered forests of pine and oak and ash, was a large village called Jitra. Surrounded by farms growing corn, wheat, barley, and raising cattle, sheep, and pigs, the village itself was a cluster of brick buildings covered in stucco and white-washed. The traditional Kravri style of architecture.

    We stopped briefly in Jitra to take a meal and to stretch our legs, and found the populace to not only be a mix of Kravri and Tijhori families, but to be some of the most generous folk I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They offered us food and drink, feed for the convoy’s horses, and even extended quarter in their meager homes for us. While we gladly accepted to break bread with the villagers, we had to be back upon the Imperial Road before Tulaar began westering. The images of fur-clad savages disappeared from my mind as I watch Rajak and my daughters playing with the village children while we adults shared a meal. Even should those nightmarish phantoms of the past still exist somewhere in these southern forests, how could I fear them when my own children felt no fear in playing with their children?

    As we prepared to leave, the villagers of Jitra gifted us with a cask of ten year old mead and wished us the good favor of Tule as we traveled. While we passed through yet one more naked, icy forest, my mind reflected upon that prayer to the Kritanoi on our behalf. I had noticed that many of the villagers of Tijhori stock had wished us Tule’s blessing, right alongside their Kravri neighbors. Though, logically, such a thing was not unusual – the Moy had never sought to wipe out the cults or religious practices of those people it absorbed, unless said traditions posed an active threat to the state. Why should the Tijhori not wish us the blessings of the Kritanoi? It was just as likely that they worshiped the Kritanoi as it was that they worshiped the traditional, ancestral gods of their people.

    And yet, the thought gnawed at me and I tried to remember what I knew of the Tijhori myths and cults. The Tijhori counted themselves as, ultimately, the “Children of the Mother”, with said “Mother” being the mighty Tijhor River that served as an outlet from the Yevij Sea to the Serranian Ocean. Nearly all tribes of the Tijhori claim descent from the People of the River, their pantheon of gods, who are the offspring of the Tijhor and Ulusas, their name for Tulaar. The People of the River, in the Tijhori tales, went about shaping the land and giving its form, eventually going to war with an elder race of beings who dwelt in the dark reaches of the rocky earth. When the elder race had been defeated and chased back into their deep caverns, the People of the River shaped men and women from a pair of trees, gave them life, and then went about interbreeding with them, giving rise to the Tijhori tribes.

    That was the extent of my knowledge of Tijhori beliefs at the time. I knew not what deity they would have invoked had they called upon their gods for our safety upon the road, but something still teased at my mind that they should have invoked their own gods. Why I felt that, I still do not know.

10

A week out from Jitra we came to standstill in a village named Kallanha. A blizzard blew in from the Serranian, forcing us to seek the hospitality and shelter of the village. When we had first come to Kallanha, it had been one more stop on the Imperial Road before we reached the city of Yantih, where we would turn east toward Yevij province and the port-city of Akhem. It should be noted that Kallanha was one of the first truly Tijhori settlements we had passed through, every other town or village had been much like Jitra: mostly Kravri in its appearance and influences, with perhaps a touch of Tijhori artistry displayed here and there.

    Kallanha was different, though.

    When we first approached the hamlet, I had initially thought that we were approaching some kind of old barrow-complex. Such things were not unheard of, even in the lands of Kravam province. Some scholar speculate that perhaps the lands of Namshivah were once inhabited before the peoples of the Kravri, the Tijhori, the Yevijiri, and all others first arose and settled here. But, my initial guess was wrong. What I had taken for grass-covered barrow-mounds were in fact dwellings. Decurio Atam informed us that the traditional Tijhori method of building was to build the walls of dwellings and public structures with locally available stone, then construct a roof of thick tree limbs in a lattice-work. Finally, sod would placed atop the lattice work. The buildings themselves were usually long and somewhat ovoid in shape, which is exactly I witnessed as we approached Kallanha.

    Considering we were stranded in the Tijhori village for near on a fortnight, looking back I find it ironically humorous that the forested Tijhori lands around Kallanha were not only free of snow, but so warm that we had done away with wearing our heavy winter cloaks the day before we came to the village. Atam, who by his admission had seen a tour in Tijhor province many years ago – prior to the border war with the Sirraşi – informed us that it was not unusual for the forests to grow warmer closer to the Tijhor River, and that even farther north it was sometimes possible to feel temperatures akin to spring in the dead of winter.

    So it was when we came to Kallanha: warm and dry, with only the occasional flare of a northerly wind to raise goose-flesh. The villagers were friendly enough, of course, but seemingly wary of us. Perhaps “wary” is not the best word to describe them. They were not afraid of us, this much is true, but they kept an emotional distance from us that was different from some of the previous villages. I would surmise that they were taking their time to judge us before showing us anything more than the polite and hospitable faces that custom dictates hosts show guests and travelers.

    The first to greet us was a bearded man by the name of Cael who could not have seen more than thirty summers, and introduced himself as the chief of the village.

     “In some of the villages of the Tijhorekyi, they keep to the old names, customs, and hierarchies,” Atam said to me as must have appeared befuddled by the bearded man’s title. “Generally, it is simply a way of honoring the ancestors and traditional ways. Akin to observing the old festivals and rites of the People of the River.”

    “Aye,” agreed Cael, nodding slowly. “No sedition is meant by it, good sir.”

    “Why would we suspect sedition?” I asked the bearded Tijhori man.

    “Oh, some of the Kravri who come from up north sometimes react badly when they hear one of us refer to ourselves as ‘chief’ or ‘chieftain’. They think we resent the Moy and seek rebellion. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

    Atam grunted in agreement. “He speaks truly, Ambassador. The last time I was in Tijhor province, some functionary of the Bureau of Public Works almost had a chief executed in his own village, simply because neither man would set aside their pride long enough to try and understand the situation,” the Decurio said. “That is, until my Tribunus intervened and kindly explained to the esteemed gentleman from the Bureau the customs and traditions of the Tijhorekyi.”

    I chuckled at that. “‘Esteemed’,” I repeated. “There is no need for such euphemisms, Lilu. I have known many such men at work in the Bureaus. None of them deserve the designation of ‘esteemed’.”

    At that, Cael cracked something of a smile. “It is a good thing to see that we will not have to worry about such headaches from a man such as yourself…Ambassador, was it?”

    “Aye,” I said, nodding, and introduced myself fully to the chief of Kallanha.

    Cael nodded his head. “It is a pleasure, Ambassador. How long will you be gracing our humble village, might I ask?”

    The Decurio and I both looked westward, to where Tulaar was beginning to make his descent toward the horizon for the evening. “The night, at least,” I replied. “It will likely not be much longer than that. We are headed south toward Yantih and must keep to our schedule as best we can.”

    “Well, then,” Cael said. “Let me show you where you can lodge for the evening, then I will let the rest of my people know that there will be festivities this night.”

    As we followed behind Cael, a chill breeze swept in from the west, and had we possessed foresight, we would have recognized the first herald of the storm to come.

11

Our first night among the people of Kallanha was a festive affair, even if no one involved seemed completely at ease. The villagers, while hospitable and generous, seemed distant and less than fully inviting and open. Perhaps it was because our legionary escort or the size of the party. Perhaps word had spread that a ranking official from one of the wings of the Great Bureaucracy was present and they knew not how to comfortably comport themselves. But, the villagers of Kallanha cannot bear the full blame for any awkwardness of those first few days, as Decurio Atam seemed to be the only one among our own party who seemed fully at ease in this village that fully embraced its Tijhori heritage.

    We were given quarter in one of the hatlac, the sod-covered longhouses I had seen on our first approach and had mistaken for burial mounds. The inside of the longhouse was open and divided into stalls by movable wooden panels, each one covered with scenes for myth and legend, along with the intricate, abstract knot-work typical of Tijhori art. The floor of the longhouse was dirt, but large swaths of it were covered with thickly woven mats of tough grass, and each mat was painted with varying abstract patterns. To be fair to the Tijhori, such a design is actually quite ingenious: once the main construction of a hatlac is finished, the building can be used for any number of purposes. In fact, one of the longhouses that I had assumed was a dwelling was actually a communal barn where I horses, wagons, and carriage were kept.

    That night, three large hearth-fires were built in the hatlac where Cael lived along some of his extended family and other villagers. I was surprised, when I was informed by Atam, that a Tijhori village chief traditionally does not get his own quarters or other such benefits that we Kravri would naturally think that one in a position of leadership would usually reap for themselves.

    “No,” the Decurio told me when I asked him over a cup of Tijhori mead that night. “They might get a paltry tithe of food, gifts, or other such things from the other villagers – especially their performance as chief is a good one – but the position itself is one of responsibility and burden, not benefit.”

    I remember grunting thoughtfully at that. “An interesting arrangement. Why would any man agree to such a position if he gets nothing out of it?”

    Atam had chuckled and patted me on the shoulder, the first time the Decurio had apparently felt comfortable enough with me to do so. “Why, because he feels an obligation to his people. It is a burden, yes, but it is also a high honor should one perform well.”

    Cael had come up behind us at that point, apparently having heard some of our conversation. “Aye,” he said, a cup of mead in his hand. “In the old days, before the tribes bent knee to the Throne, the name of a good chief could spread far and his reputation could garner him the support of others. That was generally how our cathetra came to assume their positions: by election of the chiefs and the good regard of the people.”

    “Cathetra?” I asked.

    “Our…’kings’, if you will,” Cael responded. “It is not a good analogy, for the cathetra had no inherent power beyond what the people invested in him. Just like with a village chief: if the people suffered, if the land suffered, if the cathetra showed himself to be a false-face and corrupt – he would be deposed and someone more deserving of the responsibility put in his place.”

    I remember chuckling slightly. “That sounds somewhat like what I hear from rabble-rousers in the Imperial City who feel that the Moynama has too much power. That he should have to answer to the Imperial Council,” I said. “But, then, the Imperial Council itself is made up of the Clan Fathers and representatives from the provincial governments, not popularly elected leaders from among the people.”

    Cael shrugged at that point. “No system is perfect, Ambassador. Not the cathetrayi, nor the system of the Moy. One thing I know from my short time in this world is that imperfection and change are the only two constants. Perhaps your rabble-rousers will win out some day, perhaps not. But while the cathetra was long thought a role in our society since time beyond memory that would last until the death of the gods, it too passed away.”

   Cael’s words were insightful and while I thought them over, a matronly woman with hair a shade of red like Tulaar setting in the west approached. “Gentlemen,” Cael said with a gesture to the woman. “My wife, Eirehn.”

    The woman – who while obviously of an age with Cael was still, I must admit, quite radiantly beautiful in the light of the longhouse’s hearth-fires – nodded to Decuio Atam and I in turn, smiling politely. “It is an honor for our humble village to host yourselves this evening,” she said, before turning to her husband. “Cael, it is beginning to come down hard out there and the winds are howling like hasinyi.”

    “Hasinyi?” I asked.

    “Spirits of the unquiet dead,” Atam explained. “Particularly murdered women. They are generally believed to haunt forests and their howling is regarded as a precursor to horrible tragedies.”

   Eirehn nodded absently at the Decurio’s words, while her husband rubbed thoughtfully at his bearded chin. “How bad is it, love?”

   “Snow and ice. Coming from Kalor’s maw fast and hard,” she replied. After a pause she added. “I remember it being like this five years ago.”

   Cael’s face soured. “Damn,” he said laconically.

   “What happened five years ago?” Atam asked the chief.

   The bearded man grimaced, emptying his mead-cup before looking the Decurio in the eye. “A blizzard. And a bad one at that.”

12

When dawn broke the next morning, nearly a foot of snow and sleet had fallen. Out of a mixture of curiosity and stupidity, I accompanied the Decurio to the hatlac where our horses, vehicles, and supplies had been stored for the night. The snow crunched underfoot as we trudged the dozen yards or so to the other building, the winds howling and gusting around us as we walked, threatening to rip the heavy cloaks right from our backs. When we returned, Viro had two wooden cups filled with a steaming tea made from pine nettles and other herbs. The hot drink chased the chill out of our bones, which even during our brief journey outside had settled deep.

    As warmth slowly spread out through my limbs once more, I approached Cael, who was helping his wife, Eirehn, and several other cook a meal for the increased numbers huddled within the hatlac. When Eirehn had informed her husband of the storm that had been mounting at the time, the village chief had ordered that everyone in the village to take shelter in this hatlac and the two others nearest to it, so as not to increase the risks of exposure during the blizzard.

    “Good morning,” I said to the bearded chief, my teeth chattering from the cold that still lingered. The Tijhori man grunted an affirmative reply to me as he cut up sections of goat meat. “A question, Cael: the blizzard five years ago that you mentioned last night – how long did it last?”

    He paused in his cutting and thought for a moment. “Five, six days maybe. It was bad.”

    I remember a deep frown creasing my face. “That long? By the Kritanoi…”

    Cael shrugged. “It is what it is, Ambassador. You and your people are welcome to try and brave the Road, but I doubt you will make it to Yantih before you freeze or starve.”

    I remember chuckling darkly. “I thank you for your optimistic evaluation of our chances.”

    The bearded man stopped his cutting and looked at me. “It has nothing to do with your chances. It is the chances of anyone who is not an accomplished Priest of Keitu or chosen of Kalor going out there. Traveling in these kind of conditions would be death.”

    I held up a propitiating hand. “I misspoke, Cael. You have my apologies.” I looked around at the others hard at work preparing the meals and nodded. “I will leave you alone. Let myself or Decurio Atam know if there is anything that our people can do to help with the effort.”

    The Tijhori chief nodded silently and went back to work, while I wandered back over to the section of the hatlac where our retinue was huddled. I spent most of that first day of the blizzard enjoying the company of Viro, our children, and the legionaries in Atam’s turma. Again, while the villagers of Kallanha were by no means hostile or rude, there was still the lingering sense that they were uncertain of us, that we were not fully welcomed into the fold, even if only as ones who were equally at the mercy of fortune in this situation.

    Throughout the day, we assisted the Tijhori villagers as best we could – Viro helping them with food preparation, the legionaries helping with the effort of moving more of the people into the hatlac – but when evening came and the winds still howled outside, everyone was in need of rest and distraction. Cael helped by starting to play a flute that had carved himself, so he told me later on, which drew others into playing drums, simple lyres, and other instruments. The music went on for several hours before the musicians grew tired and others called for stories to be told. There were several storytellers who walked the space between the hearth-fires, weaving their tales, but the one that I remember most fully follows:

    A young woman rose from the host of villagers gathered within the hatlac and walked between fires, saying thus, “With the storm raging outside, I thought it would be appropriate to tell the story of Kalor’s winning of the Spear of Victory. Perhaps stories of the storm god might make him visit some mercy upon us, eh?” There was a wave of chuckling at that, of a few audience members echoing the sentiment, before the young woman continued. “It is said that after the People of the River had shaped the land, they settled in the forests and went out about making a comfortable life for themselves. But, not long after they raised the first hatlac, bred the first goats and cattle, and planted the first crops, one morning Tanasas woke to find her child, Morwen, gone. Tanasas was almost mad with panic and worry as searched through the village, searched the fields and forests, even going so far abroad as to consult Tijhor.

    “‘I know not where your son has gone,’ Tijhor told her daughter. ‘Such things are beyond my sight. You should ask your father, for on high he sees many things.’ And so Tanasas climbed the highest peak in the land and called out to her father, whose bright eye lights the sky.

     “‘This indeed I saw,’ Ulusas said to his fair daughter. ‘Creatures from beneath the land wriggled out from a hole, they stole into your longhouse, and made off with your son.’ Devastated, Tanasas asked her father where these creatures had gone, and he showed her the hole from which they emerged and to which they had returned. Going back to the village of the People, Tanasas pleaded and wept that they should help retrieve her son. Some balked at the notion, disbelieving Tanasas’ story, but Olorun – being the wise chief that he was – turned to Kalor, the greatest of their warriors and the craftiest of the people.

    “Kalor followed Tanasas to the hole where the creatures had come from and descended down into the dark. He took the Flame of Ulusas with him to light his way, and he did not have to travel long before he came upon the creatures in the deep. Though the Flame startled the misshapen creatures” – I remember distinctly that several of the villagers cast glances at Cuahuatec at this point, and though their suspicions are not unfathomable, it still saddened me to see the bigotry that the Gromothim encountered – “it did not hurt them and they attacked Kalor. Though the god fought bravely, the creatures overpowered him and he was forced to withdraw back to the surface. Beaten and shamed, Kalor took to the sky and consulted his father.

    “‘Father,’ the storm god said, ‘these creatures from below seem beyond my strength to defeat. How can I retrieve my nephew?’

    “‘Travel north to the great mountains before the northern ocean. There you will find holy men  exceedingly knowledgeable and skilled in the ways of magic. They will be able to assist you.’

    “And so Kalor traveled north, out from the lands of the People of the River into the lands of foreign peoples. Finally, he came to the mountains that Ulusas had spoken of and the holy men and women who lived among the peaks and plateaus. He petitioned their leader for assistance, and the man promised that they would craft a weapon of unparalleled might.

    “But, only if Kalor would accomplish something for them.

    “The skull of their order’s founder had been lost at sea many ages past, but their seers had determined it to lie within the maw of the great storm that raged far to the west, as the center of the world. If Kalor could retrieve the skull – a holy relic for the holy men and women – they would craft the weapon for him.

    “The storm god agreed and swept westward out over the Serranian. For many days and nights he traveled until he saw great storm clouds on the horizon, and the sound of howling winds and such thunder the instilled fear into even the heart of the brave warrior. As he approached the Great Storm, a woman emerged from the storm clouds, her hair the color of lightning.

    “‘Halt!’ she told him. ‘You approach the mouth of my grandfather. None are allowed within the Storm save myself.’

    “But with many sweet and clever words – for Kalor is not only brave, but crafty and possessing of a silver-tongue – the storm god seduced the woman and bedded her there among the grey clouds of the Great Storm. As she slept, so spent from Kalor’s bedding she was” – at this a wave of chuckling erupted from the audience; I suppose that the god’s prowess and libido are well known among the Tijhori – “that the warrior slipped into the maw of the Great Storm and surged down into the swirling waters.

    “Chaotic the waters were and Kalor almost drowned more than once. But deep within the maw of the Storm, far deeper than the bottom of the ocean, he found the skull of the holy men, swirled about by the raging waters. Snatching it and ascending as quickly as he could, Kalor erupted from the Great Storm, shooting up through the clouds and emerging high above them. As he made eastward as quickly as he could, he heard the despondent cry of the storm-woman, who wept at his leaving.

    “Returning to the northern mountains, Kalor presented the holy men and women with the skull of their order’s founder. Gracious, in return they crafted a spear that never missed its target, that slew instantly – the Spear of Victory. His gratitude beyond words, Kalor accepted the spear and returned to the lands of the People of the River. When he arrived at the village of the People, he found Tanasas so overcome with grief that she had taken to seclusion with her hatlac, and would refuse to see anyone. Knowing that the return of Morwen would be the only cure to her deep sadness, Kalor went to the hole of the creatures and descended once more. With each wave of the misshapen beings that he met, Kalor slew them with the Spear of Victory until he came upon Morwen – the boy being fattened by the creatures for cooking. Rescuing his nephew from the clutches of the Deep Ones, the storm god returned to the surface victorious and presented his sister with her much missed son. Tanasas was overjoyed and Kalor’s name was celebrated by the People of the River.

    “But, as we all know, the story does not end there, for the rescue of Morwen was but the opening action to the Great Battle of the Deep. Though, that is another story for another time.”

13

 The young woman finished her story with a low murmur of appreciation from the audience. She gave a small, quick curtsy and took her seat. There was more playing of music, along with some singing of traditional Tijhori songs, and more storytelling.

    I can honestly say that I had had several cups of mead by that point of the night, as the drink was flowing quite easily those first few nights as the villagers attempted to cope with the blizzard. As I had listened to the entertainment of the Tijhori villagers, my mind kept flashing to the continuing feeling of being politely tolerated by them, and I decided that I wanted to attempt to change that. When the singing and the music that was being played quieted momentarily, I stood and stepped into the space between the hearth-fires that storytellers had been using all night.

    A hush came across the gathered villagers as they watched what I can only assume they saw as some titled and self-important Kravri bureaucrat get up to address them. I cleared my throat and turned to seek Cael’s face among the crowd.

    “I am sure that most of you have heard of who I am these past two days, but for those who have not: my name is Tamojahneeli Gharan Kii, Chief Ambassador to the Tainir Kingdom of the Sirraşi. I must salute Cael, your chief,” I said, raising my mead-cup to the bearded man, “along with all of the rest of you, for the hospitality that you have shown myself and my people – both the first night before the storm and this night, as well. We could not ask for better hosts.”

    I noticed one or two nodding heads among the crowd and a mild amount of clapping issued forth. “But,” I continued, “we would not be good guests if we did not contribute back in our own way. And since this night has thus far been a night of song and story, I would like tell a story. If you all will indulge me, that is.” Again, more nodding and some murmurs of assent from the villagers.

    “More than three hundred years ago, there was a man named Culain,” even as I spoke the name there were a few – somewhat drunken – hoots and hollers of appreciation. I had assumed correctly that this story would likely get a favorable reaction from the villagers. Though I noticed Cael giving me a quizzical look, I continued on unabated. “Born of simple, but honest and honorable folk, Culain grew to be a young man of great mind and great heart.

    “This is the story of how he came to topple a kingdom.”

    There was more hooting and clapping at that, and I was sure that I had the audience on my side, at least for the moment. “When Culain was a young man of sixteen summers he fell in love with a young woman named Naya. Now, Naya’s folk were traders and merchants, and there was many a time – especially when she was older – that the young woman would accompany her father when he would travel, since he felt that a woman could just as easily strike a good bargain as a man.”

    There were several feminine cheers at that point and I chuckled softly at the enthusiasm. “Before one of these trips, Culain asked Naya’s father for her hand and the merchant told Culain that if were able to raise the bride-price that he asked for by the time that he and Naya returned to their village, that he would consent to the marriage that both young man and woman wanted. And so Culain worked and saved and was able to scrape together the coin that Naya’s father asked for. But when the merchant returned, he returned alone.

    “‘Where is Naya?’ Culain asked. ‘I have the bride-price you asked for her. Where is she?’

    “With fallen face, Naya’s father told the young man that his daughter had been taken by a Kravri lord, and that neither he nor Naya had had any choice in the matter. Incensed, Culain asked where this Kravri lord was, so that he might go and rescue Naya.

    “‘To the north,’ Naya’s father told him. ‘In the city of Noharnu.’

    “So Culain took his war-club and struck off to the north. Now, the young man had many encounters on his way to Noharnu, but those are stories for another time,” I said, and received one or two isolated voices of displeasure. But, the statement was true enough: the various adventures that Culain is supposed to have embarked upon while traveling to Noharnu have no bearing upon the larger narrative. “When he came to Noharnu, Culain had been in the Kravri lands at least long enough to grasp the tongue and track down which lord of the Kravri had taken Naya for his own.

    “It was Manir Krari’u Jayit, a cousin of the U’garichii Jantiru Krari’u Met. This did not deter Culain, though, as he did not care if Olorun himself had stolen Naya, he was determined to get his bride back.
“Now, at that time, the Kravri lands were at the height of a five year famine and there was already much unrest, especially in Noharnu, the Kravri capital at the time. There were protests and riots in the streets as the common folk clamored for adequate rations and efforts by the U’garichii and the Priesthoods of the Kritanoi to end the famine. But, to no avail. It seemed that even the Kritanoi had turned their backs upon the Kravri.

    “Culain walked the streets of Noharnu for many days trying to formulate a plan to retrieve the woman that he loved, when he finally heard that the U’garichii and several of his lords, including Manir Krari’u Jayit, would be appearing before the public to address the growing unrest and assure the Kravri people that all would be well. Seeing this as the best opportunity he had had his entire time in Noharnu to at least see the Lord Manir, Culain went with the crowds to the Harbor Forum where the U’garichii and the lords would address the crowds from the steps of the Temple of Krinai.

    “As he stood with the masses, Culain saw the crowned U’garichii and his lords emerge from the Temple, and the young man felt his heart clench with both apprehension and exultation as he saw Naya among the retinue, dressed in the garb befitting a Kravri lord’s wife. As Culain stood there listening to the U’garichii speak from behind a wall of legionaries that stood between the lords and the angrily murmuring crowd, the young man saw a desperate and costly plan form in his mind.

    “But, what choice did he have? There was Naya. If he did not act then, he might not have a better chance.

    “So, the young man made his way to the fore of the crowd and began stirring up the crowd as unobtrusively as he could. The Kravri common folk became more and more angry, beginning to shout slurs at their monarch and accuse him of lying, of incompetence, of treachery against the Kravri clans. When he felt the crowd was incensed enough, Culain swallowed his misgivings – thinking only of Naya – and shoved the crowd into a surge forward.

    “The people all the way at the fore slammed against the tower shields of the legionaries, rocked backward, and were slammed into the shields again by those behind them moving forward. Chaos erupted. Though many fell beneath the blades and spears of the legionaries, the common folk broke through the shield wall and descended upon the lords, Culain with them. He fought his way to Naya and through an enraged commoner off the girl, the young man’s heart breaking as he saw the bruises and cuts upon his love’s face from the fists of her assailant. He grabbed Naya by the hand – the young woman too shocked by the riot and the assault to even realize who had saved her – and led her away from the forum as the common folk tore the U’garichii limb from limb.

    “Culain and Naya slipped from the city as quickly as their feet would take them, especially as Noharnu erupted in unrest and violence. But, they did finally return to the lands of the Tijhorekyi, safe and sound.

    “And that is how Culain of the Strong Arm won back his love and toppled a kingdom.”

14

There was a smattering of applause as I took my seat once again next to Viro and our children, but, surprisingly, one of the villagers brought over a ewer of mead and ladled more into my cup. The woman smiled, thanked me for a wonderful story, and then moved on. The rest of the night passed in such a way: the villagers of Kallanha becoming more sociable, seeming to accept us more.

    In the morning, after Decurio Atam and I had gazed out the doors of the hatlac at the wall of white that continued to swirl chaotically beyond, Cael came and sat next to me as I broke my fast upon a bowl of porridge.

    “That was a good story last night,” he said. “I have heard better tellings of the Lay of Culain, but that was passable.”

    I remember smiling at the comment. “Well, I surmised that it would go over well. Besides, I am more of a conversationalist than a storyteller.”

    The bearded chief chuckled. “You are correct on both counts there. May I ask: why that particular story?”

    “Ever since we arrived, even though your people have been good hosts and been nothing but polite to us, I have felt that they were keeping us at a distance for some reason. I reasoned that if we were going to be sharing this space until the blizzard passes, it would be best to integrate ourselves better with the village. And what better way to show that we are not so different as to tell a famous story involving a Tijhorekyiv being the catalyst for the fall of a Kravri government?”

    Cael gave a sly smile at that. “Aye, there are few better choices in that regard,” he said, standing and slapping me lightly on the back. “Welcome to the village, Ambassador.”

    The days of the blizzard passed quickly after that. My children played more frequently with the village children, the villagers themselves included us much more in the games and performances during the evening hours, listening with rapt attention when Cuahuatec told a common Gromothim story of their creation as slaves and playthings for hideous spirits deep within the earth. They even taught us a traditional Tijhori dance that delighted Viro to know end when she mastered the steps.

    And then, on a morning a fortnight after it had began, the blizzard ended. Atam and I went to check on the horses and found the world beyond our hatlac an eerie, white wasteland. The ground was covered in at least two feet of snow, the trees around the village were encased in ice, and the sound of our crunching footsteps resounded and echoed almost preternaturally loudly in the deep silence. We stayed three more nights after that in order to let the snow and ice melt some, which the villagers did not begrudge. In the end, we parted ways with tears and smiles, having become dear friends with the people of Kallanha. Our journey to Yantih was slow going due to the Imperial Road being covered in several feet of snow, but eventually we came to the city and spent several nights there resting before striking out eastward toward Akhem.

15

As we traveled from Yantih to Akhem, crossing from Tijhor province into Yevij province, the countryside slowly changed from thick forests of oak, ash, and fir to more sparse forests of pines, olive trees, and fig trees interspersed with grasslands. I found it a contemplatively interesting transition, for though Yevij province was just as cold as Tijhor province, it has a drier climate and snow is much less common.

    After our fortnight in Kallanha, I would have been quite happy to never see snow again.

    As we traveled, my mind kept alighting back upon the story that Cuahuatec had told the villagers one night during the blizzard. The story traditionally told by his people about their creation as the slaves and playthings of horrid creatures and spirits, called the quinpazli, deep within the earth. One day, as we traveled through Yevijiri country that was stark and hibernating underneath a grey, winter sky, I turned to the Gromothim male who was accompanying us in our carriage that day, helping my youngest learn her letters.

    “Cuahuatec,” I said, “I have been thinking on that story you told in Kallanha. The one about your people’s origins.”

    The male lifted his goggled eyes from the scroll that Tama, my daughter, was slowly sounding her way through and regarded me curiously. “Yes, sir?”

    “I simply find it…curious, I suppose? Curious how your folk claim origins in servitude, being freed by a divine being, and yet here you sit: a slave still.”

    “I…I did not choose servitude, sir…”

    I remember being embarrassed by the inelegance of my words and holding up a pacifying hand. “My apologies, Cuahuatec. It seems that I misspoke. I mean to say, that I find curious that you find yourself in the same situation as your mythic ancestors. How do you feel regarding that?”

    The Gromothim lowered his head shyly. “Sir, you are nothing like the quinpazli,” he said softly. “And like all beings, I would prefer my freedom. But you delivered me from cruelty and abuse, you have shown me nothing but kindness and respect. If I am to be a slave – which seems to be the fate allotted to me by Pilzanuatl – then I could ask for no better master than yourself.”

    “And if I gave you your freedom? What would you do?”

    Cuahuatec was silent for a moment. “I do not know, sir. The last I knew, I had family living in the Warrens of Noharnu, perhaps I would return to them? But, I have no means to do so…likely I would continue on with you, if you would have me, as a free servant.”

    I nodded, thinking over the Gromothim slave’s words. “When we get to Akhem, my family and I will be traveling to Sirr by ship with only a handful of the legionaries currently escorting us. Decurio Atam and the rest of his men will be traveling back to Kravnu by ship a fortnight later, if I remember the Decurio’s orders correctly. I propose this: when we reach Akhem, I free you, I entrust you to the care of Decurio Atam, and I give you…ten gold Krakens to see yourself set up properly? I will write a letter explaining a small deviation in Atam’s orders, compelling the captain of the ship taking them to Kravnu to make port in Noharnu – which they likely would do, regardless. What do you think of that?”

    The slave dropped the scroll that Tama was reading and stared at me, mouth agape. “You…you speak truly, sir?” Cuahuatec asked.

    “Of course.”

    “But…why, sir?”

    Viro and the children were looking at me expectantly, seemingly almost as shocked as the Gromothim had been. “Because you deserve your freedom, Cuahuatec,” I said after a moment considering my words. “I have no other reasoning other than a deep-seated impulse that you should be free.”

16

A week after crossing into Yevij Province, we came to the small town of Nev, three days’ travel from Akhem. Our plan was to night in the town due to it housing a legionary garrison that would allow Decurio Atam to refresh our supplies and acquire us new horses for the last leg of our land journey. The town, like many Yevijiri towns, consisted of clusters of adobe buildings that had expanded to surround the legionary fort on all sides. As we rode past in the carriage, I noticed that while most of the houses had representations of sheaves of wheat and barley upon the lintel of their doorway, some were adorned with a tablet and stylus or skulls and roses. These adornments, I later learned, signified to which traditional caste of Yevijiri society the inhabitants belonged; the adornments themselves being symbols of the patron-deities of each caste.

    Sheaves meant the family was of the Ikarii caste of artisans, farmers, and laborers; the tablets signified belonging to the Pi’in caste of bureaucrats and scholars; the skulls and roses were the symbols of the goddess Kiga’shm, who was patron to the Mengkil caste of warriors. In the olden days, prior to the Yevijiri being brought into the Moy, the highest caste – the Orphi – had had the lintels of their opulent dwellings adorned with eagle feathers, representative of the Za’ha, the totemic animal of the god Qat. The Orphi had consisted of the family of a city’s priest-king, along with the members of the various Yevijiri priesthoods, but ever since their inclusion into the Moy the Orphi were primarily made up of the priests and priestesses.

    The Decurio left us at our lodgings for the evening with a trio of his legionaries as he and the others headed to the fort. It was a small but well-kept inn, and we found that we were not the only travelers headed for Akhem. A quartet of priests of Tule – one senior and three junior – were lodging as well, their ultimate goal being an island in the Yevij Sea not far from Akhem, where a temple to the smith-god stood.

    “You see,” confided the elder priest, Rajai, over a glass of corn-spirits that night as we sat by the inn’s main hearth, “over the last decade our Priesthood has been running an experiment. We enchant a number of large crystals together, separate them to out to various temples and monasteries of Tule, and the stones act as a sort of…’beacon’, if you will. They attract each other and can be used for long distance communication and even sharing of the god’s blessings and power. Thus far, we have built a small network of such stones, and we are traveling to the temple of Nasher to see how far the stones can be from one another and still work.”

    “How far is the closest one?” I asked.

    Rajai rubbed at his bearded chin as he swirled the spirits in his colored glass. “Oh, there is one at the Temple of the Unbreakable Hammer. About a fortnight’s journey north-northwest of here.”

    “And does the stone still work?”

    At that question the old priest smiled and the hearth-fire glimmered in his eyes. “Indeed it does, my friend!” he said, then his face sobered. “In fact, we received word this morning that small riots have begun to break out in Kravnu.”

    “What?!” I asked, sitting up straighter on my stool.

    Rajai nodded. “It appears that a month after the Triumph of Krinai there was a fight in the streets of Kravtal between a member of the city guard and a Hylian slave. Apparently, the slave knew some…illicit magics and used them. Luckily the guardsman was also a priest of Krinai and able to slay the slave by knocking him into the Bay, where he drowned. But ever since there have been small slave-riots in honor of this supposed ‘dragon monk’ as they are calling him.”

    “By Namshiir’s Heart,” I muttered, looking down at my own spirits for a moment before draining my glass. “I never thought I would see the day where there was rioting in the Imperial City.”

    The elder priest nodded soberly. “True,” he said, and paused momentarily before continuing somewhat awkwardly. “But, if I may be candid, Ambassador: if any good comes from this unrest, I hope it is an abolishment of the system of slavery in the Moy.”

    Thinking of Cuahuatec, I looked at the priest with a questioning look. “Truly?”

    “Truly,” Rajai responded. “Personally, speaking, I do not like the thought of another being being pressed into the servitude of another. There is something…barbaric about it. Besides, there is nothing that slaves can do that the ingenuity of the Priesthoods of the Kritanoi cannot accomplish with more humane means.”

    “How so?”

    The priest smiled almost proudly as he spoke. “Well, I know that in our order alone there are treatises and texts and schematics shelved away in our libraries for various machines and automata that could do the work of any slave. The only problems to having them used have been finding efficient, reliable sources of power for them. Along with there being too many slaves in the Moy for anyone to think that such mechanisms would even be necessary. If slavery were abolished…” Rajai trailed off and took a sip of his drink, letting the unsaid implications hang in there air.

    “Interesting,” I said. “Very interesting.”

    After that we had another round of corn-spirits and talked about our experiences on the road thus far, before bidding each other a good night’s sleep and adjourning to bed. That was the last night that I would sleep well and peacefully before our ship left Akhem.

17

In the morning I sent Cuahuatec to nearby market to collect, among other things, some Yevijiri pomegranates that we had dined upon the previous night after supper. We broke our fast alongside the priests, who were leaving for Akhem that morning, as well, and who accepted my offer to let them travel with us to the port-city. I had enjoyed the company of the priests the night before, particularly that of the elder priest, Rajai, and looked forward to continuing conversations with them over the next few nights. We were loading up our carriage when we first heard the commotion: a wailing man and the incoherent shouts of others.

    Feeling a pit open in my stomach, I advised Viro and the children to go back into the inn until we could verify what was going on. The three legionaries, the priests of Tule, and I stood by the carriage, a feeling of tense anticipation thrumming in the air as the noises came closer. Then, farther down the dusty road we saw a small crowd turn a corner, a man at the fore crying unto the heavens. In his arms was cradled a small, limp body – which as the crowd grew closer I saw was covered in fresh blood.

    At the sound of horses, I turned and saw Decurio Atam reining his mount not far from our carriage, the rest of the legionary escort with him. “What is going on?” he asked, his eyes on the approaching crowd.

    “No idea, sir,” replied one of the trio of legionaries that Atam had left with us.

    My eyes were locked on grieving man and the angry crowd at his back, and thus was not aware of Cuahuatec until the slave gently touched my hand. I looked down and saw his goggled eyes looking up at me, his other hand holding up a misshapen bag of pomegranates. “I have returned, sir,” he said, baring his teeth in a large, Gromothim smile.

    I remember opening my mouth to acknowledge his return and to tell him to attend Viro and the children inside the inn, when a wailing “There!” pierced the air. My eyes flashed to the crowd that had slowed not five yards from us, the man with the child pointing an accusatory finger at us.

    “There!” he cried again. “There is the little demon that killed my child!”

    I heard Atam breathe out a curse before he spurred his horse forward to interpose himself between our small group and the advancing crowd.

    “Halt!” the Decurio said in a voice the commanded obedience. “What is the meaning of this?”

    The crowd stopped before Atam’s horse and though I could not see, I heard the wailing man reply. “That…that creature! The hairy demon! It killed my daughter!” he cried.

    “What proof do you have of this?” Atam asked sternly.

    “My own eyes!” the man cried. “I saw the demon stab my little Ki’iri then flee, cackling madly! Evilly!

    Atam looked back at us with a deep frown on his face. “I know this slave,” he said calmly. “That does not sound like something that he would do. But, it is not within my power to render judgment.” He flicked his eyes to me. “Ambassador, if you would accompany us to the fort, we will have Legatus Ovrai weigh the matter.” He turned his gaze back upon the crowd. “You will follow behind us to the fort. There we will look into the justice of this matter.”

18

The journey to the fort, while the distance was not great, turned out to be one of the longest rides of my life. I briefly informed Viro of what was happening before I bid the priests of Tule fair travels and climbed into the carriage with Cuahuatec. The Gromothim was deathly silent as the carriage pulled away from the inn, following behind the turma of Decurio Atam, his goggled eyes on the floor of the carriage. A long, quiet moment passed before I spoke.

    “Cuahuatec, I must know: is there any truth to that man’s allegation?”

    The Gromothim slave opened his mouth to speak, seemed to choke on his words, then shook his head violently.

    “Then why would he accuse you of murdering his child?”

    “I…I do not know, sir,” Cuahuatec rasped out. “I went to the market as you asked. It took me a short while to find a vendor selling pomegranates. I bought them. I brought them back to you.” He raised his head and leveled his gaze at me. “I swear upon Enochicali’s Beneficence. I swear it, sir!”

    I gently laid a hand on the slave’s furry shoulder. “I believe you, Cuahuatec. And obviously Decurio Atam is skeptical of this accusation, as well. We shall speak on your behalf before the Legatus. Hopefully the matter will go no further.”

    Silence descended once again upon the carriage, broken only by the continued wailing and shouts of the crowd following behind us. The fort itself was an imposing structure, the outer walls constructed of large blocks of granite at a slight slope, painted with whitewash that was blessed by priests of Krinai to burn the skin of any attacker who touched them. Being that there was no imminent threat, the gates of the fort – forged from steel by the Priesthood of Tule – stood open as we entered, hearing the hails of the guards to Decurio Atam’s turma of legionaries. The interior of the fort was laid out like any legionary camp and the turma led us past barracks, armories, and one small temple to the Kritanoi before bringing us to a halt in front of the building that served as the quarters and offices of the fort’s Legatus.

    The turma surrounded our carriage as the crowd with the victim’s father approached, and Atam himself escorted Cuahuatec and I from the carriage into the building. Within, Atam conferred with one of the Tribunii who served as the Legatus’ aide and informed the officer of the situation regarding the Gromothim and the bellicose crowd outside. The Tribunus frowned and excused himself into the inner offices of the Legatus, before returning a moment later with another man beside him.

    Legatus Saffrit Minjohn Ovrai was a tall man, taller than most, his flame-bright hair shorn close to his scalp in the legion fashion, with a face that was stern and rocky.
“I am too busy to deal with matters of criminality today, Decurio,” Ovrai said as soon as he laid eyes upon Atam, his pronunciation of the man’s rank dripping with derision. “Hold the accused in one of the cells and return tomorrow. I will deal with the matter then.”

    I cleared my throat and the Decurio gestured to me as he spoke. “May I introduce Tamojahneeli Gharan Udo, Chief Ambassador to the Sirraşi Kingdom. It is his slave who stands accused of this heinous crime, sir.”

    Ovrai looked from Atam, to me, to Cuahuatec – who stood a step behind me to my left, apparently wanting to disappear completely behind me, but having at least enough courage to maintain visibility before the Legatus. Ovrai sighed heavily. “Fine,” he huffed, before turning his attention to his aide. “Post-pone my meeting with the Tribunii and the inspection of the armories until later in the afternoon. I shall deal with this matter now.”

    He turned his gaze upon Atam. “Where is the accuser?”

    “Outside, sir.”

    Legatus Ovrai frowned slightly. “Have your men bring him in to my office. I will hear his side of the story and then interview the accused.”

    I felt Cuahuatec tremble next to me, and I laid a hand upon the Gromothim’s shoulder. “All shall be well, Cuahuatec. Have faith.”

    We stood to the side within the outer office of the Legatus as the legionaries escorted the father of the murdered child in, the body of his daughter no longer in his arms, though her blood still stained his robes. As he passed through the room, his eyes fell upon myself and Cuahuatec, and he raged at the Gromothim.

    “You! I will see that you suffer for your crime! I will see you tortured for eternity by Kiga’shm in her darkened halls! You will pay! You will pay!” The legionaries had to drag the man screaming into Ovrai’s inner offices. I felt Cuahuatec shake fearfully next to me, and reflecting back upon that day, I cannot help but think that the man’s outburst then was what drove the Gromothim slave to do what he did.

19

We sat there, in the Legatus’ outer offices, in tense silence while Ovrai interviewed the father of the slain child. Cuahuatec was understandably restless, fidgeting every few seconds as we waited upon an uncomfortable bench made from oak, with the Decurio standing stoically across from us as he leaned his back against the wall. Every so often, the voice of the father could be heard, muffled, through the door leading into Legatus Ovrai’s inner office. But aside from that, the silence was unbroken.

    I should have realized what the Gromothim slave might do.

    Every so often his gaze would flick to the doors, but I wrote it off to nerves and him flinching in the slightest sound. However, when the door to the inner office stirred as it was open, his goggled eyes swiveled to look at the sound, and I saw him hold a breath. His very body language belied the fact that he was contemplating something of terrible importance. The door barely open, the sound of the Ovrai’s voice drifting through as he thanked the victim’s father for his cooperation, when Cuahuatec launched himself from the bench and sprinted toward the door out of the building. I had barely registered the movement before the brown-furred slave had slammed a shoulder into the door, smashing it open with his momentum, and by the time the words “Cuahuatec! No!” had left my lips he was gone.

    A moment later, Decurio Atam was bolting out through the door even as the Legatus screamed for his own guard to give chase. “What is the meaning of this?” Ovrai barked at me. “Why was your slave not restained?”

    Dumbfounded by the events of the previous few moments, I answered honestly: “I…I do not know. I do not know why he ran. There is simply no conceivable way that he could be guilty of this crime…”

    “That girl’s father would disagree,” said the Legatus with no small amount of disdain in his voice. “And I cannot say that I blame him. Those creatures are vile, sneaky, and little more civilized than dogs. I cannot fathom how you keep one as a servant, much less defend it before a magistrate.”

    Caught off guard by such sentiments, I was speechless. The Legatus escorted the father of the slain girl out of the building, issuing more orders to find Cuahuatec to his aide. Numb in mind and heart, I stood and slowly walked back out to the carriage, where I found Atam standing, talking with several of his legionaries.


“He cannot get far while inside the walls of the fort, sir,” the Decurio assured me as I approached. “I just hope the men that I sent after Cuahuatec get to him before Ovrai’s men do.”

    “Why?” I asked. “Why would he run?”

    The Decurio shrugged, the shoulders of his lorica twitching. “Fear, most likely. It can make even the most rational and prudent of beings make the least sensible decisions.” He paused. “Or…the father of the girl is correct, and somehow Cuahuatec is guilty. Despite our own experiences with him intimating the opposite. I pray the Kritanoi allow us he chance to find out which is true.”

    I stared at Atam. “Yes,” I said simply. “Lilu, I would like you or one of your brightest men to look into this. Have them follow the father, investigate this. I would like more than just a grieving man’s accusation and the judgment of a bigot deciding Cuahuatec’s fate.”

    “At once, Ambassador,” the Decurio said with a nod and a salute. Then he was off.

20

I sat on that oaken bench for what felt like an eternity.

     I could not go after Cuahuatec myself – I have never been much of an athlete and I am afraid that at my age I would have had greater chances hurting myself than finding and catching the Gromothim. Nor could I investigate the murder of the child – I knew not what to look for and even if I did know, it would look suspicious and queer for the owner of the accused slave to be skulking around, trying to impugn the father of a slain girl. And so, I waited.

     I was there when Legatus Ovrai returned with his aide in tow. The tall man scowled at me as he entered the outer office, pausing to speak briefly. “Your pet has become quite the nuisance, Ambassador. I have half of my legionaries scouring the fort trying to find the beast. I just thought you would like to know, since you seem to show so much care for the wretched creature.”

     I have to admit, that I felt a boiling rage rise within me, forcing me to my feet as I looked up into the gaze of Saffrit Minjohn Ovrai. “I say now, sir, that was out of line,” I said between clenched teeth. “There are many of Gromothim who are legitimate citizens of the Moy. Would you show them the same kind of contem–”

     “Yes. I would,” the Legatus said flatly, his face betraying no emotion. “They are a plague upon us. Things like men, but not. I would do away with them and those queer, double-gendered Tainir.”

     Once again speechless by the man’s overt bigotry, I simply stared at him as the Legatus smiled at me, nodded, and headed into his inner office.

     “Krinai’s Spear,” I remember whispering to myself, realizing the implications. No matter what I said or did, Cuahuatec would be executed as a murderer. Unless Atam returned with some kind of incontrovertible evidence that absolved the Gromothim…

     I remember sinking back down onto the bench, the weight of the situation hanging from my shoulders like a stone. This was my fault. I had freed Cuahuatec from the service of Natallu I’igaruu Jaa. I had brought him to this town. If I had simply ignored him when we had been with Jaa, he might still be bullied and punished capriciously by the impudent nobleman, but at least he would not be wrongly executed.

     But which is worse? I remember asking myself. Death, or a life of constant torment?

      I remember sighing, a depression sinking down upon me as I contemplated the events of the last day. It was then that the outer doors were pulled open and a quartet of legionaries entered with a bound and bloodied Cuahuatec in the midst, the Gromothim’s hands fastened behind his back by rope, bruises and cuts all over his face. He stumbled along blindly, his eyes shut against the light as his goggles were missing. I gasped in horror and surprise at their entrance, as I realized that all was now lost.

21

 I could only stand by helplessly as Cuahuatec was led up the steps of the furca to the gibbet, head bowed and weeping loudly, crying his innocence to any who would hear him. I will not lie: tears ran down my face as I watched him prodded across the stage at spear-point to where the noose hung. They slipped it over his head easy enough – whether they had found his goggles or not, they had not returned them to him. I do not know whether that was a kindness or not. He would not have seen the crowd gathered before him, blinded by Tulaar’s light as he was, but neither would he be able to see me mourning.

    I would like to think that had he been able to see, he might have taken some small comfort in knowing that at least someone believed him.

    I stood in the midst of many legionaries, along with some of the citizens of Nev, not far from the building that housed Legatus Ovrai’s quarters and office. The father of the slain girl stood near the furca, yelling slurs and invectives at the blind Gromothim, only quieting when Ovrai ascended to the stage and held up his hands for silence.

    “As you may know, there was a murder in the town this morning. A young girl of only nine summers was brutally slain and found in a pool of her own blood by her father,” Ovrai said, gesturing to the man at the fore of the gathered crowd. “But, one stroke of luck was given to him: he saw his child’s murderer fleeing.” The Legatus pointed a finger at Cuahuatec, the Gromothim’s head bowed in resignation. “This murderous beast here.”

    “I am innocent!” Cuahuatec cried out again, his eyes bruised and closed. “I hurt no one!”

    “Then why did you run?” Ovrai asked scornfully. “If you are innocent, then why did you run when I came to question you?”

    “Only the guilty run!” cried out the father, and several in the crowd echoed his sentiment.

    “I swear to all the gods – Above and Below – that I did nothing!” the Gromothim cried out desperately. “I ran because I was afraid.”

    “Afraid to face justice!” The father yelled. “Hang the demon!”

    Again, many in the crowd cheered and echoed his calls. I stood there as this happened – impotent, rageful, and distraught. I had begged Legatus Ovrai for mercy, for clemency, but the bigoted officer would not hear of it.

    “A child is dead, Ambassador, and you would have her killer walk free?” He had sneered at me in his office after his legionaries had taken Cuahuatec off to be made ready for his execution.

    “Of course not, Legatus,” I had said, imploring him. “But I still maintain that you have the wrong person.”

    “Person?”  He had asked me incredulously. “If that beast out there is a ‘person’, than I am a rutting sow. I am putting a mad dog out of its misery, Ambassador. Just be glad that I am not bringing charges against you for not keeping your pet on a chain.”

    With that, he had ordered me from his office as he had no more to say to me. And so, I had waited by the carriage until the execution was announced and the crowd began to form. There had been no message from Atam, though at the time I had been pessimistic that anything the Decurio had found would change the that this doomed ship was on. Cuahuatec was going to crash upon the rocks and die, and all because of my navigation, my steering. I stood there and watched as the gathered townsfolk and legionaries clamored for the Gromothim’s death.

    “And so, with the power invested in me by Moynama Pahnot Gharan Udo, through the offices of the Imperial Legion, I condemn this vile creature to death by hanging. May Jailii judge you accordingly.” The Legatus turned, nodded to the executioner, and walked off of the stage as the legionary who would deliver Cuahuatec’s end pulled the lever and the trap door underneath the little Gromothim male fell away.

    There was a sickening crunch as Cuahuatec’s neck snapped, then body simply swung softly from side to side, limp. I turned and walked back toward the carriage, trying to maintain composure as my mind replayed those few seconds: the door opening, Cuahuatec falling, then his body swinging. I leaned against the door of the carriage and beat my fist against it softly, and that was how Atam found me when he came riding up.

    “Amabassador Kii,” he said, slowing his horse until he stopped near me, “I have good news.”

    I turned and wiped the tears from my cheeks. “It is of no use, Decurio,” I said to him. “Cuahuatec has just been hanged.”

    Atam looked from me to the furca, the shock evident on his face. “I…,” he trailed off, before shaking his head slightly and continuing. “I am sorry, Ambassador. I investigated the matter as quickly as I could…”

    I held up a hand to quiet the Decurio. “I do not blame you, Lilu,” I said. “You did what you could. Unfortunately, Legatus Ovrai did not care. He seemed predisposed to execute Cuahuatec whether the Gromothim was guilty or innocent.”

    “That is unfortunate,” Atam said, “as I have a witness who would testify to the fact that the slave was innocent, for they saw the true murderer.” He gestured behind him to an old woman sitting side-saddle upon the horse of one of his legionaries.

    I gasped. “Who? Who was it?”

    “This woman says that she saw the father of the girl throw a bloody knife into a well near his home. His clothes and arms covered in blood. He seemed quite calm until he returned to his home and began wailing and calling attention to the matter.”

    I looked past the edge of the carriage to the furca and saw the father at the head of small group throwing stones at and spitting upon the corpse of Cuahuatec. “Quickly, Lilu, have your men take him and let us go show the Legatus the inadequacies of his ‘justice’.”

    The Decurio followed my gaze and issued the order, helping the old woman down off of the horse and I led our trio back into the offices of Legatus Saffrit Minjohn Ovrai. The Legatus frowned at me as we entered the outer office, where he stood talking with his aide. “What is it now, Ambassador?” He asked with an exasperated tone. “I will warn you: you are beginning to try my patience.”

    “Patience?” I asked him incredulously. “I was not aware that you had patience, Legatus. What with the hurry you were in to judge and execute my slave. The Decurio here has a witness – this old woman – who will testify to the innocence of the late Cuahuatec, executed by a miscarriage of justice. In fact, she has a good idea as to who the murderer actually is. Is that not correct, madam?”

    The old woman nodded, shuffling closer to where I stood. “It is true, Legatus,” she rasped out. “I saw Ugesh, the girl’s father, dispose of the weapon used to kill the girl – himself and his clothes covered in blood – before he raised the alarm that she had been murdered.”

    Ovrai stared at the woman with narrowed eyes, his gaze flicking briefly to me, before moving past me to opening doors where the father, Ugesh, was being dragged in by Atam’s legionaries.

    “What reason would a father have to murder his own daughter…?” Ovrai asked, cautious.

    The old woman shrugged. “He has been known to get into gambling debt,” she said. “Perhaps the death was the payment required by one the criminals he is indebted to. Perhaps he has taken up worshiping the dra’ash, those old demons of the desert. All I know is what I saw, sir.”

    “What?!” the father cried as he was pulled before us by the legionaries. “How…?!” He looked to Ovrai. “Lies, sir! This crone spreads lies about me. May you rot on the shore of the River of Pus, you bitch!”

    Legatus Ovrai frowned. “Take him to the cells,” he grumbled. “We will look into this before we move forward.”

    “Good,” I remember saying, my voice icy. “Mayhaps you will execute the right person this time.”

    “Now see here–” Ovrai began to say, his face turning red with anger.

    “No, you see here, Legatus Ovrai,” I roared back, the fury overflowing from me so much that I felt Atam’s hand on my shoulder, restraining me. “You have put an innocent to death this day, with no attempt to make sure that you had the real criminal until too late. Be certain that I will be letting Dux Harim Gharan Loati know of this at the soonest opportunity.”

    The name of the Commander of the Legions made the Legatus pause. After a moment, he simply nodded curtly to me and retired to his inner office. Atam gently pulled me back and turned me, guiding me out the doors and back to the carriage.

    “Come now, Ambassador,” he said as we stepped outside. “It has been a long and harrowing morning. There is nothing more that we can do here.”

22

I traveled back to the inn silently, riding alone in the carriage, while Decurio Atam and his men rode in escort around the vehicle. When we returned, I spoke to Viro privately, explaining what had transpired at the fort. My wife, the blessed soul that she is, comforted me in my despair and grief until I could compose myself.

    I was surprised to find that the priests of Tule had not departed for Akhem, instead waiting to know the outcome of the accusations of murder. “I am sorry to hear that,” Rajai said said, his voice and face solemn. “If you would like, I can use our crystal – our Eye of the Smith – to relay a message to the Dux. It will get to him much more swiftly than by courier or heliograph.”

    I remember smiling and clasping the bearded priest on his upper arm. “I would appreciate that greatly, my friend.”

    Legionaries from the fort delivered the corpse of Cuahuatec not long after we returned to the inn. Atam and I carried him to the traditional catacombs of the Yevijiri and said what funerary prayers we knew, asking Jailii to guide the Gromothim’s soul to whatever land the dead of his people occupied. We stood there in that subterranean tunnel, the dessicated corpses of generations of Yevijiri dead lining the walls around us. The flame of the torch that Decurio Atam held flickering its light across the gray-brown walls. All was deathly silent, and I thought to myself, This is the peace of the dead. This is the gathering of loved ones. A silent hall of corpses beneath the earth. Nothing more.

    With those pessimistic thoughts floating through me, we returned to the surface and bade our farewells to Nev.

    The journey to Akhem was better than it would have been without the priests, but I must admit that despite the conversation and the company, my mind continued to return to and ruminate over Cuahuatec. I would wake at night from visions of the Gromothim hanging from that hope, his blind eyes staring at me with his shade’s accusations. Though Viro, Rajai, Atam, and the others would reassure me, I could not absolve myself of the feelings of guilt, of responsibility. To this day, the guilt weighs upon me, but I thank the Kritanoi that I no longer have those dreams.

    Three days after leaving Nev and Cuahuatec we approached the city walls of Akhem. Rising high – ten times the height of a man – they had stood for three hundred years as a bulwark against invaders and conquerors. In fact, when the legions of the Moy had finally reached the walls of city, it was priests of Krinai who had swam through the harbor and into the city’s sewers, sneaking through the ancient metropolis undetected until the opened the gates for their brothers-in-arms to enter. The Yevijiri had been so surprised by the penetration, that they immediately surrendered, fearing that their patron-god, Qat, had forsaken them.

    We entered through the city’s western gate, dubbed the “Eagle Gate” after Qat’s totemic animal servant in Yevijiri lore. The city of Akhem itself is a sprawling hive of activity and history, the city having been expanded and rebuilt several times throughout its nearly three millennia of existence. On our way to the Imperial Consulate, the seat of the Moy’s chief representative in the city, we passed through the Square of the Stars. So named after a legendary youth who fought off a necromancer that had planned to usurp rule of the city from its priest-king, the square had once been named after the city’s patron-deity. But, according to the legend, which many in the Moy know as “The Raiment of Stars”, the youth discovered an ancient Tainir armor that allowed him to face the necromancer in battle. The battle collapsed the old Temple of Qat – the rubble of which we could see as we passed through the square – though the different variations of the legend offer a multitude of possibilities of what happened to the youth and the legendary armor afterward.

    As our escort and our carriage slowed to a stop in front of the Consulate, I remember looking at the building with a strange mixture of lightness and heaviness to my heart. I had promised Cuahuatec his freedom once we reached Akhem. And though the slave was free after a fashion, he would never see his family, his people in this world ever again. I remember sighing heavily, and taking Viro’s arm as we entered the Consulate together.

23

While the Consulate was decorated quite finely – bright Yevijiri rugs, some Zyvakri pottery, and several murals done in stucco depicting scenes from both Kravri and Yevijiri myth – it was by no means opulent or ostentatious. We were greeted by an aide to the Consul, a Yevijiri woman of middle years named Shan’eth, who was dressed in the robes of the Kravri, though her hands, forearms, and face were decorated with the dark brown temporary tattoos common among women of the region surrounding Akhem. Shan’eth informed us that the Consul, Dar I’igaruu Sharai, was at the time out visiting and taking a midday meal with some of the city’s merchants, but would return later in the afternoon.

    “Until then, I and some of the other servants would be more than pleased to get you situated within your rooms here and attend to whatever needs you may have, Ambassador,” the Yevijiri woman said, her brown eyes bright and friendly.

    Slaves owned by the Consulate ferried our belongings in from the carriage to the rooms we would be occupying for the next four days until our ship from Sirr arrived. As they did that, we bid our farewells to Rajai and the other priests of Tule, whose ship was already berthed they told us, and waiting for them to board. I wished the old priest and his companions fair winds and calm seas for their journey, and thanked them once again for relaying my message to Dux Harim Gharan Loati. The old man smiled, his teeth shining like ivory from that dark, graying beard of his, wished us the luck of the Kritanoi and then they were off, their carriage traveling down the dusty, cobbled streets of Akhem to the harbor.

    We were shown to our rooms – elegant but simple affairs that were a welcome respite from the intimately close conditions of the carriage – and I must admit that we collapsed into a deep sleep near instantaneously. I dreamed of Cuahuatec and his dead, blind eyes; as well, I had odd visions of a city covered in ivy and other greenery, and of a smiling feminine figure. We were woken by one of Shan’eth’s assistants, who informed us that the Consul had returned and would be joining us for our evening’s supper. We bathed and clothed ourselves, and were guided through the Consulate’s hallways to a large dining room lit by several candelabras and warmed by a large fire in the hearth, with the city being situated right on the Yevij Sea the air begins to cool quickly in Akhem as Tulaar descends for the evening. We were greeted by a tall, heavy-set man man whose smile and personality exceeded the girth of his waist significantly. Dar I’igaruu Sharai was a joyful, exuberant man whose graying hair belied the energy he obviously felt and displayed. As we dined on goose, cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and honeyed wine, the Consul regaled us with some of his own stories of his many years living in Akhem, or “the City of Qat” and many of the Yevijiri still proudly proclaimed it.

24

“You see,” Dar said after popping a grape into his mouth, “many years ago there used to be a merchant by the name of Kesh, a Zyvakri man. Now rumors are that in his youth, Kesh was a pirate, sailing up and down the eastern coast of the Yevij taking treasure and slaves where he could. But, as can happen, the life of piracy became too…excitable for him as he grew older, so he took the wealth that he acquired over the years and settled here in Akhem.

    “He dealt in slaves, of course, along with grapes, olives, wine – all of the things that coin could buy and in return bring in even more coin to his coffers. And this all went well for several years, until he received a visit from some old colleagues of his from his days of piracy. This particular visit happened during a party that I was hosting at the villa of one of the city’s councillors – I am well-known for the entertaining evenings that I have a talent for whipping up, if you will. Many seek my services as host in order to reap the reward of claiming to have collaborated with me on an evening of feasting, music, and socializing.

    “But, I digress. As the night wore on it was disrupted by a commotion at the villa’s entrance. It seems that some of Kesh’s old colleagues had tracked him to Akhem and then spent a fortnight in the city following the trail of his movements and dealings until they arrived at the councillor’s villa. They forced their way in, incapacitating three of the councillor’s hired guards, and brought the gathering to a halt as they confronted the old Zyvakri merchant. You see, it seems that Kesh and his colleagues had held their combined wealth together. And when Kesh had decided to retire those several years prior, he had not only taken his own share of the wealth, but theirs, as well. They had spent several years rebuilding their own coffers, all while trying to hunt down the treacherous and disappeared Kesh.

    “Well, as you can imagine, for a host – even one hosting a party outside of his own home – an event like this is an absolute nightmare. Not only had petty thugs and criminals forced their way into a private residence and gathering, but one of the invited attendees was being embarrassed before the gathered social elites of the city. A horrid, horrid situation – which could only be made more horrid by bloodshed.”

    Dar paused to take a sip of his honeyed-wine. “Now, of course, there was no bloodshed. But, not thanks to any efforts on Kesh’s part. No, the man slipped back into his old piratical ways and threatened to brutally murder each and every one of his former colleagues right there in the villa’s atrium in front of the other guests. And it almost came to that – though I sincerely doubt that Kesh would have prevailed, he was older then than I am now and…how should I say it? ‘Overripe’? Yes, I think that is a good description. Anyway, as I was saying: Kesh and his colleagues were a hair’s-breadth away from covering the floor of the councillor’s atrium with their blood…if it had not been for my intervention.

    “Without thinking, I leapt between the two piratical parties and profusely proposed alternate possibilities for this particular exchange to play out,” Dar said, and I estimate that he had uttered that line many, many times in the past. “I was going to be damned if I would be forever known as the man who had held a party that had a prominent merchant and his pirate friends kill one another at. That would be social suicide, I assure you quite well.

     “Naturally, I have quite the silver-tongue – a quality I hear that you possess, as well, Ambassador – and was able to, at the very least, get all the involved ruffians, Kesh included, to relax and take their hands off of the handles of their blades. We adjourned to the councillor’s tablinum while the councillor himself worked hard at getting the party started back up again. In the tablinum I acted as mediator between the two parties and after many hours – so many, in fact, that the gathering had ended and dawn broke over the waters of the Yevij – before Kesh and his former colleagues came to an agreement that that they were both satisfied with.

     ”Or, honestly, both parties less than satisfied with, but found acceptable. His colleagues became part-owners of Kesh’s businesses, renaming the ventures after their old pirate vessel: the Sea-Wolf. ‘Sons of the Wolf Trading Company’ they called it…and they agreed to give me discounts on their inventory in perpetuity for brokering the deal.”

    The Consul popped another grape into his mouth and smiled at Viro. “And that, madam, answers your question as to where I got these delicious grapes from.”

25

The next few days passed in a blur of conversation, food, and wandering – the first two primarily being with Consul Dar I’igaruu Sharai. Viro and I took the children to visit some of the prominent historical landmarks of Akehm – the Square of Stars, the Harbor, and the Arena of Roses, among others – and I found myself spending long stretches of time simply wandering the city’s streets accompanied only by one of the legionaries who would be part of our escort and honor guard while in Sirr. I was still grappling with the grief and guilt of Cuahuatec in those days and my moods generally found me so restless that the only balm to my aching mind and soul was to exhaust my body with travel.

    One might wonder why I was so distraught over the death of a slave, and a slave that I had only known for a few turnings of the moons, at that. I think that I have been forthright with my own feelings and views on the matter, though, and will not spend any more time going on at length regarding them. Suffice it to say, that I was still wrestling with my own responsibilities and shame over not having done more.

    On the evening of our third night after arriving in Akhem, we were interrupted during our supper with the Consul by Shan’eth, who informed us that the Sirraşi ambassador, Akar Ka’lahn, had arrived. As the Yevijiri woman stepped aside, an individual shorter than myself and draped in a cloak entered the dining room. The figure pulled back the hood of their cloak, revealing long, intricately braided hair that was the brown of loam and chestnuts, shaved to the bare skin on both sides, the skin displaying intricate, scrolling tattoos in black ink that disappeared down her neck underneath the cloak. The ambassador’s ears, like all Tainir, were exceedingly long and tapered to a point; likewise, her eyes were completely black – like two pools of ink that took in the dining room before them.

    I say “her”, though those who are educated regarding the Tainir know that such a common designation of gender is an approximation at best. The beings, who otherwise look so much like Men as to be somewhat unnerving on first encountering them, are hermaphroditic, and the appellation “Tainir” is a common name for the two related races of their people: the Tayin, who appear more masculine to the eyes of Men, and the Ainur, who appear more feminine. Many of their legends and myths state that the Harrimi – a near uncountable pantheon of divinities sprung from the “ground of being”, Ori Nai, and shaped by the demiurge, Ori Hajj, in common Tainir belief – shaped the Tainir races in their own image, seeking to create a mortal creature that was a manifestation of united opposites, of perfection.

    Shan’eth helped the ambassador remove her cloak, revealing a simple dress of light blue with darker, floral patterns, and a shawl about her shoulders of dark, midnight blue adorned with small, sparkling stones on it that made it look like she had the mantle of the star-strewn sky wrapped around her. It was clear to see that the tattoos she had must have covered most of her body, for the scrolling designs were visible on her forearms and her sandalled feet. Consul Sharai made the introductions, being the host, and when he came to me, I bowed ever so slightly at the waist and clasped my hands together – a gesture that I had been taught was the common form of formal greeting among the Sirraşi and several other cultures of the Tainir.

    Akar smiled and returned the gesture. “It is a pleasure and an honor to meet you, finally, Ambassador Kii,” the ambassador said. “Likewise, your beautiful wife and children.” She looked to Dar, with a questioning look. “I hope you do not find me rude, but the journey has been a long one and I would ever so appreciate sitting as soon as is possible.”

    The gregarious Consul smiled and invited us all to relax and resume feasting, calling for more honeyed-wine when Akar replied that she would enjoy a glass.

    “I find the…’adornments’ on your skin fascinating,” Viro said at one point after small conversation regarding our respective journeys had passed. “Are they akin to the art that many Yevijiri women paint upon themselves?”

    Akar smiled softly. “Yes and no,” she said, her voice having an odd lilt to it that was musical and pleasing to the ear, but also seemed a strange mixture of masculine and feminine to which one had to grow accustomed. “Unlike the Yevijiri tradition, the designs are not painted on – and thus making them capable of fading or washing off in a matter of days. These are tattooed into the skin and the patterns indicate different information regarding the person they are on. Several of the patterns of mine display my family history, my accomplishments, my status and position in society, the fact that I am well-traveled and an ambassador for the Kingdom. So on and so forth.”

    “Interesting,” Dar said after he swallowed a mouthful of lamb meat. “I know many men in the legions elect to receive similar tattoos displaying the Naar twined together in a circle around the shield and spears of the Imperial Legion standards.”

    “The…’Naar’?” the ambassador asked, quirking an eyebrow.

    “The four primordial dragons,” I responded. “They shaped the early world and then birthed the Yejimo, the primal giants, from whom the Kritanoi are descended.”

    Akar blinked her black eyes at me and smiled. “Fascinating,” she said laconically, before being drawn into conversation with the Consul regarding some matter of trade between Akhem and Sirr.

    When supper was finished, we were all so full from the food and tired from our days, that we retired to our quarters. Ambassador Ka’lahn even graced the Consul with the honor of housing her for the night, dispatching one of her own Ainur servants return to their ship to let the captain know. In the morning, though, we all – myself, Viro, the children, the legionaries, and Ambassador Ka’lahn’s entourage – bid a fond farewell to the Consul and set out in a small convoy of carriages and cavalry to where our ship awaited us in the Harbor.

26

The ambassador’s ship was both familiar and exotic. It looked like most ships in the Harbor of Akhem – after all, I assume that there a limited number of shapes that a vessel can take – but it was stylized in a way that seemed distinctly of the Tainir. The hull of the ship, around the main deck’s railing, was covered in a silver filigree that resembled the tattooing that Ambassador Ka’lahn had covering her skin. The figurehead was of a Tainir figure, arms outstretched before them, as if reaching for the horizon ahead. And the vessel contained only a single mast, its sail not overly large, and no discernible oar-deck.

    Needless to say, when we emerged from our carriages on the pier next to the Tainir vessel, I wondered quietly as to how we would even depart from the dock. But, I kept my misgivings to myself, after all, I was certain that this was not the first time that the crew of this vessel had set sail and likely had an idea of what they were doing. Ambassador Ka’lahn led us aboard the ship while our legionaries and the ships Tainir crew took care of the task of loading our belongings.

    “Welcome to the Jantir Korahm,” she said as we stepped onto the main deck – Rakaj, Tama, and our eldest daughter, Lila, all agape as they watched the Tainir crew bustling about their duties. “In the common tongue of the Moy, it would translate as ‘the Dancer of the Winds’.”

    She introduced us to the captain, Chejir Da’rahn, an Ainur who was taller than me by a head, and whose long, flame-bright hair was shaved and braided similar to Akar’s. Captain Da’rahn smiled and welcomed us aboard her vessel, stating that it was an honor to have a representative of the Moy of my status. Akar showed us the quarters that I, Viro, and the children would be sharing for the duration of the voyage – a room surprisingly larger than I thought it would be, but nothing so ostentatious that I was concerned about the feelings of the crew.

    It did not take long for the Dancer to be made ready for travel and soon Captain Da’rahn was calling for her crew of Ainur sailors to pull in the lines, raise the gang-plank, and push off. Four of the crew grabbed two long poles that had laid upon the main deck next to the ship’s railing and two each lowered a pole into the waters of the Harbor and began pushing the ship slowly backward, away from the dock. I was marveled by this at first as I watched, but was informed later on by Captain Da’rahn, when were well away from the port in the middle of the Harbor of Akhem how it was possible.

    The Tainir were using magic.

    “The poles are simply for show,” Chejir said, her demeanor almost apologetic as she explained. “Since the Moy has strict regulations regarding the use of magic, we must use some…sleight-of-hand, you might say? In the Hundred Kingdoms, magic is used all of the time, it is a natural part of our being as Tainir – we use it the way you Men use speech, for it is something that comes naturally to us from a very early age. But, as we do not wish to incite more hostilities between the Moy and us, we pretend not to be using it where any agents of the Moynama might think that we were undermining the Seven Tables.”

    I nodded softly as one of the Ainur crew called up a powerful wind that filled the Dancer’s sail, but touched nothing else around it, and propelled the ship forward into the Yevij Sea.

27

I must admit that during our first few days at sea, I was a bit perturbed by the thought that the Tainir were regularly using magic around us. Those of my audience of readers who are Kravri will surely understand my apprehension to this notion, but others of the Moy – or even of the Hundred Kingdoms, should this work spread through those foreign lands – may be less certain.

    When Jarutu Nohn Kriiv first united the Great Clans of the Kravri under the rule of the Monarchy, he instituted a set of laws that all of the Seven Clans could agree upon, and these were called the Seven Tables of Law. Ever since the time of Jarutu Nohn Kriiv, the Seven Tables have been the locus of Kravri law, justice, and governance, and one of the fundamental laws has been the Edict Against Magic.

    Legends say that in the ancient days, rogue magicians would terrorize the world and its peoples. The Seven Great Clans each developed their own set of laws establishing the lawful and unlawful use of magic, which generally revolved around involvement in the Priesthoods of the Kritanoi: priests and priestesses – individuals who had been rigorously trained in their art and ethics, individuals who had acquired enormous discipline of mind – were allowed to use the blessings of the Kritanoi that were revealed to their respective orders. But anyone who was not clergy was considered an enemy of the state and was to either be forced into one of the Priesthoods or executed. This general view of the use of magic made its way into the Seven Tables of Law under Jarutu Nohn Kriiv and had been a core part of Kravri law ever since.

    And so, to be surrounded by individuals who were not priests or priestesses but used magic casually and constantly, upset a part of myself on a deep level. But, as the days passed and I saw the Tainir crew using their magics not just casually, but masterfully and responsibly, my apprehensions began to dissipate. Like many in the Moy, I had assumed that in order for magic to be used rightly and properly, it had to be under the auspices of one of the Kritanoi. Otherwise, the use led to narcissism, megalomania, and a callous disregard for other beings.

    The Tainir proved this not to be wholly true.

    Perhaps it is a difference between Men and Tainir? Chejir and Akar both explained to me during the voyage that the Tainir develop and mature as children with the ability to work magic – some are more skilled and capable than others, some are specialists by choice or fate while others seek to become generalists – perhaps it is the pervasive, constant exposure to it that tempers the minds and souls of the Tainir? Perhaps Men are just incapable of using that much power without losing all sense of decency and good judgment in the absence of an external structure to enforce ethical behavior?

    I fear that only the Kritanoi only have an inkling of what the correct answer is to such questions.

    But, I must say that the experience aboard the Dancer of the Winds cemented in my mind to write a letter to the Moynama regarding this particular point of law and theology. There would have to be some reasonable way for the Tainir – and those others not of the Moy who perhaps used magic responsibly, but with less strict regulations – to not fear for their lives when traveling through our lands, simply because they performed an action that was as natural to them as breathing the air is to us.

28

The trip along the south along the western coast of the Yevij Sea was calm and swift, taking a week for us to reach the headwaters of the Tijhor River. We traveled several more days along the river before the towers of Sirr began to arise on the southern horizon. Constructed of marble and seeming to pierce the very sky, we were able to see even before we approached the city’s port that many of them were covered in ivy, vines, and other flowering plants. Brightly colored cloths flapped and fluttered in the wind from rooftops and poles, and Akar explained that these were prayer-flags, their intent to carry prayers that were printed on the cloth to the Harrimi on the winds.

    We sailed smoothly and steadily into the port, Chejir explaining that while one or two of the crew controlled the amount of force pushed into the sail by the conjured wind, others were controlling the density of the river-water at the bow, so as to expertly slow the Dancer and bring it to a perfect stop at the dock. The maneuvering was amazing to watch as some of the Ainur kept a slowly decreasing but constant force on the sail, while at the bow others slowly thickened the waters to a consistency approaching a gelatin before slowly thinning it back to normal as the Dancer slid into its berth.

     There was a small contingent of Sirraşi soldiers waiting on the dock when we dropped anchor. All of them Ainur, their heads shaved like those aboard the Dancer, though their hair was much shorter and unbraided; each wore breastplate, greaves, and bracers of a metal that gleamed like silver, though Akar assured me that it was a special alloy that Sirraşi metallurgists had developed centuries ago. The ambassador was the first down the gangplank when it was lowered and conferred with the leader of the soldiers before inviting the legionaries, my family, and I to debark and feel welcome in Sirr.

    The soldiers led us to a litter that was carried by four Ainur. The Sirraşi soldiers led us through the winding, cobbled streets of Sirr, our legionaries bringing up the rear. The children could not help themselves from staring out the windows of the litter as we traveled, gazing at the intricate architecture of the Tainir buildings, at the common folk who went about their business around us, at this strange new land we had entered after imagining it for so long. Akar rode in the litter with us, giving us commentary on some of the city’s districts that we traveled through and pointing out important buildings.

    “Now, Ambassador, when we get to the palace, you will not be given an audience with the Monarch right away. There will be a three night wait as the Court holds a feast in your honor. On this night, the first night, you will be seated on the opposite end of the hall from the Monarch. You will be expected to speak of the Moy and the Court will be extraordinarily joyous to hear such things.”

    “Because they are expected to be so?” I asked.

    Akar nodded. “Yes,” she said, “but also because many of them will be pleased to hear what you have to say of your homeland. The point of these three nights of feasting is a formalized ceremony…akin to a wedding, yes? Your people are celebrated on the first night, both of our peoples will be celebrated on the second night, and on the third night the Sirraşi will shine. So, on the second night, you will be seated in the middle of the hall, and on the final night you will sit at the Monarch’s table and the two of you will be united, symbolizing the union between our nations.”

    I nodded my understanding and Akar continued on. I was listening, of course, but my gaze was out the window of the litter, watching the ivy-covered marble buildings pass by us, as the distinct feeling of being a stranger in a strange land fully settled upon my shoulders.

29

Our lodgings were in a building not far from the Scarlet Palace of the Monarch, still within the defensive walls of the eponymous Scarlet District of Sirr. Akar explained to us as we passed through the a gate in the massive granite walls – walls which were painted red so as to evoke the thought of blood flowing down them – that the District was so named due to a legendary uprising that won the Sirraşi their freedom.

    “You see, in the ancient days, we were ruled by monstrous creatures from across the ocean that you call the Serranian,” Ambassador Ka’lahn said as the litter carried us along the short tunnel through the cyclopean wall. “They enslaved us and thought nothing for our lives. Not until a young Ainur, blessed by the Harrimi, stood against them and rallied the Tainir populace behind her. They rose up, cast out the tyrants, and established the Kingdom of the Sirraşi. But the fight for freedom was a bloody one, particularly as they came for the tyrants here, in their citadel. Thus, the palace of the Monarch is known as the Scarlet Palace. The district within these fortified walls is known as the Scarlet District, and the walls are kept decorated such as they are to remind we Sirraşi that freedom is paid with a currency that all possess, but is infinitely more valuable than gold or jewels.”

    Within the Scarlet District, Akar explained, were the buildings of most of the Kingdom’s bureaucracies along with the capital’s foremost garrison, the Scarlet Shield, that housed both the Monarch’s personal legions and the city’s guard. Our building was to not only be our residence during our time here, but would also be the Embassy for the Krava Moy. Which was not too surprising: it was in keeping with the established order of the Sirraşi and given the recent end to the hostilities between the Kingdom and the Moy, no doubt the Monarch would like to keep a potentially valuable hostage close at hand should peaceable relations crumble.

    The building itself was five-stories tall, covered in marble – Akar explained that most buildings in Sirr were built with granite and faced with marble – that was was carved to depict Kravri figures in majestic and friendly scenes. I raised a questioning eyebrow to the Ambassador when I saw these.

    “I assume those are new?” I asked.

    Akar smiled knowingly. “Yes and no. The artwork is, the stone is not,” she said. “Before the treaty between our peoples was signed, this was the Embassy of the Jallah, one of the other Hundred Kingdoms. They graciously moved to another building and we changed the artwork on this building accordingly.”

   I grunted thoughtfully at that. The stone is old, but the artwork changed, I remember thinking. No doubt that no stone-mason the likes of which that we Kravri have ever seen attended to such a job. Yet more magic at work and their society functions none the worse for it.

    Soldiers and servants brought our belongings and helped us begin the process of making the building into a home. It took most of the day to begin settling in and before we had really made much headway we had to ready ourselves for the night’s feasting. We donned our finest robes and I placed the brass laurel wreath that marked me as ambassador and envoy for the Krava Moy upon my head. We were led to the Monarch’s feasting hall by Ambassador Ka’lahn and the Head of the Guard, a tall Ainur with raven-black hair that was coiffed similar to Akar’s, and seated not far from the entrance of the hall. The space itself was cavernous, filled with table and several hearth-fires on each side. At the far end from the entrance, I could see a dais upon which stood a stone table draped with fine cloths and adorned with candelabras that shined silvery in the light.

    We were introduced by the chamberlain when we entered, and the gathered Sirraşi nobles stood and applauded. Viro turned bright red as this happened – despite being an ambassador’s wife and having attended many such functions since we were wed so many years previous, it seems that she realized distinctly in that moment that the fanfare was her and our children as much as it was for me. The Monarch herself stood and greeted us as the applause died out, she garbed in a dark dress that was accented with dark blues and greens that reminded me of the description of the lights that haunt the northern Hylian skies at night. Her voice carried easily across the chamber, whether through magic or design of the room I am still unsure. We were seated once the Monarch finished and served the first course of a very long meal that consisted of more and more wine, mead, and ale as the night wore on.

    I was asked to tell a story of the Moy and so I related the story of the Raiment of Stars, of how the armor that was forged in the ancient past by Tainir smiths and sorcerers was recovered by a youth who used it to defeat an evil necromancer, and how the legend spoke of the youth disappearing into the land of the spirits until such a time as when the Raiment would be needed again. The Monarch and her Court appeared to appreciate the story, and Akar informed me that the Sirraşi would like the fact the story incorporated a relic of Tainir manufacture. Another of the Court stood and related a stirring story of being shipwrecked in the Yevij, of being stranded on an island in the inland sea of six turnings of the moons before being rescued by a naval ship of the Moy. The Monarch and the rest of the Court applauded that story, as well, celebrating the good-will between the Moy and the Kingdom – that despite the border-war between our two nations, there could still be good found in the other. More stories followed, along with music and song and, as I mentioned, drinking. This went on late into the evening, so long in fact that our children began to fall asleep at our table. Viro and I excused ourselves, which Akar relayed to the Monarch, who toasted us and called an end to the evening’s revelry.

    In the morning, Viro and I woke late, still recovering the previous night’s festivities. The day was filled with more settling in and a visitation from a Kravri merchant who had established a burgeoning business in Sirr. That evening we were once again led to the feasting hall by Ambassador Ka’lahn and seated mid-way between the entrance and the dais. The evening was filled with song and stories, food and drink, celebrating both the Sirraşi and the Kravri equally, until once again Viro and I had to carry sleeping children back to our apartments within the embassy.

    The third evening saw us once again escorted by Akar to the Monarch’s feasting hall, but this time seated on the dais. The Monarch, an Ainur of a height equal to my own, with curling blonde hair that was worked into intricate braids and scrolling tattoos on the sides of her shaven head that wrapped around onto her cheeks, chin, and forehead, was seated close to myself, with only her Chief Minister seated between us. The Monarch herself regaled us with several stories of the greatness of the Sirraşi people and their Kingdom, though there were plenty of bards and other nobles of the Court who offered their own songs and stories up for the entertainment of all who were gathered that evening.

    The climax of the night came when the Monarch rose and asked me to stand with her. She raised up a golden horn filled with mead, swearing an oath to peaceful relations between our two nations that I echoed, both out of formal obligation and sincere desire. We then both drank of the horn and the mead that was left was offered up to the Harrimi, in a divine sealing of the oaths sworn. In the end, the Monarch graciously allowed us to retire when our youngest began yawning and having trouble keeping her eyes open, bidding us a good evening and renewing her stated hopes for prosperous and peaceful relations with the Moy.

30

It has been five years since the night that the Monarch and I swore those oaths. I have seen my children grow, including seeing Rakaj sent off to the Imperial City as a young man for schooling so that he might rise through the ranks of the Great Bureaucracy, as well. I have seen the relations between the Moy and the Kingdom grow stronger, even as the Moy struggles against slave-revolts and seriously considers the act of emancipation, at the advisement of the Priesthood of Tule among others. Lamentably, I have seen Viro take ill and succumb to the ravages of disease, but I have also seen Akar take the empty place at my side. I have seen the seasons come and go as the Kritanoi deem them to do, I have seen the lands change, I have seen the people change, I have seen myself change.

    Like many, there are times when I think back over my life and wonder what might have been should I have made different choices? How would things have been different had I not let Rakaj play with the innkeeper’s daughter in Tarahn? Would we all have frozen to death had Decurio Atam and I forged on ahead to Yantih through the blizzard or would we have made it to the city? Would Cuahuatec still be alive if I had not sent him off for pomegranate? Would Viro still live had we not traveled to this foreign land?

    So many choices, so many questions, so many ephemeral possibilities that flit at the vague boundaries of the imagination. To learn from your actions and hypothesize how one might have chosen differently – so as to hopefully make better choices in the future – is one thing, but to constantly mull and obsess over minor choices and decisions that spiraled into consequences that shook the very foundations of one’s world…

    To do that leads to nothing but folly. That has been one of the most important lessons that I have learned in my journey south into the Hundred Kingdoms of the Tainir. My life and the lives of those around me have been changed irrevocably, for both the better and the worse, ever since I left Harran more than five years ago at the command of Moynama Pahnot Gharan Udo. Though there are actions and consequences that I regret and lament, I would not change any of them in the end. For it is those actions, those consequences, the choices that informed and led to them, that have shaped my story and the stories of those close to me. It was those events that have sculpted us into the people that we are, for good or for ill.

    And so, as I write these final, parting words before I leave my desk and go to join my new wife and my two daughters for the evening’s meal, I say this: I am ever thankful for my journey to the south. It has led to happiness, pain, growth, loss, and a multitude of new experiences.

    What more can one ask from the world?

© Nicholas Egelhoff 2013

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