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The first leg of the journey past Kegsum was made in silence. The shock of what they'd witnessed - and likely caused, Ryou reminded himself grimly - had cast a pall over them. But he didn't have the leisure to think back on the episode extensively; a somber Darius pushed them on hard, pressing both Ryou and the horses down small rutted roads, occasionally cutting across fields, fording streams and skirting hills amidst a countryside vibrant with heat and sunshine. There was something a little exaggerated about the hurry. Later that evening, when an exhausted Ryou had finished currying an equally exhausted horse that only half-heartedly tried to nip him, it occurred to him that maybe Darius had been trying to distract him and get his mind off of what had happened this morning.
Their rapid trek had taken them into the middle of an olive grove, with only a deserted stone shack nearby, empty until laborers would come later that year to collect their crop. Ryou and Darius stayed there that night, sleeping in turns as Darius had promised. Thus Ryou was awake to watch the dawn rise through eyes gritty with fatigue. He missed coffee so much in these moments...
The countryside coming to light around him was dry, with bracken and small trees pushing their way up through rocks and reddish dirt. Goats bleated from a distant hill, though Ryou couldn't see any sign of human habitation other than the small shack in which Darius was still sleeping. Ryou breathed in deeply. The air was still fresh at this time of day, but rich with a fragrant, resiny smell that promised heat to come. A single bird sung high and fluty in the nearby olive grove. Ryou watched the sky turn a beautiful blue touched with purple, the stars winking out. The fate of the passer still weighed on him, but this moment in time lifted his spirits despite himself...Ryou shook his head, focusing once more on the here and now, and went to wake Darius.
Two hours after dawn, they crested a hill and found themselves looking down at a road winding through the valley below. It wasn’t a sophisticated Imperial highway like the one they'd used back in the Province of Tot, their previous location. This road was a wide stretch of beaten dirt; Darius had found it by spotting the clouds of dust rising from its traffic. Because it might be more primitive, but it was also much busier.
"Didn't you say this country was at war?" Ryou asked, watching the streams of people below them.
"Their southern regions saw a lot of battles. They were one of the areas where the Alliance stopped the progress of the Legions. But the Palisians never joined the Alliance; they're merchants, not warriors. Whenever they get attacked, they open their coffers, pay a bunch of Greeks a small fortune and let them do the fighting. In the meantime, their citizens go on making money by trading. Still..." Darius's gaze was fixed on the dozens of people on the road, and he looked puzzled. "That's a lot of travelers even for Palis. All going in one direction, but they're not refugees...Wait." Darius put his hands up to his eyes to shield them from the morning sun and focus his vision. He squinted for awhile, before muttering, "Those magically ground spectacles on the end of your nose have to be good for something. Can you see that paddock near the crossroads?"
"Yes, I magically can."
"Don't be smart with me...Those are oxen in there, can you describe them? They're all black, right?"
"Yes. There's, um, five or six of them. They've got..." Ryou narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to figure out what he was seeing. "I think their horns are painted yellow, and they've got something red around their necks."
"Garlands," said Darius with intense satisfaction. "Part of a hecatomb. Sacrifices," he added, when Ryou looked blank. "The priests will keep them at the crossroads so that travelers can pay an obol in honor of the gods, then they'll march them to wherever the other animals are being assembled. Don't you have this back in your land?"
"No, we tend to sacrifice nothing bloodier than rice."
"I bet Palis has organized Games," Darius said, not really listening to Ryou's answer. "Either that or the king's dead, and I don't think people would be quite so happy to travel around if that were the case. This is great, the way south will be safe while the truce is in effect, and there'll be so many travelers, we'll never get noticed. Inder favors me again. I'm going to have to put something on His altar too when I get back."
Ryou nudged his horse to follow Darius, making his way down the bluff towards the road where they joined the steady trickle of people heading southwest.
There were other riders on mules and horseback, but most people walked or lead oxen-pulled carts. Ryou watched them discreetly as he and Darius passed them by. In ten minutes he saw twice as many people as he had in all his travels up to date. Everything and everyone looked exotic to Ryou's eyes, particularly the richer people dressed in fine clothes riding in some of the carts. The teamsters leading their oxen were dressed more plainly and uniformly, in brown linen tunics and sandals, many of them wearing thin leather straps around their wrists as well. Slaves, Darius mentioned in passing when he caught Ryou's curious glance, reminding the latter of one of the more unpleasant aspects of Antiquity he'd managed to forget until now...
They ate a lunch of lamb stew and unleavened bread at a series of stalls that had sprung up around a stream without any town to call their own. While Ryou was stretching his legs and trying to find a discreet corner to pee in, he saw at the back of a stall an elderly woman armed with a rod savagely beating a young girl, barely a teen. Ryou opened his mouth instinctively-...The girl was crying and wailing, as well she might, but Ryou had the feeling from the lack of frantic or shocked note in her cries that this had happened before. The girl did not have a slave mark; the woman could be her mother...He left without either of them noticing his presence. If they had, the woman might have stopped out of respect for a customer of their common group of stalls, but he suspected that as soon as he was out of sight, the beating would resume all the more savagely for the small embarrassment he'd caused.
That scene, as much as the notion of slaves and animal sacrifices, drove home how much of a foreigner he and his civilized 21st century notions were here. When Ryou finished his business and made his way back to the stalls, the strong human and animal odors, the yells of people haggling over the price of a bundle of grapes or a piece of bread, the colors and the clothes and the way so many of the men were armed, hit Ryou with a sense of alienation that he'd not had since he'd first arrived in this country. Darius, holding the horses, with his beard starting to look a little raggedy, his long hair wild and uncombed, the hawk-like scrutiny of his surroundings, the armor on his back and the weapon at his side, looked once more as outlandish and intimidating as the day Ryou saw him facing the Rajin.
The look Darius was giving him was not that of a stranger, though. "What's wrong? Tired?"
There were no words for what Ryou was feeling right at this moment, at least not for someone who liked to treat communication with the exactitude of mathematics rather than waxing philosophical. "Just the heat and the noise. I'll be better once we're on the road again."
Darius nodded and then, out of the blue, gave Ryou an approving clap on the back. It took Ryou completely by surprise and sent him staggering accidentally into the baggage gelding, to the amusement of two naked toddlers watching from the shade of the nearest pavilion.
By late afternoon, their voyage had led them to a small town, houses like square boxes of baked bricks painted reddish brown by dust. The highway broke into a multitude of tiny alleys with only one big thoroughfare. Traffic on the road had been getting heavy and the town itself was packed with travelers. The Games were in Palis, the city at the center of this country of the same name, but flocks of merchants and travelers were taking advantage of the truce to move about, and a large fair and market would be held near the temples. People in Palis knew to take advantage of good business when it came their way.
Darius led his horses through the small streets, looking for an inn that wasn't yet packed. Ryou followed with his own animal, staring around as discreetly as he could while avoiding the numerous goats living in back yards and in the houses themselves, and surely outnumbering this town's normal population three to one.
The sheer variety of people walking around was bewildering. Women covered from head to toe in yellow or brown robes walked alongside others dressed in halters and knee-length skirts and more bangles than could be counted. Patriarchal beards flowed over heavy woolen robes worn to the ground; oiled muscles shone beneath the sunshine and armor; boys ran past in loincloths, so did a few young girls; hair length varied from shaved to never cut at all; sandals were commonplace, but boots and bare feet were not rare either; and then there were the really strange things, like a woman in elegant red and green tunic and veils walking past with what appeared to be a melting cone of butter on her oiled and plaited hair. Tattoos, makeup, paint or kohl, crude or elaborate, spread over skin ranging from pale to darker than ebony.
...But if there was one skin color that did stand out in this riot of tones and styles, it was unfortunately Ryou's.
At first Ryou thought people were staring at him because of the bruises decorating the left side of his face; they didn't hurt much anymore, but they'd exploded into a Technicolor palette of red, blue, purple, yellow and black. There were other people sporting black eyes, though, as well as bruises, fresh wounds or scars. Life around here was tough, and a few injuries weren't going to be that startling. A few more pointed stares finally clued Ryou in. His features. In Japan Ryou's straight features were judged 'somewhat handsome once one got past the severity', according to the assessment by the secretarial pool back at Ujiie Trading & Security, and mentioned one night by Sasaki when the latter was exceptionally drunk. That was back in Tokyo, though. In this region of the Outlands, Ryou was downright exotic. The closest he saw to Asian faces were five people dressed in lambskin and heavy robes who had typical Mongol features.
Even in this sea of variety, Ryou was getting more than his shares of second glances; intrigued, appreciative, or a little hostile. The hostility was explained when Darius stopped at a stand selling bread, fruit and honey. The shopkeeper took one look at Ryou and snapped, "Hey, if the fucking Empire of Sung has curled up behind its walls, arrested all foreign traders and stopped all caravans again, why the fuck should I go out of my way to trade with you?"
"He's from Ezo," said Darius without looking up from some figs.
The shopkeeper, a redheaded man with a bushy beard surrounding a brown face, looked sullen and uninterested in the answer, but neither was he in any hurry to argue further with Darius. Darius didn't buy anything and left soon after that. At the next inn that turned him down, he stared at the paved road ahead of them, full of tents and shacks and people.
"Let's move on," he suddenly said.
By nightfall, they'd found an open stone quarry a few miles along the road. Most people had stayed in town, but even here a few travelers had gathered; tinkers and laborers who did not want to pay inn prices. Ryou and Darius picketed the horses nearby and joined the dozen men and a couple of women gathered around a common fire, all chatting energetically, laughing loud and not a little drunk.
Darius stared at the flames for awhile, accepting without much thought the common jar that was being passed around, a mix of alcohol and some sour juice.
"We're going to avoid towns from now on," he said softly for Ryou's benefit alone. "We'll take the herder's high way through the hills, it's slower but less busy and will skirt Palis. We'll be camping out a lot; we'll go back in town tomorrow and buy some decent bedrolls."
"...Is this my fault?"
"You do stand out a bit," said Darius with his usual offhand bluntness. "But it's safer all around. The closer we get to Aksum, the more I might run into someone looking for me."
They got up early the next day, before the other pilgrims stirred. Darius asked a local goat herder for directions, and an hour after that they got to the designated fork in the road. Nobody took the path up the slope where a crude stone tower dominated the sky; all the travelers stuck to the broader road. In fact Ryou noticed they turned their faces away from the path up to the tower, and avoided even glancing at it.
Darius stopped the horses and looked up the path with a certain lack of enthusiasm.
"What the hell," he finally muttered, pulling at the bridle to turn the horse's head. "Inder, watch out for this favored child of battles, and for this magian too while you're at it."
"Uh, is there some risk?" Ryou asked, looking at the empty road.
Darius didn't answer - hardly reassuring - and led the way up the slope. The path was shale and beaten earth. Ryou could feel his horse's muscles coil beneath him as it climbed, the slant of its ears a silent reproof to the idiot humans who'd left the nice, flat road behind.
It wasn't a tower but rather a solid monticule, as high as two men, made of piled stones without mortar. The top was flat and paved, with knee-high edges. It wasn't inhabitable, and it was surely too low to be a watchtower. "What is that?" Ryou asked.
"Tower of Silence," Darius answered shortly.
"If you don't know, you're better off. It's not my religion." He muttered something about crow-bait and nudged the horses by faster.
So it was some sort of religious artifact. Ryou nodded to himself. He'd figured out by now that, for all Darius's hard-headed practicality and fearlessness, the man was deeply superstitious. The supernatural worried him more than the natural, probably because the natural could be attacked with a sword.
The majority of the population shared this proclivity. There'd been a plethora of small temples back in the city, more than seemed reasonable for a place that size. And that wasn't the end of it; Ryou had seen a dozen small ceremonies throughout yesterday, in town or along the side of the road, near fords in the river or at roadside altars. People prayed out loud, bowed ritualistically, got down on their knees, or stood with their arms outstretched or even laid on the ground in the case of a filthy man in a loincloth who'd made Ryou think of some Indian swami. That was the small end of the scale, the larger end comprising the sacrifice of a hundred bulls and a countrywide truce and games in honor of the gods.
"Religion seems to be very important here," he said, raising his voice to talk above the crunch of hooves over the shale cluttering the dirt path.
That got him an odd look, one of many he'd gotten when he asked Darius a question that didn't make it across the cultural gap. "I guess."
"How many gods do these people have?"
"Here in Palis? Only five."
"Huh-uh." Darius shook his head in commiseration. "I think some king decreed it a few centuries ago, so they only have five; two gods, two goddesses and the Path Maker, who they consider the God of Trade and head of their pantheon as a result. Bunch of merchants..."
"But I saw dozens of different symbols and statues."
"That's everybody else."
"Palis worships those five, but then there's the gods of everybody else. Palis is a Free City and a big center of trade, there's a lot of foreigners living here, as well as Ionians and people fleeing the Imperium."
"Oh. Oh, you mean there's freedom of religion here?"
"Palis doesn't force them to worship their five gods?"
"Anybody living in Palis has to tithe to the temples, if that's what you mean," said Darius, puzzled.
"But they don't ask people to convert to their religion? Give up their gods for Palis's?" he added when it still seemed his meaning wasn't getting across.
Darius finally got it and looked honestly shocked. "What kind of land do you come from? Just because I live somewhere, I don't expect to have to give up worshiping the gods of my fathers. That'd be- why would any other god listen to me in the first place?"
So proselytism didn't exist here? For the hundredth time, Ryou wished he'd paid a bit more interest in history, instead of memorizing facts that looked likely to come up during a test and then doing Life and Death Go problems under his desk. True, antiquity in the West wasn't a subject that had come up in school anyway, but if only he'd just grabbed a book at the library one day...Ryou's notion of the history in the West was one of massive religious wars leading to missionaries cropping up everywhere in the world; it'd not occurred to him that Darius's Outlands took a stance towards religion that more closely approached those of Ryou's home country and civilization. Wasn’t antiquity a much harsher place? "So all these religions co-exist peacefully? There's never any strife amongst the communities?"
"Oh, all the time."
Ryou rubbed his forehead. Darius had gotten them cloth hats to protect them from the sun, but he still had the impression one of them had gotten heatstroke. "Isn't that seen as a problem?"
"I suppose, but some things are just inevitable," said Darius with a shrug. "The Khaldini are the worst when it comes to rioting. They believe it's wrong to tithe to any other god than their own. They do it anyway, right, but then they riot about it. In Assyria, we chased them all out hundreds of years ago, but there's still a lot of them in the Free Cities and in Aksum. The Nairat will stone a man who seduces one of their women, and that always leads to a lot of tensions and reprisals. And there are a plenty of ancestral dislikes between sects; back when I was a child, some worshippers of Marduk up and decided to attack this group from the Tribes of Judea inside Sura itself. That was a mess; the guards hung dozens of the buggers from the ramparts as a warning to just resolve their differences with a foot race or a wrestling match next time."
"Did none of the guards worship Marduk?" Ryou couldn’t help asking, his mind dwelling on religious repressions that'd taken place not too far back in Japan's past.
"Huh? No, of course not. Only Assyrian free men can be in the army. You really have some funny ideas," Darius said with an amused smile.
"Didn't you say you worked with a lot of mercenaries?"
"Sure, but they're not part of the army, they just fight for us because we pay them," Darius informed him kindly. Ryou rubbed his forehead again.
"The Hounds are a bit different," Darius conceded, not noticing Ryou's reaction. "We're a weight's worth of all kinds of grain mixed together; Assyrian, Aksumite, Free Cities...That's kind of new, but I tell you one thing, there's only one altar in camp, and that's to Inder. Well, and Hygeia of course," Darius muttered with a pious glance at his arm-braces. "So, what gods do you worship, Ryou?"
"Oh, Shinto is a religion of Kami, of, uh, elemental spirits and gods," Ryou evaded. He'd always been a confirmed atheist, and he was pretty sure he still was. The world has proven itself considerably stranger and less logical than he'd believed, but he didn't think he needed to resort to spirituality to keep his grip.
"At least you're not a one-god man, then. Not that I mind as such," Darius immediately added with a placating gesture directed at nobody present, "but I just don't understand it, and I had it force-fed to me for five years during the Roman occupation."
"So the Romans did try to convert Assyrians to their religion," said Ryou, now thoroughly confused.
"Convert? I'm not sure what you mean, but I don't think so," answered Darius, not faring much better. "They did try to teach His way to us children, and that sucked. But I guess that's fair; since they'd invaded us, their God must have won the heavenly battle over ours. So they got tribute and the temples for their god, and we had to make do with house altars for ours."
But the Romans had not tried to dominate or wipe out Assyria's religion. Heavenly battle...Gods of our Fathers...Ryou nodded to himself. Wars were fought for the reason Darius enounced frequently when he talked of past conquests: for livable land to expand beyond the small pockets of country Zaratusra had originally designated, or for goods, trade routes, cities, slaves or even sacrifices. Religion just followed as a matter of course, the way the culture would; it wasn't a cause in itself.
"So Romans are monotheistic," Ryou finally concluded, catching up on the import of the conversation.
"Uh, yeah," Darius said in his 'even my horse knows that much' tone of voice.
"I didn't realize these Romans were already Christians." Ryou's grasp of European history was weak, but even he knew about the Roman Empire and its relation to Christianity.
"What's a Christian?"
"Christian?" Darius mused. "I think I've heard that before, but that's from much, much further away; a bunch of city-states that call themselves the Dukedoms. I think our Genoese cannoneer is from there. But they worship three gods, don't they? A man, a woman and a spirit?"
"I couldn't say," said Ryou weakly, not even willing to guess anymore. "So who do the Romans worship?"
"Aten, of course; ever since they destroyed the Egyptians a thousand years ago and took their god home like some kind of prize. Crazy Imperials. We've added gods to our pantheon through conquest, sure, but we don't throw out the old ones. Come on." They were far past the Tower of Silence now, the road had flattened, they were riding through hills full of short, dry shrubs, lone trees and olive groves, and Darius was obviously in a much better mood. He touched his heels to the flanks of his horse and picked up some speed, smiling in the sunshine.
Darius was swearing, using some very inventive terms that the Gift of Zaratusra managed to handle, and some untranslatable words that nonetheless scalded the humid air. "Move you miserable beast!"
The baggage gelding snorted, made an unconvincing effort to get out of the mud, and then settled down again.
Darius gasped and stepped away from the haunch he'd been trying to push. Ryou let up on the animal's bridle and gave the creature a disapproving look. His mount and Darius's had gotten through the boggy ground with only a minor struggle. Ryou didn't know much about horses, but he had the feeling this one was not so much stuck in the mud as reluctant to give its back hooves the good pull needed to free them. The puny humans shouting at it, pulling at it and thwacking it with a stick weren't about to change its mind.
"Fuck it," Darius muttered, leaning against a tree. "Sod this bloody country. When it doesn't parch your throat with dust, it tries to fucking drown you."
Ryou had to agree. At first, the rain had been pleasant; it'd been so stifling hot. Now the air was tepid and big fat drops had been falling all day, soaking them to the bone and turning the countryside into a slew of mud.
"Here, Ryou, come around and help me push the damned mule."
Ryou gamely threw the horse's reins onto its withers, circled it and squelched into the mud, barefoot. That spared his shoes, but who knew how he was ever going to get the bottom of his trousers clean. This was where having a knee-length tunic like Darius would come in handy. Though not particularly right now, Ryou thought, trying not to smile at the mud-man beside him.
"Can we lift it out?" he asked, looking dubiously at the horse's rear end. How heavy was a horse anyway?
"No, we just need to give him a good shove here, near the stifle. Make him take an instinctive step forward and the daft bugger will realize he can move. Then we'll probably have to chase him," Darius grumbled, and added a couple of ancient Assyrian curse words Ryou hadn't heard yet.
Ryou put his shoulder gamely to the horse's rear end, imitating Darius's gesture-
The horse whinnied and stepped forward.
They both staggered. Ryou managed to hold himself against the horse's backside, Darius slid off of it and landed on his knees in the mud.
The horse took another nervous step forward, and then a longer stride. Ryou lunged after it, to grab its bridle and stop it from fulfilling Darius's prediction-
It felt like both his feet were stuck in cement. Ryou gasped, windmilled, and ended up doing a belly flop into the muck.
He scrabbled around the mix of heavy mud and water, shook some of it out of his eyes as well he could.
A hand landed on his shoulder. "You okay?"
Ryou pushed himself up to his knees, breath coming back again. Darius was beside him. He looked at Ryou and his mouth opened as if he was about to say something funny, but then he broke down laughing instead. He tried to catch himself and laughed all the harder, shaking helplessly, hands and knees in the mire.
Ryou contemplated dumping some mud down Darius's neck, but he'd probably not do well against the retaliation, and Darius was already so mucky there really wasn't much point. He wiped his face - Darius's laughter redoubled. Ryou looked down at his hand and sleeve, which looked like he'd borrowed them from The Swamp Creature. Ryou gave up and let Darius's laughter infect him, because that was really the only possible reaction to the situation.
Up on firm ground, the baggage gelding stared at the pair of loons laughing wildly in the muck.
On the fourth day, Ryou saw a city take shape in the distance. He'd thought it was a rocky hill to start with, but it was entirely manmade; sand-colored square buildings climbing up tight streets and skirting a large, central oblong which was the King's palace. There was no wall around the city, Ryou noticed with some surprise.
"The Greek mercenaries they hire would fight off any bandits or tribes that tried to attack Palis," Darius explained. "They'll fight small armies from neighboring countries in the plains, on a proper ground of their own choosing, the old-fashioned way. That's if the army is puny, of course. Anything bigger, the Palisians will either buy them off or else let them in, pay tribute and then make a mountain of money off the men. Merchants, I told you. But that's the way things were done for a long time. The walls around Sura - the capital of my country - were only built at the time of my great-grandfather. Before that, you captured cities, you didn't attack them. Things change, though. Looks like the Games are still in full swing around the Temple of the Five Gods," he added, pointing to a hill some distance beyond Palis, with an imposing set of buildings like a second town collectively bigger than the King's palace. Around the hillock, a city of tents had sprung up. Ryou couldn't see where the Games were being held, but it certainly looked like a lot of people were taking advantage of them.
"Come on," said Darius, pulling on his bridle. "We still have a ways to go before we camp tonight. I want to get to Kazanstar before too many more days."
"We're not going to Palis itself?" Ryou asked, more in confirmation than because he'd particularly wanted to see this antique city bursting with people who might think he was from the Empire of Sung Ch'ao, enemy of free trade. Though he would have liked to have the opportunity to wash his clothes in something other than river water and take a real bath in a public bathhouse; he still had mud in unexpected places.
"No, we'll stick to the hills like we've been doing up until now," said Darius. "We could go faster by taking the Path that starts near Palis to Kazanstar direct, but..."
But he didn't want to risk going through a border more times than required, Ryou gathered. Remembering the old passer, he knew the feeling.
"Well, there's no saying for sure that we wouldn't have to wait a twelveday for the Path to Kazanstar to open from Palis; the footsteps of Zaratusra can lead us very far faster than they can lead us to our neighbor at time. By horse and hard riding, I know for sure we'll be where we need to be in three days time, and we'll be relying only on ourselves. Come on."
That night they slept beneath a full moon and the stars; Ryou watched the night wheel above them while it was his turn to stand guard, and didn't mind missing out on traveling a Path a little while longer.
"Have you ever seen the base of these continents?" Darius quizzed.
"Base? The continents are floating on giant magma beds, you can't see their base."
"So how do you know they're not resting on the belly of a goddess?" Darius asked reasonably, giving the fire a poke with a stick.
Ryou had had the feeling that question would come up sooner or later...He could explain seismography to Darius or he could give up and ask Darius for another campfire tale.
Darius kept up a quick pace during the day, but he let Ryou and the horses get a fair amount of rest too. Since the humans were no longer quite so tired from walking on their own two feet, he and Ryou had time to sit by a fire for an hour in the evening, cooking up their rations in the pot they'd looted off dead mercenaries over a week ago. And they'd entertain themselves. Darius seemed to think it was obvious that this time before one of them slept and the other kept watch was going to be spent telling tales. His civilization didn't know television or even radio, after all.
Ryou had wanted to know more about 'the onion', the world Zaratusra had apparently found or made, but Darius didn't have any information. Countries were there; they were populated when people back Inland found them 'somehow', particularly during periods of expansion or while they were fleeing decimation. "That's how Assyria came about," Darius had explained. "Assyria - the old country - had been knocked back in a series of defeats. Assur itself was besieged by the Babylonians. So our people in the west of the country made their way to the Outlands. How? How the hell should I know, ask the Path Maker if you can find him."
This had led him to recount creation myths about both the original Assyria and the Outlands, stories that were definitely more entertaining than informational. Ryou was then badgered into reciprocating, digging up tales he'd forgotten since his early school years. What was interesting was that, for Ryou, they were myths. For Darius, they were a gilded version of real facts; yet he asked Ryou for Japanese beliefs and seemed quite happy to let them coexist with his own.
Tonight their conversation had been more about 'real' matters. Darius had told Ryou about the campaign of Ur, in which he'd fought against the Romans. He'd told Ryou about it in detail. Great detail. He was using twigs and pebbles to represent the various units moving around when he must have realized he'd lost his audience somewhat.
Then he'd questioned Ryou some more about the Inlands. Ryou was trying to oblige, but a lot was getting lost in translation...
Ryou picked up the piece of bark that had represented Terentius's advanced guard. "You said you were with a mobile unit that can easily harass Roman legions."
"Not 'easily'," Darius muttered. "Yeah, we're the Hounds of Assyria."
"Your leader is Lord Ghan which that rhapsode was telling us about, back in Tot, right? The one who's with Terentius?"
"Ghan the Beast is his name, and well deserved," Darius snorted. "There's not a single Lord in our unit and Ghan's no exception. We're a band made up of mercenaries, raiders and killers, and we all hate the Imperium and those who serve it. We're not a solid force like Terentius's units, but we can cut supply lines, sabotage walls, destroy small units and bait the bigger forces into an ambush by our infantry. And people fear us. They just need to hear that the Hounds have slipped their leash and are coming their way, and all those sodding farmers pull up, make for the hills and stop feeding the Imperial armies."
"Why do they call him the Beast?"
"Because he's not a pleasant guy when crossed," grunted Darius, corking the jug of watered down wine they'd been drinking from. "In reality Terentius is the one who does all the work, but it's useful to have a guy around who can make grown men tremble at the mention of his name. It's all about winning in your enemy's head before you even get on the battlefield, like my brother says."
"Your brother? He's in the army too?"
Darius didn't answer right away. He fiddled with the hempen ties that kept the cork sealed while they traveled and from which the jug was suspended from a saddle. Ryou got the feeling Darius had said more than he'd wanted to. "He's not a grunt like me, if that's what you mean, but he's got a position of importance in this war, yeah," Darius finally said with a shrug. "Never mind. Maybe you'll meet him, assuming we make it through the countryside and get to where we're going in one piece. Tomorrow we'll be at the start of the Kazanstar Path, and hopefully in Essin soon after that. At that point Inder alone knows what's awaiting us. Come on, you need to sleep if you're going to spell me in five hours."
Ryou took off his glasses, rolled up in his blanket, and closed his eyes...Tried to tell himself that Darius's refusal to tell him more than dribs and drabs about himself was not annoying (hurting?) him a little...
Darius was a few meters away, sitting on a stump facing the direction of the path they'd been following all day. He was singing softly to himself in a toneless way; he said it kept him awake. The man had a tin ear and a voice better suited for shouting orders. Ryou found himself smiling in a crooked way. When Darius told fairy tales, he looked all of twenty five. It was easy to forget he was involved in something dangerous.