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Ryou woke up in a comfortable bed. It was the size of a couch, a carved wooden frame with ropes strung across it to hold a cloth pallet. Rand had informed him in passing that he could make free use of the bed, the tent and everything here; they'd belonged to some officer of the Assyrian army who'd died during the first part of the siege. Despite that somewhat morbid provenance, it was much better than sleeping on the ground in a blanket.
Rand had not taken Ryou right back to the camp on the hill the preceding afternoon. He’d taken a detour to a small encampment in a copse of olive trees, where wagons and tents had been set up in a clearing by a stream. There’d been pallets under every tree and in every tent, with injured men or soldiers who were visibly sick. Ryou counted approximately two hundred. Young men and women, sometimes barely children, were caring for them. All the attendants wore the same knee-length undyed linen tunics and a serious air as they bustled around, changing bandages, beddings and buckets.
Ryou’s injuries were treated by a matronly woman dressed in the same tunic but with a blue robe, open down the front, pulled over it. She’d rolled up her sleeves in a businesslike manner when Rand deposited Ryou before her and explained the problem. Ryou had been swaying by then, and could not tear his eyes away from the snakes tattooed in a circle around her beefy biceps. The priestess of Hygiea held Ryou's forearm for a good ten minutes while she muttered prayers and intercessions on his behalf, before splinting it up to the fingers with polished sticks and stiff linen on which she painted sigils. He’d have to keep that on for three days, after which he’d be fit to throw the javelin in a week according to her. Then she informed Ryou that he needed a bath and a shave.
Rand, who’d been standing behind Ryou during the latter’s consultation, had taken her at her word. First he led Ryou to the camp barber, who happened to also be the butcher and cook. Face newly scraped clean of bristle, as well as oiled, Ryou ended up in the dead man's tent with some water to wash in and the bed. Ryou had to admit that all these ministrations had left him feeling considerably better this morning. His broken arm still ached, but nowhere near as badly as it had yesterday, and he could move the wrist beneath the bandages by a few degrees with only some twinges.
The tent, too low for a man of Ryou's height to fully stand in, was a square of three meters by three, one side stacked with a couple of crates and some javelins. An oblong had been cut out of one side to form an entrance; the hide hanging there in lieu of door was askew. From where he sat, Ryou could see a slice of camp life through the slit. Armed soldiers bustled around. He was in the middle of an army, and the safest he'd been since he'd first seen the Rajin over two weeks ago. Forget the likes of Gex and Gaius, he was even safe from mysterious enemies from Kaides and further afield. He'd eaten his fill of a simple but filling barley and goat stew last night, served to him by a soldier who seemed to think it important that Ryou be kept safe and comfortable. Rand had even shown up just before he went to bed to see if his arm was doing better and if there was anything he might need. Quite a difference from a mere twenty four hours ago.
Ryou, sitting on the bed, let his head sink into his left hand and fought an irrational little wish that it were still yesterday, when he was just a wanderer on a road with a companion he thought he knew...
Ryou looked up. A shadow was hovering near the entrance to the small tent. "Yes?"
The same soldier who'd served him last night poked his head in. In the light of day and without the veil of pain and fatigue, Ryou noted that his helper could be no more than sixteen. "I beg your pardon, sir, but Lord Ghan would like to see you."
"Oh." Lord Ghan. Right. Ryou wished he'd had more time to get used to the idea. On the heels of that thought came the realization that all the time in the world would not be enough. "Fine, I'll get dressed."
"...Could I please ask you to wait outside?"
He waited until the tent's flap fell behind a puzzled-looking young soldier, then he got dressed in the clothes he'd pillaged from dead deserters who'd tried to kill him. He pulled on the short woollen pants and linen shirt, but didn't bother with the tunic that he usually wore over them. After all, the weather was warm, he was presumably safe here, and he didn't fancy pulling his still-aching arm through the leather-reinforced sleeve. He slipped it instead into the scarf the Priestess had given him as a sling, dropped Rand's cloak on his shoulders and headed towards the new day.
He followed the young soldier to the large pavilion he'd seen yesterday, the crimson banner in front now unfurled by an early morning breeze. The possible permutations of the conversation he was about to have ran through Ryou's mind with every step. None of them led to a happy place where what was broken would be fixed. Ryou felt tired just thinking about discussing any of it, even as the questions he needed to ask lined up in his head.
"This way," said the young soldier, lifting the tent flap, then added "please" as if remembering a set of instructions.
Ryou blinked at the sudden passage from the early morning sunlight to the dimness of the tent's interior. A flap, cut from the canvas near the highest peak of the tent, had been hauled back and tied into place like a crude sun-roof; on the other side of the tent squatted a metal box containing a surly fire, a pot smoking on its grill. Those two sources of light were the tent's only illuminations.
A rustle and a few mutters surrounded Ryou. He stared without comprehension. There were over a dozen people in the tent, most of them armoured and armed, all of them staring at him. Ryou stood in the tent entrance, wondering what the hell was going on.
At the far end of the tent stood two large men with spears, armour, shields, and the word 'guard' written all over them. One of them turned to a set of tapestries slung over a pole hanging from two of the pavilion's pillars, cordoning off one section. The guard lifted the tapestry an inch and murmured something.
"Coming," someone said from the other side. A few words muffled by the thick cloth, then the corner of the tapestry swung aside to let someone through and Ryou's expectations were further punctured when he recognized the tall figure, which was still not Darius.
"Good morning," said Rand, coming up to him without bothering to glance at the others in the tent. "I trust you slept well? Couldn't that young whelp I sent to fetch you find you anything else to wear?"
"I'm fine," was all Ryou said. The surroundings, these unknown people and the situation made him cautious and unwilling to ask any question.
Rand stood there with the ease of one who at least knew what they were both waiting for. Ryou wondered if he could find it in him to be annoyed...but it seemed counterproductive. Anyway, it was nice to have a slightly familiar face next to which to feel confused and adrift.
"So we agree then. Come on, let's do this before I die of old age," someone on the other side of the tapestry said in a crotchety voice Ryou remembered well. Operating on some unknown signal, the two guards each pulled aside one of the tapestries, and General Terentius stepped through followed by the man Ryou had known as Darius.
A small, dull shock registered in the pit of Ryou's stomach. Darius was dressed the way he'd been when Ryou first saw him; his beard was trimmed, his hair clean and knotted with small disks once more, and he was wearing a knee-length dark red tunic sewn with small scales of blackened steel, with finely tooled leather armour strapped over his shoulders and upper chest. The whole was complemented by a black leather neck-guard around his throat that reminded Ryou of the scarves worn by his men. He looked both archaic and striking, as if he were once more the foreigner killing monsters with a sword in the middle of a deserted replica of Tokyo.
General Terentius preceded him, walking briskly even as he leaned on a cane. He was dressed in armour straight out of a history book, copper breastplate emblazoned with a fearsome face, red epaulettes, a copper helmet with a horse's mane falling from its peak, an embroidered velvet skirt, greaves and covered sandals of white leather.
Darius nodded at the men as he made his way towards the entrance to the tent, and addressed someone dressed much like the General. "Lucius."
"We talked it over. Your unit will be at the axis of the attack against the main gate."
The man, eyes gleaming, saluted with a fist pressed against his heart. "Thank you sir!"
"Thank the General, it's ultimately his decision," said Darius. "I'm just here to explain to the citizens of Essin what to expect if they oppose us."
Men around them snickered.
Terentius had a smile on his face that was almost as nasty. He looked younger today, his eyes shone with tension and anticipation. "I hear those Essinian goat-fuckers have an Imperially trained unit that call themselves a Legion. Lucius, you and I have renounced our heritage, but hearing them say that personally annoys me anyway. Go show them what a real formation is, will you?" Then he laughed, a mighty bellow startling coming from his old frame.
"Keitos, Arsipal-Safa, you'll flank Lucius as we discussed," he continued. "Keitos, make sure you're ready for any outing from their cavalry into Lucius's side."
"Meromeidon, your men are with me and my Hounds," Darius added.
"An honour, my lord," said a burly man with an elaborately curled beard down to his belt. "The fortress won't know what hit them. But you'll be wanting Sezerena for yourself, I warrant."
"Damn right," said Darius with a vicious smile that made the men laugh again. They were putting on the helmets they'd been carrying; younger soldiers behind them hoisted up decorated shields. The atmosphere was electric in a way that made Ryou's nerves prickle with tension.
Darius was nearly at the tent's exit now. He stopped near two men dressed in long robes with only decorative pieces of armour on chest and shoulders. His eyes skipped ahead, rested briefly on Ryou, then his attention was back on them. "Thank you, noble emissaries, for attending us this morning. If Inder has His hand over us, you'll be able to bring back a wreath of victory to your master, King Ka, by late afternoon."
Both men bowed. "It is an inestimable pleasure to have you back, Lord Ghan," said the one in front with a touch of coldness that didn't match his words and elegant gesture. "Not that we'd been warned you were ever gone in the first place."
"And don't you like it better that way?" Darius said dryly. "Think of the report you would have had to write to your master otherwise."
"Your words are rich with wisdom," said the emissary in a tone that Ryou, fine-tuned to all sorts of business discussions rife with subtext, interpreted as 'You're full of it, your men lied to us and hid your disappearance, my report to the king is now going to have to be carefully written to avoid making me look like a gullible idiot, and I am not going to forget that.'
The sharpness of Darius's smile said he was well aware of the undertone himself, and didn't give a damn. He half bowed and moved on, stopping in front of Ryou.
"Thank you for bringing him, Rand," he said to the taller man. "As you might have guessed, I'm going to be busy this morning, Uchee Ryou, but I did want to see you and thank you before you were on your way."
"No thanks are necessary, I was the one who was a burden to you," said Ryou, the civility bred into his bones kicking in automatically.
"Essin is not a place for a civilized man such as yourself." Darius wasn't even looking at him, he was studying the camp outside and the hundreds of soldiers already assembled at the bottom of the hill, gauging their readiness. "I've detached some men to escort you to the capital of Aksum; it's the safest route, according to Rand. From there, King Ka will contact the Per Gathas on my behalf and oversee your journey. If the fortunes of war are with us, Rand and Dionysodoros will be only a day or two behind you. I've tasked them to insure you get back home. Godspeed, Uchee Ryou, in my name and that of King Leyam Sirrian."
Ryou bowed, a curt gesture that should have been a tad lower in deference to the offered protection of a king, but something had stiffened his neck at the words 'in my name'.
When he lifted his head, Darius was out of the tent and facing his troops. Ryou looked at the dark curls caught in the disks. That had been very proper and had avoided any eye contact or messy words; the president would have approved. So did Ryou, on second thought. What good would it do to hash it out? What had been done, was done, what had been hidden had been revealed as much as required, and at least Ryou now had safe passage to the Per Gathas guaranteed.
The other leaders had filed out as well. Outside the tent, Terentius was being helped onto a stolid horse by two aides. Once there, he drew his short, straight sword and swept it over the assembling troops and towards the city of Essin.
"You all know why we're here!" he shouted, once more startling Ryou with the strength of his voice. Below, the movement of men consolidated into disparate groups. Gleaming legions were already in position at the foot of the hill, standing in rigid square formation and listening stony-faced to their General. On either side, the troops were also in ordered lines, rigid and disciplined enough but their proximity to the General's picked troops made them look a bit slovenly by comparison. Ryou's rough headcount estimated the square formation at eighty men wide and as many deep; it was harder to count the others, especially when the front lines, bearing pikes, went down on one knee so the back lines could see as well, but it looked to be even more than the Legionaries. On the far side of all the tents, yet more soldiers were already marching away in a rectangular pattern, presumably to advance on the city from another angle. To one side, horses were being lined up and mounted; Darius had glanced that way as the General had started speaking.
"For too long has that pissant Sezerena let the Imperials through his border in dribs and drabs, gather on his land and then prance into ours. He's a bleeding traitor and all of Aksum knows it." A ragged noise of assent from the sidelines; the men in square formation said nothing. "But he's a powerful bleeding traitor, untouchable, with friends in high places. Right?”
A few laughs from below, but mainly an anticipatory hush as the General breathed in deeply and shouted: "Unfortunately for him, we don't care!"
The roar shook the earth beneath them. People around Ryou laughed. Terentius's horse, which must be thoroughly trained, flicked an ear.
"I won't make any long speeches because we all want to be in Essin before too long!" Terentius gestured with his sword again, a conductor modulating the pitch of an orchestra with thousands of instruments. "At every turn, the Imperium and their friends tell us the same thing: we can’t form an army without their training, their unity, their god. And what do we do?!"
The multi-throated roar was almost impossible to make out, but Ryou gathered that the answer was something like 'We kick their asses!'
"This way," said Rand in Ryou's ear before ducking beneath the tent flaps. Ryou followed him around the back of the tent while all eyes were on Terentius.
"Let's go let these Essinian sores know what the Alliance army is worth!" shouted the General. "Let's show them how much a mix of good steel is better than pure Imperial gold!"
Rand led Ryou to where three men and four horses waited. The soldiers had a carefully neutral look on their faces as Rand looked them over.
Rand had started to give their leader last minute instructions when a sudden clamour made the group turn. The pep talk must be over. After one last shout that rattled the heavens, the men started to stream out of the camp around them. The core of it was the forces Ryou could not help thinking of as the Legion. They marched in the same rigid lines in which they'd stood. The other troops moved in a different formation, moving with intent on either side of the main strike force with remarkably good coordination for units that did not have radio communication, or even a country and a native tongue in common. Dust was rising from their march, a heavy grey dust torn from the vegetation clinging to the soil, and the ground vibrated faintly beneath Ryou's feet. Other clouds gathered around Essin as other forces moved into position.
Ryou's gaze wandered from the marching troops back towards the command center- and for a moment his stupid, traitorous feelings shook as he saw Darius run towards them. But it wasn't Darius...
He was no longer dressed the same as yesterday, when Ryou had mistaken him for Darius's brother. Today he was wearing the same clothes as the rest of the hounds; black scarf, a hauberk of metal scales, metal greaves and arm protectors. With his hair tied back, the resemblance wasn't as striking as before.
"Sorry for the delay, I was getting the guard ready," he told Rand as he drew near. "Is that enough of an escort? Lord Ghan said-"
"It's fine. Ryou, this is Dionysodoros. We'll be traveling to Aksum a day behind you to make sure Lord Ghan's will is properly expressed to the Per Gathas."
"Thank you, I'm under your guidance," said Ryou with a bow.
This seemed to surprise Dionysodoros, but then he smiled cheerfully - further dispelling his resemblance to Darius - and bowed in return, a hand against his heart. "It will be an honour. I wanted to thank you before you left. Lord Ghan told us how you saved his life and helped him get back to us. I would have escorted you personally to Aksum, but with the battle this morning, I'm needed in Lord Ghan's personal guard. If the Fates will it, I will see you in two days time in the capital."
Then he put on his helmet and left at a quick walk, in the direction in which resounded crude horn blasts. The camp was emptying at a remarkable rate. Ryou glanced at Rand.
"I will walk you to the outer fortifications," said Rand in response to the unvoiced question. "My presence is not needed until the walls are breached. That won't be until mid-day at best. You and your escort will wait with the rear guard for a few hours. The enemy might attempt a sortie. Once the fighting has gone past the riverbed, they'll lead you to the local border. Last I heard it was still void of a passer, but I haven't had a report yet this morning. That'd see you in Aksum by this evening, and spare you two days of travel and a night on the road."
While Rand was talking, Ryou glanced at his escort. They were trying to keep the neutral look going, but behind it he could see they were disgruntled. They'd wanted to join the battle, it seemed.
Rand picked up the bridle of the extra horse from one of the soldiers and gestured Ryou to follow him. Ryou fell in by his side.
"I apologize for making you ride again so soon after your journey here," said Rand. "And for the haste. Especially as you’re injured."
"There's a war going on. I understand," said Ryou.
They were silent for a few paces. Beneath Rand's curtain of sharp bangs, Ryou could feel the taller man studying him.
"Lord Ghan asked me to answer any questions you might have," Rand finally said. "You probably have a few."
"Not really, no," Ryou answered with a faint vindictive feeling.
"... Dionysodoros's appearance seemed to confuse you yesterday," Rand said, apparently fishing for those questions he was supposed to be answering.
Ryou shoved up his glasses. "I take it he's Darius's double. In my country, military and political leaders have also used them in the past."
There was the singular pause of one reorganizing his thoughts. "You're right. Dionysodoros is a Greek refugee who joined Ghan's Hounds, but when we noticed he looked so much like him, we put him on Ghan's personal guard to serve as stand-in should the need arise."
"Convenient. I'm sure it would have caused quite a stir if Darius's disappearance had been known."
"Yes, it would have," Rand conceded.
"Particularly since the Alliance army is here in Aksum with only the faintest nod from its King, to attack someone who has a lot of pull in this country. The campaign has to go as smoothly and quickly as possible, and suddenly losing the Assyrian commander in such a bizarre way would surely throw the whole army into confusion."
Rand snorted, eyes hidden by his bangs as he lowered his head. "Good thing he warned me."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lord Ghan specifically told me that you would have figured most things out by yourself. He gave me some forewarning so that I wouldn’t listen to my more cautious instincts; they would otherwise bid me wonder how a stranger to our lands could know this much."
Ryou looked at him curiously. "Who are you?"
"Oh," said Rand with a small smile, "so you do have a question."
"You're not a soldier. But-..." Ryou stopped himself mid-speculation. Rand had no uniform, true; no title, no name Ryou had heard of, no pomp or prestige. But he'd been with Terentius yesterday during the strategy meeting, he seemed to be in very close with Darius and men throughout the army leapt to obey his orders without thought or need of explanation. Ryou wasn't sure what all these contradictory facts added up to, except to a man who might not like to be questioned too closely..."I'm sorry, that's not the kind of question you're here to answer, and it's certainly none of my business."
"I thought you might have some questions about Lord Ghan," said Rand, politely sidestepping the whole question about himself.
No, I figured out exactly where the barrier between us is and mapped the distance between us, thought Ryou.
"I understand that, to keep rumours of his reappearance from circulating, he told you as little as he could about himself. What is it that you do know?" Rand asked after a few seconds of a ponderous silence.
"I know he's a lot more than a simple soldier," Ryou muttered.
"Not at all, I believe a simple soldier describes him fairly well," said Rand contemplatively. "General Terentius is the real leader of the Alliance forces. Ghan is good at striking fear into his enemies and firing up the men he's formed into units, but he's always been better at scrimmages and small battle tactics rather than large scale. Did he say anything else?"
Ryou couldn't figure out Rand's angle and didn't much care to guess. "No. He didn't tell me much of a personal nature, just that he's lost both his parents and has a brother."
Rand's step faltered and he looked around suddenly at the soldiers behind them.
"He mentioned his brother?" he asked, voice lower.
"Yes. Darius looks up to him a lot. Is he someone awfully important as well?" Ryou wished that unsaid the second it left his mouth. To start with, he'd stubbornly decided that he didn't want to ask Rand any questions. And Yrmah had mentioned Darius's brother in a moment of spite yesterday, so obviously this brother existed and was someone important enough to be known by Darius's enemies. More than the question, Ryou wished the undertone of acerbity taken back. Even if the questions and answers would have been fruitless, a small part of Ryou had still wanted to exchange them with Darius, and maybe find out why it'd been necessary to hide so much from him. He'd expected to have this conversation with Darius, but now he wasn't even sure Darius existed, and he didn't know what to think of Lord Ghan.
"It does seem as if he told you very little," mused Rand.
Yes, thank you for rubbing that in, thought Ryou, not bothering to look up from the sodden, rutted ground that was trying to strip him of his stolen shoes. They were at the level of the river now, and heading in that direction.
"On the face of it, anyway. Here, we're at the edge of the camp. The rear guard is half a mile away, near the dam. You'll ride from here. Let me help you onto your horse." There was a deep clamour somewhere behind their party, coming from the direction of the city of Essin. With a sense of surrealism, Ryou realized he was a few cannon shots away from a war. Getting out of here now was the best thing that could happen to him. What the hell did Rand mean, 'on the face of it'?
The other soldiers took Rand's words as a signal to leap onto their horses. Ryou couldn't have imitated them at the best of times. He struggled even with Rand's help. While he got into his saddle without too many jolts, his escort rode past him with covert glances of curiosity and a little condescension.
Ryou looked down at the withers of yet another damned horse. His right arm ached; he really hoped he'd be able to be in Aksum by tonight.
Rand made sure of Ryou's feet in the crude stirrups, handed him the reins and then reached up and tugged on his good forearm to get Ryou to bend down. The man was so tall that Ryou could look Rand in the face even from this height. Rand's eyes behind the sharp dagger of bangs were lined with crow's-feet, he was older than Ryou had initially thought, mid to late thirties. His gaze was hard, direct, and Ryou suddenly remembered how frightening and single-minded this man had been yesterday.
"His brother is my master, King Leyam Sirrianus," Rand said conversationally. "Darius Bher Polenius is the by-blow of King Narseh-Allit, Leyam's father. Though he's not officially part of the royal lineage, Darius has been faithful to his brother through difficult times and is now Leyam's right hand in many matters. I've known them both since they were children, and Darius is very important to both King Leyam and myself. Thank you for bringing him back to us."
Then Rand stepped away, giving the horse a clap on the flank to get it started before Ryou could ask a question, or even close his mouth.
Some questions answered, as you see, but not all, and there's still some knotty issues unresolved...Next chapter, Ryou has time to think a bit, and he's going to give his head a shake and not take this quite that easily, fear not.