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"That's the island of Mooncrest," said Darius, pointing at a meniscus of green ground parting the waters of a slow, wide river. "It's the border to which Zaratusra himself brought my ancestors several eras ago. That's where I'd hoped to go directly from Essin, if the stars had been on our side instead of intent on dicking around with us. If we'd have come through here instead of the Tanatoria border, we'd have been only a couple of hours away from home."
"It was longer, but it was a nice ride," said Ryou, belying the state of his backside and indeed his whole body. "And you did tell me that the mountain road was the pretty way of approaching Sura."
"I never said 'pretty'. I said it was pleasant enough," said Darius with the dismissive air of one who was more concerned with well-defended rather than easy on the eye. But behind the gruff and tough attitude, Ryou could tell Darius was fiercely proud of his home country and didn't particularly mind this opportunity of showing his land to his lover in its best light in the hopes Ryou would approve of it. It would, after all, be the place Ryou would be staying for awhile, who knew how long.
Darius grumbled another acerbic 'pretty' under his breath and gave a nearby slope of flower-strewn rocks a belittling glance. Ryou only smiled inwardly. 'Beautiful girl, come to my country, where the river is flowing, my land is beautiful, when the grain is ripe...'
As Darius had predicted to Rand, it was now the afternoon of the third day after leaving Essin. They'd made good time along the mountain road yesterday, it was only late afternoon when they'd reached the provincial military outpost maintained at Tanatoria's frontier. The outpost hadn't been much to look at; a collection of tents, dry provisions, fresh horses and a one-room way-station held by an old soldier and his two sons. The three men were peremptorily turned out of their house and put up in the stables in order to afford Darius and Ryou a fireplace, beds and privacy. Ryou had thought it rather high-handed of the Hounds, even if Darius had seen the hosteler well rewarded for the night. But now, with three days and more of fatigue clamping down on his lower back, Ryou was glad he'd gotten a good night's sleep last night. He could look forward to a good bed tonight as well, and a day without traveling tomorrow.
The mountains they'd traveled through defended the northwestern approach of Sura. Their party had in part skirted them and were approaching from the west, riding on the crest of a series of tall foothills. The mountains had scattered small hills throughout the river plain that spread out for hundreds of kilometers before them. The broad, slow rivers Aksosot and Taibor underpinned the land, splitting and weaving around the knolls and plateaus, trailing reeds, trees and rich vegetation in their wake. So different from heavily urbanized Japan...Yet on closer inspection, all of the hills Ryou could see were taken over by agriculture; fields on the bottom slopes, vineyards on the steeper sides, the dry grass of the tops left for goats and sheep to crop. Darius had said it didn't rain much here, in the original Outland Assyria; life was born and concentrated around the rivers. Priests called the Aksosot and the Taibor the two hearts of Assyria (the Hounds and other soldiers called them the Two Tits, which was irreverent but a rather better metaphor when one thought about it...)
Ryou turned his attention from the horizon back to the isle of Mooncrest, surrounded by reeds and bathed in the Taibor. He had a good view of it from this height. The green mound was split in two by a meandering arm of the river that'd been too lazy to go to one side or the other and had opted to go straight through instead. The inn, a grey stone building, was near that gorge, and Ryou could tell with his sixth sense that the bridge that stretched over the water could lead one much further than simply to the other side of the island.
"I see, they use fluvial transport for the trade they bring in along the Paths," said Ryou, studying the assemblage of pontoons and barges on the downstream side of Mooncrest, protected by the island's crescent-shaped arms. There was also a wooden bridge spanning the lake to the left-hand side. Their little group was two hundred meters higher and a couple of kilometers away, still in the foothills; from here, tiny ants that must be mule caravans advanced across the stone span of the bridge, while the river was busy with barges like water beetles.
"That's right. Their destination is Sura, we'll see it shortly." Darius was kneeing his horse a little faster, eyes on the road up ahead.
"Why was the city not built nearer the border?"
"It was at one point, when my ancestors were first led to this land by Zaratusra. But then the Babylonians and Persians invaded it one time too many, and the ancient King back then said he'd had enough of paying tribute to keep them away, or getting his capital stolen out from under him at the risk of becoming some satrapy. He moved the entire city further away to a more defensible spot. You'll see," Darius added, pointing to where the scouts had stopped up ahead and were waving excitedly. Darius picked up the pace. Ryou, sitting astride one more docile animal that'd been especially chosen for him, followed more sedately.
Their party rounded the crest of the foothill and Ryou saw the reason for the excitement.
One of the large mountains to the north extended two foothills like a set of arms encroaching into the fertile plains, and the Taibor swung by and touched them as it meandered that way in a long arc. That left a triangle of ground several kilometers wide caught between mountain and river, rippled with a few domed hills but otherwise flat enough, and that was where that King of old had decided to relocate Sura.
The city climbed the slopes of the tallest prominence; square buildings that were grey to start with, and grew bigger and more colorful - ochre, green, blue, yolk-yellow, caramel brown - the higher up the slope they got. The houses were very close together and colonized the slope with the disorder of a termite mound. On the flat top of the knoll, however, a ring of fortifications cut off the clutter below, and the King's palace was in a sumptuous, orderly space of its own, gardens framing a dozen rectangular buildings, white and yellow walls topped with deep blue tiles.
Much lower down the hill, at the level where the buildings were still drab, a huge stone walkway higher than the surrounding houses jutted out across the plain, as if providing the city of Sura with a tail. It connected the hill to the river half a kilometer away. Though Ryou could understand why a road would be useful, the height of this one was a mystery...Other slimmer walkways, some on pillars, joined the main hill to other, smaller knolls closer to the mountains. All the way to the mountains, houses had clumped together in groups of a hundred around tall buildings; temples, Ryou was ready to bet, knowing more about these ancient towns now. The flat ground between the city and its offshoots was cultivated, to Ryou's surprise; barley, maybe.
Above everything else stood the most eye-catching structure of Sura: a tall, graceful aqueduct leading all the way from the mountains, across the plains and to the same level as the palace. Ryou could guess the course of the water that must flow down the hill as there were tiers upon tiers of small gardens cascading down the sides, some built on balconies to accommodate more space, all the way down to ground level.
Ryou's horse had stopped of its own volition as if feeling its rider's need to properly take in this odd yet magnificent city, its waterway and walkways and bridges and winding hill paths all providing loops and curves contrasting with the colorful squares heap of its houses.
"It's beautiful," said Ryou, awed for all of five seconds before reason kicked in and he added, "But why do you need an aqueduct when you've got the river nearby? Couldn't you divert some of the water?"
Darius smiled faintly as if he'd expected something that prosaic from his lover. "The Taibor floods yearly. Not as badly as the Aksosot, but bad enough. It can reach the foot of the hill, sometimes further. It's great for farmers, not so much for the rest of us. Flood season always brought disease in the old days. At that time, we did not have enough people to spread out as far as we do now. Whenever we tried, Namtar would descend upon us and strike us with sicknesses that would wipe out any expansion. Then several hundred years ago, King Qelbarri, called The Builder, had a dream sent to him by Hygiea. Under Her guidance he built the aqueduct, as well as the current palace and the Walk of Ashur. That's what we call the big walkway. Since then, Blessed Hygiea's had Her hand over our heads, and Namtar had to go plague somebody else."
Darius said all that with the straightforward candor of one who'd actually talked with those two deities personally and heard it all from them. Superstition and faith both had a large place in his mental makeup, Ryou had long since realized; it didn't stop Darius from cursing the Gods quite vilely when they put obstacles in his way, of course, but that was all part of his relationship with them. In Darius's mind, the version he'd recounted was a factual history. Ryou's skepticism suggested King Qelbarri had simply seen what aqueducts could do for population growth in Imperial towns and had decided to adopt the same approach. But the aqueduct idea sounded undoubtedly better when brought to the Assyrian King through the intervention of a Goddess rather than borrowed from another empire which was already being seen as something of a rival at the time.
"Come on," said Darius, though he didn't move right away either. He was studying the home city he hadn’t seen in over half a year of campaigns as if newly appreciating it through Ryou's eyes. Finally the two dogs near his horse whined, eyes fixed on their destination, and Darius turned and gestured. "Come on, boys, let's go bunk down before night falls and the foxes start yapping. More than three barks bring bad dreams," he explained for Ryou's benefit.
The troop moved down the hill at a slant, then they followed a swell of land rising twenty meters or so above the Taibor, half a Roman mile from the river; a paved road that stayed dry even during floods, presumably. Though they were alternating walks and gallops, they still felt like they were crawling across the massive plains beneath the large sky, its horizon crowned on Sura's side by the mountain range, the Malakel. The more they descended, the more the heat, already considerable, became more humid and oppressive. Most of the Hounds took off their tunics and shirts and rode around in nothing but the thick belts and padded skirts warriors wore for protection. Ryou would have been tempted to imitate them, but that would mean unwinding himself from the sling arrangement Jexen had constructed for him to keep his right arm immobilized against his body. It was a clever setup that allowed Ryou to free his arm with one jerk of the elbow if he needed to make an emergency two-handed grab for his saddle's pommel. Ryou liked the arrangement a lot, it kept him stable on his horse and his arm from hurting too much. And if the idea of having his healing bones flopping around wasn't deterrent enough, the sunshine roasting his neck would do it.
Darius leaned over in the saddle and draped a scarf he'd gotten out of someone's backpack over Ryou's shoulders and then lifted it like a shawl over his head. "It's not always this hot. It's the season before the flood. It'll break soon."
"Yeah," muttered someone in the back of their small group. "Right now it's like riding in Nusku's crotch-piece." The resulting snickers were muffled when Dionysodoros gave the tail end of the troop a Look over his shoulder.
Since they were arriving via dry land rather than by boat, they were riding towards the spot where the foothills met the Taibor. A thick wall and a stronghold had been built at that strategic position, forbidding the entrance into the valley beyond. A smaller fort matched it on the other side of the river, with siege equipment to pepper with stones and fireshot any force invading by boat. Walls stretched further up into the steep foothills, presumably at key strategic points, and there were other fortifications directly around Sura as well (the hill-city itself was called Sura, Darius told Ryou, the lesser settlements were Sura-Upan, Sura-Qelbar, Sura-Higezandu etc). Another stronghold could be seen in the distance at the other corner of the valley where the foothills arched back to once more meet the Taibor before the river continued on its journey through the plains.
"The closest fort is The Ox Gate, where merchandise from the Paths of Zaratusra is checked and levied," Darius explained when they slowed once more to a walk, their horses moving side by side. "The furthest one downstream is the Ram's Gate." There was a port at the spot halfway through the valley where the walkway, the Walk of Ashur, touched the river. The Taibor's flow was so slow and lazy that boats could be poled up the river to Mooncrest as well as down. Two of them were passing by at the moment, the breeze over the water bringing the Hounds the echoes of a faint rhythmic chant.
Ryou measured the arc of the river, the stretch of flat grass where no trees grew near the Taibor, and the location of the Ox Gate and its walls. "The water rises that high? All the way up to the fortifications?"
"And around them too, at times."
"But that'd mean attackers could bypass the fort by boat during the flood season. Aren't you at risk of invasion then?"
Darius gave him an odd look. "Inder keep us from an enemy crazy enough to attack us during the floods. Don't say such unlucky things. The last man alive to drag himself to our walls would unleash every plague upon us. They might make it past the river walls and gates," Darius added more prosaically. "But the water’s not deep enough for heavy fleets. The whole plain is marshy during the month of the floodtide and ebb. People touched by the shaking sickness get ill again, and an invading army couldn’t move for the muck. Sura itself is on dry ground unless the flood is particularly bad, and then the first tier of houses get their feet wet. We call those Seasons of Nammu. They're a bad omen. Some very bad years follow them, disease, war, famine. It happened the year after the former King was killed."
Ryou went hmmm absently before abruptly remembering that this was Darius's father they were talking about. Darius himself had said it without any particular inflection though, only as proof of what he advanced. People in the Outlands tended to talk of death as a fact of life rather than a tragedy.
A walkway of bricks and gravel rose from river-level to halfway up the fortifications of the Ox Gate. The bottom part of the fortress was solid embankment so that it could resist the rising floods and carry the living quarters of the fort above water level. The gate into the fortress looked appropriately formidable. A group of soldiers on horseback waited there, presumably for them. Darius's advanced scouting party was with them. Ryou took a deep breath as discreetly as he could, tension climbing. Riding with the small group of Hounds, whose names he was starting to know, had been...controllable. Sura, Darius's home, was only an hour away at most, and the future with all its complexities was now as real and solid as the Ox Gate itself.
This was really brought home when the officer in well-crafted iron armor and plumed helm saluted Darius with a crisp motion and said, "Lord Ghan. My hand beneath your foot. I've sent news of your arrival. It is good to have you back in the capital with the wreath of victory in your hand."
Oh boy, thought Ryou as all the other men saluted respectfully, a synchronous clap of hands brought to breastplates.
Darius exchanged a few words with the officer, addressing him and a few of the soldiers by name; he had this amazing ability to remember faces and details. Ryou, phasing out on his horse, found his mind split between worries of the indeterminate future and more immediate expectations of a warm meal, a bath, a good bed and no more horses.
"Tired?" Darius asked him privately, rejoining his side with a twitch of the reins. The Ox Gate troops were all going to ride them to Sura it seemed. Their officer, Talix, was ahead. Ryou caught a quick, inquisitive glance his way, but then Talix was once more all incurious proficiency in getting the show on the road.
"I'm fine," Ryou answered, which earned him a soft snort from his lover.
"It'll be getting late by the time we get to Sura, and I have to take care of the men and talk to Leyam. I'll leave you in Jexen's care when we get there, okay? We can show up in court tomorrow when we're both rested."
"Sounds good," Ryou answered, because 'Oh thank god' would have sounded a little pathetic.
Since it wasn't flood season, they rode across the plain straight towards Sura instead of taking the paved road that ran alongside the hills to one of the walkways. They were passed without question through one of the gates around the city. Then they were climbing haphazard streets rising sharply up the hill. The place looked deserted to start with; the inhabitants were eating and resting in the shade and would come out later to take advantage of the coolness of the evening to conduct the last business of the day. But word spread ahead of their group. People started to gather alongside the climbing narrow road, kids running to keep up with the horses, men saluting, women shouting welcomes and waving their red-colored palms and bangle-laden arms. Cheers started. Ryou tried to take in the multi-colored houses, the bright awnings, the signs of businesses and homes and people-...the heat and fatigue was making the scene more and more dreamlike. Ryou would not remember getting up the hill later. At some point Jexen and Dionysodoros moved forward to ride on either side of him, isolating him a little from the noise and the crowds who were focusing on Darius, riding with Talix up ahead.
Ryou came out of his trance when the road flattened out and led them to the last line of Sura's defenses, the cream-colored stone wall he'd seen ringing the palace.
Jexen, who seemed to have adopted Ryou already, pointed at an opening cut into the wall with two gates, one of wood and one of iron, both lifted in welcome. "That's not the main gate," he said, leaning over to talk to Ryou over the clamor. The cheering crowds were being outbid in the noisy welcome department by soldiers, gathering in the nearby plaza and on the top of the wall, all shouting victory slogans. "The big gate is to the east. This is the Women's Gate."
"Oh?" Ryou looked up at the thick stone arch above his head. "Why is it called that?"
"...I don't know. Hey, why's it called the Women's Gate?" shouted Jexen back at Bareil riding behind them - one of only five Assyrians in the troop. But Bareil just shrugged in ignorance.
"Since we're part of Lord Ghan's private guard, we're privileged with rooms right here in the royal barracks," Jexen continued, pointing at something Ryou couldn't see for all the horses and soldiers and general commotion around them. "Otherwise we'd be staying lower down the slope, or at the Ox Gate."
"I see," said Ryou and wondered how many times he'd said that today. It was funny, neither Jexen nor Dio were from Sura, but they both looked pleased when Ryou showed interest or appreciation in the city.
Finally Ryou was allowed to get off the bloody horse and walk around on stiff legs. One of the Hounds, Hamado, silently took his reins, allowing him to join Darius's side. Darius pointed at a building nearby and started to say something about it when he was interrupted by a servant who knelt before him; actually knelt on the ground in his white linen knee-length skirt, a hand out before him in the gesture of fealty.
"My pardon, Lord Ghan. I have been asked to send for you. You are to appear before King Leyam in the Hall of Ashur as soon as you and your party arrive."
Darius looked down at the servant wordlessly for a couple of seconds. Ryou had the intuition his lover had been caught short by the summons.
"Oh. Now? Well, let me-...what did he say exactly?"
"You and your party, as soon as you arrive," said the servant without hesitation, head still bowed.
Darius rubbed his face, his hand muffling a muttered, "Bugger. Okay," he said out loud, "change of plans. Dio, you deal with things here, I'll come later to square it away with the barrack's master. Ryou, I'm afraid 'your party' means you too."
Ryou was still owlishly watching the servant, waiting for the latter to move. It took him a moment to react, and then he had to run to catch up to Darius, walking through a path of trees in blue glazed ceramic planters as high as his head. Chamrosh and Zuru were trotting on ahead as if they already knew where they were going.
"Wait, wait," Ryou said as he reached Darius's side. They were alone now, the servant was still kneeling behind them and Talix and Dionysodoros were talking together, heading away towards the left. "You want me to meet your- the King like this?" Darius hadn't had that many spare clothes; not many people in the Outlands did, clothes were expensive, oft-repaired items tailored to the wearer. Ryou was dressed for traveling in the tunic he'd taken out of Sezerena's wardrobe, grubby from three days on the road. Darius wasn't all that much better, though at least he was in armor so it wasn't quite as obvious.
"We've been summoned," said Darius with a practical shrug. "And anyway..." He gave Ryou an oddly sly glance from the corner of his eyes. "I've been looking forward to the two of you meeting."
"You mentioned that before. Why exactly-"
"Just don't be surprised at anything that happens," Darius added in a murmur. Well-dressed people were gathered around the entrance of the building they were approaching, bowing to Darius and then giving Ryou curious looks. "It's going to be...There's reasons. You'll understand. Don't say anything unless he asks you a direct question. You'll be fine," he added with a quick pat on Ryou's shoulder. Then he schooled his features and picked up the pace, striding past a group of heavily painted women as if he hadn't even noticed them.
Their destination was an L-shaped building at the end of the garden's path. Stairs led up to a large patio of twisted columns painted in primal colours. Its roof protected two enclaves on either side, inhabited by statues twice the height of a man. Incense, plates of offerings on low tables and the solemn look of the stylized statues suggested they were objects of worship. Household Kamis or possibly dead ancestors, Ryou automatically assumed, but Darius strode through the entrance between them without a glance their way.
It turned out the building had only one large room and one function, a hall for feasts and celebrations. The other smaller arm of the L-shape, without patios, gods and columns, must be the kitchens.
Two guards stationed on either side of the entrance saluted as Darius passed, but there was no other announcement. The hubbub in the room diminished only by installments as Darius walked the length of the rectangular hall, Ryou at his heels. People - all men, to Ryou's surprise - were seated on low chairs or half reclining on couches, with low tables and servants holding plates here and there. It seemed Darius and Ryou were interrupting a banquet. Cushioned benches, chairs and couches lined three of the walls of the room. There was nothing in the middle bar a magnificent mosaic of a man, ever so slightly cross-eyed, lifting a sectioned winged circle in one hand and a moon symbol in the other. All kinds of unidentifiable animals gamboled around him. The tiny tiles composing the winged circle were picked out in gold, the moon in silver and gems; it was magnificent. Darius strode across it without a glance, heading towards the fourth side of the room. The dining area there was elevated on a three-step dais covered in furs and rugs, with one elegantly carved low chair in the middle. The seat was adorned in gold, a throne despite its lack of height.
"GHAN! Finally!" shouted a figure standing in the center of the dais.
Ryou's mind faltered to a stop.
All the courtiers had gotten to their feet and now formed a respectful half circle around the space Darius and Ryou occupied before the throne, in front of which stood- Ryou resisted the urge to rub his eyes - in front of which stood a magnificently dressed six-foot-tall drag queen.
"Approach!" cried the man on the dais. There were other men and a few women around him, seated on the floor or kneeling. They were dressed in short tunics and soft pants with a lot of skin and jewelry showing, but Ryou couldn't pay the pageantry much attention when the King of Assyria commandeered all of it.
He was a well-built man of a good height, though his sandals with thick wooden soles made it hard to tell how artificial that impression was. And he was wearing a dress. Oh yes, a dress. Ryou's grasp on period clothing was still wobbly, but he knew enough to say with confidence that this man was dressed as a woman. A sweeping rectangle of rich green, tasseled in gold and decorated with jeweled pendants, wrapped around his lower body and was cinched in with a golden belt to form a floor-length skirt. The parting was artfully situated so that Ryou could see a long, hairless leg with the aforementioned sandals and a gold brace like a garter around his thigh. His midriff was bare, and though Leyam wasn't as muscular as his half-brother, he did have a faint outline of pectorals above which he sported a green bolero-type top that struggled to suggest cleavage he was otherwise quite devoid of. The top had tassels that swished around as he gestured, counterpointed by bangles on his wrists and a magnificent necklace around his throat. If there was anything about this outfit that might have been ambivalent as to gender - and there wasn't, because it already clashed and fought tooth and nail with the more sober knee-length tunics every other man present wore - then the way Leyam's face was painted was certainly the tipping point. He was clean-shaven to start with, which put him and Ryou in a small minority, and then the heavy make-up went and put Leyam in a minority all of his very own. It wasn't ceremonial, as someone familiar with Kabuki might have considered; it was entirely decorative, from the solid green on his eyelids extending all across his face in a bar, to the exaggerated doe eyes in khol and the clashing red of the lips. The elaborate coif of red curls that rose on his head and fell down his shoulders to his middle back was as fake as a wig could look and not be made of plastic.
No, there was no possible doubt about it. The King of Assyria was dressed in drag.
In Ryou's stunned mind, the memory of an insult he'd heard a few times bubbled up. Leyam, the Bitch King. Ryou could finally see where that was coming from, though now that he thought back on it, the term had always been used with disquieted or spiteful overtones rather than derision...
Darius had obeyed the command to approach the throne but now he stopped, took a step back and gently dragged Ryou forward by the elbow. Ryou started at the contact that jogged him out of his daze, and he glanced at his lover...who had a small, private smirk on the corner of his lips.
"You should see your face," Darius mouthed in a near-silent whisper. The bastard who'd failed to warn Ryou that his brother was a cross-dresser was enjoying himself.
Ryou let himself be led forward to a meter before the dais and stopped where the pressure from Darius's fingers told him to. Cham and Zuru immediately went down on their haunches as if they'd received the same signal, tongues lolling and not at all intimidated by the grandness of the room which would have, in most people's opinions, precluded the presences of dogs here in the first place. Ryou's gaze was bouncing around, down to the floor out of respect and back up again with the inevitability of a train wreck. He did notice that the King was looking at him, particularly at the hand Darius had on his arm, and the expression behind the heavy makeup and the artificial smile was completely unreadable.
Darius took one last step forward by himself and went down on one knee, one hand flat on the first step of the dais. "My king," he said, head bowed.
Ryou stood there, waiting for any indication he was to do the same, but the king was no longer looking at him, nobody was. He made a deep bow just in case and then waited to see what was going to happen next.
King Leyam made a magnificent turn a catwalk model would have envied, sending the skirt sweeping out and around as he stepped back and sat down once more on the throne. A boy who could be no more than fourteen, dressed in a short skirt, body paint, jewels and nothing else, leaned forward to slip a gilded stool barely two inches high beneath the king's sandals. His master lifted a hand and beckoned with a gesture of studied grace. "Come, Ghan, come here. Come to my lap."
Darius stood and walked up the steps to kneel again at Leyam's knee. There was the oddest half-smile on his face, matching the intensity in his eyes as he looked up at his brother.
Leyam's hand fell to the dark hair and scratched. The disks in Darius's hair clinked. "So, my faithful dog, did you hunt down my enemies for me?" Leyam mused.
"And ripped their throats out," replied Darius immediately.
"So savage, my beast. But it was well done. King Ka, my noble counterpart, has better to do than go around smiting pissant little Imperial lackeys, as do I. Roman wolves who badger our flocks are best left to the shepherd's dog, I always say. Protect the sheep that stray and allow them to return to the bountiful sheltered herd. All is well and good then, as long as they don't step out of line a second time."
With a synchronicity that was pretty creepy, both brothers looked to the left at a small group near the throne. A man at the center stiffened and paled, then he quickly handed his cup to a kneeling servant and bowed.
There was a tense little silence in the large room. Grown men looked away as the king's painted eyes finally left their initial target and swept the assembly. To Ryou, fine-tuned to gestures, the depth and timing of the bows beneath that gaze spoke of a wary respect and high regard; this ridiculous man in the center of the room commanded from them the dread and deference accorded to Emperors. The contrast between what Ryou was looking at and what the Assyrians seemed to be seeing was pretty stark.
"And this is?" Leyam asked, flicking a finger at Ryou. His other hand was still on Darius's head.
Ryou was instantly the focus of every gaze, him and his dusty clothes, dirty hair and unshaven face. Great. Ryou, face set, bowed with the same gesture as the rest of the Assyrians, with a tad more depth thrown as apology for his appearance.
"This is Ryou, his patronym is Ujiie," Darius said, actually getting the pronunciation right this time. "He is from a distant country. When I was ambushed shortly before the Essin siege and had to retreat alone, Ryou selflessly risked his life to come to my aid and assisted me in my return to the front line."
"With nothing to gain?" asked the King in a tone that suggested he knew damn well what was going on, before making a sweeping regal gesture. "Then he shall be clothed in purple and receive ten talents of silver with my stamp. Tupilla, take note of that."
"Yes, my King," said a stony-faced man sitting cross-legged a meter away from the throne. He had a portable scribe's table on his knees and he'd started making prints on a clay tablet as soon as Leyam had finished speaking.
Ryou bowed again, since he didn't know what else to do. Should he kneel? It was hard to remember that this man had the power of life and death over anyone in this country including Ryou himself.
"You are welcome back amongst us, Lord Ghan," said the king in a flowery formal way. He'd stood up in a silvery shower of clinks and tings from his bangles. "Let this be a day to rejoice. Assyria and the Alliance are once more triumphant. Tomorrow night we will hold a feast in honor of Ashur, Inder and the Hound of Assyria who brought down the city of Essin. Drink, my friends, and hold your cups high in praise of our returning champion. I myself shall retire for the night. In this heat, the only thing a man can do is lie down and eat fresh fruit," the king added, reaching back without looking to run a finger through the hair of the boy who'd brought him the footstool.
And that was it. The king made a theatrical wave over his head, and every person in the room immediately bowed, Ryou a second after the rest. By the time he looked up, King Leyam Sirrian was walking out a door behind the dais, preceded by two massive guards and followed by a gaggle of young, beautiful servants. Leyam's hand was on the shoulder of the boy he'd touched a minute before, his other arm wrapped around the waist of a scantily clad girl not a day over sixteen.
Ryou was almost as shocked by Leyam's departure in the middle of his own banquet as he was by the youth of his entourage and the innuendo as broad as a barn. It was hard to believe this person could be related to Darius. Well, no, it wasn't that they were related that was surprising, every family had its black sheep; it was the way Darius spoke of his brother with affection and respect. Cultural gap aside, Ryou did not think he and Darius could see things this differently. But what exactly was all this then-
"Come on," said Darius, rejoining Ryou. "The audience is over."
"Yes, of course." Then Ryou took his mouth off automatic and focused a bit more on the here and now. "Wait, didn't you need to talk to him some more?"
"Of course, but not in the middle of the royal court," Darius murmured for Ryou's ears alone.
Ryou flashed a quick look around the room, taking in the faces of those turning towards them. A lot of artificial smiles of welcome, a lot of hidden thoughts behind them. The man who'd been grilled by the king's jab earlier was talking to three others, stony features not entirely hiding a grim look. There was a little island of space around him and his cronies; even to a brand new foreigner, some of the currents here were obvious, while others would be invisible until the last unfortunate minute. It was like the finance sector's Big Ten summit, thought Ryou, only this time the term 'cut-throat' was probably not a metaphor.
A strong hand on Ryou's elbow was moving him in the direction of the exit through which Leyam had left. "Come on, I want to introduce you to my brother."
"Didn't you just do that?" Ryou muttered.
"No, you just met the Bitch King of Assyria," said Darius in that near-whisper and with that smirk again. "Now we're going to go meet my brother Leyam."
'Just don't be surprised at anything that happens', Darius had told him. Right, it was obvious there'd been more to all that than met the eye. Ryou set aside all judgment for now and followed his lover, making their way through the chatting, scented, curly-bearded throng.
Now, I don't think 'Out' can be accused of having been heavy on the description up until now, but I did have to put in some details on the city of Sura and Assyria in general. Hopefully it was both clear and not too boring to plough through.