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As they made their way around the dais to the rear door, Darius and Ryou were intercepted by a good number of men who wanted to talk briefly with the former, congratulating him on the battle's outcome and asking for some of his time the next day. Darius got out of each conversation with a minimum of time and courtesy, which nobody seemed to be surprised or too offended at, but it still took the pair twenty minutes to reach the exit.
"Inder's balls, that's better," Darius muttered, giving the room behind them one last look over his shoulder as if expecting the whole pack to follow him, tugging at the corner of his tunic. "I love Sura, I swear, but five minutes back here and I want to go to war again. Ashur's Hall is one of the public places; from here on out, it'll be quieter. Cham, Zuru," he added, looking down at the dogs. The pair perked up at the sound of their master calling their name. "Home. Wait there."
The two hounds turned and trotted off to the right. Darius didn't watch them go, he led Ryou straight ahead to a paved path that led off between palm trees. Peacocks strutted around, yelping when Ryou got too close, and birds and insects sang in the foliage as the sun sank slowly. The heat, oppressive in Ashur's Hall despite all the servants waving fans around, was bearable in the shade.
Darius detoured around an elegant courtyard ornamented with a fountain burbling a bare two feet high. The palace proper started there, taller than the previous structure. It was plainer, without colonnades or painting, though the yellow stone carved with regular symbols had a sober beauty of its own. The palace was older than the feasting hall, Ryou gathered, and from what Darius had said, it had already stood here several hundred years. The hallways inside reminded Ryou of Essin; tiled, rich with paintings, mosaics and occasional tapestries. And quite empty except for guards and servants who bowed to Darius in passing.
"Here," said Darius. They were in front of an entrance decorated with mosaics and alabaster pillars. Through it they entered a little lobby opening onto a balcony on one side. Cedars waved in the breeze outside, a cool rustle.
A broad-chested man stood in the center of the balcony as if he'd been waiting for them there all along. Entirely clean-shaven, even his hair and eyebrows, he was dressed in a calf-length skirt and decorated chestpiece like an overgrown necklace; a style that would have worked better on him if he wasn't getting a little pudgy. He bowed to Darius, bowed a little less low to Ryou and then clapped his hands twice. The door behind him opened. A young man and an equally young woman passed the lintel; they were dressed the same as the man who'd summoned them - even the girl, her breasts bare. The simpler designs of their chestpieces must indicate some kind of ranking system, Ryou surmised. They were carrying shallow bronze bowls and pitchers with the neutral, courteous smiles of waiters approaching their designated table.
"Here, sit," said Darius, pointing to a long low bench that ran the length of the lobby, opposite the balcony. "And take off your shoes."
The thick-set man, a majordomo it seemed, picked up their footwear. Ryou was ready to swear he caught a disparaging look at his own worn shoes, bequeathed to him by some soldier from Darius's Hounds. The two young servants poured water into the bowls, knelt and held them out. Ryou followed Darius's example and washed his face and hands. Then the boy and girl leaned down and washed the guests' feet.
"Do you wish for a change of clothes, Lord Ghan?" asked the steward after placing their shoes in a little cubby near the entrance. His voice was surprisingly high for his frame. "And for your noble companion as well, of course."
"Let it rest, Sharmo," said Darius with a heavy look. "The king will be fine with us the way we are; he's seen soldiers fresh off the road before."
"I am sure you are correct, Lord Ghan," said Sharmo a tad too obsequiously, then he pushed open the doors with a deep bow.
Darius strode through. "Ball-less git," he growled under his breath as they reached the end of a three-meter corridor. "Always looks like he can smell dog shit when I'm around. Ah, good evening, Nicodeme. Your father sends his greetings."
They'd entered an antechamber filled with long couches and cushions. A couple of the girls who'd been with the king earlier were sitting near the window, playing a board game with thick pegs placed in holes. Next to them a young boy was dozing on a pile of pillows. The fourteen-year-old the King had seemed to favour earlier was sitting on a chair by the door. He got up and bowed to Darius, then he grinned as he lifted his head. "Is he coming back soon?"
"Hell if I know, it depends where the master of all of us sends him next. He should have arrived in Aksum by now, and I know he's got business in Kaides after that. Can we go in? He's with me," he added when Nicodeme's eyes flickered over Ryou. It hadn't been the look of a bed-toy, rather the sharp gaze of a soldier on patrol, whatever his age and clothing. That expression on his square face collided in Ryou's mind with the mention Darius had made of the kid's father being in Aksum and then having business in Kaides. Ryou opened his mouth to ask, but he wasn't sure if he should...If this boy was truly Rand's son, and considering Rand's former profession, well-
"If that's Ghan, let him come in already," someone shouted from the other side of the door. Nicodeme immediately stood aside and let them pass.
The interior of the huge room was draped in gaudy veils and brocaded tapestries strung between gilded pillars, turning the space into a maze. The few furnishings and decorations Ryou could see were even richer than in Essin, though displayed a lot more haphazardly; a golden statue of an armoured man in the stiff style of Assyria, shoved against a pillar; small marble works in the more fluid and realistic style of the Greeks, perched on a box rather than on a nearby wooden table full of maps; a splendid necklace dangling rakishly from a warrior's spear in a frieze carved out of a nearby wall inset with alabaster.
"Finally," someone muttered, ducking under a tapestry.
King Leyam had discarded the dress. He was now barefoot, clothed in a stiff linen skirt - the kind men wore - and an embroidered brown silk vest as long as the skirt, hanging open over his chest, loosely tied with two golden ropes crossed over the abdomen. He still wore the jewellery including the brace on his thigh, but the wig was nowhere to be seen. His real hair, a tawny brown verging on sandy and thinning a little at the temples, was tied sharply back. He walked in with a strong stride full of coiled energy. The only way Ryou would have been sure this was the same man as before was the red stain on his lips and traces of makeup he'd not been able to remove.
"My King-" Before Darius could say another word he was grabbed and subjected to a rough hug that made him stagger. It quickly degenerated into what Ryou, now familiar with the activities of soldiers at rest, could recognize as the start of wrestling match, with the King trying to apply some antique Assyrian version of a noogie. Seeing them side by side and without the high sandals, Ryou realized that Leyam was an inch shorter than his brother. Without the makeup some family resemblance was finally visible, particularly around the eyes and nose.
"You bloody cur, I thought you'd gone and gotten yourself killed," growled Leyam. "Goddamnit, Darius, what the hell happened-" He broke off when he spotted Ryou.
Darius squirmed out of his brother's hold and gave him a shove. "Let me go and I'll tell you. What do you think I spent three hard days riding for?"
"I see you brought your friend," said Leyam, hands falling back to his side.
"Oh, yeah. Ryou, this brute is my brother Leyam, King of Assyria. Leyam, I already told you who he is."
"Yes," said Leyam, and then he stepped away from his brother and made a refined gesture with the grace of royalty receiving foreign dignitaries. "Welcome to my country, Ryou, if that's how you'd prefer to be addressed."
"Thank you, your majesty."
"Come this way, the both of you. I have something to drink in the back."
Darius headed that way on cue. Ryou waited for the King to precede him, but Leyam gestured him on, so Ryou followed Darius through the labyrinth of veils. Hopefully turning his back on the King of Assyria wasn't some form of lèse-majesté.
Leyam followed him at five paces in silence. Ryou felt a little chill run up the back of his neck that he was hard set to explain.
Off to one side, Ryou glimpsed a bed behind a large hanging tapestry. He was slowly getting an idea of the room's size; it would have easily swallowed his whole apartment and that of his neighbour back in Tokyo. Darius headed towards a table near a large rectangular window a few meters from the bed. The walls here were decorated with figures, all bearing symbols and implements to designate which god they represented. Smaller figures, men and women, bowed around them in worship, or else ignored them and sat at tables to eat, walked through the tempera scenes to visit others, slept in beds, partied or indulged in intercourse that was, on closer look, startlingly pornographic. Ryou would have said it was in character for the Bitch King of Assyria, except that the small cracks and the presence of fading in the corners most washed by sunlight indicated they were considerably older than Leyam could be.
"Ryou? Beer or wine? Anything to eat?" Darius asked, hands poised over pitchers. The table was also set with fruit, pastries and bread.
"Oh..." Ryou glanced from the King to the table to Darius. "Whatever you're having."
"What's up with you? Ah, Ashur love you, no need to be tense," he added, squeezing Ryou's shoulder. "Ceremony stays on the other side of those doors back there. You intimidated him with your display earlier, Leyam."
"Did I?" Leyam's eyes flicked from Darius's hand on Ryou's shoulder to Ryou's face, and then he smiled easily. "That is what it's for. But Darius is right, I do not stand on formalities in my bedroom. Protocol would only make the nights complicated, drawn out and way too boring."
From the way Darius snickered, that remark was intended to be faintly lewd. Ryou for his part produced a polite smile with the practice of one who had entertained drunk CEOs inordinately proud of their store of dirty jokes.
Darius handed him a cup of wine. "Here, this will be much better than anything we ever found on the road."
"Thank you." The wine certainly wasn't as sour or sedimentous as the stuff Ryou had had to swallow up until now, though Ryou's stomach was too knotted with tension and fatigue to enjoy it. He would kill for some green tea at this point...
Leyam didn't drink; he elected to lounge in a low chair, leaning heavily on the leather strap at the back, one knee bent. Even sitting like that, there was a feeling of restless power about the man. Ryou, culturally habituated to the image of rigid royal etiquette at all times, had been as startled by the current trend of informality as he had been by the previous display in the Hall. But even with Leyam half dressed and sitting back in a chair, there was an aura of ironclad self-assurance about the man that said, this is a leader.
"So talk," he said, gesturing at his brother. "Just the first few verses, not the whole epic," he added as Darius took a deep draught of beer.
Darius gave him an acid look over the rim of his cup. "Isn't that what you got from Rand already? I'm sure he sent you a courier the instant I brought him up to speed."
"Yes, but now I want to hear it in your own words."
Darius leaned his thigh against the edge of the table. "Fine, the short of it is, after we trounced Sezerena's forces on the fields of Dessiopian, some men from Kaides approached me with a proposal of mediation. I was going to meet a representative of Essin to see if we could get the city to turn on Sezerena without all this mucking about with a siege. I hate sieges," he muttered into his cup.
"So what happened?"
"We passed the col on that high road, you know, on the frontier. I had twenty men with me, Dela from Kush riding on my left hand. Rand told me Dela did his job and brought the others home safely in my stead. I want him back, by the way, and I hope he's okay."
"This man escorted the king's half brother off to Kaides and came back without him, bearing a tale that suggested he'd been hitting the qunubu a bit too heavily. He's lucky to be alive at all," said Leyam measuredly. Yes, thought Ryou, finalizing his conclusions; whether he wore a dress or not, this really was not a man to cross...It was confirmed when Darius gave his king a hard look in return but did not argue the point.
"We passed the col, half expecting some kind of ambush. I knew what Kaides thought of me, for all they're neutral in the Imperium's wars. I'd spread riders ahead and behind. But instead of some armed forces, these three guys appeared right on the road ahead of us."
"Appeared," said Leyam, stressing the word.
"Yeah, they were just standing there, and my scouts hadn't spotted them. They were dressed in white robes and brown over-cloaks, with the symbol of the wheel and the wings on their tunics."
Leyam's eyes narrowed. "Per Gathas."
"Yeah. That's just it. A little too much." Darius rubbed his chin. "Sure, when I first saw him, that's what I thought. Actually what I thought was, what the fuck are three Sons of Zaratusra doing in this godforsaken arsehole of a kingdom. It's only later, while I was recovering, that I started to think...They had their hoods drawn up so that I could barely see their chins, but there was still something...strange about them. There were three of them there with no guards or attendants. I've never seen that in my life. And since when do the Per Gathas take that kind of interest in a dog like me?"
"Good question," said Leyam, absently tapping the leg brace around his thigh with a fingernail. "When we heard the news, Rand came up with two or three reasons why they'd want to put you down, cur. For instance, there was the theory that the Per Gathas have given up their age-old neutrality and have decided to aid the Imperium. Maybe in exchange for Rome no longer building roads. You've sure been a thorn in the Imperial backside in this region. They'd love to make you vanish in a way that'd cause doubt and confusion as to your death, maybe even make people wonder if you're not chained up to a galley somewhere. That's the most widespread and popular rumour going around, and seen as a good reason to take out one of the notable figures that was about to besiege the Imperium's strongest supporter in the Alliance territories. I personally believe it farfetched, and I will pray to Ashur daily that it remains so, yet it cannot be discarded. But Rand said, and I'll use his exact words, 'Only real idiots would act in such a way while bearing their own crest and then let all the witnesses get away'."
"They didn't all get away," Darius said sombrely. "The scouting party doubled back, and they overtook the pricks just as we approached. One of those cocksucker magians did something with his hands, and it was like the air turned into invisible swords. Poreltes the Greek fell, may the Furies leave that goat-banger well alone. So did Maithris and Agonennon, cut right in two like a sausage-"
"If the Per Gathas had wanted to, they could have conceivably caused the entire Kingdom of Kaides to disappear back into the Veil," said Leyam, still in the same conversational tone. "And eventually someone would have noticed it was missing. The point is, they let most of your men run away like hares while getting rid of you in the most spectacular way imaginable. There is definitely a reason for such a display; it cannot have been done on a mere whim. If I'd wanted you dead, little brother, had I all the might of the Per Gathas on my side, I would still have opted for something simpler and surer such as a few drops of poison in your beer."
Darius finished his beer in one long draught as if he was making some kind of point.
A faint smile touched Leyam's expression and then was gone again. "So, what did these three magians say to you?"
"Nothing much, but then again we were hurtling javelins their way. Our weapons went right through them, though. How's a man supposed to fight that? One of them lifted his arms - let me tell you, we flinched so hard we almost fell off our horses - and shouted at me that this was the judgement for one who broke the age-old laws. He said more, but I couldn't hear, my horse was kicking up a storm. The air was funny, it smelled like hot metal, and it was driving the animals crazy. Even the dogs bolted. So I dismounted to charge the enemy on foot."
"Of course you did," Leyam muttered, rubbing his eyes.
"If I thought they'd let us run away, I'd have taken the chance. But they weren't, that much was obvious," said Darius with a shrug. Ryou wasn't any more surprised than Leyam; he'd seen this side of his lover all the way back in Tokyo. Darius might play up his reputation as The Beast, but in reality he was a calculating warrior, a seasoned commander who would not waste his troops or his own life on a suicide attack unless his back was to the wall. However, if his back was to the wall, he was certainly not going to hesitate...Ryou could just picture the scene behind the blunt words. He could see Darius tossing away the reins, gripping his sword and advancing on the magical maelstrom ahead of him with a certain grim smile on his face...
"So they opened a rift and shot you through to the Inlands," Leyam concluded.
"Not quite there, but close enough. Then they left me with a friend to play with. The Bher Rajiin."
From Leyam's faint hiss, he'd not had that detail from Rand's account.
"I dispatched the first of her spawn, but the bitch came back and squeezed out another. That's where Ryou comes in. You should have seen him, he-"
"I heard something of the rest. We'll discuss the epic of your Inland adventures later. Let's stay on these three who tried to kill you. What do you think?"
This was addressed to Ryou, completely unexpectedly. "Me?"
"Yes, you," said the King with an amused smile. "You're a magian, Rand informs me. Did Darius tell you this tale before?"
"Yes," Ryou said cautiously. "He told me last night, when we stopped to sleep at the outpost."
"Did he?" Leyam murmured, resting his chin in his palm, elbow planted on the chair's armrest. "There was a time he wouldn't bother with talk at all in those circumstances, let alone sleep."
"Hey," said Darius sharply, looking up from the apple he was cutting. He was frowning a warning, with maybe a touch of defensiveness thrown in.
Leyam smirked and shook his head. "We'll let the past lie, shall we, dog? Though it's refreshing to see you actually care about it for a change; I sometimes think you enjoy scaring people a bit too much."
"You also enjoy your games a bit too much, my King," Darius answered steadily, cutting the apple in two with one sharp gesture.
"He only calls me My King in private when he's mad at me," said Leyam for Ryou's benefit. "So, Inlander, what do you think of the incident that led you to cross my brother's path?"
"It sounds like misdirection," Ryou said, a conclusion Darius had reached long before and which Ryou had agreed with when they'd discussed it last night. He wasn’t sure why he was being asked. "Someone wanted you to think the Per Gathas had acted against you."
"They certainly wanted something, if they removed my right hand in a way any gapped-toothed crone of Hecate could determine was done via powerful magic."
"They weren't very subtle, but why should they be? Most people think I'm a frivolous wastrel with his brain in his cock and his cock into just about everything," Leyam mused. To his left, Darius snorted around a mouthful of apple. "Part of their plan certainly went off without a hitch. Your common soldier is both gullible and talkative. The men who came back spread the story before Rand could put a stopper on them. Rand was his usual reliable self; squashed as many rumours as he could and made sure that look-alike Ionian filled Ghan the Beast's boots to avoid a lot of people panicking. But of course he couldn't fake out Terentius and the rest of the high command; they were getting distinctly nervous at Essin, Rand had to delay an important trip to stay there and keep them calm. As for myself, my brother, the person I trust most in the kingdom, vanishes and was beset by monsters; that might make even a wise man forgo reason and jump to conclusions...How fortunate he ran into you. I cannot thank you enough for bringing him back to me," the King finished with a pleasant look at Ryou.
"He helped me survive here, I was a great burden to him," Ryou pointed out with inbred civility.
"And any thoughts about that attempt at misdirection?"
"Leyam, Ryou's an Inlander, and he's got natural talent to rival Zaratusra himself," Darius interjected. "He doesn't know that what happened to me was practically impossible except for someone from the Per Gathas."
"The Per Gathas, yes, as well as some exceptionally talented magian that are rumoured to exist on the fringes of the Outlands," Leyam agreed, nodding wisely.
Ryou's mouth went dry as he suddenly glimpsed a nasty angle to this entire conversation. But surely- Darius had surely vouched for Ryou by his very presence, and Leyam had treated him quite cordially in turn-
Leyam was looking at him brightly, expecting some kind of response. Ryou's mind fumbled over what might be the least suspicious thing he could say, and then fumbled some more as he realized this in itself would be suspicious.
"Um...If only a few people could do that, that'd give them another reason to blame the Per Gathas," he said, hoping his pause hadn't been too long. "They'd be easy to trace otherwise."
"I hope they are, because Rand's looking for them and I do really want him back before the New Year," said Leyam, getting to his feet. "Brother, I have another meeting right now; we will continue this conversation later tonight. Show your new friend to the noble quarters and then for the love of every god in our pantheon, go and take a bath. You smell like the rear end of a horse."
"Don't you start. I already got the treatment from Sharmo."
"He's supercilious and overzealous, but in this case I think his sense of smell was the worst offended. Go. Ryou, I'll leave you in my brother's, ah, care," Leyam said with a regal nod and a leer that clashed together. Ryou made some kind of polite noise in return and got out of the royal presence as quickly as he could.
"These are the noble quarters, where people of the royal household have rooms," said Darius with a casual wave at the sumptuous surroundings. "I use it for the space and the balneum, though I'd have been just as glad to get a room in the barracks; I don't have the retinue to fill this place, and nobody else lives here at this point in time."
Ryou nodded absently at what Darius was saying. His lover hadn't made any comment about their interview with the king. Apparently he'd not noted anything out of whack with Leyam's behaviour. Neither had Ryou; Leyam had been friendly, in the formal way of royalty. There was nothing odd there, but for some reason Ryou was remembering Darius saying, a good while back, 'you and my brother will get along'. Ryou found himself doubting it. He didn't think anybody got along with Leyam, not in a manner of getting close, other than Darius.
And all this didn't explain the thing with the dress...
Ryou had walked by walls covered in paintings and mosaics, tapestries and fretted wooden screens, without paying too much attention to his surroundings until Darius led him out a short portico to a room tiled from floor to ceiling, and started to strip.
"We're seriously taking a bath now?"
Darius raised an eyebrow. "Royal order. Besides, he's right, we probably do need it. It was a long ride. Will you need the lights of a priest for that?" he added, pointing at Ryou's arm.
Ryou had almost forgotten about it; he'd perfected the ability of riding one-handed the past three days, which, for a man of twenty-first century Japan who'd not seen a horse outside of TV this time a month ago, wasn't too shabby in Ryou's opinion. "It's fine."
"No, really. It's sore, but no more than that." Ryou unbuckled the bracer and started to unwrap the bandages in illustration.
Darius barely glanced at the arm, and gave Ryou a piercing look until he judged that to not be an exaggeration, and nodded shortly. "Good, we'll leave it for today then, but tomorrow we will go to the temple. If nothing else, we owe Hygeia's altar a couple of doves or a rooster for keeping that bone from grinding or swelling too much during the trip."
"In my culture, we give money or rice," Ryou said through the folds of his tunic.
"Yeah, that'd be interesting," Darius mused, tossing down the metal shin guard from his left leg. "Let's try giving Hygeia some cereal and see if your arm falls off."
"Ha ha. I'll follow your advice on the matter, Darius, but won't the priests take money instead?" It seemed a waste to kill a couple of birds just to toss them on a fire. Ryou had never bothered thinking about food shortage or the provenance of his next meal before, until that time in the Broken Lands where roast squirrel was the epitome of fine cuisine.
"I wasn't going to buy a chicken at the market and hew off its head on the doorstep," Darius said with a crooked smile, sitting down to take off his sandals. "We buy tokens of the animals at the temple, and the sacrifices are made away from the sick people. It's something the Hygeians insist on," he added with a bemused shake of the head. "Inder, Ashur, Enlil, they're proper Gods; every equinox Leyam has to strip down to a skirt and hew off the head of a black bull in worship of the deities protecting our lineage. I stepped in for him three years back when he caught the flux, and I gained a new appreciation for my brother; not only will the purification rituals before and after drive you to seizures of boredom, but do you know how hard it is to chop through a bull's spine?"
"I can honestly say that I do not have a clue," said Ryou, folding his clothes neatly on the nearest bench. "So we're just going to give the priests of Hygeia some money after all."
"No, we're making sacrifices. They perform them at another place. It's got something to do about blood attracting bad sickness demons."
"The priests would actually go out, buy two doves with the money you gave them, and burn them out in the back yard?" Ryou couldn't help but ask.
"If your life was dedicated to the Goddess of Blessings who keeps you from catching the plague, the great sicknesses and all of the lesser agues, would you try to scam her?" Darius countered.
Ryou opened his mouth to retort in his turn, when he happened to catch sight of a man bowing deeply at the entrance to the baths. Ryou had the unnerving feeling the servant had been there for awhile now, bowed and waiting for them to notice him.
Darius didn't seem to think it odd when he turned to see what had made Ryou jump. "Is anybody else in the baths this evening?"
The servant finally straightened with a sonorous, "No, my lord."
"Food and wine, then. Towels, of course. Oh, do we have soap?"
The slave had bowed again at each request, but that one stopped him halfway down with a look of surprise. "Soap? Oh yes, we do," he added, eyes darting down again and finishing the bow.
"Good, my friend here doesn't like the strigil. Is that Thracian the King bought still here? Urtupati, I think his name was."
"Yes my lord."
"Call him over. We were on the road for three days, we need some muscles unknotted."
Ryou leaned forward, past the bowing servant, and took in a glimpse of several rooms rich in tile, marble and mosaics, with baths, basins and an actual swimming pool. 'Take a bath' did not mean 'sit in a tub' in Assyria, he concluded.
There really wasn't a good place to cut this chapter, so it ends off fairly quickly and will resume in the next chapter. Thanks for all the typo spotting and reviews ^__^ You guys rock harder than a heavy metal compendium.