Maldoror (maldoror_gw) wrote,
Maldoror
maldoror_gw

Original fiction: Outlands. Sons of the Path arc, part 1

Gah, I hate to post and run after so long, but here t'is, enjoy, please review as this encourages me to work past the apathy I've felt towards writing this path month...


Link to all chapters



Timeline: since it's been a few weeks since the previous chapter, people might not remember what the timeline of Outlands is. This chapter is situated a month or so after Ryou's arrival in the outlands, and not quite two weeks since Ryou's arrival in Sura.



Sons of the Path, part 1



The flood season had started a few days ago, bringing with it cool weather and the scent of mulching vegetation. And today was the day the Per Gathas chose to respond to King Leyam's invitation. It was likely they'd waited until the time Leyam could have reasonably expected visits by foreign dignitaries to be impossible for a few weeks due to high waters, debris in the river and a lot of mud. But those facts did not concern visitors who could appear out of thin air right in front of the God Gate. Ryou, who could do the kind of mental judo known to all business managers, knew that was exactly the point the Per Gathas were making. He was ready to bet they could have scheduled their visit last week while the path from Mooncrest to the Walkway of Sura was still perfectly passable, but that entrance would have had no way near the same impact.

From the way Leyam smiled shark-like at the news, the timing and the means had not been lost on him either. But he also had one hell of a card to play in his turn.

"I’ll leave you to finish your repast," he announced as he got to his feet, shooing away the kneeling slave holding his breakfast plate in lieu of table. He stalked out of the royal dining room (the small, private one, only twice the size of Ryou's apartment back in Tokyo) with a predatory step that was at odds with his purple skirt and flowing red top crisscrossed with purple veils.

Darius was sitting on the raised stone hearth of the fireplace in the middle of the room. A small blaze had been lit at its center to beat away the humidity and coolness that now inhabited the stone palace. His plate was resting on the slate beside him. He pushed it away with a frown that made the servants hesitate to move forward to retrieve it.

"We're fine, thank you," Ryou told them. Two weeks in the royal palace had not begun to habituate him to talking authoritatively to anybody. He addressed them as if they were hotel staff, they obeyed him with the deference accorded to princes and foreign dignitaries, and Ryou tried not to let it bug him too much.

"You don't need to worry," said Darius as soon as the attendants had left. "It'll be fine."

His words were self-assured, but Ryou observed the way his lover was cracking his knuckles and frowning blindly at a corner of the room, and so instead of going over the list of reasons why this might not be fine at all, he only said, "I'm sure it will be."

"Leyam has guaranteed your safety. They can't do anything. They wouldn't dare." There was a personally threatening note to that last sentence that had less to do with Leyam's assurances and more to do with the way Ghan the Beast dealt with his enemies. This was why Leyam had dismissed his brother’s suggestion that they both be present at this initial meeting. Leyam was a calculating man who used the right tool for the right task; he used his own abilities for subtlety, and his brother to destroy those for whom subtlety was not good enough.

"They'll be in talks most of the morning," Darius added, finally looking back at Ryou. "Want to go out riding? I promised I would show you Sura from the north when the weather cooled. I’ll roust the men. We can be up Mount Ytemen and back by the middle of the afternoon.”

Ryou translated that as, 'I want to give you something to distract you, and I know how you love to explore and ask all sorts of questions.'

“That’d be great,” he answered. He had the feeling Darius might need distracting as well.





The slave who had fetched Ryou as soon as the latter had gotten off his horse ushered him in through the door and closed the large double panels behind him. Ryou walked forward, feet brushing the mosaic as he crossed the banquet hall that felt twice its size now that it was empty, and stopped near the throne on its dais.

“You wanted to see me?” he asked. 'My King' didn't come naturally to Ryou's tongue, and Leyam had picked up on that and let Ryou know that they didn't have to stand on ceremony when it was just the two of them.

Leyam was in an even more startling dress than this morning, cloth of gold falling in heavy pleats down the front, folded away from the shoulders and chest to allow the shimmering tight green silk bodice to peep through- and still revealing a lamentable lack of cleavage to go with it. But the gold-decorated wig was perched on the chair's armrest and the superb garment was carelessly rucked by the foot he’d drawn up onto the low throne’s cushion. His elbow was propped against the gold-painted wood and ivory, chin in his hand as he stared out through one of the windows at the mountains. The way his eyes were heavily lined with khol made the stare a bit more meaningful than it probably was.

"Hmm, sit down," he said, the words compressed by the palm pressing into his jaw.

Ryou obeyed the flip of a finger that'd accompanied that, climbed the stairs and sat on a cushion at the edge of the dais in front of the low throne.

“Ashur and Enlil, not like that,” groused Leyam, looking around. “That makes my knees ache to watch you.”

Ryou shifted from Seiza position to sit down on his butt with his feet resting on the steps of the dais at a comfortable angle.

“That’s better. My brother...?”

“Taking care of the horses.”

“As good a job for him as any,” said Leyam. “Though I bet he gave the task to one of his men the instant you left, and is now pacing outside the door, giving it and the guard that famous dark look of his, waiting for you and making sure I’m not selling you hand and foot bound to the Per Gathas.”

Right into the heart of the matter then, thought Ryou.

Leyam tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. “In the twelvedays I’ve known you, Ryou, I’ve confirmed that you are an intelligent man, and for a complete stranger to our lands, you’re astute. So allow me to get down to the gristle and bone of our current affair. The Sons of Zaratusra want you. Magians of your power are inducted into their ranks whether they will it or not. Or so it is said, and since I've never seen a magian of your stature running around without the winged crest on his chest, I do have to give the rumor some credence. The man who appeared this morning is no less than Blessed Haaskoning himself, the current leader of the Per Gathas, possibly the single most powerful man in the Outlands. He came expressly to remind me, in a diplomatic way, that the Grand Design is the exclusive domain of the Sons of Zaratusra, and not to be meddled with for fear of wreaking all kinds of chaos and havoc upon us all. Any king who thought to retain his own magian would soon find the regular Paths barred to him and any of his countrymen. As you can imagine, this is a very hefty threat."

Ryou said nothing, waiting. Leyam’s mouth quirked. “Marble statue,” he muttered, “as always. So what do you think I said?”

“It would be disrespectful of me to hazard a guess,” said Ryou, who didn’t want to jump through Leyam’s little hoops today.

“No fun. I said, just as diplomatically and with as many words, that you were not a court retainer or my pet magian, but a stranger from Ezo who was bedding my brother.”

Ryou’s eyes flickered shut briefly. Yes, Leyam would say exactly that.

“This is where it got amusing, as I’d foreseen. Haaskoning said, in a flowery way, that he didn’t give a bloody damn what you were doing with my brother. I answered that before dismissing the matter so easily, he should know that my brother was rather attached to you, and in an exceedingly bad mood after a recent problem in Kaides which, incidentally, I’d wanted to talk to the Per Gathas about. As you can imagine, the dice were now coming up with my numbers.”

“It wasn’t the Per Gathas who ambushed Darius, and you know that,” said Ryou. Then he amended, “more importantly, this magian leader has to realize you know that, or you would never have let him near you.”

“Yes, but he cannot prove that I know that,” said Leyam with a delighted grin. “Whereas I have a dozen soldiers with not enough imagination to lie convincingly - and my brother as well, no less - who can tell anyone who cares to listen how the Sons of Zaratusra kidnapped the leader of my forces from the field of battle, thus putting the whole siege of Essin in peril. You look as if you're about to object in that polite way of yours as soon as I stop talking. You already knew I had this leverage.”

“Well yes, but...you would use it to protect me?” Ryou asked guardedly. “It’s not something you’ll be able to brandish over their heads after today.”

“Clever man. Yes, that’s correct. Once they leave here and Haaskoning and I give each other the olive branch of friendship on the steps of Ashur's temple, I can’t really bring this matter up again.”

“Isn’t there some other advantage that you want? “

Leyam tapped his rouged lips with a thoughtful finger. “Nothing that this coin can acquire. It has limited use at this point in time. There are things I would buy with it, but I do not even know their name. Whereas 'back off from my brother's friend and I won't press the matter' was easy to ask for."

"Then I owe you a great debt."

"Yes you do."

"That I won’t be able to repay," Ryou pointed out, "since I cannot use my magic reliably, and the Per Gathas would retaliate if I used it for you. There’s nothing I can do for you."

"You can keep my brother happy," leered Leyam.

Ryou favored the King with a cool look.

Leyam grinned, but his eyes were focused on a point above Ryou's head and when he spoke, it was softly and without the usual twisty wit. "I think you’ll find a way to repay me, Ujiie Ryou. There’s something going on. Our history is rich with tales of strange monsters, usually with some demigod to beat them into bone soup tagged onto the story. Times of Trouble, as our ancestors called it. I always thought those days belonged to the past, but the last two years have seen odd things happen in our regions. An entire village emptied of living things overnight, even insects, gone without a trace. Wells poisoned, cattle dying in droves, misshapen children born, fires that burn without fuel and die without charring anything. Travelers and their Passer disappear along the Paths, never to be seen again, and odd shadows roam the borders, strange chimera, men with the head of animals, snakes bearing lion manes, goats with lizard scales. You name it and some drunkard in a tavern has seen it. Maybe this is just more of the usual chaos that is bred out of war, but I'm thinking not, no. No, there is something going on, and you, Ryou, will be part of it. I would not be all that happy having my brother close to you in these circumstances, but I believe he was a part of it before you ever appeared, so...so I want to keep you here, where I can see things develop and take whatever steps will protect Darius, his friend and my country, and hopefully give me some added leverage in Per Gathas affairs."

"Thank you," said Ryou, just about all he could say.

"Of course they want you to come with them and join their ranks," said Leyam dryly. "And they also want to talk to you before they leave."

"They what?" asked Ryou, startled.

"They essentially came here for you. They won't leave without seeing you. Oh, don't worry, they won't take you anywhere by force. I did point out that were you to enter a room and then mysteriously never leave it again, I would be very, very displeased. Haaskoning said that all he wants to do is talk to you. They don't know where you're from, so they cannot use your family's lives as leverage," Leyam added in what he probably thought was reassurance, "and the only person you are close to in Assyria is not someone they can touch with impunity, so really, what can they threaten you with?"

"I would rather not find out."

"Unfortunately you must," said Leyam, sounding immensely curious rather than regretful. "Don't worry. Haaskoning is an interesting, enlightened man, and he seemed honestly desirous to have a civilized conversation with you and nothing more. It will be a mere sunset stroll in the gardens."

"If by that you mean it will be easy, then it will be the first thing in the Outlands that is," Ryou muttered to himself once he was dismissed and the heavy doors had closed behind him.





The Sun Room was a gazebo perched on a high corner of the palace's building reserved for official business, a bird's nest of pillars surrounding a circular marble floor and a round table. Refreshments had appeared on the latter, as they always did wherever anyone of importance was likely to be present; a pitcher of watered wine, flatbread, cheese and a bowl of apples smaller than Ryou's palm. Most of the fruit found in these regions were half the size of their Inland versions. On the other hand, they'd been specifically selected, grafted, bred and propagated to be tasty and durable.

The late afternoon was pleasant with the coolness brought by the floods. A breeze wandered by as Ryou stepped through the door. It fluttered the brown robes of the cowled figure nearby.

"Hello," said Ryou, eyeing the figure. "May I come in?"

The hooded figure said nothing. But a cheerful, "Oh yes, please. Sorry, I'm over here," drew Ryou's attention away from the silent magian and to the other side of the marble table. A portly man in his late fifties straightened up from where he'd been crouched out of sight.

"What are you doing?" asked Darius abruptly from behind Ryou.

"Oh, just admiring these mosaics. I don’t come to your lands frequently enough, Lord Ghan. Every time I do, I am amazed by the finesse of the work. Are these green ones here malachite?"

"Do I look like a stonemason to you?" said Darius with his usual approach to diplomacy. "Are you Haaskoning?"

"Ah, yes." The man's hair was white, cut short and well combed, and his small salt-and-pepper beard was neatly trimmed, lining a nondescript face. He was dressed in the garb of his order, a long brown sleeveless tabard with the yellow winged circle symbol sewn onto the chest, a brown cowl over his shoulders, and beneath it all, an ankle-length white tunic. Blessed Haaskoning, leader of the most powerful force in the Outlands, had no mark to distinguish him from any other member of the Per Gathas.

"That man over there is Illuminated Emiokarnage of the second circle," Haaskoning added. "He's here as my assistant." The hooded man bowed.

Darius nodded curtly in return before turning back towards the magian leader. "I thought you were going to meet Ryou alone."

"Well yes," said Haaskoning with a faintly bemused smile as he looked at Darius. "So did I."

"I'm not going anywhere." Darius walked over to the marble table and leaned a hip against it in a clearly territorial move. "My king tells me you lot weren't behind the attempt to kill me in Kaides, so there is no bad blood between us at present. But I won't have you weighing into my home and threatening my friend in order to get him to go back to Asha Mainyu with you."

"That was not my intention at all," said Haaskoning, hands out in a placating gesture.

"Then there's no reason I can't stay," Darius concluded.

Haaskoning didn't answer directly, giving Ryou a weighing look instead. "We have not been formally introduced. By which name would you prefer to be addressed, sir?"

"You may call me Ryou," said Ryou, not looking forward to the way the locals chopped up 'Ujiie'. "I apologize if Darius and I appear a little blunt," his civility forced him to add, "but I don’t see what there is that you wish to discuss with me that my friend cannot hear."

"You cannot?" Haaskoning shook his head. "Ai, that's even worse than I thought."

Ryou and Darius exchanged quick looks, equally puzzled.

"What are you talking about?" Darius groused.

"I'm talking of the Mysteries of the Grand Design, Lord Ghan. I'm talking about the Lore of the Gathas. This man may be your friend, but he is also a magian, and he has knowledge that should not be shared with the layman. In turn, what I am about to tell him should not reach the ear of the non-initiated. As such, our conversation must remain private."

"No," said Darius, crossing his arms over his chest.

Haaskoning gave Ryou a beseeching glance. Ryou returned it neutrally. He could wish Darius would be a bit more diplomatic about it, but Ryou knew what this attitude stemmed from. Darius was tense. This was not a situation he could control, no attacking army or a threat of the material world. All he knew of the Per Gathas was hearsay and superstition, some rather grim. Ryou for his part didn't mind having his lover here. In addition to moral support, Darius, the king's brother, was his guarantee of safety here in Sura. And if the Beast of Assyria's powerful presence put this smooth, civilized magian off his stride, then Haaskoning might let slip some extra information that he would otherwise not share, information Ryou desperately needed and had a feeling he was going to have to bargain hard for.

"I can ask Emiokarnage to leave," Haaskoning suggested helpfully.

"You can do that," Darius conceded, "but I'm not going anywhere."

"Some of the things we may discuss are magical in nature, and may confuse you."

"That's a given," snorted Darius, "but as long as I can hear the complete lack of threats, I'm fine with most of your magical conversation going right over my head."

"That is something I can guarantee," said Haaskoning with a strange smile, and there was such certitude in his voice that Ryou felt a chill. "The secrets of my order constrain me, I'm afraid. This conversation will be held in privacy."

"I just told you I'm not going anywhere."

"Oh, you misunderstand me. You're quite free to stay or go, Lord Ghan. I'm just telling you this conversation will be held in privacy," said Haaskoning, before touching first his chest then his forehead with the fingers of his left hand while murmuring three words beneath his breath that Ryou did not catch.

Ryou felt something. It was subtle, hard to define, but it brushed his mind and swept through it for just an instant.

"Darius, careful," he said sharply.

Darius stiffened and twisted around to stare at Ryou in surprise and alarm. A lot of surprise and alarm, more than Ryou's curt warning should have generated.

"What?" Ryou whispered, alarmed in turn.

Darius's jaw worked helplessly, and then he said-

- something that made no sense at all. A language with gutturals that sounded jarringly alien to Ryou coming from his lover's mouth.

After a split second stare, they both spun on Haaskoning, who had the gall to give them a shrug that was almost, if not quite, apologetic.

A chair crashed to the floor as Darius surged around the table- he halted after only two steps, fingers gripping the marble. Darius might use his looks, reputation and bluntness to give an appearance of ferocity and brutality that was to his advantage, but Ryou was one of the people who'd seen beneath that, who knew Darius was considerably more in control than he let on, and was quite smart enough to see they'd been checkmated and that violence could only turn against them. Besides, Leyam had impressed upon them that the powerful leader of the Per Gathas could be given a little attitude but nothing more concrete, and he'd forbidden his brother to go to the interview armed. From the way Darius was clutching his belt where the hilt of his sword was normally tied, that'd been a good call...

Darius spat out a few words. Haaskoning responded calmly in a different language, Ryou could tell that much, even if he couldn't make that out either. Darius scowled, caught short. He could hear the same thing, it seemed. At least it was a language he knew, if not well, by the look on his face. He scowled at Haaskoning, fingers still gripping his belt where his sword normally resided, but then he turned towards Ryou. He started to speak...caught himself, mouth turning down at the corners, and pointed over his shoulder at a bench along the gazebo's railing. Ryou nodded unhappily, a sentiment he could see echoed in Darius's eyes. Haaskoning might have just intended this move as a way to enforce privacy and as a subtle sort of threat, but it was a devastating one; a brutal reminder of all the things that separated them, starting with a common tongue...Darius, turning, let his hand make contact with Ryou's briefly, a reassurance. Then he made his way towards the bench.

"I had the feeling he would stick around anyway," sighed Haaskoning, "and also, I hope you speak English or else I am screwed."

Ryou stared blindly at his lover's retreating back for a couple of thunderous seconds. "What-...what did you say?" he croaked, finally turning to face the magian.

Haaskoning tilted his head, eyes wrinkling in concern. Ryou caught himself. He'd been so used to speaking Japanese and being understood...

"You speak English?" he repeated in that language.

"Yes, and I am glad to see you do to," said Haaskoning, smiling once more and digging around a deep pocket sown into the inside of his tabard. "Here is my card. This should make it clear."

He was holding it out between two fingers. Ryou reached for it automatically with both hands. It was a little yellowed, obviously old. It said:



Casper Haaskoning

Haaskoning-Lendau
Architectuur en landschap
Barbarossastraat 28, 3452 Maastricht



Ryou found the seat next to him by feel, pulled it out and sat down heavily, still reading the card over and over again. Haaskoning pulled up a seat for himself opposite Ryou.

"You're from the Inlands."

"Yes. Maastricht, as you can see."

"That's in Europe."

"Yes, in the Netherlands. You are Japanese, ya?" The man spoke English with the precision of a foreigner, which only served to underline his accent. Ryou had learned English from an early age and could understand him well enough, though these last few years he'd mainly practiced the language in a business context.

"Yes. Ujiie Ryou, from Ujiie Standard and Trades, Tokyo. My apologies, I do have cards with me but I did not think to bring them to this meeting." Ryou was aware that the words coming out of his mouth were inane and as completely out of place as this little piece of cardboard, but his mental processes were still reeling about and couldn't come up with anything better.

"No matter, no matter. Do you think you could wave at Lord Ghan? He is getting...agitated over there."

Ryou snapped out of his daze and looked to the right where Darius was not getting agitated one bit, in fact he was remarkably still, hands hooked in his belt, poised at the edge of the bench with his eyes fixed on Ryou and emanating an alarming amount of lethal menace, probably in response to Ryou's stunned look. It was to be remembered that the palace was filled with guards who would instantly respond to the shout of their king's brother and would not wait for a diplomatic go ahead to do something excitable and irreversible. Ryou pulled himself together in record time and nodded, giving Darius a weak smile to say all was okay. Darius stared at him, searching Ryou's eyes, then he slowly leaned back against the bench, the tension around him decreasing not a whit.

"You have a fiercely loyal friend," said Haaskoning.

Ryou nodded and handed the card back. "Please explain." He was once more composed, his voice businesslike. He'd been caught off balance twice now, and badly, but that was no reason to slip further. Ryou had already shamed his father in a dozen ways in the past month, but he was damned if he'd lose his grip during a business negotiation after all the president had taught him.

"That is easy to explain. Like you, I am from the Inlands. I have been here for more than twenty five years. You, I believe, are a newcomer, though, ya? How long have you been in the Outlands as far as you can tell? I know time can be difficult to measure here-"

"Thirty five days."

"Ah, I see. You certainly arrive in an interesting place in so short a time," said Haaskoning with a look around the elegant Sun Room. "There is a rumor you saved Lord Ghan when Roman wonder-makers took him to an Inland temple for a sacrifice to Aten. I do love the way stories spread here...I take it most of that is, how do you say it in English, stuff and nonsense? Did you meet him Inland or was it elsewhere?"

"I met him in the no man's land at the border," Ryou said composedly, and then before this amiable manipulator could recommence his interrogation he added, "I'm amazed that you're an Inlander. How many are there in the Per Gathas?"

Haaskoning's easy demeanor hit a small hitch when he realized this was going to be tit for tat, not a one-way extraction of information. "Ah, you see, Ryou-"

"There are some things that only the initiated can know, is that what you were about to say? Sorry if I am rude, but please see this from my eyes. As you just said, there are lots of rumors and stories here. I have been told about the Per Gathas who capture magians to either kill them or force them into their cult-"

"Oh no, we-"

"And though you are very nice, I have to notice that you, an Inlander with no affiliation to anything in the Outlands, are a part of the Per Gathas and you believe this 'initiated' credo, so much that you forcefully stopped my friend from listening to this conversation."

Ryou let a moment pass, mainly to outline the fact that Haaskoning had little he could retort to that statement.

"I won't ask you to go into any great secret, but at least a minimum of information?"

Haaskoning hmmmed and fell silent, gaze turned inwards, hands tucked beneath his brown tabard. Ryou waited patiently. The leader of the Per Gathas struck him as a man who thought twice to speak once, as they said in Assyria.

"Very well, this much I can say to you," Haaskoning finally declared. "Inlanders cross to the Outlands often. That's how the Outlands were colonized. It's been some time since we've seen a large migration. The only one this century was in the ninety seventies by Inland calendar, when the population of a village in Sri Lanka found its way here. They were escaping from a civil war, if I remember. Only fifty people got across before the Path closed of itself. We have set them up in their own enclave very far from here, and they seem happy to be left alone for now. Paths through the Great Veil around the Inlands exist, but they open only very rarely. One of us stands guard over them, and we only let through those who have otherwise nothing else to lose...As I said, that is a rare phenomenon these days due to...circumstances. The Outlands have their own rhythms, ya? So most crossovers are not through naturally formed Paths, but through the abilities of single individuals."

"How can we do it without even knowing how? I mean, why us and not-..." But from the polite, final way Haaskoning had smiled, Ryou realized this was a deeper level of mystery, and he was not going to get this information unless he traded for it, if at all.

The magian continued as if nothing had been asked. "Inlander magians are rare. A few dozen every generation. Some die during the crossing or quickly after, I am sorry to say. But them that do not die, they find their way to the Per Gathas and from there they choose to stay with us, or go home. Often they go home. We make sure they understand it is, as my English friends say, a one-way ticket. What I mean is that if they return to the Outlands again, we will not help them back home a second time. We do not encourage exchanges between countries in the Outlands, and so much less with the Inlands itself. So they go back with a heavy secret nobody will believe, but the other choice is not nice either. These societies we come into contact with...But you, of all places you end up in Assyria and in the middle of a war, so you know what I'm talking about, ya? If you want to go home, this is something we can do for you."

"I'm fine where I am. Am I going to be inducted into the Per Gathas if I stay?" Ryou asked directly.

Haaskoning shook his head slowly. "You have been misinformed. It is true, that I am inviting you. I do wish you will join us. But we do not induct. We invite. Many times, we are begged. The Per Gathas means safety in these regions. May I ask why you seem so against the idea? Except for something that Lord Ghan might have told you in, sorry, but in ignorance?"

"I'm not saying I will never consider it," Ryou answered cautiously, "but right now I am only trying to understand my position here, and how these lands work." And more to the point, it was obvious from several things Haaskoning had said and done that the Per Gathas would require his total allegiance, and for Ryou that was not possible. His faith, as Assyrians would put it, was to Darius and by extension to Leyam and Assyria. He would not want to put himself into a position where he might be asked to work against their best interests.

"The Per Gathas are more than safety, we deal with great powers, with things an intelligent man will want to study," said Haaskoning, who'd obviously thought he'd detected an opening there. "There are interesting futures open for powerful magian. Research into important magical matters, or observing and writing the history of the countries around us. If your inclination and power take you there, you could join Emiokarnage and me into the three Holy Circles, perhaps right to the highest. Other than one bad episode hundred of years ago, every leader of the Per Gathas since Zoroaster has been an Inlander."

"Is that so?" said Ryou calmly, covering the fact that he was quite surprised.

"Yes. Please keep that to yourself. This is a Mystery of my order."

"Why on earth would the Per Gathas choose Inlanders to lead them? Are we that strong?"

Haaskoning rubbed a finger up and down his beard, silent and thoughtful again. Finally he nodded cautiously. "Those who can break through the Veil without training, and who then have the will to stay here, are usually stronger than average magians, yes. But the reason one of us is leader is because of impartiality. The power of the leader is balanced by a council chosen from the five oldest surviving countries: Assyrian, Greek, Mauryan, Roman and Chinese, or the Empire of S'ung as it is known here."

"I see." Ryou turned this over in his mind, fitting all this information into a new world view. "I should have realized other Inlanders could find their way here, if I had."

"How did you find your way here?" asked Haaskoning, a reminder that this was an exchange.

"Right." Ryou rubbed the bridge of his nose, jostling his glasses. "I wish I could tell you more about how I got here, but it's mostly a mystery to me."

"Do not worry about the mechanics," said Haaskoning with a genial smile, and Ryou remembered that the blighter would know a lot more about it than he did. "Where did you cross over? Tokyo, you said?"

"Yes, about twenty minutes away from the Kabukichō district. It was completely by accident. Though there had to be some kind of outside force at work, because I crashed my car a few feet away from where Darius arrived."

"Hmm, I heard some of it from King Leyam," said Haaskoning. He was digging around in pocket sewn into the inside of his tabard. He'd already drawn out a small scroll and he now unstoppered a tiny inkpot inset into a wooden stand, and screwed a steel nib onto a wooden pen he'd produced. "I am sorry, I have to write this down. I am at the age where I should think of passing on my role to a younger man in a few years. My memory has become bad...Ah, there. So from what King Leyam said, his brother was attacked by, how do you say, impostors, who for some reason put him in the No Man's Land. Well, I can think of worse places they could put him, much worse, but that was probably the easiest to reach and the easiest way of making sure he would not come back."

"Who were they? Do you know?"

”I am afraid I do not, though I am as anxious as King Leyam to find out, sir, believe me," said Haaskoning as he bent over his parchment. Ryou could not tell if the man was lying or not. "It has been more than a hundred years since someone tried to involve us in a war between countries, and we could have gone a thousand more without such thing being done. But we will find them soon. So, you said you arrived at the same location as Lord Ghan in the border zone, ya?"

"Yes. Darius was fighting a Rajin Bher."

Haaskoning nodded without surprise. Leyam must have already filled him in.

"What are they?"

"That is something I cannot tell you."

"Because it's a Mystery? Or because you don't know?" challenged Ryou.

"Oh, we know, unfortunately. We know." Haaskoning lifted his head and for a brief instant the pleasant expression was gone, and the knowledge that looked out at Ryou chilled him.

A moment of silence ended when Haaskoning nodded. "Please go on. You met Lord Ghan, and you both ran away, since you are both here, safe. Where did you go when you ran?"

"I took Darius to a hospital. He was injured."

"Huh?"

The pen had skidded half a centimeter across the parchment. Haaskoning had been startled, though he'd tried to cover it.

"A hospital? You went back Inland?"

"Yes. Once more, no idea how."

"....Really. Well, that is...surprising."

"Darius once mentioned it's harder to cross the Veil in that direction?"

"Yes...otherwise we'd have more Outlanders stumbling Inland. I...tell me, Ryou, you say you work for a trading company? What exactly do you do?"

"I am- was a financial manager of Institutional Securities, Japanese division."

"Oh." Haaskoning stared at his paper as if it contained some form of answer.

Ryou could say nothing, but that'd not get him very far. Whereas dropping more information might get him confirmation of something he'd wondered about. "The bit you may be missing is that I have a master's degree in advanced mathematics and geometry," he said slowly, watching the other man's reaction.

"Is that so," said Haaskoning after a few seconds. The nib was leaking ink on the parchment.

"I take it that maths is important in this. You're an architect, you must have knowledge of geometry, physics and space too."

"Hmm. A Master's, you say." Haaskoning smeared the ink absently, then he put down the pen and joined his fingers together. "I am no longer so surprised at your abilities. I cannot tell you much about the powers you and I posses, not unless you join my order, but as you guess, a skill to think beyond the material dimensions is part of the key. Your education helped you do that, and it would help you harness your abilities much more if you build upon this with the right knowledge and lore. Right now your grip on the power is instinctive, not calculated. It will not respond to you well, or necessarily do what you ask it to. With the right education, the Outlands would be open before you."

Oh boy, thought Ryou, they really do want me now. But it seemed Haaskoning was currently willing to talk, if only to give Ryou a benevolent view of his order. Might as well take advantage of it. "What exactly are the Outlands?"

"That is yet another Mystery."

"...Well, is it really a series of, um, planes immersed in a higher space?"

A brief conflict crossed Haaskoning's expression, as if the leader of the Sons of Zaratusra wanted to yap on about Mysteries while the onetime architect from the Inlands wanted to discuss maths and physics with someone who would at least know what he was talking about and not drop magic into the mix. "This is not a knowledge that can bring you harm, so I guess I can tell you how it is, if not why. The Outlands are in fact a spiral, ah, a spiral fraction of our initial plane."

"...I am sorry, I don't know what you mean."

Haaskoning started gesticulating with his hands, almost knocking over the inkpot. His English was more elaborate now, as if this was a subject he was more used to discussing in that language. "It is as if our plane - that is to say our world, earth - creates an echo of itself but in a parallel dimension. Except this object is not parallel to its originator. It is bent into an X-dimensional spiral with the Inlands as its point of departure. The spiral fluctuates according to-...I cannot reveal that, but it loosens and tightens all the time. It also drifts very slowly outwards. This is why geography does not match up anymore to the Inlands. I did not know where you were from, so I was not able to do the maths - I will do them as soon as I get back to Asha Mainyu, let me tell you - but if these attackers shot Lord Ghan back straight through the layers of the spiral -"

"The Paths," Ryou interrupted in a blinding moment of understand. "They cut through the layers of the spiral. That's why I cannot take a Path and just go anywhere at any time. Mooncrest will only lead to the countries juxtaposed to it in the spiral, and depending on the shifting, these territories can or cannot be reached- but can all this be charted? Yes, of course they are, because the Passers know when a Path will be available."

"That is correct," said Haaskoning, beaming at Ryou like a proud teacher approving of his star pupil's epiphany.

"That means the shifting is not random- oh, you can't tell me."

"Unfortunately not," said Haaskoning, shrugging into the awkward moment dampening their exchange. "Well, coming back to Lord Ghan, you can see that if they did just push him straight through to the border to the Inlands, and if the planes were parallel and unchanging, he would arrive in the No Man's Land somewhere in, oh, somewhere in Ethiopia. Certainly not in Asia."

"My god, he could have landed anywhere. He could have ended up in the ocean." Ryou glanced automatically to the right where Darius was still watching them.

"Yes, though-...ah, there are other parameters that I cannot discuss."

Ryou swallowed a sigh of frustration, while his civility prodded him to say, "Thank you for telling me this much already."

Haaskoning waved that away and then leaned over his scroll, pen poised. "Coming back to your journey, why did you to take Lord Ghan back to the Outlands?"

A question Ryou did not want to answer to the full extent of the truth, but he could at least honestly say, "I'd seen the Rajin Bher. I knew something was wrong. Darius also said his enemies could track him down. He was unable to communicate with anyone else, he was obviously not from Tokyo...it just seemed better all around to take him back where he belonged."

"All around, I am sure," said Haaskoning with a bemused shake of his head. "I love the way you do not realize how hard that decision was. It is like I would say, I will leap over Sura because I want to get to the other side. And then?"

"We were attacked by border crossers. I couldn't leave Darius at their hands, so I...well, I didn't know what I was getting into at all, I was amazingly lucky, but I just, ah, drove the car through the spiral to another place. The Broken Lands."

Haaskoning shook his head again, still bowed over the parchment he was scribbling on, and muttered something in a language Ryou did not understand, possibly the man's native Dutch.

"The effort drained me, I couldn't do anything else. So Darius led us out." Ryou glanced over at his lover again. Darius was frowning still, looking puzzled at the repeated mention of his name in this flow of foreign language. Ryou knew he should probably be referring to him as Lord Ghan, but for some reason the words just never took shape on his tongue. Darius was certainly the Lord Ghan that Rome feared, despite all the exaggerations his reputation had garnered, but for Ryou, Darius was Darius, and the Lord Ghan bit was just a part of him, and not the most important one. If Darius ever told him to, Ryou would correct himself when in public and use the title and the dog's name and all that, but until Darius said anything, Ryou would continue as now. Haaskoning seemed to know who he was talking about, and had not asked any questions.

Darius upheld Ryou's gaze with an expression that clearly said, "What? Do you need me to come over and help?" Ryou smiled, a reassurance and a little more than that as he remembered those first days of surviving together...Then Haaskoning dipped his pen and tinked it against the glass, and Ryou quickly called his emotions to order, pushing up his glasses and letting his fingers settle on his mouth in an automatic verification that none of his feelings had leaked out onto his face and embarrassed him.

Haaskoning hurried Ryou through the next bit of the tale with only a few obligatory noises of sympathy at the treatment Ryou received at the hands of the deserters. The magian was visibly not interested in the mundane details of the journey. Ryou skipped ahead to the part where they'd taken the Path from Tot to Palis, which was the one bit that had him the most worried, as well as the question that had morally forced him to accept this meeting, even if Leyam hadn't made it an order.

The pen had not written down a single line of the travel through the Broken Lands and Tot, but now it was scratching away again. "The Passer of that area? Sorry, I cannot comment."

God damn it. "You do know, though, right?" Ryou's fingers were leaving fingernail marks in his palm.

Haaskoning shrugged, a gesture that could mean anything. "As I said, I cannot comment."

"But...I'm worried. I feel as if it was my fault."

"The creature you describe might have been there in response to your presence," said Haaskoning calmly, "but not through your fault. You did not know. Do not think I am unconcerned by what happened," he added. "We take care of our own: the magians who create, maintain and police the Paths, and also the Passers who guide travelers on them. If you join our order, protecting women like her would be...how can I say. It would be good work for you."

Bastard, thought Ryou, reigning in the flare of anger. He knew intellectually what Haaskoning was doing. This 'order' business made it sound needlessly religious; what Haaskoning really was was the CEO of the company of magian who insured trade and traffic through the Outlands, and he was not about to relay internal information or a hint of a weakness to a man who was as yet an outsider and who he was trying to recruit. Ryou tried to think of it that way, and only partially succeeded.

"What happened next?"

"...We traveled through Palis, and then we took the Path to Essin. No, sorry, to Anwat, the neighboring province. This time the passage went smoothly. I concentrated hard on not interfering with anything."

Haaskoning only nodded.

"Then...then I was at the siege of Essin. Um."

In his head, Ryou had not gotten past the question about the Passer who'd disappeared in Palis. He'd not thought how he was going to present the next bit without going into embarrassing details.

"I...ah...because of the attack, I was sent up to the Essin border. Actually we were going to go to Aksum, and get out of the whole region entirely. But I...I decided when we got there that I did not want to leave, and that I'd rather stay with Darius. So I used the Essin circle to..."

"Yes, I know that bit," said Haaskoning, shaking the pen above the mouth of the inkpot.

"You do?"

Haaskoning tinked the nib against the glass and looked up at Ryou. "We have been following in your footsteps, a little. We did not know where you started from, but your exploits at Essin were the talk of the country. When we looked at the border there, it was clear what had happened. Using a sanctuary circle like that leaves a lot of tracks."

"I see." Once more Ryou noted that Haaskoning did not give a fig for Ryou's motivations, just the bits about his power.

"It was also very dangerous, what you did."

"I know, I probably should have not done it, but...well, there were reasons. I guess I might have ended up back in the Broken Lands."

"No, that is not the baddest thing that might have happened. That almost did happen." Haaskoning had drawn a cloth from his tabard and was wiping the pen with it, but he was watching Ryou and his eyes were deep and old. "Did you have a very scary dream that night? Yes, I can see from your face that you did."

Ryou licked his lips and looked down at the hands he'd clasped on the marble tabletop as he remembered alien spines scratch-scratch-scratching at the walls of reality...

Haaskoning unscrewed the pen's nib, wrapped it in the cloth and slipped it back into the pocket, along with the handle. His eyes did not leave Ryou's.

"I do not tell you what thing you came close to that night. I am not allowed to talk of such things outside the order. But I think you know enough to be afraid of it. That is good. I hope you are very, very afraid, my friend. Of that thing, you cannot have too much fear."

"I...I tried hard not to think about it. Um, that sounds stupid."

"It is," said Haaskoning with a frosty smile. "Not thinking about it would not help. However, what your mind did was echo that feeling in a way you do not understand yet and it...hid you, so to speak. Made you harder to find. You have a big natural gift, Ryou. But it is also putting you into a great danger. I cannot tell you how much, not only because of the law of the Lore, but because my words are not enough to describe it."

The sun was shining straight through the arches as it brushed the top of the mountains surrounding Sura, but to Ryou, the room felt dark and cold anyway.

Haaskoning dusted off the scroll with sand from a drawer at the bottom of his inkholder. "Well, if you do not use your powers, however, you should be safe. That is, as safe as you can be in an old country like Assyria who is at war with one of the great powers of our times."

Ryou looked at him in surprise. He'd already figured out that there was danger in spatial manipulation, he'd not needed Haaskoning to underline that. He'd expected the dire warning to be a lead-on to more threats and an effort to pressure him to join the Per Gathas for his own protection. Instead, Haaskoning was reassuring him that Ryou did not need the Per Gathas to stay safe as long as he did not touch his power.

If he was surprised by the sidestep away from threats, the next part astounded him.

"It goes without saying that you are welcome to come see me in Asha Mainyu at any time you want. We can talk more. I do mean just visit, we will not, what, chain you and starve you into taking the robe and flame. That is not a good way to get a willing magian, and a pissed-off magian is a dangerous man who can jump in a number of directions, some of which do not even exist except first in his head." Haaskoning grinned, waiting for Ryou to appreciate the dab of humor. "So, a free invitation is always here for you. I will also have a package sent to you through the Passer at Mooncrest. Books you will like to read. They are in English. We have another secret language for our more greater texts, but so of course, those are not allowed out of our order. However, these English books should be good reading for you, and it is safe, you are the only man in Assyria who can read them, ya? You can read English, ya?"

Ryou nodded, then he hastened to thank Haaskoning. He still could not believe this apparent open-handedness.

"I cannot urge you strongly enough to not use your powers. If you do not believe me, ask Lord Ghan for tales of magian who disobey the natural order. If you will prefer to talk to a magian, or me, here, please take this."

Haaskoning drew a pendant from around his neck from where it'd been concealed beneath his tabard. It was a circle of gold with a stylized flame etched into it, surrounded by short wings. Its owner handed it over to a bemused Ryou, dropping it into his hand by the chain. "Please, take it, I have another. This is a symbol of our own religion of Zoroaster, but Outlanders who travel the Paths like to wear one like it for protection, so it does not, how would you say, obligate you of anything. This one has my mark on the back. It will get you free usage of the Paths. Please continue to take the same precautions as you did from Palis to Anwat. One book I send you will help. Also, if you do want to come to Asha Mainyu for whatever reason, show this to the Passer to get him to tell you the most direct route and start you on your way. You will be welcome."

"Thank you." Ryou looked at the symbol, heavy in his palm. Gold, almost certainly.

"May it protect you on the Path. Any Path," said Haaskoning softly. "Not all of them are made by the Blessed Path Maker's design. Please do read the books I send you. They will help."

"Yes," said Ryou, who did not need the urging. In fact he wondered why Haaskoning was underlining this when he'd told Ryou in much the same breath to not use his powers at all. He had the oddest feeling the man was trying to tell him something else without actually spelling it out...

Haaskoning stood up to take his leave as if nothing odd had been said, leaving Ryou to wonder if the language or cultural gap wasn't at work here. Ryou got to his feet as well. So did Darius, pushing away from the bench and advancing towards them with a scowl on his face.

"Oh yes," Haaskoning said, then he added three soft words in an unknown tongue while touching his chest and forehead again.

This time Ryou was ready for it. He threw his senses wide like a net to catch what was being done. Unfortunately it was considerably more subtle than barreling through dimensions. Ryou had feelings and impressions brush his perception, but he didn't think he'd be able to reproduce it or, more importantly, counter it if it was used again...But even with his barely-there understanding, Ryou still couldn't begin to see how gestures and words could impact what was being done. All this was the power of the mind, not hands or vocal cords. Maybe it helped Haaskoning focus his thoughts on what needed to be done? Or maybe it was a way a way of reinforcing the supernatural , quasi mythical nature of this 'magic' with the locals.

"There, you may communicate once more," said Haaskoning, now speaking fluent and elegant Japanese to Ryou's ears, a contrast to the sometimes halting English before that'd made him seem warmer and more genuine. "My pardons, Lord Ghan, as I said-"

"Yes," said Darius curtly, visibly reining in a powerful temptation to tell Haaskoning to get out of their sight now, screw diplomacy.

"Thank you," said Ryou, mainly to let Darius know the effect was over for him as well.

Haaskoning obviously picked up the subtext. He bowed without any show of being offended by the attitude, then he left, collecting Emiokarnage with one quick look.

The door closed. Two held breaths were released.

Who knew who moved first, maybe both, but Ryou found he'd reached out and another hand had seized his, gripping so hard it made his bones ache, gripping hard enough to pull them physically past the gap they'd glimpsed between them. Ryou squeezed back just as hard. Darius leaned back to sit against the edge of the table, eyes still fixed on the closed door. Without a word, Ryou imitated him.

"Are you okay?" Darius asked gruffly.

"Yes, I can understand you now."

"Not what I meant. With that smiling git on one side of the table and you showing him that golden mask of yours on the other, I couldn't tell if he was promising you a mountain of silver or threatening to murder your mother."

"Neither, as it were. He just talked."

"And talked and talked, I noticed. Are you sure he wasn't trying to cast some enchantment on you through all his long words?"

"I don't think he can do that."

Darius turned his head to look at Ryou's profile. "Oh really? 'cause I noticed he could do something else we didn't expect him to."

"I know, but cancelling the Gift of Zaratusra is one thing. Taking over my own thought processes- it's not the same thing. It's different, it's-...not the same thing. Trust me."

Darius grumbled something about Haaskoning's sexuality and bloodline, his hand still gripping Ryou's.

"He didn't threaten me at all when we talked," said Ryou, mentally adding 'more than he already had'. "In fact he gave me a good amount of information and extended a strings free invitation to the Per Gathas stronghold."

"Right. The snake extends that invitation to the mouse every night."

"I think he actually meant it. But I'm in no hurry to put that to the test. As for the rest...he says he doesn't know who attacked you or why. But from what I gathered, there's really very few people who could do what was done to you. I suppose it's no wonder he didn't tell me anything."

"You think he knows?"

"I imagine he's got a very good idea. There's no way a power like that would be unknown to him. But he won't say anything that could betray a weakness, or worse. One thing he said, about the way their leaders are chosen, suggested a reason why there could be tensions within certain factions of the Per Gathas. If someone from his own order was acting against him, he'd not be in any hurry to admit it."

"Those were not Per Gathas stooges who attacked me," said Darius with conviction.

Ryou looked at him searchingly. "You sound very sure. Is it because they were wearing their own crest? I thought so too at first, but now I wonder if that's such a strong argument after all. They could be trying to bring pressure on their own order by discrediting them...What were you thinking?"

Darius smiled grimly. "I've seen any number of people attack others. I've seen those who do it proudly under their own banners, and those who don the color of treachery and deceit. I faced those cowards with their fucking magic, I know which kind they were."

Instinct, then. Ryou found he could reason one way or the other just as well and with as many clever arguments. Now he knew why Leyam was occasionally tempted to cut through conundrums by trusting Darius's gut feelings.

"What else did he tell you?"

"A lot of strange things. I'm going to have to think long and hard about it...Unfortunately what he told me was under a certain implicit oath of silence-"

"Implicit?" Darius echoed nastily. "That bastard born of his own sister fucked with our ears to keep his secrets safe, what's so implicit about that?"

"I agree that was a bit heavy-handed of him, but nonetheless, you understand, I can't go into too many details about what he said."

Darius gave him a strange look. "Of course you can't," he said as if confounded that Ryou could even think anyone could ask him to betray a confidence. That was Darius, Ryou thought, covering the strong, callused hand he held with his own; if only his brother would have the same restraint. It was almost certain Leyam would not. He'd spend the next few days trying to worm out of Ryou as many of the details as he could. Ryou rather expected it, and if he wasn't a complete idiot, Haaskoning would have as well.



TBC...

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