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The first minute was the worst. After that, Ryou sort of got used to it.
It only felt like they were falling while the ziggurat was still visible. Once it'd disappeared, swallowed up by the odd light of what was probably not sky, the lack of reference made speed hard to judge. There was only a little wind blowing past them. The air resembled old dry felt. Silence muffled everything in Ryou's ears except for the clicking of the disks in his lover's hair, and if there was a sound to hear before he died, he wouldn't mind it being that one.
Once it was obvious they weren't going to dash their brains out on invisible stairs, Darius pulled Ryou towards him. He grasped him by the forearm, and forced Ryou's tense fingers to grip the strap of Darius’s bracer, holding them fast together, all without a word. In Ryou’s opinion, Darius was doing really well for someone who did not have any kind of mental preparation for this sort of thing, no films of cosmonauts in his childhood, no Alice in Wonderland...Then again, Darius was not a rational man of the twenty-first century who was used to understanding and controlling most aspects of his life. So many things in his world were magical forces beyond his control, from plagues and landslides to the arts of priests and magi. Faced with something beyond his comprehension, he didn’t seek to analyse or grapple it; he simply put his trust in his Gods to keep them safe, and in Ryou to get them out of there. Ryou, for his part, was going to do his damned best. First item on the agenda: break out of this damned world before they found out in a rather terminal way that it did have a bottom after all.
Ryou reached out with his senses. And pulled back immediately. Ugh! This place was even more screwed up than he'd initially thought.
"It's like...like we're in a bubble.” Ryou’s words sounded way too loud in the odd atmosphere. “Or rather some kind of higher-dimensional loop."
"Are we still falling?" Darius asked. "I can't feel any wind anymore."
"We are, but at only half the speed, and we’re still slowing. I don't know what he did to physics here. This whole place is his plaything."
"Is there a ground?"
"No. Yes, in a way. The ziggurat. It's at the center of everything, we're falling towards it." Ryou could see it, a speck in the distance. Darius, with his weakened eyesight, would not be able to spot it yet.
"...What?" Darius asked, confounded. "But that’s where we’re falling from. How is that possible?"
"Don't ask. Damn it, we've got no more speed than we had when we first arrived here. We're going to be no more than bruised for our efforts. I thought he let us get away a little too easily."
Darius didn't ask any further questions. He just gripped his sword in his free hand, a grim look on his face. There were things down there he could fight, he was going to set his sights on that.
But the Ancient priest did not care if his servants were cut down. He could take more humans and warp their bodies and minds to do his bidding. There was only one enemy down there, and if Darius and Ryou attacked him, he'd do that to Darius again, and maybe to Ryou as well. Yeah, a few minutes of that mental torture and Ryou would be ready to sign away his soul, or else his mind would snap-
No, that was not what was going to happen.
Ryou's thoughts suddenly became very calm, very focused. He was not going to play the rat in that creature's little maze, he was not going to let the Ancient relic sink claws into his soul, and he was never going to let that bastard near Darius again.
Darius gasped; his sword had shot out of his hand as if jerked. It tumbled down (assuming that word had meaning here), turning over and over lazily in the thin, dead air.
"What-...did we stop?"
Ryou did not answer. His mind had clawed a foothold into this plane. No more senseless falling.
The Ancient one said nothing, though Ryou was pretty sure the creature could talk to them even now, from somewhere right behind them. The whole dimension reeked of his mind, his power. He was amused. He was not going to interfere. He was going to wait with the patience of crocodiles for Ryou to tire himself out and give up. But that was not going to happen.
Ryou was aware that he was not likely to make it out of here intact. The cold, lifeless air flowing through his lungs could very well be counting down towards his last gasp. How many more heartbeats until the end, how many more breaths? Ten, nine, eight- His body had rarely felt this real and valued, and also this fragile, but it was his mind that mattered. Thoughts of his family, his former life flashed through his thoughts but did not disturb the stillness of his concentration, the solidity of his resolve. He was going to break out of here. That was what he had set his mind to do. If they arrived back in the Outlands dead, well, so be it; at least he wanted a shot at getting Darius back safe, and if not safe, somewhere where their bodies would rest in real earth.
- five breaths, four, three-
There it was. This twisted coil of a dimension could not be perfectly hermetical, not if Ryou and Darius had entered, as well as presumably that nameless kid and the servants and whatever food they required. There was an exit to it, not in any physical direction, but in the direction of the upper planes. It stretched away like an umbilical cord, away from this weird place and the massive entity in the sky, all the way back to the Outlands. Where in the Outlands...did not matter.
Darius made an involuntary noise in his throat as their bodies jerked, picking up speed again, as much acceleration as Ryou could pull out of his hat when the only gravimetric object around here was the ziggurat. Then again, the Ancient cheated with gravity so Ryou was damn well going to cheat too, and being in motion would help with the transition from this insane asylum back to normal space.
- two one-
There was a flicker of baffled rage at the edge of Ryou’s perception, an indrawn breath right next to his ear-
Ryou reached out towards the dimensional membrane and ripped through.
Nothing but the purest concentration kept Ryou’s mind from snapping like glass.
The transition only lasted the time of a flicker of a thought, but in that time Ryou’s brain would have ended up smeared across the dimensions like butter spread over too many layers of toast under the influence of a bombardment of information, if he had not been focusing solely and exclusively on getting back.
Realities coagulated around him in a maelstrom.
- where -
The Spiral was here, there, everywhere around them, but they were not interfaced with it in any way.
- where to even begin -
All his previous transitions had been instantaneous, instinctive, cutting straight through the planes randomly. Now – here and now –
Information piled into Ryou’s mind, all within that same fraction of a second. They were in the Veil, primordial chaos that defied even the basics of reality. In the boil of hypergeometry they had plunged into, there were no bearings, no distances, everything was here and yet not, all at once-...
- everything at once -
Wait, there. There was...a faint trace of a direction, a remnant of a hole that the Ancient had dragged them through. Patched up, but not perfectly, not from this end. It was the beginnings of a Path...and Things crawled around it at the edge of Ryou’s perceptions like interdimensional silverfish disturbed by the sudden appearance of reality beneath their multi-planar rock.
- They had to –
Ryou and Darius had to get out of here, back to reality, or the acceptable substitute thereof they called the Outlands, as quickly as possible, or the two of them would attract all the wrong kind of attention, and possibly get eaten.
- had to get back –
Back yes, back to Assyria. He’d only lived there a month, but Ryou suddenly missed it so much, raw cricket-strident sunshine, wind in the barley, marketplace shouts, goats bleating, Darius’s smile early in the morning as he let the dogs out to run-
That breath, which might or might not be his last, was still rattling in Ryou’s throat. Darius had not even had time to gasp yet. A tenth of a second had elapsed. Transitions were usually instantaneous, though, and this one, poised over the edge of the abyss of unreality, felt like it’d lasted an eternity already. But now Ryou knew where he had to go. The brittleness of the Veil where the Ancient had hauled them through had given him a direction. His longing had helped him home in on a region of planes that felt familiar. And once he concentrated on that area, something brilliant snagged his attention, as bright to his senses as a flare sent up to guide him home through the night.
Instinct kicked in, and told him this was the way. His mind reached, ripped through, his body followed.
No sound, no great light or rushing tunnel, no special effects at all. But that split second in a space whose mere existence could rip the human mind apart had given way to the next moment in which reality had reasserted itself.
Information of a more mundane kind - but just as critical – collided into Ryou’s mind. They were back in Assyria, or rather a not-quite-materialized projection thereof. But Ryou and his untrained abilities had flubbed their re-entry; he could see the ground, real and solid, but it was in motion relative to them, rotating some twenty meters below their feet. The bright ‘light’ which had caught Ryou’s attention was even brighter this close, though it only existed out here in this superfluous dimension, and only a magian would have the senses to see it. It was burning over Mooncrest, lighting the way to the Circle, that area of stelae where reality and chaos meshed in a controllable way, a place where a magian could arrive safely. Ryou could sense it clearly as he overshot it by quite a distance.
With a ‘plop’ which existed only in Ryou’s mind, the two of them pierced the thin membrane that surrounded the ordinary three dimensions. The attributes of normality leapt on them like a pack of hounds, gravity chief amongst them. They were falling. They’d rematerialized too high and still in motion, at a diagonal towards the rushing earth below.
That last breath burst out of Ryou’s mouth. We’re going to die-
What hit him felt as soft as concrete, but since it was water, it parted before his skidding, plunging body, cushioning him a bit.
Ryou’s mind hit reality with a similar thud, higher senses like a bird negotiating complex air currents before running itself into the side of a tree. Goodbye flight, motion, fluid possibilities carrying him; hello overly solid reality. Ryou went limp, unable to move his clay-like body or even comprehend what was happening to him. Nothing but instinct urged him to avoid trying to breathe while underwater, though Ryou was too dazed to figure out why that would be a bad idea right this moment.
The water dragged at him, and he could feel himself drift to a stop. Ryou twitched. The effort to hold his breath became conscious. He lifted his head, felt his hair float around him. Opened his eyes, but the water was too silty, he could barely see more than dim flickers.
His arms, which had been clamped around his head to protect it from what had seemed an inevitable crash, floated free in the water. What a surreal feeling, having to use his limbs to move. Try to, rather. So tired...Felt like this before...When arriving in the Broken Lands...
The murky water...it was lighter in that direction. Much lighter. Ryou blinked in the water. The surface? Where? Could it be that close? Ryou thrashed weakly, and his foot sank into something soft and glutinous. Mud. So did his flailing hand a second later. Bottom, he’d touched the bottom. But he did not have the strength to capitalize on that contact. He couldn’t push his heavy body, weighed down by his riding clothes, up through the water towards the sunlight flickering above, so close. There was a lack of pressure of the water holding him down that told him he was at no great depth. Ryou’s eyes were fastened on the light shining through the silt. It was bright. It wasn’t that far away. Just...not getting any closer.
His body was screaming at him. He’d had the breath knocked out of him on arrival, he didn’t have anything in his lungs as it were. His vision was getting splotchy, and the way his larynx was spasming, it was soon going to open and draw that final, drowning breath whatever Ryou’s rational mind had to say on the matter. Ryou realized, with a fury quite unlike him, that after surviving death in countless bizarre, horrendous ways since this morning, he was going to drown in what could be no more than five feet of water. Damn it, if only he could just stand!
But he could barely twitch. His eardrums were burning, his eyeballs felt like they were going to pop, his throat was being squeezed by a giant hand, and in the far distance he was sure the Ancient One was laughing himself sick.
His fading senses didn’t catch the details, just that something odd was happening to his body. It seemed to be moving. He was being gripped around the waist and chest, something hard pressed into his back.
Ryou’s head broke surface.
He coughed, water cascading from his mouth. It closed over his head again. Panic rushed through him- but it was just a thin wave that’d lapped over him. His feet were dragging uselessly in the mud, but something – someone – was supporting him.
“Easy. Got you.”
Darius. It was Darius...
Air rushed in and out of Ryou’s raw lungs. He started coughing and he couldn’t stop. He’d inhaled some water as he was fading. Fortunately he was too weak to struggle, too weak to help Darius and probably hinder him in the process. At first Darius was swimming awkwardly, hauling them both, but soon there must have been enough mud beneath his sandals for him to get a foothold. His advance became half swimming, half pushing himself along. Ryou opened his eyes, which ached just as much as the rest of him. He could hardly see anything through the droplets of water that speckled his glasses. From the corner of his eye, the edge of the river was still quite some distance away.
Timelapse, a moment of darkness. Ryou blinked fuzzily at the reed swaying beneath his nose. When...had they gotten to the bank...? He must have drifted off. Darius was grunting with effort as he tried to drag Ryou through hip-deep mud, water, vegetation and bugs, which was the hallmark of the banks of the river Taibor a few weeks after the flood season.
After what felt like hours, Ryou was lying on firm ground, on a grassy knoll rising above the reeds and water lilies and lotus plants. It didn’t seem real...Was that it? Had they made it? Had they actually both miraculously survived that? Or was this going to turn out to be some kind of massive delusion, maybe some trick by the Ancient to break their spirit...?
Ryou turned his head, or rather let it flop to one side. Darius was sitting beside him, arms hanging limply over his knees as he took deep breaths, recovering from the effort of dragging them both out of the marshy Taibor. Then he lifted his head, looked around and then down at Ryou.
“Ryou? How do you feel? Injured anywhere?”
The question was prosaic. So was the mud that caked Ryou’s lover from head to toe, making a mess of his hair which was going to take ages to clean out. The sight and sound of him was a tonic, a solid shot of certainty. Yes, they had made it out, they’d both survived, the Ancient One could sit in his made-up dimension and spin on it, and all things considered, the answer to Darius’s question was “I feel amazing”.
Ryou cleared his raw throat. The drying mud on his face cracked as he moved his lips. “Uh...I’m fine, pretty much. You’re filthy.”
Darius gave him that wild, free grin that’d dragged Ryou across the dimensions so long ago. “'Fine'. Of course you are. But none too clean either. Should we go back into the river to wash off, do you think? The crocodiles somehow missed us the first time around.”
“That’s okay. Uh...should we move?” Ryou didn’t feel like moving – didn’t think he could move – but the Taibor did have its share of crocodiles, hippos and other aquatic and semi-aquatic threats.
“The servants of the river are all too fat on carcases from the receding floods to bother with us,” said Darius, getting to his feet with a grunt. “There’s some sort of path nearby, on that bank over there. Ryou, you look like you’re about to go to sleep and I don’t blame you, but before you do, am I insane, or is this the Taibor I’ve known my whole life?”
“Are we really in Assyria?”
“Oh, yes, yes we are.” Ryou looked up at the sky, ignoring the smudges on his glasses. It was turquoise with a few tiny clouds very high up. Ryou was not subject to fits of poetry, but if he had been, he’d be ready to say that shade of blue up there was the most beautiful shade of blue there ever was. And clouds. He’d never appreciated clouds to their true worth before. As for the solidity of the earth beneath his shoulder blades, he really would have to be a poet to describe it, and just what it meant to him right now.
At the periphery of his vision, he could see Darius look around slowly. “How did you manage...? Never mind. Well, if this is the Taibor, and that island way over there is Mooncrest, then I know where that path over there leads. Hmph, a bit more wading through this muddy shit to get there, but hell, after what we’ve been through...Remind me to sacrifice ten calves to whatever deity you think most appropriate, and to never complain about my traveling conditions ever again. Not even the desert of Zeon could rival that...Ei, it seems like a bad dream already. Maybe it was. Ryou...? Hey, Ryou?”
But Ryou’s eyes were closed, darkness covering him, the wonderfully solid ground beneath him as comfortable and reassuring as a cradle.
Ryou had his usual sudden surge into awareness that made him envy people whose gentle transitions to consciousness reintroduced them progressively to their worries. Instead, the past few hours jumped out at him like a mugger, along with all the bodily signals to inform him that he was nowhere near as comfortable as when he’d drifted off.
He was half draped, half tied onto someone’s back. Darius, of course; Ryou recognized the dark mud-caked hair in his field of vision as his eyes opened, the clink of disks near his ear.
“Whu-...” Ryou lifted his head. His body was at least responding to him now. He cleared his throat and blinked muzzily, trying to focus. “Where are we...? Why...?”
“Welcome back,” said Darius. “You’ve been asleep awhile, or so says the sun.” He was walking with a firm soldierly stride. Each step forced Ryou’s thighs into the leather of a carrying harness, improvised out of both their belts. Ryou wondered how he could have slept through it all, including the discomfort of being carried like this. Darius’s voice was too loud near his ear. His head was aching, the bright Assyrian sunlight drilling into his eyes.
Ryou cleared his throat again. His voice was hoarse. “Why are you carrying me?”
“I didn’t have enough wood for a travois.”
“...uh...you could have left me back there. Gone to get help.”
Darius just snorted.
Ryou looked around. They were walking on a stone-paved road, wide and well kept. His sluggish mind finally clicked. “We’re going to Sura?”
“Yes. By the time we made it around the bend of the river, it was not that much further than going back to Mooncrest. Well, I exaggerate. It’ll take us another hour this way, but I don’t really feel like crossing a line of stelae any time soon. Not while you’re not awake, at any rate. I was hoping to get a ride to Sura, actually. We’ve been passed by two mule trains since we started along the main road. But the drivers didn't recognize me - why should they, under all this filth? - and I couldn't make them understand me,” Darius said simply.
Ryou’s eyes closed. “Oh god, the language thing. I'm sorry...”
Darius’s shrug jogged him out of his guilt-trip. Ryou could feel the gesture across his entire upper body, it said clearer than words, ‘We’ll worry about that when we get to it.’
Ryou forced himself to push it from his mind as well, and focus on the here and now. “Darius, I’m awake now. Put me down. I can...”
“Yeah?” Darius’s head turned towards him in profile. “You can what? Walk? I bet you gold eagles against a crow’s feather that you’ll manage three paces and have to sit down again.”
“You can’t carry me all the way to Sura. That’s hours away.”
Darius gave a bark of laughter. “Inder poke him, now he’s insulting me. Don’t worry so much, magian. We made it back against all odds thanks to you. Damn, we must be the first two men in history to be able to claim to have escaped that! Not counting demi-gods and such. We're back in Assyria, the day is clear but not too hot, and if I cannot carry a wounded comrade for the half day it will take us to walk to Sura’s gates, I don't deserve to keep my command. So what is there to worry about?”
“Nothing, when you put it that way,” Ryou had to admit with a defeated smile. “But can I point out that somebody is coming up behind us, and that I can talk to them and send for help? Unless you really wanted to walk the whole way.”
“No, that’s okay,” said Darius, doing something to the belt arrangement that let Ryou slide down.
Ryou took a couple of tottering steps across the road to get rid of the pins and needles. His body ached, and still felt bulky and sluggish, like a bird with its wings clipped. Darius was right, he’d not be able to walk very far. He glanced up tiredly towards the approaching rider. The man was obligingly hoofing it towards them at a fast clip, bouncing up and down on the mule’s back as it trotted.
“Inder’s personally mad at me for letting go of my sword back there, I’m sure,” Darius said, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun and the other casually drawing his belt knife.
“What’s the matter?” Ryou asked, befuddled, as alarm pricked his overtaxed system.
“That’s no casual rider heading to Sura on his own business. From the way that mule is going, I’d say he kicked her as soon as he saw us, which makes it no prize to guess what he’s after.”
Ryou didn’t know much about mules and their habits, but his eyesight was sharper than Darius. When the approaching rider waved at them, the hood falling from his hair, Ryou recognized him. “It’s that Passer, Andrap.”
Darius did not sheathe his knife. “That man was no simple Passer, and the last thing I wanted to see today was another Fury-ridden magian other than you.”
“He’s on our side,” Ryou pointed out, then corrected himself, “or rather he’s the enemy of those Ancient Ones, and on the side of the Per Gathas.”
Darius grunted at the distinction.
“Lord Ghan-” Andrap shouted as he closed in on them. “Lord Ryou- I felt you-“ The jogging of the mule kept interrupting him. He trotted up to them, stopped the sweating animal, and continued as he slipped from the cloth saddle. “I felt you appear, but I was afraid, well, that you’d crashed, that is- ah, I see you landed in the river.”
“Yes, fortunately for us,” Ryou said, looking down at himself. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had a lily pad stuck to his person under the dried, cracked mud.
“It’s a gift, a sacred gift of the Path Maker that you were able to come back at all,” Andrap said, his words falling over each other in amazement. “I had the beacon up for days, but I was sure there was nothing that could be done, that-“
“The beacon? That...burning effect over Mooncrest? You did that?”
“Yes, and we left the breach in the circle open, under the direct order of Blessed Haaskoning himself. He seemed to think you would find your way back,” Andrap said, recovering his breath and composure. “We gave you a guiding light to follow, and shored up the breach as much as we dared. All traffic through Mooncrest has been stopped, of course. Are you both well?”
“You said you had the beacon up for days?”
“That’s right, you’ve been missing since the day before yesterday. The palace is in an uproar and the King sends us couriers for news twice daily. There are soldiers posted all around Mooncrest – monsters have appeared, attracted by the disturbance. But I left the men back there, I decided to make sure you were the ones who’d come through before I lit a fire beneath them.”
“Ryou? What is he saying?” Darius prompted.
Andrap blinked and gave Darius a more in-depth scrutiny. Then he visibly paled, eyes widening as he took an involuntary step back in horror. Whatever ugly thing was still stuck on Darius’s mind must be considerably more visible to the Per Gathas magian than to Ryou.
“My...my lord, can you understand me?”
“He can’t,” Ryou said. “He can only understand me.”
“You?” Andrap turned the horrified look on Ryou, and took another step back. This time it had been deliberate, the kind of movement Darius made when he was about to draw his sword. Ryou quickly held up his hands, then even more quickly put them down again when Andrap’s gaze leapt to them.
“It was an accident, an accident. We were attacked, they did something to him, I tried to fix it and it’s...like this now. Then we escaped and came back here.”
Andrap stared hard into Ryou’s eyes. Ryou could feel that the scrutiny was passing over more than his features. He stayed as passive and as open as he could. Let the Son of Zaratusra see there was no weird mark on Ryou’s ‘Ba’ or whatever, everything on the level. The summit of irony would be for Ryou to get zapped by Andrap now because the latter thought he’d converted to the cause of the Ancient Ones.
“I see,” Andrap finally said, the tension leaving his frame. Though he was still cautious, and so was Darius, who’d missed nothing of the subtext even if he could not understand the words. He still hadn’t sheathed his knife. Ryou rubbed his face. Billion-dollar discussions over UST’s business luncheons had never been this fraught.
“Can you remove what was done to him?” he asked Andrap.
Andrap gave the subject of their concern a hopeless look that gave both Ryou and Darius their answer before the magian even opened his mouth. “I...will have to look into it. Not right here, no.”
“Well, let’s get going.” Ryou turned towards the road again, but was stopped by Darius’s hand on his shoulder.
“Darius, he says he can’t fix it here.” Ryou refused to dwell on the thought that Andrap would not be able to fix it at all.
“So we go back to Sura, but we do this the smart way,” said Darius in the voice of the army commander and strategist.
Leyam drank down the first two cups of wine with the air of a man who really needed them. Standing right behind the king’s decorated ivory chair, Rand held the pitcher as if he’d forgotten he still had it in his hands. Nicodeme, the only other person of Leyam’s court present, was sitting on a pillow at Leyam’s feet, looking his age for once as he hugged his knees and tried not to stare too obviously at the source of everyone’s concern. The size and the complexity of the issue hung over them like a deep, dark storm cloud.
“Did any of the knot-heads traveling with us think to get my horse out after we were attacked?” said Darius suddenly. His voice jarred the silence, so much more so for the men to whom his voice would be chopped up nonsense. Nicodeme flinched and looked away quickly. There was concern but also superstitious fear in his eyes, a fear which his elders were just better at hiding. For Ryou, the thing affecting Darius’s mind had a logic to it, like the Gift of Zaratusra and other magian elements he’d been getting used to. For these men from antiquity, it was raw magic, a force they were as helpless before as any other natural disaster. Andrap referring to the effect as a curse after thirty futile minutes of trying to lift it hadn’t helped.
Leyam gazed fixedly at his brother, then looked reluctantly at Ryou. “What did he say?”
“It was a bloody expensive horse,” said Darius moodily before shooting back his beer.
“They won’t know, Darius. I’ll ask Dio about it later.” Once the Ionian had calmed down a bit and stopped praying out loud to his deities to remove the blight that was affecting his leader. Ryou was rather glad the man had stayed out in the king’s private courtyard with Darius’s puzzled dogs.
Leyam motioned Rand to pour him a third drink. “I’m glad the mutt had the instinct to slink in by the back door, even if they tinkered with his ability to speak.”
“What did he say?” asked Darius, looking over at Ryou.
Ryou took a good swallow of his own wine, wishing it were cognac. “He’s glad you sent Andrap to fetch Dio discreetly and smuggle us into the city.”
“What did he think I was going to do? March in blowing trumpets and then stand on the Temple Plaza to declaim poetry?”
“What did he say?” asked Leyam.
“That it seemed natural to keep this to ourselves until we’d sorted it out,” said Ryou, rubbing his forehead. He was getting tired of translator duties, and it wasn’t that long since Andrap had finally given up on trying to reverse the ‘curse’ and left them to let Ryou bring an alarmed Leyam up to speed.
“Ryou...do you trust that Per Gathas henchman who accompanied you?” Leyam asked slowly, looking out the large window.
“He helped us so far.” Ryou had been loath to leave Darius, unable to communicate, on his own on the side of the road to Sura, so it was Andrap who’d ridden the mule to the palace, gotten hold of Dionysodoros and discreetly showed him Darius’s arm brace, as surefire an identifier to someone who knew him as a passport. Dio had come alone with two horses and cloaks as instructed. The four of them had ridden in discreetly, or as discreetly as they could when it was immediately apparent to the guards on the gates that they were trying to hide something. Dionysodoros, as one of Ghan’s personal guards, had gotten them through the checkpoint without being searched. There would certainly be speculation over half the city by now, but at least nobody other than Dio and the men in this room had seen Darius in his present condition. “Andrap is still helping us. He’s patrolling the palace, making sure none of the Ancient Ones can take another stab at us while we’re here.”
“Ah, yes, these Ancient Ones.” Leyam gave a smile as glittery as a knife. “The Egyptians, now. As if the Romans were not enough. So, do you trust him when he says he cannot lift this curse from my brother?”
“I’ve got no choice but to believe him. It’s not just his word. The creature who did this to Darius said the same thing. Nobody from the Per Gathas can undo it. Only I can.”
“Except you can’t either, from what you said.”
“No. I can’t. Not yet.” Ryou looked at Darius, lost in a strange land that was his home. “That’s why I’m going to go to Asha Mainyu.”
“Like hell you are!” Darius immediately snapped.
“Darius, it’s the only way-“
“You’ll slip the noose of the Ancients and walk right into the one of the Gathas.”
“What choice do we have?”
“Better ones than that, I should hope. Leyam-“ Darius gripped his armrests in frustration, staring at his brother.
Leyam didn’t ask for a translation, Ryou’s side of the conversation was enough. He made a ‘calm down’ gesture directed at his brother, and eyed Ryou. “My brother objects, that much is obvious. As for my own part, I have a practical concern. How would you get there?”
“Get there? If I go to the Moon-...Oh.”
“Yes, exactly. The City Council has been getting quite democratic with me these past two days, bitching about the closure of our trade’s lifeline. I had to threaten to have them and their families flayed a few times before they remembered this is not a Greek city state. Now that you’re back, I’m hoping the Per Gathas will reopen the Mooncrest circle, but I doubt you or Darius would be safe taking that.”
“...You’re right. But I have to do something.”
“We are going to do something.” Leyam tilted his head back and looked blindly at some satyr doing an unspeakable act to a painted goat up on the ceiling frieze. “To start with, as the blood of Kings in the line of Paxalmetes-Sirrian the Great, descendant of Ashur himself, I shall make a personal request to the gods for their intervention, with all the appropriate sacrifices.”
“Um...” Ryou rubbed his forehead. Now was not a good time to bring up that conversation about atheism he’d not yet had with Leyam. It probably would never be a good time, not in Assyria or anywhere in the Pariya region.
“The sacrifices are already well under way. They’ve been going at it since those numbskulls that were supposed to guard you all came clattering back to Sura, shouting out that their Lord was missing again, and getting the whole town in an uproar. You can see the smoke over half the city. And if that doesn’t work...”
“Then we’ll wait.”
“Wait?! What for?”
“For our enemies and the enemy of our enemies to start wondering what we’re up to,” said Leyam with a nasty grin on his painted lips. “And it will give me time to prepare myself to do something I really do not want to do. Something none of the Kings of my line have ever been very good at.”
“Which is?” asked Ryou, alarmed at the way the grin had turned sour.
“Giving up an acquired advantage. Hell, the father of my father’s father burned the whole city of Kunarkardam to the ground rather than let King Maxelem of Aksum have it, even though they were too far-flung to be of any use to us. In this instance, I’m going to have to give up the last of my leverage on the Per Gathas when I go to them to request a favor. Damn, but I did so enjoy having some means of pressure on the smug bastards, however slight. Especially now that I’ve got a notion of the enemy I am facing and the stakes on the table. Bah, why keep a good card if not to play it? Cassius did that with me, and look what that got him, hmm? Rand, go fetch that Andrap fellow. You and I are going to have a long talk with him to start with. Get him sweating a little. But before we send him off to his masters with a plea for help...we will wait. I should say six days, until after the Feast of Mah, don’t you think, Rand?”
“That long, my King?” Rand asked, eyes flickering towards Darius. Even he could not hide how uncomfortable he was with this situation.
“Come, come, Rand, I know my brother is unable to sit still for more than a day, but you should know better. Patience has been our greatest weapon before. I know it is painful to see the cur unable to bark, but really we should be enjoying this gods given silence and the aura of diplomacy and civility that will surely invade our court as a result.”
“Pst, Ryou? What did he say?”
“...I’ll tell you later, Darius,” said Ryou tiredly, ignoring Leyam’s snicker.