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Haaskoning jabbed a finger at thin air. "There, that's the crucial bit right there, do you see it?"
Ryou frowned around a growing stress headache.
"Don't try so hard. You're tensing up again."
I’m sorry if I find performing brain surgery on my boyfriend a little nerve-wracking, Ryou internally snarled. Outwardly he showed nothing, and forced himself to relax. He craned his neck against the knot forming there, and as an afterthought cracked open an eyelid. Darius sat in his low chair, one leg crossed over his knee, looking relaxed. Though what Ryou and Haaskoning were doing was potentially dangerous, it was painless to the subject. In fact bar a bout of dizziness and one instance of 'whoa, weird stuff happening to my vision’, Darius was completely unaware of what the two magian were doing to his mind at a level beyond his perception, and was now getting heartily bored. The procedure had been going on for over an hour. It was exhausting, but Ryou was gaining a treasure trove of knowledge about the gift of Zaratusra and its applications as a tool of translation and as a weapon.
"Okay, there. You need to do this," Haaskoning said. In the mind’s eye, the magian’s focus shifted from one aspect of the problem to another, illustrating what he meant without interfering with the spell himself. At the same time he was gesturing again, poking at an empty spot two inches above Darius's head as if there was something there. Ryou found the mannerism distracting. He himself was sitting on the chair opposite his lover, with his hands drawn into his lap. This gesturing was useless, and Ryou resented its implication that what they were doing was somehow connected to anything physical. That was a ridiculous and misleading notion. What they were manipulating did not have an existence in terms a human mind could fully comprehend. Gesturing about it was like using one’s hands to describe the binding of oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water. Ryou's chemistry teacher back in school used to do that too and it had driven young Ryou up the wall.
Ryou felt about with his magian senses. In his imagination, Darius's mind was a three dimensional puzzle, and this fake Gift was locked onto certain parts of it. Ryou tried to ignore the image the same way he ignored Haaskoning's finger-twiddling as being irrelevant and not up to the task of adequately representing something outside the physical plane entirely.
What he had to do was feel. Feel which parts were Darius’s senses, his door to the world, and which parts had been artificially forced over them, distorting their signals to the point that Darius could not even read or write words anymore, as well as understand his native language or speak it. Ryou had to map out the limits of these additions, their connections to Darius’s mind, and find the key that could unlock them. And then he had to take them and gently...ever so gently...
Haaskoning’s voice had sunk to a whisper. "There. And there. You've got it. And now it's gone."
Darius looked around, chin lifting from where he'd rested it on his fist. "You must have done something, Ryou, because I just understood the old man."
"And the old man can now understand you," said Haaskoning dryly. "Welcome back to the land of communication, Lord Ghan."
Darius gave him a curt nod and glanced at Ryou. "You okay?"
"I'm fine." Ryou picked up a wine glass from the low side table with a hand that was shaking a bit. It was early afternoon in the cool of Leyam’s private quarters, but he was sweating.
"Stay here and rest," Darius said. "I'll go talk to Leyam. Now that I can." He looked pleased as he got to his feet.
Haaskoning, who’d been tiredly rubbing his eyes, stirred and glanced up. "Ah, Lord Ghan, I did not have time to discuss this with King Leyam, but there are some things I would rather we kept amongst-...ourselves," he finished with a frown, staring at the door Darius had shut firmly behind him.
"In case you haven't figured it out, he's angry with you," said Ryou, leaning back against the low chair rest and closing his eyes.
"...I am sure it was a stressful experience, and I do regret that it took me three days for Andrap’s message to reach me. I was outside Asha Mainyu at the time, attending my duties."
"He's angry because you knew about the Ancients," said Ryou composedly, "and you failed to give us even the slightest word of warning. I'm angry about that too," he added as an afterthought. And yeah, he was also angry about each and every horrid day it had taken Haaskoning to get here, with Darius hiding in Leyam’s apartments, an outcast and a stranger in his own home, unable to even ask for food and drink without Ryou to babysit him.
"Oh? And what should I have told you?"
Ryou cracked open one eye and examined Haaskoning, who looked back without the smallest sign of remorse or embarrassment.
"That some crazy Egyptian magians could drag us out of the Outlands and to god knows where at the drop of a hat. That would have been a good place to start."
"And if I'd said that, would you have been able to defend yourself?" Haaskoning asked reasonably.
"Well...I could have been better prepared."
"...Just knowing about them would have at least put me at a bit less of a disadvantage when I was talking to the creep," said Ryou, since there was little a control freak disliked more than being completely blindsided. "And that's just for starters. If you didn't wind everything up in a cloak of mystery, if you'd prepared me and given me more control over my powers, I would have been able to help Andrap fight off the initial attack. I would have felt what was happening when our kidnapper changed the area around the circle, and if they still managed to get a hold of us, then I could have at least shielded Darius from that mental affliction we finally scrapped just now."
"True, I could have given you much more in the way of knowledge. But then again, what power I would have been handing them if you'd joined them."
Ryou's lips tightened at the memory of that ancient spider frozen at the center of his surreal web. "I would never join those creatures."
"They could have threatened someone close to you."
"They did," Ryou bit out, too tired to care about the import of the admission.
"Then you are made of stronger metal than most," Haaskoning answered gently without evincing any surprise. "As for giving you a heads-up, I did warn you not to use magic. They would have found you easily that way, as would other things. Your jumping around the dimensions and letting your powers run rife in our Circles is what put their servants on your trail in the first place and helped them locate you."
"Fine, but you could have warned me I was in danger even if I was not going to use my powers."
"I wasn't sure you’d believe me. You could have easily interpreted further warnings as a means of pressuring you into joining my order by waving all kinds of threats over your head," was the dry retort, the accuracy of which left Ryou without much to respond with.
Haaskoning settled back into his chair with his arms crossed, looking tired. "The reason I am not too concerned about what you’ve told King Leyam, or what Lord Ghan will tell him now, is because I know the king to be a very intelligent man. I am certain he will tell you to not spread any information about all this, if he hasn't already. The people in the Outlands are as a whole very superstitious, and feel helpless in the face of supernatural forces. The average man in the street is not personally affected by the Ancients, no more than any other coterie of powerful schemers, and he would not be able to defend against them if he did. Yet how many dire myths and rumors would spread if they knew about these people? What consequences could this potentially have? Come, you know history, and I’m afraid that one of the sad constants of any human society is their reaction to a fear that cannot find an appropriate target. It will find a scapegoat instead. Hedge wizards, wise women, strangers and even minorities will suddenly look very Egyptian to the man in the street. Travel and trade would also suffer if people knew what lurks within the Veil beyond the circles. No, it may seem unfair to you, but ignorance has its advantages. We have a policy to keep these matters internal to our order as a result. If you'd been willing to join us, you would have learned about them, but you did not seem all that interested, and thus I was constrained by our code. In those circumstances, I did the best I could. I gave you what information I was allowed to on defensive magic, I asked some friends here in Sura to keep an eye on you in case you were contacted by these people under false pretenses, and I also placed Andrap at Mooncrest to watch over you while you crossed the border to another plane."
"He's considerably more than a simple Passer, isn't he.”
"Correct. He is someone who has a lot of experience with these people, these Ancients. I would have placed him at Mooncrest even if you had not been involved, simply to keep an eye on Lord Ghan, who had already been targeted once by these people. Unfortunately both Andrap and I underestimated how much the Ancient order wanted you. I did not think they would be so unsubtle, or take the risk they did. And it was risky, opening a Path of that nature to that land beyond the Veil. It was very risky for you and it was also risky for the magian who performed the maneuvre. I did not expect them to do that."
"Yes, I'm sure it was something of a surprise," said Ryou, watching him closely, eyes narrowed, "and yet somehow I cannot shake off the feeling that I was being used as bait."
Haaskoning glanced at his hands briefly, then he looked Ryou right in the eye and said, "Yes, as a matter of fact you were."
"Fancy that," Ryou muttered.
Haaskoning tilted his head to one side and his gaze went blindly to the window of the king’s quarters as if he were seeing something considerably more sinister than the gardens and the strutting peacocks outside. "These Ancients are our enemies and have been for millennia. What they call Ma'at is a corruption of an ancient Egyptian concept referring to the established order: what most humans think of as reality, as well as the structure of human society and the natural world. Needless to say, the Ancients believe they're at the very top of Ma'at, this natural order, and just one step away from being above it altogether. The magic they use is...powerful, complex and fascinating." The old magian's tone had dropped to almost a whisper with a hint of strong feeling beneath it. "...Truthfully, every single member of my order has at one time or other wished we could have even half the freedom to research, explore and spin wonders as they do. Our code feels constraining to all of us at times. But after looking more closely into their schemes, you quickly realize that some of the explorations and experiments they do would horrify even Assyria's more notorious kings, the ones who'd have the skin of their enemies scraped off with pottery shards.
“Maybe you can say it is the price they pay for their power: the way they cut themselves away from humanity like everybody else is a lesser creature. Their whole magic, and that Sign of Amun on their minds, as they call it...they are very warped people. And also very narrow-minded. Blind, you could say. Creatures that are merely natural beings, if from another plane than ours, are considered gods by these fools. They just...Everything they do and see, this huge power they have, is twisted and forced into a mold that dates back over three thousand years, and they are unable to even see this to be the case. Because their indoctrination is heavily biased with religious mystery - it's virtually brainwashing - their newer members just become more clones of the Ancient ones that came before them. They can bring very little that is new to the order even if their highest hierarchy are in theory free to experiment and discover as much as they want. They can find new and gruesome ways of using their power, but they can never find a new way to think, to evolve..."
Ryou took a sip of wine, pondering Haaskoning's words and also the Son of Zaratusra's unexpected flow of information...hopefully this wasn't hiding anything sinister this time, it was just a return for Ryou's complete description of his brush with the Ancients, a story Ryou would have given him anyway in case any small detail might have helped uncurse Darius. Leyam considered Haaskoning’s presence here as a loss of face, as having to give up whatever leverage had been left over the Per Gathas in order to bargain for his brother’s health. Ryou was ready to see it as starting anew on an equal footing, where they could share information against the common enemy they’d now discovered.
"How come nobody has ever heard about them?" he asked, taking advantage of Haaskoning's unexpected information bonanza. "Everybody I've talked to knows for a fact that the Outland Egyptians were wiped out."
"Invaded, enslaved, and then their country resettled and Romanized ages ago," Haaskoning corrected. "And I don't think the Ancients gave a damn, or else they would have helped their countrymen against the invaders. That is because they had no loyalty to those countrymen, quite the contrary. Their history is complex. When Zoroaster led an enclave of Egyptians to the Outlands, the only ones who were desperate enough to come with Him were the servants of Aten. Amenhotep, known as Akhenaten, the king who'd empowered their religion, had died two decades previously. The followers of his god were being subjugated once more by the priests of the older Egyptian religions. In the refuge of the Outlands, their culture and beliefs flourished. But they had enemies in their midst, priests of the Old Gods who had been entrusted with destroying them from within. These men – no more than a dozen to start with – followed them to the Outlands to pursue what they saw as a sacred task. One of them discovered himself to be a magian, unfortunately. This was a time when the Per Gathas did not even exist, it was Zoroaster and a few disciples alone. Our two orders grew together, if you will. But the ancient priests stayed hidden within the worship of Aten, converting to their cause any priest of Aten who did not have as much faith as he should, as well as any who showed promise of powers over the Veil.
"It was when the religion of Aten was brought to Rome that the Ancients truly flourished. To this day, their principle players remain hidden within the shadow of the cult of Aten, even though they retain their initial contempt for the Atenites, as well as for the Romans and just about everybody else. The cult of Aten is one of the three central powers of Roma Praetorium, along with the Emperor and the citizens of Rome, as represented by their senate. This gave the Ancients access to a huge empire, and presented them with ways of finding new magians not yet discovered by the Per Gathas. They're very good at seducing people into their ranks with offers of power and freedom that most Outlanders can scarcely imagine. They have no real leaders to their order, they are organized into a loose coalition of members ranked according to their abilities, which grants them great autonomy and influence. Those who have not yet risen above such things can choose to live like great lords, and their vices are given as much license as their experiments."
Haaskoning held out his palms, fingers wide as if physically giving Ryou the evidence of what he was saying. "I knew you would interest them, and they'd make a gambit for you. I helped you prepare as much as I could, which wasn't much since I had to take into account the fact that you might join them. They have means of persuasion," said Haaskoning in a way that made Ryou not want to question him further on the subject, not when he remembered the way the bodies and psyche of those dog-headed creatures had been twisted by someone else's will. "In fact, you were lucky, oddly enough," Haaskoning added dryly. "If you'd had a run-in with one of their leaders who still live in the Outlands proper, well, it could have been nasty. These people are ruthless and without any mercy whatsoever, and someone used to dealing with normal people would have made sure you were under their power in a prosaic way - chains and manacles - as well as a magical one. But, probably due to the presence of Andrap and others around you, they brought out their big guns for you, and so you ended up confronting their strongest but least flexible magian. Menkaperreseneb tends to think everything will be as he decrees just because he says so."
Ryou blinked. "Meka-who?"
"Menkaperreseneb. That is the name of the man you met, back when such a thing could still be applied to him. Well it's not his original name, I think he's from Hiberia originally, but it's the Ancient name he adopted when he gained his powers. I'm sure he thought you would be so crushed by his presence, and so tempted by his offer, that he never considered you'd try to run away. It certainly never occurred to him that you would be able to leave that place under your own power. Hah, truth be told, I can still scarcely believe it either, but for Menkaperreseneb it would be inconceivable that you could break out of that dimension when he himself cannot."
"He's stuck there?" Ryou asked, surprised, then remembering a brief stir of intuition he’d had back in the higher plane when facing the Ancient Priest.
Haaskoning rubbed his face, looking a little tired still. "It's hard to describe in words- no thank you," he added when Ryou indicated the wine jug and an extra cup, suddenly realizing he'd been an abysmal host to the man who'd helped him heal Darius. "I never drink alcohol, it's discouraged by our beliefs. In these old countries, I cannot tell you how tired I get of explaining that I need well-boiled water with a dash of sugar and vinegar."
“Why sugar and vinegar?"
“By increasing the acidity of the water, vinegar halts the growth of whatever bacteria survived boiling.”
“I see. And the sugar?”
"It helps hide the taste of the vinegar," said Haaskoning dryly. "Back home - Asha Mainyu - I usually drink tea, that's quite safe."
That, more than threats or promises of forbidden knowledge, was what Haaskoning should have said awhile back to try to entice Ryou into the Per Gathas. Fortunately the magian leader missed the look of longing that managed to wash across Ryou's tired features for a second.
"So, coming back to my old foe, yes, he is stuck. What those fools call rising above Ma'at is in fact creating a bubble in the higher dimensions that suits their needs, a place subject only to their own ability to mold it with their mind. They do not live there like you and I would understand the term, though. They...pour themselves into a shell they made for themselves there, out of what is left of their physical body. I am not allowed to go into the details of the process as it involves mysteries of high order, plus to tell you the truth it disgusts me profoundly." Haaskoning looked down at his hand, flexed it. "This body they despise so much, this humanity, even our limited life span...Zoroaster taught us to love them and cherish them, not corrupt them and soil them. Ah well, that is what you call a difference of philosophy. The end result of this process is that yes, they can live quite a long time, but they cannot separate themselves from that domain they inhabit. You can imagine what that does to their minds, to live in constant contact with the things, large and small, that you can encounter there."
"Very large," Ryou muttered.
"Yes indeed, that creature you described. I know that one. It’s a calcified colony of smaller organisms, a little like a coral reef that’s beached across several dimensions. To think they believe this thing to be a god...it’s really rather pathetic. Though I rather envy you the chance of having seen it," Haaskoning added, with an apologetic gesture that said he was fully aware Ryou would not share his point of view. "I love to study these extra-dimensional creatures, but I have to concentrate on those that are a danger to men and magian, and I can't spend as much time as I would want to on fascinating fauna that is perfectly harmless and almost entirely out of the reach of someone of even my power. Ah well. To come back to mundane matters, now that I have shared quite a lot of information with you freely and that you understand what you face, I believe you have reconsidered your refusal to join us."
Ryou looked up from the wine glass he was refilling. "Why do you say that?"
"You refused them," Haaskoning answered as if stating the obvious. "Their offer was heavy-handed, but you are an intelligent man who probably figured out a lot of the ins and outs of all this before I even spoke to you today. You know what we offer and what they offer, and you have already turned them down. Power without purpose does not interest you."
"No actually, I don't give a damn about either their power or your purpose," Ryou answered measuredly. "I just want to be left alone to mind my own business."
Haaskoning blinked in surprise for a few seconds, then he scratched his chin, fingernails combing his beard. "Hmm. Well, that may be difficult. Everybody belongs to one camp or the other. But I suppose you have time to think this through carefully and take a measured decision."
"That's what you said last time. What's to stop this Meka- Menka- Ancient one from kidnapping me again?"
"I am," said Haaskoning.
Simple words, and there was no change in the elderly man’s composed expression when he said them, yet Ryou, mouth suddenly dry, found himself believing him. 'Useages' had drilled into Ryou that discretion and shielding one's mental signature in the higher planes was the ABC of any magian's defense, but Ryou hadn't really considered what that implied, since he'd never met another self-declared magian before Haaskoning. The old man had been applying 'Useages' himself. Unlike the Ancient priest who'd stunk of power, Haaskoning could have been anyone's amiable old grandfather. But for an instant, when he'd said that, Ryou had caught a glimpse of the might that backed up those words. In the higher plane in which their abilities existed, most men were nothing more than molehills, while Ryou, in his current untrained state, was a sizeable hill. Haaskoning...Haaskoning had the power of mountains...
"I think you misunderstand the respective position of our two orders," Haaskoning said. He spoke normally, his aura once more cloaked, an elderly Dutch gentleman with his hands crossed in his lap. The echoes of that presence, that power, still hung in the air like the silence after a bell’s toll, and his soft words sounded louder for it. "The Ancients use their abilities in ways that we have voluntarily forbidden ourselves, and I'm sure that when they had you in their clutches, they made themselves sound very powerful. But they are not. They're parasites living off of the Grand Design, and they survive by carefully avoiding us. Indeed, the only reason we do not destroy them is because the kind of open warfare this would entail would endanger what we have sworn to protect."
That was at least reassuring to know. Ryou had figured out that the Ancients had lied to him, or at least underestimated the Per Gathas, when Haaskoning had shown up this morning to tell a concerned Leyam and an increasingly frantic and guilt-ridden Ryou that getting rid of Darius's curse was really 'not that big of a deal', then proceeding to do so in an hour. Ryou now suspected Haaskoning could have done the work entirely by himself, but had insisted on Ryou doing the job under his supervision in order to arm Ryou against this kind of thing happening again. Ryou wondered if Meka-whoever back there had deliberately lied to him when he’d said Haaskoning couldn’t help, or if the man simply could not believe that anyone, including a servant of the Gathas who accepted to live a mortal life, could do something that he himself could not.
"The Ancients normally stay hidden within the Roman Empire and conquered territories, scheming their little schemes and doing their little magic, but they are very careful to stay under our radar and not provoke us. If they allied themselves fully with Rome, things would get messy, so it's fortunate that they despise everybody and refuse to stoop to forming alliances. Every once in awhile in the past three thousand years, they have broken this unspoken covenant, and tried to move against us or actively take over some country in various ways. It seems Assyria was next on the menu if you and Lord Ghan had agreed to their proposal."
"I'm sure they thought they were making the both of you a very good deal," said Haaskoning dryly. "As I said, they're rather cut off from the way normal people think. Well, it is obvious that once again, they have crossed a line. Not when they kidnapped you - I'm afraid that magians are considered fair game under the conventions of this cold war of ours. But trying to kill Lord Ghan and blame us...We have still not found out which of their leaders thought of that - certainly not Menkaperreseneb. That was crude but also clever and messy and bolder than they are wont. It could be an indication of some powerful new man rising to prominence within their order. I will be looking into that very carefully. But the alliance Menkaperreseneb offered Lord Ghan was also outside allowable bounds and now, if you will grant me a favor, the Per Gathas have the means to strike back."
“When we first met, I gave you my pendant. I would very much like to have it back.”
Ryou kept a tight hold on the sharp “What?” that tried to slip out at that point. He was too much of a businessman to show surprise that easily, and though it was true that the meeting rooms of Ujiie S&T were far away and getting further all the time, Leyam had kept him on his toes in that department quite adequately. Expressionless, Ryou dug out the pendant he’d been wearing all this time, slipped it out over his neck and held it out. Just not quite far enough. Haaskoning, who’d reached out his hand, measured the distance between it and the pendant, and the look in Ryou’s eyes, and settled back in his chair.
“Maybe I should explain.”
“I mentioned that Menkaperreseneb is in a bubble of pseudo-reality beyond the Veil, yes? We need to find him in order to neutralize him, and it’s not that easy. Andrap called me to Mooncrest the moment you disappeared with Lord Ghan, you know. I was there mere hours after your kidnapping. But even with our combined powers, we could not follow you in order to help you. We could do nothing but hold the initial breach in the circle open, in case you managed to make your way back. Paths, particularly those breaching into and out of the Veil, create a lot of, ah, unwanted attention from the denizens of other planes. You may remember from that nightmare you had in Essin. Passers walk the Paths that exist naturally in the Veil – and even they can sometimes run into things that are quite dangerous in those uncertain areas. Magians, who can create new Paths, have to be even more careful. So when Menkaperreseneb took you, he naturally closed the Path behind you, very professionally I might add. I couldn’t see much beyond the first few steps. But even if I’d been able to follow the Path he’d created, I would have been stuck once outside fractional space – the spiral, you remember I mentioned it last time we met. Beyond the Grand Design...well, the rules go out the window. The bubbles the Ancients create out of their old existence can be anywhere, in any plane, hidden amongst an infinity of them. You cannot cast your senses across this- this multiverse of dimensions. No human has ever had that kind of perception, not even the greatest prophet our race has produced. Unless you can align yourself with that plane’s existence, you cannot even sense its presence. Unless you know where to look, you can never find it.”
“So how are you going to ‘neutralize’ him?”
“The pendant you carried. All the Per Gathas of the highest circles carry one, since we, ah, tend to occasionally go to odd places, and do odd things. Sometimes we do not survive them, and a Passer finds our body washed up in the water bisecting one of their Circles. The pendant contains a crystal embedded within the gold, a very pure crystal with properties we have developed. The Outlander magians in Asha Mainyu call them Tears of the Prophet, very poetic and mythical. But us Inlanders call it the Black Box, which will give you a better idea of what it’s used for.”
“You can use it to find out where I’ve been.”
“Correct. The kind of gross displacement through the Veil you were subjected to will have warped the purity of the crystal, much in the same way it must have warped your perception and mind for a few moments. A human mind recovers, heals. A crystal does not. The flaw in it can be interpreted, and give us an idea of where you were taken when you went beyond the Veil.”
“I see. I really was bait, wasn’t I,” said Ryou, even as he deposited the pendant into Haaskoning’s outstretched hand.
“Yes, but this protects you too,” Haaskoning assured him, quickly putting the pendant away into a metallic box he’d produced from inside his tabard. It looked like it was lined with lead. “Menkaperreseneb is going to be destroyed. It was going to happen sooner or later. That creature has been alive, if you can call it that, for over four hundred years. His thought processes have calcified. Because of their loose hierarchy, we’re only cutting off one head of the hydra, but it’s the most powerful one to date, so this is definitely going to hurt them. When they recover, however, you will be in their line of fire.”
“That sounds very scary.”
“...It is,” said Haaskoning, eyeing Ryou in surprise at the latter’s obviously unimpressed tone of voice. “You say you will not join them?”
“Then you have two choices: join us or go back Inlands. They cannot cross there easily, they have no interests there, and they feel very uncomfortable away from their power base.”
“When did you cross over from the Netherlands?”
Haaskoning was caught short by the abrupt change of subject, but he answered gamely. "It was in the spring of 1980, while I was on a business trip to Liège. Much the same as you, I was driving back to my hotel in the middle of the night, mostly asleep at the wheel and dreaming of a house which would exist in several dimensions at once, and all the advantage therein." It was said with a smile that was rueful and also a little nostalgic.
“Did you know the Berlin Wall fell since you last were there?”
“I've heard of this, yes.”
“Politics and business have changed a lot. They are no longer black and white, Us or Them.”
“I...don't think I see your point.”
"My point," said Ryou, pushing up his glasses, "is that we're only just beginning to talk."
“I admit I am as confused as Blessed Haaskoning,” said Leyam with a perplexed look. “I don't understand this...this 'freelance contractor' notion either.”
Ryou settled down in the opposite seat. They were back in Leyam’s apartment after that evening’s feast. Most dinners held by Leyam’s court were formal affairs. This evening had been particularly ceremonious and grand to celebrate the ‘return’ of his brother, as well as the presence of a Per Gathas notable. But now Haaskoning had departed, the Assyrian nobility had been left to nurse their cups and argue lineage and provincial borders, the King had retired, and Ryou finally had the time and privacy to bring Leyam up to speed with the latest developments. They were alone. Nicodeme was organizing a masseur and a bedtime companion for Leyam’s nightly routine, and Darius was out and about, talking to his men, giving them one more reassurance that he was back to normal. He was also getting them ready for another attempt at rejoining the army in Ayengosor. Because the struggle against Rome and its allies was still ongoing, though it now seemed a little secondary. The trip which had been so abruptly derailed had to be taken, for the same reasons as before, though this time Ryou and Darius would not only make sure that the Mooncrest Path was open towards their destination, but that Andrap and possibly Haaskoning himself was with them from the first step of the trip to the last.
“Is it like a mercenary?”
“Not really, no. It’s more...hmm... More like the way you and one of the Free Cities can be said to be allied. You're much stronger, but they still bring some usefulness to you, a usefulness that would be lost if you expended the effort to conquer them. So you help them discreetly, you maintain good relations, while on their end they can get away with acts of aggression towards Roman allies that you could not, since you and Rome still pretend to be on speaking terms.”
Leyam’s brow wrinkled. “That seems an adequate description, but how does it relate to you?”
“I do not want to join the Per Gathas. I have no interest in their struggle against the Ancients, or preserving their Grand Design. I have agreed not to use my powers to benefit Assyria, since that would lead the Per Gathas to shut us all down. However, I have the right to defend myself if the Ancients try to harm Darius or me again. And since Darius is intrinsically tied to your reign and to this country, well...I’m going to assume I have some latitude over what I can and cannot defend with my magian abilities.”
“...Sounds like the deal is mostly in your favor. Why would Haaskoning let you off so easily?”
“He will benefit from this too,” Ryou said dryly, “and already has. To start with, even if I’m not going to join the Per Gathas, I am going to be somewhat allied to them. I have to learn more about my powers. It’s not just this ancient war, there's lots of other dangers for magian out there. I’ll automatically be closer to whichever camp is willing to teach me. I would prefer the Per Gathas, of course, I am definitely more philosophically aligned with them, but if they give me nothing to defend myself with, I'll strike a deal with the Ancients out of self preservation.”
“Haaskoning bought that?” Leyam asked with a shrewd glance at Ryou that said the King, for his part, did not. He knew what Ryou thought of the Ancients.
“He could not afford to do otherwise. Whether I like to admit it or not, it seems I have a lot of power and innate abilities,” sighed Ryou. “It means the Per Gathas and the Ancients both want me to join them. Even more than that, though, they do not want me joining the other team. Haaskoning cannot afford to be heavy handed in this. He’s hoping to reel me in some day, I am sure. He’ll make sure I stay alive and on their side of the conflict in the meantime.”
“Either that, or he’ll kill you,” said Leyam, before popping a fig from the after-dinner fruit platter into his mouth. “That’s what I’d do,” he added as he chewed.
“I somehow doubt so, My King,” Ryou said, to Leyam’s amusement; there weren’t many people in the entire Pariya region with the gall and liberty to correct him, and it seemed to tickle him when Ryou did so. “You wouldn’t destroy a powerful weapon unless you were sure it was more likely to turn against you than serve you. The Per Gathas are the same.” Plus slightly more civilized, Ryou inwardly added, though he was not ready to bet his life that the Per Gathas would let their Inland or Zoroastrian ethics get in the way of preserving their Grand Design. “Needless to say, I’m going to have to tread carefully, but unless I cross a line, the Per Gathas will not harm me. No, it’s the Ancients who are going to try to kill me. And that’s to the advantage of the Per Gathas, since it will help them to pinpoint these more aggressive elements. Haaskoning and his colleagues cannot strike out directly against these Ancients because they want the world to ignore the very existence of this war they’re engaged in. The Per Gathas are the great stabilizing influence in the Outlands. If it became known that somebody can challenge them...Someone not as attached to neutrality and rules as they are...You can see where that could get very messy. Nobody could predict the results with any certainty, which is why both the Per Gathas and their enemy have kept this fight in the shadows for over three millennia. But now, some new cabal within the ranks of the Ancients is trying to strike at the established order actively, and the Per Gathas are short on discreet means of stopping this from happening. This is where I come in. Whether the Ancients intend to take a shot at me directly, or just take aim at the Alliance, they’ll probably try to remove me first as a precautionary measure. If they break cover, I can move against them as an independent agent, and the Per Gathas can back me up from a distance, lending me the firepower while staying hidden within my shadow. I’m going to be the lightning rod, as it were. Ah, you don’t know what that means. I’ll-“
“You’ll be the goat in their lion hunt, I get it, and though it’s buying you your independence, I think the price may be high. You better hope Haaskoning prizes you and your abilities as much as you seem to think. Now I see where your earlier analogy comes in...But this means that, for all you have no interest in their struggle, you're still allied to the Sons of the Path. You've implicated yourself in his war by default, the same way you’ve implicated yourself in our fight against the Imperium by hopping into bed with my brother.”
Ryou, quite used to Leyam’s inappropriate comments about his love life by now, merely shrugged. “As the saying goes, choose your friends well, because your enemies will choose you.”
“In view of what you face, some would say you could have chosen your friends a little more wisely.”
“That kind of wisdom leads to places I would rather not go. Hell, if I was wise, I'd have stayed Inland. Sometimes you have to go with your gut and hack out your own path your own way.”
“You know,” groused Leyam, “I was hoping some of your restraint would rub off on my wild-headed brother, not the other way around.”
“Sorry,” said Ryou, unrepentant.
Leyam judged him moodily over the rim of his cup of warmed wine. “You seem overall satisfied for someone who just dropped right into the middle of two separate wars.”
“They're not all that separate...but yes, oddly enough. Maybe I’m in trouble, but it's trouble of my own choosing.”
It would be challenging, but Ryou found himself looking forward to those challenges, with allies at his back, Darius at his side and this feeling of anticipation before him, something he’d not felt in a long time.
“You're as nuts as my brother.”
“Yes, that was the other possible conclusion,” said Ryou, helping himself to one of the figs.
“Nothing, just thinking out loud. Good night, My King.”
Ryou walked away from Leyam's simmering curiosity and went to see what Darius was doing.
End of the current arc
PS: Question for you all. I have the next arc - a small one, 5 chapters, 3 of which will be fairly short - half written out. The other half is not written out at all, so it'll take me awhile to get it posted. Would the readers prefer to have the first few written chapters out in a couple of weeks, and then a certain time to wait until the next section is out? Or should I wait until most of it is written until I start posting? There's no cliffies in this arc, it's more a series of indepedent one-shots.