Obtaining crossing permission from the Varlan authorities was no problem, my passes already granted that. What they did not and could not grant was a welcome in another new land.
When it came down to it, this was no problem either. Here the river was no more than calf deep, more a broad, albeit very broad, stream than a river proper and easily crossed.
The Driikan guards at the far side of the ford enquired my purpose for entering their land, laughed at my response and directed me to their superiors' hut.
"Funny looking Varlaner if you ask me." The supervisor commented. "But I suppose if that's what you say you are and your credentials agree, who am I to argue?"
"I know you Varlan are fond of passes." He told me, "So I am going to give you one. Except that here, I'll hold a duplicate. You have twenty days to do your business. Failure to report back here with the pass intact will forfeit your life. Understood?"
I understood, and took possession of the pass. Quite unlike the painted and lacquered wooden passes of Varlan, this was a simple metal disc with two imprints stamped on it. To learn its significance would require a visit to this frontier post. All authorizations safely stowed, I passed on up into Samageij.
The flood plain, or what would have been the flood plain were it conceivable that the river could flood had been turned into a garden. Here grew plants and fruits of every conceivable variety all laid out in serried ranks, close set, so that looking back from the steps up to the city itself one would think to have just come across a carpet of green.
From this direction I would have thought the city to be virtually impregnable, sat as it was above the steep climb, with stout walls as further bastion to ward off attack. Once through these walls I was confronted with a myriad of narrow winding passages. They could not really be called streets, for none was wider than four persons. And thronged as they were, some even containing market stalls, progress was slow.
It was not of any great consequence for I had no idea where I was going. The really amazing thing was that, packed as it was, the temperature was tolerable. This was in part due to large canvasses that were stretched between the roofs of the high buildings to keep off the direct rays of the sun, but still allow its light to permeate below. This simple device permitted the city to be alive throughout the day. And live it certainly was, in stark contrast to Varlan, just over the waters known as the Dewups river. The border guard supervisor had not been much help in directing me to finding the Sage of Samageij and neither were those I approached in the streets. It seemed odd to me that such a widely acknowledged person should be so poorly known in their hometown.
The streets slowly emptied as evening came on and I was no further along in my search for this elusive mystic. It occurred to me about then that I ought to be looking for somewhere to stay, for this was not Varlan where it was all arranged. Here as well, people used money. I would have to pay, but I had no immediate means to do so.
Approaching one set of market traders packing up their stall, I enquired as to where I could find lodgings. They were about to direct me to the city centre, but on learning my position advised strongly against going there. I was about to walk away, the male having shrugged off assistance. But the females' voice halted me.
"Wait for us to finish here and I'll take you to someone who may be able to help."
"Leave it alone woman." The male chided. "We have problems enough."
"No. I cannot stand by knowing someone will be taken for slave for want of advice." She said. "How would you feel if you were the stranger?"
I did not like the sound of this. Slaves? Me at risk? No, not good at all.
"How can I help?" I quickly put in.
"Oh!?" The female half gasped surprisedly. "See, Odaniie. The fellow will help us if we help him."
Well, Odaniie was keen enough on that. In no time he had me carrying boxes from the stall round a corner and into a remote storeroom. Back and forth, back and forth I went. Box after box, bag after bag lugged to safekeeping whilst Odaniie carried the key and small cartons of more delicate items.
I would have resented the abuse of assistance excepting that the females' help might prove vital to me. At length the stall was cleared away and I followed the pair to their home, which was not far off, but reached by a tortuous route through winding streets and narrow alleys. Having fulfilled my immediate use, Odaniie was keen to be rid of me and forestalled his wifes' advice by ordering one of the housemaids to guide me to the home of someone called Anjiie~.
As I followed this girl out of the rear of the house I could hear harsh words being exchanged between Odaniie and his wife. On further into the maze I went, hard on the coattails of a kitchen girl.
She came to an abrupt halt. So sudden was it that I continued straight into her as she turned. Forced to grab and support her frame to prevent us both falling, I steadied her in my arms. Once stable I released her, sure that the action had been misinterpreted. The demure half closing of her eyes and the gentle smile at my questioning her equilibrium spoke volumes. Sadly for her these pages were blank.
Not moving clear of my body, she spoke.
"The dwelling just ahead and on the right is that of Anjiie~. But I don't think you should go there."
"Why not?" I naturally asked.
"He will take you in it is true, but you will no doubt be bound and sold for slavery if he cannot make use of you."
"Why are you telling me this?" I had to ask her.
She replied that her mistress would not have told her to bring me here. But she had to do as her master had instructed. Now she would be telling the truth if questioned on it, but also would be acting in her mistresses interest.
She led me away to another place and in through a back door to servants' quarters. Here she searched out the chief servant, a well-rounded, middle aged female. In their clasped greeting I saw they were both slaves. Both had Aponian amulets with Aponian scripts.
My eyes widened in amazement.
"Grand Electors parts!" I muttered, taking after Rupiitii and fortunately not heard.
Turning to me, the girl said. "Ammuzza here, will see you safe for a while. She will try to find some use for you to keep you from trouble"
Then slipping through the door she turned before disappearing to say she would come by on the morrow to check on me.
"What she should see in you I don't know." Ammuzza said, patting her hand on my shoulder. "But that's young girls all over. Falling for helpless waifs."
"What makes you assume that I am helpless?" I questioned.
"Runaways always are." She answered. "Now hold out your arms."
"I am not a runaway." I told her, but held out my arms as ordered.
"No cuts? No burns? How did you get it off?" She asked.
"I am not, and have never been a slave." I reiterated.
"Oh, come on! You're safe here. There's no need to keep up a story now!"
"Believe what you will, it is of no real consequence to me." I conceded, throwing my hands in the air and turning to go.
"Wait!" Ammuzza coughed. "If not runaway slave, what are you then?"
"A traveller." I said over my shoulder. Turning in the doorway to face her, I continued. "From a far off land. Seeking assistance so that I may continue in my quest, for my funds are depleted and what I have is not negotiable. I shall look elsewhere for I am obviously unworthy of this house."
"No! You cannot go!" Ammuzza was imperative. "The night patrols will take you."
"I will take my chance there then." I replied, thinking that any soldiers would have to catch me first and then face Latiistabber.
"Come," Ammuzza moderated. "Eat first?"
This was an offer I could not argue with, and so removing floppy hat I came back in. "All right, I thank you for the offer of food. I could do with some but I will repay you for it. I promise."
Laughing, she accepted my climbdown and ushered me into the kitchens. There, she deftly removed something from most every platter prepared to go up to the main floors of the house, and placed it on a tray.
Cramming me into a corner she presented the tray saying,
"I can see you haven't eaten for a week but try to slow down with this. You'll enjoy it more."
It was another wrong assumption on her part. It had been a mere five subspans since last eating, although that was crisped bread and cheese snacked as I waited for the border clearance.
Here were sweet fruit segments dusted with a pale, piquant, dry powder. Delicately puffed dough cakes filled with herb seasoned flesh paste. Crisped slivers of fish meat on a bed of fresh greenery. A cup of clear thin soup with a strong salted poultry taste. A fillet of poultry topped with cheese and herbs. With a soft fruit sorbet and various sweetmeats to conclude. In short, a meal fit for a king. I am no king but that did not stop me devouring every scrap. Save, of course for the Yafro~d
Ammuzza picked up on that immediately.
"Try them." She encouraged. "They're a rare speciality. You can't get them elsewhere."
"Thank you, but no." I returned. "I am not too fond of Yafro~d, but I assure you everything else was magnificent."
She looked at me askance.
"I am confused." She admitted. "For to be picky and to know their name in the masters' tongue you must have tasted them, but there are none to be had this side of the sands except from the gardens of Samage~. This I know to be true for the masters come from afar just to taste Yafro~d fresh from the bush."
I told her how there had been a hold full of the stuff in galley one. I had eaten the sticky coarse sweetmeat then, and had been face with it at every meal until I was heartily sick of it. It was necessary to explain what a galley was, for Ammuzza had never travelled, and the rivers hereabout could not support a boat, let alone a ship. As with the way of these things, the explanation grew into a story, which in turn attracted listeners. The functions of the kitchen gradually ceased as all the slaves one by one came to sit and hear my tale.
The telling was thankfully cut short by calls from upstairs demanding service. Ammuzza quickly hustled me into a corridor and thence to a small side room.
"Bed down here." She advised. "But quietly now, in case one of the masters comes down to see what's going on."
Bustling back to the kitchens she left me with the light of a candle to survey this new domain.
It was a laundry room. The broad shelves that lined the walls were well stocked with all manner of clothes and cloths. It took no time to fashion a bed using blankets laid on the lowest shelf and less time to tuck myself down there snug, cosy and out of sight
Dawn broke through a small hole high in the wall. An undisturbed night had not brought easy sleep, and the sunlight streaming in found me tired and restless. Nevertheless I raised myself up and went out into the kitchens to find washing water and a place for my functions.
There was a kitchen boy up stoking the fires already, and it was he who pointed out and provided for my needs. Thus at least, clean and vacated, I could return to tidy up my bed-space and see what could be made of the day.
One by one the house slaves roused themselves and stumbled sleepily into the kitchen to breakfast on dried breads and a hot dark crushed bean soup prepared by the kitchen boy. They indicated that I too should help myself to this repast. I did as was bid, sitting with them at the large table set in an alcove.
There was no rush at this time of the day for the masters of the house would not awake for some time yet. It was however the best time to get manual work done, for later on would be too hot for comfort. This was an obvious and sensible solution, but one I had not considered before. It explained why the Varlan villages seemed deserted on my entry. The people must have been resting through the heat of the day.
My comments referring to the sage were met with blank looks. Even Ammuzza, when she stumbled in could not enlighten me. Very well, I would find out somehow.
I asked directions to the University. Again incomprehension.
"How about the library then?"
"What's a library?"
"Winds teeth! Was there no source of knowledge here?" I quizzed.
"Well, the masters send their children to the Waymasters." Ammuzza told me. "You could perhaps, if you had to and as a last resort, try there."
Lacking other leads there is where I tried.
Finding it was not easy in the maze that made up Samageij, but in the end, find the place I did. It would have been easier if I could have read Aponian for that is the language the introductory plaque on the front was written in, much as it was on all official buildings here.
Curiously, all non-official buildings and signs were written in Milatan script, which incidentally I could not read either. I could tell the difference between the two writing styles however and it was only after numerous enquiries that the distinction became obvious. The strange thing was that as yet I had seen no Aponians.
That was before I entered the "Waymaster" building. On entry I was attended by a Driikan of Milatan stock who spoke in Aponian. I replied in Milatan, was rebuffed in Aponian then when I spoke again to say I was not fluent in that tongue, was politely informed that in this establishment only Aponian was spoken and thus I should go elsewhere until I could converse in the language sufficient to state my business.
I continued my enquiry on the basis that this person spoke Milatan, and was more forcefully told to make an exit. Patiently explaining that my question would be better understood and answered in the Milatan tongue, the attendant swore at me in Aponian and summoned guards.
Now I may not have a good grasp of that language, but the time I spent in close contact with its speakers had not left me devoid of any understanding.
A large fellow strode in imperiously and went out on his arse ignominiously, the belief that you just pick up Valever neuts and throw them out forever dispelled from his mind. Turning again to the attendant I asked,
"Now that is a language I have found is understood everywhere. Would you prefer it if I returned your curse in the tongue of violence?"
Eyes wide at the observation of martial skill close to, and hard back against the wall, it was plain that he was not keen on the idea.
Next into the room came the Aponian. Tall and handsome, assured in bearing and tone. I had been expecting people of this race, for everything spoke of their presence. But the physical reality was still disturbing.
This fellow started making proclamations and giving orders, sadly again, in Aponian. I was going to get nowhere, so mumbling quiet curses made to walk out.
The Aponian spoke to me and put his hand out to restrain me. I was annoyed.
"Touch me, and I will break your arm." I told him.
He understood, but still grabbed my shoulder. I am not in the habit of issuing idle threats and so broke his arm.
Absolute shock and horror spread over both his face and that of the attendant. Then the pain hit the Aponian and clouded his visage. Cradling his arm and groaning, his brow already white with sweat, he stumbled back to lean against the far wall for support.
Enter two more Driikans and just as quickly exit without me laying a finger on them. I followed them out into the foyer where the first guard stood adopting a defensive posture with the two new arrivals.
"Hello." I said, starting again as if I had only just arrived. "I wonder if you could help me?"
They looked bemusedly at each other, then one of the new ones replied.
"There's no helping you now. You've attacked a master."
"I will attack some more unless they learn simple courtesy." I returned. "Now will you help me, or not?"
"We cannot, for Driikan is forbidden within these walls." The guard told me.
"That is a bloody stupid nonsense." I commented, "We have just been speaking it. And if you had told me that in the first place we could have avoided this situation. I thought the assistant was just being obstinate."
"Just obeying orders, which I am now flouting. So unless you speak the master-tongue you must go outside before more is said."
I found this all too incredible, but nevertheless walked back outside unmolested, but followed by the guards.
"You must go." One of the guards whispered almost before I was clear of the doors. "Quickly now or there will be real trouble."
"But?" I started.
"Go!" He hissed. "I will chase, but lose you. Look for the lady in yellow."
The other guards had been looking around nervously and of a sudden one threw himself to the ground as if hit, giving a yell as he did so.
"You little beggar!" Cursed the first one I had thrown, lunging out but only succeeding in sending the speaker flying.
"What?" I asked of myself. It came. They were hamming up a mock fight. I was to run and this was their excuse for failing to detain me. A cover up.
Turning, I pelted away, dodging easily through the filled streets. Crowds parted to let me through then quickly closed ranks behind. The shouting and clamour of pursuit swiftly fell to my rear. I was clear and away, but from what and why I could not fathom. Then it was at an end. One large fellow was in my way. I dodged to miss him but he placed himself in my new path and I ran straight into him.
"Sorry." I panted, falling back.
"Fool!" He retorted. "Look where you're going!"
"Sorry." I reiterated and went to go round. He stood foursquare in my way.
"Look where you're going." He said again pointedly.
"I'm really sorry, but I was looking." I said to him.
"Look where you're going." He said again, leading his head and eyes to one side. I did not comprehend what was the problem. Not until I followed his eyes.
In a doorway stood a female dressed all in yellow. Bells rang in my head and I looked sorrily at the fellow whilst muttering my thanks to him. Making my way over to the door I could see that the female was not in fact dressed in yellow, rather she had a bright cape, much like a blanket with a hole for the head draped over her normal clothing, which showed at her neck and feet. That was of a pale brown hue, matching the colour of her skin.
She backed into the door in advance of me and as soon as I passed within, shut it behind me. Turning to speak, I was instead ushered quickly through another door and past people with their faces covered or turned away. I hesitated, only to be chided sharply.
Whereby I obeyed the instruction, bearing left and right as told through a series of passages, rooms and doors until finally ordered to stop.
It had been a deliberate attempt to disorientate me for we had passed through at least one room twice, albeit at different ends. Lost I was not. Confused I was. Here in the last room were two figures. Both so heavily swathed in clothes as to make them unrecognisable. The semi darkness of the shuttered enclosed walls ensured their anonymity.
"So, youth." Spoke one, a male. "What have you done that the Popular Reaction must save you?"
"The what?" Was my reaction. "And who are you Youthing?"
The second figure spoke, this one a female. "Your speech is not of Samage~ . Are you then a spy? Do your masters think that the Popular Reaction is so easy to fool?"
"I don't know what you're on about." I replied. "I'm her in Samageii for my own purposes, and they're not to spy on anyone.”
"What did you do?" Pressed the male.
"When?" I asked. "Do you mean when I was in the school?"
"It is no school!" The female quoted harshly. "It is a place of indoctrination. But, yes that is what we meant."
"I broke an Aponians’ arm for his troubles." I told them.
"So what did you think that would prove?" The female asked. "It was not sanctioned."
"It proves nothing." I replied after thinking a bit. "I don't think it was intended to prove anything other than to take me seriously. I told him to unhand me or I would break his arm. He didn’t, I did.”
Just then an interruption came from a knock on the door. A figure beckoned the interrogators and they left briefly. I took the time to look at the female in the yellow cloak. Except that she wasn't in it anymore. Her garment was only the dun coloured long dress that I had glimpsed before. That and a matching veil which covered most of her facial features.
"Why cover your face?" I asked.
"You will not know me to betray me if you cannot see me." She replied.
"Don't be daft." Was my immediate retort. "First off, I've already seen your face. Second, what am I to betray you for, and to whom?"
"You know we are the Popular Reaction." She replied. "That is all that is needed for betrayal."
"I don't understand." I started, but was interrupted by the others returning.
"It is true." The male stated flatly. "The oppressors arm is really broken."
"Long live the movement." The female intoned. "But this is more trouble than it's worth. He should have killed the filth!"
"Easy!" Chided the male. "Everyone has to start somewhere."
"Stop bickering!" The ex yellow coat female ordered in the same sharp manner she had initially used on me. "I think this is a plant. How say you?"
"No." The male returned instantly.
"No." The female concurred. "I had thought so at first, but this one's no youth schooled by the oppressors. This one's a foreigner."
The female who had been the lady in yellow grabbed at my shoulder to spin me around, but I heard the movement of her clothes and dodged. Putting myself so I could see all three of them.
Bending down to take a proper look at my face below the hat, her eyes widened. "By the sacred stones! You are right. Do the Asgar know this?"
"We don't know, but it is not believed so." The male answered. "The indoctrinator is still in shock. What we do know is that they are already reinforcing patrols."
"The question is then, what do we do?" The elder female posed.
"I suggest quarantined protection." The male answered.
"No." The younger female argued. "I say loose and let run. There is no loss to us and we shall see if there's a catching. Then we'll know if this is a plant."
"I see your view." The elder female commented. "But I am not sure of it. I don't think it's that simple. I need time to decide."
"One quadreme." The young female stated. "Adjourn 'til then and in closetry I think."
"I cannot be here then, so my decision must stand." The male answered.
"Very well." The old female agreed. "One quadreme."
They left the room and barred it. Realising this I became noisy, but agreed to wait quietly if the room were unbarred and some food brought. I did not like the idea that I was being judged, and yet had not resisted being led into this position so felt that I could not complain.
I was finishing off some pickled meats a little later on when I was quite surprised, for into the room came the maid from the house of Odaniie~.
"I have looked all over for you." She said, the relief plain in her voice. "Thank goodness you are safe.”
“Hello." I spoke up. "I didn't know I was in peril even though these people say they've saved me. But it's good to see you."
"Come now." She said, holding out her hand. "But we'd better do something with your whiskers."
I was puzzled and must have looked it.
She laughed. "The Asgar are looking for a whiskered dwarf in a hat. With the hat off and a shave the idiots will never recognise you!"
It sounded fair to me and when a sharp knife, soap and water had been fetched I happily succumbed to the maid, who let it slip that her name was Alleilah, clearing my face of hair.
In this process, Alleilah revealed amazement at the paleness of my skin and the colour of my eyes. I in turn felt really strange, having a naked face. Alleilah rubbed a dye into the exposed skin to disguise my foreignness.
"We are ready." She pronounced. "To go."
"That is not permitted." The young female who had worn the yellow announced from the doorway. "A consensus has not been reached."
"Sorry." I told her. "But we two do have a consensus. I trust Alleilah and I cannot say the same for you for I don't understand you."
The female looked as if she would pluck my heart out but did not hinder our departure.
Once again Alleilah led me through the streets of Samage~ (as the Samageins say it) and back to the safe house where I had overnighted. It was only late afternoon, but she nevertheless handed me over to Ammuzzas' keeping and begged me to stay there. I received a tender kiss on my exposed cheek as a parting gift from Alleilah, and from there on was confined more or less to the laundry room.
The other house staff would drop in, each in turn for a chat, each brief as they had to be about their business, but dutifully interested and talkative. Each on orders from Ammuzza to keep me occupied so I wasn't a risk to the house. I wanted badly to do something useful, but in truth there wasn't much I could do. Any manual labour was already being achieved and would anyway cause me to be seen. I could not read or write in Milatan, nor matriculate reliably in their manner even though I had a rough grasp of the system. In short, there was nothing I could think of to repay the kindness shown me. It was with a heavy heart I lay down to sleep that night for I had discovered that my presence was not only against the rules of the house, but also contrary to the law of the land.
It was the crotchety old male Isah~nad who was in charge of latrine duties that enlightened me to the situation. This was a land populated mostly by Milatan peoples, called the Driike~ but ruled by overlords of Aponian ancestry. These called the Asgar. The rule was not unduly harsh, but it was total.
In society there were three strata of status. Top of course, the ruling Asgar. Next; Driike~ collaborators known as Nah~tii, who policed and administered in return for the illusion of freedom. And last of course everyone else, the Rah~tii, who were all either slaves, or just as bad, bonded.
The Popular Reaction was a movement almost totally organised by slaves, who acted to reduce the influence of Asgar with the aim of eventually throwing them out. They robbed and killed Aponians, burned their houses and property and undertook any other act which could be disguised as an accident, for the Asgar knew of the movement and were ruthless in its suppression where they discovered it and excessive in retribution where its activity was suspected.
As we had spoken a massive hunt was underway. No doubt looking for me. Isah~nad assured me that the likelihood of my being found was slim. The soldiery were not really looking hard. Their sympathies lay with the movement, and no one from this house would betray my presence. They were all good Reactionaries.
I could not believe the mess I had put myself into. I am not normally a particularly heavy sleeper but these revelations caused me unease and affected my night. I woke at every noise, real or imagined only to doze off again in the stillness of the curfewed dark.
This time there was a noise however. A very faint rustle outside the door, and then the door itself moved. Silently and slowly it opened. Just as silently I grasped and freed Latiistabber. From behind the stacked blankets I saw one dark figure enter the room and the door close behind it. Carefully I eased into a position where I could bring Latiistabber to bear.
There was a rustle of cloth as the figure moved, hidden by the blanket stack from me, and then in the near pitch darkness a darker form crawled onto the shelf. Slowly and carefully closer and onto the point of Latiistabber. A gasp...Female?
"Yes?" I questioned in a whisper.
"It is me..Alleilah." Came the reply. Hushed and frightened. "I come to do you no harm."
I put down my weapon and she crawled right up alongside me.
"What brings you here now?" I questioned.
"I came to be with you." She answered, her breath warm on my face.
The entire conversation was in whispers and I told her, "I don't understand."
"We know the time." Was her reply. "And I would have you know my troth." Reaching for my hand, she took it and placed it on her breast. She was naked!
"Alleilah, this is wrong. It cannot be."
"Why?" She queried quietly. "Do you not care for me?"
I hesitated. How could I explain the difference? "I do." I breathed. "But not in the way you mean."
Her head lowered. "There is another then?" Said sad and strained, then. "No! Not the bitch. Not Aneissah? Has she turned your head?"
"Who's Aneissah?" I asked gently, assuring her that there was no other.
"The lady you saw today. The one who wore the yellow of the Popular Reaction? But if not her, and you say there's no other. Then why?"
"I am neut. That is why."
"I don't care!" She said, full of feeling. "I'll go there with you. We'll find a way."
"No." I responded. "Not neut, like another land different to Driike~. Neut, like different to male and female.
It was her turn to be puzzled.
"Where I come from there are three genders. I am of the third. We do not take part in mating and procreation.”
“I can't believe you." She sniffed. "You just don't want me." and started to move off.
Impulsively I reached out and held her, then drew her to me, embracing and comforting her. She in turn held onto me. There was tenderness, a feeling of quiet happiness. A bit like when you hold a tiny child only different.
After a while her head moved from my chest and I looked down to see she was all right. Her move surprised me as she brushed her lips on mine. I was taken aback and jerked suddenly.
"Oh!" Her face dropped again and she began to sob quietly.
"I'm sorry." I whispered. "You startled me. Please don't cry."
"Oh Ochta~r." Alleilah blurted in a choking voice. "What am I to do? I have offered my heart and brought my whole for you to take and yet you cannot even kiss me. Am I so vile?"
"No.” I said. “No, not at all. Just like I said. You surprised me."
Seeking to make amends I leaned and kissed her forehead.
"I cannot bear the shame Ochta~r." She sobbed, and looking up continued. "You must take me. I beg of you. All the household will know by morning what I have done, and to return unclaimed would be too much."
I felt like I would burst. This poor girl had risked curfew patrols and the wrath of her peers to lay herself before me, and what for? I could not tell. I asked as gently as I could.
Her reply was that she had known as soon as she saw me, and her heart had not ceased dancing since.
She would be mine forever, she vowed, no matter what.
"All right. All right." I said to calm her.
"Then," She announced solemnly. "I am claimed. Will you not now take me?"
"I don't understand quite what‑"
I was interrupted by her mouth on mine. Ever so gently. But touching and kissing me. I had never been kissed there before and I can tell that it was not at all unpleasant.
"Ochta~r, Alleilah breathed. "I am yours. You may say it another way in your land, but my meaning is clear."
With that she kissed me again, this time a little harder. It was not so pleasant. I pulled away.
"Alleilah." I spoke low. "Listen to me...I cannot do what I think it is you mean."
In the darkness I could not tell the reaction on her face, but that she listened I could discern from her posture and breathing.
"I am sorry, truly sorry for you. But it cannot be as you want. I am incapable."
There was silence.
"Not of love or care." I put in, trying to fill the void. "But of the act you need. Please believe me."
Another silence. "I would truly be." I was going to say honoured, but sensed that it would be insulting. Looking for a word I knew I ended with, "Fulfilled. If I could do this for you, if I could make you happy. The truth is I cannot.
Another silence, then.
"But you would if you could?"
"Yes." I answered, believing it. "Yes."
"And do you care for me, feel the bond, claim me?"
"Ye-es." I answered a little more hesitantly, not sure of the implication in the saying and not wanting to seem ignorant or stupid. "So tell me what does claiming involve here?"
Alleilah hesitated now.
"Your claim is accepted and that is all, unless my dowry can be paid, and then I am your slave, or your masters' slave. But none can touch me for I am claimed. I am yours alone. Forever."
"But?" I asked, puzzled. "This 'claim' will surely not be accepted once my status is known?"
"I have accepted now." She said. "And no‑one will know for we will not tell them."
"But," I said again. "I've already said I cannot breed with you."
"It is of no matter." She answered quickly. "The star tellers foretold your coming to me. I KNOW we are two, and rightly so. I know you are seeking the Sage and now I know why. Well now we will seek this Sage together for I will not leave you."
What could I say to that? Nothing that I could think of, so nothing I said.
Alleilah must have taken my silence as concurrence for she snuggled in closer to me, and after a while went to sleep, still in my arms. Carefully I pulled blankets over her to ward off the nights chills and eventually dozed off myself.
The dawn light high in the little window eased me into consciousness, with Alleilah still laid beside me. How we had managed to turn both the same way in the confined space without one waking the other eluded me. But it had been done, and it was she who must have turned and was still trapping my arm.
I laid awake whilst pondering the situation, trying not to move and so disturb her. I could discern no solution to it. There must be one. I just could not see it. Yet.
Alleilahs body stretched and wriggled, then resettled. Her eyelids unstuck one at a time and her dark eyes came into focus. She smiled a gently pleased crease on her face and relaxed, her eyes closing once more. A contented sigh emanated from deep within her and her eyes reopened to gaze directly at me.
"It is time for me to be up."" I said. "But I'll need my arm back."
She sighed again, less contentedly now and arched her back to free my arm. Almost immediately it was filled with pins and needles as blood flowed again along its length.
I dragged myself out from behind the blanket stacks and almost fell over catching my feet in her dress, that had been left on the floor. Picking it up I tidied and laid it on a shelf, telling Alleilah as I did it.
As the previous day, the house was quiet except for the kitchen boy who once again provided washing facilities for me. Returning to the storeroom, Alleilah waited there. Dressed now.
"I must go now my beloved Ochta~r for work calls, but I ask of you a keepsake. A token of claim to hold next my heart whilst we part."
There was nothing I could think of to do the trick, but rummaged through my bag nevertheless. There! That was perhaps the very thing! From the far corner at the bottom I produced a little coloured metal badge. The same one that Misak had bade us wear in Uptoul. Happily she pinned it to her dress, the colours of Swez still bright as she kissed me, full on the lips again and danced out.
My mind was not on Alleilah however, for whilst looking for the keepsake I had come across a small cloth bag that I had not known to be there. I had possibly seen it before, for it was not unlike the one in which my sparkstones were kept. That it was not the sparkstone bag was obvious for here that too was laid out on the shelf with all the other bits and bobs which had been contained in the main bag.
Opening this new cloth (new to me) I found to my amazement it contained four wrapped silver coins. Midean coins. I could not fathom how these had got there or why. That was, at first. For when I ran my mind back it seemed to me it must have been Rupiitii, and he must have put them there when we were in Uteii.
Even that seemed improbable for I had been in and out of my pack digging for the stones, food or other bits a hundred times since then. Surely I would have found them before. Perhaps not, I thought. They were right at the bottom in a corner after all. What is more, like now I would have at first thought they were my spark stones, which when I wanted them were always tied to the cooking pot handle. The same pot which in all probability still sat but scoured clean now beside a Varlan road.
It was entirely possible of course that they could have been put there as late as Woneii. I had hardly used my pots since then and it is not likely I would have discovered the duplicate bags. What was certain was that it could not have been any later. Why they were there at all was still a mystery.
There were any number of possible reasons, each depending on when the coins were deposited. As I did not know that, the reason would also elude me. I like to think it was Rupiitiis' way of sharing his gains, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary and with there never going to be the ability to find out, I will maintain that view. I fully checked all my property, to see that there were no more surprises. There were none. Everything repacked and the room and bedding tidied, I went for some breakfast.
Honey laden, dark almost black ground bean soup again and crisped breads with fresh curd was a day start meal I could get used to. Refreshed in body, if confused in mind I set out again for another day of enquiries. My appearance this morning was in marked contrast to yesterday. Gone were the Enaran shirt and trousers, the Legny seaboots and wide brimmed hat. Well not exactly gone, for they were in the storeroom. I now wore a voluminous sheet, pinned here and stitched there to match my form. Sandals and a hat that was really just a cloth draped ring.
This was much more in keeping with local dress style and had been provided by Ammuzza the previous afternoon. In it I felt much more at home, much safer, particularly as Latiistabber was secreted within the folds of the main garment.
Despite this I felt it prudent to avoid for a while all Asgaran premises. Unfortunately all the places of learning and knowledge were under direct Asgaran jurisdiction. I just wandered at first, hoping for inspiration. Merchants did not know, I tried most of them. The slaves did not know. The clerics I had spoken to did not know. What other manner of person could I ask?
There were tinkers, tailors, peddlers, moneylenders, smiths, carpenters, builders, bakers, butchers, farmers, hostellers and hustlers all rubbing shoulders in the hurly burly of Samage~ streets. I went to them all, one by one as the day wore on. No stone was left unturned in the search for information. I assure you that I would given up long since were it not for the original statement being so positive. As it was I was beginning to believe the entire affair a figment of imagination, a pointless quest for a non-existent person. The most positive thing to realise was that through all this, despite there being many soldiers patrolling the streets, never once was I stopped, or even looked at suspiciously.
Come days end, I had achieved nothing save to eliminate those sources from future enquiry. Another day, I told myself. Then I will give up and go on. Hot and dusty, I made my way back throught the tangle of streets to the place of lodging.
Ammuzza was seated in the kitchen as if waiting for something. That something was me. Lack of success must have been written large on my features for she opened as she fussed to get me a cup of fruit juice with; "I should have thought a young fellow would have looked a lot happier than this after last nights goings on."
"By the throne!" I muttered in my native tongue. "It did not take long for that to get out."
"What was that?" Ammuzza quizzed, cocking her ear trying to make sense out of my mumblings.
"Nothing." I told her, whilst thanking her for the refreshing drink she handed me.
"Well, I confess, I don't know what's got into that girls head, but it's a lucky day for you my lad." Ammuzza continued. "Not a day proclaimed and she's found you paid work. Can you believe it? Not only that but she's found out about your precious Sage."
I nearly dropped the cup in surprise.
"What?" I questioned, unable to contain myself. "Tell me more."
Ammuzza knew what I meant but teased me anyway.
"The job? That's excavating for a new building in the fourth sector, but Alleilah will tell you more when she gets here."
"And the Sage?" I followed.
"What's that ?" Ammuzza teased.
"You said." I started, then realised her game. "All right, all right, I'll wait.”
Sitting down, I finished the juice.
"Have you thought on where you'll stay? I mean by that, that you can't stay in that boxroom forever. Not that you have to move right now. But it's not safe for Alleilah to go to and fro at night."
I admitted that it had not crossed my mind in that form but I had considered moving out so not to be an encumbrance any longer. The question was, where?
"It's obvious." Ammuzza informed me. "There are two choices, well actually, three. First and best is to go back to your home."
By that she meant my house, or more precisely that of my master, for she could not conceive that a non Asgaran was unbonded. “and get your master to buy Alleilah. Second, to get Alleilahs' master to purchase your service so you both reside under his roof, or as Alleilah plans, for you to buy her from her master with the money from this work. For she, silly girl, believes you to be a freeman."
I could not be bothered arguing my status again, so instead questioned the sort of price Odaniie would be asking for Alleilahs "service" compared with the estimated wage for my work.
Ammuzza guessed that pay would be at about 2 Shokka a day. Which would mean just over 1 1/2 Susski a sector (yes, they were called Susski here too) which if we lived modestly would leave about 1/2 a Susski free to save (or pay back a loan) for Alleilahs hand. This was estimated currently at a minimum of 300 Susski.
"Breath of a Wolf!" I spluttered. "I did not pay that much for Hu~gen."
Ammuzza looked at me askance, not understanding my words, for again I had cursed in Surian. Reverting to Milatan I went on;
"How much, I mean, is that what it would normally cost for any slave? 300?"
"Have you no honour?" Ammuzza stormed. "How can you bargain for your loved one?"
I could not answer for a little while as I tried to make sense of it.
"I'm sorry," I told her "But I cannot see why Odaniie or any other should profit from this. All I asked was, is that price normal?"
Ammuzza hesitated. She too knew it would take a lifetime to obtain the sums needed. Perhaps the unattainability was a source of pride, the more expensive the more the worth.
"The price is good." She answered. "Alleilah is a fine girl who will be of great value to her master. It is right that the price be high."
To me that meant the price could be lower, I would make sure it was. 300 was extortion, here anyway. In Anapes it might be reasonable, that was if you could sanction a price on a life. After all I had only paid out 260 Suski for Hu~gen and in Anapes free craftsmen were getting 3 Suski a day. I fully expected this devaluation to be reflected in my silver.
"How," I asked "Did other folk in this situation cope?"
"Simple!" Ammuzza cried. "I have told you already. You must seek the approval of both masters and if a concurrence is reached then either you or she will be sold to be together. If not, then you stay apart."
"Hmm." I mused, I was actually thinking the 260 susski I’d coughed up for Hu~gen was by my way of counting. The price in Aponian had been 400. "I'd better do the honourable thing then." I said, and to Ammuzza queried, "Have you a suggestion on the best place for money arrangements?"
"Indeed." She replied. "For I deal in my masters finances for him on many occasions." She finished and there was a silence.
“And?" I prompted.
"I will make the arrangements for you." She replied.
"No. You don't understand." I started, then delved in my pockets, to produce one of the silver coins and then flipped it at her.
"All right. See what you can get for that."
She caught it reactively and opening her palm gawked in open-mouthed horror at it, then at me, and back at the coin.
"How did?" She blurted.
"Don't worry, it is mine." I assured her.
"But? You, but?" She gibbered. "This is a SILVER coin?"
"Yes." I confirmed.
She looked at the coin again, turning it over and over in her fat hands. Treasuring it. Suddenly she stopped. Inspecting the coin intently, she announced.
"It's wrong! This is a false coin!"
"No." I replied. "Midean in origin it may be, but it's silver and that's legal tender anywhere."
"I'll see what I can do." She responded. "But this alone will not buy Alleilah."
"Never thought it would." I returned. "But it'll help though."
"Yes." She said, walking out of the room. "Oh, yes."
I was not alone for long as Alleilah herself swept into the house scattering all before her in her radiant effervescence.
"Ochta~r! Don't you think I'm clever? Has Ammuzza told you?"
I nodded to both questions.
"Come on then." She continued almost without pause, "And I'll take you to the foreman. Come on!" She chided at my slowness to stand. "Oh, aren't you excited? I am! You know what this means? Oh! It means we can make a start."
By now we were out in the street and it was only the public-ness of the place that demanded that she ease her monologue. It was considered unseemly for any female to speak unless spoken to, and particularly so for slaves. A bigoted concept, but one I was thankful for now.
I followed her through the maze of down streets. I may not have explained, but a section of Samage~ was built in two levels. A raised level for autocrats and the well off and a lower level for the bondspeople and slaves who serve them. The two levels rarely merged and only occasionally were linked, excepting of course inside houses and buildings. It may be noted that the higher level only existed in the Asgar section and thus did not extend very far. It did however serve to segregate absolutely between the mighty and the mob. I was firmly stuck with the mob, primarily because that is where I first chose to go, for that is where the people are.
I digress. We came in a very short time to where a building had burned down and the blackened rubble was being cleared from the site by a gang of slaves, directed by an overseer.
Alleilah bade me watch and wait whilst she spoke with the fellow in charge, who was occupied with directing the stacking of bricks at the street side. I watched, and saw it was slow work, for the slaves would not imperil themselves and singly could not free or lift the larger stones. A steady stream of bricks was coming from the edges of the building though, and for now enough to suffice for the overseer who was ready with the whip for slackers.
I could not figure out where I would fit in. The foreman could, and laid it down in no uncertain terms. I was small, and therefore light. The centre of the collapsed building needed attention or it would collapse further as the sides were reduced. Two slaves had been sent into this section already. Both had died under falling masonry. One was still there, and knowing this the odour in the air immediately identified itself.
I did not like the sound of this at all. Nor did Alleilah when she realised the implication, but she had extolled my courage and ability, seen through eyes clouded by infatuation. Now neither she, nor I on her behalf, could let that image down.
Well, at least now I knew why the position was paid. Only a volunteer or the desperate would do it. I could see what was needed straight away. A loading beam like those on Legny ships, even two for there was no way I could get to the centre without disturbing the pile. So eroded were the sides now.
"I'll start in the morning." I told the foreman and walked away with Alleilah trailing.
"Now," I said, turning to face her. "The Sage."
"Not now!" She gasped, embarrassed. "Later."
"There's time now. Tonight. Tell me." I insisted.
"I cannot. Not here." She retorted, just as insistent.
"Take me then." Was my comeback.
"It is pointless. They are closed. It has to wait until morning."
"They?" I questioned.
"Later." She hissed.
Later it had to be. Much later. For back in the boxroom I waited alone. Alleilah had to return to Odaniies' house and her duties.
As before, she came to me naked. Once again I had to explain the futility of her advances and then comfort her distress. A natural link came here in her belief that our situation was connected to my search for the Sage. On my prompting she told me what she had learned.
The Sage was a misnomer. Medical problems of a special or unusual nature were referred to the Survival Studies Advisory Group at the Research Applications Wing of the Samage~ Institute of Cultural Advancement. This advisory group constituted what I and all other foreigners thought of as the Sage.
Alleilah had found this by talking to her appointed health checker. The checker had told Alleilah to use a specific oil on her skin and given her special devices to raise my ardour. In truth I had noticed an odd odour, but like the devices they could not raise the nonexistent. Alleilah was prepared to persevere, for the checker had also recommended finding a more able and willing suitor.
Alleilah would have none of this, and was thus assured that should these wiles not succeed, the matter would go to the SSAG.
She had asked if this were turned into an acronym or otherwise referred to as the Sage and the answer had been yes. But only by foreigners who as special cases were sent there as a matter of course. The story going round the physician’s circle was that the door to the correlation unit was marked in Asgaran "No Entry". At a glance this looked quite like the way the Varlan would write "Expert" and of a consequence misread, and the mistake spread, much to the benefit of the institute for through that it had become regarded as the final word on all matters medical.
I could believe this, especially after witnessing the rift between Enar and Nul. What it meant though, was that there would be another days delay before I could approach the Sage (SSAG) with my questions. That was, of course, if they were really the people who I wanted to hear them, with any hope finding answers.
The night passed quickly, and at dawn again Alleilah was away back to her duties, leaving me to breakfast and report for work.
I found the place with not too much difficulty, arriving at much the same time as the slave work party. There were two other paid workers other than the oversir and the foreman. Both were bricklayers who were at present there to ascertain reusability of the masonry. During the rebuild they would be supplemented with carpenters, plasterers, roofers and other artisans necessary for the completion of the building. For now, I was the only addition.
I suggested a load arm, or gantry to the foreman, but was told quite simply that the wood for such devices was not available. If it were, I would not be needed. The best I could solicit was a ladder with which to reach the top of the brick pile. I took care to properly wedge its base so if the stack moved it would not slip away and dump me into mobile masonry. Even so the course of the day there were some frightening moments as I gradually wore away the top of the pile.
Conglomerated sections of brick I took a hammer to in situ and passed down the more handleable broken down sections. Larger blocks I levered, removed a pivot stone and let go after ensuring they would not fall toward me. These would in the end lie at a level where they could be safely removed. But that would not be today.
Thankfully, for working in the direct sun became almost unbearable, a halt was called to activity before noontime. Climbing down from the ladder, Alleilah was waiting with water and food. I needed both but could not deal with the latter without copious quantities of the former.
Other females were in attendance to the rest of the workforce, slaves included, although not all had the individual attentions that I received. During this time Alleilah informed me that she had already seen her checker but was advised that referral to SSAG would take three working days, and we should attend on the fourth. More delay, but at least I knew that the target was insight, even if I could not at present reach it.
I genuinely believe Alleilah was saddened for me. She certainly appeared so, and it tied in with the seriousness with which she undertook all her 'wifely' obligations. Of Ammuzza, she did not know save it was understood that a 'favourable deal' had been struck. She did not know until I told her then, of the silver coin. The joy on her face was a sight to behold, and in flagrance of custom she hugged me openly. In keeping with tradition all those present looked away. But all had seen and disapproved. It was not an attitude I was going to let bother me.
Work resumed when the afternoon cooled, shaded by adjoining premises. It was no less arduous nor less dangerous for this but again I managed to avoid major mishap. With the going down of the sun work ceased. It would not be resumed until two days time for the morrow was the Driikan New Year.
At first I had been confused, for New Year had long gone and I thought I must have misunderstood but the phrase was confirmed as correctly translated. I even found out that Varlan and the Aponians celebrated this at the same time.
The foreman was intrigued that anyone could think it different but sent me on my way after first ensuring,
"In accordance with custom," He told me, that I had a companion to stay with until dawn. For no one slept now until next dark.
He also paid me my two shokka for the day. This would not normally have been paid until eight days were past, but it was considered unlucky and bad form to be in debt as the year changed. I popped the two green glassy beads into my money purse. An odd currency, I thought. But if it sufficed here, it would do me.
The superstition over debts manifested itself shortly after, for on my return to the box room Ammuzza was waiting, anxious to divest herself of my money. The deal she had struck was most pleasing. For silver, by Aponian standard I had expected around 100 Susski, here maybe not more than 250. Whereas Ammuzza had bargained to 400, (260 to me) considering its intended use this was unbelievably coincidental. For that was the exact sum I had parted with in Zoma for Hu~gens bondage.
Well pleased I was, and projected this to Ammuzza, whilst trying to give her a cut from the proceeds of the deal. She would not take it, saying that I would need it all for Alleilah. The extra for her purchase could not be acquired until the New Year if our union were not to be unlucky.
I countered her argument with the concept that I was in her debt for accommodation and fiscal exchange. I could not remain so through the night. Alleilahs bondage would have to wait until morning anyway and a susski or two would neither ruin nor clinch the affair. Reluctantly, Ammuzza concurred and accepted 8 susski for the monetary transaction and a further 4 for accommodations. One for past hospitality and three for the future. (Almost incredible when one thinks that I was paying between 14 and 26 a night in Anapes, albeit for two people.)
Alleilah had been here earlier, but because I was working had missed me. She had left a message that she would see me later, after her duties.
Running purely on intuition and emotion I made my way to the house of Odaniie and knocked on the front door. Naturally enough for these climes the door was answered by a slave girl, fortunately not Alleilah. I requested a meeting with the master of the house, naming Odaniie. For in truth I was not absolutely certain that I had acquired the right door.
The girl ushered me in and bade me wait whilst she fetched her master. I did not have to wait long. Both Odaniie and his wife came down. He was at once awkward, recognising me in an instant and knowing the link he wanted nothing to do with me. His wife was different, plainly aware of Alleilahs feelings and wishes. I came clean and told them that my intent was to bid for Alleilahs servitude. I was a foreigner and therefore not slave so this I could do.
Odaniie wishy washied and upgraded then downgraded Alleilah. Upgrading to increase her price, downgrading to preclude her sale.
"Enough!" I told him. "I am a freeman and cannot therefore have anothers’ slave as my claimed partner. Tell me your price that I may start the year in honour."
"340." He replied, quick as a shot.
"The old year has dazed your wits." I told him. "You yourself have indicated she's not worth more than 140."
"That's if I were selling her at the spring fair, amongst thousands." Odaniie countered. "This is a sellers market now."
"If that were her price then, it should be her price now." Was my retort. "But I will offer 200 as she is special to me. It is as far as I can go."
"Done!" Said the wife.
"What do you mean?" Odaniie screeched.
"The boy's in love." The wife said. "Would you have an enemy or a friend? This way we all have honour. Your way no one does. You are just wealthier. For a while."
"What do you mean?" Odaniie asked slyly.
Turning to me the wife said. " I talk and listen to the staff so I know what goes on. I have heard of your prowess. Now show my husband your weapon."
"I do not see its relevance." I told her.
"Please just show us the weapon you keep about you all the time."
I dragged out Lattistabber from the folds. Odaniies eyes went large.
"Now tell us how many people have you killed with this." She asked.
"This one?" I answered, thinking about it. "None I think."
"I have heard stories though." She prompted.
"Those were other similar weapons." I assured her.
"But can you tell how many lives you have taken?" She pressed.
"In truth." I answered again. "I cannot."
"So? What's the deal?" Odaniie angrily interjected.
"What he means, my husband is that the number of deaths at his hand is beyond counting." The wife proffered.
"Gahh! Just talk." Odaniie derided.
"The incident at the house of enlightenment the other day" Odaniies wife continued, looking first at Odaniie then at me. Pointedly. "Ring any bells?"
Odaniie looked at me. Then his wife, then back at me. At latiistabber and back at his wife.
"All right." He asked me. "Where did you get that thing?”
I told him.
"See!" He chirped to his wife. "Off a DEAD soldier!" Turning again to me. "Did you kill him then? Eh? Eh?"
"I don't truthfully know." I answered. "After all there were so many, I lost track of which ones I as an individual caused to die. It's not something I care to analyze."
Odaniie swallowed noticeably and backed down, accepting and eventually conceding albeit reluctantly on the price.
A swift document was drawn up, transferring all rights over Alleilah, from him to me in eternity. She was now my slave. Alleilah was sent for, and came at length into the room looking somewhat crestfallen, for it was by now late. I had stood in a corner out of her view so when Odaniie told her she had been sold, her face was an image of horror. Until she turned to see her new owner.
Running across the room, her visage now a picture of joy, she flung herself at me. It was as well that I stood against a wall for otherwise she would have sent me flying.
"Oh! Ochita~r!" She crooned. "I just love you!"
Then turning serious faced, "I promise to serve you faithfully all my days." Then cheekily, "Oh, and nights!"
"Come," I told her." We must see through the night to a New Year and for you, a new life."
As we left, even Odaniie looked happy. His wife was overjoyed and the house staff jubilant. This time I led Alleilah through the streets. She was beside herself with pride and happiness. It radiated out of every pore of her being.
The journey was interrupted, for passing near one of the few open spaces in Samage~ I had to come to a stop and investigate. A sound, so ethereal, so enchanting, emanated from the courtyard. There was a throng of people, but all were silent to hear the sounds.
"What is it?" I whispered to Alleilah.
"This is the song of the old year." She whispered back. "Have you never heard it?"
I answered no, to which she suggested we listen to it all. I had to concur, and we joined the mass of listeners sat in the plaza.
This was no song like any you would suspect. There were no voices or words, yet the sadness of the old year about to die, and the tales of its times were clear for all to hear.
An ensemble of some twelve players were engaged in the synchronous and harmonious working of a battery of devices, to produce a series of noises ( No. Noises cannot describe the effect of this audible delight ) which Alleilah tells me is what these people think of as music.
It seemed to last forever, and time stood still for its playing. I, and I could see Alleilah likewise, was totally captivated by it. Like all things, an end came to it. The old year died, and people around wept at the sadness. Such was the power of the music. I did not weep, but was nonetheless in a state of reverie, which Alleilah broke.
"They will play the song of the new year later, we should eat and drink in the meantime. What say you Ochita~r?"
"What? Oh, yes. All right." I answered, still in a trance.
Finding the house empty and the ovens cold, I was a little perturbed.
“What is going on?" I said to myself.
Alleilah answered. " Everyone is out for this night. All are free. If you came here for food, we will not find it. There is plenty on the market though if you've coinage. Best check your room first as Ammuzza may have left us midnight rations. All the other slaves will have them."
We checked, and there were none. Before leaving again Alleilah took two blankets.
"What did you want them for?" I had asked.
"Later, when it cools." Was her reply, as she draped one over her shoulders and the other round mine.
Just like she had said, there were food vendors a plenty in the market streets. One of the little green stones acquired a basket of hot filled pastries, an urn of pale ale and two mugs of hot crushbean soup. There were even small stones in return, though I could not be sure of the colour in the darkness. Alleilah could, and haggled the price on realising that I was not going to.
Walking back to the Plaza we passed at least a dozen other ensembles of various sizes and make up, performing tunes of differing types. I was taken with none so much as the first, although we did sit and listen to one or two whilst we drank our soup and ate a roll each.
We talked as we strolled through the ever-noisier streets, now full of celebrating Driikans, most becoming quite inebriated as the festivities gained pace. There were jugglers, acrobats, tricksters and taletellers, each busy entertaining and earning.
Alleilah told me of Driike and Samage~. Of the traditions and expectations. Of her hopes and expectations, and how they were now all changed. I in turn told her something of my home and my travels. Bits she did not know already.
And then we were back at the plaza. This too was now noisy and getting noisier, so much so that we had to shout to hear each other. A wave of cheering grew and grew, to absolute intensity as the ensemble returned to their instruments.
One stoke of a device hushed the crowd. There were coughs and whispers as the players settled themselves. The noise from adjacent streets was plain, though muted. It was drowned as a short section of music came from the players. The crowd erupted in adulation. Once again the roar subsided and the musicians began again.
A series of shorter pieces followed, all calculated to delight the listeners and encourage participation. Some were songs, to which the assembly provided the words. Belting them out like battle cries, caught up in the fervour of the moment.
There was "Driike, my home", "Blegar sands", a haunting melody, and the blood stirring, unequivocally patriotic "City of Samage~". The moment of which was not lost on even me, a foreigner. How the Asgar permitted it I do not know, for this was a self conscious fervour, which unleashed, completely vanquished the simple pride and practicality of the Varlan system. So close and yet worlds away. With this music on its side, the Driikan way, despite its wrongs and inadequacies would always prevail against the island sensibility of Varlan.
I considered this in depth as Alleilah and I lay in the sands of Blegar, just outside the Dewike~ gate, watching as the stars marked their course overhead. It would have been a cold vigil but for the blankets and our combined body warmth. The pale ale we had drunk had sent Alleilah to sleep, quite against her intents and the teachings of her custom. She was not the only one however. There were others around us in the wastelands, and snores from various quarters could quite plainly be heard.
They ceased with the lightening of the sky, and I too shook Alleilah gently awake to witness the dawn. It matched in visual splendour, the song of the New Year, which had been the last piece of the ensemble before the concert ended in the dark subspans after midnight.
I had seen dawns before a plenty. Even dawn in the parched lands of Varlan just over the river, but no rising of the sun matched that of this morning. Perhaps it was the pureness of the sand, which echoed the suns hues and harshness. Perhaps it was the sharing of the experience. I do not, and probably shall not ever know. All I can say is that this is a sensation beyond my means to describe. I recommend it to all. It is not the meaning of life, but it comes close to feeling like it.
The rising of the New Year sun was spectacularly beautiful, but once up, its swiftly enfilading heat drove us back to the cool city. Alleilahs head and eyes were muzzy, and my throat was exceeding dry. Both from the effects of the pale ale we had drunk. Picking our way through rubbish strewn streets, evidence of the previous nights festivities, we came at last to the door of my lodging. Therein fruit juice and sustenance were to be found. Gratefully, Alleilah and I partook of them and retired to the box room to sleep.
On waking, my first conscious thought was that Alleilah had gone. I was not concerned. It was just a matter of note. She had been there, or at least seemed to be, every time I turned around. The fact that she was not now could only mean there was something else she had to be doing. What, I could not guess, for she had no duties to attend to since her service was purchased.
No matter. I got up, washed and dressed. Clean, ready for work. Then I remembered there was none today. Very well, I would sightsee. I asked Ammuzza and Isna~had what was worth visiting but neither knew of anywhere. Their horizons were severely limited. Similarly neither knew of Alleilahs whereabouts. I asked no more, and set out on my own explorations.
It turned out that I had more or less been everywhere in the city already. Excepting that was, the Asgaran sections. Plainly it was in one of these that my business lay. Without being able to read the signs despite the information that Asgaran/Driikan writing was similar, I was lost. Well, not literally. For I could find my way about with increasing confidence. Each section of the city having a character of its own.
I wandered freely all afternoon, for the streets were empty, or nearly so at least. I presumed everyone to be sleeping off the effects of over celebration. In my touring I saw buildings of note, but none to compare with the masterpieces I had witnessed in previous towns. In all this walking I did not once see Alleilah. She was waiting on my return however. I did not ask where she had been. She would tell me in her own good time if she had a mind to.
There were sweetmeats and bean soup waiting (this time fresh bean soup). After I had eaten and Alleilah had bathed my feet (It is apparently a thing that slaves do for their masters) I retired into the box room. She followed.
"Aren't you going to ask me what I've been doing?" She questioned.
"No." I answered.
A long pause, then. "Why?"
"Why aren't you going to ask me?"
I told her why.
"Oh." Was all she could say. Then; "You're different." Another pause. "But then I'm glad. I love you because you're a very different master."
This statement jogged my memory. Yes, I was now her master, and thinking of how attitudes in Anapes were, I had better do something positive here.
"I suppose that I should find other, more socially acceptable accommodations now." I said to Alleilah.
"Oh goody!" She cried. "I'm glad you've said it. I've looked at some today and there's just the place for us. There were some nicer dwellings but I think they're a little too expensive. Not that this place is cheap mind, but it's pleasant and with a little work will do nicely."
I was flabbergasted. This girl did not miss a trick, nor even wait for the conjurer to move.
"There is one problem." She continued. "And that's that you have to pay the deposit tomorrow for us to retain the place."
"I know you're working." She started again before I could speak.
"But if you give me your seal and the money, I can deal with all the details."
"How much is it then?" I asked, lost for comment. The reply was again stunning
"10 susski deposit and 1 a sector in advance, or 140 in cash."
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
"We'll need carpets and bedding as well and they'll set you back a few, well I've already allowed 3 susski for that, so I need 14 before I buy food."
"Where do you think I am to get this kind of money?" I finally managed.
Alleilah looked at me askance.
"You have it in your purse." She told me. "Ammuzza told me of your rate of exchange on the silver coin. I know how much you had left and how much you paid for me. By that you should have 44 susski, 1 shokka, 3 ahran and an ahranla including what you earned and what we spent last night."
If she knew that much, she knew better than I. I flung my hands into the air and gave her the money. Plus of course a shokka for food. I contemplated giving her the lot, but held back, wanting to be more sure of her thinking before such a move.
"Don't worry." She assured me as she snuggled up to sleep. "You'll love it."
I awoke with the dawn to find Alleilah gone again. This time it was only as far as the kitchens. The kitchen boys' bean soup and breads were no longer good enough. Alleilah had made special measures of each. Just for me. I found the process embarrassing, but held my tongue. I was packed off to the building site and to work.
The New Year had not changed the way things were done and so perseverance was the order of the day. With me picking my way carefully over the stone heap, removing the top of the pile bit by bit.
Alleilah was there at noon when the work stopped. She had food, water and a new dress. I said nothing save thanking her for the refreshments. She in turn did not mention it, talking only of the property we had acquired. I noted how it was "we", and yet other slaves about referred to these things as "yours" when talking to their masters. I noted that they noticed too, and they were not impressed. Alleilah was ambitious and neither slaves nor masters approved. I would have to speak to her about it, but not here and not now.
Work continued later at a slower pace for the heat, even though that was now diminishing. I was glad when darkness came and the task ceased until dawn came again. Alleilah had returned and now guided me to our new home.
This was further away than either she or I had been staying, though not by much. The premises was built in three floors, and surrounded a shaded garden of pentagonal shape. We had the second, or middle, floor on one side with a balcony overlooking the fertile central area that was heavily overhung with plants which dipped into running water.
Within, there were five connected rooms that would have been bare save for the rugs Alleilah had scattered on the floors. On these sat conveniently placed large cushions together with low tables. The walls of each room were in a different colour, but each had a darker base with a pale motif overlay. All in all an opulent abode, but quite soulless.
As she bathed my feet after the tour, Alleilah told me of her plans for the place. A screen here, a drapery there, a cloth echo of the motif on one wall, an urn with a trail plant to occupy a corner and a gauzecloth lowered ceiling in the sleeping room. Her imagination turned a home into a palace.
All unnecessary I thought. For we, or at least I, would see the SSAG tomorrow and soon be gone homeward. For the present I could humour Alleilahs' dreams.
The present quickly pointed out that it would last longer than I thought. The waiting time stipulated had been three workingdays, not including the day of enquiry. That meant that my first appointment was not until the 6th (this weird numerical system again) day of the new sector, for every fourth day was a rest day.
I found the wait frustrating, but held my tongue and patience. If it were anything like the answer I sought, it would be worth waiting for. In compensation, my days were full, rising before dawn to breakfast and then straight to the building site. Back to the rooms at noon to see what new trickery Alleilah had concocted to transform our living quarters.
This was a better arrangement than her coming to me as, for one, it avoided the awkwardness our situation engendered, and two I thought it pointless to sit outside in the heat when I could rest in the shade. Besides, the walking to and fro kept my legs in trim for the journey home. Back to work I would go in late afternoon until dark and then home again to Alleilahs pampering.
The off day we spent walking together through the gardens of Samage~. Revelling in the abundance of fruits and vegetables grown there. This existence was pleasant, and in reality, not too expensive. With Alleilah getting through almost a susski a day, dressing the house up, the rate it was going I reckoned it would all be done for another 24 susski even if I stayed that long.
The 6th came round at last and at the appointed hour, at the appointed place Alleilah and I presented ourselves to the SSAG. It was a let down.
"I am sorry." The physic told us after an interminable wait. "But there is no one available to deal with your enquiry at present. Come back in four working days and we'll see what can be done."
Dejectedly we both returned to the business of life.
I was glad I was working. It occupied my time and mind and at least paid for food. Fully taken though my time was, it was incomplete and meaningless. I was truly glad of Alleilahs companionship and energy. She lifted my spirits whilst emptying my purse. She was worth it. Unstinting in her efforts to please my humour and palate. Untiring in her efforts to run a worthy home. Unquestionable in her loyalty to me.
I lost half a days pay for the first visit to SSAG. I lost a whole day for the second. The conclusion was the same, excepting that I was granted another twenty-four days in the country, and I had to go back to the border post to have this validated. Furthermore, this time the wait was going to be ten days.
In this time, the clearance of the house was completed and I was ostensibly out of work. It did not happen like that though. I was kept on as a trusty, a watcher over and organiser of slaves. It did not mean that I was an oversir, not at all. The position fell sort of between the two. It was a means of getting more work out of slaves, with fewer beatings and shouting. A sort of putting someone of high order into a dirty job to appease the workers. As such it seemed quite effective. The slaves did work better when someone was not subject to the lash struggled and heaved as they did.
It was in this time that I once again witnessed the Yellow shirt of the Popular Reaction. A search was on. The Garrison soldiery were systematically going through the lower floor population. I had heard that this happened from time to time in other parts of the city, but was rare here in the 4th quarter. They already had three suspects beaten and guarded in chains, when the search came to us.
The soldiers ransacked the site, patently enjoying the opportunity to vent aggression. The squad leader had every individual slaves mark checked, and also took a long hard look at all non slaves working here. The search squad was just about to go as I stood in their path.
"Move!" The squad leader growled.
"Move yourself." I replied. "I want every single brick put back as it was."
"Go stuff! Now get out of my way before I arrest you. Squirt!" Was the squad leaders' retort.
I did not move.
"I'm warning you shorty!" Squadleader grumbled angrily.
"And I am warning you!" I came back. "A few bricks I could understand, but this is wanton. Soldiery are answerable to society. Not the other way round. So fix it!"
“Go screw yourself!" He said in reply. "This is your last chance. Move or I'll arrest you."
I did not move. He reached for the weapon at his side, but before his hand was on the hilt I had said;
"That is not an action I would recommend."
He stopped in mid move. I had thought I sounded hurried, but my words had worked. I was told later that they had carried absolute authority and power. The squadleader was convinced of the implicit threat therein anyway. He stood, rooted. Incapable of decision. The matter was saved for him, and perhaps I, for the yellow coat was shown in the street as the three prisoners were spirited away.
The soldiery went mad, tearing after the abductors helter skelter, first this way and then that. All of them were really angry about it. I could understand that, for two of their number were face down in the street in congealing pools of blood. This to me was madness. There was not an Asgaran involved. All the soldiery here and all the civilians were Diikan, and all even from the same city. And yet they were killing each other.
How can such lunacy be contemplated, let alone explained? I do not know, and doubt that I ever will. What I do know is that we had to clear up the building site anyway, and so my stand was wasted, utterly pointless, even, when one thinks on it, pathetic. I had this to ruminate on for the rest of the wait.
The seemingly interminable time passed and once again I was at the door of SSAG. This time I came alone. Alleilah was busy with a new wall decor. It was better this way anyway. This time the long wait in the tiny room gained a reward.
I was escorted through a series of corridors and into the presence of a collator. I could not believe what was said next. All this time to be asked;
"What is the problem?"
Restraining my impulse to start smashing things and walk away, I patiently told of a family problem affecting the ability to sire males. A series of probing question and answers then ensued, at the end of which the collator excused himself for a short while and then returned to advise me to come back in four working days to see researcher Omiigor.
Back to the pattern of life I was becoming used to I went. The wall decor was stunning. Alleilah even had people visit to view it. Well to do people. People of position. I knew this from their small talk, and it did not sit right with me. It transpired that even Asgar had been here when I was not. Alleilah knew the people of the Popular Reaction. How, or what was she doing with their tormentors?
I put this to her on the night before I was due back at SSAG. She would not tell me, and asked me not to either question her actions or loyalty to me, nor to betray her to these people. In other words "Shut up and mind your own business." But said nicely.
Researcher Omiigor was in fact a wizened old male, but I did not find this out straight away. The person I was directed to, and presumed to be Omiigor was female, and I guessed to be of middle years. It was she who read the notes on my file as if for the first time as I sat before her.
This created an unnatural silence, a sort of chasm between the knowing and the supplicant. I waited patiently and unintimidated by the attempt at mental domination. This was rewarded at the readings end for she looked up and repeated a number of questions from the file. I in turn reiterated the answers in a very controlled fashion despite mounting annoyance.
The researcher carefully compared my answers with those written down then announced that there would have to be tests done on my body fluids.
"We need samples of your piss, your blood and your semen." She told me. Producing three bowls. "I'll take blood now, that'll make you piss and we'll get the other later."
I started to protest, but she quelled me. Asking did I want the solution to this, or not?
Taking my arm, she cleaned a patch of skin and made a small nick with a sharp knife. The bloodflow was caught in one of the bowls until enough of a sample was obtained. She handed me a small cloth wad to stem the flow whilst she took the blood away. Returning briefly she told me to take the second bowl and produce a piss sample of similar proportion to the blood. This was not so easy as one might imagine, however at length I succeeded.
The sample sat waiting for some time before being collected however. When it was I was brusquely informed that the third sample should have been there as well. At this I gave vent. Even then I was interrupted in mid stride so to speak.
"Right! I'll sort that!"
And out she went again.
It was not long before a much younger female entered and began to disrobe in a rhythmic, dance type action. She carried a strong odour, much like that Alleilah had worn in her attempt to entice me. It had not worked then and it would not work now for exactly the same reason.
The girls failure to arouse was obvious, and discomfited her considerably. I was too embarrassed by the crass effort. If something so base could turn the mind of a male, I was glad that I was not one. She in turn departed, to be replaced by the female I thought to be Omiigor. She too was agitated and demanded a full physical inspection. At this I called a halt, reminding her firmly that I was not of her race and not even of this land. Slowly and laboriously I described the genders of my race and indicated where I stood. That is to say, Neut.
Her only comment before leaving was;
"I'll have to refer this to Omiigor."
I waited what seemed to be a subspan before Omiigor came. It was then that I learned who was who. The female, called Enuphiis, dealt with most of Omiigors' work on account of his age and infirmity, and would in time completely take his place.
With the intense aloofness of the old, Omiigor heard my tale repeated once again.
"Hmm." Was his pronouncement.
A long pause, then another. "Hmmmm."
Another pause, "I'll have to think on this one....There is an idea somewhere in this old head, but I'm not sure of it. Give me a few days and I'm sure it'll come. Eh?”
With that he ambled out, as best as one can amble with every joint creaking. I was left alone, and no one came back so after a while I considered that to have been it. I left.
Alleilah was agitated too. I could really have done with her to be relaxed, with a meal prepared. In truth, her agitation was well founded. I had been abnormally long at the SSAG. This allied to the fact of there being a major sweep to pick up agitators and in particular against the Popular Reaction again. With all the local leaders taken this time, this had led her to fear for my safety now, and her own in the longer term.
"You have nothing to be afraid of." I assured her. "After all you have done nothing wrong, and anyway you are in higher circles now and they will speak up for you."
Alleilah rebuffed me on both counts.
She had run messages, hid people and even on one occasion worn the yellow cloak. As to present circles, they would dump someone as quick as look at them in order to save themselves. Besides, she had been gaining confidences to gain information. This had already caused one Asgaran demise, which itself wad the reason for the roundup.
I could not believe it. Well, I could. But hardly. "Why do you only tell me this now?" I asked.
"Two reasons." She replied. "Firstly, as you are endangered, you have a right to know. Particularly as my husband and supposed owner. Second, we have a guest."
"When, and who?" I blurted, completely taken aback.
"Here and now. I'm sorry. I know I should have sought your permission but you were gone so long and it couldn't wait."
Out from our spare room stepped a youth. Not much older but a lot less assured than she. He was also a slave, I noted.
"This is Ahmanhad." Alleilah introduced. "He has done work for the reaction today and his hideout has been discovered. There is nowhere safe for him to go, except here. If you turn him out he will be caught and killed."
Faced with that I did not really have much choice. I did make one condition however, which was that Alleilah produce some food in very short order. This condition was met.
The following days were fraught, for the Angar had really clamped their authority down in the wake of the killing. They were in the city in adequate numbers to retain control provided rioting did not break out, and so long as this was the case they still had the locally raised troops in their power.
It was rumoured that a messenger had been sent out for Asgaran war legions to advance on the city in case of trouble. If it came to them having to enter, either to bolster the local government or to retake the city after insurrection there would be massive bloodletting. I wanted to be out before that happened.
My visit to SSAG could not have come sooner. It was the usual wait, the Enuphiis escorted me to Omiigor. I was taken to a different place and through a door marked NO ENTRY. SSAG RESEARCH APPLICATIONS AUTHORISED PERSONS ONLY. I know because I asked. In side were every imaginable device and beast, and quite a few beyond imagination.
Omiigor was stood in front of a glass cabinet.
"Ahh! There you are at last!" He greeted. "This is it I think.”
Tapping the glass caused the air inside to vibrate to a thousand wings.
"The Lesser Banded Narrow Wing Blue Buzzer. That's it!"
I did not understand and said so.
Omiigor explained. All available life was studied here, to see how it adapted to the world. Amazing things one could learn.
"Do you know?" He stated. "There's a fish which lives in dried up rivers for up to three years, then when it rains up it pops and swims about! Amazing!"
He returned to the subject in hand.
"The Blue Buzzer. It has a life cycle of 23 days. That makes it really good to see changes through generations. We've fried them, frozen them and starved them, completely changed diet. The amazing thing is they always change to suit the conditions. Whole colonies die sometimes in the changing of course, but that's neither here nor there.
How this relates, is on restricted diet and in confinement it has been found that in a number of cases males cease to be produced. You might think this is terminal, but it stops as soon as one of three things occurs. First, the diet or confinement is changed. The second probably because the introduction of new members puts the sequence back to start. That is to say, put a few new buzzers in the cage and it's as if all the buzzers were only just caught. The process goes on another thousand generations or so and the problem crops up again.
The last occasion is when a change in the buzzers themselves happens. Then it all settles down, but in that changing, as I said before, too often the entire colony perishes. Now, in higher forms it has been shown that lack of Zaphrod can be a contributory cause to such a condition. That's an 'O' ihibitor by the way, so relevant to you with respect to the AO-BD complex.
Now looking at you young fellow, er, thing. Whatever. I'd say you were from a very old race. We still haven't had the blood tests back." Turning to Enuphiis. "Have we?"
She silently indicated to the negative, so he continued.
"So nothing's definite, but you've at least heard where my thinking is leading. Now off you go and we'll get some more data before seeing you again. Say? Five days?"
“Can you explain this AO-BD thing?” I questioned.
“Of course.” Omiigor replied. “But I suspect it may take too long and be too complicated for you to understand.”
“Try me please.” I returned. “I may not be as wise as you but I am no fool and I’ve come a long way for answers.”
“Simply then.” Omiigor acquiesced. “There is a well expounded theory born out by experimentation that all creatures are in possession of the master information for their replication. The female carries what we call the A and O humours for offspring. The male has humours in a similar manner but naturally different and we term these the B and D humours. The matching of the female A and male D produce male offspring, an A and B produce females. The O with either a B or D produces workers or soldiers. Now these sterile offspring are common where creatures live in large complex colonies but not so in more advanced species like ours. We know the O to be stimulated by Dexigen and inhibited by Zaphrod and it may be stimulated or inhibited by other factors as yet unproven, but there you are. It’s not present at all in our own people as far as we can tell, at the least it would be very rare but clearly it is still there in yours.”
Somewhat taken aback at the inference that ‘my people’ were not an advanced speicies I nevertheless thanked him for the explanation and left them to get on with it. Five more days and I might have the complete answer! Elated at the concept I returned jubilantly home. The jubilation was quelled on arrival, for the front door was hanging on its hinges. Even worse, the sounds of a fight came from inside.
I entered to find the place ransacked and five soldiers trying to beat their way into our spare room. From the sounds and voices both Ahmanhad and Alleilah were in there and resisting. It did not take much brainpower to realise that this was not a time to try bargaining. So in my best stentorian tones I ordered.
The effect was immediate. The fighting stopped as the soldiers turned and came to attention. Sadly, they then saw that the orderer was me.
"What do you want, runt?" Growled one.
"Yeah. Bugger off." Said another.
“Get out of my house!" I retorted hotly.
"You live here?" Queried the first, almost in glee. "Well, you're arrested too then!"
He came at me, free hand raised to strike but weapon readied. Neither came into play for I drew Latiistabber from the folds of my clothes. The sight of it made the soldier slash at me, but stabber was the better tool. The weapons met in jarring discord and his gave.
As he pulled it free to make a second stroke, a large nick in the cutting edge was plainly visible. His eyes widened at the phenomenon and his concentration was diverted. There was no time for him to regain it before stabber was embedded in his guts. Against the impossible, his eyes widened further. But no sound left his throat until I had kicked him clear of the shaft. Even then it was a shocked and subdued groan expelled through a half open mouth as his legs suddenly were unable to support his body.
There was a hesitation as the next two took in their companion jerking on the ground and retching blood. Then they attacked. The choice was easy. Half step right and swing to disintegrate an elbow and kick the feet out from under the disbelieving agonized victim. Power back down over the falling body to shatter the upturned blade and smash the forearm of the second. The eyes, dulled by pain failed to see my stepping over the now prostrate second assailant and recognised stabber thrusting back up too late to prevent the tip tearing into the muscles and vessels of the neck. A yank and twist was sufficient to ensure death as well extract stabber ready for the next contenders.
They had been toying with Ahmanhad. They did not do so with me. Nor did they survive. Latiistabber will splinter any bone, be it of arm, leg or skull. All are treated with aplomb. It will gouge out an eye in an instant. It has no scruples. It has no morals. It has no heart. All these can only be held by the wielder, but once it is unsheathed Latiistabbers spirit takes over.
Regaining my senses after returning stabber to my belt, I looked up to see both Alleilah and Ahmanhad staring at me. I broke the silence with;
"I think it might be a good thing not to be here for too much longer."
Neither said anything, but swiftly by passed the bodies and the groaning, crying injured to collect their most vital items.
For my part, all I had to do was pick up my bags as they had never really been unpacked. True, I took the time to grab some supplies and a replacement pot from the kitchen, but was ready in a trice.
Moving as quickly and carefully as possible in the streets and alleys, we made our way via two other houses to Ammuzzas' residence. Even here we were too late. She had been taken as well. Three more houses yielded the same result. As I could see it there was no option now but to leave Samage~. Reluctantly, Alleilah concurred. She knew of no hiding place left secure, such was the extent of the pogrom.
Shortly after leaving the last refuge, we ran smack into a patrol and had to fight our way clear. Ahmanhad acquitted himself well, and together we beat the soldiers off. In the process we released two detainees. A third had been killed in the fighting, but then so had four of their guards. Latiistabber was this day catching up for ten days of idleness.But these were easy kills, these soldiers were not real warriors, just oppressors for a foreign overlord. To Latiistabber they were as Buika at the games feasts.
Our little group grew, first one then another fugitive, two more, then another and so on. All had acquired arms. It was impossible now to think of evasion, so we just went for the gate. Another patrol stood in the way, but scattered as we charged. The detachment on the gate stood but did not last any longer, run down by numbers and will far greater than their own.
Even clear of the city gates by no means took us out of danger. There was the steep path down to navigate and the gardens to cross before the river. A hue and cry was growing behind us and from our elevated position I could see banners held aloft in the serried rows of greenery.
Once on the flood plain I pulled Alleilah to one side, leading her along a rank of shrubs. At each junction I checked each way to see that it was clear and moved a row or two nearer the river. It became quickly apparent that a number of others were doing the same. In fact we had twenty or so others just following us. There seemed so many in the crops that I wondered if any had used the road.
The inevitable happened. Asgaran troops advancing through the garden discovered a band of getaways and fighting broke out. Fortunately not too close, for its distraction allowed us to slip through the net laid for our capture. Well, nearly. For someone at the tail of our little column was spotted and chase begun.
This was no time to fight. There were far too many to deal with. Stealth thrown to the wind, I ran for the river with Alleilah hot on my heels. Crashing through plant rows, leaping ditches dodging trees, the pursuit seemingly ever at our heels we made it at last to the waters' edge.
The luck was not with us. This was not a good place to cross. Narrower and deeper than most of the course but just as rocky and treacherous, the current here was quite strong. With my arm supporting Alleilah, we began to make the crossing. There were already soldiers cutting down the people behind us. In their panic to escape, one of them bumped into Alleilah and she lost her balance and fell. I caught her before she was swept away and helped her back to her feet.
The male immediately to our rear screamed and pitched into the water, his blood turning it crimson. His killer kicked the body clear and sploshed at us.
"Can you make it?" I asked.
"Yes, but I won't go without you." She answered spluttering.
"Go!" I ordered. "I will be there soon."
I did not look to see if she had moved. Stabber came out and the bloodlust was on me again.
My attacker was an Aponian soldier and knew how to parry. What he did not know is what hit him. As with others his blade disintegrated and stabbers' tip laid open his ribs. Shocked and dismayed he lost his footing and the current did the rest. Another took his place and went the same way. A third had seen and hesitated. I took the chance to back off.
Two lunged in but could not advance in the flow quicker than I could retreat for the bottom was rising. I took a quick look to find that I was coming up on a mid river bar with along way to go to safety. Alleilah was not safe yet either. I need to buy more time.
Halting with the water foaming round my ankles I waited for the two to come on. The first I took with the flow still round his knees. A single blow again, smashing his defences and sending him tumbling into the other. Another three were close behind but saw my advantage and did not press the attack. Instead two groups, one upstream, one down, waded in to outflank me.
Each group I moved to stopped and the other advanced. I was alone on the bar against eight. If I went now they would catch me in the deep water. On the bar I stood half a chance. Half a chance of taking half of them, if I played it exactly right, even a few more. But all of them? No chance.
Oh, well, I did not have a full and proper answer to go home with anyway. "Relax." I told myself. "You have got out of worse scrapes than this."
Laughing, I thought of the Lord of Lobdis' deck. I had a stabber then, and just as then, this weapon would taste some Aponian blood.
I moved up the bar to confront the two who had just ascended it. Neither was keen to engage in combat. They wanted the six behind me to close up. Their hesitation betrayed weak spots and I struck mercilessly. Even so, I barely had time to kill and turn before the six were upon me. To be precise, two ranks of three, for the bar was not wide enough for more than three. A triple lunge was mistimed and one went down in a crimson spray, his place taken instantly.
I had acquired a second weapon but still could not parry a triple thrust, and these were forcing me backward to the tip of the bar. I could feel the bottom starting to give and I knew this was make or break. The break came from an unexpected quarter.
One of the pair at the back collapsed with a cry. All the attackers' concentration was broken. Just for a moment, but that was enough. Stabber swept up destroying the centre soldiers face and the blade in my right hand thrust into the neck of another. The third was blocked by the contorting body of the centre victim that fell against him, pushing him off the bank. The remaining soldier knew where his best move lay and executed it, diving backward to be taken away to safety.
I turned to face my redeemer.
"Well met Oochitar." Ahmanhad smiled.
"Well met indeed!" I returned.
Together we turned our backs on the soldiery impotently and incredulously watching from the Driikan bank, to walk off the bar into the river and to safety.