Hello all! We hoped you enjoyed the first few installments; we're working hard to churn out even more! We wanted to share a few more points of exposition that just wouldn't fit well into the story based on the limited perspective the characters possess. Continuing from the intro segments of the first and second stories, Kiravi, Serina, and Leotie's world is based on the very farthest limits of what historians understand about sedentary civilization. Bending timelines just slightly means that, in their world, and alongside the megafauna I mentioned before, other species of the genus Homo also still exist. I based the Enges heavily off of what we understand about Homo neanderthal: shorter, bow-legged, barrel chest, with a protruding midface and occipital bun, and stronger but with less endurance and flexibility. The Orgos are based on my interpretation of Homo denisova, a species known by a few bones and genetic analysis and little else. But, since we know they lived in central and northern Asia, I took some creative liberties: adaptations to colder climates, greater strength, and larger teeth to take down game on the steppe before the advent of tools, etc. Homo erectus and florienses will make an appearance later as well.

On a less science-y note: Kiravi's worldview, along with several others, is about to be tested. They're all straying further and further from home and the tiny microcosms of a much larger world that they've inhabited in their lives until now. There's quite a bit of story before the naughty bits! Enjoy!

I recovered from the sudden shock of seeing Serina what felt like immediately, with what I sincerely hoped looked like suave flippancy, "Serina! I thought the temple would need more time with you!" I called to her and smiled, hiding the icy bolt of panic that had shot its way up my spine.

I looked down into her glowing, golden-red eyes and saw no hint of accusation or hurt, distrust or bitterness. No awareness that I'd bedded Leotie or been about to abandon her here. Just the same dawning adoration she'd shown me days before when I'd left her with the acolytes, but mixed with some new intensity.

"They've done all they can," her face fell, sadness gathering at the corners of her eyes and lips, and a tiny spark of noble indignation flared inside of me at seeing her so crestfallen. Even though I'd planned on leaving her: I know, dear readers, my feelings didn't make sense, but I was young, forgive me. "They recommended I go west, to Tebis on the Seleyo, and visit the temple of the Ettuku there."

I glanced at Leotie, who's annoyed sneer had been replaced by a raised and curious eyebrow. I'm sure she had her suspicions as to what transpired between Serina and me on the road. But Serina, oh sweet and naive Serina, was oblivious to my attempted abandonment and the new, shall we say, familiarity, between myself and Leotie.

With my very best smile plastered across my face, I spoke, "We were, ourselves, just getting set to do some exploring that way, but if you're already packed?" I let my voice trail off, and she nodded excitedly, "Good. Then we can be off for good then, and leave Atala behind us."

I was thankful for the hot morning sun that masked the panicked sweat on my brow with its damnable heat. Which god had I offended to have my plans for a delightful trek with Leotie so suddenly ruined? No matter: I'd adapt as I always did, as I had after every failure at the Academy, after every husband or father found me with their wives and daughters, and after being booted from home and hearth.

We hurried away from the temples, moving west through the city again, wanting to get onto the next track before the sun was too brutally hot. "How are we going to get from here to Tebis? Do you have a map? Have you been there before?" Serina asked in her small voice even as she hurried to keep up with my naturally long stride and Leotie's trained ability to cross the desert. I noticed that she settled in on the side opposite Leotie, though.

Was that a flicker of jealousy on the innocent teen's face? There was no way that she knew what had happened between Leotie and me, I reminded myself; the huntress's body language was still all hostility and prickliness. With an internal groan, I wondered what I was getting myself into.

"We don't rightly know," I said, flashing her a beaming smile, "I believe there's a caravan track that crosses from here to the Seleyo. I've never been to Tebis, but I know that their temple to the Ettuku is the largest in all of Anghoret."

"If the Pashudia couldn't help you, why not just return home?" Leotie asked, something resembling a mix between a smirk and a sneer on her face, "Your curse does not seem to affect you overmuch."

My eyebrows went up, but I managed to avoid saying anything. Both, it seemed, wanted to be my only traveling companion. Of course, dear readers, that swelled my youthful ego fit to burst, but I know it'd only spell trouble for me, trouble that would delay my trek.

Serina just glared across my chest at Leotie, but I was saved from having to mediate a jealous dispute by the sight that awaited us at the river. The last of the urban sprawl of Atala sputtered out a few hundred paces from the river, and much of the space was filled with braying llamas loaded heavily with jugs and hide bags swollen with goods. Curiously, most of the guards and qhatuqs, or wandering merchants, tending the unhappy and spitting animals were Enges or Orgos. The whole motley herd of animals was being dragged and prodded towards a small shack built along the river, where a heated argument was developing between a weathered Enges and what appeared to be more Atala city guards.

Leotie grumbled, uncomfortable in such a large crowd. Still, I saw an opportunity to spare myself both from the growing confrontation between the two women and from the possibility of having to fend off another ambush by the hungry hill people that filled the lands between the rivers. Making sure both women stayed close, I shouldered my way through the mass with my bulk, finally reaching the point of friction between the city guards and qhatuqs.

My movement was checked, for a moment, by the sight of what the Atala soldiers were actually guarding. Atala had been founded where it was not just because of the rich floodplain along the river, but because the Nekoar grew wider and shallower along this stretch. Boulders carried down from the Kazmar mountains, and other rock outcrops broke the water's surface. Generations of laborers had shaped the boulders and stones, flattening them, and lay flat slabs of quarried stone across the piles made by the river rock. As they called it, the clapper bridge was wide enough for two loaded animals to walk abreast and generally dry despite the raging, muddy water below it. Upstream from the rapids, a simple breakwater built from stones piled into the river provided shelter for dozens of canoes of every size. They ranged in size from ones barely as long as I was tall to a few that would require at least six rowers and were tied to posts driven into the breakwater or dragged ashore.

The sharp, harsh voice of the aging Enges caravan master brought my attention back, "You've raised the toll twice in the last year! And the cost of these animals has tripled!" The Enges seemed about as old as Gawat from the Academy, though his face was far more lined and harsh. He was a full head shorter than the hapless human guard, but the arm that was shoving a crooked finger into the guard's chest was rippling with muscle earned by years of travel and labor.

"The Emperor has raised taxes on all of the Palace Mayors, and Atala is no exception. Any foreign caravans must pay the higher fees," the man responded, clearly put off by the burly Enges and the dozens of other impatient travelers.

The caravan master spoke again, spit flicking angrily outwards, "Your little shit city wouldn't be here if not for us Kazmari Enges bringing gems and tin down from the mountains and hides from Ymdrok!" His accent had a strange rhythm to it, the beginning of each word emphasized, and the vowels oddly stressed.

I was beginning to understand what was developing here and realized that I had a few options. We could squeeze by the blockage forming at the bridge, pay the toll for Anghoreti natives, and continue on without trouble but run the risk of the three of us being alone and vulnerable. Or, I could get involved and let noble title and currency smooth things over between the guards and the qhatuqs.

Of the many things helping me weigh my options, the factor that won out was the suspicious glare each woman at my elbows was giving the other. I wouldn't survive a week alone between the two of them, I surmised, "I believe I might be able to clear up this misunderstanding?" I interjected, my voice loud enough to cut through the shouting and braying of man and beast alike.

The exasperated guard and ruddy-faced Enges both turned to look at me, somehow even more annoyed and angry, "And who in the Chaos Wastes are you?" The Enges barked at me, and I could feel Serina shrink slightly behind me.

I held my hand up slightly towards the Enges, hoping he'd quickly understand my intentions, before turning to the guard. "Why are you charging us the foreign rate?" I used my best haughty, elite, noble voice, one I'd heard my father and eldest brother use often.

"Us?" The Enges' already small eyes narrowed, and I glared pointedly at him in an attempt to delay his rage just a bit longer.

"I am Kiravi al-Kiral, and I've paid for all of these animals and most of the goods as well. With that said, I control the majority share of this caravan, and, as a noble of the Empire, I not only demand the Empire Rate but an additional discount to account for this delay."

The guard's face lost as much color as it could, given his sun-beaten skin. "My lord, I understand, but the Mayor was only informed that this Kazmari caravan would be passing today."

I hated using my title this way, but I'd hate traveling alone across the hill country more. Drawing myself up to my full, intimidating height, I took a small step towards the guard, "Shall we take this issue to the Mayor and delay me and my goods further? Or can we all move on with our day just a little bit richer?" Without glancing away from the man's face, I pressed a handful of flint chips into his free hand.

The guard's eyes narrowed a bit, but his face soon relaxed as he made a decision behind those dark brown eyes, "Of course, my lord. The Empire Rate."

"With a discount."

"With a discount."

I deployed my very best dazzling, superior smile, "Go on then, my friend, pay the man," I inclined my head towards the Enges, gesturing with my eyebrows from the generous pouch at his belt to the guard's outstretched hand.

The caravan master's small eyes had somehow widened to human size, his lined features slack. He recovered quickly, his prickly scowl returning, and he shoved obsidian and copper into the guard's hand while keeping me uncomfortably pinned beneath his suspicious glare.

"How lucky I am to have such noble patrons in this venture," the Enges grumbled, still glaring.

The guard snorted, his problems solved, and his fortunes brightened. "Doesn't matter to me. Now go on and get out of my hair, and get this mess across and away from Atala."

Smiling, pleased with myself, I bowed with a flourish and gestures for my two companies to go ahead of me. Leotie snorted and moved purposefully onto the flat stone with Niknik, but Serina hesitated, clinging to my arm until I followed Leotie. The caravan master barked orders in both Anghoreti and what I could only assume was the Kazmari language, showing his practiced efficiency as he hustled and cajoled beasts and qhatuqs across the impressive bridge.

I'll be honest, dear readers, that I have never cared for crossing any body of water that I couldn't wade through, and this was no exception. The Nekoar's life-giving waters churned and sucked at the natural pilings the bridge zig-zagged between. Driftwood and rafts of foam and leaves swirled by before being dashed on the rapids, and I couldn't help but wonder how the mother river would smash and drown a man or woman in the same way. Even so, I put on my bravest face for the crossing, Serina pale from terror and Leotie seeming calm but being absolutely sure to not look anywhere but at the few paces of stone ahead of her.

Heart hammering in my chest, we finally led our sandaled feet onto the dusty ground of the far bank, beyond the bored-looking guards there to collect the toll on the west side of the river. "You didn't tell me you invested in caravans, too," Serina said, her eyes still wide as she looked back at the crush of overburdened animals threading their way across the river.

"He was lying," Leotie snarked back, and Serina blushed angrily, "to make the caravan owe us something. The question is what, and why?" She rounded on me, "I didn't agree to travel with this many people."

"We have at least a week of travel ahead of us, all through the Ketza Hills. The tribes there only respect Imperial authority when they feel like it."

Leotie bared her teeth, and Niknik followed suit within a moment, "I'm from one of those hill tribes."

I smirked at her, "So you know exactly what I'm talking about."

The huntress snorted and rolled her red eyes, "I would've just killed any who tried to stop us."

"And maybe you would've needed my help again," I teased before raising my hands placatingly, worried Leotie might actually draw her flint dagger if I continued to mention her Blood Debt.

Any further ribbing would've been interrupted anyway, "What in the Shedia's Balls were you playing at back there?" The caravan master spat the moment his squat form landed on our bank.

"Oh, I'm sorry, did you want to pay full price?"

The Enges spat in the dust, "Of course I fucking didn't, but now I owe you. I could've bartered my way to a lower price, but now I owe you, pretty boy. So what the fuck do you want?"

Leotie snorted with laughter but didn't say anything. "Nothing much, old one," the Enges' prodigious brow furrowed, "we just want to travel under the protection of your sell-spears as far as the Seleyo," I waved my hand at the burly Orgos that were sprinkled into the caravan. "Maybe hang our packs on one of your animals, share some of your food?"

"That's it?" He arched a bushy eyebrow.

"That's it."

"Fine," he took a deep breath, set his shoulders in an apparent attempt to be formal, "I thank you for your help. You will dine with me tonight and will be welcome whenever you like. Our provisions are yours. My name is Kapak."

I made our introductions, smirking when I noticed how Kapak's eyes lingered on Leotie and Serina's young bodies. But, owing to the old caravan master's efficiency, we didn't have to wait long before the line of animals was trundling west along a track that twisted up into the hills. Free of our packs, the day passed more quickly than I could've hoped. Leotie and Serina seemed withdrawn by the sudden and massive changes in their lives, so my naturally curious self mingled with the rest of the caravan.

Of course, dear readers, I'd known the Empire owed its power to the lush crops succored by the mother rivers and the great centers of industry, and the ever-busy caravan routes that sold that food and those goods to the less powerful neighbors to the west, north, and south. But I'd never seen it firsthand, young and naive on my estate or cloistered away in my years at the Academy. Kapak and most of the Enges were Kazmari, professional merchants and travelers known as qhatuqs that made their living carrying goods up and down the mountain passes. Only some of the goods originated in the alpine villages straddling the high passes, and the narrow, dangerous mines bored into the rock and ice: most came from Ymdrok, the high plateau beyond the mountains. Valuable, thick hides and carved goods were profitable enough to make the long journey, the high plateau clans selling them to the Kazmari who then carried them south. The Orgos, I learned, were either muscle hired by Kapak or the Ymdroki merchants' representatives, tagging along to ensure the goods were well received and contacts maintained.

Leotie got over her initial panic at the caravan's size but remained uncomfortable throughout that whole first day. She refused to weave through the surly ranks of qhatuqs with me, so, curiously, she and her bonded pet stayed close to the just-as-uncomfortable Serina. A few times, I looped back towards the two women, trying to draw any information I could out of Serina about her time in the temple or continue mine and Leotie's playful banter from that morning. Instead, the two women bonded in their stubbornness, sticking close to the unruly llama Kapak set aside for our gear.

The track generally wound due west across the Nekoar's flood plain before twisting past the first of many rows of sandstone blocks and boulders that broke up the Ketza. Roasting in the sun blazing out of the cloudless sky, we slowly ascended from the plain and into the hills. The land reminded me of the damned jagged mess around Wakh, and I grumbled more than once at the fact that my chosen mission requires so much back-breaking travel.

Despite the fact we'd unburdened ourselves of all our kit and baggage, my legs screamed at me, my feet were raw and blistered even from my well-made sandals, and my throat was sandy and parched when we finally stopped. Leotie was faring better than me, at least slightly, but Serina seemed utterly miserable from the endless, unrelenting pace the caravan had set. None of the qhatuqs seemed worse for wear, most of them handling the day's journey even better than the animals.

The sun had just dipped below the far hills in the west, streaking fire across the sky and long, dappled shadows across the jagged terrain. What I thought were long-dead, sun-bleached trees were actually a string of nearly derelict shelters, built presumably by some earlier generation of qhatuqs. Kapak barked at the merchants to get their animals beneath the cracked wood. Each shelter had a small dugout carved out of the hardpan dust and rock, and the ornery animals settled down away from the grit-filled desert wind. In a practiced routine, some of the Enges hacked firewood and tough fodder plants for the animals, while others unloaded the animals and stretched crudely stitched together hide tarps over the decrepit shelters.

An Enges that didn't speak a word of Anghoreti gestured at the three of us amongst the frenzied activity, leading our animal into one of the shelters before taking us towards Kapak's hovel. The aging male was rummaging through his pack for something as we, quietly groaning from fatigue, approached.

"A promise is a promise," he grumbled, almost to himself. "I won't have the Ettuku seeing that I don't honor my guests."

Still not looking over at us, Kapak pulled out a small cube of strangely multi-colored glass. Mostly black obsidian, streaks of light brown, red, and green glass swirled through the fist-sized cube as well. Serina gasped immediately, and I, curious, mumbled a few simple words of power and drew a simple spell through my soul. I could see the faint aura of enchantment on the cube, but little else that told me what it was or what magic infused it. Detection magic, dear readers, had never kept my interest, and I'd slept through most of those classes or skipped them to bed merchants' daughters. More curious to me was how Serina had sensed the magic.

Kapak grumbled a series of words of his own, and the glass cube began to unfold from itself. It hovered just above the floor of the dugout, the different colored swirls of glass pulling elegantly apart and growing in size. The reddish glass swirled back to the packed dirt, transforming into a crackling campfire. The green glass broke into separate pieces, coalescing into plump and soft cushions for the three of us and our host. Finally, the brown and black glass swirled away, above and around us, and draped over the shelter's frame as a patchwork of pristine woolen blankets.
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Pub: Dec 25 2020 10:42 UTC
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