"I've only seen a handful of artifacts like this," I mumbled, feeling the genuine warmth of the magical fire, "usually secreted away in the private chambers of arch-wizards."
Kapak snorted, but a smile, satisfied at the reaction to his display of wealth, graced his craggy face. "Please, sit. We have all spent enough time on our feet today."
We graciously accepted, Kapak and I on opposite sides of the fire, with Serina sitting close to my right knee and Leotie purposefully giving me some space on the left. With the four of us separated from the rest of the caravan, her nervousness faded, but I could still sense her unease at the fact the only traveler she had any ties to had had his attention stolen back by a teenage Oracle. That, and getting answers about what had happened in the temple, occupied most of my thoughts. At that moment, though, my thoughts were focused on the wondrous device Kapak had shown us.
An Enges, a steward I assumed, brought in gourds full of beer and a large pot already filled with broth, passing out the drinks and resting the pot in the magical flames. "Again, thank you, Kiravi al-Kiral. I am not accustomed to such, um, help, on my long journeys, and I feared I was falling victim to some trap from Atala's Mayor." Kapak's bushy eyebrows lent emphasis throughout his speech the way some nobles in Anghu waved their hands.
I just smiled, taking a long drink from the offered beer, "I've played many tricks, master Kapak, but never on behalf of a Mayor. Usually at their expense, in fact."
Slowly, like an unstable rock face slumping away from a mountain to tumble into a landslide, a broad smile split Kapak's face, "You would do well on the road, I think."
I deflected with practiced ease, bringing the conversation back to the magical shelter, "Clearly not as well as you, master Kapak. How did you come across such an item?"
The old caravan master clearly felt a mix of humility and pride about his treasure, "You are my guest, so I suppose it would be right for me to tell you," he started spooning helping of thick, steaming broth into bowls for us, his duty as our host. "I have traveled the roads and rivers of Anghoret, Kazmar, and Ymdrok for more than twenty summers. I've even strayed into Gavic to the west and made a single foray over the steamy Ihzal mountains to trek down into fetid Salyajwat. In all those journeys, I've found or bartered for many strange things, but this? This is from Tebis. A Grand Alchemist of the Academy there had a beloved wife and daughter, both sick with a Huri wasting disease that the Priests could only barely hold at bay. My caravan brought rare herbs from the far, far north of Ymdrok just in time and, in thanks, the Grand Alchemist created this cube for me. It was luck, really, nothing more."
"Amazing," Serina echoed Leotie in between ravenous bites of stew and huge gulps of beer. "To have seen so many places to have met so many people. I can't even imagine how big the world must truly be."
Kapak smiled warmly, his gruff exterior worn down by beer and Serina's disarming naïveté, "The world is great and wide, Serina, and even I have only seen a tiny shred of it. I know of, but have never seen, a land beyond Gavic, supposedly full of strange men with strange rituals. The high steppe of Ymdrok seems to go on forever, but I've heard the tales of a frozen land beyond it and of Zemena on the far side of the mountains. Something must lay beyond the Eastern Wastes, too, don't you think? Over the Ihzal, something dwells in the endless swampy jungle, something that I got the barest glimpse of. And, can't we see the first of seemingly endless islands in the Choked Sea? Don't we trade with the Bhakhuri and Hazuba that row their canoes to the mother rivers' deltas? Our world is endless, and I could spend a dozen lifetimes seeing more of it," he paused, unusually animated, and restored his gruff composure, "Kazmar needs me, needs us to make these journeys. The Ymdroki need bronze and cotton and arrowroot, and your people need obsidian and bison-hide. So I walk the same routes again and again."
I sensed the melancholy note, "You may walk the same routes, but you get to meet such wonderful people as us, eh?"
He snorted and rolled his small eyes but hid a smirk with his gourd full of beer. After a long swig that seemed to physically melt some of the tension in his shoulders, he waved his gourd towards Leotie, "And why are you here, hmm? I can tell that she is on pilgrimage, and I know a Magus when I see one," I spluttered, nearly choking on my own beer; was my shame that obvious? Kapak didn't relent, his face softening as he slipped into the fourth language I'd heard him speak, the Bhakhuri tongue of the hill tribes.
Leotie was surprised and flustered for a moment before she answered in her native tongue. Whatever it was, her answer was clipped and harsh, Leotie's round face twisted with annoyance. Kapak glanced down at her armor, then at me, then at Leotie, before he began laughing his rich, booming laugh. The huntress scowled for another moment before sighing, chuckling, and taking a long sip of her beer.
"Um, what's so funny?" Serina had to speak loudly over Kapak's laughter, "And what did you say?"
Leotie smiled again, red irises glittering with reflected firelight, "He thought I was one of the few Bhakhuri that the last Emperor had raised into the nobility. Maybe even Kiravi's wife." She pointed at the gleaming, beautiful pattern of stones across her chest, shrugging at the old Enges' guess, "I told him it was just a present from Kiravi."
At that moment, dear readers, I received three different looks. Leotie gave me the warmest look she'd had on her face since my plans went awry outside the Pashudia temple, her eyes glittering like the gems across her chest. Kapak sent a knowing look across the fire, a bushy eyebrow raised, at the fact that I'd given the beautiful woman such a 'gift.' And Serina, sweet Serina, confirmed what I'd assumed throughout the day; jealousy flared along with the divine power in her eyes. Groaning internally, I hid my face by downing the remainder of my beer-gourd.
I was rescued, surprisingly enough, by Serina's sudden gasp and pointing finger, "What's that, Kiravi? I can see its magic, just like the enchantment on the cube!" So, the girl could 'see' magic now? That was worth some looking into. At some point, maybe, once I'd sorted my huntress versus oracle dilemma. At that moment, dear readers, her small finger pointed at the small coyote pendant around my neck that faintly glowed on its own, even without the glow of the firelight.
"Just a trinket from my stay at the Atala Academy," I turned the carved animal over in my fingers, "The enchantment seems simple, but I was never much for analyzing magic, just wielding it like a club." That got a chuckle from Kapak and a smirk from Leotie, but Serina was fascinated by the trinket to the point that I simply decided to pull it off my neck and hand it to her. "My gift to you," I tried to smile warmly at her, to convince her without words that it made her equal in my eyes to Leotie.
The evening meal with Kapak didn't last much longer: the caravan master had business to attend to, wrangling his qhatuks into preparations for the next day, and we were all exhausted. Kapak thanked me one more time, still with a trace of awkwardness, and I warmly thanked him for the shelter, the warmth, and the meal that would keep us from having to dip into our own traveling rations. We fumbled through the gloom back to our shelter, where one of the Enges had kindly started a fire of scrub and llama dung next to our slumbering animal in the dugout.
I was feeling both the hearty beer and the aches of a day following Kapak's punishing pace, but as you can guess, dear readers, I had my other usual and pressing need. Serina, still in less hardened shape and much less able to handle her alcohol, was already fading, eyes fluttering as she snuggled against the side of the dugout. Before I could even utter a single word, she was asleep, arms wrapped around her hide pack and snoring quietly.
Now, remember, dear readers, I was a selfish bastard then, but Serina had strangely wormed her way into some small corner of my heart. She seemed so small and fragile and innocent as I hunched in the shelter beside her, and I couldn't help myself but wrap her heavy cloak around her and gently adjust her into a more comfortable position.
"She doesn't belong here," Leotie whispered, giving voice to my thoughts. Her tone wasn't annoyed or adversarial, just a statement of fact. "She should have stayed close to home. How far will she have to travel to find her answers?"
"I doubt she ever will," I muttered, unable to keep the sadness from creeping into my voice.
"She will learn to survive out here, or she won't," Leotie said, her tone still frank and level, "but she's here because of you, young noble."
"And why is that?"
"I think you can guess," I sighed, turning away from the slumbering oracle to draw out my own blankets, "I bedded her after the fight in Juniper Valley."
"And you both wanted it?" For the first time, Leotie's voice had an edge to it.
"Of course," I grumbled, annoyed by her implication, "Despite our...game...in the alley, I never take what isn't offered."
"Good," she said, her laconic reply failing to help me understand what she was getting after.
I grumbled something wordless, finally managing to unroll my blankets and shape my pack into something resembling a pillow for my head. "Why does it matter to you?" I said, my fatigue and frustration adding more bite to my tone than I'd intended.
Leotie glared at me, reddish eyes glinting in the dying firelight. "I'm here because of you too, idiot. You asked me to come with you, remember? And you took away my last reason to stay home. Though I'm much better at taking care of myself out here than she is."
I raised my hands placatingly, head throbbing with drink and fatigue and anxious confusion over the situation Leotie was pointing out, "No one has to leave, Leotie. We can get her to Tebis and decide where to go from there, alright?"
The huntress glowered at me, clearly holding more in but too exhausted, confused, or frustrated to say anything else. So, she just grumbled, dragging her kit over to mine. "It's going to be cold tonight, and the one thing I can count on from you right now is that you're warm."
I chuckled drily, her words managing to make me feel like scum -- only for a moment, dear readers -- for inadvertently dragging both women into this. "At least I'm good for something, eh?" I took a step towards her, my long stride closing the gap almost instantly. Her warm, toned body was pressed against mine through our traveling clothes, the smell of her hair thick and spicy in my nose, "I hope you remember I'm good for other things, too," my arm easily encircled her narrow waist.
She surprised me then by not pulling away or throwing herself at me in an explosion of lust. Instead, she stood up on her toes and kissed me gently on the mouth, her lips warm and soft, "Not tonight, petty noble. It's been too long of a day."
I looked down into her red eyes, our bodies still close, my arm still around her, "I don't want you to leave. You can count on me."
"I hope so, Kiravi. But I don't know."
We didn't say anything else, just crawling under shared blankets and huddling against the coming cold. Leotie ended up half on top of me, snuggled close against my chest with her legs intertwined with mine, while Serina snored softly just beside us. The huntress; my huntress? Whichever, she fell asleep just before I did. As I felt sleep finally overtaking me, I looked over and saw Serina gently shivering, "Shedia's balls, why not?" I murmured to myself, rearranging the tiny woman and her cloak to rest against my other side. With that, I finally slipped into blissful unconsciousness.
Kapak's angry shouts in Kazmari woke me, though I had no idea how much later. The sun hadn't come up yet, but the cold and dark air was still filled with the sounds of braying animals and their grumbling handlers. Satisfied that there was no attack in the darkness, I gave myself a moment to let sleep fade further away from my mind, yawning widely as I tried to stretch life into my limbs under the blankets. More than the weight of the heavy wool pulled on my limbs, and I looked down to see both Leotie and Serina draped almost entirely over me. As she had the night before, Leotie twitched and murmured uncomfortably in her sleep, brow furrowed, and the corners of her mouth turned down into a worried crease. Serina was the opposite, a look of divine happiness plastered over her young features, and she was practically grinding herself against my right side as she murmured happily and slumbered away.
Not wanting to spend the day trying to explain how I'd woken up holding both women and feed the flames of Serina's jealousy and Leotie's uncertainty, I carefully extricated myself from beneath and between them, hunching to a half-standing position in the shelter. An Enges qhatuq was already rousing our animal, and we greeted each other with the broken Anghoreti that he spoke. Still, the two women slept, even as most of the other qhatuqs brought their grumbling animals onto the track.
"Wake up, you two," I said, voice loud as I nudged their bare feet under the blankets, "Time to go!"
They grumbled and started awake, an awkward look I certainly noted to myself passing between them as they realized they'd rolled into each others' arms after I'd gotten up. Thankfully, both managed to hurriedly dress and pack their blankets before Kapak turned his taskmaster efficiency on us, and we joined our animal in the line of sleepy-eyed creatures ready to march away from the sunrise.
I could see how and why Kapak had made a good living for himself: the caravan lurched forward along the track the moment the first wisps of dawn stretched over the high hills. Serina complained quietly about the lack of a hot breakfast, but the qhatuq leading our animal smiled and handed her a cup of steaming tea he'd brewed over the embers of the fire. We munched on sunflower seeds and dried biltong otherwise, trudging up and down one ridge after another as the sun spilled its light over the desert.
It wasn't long before the three of us were sweating through our simple cotton clothes, our legs aching, and our feet raw, but the qhatuqs and their animals were inexorable, seeming to be utterly ignorant of heat and distance. I resolved to try and distract myself and slowly moved up and down the caravan, picking up a handful of words in Kazmari from the more bilingual qhatuqs and making small forays off of the main track to look at a strange plant or oddly formed boulder blasted up here by the war between the gods. The two women spoke to each other a bit more than they had the day before; I had no idea what about.
During one of our few stops to let the animals forage on prickly bushes and the qhatuqs refill waterskins at a small stream, Kapak worked his way back to us. His brow was furrowed, powerful jaw working back and forth with frustration, "How are you faring, master Kiravi?" He practically growled.
"Not quite as poorly as yesterday," I tried to joke, "We're managing."
He just grunted at the humor, "You seem a sturdy fellow with a sharp eye," his gaze turned to fall on Leotie, "And I'm sure your eyes are even sharper huntress," she inclined her head slightly at the compliment. "That said, what do you see, up on the ridge to the north. Between the two wizened juniper trees?"
I followed his instructions, looking over the back of our llama at the jumbled mass of rock that stretched up and away from the track. The two trees were there, hunched against the wind, and, at first, I didn't see anything else. Leotie nudged my elbow, "Closer to the one on the right, maybe a pace or two from the center. See the spear tip?" I did, and just below it, I saw the top of a head, though I couldn't make out anything more at such a distance.
"One of the Ketza tribes?" I asked Kapak.
"Must be," he grunted, "one of the next waystations sits where another track meets this one from the north. That track runs up to a little town built around a flint mine, but I haven't seen anyone from there for three seasons."
"If they're watching us like this, I doubt their intentions for us are entirely friendly," Leotie grumbled.
"Maybe they just don't know why we're here," Serina added, included in the conversation by her simple proximity to Leotie and me, "And they want to be sure that we're friendly?"
Kapak shrugged and sighed, "An idealistic thought, but it could be true. We won't do anything for now, other than keep a lookout." He turned to leave but twisted to look back at us, "You've already done me a kindness, which I've repaid by allowing you to travel under my protection and hospitality. Would you like to earn a bit of my profit if I hire you on as guards?"
Right away, I shrugged with easy acceptance; agreeing would earn some more assets to fund my journey but would mean following Kapak's orders. The level of danger was the same, no matter what I decided. If there were tribesmen intent on violence in these hills, we'd have to fight if we were with the caravan or not. Leotie must've had the same thought, as she grunted assent right after.
"I can help too, master Kapak," Serina said, her chin jutting out. "I've fought."
I must, dear readers, say that I was impressed by the way Kapak maintained his composure, "These tribesmen show no mercy when roused to violence, mistress Serina. If you'd like, you may stand at my side if they do attack, while your friends fight elsewhere?"
The girl grumbled but nodded.
Our assent given, Kapak didn't have any more instructions for us other than to keep a lookout for any more tribal scouts. Our senses heightened, and nerves stretched, the day continued to drag on as we pushed deeper into Ketza. The flood lands and isolated slabs of sandstone were entirely behind us. Even worse than the craggy mess around Wakh, the land rose and fell in one wave of broken rock after another. The great blocks of sandstone had been cracked by time, victorious juniper trees and shrubs perched atop the broken piles of scree with their roots searching down through the rock. Some other unknown force — the warring gods, I was sure — had forced the land into a never-ending wave of sharp-edged ridges, like a piece of old leather as it dried in the sun. With our new found reason to search the skyline around us, I still had the disconcerting feeling that it would be impossible to truly secure a caravan, or anything, in a place like this. Adding to the endless hiding places available to any ambusher was the interminable and nerve-fraying scurry of coyotes and desert hares amongst the rocks and the fluttering of blackbirds' wings.
"The tribes wouldn't attack us, would they?" Serina whispered to Leotie as if a loud call might alert would-be ambushes. She hadn't left our side despite our, let's say, difference in employment.
Leotie at first grumbled with annoyance but relented after a sideways glance at me, "The whole tribe? No. A handful of young braves, or a group that's been outcast from the tribe? Absolutely," the three of us froze for a moment, hearing the clatter of rock, but it was just a buzzard taking flight with half of a rabbit carcass in its beak, "I don't know that much about the tribes on this side of the river. We would trade with them sometimes by canoe across the flat waters, they're more Enges than Bhakhuri, but otherwise, they seemed much like us."
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