I was a little hung over when we left, the morning after the festival. Ky had emerged from her room just for the last part of it. I was worried because women’s things can sometimes be serious, but she looked perfect as always.
I’d drunk one too many glasses of the local liqueur over shaved ice because nobody had thought to mention it was much higher proof than it tasted, even to my tongue. It was late and there were rustic line dances, all the men and some young fellow grabbed my elbow and dragged me into them. I could only fake the steps, using a rude mish-mash of the formal steps I’d been taught but it worked well enough. Gannara had had to point out, afterwards, that the young fessas who had danced with me had been flirting with me. “When he said ‘Your fingers are so graceful,’ I thought you’d get it. He was all but drooling after you!”
“I just thought he was being nice!” I put my hand up over my eyes, wishing I had my sun spectacles. They were probably still in the Marble Palace somewhere. I’d worn them when going out-city before. I imagined them tucked into their niche in my closet drawers. Silly. Someone was probably using them. They could have been plundered years ago and hundreds of malas away by now. Or just smashed years ago. “Ow.”
“Take some of the headache remedy Kaita bought for Ky, Min,” Gannara said. He hadn’t drunk nearly as much as I had, having seen I was getting tipsy. “You’ll feel better.”
“Surely.” I managed to raise my voice enough to ask Kaita for those remedies and manfully ignored her smile when she handed them to me. Ilesias was riding in front of Ailadas at the moment and Ky’s mare seemed to have recovered her feet well for the rest. We’d actually found an extra mule in White Creek, one of a string from a caravan heading to the Tunnel. So we’d be all right if one of our riding animals went lame again. Ailadas’s horse, with the worming and the regular food and exercise was filling out nicely.
We made it the first day to a tiny little inn in south east, in a place called Lodestone. The road patrol heading the opposite direction was most helpful. Ailadas, playing the impoverished Aitzas so well. It would have been out of character to not inquire of the Empire’s Sereniteers. We’d seen some of the road patrols mixed Yeoli/Arkan… mostly. But some were both Yeolis and some were both Arkans.
This pair was both Arkan, and very proper. They warned us of one inn at a town coming up, that was under investigation by Public Rectitude. The Outlook. “Thanks to those, Road Sereniteers, my thanks for the time and the warning, ahem.”
“Take good care, Ser. Even in the middle of the Empire, things are sometimes unsettled.”
With a touch on the visor of his helm the Sereniteers continued north.
The Outlook was justifiably under investigation. The other inn in the town had burned down in a fire. “Pro’lly set by them,” Gan whispered to me as we saw the filthy condition of the yard. We certainly did not wish to drink from, or eat food cooked in water from the well set in the midst of a sea of refuse and manure.
“Come along, everyone,” Ailadas said loftily. “We shall move on.” Kyriala tsked in agreement and Gannara made no pretense of hiding his disgust, pinching his nose shut with one hand as we moved on.
On the other side of the town, just before sunset, there was a camp sign at the road, leading us off to a clearing in the bush. It was next to a rill running through a patch of mint so the water was fresh and cold enough to freeze one’s teeth. The road was just out of sight through the trees, the path curving to give some privacy, though it was hardly necessary. After we turned off we heard three carts in a bead, and one drover with a flock of heavy geese going to the butcher in the village. Then nothing.
Gannara and I got the tents down and laid out, ready to set up, left them to Kaita and Kyriala with Ilesias’s inexpert help. Ky had insisted she learn how, saying that if she could put up a tent it meant that we could do the heavier work with the animals and hauling wood and water both for us all.
Dinner was a re-heated stew from the inn chef the night before. It saved ever so much time to have good food to re-heat, rather than having to cook, ourselves. Ili thought that washing dishes was the most fun because he could fling soap all around himself, so we pulled off his shirt and let him play while I set a pot of water on, to boil for a last cup of kaf before bed. The sun was almost down and Ailadas was squinting at his book in the failing light.
I had just checked to see if the water was boiling, and stepped away toward where the girls were setting another tent peg, when a large man stepped out of the bush, with two others behind him, brandishing spears.
Their faces were covered.
The first thing that flashed into my head was ‘oh shen’ and then ‘my sword’. It was laid next to the luggage, right by the tent flap about four steps away. Why in Hayel didn’t I think to wear it?
“Everybody be still and calm,” said the man. “And nobody gets hurt.”
For a long, long frozen moment everyone was still, Gannara to one side of the fire with the kaf cups, Ailadas next to him about eight steps away from me, sitting with his book in his hand. Ky and Kaita next to me and Ilesias in the tent, playing with Indispensible Bear. A knife next to Gannara’s hand. The Imperial sword almost in diving distance from me. And right behind me, in a shrieking, ringing tone that must carry for malas, Kyriala let out a scream from the bottom of her lungs.
And suddenly everyone was moving… everything went to Hayel all at the same time.