The Sereniteer’s office was just off the main road, thankfully away from the squalid inn we had rejected. Kaita was up behind me, since her mule was being commandeered to haul prisoners, while Ailadas had Kyriala, his ostensible niece. Kaita whispered in my ear, “I wonder if the inn is so bad to encourage people to camp at that place.”
It made sense. “You mean they migh be in league with these bandit boys?” The bandits had all turned out to be young, none older than twenty. The four of them all being under third threshold made an interesting dilemma for the itinerant judge, if the Serenteers could not capture the adult who had put them up to a life of crime. “Sounds plausible. But truth-drug was always too expensive to use out here and for such petty crimes.”
“Perhaps it would be better used for these kinds of crimes?” Very sensible of her.
“You’re right. It would certainly make the roads safer and the Sereniteer’s jobs easier.”
I cleared my own throat and continued louder. “Of course Ili was very brave, nurse. His bear braver still.” She smiled.
The centurion was a woman as well which must have made for some interesting times until the men got used to taking orders from someone with breasts. Her hair was brown streaked gray and she looked as tough as a regular centurion, like she ate clay for breakfast and shenned bricks for lunch. I dusted off one of the wooden guest chairs and held it for Kyriala and another for Ailadas and took Ilesias on my lap in the corner to be out of the way with Kaita and Gannara. I leafed through the dusty stack of Pages on the wobbly wooden table, looking for a suitable story to read with him.
Mixed in with Pages were posters of the wanted, fallen down from the wall and shuffled together to be re-tacked when someone got the time.
“Ahem… yes my good Sereniteers… we chose to camp because of the squalid conditions at the only surviving inn, in your lovely town…” A poster caught on my fingers as though glued there and I thought I should faint on the spot.
It was a drawing of Gannara… a ‘have you seen this boy’? kind of poster. His big, dark eyes looked out lugubriously at me as though he were about to burst into sobs.
“The largest of the miscreants stepped out of the woods, brandishing that weapon of his…”
They showed the facial scars clearly. “Gannara Melachiya, taken by the former Imperator of Arko” Dates given. “Please contact your local Sereniteers.” Sponsored by the Society of Parents of Little Shefen-kas’s’… of course. The Yeoli parents.
I closed my eyes, trying to shut out my memory of that crowd of little boys, so small in front of the fat guy, him picking the most angry looking ones.
“… and then I lofted a weighty volume, specifically “Great Men’ by Sifarnas at his cephalus inducing immediate loss of consciousness as I have experienced myself at the hands of said author…”
I don’t even know how many the fat guy killed in his bed.
“…though usually in a more gradual and gentle fashion. Ser Sifarnas’s works have been called ‘headache-inducing’ and ‘cranium-crushing’ before by other scholars, but I’m sure they didn’t... ahem... what happened next? Ahem, certainly, good Centurion...”
Ilesias bounced his heels against my legs and I didn’t even stop him. I didn’t really notice much. The darkness I thought I had shed, thought I had given up to the Tunnel, came thundering back.
I was keeping Gannara from his family, from his parents, though I was saying I wanted to take him home. Here was the quickest way he could get home. I was being selfish to keep him close to me. I was treating him as if he actually wanted to be close to me rather than having been dragged in chains and placed into my hands by my father’s.
I looked down at my gloved hands and didn’t need to have them uncovered to remember the resemblance between my father’s hands and mine, though my digits were still slender rather than the finger sausages he possessed.
The blunt, flat, spatulate middle fingers, the more slender index finger, the squared off base of the thumb turning my palms into a square box, perfect for seizing and snatching and holding and controlling. They suddenly felt like paws hanging on the ends of my arms.
I tried to take a deep breath. “… and then my young librarian… my secretary as well… I, not being able to wield the familial sword any longer with alacrity and dispatch gave him gracious permission to train… I do realize, honourable solas that this was most irregular but given how things worked out…”
I managed to look up at Gannara, blond now because of Kyriala and Kaita’s assistance… even to his brows. The scars on his face still covered, even with the exertion and stress… or had he managed to discretely dust more powder on his face in between taking down tents? I didn’t even know.
His teeth were safely covered and when he smiled it was close-mouthed. For my sake. He was doing all of this for my sake. I didn’t deserve him.
He felt my gaze and looked over at me, wondering what was going on, clearly. Without a word I handed the poster over to him. He couldn’t read a lot of Arkan yet, though he and I had worked on it. But it was in Enchian as well. He froze and two points of red came up on his cheeks, very like Chevenga.
“… Ser Aimondas, yes, yes the manumission papers for the boy are fine… I understand you are heading to the city, yes? Well, we will provide you with escort there. You understand that if there is an emergency my Sereniteers must provide assistance first?...” I looked up at that.
The Centurion was offering a free escort to our little party, to the befuddled old scholar who obviously had minimal idea of how dangerous the real world was. Any Arkan would jump at the chance, so he had to.
“Ahem… oh how wonderful! I would not wish to impose upon a limited budget—“
She cut him off with a hand-slash that reminded me of Ancherao. I wondered if she had survived the war. I had no way of finding out what happened to the thousand Yeolis that had been, for so short a time, mine. They were probably just home safe as they’d been for years now.
She might be one of the Road Sereniteer Centurions. Oh, Selestialis no. Surely you would not be so cruel as to thrust me under her nose in direct conflict with her duty? I could hope she was not.
“Sers…” Kaita spoke up. “Please excuse this ‘un… the boy needs ta run some…”
The Centurion, still scribing what Ailadas was telling them, waved us out. “If I need your statements I will call.” She kept both Kyriala and Ailadas. She obviously had figured out whose testimony would carry the most weight in Arko.
Escort? What if we show something we don’t realize? Something we cannot anticipate? What if we give ourselves away? I staggered out on shaking legs. I would have to be fessas completely from now on. No slips. Ever. Not under Sereniteers eyes. All the way to Arko. I was panting as if I’d run a race. I have to do this.
“Um… Gannara… you know your last name.” He was standing, looking at the poster as if it were in some kind of unknown language. Then he looked at me, his eyes white all around.
“If you want to go home faster…” I swallowed hard… all you need to do is walk back in there and tell them.”
His brows drew down. “And let them grab the lot of you and truth drug you and drag you off and kill you?” He was almost snarling. “I don’t think so. You can just quit saying kyash like that, as if I’d turn my friends in to get killed!”
I threw up my gloves. “All right! All right! It’s up to you!”
“And you should quit doing ugly stuff like telling me I should betray you!” I knew he’d be yelling it, but was hissing it through clenched teeth to keep it quiet.
Kaita nodded quietly, sending Ilesias off to play in the fountain in the square in front of the office. “This is wisdom.”
I sat down on the edge of the horse-trough outside the office, still holding up my hands. “You’re both right. I’ll just take a breath and keep on. Sorry. I’m sorry, Gannara. I know you wouldn’t do shen like that… I just thought I was being selfish… sorry.”
We are at least three eight days out of the city… perhaps four if we have to wait to connect up with the Sereniteers in the next loop. Their Centurions are the only ones who know exactly where they should be in their routes.
“Idiot,” he sniffed.