We, Serao and I, got to babysit for our next patrol assignment. When we got to Petas Hill station, Terai and Baralas and this bunch were all there waiting for us. The report that came with these people said they weren't as helpless as they looked. Terai and Bar’s patrol overlapped ours at Petas Hill, too small a town to have an office, just a waystop.
“Brained a bandit with a book, the old man,” Ser read. “Not too shabby. Must have an arm on him. And obviously he's not one of these lame-intellect Aitzas either. Multi-talented.”
“I’m not too upset he let the fessas kid carry his sword, neither.” Terai was giving the Yeoli kid with them a few more words in Yeoli. I checked Gluebones’ near front foot. That shoe would need attention in Nofas. It was a big enough village to have a blacksmith/farrier.
“Hey Baralas, you have time for another game of dice," I asked as I set Gluebones' foot down. "You still owe me from last time. Double or nothin'?”
“Pay attention, Kefas!” Ser snapped. “Work now, fun and games later, we’re still reading a report. The Yeoli kid must be war-trained, way they describe what he did.”
“Payin’ attention! Ser, yes Ser!” I grinned at her. She gave me back the grin I’ve come to know as totally self-satisfied.
“What a life you live now,” Baralas said under his breath. ”Ha ha ha.”
“Shut up, Bar.”
While Ser read the last bit, I looked over at the babies we were to sit and pass on to First Patrol, which was two Yeoli fellows now. The group we were supposed to escort were waiting for us to do all we had to, in the shade by the horse trough. The women were riding for themselves instead of that silly horse’s-ass saddle with a step. The fessas kid and the freed slave moved around doing all the little things you needed to do before setting off, checking packs and having words with mules about how much they were to carry.Though these people seemed to not have huge amounts of ridiculous luggage... One Aitzas I escorted once had a mule train for his travelling bed alone. There was a little kid being called away before he ended up head first in the trough. Most amazing Aitzas-bright hair he had, almost like spun silver. You don't usually see that outside the city.
For all her calling me to attention, there wasn’t much more. “Baralas, how are they on the road? You've had them for an eight-day.”
“Pretty dull. The old man's a total egg-head, wants to talk about nothing but dry old scholarly shen, and he clears his throat until you want to strangle him just to make it stop. The girl's boringly proper, the fessas people suitably obsequious. You’d have to ask my wool-hair partner about the wool-hair kid. Oh and the brat... is bearable.”
Baralas didn't have any kids of his own yet so wasn’t used to them. If he thought the brat was not bad he was probably downright Celestial Messenger-like. I had little sisters. No kids myself… no wife any more, neither, to mama’s despair. Tula ran away with some bard, so I suppose I’m still married.
“Well, you people!” Ser said briskly in equal-to-equal. ”Just about ready? Time’s a wasting!”
I flinched. Didn't anyone teach her any Arkan civility? It's built right into our language which supposedly she knows. And didn't those orders that came down from our dear wool-haired Imperator about how not to be arrogant occupiers apply to one Serao Shae-Itrea?
“Ser and Serina,” I said smoothly. ”If the exalteds would please to accompany us? At the elevated’s convenience?” I had to hand it to them, though; they took her slighting manner with admirable equanimity, as if they weren’t insulted at all.
I nodded at Bar and swung up on Gluebones. It was nice weather. What could go wrong? I should have known better than to even think that. But for some reason something was itching at me. It was almost as if they were too bland. But it couldn’t be anything. They'd already been escorted by a handful of patrols and if they were hiding something, if something weren’t right, someone would have picked up on it, surely?
Bar was right. They were pretty boring. Boring was good. Anytime a patrol was boring it meant that Mama Rusanas’s little boy wasn’t hanging by his fikken fingertips out over a raging flood trying to drag some kid off a ledge or suchlike. They’re boring, they’re bland, and they’ve already had their big adventure for this trip. On someone else’s shift, thank Aras.
The brat liked our warhorses. Serao was talking to the Yeoli boy who was having some trouble with his language. Turned out that his old owners had tried to make him forget it. That was a little odd, too. Most owners, with kid slaves, just taught them how to speak Arkan and trusted time to make them forget their own language. Actively making him forget was... well, like something Mahid would do. “I like Ser Aimondas,” the kid says in fessas-accented Arkan. “And the family. They b...bought me away from them. And set me free even before they had to.”
It was dull enough that I had the brat up in front of me. “Your name is Ili? And what’s this fellow's name?” I reached around to poke his toy bear with my gauntlet.
“Yes! I’m Ili and this is my In’spensible Bear! Minakas says I have to say the ‘In’ part because that means he’s not ‘di-spen-si-ble’, and Ai...mean Grandfather says that’s right.” The kid flips the bear around and holds him up to sit on his head facing me. “Say hi, Bear!” He poked it and its mouth popped open, showing ivory fangs. “RRRRR,” the kid said, being the voice for his toy.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Indispensible Bear.”
“Hey, there’s melons growing over there. I had melons lots of times. On ice.” Kid looked wistful. “I like melons.”
“Ili!” His nurse, calling him. “You aren’t bothering the nice Sereniteer, are you?”
“No,” the little boy said, completely sure that he was not bothering me at all. “Kaita, can I have a melon?”
“He’s not bothering me, Serina,” I said. I stopped Gluebones, swung down, and handed the kid to his nurse. The melon field would bring this farmer a pretty penny shipped down to the city, once they were harvested. They needed so much water and were so expensive. The big market for him would be city money. Especially if he had a contract with an ice-seller so they could sell them chilled.
“You know.” I said conversationally. “The farmer really should keep his road verge trimmed. Five paces back. Let me do a quick check.” I hopped the ditch. “That’s one.” Serao was far enough back. The fence was one pace all on its own. “See? Only four paces.” I tapped a couple of the early melons and lo and behold, one was ripe enough to roll off its vine. Right under the fence and down into the ditch.
“I suppose I shan’t mention anything to the farmer now,” I said. “Hard-working man.” On my way back over I happened to find a melon just lying in the ditch. Amazing how some things work out.
I had it busted open and broken into chunks almost before I was back up on the road. “Kef!” Serao’d caught up to the rest of us, everyone having bunched up around Gluebones. “That’s theft! Graft! That melon... You’re a SERENITEER! How can you engage in criminal activity in front of honest taxpaying Arkan citizens?!” The fessas kid had a coughing fit. Probably horking up her ideal idea of ‘honest’ and ‘citizen’.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Officer Shae-Itrea, fruit, grain or meat found on the road verge becomes public property! Road Law 212, Segment 4, Lines 22 through 183.”
“Private property extends to the road cede. Crops overgrowing such are allowed as private property and removal is theft! Road Law 58, Segment 87, Line 1!” She looked up and down the ditch and then at me. “We’ll need to stop at the farmhouse and pay for that!”
“If I might quote exception 37, to the Officer. Argued before the High Court in 98 of the Past Age? I quote, ‘If said crops are present in sufficient abundance that such public usage of said found crops might be allowed as natural predation, given that all such food might not be picked before it rots, it shall be seen as normal crop loss, as to rot, or animal damage and thus free for the first hand to raise it up off the ground and save it for proper consumption.’”
She looked at the field and took in the dearth of pickers, since most of the farmer’s workers would be working on the more labour-intensive late hay. They wouldn’t be picking this field for another eight-day and the melon I’d ‘found’ was dead ripe, wouldn’t last another day. I took a big bite out of the chunk in my hand... “Oh, Aras is that good. It’s sooo sweet!” I could see her eyes follow it in my hand.
“But...” She paused and drew in a deep breath and tried one more time, but she was weakening, I could tell. “The ‘trim-back’ for District Joly is four paces and those vines are clearly trimmed back that far!”
“Ay, Ser. But we’m in District Armour and the verge trim in this jurisdiction is five paces. T’stone for the boundary was just back that way.” I indicated the end corner of the field we’d just passed.
She chewed on that while I broke the piece in my hands in half and handed it to the kid who bit into the red flesh with enough enthusiasm to bury his face to the ears. I held out another piece to her. “Hmph.” She was a sucker for melons too, I’d found out when the early melons had come ripe. The old scholar was coughing now, as well.
She looked sour, galloped back to the corner of the field where the district marker stone was, just to check. When she trotted back she held out her hand for the piece of melon. “Give me that.” I didn’t grin, much, when I handed it to her.
“Thank you, Sereniteers,” the kid said, his perfect manners a little flawed by the melon juice all down his neck and seeds stuck everywhere. The kid has a city accent. That’s weird. They all do. But they said they were never in the city. Something very odd.
“You’re welcome,” Serao said, still a little sour. “Let’s keep moving.” She finished off her chunk of melon. “Kefas, a word with you, please.” They got moving again, the fessas whispering to the wool-haired kid, the nurse wiping Ili’s face and making him put on new gloves.
“Yes, Serao?” Her face was serious and I knew her well enough by now that I could see it was no time to pull her chain about equal to equal or stupid formality. She was squirming in Pufeli’s saddle, almost absently, one hand tugging at the armhole of her breastplate like she’d like to get her nails inside and give a good, solid scratch. “Your... um... body alarm’s going off?”
“I’ve got a creepy feeling in my nipples,” she said. “It’s my nipples not a ‘body alarm’." But her correcting me was absent as if she were paying attention to something more important than bugging me.
Right. Shut up, Kef. I could feel my face heating some as I tried to ignore her being vulgar again. “Something’s not right.” I rubbed the side of my nose. I was lucky that when I got hunches I didn’t usually get physical itches. She did. Sometimes I sort of hoped for that to go off, just so’s I could watch the show as she twitched in her armour. The curve of her butt in the saddle twitching back and forth as her nipples itched was enough to make me forget I was a married man.
“Yeah. Not sure why I’m feeling this ‘feeling’. These people seem totally harmless, and other patrols haven’t noticed a thing wrong.”
“Hmm. You’re right. I’m not focusing on these people. I’ve got the feeling we’re being followed.”
“I’ll keep an eye out.”