The fessas kid still had the old geezer’s sword on his mule’s saddle and Serao wanted to help the wool-haired kid with getting himself back, as she put it, so we invited the two of them to spar with us when we were at the next waystation. Waystation Allasgulas.
It was the last on this little road; the next day’s travel would bring us up to Hamastown where Mines Road met the Main Road to the city and there’d be inns again all the way to where First Patrol took over, and the last almost private place on the road. Once we hit the Main Road it would be people everywhere. I’d skipped having Gluebone’s shoe looked at at Nofar, since it was okay. I’d have to pay for it eventually but my pay was stretched pretty thin anyway, what with Fil’s kids and wife to help out.
The boys hauled water out of the well, to fill the trough, and the nurse took the kid out to top up the station’s kindling supply. I dug down to the bottom of my pack. I had a small hammer to tap the nails more secure. He, of course, bit me on the butt when I did and nickered a horsey laugh when I yelled at him and threatened to smack him in the head with my hammer.
I shoved my nose into the air when Ili giggled at that and said “I assure you, young ser, my horse has the best of taste!” Which made him giggle harder.
The wool-hair boy, Rao, was hesitant and fearful but coming back fast as Serao put him through her version of a workout. I and the librarian watched Serao and him work bare-hands before they borrowed my sword to put steel into the kid’s hands.
“It’s not like it’s a great sword,” I said in an aside to Minakas. “You can see that.”
“This ‘un wouldn’t know thet, ser.” But he followed what Serao was teaching Rao like he was used to training.
“So, let’s you and I warm up then, hey?”
“Um... thenk yah, ser.” Was it just me or was his accent getting broader?
His warm up was the most rigid, brutal kind of warm-up I’d ever seen. Two or three of every move, just barely enough to keep from injury, fast and had him in a sweat in nothing flat. What a Hayel teacher this kid must have had. And he sparred the same way. All out, straight on. Pretty good, considering, but too... hmmm. What was it? As though he weren’t quite human, kind of like people say Mahid are, though I’ve been lucky and never been forced to meet one. Straight as the road. He was startled when I told him he did good.
He and I worked hard enough that our shirts came off. Someone had cut him up a bit with a whip. Odd. Most fessas don’t get flogged, even the couple of stripes on him. That’s when I caught the edge of a faint, barely visible scar on his cheek, like someone had hit him with a thin blade, or split stick of some kind, like an officer’s stick. It was so faint I almost missed it. One more clue to the fact that these boring people were perhaps not so boring as they tried to be.
“Enough. Good enough for an evening workout, kid. Thanks fer being m’spar partner.” If he were a road sereniteer apprentice he was too straight line to make a good one. I’d be knockin’ that rigid crap out of his muscles and head right quick. Even Serao was more flexible than that. She was finishing up with the wool-haired kid with some softness exercise that involves a lot of moves that look like dancing not sparring.
“She calls that stuff ‘follow hands’,” I said in an aside to Minakas. “Nearly made me faint with the idea of all that hand touching first time she showed me... but if you can stomach it, good practise for you.”
“Thank ye, ser.” He rinsed off out of our bucket, put on his shirt again, bobbed his head and he and the wool hair boy went to see if the Aitzas needed anything.
Now that I was looking for it, there were a hundred tiny things, Arkan things that Serao wouldn’t notice. They did all have city accents. And how had the fessas boy and the slave gotten to be such good friends? Even with a laid-back less than formal family, in the hinterlands, that wasn’t usual.
The girl was proper. A perfect lady and beautiful enough to make the highest wedding. It made sense that she would be taken to the city to see if she could land a wealthy Aitzas... or... The idea made me gag... maybe some Yeoli lordling. Some man who would repair the impoverished families fortunes. It was perfect enough that it was almost a caricature of a knuckle-sucker plot. Hair like spun silk.
The nurse... fessas but... there was something off a bit. She carried herself like an Aitzas. And the kid. Ili. Nice kid. The fessas boy and the kid look pretty closely related around the eyes. Same eye colour if you looked past the kid’s glasses. And that spun silver hair. Hmmm. I put all these thoughts away to see if my mind could put them together for me, without me looking. I’d learned over the years as a sereniteer sometimes it was best to just jumble up the clues together and see what floated up.
I sat down next to Ili who had his toy with him as always.
“Your grandfather going to see you get some sword-training, Ili?”
“Oh yeah! I’m going to be the best! My name is Ilesias just like the best Imperator. Hey, lookit! Did you see In’spensible Bear’s teeth? He’s the bravest! He nearly bit those bad bandits!”
He thrust his bear into my hands and the setting sun glanced through one of the toy’s green eyes. Those green eyes were not glass, or I was a Yeoli’s maiden auntie. I caught my breath. What kid’s impoverished family could afford emeralds for a toy bear’s eyes?
The quality of the thing was suddenly obvious now that I had my hands on it. Real fur. Bear fur, not rabbit. I knew the difference. And the fact that he had a mechanism that let the kid open and close his mouth. “Hey, Ili,” I asked casually. “Does your bear keep stuff for you?”
“Yes! I put it in his mouth and if I want I can open up his tummy and get it back. He has lots of my treasure.”
“Yeah. That is good that he has teeth then.” Only the most expensive of toys would also be a ‘depository’. The most wealthy of Aitzas were able to give their kids toys of that quality, not some Aitzas scholar who didn’t have enough money to hire a solas guard on the road. Who are these people and what kind of scam are they pulling?
I looked over at Serao who was rinsing off still, idly scratching... I looked away. Her nipples. We were, pretty surely, being followed though I’d only picked up signs of it, not the guy himself yet. Wonder what he was waiting for? No sign of being chivvied into an ambush where they could take a couple of sereniteers and a group that could fight.
Turned out there was one guy on a spavined mule who was following us. “Ser, honoured sereniteer, ser!” He walked in, hauling the half dead animal, stretch-neck stubborn, behind him. And, being Arkan came straight to me. Everybody around the morning fire, brewing kaf, frying bacon and bread, paused and looked up.
“Yes, citizen?” My knees felt it when I got up. I hoped it wasn’t this guy’s kid stuck in a well somewhere. “How may we assist?”
He was a wasted stripe of a man with premature baldness and the perpetual squint of a man peering suspiciously at life.
“This one has some’tin tah report! Some’ut big! Big! Bigger ‘n...”
“Citizen you need to report to the superior officer,” I jerked my head to Serao, glad to pass this fellow off like a pepper-soaked loincloth.
She got up, dusting her hands together, ready to face a new challenge, like usual. Given that she’d not armoured up yet this morning her femaleness was kind of obvious. And kind of at his face height. He gulped and dropped the reins, looked between her and me... before dragging over to where she beckoned him, like a kid not wanting to confess something to the wrong parent.
He tried to suck up to her, I could see, hunching his shoulders, wringing his gloves. Everyone was trying to keep doing what they needed to do as if the guy weren’t there. I picked up my javelin bucket from where I’d been going over it, and walked over to Gluebone’s saddle. That took me just in earshot.
“... does this one then get this one’s five thousand gold chains as reward?” He waved a tattered poster at her that she grabbed to keep him from excitedly flapping it in her face.
She cut him off, read the poster, a surprised look growing. She looked over toward our boring Aitzas family and back at the fessas, and then she started laughing and waved me over.
“Have a look at this, Kef,” she said passing me the filthy bit of paper. It was a ‘criminal wanted’ notification, more than a year old. “MINIS AAN, son of KURKAS AAN... former Imperator... blah, blah... ILESIAS AAN, son of KURKAS AAN... FIFTY MAHID, headed by FIRST AMITZAS MAHID...” 5,000 gold chains for his corpse or 10,000 for his arrest... that was for both the boys... 10,000 for the Mahid... dead of course.
I’d seen it after the sack of course, once I’d sworn to the new wool-haired guy. Hayel, I had expected it once I’d heard that the old Imperator had gotten the kids out of the city before hand. But He Whose Fist Punched a Hole in the old Imperator’s face had only issued the one poster.
Blah... blah... slave... like a dozen missing wool-haired kids made up to look like the now Imperator. Hayel, it had been fashionable to have a Yeoli kid because of the Imperator’s tastes. There had been a run on them. Likely Rao was one of ‘em.... a bunch of Aitzas and Aitza...
I started to smile. This was just some impoverished idiot’s deranged... My thought sputtered to a halt as if I’d reined it in hard.
Ili. Ilesias. They all had city accents. The toy that only the highest, wealthiest could have. That spun silver hair. The fessas kid moving like he was trained... by... Mahid. I looked up from the poster just in time to catch the kid looking with that blue, blue gaze, before he looked away. They said the sword was the old man’s, but he’s never touched it, leaving it in the kid’s hands like it's his. Iced melons. The girl that beautiful and perfect enough to be an Imperatrix. The fessas kid and the Aitzas kid who, if you look past the caste difference, look like brothers. Little things... but only something an Arkan could put together. The clues all fell together in my head like the city-clock chiming Noon.