Chapter 4

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CHAPTER 4 Penrys restrained herself from burying Zandaril with questions until he had worked the kinks out of his lively mare. The two of them trotted up one of the rolling slopes some distance northwest and then turned more directly west to parallel the men riding below them. Her horse maintained a steady pace, and eventually Zandaril’s mount settled in beside hers and they both slowed down to match the main body of the expedition. Scouts rode in pairs barely within her sight well in front, vanishing forward as she watched, and she could just make out other outriders on the far side of the line of march. The primary force rode in columns of two at a walk, with the supply wagons behind them, two dozen large ones with six-mule hitches, and not quite as many smaller ones pulled by two mules. More outriders brought up the rear behind the herds of horses and mules not in use and the cattle herd. At this distance, the constant noise faded into the background, and only the occasional shout made itself heard. Looks like about five hundred men, and maybe another five or six dozen in support. There must be close to fifty spare horses. And dinner on the hoof. Probably a good idea in this empty landscape. She’d seen cooks and a doctor on her way through the camp in the morning. A blacksmith, too. There were a few women doing laundry or managing supplies or horses, but it was clear that soldiering was a role for men in Kigali, on the whole. Time to find out what I’ve fallen into. She looked to Zandaril, riding to her right, on the outside. What, in case I make a break for it on Lead-foot here? “So, where are we, exactly? What’s this all about?” She gestured at the moving squadron below them. Zandaril turned his horse’s head uphill. “Follow me.” They rode a hundred yards at a slant to the top of the low, grass-covered ridge and reined in their horses. The chill wind from earlier in the morning freshened the air and she inhaled deeply. From where she was, on horseback, Penrys estimated she could see about thirty miles. The air was exhilarating, but the view was not—in all directions, grasslands on rolling ground stretched out, interrupted by occasional wooded streams, with no sign of habitations anywhere. Zandaril smiled at her expression. “Not what you expected, eh?” “I thought there was this big river, and mountains all the way around.” “That’s right. Let me explain.” He used his hands to illustrate. “We are in the center of the world here.” His deep voice made the pronouncement sound irrefutable. She laughed at the hyperbole. He glanced at her, deadpan. “I’m only repeating what the Kigaliwen say. We Zannib say the same thing about our own land—so does everyone. “Have you seen the steppe hounds, the ones with the long, thin bodies and elegant necks?” “I’ve seen drawings,” Penrys said. “So. Think of one, facing right, to the east, lying down on its belly, its head erect like the noble beast it is, with a leg stretched out in front, and an extra-long tail with a puff at the end.” He cupped his hands in the air to represent the puff. She smiled at the image, and he nodded in encouragement. “That is the world. Now,” he held up a finger, “Your Ellech is the hinge of the open mouth between the long snout and the heavy mountains and frozen ears of the upper face. Yes?” “I can see that.” “Good. We will not waste time on the over-lengthy neck, with its hot and uncivilized peoples, but come with me down to the body of the hound. Here there are bands along the side, like the coloring of the actual beast.” He swept his hands back and forth. “On the spine and the shoulder are two nations—Fastar to the west, and Ndant in the east.” His hands sketched out rough forms in the air. His low voice lent gravity to his description. “Below them is a line, the Kunlau Mountains. That is the northern border of Kigali. But Kigali is also the chest where it meets the sea, and the beginning of the foreleg, and part of the front belly. You see? Yenit Ping, the Endless City with its great harbor, is on this belly piece.” “The capital?” she said. He nodded. “From there, Kigali merchants sail all over the world. From Kwattu, too, on the chest. That’s how they send goods to your Collegium, without going all the tedious way around the front leg first.” He leaned closer, conspiratorially, though no one was within hundreds of yards of them to overhear, and dropped his voice even lower. “Kigali wants Shirtan-pur, too, the harbor on the spine at the base of the tail, but it doesn’t belong to them.” He pointed northwest of their current position. “It’s that way. You go up the Neshikame river to the end, then overland a bit through Lomat, then down the Kabanchir. If they had that, they’d have a harbor on all three sides of the hound’s body. Merchants, they want that. Very good for business. But it means war. No decisions yet.” “Is this something recent?” Penrys asked. “No, no—many generations. Sometime merchants push, sometimes not. But never final. Always problem. Sometimes Rasesdad, sometimes Fastar. Sometimes both.” He waved his hand as if to dismiss the unresolved territorial ambitions of Kigali. “Now we come to the middle band of the hound’s body, below the mountains. This is the valley of the Junkawa, the Mother of Rivers.” “The largest river in the world.” He smiled at the remark. “Yes, exactly. Two big rivers, running east. They join at Jonggep, the Meeting of Waters, and reach the sea at Yenit Ping. Many little rivers and not so little rivers go to them. Most of Kigaliwen are on a river somewhere.” He looked at her. “We are now between the north branch, the Neshikame, and the main south branch, the Seguchi, four hundred miles west of Jonggep.” “The hound’s liver?” she suggested. That surprised a grin and a nod from Zandaril. “The nearest mountains in any direction are the Lang Nor, the Red Wall, about three hundred miles west of here. This whole valley, if you can call it that, is roughly six hundred miles wide, north to south. A giant valley for a giant river.” She pulled her reins to keep her horse from cropping grass with his bit in place. He raised his head and shook it, and the bit clattered. She patted him absently in apology, then leaned forward to scratch his poll. “What about the Zannib?” she asked. “Ah, we are more modest, as befits the rest of the belly and the back leg. Between us and Kigali are the Ardib Yakush, what they call the Minchang Mountains. We have not so many rivers, but much grass and fine horses, all the way to the cold sea at the bottom of the world.” “So I see.” Penrys cocked her head at his mount, the small, shaggy horse she associated with steppe nomads. “Yes, I brought my lubr mar-az, my string, with me when I came to join. Everything had to come on horseback over the passes, no wagon. Chang let me use a wagon. And Hing Ganau.” “This horse, too?” She gestured at her sturdy mount. “He is from the troop herd. But is he not fine, in his own way?” he intoned. “Very fine. He can probably keep a walk going all day long. I’ve named him Vekkenfet, Lead-Foot.” He grinned again. “Ah, but wait—I am not finished. I forgot the rump of our hound, and part of the tail. That belongs to Rasesdad, who borders both our lands, Kigali and sarq-Zannib. “Not all neighbors can be friends,” he said, glancing at her slyly. “The Rasesni, maybe they have friends up the tail, but they have few here on the body.” “But they’re mountain folk, aren’t they, not a great nation?” Penrys tried to recall the geography books she had glanced at in the Collegium. “For people who are not a great nation, they are big pains in the rear of this hound.” He smiled at the image. “So. Word came downstream from the western border of raids and people evacuating. Neshilik has always these problems. The Rasesni would take back more of the headwaters if they could, and so they test Kigali readiness to defend them. Every generation or two, they do this. If they can ever reclaim and hold the land up to the gorge at Seguchi Norwan, the gates of the Seguchi, it might be difficult even for the Kigaliwen to shove them out again.” “The gorge?” she asked. “You’ll see. In about two weeks.” Penrys sat her horse and digested the information. That’s another three hundred miles, at the usual pace. So what’s this Zan fellow doing here, in the middle of Kigali? “What brought you into this expedition?” she asked. “The Kigaliwen are great merchants and not bad farmers. They build well, too. Make things.” He gave her a sidelong look. “But they are not famed for their wizards. Not like the Zannib.” She stifled a smile, apparently unsuccessfully, for he frowned at her. “With the first word out of Neshilik came stories that spoke of wizards. The Rasesni are like the Kigaliwen—no wizards—so where does this come from? Where? Or is it a lie?” He straightened in his saddle. “Commander Chang was appointed to lead this expedition, I suppose because he was already at Jonggep, the Meeting of Waters. Or because he is experienced.” “Or both,” she said. “Or both. Chang asked for assistance from sarq-Zannib, and we listened. Neshilik is on our border, too, and so is Rasesdad, to the west. I agreed to come, and joined him just after they started west.” “Why did you volunteer?” His deep voice was misleading—every time she studied him she was surprised how much younger he looked than he sounded. Looking for adventure, were you? He spent a few moments fussing over his mare’s mane before answering, with his face turned away. “I have been to Kigali before, several times. I have visited their cities. It… interests me, how they do things, how they organize things.” He glanced over at her to see if she understood what he meant. “This expedition, it is like a building project in some ways—it is an organized response to a problem. I have not traveled with soldiers before, so all of this is new experience for me.” She nodded. “We do not organize like this, in sarq-Zannib. The Zannib-hubr have independent routes for our taridiqa, our annual migration, and even the Zannib-taghr work independently, farm independently. Our merchants do things in small groups, not large ones—not the caravans, not our western fishermen. Even our clans and tribes are small, compared to Kigali.” He gestured at his turban, and Penrys wondered if that identified his clan, if she but knew how to decode it. “Wizards work alone. If something happens, we talk about it. A lot. And do little.” He looked over at the soldiers riding steadily along. “Long time we have been friends with Kigali. Trading partners. Kigali stands between us and all others. They fight for both of us.” He turned to face her directly. “This is not proper, for adult peoples. It is not safe. How will we fight, if we have to? “I am a wizard, so I am interested in how to organize wizards. This is my journeyman project, how I become a master. I would like to go to your Collegium and find out, but it is too far away and, besides, maybe I don’t meet their standards. So, I go with troopers instead during my tulqiqa, my journey time, so I can at least learn this.” He set his mare on a downward diagonal off the low ridge and cantered slowly back to the level they’d started at, expecting her to follow, but refusing to turn his head to see if she did. I’d be more impressed with that if I thought the sound of Vekkenfet’s hooves trotting behind him weren’t audible. He would never have fit in at the Collegium, I think. They don’t organize either, not really—they’d rather work alone, too, even if they speak about sharing knowledge. She pursed her lips. So what happened last night? What are they marching into? Penrys caught up with Zandaril once he’d fallen back into a walk to keep abreast of the troopers. He seemed to have thrown off his embarrassment at revealing so much of his personal feelings, and smiled at her when she trotted up at her horse’s stately speed. “See, he can go fast enough to run down Badaz when you want.” Falcon, it meant. She ignored the tease. “What about last night? Where did that mirror come from?” He sobered. “What about you? Where did you come from? Geography lesson free. Time for trading now.” All right. Why not? I don’t have to tell him everything. “Agreed,” she said. “You first.” Their horses walked companionably side by side, Zandaril again on the outside. “Mirror was a stupid trick. Stupid for us, I mean. Old mirror, used by Chang whenever he travels.” “Part of his furnishings, you mean? For his own tent?” she asked. “Right. Last night, first time, it spoke to us, showed us Menbyede of Rasesdad.” He wrinkled a lip. “So it said.” “In the command tent. With the senior officers.” “Bad idea. I examined it while Rasesni talked. Don’t know how it worked. Picked up a cloth to throw over it, then… nothing.” “You were frozen in place.” He nodded. “I saw you. Pop! Then… thump, as you fell down.” Penrys felt herself flush. “I was in my workroom. I’d tried my little model of a ryskymmer and it seemed fine. So I got inside the framework of the full-sized detector to make the same adjustment. There was this one lower joint I thought was the problem. When I stepped back out and tried it again, it didn’t work. I did this three more times. It was exasperating. Finally, I just gave the thing a good whack, not remembering I was in the wrong place.” “And that time it worked,” he said. “Yeah, I was stupid, too. I never thought it would go far if it did work, anyway, so I wasn’t worried. The more fool me.” She glanced at him. “I still don’t know what happened, exactly.” She rode in silence for a moment, the ache in her unaccustomed muscles from the morning’s ride grounding her in the reality that she had come a quarter of the world from her refuge in the time it took her to fall to the ground. Try again with a new device, built in a wagon from scraps, or walk home? Great choice. And what do I do for power-stones? “What are you thinking?” The low voice interrupted her thoughts. “I was thinking about the difficulty of getting home. Getting back, anyway,” she said. “Everyone wants to go home sometimes.” She muttered, “Doesn’t feel like home. Just someplace I… work.” “Work is good. But it is not the same.” She grimaced. “Your turn now. What did the Rasesni say and what did you do with the mirror?” He grinned broadly. “This Menbyede, he said we should not bother coming, that he had already taken back Neshilik and fortified the Seguchi Norwan gorge with fine new weapons. He was prepared to talk treaty terms, instead, and warned that we were surrounded. Here! In the heart of Kigali!” He slapped his thigh. “Our blood was hot, and then we were… stopped. Very angry, and nothing we could do. Maybe he lied about attack, but maybe not.” He snorted. “Then, when you released Chang, he bluffed right back. Excellent plan. Now Rasesni don’t know what happened. Don’t know about you. Don’t know why it didn’t work the way they wanted. And we are still coming to Neshilik.” He straightened up as if he were about to charge that instant. Penrys hooked a thumb down at the expedition. “But isn’t that an awfully small force against an invasion?” “Who says Kigali is invaded? Kigali is very, very big. Very many people. Rasesni live in mountains—not so many people. They attack Neshilik, yes, and they have some new weapon, yes, but more likely this is all a trick to make Kigali give up. We go to see what is really happening. Then we fix it, or we send for real army. Army has a long way to travel, but they are not easy to stop.” He looked at her. “I think maybe we fix it. We have new weapon, too.” Her ears drew back on her scalp. “Me, you mean.” “Of course, you.” He stared at her with friendly interest. “What can you do?”
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