Book 3 of The Chained Adept, Chapters 1-3
The Grand Caravan arrived that afternoon in sunlight fresh enough with the spring season to ignore the dust of the travelers and settle on the bright colors of their exotic robes and turbans instead.
Outriders had preceded them into Tengwa Tep, and the merchants and citizens of that entrepôt that could spare the time gathered on the southwest outskirts of the city as soon as the news had spread that the Grand Caravan had come, as scheduled, and that the trading season with sarq-Zannib and upstream Kigali had begun for the year.
Penrys rode well back in the caravan, dressed in the riding-length robes that all the dark Zannib wore, men and women, on horseback. Najud, her husband, was near the front, but the rest of her companions, as new to the caravan as she was, chattered excitedly about their first look at a Kigali city, its yellow brick golden in the light from the west, varied by the colorful stucco of its many residential and manufacturing compounds. By comparison, the caravan’s first stop, a few days ago, had just been a large market town.
She’d seen cities before, in Ellech, across the northern seas. Here it was the children that caught her eye—dozens and dozens of them, screaming with excitement. Some were with a parent, but mostly they ran free, the littlest ones trailed by irritated older sisters or brothers. Unlike their elders, with the long single braid that almost all Kigali not in the military used, the children wore their hair loose or, at the most, gathered into a tail.
“Did they come to see the riders?” Rubti asked.
Penrys smiled at her sister-in-law’s eagerness, a ten-years-younger version of Najud. She was an apprentice herd-mistress, a dirum-malb in her own language, and she’d been fascinated by the rehearsal the night before of the entertainment the caravan would provide this first evening, to entice the crowds to trade for the five-day stop before it swung west, upstream, paralleling the Junkawa, for the longest leg of its great circular route—to Jonggep, the Meeting of Waters.
Ilzay leaned across his saddle to catch Penrys’s attention. “There’s our setup place.” The young man pointed to the left, into the open pasture that was bare of animals and clearly set aside for the use of the caravan, divided from the outermost commercial buildings on the west side of Tengwa by a well-used broad dirt road.
The caravan broke into its smaller components and the travelers began to unpack and erect their dwellings in the unchanging sequence they would maintain for the entire route. Penrys recalled Najud’s advice when the caravan started from Qawrash im-Dhal to pick their neighbors well, since they’d be living with them for four months. That wouldn’t be true for Penrys and Najud who would be leaving the caravan here tomorrow with their apprentice Munraz, but the other four would be hauling their two kazrab and trade goods on all but the final leg, parting from the caravan only once it had returned to sarq-Zannib and reached the land of clan Zamjilah on its way back home.
The six of them led their pack-strings of horses, five each, to their designated spot and began unloading their goods from the pack frames. Before the first of the three round kazrab had been raised, Najud trotted in with his own pack-string.
“Sorry, Haraq—we’ve been summoned. Can you take charge of getting our kazr up? Munraz can tell you where everything goes. I need to grab Penrys for a while, by order of our imperial… hosts.”
A grimace crossed his lively face. *Sorry, Pen-sha. They’re waiting for us. I’ll stall them until tomorrow—we don’t want to cross the river in the dark, I assure you. But they want to make sure I brought you. As, um, requested.*
Penrys felt the mix of exasperation and tension in his mind-speech. “Shouldn’t we change our clothes?” She beat her sleeve with the riding gloves clenched in her hand and let the eloquent dust rise to make her point.
“No time. They’ll have to take us as we are, at least on this side of the river where we can always just leave again.”
With a sigh, Penrys waved her hand at what was left of their unloading and smiled apologetically at Haraq. “Have fun watching the riding exhibition if we miss it,” she told Rubti.
She brushed the trail dust off as best she could and remounted her horse. Najud led her at a trot to the head of the caravan, passing the large kazr of the zarawinnaj, the caravan leader, and then crossed the road to the Tengwa side and slowed to a walk. He searched through the crowd of Kigaliwen, adults and children, who were watching the camp going up in the field, until he spotted two men, dressed somberly, and turned his horse in their direction.
“That’s the dark brown of Imperial Security,” he told Penrys. “Apparently they’ve been on the lookout for us.”
When they reached the two men, they dismounted. Najud bowed in the Kigali fashion and Penrys followed his lead. When she noticed the older one staring at her neck, she raised her hand and unwound the colorful scarf she’d wrapped around it, a gift from a kind tailor’s wife in far western Neshilik. At the sight of the heavy, brassy chain, settled close around her throat, with no method of removal, the official nodded.
“You are wanted as soon as possible in Mentsek Tep,” he said. “Gather your things and follow us.”
Penrys raised her eyebrows, and Najud shook his head. “We’ll cross to Yenit Ping in the morning, Nip-chi, not in the darkness of night. By the time we load goods and horses, the sun will have long set.”
He turned to Penrys. “Penrys, this is Nip Jochat, and Zep Pangwit who will be our guide into Yenit Ping, to take us to Tun Jeju. Binochiwen, this is Penrys of Ellech, my wife.”
“So they didn’t expect you to be married to my tigha?” Rubti was amused at the surprise Najud had described to her when they returned to their camp.
“News doesn’t travel all that quickly,” Penrys said. The scene of chaos that she’d left had fallen into order before she got back. The horses and other animals were tethered or herded in flocks on the far side of the camp, in the pasture set aside for the thrice-yearly visit from the Grand Caravan. In the middle rank were the kazrab of the caravan leader, the guards, and the permanent staff of the Biziz Rahr, scattered along its length, and then interspersed were all the traders traveling together in the caravan, one group after another. Some were regulars who undertook the journey every year and greeted each other like family, while others, like their own party, were strangers.
The final rank, along the frontage of the road, were the trading booths, still going up in the setting sun, bare and undecorated until the next day’s early morning would see them transformed into colorful and enticing stops for the citizens and merchants of Tengwa Tep, and for any other traders who would rendezvous here before the caravan proceeded further into Kigali. Some would be buying, for the local region, and others would consign their own items for sale. Goods that went by water traveled in Kigaliwen hands, but the overland trade, along the route of the Biziz Rahr, was handled by the nomadic Zannib, by long custom.
Penrys had seen the process a few days ago in their first village, where the kinks had been worked out for the new travelers. The caravan’s customers and trading partners would wait until tomorrow for their official business, but already they were gathering in the open space left beyond the zarawinnaj’s dwelling, waiting for the entertainment to begin.
As she pushed through the crowd with Rubti, Penrys could feel the exercise of the traders’ professional skills, as much a part of them as the skills of a carpenter or soldier would be to another. She reached out with her mind and scanned the people—hundreds of them, in addition to those with the caravan. Across the road were the thousands in Tengwa Tep, and this, she knew, was just a small city, anchored by the caravan trade. The scale was overwhelming, and she concentrated on just the activity in front of her.
*Over here, Pen-sha.*
Penrys zeroed in on Najud’s location from his silent call and steered Rubti in that direction. Along the westward-facing edge of the talkative crowd, their little group stood quietly—tall Haraq made taller by his turban, and young Ilzay, his eyes never still as they drank in and filed the behaviors of the people as though they were an exotic species of animal. Najud was there, younger than Haraq, with his face that so resembled Rubti’s, especially when a smile flashed across it as it did now upon seeing them both. Munraz, their apprentice, stood by his side and smiled shyly at Rubti.
All the men wore the turbans that marked the Zannib, and as Penrys cast her eye across the crowd, she could see the colorful headgear bobbing like the blooms of tall flowers in a field of grass. The Kigali men, some of them, sported the small emblematic caps of their rank or profession, perched moth-like on their heads. The universal single braid down the back for the adults, men and women, was in stark contrast to the exuberant curls of the Zannib women who wore their hair only casually restrained by scarves or pins, like Rubti.
Rima, the oldest of their party, had threaded the brightest scarf she owned through her own dark curls, until she seemed as youthful and uninhibited as Rubti. Penrys felt out-of-place in this crowd, with her shoulder-length brown hair in the sea of black-headed people. She hadn’t stood out so much in Ellech, with its variety of hair colors, but here in the southern continent, any variation from black was unusual, and her skin tones and rounder eyes were wrong, too.
All around them she overheard snippets of conversation. Promises of spices and rugs, jewels and wool, exotic fabrics and dyes. Pearls from the Wandat Sea. Bargains being struck for consignments further along the route.
Suddenly the noise quieted, and Penrys looked west, into the sunset. A single Zan on a white horse had appeared. He bowed, and his horse knelt, too, before rising up to carry him at a gallop along the front of the crowd. Hands reached out to grab children and pull them out of the way, but Penrys could both see and feel how much the rider was in control of his horse, and how often they had done this before.
She felt the arrival of more riders, coming out of the setting sun, before her eyes wanted to leave the first one. They split into two groups of three and rode with their arms crossed over their chests and no reins at all. For a few minutes they wove through each other in intricate crossings, their faces impassive, using only their legs to direct their horses. Penrys could feel their concentration as they performed, something between a dance and swordplay.
With a shout and a flourish, all six riders moved as one and drew their khashab, the curved swords of the Zannib, from the sheaths mounted to the saddles. What followed was a stylized sword dance on horseback, first one group of three slashing and their opponents ducking fluidly away, and then the other. After the synchronized exhibit, they broke off into three pairs and traded a flurry of blows that never connected. Finally, by what signal Penrys was unable to detect, they stopped and struck their swords against their partners’ swords in a single ringing clang that died out in the silence of the fascinated crowd, until the first hand-clapping began, and the children shouted in delight.
All six riders lined up and bowed, and than circled at a gallop and vanished back behind the caravan leader’s kazr on the left, just as the sun finished setting.
Penrys glanced down at Rubti whose eyes were shining. “Think you can learn how to do that, in three months?”
Waking up from her trance, the girl turned a serious face to her. “Do you think they’d teach me?”
“Why not? Seems to me like it would be a fine thing for a herd-mistress to know.”
That evening all seven of the travelers made themselves comfortable after dinner in the kazr that belonged to Najud and Penrys.
“Last time,” Najud said, as he poured the bunnas for Haraq and then settled the pot on the metal plate that supported the stove. “No more kazr for us, in Yenit Ping.”
He’d miss the comfort of the warm felt walls surrounding the round lattice-work shell, and all the colorful painted woodwork and textiles. It would all collapse down tomorrow into loads for two of the horses in his string, while the other two kazrab remained standing, for the four who would go on with the Biziz Rahr for three quarters of its circular route.
Tun Jeju, the Kigali officer of Imperial Security, had requested his presence, and Penrys’s, in Yenit Ping, and Najud knew it was more in the nature of an order, an obligation already paid for in the form of a permit for a new caravan in the west of sarq-Zannib. He’d brought his apprentice along, but the rest were there to learn how the grandfather of caravans operated, as a model for the new one Najud intended to found.
“It’s not too late, Munraz,” he said. “There are other bikrajab traveling with the caravan—I could probably arrange for you to study with one of them instead, if you wish it. They’re all older than I am.”
Penrys rolled her eyes, and he corrected himself. “Than we are.”
He could see that Munraz actually considered the offer, before shaking his head. “I’d rather study with you two, bikraj, and see the great city.”
“All right, then. You’ll find it… interesting.”
Proceeding in order of seniority, Najud turned to Rima. The widow of a trader from clan Umzabul, she’d wanted to experience the Grand Caravan, from its base in Qawrash im-Dhal to its trading cities in Kigali, the better to prepare the other traders in her clan once the western caravan became a reality.
Najud looked to her steadiness to counter-balance his volatile younger sister. “Is there anything else you need, Rima, before we part? You’re comfortable with your trade goods? Your silver?”
“It’s not my first biziz,” she said, with a smile, “though there’s nothing like the Biziz Rahr, it’s true. Penrys can take her loads of kassa into Yenit Ping, but I’ll seed the market along the way with mine, and see if we can’t stir up a demand for it.”
The herbal infusion was an alternative to the dark and popular bunnas, and not yet well know outside of the far west, around the Wandat Sea.
Haraq was still a puzzle to Najud, even after two months on horseback together. Neither he nor the much younger Ilzay spoke much, and they shared a certain sobriety of character.
Penrys had broken Haraq free from a qahulajti, a wizard-tyrant, a few months ago, when the Kurighdunaq clan had been so disastrously drawn into the grasp of a young girl with overwhelming powers. In the process, Haraq had stuck to them both, and declared his interest in helping to create the new caravan.
Privately, Najud thought Haraq felt he owed Penrys some sort of debt for his life. That was nonsense—others had been saved the same way, including Haraq’s own sister—but Najud was no longer surprised, when he turned around to warn Penrys of something, to find Haraq there before him, tending to the danger.
Ilzay was different. The Kurighdunaq clan was now so reduced in size, that its ujarqa, Umzakhilin, the clan leader, was considering Najud’s proposal to help build a caravan base on the clan territory, like a Qawrash im-Dhal in miniature, as a way of avoiding absorption into the other clans of his tribe. Ilzay wanted a place in that. He was here to learn how a mature biziz operated, to help plan the infancy of a new one.
“You have all the letters for Umzakhilin and the others?” Najud directed the question to both of the men.
“We have everything, bikraj,” Ilzay responded. “If Umzakhilin says ‘yes’ before you return, we know what to do. The rest of the work goes forward either way—the breeding of the horses and mules, and the announcements for the merchants and traders in the west.”
“Good,” Najud said. “I’d rather start the trading base this year, for greater stability next year, but even without it I’m determined to try for a first, short caravan next spring as an experiment.”
“And Rubti, that means I’m placing a great responsibility on you.” His sister returned his look with unaccustomed seriousness. “Just getting our herds from Zamjilah to Kurighdunaq will be a trial, even if those we spoke with when we passed through still plan to come with you. It’s no small thing to uproot so many animals and people, and bring them to a new clan for an… uncertain adventure.”
“I can do it, tigha,” she said. “I may only be a dirum-malb now, just an apprentice herd-mistress, but I’m sure I can do it.”
Penrys laughed. “Don’t you think you’ll be a full dirum if… when you succeed? If that’s not a masterwork, moving so many animals three hundred miles west, I don’t know what would be. Talk to the dirum of this caravan and learn everything you can. Stick to her like a burr and make yourself useful.”
Najud said to Rima, “Take care of her for me.”
“Well, I will,” the older woman said, “but I don’t see the least need to worry about it. You go off and give that old Kigalino what he wants, and we’ll see all three of you in a couple of months.”
Najud and Penrys shared a look. If only it proves to be that simple.
“Is it a river, or the world’s longest lake?”
With a sense of wonder, Penrys studied the view before her. She sat her horse with her two companions, each of them holding the lead rope of a pack string of five animals.
From the bluff, worn by the river below, the flooded Junkawa flowed east. The roiled waters of the Mother of Rivers dominated the landscape. On the far bank, to the north, an isolated ridge stretched away into the blue distance. Its near end point, cut through by the river and erased from the memory of the land after that, was covered by the works of man—Yenit Ping, the Endless City.
She knew there were ways to travel the crumbling ridge down to Mentsek Tep, the lower town at its foot, diked and embanked against high water, but at this distance she could make out only the faintest smudges of color and structure. The western garden district that Najud had described was completely invisible, but the eastern industrial area was identifiable by the smoke that drifted steadily upstream at this time of day.
“That’s the last piece of unfloodable land before the outlet, Munraz, a hundred miles away. The river broke through that ridge some unthinkable number of years ago, just like the game ‘water cuts stone.’ Some day the river will have its way again and they’ll have to move the city further back.”
Najud kept up a running education for his nal-jarghal, his apprentice. He’d visited the city before a few times, and Penrys had at least read about it and was familiar with Tavnastok on its river in Ellech, even if fifty Tavnastoks could have easily fit inside Yenit Ping, but Munraz was only eighteen and had never seen a city of any kind, there being none in central sarq-Zannib, the home of the most traditional nomads in the nation. The permanent settlement of Qawrash im-Dhal, the base of the Grand Caravan in eastern sarq-Zannib, had been startling enough, and then Tengwa Tep of the yellow bricks and colorful stucco on the south bank behind them had opened his eyes wider.
But this… this was the largest city in the world, by repute. Penrys had seen many illustrations, back in the Collegium of Wizards in Ellech, north across the sea. And there, stretched out before her, was the world’s largest river to serve it, with a valley to match, hundreds of miles wide for much of its length. There were no bridges over the Junkawa until Gonglik, at the head of the Steps, in Neshilik, fifteen hundred miles to the west, and then only over the southern of the two main branches.
She opened her mind. Even from this distance she could feel the press of all the people across the water, swamping the population of Tengwa at her back.
“I hope the others will see this,” Penrys said. “They may never get another chance.”
“Rubti told me they were going to come and look before the Biziz Rahr moves on. After they get tired of the sights of Tengwa Tep.” Najud smiled at the thought of his young sister’s reaction.
“I miss them already,” Penrys said. “After two months on the road together.”
The click of hooves reminded her they weren’t alone. Zep Pangwit, their guide, in his long brown robes, reappeared from below and waved them on impatiently to follow him down the broad diagonal track, terraced into worn steps, that led to the stone docks at river level.
Penrys had never seen a river harbor like this. A bare stone embankment stretched out from the base of the cliff, well above the spring flood level. It was two hundred feet broad, and worn lines memorialized the streets that would appear after the snowmelt had passed. Regularly spaced holes indicated the anchor points for the wattle walls that would be carried down the stepped road to erect temporary structures once the danger of flooding was over.
A massive stone wall west of the stepped road’s outlet, more than thirty feet thick and a dozen feet higher than the current river level, jutted out from the bluff at an angle to deflect the force of the river, and in the backwater formed by it were dozens of solid stone docks, each one the width of three wagons. Both the top of the barrier wall and the docks were worn smooth by water, attesting to unusually high floods. A cluster of stone-flagged roads fingered out to access the docks, but they seemed very widely placed.
“What’s this like at mid-summer’s low water?” she asked Najud.
“Look under the surface, to the right of a dock,” he said.
It was as though there were another stone dock, like a long stairstep, fifteen feet down, and her mind drew for her a path to a paved road that led to it, now underwater, from the branching network.
“It’s like a staircase… How many steps?”
Zep Pangwit was off arranging transportation with one of the larger of the docked ships, a deep-bellied horse transport, but Najud supplied the answer. “Three—low water, high water, and the rest of the year.”
“That’s quite an investment. How’d they ever build them?”
“It was hundreds of years ago,” Najud said, “but I believe they sank barges loaded with stone in low water until they had the bottom layers anchored for the breakwater and the docks, and then, over several years and only during the lowest water, they built permanent walls around those foundations. After they got above the low water level, it went faster.”
He glanced around the handful of ships at dockside and grinned at Penrys. “You should see this place in summer when it’s full of people. Once the high water passes and the merchants can set up outposts on the lower docks, the dockyard is crowded with temporary buildings. I’ve never seen them doing it, but I hear they can set up this whole place in a week, to kick off the trading season—they’ll do that just after the Biziz Rahr leaves. And then they’ve got to use the signal flags to let Yenit Ping know when there’s a dock vacancy, before they let another ship come in for mooring.” He pointed upward at the bare patches forty feet up on the cliff, with stairways and paths cut into and above them for access.
Penrys thought of the lenses they must use to read each other’s messages across the river, Yenit Ping and its satellite on the southern shore. It wasn’t the technology that impressed her—she could see how everything worked, and Ellech could have duplicated it all—but the mute testament of how much wealth and organization and manpower it took to tame this giant river well enough to create these harbors on both sides. That was the part that was so hard to duplicate in the rest of the world. And Yenit Ping was an endless showcase of marvels like this.
Penrys fingered the chain around her neck nervously and bespoke Najud so their apprentice couldn’t overhear. *Once we cross, we can’t get back without help. We don’t really know what Tun Jeju intends—what if it’s just to keep a third chained wizard under Kigali control?*
*Not too late, Pen-sha, if you want to stop. We can turn around and rejoin the biziz, or just head on back to Zamjilah or Kurighdunaq.*
She smiled at her husband, and shook her head. *What, and give up your hope of a caravan in the west? Can’t use the permits if we don’t come when they call.*
“And besides,” she said aloud, “aren’t you curious about what they want?”
It took an hour, all three of them, to lift the packs from their horses at the dock and lead the animals through the hull access amidships to their tight stalls below deck. Penrys did her best to sooth them into compliance but a couple revolted in the unusual situation and had to be wrestled into place with ropes. They stood in place afterward, trembling, dismayed by the feel of the ship moving under their feet.
While the sailors latched and sealed the mid-ship hull gap, the three travelers helped haul the horses’ packs up the gangway, and the crew lowered them via rope and a suspended pulley into the hold. The destination was nearby, but they would have miles of stubborn sailing to get to it, fighting the current, and the load, light as it was compared to the horses, needed to be balanced correctly.
While she worked, Penrys kept an eye on their guide. His face showed little, but her mind-scan revealed more. He disliked foreigners, as he counted both the two Zannib men, and found her particularly distasteful, probably a mix of her unknown nation, her alien Zannib clothing, and her shoulder-length hair, neither long enough for a proper Kigali braid nor truly short, like the rare women in the military ranks.
He felt shamed, as well—perhaps this errand, to guide them to the Imperial Security offices in the Yenit Ping, was somehow beneath him.
She reached out to the captain and his crew. Nothing odd there, just routine employment—though the curious glances at the Zannib clothing of the party betrayed some curiosity. Zannib were an unusual sight for them, either at riverside or north of the river, where they were going.
Munraz was watching the sailors, too, and seemed able to follow the conversations. The nightly lessons Najud had given him in learning Kigali yat, once they’d crossed the border and had native speakers within reach to draw from, seemed to have worked for him—a good thing, since it would be less unsettling for him to get those mind-sharing lessons from Najud than from Penrys. He had enough of a problem with hero-worship, Najud had told her, and besides, she was a married woman now, not to mention eight years older.
Finally, all was settled, and the mooring lines were cast off, with just a couple of light sails for steering hauled up to help turn the bow out into the river current, inescapable even in this backwater. Then the captain set his sails to take advantage of the easterly wind and headed into the main stream. Najud had explained that the prevailing winds this close to the ocean ran to the west in the morning, and the east in the evening, and the seabirds hanging suspended effortlessly in the air confirmed it. Even with that help, however, it would take the ship the rest of the morning to tack upstream against the current to cross the few miles to the other side and then ride the current into the crowded central harbor of Yenit Ping.
Najud observed Munraz, with his teeth clamped shut, clinging to the rail of the ship with a desperate grasp and staring at more water than he’d ever seen before—a wholly alien environment.
“So, nal-jarghal… I forgot to ask you. Did anyone ever teach you how to swim, or should we add that to the list?”
Of course I can’t swim. Where would I have learned?
Munraz bit his tongue on the ungrateful thoughts. His jarghal meant nothing insulting by the jest, he knew. It’s not the water I fear. The river was just one more barrier erected between his old life and his new.
He wouldn’t have returned home if he could have, not to that perverted life of the wizards of his clan—the inbreeding, a future of a terrified wife or a drugged one. Or none at all.
His right hand gripped the rail of the ship harder, in momentary remembrance of the knife it had held, the firm grip needed to cut the qahulajti’s throat, above the chain, still loose on her neck—she had yet to finish growing into it, so young she was, like a little sister. So dangerous. And so doomed. What his uncle would have done to her—it didn’t bear thinking of. Munraz had denied him the prize and helped her die cleanly.
The senior bikraj, Khizuwi, had thanked him for ending the qahulajti, the necessary action to restore order. But Munraz agreed with Penrys—he couldn’t hold the young girl responsible for all the deaths she’d caused, more like a natural disaster than deliberate malice. He could never say so—he didn’t think mercy killing would be as acceptable an explanation as traditional justice. He thought Penrys suspected the truth, and understood, but time and distance hadn’t made his hands feel any cleaner.
No, there’s no way to go back, Munraz-without-a-family. The clan adoption had been good of Najud, kind. To a man with a fond family—what was one more orphan? It was something else he shared with Penrys, the shared glance when the exuberance of Najud’s siblings painted such a vivid and cozy picture, and they both felt like outsiders, through no fault of the others.
No point in thinking of Penrys. She was Najud’s, and rightly. She treated Munraz like a younger brother. He flushed remembering the one time he’d confessed his admiration of her to Najud, and had been reminded of the impropriety of it.
Their journey across sarq-Zannib to Qawrash im-Dahl had been interesting, seeing more of the world, though every time they were introduced the strangeness of a young jarghal and an almost-as-old nar-jarghal seemed to strike people, whether they asked about it or not. Najud and Penrys discouraged the questions, and he was grateful, but he felt as if his history were written on his forehead for all to see.
And then, once they’d joined the Biziz Rahr, Najud’s professional interest had pushed aside some of their studies together. Was the man a jarghal, or a trader? And Penrys was no better. Maybe this was why apprentices studied with older masters, men who’d settled into their life’s work instead of flitting from flower to flower like some unsatisfied bee.
For a moment black and yellow stripes wrapped themselves around his vision of Najud chatting at the rail with Penrys, and he added diaphanous wings before blinking them away and concentrating on keeping his stomach settled as the ship dipped and rose in the current.
Unlike the half-empty harbor on the southern shore, the central harbor of Yenit Ping was full of life. The river rarely froze in winter, and traffic up and down the northern shore was active year round, though this was far from its busiest season. Signal flags the height of a man flapped, five and six at a time, from three stout masts, visible from the harbor and bluff of Tengwa Tep, Penrys assumed.
Their ship sought its modest mooring well away from the grand plaza of temples and imperial buildings, set back from the edge of the embankment, that displayed the order and power of Kigali for all to see. The three travelers and their guide leaned on a rail out of the way of the sailors, and the foreigners gaped at the sight.
“Is that where the emperor lives?” Munraz asked, happier now that they were no longer in the grasp of the main river.
Najud chuckled. “Hardly. He’s up there.”
He pointed up to the ridge with its cliffs, almost a quarter of a mile back from the level embankment. “The court and its functionaries live up there in Juhim Tep. What you’re seeing are the central offices of government—they have satellite locations in Juhim, and scattered in smaller districts throughout the city, and in the lesser cities of the empire, but this is their central place. The temples, too, though the best of those are up in Juhim Tep.”
“What I want to know,” Penrys said, “is how they built this huge flat place so high above the river, with the ridge set so conveniently back.”
Zep Pangwit condescended to explain the glories of Yenit Ping to these outlanders. “Our ancestors found the rubble of Tegong Him here, where the river had brought it down. All that was necessary was to break it up and level it out, until they were satisfied with the height above the floods. Of course, they broke off more of it as needed to make the cliffs steeper, for the better defense of Juhim Tep.”
Penrys blinked. Pride and satisfaction were strong in his voice, but when she’d digested his explanation, she thought them well-merited. The civic and religious buildings were faced in a smooth white stone, but the older buildings she could see were the same red-brown as the cliff in the distance. The central portion of the city and the foundations of the embankment were all made from the stone of the ridge. What the river had started, the Kigali had continued, improving on nature. She wondered what it had looked like, before the empire.
From her reading she knew that there were famous hoists that hauled people, horses, and goods from Mentsek Tep at the base to Juhim Tep, but she couldn’t make out any of the details from here. What an impregnable situation for a seat of empire, like a castle with a moat of air.
She opened her mouth to ask how the upper town was defended from the back, and then thought better of it. It would be probably be interpreted as military spying rather than academic interest.
The sailors uncovered the hatch to the cargo hold, and Penrys postponed her inquiries to help unload their goods.
“Try to keep up.” Zep Pangwit’s testy complaint woke Penrys to the fact that she was staring like any countrywoman while the traffic passed her by in both directions.
There was just so much to look at. The Kigaliwen she’d met in a military context had been orderly and professional. But these city-folk, with their innumerable interests and their busy errands were endlessly distracting—as many women as men, all carrying something or hastening somewhere, children and dogs underfoot and dodging the delivery wagons, and a few people on horses, like themselves. Now and then a closed litter passed behind its guide, its four bearers chanting rhythmically to keep step together. It made the bustling Gonglik with which she was familiar seem like a rural village.
Some of the Kigaliwen stared back at them, surprised by the sight of nomadic Zannib in the heart of Yenit Ping.
Najud had taken charge of Munraz and kept up a quiet buzz of conversation to defuse the young man’s panic at the size and closeness of the crowds. Penrys swallowed uneasily and almost wished he’d do the same for her. The smells were as alien as the people. Tavnastok was nothing like this.
They finally reached their goal just off the grand avenue—a bonded stable that occupied part of a compound associated with a hostel where they could leave their horses and goods temporarily and be confident of finding them again. Zep Pangwit had no knowledge of what would happen after he delivered them to his superiors at the office of Imperial Security, but he couldn’t drag them there in their travel clothing with eighteen horses. “Zannib barbarians,” he’d muttered when he’d first seen what they planned to bring into the city. This was his solution to the problem.
As the designated leader of their party, Najud was bombarded with questions by the clerk of the stable who recorded all the answers neatly on a piece of papyrus—the names, ages, and citizenship of the travelers, the list of horses and goods, and so forth. Zep Pangwit tried to hasten the process along, moaning about them being expected by now.
Penrys paid little attention until the clerk’s words “and to whom should the goods be released if you die or are imprisoned” struck her ears, and she turned on her heel to stare at him. “Very civilized,” she commented to Munraz in wirqiqa-Zannib, and he grinned in appreciation.
“Najud said they’re responsible for the safety of all our goods,” Munraz said. “The penalties for failure are… severe.”
Maybe so, but I hate to leave my power-stones here. Penrys hoped the hefty sack of pea-sized dull stones would pass for something of little worth, if anyone should look. They were far more valuable, anywhere wizards used devices, than the two small pouches of gold that Tun Jeju had awarded them, on the emperor’s behalf, after their success in Neshilik six months ago.
“We should change clothes.” She nudged Munraz in the direction of their personal packs. She rooted through hers and removed the new trousers, shirt, and boots she’d bought in Qawrash im-Dhal, and the green himmib Zannib robe, with the woman’s stiff and embroidered bodice, one of several sets of clothing for both work and formal occasions that she’d purchased on Najud’s advice when she re-equipped herself there. The permanent base of the Grand Caravan had everything a traveler could want.
The goat’s-wool of the robe was soft against her cheek. She looked around for any sort of water source and found nothing except a pump for the use of the horses. She borrowed a clean bucket, rinsed it out and partially refilled it, and ducked into the tack room, shooing the grooms out that she found there and latching the door. She used her discarded shirt to do a quick wash with the cold water and redressed in her new clothing. A run of her fingers through her hair, and that was about all she could do to make herself presentable, under the circumstances.
When she emerged with the bucket in one hand and the dirty clothes in the other, she caught sight of her husband’s grin and a sneer on the face of Zep Pangwit. The interested attention of the stable staff put her on her mettle, and when their guide opened his mouth to rebuke her, she lowered the bucket to the stable floor with a clang of metal and interrupted him before he could properly begin.
“That will be quite enough of that, Zep-chi,” she said, in her most upper-class Kigali yat. “Is it my fault that you can’t convey the invited guests of Tun Jeju to someplace with bathing facilities so that we can show him the proper respect when we meet, or would you rather we arrive in all our dirt, after traveling for two months and then laboring like stevedores to get here?”
Their guide flushed and pressed his lips together, and Penrys let her irritation with him help her keep a stern expression on her face, despite the wide eyes of Munraz, standing out of his sight behind him. “Your turn,” she told him, handing him the empty bucket. “The pump’s over there.”
After months of wearing her Ellech workroom clothing and its replacements, and then the shorter robes and comfortable bodice that the women of Zannib adopted from men’s clothing when riding, it was a challenge for Penrys to modify her stride and posture to accommodate the longer formal woman’s robe and the stiff bodice.
She was grateful for the light trousers and low boots that went with it, allowing the robe itself to be open down the front rather than confiningly closed. Her glimpse of some of the wealthier women, as the party returned on foot to the government district, made the drawbacks of the high-necked tight gowns they wore clear. They were lovely, elegant and somber, but with no thought of horses—not that they needed them, since they either walked or were conveyed by litter.
Najud and Munraz strolling at her side behind the guide had no cause for complaint. Their style of attire was unchanged, though the fabrics were new and vivid. The turbans were larger, too. *Is that an armed anah im-ghabr?*
Najud turned his head at her silent question and nodded. She’d told him about something she’d read in Ellech, where a fighting people who wore turbans had a practice of including a metal skull cap for protection within them, as well as small concealed weapons and tools. The idea was new to Najud, but he’d been fascinated by the possibilities, and one of his outfitting excursions in Qawrash im-Dhal had resulted in an array of interesting sharp and pointed objects strewn on his bed in the kazr.
She herself wore a thin belt under the bodice, to hold the fancy knife Najud had given her for occasions such as this, useless for serious defense. A much longer and more serious blade was fastened at an angle behind her back. If she was going to have a stiff back from the bodice, the posture was at least useful for a concealed weapon.
Najud and Munraz couldn’t wear the khash, the curved Zannib sword, openly here in the city, but she knew her husband had both visible and hidden knives, and she suspected Munraz of the same.
The quality of their clothing earned them a bit more space on the busy streets, but its foreign nature drew stares, more curious than hostile. It was obvious that the city-folk recognized their nationality, even if Penrys didn’t quite fit in, and Zannib was an ally and trading partner, not an enemy, but it was strange to stand out so obviously in such a crowded place, with nothing but Kigaliwen in all directions. It made her skin twitch.
Even in Ellech, where she’d been clearly a non-native, they were so used to visitors from many nations in the harbor at Nachempolek that one more, even at inland Tavnastok upriver, was much less a matter of interest. I don’t think they see many foreigners here, in the heart of Kigali.
She had a sudden vision of the immensity of the world, stretching out from this one point. Ellech was more than two thousand miles away from a harbor itself almost a thousand miles distant, and as far as she knew they were the only Zannib north of the river that bisected the fifteen hundred miles to the west, barring any ambassadorial staff maintained in Yenit Ping. Not a good place to try and hide in, not for us.
Her hand reached up involuntarily to touch her chain. Her instinct had been to wrap it in a scarf, but Najud had pointed out that it had to be why they’d been summoned. Better to display it proudly, he’d said.
He’s a clever man, my husband, and well-traveled, especially for a Zan, but I think he may have mis-estimated these people. The Tun Jeju she remembered was subtle and intelligent, and though he’d done them no real harm, she was wary of him. It hadn’t escaped her attention that it was not only his name on the caravan permits Najud carried, but also that of Menchos, an even scarier man in what seemed to be an analogous position for Rasesdad. The two of them, working together, would be formidable opponents, even if such an alliance between traditional enemies was unprecedented. And yet, there were the joint caravan permits Najud had received to attest to the partnership.
She smiled to herself. The permits declared they could be copied anywhere in Kigali, and Najud had taken the precaution to get copies made while in Tengwa Tep and place them into the hands of their friends to carry back into sarq-Zannib, just in case the originals were taken away again. This, in addition to the second official version of the originals that had arrived in clan Zamjilah’s winter camp from Ussha and would be put safely in charge of Rubti when she returned that way.
Despite Penrys’s suspicion, she knew Tun Jeju and Menchos would also make powerful employers, if they were both involved in this summons, and the permits for a new western caravan were prepayment for an unknown task. Better wait until you know what they want before panicking.
To read more, look for Broken Devices from your favorite retailers.