Johsti asked her to take a third guard, and given the unrest Irella couldn't argue. The shadow of a moustache twitched over his aquiline nose as Rimush pointed out recent improvements to the city. The new fountains in the western square were beautiful, although Irella would have opted for a shorter plume to widen the usable space in the square. The memorial garden that was destroyed during the siege had been completely rebuilt, and a new apartment complex butted up against the city walls.
The north gate, which had also seen extensive repairs, stood open, the road beyond paved with atherok and bordered by gravel trenches. It was a good road, the central ridge perfectly graded for shedding water during the flood season though it was older than Irella and all her guards combined.
It was strange to see so many market stalls sprawling out beyond the walls, covering ground that had been scored with chariot ruts and offal the last time she’d seen it.
“Are you planning to commandeer a spot on one of the postal coaches?” Rimush asked.
“No, we’ll walk. The coaches stop at every little crossroad’s village.”
Rimush smiled in relief. “You're like a lamed boar in those things. No visibility, totally at the mercy of the driver.” His accent was surprisingly guttural compared to most of the biladiyn she’d gotten to know over the years.
Irella shook off the ghosts of memory that Marna evoked and approached the gate guard. “Has there been any word of raiders?”
“Nothing unexpected,” the guard reported. “The Voldshee have been quiet, but people are nervous about the Monche. They say it was a dry spring.”
“Thank you,” Irella said, and passed through the city gate.
Without the wall to block her view, shacks and tents and pastures sprawled outward beyond the stalls for half a league. The people she passed had skin plump with ready food, clothes clean and untorn. By the time road climbed out of the river valley, Irella and the biladiyn were alone save for a lone onager grazing on the white-blooming grasses along the ridge.
Irella stared at it for a long moment. They always looked like emaciated oxen to her, except for the mane and the lack of horns, which reminded her: “Have we seen any patrollers? Post runners?”
Alem stiffened, frowning. “No and you’re right. We should have by now.”
Half a league later, the road curved around a limestone outcropping and they caught up to a traveler also heading north — a young mother with a babe in arms and a hip-high child walking beside her. Irella stopped and called out a greeting.
The woman looked exhausted. The youth, tear-stained and grubby, stumbled backwards when he noticed her.
"Please—" the woman stuttered, eyes wide with fear as she grabbed the boy’s shoulder and pulled him close. "We—"
Abruptly, Irella realized that the family had taken her group to be a small raiding party. Most farmers and local brigands preferred weapons that were more multipurpose; axes and scythes, the occasional bow or spear. Swords, like the ones the biladiyn wore, were uncommon and had only one purpose: killing.
Irella held out a hand to stop Alem when he tried to take up the guard position in front her. "I’m nin-Irella.” She kept her voice gentle and directed her words toward the child. “The biladiyn and I won’t hurt you.”
The woman’s brow furrowed. “The who?”
Avestur hadn't been exaggerating when he explained the need for a local temple, if the farmers around Uskune were so poorly integrated into Lysaria that they didn’t recognize the Order’s operatives or the significance of the rich mahogany red of her damask robes.
“I’m a Priestess of the Architect of Cities,” Irella said. “I build things, mostly. These are my guards. May I ask your name?”
“Vira.” The woman’s voice trembled. “What do you want?”
“Have you passed any patrollers?"
Irella frowned. "Have you been on the road long?"
The youth overcame his fright and overcompensated with belligerence. "Long enough." He had a sweet voice beneath the bravado. "We're going to visit Grandpere in Brookside."
Alem stepped forward. “Alone?” His voice was low and surprisingly gentle, but the woman barked a bitter laugh.
"You think I'd be hauling my sons to town in the middle of the decan if I had a choice?" Suppressed hysteria thinned her voice and Irella could sense the brittleness of her composure.
Softly, Irella asked, “What happened?”
"The Monche raided our farmstead." The woman’s voice shook. "My husband was out tying up the new beans. I found him later, arrow through his chest. They took everything they could carry, even the wedding ties. Burned the barn, busted up the kitchens... ransacked everything but the cellars.”
“You hid?” Enduca asked.
The woman nodded, lips twisted in a crooked, bitter smile as she started to believe they weren't planning to hurt her. “The hatch blends in with the floor if you don't know what you're looking for, and I guess the star-cursed nomads don’t. Grass-eaters would rather pillage than take care of a place."
“I’m sorry.” The words were as useless now as they’d been when Irella was a child, but neither a second language nor the decade since losing her parents had offered a better way to phrase her empathy. “If I rebuild your barn, would that help?” It felt like a useless gesture, but she couldn’t just ignore two the plight of two children. She had been just like them, once, mourning the death of a parent and forced to give up the only home she'd ever known.
Eramepi had helped her. It was her turn to pay it forward.
Vira’s eyes ranged over Irella’s face. “If you were one of those Voldshee necromancers who could bring my husband back? Maybe that would help. But I don’t have any use for a builder right now. The Monche are raiding, the harvest is gone, and my sons are too little to help me with a farm.”
“No I’m not, Mama!” The little boy puffed out his chest and forced his posture as tall as he could manage. His eyes turned pleading. “Let her try.”
Vira put her hand on the top of the boy’s head. “Hush, baby. We’re going to Grandpere’s, remember?”
A bright red plume of smoke flared up over the hill pines, then exploded with a sharp sound that startled the infant into tears.
Raid imminent. Send aid.
Brookside expected attack. “You need to go to Marna,” Irella said.
Rimush was already reaching in his pack for a relay flare.
Vira stared at the smoke. “Ain’t no one for me in Marna,” she said, distress stretching her voice thin as she rotated the child against her chest and rocked him.
“Go to the Temple of the Gardener. It’s the big, dome-shaped building at the center of the city. Ask for nin-Padima and tell her that nin-Irella sent you. Tell her that Brookside sent up a raid-flare.”
There was no comprehension in the woman’s expression. “What?”
Rimush’s smile was almost as warm and gentle as a trained proselytizer's. “The Gardener sees to it that no Nahrian goes hungry. Ask for directions at the gate.”
The doubt in the woman’s eyes ran as deep as her fear. Irella had to earn her trust, or she would walk her sons right into a battle trying to get to safety.
"Vira, you can’t take your boys to Brookside right now. That flare means the town is under attack. It won’t be safe.”
“Grandpere!” the boy screamed. He tried to lunge toward the town, but his mother caught him by the shoulder, holding the baby on her hip with the other hand.
“I’m going to go try and help your grandpere,” Irella promised him. “But you’ve got to think of your little brother and your mother. Okay?”
Alem looked startled, but he waited until Vira led her sons toward Marna before speaking in a low voice. "Our orders–"
Irella flashed him a bright, brassy smile as she waited for Rimush to finish lighting his flare. "My orders are to support the proselytizers and show the local people the benefits of worshipping at the Temple of the Architect. Can you think of a better way to do that than to save a local town from attack?”
"Irella, we aren't army regulars. We aren't equipped to—"
“We have to try,” Irella snapped, and started running to forestall further argument.
- For more about onagers, check out the wild Asian ass edition of this newsletter.
- For more about the significance of swords (and maces) only having one purpose (violence), check out the symbols of power section of my article about historical methods of social signalling.
- For more information about how ancient societies relayed messages across great distances, check out this article about transporting information.