Entry 232 – Day 357

Entry 232 – Day 357

One benefit to being held captive is that we don’t have to worry about keeping watch. I’ve slept more in the last few days than I’ve been able in a while. Unfortunately, Balthandar is not as at ease with our situation as Dionus and I have become. He keeps watch over me like any one of our captors might be an assassin in disguise.

It’s comforting to have such a vigilant friend to keep watch over me, but it leaves me with some anxiety. One way or another, one of us is off-base. Should I be more concerned? Perhaps one of these men will kill me, but I find that highly unlikely. Why would they? The Nantese have proven over and over again that they are hospitable to a fault. Even though they have taken us against our will, they have explained themselves and offered to help us in exchange for our compliance.

It’s not ideal, but it is far from being held hostage.

What harm will this do to Balthandar? It isn’t good for him to sacrifice sleep to keep me safe when there are no clear dangers. We may be relatively safe within this troop of Natnese warriors, but he is right that we need to remain sharp. Maybe it’s his training. Balthandar was a bodyguard for the most valued members of his royal family. Perhaps his vigil cannot end until we are safely away from the Nanten.

If that’s the case, I fear he will never find rest again.

Entry-232-Quote-Vigil

Dionus keeps his eyes out during the day, but his awareness is far more analytical. His opinion is that these warriors around us are the closest thing to regular troops we have seen within the Nanten. I’m inclined to agree.

He pointed out that there is a strict pattern to their weaving through the trees. He would notice the patterns of a patrol. I often forget he’s an assassin at heart.

Our escort, for that is what I prefer to think of them as, sets itself on an interwoven pattern so that each member works his way to the outside of the formation as he moves through the trees, and then back again to the inside. Thus the warriors that come around the trees alongside us are different every time, but eventually cycle back. And we always see the same sets of warriors reappear together.

Their squads thus seem to expand away from us then collapse back in as we move. I suppose this is an effective way of keeping a watch on the perimeter while checking regularly to ensure that no one is lost. It displays a capacity for strategy but, more importantly, it shows discipline.

I asked Hembila about it when we made camp for the night. He says it is a standard tactic for keeping watch on the move, though he admitted it was advanced. I asked him where they learned it and he said he came up with it on his own. He got tired of losing men on the outskirts of his parties as they moved, only to discover they had wandered off or been killed hours later when they stopped to rest.

This way, he says, they know within minutes if someone is missing. He figures it has saved dozens of lives.

I find more reasons to be impressed with Hembila every day we move together. It builds my faith that he will hold to his word and let us carry on after we have met with his brother. I only hope Fodafa is as trustworthy.

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Entry 233 – Day 358

Entry 233 – Day 358

I know we are drawing near Motasta because I have never seen so many villages so close together within the Nanten. It started with smaller encampments this morning, but the farther we go the more organized each habitat becomes. The people living here do not flee but come out of their homes to watch us. They are curious to see Imperials, but they are not afraid.

Most recognize Hembila and smile or bow as he passes. It is so strange to see the people react to us like this. Is it because of Hembila and his men, or because they truly feel safe in this part of the jungle?

The first settlements we encountered were separated by notable distances. We only saw a few in the morning but by the afternoon we were stumbling across a few every hour.

The people here seem much healthier than what I’ve come to expect from the Nantese. With the exception of Graylag or Zorga’s fortress, they have better food and more of it than anyone else we have encountered thus far. Hembila walks a little taller here. He seems to be a man who does not put on airs, which makes me think that perhaps it is simple pride at returning home that makes him stand a bit straighter.

Dionus has expressed his own pleasure at being close to a city again. I think we all associate cities with a level of safety. And food. There were so many good smells as we walked among the villages today. It felt like an endless sea of cooking fires. It’s difficult to believe that the city could be so large as to have such a dispersed outlying population. I look forward to finally seeing Motasta. There will be a lot to learn here. Everything is about to change.

Entry-233-Quote-City

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Entry 234 – Day 359

Entry 234 – Day 359

Hembila did not tell me that Fodafa has a giant pet lion. Good gods, but it’s huge. Fodafa himself is equally impressive. He’s taller than all of us, broad in the shoulder and as thick as Balthandar. Long thick braids run down his back, and his arms are clasped in gold bands. He is certainly proud. Regal.

The city of Motasta is immense. Where Graylag lay in ruins, and half of Hamada was broken on the cliffs of the Great Recess, Motasta is the first city within the jungle that we have found intact. The only trees allowed to stand to their full height within the city ring the palace at its center. I’m told this is an attempt at replicating the feel of Matasten.

There is so much blue sky above us that I am still adjusting to it. Not to mention the brilliant light of day.

As we neared the city, we were picked up by a new escort sent by Fodafa himself. This honor guard wore armor I can only assume is ceremonial as I cannot imagine fighting in it. Fifty men met us on the outskirts of the city, each robed in a cloak made from one large jungle cat or another. Their arms and legs were wrapped in thick cords and strings of beads.

We entered from the northwest. I could see what appeared to be the beginnings of a town built to the east, directly north of the city. Unlike the structures in the city itself, these were not made with stone, and unlike the other villages we had seen they were built between the trees. There was no clearing.

We didn’t go any closer to it, and soon were walking the streets of Motasta. This city feels massive, certainly bigger than Senida and probably twice the size of Hamada. The buildings are well-constructed, built with large stones set in mortar. There is no Klotian influence in the architecture here as there was in Senida, but there is also little Imperial influence.

Many of the structures have no walls. Columns carved like palm trees hold up high ceilings, creating a stone canopy in place of the forest. Markets sprawl through these structures.

The soldiers in this place are well disciplined. We saw their city guards throughout the city, walking among the crowds or standing atop the various structures. In one market we saw a thief try to make a run for it only to be tackled seconds later in the street.

Motasta has a clear sense of order to it. There is justice in this place, and the result is peace.

Entry-234-Quote-Motasta

Fodafa was waiting for us in his palace at the center of the city. Many of the outbuildings here, too, had few walls if any. But the central keep was well fortified. It is a rather impressive structure, rising fifty or sixty feet in the air at an outward slope so that it reaches out overhead as one approaches. It feels very much like walking into a group of giant ferns.

His guard are all clothed in the pelt of jungle cats. The skulls of each cat remain atop the head of the man wearing it, though they appear reinforced with steel. The guards seem well trained, and their stalwart watch of the palace grounds gives them the most formidable appearance of any troops we have yet encountered. Their captains wear the skulls of Bangara on their heads. This alone draws my utmost respect, whether or not they killed the monsters themselves. We have yet to kill one ourselves.

Fodafa received us in his throne room, a long open space in the center of his palace with plenty of natural light. The long shadows cast by the crossbeams above and columns supporting them gave the space dramatic weight. Red carpet filled the empty floor, with granite tile at its edges. At the end was a low dais, upon which stood a massive iron throne. Fodafa sat upon the throne, and next to him a lion whose head was level with his own. It was huge. We were announced as we entered. The walls were lined with a variety of men and women in colorful garb, more clothing than I had come to associate with the Nantese. Behind them, guards stood stationed between the columns.

Entry-234-Fodafa-and-his-Lion

Hembila guided us into the chamber and up to within feet of the steps. The guards lining the dais stood silent as statues. When Hembila knelt, we followed suit. We waited there with heads bowed for a long moment before Fodafa finally spoke.

“My brother brings Imperials from his excursion into the darkness. Such a strange discovery.”

“My brother does great kindness to speak to his servant,” Hembila responded without raising his head.

“Who are these men that they should be brought to Motasta, city of the Sondu and seat of the heir to the Oaken Throne?”

“They are friends, my King. Friends who seek to stop the darkness as we do, and who would see the Arbor King restored in place of the usurper.”

The throne room resonated with a unified response from all present: “May the roots be restored to the mightiest of trees.”

Fodafa stood and Hembila looked up, so we looked up as well. Fodafa was smiling. With wide arms he walked down the steps and embraced his brother. Hembila introduced us by name then, and we each stood and bowed in turn.

“Imperials are some rare thing in this jungle. You are welcome to our hospitality. I see you are of the same family as our friend, Brin Salisir.” He pointed at the blue blade on my shoulder. “He too wishes to stop the darkness, and has pledged himself to the cause of our lost throne. I expect you shall do the same; there is great work for men of your talents, but in the meantime I must speak with my brother. Please, you will find your every need attended.”

He gestured behind us where we found an entourage approaching, and before we knew it we were being swept out of the throne room without Hembila. We were given rooms on the palace grounds in which to sleep, though we were told we were not permitted within the palace itself unless summoned.

One of Hembila’s men came to us after we had been settled to let us know that Hembila would come visit us in the morning.

Balthandar remains on edge, though he has relaxed somewhat. The three of us are sharing a large apartment with separate rooms and plenty of space to split between us. I think it helps Balthandar to have walls and a door with a lock; I believe he’ll sleep well tonight, though he refused his room. He is already fast asleep with his back to the door of the main entrance.

I wonder if there are any Batsu in the city with whom we could speak. I am curious what Fodafa will have to say to us when he finally takes the time, but I don’t want to let our wait for him stop us from making other friends along the way.

His reference to Salisir in the throne room makes me think that my old instructor hasn’t yet reached Motasta. That seems strange to me. I would think they should have arrived here days ago. Perhaps they ran into trouble of their own with the Latala. I hope Inifra and Timber are alright.

I’m going to put this massive bed to use and sleep as long as I can.

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Entry 235 – Day 360

Entry 235 – Day 360

Hembila came by our apartments this morning to take us for a brief tour of the city. He said that his brother would call for us in a few days, and that in the meantime we should acquaint ourselves with Motasta. The city layout is well organized but the streets are overcrowded. Deep trenches serve as gutters along the larger roads, and through them runs the thickest sludge I’ve ever seen. Somehow they don’t stink too badly in most places, but there are definite exceptions. We are told it gets much worse the longer it has been since the rains.

The people here seem curious at times, but generally leave us alone. Hembila exchanged some of our silver for the local currency which is made up predominantly of hard wooden coins. They are tough enough to be carved from stone. Hembila explained how to barter; he suggested we start at a third of the price we wanted to pay and see how well we could do from there. Any price we were given, he said, would most likely be inflated by a factor of twelve. At least that helps give us an idea of what we should be paying if it holds true. Whether or not we manage to will depend on our negotiation skills.

We have been warned repeatedly of the neighborhoods we are to avoid. There are dangerous quarters in the city, but I can’t say that I felt threatened today. If anything I find it overwhelming to be surrounded by so many people after having spent so much time in the jungle. Even Hamada would have felt abandoned if compared to this place.

One of the areas we were constantly warned against were the slums on the north end of the city. They called them “Banditown.” Apparently the villages we passed through over the last few days were scattered and underpopulated when compared to those in the south. For the most part the north is avoided, as it lies on the near side to Matasten. South of Motasta there are many more people living in villages and on small farms. However Banditown is incredibly dense, denser than any neighborhood in the city, and stretches north for a few miles.

I want to explore that tomorrow, assuming we have the energy.

Entry-235-Quote-Explore

The morning was exhausting. We returned to the palace grounds after a few hours. I didn’t realize just how tiring it could be to walk the streets of a city. This place is noisy. While most of the buildings are fairly somber in appearance, if not a little run down, the color of the painted signs and the clothing of the crowds is vibrant. It will take some getting used to.

Dionus left after we had eaten, wanting to explore more on his own. Probably to find some temporary companionship. He may not share Starlark’s tastes, but I think all this time in the jungle has built up a comparable appetite. Balthandar and I opted to remain on the grounds and relax by one of the pools they have cut from stone. There was plenty to eat and drink, and I found myself sleeping through most of the evening.

Tomorrow the three of us will explore a little more and see what we can find.

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Entry 236 – Day 361

Entry 236 – Day 361

It feels like real royalty, being summoned only to wait. In a way I find it surprising that we were given an audience with Fodafa so quickly the other day. Perhaps that was more for his brother’s sake than anything, but to meet him immediately seems unlikely in retrospect.

We explored some more within Motasta today. While Dionus was happy to make his own way through the city, Balthandar refused to leave my side. It would be nice to have a little time to myself, but it’s good to have him around. I always feel more confident knowing he’s at my elbow.

We passed a large military compound, busy as any army at war. The barracks alone could house thousands of troops, and their parade ground was equally impressive. We stood and watched them drill for a while, but I was left wondering if this wasn’t the effect of Salisir’s presence.

I find the city to be quite welcoming overall. The food is decent, though I still find the spices strange if they aren’t sparse. It was nice to find a small restaurant down a side street and sit for a while. It’s the first time I’ve sat in a restaurant since my exile began. The benches and tables were made of stone. The décor was similar to that which we have seen around the city, mostly wooden carvings painted with bright colors and simple patterns. Animals seem to provide the majority of the inspiration.

They had palm-frond fans that rotated on the ceilings which kept the place cool, though I’m not sure what powered them. The pulley system I could see between them made me think there might have been a hand crank in the back. It all felt so strangely advanced for what we have seen thus far in the jungle. It felt normal.

I ate what I can only describe as seared chicken on a rice puree. Not a texture I particularly enjoy, but it was still nice to have a hot meal. Even the drinks were chilled somehow, something I would not expect outside the palace grounds. I have a lot of assumptions on trial here.

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I don’t mind. The weight of so many anxieties has lifted. It gives me time and space to think, though I found it far more pleasant not to.

Balthandar and I found another spot to sit and drink by the small river that winds through the city. It’s a good place to write. They have a number of juices I’ve never tried before, and with a little palm wine mixed in they made for potent treats.

I would be happy if Fodafa didn’t summon us for another week.

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Entry 237 – Day 362

Entry 237 – Day 362

We saved a child from abduction tonight. Unfortunately, we had to kill the abductors. There were three that we saw, but I’m convinced that there were at least twice that many involved. They were bold, which was shocking because they were Daedra.

Not that Daedra are never bold, but I haven’t seen them attempt something like that in the light of day.

We spent the afternoon wandering as we have the last few days, and met Dionus for dinner in a place we found near one of the large temples in town. The rituals there are odd. They worship a deity whose sole purpose is to ward off accidents.

The Nantese don’t subscribe to any form of safe practices as far as I have seen. They cook with open fires and leave all kinds of sharp tools lying out in precarious places. In their minds it seems more valuable to appeal to gods who can influence their fate than to take a few simple precautions.

The god itself has the head of a snake and the body of an ox. I couldn’t tell if its tail was again that of the snake. In any case, there were loud drums and a lot of dancing in circles around statues. From what we could see, they killed a snake and threw its body into a small fire. I suppose that’s how they appease the god.

We were hungry so we didn’t stay long to watch. We turned on the street that ran along the temple’s northern wall. That was where we saw the Daedra descend on the child. They were dressed in black, though they didn’t immediately stand out. My eyes were drawn to them only because they moved in unison.

I sped forward instinctively. It was the way they slunk through the crowd that I spotted them for Daedra – odd that they should be so similar to those I have tracked all my life though they’re a world apart. Balthandar and Dionus immediately flanked to the sides of the street – Dionus disappeared so quickly I had to remind myself he was a professional at such things.

There were two men and one woman. The child looked to be about the same age as Timber. He was walking alone through the crowd and I only caught sight of him as we drew near. He was completely oblivious until they caught up to him. They were quick. Two had him by the arms, the other kept watch as they moved him left towards a narrow alley.

I had to trust that Balthandar would cut them off. Their lookout was right in front of me. Someone warned him, I was sure of it instantly. He stared right at me, then bolted down the alley towards his comrades.

We had to run then, fighting through the crowd in the street to make it to the alley. Balthandar tripped the lookout at the entrance and we were able to pounce on him. Daggers, the son of a bitch had three on him. We managed to disarm him without much harm done, but in the end he fought so viciously we had to kill him. Dionus had already moved down the alley on his own.

They took the child into a building on the left hand side and locked the door behind them. It took Dionus a moment to get there, then he shattered the door to splinters and walked inside. We ran to catch up.

The place was dark, filled with beads hung from strings in no discernable pattern. It stank of rotting food and human refuse. The first few rooms led to a long series of twisting alleys and narrow stairwells. We could hear Dionus ahead and he could hear the kidnappers. It didn’t take long to catch them up.

The woman stopped to stand against Dionus. He said she had some touch of magic to her, but he killed her before she could express it. All three of us broke into the street on the far side of that block of buildings and continued our hunt in the waning light of day.

This street was far less crowded, but there was no sign of the boy or his captor. The urgency to find him was overbearing. Then I felt a twinge of magic myself. Someone was touching the Atmosphere near us. It was brief, but unlike anything I had ever experienced: so sharp I could almost hear it. I turned. Off to our left I saw a cart filled with lamp supplies rattling away from us.

I walked after it just quickly enough to catch it without making a scene. Balthandar reached out and pulled on a board that looked vital to the integrity of the structure. A door opened up and a dagger shot out from the shadows within. Dionus knocked it down with a quick gust of wind and I hauled on the arm it was attached to. The final Daedra spilled onto the ground.

He pulled another dagger on us, but Balthandar was quick to disarm and subdue him. We would have questioned him, but he poisoned himself as we restrained him. It was one of the rings he was wearing on his left hand. A tiny hook rested against the finger next to it – the extreme nature of it caught me off guard.

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A quick search revealed that he had a nine-link chain pinned to his undergarments, and another tattooed to the base of his neck. Daedra for certain. The boy was in the cart as well, alive but terrified. Whoever was driving the cart escaped. We never saw them.

It was about that point that a group of city guards caught up to us. We hadn’t avoided drawing attention to ourselves. They tried to take the boy from us until Balthandar stepped between them. Even without his spear, it’s difficult not to be intimidated by the Islander. The confusion wasn’t helped by the crowd steadily growing around us.

Finally one of the palace guards appeared from the crowd and explained who we were to the city guardsman in charge. He too tried to get the boy from us, but we held our ground. If the Daedra wanted this boy, then so did we. We just didn’t yet know why.

There was a lot of arguing, most of which seemed more about who had the right to make the decision rather than what that decision should be.

What was disturbing was that the body disappeared. No one saw where it went, nor who took it. One moment it was lying at the feet of the city guards and the next it was gone. We would later discover that the two other bodies had vanished as well.

Entry-237-Quote-Disappear

After two other palace guards showed up they decided amongst themselves just to remove us from the situation. Two of them flanked and guided us down the street without trying to remove the boy from our protection. The third got in the way of the city guardsmen and shouted them down when they tried to intervene.

It took a lot of cajoling, but after fifteen uncomfortable minutes we were able to get out of there. Our new escort seemed as nervous as we were. They brought us to the palace grounds where they explained themselves to the duty officer. He seemed less surprised than I’d expected and allowed us to take the boy with us to our apartments.

His name is Wudan. Once behind closed doors he seemed much more at peace. Thankfully, like many citizens of Motasta, he speaks the common tongue, so we asked him a string of questions. He comes from Banditown to the north. His family has no idea that he is here.

He said that he came into town when he sensed us arrive. We asked what he meant by ‘sensed,’ and he said that he simply knew Dionus and I were here when we had passed nearby. He followed as soon as he could, sneaking away under some pretense of visiting relatives. He had been anxious, he said, scared we would leave before he could find us.

We asked how the Daedra had tracked him down and he said he didn’t know. Perhaps they had been following him since Banditown. Perhaps there was something else in play.

We were interrupted by Hembila, who remained calm but was obviously perturbed. He demanded to know what had happened in town. After we explained, he asked why we had detained the boy ourselves. It seemed obvious to me: we don’t know who we can trust. Hembila told us it was unacceptable for a boy of such low station to stay with us, and promised that he would be well cared for until tomorrow when we would be permitted to escort him home.

I’m not so certain that will be sufficient protection for the boy, but we will have to discuss it further tomorrow. Hembila left with Wudan and told us to be more careful in the streets.

Neither Dionus nor I can figure out what Wudan’s expression might be, nor how he could so distinctly sense us at so young an age. What’s more intriguing is the timing of the Daedra’s attack. If they could sense Wudan, why couldn’t we? And if they could sense us, why would they target him instead? We will see what we can unravel about this tomorrow.

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Entry 238 – Day 363

Entry 238 – Day 363

Where once we had a choice in the matter, tonight we are bound to Salisir’s will. I can’t believe the sudden and complete mess in which we have found ourselves.

Hembila agreed to let us return Wudan to his home, though he insisted he come along with some of his men. The implications of the attempted abduction were not lost on him.

Daedra were well known for abductions, but to have them come so far south and attempt something so bold in broad daylight within Motasta was apparently unheard of.

“Times are changing,” Hembila said. “The dark tree bears fruit.”

Entry-238-Quote-Return to Banditown

I would discover that the reason for his agitation on the day was not as straightforward as that.

Word had spread of the Daedric encounter. Fear was spreading with it. Returning the boy home to Banditown was most likely the safest option, but getting him there would be risky. The people would soon blame him for bringing ‘darkness’ into the city, and they would want to prevent that from happening again. Whatever the cost.

We made it to within a bowshot of Banditown before we were halted by a mob. They demanded Wudan be handed over to them.

The city guard were markedly absent. I couldn’t tell how many people were in the mob, but it numbered in the hundreds. Crammed between the buildings around us as they were, it was difficult to count. We kept Wudan between us, but even with Hembila’s men there were only twenty of us in total.

Hembila called for the people to make way, which they did initially, but soon they stopped moving and blocked our path completely. They wanted the boy, wanted him gone so he would never bring the Daedra back. Hembila remained calm and slowly continued to push forward while making promises I couldn’t understand.

We started to pick up momentum and soon it felt as though the crowds would let us pass unmolested. And then the city guard showed up. They appeared before us, a squadron equal in size to our own, and threw a young man on the ground before us. He was beaten bloody and struggled to hold his own weight on all fours. Dionus paled visibly.

They made a declaration, which Hembila translated as “This man is a prostitute.”

“Such things are common the world over,” I said to Hembila. My stomach twisted nonetheless. “What does it have to do with us?”

“This is against the laws of our land, Ocada.” Hembila looked at me with a new fire in his eyes. “For one man to lie with another, this is death.”

Shit. I looked at Dionus, his eyes wide and locked on the bloodied man before us. I looked back to Hembila. “Where we are from such things are not illegal, Hembila. Passive men may be looked down upon, but such things are commonly accepted in the Old Empire.”

“You are not in the Old Empire, Ocada.” Hembila motioned for his men and they turned on us. Weapons leveled, we were hemmed in by threat within threat.

Hembila spoke to the young man over his shoulder. One of the city guards gave him a kick, then they picked him up and brought him to stand next to Hembila. Hembila repeated himself, and the young man pointed a shaking finger at Dionus.

The crowd erupted in a roar of anger.

“Couldn’t just keep it in your pants?” I asked as I backed up to Dionus.

“You never minded Starlark,” Dionus growled. “He’d have screwed half the city by now.”

“What do we do?” Balthandar kept Wudan behind him.

“Hand your friend over to us,” Hembila answered for me. “It is not up to you any longer.”

Like hell it wasn’t. I drew my sword. It made me smile to see the guards take a step back. As large of a step as the crowds permitted at least. Hembila had his accepted customs, I said, we had ours. Let it go.

Hembila lowered his glare. “Such men are a poison, Ocada. Such acts cannot go unpunished, or all society will crumble from within.”

The crowd was pressing in, Hembila’s men and the city guard the only buffer we had. Considering the number of sharp objects pointed at us, it wasn’t a good buffer.

“Give this man over to us that justice may be rendered, or die with him here.” The bastard hadn’t even drawn his sword.

I told him I’d rather he poured molten iron down my throat. Then I turned to Dionus. “Let’s kill the lot.”

Then Fodafa was there. “Stop!” he bellowed over the din of the crowd. Like a bucket of water poured over a candle, the crowd’s passion was extinguished. Moments later they parted behind us and Fodafa walked through. Giant lion on his left, Salisir on his right.

“What is the meaning of this?” He asked.

Hembila explained the accusation in their own tongue. To my surprise and the crowd’s pleasure, Fodafa nodded his assent. Then Salisir jumped between us. He pled our case, explaining again how what Dionus had done was no crime in our homeland. How could he have known? Then he knelt before Fodafa.

Fodafa looked shocked at this. “Brin Salisir, Light of the Recess, he who will return my kingdom to me, you should not kneel in this place.”

Salisir placed his hands before himself and lowered his head. “If you kill these men, how will I deliver your kingdom?” The bastard. “They are powerful, Exalted King, Heir to the Oaken Throne. What is the mortar without its pestle? Without these men, the battle that lies ahead will be impossible.”

“Nothing,” Fodafa drew the pause out. “Is impossible for the Arbor King.”

“Should I be so bold, Exalted King? Dare I speak the truth, though you know all things under leaf and twig – though you guide the serpent and bring the rains?”

“Speak, Salisir.”

“You are not yet the Arbor King.” Those in the crowd who could speak the common tongue gasped. I could feel their focus shift to Salisir’s fate then.

“These are dangerous words, Brin Salisir.” Fodafa’s brow knitted in obvious displeasure. Was Salisir trying to provoke the man?

“Your kingdom makes a mighty mortar, Exalted One. The Daedra are but grain, soon to be ground to flour upon this very stone. But these men are the only pestle that can do the work. Please, give them to me so that I may give you your kingdom. Let me use them as a man wields his bow. Let me strike at the heart of your enemies so that you might reign as your fathers.”

Fodafa stared at Salisir for a long time. Ages, it felt. I kept my sword at the ready, time flowing between my fingers so fluidly I could feel it. I was ready to freeze it the instant Fodafa gave the signal to kill us.

But he didn’t give any such signal.

“I do not need you, Brin Salisir.”

“Of course not, Exalted One.”

“And I do not need these perverts.”

“I would never dream it so, Exalted One.”

Fodafa nodded slowly. “However, since you have given me so much, and because I trust you shall fulfill all you have promised and more, I will give these men into your care.”

The crowd’s audible displeasure was stifled with one slow motion from Fodafa’s right hand. The lion beside him rumbled its own threat.

“But if they break my laws again, Brin Salisir, you shall personally be held accountable. Nothing you say then will save them.”

He turned and walked back through the crowd. His personal guard enveloped him as he went. I hadn’t even noticed them, Fodafa’s presence so encompassing as to consume my vision. Salisir watched him go. We kept our weapons up, but slowly the crowds dispersed in a mixed air of deflation and disappointment. When I turned to Hembila, his blade remained undrawn but the fire in his eyes burned hotter.

“Take the boy home on your own,” he said. “And do not return to the palace grounds.”

With that he shoved past us and followed his brother. How quickly our standing changed, and all for one sad romp. The city guard did not follow Hembila and his men, nor did they get out of our way. Salisir appeared among us then and put his hand on Dionus’ arm. Not for comfort, but to contain him as one of the guardsmen ran his spear through the prostitute’s back.

We were all of us stunned. I felt the air twist around us as Dionus started forward, but Salisir held him back.

“Not worth a whore, lad. Never worth a whore.”

Two more guardsmen ran their spears through the young man, blood pouring out along each shaft. The remaining crowd looked on with approval, and as the young man died, propped like a broken scarecrow on three thick shafts, they turned their collective gaze upon Dionus. I felt his rage then, too.

Entry-238-Execution

But Salisir was right. It was not worth throwing our lives away. We waited until the guardsmen carried the corpse away and the crowd began to disperse. Dionus just stared at the pool of blood before us.

“They’ll hang the corpse from their station in the city. Make an example of sorts,” Salisir said. He shoved a thick finger in Dionus’ chest. “If you’ve gotta plough, make sure you plough girls from now on.”

“You could have saved him, too.” Dionus didn’t break his stare from the blood.

“Save him? He was dead before I got here. I’m surprised I could save you. So stop wasting tears over dead bents and let’s get this child home.”

Salisir led us into Banditown then. He had already heard about the previous day’s events and didn’t ask any questions of us. We were met by a line of people between the tall trees strung along the edge of Banditown, but these did not impinge our ability to enter; rather they were watching the city behind us. They allowed us into the gloom of the forest, then a number of them slowly pulled back to follow us.

Salisir pulled Wudan to the front and gestured for him to lead the way. “Banditown is a place that holds itself together. Fodafa could give half a shit about these people; they aren’t supposed to be here in the first place, so they take extra care to ensure their own safety. After your stunt yesterday, we’ll be very welcome here. Even if they hear about this one’s tastes.” He jabbed a thumb at Dionus over his shoulder.

Dionus ground his teeth in furious silence. I could feel the winds resonate with his restrained fury, on the verge of exploding and carrying Banditown to the sky.

Everything had happened so quickly; I still didn’t know what to make of it. I was angry too, but more scared for Dionus. No one here would have marked him as a Walker, hunting him in the night in hopes of stealing his feather, but now his life was in danger for a different kind of mark. One I would never have expected to land upon anyone.

The buildings of Banditown are low, crude, and close. The perpetual gloom cast by the trees only draws the town closer into itself. Each shack and shanty is different than the one next to it, constructed from the shattered remains of a world long destroyed. The refuse of the Nanten washed up on these shores, and the people of Banditown constructed their lives from its leavings.

It took us nearly an hour to reach Wudan’s home. Distance wasn’t what made for such a long trek, it was the crowded and jumbled streets. Wudan’s mother was waiting, forewarned of our advance by the ripple of mouths over the surface of the city. She ran when she saw him and hoisted him high with a cry of joy. There was a long scolding intermingled with tears and happy expressions, and then she put him down and held him close against her side before addressing us.

“She doesn’t speak the common tongue, but she thanks you,” Salisir said. “And offers what little she has. Wudan’s brother apparently disappeared years ago; she was afraid the same fate had befallen him. I told her we would eat with them, it would be rude not to. Besides, you need more time with this boy. Figure out what he is. Gods know I can’t.”

I pulled Salisir back towards us and quietly demanded to know what right he thought he had to give us any orders. What I didn’t say was how little I trusted not only the fact that he had saved us, but whatever he had in mind for Wudan.

“I have every right,” Salisir said under his breath. “What I did for you was an exchange of lives. Without me you would have died today, and without me tomorrow you’re just as sure to. So square those shoulders and listen to me, or I’ll let Fodafa feed you to his lion.”

I didn’t see any other option for the moment, so I bit back my retort and we followed him into Wudan’s home.

I would never imagine you could fit so many people into such a small space. Wudan’s home was small, with only two crude benches near a low stone table at the very center. His mother cooked over a small fire in one corner with his grandmother, and the rest of the place was filled by family and friends standing or sitting on the floor. Many more came to look through the low windows at us as we ate.

Needless to say, it was not a conducive situation for exploring Wudan’s touch with the Atmosphere. We will have to do that tomorrow. After dinner, and a long series of songs and stories, we were shown to rooms in an empty building next door. We have set up here to sleep. Balthandar has insisted we set watch even though Salisir promises we could be in no safer place tonight. I will oblige my friend, even to spite the old man.

Dionus’ barbs are still out, his thoughts far from food, song, or sleep. My worry for him has not waned. I hope that he returns to himself in good time. We can’t go back to the palace in any case, so we might as well stay here for now.

Tomorrow we’ll see what we can do for Wudan. If this place is as safe as Salisir claims, and the Daedra waited to come after him until he left Banditown, perhaps it really is the safest place for him to be.

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