Timber spent the morning asking me an incessant string of questions about the Old Empire. Inifra acted as her interpreter. The two of them shared a good number of giggles that I didn’t understand. Women. Timber is quick to help around our camp, however, and is certainly clever.
She wanted to know about our buildings, so I told her how tall were the Temple Spires, and how grand the halls of the capital. I told her that there were no trails in the Old Empire, but broad roads paved with level stone. I told her that there were no huts, but mansions and castles raised from granite.
She found this all quite excessive, though for all I know her responses were somewhat tainted by their interpreter. Where were our wild places? How could we know the mother trees if we used them instead of respected them? Why would we want to wrap ourselves in dead stone and empty space?
Timber asked about the women of the Old Empire. Were they beautiful? Was their skin as pale as mine? How did they dress? How long did it take them to do their hair?
Ages, I responded to the last question. Timber and Inifra both giggled at that. “Men are the same everywhere,” they agreed.
I told her then of the Festival of Stars during the season of light, as it had so recently passed. How the women all wore things that glittered. They spent fortunes of time and money on preparing for the balls that would be held at its apex. Each of them walked the streets under the light of two full moons, glittering and glistening like galaxies on two feet.
I told her how they would dance with masked men, for no man’s face is deemed worthy of the light of the moons in the Old Empire. Timber liked that. She asked if our women were always held in such esteem. I told her that we believe women to be the highest creatures on earth.
Timber frowned at Inifra’s translation. She said women aren’t treated with respect for long anywhere. I asked her how she knew better than I how women were treated in my own country. She said that any man who wraps his words of women in flowers does so to keep them entangled in the stems. Then she moved away from us and walked on her own for a while.
What a strange girl. She is feisty, and wiser than the children of home at her age. Inifra said Timber was an orphan, and I asked her why she brought the girl along in the first place.
“There is more to the girl than meets the eye.” She said that priestesses were made at all ages, it was the maturity of the spirit within them that dictated when they were ready.
So she was to be a priestess to Infiri? I was more than a little shocked at the idea as Timber’s tribe didn’t even worship Infiri.
“Service to the gods,” Inifra said, “Is service to the gods. This will be her test, and should she pass it she may continue with me until I have deemed her ready.”
As if women weren’t a breed altogether different, make them Nantese and they become complete enigmas.
Timber’s presence makes me miss Kantoo. While altogether different from the boy, she adds something to our party that only a child can. I’ve never taken children on any of my hunts, to do so would be deemed irresponsible back home.
In the Tetrarch we wouldn’t dream of allowing our young to enter the field until they had completed at least three years of the Scourge. Even then their involvement would be limited. But the children of the Nanten aren’t truly children, are they? With the constant threats, the lack of adults to care for them, and the specter of death looming in any number of forms, how could one expect them to be?
Children like this would have a lot in common with Salisir, though his own innocence was ruined later than theirs. How many of them harbor vengeful purposes like he did?
Kantoo certainly didn’t seem to wish revenge upon the KoraKora, but he was eager to help us escape them. Was that his own personal rebellion taking shape in our flight? They killed him for it in the end. I don’t believe in vengeance for its own sake, but why shouldn’t we return death and violence upon these monsters that plague entire regions?
Still, what good does such action serve? If the Nantese can’t learn to stand up for themselves, someone new will take the place of any evil we evict.
We should continue along the path upon which we were set. After this detour to find Zorga, we must focus on discovering what happened to Salisir.
Inifra seems wholly unconcerned with what we will find once we arrive at Zorga’s stronghold. If he has any strength in arms around him it seems prudent to me to begin asking questions. At the very least we should be scouting the area rather than walking heedlessly into it.
I asked Inifra why she was so confident and all she said was that the rains were coming. She said it with a knowing smirk, though what she knew she elected not to share.
It seems as though I have lost my voice in the matter. I feel compelled to follow Inifra. Somehow I trust her. Why I do is not so easy to pin down. Strangely I am at peace with this, though my anxieties surrounding our circumstances are ever present within me.
Still I find that I don’t doubt Inifra’s judgment in the same way that I don’t doubt my inability to influence it. I have become an observer to what can best be described as a force of nature. Whatever Inifra intends and whatever she will do are beyond me to control. She speaks of peace constantly. Of seeing the Nanten unified not under a government, or a religion, but a common desire for the good of each other.
As long as I follow Inifra, so will Balthandar and Dionus. I only hope this intuitive trust in her is not misplaced. If it is, I fear I will lose theirs in the process. Dionus seems far less concerned than Balthandar who does not see the wisdom in following Nantese where we should be leading them. Where I should be leading them. I am only beginning to understand the weight that Balthandar has placed upon me as he follows and protects.
Dionus for his part is steadily becoming himself again. He has been aloof since he has returned to us, constantly gazing off into the distance. His mind has often been elsewhere. Every passing day draws him to engage us more, however, and I feel confident that soon he will be fully present. I am simply glad that he is present at all.
If I am incapable of completing any other task within the Nanten, at the very least I will succeed at keeping these two men with me. They are the dearest friends I could possibly ask for in a world that would otherwise see me dead.
I couldn’t believe my eyes today, but there truly are mountains ahead. We came upon a lake, and there across from us they rose above the trees of the Nanten.
They aren’t the soaring peaks of the Northern Range, nor are they the broad giants of the Highridge Mountains, but they are taller than simple hills. With the exception of a few cliffs, they are covered in the same trees and undergrowth as the surrounding area. They appear like waves of green rising in the distance.
What’s more, we can see smoke rising from near their summit. It’s fascinating to observe such an obvious sign of life from a distance. Every other group of Nantese we have met so far has done everything they could to hide themselves.
Why are these not afraid? Should that cause us to fear them in turn?
Inifra is as confident as ever. She has almost taken on an arrogant posture. There is something she is looking forward to in this. Something she wants to prove. She said that the men we face do not hide themselves because they believe they are powerful. It also means that there is little likelihood that they have control of any magic.
Men who have magic in the Nanten, she said, hide it. Bantish, Prestorn, even Tarsh the ferryman, all of them hide their power. There are many who would use such men to their own ends, she said, and rumors circulate that the rest are killed. Only the most powerful dare make themselves known.
I haven’t told her this, but I understand better than she can imagine. I too hide my own power, and have done so since I was a child. Most expressionists in the Old Empire can reveal at least some of their ability and remain safe. I cannot. It is so ingrained in me to keep it a secret that I cannot even bring myself to write about it. Among our party, living or dead, only Dionus knows what I am.
Inifra cannot hide her power, she said, for it is the mark of her office and the proof of her station. She said that she is powerful enough to fear few within the Nanten. The men ahead of us will have strength of a more conventional sort.
Balthandar has stopped complaining about her, though he still doesn’t understand why I follower her so willingly. I think Dionus understands, however. He never questions it. He simply supports me in all things.
There are great changes that have been wrought in Dionus, and all of them appear to be good. He is never anxious. He is always calm, even calmer than Balthandar, and speaks with an even tone. Dionus is still light in his banter and as witty as I’ve ever known him, but the edge is gone. There is never a subtext to decode, never a jab waiting just beneath the surface.
He is simply happy to be alive and with us again. He’s said as much on a few occasions. What fears of the Nanten that plagued Dionus have left him. He is at peace.
I wish I felt so confident. We are on Salisir’s trail, but no closer to having any real answers about his demise. Suddenly we are following a Nantese priestess who somehow incarnates the goddess she serves. We are marching towards an enemy that is not our own on behalf of a people who would rather we did not. And we know nothing about this enemy. Not truly.
And the KoraKora could be anywhere nearby.
How can I feel confident or safe in the face of all that?
Now that I read back over what I have written, how can we expect to survive for long? It’s been a miracle that we’ve made it almost five months as it is.
Let us hope that Inifra’s confidence is not self-deception, and we shall see what this Zorga in the mountains can do against her.
In what came as a surprise to us all, Inifra made contact with one of Zorga’s lieutenants this morning. She knew he was coming and was waiting for him when he entered our camp.
Apparently Zorga’s men are wildly superstitious. He showed Inifra greater deference than I would have imagined, afraid even to make eye contact with her. At first it made me doubt that these were truly evil men that we were dealing with, but Inifra assured me that how they treated her would in no way reflect who they truly were.
He left after an hour of speaking with her and we have spent the rest of the day waiting for his return. Inifra requested audience with Zorga. She seems to believe that we will be escorted up into the mountains first thing in the morning. “There will be more than lives to take. There will be lives to save.”
That was all she said. What she expects to come from this, or how we are to fulfill our promise to oust Zorga, I am not sure. She made us all a hot tea from the leaves of a small tree that bore a citrus fruit. It was impressive to see her heat the water with a gesture. I am curious to know the full extent of her power.
I am curious about her in all kinds of ways, if that wasn’t obvious. Her beauty grows every day we spend together. I was enchanted by her when we first met, and that sense of rapture has only grown with time. She is wise and can hold conversations well regardless of whether she is familiar with the subject or not. She is also brave and just in her dealings.
Inifra is a woman of high character. She is regal in every sense of the word. But I feel as though she does not share any of the feelings that I have for her. The time is certainly not right to bring it up to her here, not while we wait for Zorga’s lieutenant to return, but then there is no such thing as an ideal time in the Nanten. Perhaps in a few weeks I will be able to broach the subject with her, when we are well into our march north to the Nanten River.
Or perhaps I will never have the opportunity. What if she loves Salisir? What if the memories of him, though not her own, are too strong for her to overcome? She never says much about him, and when she offers anything it is vague at best.
Salisir. You plague me at every turn, and in ways I never imagined you could. Gods help me, but I hope you died a horrible death out here in the Nanten. Knowing this jungle as I have come to, that is certainly a strong possibility.
Zorga is not to be trusted. The man is a cheat, a liar, and a murderer. It’s evident in him. His heart is so rotten he makes Bolton look like a Swift God by comparison.
He has welcomed us into his stronghold as honored guests, fed us well, and put us in the finest beds that I have slept in since leaving the Old Empire. All good things on the surface. All things to put us off our guard. He is a snake, slithering among us to discover our weaknesses and exploit them. His very generosity screams it.
Inifra has been given Zorga’s own chambers to use for herself, which frightens me because now she is separated from us. Is it fear for her life? Or perhaps it is fear for our own, without her protection close at hand in the midst of these bandits.
The mountains of the Nanten were more impressive than I had imagined, even if they do not soar like the peaks of the north nor dominate the horizon like the Highridge. They are sturdy, and as you enter the various draws and climb the roots of the mountains, the trees never stop their dominance of the sky. They simply rise higher above you.
Zorga’s lieutenant arrived at first light with an honor guard that led the way up. At no point did they threaten us, nor did they surround us or impede our movement. The respect they show Inifra is equal to that of any ambassador of home, yet I cannot trust it. Of us all, only Inifra seems confident in our safety.
Balthandar pulled Timber back into our group and kept her nearby at all times. Dionus and I have been probing the Atmosphere since we began moving. Inifra simply followed the men as if they were her own servants.
The stronghold itself is built at the top of the first mountain, bridging its two low peaks and filling the saddle that dips between them. From its foundation pours the single largest waterfall I have ever seen, dropping hundreds of feet to the pool below. The ramparts of the stronghold are rounded and bulge out over the drop to give her archers clear shots at both sides of the draw.
We made our approach up the easterly, or right-hand side. It was steep, but the road itself was not treacherous. There were various towers around which it wrapped and climbed. Though all of them appeared in good condition, we never saw their garrisons.
Zorga met us at the top of the road. He stood in the gate with his arms wide open.
“Mother,” he said to Inifra as he knelt before her. “Welcome home.”
She bid him rise and allowed him to lead us into the stronghold. Something froze within me at the sound of those gates locking behind us. There were hundreds of armed men lining the ramparts and standing at attention within the courtyard.
“We have not hosted a Priestess of Infiri for many years,” Zorga said. “We are pleased to give you all that we have, for it is ever always yours.”
The way he watched her as they continued their pleasantries. The way that he never once looked at us. Gods, it was unnerving. To date, no Nantese we have met has ignored us. They fear us or they try to kill us. They call us Ocada and try to rub some darkness into our skin. This man could have completely missed that Inifra was followed by two Imperials and an Islander. Even the fact that he spoke the common tongue was only a polite concession for Inifra, whose tribal language is different than his own.
Zorga was watching her, sizing her up, girding himself as much as he was greeting her. The rest of the men looked afraid, worried that they might somehow be found wanting. I had never realized just how much power Inifra could hold in places like this. Places she had never herself visited.
“Thank you, children.” Inifra finally addressed the assembled rabble. “Your hospitality pleases Infiri and your generosity will be rewarded.”
There was something about how she said those words, something veiled. While the men relaxed visibly to hear her announce her approval, Zorga grew tenser. The sneer under his lips was hidden, but not perfectly. Dionus caught a breeze and lightly drew it past us. That broke the tension for me momentarily. Whatever Zorga was thinking, he wouldn’t do it in front of his men. Perhaps, because of them, he won’t do anything at all.
“We will refresh ourselves here a day and then we will continue on our journey.” Inifra smiled. The men looked like they wanted to throw themselves at her feet. I knew that feeling.
“Please.” Zorga’s tone said everything though he continued. “Stay as long as you need, Mother. We are honored and would keep you here among us forever should it please you.”
Inifra simply smiled again. They led us to our chambers then, taking Timber off with Inifra to the central keep. We are high in one of the corner towers. Half of our windows overlook the river that flows down the mountain from the fortress. On the other side is a great reservoir that winds back between the conjoined peaks. The foundations of the fortress seem to act as a dam.
Baths were drawn for us and our clothes laundered. The women that brought us up here were flirtatious and continued to make advances on us regardless of our refusals. Starlark would be in heaven, but it only deepens my concern. What does this Zorga want? He is doing everything he can to put us off our guard.
They have found new clothes for us, robes in their own fashion, and we are to join Inifra and Zorga in the central hall presently for a feast. Am I right to be so ill at ease? Inifra came here to destroy these people, and yet she seems to treat them as her own.
It feels as though we have walked into the steel jaws of the trap, and they have already closed behind us.
Zorga is going to kill us. I know killers; I’m one of them after all. I’ve spent my life with men who kill, hunting men who kill. I know that Zorga’s intentions are to see us dead, but it seems he has to hide that from his men whose superstitions would currently prevent him.
How is he planning to turn that tide? Inifra must be aware of it. She cannot be so blind as to miss Zorga’s veiled hostility. That must be why she felt so confident in coming here. These men are not the KoraKora, they are simple Nantese. They respect the gods of the Nanten, though they defy them by their banditry.
Our safety teeters along this thin line, between the loyalty of Zorga’s men to him and their reverence for Inifra. What kind of game is she playing? It seems like a contest for their hearts.
Last night the feast was incredible. Even the stress of Zorga’s plotting could not overwhelm the wonder of the food put before us. Unlike in Graylag, the women here seem eager for our affections. Thinking of Graylag checked my levity for the evening, however. Starlark had enjoyed himself too much there, or as much as usual, and it was where Bolton had begun to bristle on behalf of the Nantese.
Would he bristle if the women desired Starlark’s affections? Would Starlark even give them his attention, as much as he came to hate the Nantese?
In either case, none of us gave into the temptation. Balthandar believes himself above these women, and none of us were at ease enough to let our guards down in any case. I also couldn’t help but feel Inifra watching me, whether or not she truly was.
To be honest, that was probably wishful thinking mixed with paranoia. It was as if she had forgotten about us most of the evening. She sat at the head table on a platform at the end of the hall, a great fire blazing behind them – as if it were not hot enough in there already. We ate with a number of Zorga’s lieutenants, but without anyone able to translate there was little conversation.
There was dancing, a few contests at throwing daggers, and lots to eat and drink. Zorga gave a toast to Inifra, but there was an undercurrent to it that seemed clear: Zorga’s guests are illustrious only because Zorga himself is powerful. I wondered what Inifra thought of that. Eventually we were led back to our chambers.
Dionus almost cracked, allowing one of the serving girls to follow us into our chambers at the end of the night. One glare from Balthandar however, with his hand resting on his spear, and the girl backed out quietly.
We slept well, though we took turns on watch at the door. We are still in the jungle; that is exactly how we feel. The uncertainty of what might surround us is replaced by the absolute certainty of the proximity of the bandits.
Today held few surprises, and would have been quite relaxing were we able to shake our persistent paranoia. We have been allowed to wander most of the fortress on our own, unhindered everywhere save the lower levels. Naturally, we have begun to search for ways to break into those levels and discover what they are hiding. Again, having our master thief alive and among us would be of great help.
Otherwise we spent the day eating, sleeping, and fending off the affections of serving girls. A few more days of this and it will become difficult to remain on guard. We cannot allow that to happen.
Zorga has ignored us outright and spends all of his time following Inifra. In turn she essentially ignores him. The few times we saw them walking the grounds and inspecting the ramparts, Zorga either looked like an obedient dog or a strutting rooster. He is a large man, certainly a warrior in his own right, but he often acts quite the opposite.
I wonder if it depends on who is around them. At all times his eyes betray a complete lack of fear. He is waiting for her to slip, but I do not know how and I do not know what he will do when she does.
I do not understand the dynamic, but we need her to explain to us what she is thinking or we will never know how to strike nor when. Hopefully we can manage some time with her tomorrow. I’ve never felt so afloat in the midst of a mission before. What are we even doing here?