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.