The Rag road.
Stretching along the highway and branching off into the landscape. Cluttering the plains like a weed from the edges of the tracks all the way up to the borders of the farmland in the distance. As if the shelters and lean-tos, the tattered bodies milling around them grew up from the ground itself. An endless shantytown with roots that dug into the intricate network of caves, holes and crawlspaces that pervaded the hilly Deman coastline. Roots that stretched dozens of fathoms under the surface of the road, that stretched half a century back in time all the way to the cataclysm. They connected the innumerable bedraggled souls calling the rag road home and trapped them here like flowers in a tall forest, trying to grow toward shifting spots of sunlight that were always just out of reach.
Wherever there was an entrance to the caves below, the ramshackle sheds bunched together, gradually thinning out until the next hole in the ground. They were probably crafted with great care, using every piece of wood, straw and junk with inspired ingenuity in order to make a reliable shelter from even the flimsiest materials. It was so human to take sticks, straw and pieces of leather and craft them into walls that might keep out the rain and wind.
All that imagination, all of the humanity, did not stop Iri from seeing nothing but an endless procession of destitution drifting past the carriage’s window. He sighed and closed the shutter. Two whole days of abject poverty, of shanties and shattered hope, and no end in sight. He couldn’t bear to look at it any longer, and so he fixed his eyes on the only other person in the cabin.
Auri was almost exactly the same height as him, but she was stocky and muscled where he was lean and wiry, which made her look much bigger. She was imposing, and her precise posture and practiced impassiveness only underlined the impression. He still had a lot of trouble reconciling the awkward little girl he remembered from twenty years ago with the consummate military officer in front of him.
She was five years younger, and he knew she didn’t remember much of their childhood together – far too young for that when the king’s men came to take her away. Iri remembered, however – that she had been skinny like him, with a terrible temper and an unquenchable curiosity, and that same restlessness that filled his bones and made it almost painful to sit still. He hoped she wasn’t hurting like he would have been, searching her face for any sign of emotion.
“You could at least smile,” he finally said, “act like you want to be here.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied, using what he was certain was the absolute minimal amount of muscles required to speak. “I do want to be here. It’s just…”
“I know, I know. It’s just so weird sitting here for hours and hours and not talking, there must be something you want to say. We haven’t talked about anything but business since this whole thing started. Can’t we at least talk about the weather or something?”
Their eyes were the same startling green colour, but where his were wide and wild, hers were narrow and focused. Her hands were folded carefully in her lap, her unadorned right hand resting comfortably inside the meticulously articulated gauntlet on her left. It climbed all the way up to her shoulder, a mesmerizing design of interlocking plates and scales that imitated fibrous muscle, more like a second skin than a piece of armor.
“Look, Iri, I’m here by order of the King,” she started, awkwardly flexing her hands and testing the joints of her glove.
To him, that gauntlet had come to symbolize what the military had done to her. He imagined her trapped inside an armor meshed with fastidious discipline, plated and scaled by diligent routine. Iri couldn’t think of a way to pierce an armor like that, one that was twenty years in the forging. It was possible armors like that did not get pierced at all, he thought as he finally broke the silence with a loud sigh. Maybe they had to be worn down. Then again, perhaps it was worth a try.
“Fuck that. We’re here because we want to be here, Auri. You didn’t come here because of the project, I started the project so you could come.”
Her first real expression of the day was a mild scowl, but as he kept speaking she settled into a look of cordial diplomacy. “I don’t know what to say to that.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just… This place gets to me, you know? A hundred miles of misery, scattered along the road. Like suffering somehow became a part of the landscape, whenever I open the shutters it feels like it fills the entire cabin.”
“It is what it is, if you don’t like it, don’t open the shutters.” Auri was often so concise it bordered on curt. “That’s why they’re there.”
Iri let out a theatrical groan and tried to slump down in his seat, but the bench was too narrow to allow any real slouching and he ended up drooping sideways into the corner instead.
“That’s not what I mean. I just want a distraction. For some stuff to happen, so I don’t have to think about it. I’ve been holed up in the university for more than a decade, I thought travelling was going to be exciting, not just wading through endless rivers of-”
“It is exciting, but there’s a lot of waiting.” It was her turn to interrupt. “You’ll get used to it in time. What do you want me to do?”
He rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, puffing out a long breath, then finally straightening up to look at her apologetically. “It’s not your fault, I just want something to happen. Anything. I’m so fucking bored.”
Auri gave him an accommodating smile and nodded. “If you want, we can talk about your invention.”
“Have you thought of a name?”
Indicating her with a nod, his voice changed to a more sincere tone. “I was thinking of naming it after your gauntlet.”
“You’re thinking of calling it a glove?” she smirked. “That’s hardly in line with the shock and awe you said it would instill when you explained it to me.”
“No,” his voice was deadpan, “of course not. ‘Glove’ would be stupid. No, I found an older word from back when Broce still spoke old Broshan. Besides, I thought you would appreciate the gesture.”
“I do,” she raised her hands disarmingly as she spoke, “So what is it?”
“Oh now you’re smiling,” he splayed his arms out in mock exasperation, “days on the road and not one word, but suddenly when we’re talking about weapons, then it’s all smiles and expressions and human-ness.”
“Just tell me.”
Iri chuckled and opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a loud knock coming from the cabin’s ceiling. That could only be the driver. Their smiles dried out immediately, hers flattening into tight attention, his gradually spreading out into quizzical excitement. “Fuck yes! Stuff! Happening!”
Auri waved her hand to silence him while she carefully slid the shutter of the carriage’s window open by a crack, trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside. She was blocking the view, so he couldn’t see anything through the narrow opening. He was almost squirming by the time she finally looked at him.
“Bandits. Stay in the carriage,” she said and then pushed the door open and jumped outside.
He didn’t even have time to consciously rebel against her command before he’d followed her, but the sight of the men surrounding them stopped him short. There were at least fifty of them spread in a loose fan, but they didn’t look like bandits. They looked like beggars. Few of them had complete sets of clothes, most had little more than ragged pants and a vest or shirt, and not one of them wore boots. Their weapons were pitiful things crafted from sticks and bone, the only iron between them a few buckles and a single rusty dagger. These weren’t raiders, they were starving, and he slowly felt panic snake its way up through his chest into his throat as his sister started to speak.
“You are impeding the King’s envoy on royal business. To threaten the King’s agents is to threaten the King himself. This is a capital offense. Put down your weapons, and I will-”
“There’s only five of you, I reckon our numbers speak louder than your steel,” the man with the rusty dagger interjected, and Auri narrowed her eyes as she looked him over. “We don’t eat, we’re dead anyway. You got nothing to threaten us with.”
“My men will not need to draw steel for this,” Auri said matter-of-factly. “You will come peacefully, or I will carry out your sentences mys-” She jerked so hard she cut herself off when Iri touched her shoulder, pulling away from him and glaring.
“Auri please, you can’t do this. Look at them, they’re desperate,” he begged her with pleading eyes.
“The King’s Law demands Justice, brother. They did this to themselves.” He thought he could hear a note of sadness in her voice when she spoke, but she looked so determined he wondered if maybe he was imagining it.
The two of them froze in place for what felt like several minutes, Auri’s hard stare meeting Iri’s beseeching gaze.
“Very well,” she finally said, turning away from him and toward the crowd. None of them had moved, Iri thought. Perhaps it hadn’t been that long after all. “We are on a tight schedule. I will give you one chance to surrender your weapons and leave.”
“Like I said-” the man with the dagger started, but Iri interrupted him.
“She’s kozan!” Iri stated urgently as he looked around at the crowd. The word went through them like a ripple in still water, all but a few stepping back and looking to their leader. “There’s no winning this. Please. Do what she says,” he finished.
The man with the iron dagger began to tighten his grip, Auri flexed her gauntleted hand into a fist, and Iri shut his eyes in anticipation of the massacre that was about to unfold. It never did. Instead there was a dull thump as the man’s dagger hit the dirt, followed by an ensemble of lighter and heavier thuds as his men followed suit, then a rumbling shuffle as they backed away and began to run. Auri didn’t move a muscle while she watched them retreat, not turning to face Iri until every last one of them had faded from sight. She made gesture toward the three guards without looking at them, and they began to move toward the scattered weapons the crowd had left behind. Then her attention was on him, and he had to fight not to cringe away from her.
“Don’t ever do anything like that again. I am an officer of the crown. My duty here was to deliver the king’s Justice.” Her voice was somehow both even and sharp as a whip, she was so furious he was surprised she wasn’t shouting. “I swore an oath, Iri.”
“Those people are starving, there’s no justice to be had here.”
“That just makes them more dangerous.” The statement was sincere, even when furious Auri didn’t raise her voice. “They will do this again with the next carriage, and the next, is that justice?”
“There was no justice here, this whole place is an affront,” he countered, but his voice was trembling. The excitement from a minute ago had faded from him, and left behind nothing but a sagging dejection. “Adding murder to it wouldn’t have fixed anything.”
Auri had begun to turn toward the carriage, but she kept her eyes on him as she stepped inside.
“The King’s Laws are in place for a reason. There aren’t enough forces to police the rag road, so punishments must be severe when confrontations do happen. To dissuade the others.”
“You can’t dissuade desperation Auri. You can’t fix this place with violence.”
He followed her in and, closing the door behind him, drooped back into his seat. She sat down in the same place, in the same position, with the same look on her face as before they had stopped. He wondered just how thick that armor was, for something like this to glance off it like it nothing had happened.
“You can if you have enough of it. That’s what gets me. They ran away thinking I’m the dangerous one, but what you’ve made, Iri… It just might do.”
His eyes wandered to the large shape in the back of the carriage, feeling his chest drop until it hit the pit in his stomach, a tight ball of nagging dread that had been there since since he first proposed his idea. He had meant it for the front, something to bolster the reclamation of the lands beyond the border. Something to put men on even footing with monsters, a wrench to be thrown in the Enemy’s perfect machine. He had wanted to lessen the cost of progress, not intended to add to the misery of people who were already so strained.
Not that it was something he could control, not anymore. The plans had been drawn to perfection, secure in the archives of the academy, and the prototype was already built. He could only hope that history would be forgiving if she turned out to be right.
It was dark in the back of the cabin, and the object stored there was covered in a heavy tarp, but it was still possible to make out its general shape. A long, solid barrel mounted on a heavy frame.
“I’m calling it a cannon.”