“What do you mean you don’t like it!?” Iri said in disbelief, staring at Auri with wild eyes. Auri had been quiet for over an hour before she finally replied, and the horizon was slowly beginning to creep up on the sun just outside the window. The shaggy shelters of the rag road had continued their procession unabated, and the people who lived there were outside making the most of their last hour of daylight. He had stopped thinking about it the moment her opinion left her mouth, however. How could she not like it?
“I mean I don’t like it. You’re basically saying it’s a tube. That’s what the word means.” Auri kept her voice level, meeting his eyes coolly, but he thought maybe he could see a strain on the corner of her mouth.
“How can you not like it!? It IS basically a tube! It’s perfect!” He threw up his arms in exasperation, breaking her stare with a roll of his eyes.
“Alright, conceded. I think it sounds ugly, then. I don’t think it sounds like the kind of thing you would make.” Her voice took on a more somber tone, berating him all of a sudden for some transgression he did not fully understand.
It made him stop for a moment, studying her to try and read what she was talking about from her expression. “What do you mean by that?”
“Your lab was full of those steam things-” She started, and he could tell she was genuinely annoyed.
“That’s how I came up with it, one of them exploded and the lid almost took off my assistant’s head.” Iri shrugged.
“See? That’s not normal. Having an explosion almost kill a colleague and then immediately trying to figure out how to make the explosion bigger is not norm-”
“It was under controlled circumstances.” Iri folded his arms and looked to his side, frowning.
“Stop interrupting me. Your steam powered contraptions, those are going to help people. I saw the plans you drew up. Those are things you should invent. This thing, it’s ugly.”
“Well then it deserves an ugly name.” Iri stated defiantly, feeling upset about suddenly being chided for something he’d worked so hard to do. As he continued, he moved his eyes to meet hers again. It was his turn to scold. “It may not be pretty, but if I’m right about this, Auri, this will give us a fighting chance against the Enemy. The other things, the academy is already all over those. A lot of names will go down in history over steam power. I leave that to them. The cannon is all there is, now, and it’s going to make a difference.”
Auri took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment, massaging the bridge of her nose with the index and forefinger of her unarmored hand. It was a nose that had been broken many times, that together with her piercing eyes usually made her look hawkish and tough, but right now she just looked tired.
“I don’t think you really understand what you’ve made, Iri. Say it works. Say it fights the Enemy just like you say it will. Imagine what it’ll do to people. Imagine what it’ll do even if it doesn’t work against monsters. You know why we don’t have a bigger attachment of guards to our carriage?”
He raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t really thought about it. “Because you’re kozan,” he finally said questioningly, “you’re more than enough to deal with anything that comes up.”
She winced, and this time it was her who glanced away, looking out of the wagon in the same direction he had been just a moment ago.
“Yes, but think about it. Those people didn’t know what I was before you told them. Our carriage carries no special heraldry, no symbol of station. It’s just a poorly guarded transport to them. Why would the king mandate that kozan travel so inconspicuously?”
Iri’s eyes widened in realization, his hands hugging his arms tighter than before, and looking down at his knees. “He wants you to be attacked.”
The words left him reluctantly, and he crossed his legs, suddenly feeling small and wretched. He had never had a mind for politics, but he wasn’t an idiot. Even so, he had to ask to be sure. “Why?”
Auri sighed, turning her eyes back on him and folding her hands neatly back in her lap. “Because examples need to be made. Eventually, a poorly guarded royal carriage will mean certain death to those who try to stop it. Then guard complements can be reduced significantly, lowering the costs of transport. The roads will be safer for everyone, because bandits can never know whether they are getting paid or killed. There is also an issue of organized resistance against the crown. Not everyone loves the king or his decrees. The threat will discourage them, too.”
“I wonder if the grass will look so much greener on the other side after you’ve crossed a river of blood to get there,” he said bitterly.
“I won’t have to. If your creation pans out, he won’t have to use kozan to make it happen. Especially considering what you were talking about before, about making it smaller. Iri…” She paused, and Iri thought it looked like she was looking for something.. “You had to have known. You’re a professor, you’re not stupid. You had to have known that this is too big to be kept to the front. You’re right that it will make a difference. A bloody difference, but eventually it will be for the better. But there’s no way you thought it wouldn’t be at a cost. That’s why I don’t like it. I think it’s going to be hard for you to deal with the consequences, and I think you knew it would be. So why did you do it?”
Iri grimaced, looking up into the cabin’s ceiling. There was intricate paneling there, inlaid with velvet cloth in the king’s official shade of purple. He wondered for a moment if he could even build a ramshackle hut like the ones lining the highway, when it came down to it.
“I-” he started, then took a sharp breath. I just wanted to see you again, he thought, but he couldn’t make himself say it. Not after everything that had happened – he didn’t deserve to. “We all have a duty to the kingdom, Auri. I wanted to do my part, just like you..”
“I didn’t have much choice in the matter.” There was a note of bitterness in Auri’s voice, he thought.
“You chose to join my project when I asked for you. You could have said no. You’re kozan, I don’t get to order you around.”
“You’re damn right you don’t.” Auri voice was terse and final. She was about to continue when there was another knock on the carriage’s roof, . Pursing her lips, she opened the blinds to get a better look outside, and straightened. “We’re here. Once we get settled in, you’re going to tell me more about this plan of yours. I want to know why we need a wizard, and I want to know it before we reach our rendezvous in Sinan.”
Iri felt a twitch of excitement, not at the prospect of explaining about the wizard, but about the carriage stopping. For one thing, he found the carriage so tight and confined it was almost painful to occupy for any extended period of time. The road was too rough and bumpy to allow him to do anything but look out the window or talk to Auri. He barely remembered the person she was, and even so the military had turned her into a stranger that reminded him more of his father than her old self. Now the carriage was stopped, however. That could only mean one thing – they had arrived at the Yellow Bellows.
Because the rag road had throttled most of the villages that once used to dot this stretch of Highway, in their stead had grown up four evenly spaced fortress taverns. They were essentially inns with stout stone walls and enough guards to keep out the rabble. Since there were so few of them covering such a large area, they were large. It was the size more than the fortifications that had earned them the nickname fortress taverns, after all. They served as waystations for travellers who did not have enough security to make camp between the shacks and shelters of the rag road without risking robbery. That meant just about anything that wasn’t specifically a troop movement from one of the capitals.
Each of these four fortified stops were based on this one, an old fort that had once been used as a watchpost for the military. Iri had read up on the history of this particular stop while he was planning their journey, and he enjoyed what it represented. The fort was run mostly by employees from the surrounding rag road, only some of the owners and security guards were from Sinan. It represented a path back to civilization for the endless masses and dregs they had passed to get here.
During the late days of the great war, it had been home to one of Dema’s greatest armorsmiths. In honor of his craft he had been gifted a gilded set of bellows for his forge. He had more or less immediately moved into the city and taken his forge with him. In its place a military blacksmith had constructed a new set of bellows, and jokingly painted them yellow to imitate the gilding. The name had stuck, and the forge was still manned, though these days it was mostly used to reshoe horses.
The military fort was long since abandoned, now redecorated into a welcoming roadhouse. As soon as he stepped out of the carriage, he could hear the mottled music and muffled shouting from inside the entrance. A scent of cooking meat, spilled beer and sweat covered the area, and he realized he hadn’t eaten all day. All over, servants and staff milled about taking care of horses and waiting on recent arrivals. He found them fascinating, transformed from the dregs they had passed outside back into proper people with fitting clothes and sometimes even smiles on their faces.
The thought broke his heart as much as it warmed, and he wondered what could really be done about a problem this large. How many taverns would really fit on this stretch of road, even if it was extended along the two thousand miles of the whole King’s Highway? Not enough, there simply wasn’t room. At best, it showed that behind the desperation these people were still human beings, and that they would take their dignity back given the opportunity. That opportunity would have to involve more space than the kingdom had to offer, and that meant reclaiming more of the lands lost to the Enemy in the cataclysm. He squared his shoulders, feeling a deep sense of pride at his contribution to that effort. It would make a difference, and it would be for the better.
Looking around to see if he could find Auri, he promptly discovered that she was right next to him, saying his name very loudly. It appeared she had been standing there for some time, because she was in the process of reaching for him.
“Iri, what’s the matter with you!? I’ve checked us in, get what you need from the carriage and come inside.”
He gave her a sheepish grin and spread his arms disarmingly. “I’m sorry, sis. My mind wanders sometimes, I can’t help it. You go ahead, I just need to get the cask from the carriage.”
“Why are you bringing that thing? It’s safe where it is.” Auri’s anger had dissipated into a look of worry and bewilderment at his sudden lucidity. Perhaps she was surprised that he was suddenly being so practical.
“Look, nobody is going to steal the cannon, that thing weighs a ton.” Trying to keep his voice down without sounding suspicious and not knowing how, he glanced conspiratorially around the courtyard while he spoke. “The black powder in that cask is worth more than everything else put together, and is much easier to move. The reagents are hard to find, especially the sulfur, and losing it would set us back months, not to mention it’s what actually powers the cannon.”
“Fine. Go, I’ll find us a table,” her voice was level, but she almost sounded pleased. “Make sure you lock your room after you get your things, and meet me downstairs. I’ll order us something to eat.” Then she shook her head and stalked off toward the inn’s entrance.
Iri’s satisfaction at himself quickly faded as he made his way to the carriage to retrieve the barrel of explosives. The scene they had caused had drawn some eyes, most of which looked just curious, and others that he could not help but feel looked a bit too curious. These people looked so much like the ones who had held them up at the rag road, and he felt a twinge of guilt at the thought that they all might look the same to him. The uncomfortableness of the attention made his movements swift and efficient as he eventually found what he was looking for in the back of the carriage, and made his way up to his room to lock it inside.
The inn had a large open floor and serving area, with a ceiling that extended up through all four floors of the main building. Along the walls on every side were the rooms, and they usually got pricier the further up they were. He begrudgingly considered how pricy their rooms had to be as he hauled the heavy cask of gunpowder up the stairs to the top floor. There was staff on the way, of course, but he still could not shake the impression he had gotten outside, that these were the same people who would have killed him to get at his things just a couple of hours ago. So instead of accepting any help, he politely turned each request for assistance he got down and averted his eyes so he didn’t have to see the servants’ reactions to his curt responses.
When he finally got to his room he closed the door behind him and sank down against the wall, releasing an exhausted sigh. He pressed his palms against his eyes for a moment, trying to clear his head. So much time spent in that university, seeing only the same people every day, talking only about familiar subjects during every encounter. In some ways the place was like a monastery, although one directed at the pursuit of knowledge rather than matters of spirituality or the arcane. He had often chafed against the monotony of it, and when he realized that his latest invention would be his ticket to go see the world he had jumped at the opportunity. Now he was having a breakdown only days into the adventure, and he was sure if he let it show then Auri would never let him hear the end of it.
He objected to the idea that he might actually be prejudiced against these people, seeing the station before he saw their faces. Instead, he rationalized, the attempted robbery had just shook him up worse than he thought it would. There would be worse down in the pales, of that he was sure. He had to toughen up. Stowing the cask into a lockable cabinet, he pocketed its key and smoothed over his clothes, running his fingers through his hair and trying to regain his composure. After taking a deep breath, he stepped out and locked his room, then went downstairs to find Auri on the ground floor.
“What’s up with you?” Auri said as soon as he sat down at her table. He very nearly cursed out loud. He’d thought taking a moment before leaving his room would wipe away his flustered look, but she had clearly picked up on it.
“I’m just disappointed in myself.” As he slumped into his chair, the reply came out in an exhausted mumble.
“How’s that? You’ve been surprisingly practical since we got here. Honestly, I think it’s refreshing.” She was probably trying to be supportive, which meant he had to be coming off as sullen.
“It’s just, I’ve spent so much time thinking about how unfair it is that this place even exists. Now I’m here, I find myself thinking these people all look the same to me.” With an exhausted sigh, he let his head flop back against the chair and took in the room. Looking toward the bar, he felt a pang of disgust at himself when he got that sense of recognition again. “I just didn’t think I was that kind of person.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous.” She raised an eyebrow at him, mocking him with her tone. “The people that live in this area are from a dozen different cultures, they’re all refugees or descendants of refugees. I think it’d be hard to find people who looked less like each other than these folks do, even in the cities.”
“I know, but I keep seeing the same faces from some of the people who held us up earlier today. Like that one,” he quietly indicated one of the busboys who was cleaning a nearby table with a dour nod. “He’s got the same weird eyebrows that one of the bandits did.”
Auri stopped at that, and looked at where he was pointing, without turning her head and trying not to look surprised. Her tone was still slightly mocking when she finally replied, but now it was also tense with worry.
“Iri, there’s no way you’re this dense.” She pursed her lips and leaned closer to him, her voice dropping to a whisper. “That’s the same man. I think we may have walked into another ambush.”