In the early evening, en route towards Boldhome, the Esrolians stop to set up camp alongside the road. Varanis spots Berra loudly supervising and waves her over.
Berra gives up on the loud supervision and steps up smartly to see Varanis, for all the world as if the Vingan is someone she looks up to.
“Walk with me?”
Berra gives a tiny nod, and waits for Varanis to set off. She is obviously keeping a lot of energy down. She has plenty to say and do.
Varanis leads her down the length of the troops, walking with uncharacteristic slowness. “How are they looking?”
Berra says quietly, “Like I shouldn’t tell you too loud with them all looking in. But it… it’s not all bad. Some’s good.” She sounds more despairing than hopeful, but her expression stays respectfully neutral.
Varanis nods, her expression as neutral as the Humakti’s. “I suspected as much. We can discuss it in more detail later. For now, I’m going to check in on the Babeester Gor. Do you wish to accompany me?” Although she doesn’t say, it’s pretty clear which Babeester Gor Varanis means.
“Once we get out wide, I’m-yes, please. I have to tell her something-I’m going to try to get some out the front, scouting.” Yes. And a perfect Berra change of subject there and back again.
“Her unit is towards the rear.” Eating dust from everyone ahead of them.
Berra sighs. “If only we hadn’t asked them all to stop, we could wait and then they’d come to us.” It is a joke old enough that it was in the army long before she was.
“I need to walk anyway,” Varanis points out. “Manasa was a bitch today and I need to walk it off. Anything you want to raise with me before we reach her?”
Berra shakes her head. “I just need to tell her what upkeep means, so she doesn’t argue later. Minimal keep – it’s enough for a warrior, but only in the fighting seasons.”
On the roadside the troops are settling down for the evening. Fires are set, water is fetched, salutes are given to Varanis.
Berra, of course, just watches and takes it in.
Last unit on the line is pretty ragtag bunch. Not many helmets, wicker shields. Mainly spears. Settling down. There is a silent word and you can spot Varaneva standing in their midst. She nods.1Varanis realises: (They are tired but jovial. Relaxed. Except this last bunch. They have their weapons even closer to hand. And even if they do not jump up you are followed much more alertly. You get smiles and friendly waves though.)
When they reach Varaneva’s unit, Varanis looks ruefully at the dust-covered warriors. She returns the Babeester Gor’s nod and waves her over.
Berra looks them over as well, of course, with the smile of someone who knows one end of a spear from another, and has had a good day shouting.
The axe maiden continues giving some instructions to men tending the fire and then comes over to Varanis.
“How are they after the day’s march?” the Vingan asks.
She shrugs. “They could fight right now if it was needed. Better when they have eaten, cooking is being done now. Pickets will get their meal when food is ready.”
“Good. Have they and you got everything needed?”
There is a nod.
Varanis smiles. “I’m glad to hear that. Can you leave them for a short walk? I need to move, but I’d like to check in about something, and Berra Humakti wanted to speak with you too.”
Berra glances at the troops, then back to Varaneva.
“They have not eaten yet.” She shrugs “But they have been instructed and me being here does not make them get food any quicker.” There is no discernible emotion in her voice.
Berra nods just once, to the sense in that.
“I won’t keep you long,” Varanis promises.
“Pickets are out and men are getting fed.” She looks at Varanis, or through her “I did not know I would be in hurry somewhere?”
“You are not. You don’t have to come with me – this isn’t an order, Varaneva. I only wanted to check in to see how you are doing after Boldhome and sought to offer you a certain amount of privacy.” Varanis shrugs, her expression still neutral.
She looks at Varanis with a polite expression that has just a hint of question.
“Fine. Are you well? Were you well-treated? Do you have any concerns with regards to the decision made by the Chief Priest?”
She tilts her head. “Well, since I told you you would not need to pay on my account I agreed to take part in that charade and accept the verdict. I do not think anything further needs to be said of that.”
Berra narrows her eyes a little, but then looks away, her expression thoughtful rather than irritated. The people cooking are getting her attention it seems, but she stays by the conversation, rather than going over to check on them.
The Vingan’s lips tighten.2She rolls a Critical Air.
The hairs on Varanis’ arms stand up as the air around her gets prickly. “As you wish.” Each word enunciated carefully. She looks to Berra. “I’ll see you back at camp after you have finished your business here.” She turns on her heel and strides away without waiting for a reply.
Berra casually takes up a comfortable stance. “Right. So there’s a law interpretation of minimal keep, and I should tell you what that is, so you know, and also who’ll be paying it.”
Varaneva shrugs. “If you wish.”
“It’s unnerstood that you’re going to be fighting as part of a unit, and food comes from them, but if you don’t, then the Blue Tree clan gets to organise that. But you do. And the Blue Tree’s a peaceful clan, so they probably won’t muster. Fifteen Lunars per fighting season – Fire and Earth, usually – paid by the Clan and usually caravan rules for when you’re travelling. That is, food, and a bit for the time you take and the bother. A Lunar either way, usually. That’s what’d be ruled if you asked for it to be. Two if you come a long way. This year and next.” Berra pauses to check that has sunk in.
Varaneva listens and waits to hear if that was all. Or maybe she listens to a Dragon under the mountain breathing. She is looking in general direction of Berra anyway.
“It’s your responsibility to check when you’re needed, and if you’re not told then arrive at the start of Fire Season, and don’t plan to go home until it starts to snow. That means you can also call for clothes to dress you, if you’re too cold or too hot. That’s all, I think. I’ll let you know if I remember more.”
She nods. Maybe she was listening. “Thank you for the information.” Probably there was no sarcasm in the voice. It just lacks emotion. She looks somewhere over Berra’s head. “You should perhaps know I have told some people to not call you a rat. For the first it is not justified, you do not owe loyalty to me or us. And besides, such words are not good for a unit going towards battle.”
Berra bows a little, and tilts her head to the side, holding up a hand to indicate she wants time.
After thinking, the little Humakti says, “I think I get you. So here’s a thing. You came here to do the right thing. And you don’t know all the rules here, but it’s important not to break a lot of them, because that’ll lead to problems. For a unit going to battle. And we both want that to be something that works. That works well, I mean. So if you lean on someone like that again, you’re going to end up running out of money. That’d be bad, because it’d seem like you’d be paying to come and fight, because you don’t know the laws. But I know a lot of them, so you can always ask. It’ll keep everything easier, and make a better fighting force.”
She looks at Berra with a neutral expression. Not amused, not angry, not friendly. “Was that all?”
Berra nods, “S’all.” Her own expression is wide open, but contains very little. She was just giving words. “Oh, ‘xcept one thing. Do you care about farewells, or do you not mind if I just leave?”
Perhaps the bigger woman just walking back to fire is an answer.
Berra does much the same, turning to leave, without any particular expression herself. As she walks, a frown of thought does come over her, but it is not there for long.
For those who take note/care – Varanis left that conversation and found herself somewhere high up and isolated. So she didn’t zap anyone. She may or may not have raised hairs on the people she passed. She was cross.
- 1Varanis realises: (They are tired but jovial. Relaxed. Except this last bunch. They have their weapons even closer to hand. And even if they do not jump up you are followed much more alertly. You get smiles and friendly waves though.)
- 2She rolls a Critical Air.