1628, Fire Season, Stasis Week, Waterday
On the way back to find Irillo and the caravan, Berra, Varanis, and Xenofos argue about Onjur’s proposal. Session 14 (The Masque of the Red Death)
Berra cannot help being alert on the way back, but she is doing her best not to look too deadly. “So,” says the little Humakti after a while, “We probably have time. He didn’t say this year. He said this year or next year. We need to talk to Irillo about the timing and the food prices.”
The scribe looks haggard and absentminded. He nods to Berra though.
“I still think we should be doing this. Maybe just not on his terms.” Varanis glares at Manasa’s twitching ears. She may or may not have intended that for Berra.
“It’ll be on his terms,” Berra replies, although it looked for a moment like she was going to ask Xenofos something. “Did you hear him when he said that any plan should have a positive outcome? No matter how we do it, he wins, if we do.”
“We don’t even really know what those terms are, Varanis.” Scribe says. “And he probably thinks he wins. That might not be true.”
“So we ignore the Bat to spite Onjur and just let it rip through Tarsh and Sartar?” Varanis demands, shifting her glare from the horse to the Humakti.
“Not what I said,” Berra replies, almost sharply. Bluntly, maybe.
The Vingan just scowls.
“I’ve got a couple of ideas,” the Humakti goes on. “But also, I think we have time. He’s trying to push us into working now. His people are there now. His plan needs us or else look what’ll happen. But that’s just one way of saying things.”
Scribe nods slowly. “There probably is some time still – it might even be advantageous to disrupt the imperial plan later when the troops are in place… And Onjur’s insistence on rush is suspicious. Like he is trying to keep us out of balance.”
“Pretty sure he…. yeah, that. Pretty sure he is.” Berra hops off her – or rather, Irillo’s – mule, to walk for a bit.
“You sure that your over abundance of caution isn’t coming from some other source?” Varanis snaps irritably. Then she flushes. “I’m sorry. That was unjust. I’m tired and worried and just want to be doing something useful rather than riding around learning things we already know.”
Xenofos twirls his moustache but does not answer Varanis.
Briefly irritated, Berra subsides as soon as Varanis apologises. A little later, she says, “It’s not caution. I want to mess him up, and kicking against his plans is a good way. Anything that does that, I’m probably going to do.”
Xenofos is quiet for a while. “It might be that it becomes necessary to play according to his plans. But if so we need to understand better what is happening.”
“So, the first question I have – and don’t answer immediately – should we try to get Fazzur to do it instead of us?” Berra turns to walk backwards as she leads the mule, so she can look up at the others.((Varanis: And let Fazzur have the glory of a successful LBQ?!))
“He is also our enemy,” Varanis objects.
Xenofos glances at Varanis.
“Uh, and?” Berra looks mildly amused. “He’s got ambition. He’s got a hell of a lot. And he’s married to your sister, who can probably keep him in check if he decides to bring himself back as Emperor.”
“You trust her to do that?” Varanis gives Berra a disbelieving look. “She’s as ambitious as he is. I’m sure she’d love to be an empress.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t said I’d trust her – just that she’s got a reason to want Onjur’s plan to work, without Onjur.” Berra shrugs. “It’s got holes in it, I admit.”
“She is a priestess of Ernalda and Saiciae… She is kin, Varanis. I think sometimes think you judge her too harshly.” Xenofos says quietly.
Berra gives Xenofos a look that has a lot of sneer in it, although it’s only a short one.
“Fazzur… Ambitious no doubt… Might also understand game Onjur is playing better than we do. But I don’t know if he would have the means to go through Onjur’s plan… Or what would or could happen if he tried.”
“Yeah. That’s the kind of interesting thing that Onjur hates. But more generally, that doesn’t have to be us who do it. One thing I think he wants is for us to be the people bound into it. But he could go. He could do it himself – and he’s not volunteered to.” Berra looks up at the mule. The mule looks down at her. She keeps walking backwards.
“He is not Orlanth?” Scribe says hesitantly. “Although… no, I can’t catch that thought.”
“Neither’s anyone who went on the fu… on the quest Onjur wants. But Yanafil Tarnils – may he rot in hell – is one of the Seven Mothers.” Berra stretches as she walks. “Mules are different to horses.”
“I’m meant to be Orlanth,” Varanis says with a degree of arrogance. “I can be the Orlanth who walks this path. I’m certainly not the one who will rule… I can’t be Kallyr. But I can do this thing for her and Sartar. Besides,” she adds in a quieter voice, “I’m expendable. The king isn’t.”
Xenofos makes the sign of earth to ward of evil omens.
Varanis looks at him defiantly. “It’s true. No one needs me to rule. They never have. I have no place except as Vinga’s servant and Kallyr’s hand. Better that than Grandmother’s puppet.”
Before he can respond, she announces, “I’m going to scout ahead a bit.” She doesn’t leave room for a discussion, nudging Manasa into a brisk canter. Xenofos could give chase, but doing so would leave Berra on foot with the mule.
Startled Xenofos looks at Varanis getting away. He says something in firespeech and seems to scan the road ahead of her. Then he sighs and continues riding at walking pace.
Berra says, “Koraki is Orlanth too. So are half a dozen good allies of Kallyr.” She scowls, and does not attempt to give chase. “The main thing is we probably have time.”
“Mmmmm. Maybe…” He shakes his head looking after Varanis.
“She needs time to think,” Berra says. “Summink’s eating at her again.”
“She sounded so unhappy.” Xenofos answers quietly.
“She’s under the weight of looking after us, and she’s got to put that aside and be just a bodyguard, and she wants to help Kallyr and Sartar and thinks it has to be her who does.” Berra shrugs. “Fertile-spirited people don’t do Separation well.”
Xenofos nods at the last comment, letting his gaze rest on the little Humakti.
“She’s a leader who isn’t being allowed to lead, but that’s… well, ‘allowed’ is a bad word for Orlanthi.” Berra speaks like she knows.
For a few minutes at least, Berra is contented with silence, walking backwards, and doing nothing more. Then she turns around, increasing her pace and trying to hurry the mule along a bit. The mule does not hurry, although it makes a few polite steps at a faster speed.
Several long minutes later, Varanis rejoins them. “Some kind of patrol up ahead,” she reports. “They’ve stopped a caravan, but I don’t think they spotted me. I’m thinking we might want to get off the road for a bit. Irillo has the passport thing.”
“We’re not a caravan,” Berra says. “Are other people going past?”
Varanis shrugs. “The road seems strangely quiet, actually. Not a lot of traffic at all.”
“There’s a war. But it’s …” Berra trails off to look to Xenofos.
“Offroad is suspicious. If we are spotted.” He shrugs. “I am not too keen to discuss with a patrol, but we did talk with checkpoints when we came. Which way was the caravan travelling Varanis?”
“Same,” mutters Berra, quietly so as to let Varanis reply.
“This way,” she says. “Same direction Irillo’s will be going.”
“Good thing he’ll have a passport, then. I’m not going off the road here. We’re foreigners who didn’t know better if it goes wrong because that’s one hell of a surprise to me anyhow.” Berra shrugs. She might be a bit nervous, but not worried.(Xenofos: She just worked out a new thing to be worried about, but is determined to move through it. Varanis: Berra’s just being herself – let’s go through this new problem and on.)
Varanis chews her lip then shrugs. “As before, Xenofos can be the voice and we’ll be his guards.”
“If we have to stop,” Berra says. “Just ride past and gawk a bit. They’re skimming off like people do with Irillo, right?”
“Probably,” Varanis agrees. “Remember, if you have to use my name, it’s Ranie.”
“Uhuh.” Berra takes a deep breath, nods. “Rani.” It sounds different in her accent.