20. Doge

“Meat, Doge, and a replacement for this.”

Keikos dropped a mechanical device onto the table that Doge ignored, instead locking intense, blue eyes with the Hekathon.

“That’s no way to ask for a favour, Keikos. Remember whose territory you’re in.”

Keikos grunted without a reply, yet after some discomfort glanced once up and down the sun-baked street. Doge appeared satisfied with this response, and for the first time looked down to acknowledge the trinket, his eyes only leaving Keikos’ at the last moment.

“Ah, yes. This device is for navigating underground, quite easy to acquire for a Chesh’r, but more difficult for a foreigner.” He paused to glance at Keikos, this time more casually, “certainly an interesting piece of equipment for a soldier who spends half his life on the water and half on the archipelagos.”

Keikos offered nothing, so Doge smiled and continued to speak, this time eyeing the object more closely. “Something to do with your little castaway last night?”

The soldier’s features flickered briefly before resuming their original stoic mask. The noise of the port seemed to flare, and the sound of children running past caused his sword arm to tense.

“Relax, Keikos. I know you in Dekan think security is non-existent on our side of the strait, but it isn’t so bad they can’t spot a lone foreigner with a torch in the dead of night. They just aren’t paid enough to fight a nikaiakon full of Hypersian commandos. So I ask you,” Doge handed the repaired article back to the Hekathon. “What’s in it for me?”

Two sacks of vegetables and a reed basket of bread loaves presented themselves on the table.

“You can keep the cloth, Chesh’r.”

“You know what I meant,” spoke the merchant to the soldier’s back, as he walked away towards the jetty. Doge settled back in his canvas chair, snatching one of the bread loaves. “I’ve seen much more of the world than you have,” he muttered quietly, “and naivety can only carry you so far.”

pt.1 | pt.2

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19. Light on the Shore

The light on the shore was puzzling. Earlier in the evening a sentry had alerted his commander to movement on the opposite coast and now, after dark, Resios led a cadre of skirmishers over the Hypersian strait.

A torch fluttered weakly some way up from the beach, faint yet visible among the stiff grass and sand of Dekan-Hekwat. Its implications lay uncomfortably on the troops. A bandit, or even Chesh’r squad, would be foolish to move so openly in view of the distinctive Hypersian watchtowers that lined the coast behind Resios, punching through the rocky earth like a corpse’s fingers. An ambush was possible but would be equally poorly reasoned on a night so clear the moon drew every edge in chalk and silver. He stroked Lekos’ right cheek, who in turn repeated the move to the next oarsman until their course shifted to further up the beach.

A warm gust of wind accompanied the skirmishers as they touched shore and rolled into the water, those at the rear disassembling the craft as those in front kept watch. Taking their nikai the skirmishers broke into four groups of two and dispersed. Resios took Prixalis on the most direct route, ready to co-ordinate the rest of his squad visually when they were in position. With sand, still warm from the day, beneath his feet, he pressed his body close to the bank and moved quickly towards the light. When near Prixalis dropped prone to keep watch on their vanguard as Resios crawled on.

Through the bentgrass a tall, thin body lay motionless beneath the torch, one hand outstretched towards an object that appeared to be a shell. On the ridge above him the dark faces of Resios’ squad appeared in sequence, their attention shifting between the body and his own face as they waited for instruction. He found Medomai among the heads and gestured for him to move forward, Resios also rising to his feet and taking his weapon with him. He batted away the shell, then looked at his compatriot.

“Find anything?”

“Nothing,” returned Medomai, his voice so deep the sound seem to come from the earth beneath their feet. “It’s just him.”

Resios moved his hekasiteros to the person’s stomach, aiming to pull him onto his back with its hook. Instead of finding the dessicated features of a corpse, the man opened his eyes and gasped. Surprised, yet composed enough to check Medomai’s weapon and prevent him decapitating the prisoner, the man began to gabble in a language completely foreign. Medomai snarled, and looked ready to  fling him into the water.

“Ba-Chesh’ret!”

“No.” The starving man’s eyes were imploring, and Reisos firm. “This isn’t Ches’r,  and look at his skin. It’s dirty, but pale, like nothing I’ve ever seen.” On the ridge the commandos’ expressions had changed from warriors to spectators, entranced by the alien in their midsts.

“Lekos, Keikos, gather the others and prepare to return to the fort, this man is our prisoner. Prixalis!” He shouted behind him, “bring him some water.” Kneeling, the refugee spoke just one word. “Za.” Gesturing to himself with a piteous grin, eager to explain, he repeated “Za, Za.”

Medomai grunted, “this is Dekan-Hekwat, Za. Fortunately for you we found you before the Chesh’r, else by now you’d be in chains and on your way to a life of forced labour. Or the sacrificial altar.”

The man appeared stupidly grateful and continued to smile as his eyes rolled back in his head, falling asleep.

pt.1 | pt.2