The Wooing of Etroklos, by J. Comer

On mankind’s distant colony of Pendleton’s World, a warrior has been sent forth to go a-wooing on her master’s behalf. Set upon by bandits, can Sirat Tho’anchur count upon the aid of a travelling circus to break free and accomplish her mission?!

The second-day was dusty and hot here at the end of the Dry. Soldiers groaned as the two tens crested the hill and saw a creek flowing below. “Hey, Second,” said Jazherap. “Time to water the beasts? That stuff looks—”

“Wet,” said old Venkop. “How about it, sir?”

Sirat Tho’anchur, Second of the wizard Etroklos’ armsmen, surveyed the landscape with a jewel-tiny monocular, a magic device borrowed from her master.  She didn’t know the area but could see breadnut trees growing up and down the creek and smoke from upstream—a village? The ford where the path crossed the creek was shallow and wide, and a deep pool formed just below it where diorite boulders dammed the runoff from the ever-snow of the Chartha mountains’ heights. Dog-bears? Or the marsh-lion, Sirat’s namesake? Unlikely. This land was settled; villagers would have hunted out the beasts, surely. Even mantigers didn’t prowl too close. One hoped.

“Water the manhorses, aye. Wash’em, too,” Sirat said. Men whooped, yelled, and goaded the three-meter primates down to the water. “Peret, Khenn’, guard.” She stayed astride her own beast, Lop-Ear, atop the slope.

Twenty men and forty manhorses splashed in the water of the pool. Men stripped, hung their filthy clothes on the trees, and swam in the pool whilst the manhorses splashed themselves, their riders, and each other. “Go on in, Second,” said Khennek, who stood guard with sword and bow. “We’ve got it.”

Through the canopy they could see the white-banded crescent of Butros’ World, which Pendleton’s circled, and in front of it, the sliver-shape of Ngobi, the firemoon.

“Nay, I’ll stand guard also.” The men nodded. Sirat sent Lop-Ear to wash, sat atop a boulder, watched the avenues of attack, and reached for her pipe and pouch of weed. (Tobacco—along with kittens and beans—had been carried to Pendleton’s World, across the sky on ramscoops; smoking had come and gone on many worlds). As she packed the bowl and lit, she was acutely aware of what she was—and wasn’t—seeing and what the men would think if she undressed and bathed with them.

She never did. She lived as a man.

She was partway through the smoke when a flick of movement caught her eye. Sirat cocked her crossbow, a magazine of bolts loaded already. Bulky thing, but its rapid fire rate was helpful. Something blue, in the scrub under the trees? Slide down, below the lip of the boulder, don’t skyline yourself, grab a branch close to the trunk, don’t shake twigs. She hit the ground beside a tangle of breadnut roots and steadied herself with a hand. She crawled slow and leopard-like around the slope, that tree, and that one, then a long stand of grass, and finally to where she had a clear sightline…

Veiled shapes—women in long robes—watched the men from hiding, giggling. One carried a basket of soiled clothes, and one a sack—soapnut, maybe. They whispered to one another. Sirat was tempted to let them go; staring was surely harmless. Something was…

One saw her and nudged the other, whose eyes widened. The sight of an armored warrior closing in was not part of their fantasy, unless one or both hoped that Sirat would rape them. (She wouldn’t.) One made a sign to the other, and the unladen one scurried up the long bank. Running home? To warn someone? This was…

Not right. Was it that the runner’s sturdy boots, hobnailed and worn? Or the print, when the girl turned, of a dagger concealed inside her robes? Sirat moved back toward the sentries.

The first volley of arrows hit right about then. One of Sirat’s men died naked in the pond, an arrow in his face, scream choked in blood. Two manhorses felt the stab of war broadheads and bolted upstream, churning and trampling the creek bed. Another man took an arrow in the thigh, bled and bled, screaming. Sirat turned to the women and saw them fleeing as a soldier was hit twice, one in the neck and one in the rump, before falling in water.

She crept fast and quiet, hoping she was out of sight of the snipers. She heard a manhorse scream, wounded. A fighting man hurried from the water to his arms but was shot four times, jerked, groaned and died. Sirat risked a quick survey of the sightlines. The archers were there, and there, and one was…there.

Now her crossbow could reach them. She sheltered prone behind a fallen breadnut log and loaded bolts smeared with nux vomica. She smiled grimly and heard the shout of Jazherap, “To me, men!” and the twang of his bow.

He lives—and fights, too. Good. She aimed carefully at what she thought was a head-and-shoulder shape and shot. Screams—and a man fell from concealment to jerk and twitch with strychnine poisoning in the leaf litter of the slope. Another shot, maybe a miss. Another, at a flash of movement, and a groan of pain, as a man-shape tumbled to the ground, accompanied by the heavy snap of a leg bone. Then he began to thrash with the toxin, and the screams became unnerving. Sirat’s smile returned.

More man-shapes came downslope, bearing bows and spears. She shot quickly and carefully, thwok, thwack, thwok, thwok, thwok. Three men fell dead, and she got a clear look at them: ragged clothes, beards, jumble of assorted weapons—this was no Khus’[1] army nor was it a patrol of the village guard; these were the lowest kind of bandits.

And a lot of them. Four ran at her. Dropping the crossbow to her side, Sirat drew Whiteflame. She rushed one bandit to spear him with the point of the ancient blade, but seeing him pull his long knife to parry her, Sirat cut him in the neck instead. He staggered away, blood spurting.

Another had a long nusswood spear; she countered, wound up, deflected a blow from the third, and brought down Whiteflame on the spear. The impossible white metal chopped halfway through the wooden shaft, and she pulled, staggering the man as she retrieved the sword, and jabbed at the third man bearing an iron sword. He aimed a blow of the flat at her—Sirat parried it then struck with the edge of her sword at the spearman, cutting deeply into his arm and shoulder, causing blood to spray everywhere. He grabbed the sword blade, slippery with his own gore, and the swordsman struck Sirat with the flat of the blade then reversed with the wheel-pommel as the blade sliced clean into his hand.

Dizzy, Sirat yanked Whiteflame from the bleeding man, spewing blood all over her, and chopped at the spearman, thinking to at least put him down. Another blow of the pommel came, and this she failed to deflect; she sank to the ground kicking and heard a bone break; an arm choked her unconscious.

And to think I came here a-wooing.

 

There was a long black place. Sirat woke with one of her men holding her head as she vomited, then choked, then vomited again. I never like being knocked out: storytellers seemed unaware of how sick it made you. She retched once more, her gut empty, and he let her sit up. They were in a grove of nuss-trees, their hands bound—eleven of her soldiers, she added quickly with blurred eyes, and five strangers. Where was she? She listened. “Second? Hear me? It is I, Venkop.”

Venkop? She knew the name—knew these soldiers. What campaign was this?

She nodded. “Know where we are?” She shook her head, disliked the sensation.

“The bandits captured us. For the manhorses, I think. Ransom, too. They kidnapped these folks,” Venkop motioned to the gaudily dressed civilians at the other end of the glade, “and their wagon. Maybe for ransom, too.” He sighed. “I don’t know where we are.”

Sirat surveyed the troops’ situation. Venkop brought her water in a bamboo bucket. She drank and managed not to retch. The men were wearing livery she half-knew (an engine in white as the badge), were well equipped, but disarmed and in chains. They were bound with enough freedom to eat and move a little—hobbled. Clothes thrown on willy-nilly, as if—

She remembered. The headache had fogged her memories, clouded her mind. But it had come back to her. They were wooing for the Wizard Etroklos.

 

Etroklos had spoken to her in the laboratory over glasses of wine after they’d driven off the army of the Khus Taranth. “Sirat, you are the dashing sort,” the old wizard, head shaved, beardless, had said. “The girls, now, they like you.”

“It may be so,” she’d said. A rats-and-dragons board lay between them. She had taken the wizard’s boat; Etroklos had moved til her elephant-pig and two soldiers were her only hope. “But I’m sworn,” she went on, “not to share my bed. As you know, sir.”

The liver-spotted hand moved a soldier. “I know,” said the scholar-wizard who had harnessed the power of lightning to kill the soldiers of the Khus, with lore taken from the knowstones of the ancients. She studied the board, set for two players. “I do know that. And my proposal is this.” He sipped a yellow wine, which on another world was called “white”. “Go out; take you two tens of men. Manhorses, arms—draw what food you need from old Mrs. Vuzh. And find a bride for me.”

“Lord,” said the woman who lived and fought as a man, “if you seek a girl, then merely command. Enough will be brought here to the keep that you will wear out a bed testing them!” She dared a smile.

“And frighten the poor thing to death, summoning her like a maid or a butler, or round her up like a slave to be sold? If I wanted a slave girl, they’re sold each market day, down in Nyotaishar.” He sighed. “It would be nice to have one who’d some choice in the matter, wouldn’t it?”

Sirat moved her knight and hoped that her master would not notice what she planned. “It would, sir. I agree. But why send a warrior to go a-wooing? Will that not fright the poor slip of a thing just as much?”

“I fear you’re right. But my apprentice is worse than useless for wooing, and I’d trust Captain Vethas as far as I can toss him.” Which wasn’t very far, slight and small as the wizard was. Sirat grinned. Trusting Vethas and his men with a virgin was as sensible as trusting a chicken to a mantiger.

“So what I ask is this. Visit some village. Keep the peace, listen to the talk. I can’t do that; no one talks around the master, and you know it.”

“Aye, it’s true.” She was Etroklos’ champion, second below old Vethas in his guard, and the wizard… trusted her. “And if we find some likely gal?”

“Then ask concerning her. If she wishes to come here, she may. I will pay brideprice, of course. She need bring no dowry, except for good sense.”

“A pretty one?”

“It might be nice if she were. But I value sense first, or I’d buy one off the block.” The wizard moved a knight.

“Mother always said, ‘Kissing don’t last; cookin’ do.’”

“Or math. For Sun’s sake, get me one who can read.” The wizard looked sharp at the warrior. “Think you can?”

“Master, I won’t fail you,” said Sirat. “Boat takes elephant.”

 

Sirat’s head still hurt, but the effects of the blow were fading. She knew her mission. She was to find a bride for her master, the aged Wizard and master of engines, Etroklos of the Tower. He had given her twenty men and sent her off to woo for him; he was working on another mad invention and could not be bothered. And now, she and her troops had fallen into the hands of brigands.

Now, assets…

Sirat still wore her mail, but Whiteflame was out of its sheath. Removing her sword was easier than pulling mail off an unconscious body, as she knew. She couldn’t see her men’s manhorses or their arms. Most of them wore armor, but those without it were dressed, though in mismatched and hastily donned clothes.

How many wounded? Out of the eleven she saw five wounded—one plainly unable to fight, two maybes. She couldn’t see Khennek, who had been guarding—was he dead? Bearing the hallmarks of travelling performers, the civilian captives were a man in formal caftan, a young and delicate girl in a bright sari, a similarly dressed older gal, a huge man in kilt and cape, and a slight, dark fellow wearing brown silks. They were unarmed and bound as her soldiers were.

Two bandits armed with spears and machetes and wearing her soldiers’ armor coats were guarding them.

The girl who’d decoyed for the bandits entered bearing a basket of waybread and circled the group of prisoners, letting each take a round of the stuff. The water jug was passed again. When the girl came to her, Sirat said, “You serve as decoy for them, then?”

“Oh! It’s you.” The girl clearly recognized Sirat. She looked at the ground. “I do. I… wash and cook for them.”

“I see.” From her shape, Sirat was sure that she did more than housekeeping for these thieves and killers. The girl was not big-bellied, but in a female body a thickening there meant one thing. Sirat thanked her for the waybread and smiled.

“Don’ talk to them!” said a guard, glaring at the girl. She glanced fearfully, handed the rest of the bread to Sirat, and fled. Sirat passed the bread to her men and to the players as well.

By quietly questioning her men she had ascertained that six or seven had died, left in the woods for wild dogs and finch-vultures. On my conscience. Lord Sun forgive me. You who are above Butros and the thunder, pardon me.

When she had time to grieve she could say the prayers for each of them by name. It was her fault these men had died.

“Ah, good Khus,” said the caftan-wearing ringmaster. “Hail.” He spoke to her, Sirat realized, jarring her from her guilt.

“Hail, Fer,” she said, greeting him as a craftsman. “I am the Khus Sirat, Thonchur’s son, Second for the Wizard Etroklos’ guard.”

“May the day go well with you,” said the man, whose speech had a Nantaishari accent, “I am Hufilaki, Cherot’s son, and maestro of this pageant wagon, the Kawal Ihu’afilaki.” The Wagon of Dreams, it was. She smiled. “If I may introduce my players?” She nodded. “They are Hesthak, Forthat’s son, our strongman; Hiurchat, Hunan’s son (the slim, dark man), our dancer and player; Cheron, (the older woman), daughter of Faram, singer and dancer; and Vesh, daughter of Sherr, musician extraordinaire and tumbler to boot. We travel, performing, as you see, and were captured and robbed. It profited them little, and so they hold us for ransom.  What they hope to get, I can’t imagine. Well. Who you are, I can’t say, but you killed a great number of them, and they did not like that, you see.”

Sirat told the mountebank of her errand; as usual, the performers took her for a man, which she preferred. “Hmmmm,” mused Hufilaki. “Could we combine our forces?”

Sirat had an idea. Looking forward, speaking so that it would not carry, she said, “We need to talk.”

“Why, surely,” Hiurchat said quietly. Louder, “Cheron and Vesh, dears, it’s so tiresome sitting here with nothing to do. Why don’t you two practice your songs for the show while we wait?”

“Music, too?” asked Vesh, looking at Hiurchat. “Good Khus,” she addressed the guard, leaning into the man’s gaze and putting on a winsome look. “May my friend here get his instruments from the wagon? You’ll observe, of course, as he does so.”

“Yeah, uh, sure.” The guard took Hiurchat and watched him as he retrieved a chohuthorat, one with wire strings and inlay of unbreakable glass shining along the side of the soundbox; Hiurchat mutely asked for his chains to be removed. The guard settled for looping his leg shackles into a rope. Hiurchat then played a piece of popular hemeth, and the girls joined him in alternating parts then harmonized on the chorus. Sirat’s soldiers listened with appreciation.

While the music went on, Sirat and Hufilaki plotted. She was surprised at his ability to speak without moving his lips, but he explained that players needed to do this sometimes; he could throw his voice as well but didn’t demonstrate. They came up with a plan; Hufilaki would put it forth, if allowed. If not…

Sirat’s scabbard was empty, but the whetstone of Whiteflame was a finger-sized brown bar of industrial diamond, nigh old as the sword. Iron chains would yield to it, in time. But where was Whiteflame? She was sure that the Khus Takach had it and told Hufilaki as much. He nodded and smiled mysteriously.

Hufilaki called a guard and asked to speak to the thieves’ First. It was a long wait, since another guard had to be called to take them there while two remained, guarded them, and listened to the songs which the women knew, leavened with Hiurchat’s playing. Then the guard took Hufilaki, who insisted that Sirat accompany him; she was searched, though she was sure that Hufilaki had some trick in mind.

They were brought to the tent of the leader, a scarred and bearded man. “This is the Khus Takach,” said the guard, and withdrew.

“Good Khus, our greetings. I am the Fer Hufilaki, and this is the Khus Sirat.” Outside, the sun was sinking.

“So you are. On what do you two wish to waste my time?” The man scowled. Behind his chair was a pallet and an arming-stand, upon which rested a sword wrapped in oilskins. Not much loot was to be seen; they had little, or they would not be manhorse-thieves. The tent…it was the circus’, wasn’t it? Hufilaki’s tent? She saw there was a litter of illusionists’ props in one corner.

“Good sir, it occurred to me, as a former military man myself, about the problem of the village ten kilometers that way.” He indicated the direction of the smoke that Sirat had seen earlier.

“The problem?” asked the Khus Takach.

“Their militia is reasonably-sized and well-armed. Sir, did you plan a frontal assault, or to take them by stealth?” Hufilaki’s tone suggested friendly curiosity.

“Did I… what?” The Khus wasn’t following.

“How to take them? The harvest is in; it will feed your men through the rains, you know.”

The man’s face was incredulous. “You’re concerned for my men’s welfare? Who are you? Saint Akelko?”

“We eat the same waybread,” Hufilaki pointed out mildly.

“So what is this?” The Khus was on the brink. Sirat could see, Hufilaki clearly wanted to hook him.

“You’re short on grain and low on manpower,” said the ringmaster.

“And this concerns you?”

“Do you want to take that village?” asked the circus man.

“If I want it, I’ll take it, juggler. You may—”

“You can’t take it. You lack the manpower, or you’d guard us all separately, not together. You lack the grain or your men would not eat the same way bread we do. I know how to take that village.”

“How,” asked the Khus. “By acrobatics?”

Hufilaki said, “Yes.”

Now the Khus was hooked, Sirat saw. “What nonsense is this?”

“We’ll announce the performance, the arrival of the pageant-wagon. They’re villagers; they will gather for the show if we promise some fun.”

The Khus was silent. The ringmaster went on. “You’ll hide half your men in the wagon. The others will wait outside the gates. We’ll do the show, of course. When the end comes, the fancy bit, there’ll be a signal. The soldiers will rush out, unlock the village gate, take the villagers, and you’ll have all you need for the rains.”

The Khus Takach said, “This is a mad plan. It would never work.”

“Then go back to robbing travelers, and starve when the rains rot what stores you have. Or face the Wizard’s justice, and penalties won’t be light or slow.”

That was true, Sirat thought. Etroklos, like most landlords, enforced justice but called juries of the same caste as the accused. The guilty paid for theft, were beaten for fighting, castrated for rapes (thankfully rare), and murder caught the death penalty (but was also rare).

There was another thing. He didn’t know she was Second of the wizard’s men; he didn’t recognize the livery or didn’t know that she was the right hand of the Mage of the Tower. If he knew, he could never have been silent about it. These men would face the death penalty. Etroklos was the local Khus and could call a jury of soldiers, priests, maybe a neighboring landlord, and sentence these bandits to sure death. A child stealing bread might ask mercy; these men, never.

“Ho, Khuli!” called the Khus. A guard entered. “Take these two back to confinement.”

 

The long dusk drew on. Many slept; through the lush trees Butros shone in half phase. Soldiers whispered questions for Sirat, and she answered as honestly as she could. When the last light faded from the Chartha peaks, the Khus of the bandits called a council. The guard took Hufilaki and Sirat to the trampled ground before the Khus’ tent—Hufilaki’s tent, really—as he had told her.

“Hail, my loyal men,” said the Khus. He wore Whiteflame, she saw, thrust into a sheath that did not fit, but the unbreakable jewel on its pommel was like nothing else. Grimly she told the sword she would recover it.

Sirat counted silently in the twilight. There were scarce twenty bandits, even counting the four women who huddled together in one end of the clearing. This was a small robber band, and on hard times. Could she turn them against their leader?

The men hailed the Khus. He went on, “Already in this day you have proven yourselves, capturing whom you did not slay of the foemen, the lackeys of the Wizard. Now luck hands us a chance to take a whole town, its riches and women for our own.”

“How, Lord?” asked a voice. As the twilight grew darker, a boy came and laid a fire on the earth.

“It will be no great feat for such as yourself. We shall trick them! This gang of wandering players shall go before us, and announce a show. We’ll hide a ten in their wagon, use the rest of the troops to circle the village square. They won’t go armed to see a show, and when the signal is given, we’ll strike and take the place.” Cheers followed, as did muttered talk.

“Khus,” said one. “How do you know that this will work?”

“I don’t, but it’s take a prize or waybread until we starve.” Men nodded, made sounds of approval.

Was this how they planned all their raids? Sloppy. But my experience lost to their ambush. My fault, Dark it!

Sirat didn’t know how these men worked. She was a soldier, not a thief, and there was a difference. She got orders, and lacking, improvised, but soldiers did not know how to plan tactics or strategy, or officers would not exist. Hufilaki’s plan was strange, but she had no better. Her men were dead, or chained, or—she-didn’t-know-how-many, but it couldn’t be more than one or two—lost in the woods. As for the manhorses, no one knew. They surely had no manhorse-doctor here, and even the legions’ men slew the half-ton beasts when the manhorses were wounded too sorely to walk. She drew her bound hands beneath her surcoat, as if against the cool of evening, and pulled the diamond bar from a sleeve. Slow, slow. She hated to ruin the diamond, but perhaps charcoal-forged iron (Pendleton’s World had no coal) would yield soon. She worked it across a link and felt the grate, grate.

“So how will we do it?” asked another spearman, and the circle of men fell to chittering. They would fire through the canvas. No, that was foolish; they’d hit no one. Another said that they could leap from the wagon. Another queried Hufilaki about how to tear the canvas from the wagon all at once, as if it were a magic-show. Hufilaki responded by describing how the canvas could be rigged, with his players’ help, to do so.

“Player. Why do you help us?” one soldier said.

Sirat scraped, scraped, and hoped the noise didn’t carry.

“I help myself and my troupe,” said Hufilaki. “We don’t want to starve, and a village should be more than enough ransom, don’t you think?”

Some agreed. Others argued that the women should be kept, since the bandits had few. Khus Takach told them the village girls would surely do what the bandits told them. Sirat, sworn to virginity, merely smiled at the banter and kept sawing—

There! The link was cut. Now, to tie it with a raveled thread…there. Done. The chain would part at a tug.

The men asked Hufilaki to do some magic tricks. He responded by pulling money-beads from soldiers’ ears and producing cotton scarves dyed with safflower, glowing pink and gold in the fire’s light. The soldiers gasped and laughed like children. Eventually the Khus told him to gather his troupe and work on the wagon. Sirat was sent back to her men, to whom she explained the situation, and quietly passed the whetstone. Her men napped, pretended to nap, or played games of dice where Butros’ light came through the trees. She sensed—more than saw—that some at least managed to cut their bonds.

As first-night (the thirty-hour period before the midnight transit) began, the monotheists prayed, bowing as they could to the west and reciting the Charen. Sirat joined, nodding at old Venkop to lead the prayers. Under her recital, she noted that some of the bandits heard them and joined in. As for the circus, they didn’t exactly seem churchy to her, but she saw Hiurchat repeating the verses of God with them.

The sunset prayer ended, and she went to the guard and asked whether the men might at least help the players in fixing their wagon. He nodded, and a bandit guard took them there.

Hufilaki was busy, with huge Hesthak’s aid, peeling the canvas cover from the long hoops of bamboo which held it. As with most vehicles on Pendleton’s World, the circus wagon was doweled and pegged together from bamboo, with little enough metal. Irksome, thought Sirat. She could use a nail or a spike.

She could use Whiteflame.

Hufilaki greeted her and set her and two other soldiers of her company to emptying the boxes, baskets, and crates of the troupe’s things out of the wagon. Cheron directed the stacking of the boxes, and Vesh opened and rifled through them, her hands a quick blur in the dim light. A guard watched them and quickly grew bored.

Cheron touched Vesh on the hand, handing her a basket. When Sirat looked at her, Cheron looked boldly back, smiling in the blue of night. Sirat looked past the flirtation, the giggling, the tiny romances that broke purdah. (Not all the faNurro observed purdah, but so many places did that veiled women were no rare sight, and a man violated their sacred privacy at his peril.)

Vesh was moving things from one place to another. Sirat could not understand how stage illusions worked, but she knew that it was misdirection. One looked at the trickster’s hands, seeing the very thing, and did not know it. She delighted in Hufilaki’s antics but could never have done such things herself. Cheron’s talk was merely the patter for the trick. Her flirtatious asides to the guard, her winks and smiles, were not attraction but distraction.

This was magic, wasn’t it?

The magic worked by her wizard master relied on gears and chains and wires, on Lord Sun’s power and wind harnessed like a manhorse, on weights and caustic and shackled lightning. But this was different.

Vesh passed her the razor. She didn’t see how; the singer’s hand brushed hers, and the thing was suddenly in her left hand, a heavy blade of bronze folded into its nacre-and-brass handle. She looked at the woman, who did not look at her, and then contrived, under the guise of pawing her own crotch, to conceal the Dark-damned thing in her pants. “Here, take this over there,” said Cheron, “and stack it up with the others.” The razor provided a manly silhouette; she knew sworn-virgins who padded their pants with rags.

She took a knife from the girl then was sent back to her men, as if the guard was suspicious. Or wanted to be alone with the girls.

She sat again among her imprisoned men as first night’s sleep came. She gave Venkop the knife. The girl who’d served them appeared again and brought waybread. “How’re you feeling?” asked Sirat of the girl.

“I ate some porridge, but I was sick.”

“I am Sirat,” said the warrior who was named for the marsh-lion. “What do they call you?”

“I am Vureth,” said the girl. In the light of Butros, Sirat could see that she had been hit. “I am Takach’s woman.”

“He,” Sirat said, “is the father, then.”

“I guess he is,” said the girl, Vureth. “But the—”

“Don’t talk to them, girl!” The guard came over, arm raised, and the girl flinched, fearing.

“Khus!” said Sirat sharply. That got the guards’ attention. “Is she your foe?”

The man did not strike the girl, but thrust her roughly aside. “Don’t meddle, soldier, or you’ll know worse punishment,” the guard said.

“I am a warrior and don’t fear my fate,” said Sirat. “But this girl is no more my foe than she is yours.”

“Apeshit!” the guard snarled and walked to the other end of the glade. So, Sirat thought, he’s been ordered not to strike us, or he fears to. Which was it?

She didn’t know. After a while, the girl was brought back, hands chained, to sit with the imprisoned soldiers. “Sit here,” said the guard, “and think whether you’ll join them.” Sirat contrived to spread her blanket-cloak near where the girl Vureth was. The guards watching, they slept.

She woke, her men rousing her, in deep night, Butros in full above the glade. “Midnight prayer, Second. Will you lead us?”

She did, and afterward, as Pendleton’s tiny-seeming shadow crawled across the blue-and-white striped disc of Butros, she took stock: all the men had managed to cut their bonds using the whetstone. She knew that the circus group would take their wagon into the village soon. Was this the time to strike? She took stock of weapons—three knives, one folding razor and her own concealed one, some bits of rope and spikes that could be improvised to harm, two slings wrapped as headbands… And plenty of stones!

She told her men to slip their bonds at her signal and find their way into the village, warning it if they could. She could not write a note while guards watched, not even with Butros’ white-blue face lighting the indigo sky. It was too obvious.

She prayed to the Lady Sun, asking for light in finding the priceless blade, swearing to honor it. Then she sat in meditation for a while. When the midnight transit had commenced, they could see the bandits had begun to slip out; they were guarded by a single guard. “Here,” Sirat whispered to Vureth who sat by them. “Go up to the guard and distract him, if you could? One way or another? It will help.” The girl nodded, thought it over a bit.

Vureth rose, went to the guard, and began talking. Soon it became an argument—a noisy one. Sirat’s men looked to her then, at her signal, slipped their bonds, rose and melted into the woods. As for the wounded, those who could not walk shammed sleep; the rest rose and went off, serving as decoys if nothing else. Sirat watched them go, stayed silent, and when the girl Vureth slapped the guard and screeched at him, she shed her own bonds and was off.

Now. Where was her sword? She crawled, like the great cat whose name she bore, round the camp to the circus tent where the bandits’ Khus had spoken to them. There were no guards, though an aged woman dozing by the cookfire, her pans scrubbed with scouring-rushes and hung to dry. Not my concern. Bedroll, check—nothing there. Lockbox… she had it open, and there were sacks of money-beads, ten bolts of silk and some gold wire. She was no monk; she took strings of beads and a bracelet. Perhaps Vureth would like it, she thought and then wondered why she thought of Vureth. Armory? There was a rack of arms, though it was mostly empty.

She found their manhorses in a pen guarded by a boy. Slip up behind him? Strike him, hard, behind the ear? There was a voice—a manhorse’s voice—from the corral, saying “Rider! Rider!”

It was Lop-Ear, her own well-trained beast.

Now the guard looked at the manhorse (not all of the huge primates could speak) and—

Done! he fell bloody and unconscious; she took his spear. While she gathered a remuda of manhorses, shoulder-saddled her own, and as many more as she could, he woke, dazed. She rode out, the huge primates stepping delicately over the boy. Maybe he would live. Manhorses made noise, of course, but she would rather ride than walk; the height advantage was good as well. Razor, a spear, her coat of mail—she was ready.

First she took the three-meter manhorse over to the prison glade. Two wounded men slept there, and the guard lay bloodied from a wound in the groin. The girl’s work? She couldn’t know. She rode, quartering the dark woods, the Hundred Stars dim tonight in the deep-blue sky, Butros’ light sometimes visible, sometimes not, in the night. The deep leaf litter hid most tracks, but a manhorse was quieter than the sort with hooves, which Pendleton’s World lacked.

 

She rode, casting Lop-Ear back and forth over the track of woods and finding two of her men, whom she mounted on spare manhorses. “When we see the bandits, do it quietly, but don’t leave them alive,” she spoke softly.

“Aye, Second,” the men replied. The three of them and the remuda of mounts went on, coming to the rice-paddies, dry in the off-season and planted with ten-day maize and field peas; the manhorses moved quietly while Sirat looked for cover. “Second.” It was Peret. “Got one here.”

He had found a corpse, one of the bandits, she thought, from the man’s smell and beard. The scabbard on the corpse’s belt was empty. “Who did’im?” asked Jazherap. Sirat motioned for silence in the blue of night; save in the midnight eclipse, Pendleton’s sky was never black because Butros filled so much of it.

She motioned Lop-Ear to kneel, staying mounted astride the great beast’s shoulders. “Don’t know.” There was a bloody stab wound in the man’s lower back, under the armor-coat, and a messy trail of blood behind him. “Someone stabbed him then didn’t finish him off, and he tried to reach the village, maybe?” The men muttered the prayer for the dead, and then went on. A light breeze stirred the young maize tops. Something in the way it rustled…

“Down!” she cried as longbow arrows snapped at them from two men who had stayed hid in the maize, crawling almost flat. Peret screamed, an arrow in his chest. Jazharap, the other soldier with her, slapped his mount’s chest between his own thighs and charged, Sirat following. The archers got off three more arrows. One hit Sirat in the belly and stuck in her mail—no worse than being punched, she thought. One cut into her manhorse’s arm, and it hollered in pain. One just plain missed, arcing over Jazherap’s head. He and his mount reached the pair of archers, who stood ready to fight with long spears. The mounted warrior had the advantage of height, speed, and reach, but the bandit’s spear was two meters of bavath-wood with an iron point, and braced against a mounted charge it would be deadly indeed. Jazherap knocked aside the spear and struck at the bandit using a wooden branch as a club; the sapote heartwood conked the man in the head and sent him sprawling.

The remaining spearman thrust at Sirat, saw her counter, and came past it at her thigh. Ow! She would bleed for that one; she had never been able to abide mail chausses in the heat of Pendleton’s. She focused and reversed the spear—get him alive, question him—and clubbed at him with the butt.

Jazherap’s club caught him in the ribs and staggered him. The bandit’s jab with the spear cut across the thigh of Jazherap’s mount, making it scream and ruining any hope of stealth. Jazherap parried with his club, snapping a blow in across the back of the man’s neck.

The archer fell. Two down. Now, where are my men? And where is Cheron? Then she wondered why she cared about Cheron. The woman was a few years her junior, with bee-stung lips and long black hair; she was as likely to abandon her singer’s life and don armor as Sirat was to marry some fat man with broken teeth and mother a flock of stepchildren. And Cheron only flirted with her because she thought Sirat was a man.

She dismounted, tended the wounded manhorse, then her soldiers, and pulled up enough of her mail and under-padding to let her bind the bleeding place where an arrow-splinter had stuck through her armor.

They strapped half-conscious Peret into his saddle and moved on, taking the fallen men’s bows. They had to succeed in this. Ahead then, keeping to the line of sight between the tall breadnut patch and the village ahead: “Wouldn’t it be shorter to—”, asked Jazherap, unused to night stalks.

“Keeps us from being seen,” said Sirat. They were best concealed in the black of trees against the indigo sky of Pendleton’s night. Clouds moved in…

They saw lanterns and smelled cookfires—the village lay ahead, with its watchtower, protective palisade, and houses round a central plaza. Sirat went nowhere near the gate; men were there in the blue dark—likely the bandits waiting to storm the place. Dismount, her hand signs told Jazherap. Follow me. Wounded, this was going to be no fun. How to manage it? A rope ladder wouldn’t do; her injured thigh would not bear her armored weight. Jazherap set Peret on the ground, told him to wait. Sirat drew the manhorses closer and climbed atop them.

Still too short. Any taller and I’d be a freak, she thought wryly. Hauling Jazherap atop the manhorse’s shoulders only made them irritated. Finally, she thought of the circus’ tumbling. With much silent signing and no few thwacks, she got the smaller manhorse atop the shoulders of the larger, then climbed atop them and had Jazherap climb them as one did a stepladder and haul her over himself onto the walkway topping the timber palisade. She whispered to the manhorses to wait on the ground.

She felt a tap from Jazherap, who pointed to a watchman too close and noted the ragged beard and machete. The watchman was a bandit as well. They were all over this place, hidden.

Jazherap jumped the man, his hands empty save for the skill Sirat drilled into all her men, and pulled him down. The man bucked him off, took a deep breath to shout the alarm—

Sirat’s fist came down on the guard’s head, clenching the razor. The bronze and nacre thudded against the man’s skull, and he went limp, unconscious or dead. With the razor’s blade she cut strips from his dirty tunic and bound him. On, she motioned.

Music came from inside.

The circus!

Was the main group of bandits hidden in the circus wagon? They had to be, else they’d have swarmed out and taken the place.

The two of them crept forward, dodging two women rocking crying babies on doorsteps and a bored apprentice watching an oven (bread did not bake itself, even when the circus was in town). She saw a shape stalking behind a pen of gareep; they closed in and found a loose and crying meatape. Untidiness is not a crime.

They reached the gate, now closed and guarded by town militia, and surveyed it. No sign of the bandit troop yet. They went to the town square, where a crowd stood and sat in light from torches, Butros and the fires of Ngobi; lovely Urmston showed round the limb of Butros. The girls were dancing as Hufilaki and Hiurchat played a lively tune: Sirat saw them smiling. Then great Hesthak emerged into the torchlight to the awed shrieks of the villagers, and the girls climbed as he threw them up and caught them.

How could Sirat, hiding in shadows, warn the village? Warned, they might turn on the bandits and massacre them in the wagon. But would they trust a ragged soldier, one wounded to boot? Likelier to assume she was a bandit herself. Present her learning?

That would work if this peasant village had a magic-maker, an adept who fixed steam-pumps, rotated crops, operated a clattering suntalker. She knew of no such person, though many towns under Etroklos’ sway boasted such. Etroklos prided himself on giving his subjects the small and useful magics.

How was she supposed to find… No, it wouldn’t work. If a stranger—a soldier—appeared unannounced, then it would cause panic. Unless…

She motioned Jazherap to follow and began a crawl round the town square, slithering in stacks of firewood, bundles of bean curd hung to dry, stinking pickled fish in giant crocks, dyer’s indigo cloth hung to dry, on and on.

She peeped between a stack of pots and saw the show: Hufilaki performed magic illusions, motioning an amazed child to stand so, to walk so, as he performed the tricks. Nice.

Presently they were behind the wagon. “Here’s my idea,” she told Jazherap. “If we just appear, the village will panic and be the bandits’ meatapes for the killing. But if we slip on stage, the players know us, and they’ll pretend we’re part of the show, right?”

Jazherap thought for a while then said, “Second, are you sure that this is going to work?” He carried the bandit’s machete; it seemed likely to serve well in close quarters.

She took a deep breath and then replied, “I’m not. But it’s the best idea I’ve got.  So here’s what we’ll do…”

Jazherap slinked around to where huge Hesthak had stepped off the stage and quietly spoke to him at length. When Hiurchat, took a short break, he joined the conversation and glanced at Sirat. He showed no amazement. Had he expected this? Planned on it?

“They can see us through the peep-slits in the wagon,” said dark Hiurchat. “They will wait till the end of the show and then surge out. Two will open the village gates and the rest, who wait outside, will rush in.”

“Can they see us here?” asked Sirat in a whisper. On stage, Hufilaki had begun a sort of juggling duel with the girls: they threw him silly objects, such as a wine-skin, a doll, and a glove, and he would juggle them in a fountain pattern, then throw one or two items back to the girls, and they’d throw him another. For a moment, Sirat watched dumbfounded as the girls invited the audience to throw anything into the stage area, and the villagers tossed in a sickle, a long braid of garlic, a lit torch, bricks of cheese, and so on and on. (To Sirat’s relief, no one threw in a baby.)

Hiurchat said, “They’ll see us if we keep talking. Can you juggle?”

“Sun’s blood, no! What do you think I am?” cried the warrior.

“Then can you fake a—I don’t know—a sword-duel?” asked the circus player.

Hesthak stood by, saying nothing. Sirat wondered what the huge man was thinking. “I can. Do you have swords, then?”

He produced two tin weapons suitable for a battle with mannequins and shrugged. As Vesh tossed a cactus pad into the juggling fountain, which Hufilaki batted deftly about with weavers’ battens, Sirat asked, “So what do we do? Battle with these and then get slain when the bandits come roaring out?”

“I think we can do better,” said Hiurchat. “Hufilaki has something for you, warrior. Though he’d thought to use it himself.” Sirat’s heart leaped. Could it be?

They leaped onto the stage as Hufilaki threw firewood and a saw into the air and didn’t so much as bat an eyelash as the two “warriors” engaged in a fierce-looking battle with their fake weapons. Up and down the stage Hiurchat and Sirat “raged”, with Cheron as the “captive princess” and slim Vesh as a “betraying minx”, roles they assumed without coaching. Hufilaki continued his crazy juggling act to the side of the stage, and then, when Hiurchat pretended to drive Sirat down, he whispered to the warrior, “Here!” Sirat rose, pretending to cut and thrust at Hiurchat then “dropped” the fake sword, on which Hiurchat put one boot. The audience gasped.

Then suddenly through the air came Whiteflame, concealed somehow in Hufilaki’s robes, unsheathed and wrapped in pig’s hide to prevent the terrible edge from killing him. Sirat grabbed it, brandished the ancient weapon, let the light of Butros’ face glitter from the jewel at the hilt, grown with a faVashala saint’s relic inside. There was a rumbling noise—

Bandits swarmed from the wagon. In the lead was the Khus Takach, Sirat’s crossbow in his hands. He shot two village-men at once while his men killed three more, and the rest of the brigands left the cramped pageant-wagon armed and dangerous.  “Surrender, or die!  This is no jest, peasants. I am the Khus Takach. Who speaks for this village?”

An elderly woman got up. “I am the elder woman of the Mi’afma lineage. I speak for my people.” Takach strode up to her with crossbow in hand. She walked with a stick of bamboo in one hand and wore a soldier’s belt.

“Old woman, surrender to me, and you will live—your people also. Do you understand?”

Sirat discreetly withdrew to the shade—had they seen her against the bright lamps?

The old woman stood straight and proud, and she said “I know right well that you are a bandit and a thief, or else you’d wear some lord’s colors and come by the rules of Hemishi, the warrior-path. To attack you when I have a stick, and you have bow and sword would be merely courting my death, but you won’t profit from assaulting this place.” Her words were spoken to carry.

“So, do you yield, elder woman?” said Takach.

“I do, as I must. My folk are common farmers, no more.” She seemed to sag a bit.

“And you folk here, do you surrender to us?” He surveyed the villagers.

There were murmurs, assents, denials. “Aye, we do,” said an older man whose two wives stood by him.

Just then Jazherap and Sirat shot two of the bandits from hiding.

Takach shouted, “Kill all who oppose us! Those who surrender, behind me!” His men formed a rough line and began shooting at ill-seen targets: Sirat, Jazherap, and two of the villagers who’d grabbed hunting bows and spears. Arrows stuck in Jazherap’s mail. Sirat fired back those she had taken from the fallen enemy archers then charged with Whiteflame in her hand. Takach’s men rushed to the town gate, opened it, and more men—his reserves—rushed through shooting and stabbing.

One bandit came at Sirat with a spear. Sirat parried it and countered with a high cut, but the man dodged. She feinted at his face, jumped back from a spear-thrust, then swiped at him with the blade. He countered as a comrade of his chopped at her with a machete. The chop severed the spear, and as the spearman goggled at her, Sirat shoved the point through his neck.

The man with the machete hacked, but her parry weakened the blow enough that her mail stopped it. Mail wasn’t magic, only metal, but it helped. She’d have a bruise, she thought, as she fenced with him. His heavy chopping weapon could hurt if it got through. A move to trick him—there! And Whiteflame’s glasslike, porcelain-smooth blade chopped through the machete’s, all her strength behind it, and stuck, lacking enough momentum to carry it through the forged iron of the machete blade. The two warriors wrestled, and Sirat reckoned that he was stronger than her. He forced the half-severed weapon toward her, toward her face; she wore no helmet. It came closer, and then she shifted her weight, near to falling, and hung from the blade for a moment. Whiteflame’s blade snapped the machete’s iron in two. Sirat fell into a crouch, counterattacked with a punch, and his machete-stump socked her in the belly, blunt but metal, and ugly. He hoped to knock the wind from her. She was sweating, drops flying from her short hair into the earth of the village common where they dueled the bandits. In the corner of her eye she saw Jazherap going at it with two of the thieves as two stout farmers beset Takach with axes. Great Hesthak battered the bandits nearest him with a beam taken from a porch. Focus, Kitten, she told herself and faked a cut. She came back with a thrust, and the bandit gasped as the blade cut into the side of his throat. He gave a gurgling scream, dropped his weapon, and fell.

Arrows were coming from a housetop. One bandit shouted, clutched his neck, and fell bleeding. Another fell with an arrow sticking crazily from one shoulder, thrashing.

Sirat breathed, slowly and deliberately, in the moment when no one attacked her and recalled what her teachers had beaten into her after she was no longer a girl named Kitten but a man named Sirat, the marsh-lion. She stood and surveyed the melee.

There! Men were sniping from a rooftop. They looked to be her own men’s arrows, from the screaming and thrashing of their victims. Etroklos issued arrows poisoned with nux vomica, and Sirat issued orders not to waste them. Old Venkop was directing. Good.

The bandits were in two knots now, one round Takach and one by the great bavath tree which shaded the common. A maniac bandit leapt at giant Hesthak and threw a spear. The great strongman fell pierced through the face, roaring in a spew of blood. His club fell on the man who would kill him and crushed the bandit’s chest. On the night breeze, the scent of bavath leaves contrasted with the blood-and-crap stink of battle. She was wounded. Drawing energy into her by the hemishi discipline, Sirat looked for where she could apply force.

If Takach fell, she could scare the others into yielding, perhaps. If he did not fall—

She walked toward where he fenced, two villagers dead at his feet. A scream from her right drew her eye for a moment: Hufilaki had fallen from some wound. Cheron stood atop him with a sword taken from a fallen bandit, daring any to come near and looking rather splendid with a torn sari and blood on her face.

Sirat called out, “Takach, bandit and thief! I am the Khus Sirat Tho’anchur, Second of the armsmen of the Wizard Etroklos. He enforces the laws of the Protector and the Parliament. Lay down arms and face the Wizard’s justice, and you may yet live. Kill further and you’ll meet death!”

It was clear from his reaction that her fame had not reached this man.

Takach shouted, “Yes, you might claim any great lord whose name lends you might, ‘Lion’. Fight me, and I’ll kill you, fool that I was to spare you before, you and your clowns, jugglers, and wenches!” They went at it, his own saber against her shining weapon, careful with his parries and counters, so as not to snap the carbon steel of his blade. Arrows rained into the melee and cut down bandits. She tried to catch him in a disarm but failed. He was good, she thought, as a blow along her arm and hand bruised and cut her; she bled into her glove. Her men cornered the remaining bandits, who yielded, crying for mercy.

“Fine lot of jesters you’ll have, little creature,” Takach gibed. “When you next fight a real man, will you slay them with a clown’s toys? Or fight monks and priests next?” He slashed at her.

“You fight no better than a fat old priest, Takach. Now answer my blade.” She drove on at him, forced him back but failed to see the swordsman’s trick as he cut across her eyes, missed, then cut her forehead and laughed. Dark! she swore. Dark him and apeshit. Breathe now, refuse to be drawn. Be drawn and you die. Feint, and when he expects a cut, feint again, and fast, cut—

His mail took a cut not strong enough to chop square through the metal, and sweat and blood dripped into her eyes in the night heat. One of her men said, “Second, we’ll take this guy! Stand down, if you want to, sir, and we’ll break his arms, take him in for trial.” She wanted them to do that. She shook her head, and let Takach push her back and turn her so she could see. They dueled in the ring of spectators—bandits held by her men, villagers eager for the bandits’ deaths, angry and ready to mob him.

“Nay, I’ll take him,” said Sirat. “I’ll—”

Takach extracted a knife from his boot—fast—and threw it. It missed her and struck a villager. The woman shouted in pain and was taken away to be bandaged. “Tell them to pull away! This is no show.”

“Aye,” the alderwoman of the Mi’afma said and cleared the village square.

“Sir,” said one soldier, “We can—” Sirat saw movement at one corner of her eye. Takach came at her—

She cut at him, fast, where his armor did not cover his throat; he tried to parry with his hand, and Whiteflame’s point went through leather gauntlet, flesh and bone, and into his neck; his sword came at her in that instant, aiming for her uncovered head—

—to be parried by a bamboo staff in the hands of Vureth. “No,” she said and struck the Khus Takach over the head with the stick. “That,” the girl said, “is for taking me. You are a killer and a rapist.”

“I—” Sirat began, pulling her sword from Takach’s neck, where his blood poured and poured and poured, then turned to where the girl Vureth wept; Sirat comforted her and told her she was a fine girl—a fine one, and would be a good mother and a lovely bride. And Vureth, with her face caked with dirt and mud and with blood on her skirts from the death wound of Takach, held to Sirat, saying she was a great man and a hero, for she had rescued—

“I am here,” Sirat resumed, “wooing for my master, the great wizard Etroklos, whose might exceeds mine as Lord Sun exceeds the moons. He seeks a fine girl, and to meet with her.”

“He shan’t want me, spoiled as I am; he wants a maiden. But I cook, and I can weave and sew, and I’m good on the trail. Would he want me for a housemaid? I’m no trouble, really, I’m not—”

“He would want,” Sirat said, suddenly decided, “to court you.” She seemed sturdy enough. Oh. Could she read? Sirat imagined teaching her.

“And not yourself, sir?”

“I am sworn from such things,” Sirat answered. “I took the oath long ago.”

“Oh!” She seemed let down. “Well, I could meet your master. If he doesn’t want me, perhaps someone will.” She tried to smiled. “Someone nice.”

“Indeed.” They stood, and the elderwoman approached them and bowed.

“Lord Sirat, you have saved us,” she said, “and what we have is yours and for your men. Do you wish women? To be fed, or wine? As for money-beads, we have but little.” Her lineage-name, Mi’afma, meant Ivory. Did they keep elephant-pigs here? Did that matter?

“In truth,” the warrior said, “a bath would be awfully nice.” The alderwoman clapped her hands, and several villager hurried away to make it so. An old man, skin nearly Rhuthuok-dark, came forth with pots of strong-smelling pastes and creams, bowed, pressing his palms together. “Khus, medicine is here, if you wish it.”

She nodded, and the oldster cleaned her head and arm wounds, with Vureth aiding her to remove her sodden mail and the cotton padding beneath till she wore but an under tunic and her ever-present chest-bindings. “This’ll heal ye, Khus, and no scars to it, if ye wish a jar t’ take with you,” said the bent-over old man as he smeared her wounds with a brown ointment. “Made from laator, arnica, an’such,” he said.

“Fine work, healer,” she said when her treatment was done, and he refused her offer of pay. Instead she donated a few beads to the village’s little shrine. He bowed again and handed her a stoppered vial made from a joint of bamboo. She tucked it into her pouch, and the old healer went to treat Hufilaki. She saw the villagers boiling water (cooking was done outdoors in the hot season) and reckoned it would be a while ere she bathed. Hufilaki was aware, but badly wounded, with Cheron holding his hand. “You fight well,” Sirat said.

“For a mountebank,” he parried. “I did get you the blade, didn’t I?”

“I can’t thank you players enough. Now. I know that you magickers never explain your tricks. But. How?” Sirat asked.

“He will not explain it, and so it falls to me,” said Cheron, who was awfully nice-looking for someone who’d just been in a battle. (How did she do it? wondered the warrior). “The bandits climbed into the wagon, and he had got hold of Takach’s iron sword. Your magic sword was cutting into a man’s breeches, or some such, and when Takach shifted it to fit all the men into the wagon, Hufilaki switched the two, pretending to adjust it. Simple, really.”

“Simple if one knows how to do it,” said Sirat. “I never could. Hufilaki, Khoresh’s son, and Cheron, daughter of Faram, you are true magicians. Will you perform before my master, the wizard of the Tower?”

Hufilaki was asleep, eyelids shut, as the healer bound his wounds. “Many thanks, great Khus. Perhaps we shall. Your sword was the magic we needed,” said Cheron. Sirat kissed her on the forehead, which made her blush; she kissed the warrior’s hands in return. Vesh sat by Hesthak’s corpse, crying, as Sirat saw.

Sirat sent a detail out to bring the wounded in.

Vureth came and said, “Lord Sirat, will you bathe?” Sirat smiled to herself at the idea that Vureth was jealous—she couldn’t be, could she?

“I’ll bathe, yes,” and when Vureth drew near, she added, “Alone.” The girl looked relieved. “Thank you,” she said and nodded at Cheron, then went to the alderwoman’s house where there were towels, hot water, and soapnut.

J. Comer is a writer and teacher.  He lives in Houston, Texas.

[1] Meaning “Warrior” or sometimes “Priest”. Though Khus is an honorific and title of nobility across Nurro, any with a sword might call themselves so.