This is the linkbacks, etc. incentive story for the June mini-Giraffe-Call. I will post 25 words for each linkback, 50 for each prompt, 75 for each donation.
This is set in Steam!Callenia, some 750 years after the Rin & Girey tales.
“Are you sure that’s what the aetherometer reads?” Alsoonalla leaned over the seat back separating she and Teriana from the boys. “East?”
“I’m sure, Soon.” Onton shook his head, shook the aetherometer, and looked back at the road. Their goats were making a fair clip on the paved roads near the city, but once they hit the mountains, it might be a different story entirely. “Due East. It’s reading a deep vein of the good stuff.”
“I’ve never heard of any veins of wild aether in the Eastern mountains.” Teriana flipped through her notebook, finger running down the edge of the script. “Some small bits of the earth-energies, of course, although most of that is further south. But nothing of what we’re looking for.
“Well, if you’d heard of it, it would have been tapped by now. That’s part of the problem.” Doanisad had his own charts – old mining charts, older priestly documents. The aether, what had been called síra in the ancient days, had been pulled and torn and mined from every inch of this continent. There was little left, and what there was was hidden.
Doan’s father and mother were historiologists, scholars of the past. Teri’s were miners, using concentrated aether to pull ore from the hills. Soon and Onton were dabblers, avoiding a career in the priesthood by studying at University. For nine years, ever since that incident with the goat and the stone necklace, they had been working and plotting together.
The culmination of their friendship, their Ninth-Year thesis, was the aethometer Onton was currently pointing down the road. In theory, and in the controlled environment of the classroom, it had done exactly what it was supposed to. For some students – most, perhaps – that would be enough. But not for the Dreadful Four, the Stone-Eaters, the Back-Room Brigade. Not for them.
“I understand the theory behind the device and the project.” Teri defended herself, as always, with an affected upper-class accent far more formal than Onton or Soon’s. “I’m simply doubting your ability to read it properly.”
“The dial was of your design.” Soon and Onton would put up with Teri’s airs. Doan saw no point in that.
“Then I would be able to read it, of course. I was casting no aspersions on my abilities.”
“Of course you weren’t. We all know that…”
“Rock!” Onton interrupted the growing argument with a quick and ostentatious swerve to one side, guiding the goats around a large boulder and, of course, showing off his own skill in handling a carriage.
For a moment, they were all too distracted holding on to argue.
Then Soon clucked her tongue. “The roads in this district are falling apart.”
“It’s not a militarily important route.” Onton frowned at the road.
“Really, at this point, what is? We’re not at war on the continent anymore.”
“This year.” Doan ran a hand pointedly through his blonde hair – mark of the southern Bitrani people, who had been conquered and re-conquered.
“All right, all right. I surrender.” Teri held up both hands. “Could we please not fight? Doan, I believe your ability to read a dial unquestionably.”
Soon settled back into her seat, smoothing her hair with both hands and not looking at anyone. Onton did much the same, pulling his driving gloves straight and clucking at the goats. Doan stared at his charts for a moment, and then, reluctantly, nodded.
“I know, it seems beyond strange.” He ran a finger over the glass face of the dial. “But it’s East we’ve been pointed, and it’s East we’re going.”
“Roughly,” Onton warned.
“Directly,” Doan countered.
“No, I mean…” He steered the carriage hard to the left. “The road’s getting really rough. We’re definitely out of safe territory.”
“Oh… oh!” Teri grabbed the arm-rest and braced herself as they hit a particularly rough patch. The four-goat team seemed entirely unconcerned, prancing along as if they were in the meadow at home. Goats would, of course, cheerfully pull a cart up a mountainside, never mind the riders behind them.
“Pass me the crossbow under your seat?” Doan reached a hand back towards them, his eyes on the roadside. Soon set one in his hands, carefully, and took the other herself.
“I’ve got the right, Doan, you take the left. Teri, if you would watch our rear?” Unsafe meant bandits.
Bandits, and deserters, and other, less savory sorts. There was always a rebellion going somewhere. There were always dissatisfied northerners, or southerners, or easterners. Soon sighted along her crossbow and watched for danger.
“Oh!” It was Teri who squeaked, half an hour and a thousand bumps and jolts later. “Uh-oh!”
“Teri?” Doan turned first. Soon kept her eye on a bush that seemed to be moving improperly for foliage.
“Just me.” Their cargo was moving, and a deep, rumbling voice was coming from underneath the tarp. “Have no fear, I’m not a bandit.”
“No…” Teri’s voice was rising higher. “No, you’re not. You’re worse, aren’t you?”
“Now, that’s unkind. Sir, if you wouldn’t mind putting down that crossbow…”
“I don’t think I will. Teriana?”
“I know him,” she confirmed. “I mean, we’ve met. More than once.” She gestured with one hand, flicking her fingers as if trying to dislodge something unpleasant. And, slowly, the tarp rose, exposing a hat that nearly covered the face of their stowaway.
Wide-brimmed and purple, with bands of yellow and gold decorating its brim, it was not the hat of any but the most affluent bandit, and it was not a stealthy sort of hat. Nor was the face underneath, the beard smooth and braided, the nose long and prominent, the lips glossed, the sort of face you expected to see on a bandit, or, really, anywhere in the outlands like this.
Of course, it bore quite a resemblance to Onton’s face, but none of them would mention that, not yet. It wouldn’t be polite, not until one of them said something.
“I know him,” Teri repeated. “Not willingly.”
“That’s a fine thing to say!” The man sat up, revealing a felted waistcoat in a brilliant shade of plum. “After all I’ve done for you.”
“I’d hardly say any of that was done for me, Beelang.” She was putting on airs again. She must be very upset by their guest. “Any more than a harness is for the goat’s benefit.”
Doan waved the crossbow, and Beelang fell silent. “That’s enough.” Doan shifted his grip, but didn’t move his aim of their guest. “Leave Teriana alone, and tell us what it is you’re doing in our wagon, on our expedition.”
“Well, that’s a problem. You see, I can’t do both at once, because I’m on the expedition of yours, if that’s what you’re calling this little jaunt, with the express purpose of not leaving Teri alone. After all, she can’t just bound off into the wilderness with no chaperon!”
“This isn’t an Empress’ reign, and she’s not a wedded wife, anyway.” Soon wasn’t looking at their interloper, yet; she was still watching the road. “Doan, can you truss him up? I think there’s something in the bushes over there, and I don’t want the distract…” She ended her last word with an arrow shot into the bushes.
“Hey, hey!” Beelang’s complaint was cut short as Teri gentled him across the skull with a blackjack. She caught him before he could slump out of the cart, while Doan was still gaping and the wounded-whatever in the bushes was making startled, unhappy noises.
“Give me the rope,” Teri snapped, which finally goaded Doan into action.
“You hit him pretty hard, didn’t you?”
“I hit him precisely hard enough to render him unconscious… I hope.” She tied their unwelcome guest up with tidy, strong-looking knots. “Soon, whatever did you hit?”
“Well, I’m hoping desperately that it’s not a wild goat. That would go poorly. Or a mountain lion.” She hopped down from the cart, still pointing her crossbow into the trees. “Onton, if you wouldn’t mind…?”
“Coming.” He passed Doan the reins and followed her, a long metal spear in one hand and its aether-storage pack in the other.
“Oooh, oww…” The sounds had gone from animal to human, or a clever facsimile of such. Soon moved even more cautiously. “Bitter water and rotten stone!” That was probably human. She nodded Onton forward, minding his flank. There could be more than one.
“By the whirlpool of Tienebrah, they shot me!”
“You threatened me.” Soon kept her crossbow pointed levelly at the sound of the voice; Onton flanked the invisible complainant slowly.
“I’m hiding in a bush. What sort of threat is that?”
“The sort you learn to pay attention to.”
“I don’t want to know where you grew up, do I? Ow, whirlpools, you really shot me. This was supposed to be a frolic, just a spot of fun. Nobody was supposed to get hurt!”
His consonants were awfully soft, his vowels long and trying to be two or three sounds. “Are you Southern?” What was taking Onton so long?
“No.” Suddenly the whining was gone. There was someone coming up on her right, and where Onton had gone there was a rustling and shaking in the bushes. “I’m Bitrani.”
She swung the crossbow to her left, fired, and dropped it, drawing her longknife. “Ware,” she shouted, as the whining Bitrani dove out of the bushes at her.
“You have a funny idea of a frolic.” He was shot, at least, his somber waistcoat pierced with half of her bolt, but that wasn’t stopping him from coming at her with a back-curve blade.
“You have a funny idea of a school project. Fully armed, carrying munitions. Does your advisor know your brought explosives?” He was going for her throat; she was suddenly glad for the hidden armor in her collar.
“Of course she does.” An armpit wound would distract him. She stabbed quickly. “The roads are dangerous, you know.”
“Behind you, Soon, down!” She dropped and whirled as a sword went singing over her head. The sword was followed by a loud thump and a spurt of blood, the spray coloring her sleeves red and splashing over her face.
“Blasted mountains.” Her first attacker sat down hard. “You killed him.”
“He had his weapons inches from Soon’s face. It seemed reasonable.” Onton wiped his blade on the dead man’s tunic – very dead; his head was several feet away. “I’d suggest you surrender now before it appears that you’re threatening an Imperial Princess.”
“And if I kill your precious Imperial Princess?”
“Well, it appears that she’s pierced you once already with an arrow. You’re probably going to leave a trail, and Soon’s been known to poison her arrows. That means you’ll make it maybe a day’s travel before I catch up with you, at which point…” Onton’s voice dropped an octave, and his eyebrows furrowed. Suddenly, he sounded like a much older man. “I will destroy you utterly, and make you beg for it while you bleed.”
“I didn’t realize you two were going to the grassy hills.”
“You didn’t realize anything about us.” Onton’s voice was still rumbly, giving no indication that he and Soon were, in fact, doing nothing at all on the grassy hillsides. “I’m sure your capture will give you plenty of time to think about rectifying that.”
“Surrender, and I’ll see that the poison in your wound is treated, and that you’re well-cared for. Attempt to harm us…” He left the threat unspoken. Since he’d entirely fabricated the poison, Soon was impressed he was leaving anything at all up to the imagination.
She cleared her throat. “The same,” she added, in a regal, grown-up voice of her own, “goes for anyone else hiding in the brush.”
Nobody came forward. The man at the end of Onton’s blade sighed. “I surrender. You were supposed to be a bunch of students.”
“Then why attack us?” Soon took the leather thongs from her purse and began trussing the man up, mindful of his wounds.
“Well, for what you were carrying.”
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