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An Ill Fate
The heavy sky was the color of ash, and a light mist seeped from the clouds, covering the flat, soaked landscape in another layer of moisture to add to its endless tides, mildew, sewage, and the constant, pelting rain that deviled the decaying port city of Volkovoi from the month of Trees until the beginning of Wilding. The city was made of many haphazard rows of uneven, ramshackle buildings the color of rotting straw, all jutting up at odd angles, frames sagging against each other for reluctant support. Their crumbling facades bravely faced the waterline, patiently waiting for the inevitable wind or storm that would erase their mark from the scenery. On the pier, a tight knot of leather-armored bravos shook their fists and cursed the departing ship. The crew of the Rshani brigantine ignored the disturbance on land to return to their duties, guiding the great ship northward and home.
Scarlet's skin still tingled with triumph from his near escape from the port of Volkovoi, and he could taste the salt of the air on his tongue. He brushed the grime from his long red pedlar's coat and tried not to appear too smug. He'd gotten away! He was going with Liall! The youth--a slight Hilurin of about eighteen with the characteristic black hair, black eyes, and very fair skin of the Old Tribes--looked up at Liall and affected a casual air.
"I can see this is going to be a long journey. Now, how far is it?" he asked his companion, a towering Northman with hair like snow and icy blue eyes.
Liall frowned. His dark, angular face was the color of amber and he had sharp cheekbones that gave him a forbidding aspect. "You will be put ashore to the north aboveMorturii, where you should be safe from the Byzan army. You know enough of the language and customs to get by."
Scarlet shrugged. Liall did not sound very convincing, and in any case, it was useless to argue right now. The mariners were watching them with hostility and he had no wish to create a scene that might draw more of their attention. He gave Liall a smile. "You didn't answer me."
"Rshan na Ostre is a four-month journey by sea."
Scarlet thumped Liall hard on the arm. "That's not even a real place!"
Liall laughed, perhaps in sheer surprise. It was hard to tell with Liall. "What do you mean, not real?"
"It's a fairytale. Scaja used to tell me about it when I was no bigger than that barrel there. The Land of Demons, where the Shining Ones live," Scarlet scoffed. "Rshan! Do you take me for a fool?"
Liall was holding his aching arm and chuckling, and Scarlet felt a twinge of guilt for hitting him. The bravos had beaten Liall thoroughly in the Volkovoi alleyway where Scarlet had found him. Scarlet did not know why Liall had been attacked, but he was sure it had something to do with Liall's life before he became an atya of Kasiri bandits.
"I assure you, it is no fairy tale. And it is not called the Land of Demons, but the Land of Darkness, or Night. The words are the same in Sinha, you see. And the commoners in Byzantur just call it Norl Udur, the North Kingdom."
"The North Kingdom is not Rshan," Scarlet said, his patience slipping. He spoke very clearly, as if to the village want-wit. "It couldn't be."
"And just why not? Because you do not believe in Rshan, it cannot exist? That's very arrogant, little Byzan. Even for you."
Scarlet scowled. "Next you'll be telling me you're a Shining One." He waved his hand dismissively, highly annoyed. "Forget it, you great ox. If you don't want to tell me the truth, just shut up."