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Xenolith, Page 65

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 56: Toad Tea

  If Teo hadn’t told him, Tezhay never would have guessed that the tiny woman walking beside him was the most powerful matriarch in Western Gi. Idala claimed four husbands and seven wives. She headed a network of clans that stretched from the outskirts of Raacevo, Western Gi’s largest township, to the upper reaches of the Gor River and its three tributaries.

  Idala’s scouts stretched forward in a long chain, each maintaining a line of sight to the next to instantly warn the main column of any threats. Tezhay had Idala and Teo to other side of him, while a loose formation of Nalki warriors trailed behind them all. Eghazi walked at their head, on a tether tended by one of Idala’s teenage sons.

  Frank mingled with the warriors, assisting with the walking wounded, attempting jokes with gestures and charades. For now, his eyes looked bright and his spirits seemed high, but Tezhay wondered how his exile would fare when he left him alone in Gi. A frontier at war was not a place for the frail-hearted. And hostilities had surged recently, according to Idala, with the arrival of several caravans of Crasacs and new colonists.

  A sharp clap pierced the silence. The column scattered into the vegetation, leaving Tezhay alone in the road with the two women. Teo ran forward to investigate. Tezhay was tempted to take cover, but Idala stood firm and calm, staring down the road at a scout who stood behind a tree where the road curved. He stayed with her, until Teo came jogging back around the bend to rejoin them. Idala called her warriors out of the woods to reassemble and resume their march.

  “They found an injured Cuasar fallen from his mount at the crossroads,” Teo reported, breathlessly. “The lead scouts put a swift end to him.”

  “A shame,” said Idala. “I never get a chance to see them fresh.”

  “It would have been good to speak to with him,” said Tezhay.

  “They never say anything,” said Teo, shaking her head. “They just pray to Cra. Their officers tell them no strategy, nothing beyond their momentary needs.”

  “When to shit. Where to shit,” said Idala.

  “Exactly,” said Teo. “And sometimes they kill whoever tries to help them. I’m glad your doctor didn’t find him first.” She glanced back at the Nalkies who had reemerged and milled about on the road. “We should expect a counterattack. Cuasars never let an ambush stand without retaliation. They’ll first return to their garrison to gather a larger force.”

  “We are very fortunate you intercepted them when you did,” said Tezhay. “I’m certain they were coming to meet our convergence.”

  “Thank Idala,” said Teo. “Things looked bad for us before her band showed up. When lookouts sent word by heliograph that Cuasars were headed this way, I thought we’d harass them. Send a few arrows their way and melt off into the forest. But their vanguard snuck behind us and cut off our retreat. The rest then came at our front across the ford. If Idala’s band hadn’t hit their rear flank when they did, I wouldn’t be breathing this fine air chatting to my countryman.”

  “You are welcome,” said Idala. “Though, it was not for you that we did so.”

  As the sun peaked and began its descent, the placid river they had followed turned feral, churning through courses of whitewater linked by channels deep and straight. The river seemed to be run smack into a wall of mountains. Tezhay saw no obvious gap through which it could flow.

  “It is a shame you had to destroy that stone,” said Teo. “We had no idea there was another one out here. We’ve been without our own portal for months.”

  “That … disturbs me,” said Tezhay. “At the rate our xenoliths are being destroyed, there will soon be none left.”

  “Two stones, he gave to them!” Teo tossed a glare over her shoulder. “This man should be executed.”

  “Not yet,” said Tezhay, quietly. “We have too much still to learn. We need to cultivate his trust. He may help us uncover other plots. He could be key to fixing what’s gone wrong in Sesei.”

  “Two stones!” said Teo. “To a Hiloru?”

  “Two stones that will never converge again,” said Tezhay. “And this man will fetch no more.”

  They came into the shadow of a steep ridge that reared up and blocked the river like a levee set by giants. Instead of damming the flow, it forced the river to dogleg right where it had cut through the layers of softer stone like a rasp, creating a deep ravine with cataracts upon cataracts. The main road narrowed and zigzagged as it followed the river down the wall of the ravine.

  The bulk of Idala’s troops filtered into a jumble of fractured slabs that looked undisturbed from the road, but concealed a well-developed camp of stone shelters and fighting positions.

  “Cuasars never come this way,” said Idala. “Usually, they detour through the back hills. But we keep hoping.” She flashed a wicked grin.

  “You may get your wish this time,” said Teo. “Once their Hilorus find out what you did to their squadron.”

  Idala led a reduced contingent to a narrow track that snaked up the side of the ridge. Bands of pre-pubescent girls and boys guarded the switchbacks with sticks and slings. Where the slope eased, the rocks and trees gave way to grain fields and goat pastures rising to the base of a cluster of snaggle-toothed peaks. Deep gullies divided the meadows, carrying rivulets dashing in descending steps from spring to spring.

  They passed through a meadow dominated by a gargantuan tree that grew isolated and unencumbered. Its sprawling limbs, each the girth of a normal tree’s main trunk, seemed to defy gravity as they hovered parallel to the ground, unbowed. Younger children swarmed its tiers of branches, swinging and climbing with ease as if arboreal by birth.

  Idala’s appearance on the trail caused the children to drop out of the trees like ripe fruit. They and the yellow dogs accompanying them ran up and formed an ever-expanding procession, splashing barefoot through rivulets that flowed through cracks in the meadows, scurrying up every lesser tree they passed.

  A diffuse settlement of stone houses and cave dwellings riddled the uppermost meadows. Idala brought them to a walled compound that arced around the base of one of the promontories. The main house was carved deep into the hillside, its outer wall providing a windowed façade. A pair of crude stone columns supporting a limestone slab framed its portico. Several smaller structures spread along either side, some standing free, some also embedded in the hill.

  Two older men with staffs rose up to greet Idala. One wore a veil. A cook fire crackled in a partially enclosed outbuilding slightly down slope from the house. The leaves of the shade trees flanking the veranda fluttered like butterflies’ wings. Aromas of cooking wafted to them on the shifting breeze.

  “You heart is good?” Tezhay asked Frank, whose face, as usual, looked disconcertingly red. He had impressed Tezhay with how well he kept up on the steep slope: breathing hard, but never flagging.

  “My heart is fine,” said Frank. “It’s my stomach that needs help. That food smells awful good after what we’ve been eating.”

  “Don’t worry,” said Tezhay. “I know Idala feeds us well.”

  Idala sat them on wobbly wooden stools around a long table outdoors. The view inspired vertigo and awe. Upstream, arcs of stony river glistened through gaps in the forest. Downstream, the forest feathered away and the river spilled into a broad plain of marshes and cultivated fields, hemmed by ranks of steep-shouldered hills. Clusters of brown-roofed dwellings marked the fringes of Raacevo. The ravine’s walls hid the torrent flowing just below them, but its wind-muffled roar reached even these heights.

  “Edoru!” called Idala. A young man emerged from the cook shack, scanned the party gathered at the table and ducked back in. Moments later, he hustled out, cradling a stack of earthenware bowls and dangling a pot from a hooked stick. As he ladled out a pungent stew of grains, greens and bits of dark meat, a young girl padded shyly up to the table and deposited a basket of steaming flatbreads.

  Tezhay turned to Eghazi, speaking in Sesep’o. “I am not about to stuff food in your mouth lik
e you’re a baby, so I’ll free your hands. But don’t do anything stupid.”

  Eghazi grunted and held out his bound wrists. Tezhay slashed the cord open with one swipe with Eghazi’s own knife. Pieces of cord fluttered down to be snatched away immediately by a pair of children who had followed them from the big tree. Eghazi rubbed at his chafed skin gingerly.

  “Please, eat without me,” said Idala, her eyes distracted by the flash of a mirror glinting from a lookout station high on one of the peaks. She retreated into her house, elders following.

  Their bowls emptied quickly. No one refused a second helping when the boy came back with his pot and ladle.

  “You’ve been to Gi before I think, Master Tezhay,” said Teo. The way her look lingered on his face discomfited Tezhay.

  “Not recently,” he said between spoonfuls. “I spend most of my time in Ur these days. A place called Belize.”

  “I ask … because you look familiar,” Teo said, eyes probing.

  “Oh?” Tezhay thought back to his early, sometimes unauthorized, trips to Gi, and decided it was not a place he wanted the conversation to go, if he had a choice. “It’s not likely we ever met,” he said, studying her face. “I’ve never been west of Raacevo.”

  “But you were there, in Raacevo, when we first came to Gi ….” said Teo, excitement growing in her face. “You met with my commander … about the weapons cache.”

  Tezhay’s spoon halted in mid-lift. Few had been privy to the underground initiative to bring Urep’o weapons to Gi. No Philosopher certainly knew of the plan, because it violated their most fundamental restrictions on the use of xenoliths. But times had been desperate, and the power of Urep’o weaponry was too great to ignore. He had come to believe the effort misguided, and thought he had put it behind him. To hear Teo, a junior operative, bring it up, alarmed him.

  “Malacosh? Whatever happened to him?”

  “We don’t know,” said Teo. “He never returned from a foray to Maora.”

  “Yet your unit persists?”

  “We’re decentralized,” said Teo. “In essence, we each advise or command our own units of Nalkies. We share intelligence and operate independently and in combination. This way we distribute the risks and better absorb casualties.”

  “A sound plan,” said Tezhay, grateful for the diversion.

  “But we all share an interest in the cache,” said Teo. “I was hoping, given your involvement, that you might know … where we might find it.” Her eyes gleamed with anticipation.

  Tezhay knew plenty, but not what Teo sought. He had helped acquire the weapons in Ur through barter and theft and had facilitated their transfer to Gi. He certainly had no desire to discuss these matters in front of Eghazi, who listened a bit too raptly for his own good as he hovered over his bowl at the end of the table.

  “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” said Tezhay. “My involvement was limited. As I recall it was a man from one of the eastern clans who managed the caching.”

  “Bimji,” said Teo. “Yes, we knew Bimji. Unfortunately, he died in Venep’o custody. I was hoping you would know of others.”

  “I don’t,” said Tezhay. “And I don’t know why you bother looking. The idea was misbegotten. And given that there is no longer going to be any counteroffensive, it’s no longer relevant.”

  “But why?” said Teo. “What has changed?”

  “I hoped you could tell me,” said Tezhay. “It’s been blamed on your group. In Ubabaor, they say you’ve all married into the clans and gone native. They call you the lost cadre.”

  “Lost!” Teo said, exasperated. “Abandoned, maybe. You’re the first outside contact we’ve had in months.”

  “Yet you persist,” said Tezhay.

  “We do as we were tasked,” said Teo. “And we’re successful. We’ve brought warring clans together. Drove every last colony out of the northern valleys. We could even take Raacevo if we wanted to. We still monitor the heliographs every morning, waiting for a sign from the Second Expeditionary; I can’t even tell you if they exist anymore.”

  “They do,” said Tezhay. “They’re still in place. Though the flow has slackened off of late, new militia are still sent to the assembly point.”

  “Such a waste,” said Teo. “An army that never fights.”

  The boy cleared their bowls and brought a cauldron of boiling water. A little girl exited Idala’s house with a small wooden box perched on her head. She fumbled with the latch before opening it and removing a skewer impaling a row of flattened and desiccated toads. She pulled several off and dropped them into the cauldron, then added a dollop of aromatic oil from a tiny corked flask she removed from her pocket.

  Teo grinned. “Your foreign friend does not like the look of Idala’s tea.”

  Tezhay turned to find Frank grimacing. “Is good, Doctor,” he said, switching to English. “It make you feel strong. Try.”

  “Why not?” Frank shrugged. “I’ve had stranger. A little amphibian protein can’t hurt.” He drained the last sip of water from his mug and pushed it forward. The boy returned with a clean ladle, stirred the toads, until the liquid took on a golden tinge, like concentrated urine, and added a ladleful to every mug.

  Tezhay, no stranger to this bitter beverage and its effects, drank heartily.

  “He is a quiet one, isn’t he?” said Teo, peering down her nose at Eghazi who sat sulking over his tea. “How do you suppose we can encourage him to speak up?”

  “He speaks out just fine when he wants to insult me,” said Tezhay. “Though, he did tell me something interesting. He says that his deeds express the will of the Inner Quorum.”

  “The Quorum, really?” Teo rubbed her chin. “Sounds like something Kundiv might do. He’s crazy enough. But surely, one crackpot should not be enough to override the entire group. Don’t any of the Four object?”

  “I only negotiate,” said Eghazi. “I am not privy to their private discussions.”

  “But if not their specific arguments, you must know their positions,” said Teo.

  “Betoni dissented,” said Eghazi. “Gulsiniq and Solimunsi supported the measure.”

  “But a measure can’t go forward without consensus,” said Tezhay. “Can it?”

  Eghazi looked uncomfortable.

  “Could they?” Tezhay pressed.

  “They did,” said Eghazi.

  “What about … Betoni?” said Teo.

  “She is … deposed,” said Eghazi. The Quorum … will replace her.”

  This was news even for Tezhay. He had heard murmurs of friction in the Quorum, centered around Betoni, but no indication that she had even been overruled, never mind imprisoned.

  Idala re-emerged from her home and bid goodbye to the elders. She came down to the veranda carrying a toddler on her hip.

  “So I see that our friend, the pretty traitor, does know how to speak,” said Idala.

  Her remark startled Tezhay. It never occurred to him to think of Eghazi as pretty. But he did have a certain delicacy and symmetry to his face.

  “I can see that we will be having many wonderful conversations, in many wonderful base camps,” said Teo.

  Tezhay felt the toad extract kick in, tingling his skin, clearing his brain. He knew of no better beverage for stimulating serious and productive palaver.

  But Frank looked worried. “What’s in this stuff?” he said.

  “It makes you feel strong, yes?” said Tezhay.

  “No! I think it’s affecting my heart. You should have told me this was a stimulant.”

  Tezhay went up to him and felt his neck. The patter of his heart came like raindrops falling on a leaf.

  “What is happening?” said Teo. “Why is his face so red and wet?”

  “This one has a glass heart,” said Tezhay. “One wrong word can send it fleeing. Idala, do you know a medicine called bolovo?”

  “Eh?” Idala looked puzzled.

  “Bolovo does not grow here,” said Teo.

  Idala went up to Frank and ne
stled her ear against his neck, her eyes intent.

  “I can fix this,” she said. She took Frank’s arm and led him off the veranda into her home. Tezhay glanced at Teo, followed them inside where Idala had Frank lay down on a large, straw-filled mattress. She knelt beside a wooden chest and removed a chamois-wrapped bundle secured with rawhide and brought it beside the bed. Untied and unrolled, it revealed a collection of slender, tapered wooden dowels of diverse length. Frank recoiled at the sight of them.