A month into their journey, Irikshan’s travel party encounters another group of travellers.
“The king of Shinokawa had started to address his court before the other musicians and I had finished packing up. He hastily glossed over the formalities before promptly broaching the topic of the war with the empire. Libeno had surrendered before the war had even begun, Lào Tinh was barely holding onto its territory, and Shinokawa’s armies found both minor victories and grave defeats in their own lands. Some courtesans questioned the war and the damage it was causing to the populous, but the king disregarded them. He enquired about the promised reinforcements from Jhena and Barpur.
“At this point, we had almost reached the doors. The guards were giving us weird looks, but let us pass. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I found out later that day that we had only narrowly escaped.”
“What happened?” Jared asked Kamon with bated breath.
“A coup d’état. When I was in the market, I heard a town crier announcing that the king had been imprisoned by the royal court for putting his pride before the good of the kingdom. He said that the war had been harsh on the common folk, destroying lives and livelihoods, and that they had negotiated terms of surrender with the empire that would allow the commoners to continue living mostly as they had been.”
“One day is way too short to negotiate a surrender,” Irikshan observed. “The court must have had this planned?”
“They must have,” Kamon concurred.
“Did the empire keep to its terms?” Lucile’s question earned a surprised look from Irikshan. He would have thought she would be the last to question the empire.
“Well, the countryside wasn’t being scorched by a hostile army when I left. There was some division amongst the former Shinokawans, a few still adamant on not surrendering, but many simply seemed pleased that the war had ended. I’ve only been to Shinokawa once since it became a province, but the people there seemed to be doing just fine, as with all the imperial provinces.”
“Yes. Now, Irikshan, your turn. What’s some situation you’ve been in that could have gone horribly wrong.”
“Let me think for a bit.” In his decades working at the college, he’d seen his share of things that could have, or did, go wrong – whether due to a student’s, a colleague’s, his own, or someone else’s fault. “The standard magical mishaps aside, my first proper research project was… scary.
“My team and I were doing research on a method to enchant crystals in such a way that they could ‘watch’ the energy around them and trigger when it ‘sees’ certain patterns. Rather than a mage having to trigger it, or it having a constant effect. Those patterns could be a living creature, other crystals, or just things in the environment. For example, one of my team members had the idea to leave a crystal in the sun, absorbing light, and have it send energy to him when he neared it. So that he wouldn’t have to get the energy himself. Although, he forgot to limit how fast it sent the energy. That ended badly. He has recovered, don’t worry.
“When we were at last ready to publish our research, things could have gone many different kinds of wrong. The elders almost decided to onderdruk…” He looked to Kamon. “Under… press…?”
“Suppress the paper, but then they allowed it to be… shared isn’t quite the word. The paper was limited to research teams… registered with the council. Our team got a lot of attention as other draqui began to examine our work. Our reputations and hard work were on the line, especially since so many Tumenzarians only heard about it from others. Several papers that argued against our findings were published. But fortunately, we managed to address them before they could do any damage. There was also a claim that we’d copied another team’s work, but it turned out to be some old technique that was worse.”
“Not exactly what I was going for.” Kamon shrugged, “But interesting.”
Not phased by the response, Irikshan wondered if he should excuse himself to fly for a while. The warm, mostly sunny weather and slow travelling left him feeling particularly energetic. The skies also provided a refuge of peace and quiet, with no Kamon present.
He wished he could fly directly to his destination, but would have to make do with being allowed to stretch his wings on occasion. They’d been travelling for almost four weeks, making occasional stops at settlements of various sizes to restock food. None, not even Shormton, compared to the cities of Tumenzar he was accustomed to. While this had given him the chance to study groups of imperial citizens he might not have otherwise, he hungered for the wealth of knowledge that would be in the capital cities. They would be at the border in several more days, and this wasn’t even the midway point.
He looked up to the sky. Frequent fluffy white heaps floated through the light blue skies. Such short-lived things, they’d be gone in days. Irikshan turned his sight to the humans he travelled with. The year he’d hoped to spend travelling the empire now seemed it may be several, but this wouldn’t cause him great trouble. Kamon was actually helpful when he felt like it. He’d advised Irikshan to open an account with a particularly widespread bank so that he would not have to travel with all his money. If Irikshan foresaw he would run out, he could write to his family a few months in advance and they would be able to send more.
The group had settled into a temporary silence, which Kamon quickly rectified, as he was wont to do. “What about you Lucile? Probably some ‘magical mishap’?”
Not paying particular attention to the response, Irikshan continued to think about the humans.
Kamon himself seemed to be having a great time, managing to earn sizable amounts with his performances. Arriving alongside a dragon and a pair of imperial mages garnered him a certain measure of attention and lent his tales a certain weight. He appropriately split a portion of his proceeds amongst his travel companions – the biggest going to Irikshan. Not needing to restock as many consumables as the humans, Irikshan saved most of what he got for the times ahead. He wondered when Kamon might decide to part ways with their little party.
The mages seemed to be doing fine. They weren’t the bundles of energy that Kamon was, but when he wished for more intellectual conversation or to address more serious matters, he could turn to them. They had accounts at the same bank Kamon and now Irikshan used, which were credited with their salaries and travel allowance. They would not have financial trouble, yet he couldn’t help but wonder what lives they’d left behind on orders with a few days’ notice. Kamon was a traveller, and a few years were not a huge chunk of Irikshan’s life, but the mages were different…
He looked back to the skies and came to a stop in his tracks. The humans noticed this and reigned in their horses.
“What is it?” Lucile enquired.
“I thought I saw something amongst the clouds.” He stared at the gap in the clouds but saw nothing there. He searched the skies, eventually spotting three white specks passing before a patch of blue sky to his left. They travelled too fast to be clouds. “I’ll be right back.” Lucile, now knowing better than to try and stop him, asked what he saw as he leapt into the air. He didn’t respond, deciding she’d see soon enough.
Ascending as fast as he could, he directed himself on a rough intercept course – but hoped that it would not be necessary to travel that far. Once he’d somewhat closed the distance, he could see them more clearly. Three scrivens, cloud-white with ultraviolet bands and golden bellies, soared across the skies. It was impossible to tell their size against the sky, but their long, slender bodies were unlike those of Irikshan’s closer kin. Each individually carried less baggage than he. They travelled in the rough direction his party had come from, but he had gotten closer to them.
He slowed his frantic pace and did what he could to steady his breathing, take a deep breath – then unleash a roar. Sure enough, this caught his quarries’ attention. All three turned their heads and, soon after, their bodies. With them soaring directly towards him, he maintained a slow pace and lowered his altitude as a show of nonaggression. When they were almost upon him, he banked gently to the side, slowly changing course to return to the road where the humans awaited him.
The thundering of great wings surrounded him, the gusts from them interfering with his own flight. Any attempt to escape or fight would be futile. He kept his gaze forward.
“Who are you?” A deep voice from above enquired in the imperial tongue.
“Irikshan Kennissoeker,” he replied. “I travel with imperial mages to Longjing. I have come from Tumenzar to learn of the empire: its peoples, culture and achievements.”
“Where are the mages now?”
“On the road, straight ahead.”
“Very well.” Some words were exchanged between the three in Meihianese too fast for him to follow.
He felt the Meihianese dragons move away from him, giving him more space to fly. He now took the opportunity to look at them up close. To his left and right were a male and female, somewhere around a century and a half of age but it was hard for him to tell due to their alien proportions. The one that had spoken had fallen behind him. She was a good deal bigger than him, certainly more than two centuries old.
The humans were shading their eyes and staring at the approaching thunder. Lucile was the first to tear her eyes away. The other two looked to her, then all three began to back their horses to the side of the road. As accustomed as the steeds had become to Irikshan alone on the ground, this was still a wise move.
As he neared the ground, he angled away from the humans – aiming to land away and then approach on foot for the sake of the horses. The Scrivens followed his lead, trees rocking under the force of eight wings.
Lucile, Jared and Kamon had dismounted and tied their horses to trees. The mages were approaching, while Kamon dug in his saddlebags – eventually pulling out a book. One of Irikshan’s blank spares that he’d been insistent on wanting.
“Designation?” The leader of the Scrivens queried Lucile.
“Escort TZ-1. I am Lucile Mangkha vice-mage of Shormton, accompanied by my apprentice Jared Patamarrut and a travelling storyteller that goes by Kamon Cordwainer. We are escorting Irikshan Kennissoeker of Tumenzar on his journey through the empire until further orders are received. His current destination is Longjing.”
“Very well. We are Public Works NM-SHM-1. I am Ngkwok Mei-li, travelling with Jinmeng Jingyi and Jinmeng Zedong. Is there anything on the route ahead of us we should be-”
Irikshan was distracted by one of the other dragons approaching him and speaking slowly with exaggerated sounds. “Can you understand me?”
“Yes.” He looked to her while he formulated his response. She tilted her head, waiting. “But my Meihianese is not good enough and will not make myself difficult.”
“You are afraid you will embarrass yourself?”
“Let us speak in the imperial tongue, then. You should see my brother-in-law when you arrive in the capital. He can teach you if you wish to learn more of our language. I would say that knowing the language can be very useful when learning about the people and culture of a distant land. Do you plan to learn the traditional language of every imperial province? One could spend a two-legs’ lifetime doing this if they were thorough enough.”
“No, I am counting on the widespread use of Imaadudish to make the task easier. So far, it has. Additionally, my main focus is to visit the capitals of the provinces. I do not wish to spend a human’s lifetime here, but I will spend enough time to learn the most important things.”
“Capitals aren’t the centre of everything, but you’re sure to at least pass through smaller cities thanks to your method of travel. If you do get assigned one of our kind as an escort in Meihian, make sure you stop in towns and cities when you rest your wings.”
The other Jinmeng, who had approached, now spoke. “Why have you not gone to Krung Thep, the capital of Namhni?”
Irikshan glanced back at the humans. The mages were still talking about something with Mei-li, while Kamon’s head stuck out from behind a remarkably-still horse, alternating between looking down and up. “I will admit to a bias of having a greater interest in my kin’s cousins than the rest of the empire. This is why I made some effort to learn your language as well. Although, it wasn’t my main focus and has been fairly challenging to learn. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone to tutor me in Ostracation.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“All of it.” He snorted, amused.
“So, which of you is Jingyi and which is Zedong?”
“Zedong,” the dragoness responded.
“You two are siblings or mates?”
“Mates. We look that similar to you?”
“Well… Let’s say that in Tumenzar there’s a great deal of variety.”
“Do you three travel a lot?”
“More than most,” Jingyi replied. “Usually not just us three. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Imaadudin homeland. Stanlow and Chester provinces too. Decent work for decent pay. More military defences and structures than I’d like, but hey – one does what they must. What of you?”
“This is the first time I’ve travelled beyond Tumenzar’s neighbour-countries. Well, provinces – since they’re now all imperial land except Aruyun. Feels like I’ve seen so much already, but I’ve only been to the Vernon islands and Namhni.”
“You’ve certainly got a lot ahead of you.”
“I wonder if I will actually be forced to have an escort the entire time. And how long this storyteller will follow.”
“You know, he looks like one of the highborn from the imperial homeland.”
“Oh? What’s a highborn?”
“Royalty and upper-class citizens closest in status to the imperial family.”
“Oh, those. The kingdoms around us have them, but we call them something different. What makes you say he’s one? What would a highborn be doing passing himself as wandering storyteller?”
“Tired of the highborn life or not wishing to be recognised? Who can say except him? He’s clearly Imaadudish, but their society has rather distinct social classes. Hard for individuals to rise in their society. Now that our peoples are not at each others’ throats and their culture is diffusing into Meihian,” Jingyi pondered, “maybe learning some of our culture could help them. Well, as I was saying: Kamon’s… ‘refined’ features bear more resemblance to the nobles in the imperial court than the commoners. Some of his features even look somewhat like the emperor’s. Maybe a related house?”
“You’ve seen the emperor?”
“Oh, yes. He casts a great shadow but is surprisingly forthright and affable.”
“What do those words mean?”
“He seems to get straight to the point of what he wants to do and say, yet is polite about it. He’s very… driven.”
“That’s good, I guess? So much of how Imaadudin is run ultimately falls upon one man’s head.”
“He’s certainly better than his predecessors. Not all of them were bad, but he’s giving this his all. Really cares about his empire, and what’s best for it.”
Irikshan again glanced at the humans. They were still doing their things, but Lucile and Jared were within earshot. He lowered his voice. “Do you think it would be in the interest of the Empire to take Tumenzar?”
“You really should see my brother.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Isn’t it obvious,” Jingyi asked before Irikshan could reply. “The empire has them almost completely surrounded and has clear military superiority. Their only hope of maintaining their fully independent governance is the emperor before last’s promise that they would not be attacked so long as they remained neutral in wars.”
“Yes. This does not seem to last forever,” Irikshan replied after Jingyi had explained the words he did not understand.
“It doesn’t seem like it will last forever?” Jingyi had switched to Imaadudish but still kept his voice at a lower volume. “Time will tell. I don’t know how your ‘Elders’ think, but Tumenzar is only a few steps from becoming a vassal state without any bloodshed whatsoever. Like Libeno and Namhni. Even in the provinces that fought for a little while before surrendering, many leading figures were allowed to keep their positions. You shouldn’t fear the empire, they are genuinely improving the lives of citizens of all provinces, encouraging learning and development. Providing safety and security on a national and local level. And so on. Their huge technological advantage over their enemies, and their shrewd diplomacy, is partly how they secure so many victories. Perhaps the reason the emperors have seen no need to conquer Tumenzar is that your ideologies already align somewhat with the empire’s and your technologies rival or even surpass theirs. You lot could certainly stand to do more sharing, but – from what I understand – not sharing too much is how you’ve maintained your position amongst your neighbours and trade partners. Am I correct?”
“You certainly know a lot about Tumenzar for someone who has never travelled near us. And – to my knowledge – there haven’t been any Tumenzarians migrating to Meihian recently.”
“Travelers, whether natives or not, are often eager to share their stories. I’m certain you could have learned much about the empire, in a more timely manner, from Tumenzar. I’m curious why you went to all this effort.”
Irikshan dug in his bags while he answered. “Travelers’ tales are not a reliable primary source. I myself want to travel. To thoroughly document it with a reliable perspective. For example, I have more confidence in my ability to draw the scenery, cities and people first-hand than from a traveller’s description of a place they have seen years ago.” He opened his journal and turned to face the other two. He paged through to some of his sketches of mountains, forests, Shormton, people and so on.
“You are exploring a potentially hostile foreign nation that has yours almost surrounded, gathering information about the history, citizens and capitals of their conquered nations? By the end of this, you’ll likely have a good idea of the various populous’ opinions of the empire, the topography of the empire – from local maps if not from your own exploration, and maybe an idea of the military strength and positioning. Let me guess, you’re reporting what you find to your elders?”
“No! Well, yes.” Irikshan quickly lowered his voice again to a near-whisper, “But I approached them for funding and approval, and reporting to them was their condition. Even if I hadn’t, they’d have been able to see my work once I submitted it for publishing. How else would I get credit for it? I’m here of my own volition out of the desire to learn first-hand.”
“I believe you. Just be aware of what this might look like to others, however. Maybe that’s why you got an escort in the first place.”
“Ooooh… I just thought they weren’t trusting of foreign dragons, considering my reception and the reactions of Shormton’s citizens’ to me.”
“That is also a possibility.”
Zedong, who had been silent, now turned to Jingyi and asked something in Meihianese. The two had a brief conversation. Irikshan only caught that it was something about their home. By the conclusion, Zedong was rummaging through one of Jingyi’s bags. “Do you have somewhere you are planning to stay in Longjing?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You are welcome to stay at our house. Seek house Jinmeng, and request an audience with the patriarch. Give him this,” she handed Irikshan a trinket with an intricate insignia, “and say ‘I greet you, Rong, elder of house Jinmeng. With the blessings of Jingyi and Zedong, I – Irikshan Kennissoeker – request lodging in house Jinmeng while I stay in Meihian to learn of its culture and history.’”
“Can I say it in Imaadudish?”
“He doesn’t speak Imaadudish. If you are concerned about your understanding or pronunciation, seek out my brother-in-law – Kai – before you speak to Rong.”
Jingyi grumbled something about a stubborn old dragon’s last act of defiance.
“Give your sire a break, love. He lived through the bloody campaigns of the first Empress. He’s not going to forget that, and we shouldn’t expect him to. He puts his family first and won’t do anything that would actually endanger us. Anyways,” she looked behind Irikshan then turned her attention back to him. Irikshan sensed Mei-li approaching. “We should be going. Rong is quite likely to allow you to stay, although maybe not your imperial mage friends.”
“Thank you very much. How might I repay you?”
“There is no need. You can say hello to our little ones on our behalf. If you like, maybe entertain them with some stories. Or make art for them – you’ve got quite some skill there.”
“I will, thank you. What are their names?”
“Yijun, Zhihao and Rentik. This is their fourteenth summer.”
“Isn’t it… unpleasant being away from them at such a young age?”
“It is not nice being away from, but they are hardly helpless infants. We know they are safe, sheltered and educated. Their family is taking care of them. The work Jingyi, Mei-li and I are doing – will help so many others that don’t have necessarily have that. This is more important than personal desires.” Mei-li had begun to walk down the road again, clearly ready to leave. Lucile and Jared were backing away, towards Kamon.
“I see. Farewell, Jingyi and Zedong of house Jinmeng.”
“May the twelve guide you well, Irikshan Kennissoeker.”
The three dragons each took turns to leap into the air and circle above before they all resumed their southeasterly flight. Only Irikshan remained, wistfully watching them soar away – even while the clip-clopping of hooves neared him.
“Hey Irik, I drew something for you.” Tearing his eyes away from the gradually shrinking specks in the sky, he looked to Kamon, who was holding his acquired journal at Irikshan’s head-height – which was that of Kamon’s abdomen when on horseback. On one page was a decent sketch of him speaking to the two Jinmengs. On the other, the mages with Mei-li. The Scrivens towered over both him and the humans, more than twice their heights.
“Thank you. I shall copy it to my journal this evening.”
The storyteller nodded, a pleased expression on his face, and packed away the book before spurring on his horse. Irikshan looked to the skies one last time, as Lucile and Jared approached, before following Kamon. He inspected the human from behind. The man didn’t have much at all about him to suggest he might be nobility – except perhaps the mage-like mental discipline he’d maintained, keeping Irikshan out of his mind. Was the fact that he carried his sword at his back particularly unusual? He’d seen most soldiers and armed travellers with swords at their hips. He would have to ask Kamon about that later. For now, they were on the road again.