After passing the border from Namhni to Meihian – the home of the Scrivens – Irikshan’s journey is not without surprises.
As their journey brought them further and further north, Irikshan found his presence to inspire less shock and awe. At the city of Meudean, which stood upon the Namhnese side of the Namhni-Meihian border, there was not such a great amount of excitement over Irikshan’s arrival. That is not to say that there was not a crowd that gathered when he arrived, but within this crowd itself, there were a couple of Meihianese dragons – Scrivens – there to see the foreign dragon.
Irikshan spent three days in Meudean. While the authorities had still insisted that Irikshan be escorted by the mages when he left his tent on the field he’d been assigned to, the humans would far more readily talk to him. Everyone he spoke to spoke fluent Imaadudish.
There was a thriving marketplace where merchants – Meihianese and Namhnese alike – hawked their wares. Unlike the southern markets, he was able to easily traverse this one, inspecting the wares of stores. What amazement the humans did express seemed to be more directed at his appearance – his colouration, short stature, and large wings – rather than his mere presence. They were accustomed to the white and ultraviolet scales, golden horns and chests, long slender forms and leathery scales of the Scrivens. Although, he realized the humans would see dark blue or purple instead of ultraviolet.
Merchants were eager to assure him of the distant origins and high quality of their products, but they did not manage to earn any sales from him. If he did find the desire to buy trinkets, Irikshan told himself, he would find them cheaper nearer to their source.
When Irikshan enquired from the few dragons that were there why there weren’t more, and why there was no one further south, they answered that human cities were too tight and cramped to host a large dragon population; most Scrivens simply stayed in their homeland of Meihian. The majority of the dragons in Meudean were actually there to trade, with only one pair of mates having built any sort of permanent establishment. Their barn-turned-house looked cobbled together, but liveable. It also had the capacity to shelter visiting dragons who could afford to pay but was fully occupied.
A feature of the city that captured Irikshan’s interest were the walls. They were thick and double-layered, with curving passageways within them that were too small for him to fit. There were a handful of old but well-maintained ballistae mounted upon the walls, but it was clear there had once been many more. The masonry was cracked or crumbling in more than a few places, but the wall still stood firm.
He knew that the countries surrounding Tumenzar had once had similarly-intended structures, but he had never seen them himself. Three centuries ago, Aruyun had dismantled theirs on their borders to both Tumenzar and Ciniki – home of the Ebonscales – as an act of good faith. Gordieva and Kasaduris had merely let theirs crumble and decay with time. Mpopane, now wiped off the map and replaced with Amsberg by imperial settlers, had never truly abandoned their defences nor been much more than warily courteous to Tumenzar.
Once Irikshan was satisfied with his exploration of the city, they departed. What might once have been a nightmarish customs office between two countries was now a simple security checkpoint within the empire that allowed them to cross the border without any major delay and only a warning to be alert for outlaws and wild creatures in the sparsely populated outer regions of Meihian.
Beyond the border, there was no sudden or drastic change to the climate or environment. Nature, after all, did not care much for imaginary boundaries. The fact that the border largely followed a river and the bridges were guarded were the only things that gave it any physical presence.
Irikshan had secluded himself to his tent for a while, taking time to draw and write while the humans did their things after setting up camp. He sensed Lucile approaching and moved forward before snaking his head out of his tent, before asking “Everything fine?”
“Yes. Would you like to join us to discuss our route?” She offered, as she came to a stop an arm’s length from his face. Nearer than any human strangers dared.
“Soon. May I first finish writing this bit?”
“Of course.” As Irikshan moved back into his tent and continued writing. Lucile followed, pushing through the tent flap. He briefly focused on and rolled up the flaps, strapping them to the sides without moving a muscle. Fresh air wafted in. Kamon and Jared were sitting some distance off, talking and working on something. Irikshan couldn’t see what they were doing, but Kamon wasn’t cleaning his flintlock pistol anymore. The pistol and sword were now strapped into the baldric that leaned against one of Kamon’s bags beside him. Irikshan had previously inquired about the strange back-scabbard and been informed that it is not all that strange, and far better for travelling than a hip-scabbard.
Lucile lingered beside Irikshan, watching. She seemed to take an interest in his sketches of the security checkpoint. Granted, it was the only thing there that she could take an interest in, as she still couldn’t understand what he wrote.
“Another advantage to Imaadudish rule, eh?”
“Yes,” Lucile answered despite it being clear he didn’t need an answer. “Freedom of trade and movement provides much more opportunity for each province’s economy to grow.”
“Despite the fact that empires typically exist to siphon wealth for the home nation?”
“The provincial citizens still stand to benefit.”
“If those citizens behave themselves and do as told, like you?”
“Well, yes. That’s no different to having a king. Or your ‘Elders’.”
“I do not recall any kingdoms doing to one another what Imaadudin did to Mpopane. Or to Neungbo, or those Eleonian countries. Killing entire peoples because they resisted too much.”
“I can’t speak for what was done there. I was not there and did none of those things.”
“But if you were there and were ordered to do those things, would you?”
“They refused to surrender. They kept fighting to the very last. If my life was in danger, I would not be afraid to defend it. And… sometimes the enemy may need extra motivation to surrender. Will conflicts brought to quick ends, brutal as they may be, not save more lives in the long run?”
“Hmm.” Irikshan wriggled slightly as he thought, getting into a more comfortable position. His body moved smoothly, cat-like. “I myself could be considered a threat to your life. If ordered, would you end me too? You left your home in Shormton behind to travel with a dangerous foreigner that you knew next to nothing about.”
“What, no!” Her protest was loud enough to draw the attention of Kamon and Jared. A measure of panic crept into her voice as she spoke. “Why would I even be ordered to do that? Besides, there’s no way Jared and I could deal with you alone. If you had bad intentions, you could have dealt with us long ago. Yes, I was told to escort and guide you, and that’s what I’m doing, but it has been beneficial to both of us. If we get replaced with some Meihianese mages, so be it – I will return to my work and remember our time together fondly.” Lucile paused to calm herself. “Why are you talking like this? Are you upset?”
“No, I am just still trying to figure out this empire of yours. As much as both you and the refugees back home would have me believe, it’s not as easy as just saying it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” The scratching of pencil on paper resumed for a while. Lucile didn’t respond. Instead, her eyes wandered around the inside of the tent – illuminated by the green glow of a floating shiridan crystal. Irikshan’s blanket and sleeping mat occupied the majority of the tent, with his rear end currently sat on top of both. He sat, staring at the journal before him so hard that the pencil itself wrote. Some of his stationery lay neatly on the floor in front of him. His bags, still carrying items he didn’t currently require, lined the sides of the tent. “Did I appear upset to you?”
“Your line of questioning was rather direct. And I still struggle to read your emotions.”
“It’s ok. I have to admit, I was terrified of you when we first met, I just hid it better than most. Part of me still jumps when you make sudden movements, but I’ve been travelling with you for more than a month now. I’ve gotten to know you more as an individual than just some big scary beast from children’s tales. I’m here for you, and I’m here to help if you ever need me.”
“Thank you.” He set down his pencil and closed the journal. “Shall we join the others?”
“Yes.” Lucile strolled out of the large tent, followed by Irikshan. It was beginning to get dark outside, with the blue sky turning a pinkish-purple at the edges of the still treetops. Tonight was going to be a dark one. Horta, the only moon that would be visible in the night skies for the next few days, would also be in Elonth’s shadow. Essit, Mora and Mefitis were all on the same side of Elonth as the sun.
As Irikshan got near enough to peer over Kamon, he saw that the man was skinning a small deer. The animal had a surprisingly long and pointed pair of canines for a herbivore. Jared was grinding some herbs with a ceramic mortar and pestle. “You want us to prepare some for you too, Irik? There’s enough to go around.”
Irikshan paused for a moment. He was only moderately hungry and would have waited a couple more days before going to hunt himself. He could eat a little now instead, but didn’t want them giving him half the meat. “Yes, please. Make sure you all have enough first.”
Irikshan looked to Lucile, who was unfolding a map onto the grass away from the fire. At his will, the glowing crystal exited his tent and suspended itself a meter above the map.
Lucile thanked him before Kamon spoke, “Oh, this is the map of Meihian you bought.”
“Yes, I wanted to discuss our route.”
“Didn’t we already before we left Meudean?”
“Yes, but I would like to suggest a slight detour.”
Kamon made a surprised-but-curious sound before returning to the deer, cutting open the abdomen to remove the undesirable bits while Jared smeared herbs onto the muscle.
“Irikshan, you wanted to see the Zintai mountains and then return to the main road to Longjing. But at the security checkpoint that we passed today, they told me that there’s some trouble with bandits in the area.”
“You want to avoid the area?” Irikshan queried.
“On the contrary, I want to help. There’s a law-keeping force on its way to a farming settlement west of the mountains. Meilshan.” Lucile pointed on the map. “They should arrive there a few days before we could. I think we should help.”
“Will the force not be sufficient?”
“Probably, but not without doubt. The bandits have been attacking wealthy merchants and imperial tax caravans along the main road, both of which are well-guarded. There’s quite the bounty on their heads. The bandits haven’t been located, but they have been raiding the village for food. The goal is to cut off this supply of food while also trying to locate them. Once they’re found, whichever ones can be taken alive will need to be arrested. But, chances are that there will be a large proportion of casualties to both the bandits and the law-keepers. Unless… you’re there.”
“I am a scholar, not a bounty hunter.”
“Surely you’re able to fight?”
“Yes, I have had some basic training. It has never been my interest. I study enchantments and my illusions.”
“I don’t think you even need to fight. If you simply use your illusions to trick as many outlaws as you can into surrendering, you’ll be immensely helpful.”
“I guess it could be done. But why should I get involved? I don’t need the money or the thanks of some soldiers. Your human lives are so short anyway.”
“There will be some Scrivens living in the village and some working in the force.”
“I expect that I will be meeting plenty of fellow dragons in Meihian. I have already met a few.”
“You could learn more about criminals and justice in the empire if you join. Maybe we do some things differently to how you do in Tumenzar.”
She was grasping at straws, there wasn’t much to motivate him to help. Furrowing the ground with his tail blade, Irikshan looked to Kamon, who stopped cutting up the deer and looked back when he noticed the silence. “Don’t look at me. I’ll go wherever you go. I can fight if I need to.”
Irikshan looked back at Lucile, who pleaded, “Please, could you help?”
“I don’t see much reason for me to go to this effort, nor to put myself at risk for some villagers I’ve never met.”
“You wouldn’t need to put yourself at risk,” Kamon spoke up. “If you’re such a great illusionist, you’ll be able to keep some bandits out of the fight while the soldiers do the hard work. You’ll be able to write about the battle, and I’m sure that – if you helped – Lucile would be able to arrange for you to interview some of the bandits. Did you not want to study individuals from all walks of life?”
“Ok, fine,” Irikshan acquiesced, drooping his wings. “Since you are clearly not going to give me any peace about it, I will do it.”
“Thank you.” Lucile nodded to Kamon then returned her attention to the map and pointed. “We will be going to Meilshan after visiting the Zintai mountains, then returning to our route afterwards. The road we were already going to take through the mountains is the one that leads to the settlement anyway. When we’ve sufficiently aided the efforts there, we can resume our journey to the capital – Longjing.” Once Irikshan had acknowledged this, she folded the map up again. The pair then moved to join the others at the fire, Irikshan bringing the crystal to make the work easier despite the darkening sky.
Irikshan jerked awake at the cue of his green crystal. Being the best of his for enchantments, he’d packed it with quite a few. One of these was a listener-type, programmed to wake him if he was sleeping and an entity with an energy signature greater than that of a dog entered a certain range. It was not a pleasant way to wake up, having one’s mind poked at with all the grace of a stick, but he was awake.
Rising from the cover of his blanket, he expanded his awareness of his surroundings. He sensed the humans were all still fast asleep, but the horses were awake and somewhat distressed. They were near the edge of the range of his enchantment, but they were close enough they wouldn’t be able to leave and re-enter it to trigger it. Expanding his search further, his mind brushed against another that shied away from his touch, disappearing before he could follow it to its source. Someone was out there.
Irikshan unbuttoned his tent flaps and stepped out into the damp, frigid air. It was dark, with only the meagre light of the stars. Nerpicin, brighter than the rest, was visible this time of year, but it still had almost no impact on the inky blackness that bathed the forest.
Snorts and the stomping of hooves were followed by a panicked whinny. Quickly looking that direction and casting his senses into the area, he felt the presence quickly slinking away into the darkness. He caught a glimpse of the body heat of a creature with a low, long profile. Couldn’t be a young dragon, could it? Must have been some other animal. Yet, the heat profile he’d sensed seemed to have wings…
Kamon stirred at the noise, but Irikshan summoned his crystal and cautiously approached the horses while he assessed the situation. The creature was medium-sized. Big enough that it might try to take down a horse, which would not be good. But it was too small for Irikshan to be an enticing meal. Predators, even energy-sensitive ones, would only attack prey that was not likely to kill them or cause them grievous harm.
He briefly felt the foreign intelligence again, taunting him to follow. This did not strike him as a good idea. The horses, now a small distance behind Irikshan, had grown strangely quiet. Activating the light-emitting enchantment on his crystal, he pushed it and his consciousness out into the darkness – probing for the creature.
Eyes glinted in the gloom. Irikshan sensed its presence once again. Then the crystal dropped to the ground as agonising pain lanced through his mind – shattering his cognition. Irikshan’s body quickly followed suit, toppling as he struggled to form coherent thoughts. He was only vaguely aware of the reptilian creature advancing towards him, an unnatural green glow emanating from behind it.
What splinters of Irikshan’s mind still worked managed, through a combination of sheer terror and decades of discipline, to reassemble themselves enough that he could realize the creature was blocking the region of his mind responsible for energy manipulation. He recognized that he could still feel his body, and began to push himself upright whilst trying to break free of the beast’s influence. Sensing this, his foe again splintered him – inflicting anguish upon him as he desperately fought back. It then physically knocked him to the ground – pinning his neck under two of its paws. There was motion behind its head as two arm-like appendages raised into the air, readying to strike.
A thundering crack sounded through the night, followed by an enraged cry from the predator. Its grip on his mind loosened enough for him to gather himself. However, before he could even attempt to repel the creature from his mind, its presence simply vanished. He attempted to counter-attack it, but when he reached to where its mind should be, he found it to be encased in a mental barrier, both preventing him from attacking it and it from attacking him. Not stopping to ponder, he pushed the creature off of himself and leapt to his feet. He saw the dark form of Kamon charging towards them, sword in hand.
Seemingly realizing its predicament, the beast pivoted – about to flee into the forest. Not planning to let it escape, Irikshan pounced onto it, piercing its flesh with his claws and biting into its nape as it toppled onto its side. It wasn’t much smaller than him, but its scales were thin and leathery, not providing much protection. The taste of coppery blood filled his mouth. It squealed and fought back ferociously.
He could feel it battering against the blockade around its mind, and was ready to block it himself should it slip past, but it did not – so he merely grappled with it. It took Irikshan a great deal of effort to prevent it from getting free or getting a grip on him. He could feel something sharp scraping against his belly plates, and released a growl of pain as it found its way around them and punctured his side – scraping against a rib as it penetrated.
The squeals ended with abrupt, wet gurgling as Kamon’s blade sunk into its throat. It still squirmed and fought for a while, but Irikshan held it firm. When the creature’s weakening struggles finally ceased, Irikshan released his grip and dropped his barriers. Blood dripped from his claws and mouth. He pulled the creature’s clawed back-appendage from his side, again growling in pain, and his own blood too began to slowly drain from his body.
The mages were running towards them in sleep-dazed alarm. “What happened?! What is that?” Lucile asked a question Irikshan himself was wondering.
Kamon explained while Irikshan turned the creature over to inspect it. “It was a Xinbi.” Clearly part of the six-limbed draconid order, he could compare it to the more mundane monitor lizards of the squamata order. At first glance, it didn’t appear particularly pretty or threatening – lacking wings, thick scales, spines, and a tail blade – but not horns. “Apparently, it decided that Irikshan would make a good meal.”
Upon closer inspection, its teeth and claws were viciously sharp. It had limbs tipped with pointed claws in place of wings, with one large claw on each ‘hand’ – great for piercing scales. He’d mistaken them for wings while still seeking the creature in the dark. Irikshan’s streamlined scales would not protect him much more than its hide had protected it. Its slit eyes spoke of a creature suited to hunting in the dark, unlike dragons. It was three quarters the size of Irikshan.
“I thought it was going after the horses, and went to investigate.”
“It would have been smart enough to figure out how many of us there were, and to know that someone might come if the horses were disturbed. Or that the horses would be easy meals if not. Did it try to lure you out further?”
“Good thing you didn’t go too far and brought your light.”
“I should have defended my mind properly when it attacked.”
“It is not your fault, xinbi are well suited to hunting your kind. You draqui’s over-reliance on your minds to sense your environment leaves you open to attack.”
“I will have to go for some rapid-defence training when I get back home. If I were faster, it would not have been able to get in. Maybe general defence as well, once it was in my mind I could still have gotten rid of it – if the bits of me left had managed to repel it.” A measure of interest entered Kamon’s weary expression, but Irikshan ignored it. He turned to Jared and asked, “Can you get me some water please?”
Jared nodded and sprinted off towards his tent. While he waited, Irikshan wiped his claws and muzzle clean on the grass. Jared was soon back with a waterskin. He passed it to Irikshan, who squeezed a good portion of the water into his mouth. Irikshan cycled it inside his mouth a few times before spitting it out. He repeated this once. As he returned the waterskin to Jared, he noticed confused looks upon all the humans’ faces.
“What? I do not like the taste of blood. I am sure your ancient ancestors also ate raw meat once upon a time, and they also eventually forsook it in favour of cooked meat and hunting with weapons. In case you haven’t noticed, the animals I catch do not have bite wounds all over them. Stopping their heart is easier and destroying their mind faster. And no, I do not hunt anything that is sentient.”
There were some looks between the humans that Irikshan didn’t understand, but eventually, Lucile spoke. “So… how did you get free of it?”
“He shot it?”
“Yes, and then he blocked it from my mind while I recovered.” Irikshan turned a suspicious look to the man. “How did you do that? Nullification projection is a fairly challenging skill to master for both dragons and mages. It is orders of magnitude harder for normal humans. You would have had to go for special training.”
“What’s wrong with going for mental defence training?” Kamon protested.
“Previously I was willing to accept that you’d been trained to defend your mind, but nullification projection doesn’t quite suit a mere travelling storyteller.”
“I travel far and wide, including to countries full of dragons. I got training because I need to be able to defend myself from both mental and magical attacks. Dragon society is not without a criminal element.”
“The draqui I talked to from that public works team we encountered said that you looked like Imaadudin nobility.” Kamon opened his mouth to speak, but Irikshan interrupted. “Are you going try to claim that they are mistaken and you’re an average Imaadudish citizen? Things have not been adding up with you, and I trust my kin’s observations.”
“What do you want me to say then? That I’m the emperor himself?”
“The truth. I’m becoming more and more tempted to try my luck at breaking through that mental barrier of yours and find out for myself. I may not have managed to defend myself when taken by surprise by a creature adapted for mental attacks, but the nature of my knack means I have trained much more in slipping into others’ minds.”
Kamon hesitated, clearly considering what to say. “Fine, yes. I am a disgraced and disowned nobleman travelling the world. I was trained in combat and mental defence in my youth, hence my skill. Happy?”
“No. I want a full explanation. I want to know exactly who it is that I’m travelling with.”
Kamon groaned, rubbing his temples. “Ok, I guess you deserve to hear. Let’s go back to the tents. You need to clean and dress that wound.” He wiped his sword clean on the grass and kicked the dead Xinbi. “We’ll deal with the carcass in the morning.” He set off towards the tents, followed by the others. “I didn’t think we’d ever encounter one. They’re supposed to be on the brink of extinction. The Meihianese and their neighbours have hunted them extensively. The Xinbi are not smart enough to have banded together for survival as many of you dragons did so long ago. Or to make peace with the humans expanding into their territory, like the Scrivens.”
Irikshan and Kamon each entered their tents, grabbing different pieces of fabric from their bags. As they exited, Kamon made his bandages available to Irikshan and used a cloth to clean his sword before sheathing it. Irikshan didn’t take any, using his own instead. He had also brought out a leather pouch containing a ceramic bottle full of strong alcohol, silently thanking his past self for wanting to be prepared.
Levitating the waterskin from Jared’s hands again, Irikshan sat down and poured some water onto a bandage. He moved the bandage towards his side, twisting his neck to try to get a decent view of the wound.
Lucile stepped forward. “Do you need some help?”
“Yes, please. Wipe the blood away from the edges.” He sent the wet bandage towards the mage, who began to gingerly wipe the edges of the wound clean of blood while Irikshan dampened another bandage with the alcohol. Once Lucile had finished, he exchanged the fabric that each of them held. “Now do it with this one.” He winced at the stinging as Lucile dabbed at the hole in his side.
“What next?” She asked as she finished.
“We hope that all of the… important things inside me…”
“That my organs are fine, and that the injury does not get sick.”
“Can’t you cover it up with a bandage to protect it?” Lucile grabbed one of the clean pieces of fabric.
“And how will it stay there?” His wing membranes prevented a strip of fabric being wound tightly around his whole body, while stuffing fabric into the wound itself would not end well. He wouldn’t be able to concentrate on keeping it there the entire time, and enchanting a crystal to do that didn’t seem to be worth the trouble.
“I could make some paste from leftover turmeric that I have,” Kamon piped up. “It would help you heal faster and maybe allow a small piece of fabric to stick to your scales.”
“Are you sure about that?” Irikshan had conflicting feelings about Kamon.
“Well, it works with humans.”
“Fine, it will probably help then.” Kamon re-entered his tent and returned with some plant roots and the mortar and pestle that Jared had been using earlier. He began to grind them. “While you do that, you can tell us about your past.”
Kamon gave a weary sigh. “Where to start?”
“The beginning. I want to hear everything.”
“Ok. My family name is Howard, not Cordwainer. A particularly powerful house. In good standing with the current imperial family, the Armstrongs. To my father, war and politics was an intricate game – one he played zealously. His children were mere pieces on the board. As his second son, I was particularly useful. I held significance, but I was also not next in line to succeed him. Thus, disposable.
“From childhood, I was trained in combat, tactics, and other things such as the nullification I used to save you, Irikshan. Once I was of a useful age, I was forced to adapt to a life of travel. Sent to command brigades, or even divisions in military conquests or defences. Represent the family at events not quite important or desirable enough for my father or older brother to attend. Acting as a glorified messenger. Sometimes even held hostage as ‘collateral’ should some gamble of my father’s not pay off.
“I had grown accustomed to this life, but also weary of it. When I could, I would escape the society of masks that is the upper class and spend time with the common folk. I found their… brutal honesty to be endearing. When someone didn’t like me, I could see it far more easily than amongst the highborn.”
There was a pause as Kamon retrieved a bandage and generously applied the orange paste to it.
“And thus it continued until in Longjing, a city I often visited, I eventually found love.” Kamon’s eyes lost focus on Irikshan, staring into the darkness instead. “True love. She was a writer, artist and teacher. A few years before this, I would never have imagined our relationship to be possible – but we made each other happy. She was kind, caring, understanding… she taught me her interests and made me feel complete.” A forlorn sigh escaped him. “If only I had stayed with her more, even fled from my family with her, instead of visiting her only when my duties permitted.”
He again halted his story to give the small smeared cloth to Lucile, who was told to firmly press it to Irikshan’s side. When it was released, it stuck in place. Irikshan thanked them and asked Kamon to continue his tale.
“Eventually my father learnt of her, and arranged for me to be married off in Aredale – just about as far as he could get me from Meihian without sending me to the Vrakuran continent or beyond the empire’s territory. My wife was to be the provincial governor’s daughter. I knew the family and the woman. I’d met them on several occasions before. She was a nightmare.
“I refused to go, even on threat of being disinherited. My father carried through on his threat and had the guards remove me from the estate immediately. My older brother caught up to me on horseback after I’d been walking down the road for the better portion of an hour. Asked me to hide somewhere nearby and wait till evening, he’d bring me some personal belongings, my horse, and some money. As much as I wanted to beg for him to let me back into the house, I knew he was already risking our father’s wrath by doing this behind his back. I thanked him profusely, both then and that evening, when he and my sister came to say their farewells.
“A horse beneath me, more to my name than mere clothes, and the weight of the world off my shoulders, I set off to Longjing. I was going to find Cheng and live with her. I was a happy man, right up until I reached the Meihianese capital.
“She was gone. Her friends said she left without saying a word to anyone. I searched everywhere, but there was no sign of where she was or why she’d left. At first I was in denial, but eventually my heart weighed heavy with the realization that my father must have been behind her disappearance. I knew he would have put her somewhere I’d never find her, but I had to try.
“And thus, I adopted the persona of a wandering storyteller. Only a rare few of those I knew would take me in, knowing of my disgrace, and I didn’t wish to give up my quest to find her. I’ve searched from Westhaven to Tumenzar, from Chester to Lào Tinh, but I’ll never find her. I don’t know at what point over the decades my search turned to aimless wandering, but it has. I’ve never settled, because I know I will never find somewhere I can be happy without her.
“There was a short interval in my wanderings several years ago, when I received word that my father had died and my brother was now the head of the family. I made my way back home and requested to meet with him. While my brother did allow me to stay for a few nights, and eventually deign to meet me in person, he told me that he was unable to accept me back into the family, and that I should not come back again. I argued passionately, but that night I found myself alone on the road once again.
“I ask that you forgive me for keeping this from you, but I hope my reasons for doing so are obvious enough. Few that recognize me will tolerate my presence, let alone show me respect or kindness.”
The humans were stiff and shivering. The night was frigid. Irikshan didn’t care much. “How do I know that this story is true?”
“You will have to take my word for it unless we meet someone who knows me. Look, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I hadn’t used my projection to save you. You would have been injured, brain-damaged or even killed if I hadn’t risked doing so. Xinbi can be spiteful things and even if I chased it away, it might have tried to cause you permanent harm.”
“Again, thank you.” Irikshan doubted the thing would have been able to permanently mentally injure him, making permanent changes to a being’s mind was harder than merely influencing or overloading it. Yet, he was glad not to have to find out – the Xinbi had already taken him by surprise and almost killed him. “I will trust your word. You put yourself at risk to protect me. However, I would prefer if you were honest and open with me from now on.”
“I shall endeavour to do so.”
“I’m curious, does Colonel Anson know who you actually are? He seemed to know you, or does he only know Kamon the wandering storyteller.”
“Yes, he knows who I actually am. I’ve commanded both alongside and above him in the past. He’s one of the few that haven’t turned their backs on me. He met Cheng. Used to be stationed in Meihian, I introduced him to her when his duties brought him to the capital. He himself had experience with something remotely similar to my predicament: his own parents had changed their names to distance themselves from their family’s rebellious reputation. Did you not wonder why a Meihianese man had an Imaadudish name?”
“It did not occur to me at the time.”
“While this has been incredibly enlightening,” Lucile interjected before Irikshan could formulate another question, “I think we should all get some sleep. We can talk more in the morning. Irikshan, please wake us all up before going wandering into the darkness next time.”
Irikshan did naught but grunt and return to his tent, closing the flap and clambering back into the cover of his blanket before disabling the glow of his crystal and attempting to sleep. Yet, sleep would not come to him. He found himself haunted by the image of the Xinbi looming over him, about to strike with those wing-arm things. His wound ached. Eventually, he gave up on sleep, journaling and drawing about that night until dawn came.