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The travellers arrive at Meihian’s megacity.
Written June-July 2021
Irikshan circled in the air as he drifted down to the paved road, hemmed in by a low stone fence before the hilly fields. Before his final approach, he took a glance at the small caravan of horse-drawn carts some distance away. They were not facing in his direction, but he wanted to make sure he did not spook them. Dragons were common in these parts, he’d seen an increasing number in the skies as they approached Meihian’s capital, but he’d seen the skittish beasts spooked even by an unexpected human.
He walked over to his companions, whose own mounts were quite used to him descending from the sky by now.
“What’s it look like?” asked Lucile. “The leader of that caravan said we’re drawing near the city.”
“We are. The farmlands go on for quite some time more, but the hills become more gradual and I could see the city. I believe we can be there just after noon.”
“Good, let’s keep moving.” She prompted her steed into a trot. Jared and Kamon followed suit, while Irikshan himself adopted a similar gait to keep up.
While they moved, Irikshan noticed Lucile emerging from her shell and prodding at his mind. Yes? He thought clearly, watching her mind for a response.
When we get to the city, her thoughts replied, I will need to go to the garrison to make my report.
Will I need to wait while you make your report?
No, I think I shall take a while. I have something else I want to do too. I want you, Jared and Kamon to find us somewhere to stay. We can decide where we shall meet up in the city before we part ways.
Please make sure Kamon doesn’t leave your sight.
You know, you really aren’t subtle. He probably knows that something is up. And that you don’t trust him.
It’s not that I don’t trust him, it’s that this is a matter for imperial authorities.
Then why did you inform me of your decision regarding Fenlan?
Well, I wouldn’t have discovered this if it weren’t for you. We have no idea whether he’s lied again to us about who he is, whether he’d try to turn this on us to gain favour, or what he’d do. She paused, then sighed. Ok, yes, I don’t trust him.
He resisted the urge to look at her smugly, instead turning his attention back to their surroundings as they continued to travel. There was far less life around than in the forest, but he could still sense a surprising number of small critters in the sprawling grain fields.
As the city eventually appeared ahead from behind the hills, the road converged with others. At the junction, a signpost indicated directions to other major cities – inscriptions in both Imaadish and Meihianese. Humans and their carts, wagons, and pack animals grew more and more numerous. Scriven soared through the skies above. There were even some that walked the roads, though these always travelled in a company of humans or wagons. Irikshan was, as always, the subject of many curious stares.
Homes became a more and more common sight besides the road until eventually the farmlands gave way completely to the city outskirts. Even once nothing but buildings could be seen, they somehow managed to become even more densely packed. Here the roads bustled with activity, sometimes forcing Irikshan and the others to slow to a walking pace. Irikshan longed to take to the skies and study the city from above, and also to escape the stench of densely packed and poorly sanitised communities, yet there was not ample room here for him to take off without using a significant amount of magic to assist himself. Even then, he likely risked knocking into something or someone.
“How do we plan to find House Jinmeng in this?” Irikshan asked.
“The city guard house will have a registry of the houses,” Kamon said “It’ll only have dragon houses and at least somewhat influential human ones. The empire is pretty adamant about proper record keeping and house Jinmeng is scriven, so whether or not they’re wealthy enough to be within the city walls, they’ll be on the registry.”
“And how should we find that?”
“Continue down the main road. We’ll eventually reach the city wall, which will have a guardhouse at each gate.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
When they did eventually reach the city gates, Irikshan was glad that they already had a destination planned for their stay. The city ‘outskirts’ had been immense. They were large enough to compete with entire cities he’d seen.
As they had drawn closer to the inner city, the crowded multi-tenancy structures with utilitarian architecture began to give way to more roomy common areas and homes within walled estates. He had expected the city to become even more densely packed further in, although he wondered how that would even be possible were it the case.
The architecture here sported intricate and colourful woodwork and bore what Irikshan first considered to be a superfluous number of supportive pillars and layered eaves. Upon further inspection, it appeared that these buildings’ walls were too thin to be load-bearing and the tops of the pillars used intricately latticed wooden blocks to provide more support. The many extra eaves provided cover to the tiers of windows and walls each structure had. He could not determine the purpose of such high windows aside, perhaps, from ventilation.
The city walls were different to the ones he had seen in the human territories south of Meihian. They were large, yes, but they did not seem robust enough to stand up for long against siege weaponry. Then again, creating siege weaponry that could hit the wall instead of the immense ‘outer city’ would be a feat in itself.
It seemed to Irikshan that the city walls – much like those around family estates – were intended to stop people, not armies. Irikshan had seen many dragons flying over the walls without regard for the gates, while the far more numerous humans crawled forward as the busy roads narrowed to a guarded chokepoint. He was, however, not the only dragon on the ground. There was another with three wagons and several humans in tow. Of course, he was staring at Irikshan, like just about everyone else. Irikshan mentally greeted him, and was briefly acknowledged before they each turned their attention away from one another.
They neared the guardhouse. The road widened here, giving those who wished to stop an opportunity to do so without blocking the main road. Lucile directed her horse towards the house, then dismounted and pulled a small trinket – a badge – from her saddlebag. The others followed.
One of the guards approached, wearing what must have been a low-ranking officer’s uniform. Lucile displayed her badge, but he ignored her, stopping before Irikshan and bowing deeply. He said something in Meihianese too fast for Irikshan to understand, even with the lessons that Kamon had been giving him while they travelled.
“He wants to know how he may assist you,” Kamon translated.
“Lucile knows what to ask for,” Irikshan said to Kamon.
Before Kamon could translate, the guard spoke again. “You… do not speak Meihianese?” His Imaadudish was only weakly accented. “My apologies, master. Often the scriven prefer for me to speak Meihianese, but you’re not from these parts, are you? You wish for me to speak with the imperial mage?”
“…yes?” Irikshan responded confusedly. The man clearly had recognised Lucile’s badge. Why had he not spoken to her first? Did he need permission to speak to her? Why from Irikshan?
The guard turned towards Lucile and bowed. A shallower bow than before. “How may I assist you?”
“We need directions. Where is the imperial command centre for the city? And could you please tell us where we may find House Jinmeng?”
“Sung!,” the officer called towards the guardhouse, then said something in Meihianese including the name Jinmeng. Returning his attention to Lucile, he said, “You can find the command centre near the northern barracks. Once you’re inside, follow the wall north. The third gate you find will be the closest to the barracks. You’ll find them if you follow the biggest road that leads further into the city.”
Another man had come from the guardhouse, carrying an open book, while he’d been talking. They stepped forwards and pointed. The two briefly exchanged words before the officer spoke to Lucile again. “House Jinmeng is in the south of the inner city. Ciqudian district, block 34. Follow the main road south after you’re done at the command centre. There’s signage showing how to reach each district as you draw near them. Once you’re in the district, there will be signs leading to the bazaar. The guard post adjacent to the bazaar will be able to provide you with further directions.”
“Should we also follow the main road if we’re going to Ciqudian from this gate?”
“Yes, it is in the south-southeast portion of the inner city. Follow the signage.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, master dragon,” the officer spoke again. “Are you ostraca?”
“No, I’m tumen.” He looked confused, so Irikshan added. “I’m from Vrakura, the lands across the sea to the east.”
“Ah, you have travelled far indeed, master. Welcome to our great city. I hope that you will enjoy your time here.” The officer bowed again to Irikshan as he turned to leave.
Getting back onto the road was easier than Irikshan had anticipated, as a man stopped his cart to allow Irikshan and his companions back onto the road.
The other side of the wall did certainly have a step up in apparent wealth on display, but it was not so different from the buildings outside. Though he assumed that he would find the wealthiest houses closer to the center, just as the city beyond the walls had – for the most part – grown in wealth as he’d travelled towards the center. At least it didn’t smell so bad here.
Lucile again directed them to the side of the road, then spoke. “The day is drawing late. I will go report to the command post, while the rest of you find house Jingmeng. Once I am done, I will find the Ciqudian bazaar, where Jared can wait for me after you’ve found the house.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Kamon said. “The inner city is larger than you realize. The sun will soon be setting. It will be dark by the time you reach the command centre, and it will be late by the time you reach the bazaar. I’ve been to both. I do not think it is a good idea for a lone woman to travel through the city, especially at night, even inside the walls. I know you are a mage and can handle yourself, but you never know what unsavoury characters could try their luck. I could accompany you?”
“No, thank you.”
“Could you at least take Jared?”
“No, I want you three to stay together.”
“You could ask if one of the gate guards will escort you?”
“I…” Lucile began, then stopped as Irikshan mentally prodded her. She tried to make it look like she was stopping to think, but her acting was poor. Yes?, she thought at him.
“We have already underestimated the size of the city from our limited perspective on the ground,” Irikshan said aloud. “Do you not think it would be wiser to make your report tomorrow morning?” Are you sure you will have time to do what it is that you wanted to do after your report so late in the day?
You’re right, the archivists will probably have returned home for the day by the time I arrive, if they have not already. “Alright, we’ll all go find house Jinmeng now, and I’ll make my report tomorrow.”
“That sounds better,” Kamon said as they again returned to the road.
The bazaar was still somewhat busy, even so late in the day, but far more spaced out than the markets they’d passed in the outer city. There was enough space for older dragons, of which there were a handful, to walk comfortably between stalls.
There was a small post with a handful of city guards by the edge of the market closest to the main road. While Lucile asked directions, Irikshan heard someone calling to him in his home language. “Good evening, dres!”
He turned to see a man waving to him from behind a stall. He looked Meihianese, but his bright and colourful clothing was in the style of some of the human nations neighboring Tumenzar. His stall also held crafted goods familiar to Irikshan.
“Don’t worry, dres,” The man said as Irikshan approached. “I shan’t attempt to sell you these trinkets which you could acquire for a fraction of the price at home. I am Lin An Wu.” He bowed.
“Irikshan Kennissoeker. I did not expect to find someone who could speak tumen here. Although, by the looks of it,” Irikshan glanced at neighbouring stalls, each carrying different sets of exotic goods, “It seems that you and your fellows are quite well-traveled.”
“You, too, have travelled far, dres Kennissoeker. I don’t think I’ve ever seen, or even heard of any tumen beyond Vrakura. Until now.”
“You are correct, we don’t tend to travel much at all, given historic and, sadly, even present hostilities from human kingdoms.”
“What brings you to such distant lands?”
“Scholarly pursuits. We had no comprehensive and reliable first-hand accounts of the places, peoples, and cultures beyond Vrakura.”
“By reliable, you mean told by fellow draqui, I assume?”
Irikshan did not reply, but the lack of a response itself would have been confirmation enough to the merchant.
“My apologies, dres Kennissoeker. So, are you associated with the university of arts and history? The one in Tumenoos? Or is this a private venture?”
“I see. May I assist you with anything? Do you need help to find local guides, inns, libraries, or such?”
“I’m alright. I already have someone that knows the city. Although,” he looked to the owners of neighbouring stalls who were looking at Irikshan and talking amongst one another, “will you and your friends be here tomorrow? I won’t be buying, I’ll be travelling much more myself, but I’d be interested to look at what they have and maybe to ask some questions of fellow travellers.”
“Of course, dres Kennissoeker. Enjoy your stay.”
Lucile and the other two, who Irikshan had been mentally tracking, were at another part of the market. Irikshan made his way over to them, finding the mages standing by while Kamon haggled prices on some produce. He eventually reached a compromise with the man, and exchanged some coins for a sack of rice and a basket of vegetables.
“Could one of you please carry this?” he asked as he returned to the group, holding out the basket. Jared took it from him, then he hefted the sack into a more balanced position. “Let’s go meet the Jinmengs.”
Clapper clanged back and forth as Lucile swung the rope below, the bell ringing out above the sounds of trickling water from the other side of the wall. The street the group stood in was narrower than the main roads and far quieter, passing between walled property after walled property – each housing multiple buildings.
Irikshan soon sensed a mental presence scouting from within the property. It acknowledged Irikshan’s and the mages’ greetings. Lucile had asked him for some etiquette training since they’d left Saitai. The presence grew stronger as its owner approached, until the wooden gate slid open to reveal a scriven probably twice Irikshan’s age. Besides him, a lantern floated – providing some extra illumination in the dimming sunlight.
A surprised “Oh!” was the first thing out of his mouth before he regained his composure and said, “Welcome to house Jinmeng, I am Kai. How may I help you?”
“Greetings, Kai. I am Irikshan Kennissoeker. A scholar from Tumenzar, I am exploring the empire to learn about its lands and its peoples. With me are Lucile Manghka, Jared Patamarrut, and Kamon Cordwainer.” Each of the humans bowed as their name was called. “While travelling through Namhni, I encountered Jingyi and Zedong who said I could ask Rong if I could stay with house Jinmeng.” He held up the insignia he’d received from the couple. “If it will not be a burden upon your house, I would like to make that request. We can pay for lodging, and provide our own food.”
“Oh, you met my brother and his partner? Where were they headed? Did not expect they would be as far out as Namhni.”
“I did not ask their destination, but they were flying the opposite direction to us as we travelled. We were travelling north west, away from the port city of Shormton.”
“I see. Come with me please, we shall speak to my father. You can tie your horses there,” he gestured to a series of posts stuck into the grass, planted beside a small stream that flowed into a pond and came from somewhere further into the property. With Kai’s permission, Irikshan also used the opportunity to wash his hands and feet from some of the muck that had gathered there thanks to the filthy outer city roads.
As they stopped in front of the largest building on the property, Irikshan noticed three very young dragons watching them from another building. The thin door of the building ahead slid open and out stepped a pair of ancient dragons. Irikshan opened his mind to their gentle probing while he and his companions bowed deeply to them. Irikshan then presented the insignia and repeated the request that Zedong had told him to say and Kamon had helped him practice. Despite this, he was certain it was obvious he was not proficient in the language.
His fears were confirmed when Rong responded in a slow and emphasised tone. “You are welcome to stay in our house while you are in Longjing, distant cousin. We would like to talk with you more, but it is late and you must be tired from your travels. We can talk tomorrow. Kai, please show our guests where they can stay.”
“Thank you very much.” Irikshan and the others bowed again as the elders returned to their abode.
“I hope you do not mind sharing the same abode?” Kai asked. “There are separate rooms for other things, but the bedroom is large enough for all of you.”
“No,” replied Irikshan, “we don’t mind.”
“Good.” Kai led them into the guest house and gave them a tour and helped them get settled in before departing.
While the humans started preparing their dinner with the food Kamon had bought and the utensils available in the house, Lucile said, “They’re very generous and trusting towards complete strangers. Even with that insignia Zedong gave you. Even him directing you here giving you the insignia to you in the first place. I’m not sure I’d have trusted some strangers so freely.”
“The scrivens have kept alive their old culture of hospitality that otherwise died out in the cities,” Kamon said. “They are respected and powerful enough to not need to fear human thieves or aggressors, and there are few enough of them even in big cities that their communities can still easily spread word of troublemakers amongst their kin. Let alone their long lifespan and strong memories. Besides, it’s… kind of obvious that Irikshan can’t be lying about being from distant lands. The first tumen to travel to Meihian ever! That I know of, at least.”
“I can sense they are still faintly paying attention to our location,” Irikshan added, “but what Kamon said makes sense. In any case, we should make sure to remain polite and show our gratitude while we stay here.”