The next day we moved on, leaving Hasburg behind us. We got on the road at dawn, the same as usual, though some of us were clearly happier about it than others. I could barely wait to be gone, but Rose looked almost heartbroken at the thought of leaving her warm bed. Derek was clearly nursing a hangover, and had less to say than usual.
I showed Rose a simple clapping game, to fill the silence our driver left, which I had learned in the Whitewood, when I was a child. She’d never seen it before, and took to it with such delight that I wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anything of the sort. She hadn’t had much of fun and games in her life, I thought. Afterwards, I took a nap, making up for lost sleep the night before. I’d barely been able to make myself sleep in that inn, and even when I did manage to sleep my dreams were filled with nightmarish visions of people calling me a freak and beating me for being Changed.
I slept longer than I had expected to. It was evening by the time I woke up. I sat up, blinking away the fog of sleep, and felt Rose remove her arm from around my shoulders and shift away.
The roads were better here. It was the first thing I noticed, the first sign that we were drawing near to the Tsuran heartland. Unsurprisingly, imperial roads were better maintained closer to the core of the empire. Here the road was smooth, groomed gravel. The land to either side was clear, open grassland. It was a warm evening, with a gentle breeze flowing through the caravan.
Dinner that night was better than usual, with some chunks of meat in the beans, and fresh bread rather than hardtack. Olga had clearly purchased supplies in Hasburg before we set out. It was a considerably better meal than we had received in the inn the previous evening, which amused me.
Over the next two days, we continued to progress through steadily more settled land. We passed two small villages, both appearing quite prosperous for their size. The wards around them were expansive and well-maintained. The wooden buildings were substantially more sturdy-looking than those in Branson’s Ford had been, and larger. Most of them even had glass in the windows, and brick chimneys.
We were far, far further south than I had ever been before. It was more of a change than I had expected. I had been ready for the warmth–it was a common topic among travelers from the south, after all. Even with autumn almost upon us, it was warmer here than I was used to. I found myself leaving my heavy wool cloak packed in my bag even in the night, and regretting the insulation my fur provided.
Beyond that, though, things were just…different. The ground was far more even, compared to the hilly land I was used to. The air smelled different, warmer and with different plants. When we passed the farmers’ fields around the villages, their crops were different from what I was used to, far different. The people here took foods for granted that I had always seen as a foreign luxury–rice and maize, soy, even oranges and melons were not terribly uncommon. The people all spoke Tsuran.
And there were no Changed. Or so few as to make no difference.
It was a long few days of travel.
I had been ready for Aseoto to be different from what I’d heard of it. Those tales had been told by travelers, after all, and stories tended to change with travel. Distance, like time, had a way of blurring the details of a memory, making it shift and waver and grow out of all proportion to reality. There were some features of the stories I’d heard which were consistent enough to be confident they had at least some grounding in the reality, but for the most part I knew better than to trust them.
I had not, however, been ready for them to be an understatement rather than an exaggeration.
The first I saw of the city was the wall. It was much as it had been described, but…more so. The long, smooth curve of stone was well over fifty feet tall, tall enough that it was visible as a hazy outline on the horizon for quite some time before it was in sight. It was made of stone, some dark stone I didn’t recognize, woven and reinforced with metal. Towers stood at regular intervals, looming over even the formidable height of the wall itself.
And it stretched…far. Very far. The long, smooth curve of stone had to cover several miles of coastline.
In front of us, the road passed through a large gate. It would be easy to see it as gaudy or even ornamental, but I knew better. I’d lived through a siege. I knew enough to see that the portcullis was heavy iron with what I was willing to bet were alchemical formulae of some kind worked into it in a black metal I didn’t know. I could see the murder holes, the arrow slits. It would be no easy feat to break through this gate. I could see similar gates at similar roads to either side, some ways off. Within the city, I could see a number of towers, visible even over the walls. The narrow, delicate-looking structures stretched high up into the sky, higher than seemed possible for a building.
I hated to give them the credit of admitting it. But…imperial methods were capable of great things.
A group of legionnaires were checking the entrants to the city, of which there were a great many, mostly trade caravans like ours. I was a touch concerned by that, but managed to reassure myself that they would certainly not think to look for me here. I still didn’t fully understand why I’d come, myself. It seemed implausible that someone else would have figured it out.
In the end, I didn’t so much as hear a word from them. Konrad handled whatever inspection was necessary, and they waved us through without question. I sat in the back of the wagon, trying to stay calm, and they didn’t even look at me. The wagons and horses produced odd, echoing sounds as we passed through the wall. It was so thick that it was less a gate than a tunnel, with more metal portcullises at regular intervals. Light was provided by alchemical lamps, brighter than the setting sun outside.
Inside, things were tight, and loud, and crowded. The gate opened into an expansive cobbled square, which was thronging with people. I had never seen such a varied crowd of people in my life. There were merchants wearing silk and jewelry, and there were beggars clothed in rags. Children, and wizened old people barely able to stand with the help of a cane. Most of the people had the fine features typical of Tsuran ancestry, but there were plenty of pale northerners, and people with the dark skin typical of the lands south across the ocean, and a handful of Changed. The din of people shouting, haggling, arguing, and begging in a dozen languages was almost overwhelming.
This was clearly not the nice part of the city. The beautiful, graceful architecture of the towers I had seen from outside was nowhere in evidence here. The buildings here were still tall–fix or six stories on average, I estimated–but they managed all the same to look squat and dense. The streets were all cobbled, but they were narrow and overshadowed by the tightly packed buildings. I’d grown up in a city, and I knew enough to recognize this as a poor district. Not brutally so–the people here, for the most part, had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. It was not a slum, not truly impoverished. But it was not wealthy, not by the standards of Akitsuro.
On my own, I would have been lost, hopelessly so. I didn’t know where we were precisely, didn’t know where we were going. Actually reaching the city had felt like such an implausible, far off dream that I hadn’t prepared nearly enough for it. I didn’t know so much as what the city’s districts were.
Konrad turned off from the square, heading further into the city at a shallow angle. The street he chose was wide enough for the wagons to pass, but not a great deal more. The drivers were all moving carefully, keeping the horses to a slow pace so as not to injure anyone.
I didn’t know what all the buildings we passed were, but I knew quite well that the one we stopped in front of was an inn. It was much the same class as the one he had chosen in Hasburg, cheap and with little else to recommend it. The wagons pulled to a halt in front of it and we began getting out, stretching and looking around at the city. It was hard to believe we had reached our destination. It felt as though we’d only joined the caravan a handful of days before, and at the same time like we had been on the road for a lifetime.
There was little ceremony in the parting, for how close we had been on the road. Reika, looking perfectly at home in the city of her youth, walked up to me and gave me a quick hug; she had to bend over to do it. “I’m staying in Ukiyo, have a place lined up. Don’t be a stranger.” As quickly as that, she turned and walked off, and disappeared into the crowd. I realized that Finn, the silent northern boy with one hand missing, had already left.
Konrad came up to me, after Reika left, and clapped me on the shoulder. I stumbled, but managed to keep from falling. “Good trip,” he said, his tone carrying a hint of casual satisfaction. “Ugly business with the kid, but you kept your head nicely. I reckon our deal is done.” He spat into his hand and grabbed mine to shake.
When he let go I realized that he had pressed a silver noble into my hand, fully half the coin I’d paid for Rose and I to travel with his caravan. I opened my mouth to protest, but by the time I noticed he was already inside the inn, and I had no desire to follow him in. Not after what happened the last time I was in a place like that.
“He’s not as hard a man as he likes to pretend,” Rose said softly. She was looking at my hand, and I knew she’d seen the coin, too.
I nodded, thoughtfully, and pocketed the coin. It would have been rude to refuse it; he knew what he was doing. “What now?” I asked. I was still looking at the inn. It was a place to sleep–which we needed, given we no longer had the privilege of resting in the wagons. But I was having a very difficult time convincing myself it was worth it. I didn’t want to spend my first night in Aseoto in a dive like that.
“I’d appreciate some dinner company, if you’d like.” Erik’s voice was completely unexpected, coming from right next to me. By all rights I should have heard him approaching. My hearing was damned good, and he was only a few feet away. But he was Dierkhlani.
I considered, then shrugged and nodded. I had nowhere better to be, and he was still such an interesting enigma to me. Rose was clearly less convinced, her grip on mine tight and anxious, but she nodded.
“Excellent,” Erik said, smiling. “Come with me. I know a better place than this dump.”