Nyan rana yn Inel, di nyan yn Maralu.
Nimay wishes for me to inform you all that she won the bet, whatever that bet was. And apparently Kurae did too. Good for them, Iím sure theyíll be very happy come the next pub crawl. Yes, Iím bitter that the rest of the Own got left out of another swordies only wager. They do it all the time.
In completely unrelated news, weíre back on the road again. Or it may be entirely related, for all I know. We left Ni-Horia behind yesterday morning, and have been in the wilderness of the Raykinian highlands since then. Ironic that this is as mountainous as our fair kingdom gets. Itís easy to see why the Kazinians mock us for it and tell us we donít know what mountainous really is. The fifteen of us obviously know mountains though, since weíve been to Kazin several times before.
Tonightís our last night in Raykin for the next month or more, probably more judging by the mission brief. Itís always an odd night, since itís the night we count as the last before the mission. Technically weíve been on the mission for the better part of a month now, but thereís no challenge or danger in riding through Raykin. There may be one or two nerves the night before we leave Ni-Yana, but itís hardly worth mentioning.
When the horizon around you is wavy because of the hills, and the earth seems to move because of the swaying grasses, and the wind makes an eerie, distant hushing noise that continues through the night, itís an entirely different matter. Itís very lonely on those hills, believe me. Sometimes I wish we could have the send-off from Ni-Yana up here instead, just to lift our confidence a bit, but thereís quite literally nothing. I donít know, maybe the Ra-Linís valley is busier in more friendly times. The only times weíre ever here is when trading has pretty much ceased, so thereís no traffic.
Around the campfire itís really quite bizarre. It starts out much the same as any other night in Raykin, with the standard bickering between archers and blade archers, mocking or complimenting the eveningís chef and just general joking around, but thereís always an undertone of foreboding. We can all feel it, but try to act as though itís not there and everythingís perfectly fine.
The fire started dying about an hour ago, and weíve been seated around the flickering coals since then, completely silent. Nobodyís said a word or even cleared their throat. Thereís no sound beyond the incessant wind and the quiet crackling of the fire. Even Yoryl and Kaen have gone quiet. Not a single twig has been thrown at the fire, which is most odd. Itís just me writing, and that of course doesnít normally happen.
It would probably be quite a sobering sight to anyone not part of the Own. This is the real eve of the mission, as distinct from the night at the Golden Thrai before we leave Ni-Yana. I always wonder how the rest of the kingdom would react to seeing their best warriors as we are now. In many ways the anticipation is more terrifying than actually seeing a herd of Kazinians rushing at us.
Oh yes, we get scared. Weíre confident, determined and positive, for the most part, but that doesnít mean weíre fearless. Some of us hide it better than others, Anganur, Melraan and Nol in particular, but even the most apparently stone-hearted of us are intimidated at the mere thought of that border.
Imagine Yoryl with a genuinely serious face. Itís a difficult task, I know, but heís had that same face for the past hour. That should give you an idea of the situation.
Weíre probably even more sober tonight, given that the last time we passed through these hills we were one member down. Lim ela, Rau.
Rumalís just retired to bed, and Iím tempted to follow, but one or two guys have caught my eye, so doubtless theyíll want to have a chat later on. Everyone has their own way of preparing. Most tend to just hide whateverís going on in their mind or go to bed early and think about the next day. A few like to talk about it, which inevitably ends up being with me. Iím not going to argueóthe best way for me to prepare is to talk, but not about how Iím feeling about things. Sorting out other peopleís fears is far easier than facing my own.
Thatís my way of dealing with it and itís worked for the past eight years, so Iím sticking to it. And apparently I give good advice, so everyone wins.
Weíve crossed the border.
For those whoíve never been to Kazin, Iíll tell you now that the Raykinian-Kazinian border isnít just a metaphorical one, nor is it a sign stuck in the earth with ďWelcome to KazinĒ written in large, friendly red letters. Itís not even a House, strangely enough. If Kazin built one that close to the Raykinian border, they wouldnít last particularly long.
No, the Kazinian border is a row of skulls.
Glowing white human skulls, with the hollow grey eye sockets staring mournfully into Raykin. A stark warning, from the Kazinians who placed them there as well as the long-dead owners of the skulls. Not every skull belongs to a Raykinianóthere havenít been enough killed in recent times to line the whole of the Raykinian borderóbut certainly the ones a dayís walk in either direction of the Ra-Lin are. I donít want to know how many tens of thousands of skulls that means, but itís unfortunately something I canít avoid thinking about.
In typical Own style though, we donít just ignore the Aeia-damned things. We charge at them at a gallop. This is another tradition Rau began, upon realising that weíre all too tense at the border. Itís all well and good to prepare the night before, but if we were that tense and focussed the whole night, weíd either start attacking each other or miss something vital. Rau was like that.
So itís come to be that the first person to see a gleaming white skull shouts out a cheery ďSee you on the other side!Ē then digs his heels into his horseís flanks and off they go. Unless itís Nimay, in which case she just grins and goes.
Coconut and I used to win the first races nearly every time, but my girlís getting a bit elderly now, so sheís not quite as quick off her hooves as she used to be. Sheís a lovely animal though, still puts everything into it even though she hasnít got a hope against the younger horses. Mongrel and Nol won today, at which point Mongrel decided to rear in triumph and almost tip Nol off his back. Why he hasnít gelded the thing yet, I donít know. He threatens, but I think those threats have lost all meaning to the Aeia-damned stallion.
Anyway, the race always relieves a lot of the tension. Weíre looking out for the border in the hopes that weíll be the first one to it, rather than dreading the sight of it. Haenelís been to Kazin several times before, so there was no obligatory ďHigh and holy blood of the goddesses, theyíre skulls!Ē from him as from every other new recruit. Even Nol commented he didnít remember the skulls from his previous visit. Maybe he was asleep when he crossed the border the first time, because I honestly donít know how something like that wouldnít stick in your mind.
Truth be told, thereís no dramatic change in landscape upon crossing the border. If there were no skulls there, thereíd be no way of knowing. The grass is the same brown, there are no more clouds in the sky, the temperature doesnít suddenly drop to freezing and no rivers instantly spring into existence. The trees grow gradually taller and thicker, until they close around in a forest, but the forests donít suddenly appear from nowhere.
For some reason, Kazin is always thought of as being a very green kingdom. Water everywhere, so trees and greenery everywhere, I guess. I canít help but see it as grey. Itís a very grey kingdom, especially in the foothills on the Raykinian side. The grass is all silver-brown and grey, as though the life has been sucked out of it, as opposed to the more golden look our spinifex has. The earth has none of the vibrant red of our desert sand, but is instead dull grey. The sky is at best a washed-out, diluted blue, but more habitually glaring grey or dark blue-grey with grey rain falling out of it. There are grey granite stones and boulders scattered over the landscapeÖ
Itís grey, thereís no other way of putting it. Even the supposed leafy green trees have had all the colour sucked out of them. The tropics are green, Iíll agree with that, but the mountains are most definitely grey.
We got some of that grey rain today, as a matter of fact, not long after having crossed the border. Itís not quite cold enough to get the fur cloaks unpacked just yet, but itís certainly getting that way. Another day or two and Iíll be wrapping myself in mine.
The cold isnít the worst thing about the rain though. The last mission we were up here, I broke my leg, and because we were too far from a healing house at the time, it didnít heal quite properly. So now it hurts whenever itís going to rain. Very useful back home in Raykin, but in Kazin, especially in Autumn, it barely ever stops raining, so my leg hurts the whole time. Just a dull throb, but thatís going to get increasingly worse as the mission progresses, I can tell.
The rain had slowed to what Kazinians call a ďdrizzleĒ when we arrived at the House of Welcoming Gifts, just as the sun was setting. The Kazinian Houses are some of the more annoying aspects of the kingdom, so we tend to avoid the most of the time, but Nimay made the executive decision in giving us all a bed for the night.
The Houses are basically a way for Kazinians to make money. In Raykin, we donít charge foreign merchants any taxes until they start selling their merchandise. In Kazin, there are thirty-odd Houses between the border and Silrona. Travelling by road, itís impossible to get to the city without passing at least ten Houses, so naturally we go across country, which makes life awkward to say the least.
But the Houses have beds. And stables. Theyíre expensive, but sometimes we just need that little bit of ďluxuryĒ to keep us going. Hence why Iím writing right now instead of huddled in a tent trying vainly to keep the drizzle off the pages.
For the average Raykinian merchant, the cost to pass through any of the Houses is, I understand, between two silvers and a gold piece per person, plus another few coppers for any camels, and doubled if said merchant wishes to spend the night. As I say, rather expensive. It depends on what your business is in Kazin, so someone selling jewellery would have to pay more than someone looking to buy some Kazinian rugs to sell back in Raykin.
Our business is, as you would imagine, rather more complicated and therefore rather more expensive. Five gold for each of us, another gold per horse (which is something Iíve never understoodóKazinians are more used to looking after horses than they are camels), then doubled to stay the night. One hundred and eighty gold pieces, for one night in a pretty average bed.
And you wonder why weíre high-paid. Yes, I believe the merchants can hold their tongues now.
Of course, it started out as eight gold for each of us, but when in Kazin, haggling is an art form. Youíre expected to haggle. Youíre looked at strangely if you pay the first quoted price for something, even taxes at Houses.
And thus begins the strange business of customs and immigration, which I believe is just Kazinís way of making themselves look organised. It may fool the Kazinians who pass through, maybe even some Raykinians, but itís an absolute joke to us. Kazin is far from being an organised kingdom.
Customs and immigration basically involves a lot of paperwork, whereby we give our names, kingdom of origin, occupation and intended purpose and duration of our visit. I always answer honestly, because itís easier than making things up and they never do anything with the bits of paper anyway.
Then we get to show off our weapons a bit, which is always fun. Iím yet to figure out why they do this, but they like to have a record of every weapon that enters the kingdom. They tried to take them off of us once. Rau casually asked them how many soldiers they had on standby at the House, to which they answered ďten archers,Ē and carefully backed away from the shiny swords. Smart move.
Tonight there must have been a new person officiating the House of Welcoming Gifts, someone who felt some vague hint of sympathy towards Raykinians, or just really hated Silronans. Either way, we ended up with a ďfreeĒ meal and beer, if of course you ignore the hundred and eighty weíd handed over earlier in the evening.
Pretty ordinary pub-style meal, as one would expect since it was free, though in Kazinian style. Chopped up vegetables thrown into some extremely greasy gravy and slopped into a bowl. Still better than most of us would have cooked, especially since whoever it who would have cooked (Murali, I believe) would have probably had to do so without fire.
The beer, though, was absolutely appalling. Nobody drank more than a mouthful, it was that bad. If you ever come to Kazin, donít waste your money on the stuff. In fact, donít even accept it if it comes free. Not even for novelty value. Dip a glass in the Ra-Lin and youíll be far better off.
I donít know how to describe it; it doesnít even really taste like beer. Thereís alcohol in it, you can just barely taste that, but I donít know what in Linís sweet name they brew it from. Like diluted mud with alcohol, I think thatís the best way of describing it. Better to go without beer for the next month and a half than to drink that stuff. Itís absolutely foul.
As we were silently scooping down the casserole, knowing it was probably going to be the best meal until Kurae cooked again, the nightís manager, for want of a better word, came over to talk to us. At least among the runners of the Houses, weíre as well-known in Kazin as in Raykin. The rest of the kingdom generally doesnít have any idea though. Not even the army personnel give us any higher regard than the rest of the Kazinian army. They know weíre the best in Raykin, but they donít actually know what that really means. But in the HousesÖ we give them more gold than anyone else who passes through there, so theyíre naturally trained to recognise us.
Anyway, the Kazinian official didnít start off too well. She glanced at our full tankards of beer, gave a lopsided grin then joked in a husky voice, ďToo strong for you, is it boys?Ē
Half the guys spluttered on their mouthful of casserole. A quarter, me included, stared at her in some strange look of incredulous disgust, and the rest exchanged glances debating, silently debating which words would be best suited for the situation. Too harsh and she might make us actually pay for the stuff, too soft andÖ we donít do soft.
In the end, Melraan lifted his glass accusingly and told her, ďThis is not beer. Itís fermented ditchwater.Ē A good choice of words, I thought.
Nol then glanced disparagingly into his glass and muttered something about fermentation. I was on a different table, so couldnít quite hear him, but It was probably something along the lines of, ďYou mean itís been fermented?Ē
The Kazinian official laughed all-too-brusquely, which meant she was obviously feeling the daggers every one of us was shooting at her. ďOh, I was joking! Joking! Everybody knows what strong drinkers you fellows are! I was joking!Ē
No, we didnít kill her, despite the wishes of about half the guys. But if she says that to every Raykinian who passes through, joking or not, sheís not going to last more than a week. Not just in the job, I mean she will literally not survive the week. Everyone who knows Raykinians can hold their liquor also knows not to mock us for the opposite. Blood of the goddesses.
Just as we were retiring to our rooms, there was an almighty screech from the kitchen, followed by giggling archers. Apparently the thraiís head has finally made its appearance, so we donít have to await its attack with baited breath anymore.
Tomorrow is when I guess you would say the ďfunĒ starts. Iíve never gone into Kazin with the purpose of killing off every bandit from here to Silrona. Should be interesting, if nothing else.