Chapter 63. A Missing Link
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The fifth arm of Emanai emerged from its fort like tea poured from a well-crafted kettle. The smooth and unstoppable stream of marching foot soldiers was intermixed with proud archers, snobbish war mages, and bored charioteers. The units were kept together during the march with servants and mules walking alongside us — carrying the field tent we will be sleeping in from now on, a couple of spare spears, and enough grain to not die for a week.

I knew that the arm had a much bigger baggage train with specialised equipment somewhere far behind us, but anytime I glanced back while standing on a hill all I saw was an enormous human column of weapons and shields. There were smiths and even a siege engineer formation somewhere close to the chicken legs stomping in the morning fog but no one bothered to inform me about their structure or composition.

Either because I was too low rank to know, they didn’t know either, or some form of jealousy was in the way.

We were grunts. Our job was to hold the ranks and march or stop at the sound of the horn. Our task was to shield the palm of archers and mages, to form one of the walls of the square formation that our fist formed during battle, and to stand our ground no matter what. The rest of our responsibilities were all about wiping our own asses — we would cook our meals, set up and take down our tent, and — every time our arm stopped for the night — we had our personal guard positions and corresponding guard shifts.

Irfan and I, however, were exempt due to our status. He was the leader of our finger and I was the messenger boy between the finger, the First Spear, and whoever the First Spear had to communicate with. Whether it was her fellow First Somethings, the Manipular, or even the General. While the rest of the finger were relieved that a greenhorn like me was not in charge of their safety, I did notice some looks being thrown my way.

I wasn’t planning on begging the First Spear to assign me to guard duty anyway. The other soldiers were right — I had no Forest guard experience despite my enhanced senses. I could see a lot more than a normal murk could yet still fail to recognise danger fast enough. At the same time, I had a lot of things to work on. Apart from any errands that I would be sent to do and the obvious marching along the rest of the arm, I had to sew parts of the balloon into one piece and still find some peace and quiet so that I could ponder upon wermage spell poetry.

The fact that I was, once again, targeted by someone influential enough to send Collectors didn’t help me either.

“Hey! Mule Boy.” Sassan’s voice grabbed my attention through the marching song.

Someone was beating drums behind us to maintain the cadence of our steps and others were quick to start singing. The songs were simple and mostly revolved around the strength of the arm, personal bravery, and occasional love, but they maintained the rhythm and kept soldiers occupied throughout the monotonous march.

I looked at the man marching by my side. “My name is Erf.”

Just as it was the case with Samat, areas around Uureg were filled with fields and occasional forests. If one could call them forests to begin with — the trees were pruned so extensively that they resembled giant brooms stuck upright in the ground. Their numerous long and thin branches were used not only for firewood but for spears and arrows of Emanai forces. Apart from the repetitive scenery, most of my view was also obstructed by pavise shields, painted with the cow head of Kiannika, and yellow kaftans that made us look alike. They also stopped the chill winds of northern Emanai from turning our metallic armours into icicle suits, but that didn’t make them any more interesting to look at.

He adjusted the shield on his back. “I heard you got your face slapped by some important lady from the capital. Looking for another wife after losing your sword?”

“Why would I look for even more wives?”

Granted, my sadaq did expand after the previous Collector meeting but that was Anaise deciding to take matters into her own hands. There was no way that I could simply solve all my problems by collecting wives left, right, and centre. It would simply take all my outside problems and make them internal. I would be lying if I said that all three of my wives intentionally sought out the current situation. Irje aside, it was more about the compromise between Anaise and Yeva where both were able to accept certain setbacks and acknowledge possible benefits of being in sadaq together.

In the meantime, the entire finger was laughing their asses off.

“Then why are you glancing back every ten paces as if you’re missing your home already?”

“Don’t be tough on the kid, Sassan,” another soldier piped in. “He just got his sword picked by some idiots — of course he would shake like a leaf.”

“Irfan said they were Collectors.”

“Nah. Do you think the real Collectors, you know — ones that came from arm Procurers, would just trip over and fall on their blades? Run away after taking a single blade? Those were just some thieves that wanted to look like them.”

“Hear, hear.”

An arm patted me on the shoulder.

“Consider yourself lucky, Mule Boy,” my ‘defender’ encouraged me. A rather portly man. “If those were real Collectors, you wouldn’t have lived to see the morning sun. I heard that the previous Manipular’s brother was targeted by them. It didn’t help that he was a wermage — a handful of them were crushed to death but they managed to stab him through the chest at the end…”

I sighed. “You know what? Thieves, Collectors — it doesn’t matter. The First Spear was informed as were my wives and everyone else who was pertinent to this situation. The reason I was looking back-”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Roshan barged in. “Wives? Do you mean the long-legged Enoch Lady that made me eat dirt was your wife as well?”

Someone laughed. “Since when you are so gullible, Roshan?”

“Why would she follow him back all the way from their barracks then, huh?”

“What is going on here!” Irfan thundered into their conversation. “Are you the warriors of the first maniple or village gossips!? Why is there so much noise during the march!?”

“You gotta hear this — Mule Boy is saying that he got two wives and Roshan believes him!”

“Why the fuck do you care how many wives he has!?”

“You believe him too?”

Irfan stumbled for a second, looking constipated, only to smack Sassan. “You fool! Don’t you understand that it is his wife that has another wife? Huh? Or is your head only useful to keep your helmet on?”

Others aah-ed in realisation.

I rubbed my eyes with a sigh. This was going to be a very long trip.

 

Tarhunna Kiymetl Wafiq

 

“She knows,” his wife murmured with a frown when the Kamshad Matriarch had left their Manor. “Why does she know?”

Ramad’s tail twitched. “Know what?”

Aikerim pressed her lips thin. “There was another Collector attempt.”

Tarhunna felt his horns itch. “Is Anaise safe?”

“Yes, it appears that they came to collect one of my new swords, rather than the lives of my Manor. Traded a life for a sword blank.”

He sighed. “That’s… better than it could have been. But not perfect either.”

“Do we know who did it?” Ramad asked.

“Erf managed to sniff out the oil on Lita’af Hikmat. She denies anything.”

Ramad started to unsheathe his blade, but Tarhunna put his hand on its pommel. “A word of a murk isn’t enough to counteract a Lady of the House. Even if we name him a daimon. All it would do is make us look weak. They will parade our incompetence as long as they want to and then slip away by throwing some hapless servant as the ‘sole perpetrator’. If they haven’t already.”

“Yes, direct accusations would help us little at this point.” Aikerim grimaced. “Especially with how they often portray my Manor.”

“Yet, she knows?”

She pushed the sleeve of her kaftan up and Tarhunna shivered when he saw the flicker of runes inside her open palm.

“I cannot directly question another Matriarch with the Orb of Truth, and would gain little even if she would let me. So I had to improvise. What worries me isn’t her knowledge — while it would’ve been better if I had caught her unawares, she is shrewd enough to walk away without too much dirt on her clothes. A rider with constant horse changes would take another two tendays to reach Samat.”

“So she planned it in advance.” Ramad summarised.

Aikerim grimaced. “That’s what worries me so much. The Kamshad are quick to act when it fits their needs, yet this is too bold even for Roshanak Gulnaz. This happened before I even caused the stir at the Summit — something else is at play that guarantees her boldness.”

“What if she was told?”

She glanced at Tarhunna. “Hmm?”

“What if this wasn’t done on her direct orders, but she was informed immediately after?” He leaned forward on his couch. “You said that the Speaker of Shebet is closely following our daimon — Albin Chasya is a well-known wind mage and likely a daimon himself. Of the traditional kind. If anyone could send a missive as fast as the wind flies — it would be him. Are you sure that he is on our side?”

Her tail swished through the air, almost knocking aside a nearby vase. “No one knows whose side the Speaker of Shebet is on! I do think he cares about Erf’s well-being, but it is done out of personal curiosity. I wouldn’t be surprised if he informed the Kamshad Matriarch just to make things interesting for himself!”

Aikerim groaned and rubbed her temples. “I’ve sent a missive to my mother and invited her back into Samat. I am going to defend myself from the combined influence of multiple Pillar Manors and I do not wish to make my mother think that I am usurping her position.”

“Are you going to ask her for help? You know that Enoch is eager to provide assistance to your Manor as well.”

“Tarhunna, dear,” she gave him a small smile, “I didn’t say that I am unable to defend myself. My frustration is caused by their recklessness, not power.”

“They are reckless because they can’t comprehend your power,” Ramad reasoned, patting his sword. “You need to talk to Roshanak in a language that she will understand.”

“Yes, and I want you to speak on my behalf.” Aikerim pulled out a wrapped bundle and sent it into Ramad’s open arms. “Take this daimonic wood and make it into your second skin. My sword dancer will help you turn it into a new style of fighting. Master it as only you can, so that you can teach every Kiymetl wermage of my Manor in turn. Do not forget the brigandine — both will become the standard gear of my Manor guards. I want others to look at my warriors and understand how futile it is to attack me and mine.”

Ramad bared his fangs in a vicious grin as his fingers unveiled the black wood. “Allow me to start this very moment!”

Aikerim rolled her eyes. “Make sure you take some time to eat as well.”

Ramad didn’t wait. With a quick flourish, he jumped off his couch and vanished through the doorway, leaving Tarhunna and an amused Aikerim alone.

“Is it not too rash?”

Eyes of amber glanced his way. “Don’t be jealous of his gifts, dear. You know that his character and his Kiymetl background make him perfect for this task.”

“We both know how much time your sister spent ogling your new dress. I am certain that Nanaya Ayda will be… interested as well when she returns to Samat. Are you going to keep your mother wanting?”

Aikerim pondered about something for a moment then got up from her couch. “You have travelled far and wide, bringing great profits to my Manor. Tell me, do you enjoy the sea?”

Tarhunna sat up straighter and scrutinised his approaching wife. “I wouldn’t claim it as my greatest passion. I am certain that I would be of greater help here, by your side, than across the sea.”

“Be at ease — I am not asking this to trick you. Ramad is good with sword and bow, you fare better with word and oar. I expect my mother’s eagerness to receive such a gift herself after witnessing my husband in it. That is why I want your help to make sure she is the one asking, rather than me presenting it to her as a gift.”

He let himself smile. “I am curious how my travels would help in this matter.”

“I want you to teach Amanzhan’s captains how to sail.” Aikerim’s tail beckoned him. “Come with me.”

Tarhunna almost stumbled as he was getting up. “Forgive me, dear, but I am an envoy, not a sailor. I do not think I can teach them anything that they do not already know themselves.”

“You will be sharing with them a certain daimonic knowledge, given to you beforehand.”

“Truly? You have me intrigued, then.” His steps quickly caught up with his wife.

Aikerim nodded. “Good. What I need from you is to ascertain how valuable her knowledge could be to my sister and make sure that there are no gaps or weaknesses in it. Something that you can do better than I. Then use your experience to relay that knowledge properly to the rest of the Kiymetl. It needs to be impressive enough that neither my eldest sister nor my mother would dare to demand further concessions.”

“Your daimon’s knowledge has been impressive so far. To such an extent that I feel surprised you are willing to share it at all.”

A sly smirk appeared on Aikerim’s face. “It is considered a minor knowledge. Minor enough that Erf felt it was more prudent to skip it altogether and concentrate on more significant projects. This is another reason why I want you to be the bearer of this knowledge — your status and experience are significant enough that your words will be heard with proper respect.”

It took them little time to traverse across the Manor and reach the covetous estate deep within. The place looked quite unusual — it was bustling with slaves, yet lacking in activity. Tarhunna frowned at the sight — it was not a good thing to let slaves idle for long. Nevertheless, the estate brought uncountable riches to the Manor and Aikerim kept it firmly under her control. Among Domina’s close family, only Anaise had any say in the estate’s internal matters, and that was only because she claimed the daimon for herself.

Yes, Erf was considered the owner of the estate, but Aikerim was still his mistress and she would be his patron once he earned his freedom.

A silent wer bodyguard brought them to a study room, filled with scrolls and large slateboards. The sole resident of the room lifted up her eyes from whatever she was writing and stood up from a table that was large enough for him.

“Domina. Master Tarhunna Wafiq. How can I be of service?”

“I want you to teach my husband how to sail.”

Tarhunna coughed, the statement was rather blunt.

Yeva tilted her head to the side. “Certainly. Do you have time to listen in?”

“You require my presence? I assure you — my husband doesn’t bite.”

He shook his head, his wife was getting surprisingly jovial in the presence of this murk.

“There will be some geometry involved. I assume that you would be interested to hear it as well.”

The bright-red tail froze for a moment, only to resume its languid movement from side to side. “You can be quite assertive when you want to be.”

He chuckled. “Something tells me that this isn’t a minor knowledge at all.”

Aikerim frowned. “Let us hear it first.”

Yeva nodded. “I assume that you are familiar with Emanai square sails?”

“I have travelled on Esca’s ships as well.”

“Have you noticed that they are somewhat more manoeuvrable?”

“Their sails are reinforced with wooden planks — they can catch the wind that is blowing sideways.”

“Yes, the battens keep their sails rigid when the wind is blowing from the side. They are using a different method of sailing, likely without realising it themselves.”

“Yeva,” Tarhunna sighed. “I have been an envoy longer than you were alive. I am familiar with the trick you are using. It is easy to cast doubts on the skills of others so that you can highlight your own, but Domina trusts you already and this posturing is unnecessary. Why don’t you tell us about your proposal instead.”

She pressed her lips together. “I was not trying to make them look weaker than they are. They made a step in the right direction, but it was but a single step of a whole journey. The Esca are beginning to understand that there is more than one way to push sail ships forward, but they haven’t grasped the true cause of it.”

“And what is that method?” Aikerim asked.

Yeva paused for a moment. “I haven’t seen any windmills in Emanai, but there are a whole lot of things that I haven’t seen in general. Are there any?”

“Emanai rarely uses them,” he replied. “Our rivers are plentiful and the wind is too unpredictable. Both Yusuf and Shirvan have plenty across their lands as they lack strong rivers in the sands. Vertical poles with square sails in four or six directions.”

He picked up a piece of white clay and drew a picture for Aikerim to see.

“Looks like square sails on a single mast. And this turns the mill stones?”

“Yes. They build walls around it so the wind only blows at one side.”

Aikerim turned back to Yeva. “So this uses the other method?”

The murk girl shook her head as if seeing the drawing through the veil over her eyes. “No, but it likely gave them ideas on how to build their sails. I was talking about the other kind of windmill.”

She walked back to the table and picked up a piece of parchment, pulling a knife and a thin hairpin from her pouch. A few swift actions and she lifted up the new ornament. “Have you seen one of these?”

Tarhunna tilted his head. “A flower?”

“Try blowing on it.”

He pointed a finger at it, sending a slight gust of wind its way. Only to blink in surprise. “Why does it rotate?”

“It is a windmill.” Yeva passed the ‘flower’ to Aikerim. “A horizontal one rather than the vertical ones you have seen in the lands of Yusuf.”

“But why does it rotate?”

Yeva smiled slightly. “That is a very good question. The same reason why Esca sails can move when the wind is blowing to the side — rather than catching the wind, it redirects it to the side. A shield can stop the blade or it can send it to the side, yet in both cases the wielder will feel the impact.”

“The impact would be lessened, however,” Tarhunna reasoned back. “I can see how this would help the ship to sail forward when the wind is to the side, but this won’t be enough to impress Amanzhan. Even the Esca rely on rowers for their faster ships.”

“Because this is where Esca is at. The first step.”

“There is a step that would make ships sail as fast as if they were going downwind?” Aikerim asked. The new hairpin was now inside her hair, a gentle breeze slowly turning it around.

“There is a step that will make ships sail faster than the wind itself.” Yeva adjusted the hairpin.

“What?” Tarhunna coughed. “How?”

“You could say that the ship will create its own wind.”

“It will create a trail of puke. Amanzhan doesn’t have enough wermages to create that much wind.”

“Yes, it does sound somewhat far-fetched. That is why I will need geometry to explain it.” Yeva stepped away from laughing Domina and walked toward the slateboard. “Let me ask you a question — if the weather is calm and you decide to dash forward, do you feel the wind on your face?”

Tarhunna blinked. “Keep talking.”

“We will be discussing speeds and forces rather than shapes and forms, so a new geometric object is needed to draw them.” Yeva turned around and drew an arrow on the board.

“This is a vector. A geometric object with a defined size and direction. It will help me show you how boats can create apparent wind that is stronger than the true wind, and how sails can generate not only drag but lift as well.”

XXX

 

“Close your mouth, Mule Boy, or a fly will get inside!”

“Keep talking, Roshan, and I will make a song about how your farts strip bark off nearby trees,” I replied almost automatically, without taking my eyes off an enormous structure in front of our arm.

Emanai knew how to build big when they needed to and the Border Wall was the best example of such fervour. Rather than being a wall, it looked like someone took a pyramid at the northern slopes of Babr Mountains and stretched it more than two hundred kilometres north until it reached the Bay of Tir shores. I had to send Chirp twice to make sure.

Scrolls in Aikerim’s library mentioned multiple arms along with the local populace assisting in its construction but stressed that it was built largely with magic. The sheer scale made me understand why. If this was built with human labour, even if all the labourers were slaves, the project would’ve bankrupted Emanai many times over. Just because slaves still needed to eat at least something and taking this much labour force from farms and mines would’ve tanked the economy anyway.

Aside from the enormous scale that put Emanai as the major contender in Tana’s colossal constructions dick-measuring contest, the wall was quite simple. A flat vertical ‘enemy’ side was stabilised by a sloped ‘home’ hill which not only provided the wall with extra girth at the bottom but made for a convenient base to build stairways to the top.

“So this stops Creat-”

A punch into my side interrupted me mid-speech.

“Don’t call Things by their name this close to the Forest, you fool!” Irfan hissed. “Do you want them to take notice of us?”

I glanced around only to notice frowns and grimaces and quickly raised my hands in a universally placating gesture. “Thank you for telling me this while we are still outside of the Forest.”

Irfan spat to the side and turned around. “It helps but the height is said to keep barbarian hordes at bay.”

“It needs to be this high?”

“What am I? A General? How the fuck do I know? I’ve served for more than a decade and haven’t heard of any horde crossing it — that means it’s working!”

“They go for softer places,” Arash murmured nearby. “No one is stupid enough to throw their lives away at the wall when there is a settlement or a farm nearby. Or they raid somewhere else.”

“Speaking of settlements,” I nodded back at the wall, “who is living behind it? I thought there was only Forest.”

“Merks, who else? Some wer occasionally — Things might wander in but the land is fertile and plentiful. Merks like us lack the Spark anyway so many hope to be ignored by Things. Even if they don’t — a swift death is often better than the slow starvation on their promised plots of land.” The old man spat in disgust. “You spend twenty years serving and all they give you is a piece of rock to plough upon!”

“The farming life isn’t for you, old Arash.”

He scoffed. “Better to fight and earn real gold than bend your back for years just to earn a handful of oats.”

“Hear, hear!”

“Even border duty earns you nothing more than a square of rubble along the Babr slopes!”

“Boys! Look!” Roshan pointed at an enormous gate complex we were marching towards. A border town of its own. “Those are the banners of another arm!”

Arash stopped his tirade and peered in the same direction as well, “Can you see their number?”

“The eleventh arm…I think.”

The old man grinned. “Ulastai… this means we are in luck!”

“What makes them so lucky?” I asked him.

“It is an auxiliary arm, unlike ours. More merks with shields and spears, fewer war mages and chariots. More pickaxes and shovels too. What matters is that they are waiting for our arrival. This is no longer an ordinary campaign of a single arm — something big is brewing and we will be at the centre of it!”

“That is a good thing?”

“Yes, you dolt! Compared to you, who is showered with gold by his mistress-wife, us merks can only get rich through honest battles. Even better if we head north and claim some Hsaca territory — their cities have more to plunder.”

“What? You don’t want to claim a cloth tent from some cat tribe in the east?”

“Not unless I trade its residents to Kishava first.”

I sighed and lost interest again. I could see why they got excited about it — an ordinary trek through the Forest to maintain roads and outposts would bring no spoils yet threaten their lives every day they were beyond the Border Walls. A campaign against other humans would bring spoils beyond the usual pay.

Based on the conversations that I overheard so far, Emanai arms were unmatched in the region. Neighbouring countries weren’t protected by their thick walls or strong warriors — they remained safe and independent due to the Forest turning every march into a logistical nightmare. Apart from the attrition to disease and the local Creature population, there was an issue with provision. The Forest was alien. The ‘trees’ were made out of alien materials and the burgundy biomat covering the ground was not even remotely close to terrestrial grass. Horses and mules couldn’t graze, and there were little to no edible berries, nuts, or mushrooms; apart from a few invasive species that managed to penetrate the established alien ecosystem. Water in the streams was drinkable if you didn’t mind occasional parasites but the rest of the provisions needed to be shipped in from Emanai.

Shipped. There were no food caravans moving snacks through the Forest. Countless tons of cereals, cured meats, and fodder for the animals were shipped along the coast of the bay. Ships would then sail up the rivers into the Forest itself and intercept the marching arms in order to keep them well-stocked to reach the next river crossing.

Every additional day of travel away from Emanai made the campaign more and more expensive. Every additional warrior meant more rations of food to carry and to ship. There was a certain range where Emanai simply couldn’t walk further no matter the size of its forces. The army would simply eat itself alive through the march.

Emanai was trying to push the Forest further away and expand that range, but the process was extremely slow. And not without setbacks — I remembered that Albin’s map indicated that there was another Border Wall ahead. It was largely abandoned as Emanai had to shrink back to previous, smaller borders and recover from the disastrous overextension of its forces.

Needless to say, members of my finger saw any possible clash with other nations as an assured win. Not just my finger either — it was noticeable that the entire arm got motivated as we approached the standing forces of Ulastai. Drums were beating faster and horns were louder As everyone was eager to stand proud and ready in front of the enormous gateway.

The warriors were eager to fight.

I wasn’t.

While others were puffing up their chests and rattling their spears on their shields, I scowled at a bloody altar. A familiar hand rose up in the sky and slashed downward, spilling the guts across the marble surface.

“Hear me, oh warriors of Emanai!” the voice of the Censor boomed across the valley. “For there is a great campaign ahead of you!”

The arms answered with loud cheers of “Ul-lah!”

“There is an enemy that prowls in the lands of the east! He is weak and cowardly, but his recent successes made him bold enough to eye the lands of Emanai! He resorts to treachery — seeking our settlements beyond the Wall only to run away with his tail between his legs once our arms draw near.” Sophia Chasya paused to observe the two now silent arms and then grinned. “And by doing so, he has already lost!”

Her bloodied hand gestured at the glowing altar and the carcass of some mutilated animal. “The Goddess spoke to me and foretold the movements of his hordes. She warned me of his treacheries so that I can lead the arms forth and send the barbarians back to their steppes!”

“The fuck is she doing here?” I muttered among the roar of the arms.

“Are you blind?” The First Spear walked up to me. “Can’t you see her kaftan and her sash? She is our General.”

I closed my eyes and suppressed a groan.

“Get moving!” She shoved me forward. “Your tasks await you — while others will set up the tent you are to follow me to the General’s quarters. She wishes to meet everyone before departure.”

“I bet she does,” I snarked.

“Keep your chin up, boy! Our Manipular informed her of your incident and they managed to find the thief that picked your blade. A General herself! If I were you, I would be skipping into her tent to kiss her feet for such benevolence!”

“Why am I not surprised?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter was edited by: Xeno Morph and UnknownPlunger.

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