Cookie was pleased with the extra help On. Bunri assigned to him. Despite the rumors surrounding his arrival, Cookie found the boy to be eager to please and actually fairly competent with the preparation. He was a more than adequate replacement for Ireba, who-may the ether embrace him-died on the journey from Treffen to Tagerden. That had left Cookie and Jada to feed the hundred-odd people of the caravan by themselves. The boy’s presence certainly made their work easier.

            Celeres was enjoying the labor. The meals were different, but the job was much like working at his parent’s stand. After two weeks, the three of them had fallen into a comfortable routine. Cookie planned the meals. Supplies carried by the caravan provided the bulk of the fare he worked with, supplemented by purchases from farmers and whatever the occasional hunting party brought in. He also oversaw the preparation, spicing the food to his taste, and making sure enough was made to feed everyone. Celeres had inherited the heaviest and hottest work. Slaughtering, spitting, and turning the livestock that fed the caravan became his evening duty. Jada did everything in between: stirring pots of beans, making sure the porridge did not burn, and preparing the flat hard biscuits that served as the bread.

            It was tough, demanding work performed in the shadows of evening and the dark before the dawn. Cooking began before the first tent was unloaded in the evening. When the last of the food was dished out, they cleaned the pots and caught a few hours of sleep before getting up to make sure the camp was fed and ready to go before the first light of dawn. They got their rest during the day, dozing in wagons while the drivers munched on fruit or hard tack for lunch.

            Cookie, who enjoyed hearing himself speak, invariably dominated the conversations. “A caravan travels on its stomach,” he lectured Celeres after discovering his charge was On. Bunri’s nephew. “Its people can only move as far and as fast as they have the strength to go. That strength comes from the food they eat.”

            “And judging from how much he eats, Cookie must be the strongest person in camp,” Jada chimed in.

            “You have to make sure there’s enough variety in the menu,” he continued, ignoring the young woman. “In a group this size, there’s a tendency to simplify the meals. It’s easier to make the same meal again and again than it is to mix it up. People get grumpy eating the same thing every day. More importantly, they get sick. Teeth’ll get loose, bones’ll get soft, muscles’ll get weak.

            “Course, On. Bunri knows all this. Even makes sure I’m well supplied with spices to keep the caravan cooking from getting too boring. He knows his crew will be happier if I make meals they’re eager to eat.”

            “Which is apparently the ones you enjoy in abundance,” Jada teased Cookie, gesturing toward his ample girth.

            “My mother always says, ‘Don’t trust a skinny cook.’ It shows they don’t like the taste of their own cooking,” Celeres said.

            “Besides, how can I tell if the food’s any good if I don’t sample it?” Cookie protested.

            “Uh huh,” Jada agreed skeptically.

            “Makes sense to me,” Celeres said.

            “Your mom do a lot of cooking, Resle?” Jada asked.

            “Some,” Celeres answered carefully.

            “My mom was a cook in a tavern,” Jada said. “I wanted more than waiting on the same drunks every night, so I took off when I was old enough. Ended up here, making food for the same group every night. But at least the scenery changes.”

            “How long have you been working for Uncle Bunri?” Celeres asked her.

            “Two years.”

            “How about you, Cookie?”

            “Seventeen-no, eighteen years. Joined him on his second trip to Tagerden. Was going to join the Treffen merchant fleet until I found that rough waters don’t agree with me.

            “Think they’ve finished the latrine yet?” Cookie asked, casting an eye at the darkening sky.

            “Probably. You know how On. Bunri feels about a messy camp,” Jada said.

            “I’ll be back,” Cookie grunted and left, picking his way among the tents.

            “So, what’s it like living in the capital?” Jada asked Celeres.

            “Beautiful. There are miles of trails through the glowing gardens. Every spring, Maand’s birds arrive, following the flames of the vents and gracing the city with their colors and songs. If you go to the eastern wall, the tower of the Cheldean Deman can be climbed. From the top, you can look east and actually see the waters of the ocean fall off the edge of the world. There are hundreds of sights like that in the city.”

            Jada set aside her ladle and drifted over as he talked. “Have you ever seen the Emperor?”

            “A couple of times, performing the ceremony to reaffirm Zonneshin’s pact.

            “I’ve met Prince Emhyr once,” he added ruefully. “I’m afraid he wasn’t very happy with me.”

            After a few expectant moments, Jada spoke out in protest. “Well, you can’t just leave me with that! Tell me the story.”

            “It’s. . . really not that much of a story. Nothing really interesting happened.”

            “Embarrass yourself, did you?” Jada teased.

            “No. No, not exactly,” Celeres said slowly.

            “Heya, beautiful!”

            They turned to see Sanura coming towards them through the gathering gloom. She wore a tabard of the caravan’s colors over her armor, replacing Khenet’s gift for the moment.

            “Heya, brave,” Celeres said, smiling warmly at his love and the distraction she offered.

            Jada backed up a step and smiled pleasantly at Sanura. “Evening, Ranu.”

            “Evening, Jada. Resle, your uncle wants to see us after you serve supper. Cookie and Jada will have to clean up without you. Sorry, Jada.”

            “It’s okay. Cookie and I can handle it.”

            “What watch do you have tonight?” Celeres asked.

            “Middle, so I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep without me. Course, maybe Jada will keep you warm.”

            Celeres blinked, then blushed a deep black.

            “Why, Ranu, what a lovely flower to offer me,” Jada grinned mischievously.

            “Don’t you think you should get back to work before Cookie catches you slacking?” Celeres blustered.

            Laughing, Jada went back to tending the beans.

            Celeres turned his glower to his love, who returned it with a small smile. “Any idea what he wants?” he asked, changing the subject.

            “Presumably to review your status as camp pariah,” Sanura said.

            “See, if you work hard and keep your nose clean, rewards will follow.”

            “Maybe. I’m going to nap before supper. How long till it’s ready?”

            “Probably another hour.”

            “Okay. I’ll see you then.”

            “Sleep well,” Celeres called after her as she wandered off to their tent.

            The soldier woke from her nap to the ringing of Cookie’s bell as he called the camp to eat. Sanura pulled on her armor and headed for the outer ring of the camp. There, she briefly relieved a guard so he could eat. Upon his return, she made her way to the serving line. She hung back until almost the last had been served, then joined it. Celeres attended to her and then himself. Together they went to the large tent where On. Bunri resided.

            “Resle, Ranu, come in; join us,” Bunri welcomed them into his tent. He was seated at his table with Aikyo. They had already put a pretty good dent in their meals.

            “Cookie tells me you make a pretty good assistant, Resle,” Bunri said.

            “Thank you, Uncle.”

            “And Ranu, Aikyo tells me your working out fine with guard duty.”

            “It’s something I’ve had a fair amount of experience at, On. Bunri.”

            “So, you’ve earned these,” Bunri said, placing stacks of twelve coppers before each of them.

            “Thank you, honorable,” Sanura said, smoothly pocketing her money.

            Surprised, Celeres took a moment longer to react. “Oh! Thank you, Uncle.” He looked at the stack in bemusement.

            “I don’t know, Bunri. Doesn’t look like he knew what was coming. If he doesn’t need the money that badly, maybe you shouldn’t pay him,” Aikyo said slyly.

            Celeres looked at him, startled, then snatched up the money. Aikyo roared with laughter.

            Smiling broadly, Bunri explained, “It’s always a good idea to pay your crew as you go and then give them a bonus at the end. They’ll have a bit to spend along the way, and if the worst happens, they’ll at least have something in their money pouch.”
            “The worst being what?” Sanura asked.

            “Every few years, one bandit or another manages to gather enough people in the hard lands to be a real threat to the caravans passing through that area. After the bandits raze a couple of caravans, the empire sends the blood knights after them. Always takes them a while to settle back down once things get rolling. Before that, there’s usually a couple of people that survive the bandit attacks, and some money in hand makes their survival a bit easier.”

            “Why don’t they have the blood knights go in regularly and clean the bandits out while they’re still small?” Sanura asked.

            “Too much area to cover. Besides, they need them to guard the north-out arm more. The things lurking up there make the bandits look pleasant,” Aikyo said.

            “So why the caravans? I mean, the Treffens have quite a few ships. Why not sail from the outer curve around to the south-in arm?” Celeres asked.

            “Cause the Emperor don’t much like Treffen boats,” Aikyo answered.

            “Only the ships of the imperial navy are allowed on the eastern side of the continent,” Bunri elaborated. “Apparently, the Emperor gets a little nervous about the idea of a naval assault on Tagerden.”

            “The Treffen-Tagerden war has been over for a long time. We’ve been in the empire for three hundred years. You’d think he’d know us well enough that he wouldn’t think we’d do anything to disrupt business,” Aikyo snorted.

            “Considering the continued grumbling of the major merchant houses, I would say imperial fears have some grounding in reality. Sailing the goods would be cheaper for us, but not as cheap as being free of imperial taxes. I’d say the policy won’t change any time soon,” Bunri said.

            “And I’d say someone shook your egg to hard before you hatched,” Aikyo said.

            “At least I wasn’t hard boiled, like you,” Bunri responded, amused.

            “What’s Treffen like?” Sanura asked, diverting the older men.

            “Big. Bigger than Tagerden. We’re more open to strangers than the rest of the empire, and people from all four continents crowd its streets. The merchant houses run most of the city, as they have since long before we joined the empire. The Emperor decided there was more profit in taxing rather than destroying them after the war, but the imperial governor keeps their alliances from getting too large,” Bunri said.

            “Old egg, I’m sure the political intrigues of the city are not what the kids are interested in,” Aikyo interrupted. He turned to the lovers and continued, “Tagerden is a prettier city. The Emperor has higher standards of beauty than the merchant houses. The poor sections of Tagerden are still pretty well ordered. The slums of Treffen are a grim, dirty place where someone will slide a knife through you for a couple of coppers.”

            “Tagerden has its dangerous spots too, Aikyo. Quit trying to scare them,” Bunri said.

            Ignoring his friend, Aikyo smoothly swiveled the rudder of his lecture. “Now, the heights of the upper city makes Tagerden look like a hovel. The Emperor’s city recognizes a single sort of beauty, heavy on the feathers and gold trim. But Treffen, crossroads of the world, has built its beauty by sampling every culture in existence. The primitive arts of the islanders dominate the estate of House Schiff, while next door, the masonry styles of the first continent shape the buildings of House Kalt.

            “Don’t forget the fountains,” Bunri said.

            “The fountains,” Aikyo repeated with a small smile. “Regnan the Grand built the first ones. He felt a city should be beautiful as well as functional. He used his skills with water and stone to rebuild the city’s fountains, making each a unique treasure. The one I grew up near was a tribute to Cai. As its seven spouts cascade into the pool below, you can see him dance among the falling drops. It’s a breathtaking sight.”

            “Who is Cai?” Celeres asked.

            Bunri and Aikyo looked at him, stunned. A glance at Sanura told them that she knew as little of the Lord of Rainbows as the young man.

            “Gawlchmai’s tusks, what have you children been doing that you haven’t heard of Cai?” Aikyo demanded.

            “Living in Tagerden,” Bunri noted. “I’m guessing Zonneshin would be happy to have Cai forgotten, and the Emperor would be willing to oblige him. Ban the story long enough, and even the storytellers will forget it.

            “You two do know Maand is the mother of humanity, right?”

            “Of course. She laid the eggs that gave birth to the first twenty-two humans,” Celeres said.

            “Yes,” Bunri confirmed. “Who was the father?”

            The lovers looked at him blankly.

            “I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it,” Sanura said slowly.

            “What did I tell you?” Bunri asked, looking at Aikyo.

            The caravan master turned back and continued. “Zonneshin and Maand were lovers once, before the breaking of the first universe. They flew over the world together, bathing it and each other in their light. At night, they would burrow through the rock below the soil, plunging the world into darkness.

            “Eventually, Maand’s love for Zonneshin cooled, and she left him. Burned by the heat of his passion, Zonneshin returned her rejection with irrational unkindness. She took to hiding her light from him when he was in the sky, coming to full light only at night while he explored the deep.

            “Then the universe was destroyed and everything that had been was rewritten.

            “The Firstborn, like Zonneshin and Maand, remained much as they were, changed only by living in a new universe. When Tirannenmoordenaar died, many of them took to exploring his corpse. Following a prophecy, they knew the Destroyer would emerge from Tiran. They were all eager to find him to exact their revenge. Zonneshin and Maand set themselves in a path that leads them above and below Tiran, each determined to find the Destroyer before the other does.

            “Of course, they haven’t found him yet, which is a good thing. It would be inconvenient for us mere mortals if the sun and moon decided to leave the sky. Some say the Destroyer won’t return until right before the destruction of this universe. I don’t know about that, but I’m just as happy that the sun comes up in the morning.

            “Now Cai is not a Firstborn. He is a child of those mighty beings that were born within this universe. They are called the Elders, and their powers often rival the Firstborn and even the Secondborn children of the Elohim.

            “Cai delights in the many colors of light. He can often be found where the rainbows shine, leaping through the hues, watching the shift of shades and the chromatic dance. Mostly, he flies around the Spout, that eternal cascade of water that feeds the oceans of the world. The falling water catches the light of the sun, splitting it into the many colors Cai loves.

            “Maand first saw Cai during the day, her light enclosed within to avoid Zonneshin’s attentions. Cai’s beauty was intoxicating as he darted through the chromatic mists of the spout, the vibrant colors dancing across his form. Enchanted, Maand drifted down to speak with him. But Cai was oblivious, lost in his own amusements. He swooped from place to place while Maand chased after him. Eventually, his path twisted one time too many, and she lost him. Disappointed, she resumed her flight through the sky.

            “The next two days repeated the pattern. Discouraged, Maand resigned herself to the idea that she may never speak with this remarkable creature. He was too involved with his own pursuits to heed her attentions. Her light slowly swelled, gracing the world with its gentle grace. Eventually, she noticed that without Zonneshin’s light, the rainbows Cai so adored were much muted. She guessed that on a dark night, they would not appear at all, and so she hatched a plan to catch him.

            “Not all the ether is in the ocean below Tiran. Some of it reaches the very heights of heaven, thin wisps that the stars wander through and the verhaler feed upon. Maand’s path takes her from those heights to the depths below Tiran. Every circuit brings her within view of Ife, who swallows up the ether and spews it up as the Spout, an immortal memorial to her beloved Tirannenmoordenaar.

            “When she made the connection between the light, the ether, and Cai’s rainbows, Maand realized she had a way that would draw Cai to her like a groundling to an outhouse. She snatched a bit of ether from the air around her and transformed it into water. After playing with it for an hour, she had coaxed it into doing what she wanted. When she next passed by the ether ocean under Tiran, she dipped down to gather all she would need.

            “That night, when she flew up past the edge of Tiran, she did not appear in full glow, as she usually did when out of Zonneshin’s sight. Instead, she rose in darkness over our world. The children of the green gryphon did not notice. They are more interested in Zonneshin’s light, anyway. The creatures Gawlchmai had organized into species live largely in the moment, and none of them noticed the change in the routine either. Of the Firstborn and Elders, only Cheldar noted the difference, and what he thought of her actions, no mortal knows.

            “What happened next was told to the first humans by the groundlings, who even then walked Tiran. At the peak of her flight, Maand had taken the ether and surrounded herself in a cloud of mist, water, and ice. Then she burst forth in a blaze of light, and the cloud exploded in a cascade of colors.

            “The eruption of light brought Cai up short from his aimless wanderings in the dark. Fascinated, he flew up to explore it.

            “Maand collapsed the light as he approached, narrowing it to a single strip. She shortened it as he came on, reeling him in like a fish on a hook. When Cai reached out, he found Maand, dressed in the rainbow lights he so admired.

            “A month later, she laid twenty-two eggs on the island of the western sky.”

            “That was the reason for the expulsion,” Sanura realized. “Zonneshin was jealous.”

            “Yes. Not exactly a realization he would want bouncing around his chosen country,” Bunri said, after a sip of water.

            Celeres awkwardly stifled a yawn. “Sorry, Uncle. My boss has me working odd hours. Makes it hard to get a good night’s sleep.”

            “You’re just soft,” Aikyo growled.

            “At least he’s not as soft as Cookie,” Sanura joked, poking Celeres in the belly.

            “Yet,” he added.

            “Well, give me a couple more minutes, then I’ll let you get a bit of sleep. I didn’t ask you two here to pay your wages or amuse you with old tales,” Bunri said.

            “The gold masks paid us a visit today,” Aikyo announced.

            That started Celeres completely awake, fueled by a fresh rush of blood. Sanura simply nodded knowingly. She had been riding alongside the wagons when they reached the caravan. Celeres had been napping and missed it entirely.

            “They were looking for you two and the old woman,” the caravan master said.

            “Wonderful,” Celeres grumbled.

            “They were carrying sketches on a reward poster. A pretty good likeness, especially on Celeres. I’d suggest you two stay within the caravan as much as possible. I’ll steer visitors away from you,” Bunri said.

            Aikyo grinned. “You should have seen him, kids. ‘Pretty nice reward. Can’t say that I’ve seen them, Captain. I’ll keep an eye out for them. You say the Prince himself wants them? I’m always happy to do my bit for the imperial family. Do have you anything. . . extra, Captain? Anything that will let me contact you if I happen to catch them? Get the credit for the capture to the right person, so to speak?” His face parodied the caravan master at his slyest.

            “Made a nice bit off the transaction. You two are certainly earning your keep,” Bunri said.

            Sanura shook her head in amazement. “Hard to believe you’d push it like that, On. Bunri.”

            “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. I rarely miss a trick, especially on the Emperor’s guards. You just have to know how to squeeze them-and which ones not to squeeze. This one smelled ambitious, with no real beef against merchants, so I played him.”

            “This means our faces are going to be plastered everywhere,” Celeres said grimly.

            “Don’t worry too much lad. I’ll be removing them along our path. At least keep the enthusiasts within the caravan from turning you in. And assuming they had the bad taste to turn in someone On. Bunri was obviously protecting, they wouldn’t get much chance to enjoy the reward,” Aikyo said.

            “Thank you, Aikyo,” Sanura said sincerely.

            “The Cheldeans at Mt. Clero don’t answer to the Emperor, so they might give you sanctuary when you get there,” Bunri said. “Failing that, you can try to make it to Bluthafen and join the blood knights or go down to Treffen. My house would arrange to sail you out of the empire from there.”

            “Assuming we don’t get caught,” Celeres said.

            “Are you sure you don’t want to stay with us until we reach Treffen?” Bunri asked. “We should be able to get you there safely and then send you out of the reach of the Emperor’s thugs.”

            “There are complications,” Sanura said slowly. “We have to get to Mt. Clero before we head anywhere else.”

            “Is that where you two are heading? The old fool here only tells me what he thinks I need to know,” Aikyo grumbled. “Be a couple more months before we reach the road to Mt. Clero. You shouldn’t have much trouble while you’re on it though. The Cheldeans keep bandits off the road themselves, so the gold masks don’t bother to patrol it. Some merchant and farm traffic, but nothing that should keep you from reaching the college even with a price on your heads.”

            “I’ll make sure you’re provided for before you go. Without wagons to slow you down, you should make good time,” Bunri said.

            “Two months. It’ll be firefall by the time we go there,” Celeres said a bit sadly.

            Sanura took his hand and gave him an encouraging smile.

            “Well, we’ll let you two go. Second watch is almost up, and breakfast preparation begins all too soon,” Bunri said, standing up.

            “No rest for the wicked,” Celeres quipped.

            “Oh, is that why I’m always so busy?” Aikyo asked, peering at the caravan master.

            “Goodnight, children,” Bunri dismissed them.

            The lovers said goodnight and stepped out into the night. Celeres looked up at Maand, where she flew through the sky. “We were supposed to marry after firefall,” he said.

            “I know,” Sanura said, then leaned over and kissed him slowly. “We can still get married. They should have a registrar at Mt. Clero.”

            “It won’t be the same. Our families won’t be there. We won’t be home.”

            Sanura kissed him again, this time on the cheek. “I’ve got guard duty, love. Go get some sleep.”

            “Yeah,” Celeres sighed.

            Sanura left him on the way to their tent and turned toward the outer edge of the camp.

            Guard duty for the caravan, like guard duty anywhere, was a sharp combination of tedium and tension. The vast majority of the time, the threat to the caravan was nonexistent. Still, training reinforced by generations of family stories kept Sanura on her toes. No threat had ever found her lax in her duties, and she had no intentions of slipping now.

            In the very dead of night, her neighbor abandoned his post to visit her. She had found Macak to be, at best, indifferent to his duties. Sanura found his unprofessionalism annoying and made no bones about it to Aikyo. Bunri’s chief guard was well aware of the man’s imperfections. Still, Macak had maintained an unusually impressive record for spotting and fending off threats to the caravan, so he was not inclined to come down on the man too hard despite his erratic conduct.

            “Quiet night,” Macak said as he approached.

            “Shouldn’t you be at your post?” Sanura asked pointedly.

            “Robento is on the far side. He can keep a view on both positions for a while. Besides, there’s nobody out there tonight. Too many farms and too many gold masks for bandits in this area.”

            “There’s always a part-time thief or two on those farms.”

            “Sure, but they’re clumsy. Even if they sneak past the ring of guards, they still have to get around the alarms set on the goods.”

            “Sloppy,” Sanura said with disapproval.

            Macak shrugged. “Fine. Stay wound up for no real reason.”

            “Thank you. I will.” Sanura resumed her scanning of the dark.

            Macak chuckled. “Determined one, aren’t you? Probably how you bagged your merchant’s son, huh?”

            Ignoring her silence the green-skinned man appraised her form. “Course, it may have more to do with other things. You’re a truly lovely woman, Ranu.”

            Sanura snorted in derision. “Macak, you’d tell a shit-eater that if it gave you a chance to stick your prick in her.”

            “No, that’s Robento. My tastes are far more refined. A rare gem is worth admiring more than a dull river rock.”

            A short, barking laugh escaped Sanura’s lips.

            “Why don’t we go off a bit, beautiful gem? It’s a quiet night and the others can watch the dark for us. We can talk a bit. Maybe explore new ways for you to hang on to that fine fish you’ve caught in Resle.”

            “Subtle. Though I’m betting there’s some flaws you overlook in your gems.”

            “We’ll just be gone a little while, then we’ll be good for the rest of the night,” the man said, taking a step towards her.

            The moonlight glinting off Sanura’s blade as she pulled it an inch out of its sheath brought him up short. “I might have some trouble explaining to On. Aikyo why I split you in two, but I suspect On. Bunri will be a bit more sympathetic when I tell how you approached his nephew’s fiancée.”

            Macak pursued his lips and considered her for a moment. “Well, that’s seems a bit over the top for a woman of your sort, but never let it be said that I don’t recognize a ‘fuck off’ when I see it.”

            Sanura grimly held her stance.

            “It was just a bit of an idea, in case you’d gotten bored with your boy prize. Still, the offer will still be there if you want to take me up on it.”

            “Don’t count on it,” Sanura said coldly.

            Macak shrugged and smiled at her, before heading back to his post. Sanura ground her teeth and prayed to Maand that firefall would come soon.