The morning brought a messenger with it. The night before had been quiet, but the lovers had not gotten much rest, comforting each other in the dark. Khenet had slept like a rock.

            While the trio ate breakfast, a mounted woman appeared through the trees followed by three riderless antelope. She wore a short shift with the same embroidered design as Khenet’s robe and Sanura’s tabard. Because of her small size, Celeres almost mistook her for a child. Then he spotted the small lines around her eyes and mouth. The young man wondered how someone old enough to have wrinkles could be that small. She knelt before Khenet, who touched the woman’s forehead in benediction.

            “Suzume, have you eaten yet this morning?” Khenet asked.

            “No, elder,” the messenger answered.

            “Then join us.”

            Celeres handed her one of the apples they had gathered during their march. The food they had brought from Tagerden had been finished a couple of days before. Suzume accepted the fruit solemnly, then intermittently consumed the pome while she talked, leaving only the stem behind.

            “Did you find what I requested?” Khenet asked.

            “Yes, elder. We searched among the caravans heading west for one willing to flout imperial law,” Suzume said.

            “Which would be most of them,” Sanura said tartly. “Zonneshin knows I’ve found enough smuggled goods while inspecting them.”

            “We found one led by a Treffen that owes the wood folk a bit,” Suzume continued. “We have warned him of several bandit attacks in the past.”

            “Good. Treffens have never been happy about being part of the empire. That should let me attend to other things and give you two enough protection to get to Mt. Clero,” Khenet said, pointing at Sanura and Celeres.

            “Isn’t there a chance that they’ll recognize Sanura?” Celeres asked doubtfully. “I mean, the west gate is her area. She probably inspected them when they reached Tagerden.”

            “City guards are interchangeable and forgettable, beautiful,” Sanura reassured him. “Except for the sergeants, of course. After all, they’re the ones the bribes are paid to.”

            Celeres gaped at her. “Sanura!” he protested.

            She looked at him in amusement. “Hon, what empire have you been living in? The merchants pay taxes on what they want to declare and bribe the guards to hide what they don’t want seen. The guards give the tax collectors a cut of the bribe, so they don’t skim too much from the taxes, which keeps the emperor happy.”

            “That’s horrible!” he protested.

            “Maybe, but that’s the way it works. Come on, Celeres, your mom’s shown you how the money works at your family’s stand. Are you telling me she tells the tax collectors about everything?”

            “Well-that’s different.”

            Sanura laughed at him.

            After packing up the camp and dousing the fire, Suzume introduced them to their mounts. “These are Grass Eater and Longstride,” she said as she directed Sanura and Celeres to two of the antelopes. “They were human raised and trained to fight. Their riders died in combat, leaving them to wander until they joined the wild herds. They volunteered to help when we described your needs to the herd.”

            They look like solid animals to Sanura. Their coats needed groomed, but the muscles she had often seen on the mounts of the gold masks rippled under their fur. Their tack lacked the ornate designs she already associated with the wood folk. After noting the other two beast wore nothing to assist a rider, Sanura decided not to ask too closely about were the equipment came from.

            Khenet approached the last antelope, a filly of stunning grace. “This is Brightcoat,” Suzume told her, “Favorite of the herd leader. She said she was honored to carry one as esteemed as yourself, elder.”

            Khenet stroked Brightcoat’s muzzle and smiled. “You’re a lovely thing, aren’t you?” The antelope nuzzled her, and Khenet laughed. “Oh, we’ll get along fine.”

            Sanura helped Celeres into his saddle, then mounted Longstride. They rode through the forest until midafternoon, picking their way through the trees. Sanura had some training on dealing with antelopes, including riding them. She soon found herself comfortable with Longstride’s rhythm. Much to her surprise, Celeres, who had rarely had a chance to handle one, much less ride it, adapted even quicker. He and Grass Eater picked their way over the uneven ground, a fat smile of delight plastered on his face.

            As the sun made his way down the western sky, the travelers reached the road. The blue-green of the roadweed grew in a wide swath that stretched off into the distance to the east and west. The antelope greeted their arrival with pleasure, relieved to no longer have to worry about catching stones between their hooves. The humans were delighted to be able to make better time along the track of plants. The ease found by the lovers in their mounts earlier had faded by this time, replaced by the aches of overworked muscles.

            They rode hard, passing farming estates and a small village that lined the road. There were many other travelers going in both directions. Farmers with empty carts trundled along, their drivers eager to get home from market. Hard riding messengers, the lifeblood of the empire, dashed past them, hurrying to their destinations. Well appointed carriages set a more leisurely pace, their wealthy passengers within hidden by ornate curtains.

            They found the caravan setting up for the night in an empty field. A pair of guards standing at the perimeter watched the travelers approached. One of the guards waved for them to stop and came towards them.

            “Evening, folks. My name is Aikyo,” he said easily. “What can we do for you?”

            “I am Khenet. We need to speak with the caravan master, please.”

            “Macak, fetch On. Bunri. These folks have business for him,” Aikyo barked at the second guard.

            Macak called out to one of the men hammering stakes for the tents. That man tucked his hammer into his belt and trotted further into the camp to get their leader. Macak returned to watching Aikyo with their visitors.

            “I don’t know how much business you’ll get done tonight, ma’am,” Aikyo apologized. “On. Bunri don’t much like to show off the wares before night settles in. He’ll probably tell you to come back at dawn while we’re packing to go.”

            “Thank you, Aikyo, but I think the master will prefer to finish this tonight.”

            The guard nodded sympathetically. “You folks from around here?”

            Khenet smiled warmly. “I grew up around here, years and years ago. My brother inherited the family estate, so I moved to Tagerden to make my own way. Did quite well if I do say so myself.

            “My youngest nephew is finally getting married, and my granddaughter agreed to ride out with me. It’s actually been a lovely ride out. It always seems to rain on the other occasions I’ve had to come home.”

            “It has been nice the past few days,” agreed Aikyo, who knew far more about traveling in inclement weather than he really liked to consider.

            Khenet looked up at the camp. “I would say that is On. Bunri.”

            Aikyo turned back to see his boss approaching past the tents. Like most in the caravan, their leader wore sturdy linen slacks and heavy boots. The only concession to his rank was the heavy gold necklace that hung over his scarlet shirt. His gray skin was lined and weathered, but Aikyo had seen enough action with the caravan master to have no doubts that his advancing years had slowed him down.

            “Yes, honorable, it is. If you’ll excuse me?” Aikyo asked.

            “Of course.”

            Aikyo moved back to join Macak and greet their boss.

            “These our visitors?” Bunri asked.

            “Yes. The old woman calls herself Khenet and claims to be traveling with her granddaughter from Tagerden to her family’s estate near here. I don’t know about the other two. I didn’t get a chance to direct the conversation toward them.”

            Bunri looked at the travelers, his eyes narrowing as they lighted on Celeres. “I’m going to talk to them privately, Aikyo. Keep the curious away, will you?”

            “Got it, boss.”

            His expression grim, Bunri walked over to the travelers. “Old one?” he asked.

            “The people of the woods have helped you a few times, haven’t we, On. Bunri?” Khenet answered.

            “Indeed. Let’s move a little farther away. My people are pretty reliable, but they can’t give away secrets they don’t know.”

            “Prudent. I need to beg a favor of you, caravan master.”

            “So your messenger indicated when she approached me last night,” he said, looking meaningfully at Suzume. “I’m glad your people have never taken up banditry. Not many can sneak in and out of our camp without being noticed.”

            “My people have certain skills available to us that most don’t. In this case, however, I’m going to need your resources.”

            “You wanted to slip a couple of people into the caravan.” he said while considering the lovers.

            “Yes. They need to get to the Cheldean college on Mt. Clero. They need protection along the way, but I cannot travel further with them.”

            “What kind of trouble are they running from?”

            “Imperial and hirudin.”

            Bunri raised his eyebrows. “That’s quite a combination. I can probably keep the empire out of their hair, but I’m not really equipped to handle hirudin.”

            “That end of the problem has more or less worked itself out for the moment. I’m more worried about the gold masks right now.”

            Bunri smirked. “A bit of gold to add to their collection is usually enough to convince them to turn their concerns elsewhere.”

            “I’m afraid in this case, they may pursue these children with more than their usual diligence.”

            “Then we’ll have to find a place to hide them that they won’t think to look,” the caravan master shrugged.

            “What are you thinking?”

            “Well, they probably won’t be looking for a caravan leader’s nephew and a guard wearing the caravan’s colors.”

            Khenet looked over at Celeres and back to Bunri. “I suppose that might work. Your people will probably wonder about his addition at this point on the journey.”

            “Then we’ll have to make sure it isn’t much of a mystery.” Bunri looked over the lovers carefully. He noted their bronze bracelets and asked, “You’re engaged?”

            “Yes, Uncle,” Celeres answered.

            Bunri betrayed a moment of amusement before carefully reining in his expression. “I doubt your father is pleased.”

            “You might be right, but the reasoning of his objections eludes me for the moment.”

            “My siblings and I took to caravan work when we were very young. Mostly, we worked the route between Treffen and Tagerden, although we got around quite a bit. Even traveled off continent on a few occasions. Eventually, we set up our own company. My sister runs the house in Treffen, my brother runs the house in Tagerden, and I work the route between. Mostly, our kids are involved in one way or another. Waller has been having his kids in Tagerden get involved in one craft or another, to strengthen our connections in the markets. Having his youngest run off with a sword swinger probably doesn’t work well with those plans.”

            “But someone has to run the caravans, Uncle Bunri! The grain market hardly requires the same attention as the shipping of our goods across the continent. We need to keep the routes in the family. It’s not my fault father wants to keep his kids under his thumb even if it means neglecting part of the business.”

            “We’re covering the routes fine, Nephew,” the caravan master growled.

            “But we’re having to hire caravan leaders from outside the family, even on some of the most important runs,” Celeres challenged. “We can trust the family won’t steal from the business the way a hired servant would. I think I’d enjoy caravan work. I’m certainly willing to bust my ass to learn it. I’m not going to let Father’s pigheadedness stop me from doing what needs to be done.”

            “And you think I’m going to let you defy your father like this?” Bunri yelled.

            “I can learn it from you or your competition, Uncle. But I am doing this,” Celeres said coldly.

            It was everything Sanura could do not to gape at her love’s behavior. This was coming from a man who just yesterday could not believe the guards in Tagerden were a bit corrupt. Reluctantly, she recalled that he was not really as innocent as he sometimes behaved.

            Khenet noted that the yelling had caught the attention of the camp. The people in earshot had stopped their work to eavesdrop. Aikyo and Macak in particular had been riveted when the yelling had gotten loud enough to hear. That solved the problem of establishing a story. Khenet just hoped the boys did not paint themselves into a corner with their improvisation.

            Bunri lowered his voice and turned to Khenet. “He’ll do. I assume they won’t go by their real names. What are they going by?”

            “Hmm. The boy will be Resle, and the girl, Ranu. Don’t forget those, you two. Accidentally calling each other by the wrong name could compromise your story.”

            “Yes, Khenet,” the lovers answered.

            “Which house does your brother run?” Celeres asked Bunri.


            “Okay, that should give me enough to start from.”

            “That went by kind of fast, Resle,” Sanura said.

            “You inspect the caravans, Ranu, but I deal with their agents. Tagerden doesn’t feed itself, you know. It imports food from all parts of the empire and even some spots off the continent. House Jujiro deals in some of the more exotic foods and spices, among other things.”

            “We’ll sort out the details this evening. In the meantime, I’ll give you a reason to sulk and be bad tempered,” Bunri said. The caravan master turned to Khenet. “Will this work for you, old one?”

            “It’ll have to. Good luck, children. I’ll try to check up on you in a few months; see how things went.”

            “Thank you, Khenet,” Sanura said.

            “Thank you. I owe you my life. I won’t forget that,” Celeres added.

            “Be well,” Khenet said and mounted her antelope. Suzume followed suit, and the two rode back to the road and off to the west.

            “Well, let’s get you two settled in,” Bunri said and then frowned. “Try to remember I’m mad at you.”

            Celeres assumed a suitably sour expression. “Right.”

            The trio walked back to the camp, the lovers leading their mounts. The people at the edge watched them approach with unabashed interest. They had lost the thread of conversation when Bunri lowered his voice but were curious to see why their master was bringing someone into camp that he had just been yelling at.

            “Aikyo!” Bunri barked. “The young lady here claims she knows how to fight. Find out if it’s true.”

            “Yes, sir,” Aikyo answered, casually placing one hand on the pommel of his sword.

            “As for you,” Bunri said, turning to Celeres, “If you’re so damn eager to learn caravan work, you can start with how it feeds itself. Macak, take this fool to help Cookie with the evening meal.

            “But-” Celeres protested before Bunri’s glare cut him off. Sulking, the young man followed Macak into the camp.

            Aikyo lead Sanura a bit away from the gawkers to test her skill with her blade without injuring them.

            Bunri did not wait around to see the results. With his new charges disposed of for the moment, he made his way back through the camp. The experience of his troop made his inspection largely unnecessary, but the master made his evening rounds anyway. Twice he stopped to help his people with a particularly heavy bit of labor, and a third time to referee an argument that had broken out. Along the way, he swapped jokes and gossip with people, making sure they were doing well. In a few cases, he mentioned the arrival of his ‘nephew,’ knowing that by the time supper ended, the story he wanted known would be well established throughout the caravan.

            When he judged he made his presence sufficiently felt for the evening, he returned to his tent to attend to a few smaller details before supper.

            Aikyo was seated at the map table, waiting for him as he entered.

            “Evening, Aikyo.”

            “Evening, boss. Figured you’d want to hear how it went with the new girl, Ranu.”

            “Well?” Bunri asked expectantly.

            “She’s good. Somebody did a solid job training her. Mostly held her own against me, and I’m the best in the camp.

            Bunri grunted his approval.

            “Course, unlike most of the caravan, I’ve attended enough of Jujiro gatherings to know your brother Waller doesn’t have a son named Resle. So, are you gonna tell me what’s really going on?”

            Bunri raised an eyebrow at him and said nothing.

            Aikyo sighed. “Alright, don’t tell me. Just tell me if I need to set more guards tonight, or a couple on the new arrivals.”

            “No,” Bunri said slowly. “No, we shouldn’t need any. The usual routine should cover it.

            “Where’s the girl now?”

            “Stuck her in my tent. Macak’s a gossip, and I didn’t want him pumping her for information before I knew you had all your routes covered.”

            “Prudent. Bring her, will you?”

            “Sure. I’ll be back.”


            After Aikyo left, Bunri offered a brief prayer to Maand, asking that his new charges would not bring him too much trouble. Then he pulled out his accounting books and began updating them while waiting for Aikyo to return.