"Out you all get!" The overseer walked the length of the transport hold, clapping his hands and shouting to get everyone's attention, rather than the whip on his belt. "This is the Capital of the Most Glorious Wemblian Empire, and you are the tribute your newly conquered people have sent to demonstrate their submission and loyalty to our masters, their Conjoint Imperial Glory Jaymes and Harrod. Behave yourselves. Do as you're told, no matter how hard it is, and your people will benefit from Their Glories' benevolence. Prove rebellious, and your people will be treated as rebels." He paused for effect, then said, "Their safety depends on each of you. Remember that. Villages have died because a tribute wouldn't permit an indignity or try to perform set task."
Lijis gathered her things together. Less than a week ago, she'd been home, doing chores around the farm, and looking forward to days when she could go into town for supplies and maybe see her some of her friends. Living out of the way, her family had been able to ignore the war, and because she had no brothers, the militia call up to defend against the Empire's invasion hadn't affected her family that much. Her sisters Cora and Sues had become more active in the district militia with the men away, but Lijis' life had continued to revolve around weeding, egg collecting, and walking the boundaries to check for holes in the fences. News of the war had come to the farm only when someone went into town, and that depended on news having reached town. Buckman's Bend didn't get much traffic, aside from just after harvest.
The news of conquest had been brought to the farm gate by hard-faced Wemblian soldiers dragging the headman of Buckman's Bend around tied to a pack animal's back so they could prove their words. Everyone had had to go to the meeting, 'the forum' as the Wemblians called, it in Buckman's Bend to see the newly appointed administrator speak and find out how their lives were going to change. Taxes and tributes had been the answer to that one.
The taxes weren't too bad, the administrator had promised those would fund good roads and protection from the oversized beasts that roamed the backlands. Buckman's Bend and its surrounds could agree to that.
Tributes had almost been a sticking point; too many families had sons who'd not come back from serving in the militia against the Empire. Then the administrator had said in that calm, cold voice, "Of course, any district that supplies the requested tributes will have its prisoners of war released from the holding camps. If you leave it too long to decide or refuse, they might be sent anywhere else in the Empire as forced labour for Their Glories' civic works program."
Lijis half listened to her parents and older sisters discussing, arguing and muttering over the matter between them. Other families were doing the same. Some, the parents of multiple missing boys, started trying to convince other families to agree to provide tributes. Others tried to howl them down. All the while, Lijis kept doing social sums in her head. Finally, she stood up, joined the group of people around her parents, and said, "I volunteer."
Cora, the eldest of her sisters, had said, "Don't be ridiculous! Go back and sit down, if you can't be sensible."
"I am being sensible," had answered Lijis. "If we spread this out evenly, only one family in three needs to send someone. Our family has got more than we need to run the farm we've got. You older ones are who we've always relied on to be ready to take over, I'm just good for hired labourer stuff, always have been. Besides," she had rushed on, "we can't send Cora, Sues, or Lisde," their third sister, "in case their boyfriends are released. I don't have a boyfriend to worry about, and...."
"That's enough," her mother had said firmly. "You've made your point. It's a hard thing to say, but I think you're right. We're going to have to send someone, and better for us if we choose who. Taking everything into account, I think you are the best choice too." She'd closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again before saying, "I am sorry, Lijis, I really am."
So Lijis, and the other tributes, had been transported from Buckman's Bend to the Capital in an Imperial troop transport pulled by a black-smoke producing hauler. It had been rough travel for the first few days, then they'd reached the Imperial road system and the bumping had almost stopped for the three remaining days of their journey.
And now they were in the Capital, Wembley of the Old Time before the Great Mistakes, standing in a square that was surrounded by one storey buildings but still dominated by the original source of the Empire's power - the Old Time grain store and processing building that the people here had managed to keep powered and running all through the Great Mistakes and the Troubled Times that followed them. There were at least three rows of buildings between Lijis and the grain building, you could have fitted all of Buckman's Bend into that space, and it was still impressively big.
Lijis was recalled from her wide-eyed contemplation of her surroundings by the overseer's voice. "This is where you get you first assignments," he told them. "Most of you will go straight to the labour barracks, and be assessed there for the best use of your skills. You will be called slaves," he acknowledged, "but you belong to the Empire and not to those to whom are assigned, and don't let those you work for convince you otherwise. Some of you will be taken to the Coliseum barracks for training as either gladiators or tumblers to honour the gods of the Empire, and entertain the crowds. Some of you may be claimed by a priesthood for their temple, and there are certain Imperial officials who may demand one of you on the strength of their warrant - I can only remind you what disobedience may mean to your families at home." He turned around, and saluted the cold faced man who'd moved up behind him while he spoke, "Proctor, these are the tributes from the Third District of the Nunc River Province. I was just advising them what was likely to happen to them next."
"Thank you, Overseer." The man had the same cold tone and smile as the administrator who'd come to Buckman's Bend. Lijis wondered briefly where the Empire found them. "As it happens, partly due to the speed and grace, with which you accepted your fates, you are all going from here to the labour barracks to undergo aptitude testing. Any of you who are truly best suited to a role in the Coliseum will go on to there tomorrow, after a bath, a few decent meals and a good night's sleep. Now, form yourselves up in three lines so we can walk you down to the barracks in an orderly fashion. If any of you need to speak to me, you may address me as Proctor."
Lijis and the others were just organising themselves into the required three lines, when a new voice boomed out, "Hold, Proctor! Allow the gods their choice of the tribute offered to the Empire!" The grandiose voice belonged to a man in a knee length tunic under an open calf length robe that seemed to have an unbelievable amount of gold embroidery on it. He was accompanied two more men, and three women in similar outfits, and a small squad of armed men.
The Proctor bowed and said, "Tribute is not payable to the gods until all the tribute has been received. This is just the first batch of tributes from the new province."
One of the women replied, "Apparently, the war god told the augury this morning that today would be a good day for his tribute share to be handed over to him. Then, when the high priest cast the bones, they told him that today is an auspicious day to open the Coliseum." She made a dismissive gesture with one hand, then said, "So, here we are. Let us see if there is an acceptable tribute here, and then we'll get out of your way."
"Very well, noble priestess," the proctor stepped back out of the way, "Please proceed."
That meant that the clergy folk wandered among and around the tributes while carrying vibrating tuning forks and burning incense. They appeared to be interpreting the smoke and the humming somehow, and moved in a tighter and tighter pattern around a smaller number of tributes. Finally they stopped in a circle, around Lijis.
"This one," said the grandiose man. "This is the one that the war god requires."
The Overseer swore quietly.
"It is an honour," the oldest of the three women reprimanded him.
An hour later Lijis was sitting in a cell within the Coliseum. She'd been washed, and she was wearing a tunic and sandals that the priests had given her. The cell door was just one section of bars in a wall of bars, and as she sat there she watched a troupe of tumblers go out into the arena while a pair of gladiators came back in, apparently best of friends now they'd finished hitting each other with weapons. The tumblers spent ten minutes out on the sand, and came back in soaked in sweat. A couple of them gave her pitying looks as they went past her, but they didn't linger. Then the guards opened the cell, two of them walked in, and one said, "It's time for you to come with us. Your things will be safe here until you're brought back. Now stand up, and we'll help you walk out there."
Lijis looked at their expressions and said, "I'm not walking back, am I?"
"The gods demand their share of the tributes for helping the Empire win its wars," said the guard apologetically. "If you don't go out into the arena from the entrance willingly, the priests will drive you out. Then they'll go find your family. Once you're out in the arena, the god's avatar will be there." He shrugged. "The war god's avatar has always been swift and thorough, not like some of them. It will be horrible, but it won't be prolonged."
Lijis stood, the tears beginning to spill from her eyes. "Let me guess, if the priests go after my family, some of them will wind up here too?"
The second guard nodded.
"Very well then," she gave them a wonky smile. "Let's do this then."
They guided her to the entrance where the six priests and their guards stood waiting.
Lijis turned to the guards who were holding her arms, and said, "Thank you, for your help, gentlemen, I hope I can do this from here on my own." Then she deliberately caught the eye of the grandiose priest and asked, "If this is such an honour, why aren't one of you doing this? Or your high priest?"
He drew himself up, and said, "I am not a tribute."
Lijis copied her posture, did something with her face that she hope raised an incredulous eyebrow, and replied, "So, you're not worthy then?" Then she smirked at him.
The woman who'd explained about the augury and the high priest shot her a very hard look.
Lijis took a deep breath and walked out into the arena. Around the enormous space, big enough to hold an entire race track, there was a wall that was at least one and a half times the height of most buildings back home. The ground inside it was covered in sand that gave the whole surface a golden orange colour, but when Lijis looked down she could see that it was made up of multiple colours. Rows of seating sloped back from the top of the wall, and it seemed to Lijis that an enormous number of people were present, even if over half the seats were empty. There was another entrance on the far side of the arena, and it was enormous, cutting into the seating rows above the wall. The gates on the far side were huge, and when they opened to an enormous brass fanfare, a monster lumbered in.
It was a creature of the Great Mistakes, some combination of a bovine with animals that had come with trunks and tusks, because it had those, hooves, shaggy hair over its lower body and shoulders, and horns. It was obviously male, and so enormous that Lijis believed the tales that some of these creatures lived until their bodies simply got too big for them to be able to eat enough to keep themselves alive. It was also a creature that she had heard of in connection with the Empire; this was one of their defence-destroying wallbreakers, one of their tools that aided their conquest of their growing territory. Of course something like this would be the avatar of their war god.
The avatar ambled into the arena, the gates closed behind it, and he began to chew his cud. It was hard to tell, but he may have taken a reasonably amiable glance at his surroundings and then decided to concentrate on the important business of digestion. Lijis wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and discovered that she could make out where he had been wearing a bridle and some sort of harness up until very recently. The creature was beginning to remind her very much of the old cart bullocks on her family's farm.
There were twanging sounds from either side of her, above her head, and Lijis looked around to see archers on vantage points on either side of the entrance she'd used. As she watched, they loosed another flight of arrows at the beast on the other side of the arena. He brushed himself as if swatting at flies or mosquitoes. For a moment, Lijis didn't understand what they were doing, then comprehension dawned; they were trying to enrage the amiable old beast by shooting it. No doubt they planned to withdraw when he charged, leaving Lijis the only target. Certainly the only target on the ground.
They were trying to enrage an enormous wallbreaker inside a city.
Lijis looked at the wallbreaker as he swatted at the arrows sticking into it as if they were biting flies, and she could see that someone, possibly many someones, cared about him because his horns and tusks were oiled. She suspected that his hair had been brushed. Someone had to help him get enough food every day to keep up that bulk.
Even if Lijis didn't care about the people who lived in the capital, even if she didn't care about the wallbreaker, she'd known most of her fellow tributes all her life; they were here, and so she had skin in the game, as they said. That and the mistreatment of a loyal working animal who would be blamed for what came after, those were the things that tipped her into action.
She started running as fast as she could towards the animal's left front leg, taking care to run in a curve so she came in from his side. Despite a nasty little thought that the archers might shoot her in the back, she felt nothing, but she did hear a roar from the spectators. When she got to his leg, the wallbreaker was still swatting at arrows, but he might have been becoming more agitated. More importantly, at that very moment, she could see braids in his hair that led up the foreleg to the shoulder. Hoping that those enormous hooves weren't smooth, Lijis ran at the leg and jumped as high as she could.
Her hands just managed to grab the bottom of the long, woolly hair that grew on the lower portion of the creature, her toes found purchase on some sort of ridge on the hoof material, and Lijis started pulling herself upwards. When she got herself onto the braids she found that they were the right size and texture to allow a human to use them for hand and foot holds, so she did. Climbing a large, hairy, slowly increasingly agitated animal wasn't easy, but Lijis' alternative was falling off, so she persisted. By the time she reached the top of the beast's shoulder and could see the harness marks clearly, most of her muscles were aching while the tunic and sandals she'd been supplied with were rubbing in annoying places.
She kept moving towards the animal's head because with something this size, controlling it from a seat on its back made no sense at all. When she found the protuberance on his neck, just behind the head, what caught her attention was that the hair there was shorter in an area about the size of a saddle than anywhere around it. She sat astride it, and grasped the longer hair in front of her with both hands to stop her from falling off if things got rough. Then she squeezed the protuberance with both legs, hoping that the methods were the same as for the bullocks back home.
The wallbreaker stopped fidgeting, as if he were paying attention, so she tried using her legs and weight to suggest that he turn left. He did it. She tried turning right, and he did that too. So she tried aiming him at the archers. The archers fired off more arrows, she ducked down behind the wallbreaker's skull, and then the archers dived for cover into the wall of the Coliseum.
That left Lijis bringing the wallbreaker to a stop before he hit the wall, which she mainly achieved because the animal frankly preferred to stop so it could concentrate on trying to remove the arrows that were stuck in it.
Lijis considered her options. She was in the middle of the Coliseum in the middle of the Capital, sitting on top of the giant Imperial war beast that had been supposed to trample her to death. She seemed to have stopped an attempt to enrage said war beast into doing the trampling, which was probably a good thing because the scheme didn't seem to consider that the trampling was supposed to stay in the arena and that there was no apparent means available of stopping an enraged war beast. She was also within hailing distance of what looked like an official box, so Lijis encouraged her mount to amble a little closer.
She waved at the people in box, and called out, "Hello!"
The people in the box, really more of an open-air deck with expensive-looking shade cloths above it, looked startled. Most of them were men, except for a woman in priestly robes lounging off to one side. The two men in the centre of the box, and sitting under a canopy, looked the most important, and they looked at each other for a moment before the younger one stood, walked over to the balustrade, and asked, "How may we help you, young lady?" He was followed by a number of functionaries, including a soldier and a senior-looking priest.
"Can we talk about why someone would try to get this lovely bloke angry inside your city?" Lijis smiled at him.
He gave her a sharp look. "Angry? How?"
"Shooting arrows at him," Lijis called back. "He probably needs a farrier or a veterinarian, or whoever it is you use to treat him for war injuries. You might also want to ask whoever organised this how they were planning to stop him running amok through the city."
The man from under the canopy turned to the soldier and said, "I thought there was a priest with orders, and treats?"
"Brother Canoblas," the soldier nodded sharply. "That's what I understood too. Your Eminence, why were you using archers to annoy Eldest?"
The priest cleared his throat. "Brother Canoblas is away attending his mother's sick bed. Other methods were, are necessary."
"Other methods weren't discussed with me," returned the soldier. "Eldest is my mount, and I am responsible to their Glories for his well-being, as my father and grandfather were before me. What, exactly, did you do to him?"
"A few arrows to ginger him up a bit," answered the priest. "Nothing he can't handle."
"Let me understand this," said the soldier. "You decided to ginger up the behaviour of the largest, oldest war beast in the Imperial Army, by a method that might well destroy his trust in his handlers and rider. " He looked at the priest, who was spluttering some sort of refutation or claim of exaggeration, then he looked at the man from under the canopy, and then he looked at the ground. He didn't look up as he punched the priest in the face.
The priest stumbled backwards, up against and then somehow over the balustrade. There was nothing between him and the arena sand below.
Lijis watched him fall, but closed her eyes just before he hit the ground.
The woman in the box started screaming.
"Well," commented the man who'd been under the canopy, "my uncle and I have often referred to you as our right arm, Parachedez, but I don't think we ever meant it so literally." He carefully peered over the balustrade. "As senior magistrate of the Empire, I hereby declare the death of the late Jourge Blakez, High Priest to the Imperial Pantheon, to be due to misadventure potentially complicated by divine intervention." He made a gesture in the air which apparently had some significance, and then turned to the screaming woman, "Madam augury, if you cannot begin to bring yourself under control, then I will begin to wonder if there was an illicit relationship between you and the late high priest. My curiosity was already aroused by the unusual requirement for an early sacrifice that you conveyed to us all this morning."
Lijis began to tremble, possibly in reaction to everything that had happened since she'd stepped out into the arena, and possibly because this man had to be Harrod, one of the two heads of the Empire.
The screaming woman hiccupped her way to silence.
The other man under the canopy, who must be Jaymes, the senior partner of the Imperial duo and Harrod's uncle, said, "As was mine. Madam augury, you came here to read the word of the war god written in the blood and body of his claimed tribute. I will accompany to the body, hear the divine word, and see that you are safely delivered back to the Imperial Temple. Nephew, I leave you to see to our faithful servants; Eldest; Parachedez; and this young lady."
He gestured at Lijis, then walked over to the augury and offered her his arm. She stood, looking at him as if he were a snake about to strike, took his arm, and allowed herself to be guided out through the exit. Half the functionaries and attendants followed them.
"So," said Harrod brightly, "that just leaves us." He spoke to Lijis, "So, river girl, what's your name?"
"Lijis, of the Irongate Brownstones, Your Glory." She thought that was how she was supposed to address him, and no-one was looking angrily at her, so she thought she was probably acceptably close.
"Irongate Brownstones sounds very grand," commented Harrod. Lijis didn't think he was laughing at her, but it sounded almost as if he was.
She replied mildly, "There are a lot of Brownstone families, so we need something to distinguish us. Mine lives on a farm with iron gates."
Harrod looked at her for a moment without blinking, then he said, "Well, that explains some things about your people I was having trouble understanding. Lijis Brownstone, this man," he indicated the soldier, "is Eldest's rider, Edmend Parachedez, commander of our Wallbreaker Regiment. Please allow him to join you on Eldest's back, and to guide you back to Eldest's stable." He turned to the soldier and said, "Parachedez, when the two of you have seen to Eldest's wellbeing, take the tribute, Lijis of the Irongate Brownstones, home with you. You can decide whether to introduce her to your mother as your foster sister, your betrothed, or both. I will arrange to have her personal effects delivered to your house within the hour, along with her assignment documentation. You may tell your mother that I will be delighted to sign the marriage paperwork, when the time comes. The Empire needs more cavalrymen, and you've achieved a longer period of productive unattachment than most of us but that needs to end." He smiled, and the soldier looked trapped.
Harrod then took himself and his entourage off to do whatever was that needed doing next to keep the Empire running, no doubt. As few servants quietly came into the box to begin cleaning up, Parachez called out, "Don't move!" then climbed up on the balustrade, and jumped.
He didn't land on Lijis, but he landed on Eldest near her, and grabbed the animal's hair in a practiced way to steady himself. Now he was closer Lijis could see that he was younger than her parents, but at least half a generation older than her. He wasn't bad looking, for a Wemblian, if you didn't mind the nose. It helped that he seemed to be trying to look friendly. "Hello." He also sounded nervous. "As you heard, my name's Edmend, and apparently we're now betrothed, To each other. Uh, would you mind if I steer Eldest?"
"Betrothed?" Lijis' voice squeaked, she couldn't help it. "I suppose he can do that, can't he? Oh, of course you can, you're the one who knows where we're going."
"Only as far as the stables," replied Edmend. "Only as far as the stables."
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