Authors: Jean Johnson
The other two men, Adan and Kaife, had finished passing through supplies and belongings and had joined their wives, Fali and Parren. They were busy donning the flexible, overlapping scales of
armor in the same shade of gold as Ban's blade. If this moment came to a fight, Ban would not be the only one armed and ready. The third woman in their group, however, did not look ruffled by the thought of combat. Clad in a flowing golden gown that shimmered in the light of the crystal torches set around the chamber for illumination, she studied the water inside a silver bowl balanced in her hands.
“Ban,” Jintaya greeted, glancing briefly at him. She was older than Fali and Parren, older even than Rua by many decades, though she only looked to be in her late twenties, maybe a handful of years older than Ban looked at most. Her hair, however, was the telling factor; where Fali's fell to her shoulders, and Rua's and Parren's locks fell to midback, hers reached all the way to her knees. Pale and golden, she looked like a statue made of sunlight and honey to him. “Have you learned their language yet? It is eluding my scryings, and the
we took for our last trip does not seem sufficiently strong enough to translate in this realm.”
“Yes. I can understand them.” He moved closer when she beckoned him to her side, and politely peered into the mirror-polished bowl. The sounds were faint, but the images clear; the seven with the torches, the eighth who had spied upon them, and a clutch of a good ten more bearing weapons now tracked their way through the caves in search of the strangers in their midst.
“Translate for me.”
“They areÂ .Â .Â . looking for usÂ .Â .Â . The younger ones are boasting how they'll take whatever we have. The eldest has just shushed them and said that I did not attack.” He listened a moment more and added, “One of the women says she is tired of traveling and is willing to fight for a place to stay. The other, the one with the longer spear, complains she wants a safe haven, not another battle with people who are potentially strongerâshe mentions my clothes and gear as being beyond anything they know how to make.”
Ãfan, their specialist in cross-dimensional magics, joined them. He was shorter than Ban despite being the tallest of the others, but then the black-haired human towered over all of the golden-haired Fae in the cave by a good hand span. Ãfan stood taller than most of the natives, too, if not all of them.
“It sounds as though they are refugees,” Ãfan stated. He eyed Jintaya and lifted the crystal egg still in his hand. “The energies of this world are different from our universe in certain key ways. Situational magics are responding sluggishly. I would not be able to catch all of them in a memory-altering spell at once, and I would be hard-pressed to alter their memories one at a time fast enough to keep them from talking to each other, cross-contaminating my efforts.”
Jintaya bowed her head. She pressed the sides of her index and middle finger against the midpoint of her furrowed brow, a gesture Ban had seen her use before when she was annoyed and needed to think. Respectfully, he waited in silence. If the decision were his, he would have considered the most expedient of solutions: killing the entire tribe to keep their presence quiet. He might not have actually done so, but Ban did not care about any others, one way or another. He had not cared about anyone for a very long time, until Jintaya had rescued and stood up for him.
She was not a human like him, nor like the natives of this world seemed to be, but she had helped restore some of his long-lost humanity. He waited, patient, for her to decide what should be done about them.
Sighing, she lowered her fingers with a dismissive little flick, as if shaking off whatever negativity had arisen for a few moments in her mind. “We cannot alter their memories quickly at this time, and there are too many who will remember you. We cannot just repack everything, find another spot, and begin anew. Anything they remember of this moment will be recanted in legends, distorting the facts.
“We are therefore obligated to make peaceful contact ahead of schedule. If they are refugees,” she said, slanting her golden eyes at the master mage of their group, “then they may not know that we ourselves have only just arrived. This gives us a chance to claim ownership of this regionÂ .Â .Â . which means we shall behave as gracious hosts. Diplomacy,” she added to Ban, “is always more effective than combat when wielded
the first blow, not after. Thank you for not harming anyone.”
Ban dipped his head in acknowledgment.
“They may have what appear to be primitive weapons and virtually no armor, but they are many and we are few,” Jintaya told the others. “We shall therefore make a show of civilized strength. Ãfan, clear the way to the next cavern. Push them back; then check it for any possible spying point, and seal it. I realize this will take you time, but it must be done so that they understand
caves are ours, not theirs. They may have any others, if there are others, should they need such for shelter.”
After bowing, Ãfan moved back to the sealed-over opening. Once there, he concentrated on the crystalline egg in his hand. Ban still had little idea how the man's magic worked, despite having lived among the Fair Traders for a handful of years now. He turned his attention back to their leader, and his mind back to practical matters.
“If they have been fighting other tribes and have been forced out of their home territory,” Ban offered, “then they will want stone walls to guard their flanks. They may not give up these caverns easily. There is enough room to house them all, and a little bit for ourselves.”
“We could offer them something more important,” Parren stated. “They will want water for drinking.” She lifted her chin at Jintaya's scrying bowl. “I saw that pond. It will not be enough to slake their thirst for long. If we have clean water to offer, it will be seen as hospitable.”
The three senior members of the expedition glanced at her, though Ãfan returned his attention to his task after a moment. Despite not even being Fae, Ban outranked her simply by pure longevity. Not even Jintaya had lived as long as he had, though normally a Fae outlived a human by at least twenty times the normal span.
“These ravines and their caves are the only patch of greenery for days of travel in any direction,” Adan told Parren. “If we have an abundance of water, they may think to steal it from us. We should instead give them a display of our strength. Magic and sunsteel will back them off,” he added confidently, his hand going to the faeshiin gold hilt of the sword he had slung at his hip.
“If we have very little to give, they may seek to kill us, just to ration what there is,” she countered.
Fali held up her hand between the two. “It does not hurt to be courteous. As the Great Guardian says, âIf you offer kindness, you are more likely to receive kindness. If you offer discourtesy, you are more likely to receive discourtesy. We shall therefore offer courtesy first and only react in unkind ways when we are treated unkindly. These are the ways of the Fae Rii,'” she recited, attempting to sound as wise and mature as their leader Jintaya. “I should not need to remind you of this.”
“I should not need to remind
that we botched our usual careful arrival,” Adan retorted.
“Peace, cousin,” Kaife stated, clasping Adan's shoulders. As Fali was the cousin of Parren, Kaife was cousin to Adan. He smiled and nodded at his mate. “Parren's offer would be a strong display of power if we conjured that water in front of them.”
“We do not know how these primitives view their local magic yet,” Jintaya reminded the young man, her gaze still on the bowl though her pointed ears were on their conversation. “Nor how well they themselves can wield it. That was why we were to observe from a distance before making any approaches. The last thing we need is to be viewed as some sort of demons or gods. Now, what else should we consider, regarding magic and water?”
Parren sighed. “If they already know how to draw water out of the aether of this world, then they may be able to do so far more efficiently than us.”
“Precisely. Parren, Adan, Fali, Kaife, begin your scrying exercises and study these natives while Ãfan makes more room in these caves for us,” Jintaya instructed. “I shall prepare the myjiin to boost our ability to learn the local language.”
“And what will Tall, Dark, and Uncaring be doing?” Adan asked. His cousin smacked the back of his head. Adan flinched and shot Kaife a dark look but didn't protest the swat. Ban ignored his quip, choosing to drink from one of the water jugs brought across among their other supplies. Chasing someone was thirsty work.
“They have reached the midrange caverns,” Ãfan stated, his attention on his crystal. “Since he can speak their language, if he were to gently escort them elsewhere, I could expand our territory more quickly without frightening them by abruptly relocating all these walls.”
“Ban?” Jintaya asked, turning to him.
Taking a last swallow, he set the jug down and bowed to her. “As you wish.”
“Gently,” she reminded him.
He lifted a hand in acknowledgment as he turned toward the sealed cave exit. Ãfan waved it open with a flick of his fingers, then sealed it shut behind the dark-haired man. Ban passed through two more such portals before spotting the flickering, golden orange dance of approaching torchlight. Striking his crystal rod against one of the irregular walls, he extinguished it. Jintaya preferred the sweetness of diplomacy, but he knew that sometimes one had to prime the pump, so to speak, with a taste of potential unpleasantness.
When Jintaya had rescued him during a previous trade mission, she had persisted with her calm pleasantness in the face of his raging suspicion, distrust, and hostility. Three times, he had nearly killed herÂ .Â .Â . and three times she had forgiven and embraced him. It was the Great Guardian himself who had explained it to Ban after assessing the man Jintaya had insisted on bringing back to Faelan with her expedition, when that world they had traveled to had proven too uncivilized for the Fair Traders to continue visiting.
Jintaya is exceptionally gentle. She can be firm, yesâas unyielding as iceâbut she does not care to kill and will not personally kill. She is water in that she wears away bit by bit at hostility, distrust, and angerÂ .Â .Â . but water is no hammer and chisel, able to carve a path in a single day. There are times when an expedition must beÂ .Â .Â . swiftly expedient. You, Puhan
âthe only time anyone of the Fae Rii had managed to get his name right, which made it stand out in his mindâ
will stay with her. You are ruthless beyond words when needed, expedient beyond thought. You shall be permitted to live among us, but you will guard Jintaya and be the sword she cannot wieldânot if she will remain who she is, who she must by her nature be. You are her opposite, and you each need the other, must be with the other for there to be balance in both of your lives. This is your
, for all you are not bound by it magically.
The torch-wielding natives came around a twist in the tunnels, spotted his head and hands in the dancing shadows, and stumbled to a halt. Shaping his words carefully, mindful of his translation tattoo, Ban stated bluntly, “These caves are forbidden to your people. You will remove yourselves immediately, and look for others to occupy.”
, he thought.
My own attempt at your preferred diplomacy.
“All these caves are ours!” one of the younger men boasted. One of the older women tried to hush him, but he demanded, “We are many, and you are just one. Who are
to tell us where we can or cannot go?”
“Ban.” He would have said more, but his name caused all eighteen natives to twitch and shift back. Some by only a finger's length, some by a full step.
Why would theyÂ .Â .Â .Â ?
“He is named Death?” one of the older men whispered, eyes wide with fear. “This is an ill omen!”
Others whispered as well, a susurration of fear and wonder. It seemed the corrupted, Fae version of his name had a distinct meaning in the local tongue. Ban had accepted the new name because it was what Jintaya herself had named him, and he had felt as if she had given him a second life when he had finally accepted her help and her caring. A new name for his new life. But it was ironic that on this world, in this tongue, the name that had given him a second life actually translated as
The woman with the longest spear, the one Ban had seen speaking earlier, stepped forward bravely, if warily. “There is only one of you, and we are many. Your name will not scare us away. There is water in this place, and food. Plenty for our tribe to take. You are only one man.”
“I am not alone,” Ban told her. “Jintaya, our leader, has claimed these caves. You will remove yourselves immediately. Go seek others.”
“DjinÂ .Â .Â . taje?” She frowned at him in confusion. “You mean Taje Djin?”
“Jintaya,” Ban asserted, wondering why the woman would get a simple name backward like that. Then the translated meaning caught up with him.
was similar to their word
, though the Fae used a softer “yuh” sound than these locals did.
in turn meant
. The rules of their grammar came to him with the realization that they always put the
before a name, not after. To do so after wasÂ .Â .Â . odd for them. Except there was a case where an emphasis could be made, he also realized.
“We are led by Taje JintayaÂ .Â .Â . ul,” he added onto the end. It meant
Leader Djin, Leader of All.
The men and women, some young, some middle-aged, none old, eyed him warily. Repeating himself, Ban asserted one more time, “By her command, these caves are forbidden to all of you. Leave.”
“No!” one of the younger males asserted. Bouncing a little, he lunged forward, stabbing at Ban with his spear. “These are