Cashel set his feet reflexively – the soil was hard with a lot of sand in it; it’d anchor him well in a fight – and glanced quickly about his surroundings. Rasile and Liane waited just ahead, the girl with her hand on the Corl’s shoulder in case they had to duck away from a spinning quarterstaff.
Nobody else stood closer than the city gate half a furlong away, guards and loungers. They didn’t look dangerous, just bored. One of the guards nudged the man next to him, who started to pick up the helmet on the ground at his feet. He changed his mind and straightened again without it.
He glanced behind. They’d appeared off the road, so there was just sumac and lesser shrubs growing here on the slope. There was no sign of the sandy place they’d come from or of the empusae. He didn’t expect there would be, but it seemed a good idea to check.
"Won’t there be problems about us, well, just stepping out of the air?" Liane said quietly. She was in the middle, with Rasile on her right side and Cashel on the left. She’d put the little knife away, though Cashel didn’t doubt she could have it in her hand quick enough if she had to.
"No ma’am," he said. Liane knew a lot of things, but she hadn’t travelled with wizards as much as he had. "They didn’t see it happen, they just saw us walking toward the gate. And if they had been looking right at us, they still wouldn’t have seen it happen. They think we just came over the hill."
As they walked through the scrub toward the gateway, Cashel spread a big smile across his face like he was a bumpkin who didn’t have a lick of sense and wasn’t any kind of danger. He was a bumpkin, all right, but he had more sense than to make trouble with a group of soldiers unless he had to. If he really had to, well, they’d see how much danger he could be.
The guards were all looking at Rasile. They picked up the spears that’d been leaning against the wall and started cinching up breastplates of linen stiffened with glue. The fellow who’d decided not to put his helmet on now changed his mind again.
The city wall was pretty impressive, though by now Cashel had seen better ones a number of times in the past. The stones in the courses were pretty small and seemed to have been reused from older buildings.
The gate itself was flat-topped, but it was set in a pointed archway rising a good three times Cashel’s height. The top of the wall was that much again. Instead of simple square battlements for archers to shelter behind while they shot through the gaps, these went up in curvy steps like ornaments. Cashel guessed they’d still work, though.
There weren’t guards on the wall, though people there were looking down at him and his friends. Looking at Rasile mostly, he didn’t doubt. It was a hot day, and the walls were probably as good a place to catch a breeze as you’d find in Dariada.
"Where have you come from?" said the guard whose fancy bronze breastplate and sword made him the commander. From what Cashel had learned about soldiers since he left Barca’s Hamlet, the other men did this for a living but the commander, middle-aged and not only well-groomed but soft, was a citizen. Probably one of the richer ones, too.
"I’m Lady Liane bos-Benliman," Liane said, putting on the voice that told anybody hearing it that they were so many crickets that she could step on if she felt like it. "Prince Garric has sent me from Pandah to view the Tree Oracle."
She nodded toward Cashel, then Rasile, as she took a ribbon-tied sheet of parchment from her scrip. "These are my assistants," she said, handing the parchment to the officer. "And here is my authorization from Prince Garric. Now sir, what is your name?"
He took the sheet doubtfully. "Ah," he said, "I’m Bessus or-Amud. Ah, Captain Bessus. But you can’t enter the city, milady. Dariada is independent. We’ve sent envoys to Prince Garric to explain that to him."
Liane glared at the regular soldiers. "Master Bessus," she said, her voice even snootier than it’d been before, "will you please tell your men to stop pointing spears at Mistress Rasile? An old woman is scarcely a threat to Dariada."
"She’s not a woman at all!" said one of the guards, his knuckles mottled on the shaft of his spear. Liane had said there weren’t many catmen on Charax, but from the way this fellow sounded he might never have seen one before.
"As old as I am, you’re probably right," Rasile said. The Coerli laughed by wagging their tongues out the side of their mouths; fortunately, she didn’t do it this time. It didn’t look like laughing to human beings the first time they saw it. "I was never a warrior, though, and I don’t think you need worry about me tearing down walls like these."
She curled the back of her forepaw up to her mouth and puffed across it like she was trying to blow the walls down. One of the guards jumped away; another laughed at him. They tilted up their spears, though they didn’t lean them against the wall.
"- placed you here at the gate to precipitate the crisis which your envoys in Pandah are trying to avoid. Now, unless you really want to be responsible for bringing a royal army down on Dariada, please conduct me and my assistants to the Priests of the Tree. I have business to discuss with them."
He bowed to Liane. "Milady, if you’ll come with me, I’ll take you to the Enclosure. I believe only Amineus, the high priest, will be there at the moment, but he can make such further arrangements as are required."
Bessus strode down the street, with Liane beside him. He was talking to her. Cashel would’ve liked to be close enough to hear – he wouldn’t have said anything, of course – but he figured it was best he follow at the back behind Rasile.
Some of the men seemed to think they ought to grab Liane as she walked past them. Cashel held his staff by one end and kept the length of it stretched out alongside Liane like a railing. If somebody didn’t take the hint, they learned that Cashel was strong enough to slam them back against the wall despite the awkward way he had to hold the staff.
Rasile made everybody stop and stare – that, or sometimes run the other way. Nobody did anything really hostile, though, not even spit. Maybe they just didn’t have time to react. Because of the way the old wizard walked with two people in front and Cashel behind, people generally didn’t see her until they were right alongside.
Bessus led them out into a plaza, sort of, though it straggled along a curving wall more than being square or any real shape. In Carcosa it wouldn’t be much more than a wide street, but there hadn’t been anything close to it in Dariada. It was the town market, with people selling ordinary goods and produce to either side. In the middle where Bessus took them, folks hawked souvenirs made of everything from pottery and embroidered cloth to silver and gold.
Dariada’s houses had mostly three floors – stone on the bottom course, concrete mixed with broken chunks of brick to make it lighter as you went up. The walls were painted, but patches had flaked bare lots of places. Occasionally there was a top floor of plastered canes too. There were so few windows that Cashel thought they must have courtyards or most rooms wouldn’t have any light at all.
The building Bessus was heading toward across the plaza was round and covered with a tall copper dome; it didn’t look anything like others in the town. The tile-roofed porch on all sides was held up by pillars; the web between them at the tops curved and stepped like the battlements of the city wall.
It wasn’t the building that really caught Cashel’s attention, though. It was set in a old brick wall just a trifle too high for a man to reach with his arm stretched up and standing on tiptoes. That wasn’t new to him either: it was a lot like the wall around the royal palace in Valles, only that one was half again as high.
The tree spreading over the wall in all directions, though, that was nothing Cashel had seen before. At first he thought it was a whole grove of trees, but occasionally the branches – and some of them were as thick as his waist – joined a different bole from the one they sprouted from.
Tiny little leaves sprouted from long tendrils that dangled over the plaza in a ragged curtain. Some branches – never ones with leaves – had what looked like pea pods hanging from them instead. A few pods were as long and thick as Cashel’s forearm; those were beginning to turn from green to brown.
Broad as the tree was – and if it filled the enclosure the way it seemed to, it was at least a furlong across – it wasn’t especially tall. Cashel eyed it critically, the way he’d have judged if he’d been hired to fell it and needed to know what it would cover when he laid it down. None of the tree’s joined trunks would run to half the height of a big white oak.
Bessus pushed his way through the hucksters and their customers, a wide assortment of folk with the dress and manners of every part of the Isles and beyond. A servant – he wasn’t a guard; he wore a bleached tunic and a red vest with gold embroidery, but he didn’t have a weapon – stood in the doorway of the round building. "Yes?" he called.
"Go fetch your master," Bessus ordered, skipping up the three steps of the temple’s base. Liane and Rasile followed just below him, but Cashel stayed down on the ground for now. He turned sideways so that he could keep the building’s doorway in the corner of his eye but still watch what was going on in the plaza. "Is Amineus on duty today? Fetch – ah, there you are, Master Amineus!"
A very large man – he was certainly fat, but he was so tall that he seemed more massive than plump – stepped onto the porch. He’d probably have cleared the transom, but he ducked as he passed under it nonetheless. He was holding a cylindrical loaf of bread in his right hand and a serrated knife in his right.
With Cashel in front of the round building was a slab of granite about as tall as he was. It was gray, though flecks of white sprinkled the darker crystals. The surface was as uniformly rough as that of a weathered boulder despite obviously being a worked stone.
"Amineus, I’ve brought you Lady Liane bos-Benliman, the envoy of Prince Garric," Bessus said, showing that he’d been paying more attention than Cashel’d thought when Liane introduced them. "She says her business is with you, so I’ll leave her in your capable hands. I’m getting back to my duties, now."
The slab’s edges on the side toward Cashel had been rounded over, but on the back they were sharp: it must’ve stood in a sandy place once, where the wind had worn off whatever’d been on the side toward it. He thought about the desert they’d crossed to get here. Had Dariada been there before the Change – or maybe been there much, much longer ago than that?
People in the plaza were listening to the argument, but that wasn’t any danger. The same folk would gawk and laugh if an old woman slipped in sheep droppings. They wouldn’t mean any harm by it. Cashel moved around to the sheltered side of the slab to see what was there.
"Master Amineus, my business is with you and your colleagues as priests of the Tree," Liane said crisply. "I believe we can take care of it without difficulty. However I strongly suggest that we go into your dwelling -"
The other side of the slab showed a giant with a walled city between his spread legs. He was holding a snake by the neck with both hands; strangling it, like enough. The snake’s coils writhed over the stone’s curved upper edge. Around the bottom of the picture were the little spikes that stonecutters used to mean waves. Cashel wondered if the city was supposed to be Dariada, back before the Change when it was a port.
The priest gestured them to go ahead of him. Rasile dipped her head politely as she stepped into the building after Liane. Cashel had thought of saying something about how the fellow ought to talk to respectable old folk like Rasile, but that wasn’t what they were here for.