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Chapter Seven

“I now formally present the two humans who seek audience with you, Chief Vaagdjul: Bannor Rulaine, who is their band’s high war captain, and Caine Riordan, who is their leader, chief, and has my chogruk.” The old trader bowed and took two steps back. As he did, Riordan revised his definition of an “old” h’achga. Compared to Vaagdjul, Ulchakh radiated the vigor of middle years.

The chief waved the two humans forward. As he did, the four guards behind him—orang-humanoids whose size and shapes resembled silverback gorillas—tensed but relaxed almost as quickly. In the half hour that it had taken for Ulchakh and his visitors to work through the formal introductions, the immense bodyguards had gone from a trembling readiness to kill the humans to benign watchfulness.

Vaagdjul’s long white sidelocks shook along with his head. “Before presenting yourselves, Ulchakh told me that you formally gifted many fine bronze weapons and breastplates of cured hide to the h’achgai who traveled with you from Forkus.”

Riordan nodded. “That is true, Vaagdjul.”

“Then why did you not tell me so when you stood forth to present your origins, interests, and kindnesses to the h’achgai? You also did not mention how you saved them from ravenous x’qai on your long march. Are you forbidden to speak of such things, that you do not present the greatest reasons that might dispose, or even oblige, me to give you my ear?”

“We do not have, nor would we accept, prohibitions upon our speech,” Caine explained. “However, we do not wish you to feel obligated because we fought alongside your people. All but Yidreg were already known to us and good companions. It would be grasping and faithless for us to seek your favor simply because we helped our friends.

“And in the matter of gifting the weapons and armor, it was not kindness: it was merely sharing the spoils of our fight against the caravan.”

Vaagdjul’s lipless burble was both distinctly simian and dubious. “Come, now, human: what you conferred upon my people was far beyond the measure of their spoils. I know the value of what they received, how much of a force they were, and the great discrepancy between the two.” He narrowed his eyes, leaned forward. “Did you give them these gifts in the hope of enticing them to become your servitors, or to follow you in subsequent endeavors?”

Surprised, Riordan shook his head sharply. “No. We—”

Vaagdjul held up his hand. “Go no further, Caine Riordan. It takes me but a moment to know an honest denial when I see and hear it.” He smiled. “And I also know the sound of indignation at having one’s motives questioned.” He eased himself back. “You will forgive that test, or at least the caution behind it. Your presence here is, in every way, unique in my generation. Perhaps many. Perhaps all that have ever been.” He waved a hand as seamed as tree bark. “Please: ask what you wish.”

“Thank you, Vaagdjul. Among the many names of my companions, you may recall those of Duncan Solsohn and Katie Somers.” The ancient h’achga nodded. “I seek permission for them to meet and offer wares and services to any interested traders—under Ulchakh’s auspices, of course.”

The chief glanced at Ulchakh, whose slow, measured nod almost concealed his eagerness.

Vaagdjul waved a lazy hand. “Granted. Your next request?”

Bannor raised his chin. “We wish to present Achgabab, in the person of yourself, with a gift.”

One of the chief’s faint eyebrows rose. “A gift? For what?”

“We live here in safety because of your warriors, your precautions, your wisdom. We wish to show our gratitude. Tangibly.”

“You have . . . by acknowledging it and giving your thanks.” When Bannor leaned forward as if to press the case, Vaagdjul raised a long, tapering hand. “It is well that you asked once. However, to ask a second time risks insulting your hosts. What else?”

“Our next request is not an appeal for your permission, but your counsel.”

The chief looked genuinely perplexed. “My counsel? On what?”

Riordan picked up the topic. “You know of our intention to journey to the place two weeks north of here. The dunes-that-do-not-move.”

“The ancient site. Yes. I have been informed. Djubaran, the youth who reported their reappearance upon returning from his cho’urz, has journeyed back to inspect them more closely.”

“That sounds very dangerous.”

“It is, but he was determined. Continue.”

“You are also aware that we do not know this region and are not yet skilled in the best ways to travel these lands safely.”

Vaagdjul could not keep a sly smile from crinkling the corners of his very broad mouth. “This, too, I have heard.”

Riordan smiled back. “We admire the knowledge, skill, and integrity of the h’achgai. We have witnessed it in the words and deeds of Ulchakh, Yidreg, Arash, and even young Hresh. So as we plan for our journey to the site, we conceived that our chances of both success and survival would be much improved if we did not undertake it alone. So we wish your counsel in ensuring that we make fair offers to those of Achgabab who might wish to share in that endeavor . . . and whatever gain might arise from it.”

The old h’achga suddenly looked much older. He folded his hands, sighed, and shook his head. “It is a thoughtful inquiry, and your high opinion of our people honors us. But it is my duty to forbid what you mean to do.” He gestured vaguely toward Ulchakh. “He and the others with whom you have traveled; they are free to choose to continue on with you.

“But I cannot allow other warriors or hunters or artisans to join your efforts. That is not the best way for us to help you, even though you have Ulchakh’s chogruk. It would threaten the continued existence of Achgabab, and that is a much greater treasure—to you as well as us—than anything you might find at that site.”

Bannor shook his head. “But how would helping us threaten Achgabab? It is more likely to gain greater power and wealth.”

Vaagdjul nodded. “It might. But you will surely take much away. Already, Arashk, one of our best war leaders, is a devoted ally who means to travel with you. Ulchakh tells me that Yidreg is now of a like mind, even though he was to become First Hunter within the year. And you are right about Hresh: his mind is every bit as keen as Yidreg’s arrows, but it is now trained upon further journeys with you.” A brief pulse of anger became exasperation. “You already have too many of the rising generation’s most capable leaders, too much of Achgabab’s future.

“I cannot and will not diminish it—us—even more. So do not think to reassure me with promises that you would take our younger or less accomplished warriors or artisans and return them much improved. We have heard such promises before, and the price of believing them has been tears shed over absent bodies, abandoned under duress in the shifting dust, lost forever. So we have learned to abide by our oldest rule: that each family must keep their muster commitments to Achgabab and the Great Tribe of the region.

“Without that force always at hand, we cannot be sure that our communities shall remain places of safety, water, food, trade. As a people, we fight well enough, but war is not the first calling of h’achgai. For those who it is, and who strike blows against the x’qai, we support you. That is why we risk bringing you among us—and so, tempt the wrath of the suzerains.

“But if they believe we not only succored you but went afield with you in numbers, we would become more than overlooked irritants to the lieges. We would be infuriating enemies. And that would be the end of us. We do not have your weapons, your learning, your skills, or your mobility. We range far, yes, but we dwell in one place and measure its value not just by the many ways it ensures our survival, but by the generations that have given their devotion, sweat, and blood to strengthening it.”

Riordan inclined his head. “I understand and would do no differently, Chief Vaagdjul.”

“And I wish we could, Caine Riordan. Truly. It is a chafing thing, to hear the entreaty of an ally with whom we could punish our common foes, and yet have to stay my hand from joining yours.” He shifted irritably on his seat.

Bannor nodded. “Then perhaps you will smile upon our last request.”


“Because,” Caine explained, “it will help my hand strike even harder blows against the x’qai.”

The h’achgan chief straightened; the motion and his bright-eyed stare belied his age. “Explain.”

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