Ilsa and Blue made their way across Dal. That day they took less than an hour to cross town on the transit system, compared to the two hours alone and on foot when Ilsa had the last time she had been in the city. The wheels of the small transit car squealed, and it bobbed against the guidance wire overhead as the driver put on the breaks. The little round car began to slow.
She glanced at Blue. Her partner in the Unification chewed the last bite of the vegetable wrap Ilsa had bought back at the food stand. The paper napkin of another wrap Blue had already eaten lay discarded on the wrought-iron bench where they sat. Ilsa had only eaten half of her wrap, but Blue was always hungry and germs didn’t bother her.
Over the last two years, Ilsa had never seen Blue sick. Even on campaign in Morhoi when the rest of their company had been wracked by the seasonal afflictions that swept the eastern nations every autumn, Ilsa herself coughing on the edge of fever, Blue had been fearless of illness. Her immune system had not failed her.
They paid the driver of the transit car and left the tiny stopping stand, built from little more than wood and wire, for a bustling narrow street. Just a few steps from the stopping stand, Ilsa looked across the way and saw a high-but-narrow screen that stood on poles in front of a building, beside a two-meter-tall plant pile.
The screen must have been connected to the information stored in the pile, because it displayed a digitally animated image, two flags flapping in the breeze. One was the simple white ring of Dal on the traditional sky blue field. The other flag bore an eight-sided white diamond at its center, cast on a darker blue field, the flag of Ayochian Royalty.
The two flags looked all too similar to Ilsa’s eyes, but her heart knew the difference. The flag of Dal represented a city-state just trying to survive an age of increasingly advanced technology. The other was far different. With their eastern border secured by the recent alliance formed with Dal, the nation of Ayoch had been conquering territory in the far west, a thousand miles away from the Plateau of Yr. Ayoch’s royal court demanded conquest in all directions, and the Plateau of Yr held symbolic importance to them.
Some day, Ayoch would move to take over parts of Yr, especially in the center around Tenlyres.
Words in the common language of Yr solidified between the two flags on the screen. Blue set down her travel case and followed Ilsa’s gaze. She read the words aloud in her mild Chogrumian accent. “Join the fight. Protect your home.”
Ilsa wrinkled her nose. “How many people is that going to sway?”
“Too many, I would guess.” Blue folded her arms. “Let’s go.”
The image shifted again, showing a flag patterned with three vertical stripes, one white on either side of a bright red. Beneath the flag words read: Burn the flag of Chogrum. The words flashed bright and the flag vanished.
Ilsa glanced at Blue’s face. Her friend’s expression darkened, but only a little. She unfolded her arms and picked up her travel case. “Let’s go, Ilsa.”
She nodded and they started down the street. People pushed and jostled each other all along the way, but the few that looked gave Ilsa and Blue only the briefest of curious glances. Ilsa carried her red staff, making her office clear, but she doubted anyone would recognize her despite being just a few blocks from Saint Banyeen’s Garden where she had been ordained alongside Cass Kalteri.
She had changed since those days. Likely the people here were different altogether or had simply forgotten her.
Hathani’s clergy was well-respected, but a priestess who went unrecognized was always going to be of far lower influence than one who people noticed. As a full-blooded Dalite and a locally honored priestess, Cass would surely have been known for her proverbs in this part of the city. Ilsa tried to tell herself none of that mattered in the face of war between Chogrum and Dal.
Ilsa and Blue made their way five blocks toward the eastern edge of town. In the center of the next block stood a set of tall-walled stables. Outside the building, a man led a pair of great striders by their reins. The striders took up most of the street and forced Ilsa and Blue to keep close to the buildings on one side as they passed.
At the open gate to the yard just outside the stables, there stood a burly man shouting at passersby. Ilsa did not recognize him, but as she and Blue drew close enough to hear his words, she immediately knew his type. An instigator.
“We must strike first! We must say that Chogrum has made war in the west for the last time!” He hefted one meaty fist. “Who is with me, among of all you people?”
A small crowd in front of him cheered, accompanied by some impolite murmurs. Despite the darkness of Blue’s skin, Ilsa had a feeling her partner would pass unnoticed. There were other nations and cities of people who could have been Blue’s family besides Chogrum though Ilsa knew little about Blue’s family beyond the city of her birth. Wherever her ancestors hailed from, Blue could keep a low profile when needed. Being from Chogrum was not something to raise to someone like this man.
They had almost passed the semi-circle of supporters when the man raised his voice to a scream that Ilsa hoped would leave him hoarse for all his drama. He pointed past the small crowd. At first, Ilsa worried he had guessed Blue’s origin, but then followed the instigator’s finger to a second man who had been walking a short distance behind Ilsa and Blue.
“You there, what do you have to say about Chogrum?”
The lanky man wore a long-sleeved gray winter coat, with the high collar of a black jacket visible through the unbuttoned front. He had a pair of thin-rimmed glasses set on his nose. Ilsa glimpsed a pair of scroll cases, the sort used to transport paper documents without water ruining them.
Most priestesses kept at least one such container to preserve their personal words. Ilsa only carried a smaller case because she rarely devised her own proverbs. This man had two of the heavy cylinders. Those could carry a lot of paper. Ilsa wondered why he would need so much space. Could he be some kind of bureaucrat or scholar?
He stopped and then looked up at the burly instigator. “Sir, I have nothing to say about Chogrum.”
But his accent, so similar to Blue’s, but, even more noticeable, said too much. The man must be from Chogrum.
The instigator’s lip curled. One hand clenched into a fist. “Don’t you care about the war that’s coming?”
The man with the black collar bowed his head. “What can I say? Clearly, you do.” He shifted his stance. His trailing sleeves caught a breeze and drifted as he turned to keep walking toward the stable. One of them trailed further than the other as if the arm it was covered was shorter than the one on the other side.
The instigator gave a roar of rage. He lunged out to block the man with the black collar, and in the process cut off Ilsa’a path forward. “I’ll show you some respect.”
Ilsa, Blue, and the man with the black collar stopped in front of him. His supporters fanned out on either side of him. Ilsa grimaced. “Stop being stupid. Leave this man alone.”
The loud man rounded on Ilsa. “A priestess, too! How dare you stand against this city while you carry that red staff?”
The man with the high collar glanced at Ilsa. Blue raised her eyebrows. Ilsa took a deep breath. “I carry this staff, because of Hathani, not because of Dal. Out of the way.”
“I don’t think so.” The beefy instigator folded his arms. “I think the three of you need to be punished.”
Blue’s eyes moved to the dozen or so men and women backing up the large man in their center. Ilsa knew that gaze. Her friend sized up the people because her plan was to drive them back if a fight actually started.
Ilsa shook her head. “Punishment is between the just and the unjust, not between cities or peoples.”
“Spoken like a priestess. All you Hathanians do is talk!” The instigator laughed, and then cracked his knuckles. “Tell me how your words feel when I jam them down your throat.” He took a step toward Ilsa.
She nodded to Blue. The big man shook his head. The man with the black collar held up both hands as if to hold the bigger man back. His sleeves fell back to his wrists. His left hand trembled, and his right looked slender and misshapen, as did the bony wrist at its base. The instigator surged forward and swung artlessly at the scholar’s head with a massive hand.
The man with the black collar took the blow to the cheek. He grunted and staggered to one side. Ilsa met the eyes of the big man as he pushed the scholar to one side. She raised her voice just slightly, “Do you only strike unarmed people?”
“Chogrum killed unarmed civilians when they shelled this district during the last war.”
“I know. I lost family in that war.”
“Don’t stand up for this idiot, then! If you’re a Dalite you should be with us.”
“No. No one should be with you.”
“Hold your tongue! I’m the one with supporters behind me.” He raised a clumsy fist to strike.
He moved far too slow, but his strength could have been dangerous if Ilsa got careless. She darted to one side. The force of his punch carried him past her.
Ilsa clenched her right hand into a tight fist, then unclenched it, triggering her Weapon Bond. Her brand burned on the back of her hand, turning the flesh a painful, angry, red. Ilsa ignored the pain. The pistol fell into her hand and she trained it on the man beside her. Her free hand slammed pulled a magazine from her pack and slammed it in to load the gun.
“I think now its time for you to be quiet.” Ilsa held the gun aimed at the big man. Her finger hovered over the trigger, but she hoped he would take the chance he had to back down. “I don’t like to threaten.”
His face turned red. “Magic. Damn it.” He backed away from her.
“Leave. Now. Stop gathering here. I think your friends will appreciate it.” Ilsa nodded past the big man to where Blue had driven his supporters. They stared back from one wall of the stable yard with wide, teary eyes. Blue had only used her mental skills in the most basic and least invasive way, but that appeared to be enough. The fight had gone out of every pale face.
The big man’s face darkened, still red with rage. He glared at Ilsa. “I won’t forget this.”
“That’s a difference between us, then.” Ilsa waved her pistol at him. “Go.”
He glowered at her, but then turned and lurched to his supporters. Blue let him by, so he could lead the others away. Fools, all of them, if they thought another war on the plateau would solve anything.
When they had all left the yard, Ilsa walked over to Blue. The Chogrumian scholar turned toward them. His pale face bore a growing bruise on one cheek. “Thank you.”
“Anyone who doesn’t want this war is a friend,” said Blue.
Ilsa nodded. “No matter which city you’re from.” Or what that city has done.
He bowed his head to her. “Thanks. My name is Lemuel Chollush. I am at your service.”
“I’m Ilsa Barrett. This is Blue.”
Blue nodded. “Just, Blue.”
“Alright, then.” Lemuel smiled broadly and then winced at the obvious pain in his face. “Shall we go inside?”
Ilsa nodded. She removed the magazine from her pistol, quickly ejected the unused bullet, and then returned the weapon to its insubstantial state. She stuffed the magazine and unused bullet back into her pack’s ammo pocket. Blue and Lemuel led the way into the stable office.
The great striders used for riding between Chogrum and Dal, on the plains without roads were valuable, but Ilsa and Blue both had plenty of money for them. Pay left over from the last battles they had fought in the eastern nations, in Morhoi. The manager gave them a weary glance, but they settled the deal quickly. Stable hands let out two striders, one with a weeping yellow mane for Ilsa, and a darker-colored straight-haired one for Blue.
The steeds were biologically engineered and cybernetically enhanced. They walked on two powerful hind legs with a set of small forelimbs curled at the front. Their hair was shaggy and long, and in the case of Ilsa’s flowing like a willow tree, and they had hairy faces. Lemuel waved to them with his long left arm as they rode out of the gate and onto the street, headed for Saint Banyeen’s Garden. Ilsa waved back. “Stay safe,” she called.
They passed the stony walls, the iron gate, the garden paths, and rode toward the edge of the city to find a cheap place to stay the night. Already the sun was rolling high over Yr, and they had preparations to do before leaving the city at the next dawn. Ilsa stroked the fur of her weeping strider’s mane, gently beginning her rapport with the animal.
“Goodbye, Dal,” whispered Ilsa as she rode east.