Four people languished in the tent; a fly’s occasional buzzing punctuated the lull of the early evening’s heat. Near the stove, a man and woman idly chattered over brewing tea. Along the tent’s mess table, a young woman pored over books and chicken-scratch notes, her brow furrowed in concentration. A tall man leaned against a stool in the corner, eyeing an assortment of maps of the local area. Aerographs of the dig site hung neatly next to topographical maps of the region, with rail lines, roads, and population centers highlighted. The tall man’s posture resembled that of a cat; even in repose, he seemed primed for some sudden movement, though the day’s heat had clearly eroded his vigilance. Distracted by the sudden intrusion of the fly, the tall man let his attention wander to the conversation of his colleagues.
“I am just saying we got off to a bad start, Zhida,” the young man said, his eyes glinting with the optimism of a fresh evangel. “The Joran people are many tribes, yes, and yes, they tend to be a stubborn lot, but they are bound by a faith in community and decency to neighbors. Remember how fervently they took to angelic teachings two centuries ago!”
The middle-aged woman, her tight-laced hair and clothing marking her as an Imperial bureaucrat, rolled her eyes, then glancing impatiently at the brewing tea. “Ahur, nothing you say is incorrect, but these aren’t the early Days of Determination anymore. Blood has been spilled and grave transgressions committed by both sides. There is no undoing what was done.”
Ahur smiled through his bristly beard. “Ah yes! What you say is true, but just as terrible events can convince a tribe they are best off on their own, so too can they create allies out of old enemies. To their east rises the great heathen Khardu, with warriors beyond counting led by shamans of great power. To their south rises Talmetra.” Ahur’s hands dramatically motioned in each direction. “While they are both foolishly seeking independence, there is little trust between them. Jora correctly sees in Talmetra the arrogance and cruelty of the Old World. Jorans know that Talmetra seeks to become tyrants.”
Zhida raised her tea to her nose and sniffed experimentally, grimaced, and set the cup down gingerly. “Let us hope the Talmetrans are as skilled tyrants as they are tea makers.” Her eyes turned to her interlocutor. “Ahur, you mistake these heathens for refugees looking for protection. Jorans are no longer Vels, or Jorkulites, or Rhamaati; they now share one name, bound together in the pain and anger of martyrdom. The last thirty years have been plain: we could agree on everything, and they will still see us as enemies.”
Ahur’s face stiffened, his brown eyes hardened by conviction. “The only thing that separates the Joran people from us is the wisdom of Aros. If they could see what we see, they would gladly join our cause, provided a few concessions were made.”
The young woman slammed the table with her open palm in frustration. “Will you two be silent?!” the young woman shouted. “That cursed fly makes less noise than you two.”
Zhida clucked her tongue in disapproval. “Such anger is ill-fitting for a scribe, Mazra. The day is long and hot. Let us rest our minds and exercise our tongues in idle talk.”
Mazra looked pointedly at the administrator. “Our purpose, Vice-Vizir, is clear. The angels have dispatched us to investigate the ruins on this land—”
“When will this finish brewing, I wonder?” Zhida interrupted absentmindedly, looking down at her tea.
Incensed, Mazra continued. “Ruins, I remind you, that Q’rathi lives—angelic lives—were spent attempting to hold. Decades may be long for us, but it is yesterday to the Celestial Teachers. There are things here that angels believed were worth dying for. It is imperative that we understand them.
Zhida opened her mouth to retort but Mazra rose from the table, her eyes dripping with contempt. “This may be a stint of shore leave for you, but I assure you the stakes are quite high.”
“Enough!” the tall man announced, taking out a pipe and stuffing it with some incensed plant. “Vice-Vizir Zhida, Reliquarian Mazra is right to be frustrated. There are still hours in the day to work. She is an expert, and this is her workspace. We must respect it.” The tall man gestured to the tent next door. “Most of our Joran hosts speak some of our tongue, and if you wish to speak of fancies about future alliances, you can take it up around them. I am sure they will give you an honest piece of their mind.” The tall man ambled across the tent, surveying the uncomfortable smile of Ahur with a cocked eyebrow. “Not interested? Very well, then let us turn our attention to aiding our colleague.” The tall man produced a flint contraption of Joran make from his robe pocket.
Mazra’s expression cooled to smug satisfaction. Catching this, the tall man, paused the lighting of his pipe, and leaned over the young reliquarian. “You would do well, Mazra, to remember why you are stationed here on this particular mission. Your rash disregard for protocol was tolerated only because it is matched with respect and devotion to the goals of the Arash. Never forget that all of us have a responsibility to the Empire, and it is by our combined actions that this mission will be judged. Am I clear, Reliquarian?”
Mazra’s smirk melted away under the rebuke. Chastised, she nodded. “Yes, Eb—”
“Titles,” corrected the tall man, clicking the flint and igniting the pipe’s contents.
Mazra shot the tall man a look but held her tongue. “Understood. Yes, Vice-Vizir Ebros.”
The tall man smiled, revealing spidering wrinkles that his age made apparent. Satisfied, Ebros drew deep on his pipe, and exhaled, filling the room with the scent of persimon and lemon. “Then it seems we are all again in accord! Zhida, Ahur, please pour me some tea and let us help our prodigy with her studies.”
With the tension dissipating, Ahur handed Ebros a warm cup, only to receive an equally warm nod of thanks. “So long as we are in private,” Ebros continued, “I am compelled to weigh in on this discussion. If the Jorans were truly interested in cooperation, they wouldn’t have withheld such important information regarding the dig site. It was only through Mazra’s keen eye did we piece together what the heathens have kept to themselves.”
Ahur began to speak but Ebros silenced him with a simple gesture. “Your kind heart is an asset, Ahur, but do not mistake our colleagues for friends. They only work with us because they fear our meddling less than whatever they have been so timid to touch near that central structure.”
Ebros turned to the young reliquarian. “Mazra, these heathen books you and Salmai have translated together, have you managed anything useful from them?”
“Yes, Vice-Vizir. This author from Akran City shares the same opinion of our Joran hosts. She believes that the ruin is a portal that uses the same energies our Arash wield. The theory is that these ruins were used to join the worlds together. The scale of this network seems to be a point of debate among the proponents of this theory.”
Ebros nodded, then looked to Zhida and Ahur. “There were prophecies of Ways of the Old Ones uttered by Elam, yes?” He paused briefly to cool his tea. “Would you please reference what we have on hand? I would like to see if anything lines up with the Rae carvings we unearthed last week.” Ebros sipped the tea experimentally before grimacing in disapproval. “Ugh… These Talmetrans can’t fashion tea properly, much less govern themselves.”
Zhida smiled ruefully. “A Joran who lived on the border told me the trick, Ebros. The tea harvested in the Belly have tougher leaves; you must let it steep longer.”
Ebros snorted as his fellow Vice-Vizir handed him a ream of parchments. “That may be the first time I have heard of heathens being patient.”
Zhida settled down across the table with a stack of papers bearing the mark of the Ministry of Prophecy. “I suppose we had best start here—”
A sudden ring of shouts swept into the tent, interrupting the Vizir’s musings. Ebros stiffened, his mouth working to parse the Joran creole. He looked at Mazra in alarm, her expression mirroring his.
“What is it?” Zhida asked.
“Salmai’s child is missing,” Ebros began.
Mazra’s brow furrowed, parsing the Joran’s language. “He ran off to the dig site with Javier’s daughter!” she said, rising out of the chair.
“To the ruin?!” Ahur exclaimed incredulously as he dug for his lantern. “Did Salmai teach him no sense?”
“Foolishness and childhood are not easily parted,” Ebros said, equipping a bandoleer of inscribed daggers. “We must help the Jorans find the children.” Ebros eyed Mazra as she moved to don a rucksack. “Not you, Mazra.”
“Excuse me?” the reliquarian asked, her face hot. “I will not be admonished as if I am some ill-behaved schoolgirl.”
Ebros’s face, once expressive, flattened, his eyes cold and ruthless. With a single practiced step, he drew next to Mazra, his voice barely higher than a whisper. “You misunderstand me. The Ministry of Vigilance needs you here. Aros has provided us with a unique opportunity to learn the intentions of our hosts. The Jorans will allocate much of their force to retrieving the children. They will suspect something if Zhida or I stay behind; they will not suspect a reliquarian who keeps her nose stuck in books.”
Mazra, taken aback, tried to sputter a retort but did not speak. Ebros’s eyes held little warmth. From his chest, he produced the pendant of his Ministry, baring the snarling face of Resh.
“What must I do?” she finally managed.
Ebros placed the pendant in her hands, then clasped them tight around the talisman’s contours. “Make your way to their command tent. There are several confidential dispatches from their government inside a safe. Use this pendant to hide your advance.” The tall man paused, peering out between the tent flaps. Tentatively, he slipped her a thin strip of paper.
“This is the combination to the lock. Memorize everything you find and report back to me this evening.”
“Damn you, Ebros, I am a scholar, not a spy,” Mazra hissed.
The Vice-Vizir of Sensitive Antiquity gave no emotion, his face placid and distant. “You are what the angels will you to be, Reliquarian. As you said yourself, the stakes are high, and we must understand the situation in its entirety. Do not make me regret saving you.”