It was nice to be walking again, and here, the roads were fine. Finer perhaps than those in Mandaria. Cobbled, with drainage along each side and a curvature, they really were fine. We walked amidst a steady flow of traffic.
After a day, we stopped at an inn and bedded down for the night. I was ordered to change my appearance again, and this time opted to trim my hair right back and shave my beard to stubble. I actually looked slightly rough I have to say, though my skinny arms rather ruined the effect.
I changed my clothes too, adopting the colourful garb of the local populace. The land around was undulating and green, great mountains rearing to the north and south. It appeared that ‘Zon had been built on the western coast at the point of a break in the Spine. Travel was therefore easy and Hop-Man was walking briskly at my side.
“You called that town Allazon.”
“I got near-ground for using that name. I was told in no uncertain terms that the name of the town was ‘Zon.”
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
“Well which is it?”
“Where yer allegiance lies. Allazon was founded by t’coastal people. The Hânto refuse t’use names of tha’ origin.”
“So they call it ‘Zon?”
“Not very original.”
“Greed’s a destructive force on creativity.” That was somewhat profound.
“So why did you give me the contentious version of the name?”
“T’teach yer a lesson.”
“You almost got me beaten up.”
I rolled my eyes. The man was intolerably opaque. “If we are going to be allies, then I could do with being able to trust you.”
He shrugged. “Wha’s my name?”
“I… Ah… I’m sorry, but I forgot.”
“I’m Ander. Now, star’ listening and I’ll be nicer.”
I nodded. “Are you named after the great Delfinian investigator?”
I nodded. I was starting to break through the complex shell of my ally.
There was a thunderous noise behind us, and I turned. We quickly moved to the side of the road, as did the rest of the travellers. Coming down the road was a horse in full gallop, and on that horse was a man. He wore white robes edged in red and gold, and he was familiar. He was my interrogator, and he didn’t look happy. It was difficult not to smile.
It was our second evening together in a rather quiet road-inn. I had skirted around the subject of my greatest interest, conscious of failing spectacularly again. As it turned out, Ander led us down the path.
“You mean about…” I looked around, but the tap-room was near empty. No-one would hear us. “About the shaping?” He nodded. “Well, my hunch is that whatever it is, it is strong with the Mahan.”
“And it is also strong with the Lady and her family.”
“But not so with the Hânto.”
“Aye. Source of great disappointment for ‘em.”
“Is that why they ran the Mallahn into oblivion? Jealousy?”
He shrugged. “’Tis what the Lady suggests. They’ve always bin adversary – the Spear-Lords.”
“Quite. Why is it stronger with some families than others?”
He shrugged. “Nowt idea. Wha’s for sure though is tha’ i’s only strong wid the Mandari seven.”
“And not even the seven. Only two that we know of. Who knows how it tallies in the Little-Lords.”
He nodded and sipped from his mug. “’Tis for you ta find out.”
“Thanks. But does that mean that none other than the seven are rich in shaping?”
“There’re rumours in some circles.”
“Rumours of what?”
“Delfinian General. Those’ve faced ‘im say he’s strong wid it.”
I had heard of this chap on the extended gossip-wagon. They called him Mandestroy in Ahan because he had an uncanny and otherwise unheard of ability to slay Mandahoi. Quite a talent. I had never heard anything about his shaping capacity.
“What is shaping? Presumably there is more to it than winning a game of flip-coin.”
He shrugged. “The art is hoarded. ‘Tis shrouded.”
“But you said that the art was power and control. What did that mean?”
“Think ‘bout it. ‘t gives you power over luck. How useful is tha’?”
He had a good point, but the problem was the definition of that boundary. Where did the power of fortune end? The flip of a coin was one thing, but luck has many different weights. Imagine, for example, standing at the top of a cliff. Imagine leaning over the edge of the cliff only to be blown back by a freak gust of wind. Is that luck that can be crafted? Luck is so pervasive in the world to which we are attached that it is almost impossible to draw a boundary.
Everything is subject to the will of the Father as the pagans say? If that is true, then… It doesn’t bear thinking about.
“Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“Yer on t’right path bu’ be careful.”
“I know that now. Why do I think you’re holding back information?”
“Yer a suspicious sort. Now, where you goin’ next?”
“Well I’m following you.”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Where yer goin’?”
I sighed. “A town called Hallan.”
He nodded. “What’ll you find there?”
“Well I don’t know. I had thought of looking into the greenwoods.”
He clicked his fingers and smiled, winking. Then he stood, excused himself and went to bed. The following morning, he was gone.
Now, I’m still conscious that I have not actually passed this blot to anyone, and so what is actually happening here is that I’m talking to myself. But the further I tread, the more I think this is the way to go. There are sensitive words in these pages, and I am now the guardian of those words. To reveal them haphazardly would be to unravel my mission. To reveal them too soon would be destructive.
So I have made a decision. This is no longer a blot. It is a journal. I am speaking to myself.
It took another two nights to reach Hallan. Eastern Xeidan is a wide expanse of green pastures and small copses, and it was refreshing to pass through it. The place is packed full of livestock, and the range of arables is staggering. The island was certainly wealthy, and from what I could tell, the Hânto were harvesting that wealth ruthlessly.
In every inn at which I stayed, there were complaints about the Godswill. The Godswill. The word of Rhanna is to enlighten and pass on the life lessons that he has passed to us through the Book of Rha. But here, in the First Fist, God’s name is thrown around in vain.
There is no respect for Rhanna because the Hânto abuse his name. The priests have a presence here, but rather than objecting to the poor acts of the ruling family, they leverage what they can. I even heard talk of one farmer who made a one-off payment to the priests to hide his wealth, only for the constables to come in the very next day and confiscate the lot. The poor man now worked as a labourer on a farm for mere bits.
But whatever was going on with the corrupt financials in the country, Hallan was a sight to behold.
It wasn’t Callij, of course it wasn’t, but it was certainly remarkable in its own right. Climbing out of the wide green fields of eastern Xeidan, it was a small mountain range in itself. It was not the Spine, but it was a tall point of distinction.
And it sprawled. Oh how it sprawled. I’m sure I hit the outskirts a full fifth-quart from the centre of the vast city, but it is hard to define the boundary. In Mandaria, all the boundaries are firm, based as they are on the defensive requirements of the cities from the days of Dara. Here though, Hallan just sprawled lazily – unchecked. This was true self-indulgence.
The further into the city I went, the taller the buildings became. At its heart, the complex of the Hânto was vast, culminating in a triple peak that was surely there to slight the single tower of Mallis. The city was utterly remarkable in its sheer scale, but it was also rather unremarkable. Much of the place, the central complex excepted, was drab.
I found my lodgings in a vast tavern on a wide square. There were many such taverns, but this was the finest looking and I had a heavy pocket thanks to Ander. When I took rooms, it was expensive, but I was shocked to discover that the price was uplifted twenty percent to cover a direct tax. The Godswill was everywhere.
I dropped into the main lounge and spent a few coins on some delicious mead – also taxed by God – scoping out the place. I was drawn to a man sat at the far end of the room; a man slipping coins craftily through his fingers. He had a huge great pile of coins before him, and patrons gave him a wide berth. The man reeked of flip-coin.
“Care for a game?”
He nodded, licking his upper teeth. “Mine’s a red wine.”
I signalled for a waiter and took my seat. Time to see what this man was made of.
It didn’t take long to establish his credentials. I lost reasonable coin.
“You are, ah, good with the coins.”
“Beginner’s luck.” He grinned.
“I rather think veteran’s luck.” He shrugged. “Or perhaps, luck of the seven?”
The coin stopped sliding through his fingers and he narrowed his eyes. The grin didn’t slip, but it gained menace. “Are you accusing me?”
“Far from it. What could I be accusing you of?”
He narrowed his eyes. “You know what the luck of the seven is?”
“And you know it is a forbidden talent in the Fist?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
He leaned forward. “So, are you accusing me?”
“Not at all. I am on your side. I would rather pass the seven’s luck into the public sphere than have it as a privileged secret.”
He reclined and spat on the floor. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because then I’d lose my rich vein of luck.” The coin danced through his fingers once more. “Who are you to talk of such things?”
“And who are you to claim luck of the seven?”
“I’m a bastard. Half my blood’s high as it comes. The second half is gutter filth.”
“Not a Hânto bastard, though.”
“No. How did you know?”
“Luck is not strong with the Hânto. Whose bastard are you?”
“None of yours. What are you after? You clearly ain’t going to be playing me at the coin no more.”
I reclined. “No indeed, that would be mad of me. But I will trade games of flip-coin for information. This is a subject that is close to mine.”
“Who says I know anything?”
“That dirty smile says it all.” I smiled. “Game of fives?”
I lost a lot of money that night, but it was money well spent.