Tlisli – The Edge of Civilization

(Continued from Tlisli – Ambushed part of the Tlisli Series)

Azzesh made an almost instant decision to use the boat left by the God-Emperor’s troops. It would be faster, and now that she was certain these were scouts for the Grand Empire of the Sun, she felt it was urgent to get word to the authorities in Tevelin that scouts of the Grand empire were this close.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

Tlisli was too small to be much use in rowing the boat, so Azzesh chose simply to drift with the current while guiding the boat from the rear. It was a rather well made boat in the style of the human tribes in the area. That meant a solid frame of wood with animal skins stretched over it, sealed with pitch taken from one of several species of trees. It was waterproof, easy to guide (if you knew how), and unlikely to break up, as some human boats were.

Following the river, it was less than a day before they were approaching the confluence, as it was known. Two rather substantial rivers, both flowing northward, joined into one. What was extraordinary about it was how close to the coast this took place. Another day of drifting downstream and they would be in Tevelin itself. But Azzesh knew the commander of the Inralin garrison at the fort and trading post here, known uncreatively as Fort Confluence, though it sounded much better in the Inraline language: Vorenvir, “fort joining two flowing waters.”

To be fair, one should consider that Azzesh had never told Tlisli that they would first arrive at an outpost of the city. It had never occurred to her to mention this because it was so obvious that there would be such. What would be more natural than to stop here and spend the night? There was both an excellent inn and a trader’s hostelry that provided more ordinary accommodations and a reasonable price. So perhaps her reaction can be justified.

“Wow!” said Tlisli. “Look at those wharves! I had never imagined that Tevelin would be so large!”

In fact, Tevelin was slightly smaller in population than Tlisli’s home town, but it was larger both in area and in the number of buildings to be found. In particular, few of the buildings in Tlisli’s home town were made of stone. A temple and the palace, yes, but even the guards lived in simpler buildings. The sight of stone piers extending into the river, capable of handling sea-going ships, of stone fortifications surrounding the outpost, and dozens of stone buildings suggested to Tlisli a city much larger than any she had known.

“Don’t be stupid!” said Azzesh. “This is merely an outpost. Yes, it is the largest outpost of Tevelin, but an outpost nonetheless. Tevelin itself is many times this size.”

At that Tlisli fell silent. She was strangely afraid, though she didn’t know what of. They tied up at the pier. Tlisli was silent and followed Azzesh. Even when one of the dock workers tried to talk to her, she just gestured. She wasn’t sure what to say. She knew she was dressed strangely, but that didn’t worry her so much. She was also surprised that all these humans–how long had it been since she’d seen another human other than the Grand Empire soldiers?–seemed to know and respect Azzesh.

She continued to follow Azzesh when she was led to the garrison commander’s office. Inside the stone buildings was even more of a shock to her than seeing so many of them from the outside. They were clean and really quite beautiful, with works of art scattered about. Tlisli couldn’t imagine how a garrison commander could be rich enough to own so many works of art. She expected to wait while Azzesh conducted her business. She also expected that both of them would have some time to clean up before they were taken in to see such an important official. If that happened what would she wear? But both she and Azzesh were directed into the commnder’s quarters, and when Tlisli hesitated to enter, Azzesh pushed her forward so hard she almost fell.

“Well if it isn’t the great Azzesh as I live and breathe!” said the commander, a human who looked like he might be just short of middle age. He was taller than any man Ttlisli had ever seen, and resembled the description of the gods. Tlisli thought she had never seen anyone so handsome.

“I see that nothing has diminished your firm grasp of the obvious,” said Azzesh. Tlisli cringed at both the familiarity and the disrespect. She also noticed a shift in Azzesh’s speech. She seemed to be speaking more formally. Her grammar was, perhaps more educated. Tlisli wasn’t sure.

“Indeed it hasn’t. I see you have acquired an assistant.” The way he said “assistant” seemed to imply something else, but Tlisli wasn’t sure what. There was just an edge of humor and perhaps contempt in the commander’s tone.

“Partner, commander, partner.”

“So you’re going to give her a full share of the proceeds?”

“Junior partner,” said Azzesh.

“Very well. That is, of course, up to you and her.”

“Indeed it is. Up to me. Not to her.”

Very junior partner,” the commander drawled.

“Very senior parner,” replied Azzesh, tapping her own chest with a claw, which produced a audible click.

“I stand corrected.” The commander snickered. “And what brings you to my office before you’ve even had time to clean up from the journey?”

“Clean up?” asked Azzesh. “Who needs to clean up?” She paused. “I arrived here in a boat.”

“That is surprising, considering your contempt for that mode of transportation, but hardly requires that I be informed.”

Tlisli heard the words, which were light, but she also noticed that there was increased tension in the commander’s voice. He heard more in the term “boat” than his words suggested.

“Indeed I have contempt for that mode of transportation. It prevents one from seeing and benefiting from large tracts of countryside. On the other hand, it is fast. This particular boat handles well in the river, though it rides high and requires attention to keep it headed in the right direction. Skins cover a framework of wood.”

Tlislli noted the increase in tension with each step in the description. “And you found this abandoned?” asked the commander.

“No, not precisely. It’s former owners ceased to have need of it. There were nine of them, and they wore symbols of their office and their emperor.”

“Nine? You killed nine Grand Empire scouts?”

“No, Tlisli here accounted for three, or perhaps four.”

The commander looked at Tlisli with new respect. “And this occurred where?”

“About a day’s drift up the eastern branch,” said Azzesh. “The boat is at the dock. I have no need of it. But if there should be a purchaser after you have examined it, a junior’s share, 2 of 5, should go to Tlisli here.”

“Very well,” said the commander, “We will examine the boat and its contents. I trust you have removed anything that is yours.”

“I have.”

“I’ll be in touch if I need anything more.”

“No doubt you will.”

Azzesh started to leave, and as she saw Tlisli still rooted to the spot, she grabbed her arm and got her moving. They left the commander’s office, then the building, and headed to the market.

In the market Azzesh sold a portion of the materials she had collected. When Tlisli asked her why she sold some, but not all, she laughed. “Think, small human,” she said. “What makes prices high?”

“When things are rare,” said Tlisli.

“So where will I get the best price for anything I carry?”

“Where it is rare.”

“Indeed. You have come a long way from the time I first considered cooking you for lunch, though you are still almost unimaginably stupid.”

Tlisli chose not to respond.

As they left the market, Azzesh handed Tlisli a small bag of coins. This is your share of what I have sold thus far. For the things collected after you joined me, you shall receive a share of the profits. For some, you must wait until I arrive in the city.”

“Thank you,” said Tlisli.

“Some ferocious warrior you are,” said Azzesh. But there was no sting in it this time.

Tlisli agreed to meet Azzesh at the docks in the morning where there was a commercial riverboat they could take to the city. Azzesh seemed to think that Tlisli could take care of herself in town. It was just in the wilderness that she needed a keeper.

Tlisli found that she really did have little trouble making her way around the outpost. Prices were somewhat higher than she was used to, at least measured by the weight of metal in the coins she used. She actually had a couple of gold coins. Gold was never used in ordinary commerce in her home town. She included a scabbard for her sword in her purchases and also bought a small knife.

Evening found her cleaned up and clothed in something reasonably civilized, or so she thought. She’d found it hard to get clothes that would be regarded as modest by her home town standards, but she simply couldn’t make herself wear the rather more revealing garments that seemed to be favored here. There were two distinct groups of people. Local folks who spoke a dialect closely related to her own, and the Inraline who were lighter skinned, generally taller, and seemed to be in charge. She was informed that Tevelin was a trading colony and seaport of the Inraline. Their colony was just the city of Tevelin itself, which was, people thought, perhaps 20 or 30 times the size of this outpost.

Tlisli was having a hard time comprehending that. With the money she had, she found that she could stay in the more comfortable inn, and its facilities were better than those at her father’s home. He had been one of the richest folks in town! But then she wondered how much it would cost to live for a period of time, so she found a place at the trader’s hostelry. She was surprised to find that nobody even questioned the idea of a woman traveling alone. The hostelry’s manager also told her, when she asked, that there was no restriction on carrying personal weapons within the outpost.

The feeling of having money gave her the courage to head to the bar in the evening–the one at the larger, more expensive inn. And that was where the trouble started. At one time Tlisli had considered herself an extremely beautiful and sexy young woman. Weeks of travel through the jungle and of measuring herself against Azzesh’s standard of usefulness had made her forget that. It turned out, however, that other than the odd scratch on her face, arms, and hands that hadn’t healed yet–and her more modest than average clothing covered most of those–her experience in the wilderness had not decreased her charm. She wasn’t yet ready for male company, however, and so other than accepting a couple of free drinks and talking she pushed away the various men who approached her.

It was no later than around 10 pm that she headed out to walk the few blocks to the hostelry. As she passed an alley just two blocks from the inn a man stepped out in front of her.

“Just where do you think you’re going little girl?” he asked.

“I’m going to the hostelry. Get out of my way,” she answered and tried to step forward.

He reached out to grab her arm. Almost without thinking she dodged. At the same time she noticed another man in the entrance to the alleyway. He was coming at her with fists. Neither was paying much attention to the sword at her side. She leaned back, forcing the second man to miss, while the first barely kept his balance. It was too bad, she thought, that she hadn’t gotten him off balance the other way, so that he’d walk into his companion’s fist. Still, they were both off balance for a moment, and she drew her sword.

One of the men apparently didn’t believe she knew how to use the sword, and stepped forward again, well into her reach. He seemed to be reaching for her sword arm. What he got for his pains was a nasty gash almost the length of his forearm. She recovered before he did and stabbed him squarely in the belly with her sword.

As she drew out the sword there was the sound of a whistle and a voice shouting “freeze.” Then they were all surrounded by soldiers. These were the Inraline troops, not locals. Tlisli could still calculate her odds, and they didn’t look good. In fact, it looked like she had no odds again. Only hours after again finding herself in a civilized town, she found herself under arrest.

(To be continued … for those who note that this episode was written two years after the previous one, let me note that the next episode, Tlisli – An Inraline Court, is already written and will appear on November 12, 2012.)

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