Captain Sarovy did not often see Specialist-Sergeant Presh out and about – and certainly not on his own. Spotting him standing atop one of the barracks where the Trivestean archers often did their trick-shooting practice, then, made him curious.
More than curious. Troubled.
He climbed the ladder quickly, noting the bits of fletching left stuck in the rough shingles of the roof. The surface was slightly pitched, but not too difficult to walk upon, southern Illane and this camp in particular unconcerned with the chance of snow. Sarovy had spent too much time on precarious perches to be unsteady, and as he approached the Padrastan sergeant, he thought he discerned the same ease of stance.
“Sergeant Presh,” he said. “What are you doing?”
The Padrastan glanced back slightly. Like all his kin, he was dark-eyed and black-haired, with dusty bronze skin either from blood or constant sun – superficially not much different from a southern Illanite. Among the freesoldiers, though, he stood out sorely, and the canted, near-lidless shape of his eyes marked him as a serpent-blood.
He nodded the way he had been staring, where the Padrastan city of Kanrodi hunched beneath its ever-present half-sphere of green wards. “Observing.”
Sarovy regarded him narrowly. He had not wanted the Padrastan in his company and did not trust him, no matter that the Inquisitor Archmagus had vetted him personally. It seemed like far too great a compromise to let an enemy mage in among them, even if that mage claimed to be a defector.
Especially when that mage was a serpent-blood.
“Does it trouble you?” said the Padrastan.
Frowning, Sarovy stepped up alongside him, his gaze skating from Presh to the city. “You have been assigned to me. I trust in my superiors.” After a moment’s silence, he echoed, “Does it trouble you?”
“To see this scuffle?” Presh shrugged slightly, turning his strange gaze toward the city. “War is war, captain. It pains me to see this no more than it pained me to see clashes between our cities, our districts, our tribes. I belong wherever I currently am, and do not concern myself overmuch with the other side.
“Anyway, you will not soon break those walls.”
Sarovy eyed him sidelong. “Confident, for one who supposedly sold out that side.”
Presh’s mouth crooked in a smile. “I detailed what little I knew, Captain. Surely you do not think one peasant’s knowledge could bring down a city, or a kingdom.”
“A peasant? You are a mage.”
“Not yet the mage I could be, Captain. Knowledge is restricted in Padras, and in Yezad which once was our parent empire. Born a peasant, I could only ascend so high in rank – could not break the chains of my caste, no matter that I had the intelligence and the spark necessary to master arcane magic. We are not raised by our merits in Padras, Captain, only by our blood.”
“And so you defected?” said Sarovy.
Presh shrugged slightly. “And so I took myself to where I would not be seen as a peasant, but as a mage – as you said. Your war caught up with me; I did not seek it. There are many of my people living in Illane, recent-comers and long-dwellers alike, and all of us have been uncomfortably swept up because of our heritage.”
“This is why you speak Imperial well?”
“Many in Padras and Yezad speak your tongue, Captain, or at least understand it. We learned it back when it was called Altaeran, one of the trade-tongues of the north. Simply because you have forgotten how to speak our tongue, as well as some of your own, does not mean that we should discard our learning.”
Sarovy furrowed his brows at the Padrastan, vaguely aware that his own people had once spoken a language other than Imperial but considering it only a remnant of their once-barbaric lifestyle. “You are from near the border, then?”
“Oh, no. You were listening, correct? We know your language all throughout Padras and into Yezad, not only those of us near the border. Myself, I was born on the southern border, near the Desert of Aervach, one of many sons of a nomadic herder tribe.” He smiled flatly, without humor. “I had the spark, as I said, and so I was sent to Taradzur to be trained in the art of magic. I suppose you would not know of Taradzur… It is one of the academic cities, built around the greatest of the southern Padrastan oases – and the one most poisoned by the Wars of Empire. We men of the arcane school study the waters while the women of the temple attempt to purify them, but there is always more poison to be leached up from the ruined earth. Still, it was a good place to come of age, more lax in its social restraints than many of our cities…no doubt from the academic atmosphere. Men and women all but working side-by-side…”
He trailed off with a nostalgic sigh, so Sarovy said, “This is not usually the case?”
Presh smirked. “No, Captain. Except for in a few northern cities like Kanrodi, we men live separate from the women. This is most true within the tribes, where the women have their own side of the camp and only a few tents are designated as communal – for the acts of procreation, you understand. Within the cities it is a bit more difficult to completely segregate, but there are women’s districts and men’s districts, and sentinels of both genders to make sure that those of one do not intrude into those of the other. Cohabitation is possible only along the borders of the two areas, where families make their residence and children are raised.”
Sarovy blinked slowly. “You…live entirely separate from women?”
“Unless we are married, yes, and I am not,” said Presh, stroking his clean-shaven chin as if it should mean something to Sarovy. “I did submit my petition for a wife to the temple, but as a younger son of a herder, I knew that I would not likely see a wife for some time. Even though I am a mage, my education was restricted; I could go into the lower echelon of arcane careers such as summoning elementals to assist in construction, irrigation and the like, or controlling janitorial slimes, or providing assistance and protection to caravans. I would never become a court mage, or a researcher, an inventor, a spinner of new magics – an artificer, an artist. My life would be better than that of a mundane herder’s son, but only to a certain degree, and thus I was not worthy of swift marriage-permission.”
“Arranged marriages,” Sarovy mused, to which Presh nodded. Then the Captain shook his head and said, “Are there not enough women in Padras?”
“Oh, there are. We are fairly in balance, population-wise. But it is permitted for men of high caste – and women – to take multiple marriage partners, and to choose from the lower castes if they wish. And so sometimes men of high caste collect a great number of low-caste wives, leaving the men of low caste with a long wait. The priestesses of the Temple select and oversee all marriages, and it is said that they can be swayed by bribes, though they are supposed to be immune to the temptations of the world. Alas, even the most high-minded of us are still bound to fleshly forms.”
“Then… Let me see if I understand. Your men all live in one section of the city. Your women all live in another. And when you marry, you move to the borders between those sections to have your families, but no unmarried people are allowed therein?”
Presh nodded shortly. “The unmarried men and women, as well as widows and widowers, are barred from the family areas. Couples who no longer wish to see each other are also separated, though they may remain married in name. Children are removed to be educated at an age dependant upon their path in life – mages and priestesses beginning early, craftspeople and soldiers somewhat later. Some married people come together in the border zones only to have and raise their children, then return to their lives in the Men’s and Women’s areas, meeting occasionally at the border as long as they prefer.”
“So you do not have…households, per se,” said Sarovy, baffled.
“Not in the mixed sense you seem to think of them,” said Presh. “Among the women, there is one hierarchy where every woman has a place. Among the men, there is a somewhat parallel hierarchy. All know their place within these hierarchies and have some flexibility to set up…communal households within them. Perhaps a handful of priestesses who bless and live with a handful of craftswomen, or a handful of soldiers who live alongside mages and assist them in their endeavors. These household relationships can be as passionate or dispassionate as the participants like, and are not regulated by law, as marriages are.
“Still, only women serve the Temple. Only men serve the Academy. Separate as we are, we rely upon each other for physical force, for spiritual guidance – and twice a year, on the solstices, we gather to reflect that. Cities, villages, nomad camps, we come together to remind ourselves that though we are dedicated to the mind and the soul, there is also the body.”
“That sounds like…it could be problematic, half a year down the road,” said Sarovy mildly.
Presh smirked. “Children conceived at those times are blessed, the girls by the Shade Serpent and the boys by the Sun Serpent. They transcend the caste of their mothers and are placed directly in the hands of the Temple or the Academy, to be raised in service. Many of our noble lineages ascended from sand-scrabble beginnings due to such behavior.”
“Serpents,” Sarovy said, stiffening slightly.
Presh gave him a sly sidelong glance. “They are no different in concept from your Light and Dark, only that we do not revile one in favor of the other. In the south, where the sun threatens to scorch us away with every beam, we revere the Shade Serpent over her husband. She protects us from the glare, cools our fevers and brings the rain. In the north, where sometimes they feel a bit of chill, they revere the Sun and the Shade Serpents equally. You in the dark northern lands, we understand why you would prefer the Sun Serpent, but even you should understand that it is impossible to live without shade, yes?”
Sarovy said nothing. In his mind’s eye he saw the Imperial Phoenix, red of claw, gold of wing, sapphire of eye. Burning in the sky. Perhaps if one was delirious in the desert and had to squint, it might look a bit like a serpent.
“This is why we call you heretics,” he said under his breath. “You may worship the Light, but it is the wrong one.”
“Perhaps we should avoid having this argument,” said Presh.
Though Sarovy knew he should agree, he could not help himself. “Does your Sun Serpent have no temple, then?” he said. “As your women hold all the religious ranks?”
Presh smiled faintly. “The Sun Serpent is embodied in our Great General, just as the Shade Serpent is embodied in our Holy Lady. But we need not pray to the Sun Serpent. He does not fail us. The Shade Serpent, on the other hand, waxes and wanes in her attention toward us, and must be courted constantly.”
“All the more reason to respect the steady Light over the fickle Dark.”
“Respect is due equally to both.”
Sarovy started to argue, then exhaled, forcing himself to focus on something else. “You say that Yezad was your parent empire. I was under the impression that it still has a hold over you.”
“Mm. It does have influence, yes. But our Great General and Holy Lady are no more beholden to the Yezadri than the Illanite governors were to your Empire – before their conquest, of course. Once, Padras was a part of Yezad, yes, but that was many ages ago, before the Desert of Aervach was formed and the Rift rose. With the Rift separating these western lands from their source of water, much of what became Padras dried and died, only the oases and those communities along the Losgannon River continuing to thrive. Many of our people became nomads, or moved to the coast to take up fishing, and those of us in the cities had to turn from farming to commerce between our land and the north. Like Illane, we are reliant on merchant traffic; unlike Illane, we are both drier and more arcanely and religiously adept, and thus have managed to preserve our way of life within the cities despite the desertification of the countryside.
“As for the Desert of Aervach, well…it created a great barrier between ourselves and the bulk of Yezad, and so when we declared our freedom from their shackles, there was little they could do to refuse us. Even now, their assistance to Kanrodi and the rest of Padras against the Phoenix Empire depends greatly on Padras’s cooperation, for even though we provide a vital buffer between your advance and Yezad, they would not be able to reinforce us without the Academy’s constant assistance.”
“You say ‘we’ and ‘you’ the wrong way around,” said Sarovy flatly.
Presh smiled, obviously unconcerned. “To me, Captain, you are a plain representation of the north, and we speak of the south, where I lived until only recently. I can not help but say ‘you’ when I look at you, and ‘me’ when I speak of those who were once close to me. Do not read too much into it; I am as loyal as any mercenary can be.”
Eyes narrowed, Sarovy regarded him for a long moment, then sighed. “As you say.”