Much to my surprise, we made it safely back to the caravan. I was expecting a little more drama, given that I had the key to resurrecting a long lost god and rival to the demon king gouged into my back. Heck, I was pretty sure I was going to get in trouble for being off somewhere alone with Minerva for a few hours. But as we rejoined the caravan, battered and bleeding, we hardly drew a second glance. I wasn't the only one who was pissed off about it.
"Yeah, you just look away, you land-bound goat groper!" As usual, you could hear Riordan coming long before you could see the little guy. The caravan guard he was shouting at stared at him for a minute, then turned away and spat on the ground before getting on with ignoring us completely.
"And you," Riordan trotted his horse up to stop in front of us. "Isn't it nice of the two of you to drop by. Do you have any idea what ran through my mind when Minerva's horse came back without her? That asshole captain of the guards followed the hoof prints up the road and found scuffle marks and griffon feathers and said that you were both dead and no sense looking for you. Yeah, that's right," he leaned back to shout over at the guard. "I said 'asshole captain'. What are you going to do about it?"
"Riordan," I said in a warning tone. Pissing off armed guards unnecessarily is just a bad idea.
"What, they were content to let you die!" His mouth was showing no signs of stopping until suddenly what his eyes were seeing finally registered in his tiny little head. He took in the shredded remains of Minerva's shirt, the bruising on her face, the blood seeping through my bandages and the contusions all over me. "Gods of shrews and spinsters, Ozzie, you gotta learn that 'no' means 'no'."
Minerva made a sound of exasperation and reached out to take hold of my wrist as my hands rose of their own accord to strangle Riordan. "Come, Master Osgun. Let me find clean bandages and a balm to anoint your wounds with. The sapen growing along the road will dull the worst of the pain."
"The red flowers? Do I have to eat it, or is it something you rub on?"
"Actually, I was contemplating making it into a drought for Master Seawolf to drink, that the opiate sleep might silence his endless barking."
"Sure, Miss," Riordan snapped. "Insult the one person in this caravan who cared whether or not you lived or died."
"I suspect your concern for our fate had more to do with Master Osgun's minted cargo," she glared and dragged me toward the wagon she kept her bags in.
Riordan and I exchanged confused glances on that one. Mint? I didn't have any herbs on me. "Doesn't do a thing for his smell," Riordan muttered.
The trip down the side of the mountain was a mix of hot sun and rock combined with cool breeze and spray from the falls. At the bottom, there was a great pool of water and gorgeous buildings made from gleaming white, tan and rose stone. Well, that was the nice section of town. There were also a lot of squalid tents with hungry looking people in them, and enough flies for a dozen midsummers back home, but most of the city looked like a god really did make it.
"And this isn't Noksheoth Heights, right?" I was having trouble wrapping my head around that. Everywhere I looked, there were elegant pillars and towering statues staring inscrutably off toward the heavens.
"Correct. This is merely an outpost town. It is the furthest navigable point along the Divine River. In ages past, it was a place of religious pilgrimage, but in this day, its only importance is commercial."
Riordan cleared his throat. "So, uh, it's just a little outpost."
"Correct," Minerva said for the fifteenth time that morning. "From here, our journey will be faster and safer by boat. I will book us passage."
We followed her about as she sold the horses and got us a spot on a boat. Here we were in the mysterious West, at last! You know, it was funny, but I really couldnt tell you if the people were more friendly, or less. Certainly they treated me less differently than everyone else; I hardly drew a second glance. In fact, I saw several other halfbreeds like myself, some working heavy labor, more working as guards. On one street, there was an establishment that I am positive was a bordello that had a pair of women who could be my sisters standing out front. Presumably, they were scantily clad guards. I confess, I stared. They caught sight of me, too, and said something unintelligible to me in that lovely Western tongue. I was able to figure out the gestures right away, though.
Dont stare, youll just encourage them, Minerva said sharply, and picked up the pace. Behind, where she couldnt see, Riordan rolled his eyes. For my part, I felt obliged to give the ladies a little wave goodbye. After the generosity of the offer they had obviously been making, it seemed rude not to. They laughed and blew me kisses. I will admit, had Minerva not been there, I would have gone back. Not necessarily for their offer they were some of the most spectacularly ugly women Ive ever seen. But they were the first half-orcs I had ever seen that seemed amenable to talking.
Who knows. If Minerva hadn't been there, I might have ended taken them up on their offer, I guess to see what being with my own kind would be like. I certainly didnt regret the lost opportunity, though. It didnt sound like they spoke the same language I did, and if you thought about it, they wouldnt have been the same as me anyway. They might know what it was like to not be an orc or a human, but they were Westerners. I wouldnt have belonged to them anymore than I belonged anywhere else. Plus people in the flesh trades tended to have a hardness about them, men and women alike, a kind of pre-emptive meanness. Spit on everyone else before they could spit on you.
A lot of people on the docks were like that. It was better when you met someone in a bar or unloading crates: You work or drink beside them day after day, dont say nothing to them, then you get a chance to cut them a break or lend them a hand. You still dont talk to them after that, but then your silence is a little friendlier. They get an opportunity to repay you some time, and then maybe you start to talk a little. At that point, you are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If I had just walked up to those girls and struck up a conversation, it wouldnt have worked. They would have assumed I wanted something, and if it wasnt as easy a transaction as the kind they normally did, then it was just instinctive to assume it was for something worse. No trust on the docks, and I couldnt see that things would be that different here. Still, it would have been interesting to talk to them.
"You know, I've never actually met another half-orc," I commented as we rounded a corner and left the 'ladies' far behind.
"They are not particularly uncommon here," Minerva pointed out. "You will undoubtedly have the opportunity to meet some. Under more respectable circumstances."
As it turned out, she was right. I got my chance on the boat.
I was up on the deck, watching the countryside go by, soaking in the new, trying to figure out what was the same. Pretty much just enjoying seeing something besides the little stretch of city that had been my entire world for so many years, something that wasn't just endless unpaved road and grassland.
Minerva was below, resting, and Riordan was in the galley eating again. He had an iron stomach when it came to rich foods, and I swear he had tape worms. For a little guy, he could eat a hell of a lot. Of course, I guess we didnt get a chance to eat like this all that often. All sorts of fresh fruits and broiled game birds, and sticky little confections that tasted sweet but got flaky crumbs in the hair on my knuckles... it was okay going down, but it went right through me, and the little outhouse-rooms they had on the boat were not built for a guy my size. By day two, I was exercising more restraint around food than I ever had in my life. I don't think Riordan stopped to chew or breathe, the entire time we were on board, though, unless it was a quick break to guzzle date brandies and pear wine when they brought out the alcoholic beverages in the evening.
But there I was on deck. The little guy who sold the chi and cufe was making his rounds of the passengers on the deck with his little tray and tiny cups. Minerva had got me some the day before. So bitter I nearly gagged, and it gave me the jitters to boot. Riordan had chugged one of the little cups, got a mouthful of grit and then spent about an hour talking non-stop. Anyway, the little guy was floating around the deck today and tried to get me to buy some. Took me a few minutes of gesturing to convince him that I honestly did not want any. I kind of glanced over my shoulder to watch him walk away as he moved down the deck when I saw him approach a large man in robes and the shorter head gear Minerva said was customary in the city. I gave a polite nod and went to turn away, then noticed the man was a half orc like myself. I did a bit of a double take, then nodded again as he noticed my glance and smiled. I looked back out at the river, suddenly kind of embarrassed, but he came over to stand by me at the rail and sip from the miniature cup.