Big Men (4)

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It takes over two months to get to Sanhles. Our journey is punishing; over land, through desert, round the Gulf of Meycali past the fishing towns, avoiding the ruins of San Dieghuana. One of Silvio’s three pack yamas dies and so I am made to carry some of his spoils. If I missed home before, I am certainly missing it now, all alone in the wastes with Silvio. At times, the only thing keeping me going is the thought of mother’s cricket soup. And her ant pie. Mmm! To die for. Some nights I dream about home and my familia. Other nights I see Sear Rodrigo looking at me from a great distance away on the horizon and smiling. Some nights I see Shiyata shimmering in all its emerald splendor beneath the waves; and sometimes, between broken concrete and moss covered windows, I see the old souls of the folks that used to live there. On those nights I wake up screaming.

I learn much about Silvio, and about basureros, but at the same time I learn very little. He keeps to himself and talks only when it suits him. The rest of the time we walk, and rest, and walk, and scrounge, and walk. Every once in a while we spot a ruin on the horizon and make sure to take the long way around it. I have never seen an old world ruin up close myself. In Nuevo Chine the closest thing we have to one would be the concrete complex next to the old mine a half day’s ride outside of town. The Dons warn us away from it and the elders of the town speak of dead things laid to rest there that should never be awoken.

I ask Silvio questions whenever I can as my curious mind never quiets. I ask him why he avoids the ruins even though he is a basurero and he tells me that I am not a basurero and so have no place going near them, though there are some ruins even basureros avoid. I ask him where he got his sidewise bow and he tells me it is carved from a thousand year old tree that died when the old world did. I ask him why basureros put things that jingle on their clothing and he tells me it is to ward off evil spirits, or at least the tricky ones. He tells me the story of the Ox Man and says that if I ever encounter a man with an ox skull for a head that I should give him whatever is jingling in my pocket, lest he take me away to the deadlands. He got quite a laugh that night when, while wearing an ox skull, he woke me up demanding that I give him my jingly things. It nearly scared the ghost out of me!

Along the way he even teaches me a few things. How to fight, how to punch, how to take a punch. I’ve been in a few fights, but I never knew there was a right and wrong way to punch. He shows me a secret fighting move that only basureros know and I thank him endlessly for it because I’ve always wanted to know a secret move like the heroes of Rodrigo’s stories did. He shows me how to appraise things, how to judge the quality and strength of material. I am a natural with pottery but wool and metal take a very long time for me to grasp.

By the time I see the hills of Sanhles I feel as if I’ve aged a year. I look like Silvio’s son, tanned dark like him and dressed in similar garb, though I lack the basurero flourish. The land and the people change as we near the cities. It is less dry, with much less sand, but still blisteringly hot. There are less Meycans and more Yapones on the road. I also see more patrols; the first signs of the Meycan Empire I’ve seen in a long while. They didn’t visit us very often in Nuevo Chine. The Dons are the ones who made sure the metal shipments, or “tithes” as they called it, left on time. Imperial agents wearing imperial regalia and imperial colors are a new sight for me. Silvio warns me against looking nervous, as patrolmen are trained to hone in on the scent of fear. This only makes me more nervous. Then…

***

“Keep your lids open, we’re close,” Silvio says.

“What is the city like?” I ask.

“It is a marvel,” Silvio says. “Only in so much as I’m not very sure how it exists at all. And it’s not a city. It’s more like a dozen cities strung together by roads and customs and little else. The cities are as different as sun from moon or land from sky.”

“How does that work?” I ask.

“That’s the mystery. A hundred years ago, there was no one here. The desert and the ocean were set to claim this region, forgotten by everyone. Then the rains came. Then the first trade post, the first settlement, the first nomads passing through, the first free company setting up shop. All this is technically imperial land, but a fair share of Yapones make their homes here too. Now where there was once a dead zone, there is Sanhles.”

“How do you know so much?” I ask.

“I am well traveled,” he says, but it feels like a dodge more than an answer.

My village of Nuevo Chine is not that big by most standards; the imperial garrison is half local law men and half volunteers led by an officer with the poor luck of being assigned there. Silvio tells me Sanhles has hundreds of professional soldiers by comparison, garrisoned around the cities to keep the peace and protect the Meycan free companies. Nuevo Chine doesn’t even have a free company to our name. Past the hills and through the valley I see the first few towns of outer Sanhles. It is a dizzying sight. The barest outskirts of Sanhles already dwarfs my home. I ask Silvio why they need so many soldiers but instead of answering he chuckles, which is an answer all its own. We cut through the edges of farmland and through the first of many markets. I see colors and modes of dress and skin tones and face shapes and food that I’ve never seen. The sights and smells threaten to overwhelm me. I feel lost again, but in a very different way. A better way.

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