Sihaya and Zacharion rode through the woods and away from the roads all through the night, reaching the fields of a household that held a royal license to operate one of the many way-stations that mark the sides of road and waterways in the Solar Nation. Walled compounds, self-sufficient farmland and room for horses marked these institutions—ancient when the Solar Nation was young, a holdover from a time before the Azure Flames—these places safeguarded the commerce of the people, great and small.
“Hold.” Sihaya said, “We cannot approach yet.”
“I know of these places.” Zacharion said, “Master used the ancient term for them, a loanword from tongues long-dead: caravanserai.”
“My father granted this one to an old friend of my parents, one of their companions.”
“Then we are soon amongst friends?”
“I hope so.” Sihaya said, “They haven’t talked since before I was born. I do hope that there is no animosity.”
“So, why do we hold here? Would it not be enough for you to demand entry on your own authority?”
“It would,” yet the pause betrayed her continued concern, “but travelers room here, and it is they—not the master, not his wife—that worry me. However, I know how to call to them without any fear of discovery- but first I need to see a sign of their wakeful presence.”
“Ah, you intend to signal them?”
Sihaya nodded affirmatively. “It is quite late now, the deepest part of the night. If their habits are as my father once said of them, soon the wife will come forth from the house to dispose of waste from the pot and add it to their pile for feeding the seeds in the spring.”
Zacharion smiled, and then his ears perked up- he heard a distant door creak open. They hushed, listening for a woman’s voice- one they heard cursing a cat as she carried a pail of waste from the interior out to the compost pile. Sihaya hurriedly rummaged through a bag to find a crystal, and she affixed it to the shaft of the spear she previously acquired. Handing it to Zacharion, he understood her desire and whispered a word to the crystal; it exploded with the light of the sun. He handed it back.
“Fix in your mind your name as you signal her.” Zacharion said, “It will eliminate doubt in her mind that it is you.”
Sihaya nodded her understanding, and she waived her light to the distant house. The woman did see it.
“She’s called us forward.” Zacharion said, “Let’s hurry.”
They did, riding across the fields quickly, and soon approached the aged woman, who bowed as courtesy demands.
“Your Highness,” she said, “come inside quickly. Ill words fly swiftly.”
The two dismounted, and Zacharion took the horses to the attached enclosure for stabling. Once all were inside, the three stood in the kitchen- and the light on the spear dissipated.
“I am glad to see you alive.” the old woman said, “My husband and I may have our disputes with your parents, but we remain loyal to them, to the Solar Nation and to Holy Ilker.”
She then looked at the boy. “You must be Ilker’s final apprentice.”
“Go wake my husband. He’ll not complain if he sees you first.” she said, and he did so.
“You two we can conceal for a few days.” the old woman said to Sihaya, “That we can do, which is enough to supply you properly and get you fresh horses, as well as inform the palace that you two got here and left here safely. After that, we can do no more without risking reprisals from our enemies in common.”
“May I inquire?”
The old woman knew the question before the girl asked. “You just did. Your father and my husband disagreed on your father’s assumption of the throne. It was a heated argument, one that led to a Trial By Combat to settle it, which your father one- barely. My husband, as honorable as any of Ilker’s companions, accepted the result. However, rather than demand loyalty as subject, your father offered my husband retirement as the master of a Royal Waystop; as this was at the end of the Wars, and my husband had long grown weary of war, he accepted. Our marriage was the last time that we saw your parents, yet your mother and I maintain contact by letter.”
“I do not regret either the argument or its consequences.” the old man said, coming into the room with Zacharion behind him, “Your father and I remain true to Holy Ilker’s vision, and differ only in how to achieve it. To his credit, and your mother’s as well, they have done well as the sovereigns of Solland and leaders of the Solar Nation. So long as they remember that vision, we are loyal to them- despite our hermit-like existence.”
Just then, two of their sons entered the kitchen. “Father, Mother- we’ve finished our turn about the perimeter.”