“The farmers of this glorious nation are the true victors of this great revolution! From coast to coast, let every hamlet, village, town and city dance with celebration, for this night we have achieved what we have long desired! No more shall we be at the mercy of an unjust emperor! No more, I say!”
Lord Jade Lotus the First, following the banishment of the Twentieth Emperor of Umala, 1573 EE
* * *
A ripple of silver and gold flashed through the stalks as they yielded to the breeze. Overcast skies cast stark shadows across the highland fields that blanketed the treacherous foothills. Far below, in an unnamed valley, a smattering of hovels and farmhouses sat. High above the chimneys, on the overlooking cliffs, a party of bandits came to a halt on a rocky outcropping, looking down upon their quarry.
“We will take this place next!” an enormous black stallion barked, turning to his fellow ponies. He was suited in thick plate barding and sported a vicious scar through his exposed neck.
“It was plundered last autumn. They won’t have anything for us to take. We shall wait until later, captain.”
The second stallion, shorter but much stockier than the former and dressed in similar attire, hissed the last words with clear disdain, signifying his ultimate authority.
Bowing his head to the dominant steed, the black stallion backed away. “My apologies, sir,” he offered through gritted teeth.
“This village shall be our primary target come the barley harvest. Until then we wait.” The brown coated chieftain spat onto the ground and drilled the saliva into the dirt with his hoof. His eyes involuntarily twitched, and his ears picked up on a strange occurrence: utter silence. The birds had stopped their calling, and the constant hum of the forest critters had ceased. The only sound to be heard was the grass slicing the wind.
A few of the puddles that had formed in the gouges in the mud left by their many hooves began to froth. Without warning, the ground started to vigorously tremble. The strength of the quakes bowled over some of the ponies, and the others dropped low to maintain their balance. They looked to each other for guidance, but there was nothing they could do but wait for the tremors to end.
Minutes later, the earth ceased to shake, and the bandits recollected themselves. Coolly, the captain made his way to the side of the chieftain, knocking some caked debris off of his armor as he did so. Under his breath, he muttered, “That’s the third one we’ve had this month.”
In a hushed tone, the chieftain replied, “Aye. Let’s just hope it’s not a bad omen.” His eyes remained locked on the village below. A grimace on his face hinted at the great turmoil within his mind.
Confused, the captain asked, “Do you think we shouldn’t attack this village?”
“No, we will continue as planned.” He broke his gaze, and turned to the captain. “I only fear that we’re quickly approaching the end of times.”
Before the captain could question further, the chieftain whipped around and galloped back towards the hills. Grumbling, the captain followed after, and with him the rest of the forty brigands. As quickly as they had arrived, they departed. They had been their so briefly, the cool mid-morning sun was only just beginning to cut through the silver clouds.
Soon after, a bush just below the vantage point stirred. A pony, with a twisted face of absolute shock and fear, emerged from the underbrush surrounding the stone bluff. The farmer stumbled his way back down to the village, struggling to balance with the large bundle of kindling on his back.
* * *
They had just started poking through the soil a few days ago. Now, the still green barley was tall enough to collect morning dew. Paying them no mind, the stallion raced his way through the fields towards the serene village.
He ran to the central clearing and stood atop the raised mound. Dropping his kindling and picking up a hammer in his mouth, he hit the metal bell planted in the ground as fast as his body would allow. Heads started to poke out of the nearby huts, and a few other farmers began to gather near him to investigate the commotion.
Soon enough, practically the entire village had gathered, lured in by the alarm. Shakily, the farmer released the hammer and started to explain as best he could. Choking on his words, he described the forty bandits and their intent to steal everything they had. In despair, he crumpled to the ground, not minding the dust settling on him.
The peasants broke out in debate, and the volume quickly swelled to unruly levels. Though a few of the more seasoned stallions had attempted to bring a sense of direction to the discussion, they quickly lost control. Panicked ponies talked and yelled over each other, each of them desperately hoping to sway the group to their opinion. The farmers, while exceptonially organized when it came to managing labor, were utterly scattered and dumbfounded when it came to reaching a consensus.
“…Taxes, forced labor, war, drought – and now the bandits!” one mare screamed in tears.
“We should kill them. Kill them all!” an older farmer shouted, “They wouldn’t mess with us again after that!”
“Do you really think a rabble like us could stand up to their steel armor and muskets? You’re out of your mind! What we really need to do…”
Near the edges of the mass of ponies, a young stallion sat quietly. A decoration of two crossed pieces of bamboo adorned his flanks. The black and white pony, Pan Bare, was lost in thought. Or he made a desperate attempt to be. The shouting was not helping.
Pan had always been a thinker. A problem solver. He never thought himself to be particularly adept at farm work or even simple social matters, but for what he lacked in brawn and charm he made up for in clever thinking and immaculate diplomacy. At least, that’s what he liked to believe. Regardless of his constant inner insecurity, he believed he had reached yet another solution. Now came the hard part: making himself heard.
“The elder…” he murmured. It was less of a murmur and more a hopeless bleat, and he found himself cringing at the sound of his own frail voice. Still, it must have been loud enough to catch the attention of the some nearby ponies, because they started to stare at him. Pan blushed, the red shining through the white fringes of his coat near his eyes.
He stood up and started walking off. It wasn’t until he was halfway to the bridge that the first ponies to hear him finally comprehended what he said. They rose as well and took off after him. From there the rest of the ponies, seeing where so many of their friends were going, hung their heads and followed.
The village proper was a collection of twenty or so buildings flanked by a stream on two sides, a dense forest on another and open dirt road on the last. The elder lived in a mill outside of the village center, along the banks of the stream. Pan Bare crossed a bridge over the silent snake of water and walked down a path to the elders abode. Somberly, he pushed his way through the door and disappeared into the dark interior.
Shortly after, all of the farmers filed in and sat down. It was a tight squeeze, but despite the cramped conditions, they all took extra care to leave a respectful amount of space between them and the elder, who was sitting on a reed mat near a fireplace in the center of the bare floor.
The elder opened his weathered eyes and drank the sight in front of him. “What do you want?” he asked, quite pointedly. His raspy voice grated against everyponies ears. The still-shivering stallion who had seen the bandits crawled closer and, in a hushed whisper, explained the situation to him.
A look of consideration emerged on the elders face as he closed his eyes. The room was absolutely still with anticipation. He then reopened his eyes and spoke, “Warriors. Hire warriors.”
Confused murmurs broke out amongst the peasants. Who, where and how were the three words that rang out the most clearly. The obvious implication of the elders advice was to hire mercenaries, but that was no simple task. What mercenaries were around were either too expensive, already hired, or more dangerous to them than the bandits.
Then, of course, came payment. Pieces of silver and gold were a sight rarely, if ever, beheld by the farmers. What few commodities had would not be nearly enough to finance the amount of mercenaries needed. If they were to find outside help, it would need to be from a different source. A source more compassionate towards their plight.
The situation seemed impossible, and everypony knew it. Shouting and yelling quickly resumed from where it had paused. Pan, who was sitting in the front directly across from the elder, shut his eyes, shoved his hooves into his ears, and groaned. Oh, how he would have loved to go back in time. As much as he appreciated what the folks of this village had done for him, there were many times when he was staggered by their inanity.
When he opened his eyes, he looked up to the patriarch, and saw that a wily smirk was gradually finding its way on to the elders lips. Somehow, the villagers began to take notice of the strange development, and the din of argument died down until silence once more settled on the room. The elder, now commanding their attention, coughed out some more words. “Find hungry warriors,” he said with a smirk.
A few of the farmers leaned in closer with looks of bewilderment. “Hungry?”
The elder shot them a critical glare. “Hungry for adventure.”
One of the stallions dryly laughed. “What, you think we could hire fighters for free?” He punched a few of his companions in the legs, inciting them to chuckle alongside him.
Without warning, the elder smacked him across the head with his cane. “Head north, to Equestria. Fate be willing, they’ll help us.”
That wasn’t something you heard every day. Never mind the fact that it was a few weeks of walking to get to Equestria, or even the dangers associated with that trek; Equestria was not a place that peasants like them went to. Though hardly anypony still believed the old superstitions they were taught from youth, it was common knowledge that Equestria was a terrible place filled with terrible ponies. Of all the atrocities that had emerged from that land, however, the most alarming was the installation of a pseudo-Goddess their leader: a tyrant at best, a genocidal maniac at worst. It was thus understandable when the entire mill collectively sucked in their breath.
Pan surreptitiously coughed, breaking the silence amongst the villagers in the mill. He stood up and declared, with surprising conviction, “I shall go.” All eyes settled on him, and he internally chastised himself for being so eager. “I mean, unless someone else really wants to go.”
The other farmers shook their head, and the elder piped up and said, perhaps a bit too eagerly, “No, no. You can go.” Reflecting for a moment, he then added, “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
After some struggling and with some help from his equally elderly wife, the elder got to his feet to stand roughly neck and neck with Pan. He poked his head around the younger stallion, giving him a once-over. “Pah. Nothing but skin and bones. You’ll be killed before you even reach the next town!”
Suddenly, another pony made his way up to the center of the room. The crowd parted for the massive frame of the golden stallion. Every step he took reverberated through the mill and loosened the slightest amount of dust from the upper rafters, coating the ponies below in an even glazing of detritus. He stood beside Pan, dwarfing him, and looked down at the elder. “I’ll go with him,” Koi said, his voice shaking the entire room.
The elder cracked a wry smile. “Yes, that’ll do.” He turned around and sat back down on his reed mat. Reaching behind his back with a hoof, he massaged the sorer joints. He roughly coughed and cracked his neck. “That’ll do perfectly.”
* * *
Two days north to Huang Hoof. From there, either find a way north out of Umala, or follow the Yangtze to the sea and hope that there will be sailors willing to take them to the northern shores. From there, it was who knows how long to reach Equestria.
Pan ran over the timetable for the fifth time in his head. He was sprawled out on his mat, drenched in cold sweat and generally speaking feeling quite ill. From experience he knew it was only nervousness, not any sort of physical woe. Even with the comfort of knowing that he was perfectly fine, he still felt terribly fearful . His stupidity knew no bounds, and volunteering for the task of travelling hundreds of leagues through potentially hostile regions hoping to somehow reach a near-mystical land that may or may not be evil went against every instinct of self-preservation he had.
Perhaps that was it. He had a death wish. That wasn’t an entirely unreasonable desire, given the living conditions of the village. Remembering back to his colthood, when he had been an apprentice under an affluent politician on the outskirts of Alfalfura, he recalled encountering numerous artistic engravings that romanticized the sustenance farming lifestyles of the Umalian peasantry. Of course, once he joined his fellow Umalians in the fields, his appreciation for the sacrifices of the country folk vastly depreciated when he was eventually adopted into their lot.
He slammed a hoof into the mat, cursing his luck. Now he knew why he was doing this: He was getting back what should have been his. A life of adventure, of great things. As a colt, he had thousands of opportunities to explore as a budding scholar. When that was ripped from him, he was consigned to the pitiful existence of working the fields. So what if he died? To have died in the midst of a noble task would be far preferable to perishing at the end of a bandits spear, face down in the mud.
Shaking his head, he sat up and waited for his vision to clear as the blood circulated. It was no use trying to get some sleep, so he got to his feet and walked over to the door. He slid the panel to the side, and stepped out onto the unpaved paths of the village. Luckily for them, the skies were kind enough to be perfectly clear and offer a spectacular visage of the cosmos. After a bit of wandering, he found himself approaching the stone bridge that spanned the creek. In the distance and through the veiling darkness, he could make out the mill where the elder lived.
Standing on the bridge, he leaned against the wall, feeling the cold stone seep through his coat. Despite the discomfort, the sensation was oddly soothing. A voice out of nowhere startled him, causing him to jump and sharply inhale.
“Can’t sleep?” the low rumble asked.
Realizing it was Koi, Pan lowered his guard. “I take it you can’t either?”
The older stallion chuckled, then took his place across from Pan on the bridge. Like Pan, he stared up at the stars. “I’d be more surprised if we could sleep.”
Pan cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Koi started, “The way I figure it, if we weren’t worried, we’d be thinking too much of ourselves.”
Agreeing, Pan responded, “...and we would not be anticipating the dangers. Hubris, essentially.”
“Hubris?” Koi asked.
Internally, Pan bucked himself in the mouth. Externally, he showed nothing to give away is exasperation. Of course he wouldn’t know what that means. He’s a farmer. Coughing, Pan explained, “Thinking too much of ourselves. Overly proud.”
Surprisingly, Koi answered, “Oh, no, I know what it means. It’s just funny that you bring up that particular word.”
The gold stallions face scrunched up for a second, as if he was debating whether or not to tell Pan about what seemed to be bothering him. Finally, he flatly said, “Nothing. Nevermind.” To permanently end that stream of conversation, he decisively pointed his muzzle to the sky, returning his attention to the stars and preventing any further questioning from Pan.
Pan’s eyes had now adjusted fully to the darkness, and he could see Koi in full detail. As always, the sight was humbling. Koi stood a head above him, and weighed easily twice as much. All of that extra weight was pure muscle, too. He was the villages strongstallion, and was often called upon to pull carts or move lumber. Just eyeballing it, Pan could guess with reasonable comfort that Koi’s legs were easily as big as his own torso. Koi briefly caught Pan’s gaze, and the younger one quickly averted his eyes. The evening forest critters were droning from all around, giving Pan something to distract himself with by focusing on.
“You used to be some sort of a scholar, right?”
“Eh... when I was a colt. That was ten years ago, before the banditry flare-up. Why do you ask?”
“What was that like?”
The question was completely unsolicited, and put Pan in an awkward position to try and answer. “Well, uh...”
Sensing his discomfort, Koi put a hoof up. “You don’t have to answer.”
“No, it’s fine.” He shuffled his hooves a bit to shake out the cold. “I used to be the apprentice of a landlord outside of Alfalfura.”
“Alfalfura? So then how’d you end up here?” Koi asked with an obvious hint of disbelief.
Pan lapsed into an uneasy silence, considering how to best word his story, then said, “We saw the bandits coming well before they reached the walls of the manor, but there wasn’t anything we could do. We were too far from the city to try and bring help, and my master didn’t usually maintain a full rotation of guards.” Unwillingly, he sighed, trying to diffuse the tension the memory was causing within him. Looking up at Koi, he said, “They murdered the master and everyone else. I managed to climb over the wall before they saw me, and I ran as fast and as far as I could. When I looked back, all I saw was fire and smoke.”
More softly, Koi asked, “and how did you end up here?”
Exasperated, he continued. “I wandered the wilderness for a bit, doing what I could to survive. Eventually, I was picked up by the same group that built this village a decade ago. I guess they took pity on me, seeing as my situation was the same as theirs. I lost my future to the bandits, they their homes.”
When Koi didn’t say anything back, Pan then said with over-the-top machismo, “but that’s all behind me. I’m fine where I am.”
After a strained lull, Koi, changing the subject, said, “I was just wondering if you had any idea what we’ll be up against. We saw the old map the elder had in the mill, but I’m not counting on it being accurate. And I haven’t kept up with whats going on in the outside world for quite some time. Do you know anything?”
Pan shrugged. “Nothing that you probably wouldn’t know. Most of the things I know come from the traders and officials that occasionally pass through, and we both know how infrequent that is.”
Snorting, Koi grumbled, “I never stick around to listen to them. When did the last caravan come around?”
Pausing to think, Pan replied, “About five moons ago.”
“Bah.” Koi spat into the creek below. Seconds later, a plop! was heard. “What did they say?”
Again trying to recollect to so long ago, to the heavily armed merchant wagon that stopped by town to offload some of their wares and negotiate a few bargains. The leader had been a stern faced light brown stallion with a black beard. Pan tried to remember what the gruff trader had said. “Well, apparently things have calmed down between the Jade Lotus and Red Dragon, but he mentioned something along the lines of ‘the quiet before the storm’. Rumor has it, the Red Dragon Clan is gearing up for something big.”
He looked over to Koi, whose brow was furrowed and jaw tense. “But that news is about a season old. I have no idea what we’ll be facing. Assuming nothing has changed a lot, then the worst we’d see is bandits in some of the less travelled areas. Other than that, the only other danger is the Jade Lotus, and that’s only if we do something stupid.”
Laughing, Koi said, “I wouldn’t count on us being the smartest ponies around.”
Out of courtesy more than out of actual mirth, Pan joined him.
Eventually, Koi’s throaty guffawing diminished, and he turned to his new partner. “For what its worth, we should try and get some rest. Judging by the map, we’ve got more than a few weeks of walking ahead of us.”
“Sounds like a plan. Until morning.”
They bowed to each other, and Koi departed, disappearing behind the corner of a bamboo palisade nestled amongst the sprawl of huts and lodges. Minutes later, after savoring a few more breaths of the night air, Pan followed him into the village center, heading back to his own home. There was no sense in him sticking around at such a late hour.
He approached his hut--a small, single room affair--and noticed that he had left the door panel open. Apprehensively, he stepped inside and closed the panel behind him. He groped with a hoof, trying to find his mat. Instead of the springy and hard material of bamboo, however, he found himself prodding something which could only be described as flesh-like.
“Eep!” the pony squeaked.
“GAH!” Pan cried out, backing away and hitting his flanks against the wall.
“Shh! Shhhhhh! You’ll wake the whole damn village up!” the mare snapped, standing up and waving a hoof in front of his face. She planted to hoof over his mouth, stopping any further attempt by him to vocalize his distress, and also forcing him to breath through his nose.
Pan tried his best to recompose himself, and once he was settled enough, he placed his own hoof over the mares and pushed it away from his mouth. The mare lightly dropped the limb to the floor.
He scanned over her, trying to recognize the form in the dark. A white coat, a black mane, and an indiscernible black cutie mark. After running through his memory banks, his eyes shot wide. “Rise? What are you doing here?”
“Saying goodbye,” the mare said with a hint of resignation.
Part of him wished he was asleep, because he was far too tired to fully comprehend what was happening. The other part desperately hoped he was awake, because Rise was without a doubt the most ‘desirable’ mare, so to speak, in the entire village. If she truly wanted to offer a final farewell, he was all ears.
Rise blankly stared at him. “You are leaving in the morning, aren’t you?”
Dumbfounded, Pan started to trip over his words. “Huh? I... oh, yeah. Yes I am.”
The two silently stared at each other for a painfully long time.
Finally, Pan said, “So...”
Flustered and exasperated, Rise dropped her head. Then, much to the stallions confusion, she walked up to him and held her mouth close to his ear. “You’re unbelievably awkward, Pan,” she said, and then planted a peck on his cheek. “...And that’s why I want you to come back safe. Be careful out there. I’ll be waiting, regardless of what my father wants for me.” Without another word, she stepped away and pulled back the panel. Turning back just for a moment to flash a quick smile, she ducked through the hole and stepped out into the village, closing the door behind her.
Stupefied, Pan felt his cheek with a hoof, still flush with warmth. ...What just happened?
Faintly silhouetted by the moonlight, he noticed a reed band dangling from the ceiling above the door. He hooked it on his hoof, and pulled it closer, moving it around the room to try and get a good view of it in the dark. After a bit of fumbling, he found a patch of light beaming through the reed wall, and looked to see what the trinket was.
The intertwined band of stalks was long enough to tie around his hoof, and attached to it was a small wooden totem, of seemingly abstract design. The exact meaning of the token was uninterpretable, but he understood the general purpose: a good luck charm.
After a bit of finessing, he managed to get the bracelet onto his right hoof, snugly and securely fit. Not wanting to waste the few more hours of darkness he had left before the sun rose and he’d be off, he eased himself back onto the mat, and stared at the totem until he felt his eyelids grow heavy.
Once more, he went over the plan in his head. Leave the village. Travel north through lands none of them have ever seen. Don’t die. Hope that somehow, someway, they’ll find the help they need in a country they’ve only heard of in stories. And, perhaps above all, hope that outdated map that the Elder had was still accurate.
No matter how much he tried to distract himself, though, it was no use. As if the bandits that morning hadn’t been enough, and the earthquake around the same time, their last harvest had been poor, and it seemed that with every passing day the food supplies dwindled even further and further with no sign of improving. Though no one spoke of it, it was apparent that they’d starve without the barley harvest. The life of a farmer is a miserable one, and gets worse every day, Pan concluded.
Success was the only option. If he and Koi could not return with warriors, then everything he knew would be gone. The village, his family for the past decade, his home.
And now Rise to add to that list.
His left hoof reached for the bracelet, feeling its coarse surface. The souvenier a small gesture at best, and hardly anything that would be substantially helpful, but the fact that he knew at least one pony wanted him to return safely eased his mind immensely. As his eyes finally shut, he continued to gaze at the band. He’d take whatever luck he could get, and odds were, he’d need it by the end of this.
* * *
It was hanging over him. Looming. Ever present.
No. Not just him. The whole village. The whole world.
The tendrils poked and prodded every cranny of the earth.
Searching, pushing, twisting, but not disturbing. Always hidden, never noticed.
Waiting, thinking, biding its time. Playing the game as it was intended to.
The shadow began to shake the branches. A slight nudge, a bit of guidance.
Setting the scene for when the time was right for the greatest reveal in the history of trickery.
High above, the greater powers started to shatter. The dam was cracking.
* * *
Mist filled Pan’s lungs as he delved into the shrouding fog of the morning. The sun had risen quite some time ago, not as if he could tell, and there was no use in delaying their journey any further. In brooding silence, he made his way to the village center, passively watching the murk slip away and diffuse around him. In a manner befitting a funeral procession more than a send-off, he walked through a crowd of villagers, not daring to look any of them in the eye.
Thick mud sloshed against his hooves, causing him to momentarily lose balance and pitch forwards. An outstretched leg broke his fall and the pony helped him regain his equilibrium. Pan peeked up, and saw that Koi was grinning down at him while he shook the mud off of his hoof. “Are you ready?” he asked.
Pan glanced backwards, at last allowing himself to face his fellow peasants. The fog did little to disguise their strained and worried looks; purse lips, chiseled wrinkles, and unwavering eyes. Behind them, the squarish forms of the homes and barns of the peasants stood, barely visible and more shadow than tangible. So this is what I’m trying to save, he thought to himself. Desperately, he tried to catch a glimpse of the white mare that had solicited him last night, but to no avail. Sighing, he hiked up his shoulders to resettle his saddlebags. Looking to Koi beside him, he said “I guess so.”
After a few seconds hesitation, they drifted off northwards into the fog, hoping to find a miracle or die trying.
* * *
The City on the River
“Cities are dazzling things: stunning in their architecture, terrifying in their residents.”
Donkey Yotee, on his visit to Manehatten, 1612 EE
* * *
The smell assailed them well before they could see it. An acrid stench, repulsive both to the senses and the soul, permeated the air for miles around. Rot, decay, death and waste all conglomerated and coagulated to create a sensation that seemed to come straight from the underworld. The midday sun turned the putrid breeze into an insufferably humid wall of repulsion. As if the offense to their nostrils wasn’t enough, their eyes and ears were the next to be treated by the rancid grandeur of Huang Hoof, the provincial capital and local cesspool of their corner of Umala.
Silently, the passed under the southern gatehouse and into the streets of the filthy sprawl. Drunkards stumbled by, vendors hocked their wares, most of which seemed cheap and unfit for consumption, and the daily crowds of people fighting to survive streamed through the alcoves, walkways, and alleys that haphazardly winded through the utterly senseless layout of the squalor. A constant roar from the moving crowds, the incessant buzzing of flies searching for the richest deposits of sludge, and, of course, that strangely ambient and rumbling hum that seemed characteristic of such cities.
Koi inconspicuously pulled Pan over to the side under a small overhang, out of traffic. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening in on them. Satisfied that they were not be eavesdropped on, he asked Pan, “Do you have any city experience?”
Dourly, Pan shook his head. “Not since I was young.” With a wretched face, he shook a gelatinous bulb of scum off his left hoof. Looking up, he realized it must have fallen from one of the shabby apartments that were crookedly piled upon each other above them.
The gold stallion winced ever so slightly at his answer, then said, “The outer areas of the city aren’t safe. Stick with me, and we’ll head closer to the center.” Slyly, he nodded to the crowds. “Don’t talk to any of them. Don’t listen to any of them. If they try to stop you, they’re trying to rob you. Stay close to me, and don’t wander off. Never head down a street if you don’t know where it goes. You got that?”
Pan weakly nodded.
Smiling, Koi patted a hoof against his companions shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
He peeked out onto the street once more, and motioned for his conspicuously monochromatic friend to follow as he stepped out into the main thoroughfare from below the reed canopy. Without warning, they were instantly swept into the stream of bodies. Both by their own will and by that of the entirely earth pony crowd pushing and shoving around them, they were slowly dragged northeast, in the direction of the ungainly collection of stone blocks at the center of the city that seemed to constitute a palace.
A hoof grazed Pan’s right side, and he tried to twist and see who was doing it, but the clamoring limb slipped away. Another pony walking nearby gave him a menacing glare, as if telling him to mind his own business. Trying his best to ignore it, he kept his eyes glued to Koi.
After a few more uncomfortable minutes of being jostled around and shoved in all directions, they were unceremoniously deposited in front of another gatehouse built into the second tier of stone walls. Peering in, they saw what seemed to be an entirely different city: wide, paved streets, hardly any pedestrians, and a surprisingly pleasant aroma of freshly cooked food.
Quizzically, Pan turned to Koi and asked, “So what exactly are we doing here?”
“Looking for directions,” Koi gruffly replied before setting off through the gate, with Pan struggling to keep up.
“And how do you intend to find those?”
“By finding a map.”
Pan shot him a strange look. “That’s the plan? Just find a map, simple as that?”
Pedantically, Koi returned the stare with a defensive riposte. “Yep.”
Snorting, Pan replied, “If you don’t mind me saying, I think you’re underestimating the complexity of thi--”
“Ah, there we go! ‘Huang Hoof Cartography’! A map store!” Koi declared, interrupting him a bit too eagerly. He gesticulated towards a sign hanging from a plain enough looking wooden structure, a typical specimen of the Umalian variety of architecture, complete with the pagoda roofing and paper windows.
“I... how did...”
“That wasn’t too hard. Maybe they can help.” The heavy-set stallion lumbered up to the door and stepped into the dark interior.
Realizing he was alone on the street, Pan hurried in after him, shaking his head, his only thought being, ...he can read? Wood floor panels clicked and clacked under his hooves as he ducked through the entryway after Koi. After letting his eyes adjust to the darker interior, he took a look around. Koi was already talking with the owner, an utterly generic looking light brown stallion with a black mane, as was typical for Umalians. Panting, he walked up to them. They had just gotten past greetings
“What can I do for you?” the merchant asked.
“We need directions.”
The merchant let out a forced laugh, then said, “Well, you came to the right place! Where do you need to get to... Koi, was it?” Quickly, he tacked on, “You can call me Papyrus, by the way. I probably should have said that sooner.”
All of the color drained from the merchants face, and he seemed to be on the verge of breaking into a cold sweat. He quickly tiptoed to the door, peeked outside to see if the coast was clear, then slid it shut with far more force than necessary. Satisfied, he walked back to Koi and Pan. Weakly laughing, he said, “Heh, sorry about that. You never know who’s listening.”
“I take it we probably shouldn’t have asked about that?” Pan surmised.
Papyrus nodded. “You could say that.” He walked around to back behind his counter. “The folks in the palace don’t like us common ponies discussing things outside of Umala.”
Confused, Pan asked, “The folks in the palace? As in...”
“As in the provincial governor, his Jade Lotus friends, and his samarei lackey,” he answered. Laughingly, he added with a hint of bitterness, “Who, might I say, is a crazy bitch.”
“Yep. All of us shop owners hate her. She’ll kill you if you don’t do what she wants. Rumor has it she even has the governor under her hoof--” Winking, he added, “--don’t tell anyone I said that.” He rapped a hoof against his counter beside him. “But that’s all beside the point!” More pointedly, he asked, “Now why is it that you want a map of Equestria? You’re not planning on going there, are you?”
Pan and Koi looked to each other, then simultaneously replied, “Yes.”
The merchant exhaled through his nostrils for an uncomfortably long time, as if disapproving. “Should I even ask why?”
“We’re seeking warriors to defend our village from a gang of bandits,” Pan responded.
“How many bandits are we talking, here?”
“Forty,” Koi answered.
Shaking his head and clicking his tongue, the merchant ducked under his counter, searching for something. He emerged a few moments later with a key in his mouth, and started to walk towards a padlocked panel towards the back of the room. “I suppose today is your luck day. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t do this. But...” He slid the key into the hole. “...special conditions allow me to make an exception.” With a twist of his neck, the padlock came undone. He slid the panel open. With a wink, he said to them, “Don’t let anybody know that I showed you this,” and then slipped into the dark closet.
The farmers followed him in, and found themselves in a surprisingly spacious storage room. Shelves full of scrolls lined the walls, and countless locked chests filled every corner. Not paying these any mind, Papyrus strode straight down the aisle to a small, red coffer with a golden trim. He knelt down and pressed a hoof into a groove carved into the top of it. A strange whirring sound emanated from it, and it popped open.
Pan watched in fascination, failing to comprehend what was happening. How had he opened the box without a key?
Answering the question that he never actually asked, Papyrus said, “I had a unicorn friend of mine whip up an enchantment that allows me, and only me, to open this chest. I just put my hoof in this notch, and it’ll unlock by itself.”
“Unicorn? How? There’s only earth ponies in Umala, except for some merchants and mercenaries.”
“...it was a long time ago,” he answered under his breath. The cartographer reached into the box and pulled out a scroll, then turned around and rolled the parchment out so they could see it. “The Jade Lotus clan issued a statute a few years ago that made it illegal to own or produce a map of anywhere other than the Jade Lotus territory, except when commissioned by officials. Something about ‘keeping the mindset of the people focused on here and now’. Technically, by showing you this map of the world, I could be tried and executed.”
“Here...” Pan reached for his saddlebags. Any pony willing to risk so much just to help them truly deserved payment. He rooted through the bag, and to his horror realized that his purse, which had held the few coins that their entire village possessed, was gone.
Seeing the look on his face, Papyrus asked, “Something wrong?”
Stammering, Pan said, “I... well... our money is gone.”
Chuckling, the merchant replied, “Don’t worry about it. I’m doing this for free.”
Together, Pan and Koi raised four brows.
“I’m not going to be sticking around here much longer. It’s about time I got out of this city. Business has been poor, and I’d my work in this region is done. Consider this my treat.”
Both of the farmers sunk to their knees, unable to match the generosity of the merchant.
Awkwardly, he said, “Please, please. No need for that.”
They got back to their hooves, still unable to look him in the eye.
“Now, do you want to take a look at this map or not?” He motioned to the open paper on the floor. They huddled around it, scanning over it’s contents. The map, which consisted of many different islands, which were made of smaller islands, which were sometimes made of even smaller islands, and half of it was covered with water, and was also extremely colorful, was alluringly mysterious to the two farmers, and they naturally felt inclined to pour over every fragment of it. “For convenience sake, do either of you happen to be able to read?”
“I can, but I don’t recognize this writing,” Pan answered.
“Huh? Oh, right. That was a silly question. This map is labeled in Equestrian script, not Umalian. I guess I’ll have to explain it.” In seconds, his hoof was flying all over the diagram. “Well, here we are, on this little peninsula here. That’s Umala. The division line between the Jade Lotus clan and Red Dragon clan goes straight through the middle, starting from the old capital of Ponyo. As you can see, if you just head north, you’ll hit the Equestrian borderlands, and beyond that, Equestria itself. I’m assuming you’re going to Canterlot? Ah, who am I kidding? Where else would you be going if you’re looking for help?”
“Good. Now, we’re in Huang Hoof, which is roughly here.” He pointed to a blank space of land somewhere in the middle of the southern half of Umala. “To walk from here to Canterlot would be...” He paused to think, then continued, “Anywhere from two to five weeks, depending on how fast you go, and what you run into. Best estimate would be three.”
“And what exactly lies between us and Canterlot?”
Papyrus leaned back and planted his hoof under his chin in consideration. “Well, once you get out of Jade Lotus territory, you’ll be on Red Dragon turf. As long as you don’t get yourself in trouble with the law, you’ll be fine, since you are, as far as anyone is concerned, two random peasants. No offense.”
“Crossing the borders, however... that’ll be tough.”
“Borders? There’s more than one?”
“Obviously there’s the one between Umala and the Equestrian borderlands, but the more dangerous one to traverse will be between the Jade Lotus and Red Dragon clans. Round the clock guards in a fully militarized area, and more flying and magic-using mercenaries than you could ever care for in the world.”
“What if we went by sea?” Koi asked, motioning to the large bodies of water surrounding the Umalian peninsula.
“Both clans maintain navies that can and will sink any ship that is accused of ‘smuggling’, whatever that may mean. No, much too risky. Unless...”
“What is it?” the farmers asked with urgency.
Muttering, Papyrus said, “No, no, that’s a stupid idea.”
“What’s a is a stupid idea?”
“But on the other hoof...”
Papyrus looked at them and said, “There’s a river that runs through Huang Hoof that goes all the way to the north end of Umala, the Tayang river. If you can find a vessel willing to smuggle you up it and drop you off as close to the border as possible, then it’s possible, and it’ll cut down your trip by at least a week. And since I’m guess that time is of the essence for you two, I’d go with this route if I were you.”
Pan looked down at the map once more. “Something tells me we won’t be able to just ask some ponies to do this for us and expect them to comply.”
“You said you lost your purse, correct?” the cartographer asked.
“Yes, but what does that have to do with this?”
Papyrus walked back over to the chest and pulled out a wallet bag. Taking it in his teeth, he swung his head and tossed it to Pan. It landed with muffled clinking.
“What’s this?” Pan asked, poking it.
Pan undid the drawstrings and he and Koi peaked inside. It was filled to the brim with silver coins. Gasping, he exclaimed, “We couldn’t possibly accept this!”
“I could always take it back, if you don’t want it.”
Reflexively, Koi’s hoof wrapped around the wallet and pulled it closer to him.
The merchant smiled. “I won’t be needing it anymore. If everything goes the way it should, I’ll be out of here faster than I can spend all of that.”
Bowing once more, they said, “Thank you again.” They stood back up, then Koi asked, “What exactly should we do with this?”
“Head down to the piers, north of here, on the other side of the palace. Look around for some of the larger freight ships that seem foreign. Usually there will be a couple foreign Paxonian ships heading up and down the river. Shouldn’t be too hard to find one willing to take you if you show them the money. Now, if you don’t mind...” He scooped up the map, and placed it back in the red coffer. After slamming it shut, he ushered them out into the main room, which was searingly bright in comparison to the closet. “I don’t know what cosmic force gave you the good fortune to arrive in my shop on this day, but I’m sure we can all agree that this turned out the way it did. I suggest that you make haste; ever second spent in this city is dangerous, especially if you’re looking to break the law.” He pulled open the front door for them.
The three of them stood before the door. Pan and Koi dipped their heads and said, “Thank you, Papyrus.”
He flashed an effulgent smile, and shooed them off. “It’s the least I could do. Now stop wasting your time, and go! And the best of luck to you!” With a slight shove, he pushed them out of the shop and into the city and closed the door behind them.
The farmers took a few steps out into the mostly empty street, and looked back at the shop. Quietly, all of the lights went out. It seemed Papyrus was closing for the day. Looking to each other, they nodded, then took off towards the far side of the palace, hoping to find passage.
* * *
Papyrus waited a few moments after he closed the door to recompose himself. His legs were shaking, and he was short of breath from nervousness. He jumped up and down and shook out his limbs to calm himself, then quickly rushed around the room and blew out all of the lanterns. After checking behind every panel in the building to ensure that he was alone, he went back into his storage closet.
The red coffer popped open again, and he pulled out a glass jar, and turned it around in his hoof, examining it. A swirling, dancing flame, both astonishingly colorful and dark, frothed within the jar. Against all intuition, the fire made no light of its own as it pressed against the walls of its prison.
He set the curious artifact down and ran back to his counter in the main are of the shop, and pulled out a piece of parchment and quill from below. Once again glancing about to make sure there was no one around, he rushed back into the closet, and sat down on the floor next to where he had set down the jar. After rolling out the paper, he began to write.
Extraction required. The situation in Umala is getting too hot to handle, what with all of these mercenaries running around. I should have left weeks ago. Enclosed is a copy of all of the research I have done since the last message, should I not be able to deliver it in person. I think I’m on the right track, but there’s nothing else I can do here until things calm. I will wait at the scheduled rendezvous point every night at the predetermined time. Please get here soon.
- Deep Coat
PS - Two farmers came through here just now, and said they were heading to Equestria. By my reckoning, they’ll cross the northeast border within a week. I’d recommend sending out some folks from the IC to meet them there, and spare them the walk through the basin.
PPS - They’re looking for folks to help defend their village from forty bandits. Take that as you will.
Dropping the quill from his mouth, Papyrus stood back up and walked back to his special chest. Reaching in, he pulled out a few more bundles of paper: his work for the past few years. He set it down next to the letter, and waited for the ink to dry. After blowing on it a few times to ensure that it was good, he uncorked the bottle with the strange flame.
Muttering to himself, he said, “Only one other jar of this stuff. Hopefully I won’t need it.”
He dropped the heaps of scrolls into the flame, and they disappeared in suspiciously green smoke, and the supernatural fireball with it. The sulfer-like smell made him cringe, but he remained rooted in place, unsure of his next course of action.
Looking around himself, at the mountains of maps, records, correspondence with his part-time employees, he sighed. It was time to pack.
* * *
Her smirk gradually turned into a full-fledged grin. Though she couldn’t see inside the map store, the hole in the ceiling tiles allowed her more than enough ability to hear what they were attempting to clandestinely discuss. “So, we have two fugitives and a traitor on our hands, do we?” she said to herself.
She stood up and deftly hopped off of the roof of Papyrus’s shop, unnoticed by anyone. After landing in an alley and dusting herself off, the mare strode out into the street. Were it not for the blade strapped to her wrist and the fact that the sinews of her muscles could be spotted from blocks away, no one would have paid the grey any mind. Instead, passersby whispered “Leiko!” to themselves and swiftly ducked out of the street to make way for the samarei.
The stone palace loomed in front of her, and she thought to herself, He’s going to love this one.
* * *
As if the constant stench of garbage wasn’t enough, the murk of the Yangtze river provided yet another layer of repulsiveness to the distinct aroma of Huang Hoof. Though they hadn’t expected much, the wharfs failed to raise their opinion of the city an any way. The first thing they saw, in fact, was what appeared to be a corpse being dumped into the sludge-like water. From the distance they couldn’t be sure, but judging by the ways the ponies doing the dumping were acting, and the fact that they seemed to be trying to hide what they were doing, certainly lead them to believe that.
Ignoring this strange occurrence, Pan and Koi immediately took to searching for foreigners. As it turned out, that was easier said than done.
“We’ve been at this since noon,” Pan groveled. Both to soothe his rapidly decaying nerves, and to keep himself from slipping into idleness, he reached into his saddlebag to make sure that the wallet of coins was still there.
Koi grunted. “We have no other options. Either we find a boat, or we walk. And given what the cartographer told us, I’m not too keen on the second.” He gestured to a medium sized freight ship. “Let’s try that one. They don’t seem busy.”
Rolling his eyes, Pan followed the gold giant to the unsightly wooden box, with two square sails that seemed to be aimlessly planted along the top. They followed one of the many piers down a ways, and then walked across a gangway that extended from the dock to the flat-bottomed river boat.
Koi’s weight made the whole ship tilt for a few seconds, and the sailors noticed.
“Who the hell are you, and what do you want?” one of them asked, trying his best to mask his surprise with passive aggression. Some of the other sailors, clearly not Umalian by descent given their more colorful complexion and strange accent, got up from wherever they happened to be sitting and gathered on the main deck to see what the commotion was about.
Confidently, Koi answered, “We want to ask the captain something.” Seeing the cynical and condescending looks everyone was giving him, he then added, “If that’s okay.”
The first pony, who was light red, answered, “I’m the captain. And I’m not going to ask you again: Who are you two, and what are you doing on my ship?” He motioned with his eyes to the other crew members. “Don’t make me sic my boys on you. That might turn ugly.”
Koi nodded to Pan, who in turn pulled out the wallet from his saddlebags. “We’re two farmers from a village south of here, and we need passage north. We have a proposal to make, if you’re willing to lend an ear.”
The captain waved a hoof, and the other ponies relaxed as he drew closer to the two farmers. Gruffly, he asked, “What sort of proposal are we talking, here?”
Quieter, Koi explained, “We need to get north, into Red Dragon territory. If you can drop us off as close to the northern border with Equestria as possible, we can make it worth your time.”
“Hold on, now, let me get this straight...”
“You want me...”
“To smuggle you north?”
“That’s what I said.”
Unexpectedly, the captain broke guffawed, and the rest of the crew with him. “You have got to be shitting me!” He turned to the other sailors, and shouted, “Did you hear that? Ol’ country boy here wants us to take them upriver! Ain’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?”
Though it seemed more like an attempt to please their captain than an actual expression of mirth, the sailors joined him in laughing nonetheless. Pan and Koi, on the other hand, simply stood in stoic silence, waiting for them to finish.
When the chuckling finally ceased, Pan dropped the wallet at the hooves of the captain. “I believe this will be more than enough to convince you.”
His face suddenly turned serious once again, and he gingerly prodded the wallet, suspicious of its contents. After slightly unfastening the drawstrings, he peeked inside, then just as quickly tied it shut once more, nervously laughing as he did so. The captain gave them a look that seemed to be asking ‘are you serious?’, and scanned the surroundings for people watching.
Koi planted a hoof down on the wallet, and started to drag it back towards himself. “That can all be yours if you do this for us.”
“Well, hold on a second...” the captain placed his own hooves on the wallet. “I’ll be taking a big risk, and I have no way of knowing that you’ll pay me at the end. We’ll take the money now, and then everything will be good.”
Using his bulk to his advantage, Koi shot the captain his most intimidating look, easily crushing all opposition. “I’ll give you half up front, no more. You get the rest when we’re at shore in Red Dragon territory.”
They remained deadlocked for several tense minutes, until the captain finally relented. “Alright, fine. We do it your way.” He extended a hoof towards Koi. “Captain Baha is the name. This fine vessel here is the Fighting Spirit.”
Koi returned the gesture, and locked his hoof with the captain’s. “Koi. And he’s Pan.”
Baha smiled, then said with great enthusiasm, “Welcome aboard!”
The rest of the foreign crew shouted their welcomes as the two Umalians got more comfortable with the ship.
Baha motioned for them to follow him. “Come with me, I’ll take you down to storage so you can stow all your crap. No sense carrying all of that yourself.” They ducked into a tight stairwell that lead to the lower deck of the ship.
“This is... dark,” Pan said quite flatly.
“Heh, well, you get used to it.” The captain directed them towards the far end of the room. “This isn’t the fanciest ship on the river, not by a long shot. But she gets the job done. Any goods that can’t be stored wet go down here. We also sleep down here, so there’s that. Now...” He pulled up a floor panel to reveal a hidden compartment. “...Normally, that’s were we store some more illicit goods, but I guess this time our cargo is a bit more alive.”
With a hint of worry, Koi asked, “We don’t have to go down there, do we?”
Captain Baha laughed heartily and slapped him on the back. “Only if we get stopped by a patrol boat!”
Before they could ask if he was joking, Baha closed the compartment and pointed around the room. “You can set your stuff down anywhere, so long as it’s out of the way. And don’t worry: I’ll personally see to it that none of my crew messes with your stuff.”
The farmers bowed. “Thank you.”
“Ah, no need to thank me. Just common courtesy,” he stammered in response. He coughed, then abruptly changed gear. “We’re actually taking a shipment upriver anyways, but not into Red Dragon territory. We’ll leave tonight and anchor a few miles upstream.”
“How long will it take?”
“What, to get to the northernmost point of the river?”
Baha’s eyes drifted off into space as he thought about it. “About three to five days, my best guess. Depends on how many snags we hit.” Sensing their apprehension, the Captain jubilantly declared, “But no need to worry about that! Captain Baha will get you where you need to be no matter what it takes!”
* * *
It was almost dark by the time they shoved off from shore, and by the time the sun had finally disappeared, they were still within the boundaries of the city. The size of Huang Hoof had been impressive from a distance, but it wasn’t until they were in the heart of it that they truly gained an appreciation for its magnitude. In a space that was only a bit larger than the valley that their village sat in lived more ponies than they could hope to know in a lifetime.
Baha joined the two farmers on the main deck as the stood, watching the flickering lanterns of the city fade into the distance. A warm evening breeze grazed their sides.
“We’ve got a breeze behind our back. Hopefully it stays that way.”
One by one, the lamps scattered around the ship were lit by the crewmen. With the black backdrop, they seemed to hover in the nothingness, like the stars above.
“Jade Lotus patrol boats don’t tend to sail these waters. They’re usually around the coast and the Imperial Pass. Should be smooth sailing, at least for the time being.”
Pan sat down and leaned against a barrel. In the dim firelight, he ran his hoof over the talisman strapped to his right leg: a parting gift from Rise, a mare he hardly knew, but desperately wished to see again.
The last visible traces of the enigmatic city, Huang Hoof, faded from sight, and the only thing to keep them company through the night was the light of the lamps, the sloshing of the water, and the chiming tiny bell strapped to the top of the main mast--a ward against ill fortune.
At some point, Koi had hefted the nodding off Pan down to one of the cots in the hold, but the smaller stallion, hardly a colt in comparison to Koi, didn’t even notice. For the first time in quite a while, they felt good about their journey.
* * *
“The average stallion don’t like trouble and danger.”
Kernel Shornburn, 1772 EE
* * *
A peculiar itch had been pestering Pan’s side for two days. Its cause, he imagined, was some rare strain of an untreatable disease that he picked up either from the inhabitants of the city from a few days prior or from the countless varieties of vermin that inhabited the Fighting Spirit.
There were a lot of rats. And roaches. And more than a few termites. And, in some of the danker and darker biomes on board the ship, a strange luminescent green fungus that released an irritating powder whenever they got near. Captain Baha was quick to assure them that the incandescent organisms were harmless, but both of the farmers were wary of staying in the back areas of the cargo hold for longer than necessary.
If there was one thing Pan had learned about the maritime tradition in their journeys so far up the Tayang river, it was that sailors did not care much for hygiene or general body upkeep, nor for maintaining a healthy work environment. The way they carried themselves across the ship with an off-balance gait, their constant shortness of breath, and generally cold disposition all seemed to reflect that.
Under normal circumstances, the blazing sun above would have made it unbearably hot. The gentle squall passing by the ship, though, kept them at a pleasant temperature, and Pan was quite comfortable sitting on the main deck, between two barrels stacked against the handholds along the side of the ship. For the past two days they had been sailing north at a steady clip, occasionally stopping to offload goods at river side towns and villages. According to the captain, the rivers proximity to the mountains made it a poor location to build cities along. Huang Hoof was the exception, residing in one of the few relatively flat regions lining the Tayang.
Captain Baha ambled over to where Pan was sitting, and took a swig out of his flask. When he was done, he offered it to the farmer, who promptly took it for himself and took an even longer drink from it.
“Thirsty?” Baha asked.
Pan continued to gulp down the clean water, in need of refreshment.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to get an answer, the captain wordlessly waited for him to finish. Pan gave the flask back, already half empty, then stood up out of etiquette. Baha slung the flask around his neck once more and turned his gaze up the river.
Pan followed his eyes. “Something up ahead?”
“We’ll be passing through the Imperial Canal in an hour or so.”
“What’s the canal, and is that a bad thing?”
The captain shot him a strange look, then answered, “It’s a pony-made waterway, connecting the Tayang river in the south and Yangtze river in the north. Big enough to sail an ocean-going ship through, though hardly any of those ever go through there. In our case, it’s our route north, and it’s dangerous only if you two are found.”
“Found? Found by who?”
“The boarding party.” Baha coughed into his hoof. “We have a special pass that allows us free sailing up and down the river and across the border, but it doesn’t exempt us from searches. Neither of the two clans like smugglers.”
“What sorts of things do ponies smuggle?”
“Stolen goods, weapons, opiates, and ponies, amongst others.”
“Yep. Fugitives, for the most part. Hoping to make it out of Umala. Most just hop north to the borderlands and stay there. Others head to Ekso-Balto to the southeast, probably hoping that they can more easily blend in there. I’m no anthropologist, but I’m pretty sure that you Umalians are closely related to some of the folks living on the coastal countries of Ekso-Balto.”
Visualizing the map in his head, Pan struggled to recall where he had seen that strange name. He wanted to say it was another continent, but he couldn’t be sure. He made a mental note to confirm that later when he had a chance, then, continuing the conversation, said, “Sounds to me like they have the right idea.”
Baha chuckled. “Probably. I don’t even need to leave my ship to see how much things suck around here, even compared to my home. Even we have electricity! You Umalians are practically still living in the stone age.”
Pan silently added ‘electricty’ to his list of mysteriess to investigate. Storing the thought, he asked, “And where exactly do you come from, captain?”
Uncomfortably, Baha shuffled his hooves, preparing to make his leave. “Look, kid, I don’t think going through my history is the best use of our time...”
He reluctantly sighed. “Fine. Alright. Whatever. It’s a small country in Sylvertine east of here. It’s nothing special.”
“And what about the rest of the crew? You all have different accents, so obviously you’re not all from the same place.”
Noticeably exasperated, he said, “Hell, I don’t know. A few others from Vogongrad, I know that. Crab Walk over there is from Rondur. One or two of them might be from Menthros or Latz. I never ask, and I don’t care to know.”
“Isn’t that kind of weird, working with ponies that aren’t the same?”
Koi walked over to them from the other end of the deck, joining in on their discussion.
Not paying him any mind, Baha responded, “Nationality doesn’t mean jack shit when it comes to making a living. But I wouldn’t expect people like you, who’ve never been outside your own country, to get that.”
Koi raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say a word.
“We were talking about my crew,” Baha explained.
“Ah. I was wondering.”
He turned back to Pan, and asked, “You boys said you were heading up to Equestria, right?”
Koi shifted uncomfortably, and Pan answered, “Yeah.”
“Well, then you better get used to people being different. Based on rumor alone, you’re going to be seeing some... weird stuff.”
“I’m not really sure how to explain it. Equestrians are just different, that’s all I know. A bit odd in their thinking and beliefs. Irrational, some say. Unrealistic idealists and optimists, maybe.”
There was a brief lull in the conversation, and they each looked off into space. To the east, sheer cliffs studded the landscape less than a mile from the banks. The west, by comparison, was relatively flat and densely wooded. Morning fog still clung to the precipices off the starboard side.
A cloud passed under the sun, draining the color from the surroundings. Pan blinked a few times to refocus his vision, and Baha took another drink from his flask. Koi opened his mouth to say something, but was immediately interrupted.
“Patrol boat incoming, Captain!” a shout came from the crow’s nest. “Bearing full armaments! Not sure if they’ll board, though!”
Instantly, the deck burst into motion, and the sailors that had been lounging about rallied around Baha.
The captain forcefully shoved the farmers with his hooves towards the hatch leading to the lower storage room. “Get in the compartment! Now!” he barked, then ran to his cabin at the rear end of the ship.
Wordlessly, Pan and Koi slipped down into the dark interior, nearly tripping down the dark, damp stairwell, and walked to the far end of the hull. Then, after lifting a floor panel behind some crates, ducked into a hole that only barely fit the two of them together. They dropped the panel back into place, and to an observer, it seemed as if the two farmers had vanished. A short while later, they heard hoofsteps, and then a barrel being dragged and set on top of their only exit.
“Don’t move and stay quiet. This will be over with in a few minutes,” the captain whispered, then promptly faded away.
Taking that advice to heart, Pan clutched his bracelet close to his heart, and counted his breaths in time with the gentle rocking of the boat.
* * *
Baha burst into his modest cabin and clamored for a chest sitting near the door. He popped it open and rooted through, pulling out a thick piece of parchment and a cylindrical metal rod. Exhibiting the peculiar capacity for manual dexterity that earth ponies seemed capable of, he grabbed the device with his tail and tucked it into his knotted mane, hidden and invisible. Then, taking the document in his mouth, stepped back out onto the deck.
Soon after, the first mate stepped up to his side, giving him the run-down. “Standard size patrol boat, flying Jade Lotus colors. Think they’re going to stop us?”
Instinctively, Captain Baha looked up to the top of the main sail of the Fighting Spirit where the flags were. Reassured that they were properly displaying the plain green square that showed they were international sailors, he dropped the paper and answered, “We’re still a ways from the canal. There would be no reason for them to stop us.” Subtly gulping, he added, “Odds are, they’re heading back to Huang Hoof to dock and resupply.”
“Aye, sir,” the first mate agreed. “But in the case that they do...”
Baha shot him a glare for the subtle contradiction, then said, “Standard procedure. I don’t want to risk being caught with our... goods. Ready the rifles for firing, but don’t display them.” He looked out across the water, squinting to keep the reflecting light out of his eyes. “They’re still a few minutes off, so we should have enough time to dust off the steel and prep it.”
The first mate nodded. “Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes, Tripper, that will be all.” He bent down and picked the paper up in his mouth once again, then stepped back and waited for Tripper to issue the orders.
“Alright, swabbies, listen up!” Tripper boomed. All eyes fell on the first mate, and he gave the commands. “The cap’ wants the rifles up top and ready to go, but under cover! No one fires until the caps’ signal! If they board, prep your blades! Again, no one strikes until the cap’ signals! And for the love of Celestia, Luna, Azigon the canine warlord and the damn cat that took Crab Walk’s hoof over there--”
“How many times do I got to say it wasn’t no damn cat! It was a giant salamander!”
“--Yeah, sure, keep telling yourself that, Crab Walk! Anyways, like I was saying...” The first coughed for effect. “If they board, keep them the fuck away from the compartment. If they find those damn farmers, it’s not just them that’ll get their heads lopped off and entrails strung out.”
Tripper stood there for a moment, looking over the crew. For the most part, the seemed mostly still. Realizing this was a problem, he barked, “Well? What are you waiting for? You’ve only got a few minutes!” As the crew broke into commotion, he turned back to Baha. “Was that good?”
Baha, in turn, smiled. “Perfect.”
The two stood back, standing against the front wall of Baha’s cabin, taking in the spectacle of hollering and jostling, and breathing in the faint aroma of panic. Even faster than they had expected, the action came to a standstill, and the crew waited idly for new orders. All of their rifles had been assembled from below decks, were ready to fire, and hidden under tarpaulins. Most of the movable gear on the deck was rearranged into rows that one could easily hide behind and fire from, and would force any boarders through narrow chokes if they wanted to reach the cabin and stairwell to below decks.
There was no more orders, however, so the only thing they could do was wait. Baha stepped out onto the main deck and walked to the prow. His first mate followed close behind, with the rolled up parchment in his mouth.
“Thirty seconds until they pass us,” Tripper murmured through the paper.
“Let’s hope that’s exactly what they do. Pass us.”
He ran a hoof through his mane, to ensure that his pistol was still snug and secure, then returned his attention to the Jade Lotus vessel, flying the traditional flag of the clan: a four-petalled turquoise flower over white. Though the ship was typical enough to encounter on the river, they still gave even the most seasoned seastallions the shivers.
Much like the Fighting Spirit, the patrol boat was a two-masted junk with a flat deck. Unlike the Fighting Spirit, the patrol boat prominently displayed a plethora of cannons and more than enough iron plating to take a beating. Add to that a crew made of giants and an unearthly metallic silver paint, and it was more than enough to make the captain gulp.
Please don’t stop please don’t stop please stop please don’t stop--
Grappling hooks latched onto the railings of the Fighting Spirit, gnawing at the polished wood and startling a few of the crew who had been sitting near the edges.
The ships were slowly pulled closer together, and they reached a complete standstill in the middle of the river. Baha walked down to the middle of the deck, nodding to his crew to keep them relaxed. Then, turning to their guests, gave his best smile and waved.
“Hello there, sailors of the great Jade Lotus Clan! What can the crew of the Fighting Spirit and I do for you?” he greeted across the water.
A gangway extended from the patrol boat to theirs, and a party started to walk across. All of them, he noted with apprehension, were fully armed and armored with spears, blades, a few muskets that easily outclassed their own, and enough steel plate mail that they actually made the boat sink into the water even further.
From the boarding party a charcoal grey stallion split off and approached Baha while the others dispersed across the deck, keeping watch on the sailors and scanning the surroundings for danger. Baha quickly deduced that the grey stallion must have been the captain of the other ship, given his more flamboyant headwear: A large, blue peacock feather planted in the rim of his helmet.
“You’re the captain of this pathetic tub?” he growled.
“That I am,” Baha chimed. “Can I help you?”
The other captain gestured up at the green flag on the main mast. “You have authorization to be displaying that free trade flag?”
“Sure do,” Baha said, then nodded at the first mate behind him, who in turn dropped the parchment at the hooves of the patrol boat captain.
He snatched up the scroll, then unraveled it. His eyes darted back and forth across the page, and every so often he’d mutter something to himself, give the slightest huff, then imperceptibly furrow his brow. Finally, he snorted and shoved the trading license back to the first mate. Tripper quickly ran back to Baha’s cabin to replace the license and keep it out of harms way.
“Alright, seems you’re clear to pass the waterway up ahead, not like it matters what I say.”
Baha wanted to hug and kiss him, but refrained and tried to hide his reaction.
“But, that doesn’t mean I still can’t search you for contraband. Open up that hatch. Let’s take a look at what you got down below.”
“Ah, certainly! Though I can assure that you’ll be wasting your valuable time!” Baha jubilantly exclaimed, trying his best to hide the fact that he was breaking out into a sweat. Nearly tripping over his own hooves, he stumbled over to the hatch and hoisted it open. “After you,” he said, addressing the Umalian captain and gesturing into the stairwell.
The captain gave Baha a critical glare, then ducked down into the stairway. Baha slipped in behind him, and then the rest of the Jade Lotus soldiers.
“Watch your step,” Baha warned, though he didn’t actually mean it.
Mindful of the blades strapped to the hooves of the ponies surrounding him, Baha stepped to the side as soon as they reached the hold, hoping to stay out of the way.
The captain of the patrol clicked his tongue, and the rest of the boarding party scattered through the relatively cramped interior, scanning over the countless crates and barrels that were piled together and slotted into each other.
At this point, Captain Baha wasn’t sure if he was sweating because of the how muggy the hold was, or how close the troops were to finding their stowaways under the barrel that the other captain was now standing in front of. He fought with all of his willpower to resist the urge to take action, and remained firmly planted in place. His disingenuous smile hadn’t yet receded, and he didn’t plan on dropping it until the Umalians were far, far away. Or until he was imprisoned and executed for smuggling.
The Jade Lotus captain’s feather brushed against the barrel as he sniffed it, trying to determine what was inside. He raised his right hoof into the air, and made an exaggerated flicking motion with it. A mechanism was triggered and a curved blade shot out of the thin cylindrical sheath strapped to his leg. Bracing the barrel with his other hoof, he stabbed into the top of the barrel, and pried off the lid.
He spat onto the wood floor, and yanked his blade out of the lid then replaced it back on the barrel, satisfied that the dried spices he found were entirely harmless. Holding the sheath up to his chest to trigger a release, he twitched his hoof again, and the blade slid back into the holster. He swept his eyes around the room one final time, then clicked his tongue once more. The other soldiers stopped what they were doing and followed the leader as he headed back up the stairwell, shooting Baha a dirty look as he did so.
The captain, in turn, followed them up, eager to show them off his ship. Once again in the pleasant daylight, Baha asked to the plumed officer, “I take it everything was in order?”
Rolling his eyes, the other captain responded, “Unfortunately, yes.”
Baha forcefully laughed, then said, “If that is all, then I’m sure we can both agree that we have places to be and we have to be there at certain times.”
The Jade Lotus captain muttered an ‘aye’, then set off across the gangway once again. Soon enough, the grappling hooks detached, the platform was pulled back, the anchors were pulled, and the two vessels went on their way.
Collectively, the entire crew of the Fighting Spirit sighed in relief. Baha’s legs were shaking so hard he was forced to sit down.
Tripper walked up to him, and asked, “Should we stow the guns, sir?”
Struggling to form a coherent answer, Baha answered, “...no. We’re coming up on the canal pretty quick. We might have gotten lucky with that boat, but there’s no need to press our chances.”
“Aye, sir.” Tripper saluted, then descended below decks to free their two high-value goods from their cramped prison.
Idly, Baha ran a hoof over the wood railings of his boat, ignoring the splinters getting caught in his fetlocks. Though he hated to admit it, the vessels days were numbered. The blockades at the mouths of the river prevented them from leaving the country by ship, and sooner or later they’d have to abandon the Fighting Spirit and hike it across the border to Equestria. If the routine searches by the clan navies weren’t hint enough, the increasing prevalence of foreign mercenaries in the cities were a sure sign that there was trouble brewing on their little peninsula. Add to that the living evidence of the farmers as testament to how awful things were on land, and he saw little reason to stay. Umala was a dead land; any profit he made could easily disappear before he could bat an eye.
“We’ve gotta get out of this damn country,” he whispered to himself.
The crew continued to work, either not noticing or completely ignoring their captain’s despondency. By matter of course, the captain took to watching the clouds drift by, hoping and praying for a bit of guidance from up above. He had a sinking feeling no one was listening.
* * *
The Imperial Canal went by many names, including the ‘Imperial Pass’ and ‘Imperial Waterway’, but regardless of titling, there was no denying that it certainly gave off an imperial vibe. To call it the largest construction effort in the nations history would be an understatement; by most ponies reckonings, it was one of the most impressive feats of engineering in the world. Two separate rivers, both with their headwaters in the Umalian Range, were joined together by a massive channel over a hundred leagues long, and, more impressively, it was done completely by earth ponies.
How the earth ponies managed to create such an immense construct was beyond Baha’s comprehension, but he was grateful. The Imperial Canal was the only relatively safe way to cross between north and south Umala, assuming one had the clearance to do so. Such clearance was almost exclusively granted to foreign merchants, much like the captain.
Regardless, he still felt sick to his stomach as they approached the checkpoint, even considering that they had passed inspection hardly an hour prior.
The Fighting Spirit docked at one of the open piers, and then they waited. If their luck hadn’t already run out, then it was certainly on its last reserves. An hour later, the inspection ship still hadn’t visited them. The sailors were getting restless.
“I’m not sure what’s worse; the lack of breeze, or that feeling that we’re gonna die pretty soon,” a crew member moaned, then spat into the water. A soft plunk! was heard seconds later.
Even the captain was giving the afternoon sun anxious glances, unsure of the fate that awaited them. With no other options, were forced to sit tight and wait for the inspection warship to search them.
Baha looked to the south, eyeing the monstrous ship in the distance. In many ways, it resembled his own, with the flat deck and square sails. If one were to take the Fighting Spirit and add two masts and an exorbitant amount of cannons, then took the whole thing and scaled it up by several factors, then that would be the monstrosity that was currently anchored a short distance from a small fishing vessel that was moored to the shoreline of the canal. Between that boat and the second one of similar design to the north, he guessed it would be twenty minutes until it was their turn to face the gauntlet.
“Something bothering you, cap?” Tripper asked, coming up along his side near the prow.
The captain nodded. “Aye.”
“You’re not worried about the inspection, are you?”
“No, it’s not that. I was thinking about the near-future.”
“How near are we talking?”
“Right after we drop the farmers off.”
“What has you worried about whatever will happen after we drop the farmers off?”
Slightly grimacing, Baha said, “We need to get out of Umala, and fast. Once we get the money from them, we need to leave. Whether by land or by sea, it doesn’t matter, but I’m not planning on sticking around any longer than necessary.”
Tripper looked down to the wooden floor beams, trying to shield his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun hanging over his right. “Something got you spooked?”
Baha dryly laughed. “Don’t be stupid, Tripper--take a look around.” Pointing with a hoof, he said, “Look over there, on the far banks. Those battery emplacements weren’t there last time we came through. And you can see dozens of trenches dug into that hillside behind; no doubt there’s more that we can’t see. Not to mention that there seems to be twice the amount of ships on patrol as there was a month or two ago. And there, north a ways, in the distance, where the river gets narrow and shallow. The Imperial Road, and that bridge. Notice anything in the water?”
The first mate squinted, following where the captain was gesturing. “Are those... artificial reefs sticking out the water? And more ships than I can count, to boot.”
“That’s right. And I know those weren’t there last time.”
“What’re you trying to get at, sir?”
Exasperated, the captain explained, “What the hell do you think? This place has more fortifications than you could spit at. One wrong move here, and you’d have an entire fleet of warships on your ass, and the whole Jade Lotus army. And we’ve both seen how many mercenaries have been hanging around the dockyards in the cities. And the exact same thing is going on up north a bit on the Red Dragon side of the road.; you can see it from here. Artillery, barriers in the water, ground works, as far as I can see.” He glowered. “This place is a war zone, or it will be pretty soon, and I don’t intend on being on this river when it does.”
Nervously gulping, Tripper’s eyes twitched, considering the scenario. The evidence literally before their eyes certainly pointed to the captain being right. “So what do we do?”
Reluctantly sighing, the captains shoulders dropped. “Unless for some reason trying to sail past those fire boats patrolling the waters near the mouth of the river up north, I’m thinking we sell the boat, or ditch it, and head north on hoof. Either way, we’re leaving this shithole.”
Tripper nodded in agreement, though every instinct of his went against abandoning the boat. “I get why we should do that, but the crew won’t like this, sir. They love the ship; we all do. Even if it is to save our own hides, it’s still the same regardless of how you look at it: we’re abandoning home. And of course I’m sure you have a fair amount of attachment to her as well.”
“I can’t deny that. But sometimes life doesn’t give you a choice.” Baha turned his head to face his first mate. “Sometimes, you got to be willing to lose what you love for the sake of seeing another day.”
“Aye, sir.” It was hard to tell in the light, but it seemed that Tripper was shedding tears. The first mate looked away and put a hoof to his eyes, and said, “Ah, damn, sir. Seems I got a bug in my eye.”
Baha wearily grinned to himself, amused by the first mates poor attempt to save face. All truth be told, though, he was feeling a bit teary as well. He coughed, then stood up straight. “Tripper, relay a message to the crew: We’ll have a little family gathering here on the deck just before sundown, assuming we pass inspection and are in Red Dragon waters.” The first mate started to walk away, and Baja quickly added, “And Tripper?”
The first mate turned around.
“Hurry it up,” he said, gesturing to the warship lumbering in their direction.
“Aye, cap’n.” Tripper saluted, sniffed, then stepped away from the prow and roused the sailors who were lounging about, sprawled between crates and packages, waiting for inspection.
Baha, for his part, put on a straight face. Even for a seasoned sailor like himself, a search by a Jade Lotus warship was still a terrifying prospect. The afternoon sky was turning into a hazy orange, and the crew, as per standard procedure, busted out the rifles and blades. Sunlight gleamed off their metal surfaces, and to the inexperienced eye the sailors were an intimidating gang ready to kill. What Baha knew of them, though, left him weary of their potential future.
Koi, who had been sitting near the hatch to the lower level, lumbered his way to the captain, weaving through the maze of crates with surprising finesse.
The captain, not bothering to look at him, said, “Yeah?”
“Just looking to talk.”
Baha eased up slightly, then leaned his head towards the golden stallion. His eyes, however, refused to meet the farmer, and remained fixed on the warship gradually making its way towards them. “I’m all ears.”
“I’ll confess, I haven’t been entirely honest about myself.”
Genuine curiosity welled up in the Vogon, but he maintained a neutral stance. “How so?”
“I can’t speak on Pan’s behalf, but for me personally, I’m not quite the stupid peasant that one might guess.”
The captain frowned. “Well, you fooled me in that case.”
Koi cocked his head. “Was that sarcasm?”
“Nope,” Baha truthfully answered. “I honestly haven’t given you two much thought. In case you were unaware, Umala isn’t exactly known for a healthy population of intellectuals.” He randomly waved a hoof through the air. “So if you’re a smart fella, then by all means, good for you. What of it?”
“Well, I was thinking...” Koi leaned against the railing and looked Baha in the eye, forcing the smaller stallion to turn his gaze to meet him. “It’s obvious to me that being a sailor in Umala isn’t the greatest living. You have a boat. You have international clearance. Why don’t you leave here and try your luck somewhere less dangerous?”
The captain sighed uneasily, and hung his head over the rail. “I would if I could.”
Puzzled, Koi asked, “Something stopping you?”
Baha turned his eyes upwards, staring off into space. “Two years ago, the clans closed off either end of the river. Some bullshit about ‘maintaining diplomatic ties with each other, and ensuring the happiness of the people’. Me and my crew were unlucky enough to be on this river when that happened. If we try to leave by water, they’ll throw fireballs onto our ship and ram us, which I’d rather avoid. And, actually, if you don’t mind me asking you a question...”
“What the hell is up with the Jade Lotus and Red Dragon clans? I haven’t been able to get a good answer out of anyone in all the time we’ve been stranded on this damn river.”
Koi ran a hoof through his mane, pondering the question. “I only know the story they tell everyone to believe.”
“Better than nothing. Go ahead.”
“A long time ago, Umala was under the rule of an emperor. I suppose some folks didn’t like him, so they started a revolt. Red Dragon and Jade Lotus were two of the leaders of that revolution, and when they finally freed the country, they decided to split it evenly between themselves to rule over.”
“So why are they fighting?”
Koi shrugged. “They’ve been fighting since well before I was born. I don’t really know.”
“Hmph. Well it’s damn foolish. It’s not good for a country to be divided like this; it weakens the whole thing. Last I heard, they’re upholding an armistice, but the amount of warships sailing these waters seems to suggest otherwise.”
“These things tend to be more complicated then what the officials tell you.”
“It’s still true, though; If Umala was united, they have enough resources to potentially rival some of the big names, like Hästi or Prance. Maybe even Equestria, given enough time..”
“I’ve been out of the loop for too long to make an educated comment.”
“Out of the loop? ”
“I wasn’t always a farmer,” Koi admitted in a strained voice. Once again, he ran a hoof through his mane.
“What did you do before?”
“I guess you could say I traveled the country.”
Baha gave him an inquisitive look, but Koi was stone-faced. His answer had been intentionally vague, and the captain got the feeling he wasn’t going to get a much better story out of him anytime soon. He looked over the shoulder of Koi, and his face drained of color. “That warship is on its way. You and your friend with the money better get back in that compartment. They’ll be here in a few minutes.”
Nodding, Koi slid away, heading to the hatch and grabbing Pan along the way. Moments later, Tripper returned to his side. “Crew’s heard about the meeting. Nothing to do but wait and hope they don’t find the compartment.”
Prodding his mane with his tail, Baha was satisfied to feel the heft of the single-shot pistol tucked away out of sight. Then, he placed a reassuring hoof on the shoulder of the young stallion. “Aye. Now we wait.”
* * *
Part 2 | Part 4