Tlisli as a Merchant’s Guard

[Continued from Tlisli Gets a Job]

Tlisli spent the rest of the day and a good part of the night being surprised. It started when she met Zerdanin, captain of the guard. Inraline used one name, and then the connective “ir” which meant “descendant of” and a parent’s name. Only in a formal introduction would the full name be used.

The guard captain was Tlisli’s first surprise. She introducted herself as Zerdanin ir-Ketran, and informed Tlisli that Ketran was her mother. In Ixtlen, while a person was known as a descendant, there was “son of” and “daughter of” and it was always of the father. She learned that in Inralin one had a choice, though tradition held, in order, that one chose the higher ranking person, the parent whose profession was more similar to one’s own, or in the absence of such distinctions, a daugher  was descendant of her mother, and a son of his father.

While she was being lectured on names, Tlisli was absorbing the shock of Zerdanin’s apparent age. She looked, well, old. She looked even older than old. Aterin was old, in late middle age. How could one be captain of the guard and be that old. Surely she would be slow!

A couple of hours testing with weapons and then with hand-to-hand combat cured Tlisli of the thought that the captain was too old for her job. It turned out, however, that Zerdanin considered herself too old to be a front line fighter. That, she told Tlisli, was what she had lieutenants, sergeants, and yes, new recruits for.

Zerdanin, it turned out, was a veteran of the Tevelin garrison, where she had risen to the rank of Evnor, which mean someone who commanded in the area of 900 troops. Why the number was stated as 900, when nearly everyone on this continent would have used multiples of 12 (a gift of the Tlazil Empire, Azzesh had told her), while she had heard that others would use multiples of 10, Tlisli could not understand. The Inraline used base 10 numbers, as she had heard were common elsewhere, yet they used companies of 300 and a sort of regiment of around 900. The structure was quite different. In general, however, she was pretty sure she had been told about the numbers so she would be impressed by Zerdanin’s command experience.

The guard on their riverboat, however, was very different. Guards worked in teams of three with a lead guard in command. These were then divided into three shifts, and on this riverboat, each shift consisted of two teams. One of the lead guards would also be designated as the sergeant for each of the shifts. After her weapon skill was determined, Tlisli was assigned to work with the lieutenant. Lieutenant Uxinen was, in Tlisli’s opinion, an arrogant ass. She hadn’t had the opportunity to work out with him, but he just didn’t impress her at all.

There was a certain amount of consternation among the guards, however, when Tlisli was assigned as a sort of junior lieutenant. That put her above the sergeants in rank, and they were none too sure this as a good idea. To be honest, Tlisli wasn’t that sure it was a good idea either!

Before nightfall, Tlisli received another shock. All of the guards, including the officers, were required to know how to work one of the oars on the riverboat itself and to row one of the boats. Zerdanin assured Tlisli that she would be unlikely to row the riverboat other than to experience it, as she was too small, and would actually be a hindrance. But it was quite possible she’d wind up rowing one of the smaller rowboats. That skill could come in handy. Tlisli had no difficult with that task. Small boats on rivers were something she knew.

That night they stopped in a small village by a tributary creek. The riverboat carried some letters and packages which they dropped off and picked up others. Tlisli learned that there was no official mail service outside of Tevelin and its official outposts, and so there was a considerable traffic in carrying mail between the various villages. It didn’t surprise Tlisli that there was no official mail service; what surprised her was that there was mail service at all.

The next day was market day in the village. Tlisli wondered whether it was market day because the riverboat had arrived or whether Aterin had arranged to arrive on market day. She didn’t have time to ask. She was told that she would be going with one of Aterin’s commercial assistants up the creek for about two hours along with two of the oarsmen whose job it would be to row the boat. She would be the sole guard for the expedition. If she hadn’t seen the look on Uxinen’s face as he gave the order, she would have thought she was being honored, considering how little anyone knew of her. She was pretty sure, however, that this was considered grunt work. Uxinen told her to intimidate any bandits who might come along.

On the way up the creek, Tlisli and the commercial assistant, a local named Tlorin, had plenty of time to chat. Tlisli took the opportunity to learn whatever she could. Basically, he said, they were delivering mail, and also watching for opportunities to buy certain fish—Tlisli was acquainted with most of those Tlorin described—and various herbs. They’d also be willing to pay for information that would lead to finding certain types of lumber that were highly desired for furniture making.

“I saw that a great deal of our load was of rockwood,” said Tlisli. “Is that the sort of thing we’re looking for?”

“Most of the stands of ironwood, which is what we call it,” said Tlorin, “have already been located, marked and are regularly harvested. The woods we’re interested in are used in making luxury, decorative furniture.”

“Can we make enough money on an expedition like this to make it worth Aterin’s effort?”

“Not on any regular basis, but the fact that we carry the mail makes us popular with the local people.”

They pulled up to the wharf at the quiet village. Tlorin seemed to be quite delighted as he threw a rope to a man on the small wharf. Tlisli sensed something wrong. She saw at least three men holding spears. It was not unusual for a man to carry such a weapon in the jungle. But these looked like they were ready to move. There was a tension among the men waiting, those who didn’t have spears as well. She grabbed an arrow and her bow (which she had kept strung most of the way), still keeping both inside the boat. Then she tried to whisper a question to Tlorin, but she had hardly turned his direction when one of the men with the spears threw it and hit him squarely in the chest. Tlorin was standing, and fell into the river.

Tlisli’s reaction was automatic. She raised her bow from a seated position (it was quite small enough for this), and loosed that arrow, not at the one who had thrown the spear, but at one of the others. He had started a move toward her, and he stumbled and plucked at the arrow that was in his belly. His companion was moving too quickly to stop and check, and stopping would have been a bad idea for him in any case, so he moved forward.

Tlisli simply dodged his spear with the same movement as she picked up her sword from under her seat on the boat. He continued forward, apparently intent on fighting her bare-handed, and was completely unprepared as she brought her sword up. She had no time to really choose. She just rammed the point upward and let his momentum help impale him on it.

The first man was now holding a spear. It had to be the one dropped by the one she had shot, but she hadn’t seen it happen. He was apparently not going to throw it, but instead try to fight her with it. She remembered Azzesh’s words, “When someone is about to do something remarkably stupid, be sure that you’re not missing something.”

In this case, however, Tlisli couldn’t think of any wonderful thing the man might know that would make that crude spear adequate against her sword. Using a move with which she had often cut Azzesh’s sticks in half during practice, she sliced the spear in two at an angle. While the man was still trying to figure out his next move, she jumped to the wharf and stabbed the tip of her sword directly into his heart.

She crouched and looked back and forth, trying to evaluate the situation. She didn’t know who belonged here and who didn’t. Was the battle over, or was someone waiting nearby to surprise her as she had the three men?

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  1. [continued from Tlisli – A Lesson in Geography and Politics]
    After a few moments of silence, Tlisli worked up the courage to ask another question. “Why would taking the fort do the Grand Empire little good?”
    “Good question! For the same reason that it would be hard for them to actually take it. Clearing the town would be easy, but the fort is, as you have noted, not that far up the river, and the Inralin Navy is pretty much without peer, at least in these waters. So they would take the town itself back quickly. At the same time taking the fortress would place a relatively small number of troops out at the far end of a very tenuous supply line with logistics that can be cut easily by those same troops. How many troops did they have when they attacked Ixtlen?”
    “I heard it was a couple thousand. I don’t remember precisely.”
    “And how many do you suppose they left home with?”
    “I have no idea. Nobody discussed that.”
    “That is as I expected. Rulers of a city state are not used to dealing with the logistics of an extended campaign. Ixtlen is more than 1500 kilometers from the nearest Grand Empire outpost. So they have to deal with losses along the way, with setting up outposts, and establishing some sort of a supply and communications chain. My guess is that the overall expedition started with 10 times that many.”
    “So if the city had decided to resist, we might well have succeeded. There weren’t necessarily tens of thousands more troops just around the corner.”
    Azzesh laughed.
    “Hardly!” said Aterin. “I have no idea how your guard would have done against a couple thousand troops. Make no mistake, Grand Empire troops are well-trained. At the same time they are not extraordinarily well-equipped, and they are loyal as long as there are officers and enforcers in range.”
    “Of course, once they had established a route suitable for communications and resupply, they could have followed up with more troops. Travel time would only be a couple of months,” said Tlisli.
    “Very good!” said Aterin. “You know how to think about these things!”
    “It would take considerably less time to bring troops from Ixtlen to Tevelin or to the fort.”
    “True, but first they must be at Ixtlen. Which is the point of taking the city. Once they have built up their troops there, they will move south.”
    “But they’ll eventually do that, and they will threaten Tevelin.”
    “Again, true, and so we will warn the authorities, and they will prepare. One should note that sailing from Terinor to Tevelin takes less time that the fastest conceivable transit from Ixtlen to Tevelin.”
    “Wow!” said Tlisli.
    “You’ve lived inland all your life. You have never seen an Inraline sailing ship. Fortunately, the Grand Emperor doesn’t really understand sea power either.”
    “Oh, I’d say he understands it quite well,” said Azzesh, cutting in.
    “How’s that?” asked Aterin.
    “He shows that he understands it by what he’s obviously attempting here.”
    “What’s that?”
    “He means to take Tevelin and make it a Grand Empire base. It may look like an impossible task to you, and he’s certainly not going to move quickly as Tlisli here says.” She turned to Tlisli. “Besides being stringy and bland and not thinking enough you are filled with romantic ideas of single combat and decisive, swift strokes that decide an issue quickly. Your addled brain thinks in terms of heroes, villains, and glory. Yet perhaps Azzesh’s efforts are not totally wasted and you may come to understand reality enough so that you understand that war is a nasty, brutal, never-ending business.”
    “The current Grand Emperor’s grandfather started the expansion of the Grand Empire,” said Aterin. “At the time, Sun Home was little larger than Ixtlen is now.”
    “While his troops, and girls such as you think in terms of days and weeks, he doesn’t even think in terms of months,” said Azzesh. “He thinks in terms of years and decades.”
    “The process,” pronounced Aterin in a tone intended to end a topic, “is to make Tevelin unprofitable so that in the end Inralin will be happy to let it go. Then he will use Tevelin to cut off the Keretians at Mazrafel and to harass the Marahuatecan navy.”
    “And you just go on engaging in commerce?” asked Tlisli.
    “Why of course? Do you have a better idea?”
    “You must require a large number of guards.”
    “Absolutely. Which leads me to you.”
    Azzesh started to interrupt him, but Aterin waved her to silence. That he could do so was astonishing to Tlisli. “I will let her know how things are. I won’t try to cheat her because she’s naive.”
    He looked directly at Tlisli. “You’re going to need to decide what you do next. You’ll need a way to make a living. Did you have any plans?”
    “Not really,” said Tlisli. “I don’t really have any skills. Girls weren’t expected to have careers in Ixtlen. It wasn’t so brutally enforced as in the Grand Empire, but it was still true.”
    “Actually,” Aterin replied, “you do have one skill set. This conversation wasn’t entirely idle. I wanted to see if you could carry on a conversation about politics and commerce. Of course, we’ve only touched a few minor concepts. You’re not well informed, but you do have the ability to follow the conversation. But that isn’t the skill set I’m talking about. You traveled for weeks with Azzesh, and she hasn’t yet eaten you for lunch. That’s an indicator of skill. I’m hardly going to hire you at the wages of a veteran of the Governor’s Guard, but you are well above the skill level of the average new hire I get as a guard.”
    “I hadn’t thought …”
    “Just so,” said Azzesh.
    “How could you have?” said Aterin. “Here’s what I propose. You will serve with my guard during this trip and my stops while we go to Tevelin, and then I will make an offer. I would expect that I will offer more than you can make as, say, a barmaid, yet less that I would offer someone with actual military experience. I get someone with better skills because I trust Azzesh’s word. She recommends you, despite her insults. You get a bit more pay than you could get otherwise. Over time, you can get to the point where your value and your pay match more closely.”
    “So you’re paying me less than you think my skills would be worth because I don’t have formal proof.”
    “Yes, and because you don’t have the level of experience of others. On the other hand, because you grew up in a home involved in politics and commerce, you do have some acquaintance with how these things work.”
    “That makes sense to me,” said Tlisli. “I would have been suspicious had you offered me some sort of full wages.” She paused then laughed. “Well, I would have been suspicious after I found out what normal wages were.”
    “So do we have a deal?”
    “Yes,” said Tlisli.
    “Very well, let me introduce you to my ship’s guard commander, and she’ll put you to work.” He noticed her surprise. “Yes, the captain is a she,” he said.
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  2. This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and events are totally products of the author’s imagination (as should be obvious).
    Copyright © 2017,
    Henry E. Neufeld

    Tlisli was still scanning the area when one of the men still standing stepped forward. Tlisli thought this was either very brave or very stupid, considering he was unarmed. He started to open his mouth, apparently to speak.
    Tlisli ignored him, turning toward the boat. The two oarsmen were just beginning to react to the situation, and their reaction was clearly confusion. The current this close to shore was just beginning to catch and move Tlorin’s body. She didn’t want it to get too far away.
    “Get Tlorin’s body into the boat,” she said, not loudly, but quite firmly. Her voice was quiet enough that the sputtering of the man who had stepped forward, only to be ignored, partially drowned it out. The oarsmen were willing, but the shock of the situation still had them frozen. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable enough in their own way, and they had spears, but this sort of expedition was routine and safe. That’s why there was only one real guard. So they didn’t seem to have considered using their spears for anything.
    “Now!” shouted Tlisli. That finally got the men moving. Tlisli couldn’t recall ever having shouted in that tone before. She had copied it from her father, who frequently used it with employees and with slaves.
    The exchange had given the headman time to feel slighted. He was not used to being ignored. “Girl,” he said. “When a man of rank speaks, you listen!”
    Tlisli looked back at him. A lifetime of obedience urged her to treat the man with respect, yet fear, anger, and the knowledge, practically bred into her, that letting anything slip in such a situation could mean death, took over.
    “When the person with the sword says ‘shut up,’” she replied, “you shut up.” She didn’t even turn totally toward him. Working with her brothers back in Ixtlen and later with Azzesh, she had learned the importance of being able to keep track of a wide arc of activity around her.
    She watched as one of the oarsmen drew Tlorin’s body to the side of the boat, using one of the neglected spears, and then brought the body on board. She pointed at one and said, “Guard the boat.” To the other she said, “Grab your spear and come with me.” He didn’t seem to have any problem with that.
    The headman, on the other hand, was still livid. He was keeping his mouth shut, yet he managed to look as though he wanted to kill.
    “Why have you attacked Aterin’s boat and killed his agent?” she asked, holding her sword loosely in front of her. To someone unacquainted with her, it might appear that she was unready, but with Azzesh she had practiced moving from this lazy looking stance to an attack quickly.
    “Are you not the agent of the great merchant prince Aterin?” asked the headman with some surprise.
    “No,” said Tlisli. “I’m the guard. Your men killed the agent.”
    “Not my men,” said the headman. “Those were bandits who were holding us hostage.” As he spoke even more people were gathering around. None of them were carrying obvious weapons. The headman had a knife in a scabbard at his waist, but other than that, Tlisli couldn’t see anything threatening.
    The problem was that she had talked to Tlorin about this village, and he had told her that the headman was elderly, and that he and Tlorin had been acquainted for years.
    “What happened to Isteriss?” she asked, naming the old headman.
    “He died. I am the new headman.” His hand was moving slowly and skillfully toward the knife. The move was skillful in that it was concealed as he gesticulated with his hands while talking. With each move, however, his right hand came closer to the knife.
    If he’s that good with concealed movement, thought Tlisli, I don’t want to give him time to get the knife!
    “Keep your hand away from the knife,” she said conversationally.
    It seemed that was the moment when the headman, if such he was, knew that the game was up. He grabbed for the knife. Tlisli moved in with her sword again, trying again to stab the man in the chest. This time she was not so lucky as in her previous two stabbing attacks. The headman dodged to her right, and she just managed to nick him in the side. Meanwhile he brought the knife up and in, intending to stab her in the abdomen.
    It would have worked, too, except that Tlisli had learned something else from Azzesh: If your natural momentum will take you out of the way, even if you got that momentum by tripping, go with it. Because Tlisli had learned that she really didn’t have the strength for might blows with her sword (or anything else), she had thrown her weight into it. When the man moved, she was quite agile enough to have kept her feet, but instead she let herself fall forward and rolled further away from the man. His knife still caught the edge of her tunic, and in fact nicked her in turn, but not enough to even distract her. Azzesh had caused much more damage than that in training!
    The man then made a critical mistake. In one way it was hard to blame him. Where he came from girls weren’t warriors. Because she was small, Tlisli looked like a child to him. He knew about women as warriors because he lived near enough to Tevelin, but deep down he just didn’t believe it possible. That’s why he had assumed she would be the agent and the man would be the guard in the boat. Now, despite what he’d seen of her capability with her sword, he still assumed it had to be luck. In his mind, he was cursing his guards for their failure to kill a mere girl. To him, her fall could be nothing less that the inevitable failure of her uncanny luck.
    He threw himself on her, intentionally dropping his knife. His whole purpose had been to capture the agent, and now he had his chance. Tlisli just pointed her sword upward and braced it, allowing the man to impale himself on it. Her move was to late to give him time to change his move. Tlisli pushed at the man and managed to move out from under his body, pulling her sword with her. He was still alive, but he wouldn’t be for long.
    “Bandage him,” Tlisli ordered nobody in particular.
    Three villagers, including one who appeared to be the village shaman, moved to obey. It appeared that everyone was willing to accept that Tlisli was in charge. Finally!
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