"Sullivan, what a surprise to find you so far south." Gerald Varghese smiled his good-natured smile and approached his fellow Lord. Gabriel tightened the neck cloth he wore, hoping to present himself as close to his normal level of dignity as possible in the deathly heat of Varghese's winter.
"I'm on a bit of a countrywide tour. I felt so cold in the north that I decided to go visit Nadolne. That's where I received my summons from the King to view his children."
"How is that northern tip of the country where you live?" Gerald Varghese was the opposite of Hector Kosta. He was whipcord thin, with strong muscles cutting across his body from working with his guard. He was among the Lords that Gabriel approved of, and thought would be swift to join their rebellion. Brian Nadolne had warned Gabriel against speaking of the lifestyle change they proposed with Varghese. He had recently married and the only thing on his mind was producing heirs and keeping his fief strong and healthy for those children.
"Bloody cold. The snow is up to my thighs some days. However, I was raised in the frigid weather, so it is always summer when I come down this way. How's married life?" Of the Lords of Themba, Gerald was the closest in age to Gabriel, only six summers older at twenty-six, and this had always given them a comradeship absent among the older Lords.
"Married life suits me just fine. I no longer have to search for sport at the taverns in Kosta," Gerald laughed. "Come, meet my wife." He escorted Gabriel into the sandstone hall. A pale-haired woman sat in a chair by the cold hearth, quietly sewing a cotton shift. "Veronica, come meet Lord Gabriel Sullivan." She arose from her place and came to curtsy before them.
"My lord, what a pleasure to meet you at last. Gerald speaks highly of you." Her voice was as graceful as her movements.
"My lady, you are a breath of fresh air in Varghese's dry lands." Gabriel kissed her offered hand as she laughed at his words.
"Oh come, Varghese isn't dry. It's beautiful." She smiled loyally at her husband. Gabriel rolled his eyes with great exaggeration.
"Even Gerald knows that his land is made up of half sand and half dead grass. Tell him to bring you north to Sullivan in the spring, then you will know beauty equal to yours." Thinking about Sullivan made him miss his land even more than before. It had been some time since he'd allowed himself to go back home, leaving the running of his fief to his cousin, a man he trusted with his very life.
"You are a terrible flirt, milord. I fear what you will do when you reach the court in Falhaven." Veronica retreated to her husband's side and tucked her hand into his elbow.
"You have not seen the worst of it, my dear." Gerald's eyes laughed at Gabriel. "My wife is immune to all others' charms but my own." He patted her hand. "Now, are you travelling north to Falhaven now?"
"Yes, just passing through Varghese on my way. I could never pass so close and not stop in to greet you." Gabriel yawned and rubbed his side. "I have been riding like the devil himself for the past day. I'll need to ride at that pace to reach Falhaven a few days before the presentation."
"Why do you need to be there early, milord?" Veronica asked, her eyes gleaming as she waited for the return. Gabriel sensed in her a humor he would enjoy.
"Why to seduce all the young maids who haven't been warned off me by their mothers." He grinned at the couple's laugh.
"You are always welcome to stay the night with us," Gerald offered.
"You are kind, but I have a friend waiting for me over the border in Maness. I wouldn't want to keep him waiting too long." Gabriel took a breath and then turned to look out the hall's entrance and into the courtyard where a loud commotion was being made.
"What the devil is that?" Gerald let go of his wife and the two men started for the doorway. Gabriel knew what he would find, but he was surprised at the sheer amount of people who stood before them. "What is the meaning of this?" Gerald asked, looking from face to face. His serfs stood before him, a mass of screaming and crying people.
"Milord! Milord! Please you must help us." A women fell to her knees before them.
"What has happened?"
"A fire was set in the north pasture. The camels were stampeding, milord. We had to rush to save them."
"While we saved the herd, our water money was taken, milord." The town baker stepped forward. In Varghese he was the head of the serfs. "When we returned from extinguishing the flames, the vendor from Nadolne was here to deliver our water. I went to fetch the money, and it was gone milord. It was gone."
"Who has done such a thing?" Gerald asked, stepping down among his people and his guard who stood in a line before the castle doors.
"Every serf was accounted for, milord. We were all fighting the fire, down to the last man, woman, and child. We cannot figure this out, but the vendor is threatening to leave milord. He will leave with our water!"
"Rest easy, Braden. I will supply the silver for the water again. Then we will find the culprit who has taken from me. Gabriel, will you help me discover what happened here? I will need to speak with the vendor, no doubt he will try asking more coin for the trouble he had in waiting." Gerald ordered his guard away to search the village.
"I will give any assistance I can," Gabriel assured, walking with the other Lord through his people.
"There has been no disturbances in Varghese for years, not since I took rule after my father's death." Gerald shook his head and stopped to look back at the villagers. "Have they become angry with my rule for some reason? I am a just Lord, they could have ended up with Kosta."
"This is true, long was his father at war with yours over your border. How did they ever settle their thirty-year dispute?" Gabriel's quick eyes slid over the surroundings, looking for any signs left by the man that had stolen the silver.
"Old Kosta married my father's sister and sired that weak son of theirs. The old man couldn't make war on his own family."
The stepped into the village square. While the town of Kosta was further south than Varghese, the land here was drier and dusty. Sand spread as far as the eye could see, straight across the vast fief of Varghese and out to fall into the Ocean of Hlmes that surrounded the entire country. The buildings were constructed of intricately sculpted rock and sandstone slabs. Palm trees rose to an impressive height and provided shade to the village square. In the center of the square was a wagon, containing large casks of water. A woman stood arguing with the vendor who was hitching his horse back to the wagon.
"Sir, please don't take the water with you. We can supply you with months worth of dates. Our main crop is dates, you know, and we would be glad to share them for the water." Her hands reached out convulsively as the man climbed onto the wagon bench.
"I don't trade goods for my water. I take only silver, woman. Now fetch the money, or be gone." The vendor was bronzed from long hours travelling under the sun with no covering. He took repose on his wagon bench and watched the woman before him as she broke down into tears.
"Please sir, this is all we have to offer. Our coin has gone missing." She reached for the reins to the horse and held the animal in place. "We need that water, our lives depend upon it."
"And I told you, no silver means no water. You find the silver and we can talk." He pulled his hat down over his eyes and crossed his arms across his chest, effectively shutting the woman out.
"Please sir," she tried again. The man didn't stir.
"I believe you don't trade goods for the water of Lord Brian Nadolne," Gerald snapped at the vendor. The man tilted his head to see below his cap. He immediately straightened.
"Milords," he stood and awkwardly bowed to the men. "I didn't see you there, milords."
"I'm sure you didn't. There has been a mistake, and I have come to pay for the water for my people." Gerald tossed a pouch of silver at the vendor so casually that the man missed the object flying toward him and wasn't able to stop it hitting his chin. His cheeks flushed a deep scarlet as he collected the pouch and descended from the wagon.
"You're people may come collect sixty casks of water, one for each piece of silver you paid."
"Sixty-one," Gerald snapped. "Bertha will receive two for the price of one for the insolence and rudeness you showed her. It was of no fault of hers that the money was withheld from you, and you treated her abdominally." Gabriel couldn't see any future problems with swaying Gerald to their side after this speech. The man was naturally sympathetic towards the people under his rule. He hadn't reached the level of care or equality that Gabriel strove for in his own fief, however that could be acquired once he agreed to help their rebellion.
"Sixty-one it is, sir." The vendor could cause problems. His eyes followed Gerald as he set about his work, contempt and disapproval seeped from the man's soul. Gerald was not oblivious to the man's disdain, he simply didn't care that the man felt this way.
"Bertha, please go fetch the rest of the villagers to unload the water. We need to discover what happened in that field and back here at the village." The woman ran off to do his bidding and left him with Gabriel. "When you arrived in Varghese, did you notice anything strange or different?"
"It was quieter than I thought it would be, but now I know they were fighting a fire, it makes more sense. There was just the vendor in the middle of the square. I rode past without stopping, I didn't expect the man needed my help."
"You, vendor. Did you see anyone in the village before Bertha approached you?"
"There was the Lord there that rode through the village when all was quiet. Before that there wasn't a soul around. Honest, milord. I saw nothing."
"The silver didn't walk away of its own accord," Gerald snapped.
"We were all fighting the fire, milord," Braden arrived with the rest of the villagers to unload the water casks. "I tell you, milord, all men, women and children were accounted for."
"Perhaps the best place to begin looking would be at Braden's home, where the silver was taken?" Gabriel suggested.
"I will show you, milord." Gerald strode away with Braden at his side.
Gabriel watched as the people worked to unload their precious water. Out in the dusty desert, there was very little hope of survival without the few resources for water that Varghese had. At one time, an oasis had supplied water. However time and countless people had depleted the land of the water it held. All that remained of the oasis were the tall palms in the village square.
"How do you survive on so little water?" Gabriel offhandedly asked a nearby woman.
"It is our way of life, milord. We know how to ration the water. We use only what we must, the rest go to the animals and our crop." She snagged the hand of a boy that tried to dart out among the men working with the casks. "You will stay with the other children, Roger. We don't want you getting hurt."
"You know, there are lands where water flows from the sky and mountains like sunlight. You could live in a land like that." Gabriel leaned against a palm tree and watched the people.
"Oh milord, we could never leave Varghese, it is our home."
"Why do you suppose do you think of it as your home?" The woman swung around in surprise at his words.
"It is where my father lived and his before that and his before that. It has been home to every generation of my family for as long as we can remember."
"Have they always wanted to live in such a dry, unforgiving land?"
"Milord, you speak as if we have a choice. We live where we were born, where we began our servitude." She nervously squeezed the hand of the boy she held by her side.
"How is it fair that you are forced to serve, simply because you were born to a pair of serfs? What did you do to become a serf?"
"Milord, it isn't what I did. It's what my family did years ago when this land was just settled. They pledged their lives and the lives of their descendents to the Lord of Varghese. I don't have no choice in the matter."
"What if you did have the choice? What if you stood up to the man you call 'Lord' and you told him that you wanted to live somewhere that water flows like milk and honey?" Gabriel reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of silver. "Take this, if you ever need to leave, just pay your way to Sullivan with it." He folded it into her hand. "But remember that if you leave, you leave your family and friends in a forced servitude. I wouldn't be able to live with the guilt." He strode away from the villagers, confident that he had spoken just enough to the kind woman.