Lydia and her Romans got to Bactra before the Travelers and Zhang She’s slow moving train. They had a meeting before entering the town and opted to remain disguised as Greco-Syrian merchants with hired mercenaries to guard the goods. The Roman armor and weapons filled two of the wagons, covered over by tarps.
The Romans made their way to a field beside the marketplace where caravans regularly came and rested. Of course, in town, they dared not make an identifiable Roman camp, but David-Marcus set guards through the night, just in case. They did not expect trouble, but all the same, in the dead of the night, Lydia woke.
She kissed David’s cheek. He mumbled and turned on his side, as she rose from her bed and slipped into her dress. She stepped out by the well-kept fire and found Varina sitting, staring at the flames. Lydia turned her head at the distant sound of a howl. It sounded human, and not human at the same time. She felt the chill in the air and put her hands toward the fire as she sat. One of the night guards walked past before Varina spoke.
“The gods have gone away. The demons are out of the pit, and the children are afraid in their beds,” she said. “The rulers are pretending that nothing is happening, but the people know better. Some have fallen to the seductive darkness and become possessed with evil. Some have been killed.” Lydia looked up when she heard another howl. Varina looked at Lydia. “You may rest safe, mistress. The demons will not come here.”
Lydia nodded and got up to step into the tent; but she only went to fetch something she could wear as a shawl against the chill in the night.
Bactra got one or two caravans per week, and most were headed for more distant locations, so the Romans hoped to hide and rest for a few days without revealing themselves. That plan did not work, of course.
On that first full morning, Kushan soldiers came into the marketplace and expected them to offer gifts to the king. That happened in several places, and Tribune Valerion began to fear they would arrive at the Han capitol with nothing to show for it.
“A token of respect,” Lydia suggested. “A rug. Some more glass beads. And a small bag of gold and silver coins should do it. Just make sure there are no coins that might be identified as Roman coins.”
In front of the king, Shehan spoke in Aramaic with David and Aritides. They avoided speaking in Greek which would certainly be understood. They absolutely avoided any words in Latin, and that was why Valerion did not go with them. Valerion did Latin and Greek, but he stumbled on Aramaic. They spoke casually, like men who did not expect anyone to understand them. But their words were carefully planned, assuming that even in Aramaic, someone would understand and later translate for the king.
“We are poor merchants from Syria and Armenia who had to spend too much of our money on cheap mercenaries to guard us in the wilderness. We are not rich Parthians who come bearing gifts for kings. We hope only to reach Kashgar and find a merchant of the Han who may have precious silk for us to carry into the west. That would make this trip worthwhile and help feed and care for our families when we return. We have traveled for one hundred and fifty days and are dusty and weary. We will travel a whole year before we reach home again. Presently, we are grateful to the Bactrian people, to the Lords of the Kush, and to the king of this wonderful city for providing a place to rest in our journey, and we are glad to offer a token of our gratitude. The rug, soft for your feet, has golden threads woven into the fabric by the lovely women of Armenia. The glass beads and jar are from Syria, made with great care under the searing heat of the desert sun. And let us humbly share a fair bit of the gold and silver, what little we have, with which we hope to buy the silk to bring to our home. Perhaps, if we are successful, on our return, the king might accept a roll of silk for the kindness you have shown us.”
The king was in a good mood that day, and said he appreciated the gifts and wished them well. It was always touch and go in such situations. One king in a bad mood, and they might lose everything. Then again, kings sometimes offered gifts in return, so it became more of an even exchange. The king of Bactra offered nothing, so he could not have been in that good a mood.
The next day, the travelers with Zhang She came into town. The Romans needed to make room in the field, but it was not too bad. Two caravans at once was not normal, but not that unusual. A third might be a tight squeeze.
Boston wanted to run off and find Lydia right away, but Lockhart made her, and everyone else, bring the horses and Ghost with the wagon to a secure place. Then he insisted they make camp before they ran off shopping.
“Hey!” Alexis protested the obvious sexist comment.
“Not a bad idea, actually,” Katie said. “I haven’t been shopping in a long time.”
“Might be fun,” Nanette agreed.
“Can I go now?” Boston whined, like a teenager, and Sukki giggled.
“Yes, you can go,” Katie said, but when Boston turned to run off, she saw two women already standing there. The trouble was, Boston did not know which one was Lydia.
“Hello, Boston, dear,” Varina said, and Boston ran to her but stopped short. Varina was a goddess, but not her goddess.
Boston lowered her eyes and heard clearly in her head, “Don’t say it out loud.” She looked up and saw Lydia had her arms open. She rushed into the hug.
“You almost fooled me,” she said.
“I said it would not work,” Varina admitted.
Lydia said nothing. She gave Sukki a much-appreciated hug, and then introduced her followers. “Varina takes care of me in this wild land. My husband, David-Marcus, is with Tribune Valerion, the Decurio, Aritides, and Shehan the merchant chief meeting the Han, with Crumbles the imp-head to interpret.”
Lincoln, Decker, Tony, and Elder Stow walked up to hear what the women were saying, and to watch the two men with them.
“David insisted I be escorted by these soldiers around the strange looking men. Tobias is the Staff Sergeant or Master Sergeant of the company. Jonathan is the signifier, which is the standard bearer, and he doubles as paymaster.”
“Good to meet you,” Lincoln said, and introduced the travelers. Only Jonathan had something to say, and it got directed to Boston.
“I love your red hair. Are you Gaelic?”
Boston looked at the man, and his smile, and said, “I’m an elf and married. Sorry.”