The village was small enough that when one of the fillies shouted about the approaching stranger, almost everyone heard her.
A handful of them, including the village protector, came together, anxious, to watch the stranger approach. Most villages had a few protectors; Zoco was small enough that it had one, named Zigil. Zigil was large and strong, a fine stallion in a town with few stallions left.
The stranger was coming from the direction of the land of the ponies, and that might be trouble. While the village was not by any means worth shooting up, now and then there was trouble. In the rare circumstance Zigil had trouble he couldn't handle, his friends had helped him in the past; now, he had no friends, because they had all been conscripted by the ranks of the Caesar. The war had made every village a little weaker, and Zoco was a village that would blow away if it got just a little weaker than it was now.
When they could make out that the stranger had stripes, several of them sighed in relief and made their way back to their daily work. Zigil, and one or two others, watched intently.
As the stranger got closer, Zigil could make out a rifle slung on his side, and a single bag hanging around his neck. It was not obvious until the stranger was nearly within town that the bag had been saddlebags at one point, but had been cut up through some misadventure; the rifle sling was part of the other half of the saddlebags.
The rest of them bid the stranger greeting, but the protector was suspicious and only watched the stranger; he recognized the mark on the saddlebags.
The stranger was one of the agentes in rebus -- or had taken the saddlebags of one.
"I hope for your sake that you are not here to cause trouble, newcomer," the protector murmured as he passed.
He did not look back at Zigil. "I am spending the night, and heading to Xolazo in the morning. I have not come to cause trouble." With that said, he kept moving, not waiting for a response from Zigil
Zigil watched him trot to the inn.
* * *
Asazi had no reason to provoke the protector; he was here to sell a few things, stay the night, and be on his way. Xolazo was only a day away; he had one night to come home before further agente business had to be attended to.
He made his way towards the largest hut with the wide doors -- most villages had those, and most of the time they were inns. This one was no exception. He sat himself down at a table, and when the mare came over to get his order, she seemed to apprise him a bit; he simply requested hay.
When she brought it over, she asked, with a smile, "Are you new in Zoco?"
"I am merely passing through."
She seemed disappointed, but covered it with a smile. "Well, we have rooms as well."
"I will negotiate one," he murmured, and then, after she stood there another moment, he added: "Later."
She let him eat hay in peace.
* * *
Zigil had larger issues on his mind than the stranger.
Caerphon and Naeras, the two former frumentarii, were trotting along with matching smiles. The smiles they wore were the sort of smiles that one had when looking at one's lunch; since the pair of ex-spies could not possibly take him on, Zigil had to assume that they had a plan in mind.
He was correct.
"We've come for your earnings, Zoco," Caerphon, the loud one announced in the middle of the village. Naeras did not speak at all.
Several of the folk turned and looked at them with sour expressions, but none spoke in response, and Caerphon continued. "The time has come. This is not a negotiation! We will have it. That is all there is to that. We have been given special dispensation by the Caesar to -- "
"You have been given nothing by the Caesar, and you will be given nothing by us," said Zigil, still watching them. "You are no longer frumentarii."
The pair looked at each other, but again, only Caerphon spoke. "And what makes you say that?"
"Because the new frumentarii came yesterday, and we have already paid him our trade taxes and the Caesar's share of our hay." The frumentarius had been wheat collectors, and tax collectors in some of the less-populated areas such as Zoco -- until the Caesar needed a spy network, and he tapped them.
That was ten years ago, and the frumentarii had proven themselves utterly corrupt, rotten to the last colt. And now, with the frumentarius trying to clean house, these two jackasses had been kicked out.
Their faces registered irritation . . . and then something more troubling.
"Fine! You paid him; you can pay us too. We no longer have the Caesar's wages, so you'll pay us." Caerphon waved a hoof dismissively at Zigil.
The protector trotted closer, eyes narrowing. "I do not think that is going to happen."
"You might be surprised," Caerphon said, and pointed a hoof at him. A shot rang out -- but neither of them was armed, and no gun was visible.
Zigil felt a strange pain, and took a breath; when he did, a new sound, strange and awful, filled his ears. The world crashed around him as he fell to the ground, blood gushing from his midsection. Within less than a minute, he had stopped moving altogether, and the already quiet village was now absolutely silent, save for rapid breathing.
Caerphon's voice broke the silence. "That offer has expired. We will be back -- and we will have all your hay and bits. Any of you who don't like it will join Zigil. Our griffon sniper will see to it." They turned and trotted out of town, and those in the village could only watch them leave.
* * *
Asazi heard the shot ring out, but all he did was pause in chewing his hay. I do not need to get involved. I have somewhere I must be.
The innkeeper took a fast trot to see what had happened, and left him in there, eating. It took only a few minutes before his curiosity got the better of him, and he trotted out to take a look too.
The protector -- those around were calling him Zigil -- lay on the path through the center of town, bleeding and gasping.
"You!" The innkeeper stood and pointed a hoof. "You are of the Caesar's spies, aren't you?"
He was undeterred. "I am an agente in rebus. I bring messages -- "
"We all know that's a lie! We know what the agentes do! Messages and spying! You watch and you report! We know your kind replaced the frumentarii!" Her eyes were bright and angry, and he was the nearest thing to take her anger out upon. "They teach you to treat wounds! Help him!"
He hesitated, and then he was not precisely sure why he did it -- but he leaned down, and took stock of Zigil's injury. Black blood -- a straight shot through his liver and lung. He could last a few hours in agony.
"I can help him only one way." Asazi leaned down and shook his head. "Zigil, close your eyes."
Zigil looked up at him, fear and panic mingling free in his eyes; after a glance at the innkeeper, he them.
Asazi drew a sharp breath and snapped Zigil's head in a quick, practiced motion -- and then Zigil stopped breathing. Gasps came from those around him. "This was the only help I could give."
"You -- " The innkeeper was furious. "They are coming back! Who do you think will help us now, agente?"
He shook his head, and glanced down the path that led through town, opposite the way he'd come in. "I cannot tell you that. This is all I could do."
"You damned spies," she spat. "Sleep on the path, for all I care!" She stomped off into the inn, and Asazi sighed, then looked around at the gathered townsfolk for a moment before he trotted away from Zigil's body, into the inn.
"Get out," she snarled.
"I need to sell this," he said, and lifted the rifle from his back with magic.
"You have magic and you still could not help Zigil? Of course. He could not pay you enough to get your help." She glared at him. "They have replaced the frumentarii with something worse -- zebras who are just as corrupt, but think themselves above corruption."
"I am not corrupt," he said, finally finding some anger about these accusations. "I am simply otherwise engaged."
"I have heard of these 'engagements', agente. I know what happens. I know your kind is bribed with enough coin or whores!"
"Agentes who take bribes and are caught are punished."
"Of course! If they're caught. And what is their punishment? Confiscation of the bribe? Ha!" The anger on the mare's face was unmistakeable, and he knew why she was so angry; it was not hard to imagine.
"Whatever they take as a bribe is taken from each resident of their birthplace," Asazi murmured. "Agentes do exist who take bribes, but they are fools or madmares, all of them." He was quiet a moment. "Or they hate their birthplace. That does happen occasionally."
She hesitated, and looked at him. "Is that true?"
After a few moments of watching, she seemed to calm a bit. "That sounds harsh," she finally said.
"The Caesar formed the agentes to replace the frumentarii, and did not want corruption to soak into them.” Asazi shrugged. “It is like everything else the Caesar does. It is meant to kill offending behavior, not merely discourage it. His original punishment for agentes proven of taking bribes was to watch their families starve. One of his advisors convinced him to reduce the impact of the law on the family."
She swallowed, and shook her head. "Finish what you had. And if you still want to sell the rifle, and take a room, I will rent you one."
There was a moment of silence.
"If you would help us with Caerphon and Naeras -- "
"I cannot. Please do not ask me again."
The mare tilted her head. "I will do my best not to. I cannot speak for the other villagers."
He sighed and set the rifle on the bar. "Let us . . . negotiate."
* * *
The next morning, he packed, washed, and came out of the inn to find virtually the same crowd as before, but with more foals nearby. Zigil's body had been taken away in the night. There was also a small pile of wheat, coinage, and pottery.
"We wish to speak to you, agente," the innkeeper said, standing in front of the group.
"I must be on my way," he said, already fearing he knew where this discussion was going to lead.
"You must -- " Her voice broke. "Please, listen!"
He gave a slight tick of his head. I can listen.
"How many mares do you see, agente?"
"And able-bodied stallions?"
"Few. Are these counting lessons for the foals?"
"They are for you. Our able-bodied were conscripted into the Legion. You are dooming us if you leave, agente. We are as good as dead. You saw those ex-frumentarii! They mean to kill those of us that fight and rob those of us that cannot. We will starve and die. Agentes are not only spies, they are assassins. You can fight. You can save us from them."
"I -- " True enough. He had been trained; he was still getting more training, during missions, than he actually cared to admit. Frumentarii were frequently trained as well, however; tangling with two of them, plus a sniper as backup, did not sound like a winning proposition. "I didn't make them decide to do that." He said it with a sideways glance at the road he needed to follow, the road he was already losing time on. He had precious little time for this journey as it was, another day would mean he'd have to ride through the night and skip Xolazo entirely.
"Please," a wrinkled mare broke in. "We have collected through the night. This is our crop, our livelihood, our trinkets and our saved coin. This can be yours! Have it all." The meager pile was all they had. Her voice broke, and she looked at what had to be her grandcolt, leaning against her leg. "Have everything -- just save us."
He hesitated, then closed his eyes. For a moment he did not want to respond, because he knew what would come out of his mouth, but then the words came out anyway.
"I have been offered bribes many times, grandmare -- but never have I been offered everything." He sighed. "Keep your possessions." He did not add that dooming the town to a slow death by starvation hardly seemed like a good alternative to getting half of them killed in a fight.
"Then you will help us?"
"As much as I can." He opened his eyes. What have I agreed to? Am I mad? He couldn't help but look at the road he was not taking -- the road that would put him in Xolazo if he only started trotting now. "You will need to arm yourselves, as much as possible. I will show you how to safely barricade yourselves into the largest building you have; it will keep you safe enough from the sniper.” He looked at the inn, trying to make himself think of how to handle three enemies likely his equal. “I have a lot of work I must do, and little time to do it in."
"What weapon do you use? We can see what ammunition we have available -- "
"There is no need. I am of the Cautious Life. I take care with death, and I use no weapons."
The crowd gasped, blinking, and the villagers started looking at each other. "None?"
"Nothing intended as a weapon is a weapon to me. Anything not a weapon is a weapon to me." He hesitated, then started sorting through the pile. "I will need this," he said, holding up one of the items. "Whoever it belongs to may have it back after. I cannot accept the bribe." He shot a small glare at the innkeeper. "I like my birthplace."
“We will help how we can, agente,” the innkeeper said. “But we are not fighters. Caerphon and Nauras were armed, and we have the rifle you sold us and perhaps a pistol or two.”
“This will not be won by weapons. This will be won by planning.”
* * *
An hour later, he had given the townsfolk instructions. They were barricaded into their place of worship, and the little building had no windows. Even a griffon sniper with plenty of ammunition would not try to take potshots through ceilings -- if they could not be seen, they would be safe.
Asazi did not have the option of direct confrontation; he was going to have to play a game with these ex-frumentarii, and hope they were as stupid as they had sounded from inside the inn.
Once everything was arranged, Asazi watched through a hole, and indeed, when the sun was at the same place in the sky as the last time they arrived, Caerphon and Naeras trotted into town. Asazi caught a glimpse of something circling overhead, which he took to be the sniper.
The innkeeper waved them into the inn, and Asazi moved to the other hole that had been cut, so he could watch them enter the building. Once they're in here, the sniper is the only problem, and there isn't a clear line of sight to the inside of the inn from the sky.
He could only hope the villagers would be able to help cover him if the sniper tried to get involved -- or that he could get close enough to snap her neck.
One problem at a time, Asazi.
"Where are the taxes we have come to collect?" The loud one, Caerphon, slammed a hoof on the bar.
"What you deserve is coming," the innkeeping mare snarled with a smile, and ducked behind the bar.
Asazi started out of the hiding place and towards the two of them, as Caerphon tried to respond. "What are you smiling about, you -- " Both sets of ears on the ex-frumentarii twitched, and Asazi knew he was going to have a fight, not a pair of quick kills.
I could do worse for my death, he mused, as the two of them turned, pulling guns from their saddlebags.
This was one of the things Asazi always considered an advantage about the vow he took to use no weapons -- no time pulling his weapons out of storage. They are all at the ends of my legs. He brought both forehooves up to meet the muzzle of each of the other ex-spies, and got a glancing strike in as they both automatically recoiled, taking most of the force out.
He followed, keeping close as they staggered back, knowing he had to disarm one or both. Distance meant death.
He brought both forehooves down, one faster than the other, as the loud one got a pistol out. Asazi lifted the lower one up now, and brought both hooves together on Caerphon's foreleg as hard as he could, then twisted. A howling scream of pain filled the air as Asazi held his hooves fast on the cracked bones and shifted his body; Naeras had gotten his gun out, but Caerphon was now between Asazi and the other spy.
"I will kill you," Naeras hissed.
"You may try," Asazi murmured. He shifted his hooves again, putting one under part of the foreleg and another on top, then applied pressure; Caerphon's foreleg snapped at a right angle, bone jutting from the wound, and his face grew paler as he screeched and shrieked, blood gushing from the wound. Asazi lifted a rear hoof up to kick the wailing bleeding Caerphon backwards, directly into Naeras. The two of them crashed back onto the floor, and Asazi saw Nauras’s pistol rise; he leapt over the bar as shots rang out.
"Are you bleeding?" the innkeeper asked.
"What?" He realized he was covered in blood, but none of it was his own. Good. One down. He blinked at the things behind the bar -- pottery.
"Let me see -- " She looked him over as best she could; another shot rang out, and shards of shattered clay rained down behind the bar.
"One moment." He leaned forward to the shelves and gathered up some of the heavier-looking bowls and jars in his forelegs. "These were broken by patrons. Remember that if the Caesar ever comes calling -- I was never here."
"I do not think you are bleeding," she murmured.
"Let us hope it stays that way," he said. Naeras swore and started reloading; Asazi immediately leapt up and got on his hind hooves, then started pitching pottery at him. He dodged the first one, but he couldn't reload and dodge pottery. Increased worry flared on his face as he backed away from the body of Caerphon, who lay on the floor bleeding out. Smash! Another jar sailed past him, and he fumbled with his clip, but did not drop it.
Asazi took the opportunity to make strides towards Naeras, pitching the third and last piece of pottery. Naeras finally got his clip into the gun and lifted it --
Only to have Asazi's forehoof push the thing to the side, and have Asazi's rear leg come up, bent, between Naeras's rear legs.
With an agonized groan, he crashed to the floor. Asazi took a breath, then lifted one rear hoof and brought it down with nearly his full weight on Naeras's skull. There was a crunch that sounded like a melon thrown against a wall.
He turned back, and the innkeeper had a look of horror on her face. “You did not have to kill them!”
Asazi looked her in the eyes; blood dripped from his forehooves as he lifted a rear off out of what was left of Naeras’s head. “Would you have them come back, with a grudge and more guns?”
She still looked uncomfortable. “They could have family.”
“They do not now.” Asazi shrugged. “If we are lucky, the griffon will leave when it realizes it won’t get paid. If we are not -- " He was cut off by a mass of black and brown, feathers and legs, swooping through the entrance and directly into him. They smashed into the back wall, and Asazi’s lungs ached as he gasped for breath lost.
The pain sang across his flesh as talons found their target; it was all he could do with his magic to keep the griffon's beak shut, even though they had very weak muscles to open their beaks with. If it gets it free, it can tear my throat out. He swung feebly at the thing's talons, trying to disrupt the attack; shallow cuts would stack up soon if he let the thing get a few more slashes in.
Tear my throat out? he thought. She has a throat as well.
He leaned his head in towards the griffon's throat, turning sideways, and opened his mouth. Let us hope this works, or I will look very, very silly. He bit down as hard as he could with flat blunt herbivore teeth, and pulled back sharply, downy flesh in his mouth.
A shriek came from the griffon, who staggered back. The hole in its throat was superficial -- unfortunately -- but it was bleeding, and that was a start. He forced a deep, painful breath, and took two hard steps towards the stunned thing. Instead of a third close step, he turned and brought a kick to its left rear leg, aiming for the joint.
It connected, and the griffon screeched and fell to the ground, writhing.
Asazi kicked into the side of the ailing griffon’s head until a few sick crack sounds came, and he called that done too.
"Are you all right?" The innkeeper came over as soon as there was a bit of quiet.
He looked up at her, and he knew what had led him to all this folly. The innkeeper had Xera's eyes, that same moderate shade of blue.
She blinked and tilted her head. "Agente?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. " He shook his head. "I'm fine. I would like to purchase some xanthan sap -- "
"You don't need to purchase anything, Agente," she murmured.
"I would like to purchase some xanthan sap and broc flower. I need to make a poultice." He got himself up on two hooves, then swayed and landed on four. "Let the village know that Zigil fought off Caerphon and Naeras, but died in the effort. The village is safe.” He hesitated. “And send for the fastest runner in the village. I need to send a message.”
The innkeeper yelled out to the little place of worship and villagers started to come out. She beckoned to one of the mares, then motioned her towards Asazi.
“You must take a message to Xolazo. Find a -- “ He cut off, and closed his eyes, but did not seem to do so out of pain. “Find a mare named Xera. Tell her exactly this: Asazi must attend to the needs of the Caesar. She will know what it means.”
The messenger took a few bits, and Asazi watched her leave, then settled against the wall and watched the innkeeper bring over broc flower and xanthan.
* * *
An hour or so later, the poultice was applied, the bag was packed and hanging around Asazi’s neck, and he was trotting out of the inn. Night had fallen since he killed the two ex-spies and their griffon, and he had to move along.
The innkeeper came to the doorway. “Agente!”
He turned and looked, then lifted an eyebrow, expectant.
“I don’t know your name.”
“It is better that you do not,” he said, and started trotting in the direction he’d come.
“Wait! Agente!” She took a short gallop to catch up to him, and lowered her voice. “I want to know the name of the one who avenged Zigil. I can do little but thank you.”
Asazi looked at her for several moments, and then murmured in a small voice, “I am called Asazi.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Asazi.”
He gave her a little smile, and then it faded. “You should head back to the inn. Another traveler may come for a room.”
She hesitated, then stopped, but stayed where she stopped.
She watched him trot out of sight, and only afterwards did she return to the inn.