Rachel, Bafubani, and Malken crouched at the lip of a ledge partway up the steep canyon walls that bounded the far end of the Keikoku Valley and peered down at the Sundlin force arrayed across the breadth of the valley floor.
«Well, this is a problem,» said Rachel.
«Is it?» replied Bafubani. She was joking. Probably. They'd had several close calls with Sundlin soldiers on their month-long trip down the valley, and Bafubani hadn't tried to murder a single one yet. Rachel guessed if there was anything that was going to cause a relapse, though, the small army that lay between them and their goal was it.
The encampment didn't stretch all the way to the canyon walls, but had obviously been there long enough to build basic fortifications, so the simple watch towers overlooking the edges would make slipping past without detection difficult, if not impossible given the lack of any real cover. Using the river wasn't an option, either; at this point it wended straight through the center of the camp.
«We're so close!» griped Rachel.
«We dodged those Sundlin patrols and escaped the bakuhito search party,» said Malken affably. «You'll find a way around this obstacle.»
Rachel glared at him. Malken had been unforgivably blasé about facing any sort of danger ever since she and Sedgewick had dealt with the nest of kami vipers they'd stumbled into while desperately trying to avoid being tracked down by that pack of bakuhito.
Bafubani, on the other hand… «Let's cause some havoc and slip through in the chaos.»
Rachel had evidently convinced her throwing her life away was a waste, but she was still didn't have a risk-averse bone in her body.
«Look, I think that's the bulk of their supplies over near the far eastern edge of the camp. That's right near the river. We float in under cover of darkness, find something that will go boom, and we've got a perfect distraction to hop into some soldier's uniforms and "patrol" our way straight through to the other side.»
I do not know how deep the river flows here. If it is sufficient to hide our presence, though, getting in and causing a distraction would be possible. The rabbit is correct that there are a good number of nima-rich artifacts concentrated in that area.
«Well,» said Rachel. «Lovely. We'll just send Malken in to do the deed, I suppose?»
Bafubani snorted, but otherwise didn't rise to the bait. She and Malken had reached an uneasy truce over the course of the first couple weeks of their journey through the desert, but the rabbit woman still didn't like him much, or think highly of his skills.
«Malken, do you think Bafubani's plan would work? Minus sending you in alone, of course.»
The former priest squinted down the valley. His eyesight wasn't anywhere near as good as Bafubani's, much less Rachel's which was currently enhanced by Sedgewick. «I think Bafubani is likely correct about the supplies being on the eastern edge, and if so there should definitely be something in there that would cause a big distraction if you got your hands on it. Whether we could walk through the camp afterward, though…hmm. I expect those nearby will rush to secure the supplies, but those further away should immediately try to reinforce the perimeter. We could likely get quite far through the camp posing as messengers, but the trick would be getting out the other side without being spotted or taken as deserters. I still think we would be better off back-tracking and trying for the top of the canyon.»
«That plan was how we ended up in this particular mess,» snapped Bafubani. There was some truth to that. Bafubani had spied the ledge from further along the valley, and they'd hoped that it would prove a midway staging point to climbing up to the top of the canyon wall. Unfortunately, the nearby cliff was incredibly steep and without a lot of good handholds. Sedgewick thought he could get Rachel up it, gave even odds to Bafubani, and was certain Malken would end up taking the quickest way back down to the valley floor. Rachel had learned to trust Sedgewick's appraisals, so the three had been resting prior to their descent, taking advantage of the much-improved view the ledge provided them of the Sundlin camp in the meantime.
As the other two lapsed into silence, Rachel chewed on her lip and pondered. When she came right down to it, she was sick and tired of sneaking through the desert. The last month or so had been one long, horrible slog despite their proximity to the river. They'd been forced to loop around into the desert proper more than once, climbing the increasingly-steep valley walls to avoid bakuhito towns. Thanks to Sedgewick, water and food were never much of an issue—his ability to locate small prey animals and pull potable water out of just about anything was a godsend—but at this point, she would kill for a bath.
Of course, if they waltzed into the middle of the Sundlin camp, she might end up literally killing on her way to a bath, and once again these people hadn't done anything to her. Although she was certain they would happily chase her around the desert like their brethren to the east if given half a chance.
Climbing the cliffs was not a good option. Aside from the safety issues, she was certain there would be lesser kami up there drawn by the Sundlin's camp. Just about every time they'd pushed further into the desert near a settlement they'd run afoul of something, even if despite being ill-equipped most of the lesser kami were ridiculously easy for them to kill or scare off. She didn't doubt they could push through whatever might be lurking up there, but it was sure to be noisy and then they'd draw Sundlin attention anyway.
Sneaking by on the periphery just didn't seem likely. The terrain offered little to no cover, and the Sundlin's vantage on their watch towers was incredibly problematic. They could backtrack and go up the cliff a day's travel up the canyon, but dammit she wanted that bath.
What would make sense from a narrative perspective? Well, that was easy enough to answer. A known hostile force in their way, horrible odds, and a plan the "just might work with a little luck"? It was obviously where they were supposed to go for the greatest dramatic impact. Come to that, she doubted the plot would allow them to sneak past unawares even if they went for it. Not enough conflict or explosions.
Hm, explosions. She eyed the watch towers that stood at intervals along the far edges of the camp. That might do the trick.
«I think I've got an idea, but we're going to need to get off this cliff and wait until dark.»
Malken eyed her glumly. «I'm going to get stuck with the baggage again, aren't I.»
Rachel patted his shoulder. «Cheer up! I'll be off doing my best to explode stuff.»
«I like where this is going already,» said Bafubani with a grin.