Arthur showed little surprise at how fast the exhilarating mood deteriorated after the returning imperial officer held his speech. It had Ken more than a little worried though.
For all his arrogance and flamboyance Arthur was little more than a boy. He might think he knew the moods of men and women. Ken even admitted he was an expert student, but a student nonetheless.
Verd oozed with mistrust, and that was not normal. The general had arrived at the most opportune moment and his speech, for a layman, had been quite good, if a bit terse. It was its contents that had Ken thinking. Keen needed that trade. Even if the returning caravan represented only a trickle of that need it was still a resounding success beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Add what Arthur said was a massive increase in landing shuttles and Verd was receiving far, far more than a trickle.
People here should have noticed. General de Laiden's triumphant report should have been but the last of a long line of good news, and yet Verd seethed with unrest. Arthur didn't notice, or rather he did, but he amounted it all to the glum nature of those living here.
Ken mulled over that for a while. Arthur would, of course. If his visit here last year was his only reference. Ken knew for a fact how strangling the raids must have become. When bounty became sparse it had to mean there was little left to loot. He could well imagine the sulking stares Arthur had grown to take for granted.
For now Ken waited. He had found an almost static statue on Ming Hjil de Verd, climbed its head with the help of an expecting audience. He rewarded them with a mild Weave of memories from a happier visit here some sixty or so years ago. It didn't detract much from his attention and surrounded him with an island of satisfied people in a sea of anger.
He couldn't believe the council hadn't noticed it earlier. He had, for days, and today it was just about to blow. Tension rose to where he could taste fear, apprehension and anger. Surely someone in charge would notice it by now, and the very worst thing they could do was...
... of course what they did. Always trust uniformed stupidity to surprise you when you were certain a bad situation couldn't be handled any worse.
Arthur slammed the door behind him, used all the strength he had gained during long months on the road and forced his way into the tavern.
It was packed. No merry singing here. Scared children and their mothers. Idiots! Why don't you stay home instead of trailing a mob? "I apologize for my rudeness. Where can I find my way to the roof?"
He received a mute nod in the direction of a counter and slowly waded in that direction.
"No guests here!" the owner shouted. Late forties, probably had a few of her children working here as well.
Arthur took care not to step on anyone sitting on the floor. For a moment he hung precariously on one foot searching for a place to put the other down. "This guest will. I'm a taleweaver." He had to look stupid, and he wondered if he wasn't overusing his status. Apparently not.
A path to the counter cleared as if by magic and he crossed the room.
"Feed them!" he said when he reached the awestruck owner. He dug for a few coins, winced slightly when he noticed the yellow glimmer but slammed them down anyway. "This should cover all their needs." Had bloody better! Could probably buy me the entire tavern. Seven gold shields. Harbend will have my skin if he ever learns.
Arthur saw awe replaced by calculating greed.
No you bloody won't! "Whatever they ask for, all your rooms for the night if need be. And don't cheat on me, such as us have a way of knowing. Guess how we learn our tales?" The last was an empty threat, but she didn't know that.
He looked back before making for the stairs up. Looks of gratitude so genuine they scared him more than if they had just demanded even more. The landlady wouldn't cheat him. She wouldn't dare, wouldn't want to. If she handled the situation to the best she's gain new customers as well as his money. Taleweavers didn't waltz into any tavern in the city. He should know. He was one of only two, and that was two more than usually visited Verd during any one given year if what Ken had told him was true.
He sprinted up the stairs, three steps at a time. Ken, where was the idiot? They were sacrosanct and all that, but no mob knew the meaning of that word. He could be crushed under panicked feet just as easily as anyone else. He'd forced his way in here to avoid being trampled himself. There was a difference between bravery and idiocy.
He reached an open window. The roof, at last. He climbed out and up. A year ago the exercise would have left him breathless. Now he barely noticed it.
For a moment he thought of climbing down to another street but he quickly abandoned any such idea. The streets were a bad place to be. For now at least.
As much as he despised uniforms he recognized a need for riot police when he saw one. He hadn't been casting news for over twenty years without his fair share of civil unrest. They should have come out in force from the beginning, not trickling out of the imperial castle in fives and tens.
A compact wall of hundreds of the Imperial Guard would have routed the mob before any fighting even begun. What they had sent out, though, looked more like a tasty morsel than anything else. Someone in the crowd yelled a challenge and seething anger turned into chaos. A panicked frenzy jolted through the mob and slowly it started moving with all the finesse of an avalanche in the direction of the arriving uniforms. That had been when Arthur decided to leave the show.
From up here he could see what had become of the soldiers who first had to meet the oncoming charge.
But they were the Imperial Guard. Even a sloppy deployment couldn't make a lie of that. From his vantage point Ken saw how a few dozen of guards quickly formed into rank and counter charged. The attack was so unexpected they even had time to wheel around and retreat in good order. When the mob had gathered enough courage to advance again the guards had been joined by several more dozens of their own. The next charge broke the riot in two halves, and then the imperial castle spewed out hundreds of soldiers from any opening close to the ground. It wasn't even worth calling mopping up.
Far to the north he heard the blaring horns of another unit. North Gate Regiment? Had to be.
He climbed down from the statue. There was nothing more to see here, and he intended to follow the guards along the wide boulevards when they forced the population back indoors.
Arthur stared ahead, never down. A night earlier he had watched how the riots broke when the professional soldiers finally got their wits around them. Heavy rain late in night took care of the remaining pockets of unrest. A few heads bumped, maybe a couple of broken arms. Too easy. It had all been too easy to believe.
Imperial Guard, and one more regiment. North Gate. That left the capital lacking three full regiments.
The unexpected arrival of his old escort captain, General de Laiden as Arthur learned later, had put the old officer in a position no one would envy him.
Arthur had seen the training of raw recruits from Verd's southern walls, from the east gate tower. The west was occupied by the great telegraph. They had indeed been raw.
He stubbornly looked ahead. Never down. He had no intention of seeing just how raw.
This was the twelfth, or thirteenth stretcher with a corpse he had volunteered to carry one end of. He put one foot ahead of another. He didn't even bother with walking around rain pools. It had rained for hours and he could as well have been immersed in cold water.
Ken had given him a stricken look before refusing to help. We watch, but we never interfere, he had said. What kind of cold hearted attitude was that? Was that what a human grew into if they lived for too long? Ken was hundreds of years old if he was telling the truth, and his English and peculiar knowledge of Terran history only seemed to verify what he said.
Arthur let go of the handles and turned without a word. He would volunteer for another run. This was what being human meant. To give whatever little help there was when no help was enough.
Sure enough he'd received stunned stares when people recognized him, and damn right they were to stare! All worth it! Hundreds more had turned up to help, mostly the rich. The locals because they couldn't be seen to be doing less than the taleweaver and visiting Federation citizens would do just about anything to be close to Arthur Wallman.
The bravest carried bodies, with him. Most cared for the wounded. He wondered about that. These were just bodies. Already dead. Inside the hastily cleaned stables people were still dying. He didn't know how he would react to watching that. Some were little more than children.
Mairild had expected Trindai to be angry or even furious. She had never expected him to be tired.
Three eightdays ago he had arrived on the dawn of madness. Two eightdays since he lost two more of his men to riots spilling out into the alleys where the poor lived. An eightday after that two more simply vanished while on patrol.
After that he turned over command of his unit to Major Berdaler, kicked his rank two steps to full colonel and reported to Olvar de Saiden.
She saw him leaving the Ministry of War half a day later. He hardly remembered to greet her on his way out. She heard rumours he had rented a room and had a cask of strong brandy brought up. He wasn't heard of for a full eightday.
She studied him across her desk. The cask had to be true. She could drink herself to a stupor just talking with him. He stank from more than just a hangover as well. Drinking apparently hadn't allowed any time for a bath, nor a change of clothes.
Her Trindai was gone. She had commanded a razor in uniform. What sat before her was a cudgel, a tool more to Olvar's liking.
Well, he was Olvar's now. She'd signed over command in exchange for the generalship Trindai should never have lost in the first place when they sent the punitive expedition to Gaz.
Sorry, caravan escort. The outworlder taleweaver had survived after all. The outworlder Arthur demon spawned gherin get Wallman's skin was safe.
She sighed and made an attempt to grab Trindai's hands. He'd been her most trusted man, as close to a friend as she'd dared anyone to become. He withdrew even further. Tired eyes, tired and sad.
What have we done to you? Eighty men to Braka and back. You lost less than twenty while fighting outworlders. Mairild wanted to wring her hands in denial, but that order had been hers alone. The winter cut years from you, old man. You weren't old when we parted last.
They exchanged glanced like they'd done each time Trindai returned back after an especially ugly mission. None had suggested it, but it seemed natural. The best reports she ever had.
Marched through Vimarin Gate with fifty men proud as stallions as if the madness didn't touch you. Darkness, you were the dirtiest heroes I've ever seen! She leaned back into her chair. They really had been. Ragged and torn to boot. Where they marched people fell silently anyway. When Trindai marched out on the great square facing Ming Hjil de Verd with his men the crowd parted like paper to flame, when he climbed the shoulders of his tallest soldiers they were breathless and when he thundered out the message that Keen's first caravan in a hundred years was safely on its way back to Verd the entire square erupted in jubilation.
General de Laiden he may be now, but it had been Trindai, their hero, who gave Verd control over itself. And Mairild's propaganda scheme from last autumn paid off in a way she could never have dreamed of, she admitted guiltily.
Then you took to the streets. Patrolled a regiments share. I never believed it could be done, neither did Olvar. And it couldn't. Gods were fickle and jealous. No mere human could steal their moments of triumph.
They'd known both taleweavers had just watched the madness. And who cared? Ken Leiter de Ghera. Walking Talking. The Legend. He came and went, had done for hundreds of years. Alone he refused to break the habit of visiting Verd, or Dagd or any other of the cities where the arms of the Inquisition reached and scared the others away. He was Walking Talking; even children knew he came and went, leaving a trail of Weaves behind him like gifts for the starved. He never stayed for long.
And Arthur Wallman, latest of legends. Two in Verd at the same time. That was unheard of. And they just watched when madness came to visit.
Riots, in the capital of the northern empire. He sat in a comfortable chair facing his old employer and friend, but his mind lived the riots.
It came so unexpected. Or maybe because they were so tired, but it had seemed so calm after his display of strength on the great square. A mistake. His mistake.
One morning they received angry glares instead of greetings. By noon there were looks, measuring if they were really as few as they seemed. Then years of barely constrained unrest ruptured. By early evening the streets exploded with people, his people. They were like a horde of dragonlings mindlessly attacking from everywhere. Some armed with knives, kitchen utensils mostly, more with pieces of broken furniture and most with nothing at all.
They held them at bay with wooden clubs at first, but his command wasn't one of General Markand's professional regiments. He had his fifty and a few hundred half trained boys scared witless when their fellow citizens fell upon them. Most had never been inside the city walls before ordered to patrol street they didn't know. When cornered a few turned the butts of their spears away from the crowd. Cheap steel, not even the quality of the pikes they were to receive later in their training. It cut through clothes effortlessly anyway.
The crowd had smelled death. For a moment it looked like they would break, and Trindai ordered sabres drawn. His second mistake. He counted on fear but got wrath. There were thousands of them and they attacked like one single hurt animal.
Boys in uniform, those who couldn't flee to safety, went down first. He never saw what happened to them, never wanted to. He held on to a wide street, his men showing a small forest of loaded crossbows to those facing them. The charge came anyway.
Trindai ordered a volley loosed, then a reloading retreat and yet another volley. A hundred quarrels scythed through the people he had sworn to protect with his life.
"...anything you want before you report back to Minister de Saiden?"
Mairild's question cut through his memories. He stared at her. I lost Hamardel and Sokerek there. We hacked our way to the barracks. Mairild, we killed hundreds of our own! We butchered them! He realized he hadn't said that aloud.
She stared back and he read the raw pain in that look. He didn't have to, she already knew.
"Eri and Parnesen, I, I ordered Colonel de Berdaler not to bring any charges against them." Neither for being murderers nor for deserting my command. They made the decent choice.
"I'll make sure that order is carried out," she answered. She must have known that as well. He trusted her to make full use of her network of spies. It was then he noticed a flicker of hatred in her eyes. Hatred and fury.
He rose and glared at her. She would tell him. She owed him that much.
"Yes, there is one more thing," she confirmed.
They had reached the lopsided talking part of their meeting now. Meant it was about to be over soon. Then he would report to de Saiden and then to another cask of brandy. This time he planned to stay drunk until they carried him back to service.
"You might want to take a bath before you see Minister de Saiden."
He continued glaring at her. What news could she possibly have worth a bath?
"We've located a few visitors. For once I've joined camp with Magehunting."
Trindai straightened. A bath, maybe a bath.
"We've convinced them to talk, those still alive. Turns out they're all papal clergy."
And he'd stay sober until de Saiden could call him to a second meeting.
"The church paid the raiders, not only to leave most of their ships alone but to intensify their raids along our coast."
He would even consider getting that new uniform he rightfully belonged in since he released his old command.
"Most of the money came from Chach. More of that money were used to plant the priests we captured here in Verd. They used magic to create firebrands. The papacy paid, planned and executed the riots here."
You used mindwalkers in my home! You had me murder my own! He had a duty and a target now. He'd gained several years during the winter and as many again since he returned. Now he lost them one by one as he and Mairild shared the rage. Wordlessly they planned ahead, and wordlessly he left for the imperial tailor. Then he would get new boots as well. Shiny and hard. Very hard.