Verd was stirring with rumours. In the beginning it hadn't been too bad, especially as he was a first class rumour monger by merely living there. A taleweaver visiting the Taleweaver's Inn most every night was enough to have the rich and powerful coming from everywhere. First from the villages close to the capital, then from Krante and within a month all the way from Hasselden, Dagd, Partaken and in some cases from client states. The old quarters in Verd were a swirling mass of glittering colours, peculiar hairstyles and even stranger dialects as news of Arthur's prolonged stay in Verd spread in wider circles. And he loved it all.
A year ago he'd given up on newscasting, given up on living at all, if he admitted his cravenness. Now, once again, he gloried in spinning his tales in ways he could never have done when he counted his audience in billions. That had been holo casting; this was Weaving. This was living what he told, experiencing it as if he was reliving the episodes, and bringing his audience along. A true mesh of mind and tale where every sense came alive, wonderfully alive, disturbingly alive, horribly alive, and that was the core. Alive; living it here and now.
Arthur smirked and turned a corner on his way to Two Worlds. A late afternoon, warmer than the previous, and each new evening carried the possibility of new travellers arriving to Verd. Travellers, not necessarily traders, or so the rumours went. Something massive had made transit, several somethings, a Federation armada, thousands of merchantmen, a new alien space-faring race had been found and the diplomatic corps were frantically making first contact, an invasion of space bugs had the Federation scrambling all their ships in a desperate attempt to protect the gate before the entire solar system was overrun. That was the problem with rumours, they were each very clear about what had happened and equally unclear on from where the information really originated, and as always, if they were all true then black was white and pigs flew, hunting eagles on the ground.
Arthur wanted to know, needed to understand exactly what kind of madness had gripped the federation and how it would impact on the world he had adopted as his new home. He walked on, following narrow alleys and crossing the intersecting boulevards, steadily heading for his hotel. Now he was once again getting used to the stench clinging to the poor quarters, but never to the shining, perpetually clean streets. That was Verd, Capital where magic was forbidden and yet imbued with that magic so much that the city would have fallen over itself and died but for it. Running water but no river. Clean streets and not a single person carrying the trash outside the city walls.
Arthur left left an alley where it abruptly ended in a wider street. One one side the poor, on the other the well to do. An invisible line was drawn in the middle with the wealthier trying to avoid looking at their less fortunate neighbours and those neighbours throwing envious glances across the street whenever a coach or carriage made the staring a little less obvious.
Arthur hardly noticed. Even the poor in Verd were wealthy by the standards he'd seen in other towns and cities. The magic that was Verd only reached out through long tentacles of everlasting highways but never into the cities they connected. Where the power of Keen no longer reached the squalid pallor was appalling.
The horsemen made an attempt, though, he thought. And Belgera, of course. Belgera, fortress capital of Braka. First of cities to enjoy Terran technology to its fullest. Explosives, cluster grenades and needle grenades. They must have loved the wondrous gifts offered by the foreigners.
He shook the thought aside. He was one of those foreigners, but he'd decided long since to take the side of this world. He frowned. Did that make him a renegade and a traitor? To the federation perhaps, but never to humanity, and that was what counted, he decided.
Humanity. The thought brought a surprised laugh to his lips, and a group of inquisition soldiers in their red and black frowned at the tall stranger in their midst. Arthur didn't mind. He laughed even louder as he pushed his way through the uniformed men. Had they known his thoughts they probably wouldn't have satisfied themselves with muttered profanities about outworlder impoliteness. Humanity. It included Gring's concept of the word. But the monstrous mindwalker with her honour, needle sharp insights and, most important of all, loving humanity, was caught up in the madness that had forced him to flee. If she was alive at all. If he hadn't been stabbed. If Harbend hadn't valued the needs of a nation above friendship. If Harbend could finally believe that Arthur had already forgiven him. If, if, if.
He reached the central square, playground and marketplace in one beautiful setting, and sat down on a bench. He had enough time to marvel at Ming Hjil de Verd, imperial castle from when Keen had ruled by an emperor. It hadn't been Keen at that time, if he recalled history correct.
He kicked off his boots and massaged feet tired from walking. A few children approached him, and he searched for their anxious parents. Wiser now. If he saw no parents close by then a gang of children was more often than not young cutpurses.
Ah, that has to be the mother. Are they all hers? He went through flashes of memories, running them as through an edit before final cut and shook his head. Well, there should be, yes, a friend. Two women with their children. If this had been Erkateren all the kids would all have been hers. But damn, that's a depressing thought! Six kids so that hopefully three reach adult age. What kind of life is that? They don't know how lucky they are here. Arthur glanced up at the castle. I'm an idiot! They revel in the knowledge of their luck, and supremacy. You're in Verd now, centre of the civilized world. Kids look cute, but they're brought up as arrogant as any youngster in Cairo. And am I happy to be nowhere close to that sewer, federation capital or not.
He grimaced. No reason to become moody now. He continued his rest and drank the beauty of the living art displayed on the roof of the castle. From time to time he was pulled away from his daydreams by pigeons, passing coaches and the sound of hawkers crying out the excellency of their products. Then dusk gave way to evening and as darkness fell street lights flashed alive. First like glimmering fireflies and then flooding streets, square and façades in soft, yellow light. Arthur smiled and rose. Verd! Magic street lights He'd gotten used to take those for granted. It was easy getting used to a lot of things here. He pulled on his boots on sore feet and limped across the square.
White marble to his right and red granite to his left he followed a boulevard to Two Worlds.
Rumours It was time to exchange a few of those for facts, and, he admitted, to return the favour in turn. He was Arthur Wallman, the taleweaver, but he'd been Arthur Wallman the media icon. Rumours about his whereabouts were bound to come thirteen to a dozen. He'd left no information, and fifteen billion wondered what had befallen the most famous person in Terran space.
Mairild de Felder tapped her foot on the floor. Olvar was competent and decisive, but he never made haste unless he felt the need. Now he was late and she wanted to give him the latest news from Braka.
She sighed and involuntarily shuddered. Too close this time. The outworlder taleweaver had been a gift from the gods. She corrected herself. The Khanati, Khar Escha, had been a gift. If he hadn't jumped Arthur from Belgera the outworlder wouldn't have been here to tell his side of the events in Braka, and the questions had become a little bit too suspicious lately. Now, with people remembering that Arthur had in fact given testimony they were less prone to recall exactly what he had testified about. Especially as the meeting had deteriorated so wonderfully into a shouting contest no one was likely to remember the contents of anyway. For a while at least she could stave off questions about exactly how she came into the knowledge she had, and Keen needed that knowledge, and she, she winced at the thought, didn't need eight crossbow quarrels from close distance the way Magehunting dispensed with anyone found to collaborate with unholy users of forbidden knowledge.
It was not that she was afraid to die; more that she liked living. She was fond of waking up each morning, even if it promised a bastard of a day. She loved the challenge, the intricate dance of her profession and the occasional opportunity to wield the official powers that went with her title, if not with her real work. An execution would take all that away, and she simply hated losing in games. It didn't matter that this was one she was bound to eventually lose. Not today, and not tomorrow.
The rhythm of the steps, and the very power behind them announced Olvar's arrival.
Mairild rose and greeted him.
He waved back and spat a demeaning comment about gaudy tapestries and other trappings of her official role ostentatiously displayed all over her private quarters.
She growled and equally impolite retort about his probable birth, upbringing and education, and then they both laughed.
"I would walk with you to the Tree," Olvar said.
Mairild studied her huge colleague. Of course he knew about the Tree. Everyone who was anyone did, but as fas as she knew he'd never developed a taste for the exquisite food served there. So he wanted privacy, or the secrecy privacy allowed. "But of course," she answered.
They left through meandering corridors and reception halls. Neither spoke much. That would have made the entire exercise rather useless after all. Only when they arrived on the grand square did Olvar voice concerns that must have weighted on his mind.
"Tenanrild didn't take it too well. She's still in a rage, but I think she's mostly angry with herself." He walked on straight across the square. So tall Mairild had to run every so often to keep up, and he never veered aside. Those in his way did. A small building would have if it could grow legs.
For all his huge size he was deceptively mild when you got to know him better, but Mairild knew that was only a second shell. He was every bit the killer he looked at a first glance.
"Not that she could have known. She spent the last eightdays at the outworlder sky port overseeing the increase in traffic, and that is exactly what she should have been doing," he interrupted her thoughts. "She's blaming herself anyway."
Mairild didn't really listen. Olvar was more thinking aloud than giving her any information he suspected she didn't already have firmly in hand. He never thought aloud when he planned his work. The extermination of vermin as Makarin so pointedly had described it. At any other time he would have been an embarrassment to the council. At any other time he would have helped Glarien with his inane plans for annexing western Vimarin. The farmers there almost screamed for Keen to protect them, and at any other time Keen wouldn't have been under a direct military threat.
She passed a couple of outworlders in their drab clothes. They gawked and she stared back in return. Arrivals from the sky ships landing the last eightday. A new kind of arrivals. Not traders. Tourists, a new word she had better take to heart. They released several buzzing birds into the air. Birds of metal and glass. Devices that made living art, and no magecrafter had ever been involved in building those things. Outworlder technology. Holo cams. Another foreign expression.
Now it was the outworlders who had become the target of gawking, or rather their flying toys. Mairild saw half a squadron of inquisition soldiers running closer from across the square. She waved them back before they had a chance to create a diplomatic incident. Killing outworlder visitors in plain view would constitute a diplomatic incident, wouldn't it?
The outworlders had never noticed what had almost happened. They were too occupied with their game of recording the wonders of Verd. Too occupied with their own importance.
She sighed. It would take time to accept visitors who considered Verd quaint and primitive.
"Doesn't make Glarien's idiocy any more forgiveable I need those troops to the south, not babysitting some overweight merchants all the way to Braka."
Olvar's last outburst had Mairild's thoughts return on their former track. From a military point of view he was right, but his was an easy world. She had information, and the responsibility to distribute it piecewise to those in need. That left her stuck with a wider picture she sometimes wished the didn't understand. A few outlying provinces were already showing signs of unrest, and a few client states on the northern tip of the Ming peninsula had outright refused to pay their taxes. She could have sent Colonel de Laiden there to convince those rulers how unwise it was to refuse Keen, but he was not available, and expertly trained as his command was it was simply too small. The last time she had sent him there they had to make a running fight all the way to Verd, and he had not been happy when he reported back.
Keen needed a convincing show of strength. That was the very reason they had spent the money to protect the first caravan. The second one was even more important, even if she wouldn't mind if several of the participating merchants met with untimely accidents on the way. Unlikely with an army for escort. And there was the need to uphold the law. Taleweavers were inviolate. Anyone, any city, kingdom or empire failing to fully grasp that had to be put down. Else Dragonwrath. Golden emissaries and visiting taleweavers kept the memory of World War alive. Dragons never explained why taleweavers were sacrosanct. She didn't care. When dragons set down a law you obeyed. Dragons didn't argue -- they didn't need to.
"Olvar, you want and you need, but you'll have to do."
"I know. I don't have to be happy about it."
"I never implied..."
"Stop that! I'm not as educated as you, but I understand well enough anyway. Now, if I can't have my trained regiments then I have to look elsewhere."
Mairild stopped dead in her tracks and watched his back as he continued. "You can't possibly mean..."
"I can and I will," he answered and turned. "I'm already building sail barges in Mintosa. Protecting coastal fishing we call it."
Mairild stared. Washed out uniform, silken details or not, in his yellow and black he looked every bit the killer he was. She wanted to scream at him. She hadn't known he'd already gone ahead, but he was right, and for that she wanted to yell at herself.
"Give me a pretext, any pretext, and we're sailing. They're training battlemages in Chach! I don't give a demon spawned gherin about their cavalry, not even about their holy warriors, but battlemages! Mairild, they'll wipe us clean! So I'm sailing at first chance, and I will have those troops even if I have to dig to the bottom of every money trader's vaults to get them."
"Then go visit a money trader. They should have coffers deep enough, and I will have that money now!"
Harbend sat down and spread his hands in resignation. "There are things more valuable than coins," he tried without any hope to change Arden's mind.
"That's a novel opinion coming from you, but I almost forgot that you already made a fortune in Belgera."
There is no reasoning with this man. Then, how could he know I have come to change my mind about what gives life a real meaning. He wouldn't insult the pig. He wouldn't demean himself, he thought when his temper started to flare.
"Last time I checked the word in Khi for 'greed' was Harbend and now you're telling me that 'lie' is pronounced Garak!"
"That is quite enough!" Master de Dagd's voice cut through both Arden's insult as well as Harbend's growing anger. "Darkness! I have to get my money all the way from my treasury in Dagd. You," he stabbed a finger at Arden's chest, "have less than an eightday with courier to Krante and back."
"I'm losing an opportunity here, and the greedy whoreson's refusing me to get a loan from Trader Wallman. It's not like I'm not going to pay him back."
"I said that's quite enough. I dislike repeating myself, and what you suggest is theft, no matter if you plan to repay him or not. How you could even think of borrowing money without asking the lender first goes beyond me."
Harbend kept his silence. Olvar de Dagd was handling the situation far better than he could have expected to do himself. But it hurt to have his family name dragged into the dirt by a stinking shit digger elevated far above his proper station.
"Trader Wallman has more money than he can possibly spend. All I'm asking..."
"Silence! Don't you even dare! This topic is closed. You will wait for your funds to arrive here, just as the outworlders will continue to arrive here. Moron! They're still expanding that sky port. Raised twelve of those windmills that fuel their machines this very year, they did. Do you really believe they'd make that kind of investment if they planned to decrease the number of arriving sky ships?"
Arden wisely kept his mouth shut, but Harbend could see that he hadn't let go of his newest brainchild. Master de Krante truly was an idiot. Olvar was right about that. Stupidity and the manners of a peasant combined to produce the offal Gring loved to use as an example of why only suffragans were fit to inhabit the world. If enough of Arden's kind showed up Harbend was tempted to help her in her quest for genocide.
That is unfair. A stain on her honour She deserted her own to save Arthur. Wherever you are I apologize. I am in your debt for my filthy mind. He forced the thought away. It made him long for Nakora. She was still out there, somewhere. I love you.
"Now, when that is taken care of, let's proceed with today's items. We have a request from General Markand to levy troops. Raise the Merchant Brigade back to full strength to replace the escort they sent for our benefit he called it, but we've never had more than a small maintenance staff employed for over a lifeyear, so levy troops it is."
Harbend listened to the dissatisfied murmur spreading in the trade hall, but rumours were cheap, even true ones, and they had known before coming here.
"But the cost? Who's going to pay?"
House Hardanum, but it could have been any of them. Spending money for no return tastes like dirt to all them. All of us, he corrected himself. We would not be good merchants otherwise. He would pay, of course.
"We share the cost according to standing," Olvar responded.
"That's outrageous! You would ruin my house?"
And yet you want your share of opportunities according to standing, Master de Hasselden. I failed to see your palace burning when we arrived here, Harbend mused. He almost wanted to spit out the accusation loud enough for all to hear.
"We share the burdens the way we share the gifts," Olvar did instead. In a much more polished way than Harbend would, but from the glares in the hall it was clear that the true meaning had come through just as clearly. Not all glares were hostile to Master de Dagd. A large majority of the houses stood to gain from Olvar's forced justice, or lose less at least. A handful trading houses made up for more than half of their total wealth, and now they were to pay that share.
"That's only fair," a thin female shouted from a corner. Harbend didn't recognize her. A minor house to begin with, and the former master merchant dead during the winter most likely.
"There are some good news mixed with the problems we face. It will take some time for us to get three thousand men here." Nods from the benches showed they understood this as well as Olvar. He made a pause. "As long as we make certain they don't arrive before sowing we should avoid the cost for feeding them for a few eightdays." And another pause.
Harbend read smiles from almost all present. It was a brilliant move. Dangerous, but brilliant.
"We follow the law," Olvar said when his real message had filtered through the resentment most of them were bound to share. "The boys help out on the farms and receive food and lodging in return, and we get basic training more or less paid for."
Fair or not, he is still a true merchant with a merchant's heart. Have to admire him.
Harbend grinned. It would still be a heavy cost, but Arden had been right in one thing. Harbend could afford it now. If only they could all afford what lay behind the shadows looming over them. Manning a brigade. Replacements they were told. He didn't believe it. He could smell a war coming. He'd seen the shipwrecks, and with the raiders gone, why shouldn't Keen try to flex its muscles?
He groaned inwardly. Money. That meant Arthur. Arthur who was certain to express his joy at paying for even more uniforms with vile curses. He hated all things military, and Harbend nursed no illusions about what he would think of merchants wanting to play a game of wanton destruction.
Arthur, Arthur, a uniform is not always the shell of a killer. Sometimes it serves only as a scarecrow. But this time, Harbend agreed, they were buying killers, and he didn't intend to be wholly honest with Arthur when the time came to ask for money.
Arthur walked down Artist Street, steered clear of hawkers and peddlers, threw a glance at the theatre he had visited last summer and passed it after checking what play was on schedule for tonight. His errand, though, was not that of an audience. Tonight, as most nights, he had a show of his own. Weaving, spreading the news and living a full life.
Late, for once. Meeting with Harbend had stretched out longer than he had planned. Harbend needed to borrow money, which was fine, but there was something fishy about what he needed the money for, and he wouldn't tell. Well, if Harbend wanted his secrets, so be it. Arthur wasn't going to start complaining now. Not when life once again showed its sunnier side. He continued half a block and turned at the discreet sign announcing the Taleweaver's inn. Every city had one, but he hadn't known when he last visited Verd. Damn, he hadn't know about Weaving either.
And now for my adoring fans. And where the hell are those fans? Strange. There had been a long queue each evening for weeks, but then he recalled. Late, forgot I'm late.
He closed to the door and knocked. Moments later a wrinkled old man opened. He could have been the twin to the one at the Roadhouse, or the one in Belgera, and as it was unlikely that there were three identical twins Arthur accepted that it was simply part of whatever magic enshrouded any Taleweaver's inn.
"I'm Arthur Wallman, taleweaver. I come to Weave."
The guardian blinked. That was not the normal response. There was a glimmer of surprise in his eyes, which was absurd as Arthur had been through this door almost daily the last weeks. "You may enter," he finally said.
Arthur frowned but said nothing. Shaking off a moment of discomfort he made his way through the narrow corridor, turned right and entered the tavern.
What the bloody... The stage was already taken.
It came as a welcome surprise that the Taleweaver's inn was filled almost to capacity when he arrived. If memory served him he usually needed an eightday or two before he could count on having the place packed, but a lot could have happened in thirty years. The theatre, a rather shabby thing as he recalled it, must have attracted a rich audience and perhaps some of it spilled over.
Later he would get a room in Thengrandil's Palace, the gaudy hotel he preferred when in Verd. He deserved that luxury. A full season on ships was punishment enough, even for one as used to travelling as Ken Leiter de Ghera. But first, as he had done each time he'd visited Verd the last four hundred years, he would Weave. And, of course, find out how and when another born on Earth had managed to make his or her presence known here without Ken ever knowing of it.
That could wait. Now he had to care for the visitors. They had been fed, everyone but the tall latecomer back at the fireplace. So be it. It wouldn't do to have them all wait for one guest to finish his meal. Even an important one, if all the looks he received from those close enough to notice him were anything to go by.
"My, my. This is a stately crowd if I ever saw one," Ken started. Time to release some of the tension. It wasn't everyday a taleweaver came visiting. "No reason to look so awed," he addressed the latecomer. "I won't eat you, not even take a tasty bite of your wife." That won him a round of laughter, but it was more nervous than he had counted on. "In difference from a dragonling, I guess, but I am a bit tall for one," he continued and flexed his shoulders in an attempt to flap wings that weren't there. More nervous laughs.
"Now," he began. Unholy gods! I've scared the living daylight out of the man. "I have a tale to Weave, about the very raiders who have plagued your coast," Why? Has he seen a raid, or experienced one? "so that you may learn a little of their beliefs, their justification for coming here," I have to talk with him later. "which is, as always, the reason to share a Weave. To learn and understand. To know what has been, what is, the here and elsewhere. To become part of the Weave."
Ken finished the traditional speech a little faster than he had planned. He really had to talk with the man later.
Not now, later. He drew breath. He climbed into his mind and touched the hopes of his audience, inviting them to his world. He remembered. He Wove.