They had been riding for some hours since they first saw it, but Lia was still in awe at the size of Surian, the capital city of Suria. Once they were within a few miles of the city, buildings completely obscured the view of what lay beyond and nothing else could be seen to the south. She leaned forward and spoke into Michael’s ear. “This place is something else! It makes Crossmoor seem like a speck of sand.”
The heavy set man grunted. “You’re not wrong, Lia. I’m glad Olbane has been here before; I wouldn’t know where to start if I was here on behalf of my father.”
Lia smiled, although he could not see it. Michael appeared to have lost a lot of his bravado over the last week; the fact that there was life away from Crossmoor was expanding his view of Eureza.
They had travelled for almost two days, and Lia noted that Olbane became jitterier the closer they were to their destination: the young man was almost always glancing in one direction or the other. Lia’s one experience of Terence Black was not a pleasant one, and she was glad Olbane was taking care. The closer they were to Surian, however, the more she realised she needed to know what they were going to do when they arrived. Olbane and Carly were riding slightly behind Lia and Michael, so Lia turned her head and addressed the young man. “Olbane, I think we should discuss your plans when we arrive.” She kept the question direct.
Olbane stopped looking to the east, looked Lia in the eye, and nodded. “That is probably a good idea. Where do you want me to start?”
“What is our first destination? Who are you hoping to discuss the problem with?”
Olbane paused for what Lia thought was a long time, and wondered if he knew where he was going. Once again he patted his breast. “I was going to take the letters to the senate. I know myself that the letters themselves are not enough, but I hope that by gaining political support I can expose more firm evidence.”
Suria was a republic, with a governing body made up of a small group of senators who represented the various parts of the nation. Inevitably, the senate was influenced by the church of Revan, and the Priestesses themselves acted as advisers to the senators. Every two years one of the senators would be elected by the senate as Lead Senator, with an overall veto on matters of state. Lia admitted to herself she knew very little about such matters, and when she attempted to recall the name of the Lead Senator, she couldn’t; prior to that moment, she had had no interest in politics.
It was Carly who broke the silence that followed. “From what I understand about the senate, it may take you weeks to receive a hearing, and you’ll need to gain sponsorship from a senator, usually the one representing your main residence. Do you think that Senator Marsden will support you? The church doesn’t trust him at all.” Lia looked at Carly and blinked, which prompted the acolyte to explain further. “A Priestess of Revan must understand politics, Lia. For the church to continue to be a force it must be able to influence in all areas of society.”
Lia chuckled. “I suppose I expected the church to be above that kind of thing. Surely Revan has authority over all?”
Carly nodded. “He does, but mandating rules and regulations in an autocratic manner is not His preferred method. We are taught to work with society, rather than to direct it.”
Lia forced herself not to fire back a retort about the rules Carly was bound to prior to her rather short-notice flight days ago, but decided to nod her agreement instead.
Olbane had remained silent, and listened to the brief discussion with interest. “Marsden is a typical politician, I am afraid. To the masses he comes across as a man of the people, fighting to keep taxes low, driving down corruption and ensuring Suria’s northern border is well protected. As usual with politicians, what they stand for publicly and what they do with their own affairs do not necessarily coincide. Rumour has it Marsden is involved in some very illegal dealings, but no-one has been able to gather enough evidence to expose him.” Olbane smiled wryly. “There is no way on Eureza I am going to approach Marsden, Carly.”
The diminutive woman frowned. “So who are you going to lobby for support? From what I also understand, Senator Smythe of the western-central region is not much better.” Grayson Smythe was a relatively newly elected senator: he had taken office after the untimely death of his predecessor. “Little is known about him, but he is a strong ally of Marsden, which makes him untrustworthy.”
“I am afraid I know little of the senators from the south or east. I suppose I will have to find out who to approach when we arrive.” Olbane didn’t look confident.
Carly smiled. “Slavery is an extremely emotive subject, and no senator will do anything but publicly denounce it. Rumour has it that the Arezans are starting to gain influence in the senate, however, and I fear it may not be simple and risk free to walk into any senator’s office and ask for support.”
Lia remained silent when Carly mentioned Arezans. She presumed it was Arezans she had encountered and then sent back with empty cages. Olbane, however, had a sad expression on his face. “It is a sad day when Arezan gold becomes more important than fighting the imprisonment of innocent folk against their will. I honestly hope that the church of Revan is wrong about this, Carly.”
The four remained silent for the duration of the journey into the large city. First they encountered areas that were more residential than anything else, which contained small dwellings and the occasional merchant or inn. The further into the city they rode, however, the more densely populated the area became. Lia soon realised that Crossmoor was a mere hamlet compared to Surian, and she wondered what delights she would have wanted to experience had the situation been different. There must have been dozens of inns similar to The Piebald Lamb. At the thought of The Lamb Lia felt a pang of homesickness, the first such pang for days. She wished she was at the bar, sharing banter with Warnock Spicer and hearing stories from his adventuring days. She shook her head; that was her old life, a life that seemed years away, even though in reality it was just a week. Her parents were dead, and with their last breaths her connection with Crossmoor had been severed. She had Carly, and to a smaller degree Michael, but her other friends and occasional dalliances were of no lasting value to her. Michael would undoubtedly return to his father once they had finished in Surian, and he would be better off without her. Lia wondered if Carly would go back to the church; she suspected that although her diminutive friend did not feel like returning at that moment, it was only a matter of time. In those short days she had changed significantly, and the way she had recently spoken about politics confirmed that the only person who did not think Carly was fit to be a Priestess was Carly. There was something else about Carly’s reaction that troubled Lia; she knew more than the others did about the encounter with the slavers, that much was clear. If Michael had not interrupted them back in Frodsby, Lia would have struggled to keep the truth from her friend, which for some reason was something she felt she had to do. Lia longed for someone to discuss her experience with the slavers with, and although it filled her with revulsion to do so, she thought of Rastlin. Almost every fibre of her being hated him for what he and his companions had done to her parents, but a small part of her knew he was the one she needed to explain what was happening. She wondered where Rastlin and Franklin were: were they dead? That seemed unlikely; after all, Lia had seen the slavers herself, and neither of the two men had been captured. Of course it was possible they had run into the slavers after Lia had sent them back east, but she didn’t think that was likely either. Rastlin was out there somewhere, and he was almost certainly trying to find her. The question was, did she want to be found?
It was Olbane’s voice that jolted Lia from her thoughts. “We are here, my friends; Surian’s rather large and bustling commercial district. The senate is a short walk from here.”
Lia looked up, and realised she had taken virtually nothing of the last part of their journey in. She was looking at an enormous square, which must have been two hundred horses in length, with scores of merchants present. Some were in permanent trading posts, some in more portable versions. A lot of them were selling goods that Lia had never seen before.
Olbane grinned at the reaction of his three friends. “If you think this is good, you should take a tour of the surrounding streets. There is much more to this district than the square.”
Michael nodded. “Does your father have a presence here?”
Olbane smiled. “Father has a moderately sized business here, mostly to ensure he is up to date with senate matters and for credibility; it is useful to have a presence where the decisions are made.”
Michael looked slightly offended by that; it appeared his father did not travel as far as Surian. “Well I suppose that depends on who you are trading with and what goods you are trading in.”
Olbane smiled wryly. “That is true. Sometimes I wish my father would keep things simple; if he had done, we wouldn’t be here now.” The sandy haired young man pointed towards a rather narrow looking alleyway off to the right. “My father employs a factor here to manage his affairs; his name is Manson. As a part of his responsibility is to advise on what might happen in the senate when it comes to commercial matters, he might be able to give us some insight into my little problem.”
Lia frowned. “Can you trust him?”
“To be honest our dealings have been limited, but on the whole yes. I am sure he is not completely honest when it comes to my father’s interests down here, but he is loyal.”
Lia didn’t look convinced, but said nothing; they had to start somewhere. She looked up at the sun and then at some of the merchants in the square; they probably had two hours of daylight left, and from the look of it some of the merchants were beginning to cease trading for the day.
Olbane grinned once more. “Manson will no doubt still be at my father’s holding. Let’s go and see him now.”
Michael raised a hand to object, but Carly intervened. “I agree; if we are to make the most of tomorrow, we need to know where to start before we wake.”
Michael grunted. “Let’s make it quick; I am hungry and thirsty, and we haven’t yet found a place for the night.”
Alane Jonson’s premises in the capital were average to say the least: a small establishment of a similar size to Michael’s father’s back in Crossmoor. Olbane did not pause, opened the door and strode through. Lia and Carly followed, which left Michael to tether the horses to a post outside. Inside there was a simple looking counter with a single door leading through to the back. “I take it your father doesn’t display his goods here?” Michael had arrived, and was stood in the doorway.
Olbane briefly turned in his direction. “Father mostly uses this as a base; Manson deals with transactions on his behalf; as you know, some things are easier done face to face. There is a reasonable sized store at the back, however.” Olbane looked back to the counter and called out. “Manson?”
Moments later a rat-faced man in his early thirties emerged. He was dressed in a well made shirt and trousers, something Olbane picked up on immediately. “Has father increased your pay, Manson, or are your other interests doing well?” A smile was on the young man’s face.
“Both!” The rat-faced man grinned. “It is good to see you, young master Jonson, although I must admit I am surprised to see you here. I do not recall your father notifying me that you were going to pay me a visit.”
Olbane looked slightly uncomfortable. “I am not here on my father’s business, Frederick, at least not directly.”
Manson’s face looked intrigued, but he did not ask further questions. “Well, can I offer you and your companions some refreshment? Your father always keeps some good quality wine here for when he visits.”
Olbane nodded. “We will take it in the back, please; and I’d like you to join us, if you will. I need your advice.”
Manson bowed deeply. “Of course; please, follow me.”
Minutes later they were sat in what served as the factor’s office. The table there had only had three chairs, so Michael and Olbane had to stand. On the positive side, all five of them, including Carly, were sampling a very good bottle of Arezan red. It was only then that all four realised how tired they were, and Olbane did not waste time with small talk. “I am not going to burden you with too many details of why we are here, Frederick; my father’s business should not be involved in this at all. What I do need, however, is your view on which senator to approach.” When the rat-faced man’s face sparked with interest, Olbane continued. “I need to raise an issue of some importance to the senate, regarding slavery.”
Manson’s expression tightened slightly. “Slavery? I am glad you do not want your father involved. In my opinion it is a nasty business, but unfortunately it is a trade that more and more of his contemporaries are becoming involved in.” The rat-faced man paused for a moment. “Are you saying your father is involved in slavery? Forgive my impertinence Master Jonson, but I should like to know if it is true.”
Olbane shook his head. “Not that I am aware of, Frederick, and I wish to keep it that way.”
Manson looked relieved. “Well, I respect the need for discretion, so I will not ask further questions regarding your father’s involvement.” He took a sip of his wine.
Olbane smiled briefly. “Father always said he made the right decision when he asked you to represent him here, Frederick; thank you.”
Manson looked slightly embarrassed. “No need to thank me, Master Jonson. As I hinted at before, your father pays me well, and he grants me a great deal of autonomy here; I respect him and would never betray him.” He took another sip, that time a larger one. “Now, you mentioned you need to approach the senate. I am sure you are aware of the protocols that must be adhered to, so I will not bore you with that. Based on our conversation so far, I also assume that you wish to give some information regarding a transaction or transactions that have been brought to your attention, and I also assume this is of some importance for you to make the journey south personally.”
Olbane nodded once more, and allowed the factor to continue.
“Which senator to approach is an interesting dilemma. It would be seen as most unusual for you not to be represented by your own senator, but speaking frankly, Edward Marsden is one of the last people I would trust, and he has developed a reputation for moving in some rather unsavoury circles of late.” It was Carly’s turn to nod agreement.
Manson took another sip; there was a long pause, before he sighed. “I fear gaining support in the senate will not be easy; all of the senators will publicly denounce it, but the odds of any of the most influential senators actually raising something to do with slavery are very low.”
Carly looked a little aggrieved. “There has to be someone who will take Olbane’s issue! What about Bryan Hiron of Surian? He’s been more outspoken than most since sightings of Arezan slavers became more frequent.”
Manson nodded. “Priestess, you are correct, of course. However, Hiron has only been in office for a year, and his power base is small.” From what Lia had heard, Surian was a liberal city and often brought idealistic and righteous senators into power. However, despite the fact the senator for the capital represented almost a third of Suria in terms of population, he held only one vote.
Carly looked uncomfortable after Manson’s error, but she did not correct him. “Well, he is still our best chance of a fair hearing.”
The rat-faced man nodded. “If you must attempt to gain an audience with him, be prepared for a wait; remember this is his represented area, so he’ll have numerous others who also wish to pitch their complaint or idea.”
Olbane smiled briefly at Manson. “Is The Noble Senator still a reasonable inn?”
Manson inclined his head. “It is indeed, Master Jonson; reasonably priced, clean and with surprisingly good fare on offer.”
“Then we will stay there for the night.” Olbane’s expression grew serious. “If anyone asks, we were never here.”
Manson rose and bowed slightly. “Whatever you say, Master Jonson. Is there anything else I may do for you?”
Olbane paused for a moment before clearing his throat. “Actually there is. I had to leave Susanon in a hurry and didn’t bring enough coin with me. I need to borrow some funds, if I may.” His face coloured slightly and he didn’t make eye contact with the others.
Manson’s face didn’t betray any emotion. “Of course; come with me and you may take what you wish.”
Baren Covenson sat at an ornately carved wooden table, with only the crackling of the fire in the opposite wall for company. To pass the time, he was digging the dirt out of his fingernails with a knife. He and Grimmit had ridden hard across country to reach Surian and by his own admission they had made better time than expected. Grimmit was at the inn, probably on his fourth or fifth tankard by now, and Covenson was beginning to lose his temper. Suddenly the door to his left opened, which made Covenson jump, and he nicked a finger in the process.
“I hope you weren’t planning to use that on anyone here.” A tall, well dressed thin man in his fifth decade entered the room.
Covenson almost growled. “Only if you had kept me waiting any longer; did you not get my message?”
The other man smiled and took a seat opposite. “I did, but in my position I cannot drop everything unless something extremely serious has happened, and I am afraid this does not fall into that category.”
Covenson resisted the urge to lunge across the table and point his knife at the other man’s throat. “Well, to my employer this matter is extremely serious. His reputation is at stake, and if I fail in this matter, so is mine.”
“Ah yes, Terence Black; I must admit I have not seen the old fellow for some time. Has he sent you all the way from Susanon?”
“By way of Crossmoor, yes.” Covenson’s eyes flashed dangerously and his voice grew louder. He pointed the knife in the other man’s direction. “Listen, friend, it has been a hard ride for us, and while my companion has been enjoying himself drinking and gambling, I have been sat on my rear end. I suggest that if you want to leave this room with all of your fingers, you allow me to get to the point and stop this pointless small talk.”
The other man shook his head, and tutted. “My dear mercenary, or whatever it is you are; this is my domain and I will not be threatened here. If you wish to test that presumption, please feel free.”
Covenson looked around the room, then withdrew the knife and sheathed it in a scabbard at his belt. “Alright; have it your way, Flaun.”
Flaun smiled a rather thin smile. “A wise decision. Now, what it is that Black wants?”
Covenson reached into his tunic and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to Flaun. Flaun opened the envelope and took out a single sheet of paper, which took him less than thirty seconds to read. He read it again and then threw it on the fire.
“Well?” Covenson’s impatience got the better of him.
“Black was wise to seek additional help now your quarry has reached Surian, assuming that is where he is. Which inn are you and your companion staying at? I will need to know where to contact you when the time comes.”
Covenson nearly leapt from his seat. “Is that all you are going to tell me? How can we catch the boy if you don’t help us!”
Flaun laughed briefly. “You only need to be here to confirm we have recovered what you are looking for, my mercenary friend. When the time comes, I will do the rest.”