The tavern was bursting with excited intrepid adventurers mountain-bound up the Border Road and those just come down from the frozen peaks, rosy faced and relieved to be back in civilisation once more. The Broken Horseshoe in Messiat, the very last human settlement before the mountains took over, was a raucous sort of place, as it was the last port of call for those heading upward into the peaks and the first port of call for relieved travellers on their way down. In and amongst the revelry the King of Denari and his most trusted friends sat unnoticed by the Lapaian patrons. A surprising amount of ale had already been consumed by the four travelling companions and merriment was bountiful in their corner of the tavern. At last they had reached the mountain road. It had taken them far longer than they had expected due to their untimely capture at the hands of the Blue Army, but finally they had reached their target.
“They are staring at you my friend,” Thalius’ voice carried across the table and to those unfortunate to have found a place beside the loud friends.
“You lie Thalius, they look at you with their doe eyes. See now, they barely notice me here sat beside you.”
“You are both wrong,” Gallus cut in with a smile on his face. “They stare at Selmain, for they cannot see you sitting so small past his tall head.”
Laughter wafted upward once more while Selmain, ever serious, smiled wryly and took a swig of his firewater. The ladies the men argued over were in fact sharing their gazes equally between the four handsome men sat together, weather beaten and promising of brave stories and tall tales.
“Jealousy is such an ugly thing,” Selmain sighed, his wry smile turning snake-like. Thalius scoffed.
“What has he to envy you for mage?”
“Such a short little thing, it must be hard to rule a kingdom when you can barely see over your horse.”
All three friends mimicked shocked outrage while Selmain drew a broad smile. That Gallus was barely a few inches shorter than the stringy mage need not be pointed out as all could see Selmain’s remarks came from a merry place.
“This tree has teeth,” Thalius chuckled. “Very well, friends let us all agree not to take advantage of Selmain’s unfortunate appearance this eve, he is feeling a little sensitive about it.”
“As though you are the local authority on fortunate appearances,” Selmain laughed, looking to Thalius’ broken nose and scarred face with a feigned disgusted expression.
“Big ears,” Thalius jeered triumphantly.
“Buck teeth,” the mage retorted merrily. Thalius’ response was lost in a sea of laughter that saw all the men losing themselves in the atmosphere of the tavern.
“Enough, children, enough,” Gallus spoke up. “This sort of behaviour befits a schoolroom, not a tavern. I feel…oh.” With tried bleary eyes the king looked up just in time to see Gregorius Sectus appear from the air swaying above the table. Two strong arms reached out to steady the king’s adviser, who seemed appalled to have appeared in so raucous a venue when he seemed in no control of his stomach.
“By the…Graces this…is…a loud sort…of place,” the newly appeared man groaned through panted breaths as he fell onto the bench being offered him by the men. Around them a few patrons stared inquisitively at the appearance of a sensitive skilled enough to translocate, before the drink consumed them once more.
“You join us at the right time Sectus old friend,” Avery cried jubilantly and he passed a tankard of ale toward the newly appeared mage, who seemed to be clutching his stomach tightly to prevent himself regurgitating his dinner in the middle of the busy tavern. “Drink this, it will settle your stomach.”
“I highly…doubt that,” Sectus groaned, though he did lift the tankard from the table and took several deep swigs. After a few moments the drink elicited from the man a deep rumbling belch before he settled his expression and seemed a little repaired. “There now, I was wrong. What is this stuff?”
“Shield ale, it will put hairs on even Selmain’s chest so I am sure it will settle that translocated stomach of yours,” Avery responded, slyly casting the higher mage a wink. Selmain merely rolled his eyes and drank once more from his firewater.
“So friend,” Gallus finally spoke. “To what pleasure do I owe your honourable visit this time?”
“Riots Gallus,” Sectus quickly responded. “Riots have gripped Varanasi and are strangling imports and exports through to the east of the kingdom. Carts are being diverted through the great north and south roads and then onto the ring roads, but these routes are taking them days longer than they ought. Traders are furious. Temples are being burned!”
“Riots?” Gallus grumbled, his brow knitted in thought. “Because of the elections? Has Arbarus truly rallied about him the support of the peasant quarter? They, who rarely let anyone sway them save their own kind.”
“That is why I have come friend, we feel the riots are being used for a much darker purpose. There is a new threat come to light, a group who rally under the banner of the ‘Apollo Purists’. They seem to harbour malcontent toward peoples of non-Denarien origin and are using terrorist tactics and the chaos in Varanasi to carry out brutal attacks.”
Gallus listened with an interested expression on his dusty face. Finally when Sectus had come to a close, his very eyes demanding the king come up with a solution to this most recent of crises, the king nodded.
“The Apollo Purists are not a new threat Sectus, they operate under many names, this is a new guise I believe. They originated in the days when a large number of immigrant farmers from Dahnia started charging lower prices for maize, undercutting the Denarien born farmers. It caused a terrible mess some ten years ago. They have been operating ever since, using times of upheaval to mask their terrorist tactics.”
Sectus nodded, drinking in the king’s knowledge, taking heart by his nonchalant expression, as though violent riots gripping the capital seemed trivial.
“Sectus,” Gallus laughed. “You do not need me to settle this dispute. I left you in charge because I know you make good sound decisions. Do not let the others bully you into doubting yourself. Do you feel you know how to handle this situation?”
The king was intuitive. Sectus let his gaze drop to the table, memories plaguing him of the other members of the Confidence convincing him his ideas were not as Gallus would do it, before he nodded angrily.
“Yes,” he finally replied. “Gallus, you’re right.”
“Good,” the king chuckled. “So go do it. Do not trouble me with the country’s problems friend. I have no desire to hear matters such as these when I have left my right hand to handle them.”
Flattery was making Sectus’ heart swell with pride. Unseen to his proud eyes Avery and Thalius nudged one another and passed a wry smile between themselves. They loved watching the other members of the Confidence look upon their drinking comrade with admiration in their faces. Gallus was a patron to the Confidence and they drank in every word he spoke despite their calibre. Gallus was just such a man.
“There is other news,” Sectus spoke quickly, sensing Gallus’ attention waning. “News of your daughter sire.”
The king seemed suddenly alert while across the table the pair of friends who moments ago seemed engulfed in mirth lost their smiles. Their friend had not told them of his daughter’s escape.
“Earlier this afternoon she sought out a healer in Farrier’s Dell…”
“Upon the Lower Ring Road?” Gallus interrupted with a frown, surprised the girl had gone so far north.
“The very same.”
“A healer? She was injured?”
“Indeed, a wolf bite to her arm.” Winces went round the faces of the table; all were familiar with the ferocity of the Shadow Pack, yet only Gallus knew of Thais’ fear of the fell beasts. Only he felt his innards tighten at the thought of her fear at coming across and fighting a wolf.
“It was serious?” he inquired darkly.
“No, not too serious. The healer dressed it while his wife alerted the patrols.” By the expression on Sectus’ face Gallus could tell his daughter had not been reprimanded. “She managed to escape. She had two accomplices and one of them posed in her stead. This one was caught by the patrols in her place. Your daughter and the other got away.”
Gallus leaned back on the bench and stared out the steamed up window, watching the snowflakes batter the glass. Thais fight a wolf? The thought did not sit right with him. His daughter was further north than she had ever been unescorted and he did not know her intentions. Where was she going? Had they caught the boy or the girl? There wasn’t a doubt in Gallus’ mind that Thais had dragged her dearest friends from Titua along with her,
“You do not know the identity of the one they caught?”
“I’m afraid I do not friend.”
“She headed north from the village?”
“Aye, the patrols believe so.”
Gallus nodded and forced the concern from his dark face. He would not let his men watch him grow afraid and instead locked his fear deep within where he could mull over it later.
“Keep looking and keep me informed. The one you caught, question them on my daughter’s intentions. Find out where she is headed.”
“Yes sir. I will contact you as soon as I have more news.”
Sectus, his duty complete, stood to his feet and closed his eyes. All about him the ether drew in, surrounding him in a blinding orange light that only Gallus could see and Selmain could sense. Translocating to one’s home city required little thought or concentration and within moments Gallus’ man was gone leaving two curious faces upturned to their king and a third looking away tactfully.
“Thais has run away?” Thalius finally asked, ignoring an instinct to allow Gallus the privacy of the dealings of his own house. Gallus’ dark eyes dropped to his friend’s concerned face and he nodded.
“Over two weeks ago.”
“The day we left?” Avery now asked.
“That girl,” Thalius grumbled fondly. “You could not keep her from escaping were she locked in the deepest darkest dungeon my friend.”
At last Gallus smiled.
“No indeed I could not, her spirit is a wild one.”
“I remember the time she escaped our care at the Cape. Do you remember Thalius?” Avery now spoke, sensing a relaxation of the tension around the table. “She was eight years old, yet still she outwitted the pair of us. Escaped before our very eyes.”
“Was that the time she tried to sail to Gaia?” Thalius asked with a furrowed brow.
“No that was another occasion,” Gallus pointed out, a smile truly adorning his face now. “It was my watch she escaped that day. Foolish thing, she did not care that Gaia had once lain off the eastern coast of the Agea, not the west.”
“Nor the fact that Gaia was destroyed over a millennia ago and there would be nothing to see,” Avery added fondly.
“I remember a time long ago, the first time I was entrusted with her care in fact,” Selmain finally joined in. He had been watching the sovereign, wondering whether Gallus’ smiles were genuine or a courtesy. Finally he had decided upon the former. “She was three years old and within ten minutes I came sheepishly to your study to reveal she was missing. Oh how scared I was, only to find out that you had misplaced her only the day before.”
Gallus laughed heartily and nodded.
“She has been outwitting me since the day she could crawl friend.”
“Outwitting us all king,” Avery cut in fondly.
“No not all,” Gallus chuckled sadly. “There was one who controlled her wildness, for she herself was wild. Thais never escaped her mother. Mai knew where her daughter was every moment of the day, even in her dreams I am sure. She was a good mother to my daughter.”
“Aye,” Gallus’ friends spoke in unison and one by one they raised their tankards before their silenced friend. The king looked from one kind face to the next before finally he joined them and raised his own tankard.
“To Mai,” he uttered softly.