The autumn dawn came with a bitter cold wind. It was biting, traveling alongside the bodies of grey clouds, weighted down by water. The lambent sun was fading above the skies of Castle Downs, but the darkening light did not dampen the spirits of the city. Denizens of the Capital were dressed in their best frocks and leathers, dragging their children by their hands through the streets despite the many cries of sore feet from little offspring. A celebration would soon be arriving, the hammer of preparation long since in swing.
Tohrik Landress, second son of Darnoires Landress, was returning to the Capital for the first time since his departure when he had still been in infancy. His young life had been spent deep in the Eastlocke Mountains, in the first holy house in Odesha Valley. It was there that the acolytes of The Thirteen had raised him through missions, to manhood. Most of Castle Downs had forgotten the second son to their Emperor, but they would greet him on the streets all the same, if only to catch a glimpse of one so controversial. Word on the meaning of his return had already begun to spread like an infection.
Westby struggled a way in through the Southfall Plaza, the droves of people heedless to his hurry. It was the wrong turn to make into the liveliest part of the Capital, but perhaps it was his nose that had led him astray. He could immediately pick up on the scent of salted meats and caramel confections, his eyes widening at the sight, and he could already feel his pockets burning with the weight of his coins. The tall clock tower that stood at the head of the plaza struck the half hour, awakening him to the reason of his being there, and his legs began to quickly move in short steps past the tantalising displays.
His attempt at haste was foiled by vendors with their traveling carts, pushing their wares on gullible citizens who had grown unwise with their predits. He had nearly fallen foolish to the same alluring call. Double prices were the going rate on Tohrik Landress’ return day. The trading of merchandise wouldn’t continue for an extended period however, as more guards were turning up to order the marketers back to the bazaar. Exploitation of the poor was always prohibited, but despite the stress on the matter, it was more looked down upon than a law enforced.
More guards were running through in droves. They of the Capital held a different charge then those belonging to the Cuhr’s army. They were the policing force of Castle Downs, and they protected the Landress family before all else, even if the city were to fall into ruin from all manner of enemies. More commonly known as White Cuffs for the cuff bands on their uniforms, the sight of the poison-green long coats elicited terror from many of the people. It was their piped shoulderboards and bloused boots that did it for Westby.
“Clear out you lot,” One of the guards spat as he led a pair of large Mastiffs on thick chain leashes that clinked and jingled. They snorted and grunted as he ushered them forward towards the clusters of street vendors, dark jowls sagging down with globs of saliva spraying onto the ground like a viscous rain. The hounds’ presence was enough to get the riot under control, and the vendors started to pack up their goods to avoid having teeth sank and torn into their limbs.
What in the Thirteen am I doing here, Westby asked himself as he slipped out through a family of five rushing through the Southfall. He then remembered the answer; there hadn’t been another choice. He was late, indecently so. If his father found out, he would surely be denounced and disinherited this time. It had been a struggle for his father to affirm such a role for him, serving as Pageboy to the restored son of Landress, and it would be an insult to not be present at his own dignitary’s return parade. The lady Valiceres was known for her mercy and hospitality, perhaps he would kneel with his nose at her feet in forgiveness.
The pace he was set in was chaotic, not because he was sprinting—that would have been impossible in the dense crowd—but because his eyes couldn’t keep up with his footing. He couldn’t judge his distance from the approaching bodies coming at his left side. What looked like an arm’s reach away was actually much closer, and he collided into another, the brunt of a broad shoulder careening him over. The back of his legs brushed up against the ledge of the Southfall fountain, and his body followed the motion of sitting down in a chair, only instead his trousers became soaked with cold water. His eyes rolled around in his head, and he tried to push himself up from the water, his fingers slick and wrinkled from moisture. His hands kept slipping, and he was surprised by how submerged he had become in the fountain. It hadn’t looked that deep to begin with, but he hadn’t exactly been keeping track.
Westby glanced up through the shadow that had covered him, an expressionless voice escaping from the brawny man that he had knocked into. His strong form was offset by his short stature, as Westby was surprised to see he would be taller than the man if he wasn’t already bathing in the fountain. His ochre hair was braided many times, hanging long down the length of his back while other pieces were pinned to the crown of his head. He wore a long sleeved, button-less shirt that was a loud shade of yellow, and black genie pants that bunched at his shins. The wooden thongs he had on his feet clapped against the stone streets, and he looked down a long, thin nose at Westby, through black framed spectacles.
“I’m sorry,” said Westby as he pushed himself towards the ledge of the fountain. “I was in a hurry—am in a hurry actually, and nothing is going my way.”
As he grasped onto the marble ledge, a hand was offered to him from the stranger. Westby was not too proud to accept help, something his father often shamed him for, and he slid his wet palm into the strong grasp that tugged him upright. The dripping water blackened the ground around him, and he shivered through his soaked layers. The man showed no amount of pity for what had happened, his brown eyes scrutinizing Westby until they remained on his face. On his left eye. Westby tried to hide by turning his head down, only now to notice he had not changed into his new leather loafers that his mother had purchased for him as reward for becoming a Pageboy. Like it had been his decision.
Curse the six! He wasn’t even properly dressed. “Thank you,” he told the stranger, almost forgetting his manners when he realised his own state.
“You are going to the Downs for Tohrik’s return?” The man asked him.
“Yes,” Westby replied, blinking as he struggled to guess how he knew that. “Do I look fit for it?”
“You don’t look fit to scrub Cuhr piss from the latrines,” he said frankly.
Westby saw the corner of his mouth lift into the smallest smile, and it eased the sting of the comment. “I’m the new Pageboy for the returning Lord Landress.” He squeezed moisture from the hem of his buttoned shirt before it could mold and fester. The water made a terrible squelching sound before it dribbled to the ground. He glimpsed up bashfully at the smooth-faced man, noticing, but not questioning the absence of brow hair. “Or I was supposed to be, that is, I doubt they’ll want me now.”
“Tohrik will take you,” He said with certainty. His confidence did not waver, nor did it appear misplaced. “But look for Kiana first, she’ll help you.”
“Unless you know another,” said the man impatiently.
Westby sensed he didn’t have much tolerance for the obvious and limp-minded folk. They were a plenty in Castle Downs. “Well, thank you, sir.” The man acknowledged him with a small unspeaking nod, folding his hands together in a prayer-like position beneath his chin before he started away towards the direction of the Northfall. Westby didn’t understand. That would lead him away from the Downs, and further from the celebrating. His arm shot out before him in a reaching motion, towards the stranger with desperation. “Wait, you won’t come to see the Lord Landress return?”
He paused, and his eyes widened slightly, as if struck with horror by the mere suggestion. Apparently it hadn’t been a plan considered. Westby waited when he finally spoke. “No, I’ve seen enough.” And he was on his way again, though Westby didn’t lose sight of the obnoxious yellow right away as the crowd parted to accommodate him against the flow.
Still standing in the puddle he had created, and with others pointing to him as they walked by, he realised it was best to get moving. The gates to the east and north would be closing soon, and everyone would be fighting for the best spots on the streets for a chance look at the young Lord. Westby needed to be situated in with the family, ready to receive his master.
From the Southfall, the Downs were not much further. They could be seen from any distance of the city, the ruins of the old Castle which were restored and built upon, so high that on days of rain the clouds would come down and form mist over the spires. Now stood the Halbarr, the citadel in central that was the home of the family Landress, and it had been for over two hundred years. It had seen battles come to the city, and the departure of soldiers taking the fight to other grounds. Westby had been inside the Halbarr only twice, and neither times did he receive a tour of the citadel that gave him a great understanding of its interior. His father had simply been treating over trends and issues with the Emperor Darnoires, and their family had been formally invited to dine in the Halbarr. Westby had been but a child, but he could still remember that he had not been made familiar with the other members of house Landress. It would make his situation today quite unnerving, and he tended to twitch and whisper and wheeze when he was nervous.
The path up to the front gate of the Halbarr was long, a great stair that twisted around and up the slope of the city, a climb that was not made likely by the infirm or elderly. To be inside the Halbarr, was to rise. He passed through stone tunnels, and under iron black lanterns unlit in the daylight. The way was barren, with no one else now taking the path in the late day hour to the citadel. He worried the guards would not let him through, and he tried to run in shuffled steps to keep from creasing his soaked clothes. The higher he climbed, the more of Castle Downs he could see, from the red tiled roofs of the homes of the Proper, to the flat roofs of the storehouses in the industrial district. He could not see the wharf of Port Down, or the ships docked at the roots of the city, but the lapis sea surrounding was as clear as the sky, and cold like the snow. Once in the past he had fallen in, but unlike in the Southfall fountain, the sea had stolen his breath, and his gaze could pierce through the limpid water.
The narrow passage began to widen before him, and there was the strong stone archway above him, connected to the imperial white guard tower that sat on watch at the base of the Halbarr. He spotted movement in the turrets, keen eyes of the White Cuffs watching to see what his intrusion would bring. Though his forthcoming arrival should have been known to the guard, he was approaching late, and drenched and disheveled. Not the Pageboy they were expecting. He assumed to be approached by the long-coats, heavily armed and hostile, but there was a woman between them all that brought a cool to the tempered. Westby couldn’t distinguish her face from where she stood up the tall stone steps of the citadel, still far enough away that she could witness his approach with eyes that flitted. Her maroon skirts were hoisted carefully in her hands, and she galloped down the long way just to greet him, all while a White Cuff charged at her side.
“Westby Furgess?” She called, her voice ringing. He met her at the base of the stairs, and tried not blush in shame at the disapproving glance she gave him once she was swept into his disarray. She was much too perfect in her gossamer skirts and stiff brocade that heaved her bosom high. The pale skin of her chest was smattered in dark freckles, and they lined her cheeks and nose as well, charted in patterns like stars. Westby was only able to identify her by her dark auburn hair, a hallmark of her noble house, and that she was the only living daughter to Darnoires and Valiceres; Kiana Landress. “Oh, this will never do,” She tutted at him.
“I fell,” He excused himself, though it was a rather lame attempt for sympathy. The guard at her side looked unimpressed with him as well.
“Unless you can recount a tale of surviving the depths of the Viridian, my father will not accept that,” said Kiana. She combed her hand back through his damp hair, even as he tried to withdraw from her reaching. It was unexpected and unwelcome to be touched by a stranger, of the Proper or not, but she did not appear to think herself beneath such propriety. “And we had received such praise from your father about you.”
Appraisal that came in a checklist was hollow. He had heard it all before. His father must have given them the best of his magistrate speeches so as to be successful in pledging him off to the Halbarr. “Do you want me gone?”
“No, I won’t send you from here just yet.” He found himself frowning. After all the scrutiny, why bother inviting him into the pen if he was just a malnourished hog? Kiana smiled though, purely coy with lips painted the same shade as her gown. Watching her watch him, he thought back to the stranger in the Southfall, and what he could have possibly meant about Kiana Landress being able to aid him. “We still need a Pageboy, and you are eager to please, yes?”
“Yes,” He said, his father’s hands in his mind before he could consider refusing. “But I don’t understand. How can I receive my Lord, looking this way?”
“Connly,” She spoke up, and the bearded guard at her side stamped his left foot at attention without speaking. A glint was in her eye, making Westby swallow as he caught a suspicion of trouble. “Give Pageboy Westby your coat, please.”
His heavy brow sagged further, a look Westby would have preferred not to be on the receiving end of. Grumbling unintelligibly, Connly the Captain remove his long coat and presented it to him. So below his station as it was, Westby accepted with gratitude that went unheeded. The Captain had only obeyed because the request had come from the Lady Landress. All three were aware of this. What’s worse was it was an ill-fit on Westby, as he was afraid it would be. The shoulderboards were unyielding, and even with the buttons fastened, it still fit like a pillowcase on a child. Connly had his giant arms crossed in a crisp white tunic, broader still with the garment tight across his chest, gazing at his decorated coat with a covetous look.
“There, all better,” said Kiana. She brushed Westby’s hair away from his face, and it remained slicked back to his neck from the moisture. “That will suffice until we can get you sorted with something suitable for your station. Captain, assure him it does you a great honour to lend him your status.”
There was a sharpness in the order, and Connly scowled before speaking. “It does me a great honour,” He said thinly.
The bells of the citadel began to chime as Kiana smiled closed mouthed and widely. “Wonderful, we are all friends now, and we can go together to welcome my boy brother home.”
Gathering her skirts, she started up the steps again, her pace unhurried despite the signal from the Halbarr that Tohrik Landress had arrived at Port Down by way of the Kerwron Sea. Westby was caught in her sight, and he couldn’t break away unless he were to walk alongside the Captain. He wouldn’t dare. Not while wearing the man’s pilfered coat, and maybe not even after that.
A shiver rocked him, and he gave a visible flinch. The wet had soaked all the way to his underclothes, and he was starting to smell like the chemical solution from the fountain water. When the ceremony for his Lord Landress would be concluded, the odour would likely spread to the fibers of the Captain’s coat. His throat tightened at the thought of giving it back less than polished as it had come. Westby’s eyes drifted, in search of escape, and he sighted the Northfall spanned across on the far end of the city. What that stranger had said came back to him, and he wondered if he would not have been better off someplace else, scrubbing piss from a latrine.