Road to King's Court, Kingsland, Tharia, 3:49 AM.
The Kingsland was beautiful in the early hours of the morning. The vast open landscape conjured images of a blank canvas; the most modest of starting points are spectacularly pure when left untouched. Our warmer seasons gave the sun an alternative rising time, sending rays of gold to blossom over the Star-Touched Mountain Range to the east.
After heading west out of Brimrose Dire for nigh on an hour, the dirt track swooped north and promised a direct path toward King's Court. Luckily an early shipment of fruit was en route from Brimrose Dire to my current destination and had allowed me to accompany the caravan for a small fee. The short and stout dwarf leading the merchants sat up front on the foremost cart and I had decided to ride with him. After all, he was the one kind enough to offer me transport.
"What's your name, lad?" he asked as the cart made it's jagged journey forward.
"Ralph Reinhardt." I lied, utilising two of my earlier kills. Names are the written embodiment of all that a person is. Names are for the trustworthy.
"Well, Ralph. Got to say, rather strange to see a traveller up this early." I regarded the question with a bittersweet silence. I wasn't about to reveal the nature of my trip to a stranger. With my peripheral vision just peeking past the edge of my hood, I saw the dwarf shuffle uncomfortably under my soundless veil. "Name's Bjorn, by the way."
"A pleasure, Bjorn, I'm sure." I replied, offering a curt bow of my head beneath the draping hood shadowing my neutral expression. I sat forward, resting my forearms onto my legs. "How long until we reach King's Court?"
"Give it another half an hour." he declared after contemplating the question for a few moments. The cart hit a dip in the dirt track and jolted us from side to side, forcing me to grip the bench of the cart reflexively. The horses whinnied as they pulled us along, mocking our ragdoll-like reaction to the drop.
We spent the remainder of the journey in silence. Every now and then Bjorn would grunt or spit to one side but I hadn't cared, my mind was fixated on larger issues than the saliva of an ancient race. I had tried to decipher where in Direthorne a crime syndicate could be buried but my answer always came up short. Direthorne was, next to King's Court, the most fortified city in Tharia. It housed over seven-million citizens whilst the Court sheltered a cosy five-thousand of the king's most trusted subjects. It was obvious that the organisation that had threatened Ralph was hiding in plain sight and that was my concern; only the best and most experienced could succeed at wearing a mask this convincing.
Finally we arrived at the walls of King's Court, reaching sixty or so feet into the sky with spiked fingertips pointing to the heavens. Upon our arrival at the gate Bjorn flashed a small, leather-bound pass, signalling that he was a certified Tharian merchant, a precaution that had been put in place after one too many assassination attempts by amateurs posing to be businessmen. The king was a bullseye to rebels across Tharia, as every leader had been before him.
"They've got the papers! Let 'em through." one of the two guards our side of the gate signalled. The two giant-sized doors swayed slightly as the monotonous metal drone created by the unlocking mechanism resonated from inside the entrance. The doors were then heaved open, revealing the sleeping city inside the walls.
King's Court was inhabited by a number of wealthy patriots, loyal to the king. It also held homes for his councilmen and advisors. The main attraction, however, was the keep, sitting in the centre of the city on a raised pedestal. The keep was, for lack of a better word, magnificent. It was a complex design with archways and large, decorated windows gracing the cobblestone walls. The entrance sat directly in front of the Court's, around one-hundred meters forward. I leapt off of the cart and nodded once towards Bjorn.
"My thanks for the transport, master dwarf."
"Any time, lad. If I'm still in the area when you leave and need passage toward Huskway, get in touch. We'd be happy to oblige!" Bjorn grinned. I replied to the question with nothing other than a smirk from beneath my cowl. A man that searched for a way to gain a profit was one after my own heart.
As I made my way toward the keep's entrance, I noticed the flicker of candlelight sprouting in certain windows. Rise and shine, King's Court. Time for another day of luxury. My sour thoughts spat jealousy towards those born into fortune.
The guard at the entrance must have recognised my attire. He nodded at my presence and pushed the keep's door open for me. I wore a plain jacket that swayed at my knees, tight to my torso thanks to a leather belt holding an ordeal of pouches and vials with a satchel strapped to it's right side, and a hood fashioned to disguise my face. Beneath was a simple white shirt with a harness strapped across my chest, my weaponry concealed within. My legs adorned skin-tight trousers and thick, padded boots, ideal for comfortability whilst expelling all noise during movement. The guard's mistake was making the assumption that it was the king's bounty hunter beneath this hood. An assumption that could easily have resolved in a successful infiltration to the King's Keep, had he been wrong.
I strode through the entrance and pulled down my hood, allowing it to drape around my back. I pulled my black, shoulder-length hair back into a tight pony-tail, fairly greasy from my time without bathing, an act I could not indulge whilst hunting. The foyer was dimly lit and the grand staircase before me sat welcoming me, awaiting my arrival, a red carpet ascending the steps. A guard stood at the top of the landing and stared down at me. His armour was regal in appearance, silver mail with small feathers etched into the plating. A tabard hugged his chest-plate donning the king's sigil, a modest red rose. A thin scar caused a ripple beneath his left eye.
"Place all weapons on the ground, bounty hunter." the guard ordered from afar. Haven't got the courage to order me at eye-level? We'll see how far that gets you.
"Fuck off, Soldier." I snarled in retaliation. A third, bodiless voice reverberated through the foyer.
"By the Gods, Reyna, Stand down." the king's voice was strong and powerful despite his growing age. The guard did as ordered without hesitation and docked his growing annoyance with my defiance. Entertained, I threw a smug grin toward the soldier.
From a doorway to the left of the landing, king Stoneheart II appeared, wrapped in his regal crimson robes and supporting himself with his staff, the top of the walking aid glowing a calming white that illuminated the foyer upon his entrance. He disarmed any shadows that had lurked in the corners of the room.
"Come, hunter. To my throne room. We can speak in private there." I silently thanked him for substituting my name with my profession. It had been one of my few requests upon offering my service to him.
I followed the king through a series of hallways and corridors until we reached a room large enough to host a small crowd. The two pillars in the centre of the room draped flags containing the king's sigil, leading up to the golden throne resting on the far side of the room. Here the king would host sessions with the citizens of Tharia, inviting servants and workers to bring forth their requests and issues regarding the well-being of his subjects. Despite any rumours or misconceptions, the king seemed to care for his country and the people living within it's borders.
Closing the door behind us, the king began strolling toward his throne at a leisurely pace. I accompanied him by walking slightly behind. "You have retrieved the device, Tobias?" he asked with a wary, uncertain voice.
"Indeed, Your Majesty." my reply seemed to perk him up somewhat as he took his seat on the padded area of the throne. Delicately carved into the panels of the throne were thin, riddling floral patterns, swirling and dancing with their neighbours. "Do you have my payment?"
"Of course. Captain Reyna will hand it to you on your way out." the king's word was, at times, his most valuable asset. I would have trusted him if the code I had created to ensure my priorities were safeguarded hadn't forced my hand.
"Your Majesty, you know my terms. I get my payment first, then you receive your goods." my resistance had caused a frown to burrow into the king's features. He shot me a glance but caved to my endearment. A brief delay in our negotiations had arisen as the king made his way back to the entrance of the throne room to send a guard to retrieve my reward. After having the coin in hand I removed the satchel from around my chest carrying the glowing device rescued from Brimrose Dire and granted him access to the bag's content.
His reaction was one of pure joy as he surveyed the orb nesting in the bag, no larger than his palm. From what I had seen, the orb had no markings decorating it and acted more like a small source of light.
"You have my thanks, Tobias. It was a grave day when this went missing. Tell me you also caught the culprits?"
"Dead, Your Majesty. I'll leave an address with your Captain and he can send some men to relocate the bodies." I pondered for a moment about the fate of Mason. His actions had gone unnoticed and the men of the Keep were unaware that the king's councilman had been the thief. I could've easily handed him over on a silver platter, but it served no use to me. He had his daughter back and I had my reward. Compassion, whilst not my strong suit, was needed from time-to-time.
The king seemed understandably grateful in his expression. I had no desire to understand his returned relic, it wasn't of my concern. To be candid, I couldn't have cared less.
"One more thing, Your Majesty. The leader of the operation spoke of another crime ring in Direthorne capable of bullying his syndicate."
"Preposterous! If anything suspicious was happening in Direthorne my people would know."
"Believe what you will. I'm only reporting what I learned." I'd already decided that I was going to pay a visit to Direthorne to find out more. The king may be more willing to listen after I had hard evidence of criminal activity.
He bowed his head somewhat before speaking out. "I trust you'll see yourself out. You'll find some extra coin in the pouch, an incentive to return for more work." a smirk began to twist the king's lips. I shook the coin purse somewhat to show I'd acknowledged his comment. "You know, Tobias, the offer to become the scout-captain is still open-"
"As decent an offer as that is, Your Majesty, my interests don't lie in wearing a uniform and following orders." my voice seemed to carry an annoyance I hadn't quite anticipated. It was an odd occurrence for me to not control my emotion. Was I trying to convince myself that the position didn't interest me?
The king smiled gracefully. Royalty has a habit of doing such when they're faced with an answer they don't want. Deception runs thick through the blood of the wealthy in Tharia. Plots against rival houses, mutiny and rebellion from the shadows, the trading of black market goods. Not one of them stood a chance of being innocent.
I waltzed by Captain Reyna, the scarred guard that had stood atop the stairs upon my entry to the Keep, after giving him the address in Brimrose Dire where his men could recover the bodies I'd left behind. Have fun cleaning up after me, Cap.
The sun had crept ever-so-slightly higher during my time inside. I drew my hood back over my head and began to make my way to the King's Court market district. I'd used my last poisoned smoke bomb and wanted to obtain a few ingredients to brew another batch of Bones Powder.
The walk there took no longer than five minutes and the district had a few early-risers browsing the various stalls. Anything could be found in the market district, from swords to plush toys for children. The stall I desired sat tucked away in the corner of the area, a herbal stand curated by an elderly male in a worn, white robe. He smiled at my being there, showing off his rotten teeth, a sight I very rarely enjoyed.
"Deathbloom, thistletick and tudorio. Do you have any of those?" I had no wish to converse or exchange pleasantries, that wasn't how I conducted business. My procedure was simple; take control. I ask questions that benefit me, not ones that humor my target.
The elder nodded slowly and began to wrap my required items in small paper bags. The thistletick was found first, an tangled web of green moss. This was followed by tudorio, a thin, bone-like herb. Finally the stranger bundled a palmful of deathbloom, a weed that had a faint tint of pink dwindling to a grievous shade of black. I removed a silver coin from my pouch that would cover the herbs with a generous tip and placed it on the wooden counter.
After the exchange I made my way toward The Teal Gem, the finest tavern in King's Court. Another request of mine was that I was granted shelter whilst in the the king's land and, true to his word, I had a permanent room at The Teal Gem. As I approached the fairly large building placed behind the keep, I noticed a group of figures at the end of the street in, all wearing dark, well-fitted robes. I couldn't overhear their conversation and, without a good enough reason, I couldn't see the point in trying. Something tugged at the corners of my curiosity but I wasn't yet ready to indulge it's wishes.
Inside, the tavern smelled of burning wood and fresh bread, an underlying tinge of ale tickling the senses seductively. The ground floor held multiple tables and chairs where residents could eat and converse. A bar was slotted neatly to the right of the room and the staircase to the interior balcony was pushed to the left. The second floor overlooked the open plan dining area by skirting the interior's walls with doors leading to twelve separate rooms.
I used a grunt sparingly as a greeting to the landlady, Bertha Grant, who returned my guttural noise with equal distaste. She held a grudge because she felt it was wrong for me to have a permanent room when it wasn't used for the majority of seasons. It was understandable; the king wasn't paying for the room, he was the royalty, people gave him what he needed to show their loyalty to his reign.
I took a circular key holder from my satchel and found the corresponding key for my room in King's Court. Within seconds I found myself indulging privacy once again. The room was decorated with red velvet and silk drapes, rich and vibrant in colour. The bed was king-sized and the chest of drawers could hold countless amounts of clothing, though I chose to wear only this outfit. Bounty hunters had a tendency to pack light due to the amount of travelling emphasis on mobility.
I began to remove certain items of clothing and equipment. I placed my belt and satchel onto the chest of drawers, accompanied by my lengthy coat and harness, leaving me in my white shirt, trousers and boots. I hurled myself onto the bed and ran a bare palm across my unshaven face before removing my ponytail. An audible sigh escaped my wary lips as I closed my eyes. Days of staking out Brimrose Dire and following leads culminating in Ember and Mason's meeting had left me exhausted. I realised I hadn't slept for nearly two days which managed to anger me to an extent, I'd always been careful of my own health and prolonged days without sleep was something I strongly disagreed with.
Before I could let my thoughts wander any further I felt a natural warmth spread over me, coating me in silence as my mind shut it's doors to the outside world and allowed only my internal images to swirl in a colourless, abstract dance of dreams.