Travelling north had always given Mariam pleasure. The lands grew more and more fertile. The very scent of the earth changed as the roadside became greener and the trees grew thicker.
A fortnight ago, one of the merchants had come back with a tip on where she could find a sparkling silk tree. Although, the buck-toothed merchant had tried convincing her that she’d been the only one to know, Mariam knew if one trader knew it, it wouldn’t remain hidden for long.Maria smiled wryly recollecting the mantra the traders practiced. A quick flower earned today is ten flowers lost tomorrow. They would sell the information for all its worth.
She’d taken her cart along. It slowed her but a trading cart drew more attention and protection on the roads. Besides, these roads were pleasant and regularly travelled. For the more unsavoury kind, a shortsword lay wrapped in a bundle behind her.
Mariam smiled within herself. The sword brought memories of her training with the town banner guard. She’d always fancied herself as a tomboy growing up and sparring with sticks and wooden swords had been her favourite pastime. Her father had taken kindly to her interest unlike the other neighbours and inspite of the snide remarks and for all the gossip it generated in the town, he’d sent her to train with the town banner guard.
She remembered how the banner guards had been amused to see a girl at first but when sparring sessions left their best trainees smarting, the banner general trained her personally. And it led to her meeting Darius.
The cart jolted breaking Mariam’s thoughts. “What in Sucellok...” Mariam heeled the horses and hopped off the seat.
The left wheel of the cart lay entangled in a vine. Mariam bent down and tore it out. She was no expert on plants but she hadn’t seen the star shaped leaves before. A look at the roadside left her surprised. Vines like the one she’d pulled out had sprung up along the ground and snaked across the road. A little ahead, some vines had even covered the entire road.
Mariam took one of the leaves between her fingers. It was fresh and not trampled upon. Yet, she had met a big caravan of eight carts which had passed this way less than two hours ago. The vines seemed to have sprung up only for a stretch of about half a bolt of cloth.
“What kind of vine grows this fast?” Mariam picked up one of the vines, which had grown across. A dark green strip had emerged over the grass and grew denser on the other side of the road, heading east.
Mariam turned the cart off the road, her heart thumping with excitement. I knew it! Sparkling silk trees are always found with strange plants around them.
The vines cut through the grasslands and avoided the intermittent trees snaking around them, like a river of green. But after an hour of plodding through the grass, Mariam found herself wishing that she hadn’t gone off-road. The horse did not mind the soft earth, neighing like a happy colt but Mariam had trouble with the wheels bouncing and jerking over small mounds of earth and the occasional rock.
The trees steadily grew thicker till it began to resemble a small wood. A sweet smell filtered past her nostrils growing stronger. She had attributed it to the fresh scent of the earth since it had rained only a day past but now it was far stronger than that. A speck of red to the east through the trees caught her attention. Is that a tent? Showmen?
The trees abruptly ended in a vast clearing. Over a hundred tents stood spread out with people milling about. Mariam stopped her cart and hopped off.
There were a variety of tents ranging from the heavy canvas ones to simple tents made out of simple sheets. Who in Sucellok’s beard are these people? Men and women from all strata of society meshed, from women wearing the best cut organza robes to those wearing rough cotton dresses. But there seemed to be no animosity or distaste as they shared drinks. Not even in the merchant towns like Sen-Achen, where such interactions were common, had Mariam seen such acceptance between the classes.
The people, however, did not give Mariam a single glance as she walked past them. The sweet scent grew muskier. Mariam’s head spun a bit but she didn’t feel ill. Instead she felt her senses invigorated. She could feel the grass crunch beneath her boots and hear the stalks break. Mariam blinked to look around. Pots lay strewn about in front of every other tent and a few were in use with a few men and women stirring a brown broth in each.
“Where am I?” Mariam asked a short man passing by clutching some form of a hookah and blowing out grey smoke. The man looked up at her, smiled but did not reply and walked away.
She tried asking a few more people with the same result. Why won’t anybody speak? Are they all mute? Or deaf?
Her ears picked up two voices further in. How she could hear voices among all the cacophony of the people was beyond her.
Mariam slid between two large tents and followed the voices till she reached a clearing with a single large tent. Mariam had been in luxurious and heavy tents like this when Darius camped out. Must be a noble.
However, neither of the two men in front of the tent appeared anything like a noble. One of them with a thinning shock of hair around the crown, sat on a stool wearing a loose brown robe tied with a string, robes which farmers wore and she’d stitched by the dozen. The other man stood garbed in full uniform with chainmail and a black tabard with a white bull emblazoned on it, a sword in a black scabbard dangling by his side.
Mariam didn’t know her crests well but she suspected from the polish of the chainmail that this had to be a personal guard of one of the noble houses.
“What do you mean, Youngling?” spoke the older man.
“We saw them but they turned back before we could reach them. It would have taken us days to catch up and we…I…couldn’t…” The soldier looked forlorn.
The man nodded solemnly. “I would never wish you that much pain, Youngling. I fear our time here is done. Fret not, we shall move northwards. There are many more we can calm; there are many we can show the way of peace.”
The soldier brightened. “You are truly the savior of all, Lord of Luck.” He prostrated before the older man.
Mariam looked on non-plussed. Who are these men and what are they even talking about? They didn’t seem dangerous but something did not feel right. Mariam backed away from the duo.
“Fear not, child. We mean you no harm.” The old man spoke without looking in her direction.
Mariam froze. “I…I’m lost. I saw tents here. So…”
The soldier moved away as the old man stood up and looked at her. Kind brown eyes comforted her and Mariam felt contented, her inhibitions melting away.
“We are all here to aid you, child. What are you looking for?” The old man smiled.
Mariam felt a surge of warmth course through her. His smile is so like my father’s. “I’m looking for a sparkling silk tree.”
“You’re a seamstress, are you not?”
“You’re in luck, then.”
“You know where I can find one?”
The man shook his head, the smile growing wider. “But I can grow one.” The man advanced and held out his hand. “Come with us, child. You will have everything you desire and everyone here will love to have a kind seamstress like you in our midst.”
He’s right. I can make these people so happy. Mariam wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before. “Oh, look at these pretty plants.” Mariam bent down to caress small shrubs with triangular leaves, which had sprung up around her feet.
Fabius slammed the papers on the table. “This is ridiculous. It’s been ten days. We’re never going to find out where the damn salt went.”
His companions sat around the room with varying degrees of disappointment and frustration on their faces. The only person who showed any enthusiasm was Wallace. “Don’t worry, Prince Fabius. We have been making progress.”
Fabius felt like slapping the taste out of the boy’s mouth but stopped himself. It’s not his fault. The healer’s apprentice had been at the forefront of his search and had been burning the midnight oil searching through all the merchant logs for the past five years to find connections between the merchants. But not only was the search turning out to be futile, Lord Droullin seemed to take particular pleasure in asking for daily reports and scoffing at his lack of progress.
He had divided all the documents they had, to go through every side note and every tiny scribble they could decipher.
Wallace spoke up in a bright tone. “Orange halite! You know, Prince Fabius. My master uses it for his special treatments.”
Fabius sighed. “What do you mean special treatments?”
Wallace looked around with caution and dropped his voice as he handed the receipt to Fabius. “Don’t tell anybody but orange halite heals wounds and scars like nothing else. One crystal applied to a cut will heal it faster than any herb or salve.”
“I will remember that, Wallace. Maybe I can buy some orange halite from these merchants to get them to tell me something useful.” Fabius ran his finger over the receipt of the order where ten kilograms of orange halite had been ordered along with three tonnes of salt and a tonne of rock salt. He flipped over to the next receipt and scrunched his eyes. Intrigued, he pulled out the other three and spread them out.
“Flaming haddocks! All the orders have ten kilos of orange halite.” Fabius turned to the apprentice healer. “Wallace, can you find a list of all healers who use orange halite in their treatments?”
Wallace let out a wide grin. “That’s easy. Only my master. Nobody else knows about orange halite and he does not tell the patients what he uses.”
Fabius felt the wheels in his brain turn. “So, nobody else orders orange halite? It’s not used in anything else?”
Wallace shrugged. “Not that I know of.”
Ragnasary chipped in. “We get orange halite sometimes from the salt pools. We throw it away because let’s face it, who wants orange salt in their food?”
A smile of relief broke out on Fabius’ face but he felt envigoured at the same time. “Wallace, it’s time we paid your master a visit.”
The rotund boy looked up non-plussed, his shaggy hair falling over his eyes. “Why?”
“Because he may have known more about the shipments. And I think he’s been manipulated into ordering the salt caravans.” Fabius smiled.
“Do we all have to go?” Ragnasary sighed, his eyes pleading with Fabius.
“No, just me, Ainsley and Ardagh will go along with Wallace. It may be nothing, but I’m willing to grasp at whatever I get to get out of this forsaken city.”
Fabius stepped out into the hustle bustle of the state capital. He knew there were, as with most cities, small clinics spread throughout. But the main hospital was situated in the upper ring away with the palaces of Lord Droullin’s queens.
“So, Wallace, your master treats Lord Droullin as well?” Fabius placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, as they climbed the incline.
“Oh no, Lord Droullin’s own hall had a small separate clinic with his own doctors. The army also has a separate hospital in their own district. My Master’s supposed to treat only the rich but he brings in anybody who needs. I’ve seen him entertain men with no clothes on their back.”
Fabius whirled around as he bumped into a man. “I’m so sorry.”
The man in front of him stood in a tattered shirt and wore some kind of a short sarong which only reached upto his knees. In his hand he held a small pot with the remnants of a long dead plant, it leaves shriveled and brown. “My lord, spare a few coins for this plant.”
Fabius sighed. This must be the beggar Thormane had mentioned. “My good friend, nobody can save this plant. Tell me what plant this is and I’ll have one bought for you.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. I need salt. Once I get the salt, the plant will live again.”
“No amount of salt is going to bring your plant back to life. Why don’t I buy you a new plant?”
The beggar brightened. “You will?”
“Sure, why not? Why don’t you come with us?”
Fabius whispered to Wallace. “I hope your master treats delusions like this.”
Wallace nodded. “Oh yes! So many of his patients are loony.”
Even without horses, making their way to the upper tier through the thick crowd took them over an hour.
Fabius wiped sweat off his brow. “This is the hospital?” He asked Wallace, pointed to a white building emblazoned the blue and bronze cross of the healers.
Wallace nodded. “My master lives right around the corner from here. He usually spends the afternoons in there, unless there is an emergency.”
The lanes here were far wider than the lower tiers of the city and the houses looked far plusher. The queens’ palaces rose above the rest of the buildings and provided shade from the sun.
“Wish, they’d given us quarters here instead of the smelly army barracks,” Ainsley said, wiping his own face with a cloth. Ardagh grunted his approval.
The front of the hospital had been expectedly crowded but Fabius was surprised to find the lanes behind deserted. Wallace stopped in front of a large white door with a huge black-lacquered knocker.
The beggar, who’d been quiet, jumped for joy. “You brought me to the house. I was searching for it all my life.” His eyes displayed keenness and wide-eyed recognition.
“Wait, how do you know this house?” Fabius turned to the beggar.
“Because this is the man who gave me this plant.” The beggar thrust out the pot.
“Ardagh, you stay with our plant friend here and enter when Ainsley signals you. Wallace lead on.”
Ardagh grabbed the beggar by his arm and dragged him to the side.
Wallace knocked on the door. A minute later the doors creaked inwards. “Wallace, you know I do not like being disturbed in the afternoons. You made me come to the door when you know I don’t have servants?”
“Master Layan, Prince Fabius of the Throddens has graced our clinic,” Wallace gestured towards Fabius, who stepped forward.
The doctor stood as tall as him with a slight hunch and wore white silk robes with golden embroidery, the kind only nobles could afford. “My Lord, I’d heard you were in the city. But my temerity did not permit me to come visit you.” The doctor bowed, tightening his robe around the waist. “Please do step out of the sun.”
Fabius wiped his feet on a rough jute mat. Ainsley entered behind him.
Fabius never understood the need for addressing healers and doctors as Master, but Awad had always been strict about titles. And he needed information. “Master Layan, I appreciate you loaning Wallace to us. I imagine you must be quite busy.” Fabius ran his eyes around the house. From the various plush silk curtains and fur rugs he could tell that the doctor had earned the favour of Droullin.
“The pleasure is mine, Prince Fabius. And there’s not a lot you can do when the General of Awad forces personally asks for your assistance. What can I help you with?”
“One of my men had a bad fall and cut his head. The doctors at the barracks sewed it up but the bleeding continues. Wallace says you can heal like magic. Can you help us?”
The doctor blushed. “The boy exaggerates. It is only the result of my years of practice. Just bring your man here and I will try my best to fix him up.”
Fabius dropped his face. “Oh! But he’s very weak. Can you not come to the barracks?”
Master Layan’s face flashed irritation for a moment. “But of course, Prince. Wallace, go grab my satchel. I shall change and accompany you shortly.” The doctor went past one of the curtained doors.
Fabius pulled the apprentice close. “Wallace, make sure the orange halite drops out of his bag in front of us.”
The rotund boy looked at Fabius with wide eyes but ran off through a gallery.
Fabius tapped his fingers on his knees as he waited. He knew if this didn’t work out, they would probably be thrown out of Lushrow. At the very least, Droullin would be majorly ticked off.
“Prince Fabius, I’m ready to go.” Master Layan emerged from the room, now dressed in the typical black brocade gown of doctors faced with mustard lining. “Where is that boy now? Wallace?”
Wallace hurried in carrying a brown leather satchel, the size of a food tray. “Here it is, Master Layan.” Wallace extended his arm to hand over the satchel, as his eyes met Fabius’. The next moment, he’d tripped over the floor rug spilling the satchel’s contents on the floor.
“You moron,” The doctor started on Wallace who cowered but held himself back looking at Fabius. “Happens all the time. Wallace can be a little bit of a klutz sometimes.”
Several small bottles rolled out but didn’t break because of the soft rug. Fabius dropped on knees to pick them up as did Wallace.
The doctor bent down been too. “My Lord, you shouldn’t.”
But Fabius found what he’d looking for. He held up a small cylindrical glass container with a blue lid. “Orange halite? What do you do with this?”
The doctor looked up with a look of embarassment. “I use it to treat deep wounds. Orange halite is the best for those. It’s a trade secret. Please do not tell anyone else. Surely you understand every doctor has his own special treaments.”
Now for the gamble. Fabius took a deep breath. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t be telling anyone about it. But I do wonder how you still have orange halite in stock if the last four shipments never made it to town or why you ordered it if you already had stock to last you for months.”
Fabius was afraid the doctor would come up with a logical explanation. But instead the cherubic faced man sputtered and tripped on his own robe trying to back away.
Fabius drew a small knife from his belt and pounced on the man. “Why go after salt caravans? Who are you giving it off to? The bandits? Speak or I will cut out your tongue.” Ainsley stood by with a dagger drawn.
“What are you doing?” the doctor squirmed under Fabius’ weight.
Fabius motioned to Wallace. “Fetch Ardagh.”
“I don’t know anything about the salt caravans,” the doctor squealed.
Ardagh stepped in with the beggar who looked about in wonder.
“Is he the one who gave you the plant?” Fabius asked the beggar.
To Fabius’ surprise, the doctor broke immediately. “Please don’t hurt me. I didn’t steal the salt.”
The beggar lunged at the doctor but Ardagh and Ainsley held him back.
“Take him to the hospital, Ardagh. I’ll get the treatment out from this bastard.” Fabius pressed the dull edge of the blade to the doctor’s throat. “But you helped someone steal it. Why? And what does it have to do with this plant?”
“He gives me plants. Their leaves makes a potion. It is highly addictive. The people keep coming back for more and more.” The doctor started sobbing.
Fabius pressed the blade further on the prone man. “Who gives you the plants?”
“The man who grows them is a wanderer. Ack….collecting followers.”
“Collecting how? And for what? Who’s this man?”
“I don’t know. If he gets near anyone, they start following him. That’s how the caravans were taken. Without struggle. I’ve never seen him.One of his men brings me the plants. And I sell them.”
“I don’t know who he is. But he stays in the sewers. I don’t know where. They have a settlement down there somewhere and I think some of the most addicted people have gone down to stay with them.”
“So you’re responsible for the vanishing people as well.” Why didn’t I think of that connection before? “Ainsley stay here and watch the man with Ardagh when he gets back. Wallace, go fetch General Viallan. He’ll be most interested to know what one of his own healers has been up to.” Fabius got up, holding the knife towards the man, in case he made any sudden movements.
Wallace nodded and ran out.
“Where are you going?” asked Ainsley.
“I’ll gather the others and go down to the sewers.” Fabius sheathed his knife, as Ainsley hauled the doctor up, who was rubbing his throat.
“Shouldn’t you wait for reinforcements from Viallan?”
“And lose the chance to rub it in his face? No way. Besides the addicts down there will be as loopy as the beggar. As for their leader, I’m sure the company can handle one man.” Fabius smiled.