Fabius adjusted the bronze bracer on his hand. It didn’t hamper his sword fighting but somehow he’d never felt comfortable wearing them. Still, protecting his wrists was imperative after yesterday’s fight.
“Why are you getting ready for battle?” General Viallan entered his room without prelude. It irked Fabius but the man had been gentle for the past few days. He could at least allow such liberties.
“We must hunt down the men responsible for this vile plant and save those who’ve been taken.” Fabius said, clamping shut the bracer on his other hand.
“Your job was to solve the vanishing of the salt caravans, which you have already done. And you cleansed the city of the foul weed and all affected including their guard is under care. Nobody asked you to go after these lunatics. Not the King nor Lord Droullin and certainly not me.”
“No, but there are innocent people at stake. People who’ve no idea what they have been dragged into. Besides you’re the one who harped that I should take responsibility and protect my people.”
“And you think going after these people is being responsible? Your first responsibility lies to your own men. One is dead and another can barely move. All because you were too hot-headed. You may have no love for ruling, Prince Fabius, but that does not give you the right to play dice with the lives of other men. Men who look to you for guidance and leadership. Let Droullin take care of his people. He knows his subjects and lands better than you.”
Guilt shot through Fabius’ heart. He’d set his friend’s body on the pyre a few hours ago. “I’m no leader. We are companions. I do not order anybody to do my bidding.”
“And yet they do what you say. You do not want to lead? These men put their lives in your hands and look where it got them. Leadership is not a choice, Prince. Leadership is a duty and it has fallen to you. Shirk it and you end up losing family and friends. Just like today.”
“I never as ked for it.” Fabius snapped in frustration.
The General stepped close. “I understand your pain, Prince. But you have other duties. Lord Droullin filled me in. You’re supposed to go collect votes from the northern states.”
“Droullin knows that?” Fabius blurted out. Who all had his fathers told about his missions? He felt his ears grow hot. They don’t trust me this much?
“Your duty is to the King first. And his orders were to clear the situation here and head north.”
“You’ve not known me long, General. While I appreciate your advice, I rarely ever listen to anybody else and that includes my father. And besides you told me to be responsible. That’s exactly what I am doing.”
“You do know what the general populace of northern states thinks of the Throdden rule?” The General paused.
Fabius clenched and unclenched his fist. The man was beginning to grate him. “What?”
“Most of the people barely remember that there is a king. All they know are their own state nobles and town mayors. And from what I’ve seen the nobles have no love for each other. All it takes is an errant insult and you’ll have warring states.”
“You’re a military man. What do you know of vote politics? We have Throdden armies in each state who send regular reports. If there was any unrest, the King would know.”
The General grunted, adjusting his blue robe. “What I do know is people. The armies you have stationed there are made of men. Men who can judge apathy of a ruler and when they are being neglected. That is why the Throddens hold the votes. So that they can connect with the masses and their needs. Which is why your father sent you to collect votes.”
Fabius shook his head in exasperation. “I cannot abandon innocent people. From what I saw, men fall to this weed faster than drink with far worse effects. This cannot be allowed to spread.”
“So you will chase the trail of people who you don’t know can be saved or even if they remain alive to be saved. Instead of honouring the necessary tradition which your father as a King wishes to attend to, you want to gallop off after a wisp of smoke. Typical of young men these days.” The General turned on his heel and strode out of the room.
Fabius stood twisting his bracer. Why does the man have to make so much sense?And why is he so interested?
He’d taken well over a month to sort the issue of the salt caravans and even that had been the result of Wallace’s diligence and a pure stroke of luck. If Darius had taken a year to collect votes for eight states, he would probably take much more. Fabius ground his teeth. The General is right. I cannot go chasing after this Lord of Luck if I have to keep my promise to Darius.
Fabius strode out of his quarters. He wouldn’t let his impetuousness cost his men anymore. And he would prove his fathers wrong.
Caravan after caravan trundled past him. Caranne caught up to the man in front of a ragged cart with a flimsy cotton sheet draped over it. “Where are you off to, my friend? Does better grain call?”
The bearded man looked exhausted but gave Caranne a queer look and harrumphed his pair of bullocks onwards.
Caranne sighed. For some reason, he’d not managed to elicit a response from any of the travelers, whether travelling alone or otherwise. Tension reeked through the air and everyone around seemed to carry a dark secret.
In all his trips to the north, Caranne had pegged the northerners as settlers and farmers, rarely moving even when better trading opportunities presented themselves. And yet ever since he’d crossed Katak, he saw people moving one way or the other. He hadn’t bothered himself with the comings and goings of the common folk at first. They did not matter in the larger scheme of things. But this mass-migration piqued his curiosity.
The capital town of Relast seemed to have been afflicted with the same malaise. The town had never been big or important and the fall of half the state of Nordan to bandits had further denigrated its status. But the amount of hustle bustle in the town had Caranne wondering if he hadn’t ended up in one of the merchant cities of the south.
He trotted his horse through the muck accumulated because of the constant traffic. He’d never encountered an unclean Free-Road, except those in the bandit lands. I guess even the Throddens can’t keep track of this madness.
The first inn in the town had a long queue of patrons outside, so Caranne asked his way to the one of the other two inns in the town, choosing the one which lay a bit off the town square. Tomatoes spilt from a cart squelched under his horse’s hooves as he entered the narrow lanes of the town. Caranne scrunched up his nose but he’d seen far worse.
The Drowning Cutlass? How does that even make any sense? Caranne shook his head at the faded yellow and green sign hanging outside the small wooden inn. At least it doesn’t seem as crowded.
Caranne hopped off the horse making sure he landed on the wooden side-boards and tossed the young stable-hand a bronze petal. Thieves operated best in busy and crowded areas and he didn’t want to waste gold on buying a new horse.
A creaky door led him to a room full of the stench of sweat mixed with wet clothes. Caranne pulled out a silk handkerchief, well used, but in better shape than the garb of most of the inn’s occupants.
“What you looking for, traveler?” A large man with a twirling black and brown moustache stepped out from behind a counter.
“Are you the innkeeper?” Caranne asked, wiping sweat off his brow.
“Innkeeper, bartender, cook and serving man, all at once. If I could sing, I’d be serenade the good folk out here. Now, whaddya need?”
“A room and a meal.” Caranne fished out his leather purse. Velvet pouches made for easy targets. “How much?”
“Cost you three silver leaves for a room alone and another for hot chicken broth and loaf of bread.”
“How about a gold flower and you throw in a bottle of spiced wine and some information?” Caranne drew one gold flower from his purse and twirled it around in his fingers.
The bartender leaned forwards, deftly flicking the flower into his own palm. “Whaddya wanna know?”
“I see so many people moving. And it’s without rhyme or reason. Some are heading north and some away. Has a plague broken out?”
The bartender backed away in terror, his eyes darting left and right. “Shhhh…Are you mad? You’ll get us killed. This inn is... not for their kind.”
“What are you babbling about? Not for which kind? Bandits? People are moving because of bandits?”
“No, you fool.” The bartender tossed back the flower. “Keep your money and keep shut. We do not discuss their matters here.”
Caranne felt an itch to pull out his shiva and slice a vein or two of the innkeeper’s hands for being obtuse. But bloodshed in a crowded place wasn’t wise. “Listen, I’m going to Maray and I’ll have you tell me what trouble brews in these lands.”
The bartender’s eyes opened wide, bulbous pupils dilated. He roared, waving his hands widly. “He’s one of them. He’s going to Maray. Throw him out! Throw him out!”
“Wait…” Caranne stumbled back in surprise. A sea of arms descended on him before he could draw his shiva out of its sheath. “What do you…” A hard punch to the gut made him double up in pain, as blows rained on the back of his head and his back. He reached for his shiva but somebody grabbed his left hand and stomped on it. Caranne arched his back and howled in pain.
How long the beatdown lasted Caranne didn’t know, but he did feel a cool draft of the evening breeze sting his bloodied face as he flew through the air before landing in the mulch.
Caranne felt people step around his prone body and walk past. He moved his fingers and toes to check whether he’d suffered any broken bones. Any other wound would scar or bruise but heal. He slowly dragged himself up, his stomach and thighs hurting the worst. He hopped gingerly on his left leg, bumping into a horse and using it to cross over to the stables where he dropped down to a sitting position.
His left hand had turned blue and from what he felt, his face was a collection of swollen eyes, a cut lip and numerous swellings. When the Viallans rise, I’ll burn them to the ground. But a nagging though remained in his mind. Why had they attacked him? What did they think he was?
He left a small knock on his shoulder and sprung up to his feet and collapsed the next moment, lights blurring before his eyes.
“Sire, yous okay?”
Caranne propped himself up on his right elbow as the stable-hand held out a hand, his other clasping a mud pitcher or water. Caranne let out a groan before speaking. “Not particularly, but thank you.”
The straw-haired boy poured out a bit of water on a cloth which he handed to Caranne. He nodded his approval and steeled himself for the sting of the cold water while he cleansed his face. His clothes could wait. “They won’t hit you for helping me?”
The boy cracked a grin, showing an oddly long incisor on the top lip. “If they knews I was here, maysbe.”
Caranne smiled, holding his right cheekbone. It would take a week for his body to feel normal again. “Do you know what these people are afraid of?”
The boy shrugged. “All I heard was, if you can do something special, you should head to Maray. If you can’t, stay away.” The boy held out his hand. “I could take your purse, but then yous would have nothing.”
“Why you little….” Caranne rose up but a sharp pain shot through his back. Not the time to make more enemies. He gingerly pulled out a silver leaf, which flew from his fingers into the boy’s hands.
“Your horse’s round the corner.” The boy gave him a wink and ran off.
“Hey, wait. Why aren’t you heading to Maray?” Caranne called.
“I nevers listen much.” The boy turned, gave his toothy grin and vanished into the crowd.
Magic! Caranne managed a smile. He stood one step closer towards redeeming the Viallans.