Caranne broke his horse out on a gallop. His quest was finally taking form after years of scraping the dirt. The salvation of the Viallans is not far.
Aldric’s theory about magic had brought a smile for the first time to the stoic face of his master. A shiver ran down Caranne’s spine as the smile flashed through his mind.
All Caranne had to do was to confirm that the source of magic indeed lay in Maray. He could almost sense visions of the Viallan’s soaring eagle banner flying high above their own castle. Awad will be ours again.
A hard jump by his horse jolted him. No, I can’t dream yet. A lot of pieces still had to fall in place.
Before him lay the small town of Katak, the only way across to the northern states. Well, at least for the subjects of the Throdden rule. He could make his way through the bandit lands to the east. But the General finding out was a problem he wanted to avoid.
The terrain had changed from the green plains of Awad to the marshes of the river Nayuna. Katak lay on top of the high cliff overlooking the mile wide river as it turned west from the north. Caranne had often wondered at how a river flowing through plains had currents strong enough to prevent fording. But the river seemed to have a mind of its own. While the river and its distributaries were the reason for the prosperity of Awad, Nayuna had washed away every bridge attempted to be constructed on it.
Caranne’s view of the river became obscured as he began his ascent up the cliff. A misty wind greeted him as he rode higher, but the mild gurgling of Nayuna had all but died down. The road, although well made as all high roads, remained slippery through the year, slowing him down.
As he turned around a bend, leading to his first view of the town, two halberdiers of the Throdden army stood guard, their blue armour glinting. What are they doing here?
He’d passed through the sleepy town a few years ago while investigating stories of a boy who ran a hundred leagues in a day. Even with the importance of the town in the trade route between the south and the north at the time, the town only had a few soldiers from Awad.
Caranne rode on to the sole inn in town which lay nestled between a bakery and a grocer’s shop. A signboard announcing it as the High Ox with the picture of a red ox standing on the crest of a cliff, swung above its door.
He dismounted and racked up his horse in one of the three empty across the road from the inn. Even during the day, the interior of the inn lay dark, sunlight illuminating only the tables besides the four windows. The innkeeper stood behind a wooden counter, plodding away through a large sheaf of what appeared as bills. Two other men sat at a table and played some game of dice.
“Good day, dear fellow. How’s your inn faring?” Caranne strode up to the man behind a long desk.
The innkeeper looked up, dark circles lining his eyes and making the young lad look far older than his years. “Apologies sire, for not noticing you. But we don’t usually get anyone till evening.”
Caranne waved off the apology. “None required, friend. I’m just looking for a meal and some conversation.”
“Uh….we have a meatloaf and some tater soup and some barley ale to wash it down. Will that do?”
Caranne crinkled his nose at the mention of tater soup. How the people of the north used taters in every dish they cooked was beyond him. “The meatloaf and the ale will do fine.”
The innkeeper nodded and scribbled down the order on a parchment which he handed over a small girl who peered over to glance at Caranne and then scurried to the back.
“So what’s your name?” Caranne hated talking but finding the nerve of magic required him to speak with a lot many people.
“Alberoth, good sir.”
“Alberoth, eh? You’re from the north, then.”
The man brightened. “Oh yes, we moved here only four summers ago. This inn used to be with a great-uncle of mine. Father did not want to let it rot after his passing, so we moved here.”
“I gather you liked your old home better than Katak.”
The boy shrugged. “The town’s fine. It’s just that the bandits have lately started to mount raids almost every other week. The guards from Awad can’t stop them. And we lose money everytime. Besides earlier, the traders used to stay for a while. Now they just ask for a meal and a drink and hurry on.”
Caranne masked his irritation. The bandits had had clear orders not to attack Katak. “I’m guessing that’s why there are Throdden soldiers around.”
Alberoth nodded. “There are only two. Lord Droullin sent them last week. They do rounds of the town but I don’t know what they can do if the bandits attack again.”
“Two halberdiers from the Throdden army inspire a lot of fear in the bandits. There’s a reason every state asks for their protection.” Caranne added a smile. Inwards, he seethed. The bandits were drawing the attention of the fool Droullin and worse, the Throddens.
“So sire, where are you headed?”
Caranne cocked his right brow. Innkeepers almost never asked travelers their destinations as a matter of rule. What they didn’t know couldn’t be used against them.
“Maray, Alberoth. In Averness. Although, frankly I’ve no idea where in Averness it is.”
Alberoth straightened and grabbed Caranne’s hand. “I’m from Maray! My cousin Quint is one of the mayor’s guard there.”
The unnecessary touch irked Caranne but he stopped the urge to whip out his shiva. “Then maybe you can guide me.”
“Hah, I can do better, sire. Just wait a moment.” Alberoth rushed to the back.
Caranne considered asking the boy about any signs of magic that he might have seen but dropped the thought. The events were few and far between four years back and he definitely did not want to leave more of a memory on the young innkeeper than he already had.
Alberoth waddled back, his hands full of several large scrolls. “Before my father moved here, he made maps. And none better than those of Maray.” He dropped them down on the counter. “You can have these, free of charge,” he announced with a bright smile.
Caranne unrolled three of the maps one by one and smiled. He wouldn’t just know where Maray lay. He would know every house and farm.
“The maps I will take for free, young friend. But here’s something for the wonderful conversation you’ve provided.” Caranne pulled out a gold flower and slid it across the counter
Alberoth’s jaw dropped in shock. “Are you serious? Just for talking?”
“No, for forgetting that you gave these to me and that you dared to ask where I’m going.” Steel entered his voice.
Shock rolled back the years and the man looked like a scared boy.
“And also for the food and ale, which I should be getting sometime soon I hope.” Caranne added.
Alberoth gulped and rushed to the back muttering an apology.
Caranne tucked the maps in his coat. Money and fear were always a strong combination.
Fabius took the dyed silk scarf from Mariam. It felt light and slippery to touch, the workmanship comparable to the royal tailors of Sen-Tian.
“Are you sure this is meant for me and not Darius?” Fabius asked with a mischievous smile.
Mariam blushed and flicked his cheek. “You think this is the best scarf I can make?”
Fabius laughed. “No, but this means your customers pay a lot more for a lot less quality.”
“Only kings can afford my best work. Not even spoilt princes can.” Mariam pouted in jest.
“Hey, I’m not spoilt. I only spend coin which I earn.”
“From gambling. Ideal prince you are.”
“Of course, I only take from those who are willing to part with their money,” Fabius smiled.
“It means a lot that you dropped by.” Fabius had found Mariam’s dimpled smile cute and innocent, one of the reasons he’d liked her rght away when Darius had introduced them.
“You know I’d do anything for Darius.” Fabius placed his gloved hand on Mariam’s cheek and suddenly pulled hard at it. “And for a beautiful silk scarf.” Fabius dodged the punch that came his way and backed out of the seamstress’ house laughing.
“Ride well, Fabius.” Mariam waved at him. “And don’t forget to send me word of sparkling silk trees.”
“I’ll send you the leaves themselves, Mariam. Or tell Darius to fetch them for you.” Fabius waved back as he pulled himself on to Bretun.
Rows and rows of markets lined the streets of Sen-Achen as far as Fabius’ eyes could see. Sen-Achen was a part of the state of Sen-Tian but unlike the capital city, the roads were cluttered and cramped with shops, stalls and even pavement traders. Fabius cursed his luck. More people milled about in the humdrum than at the Sen-Tian harbour on Sixth Moon Tide day, when the fishermen always made a killer catch.
It took him the better part of an hour to make it to the line of taverns near the eastern wall of the city. He found his company split between two adjacent taverns, lounging around the tables outside in the cool breeze of the evening.
“So, how did the meeting with the beautiful seamstress go?” Ainsley got up from a table clutching a mug of ale. “Did she have any friends to refer us to? Or customers?” The tall and lanky man from the north wobbled a couple of steps before righting himself.
“No, Ainsley. Stick to the tavern girls, shall we?” Fabius smiled at his best friend.
“Easy for you to say, lonely hermit. Get over her, Fabius. By Sucellok’s boot, you don’t even know where in Quindor she is.”
Fabius doused a pang of painful memories in a gulp of ale. “Never feel like being with another girl, Ainsley, you know that.”
“You should do a bit of growing up, you know. A gambler without a fetish for girls and a thirst for ale is a poor gambler even if he wins,” Ainsley cackled.
Fabius smiled. No girl could ever make him feel that strongly. He turned back to his companions. “I do have a thirst for ale. And speaking of ale, have you boys been drinking all day?”
“Absolutely, Fabius. Right from when you left us.” Ainsley looked around. “And since the sun has already set, we can’t ride today. We stay the night here and rustle up some money, eh men?”
A chorus of cheers went up, not only from Fabius’ own company but many other patrons of the two taverns.
Fabius pushed Ainsley back onto a chair. “Yes, but gambling piss drunk is worse than smacking a prince with a fish.”
“Agreed. That was a waste of good fish.”
Fabius laughed. He’d spent hours on the harbour and decks of the fishing trawlers with Ainsley, who’d been sent down to help his uncle with his expanding business in Sen-Tian. They had hit it off from the first moment, when the ten year old Ainsley had docked the prince with a large pomfret. Fabius had never found out why he’d done so but it never quite mattered.
The rest of his company were also mostly from his dock-trudging days except two young lads from the royal guard. Fabius had specifically refused to include anybody older by five years than him. It hadn’t been easy to convince his fathers of his entourage the first time, but his group had aced every training they had been put through. This time though, he’d been surprised that the fathers had not insisted him to take anyone else.
“So, is this seamstress a beauty?” asked Baldor, one of the royal guards. He’d started off as a disciplined bright-eyed soldier but had been corrupted into one of the company’s best gamblers. His natural affinity to dice had won the company many a gold flower.
“Careful, Baldor. You do not want to be heard saying the wrong thing about the future queen.”
“Hah, even so, what’s she going to do about it? Have me thrown in irons?” Baldor sneered.
“No, but she can whip you around with her sword.” Fabius loved the surprised look that came over the burly face of Baldor. “You think Darius loves her only for her charms? She could run circles around most of the royal guard.”
“Bretun could run circles around the buffoons in the royal guard,” quipped Ainsley, drawing a glare from Baldor.
Fabius laughed. “Ease off on the royal guard. Baldor gets us mead supplies.”
“That’s because the prince is busy hiding under his hat.” Ainsley quipped.
“I won’t be hiding this time. Official princely duties.” Fabius raised his freshly arrived mug of ale.
“So remind me again, why do we have to go Lushrow again?” Ainsley asked. The northern expedition seems so much more fun.”
Fabius rolled his eyes. “It’s fun for you only because you get to meet your family. I get to meet nobles and the Throdden army captains. And collect votes.”
“Not true, it’s also fun because there will be more horses to win coins off you, the ale is much better than the salty sea water served down here. Nothing better than a perfectly brewed strong and bitter scath.”
“But we have to first solve the terrifying mystery of what happened to Lord Droullin and the salt supplies of Lushrow.”
“He probably wants it for his next wedding. Hasn’t it become an annual festival now?”
Fabius sniggered. “I tried saying the same in front of my fathers. They weren’t pleased.”
“You said that in front of Thaddius and Naddius?”
“You’re stupider than you look. No wonder we’re saddled with prefect duty.” Ainsley chugged down the entire mug.