Equilibrium

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3: The Depths of Tarpik

Larke, 1182

The main street of the city, Tarpik, was busy, as I'd expected. These days, I rarely ventured out of the castle on personal business. As High Suryan Premiere, I was extremely busy leading the business of the Suryan Mages, and often being assigned on foreign missions. My feet tapped onto the cobble stone street as I strode down the street. The weather was warm, still, though it would be turning cold before too long. The light breeze carried along scents of the vendors, sweet breads, savory delicacies, and I inhaled deeply.

The sounds of the city were as I remembered, too. Those same vendors, whether they were selling food or other goods, were all shouting to be heard over the din they created.

"Best prices for steel in the city!" shouted one.

"Come get the finest clothes money can buy!" shouted another.

The people bustled around me, each individual on their own mission, running errands, off to work, or going home. Somehow, despite the crowd of people that filled the area, I felt so alone. I was a single Suryan Mage, lost in a sea of simple commoners, with simple lives, filling their simple days with simple, mundane tasks. I envied them their easy peace.

Eventually, after an hour or so of ambling through the streets, I came across the main square. I hadn't found the corner where my family had sometimes set up shop, and I doubted I would. Though the city had the same feel that it did long ago, so much had changed over the years. The buildings had worn down, soldiers roamed through the crowd, their presence both comforting and threatening at the same time. I ignored them; they weren't my concern.

My reverie was interrupted as I noticed a man standing on the fountain in the center of the city square. He was shouting, and a small crowd had gathered at the fountain's base. My curiosity piqued, I wandered closer to hear what he was saying.

"... it is time! We, the people, deserve better than this!"

The crowd grew slightly larger, and I was burning to know what the man was talking about. I pushed closer, trying to hear better over the volume of the vendors, the bustle of the city, and of course, over the crowd itself. I noticed the crowd was made of entirely commoners, most of them wearing dirty, ragged clothes.

"... taxes are too high. We cannot afford to live in this country with these taxes, all to pay for foreign wars that we see no benefit from! He will ruin this Kingdom!"

I inched closer, interested now in what this man had to say. The King would like to know the mood of the people, of course, and it seemed that the people were angry. Was he really taxing him them in excess?

The man continued to shout, calling more and more to the crowd. I eyed the soldiers who hadn't noticed yet, but they would soon. They were still far away, on the edges of the square, but I knew that soon, they would be acting. It was treason to speak so poorly of the King in a public setting like this.

"...He stole this country from the Rynish, and now are paying the price, while he sits on a stolen throne, with his stolen wife, counting his stolen coins! It will not stand, my friends!" The man, who was obviously of Rynish descent with his tanned skin and black, shiny hair, continued to preach.

I stood and watched, the mood of the crowd growing more and more hostile as the Rynish dissenter shouted on.

"He doesn't care about you, or me, or anybody below his stature. He conquered the Ryne just because he could. King Zante Urion is a usurper! Never forget that he murdered the Cerul family in front of the entire city! An entire family! A mother, father, and their children!"

I shuffled my feet, uncomfortable with where this was going. This was technically true, and common knowledge. At the time of the rebellion, King Zante had to eliminate all threats to his rule. The Cerul family stood in his way, so he removed the problem. He had told me once, in confidence, that he'd done it all for love. Then, I'd believed him. Everybody knew he and the queen were mad about each other. Everything that this man was preaching about seemed to be true, and that unnerved me. The history that I knew was that King Zante, at the time the Thiolish prince, had fallen in love with a Rynish general's daughter while visiting court. The story went that she became pregnant, and Zante wanted to marry her, but wasn't allowed to as she wasn't royalty. So, he assembled his first Suryan Mages and conquered the Ryne so that he could have her.

Zante succeeded, of course, and that general's daughter is his wife Queen Miraa, and the child she was pregnant with is their daughter, Princess Nya. Their story was famous in the castle, for multiple reasons. Of course, they were the ruling family, so everything they did was famous. I had heard their love story over and over again, the tale of the King who conquered a nation for the love of his life. But I'd never heard it told in this light.

The soldiers patrolling the streets had finally noticed what was happening in the square. I saw them in my peripheral vision, edging closer and closer, growing in numbers as they approached the crowd. I pushed through the people, but in an attempt not to alarm them, I was slow, and kept a bored look on my face. I didn't want to interfere with whatever was going to happen here.

I made it out of the crowd and continued on my way to explore a side street. The height of the afternoon was approaching, and I still hadn't gotten anywhere useful. I chanced a look back at the rebel speech-giver and saw that the soldiers had surrounded the crowd. The people had started to panic, as they were surrounded by the armed soldiers who were apparently ready to make arrests. Not my business, I thought. Those soldiers were just obeying orders.

I heard a scream, and then several more. I still didn't look back. There was no point – I knew exactly what was happening. The listeners were fighting back, and they were paying for it. I reached the edge of the square and went to follow another street when I decided to glance back after all.

The soldiers had restrained the man giving the speech, still standing on top of the fountain. His hands were locked behind his back, held by one of the soldiers, though he struggled wildly, and I saw another soldier brandish a sword at him. Calmly, I watched, though still walking forward on my path. A typical arrest, I thought.

Then the soldier with the sword promptly swept it across the rebel's throat, blood spurting out over the subdued crowd. The man, choking on his own blood, doubled over, supported only by the soldier who held his wrists. Disgusted, the soldier threw the rebel into the fountain, his blood poisoning the clear water within. The crowd, surrounded by even more soldiers, went frantic. I turned away, unwilling to see any more. I'd seen enough blood in my lifetime; I didn't need more.

Ignoring the cries and screams behind me, I kept stepping forward until they faded. This street I was now walking down was another one filled with vendors. There was a section for blacksmiths, where one could find weapons, armor, household goods, keys, locks, anything that had to be made of metal. There were other sections for cloth, sewing, clothes, yarn, everything of that nature. The city was vast, and the customers plentiful; there was always a shop selling what you needed, somewhere. The street I was on must have been the food district, as it was crawling with street vendors selling their delicious wares. Some had produce, others were selling fresh caught fish from the river Myr, and some were bakers, showing off elaborate breads and pastries.

I had a weakness for sweet, buttery pastries, and the whiff of them set my stomach growling. I suppose it was approaching dinnertime; I had spent a long time in the city so far, just browsing the streets and reacquainting myself with the scenery. I had no money on me – to fit with my disguise of a poor, widowed woman – and I cursed myself for picking a backstory like that. I wish I had a large sack full of coins to spend at every single baker stand here. My mouth watered as I saw a stand full of cinnamon-coated rolls, glazed with sugar. Why did I have to make my new persona so poor?

Well, that's decided. I'll have to be a thief today. The idea didn't bother me, really, it was just less effort to spend money than to perform a sleight of hand. First, I had to choose a stand. This would have to keep me full for a while, as I would be on the streets indefinitely. Disappointed, I knew the cinnamon delicacies wouldn't be sufficient for these purposes, and I moved my gaze forward.

Ah, perfect! This stand had a baker who sold thick, large loaves of what looked like some kind of sourdough bread. To steal one would be more difficult, due to their massive size, but it would be beneficial in the long run. The stand was still a fair distance to go, so I ambled onwards, planning my theft.

I approached the stand, edging closer and closer and I made to walk by.

"Oops!" I said. "Sorry, I didn't mean to bump into you."

The stand shook, and several loaves littered the ground. I had knocked into a man who was paying the baker, and consequently, the commotion threw the bread into the air.

"I'm so sorry!" I said again, quickly picking up the loaves to hand back to the baker.

My left hand deftly switched one loaf behind my back, so fast that nobody would've seen it unless they were watching for me specifically.

"Have a good day, sir," I said to the baker, a sweet, innocent smile on my face.

He blushed, and I curtsied a little, then made my exit.

I'd gotten far enough away that I pulled the bread out from its hiding place and brought it up to my nose, inhaling the floury scent. Ah, that smelled good. I walked a bit further, and then decided I needed a place to regroup, to settle down, eat, and then continue on. How on earth would I find the Naga gang? I knew they had ties with some businesses in the city, but we had no idea which ones. I hoped that I'd be able to happen across one, or somebody that knew where to find them. My current plan was based on luck, it seemed, and I wasn't having any yet.

I sat down on the street, leaning against a tall building. Taking small bites of my bread and people watching, I saw citizens pace by, buy their dinners, chase children out of the way, and eventually, start to head home. This part of the city was generally busy well into the night, but I could see that most of the vendors were starting to close down. I glanced at the sun and noticed it was starting to set.

Well, time to keep moving. I got up, put away the rest of the loaf in one my skirt pockets, and brushed off my dress, crumbs tumbling out from the creases. I stepped forward, the cobblestones making a pleasant sound as I walked on them. Quickly, the sun began to truly set, and I watched the night fall over the city. I had gone far enough that I'd reached a different section, this part filled with dim lights throughout the streets, wandered by rough looking men and elaborately dressed women. The buildings were still somewhat tall, with several stories to them. Rowdy music blared from some, and I was curious as to what kind of establishments these were. A drunken man stumbled out directly in front of me, from one of these buildings. He reeked of alcohol and passed out in the street directly into a puddle, splashing my feet. I side-stepped him carefully, disgusted.

These places must be pubs or inns, that sort of thing. I wondered if the Naga would hold any interest in these types of businesses. Come to think of it, those kinds of establishments would probably be the kind that permitted the sale of Spate, the Naga's custom drug, to their customers. I should check out one of these places. But which one? I stared down the long street, crammed with these institutions.

I'd made it a decent distance past the man who'd passed out in front of me and stood leaning against one of these buildings. In the corner of my eye I noticed a few women down the street giving me angry looks. I ignored them expertly and closed my eyes as I rested, trying to think and plan. I suppose I could just waltz into one of these places and ask around. I didn't want to cause alarm, though; I needed to be discreet and not draw attention to myself too soon.

"Get lost, wench," a voice said, rousing me from my daze.

It was one of the women who had been down the street. I simply raised an eyebrow – these women could do nothing to me. If only they knew who they were speaking to.

"You're losing us business!" screeched the other. She pointed down the street, indicating where she wanted me to go. "Beat it!"

"Ladies, ladies... what is going on here?" a third voice said.

This one came from a very short middle aged woman, dressed in elegant, silky clothing, wearing extravagant makeup and a heavy-looking updo. She must have come out of the building I was leaning against; I was a few feet from the door she was standing in.

"We want her to leave!" said the first woman, sounding like a pouty child.

The older woman looked me up and down, a calculating gaze on her face. "I think she's got talent," she said, smiling. "Dear, are you in need of some cash, or a place to stay for the night?"

The other two women looked even angrier at this, the first one crossing her arms across her ample chest.

"Yes ma'am," I said cautiously. I was becoming more and more suspicious that this was a brothel and that these women were prostitutes.

"Well, why don't you come inside and get warmed up? I think Mama Jude can help you." She gestured that I follow her inside.

I did, surprising myself. The two women remained in the street, seething at me.

The room was dimly lit, full of smoke, a slow, haunting tune coming from the guitarist playing lazily in the corner. And it was full of people. Chairs at tables, a large, empty stage, and couches littered the room. Each one had at least one or two men sitting at them, and most were accompanied by beautiful women, each in various degrees of undress. I blushed immediately, embarrassed that this was the situation I'd walked into. The Madame, Mama Jude, I presumed, didn't seem to notice my reaction. I took a deep breath, inhaling some of the smoke and immediately getting a feeling of peace, calm, and mischief.

The sudden mood change alerted me to something important. That must be Spate, the drug that I'd been charged with finding. Were these people associated with the Naga gang? If that was the case, or even close to being true, I had to stay and find out.

"Well, sweetheart, are you willing to earn your keep tonight?" Mama Jude lilted, gesturing towards the lewd scene I was witnessing.

I stared back at her and accepted my fate. This was the best place for me to start so far, anyway.

"Yes ma'am," I replied. "But just for the night."

She nodded and looked me up and down again. "We will have to find you something else to wear, darling."

I gulped.

"Don't tell me your name, dearie, and use a fake one with the gentlemen. It's safer that way," she warned.

I nodded, swallowing my fear. This was just for the night.

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