Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 7

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“You build their homes like toy blocks set upon each other.” Tellus gazed up as Strom guided them through the streets. If this was where some of the poorer citizens lived, he could not see it. The streets, paved even, were clear of garbage. Even the tiniest of rooms had an open area with a small garden growing in a planter. “I feel for the old ones who live on the topmost areas. All those stairs…”

“That’s what the lift carts are for. You can’t see them, but many of the homes have small carts in the back on ropes.” Strom pointed to a stucco house seated atop a building, connected to the street by long and winding stairs. “My mother, gods rest her and keep her, lived on a topmost home.” As they traveled, she pointed out building styles from across the continent – Cunis, the Suzaranate and Gallatia, and beyond. “We tend to get a lot of travelers settling here.”

The street joined and crossed with two others in a triangular plaza. Tucked in between the high walls of the noble section, the gates of the scholar’s quarters and the great curve of the inner keep was a tall, reddish brown building.

The main archway carried a sign in many different languages, but each one read the same. The Wayfarer’s Rest. Columns created a small sheltered area outside the doors. They carried on up for at least three levels. On the higher floors, multi-layered cloth covered the entrances. Privacy for the rooms there, perhaps?

Strom walked them inside. One was already pulled aside, held open with a small urn. They walked inside, scraping their boots against a strap of metal provided for the purpose. Pegs hung beside the door, should anyone wish to leave rain soaked gear to dry.

More columns and arches. Tellus scanned the room. Like most taverns and rest homes it held a bar, stairs to the upper rooms and tables in a common area by a fireplace and small stage. But the execution was unusual. A gridline of columns and arches supported the entire room. From the X where the arches met hung glowing lamps, illuminating the seats below. Every table was hexagonal, giving one a good amount of room to sit, yet not dominating the space. There was no traditional flue fireplace. Instead a stone box jutted out into the room, holding the fire and several haunches of meat roasting on spits.

A stage, hexagonal like the tables, rested in the far corner across from the door. A woman in a red tunic and loose trousers sat in the corner, with a massive stringed instrument in her lap. She plucked at it with a relaxed fury. A man danced beside her wearing a mirror of her outfit. He carried bells on his wrists and ankles, and beat a counterpoint to his partner’s song with a small drum

In the far back was a massive stone bar, carved from some salvaged piece of marble . Behind there bar were doorways to a kitchen area and a stairwell into a basement – the storehouse no doubt.

Tellus heard Adia whistle at the sword on the wall. It was twice her height and wide as an arm-span. To him, it resembled a reaper’s scythe more than a sword. This weapon carried no finesse. It was designed for brutal, efficient slaughter, hewing through lines of soldiers like a storm felling trees.

The bartender filled a clay mug for a patron. He belonged to the sword: they looked cut from the same dark metal. A claw mark decorated one eye. The other, pale blue, reminded him of an old hunting lizard’s gaze

After a moment, he left the bar and went to the fire place, checking on the meat roasting there. The woman who took the bar was almost a laughable contrast. Where he was a massive war machine, all muscle and fury, she was a hunting snake. Build more like Adia, with the grace of a hunting cat, she carried scars across her arms and face. She picked up several bottles from beneath the bar and began mixing their contents, flipping them around as if they were toys.

Tellus throwing knives and darts tucked into her belt. He imagined her hands sending the sharp blades into a poor soul’s vitals instead of juggling bottles of spirits. Now and again, she gave the massive one’s backside an appreciative glance as he carved off long strips of lamb or boar for various customers..

“For someone who once sliced warhorses in half, he manages to carve meat with amazing delicacy.” Strom smirked. “Oh, and start with the ale. Few are ready for the way she mixes spirits.”

“I do not drink ferment.” Tellus wondered if it would be limes and waters again. There appeared to be little tea around.

“Well I drink the ferment.” Adia watched the bottles fly through the air. “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’re welcome.” Strom pushed through the crowd. “Visik, damn your eyes the boar smells as good as ever.” She clapped the massive cook on the shoulder. He grinned and sliced off another fine cut of meat, serving it to her on the end of his fork. She ate it without reservation. “Gods, this is heaven after rations and lizard meat.”

“Lizard meat is amazing if cooked correctly. I need to teach your company how to properly roast one of those beasts in the field.” Visik cleaned the knife on an oilcloth and sheathed it. The butcher’s blade hung at his side like the tiniest of swords. “Glad to see you’re back. The markets were buzzing when the raven came in reporting the attack.”

“Aye, it would be, damn vultures.” Strom licked her fingers. “Gods, I’m hungry enough to slaughter a bullock for your spit. But then I’d have to drag it here by hand…”

Visik laughed. “I missed you, pup. Best damn lance corporal I ever had, you were.” He cast his eye to Tellus and Adia. “And apparently acting as a guide for newcomers to the city?”

“For now. They helped us with the raiders. May I introduce Adia and Tellus.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. It’s been a while since we’ve had a visitor from the Red Desert. Not since the Junatai clan made their last long trade loop.” Visik offered his hand to Tellus, who shook it, and to Adia, who tried to crush it.

Visik just smiled. “It’s has been nearly six years since the last member of your tribe came through my door, lady of the Black Blade. Father Ocean and Mother Mangrove keep you. Welcome!”

Adia grinned. “A good welcome, indeed.” She pulled out the voucher. “This should cover our stay, and we thank you in advance for your hospitality.”

“Hanud’s credit?” Visik peered at the marking. He glanced to Strom, who nodded and shrugged. He handed the voucher to the lady behind the bar. “Right, Ionna will sort you out then. She can validate the seal. Have to pardon the caution. Hanud rarely gives those out.”

“I suspect the cargo we assisted him in saving would be worth more than our stay here,” said Tellus

“As he is a member in good standing of the league of city merchants, I cannot say anything ill about him.” Visik lead the way to the bar. The clogged floor opened around him. “Not without the wife giving me what-for, as she runs the bloody thing.”

“Lay off, Visik. If we denied league membership to anyone with less than friendly personalities, I’d be the only member.” Ionna held the voucher with the edges of her fingers. She brought it to a lamp behind the bar, peering at the symbol and ink through the light.

“The handwriting looks like his.” Ionna turned the page sideways. “Yes, the way he accents his N’s is unique. Now, let’s check the seal.” She produced a tiny loop of wood with two small pieces of crystal fixed in either end- a miniature version of a lookout’s scope. “Ah, yes. There it is. Love signet rings. They have their own character. And this is his, all right.” She stamped it with her own signet ring and tucked it away beneath her vest. “This will cover four nights in our most basic room. It comes with meals, but the meals are always chef’s choice. You eat what he cooks.”

“Does it always smell like that?” Adia eyed the roasting boar again.

“Usually it smells better.”

“Then I have no problems eating anything and everything the chef prepares. How much for bedding and the like?”

Ionna shook her head. “Bedding comes with the room, as does one bath a night. I’ll have Senna set you up.” She whistled. From the back appeared a young woman with the bartender’s eyes and the chef’s muscles. “We have two new guests. They will be needing separate rooms. Can you see to them?”

They were laid up from the main hall to the sleeping quarters. The stairs curled around, like a vine crawling up a tree, and spilled out into a corridor lined with rooms. A few torch sconces hung along the walls, waiting for evening to come. The curve of the stairway deadened the noise from below. Senna guided Tellus to the far end of the hallway. Across from his room, another was open. A young man, hair and features matching Ionna’s, stuffed scrap cloth and rags into a mattress.

“We have a deal with the cloth merchants. All of their scrap gets washed and sent to us.” Senna opened the door to her room. “Here you are.”

No opulent rugs or filigreed decorations covered the walls. The room held all the simple essentials: a bed to one corner, facing the door, a small table, shelves in the walls for candles, a trunk for the storage of personal items. But each essential was well made: the bed carried a fresh blanket and a mattress. It rested on a framework of wooden slats, not a simple plank with four legs. The trunk looked strong enough to withstand any blow. The wall sconces were clean and well kept, with some kind of candle tucked inside a clay jar.

And then there was the large, rectangular structure in the far corner of the room. It was small, one could sit in it if you tucked your legs close, but it was stone and the inside gleamed with some kind of glazing. Another small, glazed box sat beside it. Tellus blinked.

“Is that a tub?” He reeled from the decadence.

“Indeed. There is one built into every room. We will have hot water up soon, but if you want cold water it is in the tank beside the tub.” Senna walked over and pulled an odd device from the tub, attached to a chain. It looked like a metal tube, think and reed like, attached to a sphere with a series of holes in the bottom. “And the sprinkler.”

“The what?”

Senna dipped the sphere in the tank. “You fill it with water and place your thumb over the top.” She did so, and lifted the dripping sphere. “The water stays in until you remove your thumb.” Lifting her thumb away, the water spilled from the sphere in a small rain shower.

“Ah, a well dipper! Rarely see one so small like this. Thank you.” Senna’s brother entered with a skin made from some creature’s stomach and poured it into the tub. She thanked him, and tested the water. It steamed, and almost scalded her fingers. It would need a moment too cool.

“The room is all yours. Your companion is set across from you. If you need anything, use the bell pull.” Senna pointed to a length of rope along the wall beside the door. “And welcome.”

Tellus waited for Senna to head downstairs before checking on Adia. She had brought her table to the center of the room. Laid out in front of her were both swords, still in their sheaths. Opening her satchel, she removed several small phials of carved, polished wood, a brush, and a sharpening stone. Lighting the candle, she kneeled before the table.

“Mother Mangrove, hear your daughter as she travels far from your sheltering branches. I thank you the gifts you have given me to survive.” Adia unsheathed her swords. Carefully, she ran the sharpening stone along the cutting edges, smoothing out any nicks and burs.

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the beasts in your arms. They keep us swift and strong. I thank you for the gift of their venom and blood.” She poured a few drops out of the phials onto the brush. Thick and jellied, she painted it onto the edge of the blade. Lifting one blade into the candle flame, she let the heat melt the jelly. As it cooled once passed from the flame and formed a black patina against the blade, seasoning it.

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the scars you have given me.” She touched the two ritual scars above her breasts, the two on the small star scars just over her hips, and on the scars above her knees. There were many others, but these scars mattered most. “They remind me of the harsh world, and all which is needed to survive.”

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for my sharp eyes, my strong hands, and swift legs. I will not dishonor your gifts, and shall use them to survive. Honor to you, to the tribe, to the family I have now and the one which is to come.”

Tellus closed the door and left Adia to her prayers. He needed time with his own gods before the night grew long.

***

“Welcome to Zarina’s Tavern.” Tellus was not a short gentleman. But the owner of the pleasure house made him feel small. She dominated the doorway, dwarfing two bodyguards. Dressed in loose, flowing silks the color of a ripe peach, her skin was a very light brown. She wore no jewels save for a simple belt and a necklace of gold embossed with swirling circles. “Please, enter. We have been expecting you.”

They stepped into a room filled with gods. Right from the doorway, Tellus saw an image of the eight armed good-queen of the Suzaranate, the starburst symbol of the Gallatian Empire’s New Sun, and even a prayer rug with the symbols of his own gods woven into it.

Adia gaped. A mangrove sat in the corner of the room. The branches tangled into the shape of a wide hipped woman, hands stretched to the sky. She walked right to the mangrove. Touching her scars, she raised her hand to the holy tree, mirroring the rise of the branches. When she finished, she rose.

“Thank you. I never thought I would see Mother Mangrove outside of our jungles.” Adia bowed. Tellus had never seen her so well behaved. No quips or gruff observations. Just awe.

“She was a gift from a member of your tribe. As were all of the gods here. My adoptive mother’s grandmother began the tradition. She felt it important to say all faiths and joys were welcome in this home.” The woman bowed. “I am Livia Paaulus, daughter of Marcus Allinius Paaulus. Welcome to Zarina’s rest. What is your pleasure?”

“A question first.” Tellus pointed to the prayer rug. “Where did you receive this? It is from the Danutai tribe. They have not ventured from our desert in two generations as traders.” The knotwork on the rug, and the particular shade of orange in the symbols for wind and vision which made the unspoken name of his God, marked for the trained eye to see. The Danutai tribe discovered an oasis in the great desert and took it as a sign to follow the god of water and earth, their time under wind and vision having passed.

“It is at least four generations old. A traveler from the tribe – a wind walker – presented it to the house after my great grandmother assisted him in translating several old scrolls he found.” Livia smiled. “Do you wish to hear the full story?”

“One night, yes, thank you.” Tellus withdrew the letter of credit. “We have been presented with an opportunity to enjoy your hospitality by Hanud, the bowyer.”

Livia took the letter into her slim fingers. She held it to one of the lamps. Her eyes darted across the page. “Ah, this is indeed from Hanud. Thank you. You are welcome to all we can offer. What is your pleasure?”

“I am told you have a champion level ajedrez master.” Tellus bowed. “I’m hoping to test myself.”

“And I heard this story about a sword dance between two men?” Adia followed the gods on the walls with her hand. “I’m interested in seeing this.”

Livia smiled and bowed. “Then follow me.” She parted the great rug covering the entrance to the pleasure house. “We are here to give you a respite from the world.”

They entered a spiritual brother to the common room at the Wayfarer’s Rest. The columns and buttresses mirrored each other; pillars arranged in a harmonious grid. A stage, a bar and the offset chimney all mirrored the other buildings.

Men and women sat around the tables, talking, playing table games, or just lazing in each other’s company. The house workers were always visible by the necklaces, carrying the same swirling patterns Livia wore. He saw pleasure, but no open whoring or groping. There were spots where the veils around the pillars were thicker, but they only masked faces, not activities. He guessed the assignations took place upstairs…and the basement.

Livia brought Tellus to a table in the back. Unlike the others, it was square, and inset with a red and white grid. A half complete game of ajedrez sat on the table. On one side, behind the red, was an older Gallatian gentleman in long, white robes. A sunburst covered the woven stole around his shoulders.

His opponent was slim and graceful, with long dark hair wrapped in braids and skin the color of beach sand soaked in ocean water. Clear blue eyes watched the board. He folded his long, delicate fingers on the table and waited. Tellus saw grace and poise and sharp intellect in the beautiful man’s smile.

“There.” The man in white moved his red cavalier, attempting to trap his opponent’s counselor and two soldiers. “Check.”

Tellus saw the error right away. The beautiful man made no sign of triumph. He moved his plain soldier and moved it into range of the cavaliers’ attack. It triggered a flurry of movement. Pieces were swapped and exchanged.

When the board came to rest, the man in white frowned. He tipped over his general. “I concede.”

The beautiful man lowered his head. “Thank you for an excellent game, Elder Pisio.”

“Once again, Malleus, you confound me. Maybe one day the New Sun will grant me the vision to see through your ploys.” Pisio stood. “But I now have more to contemplate as I play the others in the mission.”

“You are welcome back any time.”

The priest rose and bowed. He tilted his head to Tellus and Livia, and departed, covering his vestments in a dark cloak.

“Tellus of the Anutai Clan of the Red Desert, may I introduce Anton Malleus, ranked ajedrez champion by Gustavi Sanrius.” Livia offered him the seat. Tellus bowed from the waist. Anton returned the bow, rising.

“It is a pleasure to meet you. I have not played anyone from the Red Desert tribes before. What form of the game do you follow?”

“We follow the original form, as played by the Aegyptian kings, though I have played the Gallatian, Urkuran and Princely variants.”

“There are some who say it was the Suzaranate which introduced the game to the Aegyptians.”

Tellus nodded. “True, but that variation was played on all four sides of the board. It is a very different game from the two sided version which the Aegyptians spread.”

In the back, Adia laughed, snorting a little. “Oh, if they start discussing faith and philosophy, Livia, you will have to drug Tellus to remove him.”

“I shall leave when asked, please never fear.” Tellus sat in the chair across from Anton and helped re-arrange the pieces. “Which game do you wish to begin first?”

“I always begin with a simple Aegyptian rule game. As a guest, you advance first.” Anton rubbed the skin of his thumb against a small callous on his finger. Tellus knew the touch. Already, his opponent felt the pieces in hand.

“Thank you.” Tellus moved his queen’s soldier ahead two squares and the game began.

On Hugos and Wes Anderson Quotes

(Updated: Now with the Whitman Brothers…)

There is a pivotal moment in The Darjeeling Limited where the Whitman brothers, traveling through India in an attempt to reconnect as family, have a massive brawl on their train. It ends with two of the brothers being maced by the third, who runs off screaming “Stop including me!”

Having seen the recent slate of Hugo nominations, I wondered if a similar moment existed for some of the nominees. It was my understanding more than a few were added to the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy voting slates. How did they feel upon finding they were now had a dog in this hunt?

Over at Black Gate (An excellent on-line fantasy magazine, by the way. Add it to your Feedly stream.) Matthew David Surrage discusses, at length, how it felt to be added to the Sad Puppy slate and receive a nomination because of it.

It is a detailed, very thoughtful and very through review of both his own experiences as an unwilling Sad Puppy nominee and a critique of the thesis which lead to the birth of the Sad Puppy campaigns. I heartily encourage folks to read it.

As for my feelings: First, I do agree with Matthew’s assessments. He spoke with more rigor and eloquence than I could possibly muster.

Second – this is, in some ways, parallel to what I’ve seen in the grassroots community when Citizen’s United and the rise of 501(c)4’s came into being. The likelihood of a change in the rules is slim – this is the new reality. In the future, I see competing slates jockeying for our attention. For on-line media who cover the genre without publishing short stories (I see you, io9.com) this is a chance for them to start dominating via editorial picks. Who will get more attention? The Sad Puppy slate? Or IO9’s recommended Hugo nominees?

Oh, what brave new world…

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 6

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Almost there. We’re reaching the outer limits now.” Strom pointed to a series of low hills covered in walled farmlands and orchards. Late afternoon sun soaked the odd and crooked trees in amber. Winds picked up and rattled along the roadside. Even the elephants seemed to sense the trip was ending.

As they rode, the scent of the sea grew stronger. Adia suspected the coast hid behind the rocky outcroppings to their left. From the descriptions she received, this part of the coastline consisted of high cliffs and black rock. She found himself glad their former captain unleashed the creature. A few leagues north and they may have been dashed against cliffs.

“What kind of farms thrive on hillsides and cliffs?” Adia peered into the distance. She rode with Strom today and discussed business, strategy and the differences between soldiering and bodyguard work. Cormac and Ufric rode with Tellus, telling him about the legends of their land. The Baradus isles favored stories of heroic men who lost arms or hands, yet used the deformity to their advantage though cleverness and magick.

“Olive and date orchards, amongst other things.” Strom pointed to the terraced hills, connected by earthen aqueducts. Adia imagined ancient floodwaters curling against the once rocky hills, depositing soil and breaking through the weaker barriers as it rushed to the sea. Over aeons, the desert would drink in the waters. Some day, it was said, the earth would eat Father Ocean in much the same way.

“We will be meeting the outer perimeter patrols soon. I will talk with them, and then they will do a quick inspection before we’re routed to the sea gate. It’s a slow walk but you’ll get to see the city before sunset fully hits.” True to Strom’s word, the hills along the road grew high and bore the marks of stonemasons. Archers appeared along the hilltops. Unlike the ones which guarded the caravan, these carried bows much like Tellus’ – multiple curves, instead of a single one.

Two riders approached Strom. Adia glanced over her shoulder as they spoke. Hanud glanced at the sun and fidgeted in the saddle. His yakkul snorted and waved its horns, irritated. She could not blame the beast. Any sensible animal would have thrown Hanud off by now. The rest of the caravan seemed just as eager to be home, or at least well guarded.

Adia fell back beside Tellus. The logging cart next to them rumbled away. Afternoon shifted into very early evening before they first saw Ivre. A gentle slope took the smaller road onto a massive causeway. Thousands of footsteps beat the stone and sand into a flat pathway, big enough for five elephants side by side. To the east the great roadway traveled to the docks cut from the sea cliffs. Ships still unloaded their cargo onto oxen and elephants even as the night approached

Ivre showed itself in a beam of rose-colored light. Adia stared at the city’s tower: a pillar of pure marble stretching skywards from the city’s heart. It dwarfed the massive keep surrounding the base, built from the same stone which lined the coast. A beam of light would sweep from a massive crystal seated atop the tower and illuminate the coast.

“The sorcerer kings of old knew how to make their navigation beacons, eh?” Cormac trotted beside them. Adia could see generations of soldiers and generals building this city. The inner keep held a clear view over the rest of the city as it stretched out to the outermost walls. Four stout towers kept the city and the approaches in view They jutted from the corners in strange oblongs. And the walls were not straight, but curved slightly, dipping in wards.

Ah, I see. They prevent blind spots. Outside the massive city walls, a smaller city of low brick houses and stone walls hugged the city for protection. They faded out into the hills, merging with the farmlands.

“Is that an eye on the gates facing the sea?” Tellus pointed to the two massive doors spread wide apart. The construction was not fancy – timbers worked and riveted together, held in place by massive iron bands – but the scale impressed. Two columns of elephants and their carts, one entering and one leaving, flowed through the massive portal.

“Indeed. The doors are made from old ships and imported woods. The original gates for the inner part of the city contributed wood to the final ones.” Strom pointed to several notches within the door, facing inward. “The Lord Protector who designed the door also made an inner set.”

Adia nodded. “Ah, I see. In case of storm or siege, you can winch down braces which tie the doors together. The two doors become one, and create a kill zone between them.”

“And the words?” Tellus peered at the massive carvings along the door. They mirrored ones cut in the walls, in six different scripts. “Is it the same set of phrases?”

“‘Thou shalt leave thine vendettas behind. No feuds will be fought within the tower’s light. The law is the law.'” Adia smiled, enjoying everyone’s surprise. “I can read at least three of those languages, thank you.”

As they traveled under the archway, men in red vests walked to the elephants and lead them through the crowd. She saw similar uniforms worn by others tending the animals: a porter’s guild.

The inner gate gave way to a massive plaza. Columns, almost as high as the city walls, ringed the market space and sheltered permanent store spaces and workshops clustered. She saw a blacksmith’s in one part of the market and smelled a tanner’s in the other. People of every kith and clan made way for the massive caravan.

Adia looked upwards, unashamed. Guardsman patrolled the parapets and causeways, which linked to a barracks in the center of the market. Raven Guard filed up along the side of the wagons, inspecting them, before lining up and presenting arms. Strom checked her troops, nodded seriously, and dismissed them. She dropped from her yakkul and watched as the mounted soldiers cared for their beasts. Adia and Tellus followed Cormac and Ufric’s lead, returning their borrowed mounts to two of the Raven Guard.

“Hurry up!” Hanud road up to the sledge with the heartwood stacks. “I need this in my storehouse by sundown. I’ll pay you double to clear the whole sledge.”

“Then maybe you will compensate me for taking my part of the shipment?”

Adia looked up, over the crowd. A dark-skinned woman with almond eyes stood beside a group of porters, arms crossed. She wore a simple brown tunic, belted in the middle, with long flowing trousers and battered boots. Curls of wood hung in her ebony hair. Glue stains dotted her clothes.

Her hands fascinated Adia. Calluses dotted the fingers. They matched the ones she saw on Tellus – another archer. Moreover, another bowyer. And here is the rival.

“The porters know their business, N’Talle.” Hanud waved dismissively. “This load is mine. You don’t need that much heartwood for the small orders you have to fill.”

“And you do not need the fines for remarking wood shipments meant for others. Again” She clambered onto the wagon, looking at colored fabrics nailed into the feet of each log. “Ha. Your old eyes missed it. My section of the heart wood is on the bottom. I can wait while your porters take your section.” N’Talle hopped off the cart with ease. She gave Strom a quick bow. “Captain, I heard there was an attack on the caravan. How did your troops fare?”

“We did take casualties. I will have sad notices to send to some family members.” Strom unbuckled the straps of her chest plate, loosening it and pulling at the padding beneath. “But we had assistance from two travelers.”

“Adia and I had the fortune to be where we could help.” Tellus bowed his head respectfully. “Tellus of the Anutai Clan from the Red Desert, at your service.”

“Adia of the Black Blade tribe, and available for hire at this point.” Adia smiled and crossed a hand across her chest.

N’talle bowed to Adia, but fixed on Tellus’s back. The outer curve of his bow drew her attention. She almost slipped, staring the way she did.

“You carry a beautiful bow.” N’talle spoke, voice low, in the language of Tellus’ people.

“Thank you.” He bowed his head once more.

“Yes, they were quite instrumental in turning the battle.” The exchange did not go unnoticed by Hanud. He waved over a young man carrying sheaves of paper.He scribbled a note onto one and stamped it with a signet ring.

“Here. A note of credit for the two of you.” He handed it to Tellus. “This will see you room and board at the Wayfarer’s Rest. It is the finest lodging in the city. And…” Another quick scribbling on the page, another mark, and Hanud handed Adia a second voucher. “This will give you a night at the Zarina’s Tavern, the only true pleasure-house of the city.”

Adia tightened her grip on the page. “Are you making an assumption of my interests and whom I prefer to keep company with?”

“And I think you assume what I enjoy doing…” Tellus crossed his arms. “I was ordained as ensayyadin. They preclude me from taking advantage of the pleasure houses.”

Hanud raised his hands. “My apologies, you misunderstand. It is not that kind of pleasure house.”

“Well, it is.” Cormac knocked on the side of his saddle. “But it’s more than that. All pleasures are welcomed there. They’ve got poets reading on a regular basis.”

“And there’s a ranked ajedrez master in residence.” Ufric brushed his mount as they spoke. “They say he’s beaten every scholar and in the city at least three times.”

“No, four.” N’talle smiled. “They held a tournament while you were out. He rousted the entire college, including the Lady Protector’s husband. You could see them spitting fire and magick in frustration.”

Adia saw an itch crawl up her companion’s fingers Tellus lost his small ajedrez set during the shipwreck – a gift given to him by his father before he began his travels.

“Still nothing to interest me, though.” Adia handed Tellus her voucher.

“There are the duels.” Cormac stepped forward. “Arms demonstrations.”

Adia shrugged. “If I wanted to watch two people fight, I’d hang around practice yards.”

“Not like this.” Cormac smiled. “It’s more art than war. The objective is not to hurt or injure the other one, but to carefully cut away the opponent’s clothes…”

“…and the loser is left naked.” Ufric rubbed bits of dander from his hand. “Good show last time I was there.”

“Sounds a bit like blade dancing…” Blade dancing was a storyteller’s art back home. Dancers carried history and recited it back with each movement. The thought of using it to tell a dirty story never crossed her mind. She pursed her lips. “Well, as long as the dance paid for I might as well give it a go. At least I won’t be bored while Tellus contemplates the intricacies of strategy and gameboards.”

“Then it is settled.” Strom gave one last glance to the caravan. “Tellus, Adia, if you come with me I can escort you to the Wayfarer’s Rest. Just one small note, though. Do not start a fight there.”

Tellus blinked, looking genuinely hurt. “You think we’d break hospitality?”

“In all fairness, we do look rather… unsavory, Tellus.” Adia brushed her hands against her ragged trousers.

Strom laughed. “I warn everyone who stays there. Giant-killer of a sword over Visik’s fireplace is not for show.”

Adia’s paused, then laughed. “So that’s what he meant…”

Tellus frowned. “That is what who meant?”

“My father.” She stooped, and deepened her accent. “‘You’ll go many places and see many things. But the one thing you must never do is start a fight in an inn where a sword hangs behind the bar. It means the innkeeper knows how to use it, and survived long enough to retire!'”

“Soldiers never retire.” Strom motioned them deeper into the city. “He and his wife head the merchant’s council. They traded one kind of war for another. Now, come, let’s get you settled.”

They followed Strom into the city. Adia glanced behind her. N’talle and Hanud ordered their respective porters around. One would watch the other, waiting for any sign of theft. But in spare moments, both bowyers turned and watched Tellus vanish into the crowd.

Who is this Biomechanoid?

“Who are you?”

This isn’t just one of the great existential questions permeating our existence. For folks who’ve followed me since I began this on-line venture, it’s a legitimate question. “Who is this guy? What does he think he’s doing? What’s with the book chapters?”   Although some of this is covered in the About page, I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Now, I could write something like this:

“Author. Visionary. Dreamweaver. Andrija Popovic’s literary powers have stunned the community into silence. The publishing world is unable to comprehend the sheer primal nature of his antediluvian brilliance. But here, today, at this moment, you can experience him via the shared consciousness within…. the internet!”

But really, it would be an excuse to post this photo again while making an oblique reference to Garth Marenghi. No, the truth is much more mundane.

I was born in one of the nicer parts of the DC metro area. Both my parents are immigrants – one from Serbia and one from Venezuela – so I’ve never quite had a normal relationship with the world around me. I felt both American, and alien, all at once. This solidified when I was very young, and saw my first episode of Cosmos. The episode was “The Life and Death of Stars” and, at the very end, I watched Carl Sagan describe a galaxy rising on the shores of a distant planet.

Over the end credits the pinwheel of the milky way rose over a deep blue-green ocean. Hints of a fiery sunset touched the tops of the waves. My jaw literally dropped and, for the first time in my life, I wept for joy. Every time before, in my memory, I wept out of shame, pain and humiliation – usually at the end of an intense spanking. Not this time.

I wanted to be on that planet. I wanted to see that sunrise. I wanted to feel the sand under my feet. Would it be the same sand? Would it feel different? How would the breeze feel?

Most of the kids around me didn’t think like this. They were focused on the Redskins, or rough-housing during the play periods. I was weird. Football didn’t interest me. Weird places and unusual ideas did. I started writing then. Writing, and later photography, would keep me going through very rough times. They were secret joys, hidden from the demands of family or money. My hobbies, my secret forays into the arts, kept me sane.

But in the last few years, something turned. For the longest time, I was writing, but not for myself entirely. I wrote as a vent, or a way of getting the attention of selected folks.  The point wasn’t to tell my stories, but to tell stories I thought others wanted. But as I wrote my way through short stories which went nowhere, and what would become my first novel, I started writing more and more about the stories I wanted to read, and wanted to tell.

“Well, what stories do you want to read? Which ones do you want to tell?”

I’m still discovering this. Like many things, I’m late to the party but trying to catch up as best I can. This journal, focused on my writing, my convention experiences, thoughts on genre, is one way I’m trying to answer those questions. It my be the long-way around. But it’s how I learn and grow. But as you can probably tell from this entry, memories and the ripples pact acts have on the future interest me quite a bit. As does identity.

“Who are you?” I’m a work in progress. I’m both the same person who started this blog three years ago, and yet not the same person in the least. I am a biomechanoid under constant construction. And this is where you can see the work in progress.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 5

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Bartolio! Why are you not enjoying yourself?”

“I am the host, Praet.” Bartolio Milicara bowed his head and clapped his hand Kidina’s shoulder. The gilded edge of his silken red robe whispered against the floor. He was a study in contrasts with the other noble. Beneath his robes were a simple set of trousers and a tunic of good fabric, hiding a fit body leaning towards middle age. Kidina wore layers of silk woven with as much gold, silver and precious gems his corpulent body could manage. “Guests always take precedence. Please, enjoy. After the fight…”

“… we have earned it.” Kidina raised his wine gobblet. He drank a little, and poured the rest down the body of the half-naked pleasure girl in his lap. She giggled convincingly and pretended to enjoy the wine soaked through her white shift. Kidina dragged his chapped, broken across her wine-soaked clothes.

Bartolio swallowed bile and smiled. He hated these events, and hated hosting them more. But they were expected, especially after a victory against Praet Irtolus conservative factions in the city council. Another roadblock to newer merchants establishing themselves removed, and only hundreds more to go.

But as wine flowed, and it washed away inhibitions. Decorum decayed. He gradually replaced his normal serving staff with pleasure servants of both sexes. They were trained and well compensated for their services. His staff worked hard and the meaty caresses of one like Kidina was no reward.

He hated these events because, sadly, they worked. A mix of young merchants and first generation nobles mingled and talked. The merchants interested him the most. He spoke to the nobles every day at council. Like him, they were once scholars, traders or political operatives who were gifted with land, title and responsibility by the Lady Protector. But the merchants either recently acquired homes in the permanent markets, or were long-time residents of the constantly shifting bazaar on the city’s west side. They fought and scrapped for every piece of respectability they could get.

Bartolio saw fire in their eyes as they talked of the future. They hoped their children could live better lives than they did. New Sun preserve them, the city needed the fire if it was to survive.

Bartolio touched the sun blossom pendant under his robes. Warmth filled him. He returned to his guests, seeing to their needs.

His home felt alien. Its previous occupant found himself at the wrong end of the Lady Protector’s justice. At trial’s end, she ennobled Bartolio and gave him all of his predecessor’s possessions – a public reward for the private work exposing the old Praet’s crimes.

He did his duty, and followed the Sun’s teachings, and was rewarded. Bartolio tried to make the place his own. He preferred classical Gallatian styles, with their emphasis on pure geometries and harmonious ratios, to the more ribald later period, or the more extensive scrollwork and buttoning favored by the old Praet.

There was not much he could do with the explicit stonework in some rooms of the house but cover it with cloth and tapestries until the masons could get in.

It was in the library where he spared no expense. Here his scholarly roots blossomed into a garden of delights. Volumes and scrolls on architecture and design filled the rear wall of the library. He decorated the honey-comb like shelves with images of great buildings from across the known world. Sciences, histories and travelogues dominated the left hand side of the library. A rare map of the known world on lizard skin centered the collection. And on the right were the more creative works: folklore and legends from across the world, magickal treaties, and books on art and light.

A thickly woven rug from the Suzerainate covered the floor, inscribed in unique spiral and diamond patterns. Two chairs, thickly padded and slightly angled, sat beside an octagonal table tea table. Light streamed from a rune-covered dodecahedron. It collected sunlight in the day and streamed it out after dark. On cool nights, he could step into the library and feel the warmth of the day on his face.

Bartolio expected the library to be empty but for the mug of mint tea he left there before the party. But he found one guest there.

She held a book in her lap and a cup of tea in her hand. She wore woven shawl, decorated with brass coins, over a simple red robe with black trim. Black leather sandals wrapped her feet, worn but attractive. Her hair, dark as ink, curled under a simple headdress which covered her forehead and flowed down her back.

Bartolio coughed, politely. “Lady Davia, I hope your needs are being attended?”

N’Talle Davia lifted her head, startled. Her bright green eyes glowed in the sun, a sharp contrast to her terracotta skin. Shemarked her place in the book with a strip of cloth, and cradled it against her lap like a newborn.

“Oh, I beg your pardon. Yes, thank you, I am very well attended.” She touched the teapot beside her. “The mint tea is just perfect.”

“And how are you finding Umbero’s treatise on material strength and weight tolerances?”

“Amazing!” N’talle re-opened the book. “The tests he used to determine the flexibility and strength of objects and materials are so simple. Yet, they are repeatable and accurate. And then there are the composites he discusses…”

“This was the first book my mentor gave me when I first studied architecture in Urkur.” And back in Neffalio, before the grand exile. He suppressed memories of his father bundling everyone in blankets and rushing out of their childhood home. “I have this book to thank for my initial successes. Without it we would still have rickety walls protecting the neighborhoods outside the walls and sink-holes in the southern sections of town because of bad rain drainage.”

“All crafters owe a debt to those who studied and explored before us.” N’Talle bowed her head. “And I thank you, too. Without your efforts, I would have lost two of my best fletchers to the law. My business would be crippled.”

Bartolio raised his hands. “You directly contribute to the Guard and the city’s defense. You helped show how proposals such as this weaken the city as a whole. This is your victory.”

“A victory. There’s still more to do.” She sipped her tea. “And I thank you for all you are doing.”

“You are most welcome for any assistance I could provide.” He bowed. “Now, what else can I offer?”

“Praet, you have given me a library, warm mint tea, the single greatest reading light constructed and a moment of peace.” N’Talle smiled. “You spoil me.”

Before he could respond, one of his staff, Tiri, entered the room. She shivered and covered herself. Soaked to the skin in spilled white wine, her practical shift was as translucent the courtesans’ clothes.

“Sir, Praet Vadello entered the kitchen and found issue with one of the vintages. He asked to speak with you on this matter.”

Bartolio hid his clenched fist behind his back. He bowed to N’Talle. “My apologies. This needs attention.”

N’Talle bowed her head, touching her forehead with two fingers. “Please, do not let me keep you.”

“Thank you. Tiri, please, lead the way.” Bartolio touched his amulet in prayer.

Part way down the hall, Tiri stopped. She raised a finger against her lips, and looked up. “He is here.” She whispered. “He wishes to see you in the usual place.”

Barolio nodded. He made the sign of the Sun over Tiri’s forehead. “Thank you for your faith and patience. Please, rest for the remainder of the evening. I know dealing with him is tiresome.”

Tiri smiled, clutching her soaked clothes for a scrap of warmth. “Thank you, Praet.” She ran down the hall to the servant’s quarters. Bartolio walked up carefully hidden stairs to the master bedroom.

When he moved in, the bedroom puzzled him. Settled at the top of the house, it was built with two rings of supports around a single master pillar. The outer room, decorated on columns and chairs and gauzy curtains, showed the whole of Ivre. Chairs dotted the inverted balcony space. One could imagine many long discussions here, with the old Praet pointing to the city as if he owned the buildings and the people within.

The interior room felt cavernous. The ring design continued, creating massive amounts of space, only broken by the firepit and flue, and a sunken bed. One could lie in the bed and see the bathing tub, designed for at least four, without obstruction.

Bartolio’s first night, he felt open and exposed. On the second day, he ordered and installed several decorative privacy.

But then there was the central column. It did not bear any loads or connect to any supporting structures on the floor below. The design of the final floor used the outer ring of columns and the roof structure so all weight was evenly distributed. There was no need for an interior support.

Then Bartolio touched one of the carved stones on the central structure. A door opened. Within was a small room, big enough for three to sit comfortably, and watch everything.

Of course, he was waiting in the room when Bartolio arrived. He sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, bathed in the light from the viewing crystals. Cut with powerful runes and filled with magickal energy, each of the great crystal slabs mounted on the walls in the room tied to a smaller one hidden within the house. No space was unwatched. Glance to the left, and you saw the kitchen larder. A look to the right, and you saw the private room, were two guests were fumbling for their clothes.

And in the center of it all sat Evericus.

“Sun’s light shine on you, Praet.” He had no accent. His face was unremarkable, framed by thinning hair. Pale brown eyes watched the crystals with no particular sign of interest or excitement, just the calculated gaze of a predator studying potential prey.

“And with you, Evericus.” Bartolio sat down. He followed Evericus eyes to a specific crystal facet. It spied on the library, where N’Talle still read. “Did you find nothing of value from the other guests?”

“Nothing the Church does not already know. But finding the sins of the powerful is easy.” He leaned forward and pointed at N’talle. “It’s finding the sins of one unaware of power which requires more work.”

“Perhaps she has no sin to find?”

“She is a heathen, without the light of the Sun. She carries sin. It is a matter of finding it and using it.”

Evericus sighed. “Let me guess? ‘We do what we must, for the good of all?’

“Indeed. The enemy presses at us. Evil literally sits at our shores. We must defend the faithful. We cannot do so through good living alone.” Evericus rose and touched one of the crystals. The image rippled, and reformed. A young girl, naked and vulnerable, knelt beside a small shrine to the New Sun. She prayed to the tiny figure within, its golden arms wide, backed by a sunburst. Bartolio paled. Tiri.

“The faith must be defended.” Evericus made a starburst across his chest. “We will ask for forgiveness afterwords.”

“I assume you’re not here to lecture me.” He walked up and blocked Evericus’ view of Tiri’s room. “What would you have me do?”

“There was an attack on the caravan bringing wood from the south.” Evericus crossed his hands behind his back. “You’ll hear of it soon enough. I need you to make gestures to Haunud, as well as N’Talle.”

“Hanud? He’s funding the opposition.”

“Thus why showing concern for his business, as well as that of your allies, will make you seem magnanimous.” Evericus walked to the exit. “Remember your place, Praet. It’s a small request. Follow it and I’ll try to keep future requests… small.”

Evericus opened the walls and stepped out of the room. When the door sealed once again, Bartolio fell into one of the chairs.

He watched N’Talle read, playing with a lock of her hair, toe still wrapped in a sandal strap. On the other crystal, Tiri tried to wash wine from her hair. She had another set of clothes laid out, ready to go back to work.

“You’re right, Tiri. Time for all of us to get back to work.” He sat up, straightened his clothes, and pushed his face into a smile as he ventured back into the party.

***

“Damn the bitch. And damn the desert dweller as well. I hope the sea’s devoured them.” Girad spoke the words like a prayer as he rowed. Jasbel focused on not losing his makeshift oar. Together, they pushed a remnant of their ship,Orhalcion, towards the glimmer of shore.

“If you’re going to damn anyone, damn the captain. He opened the box. Against their advice.” Jasbel looked up, searchig for stars. The unnatural mist which poured from the wreck of their ship followed them. It blocked any chance of proper navigation. So they focused on the shadows of land they saw through the darkness.

“We never would have found the wreck if it was not for the desert dog’s eyes. And the captain never would have opened the box if he was not attempting to impress the bitch.” Girad gripped his timber in salt-cracked hands. He begged for splinters to bring feeling back to his fingers. The waters remained unnaturally cold. He suspected they moved away from shore, into the deeper ocean, but said nothing. They needed what hope they could scavenge.

“If you say women on ship are a curse one more time, I will club you over the head with this plank, Girad, cousin or no cousin.” He glanced to the canvas and crossbeam remnants they rigged as a sail. The wind tugging the cloth faround, but he felt nothing against his skin. Jasbel whispered another prayer to the seas. Forgive my cousin’s vengeful heart. Please take my prayers in stead and see us to safety.

“I do not say all women on ship are curses. Captain Selia runs a good ship, for example. I only say this woman was a curse.” Girad looked up at the horizon and stopped rowing. “Oh, gods be merciful, please look ahead and see what I see.”

Jasbel looked, and his heart leapt. The dark shadow of solid ground filled the horizon. Even from this distance, he saw rocky outlines. This was no illusion of hope, it was land. “I see it, Girad. Now row, dammit, row.”

“Aye, cousin.” They dug into the water, hope fueling their efforts. The shore grew more distinct. Jasbel never thought the cliffs of eastern coastlines would bring him joy.

“Rocks. Low rocks. This means we may be close to Ivre!” Girad laughed. “If she survived, she would be there. I could find her…”

Jasbel gritted his teeth. “You need to actually reach land first, now row!” Driftwood, sea fronds and scraps of barnacle covered detritus bumped against their legs. Their arms and backs burned with exhaustion.

And then the tip of a rock grazed his toes. The moment Jasbel’s foot hit solid ground, he laughed. When oar hit rock, he wept. Girad yelped and hollered. Together, they pulled themselves onto the black stone.

“We can’t dally.” Jasbel hauled the makeshift raft further up the broken coast. He stumbled. The ground wobbled under his feet. “My legs feel like jellied eel.”

“Don’t mention food, for gods’ sake. The tripe crawling along the shoreline looks good right now.” Girad fell against their chunk of hull. “Stop, cousin. We’re away from the shore. Let me rest.”

Jasbel panted. “Aye.” He sat on a flat rock. Water lapped on the shoreline, a mother’s lullaby. He watched the mist from his breath mix with the foggy air.

“The fog has followed us.”

“It probably covers the coast, Jasbel.” Girad levered himself up on his oar. “Let is see how far we are from the cliffs. Maybe there’s a path up.”

“Give me a moment.” Jasbel braced against his own oar. The ground shuddered. He almost lost his footing against the wet rock. For a moment, it felt like a ship turned into the tide. It would be a while before his land legs returned.

They walked inland. The sharp rock beat sensation back into their icy feet. Jasbel looked for any sign of high rock walls, which marked the coast of Ivre. Nothing but flat rock greeted him.

“Did you feel that?” Girad spun around. “Something sticky touched my leg!”

“Pinpricks. We’re half frozen. Keep an eye for any dry driftwood. We will need a fire soon.” Jasbel shivered. He grabbed a handful of his hair and wrung it dry. When his hand came away, he felt sticky webbing caught against his fingers. He looked at his palm. A thin line of silk, gleaming white even in the darkness, crossed his palm. He rubbed at it with his thumb.

“Oye! You!” Girad waved his arms and ran into the fog. Jasbel cursed, hefted his makeshift oar, and hoped his cousin had not chosen this particular moment to go mad.

But soon, he saw the figure, too. A man, wreathed in the fog, waved them forward. Jasbel hissed to Girad. Fog parted, and saw the terrain for the first time.

No rough scrub or other plants clung to the rocks. There was nothing but a white spider web, woven into the earth itself. Light filtered into the air. White crystals, quartz pulled from deep within the earth, glowed like oil lamps set behind milked glass. He stopped. The ground continued moving beneath him.

This was not land. They were still at sea. This was a ship.

“Girad! Stop!”

“Jasbel, it’s Kerr!” The light grew stronger and he saw the figure more clearly. It was indeed, Kerr, the ship’s boatswain. He wore layers of odd cloth, scraps from a hundred different outfits woven together, and a hood. “Gods, Kerr, why did you not say anything? Where did you find that?”

“You. You are – Girad. Yes?” Kerr’s voice creaked and snapped. “Yes. Girad. And Jasbel. Cousins. Shipmates. We remember you.”

Jasbel held his oar as a club. “Back away, Girad. It is not him. Listen to his voice, it is not him.”

The creature who looked like Kerr nodded. “He, Jasbel, is correct. We thank Kerr for the use of his form and his mind. We are glad he is familiar to you. We seek help.”

The hood dropped away. Kerr’s face, narrow and sharp, rested atop another man’s body. Thick, glue-like thread stitched the two together. A chunk of ocean-blue crystal replaced his skull. Thick, finger-like protrusions stretched the face in a parody of natural speech. Hunks of rock, driftwood, metal and other garbage created the neck and part of the spine. All was lashed together , like a puppet built from the sea’s leavings.

“We seek your help.” As the creature spoke, the mechanisms behind the stretched skin clicked and chittered.

Girad lowered his oar. Eyes wide, chin quivering, he hauled breaths between his teeth. “Kerr? Gods…”

“We seek your help,” repeated the thing wearing Kerr’s face.

“Seek death, demon!” Girad howled. He drove the oar into the creature’s skull. The blow tore Kerr’s face free. The delicate mechanisms holding the mouth and neck in place shattered. The creature stumbled backwards.

“No! Stop!” Jasbel yelled in vein. Girad spun around and took a second blow. The flat of his makeshift club crashed against the creature’s ruined neck. It’s skull tumbled down onto the rock. The body collapsed, a puppet without strings.

“Why?” On the ground, the skull cracked and unfolded. The thick fingers became a multitude of legs. From under the face’s remnants a tiny crystal hermit crab appeared. Wide, alien eyes and a broad mouth stared at him. The small pincers where one would envision arms clicked. “Now the soldiers and builders must act. We are sorry.”

The earth moved. Tunnels of webbing and rock pushed up from the ground. Doors like the valves of a great heart opened and spilled forth more crabs. From the mist came a clanking noise. Jasbel saw armored forms, covered in urchin-like spines, rise from the ground.

Crystal crabs encircled them. The one who once wore Kerr’s face looked at him, blue eyes wreathed in sympathy.

“Forgive us. We had hoped we could speak. But time and sympathy are short. We need more information. We need to know about Ivre.”

The chittering and clicking grew. Thick, dripping strands of white silk drifted from the gauntlets of the armored dead, twisting into sticky whips. Jasbel lashed out, but the glue held fast, wrapping around him in a thick cocoon. The other creatures clustered around them. Blue energy drifted from their tiny pincers. The rocks and crystals a their feet turned to clay, wrapping up along their legs and rooting them into place.

“There will be pain at first. But the pain will cease when we have disassembled your nerves. Please forgive us.” Tiny legs ran up along their legs and chest, taking positions on their skin. Tiny blades of blue light formed at the tips of their pincers, poised.

And then one began cutting into Girad. He howled as it peeled away a long, thin strip of skin, like an orange rind pulled away from the pulp.

“Oh, Girad. What have you done?” It was all he could say before he began screaming. He only stopped when a small blue pincer disassembled his voice box.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 4

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Garis?” Quin Bin Laval poured a handful of seeds mixed with scrap meat into a tray beside the raven cage. Cawing with delight, the ravens landed on the battered wooden feeding tray and feasted on the bloody mix. “Has the last of the reports come in for the night?”

“We do have a latecomer.” Garis walked to the cage. A raven sat on his left forearm. “Oh, and we’ve also got a dinner invitation from your family. Again.”

Quin stroked the bird’s head, smoothing its ruffled plumage. He fed it a bit of rat. The second set of eyes scribed onto the raven’s beak glowed, red as rubies. They blinked in time with the bird’s eyes. Subtle sorcery, but it allowed him to see the position and condition of every bird in their care.

He pulled a small leather cylinder from the bird’s left leg. Once free, he uncapped it and removed the tiny note inside.

“It looks like there was an attempted attack on the caravan coming south from the logging settlement.” Quin shook his head. “No real casualties but it may delay them a day while they burn the dead.” He brushed back his long, dark hair as it caught in his eyes. The wind grew more demanding, tugging at his clothes. Dry, hot days like today lead to cold, windy nights.

“We can consider it as part of the books.” Garis opened the cage door and allowed the raven to settle into its usual perch. “Now, should I tell your family we’re on our way? Or are we staying home. Again.”

Quin watched Garis check the cages. He ran his long, tapered fingers over the gridwork and along the doors. He lost one raven to a break in the cage. It stuck its head in and, so caught, strangled itself to death. Garis refused to lose another one.

Handsome, attentive and a bird lover. Perfect husband.

“I’ll send mother our regrets.” He kissed Garis’ forehead. “But soon. Tonight, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

They descended, oil lamps in hand. The yellowish glow flickered across the daubed mortar walls. They made their way to the main study. One floor beneath them sat the living quarters. Beneath that were the kitchens and servant’s quarters. And beneath that, on the ground floor, stood the great mercantile exchange of the city of Ivre. It was the financial heart of the city, where Quin stood as its executor and arbiter.

But the real work was done in their study. Deep bookshelves and scroll holders covered every wall. Enclosed lamps with glass doors and polished brass reflectors kept the room bathed in light. A massive table of dark, knotted wood sat in the center of the room.

At this table, Quin and Garis controlled the markets of Ivre. Every day, goods and coin from dozens of nations were traded. Prices were set and fluctuated based on demand, supply and other factors. On the floor of the great trading room, dozens of scriveners noted where prices began and ended, and how they changed. At the end of the day, they reported to Quin, who compiled all their work into the next day’s starting prices.

The city took a tiny bit from all transactions. The trading of commodities and exchanging currency from across the globe brought in a tidy sum and helped keep the city maintained. They did their best to manage the corruption and cheating. Like sand and dirt, it was impossible to keep out of the house. But, moments when an ambitious newcomer sought to overturn the system were handled by a quick trip to the basement.

Quin reached for a large leather scroll, the size of a decorative rug. He unrolled it onto the table. A map of the known world, from the Baradus islands in the Gallatian Empire to the Suzaranate Empire, down to the very tip of Alaque where storms, forests and the remnants of the Temeran empire hid, covered the battered table.

They rang to the kitchen for dinner. Quin sent a raven to the Lady Protector’s tower, informing his mother they would not be able to attend. Garis arranged that day’s notes and read through them:

“The Gallatian’s war is first in everyone’s mind,” said Garis. He read through one report after another: Fears of the Empire’s war along the west coast of Alaque spilling into the central regions lead to a run on mercenaries, building materials, food and other materials. The commodities market would see another jump.

“I’m sure it has my sister in a fit.” He tapped Dubrov, the massive city covering the west coast of Alaque from the rain forests to the straights marking the beginning of the Gallatian empire’s territories.

“Yes, and I’m sure she’d appreciate seeing you, and not just your reports.” The movement of money and goods told the Raven Guard as much as their spies. Gallatian legions from the Baradus isles now re-enforced troops in the Gallic highlands. And those legions moved to further secure the besieged Yspanian peninsula.

The Raven Guard profited handsomely from the expanded war. Their traveling armies now guarded caravans of raw material flowing to the city itself, and bordering nations, as the war demanded arms, siege engines, food, and magicks. The princes of the Five Kingdoms saw their coffers filled with fresh sea trade along the northern coast.

“Oh, and the church of the New Sun is seeing a heavy increase in their tithes. But…” Garis pulled a folded sheaf of paper from his sleeve. “Recent reports show they are taking the profits and re-investing them into the war itself. The Church has unofficially declared this a holy war and is directing the princes to support it. In exchange, the Princes are having their tithes ignored.”

Quin picked up the paper and read it over. “Wonder why they haven’t been open about calling this a holy war?”

“They could be waiting to see if the Gallatians can win before making a declaration.” Garis shrugged. “Who knows? In either case, their war extends down to our continent now. Dubrov is officially in siege footing. And you can see what’s that doing to the markets.”

“And the enemy they’re fighting? These raiders from the sea?”

“Your brother has confirmed what our spies have seen. But they’re being forced to keep quiet or the contract will be held in abeyance.” Garris rubbed his chin. “And we should hide it as well. Our network gives us an edge. If the market hears about it too soon, there will be runs.”

“The traders are nervous enough as it is… Someone is already leaking information.” Quin tapped a fingernail across his front teeth. His twin brothers headed the Raven Guard’s mercenary forces. When one legion fought abroad, the other stayed home. Every two years, they switched places, ensuring the Guard in the field remained fresh and resupplied.

“And we’re still seeing Gallatian currency show up more frequently?”

“Gallatian and from the trader princes as well.” Garis pulled a ledger from the shelves. “A steady rise in conversion demands. No flood just yet, mind you, but enough to bounce the exchange rate around.”

Four knocks echoed through the door. Garis covered the ledger. Quin went to the door and opened it a hand’s span. “Ah. Dinner is ready.” An elderly gentleman entered, carrying a covered tureen of beaten iron in hand. Two bowls rested on the lid. He placed them on a ledge, in easy access. From a satchel at his belt he removed two spoons, bread and two glasses. Without a word, he opened the soup, tasted it with a bit of bred, and then bowed as best as his hunched back would allow.

Quin closed the door and smiled. “Same way, every time. Even when he was father’s personal cook, he served soup the same way.”

“Let us be thankful your father gave him to us, then.” Garis pulled a bottle from one of the scroll racks, along with two cups. He poured a dark red wine for himself, and for Quin. “How is the soup?”

“Very sharp.” Quin returned the spoon to his bowl. “It warms just right. I think he found a bit of the spice from the Suzeranate – kure, was it? – and added it to the mix.”

“Speaking of them, we haven’t begun to touch on their latest market-baffling moves.” Garis corked and replaced the bottle. “I can’t tell if they’re reacting to their Oracles or just trying to force an acceptance of the blasted hard-shelled fruit of theirs.” As he reached for a sheaf of reports, Quin put his hand over Garis’ fingers.

“No, not just yet.” Quin leaned over and kissed Garis, softly. “First, dinner. Then, onto wars, markets and oracles.”

***

Lady Protector Issala Ben Ivre watched her food taster sample the roast bison, baked plains tubers and steamed greens with sliced bloodfruit. When the taster did not die, Issala dismissed her and the other servants Picking up a long, slim knife she began to carve the bison and serve it to her husband and daughter.

Markat Ben Urat sat with his hands folded under the lose sleeves of his shirt. He kept his head bowed, contemplating the meal as it was served. He still wore his stole, decorated with golden thread designs indicating the scholarly ambitions he mastered. The brightest of the marks was the tower, symbol of the city and his office as head scholar in the college of Ivre.

Once, the entire family would be together, wearing their dinner finest. Not, time had dispersed her children. The twins, Kentos and Tavrak, handled the day-to-day running of the Guard; one always abroad, fighting, while the other watched over the city. Quin took dinner at home and only visited when Garris could persuade him to leave his books.

Only Bellia remained at the table. She waited the last few slices of bison reached her plate with arms folded across her lap in rigid precision. The last slice served, everyone bowed their head in thanks to the household gods before eating. She may be the High General of the Raven Guard, but it did not excuse her from the dinner rituals.

It took a few moments before the debating began. This time, spurred by the Quinn’s apologetic note and mention of the attack on the caravan. It lead Markat do discuss complaints about restraint of trade, which mentioned Hanoud. This prompted Bellia to wonder if the price of bows would rise, which then lead to an argument over the design of bows.

“N’Talle’s design is revolutionary.” Markat drew shapes in the sauces on his plate. “I’ve done some testing and it shows a definite advantage. And her manufacturing process is very ingenious.”

“There’s no doubt the bows are well made.” Bellia sopped up sauce with a bit of bread. “But they are impractical given the weather conditions we face abroad. We can only use them for city defense and local contracts. We can’t have our archers holding disintegrating bows when fighting in the jungles or -”

“Ah, desert.” Issala smiled. The servants brought in a deep dish and began slicing the contents. Markat contributed this aspect of the meal, carrying it with his family from Urkur. Honey, nuts and chopped dates lay within thin layers of fine dough. Baked together, the ingredients became flaky, sticky and sweet all at once. After the tasters completed their work, she used two knives and teased the sliced pastry free.

Markat and Bellia paused long enough to cut into their pastries before returning to the argument. Ah, Quin, if you could see us now. He never enjoyed the debates at the dinner table. Studying at his father’s side, days filled to overflowing with politics, he just wanted quiet after the sun grew heavy. But her husband and her daughter never left their respective battlefields, even at the dinner table.

After the last of the desert vanished, she clapped her hands. “Very well, you two. That’s it. I hereby declare this discussion remanded to the battle room. You two can argue over the merits of various bow designs while feathering targets.”

“Will you be joining us?” Bellia wiped her hands on a rag, meticulous.

“No. I have a few matters to attend.” Issala rose from the table. Her husband followed suit. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before leading his daughter away. Issalla watched them go before heading down a back hallway from the family dinner room.

She ran her hands along the walls. Like most of the city, a mix of clay and mud covered the inside of the keep, but it did not hide cheap brickwork. They rough surface hid solid stone, cut from the coastal cliffs and hauled up around the great tower. The path beaten by those stones over the decades became the great road to the sea-side docks.

At a dead end, the stone under her hand changed, smoothing into a pristine marble the color of moonlight on the ocean. Veins of rose colored crystal ran up and down the wall. They caught the lantern glow and carried it along their length, down into the depths of the keep’s foundations.

“I am the protector.” Her fingers found a tiny symbol etched into the marble. She kissed it, tongue finding the grooves. “I speak for the tower and the city. Grant me passage to the sanctuary.

A door opened along the stone. There was no grinding of rock against rock, no clanking of iron mechanisms in the background. The surface opened in silence. She stepped into the opening archway and walked down a long, spiral staircase. It was one passage of many which dove into the structures under the city.

This one opened to a massive cavern. Water rushed beside her in a continuous hiss and the red light of the crystal veins flooded the air in a constant sunset. The crystal caverns and the hidden river lay before her. The river fed wells across the continent, but here it carved out magnificent caverns and caves. The great rush to the sea pressed fresh water up into the soil, creating fertile land.

The base of Ivre’s great tower found root here. It sat on a rocky island. The river flowed around it. Massive jets of crystal burst from the earth like flowers. They twisted and grew into a wide tower, stretching up the surface, through it, and into the sky

Issala wasn’t alone. Tonight, the sunset warmth showed two members of the Raven’s Guard elite corps, armor blacker than obsidian, holding a man in chains.

Blood spilled from cuts and scrapes along his face. Sweat poured down his flabby jowls and darkened short, black hair. What remained of his fine, silken clothes hung around his corpulent chest and belly in disarray.

“Ah, Duke Mirokiv of Dubrov. I had hoped not to hear from you so soon after your arrival.” The guards hauled his body up the crystals and dumped him in a heap by her feet. Liquor and old onions tinged his sweat; it followed him in a stinking cloud.

“This is an outrage, Lady Protector!” Spit and blood fell in strings from his mouth. “I have done nothing wrong. Your thugs have laid spurious charges upon me, beaten me and arrested me for no reason.”

“It amazes me, Duke Mirokiv, how often I hear those exact words on this spot.” She touched the base of the pillar. Veins in the rock pulsed around her fingertips. “This tower is a marvel. The old sorcerer kings of the Temeran Empire raised it, whole, from the rock and crystal within this cavern. It has many interesting properties.”

The Duke opened his mouth, but Issala closed it with a sharp glare.

“You violated the first law of this city. ‘Thou shalt leave thine vendettas behind. No feuds will be fought within the tower’s light. The law is the law.'” She leaned down. “I know you know this. It’s set in stone on all the gates of the city. Look at our crest. ‘By thunder or sword, this will be neutral ground.’ That came from when a prince of Aegypt in exile who tried to fight a vendetta on this ground. As he raised his sword to command his troops forward, lightning pealed from the towers and struck him, cooking him inside his armor.”

She put her arms behind her. “In Dubrov, laws are fickle things. They vanish with enough money.” Issala leaned down. “Not. Here. Not in my city.” She pressed her hand on one of the deeper veins of crystal circling the tower. “You broke the first law the moment you stepped foot in the city and began seeking a way to strike at Ankiriv.”

The Duke kept her gaze, intent on not looking like he had been discovered. She continued. “A rival in Dubrov and, in secret, a former lover. Which gave him easy access to embarrassing information and documents. Given the city’s very public conversion to the New Sun, this would have been very damaging.”

“I can’t say we are completely corruption free. No system or city is perfect. “Issala watched the Duke’s face. “But you crossed the line.” She snapped her fingers.

Two more guards entered from the dark. They held between them a thin figure in torn clothes. The Duke sucked in a breath, surprised.

“We manage corruption. You can keep your bribe… if you report it afterwords.” She forced the Duke’s eyes upwards. “You followed your rival, under a false name, with the intention of killing and humiliating him. You spied on him. And while you did, this man procured all you needed. Information, poison… children.”

The Duke stammered, but Issala just glared.

“Please. In Dubrov you hide your predations behind money and massive slums. Ivre is a far smaller city. We know when our children go missing.” Her voice grew soft and she spoke every word behind a mask of controlled rage. “Three children, born to normal citizens, abused and killed by you. One was a cobbler’s son. The second was a stonemason’s daughter. And the last was a chandler’s son.” She snapped her fingers once again.

One of the guards brought a blood-soaked bundle forward. He laid it before the Duke. The cloth fell open. Where cuts did not cover the dead child’s body, there were burns and gouges. Isalla grabbed the Duke’s hair. She forced him to face the child’s ravaged body.

“So it’s summary execution, then?” The Duke glanced around. “Are these to be the last sights I ever see?

“No.” Issala released him. She wiped her hand on a crystal’s surface. Pink light curled around her fingers like vine. She let it dance along her hand. “As I said, this is not Dubrov. We have laws and courts for this very purpose. You will be taken for trial. Unlike your city, they are not for show.”

“Four judges will see to your fate. One from the military courts, one a scholar of laws, one a noble, and one a merchant. You can have a scholar speak for you if you wish.”

“And should they deadlock? What then?” Already she saw the Duke’s eyes dreaming of an escape through well placed bribes.

“Oh, I have a vote as well. But unlike the others, I may express my judgement before the trial begins. Ivre votes through her protector.” Issala touched his forehead with one single finger.

The rose lightning curling around the Lady Protector’s hand burrowed the Duke’s skull. As glowing arcs of power dug into his skin, he screamed. The Duke’s voice resonated in the cavern. The crystals sang in response, vibrating under her feet. “The city finds you guilty, Duke. May the others have more mercy than Ivre.”

Ivre – Part 1, Chapter 3

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

Tellus looked into the campfire, seeking wisdom in the smoke and embers, but all he found were ashes.

The soldiers set up camp around the oasis with the same practiced efficiency they burned the bodies of the raiders. Carts themselves became the perimeter of the camp, great walls of lumber creating a fortress. Sentries took watch on the carts, eyes facing the darkness, watching and listening for any sign of beast or man. Smaller camps were set up in rough circles.

Adia sat by the cavalry fire, talking with Cormac & Ufric. It was eerie, how she just became one of the soldiers after a battle. The day’s blood washed away with a few drinks and an exchange of stories.

Tellus sat in the innermost camp, by the merchants. They clustered together, discussing trade, costs, employment and the state of the world. The conversations of merchants changed only in specifics as one moved through the world. Places and things were altered, but the subjects remained the same.

One difference was the esteemed Hanud. He did not join his fellow merchants, making camp on his own under a large tent.

Tellus chewed on a strip of cooked lizard. The camp chef found a way to turn pit roasting into an artform. The spices made all the difference. He made a note, to collect a few samples and bring them home. His father, ever experimenting with new tastes, would appreciate the subtle bite they added to the meat.

Home. In his time from home, chasing visions and Adia, this small oasis was the closest he came to home. The tents, the small fires, and the drifting winds were a side-step away from the sacred places his tribe visited in their eternal travels around the red desert. Were it a bit cooler, and the sands loose instead of trapped by the reedy grasses, he could almost imagine himself back home, listening to the elders discuss the next day’s travel plans.

“Damn the Guard. They should have seen this coming. The market will plunge on news of this for sure.” Another merchant spat into the fire. More spoke ill of the Raven’s Guard’s work not five steps from the wounded, and those tending to the soldier’s dead.

“Never expect gratitude in exchange for duty. Only expect more demands. It’s the way of things.” Strom sat down beside him. She held a small root bulb in one hand and a knife in the other. With practiced ease, she sliced off a tiny bit and offered it to him “Jira root. It’s sweet, with just a little bite afterwords.”

Tellus dropped the jira onto his tongue. After a moment, it oozed a very intense, sweet flavor. He had never tasted the like. “It is amazing.”

“The young ones are sharp like this. Good for keeping one’s energy up. As they grow older and fatter, the flavor dissipates but it remains tangible. Very good for stews and when mashed with other spices. And they grow easily in sandy soil.”

He nodded. “Thank you. I may purchase a few seeds when we reach Ivre.”

“I should be thanking you.” Strom sat down, armored rattling as the segments fell against her trousers. “Whatever gods nudged you in our path did us a service. The attack could have cost us more men had your friend not been so hungry for reptile poisons.”

Tellus chuckled. “Do not tell Adia. Her head will swell.” He took another offered slice. “My lord of wind and vision tends to place me where I need to be, not where I want to be.” He paused. “Whose gods do you follow?”

“I follow the old Gallatian gods. Ivre was founded by exiles from the Empire, in the days when the New Sun was on the ascension. My family god is Janeus, lord of home and shelter, but I personally follow Everix, goddess of war and cunning.”

“She suits you.”

Strom smiled. “I like to think I suit her.”

“We fit our gods, and they fit us.” Tellus touched his forelock. “We are reflections of them and, in reflecting their divinity, they become reflections of us.”

“That would get you burned for heresy in some parts.” Strom wiped her knife against her trouser leg.

“Very true. I should try and be more circumspect.” Tellus held up the sugary root. “I feel exhaustion and the buzz from this little plant may be loosening my tongue.”

“Drunk on jira? That’s new.”

“Glad I could expand your horizons.” He smiled. “In truth, I do not often get to speak openly of my faith and beliefs. I miss a good discussion. ”

“Your companion is not the philosophical type?” They glanced over to Adia, who sat beside Ufric and Cormac. She laughed and spoke, hands drawing shapes in the air as she told a story. Between breaths, she knocked back a pungent mix of hot water and alcohol.

“Adia?” He smiled. “She has her depths, but when it comes to faith, she tends to see very directly. There’s Mother Mangrove, and Father Ocean, and where they meet in between. Everything else is overcomplicated wanderings created by scholars.” Tellus leaned towards the fire. He pulled a small, earthen pot from the embers on the edge. “One of the merchants had tea. Care for some?”

Strom nodded. He withdrew two small, battered cups and poured. “Thank you.” She wrapped her hands around the chipped earthenware. “So how did you find yourself on a wrecked ship?”

“Troubled seas.” Tellus smiled. “Our travels took us eastwards from here, near Aegypt and the plains tribes there. We followed the river, found a boat heading west and south with opportunities for work, and took it. Bad luck lead the boat’s captain into bad waters.”

“That was rather vague.” Strom lifted her eyebrow as she took another long sip. “I ask because rumors fly between soldiers for hire. A few seasons back, I heard of a man from the desert tribes who enraged a small horde of bandits in the tombs of old Aegypt. Seems he held them at bay from atop one of the old king’s statues with just a bow and five quivers of arrows…”

Tellus shrugged. It was more than just the bow or the arrows. The approach was narrow, through a necropolis gate into the courtyard of the old king’s tomb. And Adia did help as well, as did the late Kerin. He whispered a small prayer for the thief’s soul.

“We all have stories which follow us. Everyone has someone who angered them. I can say I have not angered anyone who would attack your city, however. So I hope that allays your concerns.”

“It does indeed. My thanks.” She finished her tea with a last, long swig. “And I understand your discretion, and appreciate it. I would not want all of my old war stories wandering around camps like this.”

“Thank you.”

“Does your companion share your sense of… propriety?”

Tellus glanced over to Adia’s fire. She stood right before Ufric, Cormac and a few other soldiers, mug in hand. Her gestures were broad, mimicking a battle. At one point, she handed Ufric her drink and mimed firing a bow from a kneeling position. In the pantomime, it looked as if a hundred soldiers fell under the arrows of the single archer.

“Not as such, no.”

***

“So, he killed how many?” Ufric twisted his brow, disbelieving. Adia continued miming as he Tellus mowing down Aegyptian mercenaries.

“Oh, good score, at least. Remember the ground. They were funneled through a causeway into a priest-king’s funerary temple. So he is on the statue, taking high ground, and putting arrows into their front ranks. By the time they reached us, he’d thinned their numbers in half.”

Cormac tossed a bit of scrub into the fire. “So, their commander actually allowed this?”

“He had no choice. The would-be princeling who hired them used his own personal retinue to force them forward. The man had more cock then brains. And by the time Tellus and I were finished, his cock was all he had.”

Ufric shook his head. “Arrogant moron. Seems the world is lousy with them.” He walked over to a gourd resting on a bed of coals. Lifting the blackened vessel with care, he poured himself another cup of grass tea. “So what happened after the arrows ran down?”

“By then, only a few were left. In close quarters, I was had them. They were well equipped, with good brigantine, but joints were open. One cut and I let the venom work.” Adia tapped her chin. “Adder venom if I recall.”

Cormac hissed, imagining the venom hitting. “And then?

“The mercenaries commander refused to keep marching into the tomb. He turned his men around and walked out.”

Ufric laughed. “And the princeling allowed this?”

“Mother Mangrove, no. He attacked the mercenaries!” Adia slapped her thigh. “Massive brawl, right in the center of the courtyard of the necropolis. Tellus and I just took advantage of our good luck and escaped out over the walls.”

Ufric frowned into his tea. “So who won?”

“I’m guessing the Prince. He had more fresh troops.” Adia spread her hands. “Still, from the river to the sea to a shipwreck to here. Our story, neatly bound.” Her cup empty, she poured herself some tea. It was surprisingly sweet. “And what about you? You seem Gallatian, but your names are unusual. You from one of the outer regions?”

Cormac looked to Ufric, questioning. Adia crossed her arms. “Story for a story. You can keep out the gory details, I’m just curious.”

“We’re from Barradus. It’s an island the Gallatians occupied two centuries ago.” Ufric chewed over the ‘occupied’ like a bitter seed. “It’s the furthest province from the capita. The Governors pretty much run the island. We could be independent, but the clan elders like trading gold, peat and heartwood for power and station.”

“And us.” Cormac leaned over his drink.

Ufric nodded. “Aye, and us. Every two years, the Legion would come. All the able bodies would be tested, and drafted into compulsory service. Some would stay home, join the legion there. Others would ship out.”

“How long was the service?” asked Adia.

“Seven years.” Ufric spit out a chunk of grass from his tea. “They brought us to the inner provinces for training. We ended up in a lot of the southern provinces, by the sea. Wasn’t bad when we were actually fighting someone – brigands, usually – but when the Legion returned to barracks the bloody priests would come in and lecture us.”

Adia frowned. “Priests?”

“Aye. We worshiped the gods of Baraddus. Many of the other still held onto the old Gallatian gods. But the empire has one official faith: that of the New Sun.” Ufric reached down and sketched a quick map of the empire. He marked out five small spaces along the coast of the sea between the continents. “The five kingdoms. Each is controlled by a merchant prince. They introduced the faith about three generations ago. Spread like wildfire in the upper classes. The emperor converted. In the end, the princes got to keep their kingdoms by writ from the Patriarchy. And the Empire got a new faith.”

“Yea, gods.” Adia shivered, touching her shoulder scars. “And they tried to convert you?”

“The literalist priests, the ones who thought their holy book was divine, were the worst. They’d yell at you about damnation, and dying outside of the Sun’s light.” Cormac looked up. “The others were not as bad. Remember Gennarius?”

“He was a good one. Worked with the legion for a year. Tried to actually live by their tenants and strike us up in conversation. He never pushed, just talked.” Ufric Pursed his lips. “Hope he survived. Honest priests who actually live by their faith tend to be eaten alive by the church.” He shrugged, eyes ringed with sadness. “Once our tour was up, we couldn’t go home. Not after all we’d seen. And we wouldn’t sign up again. So we joined a mercenary crew.”

“The Raven Guard?” Adia moved a bit closer.

“No, Creos’ Legion. Went across the sea, fought in a few border actions before the legion split. The Gallatians were fighting some new war out of Dubrov. Creos’ smelled money. He went there. We ended up guarding a caravan heading East, hitting some of the smaller plains kingdoms. That’s when we met up with a detachment of the guard heading back to Ivre. We signed up when we hit the city.”

Adia looked into the fire. She rolled her mug between her palms. “How is Ivre?”

“Not bad.” Ufric looked up. “It’s not like Dubrov. That city’s just rotten to its core. Urkar’s a scholar’s city. Magick and nepotism.” He shuddered. “The Five Kingdoms are pious and corrupt. They use their god to excuse everything. And Cunis just exists so it can ravage Aegypt for lost wealth. No, at least in Ivre, you can live and survive.” He nudged Cormac on the shoulder. “What’s that you said last time?”

Cormac straightened himself out, as if doing a speech. “The sun is shining, the sewers are not overfull, the wind’s blowing away from the tannery and no one is dead in the streets. It’s a good day to be home in Ivre.”

Adia laughed. She scratched a few bits of sand and salt from the ragged locks. “Well, let’s see what your home has to offer. If nothing else, it’ll be better than drowning or starving.”

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