(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.”
Leave a comment
No comments yet.