(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)
Adia was not woken by either Ufric or Cormac. They said goodnight in the small hours; the boys to report for duty the next day, and she to a strange bed in a strange city, which now felt empty and cold. No, it was the distinct sensation of her bladder demanding attention in recompense for the night’s pleasures. She stumbled onto the chamber pot and listened to the city awake.
Temples rang out with calls to prayer. Bells declared the markets open. Sandals, boots and bare feet drummed along the stones streets. The sun finally cleared the city walls and struck the thick cloth screening her windows.
She stood and stretched. Kneeling before her swords, she said a brief prayer to Mother Mangrove and Father Ocean. Adia pressed her forehead against clasped hands. Her fingers still smelled of the boys. She imagined the two of them awakening, curled together in each others arms.
Bad thoughts. Not right for prayer, idiot. She touched her scars, anointed her blades once more, and walked the tub. She scrubbed herself awake while checking for mites, ticks and infected cuts. Old habits, but good ones to maintain.
Chilly morning air and cool water helped push away thoughts of the boys. She wiped herself dry and rooted around for her clothes. The pleasure house returned the tunic, pants and shoes in fine condition, but they needed replacement.
Tellus could make do with just a few bits of cloth and closed toed sandals. She needed armor. For a moment, she wondered if anyone in the city produced scale armor. No one in the north produced decent leather armor, not like back home. All the tanners she met would take good raptor hide and ruin it.
The Raven Guard offices should give good recommendations.
Adia cleared the room, leaving nothing of hers behind, and headed downstairs. Grilled meat, spiced beans and fresh steamed rice tickled her nose. Her stomach yowled and she took the stairs, two by two.
Tellus sat in the back corner eating steamed rice and honey, with a cup of something red beside him. “No meat? It’s not one of your holidays, is it?”
“No, it is not. But today’s selection is a boar haunch, spit roasted and covered with sugar beets until it glazes.” Tellus put down his spoon. “And boar, along with pig, hyena, scavenger birds and black-toothed lizards, are proscribed.”
“Ever wonder why?”
“I suspect an elder of the faith had a sensitive stomach, but no one has ever proved it.” He took another spoonful of rice. Adia flagged down Senna and requested a portion of everything the common room had on the stoves.
“Where do we go first, then? The hiring hall or the marketplace?” She sopped up sugary juices from her plate with a hung of brown bread. “Gods, I could get so spoiled here! When we run out of money, we need to find a tavern in the slums with terrible food. If I keep eating this well, I won’t want to stop.”
“I never thought I’d hear you asking for a life of acetic simplicity.”
Adia laughed. “Me? An acetic? Lovely joke. I just don’t want to get settled. Too quickly. Especially if we have to leave in order to afford another meal.” Adia poked her spoon at Tellus. “You avoided the question. Market or mercenary guild?”
Tellus laid his spoon across his bowl. “The job first. We should register ourselves, make sure they know where we can be found, and see if there are any jobs awaiting us. The caravans are watched by the Raven Guard, but we may find bodyguard work.”
“Or pest killing. Remember back a month ago, when we spent two days killing vultures?”
“It paid well.”
“It was vulture killing.” Adia finished her beans. “But you are right. Job first. The voucher only lasts for so long. After that, the market – the moving one first, though. The permanent one will be here later in the day, but who knows what goes in and out of the traveling one.”
“And after that?”
She shrugged. “We return here. I suspect it will be dark by then.” As Adia dug into her breakfast, she wondered what Ufric and Cormac did for meals. Did they wait in line, like this, while chef ladled out stew or whatever they could produce in enough quantities to feed an army? Did they go out, spend their hard-earned coin on a luxurious meal?
Adia pictured them sitting together at a bench, talking, complaining about the rations or discussing their next rotation. She almost missed her chance at a second serving.
“Oye, Adia, spider nesting between those ears?” Visik nudged her with his elbow.
“Hope not. I’d charge it rent.” She held out her plate for seconds. “You seem like a knowing man. Anyone in town specialize in decent lizard-scale armor?”
Visik scratched his chin. “Rare workmanship, that. Hard do to right. Most people wreck the scales and it loses the protection.”
Adia’s respect for the chief doubled. And doubled again as she bit into the succulent boar.
“Try Guirna place. It’s in the permanent market, by the bowyers and fletchers. You’ll know it by the pipes and bellows blowing the smell outside the walls. If anyone can either make or has good lizard scale armor, it’s him.”
“My thanks. I’m sure Tellus will appreciate another set of bow strings.” She glanced back at her companion. “Thanks again for the meal.”
“Just eat well and never say you went hungry while under my roof. That’s all the thanks I need.” Visik heaped food onto the next plate.
Tellus insisted on walking through the temporary markets. He wanted a feel of the city. They walked from the house to the wall, and then followed it around, away from the sea. Against the wall, houses piled atop each other like boxes of cargo. Some were no more than shanties, reinforced over the years with available materials. Homes crawled up the walls like vines. Here the water did not flow so freely, and sewage still clogged the street.
The temporary markets buzzed with chaos and trade. Tents covered every block, with bustling avenues cut in between. Elephants, camels and lizards marched in and out of the gates in steady streams, bringing new goods to feed the merchants. She heard at least six different languages, including the trade pidgin, mingled amongst the tents.
In the center of it all was another barracks, identical to the one by the permanent market. Troops marched in and out, patrolling the streets. Tellus nudged her. “Look.” He pointed out a small boy, thin and dirty, sneaking a fruit from a vendor’s stand right under a guard’s nose. The guard pretended not to see, crossing his arms and letting the child slip away.
As the child darted free, three other men were being dragged out by the guards. They wore boards tied to their chests with “Thief” written in black ink. Marched to the edge of the gates, one of the soldiers pointed out to the road. When the thieves protested, swords were drawn and the soldiers took a wedge formation, pushing them out at the point of a blade.
Forgive a child stealing an apple, she thought. But never forgive an adult stealing from the city? Interesting justice.
Adia shrugged as they circled around the central portion of the city. The inner walls, blocking access to the noble and scholarly quarters, rose slightly higher than the outer walls. And inside the main keep itself, the lighthouse pushed into the sky. She saw the flare of light from the beacon cut across the cityscape, undiminished by the sun.
“It is like the eye of some strange god.” She blinked the light from her eyes. “Small wonder they can use it to enforce their laws. I would be afraid if I saw that streaking off in the distance.”
“Temeran magicks.” Tellus sighed. “Even a lighthouse became a monument to their vanity. So, where is the Guild hall again?”
The Raven Guard hiring hall sat nestled between the round inner wall of the scholar and noble sections of the town, just by the gate. Another sibling of the pleasure hall and their inn, this carried frescoes of men in battle. Adia suspected the history of the guard appeared along those walls. At the very top, she saw a military force landing on a coastline, lead by a lone woman in robes of a Gallatian noble from centuries back.
One image depicted lightning from the tower striking a man in full armor. The artist rendered the bolt cooking the man in his armor with great care. Adia saw hunks of flesh cooking under the lightning. Once more, the city’s motto appeared beneath. “The birth of the legend, one assumes?”
Tellus nodded. “And a handy one to pass along.”
They pushed inside. Desks and tables filled the floor of the main hall.Long slabs of slate covered one wall. Listings for different Raven Guard units covered one slate, with “Available” or “Contracted” written beside it, covered the black stone. One army at home, one army on the road, and a guard unit constantly watching the streets created a steady flow of new recruits going into the field, and veterans returning home.
“Have you been assisted?” A scrivener appeared ledger in hand. “Or are you browsing the board?”
“We’re looking to get registered with the Guard. As independents.” She nodded towards Tellus and her swords, just in case they were mistaken for recruits looking to man a sword and shield.
“Ah, excellent. Let’s see…” He glanced over the tables. “It looks like Dania is open. Third desk. She’ll be able to help you.”
Dania, a burly woman with dark skin and tight white curls along her temples, walked them through their registration. Strom’s letter carried weight and cut through many of her questions. And then she asked if they carried tattoos of protection.
“Of course,” said Adia.
“I do not have one,” said Tellus.
Dania put her pen down. “You said you’d been for hire before.”
“Oh, yes, but I’ve never needed protection of that sort for myself.”
“Really?” Dania raised an eyebrow. “Well, if you are going to be working as a mercenary I recommend one. The markings were discovered here. Aside from ending generations of suffering, there are the protections against disease. If you’re concerned about quality…”
She proceeded to describe, in detail, how the protective ink defended all who wore against various forms of violation – some disease based, and some inflicted by human cruelty. The subject put Tellus off balance. Adia frowned. He was a wise man in some ways, but blindingly innocent in others.
Dania left them a list of suggested tattoo artists in the city, notices of registration and a chance to browse the job listings while she retrieved payment for their work with the lumber caravan.
The wall of notices disappointed Adia. Most of the calls were for household guards and other permanent positions. No bodyguard work appeared. The rest followed bounties.
Quite a few notices advertised work in Dubrov. The Dukes of Dubrov called for irregulars to help fortify the city guard, and assist in the protection of outer cities. Adia double-checked many of the caravan notices. They also mentioned hazardous duty heading into Dubrovian territory. “Dubrov is having itself a big war, apparently. Even the caravans with Raven Guard escorts are asking for extra fighter and archers.”
“Dubrov’s internal wars account for half our trade.” Dania returned, handing Adia a purse filled with coin. “Even a full continent away, we feel the war here.”
“Then we will be stopping by here to see if the war changes. Or more jobs arrive.” Adia opened the purse and passed some of the coins to Tellus. He secreted them behind his belt. She tucked a few into her sword sheaths, just in case the purse vanished in the crowd. “Now, do you have any idea where I can get some lizard venom?”
Adia looked at a jar, smelling the contents, and her eyes widened. “Is this concentrated river adder venom?” She almost giggled, like a child opening a present. “How did you get it this far north?
“Ah, you recognize it!” The old man hustled across the tent. “It’s always a joy to have a truly appreciative shopper. But I should have known from the blades. Never fear, Gedri of the Amber Grasses will have what you need. Are you in the market for puffer fish toxins?”
An hour later, Adia’s blades dripped a wide variety of deadly toxins and she carried enough poison to wipe out a small settlement. She could not stop smiling. The scent of rendered snake venom reminded her of home. Tellus only shook his head and smiled.
After asking a few directions, they found the tanner their innkeeper recommended. True to Visik’s word, Guirna supplied them with affordable leather armor, without a surfeit of haggling. Adia procured a chest plate, two vambraces and grieves. Tellus was fitted for archer’s armor, with gloves to protect the drawing fingers and a brace for his forearm. It was apparent the bulk orders placed by the Raven Guard allowed Guirna to sell at a more discounted price to independent mercenaries, such as themselves.
“Thank you again. Now, I just have need of new bowstrings.” Tellus plucked at the one in his bow. Already he could feel the tension slacking. “Do you supply them? And would you know of a good fletcher?”
“If you want good bowstrings and arrows, look for N’talle’s shop.” Guirna rapped his finger along the leather of Tellus’ new chest piece, as if testing the fitting by sound. “Best bowstrings around. Has this machine she built which takes chords, draws them together into one string, tight as a drum. And then she seals it against weather. They won’t stretch or play for a while. And her arrows- learned her trade from her father. You won’t find better.”
“And her bows?”
“Well, there she has trouble competing with Hanud. Hers are like yours. Curved in odd places and made from horn and things. Complicated to make, and expensive. Still, her arrows fly like angry wasps from her bows. Use them in the city for guarding the walls. But I’ll bet good coin she’ll make find a way to get Hanud’s business away from him. Hard worker, that one.”
“Thank you” Adia plunked coin into Guirna’s hand. “For the armor, and the advice When I return to the mangroves, I’ll tell the tribe to come here for supplies.” She gave Tellus a wicked smile. “Seems we’re drawn to the bowyers once again.”
Gathering directions from Guirna, they left the tannery and headed for the barracks near the center of the permanent market. They could see N’Talle’s stand, but the crowd grew suddenly thicker. Tellus frowned as they tried to move through the packed throng, until the wave of people pressed them against one of the elephant watering fountains.
“What in the black hells?” She stood on the fountain’s edge, shading her eyes. Tellus, on his toes, saw just over the sea of heads, hats and head coverings. Raven Guard helmets marched through the crowd. Steady and orderly, they walked out to a space in front of the barracks and began building a wooden frame.
“Some kind of exercise?” Tellus watched another line of soldiers enter from the opposite side of the market. At the head of the procession, in chains, marched a squat man in funeral whites. A deep hood obscured his face. over his face.
“It’s an execution.” Adia and Tellus turned. N’Talle stood behind them dressed in stained leather coverings. Wood shavings clung to her hair, arms and hands. Streaks of sweat cut through the dirt on her cheeks. “Duke from Dubrov. Broke the first law, amongst others.”
The Raven Guard construction crew stood back from the completed frame. An elaborate set of stocks now dominated the space just before the barracks. Built from black wood – scraps of a ship? – a person placed inside would be held spread-eagle in the air, bound by the wrists, legs and waist.
“How did you find us?” Tellus handed N’Talle a small square of cloth. She thanked him and wiped her face. Motes of wood and horn shaving fell to the ground. He fought the urge to pull a particularly large wood curl from her hair.
“You also stand a head taller than most here. It was easy enough to see once we closed the shop and moved in to watch the judgement.” N’Talle pointed to Adia. “Then she got on the fountain.”
Adia watched the soldiers take position around the socks. Two elephants watered themselves on the other side of the fountain, driving the crowd into a thick clump near their part of the square. The soldiers took up formation, pillars in black armor, and blocked access with crossed pikes. They brought the condemned forward and removed his hood.
“What happened to his head?” Tellus shivered. He’d never seen a mark like the one the accused bore.
“City’s judgment.” N’Talle touched her forelock and lowered her head. The crowd rumbled and buzzed. He leaned closer, hearing strained. “Five sit in as jury for the accused. One of the votes is the city, spoken through the Lady Protector. That black mark is a vote against.”
“The city speaks?” Tellus looked up at the great tower. The light from the very top cut through the sun like a red knife. Every half rotation, he swore he saw an eagle-like eye embedded in the great crystal lens.
“Cities have souls, just like anywhere else. I like to think Ivre is pragmatic.” One of the porters bumped into her from behind. The shove nearly sent her into Tellus. “Though her denizens still seem to love a good bit of blood justice, it seems.”
Tellus glanced over his shoulder. The accused sat in the stocks, arms bound to the upper pylons, legs tied to the lower ones, and his waist held in place by tightly pulled straps of leather. “How will he die?”
“Spears to the heart. The executions never linger, but are messy. They’ll spend more time cleaning up his remains than actually setting up the stocks.” N’Talle crossed her arms. “Still, no luck getting anyone to work or buy when this happens. Executions for violating the core laws of the city are rare.”
“You mean no one is usually stupid enough to come here looking to close a grudge?” Adia shaded her eyes.
“Neutral ground is neutral ground. Everyone gets a second chance in Ivre.” N’Talle lowered her eyes. “It still doesn’t stop people from the usual stupidity, but there’s a difference between home grown idiocy and carrying fights with you.”
Bitterness hung in the air. Tellus watched N’Talle’s eyes harden, then refocus on the Raven Guard officer. His leather armor carried detailed gold and brass workings. Ceremonial armor? The officer stood atop a large, flat bowl and unfurled a scroll.
“Duke Mirokiv of Dubrov, a court of the city of Ivre finds you guilty of the following offenses: Violating the first law of the city, and carrying out a vendetta against one who was granted refuge here in our walls. In doing so, you were also responsible for the crimes of bribery, suborning officers of the law, hiring known criminals to commit acts of murder, and attempting to obstruct investigations into those murders.”
“But the court agrees his most heinous crime…” The officer took a deep breath, and swallowed. He gripped the scroll, crackling the paper. “Was the abuse, murder and violation of three children of Ivre -”
A howl went up in the crowd. Near the stocks, a group of mourners in funeral red poured dirt over their heads. The parents? Their silence compared to the roar of anger confirmed this in Tellus’ mind.
“-done without remorse, as if such abuse was part of his station in life and the lives of those children were worthless in comparison.
Tellus murmured a silent prayer. He turned to N’talle and Adia. As he did, from the edge of his vision, a man in a light brown head-wrap pressed parted the crowd. A needle-like blade glimmered in his palm. His eyes, though shaded, were fixed on N’talle.
“For this, he is sentenced to death at the spear, to be carried out immediately.”
“Down!” He yelled before thinking. The assassin, alerted, lunged forward, blade aimed just between N’Talle’s ribs. She ducked aside, yelping. The dagger caught her sleeve, leaving blood and opened skin in its wake.
The assassin spun, reversing his dagger in the hopes of catching N’talle on the backswing. Tellus threw his body into her attacker. He wedged the killer’s attacking arm against his shoulder, and tightening his grip against the killer’s wrist.
A second blade, small and triangular, appeared from under the attacker’s sleeve. The assassin made a quick punch, upwards, aiming at Tellus’ throat.
So Tellus bent his legs and let the attacker’s weight carry them both back. The fountain edge caught their legs and they tumbled into the water. Cold covered his face, pushing into his nose and mouth. He pushed himself against N’talle’s attacker, holding him down under the surface.
From above, hazed by the churning water, Adia’s fist drove past him and smashed into the assassin’s nose. Blood bloomed in the water and he was blinded. His attacker fell slack.
Tellus pushed himself up, into the light. “Get him out! We need him alive,” he shouted.
“I know.” She pulled the attacker out of the water, kicked him in the stomach, made sure he spat out the water in his lungs and mouth.
Tellus unwound the man’s head-scarf. Knee in his back, he tied the man’s hands in place.. When he looked up, Adia’s mouth was latched around N’talle’s wound.She sucked blood free and spat it on the ground.
“Bleh. Cheap poison. Here, drink this.” Adia shoved a recently purchased philter into N’Talle’s hand. When she stuttered and balked, Adia pulled the top and poured it down her throat. “It tastes terrible, but it’ll prevent any further issues.” Unlacing part of N’talle’s shirt, Adia tied her arm up above the wound. She soaked a scrap of cloth in water and washed the wound clean.
“I… what?” N’Talle fell to the ground. Tellus rushed to her, helping her down while Adia moved to their prisoner. She shook her head, as if trying to clear away the last few moments. Around them the crowd pushed back. He heard the elephants roar, and their handlers hurry calm the great beasts.
“Hellfire and buggery, give her some room!” The Raven Guard officer muscled past two spectators. Other members of the guard, tower shields poised, created a small open area beside the assault. He eyed Adia, Tellus and the fallen assassin. The wound caught his gaze first. “Leftenant Solus, at your service, Mistress Davia. I’ve sent for the guard and a physicker from the scholar’s quarter. Is this the extent of your injuries?”
N’Talle nodded. “Thank all the gods, yes. Tellus has handled the assailant and Adia has taken care of any poisons on his blade. Do you recognize him?”
“No, but we’ll have a name out of him soon enough.” He stood up. More helmets moved through the crowd – the guard divisions of the city, clearing the square, interviewing witnesses.
“N’talle. Look at me.” He met her eyes. “Breathe. Your body will start reacting now your fears are not driving you. If you do not allow it to relax, you will find it hard to focus.”
“And it will help the anti-venom.” Adia turned N’Talle’s head to face her. “Good. Your pupils are not split. Means it’s working. You’re lucky the man didn’t know how to mix a real poison.”
“What about Tellus? He was also scratched by the other blade?”
Tellus blinked, puzzled, until he saw a long scratch along his arm, just over his armor. He cupped water and washed it over the wound.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Adia. She helped N’Talle to her feet. “I’ve dosed Tellus with every anti-venom I can find. Kept him sick for a week doing it. He doesn’t have my tribe’s tolerance, but he can take this stuff with ease.”
Tellus rose. His muscles ached and his breath still burned, but he rose. “Ease? A week of nightmares while we hid away in the hills near Cunis is not ease. And I will still be sick tonight, most like.”
“So you two are familiar with this type of assault?” N’Talle winced as she tried to move her arm.
“It is our business, yes.” Tellus let N’Talle use him as a crutch. ”
The city guard leftenant, Solus, pulled Adia aside and spoke to her. After a few nods of acknowledgment, she joined them again. “The guard is going to escort us back to your shop.”
“Good. While there, I we can talk business.”
“Business?” Tellus frowned. “I can buy arrows and bowstrings from you later.”
“Bowstrings?” N’talle laughed. “I can make it part of your payment. No, I would like to hire the two of you as bodyguards.”