The aroma of fresh bread filled his nostrils; overpowering the stench from the canal. As the sun climbed over the rooftops Zack trudged through the empty streets on an unexpected mission. Earlier that morning, Lex had rapped on his door and handed him a shopping list.
They had bakers in Alexanderia, there were chefs in the castle, but none compared to Madame Boutin’s cinnamon rolls and cheese loafs. As a dutiful knight, on behest of his general, Zack dressed, splashed water on his face and left on a fetch quest. They had to be fresh, Lex repeated, no time to waste.
He dragged his feet through the dark streets until he found the modest bakery. It shared a roof with a sweets shop, but to his disappointment the windows were still shuttered. But Madame Boutin’s chimney was already puffing clouds of smoke into the dismal grey sky. Soft lights glowed from the windows and the delicious smell of bread, spice and butter drifted over the street.
With the crinkling paper bag in his arm, he returned to the castle with his spoils. He walked along the canal as people emerged from their homes; wiping the sleep from their eyes. The peaceful solitude offered a chance to ponder and plan his day.
But the group huddled by the edge of the canal indicated his tranquil moment had passed. Their whispered voices pulled him closer. Women clasped their baskets to their chest as two young men, waist deep in water, pulled something to the tiny ledge. A third man, with tanned muscular arms hauled the object onto solid ground.
The smell of rotten meat stung his nose as they turned the submerged man onto his back. They pushed the torn fabric deeper into their nostrils while the women covered their mouths with their shawls. Zack took the cue, covering his nose with his hand while gripping the bag with the other. They brushed the wiry olive weeds from around his neck and hands, revealing bruised wrinkled fingers. Between the abrasions, bruising and swollen flesh; identification was next to impossible.
“How long has he been in there?” One woman whispered.
“Dunno… Jerome do you know who he is?” The second woman called from the stair.
“Hard to tell Cynthia, the guy’s missing most of his face.”
Zack had little experienced with what the group called ‘a floater’. His torn clothes, strips of material clinging to the seams, offered nothing definite. Jerome ripped open the shirt, revealing a gapping hole in the chest.
Worms wiggled from the edges and one man vomited at the sight. It didn’t take long for a patrol of soldiers to spot the ‘disturbance’ and push the onlookers aside. To avoid additional questioning, he followed Cynthia’s lead and slipped into the crowd. He caught up with her at the top of the stairs.
“Excuse me, Cynthia, is it?”
“You sound like a soldier.” She faced him, “you look like one too. I got nothing to say to you.”
“Hang on,” he pushed past her basket and blocked her exit. “Yes, I’m a soldier, but I’m not from around here.” Her thin lips pursed; a quick nod of her scarf wrapped head permitted him to continue. “Does that happen often?”
“You’re definitely not from around here if you gotta ask a question like that. But you seem spooked enough, so yeah, it’s pretty normal to find a floater.” She paused, surveying the street before answering.
“But usually they’re less…”
“Folks get tired. This place don’t make it easy for anyone. From time to time, we’ll find someone who took life in their own hands, if you know what I mean.” He nodded, remembering the new recruits who suffered a similar end. “But its different now.”
“The hole in the chest?”
“No water I know does a thing like that. And if you ask me, it’s been happening more and more. They say someone’s ripping hearts out. But no one sees nothing. Lots of folks are on edge lately, if I were you, I’ll head back to where you came from.”
He pushed by nobles and their mob like entourages as he found his way to Allan’s quarters. Various perfumes dampened the air and tiny dogs barked from the laps of richly dressed women. Attendants rushed past him, weaving between wandering visitors to complete their duties.
Inside the king’s room the morning fire crackled while Allan studied the carved mantle. Lex, dressed in his ceremonial uniform slouched in a high back chair. His eyes widen as their gaze fell upon the bag in his hand.
“Good show,” he smiled, directing Zack to the table under the window. He unpacked the prize, placing the loaves between used teacups and a now cold teapot. Wedged between the cheese loaf and the baguette was a wax sealed piece of parchment. The wax had no crest or emblem, he had no idea how or when it was placed in his bag. As he studied the letter in the light from the window Lex snatched it from his hand.
“Wait is that yours?”
“Your uncle has his ways of gathering information,” Allan mused lifting the tea pot only to frown as he discovered it was empty.
“An informant? Wait you use that nice old baker?”
“The Baker, the butcher, candle stick maker, and most likely a chimney sweep,” Allan chuckled.
“You laugh your majesty, but Alexanderia has benefited from each and everyone of them. Now Zack, get washed up and dressed. The conference will start soon and I’m didn’t train you to be a slacker.”
“Aye aye,” he smirked grabbing a roll before leaving. The door clicked behind him as he remembered the body in the canal. It was odd, and he felt even Lex would want to know of it. But as his hand grabbed the knob he paused. Allan’s voice was low and only a few words were audible.
“Did they find them?”
“Afraid not Sire, but we’ll keep searching.” The doorknob twisted as his hand hovered over the smudged brass. “Zack? I thought I sent you to get ready?”
“Uh you did, I mean…” His brain thought of a lie, “did you want me to meet you here before it begins or…”
“Head straight there, we will reconvene after.”
The audience settled in the viewing gallery of the main chamber with anxious grumbling. Zack moved through the rows of benches on the balcony looking for a seat and found a spot beside a woman in the front row. Smiling at his good fortune, he made his way to the chair. She wore a fashionable dress with a green cap but a few blonde curls poked out from under the lace brim.
“Excuse me my lady, but is this seat taken?” An impatient lord hushed him, muttering he was obstructing the view. The woman shook her head and he sat before he annoyed anyone else.
Surveying the seated guests on the gallery floor, he spied Lex whispering to General Steele. The famed general was taller than he remembered and white strains speckled his dark hair. Lex met his eyes; giving him an approving nod. He located Allan among the chairs situated in a horseshoe around the throne. Of the four chairs two remained empty. Allan ignored the man sitting one chair over. In turn, the slender man in white robes refused to acknowledge the king’s presence.
“I hope his Majesty king Avalon had a pleasant journey.” The woman beside him whispered.
“How did you know I accompanied the king?” She motioned towards the ruby emblem embroidered on his uniform collar. “Ah, yes, it was pleasant enough; warm weather and no rain.”
“I am surprised to see a young knight choosing to listen to these snobbish lords speak instead of indulging in all Lollardum has to offer.”
“The general suggested I stay,” he ran his sweaty hands through his hair, “calling it a ‘learning experience.’”
“Ah yes, General Stone; a wise steadfast man. I assume he is training you to succeed him?” She watched the crowd as she spoke, her face hidden by a charcoal veil attached to her hat.
“Lex has plans for his plans, it’s hard to keep up most of the time. What about you, you must have a love for politics to suffer the pretentious company.”
“I have a desire to remain informed of the events of the kingdom in which I live.” She stretched her neck to watch the wide carved doors, anticipating King Castellan’s arrival. “My husband believes it is a ridiculous interest, which is why I steal away from my duties to come here. I dread his displeasure when he discovers my absence.”
“Any man should consider himself lucky to have such a passionate and educated woman as a wife.” Before she could respond the horns trumpeted ordering the crowd to stand for the king’s entrance. The barrel-chested man resembled a bear as he stalked to the throne. Adjusting his fur cloak, he stood as he addressed the attendees.
“I welcome you all to Our beautiful kingdom. Accept Our gratitude for your interest in the trade relations between our powerful domains. Before we commence, I wish to address Our absent friends. In case it is not apparent, there are two representatives absent from the proceedings. Given the unexpected passing of king Ethan Winterman his widow, the Queen Regent, declined the invitation. She expressed her duty to her people during this difficult time. We have sent our sympathies and understanding of the matter. And, finally, the other chair is always left for the High Priest of Sherseas, and as usual, he refuses to attend. But I am happy to see the representative of the Kingdom of Ancients; Imperial Council member Toranis. Also, the warmest welcome, Your Majesty of Alexanderia, King Avalon.”
As the opening statements progressed, so did Zack’s inability to stay awake. The room, crammed shoulder to shoulder with people, grew warmer. The roof, a beautiful display of ornate windows absorbed the morning sun, creating a hot box below.
Sweat pooled under his tunic, making him fidget as his skin itched. But what was worse, as Allan spoke, the soft regal voice began to lull him to sleep. His heavy eyelids fluttered, shutting then flung open as his chin touched his chest. It wasn’t until Castellan stood, his gruff voice speaking with absolute authority, did Zack pay attention.
“With regret, I must report a disturbance brought to my attention. As you are aware, Lollardum is plagued with violence, however, it is reaching a record high. And I will no longer stand for it. I am ensured of our success to squash the perpetrators. But I must advise caution of similar actions in your respective nations. It is my greatest fear that these events will become widespread.”
“An effective way to create panic, my friend.” Allan remarked, “what is it you are referring to?”
“Buildings in the Theatre District were deliberately set afire, killing many and destroying homes. What is most tragic is according to my sources these fires were set by a pocket of Mage radicals.”
The crowd burst in an uproar, cursing all Mages, and spitting their anger towards the throne. The woman beside him squeezed her hands on her lap. Zack knew the tension between both races were teetering but he didn’t expect outright attacks. The mob yelled, stomping their feet demanding Mage blood. But the Imperial Council Member protested the loudest.
“Impossible! We are forbidden to cause destruction. The Oath forbids it!”
“You call me a liar Toranis?” Castellan bellowed, squeezing the armrests to prevent himself from clubbing the Mage. Toranis struggled with staying near his seat as well, hovering between sitting and standing to stomp the floor in protest.
“I speak for the Council and every member of our race; you are wrong! I suspect you purposely set the buildings on fire to cause a panic. How many more of my people will you prosecute?” The crowd jeering stood from their seats yelling profanities against Toranis. Castellan reveled in their support, assuming their cries justified his words.
“Your people force their own beliefs on us. They are dangerous and use their magic within our walls. It surprises me they waited this long to murder the rest of us!”
“Liar!” Toranis surveyed the crowd like a lion in a cage. Castellan nodded, approving of the vehement threats from the audience. He raised his hands, motioning for the crowds to quiet.
“I know you don’t want to believe your practitioners are dangerous, Lord Councillor, but I report the truth. I acknowledge while there are faithful Mages, but also accept there are those who do not follow your Oath. As king my responsibility is to the people and their safety. I will investigate this radical segment. However, I appreciate the assistance from the Mage Council, Lord Councillor if you so choose.”
“I will work hard to clear Our name.” Toranis stood defiantly, straightening his robes.
“I suggest the remaining kingdoms take heed to prevent similar actions against your own people.” He addressed the last point to Allan. “Do you wish to add anything, my friend?”
“There is no such violence in Alexanderia. My people have accepted the differences between the races and co-exist in harmony,” he spoke softly but clearly. “The role of an Alexanderian king is to foster peace and understanding. We do not punish the innocent, instead we conduct our actions fairly.”
“Are you implying these attacks are somehow my fault?” Castellan spoke threw gritted teeth. The woman next to Zack took a tentative breath.
“What I am stating, dear friend, is Alexanderia has moved away from a bloody past and promptly learned from our mistakes. However, if you require any resources, I and my kingdom are at your disposal.”
His words pacified Castellan’s temper long enough for them to call the meeting to an end. They motioned for a time to reconvene the next day. The shuffling and murmuring vibrated the air. He and the woman remained sitting, waiting for the crowd to squeeze down the narrow stairs to pass. But Castellan stood from the throne; searching the faces in the balconies.
“Come my wife, I know you are there. It is time to retire.” As if on cue the woman next to Zack stood, following the king’s order without complaint. She gave a weary smile before disappearing behind a secluded door off limits to the public. A warm blush creeped up his neck, as those around him stared. First following the queen’s exit then lingering on him. As Lex smirked from below Zack slouched until he hoped he would fall through the floor.
When the room emptied, he followed Lex back to Allan’s quarters. He took a seat by the table grabbing a stale bun from the plate and stuffing it his mouth. Lex poured tea as Allan paced in front of an unlit fireplace.
“Is what Castellan said about the Mage radicals true?” Zack finally asked.
“Toranis is right, the Oath forbids Mages to kill Innocent lives. I am led to believe that even the most determined Mage would never commit such an act. Depending on the transgression the penalty could be extreme. Blasphemy against the Gods equates a reprimand. Disobeying the Council is imprisonment or excommunication from the Kingdom of Ancients.” He paused, “killing an Innocent in cold blood, however, is punishable by death.”
“So, these Mages risked their own lives to kill the Innocent? They sound like radicals to me.”
“Zack,” Lex interjected, “these laws are engrained into every Mage, it’s unlikely they will do what Castellan proclaims.”
“He may be right; it is highly unlikely, but we must be opened to the possibility such delusional individuals exist. Although, I find this story hard to swallow. Perhaps, we should investigate the matter while we are here. Zack, I hate to do this to you, but-”
“Don’t worry about it, Your Majesty, I will do everything I can to help.”
Evening cast its shadows over the rooftops as Zack meandered through the Theatre District. Ahead of him a playhouse showing ended, unleashing the playgoers into the street. Their jovial jabbering swallowed him. Pushed every thought to each side of his brain until only their voices remained.
They forced themselves past him, shoulder to shoulder. Feet threatened to trip his legs, while elbows jutted into his limbs as they rushed to the rest of the festivities. Sweat mixed with hoppy beer stuck to the inside of his nostrils. Faces of the young, old, men and women drift past, but all he saw was the beaten façade of the dead man. He wondered if anyone there knew him? If a family missed him? Even worse, he contemplated whether anyone there tossed him in the canal themselves.
Finding a lull in the crowd he slipped into a narrow alley. A musty smell drifted from the damp laundry strewn overhead stretching from building to building. Three men huddled in a dark stoop, the embers in their pipes illuminating their faces with each drag. He nodded, the one with the pipe acknowledged his presence. His sword at his side was usually enough to keep the wiser scoundrels away.
He found a quiet street which snaked between residential homes. The street was empty save for an old man and a boy about fourteen carrying a ladder. They paused at a dark lamppost in front of a boarded-up window. Zack glanced up the winding street where every third light was out. Busy night a head, he thought watching the boy take the kerosene and climb the rickety rungs.
A waste of a day, he sighed. Every contact he had in the kingdom refused to talk. He kicked a wayward bottle at his feet and watch it roll ahead of him. At this rate Lex would have already gathered all the information he required by morning.
A frail ting echoed as the bottle flung over the cobblestones. He didn’t even notice when the informant slipped the note in his shopping bag that morning. Lex treated him like some beast of burden; a mule at best. He was no closer to figuring out anything about the radicals or who’s been dumping the floaters in the canal.
“What is the damn point!” he screamed, sending the bottle flying into an alley.
“How’s this a point for ya?” a voice whispered in his ear as a cold blade pressed against his neck. Fuck. “I wouldn’t reach for that sword of yours if I were you.” He recognized the glimmering ochre jewels on the dagger. “I hate to have to tell your uncle how I bested you.”
“Chris, you bastard!” He shouted, twisting his body free and shoving the thief against a brick wall.
“Man, you should’ve seen your face!”
“I could’ve killed you!”
“That’s what you always say, give it your best shot!”
“You’re unbelievable.” He sighed and stepped into the empty street.
“When did you get to town?” He replaced the dagger and embraced his friend. “Tell me you aren’t working while you’re here.”
“Something came up,”
“Oh, you’re being vague again, I know the ‘on official Alexanderian business’ tone. Please say it’s about some damsel in distress.”
“I don’t rescue damsels in distress, I’m a soldier. You should stop reading those trashy sonnets, it’s giving you terrible ideas.”
“On the contrary, they’re giving me all the right ideas. Come, I know the perfect place for us to talk.”
The laughter spilling over the street welcomed Zack like an old friend. The Painted Horse’s merry customers filled every corner of the first floor. Some sang along with the bards in the corner while others danced. People stood on stools watching the regulars play cards. All the festivities made even more joyous was the steady flow of beer and wine, ferried from table to table by the tired bar maids.
Chris led him to an empty table in the centre of the room. He hesitated to divulge information in a tavern full of criminals, but the lively atmosphere meant few would overhear. When their drinks arrived, Chris relaxed into his chair; anticipating the answers to his unspoken questions.
“Now, tell me, what brings the great Zack Dawson, Captain of the Alexanderian Knights to the slums of Lollardum seeking out the world’s best thief?”
“You have illusions of grandeur, don’t you?”
“If you don’t have a high opinion of yourself then who will? Now, seriously, what’s going on, you don’t make the trip here for nothing.”
“Tell me about the cathedral fire.” He kept his voice low. Anyone in the room could be the arsonist he was searching for. Chris cocked his eyebrow, taking a drink before he answered.
“Some pricks set the Cathedral on fire. Which spread (like usual) because everyone in this place is incompetent.”
“But who set it?”
“Why does Allan care about who set the fire?”
“Castellan made some accusations during the trade talks today.”
“The dumb brute’s blaming Mages, isn’t he? Not surprised. From what I saw the fire was started from inside. Even if they started it, its clear the bishop wasn’t in on it. When he tried to put it out, the crowd attacked him.”
“What happened to him after that?”
“Well, there’s something else you need to know…” Chris, in his usual fashion, ordered another round of drinks before a seriousness darkened his usual carefree face. As they drank, he recounted the events leading to the discovering of the Bishop in Bayliss’s basement.
“We should do something,”
“See, that’s why I didn’t want to tell you. You go be a hero somewhere else and leave me out of it. Besides there’s nothing we can do. Bayliss will just buy off the guards and get right back to it.”
“So, you’ll leave that man to die?”
“He’s already dead.” Chris swirled the cup in his hand, “anyway we have a larger problem.”
“Besides kidnapping and torturing people?”
“What do you know about magic weapons?” Zack instinctively moved his hand to the hilt of his sword. “Yea, exactly. What if I told you that freak is developing weapons to fight Mages?”
“They’re the most powerful beings we have ever known.”
“But if we had a way to neutralize their power, even harness it,”
“I don’t like this.”
“You think I do? I have issues with boundaries, but I know a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”
“I need proof before I tell Allan. What about that ring you mentioned, can you steal it?”
“I can steal anything,” he grinned, “but I’m not going near that place again. You do what you want but I’m staying out of it. However, if someone were to investigate, Mr. Drover’s Magic Shop would be a place to start. Ah there’s my diamond in the rough,” he smiled as a waitress approached. “I was wondering when you would make your way over.”
“It’s been a busy night.” Julie pushed a piece of stray hair behind her ear, “I saw Zack here, and I wanted to say hi.”
“It’s nice to see you Julie,” he smiled. How she put up with Chris was the world’s best kept secret.
“Are you needing a place to stay? I know landlords who have extra space, I’ll make sure they don’t rob ya in your sleep.” She smiled, although it was hard to tell whether she was joking or not.
“I’m staying at the castle but thank you.”
“No worries thought I offer. It’s nice to have some honourable men about.” She sent a dirty look to Chris.
“I’m honourable! I haven’t mentioned the couple of pounds you put on, have I?”
“You’re unbelievable!” she whacked the back of his head. “Will ya take him to the capital with you when you leave?”
“Alexanderia doesn’t want him, trust me I asked.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“Oh, before I forget,” she whispered, “did you go see you know who at the you know where?”
“Yeah, don’t worry I’ll take care of it. If you get anymore, tell me, okay?” A shadow flickered across Chris’s face. She squeezed his shoulder, promising another round before returning to the crowded bar top.
“What’s all that about?”
“It’s nothing, just another job.”
“You aren’t messed up with the coffin diggers, again, are you?”
“I told you that was one time and it involved a large quantity of wine. Speaking of which, let’s celebrate. A toast to wine, to women, and to the world where both would be the worse of our problems!” They held their cups, toasting each other until Julie stopped serving them.
Onwards to the next chapter: Epiphany and the Magic Shop
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