“Would you take your eyes off that woman already, boy?” Aziz grumbled, grabbing hold of Ky’s shoulder and pulling him away from the stage.
The two had taken up residency at an inn, graciously paid for by the Royal Court, while waiting to be called before the prince regent for an audience. Incidentally, the inn had recently risen in fame within the city for the performances of a gorgeous woman from the Empire of the Sun. An emir’s slave, according to the gossip, whose freedom had been bought by a local caravaneer. Dressed in the veils and airy clothes of her homeland, her bronzed skin was more visible than not and the sensuous moves of her dance were doubtlessly working well to ignite the desire of her plentiful audience.
Aziz had seen plenty of dancers like this, male and female, lining the courts of his homeland. He never felt anything other than pity for them, put on display like some prized possession. And this poor girl, supposedly free but now bound by debts into doing the exact same thing but for a much rowdier and worse mannered public. Ky wasn’t thinking it through, going by how he enjoyed looking under the excuse that she was doing it voluntarily.
Aziz had trouble moving through the throng while trying to get back to their table, for despite the spacious locale and ample room between tables the crowd was thick around the stage. At least the ceiling was high, as the upper floor had a balcony overlooking the stage and sitting area. Sturdily built out of strong wood, some of it likely cut by Aziz own hands according to the unreliable barkeep, with a lot of craftsmanship and effort having gone into the structure. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the furniture, which was simple and uncomfortable. At least the bed was large enough to accommodate someone of Aziz’ stature, and the Royal Guild was covering their tab so he could eat and drink his fill.
They had spent six days there, waiting for someone to come calling them to the palace, when Gethak had showed up in a sour mood. He had sold his wagon and almost everything he owned that he might afford to build a prototype of his design to show the court, but it had failed miserably during the demonstration and the prince regent had rejected his plans.
Even though Aziz found gnomes annoying, the two had bonded over common ground griping over the prince regent while waiting for yet another day to come to an end. Now, almost through their seventh day, Aziz had had enough. “If they don’t grant that meeting soon, I swear I’ll break down the gates myself!” He grumbled before downing another mug of ale. While it was clear that the drink was behind his demeanor, Gethak seemed quite sure the half-giant wasn’t lying. And indeed, if Aziz had to wait much longer, he’d likely try to force his way in to see the prince regent.
“You should calm down, master Azudar,” Gethak said, shifting nervously in his seat. “I’m sure they’ll call you in for an audience soon enough.”
“Don’t fret, Aziz. They’ll show up when they do,” Ky said, momentarily taking his eyes off the dancer to look at the large man. “It’s not like we’ll get there any faster if we’re locked… up.“ He suddenly fell quiet, his eyes growing large. Then he ducked down beneath the table, apparently doing his best to hide.
Gethak and Aziz looked at each other in puzzlement and then the magistrate glanced off in the direction Ky had been looking before his unexpected retreat.
Two rather distinctive men stood by the bar, speaking with the barkeep. The one actually talking was draped in heavy black robes that seemed to lack distinct form, as though they were woven from smoke and shadows. His features were old and his head bald except for a thinning crown of grayish-black hair. His bent and crooked posture served only to accentuate his aged appearance.
Rather reminded Aziz of an old crone that had lived in Wyrm’s Edge, until her passing a few years back.
The other’s features were young and strong. His eyes had irises of silver and his gaze was eerie, seemingly piercing right through the body all the way to the soul when he turned his head to meet Aziz’ gaze. His silver white cloak seemed to ward off the scrutiny of those around him, as though the crowd and even the innkeeper himself were reluctant to admit his very presence among them.
Gethak poked Aziz; “I know those two… I believe they were present during my audience with the prince regent.”
Aziz broke free from the tall man’s almost hypnotic gaze and turned to look at the gnome with a quizzical expression.
“The elderly gentleman is Morsel something, and is some kind of advisor to the prince regent. That other fellow is the spymaster, who runs the fabled Silver Cloaks (rather cliché naming, but the common crowd will do things that way when there is no official name).”
“High vizier Moreth Ra’niir and Grand Chancellor Ared,” Aziz provided, more to stop the gnome from going off on some unrelated tangent than anything else, while turning his attention back to the pair. He had a good guess as to what they were here for. Sure enough, the barkeep glanced around the room as if searching for something before giving a nod in Aziz’ direction.
The two made their way to the table where Gethak and Aziz were looking at them, the gnome fidgeting uncomfortably while Aziz was scowling with irritation. “Greetings once more, master Gemblade. I admit that while I found your particular solution foolish, your basic plan to design a unified network for enhanced travel within the kingdom is of great interest to me. Perhaps, once things have settled down, we may discuss them at length?” the elderly man addressed the gnome before turning to Aziz. “I assume you are the magistrate of Wyrm’s Edge, the one waiting for an audience with the prince regent?”
“Yeah… You here to inform me that we’re finally to meet him?” Aziz said, moving to stand up.
“I am afraid not…” Moreth said, motioning for the man to sit back down. When the large man continued to rise, he hurriedly explained. “However, I am here to speak with you on the matter about which you wish to speak with His Royal Highness. I am Moreth Ra’niir, the high vizier. Because your troubles seem to be of a magical nature, the prince regent felt it would be a waste of time to have you speak with him and then him with me when you could simply speak directly with me.”
Though he narrowed his eyes with a somewhat suspicious expression on his features, Aziz did sit back down. Moreth joined him at the table, while Ared took up a place a bit off to the side, but close enough to hear what was being said, and began to very overtly watch the crowd.
“Now, then, what is this all about?” Moreth was leaning forward, resting on the table, though Aziz got the impressing that was more because of his hunched back than because of any actual interest.
“Crops and cattle have gone missing, just vanishing in the night. At first, we thought it might be forestfolk, but they cut crops with blades, and this… this is magic.”
“What makes you so sure it is magic? Do you have any idea of the cause?”
Gethak looked like he was about to say something, but Aziz cut in before his random guessing could start.
“Every time it happens, some of the townsfolk will have nightmares. Or, rather, one nightmare. Always the same one, where darkness consumes them. We didn’t connect them at first, but then one of the farmers had it happen during his guard shift and again a few months later, both times crops were found to be missing, taken right out of the field, in the morning.”
“A whole field harvested in a single night? That seems like quite the feat, I wonder if it would be possible to-” Gethak fell silent at an annoyed glance from Moreth.
“No, not the whole field. Just a large spot somewhere in it. A big circle where the grain was gone. The stalks that remained were cut so evenly and cleanly… Like they hadn’t moved at all, not bending in the slightest as a single slice cut all the grain. Forming kind of a round groove, because they’d all been cut at different heights.”
“That does indeed sound like magic,” Moreth agreed, nodding to himself while his gaze wandered over the table. “What of the cause?”
“First, we thought forestfolk. There’s a tribe of them in the woods, somewhere. We don’t often see them; we leave ‘em alone, they leave us alone. Occasional raid when they’re low on supplies in winter, mostly, but then they sneak into the granary, steal the food, and get out while trying to avoid being noticed. Never known ‘em to use magic before, at least not like this.”
“Still, they seem like the most probable culprits, do you not think so?”
“No, I don’t. There’s a ruin in the forest, and it’s always had a been feel to it. Local superstitions and such, I always thought, but there was a trio of adventurers who came through the Edge, looking for something to do. So one of our farmhands figured they might be helpful in checking out the ruin, see if it was behind our troubles, and showed ‘em there.”
“And what did they find?” Moreth leaned forward slightly, looking at Aziz with great curiosity. Typical mage, always more interested in the secrets of ruins than the problems of people.
The magistrate shrugged his broad shoulders. “I don’t know. We never heard from ‘em again. Things have been getting worse and worse, though. Cattle, chunks of stones, parts of trees, even the ground itself… It’s all started to go missing.”
Gethak, though he had heard about this before during their trip, was taking an avid interest and had even fished out a notebook from one of his many pockets and was jotting down notes.
“How long has it been? Perhaps they returned during your trip here?”
Aziz scoffed. “Hardly. They passed through two years ago, give or take a few months. If the ruin didn’t get ‘em, the crag trolls did.”
“Ah. That is unfortunate.” The old man visibly relaxed, leaning back a bit and pursed his lips for a few moments before continuing.. “Two years, you say… That means this problem has been going on for some time?”
“Aye, though it’s hard to say when it started, since it was chalked up to forestfolk at first.”
Moreth nodded silently, apparently busy mulling things over. Gethak was lost in his notebook, apparently scrawling some kind of picture. Glancing around, Aziz noted that Ared had discreetly gone off during the conversation. Ky, likewise, was nowhere to be seen, although that was hardly surprising, given his history with the Royals.