Safira looked up the stairs with a certain satisfaction. The walls remained bare and the wooden steps looked a bit rickety, but at least it was no longer so gloomy. Gethak had helped her cut out some small, circular windows in the wall since the original design had lacked any natural light at all.
The downside was that the stench of the lake now drifted in, despite the thin layer of… something they had stretched across them.
It was still strange to think of glass as being costly, even an article of luxury here in the commons. In the Sultanate there were entire buildings made from it, though Gethak claimed the glass to have been magically prepared “else the structure would collapse under the weight of its own materials”.
The view through the windows as she made her way to the upper floor was strangely peaceful compared to the noise of the bustling city drifting around the corner. The lake was still, its surface only rippled by the passing of distant ships on their way from the rivers to the harbor or crossing from one side to the other.
She would never forget the first time she saw the lake. Pushing and pulling to help the wagon climb the steep grass dune around the city, tripping and falling when they suddenly reached the top and the wagon unexpectedly rolled away from her. It was when she crawled to her feet she saw it.
A great blue carpeting the bottom of the green bowl.
As part of the Sultana’s court she had visited several grand oases, but never before had she seen so much water all in one place. It had made even her awe at the bountiful greenery she had just passed through pale by comparison. Suddenly all those stories of Serenn as a rich and free land had become real. A vast city of opportunity lay sprawled out before her, unrivaled freedom waiting to be experienced.
Though, as she had learned time and again, it wasn’t nearly all that easy.
There were only a few rooms up here. As with most of the floor below, none of them were furnished beyond the odd piece from the inn brought upstairs by the builders and then left behind. She found Shadow in the gate-side room, staring out the window.
“A foreign place, even still.” Though he had made no move to acknowledge her presence, there was something different about him.
“Even after years living as one of them, I don’t get this place at all,” Safira replied, moving to stand beside him. Most of the houses around them had only one floor, allowing them to see as far as the Market Way and even glimpse the Gilded Gate beyond.
“When I first came here, I expected to find freedom. Instead, I found myself locked with invisible chains. The people here are…” Safira paused, trying to find the right words in this foreign tongue. “Serenite society is defined by being something rather than someone… A person is ‘a guard’ or ‘a teamster’ rather than ‘a person who protects’… Do you understand?”
“It creates tribes. Tribes always create opposition.”
“I… maybe? But they seem more like slaves to me. Laborers are beaten to work harder, traded almost like cattle, their entire existence measured in how much they can make their owners.”
“Subservient to the Coin,” Shadow looked at her for the first time since she came upstairs, the breeze coming in through the empty window seizing the opportunity to grab at his scarf. “Status here is bought. Money is earned by your profession. Your profession is determined by your Guild, which is determined by your status. Even those forced into guildless work can buy membership, or leave. Those indentured to pay debts are perhaps little different than well-treated slaves, but the others…“ He turned back to look out the window. “Only to their own natures.”
“Their fate is not their own to choose. How many of the poor in this city wish to leave, but are unable?” Safira looked back through the door, wondering if she could see out the opposite window through it. But the slums were hidden by the wooden walls between them.
“With your ‘teacher’ dead, are you one of them?”
“Not yet,” she threw him a sharp glare. “There is something I must do first.”
“Kyrion promised to help you. The Guild will honor that.” Shadow held up a hand before she could demand an answer ‘when’. “We can do nothing until he leaves..”
“Thank you,” she painted her warmest smile on her lips and placed a hand on his arm. She didn’t like him and he didn’t like her, but she wasn’t about to throw away an opportunity when she’d had to endure far worse ‘companions’ in the Sultanate.
Shadow sat curled up on the floor of the cool room, dimly lit only by the faint light of the stars and moons. Outside the city had long since fallen asleep, leaving him with only the lake and its distant ship’s bells for company.
It had been a long time since he heard that name.
‘Induar, we’re under attack.’ Kyrion had been adding to the Scroll of Heroes – the list of guild members who had died or been lost in service to the Guild. ‘There is no other explanation… There are more dead than living now.’
The survivors had abandoned the Guild – some had sought membership in other Guilds, others had retired to live off their savings, and others had gone into hiding. A scarce few, like Adrie, had apparently blamed the leadership – thought Kyrion a traitor. After his feigned death, Kyrion had disappeared and Shadow had been left alone.
This time there was nothing fake about it.
Shadow hadn’t heard the gnome climbing the stairs: had been so lost in his thoughts he had barely registered the sound of the door creaking open and small boots stepping across the wooden floor.
Head hung low, arms wrapped around his knees, Shadow continued to ignore him.
The assassin’s attention instead slipped back into the memory of that disastrous battle. All had gone according to plan – they had distracted Ared with the duel, allowing Shadow to stab Moreth unnoticed, then he had made his way up the wall while hiding beneath the royal banners. Once atop the gatehouse, things had begun to unravel.
He had found not the two or three Cloaks he had been expecting but nearer a dozen. The plan required him to frame Ared for breaching the rules by having a Cloak attempt, and fail, to shoot Kyrion – before the skilled fencer had cut him down.
Gorm’s intervention had likely saved Shadow’s life, even if Shadow wouldn’t admit it to anyone. True, he could’ve escaped, but with Kyrion’s life on the line…
Grabbing a crossbow from the fallen while donning the woman’s cloak, Shadow had then hurried up one of the flanking towers. Having served as a Cloak, he knew the right words to send any guards he met running after the ‘red knight’ and soon he found a good vantage point.
He could still see the scene before him.
Gorm’s menacing approach toward Ared. Kyrion’s shifting from side to side in an attempt to cover his search for Shadow. A different Cloak moving across the rooftops across the plaza. Even as Shadow had been lining up the shot, Ared’s hands had moved. Signing for the Cloak to… something?
Then came the fateful command to shoot.
“For such a hedgewizard, Kyrion certainly knew how to intricately enchant items.” Gethak took off his headband and leaned back, rubbing his eyes to clear the strain. Morning light was finally starting to fill the room, allowing them to finally snuff out those smelly candles. “If only I had a workshop… I could craft us some glitterstones to keep this poorly designed, so-called house lit. How does someone living in this town not account for the hills blocking out the sun in the mornings?”
“Kyrion wanted small windows because he couldn’t afford glass for big ones,” Safira looked up from the ring she had been examining. “I still don’t understand what you mean by ‘colours of magic’… I can sense the aura, but-”
“Pah! He should have allowed me to draw up plans for the compound, instead of wasting all that coin on an incompetent hack!” Gethak stood up on his chair and stretched.
They had been working for several hours, since shortly after dawn. Safira had come to him last night, asking for help to learn more about magic. Gethak had never been good at teaching others, but had felt he owed Kyrion to at least try. She had been his student, even though his knowledge of the arcane was limited in its own right.
“Here, try looking at it through some of these.” He handed her the headband, indicating the numerous lenses attached to arms on it. While primarily intended for magnification, a couple of the lenses had been specially prepared to enhance his magical senses. “The perception of magic is… unique to each individual. I compare it to an eight colour, Kyrion preferred to describe it as similar to the feeling of heat emanating from a fire or the chill of a cold wind. It is like trying to describe a colour without naming it. One of my colleagues in Daergodar wrote a fascinating treatise on the nature of-”
“Jessai!” The ring clattered onto the floor as Safira recoiled, tossing the headband aside and clutching at her temple. “What in the Blasted Wastes was that?!”
“Are you all right? What happened?” Gethak leaned over the table and reached out for her, quickly scanning the lenses for damage.
“No, I’m not alright! It felt like someone drove a nail straight through my eye!” Safira glowered at him, swatting away his hand before massaging her head with her fingertips. “I’ve never felt magic that strong before.”
“Ah, you used too many lenses…” Gethak adjusted the headband and held it out for her to try again. “Use the ones on the right, one at a time. The left ones aren’t helpful for this. Here, try-”
“He did not kill him.”
“What? Who?” Safira turned to look at the man suddenly standing in the doorway of the stairs up to the second floor.
Shadow looked at them with a grim scowl. His cheeks streak with dried tears and his eyes swollen, both in stark contrast to the determination set in his features. “Ared! He-”
Shadow stopped, turning to look out the window.
“You are speaking in riddles! What is this about Ared?” Gethak hopped down and was about to continue when a pair of gauntleted hands clicked against the window as someone peered at the trio staring right back.
The door opened slowly and a muscular woman made her way into the room. Dressed in an ill-fitting chain hauberk draped over a dirty shirt of faded red, torn pants in gray wool, and a pair of weathered boots, she would have looked every bit a thug from the slums if not for her well-groomed hair and clean face.
She offered an apologetic smile at them, then motioned at the door. “There wasn’t anyone around front, so I wasn’t sure anyone was here either.”
Safira eyed the woman through narrowed eyes. “The Guild’s closed.”
“Now, now, Safira, let us hear the young lady out.” Gethak motioned at a chair by the empty table and made his way over himself. “I am Gethak, acting head of the Adventurer’s Guild. What remains of it, at least. Who are you?”
“My name is Qaera,” the woman took a seat opposite him. “I’m looking for some work. Just something temporary, ‘til I can pay for a trip to Kor.”
“This is Safira and-”
The surprise left Gethak sitting with mouth agape for a few heartbeats before he collected himself. “Ehm… Yes… Well, I am afraid we cannot offer you any work.”
Qorra leaned forward with a pleading look on her face. “I’m a trained warrior! I used to be in the guards! Surely you must have something I could do?”
“Used to?” Shadow’s – Induar’s – inquiry went unanswered as Gethak shook his head.
“I am sorry, you misunderstand. I regret to say that the Guild is in mourning and does not have any work to offer you right now. Leastwise nothing that would allow you membership, as is necessary under the law for us to employ you further.”
“I see…” She looked crestfallen as she stood up. “Do you know… I mean- when do you think there might be work for me?”
Gethak could only shrug, spreading his hands helplessly.
“Oh…” The woman gave them a polite bow and stepped outside. She gathered up a shield and pack she had left on the porch, then headed out of the compound.
“You were saying?” Safira turned back to Shad- Induar, who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and looking out the open door.
“Hm?” He threw her a quizzical glance.
“About Ared?” Gethak peered up at him, arching his eyebrows.
“He did not order the Cloak to kill Kyrion. He ordered the Cloak to kill Gorm.”