The opulent hallway stretching from the throne room to the palace gates was inordinately tall, especially given how short it was. At either end a pair of guards were standing with their halberds crossed to bar passage, their silent vigil made all the more eerie by the gloom blanketing the corridor.
The servants dared not enter the hall to keep the chandeliers lit, and only a handful of candles yet burned in each. Their light gleamed off the polished blades and armor, and cast deep shadows in the empty sockets of the guards’ fleshless faces.
The Marquis of Solmuth stood there, staring silently at the closed door.
Instinctively he reached for an apple off the nearby display, changing his mind only with his mouth half-open. He had no appetite left.
“Guild masters may enter but none may leave, so the Keeper commanded.”
The Marquis looked over to find Ared standing beside him, looking toward the front gate. It was strange seeing him without his exquisitely sewn and immaculately clean cloak. Instead he was dressed simply, in gray breeches of silk and a woolen shirt to match. Even so, the clothes were clean, properly pressed, and carefully fitted.
“I take it that is why they haven’t hanged you yet?” The Marquis didn’t bother trying to hide the venom in his voice.
“Careful Marquis…” Ared leaned closer, towering over him. “I am already guilty of regicide – what is a petty nobleman?”
The Marquis grimaced, feeling suddenly very aware that they were alone with the lifeless sentinels charged only with slaying those who attempted to leave. He turned back to the gate, grabbing that apple and chomping down on it.
“Worried the Dead King will have us all executed?” There was a less-than-subtle tone of mockery in the man’s voice. “Your thick belly may stop a blow or two… Perhaps you could make it.”
He ignored the traitor and took another bite of the apple. As unsettling as the undead were, what worried him was far beyond those gates.
“No… You do not fear the guards. You worry about something beyond the gates… You are afraid of who, or what, may soon come through them.” Ared’s tone was suddenly curious. “What have you been scheming, Marquis?”
“Ared!” A shrill voice rang out behind them, one the Marquis found belonged to a lowly peasant when he turned. “Sethian requests your presence in the library. Some kind of trouble with Moreth’s work.”
The Marquis sneered at the girl, feeling sullied by her mere presence. And such terrible manners – she had not even acknowledged his presence, let alone bowed and politely requested his permission to speak.
Well, at least she had gotten rid of the ex-chancellor for him.
The Marquis pushed through the door into the servants’ quarters, ignoring the staff as they hastily cleared a path for him. Ever since that first message had arrived with news of a Sollim delegation landing at Norport he had been anxious. He had thought the only reason they would arrive by sea instead of going through Solmuth was to avoid him.
He had found it strange they thought word wouldn’t reach him, figuring that perhaps they expected it to arrive too late.
But now it was obvious he had been wrong.
None of the others had realized who was towering outside the Gilded Gate. Her headgear had barely been visible over the gatehouse even from the rooftop balcony below the former vizier’s tower – now claimed by the Keeper and his purple associate – but the Marquis knew the Sultana’s banner.
This was a disaster.
He opened a secluded window and leaned out. It cost a couple of crowns and took a fair bit of cajoling, but eventually he managed to coax one of the passing commoners to sneak close enough to catch the tube. Now all he could do was hope the orders would be delivered to the Gate Captain in time, and that the old codger wouldn’t think to question them.
Ssrathep-Iln gazed up in wonder at the massive stone wall as the procession slowly made its way along the narrow street. True, the wall was smaller than those in the Sultanate and its dull stone was nowhere near as impressive as their shimmering glass. Yet this wall had been built with aid from neither magic nor slaves.
The Serenites were building another atop the hills ringing the valley. A significant undertaking even by Sollim standards, who could stand three times the height of a Khadosian. Even the Sultana (May Her Wisdom Ever Guide!), though short compared to her kin, was more than twice as tall as almost everyone around them.
“This is an insult to the Sultana (May Her Reign Ever Last!) as well as to the Sollim themselves!” The nephaim herald’s yells were so loud as to be heard even across the ornate bridge with its strange bird-like motifs and the plaza between them.
“Ssrathep, sort this out before we have an incident,” the Sultana (May Her Soul Always Shine!) waved to him from her seat within the palanquin.
“At once, Your Glory!” He offered as polite a bow as he could manage, his old body stiff from the long journey.
The lead camel snorted derisively at him as he labored to dismount.
He glanced at the mamluqs securing the perimeter; they had brought mostly Khadosians with only a handful nephaim overseers. Yet looking around, he noticed that none of the locals were traveling with guards. Even though many displayed great wealth, they thronged and went about their business without fear of being assaulted.
As a result, the score soldiers holding back the gawking masses looked more like an army troop than an honor guard.
Ssrathep-Iln smiled wryly to himself as he signalled a few of his kin to clear a path for him through to the gate.
He paused just as he began to climb the arching bridge, flicking his tongue. There was magic here, but it was… different from anything he had felt before. It was faint; if not for the scarcity of magic in this land, he likely would not have noticed it.
The bodyguards halted with him, eyes fixed on the crowds without so much as a questioning glance his way.
Soon the small troupe had made their way across the bridge, where the nephaim herald was arguing with a group of armored soldiers. Behind them towered the massive gates, tall enough to dispel any notion Ssrathep-Iln had of the Sollim attendants hitting their heads.
The herald immediately took a step back and began a lengthy introduction for the sandy-scaled creature limping forward. Ssrathep-Iln took the opportunity to dust off his yellow robes and adjust the black sashes tying them together. This place was cold enough without letting the air in.
“Greetings, gatekeeper.” He offered a courteous bow, his sibilant voice silencing the herald mid-word. “You speak with Ssrathep-Iln, voice of Sultana Julnar (May Her Glory Ever Grow!) of the Sollim Sultanate. We seek audience with the Prince Regent to discuss matters of the utmost importance to both our realms.”
“Aye, so yer boy here told me.” The warrior eyed Ssrathep-Iln from behind a long white beard, covering much of what his helm did not. “And I’m gonna tell you what I told him.” The guard straightened his back and took on a more official tone as he recited: “By decree of the Royal Council of Guilds the Inner City is to be closed immediately. Only those on official Council business may be granted access, provided they can show appropriate Guild Seals.”
“What is an appropriate Guild Seal?” Ssrathep-Iln eyed the wall. It would be easy enough to collapse a whole section, provided it was as poorly warded against magic as the rest of the city. Easier still would be to walk straight through it with the Sultana (May Her Thirst Be Always Quenched!) during the night.
“I’ll make this quick and easy. If you want in, you’ll have to talk to a Guild Master. Only three of them not inside already. Adventurers’ Guild, Thi-” He coughed then cleared his throat. “Hunters’ Guild and the Duke of Brighthill. First two are recently vacant, and the Duke’s off in the eastern provinces preaching to the people.”
‘Preaching’ was one way to put it. Ssrathep-Iln smiled, though he doubted the man could tell any more than he could tell what expression was hiding behind that scraggly fur.
“Surely the Royal Guild recognizes the Sultanate as an equal, yes?” Ssrathep-Iln did not wait for a reply. “Then in such a case, the Sultana Julnar (May Her Flame Burn Brightly!) must also qualify as a Guild Master – equal in rank to your own Prince Regent. Since her presence here is itself a matter of state, it clearly qualifies as Council business. Your conditions are thus met, and she must be allowed passage.”
The old man chortled. “Yer not giving in, are ya? Well, if this is so urgent, I’ll send a runner up to the palace to get permission. Enjoy the market while you wait, it’ll be awhile ‘afore we get any word.” He turned to look at the guards behind him. “Where’s Qaera?”
Ssrathep-Iln gave a curt bow and left, motioning for the herald to follow. It was clearly a stalling tactic, but it would have to suffice. If they had not been granted access by nightfall, he would send in a couple of Skimmers to look around. He had not thought the Marquis influential enough to block them from obtaining an audience, but could think of no other explanation.
The Sultana (May Her Light Shine Ever More!) was already inspecting the fabrics of a cloth merchant when he returned to the palanquin. After a brief discussion, it was decided to leave the herald by the bridge to ask for word every hour while they retired to their pavilions outside the city.
Less than an hour later, the herald came jogging into their camp. “The commander ordered the guards inside and lowered a portcullis to seal the gate. The old man almost didn’t get through the gatehouse door in time. They would not even come out to speak to me, or any of the other petitioners. The merchants in the market said it was the first time they had ever seen the grate closed. I overheard the market guards claim it was supposed to only be done during emergencies – they mentioned war and plague.”
After dismissing the herald, Ssrathep-Iln turned to Her Magnificence. “We are alone.” The attendants obediently closed eyes and ears. “My divinations have been thwarted, as well. The Inner City is far better warded than I had expected. There is no way I can get Skimmers through the wall and I had not anticipated needing swimmers, as their presence was to safeguard Your Highness.”
“Then we wait, and petition the Gate each day for access.”
“As you command.”
“You have other suggestions?”
“If I may be so bold, perhaps I could seek contact with one or both of these Guilds who are without Emirs? They may know something and if we can ingratiate ourselves to their future leaders, perhaps that can provide us with, if not access, then at least a means of communicating with the Palace?”
“Very well, Ssrathep. Meanwhile, I shall enjoy exploring the fabled markets of Malqish.”