Cat, the wild-haired girl from the sewers, peered into the dark alley and waved at him to follow before slipping silently around the corner. He darted after then followed her onto the main street leading up to the Gilded Gate, entrance to the Inner City. Twin great banners flanked it with their dark silhouettes contrasting against the lighter walls, the rich blue and gold colours of the Royal Guild blending into featureless shadows even on a bright evening like this (Auyana shines only so well).
The buildings were of the same two or three story design as elsewhere in the city; square wooden houses with stone foundations and hay or tiled roofs. The second (third, in some cases) floor typically had overhang, providing the alleyways with roofs and darkness.
Unfortunately, Gethak noted, because the main street was so wide that same architecture did little to provide any shadows to hide in when attempting a crossing. Instead they took advantage of a large carriage, lavishly decorated with pennants and flanked by mounted guards, thundering past in front of them on its way to the gate.
“You know, with a little remodeling these alleys could be turned into walkways to allow the boulevard to be dedicated to carriages and the like. I saw-” Gethak fell silent when Cat turned at him with a look of annoyance on her face, mixed with fear in her eyes. Reminded of where they were, he pressed his lips together and nodded an apology.
They exited the alley into a back street, wide enough to keep the limited overhang from blocking out the sky entirely. There they found a gnome waiting for them. She had a coil of rope slung over her shoulder, one end attached to the hook resting on her crossbow (interesting modification).
Quiet greetings were exchanged, though neither names nor purpose were revealed, and then the gnome launched the hook onto the closest building. Motioning for Gethak to wait, she quickly and skillfully clambered up the rope.
“I’m too heavy, so this is where we part.” Cat pressed a crude metal badge into Gethak’s hand. “Use this if you run into any city guards. It won’t hold up if they look closely, and won’t help you with the guards in the palace. The Cloaks should leave you alone, unless they think you’re a threat to the kingdom.”
Gethak nodded, examining the badge while listening (inferior tools, decent craftsmanship). “Anything else?”
Cat shrugged, looking thoughtful for a moment before a bird’s call from above drew her attention. “Nope, now hurry up.” She motioned at the rope, nodded, then scurried off into another alleyway.
After making their way over the rooftops to one as close to the wall as they could, the woman waited for another whistle (less avian this time) before launching her hook across the moat-turned-garden separating the wall from the Outer City and walked across (ascending). Gethak followed shortly after, relying on a more mechanical method (all this climbing about is like being back home), and then promptly climbed his way down a rope on the other side.
The structures of the Inner City, mansions and palaces all, were built to be expensive and it showed. Marble statues presided in alcoves along the facades (arrogant; if expertly sculpted), many dressed in silken clothing or gilded armor (guild markings?), while heavy doors of skillfully carved wood barred passage into the grand businesses of the plutocracy.
Magical lights provided ample illumination, with each guild not only having its symbol blazing above the entrance to its hall but also various attempts to outdo each other lining the space between alcoves (too gaudy!). From the wall this had seemed the less ostentatious section and Gethak could only wonder what marvels of wasted effort might be found among the residences as he continued along the avenues of the Inner City with their extravagant decorations of trees, statues, and a variety of other ornaments prominently displayed along the median.
The palace dominated the entire quarter from its place at the end of the boulevard. At three stories the curved wings of the royal palace matched most nearby estates for height, yet the tiers and tower of the main building loomed above it all.
Great windows of stained glass stretched the full three stories of the wings’ short ends, dwarfing their one or two story counterparts on the walls facing the courtyard. Strange silhouettes against the white marble of the walls hinted at something reaching down from the rooftops of the wings (vines from a garden, based off the waterfalls).
Gethak walked down the street, making his way to the weathered (such neglect!) statues at the courtyard’s center. They stood upon a fountain now, though when he had been here decades ago they had been newly sculpted and placed upon a simple granite slab. The King and Queen, their names escaped him, gazed out at their city (clear all the way through the Gilded Gate, mist and people aside).
“They must have been something to create all this, eh?” Gethak kept looking at the fountain and merely nodded in response, though from what he’d been told long ago both had been gone before the first Guild was formed. “May I see your pass?”
Gethak turned and looked at the guard with a bit of confusion, mouthing the word “pass” as he did (caught!). He was frantically trying to figure out how to escape.
“Badge, ‘bout the size of your palm. They handed it to you at the Gate.”
“Ah.” Gethak fished it out of his pocket and held it out to show the guard, who looked it over.
“Copper’s not really allowed past the guild halls at night, what with the threat of war and fear of assassins and such. I’ll let it slide this time since you’re just staring at a statue,” the guard said with a shrug, then looked at the statues again. “He gives me the creeps, that one. Sometimes it’s like he’s looking straight at you with this weird look of horror on his face.”
“Well, maybe I dreamt that. But I swear, something’s not right about that one.” The guard shuddered and continued with his patrol, throwing a nod to one of his colleagues.
Gethak relaxed, then looked up at the statues again. The King was as motionless as one would expect but Gethak could understand what the guard meant. The way the face had been worn down made the statue appear to always look straight at an observer, like some portraits. The Grand Chancellor (Shepard?) once told him they were modeled after a portrait, since both majesties had been claimed by the Isle when the statues were commissioned (perhaps that’s why).
Off to the side a small door (for servants, likely) opened and a man in well-worn (unfashionably sensible) clothing peered out, fixing Gethak with his gaze as the gnome approached. The pure white of his shoulder-length hair almost shone because of the contrast to the night around them and drawing near Gethak noted a number of throwing daggers strapped to his person as well as plenty small scars on his exposed forearms (matches the description).
The man nodded, but before he could reply they were interrupted by the sound of an approaching patrol. He motioned for Gethak to follow and then led the way through the cramped corridors of the servants’ quarters and into the palace proper. They would often get stopped by guards and each time he would flash a badge (electrum?) and tell them Gethak was delivering a message to the “Blades” (guild handling mercenaries).
Eventually Rigerz left Gethak in a large meeting hall. One wall was covered in huge maps of the kingdom and its various locations (Solmuth, Malqish, Brighthill… no Wyrm’s Edge; too insignificant?), below which a raised platform ran almost the entire length of the room between two flanking sets of double doors.
The remainder of the room was furnished with small tables and plenty of comfortable chairs, all facing the platform. The tables, in turn, had been arranged to allow the people to speak with each other without having to turn their heads all about. The oval shape of the chamber was likely for acoustic reasons, to help avoid the need for shouting to be heard.
Gethak crawled along the support beam with great care, peering down at the dark meeting hall below. It had been quiet and empty all night, though occasionally his sleep had been disrupted by a patrol passing through for a routine check.
A number of servants entered and began fussing about the room, pulling open the heavy drapes to let in the morning light through the large windows at either short end of the room, setting out freshly baked bread on the tables, placing out glass pitchers of clear liquid (water?), and similarly preparing the room for the day’s discussions.
Gethak positioned himself as close to the center as he could, screwing various hooks into the beam to hold him secure and to support his equipment. He fished out a horn to make sure he could hear everything, a set of lenses and goggles to allow him to see clearly, a thin notebook, and that most convenient of inventions: a pencil. Each had a small band for fastening to the hooks (a minor, but valuable, modification).
By the time he was done setting up, Gethak noticed that the crowd below had changed dramatically. No longer were they servants milling about in preparation, but now the room was filled with men and women in gaudy attire of impractically expensive design.
They sat around the tables, talking to each other in a cacophony of voices. Gethak could catch only snippets of the many conversations (irrelevant smalltalk), but it was enough for him to put faces to many of the names he had been given. (A fortunate state, with this lofty perch not offering a view of their heraldries.)
A hush fell over the meeting hall when a trio of figures entered the chamber. Gethak had met two of them before, their distinctly plain manner of dress enough for him to recognize them on sight as the Royal Vizier (Mork?) and the Grand Chancellor (Ared?). The third was a man in his prime, dressed in the most extravagant fashion Gethak had ever seen.
The heavy crown of gold, set with a variety of rare gems and adorned with magical glyphs, gave away his identity as the Prince Regent, its ostentatious plume of feathers trailing down his back just as much a symbol of status as one of wealth. He wore several necklaces of gold and silver (platinum, more likely), rings fashioned from a variety of glittering materials (too far away), and his ears practically drooped from the weight of his many earrings. Gethak found it hard not to snicker at the sight, even though he recognized it as the logical apex of the local fashion.
It all held deep meaning to the people below, but most of that meaning was lost on an outsider like himself. Costly attire was a way to show wealth, and therefore power, while the form that attire took related to guild membership, source of riches, and numerous other aspects the social strata of Malqish was based on.
The Prince Regent sat himself down in an empty chair, the Grand Chancellor (Aryd?) standing vigilant behind him. The Vizier (Morell?) made his way onto the platform and began the meeting with a string of empty formalities.
From there the meeting proceeded to go over the general state of affairs in the kingdom, with detailed reports about local tariffs and taxation followed by a lengthy discussion on the merits and problems of creating a new road network (my caravans would be better).
Throughout it all the Prince Regent seemed about as interested as Gethak in the minutiae of bureaucracy. From what Gethak could tell, he seemed far more interested in the ladies of court than he was in governance.
The discussion eventually gave way to various other matters of state before the conversation turned to the Sollim and the rumours of war. There the Grand Chancellor had gone over a summary of reports by the Silver Cloaks, the highlight of which was a large gathering of Sollim at an oasis not far from Solmuth. After an exhausting argument over the defensive capabilities of Solmuth, the representative of the warriors’ guild (not the Marshal) had requested the issuing of a writ of conscription for all provinces.
“This is outrageous!” The elderly man (Duke Arcald Ravenwing of Brighthill) waved his arms, motioning at the map above the platform, as he turned to face the Prince Regent. His light grey robes with their golden embroideries struck Gethak as strangely humble for this crowd. “Your Majesty, the Royal Charter expressly states that the Guilds have no right to impose their writs without consent of the Guild of the Royal Court and its representative. As the titleholder for the demesne in question, it falls well within my rights to deny the Guild of Warriors’ request for conscripts.”
“Your Prosperous Highness, the Sultanate is clearly preparing a war.” The speaker (Comtesse Elrien Banow) was a dwarf dressed in fine silks of emerald and amber. Unlike the blustering Duke, she remained calmly seated as she addressed the Court. “During an emergency like this, as per the Charter, the Royal Guild has the prerogative – nay the responsibility – to override the nobility in the name of the kingdom.”
“Please, yer only in support of this ‘cause it’d keep Baron Fairgrove from meeting his quota.” The speaker (Comte Brunn Sweetarrow) had a thick accent common in the more rural areas, suggesting he had earned his way up from limited means. His robe seemed made from the hide of some creature with silver scales (drake?).
“Enough, gentlemen.” The Vizier’s (Moreth?) voice was firm and even, yet betrayed just a hint of irritation at the petty squabbling. “Lord Ared, your operatives are the ones with the information and you have experience with warfare yourself. What do you think?”
The Chancellor (Ared!) shrugged, his almost luminously white cloak accentuating the motion, then moved onto the platform to examine the map. He quickly moved back down, striding back to the Prince Regent’s side. “The garrison of Brighthill would be wiser.”
“Would that not leave us vulnerable to attack from Blacktusk raiders?” A young woman (daughter of Frederick Fairgrove, baron of Kyrion’s province) asked, her auburn locks dancing as she whipped her head around to look at the Chancellor and the Duke alternately. Her attire was less gaudy than that of the others, but certainly more revealing and just as impractical. “Or a warhorde?”
“No, the Grand Chancellor is right. The Brighthill garrison has experience and discipline, making them far more useful in war than any hastily levied militia,” Arcald began, moving to indicate the northeastern corner of the map (Brighthill duchy). “The local militia could easily hold off smaller raids from Blacktusk, and in the time they need to gather a horde the garrison could easily make it back from Solmuth.”
“Which leaves the question of whether the city itself is properly prepared,” the Vizier (Mordred?) turned to the Marquis of Solmuth with a questioning look. “You are prepared for legions of serpentfolk led by the nephaim, this much is obvious. What of the giants themselves? What of desert magic?”
“We’ve been over this. The city can handle the Sollim.” The man (the Marquis of Solmuth) seemed quite sure of his statement. Rather portly and more interested in the food than the discussion, he had nonetheless proven himself a competent administrator during an earlier discussion of Solmuth’s situation. “My predecessor reinforced the walls, upgraded the ballistae-” (springalds, technically) “-and installed a variety of defenses throughout the city and the pass itself. I would be more concerned with the Slaver Trails, personally.”
“All the more reason for us to conscript a militia,” the guildsman (the not-Marshal) insisted. “We need a mobile force that can-”
“A militia is far too disorganized and undisciplined to patrol such a large area effectively,” Arcald cut in. “No, the garrison at Brighthill is much better suited for that role. They are used to scouting for greenskins in the forest, so hunting for giants among the foothills should be easy.”
“What about the Dawn Knights?” The Comte (Bruno? No, Brunn) suggested, though Gethak could not figure out what guild these knights might be. The assembled seemed to know, however, as there was a general murmur of support. “Surely ye could send them? Mounted warriors ought to be perfect for patrolling.”
“They are a holy order dedicated to serving the Light, not a private force to be sent about at our whims,” Arcald scoffed. “They follow the will of the Divine, no one else.”
“But they still help fight the Blacktusk, don’t they?” Lady Fairgrove asked, her tone just barely masking her hope for a way to avoid the writ.
“Indeed,” the Prince Regent reluctantly tore his gaze away from the Lady Fairgrove. “If the Order of the Sacred Dawn wishes to continue enjoying the support of the Royal Guild, they will need to assist in this matter. You may consider them conscripted, General, along with the garrison.”
“Thank you, sire. The Guild shall immediately draw up plans.” The General (not-Marshal) paused, turning to the Chancellor. “We would much appreciate if you could find the time to join us for this, as the Silver Cloaks have vital intelligence for such an endeavour.”
“Excellent, that concludes our meeting. Lady Katrina, Duke Arcald, a word. The rest, shoo.” The Prince Regent waved his hand dismissively in the air, gulping down the last of his wine while watching the others file out. When the Vizier moved to join him rather than leave, he handed over his goblet to the Chancellor and pulled himself up in his chair.
“Ared, you have a war to plan. Moreth-” (Aha, Moreth!) “-go talk to the Marquis about Solmuth’s magical defenses. And send me some wine on your way out, my pitcher is empty.”
As the two left, Gethak looked around at the crowd in search of this ‘Lady Katrina’. He had no notes of such a person, nor had there been any mention of her during the meeting. A young woman draped in dark hues, dominated by midnight blue, caught his attention.
Her black hair hung in cascading locks around a pale face carrying an effortless, calm smile as she strode over to the prince. It was her clothing that marked her as a foreigner, for though her form-fitting dress was made of fine silks it was reserved and much unlike the lavishly decorated attire of the other attendees.
Once the three were alone in the chamber, the Prince Regent leaned forward to speak to the others more quietly. By the time Gethak had gotten his horn in place, he had missed most of the Prince’s statement. “…doing here?”
“As you know, I am Mawlana Katrina of Urmor,” she replied through a heavy accent (Urmorian; who else in so much black). “I came here to set up a trade agreement with the Carpenters’ Guild, on behalf of one of our marches in Eliren. I was speaking with Comtesse Banow about the tariffs at Highwater, and was told I could… How you say, take the matter up for the meeting?”
“Huh…” The Prince Regent leaned back, resting his gaze on her just a little too long before waving her off. Before she could leave Arcald raised his hand to draw her attention, respectfully requesting permission from the Prince with a quiet look before engaging her in conversation.
“Do you know the child of Doge Alariq?” (who?)
“Only by reputation.”
“A pity. Still, might you help pass a message on to her?”
“Ah… I am afraid a Keeper would serve you better than me in that regard.”
The Duke seemed taken aback by the comment.
Arcald shook his head ‘no’ and turned back to the Prince.
The lady curtsied politely toward the Prince before leaving the meeting room.
“Looking for your daughter still?” The Prince Regent looked at the old man with pity clear enough even for Gethak to see.
“Foster daughter. And yes, I still have hope she may be redeemed.”
“I fail to see what your problem is with her nature, but let us hope she has not befallen the same fate as her companion.”
“It is not her nature that-”
“Irregardless,” (Regardless!) the Prince continued without pause. “We have more pressing concerns.”“You want me to prepare the clergy for field duty?”
“Well, yes, but that is not what I meant. I believe Moreth is hiding something from me. I would consult with Ared, but he spends too much time with the Vizier for me to be sure wether I can trust him.”
“The chancellor knows a little too much about subterfuge for my taste, but he seems an honorable sort when it comes down to it. Aside from having you conscript the Knights.” The Duke scowled over his shoulder at the closed door Moreth had exited. “But the warlock… I have never liked him. He orders people around like he is the King.”
“Shylith laid the foundation upon which Moreth and Ared built this kingdom, uncle. You know as well as I do that your grandfather did little more than pay for it.” The prince seemed agitated. “His authority has been earned, though sometimes I wonder if he orchestrated the fall of the King and Queen that he might rule in quiet.”
“Unlikely. He had no say in how the kingdom was run when I grew up, not until Shylith retired and Ared stepped in. Respectfully, my brother became regent because he took Moreth’s advice where I turned to the Light. Much as I dislike the man, I must confess that between him and Ared the kingdom has been doing quite well.”
“Yes… Well, lately something has changed. It is almost as if he does not care what happens any more. The only important affairs discussed with me are about the looming war, and then only by telling me what he needs me to do. I may have played my role too well, but I still think he is hiding something from me. It leads me to suspect that he is planning to abandon the kingdom even as he undermines my ability to rule without him, and it does not sit well with me. You know what happened to my mother.”
The old man nodded, his shoulders slumped and head hanging forward. “My niece was a good woman…” (can’t hear) “…her downfall.”
A knock interrupted the Prince before he could reply, a servant poking her head in through the door.
“Sire, the Royal Vizier wishes to consult with you.”