Shadow pulled his “silver” cloak tighter around him, trying to ward away the draught in the dilapidated tavern where Kyrion had chosen to gather them. There were few signs of the former owner or his muscle, except for some bloodstains dried into the woodwork. It would take a lot of work to clean this place up, if that was even part of his plan.
The gnome, Gethak, was looking fidgety; whether from being uncomfortable or impatient, Shadow could not say. He was constantly twisting his glass of water around on the grimy counter, his gaze lost in its depths. His other hand kept tapping out an irregular beat against the wood, its staccato grating on everyone’s nerves.
Aziz was his usual scowling self, opting to sit on a table rather than attempt to fit on one of the chairs. His arms were crossed, resting atop a belly that had grown significantly in the decades since Shadow last knew the man; likely the result of the man’s sweet tooth. Somewhere during that time he had also stopped wearing perfumes, else that could have helped with the pervasive stench of cheap ale and cheaper candles assaulting Shadow’s senses.
Watching Aziz with open suspicion, though ignored by him in return, was the barmaid. Shadow had not paid much attention to her last time, but as Kyrion had gone through all this trouble specifically to recruit her he now eyed her more closely.
Her bronzed skin and deep red hair bespoke her as one of the Ireha, hailing from the Sollim Sultanate. Shadow’s knowledge of that region was limited, but from what he knew it seemed most likely that she was a former slave of some kind. Her smooth skin, unmarred by the whips of slavers, suggested a high standing, and thus an important ‘owner’.
Her build was lithe and supple, her movements fluid yet precise, which ruled out most roles. A slave would not have time to train their dexterity to such a level while working the kitchens. A fighter that practiced should have scars, as both Aziz and Shadow could attest; she had none. Her body was slender and flexible, lending itself well to stealth work. A trained thief or assassin, if the Sollim employed such things.
An annoyed snort cut through the heavy silence, causing Shadow’s attention to snap up to a face staring coldly at him. Perhaps she had mistaken his assessment for ogling. He gazed back at her with apathy until Gethak drew everyone’s attention to where Kyrion was rummaging around on the floor.
“What are you doing? Have you not found it yet?”
Kyrion looked up, unsuccessfully trying to brush some dirt off his fancy new clothes as he sat back on his heels. He was wearing that stupid grin of his, half-hidden though it was by the gloom so far off from the flickering lantern serving as the room’s only light-source, suggesting he knew exactly what he was up to even as he shrugged noncommittally.
A low grumble rolled from Aziz, clearing the grin away more effectively than anything Shadow had ever seen.
“Well,” Kyrion began as he fished up a bottle of wine from a cubby hidden under the floorboards. “Why don’t you all introduce yourselves while I pour out the wine?”
“Did you forget Gethak again?” Shadow scowled at him. A tease that it had taken Kyrion two days to realize the gnome was, in fact, the same one they both had known years before.
Kyrion merely smiled back, holding his hand out to indicate the barmaid. “I mean to lady Safira.”
“Certainly! I am Gethak, Gemsmith Emeritus to House Goldgear of Daergodar,” The gnome began even as Shadow threw a querying glance at Aziz, who nodded in response. “Although Ky knew me as Gem back in my younger days, when I used to tra-”
“I’m Aziz Azudar, former soldier of the Sultanate,” the nephaim cut in. “This is Shadow, our insider among the Cloaks and formerly assassin in the employ of the Blades of Shadow.”
Shadow scoffed. A mythical organization that did not truly exist, yet which served a vital purpose in maintaining the peace of his distant homeland.
“Assassa-what?” The barmaid stared at them in complete bewilderment.
Kyrion threw her an amused look as he passed out the glasses, pausing with Shadow’s in an attempt to elicit an explanation. Shadow slowly took a small sip, trying not to grimace at the bitter taste of wine; at least the smell offered a significant improvement.
“An assassin is a professional murderer. In my case, a sanctioned killer operating to protect the city of Harma Ithil. Unlike the Silver Cloaks, who are just spies and glorified city guards.” He paused, then added as an afterthought: “At least they give me something to do until someone gets back in the game.”
“Yes, well, you know,” Kyrion deflected, holding up the bottle for the barmaid to see. “This wine is from the vineyard of Shylith, the first Grand Chancellor of Malqish in service to the Absent King. You know the story of the Absent King, right?”
The girl shook her head as she carefully tasted the wine in a way that was at the same time proper and foreign. She knew proper etiquette, if not local custom; something Shadow could not claim. She showed both training and experience with her handling of the wine, in stark contrast to her rather standoffish attitude so far.
“Well, it is a fascinating story, though likely to be mostly a matter of conjecture and hyperbole,” Gethak began in response to a look from Kyrion. Shadow groaned inwardly; he was in no mood for the man’s prattle.
“It’s pretty simple,” Aziz cut in, saving them all. “A hundred years ago the first King (their version of Sultan) of Malqish went missing with his mamluqs while in the ruins of Raven’s Nest. That’s the ruin in the harbor. No one ever found out what happened, but given that the thing’s built on ‘the Haunted Isle’ after he cleared out the ghosts… Local legends say they’re to blame.”
“Local myth even claims he acts as a kind of psychopomp, ruling a kingdom of the souls he has gathered,” Gethak added, surprising Shadow by keeping it short.
Aziz gave a quick nod, then turned back to the girl. “Ye got it?”
“Is not Raven’s Nest the city?” She seemed a bit confused. Though made about Aziz’ explanation, it had been aimed at Kyrion.
“Yes and no,” he replied. “It’s originally the name of the castle on the Isle, but it’s pretty commonly used to refer to the city. Like how Malqish refers to the city, the valley it’s in, and the kingdom itself, too.”
“Like Sollim is used for the Sultanate (May its Suns never set!) and the giants,” she replied. “I meant- How to say…“ She switched language to one Shadow did not understand, but recognized as that of the Sollim, and for the first time addressed Aziz; upon his response, her only reaction was a simple “Ah.”
Growing impatient, Shadow turned to Kyrion and decided to move things along a bit. “If we are done drinking ridiculously rare wine-”
“But you have barely had a single sip!” the girl exclaimed. The thinly veiled venom intrigued Shadow, and he made a note to prod her more in the future; for now, he turned toward her and dropped the facade. She visibly shrank back from his irate glare, though to her credit maintained eye contact with a defiant gleam in her eyes.
“Who is she?” Gethak’s question defused a situation he likely had not even noticed. “I realize that she is the former barmaid of this establishment whom we took it over in order to hopefully recruit to our endeavours. What I mean is, she has not yet introduced herself to us, while we have for the most part introduced ourselves to her.”
Shadow had been wondering how long it would take before someone noticed.
“Lady Safira, if you would be so kind?” Kyrion turned to her and motioned at the group gathered.
“I am Safira, formerly of the Court of the Sultana Al-Sollim (May Her reign be everlasting!).” It was a simple, short, and reserved answer that told Shadow precisely one thing: he was right about her former ‘owner’ being someone of high rank.
“What did you do at court?”
“No, I mean what did you do that you ended up lea-”
“A dancer!?” Aziz suddenly leaned forward on the bar and stared incredulously at Kyrion. “Ye went through all this trouble to enlist a dancer?”
Kyrion’s failed attempt to hide his smirk by drinking wine was utterly unsuccessful, and told Shadow everything he needed to know. He had missed something when sizing up the woman and so turned his attention back to her. Her profession explained her agility, and combined with serving at Court it also explained her knowledge of etiquette. She was no assassin or infiltrator, she was an entertainer.
Given the magical nature of this mystery Kyrion was determined to solve, she most likely had some kind of magical training which he hoped would be of use. After the fall of the Magicians’ Guild there were few with any interest in the practice of magic, aside from the occasional charlatan. Shadow looked at Kyrion; a twinkle in the young man’s eyes and a discreet motion of his hand confirming Shadow’s suspicions.
“I am Safira bint Al-Nisr, mamluq.” Safira was glaring angrily at the figure towering next to Shadow, her hands planted on the counter as she rose to her feet and leaned forward.
The nephaim stared at her with a dumbfounded expression as the moments silently crept by. Then he nodded solemnly. “I apologize, lady Safira. It’s been so long since I left, I’d forgotten how ye mean things like that in the Sultanate.”
Gethak and Kyrion were looking confused, one more than the other, and Shadow felt no more certain what the matter was about either. Safira seemed to accept the man’s apology, however, and deflated back onto her barstool.
“So she knows magic,” Shadow concluded and looked back to Kyrion. “Well, do you have a plan?”
“Since when have I ever had plans?” came the predictable reply, coupled with the familiar gleam in his eye revealing that not only was he having fun but he most certainly did have what he considered a plan; and Shadow considered more of guidelines. “First, our possible clues. Three people were around for the King’s disappearance. Two of them won’t help us, the third is Shylith. What do we know of him?”
Shadow shrugged. “Not much. He stepped down as Grand Chancellor when he was implicated in that affair with the Magicians’ Guild, then faded away into obscurity. He was Laerinn, so it is possible that he remains alive to this day. His present whereabouts, in that case, are unknown. The general opinion among the Cloaks is that he died about 50 years ago, as that was the last time anyone saw him.”
“What about the, ehm, Sultana?” Safira quipped, looking to Aziz for help.
“The Queen?” Kyrion was not so much offering the word as realizing he had never stopped to ask himself that question.
“She died of grief after her husband vanished.” Aziz refilled his glass for the third time. “Don’t know about ye, but I think that’s a bit suspicious. Too romantic.”
“That is not the story I heard,” Gethak interjected. “In my youth I came here on official business, as part of a trade delegation. That would have been, oh, about sixty-four years ago now. The delegation met with this Grand Vizier… Saral was it?”
“Shylith, and it’s Grand Chancellor.”
“Right, that fellow. One of the topics that came up were about the regional history, and he claimed that the Queen had gone into the Nest in search of clues regarding her husband’s disappearance. Now, this had been a couple of years after the King vanished, according to him because she had at first refused to believe he would not return.” Gethak paused, going over things in his mind. “However, he seemed a bit senile, despite looking quite young, so I am not entirely sure if any of it is to be believed.”
“Any other clues?” Shadow looked at Kyrion with a blank expression. He already knew the answer, and he did not like it.
“Raven’s Nest itself, of course.” Kyrion cheerfully quipped before draining his glass and throwing everyone a big grin.
“So, ye’re all set then?” Aziz asked as he looked past Ky to the scaffolding covering the crumbling building that used to be a tavern. Ky responded with his usual happy-go-lucky grin and motioned around him as if to ask what else could they do.
“Aye, Moreth’s orders were clear enough and I’ve likely already outstayed my welcome with that one,” Aziz grumbled as he hoisted his backpack and gazed at the trio standing over to the side.
The gnome was buried in drawings he had made to plan out the new house and seemed quite thrilled to be in charge of the construction, in a way that was exactly what gnomes were thought to be. Unlike any other gnome Aziz had ever met, not that there were too many.
Shadow, as he had insisted on being called, was trying to show Safira how to hold a staff. What the man had in patience and skill, he lost in attitude. She could probably have a worse teacher, but Aziz couldn’t think of one.
“Ye dug up an odd bunch, old friend. Be careful with the flame, though, or ye might get burned.”
Ky tilted his head curiously, furrowing his brow slightly in confusion.
“The only Ireha mages I’ve met were the sha’ir,” he looked at the boy gravely. “They’re dead and gone. So, what? Ye’re hoping she picked something up from chatting with salamander shapers?”
“Nope,” was Ky’s only reply aside from a smug grin revealing he knew something Aziz didn’t, and he wasn’t about to share.
Aziz grunted and dropped the subject. He’d warned the lad, and that’s really all he could do.
“All right, I’m off to the Edge again. Ye’d better keep me informed, boy.”
“Likewise, old friend. Take care, the roads aren’t as safe when you’re alone.”
“Not like it’d make a difference, since ye left yer morning star behind.”
“Says the man who left his real weapons in an empty cottage, for anyone to take.”
“I took the thief with me, so nobody left to steal ‘em.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. The faeries couldn’t carry anything made for an oaf like you.”
Aziz chortled, gave the boy a one-armed hug, and then set off toward the city gate. He had a long march ahead of him, and while he would be spending more of each day marching without Ky getting tired every few hours it would still take him many days to reach Wyrm’s Edge.