Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur
24 Sy, 1014 B.Y.
The woman stepped through the gate of the elegant house and stopped on the street, gazing up at the night sky. She shivered — the time was very late and the air was cool — and drew her cloak about her. She stood there for several menes, simply gazing up at the stars, her breathing slow and regular. She had always loved looking at the night sky. Some of her most prized memories of her early childhood were of lying on the grass or sitting on the low stone wall near her parents’ small house, staring up at the night sky, losing herself, escaping from the world for a time.
Tonight — for a great many nights of late, actually — she was in sore need of the solitude the night sky could bring. The cowl on her cloak partially obscured her vision, so she pushed it back, exposing her long brown hair to the light of the moon. She stood there for perhaps half a bell — perhaps more, she wasn’t certain — before reluctantly lowering her gaze from the quiet sky. She looked about the broad street. Other than herself, the street was deserted. She preferred it that way. It made her task so much easier.
She turned to her left suddenly and began walking with quick, decisive strides up the street, which was already beginning to slope upwards on its way towards the Royal Quarter and Crown Castle. She had no such lofty destination in mind, however. Keeping her cloak wrapped around her, her boots thudding softly against the cobblestones, she kept close to the buildings, houses of the wealthier of the residents of the Merchants’ Quarter. She chose to leave the cowl of her cloak down, both to provide better visibility and hearing, and because she simply wanted to.
She had been walking briskly for several menes when she spied her first major landmark, a moderately-sized plaza at the junction of five streets. She slowed, hearing voices, one hand moving under her cloak to grasp the hilt of the dagger riding in a scabbard on her left hip. As she approached the plaza, she slowed even more, her face a mask of intense concentration as she struggled to listen, trying to determine the danger, if any, the voices posed.
The voices were much louder now as she approached the corner of the streets leading into the plaza from the north and east. She crept up to the corner of the building and risked a glance into the plaza. What she saw caused instant alarm — two of the town guard not ten feet away and moving toward her. She drew quickly back and partially turned to face north, back the way she came, looking for a place of concealment. Nothing readily presented itself and she knew that to run would spell disaster — the town guard would surely pursue someone fleeing down a city street this late, especially in time of war. She could not afford that, not now, not after all she had done and had suffered through these past months. The guards were almost at the corner now. She turned to face the corner, briefly flirting with the idea of using her dagger. That would not help matters either; would, in fact, only serve to make things much, much worse. She had only one option remaining to her, and she was loathe to use it. Uttering an oath, she let her hand slip from the dagger’s hilt, her arms falling to her sides, the cloak opening somewhat to reveal the white shirt, green vest, and dark trews. Then she waited.
The glow of a lantern preceded the arrival of the guardsmen. The two men rounded the corner and stopped short as they were confronted by the sight of a rather nice-looking woman of medium height, moderately well-dressed, wearing a dark cloak, and standing there looking as if her presence on a deserted street in the middle of the wee bells in a capital nearly under siege was as natural as rain on a spring day.
The older of the two men narrowed his eyes and quickly took in the surroundings. His partner, he noticed, was taking in other, more shapely sights. “And what might you be doing out here all alone at this time of night?”
The woman answered in an oddly-accented voice, her speech formal-sounding. “I am new to the City,” she said, “and have lost my way. I had been enjoying the hospitality of a tavern recommended to me by friends. Friends whom, I might add, left me to my own devices some time ago.” She smiled, a dazzling smile in the light of the lantern. “Would you be so kind as to guide my way to my lodgings?”
The younger man started forward almost immediately, only to be stopped by a hand on his arm. “Hold it, lad. Not so quick. You, lass, where is it you are staying?”
The woman — youngish, the older guardsman judged — turned her attention full on him and answered in that odd-sounding voice of hers, “I am staying at the Bardic Hostel, doing some scribe work for the College. As I have said, I have only just recently arrived in the City and I am not entirely familiar with it yet. Doubly so after dark.”
The older guardsman appeared to consider the answer until his deliberations were interrupted by his younger colleague. “Come on, Coros, what harm can she be? She’s just a woman and unarmed.” At that, the woman brought her hands out fully into the light, holding them out, palms up. Coros pondered for a few moments more before finally deciding, apparently, that his younger colleague’s assessment was partially true. Her being a woman had no bearing on how dangerous she was, but the fact she bore no steel he could see went a long ways towards helping him make up his mind. Coros grunted and nodded, motioning for the younger guardsman to fall in on the woman’s right while he moved to her left side.
As the two men approached, the woman made certain to keep her hands out in the open. Just as they reached her, she suddenly reached out to touch each man on the forehead. She whispered a single word, and both men fell to the ground with a solid thud. She narrowly managed to catch the lantern before it, too, hit the ground. A fire was the last thing anyone needed.
She stood straight, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been keeping in. She gazed down at the immobile bodies of the guardsmen for several moments before satisfying herself they would trouble her no more. She again glanced around the street, looking for witnesses, before extinguishing the lantern and setting it on the cobblestones between the two men.
The woman drew her cloak about herself once more and stood there until she could see well enough to travel quickly if need be. When her eyes had fully adjusted to the light of the moon, she set off, treading briskly across the plaza, heading for the street that led west and slightly south off the plaza. As she stepped out into the plaza, she took the opportunity to look down the street from which the guardsmen had come. What she saw brought her to an awkward halt. The sky to the east was lit with an angry orange glow. She stared towards the eastern sky, turning her head slowly to look fully upon the spectacular and chilling sight. “Nehru’s Blood!”, she whispered in awe.
There were gaps in the orange glow, clearly a fire. The fire seemed some distance away and it took her a moment to realize that the reason there were gaps in the glow was that the large, closely packed — and expensive — buildings that characterized much of the Merchants’ Quarter were obscuring her line of sight. She now realized that the glow from the fire, if indeed that was the source of what she was seeing, covered nearly the entire eastern horizon. Perhaps the Beinisonians had begun their assault upon Baranur’s capital. If so, she thought, she must move her plans along more rapidly than she had ever conceived and in a totally unanticipated direction. She did not relish the prospect of either option.
She turned and hurried west, jogging along the dark street in her haste. Contrary to what she had told the guardsman Coros, she knew Magnus very well, day or night. She had spent the last three months getting to know the lay of the streets, among other, less desirable things. The nature and cost of the buildings changed as she moved west, generally becoming larger and more expensive. The part of the city she was entering was home to most of the more-powerful merchant families. Large manors abounded, intricate gardens on display both in and outside homes, status symbols in the game of wealth and power. Quite vain, but quite lovely in daylight, she thought as she hurried along, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to see if she was being followed.
She jogged west for about half a bell before slowing to a brisk walk. She had spied her destination, a large, semi-fortified stone manor on the south side of a small square with a fountain in the centre. She slowed her pace somewhat as she approached the large door of the manor, wanting to bring her breathing under better control before entering. She must not seem anxious.
The woman, her breathing now unhurried, walked up to the large wooden door. She reached out for a rope hanging in front of the door and to her left, tugging on it three times. She waited for a time, enjoying the quiet, formulating her thoughts and plan of action for the night’s main task. Presently, the sound of a latch being undone came to her ears and shortly thereafter, a panel in the centre of one of the doors slid open to reveal a man’s face. Light spilled out onto the street from a lantern the man was carrying. Immediately-apparent recognition dawned in the man’s eyes. “Ah. They are expecting you, my lady.” Not waiting for the woman to respond, the man closed the panel, plunging the street into darkness once more. The woman heard the sound of a bar being withdrawn and the door opened inward. The man was standing there, his lantern tightly shuttered to prevent as little light to escape as possible. The woman stepped through the door and past the man, who wordlessly closed the door and replaced the bar before opening his lantern.
The man walked past the woman, leading the way up to the second floor, a journey both had made many times together in the past months. The man carried the lantern in his left hand, as he always did, holding it level with his eyes and out to the side, again as he always did. The woman, for her part, followed a pace or two behind and to his right, as she always did. The pair walked down a darkened hallway until the man halted before a door. He turned and nodded, as he always did, before walking off back the way he had come. The woman waited until the man and his lantern had disappeared, as she always did, before opening the door and stepping into the well-lit room beyond. She smiled slightly to herself as she entered, reflecting on how such a simple series of actions could take on the effect of a calming and even anticipated ritual. She would have been even more amused to find that the man thought the same way.
The room was richly-apportioned, several expensive tapestries and even a few books in evidence. Four men were seated around an exquisitely-crafted table in the centre of the room. A fifth stood at a window, gazing east at the glow from the Fifth Quarter’s death throes. It was this fifth who turned when the woman entered the room. “Ah. Celeste. We have many matters to discuss.”
Celeste closed the door without turning away from the man who had spoken. She nodded briefly. “We doth, indeed, my Lord,” she said, gratefully resuming the archaic usages normally common to her speech.
The man at the window, modestly dressed, walked over to sit in one of the two empty chairs at the table, a slight smile on his face. As he sat, he indicated with a gesture for Celeste to take the remaining chair. Celeste took the proffered seat with grace, pausing to slip her cloak off and drape it over the back of the chair.
The man folded his hands in his lap and asked, again smiling, “What news of Master Cheldrith? Have you won him over? Will he throw in with us?”
“Aye, Lord Enion,” Celeste responded, “he hath indicated that he shall.” That was news clearly to gladden Enion’s heart; and the others present as well, to judge from their reactions. They have not as secure a position as they do publicly acclaim, then, Celeste thought.
Enion nodded in salute to Celeste. “Your talents,” he said in his rich, deep voice, “are truly astounding.”
Celeste nodded in acceptance of Enion’s compliment, smiling slightly. An outward mask, that; her true reaction was one of disgust and loathing, not all of it directed outward. For certes shall I enjoy *your* death, Enion, she thought, both in the length and manner of the doing.
He directed his next comment to the room as a whole. “Well, now that Celeste has brought us such good news, I think we can safely move on to the end game.”
Celeste interrupted the murmurs of assent and joking suggestions of what to do with their quarry once he was brought down. “My Lord, doubtless thou hast observed the flames even now devouring that part of the city on the far bank. Is it not somewhat early to be thus congratulating ourselves on the further success of this, our plan? Surely the flames doth herald the final onslaught of the Beinisonian host in their siege camp?”
General laughter swept round the table. It was one of the others who imparted the source of their laughter to Celeste. “Not to worry. It is only the Fifth Quarter that burns. Good riddance, say I.”
Celeste responded, speaking as if to a particularly slow student. “Mayhap that is so, Gerrans, but think thou the Beinisonians shalt content themselves with the Fifth Quarter only? True it is they may not be assaulting the city walls even now, but it is just as certain that they shalt not be leaving anytime soon. Not possessing a host that overmatches that within the walls two for one. The Beinisonians shall assault or shall siege the entire city and then shalt we find ourselves forced to deal with the question of how, or even if, we should proceed.”
Gerrans made as if to respond, his face hot with anger, but Enion was there first, laying a restraining hand on the younger man’s arm. “A valid concern, Celeste, but my man inside the Castle has informed me that the foreigner has a plan should that happen.” Enion paused then added, a faint note of surprise in his voice, “It actually might succeed, too, which would be a refreshing change.”
Celeste posed another question, inwardly marveling that these men should so casually dismiss Edward Sothos as nothing more than an incompetent amateur. “And is this man of thine reliable, my Lord Enion?”
“Very,” Enion responded in a crisp voice. “His loyalty to House Northfield is unquestioned.” Enion sat straighter, his hands on the arms of the chair, radiating authority. “Now we must turn our attentions to exactly how we shall accomplish our goal; the removal of the foreigner and the installation of our own candidate in his place.” Enion smiled, a feral glint in his eye. “And *then* we shall see to the restoration of House Northfield to its place of prominence among the Great Houses.”
And then, thought Celeste, once the Sothos is freed of his duties and responsibilities here, then shalt I be thus able to depart this wretched land. She smiled and let the others think what they may. But not before I am well recompensed for my service, nay, not before then.