The door closed. The latch fell into place with a click that was no different than any other morning, but to Butler, it rang within his ears like the tenth bell that heralded the oncoming night. With a sense of finality, he slowly turned away from the home he’d known for twenty years and began his long journey into the unknown.
He’d grown up in Dargon, three blocks closer to the docks. When he’d come of age and become a journeyman over at the old chandlery on Atelier Street, he’d moved into this small town house outside Foxmarten Square. Although he’d eventually inherited the shop, he’d never been rich, but had made enough to pay the rent, his necessities, and his few indulgences. Now all he owned was the small sack on his back, which contained little more than a cheese and some dried meat and fruit.
He smiled to himself, knowing he was going forth on a long, arduous journey without even carrying a knife. Certainly, if he was waylaid on the road, the brigands wouldn’t get away with anything more valuable than his boots, and he could even make do without them, although it would make the journey slower and more painful.
Not that the journey wasn’t painful enough already. The first few steps away from his home weren’t easy. He had a nagging feeling that he’d forgotten something, but he didn’t need to bring anything on the journey he was about to make. He felt like going back and checking to make sure everything was settled properly, but he knew there was nothing left to settle.
In truth, his life was more settled now than it had ever been before. He’d said his goodbyes to all the people at the chandlery who used to look up to him for leadership, and the shop was now running under Donagal’s tutelage. He still felt like going back for one last look, but he knew that the memories of his forty-four years were carried inside his heart, not in his empty residence or the tiny shop he was leaving behind. Still, he was going to take a few bells to walk around the city that had been his home for so long. After all, he would probably never see it again. He paused and looked back at the house one final time before he set his feet on Traders Avenue toward Foxmarten Square.
As he crossed Foxmarten Square, for a moment he could see the rise of Temple Street on his left. Above the close-shouldered buildings, the red-tiled roofs of the churches to various gods shone brightly in the crisp light of the autumn morning. Instinctively, Butler’s eyes found the cornice of the Olean temple. The statue of Ol was too distant to be seen clearly, but Butler raised its image in his mind, and pictured its upraised hand wishing him safe journey and the fulfillment of his quest.
Butler only had a vague idea where that quest would lead him. Until a year ago, he’d been happy living out his life running the chandlery. He’d learned all there was to know about candle making and waxworks, and had shared that knowledge generously with his co-workers.
When he was young, he’d thought that bringing light to the people and passing on his knowledge and passion for candle making were noble ways of contributing to the community. However, at forty he’d begun asking himself if there might be something more meaningful that he could do with his life than merely dipping wicks.
And so he had found himself doing what he’d always thought unthinkable: going to temple. The rote chanting and singing and rituals hadn’t impressed him, but the sermons had. He’d begun to see how traits like compassion, generosity, and self-restraint weren’t just platitudes, but a way to live that could help him feel good about himself and take satisfaction from his life.
It wasn’t that he necessarily felt bad being an everyday chandler, but he’d never felt like he was really helping people. He’d done his best to nurture his apprentices, but teaching chandlery to a handful of journeymen just didn’t constitute a meaningful contribution to society. He had begun quietly donating money to local healers, and even if it was sometimes difficult for him to spare the coin, he could see the real difference it made for people. That had given him a deep feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that no amount of candlelight could provide.
The more time he spent at temple, the more he realized how important it was to him. Then, one day, when the priest was giving a sermon on a topic that was already familiar to him, Butler happened to look around the chapel and was amazed at what he saw. He saw someone asleep during the sermon! And one woman was paying more attention to her knitting! Another woman was preoccupied trying to keep her children quiet, and two men were actually playing paquaratti in the back! Butler felt like he was the only person in the whole temple for whom the priest’s words meant something. It was then that he knew that he had to do more than just sit and listen; he had to actually practice the precepts he’d learned.
That had led him to where he was today. In practical terms, he was leaving his old life behind and journeying to faraway Magnus to join the monkhood. There he’d learn the Olean teachings from a great master, and perform the good works so desperately needed in that crowded metropolis. But it was much more than that; he was embarking on a quest, seeking something incredibly powerful but utterly insubstantial: wisdom.
But both wisdom and the Olean temple in Magnus seemed awfully far away as Butler walked slowly down Traders Avenue toward the Rogue and Quiver, which dominated the corner where Traders met Tanner’s Street. Butler stopped and considered his old haunt, which seemed eerily silent and unfamiliar in the bright morning light. So close to the docks, it might have been a rowdy place but for owner Malcom Shortclip’s connections with the Town Guard and the skill with which his girls plied the customers.
After a short walk, Butler reached the northern end of Dargon’s seaport. He’d come this way to take one last look at the Valenfaer Ocean before his journey took him far inland. He wasn’t a man of the sea himself, but Dargon was wedged between the ocean and the river Coldwell, so he’d never been more than a short walk from the water.
Taking a path that turned away from the docks, he climbed a steep little rise up to the Sailors’ Shrine, a quiet little patch of green amidst a quiet copse of cedar and spruce. The granite outcropping served as one half of a natural seawall, protecting the harbor sheltered in its lee. The harbor was also protected by Havensight Island, a hilly, wooded islet just offshore, uninhabited save for a solitary lighthouse that faced the open ocean.
Butler stood there for several menes, staring out at the distant horizon, which seemed so still when compared to the thunderous surf crashing into the rocks below. It drowned out all the noise of the city, save for the piercing cry of a screegull that soared and wheeled skillfully in the stiff ocean breeze above Butler’s head.
As he left the Sailors’ Shrine, Butler fancied that he was that screegull. At the top of the hill, he could see much of the city of Dargon spread out below him, much as a bird in flight might regard it. Way up there, he could see so much that it made him feel like he was bigger than the city. But as he descended the hill, the town got bigger and he felt smaller and smaller. Soon he was no higher than the masts of the ships docked at the piers. And then, after the calm, quiet heights of the shrine, the road dumped him unceremoniously into the absolute chaos that was Commercial Street.
Commercial Street was simultaneously both the biggest open space in the entire city, and the most crowded. Even calling it a street was a misnomer. On the seaward side of this great open space were Dargon’s dozen-odd piers, with all manner of trading vessels from throughout the kingdom and beyond, all loading and unloading cargo just as fast as the steeves could work.
With the recent closure of the causeway that connected the two halves of the city and the resulting need to ferry goods across the river, Dargon’s shipping firms were raking in money … except for poor Tyrus Vage, whose dozen-odd ships had somehow all been lost at sea in a single freak storm just days after a rogue barge had caused the causeway’s collapse.
Opposite the piers, the landward side of the square was a near-solid wall of massive warehouses where those goods were received and distributed. The one exception was the Harbormaster’s Building, where all the harbor traffic was coordinated, and where the manifests and taxation of all the cargo was overseen. As Butler reached the first set of piers, the bell atop the Harbormaster’s Building rang out thrice, indicating midmorning. On the south side of the river Coldwell, the time was marked by the bells in Dargon Keep, but the New City — which had been called that for many generations — took its time from the Harbormaster’s Building. Butler must have missed hearing the distant bells from Dargon Keep while he’d been up at the Sailors’ Shrine.
Between the docks and the warehouses was a great open space, paved with huge granite setts the size of coffins which had been used as ballast aboard ship. Or it would have been a great open space if it was ever free of people and merchandise! Even at this early bell, the plaza was a beehive of activity, with cargoes piled in huge stacks or being lugged by man, horse, and ox. Many foodstuffs were brought right from a ship to permanent stalls and sold, making Commercial Street the second biggest marketplace in the entire city. The people who came to buy produce drew other merchants, who sold everything from firewood to horseshoes to yarn from makeshift tables, jostling one another for the best location each morning.
The spectacle of the ships and the foreigners also drew countless spectators, eager to satisfy their curiosity. Because of that, Commercial Street became a place where friends and neighbors met to exchange news, goods, and gossip. Just walking the length of Commercial Street could take all afternoon, and the hubbub hardly subsided at night, when the loading and unloading continued while locals and visitors alike found refuge in the pubs that lined the streets just behind the warehouses.
The Town Guard did what they could to maintain order, but more often than not they were so outnumbered that they gave up or grew indifferent to it all. Seeing a pair of guards doing their rounds, Butler recognized Liat, one of the more cranky veterans of the service. He didn’t know the man who accompanied him, but judging by his youth and the cleanliness of his accoutrements he was probably a new recruit who would soon become equally jaded and negligent.
As Butler walked toward the southern end of Commercial Street, he came upon the three wooden wharfs that had been burned when an enemy fleet arrived in Dargon during the Beinison War. That had been several years earlier, and rather than dredging the debris from the bottom and sinking new pilings, a public bathhouse was going to be built on their ruins. The bathhouse was going to be the first stone building ever erected on the seaward side of Commercial, and he wondered whether it would be boon or bane.
Finally Butler reached the end of Commercial Street, or rather the place where it turned sharply eastward. As the road narrowed, the huge paving stones gave way to cobbles of a more familiar size, and the way became known as Dock Street. This was where the mouth of the Coldwell emptied into the Valenfaer. Some people thought this was where the river’s fresh water met the sea, although locals knew that the ocean tide actually kept the water brackish several leagues up the river’s estuary.
Dock Street was still a major thoroughfare, seeing a lot of commercial traffic in the form of carts and sledges driven by teams of oxen. This was because Dock Street was the shortest path between the seaport and Dargon’s river port. Naturally, the deep-water sailing vessels couldn’t navigate up the narrow and much shallower river channel, and the shallow-draught river barges would be swamped by an ocean swell, even within the comparatively protected harbor. And forcing goods to travel those four furlongs overland allowed Duke Clifton Dargon’s men to tax the goods passing through the city both as they arrived and as they departed. Dargon profited greatly by being the intermediary in all trade between the towns and villages of the interior of northern Baranur and the distant ports that could only be reached by oceangoing ships.
Because it was located halfway between the ocean and river ports, the neighborhood around Dock Street was the roughest part of town. Most of its old townhouses had been converted into sketchy little bars and rooming houses for itinerant sailors.
Butler paused at a corner and looked down the length of Layman Street, toward Coldwell Street and Dargon’s Lulling District, as it was called. On this side of Coldwell Street was the Lucky Lady. Its proprietress, Madame Tillipanary, had purchased it fifteen years before, and turned it into the most profitable and reputable brothel in Dargon.
Across the street was the Mother of Pearl’s, where all the girls were named Pearl … at least while they were working. However, these two large establishments were the exception; the further you went up Layman, the smaller and sketchier and less differentiated the doorways became. Knock the wrong way on the wrong door, and your body would wind up nourishing either the rats or the compost pile out back. Butler shook his head and walked on, wondering how anyone could find fulfillment and lasting joy from a surfeit of drink, drugs, flesh, and violence.
Butler shortly reached the docks of the river port section of Dargon, where a dozen barges were tied up. As he watched, a bargeman poled a craft full of people toward a hastily-erected wooden pier. After the Causeway had been closed due to its near-collapse a fortnight earlier, several barges had been converted into makeshift ferries to carry people and goods across the river to Dargon Keep and the Old City.
Turning away from the river, Butler walked up Division Street, past Grey Talka’s — yet another seedy bar — and between more rows of warehouses. On his left was the long, low warehouse that was the headquarters of Dargon’s Fifth I merchants. Fifth I was one of the biggest businesses in Dargon, and Master Percantlin was one of Dargon’s wealthiest commoners. To his right were several warehouses that once had been owned by Camron; Camron’s Shipping had gradually declined in the years since his death.
Butler turned right, parallel to the river, and hustled down Coldwell Street toward Market Square, eager to put the Lulling District behind him. The next street on the landward side was Ramit, which Butler thought was an apt description for a street where sex was bought and sold. The only openly displayed sign on Ramit was the pictogram of the Shattered Spear, one of Dargon’s worst establishments. Butler had heard that the only reason why peace was kept in the small tavern was because of the threat of violence from its two owners, Jamis and Jahlena, who took delight in also being the bouncers. Butler believed it; he had seen Jahlena in the marketplace, and she was a strong, physically intimidating woman with arms like a sailor, and she haggled with the skill of an assassin. But the Spear looked even more run-down than Butler had expected. There was broken lumber piled high all around the entrance, nearly blocking the dark alley that was usually referred to as simply “Ramit”.
Another block further down Coldwell and Butler turned left onto Nochtur. Beyond the borders of the Lulling District, the taverns looked a bit better kept. Partway up Nochtur he spotted the elaborate red and green statue that marked the entrance to the Inn of the Serpent. The Serpent was best known as a carding pit. Although fights weren’t unheard of, the proprietor of the Serpent, Ballard Tamblebuck, was well regarded by most.
At the other end of the block was the weather-beaten sign for Belisandra’s, which bore large, red lettering above a buxom serving girl hefting a huge tankard of ale. Set on the busy corner where Nochtur met Main Street, the tavern got plenty of foot traffic, and the hot food, live music, and dancing girls helped draw travellers in. Butler thought the tattered sign was at odds with Belisandra’s reputation as one of Dargon’s most stable and reputable taverns.
He followed Main Street down to Murson, his steps growing a little slower until he finally came to the Street of Travellers, which was Dargon’s biggest main thoroughfare. From the shadows across the junction, Butler looked over at the familiar storefront of his chandlery: Trills Candles. His journeyman, Donagal, was talking to one of the monks from the Stevenic temple, and it was obviously trying his patience. However, Butler saw that while the journeyman was occupied, one of Dargon’s shadow boys crept up from the side and pinched a pair of candles.
Butler instinctively looked around for the Town Guard, and found Sergeant Cepero talking to a produce vendor and enjoying a quomo fruit from his stand. Butler twisted his face up as he watched; they were shipped down the Coldwell from the wilds of the Darst Range as delicacies, but Butler found their bitterness not worth the effort of peeling their tough, spiny skin.
While he debated with himself whether to go get Cepero’s attention, the shadow boy dodged into the crowd and disappeared. Butler thought about going over and pointing out to Donagal what had happened, but he’d already said his goodbyes, and even if he told Donagal about the theft, what would happen tomorrow? It was a lesson Donagal would learn soon enough on his own. And there’d been plenty of times that Butler had intentionally looked away when one of the underage thieves pilfered a taper. That kind of give-and-take was just a part of what being a merchant was about, after all.
He turned onto Travellers and after crossing Thockmarr plunged into the melee that was the Venilek, Dargon’s largest marketplace. It always produced a sense of amazement and revulsion at the same time, as merchants hurried to sell strange, rare foods from across the land and sea before they spoiled and went bad. It was as if the vendors hoped that by increasing the chaotic din of fervent haggling, they might drown out the stench of overripe produce and the day’s haul of fish.
Butler held his breath and wandered across the market to the point where the Street of Travellers merged with Traders Avenue. Yes, Traders … His home, where this journey had started, was near the other end of Traders, and this morning he could have just walked its length and saved himself a lot of time. But with no particular agenda, Butler had dallied, looking upon the sights of his home town for what would probably be the last time in his life. And if he wanted to take his time leaving town, there was no living being that he had to answer to.
However, even having dawdled, his perambulation of town was nearing its inevitable end. Behind him, Travellers ran from the docks on Commercial Street and straight through the heart of the New City. Before him, after passing the Venilek, it continued out the landward side of town, passed the city walls, then turned south, where it went around a swampy area before ending at the causeway that carried traffic across the river to the Old City.
As it turned south, Travellers skirted a small but steep hillside whose town houses gradually cut off his view of the rest of the New City. With nothing but fields and a small brook to his left, it really felt as though Butler had left town.
He stepped across an old wooden bridge over that brook, which, he knew, came from the old flooded granite quarry a few leagues to the east of town. As a child, he’d gone swimming there, jumping into the cold, spring-fed lake from the many rock ledges surrounding it. The brook paralleled the Street of Travellers — now little more than a broad dirt road — for a while before emptying into the swamp.
The swamp was a marshy area near the tidal estuary of the Coldwell that no one had built upon, because it was regularly flooded by the brook during heavy rains, or by the river during extremely high tides. During low tide, it reeked, but it also was something of a boon: it was the only place where people could dump offal and refuse without having to cart it leagues away from town.
Finally Butler climbed up the embankment that had been built above the River Coldwell. Here a stone causeway — really a bridge, but Dargon’s residents had called it “the causeway” for generations — had connected the commercial part of the city with the older, wealthier districts like Coldwell Height, spanning the river at a narrow point between two bits of outcrop that protruded into the river.
Butler walked a few steps up onto the causeway before stopping, letting his gaze go over the river to fall on the familiar stone tower of Dargon Keep, atop its high granite crag between the Coldwell and the sea. The keep was the center of Dargon’s history, having been founded centuries ago by explorers from the long-fallen Fretheod Empire who had called this place Wudamund.
Only a hundred years ago, Dargon had been a remote part of Narragan, another duchy within the Kingdom of Baranur. During the Great Houses War, Baranur’s Queen Dara had fled to Dargon all the way from Magnus. Shortly thereafter, she’d rewarded Duke Sumner Dargon’s loyalty by giving him authority over a large duchy bearing his surname. Butler wondered what Dara’s capital would be like when his own journey ended with his arrival in distant Magnus.
He regarded the crenellated towers of Dargon Keep, which stood majestically over the Coldwell estuary. The river’s channel ran deepest right next to the rocky outcrop that the fortress was built upon. The castle that had once sheltered Baranur’s besieged queen was now home to the court of Clifton Dargon II, including his wife Lauren and infant daughter Myrwen.
Butler didn’t go further than the approach to the causeway, for his path didn’t cross the river, and just as well. The causeway had been severely damaged when a barge coming downriver had slammed into it a fortnight ago. Since then, all traffic and goods had been shuttled across the river by ferry, and the lack of boats to do the job had spawned long work days, dockside wares piled high, price gouging, and fisticuffs.
He turned around and looked toward the Duke’s Highway: the road that skirted the river’s edge, heading inland. Beyond his sight, it followed the Coldwell upstream until it came to Kenna and the foothills of the Darst Range. From Kenna, Butler would keep the mountains to his left and follow a trail three hundred leagues straight south through the crossroads village of Tench, fording the Grenweir at Sharwald, across the hills of Narragan to the town of Wachock, and on to Port Sevlyn, where he’d finally meet the mighty river Laraka: all just names on a scrap of parchment he’d gotten from the Olean priests. From Port Sevlyn, he would follow the river another hundred leagues upstream to Magnus, where he would begin his new life as a monastic, a life that would hopefully be wholly fulfilling and rich in meaning.
But it all began with leaving Dargon. He stood there, immobile, knowing that it would be easy to quietly watch the city all afternoon. Turning away from the causeway and the rest of Dargon, he set his footsteps upon the dusty path and set himself to pondering life, its many mysteries, and whether his footsteps would finally lead him to the wisdom he so earnestly sought.