Part One: Travellers Rest
The inn was large, one of the largest in Scindia. It was known by the name of the sign hanging outside its front door, a simple silhouette of a traveller, with his belongings wrapped up and tied to the end of a stick over his shoulder. The Traveller was well known in the city, and its position right on the edge beside one of the main waterways gave it the chance to attract passing trade from almost everyone who entered the city. Such a prime position was usually given over to a dockyard, warehouse, customs house, or brothel. But this was an old inn. The Traveller had always been here, gathering in the flotsam of the sea and the river at the point where all journeys paused and took a breath before they continued.
The smell of water and mud was thick, and the sound of the tide slapping the boards outside was a constant undercurrent of the noise of hard drinking, thick laughter, and coarse insults. The smell of cheap beer and cheaper stew, boiling over in the kitchen behind the taps almost overpowered the stink of brine, mould, nightsoil and piss that many Scindians considered the smell of home.
“How much for two flagons of ale?” The boy spoke with a terrible northern accent and the tapgirl had to ask him to repeat himself before she understood his mangled attempt at the amoric language.
“Depends,” she replied in Amoric. “Which ale you want?” She gestured to the different barrels as he looked confused.
The boy pointed to one of the barrels at random. “How much?” he repeated, hanging onto the single learned phrase desperately
“A sou”, she replied, holding out her hand. He fumbled through his purse, trying to find a sou coin. All he could see were a collection of rills, smaller copper coins. He blushed furiously as he searched his change and the tapgirl glared at him.
“Here”, he said in his own language and thrust his hand out with a pile of coins within it and dumped the lot into her hands. She pocketed the change and poured him out two flagons. He took them, not sure whether he’d get any change back, but she glared at him until he blushed even redder and fled her eyes.
As he turned he didn’t see her smirking and whispering to her companion, or understand the other’s speech when she said, “can’t believe you charged him a whole sou,” and the tapgirl’s laughing reply, “that’s nothing, the stupid kid must’ve given me almost two in the end.”
Ben heard them giggling though and hurried away even faster. He was an apprentice hunter and had faced many dangers without flinching in his short time, but there was nothing more terrifying to a young man than a pretty girl laughing at him in a language he doesn’t understand.
The nordran youth crashed into Anise as he stumbled on the uneven floor. She cried out as the ale slopped over the back of her head, spinning round, wiping the sticky liquid from her hair. The youth yelled at her in a language she didn’t understand, but his tone was furious. She yelled back as he stumbled on through the crowded room, her pretty young face twisted in fury.
“Did you see that?” she demanded of her companion at the table.
“What?” Justin replied, startled from his reverie.
“Justin!” she cried. “A guy half pours a flagon of beer over my head and you don’t even notice?”
“Sorry, I was thinking…where is he?”
“He’s gone now. Bloody fuck, I hate this city. A body can’t move for fuckers and arseholes.”
“Sweetie, please.” Justin replied. “There’s no need for that kind of language.”
“Oh not this again, it’s just words, grow up.”
“We should keep our heads down until we get out of the city. We don’t want any trouble.”
“We’re not at your father’s drawing room Justin. This but a common inn. We do stand out more if we ain’t cursing like soldiers.”
“You’re such a sweet girl Anise, I just think you shouldn’t befoul your lips with such coarsity.”
“And I love you too Justin. But I’m a peasant girl. We do curse just as good as the boys. Now get us another bottle would you. I think we need one after that devil-damned crossing.”
Justin looked embarrassed. “Um…I don’t think we should sweetie. I don’t know if we can afford another one.”
“What, it’s just a bottle. And the last one was tiny, like you asked the smallest one they had. How much coin have we left?”
“Not a great amount, the captain took much of it for the passage. And changing it into Scindian coin I think the guy took a pretty big commission.”
“You mean he screwed you! You said he’d be giving you a good deal.”
“I just think we need to take it easy, darling. We’ve got a long way to go still.”
“And it’ll be a fucking sight longer if we can’t be drinking any wine on the way.”
Anise glared angrily and sighed. Justin reached for her hand and she took it absentmindedly. He smiled at her and reluctantly she smiled back.
“So what then, up to our room?” Anise asked.
“Is that so bad? We can try again to…you know.”
“I know. You’re so funny my love.”
“What, why?” The young couple, no more than seventeen, kissed tenderly as they rose and headed across to the stairs.
Across the room, the Nordran’s table was tucked into an alcove at the back of the taproom, divided from the rest of the packed room by a screen. There were five Nordrans at the table, heavy-set, broad-shouldered men of the mountains in the far north. In the low waters and mudflats of Scindia, they felt as out of place as they looked.
“Where is he? He’s late” one of them asked in their harsh Nordran tongue.
“Lost probably.” His companion replied. “I hate this fucking city. These blasted alleys that don’t lead anywhere, and the water. How can any place have so much water and still be called a city and not a…a boat.
“I mean, I’m not a fucking landhugger, I was fine on the ship, never a problem. But at least there you stayed on board and got where you were going. Here you’re always hopping in and out of boats, splashing across sunken platforms, clambering over bridges. How anyone can find anything. It’s a fucking maze. It takes forever to get anywhere. We’ve been here a week and I still don’t dare get out of sight of this inn.
“I went to one of their markets the other day. Only five minutes away. Got lost on my way back and took all day to find it again. And you try and ask anyone for directions. The fuckers love it. It’s a national fucking past-time. They’ll pull up a chair and invite their friends over. Stroke their beard and shake their heads and consult their grandmothers. Takes the bastards three hours to argue over the best way to cross the road. Not that they have any fucking roads like a normal fucking city.” Brett lapsed into angry silence.
“Why and would you be going to the market now” Caleb replied. “Sure but you got everything a man needs right here and nearby. Beer and bread, hot stew for trenching, and next door for the evening.”
“You go next door?” Dan said. “Those pus-ridden mares?”
“Yeah and which pus-ridden mares do you ride?”
“I found a neat little place myself a few minutes along the river. A coin to the ferryman and he’ll take you right to the foot of their beds. And sure they ain’t no mares there, pus-ridden or otherwise.”
“Wet fish are they?” Thom sniped.
“Wetter than when you turn up at their door.”
“And colder too mayhap” Thom said.
“Not after I drop my braies,” Dan smiled.
“Yeah cause that’s when they leave the room” Caleb said.
“Aye and send in the goats.” Thom went on.
“Fuck you.” Dan replied.
“I’m not taking any goat’s rejects”. Thom laughed
“And you couldn’t afford his prices either” Caleb said.
“What half a rotten apple? Think I could stretch to that.”
“Allright lads, beers up,” Ben cried as he arrived back at the table. The others cheered as he dropped the flagons on the table. Dan grabbed one and filled his cup, throwing it back and refiling it again.”
“Leave some for the rest of us.” Caleb said.
“Them goats thirsty work are they?” Thom grinned.
“What?” Ben replied. “What goats?”
Jared snorted. “Never mind. Sit down kid.” He grabbed the flagon after Dan and poured his own drink. He took a draught and waited as the others filled their cups, and Ben joined them at the table.
“Has anyone actually done any searching since they got here? Or just for whores?”
The others quietened. Dan sighed.
“There’s nothing here Jared. There’s few enough captains going east and no one further than Suan.”
“And how many of them have you asked.” Jared said.
Dan stared at him square on. He drank his cup down. “Not that many old man. Cause they all told me the same bloody thing. And they laughed in my face. There’s no one stupid enough to go that far east. Except us apparently. And why? Because our great leader tells us to.”
“More of this talk is it? What, and you’re quitting on the plan now.”
“No one’s quitting” Brett jumped in. “I think Dan just means we should think things through a little more.”
“So and it was a good enough plan when your fat was frying and you had no idea what to do. It was a good enough plan when Karl pulled us out of the fire. But now he’s got us out of Nordra suddenly your mates can go to hell. Is that it?”
“The danger’s passed Jared. The plan worked, we’re out of the woods. The Count’s a thousand miles away and has no idea where we are. We’re safe, so don’t you start calling me out for putting my mates in danger.”
“And all your mates are sitting round this table? Sure but Aaron doesn’t count now?”
“And sure I’m grateful to him. The man’s a bloody hero. But I keep along with Karl now how’s that’s gonna keep Aaron any safer? He’s out and running east back up in Nordra, and nothing I do is gonna affect him for good or ill.”
“None of us is speaking to cut and run.” Brett cut in. “Just to talk it over. And sure we all know a hunter who’s too afrighted at being thought a coward to be cautious don’t last very long.”
“And sure ain’t you just the clearest echo.” Caleb said, draining his cup.
“Well fuck you, and what’s that supposed to mean.” Brett cried.
“We all know you wear Dan’s ass as a hood, so sure if you agree with everything he says.”
“Fuck you if I agree with Dan sometimes it’s cause the man talks sense.”
“Try speaking your own mind sometime, maybe you’ll learn something new.”
“Well, see and if I give a shit what your opinion is. And if your fucking opinion is any different from Karl’s that is.”
“It’s a good fucking plan Brett, and if Dan wasn’t so interested in his whores maybe he’d be more interested in the rest of it,” Caleb sighed.
“And what’s so good about it carrying on across the length of the world to hunt some fantasy of Karl’s imagination,” Brett replied.
“But sure there ain’t no reward without risk.” Thom added.
“It speaks.” Dan said. “Entertain us all with the wisdom of the ages why don’t you.”
“What and I don’t have an opinion now?” Thom asked, affronted.
“Sure but none we care to listen to.” Dan answered.
“Fuck you. My thoughts’re just as good as yours now. What but you’re pushing to be leader eh?”
“Fuck no, but sure and I’d make a better bloody leader than Karl, that’s for truth. Damn his eyes but that fucking kid had no place even being with us in the first place.”
“Yeah and you ever try saying no to the Count?”
“Karl’s the president of the fucking guild, he wears his own coat of arms, and what’s all this he can’t say no to our backwater Count. Difficult yeah, course it was. But if he can’t make those sort of hard choices what kind of a leader are we following here?”
“And you’d have done it different I suppose. You’d have stared the Count down and told him where to go?”
“Or he’d pull Brett out of his arse and have him say it for him.” Caleb said under his breath.
“Fuck you, Caleb. I’m fucking sick of your shit.” Brett leaped to his feet as Caleb laughed. “You want to fucking say that to my face, let’s go, right here. I’ll show you whose head is up whose arse.”
“Nah thanks, my arse is fine right here.” Caleb grinned.
“Shut the fuck up, you stupid bastards, drawing attention to us.” Jared snarled. “Sit down and shut up. Or fuck off if you can’t. We’re not alone here.”
“Well fuck me but I’m not sitting here listening to Caleb’s shit no more. I’m going out. If Karl gets here tell him I’ll be back later if’n he wants me.” Brett grabbed his cup and left the bench.
“And same for me.” Dan said. “I’ve sat here too long already. With soft breasts and warm thighs waiting for me just up the river.” He got to his feet. “I’ll see Karl later, if he bothers to show up. And I’ll tell him directly. Without any lickspittles fighting his arguments for him.”
“Yah go swive your goats” Caleb cried after his back. “And mind the horns on the boy ones.”