Another sign hung across the portal of another inn. The light from within illuminated the rough picture of a red-coloured ship in full sail. Within the inn the main room was smaller than the Traveller, though no less crowded with people drinking and cursing their friends.
At a table by the door four people sat, with cups of beer, and a pack of cards between them.
“What game is this?” one of the men asked. He was an older man, of more than forty years, his face creased from sun, and the dust of the road. He carried a sword at his waist, and looked like he knew how to use it. His companion was a younger woman of plain, neat dress.
“They call it Blackdragon I believe,” one of the younger men across from him replied. He spoke in clear amoric, though his accent was strong, from the Acadan continent to the south. His young face was handsome, with striking olive-skinned features and oiled jet-black hair worn longer than the custom in Scindia.
“I’ve heard of it from others.” The older man said. His name was Michel and he looked at the two Acadans with suspicion.
“I haven’t,” the women replied.
“The rules are simple my friends.” The Acadan told them, whose name was Aquila. “We deal seven cards to each, and build our hand by swapping cards with the two stacks in the middle. The first to build a hand lays it down, and the last to lay loses. Those with hands to contest, show their cards and the higher cards win.”
“Seems simple enough,” the woman said.
“Aye,” Michel said. “But the skill is in one’s speed and reflex for there are no turns, every player takes the card as reaches it afore his rival.”
“And how does one build a hand?” The woman asked.
“Simple,” the other Acadan said, whose name was Seville. His accent was even stronger than his companion, though he was no less striking a youth. “There are five suits and each has five warriors and five weapons. You need collect five weapons and a warrior, or five warriors with a weapon to build a winning hand.”
“And a dragon card.” Aquila cut in. “The dragon is the goal, for the hand that wins takes the dragon as trophy.”
“And the one who wins the most dragons wins the game.” Seville finished.
“How many dragons are there?” The woman, Henriette, asked.
“Five,” replied Aquila.
“And the Black,” said his friend.
“Aye the Black,” Aquila grinned, “But let’s not worry on him tonight. He’s too fierce to kill with just one hand. To take the Black, a player needs to win them all. ‘Tis known as a deathwish, by those who play it.”
“So best avoided, unless a one is either foolish or over-brave.”
“Or has nothing left to lose.”
“Then deal the cards,” Michel said firmly. “Shall we bet with coin to make the game alive?”
“How else?” Aquila grinned as he emptied his purse upon the table, rill and sou clattering like rain.
Just then a cry came up as a stranger entered the inn and blew a horn to silence the room. Aquila and Seville spun round, Aquila’s hand covering his coin as he did. Michel’s eye flicked to the disturbance, his body unflinching. But there was no danger, only a young man dressed in a night-blue cote and carrying a staff engraved with simple sigils.
“Magic!” he cried in a piercing, singsong voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, fine fellows, brave and true.
What need have you,
Of the subtle arts,
I hear you cry,
You have a flint, and knife,
You can look after yourself
On a dark winter’s night.
But think not that magic
Is only for defence
‘Gainst common footpad
Let me tell you, I have traversed
This fine continent, up and down
And the number of merchants I’ve met who’ve said,
‘Now if only I’d had a mage beside me,
I’d never have lost my goods to thieves’,
And sailors who’ve bemoaned their lack of foresight
When becalmed in the southern seas
Petitioning for the slightest breeze
And cursing their younger selves
For not investing in a mage’s aid.
Oh if only they were here tonight,
They’d plead with you to ask me more.”
“Fuck off, pint-size” one of the drunkards of the room called out. There was a ripple of laughter around the room. The mage faltered in his litany.
“Ah…as I was saying: Magic, the aid of the wise man, the guardian that never sleeps…”
“You’ll sleep after I’ve had a word with you.” A man yelled out.
“Fear not!…” the young mage cried, trying to drown out the heckling.
“No one’s afraid of you”, the man answered.
“Fear not, for my craft is not,
Of the dark arts of the Ylemian Witch,
Of shifting shadows and wrathful wraiths.
My art is fine, and tame,
The wielding of the power aetheric,
Manipulating the cosmos for the benefit
Of friends and patrons…”
“Show us a trick then pint-size.” The drunkard cried.
“My magic costs a good few coin,” the mage cried back over the laughter. “But for your delectation…”
“Our delly-what?” one woman laughed from the bar.
“For your enjoyment and delight, I will demonstrate to you a small sample of the power I wield, a power that can be yours, for a reasonable price.”
“Teleport yourself out of here!” another man called from the crowd.
“Fly out the window on a cloud!” another suggested.
“Turn yourself invisible.”
“And un-hearable,” another jeered.
“Such delicate arts require much time and practised ritual,” the mage cried out above a chorus of jeers, “but tonight I can show you fire…” the entire crowd booed and threw their cups at him. “Argh. I said fire that…ow…will dance about the rafters, fire the likes of which you’ve never… argh, stop throwing things at me.”
“We don’t need no hedge mage here. Move on!”
“Yeah, anyone can light a fire.” A man cried out.
“I can make my fire do whatever I command.” The mage cried over the uproar. But no one was listening anymore and they laughed uproariously as the lads nearest to him kicked him up the arse and he fled their abuse.
The young mage staggered outside, wiping the spit and beer out of his cote. He sighed, and made towards another inn further down the road. But as he stepped away from the light of the doorway a hand grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him aside. He startled.
“Hey, watch out, I’m a mage.” He cried.
“Yeah I heard,” the man said in a thick nordran accent. “What sort of mage though. A petty little fire mage, or you learned any proper spells?”
“Of course I’ve learned the finer arts. I don’t demonstrate my more delicate exploits for ruffians and drunkards though. For one thing it takes time, and aether doesn’t come cheap.”
“I’ve got no time nor use for a hedge-mage boy. Have you studied?
“I ain’t no boy, and yes I’ve studied. I’ve been to the finest college of all Moaglea, at the College of Mian itself.”
“Any groundsman could say the same, what you been to it, or you graduated?”
“Graduated. With distinction. My tutors called me the finest talent they’d seen in years.”
“Course they did. What magic can you do, Apart from making a little flame dance around?” The man pulled him close, fixing his eye on him and the young mage gulped.
“I’m not a master” the mage managed, his voice wavering a little. “So teleportation and advanced stuff like that, it’ll take time and resources I don’t have on me.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “But I can do fire and lightning” he said quickly at the man’s expression. “Whatever you need. Great fireballs that can burn a ship to its roots. And I can control the weather, the winds and the seas.”
“Can you fight other mages, counter a spell?”
“Oh yes, of course.” The mage managed. “I was duelling champion of my year. No one could beat me or press my attack aside.”
“And so what is ‘the finest talent in years’ doing begging for work in waterfront inns?”
“Same thing anyone comes down to Scindia for. Adventure. I wanted to get away from poring over flasks of aether and ancient dusty books. I wanted to see the world.”
“And what have you seen so far?”
The young mage paused and studied him. “Not enough.” He replied.
“It’s one option. Why not?”
“We’re going east. Far east. That bother you?”
“How far. Suan?”
“Further. Past Lithtor even.”
“The black river!” the mage exclaimed.
“You up for an adventure?” The man asked.
The mage paused, then asked, “What’s the pay?” How long for?”
“The journey will like to take the best part of a sixmonth. We’ll need a mage alongside ‘til we get there. We’re meeting another mage when we arrive. You can make your own way back after, or stay, whatever you please. But we’ll pay you to the meeting point. We’re not expecting any trouble, but none of knows magic, and we like to cover our bases.”
“Thirty nobles of silver.” The mage pondered the figure. It was good money for a labourer, but far less than what a graduate of Mian should charge.
“Double it and you’ve got a deal.” He said. The man gave a short bark of a laugh.
“There’s no doubling gonna be done.” He said. “That’s the money on the table. Take it or leave it. Mayhap you can speak to the boss and negotiate a bonus for if you have to do anything on the way. But the price is the price.” He grabbed the mage’s arm tighter and pulled him close. “But believe you me, boy, I’m sticking my neck out here, bringing you to the boss. If I take you up to him and he asks you to show your stuff, you’d better be able to do a damn sight more than make a flame dance on your fingers. And if we get to the point where we need you and you start bleating on about the cost of aether I’ll beat you to a fucking pulp with my own bare hands. And if you survive I’ll tie you hand and foot and throw you overboard myself. You get me?”
The mage nodded weakly.
“Well then, what’ll it be little mage? You want to take the money and see the world. Or you want to go back begging for tricks in waterfront inns?”
The mage looked at the man closely. “I want to see the world,” he whispered.
“Well then. Let’s go meet the boss.” He stuck his hand out to the mage. “I’m Amos,” he said.
“Tarquin,” the mage replied.