Chapter 1 - Assassins
Three men on rooftops watched a fourth as he walked casually toward his home. They were two assassins and their leader for this assignment, Ardin of Dolmor. The two assassins were archers, new to the guild, and of no interest to Ardin. This was an initiation of sorts for them, and a test for their target. If Sathid, the new Mage to the court of Onold of Lewen, and their target, was killed, the assassins could advance. If he did not die, Ardin would learn something about the man he had contracted to murder.
Ardin raised his hand and waved. Two arrows flew from two rooftops on opposite sides of the street a rehearsed five-count apart. Below, the mage turned his head and the first arrow missed him, seeming to brush his cheek in passing. The second arrow arrived just as the mage turned sideways. It also seemed to barely brush its intended victim in passing.
Sathid turned and ran a few steps back to where the first arrow lay on the ground. He picked this up, struck a pose like a javelin-thrower and spoke a harsh syllable. The arrow rose from his hand to above roof height, turned and falconed downward toward the man who fired it. He ran. The arrow followed him in his course across the rooftop, swerving and eventually coming in front of him. He stopped. The arrow mongoosed into his chest, the motion swifter than if it had been fired from a bow.
Ardin returned his attention to Sathid the mage. He was continuing on his way, apparently unperturbed by the attempt on his life. Signaling a return to home to his remaining cohort, Ardin left the roof.
Chapter 2 - Reconnaissance
Five days later, Ardin of Dolmor, skilled assassin and leader of his own band had amassed enough information about his target to begin assessing the requirements for filling what began to look like a very difficult contract.
The team was gathered to discuss the information gathered about their target. Gadin worked as a guard inside the Citadel. He had gathered a surprisingly large amount of information. Ardin wondered if that was somehow suspicious. "The mage arrived here, and was presented at court the same day, last year the day before the King's birthday celebration."
"What does this mean Gadin?" Ardin's tone was schoolmasterish, a tone he affected when dealing with his subordinates. It gave them the illusion that he was teaching them, not just using them.
"That he was expected. He could not have and arrived and presented on the same day otherwise."
"And... that he wanted to be present at the birthday celebration. He had to be presented at court or he could not have attended."
"Good, we have some history. What has he done since?"
Adros spoke; he was the swamper at both the inn and the tavern nearest the Citadel gate. Guards and the non-nobility of the court often frequented both. "He's done damned li'l since he 'rived. He's made no friends. He has nuh enemies other than them anyone has j'st bein' at court."
"What does he do with his time?"
"He's a quiet 'un. T'sort 'at never uses a full sentence when a word'll do. He practices sword and 'is dagger-work wit' tuh men-'t-arms of the Citadel. Once a week he goes out to the city."
"What does he do in the city, Adros."
"Nuhb'dy f'r sure knows. T' guards think he's a mistress some'eres 'cause he comes back some'at bedraggled. He n'vr stays out overnight, though. He allus comes back in t' early hours."
"Nobody know of a certain where he goes?"
"I followed him." This was old Isgrig. "He visits a house in the Street of Triumphs. Second from the corner on the east side where it meets the Jeweler's road. Nothing special about the house that I can see. Belongs to an old man named Corvus Jae. Never saw Jae. There’s a woman the neighbors think is his daughter that is about the mage's age. Maybe it's her he visits."
"Have you seen the woman? What are her habits? What is her name?"
"Nobody knows the woman's name. Goes out to market early every morning, early even for marketing. Still dark when she gets to the vendors stalls."
Ardin thought for a moment, "What does she buy?"
"Does it matter? Who cares what vegetables she buys?"
"*I* care. Knowing what she buys might tell me how many she is buying for. It might tell me if Corvus Jae is in good health. It might tell me where he is from. How does she dress?"
"Dresses well. Not richly, but like a woman with a stable income."
"Her dress is Northern? Southern? Is it like that of a local?"
"Local. Clothing seems used, not old."
"Who has been watching our mage?"
"I," Mubrin spoke. "He's a man of rigid habits as near as I can tell."
"He rises with the sun. He um… eats breakfast in the kitchen. Standing up. Um…always a pair of boiled eggs, some bread, and some fruit. He goes from there um… to whichever courtyard is being used for um… military training and participates as a new recruit."
"What do you mean by that?"
"He trains in the same um.. skills the new recruits are learning. I haven't seen this. The Recruits say so. They um… they also say he seems as skilled as their instructors at times."
"His dress is rather um… consistent."
"Courtiers are peacocks, you know that. Um… they wear a new color every day and must have a new cloak each um… time a leaf touches their shoulder. He wears the same clothes at all times. Um… it is mended. It is mended um…expertly, but it is not replaced at every turn."
"Does he appear at court in mended clothes?"
"He does not um… appear at court, it seems."
"When he is done with his fencing and such how does he spend his day."
"Um… is morning is mostly spent reading. He gets a book from the royal library where he is a daily visitor and um… climbs the South wall of the Citadel where he reads while um… sitting in the sun."
"... and watches the road from Bairne."
"He returns his um… book to the royal library then returns to the um… kitchen for a lunch same as his breakfast. In the um… afternoons he climbs the tower on the Street of Victories that lies at the corner of the Caravan Road. It’s um… the tower of a merchant named Ithis or um… Iskis. He stays there until um… quite late. A meal is um… delivered to him from the castle kitchen by a boy named um… Raudel Deen. The boy leaves the food in the vestibule and um… takes away the previous day's platter."
"That sounds useful. Learn what you can of the boy. We may be able to use him."
"I will. Um… there is um…more"
"He wears um… armor. Always."
"I have never seen him um… out of the one outfit he wears. He um… must have other clothes but he uses them um… seldom if he does. He wears that mage's cloak at all times, even um… in the heat of the day. It's not quite a um… standard mage's cloak, though. The color is off and um… the design too."
"That tells you..."
"Um... he's not a standard mage?"
"Perhaps." or, he thought, "He's not really a mage at all" To Mubrin he said, "You said he wears armor."
"Um… yes. Everything is red, but it is um… blood red, not mage's scarlet. He wears a um… mail-shirt, um… enameled red scale-mail, very closely stitched and um… extremely high quality from the look of it. I jostled him on the road and um… got a good look. He wears a sort of um… tasset on each thigh, a bit short and made of hardened leather. It looks um…study. He wears military boots, but not um… standard stuff, much heavier in the shaft and with side welts um… battle gear. The um… vamp looks to be of enameled um… metal too."
"He seems prepared to do battle physically as well as magically. What magic have we seen him do?"
"Um… the recruits at the Citadel say a lucky blow um… angered him one day and that his blade um… burst into flame before he left all angry. Um… apart from that, your own account of that um… arrow trick is all I know."
"Isgrig, you know the mage in old town. Take him some good ale from our supply and see if he'll talk to you about the meaning of that blood-red color for mages. Ask him about the pattern of his cloak too. Have Mubrin draw it for you. Everyone. Keep watching him. I want to know who his friends are. I want an angle on the boy. I want to know who Corvus Jae is and who the woman who lives with him is and what her relationship to Sathid might be."
Chapter 3 - From the South
Sathid descended the curving kitchen stairs. Servers rushed by him, smiling briefly as they passed. It had taken a while to accustom them to passing him. At first, as he descended to the kitchen, they would stop and turn around or attempt to back down the stairs in front of him causing some spectacular collisions.
As ever, bent, gray, Gethel had his plate ready for him as soon as he entered. His bread was hot, the butter just beginning to melt. She somehow knew the moment he entered the stairwell. That was why he ate in the kitchen. The servants knew things about the Citadel and the people in it that no spymaster would ever learn. Sathid sat on the end of a bench and pulled off his gloves. As he began to peel his eggs, he noticed that his usual apple had been replaced with a small bunch of grapes. Unusual, that, Gethel was as constant as the desert wind that peppered the city eternally from the West.
He had only just cracked his egg when Gethel bustled up, took it from his hand and deftly peeled it in four quick strokes. She grumbled all the while, "Two eggs ever' day, and still can't peel 'em." She peeled the second egg, scraped the shells into her apron and bustled away like a chiding hen after a wayward chick. The truth was, Sathid peeled his eggs slowly, lingered over his breakfast, because the endless noise, the conflicting smells, the servers and cooks rushing in chaotic dance like warriors on a battlefield made him nostalgic for his apprentice days. Apprenticed to the mage clan he had done every job there was to do in a castle before he was allowed to commence his studies. A sip from his goblet surprised Sathid. He had crisp, very clear apple juice instead of the usual water. He popped a grape into his mouth and was pleased by the combination of tart and sweet. Leave it to Gethel to turn a peasant meal into a chorus of taste. Where did they get the grapes?
As he stood to go, Gethel tempted him, as always, "Will you have a sweet?"
He turned and played the game they always played, "Grandmother, I would burst if I had a bite more." He turned away.
"This is special, a new confection!"
He turned again, saw chocolate squares dusted with a brownish powder and decided it might just be special, "Then I will try one." Gethel had already turned away and turned back with an almost shocked expression, "Because you importune me so resolutely. Because it is you, beautiful maiden, who asks. Because your pastries are so light that they might be swept away upon the next breeze." Heads were turning his way. The staff had never seen him so talkative.
Old Gethel blushed bright red. She had been neither beautiful nor maiden for half a century and had never been much flattered even then. She offered the plate of pastries with a slight bow that just missed being a curtsey, "If Milord please."
He popped it into his mouth. It was a simple chocolate sprinkled with dust from a crushed kavi bean. The flavor was one he had experienced, but kavi was unknown in Lewen. It was special, indeed.
Gethel was already receding; the kitchen staff was already beginning to smile at her and prepare remarks at her expense. Loudly, to be heard above the din, "Beautiful Gethel. May I have another?" His earlier remarks had caused a number of looks and some snickering. His unprecedented request and his obvious flattery of the woman all of them thought of as an old battle-axe or worse caused a local silence in the kitchen.
"Milord may have what he will," she offered her pastries and her almost-curtsey again.
Sathid smiled at the double-entendre and wondered if Gethel was aware of it. "Grandmother. This is delightful. Have you a secret to this?"
"Not me, the new cook's boy. Undercook he makes us call 'im. He just started this week and brought a bag of black beans with 'im. He calls 'em kavi beans. He's just another cook's boy though, black beans or no."
"From the South no doubt."
"Don't bring your mage's ways into the kitchen. How would you know that? He *is* a Southerner. Of Solan I think he is."
"Lovely Gethel, there have been only two caravans arrive this month, both from the South. Any new cook's boy would likely be from those would he not?"
"Well, when you put it like that... Here I thought you'd done something clever!"
"Much of magecraft is noticing things. I suspect in your kitchen you are regarded as clever yourself. What’s this cook’s boy’s name? That would settle where he is from."
"Oh, go on. You are just angling to get another pastry! And… I think he is Hamir dru. That would certainly be a name of the South."
"It would indeed, so we have learned that kavi beans have come to us from the south.” She offered the plate again and he gestured it away, “Sadly no, I must go out. I thank you for an excellent meal," He turned and departed for the courtyard.
Heads shook and snickers slithered out over broad smiles as he departed. Gethel rapped her knuckles on a nearby table "What are you all looking at!"
Sathid climbed the South wall of the Citadel. There he looked down onto four courtyards. They were put to various uses, as they were needed. Today the Westernmost was set up for archery practice. That suited him well. He headed back to his rooms for his bow.
In the West courtyard, he approached the Sergeant who would be teaching that day. It was Grof of Canid. Sathid and Grof got along well. Grof had retired from the army a commander and re-enlisted as a sergeant to teach, a role he enjoyed. He also took Sathid's injunction to "treat him like a recruit" seriously, for which the mage was grateful. It was hard getting the other teachers to treat him as other than a mage. It is hard to learn how to fight when people are trying hard not to hurt you.
For two hours, they took turns firing at the butts across the courtyard. They practiced individual accuracy, volleying, and firing from various formations. It was useful practice for Sathid. He was an adequate archer but out of practice and in need of considerable refinement. The last hour of the training was quite interesting to Sathid however.
Grof called out, “Take off your quivers. Put ‘em over here! Get back in line.” They obeyed and once they were aligned Groff shouted out, “You’ve fired you last volley. Your quiver is empty, your last arrow spent. What ya going to do with your bow?”
Near the end of the line, one recruit tossed his to the ground and drew his sword. Grof charged him. As he ran, he drew his dagger and cut his bowstring. Reaching the recruit, Domin, he swung the end of the bow and caught him squarely on the nose. Domin, to his credit, swung with his sword, but Grof blocked it as with a quarterstaff. He pushed Domin back with the tip of the bow against his throat and took a broad swing that smacked flat against the recruit’s ear. Domin retreated. Groff got close, rapped Domin’s sword hand and saw his sword fall to the ground. He rapped him again against the forearm with the haft of the bow, Domin fell back again. Using the recurve of the bow, Grof pulled Domin’s legs out from under him. As he fell, he slashed across the recruit’s face with the string of the bow, leaving a cut.
“Get up. I’ll look at that cut before you go.” Grof moved to the front of the line, turned and addressed them. “I do NOT recommend that ya do any of the things I just did. I did make the point, I think, that the bow is not useless just because ya have no arrows. On the battlefield, the amount of time between the moment when ya drop ya bow and draw ya sword could allow someone to kill ya. In a tight place, ya bow is as strong and as hard as a quarterstaff. Ya can strike with it, defend with it, and disarm with it. Never throw away a weapon in battle until ya can pick up another one. He stepped back, “Shield exercises tomorrow in this courtyard. Sergeant Merku. Dismissed!”