The Fallen Diadem
The army was the second arrival to town. First came the opportunists. It was like a festival had stormed into town with dozens of merchants pouring in and trying to set up shop. There were even bigger swindlers than Charlie, which he took as a challenge.
He and Xon were working a grift, pretending that Xon had a sale lined up for the rest of the wine and Charlie was sneaking a bottle off on the side to a very exclusive customer. Of course, in Charlie’s case, exclusive just meant an out-of-towner that didn’t know him. I figured it wasn’t entirely a grift, there was a chance one of those old bottles actually had aged and was drinkable, but we had no way of knowing. It was like selling lottery tickets.
Neeka and I weren’t part of the action, neither of us were good liars. We could however ask around and gather some information. Naturally, we did that only after picking up a few meat skewers from Fred’s Popina. He was always coy about just what the meat was, and I suspected it was drake meat that he somehow had gotten the foul taste out of, but either way they were delicious. We both had savory grease running down our chins when we slipped over to the beer garden. I still thought it was a bit much to call it a garden. The only greenery was the vines across the trellises overhead. The ground was dirt.
The soldiers hadn’t been allowed in yet; not that the serving girls weren’t trying to entice them, but because their officers hadn’t released them. We could see them standing in orderly lines up and down the roads. Here and there some of the town guard were strutting around, trying to exert an authoritative presence, but there were more soldiers in the army than people in town. “Well well well, if it isn’t Mark and the cat,” Theodore Smith said as he sat down at our table with a mug of ale. Despite being the owner, the beer was for him. His daughter was the one manning the kegs.
“I have a name,” Neeka said, her hair almost standing up as she glared at him. She had the kind of silky hair that the town girls seethed over, it glistened in the sun like a river. Usually it was smooth and calm, but some people got under her skin. I thought it still looked great even if she would have said it was ugly and frazzled.
The glass mug hit the table after Theo took a drink and let his cheeks flush. “Neeka isn’t a real name. If you wanna tell me the name your mother gave you, I’ll consider it.”
I leaned in quickly, speaking to change the subject. “Do you know what brought the army here? And who are they?”
Theo sighed. He was only a handful of paces from more money than he had made since the last winter storms, and not one of them had come in. He rested his cheek on his hand, and said, “Amaranth Arnstein, the glorious hero of Throne, conquerer of… which was it, Frijorn? Behold and be amazed kids, even the heir of a slave dynasty can become one of the Lances of Throne, but that wasn’t enough for him.”
I had never heard of the man before, but I listened and nodded like I knew. “Is he just passing through? Or is he here for the diadem?”
Theo nodded. “Yessir. He’s chasing legends.”
I figured that Mayor Cassius was busy meeting with this Amaranth guy. I knew the army had roughly come from sunward, marching with the immoving light at their backs. That left two or three roads that more of these peddlers would be travelling. We had passed a good number of suppliers that would surely empty their entire wagons and then run off with fat purses.
My own purse was tiny. It had more than Charlie had, but after food it wasn’t even enough to get a watered down ale from Theo. In truth, Neeka and I could only enjoy the leafy shade of the beer garden, and hope one of Theo’s daughters slipped us a drink.
A stern, female voice interrupted my musings. “You there, are you the proprietor?” By her embellishments--the gold trim to her pauldrons, the enameled decor of a spear across her breast, the single loop of gold string, and so on--she was at least a captain of the knights. Probably a noble too. Theo’s daughter sheepishly pulled away, evidently the one who had singled him out. The female knight was older than me, and stood with her back straight and chin held high. If she would just smile she would have been gorgeous.
The effect had struck Theo as well, despite his marriage. “Yes, yes I am. Theodore Smith, how may I be of service?” he asked. When he rose, he shoved the second half of his ale over to me, and I gratefully accepted.
I held the mug in both hands, slowly sipping the cool beer as I shamelessly listened in on their conversation. The knight was leading it. “If those barrels are full, I’ll buy them off of you. Standard size? I can pay fifteen gold each.”
I was pretty sure that was a fair price, which meant Theo didn’t want to go for it. “Ah, if I may, there is plenty of room in the garden,” he said and gestured at all the empty tables he had set up. “I would be happy to serve any and all who come.” He was fishing for tips.
The knight pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment. “Unfortunately, I won’t be allowing the men to spend much time outside of camp. The merchants here are eating them alive. One of my men just bought a bottle of rancid vinegar for five silvers. Sixteen gold for a barrel, take it or leave it,” she said.
Theo abated and set about putting his thick body to use. While he was carrying barrels over to some waiting soldiers, the knight noticed us. More precisely, she noticed the spear that Neeka had leaned on the table beside us. “That’s a wonderful weapon. Where did you get it?” Her tone was softer. She was attempting to be conversational.
“None of your business,” Neeka said, hanging her head and not looking up at the woman.
That took the knight aback, and she appraised us again. “You two must be refugees then. Your tribe is from the Britalian Woods, aren’t they?” she asked. “My name is Claire. We’re the Order of the Broken Concordant. Many plebians such as yourselves-”
“Shut up! I’m not interested!” Neeka snapped at her, swiping her hand through the air when the woman stepped closer. My jaw dropped.
I couldn’t read the expression on Claire’s face. It was a complicated blend of offense and pity as she looked at Neeka’s snarl. The two of them knew something I didn’t; beyond what the Britalian Woods were. Neeka had never spoken about where she came from, just that it was better than here, and I had always been afraid to ask. It made me feel pathetic when the knight turned her back on us and walked off to pay for the barrels.
Both of us stared at the table, letting our eyes look over the nicks, the carved messages and the water stains. When the silence became unbearable, I drank the last of the ale and said, “Come on, let’s go find the others. Sounds like we can afford the bathhouse today. That’ll be great, right?”
“The bathhouse is going to be overrun by soldiers,” she said, slumping and burying her face within her crossed arms. “First it will be the officers whose butts are sore from riding horses all day, then the supply teams will squirm their way in after a long march of wrangling hauler-beasts, and then they’ll let teams of killers go to the bathhouse in rotation, rewarding them for jobs well done of stabbing people to death.”
I tried to smile. “Come on Neeka, who are they going to stab here? Vichtstein isn’t at war with Throne. The only things to fight are the fallen.” She didn’t respond, she didn’t lift her head up either. I couldn’t imagine what she had been through before she met Charlie and Xon.
I was saved by someone else, one of the other youths of the town shouted over the fence, “Hey Mark, Neeka! Your hands are free, right? Come on!” the boy shouted, and waved us over before running to the middle of town.
Curiosity got Neeka to stand up, and the two of us ran over to the courtyard where half the town had gathered. Standing up on my toes, I could just about see the front, and saw Claire again. She was getting a report from some low-ranking soldier as other soldiers jostled the crowd to give her some space. I also saw Xon, so Neeka and I were able to link back up with him and Charlie. There were so many people that I couldn’t move without bumping into someone.
When Claire spoke up, her voice was able to cut through the muttering. “Greetings. Thank you all for gathering to listen. I know some of you have mixed feelings about our arrival to your town. I hope that what I’m about to say will put you at ease, or at least make you feel a bit better.”
I couldn’t read any of the expressions on my friend’s faces. Well, I could read Charlie’s stupid grin, but that didn’t mean much of anything. I already knew she was his type.
“Our leader,” Claire continued, “has just now slain one of the earth dragons lurking in the city below. In the interests of recovering the remains, we will be offering open wages for anyone and everyone willing to head down into the ruins, under our protection of course, and assist with the dismantling and removal of the carcass. As I’m sure you know, night time in a chasm like Vichtstein is quite dangerous, so we will pay any participants one silver per load they return to town, or five silvers for help breaking it down.”
My eyebrows rose. Killing a dragon was incredible. Every once in a while, someone would find an old or a sick one, perhaps one that had ended up lame from a territorial fight, and a whole militia would form to kill it for its hide. Their leader, Amaranth Arnstein, had apparently done it by himself. I leaned next to Charlie and whispered, “How much did you make off the bottles?”
“Twenty-eight silver coins. Coulda gotten another five but butterfingers here dropped one.”
Xon protested. “I got hit by a cart.”
Twenty-eight split four ways was only seven silver each. About a week of expenses for us. The army’s offer seemed real tempting to get that on top and hardly at any risk. “Should we join?” I asked.
Charlie and Xon both nodded, even though I was sure the dragonkin would get shorted. They’d hand him the heaviest pieces and pay him just the same. “No,” Neeka said. All three of us turned in surprise. Claire was still talking about some of the details, and I tried to listen, but I could see that Neeka’s hands were clenched and she was trembling. “You three can go do it without me! I’ll never work with these people!” she shouted, and stormed off.
“What the heck is her problem?” Charlie asked.
Xon and I both turned on him. “Don’t you think you’re the one that needs to go figure that out?” I asked.
“Me?” he asked, pointing an innocent finger at himself. “Just cus I’m the leader doesn’t mean I butt into everyone’s private stuff. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go introduce myself to our beautiful new employer.”
Xon and I sighed. “He has a point,” the dragonkin said. “If she wanted to tell us, she would have. Don’t worry about it. Not till tonight. We are a team; but, our circumstances are our own.”
“I guess so…” I didn’t like watching Neeka march down the street by herself.