Chapter 29:

26 - Overnight Research

The Fallen Diadem

Stepping out in the city was like emerging into the crowds outside a sporting arena, because that’s where we were. Gladiatorial combat wasn’t too different from a game like football, not as far as the people of Port Pelagus were concerned. On one arm, Neeka clung to me, her ears twitching as she looked at the huge mass of people, and on the other I had to hold Claire’s luggage.Bookmark here

“Why are there so many people?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Have you never been in a city before?”Bookmark here

“Not a city as big as this!”Bookmark here

From as well as I could estimate, Port Pelagus didn’t even have a hundred thousand people. Somehow it still had the sour milk stench of uncleaned filth hiding in alleys, but it wasn’t that many people. “I thought you were used to this kind of stuff? You seemed used to the dress.”Bookmark here

She pouted at me. “Do you think my homeland is a bunch of barbarians or something, just cus we don’t congregate in cities like you humans do?”Bookmark here

I didn’t really know a single thing about Britalia. I had never asked her. “Lady West,” I said to change the subject, “why did we stop here?”Bookmark here

Claire was stretching to get the travel aches out. It wasn’t lady like to see her reaching up to the sky till her back cracked, but it was fitting for a soldier. “What do you mean why? We’re staying the night here obviously. This is the Ten Swords Arena; the best lodgings in the city,” she explained.Bookmark here

The parallels between it and a casino became obvious as soon as we stepped inside, me carrying all of her stuff of course. The main hall she took us two split between an upper and a lower floor, the staircase up roped off and guarded. All manner of people flowed through the lower floor where vendors and game tables crowded for space like a non-stop festival. There were no windows, just rows of oil lamps that kept it in eternal glow.Bookmark here

“Whom do I have the pleasure of helping?” th e attendant asked. I couldn’t tell whether they were a man or a woman, just slim with a mild hint of beauty and a smile that never wavered from polite.Bookmark here

“Claire West, on behalf of the Order of the Broken Concordant,” she answered. Bookmark here

The attendant’s expression vanished. “And how long will you be staying? I’ll have to alert Virgil that another from the order has arrived.”Bookmark here

Somehow, Claire managed to keep her smile. I did see the muscles in her body tense up like she was ready to throttle the person. “Just a few days to recall my companion.”Bookmark here

The smile returned in the time it took for me to blink. “Certainly! I can put you and your servants up in the sunward wing. Standard costs of course, right this way,” they said, and the guard moved the rope for us to proceed to the second floor. The noise of people lessened as soon as we made it up. The people around us, sitting at tables and chatting with tea, seemed to be merchants or perhaps out of town nobles like Claire had alluded to. The room we were led to had two chambers and two beds; the nicer one for her and the front bed for the two of us.Bookmark here

“Now then, I’ll be meeting with Brekhart in the morning,” Claire said as she began taking off her jacket and vest. “In the meantime though, since I have such a lovely pair of servants to see to my whims, won’t you two be dears and find a bookstore that is still open? I need the next installment of A Ballad of Death and Love.”Bookmark here

I caught the purse she tossed at me, feeling a handful of copper in it, if size was any judge. “Is that what you were reading on the ride over?”Bookmark here

“Volume three please!” she said, and shut the inner door in my face.Bookmark here

Neeka and I stood staring at the door in silence, until she finally said, “I cannot tell whether she believes us or is just taking advantage of us.”Bookmark here

“I think it’s both.”Bookmark here

“How are we supposed to find a bookstore? It’s nighttime already.”Bookmark here

“I think we’re not? I think what she gave us was an excuse to be out in the city.”Bookmark here

“So she’s helping us.”Bookmark here

“Gambling on us anyways. Shall we go snooping then?”Bookmark here

In truth, I wanted nothing more than to drop into that bed and let sleep take me. We only had one night to act before he would know we were in the city looking for him. Our investigation began where the most rumors would congregate; the dining area for the workers. First we had to find it, which taught me the very important lore that the Ten Swords Arena had been founded in agreement between ten martial arts schools, but now only their plaques remain. The merchant lord Virgil bought the arena and opened it to all entries, which presumably paid for the scale of the adjoining building.Bookmark here

We had just found a trail of servants carrying off pots of food, when we overheard a commotion from the floor below. Someone shouted, “Who let you in, anyways? You plebian zealots!”Bookmark here

Peering over the balcony, we saw three men in dark cloaks facing off against a few blustering drunks. No one had drawn steel yet, but the onlookers had backed away as though it were imminent. Neeka leaned close and whispered, “The hunters of Hellsing. This is a good omen; the god of vengeance is nearby.”Bookmark here

Looking closer, I could faintly see the design of a wolf in their cloaks, but it was like trying to pick a shadow out from a black wall. “They look dangerous.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, they only come after villains. Only the big ones. To get their help you have to pledge yourself to their faith. They’re pretty rare. I had a friend that tried to join them after the attack. It’s a shame he died before he got to them,” she explained as the drunks continued to instigate a fight, unsuccessfully.Bookmark here

I glanced over at her. She didn’t seem anguished, just curious. “These people can kill nobility? Could they kill a Holy Lance like Amaranth?”Bookmark here

“Well, that would be a stretch. Amaranth is a monster that walks on two legs. He got smashed through a wall and kept fighting, remember? He might even be able to kill their god, Hellsing, in a straight fight.”Bookmark here

As if she had been overheard, the cloaked man closest to us turned and glanced in our direction. I immediately grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the balcony. Getting in a fight with religious assassins was not why we had come to Port Pelagus. “Come on. We’ve gotta find the thief.”Bookmark here

The servant dining area was almost depressing by comparison to the public area. It was cramped, the support beams were exposed, the candles barely illuminated the place, and every step gave a different whiff of perfume, food, or sweat. We got warm bowls of stew in one corner and tried to spot a pair of open seats. Bookmark here

The boy we sat down across from was young, barely into puberty and yet he wore the same outfit as the greeting attendant. The stew was mediocre and hardly worth discussing. Thankfully, he broke the silence. “Did you just arrive?”Bookmark here

“Maybe an hour ago, yes,” I said, and made an exaggerated scan across the hall.Bookmark here

“Where from?” the boy asked, finding his own food as bland as we found ours.Bookmark here

Neeka answered, “we just got in from Vichtstein, here from Lord Amaranth’s army.”Bookmark here

“Is it true he’s trying to find the diadem? Isn’t that a declaration of war? Oh, and you can call me Sammy,” the boy said.Bookmark here

We gave fake names we had agreed on, Peter and Joy. “This is where Lord Amaranth got his ship engineers from, isn’t it? The attack was completed weeks ago,” I explained. I could feel the mark on my hand no matter how hard I tried to not think about it. “I don’t see how a Holy Lance getting a diadem could be construed as a declaration of war though.”Bookmark here

Sammy shrugged. “Isn’t that what always happens? In the stories that is. The wars for the throne always rewrite the maps. I once saw the historical collection in the capital. There dozens and dozens of them. You know, the Crystal Sea wasn’t even always here! It came about four cycles ago when the first queen of Drusca destroyed the armies of Scyria. That’s why there’s no Scyria anymore.”Bookmark here

Neeka leaned in, resting her cheek in her hand. It was a very calculated and practiced maneuver and it instantly got the boy’s attention. “I can’t imagine many people get let into a library like that. You must know more than most around here. Truth is, we’ve been on the march for so long that we’re barely aware of the latest news. It’s too bad that we’re on strict orders to bring our compatriot, Sir Brekhart, back to Vichtstein.”Bookmark here

Sammy nodded. “Well, if you’re looking for the proper news, you’d have to go to the bard. Leona is totally the best.”Bookmark here

I held up my hand. “Before we can do that, we should make sure we’re tidying up loose ends, you know? I was told that Sir Brekhart has been in the city by himself as liaison. Is there anyone that will be missing him when we drag him away? We’ll have to conclude his business you know.”Bookmark here

Sammy’s strained wince was exactly what I expected. “I mean, all respect to the uh, knight, but I don’t think Virgil will have anything to say about getting that gambler out of here.”Bookmark here

I folded my hands together. “So he’s been losing money?”Bookmark here

Sammy wobbled in his seat. “No, he doesn’t play against the house and only sets modest bets in the arena. I would say he was slightly positive on the money, but he spends it all on alcohol and women. Virgil has wanted to throw him out, but he can’t offend the Order like that, so he puts up with it. Honestly, I think if you told him you’re here to take Sir Brekhart away, he would treat you to anything you wanted. Especially if it would get rid of the Hunters too.”Bookmark here

Neeka’s eyes went wide. “He’s meeting with the Hunters?”Bookmark here

Sammy nodded. “He plays cards with them every few nights. Those are the only nights he doesn’t get out of his mind drunk.”Bookmark here

“Sammy!” a woman shouted. We all turned to see a woman the size of an ogre, and yet somehow fitted into one of the serving dresses, march over to us. “Why aren’t you bussing drinks? Who are these two then?”Bookmark here

I cleared my throat. “Sorry for keeping him, miss. We just arrived and were getting some food.”Bookmark here

“We’re here with Lady West! Just a detour as we’re getting here a book!” Neeka blurted out.Bookmark here

“Right, a book. Know any bookstores that might have The Ballad of Death and Love?”Bookmark here

I watched as the ogre woman’s face softened, and then her eyes glowed. “Oh your lady is quite cultured, isn’t she? That is something I would love to help you with. Sammy, go make yourself useful. Now you, what did you say your name was?”Bookmark here

I understood why Neeka had seemed afraid.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.