The Fallen Diadem
At first I didn’t think Virgil had the capacity to back up his attitude, but he straightened up after a pinch of snuff. Then he was marching and carrying his cane like a scepter all the way to the carriage. The three of us followed in his wake, slipping through crowds and between guards without getting questioned in the slightest. The moment I tried to enter the cabin behind Neeka though, the gold head of his cane jabbed me in the chest. “You’re on the back seat, boy,” the merchant ordered, and I had to put myself where luggage should have been.
While I wasn’t party to their speculation and gossip, the noise of the street drowned them out completely, I had an unrivaled view of the city. Having arrived essentially in twilight, I hadn’t appreciated it before. Port Pelagus overflowed with life. The main road ran in line with the sun, and every building to the side burgeoned up for their foundations like over-leavened muffins. Bakers filled the air with enough roasting bread to fuel every tavern, pub, cafe and popina the city could hold. There were travelling peddlers and blacksmithing wholesalers in shouting matches with one another. Minstrels worked every corner busking for tips and coloring the din of life with music.
As the road approached the mouth of the Pelagus River, where it forked out between buttressed islands into a reinforced delta, I saw bridges so laden with shops and stalls and even entire buildings, that I thought surely they would collapse. The city could have done without the smell of open-air sanitation that was the slow moving canals, but it still made my jaw drop.
And somewhere in the shadows was a man eating monster made with the power of a diadem, along with a god that had threatened to kill me.
Having been looking backwards, the stop of the carriage came as a surprise to me. Hopping off, I came abreast of a forest of masts and sails bobbing in the breeze. The furled canvases were colored, each striking bright hues against the sky. Many had obvious patches, but they each bore their kingdom’s colors across their masts. Names and ornaments were for the prows alone.
Virgil sprang free of the carriage. The strike of his boots against the ground summoned an older, heavyset man with a droop to his bushy brows and moustache that bespoke a lifelong servant. “Harbormaster! I would like to speak with any captains capable of departing today.”
Claire didn’t follow after him. She took a few steps from the carriage and stopped, where Neeka and I waited as well. Our arrival had been noted by the guards as well, and several seemed to be assembling to be on hand should their captain wish to help the merchant lord. He had a power I hadn’t realized was possible.
“If a second carriage from the Arena arrives, you two need to leave before he recognizes you. This is only circumstantial; we can’t make any accusations,” Claire said, turning her attention back up the road. The logo of the arena appeared to be a bouquet of blades, but more distinct was the white paint and gold trim. Brekhart had been told the night before that we had arrived, allegedly, and a meeting arranged for the mid afternoon so he knew Claire had arrived. If he willingly came to the harbor, as one of Virgil’s attendants had seen to summon him to, we were the last people he should see.
Unfortunately, while he was somehow involved with the Chimera, it wasn’t because he had stolen the diadem. Which meant a second diadem was involved somehow. “Come on,” I said, gesturing and leading Neeka down the length of the harbor.
“Isn’t this bad?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder.
“I dunno, but the more suspicion he’s under, the more likely he is to accept the duel to clear his own name, right? Unless you know, his pet monster eats us.”
Neeka’s ears folded back as her lips curled. “I swear if we survived the invasion of Vichtstein but get eaten by a giant snake monster, I’m going to get in a fight with Fate herself.”
“Well, let’s make sure that doesn’t happen,” I said, and turned my attention to the docks. I didn’t know what I was looking for, what I was trying to see among the people getting on with their lives. I shouldn’t have taken my attention off of Neeka.
The moment we passed into the shadow of a building, they grabbed her and pulled her into an alley. “Hey, let go!”
My hand was on my sword in an instant, but I couldn’t draw it. There were three of them, all in the black cloaks of the Hunters. The one holding Neeka had her by the wrist, holding her arm up with ease. The only one without a mask on said, “Easy kid. Not here to rob you, but you must keep showing up lately.”
I glanced around, not taking my hand off my sword. They had cloth armor on and outnumbered us. “If you are looking for me, then let her go.”
“Nah. This way things stay civil,” he said, grinning as I scowled. “Some friends of ours with the guards said you were there last night, when Brother John got killed.”
My mouth went dry. Nobody had called out to the guards for us. “He the one the monster killed? What about it? I just happened to see him by his own lantern before the thing tried to eat me too.”
“Well you see, that’s sorta the problem. He didn’t go out expecting a monster and yet he got eaten by one in the middle of a city. Port Pelagus is supposed to be a safe city you know? Wasn’t like he got mugged, he got eaten. Something ripped his stomach open and spilled his guts into the gutter. A monster like that doesn’t just sneak its way into a walled city. It ain’t wild. And right now, you’re our best clue. So why were you there?”
I licked my lips. There was no way they were going to believe the truth. “I got held up on my way back from a bookstore. A thing of burning shadow stopped me.”
The Hunter to my left cracked his knuckles. “You making fun of us?” He sounded like he had completely skipped over puberty for everything but height.
“Don’t believe me? Isn’t that why Brother John went out by himself in the middle of the night? Because he thought your god was lurking in the shadows?”
The man holding Neeka frowned. “Well then, that simplifies things. The Everhunting only shows up to deal with the creatures of darkness… and those that bring them. If he spoke to you, that’s all the proof I need that the monster is yours.”
I used a drawing attack Charlie had taught me. I hadn’t practiced it much because needing to attack from a sheathed blade was so niche, but it did the trick. I wildly tore it free and wheeled on the third Hunter, the one who hadn’t spoken. He was the only one I could strike without having to step, so I hacked at his leg. He swore and jumped back, but not before I drew blood. It wasn't much, but I hoped it would scare him off for a moment.
“Stupid kid!” the other masked Hunter roared, and pulled a club from his waist. I saw he had a sword there too, but he went for the club. I wished I had the same privilege of advantage, but they had the numbers. I had to turn my back half to the injured man so I could put up a guard. The Hunter swung down a flurry of blows, relying entirely on his size to hammer me down. The blows were bone jarring and made my hands feel numb, but none of them got through to me. “You think you’re some kind of knight?”
To answer him, I ducked in and lunged. His forehead was bright red and the burst of energy had left his chest pumping. He had lifted high over his head to smash down at me, and suddenly the tip of my sword was at his throat, the gap between us gone faster than a wheezing pant through the cloth across his face.
The gamble I had took with Neeka paid off. When she jumped, the Hunter holding her had been caught by surprise. After drawing his sword to deal with me, he suddenly had a lock of limbs around him like an anaconda. I saw the red of her tail pop up from the corner of my eye, and then came her dagger. I hadn’t thought she would still be so limber in a dress.
“Yeah, I am something like a knight. I’ve had more practice than you at least. I guess hunting doesn’t require much skill? Are you the one that does the shopping or something?” I asked, half my attention on the third hunter, the one clutching the wound across his thigh and grinding his teeth.
“That was Lion Hand style, wasn’t it? Where’d a kid like you learn that? Some kind of hidden bodyguard?” the injured man asked.
I had no idea what the fallen instructor had taught me. “My circumstances are my own. You’re the ones who doubted and attacked me. If you’ve got a problem with the monster, why don’t you look to your own first? You’re friends with Brekhart, aren’t you?”
“Friends is… putting it strongly,” the man at Neeka’s mercy said, lowering his sword after a nod from the injured man. “We were trying to cut a deal with him because we thought that if Lord Amaranth got the diadem from Vichtstein, it might attract the Everhunting. We are pilgrims afterall.”
“So you were paying him for info?”
“With silver and info of our own. If he’s more of an octopus than we thought, then our issue is with him. Can you lower your sword now?”
I didn’t want to just let them go, but I didn’t see how I would be able to get them arrested or something. I was also certain there were more than three of them in Port Pelagus. The fourth might be better in a fight. “Then leave us alone,” I said, and lowered my sword as the club-wielder backed away from me.
Neeka stowed her dagger with a huff and let the Hunter move over to his injured companion. As soon as they left to get him to a doctor, she planted her hands on her hips. “They still suspect you.”
“Good thing I don’t plan on sticking around town long enough for that to matter… I think Brekhart is working for another diadem holder; someone who doesn’t much care for Amaranth. That map wasn’t an army, I think it was tracking the chimera. Do you know if anyone else officially has a diadem?”
She shook her head. “Maybe Claire does. If Brekhart is in cahoots with the chimera, this could be really dangerous.”
I looked down at my right hand. It was trembling and the line across it ached from gripping my sword too tight. I had never before intentionally cut someone like that. I had fought the fallen and killed drakes, but only sparred with people. It had felt the same, it had cut the same. Had the club-wielder been a fallen, I knew I would have simply ran him through at the throat. Instead I had gone to the very precipice of murder and stopped.
If I really did have the diadem inside me somehow, fused with it or however that worked, I wished it would have given me some kind of power, some way to win a fight without needing to kill the other person. My gut told me that was unlikely, even if the diadem creature did want to cooperate. It was the power of the dead, not the power of peace.
“I don’t care who he’s working for, I’m still going to hold him accountable. If he got that guy killed, all the more reason.”