The Fallen Diadem
The caravan of supplies that had been prepared was like a wooden train. The arrayed animals could have filled a zoo. There were horses, mules, donkeys, ox, and hauler-lizards, each arrayed according to the weight of the wagon. The enormous, long-tailed lizards were the most curious to me. Three foot at the shoulder with barrel chests and toothy beaks. Their fat tails dragged across the ground, rudder like fins baking in the sun. How the merchants had domesticated them, I could only imagine. They looked as likely to eat an apple out of my hand as they were to eat my hand.
“Shame these things taste like crap,” Neeka said, stepping up beside me and looking at the placid-eyed beast. It didn’t rise up from the ground, but it did shift its thick legs to be ready to rise.
I sighed. “Better than drakes, not as good as dragon. Maybe I should learn how they marinade that stuff to get the taste out?” I mused, getting a careful glare from the cart driver.
She shrugged. “Mayor Cassius was furious when we killed that stray. I think Virgil will kill us if we try to find out.”
“Would be kind of fun to see a fresh emotion on his face though, wouldn’t it?”
The two of us laughed and meandered back to our carriage until we heard the clinking of glass. Step after step, an array of bottles were brought over to us, carried in the arms of none other than Virgil. “Hello!” he called out with a beaming smile.
The voice made Claire stop and walk around the corner of the carriage to see him. “What is that?”
The merchant hefted the crate up to show her. “Well, a gentleman shouldn’t intrude on a lady’s carriage without at least some gifts, now should he?”
Her resistance to the idea ended the moment she lifted one up and read the label. And just like that, there were four of us in the carriage ride back to Vichtstein. Virgil seated himself next to me as we all piled in, insisting that it was proper etiquette and reminding me that as the caravan of supplies was his until he got paid, in truth he could see wherever he well pleased.
Neeka seemed as put off by things as I was. He smiled and chatted like he was going to entirely ignore that he had screwed me over for the duel. He had kowtowed to each of Brekhart’s stipulations just to get the man under lock and key at risk of my life. As we set off from the city, our carriage rumbling down the road and Virgil played the role of an entertainer. He smiled the biggest, laughed the loudest, and always had a story to tell as he poured wine for everyone.
Claire had no reservation about drinking; arrival was hours away. Neeka eventually gave in and started enjoying the luxury of a business expense account. I was the last and even I caved once the chocolates came out to discuss pairings. Virgil was a remarkable man and it was no doubt he truly had the skills to rise from destitution to the most influential man in Port Pelagus. Just trying to keep a foul mood while he discussed the no-panties rumor of Throne five years back was impossible.
When Claire blurted out, “That was you? You started that rumor?” even the carriage driver was laughing. She grabbed up one of the empty wine bottles and tried to club him over the head, her cheeks burning as she shouted, “You’re the reason that Ferris broke up with me! How dare you!” Neeka and I had to grab her and hold her down as her struggles started to rock the carriage to the point it might tip over.
Virgil had to confess that it hadn’t actually been his rumor, he had just been party to it. The fact that Ferris had abdicated his inheritance to marry another man also helped soothe her anguish. With the anger gone, she slumped over onto Neeka’s shoulders and acted like she wasn’t crying.
The skies came into agreement with her. Clouds rolled over top of us, a thin sheet of grey that began to shower the pastures and tree copses. It seemed hardly enough to keep the plants alive, but it bogged the road with mud and slowed the animals. Any hope of reaching Vichtstein that day seemed lost. Virgil sighed as he looked out the window. “The worst weather for a journey,” he declared. “Can’t even have a proper cook fire.”
“Couldn’t you do some kind of tent situation to keep the rain off?” I asked, sipping the glass of wine he had given me. The bitter taste had gone away the more I drank it. It actually tasted pretty good and it made the carriage seats more comfortable too.
“Unfortunately, that’s not something you’d budget the space for on a three day journey. A shame the oracles couldn’t see this one coming,” Virgil said.
I cocked an eyebrow. “You check with oracles before making journeys?”
“They’re cheap for things like the weather. Half the time they’re even right.”
“Half the time the weather is the same as the day before.”
Virgil smirked. “Right you are. So sometimes, you can put a fair bit of stock in what they say. They make their money by being right afterall.”
“As opposed to making their money by lying and stabbing people in the back?” I asked.
He tapped his temple. “Exactly. Leave that to the money lenders and merchants. And I would know. I’m foremost among them.”
“So wait,” Neeka interrupted, one hand to her belly. “If we don’t have camp fires, just what kind of rations are we going to expect?”
Virgil turned up his hands. “Well I believe I said a proper cook fire, not no fire altogether. Once night passes over, we’ll circle the wagons and get something working, even if for no other reason than to make the hauler-lizards sleepy.
Something turned out to be porridge. Boiled oats with some jerky tossed in. Because we were the customers, they threw in some blocks of hard cheese on top. They had provisions of cured meats and barrels of vegetables, but wouldn’t waste them by letting rain get on them. So Neeka and I were faced with a wine-fueled hunger and nothing to sate it but slop barely more appetizing than what Xon could whip up on an empty budget. It was a quick reminder that we were shopping for an army, not for a party.
“Honey for your meal?” Virgil asked as he stepped back into the carriage with an amber jar in his hand. Rain dripped off of him, and his short hair had matted down completely. A quick dabbing from a dry handkerchief brought back his smile though, and he brandished the jar.
I almost drooled. “Yes, yes, please,” I said, thrusting my bowl towards him as he unscrewed it. Neeka’s bowl clanked against my own, trying to get served first.
Naturally, ever the gentleman, Virgil dolloped the sticky gold over hers first and made me wait. He even stopped and offered to Claire first, who offered her bowl for a scoop. Then he turned to me. He rattled the spoon in the jar with a flourish and flicked it out. A huge blob of the honey flew out from the jar, destined for my bowl. Most of it made it there. A lot of it splattered all over my gloved hand.
“Oh no. I must have been drinking too much. I’m normally much cleaner about that. Here, here, let me see. I’ll fix this at once. Well, I’ll get one of my attendants to fix it of course,” he said, quickly stowing the jar of honey and grasping at my sticking hand. I could barely balance the bowl of food in my other hand as he yanked my honey-coated glove off and turned my hand over.
He turned over my hand and looked at my bare palm; my sword hand palm. My eyes went wide as he rubbed his thumbs across the black mark there. I tried to remember just how much the merchant had drank. He certainly had kept pace in the beginning, but I couldn’t remember the last time he had sipped his drink. The merchant was a liar and a con artist. He’d never said otherwise. With slow and deliberate movements, he curled my fingers back into a fist and grinned at me.
I licked my lips and stared back, waiting for what he would say. He knew. He obviously knew. He had seen me show it to Brekhart in the arena. I had been an idiot to do that; an idiot riled up in the heat of the moment who wanted him to seethe on his way to hell. I even knew that wouldn’t happen. Brekhart wasn’t going to hell, he would be trapped within the diadem just like the Tellymi brothers and Sir Robbes. The truth would have been apparent to his tortured mind and I had made a show of it anyways. Of course Virgil had seen me do it, and a man as connected as he was surely knew what it meant.
“Now see, this is why dogs are great,” Claire said, pointing with her spoon at my sticky glove. “Let a good, soft-mouthed hound slobber over that and you could just rinse it off and have it clean.”
“Claire, every dog I’ve ever had would rip a glove like this apart and eat it. How would you ever train it to be a cleaner?” Virgil asked, calmly turning away from me.
Neeka thumped her chest, swallowing a lump. “I hear in Frijorn they train dogs to track people by scent.”
Virgil flattened the tails of his coat and sat down. “The war hounds of Frijorn, quite the stuff of nightmares. They say they’re as big as hauler-lizards and as fierce as lions. They say they hunt down naughty children who don’t do their chores.”
“They hunt down duped merchants who did nothing wrong but show up on the wrong side of a war. They chase them through the night and try to eat them for sport,” I said, slowly unclenching my fist so I could pick up my spoon. “Not a good way to go out, in my opinion. Butchered by animals because you made the wrong enemy by mistake.”
Virgil turned his gaze back to me. “So the rumors of the civil war say. It’s a good thing I don’t make enemies that I can’t crush. Though there’s nothing like a child who doesn’t know the difference between a threat and an enemy. The first thing a successful merchant learns is that risk means opportunity, and nothing is a zero-sum game but war. In my opinion, only fools lead armies. The money is in supplying them.”
Claire set her empty glass down on her seat. With rosey cheeks, she cleared her throat and asked, “Do you have another bottle we could open? I hate sleeping on cots and will find it much preferable to be drunk for the matter.”
Virgil smiled. “Of course. Your tent will be ready soon as well. My workers have seen to it.” He never said anything about it to me, or made any overtures of further action. He simply knew, and would surely act on it later. At least, it gave credence to my testimony that it had been some other mage who had attacked his arena. They were the ones who had wronged him; not me.
Despite all the best accommodations the caravan could provide, I wasn’t able to get a single minute of sleep that night. I found myself staring at the darkness, clutching my hand, and so absorbed by my thoughts I couldn’t rest.