Chapter 44 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The Start of a War
“You see, it all started last fall,” Biltrin began. The others formed a circle around him. Zeph scooted in—he always did love a good story. “There was a growing worry among the merchants with the number of caravan raids going on.”
“Most of the Western Kingdoms’ wealth comes from trade the merchant caravans bring, so King Reginald is keen to solve this problem. At first, everyone thinks the raids are coming from a band of brigands. Then something interesting happens: Rives—you know, the head of PIKE—he tells Prince Peldrin that his goods are being looted by soldiers from Nastadra. No one in his right mind believes this, of course. Nastadra and the Western Kingdoms have been on good terms since before my granddad’s time, and that’s saying somethin’.”
He stopped for a swig from his canteen before continuing. “But this Rives has the king’s son eating this tale up. He convinces the prince, who in turn convinces his father, to send soldiers to watch over the next caravan, all piled up with goods pretty as you please. Lo and behold, they’re attacked, and all the king’s men are wiped out. When more soldiers are sent to investigate, they find the caravan’s contents nearby in Uthgar—which just so happens to fall within the Nastadran border.”
“Seems awfully careless of them,” said Zeph. He had made arrangements with fences before, and the first rule was to move the goods far away from the scene of the crime.
Biltrin nodded gravely. “Uthgar denounces the accusations. They claim an unguarded caravan—just so happened, stocked to the brim—showed up outside their city the day before. Needless to say, King Reginald finds this story absurd. Besides, there’d been reports of Nastadran soldiers in the area at the time of the attack. So at the urging of Rives, war’s declared.”
A stunned silence followed. Daen asked, “Have the armies met in battle?”
“Last I heard, the Western Kingdoms was getting ready to march on Nastadra. King Rohr has no choice but to defend his people.”
Zeph played with the dirt in front of him. “So what do you have to do with all this?”
“What if I told you that all the king’s men weren’t wiped out in the raid, that one survived?” said Biltrin. “That I survived.”
Copius’s face lit up. “And we’re taking you to the king to give a firsthand account of what happened?”
“Except that it is not how everyone presumes it is,” said Daen.
“No, it ain’t. Not even a little. The attackers wore the colors of Nastadran soldiers, mind you. But when they were done with the dirty work and all of us were lying bloody on the ground, they spoke to one another. They didn’t have no southern accent, you see. And what they said…” His voice became a hollow whisper. “They said they were to report back to Rives about the success they had.”
Copius was at a loss. “Th-That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone have their own caravan waylaid?”
“Not so loud,” Biltrin urged. “Information like this ain’t safe anywhere.”
Selgrin kept his voice to a low growl. “Cope’s got a point. No one would do that on purpose. Losing a caravan of goods could wipe a merchant out. Even for PIKE, it’s much more than a toe stub.”
Zeph was about to burst. Of course it made sense. “Unless it turns out having your goods stolen is the fastest way to sell them.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Selgrin.
“My Alliance handler told me that King Reginald was reimbursing PIKE for any merchandise lost to bandits. So essentially, they didn’t lose a thing.”
“Some scheme.” Selgrin nodded approvingly. “With the merchandise gone, who’s to say how much of the stuff there really was? Or what the goods are worth, for that matter. They could end up doubling their coin without selling a thing.”
Cahrin knitted her eyebrow together. “There must be more to it than simply amassing gold crowns. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past a ghasiv to lie and cheat in order to garner what wasn’t rightfully his, but the whole plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why dress mercenaries as Nastadran soldiers at all? What does PIKE gain from causing a war?”
“Tough to say for sure, though the merchant consortiums never have had much luck in Nastadra.”
Daen stroked his chin in thought. “An expansion of the Western Kingdoms would give PIKE more room to operate. But any type of prolonged war could crimp trade, warrant additional taxes to fund the conflict, and possibly stop the king’s reimbursement program.”
“I guess the only thing we know for certain,” said Selgrin, “is getting Biltrin in the same room with the king is our best bet to stop this war.”
Zeph was impressed. Biltrin was a lot more interesting than he’d given him credit for. This story of his had danger, intrigue, suspense, and like any good tale, it piqued his curiosity rather than quenched his thirst.
He stood abruptly, dusting off his pants. It was time to go in search of answers.
The Merchant Faire was an entire city constructed in an area that a short time ago had been little more than a trading settlement on the Laiyn River. Hundreds of temporary stalls packed the streets. Performers hobbled by on stilts, breathing fire and showing off their acrobatic skills. Food was plentiful, from meat pies to cheeses and fruits, and a bar lined with kegs of ale and surrounded by tables was never far from sight.
Outside the makeshift city, tents and hastily constructed shelters pressed up against one another in neighborly fashion. Zeph had been lucky to find them one of the last available campsites.
This morning was the opening ceremony, and like the enormous crowd around them, they had come to see the king—only they were hoping to speak with him, too. King Reginald stood on a giant temporary stage in the center of town accompanied by a cadre of his soldiers. Also present was Prince Peldrin with Rives at his shoulder, flanked by PIKE merchant guards. It was a strange sight Zeph had seen a lot of lately, the two factions of armored men working side by side.
“So what do you think?” Zeph said. “Will we be able to get King’s Reginald’s attention?”
Cahrin glanced at the twenty feet of bodies separating them from the stage. “I think the only way he’ll notice us is if we make an attempt on his life.”
Hmm… He placed a hand on Venytier, then caught Cahrin’s ridiculing eye. “What? You said it was the only way.”
The king finished a short speech welcoming visitors to the Merchant Faire and was escorted offstage. Prince Peldrin followed his father, but Rives and his armored entourage went in the opposite direction.
Daen spoke, barely audible over the departing crowd. “Biltrin and I will determine what it takes to gain an audience with the king. Sel, can you change into something to follow Rives?”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. The last food merchant we passed had fresh rat and pigeon on a stick.”
“I’ll go,” said Zeph. After all, following discreetly was part of his trade.
For some reason Daen looked less than thrilled. “Anyone care to join him?”
Copius raised his hand.
“Oh, c’mon,” Zeph exclaimed. “How do you expect me to do my job with a red-robed monk at my heels?”
“Be nice,” admonished Cahrin.
“He knows I don’t mean anything by—”
“It’s Auburn,” added Copius, with a woeful expression.
“Anyway, you know what I’m getting at, right?” Zeph said.
“Sure, I understand. Why would you want some clumsy monk mucking things up?”
“It’s not like that,” said Zeph. “You’re just not trained for these types of things, that’s all.”
Daen cast a consoling smile to Copius and then Sel. “Certainly one clumsy monk is not half as bad as a grumpy old dogar.”
“That’s grumpy middle-aged dogar.” Selgrin folded his arms in protest, to which Daen let out a long-suffering sigh.
“Perhaps we should continue to discuss this until we lose sight of them.”
“It’s settled,” said Zeph, starting away before he could be stopped. “I’ll go alone and meet the rest of you back at camp.”
“Fine, but no heroics, Zeph,” Daen called after him.
“‘No heroics,’” he muttered in imitation as he established a safe distance behind Rives and his guardsmen. “He might as well have said ‘no fun.’”
They progressed through Dirn’s Outpost in serpentine fashion. Zeph decided a merchant must have been responsible for the faire’s design, as every stall had to be passed when traveling between the stage and the city’s main gate. It wasn’t hard to imagine a single burning stall blocking the path of all those trying to leave. The least they could have done was to ban the fire-eaters.
Rives and his armored entourage marched out of the city and into the sea of campsites. It wasn’t until they left the last of the tents behind did Zeph realize where they were heading. Not far off was a large warehouse on the riverbank. Where else would the head of a merchant guild be going?
It turned out to be less a storage facility than a fortified keep, with sentries around its perimeter and a defensive position a minor lord would envy. The back of the building nestled up to a narrowing section of the Laiyn River, just wide enough for a single barge to dock. To the east, a lightly wooded area offered minimal cover. Intersecting the trees and the road was a ridge, sloping steeply a dozen feet downward.
Zeph made his way to the top of the ridge and watched Rives enter the warehouse unmolested. He couldn’t discern much from his vantage point. He slid three-quarters of the way to the bottom, leapt to flat ground then scrambled over to a boulder for cover. He made out a handful of guards on the first level of the warehouse, all of them wrapped in gleaming steel.
Something beyond the trees caught Zeph’s eye: a dark-clad horseman also watching the warehouse. He smiled to himself. It appeared he wasn’t the only one interested in what Rives was up to.
“Turn around,” growled a voice behind him.
Zeph cursed under his breath. He did what he was told and found himself facing a crossbow-toting PIKE footman, either a sentry roamer or one returning from some errand.
“What are you doing here?” asked the footman.
He tried to put on his most innocent face. “Here specifically, or do you mean here at the faire?”
“I mean right now, hiding behind the boulder, nosing around.”
Excuses ranging from chasing a runaway gold crown to an afternoon scavenger hunt didn’t feel promising. Zeph went simple. “If you must know, I happened to see this warehouse while I was taking a jaunt and thought I’d have a look.”
The footman gave Zeph the once-over: wolf-decimated leather armor, Venytier at his belt, and more throwing daggers than one could easily count. Clearly, he was having none of it. “You’d better come with me.”
I definitely need to spend more time practicing my innocent face. “How nice, a guided tour. I hope you’ll be including breathtaking views of the river with that.”
The crossbowman pushed him forward. He obviously had no sense of humor.
They walked in full view of the other sentries on their way to the warehouse. Once past them, Zeph’s prospects for escape would become nil. He risked a sidelong glance toward the trees. The man on horseback continued his vigilance. He was above them and unreachable by foot, but still in range of a crossbow.
Zeph slowed and turned around. “Okay, you got me. I was spying on Rives.”
“Tell it to the master.”
The first of the warehouse perimeter sentries stood just ahead. Zeph continued in a hushed voice. “If you don’t hear me out, the one who’s really behind this will get away.”
The footman stopped about six feet from Zeph, crossbow at the ready. “Carry on, or I’ll be dragging your corpse the rest of the way.”
“I can prove it,” Zeph said. “The man who paid me to be here is hiding in those trees to your right.” He tipped his head to indicate the general direction.
The footman glanced over and then back at Zeph. “I don’t see nothin’.”
“Try again. He’s on a horse. Look toward that fat tree near the edge.”
Eyes swept to the side, then froze. “I got him.”
“He paid me two silver crowns to crouch down behind that boulder. Tall, mysterious sort. But his coin was all the same.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Oh, c’mon. Even a dumb oaf of a sentry could tell I’m being used as a decoy.”
The dumb oaf of a sentry contorted his face, not keen on being insulted. Fortunately, he found Zeph more credible when casting blame than professing innocence.
He pointed his crossbow toward the trees. “Stay put or I’ll shoot!”
The horseman snapped his heels back, and his mount sprang away. The footman’s bolt was released, but not before Zeph barreled into him, sending him crunching to the ground and his shot high and wide.
Zeph was on his feet and sprinting for the ridge. He glanced back. The nearest sentry was on one knee, steadying his crossbow. Zeph broke left. A bolt went whistling by.
He kept at it, huffing with every step. The only other sentry within range was too far to score a hit, not at this distance, a fact his face categorically disagreed with after a steel shaft flew past, nearly skinning his cheek.
And who said this wouldn’t be fun?
He raced at full speed. The downed footman would be preparing a second shot by now. And what about the stranger on horseback? He’d have to leave the grove of trees and cross the ridge to make his own escape.
Zeph hit the base of the ridge and sprang to the top in four strides.
“Halt!” He heard the shout behind him from his original captor.
His options were limited. Surrendering would put him at the mercy of Rives. Fleeing could result in a bolt through the spine. And yet he refused to believe that Dela had chosen to end his thread here at the hands of some PIKE footman.
A drumbeat of hooves preceded the horseman, who burst from the trees so close to Zeph that he lost his footing. Flailing his arms, he fell backward off the ridge.
The sky was above him, the horse thundering by. A hand snaked out and grabbed him in mid-fall, securing him underneath an arm. There was a flash of steel, the sound of a bolt tearing the wind, and then they were away.
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