On the Temple Road…
Every five years in the spring, when the seers deemed the stars aligned properly, the Feast of the Triumvirate burst upon Aeldreth to celebrate Gofannon, Nuatha, and Llew, the gods of trade and craft. This was the time for the balancing of accounts, for the declaration of profits and losses, for the dissolution of companies that had served their purpose and the incorporation of new ones for optimistic new projects. Every market square around the world saw a fortnight of volume and movement and handshaking and coin counting that was not to be rivaled till the next Feast. As usual for the superstitions of Aeldrethians, the Feast was seen as a bellwether for the following five years, generating whole tomes of economic predictions (and a good deal of profit for those experts in the bargain), both dire and beaming, for as the saying went, “each man would report of the fair as his own market went in it.”
The tenor of the Feast varied from place to place, from the solemn public audits of the mountain dwarf citadels in Melkorondriaka, to the vast potlatch tournaments of the Five Swords Realms. In Sesus, the Feast celebrated wealth in all its forms with both extreme ostentation and grand gestures of charity. The City of the Seas threw open her gates to the trade of the world — which it did all the time anyway, but during the Feast there were garlands strung across the canals to underscore the point. Why even His August Majesty, High King Iviar Sharklance Jesena of the Floating Throne, intended to crown this Feast by signing a new trade agreement with the Glimmering Throne of Aria. The excitement drew in the largest throngs in the past ten festivals, enough to make the tax collectors positively giddy.
With the city so full of buyers, sellers, makers, and traders, one must assume there would be a great many takers as well. This holy fortnight might be a headache for the city guardians, it was proving a boon for thieves, swindlers, smugglers, and spies of all varieties, foreign and domestic.
So it was that Beau Bergeron, a stranger in what was surely, to him, a strange land, was not the only hunter making his way through the crowds that day. At every corner or archway, masked eyes trained to spot dangers or opportunities noticed the plainly clad eorman so focused on someone ahead of him that he saw nothing else around or behind.
As he suspected, Beau was watched by various parties from time to time, all the way from the docks, as he passed in and out of various orbits of which he was unaware. He was watched, too, when he bounced off the marine guard at the gate of the Embassy of the Grand Navigators, who at that moment had been passing the time of day with a couple of city guardians with whom he was friendly. And when he bowed and scraped and apologized, and then ducked down a utility alley no one had any business in, two of the revelers on Temple Road calmly peeled off from the mob and went in after him.
The alley was meant for little more than draining rain water and was barely wide enough for two gnomes to pass side by side. The walls of the buildings on either side rose up 15 feet before any window broke their sheer stone faces, so close they blocked out the sun, which was fading anyway as clouds built overhead.
From the point of view of the two men, the eorman was a mere silhouette against the white light of the lagoon where the alley abruptly ended. And from Beau Bergeron’s point of view, the tall, masked and hooded men who confronted him as he turned around in frustration were likewise silhouetted, a solid block of black shadow between him and the colorful street.
None could see any details of the others, but these Sesans could tell easily by the eorman’s figure and posture that their suspicions were accurate. For his part, if Beau applied a cool eye, he would likely guess the cloaks thrown back over the shoulders would make ready access to the daggers in the men’s sashes and that the casual ease with which they leaned against the tight-spaced walls suggested a sense of territorial ownership.
“Lost, friend?” one of them said in the local merrow accent. “This is no piss-house for the likes of you.”
— — —
As Jean Lafitte spoke, Jeneyeru placed the wrapped cards given him by Peino inside the Box of Nothing, together with their brethren. The box did not stay open long enough to taint the atmosphere with the cards‘ aura, but short as it was, that vulnerable moment seemed to cast a pall over the salon that matched the graying of the light as clouds closed over the lagoon.
But that mood was dispelled by Jeneyeru’s delighted laugh when Lafitte referred to Peino Starhand as “our dear Prince.”
“Oh, Captain, ‘our dear Prince’ — what a charming fellow you are.” Seated next to the eorman, facing Aeto and Lotye, the wizard flicked his wrist to flip back the long lace cuff from his hand and raised a delicate teacup to his lips. “And the name of your ship, such musical sounds. I can quite hear your accent in them. You must tell me what the language is and where it is spoken, for I declare I’ve never heard its like. Have you, ladies? No, of course not.”
When Jeneyeru turned again towards Lafitte, his eyes shone with that light of scientific interest as if he was speculating as to all the possibilities that might be inherent in the man before him.
“But Captain Lafitte, you say you felt the lure of the cards yourself? And yet you gave up yours to my brother? How very interesting. And this wizard of yours, where is he? Or she? Or whatever. I should like to hear that person’s opinion as well. In fact, it might be of interest to speak to everyone who has had contact with these cards.” He took another sip of his tea and shrugged. “Or not. Impossible to tell at this point. Mistress O’Tulvar here tells a chilling tale as well, illustrating the ease with which the unwary can be taken in by these wretched objects. It is to your credit, sir, that you were not their victim, and if I understand you correctly now, you are offering to assist in hunting down the wayward Arcana?”
“Well, I must tell you, sir, I’m not at all sure how these four cards came loose from the deck, so I cannot tell if there will be much sport in it for you. When my brother is ready, we — for I assume he will wish to come with me if he is not required by the King — will go with Mistress O’Tulvar to seek the persons who traded the two cards that fell into her possession. From that point, we shall see what trail develops. You are more than welcome to join us, Captain, if you wish. Ah, here is our dear Prince now.”
“Excuse me?” said Peino, returning with Thimble in his wake. Cleaned, shaved, and combed, Peino had lost much of the roughness of salt and wind, replacing it with the polish of an aristocrat. He had traded his oiled leathers and knitted jerkin for a suit of powder blue accented with a white silk, embroidered waistcoat, and bright white cravat, against which his long flaxen hair, tied back from his face with a black ribbon but otherwise loose, fairly shone.
“Your dear what?” he said with raised eyebrow as he pulled up a side chair to join the party, crossing one white-hosed leg over the other.
“We merely express our affection for you, don’t we, Captain?” Jeneyeru teased. “But now that you are presentable, we may begin. Captain Lafitte was explaining how he became involved and his concerns about the cards. What have you to add, brother?”
“Blood larvae,” Peino said bluntly. He accepted a cup from Thimble. “Filthy beast nearly tore us apart. Spriggan galleon, the Reputation, attacked us from a distance, using the creatures to stop us in our course. The wizard died of wounds sustained in the ensuing battle. The captain claimed he did not know where his wizard acquired the cards, and I believe he was truthful.”
“He may have bought them here,” said Jeneyeru, “unless the dealer this lady saw has been traveling, or unless there is more than one dealer.”
“This lady?” Peino cast a curious look at Lotye.
“Indeed. Two in your hands, brother, two in hers, and no word from Mount Isolla.”
Peino sat back, sipping his tea, even though it was not coffee. “That is not good. What do you propose?”
“Unless anyone has a better idea, I propose we go shopping for magic cards. Has anyone anything to say in regard to that before we set out?”
Jeneyeru smiled at the assembled group, and his expression hinted at much.
— — —
Meanwhile, across town…
Ionas Farseer did not have look far for a place to brace his nerves after his family encounter. A short, brisk walk from the square where he had been accosted by his aunt would take him over a narrow bridge to a neighborhood of fishmongers and warehouses, bright with the sharp stink of seaweed and fish guts, where he would soon discover what he sought.
The Sword and Club was the sign swinging above the twisted lane, and the public house under it rang with a hearty mid-day traffic. “Fine Brews” touted the painted advertisements on the front wall, and “Oysters and Cockles, Shucked Daily.”
Ionas’ steps had led him away from company and the sight of those he wished to avoid, and among the fishermen, loaders, and tradesmen relaxing at the Sword and Club were others who likewise sought to avoid notice.