For all the adventurers out there, but most of all for Kevin, who is my rock in everything.
Cirranne was a city of many graces, but her city guard, unforgiving, corrupt and heavy handed, wasn't one of them. At least not to Felkin Rufus, a skinny young man of some twenty years hiding in a small alcove with four armed guardsmen closing in. A pair of them, clad in their trademark heavy black coats and boots, were coming from either end of the narrow alleyway, effectively closing off the escape routes . Unless Felkin found a way to turn into smoke, a difficult feat for someone that didn't possess an ounce of magic, he would dangle from the gallows at Fortune Court by noon.
He hiked up the bag slung over his shoulder once more, allowing him to search the stone walls surrounding the alcove for any little crevice that would give him purchase to climb. Now more a burden than a prize, the bag contained half a dozen pieces of valuable jewellery and several rare books that had not been in his possession at the start of the evening.
Just twenty minutes prior to his arrival in the alcove, and a whole lot of running earlier, the guards had spotted him swinging from the balcony of Lord Kendall's private bedchamber. The man had woken from the drunken stupor Felkin had gone to great lengths making sure he was in, only to be met by the sight of his young would-be lover cleaning out the wall safe. Still too drunk to consider the embarrassing situation, he had sounded the alarm, forcing the young thief to flee the scene.
Pressing himself against the rear wall of the alcove, Felkin was still breathing hard from running, legs shaking and lungs aching, nowhere to go but his imminent capture and execution. He was trapped. He took deep, slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, letting the scents of the city flow through him. The sweet perfume of roses from the gardens above hit him first, then the smell of fresh bread from the many bakeries, a faint hint of the sea below accompanied by the monotonous clang of the shipyards, and then something far more unpleasant coming from somewhere very close. Sewage.
Where the smell of the sewers lingered in Cirranne, one would not be far from an entrance, or if he was unlucky, just a vent. Falling to his knees, Felkin searched the ground at his feet, clawing at cracks and cobbles until he found what he was looking for; a manhole. Sweat, from fear, from running and from the pressing summer heat trickled down his forehead and neck as he took a firm hold on the cast iron grate and pulled.
The stench lapped his face and filled the alcove, pouring out of the small passage hiding under the manhole cover. Alerted by the noise of iron scraping against the cobbles reverberating through the alley, the guards lunged towards the alcove. Felkin took a final deep breath of fresh air and lowered himself into the hole.
The passage was narrow, and the ladder, rusty and damp, was narrower still. Felkin could just about fit down the hole without contorting his shoulders or hitting his knees on the ladder with every step. That didn't stop him from contracting several scrapes on his knees and shins in the hurry to get away from the guards as quickly as possible. He could worry about infection later.
The guards were struggling to get into the manhole above him, their heavy uniforms and bulky frames blocking out what little light there was. If he was lucky, they would all be too large to fit into the narrow opening. Luck, however, was not something he was about to put more of his trust in tonight.
Something he preferred to assume was water seeped into his shoes as he hit the bottom and let go of the ladder. The stench was unbearable. Rooting through his bag, he found a scarf among the loot to tie over his nose and mouth to lessen the foul odour. Even with the fabric over his face, he couldn't stop retching and heaving as he made his way away from the faint light of the now guarded passage to the surface, away from the still struggling guards, and into the dark, dank sewers.
Time seemed suspended in the dark, neither slowed nor racing. Felkin was navigating with as much speed as he could muster using touch and smell alone. He was searching for an incline, for some indication that he was heading towards dockside, or even just for a draft that might tell him in which direction he could find an exit, but there was none.
Then, in the distance, a faint light appeared. He headed towards it. Even though night enveloped Cirranne, the city's alchemical street lights and the moon that hung full in the sky would provide enough light to break the darkness of the sewers if there was a way for it to get in. If it wasn't blocked by a bunch of sodding guards, he thought. Something like another manhole or even a proper entrance. He sped up.
In doing so, he became reckless. He didn't pay attention to the ground before lurching forward and that was his downfall, quite literally.
The ground gave out from under him. One moment it was there, and in the next it wasn't. Before he knew it, he was slipping and sliding, desperately grasping for something that would halt his descent, but there was nothing. The walls of whatever passage he was in were slick with grime and sewage and there was nothing at all upon which he could gain purchase.
Except there must have been something, because his rapid journey was halted with a sharp tug that nearly dislocated his shoulder. His bag had gotten stuck on something. He praised the Lady Luck, but he knew just as well as anyone that that she was a fickle mistress. All his weight hung from the strap of his tattered canvas bag. He couldn't see a single scenario wherein this evening ended in anything but disaster; smelly disaster. He was already covered in bruises and a fair few cuts. He didn't even want to think about what the filthy sewer water might be doing to them.
He took a deep breath none the less and started searching for whatever it was the bag was clinging to. Hopefully it was something he could use to climb back up. Encouraged by the prospect, he made progress, slowly pulling himself up towards the protrusion the bag clung to. He had nothing to support himself on apart from the strap and his own stubbornness, which did nothing to alleviate the burning of lactic acid in his arms.
The dismal sound of fabric ripping sent his heart to his throat. He fumbled and grasped at the torn strap and for a triumphant moment he had it. Had he not been covered in some sort of sewer slime, he would have kept it, but once more he slipped and was sliding ever downwards at a worrying speed surrounded by odours and splashing liquid that he could not nor wanted to identify.
The tunnel around him started changing, not that he noticed over the pain of his many cuts and bruises or the panic that flooded every ounce of his being. It was getting wider, the incline less sharp and when salty sea air hit him, he was overcome with sudden realisation, relief and an acute sense of dread. A plunge into the filthy sea water of Dockside was imminent. He was home free, for now.
Bathing did nothing to stave off the sweltering heat. It was the kind of heat you only got in the last few weeks before the rains. It was the kind of heat that would make any city seem ghostlike in the midday hours, let alone a city like Cirranne that had always risen as the shadows grew longer. The heavy clang of the shipyards still sounded day and night, and if your home was in Dockside you had to learn to live with the unrelenting rhythm of steel upon steel upon steel.
Felkin didn't feel any less sweaty for having a bath, but it would go some of the way to alleviating the smell of sewage that clung to his skin and hair like a thick film. His foray into network of sewers that crisscrossed beneath upper Cirranne had been unsavoury and unintentional in equal measures, but necessary to avoid an even more unpleasant end to the night.
Submerging himself once more, he rinsed the soap from his hair, combing his fingers through the tangled lengths, squeezing his eyes shut to protect them from the murky bathwater. Had he been a bigger man, this feat would have been impossible. As would his escape from the Lord Protector's guard last night. It was sheer luck that he'd found the entrance to the sewers when he did, and a miracle that it was big enough to let him through while small enough to keep the guards out. The stink had been near unbearable, but following the dark tunnels down, always down, he managed to slip and slide, half running half falling until he plummeted into the ocean at Dockside.
Those ever flowing streams of topside sewage gave Dockside a certain stink, a stink that even the coastal breeze was unable to wash away. Its construction on the cliffs leading to Upper Cirranne seemed to have been an afterthought, a district evolved over time to accommodate the city's growing population.
Felkin would have stayed in the bath for longer if it wasn't for the incessant pecking his only remaining window pane was being subjected to. Grabbing hold of the edge of the bath, he rose from the water and grabbed a worn towel from a hook on the washroom door. He winced as he dried his arms and legs where the night's activities were reenacted in a trail of blooming bruises. Hair dripping and feet slapping wet against the rough wooden floor, he made his way from the small washroom into the space that served both as his sleeping and living area.
Outside his mostly broken window, still pecking, sat a raven black as night, feathers shimmering in the morning sun. It stopped for a moment when he entered, tilted its head and let out a dry caw. Felkin stared back at it, not sure whether to shoo it away or offer it something to eat. The raven cawed again and resumed its pecking with renewed vigour. Felkin clutched the towel around his waist and stared, confused.
"Well, come on in then," he said, and in the bird came. With a crooked sort of grace, it hopped in through one of the broken panes and took place on the windowsill. Cawing once more, it nipped at something attached to its left leg, neatly tied in place with a red ribbon. Felkin recognised the little message cylinder for what it was and approached the bird with care, hand stretched out, palm up. He didn’t fell like adding a crow bite to his list of injuries.
The raven, a practised messenger, held his leg out for Felkin. Hands shaking, towel almost dropping from his hips, he untied the knot. Gingerly avoiding the bird's sharp talons he removed the ribbon and intricate message cylinder, and for the first time that morning he asked himself who the hell would send him a message by raven. The large birds were uncommon in Cirranne due to the climate, domesticated ones were rare, and one so well trained was near unheard of. Whoever sent it had done a fine job of keeping it out of the rumour mill. Such a bird was a status symbol, something to be flaunted.
"Who would keep you a secret?" Felkin asked the bird, but received no response.
The raven snapped at his hand as he took the message cylinder, catching the side of his palm with its sharp beak, drawing blood. Felkin could have sworn he saw it smirk as he let out a yelp of surprise and all but jumped backwards. A string of curses spilled out in the general direction of his avian guest as he pulled the rickety chair out from his desk and sat down. His anger was replaced with curious surprise when he looked down into his assaulted hand at the cylinder the raven had brought him. He'd never seen anything like it. He had seen pictures of such things, but to find himself holding what looked like a genuine miniature scroll case from the time of the Ronn Protectorate sent his hands shaking worse than the blasted bird ever could. The thing would be worth a fortune if it was real. If it was real.
The intricate carvings on the outside of the cylinder depicted a stormy sea made frothy by crashing waves. There were tiny ships there, carrying tiny sailors if you looked closely, and Felkin did. The blues and greens of the temperamental waters were somewhat faded, but that didn't take away from the little work of art as much as it made it more interesting. The cap, to which the red ribbon was tied formed grey, thundering clouds at the very top of the scene, and when twisted to be taken off, it was as if the whole picture moved, clouds charging, sea rolling and ships crashing against the waves. How seasick those little sailors must be, he thought.
After six turns the cap came off and revealed a neatly rolled up piece of parchment. With nimble fingers, Felkin fished it out just as the door to his rooms slammed open and the raven took his leave the same way it had entered.
Making sure the towel was secured around his waist, he grabbed a letter opener from his desk and crouched behind it in one smooth movement, but not before grabbing the scroll case as well. In his mind, all manner of guards, bounty hunters and mercenaries emerged from the stairway outside to take both his life and his unread letter from him.
"Hello? Felkin, are you here?" said a female voice he would recognise anywhere. Valeria Fennec stepped through the door, her wild hair leading a life of its own as she looked around the room, brown eyes settling on Felkin seconds later.
"Hi Val," he said and stood up, lowering the letter opener, relaxing. She wasn't here to arrest him, although that's not to say she wouldn't have the inclination to turn him in by the end of the morning.
"There you are, I've been waiting downstairs forever." Felkin was supposed to help her set up shop at the topside market this morning and he'd forgotten. He'd helped her almost every single Sunday for years, and he always managed to forget every few weeks, usually on the mornings after practising his own trade. Valeria would argue that what he did wasn't so much a trade as swindling and theft and they would be set on the course towards certain argument. It took talent to do what he did; a nimble body, an agile mind, and an honest relationship with the good lady Luck. He didn't worship her in front of others as he had no wish to be mistaken for one of her sworn brothers and sisters. Considered insane by most, their complete faith in their Lady made them unpredictable and fearless. All Felkin wanted from her was a small consideration before he went to work.
Val sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose like she wished she hadn't. "What is that smell? It's worse than usual up here." She eyed him tip to toe, her face already set in disapproval.
"Let's just say that last night didn't go as planned." He knew she wouldn't leave it at that. In the 22 years he'd known her, although he'd been too young to remember the first few, she never had. "I had to take a dip in Slag Lagoon to escape some of my more persistent admirers." Slag Lagoon was the Dockside name for the spot where the runoff from the Cirranne sewers met the sea.
"Is that why you're pointing that letter opener at me? You thought I was one of your admirers come to find you?" She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms making her polished brass bangles jingle as they swung together around her wrists. She wore them around her ankles too and they chimed with each step she her sandalled feet took. She'd started wearing them when she began her training as a Seer as per tradition for someone with the Gift in Cirranne, and Felkin had hated them ever since. They were impractical and made too much noise.
He put the letter opener back on the desk and adjusted his towel. "What if I did? You would be paranoid too if you'd had the night I did."
"Was it worth it then?"
"No, not this time." He looked to his feet for consolation, but found none. "I lost it all in the sewers. It was too dark and slippery. There would even had been a couple of books in there for you, history I think." He'd kept the full extent of his catch in one bag, which he'd dropped, and now he cursed himself for not making use of his pockets too.
"You know I don't want your stolen books," she protested, eyes determined not to meet his, a blush hinting at her cheeks. It was plain that she cherished the books he gave her even though she was ashamed of it, knowing where he got them. He always figured she would make much better use of them than the people he took them from.
He was going to snap back at her, something about how hypocritical she was when it came to those books, but he didn't. "Can you wait downstairs while I get some clothes on? I'll only be a minute," he said instead, gesturing towards the towel around his waist.
"Fine, I need to go back down anyway. Finn's keeping an eye on my things and I told him I wouldn't be long." Finn was the old, retired fisherman that Felkin rented his rooms from. He was full of tall tales and wise words, and he didn't mind Felkin coming and going at strange hours. You could find him downstairs in his workshop most days, where he mended nets and sails for the younger generation of sailors, and if he could stop you for a good story, he would.
"Alright Val," said Felkin. "I'll be down in a few ticks."
"You better be. You know what the head merchant's like if you're late."
As soon as she left the room, Felkin pulled the scroll case out from the back of his towel where he'd stuck it as he ducked down behind the desk earlier. He tucked the letter back in, screwed the top back on and ran his fingers over the pattern before made to unscrew the top again. Fingers tracing its delicate carved grooves, he changed his mind. There was no time. If Val didn't get to the market on time, someone else would take her space. He closed his hand around the scroll case, and made for a small table covered in a long patterned tablecloth in the far corner of the room. Lifting the cloth revealed a safe of average size. It was a bit rusted on one corner, and had a dent in one side, but it was intact and of a good make. It would last a while yet. Felkin entered his locking code using the many dials on the door and when he could hear the mechanism inside click into place, he used the key that he carried on a chain around his neck and turned the lock.
The inside of the safe was bare compared to what it would have been had he been successful last night. There were a few pieces of jewellery in there that he could sell if things got desperate, but the rest was sentimental items that were of no value to anyone but himself. He placed the scroll case at the very back, careful not to put it next to anything that could scratch or damage it, and then he closed and locked the safe back up.
The clothes he'd worn the night before were probably ruined beyond repair, but he returned to the wash room and lay them to soak in the murky bathwater none the less. He hoped might be able to save some of them.
Just shy of four minutes later, he was rushing down the stairs, clean clothes on his back, to catch up with Valeria.
"What took you so long, bandit boy?" she asked, with that grin on her face, the one that told him she'd forgiven him, or at least near enough.
"Don't call me that," said Felkin, trying hard to look offended, hands shoved inside pockets and a sullen look on his face that couldn't quite hold back his smile.
"Why? It's true," said Valeria and landed a sharp elbow in his ribs. It hurt more than Felkin wanted to admit. To hide his discomfort he huffed and busied himself with the host of things that Valeria needed him to help transport to the market. How she had even gotten it all this far herself, he did not know. As if Finn, who was sitting by the entrance to his workshop as usual, had become clairvoyant in his old age, the leaned towards Felkin and whispered loud enough that anyone that was listening could hear.
"That Renigald boy helped her carry it all here, so he did." Felkin made a face at the name. He didn't usually care for Val's boyfriends, but this one was something else. The moment he met Ren, he knew he didn't like him and as if to irritate him further, he couldn't find a single fault with the guy, or at least none that mattered.
"Ren, huh," he replied. "Did he have anything useful to say then?"
"Nah. He has too much politics in that skull of his, tries to recruit me to that cause of his every time he stops by." Finn huffed and pulled some dried seaweed from the net he was mending. "He makes a better pack mule than a revolutionary if you ask me."
"You're probably right," said Felkin, his attention once more focused on Valeria's things lined up against the wall of Finn's workshop. It looked like there was more than there usually was, or perhaps it was his lack of sleep playing tricks on him.
"I swear there's more every time," he said as he turned to Valeria, who had already started arranging what would become her market stall into two stacks.
"There's maybe a few more things this time, but only because one of my clients asked for a specific type of incense that needs to be burned in an oil lamp, and I've got a few more cushions as well, but they’re light. They’re real duck feather." When Felkin sighed at her and shook his head, she continued. "It's only because one of my clients today, a different one, is old and I can't expect him to sit on the ground, now can I?"
Felkin remained silent as he loaded himself up with the stack that he assumed was his. She never let him carry anything fragile or anything that could betray the secrets of her gift, which was more out of principle than mistrust. Their friendship stood on firmer ground than most, but Valeria's devotion to her calling wouldn't let her make allowances even for the almost familiar bond she shared with Felkin.
After loading up and bidding farewell to Finn, they began the winding climb from dockside up to the city walls. Cirranne was built at the top of the cliffs plummeting into the sea on this part of the coastline. Where the city lay, the cliffs were less unforgiving, and allowed for paths to be built down to the water, where later a harbour had been built. Around that harbour grew a community of dock workers, ship builders and fishermen. They were honest, hard working people, but they owned no land like the farmers that lived outside the city walls land-side, and had no inherited riches with which to purchase real estate within the city limits. And so, around the harbour and the shipyards, Dockside emerged. People built on the cliff side wherever there was space, makeshift roads and marketplaces emerged, a community grew, one where people stuck together because the alternative was to live under the watchful and often harsh eye of the Lord Protector's guard.
There was an agreement between the guard and the people of Dockside. In exchange for fresh fish, coin and a wide berth, the guards didn't venture into Dockside unless called. It had been a successful arrangement for years, but something had changed in recent weeks. More Docksiders were getting stopped at the city gates for no good reason at all, the guards had begun neglecting their part of the agreement with Dockside, venturing into the district in small groups, as if they were looking for trouble.
Felkin and Valeria approached the gate, where two of the guards on duty were refusing a woman and her young daughter entry. Two more guards were scanning the stream of people entering and exiting, halberds in hand, visors down on their already menacing helmets. Their uniforms were dark and buttoned all the way up with two rows of silver buttons to match the silver detailing on their helmets and robust leather boots. Felkin was wearing light cotton shorts and a loose fitting shirt. He looked over to Valeria who was wearing lightweight fabrics like him, albeit more colourful, and back to the guards. If they were warm, they didn't show it, but he imagined they would be cooking in all that black. It was a wonder they could chase after anyone at all like that.
"They've doubled the guard since last week," said Valeria. Felkin nodded.
"Yeah, there seems to be more guards everywhere." He shifted the poles for the canopy that he was carrying from his left shoulder to his right. They were getting heavier by the step and he was glad they were about to reach more level ground. The canopy was for her stall at the market. She got more clients when she could offer shade as well as her gift in exchange for their custom. "I don't know how they are able to recruit anyone in this heat. How can they stand it? Those uniforms must be murder in the sun."
"I think they might imbue them with a gift of cooling, like they used to do with fresh food. Although I don't know how they make it last," said Valeria.
"They can do that? Can you do that?" Felkin hadn't even thought of the possibility that the guard might have a Seer working with them. It was such an unusual gift nowadays, and had been since as far back anyone living could remember, even old Finn. Valeria was very good at what she did, but the stories she sometimes told him about seers of old seemed too good to be true, like they were nothing more than that; stories.
"No, I can't, Felkin. Perhaps I could learn if there was someone to teach me, and there must be if that's what they're doing." She shook her head and picked up the pace. "But we don't know if that is what they're doing. Those guards might just be good at hiding how warm they are." Felkin snorted and sped up as well, feeling the strain of walking up the hill from Dockside take its toll on his legs and shoulders. In addition to the poles for the canopy, he was carrying the canopy itself, an incense burner and two large cushions along with several glass bottles, throws and a sign for the front of the canopy.
At the gates they stopped to catch their breaths in the shadow of the tall granite wall. One of the guards approached with quick strides.
"Good morning madam seer. What is your business within the walls today?" Felkin rolled his eyes, but knew better than to open his mouth. Valeria had always had a way of dealing with authority. Perhaps it was her stature as one blessed with the gift, or her matter of fact way with words.
"I am entering the city to provide my services at the temple market." She fished a piece of paper from a pocket in her flowing skirt and held it up for the guard to read. "I have an agreement with the trader's guild, and I'm already late for my first client."
"And what of this one," asked the guard, cocking his head at Felkin.
"I need him to help me set up. As you can see, I can't carry all of this myself." The guard looked Felkin up and down. Felkin did his best to illustrate how the burden he was carrying weighed him down, sagging his shoulders and wiping his forehead clean of sweat with his one free hand. It was impossible to see the guard's face behind the visor, but he let them pass with a gruff "Go on then".
Once out of earshot inside the gate, Valeria let our a sigh. "Jeez. For a moment there I thought he wasn't going to let us go through."
"Tell me about it. I wonder what's changed. I mean, this is in breach of the agreement, isn't it?"
Valeria hummed, her thoughts elsewhere. The city was waking up around them, and the streets were filling with people of all kinds. Market day was by far the busiest day of the week in the city, and today wouldn't be any different. It was also the day of worship. The temples opened their doors to all that wished to enter and holy men and women of each of the many deities that Cirranne prayed to had taken to the streets to spread their message.
"The agreement is still in place, right?" Felkin hadn't heard otherwise, but Valeria might have. She was better connected than he was, a perk that came with her calling. People liked to gossip while she worked on them. "Hey Val, are you listening?"
"What? Yes, yes I am. I’ll see what I can find out today."
The cobbled street opened up into a large square teeming with merchants and their clientele. It was noisy, warm and crowded, and even though most of the vendors were still busy setting up shop, people were already haggling and dealing with them. Valeria and Felkin headed straight for her designated spot, their stride as quick as the crowded square would allow.
Felkin sighed with relief and dropped his burden when they found it empty. Massaging his stiff shoulders, he looked out over the growing sea of people. It was mostly civilians; shoppers, browsers, families and some just out for a stroll before the scorching sun climbed to zenith. But there was also an unusual amount of guards all around the square. Like at the gate, the guard force seemed to have been doubled and their normally lax attitude had been wiped away. Scanning the marketplace through silver masks now, they seemed alert, not at all in keeping with their usual look-the-other-way kind of way. It worried Felkin, and he kept glancing over his shoulder as he helped Valeria set up her canopy. He couldn't help wondering if this increase in guard activity had something to do with his almost-capture last night, or if it was a result of what he had done. He doubted it had anything to do with him, but couldn't shake the nagging feeling that he was being watched.
The man who's lavish apartment he had tried to unburden was one of the inner city's many nobles, but as far as Felkin knew he wasn't important enough to warrant a reaction like this from the guard, or anyone but the noble himself for that matter. He never picked high profile marks as all these guards, all this surveillance was what he wanted to avoid. He picked from the new money and those with bought titles, the ones that, while wealthy beyond anything Felkin could hope to achieve, had no real political influence or connections and wouldn't be able to call down a manhunt should he be discovered.
As they finished setting up, Val's first client approached, an older woman with too much black around her eyes that peered at Felkin like he still smelled of sewage.
"Thanks for the help, Felkin," said Valeria as she turned and greeted her client. Taking the woman's outstretched hand in both of her own, smiling like the the old crone was a beloved aunt. Felkin didn't think he could ever put up with people like she did, even if they did pay him what they paid her.
"I'll be back by closing time, Madame," he said and gave her a mock salute. He turned on his heel and headed into the crowd before she got the chance to scowl at him. He didn't see the scowl morph into a smile as soon as he was on his way, nor did he see the large raven that landed atop the canopy as he turned his back. It lingered for a moment before taking to the air again, hovering in wide circles above the market square, then changing direction and disappearing in-between two rooftops.