26: A Hundred Shadowcats

It was the height of summer when they walked the road to the city. The fields of rye rippled like bodies of water in the breeze before the backdrop of the sunset. The birds sang their songs of summer and hope as Itero and the Devourer went through a grove of trees outside the city walls. This night the gates were open, and there were no guards in sight. Many people mingled in the city square where stands were set up for the day’s market. Fishmongers, artisans, butchers, and all kinds of merchants sold their exotic goods from every part of the world. A man with a long grey beard held a sermon at the bottom of the stairs to the High District as a group of people stood listening. The Devourer and Itero went through the crowd before stopping for a moment at a vendor selling trinkets made from colorful polished stones.

They climbed the stairs to the High District where the nobles mingled. The windows of the exclusive shops and taverns glowed yellow in the evening light. As did the lamps lining the mosaic road cutting through the district. A guard looked at them in distrust as they passed him. The highborn moved up and down the road. A few on foot, most on expensive steeds.

Well, hello! Itero from Windshore, old friend! A man called out. Itero and the Devourer turned to him and watched as he approached through the crowd. He wore clothes of the most beautiful furs held together by a thick leather belt around his waist. There was an onyx necklace around his neck and a ring of the same material on each thumb. The turquoise turban on his head was made so high it looked like it could fall off at any moment despite being held together by an ivory brooch with a ruby the size of a quail’s egg. Feathers from a dozen different exotic birds were fastened around the pin like a nimbus of color.

Hello, Esral from Greenfield! Itero exclaimed and took the man’s hand into his and bowed.

Hello, Esral said to the Devourer that also he bowed to the stranger.

Where have you been? Itero asked.

Here and there. Business, so to say. Who’s this young and handsome man you’ve with you?

A friend of mine. Nihil is his name.

A friend, or a friend? Esral said and rolled his eyes and smiled.

A friend as in the common use of the word, Esral. I have nothing against it, but I don’t have the same exotic inclinations as you, friend.

Oh, stop it! Esral said and moved his hand through the air as if waiving the words away.

And I believe that stands for my, friend, too, Itero said and looked at Nihil that nodded a little too fast.

Squares, Esral said and continued, So you’ve come to buy some fine furs I presume? Come here, come here. Follow me to my stand! I’ve some of the most excellent pelts you have ever seen, directly from the far west. You can’t even comprehend how much it costs me to get it transported through the lands of those savages in Citadel. Oh my, oh my.

A young boy stood folding pelts in the market stall. He looked up at the men and smiled when he saw who they were. Esral put his arm around the boy and studied the furs as if searching for something in particular. He caressed the boy’s shoulder through the thin robe as he continued browsing his goods. Have you sold the shadowcat one? He asked the boy.

No, it’s right here under, He said and moved another piece aside and revealed a black fur with a blue tint glimmering like moonlight.

My boy, Esral said and looked at him. Shouldn’t we keep the finest goods on top?

Yes, but, I was thinking maybe someone would try to steal it when they see how expensive it is. Better to only show it to those that you know could afford it.

You’re a smart boy, Esral said and patted the boy’s shoulder. A brilliant boy. Much brighter than I was at your age. But you do know what we do to thieves, don’t you?

Yes, The boy said and put his hand under the table and pulled out a heavy barbed javelin.

And don’t you hesitate to use it, Esral said and laughed as he turned to Itero and the Devourer. This furs you see here, it’s the finest there is. Look how beautiful the strands of hair are and how heavy it is? Feel it. It’s said a hundred shadowcats are needed to produce a piece like this. They only use the most delicate parts of their pelt. The soft part of their belly.

Very lovely, Itero said. But we didn’t come here to buy furs. I would much prefer buying some rumors and gossip if you have any to sell?

Oh, old friend, Esral said with a big smile. You know that with me, rumors and gossip come cheap. Even though they are of immense value to me. What do you want to know? Or should I say, who do you want to know what about?

Anything from the King?

Same as always. The King is old and only getting older. They say he’s becoming mad with age, yet he doesn’t abdicate. Or maybe that’s the reason. Madness that is. Not that it matters, he’s mostly a figurehead these days. I don’t think he’s done any heavy governing since the Princess married that noble boy and let him into the court. They say he’s the one pulling strings these days. Young Yilisses with all his ambition.

If the King abdicates, Itero said, who’ll sit on the throne? His son is too young, and the Princess is, well, a woman.

That’s the quirk! It’s not impossible that his son-in-law gets to rule, either officially or unofficially if the King abdicates. Not that he needs it, he’s probably quite comfortable with things as they are. He even has it better if things stay the same, as the King still is the one to blame for any misgoverning.

And what do the other elders think about this? Where do they stand?

One can only speculate, and speculate I shall do. I think they’re cautious of this young noble’s ambitions, about their future in the court. He not only has the Kings’s right ear to whisper into, but he also has the Princess’ heart, as well as the resources to leverage any power balance that may occur.

Nothing new in the Kingdom then, Itero said before continuing, Any more exotic news?

Oh, exotic is my middle name, Esral said. The warlords are raiding the forests around the Citadel from coast to Borderlands when they aren’t fighting each other that is. And speaking about tribes, the wildmen in Mistwood is said to have grown in numbers as more and more tribes join together. They have even been seen crossing the river by Mistwood Glade, making the people uneasy.

You should come and visit us sometime, Itero said.

Yes, it sounds nice, Esral answered. I will do that when I get some free time at my hands. Goodby.

Farewell.

They went down the stairs to the Low District. A drunkard came out one of the taverns. He held a tankard in on hand, and with the other, he proceeded to fish out his member and began pissing in the gutter, swaying as he stood. He mumbled something as they passed him.

Do you want to grab some food? Itero asked.

Yes, The Devourer answered. Where do you want to go?

Why not the Fat Fish?

Why not The Fat Fish, The Devourer repeated. They turned left at the next crossing and went down the alley. A sign hung above a door at its end. Two torches, one on each side lit it and glowed in the same warm yellow light as the windows beneath. They went through the door and was met by a wall of sound, music, singing, the clattering of utensils against dishes, and the roaring murmuring of many voices amplified by each other. There were also smells. Many smells. That of the fire under the warm hearthstone, spices and sweet wine mixed with many more and filled the room. They went up to the bar and the big lady behind it.

Two tankards of ale and two buckets of your best prawns, Itero said and handed her a handful of small gemstones. She counted them with a glance and gave them two large tankards and nodded for them to seat themselves.

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