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Fiction, Fantasy, Serial Novel
by: J. Dennis McKay
Come one, come all! Come and see the fabled Hundred Towers of Tovani! Tovani, fabled city of wealth, with gleaming towers rising to the clouds, overlooking the bustling port, the economic heart of the old Tovane Empire. The Empire may be only a memory, but beautiful Tovani remains, with riches and wealth, exotic sights and mysteries untold. Travellers, merchants, adventurers, and desperate dreamers from all four winds flock to the fabled Hundred Towers of Tovani. To walk up the Grand Market, a hundred paces wide and paved with polished white marble, lined with the finest shops in the four winds from the Great Western Gate to the Grand Pier! Truly, a wonder of the world to behold! And if you listen, it has countless stories to be told!
Yllek beheld the Western Gate, still a pair of miles distant, as the sun crested the horizon, blazing, unbroken by shadow down the Grand Market. Unbroken, that is, except by the gate itself, with the heavy iron bars of the portcullis still lowered at this early hour. The golden sunrise highlighted the fabled towers, giving the city every advantage to the eye possible. Seeing the city like this, Yllek could almost believe the travelling tinker's tales of a city paved with marble, pearl, and gold. Where merchant's and whores gave freely of their wares to weary travellers from afar. Almost. Except Yllek had been to Tovani before, and he new it for the dirty, smelly, crime infested unruled vortex of chaos and death that it was. He knew it well enough to know that it was about the last place on earth he wanted to be. Unless you were on the run. If you were on the run, it was still grandest place in the Four Winds.
Who would of thought that being such a handsome, dashing, and above all, friendly, young gentleman could get him into so much trouble? Okay, maybe he'd been a little too friendly. But since when was being friendly with Elanna, a country Baron's beautiful young daughter, a crime? It certainly wasn't a crime as far as Yllek was concerned. And nothing would have come of it if, it hadn't been for that sweet young Lady's handmaid's indiscreet and talkative nature. Not that the handmaid had told the Baron about Yllek's friendliness with his daughter. She didn't even know about that. Elanna knew how to be discreet. No, that buxom little strumpet had blabbed to her mistress all about how friendly Yllek had been with her! She was so bursting with pride over her conquest of the dashing young visitor to the Baron's court that she had told everything, everything, in great detail, to her mistress the very next morning. Right down to the mole on his...
And now Yllek found himself on his way to cursed, rat infested Tovani once again. Not that he was a coward. If it was merely the Baron who was after him, then he wouldn't be running. He would have simply challenged the man to a duel and run the decrepit old fart through. No, he was running from her. Elanna. Yllek was brave, but he was no one's fool. He'd seen that look in a woman's eyes before, and had the scars to prove it. He knew that look well enough to run three horses to their death, and the gelding he was on now, such a fine specimen only the day before when he'd stolen it, now looked as if it might not make the last pair of miles to the gate. Yllek cursed the horse as it staggered. Just a little farther. He certainly didn't want to walk the last leg, not with his back, legs, and bottom in the condition they were in after nearly a week of some of the hardest riding he'd ever done in his life. Not that he'd ever heard the pursuit close behind him. He just had no desire to hear it close behind him.
It turned out the horse did make it, although he did get off and lead it the last hundred yards, as much to stretch his weary legs as to rest the horse. A guard at the side gate let him pass with only the smallest of bribes, and he remounted an unwilling horse to begin his ride down the Grand Market. Yllek had far to much pride to be seen walking down this famous road, whose marble paving stones, and even the cobblestones beneath, had long since been plundered. Even at this early hour, who knew what eyes might be watching him? Hopefully none that recognised him. Even this abyss of a city, forsaken by any God worth his salt, had it's rules. And Yllek hadn't left under the best of circumstances the last time. But that was nearly five years ago, and the balance of power had undoubtedly shifted a dozen times since then. With any luck, those who wanted to see him, what was the phrase they used? "Flayed alive and dipped in brine," yes, that was it. With any luck, those people had themselves fallen victim to the city's merciless meat grinder, or fled as he once had.
The shops lining the Grand Market were still shuttered, and there was only a trickle of traffic as Yllek made his way deeper into the city under the scrutiny of those ominous towers. Each tower represented a major family or business concern. Each tower was a place to set a watch, a vantage to observe the comings an goings of one's rivals, and warn the manor complexes below of any approaching threat. Each was a marker of territory, and Yllek, spotting one in particular, turned onto a side street and headed toward it. He doubted very much that this tower in particular had changed hands. Papa Domi, head of the Domi family, was a wise and careful man, and the Domis had become prosperous and quietly influential during two decades of his leadership, but not too prosperous or too influential. Papa Domi understood that in Tovani, jealousy could have lethal outlets. More importantly, to Yllek at least, Papa Domi liked Yllek, always had. It had been Domi who had warned him and provided him with the means of escaping last time.
With the collar of his cloak pulled up against the chill morning breeze coming off the bay, and his wide brimmed hat pulled low, Yllek doubted anyone passing him in the street would be able to recognise him. He still kept his eyes and ears peeled as he made his way through the winding side streets to the Domi manor. He shivered with relief when the manor itself came into sight.
The Domi manor occupied an entire block of real estate, and Yllek knew that virtually every building for several blocks was owned or controlled by the family. The main house itself was four stories tall, and surrounded a large courtyard with the tower rising out of the centre of it. Considering the wealth of the family, the facade of the building was remarkably plain, but also obviously sturdy. Faced in large blocks of granite masonry, little effort had been made to disguise the fortress that it was, with many small windows that would be much easier to shoot an arrow out of than into. A dozen well dressed, casual, and well armed men lounged at their ease on the wide steps that led to the main entrance. You could ride a horse up those steps if you wanted, just not with any speed. And even though they pretended not to, Yllek knew the men on the steps were keeping a close eye on him as he approached.
When he reached the base of the stairs, he slowly and deliberately pushed his hat back, rested his hands on the pommel of his saddle, and surveyed the crowd between him and the doorway.
Near the back of the crowd, a tall, burly man with a beard going to grey and a face covered with scars scowled an placed his hands on his hips, close to the sword and dagger that hung from his belt. "Well I can sell my eyes, I've seen everything," he grumbled. "The greatest fool in the history of this town of fools, alive and with all his limbs attached." A grin cracked across the man's stony face, and a twinkle gleamed from his eyes. "The Gods must find you entertaining for them to preserve you so well."
"I never was much for prayer, Gianni, so I've always trusted to their sense of humour to maintain their favour," Yllek returned the grin. "Are you going to keep me waiting until a decent hour, or shall we crack the kegs with the dawn like civilised men?"
Gianni let loose a roar of laughter that came from somewhere near his toes and shook his entire, massive, frame. "You know me," Gianni responded when he regained his breath, "I always was a stickler for the finer points of civilisation. Ranik!" he barked at one of his companions. "See to this scoundrel's horse." Yllek dismounted, turned over his reins to the man who'd jumped sprightly down the steps, and walked up the steps to join his old friend. "Come friend, let's go disturb the old buzzard's breakfast. Maybe the two of us can gang up on him and pry some of the good stuff out of his tight fists." Placing an arm that was almost as thick as Yllek's thigh around his shoulder, Gianni practically dragged him through the thick oaken double doors of the house. "Damn it's good to see you man, this town's been get ting dull. I do so hope you'll liven things up with your usual flair."
"I certainly hope not. I'm a reformed man Gianni. I've recently sworn off all manner of vice. Except drink of course."
"And that leads to all the rest!"
The inside of the manor was a stark contrast to the sturdy, functional facade. The floor was an intricate, marble mosaic, the walls lined with paintings of every size, whose only similarity was their obvious quality. Along the walls were also a series of statues, and small intricately carved tables of the finest wood, topped by smaller statues, vases, and other valuable relics. Bounty from a trading empire that dealt in goods from the four winds. There were no visible doorways off the main hall (though Yllek knew there were a few hidden ones), and it was some seventy feet from the main entrance top the first intersection, a "T". From this point, thick oaken doors began dot the walls, along with the obligatory statements of wealth. After a seemingly endless series of corners, Gianni opened one of a pair of huge, beautifully wrought and inlaid bronze doors and led Yllek out into the massive central courtyard.
The courtyard itself was a maze of paths through gardens, flower beds and shrubbery that had been laid out and tended with expert care and loving attention. There were two main features that captured the eye immediately upon entering the courtyard. The first was the tower itself. Made of the same solid, imposing granite that faced the outside walls of the manor, it was perfectly round and some sixty feet wide at the base, standing easily a hundred and fifty tall. A single, arched and walled walkway led to it from the third floor of each of the four surrounding walls.
The second, and no less impressive feature that caught the eye, was a well though plainly dressed man, broad across the shoulders and obviously tall despite being seated. He was attending to some paperwork and a well laid out breakfast at a plain pine table surrounded by four matching chairs, his being the only one being occupied. The man never looked up from his table as the two approached through the gardens.
"What is it, Gianni?" the old man asked as he flipped a page and bit down on a forkful of shaved ham.
Yllek didn't give Gianni a chance to reply. "We were wondering if you had any unattached daughters left?"
Papa Domi choked on his ham and quickly traded his fork for a napkin to cover his mouth. After he'd finished coughing he dropped his napkin to return Yllek's not quite innocent grin. "None, thank the gods, with the likes of you roaming about." His grin turned a little sly, "At least, none that I know of. I'd heard you were dead." With a short wave of his hand he offered the two men seats.
"I've heard that same rumour myself, from time to time," Yllek replied, taking the seat opposite the old man. Gianni took the seat to the old man's right. Yllek examined and took the scent of the carafe of wine on the table in front of him. "A little sweet, perhaps, but it'll do if we could only round up something to drink it from." Yllek reached into his cloak and withdrew two etched silver wine goblets. "Just the thing!" He set the two goblets on the table, filled them and handed one to Gianni, who turned red and began to splutter upon closer examination of the vessel. Domi simply burst out in laughter.
"Anything else of mine under that cloak of yours?"
"Nothing that you'll miss, I assure you," Yllek replied with a slight bow of his head.
"You could just ask, you know."
"'Tis often better to ask forgiveness, than permission,' dear Sir. I find that, in the long run, there's much less haggling involved."
"I'd be worried about the effects on my health," Domi smiled.
"And precisely when did you start asking anyone for permission?" Yllek retorted.
Domi started to turn a little red, and this time, it was Gianni who laughed. "Him? He hasn't asked for permission since he took over the match stick racket when he was five."
Yllek gave Domi a gentle 'tsk' "Always were the ambitious one in the family, eh Domi?"
"And you broke out of your crib and seduced your nanny."
"She was a sweet, innocent young country girl, as I remember," Yllek took on a wistful look.
"Which brings us to why you're here, no doubt. Do you remember this one's name, at least?"
Yllek almost choked on his wine. "What makes you think it's a woman? It could just as easily have been creditors, you know."
"You're dressed well, Yllek, but not THAT well. You're always dressed fit for royalty when you've been 'borrowing' money. Besides, only a woman could cause enough fear to drive you back to this town. And by the way, are you mad? They still have your likeness at all the gates you know."
"Really? I'm flattered. To be remembered after all these years."
"It took six months to repair the harbour alone, not to mention the fire damage to the rest of the city."
"Nothing was ever proven," Yllek defended himself.
"No one else was smuggling cheap Dubani fireworks at the time. But you're right, there wasn't much left in the way of evidence. Just how many ships did you have in the harbour any way?"
"Only the one. I suspect the real damage came from the warehouse though. The damn stuff wasn't selling as fast as I'd hoped, and I'd acquired some serious inventory."
"I thought it must have been something like that. There was just far too much damage for one ship. In any case, you're avoiding the real issue. What's her name, Yllek?"
Yllek crossed his arms, and someone who didn't know him would have sworn his face took on a bit of a pout. "I wouldn't want to sully her honour," Yllek tried to take on a noble air, but it was hard with Gianni rolling on the ground laughing beside him. Domi's expression was saying he wasn't buying it either. "It's a private matter," Yllek continued to protest, now beginning to check over his shoulders for possible escape routes. Domi covered his mouth with his right hand to suppress a burst of laughter. Yllek was beginning to wonder why it was that so many people derived so much pleasure from watching him squirm.