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Fiction, Fantasy, Serial Novel
by: J. Dennis McKay
Yllek rose to greet the dawn, for a change. By the time his morning kaffe and fruits arrived, he was already dressed and standing on the porch enjoying the crisp spring morning air. The wind was from the east, and aside from the foul smells of the port, it brought with it the salty smell of the water over which the riches of this city flowed. After five years inland, this smell, more than anything else, reminded Yllek that he had indeed come home.
Yllek returned to the interior of the room, poured himself a kaffe, and once again took the silence as an opportunity to study the painting that hung above the mantle. This was the first time he'd been up early enough to study it in the copper glow of dawn, and in this light, the painting somehow seemed less heroic, but instead much more brooding and somber. It was a stark contrast to Yllek's own mood this morning.
"It's open," Yllek answered to a knock at the door.
Ahrich, bleary eyed and rumpled in a way that suggested he'd dressed hastily, entered and gently closed the door behind him. It was obvious at once to Yllek that the younger man would be sensitive to noise for hours to come. "You sent for me sir?" Ahrich asked, wiping beads of sweat from his brow.
"Yes. I was wondering if you were in the mood for a brisk walk in the sun this fine morning?"
Ahrich winced at the booming tone of the man's voice. "Not particularly."
"Excelent!" Yllek grabbed coat, hat and sword from the foot of the bed, donning them as he headed for the inner door.
At a loss for alternatives, Ahrich fell in behind as Yllek set a fast pace through the corridors of the house. "Is this really a good idea, sir?" He asked, searching for an excuse to stay in this morning. "I doubt if the streets are safe for you to walk openly, yet."
"Probably not. But then, the streets have never been all that safe to begin with. And with your trusty sword to protect me, I have every reason to expect our safe return to enjoy lunch."
"I don't share your optimism."
"You're under the weather this morning, Ahrich. I wouldn't expect you to be optimistic."
"I'm beginning to see why you're so unpopular."
"Really? But we were getting along just famously last night."
"I was drunk. My judgment was impaired."
Yllek stopped dead and turned to face Ahrich. "Never," Yllek scolded, "let drink get the better of your judgment."
Ahrich straightened under Yllek's glare. "I was," he stammered, "was only joking."
Yllek continued to hold the other man's eyes, "Just remember the advice anyway." After another minute, he released Ahrich and continued the walk in silence. He'd sobered the young man enough to face the street.
Tovani was a city that took it's time waking every morning, and there was little movement in the streets yet. A true son of the city, Yllek himself only rose with the dawn for a good reason.
Ahrich had brightened somewhat after being told their destination, and, being more current with the lay of the land than Yllek, had led the way. Yllek had decided against riding in an effort to attract less attention. Men on horseback always drew more eyes than those on foot, and seeing as they didn't have that far to go, speed wasn't a major concern.
As they neared the Grand Boulevard, Yllek hazarded a question. "How far are we from Domi territory?"
"We haven't left it yet," Ahrich smiled with obvious pride at Yllek's surprise, then decided to explain. "It's a corridor. By trading carefully, Papa's managed to establish two different corridors to the Grand Boulevard. The other is somewhat more direct, but this one exits closer to our destination. There are still a few small gaps in both corridors, but we won't be more than a few houses away from friends until after we start down the Boulevard."
"Impressive," Yllek nodded approvingly.
"And very difficult to maintain," Ahrich added soberly. "Secrecy is the key. While most of the house guard know the routes and where all the houses are, we're under orders to use the houses only in extreme circumstances."
Yllek absorbed this and thought on it for a moment. "Domi would have used proxies to acquire most of them, wouldn't he?"
"Of course," Ahrich agreed. "It also helps to conceal our fighting strength. The houses are occupied, for the most part, by men who've never openly served for the house."
Yllek shook his head in wonder. Papa never ceased to amaze him. "Should you be telling me this?"
"Why not?" Ahrich shrugged. "It's not like I'm telling you which houses are ours, and I've been instructed to treat you as I would a trusted man of the house, within reason. Which reminds me," he continued, "I was asked to tell you that Papa has some training in mind for you this afternoon."
Again Ahrich shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Personally, I'll be glad for the chance to catch up on some rest. By the way, how is it you survived last night so well?"
It was Yllek's turn to grin. "I was watering down my drinks every chance I got."
"Bastard!" Ahrich laughed. "Gianni was right. You do cheat."
Yllek tilted his hat forward, using it's wide brim to hide his face in shadow as they turned onto the Grand Boulevard. He had little doubt that he'd be recognized by any who knew him well, but hoped that anyone with just a description or one of the poor likenesses drawn up for the City Guard would miss him. Also, it was fairly well known that Yllek seldom rose early, and it was unlikely anyone would be watching for him at this early hour.
As they approached their destination, Yllek was pleased to see that its shutters were still drawn and the sign hadn't been hung out for the day's business yet. Stepping up to the door, he stopped and listened for a moment. Hearing movement inside, he nodded in satisfaction then knocked firmly.
"We're closed! Come back in an hour," a voice, muted by the heavy door called out.
"Closed even to a weary traveller from Dubani?" Yllek called through the door.
For a moment, Yllek had only silence for an answer, then he heard the bar being removed from the door, which itself was only opened a crack. "Enter. Slowly."
Yllek gently pushed the door open, sweeping off his hat as he stepped through. At first, he was greeted by an empty room, then, barely after Ahrich had stepped through, the door swung back closed, revealing a great, bald, bear of a man who easily held a large crossbow in one hand and a four foot broadsword in the other.
Fingering his hat, Yllek smiled. "Glad to see you too, Brant."
A slow smile crept across the face of the six and a half foot monster. Setting the crossbow on the counter and sheathing his sword, he moved with surprising speed and agility to replace the bar across the door. Then he turned and swept up Yllek in a bear hug that crushed his hat and forced the wind from him.
"I doubted I'd ever see the day," he beamed, setting Yllek back down and giving Ahrich a cursory glance and a nod. "By the Gods, you're a charmed man. Do you have any idea how many people were sent to scour the countryside for you?"
Glancing at his ruined hat, Yllek coughed and nodded. "With a two thousand crown price on my head, they chased me clear across the mountain passes and into Nyobia. It was nearly a year and a half before I had a decent night's sleep. And even then, I heard my named muttered darkly as far away as Munthos."
"Munthos? By the Gods man, you have put on the miles. Is it true what they say about Munthosy women?"
Yllek held his hands cupped in front of his chest, "Every word of it. Some of them near as tall as you, and broad across the shoulders." He clapped Brant on the shoulder. "You should make the trip sometime, and find yourself a wife worthy of you."
Brant reddened slightly, but smiled all the same. "I may just make that trip, someday. Leave this cursed city behind."
"They're hearty, good people, Brant. They deserve you far more than these heartless backstabbers," Yllek swept a hand in a way that seemed to encompass the whole city. "Present company excluded," Yllek nodded to Ahrich.
"Of course," the youth smiled. "But I have yet to have years of intrigue to darken my heart."
"Well said, boy," Brant nodded approvingly. "You struck me me as a decent lad, the other day when you dropped by. Though I wouldn't have trusted you with that package, if not for Domi's letter of introduction."
"Why should you? You knew me not."
Brant turned and gave a half grin to Yllek, "You'll have to steal this one from Domi, I think."
"Already working on it, friend. Which is part of the reason that brings me here today."
"Oh?" Brant raised an eyebrow. "Well. How can I assist you in your plot?"
Yllek drew the ornate stamp Brant had sent him from a loop on his belt. "I was wondering if you'd make the lad one of these."
"Easily done. I have several blanks already made. It's just a matter of engraving the seal, if the boy can provide me with one." Brant was slightly surprised to see Ahrich draw a parchment with a rendering of his seal on it. "I'll have it ready for morning tomorow." Brant turned back to Yllek, "On the house." Brant frowned sternly when he saw Yllek motion toobject. "I've been able to charge outrageously for these, Yllek. I've only made about sixty of them, but they've made me a small fortune. It was your design that made me that money. Now, you said that was part of the reason you came by. The rest of it?"
"A bundle of spare quarrels for the weapon, say, a couple score?"
"Done. Have them in stock. What else?"
"Ahh. There's the costly piece. First, you'll have to answer me a question."
"Why ever did you return? I've heard rumors of some plot that will see you absolved, and curiosity should keep you safe for the moment. But surely no one summoned you. This smells more like a plot of opportunity."
Yllek glanced at Ahrich before deciding to proceed, "You'll have to understand, this isn't exactly the answer I gave Domi." He waited for a nod from both Ahrich and Brant before proceeding. "Well, simply put, I was tired. No matter how far afield I seemed to go, my name preceded me. Sooner or later, no matter what name I used, people sensed that I was running from something. And I was never able to completely hide the Tovani from my voice. If I stayed any place over long, someone would guess who I was. Usually, they'd try to extort money directly from me, though more than once I was set upon without warning. I came to realize that the only way of putting this behind me was to return here and face up to it."
Brant considered this for a moment before nodding gravely. "I can see how that would wear on a man. And I believe you're right in your choice. As large a price as there is, or maybe was, on your head, there would always be someone willing to risk his life to claim it. Very well then, what did you wish to know?"
"What do you know of Brecht, of House Antilly?"
"That scum? He's not to be trusted. He's far to ambitious for his own good. None of the armorers or bowyers will deal openly with him any more. He's managed to seize control of his house from Papa Antilly, who's little better than he in any case. He's amassed quite an army, probably the largest of any house in the city. He's gone so far as to recruit entire bands of Northmen. The only reason no one attacks him is he's grown so strong in arms that it would take a union of at least four of the larger Houses to get at him without risking too much of their own strength."
Yllek chewed on that for a moment. Why would Domi risk being seen to ally himself with such a man? Games within games. "One other thing, a favor I'd ask of you."
Brant smiled, "Name the favor, and I'll name the price."
Yllek couldn't help from laughing, "Anything's fair in trade, eh my friend? This should be up your alley, so to speak. Ahrich here is a good enough man, but he's only one man," Yllek turned his palms to the sky.
Brant furrowed his brow in thought. "That could be more difficult than you think. Things have been quiet for months now, but there's a feeling of the calm before the storm. All the houses have been snapping up as much of the available talent as they feel they can afford. There's little quality left in the streets at the moment. How many men do you need?"
"I need an army," Yllek confessed. "But I can probably only afford a dozen."
Brant nodded. "I'll check some sources. Much more than a dozen would probably be impossible to find anyway, without scraping up the dregs. But a dozen good men, I can probably find."
"Excelent. I knew you'd be the man to ask."
Brant smiled, "But you haven't even heard the price."
The smile faded again from Yllek's face, "Name it. I trust you to be fair."
"Well, I'll have to ask for expenses incurred. I'll need to spread some coin in the taverns," Brant paused for a moment while Yllek handed him a pair of gold crowns. "My lord! But that will buy plenty of drink. And then some. For the rest," he smiled, "you'll have to regale me with tales of those Munthosy women."
Yllek again clapped Brant on the shoulder, "You just name the time, friend, and I'll spin tales that'll set you wandering afield in lust."
"Excellent. How does this sound. Rather than having you risk your neck wandering around these streets, I'll drop by the day after tomorrow, in time for supper mind you. I'll bring that trinket for your friend here," he nodded at Ahrich, "and I should be able to give you a list of men by then."
"I'll warn the kitchens," Yllek promised. "Two days should be long enough for them to prepare a meal for your famous appetite."
"I'm sure I'll think of something as soon as I leave, but for the moment, I can think of nothing else." Yllek bobbed his head in Ahrich's direction. "And if you'll excuse my haste, I'm sure Ahrich will rest easier if we could return to the comforts of the manor before the streets fill." He touched finger to nose and gave Brandt a wink, "He's a little under the weather today, in any case, and I'm sure he'd appreciate a chance to recoup his strength."
Across the street, a pair of eyes hidden in shadow watched as two men emerged from Brant's storefront. His source had been right, and he'd arrived just in time to watch Yllek emerge. So, Yllek's return was more than just a rumor. Giuseppi knew better than to make any move now, knew better than to make any move at all without the approval of Papa Leoni. But this was important, and he knew that Papa would want confirmation of Yllek's presence in the city as soon as possible. This did not bode well for house Leoni, and Giuseppi knew it. Damn the man for returning with his head intact! He was as difficult to catch as a shadow, and had the luck of the Great Daemon himself! Giuseppi ground his teeth in frustration as he watched the two disappear around a corner. Stepping out from his shadow, he took only a moment to glance at Brant's and wonder what Yllek's business had been. Some purchase to better defend himself no doubt. Giuseppi turned on his heel and quickly began to make his way back to the manor. There would be preparations to be made, and little time to make them now.
~End Chapter 6~