A few years ago, I was suggested via a friend to and commissioned by a representative of Dreamscarred Press to do an original novel set in a brand new campaign world based around a module my friend was working on called Akashic Mysteries. I had helped my friend with a load of flavor text for the module (which I would go on to not be given any credit for, despite my friend’s insistence on my behalf) and had written three novels at the time, and so I seemed like a pretty safe choice. I would write the book, and they would either pick it up or they would sit on it and after a couple years, full rights would revert to me to use how I wanted.
I struggled with it for over a year. I didn’t fully understand the world sandbox I was playing in, and I didn’t really like the material I was putting together. I liked some of the characters, I liked some lines of dialogue and some of the settings I was creating, but for the most part it was a slog I wasn’t particularly proud of.
Eventually I put together 26,000 words of something semi-coherent, and then tapped out. I suggested that instead of a full novel, because the module was going to be released digitally, why not do three separate story sections, released intermittently at a reduced price.
I mean, that wasn’t what they asked for. They didn’t go for it, I didn’t hear anything else about it, I wasn’t given credit for the work I did on the actual module, and I’ve been sitting on this third of a fantasy story for quite some time. So now I’m going to share probably the worst work I’ve done, in four entries. Here’s the first:
Life After Death
Nobody had ever told her how brightly blood would glitter when pooled under an afternoon sun. It was a startlingly beautiful detail amidst a mile and a half of raw carnage. The clawed footsteps that trailed her wound back amongst the dead and dying. Pained moans from the latter swept past her on a slow summer breeze. She paid them no mind. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon.
Viskar held her left arm tight against her ribs. Deep gashes had been raked into her by one she had once called friend. They were serious wounds, but survivable. Likewise the nasty cut that crossed down her left brow and into her cheek. For a brief time, blood had crashed into her eye leaving her seeing nothing but red while she fought. She feared she would be blind on that side but after the battle had settled, she found the orb had managed to remain unscathed. The wound would only leave one more ragged scar. Such marks served to illustrate her capacity for survival, her fearlessness as a warrior.
Ahead, she could make out the Gold Divide. The rich orange sand of the Caravel Desert mixed with the white of the Pearl Dunes. It was where the peace contracts between the sobek tribes were to be discussed and agreed upon. Things had turned out… differently.
She saw promise in the aftermath of the convergence, however. Despite scores of crumpled torsos and despite the pain that crackled through every inch of her worn body, she envisioned a new age of solidarity. Viskar saw a future for her people and herself; she placed one clawed foot in front of the other to meet it.
Each step fueled a fire inside her that would burn away the ache and replace it with unquestionable purpose.
Wanted For Questioning
There was a sharp clanging sound as Captain Tal Korkarin slammed the criminal’s face against the door of the prison cell. Inside, a man in dark green robes with gold trim cringed. The criminal’s nose began gushing blood and the prisoner scooted to the far side of the cell to avoid it.
“Who is this?” asked a guard. He glanced up disinterestedly from a stack of papers. He held the tip of a quill against the top sheet.
“Balos Farren,” Korkarin said. “You’ll find him in the bounty sheets. He’s a ship thief from the Dromys Channel.”
“Mm. And would you like to collect the bounty for yourself or relinquish it on behalf of the Sultanate?”
“What do you think?”
“I have to ask.”
“I know you do. I’ll take it and I’ll collect it from the bounty house myself after Balos’ identity has been confirmed.” Korkarin unlocked the cell and shoved the bleeding thief inside. The man already occupying the space eyed them both curiously but said nothing.
“Guarantees proof of deliver that way,” Korkarin finished.
“Come on, Tal,” the guard said.
“You come on. If the Singer wanted more bounties turned over for the Sultanate to use, he would pay his agents more which, in turn, would leave them less likely to misplace the rewards. Believe that I’ll be keeping up on what happens with Farren here.”
The guard grumbled but kept his response low enough that it couldn’t be deciphered. Korkarin locked the cell again and dropped the keys on the guard’s desk. Balos glared balefully at his back.
“Off to the streets again, then?”
“No, sir,” Korkarin said. “Dropping that one off was my last act of the day. I’m off to enjoy what evening I have left.”
Mekan, the capital city of the Sultanate, was a thriving network of commercial interests. There was plenty of opportunity for merchants, smiths, culinary masters, craftsmen, and mercenaries of every race, provided a portion of all profits were given back to the city to use for repairs, maintenance, and expansion.
Plenty of those funds wound up not being used on any of that. Instead, it was shoved into the pockets of bureaucrats and other city officials. What little was left was spent on frivolous decorations for Mekan: golden capstones for roofs, statue commissions for long-dead heroes whose legacies had been blown wildly out of proportion, elaborate stained glass windows in tax offices and similar buildings that wanted them more than they truly needed them.
Alaric Thear, the Singer for the Sands and undeniable authority of the Sultanate, said nothing. He sat in his massive estate, taking meetings to address trivial things and seemingly ignoring any matter of circumstance that fell out of his personal interest. The ambivalence and corruption that ran through the sultani government couldn’t have been unknown to the man but he made no move to curb it or – for that matter – mention it at all.
It was enough to make Tal Korkarin almost dread strapping on his leather armor and pale gold uniform each day. The gold star pin that denoted his position as an agent of the peace was regarded with disdain by his peers and disgust from the populace. He wore it with pride anyway, but it was a battered pride with more than a few cracks.
Korkarin maneuvered through the streets at a casual pace, the long tail of his coat brushing lightly at the backs of his knees. The smell of spices and cooked meats drifted his way from grills set up on either side of the road. Peppered dune cats from the east, salted bay cattle from the north, several different aviary selections covered in a number of exotic sauces. He ignored the growls from his stomach and stepped lightly through the crowd and around shiftless carriages. A group of maadmi paused their bartering with a human merchant to give him a dirty look. He paid them no mind; there were few of the short, gray people that he trusted and they had long since passed into the next life.
A suqur florist beckoned him over with one winged arm. A small canopy over the stand had been erected early on to protect the flowers from the harshness of the sun, but it was pulled back now as the day wound down and the temperature cooled. The hawk-headed merchant waved his hand over a showcase of moon lilies and snake-petals. To the side of the counter several vases had been lined up with more varied bouquets prearranged inside.
“Look around, Master Guard. I’m sure you can find something to catch your eye. Citrus blossoms for your window sill? Night orchids for your love?”
Korkarin arched an eyebrow. The flesh at the base of the suqur’s beak stretched up in an embarrassed smile.
“No lover, then. Apologies. Perhaps some ebon roses for a table arrangement?”
“When I sit down to eat, I don’t want to feel like I’m at the funeral of the animal on my plate. I will take a half dozen moon lilies, though. Please.”
“You have an eye for beauty, my sultani friend. I will ready them immediately.”
Korkarin fished out a handful of coppers to pay for the flowers while the suqur wrapped them up. They bid each other farewell with the captain tucking the lilies loosely under one arm and the merchant resuming his calls for business.
The road Korkarin walked along eventually forked into two directions. The right led to the Soulspark District where painters and sculptors would congregate to display the wares their inner passions had wrought. Mummers would occasionally put on performances while poets sang their latest masterpieces with great flourishes. The district was likely empty at this hour, with art and artist alike packed up and headed home for the night.
He went right instead, following the curving path down to a long stretch of houses built along the Pale Dawn River. The river swept through the city under bridges and through a handful of neighborhoods. Daevic enchantments, some of the only few allowed within city limits, had been put in place a thousand years previous to keep the water clear and clean enough to drink. Even so, it was a crime to dump any sort of trash or waste into the river and the handful of unfortunate souls each year who had to have their bodies fished out were treated more with contempt than a sense of tragedy.
The houses were traditional sultani fare, with squared edges and layers. Boxy things built in white, reds, and shades of cream. Several had porches that extended out towards the Pale Dawn. The very youngest of the homes was still three hundred years old and belonged to a retired art dealer and his wife who would travel up the hill to the Soulspark District twice a week to look for new pieces to hang on their walls.
Korkarin’s house was an older one, golden yellow when he bought it but repainted powder blue since to help it stand out. It hadn’t come cheap but several areas required repairs, so he had received a deal all the same. More importantly, it was good for his mother’s aching joints to be near the water, so he had cashed in a good chunk of his savings from his years working as the law and signed the papers. The handywork around the house kept him busy in his down time and the sunrise on the water was worth every copper by itself.
Two wide brass doors opened to the interior. He walked in without knocking and saw his mother across the living room and through a pair of sliding glass doors that led out to the patio. She had her back turned to him and was working diligently at her garden. It was a long box of color, full of flowers of all shapes and sizes.
No moon lilies, though.
He tucked the present behind his back, leaned against the door frame and rapped at the glass with his free hand. Yana Korkarin turned quickly, startled. Apprehension quickly turned to something warmer once recognition set in. Her mouth twisted into a grin and she rose from the deck. She wiped her hands on her knees and took her son’s cheeks in her palms.
“Hello, honey,” she said. Her lips brushed against his forehead lightly.
“Hello, Mother. I brought you these.”
He presented her with the lilies. Yana’s eyes widened and she touched her fingers to her lips. She leaned in to smell them. Korkarin handed them to her and she took them gently.
“What are these for, Tal?”
“I thought you would like them, is all.”
“Did something happen on your shift?”
“What? No. I just thought they looked nice and you would like them.”
“Are you hurt? What happened?”
“Mother,” he said, exasperated. “I’m fine. I promise. I can get you nice things without having a brush with death, can’t I?”
“Alright,” she said haughtily. “I just worry about you, you know. I wish you would do anything else.”
“What I do paid for the house, remember? Besides, I’m not good at anything else.”
“You could learn. You’re a smart boy.”
Yana moved past him into the house to search for a vase to put the lilies in. Korkarin stayed where he was, watching the way the sun played across the surface of the river as it set. Purple streaks shimmered towards him; he smiled back.
“Someone stopped by for you earlier, Tal,” his mother called from somewhere inside. He guessed the kitchen.
“Oh? Did they say what they wanted? Did I win anything?”
“It was a summons.”
Korkarin narrowed his eyes and stepped back inside. He closed the glass doors behind him. “A summons where?”
“To the palace. You’re supposed to meet with the Singer for the Sands at dawn.”
Yana stepped into the living room. She had a green and yellow vase in her hands with the lilies positioned carefully inside. She looked around a moment before setting it atop the mantle over the fireplace.
“Did they say what the meeting was in regards to?”
“Have they ever said anything about what you get up to?” He had to concede that they did not. “That’s partly why I wish you would do something else. I don’t like all the secrets and the side-eyes.”
He sighed. “I know, Mother.”
“You’re my little boy, Tal.”
“I haven’t been a boy for a long time, Mother.”
“Don’t think I don’t know that. You’re still my boy. I just want you to be happy.”
“I’m not unhappy.”
Yana tutted. “Not unhappy isn’t happy. You need to find yourself a woman.”
“What? You’re not getting any younger. Maybe if you had a woman in your life, you would find a more fulfilling career. Something safer. Become a carpenter or something. What about Bren? She was always a sweet girl. What has she been up to?”
“Mother, Bren-” Korkarin stopped, closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. Composure regained, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ve got to be up for a meeting at dawn, remember? It wouldn’t do for me to show up asleep on my feet in front of the Singer.”
“No. I suppose it wouldn’t. Alright, go to bed, Tal. We can talk about this tomorrow.”
I hope not. “Sure thing.”
He gave her a small, one-armed hug and started for the carpeted staircase that led up to the second floor and his bedroom. He got to the landing before his mother called after him once more.
“Thank you for the lilies,” she said. “They’re lovely.”
Tal Korkarin allowed himself a smile. He nodded once and said good night.
The jail cell was dark and quiet. A single lantern hung in the far corner of the holding area, out of reach of the prisoners and illuminating the guards’ desk where the sultani officer – more portly than his race was typically known for – was sound asleep. It was chilly as the cool of the desert night settled into the stone that made up their walls, floor and beds.
Mathias Kolter settled as deep into his green and gold robes as he could. The cot he sat on was thin and too small for the rocky section that jutted from the wall. It wasn’t his first time in a cell, but it was the first time he had been arrested for getting drunk and slapping a bartender. His discretions weren’t usually so… overt. He had been blowing off steam, spending what few coins he had left after sinking the rest into yet another failed attempt to curry favor in the sultani court. It was to his dismay that he discovered the officials there were corrupt enough to rob him but not enough to look the other way while he throttled a man for watering down his ale.
All the same, petty assault wasn’t nearly as heinous as ship theft. Boats good enough to navigate the twisted channels that led out to the Three Seas were highly prized, valued in the tens of thousands of golds at least. Whoever Balos Farren was, he had guts. No brains, apparently, but guts aplenty.
He looked at the man – human, like him – sharing the cramped quarters. He lay on his side on the cot adjacent. His eyes were closed but he wasn’t sleeping. The nose he had broken on the cell bars restricted easy breathing and no doubt hurt like hell. Farren kept making snorting noises from a faced crusted with dried blood. It wasn’t a particularly good look.
“Balos,” Kolter said softly.
The man said nothing. A thick, wet rasp rolled out of his throat instead.
“Balos,” Kolter said again. “I know you’re awake. Might as well talk to me. It’ll keep me from going crazy and might even take your mind off the pain.”
The ship thief opened one and scowled. “I don’t know you.” His n’s came out as d’s. Kolter resisted the urge to snicker.
“No. You don’t. But I know you. Balos Farren, right? The infamous master boat lifter?”
“I ain’t lifted nothing. Don’t you accuse me of that. You don’t know me.”
Kolter waved the man off. “Oh, stop. Look over there. You see our guard? It would take the Reaper itself to wake him. You don’t need to hide anything from me.”
Farren sat up slowly and looked over towards the desk. The sultani seated behind it had his head leaned back against the wall. Deep, comfortable snores set his body vibrating. Shadows danced across his face as the lantern flame flickered. The ship thief turned back towards Kolter, pressed a finger gingerly against one nostril and blew hard, shooting bloody mucus across the floor. Kolter flinched and when Farren repeated the gesture with the other side, he flinched again.
Still, he saw his opening. As the sultani let out another snore, he pushed a veil out towards Farren. It wasn’t a complicated veil nor a particularly strong one. He held it back some, letting it drift towards the other prisoner, less a manipulation and more a friendly… suggestion.
“No,” Farren said. “But I can breathe a little better. What’ve you heard of me?”
“Just that if you want to get a quality craft – or the materials from one, anyway – there aren’t many in the business better than you.”
“Ain’t nobody better than me,” the other man sneered.
“Maybe not while you were out, but with you locked up I imagine somebody will be coming along with an angle for your reputation.”
Farren turned his eyes down. “Yeah, well,” he said. There was a sullen tone in his words. “They got a ways to go.”
“How’d they get you, anyway? A guy as good as you. That’s the real surprise, I think.”
“It’s that Korkarin. Man’s got a sense to him s’almost unnatural. Almost caught me twice before with his sniffin’ around. I should’ve known better, but the money’s too good in Mekan to pass up.”
“Too good to be true, more like. Who’s Korkarin?”
“Tal Korkarin. You ain’t heard of him?” Kolter gave a faint shake of the head. “He’s one of the sultani ain’t taking bribes. A lot of these other guys, you can usually work out some kind of a deal. Korkarin, he don’t budge.
You beautiful idiot. It was amazing what you could get out of someone just by using a bit of daevic persuasion and faking a little interest. Flattery worked for most. It certainly worked on the dim.
“He’s important, this guy? I can’t imagine a novice on the straight and narrow would make it very long if the rest of his people were taking a cut.”
“Yeah, he’s got rank. Captain, I think. Never mind him, though, because you’re right about me. I’ll get out of here, soon as I get a palm to grease. Won’t let them catch me again, I tell ya. This was a, whaddaya call it? A fluke. It’ll sort itself out soon enough, you’ll see. Balos Farren ain’t staying put for long.” The ship thief carefully scrunched his face up in thought. “What’d you say your name was again?”
“Me?” Kolter laughed and lay back on his cot. “I’m nobody special. Certainly not a man of note like yourself. Me? I’m just a drunk. A drunk with dreams.”
Tal Korkarin’s dreams faded once he woke but whatever they had been left him with an intense feeling of unease. He swung his legs off the side of the bed and rubbed at bleary eyes. The air of early morning filtered through his window and played coolly against his skin. Outside, the sun had not yet crested the horizon but the scarlet slivers over the hills had begun to creep ever upwards.
He dressed quietly so as not to disturb his mother across the hall. He chose muted red formal wear for the meeting and strapped his sword further back on his hip than he would during a shift. A tight strap was fixed around the guard and through a hook on the scabbard, securing the weapon inside and preventing it from being drawn. It was one of the many safety requirements necessary when addressing the mighty head of the Sultanate.
A bowl of fruits was positioned next to the front door and Korkarin grabbed an apple to munch on as he walked. The streets of Mekan were much quieter this early in the day, mostly empty except for a handful of merchants trying to get an opportunistic start on the competition. Stores were being constructed, grills and forges heated. Steam rose in ribbons; Korkarin liked the look of it amidst the gradually growing light.
As he walked, others began to filter into the causeways. Humans positioned themselves strategically, aiming to curry favor with anyone passing by that looked important. Sultani inn-workers woke to relieve their peers of their shifts. A few maadmi made their way to oversee construction repairs on capital buildings, bridges and whatever new city projects they had been approved for. There were even some guards standing around. They looked awfully bored, but Korkarin knew they would be grateful later on that they hadn’t caught a shift with any real work.
When he reached the Palace, the sentries out front waved him through. He offered to be inspected, to have his peace-knot tested, but they declined.
“Tal, the day you decide to break the rules is the day a suqur becomes Singer for the Sands.”
He had rolled his eyes at that, quietly frustrated. The lack of discipline amongst even the supposedly elite guards was frightening. He made a mental note to mention it during the meeting and continued on through the lobby to the receiving area.
A sky bridge extended out from the palace proper to the beautiful silver and golden dome where the Singer would meet his audiences. The throne room had marble flooring painted in a mosaic commemorating some of the greatest accomplishments of the sultani race and even, Korkarin suspected, a few things that other races should probably have been given the credit for. Doors near the back would lead to servants’ quarters and an expansive home for the leader of the Sultanate. The Singer for the Sands would want for nothing.
Korkarin knew all this from a past visit and he wasn’t particularly keen to be revisiting the room. It all seemed to be a bit superfluous to him. You didn’t need fancy trappings to earn respect. You needed to know your people.
The sky bridge was constructed of reinforced glass. The floor was transparent and looked down into an expansive garden full of fountains and resting stations. The walls of the bridge weren’t as thick and rose high up before slanting into a pyramidal roof. When the rays of the sun hit it, the glass gained a pink hue, like a tunnel of quartz.
Several cushioned chairs and small tables lined either side of the bridge. Korkarin took a seat near the middle and stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankles. He closed his eyes and tried to conserve energy. The occasional soft footfalls of passing attendants threatened to put him back to sleep.
His mind wandered to the meeting itself, but thinking did little to put him at ease. What could the Singer want from him? Were his colleagues complaining about his attitude again? Would he be demoted? Worse? A summons of this nature was not a common occurrence and he doubted he had done anything noteworthy recently enough to precipitate a positive meeting. He frowned.
The frown deepened when he sensed a presence standing near him. He prepared to rise for a respectful greeting, but when he opened his eyes, it wasn’t the Singer’s vizier standing before him. Instead, a familiar woman posed with her weight on the right foot and her smirk slanting upwards on the left. A thin, horizontal scar crossed her left cheek a couple inches below her eye. Her sheathes were empty, as was her quiver, but he knew her to be no less dangerous without weapons. Her dirty blonde hair was tied and tucked back behind her pointed ears; this kept it from distracting away from her deep purple eyes.
“Bren,” Korkarin said softly.
She wore a black jerkin over a dark green, long-sleeved shirt. Her breeches were black as well, though he could make out several discolored spots. He looked up at her in alarm.
“Is that blood?”
Bren sauntered over to a chair directly across from him and plopped into it. “It’s not mine and it’s not new. The stuff is just difficult to get out of clothes once it gets in and there weren’t many times on the road to give it a shot.”
“You were on a job?” he asked.
“Got back this morning. I wanted to see if you were up to grab breakfast, so I swung by your house before changing. Your mother sent me here.”
Korkarin groaned. “So you talked to my mother.”
“I did. She looks well.”
“She is well. Did she-”
“Mention us getting married?” Bren grinned. “Aye, she did. I told her I’d consider it.”
“Why do you encourage her?”
“Because it flusters you, and flustering you amuses me.” She feigned hurt. “What, you don’t think we would be good together? Tal, you wound me.”
“We’ve never been remotely more than friends. Besides, I’m-”
“Married to your job.”
Korkarin scowled. “Preoccupied most of the time.”
“Oh, come on. You know it’s more than that. You live and breathe being a peace-keeper here. You’re good at it, Tal. You always have been. Certainly better than…” She jerked a thumb towards the entry to the bridge.
“Yeah, I know. I’m going to say something.”
Bren smirked. “You see? There’s no room for a woman in your life right now. You’re too busy being amazing at something that matters and irritating the people who aren’t. That’s probably why you’re here: a promotion. Am I right? Am I close?”
“I suppose we’ll see.”
“You don’t know? You’ve got to have some kind of idea, surely.”
“I don’t,” Korkarin said, letting out a long breath. He looked towards the Singer’s throne room and saw a human woman in purple silk robes swishing her way towards them. “I think I’m about to find out, though.”
“Captain Tal Korkarin?” the vizier asked once she had reached them.
He stood up and smoothed out his clothes. “That’s me.”
“The Singer for the Sands will see you now.” She looked over at Bren. “Your companion will have to stay here, I’m afraid.”
Bren held her hands up and crossed her legs. “Fine with me. As much as I would love to know what got this guy out of bed so early, I’m not really dressed for the occasion.”
“You don’t have to wait, Bren.”
His friend grinned back at him. “I’m not going to have breakfast without you. That’s the only reason I haven’t slept yet and I’ve already waited this long.”
Korkarin twisted his mouth, then nodded. He turned back to the vizier and gestured for her to lead the way. He didn’t look back; he didn’t want to give away that his heart was pounding in his chest. Anxiety wasn’t normally in his nature but extraordinary circumstances often led to abnormal reactions. It was bad enough that the woman could probably read him anyway, daevas or not.
Two thick mahogany doors led into the throne room with a single bisected bar acting as a door handle. Inside, the marble floor was there with the mosaics still as clean as ever. The doors towards the back looked the same. Something about the room made it feel bigger than he remembered, though. He wondered if the walls had been expanded out further, wondered if that was something that was even possible. Several torches flickered in sconces set high up all around the circular room, enriched by daevas so that they shone a deep scarlet. They heated the room to an almost unbearable temperature.
In the exact center of the dome was the throne itself, positioned on a podium set five stairs above the floor. It was a lavish seat carved from blackwood and engraved with the likeness of honeyvines. Platinum inlay defined the contours of the furniture and matched the silver cushions fitted for it.
The elder sultani nestled comfortably within it, wrinkled hands clutching the ends of the armrests and looking no less spectacular. He was dressed in golden finery. A long, loose shirt covered his torso, buttoned up by rubies large enough to pay Korkarin’s wages for at least a year. His breeches were made of the same fabric and came down low enough that no skin showed above his slippers. A crown of emerald rested upon his brow, crafted to resemble the same vines in the throne. He was quite regal, though he appeared mildly bored.
Korkarin swung his sheath behind him at an angle and took to one knee. The vizier walked past him and took her place at the right side of the steps to the throne. Alaric Thear, Singer for the Sands, leader of the Sultanate and its people, extended a flat hand with the palm up.
“Rise, Tal Korkarin. We have much to discuss.”
Slowly, the captain rose. He clasped his hands behind him, at the base of his back. He lifted his chin and looked directly at the Singer.
“I am at your service, my lord.”
“Though you may not enjoy it, I hear.”
He tightened despite himself and he felt a flush creep up his neck. His words were considered carefully before he opened his mouth and even then, he had to clear his throat to speak them.
“It is an honor to serve as an agent of the peace in Mekan. If you have heard of discontent on my part, it has nothing to do with my duty or with your rule.”
“But you have concerns.”
Korkarin hesitated and then nodded. “My colleagues don’t often share the same views that I do where concerns the law. Many of them are lazy. Greedy. Apathetic. Many turn the other way if there is enough money involved or if they’re not working while a crime is being committed. The security in the palace itself is laughable and dangerously so.”
“Do you think the Singer weak?” the vizier asked. Her casual demeanor from the hallway had disappeared. Condescension was writ in her face now.
“I would ask that you not put words in my mouth,” Korkarin shot back. He bowed his head respectfully to Thear. “I’m only saying that you are poorly defended by the people you pay to do just that. I can feel the imbuement in this very room. You have an incredible mastery over daevas. Even so, a sultani in your position – esteemed as it is – should not be so haphazardly defended by his own people.”
The vizier’s eyebrows rose and she cast a sidelong glance at the Singer. Thear said nothing for several beats. Korkarin repeated his own words mentally and wondered if he had misspoken.
“I have heard, Captain Korkarin, that despite your prickly nature amongst your peers you are an excellent investigator. Your apparent lack of the flaws you accuse others of has reportedly resulted in an impressively high apprehension record. Prominent criminals. Feared underbosses. Infamous fugitives. Do you not fear repercussion? From their allies, perhaps?”
“I knew the risks when I began this career. I aimed to make the city safer for everybody. Not just myself. I am willing to sacrifice of myself for this city, but I will not sacrifice the integrity of the Sultanate.”
Thear nodded and lifted his right hand from the armrest. His index finger pressed to his chin as he thought. There was a slight uptick of his lips in what might have been a smile. Something akin to a sudden breeze brought goosebumps to Korkarin’s skin and he recognized it as inquiring daevas.
“I do not detect dishonesty in your words, Captain.”
“I find dishonesty to be borderline villainous,” Korkarin said. “Lies, however small, are seldom done with good intentions in mind and even then, it almost always ends in disaster. Mistruths are the enemy of solutions and the mother of greed and rampant ego.
Thear nodded again. This time he allowed some small expression into his features. Korkarin tried to place it but didn’t dare set his hopes so high as to assume it was admiration.
“I am…aware that the Sultanate has its problems. I believe that the complacency and lack of compatibility among the peace-keepers has allowed an increase in crime throughout Mekan. I do recognize these things, though you may not choose to believe it. I also recognize that it is more difficult to stem the whims of a criminal than by subjecting them to an overnight scolding, which seems to be a common solution.
“I admit freely to you – and you alone, this never leaves this room – that I have my own faults as well. I know the things that are said of me. Of the truths, I have a weakness for exotic wares. There are several villages outside of Mekan that cultivate or craft a great many wonderful things. Fabrics, foods, wines. I have an insatiable taste for these. My vizier would term it an addiction, which is precisely the moment I tune out her counsel. I am indeed guilty of that.
“More than satisfying my base urges, though, these villages provide many goods for the cities of the Sultanate as well. They stimulate the economy and encourage an image of cultural diversity. Their provisions benefit everything the sultani have built over thousands of years, beyond my desire to be the first to own, eat or wear them.
“I bring this up because I have received some troubling reports recently, the subject of which has caused me no small degree of irritation. However, I also see opportunity here. I see where your reputation and my desires might walk hand in hand and – if this courtship should prove fruitful – I see your future becoming more profitable. Additionally, I may see fit to put my weight behind your ideas of reform. The changes you seek may be more easily attained than either of us had individually thought possible.”
Korkarin felt his throat suddenly dry as harshly as the deserts. “If I may be so bold as to ask, my lord, could you please be more specific?”
The Singer for the Sands sat up straight in his throne. He adjusted his crown with his left hand and looked the younger sultani dead in the eye.
“I have a task for you, Captain Korkarin, and I believe it would behoove you to accept it.”
Mathias Kolter’s legs hung over the edge of the cot, making it easy for the guard to kick him awake. The man sat up slowly, struggling to come fully awake. It had taken longer than he liked to fall asleep due to the wretched noises Balos Farren croaked out all night. Kolter cast a look over at the ship thief and thought he was dead until another agonizing snore ripped out of him.
“What did I do? What do you want?” Kolter asked.
“Get up. You’re out of here.”
He looked at the guard suspiciously. “What does that mean? Where am I going?”
“I don’t much care where you go. The bartender you jerked around decided not to press charges. I figure you maybe had a point about him watering his drinks down and he doesn’t want to cause much more of a stir than has already come up. Either way, I need that bed free for a vandal we’re bringing in, so get up.”
Kolter rose reluctantly. Reluctant not because he was fond of the cramped little cell or the bloody man-shaped war horn he shared it with, but because he hadn’t even a copper to his name. He was exhausted and without any other place to sleep. The thin mattress, uncomfortable as it was, had still been the silver lining to his arrest.
“Alright, alright! Although I hope you didn’t describe that rock as a bed to the next guy.”
He shuffled out and was escorted upstairs. They passed by a booking area but as he had had no extra possessions beyond the clothes he was wearing and thus had relinquished nothing, he was taken directly to the entrance instead. He turned to the guard to bid farewell but the sultani had already turned back without a word.
Squinting in the light, he made his way down the steps of the jailhouse and into the streets. Business had already begun and his stomach growled at the decadent sights and smells that greeted him. If he wasn’t going to get any rest, he should at least get himself something to eat.
Not ten minutes later he found himself in the Listless Fisher, a favorite little tavern of his. Plenty of people passed through with loose tongues and poor gambling habits. The four corner tables always had a game going with the two nearest the bar operating high stakes.
The sultani behind the bar was cleaning a glass when Kolter walked in. As soon as he saw him, the bartender’s shoulders visibly sagged. He put the glass away and laid the cloth on the counter.
“Mathias, what are you doing here? I thought you got arrested.”
“That wasn’t even half a day ago. Word travels fast.”
“It does amongst bartenders. Don’t even think about touching me. I’ve never watered down my drinks, I never will, and you damn well know that.”
Kolter snorted and took a seat on a stool at the bar. “When have I ever been anything but cordial to you, Rolf? You’re a good guy who treats his customers right. You’ve always done right by me, to be sure. Last night was a… well, an irregularity. You know me. You know that’s out of character. I was just having an off night and I wound up in the wrong bar and I got served a bad drink. Accidents happen.”
“Accidents. Yeah. You just slipped and choked a man.”
“Aye, I did. My back is a mess of knots from the chunk of granite or whatever the hell it was I had to sleep on. I figure that balances the scoreboard.”
“What do you want, Mathias?” Rolf asked.
“First thing I need is a drink and a meal. I’m a little short, though, on account of failed ventures, but you know I’m good for it.”
“I don’t know that. My ledger shows you owing more than you’ve paid.”
“Does it take into account all the times I’ve helped you preemptively stop a mess or a murder from happening in here? Hold on. One second.” His eyes closed halfway and a tinge of green lit up beneath the lids. He said nothing for a handful of breaths and then slowly turned on the stool. He pointed at a shaggy-haired man at the card table near the door. “There. That fellow is holding something special. The guy across from him suspects it and is just waiting for the right chance to catch him in the act.”
“You know I don’t like anybody playing with daevas in here,” the bartender hissed.
“If anyone asks, say I told you I had a hunch. Besides, I’m pretty sure you don’t like anybody cheating at cards in here, either. You probably like someone getting gutted for cheating even less. Just trust me. Check it out. See if it helps keep some of the drinks and maybe some blood from spilling.”
Silence trickled between them as Rolf fought for a retort. When none came to him, he snatched up his rag and walked over to the gambler. Kolter watched as words were exchanged between them and smirked as the confrontation grew heated. He could imagine the conversation playing out: accusations of the gambler drinking too much, the gambler denying it in return. There would be no talk of the cards in the man’s sleeves; neither wanted it to escalate further than it already had lest the con be revealed and other tempers be ignited. Finally, disgusted, the patron snatched up his winnings and stormed out.
“That went well,” Kolter said when the bartender returned.
“Go to hell, Mathias. I don’t know why I even trust what you say.”
“Because you know what happens to your tavern when you don’t. Now my friend, please, a drink and a meal.”
The order was met with a scowl but delivered to the kitchen all the same. Kolter was given a stout cherry ale to wet his throat. Not long after came a freshly smoked meal of pork loins and potatoes. He would have been happy with less but he wasn’t about to argue. After every large, warm bite, he would wash it down with alcohol, letting it all settle softly and ease him into the day.
“It isn’t healthy to drink this early,” the bartender said.
“Nobody asked you. Although I do have a question.”
“And so the real purpose of this not-at-all delightful visit comes to light.”
“Don’t be crude.” Kolter took a long swig, emptying the mug. He set it aside and folded his hands on the counter. “What do you know about Tal Korkarin?”
“Korkarin.” The bartender scrunched his face up some. “The name sort of rings a bell.”
“He’s sultani. A city guard. He’s supposed to be a stand-up sort of fellow, the kind that’s a stickler for the rules but capable at his duties. He hasn’t ever come by here?”
“A guard you say? That narrows it down some. I think I have an idea of who you’re talking about, but if I’m right, the guy’s got rank. What the hell are you doing looking for him?”
Kolter laughed. “He just seems like the kind of guy I should associate myself with. The kind of guy who’s going places, if you catch my drift.”
The bartender cocked his head and fixed Kolter with a keen look. “A guy like that, he’s never going to buy whatever it is you’re trying to sell. Mathias, of all the people you have set your eyes on, this one might possibly be the most pointless venture yet.”
“Easy for you to say. You’ve got the bar. All I’ve got is my ability to read people and based on that, I think I’ve got a good chance.”
“You don’t say. Have you met the man?”
“Briefly. Sort of. I know what I’m doing.” Kolter leaned forward. “I need your help, though. So tell me everything you’ve heard about him.”
Bren Dendalion couldn’t tell for sure if Tal had grown more pale since he entered the throne room to speak with Alaric Thear, but he had certainly grown more severe. Worry lines creased his forehead and the edges of his eyes and lips. She could still see the carefree smile of their youth buried deep in his face and wished there weren’t so many layers between that and what faced her.
“Are you okay?” she asked, standing so they could talk eye to eye.
“Never better,” he said, not even trying to mask the lie.
“I take it no promotion was mentioned.”
Korkarin ran a hand tightly over his face. She could see a slight tremor there but opted to say nothing. He was not the kind to shake easily. More like than not it was the pressure of being in the same room as the most powerful person in the Sultanate.
“I’m trying to decide if a promotion was put on the table or if this is an elaborate prank by someone too rich to find something better to do.”
“That bad?” Bren asked.
“Maybe. I was given a task. One in my wheelhouse, I suppose, but it would take me outside of the city.”
“You’re worried about how your mother would react to you leaving.”
“I’m always worried about her, but only because she worries so much about me. There’s more to it, though. Going outside of the city means I’m also going outside of my jurisdiction. I’m a captain in Mekan. That doesn’t carry a lot of weight outside of the city limits.”
“Well, what’s the task?”
Korkarin shook his head. “Not here.” He flashed a quick grin. “Nothing works up an appetite more than being reminded how low you rank, and you are far past due for breakfast.”
Bren smiled and nodded. “I thought you’d never offer.”
As they crossed back over the bridge, he walked beside her instead of in front. It was an important detail to her, and not the only one. She had also found echoes of their past in his tone. After months of travel and violence and the occasional fear, it was this piece of a better age she had longed for. Her best friend had not yet been so fully lost to duty. It sparked a sense of whimsy in her that implied she wasn’t quite so lost herself.
If the eatery they decided on had a name, neither knew it. It was a quaint little place with half a dozen tables set up and a board posted outside advertising fresh food. That was it. No catchy sign hanging above the door labeling the place. No fancy dressing. It was all they needed.
They both ordered eggs and potatoes, prepared in different ways. Two glasses of milk were placed on the table to help wash everything down. The jokes came easy to them. Even to Korkarin, who had always been the more serious of the two.
“So you went out with your group,” he said once they were well into their meal. “Was it dangerous?”
“It wasn’t the whole group,” Bren replied. “There are eight of us. Half that, including me, went out for this last job. It wasn’t too bad. A month or two back we were hired to recover some stolen goods. We got everything back without any problems, so they gave us a nice offer to stay on for a bit longer, protecting their wares while they traveled around and sold them. It was easy work. We did see some action, but it was always pretty light.”
“Hence the blood on your clothes.”
Bren smirked and lifted the milk to her lips. “Hence the blood on my clothes.”
“Is Gris Palmos still a part of-”
“Yes,” she replied curtly.
“Are you two still-”
“No. He wasn’t on the trip, either.”
Korkarin apologized. “It’s been a while since we’ve really had a chance to sit and catch up. I… well.”
“You miss me,” Bren said triumphantly. “As you should.”
“I miss knowing about your life,” he corrected, though they both knew it was more than that. “You’re my oldest friend. My best friend. The years haven’t exactly been kind to our relationship.”
“You can always quit the local authority and freelance your heart out with me. It pays better and I’m fantastic company.”
“That’s debatable,” he said. They both chuckled.
They took a break in the conversation to finish their meals in silence. They smiled at each other, all the time that had passed since they last saw each other fading away as if it had been mere moments instead.
Even that feeling had to end at some point.
“Tell me about it, Tal,” Bren said. “What is this job that Alaric Thear gave to you?”
Korkarin sighed and looked around the room for a long moment before answering. When he did, he leaned in so only she could hear him. She matched the move, unconcerned with what it made them look like.
“The Singer for the Sands has tastes for exotic things. Things that aren’t necessarily sultani-made or grown.”
“That’s not exactly a secret, Tal. It’s hardly even an eccentricity. The streets of Mekan are filled with maadmi contraptions, suqur foods, baunkar armor being sold by hariq. Hell, the humans would put something together if they spent more than half a thought on it. The only difference is that your average sultani doesn’t have the disposable income Thear does to have the exotic stuff imported.”
“It’s not a secret, no,” Korkarin said. “It’s the beginning of my answer.”
“Oh,” Bren said, blushing. “Sorry. Continue.”
“Thank you. As I was saying, the Singer is a fan of his, I guess I would say adventurous, tastes and fashions. So much so that he keeps a fixed eye on them. He wears certain clothes on certain days. He eats certain meals the same way. Liver from a northern valley goat served with western sultani black beans at the beginning of the week, frost-burned artichoke with a rock hen at the end. That sort of thing.”
“He has a routine that borders on compulsive, is what you’re saying.”
“Exactly that. He is, as so many are, a creature of habit.”
Bren caught on. “Something’s disrupted his habit.”
Korkarin nodded slowly. “Indeed. Sometime last month their stockpile of… some kind of rice that he likes, it ran dry. The Singer sent a missive formally requesting to purchase more. There was no response. He thought perhaps the message got lost. Or the messenger did, as he never came back. There is a theory, also, that the messenger just left. Colleagues of his reported that he had been unhappy with his wages and his treatment by his superiors and was looking for some way to stick it to the Sultanate. As you said, the Singer’s tastes aren’t exactly a secret. The lost communication was written off as either a mistake or a snub intended to keep the rice from the man who loved it enough to buy it in bulk.”
“But you don’t believe it.”
“I don’t know what to believe. We’re still on what they had uncovered before ever even bringing me in.”
“Okay, so… then, what? The first message was either lost, tossed or ignored. Why didn’t they just send another one?”
Korkarin said nothing.
“So they did send someone else.”
“He disappeared, same as the first. Now it’s an issue. Before they can even put much thought to it, though, another stoppage crops up. This village, every season they develop a new line of garments and Thear would get first pick. Those choices stopped showing up. You would think the man has enough outfits but he noticed when he was unable to get any new ones.”
Bren was quiet as she took in the information. Whatever the reasoning for the disappearances, it most likely was the beginning of something much larger. Political discontent? Signs of an assassination attempt?
“So what does he want with you? What does he expect you to do? Shake some folks down for information?”
Korkarin shook his head. “Something a little bit more thorough. I’m to go out to the villages personally and report back what I find.”
“You and who?”
Korkarin said nothing.
Bren scoffed. “He wants you to go alone? After two disappearances and everything else that has happened so far, I find that foolish, to say the least.”
“I’m inclined to agree and I said as much. Thear’s vizier granted me the option to pick a small party of people I trust to go with me. It’s just that… well, they mentioned that I had a reputation around Mekan.”
“For being skilled?”
Korkarin rolled his eyes. “For being unlikely to be swayed from my duty.”
“I told you that you’re married to your job,” Bren laughed. “Well, still. That’s a good quality, Tal. It means that they trust you.”
“Maybe. They may trust me, but I don’t think Alaric Thear and his people necessarily like me. I voiced my concerns about the apparent apathy running through the Sultanate and especially amongst the city guards in Mekan. Tepid would be an optimistic word for the reaction I got.”
“The Sultanate prospers which means the people in charge get to stay comfortable. I can see how someone with differing ideals might ruffle their feathers.” Bren shifted in her seat. “So what do you think? Is it all a sham? Maybe an ambush?”
Korkarin shrugged. “That’s a hell of a thought, isn’t it?”
“But it’s crossed your mind.”
“I honestly don’t know. Whatever it is, whether it’s a legitimate problem or not, some element of it feels wrong. If it’s not on the level… would they let me pick my own people if they were setting me up to kill me?”
“Uh, yes. Tal, that’s exactly what they would want to do. Get rid of you and everybody that thinks like you in one fell swoop.”
To his credit, Korkarin didn’t swear. The thought seemed obvious in hindsight and it ate at him now, adding another layer to the worries that plagued him. He steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. His eyes bore holes into the table.
“Do you think my mother would be in danger, if that turns out to be the case?” he asked softly and Bren’s heart broke a little for him.
“Tal, look at me.” His eyes rose to hers. There was concern there, but no uncertainty. The man was iron inside. “Now, listen. We don’t know that you’re a target just yet. At least, not by our people. It’s just important that we consider all the possibilities. If you are, they won’t want to call attention to it. A mission is perfect for cover to get rid of you. Picking off your allies at the same time is an even better move. But murdering your family? That would be the most blatantly obvious, unnecessary action to take. If they want you dead, the mission is all they really need.”
Korkarin nodded absently. He took his hands away from his face and smiled, almost bashfully. “Or it all could be nothing.”
“Well, it’s got to be something. There are still missing people. Aren’t you supposed to be the investigator?”
“You know what I mean,” he said. “Nothing about me.”
“Right. Except that you’re the best man for the job.” Bren patted his hand. “You and those you trust. Do you have any ideas in that regard?”
“Not even the slightest. There are a few guards I’m friendly with. Some that I’m not but who are good at their jobs. But people I trust?” He shook his head. “I’ve spent a long time in this job, but I learned pretty early on that I would need to rely on myself if I wanted to stick to the law and I’ve kept my head down while I did it.”
“Surely you can think of someone you trust.”
“I don’t think so, Bren.”
Korkarin looked up, frustration on his lips. He saw the way she was looking at him. Eager. A snake coiled to attack.
“No,” he said.
“I’m not going to ask that of you.”
“You’re not asking! I’m volunteering. Anything for an old friend. Besides, who can you trust more than me?”
“My mother, probably.”
“Oh, aye? And you’re going to saddle her up, are you? Maybe give her your sword, just in case trouble pops up.”
“You’ve got an obligation already. You have your band of merry freelancers to worry about. This mission, there isn’t even any real pay that I know of. There’s no definitive objective. It could be a deathtrap for me. I don’t want you involved in this.”
The mirth left Bren’s face. “Tal, you’re my oldest and best friend. I would never let you walk into a dangerous situation without someone guaranteed to have your back. Ever. Now, the band is enjoying some downtime. We got paid fairly handsomely for the last few jobs. As far as future jobs go, well, not every job needs everyone involved. Each one of us does independent work sometimes. They won’t miss or need me and I won’t want for money. You are not going this alone, Tal. That’s not an argument that exists.”
Korkarin sighed. He took her hands in his own. “I have a love for you, Bren Dendalion. A finer friend could not be asked for.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said with a smile.
“So then there were two. A magnificent force for truth and justice.”
Bren cleared her throat and looked around. “About that. I know a fellow who would be likely to help us, that would bring that number to three. He’s one of my people and there are few I would rather have my back in a cut-them-up. I know where he should be and I’ll gladly take you there to meet him, but there’s just one thing…”
Tall trees lined the mile-long Blue Morning reflecting pool, all trunks but for the elegant green mess near the top. Mathias Kolter sat on a bench, hands clasped between his knees, staring at the still water and the tall sentinels beside it. As sultani, hariq and maadmi passed by him, he thought to himself that Mekan really was a beautiful city, diverse despite the undercurrent of racial intolerance that existed in every greeting given, every transaction made.
He didn’t care. It was a hard life to be human, but it was the only life he had ever known and he was not without his talents. As it stood, he had a belly full of warm food and drink and a lead on a future. Rolf had agreed to find more information to support what he had already given, and Kolter planned to return for that in a few hours. He could use a bath in the meantime, but he didn’t know how he would pay for it. No matter. Patience was a virtue, not cleanliness.
Getting information through others seemed to be his best bet, though he still couldn’t help but feel unproductive. He had no idea where he would even start looking. Mekan wasn’t a small place: tens of thousands lived within the city limits, many of them sultani. The fact that Tal Korkarin was a captain of the law narrowed it down some, but he couldn’t just ask around about him. That kind of inquiry tended to raise a few eyebrows, especially when coming from a human. Especially when that human had just spent a night in jail.
No, it was better to rely on the advantages that came from three decades of trying to eke out a living in the city. There was no shortage of humans stuck in the same position he was in, moving nowhere but sideways through life and occasionally finding themselves on the wrong end of the rules. They were a competitive race for sure, but if a favor granted could lead to a favor received down the line, they weren’t above helping each other out. A tip whispered here, a direction pointed there.
Korkarin’s name would spark a cautious interest even among his own, but the ne’er-do-wells he knew were more trustworthy than the pointy ears in charge and could probably even drum up more information than his reluctant bartender ally, watered drinks or not. It was a good thing to have reliable friends in Mekan, but it was even better to have reliable information.
Kolter placed his hands on his thighs and pushed himself up into a standing position. He cast one more glance at the bright and tranquil waters of the reflecting pool and then got back to work.