He had no real reason to notice it before, but the failed mage now held the opinion that this city was ripe for conflict. He could see the signs everywhere. The oni practically ran him out of their quarter of the city, and the cat eyes he passed on the street regarded him with a wariness he wasn’t used to seeing in every day city life. The Young humans from Alveravid walked in groups, taunted others not of their clan.
The local people of the city also seemed to regard every other group with some form of hostility. Of course, what Lawrence saw were hints, isolated incidents, and intuitions based on his own experience having only been in the city for less than a day. He could be wrong, but he was a mercenary after all. Places of conflict were his business.
He had already aided the Nakamura family who had suffered from excessive crime in Yukai City. Raiding their gild, he had seen none of the Sable Adventurers who were original inhabitants of Mikuma.
Such crime on the local populace had to be mounting toward an ever growing increase in hostility toward foreigners.
The perfect environment to make some coin.
It was a rather heartless thought, but not untrue. What would that make Lawrence? A backside blood-sucking mongrel?
The failed mage came down a thoroughfare of steps opening up to overlook the city harbor. It was packed with ships, some for fishing, others for war. There were even some junks from farther east—probably traders, with their red-ribbed sails and their odd looking hulls.
As he made his way onto the docks, he saw a food seller. He inspected the different meals, some of which he wouldn’t touch with a sword, others looked edible, and a few looked quite delicious. He pulled out a copper from the pouch Sakura had given him and bought a bowl of rāmen. He slurped up the noodles and then drank the broth. It was quite good and it gave him energy as he walked about the docks.
Lawrence had already visited three guilds in the city as he looked for work. Being very exhausted from the early fight at the Sable Adventurers guild, he couldn’t perform any of his fire magic to prove he was a mage. Not right now.
They had offered him a position as a guard for two silvers a day at the Rising Snakes, an Alveravid guild. He turned them down of course and pressed on, looking for other guilds and asking directions as he went. But he stopped asking for work soon after. For now he would simply scout the guilds out and visit later, when he was refreshed.
His thoughts went to his retainer.
Ishi, you little fool.
Having lived and worked in Omosaku for nearly ten years, Lawrence had no trouble speaking the local language of these lands in Mikuma. All these small countries and various empires spoke a common language, one where the speakers were unable to pronounce his name properly—always as, “Ro-ren-su Kazu-wikku.”
Annoying, he thought, having never really gotten used to that.
In Omosaku he had amassed a small fortune working for the ruler there, fighting his battles, mostly defensive, some offensive in the never-ending struggle of borders in these parts. But finally the Xai Qi Empire had begun to make inroads on the nation.
The failed mage should have taken his fortune and left, but the coin was very lucrative. Not that that mattered now. Not after losing everything. Now he was practically a vagrant with not but a few silvers to his name.
But he couldn’t have just left. Not with her…
Sakura had said the coin purse would furnish him an inn and a meal, but upon looking into the pouch he discovered enough silvers to last him at least two weeks. He should have never taken it. Instead of scouting for yet more guilds, since right now the only thing he could produce in the way of magic was a few sparks, he decided to find a good inn where he could eat another hot meal, bathe and sleep.
First he stopped off at a clothing shop after heading out of the harbor and back up another thoroughfare of steps. In the end, he chose a local style, a dark blue robe trimmed and sashed in black. He forewent the white, split-toe tabi and walked with his feet bare in a new pair of waraji, which were little more than thin sandals woven from rice fibers. They were good and flat and would allow him to run fast since they wrapped about his heels and ankles.
The failed mage stroked his chin, surveying the signs. Some of the inns were very clearly exclusionary to outsiders, such as the cat eye inn on the upper left, the sign reading Nightstalkers and a warning that no humans, oni, or any other race, was permitted within the walls.
Lawrence wasn’t surprised. It seemed each group had its reasons for mistrusting the others, and if a person did trust the others, they were probably looked upon with suspicion and hostility by their own. Something few would want to do.
There was an Alveravid inn. He could probably find work with their lot here in the city, but they seemed to always want people killed. The word “assassin” had originated from their linguistic dialect a thousand years prior, and a word almost universally replacing all others for that act of treachery. He decided not to go into that inn.
Instead, he went into the local inn called The Imperial Katana, passing four men smoking pipes in their kimonos. One of them, an older man with a bald head, a scar across one eyebrow and a white mustache that hung a hand span below his chin, glared at him. He gave the men an acknowledging nod as they watch him enter. The sliding door was open.
The inn was well lit with a lot of little sliding doors with washi paper inlays that served for windows in this country. The failed mage liked the architectural style in these parts, among other things.
He looked around. It was pretty quiet. Lots of old folks, some laborers drinking at the bar on the other end of the common room. There was a woman with two children at the table near the main counter.
“Hey!” a voice called. “We no want no trouble here. Keep to yourself!”
He turned, raised an eyebrow at the skinny old man. He’d have laughed, but the man had a katana tucked into his sash. An old samurai, perhaps.
It was the woman behind the desk. She was young. Very young. Maybe fifteen or sixteen. “Don’t scare the guests.”
“Look at him,” the old Samurai said, nodding at Lawrence. “I can smell trouble on him. He reeks of the root!”
Lawrence frowned. “The root?”
“Never mind,” the girl said. “Bui, off with you.”
“I’m not going to cause any trouble, old man. I just want a room and a place to wash.”
The old samurai narrowed his eyes, nodding as if to say “We’ll see,” before he stepped out, his shoulders held square. He probably shouldn’t be dismissed. The old man might be a bit long in the tooth, but he could probably still use that sword.
Lawrence went to the front desk where the young woman was. She pushed her sheaf of rice paper ledgers to the side. She was too young to own the place. Probably the daughter. So it was a nice little family run place. He didn’t mind.
“I need a room,” he said. “Do you have anything nice?”
The young woman nodded. “We have nice rooms on the top floor, sir.” She glanced at his kimono. She must have thought she was being careful, but Lawrence noticed. He wondered what she thought of him wearing local clothing.
“How much is it?
“Only ten silver reeds a night.”
Silver reeds? He looked at the coins in his pouch. On their fronts they were minted with an official-looking building. Probably the palace, and on the back, sure enough there were three reeds sticking out of a rippling pond. He searched inside the pouch. He probably had thirty or forty coins. Ha hadn’t counted properly.
This price is outrageous.
But he didn’t argue. The fact that she called them silver reeds and not Imperial Reeds said something about how this establishment felt concerning its ruler. And probably foreigners, too.
He nodded and stacked the coins in her small hand. She smiled, put the coins away in a box under the counter and then showed him up to his room. It was even more well-lit than the downstairs common room. And less smoke. The bed was a solid futon atop a short frame of cherry wood. In front of the bed was a small fireplace of stones. Too hot for a fire in the summer, but he might light it for the aesthetic value it gave.
“This is nice,” he said, looking about the room.
“Where do I go to get a bath?”
“We have a sentō in the adjoining building.”
That’s right. He had seen the smoke stack on the way in. She gave him the key and made to leave him alone, but he turned and asked a question. “I’ve just arrived, but it seems to me this city is on edge.”
She said nothing, though she did nod gravely, her facial expression impressing upon him the severity of her own thoughts on the matter.
He changed the subject when she continued staring at him. “What was that thing about ‘the root’?”
She waved it off. “It’s nothing. Some superstition about bad luck. It’s nothing.”
Lawrence nodded. She was placating him, but he could see she believed it too. He didn’t care. He was tired and he wanted to lie down for a while.
His thoughts went to the boy for a moment. Better that they parted anyway. Lawrence was no longer in the employ of Daimyō Isekio, so he didn’t need a retainer.
He thought of the lowborn soldiers and the samurai who had fought with him. Isao. Hikaru. Nishi… They were probably all dead. If not, Nishi was probably some wild rōnin by now since Isekio lost his head.
And there was Princess Miho… She was to be his wife. An advantageous pairing, and she was a sweet girl, but he had felt nothing more than that. She had probably been forced to marry some lesser Xai Qi noble.
Never mind, he thought. It’s in the past now. It’s time to begin anew.
When he fell asleep, he dreamed of raiding the Sable Adventurers again. Except this time he had been the one to go down into the basement. But it wasn’t Yoko he saved, but her sister, Sakura. The woman who had saved his life.