Ardan was due at the Imperial Court in his capacity as Regent Protector. I had a little under an hour to kill before we took a carriage ride into Loningel. While I waited, I decided to light a candle in the Shrine of the Holy Mother.
In terms of tradition and beliefs, the Church of the Eternal Son is a rough parallel to Catholicism. There's a redeemer figure, born of the union between a god and a mortal woman. That woman, the Holy Mother, is revered in the same way St. Mary is on Earth. She's not a goddess, exactly. But the people pray to her for healing, guidance, and intervention just the same. She has churches, cathedrals, and hospitals all over the Empire dedicated in her name.
The Citadel was one of those places, a combination of convent and mountain fortress, nestled at the top of a narrow pass. It was also the resting place of one of the faith's most important relics: the Veil of the Mother. That veil was the sole reason the Knights Protector existed. Sure, they took oaths of loyalty to the church, the Emperor, and the Eternal Son. They had a handful of ceremonial and administrative duties. But when push came to shove, their mission—and that of the Regent Protector—was to safeguard that relic.
To the death, if necessary.
Once I was done paying my respects, I met Ardan in the Citadel's courtyard. Apparently, his vows of poverty were personal rather than professional in nature. The official carriage of the Regent Protector was decked out in fine silk, dyed the same sky-blue color the nuns wore. The dash and sideboards were hand-carved mahogany with sterling silver inlays. The four-horse pulling team was made up of some of the most magnificent animals I'd ever seen.
Our escort wasn't much worse off.
A troop of sixteen mounted Knights rode with us, eight in the front and eight in the back. Their horses were of the same stock as the pulling team. They wore armor, surcoats, and arms that looked like they cost as much as the GDP of a small nation.
Serving the Holy Mother clearly had its perks.
Conversation on the way down the mountain was short. Mostly because both of us were still hung over. Every bump on the trail caused my stomach to lurch, and I fought to keep the contents of my stomach down. Friend to the Regent Protector or no, I did not want to be the guy that stained all this fine silk.
We were almost to the city when I saw the Emperor's Own on the field. I leaned as far out of the carriage as I could to get a better look. Hangover be damned.
The Emperor's Own were an army of clay golems, each intricately detailed and given unique features by master artisans. They were sort of like China's famous Terra Cotta Warriors, except they were animated by sorcery. There were supposed to be over a thousand of them, but I'd never seen more than two at one time. Even those weren't doing much but standing guard at the Emperor's palace. They might have been statues for all the difference it made.
What I was looking at now were over two hundred of them, performing drills and maneuvers in a tall grass field. A clutch of human officers sat observing from a nearby pavilion, their magical armor giving off a soft, witch-fire glow in the shade.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Ardan asked.
They moved like a finely oiled machine, with instant and unthinking obedience to orders. Hell, they didn't even have to wait for orders. Their commander—one of those men in the magic armor—only needed to think of a formation. The golems would fall in automatically, moving with an eerie silence that seemed impossible for their sheer mass.
I'd seen professional armies in the field. I'd been on the bleeding edge of more than one. Believe me when I say the Emperor's Own made even the most disciplined troops look like rank amateurs.
Even so, there was something odd about the maneuvers on display. Not just the inhuman precision of them, but the entire order of battle. Between my hangover, the cart's jostling, and the morning sun stabbing my eyes, I couldn't quite pinpoint it.
I had more pressing concerns, so I decided to file it away for later.
Ardan let me off after we passed the Great Arch of the city's main gate, just beyond the Dragon's Bridge.
I thanked him for my ride, took my bag back from one of the Knight escorts, and went on my way. I ducked into a public privy for some privacy, got my daggers out of the bag, and hid them in my tunic.
I also did a quick check of my other valuables. Aside from clothes and weapons, I'd brought along some gold and silver trinkets. They were bulkier than regular money, but US dollars didn't buy many favors in a place like this. Even gold coins minted in the wrong kingdom could raise a few eyebrows. Monarchs fell like leaves in the multiverse. You didn't want to be the guy caught with the wrong guy's face on your money.
Fact was, artisan goods made of precious metal were as close to a universal currency as you could get. Portable. Untraceable. And most people were happy to take them off your hands.
For a markup, of course.
I wandered my way into the merchant's district, and found a street meat vendor that sold hot coffee. I ordered a cup, along with the greasiest cut of meat he had, plus a flat bread. In exchange, I gave him a dull garnet ring made of tarnished silver. Beat up as it was, the ring was worth more than three times the price of the meal.
That made him good and chatty.
"Are you traveling from far off?"
"You might say that. I'm looking for my friend. An outlander."
The vendor smiled. "Perhaps I have seen him. I see outlanders from all over."
I gave him the description.
"Ah! He does sound familiar, but I am old and do not remember faces as well as I used to. Maybe if you help to refresh my memory, it will become clear?"
I wasn't in the mood to pay good money for a bad tip. I also didn't want to offend him. That was a quick way to a knife in the back on this end of town. Instead, I let him keep fishing until he got the hint and left me alone.
I had one more coffee to clear my head, then I headed in the direction of the riverfront. If I wanted good information, I needed to go to Raz's place.
I took my time, doubling back and circling my trail, pretending to check the merchandise at different street vendors. I spotted the tail somewhere around Potter's Wheel, the cobblestone rotunda where the city's famous clay and earthenware artisans sold their goods.
I kept my cool, making my way from stall to stall. I found a heavy, oversized water jug. The merchant selling it was also willing to give me a stack of Imperial Coins in exchange for the half-length of gold chain I gave him. I thanked him, cradled the jug in my off hand, and casually strolled along to the north side of the Potter's Wheel.
I found a good, narrow alley just off the rotunda, ducked in, and drew one of my daggers.
The guy tailing me came around the corner with his knife already in hand. He was surprised to find me waiting, but not so surprised he didn't lunge for me. I used the oversized jug as a blunt parrying tool, knocking his thrust off course. The tip of his knife cracked the jug and sent chips flying.
While he was still overextended, I swung the jug in a forehand arc, smashing it on the side of the head. He dropped his knife and sagged against the wall. I went to follow up by ramming my dagger into his heart.
I checked my thrust when I saw he was just a kid. Maybe thirteen, fourteen years old.
The kid was familiar, though I was sure I'd never seen him before. He was the spitting image of the street meat merchant. Only about twenty years younger and forty pounds lighter.
I swore and kicked his knife further down the alley. "Your dad tell you to waylay me?"
The kid said nothing. He just held the side of his face. It was turning purple. I looked down at my hand. It was red and dripping. I'd cut it when the jug shattered.
I swore again. "You got a rag or something, kid?"
He didn't respond.
"Listen, kid. You just tried to kill me. You're lucky I don't gut you on principle. The least you could do is give me something to bandage..."
My voice trailed off when I realized the kid was fighting back tears. I looked at the back of his hand—really looked this time. A series of crisscrossed burn marks covered it, the newer ones overlapping the old.
I knew that pattern. I'd spent part of the morning staring at it as I ate my breakfast. I felt a cold rage boiling inside.
"Your dad. He holds your hand on his grill when you screw up?"
The kid nodded.
"He going to do it again when he finds out you didn't rob me?"
The kid spoke for the first time. His voice was high and mousy. "Yes."
"Give me your knife hand."
He handed it over with a detached resignation. The kind that only comes from a lifetime of abuse.
He was probably expecting me to cut him. What I did was slather some of the blood from my left hand onto his.
"When you go back to your dad, tell him you stuck me. Tell him I didn't have much else on me, but you got what I had." I handed him a couple of worn silver chains and a broken gold brooch out of my bag. Enough to make it believable. But not enough to break my personal bank.
The kid gave me a confused look. I also caught his eyes drifting down to my bag. He must seen have some of what else I was carrying in there.
"Don't get any ideas, kid. I catch you coming for me a second time, I won't hesitate with the dagger. Now go on. Out of my sight."
The kid scampered, disappearing into the crowd at the Potters Wheel. I waited where I was a few minutes, watching to see if any third parties had taken an interest. None had, so I took the alley out to the other side, picking up a thoroughfare that connected to the riverfront.