The Potter's Brother
Rund was little more than a garrison city on the western fringe of the Godking’s domain, controlling the surrounding lands and providing a staging point for raids into Hæthiod. This meant that a sizeable part of the population were soldiers or officials in direct service to the Godking, and its remote location had kept it untouched by the insurrection troubling his lands.
Thus upon his approach, Godfrey found a peaceful city ruled by discipline. The guards at the gate spied him from afar, standing ready once he reached their post. “Documents,” one of them ordered. Godfrey fished out parchment from an inner pocket and unfolded it. It was dirty with many creases, but the letters were readable, and the seal of the region’s sasab was visible.
“What’s your purpose?” asked the other guard while the first inspected his documents.
“I am here to visit my brother and his family,” Godfrey replied. “I have permission to travel.” He nodded towards the parchment in the soldier’s hands.
“Valash. Potter by trade.”
“Your reason for visiting?”
“Our father died some months back. I am bringing some of his ashes to my brother.” From his pouch, Godfrey withdrew a sealed jar.
“That could have been sent by courier.”
“The sasab approves of my work,” Godfrey explained. “He granted me this favour.”
“How long will you stay?”
“What’s your brother’s name?”
“What’s the name on this document?”
“What’s your brother do?”
“He’s a potter.”
The interrogation continued for a while longer. All the while, any relevant information about Godfrey’s identity, journey, and stay in Rund was noted down by a scribe. Finally, once the guards were satisfied, he was sent on his way.
Progressing down the main street, Godfrey entered a city marked by order. The houses were arrayed neatly along straight lines, built from red-brown bricks and generally standing a few stories tall. In between lay other pathways or fruit trees. A few children, too young to have been assigned a trade or profession to learn, played outside under the watchful eyes of the very old. He passed by the workshops supplying this district with goods of every kind needed by the inhabitants. Ahead of him lay the temple of the Flame for the neighbourhood; before Godfrey reached it, he made a turn into one of the alleyways.
Continuing along this path, it was apparent that Godfrey knew the city. All the buildings were built alike from the same material, placed in repeating patterns that would make any stranger lose their bearings quickly. The only measure of his progress was when he passed workshops of the same sort as he had done earlier, indicating he had reached another district.
He stopped outside a potter’s house. The workroom had one wall missing to allow heat and dust an escape, letting Godfrey peer inside with ease. “Well met, Valash.”
A man sat at the wheel, turning it with his feet while his hands deftly shaped the clay. Without interrupting his work, the potter looked up. “Javed. You’re back.”
“Keen eyes as always.”
“I take it you’ve told the guards you’re staying here.”
“Indeed.” Godfrey pulled out the jar of ash. “The remains of our father, should they ask.”
“Place it over there.” The potter gestured towards a table with his hand covered in wet clay. “How long will you be staying?”
“I will be here a week. Then I shall find other accommodations.”
Valash exhaled. “I guess that’ll be fine. But no longer. My wife has been suspicious ever since last time, since she knows I don’t actually have a brother. And who knows what the boy might overhear.”
“I’ll not raise any suspicion, I promise you.”
“Javed, it’s not like last time. I don’t know where you’ve been, but all these reports of riots, the Servants of the Flame are nervous even here in Rund. It’s not just the Anausa patrolling. Even the fravashi have been seen.” The potter shivered as he spoke of the shadow warriors.
“I will be careful,” Godfrey promised.
A young boy, aged no more than eight, entered the pottery. “Uncle!”
Godfrey turned to look at his supposed nephew. “Zayen,” he smiled, ruffling the boy’s hair.
“Papa didn’t say you were coming!”
“Papa didn’t know,” Valash muttered.
“Did you bring me something?” Zayen asked with anticipation.
“Uncle!” came the drawn-out, slightly complaining reply.
With a wink, Godfrey withdrew a small wooden carving of a horse from his pouch. “Would this do?”
“It’s beautiful!” The boy embraced Godfrey around the waist before eagerly picking up the carving.
“Zayen, go inside and wash,” his father commanded him. As the boy disappeared inside the building, Valash turned to Godfrey. “He’s a smart boy. Smart enough that when they examined him, he was chosen for education.”
“You and Myrod must be proud.”
“Smart enough to one day guess the truth like I did years ago, when you visited my father and didn’t look a day older than you do now.”
Godfrey sent him a sharp look. “Your point?” he asked in a low voice.
“Will Zayen have a choice? Or will he be caught up in your schemes like I was, simply the next in our family?”
“That is not how you said it all those years ago.” Godfrey glanced at the empty street. “You wanted to be involved in my ‘schemes’, as you call them.”
“I was young. I took that risk for myself, but now I have a son to consider.”
Godfrey was quiet for a moment. “Very well. We all have our responsibilities. When a week has passed, you’ll never see me again.”
Washing the wet clay from his hands, Valash gestured towards the inside of his home. “Very well,” he repeated. “Let us have something to eat. You must be hungry from your journey.”
Godfrey waited until darkness fell. His sword, hitherto hidden underneath his clothing, was strapped around his waist, and a dark cloak was on his back. While Valash and his family slept, Godfrey silently left the house.
The streets were empty; few had permission to be outside after nightfall. Keeping to the shadows, Godfrey moved unseen through the uniform pathways of the city. From time to time, patrols of red-robed soldiers marched past, walking through the city like spiders on a web. Whenever the faint sounds of their footsteps reached Godfrey, he would press up against the buildings and hide in the dark. Fires burned slowly by each crossroad where the streets met, but Godfrey always managed to find shadows that could embrace him until the path was clear once more.
He made sure to steer clear of the temples of the Flame that lay scattered across the city, one in each district. Whereas the ordinary buildings lay close enough to keep him concealed, the temples lay in the middle of their respective district with an open square that only contained a statue of the Godking. Even at night, a great fire burned on either side of the entrance to each of these temples, chasing the shadows away.
Godfrey continued through the symmetrical streets. When he finally paused in between two buildings, nothing obvious indicated the reason. Letting his fingers search along one of the walls in the dark, he fumbled a bit until he found a loose brick. It willingly followed his grip, proving to be only half in size. In the hollow of the wall, Godfrey reached a hand inside to pull a bag out before replacing the brick.
Continuing on his way, Godfrey wove in and out between the houses while avoiding more patrols. On occasion, the latter was accompanied by a Servant of the Flame. In those cases, the Anausa were not simply keeping watch; they were being led with a specific purpose. On one occasion, while Godfrey kept out of sight, he observed a priest in his fire-coloured robe direct the soldiers to a house; the door was promptly kicked in, and the Anausa swarmed inside while the residents cried out in terror. This did not provoke any reaction from the neighbouring buildings; the street remained dark and empty. Quietly, Godfrey stepped backwards until he could take another path leading him in a semicircle around the patrol.
He walked for nearly an hour before he stopped again, once more outside an unassuming building. The main door was unlocked, and Godfrey quickly stepped inside. It was a typical house, divided so that several families might dwell together. Moving up one floor, Godfrey knocked on one of the doors insistently while constantly looking to his left and right. “Manzik,” he spoke with a hushed voice.
At length, the door opened. “Kaveh, it’s you,” came the surprised expression. “Hurry then, inside,” the owner urged in a quiet voice, and Godfrey did not linger outside. “Showing up after curfew,” the other man complained. He was in his forties and dressed for sleep. Around the room lay writing utensils, which along with the ink stains on his fingertips revealed him to be a scribe. Considering his modest living quarters, a minor official at most. “What if my neighbours heard?”
“I would not be so clumsy,” Godfrey brushed him off.
“I have not seen you in some years. I thought the Servants got their hands on you.” He lit a small candle, providing sparse light in the room.
Godfrey smiled. “Never you worry about me.”
“I’m not, but I worry about myself. I’m guessing you’re here for the same reason as last.”
“Indeed.” Godfrey nodded. “Any information you can glean about troop movements.”
Manzik sat down in a chair, sipping from a cup of water. “Kaveh, you must understand, things are tense. The Servants are paranoid of rebels. Nobody is above suspicion, not even the shahrban, and certainly not one of his clerks.”
Godfrey sent him a piercing stare that made the scribe squirm. “You want more coin.”
“I think it’s only fair that the price reflects the danger,” he defended himself. “And I want it in advance.”
Godfrey took out the small bag he had retrieved earlier that night and poured out half of its content onto the nearby table. A dozen iron coins fell out, all of them marked with intricate patterns and the mask of the Godking. “You’ll get half now. This should do.”
The scribe squinted in the faint light, stacking the coins after size. “Fine,” he muttered. “Come back in two night’s time. I’ll have your information.”
“Excellent. I’ll be back.” With a quick movement, Godfrey reached out and extinguished the candle, disappearing out of the room before the scribe could barely react.
The night remained young when Godfrey returned to the streets, keeping out of sight as before. He moved in and out, plotting a course that avoided the spire of each district; whereas all other buildings had flat roofs, allowing for rainwater to be collected, the temples of the Flames were distinguished by their tower rising up against the horizon.
At some point, he changed strategy and moved straight towards the tallest spire. Its height made it visible from any location in Rund, regardless of distance. It lay in the very centre of the city, around which the districts were built, making it the eye of a maelstrom. Only here the monotony of buildings was broken. The major temple of the Flame dominated the area, both in size and height. It was flanked by the offices of the shahrban, ruler of the city, and the main barracks of the Anausa. In front of them all was an open square akin to the ordinary districts, containing only a great statue of the Godking carved from marble. In the moonlight, the eyes of the statue glittered green beneath the masked face.
With the utmost care, Godfrey moved along the edge of the square to reach the barracks. Finding a dark corner, he settled into the shadows and waited. At length, the doors of the barracks opened to send out a patrol. Godfrey waited as the soldiers disappeared down the street; keeping watch of the sentinels posted on the flat rooftop, he made his way along the barracks wall to reach its small gate. Retrieving a piece of chalk, he left an elaborate mark upon the red bricks of the wall by the doorframe. Anyone entering the barracks would notice it, though for those looking with idle eyes, it would seem simply like dirt.
This innocuous gesture completed, Godfrey began moving away. He was nearly at the end of the square when he froze in his tracks. His head moved slightly as if following a noise, and his eyes closed with an expression of discomfort upon his face.
The bronze gate of the temple swung open. A shape issued, clad in dark leather and steel. Although bright fires burned on either side of the entrance, the figure seemed nonetheless wrapped in shadows. His face was masked in cloth, but underneath, his eyes shone yellow. Blades of different lengths were strapped to his belt; with his hands on their hilts, he walked onto the square.
His eyes slowly moved across the open space, and beneath his mask, he could be heard taking a deep breath through his nose. Slowly walking forward without the faintest noise, he turned his gaze in Godfrey’s direction and inhaled once more. Moments passed while the shadow warrior assessed his surroundings; finally, he seemed satisfied and turned back into the temple.
From deep within the darkness with his cloak huddled around him, Godfrey emerged and hurried away.
The following morning, as Valash’s family were eating breakfast, a heavy knock was heard on their door. As soon as Valash opened the door, three of the Anausa pushed past him to enter their home.
“You’re Valash the potter?” one asked brusquely, to which he nodded. “Your wife and son?”
“Myrod and Zayen,” Valash replied. The leader looked at another guard, who gave a nod. The third, meanwhile, had gone into the pottery workshop.
“You have a visitor, correct?”
“Who is he?”
“Javed, my brother.”
“Where is he now?”
From the workshop, Godfrey walked in, yawning. “Did you start breakfast without me?”
The soldier scowled at him. “That’s him, I take it.”
“Yes, master,” Valash replied.
The red-robed warrior turned towards the table, where the boy sat, looking with wide eyes at the spears and swords in the room, while his mother stood behind him with a hand on his neck. “You, boy. You know this man?” He gestured towards Godfrey.
“Of course,” Zayen told him. “That’s my uncle.”
“What’s his purpose here?” the guard asked Valash.
“Our father died recently. Javed brought some of the ashes.”
“Where is it now?”
Valash turned to point at a shelf, containing among other things a jar of ashes. “There, master.”
The soldier gave a grunt in acknowledgement. Meanwhile, the third of their company returned from the pottery. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” he reported.
“You have permission to stay one week,” the leader of the guards told Godfrey. “Make sure to report to the shahrban’s offices if you need an extension.”
“Of course, good master,” Godfrey replied.
“We’re done here. All for the Godking,” the soldier muttered with a monotonous voice.
“All for the Godking,” Valash replied with haste while the three guards left.
As the door closed, the potter and his small family all looked at Godfrey. “Unpleasant, but quickly done with.”
“Zayen, get to the house of learning,” his mother commanded him. “Your practice begins soon.” The boy obeyed quickly, putting on a small cloak to ward against the morning cold before he disappeared. “How often can we expect this?” she asked once the boy was gone.
“I’ll be gone in a week as said,” Godfrey told her.
“From our house or from Rund?” she asked sharply.
“I’ll be gone,” Godfrey repeated, “and the records will show that Valash’s brother has left the city. You will not be disturbed further, I promise.”
Myrod sent her husband a look, and he shrugged in response. “Fine. Let me get you something to eat. I expect you’ll be running around all day.” She sent Valash another look. “Don’t you have pots to make?”
At noon, Godfrey entered a small establishment serving food and drinks. The place was nearly full, serving the midday meal for many of those working in the area. Getting ale, he managed to find a few empty seats in a corner and occupy one. Next to him, two old men were engaged in a game, some variant of chess, and Godfrey passed the time observing them play.
There was a constant flow of customers arriving and departing, and half an hour later, another man entered and approached Godfrey. He wore ordinary clothes and was unarmed as the Godking’s law decreed of any peaceful subject, but his gait and behaviour betrayed him to be anything but ordinary. He moved quietly and with grace, weaving through the packed place without touching others or attracting attention. His eyes took measure of the whole room, noting every person present. Only when he sat down opposite Godfrey did his gaze cease to wander and became fixed on the man in front of him.
They both reached out to clasp hands. “I saw your mark this morning,” Kamran said. Now that he was sitting down and dressed in his plain clothes, nothing indicated that he was one of the dreaded blackboots, the raiders and spies in service to the Godking.
“I’m glad to see you,” Godfrey replied. They both spoke quietly while leaning forward, letting the loud noise of the busy room mask their conversation. “I didn’t doubt you and the others would escape Tothmor, but it’s good to have sight of you even so. Arman and Dariush?”
“Both are safe. They are north of the great stone, serving Jenaab Arash as scouts in Lakon. I was sent here to root out any rebels.”
“Good. I was hoping at least one of you might be here.”
Kamran glanced to the side. “What is it?”
“Sooner or later, patrols will not be returning from north of Rund,” Godfrey explained quietly. “I imagine the sasab will send you and other sāyag to investigate first.”
“Delay as long as you can. Buy as much time as possible.”
Kamran nodded slightly. “As you wish.” He leaned closer. “Has it begun? Have the drylanders come?”
“In small numbers, but more will follow.”
The blackboot let out a small sigh. “At last. Soon we may be free.”
“Let that thought comfort you,” Godfrey suggested. “We still have a long road ahead.”
“I am meeting a contact tomorrow night. Let us meet the day after, if you are in the city.”
“Very well,” Kamran assented. “Here or the other place?”
“The other place. The usual arrangement concerning time and delays.”
“Until the morrow comes,” Godfrey said in farewell.
“Until the morrow comes.”
Godfrey got up and left; after waiting a short while, Kamran did the same.