About two weeks after they had left Middanhal, the three travellers returned. Egil’s status as apprentice to the King’s Quill got them through the gate without paying toll, and they proceeded along the Arnsweg. Middanhal was little changed from when they left. Around them, citizens hurried about on errands. Guards patrolled the streets, craftsmen worked in their workshops, and children played, laughing and shouting. The market at the Temple square was busy as ever, and the three companions walked along the edge to avoid entanglements.
At last, the Citadel loomed ahead, much like Wyrmpeak had done for most of their journey. The fortress seemed as impregnable as the mountain had done; its walls and towers were manned by a full garrison, and the banners of Adalrik and the Order flew in the wind. The guards at the gate nodded to Jorund, exchanging coarse words; the Dwarf laughed and returned the favour.
Standing in southern courtyard, the small band looked at each other. “I suppose I am to the quartermaster,” Jorund considered. “Finally get my coin.” He smiled wryly.
“I guess the kitchen waits,” Kate remarked, a little despondent.
“I better see Master Quill.” Egil exhaled. “See you in the library tonight?” The other two nodded, and they parted.
The library was as Egil had left it. He closed a book lying open on a table, returning it to the shelves, and put his travel sack in his room.
“Egil, is that you, boy?” Quill emerged from his room into the hall, wearing ruffled and stained clothes.
“Yes, master,” Egil quickly responded, appearing as well. “Is something the matter?”
Quill licked his lips, looking around the library. “Did you fetch those feathers?”
“It is a poor library that lacks feather pens,” Quill mumbled.
“I will fetch more,” Egil promised.
“Good. Good,” the old man repeated, returning to his chamber.
Egil watched the door close. He stood pensive for a moment before entering the scriptorium. Finding quill, ink, and parchment, he sat down and set to work. The first word he wrote was the name of Earthwing.
“From what I hear, the fair at Silfrisarn was as busy as ever.” Konstans stared with an indeterminate expression at Edwin.
“I trust your lordship would know best,” the alderman mumbled in reply, avoiding the nobleman’s gaze.
Konstans let his fingers drum on the desk between them. “That is all you have to say?” he asked when a few moments had passed.
“Milord, if you would ask anything of me, I would be more than happy to tell you. Otherwise, I would never presume to impose my opinion when unasked.” His fingers fidgeted with the golden chain hanging across his stomach.
Konstans finally broke his stare away, looking at the hourglass on his desk. “It is obvious that many defied the ban and traded at Silfrisarn. I want you to find all these traitors.”
“Milord, I can’t possibly believe any would dare –”
“Then your imagination is too limited,” Konstans interjected. “I will have my own people assist you. Arion, my brother’s chamberlain, will comb the ledgers of your guild members.”
“Milord,” Edwin protested, “a merchant’s books are sacred! I cannot command my fellow members to open their books – the very thought is unthinkable!”
“Not to me,” Konstans stated dryly. “I have already written a statement granting Arion the necessary rights. He will be at your guildhall tomorrow morning. You will assist him in every way unless you want to lose that chain.”
Edwin wetted his lips with a nervous look. “Very good, milord.”
Watching the final sands of the hourglass run through, Konstans waved his hand. “Dismissed.”
The study belonging to the lord protector was stacked with books. His desk bore the brunt, but towers had been built on either side as well, and more ledgers lay in layers atop the sole bookshelf in the room. As for the lord protector himself, he sat by the desk with open books in front of him and his infant son in his lap.
“You see, my son, these are all the expected expenses for each caravan going to Alcázar,” Valerian explained. The small child in his arms reached out, trying to grab hold of the book. “And here are the actual expenses,” he continued, pointing to another ledger. “This is just for last year, but I have gone through several.” The child responded with incoherent noises. “I have written down a few calculations… where did I put it…” He rummaged through the loose parchments with his free hand, maintaining a firm grip on his son with the other.
“Here!” Valerian pulled a sheet from underneath several others. “See? Do you see it?” The small child opened his mouth and tried to bite down, leaving drool on the parchment. “This is for reading, not eating,” Valerian chastised him, placing the sheet out of reach. “As the numbers show, someone thinks your father a fool.”
“Valerian!” exclaimed a voice, and the jarl looked up to see his wife enter the study. “Valerius needs to sleep, and he has not had milk yet!”
“Sleep and milk is all he gets,” grumbled Valerian. “I was just teaching the boy a few things.”
“You can do so when he is old enough to understand,” Alexandra chastised him, walking forward with her arms stretched out.
“Fine. I will bring him to his nursemaid,” Valerian declared, standing up, holding one arm around the boy’s stomach like carrying a barrel.
“Honestly, Valerian, mind his head!”
Valerian patted what little hair the boy had. “He will be fine. The men of Vale have sturdy heads.”
“Stubborn, more like it,” his wife retorted, once more reaching out her hands to take the child.
“I said I would bring him,” Valerian brushed her off, walking past her.
“Valerian!” She turned on her heel to stalk after him. “Watch his head!”
Arndis sat in her atrium, reading missives when her handmaiden informed her of a visitor. “Send him in.”
The alderman of the guilds appeared with an awkward smile. “Lady Arndis.” He inclined his head.
“Thank you, Jenny,” Arndis said pointedly, and the handmaiden disappeared.
Edwin’s smile turned sly, and he untied the coin purse at his belt. “Your share, milady,” he informed her, placing the bag in her hand. “Feel free to count.”
“I am sure that is not necessary.”
“As a merchant, I must protest, but as a simple man, I appreciate your courtesy.”
Arndis gave Edwin a smile to mirror his own. “Given we have further business together, if you were planning to cheat me, I imagine you would wait until the most opportune moment.”
The alderman laughed. “Of all my partners in business, you are my favourite, Lady Arndis.” She accepted the compliment with a nod. “You will be pleased to hear the tin sold at the price we expected. There was some competition for the copper, but my reeve was able to buy the bulk of it.”
“How long until we can sell it?”
“It will be weeks before it reaches Heohlond. Rest assured, once that is done, I shall return with another bag.” He gestured towards the coin purse.
“I shall look forward to your next visit, in that case. I did not expect you would make this visit in person, truth be told.”
“As said, my favourite liaison,” Edwin smiled. “Not to mention, I had matters requiring my presence in the Citadel anyway, and I thought I might as well remove the need for a messenger to make this particular delivery. The fewer hands involved, the better.”
“Quite right. That reminds me, I hear a rumour that the dragonlord is making enquiries into the guild of merchants.”
The alderman sent her an inquisitive glance. “I wonder who might have shared that rumour with her ladyship.”
“Wonder all you want, master alderman, it will not cost you anything.”
He gave a grin that quickly disappeared. “It is true. Lord Konstans is releasing his hounds upon us.”
“Anything to be concerned about?”
“As you are not a member of the guild, milady, I cannot possibly see why you would have to be worried. As for me…” He stood a little taller. “I have survived three dragonlords – four, if you count Sir Roderic and his few months of office. I am not concerned.”
“Very well. Thank you for your visit, master alderman.”
He made a slight bow. “Until next time, Lady Arndis.”
Once Edwin was gone, Arndis collected the coin purse and entered her chamber. She poured the coins onto her desk, stacking them until she had a count. Satisfied, she unlocked her strongbox and poured the coins inside.
“Arndis?” came Eleanor’s voice.
Locking the small chest, Arndis returned to the atrium. “Yes?”
“Did I see the alderman leave our rooms?”
“Yes. A courtesy visit, since I have dealings with the fellows of his guild.”
“How nice. I know little of him, but it is pleasant to see good manners in someone commonborn.”
Arndis smiled sardonically. “Indeed. Are you going to the gardens?”
“I am. Just a little stroll before the meal.” Eleanor corrected her veil.
“Let me accompany you,” Arndis suggested, picking out a hat and a pair of gloves.
“Really? I thought you had business to attend to.”
“It can wait a while. I feel in a good mood.” With a more genuine smile, Arndis took her friend by the arm, and they left together.
Even at a late hour, Konstans could be found in the study of the dragonlord. Any servants had retired for the night and all supplicants sent away; he was alone in the wing, reading and scribbling documents. His solitude was interrupted as the door opened. The frown on his face suggested his anger at being disturbed until he saw it was his wife, carrying a plate of food and a large goblet.
“Mathilde, there was no need,” he claimed, as she found a place on his desk for the plate and cup.
“You look haggard,” she said flatly. “You cannot rule the realm if you are dead. Now eat.”
He grumbled but did as told, taking a heavy sip from the goblet. “Strong.”
“You can use it. Eat something as well.”
He broke off a piece of the meat pie and put it in his mouth. He chewed it quickly. “I am hungry,” he admitted.
“Of course you are. Since you insist on making a habit of these late nights, I will be making a habit of this as well,” Mathilde declared.
Konstans brought the goblet to his lips once more, emptying it. “I suppose there is no harm in that. Unlike these letters,” he growled.
His wife stood up and fetched a pitcher of wine from a small table, filling his cup. “Ill news?”
“My envoy to Cairn Donn has not had success with Brión. The old rascal may coat his words with honey and crust, but his intentions are easy to read,” Konstans uttered with a touch of contempt. “He intends to sit this war out.”
“Strange. Your offer was generous, especially to a ragged king and his band of savage mountain men. Do you think Isarn got to him?”
“It is possible,” Konstans granted. “He would never join them in the field – with Theodstan in our hands, he would be isolated from his allies. But perhaps Isenhart simply offered him payment in exchange for remaining neutral. That would suit the old greybeard well, getting paid for doing nothing.”
“Not to mention the history between Athelstan and the king.”
Konstans frowned for a moment. “The highlander war. I forgot.”
“What of Vidrevi? If the foresters could be dragged into this, that would leave Isarn vulnerable. Folkmar’s soldiers could plunder western Isarn with impunity,” Mathilde suggested.
Konstans picked up a letter from his table, waving it about. “My spy at the Silfrisarn fair has sent word regarding that. Numerous foresters have been seen, dressed for war. Either they are mercenaries in Isenhart’s employ, or –”
“Folkmar sees this as his chance to weaken Adalrik,” Mathilde concluded. “That repulsive little moss-licker.”
“I had hoped to send a company of mercenaries through Vidrevi and achieve exactly what you suggested,” Konstans explained, “but as it stands, I doubt Folkmar will grant them leave to march through his lands.”
“You need to turn Theodstan from passive to active ally,” Mathilde considered. “He may not be a match for Isarn in the field, but he can still have his soldiers raid Isarn’s allies in the north.”
“Our treaty with him states he is not obliged to provide levies,” Konstans argued.
“You must pressure him. Whether with rod or honeycomb, get him to commit.”
“I will consider it,” Konstans assented. “Gods, this war will drain the life from all of us.”
“At least matters at home stand better,” his wife considered, “with Konstantine’s betrothal to the Hardling girl secured. Soon, the blood of the dragonborn will work in our favour.”
“Regarding one of them,” Konstans muttered. He searched through his missives once more until he found his quarry. “Adalbrand, that perennial thorn in our side, has vanished from the eyes of my spies.”
“How is that possible? How is he even still alive? I thought he went to the Reach.”
“He did, and he came back alive. That is the last I know. His men returned to the Order camp, but he did not.”
Mathilde scratched her cheek with her finely shaped nails. “Do you think he has gone into hiding? If so, he must be making nefarious plans.”
“No doubt.” Konstans emptied his goblet again.
“Thankfully, he is a pure novice compared to us.” Mathilde gave a satisfied smile. “Let us to bed, husband. The realm with all its worries will still be standing tomorrow.” She stood up, extending a hand towards him. Placid, he accepted and followed her to bed.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.