Excerpt: Swords, Sorcery, and Sundry

The city of Abelia is dark and quiet. Ostensibly it is a bustling port during the day, but it betrays no hint of that now. By night, most merchants have closed up shop and gone home to their families, and anyone out and about is likely to be enjoying a drink by the fire in a tavern rather than roaming the streets.

Sylvain Zhamell’s first impression of Abelia concerns the manners of its City Watchmen: rude.

“State your business,” one demands, scratching a stubbly cheek.

“And be quick about it,” the other adds. “We don’t have all night.” That one, Sylvain decides, is a new recruit attempting to impress his superiors.

Well. “I’m just a traveler,” Sylvain explains in a smooth voice. “Eager to behold what our world has to offer in the way of big cities. I’ve just come from Kohleria, you see. After several days of watching farmers cultivate crops and raise chickens, I’m ready to witness the other extreme. But more importantly,” he asks, bringing thumb and index finger to his chin in a gesture of contemplation, “Abelia must receive hundreds, if not thousands of visitors a day. Do you always question every single one of them about their intentions?”

“You’re pretty nosy,” the guard on the right says. “Something you’re hiding?”

“Abelia prides itself on the safety of its citizens,” the watchman on the left says. “We want our people to be able to walk the streets without fear, and so Watch regulations state that we question the intent-of-visit of every traveler who passes through our gates.” He gives an exaggerated sniff, wrinkling his nose, and looks down on Sylvain. “Kohleria, you say? Don’t look like a farmer to me.”

“Ah, but I’m not,” Sylvain says. “I was merely visiting Kohleria. I’m actually from Muscari Aucheri.”

“Aucheri—? Oh,” the stubbly watchman says, and then he takes a step back and gives Sylvain a more thorough appraisal. He takes in the thin silver circlet worn over chin-length, sandy hair. Sylvain’s robes are travel worn, but recognizable enough: cream slashed through with folds of crimson, with elaborate silver brocade crawling up the sleeves. “Oh,” he says again.

“Sorcerer?” the junior watchman breathes.

“Wizard,” Sylvain corrects while making a face. He hates the other term. “My good gentlemen, if you see that I pose no threat to your beautiful city, I would very much appreciate being given leave to enter. It is late, I am weary, and I would like to find an inn that is to my liking so that I may further enjoy the sights of Abelia on the morrow.”

The junior watchman is still too stunned to speak, but the watchman with the stubble manages to save face and wave Sylvain along. “Of course, my lord, of course. Please enjoy your stay in Abelia.”

“I expect to,” Sylvain replies pleasantly, and gives the junior officer in particular a smile before walking through the city gates.

*~*~*

Sylvain has never been to Abelia, the large and populous capital of the Firmiana Duchy. However, news from the city spreads far and wide. Sylvain knows for a fact that the Watch isn’t doing as good a job keeping footpads and other ruffians out of their fair city as they seem to think they are. He walks past no less than ten citizens bemoaning the loss of various material possessions, and overhears a shopkeep’s exchange with a customer concerning the rape and murder of a young man they both knew.

People can be so cruel, Sylvain thinks to himself. But then, he knows this—perhaps all too well.

He pauses for a moment and adjusts the pack slung over his shoulder. This elicits one or two remarks from the traffic he’s diverted as people move around him—and one or two hushed whispers when someone else recognizes what his garb symbolizes. Though no longer a member of the Academy, Sylvain can’t deny that he’s wearing their certification to avoid trouble on the road. Few bandits, no matter how desperate, will choose to toy with Muscari Aucheri’s claim to fame.

Besides, it’s not like I’m not qualified to wear the white robes. He just … probably wouldn’t do so in the face of another Aucherian.

Sylvain reads the signs of the street he is on, and settles for The Beckoning Siren inn. It looks hospitable, but cheap—and wizard or no, Sylvain does not have access to the Academy’s funds any longer.

The door creaks when he opens it, but the sound is swallowed by the jaunty strings of a lute. He lets the thick wooden barrier close behind him while he tucks a lock of stray hair behind his ear. The common room is much like every other common room he’s ever been in. It’s crowded, loud, and a couple of minstrels entertain travelers of all kinds. The furniture is simple wood, with modest tapestries adorning the walls and plain brown draperies cover the windows. A few servers roam the floors to deliver ale.

Sylvain hates common rooms. Several patrons glance his way as he makes a steady path towards the counter. Most are quick to return to their drink or their companions, but some follow him across the room. Whether they actually realize what he is or whether they are simply curious, Sylvain can’t say. Either way, he wishes they wouldn’t stare; it’s rather rude.

Once he’s at the counter, he rings the bell provided and waits. He doubts the jingle will be heard over the uproar of the common room, but by whatever powers innkeepers possess, the master of The Beckoning Siren hears his call and answers, appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

Sylvain takes a moment to behold the large, pale man: a built, clean-shaven albino, with serious, no-nonsense eyes. Sylvain infers that there is little to no nonsense in this inn. “Good evening.”

“Evening to you, good sir,” the large man rumbles. “A room, I presume? Six silvers a night, eight if you want three meals.”

“Yes, thank you, that will do fine.” Sylvain digs into his coin purse and counts out eight silvers. A serving man whisks by with platters and the smell of chicken and melted butter makes Sylvain’s stomach grumble. “What’s the menu tonight, good innkeeper?”

“Barnabas,” the albino says. “If you need anything, that’s my name. As for the food, today’s soup is cream of red pepper and carrot. The honeyed chicken is divine, and we’ve got local and imported ale.”

“Perfect, thank you.” Sylvain accepts the dated paper mark, his proof of meal purchase, and then the key to his room. He debates for a few seconds, wondering if he should drop his pack off in his room before sitting down for his meal. He decides against it, because if he goes upstairs now, he is not coming back down until morning.

So Sylvain adjusts his pack again and turns around to face the mayhem of the common room. He scans the crowd for a free table, hopefully a quiet one in a corner somewhere, but has no luck. He’s just decided to give up and head upstairs to bed anyway when he notices someone waving at him amidst the sea of faces.

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