Cuana Chapter 8 Entry 8

9/20

As Lady Synelles’ servants were making their way throughout the house cleaning and performing repairs, a knock sounded at the door. It was another of Synelle’s servants, this one bearing a message from the Lady for us to attend her at her home. A quick word to Enaro to keep an eye on things and we were on our way – me, Dhak, and Xacksmith joining Tullweim as he followed the messenger to Lady Synelle’s home.

Even in this grimey city, the morning air was especially sweet after breathing the musty air in that long unused house we were quartered in. The squalor of this portion of Ianthe was soon left behind as our guide led us into a much nicer area of the city, a place of great mansions and exotic looking temples. Arriving at Lady Synelle’s mansion, we were greeted at the gate by a bearded, one-eyed soldier who eyed us suspiciously. Tullweim produced the note he had received from Lady Synelle, and was promptly led through the gate by the guard. I had to wait outside with the Stygian and the Hyrkanian as only the Aesir was allowed to enter, so I sat down with my back to the gate and took in the view of the area.

That a great deal of wealth was quartered in this portion of the city was apparent everywhere I looked. The homes here were quite different from the mansion that Timeon had lived in. One could make the case that there was indeed excess here, but it was different, more having to do with the size of the homes and the well-tended, expansive grounds they were built upon. There was none of the gaudiness apparent that Timeon’s place displayed, but the sense of tremendous wealth and power was everywhere. Not that it meant anything to me, because it was plain that those in this area are quite used to getting their way, employ armies of slaves to attend them, and regard any but their fellow aristocrats as vermin.

The three of us were eventually admitted to the property and led into the mansion where our new employer, Lady Synelle, awaited. Synelle told us that she wants us to find a way to get into the King’s palace and take the royal scepter, explaining that it’s the true symbol of Ophir and whoever wields it is recognized as the realm’s true ruler. According to Synelle, the noble who has the strongest claim to the throne is Valentius, but they fear a coup attempt on the part of General Iskandrian. Obtaining the scepter would help prevent any such move by Iskandrian from being successful. Since we are already in her employ, there was really no question as to whether we’d accept the mission, only how we were going to attempt such a bold move and get out alive afterward. We left our new employer to return to our headquarters and try to formulate some kind of plan to get the scepter. The nature of this mission doesn’t surprise me at all considering that the royal scepter of Ophir is also the artifact known as the staff of Avanrakash, which we have heard from several sources is the only thing that can be used to combat the evil god Al’Kiir. If someone who was interested in raising the evil god was to gain the staff, then they’d have control of the only item that could be used to foil their plans. Whoever wields the sceptre does indeed hold the fate of the kingdom in their hands.

As we were making our way back to our headquarters we heard the distant sound of trumpets sounding a mournful tone. People in the streets paused in their activity to turn and stare in the direction of the sound, most bearing a look of sadness, some a look of fearfulness. The word spread quickly through the street – King Valdric was dead and the city was going into mourning. Valdric’s body was to lie in state with the crown and sceptre. The murmur rose in the streets, and as people began hanging small clusters of what looks like a type of holly sprig with black and white berries from their doors I overheard someone in the crowd saying that rumor has it that Count Valentius has been kidnapped, that no one knows of his whereabouts. Troops began appearing on the streets declaring that General Iskandrian has seized the throne, named himself King Eupherius II, and that marshal law had been declared and a sundown curfew imposed. People began to clear the streets for fear of being arrested, our own pace quickening as we continued on to our quarters.

We were getting close to the house where our mercenaries were currently based. The mood of the city was growing grim, groups of watchmen appearing here and there, threatening those not yet in their homes with arrest. It was then that we saw something strange – a bundle of some sort, tumbling down the front of a house from the roof. Several feet above the ground it came to an abrupt halt, swinging slightly from the end of a rope. It looked like it was hanging from the house we were quartered in! I broke into a run, hearing the others pounding along the cobbles right behind me, and sure enough – we came to a halt directly outside our own front door. I had to fight back a wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm me, for this was no bundle, but a man. Oh, but the condition of the man was such as to invoke fear, revulsion, pity, or all three in the hearts of the toughest of men. The man had been skinned alive – all hair, skin, everything had been peeled away. He twitched! He was still alive! I made a grab at him to lift him from the pressure of the rope he was hanging from. Someone else helped me to lift the victim – the Aesir I believe, but such was the sight of this tortured soul that my memory fails me the detail. A hideous gasping, gurgling sound issued from him as we cut him down, held him from lying on the ground, and pounded on the door. Immediately the door swung open and we carried our gruesome burden inside, lying him on either a blanket or a cloak we had quickly spread out upon the floor. More sickening detail became apparent as he lay before us, gagging and gasping, muscles contracted in unspeakable pain under a layer of blood only barely congealed. The wretch had had his eyes gouged out, his ears had been shorn from his skull, and his tongue had been cut from his throat. There was no apparent way to identify him, and no way he could answer our queries even if he still held onto a scrap of sanity. Never have I seen suffering like this in another creature, human or beast, and a wave of pure anger washed over me such as I have never before felt. The Stygian knelt by the tortured soul’s side as the three of us – myself, Xacksmith, and Tullweim – began getting a head count of the troops and heading upstairs to gain access to the roof, hoping we might find a blood trail or some other clue that we might follow. Up to the second floor, a quick swing from the window to the roof and I was up, the others close behind. We found a spear that had been thrust into the roof above the front door, a rope tied around it from which the victim was lowered. We did find a very small blood trail, but nothing close to what we’d need to track whoever had done this. With hopes that maybe Dhak might be able to divine the culprit from the tools he used, we grabbed the spear and brought it back down with us. We of course had to climb back into the second floor window from the roof, but we managed it easily and were quickly back inside. When asked, Dhak explained that he couldn’t track an unknown person by an item he used, that he needed to know who he was looking for and could then attempt to locate him. I know nothing of sorcery, but the Stygian’s words seemed reasonable enough to me. Dhak told us that having had a few minutes to examine him, he was pretty sure of the victim’s identity. The head count of our troops came back showing that none were missing, so we knew it wasn’t one of our own. Dhak eyed each one of us, looked back down at the wretch and said ‘I believe this is – was Galbro’.

I felt a chill at the revelation that this was the fate of our former adversary. We had parted on honorable terms, but he had been left with neither money or weapons – no resources except for his own wiles, which apparently had not been enough to see him out of the city unharmed. He must have gone back to the Tovalis mansion to see what he could salvage of any wealth that might have still been stashed there, or possibly to a safe house or some other such place. Wherever it had been that he went, someone must have been waiting for him when he arrived. Someone wants that crucible pretty badly, and I have a suspicion that they still do not have it. Time will tell whether I’m correct on that score or not. We tried to get the poor wretch on the floor to confirm he was indeed Galbro by trying to get him to nod his head if it were so, but he was too overcome by his agony to respond. There was nothing else to be done, and a quick exchange of glances between my companions and I confirmed it. Tullweim drew his sword and buried it deep into Galbro’s chest, the body stiffened as the blade pierced the heart, and Galbro’s body stopped it’s twitching and lay still. As a couple of the troops moved to dispose of Galbro’s remains, we began our preparations for a trip to the palace to see if we could find the sceptre of Ophir.

We decided that the best way to attempt travel in the city was to go by stealth over the rooftops. Night had fallen, and the darkness would help mask our passage. Tullweim resigned himself to removing his armor, since he usually wears so much of it that the only way he could make more noise by simply walking would be to drag a string of sleigh bells along behind him. At his suggestion we rubbed dust from the coal bin over our exposed skin to better blend into the shadows, then we went upstairs, out the second floor window, and onto the roof. Stooped over to provide less profile to any possible observers, we travelled quietly and at a moderate pace toward the palace.

We continued on in this fashion for some time. Whenever we came to the end of a city block we would check to be sure there were no guards about, then I would climb down to the street and quietly move across to the next block, scale the building and lower a rope for the others to climb. Once we were all atop the building I’d retreive my rope and we’d continue on as before. At one point we had to wait as a group of city watch passed below, herding a group of citizens off to what I assume would be jail. The guards’ attention was focused on bullying their captives and ignoring their pleas to be released, so after just a few moments is was safe to continue.

Eventually we came to the walls of the palace itself. I quickly descended from the third-story roof where the others waited and moved to a shadowed section of the fifty foot wall. My knotted rope coiled and slung over my shoulder, I scaled the wall quickly and silently, finding fingerholds in the crumbling mortar between the stone blocks. I was able to gain the top of the wall quickly, pulling myself up onto the wall’s crenelated walkway between two merlons. A quick look around showed a guard or two way across on the far side of the palace wall, but that was all. Looking across the gounds of the palace, I saw thousands of troops arrayed as if awaiting deployment. Crap – it would be nearly impossible to get in and out of this place with the sceptre. I uncoiled my rope and began tying it around one of the merlons so I could drop it down for the others to climb when I heard a loud voice nearby call out ‘you! on the wall…halt!’ I turned to see two guards coming toward me that I hadn’t noticed a moment before. I finished tying off the rope and let the end drop over the side I had just climbed, stood, and began to draw my sword. Once they saw that, the guards began yelling about intruders and calling for help, so I sheathed my sword and began back down the wall, this time using the rope for a quicker descent. My descent wasn’t quick enough though – after climbing down about twenty feet I felt a brief tugging on the rope, and then I was falling the last thirty feet to the ground. Thankfully a few loose rocks were hidden in the tall grass at the walls edge, or I might have fallen unimpeded to the softer ground which now surrounded me. The fall injured me, but not so badly that I couldn’t get up and scramble out of sight. I could hear calls of ‘the intruder is escaping, open the gate’, and so on, so I ran around to the far side of the building where my allies awaited, scaled the wall, and lay hidden on the rooftop.

We kept a very low profile, occasionally peering over the edge of the roof and soon learned that the palace guards seemed to believe that only one person had been trying to sneak into the palace, and that that person had managed to escape into the city. There was still too much activity to risk returning to our headquarters, even by going over the rooftops again, so we slept where we were, on the roof of the three-story building, right by the palace wall. At dawn we heard a loud commotion coming from the palace – the gates were opened and out marched thousands of troops, obviously those that I had seen before I had been discovered upon the wall. Iskandrian – or rather, King Eupherius, is up to something big – he must be trying to subjugate the nobility by moving on them at their fortifications in the countryside. Whatever he’s up to, as long as all those troops are out of the palace it’ll make trying to get into and back out of the palace slightly less impossible.

Once all the troops had marched out of the palace and were on their way out of the city, we began the trip back to our headquarters by way of the rooftops again. There were still patrols of city watch moving about, so staying up high would help us avoid any further encounters with them. The going was fairly slow, but before too long we were back on the roof of our headquarters and climbing back down into the second floor window that’s been serving as a sort of main entrace for us lately. I took a moment to remove my armor and apply some healing salve, then put my armor back on and went down stairs to join the others.

Another of Lady Synelle’s servants had been awaiting our return with a message for us. The note told us to be at the gate of Avanrakash at dusk, open it, and aid those that enter the gate and fight the guards. After the gate is successfully taken we’re to report back to her. This should be interesting – helping someone storm the gate? It would appear that the nobility isn’t sitting still while Iskandrian launches his coup as King Eupherius II, so they’re striking at Ianthe while the general-king has his forces out in the countryside. We certainly have nothing to lose by being aligned with the nobility since all of our heads will likely wind up on pikes if the general-king prevails. The messenger had been waiting quite a while for our return and was anxious to report back to Synelle, so we wasted no further time and were soon on our way, moving mainly through the network of alleyways toward the gate of Avanrakash.

We made good time considering our roundabout route and our need for caution. Many citizens were out and trying to go about their business, and were not much in the mood for the city watch’s attempts to keep them off the streets. It seemed to me that the peoples’ resentment of the watch was starting become evident, and that they were becoming less inclined to comply. All the better for us if the watch finds themselves busy dealing with the local folk. The Nordheimer and I had just rounded a turn in an alley are were almost stepping out into the street when we were challenged by a group of watchmen patrolling the area ahead. I can’t remember exactly what their spokesman said, but it was long the lines of ‘what do you on the streets in defiance of the king’s order, dog?’or some other typically idiotic question these guys like to ask. I knew from all my previous experiences with these people that nothing I could say would make them go away or prevent them from trying to take us into custody, so I thought I’d have a little fun at their expense before we had to kill them. ‘I’m looking for my duck. My friend here is helping me’. That went exactly as I had expected it would. The guard’s face went purple as he sputtered something about my insolence and ordered me to step out of the alley, so I did what any of my race would – I defied him. As far as I was aware the Stygian and the Hyrkanian hadn’t yet made their presence known, so the guards thought that the Aesir and myself were the only foes they faced. Tullweim and I stood our ground in the alley, forcing them to come at us no more than two abreast, meeting us one-on-one. The first two watchmen fell quickly, one to Tullweim’s blade and the next to mine. Seeing their comrades meet death so quickly caused two of them to flee, but the Nordheimer gave chase and sliced one wide open before he could get away. I ran out of the alley to circle around behind and arrived just in time to see Xacksmith drop one as well. Beyond him Dhak was dealing with another – I’m not certain how many watchmen were in the group when they first came upon us, but if any now lived they had managed to run to safety by now. Without any further delay we continued on to the gate of Avanrakash to carry out our orders.

When we arrived at the gate we saw two of the general-king’s men atop trying to repel are force of armed men attempting to fight their way in. Further down the wall were more soldiers who were similarly engaged in combat. A locked door blocked our path to the stairway leading to the top of the gate but the Hyrkanian had the lock open within moments, and we were soon atop the gate where the winch that raised the portcullis was located. As we engaged the soldiers, we realized that these were the same one who had accused Xacksmith of cheating at dice, and who later insulted Dhak and tried to send us off on a fruitless search for Galbro in the city sewers. As recognition of our foes dawned on us, so fear became apparent on their faces. Circumstances had changed in Ianthe – where they could attempt to bully or insult us before as officers of the city, with the civil chaos of a contested throne they knew we cared nothing for their authority. They screamed for the help of their comrades further along the wall, calling them to their dooms as well. We suffered only light wounds at worst, the most humiliating defeat of the encounter being my inability to hold the portcullis open after taking the winch from the Hyrkanian, but my hands were obviously too slick with the blood of my foes to maintain a true grip upon the handle.

The portcullis was raised and those that had been fighting came pouring in and took over the gate. They bore the same standard as those that had attacked Timeon’s caravan, weeks ago when we were returning from the gold mines – these were Valentius’ men! Well, we’re allies now, so we left them in charge and returned to Lady Synelle’s house to report our success and receive our next assignment.

A force of armed guards were stationed on Lady Synelle’s front lawn when we arrived at her estate – armed guards who were just as disrespectful as the city watch. With them was a snooty, swaggering noble who we had seen when first we came to Lady Synelle’s home. Obviously clinging to her skirts in order to snatch up any crumbs of affection she might drop his way, this fool – named Taramenon – was like Lady Synelle’s toy terrier: barking and growling at any who came near while licking her fingers and hoping to have a chance to stuff his snout between her thighs. He greeted us with the requisite disdain for one of his exalted station, but suffered us entry after having his fun at our expense. A look passed between him and Tullweim as we entered, one that carried more enmity than the normal dislike between free men and papmered aristocracy, and suggesting that they had had words prior to now. Whatever our next assignment turns out to be, it would be interesting if this porcelain dandy was forced to accompany us.

Lady Synelle greeted us as we entered her mansion, her demeanor all business. She was pleased at the news of our success at the gate of Avanrakash, and informed us that she now held all three gates into the city. According to her the general-king was in the countryside battling Count Clavanedes, who is leading the forces of the nobility. She told us to retrieve the sceptre of Ophir, gather the Crimson Wolves and take twenty five of her own men, and ride out to the aid of Clavanedes bearing the sceptre of Ophir, the symbol of Ophirean authority even greater than the crown itself. The sceptre would serve as a symbol to rally all Ophireans against the coup launched by the general-king. Now we begin our preparations for returning to the royal palace and trying to snatch the sceptre from under the noses of the soldiery still stationed within the palace walls.

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