Chapter 3 – The House of Abravante
The Street of Antiquities had emptied to some degree by the time Kathri returned to it, alongside Esarrio and Braethir. As the middle of the day loomed, work slowed down as people rested up. While a peculiarity of the Conclave kingdoms, it was most prominent in Ciosala. The afternoon rest, often marked by lengthy meals, entertainment and socialising had long been a part of Vigosan culture. Visitors found it a little hard to get used to at first before adapting to the more laid back attitudes of the Vigosans. Kathri had found it a useful time to establish contacts with merchants and other middle men in the game, not just in Ciosala but throughout the Conclave.
Esarrio led them for a while down the Street of Antiquities, headed towards the Old City, the heart of Ciosala, where a series of towers loomed above the tall walls that marked it apart from the rest of the city. They glinted golden-red in the bright autumn sun. From many of them were displayed dark blue banners that hung for the most part limp. The winds that regularly blew in off the sea for the time was absent, though the smell of sea and salt still suffused the air.
As they walked along the street, for a moment Kathri considered making a break for it, to dart off among the thinning crowds in an attempt to disappear among them.
Forget it, she told herself. There aren’t enough for that to work, not with Braethir here alongside me.
Resigned to her fate, she continued along behind Esarrio.
“Where are you from?” she asked of Braethir as they walked along, in an effort to fill in the silence, and to obtain information. She needed it if she was to figure her way out of her troubles and of the two, despite his looks, Braethir seemed the more open and friendly of the pair.
“The Ditch,” the rangy man replied.
“A local?” That fact surprised Kathri at first, for the man didn’t have the look of one.
“Not everything is as it seems, miss,” Braethir told her. “I was born and raised here. My parents escaped the wars in Belathir and settled here in Ciosala. You don’t look locale either, if you don’t mind me saying. According to Esarrio you weren’t born here and yet you sound as if you were born within sight of the river, odd considering earlier you sounded as if you came from out east.”
The Ciosalan accent was in some ways the one she used by default, at least outside of Ciosala. As the city was the centre of the trade in antiquities and relics, it proved useful to have people think that she was from the Ciosala. Within Ciosala itself she affected the Tsialian one for the most to do business with, in an attempt to disguise her true nature and identity. Looking back, she realised she had dropped it during the talk with Esarrio when it became obvious that no disguise would work with him and he knew exactly who she was.
Kathri changed her voice again, adapting a Miavalan accent, of a folk in the eastern most of the Conclave kingdoms, Siagosa, who were for the most considered a simple, backwater people. “One must blend in, y’know. Tis be hard with me looks, to be certain. But if you have the sound o’it, then that will do. I have a talent for accents and blending in,” she added, shifting back to the Ciosalan accent she had been using before.
Braethir responded with a wry, lopsided smile. “So I see.”
The course of the road that they followed brought them alongside the walls of the Old City, constructed of large blocks of dull grey stone. Within the stone, though, were small shards of a clear crystal that caught the sunlight and glittered, setting the walls to gleaming in the bright sun and, if the angle was right, bathing it in the hues of the rainbow.
“You said that you found Emperor Ajanathad’s tomb,” Braethir said. “Where was it?”
“In the Northern Drylands, a couple of days east of Vas Madreso, along the course of the old Bharaja River.”
Esarrio half turned even as he walked and looked back towards Kathri. “That can not be right,” he said. “That is no where near the burials of all the other Emperors of Hajana.”
“It could be why no one had found it before then,” Kathri replied.
Esarrio scowled for a moment as he turned back to look along the road he followed.
“We spent two years searching for that benighted place,” Braethir told Kathri quietly so that Esarrio could not hear, though to Kathri it seemed that Braethir seemed faintly amused. “He was convinced that he knew where it was. How did you find it?”
“A little luck,” Kathri admitted.
The road they walked along opened out onto the grand concourse at the entrance to the Old City, a relic of the time that the ancient Hajanri had ruled the region. It ran from the gateway into the Old City down to the grassy foreshore and the seawalls there, a broad expanse of grey stone pavers edged with gutters. Numerous roads led into it and out of it. Spaced along the concourse were ancient Hajanri statues, blocky figures kneeling down with their hands resting on their thighs and their heads bowed. There were no indications of whom they were represent as they were not of Hajanri Emperors and no names were inscribed upon the stone pedestals on which they sat. More recent Vigosans statues had been added to the concourse between them, of more realistic looking humans in white marble striking imperious poses, representing important members of the Mages over the centuries.
Running down the centre of the concourse were raised rectangular earth filled beds. Trees grew up from them, shading much of the concourse with their leafy boughs. There were more trees growing down on the foreshore, taller, straight limbed pines.
At the entrance to the inner city a dozen soldiers stood guard, men wearing black brigadine coats, layered leather between which small iron plates had been riveted. Six of the guards were equipped with spears and large oval shields, iron rimmed with a prominent boss. The canvas stretched out over it had been painted in dark and pale blue segments, along with the white scroll and key emblem of the Mages. The other six guards were equipped with longarm muskets. They were not much suited for use guarding the gates Kathri felt, given their inaccuracy and slow ability to be loaded. They were more for use as a status symbol, to display to all the power of the Mages, tath they had the wealth and means to equip units of musketeers and produce the firepowder needed for them to be effective.
To Kathri surprise, Esarrio lead them not towards the gate, but across the concourse and towards another street that led off it, much further south down along it, down near the foreshore. She had never been into the Old City before, and though under the circumstance that she found herself she was not in a hurry too, the stories of it had intrigued her. The halls and archives, the libraries and laboratories and the grand debate chamber of the Mages were set out in sculpted wilds, a place of running streams and ponds surrounded by groves of trees, the origins of which were back in the days of Hajanri. Built by an early Hajanri Prince of Vianosa, it had served as a seat of governance over the Vianosan cities of the south-western region of the Empire. The debate hall was perhaps the grandest building in all of the Conclave, and possibly beyond, at least since the time of the Hajanri Empire. In it the Mages came to debate and, if the rumours were true, impose their decrees upon the kingdoms of the Conclave and even decided the fates of nations. There was little doubting that the Mages did have power but Kathri felt it unlikely that they were quite as influential as that.
There were numerous people swirling around the concourse. Some entered or exited via the side streets while others made their way along it. A couple of small groups were moving along the statues inspecting them, foreigners by the looks. Two women stood outside the gateway into the Old City, among the guards, having a conversation. Tall, with long dark hair and the olive complexion of the Vigosans, they were both clad in long robes, one of a deep red with voluminous sleeves, the other a rich green, a thick bet of paler green about he waist. There were no obvious signs as to who was a Mage, yet Kathri would have picked them as being so. It was something about the way they carried themselves, the self-belief, the superiority.
From out of one of the streets to the east a body of guards marched, ones different to the guards at the gates into the Old City. Beneath long black coats Kathri caught a glimpse of mail and leather armour. Atop their heads rested round helmets with deep cheek guards and mail neck guard. Attached to them helms were face plates, made out in the form of snarling, almost inhuman, figures, completely masking their features. They carried heavy, iron shod staves, though each also had a short sword strapped to their sides beneath their cloaks.
At the centre of the body of guards strode a tall man, his exact origin hard to pick. His hair was a pale brown and his features lacked any obvious markers or colourations that would distinguish him as coming from any particular nation. There were many like him in the Conclave lands, men whose ancestry came from numerous cultures, all blended together. Even with that, there was something remarkably plain and unassuming about him, the type few would give a second look at. What wasn’t plain was he outfit that he wore. Consisting of a crimson doublet slashed with gold, breeches of a dark red colour, along the outside of the legs of which ran golden buttons, knee high black boots folded over at the top and a broad velvet cap of purple that hung down to his left. At his side he carried a gold hilted scimitar in a worked scabbard of red leather worked with gold and silver.
The group marched up the concourse, the guards with a peculiar straight limbed gait. The richly dressed man, on the other hand, sauntered as if he owned the place.
Arrogant, overdressed parrot. Kathri could not help but take an instant dislike to him. His very demeanour rubbed her the wrong way. Too many run ins with the rich and the nobility had left a band impression on her, one that she knew was not perhaps fair to all of them, but one she found hard to shake.
As the group passed them, Kathri caught sight of a sigil upon the breasts of the black cloaks of the guards, of a sinuous tiger wrapped around a long straight bladed sword. The tiger, a beast consider by many as mythical, coming, as it did, from far off lands, was not the emblem of any noble house she knew of.
“Who is that?” she asked of Braethir, a frown creasing her forehead.
“That,” Braethir replied, “Is Lord Safalha hal Hamardi.”
“Never heard of him.”
“I am not surprised. He only just appeared recently.”
“Appeared?” Kathri asked, watching as the Lord and his escort marched up to he gates of the Old City. There he was greeted by the two women.
“As good as. He came from across the seas, from Qamdi, or so they say. He performed some favour for the King of Siagosa and next thing anyone knows is that he has been appointed the Siagosan advisor to the Conclave Council at Ciosala.”
As Kathri watched on, Lord Safalha marched on in through the gates with the two women and his escorts, disappearing from sight. “He is Qamdira? He certainly doesn’t look it.”
“No, and that is part of the mystery. He does not have the features of a Qamdira nor the hint of an accent of one. His Vigosan sounds as if he is native born. Nor does he dress as a Qamdira.”
Braethir chuckled softly. “That is one way of putting it. It has been quite the talking point around Ciosala of late. There are many rumours circulating about him, as you could imagine, speculating on who exactly he is.”
“And who do you think he is?”
“I have no opinions on that.”
“You are an agent of the Mages aren’t you? I would have thought that the Mages at least would want to know.”
Braethir smiled faintly. “Agents deal in facts, not rumours. It is possible that the Mages may have assigned an agent to look into Lord Safalha but if they do they would not announce it, and nor would other agents know. Besides which, what makes you think I am an agent?”
Kathri nodded to the heavy magelock Braethir carried at his side. “No one but agents have access to those.”
“I work for Archivist Esarrio and he has certain influence.”
It was not an exact explanation but Kathri had the feeling it was the most she was going to get out of Braethir.
“Are you saying you aren’t an agent?”
“I might be,” Braethir replied, “Or I might not. But it hardly matters one way or another.”
Esarrio reached the street he had been making for, far down the southern end of the concourse. He turned off into it, heading towards the eastern part of the city. A series of rolling hills rose up ahead of them, the slopes of them dotted with grand manor houses. It was in that part of the city that the rich and the powerful lived, those who weren’t Mages, most of whom lived within the Old City.
“Where are we headed?” Kathri asked of Braethir. There were fewer people along the street than had been back on the concourse. Most appeared to be servants, some of who were carrying boxes or baskets of goods. At one point a body of workers were repairing a section of the street, while others swept it, keeping it clean. Carriages made their way along it, carrying citizens of standing to and fro.
Braethir frowned as he replied, his face a mix of indecision and caution. “You will see. It is complicated.”
“I don’t like complicated.”
“Who really does?” Braethir replied. “This one you may really not like.”
Kathri sighed as she continued on along the street behind Esarrio. “Am I in a lot of trouble?”
“It is hard to say,” Braethir admitted. “I can’t really say more than that, not here. Just wait until we arrive at our destination. Your questions will be answered there.”
Kathri nodded and fell silent. Various scenario’s played through her mind, each worse than the last. Braethir’s answers, or lack of them, hadn’t helped. She looked up, ahead of the route they were taking. They had began the slow climb up into the hills, along broad, winding street, paved and well kept. Already large, sprawling manor houses were appearing around them, surrounded by grand grounds and gardens. She seldom found herself out in that part of the city as her business in Ciosala did not normally see her interact with those that lived in the manor houses, or at least not directly.
The higher they climbed into the hills, the more impressive the houses became, growing in size and grandeur. Glimpses caught through gates and beyond hedges revealed buildings more like palaces than mere houses.
Esarrio finally came to a halt near the top of one of the largest hills, right on the outskirts of the city, before a large set of gates, glittering golden in the sunlight. A gatehouse of red stone rose up around the gates, with windows above looking down on the street. On the arch above the gates and beneath the windows saw a crest carved into a shield, of a pair of fish, each with arms, holding onto an anchor. Kathri’s eyes widened as she looked up at the crest, one well know to all within the Conclave Kingdoms, and most lands beyond.
“This belongs to the House of Abravante?”
“The Archivist lives here,” Braethir explained.
“Lives here?” Kathri replied before a sudden thought came to her. “He is a member of the Abravante?”
Esarrio turned from the gates to face her. “My mother was the sister of the previous head of the house. Guella il Abravante is my cousin. He graciously allows me to stay here when it suits my needs to be away from the Old City, such as is the situation now.”
He returned his attention to the gates and held up his hand before it, to a glyphstone set in the centre of it, a pale golden stone that Kathri recognised as a type of wardstone. They could be crafted so that they triggered only to certain people, tuned into bloodlines or to those marked at its creation, making them a useful tool to lock places for those that could afford them.
The Abravante can certainly afford them.
The gates swung open for Esarrio, revealing a long path of loose red stones before him. Tall, well trimmed hedges lined it, framing part of a large, stately manor house at the far end.
Kathri’s thoughts churned over in her mind as she began to walk along the path towards the manor house, following after Esarrio. The loose stones crunched beneath their feet as they walked. Ciosala’s status as a free city within the Conclave attracted many merchants to it, but of greater importance was its position, uniquely situated to take advantage of the sea-lanes running to the east, the west, the south and the north. As such, many of the merchant princes had gathered within Ciosala, bringing with them wealth and power. Few could rival the House of Abravante, a family who had their hands in ventures across most known lands. There was seldom a place that didn’t have access to their agents, caravans or ships. They were not nobility, at least not in the manner that the nobility of the Conclave Kingdoms recognised. What they had was wealth the envy of any but a very few noble houses, and even some of the Kings of the Conclave Kingdoms. More so, they had the support of the Mages, and that brought influence most nobles could only dream of. The ties between the Mages and the Abravante were well known, each relying on the other.
I should not be surprised that there are Mages among the Abravante. It is only logical given their close ties.
The hedges along the path ended and before Kathri there opened up wide open lawns, ones in which marble statues could be found part hidden among bright profusions of flowering bushes. In front of the house extended a broad pool of water, in the centre of which stood a fountain, in the shape of three sea serpents, each back to back, the water gushing from their mouths. Small flashes of golden colour could be seen in the pool, of fish darting beneath broad lilly pads.
The house itself was a broad, sprawling building of two stories, constructed of creamy sandstone blocks with large windows set with glass panels. Grey slate tiles covered the roof, from which numerous chimney stacks rose. The entire region in front of the house was laid with more of the small, loose red stones, while a set of stairs led up to a large green door, one with another wardstone set into it.
Interesting that they bring me here, rather than to the Old City, Kathri mused. That would seem to imply that it is for a purpose that they do not wish the other Mages to know of. Interesting.
Esarrio headed not for the main entrance of the house, instead walking across the lawns towards the right hand side of the building. He passed through a small, sheltered nook, formed by roses that climbed up a framework and over their heads. Two small stone benches were set within the nook, out of sight from the rest of the gardens. The air was full of the scent of the blossoms in full bloom.
Odd that it is now autumn and yet the flowers blossom as if it is spring.
Heading around the side of the manor house, Kathri saw another building tucked away at the back of the grounds, surrounded for the most by a grove of tall trees. Another large pool spread out before it, with more lilly pads floating upon it. A number of long legged birds waded through the pool, their thin, long beaks plunging into the water as they sought out food.
The other building was constructed in much the same style as the manor house, though of a much smaller size. Even so it still was one of substantial size, larger than most houses that the citizens of Ciosala lived in.
Reaching the entrance to it, Esarrio swept his hand over the green doorway. This one had no wardstone to secure it. As Esarrio moved his hand, he whispered words and from his eyes flowed the green arcane light. It weaved down his arm and jumped to the door, forming a web that sunk into the wood and out of sight. As it disappeared, the door swung open.
The interior of the house was dark, with the windows shuttered and no lights lit to illuminate it. Esarrio stepped inside and waved his hand again. Green light jumped from it, arcing down an entrance hall from lamp to lamp. They burst into life, bathing the hall with a soft golden light.
The entrance hall of the building was marbled, of creamy whites and gentle reds. A number of doorways led off from either side of it, while it ended at a large set of double doors. All were closed. Halfway down the hallway, a staircase led up to a balcony that overlooked the entrance, one that ran off into the building both to the left and right.
Along the walls of the hallway hung a number of woven tapestries in bright colours, between which sat small marble pedestals. Upon each pedestal were the busts of people, formed of bronze, representing members of the House of Abravante, Kathri suspected, ancestors of Esarrio. Beneath the tapestries were display cases, with artefacts of numerous civilisations on display behind glass panels, of fragile porcelain plates and dishes, of figurines carved from jade and ivory and more besides, of golden jewellery in the form of rings, armbands, torcs, bracelets and necklaces and other wonders of ages past.
“What is this place?” Kathri asked as she followed Esarrio inside. She looked around, trying to get to grips with the wealth that was on display before her, but not so much so that the materialistic part of her was already doing calculations on the wealth of it all.
“It was initially built as a guest house,” Esarrio replied, “But my uncle gave it to me to use as a residence.”
This isn’t even the main house. I knew the Abravante’s were rich – everyone does – but I had no idea just how rich. I have to get into the main house at some stage just to see what wealth they have on display there.
The thought of actually stealing from the Abravante’s was one that she didn’t even contemplate. There were some risks that went too far and the Abravante’s had the resources to deal with those who stole, or even attempted to steal, from them without needing to bother the local authorities.
Esarrio walked down the entrance hall and started to climb the stairs. At the top he turned to the right and continued on down the upstairs hall, followed by Kathri and Braethir. There were more doors opening off the hall. He stop at one set, sweeping his hand over them. Once more the green glow of arcane energy left him and touched the door. Before he opened it, he turned to Kathri.
“I could not speak openly earlier,” he stated. “There are always ears to hear, even if you think there are not. The truth of the matter is that in this instance we can both be of help to each other. Come and see.”
He opened the doors and stepped into a room. Curious, Kathri followed him in.
The room inside was dark, with the windows shuttered up and a heavy curtain pulled across it. The only light came from two dim candals set on a ledge that overlooked the large bed that dominated the room. In a chair beside the bed sat an elderly lady, her grey hair pulled back in a bun behind her head. She was applying a damp cloth to the forehead of a person who lay in the bed as Kathri entered.
“This is a companion of yours, I believe,” Esarrio said.
Walking over to the side of the bed, Kathri looked down on a very pale but familiar face.
The man reacted to the words, shifting uneasily in the bed even though his eyes remained shut. He tossed about restlessly and a low moan escaped his lips.
“What is wrong with him?” Kathri asked, glancing aside to Esarrio.
“We do not know,” the Archivist replied. “We were hoping that you could shed your light on the matter.”
“The last that I saw of him, he was fine. We became separated though and I had received word that he may have been injured in the mean time.”
“There was a wound, but a minor one,” Esarrio said and then shrugged. “It had healed up by the time we came upon him, so it was not the cause of his problems.”
“What exactly is he doing here, with you?” Kathri asked.
“My family, as you can imagine, have agents in many places as part of their business dealings. Some of them upriver came across your friend, delirious and on the point of collapse. They helped him reach Ciosala, bringing him to me.”
“For agents of a merchant house, is it not unusual for them to be helping out random unwell people?” Kathri asked.
“In normal circumstances, yet. This was not one of them. Your friend was at times raving about matters that they felt of importance to me. When he arrived, I felt it best to bring him here, out of the way, until such time as he recovered.”
“You wanted him kept hidden from your fellow Mages, you mean.”
“Yes,” Esarrio admitted. “That surprises you?”
“You do not trust them? I have reasons for doing so, but you are one of them.”
A hint of a smile touched Esarrio’s face. “I would trust them with my life.”
“But not his.”
“It may be so.”
A thought came to Kathri’s mind as she considered Esarrio’s responses. “How did you know that he was a companion of mine?”
“He kept on mentioning your name in his ramblings. The Mages have been aware of your exploits for a while now, so I felt it best that I bring you in. When I heard that you were coming to Ciosala, it was logical to assume that you would make for Pascio and so I awaited for you there.”
“Kathri? Kathri?” The came came out broken, rasping, Astiara’s face twisted up in distress as he spoke.
“I am here, Astiara,” Kathri replied. The woman at his side damped down his forehead again with the cloth but he shrugged it aside, sitting up sharply as he did. His eyes remained shut tight as he reached out, gripping Kathri’s shirt tight, his knuckles standing out white from the pressure.
“They have it, Kathri. They have it!” There was an intensity to his voice despite his weakness, a desperation that all in the room could pick up on. “The fires will consume the skies, the seas, the forests and the lands. She comes, Kathri, she comes!”
Kathri took a hold of Astiara’s hands in a gentle grip, trying to ease his grasp. “You are safe Astiara. All is well. What is it they have?”
“The crown, Kathri, they have taken the crown!”
With that he slumped back down onto the bed again, lapsing back into his fevered sleep.
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