Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Scion of the Wyrm – Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – The Archivist and the Agent

Kathri turned off from the thoroughfare that was known as the Street of Antiquities, one of the main road through Ciosala, leaving behind the thronging masses. The street she entered had its shops as well, though they displayed no wares out on stalls and did not even advertise their existence. Those that needed to know of them did. It was in one of the unobtrusive shops that Kathri’s main contact in Ciosala did his business.

A few people walked down the street, though compared to the Street of Antiquities it was practically empty. Lurking outside many of the entrances were hired muscle, big men with flat faces and iron bound cudgels.

Two such were outside the shop Kathri headed towards. The first was a tall man, his shoulder length blond hair tinged with a trace of red, and his bushy bear of a like colour. His hair, and his pale eyes, seemed to Kathri to indicate he was Briothan. He wore a jerkin of leather, one reinforced with iron plated across the torso and with hardened leather spaulders upon his shoulders, ones that overlapped like scales. He leant up against the wall beside the door, cleaning his fingernails with a knife.

The other was no human, and nor could be ever confused with one. Of a height of most men, he was much stockier, and with stumpy legs that seemed too short for his frame. His broad face was hairless while two horn like knows protruded from his chin. In the place of skin he had a leathery hide, one for the most of a green colour but mottled with patches of browns and yellows. Rather than a mouth he had a stubby snapping beak. There were no ears on his head beyond a pair of narrow slits. Dull yellow eyes with black irises stared inscrutably at Kathri. She had always had difficulty in reading the modraskae as they were called. Hailing from the riverways and swamps of Zlavoi, the modraskae were renown for being a slow, if tenacious people. They were highly prized as bodyguards and commanded a fee in keeping with that. For armour he wore a gambeson of woven reeds, of the kind typical for his people.

A little too showy, Pascio.

A modraskae guard attracted too much attention, especially for the business she hoped to do.

The pair watched Kathri without a word said, and very little attention paid either. Kathri could not see a whole lot of thought going on in the Briothan’s look, merely an indifference to whoever went by. The expression changed as she walked towards them and the shop and they both straightened up. The indifference was replaced with a look more casually threatening. His face to Kathri read as one of a typical hired thug, not the kind she liked to deal with.

They did not hinder her path as she opened the door they guarded and went on in, content to lounge around out the front until if need and called upon.

The interior of the shop opened into a large room, one with rows of cabinets and display cases set up throughout it. Statues stood between the furnishings while the antiquities of numerous cultures and ages were set out for viewing. Trinkets and curious and jewellery, carvings and scrolls and manuscripts were held behind glass in the cases and cabinets, able to be seen but not touched. At the back of the room was a counter and behind that a door.

The shop appeared empty, with no one to be seen.

Odd, Kathri mused. Pascio is not the type to leave his shop open and unattended. Not that he is a man to steal from, especially with his hired thugs out the front.

“Pascio?” she called out.

“In here,” came a man’s voice, deep and resonant, from through the back door. “Come on in.”

Never before had Kathri entered the back rooms of Pascio’s shop and nor had she heard of any being invited in. With a frown on her face and a puzzled flash of silver in her eyes, she made her way through the room, vaulted the counter and opened the door.

She stepped inside, to see a back room filled with items stored away, many wrapped up in cloth and with tags attached to them. A large work bench sat in the middle of the room, on which were set out tools used to maintain and repair antiquities. A number of small clay vases sat on the table, some of which were broken. Pascio stood before the table, along with another man. A stout man, Pascio’s usual florid skin had a paleness to it that was not natural to him. He stared hard at the table, his hands holding on to the edges of it with a grip that left his knuckles white.

The other man was tall, and slender, almost to the point of being gaunt, his dark hair both thinning and greying. Clean shaven, he was inspecting a trinket on the table, indifferent to all else. He wore simple clothes of a tan jacket and trousers, in stark contrast to Pascio’s rich clothing, of robes of a deep red colour over which he wore a vest of purple and red and gold.

Pascio turned at her entrance and gave what she felt was a rather nervous smile. “Kathri, you have returned. I take you have something for me.”

Kathri nodded and set her pack down, wary now due to Pascio’s unusual demeanour. “Are you well?” she asked.

The merchant licked his lips and half glanced to the other man. “Recovering from a recent illness,” he explained with forced cheerfulness though a slight quaver in his voice betray him. The man was certainly worried by something and Kathri had the feeling that it was to do with the tall man. Given the nature of her relationship with Pascio, supplying him with antiquities obtained by less than legal means, it could just be not wishing the other man to know about it. “It has passed now. Let us see what you have for me.”

Kathri opened up her pack and took out an item wrapped up in cloth. She set the bundle down on the table and began to unwrap it, revealing a small figurine made of a dark green porcelain through which were shot threads of gold. It took the form of a raven, exquisitely crafted, with piercing, knowing eyes that gazed out. “There is this, and I need information as well.” She affected a Tsialan accent as she did, just to be safe. Pascio blinked and swallowed hard but made no mention of it.

The tall man turned as the figurine was revealed and ran his eyes over it. “An interesting piece,” he stated. “Mid dynasty Hajanri, or it so appears. There are many fakes out there though.” He spoke in a knowing manner, one that set Kathri at edge. For some reason that she couldn’t quite set her finger upon, his presence worried her, as did his understanding of what she had shown Pascio. That, along with Pascio’s demeanour, had her reconsidering her choice of visiting him. She need the information and contacts he had though, if she was to find Astiara, her missing companion.

“It is genuine,” Kathri replied, keeping her voice as neutral as she could.

The tall man smiled, though it came more from his face than his thin lips and was devoid of humour.

“This here is Master Esarrio,” Pascio explained. “He is a purchaser of stock. I am sure that he would be interested in this item.”

“I may indeed be so,” Esarrio said. He picked the figurine up careful. He turned it around, inspecting all parts of it before flipping it over to study the base. “The marks seem genuine,” he said, pointing to some faint, barely seen scratchings on the bottom. “This one,” he went on, motioning to one mark, “Indicates that this dates to the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Ajanathad. The other is the crafter’s mark, in this case being Dayiti Ramachi. The dates certainly match as Dayiti was at the height of his profession during the early years of Ajanathad’s reign. Even so, those who know these things can still fake the marks. There is only one way to be certain.”

He set the figurine back down on the table, standing up. He whispered a word as he extended a gloved hand to hover over it. As he did, his eyes blazed with a green light. The light curled down around his arm and from there settled upon the figurine. It reacted to the touch. Porcelain wings stretched out as the bird rose up and threw back its head. From it came not the call of a raven but a song that soared in perfect pitch. The language of the song was Hajanri. Kathri understood only a few words of it, enough to get the idea that it was praising someone, most likely the Emperor.

Esarrio closed his eyes as he listened to the song, he sound of which was the only noise to be heard in the room. Kathri’s eyes widened and flashed both crimson and silver, concern and surprised both reflected within, trying to overcome the double shock.

The artefact she had found and carried with her on the long journey south was a Singing Statue of Hajana, rare as roc’s teeth and twice as valuable. She had only ever heard stories of them before, never even having seen one. It could have set her up for life, just that one piece, if she had known what it had been, and could have sold it. That option was no longer available to her.

He is a Mage. He knows. He has to know.

Esarrio’s display had send a jolt of fear running through her. A Mage meant trouble. She looked over to Pascio. The merchant gave an apologetic shrug. It was all he could do she could see. The man was in as much trouble as she was.

It is little wonder that he was so worried when I first arrived, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Esarrio was paying no attention to her. He stood stock still, eyes closed. There was a chance she could slip away, even if it meant abandoning the figurine. It meant running and perhaps never returning to Ciosala, at least not for a long time. Picking up her pack, she turned about to sneak off, only to see a man in the doorway behind her.

How did he get there? There was no one else in the shop when I entered and I heard no one else arrive either.

The man leant against the frame of the door, his arms folded across his chest. He was not overly tall, and had a lean build of a type that Kathri had seen before in men of the wilds, tough and with hidden strength. His grizzled, weathered looks seem to confirm the view. By his pale eyes and hair, Kathri picked him as Briothan, though unusually he had his hair cut short whereas most Briothan men wore theirs long. A firm chin bore a few days of unshaven growth. Overlapping spaulders of leather were set upon his shoulders, atop a leather jacket reinforced with iron plates. Worked leather bracers were laced around his forearms. Over his shoulder she could see the hilt of a sword protruding, one with a plain hilt and a well worn leather wrapped handle that spoke of much use.

What stood out, and was of most concern was what hung from the belt at his side, a magelock, the union of the mechanical skills and arcane knowledge of the Mages combined with the effectiveness of firepowder weaponry. Only the most valued of the agents of the Mages carried them, which marked the man out as a very dangerous person.

He gave her a nod as she looked him over, one that she couldn’t quite read. She was good at reading people normally. She needed to be in her line of work, to know who to trust and who to keep a sharp eye on, who was trying to cheat her and who was honest. The man before her was different. He gave off no emotions, simply standing there waiting patiently, neither threatening nor showing concern.

The Fettered take me, but I can not say who is the bigger danger. They have me trapped. Her heart sank, knowing there was no way out, no way to escape the Mage and his agent. What are they doing here? she wondered. Surely not waiting for me. Not even Pascio knew I was coming.

“What do you think, Braethir?” Esarrio asked from behind Kathri.

Even leaning up against the wall, the man man managed a shrug. “Sounds more like Harmaya Daramu to me. Early work though.”

Kathri turned so that she could look at both men. She might as well have not been there for they appeared to be ignoring her. She saw Esarrio, eyes still closed, nod his head. “Yes, that makes sense. Harmaya was apprenticed to Dayiti before she went on to become the more famous of the pair. So this she made while still her apprentice, and Dayiti marked it as her own.” He opened his eyes and gave a wave of his hand. The green light lifted from the figurine and it returned to its original state, the song coming to an end. The light crawled back up Esarrio’s arm, vanishing back in his eyes. “Fairly standard practice, the master marking the work of apprentices, if they were good enough, and passing it off as their own and charging a higher price for it.” He turned at last to Kathri, dark eyes looking down along his narrow face. “I would be very much interested to know where you got this item from.”

Kathri looked across to Pascio. The merchant had backed away, trying to remain unobtrusive as possible, to stay out of proceeding if he could. She could expect no help from there. Not that there was much point in lying, not to Mages. “I acquired it from the tomb of Emperor Ajanathad.”

A brow arched a fraction on Esarrio’s face, a touch of disbelief registering. “Is that so? Many have looked for that tomb over the centuries and none have managed to locate it.”

From Braethir came a noise that sounded like a soft, amused snort. “You doubt me?” she asked of the man, knowing even as the words were coming out that she was letting her pride speak.

Not a wise move in the circumstances, she reminded herself.

Braethir shook his head, the smile on his face one of obvious merriment. “Not at all. It is just that my learned friend over there has spent much time in searching for Ajanathad’s resting place. We even had a wager on whether he would be the first to find it. You owe me three reds, Esarrio.”

“I had forgotten all about that,” Esarrio replied. “We shall need to wait until we see if the girl’s claims are true.”

“No doubt your memory wouldn’t have been so faulty if you had won,” Braethir pointed out dryly.

“Perhaps. What do you think it is worth?” Esarrio asked, motioning towards the figurine.

Braethir waggled his hand back and forward. “Three, three and a quarter,” he responded in estimation.

“That much?”

“Remember the stag? I am going on that.”

Esarrio nodded slowly as he considered the response. “You are probably right.”

“Three what?” Kathri asked, interrupting the two men’s conversation.

Esarrio looked across to her. “Three thousand gold Royals,” he said, pronouncing each word distinct and crisply.

Kathri found her head spinning from the answer. For just one of the thick, golden coins she could live for a year, if rather basically. For five it would be a comfortable life while fifty would have her in luxury. Three thousand Royals was almost unimaginable wealth.

“I don’t suppose that you are willing to buy it,” she asked. Esarrio smiled faintly while a low laugh came from Braethir.

“You have audacity, I will admit to that,” Esarrio replied, “But no, I won’t be buying the proceeds of grave robbing.”

“It was a tomb, not a grave,” Kathri told him, “And I was merely acquiring it so that others could enjoy treasures that were lost for centuries.”

“Others as in those who can afford it,” Esarrio pointed out. “It is a moot point though.”

“What is it that you want?” Kathri asked. Esarrio’s actions were not what she had expected. The penalties that the Mages imposed for grave robbing were well known and, officially, harshly implemented upon those that they caught unless you knew someone or had something to offer.

Esarrio fixed upon her a look with his dark eyes both keen and piercing. There lurked in the look hint that Kathri did not like. It was not predatory, not exactly, and not proud, being more satisfied than anything. “I am here to offer you a job,” he told her. “A legitimate job.”

Kathri almost laughed. She could see that Esarrio was being serious though.

“You have talent,” he went on. “One of use. If you are not so inclined, you are welcome to risk the alternatives.

Kathi shook her head. The choice was not really much of one.

“Correct me if I am wrong, but let us see what we have here. Born Akathriana Deoca to, well, that hardly matters now does it?”

Kathri felt her mouth go dry but said nothing. Those were details she shared with no one.

“After the…” he continued saying before pausing, as if considering his words.

Go on, say it, Kathri silently dared him.

“Incident with your parents,” Esarrio went on, concluding the sentence, “You went into the care of your mother’s brother, Entios il Codebia, a minor, if impoverished noble.”

I knew it. You could not say it. After all this time, still no one can admit to the truth. Kathri felt her belligerence rise to the fore once more. “He is not so impoverished now,” she retorted.

Esarrio fixed her with a penetrating stare, one that she met with a stoic face, refusing to give an inch. “Yes, so we noticed,” he said after some moments of silence, neither of the two blinking. “He certainly has had a change of fortunes.”

Kathri did not reply, not wishing to risk putting her uncle in any more danger. He had been a kindly, if reticent man, the fortunes of his house having fallen far. The stigma of that fall had impacted upon her mother so that no other nobles would consider marrying her. Instead she had accepted marriage with a member of the merchant class, and a foreigner at that. Her uncle had not married either, and with little prospects of it ever happening, his house threatened to end with him. The title should have, in theory, passed on to her, but that would never be allowed to happen.

Entios had done his best for her though, despite the troubling times that both suffered through, and she had in turn repaid him to the best of her ability, funnelling much of the wealth she came by through her exploits back to him. Since then his fortunes had risen, even to a position with the court of the Queen Eirania of Adarosa, one that had brought him a marriage, and with it two children. Kathri had yet to meet her young cousins. A trip back home was one fraught with too many difficulties, and too much history best left forgotten.

If Esarrio had expected a response, he did not show it, instead pressing on with the recount of Kathri’s life. “There were other incidents, this time with the children of other nobility.”

You certainly get the most usage out of that word, incidents. They were more than mere ‘incidents’. Being the daughter of a disgraced exile had made her a target, as had her blooded nature. As a youth she had found it hypocritical that the royalty and the high nobility of the Conclave Kingdoms were mostly blooded and were accepted, but the lesser folk were persecuted for it. Only later had she come to understand it was more about preservation of power and maintaining the appearance of otherness, separating them from their subjects.

“At a young age, you ran away from the Conclave Kingdoms, headed north into the tribal lands of the Briothans to seek a new life. There you fell in with Voadia Tyrhurst, a noted grave robber.”

“Tombs, not graves, and not a robber,” Kathri pointed out.

Once more Esarrio fixed her with a steady gaze, though this time she felt as if he was in part judging her. “There is a difference?”

“Anyone can rob a grave,” she replied, feeling no need to explain further than that.

The tall man nodded and for the first time she saw a hint of a smile from him that actually contained something akin to amusement. “True. You worked with Voadia until such time as she was taken and hung for tomb robbing. After that you went your own way, freelancing using the skills that you had learned alongside her. Took the odd commission to recover specific pieces from those that could afford to pay, including, if the rumours are to be believed, a rare piece from the private collection of Lord Casendo il Ranio.

Kathri did not confirm or deny the accusation, her face remaining passive. I’d have done that job for half the price. It had been as much personal as professional, and act of revenge, even if he had been unaware of it, for a difficult childhood.

“You see, Kathri, we know all about you, or as much as is needed for our purposes. Work for me and all that can be forgotten. Otherwise you can take your chances with Conclave law and it tends not to be forgiving.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Archivist Esarrio Bellasi of the Academy of Ciosala. My friend over there is Braethir son of Col.”

“Esarrio Bellasi as in the Archivist Bellasi?”

“I do not know of any other Archivist Bellasi’s so it would appear so.”

She stumbled a few steps backwards, the implications of who the man was and just how much trouble she was in threatening to overwhelm her. She had heard of the Archivist, and his reputation, a man who had, according to the word of old comrades, been the one mostly responsible for the capture and execution of her old friend Voadia. And yet for all of that, the alternative was Conclave law, not a proposition she welcomed. She had no more favours she could call in, not ones that could help her with Esarrio. That left just the option of accepting his offer as only he could help her now.

“I guess that I do not have much of a choice here, do I.”

“No, not really. Esarrio looked over to where Pascio still lurked, trying to stay out of the way. “Your co-operation in this matter has been noted but from now on I expect that you stick to legitimate suppliers for your business. I would be most distressed if I have to return again under similar circumstances.”

Pascio nodded his head with rapid movements, a touch of sweat beading across his pale brow. “You have my word on that, Archivist Bellasi.”

~~~~

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