The Sign of the Bronze Hammer
Part One – Qaiqala
A sharp burst of laughter snapped Blade’s thoughts from the half empty glass of wine before him that he had been staring into, staring though not really paying attention to. He looked up from the table in the tavern he had discovered some days earlier, one overlooking the lake upon which the great city of Qaiqala had been built. The tavern was packed with revellers of all kinds, drawn from the furthest reaches of the Swordlands of Kharadas, and even beyond. Drink flowed free and the frivolities spilled out from the tavern, and through the city, for it was the night of the famed Festival of the Eggs and Ducks. None now knew the origin of the festival, nor its purpose, but it marked the start of the harvest season, and that was a thing worth celebrating, even if those who lived in Qaiqala, largest, richest and grandest of cities in the world, had never seen a farm nor worked upon one. It was an excuse for a drink and a riotous time, and that was good enough for them.
Blade turned his eyes from the revellers and looked out across the waters from where he sat on the open aired balcony of the tavern. Against all expectations, he liked Qaiqala, with all of its devious priests, scheming nobles, its corruption and thieves, assassins and scandals. They in no way dinted the impressive nature of the city itself, founded in the past so distant that only legends survived of the earliest days. Around the monolithic Red Mesa, at whose feet the two great rivers of the Swordland plains, swift Shalahir and turgid Far’hadal, met, a few leagues inland from the Sea of Tyrants, the city had grown. It had become a hub of trade, from north to south and from east to west, and with the trade it has prospered, expanded and dominated. And in its belief at being the pre-eminent city in the world, it had fashioned itself to reflect that.
For a thousand generations, slaves unnumbered had laboured, and around the Red Mesa they had excavated a lake, upon which were built many island that were to become the wards of the city, connected together, and to the Red Mesa, by delicate bridges. And atop the Red Mesa itself they had built the Red Palace, glittering in red marble and gold and silk, with gilded towers from which banners were set aflutter, and highest of all, a tower in which the Eternal Flame burned, a reminder to all below of the power of the Sultan who ruled. About the base of the Red Mesa, on the largest of all the islands, were the estates of the nobles, and the temples and shrines and cathedrals of religions too numerous to count. All around the lake had been raised thick walls, to contain the city within, and yet it grew beyond the capacity of the wards, spilling out into a vast maze of buildings and industries, kept well away from the inner city with its wealth and prestige and schemes.
In this city, he was not simply Carse, an orphan plucked from the streets of Ardanium in the north by a master now deceased, but Carse of the Red Blade, or simply Blade, a man of skills and talents and apparent means, for he lived well and dressed accordingly, with fine shirts of embroidered silk, woven jackets in bright colours, soft leather boots and other such refinements.
Yet much of that was for show only, and the small stash of wealth he had brought with him upon fleeing from Ardanium had dwindled to almost the point where none remained, and soon he would join those who lived on the street out in the sprawl, if some other means of supporting himself did not appear. He had made some minor contacts with the Brotherhoods, as the assassins of Qaiqala were known, rival organisations as much caught up in the politics of the city as the priests and nobles, yet the idea of murdering for money did not sit at ease with him. He had been an assassin once, and had known one, a man sent to stop him, and whose sacrifice has surprised him, and changed his life.
Blade touched the slender sword at his side, the Red Blade that gave him his name, an item of dark heritage that he feared now was cursed in some manner. He no longer wished to carry it, yet until he found a means of disposal for it, he did not dare let it out of his hands least another claim it.
The assassin, Haqam, had told him of a mystic in Qaiqala before his death, who could deal with it, an Aedring, but he had supplied no details beyond that. In a city as vast as Qaiqala, finding one person of unknown name was a task not easily accomplished, even if that one was an Aedring woman, one of the hillfolk who were rarely seen down on the plains except in raids. Yet finally word had come to him of one who called herself Old Anja, who operated out of a place called the Souk of Crimson Mists, in the heart of sprawl. That place had an infamous reputation, one he did not relish experiencing, but he could see no other option.
Blade finished the last of his wine, stood up and made his way out of the tavern and into the city.