The Sign of the Bronze Hammer
Part Five – The Ward of the Resplendent Tiger
They walked thus in silence along the street Blade had named, down to the city gates that led through the walls that ringed the man-made lake. While guards were posted there, they paid little attention to those coming and going, being more content to lean upon their spears and converse with each other. On occasions they would make a show of stopping a person and questioning him before waving them through after the most perfunctory of searches. Even if they were to find something, they were too poorly paid to give it much concern beyond an attempt at bribery. Peregrine and Blade passed through the gates without so much as a glance, an outcome Blade found most fortuitous, as he did not know how they would explain a package that not even they knew the contents of.
Once through the gates, they were greeted by a bridge of delicate marble stonework that arched gently out over the lake to one of the island wards. Along its length were statues and bright blossoming flowers. Upon the waters drifted boats, punted beneath the bridges and between the wards. There were dozens of the wards ringing the grand central island of the Red Mesa, each one a small community. The closer they were to the Reed Mesa, the more important they were, and thus the more richly endowed with estates and craftsmanship. The Ward of the Resplendent Tiger lay in the outer ring, the furthest from the Red Mesa, a place of tradesmen and craftsmen, those well enough off to dwell within the city proper but still kept at a distance from the seats of power.
They walked over the bridge, passing sedan chairs carried by slaves, and carriages pulled by horses, those within secluded from the public and accompanied by surly guards. Heavy traffic surrounded them, for people from a score of nations were to be found in Qaiqala, and just as varied were there occupations, being nobles and scholars, priests and soldiers, traders, craftsmen, servants and slaves, all adding to the clamour of voices.
Once across the bridge onto the first ward, they walked down a broad, tree lined street, along which were positioned shops that catered to the ward and the inner city. Beyond the shops were the tight packed houses that accommodated those who lived in the ward. Wardsmen, the guards specific to that ward, kept a watch on all that went on, with a greater resolve and purpose that that of the guards at the city gates or out in the sprawl. Officially, whether in the inner city or the sprawl, the law applied equally to all, yet seldom was that applied by the magistrates, all of whom lived in the inner city and were appointed by the Sultan, or his Vizier, chosen from among the ranks of nobility.
They followed the main street for a way before turning off from it into another that headed for a second bridge, one that climbed up over the water and to another ward, this one the Resplendent Tiger.
As they stepped from that bridge onto the ward, a pair of Wardsmen approached them, both with cloaks over their mail shirts, black in colour, with a rampant tiger embroidered across their breasts.
“Who are you to come to this ward?” said one, the taller of the two. His gloved hand rested lightly on the hilt of the sword at his side. From behind, Blade could see his Aedring companion began to tense, no doubt about to attempt something rash, and so he spoke up with haste.
“We are merely porters making a delivery,” he told them. “We are bound for the Sign of the Bronze Hammer, on behalf of our mistress, to deliver this package to Master Habd’al Fezzur.”
The Wardsmen looked over the pair of them, and the package, their expressions indecisive, uncertain as to what actions to take. Blade felt that he caught an edge of something else mixed in as well, part fear, and part other emotions that he could not begin to describe. Whoever this Habd’al Fezzur was, the Wardsmen knew of him and were reluctant in any manner to get involved.
Finally a decision was reached. “Deliver the package, but be gone from the ward as soon as you are done. Strangers are not welcomed here, nor tolerated. Remember that.”
“We will,” Blade answered. He could sense Peregrine bristling, and see the Wardsmen had picked up on it too, though they appeared uncertain as to how to react to the Aedring woman. “This will take but a moment,” he promised, urging Peregrine to continue on.
As they left the Wardsmen behind and headed deeper into the ward, Peregrine could no longer contain herself. “Hraega’s Beard, but such manners would not be tolerated among the Aedring. I am no mere servant, beholden to any. Remember that. You lowlanders may bow and scrape, but no Aedring ever will.”
“The ways of the city are different,” Blade told her. “You must understand that if you are to spend time in them. Insults can not be solved with open violence, lest you incur the wrath of the authorities.”
Peregrine grunted, her irritation evident. “This place makes my fists itch. They call us barbarians, but from all I have seen we are the more civilised in our dealings with others. Where to from here?”
“The Sign of the Bronze Hammer should be off of Al’haraf’s park, which one can reach by heading down the Street of Two Moons. That should be to our right, just up ahead.”
The left the main road through the ward, entering a side street, one with grey cobblestones and lined with small residences, houses of white stone with flat roofs. Each was packed up close to its neighbours. Atop the roofs, many of the houses had small gardens and shade clothes, were one could sit in the heat of the summer and receive the cooling breeze that blew off the waters of the lake.
The street, which Blade had named the Two Moons, led towards a park that much of the ward had been built around, a place of trees and running water pumped up from the lake to form trickling brooks and a large pond in which birds waded. Thick grasses grew beneath the trees, while birds of colour sung from the branches. The street looped around the park, broadening out at the far side it entered from. The park was a place for the residents of the ward to relax in, away from the noise and the chaos of the city, a visit to the wilds that none would see else wise, or so Blade felt. Peregrine evidently did not agree.
“Those who built this place have never seen true nature,” she commented, “For it is like the city, all tamed and ordered and civilised. The wilds are a place where wolves stalk unseen, where dangers lurk around every corner for the unwary. You men of the cities have lost touch with that, and what it means to truly be alive. It is little wonder that you have gone soft.”
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