“A deal that is declared rattvis bit is done. Let the rechtsprecher judge those who claim injury after such a declaration.”
Proverb of Lumiaron
“A deal that is declared rattvis bit is done. Let the rechtsprecher judge those who claim injury after such a declaration.”
Proverb of Lumiaron
Leno spent the next few days in Somfaux focusing his attention on the city’s guilds. No matter the opinion of the more prestigious Ducal Seats, Somfaux towered as a hub of commerce and the guilds had accepted the reality of it becoming the major hub of trade in the region.
He had visited the merchant guildhall and discovered with interest that it was no longer just a place for merchants to gather, but also proffered stalls in the outer parts of the building to trade with the town’s population. It was becoming almost an ancillary market square. Many street vendors had semi-permanent spots to sell their merchandise from outside the guildhall.
Some of the guild’s neighbors clearly did not appreciate this because, under the cover of night, they dumped animal shit on the spots these vendors used. The merchants countered these moves by having the shit removed and their street washed every few days.
So, the merchant guild either reeked to high heaven, or it smelled as fresh as a field after the first rains, depending on the day and the latest development in the war of the shit-stalls.
Today, when Leno walked in, the place smelled as fresh as a daisy.
“Leno!” a voice called and he looked up to the second-floor gallery where Veronique, a happy-go-lucky dye merchant, waved at him. She was a robust woman of middle years with close cropped black hair and a rich brown skin that spoke to a strong Consang heritage. Leno waved back and moved through the crowd and up the stairs to the gallery.
Veronique was an earthy woman whose pithy observations about the guildmembers he enjoyed. They traded in such different items that they were no threat to each other, and as a result they had made friends shortly after Leno’s first visit to the guild.
“Veronique,” he bowed his head and grinned at her, “Good to see you on this fine-smelling morning.”
Her laughter boomed out and a few of their fellow merchants glanced sideways at them.
“What are you up to today Leno? Still looking for jewelry?”
“And other exotic curiosities,” Leno amended, “Are you still wasting your time with dyes?”
“Aye, I’ll be leaving for the Trollkaren Delta tomorrow. The dyers have requested some whelks. Apparently, they have need for purpure.”
“Purpure?” Leno said in surprise, “Has someone laid claimed to the ducal sash then?”
“That, I would not be able to answer. But,” her voice dropped so low that he had to lean in to hear her, “I would not be surprised if the order came from the good baron. I’ve heard some passing strange rumors. It might be that he thinks a change of sash color is in order soon.”
“What strange rumors?” Leno asked, equally softly.
“I heard the baron is entertaining some dangerous guests. And he’s showing an interest in even more hazardous lore,” she shivered a bit, “Lore that could see a man lose his life, or even his place on the Wheel.”
“Where would he be finding such lore?” Leno asked.
“There have been some who have enquired from merchants who deal in the exotic,” Veronique replied.
“I deal in the exotic,” he objected.
“Yes, but you’re new in town. I tell you Leno, I’m grateful for this request from the dyers. I could do with some time out of Etendulat.”
“Well, if today is the last day that I get to enjoy your scintillating company, let me buy you a drink,” Leno suggested.
“Let’s go to the Cockrel,” she replied. The Cockrel was a tavern favored by Somfaux’s merchants and one of the few that had not chosen sides in the feud between the vintners and the brewers.
“Alright,” Leno agreed, and they walked downstairs together. They were barely out of the door when a horn shattered the normal hum of Somfaux’s population. A large and brassy note. Leno stopped, looking for the danger.
“By the Wheel’s Brass Rim!” Veronique cursed, “They’ve lost control of a gravastor.”
“A what now?”
“A gravastor. It’s a beetle we use to dig the canals. Come, let’s go see.”
“Is it dangerous?” Leno asked, dragging his heels as Veronique strode in the direction of the brassy note
“We won’t get that close,” she assured him and led him through the broad roads to the north-west canal docks. Along with the other gawkers, they ran up the stairs above the West Canal Gate and onto the old wall. From here, they had a near perfect view of the canal docks.
Leno’s jaw dropped as he took in the scene below them. The gravastor was massive, the size of a pony. Its bright blue carapace gleamed like polished metal in the sun, and its claws and mandibles were bloodred. There appeared to be wings folded on its back, though Leno did not see how this thing could possibly fly.
Under those bloodred claws lay a body, and the creature was turning this way and that, appearing to look for something. There were three figures trying to get close to the gravastor, but every time one of them approached, the beetle would whirl to face them and lift its segmented body up, hissing threateningly as its claws reached out.
“The skabra dancer must have gotten too close,” Veronique said.
“What’s a skabra dancer?”
“They are the ones who control the gravastors. They use habi to make their dance attractive to the beast.”
“Habi? Are they all noblemen, then?” Leno asked.
“Younger sons and minor families, yes,” she affirmed.
“It doesn’t appear to have worked very well.”
“The dancer must have lost concentration. They use the dance to cause vibrations that the gravastor follows. Then it digs to try and find the source of the vibrations, and as it digs the dancer moves, luring it forward.”
“That’s amazing,” Leno commended, “But what are they going to do with this one?”
“If they can get it back under control, they’ll lead it away from the docks and let it go. But someone would have run for the baron already.”
“The baron? Can he also control them?”
“All barons of Somfaux know the secrets of the skabra dance, but more importantly, he’ll be able to kill the gravastor if it won’t turn.”
“What do they eat?”
“Grass,” she sounded amused, “If you leave them alone, they mostly leave you alone. This one has run out of candle though. Look, here comes the baron.”
The baron of Vamelon rode out from the gate on a tall, dappled grey horse that lifted its hooves high and trotted sideways towards the gravastor. The horse was clearly a temperamental sort, but Tybalt certainly cut a fine figure riding it. He wore the sash of his office over a chain shirt, hastily donned over an expensive doublet rather than gambeson. His black hair, slicked back from his face, revealed sharp features and a skin paler than the average southerner, hinting at northern ancestry somewhere in his bloodline. Three men-at-arms accompanied him, but he waved them back as he dismounted, tossing the reins of his charger to the nearest.
A sword hung from his saddle, but he did not draw it. Instead, he took a spear from another of his men-at-arms, a heavy bladed weapon as long as Baron Tybalt was tall. He gripped the spear with both hands and approached the gravastor with care. The three dancers backed away as he moved forward.
The man was skilled beyond anything that Leno had heard of him. As the creature reared up, its mandibles lashing, Tybalt stamped one foot and Leno could swear he felt the wall vibrate from the force. The gravastor hissed and backed up a few steps.
“He might be able to drive it away,” Veronique said, “That’s impressive. Last time we had an incident he couldn’t stamp like that.”
“It’s driven away by stamping?”
“You know how some animals posture to drive off others of their own species?”
“I have heard of it.”
“Well, gravastors cause the earth to vibrate with their steps to show how big they are, driving smaller gravastors to give way before them.”
“I see,” Leno said as Tybalt stamped again, the sound reverberating through them.
The gravastor backed up another step and lowered its body. The trailing mandible touched the dead dancer and dragged through her blood. Suddenly a terrible screaming hiss erupted from the thing and it charged Tybalt with a speed that was surely deadly!
The baron leapt and gained height easily twice the length of a man. Even suspended in the air he clearly knew exactly where he was. He twisted his body at the highest point, turning the spear tip on the gravastor. The spear plunged towards a small crevice between the gigantic beetle’s bright blue carapace and its head. Driven by the baron’s full weight, the spear pierced through the armored exoskeleton into the creature’s neck. Tybalt threw himself to the side, holding onto the shaft. There was a wet tearing sound as the spear ripped through the creature, followed by a strange greenish liquid that fountained from the wound, glittering in the sunlight. The creature shrieked, it’s mandibles lashing out to the sky. Tybalt danced out of the way as the gravastor’s limbs thrashed about in its death throes. It shrieked a final high-pitched cry to the heavens and dropped lifelessly to the ground, its body curling up like a monstrously oversized cricket.
There was a silence that lasted a bare dribble of candlewax before the wall erupted into cheers. Leno and Veronique cheered along with everyone else as Tybalt slid off the dead gravastor and raised his fist to acknowledge their applause.
“What will happen to the carcass?” Leno asked.
“Oh, the dyers guild will buy the carapace. It makes the most amazing shade of blue dye. The rest will be dragged into the foothills and left. You can’t eat that meat,” Veronique said with a shudder.
“Shall we go have that drink?” Leno asked as the baronial party returned through the gate under a wave of adulation, “I could surely use one after that!”
Veronique laughed and led the way to the Cockrel.
It was past the second ring of the evening candle when Louis returned to the Silver Leaf. He was concerned by what Leno had seen. Tybalt was a fighting man with deep skills in habi. Not only that but killing the gravastor had earned the baron a boost in popularity among his people. Louis needed an edge, both to kill Tybalt and to destroy the man’s name, and the candle burnt down without concern for his troubles. He needed to find that edge and soon.
It was time to find out more about these rumors of sang sorcellerie. He needed to find an ember that he could fan to life.
He had been paying for Nina’s services the last few nights, moving carefully to get her attached to him. He felt himself looking forward to being with her again tonight, and he reminded himself that she was just a source of information, and a fun roll in the hay.
He convinced her to leave the taproom to Jenkin by the easy route of offering coin to them both. He rollicked with her in the hayloft, and now she lay naked and sweaty in his arms, half covered in hay draped on her like a golden dress. He had worked hard with the girl, ensuring that she didn’t just earn money, but that she had enjoyed herself to the point of exhaustion.
He had chosen the hayloft for two reasons. Firstly, it gave him more space to work with than the cramped pallet in his room, and secondly, he could see through the slats and detect anyone entering or loitering. He did not want anyone overhearing this conversation.
“Tell me about Farin,” he said, running his fingers up her side and smiling in satisfaction as her skin rose in goosebumps.
“Oh,” she said softly with a gasp, “That is still nice. Why do you want to talk about him? I’d rather take another roll. You can have this one on the house.”
Louis laughed softly, “You might be ready, but I need a little more time. I’d like to understand though. Why is he allowed in town? Why doesn’t the baron’s men or the rechtshus deal with him if the rumors are known?”
“’Deal with him’ for what?” Nina asked, “Lots of men run protection.”
“Not the protection,” Louis replied, “The other thing. Sang sorcellerie.”
“It’s not that easy,” Nina said, shivering at the mention of the forbidden magic and making the sign of the Wheel, “They would say there’s no proof, just rumor.”
“No smoke without a fire,” Louis replied with a small frown, playing his hand over her breast.
She wriggled under his exploring fingers, her hips grinding into the hay they had turned into a bed.
“Ohhhh,” she breathed, “Well, maybe.”
“Is someone protecting him?” Louis asked.
Nina gave him a frightened glance and the response of her body under his hand stilled.
“Maybe. I shouldn’t have said aught. We shouldn’t speak of such things,” she said, “It’s dangerous.”
“I’m sorry,” and he was. He had moved too fast. He cupped her breast, teasing at her nipple with his fingers and leant over her, “It was just that he frightened me. We won’t speak of him again.”
“I’m not sure…” she said, pushing at him.
“Wait,” he said, “I’ll get your mind off him and my silly questions.”
He set aside his questions and focused his attention on reminding her why she had offered him one on the house instead.
The next day, Leno made his way to the square he had last visited on Marketday. A shop he had noticed suddenly held interest for him.
The tarps that formed the temporary walls of the stall were made of a fine, soft leather. The front of the tarp-stall was blocked by a trestle table, heavily laden with books. Leno saw from their titles that his memory had not failed him, there were rare books here. Books dealing in spiritualism and the arcane.
The man sitting behind the trestle table was getting on in years. His hair was white as fresh fallen snow against his aged sandstone-colored skin. His eyes were large and the skin around them was folded into a squint, probably because of nearsightedness. He looked up with a smile as Leno approached him.
“Sweet day to you,” the merchant said, his voice soft, “What can I do for you this fine afternoon?”
“Good afternoon. I am Leno of Lumeaux, merchant of the rare and exotic. You have a magnificent collection here, not one easily come by.”
“Thank you. I am Chert, and you have a discerning eye,” Chert smiled, “I did indeed purchase a noble’s collection recently. At his tragic departure of life, a splendid library passed to his heir who regrettably held no great love for books, preferring the hard coin of their material value to the wealth of knowledge they offer.”
“Ah, a lucky find,” Leno smiled slyly. Chert had almost certainly paid the nobleman’s heir a fraction of the worth of the books, “And was this all the books? I might have a buyer for a few specific items. On the whole I don’t like transporting books in the hopes of finding a buyer, the risk of damage is too high, but a specific book for a specific buyer is another matter, of course.”
“There are a few that I have not put on display,” Chert replied cautiously, “Do you know what title your buyer is interested in? Or mayhap the works of a specific author?”
Leno tapped his finger against his nose and glanced around. He leaned slightly closer and kept his voice low.
“You would not happen to have The Life and Times of Robenaire?”
Chert stared at him while the candle burnt down.
“It is not exactly forbidden,” he said slowly, “But that book…”
“I have a buyer in mind for it,” Leno replied, “A man of scholarly bent who studies the histories and considers how they influence our world today. I assure you, not a man who would seek practical instruction, or one who would attempt to use the scholarly knowledge that may be inferred from the text.”
“It was in the collection,” Chert said carefully.
“Have you found another buyer for it then?” Leno made a disappointed face.
Chert hesitated. “I have not,” he said, “I have been in two minds about selling it at all. I have been considering letting it either gather dust or…”
“I understand,” Leno agreed, “One doesn’t want to be tainted by forbidden practices. However, as you say, the book is not forbidden, and I assure you, there will be no taint on you from my buyer. Once it is out of your hands, the risk to you is gone, whereas in your possession the risk is yours of course.”
Chert and Leno regarded each other as the candle burnt between them.
“Very well,” Chert yielded, “Eight gold shekels.”
As he gave the price, he rubbed his thumb over the tips of his fingers and Leno grinned to himself. Chert wanted to play!
“Eight?” Leno gasped, clutching at his heart, “That’s more than the book weighs in gold!”
“It’s a dangerous book, and I’ve had it in my possession for long enough that I want a cushion against something going wrong,” Chert replied.
“But I’ll be taking it off your hands,” Leno countered, “Four.”
They bargained back and forth, both enjoying the exchange, settling finally on a price of six gold shekels, the rare coins mostly used by nobles and merchants. Leno paid and took the book, carefully wrapped in a silk cover.
“Thank you, Chert,” he said, “You will not regret today’s bargain. Tell me, what is the shortest way to the castle from here?”
“Turn left at the gemcutter’s stall at the end of this row and take the broad road to the castle,” Chert said, looking a little surprised and a little suspicious.
“Thank you again,” Leno took his leave, following the directions as Chert had given. He felt the book merchant’s eyes on his back until he was well out of sight.
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