Illuvan sipped the Djetzi Frond tea that he had ordered carefully, savouring its unique scent before placing the cup back carefully on the counter. The drink, favoured by the Scharlcedese for its rich aroma and the ready availability of the required herbs, had become available within a handful of Dyrean establishments over the last few months. A handful of traders had thought to capitalise on the influx on southerners brought about by the Bursar’s elevation at court. The presence of Djetzi was, for Illuvan, one of the more pleasant signs of the growing trust and amity between the two realms.
Melodia’s Rest was a serviceable inn on the edge of what was colloquially referred to as the “Administrator’s District” due to the presence of the many residences of high ranking functionaries clustered around the bottom of the great rock on which stood the Archduke’s citadel. The official title “Lesser Draegmor” had effectively fallen into disuse as a result. Melodia’s was a finely appointed establishment, outfitted with several low tables, pillows and throw-rugs, and a variety of pale hanging curtains, to provide a modicum of privacy when desired. In one corner, a musician thrummed at a harp: a fitting accompaniment for an Inn bearing the namesake of the Lemuirean Saint of Music. It matched what Illuvan remembered of his time in the Embassy in Sharlced, though to some it bordered on the scandalous, seeming to the uncultured eye more suitable for the enjoyment of a foreign prince’s harem than for the enjoyment of a quiet drink.
Beside him at the bar, Raul and Allayad slammed down their ales in unison, each man crowing with victory. Seemingly ignorant of the atmosphere so lovingly evoked by the owner, and so quickly tarnished by their rambunctious manner, they began a lively debate over who had been the first to finish his drink. They spoke mostly in Marcillian, the language of trade, but switched to their Schaledese dialect for the more colloquial language.
“Aie, you were slower than a midget’s footrace,” Raul brayed at his comrade.
“Ancestor’s take me if my tankard did not strike the table before yours had left your lips,” Allayad responded, his face locked in sincere solemnity, while his green eyes glittered with laughter.
This continued for some time before, together, they turned toward illuvan. “Little Brother,” they entreated him, with the affectionate diminutive favoured by many of the Bursar’s senior staff, “resolve our quarrel.”
“I chose my drink specifically so as not to be drawn into your drunken antics Raul, and Allayad, frankly, I expected better from you. What would your father say, to see you carousing again with one of the Bershemi?”
Allayad puffed his cheeks out and pouted in a gesture of offense, “My father would say what he said to me the day I left for this crooked-street city,” at this point Allayad furrowed his brow and stuck out his chin, continuing in a deeper voice that Illuvan judged a fair approximation of the family patriarch, “leave Sharlcedese politics in Scharlced, and make sure not to father too many bastards who can lay a claim to my estate.”
Raul guffawed, slapping his thigh in loud appreciation.
One of the serving women looked up at them from where she was serving a drink to a hooded man at one of the low tables. Her initial look of alarm was soon replaced by one of resignation. Allayad and Raul were regulars here.
It was strange to think that less than three hundred miles down the coast, the two men would never have been seen in the same street, so invested were their families in their ongoing feud. Bursar Ardashir had made it clear that he would not suffer the pollination of such rivalries among his staff in Dyre, and the two southerners had become fast friends soon after their arrival.
Allayad clicked his fingers and pointed at Illuvan, “that reminds me, the bursar wants you to head down to the docks with me tomorrow. We’ve heard a rumour that one of the bordellos is slipping girls in with forged market papers rather than paying the tariffs at the dock. Ardashir wants us to start with Madame Xi’s.” A grin had swept across Allayad’s olive-tan face as he relayed the command.
Raul’s jaw had dropped slightly at the first mention of “girls,” and he responded with surprising vehemence, “and did no one think that Raul might benefit from examining Madame Xi’s new girls to see that they had,” he put a knowing inflection on the last few words, “the right documentation?”
Allayad cocked a thumb toward Illuvan, “Ardashir wants him because he’s got a ‘sir’ in his name. The fact that he’s less likely to make an ass of himself ogling the girls is just a sign of the ancestor's favour.”
Raul continued to complain, “If Raul knew the perks for one with a northern title in the bursar’s employ were so grand, Raul would have put more thought into hunting dragons, or at least being born to a more established bloodline.”
“You daft fool,” Illuvan admonished the Bershemi. “Ardashir needs me at the dock because enforcing tariffs is the harbourmaster’s jurisdiction; though I hear the town guard get more than their fair share of the action too.
Raul looked confused. “but a Knight is neither the harbourmaster, nor a town guard, so you have no more jurisdiction than Ardashir himself.”
“Right,” Illuvan acknowledged, taking another sip of his tea to cover his growing exasperation, ‘but no town guard is going to tell me that. And the harbourmaster might be desperate to keep Ardashir out of the docks, but not so much that he’s willing to pull rank on a court knight over it.”
Raul whistled softly and leaned in to whisper conspirationally, “Harbourmaster’s got a little action on the side then does he?”
“Yes,” Illuvan acknowledged, “metal ingots mostly, iron and copper, nothing flashy. It’s not a card worth playing unless we need him over a barrel.” He mused for a moment, long enough for Raul to recognise the pensive look and tell him to spit it out. “I’ll put in a good word for you with Ardashir, might get you down to the docks if we need to take this any further than Madame Xi’s.”
“Raul knows that sirs don’t go around doing favours for nothing, that’s not how they got to be sirs in the first place,” the Bershemi quipped.
“Truly my friend, you wound me,” Illuvan replied, throwing one hand over his forehead in mockery of a distressed damsel. “But in this case you happen to be right. I need a tail on a visiting nobleman, and it can’t be anyone connected to the Archduke’s court.”
Allayad held his hand out in front of himself and gestured behind them all in a way that would not be visible from that direction, “so you picked him too?”
“Hmm? Our friend? Yes, but we’ll deal with that on our way out. But no, one of the Venirean Barons is visiting the city for a few weeks. The word is that Beventol’s trying to get his heir into the Marcillian University, and needs a tutor to prepare the boy for the exams.”
“So you want me to tail a nobleman while he goes shopping for a scholar?” Raul stuck out his tongue in distaste.
“I want to know who he speaks to. The treaty between the Archduke and the Perfecti is due in a few months, and the Venirean’s are critical to it. They shouldn’t just be free to wander our streets unaccompanied as if they didn’t have an agenda of their own to pursue.”
“So let the Archduke send one of his men to do it,” Allayad counselled, “My understanding is that the Archduke seconded you to Ardashir precisely because he didn’t want you getting caught up in matters of state.”
Illuvan opened his mouth to make what was probably going to be a rather foolish retort: his family had that effect on him, but Raul interrupted, slamming his tankard on the bar in a matter quite unfitting as fine an establishment as Melodia’s, “Raul will do this thing. This Baron Beventol is clearly a man that needs watching, for the good of the relations between the bursar and his archduke.”
Allayad rolled his eyes, “you just want a chance to look at the girls.”
The Bershemi scoffed in mock outrage, “Raul wants many things, but his duty comes first, and if his duty compels him to tail a spy and look at some girls, then by the ancestors, that is what he shall do!”
Illuvan and Allayad burst out laughing. The three shared several more drinks before they gathered from the unfriendly stares from several of the staff that their welcome was wearing thin. Court knight or not, Illuvan knew that Melodia’s had a reputation to maintain, and the three of them were cutting against the grain on that account.
He clapped his friends on their shoulders, “brothers, I think it’s time we depart,” he left a small pile of small silver chips on the bar as the three collected their cloaks, a generous tip.
“Here or somewhere more… discrete?” Allayad queried, giving no clarification or context. He might have been talking about the next venue to host their night’s revelry, so well did he hide his intent.
“He seems harmless enough. Intimidation should do the trick.” Illuvan said, abruptly cutting across in front of Raul, parting a set of semi-transparent curtains and glaring down to confront the hooded man at the low table.”
“Gentlemen, if you please…” the man began in the common tongue of Dyre, in a tone that shared none of the politeness the words would ordinarily convey.
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to play out a charade, friend,” Illuvan began, having set his feet widely apart and rested one hand on the dagger at his side in an imposing stance. “You are a spy, a tail, set on me and my friends. Were you more competent, we would have waited for you to follow us from this establishment, ambushed you in an alley, interrogated you, and properly disposed of you so as to cover our tracks, but that won’t be necessary.”
The man pulled back his hood, his youthful face had gone white, with a mixture of outrage and fear that seemed appropriate, given the threat. “Now see here, this is most…”
“You followed us from the offices, having waited outside in the same position for nearly two hours,” Allayad noted, cleaning his fingernails with his own stiletto knife. “You chose a table for four, despite coming alone, near enough to overhear some of our conversation, and positioned yourself so that you could watch the service exit, the main entrance, and the stairs. You’ve nursed a single drink for the entire evening.”
The man’s puffed up cheeks deflated, his voice cracked “You can’t do anything to me, do you know who I am!”
“Not a terribly good spy, apparently,” Raul laughed, slapping his thigh at his rather unimpressive jest.
“My point,” Illuvan continued, taking back the reins of the conversation, “Is that I do not care who you are. Your rings mark you a courtier, your hands lack the thinnest of calluses I’d expect for a swordsman of any calibre, and your cloak is pinned with the insignia of some nonsense house from the border of the Shattered States.” Illuvan raised his voice again, cutting off the expected outraged response, and clipping the end of every word for emphasis. “I. Do. Not. Care. It does not matter to me which of my cousins sent you.” He drew his dagger and slammed it into the table next to the courtier’s hand. “I do not care for their familial jockeying and games of intrigue, and I do not play them. If I find another tail, they will be fishing him out of the river in pieces. If they are lucky enough to find him at all.”
Illuvan turned on his heel and moved to leave the establishment, leaving the dagger quivering on the table. Ardashir and Raul followed him out, already joking again about the girls of Madame Xi’s. Behind them, the novice spy fruitlessly tried to pry the dagger from the table with two hands.