After careful thought and much deliberation, Gregory Colton decided that the days were too long in these northern countries.
He yawned, reclining back against the bench and lettings his tired eyes slip closed. The thought was a recurring one since he first entered this northern territory and was overwhelmed by heat and light. Even though he was indoors, he knew the sun was outside waiting for him. It rose too early in the morning and refused to dip below the horizon until late in the evening.
He had arrived in the kingdom of Comer two sweaty days ago on foot. It was miserably humid with barely any breeze. Now he lived in a perpetual state of sweaty exhaustion.
How could people survive such stifling weather? True, the land was beautiful: a tapestry blending into the horizon that would make even the most talented of artists envious. But such beauty didn’t make him chafe any less.
Gregory let out a deep breath and wiped the sweat and salt off of his brow. He lived far to the south, where the weather was less consistent and the days shorter. Clouds dominated his home, and rain was a near constant companion.
Thinking of the city he grew up in made him homesick. Here, in a tavern two hundred miles away from his family, he couldn’t help but be curious what the people he used to know where doing. It was summer back there as well, but that would mean cool days and relaxing temperature, tending to crops or fishing. No doubt the sun had already set and many would be preparing to sleep.
He missed it. But, to return home now would certainly put him in prison.
“You drinking anything?”
Gregory turned on his stool, facing the barkeep and letting out a yawn. He was a short man, balding and fat and wearing overalls. “I haven’t decided.”
“You haven’t decided?”
“Not yet,” Gregory replied. “I’m not sure if I want the wine that tastes like vinegar or the beer that tastes like piss.”
The barkeep narrowed his eyes and Gregory realized he’d offended him. He hadn’t expected to meet a sensitive barkeep, and the heat was making him cranky.
Still, if he had been thirsty, he wouldn’t risk it now. No telling what would actually come in the cup.
“I don’t think I’ll have anything today.”
“Then it might be best you move along,” the barkeep said.
“That it might,” he said. He let out another yawn and stumbled off his stool. His legs were tired, but he knew he had to keep moving, just in case someone was following him.
He’d spotted a caravan upon first entering Marisburg—the sad little town he found himself in—several hours earlier, and he knew that it was heading north as well. These were dangerous territories, and it would be ill advised to travel the roads of Comer alone. If he didn’t get passage on this caravan, he would be forced to wait until he found another. And that might not be for weeks.
The route he had chosen would end up in Bridane, the capital city of Comer two hundred miles further to the northwest. But the road would travel immediately north and then cut west after bypassing the mountains.
There would be no civilization until they reached the outlying city of Mulrich, and since the territory Mulrich sat in was only recently acquired by the Kingdom, it wasn’t often patrolled.
Bandits were the mainstay from this point on in his journey, and Gregory wasn’t much of a fighter. The modest training his father had given him might help against, perhaps, a rabbit, in close combat.
There would be safety in numbers if he could join the caravan, but he also didn’t like the idea of traveling while exhausted. He wondered how these local people were able to maintain such high levels of energy throughout these long days. The heat was too oppressive for him to desire anything except find a comfortable bed.
Gregory headed out of the tavern into the streets. The city was small but harried, with a great many tradesman and citizens perpetually running to accomplish one task or another.
Where he grew up, people rarely came to town at all. They kept to themselves and went about their private business. Town was a place to stock up on supplies and swap stories as far as Gregory was concerned, and it seemed unreasonable for so many people to confine themselves in so undersized an environment.
With a shrug, he shouldered his pack and began walking down the main thoroughfare. He was confident in his decision to seek out the caravan, now that he had made it, and was glad that he’d managed to motivate himself.
The caravan had gathered several wagons and passengers near the north gate and was in the final stages of prepping to leave. Gregory saw several hired hands loading food and supplies into the back of one of the wagons and a man with a clipboard checking the goods in.
The atmosphere was professional, Gregory noted with surprise. During his two hundred mile trek to reach Marisburg, he had traveled with four different caravans from one city to the next, and those were sloppy at best and negligent at worst.
The men working this caravan were smooth and methodical. But it wasn’t the hired help that surprised him as much as the hired protection. A contingent of thirty soldiers milled nearby, more than twice the number he might have expected for a caravan this size.
Maybe the roads were even worse than he’d thought. Gregory didn’t recognize any insignia or colors on their uniforms, but assumed they were part of the Comer military.
Whatever they were transporting must be valuable. Gold? Precious gems? No, they had entered Mulrich from the East, where there was little mining. Spices, mayhap. Many spices in his home country of Olestin were worth a fortune this far north. Masalas and saffron were locally grown herbs near his home, and yet they were considered rare here.
Dozens of crates were stacked neatly inside the wagons and varied wildly in size and shape. The boxes were too inconsistent for spices. Spices were often shipped in bulk on an individual basis.
Liquor, then, seemed most likely. The latter possibility gave Gregory hope. After choking down the harsh beers from Comer, maybe he would finally get his hands on a bottle of the sweet brandy Olestin was famous for. It would lack the nutrients and calories of a full meal, sure, but at least it would taste good.
Gregory approached the man with the clipboard with a smile. “Good day,” he said, offering a slight bow. “Might I inquire where this caravan is heading?”
“We aren’t looking for tagalongs—”
“I can pay.”
“—nor passengers of any kind,” the man finished, barely glancing up from his clipboard.
“I see,” Gregory said.
He studied the man, and determined that he was a mouth piece and nothing more. Someone who was pretending to be in charge, following a script. If Gregory was going to accomplish anything, he would have to figure out who owned all of these goods and ask them.
The problem was, no one else was making themselves obvious. Whoever was in charge didn’t want to stick out. Gregory scanned them over, looking for any insignias or expensive clothing.
It was only after careful observation that Gregory was able to confirm his suspicion: the hired hands went to the man with the clipboard for their orders, but continually snuck glances at someone else after every order. It was as though waiting to see if he would contradict the clerk.
This man was several years younger than the soldiers, also wearing a nondescript uniform. No medals or insignia; in fact, he looked to be nothing more than a bland mercenary who recently joined the company.
The young soldier sat on a pile of crates, eating a piece of thick bread and engrossed in his own thoughts. An older soldier sat next to him, attentive. He was wearing a Captain’s insignia on his shoulder and looked to be in charge.
“Have a great day,” he said to the man holding the clipboard, and started walking toward the young soldier. The clerk waved vaguely at him, not paying attention.
Ten steps from the crates, Gregory heard scrambling behind him.
“Stop!” the clerk shouted, somewhat frantic as he rushed to catch up. The soldiers exploded into motion as Gregory’s destination became clear, and he knew that he had been right in his guess. This young man must be the merchant, perhaps a dignitary from a rich family, and the soldiers were here to protect him.
At least they were efficient. Gregory paused six feet away from the young merchant, crossing his hands passively in front of his stomach and giving them plenty of time to react.
Except, they reacted much more aggressively than he had expected. In seconds, Gregory was surrounded, and all of the soldiers had weapons drawn.
“Is that necessary?” he asked, forcing himself to relax.
“What do you want?” the Captain asked, fingering the hilt of his sword. He hadn’t moved, but his eyes bored into Gregory in a way that made him uncomfortable.
Gregory tucked his thumbs into his belt, pulling his coat out of the way to show his sides and hips. He was unarmed—except for a dagger he kept tucked in his boot—and he wanted them to know it.
“Just to ask a question,” he offered softly.
“Then speak quickly and get lost,” the Captain said, with only the slightest edge of contempt in his voice. Gregory saw him nod to the guards behind Gregory, and he heard footsteps draw away. A few swords were put away, but not all.
“Not of you,” he said, then nodded at the young man sitting on the crates. “I was hoping to speak to him, since he’s the one you are here protecting…”
His voice trailed off. There was a sharp intake of air from several of the guards behind him. Gregory realized that something was wrong. The merchant had a lock of shock on his face that quickly shifted to fear, and the Captain slid his fingers a little lower down the hilt of his sword.
That blade, Gregory decided, would be better remaining in the guard’s hilt than buried in Gregory’s stomach. Time to backpedal.
“I seem to be mistaken,” he said.
“Dangerously so,” the Captain said. “Move along.”
There was finality in his voice, and Gregory said nothing else.
This was not the exchange he had been hoping for, and his plan to impress the merchant had backfired. The young merchant still had a look of worry on his face and was staring down at his feet. Gregory bowed to the Captain as calmly as possible and walked down the road to the south, further into the city.
“Damn it all,” he muttered.
How could he have guessed that the caravan wouldn’t want passengers? Since when did a caravan or any merchant turn down a paying customer? He cursed his luck. He would have to wait a few days, maybe weeks, until another caravan passed through the city, and then hope that things went better the next time around.
Now he needed to find some way to keep busy during his extended stay in Marisburg. He would have to lay low, but he didn’t have a lot of money. Maybe he could find work in the city for a merchant; he was good with mathematics and fair at scribe work, and both those traits were in high demand in a city like this.
It might even turn out to be a positive venture in his monetary situation. His funds were running low and he’d been hoping to find somewhere to restock anyway. Plus, adding a few weeks to his trip wouldn’t have negative consequences unless Olestin actually was looking for him, and there was always the possibility that they weren’t searching for him after...
Lost in thought, it took him a few minutes to realize that he was being followed. Two of the caravan guards were shadowing him, and obviously so. No discretion at all.
Which meant, they probably meant to kill him.
Gregory’s breath caught in his throat, and he felt his stomach tighten into a knot. Who, he wondered, did I just pissed off?
He drew a deep breath to calm himself and slipped down a side street, turned a corner, and circled back to the spot where he first noticed the men following him.
Sure enough, they were still there.
“Uh oh,” he murmured.
Where to go? Could he outrun them? Maybe, but he didn’t like the proposition of running through the streets chased by uniformed soldiers. The city guardsmen might intervene on their behalf, just in case he was a criminal.
Maybe he could slip into one of the many shops lining the street and hide, and then find somewhere he could lay low until the caravan left the city.
His two shadows were about thirty feet behind him, not increasing their pace. He doubted they knew the layout of the town any better than he did, so they might not know where to look if he slipped out of their sight.
He walked at a leisurely pace to the other side of the road and turned the first corner he came to. As soon as he was in the alley he took off at a sprint toward the next corner, slipping around it before his pursuers could catch up.
In another street, he sprinted across, dodging pedestrians and horses, and dipped into another alley. He heard shouts behind them but didn’t stop to apologize.
He ducked into the first shop he saw on the next street over and crouched behind a rack of hats. Less than twenty seconds later, the soldiers sprinted past the doorway and down the street, cursing.
Gregory panted and fought down the fear in his stomach. They were just making sure I don’t follow them, he told himself. They might even assume he was part of a bandit group, scoping their defenses before they left.
In any case, the caravan would leave Marisburg soon, and as long as he laid low and didn’t do anything suspicious, they would forget he existed.
“Can I help you?” a voice asked directly behind Gregory. He flinched and let out a sharp scream, and then laughed.
So much for not looking suspicious.
Gregory turned and saw a middle-aged salesman standing behind a counter, watching him with an amused expression. His jowls gave him the appearance of a jolly old friend, which no doubt helped his salesmanship. Gregory stood up from behind the hat rack and brushed dust off of his jacket.
“You were looking for a hat?”
“What you mean to say, son,” the salesman said, “is ‘by golly yes, sir, I need a hat to protect my fair skin!’ Those were the words you were looking for, else why would you be in a hat store?”
“I mean, if you weren’t here to buy a hat, I might assume you were a criminal hiding from those soldiers that just ran past. And that most certainly isn’t what you are, is it?”
Gregory laughed. At least he wasn’t shouting to the guards.
A hat? Sure, why not? The sun was bright.
“My skin isn’t that fair, is it?”
“Quite. From Farrsburrough?”
“You’re practically albino, son. Take it from me kid, this sun will chew you up, spit you out, and then set you on fire. That is, of course, unless you buy one of my fine hats to protect you.”
Gregory smiled. “You’ve convinced me.”
He glanced around the racks at various hats.
The merchant hadn’t exaggerated, at least on quantity of merchandise. On the quality, Gregory wasn’t so sure. He saw several with floppy brims, and decided that he didn’t like the way they would settle over his eyes, no matter how much protection they offered. One rack was elaborate and annoying, coming in every disgusting color combination imaginable.
“People actually wear these?” he asked. The salesman nodded gravely.
“Those are my best sellers.”
“Rich young gents like yourself purchase them to attract ladies. Shows their wealth. It is called peacocking.”
Gregory couldn’t tell if the salesman was serious, then decided that he couldn’t possibly be. Peacock hat, he thought, and couldn’t suppress a laugh; and just when I don’t want to be noticed.
He moved to another aisle and found a selection of safari hats. The brim’s were smaller, but still enough to protect most of his face. He picked one and slipped it over his head. It felt smooth and sturdy, a shade of deep brown. It rested comfortably and he couldn’t shake it loose.
He decided it was his best bet, and he’d probably wasted enough time that the guards had given up the chase.
“Will that be all, sir?” the merchant asked as Gregory approached the counter.
Of course, he started to say, reaching for a bag of coins tied to his hip.
“Yes,” a voice said behind him in the doorway.
His heart skipped a few beats, and he didn’t have to turn around to know who it was: the Captain.
Doing his best to act unperturbed, Gregory pulled a few coins out of his pocket. He heard footsteps on the wooden floor behind him, and they stopped only feet away.
“I would suggest you hurry and pay the man.”
Gregory started to pass the money over, but dropped one of the coins on the ground. So much for unperturbed. The Captain reached down and grabbed the coin, passing it to the merchant, and took Gregory by the arm. The merchant’s look of amusement was gone, and he could only offer a shrug and a frown as Gregory was led away.
They went outside, where he saw two soldiers waiting, and then on down the street. His legs felt like rubber, and it was all he could do to stay calm.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
No response. The soldiers dragged Gregory down an alley, and he considered making a run for it. He was fast on his feet, and he doubted they could keep up with him once he got going.
But they had iron grips on his arms, and he wasn’t sure he could slip free. He was sure, however, that they could draw their weapons and stab him before he got far enough away.
They turned a corner in the alleyway and came upon orphans and vagabonds huddled around empty boxes and crates. Several of the crates were covered with paper and wood to fill in cracks, creating makeshift homes. The children lived here. Most of them were on the verge of starvation, protruding bellies and disproportionate limbs.
“Beat it,” the Captain said, drawing his sword.
Gregory winced. The kids sprang to their feet and jolted down the alley, disappearing around a corner. Maybe, Gregory thought, they will run for help and warn people that an innocent man is about to be murdered.
The thought almost made Gregory chuckle.
The soldiers held Gregory up and the Captain turned to face him.
The look on his face was calm, eerily so. “Who are you working for?”
“I don’t work for any—“
The fist came fast; Gregory hadn’t even seen the soldier move and suddenly his head was rocked sideways. He reeled from pain and saw his new hat fall free to the ground. He fought through the pain and moved his jaw.
Nothing broken, but he could taste blood. He saw the soldier in front of him, clenching and unclenching his fist—his bloody fist, Gregory noted—and couldn’t help but shudder.
“Want to run that by me again?” the Captain asked.
“I’m by myself. I don’t know anyone.”
The next punch was in the stomach, knocking his air out. He struggled for air.
“I came from Olestin looking for passage to Mulrich.”
Another punch to the jaw, this time from the opposite side.
“Who are you working for?”
“No one! I swear. I’m just traveling north, trying to reach the Capital. I didn’t want to travel alone.”
His mind was spinning and he felt dizzy, but he could also feel his body flooding with adrenaline.
Gregory was getting mad; pissed off, in fact. Who do they think they are? Nothing he had done justified this kind of treatment: you don’t go beating people up because they are clever enough to see through your stupid disguises.
“Are you done?” he asked
“I don’t like liars,” the Captain said.
“Then you must love me,” Gregory said. This time a guard kneed him in the crotch. Gregory saw stars.
Sure, goad him. He coughed and felt blood run down his chin, but was even more pissed off:
“Is this how you treat all foreigners? No wonder you don’t get many tourists.”
A dagger appeared in the Captain’s hand. “You have quite a mouth on you. Trained to resist torture?”
“By my mother,” Gregory said, narrowing his eyes. “She made me eat broccoli.”
The man stepped forward and stabbed the dagger into Gregory’s stomach. The pain was beyond anything he could imagine, and he felt himself slipping out of consciousness. Time passed, and he felt himself drifting. Did the Captain hit him again? He didn’t know.
“Patch him up,” he heard someone say distantly. “We might need him.”
And then he passed out.