Achyran cast his black eyes over the candle-lit room. The walls and tables supported numerous candelabras while a few richly decorated chandeliers hung from the ceiling, providing the perfect atmosphere. He was standing on top of a table, candle in hand to light his face, while the inn’s guests had gathered around him in a half-circle. They all had a beer in hand and looked up at him expectantly. The stage was set, and a better one he couldn’t have hoped for. He opened his mouth, paused a moment to find the right opening words and then started his tale:
Once, a long time ago, there was a troubadour, staying at an inn in this very town. Not in this inn, for it did not exist yet at that time. But there were others. It matters little, for this story is not about the town of Sohann’s Crossing. It is merely where the troubadour took a boat to the south. The boat he booked passage with was a trader’s vessel, of which many went downstream, just as they still do today.
The troubadour was not the only one on board the vessel. As it sailed downstream he met with the other passengers. Some were merchants, unable to afford their own ship, others simple travellers. But one stood out: a quiet and calm man of dignified posture, dressed in white. He sought no company and only spoke when necessary. But from his clothes and demeanour, it was easy to see that this man was no commoner. Yet the most striking feature where his bright golden eyes.
In the evening, the ship moored into one of the smaller towns along the river. The troubadour sung and played his lute for the captain and all passengers. That was the way he paid for his passage. After the song, he spun a tale, which captivated all listeners, save for one. The white-clothed nobleman sat in a corner and listened quietly. Whether he approved of the tale or not, he did not show.
When the tale was finished and the troubadour had earned his meal and bed for the night, he went over to the nobleman and asked politely whether his song or tale had perhaps displeased him in some way. The nobleman explained that he had in fact enjoyed both, but felt it rude to interrupt with cheers, like the other passengers had done. He preferred to listen in silence. The nobleman then asked where the troubadour was headed and whether he would provide another evening of entertainment.
“Once more, I shall,” said the troubadour. He would stay aboard one more day and then continue his journey south by foot, into the kingdom of Terrálh. The nobleman smiled at the coincidence, for he was headed exactly the same way, and proposed to make the journey together. The troubadour gladly accepted.
The next day, they continued to sail down the river Sohann. Just like the previous day, the ship stopped in a few towns for the merchants to buy and sell wares. Neither the troubadour nor the nobleman concerned themselves with such matters. They spent most of the day talking about their journey, and those undertaken in the past. The nobleman was most interested in all the places the troubadour had seen, especially those on the other side of the Nevarran mountains, where almost all lands were claimed by the vast Arayan empire. In turn, the troubadour asked about the nobleman’s journey. The nobleman spoke softly and explained that he was of the Ardaithe, sent to Terrálh on an important mission. His exact purpose was a secret to all but himself and the masters of his order. Yet he told about some of the things he had seen and done on previous assignments.
In the evening, the ship reached a larger town, called Beire, where the river Brenaig flowed into the Sohann. It was where both the troubadour and the nobleman would leave the ship, but not before the troubadour had provided for another evening of song and story. It was already late in the evening when the troubadour bid the captain and the remaining passengers a good journey before he would quickly collect what few belongings he had and depart. The nobleman was already waiting for him at the quay. He told the troubadour that he had arranged a place to spend the night, and guided him though the town towards a castle on the hill between the two rivers. The heavy doors opened readily as they arrived and the lord of the castle awaited them in the courtyard. He greeted the Ardaithe as an old friend, who asked whether the lord had a spare room for his travelling companion.
“Of course, Lord Iciraest. My castle is yours,” he answered and bowed for the Inquisitor.
“Thank you, Lord Ovail. Now, as promised,” the inquisitor took a letter out of his pocket and handed it to the lord, who was most grateful.
He looked at the letter in an almost reverent way. “With this, I shall finally have the king’s ear,” he said. “Now come in, you must be hungry.”
They followed the lord inside to a large dining room, which was already filled with a host of delicious looking dishes. There was much more than the three of them could eat, and the troubadour tried to sample everything. Over dinner, Iciraest and their host discussed how the castle was of critical importance to ensuring safe travels on the river, and essential to the country’s blooming trade. And how under-appreciated that all was over in the royal castle.
After the meal, a servant arrived and took them to their rooms. The troubadour was awed by the luxury of his room. Unlike rooms in most inns he spent the night in, it was large, richly decorated and had a huge, soft bed.
The next morning, the servant brought him an equally large breakfast. He ate it all and then went looking for the Ardaithe. He quickly got lost in the castle, but another servant was able to point him the way. Iciraest was talking to their host, who informed them that there was a ship in the harbour, awaiting them. With that knowledge, they thanked their host and left for the harbour, where they found the ship. The captain welcomed them aboard and the ship immediately departed. There were no other passengers aboard.
It took them two days to reach the main city, Lainthair. During these two days, the ship had stopped in another town and two villages. In each of these places, letters were handed to someone awaiting them on the quay before they sailed on.
The city itself was truly magnificent. As they approached, the troubadour could see tall spires reaching high above the white roofs. Curiously, there was no city wall. They entered the city through a gate across the water, decorated with statues of guardsmen in ornamental armour, cast in the same white stone. The harbour itself was unlike any other harbour he had ever seen. Usually the docks were filled with seedy taverns and unsavoury people, but not here. Everything was clean, people were well dressed and the establishments along the water looked respectable.
“This place is amazing,” he told the Ardaithe, who nodded with a knowing smile. He had clearly been here before.
“Don’t let appearances deceive you. It is no safer here than in any other city. Probably less so, in fact,” he warned the troubadour, who could hardly imagine criminals when well-armed and armoured guards patrolled the streets.
As the ship moored, the Ardaithe said: “We have arrived. We could each go our own way here. But if you’re looking for new stories to tell, why don’t you stay with me. I promise you that you will see some amazing things. And you won’t have to worry about where to spend the night or how to earn your next meal.”
That was an offer the troubadour could not refuse.