They said goodbye to the captain and he let the Ardaithe lead him into the city. Walking through the wide, smoothly paved streets, the city looked even more impressive than from the river. Not only were the buildings tall, they were all richly decorated. Statues of pure white marble or even gold were everywhere: at doors, corners and simply on the roof. A wide, perfectly round plaza had a larger-than-life statue of a king, standing on a pile of gold coins.
He followed Iciraest across the square into a building that was two stories taller than the others and even more decorated. A well-dressed man immediately approached and asked: “What can I do for you, my lord?”
“I’d like to make a withdrawal,” the inquisitor replied.
“Do you have a proof of property?”
“No,” Iciraest said and tapped the silver crest of three entwined rings on his shoulder.
The man glanced at it, frowned and then, with great hesitation, bowed deeply. “Forgive me for not noticing. How much would you like to withdraw?”
“Three pouches should be sufficient for now. Also, I have a list of names here. They are permitted one pouch from Ardu’s coffers each,” he handed the man an envelope.
The man hurried away and came back a moment later, carrying three money pouches. Iciraest quickly glanced in each of them and then handed one to the troubadour. “Keep it safe. This city, too, knows pickpockets.”
The troubadour nodded and hid the pouch away while the inquisitor did the same. “Why did that man just give us money?”
“This is a bank, a local invention. For a fee, you can deposit valuables in a secure vault here. They also loan money to those who are currently short of it, provided you pay it back, with a little extra. It’s all quite ingenious. But come, we must continue,” Iciraest answered and then once again led him through the city, farther away from the harbour and further up the hill.
While the troubadour continued to marvel at the city, a knight and several armed men approached. “Lord Inquisitor?” the knight asked and bowed. “In name of King Hugam Lain, I bid you welcome to Terrálh and to Lainthair.”
“Rumour travels faster than I do, it seems,” Iciraest commented. “I hope that his Highness will not disturb my investigation?”
“He has invited you to visit him at the palace, at your earliest convenience, my lord.”
“That would be now. Do you have transport for me and my scribe?”
“It is not far, my lord. Please follow me.”
The soldiers formed a defensive ring around the inquisitor and troubadour as the knight led them further into the city. Though it was obviously an escort, the troubadour couldn’t help but feel like a prisoner.
The troubadour marvelled at the city as they passed through. Not just the buildings and spires, but also the wide and clean, paved roads, the several plazas they crossed, filled with brightly coloured market stands and the people, all wearing rich clothes, that curiously looked at their little procession.
They must have walked for well over an hour, the troubadour had lost all track of time, when he suddenly realized that they were outside the city. They were walking up a steep hill, towards a beautiful white castle. Looking over his shoulder, the troubadour could look down on the city, all the way over to the docks. “Why is there no city wall?” he asked curiously.
It earned him several bemused glances from the soldiers. They had probably heard the question countless times from ignorant foreigners. “War has never reached this city,” the knight replied proudly.
Then why the need for an armed escort, the troubadour wondered. Though he kept the question to himself, he received an amused look from Lord Iciraest. He figured that the Ardaithe could probably read the question off his face. They were known for such extraordinary skills.
As they entered the castle, the knight said to Iciraest: “I must tell you of the king’s councillor. A man that always wears long robes and a mask to hide his face, but his words are well regarded.”
“So I’ve heard. Rumour has it the man suffered severe burns all over his body, and chooses to cover his horrific appearance,” Iciraest replied.
“You are well informed, my lord,” the knight said surprised.
“That is my job, isn’t it?” the inquisitor replied with a faint smile.
The knight nodded and then quickly led them through the castle. It seemed to the troubadour as if he had suddenly become uncomfortable with his guests and wanted them off his hands as quickly as possible.
They were halted by two guards at a set of large, double doors, even more richly decorated than anything he had seen so far in Terrálh. This was the throne room, the troubadour realized as one of the two guards went in to announce them. A moment later, they could enter.
Statues and banners lined up all along the walls, while a thick carpet covered the floor. The troubadour tried not to gawk. “Inquisitor Iciraest, it is an honour to have you here,” the king spoke loudly, all the way from his throne at other side of the large room.
“It is an honour to be here, your majesty. May your kingdom ever be prosperous and, now that this long war has ended, peaceful,” Iciraest replied and bowed deeply. The troubadour quickly followed his example.
“Alright, that’s enough formalities for now,” the king said as he got up from his throne and headed for a side door. “I’m hungry. Join me for dinner, won’t you?”
Based on the king’s girth, The troubadour could easily see that his majesty had quite an appetite, and probably left his palace only rarely. Iciraest beckoned him to come and they followed the king to a dining room even larger than lord Ovail’s. Several other people were already in the room, talking to each other. They fell silent as the king approached.
“Friends, we have a very distinguished guest tonight,” the king announced. “Please be on your best behaviour for Lord Inquisitor Iciraest of Truth.” he then introduced the three other most important men in the room to Iciraest: Lord Valfiòr, Lord Kinnaire and Lord Wiclàn. Then he took place at the table, and everyone followed his example.
“Lord Valfiòr is the most powerful noble in the country, second only to the king. In fact, he has three of the other lords under his thumb. Some say he even rivals the king in influence. There’s even a rumour going that he has aspirations to overthrow the king and claim the throne for himself, but that rumour was probably started by Kinnaire and Wiclàn. They are Valfiòr’s foremost rivals, and always trying to bring him in disfavour,” Iciraest explained to the troubadour.
As he listened to the Ardaithe’s explanation, a servant poured a dark red liquid into a fragile looking glass. As he picked it up, Iciraest warned him: “Don’t drink the wine. Just pretend to take a small sip occasionally. Like this,” the inquisitor put the glass to his lips and let the drink slowly flow to his mouth, but held his lips tightly closed. Then he put the glass down again. The troubadour followed his example.
“Don’t worry that they’ll notice your glass isn’t empty,” Iciraest said and glanced at Valfiòr. The troubadour followed his gaze and saw the lord devouring the expensive drink. A servant immediately refilled his glass.
“But who would poison the wine?” the troubadour asked somewhat shocked.
“Any of those four might,” Iciraest replied, nodding at the king and the three lords. “Among others that are bitter about losing the war.”
The troubadour nodded in understanding. The war had raged on for longer than anyone could remember and Terrálh had always opposed the Ardaithe. “Surely, none would risk the retribution of murdering the victor’s emissary?” he asked.
“None but those that would shift the blame to another and eagerly provide forged evidence as a show of loyalty to their new masters. Failing that, they’ll do whatever they can to hinder my work here without implicating themselves. This is the real reason I brought you along. I might not survive this investigation, but none of these nobles will ever notice my lowly servant, who happens to overhear everything that I do,” he said, and smiled as if it was an exciting adventure.
The troubadour wasn’t exactly feeling comfortable. Poisoned wine and assassinations were a little more than he had bargained for. Iciraest didn’t seem to mind it at all, even though he’d be the prime target. “It’ll make a great tale, won’t it? Especially if the noble hero dies a dramatic death,” he said amused.
That, the troubadour could hardly argue with.
The banquet seemed to last forever, as new plates of food were continuously brought in to replace the empty ones. Long after he and Lord Iciraest were full, the others were still eating. The troubadour wondered how they could fit so much food in their bellies, but didn’t ask. He just followed Iciraest’s example, sitting patiently at the table and occasionally feigning to sip from the wine.
Eventually, the king got up from his seat and everyone fell quiet. “Thank you all for your wonderful company, dear friends,” the king said and then burped. “Regretfully, I must leave you now, as I have important royal duties to perform with Her majesty tonight,” he continued in a feigned sad tone, unable to resist a wide grin.
The troubadour stared in awe at the king’s undignified behaviour and poorly masked innuendo. Everyone at the table laughed cheerfully as the king drunkenly waggled out of the dining room, which awed him even further.
“That poor woman,” Kinnaire said laughing.
“Don’t be sorry for her. She has many suitors. Handsome ones, too,” Valfiòr replied, equally cheerful.
“Of course they’re handsome. I’m one of them!” Wiclàn boasted and the three of them burst out in laughter.
Is this normal behaviour for nobles?” the troubadour asked Iciraest in disbelief.
“Over here it is, I’m afraid. I tire of this banality as much as you do,” the inquisitor responded. “Come, now that the king has left the table, we can retreat to our quarters as well.”
They stood up and Iciraest asked a servant which rooms had been prepared for them. The servant bowed and led them through several richly decorated hallways and staircases to a pair of rooms. As the troubadour opened the door of his room, he found that the room was just as decorated. It was little to his surprise any more. He decided to just ignore it all and let himself fall on the soft bed.