It had been raining on and off throughout the morning, a band of dark, heavy clouds settling over the city. For the moment it had halted, though there was a slight mist in the air. A miserable day, biting, with the wind and a damp that rotted at the bone. Disciple Hieran tramped, disgusted, through the streets to the Morning grounds, his foul mood made worse by the sight of two palanquins passing him on the road. He should have been used to it by now, but it still galled him that the Disciple of the Adept of Lastl did not have the coin to afford a rented palanquin in the rain. He cursed, not the first time, the Council for joining him to the greatest miser in the Realm. Not just a miser but a doddering old fool, more interested in his scrolls and specimens than the alkemyc arts. So, rather than practicing the art for which he had suffered years of training and disappointments, Hieran spent his days as the Adept’s errand boy.
No, it had all been disappointment and dreams denied since he had come, a supplicant, to the Council eight years ago. He had barely been a man then, though he was already a thaumaturge of some repute in his village Quilran, near Takyl. People came from villages over two days’ journey away just to have him heal their broken bones and the like. Unaware that there were men such as he in villages across the Realm, though few who were prodigies in thaumaturgy as he was, Hieran got it into his head that he should appeal to the Council to join their ranks.
And so, at fifteen, he had set out from home for Craitol, the Qraul’s city, to plead his case before the Council of Adepts. It was a harrowing journey for one who had hardly gone more than a day or so from Quilran. He spent a night in Takyl and was robbed and beaten and then spent another week on the streets of the city, begging for food and trying to find someone who would pay for his skills. When he had gained what he thought was enough coin for the journey he left Takyl, setting out for Craitol. His first two nights he spent at the roadside inns eating and drinking his fill and taking a girl to his room, only to find that his funds were nearly exhausted and the opportunities to earn more, which he had foolishly assumed would be there, were nonexistent. The rest of his journey he spent his nights in ditches under Senteur’s heavens and even had to spend two days outdoors in Craitol itself until he managed to convince the gatekeepers at the Council’s school that he was not some mere vagrant.
Fours years as a pupil passed with rigorous study of alkemya and its related arts. When he was deemed ready for elevation of rank, he submitted himself to the Council for testing, a grueling two-day affair where he had to demonstrate his abilities at drawing forth the astral aspects of various elements and shaping them into seeds of alkemy. He was judged to be of the highest proficiency and was admitted to the Council’s inner circle, though they felt him lacking in some critical faculties and so named him a Disciple rather than an Adept. He should have been happy, for most who passed the tests—and there were many who did not—were left to the Council’s outer circle to pass their days as unjoined conjurors, little grander in the scheme of things than a village thaumaturge. But instead, he was crushed by his failure to be named an Adept, a loss made all the keener by his joining to the Adept of Lastl. That hurt had not been lessened by the passage of time, mostly because his master Tehh was a man he thoroughly despised. And he had to suffer to submit, all his skill, the very astral of his being, to the service of that man, never his to be the guiding hand.
The Morning Grounds were not far from the Palace and the coliseum. Nearest the street was the public match ground and attached to it were the Morning’s betting and performing halls. Beyond that, and behind a wall, were the barracks and training fields for the players and a larger performing hall where the Morning’s musicians, actors, and dancers would put on their grander performances. There was a match set for the afternoon, the Morning’s third rank against Midday’s, which was the reason Hieran had to suffer the rain. He praised the Gods that he would not have to endure the stands.
He went to the wagering hall, which was empty but for a few bettors and the usual hangers-on, stopping first at a stand near the entrance to buy a dala drink to warm himself, before beginning to wander around. He didn’t have long to wait – a bookmaker approached him almost immediately. The man was short and a little stout, with a mess of hair that was starting to thin. His face was guarded in the way all such men were and he nodded a greeting at Hieran, which he returned in kind, neither of them particularly caring for the other’s name.
“What have you?” Hieran asked.
The bookmaker shrugged noncommittally. “Depends, depends. Suppose you’re looking for some asyl. I know some people who have dealings with some Enir traders. Long story, but they just got their latest supply last week. Very good quality, you cannot find its like in this city. You’re a man of quality, I can see.”
“Quite,” the Disciple said. “That’s not what I’m interested in today, though. I’m wondering about the odds for today’s match. I’ve heard one of your stringers has gone missing.”
A merest shrug of the shoulders. How am I to keep track of the comings and goings of these players?
“They probably don’t have a replacement just yet, he only went yesterday.”
The bookmaker waved his hand, “Pssh. He wasn’t much of a player, you know. Could hardly manage a toss. He wasn’t moving up the rankings, surely. No one’s going to notice him missing, I can assure you of that.
“No, no sense throwing money after this today. There’s no coin here,” he said, gesturing about the hall. “Besides, it’s going to be raining all day. Who wants to be sitting out in that? Now I have to, mind you, but I certainly don’t encourage such behavior. No, your coin is better spent elsewhere. I happen to have the acquaintance of a few of the finer dancers of the Morning who will most certainly be free this afternoon. Why pay market price in the arches when a finer commodity is on offer and at fair coin?”
“Indeed. Fair coin for fair coin.”
“Sadly, I am on official business.”
“Aren’t we all.”
Hieran smiled slightly. “From the Palace.”
The bookmaker went silent, frowning. Hieran increased his smile. “You wouldn’t happen to know a gentleman named Fennen? A Morning supporter.”
“He was around,” the bookmaker said.
“He was a Palace guard,” the Disciple said, followed by a shrug from the bookmaker. What of it?
“He was killed yesterday, in the alley of one of the Morning drinkeries. You probably heard. His face was disfigured.”
Another shrug, though Hieran thought he detected some nervousness about the man. The wrong answer was now a dangerous proposition. If people were having Palace guards murdered they would not hesitate to do the same to an odds man.
“He owed you money,” Hieran said, gesturing to the betting hall. “A great deal of money, am I correct?”
“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t take his bets.”
Hieran stared hard at the man, waiting. “I wouldn’t know,” he repeated.
“I am not a Magistery, obviously, but I do have the authority of the Gver to arrest you.”
“On what basis?” the bookmaker demanded. It was Hieran’s turn to shrug. What did it matter? He did not take his eyes from the bookmaker’s.
“He has no debts with us,” the bookmaker said at last.
Hieran let out a silent Ah. “How were they settled?”
The bookmaker had turned to stone, not even blinking. He did not answer.
Coincidences and more coincidences, all very convenient. Fennen’s debts gone though not paid, and he murdered. A no-rank ball player vanishes at the same time and no one knows a thing about him past or future. In fact, no one knew anything – how long he had been with the Morning in Lastl, who he had spent time with, what he had done.
He had wandered through the betting hall and then over to the theater where some actors were running lines for that afternoon’s performance and received much the same response. Everyone knew who he was speaking of, but whether they knew what had happened to him or not, they kept silent. A series of shrugs and avoided glances was all he got in return for his questions. How thick they all were.
It was to be expected, of course, and no one had bothered with coming up with a lie yet, which suggested that they did not attach any real importance to the man’s disappearance. They simply saw no need to cooperate with a Palace man. It was not unheard of for a stringer to vanish without reason. They hardly made enough to keep themselves in food, and at some point most were forced to admit that they were not going to rise through the ranks. A merchant wanting to have his rivals good stolen or anyone looking to have some brutality done to someone would come looking for just such a man, and if the money was good enough, well, why bother coming back?
He went into one of the barracks and began speaking to a hungover stringer, having talked his way past the gatekeepers and into the compound. The player’s face was such an ashen color that Hieran felt ill just looking at him. He wasn’t getting much out of the fellow beyond grunts and “Lazul was a good sort,” so he decided to press on and see who else he could find that might volunteer more, or at least let something slip. He was met at the door by two hired swords, northerners by the look of them, who blocked his way with their short blades.
“I am from the Palace,” he told them as though unfurling a passkey.
They did not reply, one of them simply stepping aside to allow him room to pass, jerking his head as he did so. Hieran considered arguing the point but decided against it and allowed himself to be led outside. The two swords walked on either side of him, neither bothering to sheath their swords, leading him along a path deeper into the Morning grounds. They were given a wide berth by everyone they passed, which was disconcerting, and he was taken to what he assumed was the estate of the Morning Chair. It was a sprawling building, three storied, with balconies and what looked like some walled gardens behind.
A servant let them in, observing their passage without expression. Panic seized Hieran once he realized that they were not going to throw him off the grounds. Instead they led him downstairs past the wine cellar, and through another basement before coming through a door to a cell. They stopped and one of the men unlocked the door while the other leveled his sword at Hieran. He glanced about, trying to get what bearings he could in the gloom. The smell of earth was heavy in the air.
Once the door was open, the man gestured with his sword for Hieran to enter to the cell. He almost refused, ready to make his stand there, but thought better of it. It wasn’t like they would kill him; the Chair of Morning could not afford to defy the Gver in such a way. The whole situation was bizarre. Why, if he was on the right track, draw such attention by imprisoning a Palace representative?
Stepping into the cell, he started to say, “This is outrageous, you understand,” and then one of them struck him hard on the back of the head. He fell to the floor with a grunt. Another blow and he felt as though he were floating atop an ebbing tide. He tried to look up at his attackers but he had no sense of whether he was actually moving his head or not. All he could see were waves of color that swirled across his vision. Another blow and the colors went, the gloom descending to dark.
from Realm of Shadows