The group had made it to Arronay just past nightfall, rolling into the starlit city with high marble walls and towers. They could see it for miles before they reached the city as the lights started to dot the main streets and buildings. A long pier stretched out into the waters along the coast, and they could see a number of large ships docked alongside of it.
“What are those for?” Terra inquired.
“Trade ships,” Bayne answered. “They sail to and from several ports, traveling along the coastline. Kyett and Kura, more likely than not. They’re here for Summer’s Veil. You’ll likely see their wares at the marketplace.”
“What about other continents?” Ryan asked. “There’s got to be more to this world than just the Pactlands.”
“Oh, there is,” Nalya said. “But it’s been over a thousand years since we last had any contact with them.”
“What?” Ryan asked. “Why?”
“The Soundless Path. A barrier surrounding the Pactlands– for a thousand years, a strange force has prevented us from traveling beyond these lands. Sound cannot penetrate the path, and all who enter perish soon after attempting to enter. It’s likely that those on the outside of the barrier have been experiencing much the same.”
“Where did it come from? Is it magick?”
“Legends say that during the fall of Eventide, a group of magii erected the barrier. None breathing today could tell you how or why it was done,” Nalya said. She motioned up the road a bit further as they rode down the streets of Arronay. “Just up ahead is the King’s Consul. We’ll stay the night there– the beds should be comfortable.”
“I’m not tired,” Ryan said. “In fact, sleep’s the last thing on my mind right now.” He looked around the surrounding buildings. From what he had seen in Ansem, he had assumed the rest of Halen to live in flimsy shacks, but not here. These buildings were tall, shaped from stone and appeared to be one solid mass. Nalya had explained that their construction was probably the result of a Geomagi architect. Still, he found them fascinating, and he wanted to see more.
“Aye there’ll be things to do this night,” Bayne said. “Summer’s Veil has no shortage of events.”
Finally, the group arrived at the King’s Consul. Nalya directed them to park in the stables, which surprised a stable boy so much that he yelped, and scrambled for higher ground, but Nalya lured him down with a silver coin. He climbed down and accepted it, with the promise to watch over the strange beasts as though his job depended on it. Seeing the mark of Halen on Nalya’s lapel, he knew that it probably would.
By the time everyone was settled, had unpacked their belongings from the quads, Nalya had secured them two rooms.
“One for the girls,” Terra said. “And one for the boys.”
“Well, now that that’s over with,” Ryan announced. “How about some munchies?”
“Munchies?” Nalya asked.
“He means food,” Terra said. “Don’t mind him, he’s just being difficult.”
“Ahh,” Nalya said. “Well, I suppose we could do with a real meal. Perhaps some entertainment?”
“Sounds great,” Ryan said. “Any place in town with live music?”
“You know. People playing instruments and singing and whatnot on stage. Don’t tell me you guys don’t do that.”
“No, no. We do that,” Nalya said. “I’m still just trying to get used to the way you speak– I recognize the words sometimes, but they don’t make sense when spoken in connection with others.” She waved her hand. “No matter, I know just the place. Not far from here, there’s a place where the upper class go to enjoy good meals and listen to performances. Each night people come from all over the Pactlands to perform for the people who dine, mostly wealthy men and women, or nobility.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he looked over to Terra. “Think I should bring the guitar?”
“That’s a great idea!” Bayne exclaimed. “Aye, I’d love to see you play. You’d show up those lute tinkerers and flute blowers, that’s for sure.” He winked. “Might even catch the eye of a rich noblewoman.”
“Bayne!” Nalya shot. “Honestly.”
“What? He’s a good lookin’ lad. There’s no sense in letting him go to waste, now is there?”
Nalya merely rolled her eyes. Ryan was grinning ear-to-ear.
“Well, if we’re going out, I’m not wearing this,” Terra said. “We’ve been traveling, and I’d like to get cleaned up first. Is there a bath?”
Nalya nodded. “In the back,” she said. “I have to bathe as well, I’ll meet you there.”
Terra blinked. “Meet me there?” She stared at Nalya blankly. “Wait, we have to bathe together?”
Nalya nodded. “Of course. What did you expect?”
“No running water, Terra,” Ryan said, making the point. “No indoor plumbing, bathing here must work like it did in ancient Rome.” He looked to Nalya. “Let me guess, a bath for men, a bath for women?”
Nalya nodded. “Is that so strange?” she asked.
“Well,” Terra began. “Back home, bathing was more or less a private matter.” She let her gaze linger on Nalya for a few moments, and then shrugged. “Whatever, when in Rome, right?”
“You mean Arronay, don’t you?” Ryan asked.
Between the five of them (and Quick), it didn’t take long to bathe– the water was piping hot, and the little sponges that were left on the ridge of the men and women’s baths helped to quicken their cleaning tasks. But a little less than an hour later, everyone was dressed and ready to go. Even Cale had put on some dressy clothes for the occasion, opting for black jeans and a black dress shirt rather than the khaki and flannel he’d been wearing since they’d left Dunsmith. Quick took his usual spot in Terra’s bag, and Ryan strapped his guitar over his back.
A few minutes later, they had arrived outside of an establishment called the Duke’s Chalice. From within, they could hear the gentle notes of an old-time ballad flowing out. It reminded Ryan of some of the old Celtic styles he’d heard in the past– reminiscent of Greensleeves or The Cremation of Dull Care. Once they entered, a spindly little man wearing what for all intents and purposes was the outfit of a head waiter ran straight up to Nalya and Bayne.
“Lady Nalya! Master Bayne, I had no idea you were in the city!” he exclaimed, then looked to Ryan, Terra and Cale. He seemed unsure how to react to them for a moment, but he soon spied Ryan’s guitar case.
“You’re a player?” he asked.
“Excellent!” he said, and clasped his hands together. “And what instrument will you be playing? A lute?”
Ryan scratched his head. He knew that nobody from Halen had even seen a guitar before, or even heard of one for that matter. “Kinda,” he admitted. “It’s like a lute, except it’s got more strings. It’s called a guitar.”
“A guitar?” the waiter asked. He cocked his head to one side, and then looked at Nalya. “Can he play well?” he asked.
Nalya nodded. “It’s a beautiful instrument,” she said. “And he plays it with expertise.”
“Excellent. May I have your name, sir?” he asked.
“Ryan,” Ryan replied. “Ryan Stills.”
“And from where do you hail, Ryan Stills?”
“Uhh. Dunsmith,” he said sheepishly.
The waiter looked to Ryan, and then over to Terra. He looked as if he were going to ask a question, but shrugged it off. “No matter,” he said, then turned. “Come with me and I shall seat you. You will be called up to perform soon.”
They followed the little man as he led them to their seats, a round table near the center of the room. On the a large man was wrestling unsuccessfully with a lute. To Ryan, it looked more like he was trying to strangle it into submission.
“I will bring your meals out immediately,” the waiter said, and then bowed as he stepped away, stopping briefly by the stage to whisper something to the master of ceremonies before continuing on out of sight.
Within a few moments, their meals were delivered. A heaping plate of salad, covered in a sort of gravy sauce with a side of chicken– or turkey. Ryan couldn’t quite identify it. The drumstick was larger than any chicken leg he’d ever seen, but it tasted just like chicken. He refrained from asking about it.
Ryan watched as musicians ran through various pieces, some receiving heartfelt applause, others receiving jeers and catcalls from the audience. The latter almost never finished playing their pieces.
“Tough crowd,” Cale said. He looked to Ryan. “You sure you’re up for this?”
Ryan nodded. “At least it’ll be nothing they’ve ever heard before.”
“What are you going to play?”
“Not sure yet,” Ryan said. “But it’ll come to me.”
“Aye, but it better come soon then,” Bayne said. “The fool who’s playing now came in just before we did. I wager you’ll be called up next.”
The man on stage managed to finish his piece, and got a steady applause. Not the most energetic he’d heard since arriving, but enough so that the man playing bowed and blew kisses in thanks. Sure enough, the master of ceremonies took to the stage and spoke.
“Thank you, Hollan Geer of Kura!” he said. “A beautiful piece of Halish composing, I should say.” He scanned the crowd, and his eyes fell on Ryan. “Next we have a newcomer to the Duke’s Chalice, hailing from a place called Dunsmith. Ryan Stills is his name, and his instrument of choice is… a gwitar.” Ryan winced at the gross mispronunciation.
“That’s your cue,” Terra said. “Don’t freak them out.”
“Don’t worry,” Ryan said, standing and hoisting his guitar case on his back.. “I think I’ve got just the thing.”
He walked up to the stage and placed the case on the ground. When he pulled the guitar out, he could hear several patrons chattering about it. He sat on the stool and began to tune it, making sure all the notes were what he wanted them to be.
“Hi there, folks,” he said. “This was a popular song back where I come from, but I doubt anyone here has ever heard it. Just so everyone’s aware, I did not write it myself, but a musical group calling themselves Finger Eleven wrote this a few years back. It’s called Thousand Mile Wish.”
And with that, he started to play. People were beginning to pay attention to the surprising array of notes that his instrument played. But when he started to sing along with it, even more people started to look up at him, nearly forgetting their meals and their company. A strange silence fell over the crowd.
“I think they like it,” Terra said, observing the other patrons. Even the waiters had stopped to admire the music.
“Aye,” Bayne said. He seemed to be trying to shush her, cocking his ears in Ryan’s direction.
“They’ve never heard this before,” Cale said. “I don’t think rock, even light rock is something people around here are used to.”
Terra nodded. “Obviously.” She looked back at Bayne. Even Nalya seemed enrapt by Ryan’s song. Everyone was speechless. Terra smirked.
Even as Ryan neared the end of his song, people still remained speechless. When he finally finished and looked out among the crowd, there was stone cold silence. Terra watched as Ryan shifted nervously on his stool.
But then, a man at the back of the room stood and began to clap. After a few moments, more joined him, until there was a roar of applause coming from within the Duke’s Chalice. Terra could even see passersby looking in, trying to find the source of the strange music.
“Brilliant!” The MC declared. “Absolutely brilliant!” He took to the stage and shook Ryan’s hand vigorously. “In all my years at the Duke’s Chalice, never have I heard such music! Dunsmith, you say you’re from?”
“You’ll have to forgive me, Ryan Stills. I personally have never heard of the place, and I’m sure many of the night’s patrons are struck with curiosity. Where exactly is Dunsmith?”
Ryan stood and smiled. “Dunsmith is originally from another world,” he admitted. “But now we call the Disputed Lands our home.”
The MC was struck speechless for a moment. “Another world, you say?”
Ryan nodded. He noticed the people chattering in the crowd, many with dismissive faces. He didn’t care if they believed him or not– he knew the truth, and they’d heard a great deal of it with their own ears.
The applause nonetheless continued, and several eyes snapped over to the table where he had been sitting when a bright flash erupted in the room. Terra had snapped a picture of the occasion.
“Well, thank you Ryan Stills, you’ve given a great gift to our ears tonight,” the MC said. “And please know that you’re welcome to the Duke’s Chalice at any time. How long are you to be in Arronay for?”
“Well, my friends and I,” he gestured to the table where Terra, Cale, Bayne and Nalya were seated. “We’ll be leaving tomorrow for Cilasia.”
“Well, then!” the MC declared. “Three cheers for Ryan Stills and his gwitar!”
“Guitar,” Ryan corrected. “It’s a guitar.”
“My apologies. Guitar,” he said, then raised his arms, which caused the crowd to yell and applaud even louder. Ryan packed his guitar back in the case, waved and smiled, and then went back to sit with the others.
“That was awesome,” Terra said. “They loved it.”
“Aye, lad. A thoughtful song. Nearly brought a tear to me eyes.”
“I should say so, young man,” a voice said from behind him. “Very fetching, very original. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Ryan turned around to see a short older man dressed in yellows and grays, the colors of Halen. He bowed graciously and stepped closer.
“I apologize for interrupting,” he said. “But I could not resist coming to speak with you. My name is Izon Dueck,” he said.
“We’ve met before, Lord Izon,” Nalya said. “If you remember, last year at Harbinger’s Solstice in Cilasia.”
“Ahh, yes. Lady Nalya Ruus, is it?” he asked. “Daughter of Avirne Sephalon?”
“Well, this is a most auspicious occasion. May I sit?”
Ryan helped pull out a chair between him and Terra.
“Lord Izon, may I introduce to you Terra Murphy, Constable Cale Shephard, my bodyguard Bayne Dalon, and of course you know Ryan’s name already.”
“Indeed. It is good to meet you all,” he said, and then regarded Terra and Cale for a moment. “The three of you would be from this Dunsmith place, correct?”
He received a curt nod from Terra and Cale. He then turned his attention to Terra.
“My dear, I have never seen hair the shade of yours,” he said. “It’s a wonder to behold. How do you get it so red?”
“I use hair dye,” she explains. “It’s not my natural color. I’m normally blond.”
“Hair dye? How fascinating. I’ve heard of dying clothing and other materials, but never hair. Does the color wash out?”
Terra shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “It’s in there until it grows out.”
“Simply amazing,” he said, then turned to Cale. “And you sir. A Constable? A lawman from this place, Dunsmith?”
“Tell me,” he said, then leaned in close. “You’re truly from another world, then?”
“We come from a world called Earth,” Terra said. “It’s a lot different than the Pactlands.”
“Undoubtedly,” he said. “Your strange dress and musical instruments told me that much alone.” He looked towards Nalya and smiled. “You say you leave for Cilasia tomorrow. Do you have business there?”
“We go to speak with the King,” Nalya said. “To petition his assistance in the Disputed Lands.”
“In the Disputed Lands?” He looked to Ryan and Terra. “Your home. That’s where it lies, correct?”
He received a nod.
“I see. Vector’s forces rally in the south, and you seek protection from the General and his men,” he shook his head soundly.
“What?” Terra asked. “You don’t sound very hopeful.”
“The King, bless his heart, is a very kind man. But he’s also very shrewd and careful in matters of politics. The last thing he’ll want is to declare a formal war on Vector, and that may be precisely what he needs to do in order to protect you. How many people are in this town of yours?”
“Around eight thousand,” Ryan replied.
“Eight thousand?!” Izon exclaimed. “Might as well call it a city then!” He shook his head. “I think I should very much like to see this place. I would consider it an enlightening experience to say the least, but I would recommend you do not return.”
Cale narrowed his eyes and shot an accusing glance back at Izon. “What? Why?”
“Well, simply because, lad. The odds are stacked high against you,” he said. He looked at Nalya. “Surely you cannot have led them to believe the King would be able to help?”
Nalya now furrowed her brow. “I believe this conversation is over, Lord Izon.”
Izon seemed taken aback. “I meant no offense,” he said. “Just that–”
“Just nothing,” Cale interrupted. “You can’t come down here and say things like that to us. You can’t tell us our entire journey– our whole reason for coming here is a lost cause. I won’t accept that, and neither will anyone else.” He was starting to turn red in the face. “So, Mr. Dueck, if you’ll excuse us, our meal is finished, and we’ve got no reason to stick around.” He stood up and gestured for the others to do the same.
“I meant no harm,” Izon said. “I just–”
“Mr. Dueck,” Cale said. “I’m not interested.”
Izon’s face turned sour in an instant. “You pretentious buffoon,” he said. “You dare speak to me in a such a way? A Lord?”
“I’ll speak to you any goddamn way I please,” Cale said. “We’re leaving now. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t let me see you again.”
Izon sputtered in protest. Never had be been spoken to in such a way. Never had he been treated so, especially in his own city! He quickly looked to Nalya. “They are fortunate they travel with you, Lady,” he said, his face severe and dark. “Otherwise I would show them their true place, and the three of them would never see the light of another day.” He stood up, turned his back and stalked off.
And with that, the rest of them did the same.
“What was that guy’s deal?” Terra asked as soon as they left the Duke’s Chalice. The waiter gave them a hearty wave goodbye, and Terra politely waved back.
“Don’t believe a word he said,” Nalya said as they turned up the road towards the King’s Consul. “Izon Dueck has long been loyal to Vector’s interests. If he had his way, Dunsmith would be crushed without a second thought. He does not speak for the King, don’t worry.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Ryan said.
“Ach, he’s naught but a bag of wind,” Bayne asserted. “Not to worry. By this time tomorrow he’ll be a distant memory.”
“It’s no matter,” Nalya said, then looked to Terra. “It’s best we get our rest. Tomorrow we’ll see the Seer, and be out of Arronay by noon.”
“What about us?” Ryan asked. “What do we do?”
“You can wait,” Nalya snapped, then winced. She turned to Ryan and wore a sincere face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so brash. There will be events hosted all around Arronay tomorrow. If you would like to browse the marketplace, or see the menagerie, I’ll open my purse for it.”
“Menagerie?” Ryan asked. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s like a zoo, or a circus,” Cale said. He looked back at Ryan. “Animals and performances and whatnot.”
Ryan nodded in understanding. Actually, it seemed like a good way to kill some time. Ryan was still up in arms over many of the different animals he’d seen since setting foot out of Dunsmith and into the Pactlands.
“We’ll go see him come morning,” Nalya said. “After that, we’ll continue. How are the quads doing for fuel?”
“Not well,” Cale said. “We’re down to one jerry can. It might be enough fuel for two of the quads to make it halfway to Cilasia, but not all five. Looks like we’re on foot from here on out.”
“Will the quads be safe in the stables?” Terra asked.
Nalya nodded. “I will pay the Innkeeper to watch them closely,” she said as they came upon the King’s Consul. “Don’t worry, they’ll be here waiting for us.”
Once inside, most of the conversation had died down– the weariness of the day was starting to wear down on them. Before long, Terra and Nalya retired to their room, while Bayne, Cale and Ryan did the same.
Sleep came quickly that night.
“You called for me, Lord Izon?” a voice called softly from the shadows.
Izon turned, his heart nearly jumping out of his chest. The woman that appeared from the darkness of the alley had short black hair, brown eyes, and wore a number of leather belts and straps, several attached to various weapons. During the light of day, she would have been noticed and stopped by city guards, curious as to why such a young girl would need such weapons, but under the veil of night, she would go unnoticed.
“Astara,” Izon said. “Yes, yes I did.”
“Then out with it,” Astara said. “I don’t like lingering around dark alleys this time of night. For a young woman like me, it attracts the wrong sort of attention, and I’m starting to run short on places to hide the corpses.”
“Yes, yes,” he said with a wave of the hand. “Fine. I need you to perform a task for me, Astara.”
“Gold speaks, Izon Dueck,” Astara replied. “Will you pay?”
“Handsomely,” Izon replied.
“Then out with it.”
“Nalya Ruus has returned from the Disputed Lands far ahead of schedule. Come morning I will send word to the Council, but I need you to trail her. More importantly, the three she travels with. You must gather as much information as you can on them– I believe they represent a threat to the Council’s plans for the Disputed Lands,” he said.
Astara nodded. “I can do that.”
“Show yourself to them, but make no threats,” he said. “Not until we can be sure of what they represent. After I receive my orders from the Council, then we shall make our motives known.”
“And if I am discovered?”
“Kill them,” he said. “But Lady Ruus… leave her. She is much too important to our plans to be harmed.”