Sir Peter Cortez took a deep breath – and regretted it instantly as harsh smoke burned his throat raw, and the sickly sweet aroma of trash and sewage assaulted his nostrils. The breath became a cough that sent a blob of yellow phlegm from his mouth. The knight glowered at the columns of black smoke vomited skyward by Aldus Street’s multitude of smithies and glassblowers to a dense, dark haze that obscured the summits of the taller tenements.
“Damn this wretched city.” Peter rubbed his nose with a tan shirtsleeve. When he’d arrived here, the garment had been white. Corber Port had stained it, just like it stained everything else.
Aldus Street: Three carts wide, and two thirds filled by endless progressions of drays rumbling in opposite directions between structures with steep peaked roofs, painted in brown, gray, and smoky black. Those colors also dominated the skin and clothing of the streets denizens, a sullen bunch prone to furtive glances and quick, jerky movements.
Peter glanced at the speaker, an auburn haired woman dressed in faded green, yellow, and red robes. Rebecca: Gypsy. Minstrel. Petty thief. Gossip. And onetime maid to Tia.
Tia Samos of Equitant, kidnapped by a demon and brought to Corber Port. Finding and rescuing Tia was Peter’s whole reason for being here today.
“You said you found something.”
“I did.” Rebecca slithered around so she was in front of the knight. “But are you sure of this? Silam is no trivial foe.”
“Don’t speak that name.” Peter’s fingers curled about the grip of Sunpoint, the bronze knife on his belt, a weapon sanctified by Saint Mithras. If any blade could kill a demon, it was that one.
Silam. Peter’s fingers released the dagger and made a fist. Silam, the demon who’d masqueraded as a mortal. Silam, the hell spawned bastard who’d slaughtered hundreds in an obscene ritual and almost murdered the Solarian Emperor. Once, he’d thought Silam dead, returned to the pit. But no, Silam was to canny for such a fate. And now he’d taken Tia.
No, that wasn’t right. Tia chose to accompany Silam’s strange companion, the short skinny Chou sorcerer. Li-Pang or Chou-Cheng or Russo or whatever he called himself these days. Why she’d made that choice mystified Peter. But no matter. He’d find her if it meant tearing apart half the city.
“But he has magic.”
“And I have a plan.” Peter didn’t elaborate. “Are you sure you found Tia?”
“Pretty sure. Sort of sure.” Rebecca threw up her arms. “Hey, I don’t know. There’s like, a million people in this city. It’s the best lead I have found in weeks. Cute blond woman, big man from Bestia, and a Chou fellow opening a fabric shop in the Burn District. Woman stays put; big guy has a reputation as a bully. Could be them.”
Peter gave the gypsy another glance. Rebecca had been Tia’s confident, not his. She was unreliable. Wanton. A wanderer. But she did care for Tia. And unlike Peter, Rebecca possessed the skills to navigate Corber Ports teeming streets.
“Here you are.” The voice originated from above Peter’s head.
“Decided to join us, Kyle?” Peter craned his neck at the big man’s face as he spoke.
“Academies closed today. Saint Marks Day.” Saint Mark – patron of clerks, scribes, scholars, and students. That closure was also why Peter wasn’t at the School of Practical Law. Kyle nodded his huge round head, unattractive even without the scar that bisected his left eye and cheek. A hideous yellow and orange shirt strained to cover his gut. “Here.” He handed Peter a tiny golden bottle. “Throat salve.”
“Glad you could make it.” Peter uncorked the vial and let a drop of the sweet elixir coat his throat, dulling the inferno.
Rebecca planted her small frame against Kyle’s massive one. “Got some of that stuff for me, big guy?”
“Yeah, sure.” Kyle handed the gypsy a second bottle but kept his gaze focused on Peter. “I got a spell that’ll free Barry.” He didn’t sound confident. “You got a plan?”
Kyle didn’t give a damn about Tia. Instead, the oafish magician thought he could rescue his equally oafish nephew, now Silam’s host. Like that was going to happen.
“I do.” Peter kept his voice clipped, impassive. But his mind roiled with turmoil. The plan was a bastard and a bitch. It could get him expelled from the school even if Silam didn’t kill him. Maybe even arrested. He’d tangled with the bastard thrice before – and twice the demon-mage had handed Peter his ass. He’d survived solely because of Tia’s interventions with the demon. Tackling Silam was something for Inquisitors and Templars – not a hedge knight. But those worthies weren’t doing their jobs, so what choice was there? He’d thought Palo Rubinus, Tia’s employer and friend of the family would join the search – but he wasn’t even in the city and his underlings turned their noses up at him. Peter motioned at Rebecca. “Lead on.”
Rebecca eyed the knight. The gypsy possessed a knack for reading people. No doubt she knew he wasn’t being entirely forthright.
An omnibus – an absurdly elongated carriage pulled by a six horse team - rumbled to a halt near at the intersection.
“The gent said the shops at the end of Aldus, on the corner with Cletus. Best way there is by omnibus.” Rebecca started for the parked vehicle.
“No.” Peter put a hand on Rebecca’s shoulder. Being packed cheek by jowl with sweating, stinking plebes held no appeal for the knight. Besides, it interfered with his plan. “We walk.”
Kyle gave a sigh of relief. Understandable, since getting his mammoth frame through a omnibuses undersized door presented a challenge.
“Ok.” Rebecca set off into the mob, and Peter followed, Kyle belatedly plodding along in their wake.
Three bicycles wove between the lines of carts. Peter caught Kyle eying the contraptions. The big man pedaled the machines clear across the empire during the war. They were far faster than men afoot – and sometimes men on horseback. But not always. Kyle kicked a stone. “I gotta fix mine. Needs a tire.”
To their right, a long wall of blackened brick dominated Aldus Street – a massive manufactory of uncertain nature. Ahead, a wain piled high with crates lurched from a cavernous maw and into the traffic, prompting curses all around. A dozen filthy, sweaty laborers unloaded two more wagons parked right next to the structure. Across the way, women in drab dresses congregated before a bakers shop set at an intersection.
Short green figures in brown rags dragged handcarts laden with brooms and shovels from an alleyway. Peter curled his lips. Goblins. He’d grown to loath the creatures during the Traag War. Good friends had fallen to their wretched ambushes and traps. Supposedly, Corber Port’s goblin populace were different, tamer, more obedient. Peter didn’t believe those platitudes. He wasn’t alone. Rumors blamed the goblins for the spate of deaths amongst the cities rabble.
The nimbler goblins ducked into the street, sweeping dung to the edge, where more muscular specimens shoveled the gathered turds into their carts.
“Away from my wain, you thieving greenskin!” The skinny carter punctuated the statement with a lash to a sweeper.
The goblin flung himself sideways to avoid the blow, only to collide with a second horse that stomped in its traces, attracting the laborers attention.
A burly brown haired man in a tattered black cloak hefted a jagged plank. “Damn greenskin’s, always making trouble.” He took a step towards the goblin as his companions also grabbed impromptu weapons. A fight seemed imminent.
“This could turn into a riot,” said Kyle.
“There was a dustup here just last week. That place got torched.” Rebecca pointed at a charred heap of rubble past the next intersection.
Peter’s gut clenched. He didn’t need a riot. Not yet anyhow.
“Bully Boys!” Rebecca pointed at a clutch of men in steel helms and red cloaks just past the bakery.
Bully Boys – the brutal, corrupt vigils who patrolled the less savory districts of Corber Port, keeping order by indiscriminately clubbing everybody into submission.
“We don’t need this!”
Anger became fear. The street emptied apart from the endless parade of carts.
“Keep walking,” Peter told the others. His aristocratic status offered a measure of protection.
Rebecca pressed herself against the knight. The Bully Boys were not above casual rape.
Ahead, murky light glinted off the Bully Boys dirty and dented armor, giving them a military appearance. No surprise since they’d began as legionaries.
“Ho!” The nearest vigil took stock of Peter. “What brings you here?”
“Business. I have investments hereabouts.”
“Heh.” The Bully Boy motioned at Rebecca. “Fine bit you have there.”
“She’s useful.” Peter mentally urged the men to continue. “My scribe.” Please don’t ask her to read anything. Rebecca could barely read her own name, let alone anything else.
“I bet.” The vigils filed past.
Rebecca exhaled. “That was close.”
Laborers, women, and errand runners returned to the street.
“They still haven’t fixed it.” Peter turned his head to find Kyle staring into a cross street with a deep trench running through its middle. The big man noticed Peter’s glare. “I was here last week.”
“We don’t have time for this.” Peter strode past the intersection, forcing his companions to keep pace.
The neighborhood changed for the worse. They passed several heaps of smoke-blackened rubble where shops and apartments once stood. Laborers tossed charred timbers and stones into large drays. Furtive figures flitted through the wreckage.
“We’re at the edge of the Burn.” Rebecca pointed at blackened heaps of rubble to the north and west.
The Burn, sometimes called the Burned Quarter: a ragged square mile of manufactories, warehouses, and tenements reduced to rubble when the earth shook. Streets had split apart, and structures had collapsed into the catacombs beneath the district. Then the mess caught fire and burned half the district into charred rubble. Choked streets led to food riots. Elsewhere, the quakes damage had been swiftly repaired. Not here.
Peter grunted. Kyle’s wizardry traced Tia to this scene of devastation, but something – counter-magic, dire aura’s from the blaze, or something else prevented him from pinpointing her location beyond that.
Aldus Street ended in a messy ‘T’ intersection with Cletus. The western road headed into a wasteland of charred hovels and scorched shops. Teams of men in filthy rags loaded debris onto wagons.
Rebecca led trio east. The buildings here were in better shape.
A large store dominated by a bright blue façade came into view, just past a building that reeked of alcohol. A banner above the entrance spelled out ‘Typhinia’s Fabrics’ in large bright red letters.
Peter glanced at Rebecca. “That it?”
“I think so.” The gypsy didn’t sound sure.
Peter took in Typhinia’s. Big. Store below, apartments above. Not far from the Fortuna Canal, where Cletus terminated at Tote Road. He mentally tagged that as an escape route if necessary. Main entrance on Cletus. Alleyways to either side, no doubt feeding into a maze of narrow lanes. Back entrance?
“Wait here.” Peter ducked between the buildings and emerged at a courtyard dominated by loading docks for both businesses. Once, a brick wall separated the courtyard from its neighbors, but now half of it was reduced to rubble. Peter scanned the area. Wagons. Teamsters. Laborers. Men in aprons. Crates piled high on both platforms.
A mob of grimy men pushed their way through the ruined barrier. Most headed for the distillery, though some made for the fabric shop. The knight glimpsed crude tattoos of bowls on their arms. Dolemen. Lazy, villainous scum, part of Corber Port’s underclass, dependent on a daily grain ration for survival.
Six or eight dolemen clambered onto the breweries dock and clustered around the employees. “We’re thirsty,” croaked a gap-toothed fellow with a patch over his left eye. “Give us a drink.”
“Yeah, give us a bottle. You can spare it.” The stick-thin speaker punctuated the statement by ripping a plank off a crate.
A fat man in a thick apron rapped the crate-breaker’s knuckles with a club. “Out of here, scum. Told yah before, no free samples.”
“You give, or we take,” said a third doleman, leaping to the loading dock. A jagged bit of metal flashed in his hand, and blood spurted from a laborers side.
Peter tore his eyes from the scene. Dolemen continued to pour into the lot behind the buildings. Most focused on the brewery, but others were poking at the carts and crates behind the fabric store. Perfect.
Tension filled Peter’s frame. Now or never. He leaped onto the fabric stores platform, stepped behind a man in a brown tunic, and pushed him into the dolemen. Then he stuck his head through the cargo door. “Thieves! We’re being robbed!”
Oaths came from the shop’s interior. Feet pounded.
Peter stepped back and found himself nose to neck with a teamster almost Kyle’s size.
“Why’d you push Mark?” The fellow raised a ham-sized fist.
Peter slugged the man’s ample gut. Foul breath escaped the carters breath in a massive ‘whoosh’ as he turned, took two steps, and fell hard into a wagon bed. By then, the knight was already back in the alley.
“Hey, what’s going on?” An aura of command radiated from the deep voice.
Silam? Peter hoped so. He dashed back to Cletus Street.
Rebecca raised her hand. “What’s going on back there? It sounds like a fight.”
No time for this. “Follow me.” Peter ran through the fabric shops main entrance. Stopped. Racks of shirts, pants, tunics, gloves, hats, and scarves pressed in from all sides. Three older women blocked one aisle, carefully studying white dresses with colored dots. Past them, an older man stared uncertainly at a cream scarf. Where was Tia?
“Can I help you?”
The feminine voice came from Peter’s right. He turned and spotted a thin blond woman standing behind a counter. “Tia?”
“Huh?” Confusion spread across the girls features. “I’m”-
Damn. Silam must have bewitched her. “I’m here to rescue you.” Peter extended his hand and gripped the girls arm. “We need to leave before Silam returns.”
“Unhand me, you rogue!” The girl jerked against Peter’s grip. “Barnabas, come help me!”
“Coming, dear,” bellowed the same deep voice from the loading dock. “The dolemen are making trouble out back again. They clobbered poor Culpo good.” The voices owner appeared. Dark eyes set beneath short brown hair regarded Peter. Fine grey and black fabric encased the speakers frame. “Let go of my wife.”
“Wife?” The woman’s arm slipped through Peter’s grasp.
“Yes, wife.” The man’s voice was hard enough to chip stone. “I’m Barnabas Till, once of Bestia.” He motioned at the woman. “My wife, once Typhinia Coleridge of Equitant. We were married last month at Saint Andrews.”
“I thought she was somebody else.” The words sounded weak in Peter’s ears.
“She’s not Tia.” Kyle’s voice came from behind Peter. “He’s not Barry.”
“And this guy,” Rebecca came into Peter’s field of vision with a short, thick sallow skinned man in a green robe – “is not Li-Pang.”
“Tia Samos of Equitant,” said Peter in a voice drained of energy. “My fiancé. Kidnapped from Copiah House in Bestia by a large peasant partnered with a short chou man. We tracked them to Corber Port, but” he shrugged his shoulders.
“Tia Samos.” Typhinia nodded. “Yes, we were at Solace’s University together. I heard she’d met with misfortune.”
Barnabas exhaled. “Corber Port is the largest city in the world. I wish you luck.”
“This ledger requires your attention.” The Chou man bowed and thrust a black tome at the proprietress.
Typhinia accepted the book. “Thank you, Wong.” She returned her attention to Peter. “Well, Sir Knight, my esteemed father, Nathan Coleridge, bought this fine establishment last month and charged me with its restoration. We boast a fine selection of wool and cotton. With Master Wong’s connections,” the sallow-skinned man bowed, “I hope to add Chou silks to our inventory.”
Peter bowed. “Sorry to trouble you, my lady. My eagerness blinded me.” I don’t need word of this debacle getting back to the school.
Rebecca nudged Peter. “Since we’re here, we’d like to browse your selection.”
What? Oh. They’re merchants. We’ll buy our way out.
A smile appeared on the proprietresses face. “I’m certain we can accommodate you.” Her gaze fell on Kyle. “That shirt is a travesty. I have a nice sturdy green one that would suit you much better.” She inspected Peter. “Your attire is a bit thread worn."