The shadows of the early evening had grown long and languid; stretching out from the trees and rocks of the western tracts so their length was too great to measure. Everything around them from the trees and grass up to the wisps of cloud in the open sky were tinged with a golden incandescence of the late summer’s day. Joram could not make himself admire the countryside, his eyes were fixed on the near distance, scanning each rock and tree for attackers looming beyond sight. Real or imaginary; for him there was no difference, they were everywhere and ready to strike. He let his focus slip for a moment to listen in on the conversation behind him. “Two dozen barrels of lantern oil seems a bit much to me.” The melodious voice that followed the first was full sycophancy “The keep had just received the shipment prior to out arrival my liege, the surplus is destined for the southern garrisons at next moon. Along with several other of the items in the manifest.” Arcan’s voice bothered Joram to no end, it was a constant struggle to avoid striking the man in anger, making his duties ever harder. “And how many men are posted to the south?” The king seemed to retain his patience with Arcan, no doubt inoculated by the man’s usefulness. “As yet just over fifteen thousand, with another five to follow from the outlands. They should be up to standards by the fourth of next month ready for any eventuality.” Joram did not know what it was, the man spoke well and with a voice deserving of a court bard, it just irked his wits. “This won’t affect the flow of recruits to the navy? Keeping the border intact is nothing if we can’t hold onto the Pinch.” “Of course my liege, we will be in Tarkan within the hour with the full inspection to take place in the morning, the fleet is at full strength as you will see, with more ships being built every day at the Morralla harbour.” The conversation trailed off as Joram put his focus back onto the countryside, trying to ignore Arcan for as long as possible. Evening had set in at last and the golden glow had made way for the deep purple twilight as the last light of the day slipped across the fringes of the horizon. It was far too late to be out this close to the border with the king in tow. Arcan had insisted they would make it to their destination before sunset and there were too few of them to keep things safe in the dark. Lighting torches would keep the way clear but their night sight would suffer, it was a necessary risk against losing track of all the members of the procession and one Joram took with a stern order. The darkness had soured the moods of all present and for a while the group passed through the night in silence, the nearby trees looming like fierce beasts in the flickering light of the torches. Joram kept his guard up, so focused on the road ahead he didn’t notice the horse come up behind him bearing the King. “Not long left sire, half a league maybe before we hit the ridge.” “Good, good…” The king mumbled obviously uninterested by their speed. “Did you see to the task I gave you.” The king looked back at that moment, his attempt at nonchalance hidden in the dark from the other riders, it was clear he was uneasy, but not about the dark woods about them. “Prestyn rode out this morning heading north, he should have caught a ship across by now.” “This Prestyn, he can be trusted? Absolutely?” “Without a doubt sire. He’s been with the Royal Guard since he was fifteen without a blemish on his record.” The king nodded solemnly, his mind obviously elsewhere. Joram turned his gaze back to the path ahead; too late. A quarrel took him in the midriff, fired from somewhere out ahead. As he doubled over with the force of it he could hear more cut through the air and the cried of men and horses from behind. He lifted his head to cough out an order and saw figured dressed in black slipping out as if from the night air itself. Too many to count. With a last desperate effort he ripped the sword from his side and wheeled his mount round in search of the King, a frantic gaze only found an empty saddle. As Joram looked once more something pieced his side and shot up into his chest, and darkness followed quick on its heels. Wydin Market Plaza was seething with people, from one end to the other, the whole centre of the city full. There was scarcely an hour of the day when it wasn’t full but this was something different. In places some people stood in the fountains bordering on forums and the low recesses where vendors usually hawked their wares were packed more than ever. At the southern end near the walls of the Palaces, Tregan sat comfortably on the balconies of the Sable Maiden, the exclusivity of the establishment giving them some respite from the clamour below and a full view of the currently empty stone benches. The seats on the balcony were all full and conversation was staggered by awaited expectations, minds abuzz with the rumours of the last week and the mood that had been growing, or perhaps festering, over the last months. Hokellai made an attempt at starting conversations, obviously on edge about the coming events. “I still think it’s a Tanithan trick, all to convenient at the border like that.” Tregan nodded absently, he considered for a moment rebuking the statement, but was put off by the wave of silence that passed through the crowd, then he saw it himself. High above on the grand walls of the Rekethali Palaces, the gilded portcullis was slowly rising and six figures in silken hooded robes descended the stairs onto the stout balcony set in fortress-like walls. With no crenulations or walls blocking view of the figures, the entire plaza stood with their eyes fixed on the figures. The six lined up at the edge of the balcony and five sat down upon the row of stone benches, the only thing besides themselves on the balcony. The last one to remain standing slipped off his hood. “On this is the fifth day of Arrosol, The high council grants audience to its people and all those within the walls of this fair city, as it was in the days since Jatear and will be as long as these walls stand.” His voice loud and booming, Tregan had no problem hearing him as close as he was, the silence of the plaza carrying his words further into the city. The only motion upon the plaza was the rows of guard clearing the crowds back from stone blocks at the foot of the wall, where the public could stand before the council and have their questions answered in truth. Although that was what it said in the Jatear’s scrolls, precedence always left the questions with appointed representatives of the people, who lined up behind the wall of soldiers holding the crowd back. Attalay, Chief of the council sat down after making the proclamation, lifting his hood once more. There were a few moments of silence before the first of the representatives took to the block, climbing the narrow stairs to stand a good ten feet above anyone else in the plaza including Tregan. He could see it was Ruphos, guildmaster of the masons, a notoriously stubborn man, akin to his profession. “The People Speak. Noble council members, for three months now my guild has been promised tax exemption on all contracts from the public treasuries yet we have still been charged for quarry shipments destined for the new viaduct.” Ruphos was a loud and booming man, but even his voice was overturned by the rising boos from the crowd, some people were throwing fruit at him, and despite their efforts, the crown was too big for the soldiers to do more than watch. Ruphos grew red and after a moment acquiesced, leaving the block. The people here today had come for one reason alone; to hear the council’s public declaration on the disappearance of King Reden of Tanith and they would accept no delay. At last the next representative ascended to the block. It was Lymia, the spokesperson for the noble districts of the city, her slow walk up the stairs as graceful and proud as a goddess’. It was no surprise her support from the people at large had been growing every day. At last she crested the block to speak, her words as loud as they were honeyed. “The People Speak. Rumour in the city has been at war with sense for the last week since first word came across the narrow sea of King Reden VII disappearance. Men driven to violence in arguments over causes, good people fled in fear of imminent war. High Council, let your voiced calm the hearts of Rekethal and tell us the fate of Tanith’s King if it is known.” Hushed silence followed before Attalay stood up again, removing his hood to speak after what seemed aeons. “The Council Listens. When word of this tragedy reached our ears, envoys were sent at once to Tanith to offer aid in searching for Reden. Though we could not allow their soldiers to cross our borders in search of him, all assurances were given to assuage their fears. Your council has sent the fifth legion across the Narrow Sea to aid in this matter.” Just ad Lymia was about to reply a cry went up near the front of the crowd, a man in red was shouting out at those around him. “They didn’t deny it! Not a single denial, just crafted words to fool you, THEY did it, THEY DID IT!” Before even the soldiers reached him, the crowd had descended on the man and fighting broke out below the Block, the crowds so dense Tregan could see the heaving ripple through to the other side of the plaza. Just as things were escalating Tregan caught sight of a man in blue uniform pushing through the crowd towards the front, where there was space people parted before him giving him room and at last Tregan saw why. The blue was the deep dark hue of Tanithan military. Where fighting went on it did not subside but the peaceful members of the public turned their eyes to the front when the Tanithan soldier had reached the line of Rekethali troops guarding the Palace before the Block. Tregan could see better now the man was apart from the crowd, the soldier seemed somewhat dishevelled from travel, a sported at least one wound. Though he could not hear what was being said it was clear he was arguing with the guards, at last beginning to shout loud enough to be heard. “Damn you, I have the right to stand before the council, it’s in your blasted scrolls, let me by!” The yells carried and soon the brawling down the line erupted again at the sign of the Tanithan, soon it was full scale rioting. Above Attalay shouted to let the soldier through but by then it was too late. The crowd had exploded under the pressure of day, too many people on edge set alight by fear and hatred. The soldiers finally broke and fled back to the Palace gates, the angry mob breaking through. Tregan could not see what had happened to the Tanithan soldier, lost somewhere in the crowd, he hoped the man hadn’t been ripped apart by the crowd, after the King’s disappearance that could be the final straw before outright war began. The high council all stood now, gawping at the riots below, far above harm they looked to another before returning behind the portcullis. Tregan looked back at the rioting throng below. Perhaps he was wrong, perhaps outright war had already begun. “This is a disaster.” Attalay rubbed his head with one hand, massaging his forehead in an attempt to calm himself. “More like a farce. The mob was ready to explode and that bitch Lymia threw in the torch.” For a member of the council, Fustis was rather uncouth yet his experience governing the northern provinces had proven invaluable when he was brought into the city last year. As crude as his words were, they were also right. “The way she swaggered up so calmly and down again even as the rioting started, fork-tongued whore.” “That is no way to speak of the Lady of Rekethal.” Demmna was more polite, but her protestations were half hearted, and the emphasis on the title showed her disdain. “Pah, Lady of my arse more like. No land to her name so she takes on the country as her estate? How noble of her. After the damn rioting and this dark business with Tanith there may not be any of it left for her to take.” Attalay coughed. “As much as I enjoy listening to you two babble on about Lymia like tavern-maids, perhaps we should be discussing said dark business as is the purpose of this meeting?” Demmna frowned, looking at the door. “What about Vandin, Erco and Mushen?” “They won’t be joining us. Vandin has taken ill after today’s mess, Mushen has gone back to tend to his soldiers across the sea and Erco. Well, Erco was never one for the more sensitive matters and there are none more sensitive that this.” “The Kidnapping” Fustis nodded, staring into the middle distance unfocused. “Indeed, the border was bad enough before this, and then Reden goes missing two leagues from Torsun! The Tanithan army will lose their patience soon enough and come looking for him and nothing we can do will stop them starting this damnable war again.” Fifty years of his life spent working to make Rekethal a prospering nation, and after the last war Attalay was determined not to see another before he died. “Perhaps Mushen’s absence is fortuitous, that man is practically begging for a war.” Demmna; none were more practiced at stating the obvious. Snapping back Fustis spoke again. “For all we know the cur was the one who took Reden, I wouldn’t put it past him. In fact I’d put money on it” Attalay nodded at the sentiment, Mushen was capable of it, but he didn’t know whether the man would actually go through with it. “Be that as it may we are in a difficult situation to say the least. Tanith will be after war by next moon if Reden doesn’t appear and we have no way of knowing if they’re behind it themselves or not.” “Reden is a fair man” Fustis objected. “Of course, but he has many more Generals than we do, and some that would make Mushen seem a pacifist.” Demmna finally added her comments. “But what can we do? If we send soldiers to scour the border regions, Tanith will see it as mustering troops for invasion.” “True, discretion is required and for all we know Reden could be half the world away from the border by now, into Tanith or anywhere. The Legions wouldn’t have the speed or the freedom to find him.” Fustis was thinking again, and after nodding to himself he spoke once more. “What we need is a search party from outside the army and even outside Rekethal if we can risk it. So failure can never lie with us if Tanith takes them. It’s the only action we can take that won’t risk further exacerbation of this mess and perhaps the only one that can put a stop to this situation.” Surprisingly concise and polite, Fustis’ plan was as good a one as they could afford, and without other options it would have to be done. “Do it, get word out into the city markets of a job going, there should be plenty of travellers and foreigners ready for the work. We can set up a meeting in your warehouses by the docks and hire this search party of yours. Make sure not to tie it to the council.” Fustis nodded. “Still, it’s a daunting task for simple townsfolk and the like; we may need to give them more assistance than that if they’re to have any chance at all.” “What about the Tanithan?” Of course, Demmna wasn’t always obtuse. “He’s still unconscious from the beating the mob gave him. We won’t know what he came for till he wakes up, if he ever does.” “I have a feeling he may have something to do with this, he had no messages with him?” Attalay was almost more worried about this than the rioting, a lone Tanithan soldier coming to Forum Day. “None down on paper, if he did it was likely too sensitive to write down, the only word he got out before he passed out were ‘Sergeant Prestyn’ which is either his name or someone he was looking for.” Attalay mulled it over with a frown. “When you have the candidates Fustis, if they’re reliable enough bring them into the palace to see the Tanithan, if he’s woken. Demmna, find whatever healers you can, hire a damn guildwitch if you must. Just get the man awake.” The two of them left him then and Attalay slumped back down into his chair, looking across his desk at the open door of his offices. He would not allow another war, not after the rebuilding it had taken over the last ten years. Not after countless nights of bureaucracy and negotiations keeping the people fed and the bordering nations appeased. He would not stand for it.