Alymndes 13: Trades and Crafts

After the arid desert shore of the far North and exotic but hot Dunlago, the coast of Beaulieu at Villefranche, the southernmost city of the Realm, captivated the Dwarves with its wealth of colors and variety of flora. The land reached the sea in vast gentle slopes covered with vineyards, orchards and rich green pastures. The harbor architecture appeared also vastly different from that of Ekan’s adopted hometown. An unbroken twenty-foot high rampart, dotted here and there with angled towers and barbicans, surrounded the whole city. Two more imposing square towers allowing just enough space for the Hope to go through guarded the entry to the deep-water inner harbor. Numnir had explained that a set of heavy chains adorned with hooks would close the gap at night, leaving no chance for any kind of vessel to go through. The fortified city certainly looked formidable. The Dwarves quickly understood that with all the food available in the surrounding lands it could easily withstand a long siege. Leaving his charges to their observation, Numnir joined Petracar on the forecastle where the experienced captain assumed personal responsibility of the wheel.
“Skipper, may I have a word with you while all ears are away from us?”
“Sure, Ironfoot! Although every time you talk to me, I end up with more work in the bargain!”
The big dwarf laughed.
“This is for your own good and you know it! We must also think about your people up north, mustn’t we?”
A somber Petracar replied:
“Don’t we know! We still have so much to do in our village. The slavers did not leave much to salvage and with almost nothing, we have to look after so many widowed women and orphaned children. Were it not for your friend Jonas and your very good Dwarves, our village would be no more. I still have nightmares and seethe every night before hitting my bunk!”
The pain made the man grimace. Numnir put a comforting hand on the Captain’s shoulder.
“Petracar, you know I’m with you on that, and I promise one day you shall have your true revenge when we eradicate that scourge once and for all. For now though, we have to think about the present.”
“Sorry, friend, and my thanks for your care! Now, what did you wish to talk about?”
“That’s better. We don’t want you to go back north on a dry run, do we?”
“Certainly not! But what kind of cargo could I bring back with me, not to mention finding the means to pay for it. And to whom would I sell it?”
“Now, now, let me explain one thing at a time!”
Taking a purse out of his belt, Nunmir handed it to the captain.
“First, this is your due for our trip from your village to this town. By the way, you shall have to find a name for your home. We cannot go on calling it ‘your village’!”
“You’re right. A name would only be proper to begin our new life!”
“We shall have plenty of time to think about it before you depart again. Now, what I want you to do, is to load the goods I shall acquire in Villefranche and deliver them to our King. Do not worry; Hammerblow shall be waiting for you to take charge of the cargo. I shall pay you for the transport a couple of days before you leave so that you can purchase all that you wish to take to your people!”
“That’s very kind of you, Ironfoot! My men and their families shall be in your eternal debt!”
”Captain, do not thank me. This is only the start of it. Once you have unloaded all your cargo and organized the re-building of your town and harbor, you shall have to carry more of our kin, including the Royal family. I already have arranged the exclusivity of our trade and transport with your people, so you had better think of recruiting more men. Choose them strong and single. You have a lot of women to take care of! The Dwarves will gladly help you make your home safe and strong. After all, they are protecting their own business! Petracar, you are a good man and a Dwarf friend. Mark me, it is barely the beginning”
With a last tap on the Captain’s shoulder, Numnir concluded:
“Alright, we have more pressing work to finish. You take care of this ship of yours. I have to organize my Dwarves! Let’s meet tonight around a good bottle of local wine to talk business again!”
A large party was waiting on the wharf of Villefranche harbor when the Hope passed by the two enormous towers flanking the entrance. For all the activity of one of the most important trading centers of the Realm, the inhabitants of the fortress city wondered what kind of guests a royal delegation was waiting for. The ship presently arriving was of no unusual size. No outlandish pennants were flying on top of its masts. Moreover, despite the presence of a full squad of Royal Guards, the tall beautiful dark-haired woman and the high-ranked officers accompanying her were in a very relaxed mood.
“So, Jay, at long last we shall be meeting those creatures of legend! They must be terribly important since you managed to twist Gerhart’s arm into sending this delegation!”
“They are truly! “The Blue Dragon answered to the Royal Guards Captain. “I can tell you, we shall not be able to live without them before long!”
“Tell me, how come you knew they were coming, then?”
“My dear Geoffroy, what would you say if I told you are prying for information that is not for your ears?”
“I would think you have become our new secret service chief!” replied a somewhat miffed Captain.
“Do you know the old one? No, I care very little for your King’s joke of a secret service! I already know all of them, at least the ones established in Beaucastel. They are so obvious and incompetent that I have them report all I need to!”
“Jay, I’ve been meaning to ask you this question for a long time now: Who are you? Frankly speaking, it pisses me off no end to work with somebody of whom I seem to know less and less every day!”
“What language, Geoffroy! How unbecoming to an officer of His Majesty’s Royal Guards!”
“It is my belief that Captain Geoffroy D’Arcourt is falling in love with Geraldine de Blanchefleur. Men, when in love, tend to make the mistake of asking private questions to women with whom they are enamored” cut in Birghit.
An angry Captain turned to face his Walkyrie Sergeant, probably the most feared woman in the whole of Beaucastel after Amrel.
“Desist, Sergeant, will you? What do you know about men’s love anyway? As far as I know, your own few lovers have a sad propensity to put as much distance as they can between you and themselves as soon as they leave your quarters!”
“And what did they tell you? Did they boast about their virility? Did you compare notes?”
Amrel cut their argument short.
“Do you mind? The ship is within earshot! Your Guards might choose to close their ears when they feel the need, but I doubt our guests will! You ought to give a better impression of His Majesty’s might than offer them such silly children’s tantrums! Seeing such behavior from the two most senior officers of the country will definitely see our visitors immediately pack up and go in search of better shores!”
Geoffroy and Birghit were about to retaliate, but a rare icy look from the Blue Dragon stopped them short.
The Hope had thrown its ropes to be tied to the bollards and a plank was carefully placed between the ship and the wharf. The first Dwarves were already descending.
Geoffroy remarked:
“They look like children! If it wasn’t for their beards and their girth, I would be fooled!”
Birghit interrupted:
“I doubt children could carry such luggage. These packs must weigh a good seventy pounds!”
As was their habit, the disciplined Dwarves, all twenty of them, lined up on the wharf in four neat rows standing behind their baggage waiting for Numnir and Petracar to come down.
A sizeable crowd was starting to assemble behind the Royal Guards. It was late afternoon and the harbor vicinity was still very animated. Quite a few remarks of astonishment and curiosity could be heard from the crowd. The dwarves stayed imperturbable as if this was just another day. Just as their leader was putting his feet on the plank, a group of five large men appeared along the wharf, their demeanor plainly indicating their level of intoxication. Amrel judged they were more than likely freshly disembarked sailors who had had a bit too much celebration. They were completely oblivious to her party and retinue. They were also clearly a rowdy bunch.
Their group stopped a couple of yards from the Dwarves and began to proffer rude remarks.
“Look at that! “Their leader started, “Children wearing armor! They even have beards! Has a circus come to town!”
Geoffroy and Birghit were about to jump on the louts, but Amrel raised her hand and said in a low voice:
“You two wait! Certain people are in for a memorable lesson!”
Curiosity took the better of the two officers who nonetheless made ready to intervene in case the situation got out of hand.
The drunken sailors were standing in front of the plank, effectively preventing Numnir from reaching the stone wharf. The bullies were laughing heartily and slapping their thighs, their jokes and comments becoming more insulting by the second. The Dwarves still did not move an inch or show any emotion. Petracar was about to face the sailors when Numnir held his arm.
The Flint Dragon called to his charges:
-“Steelfist! Bronzewrists! Stonefoot! Ironarms! Strongneck! This bunch of unwashed people’s smell offends my nose! Would you be as kind as to help them to a bath?”
Evil grins broke on the faces of the five Dwarves in the front row as they stepped around their luggage and deliberately walked to the surprised sailors. Each Dwarf grabbed a man in both hands, lifted him effortlessly over his shoulders and carried him to the edge of their wharf where they threw their loads unceremoniously into the stinking brine of the harbor. Without further glances, they resumed their positions behind their packs; their faces back to a stolid mask of complete unconcern, although observant onlookers would have noticed amused glints in their eyes.
Geoffroy, containing his mirth with great difficulty, made a discreet sign to his guards to help the culprits out of the water and hand them to the local authorities.
“That was a quick lesson,” commented Birghit, “and to the point: don’t mess with a Dwarf! I think I’m going to like the small fighters.”
Numnir was coming to their group.
“Well met, Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur! I see my message reached you in time! His Majesty is giving us a great honor by sending us his personal guard. But was it really needed?”
“Hail, Ironfoot of the Kingdom Under The Mountain! I do think the Royal Guards are needed until you reach Beaulieu. We certainly do not want your good Dwarves to break too many bones to convince our obtuse subjects you are not to be laughed at!”
Numnir had the grace to show some embarrassment.
“You worry too much. My Dwarves would not engage into any fight without my express orders! That small demonstration should prove enough for the future! I reckon they are very good fighters, but they are more interested in trade and crafts!”
Geoffroy and Birghit exchanged doubtful glances.
“That is the foremost reason of your mission, is it not, Ironfoot?” Amrel genially agreed. “But I’m remiss in my duty. Let me introduce you to His Majesty’s Royal Guards officers. Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt and Sergeant Birghit, may I present Ironfoot, Special Envoy of His Majesty Hammerblow, King Under The Mountain?”
The two officers answered with a crisp salute while Numnir offered a slight bow, keeping his eyes onto the soldiers’ gaze. Geoffroy and Birghit recognized in that instant the mind and manners of a true fighter if need arose. The surprise and amusement they had felt for the Dwarves rapidly turned into respect.
Numnir answered to his sister:
“Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur, I must express my thanks to His Majesty’s Royal Guards for traveling all the way from Beaulieu to welcome and escort us! It is plain that we have been granted the elite army’s service and I sincerely hope we shall be able to justify the great honor!”
“Ironfoot, I’ve heard Dwarves are a laconic lot, but you have certainly proven to the benefit of your whole nation that no one shall fault you on your manners or eloquence!” replied Amrel. “Shall we proceed to the inn His Majesty has reserved for you all? You certainly need some rest and proper food after this long voyage at sea!”
Amrel and her officers took the lead of the procession with Numnir preceding the Dwarves and with the Royal Guards marching at the rear. They did not have to walk very long and soon reached a large two-story edifice where the innkeeper and his staff were waiting at the large entrance. They saluted Amrel and the Royal Guards and invited their guests to enter. The Blue Dragon and the Dwarves immediately complied while Geoffroy and Birghit organized their troops, stationing two at each entrance to signify the establishment was housing Royal guests, although customers would be allowed in after inspection. The rest of the Royal Guards were sent to their temporary quarters with orders to relieve their comrades at regular intervals.
Amrel had chosen that particular inn because it was the only one among the numerous available in town to own acceptable private amenities.
She called the master of the place to introduce him to Numnir.
“Innkeeper, let me introduce Ironfoot, Special Envoy of Hammerblow, King Under The Mountain and his Dwarves. Would you be kind enough to show everybody to their chambers and clearly indicate the way to the bathrooms and privies? I shall be waiting in the lounge with my officers. As soon as our guests are refreshed, take them to the lounge and get ready to serve dinner. All bills concerning our party and retinue are to be handed to me. I shall pay them immediately, but make sure they are written in detail!”
The last was said to the innkeeper’s evident pleasure and relief. The fact was that some nobles had the sad habit to leave without assuming their expenses.
Amrel had actually had a small argument with King Gerhart, back in Beaulieu, who insisted that making use of an inn by a Royal delegation was payment enough in itself. The spat had turned short when the Blue Dragon explained that the State would get little support from its citizens in case of a conflict with such a high-handed attitude. She had also promised a long talk with the King before leaving for her present mission, hinting at finances and taxes.
Alf had always prided himself on being the best and probably the only agent of His Majesty’s secret service worthy of his function and mission. The Superintendent, whose face he had never seen but whom he suspected to know, had ordered him to tail the Royal Guards delegation to Villefranche and report on all their movements and encounters with a special emphasis on Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur and the alien king’s envoy and retinue. He had followed Amrel’s train down to the harbor city in the guise of an itinerant peddler riding an old mule leaving early every morning and letting the Guards overtake him during the day. The route they used borrowed a well-traveled road where quite a few individuals and caravans would be encountered all day long, thus enticing no suspicions or queries. Knowing that the inn would be heavily guarded at least outside, he had simply entered the inn as a late customer, a couple hours after the delegations, having changed his peddler’s guise to that of a fairly well-off trader. He had played the part to the innkeeper, citing his own small caravan camping outside the walls of the city. He had joined the guests of the house in the common room where everybody was having his or her meal, drinking ale or wine and socializing. The unusual customers had attracted a lot of locals providing rare company thanks to the Guards’ no-nonsense scrutiny. The news of the drunkards’ treatment at the harbor had spread downtown and no thug or unwanted individual dared venture in the vicinity of the establishment. That perfectly suited Alf whose listening was not encumbered by some unbridled drinkers’ ruckus. The problem was that the dignitaries and Dwarves present did not provide him with much new information. The Superintendent had this peculiar paranoia of plots and treachery which made him believe that Alf’s targets were in connivance to pull up some kind of coup under the mantle of diplomatic exchanges.
Since the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves and did not show any inclination to retire to their rooms, he decided to withdraw to his chamber early, making a show of reminding the innkeeper to have somebody wake him up the following morning. He then proceeded to the stairs leading to the guests’ rooms. His quarters were on the second floor, but he entered the hall on the first floor instead. It was lined with doors with keyholes, a prime reason for the Royal delegation’s choice of inn apart of its amenities. It had been child’s play to know which room Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur was staying in. Servants were always willing to give any information if you knew how to gain their trust, an easy task to achieve when you considered the generally haughty attitude of most customers in such an establishment.
Jay’s room was the third on the left. This inn was of a very high standing indeed. The doors were even fitted with doorknobs. Only one or two places back in Beaucastel included such luxury.
The door would not open when he tried to turn the knob.
Well, keyholes were easy to pick.
Pulling out a thin needle out of the lining of his sleeve he inserted it inside the orifice and a few seconds later a metallic click told him he had succeeded.
He opened the door, silently entered the bedroom, and closed the door behind him. Although there was no light inside the chamber, the open window let in enough light from the clear night for him to investigate. Jay’s luggage and trunks had been left in a corner unopened. Otherwise, he could not see any other articles on the bed, low table or chair. That was a bit frustrating. Checking the luggage would be too troublesome and risky and he doubted whether he would find anything of note inside. Maybe he should visit the officers’ rooms.
He was about to turn back when a cold feminine voice resounded behind him;
“Alfred de Vigny, bastard son of Charles de Vigny and his maid Jasmine! May I ask what you are doing in my chamber at this time of the night?”
Alf found himself rooted to the floor unable to move. Cold sweat started flowing down his brow and back. His hands grew clammy. For the first time in his dangerous life, he felt overwhelmed by an uncontrollable fear. Who could have come in completely undetected, and how had she discovered his parentage whose secret only a very few individuals were privy to?
“Have I scared you to the point you cannot turn round and look at me?” continued the implacable voice. “Or is it that your pride is so wounded you will not accept your defeat by a woman?”
Alf still could not make his limbs work. He knew that for once he had to confront his better. He could not escape as he had done so many times. But why the hell wasn’t he able to move and face her down?
The voice behind him turned icy.
“Alfred de Vigny! Turn round! That is an order!”
Alf suddenly found his body shift around like one of those dolls with a mechanism hidden inside he had seen at some fairs and performances. The comparison brought a smile on his lips. Well, if he could still appreciate the irony of his predicament, he was not dead yet.
He looked up. In front of him stood the tall dark-haired woman of overwhelming beauty they called Jay. Her expression was neutral in contrast with her hard voice his ears were still hearing. This was the first time he met her personally. His mind gradually came to understand why this single individual could bend King, Queen and the most feared soldiers of the land to her will. He sensed powers of unimaginable proportions behind her eyes fixed on his person. Her calm composure made it the more frightening as he realized she did not need to use those powers. Never had he felt the need to demonstrate his obedience to any other being before, even to the Superintendent who possessed the knowledge of his secrets and accordingly made use of them. But he realized the tall woman in front of him was above whatever petty concern humans had in this part of the world. She was one of the very rare individuals that anybody of worth gladly followed without questions or qualms.
He fell on his knees, head bowed.
“Alf! Will you stop that! What I want from you is not subservience but obedience and cooperation! You are too far an intelligent person to waste! Your choice is simple: follow me and we shall find mutual benefit for the real good of our country and people. Oppose me and you shall discover the futility of your existence. I shall not harm you but I can promise you will feel so useless you shall wish yourself on the other side of the world every time you cross my path or purpose. A third choice would be to exile yourself and start a new life somewhere else, but I know too much of you to realize you are in a constant need of new challenges. I offer you one. Will you accept it?”
Although still overwhelmed by her presence, the spy felt his previous fear slowly dissolve. Could she also instill trust? This had become an entirely new sensation to him. Alfred had lost that particular quality for his fellow humans a long time ago. But how could he have come to that attraction in such a short time for a person he almost ignored everything of?
He made his decision.
“Milady, I shall serve you. But pray answer a single question: how much do you know of me? I shall feel more comfortable for it!”
“I doubt it as I know all of you from beginning to present, the circumstances of your birth, your unhappy youth, the final recognition by your heir provided you kept the secret safe and your subsequent exile. I know how that puny man called the Superintendent came upon the discovery of your secrets and used them to force you into his service. I know the names of this man’s web of spies and informers and I have chosen to ignore them until now like some insignificant nest of ants. But ants sometimes have their use. And through you, Alf, we are going to make them useful. How? By spreading the truth under the guise of stolen information. We are going to give your superior and servants heaps of work to sort out and check, and since all of it will be true, they will in turn become the best source of support we shall ever have instead of having to put up with their inane meddling! Just keep with us in whatever cover you think fit, observe well and I shall give you information on our projects. In the company of a very few chosen ones that I shall introduce to you in due course, you shall be privy to state affairs, I mean the real ones. Do you find yourself up to the task?”
“You are doing a great honor to a man whose mission was to bring discredit to your person only a moment ago. Do you not run a high risk?”
“Alf, I take pride in my being a good judge of people. Moreover, I run little risk in borrowing your services. You should have understood by now that I can look after myself! Now go back to your room. You shall receive my instructions soon enough!”
Alf was about to ask more questions, but he checked himself and with a shrug of his shoulders he greeted Amrel:
“Good night to you, Lady Geraldine of Blanchefleur!”
“A good night to you, too, Alfred de Vigny!”
Alf noticed that nobody had touched the door when he opened it to exit the room. How could she have possibly come in, then?
Ekan was ambling along the wharf as had become his new habit almost very morning. He had made it his task and responsibility to choose all the food served and cooked at the Blue Mermaid. So his first job was to check on new fish arrivals before anybody else, as to have first pick of the best choice. He could have gotten fish more cheaply by visiting the harbor later or sending somebody in his stead, but his customers had come to expect quality and were willing to pay the price. The Black Dragon knew only too well that a great reputation might quickly be lost for good at the slightest neglect or lack of care to details. He had come to get acquainted to a lot of local fishermen who vied for his attentions. An easy relation had developed between the black giant and the folk of the sea. The Blue mermaid had become the reference in town and any produce bought by its cook was no favor to ignore.
Ekan noticed for the first time a young man sitting on the wharf helping a sailor unload the fish from his boat onto the stones by his sides. The wooden boxes containing the fish were not many but unusual in the fact that the catch was carefully aligned on a bed of clean seaweed. Ekan sat on his heels by one of the boxes.
“Morning, good man! When was that fish caught?”
The young man looked at the black man, imposing even in his reduced posture. A pert smile came on his lips.
“Good morning to you, Sir! My father caught it during the night and has just come back. I dare say you will not find fresher fish in the whole of Dunlago!”
Ekan turned his eyes onto the youngster and grinned back.
“I tend to think you are right and I like the look of your fish!” he gave a few gentle taps with his fingertip on some long white scabbard-like species. “That fish is very fresh indeed. I’ll tell you what: I don’t have time to argue or haggle. Here’s some money. Fill one case with what you think is worth the price. Choose a nice variety of fish, crabs and the like. Cover the lot with more seaweed and bring it at once to the Blue Mermaid. Tell the staff there that Jonas has paid for it. If you satisfy me, tell your father I want first pick every day. Bring the fish in a similar case as soon as your boat is unloaded. Agreed?”
Ekan handed a few coins to the young man who looked at his hand.
“But, but… Sir! This is a lot of money!”
“Young man, the Blue Mermaid wants only the best fish and a lot of it! Do you understand?”
The young man jumped on his feet. The Dragon noted he had a pronounced limp due to a shorter leg probably caused by an accident at an earlier age.
“Thank you so much, Sir! This is an honor for my father and our whole family! The Blue Mermaid! Blessed be this day!”
A worried look came on his face after the sudden joy caused by this unhoped-for good fortune.
“But Sir, this is a lot of money you entrust us with, and this is the first time we have met!”
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Naeem, Mister Jonas!”
“Well, Naeem, I believe I can trust you. The Blue Mermaid helps your trade by buying your fish and your father helps us establish our reputation with the quality of our food. Let’s make sure we improve on that, shall we?”
“Yes, Mister Jonas! Thank you so much, Mister Jonas!” answered Naeem with a big bow.
“Good!” replied Ekan. “But don’t bend that low to me. People showing their necks do not call for respect! You and your father certainly deserve better!”
A confused young man locked his eyes on the back of the black giant already returning to his work. That trust granted to him was a rare experience in his young hard life. Prospects certainly seemed a lot better now. He realized at long last that his father, for all his grumpiness, had been right all along in his exactitude in choosing and selling only the best catch of the day in spite of their poverty.
”Naeem, stop drooling and help me with the rest of the fish! We don’t want it to go to waste, do we?”
The young man came out of his reverie.
“Yes, Father! Coming, Father!”
Ekan came back sometime later after a detour at Shahzad’s shop to refill his stock of spices. The old man was a light sleeper and his business was always the first to open. Ekan enjoyed sharing news with the merchant who was helped by one of his granddaughters in daytime. His wife had departed for another world a few years ago, but his ample family was always near to help him.
“Has the fish come?” he inquired to Grazel, the senior lady working in the kitchen, one of very few people in the whole establishment not afraid of Jonas. Actually Ekan always politely deferred to her and constantly sought her advice about cooking and organizing the kitchen. She was the person in charge when he was away on errands, nor did he ever discuss her suggestions and advice when he was present.
“There is a young man just arrived with the fish. He asked about you and is waiting for you at the back.”
Ekan went out to see Naeem waiting for him with two cases in front of him.
“Yes, Naeem? Thank you for bringing the fish quickly! But you should not be staying here, your father must be in need of your service!”
“Thank you for your concern, Mister Jonas! But my father asked me, and I think he is right, that I thank you in person for your willingness to buy our catch. But there is another reason!”
Without waiting for any question or comment from Ekan, Naeem bent down to open the case on top and show its contents.
“My father believes you gave us too much money for just one case, even of the best catch we might have, and would like you to accept this fish he caught last night.”
Ekan peered inside the case. A single big oval-shaped fish lay there. The skin and eyes were bright and the flesh appeared abundant and firm. It certainly looked appetizing and Ekan had the satisfaction to understand he had found a fisherman of rare skills.
“How do you call that fish, Naeem?”
“We call it germon, some other people call it yellowfin. It swims very fast and very long distances far at sea. It’s definitely not easy to catch and bring aboard. But it is certainly worth the effort! In all my life I ate some of its flesh only twice, and I still remember its taste as if it were my last meal!”
“Naeem, convey my sincere thanks to your father and tell him that the Blue Mermaid will be proud to recommend him to our friends and customers. But do not forget we have first pick!”
“Yes, Mister Jonas! See you tomorrow, Mister Jonas!”
The young man went away running in spite of his limp. Ekan observed him for a while, an idea burgeoning in his head.
Alf, Alfred de Vigny of his true name, knocked at the door of the Superintendent’s office. He had reached Beaucastel ahead of Amrel and her companions on her orders. She had joined him in his room the night before at the inn all of them stayed before he made ready for bed. She had instructed him on what to tell his superior, all of it perfect truth. As truth was hard for people like his chief spy to admit, the latter would be kept busy for a while trying to fault his most capable servant. Well, servant no more as Alf had changed his loyalties. He had actually felt relieved of an oppressing weight for the first time in a long while since he had met Jay. After his whole life of incertitude, danger and frustration, he knew at last he trundled the right path and had acquired a far more exciting life in the bargain. Jay had rewarded him with the name of the Superintendent and sealed their pact with a kiss that had completely taken him by surprise and left him panting while the Blue Dragon had exited his room with a small wicked laugh.
“Come in!” answered a falsetto voice.
Alf entered, carefully closing the door behind him and went to confront the man sitting behind a grand desk covered with books, scrolls and piles of parchments. He could not see the visage of the obviously fat creature as it was kept hidden behind a hood lowered over the tip of his nose, and also because the candles and glow baskets had been purposefully moved behind his back, leaving his face in complete darkness, invisible to anybody facing the desk. Let him believe I don’t know him. I’ll end this charade in my own time! Alf thought with glee.
“Alf! The least I might venture to say is that your report mildly surprises me! Geraldine de Blanchefleur is planning to enroll the help of dwarves to overhaul, I shall say, create a water and sewer system! Now, do we need that? Does she have the faintest idea how much it shall cost the Realm? And what is that talk of an embassy? Is she trying to invite all our neighbors, foes and enemies included, to stay among us to spy at leisure in full impunity? Tell me, what is that damn woman trying to prove? How come our King and Queen are bending at her knees? What the hell is happening here?”
The fat man was losing control. Good for him! Alf thought. About time the slimy bastard felt his seat slipping from under his oversized arse!
“Superintendent, with all due respect, I’m afraid that all I wrote in my report is just the plain truth! Let me dwell on each point you have raised:
First, this idea of creating a water and sewer system is most welcome, considering the state of hygiene prevalent in Beaucastel in particular, and Beaulieu in general. Even the Races of the Desert and the Sea have it! And looking at them, they are definitely healthier than our lot! Moreover, considering our geographical position and terrain, Dwarves are most qualified to tackle the job. And by the way, Geraldine is also planning to ask for a hospital and a medical school to be built as well.
Second, the Embassy I do think is a bright idea: do you realize how much time and money we shall save by having representatives of all nations come to us and stay in Beaulieu? No need to send delegations any more! By creating such a facility, Beaulieu shall become the unofficial center of Alymndes. We do not want to spoil such an opportunity with a lack of facilities and stinking streets, do we? They might be able to spy on us, but we certainly can do the same, too!
Third, what the hell is happening here is that an extremely qualified individual has arrived in our midst to put some steel in our backbones at the right time. I wish I was wrong, but bad times are brewing on a larger scale that we dare imagine. We shall need all the help we can land our hands on to protect our southern frontiers soon. I’ve been working on a few more reports on that particular issue. You had better forget your concern about Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur and concentrate on bigger and more pressing matters, namely the South!”
The Superintendent was almost sputtering when he finally managed to answer.
“Alfred de Vigny! Do not forget your standing! This is tantamount to high treason! I don’t have any counsel to receive from you! Do your job and dare not overstep the boundaries of your station! Do I have to remind you of your origins?”
Alfred suddenly reached the limits of his patience.
“My dear Superintendent,” he started in a cold deliberate tone that even surprised him, “you happened to know by pure chance, as most of your kin do, that my father, Charles de Vigny, a notorious lecher among the very small nobility of Beaucastel, was fool enough to jump on one of his servants, Jasmine of name, who proved more clever than he suspected, and forced him to recognize me as his bastard, although my mother later lost her life for that deed. But she had already found another protector who, in spite of the fact he could not save her, lived long enough to see me reach my adult age before he was himself assassinated by my dear father! This is when you intervened and arranged with my sire to leave me alone in exchange for your silence on some of his more unsavory secrets. Your price was my unreserved service to your person, which I was glad to give at the time, foolish young man as I had grown to be! Since then, I have worked my arse off to become your best and foremost agent. Do not tell me the contrary! I happen to know all your men and women and they do not possess half of my skills, experience or knowledge! Now, are you going to listen to me or lose me?”
Although he could not see him, he sensed the fat man had turned white with rage at suddenly discovering that somebody was finally standing up to him, and in the process probably becoming an enemy who would also know too much for his own personal comfort. The man tried to bluff his way out of his untenable situation:
“And you think that after this little display of insubordination, you will leave this place unscathed?”
Alfred emitted a sarcastic laugh.
“My dear sir, haven’t you realized that for all your precautions, there are plenty of ears presently listening to our little conversation whose owners will be too happy to communicate to powers out of your reach? Shall I mention your own name in a loud enough voice for the whole Realm to hear? I can see from your reaction that it would not please you too much, especially considering the profits you have undeservedly earned from your elevated position! Are you going to risk losing everything because you refuse to listen to good sense?”
The fat man’s knuckles turned white as his hands held the arms of his chair. He was evidently caught in a dire dilemma. Whatever the Superintendent’s choice, Alfred knew too well he would have to keep a wearier eye than ever behind his back. His life might become more fraught with danger than ever, but he benefited from a new source of protection that nonetheless he still had problems to evaluate. At least this time he shall not be the loser.
“Alfred, you do not frighten me the least, but since I value your services, I shall forget this tantrum of yours. But you will have to prove me your loyalty all over again! Now leave me! I shall have you called after I finish reading your reports on the Southern borders you mentioned! Dismissed!”
Alf left after a minimal bow he thought undeserved, and was down a way in the corridor leading from the Superintendent’s office when Amrel appeared.
A surprised Alf said:
“Jay, would you stop coming the hell out of nowhere all the time! For all my acting, I don’t have such a strong heart! Especially after having to deal with the mountain of lard who calls himself Superintendent!”
The Blue Dragon showed her white teeth as she slyly smiled.
“Alf! I commiserate with you over that burden, but it is time you completely forgot worrying about him! He is surely a man to fear, but not for the reasons you might entertain if some of my suspicions prove true! Actually, it might be a good idea for you to keep your eyes and ears open on that particular individual and all his agents as well. I cannot be in the right places all the time. Something is brewing inside the Palace. You might have to improvise and take steps in some cases. Do me another favor: keep your eyes on the backs of our King and Queen!”
Alfred could not hide some shock at the last suggestion.
“Jay, come on! You surely do not mean the Royal Couple is in any kind of danger!”
“Times are a changing, Alf, rules are being broken, traditions are no longer respected. It hasn’t become obvious yet, but sooner or later you will feel the same. I’m asking you this service: pretend to calm down and obey the Superintendent’s orders, but keep close to whoever might try to break the peace of the Palace. May I count on you?”
“Geraldine, you know you may! For all our very brief acquaintance, I don’t think I have to prove my loyalty, new I must admit, to you or your cause!”
Amrel kissed the spy on his left ear.
“I know I may, but I enjoy asking you!”
The Blue Dragon disappeared before Alf had time to recover from that additional familiarity from one of the most feared personalities in the capital, and probably in the whole Realm soon, if his hunch was correct.
Ekan wondered if he could possibly become busier than he presently was. The Dwarves had quickly settled in the former Green Anchor Tavern, which they had helped clean up and rebuild. In their typical directness, they had called their shop “Dwarven Crafts”. To call it a shop was clearly an understatement. Not only they all lived above their shop, but they had also built in no time an annex for the staff looking after them as well as a forge. Their constant need for clear water had forced them to dig a new well, too. Finally, using the same water, they had conceived a large bathhouse for themselves and the staff. The building was equipped with a device of their own making to heat the water. Bathers could make use of three different rooms: a hot bath, a tepidarium for a steam bath and a cold pool. They had allowed different bathing times devised to accommodate Dwarves, male and female humans at various times. As agreed they took all their meals at the Blue Mermaid, usually inside the common room away from the sunny terrace. They felt more comfortable between four walls, a floor and a roof. They had proved quite a lot to feed. A dwarf’s appetite and thirst just did not compare even with that of the big men generally found among the Races of the Desert and the Sea. At night, many curious patrons and prospective clients joined them in their libations to success and health. Master Turgas had to impose a midnight curfew on all drinking for fear of his staff getting no sleep. Business was flourishing but there were limits to what a man or a woman could do. As soon as they could get enough hands, Ekan had suggested a compulsory holiday rotation so as to keep all working personnel refreshed and willing. This innovation would probably raise a few hiccups among the Guild. The concept of a Guild had been quite easily accepted in the end. Holidays could prove a totally different matter. The traditional calendar worked along the moons and the seasons. There was one festival holiday for each new season and another one at the end of each full moon cycle. The Black Dragon had rapidly calculated that an extra holiday for each quarter of the moon would be proper enough as a regular day-off pattern. Moreover, the Guild did not stipulate anything on holidays. If a successful business institutionalized such a professional practice, other businesses would see the advantages easily enough after they had noticed the greater readiness to work. Ekan would need little persuasion to exert on Turgas to get his idea adopted; as such a new holiday tradition would engender more leisure and business.
But for the moment, dragon or not, he had more work than he cared for.
He was interrupted in his ruminations by a young man’s voice from the kitchen door.
“Jonas! Greetings! Look at what I’m bringing!” shouted a genial Naeem carrying a large wooden box. Jonas hurried to see the contents. The young man was such a great source of information on what dwelt in the sea. Ekan had never lost his passion for those great expanses of water and the mysterious teeming lives below the surface.
There were no different fish from the day before and their quality was irreproachable as ever. But in a corner he found half a dozen large slightly round dark shells dotted with small holes. He took one of them, turned it over and saw a kind of large foot under it. He scratched his shaved head in wonder.
“What are these?”
“Abalones. We also call them “sea ears”. Divers have to go down quite deep to collect them. But I can tell you they are worth the effort!”
“I believe you, but how do you cook them?”
“Shall I show you?”
“Sure! All of you, make some room! Time for some learning!” laughed the black giant, quite happy to discover another culinary experience.
Demonstrating at the same time, Naeem, thoroughly enjoying himself, explained:
“First, you clean the shell and the shellfish by rubbing the whole with salt and then rinse it with water. Sponge the water off with a clean cloth. Next, heat some oil in a frying pan until very hot. Put the abalone shell up onto the frying pan. Let it cook for a while, then cover it and let it steam inside its own juices for about the same time again. Take out the abalone and put its shell down onto a wooden cutting board. Insert a spatula between the shell and the meat. It should come off easily. Now turn the shellfish over, innards on top. Take off the innards. Throw them away or use them to make broth. Cut out the top of the shellfish, as the meat there is a bit tough to eat. Last, cut it in very thin slices from top to bottom and at a slant. You can eat the slices hot or cold as they are, with spices or sauce.”
He proceeded to cut the cooked abalone as indicated and offered a slice to everyone present. Ekan brought the slice to his mouth. The meat was very tender and succulent, as the shellfish was very fresh. A look at his staff was sufficient to convince him they had found a new choice food.
“Tell me, Naeem, do you usually cook your shellfish in oil or butter?”
“Well, either would do. Butter would be best, but it darkens quickly. Oil is a bit heavy. Mixing the two might be a better idea. But butter does not come cheap”
“I see. I’d like to show you something. Come outside with me!”
The young fisherman and the kitchen staff looked askance at Jonas. The Black Dragon beckoned them all to follow him outside. He guided them through the back garden to the very edge of the property. Quite a few trees with a height varying between that of one and two adult men stood there laden with small oval fruits. He pointed at the trees.
“Naeem, what do you call those trees? I’ve seen many of them around. I’ve been meaning to ask somebody for a while.”
“They are called oliva trees. They’ve been there for as long as I remember. I’m sure those trees have been growing here for generations. As far as I know, apart from their shade, they are pretty useless.”
“Really?” answered Jonas.
He picked a handful of the small fruits.
“People have never used them for food or else?” he continued looking at everybody. Negative nods were the only reply.
Holding the berries in his right hand over his open left hand, he proceeded to squeeze and crush them in his enormous grip. A yellow green liquid started sipping out of his clenched fist into his left palm. Throwing away the crushed fruit, he dipped a finger into the oily substance and tasted it.
“Well, well. I’ll be damned! And thinking that all the time we had the solution for something better than that terrible bean oil of yours next to our door! Taste it and tell me what you think!”
Each member of the kitchen staff and Naeem dipped a finger into Ekan’s palm and tasted the oil. Some came a second time for a bigger dip. All showed surprised faces, eyes round and lips smacking.
“What do you think, Grazel? Would your people and our customers appreciate such a taste?”
“I’ll be damned, too!” exclaimed the senior kitchen maid. “So that’s what those trees have been there for all the time! Why did our ancestors forget such a treasure?”
“We’ll probably never know.” answered a pensive Jonas. “Alright ladies, back to work! I’m going to ask the Dwarves if they can come up with some kind of press. Naeem, come with me!”
“But, I have to…” started the young man.
“Don’t worry! I’ll talk to your father. But before that, I’d like to have a word with you. Let’s pick up a couple of baskets first!”
They went back to the kitchen to take the baskets and back again to the oliva trees where they proceeded to harvest the berries. While they were doing that, Ekan addressed Naeem.
“We shall have to find a more efficient way to harvest those fruit. Picking them up one by one will be too much time consuming and backbreaking!”
“Why don’t we do like for chestnuts? Just put a cloth under the tree and beat the branches with long sticks.”
Ekan stopped his work to look at the young man’s face.
”Naeem, for all your knowledge of the sea and the fish, you ought to use your brains and skills for a land job. I understand your father needs you. But that is only in the mornings. Meaning no disrespect, but that leg of yours will never allow you to follow your sire’s steps.”
Seeing the young man’s face darken, the Black Dragon raised a hand in appeasement.
“What I mean is that I see a better alternative for you that won’t prevent you from helping your father and provide you with a decent respected life.”
“What kind of alternative could it be, then?” asked a still miffed Naeem.
“Naeem, you have an inborn sense for cooking and choosing the best quality ingredients. Why don’t you become a cook? How about starting as my apprentice?”
“At my age? And what about the kitchen maids? Won’t they think I’m intruding?”
Ekan laughed Naeem’s reservations away.
“There is no age for becoming a cook! Good food is good food. That is all! As far as Grazel and her maids are concerned, they are overloaded with work, what with serving the guests and all that cleaning. If you show them respect, they will be only too happy to share all their little secrets! A kitchen is all teamwork, nothing else! You can help your father in the mornings. Work in the kitchen will become a natural continuation of your everyday life. I’m pretty sure I can convince your father! So, what do you say?”
Ekan held out his hand. Naeem hesitated a moment but finally shook it.
“As long as my father agrees, I shall be honored to serve you!”
“You are a good son and I’m sure your father will be proud of you! But know you are not serving me, you are helping me! Now let’s take those oliva to the Dwarves, shall we?”
The Chamber of Honor in Beaucastel Castle was crowded to the limits. Every courtier and individual of note in the city, lords, barons and minor nobility of the Realm had come in their finest garments and attire, some in the company of their wives, lovers, sons and followers. Everybody had joined the ceremony to welcome the delegation from the Kingdom under The Mountain.
Gerhart, the King of Beaulieu and his wife, Marghrete de Pontaven, were regally sitting on their thrones. Gerhart rested his left hand on his wife’s right wrist in a show of unity, a novel fact duly noticed by the whole court. The King had lost lots of weight as daily exercise started to show. Geoffroy d’Arcourt had taken personal charge of his training under Amrel’s unerring eye. Obeying her instructions, Marghrete made sure that her husband’s hygiene came at par to the exacting standards set by the Blue Dragon. Gerhart, to the chagrin of his former drinking companions, had drastically cut on his food and spirits consumption. The Royal Couple had even begun to share their meals and occasional nightcaps. Jay, whenever she could, visited their apartments to share a last drink in front of the fireplace, swapping tales and lore and sometimes indulging in state affairs.
A sober and fitter Gerhart was a good enough person to socialize with, and Marghrete had significantly mellowed towards her husband. Jay wondered whether they should find their bed too large someday. Well, as long as they made any show of unity as the Royal Couple, the rest was of little consequence, but it would come as a bonus if those two could start to need each other as well.
Amrel was standing dressed in her court blue robe slightly behind the Queen with Birghit in full Walkyrie regalia. Geoffroy d’Arcout stood behind the King in his parade accouterment, his right arm holding his helmet and his left hand on the pommel of his sword. He was the only present individual allowed to carry any weapons apart of the Royal Guards keeping the crowd out of the large alley reserved to the day’s visitors, although he knew that Birghit had a few knives hidden in her boots and garments. Both were keeping a weary watch on the assembly. Although they thought to know all the faces inside the hall, some retinues might always include some unwanted intruders. They certainly were not aware that Alfred de Vigny was unobtrusively helping them from within the assembly. Had they all known Amrel’s real powers, they would not have bothered, but the latter was definitely not prepared to make their job easier. Let them keep alert, good training for them all, she reflected.
The booming voice of a herald interrupted her thoughts:
“His Majesty the King, Her majesty the Queen, my Lords and ladies, the Delegation of the Kingdom Under The Mountain!”
The large doors of the Chamber of Honor slowly opened. A hush came over the crowd, which soon turned to murmurs of surprise. The Dwarves had only arrived the day before and had moved in the best inn of Beaucastel, that is, the Seven Dragons where Jay actually stayed. To tell the truth, the Seven Dragons was still the only establishment up to her liking and satisfaction in the whole city. She could not wait to start her little revolution and the Dwarves were going to become major actors in her play.
Numnir and his full retinue of twenty Dwarves entered the hall. They had discarded their usual drab garments, armor and weapons. Instead, they sported outlandish clothes of bright colors with knee-high boots, breeches and open shirts of seemingly mismatched hues, large waistbands and even more colorful flat soft hats. Their newly braided beards hid most of their chests, but anybody who might have entertained the notion they were some kind of stunted children or midgets had to revise their opinions when they caught a glimpse of rock-hard bodies and muscles. Numnir had kept to his favorite grey color but his clothes were of the finest quality. His height, short-cropped beard, and a golden ring on his left ear made a lot of onlookers doubt whether he belonged to the same race.
The King and the Queen stood up in unison at their arrival, an act that provoked another ripple of surprise in the audience. Nobody had imagined those little people commanded so much attention. Some faces turned speculative at the notion.
Numnir and his companions suddenly stopped as one and took a deep bow. The King and the Queen reciprocated in the same fashion.
Numnir addressed the monarchs:
“Hail Your Majesties! These humble servants of the Kingdom Under The Mountain have come to your famed realm and its gentle people to convey their King’s wish to open official relations between our nations and be granted the authorization to conduct trades and crafts in your capital and kingdom!”
Alfred de Vigny heard one baron snidely whisper to his neighbor:
“Don’t you think that our King should be affronted by the small beggars who have the nerve to ask for favors empty-handed?”
As on cue, Numnir continued:
“As a token of our true wish for friendship and fruitful exchanges, our King begs Your Majesties to accept this small present from our craftsmen!”
As the Dwarves had evidently brought nothing on their own persons, many men and women looked at each other with questions about to pop out of their mouths, when Amrel, who of course knew all about the intent of the Dwarves, made a discreet sign to a servant who was standing by the left wall slightly in front of the monarchs. The man pulled on a thin rope, and a curtain, in front of a high window that nobody had bothered to notice, dramatically fell to the ground, revealing a magnificent stained glass representing the Arms of Gerhart King of Beaulieu.
The location had been well chosen, as the sun outside hit the wall full at that time of the day. The night before, the Dwarves had soldered all the pieces into place. The glass had been manufactured before the delegation left the Iron Drags, and Amrel and Numnir for once had used some of their magical powers to insure that nobody heard or saw the Dwarves at work. Only Gerhart, Marghrete, Geoffroy, Birghit and Alfred had been party to the little deception. The five of them were thoroughly enjoying the sight of the courtiers across the hall gasping at the sight, while the other half of the audience was craning their necks into impossible angles to have a look at the source of their fellows’ surprise.
The stained glass window was a true marvel in its simplicity and quality. Very little could be distinguished between the various pieces of glass depicting a large tree with a green bough and red fruit on top of a strong brown trunk finishing in extended roots, on a silver field. The Arms were bordered in the shape of an escutcheon topped with a golden crown, the whole in the middle of a bright blue background filling the rest of the window.
Alf heard the same baron remark:
“I’ll be damned! To think of the amount of money we would have to pay for that!”
“Especially considering that all of us, including you, shall not be able to wait until we have the same in our castles or mansions!” answered his neighbor.
Well, Gerhart would have to think very hard to find a way to refuse the authorization for trade and crafts to the Dwarves after that small demonstration, the Blue Dragon’s spy gleefully thought.
At a sign from Gerhart, the herald struck his staff hard on the floor to make himself heard:
“Respected guests, Lords and Ladies, hearken to our King’s words!”
At this rare show of authority from their monarch, the crowd came to a quick silence. Good start, Amrel reflected.
“Dear Sirs! Please forgive me my clumsiness in addressing you as such as I must confess my ignorance of your titles and customs! At least, looking at your magnificent beards, I’m safe in thinking that I make only half a mistake!” This brought a wide grin on his interlocutors’ faces. Dwarves were extremely proud of their beards and always felt deeply flattered by compliments on that particular facet of their anatomy. Knowing it or not, Gerhart had already endeared himself to the denizens of the Iron Crags with this sole comment. The monarch continued:
“I in turn wish to convey my deep sincere thanks to your King for your nation’s offer to establish diplomatic ties and trade relations! I take it on my authority as the King of Beaulieu that all citizens from the Kingdom Under The Mountain are welcome to stay and prosper in our country for the mutual benefit of our nations!”
Well said, approved Amrel, and let’s see who shall try and dare disagree with that! That unusual display of strength from their King will certainly make quite a few lords and barons think again. To what effect, she was surely impatient to discover.
The herald, who had been well schooled on what cues to react, banged his staff again.
“Your Majesties, respected guests, Lords and Ladies, the banquet offered by the Realm of Beaulieu in honor of the Kingdom Under The Mountain has been made ready! Would everybody please retire to the Hall of Feasts!”
At these words, the Royal Guards banged the butt of their lances on the stone floor. Then each Knight and Walkyrie crossed his or her pike along the gap separating the two crowds of the audience, effectively preventing the courtiers to interfere with the proper exit of their King, Queen, most trusted servants and guests. This last show of decorum proved to be a slightly unnerving discovery that times were changing for most of the nobility present on that day who were left to follow in a sorry disorder once the Royal Guards had departed from the Hall.
A similar scene was repeated inside the Hall of Feasts where the Royal Couple and their companions seated themselves at the large central table. Numnir had taken the seat at the right of Gerhart who waited until Marghrete had taken her place on his left. Amrel chose a location next to her brother while Birghit and Geoffroy sat down in that order, left of their Queen. The Dwarves who planned to stay in Beaucastel were lined on the right while their kin bound for the Forest of the Elves sat in front of them. As soon as everybody was comfortable, the Royal Guards let in the members of the Court who were left with tables placed parallel or at the bottom end of the Royal Table. Lords and Ladies unashamedly vied with each other for the seats nearest to the main table, in some cases leading to some undignified scuffles. Such behavior reassured Amrel of the King’s newly acquired stature. People started openly fighting for his favors, and so her projects would consequently be more easily adopted.
Gerhart rose from his seat and waited for the room to grow quiet, which came quickly enough.
“Dear guests, Lords and Ladies! As is the fashion in our lands, I would like to propose a toast to the King Under The Mountain who, I certainly hope, will grace these halls with his august presence as soon as our beloved city of Beaucastel will be fit to welcome His Majesty!”
Servants who had waited on the sidelines for the order brought large ewers of wine to fill every cup in the Hall. When everyone had been served, Gerhart rose his cup.
“To His majesty the King Under The Mountain and all the Dwarven families of the Realm under the Iron Crags!”
All people present repeated the toast, some hesitatingly, as they wondered why they had not been informed of the future visit of a monarch from a distant nation. Others with sharper minds were trying to find an answer to the question why their city was not fit yet to welcome such a guest.
More toasts followed, including Numnir’s on behalf of his King and people until at last the King ordered the banquet to be served, allowing a welcome informality to the event.
While everybody else was clearly enjoying himself or herself with some great game and the best wines produced on the southern slopes of Beaulieu, Gerhart found a frown on his wife’s brow and her reluctance to partake of the succulent meat in front of her.
“Marghrete, what brings that worry on your beautiful visage? I hope you are not disapproving of my eating and drinking?”
“Gerhart, flattering me will not bring about a softening of my resolve.” answered the Queen. Seeing the chagrined mien of her husband, a small smile lit her face. “Do not worry, my dear husband, you can eat and drink your fill today! No, I am preoccupied for another reason. Have you noticed the absence of one of your subjects today?”
Gerhart looked around him.
“Marghrete, I’m sorry. I have been too busy to make a tally of all our guests. But you are right: I do not see our twice-removed cousin, Simon de Montjoie. Why hasn’t he come to join the nobility to our reception?”
“Come to think of it, we have not heard of him for quite a while. We have not received much news from Montjoie or Montreduc, either.”
Amrel pricked her ears at this new source of information.
She asked:
“Marghrete, who is Simon de Montjoie, and where are Montjoie and Montreduc located, if I may ask?”
“You may, Jay, you may.” answered the Queen with some asperity. “Although I doubt you will enjoy meeting that member of our kin. Simon is Duke and Lord of Montjoie, a fairly large and rich land bordering the Fire Mountains, half way between the sea and the Elf forest, with Montjoie as its capital and Montreduc as its second main city. To tell you the truth, we never have entertained the best of relations with him or his subjects. But for the last few months it seems that he has completed removed himself from the rest of the Realm. We duly sent an official invitation to today’s party. We never received any reply. I suppose we shall have to check with our messenger.”
Gerhart interrupted her:
“That can be taken care of tomorrow, if you do not mind. I would rather talk about more important matters than a rude-mannered cousin of mine!”
Turning to Numnir:
“Tell me, Ironfoot: Geraldine has been pestering me for ages about a sewer system and other devices that she is convinced our city is in dire need of. Could you be kind enough to enlighten me?”
“Your Majesty, I doubt this is the proper time to talk about it since we are offered such a great feast. But we Dwarves are above all a very practical race, and I shall give you a few lines to help you grasp the utility of such a project. You will recall that our own kind has lived inside rock for as far as we can remember. Therefore, proper hygiene has always been of the utmost importance. I do not want to go into technical details right now as we can do this in the following days, but let me point out that any time water or refuse becomes stagnant, that is, does not move away rapidly, there is an acute danger of disease and epidemics. Moreover, the proximity of such waste waters with drinking water is fraught with dire consequences. I’m afraid you shall have to dig new wells, too. As for drinking water, in addition to wells, it should be gathered whenever possible from mountain streams or rainwater tanks in cities located on an elevated position like Beaucastel. For cities and communities dwelling in the plains of flat terrain, I’m afraid that wells will all have to be dug again and protected. You will also have to re-educate your subjects on that problem. Am I boring you, Your Majesty?”
“No, you are not, but you surely have frightened me! Have you already assessed the situation here?”
“No real need for us to conduct any survey, as Geraldine has amply briefed us on the need to overhaul, or if I may quote her, create a whole new system of sewers, water pipes and supply. I may also add that a bath tradition like that in Dunlago and the Land of the Free Races of the Desert and the Sea would do you a lot of good. Dwarves too are very fond of their baths as underground work can be a pretty dirty one, if you allow me the expression! And one more thing I would like to suggest, if Your Majesty deigns to listen, is to create a hospital and a medical school!”
“Is that all?” asked an overawed monarch.
“Well, for a start, if Your Majesty allows me to proffer!” answered a poker-faced Ironfoot.
Gerhart suddenly could not bring himself to cast his eyes on all the scrumptious victuals and nectars in front of the table he had been looking forward to with so much relish only a few moments ago.
Closing his eyes, he took his head between his two hands, supporting himself with his elbows on the wooden surface.
“Do you have any inkling of how much money and labor such a task would require?” he almost whispered.
“Well, as for designing and coordinating the building, we shall be glad to offer our expertise for free as a favor for a favor, as you have been so generous in granting us the right to stay and conduct trade in your country and Beaucastel in particular. If we make a success of that enterprise in your capital, the rest of the country, I’m sure, will see the benefits and the need for such changes. As for labor…”
“Gerhart, Ironfoot, please allow me!” interrupted Amrel. “I think I have an idea for cheap labor. Gerhart, how many people are locked in your dungeon and jails?”
“More than I care, as you probably know. But what do they have to do with our present discussion?”
“My dear Gerhart, is the drink already clouding your mind?”
“Jay, do you mind? You are addressing me in front of the court! Could you please spare me sometimes? I’ve been doing my best, have I not?”
Marghrete urgently elbowed her husband.
“Stop whining, Gerhart, will you? This is very important talk! In any case, nobody’s listening to us. They are too busy gorging themselves!”
The King of Beaulieu looked at Numnir.
“My dear Ironfoot, what can a man do against two women? Please tell me!” he sighed.
“I do not know, Sire, I do not know! Although our King has his hands full with his own wife, I can tell you! Queen Marghrete is a model of gentility in comparison!” Numnir answered with a wink, trying to reassure his Royal interlocutor.
“I saw that, Ironfoot!” laughed Amrel. “Anyway, why don’t you get all those villains, thieves and beggars to work and make themselves useful. I’m not talking of forced labor. Have them work in shifts, say eight hours a day, feed them properly and order them to clean their own cells morning and evenings. They will think twice before coming back to their old ways, and at the same time learn the value of hygiene. Once they have finished their sentence, you could even recruit them with lodging, feeding and payment if you treat them well enough!”
“But what about those hard-bitten thugs and criminals and those sentenced to the gibbet? I certainly cannot include them all in the same lot, can I?”
“See, you are getting more clever!” commented Marghrete. “Of course you cannot mix real criminals with petty rabble who got caught because they were hungry or destitute! You should have them separated into different workgangs with different tasks. Amrel and I actually had a long talk about it, and do not accuse us of fomenting behind your back! You are busy enough becoming a King and building respect for your position! Some of us have to share the tasks since you are saddled with a bunch of useless sycophants as councilors, and a conniving Superintendent who is the last to wish for any changes with the present situation!”
“Talking of that Superintendent, are any of his agents listening?” asked Gerhart, peering around himself.
Both women exchanged a knowing smile. Amrel took over from where the Queen had left:
“Gerhart, what use do you have of dead criminals or murderers? A death sentence will not deter them from committing their deeds, far from it. However, if they find some of their own kind put to work for all to see and mark them, they certainly will think twice next time. You end up with less crime and free labor.”
“But that still does not solve the whole problem of keeping them apart from their own kind!”
“Well, why don’t you have a law devised to determine punishments according to crimes in varying degrees of severity and length?”
“Fine, but who is going to devise that law? I definitely cannot afford to promulgate it myself, lest I’m accused of despotism! You remember what happened to the last one who tried that!”
“We certainly will have to work on that. First thing tomorrow, shall we? Until then, why don’t we join the fun, Gerhart?” Marghrete planted a sudden kiss on her husband’s cheek as she had noticed Amrel sometimes do with her own people. This simple gesture seemed to bring so much out of men. Birghit looked away in disgust, apparently shocked by such a public display of Royal familiarity, but just managed to prevent wine from spilling from her cup when a laughing Amrel heartily slapped her back. Geoffroy was keeping his counsel and maintaining an alert eye on all inside the Hall. He noticed that quite a few noblemen and their wives had already succeeded in enticing some of the Dwarves to join them at their tables. Obviously, Ironfoot’s charges and their craft had struck a chord. All these vain lords and barons were about to provide plenty of work for their new guests.
Ekan had almost finished supervising lunch on that day, when Turgas entered the kitchen.
“Jonas, would you mind leaving your work for a while? Some guests want to talk to you.”
“What kind of guests are there to interfere with the good running of your inn?” a lightly disgruntled Black Dragon replied.
“Don’t take it too badly. These are very important patrons actually. No less than Anthony, our King’s brother, and his wife Gladys. Grant them their wish, would you?”
Ekan took his apron off. He put on a small vest over his bare chest for the sake of good manners, although he usually wore nothing above his wide sash. Signaling to the kitchen staff to continue their work, he asked Turgas:
“Where are those important guests?”
“Outside under the veranda!”
Important guests and customers of some notoriety had recently taken to the habit of patronizing the veranda at every hour of the day mostly to be seen by all passers-by, but also to enjoy the food, drinks and other dainties served at the Blue Mermaid. The establishment had rapidly gained a well-deserved fame through the whole town. A lot of people vied for a seat at Turgas’ inn, although the innkeeper had the good sense to serve the same fare at the same price, wherever his clients chose to eat or drink, indoors or outdoors. Some food or drinks would come more expensive for the sole reason of a superior quality, and Turgas as a good restaurateur, took pains to explain and counsel his customers, regardless of class or means. Nobody could complain, as he strictly kept to a policy of first-come, first-seated, first-served, whatever the location available or the guest. The general informality of the citizens of Dunlago did help, although some customers evidently kept to themselves or their own class. The staff had express orders to serve everybody equally and well.
Ekan saw a tall man, thinner than most denizens of the tavern with light-brown colored skin, sitting in the middle of the veranda in the company of a striking dark-skinned woman whose well-endowed figure was barely hidden by almost transparent tunic and pantaloons made of loose linen-like fabric. They had finished their meal and were enjoying a last drink of fine Beaulieu red wine when the man made a sign to the Black Dragon who approached their table and stopped a couple of steps away from the couple.
The man haughtily addressed him without bothering himself with any kind of greetings:
“Aren’t you Jonas, the man who helped the Captain of the Seadragon capture the slavers’ ship?”
“I am Jonas indeed, Milord. I did not actually help capture the ship. I only participated in the fight. I’m not proud of it, truth be told, but I do not regret it, either.”
“Jonas, I am not questioning your acts, I was merely trying to know you better!”
“Your fame happened to have reached as far as the Palace. Here we have a man coming out of absolutely nowhere, helping to overcome a slavers’ ship, knowing his letters and apparently cooking the best food in town…”
“Pardon my impertinence, Milord, but this sounds more like an interrogation than a simple inquiry. Moreover, you already seem to be well informed. May I presume to ask whom I have the honor to speak to?”
The noble was about to retort angrily when his companion put a restraining hand on his forearm.
“Desist, Anthony! I’m afraid you have met more than your match this time, if I’m a good judge of men! Dear man Jonas, please accept our apologies for bullying you into conversation. This is Anthony Vanenklaar, younger brother of our King, Marcus Vanenklaar, and I’m his wife Gladys.”
“No need to apologize, Milady! And no offense taken, whatsoever. I am just a plain speaking man just arrived from the uncouth north. I shall have to learn more of the ways of your good city, I reckon. I am the one who ought to offer his apologies!”
“See, Anthony? This good man Jonas has more diplomatic sense and savvy than you might have given him credit for at first!”
“Who are you to say, my dear half?” replied the mollified royal brother. “As a woman of your charms and wiles, it is just too easy, and unfair I must add. Men keep falling at your knees at the mere first glance or word from your part!”
“Come, come, my dear husband! Look at Jonas. Do you think he is ready to bend his big body for my sole pleasure?”
“Knowing your tastes, that might just be what you are waiting for!”
“Ah, how shocking! How dare you? Now, what kind of impression do you think we are making?”
Seeing that the black giant’s face did not change a bit at her banter, she changed the topic:
“Tell me, my dear man Jonas. We have come to notice a sudden change in the food served at your inn. We certainly appreciated it before. But how could it have still improved in such a way and so rapidly? What is your secret, if I may ask?”
“Master Turgas’ inn, Milady, not mine. As for the food, there is no secret. We are simply using a different kind of oil made from pressed oliva tree fruit. We also have access to the best ingredients. We experiment with spices, and our staff enjoys the work. That is all, Milady.”
“I see. Now, my dear husband and I thought you might help us change the dreary food we have to swallow at the Palace. Frankly speaking, we were seriously thinking of asking Master Turgas to release you into our service. At a good price, of course. What would you say to that offer?”
“Milady, you are making me a great honor and I sincerely thank you for thinking I am up to such a position. But I’m afraid I have to turn down your kind offer. Too many reasons for that: we are understaffed. We have only started making a name for ourselves. I have to teach apprentices for the future of the whole establishment. I could add a dozen more, but I will bore you. I’m sorry, Milady.”
A moue of disappointment came to the Gladys’ beautiful face, but the crafty lady had already realized she was the second person to lose to that strange man that day; after her husband. She took her momentary defeat with grace.
“Oh well, I did try, didn’t I? But I shall meet you again, my dear man Jonas! Until then, I sincerely wish you all the best of luck!”
Understanding he was being dismissed, Ekan made a slight bow to each of his interlocutors and departed.
“Anthony, what do you think? Very mysterious man we have here, don’t we?”
“To repeat your words, you have met your match, too, and probably more than that! First time I see somebody answer you so directly! I don’t know why, but I have this unnerving feeling we’ll hear more from that man soon or later. My impression is that he is a cook only because he chose to be. I will have to talk to this Mentor of his, too! He seems to know those Dwarves quite well. And what of this Guild?”
“Very sharp of you, Anthony. I’m sure your dear brother will be glad to hear your report! I surely would like to meet that man again personally. I have some questions of mine for him, too!”
“Already thinking of more intimate relations, my dear wife?”
“Who are you to say, my dear husband? Are we going to forget that our marriage is a convenient façade for our activities?”
“You say, Gladys, you say!” laughed her partner in life and work.
“Is everybody here?” asked Umatar when Boy entered her tent, though both of them knew too well what was happening outside.
While keeping watch on the Western Shores with Dargelblad’s Elves the Golden Dragon had sent messages for all the chiefs of every Free Tribe of the Steppes to meet at a point halfway between both coasts of Alymndes just north of the Forest of the Elves. She had chosen the spot for its relatively mild climate as opposed to the harsh conditions met in some parts of the Steppes. Here the land had plenty of grass and wells. Moreover, the proximity of the Elves would help in the future relations between the two fiercely independent people. Choosing such a meeting place in the middle of the continent would instill a new sense of belonging to her fractious Tribes as well as a stable location for trade and diplomatic ties to come.
But it would probably be a long time before any Tribesman or Tribeswoman would come to this meeting place of his or her free will. Therefore, she had to find or create enough reasons to incite them to accept this new tradition. Political justification will never prove sufficient, whereas creating a trade center would become a common ground for any gathering.
Boy broke into her musings:
“Everybody should be here, although we might be in for a couple of surprises, good or bad!” he cryptically added.
“What do you mean, a couple of surprises?”
“Well, you’re a Dragon. You should know better than I, shouldn’t you?” the youngster irreverently replied.
Umatar smiled at her protégé’s impertinence. He would become a man more quickly than she had expected and she welcomed the notion.
“Alright, let’s see what we have outside!”
Apprentice was already standing outside at the right of the entrance of her tent when she came out. Boy followed her to place himself at her left.
Umatar knew many Tribes lived in the Steppes and she was pretty sure they all had sent their leaders when she contemplated the great crowd who stood up as one when she appeared.
All had left their horses in the background and waited in apparent obedience for her to speak. The shamen were keeping apart from the warriors as little love seems to be lost between the two groups. Her coming had brought about second thoughts to many Tribesmen concerning their traditions and hierarchy.
But in the middle, given a wide berth by both groups, an unusual couple stood erect with a proud and disdainful countenance in seeming defiance of their kin. She recognized the young warrior as He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart she had met during her first confrontation with her charges. The reason why their fellow Tribesmen kept at a distance stood at his side, completely oblivious of her kin’s distaste, a hand on her companion’s shoulder. The young woman was dressed as a warrior in attire very similar to her own. Her long raven-black hair was braided at her temples while the rest was tied in a high ponytail. Rare white feathers dangled at the top of her braids. Her visage could not have been called beautiful, but striking and fierce. She carried a short bow and arrows and the Golden Dragon knew she had all kinds of weapons concealed on her body. She was the first of her kind she had ever met, but she was convinced there must be more of them. Where, she would have to find out quickly, as they were just the individuals she needed to operate some changes in a hurry. She caught the woman’s eyes in her own. The female warrior did not flinch or shift from her stance. Nonetheless, He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart threw a slightly worried glance at his companion that changed into puzzlement when he saw a smile of recognition spread on both women’s faces. The smiles did not go unnoticed.
Sensing a change of mood in her audience, Umatar spoke in a voice that all could hear:
“Free Tribesmen of the Steppes, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons hail you and offer you her sincere thanks for all coming to this place on this fateful day! I have called on you to speak about the changes I have already told you! Listen well, and I promise your lives will improve for the good of all the Free Tribes of the Steppes!”
The crowd kept silent, a lot of stares hardening more than ever. Although she hated that form of dictatorship, the Golden Dragon understood she would have to bully them in a worse manner if she did not act swiftly.
“First, you will have to accept you are a nation obeying the same laws wherever you are. Your freedom of movement should stay as it is, but we are going to create a permanent settlement here we shall call Trade Fair City, as this will be where all Tribes will be able to come to conduct better trade and barter for the mutual benefit of all.
This will be a city of tents and yurts, though one single building will be devised and erected to house the Hospital to treat the sick and lame and form our future healers. We shall also have an Orphanage to welcome all abandoned children, regardless of sex or origin. Finally, we shall establish a Hall of Learning for anyone who wants to become cognizant of all arts and sciences. As you shall have to look after the affairs of your nation yourselves, representatives will have to stay in Trade Fair City.
I charge He-Who-Talks-His-Heart to choose seven warrior chiefs who will bring their tents here after having designated a new chief for their respective tribe.”
She made a pause to let the order sink in. She had effectively named the young warrior as her personal envoy but still had preserved the authority of more senior chieftains.
She turned to the young warrior’s companion:
“You, She-Who-Smiles-At-Danger, will go and choose seven sage women to represent their Tribeswomen and children.”
A chorus of protests interrupted her. The most vocal reactions came mainly from the shamen. She had expected that kind of response and was ready for it.
A more courageous shaman addressed her directly:
“Since when do women have names? And why should they have a say in the running of the Tribes?”
The man was standing in the forefront of his peers in visible anger. It was the first time she met him. He must have come from a very distant and consequently remote part of the Steppes to have the nerve to talk to her in such a direct manner. She walked to him and stopped in front of the man. The shamen around him cringed away, but he stood his ground in spite of his obvious fear. Umatar appreciated the man’s will and guts.
“You are brave, unlike the rest of your colleagues, but you are misguided. What is your name?”
“I was told you knew everybody’s name! Why should I tell you?”
Umatar kept staring at the shaman for a while. Sweat appeared on his forehead and he needed all his resolve to stop his hands from shaking, but he did not back down. She became thankful to have found in one single day the three people she had been seeking.
“Your true name is yours and yours only for you to keep. Therefore I shall give you a second name. Let everyone know that from very moment you will be called He-Who-Stands-Fast and that you will choose seven shamen to represent your order. You will elect another shaman in your place to look after your Tribe. When you have finished your mission you will come back to me in the company of He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart and She-Who-Smiles-At-danger. The twenty-one representatives of the Tribes of the Steppes will become the Council of the Sages to discuss and implement all rules and laws of our nation and will permanently stay at Trade Fair City to receive all complaints and requests. Anybody will be free to address them. Anyone who prevents another party access to the Council shall face my personal wrath! The three of you will be known as the Envoys as your role will be to ensure that the authority of the Council is recognized and abided by!”
Without any further word she turned back, leaving an astounded crowd in her wake. Confused and angry voices began to raise their defiance here and there. But she stopped halfway and slowly moved her body around to face them all one last time.
The moment had come to establish her own authority over the people and nation her father had chosen her to look after and protect.
A steel-cold voice came out of her mouth:
“Do you want to know why I am called She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons?”
Suddenly out of nowhere, an enormous golden dragon materialized. He hovered over her person, beating its giant wings with the sound of a hurricane and screaming his anger at the Free Tribesmen of the Steppes. All fell on their knees hands or their heads, incoherently crying and begging for mercy, except for the three Envoys who stood white-faced and trembling, their eyes staring at the terrible sight.
As quickly as it had come, the dragon vanished in a clap of thunder and Umatar turned back again to walk to her tent leaving her adopted people to their confusion and fear.


7 Responses to “Alymndes 13: Trades and Crafts”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Nice touch. She proved the three were the right ones to stand with her. Even though they had to be terrified, they stood while everyone else cowered. Very well done.

    Things are heating up, as usual, and are becoming a little clearer now, I think.

    Happy writing, and on to Chapter 14!

  2. simaldeff Says:

    At moment during the banquet with the dwarves, Queen M. speaks this words : “Amrel and I actually had a long talk about it…”
    I didn’t know that Amrel revealed her true name to the humans?
    I think it’s an error right?

    The story us getting really interesting.
    And I finally have time to read it.

  3. dragonlife Says:

    Well spotted. It could be construed as a mistake, indeed. I’ll correct it right away! Cheers
    You’ll find out it is a longer story than you might think! But real action is coming soon! You will have plenty to keep you busy during lonely nights!

  4. simaldeff Says:

    I’m happy to help.
    While I’ve really no problem to imagine the characters and the “paysage” I can’t really make a “mental map” of the Alymndes continent … especially that south part near the Fire mountains … is there a graphic map somewhere? Even a rough drawing would be nice.

  5. simaldeff Says:

    By the way …
    I’m from Beaulieu (near Nice) that’s where I went to elementary school. But I lived in Villefranche which so happen to have been the harbour of Beaulien and St. Jean Cap Ferrat when the three were united in one small city.
    Is it a coincidence? fate? or did you take the names from that beautiful part of France I call my hometown?

  6. dragonlife Says:

    Send me an e-mail with you fax number and I will you copies!

  7. dragonlife Says:

    No coincidence, actually!
    Real names are the best sometimes!

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