Lord Ath isn’t wandering the path we’ve already taken. It is early morning. I am either glimpsing into tomorrow morning, or I am seeing his day from its beginning.
And he isn’t even in the same shift zone as we are.
He’s already in Strand.
Or entering leastways. It’s a shantytown. A stillzoned outcrop, not much bigger than Strathbury. Minus the watchtower. Their gates are looming large and rumble open upon his arrival. The town has no sentries posted at the gates and beyond is motley mass of greasy flesh and cloaks hemmed with mud. These folks crowd the winding streets of Strand, careful of the shattered shards of obsidian and glass that litter the road.
(Distantly, I came remember a city built close to a volcano in the upper north. Is that how far the plates have shifted since this Imperium salted the land with spells. It took three years before I managed to get far enough north to reach that town. And here I am one day away from it.
I can feel Ath feeling eyes on him. On the sigil on his doublet and his purple cloak.
“Do you think we’re in trouble?” he asks his Swarm, who are carrying something thick and furry behind them. The thing is a gigantic and dead thing. An animal. A ton of white fuzz mixed with gray, bloody flesh and yellowed fangs and a tongue that drags through the dirt The thing is an odd mishmash of animals. Like a Higher Power made a polar bear and a wolf and mashed them together in a malignant fist.
He leads the Swarm and their beast through ermine-trimmed bliauts of wealthy merchants who were themselves sizing up courtesans in satin chased with cloth-of-gold, with pearl-inlaid broaching winking just above their breasts.
Beyond them re armed men, spiderwebbed with scars, bearing swords and maces and axes and longbows, staring at the dead beast the newly-arrived Prince brought with him. I wonder how hot they are in their wolf-trimmed cloaks. Their ringmail scraps against Ath’s pauldrons as he passes.
And amongst the poorer denizens, Ath finds and old man, red faced and lumbering with an entire cart overstuffed with barrels of dried, salted strapped to his back. Ath sniffs the air and turns to the old man. “Don’t you have an ox for that?”
“My ox died last summer,” the old man tells him. “But a man has to make his wares somehow.”
So Ath fishes into a pocket sewn into his cloak and tosses the man a leathern sack that jingles when the man catches it. “I’ll buy them off you. I’ll send some district enforcers to bring these barrels back to my villa in Torre. It’ll be a few weeks before they get here. And it’s like as not to slip my mind. Do you have paper?”
The man is staring at the sack, nodding his head and biting back a grin. Then he realizes what Ath has asked, and he shakes his head no. “No, my Lord. No paper.”
“Unfortunate. So I’ll have no proof of sale, and I’m like to forget I bought them off you. You could resell them tomorrow and none would be the wiser.”
He winks, and the old man beams. Something like gratitude glitters in his eye. “Th-thank you, my Lord. Thank you.”
“No need to thank me. Although.” He stoops to be at eye level with the old man. “May I ask a favor?”
“Anything, my Lord.”
He guides the old man to the strange beast his Swarm are carrying. “That’s a creature from the Ever-Changing Land. Game from out there is rare nowadays. And even rarer—I caught this in mid-transformation. Have you ever had game from the Ever-Changing Land? In the middle of their changing, no less? Do you know how magic seasons meat?”
“I can’t say I do, sir.”
“No, I expect not. I was going to bring it back to Torre with my after I’ve finished my business here,” Ath says. “But it is a ponderous beast, and it will tax my Swarm to no end to carry it all the way back. And I don’t know this town too well. I trust that you do?”
The old man nods, tears brimming in his eyes.
“I’m trusting you to sell this beast to a merchant you trust. Any one of them will pay a high price for it. I want you to sell it to someone who will share the game with the rest of Strand, do you understand? Now, that may somewhat lessen the price you can get for it. But if you can do that for me, then when my enforcers arrive here in a few weeks to pick up that salted meat—” he winks again—“They’ll bring an ox. And it will only cost half of what that merchant has given you. Can you do this for me?”
The man’s jowls are wobbling as he stifles a cry. He knuckles his eyes. “Thank you, my Lord. Thank you.”
Lord Ath rises, shakes the man’s hand, and wanders back to his Swarm. “Follow this man,” he tells them, “And see that you stick to the instructions I’ve given him. I’ve other matters to attend to.”
(I—I—I don’t know what to say. Wow. I didn’t. I wasn’t expecting something like. Wow.)
Lord Ath freezes, eyes wide. He curses, and his lips curl into a shrimp-shaped scowl. He rubs his temples, exhaling loudly. “I can feel his confusion. He’s trying to remember something.”
“This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have severed him from the ambient. We’re all tangled up now and—” he grunts his frustration. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Peter.”