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Authors: AC Cobble

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Saala
explained that when he was young, his parents sent him to a boarding school
where the sword was one of the subjects.  In Ooswam high society, poetry,
painting, music and swordplay were all pastimes of the wealthy.  It was
expected that young members of society would become adept at all of these
skills.  Saala admitted he had little to no skill in poetry or music but he had
surpassed all of his peers with the sword.  Ben gathered there had been some
sort of falling out between Saala and his family and he left Ooswam to travel the
world and learn the sword from masters anywhere he could find them.

The
actual process to become a Blademaster it turned out was quite simple.  One
just had to defeat a current Blademaster in front of reputable witnesses.  Once
you defeated a Blademaster, you had the right to wear a Blademaster’s glyph on
your weapon and scabbard.

“Wait,
what’s to prevent anyone from putting a Blademaster’s glyph on their blade or
buying a blade with one on it.  How would anyone know?”

“Remember,”
Saala explained, “to become a Blademaster, you must challenge and defeat one. 
Most of these challenges take place in the Colleges with referees and medical
personnel standing by.  The contest only goes until one combatant yields, but
it is not required to be like that.  A challenge can happen anywhere at any time. 
Without the necessary skill, one is not likely to survive long wearing the
glyph in public.”

 

The
closer they got to the coast the more frequently they passed through small
towns.  Most were close to the size of Farview and each seemed to have it’s own
commercial specialty.  Rhys explained that the towns supplied merchants in
Fabrizo with goods that they shipped across the Blood Bay to other large
cities.  There was one town that specialized in lace and several that made
various types of glass.  The glass is what Fabrizo was known for and according
to Rhys, the glass makers they were passing were among the best in the world.

They
had little time to stop and explore these towns because Lady Towaal pushed them
hard to make Fabrizo.  She did allow a few stops to eat as their supplies were
dwindling.  Ben found Rhys had been correct when he said back at Murdoch’s that
it was mostly fish and wine on the coast.  But for Ben, it was an incredible
experience.  They ate spicy fish stews unlike anything he ever had in Farview. 
Alistair Pinewood maintained a wine cellar but he was one of the only ones in
Farview who did so.  He mostly kept it for himself except for the rare special
occasion when he felt like sharing.  Usually it was on his own birthday.

Ben
began to think of himself as somewhat worldly, travelling with such experienced
companions and trying new things.  But the small towns clustered near the coast
did nothing to prepare him for the wonder of Fabrizo itself.

They
awoke the last morning on the road camped on sandy soil under massive, moss
hung oak trees.  The air was heavy and had an odd tang to it.  In a rare friendly
moment Lady Towaal mentioned it was the humidity and a combination of mud and
saltwater in the Bay.  They’d be in Fabrizo by early afternoon and Ben couldn’t
wait.

As
the day wore on and they approached the city, the oak trees faded away and were
replaced by tall, thick marsh grasses.  The road was busy this morning with
merchant trains coming and going from the city as well as travelers like
themselves.  Ben observed them closely but was disappointed to see that aside
from small changes in their clothing, these people could have grown up in
Farview and would not have been out of place.

The
little towns almost ran together as they got closer.  They passed through
several of them in the last few bells before finally approaching something
new.  In the distance, over the tall grasses, Ben could see large buildings
rising up.  He hopped up and down trying to catch a better glimpse but stopped
when he saw Amelie grinning at him.

Rhys
noticed as well, “they’re warehouses, grain silos and the like.  The merchants
store their goods there.  It’s too expensive in the city.  There’s also housing
for the dock workers, sailors and the rest of the grunts.”  Rhys slapped him on
the back and continued, “that’s where I’d recommend you spend your time in most
big cities.  Those people know how to have fun.  But I think you’re going to
enjoy Fabrizo.  Nothing quite like it.”

Fabrizo

 

Ben
tried to stop himself from staring as they passed the hustle and bustle of the
warehouse district.  Most of the wagon trains turned off to head towards the
massive cluster of buildings.  The huge structures dwarfed anything Ben had
ever seen.  Murdoch’s could easily fit several times over into the largest
ones.  There were also towering poles bobbing in the distance and Ben realized
that they must be ships.  Farview had a few small boats people used for fishing
and carrying supplies on the Callach River and he knew about ships, but he
couldn’t fathom the size of one that stuck out above the tallest of the
warehouses.

He
was brought back by the clatter of wheels on stone as the road turned from hard
packed sand to large stone blocks.  The merchant trains had turned off towards
the warehouses but smaller wagons and carts joined the flow on the road.  The
merchant trading must take place in the warehouse district he thought, but a
city still needed goods and supplies.  He noticed many of the small carts were
carrying food and other things he suspected they couldn’t make in a city.

Half
a league past the warehouse district he was still craning his neck to see over
the marsh grasses and catch a glimpse of the city itself.  There were slender
towers in the distance but he couldn’t see anything the size of the warehouses.

He
was focusing so much on looking towards the towers that he was surprised when
they came to the causeway.  It was flanked by two sturdy stone buildings and a
company of bored looking guards.

He
turned towards Rhys, “shouldn’t there be city gates or something?  There are
always gates in the stories.  And where IS the city?”

Rhys
adjusted his pack strap and answered, “we’ve got another half a league on the
causeway.  Why bother with gates when you have a natural moat?  The city itself
is on a hundred little islands out in the Bay.  Makes it hard to attack. 
Probably the only reason it’s still an independent city state and not a part of
the Alliance.”

Ben
wasn’t sure what the Alliance was, but he did remember hearing stories about
Fabrizo being an island city.  He thought it was some sort of exaggeration or
that there were islands nearby.  He didn’t realize the entire city was
literally a bunch of little islands.

The
guards at the foot of the causeway barely looked up when they walked by.  The
foot traffic going over was steady and Ben supposed his group didn’t look like
much of a threat.  They made their way onto the stone path and started towards
the city.  The road was worn deep with ruts from the wagon wheels that
constantly passed this way.  Ben could see they had dumped sand to fill the
ruts in the road which must have been easier than replacing half a league of
stone.

From
the causeway some buildings were finally visible.  There were a few towers poking
up but the rest of the buildings were only a few stories high. 

They
passed from the tall marshy grasses into open water that gently lapped against
the pilings of the causeway.  Once in the open, the city spread out before
them.  It was made up of many islands all connected by arcing bridges.  In
between the islands Ben saw small boats darting about and outside the cluster
of buildings there were larger barges.

The
sight was like nothing he had imagined.  He’d pictured towering city walls and
soaring buildings all guarded by imposing gates.  While there were no city
walls and no gates, he could see why Rhys had said it would be hard to attack. 
An attacker would need to assault each island individually then cross a narrow
bridge to get to the next one.  It would be an ugly mess and if the defenders
were determined, nearly impossible.

At
the end of the road, the causeway spilled into a large square that was
surrounded by market stalls and paths leading off into the rest of the city. 
The square was dominated by a towering obelisk in the center and a sprawling
palace opposite the causeway.

Ben
gawked at the menagerie of people, animals and goods in the square but Lady
Towaal bore through the center of the chaos like it wasn’t there.  They turned
down a side street, crossed several bridges and passed through narrow alleys
before entering what Ben took to be an inn.  But it was unlike any inn he had
seen before.  There was no loud music, no raucous drinking and no gambling. 
Just a handful of people sitting quietly around tables in hushed conversation.

The
innkeeper bustled up to Lady Towaal and bowed over her proffered hand, “so glad
to have you back.”  He eyed the group, “three rooms this evening?  Baths? 
Dinner?  How many nights will you be with us?”

“Yes,
yes, all of that Master Cranston.  We’ll likely be here a few days.”  Towaal
calmly answered the innkeeper.

“Sauza!”
he barked, “show the ladies to two front rooms and have Zin prepare the baths. 
This way sirs, this way.”

Rhys
shared a grin with Ben and they followed the efficient seeming Cranston up the
stairs towards the street side of the building while a girl appeared and took
the girls deeper into the inn.  Ben realized the ‘front’ of the building must
actually be on the water. 

The
place exuded a sense of age and wealth.  The walls were painted a deep crimson
that matched the colors the staff was wearing and the steps were well made but
worn.  There was a rich paneling of some type of wood framing the crimson
walls.  Ben did not recognize the wood, but he could tell at a glance the
candles ensconced along the hallway were expensive.  They gave off a pleasant
scent of oil and sandalwood.  He was thankful he could share a room with the
other men and Towaal hadn’t asked him to chip in.  He wasn’t sure if his coin
would get him more than a night or two in this place.

The
room itself was snug but comfortable looking and they barely had time to set
down their gear before Cranston disappeared and returned to take them to the
baths.  He dropped them off and vanished again.  In the bathing room there was
a series of large copper tubs.  Three of them were filled to the brim with
steaming hot water.

Rhys
was first to strip down and gave a big sigh as he lowered himself in.  “There
are at least a few things they do right in Fabrizo.  Enjoy it boys.  We’ve
still got a ways to go and it’s not all going to be as nice as this.”

Saala
paused to collect a towel and bar of soap off a rack at the side of the room
and plunged into his own tub, dunking his head under the water and coming up
grinning.  Beads of water rolled off his shaved scalp.

Ben
noticed a complicated system of pipes and valves leading from the tubs to a tank
and stove in the corner then back into the wall.  He’d never heard of anything
like this but decided they must somehow heat the water with the stove and pump
it into the baths.  He was walking over to investigate and considering the
possibilities to adapting this system to brew beer when Saala splashed and sent
a sheet of water his direction.  “Rhys is right, get in.”

 

Rhys
quickly called for chilled wine and the men emptied a pitcher before they
finished bathing.  Over the billowing steam from the baths, they discussed the
next stages of the journey.  From Fabrizo, they would book passage on a ship to
travel across the Blood Bay to the city of Whitehall.  Saala thought it may
take a few days to find passage as tensions were rising between the two cities.

King
Argren of Whitehall was raising pressure on the leaders of Fabrizo to join his
Alliance of Nations.  Publicly, King Argren said it was to counterbalance the
power of The Coalition that had formed in the east.  But Saala explained rumors
were flying that it was merely a naked power grab by the King.  Fabrizo, unlike
the other powerful cities along the Blood Bay, was ruled by the Merchant’s
Guild and because their power base was commercial instead of political, they
saw no reason to join The Alliance.

“And
why would they bow to Argren?  He’s got the armies but they’ve got the money,”
snorted Rhys.  “They’d be fools to join him.”

Saala
gave Rhys a meaningful look, “some of our party may not feel that way.”

“Oh,
I know what she’s about.  There’s a reason they sent Towaal all the way out to
get her.  It’s a dangerous game her father’s playing.”

“I
don’t think her father’s the only one playing games.”

Rhys
chuckled and sunk lower into his bath.  “You may be right there.  I say we
leave them to their games.  I’m for gold, girls and grog.”  He sloshed his wine
mug up in a mock toast, “here’s to doing our jobs and keeping it simple.”

Saala
raised his mug in response and replied, “if you say so.”

Ben
remained silent throughout the exchange, hoping they’d continue to ignore him
and say more.  He was realizing that there was more to this trip than simply
travelling to The City.  He’d wondered why Amelie wasn’t travelling with a
large entourage or acknowledging Meredith as her handmaiden.  If she was on
some sort of mission on behalf of her father, then maybe secrecy was paramount.

Before
dinner, Ben pulled Meghan aside and told her what he’d heard.  She had similar
suspicions but neither of them had much real information.

“Let’s
keep it between us,” he said.  “I like all of them, but we don’t know them, and
we don’t know if we can trust them.”

Meghan
nodded in agreement, “we’re part of this group now whether we like it or not,
but no reason we can’t look out for ourselves.”

 

Despite
the serious thoughts and concerns, Ben couldn’t help but enjoy dinner.  It was
an experience unlike any he’d had before.  His first shock when they sat down
in the common room was the silverware laid out on the table.  He picked up a
heavy fork and with a start saw it was made of actual silver.  The idea that
someone would make something so utilitarian as a fork out of money was crazy. 
It was an over the top display of wealth that was beyond even the Pinewoods in
Farview.

The
rest of the meal was just as bizarre.  It was a series of small plates that
just kept coming.  The first dish was a simple pasta and tomato sauce, but that
was the last thing Ben recognized.  There were vegetables floating in
alternating sweet and spicy sauces, tiny meat pies, steamed beans that curled
strangely when poured out of a heated pot, thin wafers he thought might be
bread that seemed to melt on his tongue, baked fish, grilled fish, lightly
fried fish and even pieces of raw fish wrapped around rice balls at one point.

The
whirlwind of staff floating in and out to collect and disperse new dishes was
like a coordinated dance.  The thread of conversation from earlier in the day
had completely fallen off and everyone focused on the meal.  The vast array of
dishes, flavors and textures meant there was little room for anything else.

Ben
was seated next to Amelie who did her best to show him the proper way to eat
each dish and explain where it was from.  The fashion in Fabrizo was to bring
in foods from a variety of cultures and the art was in creating complementary
pairings and menus.  As the meal went on, Ben started to notice not just how
the flavors interacted with each other but how the texture and color of each
dish was a play on the previous one.

By
the time it was over, several bells after it started, it was late evening and Ben
felt like he was stuffed to the point of exploding.  The entire group was worn
out from the trip.  Coupled with being clean for the first time in two weeks
and the rich meal, it was an early night for all of them.

 

The
next morning, Ben slept in and woke to find Saala and Rhys already out of the
room.  He headed down to the common area and found Lady Towaal and the girls
sitting over a light breakfast.

In
her usual brusque tone Towaal said, “the men left to find a ship and arrange
passage.  The girls and I will take advantage of the day off and begin talking
about their studies in earnest.  You are on your own for the day but return
here by nightfall and be ready to depart at a moment’s notice.”

Amelie
chimed in, “you should check out the Fish and Stranger’s Markets.  Also, we
need some ribbon for our hair.  I’ll want to tie it up on the ship.  If you see
something could you pick it up for me?”  She slid a few coins across the table,
“use it for the ribbon and you can spend the rest on something you need.”

Ben
scooped up the coins and was surprised to see they were three thick silver
marks, and unless the price of ribbon was very different in Fabrizo, far more
than he would need.  From Amelie’s grin, he realized she knew that as well and
probably knew he had very little of his own coin to spend.  He bowed his thanks
and caught Meghan’s eye.  She looked more than a little jealous.

He
winked at her and exclaimed, “enjoy your studies girls!”

 

The
prospect of spending the entire day exploring a city like Fabrizo couldn’t
wait, so he dashed up to his room to gather his money pouch and sword then
swept out of the inn without stopping for breakfast.

He
was overwhelmed with everything he saw and had barely registered the street
outside of the inn the night before.  He found in the early morning sunlight
that it was filled with wall to wall buildings painted in a rainbow of
different pastels.  Many of the buildings were accented with extensive, bright
tile work.  They were all about three or four stories and the first levels were
packed with a wide variety of shops.  There were narrow staircases in between
many of the shops and he surmised they must lead to the upper levels where
people lived.

BOOK: Benjamin Ashwood
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