A hard rain, blown from the mountains, slicked the cobbles as the rider coaxed his weary mount the last few miles. Despite the chill, it was a welcome respite from the mountains, where winter still clung with claws of rime. Nor could the overcast skies conceal the fact that the days were, at last, growing brighter, and that before long the first shoots and buds would appear to herald the return of spring.
Lofty notions for a pissy Foreyear, the rider thought sourly, fisting his sodden cloak together in a tight knot across his chest. He had ridden a long way, fast and unencumbered, the better to earn his coin; and he was aching and travel-weary, with the deep fatigue known only to one long accustomed to the saddle, and yet certain that the end of even his nigh-limitless endurance had, for once, been reached. Even the gentle side-sway of the chestnut gelding chafed, and he felt as though he were being sawn up the middle. He kept his eyes on the road’s glistening, uneven surface; damned would he be, if he were to let the beast lose its footing and snap a fetlock so near his goal.
The pelting rain that forced the rider’s chin to his chest served also to mask many of the more obvious defects of his surroundings. Coastal cities are rarely beautiful, and Vejborg was no exception. They generally are sited on spots chosen more for sheltered anchorage, deep draughts and inland river channels than pleasant airs and pleasurable vistas. They tend to be surrounded, for obvious reasons, by fortifications intended to keep out one’s curious, envious or aggressive neighbours. As a consequence of these two traits, they invariably seem to spurt up from the ground into rickety, ramshackle, sun-strangling towers of timber and masonry designed to condemn their denizens to perpetual, squalid gloom.
But eyes do not tell all. These same structures blocked even the most persistent of ocean breezes, treating the urban dweller to a choking miasma composed of the smoke of wood and coal fires, fish entrails, cliff-salt and garbage. These foundation odours mingled with a bewildering array of subtler scents: the tanner’s confection, consisting of boiled urine and acorns; the congealing blood and discarded offal of sheep and pigs slaughtered on the street corner; the occasional, remote wisp of perfume as some wayward noble waved a scented handkerchief in a forlorn attempt at warding off more robust emanations; the waxy aroma of decay, that lingers long after its source has left the world; the pervasive and complex stench, layer upon layer, of the night-soil of a thousand-score men, and as many and more cats, dogs, cocks, goats and swine; and, always and forever, the basso scent-note of the sea.
Fresh from a long journey in the uncomplicated atmosphere of mountains cleansed by a winter of harsh storms and deep snowfalls, the rider did not so much notice the scents of the city, as reel under their sudden and irresistible assault. They quite overwhelmed the cloud within which he rode (wet courser, wet wool, wet leather, rusting accoutrements, stale wine, and the mulchy stench of a horseman insufficiently acquainted with soap), and led him to spit, and curse the cities under his breath. But cities were where the wealthy lived, and the wealthy had money, and money was food, and drink, and a roof. None of which, he noted wryly, I am enjoying at present. But soon enough.
Soon enough. His destination, in fact, was not far off; the peak of a tower of grey stone showed just beyond the city wall, and it was there that he was bidden. Despite the many fatigues of his journey, he made a conscious effort to rouse himself to greater wakefulness; in a few moments he would be handing over his charge and dickering for his fee, and it would be best to have his wits about him – particularly as his patron was known as much for his tight fist as for his sagacity.
What am I doing? He asked himself suddenly, sighing tiredly. I know better than this. I never deal with magi.
The street ended abruptly at the barbican facing the Westroad. Like the Northeast gate, through which he had entered the city, the portcullis was raised and the great portals hung open, a gesture of welcome to the land-dwellers that were, in truth, all but insignificant in the greater game of Vejborg’s ocean-borne commerce. A trio of Watchmen huddled against the stone facing, making the most of a tiny jut of masonry to protect themselves from the rain.
They barely looked up as he cantered past; one threw a brief glance his way from beneath the rusting brim of his casquet, but there was not so much as a wave or fare-thee-well. Peace and prosperity were needed to make a man casual about open gates and unidentified travelers, the rider mused, but it merely took a good cold rain to make him surly and inhospitable as well.
Now out on the open road, beyond the impenetrable grey stone of the city walls, the tower stood out clearly, a dark grey finger against a sallow grey sky. The rider sat a little straighter in his saddle and spurred his mount into a sulky and dispirited canter. As he had done often enough to make it a reflex, he patted the scrip of tooled leather slung across his chest, feeling for the packet, his purse, and the small, razor-sharp knife that he kept there against emergencies.
All seemed in order. And yet, a sentiment of foreboding crept like gooseflesh up his legs, and he felt his heart give a queer thump. He was not looking forward to the next few hours. The color of their coin might be as bright as any, but by the bleeding balls of Bardan, he misliked dealing with magi.