Hardcore: Qi Worlds

Chapter 77

Chapter 77: Kingdom 19

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 The Vanguard sat around a campfire, with a circle of tents behind them, it would be the last camp of this long trip from the Alpine Forest to Loctris. Master Gilford and his sister were present, as well as the support party, ten people in all. The other members of the expedition were spread around the camp, either eating, sleeping or making preparations for the following day.

 The Vanguard had cleared the pass and the next spawn region in the last six days. Taking no longer than a day for each wave. Tomorrow, it was likely, they would arrive at the northernmost city of Loctris.

 “There are four main cities in the Kingdom of Loctris,” Gilford knew more than anyone, excepting his sister, regarding the kingdom. “Vaugend was an outpost, a provincial city, in comparison to the southern part of the continent. The cities here are much larger, older, wealthier and dangerous.”

 “The city the lies past this farmland,” Gilford’s sister, Melvina spoke, she often travelled to Loctris while Gilford stayed in Vaugend. “I pray it will only take one more day for us to arrive at the gates of Sandstone.”

 Benzhi sat up listening attentively with Gisael on his right, close enough that their legs touched. Anastasia lay on the ground, exhausted from the day and week’s efforts. Reyas, as usual, was curled up on his left her head lying in his lap as she listened.

 “What should we expect as far as threats?” Benzhi asked, not concerned for himself but he was responsible for the safety of his eight party members, including the four non-combatants.

 “Aside from thieves, bandits, arrogant nobles and militia,” Gilford answered, “the military force of the Kingdom is the whitecloaks and blackcloaks. You will see many cloaks, with emblems showing house colours, similar to what you saw in Vaugend.”

 “There is no standing army, wars are fought with the elite warriors and qi mages. Ones such as yourself. The Whitecloaks are the Kingsmen, the swear fealty to the king and their word carries weight. They can judge and execute a criminal on the spot, within reason. They stand for the good of the kingdom, which changes based on the disposition of their internal power struggles and the king’s wishes.”

 Gilford continued, “the Blackcloaks are a power unto themselves. They are master qi warriors for hire. They operate like a guild, owning land, buildings and performing services for coin. Sometimes they think the law does not apply to them, which can be true to a certain extent, where the deed is shrouded in mystery, or the cost of enforcing the law outweighs the benefit in doing so.”

 Melvina added, “each year there is a tournament where the winner is either a blackcloak or a whitecloak, it is where their rivalry can be expressed openly. The tournament is the most anticipated event of the year.”

 “There was that time when a noble, Count Dravis if I recall correctly, won the tournament,” Gilford said.

 “He would have been the last person to win who was not a whitecloak or a blackcloak, and that was before I was born,” Melvina finished. She was over thirty years old and newly widowed, her husband died during the flight from Vaugend.

 “We digress,” Gilford said, “to answer your question succinctly, watch out for thieves, whitecloaks and blackcloaks. Also do not anger any nobles or wealthy merchants unnecessarily.”

 “Where does the king live?” Benzhi asked.

 Melvina answered, “usually Warthague, but he has a residence at The Reach as well. He would only visit Sandstone on a special occasion, it would be rare for him to be in the city.” Seeing the questioning looks she continued, “Warthague is the largest city, it is far to the south, similar to the distance we just travelled form Vaugend. The Reach is to the west, it is on the ocean, it has a castle atop a hill, hence the name The Reach, where the port and city are below. The only other city is Darkdaug, it is to the east.”

 Benzhi laughed, “Darkdaug are you serious?”

 Gilford nodded, “yes that is its name.”

 “How unfortunate, it sounds like dark dog,” Benzhi chuckled.

 “It is named after a mythical beast, a Daug, it is a type of Dragon. And of course, it was black.” Melvina explained.

  “Go on,” Benzhi waved, “tell us about the merchant’s guild and agents.”

  Gilford looked to his sister. Melvina cleared her throat, “there are three merchant guilds in Sandstone, one is the local guild, and the other two compete across the kingdom. You will probably overlook the local guild, it serves its purpose for goods that do not leave the city, but it would restrict the market to this city alone for your trade. But, as my brother suggested, you will need to find an agent.”

 “Someone trustworthy,” Skorrick added.

 “Someone cunning,” Carney said.

 Benzhi nodded, the two disagreed, one preferring honesty above all else and the other wanting a representative who was competent above all else.

“Let us meet with prospective agents, and hopefully we will all agree on the best candidate, and they agree to take us on,” Benzhi stated.

 “Do you know of any agents?” Benzhi asked.

 “I do, but, it would be best to visit the Merchant guilds and ask for a list of all agents. I only know a few, we may miss someone more appropriate,” Melvina answered.

 Benzhi stood, disrupting Reyas in his lap, “Thank you Gilford and Melvina,” he looked at the now sleeping Anastasia, “it has been a long month, and we have a long day tomorrow.” The Vanguard headed for the tent they were gifted by Master Gilford.

 Master Gilford looked at his sister and smiled, “you did well.”

 She sighed in relief before smiling, “it was easier than engaging in small talk.”

The city aptly named Sandstone sprouted from the desert-like terrain. Behind the small mountain range, immediate to its north, were farms and fertile land, and as soon the party passed through the pass, the terrain changed to rock, sand and the odd tree or bush.

 Massive sandstone bricks were piled atop one another, creating a wall into the ravine where the city dwelt. Buildings lined each wall of the ravine, small and large, with paved roads and streets winding their way between. It would take years to learn the myriad of streets, there were literally hundreds of directions, crossroads, hidden alleys and staircases.

 Fortunately, up the centre of the ravine was a large road, which broadened out to encapsulate a market and a square at intervals. All the buildings, homes or places of business were made of mudbrick or stone, with the majority being stone nestled into the mountainside. The city’s inhabitants were packing up stalls or heading home after a days work, the central road was flooded, and the party could hardly move.

 There was no system on the road, people just headed in the direction they wanted in any section of the road. The only rule which seemed to apply was; if a noble, being drawn along in a chariot type contraption pulled by an ox or giant lizard, came along, people made way rather than be trampled.

 The way people dressed was distinctive, and for once Benzhi did not stand out like a sore thumb, well Gisael did, but himself, Anastasia and Reyas covered in leathers seemed to fit right in. Some of the people were wrapped in cloth, white, light blue, brown and even black. Guards of other nobles were distinctive in their leathers with their cloaks. The cloaks differed from those of Vaugend, these were primarily one colour. However, they all had a house emblem. There were probably too many houses for a simple colour scheme. The emblems were usually a depiction of an animal be they mundane or mystical and on a rare occasion a shape such as a weapon or a plant.

   The road passed all the way through the city, with an exit out the southern end, which was broader than the northern. It split off east and west with the main road running directly south.

 Melvina had informed them that the city had a governor, who was the head whitecloak of the city. He acted as a military leader and chief judge all in one. Key nobles and wealthy merchants made up their own council, which saw to the civilian matters of the city.

 The Governor did not possess a palace, but a keep, which was placed in a highly defensible position near the southern gate, high up on the ridge. It was the one place where the dwellings of the people did not overrun.

 Melvina led the party of eight to an inn, she and Master Gilford would stay with relatives of her late husband.  Gilford provided coin to pay for several nights at the inn, the local currency of loctris being copper, silver and gold coins. Minted by the king and exchanged every year for the new version, which was one of the ways the king collected tax, coins to nine-tenths the value were exchanged per year of age.

 Skorrick began to calculate the relative cost of everything based on a price of ale at the inn. A jug of ale, average quality according to Skorrick, was one silver. Twelve silvers made a gold coin, and twelve gold coins made up a larger gold coin known as a Sovereign.

 Benzhi and his party sat at the largest table in the bistro, the part of the inn where people ate and drank on tables. There was an adjoining room where the workers stood drank at tall tables or the serving bar itself.    

  It was no surprise that the party from the Alpine Forest drew many stares.

 “You know,” Benzhi said whimsically, “this is the first inn I have been to in over a year.”

 Gisael smiled, “this is my first inn.”

 Reyas laughed, “the dwarven great hall is sort of like this, as our Gael halls are.”

 Skorrick smiled and took a swig of ale, “does not come close,” he stated as fact before thumping his ale back down on the table for effect.

 Keann looked nervous, “do you not mind the attention we be gaining?” He directed the question at Benzhi.

 “After a month on the road we need to wind down, and the people can look all they want,” Benzhi replied.

Despite his bravado, Benzhi and Gisael kept a close watch on anyone approaching their table and the inn in general. The evening was ultimately uneventful, other than a few hangovers in the making.

 Master Gilford and Melvina showed up at the inn for breakfast, they had a boy accompanying them, he was a page from the Balfour House, who were Melvina’s relatives by marriage.

 “This is Stolley,” Gilford introduced the page, “he will ensure we don’t get lost and can run a message if needed.”

 Benzhi indicated for everyone to sit and eat. He still did not eat much, a few mouthfuls were enough to sustain him for the day.

 “Where to first?” he asked.

 “The Merchants of Loctris,” Melvina stated.

 “Well, that name says it all,” Benzhi remarked.

 “Carney, Skorrick and I will accompany you Melvina, the rest of our party will train in the yards,” Benzhi had negotiated with the innkeep to use their yards for combat training, and they had been kind enough to agree, for the right price.

Stolley led the group of four through the bustling streets of Sandstone. The city was a torrent of activity early in the morning, it was difficult to push their way through the crowds.

 Stolley warned them to hang on to their valuables, as this was prime time for pickpockets. Benzhi could not only feel the presence of the concentrated kernels, but he could also see them with qi sight if a thief stole one it would be the last thing they did.

 Skorrick, who held the gems, gripped his bag like his life depended on it. Benzhi put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Do not fret Skorrick, we will be fine,” he said attempting to allay Skorricks fears.

 “Had you traded with these people before?” Benzhi asked Skorrick as they walked, this was the closest city to their old home in the southern mountain range.

 “Aye, but they always came to us, we did not need agents and the like,” Skorrick answered.

 Benzhi thought about contacting the merchants who used to trade with the dwarves but then decided a fresh start was probably better. He also did not want anyone knowing too much about their business, including relocating the dwarven stronghold. Let them think the old one perished.

 The Merchant guilds were almost next to one another, straddling massive amounts of land either side of the main road near the southern gate. It looked like the guilds were competing with the structures themselves, pillars held up a balcony, from which well-dressed men sat, sipping beverages and discussing business. The wide entrance allowed anyone access into the foyer, beyond which was strictly limited.

 The foyer was a long room with ornate wooden walls, it had tellers and service desks towards the rear and noticeboards adorned the west wall. The floor was polished stone, and although well worn, it was perfectly clean. There were no chairs nor tables, the foyer was strictly a gateway or a place for complimentary guilds to browse the noticeboard.

 Melvina said, “we will go to the desk and ask for a list of guild approved agents, they should be forthcoming with that sort of information.”

 The boy who held the door open for them to enter, nodded and smiled and went back to his place on the street. Welcoming merchants and their clients to the guild hall.

 Benzhi noticed that Carney had changed into an elegant dress, Melvina must have supplied it and she changed during breakfast. The dress was pulled in at the waist, accentuating her figure and bosom. The dark and light green pattern was beautiful in itself, but when complemented by Carney’s red hair and figure, she looked intoxicating. Her green eyes shone with delight when she noticed Benzhi’s attention.

 “You look beautiful,” he said honestly.

 “Oh its nothing,” she said self depreciatively, but she could not hide her ear to ear grin.

 “Well done,” Benzhi turned to Melvina, congratulating her on the transformation of Carney.

  The four crowded the service desk, and Melvina requested the list. It did not take long and an exchange of coins for the list to be forthcoming.

 As everywhere Benzhi seemed to go, they attracted stares from Merchants coming and going. Benzhi had even left his spear behind, in an attempt to look less threatening, he wore his shield as always with his sword sheathed above the grip.

 They exited the Merchant’s guild in time to witness a large woman kicking the boy who held the door for people.

 The woman was well dressed and over six feet tall, she had the look of a merchant about her. She had hitched up her skirt and was kicking the boy shouting at him.

“I told you, I am not to be kept waiting,” she screamed as she kicked him over and over. He lay on the ground just taking the beating.

 Before Benzhi could act, he was still deciding what to do, Carney interposed herself between the woman and the boy.

 Caney said nothing and just glared at the women.

 “Move wench,” the woman howled. Benzhi saw she had guards with her, two were in brown cloaks, he could not see their emblem, and the third was a blackcloak. They had not moved but were prepared to leap into action in a moments notice.

 Benzhi engaged qi sight eyeing the guards carefully, he would not allow anyone to lay a hand on Carney.

 “This is getting out of hand,” breathed Melvina, she grabbed Carney’s arm pulling her back. “My apologies lady.”

 Carney did not budge. She shook Melvina off.

 The woman raised her hand to strike Carney when one of her guards coughed, “whitecloak.”

The woman did not look around, she stormed into the Merchant’s guild as Benzhi held the door open for her. He eyeballed her guards as they followed, nodding to the blackcloak who had intelligently alluded to the presence of a whitecloak.

 There were none to be seen.

  Carney helped the boy up.

“Bring him with us,” Benzhi said, “let's not leave him here. We can take the list back to the inn and work out who we will meet today.”

 “He probably needs the job here,” Carney said sadly.

 “Don’t worry about that,” Benzhi said waving the statement away, “we can solve that sort of issue easily.”

  The party made their way back to the inn.

 “Who was that?” Benzhi asked Melvina who looked at Stolley. Stolley shrugged. He did not move in those circles.

  “I will find out and meet you back at the inn,” Melvina said.

 “No no, it does not seem safe, we will find out later,” Benzhi said.

 “What is your name?” he asked the boy.

 The boy was bruised, bloodied and in shock. He did not protest when they led him away. After a minute the question registered in his brain, and he answered, “I go by Jax, my ma named me Karjaxilian, but everyone calls me Jax.”

 “Alright Jax, how do feel about coming to work for me?” Benzhi asked, “I think your previous employment is unsafe.”

 “What doing?” Jax asked.

 “We’ll find something,” Benzhi waved the question away.

 Carney smiled at him and put a protective arm around Jax. He was only eleven or twelve years old.

 “You can’t employ every mistreated child in Sandstone,” Melvina whispered.

 Benzhi ignored her.

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