“I tell you boys one thing,” Gregory says, a long finger tracing his lips. “What ever they make us do, know that my father has paid handsomely for his handsome son to win.”
“Just like a bankers son to do nothing and expect his daddy to make it all go his way.” Troy croaks drunkenly “My father keeps a tight tally of everything and I still do not expect things to go easy for me. Good thing I have many a Virin young in my pocket, soon I hope they will have the information we seek.”
Niander picks up the book they had just emptied, Tales of Tranquil Torture by Thomas Top, a book he has read ten times over. He opens it and riffles through its pages, not to read but to look busy. Through his entire sixteen years of life he has only been in contact with his father twice. At first he thought since his father is a Fell conqueror, with hundreds of thousand at his command, there was little time to write to his child. Malcolm could expect a package from home every day, Gregory always had gold and books to spare, Troy wallowed in secrets and wine. Even little Michael, who like Niander had family in the Fell, would get a letter from both mother and father at the very least twice a season.
Twice had Nurse Andromeda knocked on his dormitory door. Once after he had excelled at Feruh, the art of focus, his father had written a few lines of congratulations. Though with its lack of tenderness it may just have been a dictation to a subordinate. The second, this one with proper fatherly penmanship, was a scolding. Niander had stolen ingredients from the apothecary confiscated. Had they not found the Vecpo blood he would have gotten away with nothing more than a lashing. But the sinister nature of the ingredients in combination… well that letter was nearly four years old.
“My mother said that we will have to dress up for a sort of party after the rejoining celebration.” Michael says counting the bare threads on his shirt. “She sent me a smart outfit, it’s sort of nice, bit to Florian for me.”
“Das righ’. Me Dad sent me some tails. I look like a right Lord in it.”
“Oh, I’ll just throw on some old dressing gown. It will make it easier to get my parts out when I meet up with Emilia.” Troy says, smacking his lips loudly.
Gregory makes a noise like an irritated vulture. “Pesky thoughts, why dress up. Tell me young Michael, will Mommy and Daddy disown you if you wear your rags.”
“No, it’s just they already bought them.” Michael averts his gaze, his face crimson.
“Leave him be, Greg. He’ll look a sight better than you in your unwashables.” Malcolm says, more in response to Niander’s darkening glare than to Michaels embarrassment.
Again, this was a subject Niander did not like. Though he never went around in rags, his father had made it clear that a future Fell soldier need not be bothered with his day to day attire. He made due with the Abby uniform, black tunic and trousers and leather boots. If he was lucky the menders would have a shirt in his size.
“What about you Niander?” Gregory whispers. He had noticed how quiet his friend had become. “What will you be wearing?”
“I thought of going naked.” He gives a sly smile, “why not give the girls a taste of what is to come from a freed man.”
“Atta boy!” Troy claps. Every one but Gregory laughs.
“Did the menders have a proper sized shirt?”
“How dare you use Feruh on me.” Niander hisses. In the same instance, his eyes go black and Gregory clutches at his own throat, unable to take breath. “Its so simple, childish really, to sneak into someone’s mind when they are at ease. Even for a pitiful Ferian like you.”
The others can only watch as Gregory struggles, as he begins to turn blue. Niander stands and walks over to him. Gregory falls out of his seat and takes hold of Niander’s boot, pleading for mercy with his weakening grip. “Notice I am not straining, nor am I mouthing the mantra. I am steady, collected, uncaring. My will is stronger than yours. As I have told you before Gregory, you have to mean it.”
Niander…” Michael trails off.
“Poor Gregory, died the day he was supposed to meet his parents.” Niander stares with lifeless orbs. “I can lie and say you died valiantly.”
Just as the final drops of life make to leave Gregory, Niander releases him. The room is filled with coughs and sputters. A distorted curse goes unheard. Niander sits back down and picks up Thomas Top’s book once more. “Music.”
Gregory still gasping, pulls a lute from inside his robes. He plays a delicate number without falter, this is due more to fear than talent. Malcolm, smiling at his friend, hands Niander another cup of wine. The others begin to talk amongst themselves. Looking over at Gregory, his eyes now watering, Malcolm says, “never knew you had it in you to attack a close friend.”
“Close or not, no one enters my mind.”
“I am sure the message got through.” Malcolm, winks cruelly at Gregory, “teach me?”
“You’ll need to be celibate for a week.”
“Forget it then, I didn’t think it was going to be torture.” He flattens his already sleek hair. “What did he mean by ‘menders’?”
“The shirts I get,” Niander says. Malcolm, unlike the others, was his confidante.
Only once had he tried to offer Niander coin, realizing his mistake he never did again. From then on he only made friendly gestures of buying sweets and drinks from the cart merchants. Under the guise of sacred days could he would give Niander small trinkets. Once he lost a bet on purpose, but feared his friend could see through it. Malcolm didn’t know what was worse, living in poverty by choice or being forced to by a strict parent.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. All six young men scrambled to hide cups and empty book. Malcolm, making sure everything was out of sight, opened the door enough to peek through. A deep voice entered the room, “I am Del Aro, I come with information for Mr. Swift”
The door closes and Malcolm turns to the room. He holds out a letter with Troy’s seal on it. He walks over, bloated with importance, and takes it. He mutters a quick mantra, making sure not to look at Niander, and the wax vanishes. Opening the letter he reads it with appropriate humphs and tsks, then looks at his friends, “Trials.”
“That means what exactly?” Malcolm asks.
“That is what we will have to do when we get to Weeping Valley. Trials of mental and physical strength. My spies have heard that we will be randomly paired against each other. Both tasks will be judged by Ryker Al’Gurah and Gad Lorn, both High Priests first Command. Ryker is Grand Master at Arms in the Fell and Gad is High Draco Ferian at the Monastery. Baktu be with us, it says here death is an option.”
“Other than Niander, who in our class has any really ability to take someone’s life using Feruh?” Malcolm says waving a dismissive hand at Troy.
“But there are plenty who are good with a blade.” Michael squeaks.
“Baktu be praised,” Londo says with absolutely no accent, “ I hope I get me hands on tha’ Ty Jorobu. That bastard took me Olivia into the woods and bled her.”
“I hope I get Kilner,” Gregory says gruffly, “his father still owes mine for that bit of land in Bell City. From the letters it sounds like old man Kilner doesn’t want to pay.”
“Pestilent fool, why not?” Troy asks angrily.
“Says it’s too close to the Bog.”
They all laugh. For what it’s worth Tobias Gold is an outstanding banker, ruthless though he may be. His family is one of the oldest, and most respected in all of StarFell. This respect extends through most of Avenlore as well since all major cities have a branch or two from his family tree.
“Gentlemen, all this wine and talk has given me a powerful hunger,” Troy says rubbing his enormous belly and eying the letter once more. “Let us retreat to the roof and see what there is to devour.”
After all the cups are drained and put away, the young men make their way to the roof. It only takes one staircase to break into the brilliant afternoon sun. The cool breeze licks at their faces and cools the fire from the wine. From atop the caravan the rough road can be seen, but the enchantments makes it nearly impossible to feel. Niander walks past the tables laden with meat, fruits and drink, and takes a seat at a table closest the edge. Malcolm follows while the others make their rounds. Michael finds a few boys and whispers the new of the trials. Gregory glides over to other dark hooded figures, the exchange of information and ingredients goes unnoticed by most. Troy ambles and laughs loudly to another group of fat toads. They chortle and clap boisterously, this of course is a distraction from the coin being passed around. Londo goes right for the meat.
“Damn, the girls have a tent.” Malcolm says, he scratches his still bare chest. “To think I went without a shirt for nothing.”
“I wouldn’t say that. Florian is giving you glances.” Niander points at the tall dark skinned young man nibbling at a handful of berries. Florian makes his way over to the two friends. His emerald locks fall masterfully over his shoulders. His opals gleam all around him, his chest bares all the signs of expensive oils that dare not stain his shit. Even his trousers and boots gleam with stones.
“Hello, Niander.” His voice resonates even in the outdoors. “Malcolm, how are you? I see you thought the day was warm, just as I did.”
“Hello Florian, you are looking as magnificent as ever,” Niander says with a wink.
“You tease me, Niander. Or is it flattery, either way thank you. Berry?” a single red berry hovers from his hand and floats in the air for Niander to pluck. He takes it and tosses it into his mouth and winks again.
“Florian, have you heard the news,” Malcolm says rougher than intended. “We have trials in Weeping Valley.”
“Do we, well I hope I don’t hurt who ever has to go up against me.”
“These will be trials of strength and mind. Not fashion and hair.”
“Malcolm, I didn’t think you would notice. Thank you.” Florian blows a lovely kiss at him. “And my statement still stand. I will destroy anyone foolish enough not to quit when our names are called.”
“Florian, fantastic hair. I love the color.” Michael says with a wide smile.
“You are a vision of kindness,” Florian pats him on the cheek and walks back to his lonesome corner by the berries.
“I like him, he is always nice to me.” Michael says pulling up a chair. He drops a small purse on the table, “want to play Fates?”
Malcolm empties the purse, six twelve sided die fall out. “Michael, these are made of wood, you play Fates with bone die.”
“I know, but Carlo Cry only had wood. I gave him two gold to get me bone but the bastard stole the rest.”
“Did he?” Niander sits up and finds Carlo still in the group Michael had just left. “Should I make him jump off the edge?”
“No! Its alright, thanks. I can get it back from him some other time.”
“If you allow him even another minute to treat you like a fool, a fool you will be forever.” Malcolm says throwing the dice back into the purse. “Call him over. And while you are at it call over one of the slaves.”
Michael stands, head bowed in shame and walks back over to Carlo. Niander can see Michael trying to explain, maybe even apologize. Carlo looks over and sneers, taking a gold piece out of his purse he looks once at Niander and once at Michael before tossing it over the edge. Niander stands, and makes his way over to Carlo.
“Did you just toss my friends gold over the edge of the caravan? I have half the mind to make you get it back.”
Carlo towers over him, sucking on his teeth. “And you’re going to make me? Do you know who I am?”
“Carlo Cry, son to Bartolomeo and Eva Cry. Heir to one of the largest Migder herds in StarFell-”
Niander slaps Carlo across the face. “Never interrupt my recitations.” Carlo gropes at his face, making sure it is in place, but does nothing more. Niander holds back a smile, “good, you know who I am.”
“A soldier’s boy.”
“No, I am the man who will rip you away from this world as easily as I would a runt from its bitch of a mother. You have offend my friend and as a result offended me. We deserve compensation.”
“Fine, take the blasted gold. What does a coin mean to me anyway? Nothing like you and your bleeding friend.”
“No, one coin won’t do. Give Michael your purse.” Niander looks around at the others who have so far stayed quiet. Without hesitation seven full purses are handed to Michael.
“Wow,” he says feeling their weight. Another smile crosses his young face. “I can get loads of bone Dice with this.”
“Honestly, I don’t think thats enough for a good set.” Malcolm says through a yawn.
“I agree. What else do you have?”
By the time Gregory, Troy and Londo make their way to the table, Michael has filled both his gold and silver purses. After Carlo and his group emptied their pockets they found two sets of bone dice, a flute made from Fay Wood, a satchel of sweet tobacco, and to their amusement knof root. Which any active young man knows is for…
“Passion spots! Carlo has Passion Spots!” Troy yells at the top of his voice. Carlo and his group had already fled back into the caravan but Troy’s voice would carry far enough. “Bastard undoubtedly bought a copper whore, that’s how you get spots.”