Ziedon rolled over in his bed, ignoring the dream.
“You called me. Why?”
He was tired. How much sleep could he have gotten? Three hours? Four?
“You called me. Why?”
Ziedon opened his eyes a crack. The sun had risen only recently, and it was cold. The bird was perched on the highest shelf above the desk, staring at him with interest. It was also squawking annoyingly. Ziedon ducked under his blanket.
“Why did you call me?”
Ziedon opened his eyes again. It was the bird. The bird was squawking, and Ziedon understood. It was talking to him.
Ziedon rubbed his eyes and said, “If this is a bad dream, I wish to wake up now.” He sat up in bed. “I can understand you. Hmm, the bond must be deepening. I have read about this. A mage can call upon nature to send him a familiar, or animal guide, to help him in his endevours. I called upon nature and you answered my call. We are bound together now.”
“You called me… to help you.” It was a statement, not a question. Ziedon took out his sketch from the night before and laid it out on the desk. In the light of day, it would be easier to finish off the fine details.
“Both the animal and the mage gain from the bond,” Ziedon continued, “though it is not usually readily apparent what that gain is. In any event, after some studies I will be able to place some additional protections on you, to help you avoid being hit by other birds, like that owl that I saved you from last night.”
The bird stared intently at Ziedon, working hard to incorporate this new information into its tiny brain. While it thought, Ziedon got out of bed and opened his door to see that Gelefer was guarding it.
“Please send someone to the locksmith to fetch my new diary,” he said. “The lock was to be installed by last night. I require it now.” Ziedon handed him the parchment with the drawing of his familiar. “Also, please send someone to a local sage, or knowledgable person, of birds. I would like to know what type of bird this is, and any information the sage is able to share.” He stiffled a yawn with the back of his hand. “I shall take my breakfast in my room this morning.”
Ziedon dressed and arranged himself in a comfortable position to prepare incantations from memory. He sat for a long time, only noticing peripherally when his breakfast was brought in. Throughout this time the bird continued to stare.
Finally, Ziedon finished. He approached his familiar and ran a finger down its feathers as he chanted the words to a spell. He felt the the bird's feathers become hard as steel for a split second before returning to normal. “Based on what I have read in the past, I can also grant you some special abilities by calling forth magics while we are touching. In this case, I know that I can enchant one of your talons to glow with a pale blue light that will inflict great pain and sap your target's strength when you hit them with it. The effects only last a short time but allow multiple attacks.”
While its beak was stiff as any bird's, Ziedon thought he detected a smile in his familiar's eyes when it broke out of its trance. “Yes,” it squawked. “That will be good.”
“I could use some small mice. Would you be so kind as to go find me some? I need them whole, just two. You can bring them back here.”
The bird considered this for a long time. “How?” it finally answered.
Ziedon waved a hand. “I don't know, don't you normally hunt mice? I mean, what do you eat?”
“How do I bring them whole?”
“Look around the buildings, try to get into the attic. Just knock them silly and grab them with your talons and bring them to me. I will take care of them from there.”
It was another hour before the new book arrived. Ziedon immediately set to writing down some spells and preparing them for the day. Not long after he'd finished, Tilluri entered, and gave Ziedon a summary of how the town's situation had changed in the past twenty-four hours.
Townsman Orfort had been attacked yet again, by one of his own bodyguards who claimed to be in Galgewe's employ. Townsman Kal was now bed-ridden due to an attempted assassination by one of Silnquost's men. Eight minor townsmen had been hurt in one way or another, and four more had been imprisoned. All townsmen now went everywhere with a large complement of bodyguards.
As of this morning, taxes had been increased dramatically on a large number of products, including clothing, coal and wool. Tarriffs on imports had been raised fifty percent, and taxes on exports had been doubled. Interest on loans was up twenty percent, and a flat six aglars had been added to all tolls for entering and leaving Maelbourg.
“Calen Finterher will be ready to speak with you as soon as the healer leaves. Townsman Galgewe has indirectly arranged a meeting between you and Townsman Hewlard. He wants you to convince him to switch sides, or at least to get him to shift to a neutral stance. And Galgewe has asked me to add,” Tilluri concluded with a smile, “that you will not be allowed to see your book until you show some signs of success. Silnquost,” he continued at a near-whisper, “retains the book for you to 'peruse at your leisure.'”
Ziedon nodded. “I also have a meeting with Duddan at noon. When will the healer arrive?”
“He is scheduled to be here within half an hour.”
“What about Jackol Worsen? Have you been able to secure a meeting with him?”
“Not yet. He has been hard to reach this past day.”
“I would also like to call upon Reden Orfort and Jorran Kal, I wish to convey my sympathies on their recent misadvantures. Set it up.”
“I'll do what I can,” Tilluri said, and left the room.
The healer arrived as expected, and he tended to Ziedon's wounds while continuing their discussion about various herbs. He was pleased with Ziedon's progress, and said that the wound would heal on its own now; there was no reason for continued visits. When he left, the healer suggested that Ziedon visit him at the House some time.
Calen Finterher arrived shortly after the healer left. He left a pair of his own bodyguards behind him when he entered the room. Ziedon was sitting at his desk, scanning his new spellbook with his eyes. His hands were hidden from view under the desk, but moving rapidly, and his voice was quietly forming words entirely foreign to the townsman. The timing of Calen's entrance had been planned precisely beforehand. He was to witness as little of the spell as possible, and understand even less. Now the spell was cast, and soon, Calen's behavior would give Ziedon a clue as to whether it had worked.
“I was told that one of Townsman Silnquost's higher-ups wanted to speak with me,” Calen said, looking for a place to sit, “but I've never heard of you. Ziedon, is it?”
Ziedon rose to his feet and approached Calen. “Yes. Good morning,” he said, extending a hand. “I am Ziedon. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.” Ziedon offered Calen a chair. “I trust that you are well in light of the recent troubles and the most recent tax increases?”
“I haven't been attacked, but I also haven't made myself too important.” Calen smiled. “And the taxes are something I've come to expect in this town. Everyone's always fighting to keep their own taxes down and everyone else's up. And you? If you work for Townsman Silnquost, you're in more danger than I am.”
“I would daresay that you have done an excellent job at maintaining a low profile, but I think we both know your importance. Aside from the milk and cheese trade – everyone has to eat – your influence with several of the other townsmen definitely sets you above the average.”
“I think you overestimate me. Everyone has some influence”
Ziedon smiled. “Your modesty is virtuous. As for Townsman Silnquost, I am surprised to hear that you were told I was one of his hirelings, since I do not technically work for him. But I might ask, why would you think I'd be in danger?”
“Anyone working for Townsmen Silnquost or Galgewe are in some danger right now. There have been a lot of injuries lately.”
Ziedon sighed. “You have hit the nail on the head there. Due to the current situation between Silnquost and Galgewe, things have become much more dangerous and less profitable. It is like a…” Ziedon's hands twirled as if he was searching for a word, but in actuality he was wordlessly casting another spell… “Warzone… Yes, warzone out there. What we need is to return to a simplier time. One in which there wasn't any major struggles between the townsmen and everyone was able to seek profit and live life in peace. What is your opinion on that?”
“I think it sounds like a good idea. What's good for business is good for Maelbourg. But the town is a mess right now. How would you propose we pull it out?” Calen looked past Ziedon's shoulder and then stood up. “There's a bird at your window, pushing mice through the shutters.”
Ziedon laughed and walked to the shutter to pull the mice through and drop them to the floor. With a subtle shifting of his hands, he wrung their necks to ensure they were dead, and sent warm feelings of pleasure and a pride to his familiar. “Ever have a cat that brings you his conquests? Well, somehow this bird seems to have adopted me and is doing the same.”
Ziedon returned to his seat, paying the mice no further attention. “Now where was I? Oh, peace and how to accomplish it. It would seem that things were relatively stable before Galgewe arrived. It was Galgewe, who incidentally is just the front man for another who seeks to bring all of the towns in this barony under his control, who started the fighting and the chaos. Galgewe actually brought me to town in order for me to persuade others to throw their support to his cause. After seeing the situation, I've decided that Galgewe isn't worth the support. I see him as the cause of the problems. What I see instead, as the only way of returning stablity to the town, is a third party taking over Galgewe's interests. I have talked with Silnquost about this and he concurs, enough so that he is also financing my efforts to persuade other townsmen to my way of thinking.
“What I am proposing is humbly volunteering myself to take over Galgewe's interests. Once I have enough support, we will oust Galgewe and his imperialistic master from here, and allow things to return to a time of civility and peace. This of course places me in a delicate position…” Ziedon held up two hands like a merchant's scale. “One one hand, I have to appear like I am helping Galgewe's cause so he doesn't grow suspicious. On the other, I have to build support for his removal. It is a fine balancing act, but of course, I would always remember who helped me gain my new standing.
“So that is my proposal. What do you say? Could you support Silnquost and myself to bring peace and prosperity back into everyone's life?”
“You paint a nice picture, and I have no doubt you'd be the man for the job, but I'm not sure Townsman Silnquost agrees.”
Ziedon responded with a wave of his hand. “Oh, he agrees that Galgewe needs to be replaced, and has commissioned me to work towards that end. However, he hasn't came to a final decision as to whom should replace Galgewe. Either myself or someone of his choosing. But how can I try to gain the support of townsmen for an unknown person? With me, you can see who you would be supporting, who would be taking over Galgewe's interests. If Silnquost would want another to take that position, then that person should be the one out trying to garner support. I am talking with you face to face, man to man with everyone's best interest in mind. Can I count on your support?”
“If it comes to a vote, you have mine, but I think you might run into some obstacles you don't expect. Without a guild, you'll need a lot of support, maybe even some popular support. And I've heard you're not a Morenthian. That will make things very difficult.”
“Galgewe isn't a Morenthian, nor does he have a guild. But you are right – I will need a lot of support. So what I would ask is for you to talk with those whom you have influence, and explain the situation to them in order to garner their support as well; then they can talk with those whom they have influence, and so forth. If we can get enough people to throw me their support, especially if they previously supported Galgewe, we can bring peace back to this fair town.”
“Like I said, I have less influence than you think, but I might be able to talk to a few people. You're right – replacing Galgewe with a less power-hungry man like yourself will do nothing but good for the town.”
“Every little bit helps, especially if they were leaning towards Galgewe before. The sticky point is to do this as covertly as possible so that Galgewe doesn't realize his support base is dwindling.”
“That won't be easy. Townsman Galgewe is a crafty person.”
Ziedon nodded. “That is the truth. It would probably be for the best, if you are directly approached by supporters of Galgewe or Silnquost – especially if they know that you have met with me – that you say that you support whomever their patron is. That will keep you out of the direct line of fire and allow you to talk with those whom you think you might be able to persuade to support my cause. I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to such a civic-minded man such as yourself.”
Calen nodded. “You give some good advice.”
Ziedon shook his hand and said, “I am glad you were able to meet with me and I am glad of your support. If you need to contact me, you can send word through Menathal or Tilluri. It is probably best that you go now, before your presence becomes known to others.”
“It's been a pleasure.”
“Well, that went well I think,” Ziedon said after the door was closed. He then turned to his familiar and the parcels it had brought. It was still trying to squeeze itself through the shutters. “So,” Ziedon asked. “Do you enjoy eating fresh meat?” He took the two mice, and with a sharp dagger stripped off the hide and then field dressed them. He gave the meat to the bird to eat and dumped the rest into his chamber pot, leaving the skeletons of the mice intact.
Ziedon cleaned his fingers and opened the door to his room. “When is my next appointment?” he asked.
“We will take you to Hewlard in half an hour,” Tilluri said. “Oh, here's Menathal with your clothes.” Menathal entered, carrying two well- made outfits and the winter cloak that Ziedon had ordered, and placed them on the bed.
“Excellent. That will give me time to change.” Ziedon closed the door and proceeded to change into one of the new outfits to help him look more like a local. Then he relaxed for a few minutes before leaving for his next appointment.
Hewlard's guildhouse was a small building with an image of a wagon embossed over the door. Dispite being small, it had the air of a military compound. A heavily armed and armored guard stood at either side of the door, hand ready at the hilt of a sword. Windows were small and boarded up for the winter, no doubt keeping any natural light from reaching the interior. Even the chimney was topped with an iron grate.
Tilluri handed one of the guards a note, who disappeared inside for a few minutes before returning and formally admitting all four men – Ziedon and his enterage. Ziedon spotted two more guards and half a dozen lightly-armed journeymen on the way to Hewlard's office. The office itself was functional, about eight feet on a side, and, in addition to Hewlard at his small desk, housed four guards, positioned like statues at each corner of the room. “You three can wait outside,” Hewlard said, and Tilluri nodded and held back. “Send someone to confirm my next appointment,” Ziedon added. The door was closed behind Ziedon, and Hewlard motioned him to a seat with a careless wave.
“So what does Galgewe want, and why didn't he come himself? Yes, I know who sent you. Do you think I'm an idiot? I don't make an appointment without finding out who's coming and who he works for. Well, Zedon?” He mispronounced the name, putting the accent on the second syllable. “Speak up.”
Ziedon gave a half bow with florishes of his hands, to mask the silent enchantment. “My name is Ziedon, good townsman. I come not just on behalf of Galgewe, and Silnquost for that matter, but for the good of all people of this fair town.” He sat in the offered chair as he spoke.
Hewlard leaned forward against his desk. “What was that you were just doing with your hands?”
Ziedon smiled. “That? Oh, it is part of an ancient form of greeting from where I come from. Actually it is just part of the greeting, there are words that go with it as well, but I usually just do the gestures. This is the entire thing.” He repeated the gestures, and this time, added the words of the spell, casting it a second time. “As you see, the verbal part is a little long for most people's tastes.”
“Oh, I see, I see.” Hewlard waved a hand absently, and one of the guards, who had been standing just inches from the back of Ziedon's chair, retreated. Ziedon had never noticed the man approach. “So you say you're interested in the good of the town, though I know you were sent here by Galgewe. How do you account for that?”
Ziedon took a deep breath and launched into the story he'd told the others, explaining how he was brought in by Galgewe via blackmail but after seeing what Galgewe had done to the town, decided to go against him, especially since Galgewe was just a stalking horse for another power-hungry man who sought to bring all of the towns in the barony under his control. Ziedon told of his encounter with Silnquost and how the townsman had decided to support Ziedon's plan of stripping away Galgewe's support and replacing him with another. Then Ziedon humbly explained his logic in offering himself as Galgewe's replacement. He added that he had to be duplicitous towards Galgewe, making him think that Ziedon was garnering support for him, while he was actually working to remove the tyrant. Ziedon finished by saying, “That is why I have come to you – to ask for your support and the support of those with whom you have influence, to rid this town of Galgewe and bring back the times of peace and prosperity to all.”
Hewlard smiled, and Ziedon saw one of the ways he'd been able to win over so many townsmen. When he wanted to appear friendly, he could do it better than almost anyone. “Then I'm not sure why you came to me at all,” Hewlard said. “I've been trying to get rid of Galgewe since he got here. But you have my support. Tough as it will be for a non- Morenthian to become a townsman, I hope you make it.”
“Thank you very much. If you would use your influence with the other townsmen to not only get rid of Galgewe, but to support me, I would be very greatful and hopefully we can bring the chaos to an end soon.”
The meeting with Duddan was much the same. He was under Ziedon's spell early in the conversation, and after that, he was cooperative and friendly, even pushing off some other business to hear Ziedon's entire spiel. When Ziedon asked for Waylad's release, however, he was denied. Duddan was polite about it, but he could not risk his job by going over any of the townsmen's heads. He did hint, however, that Waylad's cell wasn't the most secure in the world. Ziedon asked if he could at least see Waylad to talk with him briefly.
“That you can do easily. Waylad's cell has a small window. He can hear you through it.”
Ziedon nodded and said, “Exactly how 'porous' is his cell?” He waved a hand in the air. “Not that you would know anything about it, or be an accomplice to his release…. But, how easy would it be?”
“The locks are not very sturdy on those old cells, and multiple townsmen have the key. That, and the jailer carries a set with him at all times, and there is only one jailer. If I was given the money, I could go a long way in fixing that place up.”
“Which townsmen have keys?”
“Galgewe and Silnquost, certainly. I can't give you a complete list, since none of them are legitimate. They're all copies.”
“That makes sense.”
Before leaving, Ziedon asked for a list of imprisoned townsmen and got it. The list differed from those he'd heard before by only a few men, some of whom had been accused today. They were split roughly evenly between Galgewe's and Silnquost's camps.
After Duddan, Ziedon had a couple of hours to spare before his next meeting. He ate a leisurely lunch and spent some time with his familiar. Menathal nervously snuck one tiny onyx into Ziedon's room. He looked like he had some explanation for having one instead of two, but could not give it with Tilluri and Gelefer around. He also slipped Ziedon a slip of paper, with writing in Forgolon's hand. It read,
“G is catching on.”
Nice turn. Nothing special to say here, since the next turn has already begun.
Ziedon gained an onyx and some clothes.