Monday, March 31, 2008

Chapter Sixteen

Tralingua’s eyelids fluttered in the early evening darkness. It was soon enough after nightfall that people were still about. Without this distraction Tralingua would surely have already fallen asleep. As it was, she fought the day’s fatigue valiantly. Unfortunately, a long day of begging in the religious quarter of Kath left her with little extra vigor for the task Maquin had set for her.

“It’s simple,” he had explained. “Just wait at the spot I tell you until some folk show themselves.”

“What folk,” she had asked.

“A man, a lizard, and a dog, my darling Tralingua” he had answered, adding feigned sweetness when he said her name.

After that Maquin dismissed Tralingua from his meeting room and she had gone back to her begging. She fumed the rest of the day thinking about how the boss had said her name. She may have been an indigent widow with no trade other than begging, but she recognized contempt when she heard it. She heard it often enough in the mumbled curses of her customers.

The sneer in Maquin’s voice assured her that he felt she did not deserve such a grand name. Most folk felt the same way. How could her mother have been so daft as to name her after perhaps the greatest beauty in the old stories? And a Princess, no less. To avoid the smarmy comments and teasing, she simply called herself Trali; a name she felt was more fitting for her humble job and her spotty looks.

Trali tromped back to her assigned begging territory. She cursed the fates that conspired to leave her with no option other than begging for a living. At the same time she secretly admitted to owning much of the blame for her situation. While being reared as the only daughter of a mildly successful merchant, Trali received better than average schooling, especially when compared to most women in Kath. Her first husband was affable but often described her as a challenge, but they were happy enough. Happy until the day the constables brought poor Ulrik’s bloody purse to her. They offered their condolences for the unfortunate loss of her husband. A nobleman had been in a hurry and had simply not seen Ulrik crossing the Temple Square before running him down with his new stallion. Her parents long since dead and having no siblings or children, Trali found herself alone in the world. She soon decided that being alone was not a state she wished to live in for long. Her second husband could most easily have been described as a necessary evil and he often described Trali as a shrew. A bitter end to that union was inescapable. That was how Trali found herself here in her current situation; waiting for an outlandish sounding group to enter the city through a forgotten gate, after her long day of begging to survive.

Looking more like a heap of rags rather than a once proud woman nearing old age, Trali lounged in a corner created where two of the more robust buildings in the poor quarter came together. From her vantage, she kept watch on the grime covered door once used by pig farmers to slop their hogs at the city midden. By the looks of the door, it had not budged in several score years, but she knew better. Although long forgotten by the city officials, those folk more comfortable in the shadows kept the door well maintained and oiled, despite its decrepit appearance. Only a few keys existed that would turn the old, iron lock, and they were guarded jealously. Trali knew if those she waited possessed one of those keys, the city’s shadowy underworld considered important by them influential or at least important.

Trali waited well after the sun fled and the tavern and inn keepers ventured out to place welcoming lamps on the door posts. She flirted with sleep, but the thought of Maquin’s anger if her prey slipped by was more than enough to keep it at bay. Her taskmaster often forgave small blunders, but had a reputation for harshness if someone made enough of a muddle of things.

Circumstances rewarded Trali’s diligence just as hunger began to pinch her belly. The door swung open and those that had been described to her emerged. Had they been any other three, she might have questioned it, but the dissimilar silhouettes of each made it clear that these were the folk she waited for.

Trali rose to her feet, joints popping as she stretched. She shambled toward the travelers as they closed and locked the door. As they turned to regard their surroundings, Trali reached them. Her back straightened and she affected her most dignified pose.

“Gentlefolk, I greet you.” She kept her voice low, but clearly audible enough for the three to hear her.

The three exchanged confused expressions, but said nothing for a moment. The creature that Trali would have described as a werewolf looked at the male Human and simply shrugged. The lizard creature cocked its head, watching Trali wearily and then turned to the Human.

“Well, you talk to it,” it gestured dismissingly at Trali. “It’s one of yours”

The man sputtered, looking embarrassed by the words. He turned to Trali and held out his hand.

“My apologies, goodlady. My companion sometimes lacks couth.”

Trali immediately revised her first impression of the fellow. Despite his bedraggled appearance, she decided at that moment that he was obviously a gentleman.

“No sorrys necessary, Lord. It’s quite a compliment to be lumped in with you.” Trali took his hand, bowing her head and performing a curtsy of sorts.

“Now, gentlefolk, if you follow me I’m to lead you to Master Maq…” Her voice trailed off for a moment, but then she continued. “I’m to lead you to our mutual friends. They’ll be eager to speak with you.”

“I am, bye the bye, Brayden. These are my companions Sethyr and Vijhan.” The man gestured toward the lizard creature and then to the werewolf.

“So pleased to make your acquaintance, good sirs,” Trali gave another quick curtsy, nodding at each in turn. She noticed that the werewolf’s tail began to wag back and forth when she acknowledged him. It reminded Trali how different Brayden’s two companions were, and that meant attracting unwanted attention. She gave the trio an embarrassed look. She motioned them over to a shadowy alley between a tavern and a shop outside of which a sign hung depicting a hat festooned with an impossibly long feather. The sound of gathered folk emanated from the open doorway of the tavern, but the shuttered widows indicated that the shop was closed up tight.

“I hate to ask it, but do all of you have long cloaks? Even in this dim night, you’re quite an unusual sight. My friends are the type that prefer as little attention turn their way as possible. If you wear the cloaks, it could help us avoid prying eyes.”

The Lizard creature hissed an unmistakable sigh, rolling its eyes in a peculiarly human way. The human, Brayden he had called himself, simply nodded and motioned for the others to comply as well. All three took a moment to retrieve long woolen cloaks from their packs. They were quite plain and looked nearly identical, probably purchased from the same craftsman.

Trali took a step back while they had donned their cloaks and nodded approvingly. It was quite an improvement in anonymity.

“Now I’d say that’s much better,” she commented.

“Oh course,” the lizard quipped, “no one shall find three shrouded figures stealing through the streets, led by…a bundle of rags, the least bit suspicious.”

“Sethyr, that is enough,” Brayden said with iron in his voice.

Sethyr’s gaze dropped toward the cobblestones.

Trali could not tell if this meant that the creature was repentant or merely cowed by the man’s rebuke. Either way, she did not care. She could not recall the last time anyone had come to her defense so readily…and it gave her a warm feeling.

Trali looked straight at Sethyr wearing a friendly smile.

“Better to look suspicious than be identified. Anyways, in this part of the city, a conveniently concealing cloak is almost a uniform.”

She stepped forward and adjusted the cowl of Sethyr’s cloak. She pulled it closer to conceal more of Sethyr’s elongated snout. The mage let out a quiet hiss, but submitted without an argument.

“Now, I think that’ll do it. Now if you would please follow me, I’ll have to there in not too long.”

Trali led them away from the alley and across the dark plaza to another alley. Their route look then through empty streets and cramped walkways, even through a burned out warehouse, before she held up her hand for them to halt. By this time, the circuitous route had thoroughly confused the trio as to their position in relation to the city wall.

They stood in front of a tenement resembling on a dozen they passed earlier. Trali smiled inwardly as she observed the confused looks the trio wore. Maquin would be pleased that she not only delivered them safely, but by a route the three had no hope of ever retracing.

Trali rapped on a decrepit looking, but solid sounding door. It slid open but the room inside was a pit of darkness.

Trali whispered to the guard she didn’t see, but knew would be there. “Please tell him that his guests are here.”

“Tell them to come in,” a voice came from the dark interior.

Trali turned to the trio she had escorted and motioned to them.

“This is as far as I go. The others will take you the rest of the way. Good Journey.”

Trali turned away as Brayden tried to thank her. She was tired and needed to rest. No matter how kind the man was, she knew the feelings it gave here had to be fleeting. Most of the world treated her with scorn and Brayden’s compassion only served to throw the rest of her life into sharp contrast. She heard a cheerful farewell as she hurried off into the night.

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