Rune Breaker: Chapter 16 – Daire City

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series Lighter Days, Darker Nights (Rune Breaker, #2)

Healing by shapeshifting wasn’t the same as healing by magic. Healing spells drew vitae from the environment and used it to construct new tissue to reconstruct the damage. Shapeshifting was just that; changing shape so that wounds were no longer there. There was no spreading warmth to it; instead, Ru felt more as if his body was warm wax being spread around to fill in the injuries.

He took a shuddering breath as the disorientation and weakness lessened and then he took stock of his new form. As a shapeshifting master, there was no need for a mirror; he was innately aware of his body by necessity.

Not much had changed. The long, wild hair that previously hung untamed and dull to his waist was now hanging just past his shoulders in waves of glossy obsidian. His clean shaven face now sported a short, neat beard. Those and a few inches lost in height were the extent of the transformation. He was still dangerously thin beneath his robes, his eyes were still feral yellow, and he still looked inhuman in ways that refused to become clear.

He looked up to see Taylin staring back, expectant. He ducked his head in thanks and sat up straighter.

“So this is how you really look.” She speculated, going to sit at the foot of her bed. “Only… it isn’t is it? I saw tattoos earlier. And scars.”

“As I have said before, I am a shapeshifting master, Miss Taylin. My markings and scarification are sigils of power, but they announce many of my capabilities to skilled opponents, so I have trained myself to reflexively conceal them.” The pain was gone, but he still felt terribly drained from the experience. Part of the design of the link, the weakening rendered him unable to defend himself or mitigate damage should his master which to supplement the link’s retribution with their own.

She nodded and poured herself another cup of boiling water. “Why did you look different when I first released you?”

“Why do you care?” He managed to snap back.

“I don’t, but I’m curious.” She replied, but the link revealed her lie. Though she might not like the Rune Breaker, she cared about everyone she knew to one level or another. That Ru was still her de facto slave made her feel obliged to overcompensate in his case.

Ru didn’t call her on it. Whatever madness in her head was beneath his concern at the moment. “What I look like does not matter. The last master who cared about my appearance was a woman named Arethlana, who ordered me to alter my default form. That bestial mane and smooth face reflected her preference in men.” Taylin gave him a questioning look, which he ignored. “Thereafter, I have had no one has cared to rescind the order.”

“And the only way to change it is another order.” She guessed.

“Indeed.”

There wasn’t even a flicker of thought or emotion in the link before she said, “I order you to make your default form whatever you prefer.”

He shot her a look of recrimination and muttered, “Hypocrisy.”

Taylin swallowed the entire cup of boiling water in one pull and set the empty container on a nearby shelf. “I disagree. I realized back in the first village we came to that I can fight for good reasons as easily as the bad ones I served before. Now I realize that I can use the link to do things that make you less of a slave.”

“An odd bit of philosophy; ordering me to be free.”

“Nothing about this is normal.” The link stirred with her trepidation. “Though I wouldn’t know normal if I had both hands on it.” He didn’t reply, Taylin turned a gaze on him that made him feel as if she were looking at the insides of his eyeballs. “I accept that I’m the mistress of the link, but I won’t be your master, Ru. I can’t and I don’t want to.”

She folded her wings in close and rose from the bed. “I’m going to go see if Rai is up. She and Kaiel are showing me the city today and you’re welcome to come along if you’d like.”

Ru watched her go to the door. Only when she was halfway through it did he speak. “I will be there shortly, Miss Taylin.” She nodded and started to move again, but the link buzzed in the back of his head, pregnant with threat. “Wait.” When she looked back, he gestured for her to come over to him; he still lacked the focus to levitate and he didn’t want to even attempt standing with muscles and tendons alone.

The moment it was within range, he took her wrist, ignoring the surprise that spiked from her. It was a little thing to heal the scratches there, but the link would have continued assailing him over them. The emotions that ran down the link made him twitch.

“You have a very strange reaction to healing.” He commented. There was no getting used to it.

“I do? Doesn’t it feel like that to everyone?” She withdrew her hale and healthy arm.

“Vitae-based healing is warm, perhaps comforting to the recipient. I have neither observed, nor heard of someone who received pleasure from it.”

She turned away from his dissecting gaze and once more directed herself to the door. “I’m going to find Rai and help her with breakfast. Thank you for healing me. You didn’t have to, it wasn’t that bad.”

Of course he had to; the link demanded it. But he chose not to remind her this time. Once she was gone, he spent several minutes regathering the fragments of his concentration and power.

***

Morning at the gates of Daire City was a bustle of activity. The traders from the outlying farming enclaves arrived with first light to set up their carts among the nir-lumos wagons while merchants with enough coin to afford booths and storefronts within the city itself, as well as their suppliers trundled through the gates.

The road teamed with beasts of burden, not just horses and oxen, but spiders and ten-foot flightless birds Kaiel called rag-thieves, whose presence made the non-fear bred horses shy away. Other animals, these meant as pets and guard animals, prowled at their masters’ side as well; dogs, wolves, large foxes, hunting cats and a dozen breeds of bear, from hulking brutes with silvery fur to blonde creatures whose only methods of locomotion seemed to be in the arms of prim ladies astride fine horses.

None of them were much of a surprise to Taylin. She’d encountered most of those creatures on the field of battle (or slaughter). Even the miniature breeds of bear had been popular with the hailene nobility, though she’d never seen one so small that it could be carried comfortably while mounted. What caught her attention were the city walls.

They were seamless, no single block distinguishable from the next, as if the entire thirty foot structure was raised from the earth in one piece. The gates were just as much of a marvel; a massive stone arch flanked by identical towers half again as high as the surrounding wall. The only decoration on wall, arch or towers were razor-straight lines of runes carved deeply into the stone in precise spots. Upon close inspection, they glowed the faint orange of a dying ember.

Kaiel, strolling slightly behind Taylin and Raiteria, but a distance ahead of Ru, noticed her gawking. “Architectural runes.” He explained. “They reenforce the structure and help it support its own weight. Daire City’s structures rarely top six floors and so don’t really need them; they’re just a symbol of wealth here. In Harpsfell, where buildings can go up twenty, twenty five floors, they’re needed and it’s more fashionable to cover them up.”

Buildings as tall as twenty-five floors tall, Taylin marveled. What could anyone even do with so much space?

They passed beneath the arc under the watchful eyes of human guardsmen in battered armor flecked with the old white and orange of the previous Prince. Someone tried to cover this by giving them cloaks in red, lined with yellow, but it only served to make them look like toy soldiers.

Further back from where the road entered the city, close enough to rush to the aid of their human comrades, was a guard squad of a different race. Almost half again as tall as a man and twice as wide, the minotaurs took greater care with their leather and scale armor, which was polished until it shone. Their long, dark hair was kept in tight braids, hanging down between their horns, which themselves were capped by polished, ceramic tips.

Taylin stiffened at the sight of them and the behemoth swords they carried, which were even larger than even she could wield with one hand. She knew for a fact that a minotaur armed with one of those could cut an ang’hailene soldier nearly in half. Her memories added images of similarly massive cudgels that could dash the top of a head so far down that it was even with the shoulders.

Only Ru reacted in the least to her discomfort and even in his case, it was in the form of noticing the minotaurs and subject them to his usual disdainful sneer.

“Why does no city do the wise thing and use the coin paid for their private armies of glorified sellswords to simply hire one or two good mages?” He pondered aloud.

Kaiel didn’t even bother looking back. Beyond the gates and blocky guardhouses, they entered a wide, brick paved plaza. Wooden merchant stalls formed neat, wide aisles around a central fountain depicting an armored figure in the process of thrusting a spear into the belly of a huge serpent in bronze. The water issued like blood from the serpent’s wounds and from its mouth.

A less impressive stone wall bounded the plaza on two sides, protecting those merchants with permanent buildings from the sights, smells and noise of the market square. On the west end was a collection of stone buildings; a tavern, stable, outfitter and flophouse catering to travelers too weary to venture further into the city in search of quality goods and services.

A less than kind smile appeared on the chronicler’s face. “I imagine it has something to do with the unavoidable fact that magic or no, putting all of your resources into one man is a mistake. A crossbow quarrel to the throat fells a wizard as easily as a soldier, but at ten times the price.”

“Only a very stupid wizard.” Ru said petulantly. “Who would allow themselves to be pierced by a mere crossbow.”

“Rifle then.” said Kaiel. “I do recall you being ‘pierced’ by one of those.”

Ru growled low in his throat and Taylin could tell that it was more from having his outdated mode of speaking called to task than anything else.

Meanwhile, Rai, like Taylin, was staying out of that discussion. She paused in the middle of the square, ignoring the calls of a good half dozen traders who obviously hoped that she was in charge of buying staples for the entire clan. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Daire. Where should we go first?” She gave Kaiel a pointed look.

He took the hint to stop antagonizing Ru and looked thoughtful for a short while. “As Grandmother wants me with her when she had her teatime meeting with Solgrum, I suppose I should waste no time showing you the most important bits. Let’s head toward the Merchant’s Quarter. I can show you the Street of Cunning Peoples and the Gold Quarter along the way.”

“This isn’t the merchant’s quarter?” Taylin looked around, curious as to how the people trading goods and services for coin everywhere failed to be merchants.

Kaiel shook his head. “This is the market square, where traders and the poorer merchants cater to people from the outlying enclaves and travelers. Barely anyone in the city comes here to buy anything except on days when a caravan is outside selling exotic goods. Otherwise, the craftsmanship and service here is about as good as the tavern there.

“The Merchant’s Quarter is where the craftsmen and serious traders set up shop. If you want to buy something someone took care and pride in making, that’s where you go. Same goes if you want something made to order.”

“For example;” Rai chimed in, “Clothes and armor for a frightfully tall woman. For true, that’s half the reason we’re here.”

Taylin reddened at their comments, knowing they were very true. At the moment, she had all of three outfits and one of those was a sleeping gown that she refused to wear for fear Ru or Kaiel might see her in it. “And the other half?” She asked to deflect attention.

Rai pointed dramatically up a street leading away from the market place. “In that direction, on the Street of Spinning Silver is a placed called Little Ueparia, named after a region in the south of Rizen where the most magical things are done with rice, peppers and any meat they can shoot, fish or spear. I would be a terrible sister if I didn’t introduce you to their cuisine before Kaiel ruins your sense of taste with his cane sugar fixations.”

This drew a haughty sniff from Kaiel. “A bit of penny candy is not going to ruin someone’s taste.”

“It’s all Motsey asks for these days.” Rai folded her arms and gave him a stern look.

“Human children do the same thing.”

“And that’s why you’re all over-large and slow.” Rai snickered.

Kaiel rolled his eyes at her and set off, leading them toward the Merchant’s Quarter.

***

Taylin’s wings were pulled tight against her body, feathers ruffled and standing up in some places. She had not appreciated being measured by the armorsmith and tailor. Watching her still bristling with agitation a half hour later, Raiteria was starting to think it was a bad idea bringing her into an outfitter’s with such an extensive selection of weapons.

Gove-Harmon and Brothers was one of the best outfitters in Daire City, owing in large part to their barter policy on magical devices. Most of those were weapons. Some bore simple enchantments to keep their edge honed, to reinforce their hafts and striking surfaces, others did elaborate and unlikely things. Taylin was curiously reading a small wooden placard attached to a high quality rapier, which had only one known enchantment on it.

“Why would anyone need a sword that purifies water?”

Rai shrugged. She had no need to buy anything until the day the caravan left and was just enjoying Taylin’s near indignity at some of the more impractical uses of alchemy and magic. Kaiel was elsewhere, browsing the meager selection of books and she had no idea where Ru was.

“My best guess is that all the schools of wizardry you hear about, especially the ones set up by Nov Princes, churn out more hedge wizards than anyone knows what to do with. And when you don’t have the skill even to help protect your enclave from minor spirit beasts, you help out any way you can.”

“By making useless magic swords?” Taylin asked.

“And then selling them to rich, stupid travelers who get impressed by any spark of magic, yes.” Rai nodded. “You”ll get used to it. Every person with more coin than sense in the big cities has a sword that glows, or books that turn their own pages.”

Taylin didn’t hide her disappointment well. “Growing up, even though I hated the choirs, I always thought that magic was something special…”

Rai reached up and patted her sister’s arm. “It’s just like everything else, Taylin. Take tailoring; anyone with enough time and a care can figure out how to make a home spun shirt that keeps the sun off your back, but a real master can haul a string out of a worm’s ass and make a dress so beautiful that any woman who puts it on outshine Hessa.”

At the mention of the Goddess of Healing and light, someone laughed musically. Both woman turned to find the source and found a third woman standing there, arms draped over the metal haft of a spear that rested across her shoulders.

She was clearly of elven blood; slender without being skinny by any means, with almond shaped, green eyes and the sun browned skin of the elves of northern Novrom. From there, the similarities to elves ended. Her ears stuck up, not out, even if they did have points, and no elf either of them had seen had blonde hair, even ash blonde, and elves and even half elves almost universally had long, thin noses instead of this woman’s wider, more flat one.

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” She said quickly, hoping to mitigate any offense they might have taken. “I was actually coming over to ask if you were from the caravan.” Taylin knew that the question was directed at Rai, as no one would connect seven feet of height and two fire colored wings with ‘halfling caravan’.

Taylin took a moment to size the woman up. That spear meant business; taller than the woman carrying it, the head was eight inches long and five wide at the base of its tear shaped head, which was notched and sharpened for grievously ripping flesh. A bow shaped crossbar sat immediately behind the head and was drilled with holes through which were threaded iron rings that jingled gently whenever she moved. It was both extra weight to go behind the head, and useless looking frippery to distract from the murderously designed head.

Considering the deadly instrument she carried, the woman herself was remarkably under-armored, wearing a simple, but well made white shirt under a thin vest of blue-dyed leather. Her skirt was rough, light colored canvas and slit up the front to reveal pants of the same material beneath. The only real protection she had were a heavy leather belt loaded with mismatched pouches, and boots with so much metal plating on them that they seemed a match for Kaiel’s favorite hat. The only thing she had that looked of any worth besides the spear, was a silver chain upon which was a miniature amphora made of red blown glass, girded by a web of silver filaments.

While Taylin was indulging old habits from her previous life, Rai was being far friendlier offering up her hand for the other woman to shake. “That we are. Raiteria matei-Harun, clan of the Winter Willow. This is my adoptive sister, Taylin.”

“Brin of Rolling Meadows Enclave.” The blonde took one arm off the spear to shake hands, then offered the same to Taylin, who hesitated before taking it. “I was wondering if your clan was bound for Kinos, I’m hoping to buy passage for two.”

“Two?” Rai asked.

Brin gestured further down the aisle were a younger woman, a full human, was marveling at a peg board covered with daggers that glowed on command. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen, and from the look of her homespun, faded maroon dress, she’d never been past the walls of her farming enclave. Mud and the remnants of an attempt to wash out blood hinted at the reason she wasn’t still there.

What set her apart were the heavy leather glove she wore on one arm, the thick, starched collar draped over her shoulders, and the magnificent falcon on her shoulder. The bird’s plumage was dark brown with orange tail feathers, and a white and black speckled belly. Though it was hooded, it seemed well aware of everything around it.

“Layaka Emeries, of the Idarian Homestead. I came upon the place traveling here from Rivenport. Spirit beast hit it, maybe more than one. Not a single person there had any ash chalk, and from what I could tell, no one even thought to use fire. They didn’t stand a chance.”

That was something Taylin didn’t need to ask about. Even in the time of the War of Ascension, spirit beasts were something to be feared. Any living creature could become infected by the so called ‘divinity sparks’ and become something powerful, almost unstoppable. There were as many different kinds as there were living things, and it seemed the only immolation could permanently end their lives.

The hailene feared them, wanted to control them. Once, Taylin had been sent as part of a detail to capture one that had been an eagle before becoming sparked. Her group never encountered it. After seeing the flattened acre of forest left in its wake, the leader of the expedition decided to leave it alone.

She understood the horror the girl must have lived through. “And she was the only survivor, wasn’t she?”

Brin nodded, looking grim. “Aye. She says she’s got an uncle in Kinos that’ll take her in though, which is all well and good for me, as I’m contracted with the Historical Guild to make a delivery to their offices there.”

“You’ll need to speak with our Grandmother.” Rai said, but her expression was so full of sympathy that it was clear that if she had any say, there was already a spot in the caravan for the two. “But I’m sure we’d be happy to have you along. What coin do you have?”

“I’ve Calleni shields, Novish marks, and Harpsfell banknotes, whichever you prefer.”

“Banknotes travel lighter.” Rai reasoned. “Five notes a day each sound fair?” Brin nodded. “Good. We’ll be here three days, then in a week, Threpara for another three. We should have you in Kinos within three weeks.”

Before Brin could reply, Kaiel wandered into the aisle, arguing with Ru, who floated along behind him.

“I tell you, it’s true. You and I both know that psychic energy can replace Void in most applications, so why is it so difficult to believe that discarnate energy can replace Anima?”

“Because it fundamentally undermines the purpose of Anima.” Ru had his arms folded and Taylin could tell that this wasn’t just Ru having fun harassing Kaiel; this was a serious argument. “Mind can replace Void as driving energy, but not as part of a structure. But there is no useful structure to be had using either half of Anima. You are trying to tell me that this ‘discarnate’ energy obviates both vitae and necrotic energy and I say it cannot.”

“Actually, you’re wrong about the structural difference.” Kaiel pounced on the point. “Ghosts and specters are naturally occurring…” He trailed off when he noticed Brin. Instantly, his posture changed, going from the slightly hunched lope of a man in intense argument, to a straight-backed, proud stance that would have made any full loreman proud.

His city attire helped. Wherever his impressive wardrobe came from (Taylin had yet to discover it), he outdid himself dressing for a foray into Daire. His shirt was silk and the color of a clear summer sky, his trousers were fine, white cotton, tied with a gold colored, silk sash. His elegantly draped cloak was exceedingly soft, white leather, which flowed like expensive linen and was closed with a brooch bearing the crest of the Bardic College of Harpsfell along with three ruby pips along the bottom of its silver setting to show how far along he was on the path of the loreman. For the first time since Taylin had met him, his hair was tied back in a short tail, apparently stylish back in Harpsfell.

An open, inviting smile replaced his Ru-induced scowl. “Rai, Taylin. Forgive me, I didn’t know you were having a conversation. I wouldn’t have interrupted so rudely.”

Rai smirked and nudged Taylin’s hip with her elbow. “Oh, no interruption at all, Keese Kaiel.” Her smirk grew as he fought back embarrassment his first name. “Brin of Rolling Meadows Enclave, Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles. Keese Kaiel is a chronicler from the Bardic College. Brin is hoping to buy passage with us.”

“Charmed.” With a truly heroic effort, Kaiel avoided glaring at Rai as he took Brin’s hand.

“Likewise, Mr. Arunsteadeles. I think I know that name…”

“Kaiel, please. And you might, my father’s written some books on the Era of Draconic Control and my mother teaches at university in Rivenport.”

“That may have been where I heard it then. I’m just up from Rivenport.” said Brin.

“Daire is a bit out of the way if you were headed for Kinos, isn’t it?”

As Brin started to tell Layaka’s story again, Taylin became aware of a change in Ru’s emotions in the link. The permeating frustration with what he was as idiocy had receded, replaced with open disdain and ridicule toward the chronicler. She inquired after it.

Just observe, Miss Taylin. He replied and spoke not a word more on the subject.

Kaiel couldn’t help but offer his theories on what attacked the Layaka’s homestead, and when he discovered that Brin was contracted with the Historical Society, he was off to the races. His father was a member and his mother had been as well before retiring to be a scholar. He offered Brin freely just as much information as it took Taylin and Rai weeks to glean.

Just when Ru was near to expressing his disgust with whatever he found objectionable about the conversation, Layaka scampered over, gleefully brandishing a gaudy, glittering kris; a wavy bladed dagger favored in the south of Vini Tresolm.

“Miss Brin! Miss Brin! I’ve found the one I want!”

Excusing herself from her conversation with Kaiel, Brin turned to see what he girl was talking about. Immediately, she grabbed the girl’s wrist. “’Aka! The first thing you need to know about any weapon is that you don’t go waving it around like a Kimean raider!” The girl cast her eyes downward at the reprimand, causing Brin’s next words to come more gently. “Let’s have a look at it.”

She took up the placard and read it aloud. “Gaan Mistle, the Star Shower Blade. Silver plated, enchanted for a keen edge. A secondary enchantment surrounds the blade with a cloud of light motes that can be commanded to surround the eyes of a creature whose blood it draws.” A look of shock and disgust came to her face. “They want nine hundred marks for this?”

Layaka looked up with sad, blue eyes, which were partially hidden by a fall of golden hair. “But Miss Brin, you said to pick something out to defend myself with, and I can protect myself with a knife, yes? And the stars are so beautiful; I think even Amet would like it.” Absently, she reached up and stroked the back of the falcon, presumably Amet’s, neck.

Brin sighed. “’Aka, this is barely a knife. This is a toy. I can teach you to fight with a dagger, a small sword or a spear; I can’t teach you to fight with a handful of glitter.”

Eyes still cast down, Layaka nodded. “Yes, Miss Brin. I’m sorry. I just know nothing about weapons.”

Kaiel stepped in at the moment. “Begging your pardon, but I know a bit about the subject, perhaps I can be of some assistance.”

Ru huffed under his breath and muttered aloud to Taylin. “And so the entire day is wasted.”

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 15 – The TenthRune Breaker: Chapter 17 – The Flaw in the Myth >>

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