Here’s the second chapter of The City of the Gods for your reading pleasure or anguish. If you missed it you can also check out the first chapter here. Let me know what you think!
A LOCAL joke went that there are but two kinds of taverns in Alays. The first was the type of place where it was merely your coinpurse at risk, and then there was the other, where you had to guard your life as well. He usually found his way into the latter kind of drinking den and this particular establishment was every bit as wretched as he remembered it.
The grog they served was foul tasting stuff and rancid too; he often likened the smell of it to the city’s fish market on a warm summer’s day, and he most definitely preferred not to think about what might be used in the making of the brew. His tankard, cracked along the handle, was filthy despite the barkeeper’s combination of spittle and a rag which might have once been a cloth, it was too hard to say with any certainty and was not pondering in any case.
Still, his drink had been cheap as it was always was and grog was particularly potent at dulling pain and reminiscences. Sometimes that was the most important thing, sometimes the chance to forget was the only thing that mattered and the grog they sold here could probably cure death if it wanted to. He peered down at the pair of die on a string about his neck – he was named for them – and The Dice Man rather suited the title given his penchant for games of luck and slight of hand.
Over the decades, people had forgotten his true identity if they had ever known it in the first place until all that was left was The Dice Man and he had blended into the fabric of the city to such a degree that people most often forget he was even there. Somedays he forgot his true identity too, those were the good days. His tankard was drained and with his stooping head he seemed to be asleep. Instead he was listening, something he regarded as perhaps his greatest talent; not only to hear what was said, but to hear what was left unsaid as well – an art in itself.
The inn was crowded with sailors and traders speaking a dozen tongues in a score of dialects, he understood them all. About him, whores were already busy plying the oldest of trades and not at all discreetly. Alays had always been lax on such things, and that was part of the reason he had stayed; that, and he was known here but unknown as well – a man everyone knew, but with whom none were close. That suited him, closeness brought pain.
While drinking, he had looked from one harlot to the next, wondering when last he had felt the intimate touch of another; some of the ladies brimmed with youth and if not quite beauty, a certain allure that proved hard to resist, still others were aged and tired and there were those somewhere between the two who desperately wished for a way out of their miserable existence but had found none. Others were happy with their lot, such as it was. The sailors cared little and The Dice Man supposed he would not neither.
Those not seeking the attention of a welcoming whore spoke of the Carnevale or of the brewing war in the east, and the pirates bearing down in ever greater numbers on the cities of the Matarin Straits. Alays was safe they said, but if the Balusakans withdrew their fleet once open conflict ensued back home, what would be left to protect the trade city? Alays was build on a barren outcrop of land and much of its food came from the sea, but there was still so much they depended on from the outside world that if they were cut off, there might well be riots on the streets within a week’s passing.
What caught his attention most however were the whisperings of a secret army. It was said that Patrician Ikar sought to give Alays a military – a violation of the city’s founding charter – and what would the Balusakans say about that? Their ships were moored in the Imperial Enclave; but a stone’s throw from the palace after all, and Chancellor Vitarion did not take kindly to threats, implied or otherwise.
False tales he suspected, but The Dice Man no longer had the luxury to stay and listen to the middling chatter. He had lived for so long in this city that he had become attuned to its rhythm and his every sense told him something was happening, something he could not afford to miss. The Dice Man liked to believe in his own cynicism but every so often something would come along and capture his attention without remorse, it this was this very aspect of his character which had plagued him all the long years of his life, and it was calling to him most strongly now.
Rising from his supposed slumber he passed from the tavern into the square outside and saw the preparations for Carnevale were well underway. Vast, tattered banners had been erected and the stalls were being pitched. A musical troupe were preparing for their performance in the days ahead from the wooden platform in the square’s centre and though they were not good most of the festival goers would be too inebriated to notice in any case.
Across the four centuries since Prince Lyr and his followers had established Alays, the city had sprawled without aim or purpose in all directions from the docklands. There were no streets by the convention of most cities, only narrow alleyways and the passages through the caverns below.
Without any sense of what road he ought to take, The Dice Man found his feet carried him towards Syai’s palace. He was known there as he was throughout the rest of the city, yet the guards would never permit him entrance without official cause or invite. He had often wondered how the city’s rulers justified a guard with so many of the functions of an army when such a force was banned yet, as ever, it was not the privilege of the lower classes to have such questions addressed.
Naturally, The Dice Man would not be so easily deterred.
Finding a sheltered spot out of view he went to work, the air shimmered for a moment and when he looked towards his shadow, it had the shape of a cat. It was said that he could transform into animals but no magic could produce such a change – in order to become an animal, one would have to understand it, and in order to understand, one would have to become an animal. Just one of the many paradoxes of magical law. The Dice Man’s power was not alteration but deception and illusion, should anyone look upon him now, they would see only a tabby cat in place of a man.
Outside the great walls of the palace was another square thrice as large as the one by the tavern but this space was surrounded by the homes of those infinitely more refined in their standing in society and exuberant in their wealth. The merchants and councilors who lived here were among Alays’ richest and the money they had lavished on preparing for the forthcoming festivities were in evidence in the quality of the flags and bunting that abounded, displaying for the most part the red and silver crest of the city state – three ships beneath the three moons on an endless sea and sky.
As expected, he counted no fewer than a score of watchmen patrolling the square. Though not unnoticed, the guards and the Carnevale decorators and entertainers were not concerned by a stray feline and he pranced directly through the great gates of the palace which bore the city’s mark and were ever well observed but open nevertheless, and The Dice Man passed into the courtyard beyond without difficulty.
With little idea of where to start, he headed for the throne room and though the doors here were sealed he found a low window, partially open, and listened. The Dice Man was very good at listening.
“Do we know where she is?” the throne room was large yet despite the distance from his perch he would know that voice anywhere, it belonged to Patrician Ikar, a man who spoke in a peculiarly pitched tone of voice which seemed to make the end of each sentence form a question even when it was a simple statement on the weather or any such thing.
“Not yet, though I have eyes and ears throughout the city,” The Dice Man did not recognise this second speaker though his tone was gruff, an Alyasian voice if ever there was one. “Syai was fortunate to survive.”
Ikar grunted, “If she is not found by morning I will summon the Council. They have grown wary of her refusal to wed and the Balusakans will expect us to make a swift transition with open war so close.”
“Must we do everything at the behest of the Empire?”
“If we are to survive. Chancellor Vitarion would annex this city without a second thought should it suit him. Alays must give him no reason to try, at least not yet and by then he will be distracted by a war much closer to home. As it stands we rely on Balusaka to defend us against those who might prove to be our enemies, though that, I assure you, will not always be the case.”
How interesting, The Dice Man thought, perhaps the rumours of an army had merit after all.
“We’re moving rather fast Ikar, don’t you think? When last the line of succession broke it was near on a year before a new prince was named, Syai has been missing for a single night. The Council may wish to search more… extensively” the second speaker opined.
“That is a concern,” Ikar’s voice was growing more distant and The Dice Man knew he would hear little else from his perch. “However, I have little doubt the the Council will affirm your nomination.”
“You would not rather see yourself upon the throne of Alays? The great patrician, the patron of the arts, the inventor turned prince!”
“Alays needs… a general, and I know no more of war than Syai, but you know it better than any man I have ever met,” Ikar said before his voice trailed off. The Dice Man was about to follow when the ground shook beneath him, it was not an earthquake, Alays had enough of those for him to know that this was something else and that it was the cause of this tumult which he had sensed coming all along.
He had merely led himself to the wrong place, and while Ikar’s conversation had been illuminating, it posed more questions than it answered. The Dice Man left his window perch to find the true source of the excitement in the caverns beneath the city.