“Why? What does the Sovereign Outcast want from me?” Logan asked Kalani, squinting at her in distrust as he took a small step back. “I haven’t been here in forever. Whatever happened, it wasn’t me.”
Kalani had already half turned around to walk the group to their new destination but stopped in her tracks, staring at Logan with a raised eyebrow.
“They’ll tell you once you’re there.”
They stared at each other for a while, unblinking.
“The Sovereign Outcast doesn’t have to justify themselves in front of you,” Kalani said and finally broke the silence. “If they want to talk to you, you go and talk.”
“Oh yeah, since when do they act like they’re on the royal council? Are we becoming like our enemies now? Next thing you’ll do is accuse me of treason or something like that.”
“Why do you have to be so complicated?” Kalani groaned and rubbed a hand over her face. “Cass just wants to talk to you for ten minutes, it isn’t going to kill you to do one thing someone asks of you.”
“And since when is it unreasonable to ask what they want to talk about?” Logan burst out, throwing his hands out to the side. “I thought we were all equal here.”
“Oh my stars, I don’t know what they want to talk about, they didn’t give me a detailed list of everything you have ever fucked up and all the consequences that came from it. You know yourself best, pick whichever failure of yours is the most recent and most likely to inconvenience Cass.”
“Alright, alright,” Logan put his hands up in defence. “No need to get personal. I just wanted to be prepared for my big audience with their holy majesty.”
Kalani closed her eyes and took in a long breath.
“Just shut up and follow me,” she growled and turned around.
“Excuse me,” Rodrick asked and Kalani stopped instantly, slowly turning around to stare him down. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you further but this affair sounds like a personal matter which might take some time to resolve, and we wouldn’t want to be a hindrance to the proper advancement of this debate.”
Kalani didn’t answer, just kept staring at Rodrick, annoyance written all over her.
“And, uhm,” Rena added, desperately wanting to break the tension that was building around them. “I’m sure the Sovereign Outcast has more important things to do than to talk to us. I mean, we aren’t anyone important and if it’s just to give us an official welcome, then I think you seem like someone with a high enough position to do that, and you already did, so I don’t think it would be necessary for them to spend their valuable time on us. And you’ve seen us so you can report to them about who we are if that is what they are concerned about. And if you are looking for us afterwards, we’ll just be somewhere in town, I’m sure we stick out enough that everyone will notice where we’re going, so we won’t be too hard to find. If all that is ok with you?”
“They’ve got a point. Several even.” Logan added, pointing a finger between Rodrick and Rena.
Kalani looked at Rena for a while before blinking and raising her eyebrows in resignation, shaking her head slightly.
“Fine,” she sighed. “But if I hear about any of you doing anything even remotely weird or unusual I will find you and drag you to Cass myself. Are we understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rena answered while Rodrick simply nodded.
“Let’s go,” she told Logan and turned around for the third time.
“Let me just hug them goodbye real quick,” he said and darted over to Rena, trapping her in a tight embrace before she even had the time to lift her arms.
From over his shoulder she could see Kalani stop and her muscles tense, but she didn’t turn around.
“Go find Sayaf, he’s an old man living in a wooden shack near the bakery. Follow the smell of bread and you’ll find him. Tell him I sent you,” Logan whispered into her ear, before patting her on the back and letting go, turning to Rodrick to hug him tight as well.
He turned away from them, jogged up to Kalani and patted her hard on the shoulder as he passed her, not waiting for her to catch up before disappearing down the road.
Rena watched them leave before turning to Rodrick.
“He told me to go look for a man named Sayaf in a shack near a bakery,” she told him.
“Ah, that makes sense of what he told me,” he replied. “He mentioned cornflower blue drapes on the shack and that if the man doesn’t believe us or doesn’t want to cooperate we should remind him of something called Nura’s pendant.”
Rena nodded and looked around, but she couldn’t see anything above the tents surrounding her. She tried sniffing the air but all she could smell was the forest.
“Maybe if we start strolling through the camp we will find the bakery,” Rodrick said and looked at both ends of the road. “Let’s just start going this way,” he said and headed down the road Logan and Kalani had disappeared down, the one where Rena had seen the group of men earlier, although they must have disappeared at some point during their discussion with Kalani since the road was now completely empty.
Rena didn’t exactly feel safe walking down these streets, especially without a guide who knew the people here and who could tell them which places they needed to avoid. But for now the street was empty and maybe they would find the man they were looking for without bumping into other people. She didn’t even know what to expect from this Sayaf person they were looking for. Would someone who had connections at the provincial guard really live in a town like this? Or was he about to sell them a fake decree? He would probably not give them what they needed without asking for something in return and she didn’t know how they were supposed to negotiate with him if Logan wasn’t here. She hadn’t even thought about how far she would agree to go to get this information but it dawned on her that she would have to make a decision quickly. What could she even offer in return? She barely owned anything, and she definitely didn’t own anything of value. Maybe the man would ask them to work for him and this was how her life of crime started. She wouldn’t be allowed to refuse any jobs and would be indebted to him until he deemed their exchange equal, even if that took years.
She shuddered at the thoughts running wild in her mind, shaking her head to focus back on reality. They could just decline the offer if it didn’t seem fair to them and find another way to access the records. This was just the start of their journey, they would find other paths to take to get to the truth. There was no need to sell her future to some shady criminal.
Rena hurried to catch up with Rodrick, not wanting to be far from him. At first they didn’t meet anyone on the streets even though they could hear people going about their lives in the tents. At one point they passed a tent where the flap had been rolled up and as she glanced inside she saw four people sitting on the ground around a low table. Her gaze washed over them until her eyes locked onto the eyes of the woman sitting at the far-end of the table. Rena quickly averted her eyes, heat rushing up to her cheeks. Logan had told them not to stare at anyone. How could she have let her curiosity get the better of her? Her heart raced in her chest as she waited for the woman to climb out of the tent and yell after them, but no one came and the further away from the tent they got the more she calmed back down.
Her heartbeat sped up again for an instant when Rodrick suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, thinking that maybe he had noticed her blunder and that he wanted to reprimand her for it.
“Do you smell that?” he asked, frowning and sniffing the air.
She was confused for a second until she remembered what they were actually looking for. She smelled the air in return. She had to close her eyes to truly pick out the sweet smell of bread in the air, but it was undeniably there.
“We’re getting closer,” she beamed at him.
He looked around, searching for the bakery, so she did the same, hoping that she would at least see some smoke over the tents, but she still couldn’t see very far because of the trees.
“Let’s go this way,” Rodrick said and walked towards a gap between two tents even though it barely looked like a path that was meant to be taken.
They had to clamber past trees and over some ropes that had been used to anchor the tents to the ground and Rena was horrified at the thought that she might stumble and fall onto one of the tents and break someone’s home, and what the resulting rage would mean for her. They managed to reach the next road without any slips and Rena took a deep breath when she finally had enough space to put both her feet next to each other comfortably again. This road was busier than the one they had been on before. Some of the bigger tents had tables in front of them with people standing around looking at the things that were lying on the tables and Rena realised that those must be stores. As she looked around she saw other tents with letters written on them or signs attached to a tree nearby. The tent they were standing next to proclaimed itself to be a message and package delivery service with various prices depending on which province of the kingdom had to be reached. The tent next to that was selling candles and rudimentary oil lamps.
“Isn’t this fascinating?” Rodrick exclaimed, eyes wide in wonder as he looked over the people and the tents.
“They just look like shops to me,” Rena answered, unsure what was so extraordinary about people selling goods and services. Sure, they might not be in wooden or brick houses like most villages were, but these people had to get all their stuff from somewhere she supposed. It would definitely be a hassle to have to walk out of the forest and to another town every time they needed some pots or new clothes. Especially if the guards were looking for them out there.
She smelled the air again and this time she could clearly distinguish the smell of bread, even if more and more different smells mingled themselves into the scent of the forest. She looked around until she saw a column of smoke rise between two trees.
“There!” she called out, pointing towards it.
They hurried towards it and reached what could be described as a bakery. It wasn’t much more than a small, white dome-shaped oven in between two areas with tables where tarps had been fastened to poles to act as rudimentary roofs. On the tables on the left side three people, two middle aged women and a boy younger than Rena, were preparing dough, while on the other side the tables were covered in baskets filled with bread and rolls and pastries. No one was paying any attention to the few people who walked up to the table on the right and just picked items out of the baskets, as if it didn’t matter if people paid for the bread or not.
“Blue drapes,” Rodrick muttered as he turned around on himself and slowly inspected the tents around them. Rena kept looking at the bakery, at how the women were telling the boy how to knead the dough, at the streak of white flour on the boy’s face, at the speed with which the rightmost woman kneaded and shaped the dough. The memories of her parents in their own bakery came flooding back to her and suddenly everything was too much, the smell of the bread and pastry, the motions of the baking, the people who just stole the goods out of the baskets right in front of the bakers as if they had no shame.
“There it is!” Rodrick exclaimed and hurried away from her, leaving her standing, staring at what she used to have, what she would never have again, a mother teaching their child how to perfectly shape a loaf of bread and cut flower patterns onto it.
Her mouth felt dry, her tongue heavy and swollen in her mouth, the tips of her fingers ice cold. She blinked and forced herself to turn away, to not think about it anymore, to not wish for it anymore. They had one goal and she needed to concentrate on that. On finding out the truth, and they needed a decree to get to that, and they needed to speak to Sayaf to get to that. Rodrick was standing in front of a shack, its walls made of wooden boards with holes cut out to act as windows, although they were covered with blue drapes so that people couldn’t look into the house.
“This should be it,” Rodrick murmured as she walked up to him.
She nodded slowly in response, hugging her arms tightly around herself.
“It’s going to be alright,” Rodrick told her. “Even if he can’t help us, we can find another way to get to the records. This is just our first attempt, I’m sure we can come up with different ideas to get to the truth.”
Rena nodded again, more enthusiastically this time so Rodrick wouldn’t think she was scared. She wasn’t scared, at least not anymore. She felt drained of all emotions, tired and cold, and she couldn’t get her mind to concentrate on what was right in front of them, no matter how much she tried to force herself.
Rodrick knocked on the wall next to the entrance. At first nothing happened and then they heard shuffling and muttering from behind the drapes. An old, black man pushed the drapes aside and stared at them first in annoyance, then in confusion, then back to annoyance. His face was covered in wrinkles and he still had a full head of thick, white coils.
“Pardon our disruption, we are looking for a man named Sayaf. Might that be you?”
The man didn’t answer right away but kept looking them up and down before grunting an affirmation.
“My name is Rodrick Hal’Varika, and this is my companion Rena,” Rodrick said as he pointed at her. “I believe we have a common acquaintance who told us you might be able to help us with our current investigation. His name is Logan. I’m afraid I don’t know his family name or where he is from however.”
At the mention of the name the man’s eyes shot up to look at Rodrick with a mix of shock and apprehension.
“What kind of trouble has he gotten into this time?” Sayaf asked.
“None at all, none at all,” Rodrick reassured him, although Rena wasn’t sure if they should mention the situation with Kalani or not. “Would you allow us to enter your home so we could discuss our plan with you?”
“Why are you here?” the man asked, not budging from the entrance.
“We need a specific document to access some official records and we were told you could help us acquire such documentation,” Rodrick murmured.
“I don’t do that anymore,” Sayaf replied and stepped back, letting the drapes fall shut again. Rodrick’s hand shot out to keep the drapes from closing completely.
“Logan told me to mention Nura’s pendant to you,” Rodrick said, pulling the drapes back open.
The man turned back around and stared at Rodrick’s hand before looking back up at the both of them.
“That boy can mention my wife’s jewellery as much as he wants, I still don’t do that work anymore,” he told them.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Rena said, rushing forward, stopping right at the threshold of the door. “I know that this might be an inconvenience to you, but it is extremely important to us that we get access to these records. I don’t know if you have heard of it, but my village burned down and I might be the only survivor. Oceansthrow. It wasn’t too far away from here. Maybe you’ve heard of it before. But it’s completely gone now and I don’t know why that happened or who is responsible, but apparently there have been other fires like that one all over the kingdom, just that no one ever hears of them or what exactly happened, and that’s why we need access to the records, because we don’t think that the guards are going to help us find out what happened, but someone has to uncover the truth. For the sake of those who died.”
He looked at her for a long while and Rena didn’t know if her speech had worked until he sighed heavily and stepped aside, waving them into his home. The room was dark and tinged in a blue light from the drapes and an orange light from a candle on the table. A woman was sitting at the table, staring at them, one leg crossed over one knee, her left arm draped over the back of the chair while the other was lying on the table holding a mug. She was older than Rena, maybe in her late twenties or early thirties. She had the same skin tone as the man, with a shaved head, and piercing brown eyes. Her ears were pierced with golden jewellery, some just dots and other dangling chains. Her clothes were tight fitting, blue, white and gold, almost too elegant to fit into such an environment. Her upper arms weren’t covered while a leather arm guard covered her lower arms. She was muscular, more muscular than most men Rena had seen in her life, like she could compete with anyone from the royal guard.
“This is Asha, my niece,” Sayaf said, groaning as he sat down on the chair next to her, in front of the second mug that was on the table.
“Nice to meet you,” Rena mumbled, nodding slightly in her direction. The woman nodded back, not taking her eyes off of Rena, but didn’t say anything in return.
“I was serious when I said that I don’t do that kind of work anymore,” Sayaf said, taking a sip from the mug. “I wouldn’t even know which names to put on the decree to make it look official. They might have even changed the words on the decree, who knows. But I know someone in the plains who can make you one. I’ll have to bring you to him because he doesn’t just work for anyone.”
“You are not going all the way to the plains,” Asha interjected, her head whipping around to look at her uncle. “You just spent three weeks in bed with a bad lung, I’m not letting you leave this place for some random people.”
“I was sick, and now I’m better. I can take my own decisions on where I go.”
“You absolutely can not. I’m not riding all the way out to the other end of the province to drag your corpse back home.”
Sayaf clicked his tongue and waved her off.
“I’m not a fragile little bird that just hatched. I can take care of myself.”
Asha stood up and towered over Sayaf, staring down at him.
“You will stay here. If I have to lock you up then so be it, but you are not leaving this town unless it has to move.”
The air grew heavy as they kept staring at each other, so much that Rena was about to say something, anything to alleviate the situation, until Sayaf rolled his eyes and sighed.
“Not even your mother was this stubborn,” he muttered and took another sip from his mug. “So what are we going to do about their problem?” he asked, throwing his hand out in Rena and Rodrick’s direction.
“You could just write a letter for your contact that we can deliver and hopefully that will convince them to help us,” Rena interjected, hoping that that would quell the argument.
“He’s not going to just trust some random letter,” Sayaf dismissed her. “You could have just faked it or forced me to write it.”
“I will go with them,” Asha told them.
“Why would you do that?” Sayaf asked, frowning at her. “Cass isn’t going to like you just running off with some strangers and abandoning your duties.”
“Cass doesn’t own me, I can go where I want. And if they are breaking into the archives I want in.”
Sayaf closed his eyes and ran a hand over his face, shaking his head slowly.
“There’s nothing there for you, child. They aren’t keeping records about the grey isles in the capital of Vellashta.”
“You don’t know what these people keep or where they keep it. If the takeover was a joint venture they will have records of those accords in the archives.”
Rena wasn’t exactly sure what they were talking about. She had heard about the grey isles before, the group of islands to the south of Vellashta that were usually surrounded by mist. She didn’t know much about them but she thought she might have heard something about a new commander being assigned to govern the islands. She had thought it had just been a normal change in ruling family. Sometimes that happened when the current family didn’t have any heirs interested in the role or when they wanted to sell off the lands. Sometimes the families agreed to an exchange just because both wanted a change in scenery. She hadn’t heard anything about a takeover or anything else nefarious.
“You need to let it go,” Sayaf said, eyes heavy and tired.
“I won’t,” Asha said and turned around. She walked over to a bag that was lying on the bed that was standing in the corner of the room and pulled something out before walking over to the table again. She put a rolled-up piece of parchment and a wooden box down on the table.
“Write the letter,” she told Sayaf.