The snow passed after two days in Krunglek, and it took another day for the streets and roads to become clear enough to travel again. Camon and Achara took extra care in the ride south as they set out after the stay at the inn. They tried to stay ahead of the wintery weather creeping down more and more from the north with each day. The passing wore on as they traveled further and further south along the Emperor’s Way. The road itself was good. It was relatively flat and free from obstacles and diversions because it followed the river’s course, only making turns inland to avoid the looping path of the river as it flowed towards the sea. The terrain got rockier the further south they went but otherwise was rich forested land. Settlements along the river offered respite from the weather when it got cold and windy, but otherwise, Camon and Achara traveled no matter what, even in some cases when their better judgment told them not to.
They made it to Rhatclang in a month. The snow had blanketed the ground as far south as Rhatclang with not enough time to burn off or melt before the next snow, so it began to accumulate. The roads remained clear due to the heavy traffic north and south and because the Imperial army maintained them. “Imagine what it looks like in Neuasut now,” Camon commented as they road along.
“Probably waist deep, and otherwise impassable,” Achara added. “I can see why they wintered further south rather than stay up there. It’s probably a lonely existence, not to mention being cut off from the world if something happens. It could be a long time before anyone could get in or out in a bad winter.”
“I’ve heard of dog sleds making the trip from Rahtneua to more outlying destinations when the roads were impassable,” Camon noted. “But that’s not something I want to try. Goodness knows it’s cold enough here.”
A day out from Rahtclang, the forest had all but stopped except for an occasional grove. Snow-covered fields with farm buildings became the standard site. They continued following the road along the river until they reach the outskirts of Rahtclang, where the Emporer’s Way converged with the east-to-west route, the Pilgrim’s Way, at a great roundabout. The roundabout itself was as wide as four roads and a quarter a mile in diameter. The traffic circled counterclockwise and was a mix of carts, oxen, donkeys, horses, pedestrians, sheep, and cattle. The wagons were laden with supplies for villagers and farmers who had come to the city to stock up.
Achara and Camon were just more travelers among the mix. They exited the roundabout going east along the Pilgrim’s Way, which was divided to separate westbound from eastbound traffic. They went west along the road for a few miles when Rahtclang started to come into view. It was situated primarily on the western side of the Great River north of its confluence with the Nahmclang River from the west with other sections on the south bank of the Nahmclang and east bank of the Great River. The city itself was constructed from stones mined from the surrounding land. The building stones were a colorful array of blocks ranging from white to a basalt color with every shade of brown and gray in between. Likewise, smooth river stones put together with mortar paved the streets. A colossal fortress dominated the cityscape, towering high above the surrounding buildings. The great bears head hung on a banner off of the fortress’s side. The city wall doubled as a river wall for flood control, situated atop a levee along the rivers.
Another roundabout was situated just outside the city. A road forked from the Pilgrim’s Way to a broad, causeway that ramped up into the city. The Pilgrim’s Way continued east and eventually crossed the Great River, continuing to Rhatsaan. Achara and Camon took the broad causeway into the city. Carts and animals clamored along the causeway making much noise and the smell of smoke from chimneys hung in the air. The streets were surprisingly clear of mud and debris despite all the snow accumulation in the region.
“Here we are – Rhatclang,” Camon said. “Now to find this so-called ‘prophet.’”
“You don’t sound too sure,” Achara said.
“Rhatclang has never been my favorite place, but I am a northerner, and my biases run deep, “Camon said. “Rahtneua has a strong affinity for the Church, but this one has more of an affinity for the Emperor. It’s used for Imperial councils or diplomatic meetings with foreign powers. I don’t foresee any problems here, but we’d better keep our guard up, especially if our friend is still with us. I’ll try to keep a level head about the politics, but I’m more worried about this so-called ‘prophet.’ I’ve never been one for prophecy, and generally think those that claim to be prophets are either looking for attention or are crazy. Chak said this guy was the latter. But he said he’s also reliable, which is why we’re here. What about our stalker? Is he here?”
“He is,” she said. “He’s keeping his distance, though.”
“Ironic. We went from being the trackers to the ones being tracked.”
“I thought of that myself,” Achara said.
“We’d better find a place to stay before venturing off to find this guy,” Camon suggested.
They rode into the city looking for an inn that was off the main ways. After asking around, they went to a place one street off the broad avenue that they came in on that had a stable called “Traveler’s Rest.” They put their horses in the stable and went into the inn, warm and cozy, furnished with plush couches and chairs and thick rugs, not unlike the place they had stayed in Krunglek. They found their rooms, put their things away, and had lunch at the inn.
“Time to go find this prophet,” Camon said.
“I think I’m going to sit this one out,” Achara said.
“Suit yourself. I’ll be back probably sooner than later. This might all be for naught.”
Camon got up and put on his cloak, then ventured out back into the city, crowded with pedestrians going about their daily routines. Camon, unsure which way to go, went northwest towards a more residential part of the city. He made his way passed the plaza that surrounded the massive Imperial fortress at the city on all sides. It was garden-like even though it was cold. He kept to the edge away from the fortress, then took a wide avenue towards the north past many other large and impressive buildings guarded by Imperial soldiers. The streets here were well kept and generally free of litter and debris and had manicured landscaping up and down the street’s sides. This all changed once he passed through a gate and into the city’s outer section that had narrower and dirtier streets and lower buildings. Camon reasoned if there was a crazy prophet to be found in Rahtclang, this would be the part of town to locate him. The Empire would not want a crazy old man out in the courtyards carrying on about whatever doomsday he was foretelling.
Camon found a bustling market with activity with locals selling all sorts of wares and food and buyers buzzing about haggling over prices and carrying their loads back home. Camon found a less busy merchant selling clothes. Given that Camon needed warmer clothing, he started inspecting the wares.
“Those are made from western wool from alpacas herded by the Gypsies near the Khaodahm Mountains,” said the seller. “It’s mighty warm and less itchy than sheep’s wool.” She was a middle-aged woman wearing a shawl to cover her head.
“How much do you want for a pair of these?”
“Two pieces of silver,” she said.
“Tell you what. I’ll give you five for three pairs,” he said.
“Done. Most folks don’t appreciate these,” she said. “But I see you do. You didn’t try and drive a hard bargain.”
“Well, maybe you can help me out in another way,” Camon said. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Lots of folks come through here. Not sure how much help I can be,” she said.
“You’d know whom I’m talking about if I told you,” Camon assured.
“Shoot,” said the seller.
“I’m looking for one that calls himself a prophet. Some say he’s just a crazy old man, but word is he preaches in the streets around here about the end of the world.”
“Ah, yes. He’s a crazy fool, all right. Trouble is, I don’t think I’ve seen him in months. He fell ill and was infirmed at the chapel nearby. It’s three streets over tucked away between some of the tenement houses over there. The priest there is one of the few good ones left. Perhaps you can find him there.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Camon said. He gave her six coins instead of five and took the pants that she had wrapped in sackcloth.
“Too much here, sir,” the lady said.
“Keep it,” Camon said as he turned and walked away.
Camon went to the chapel as described by the lady. It was small and cold when he entered with not much light. There was the usual furniture – a table with priest’s stones, a lectern for homilies, and pews for parishioners to sit on.
“Hello?” Camon inquired upon entering. No one answered for a while, and then an elderly priest came out of a vestibule. He didn’t say anything when he appeared but then noticed Camon standing there.
“Oh? Uh? Hi – Hello,” the priest stuttered. “I didn’t hear you enter.”
“I called,” Camon answered.
“Apologies, son,” the priest said. “I’m pretty hard of hearing these days. What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for someone. A lady in the market told me that you could help.”
“Is it official business?” asked the priest.
“Can’t say that it is. But it has to do with matters of lore and prophecy.”
“I’m no prophet, son,” the old man said. “I’m just a priest. Nobody important. Just a plain old priest.”
“Don’t be so humble,” Camon said. “I’m sure you’re a fine servant of the Light.”
“Flattery doesn’t get very far with me, son,” the priest said. “I’m too old for that kind of thing. When you get to be my age, simplicity is the best thing you can hope for.”
“Apologies, your grace. Would you know someone that could help then?”
“With prophecy and lore, I think you’re looking for Satda. He’s the one that folks come looking for when they want to hear about that stuff. I’m often mistaken for him, but he’s no priest, and I’m no prophet. He was infirmed here a few months back, but he recovered. I haven’t seen him much since that time. But he lives up in the tenement by the wall near the North Gate. His family stashed him away there after he kept getting arrested for disturbing the peace, falling ill, and spending a couple of weeks here. All that nonsense about the end of the world scared people, I guess.”
“Thank you,” Camon said.
“But don’t expect much from him. Most folks think he’s just a crazy old man. They think that of me too,” the priest laughed. “But Satda? He’s even worse. When he was here, he wouldn’t shut up and kept going on and on about the end of the world. Even in his sleep, and at times it was so incoherent, we thought that he was drunk or something. But I think that’s who he is. Once he recovered, he was still rambling on. Which is why I think his family wanted him somewhere safe and out of the way.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Camon said. On his way out, he dropped a coin in the offering box next to the door and went back into the street. He found his way back to the north gate and looked for the tenement house the priest mentioned. He asked some people standing outside about Satda, and Camon went into the building after he found it. It was dim inside, lit only with the natural light provided by what came in the door and a skylight in a central atrium. Camon found a stairway and climbed up to the third floor and found the room the men outside told him about, and he knocked on the door.