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The routine of travel stayed pretty much the same over the next few weeks. The team rolled out of the highland hills, and the land became flatter. The north’s coniferous trees started to blend more with deciduous trees that were changing from green to the oranges, reds, browns, and yellows. The air was colder than it had been when they left Neuasut. They had seen their first frost, and a fire was now a part of their routine instead of forgoing it for expedient’s sake.

The team had passed through towns and villages more often than before, occasionally stopping to make a delivery at a local tavern. The towns and villages supplied fresh food more often for the travelers, which made the journey that much more pleasant. The combined effects of a lightening load and flatter terrain meant that the mules tired less slowly and could traveler more quickly than before. As a result, instead of walking, the footmen, Rune, Camon, and Achara would occasionally ride to allow the trip to proceed more quickly. Each day they could pick up a few more miles and still have plenty of time to do their end of the daily routines. Achara and Camon had learned a lot about caring for mules. They learned from the footmen who took care of them, including grooming, feeding, and even hoof care, given the hard roads and long distances they had traveled.

The team finally made it to Rahtneua a few weeks later. A day out from Rahtneua, the road widened to accommodate the increased traffic going in and out of the city. Roadside buildings were more common as they came down the highway towards Rahtneua. The night before, they had taken advantage of some of the services designed for travelers on the roadside. They checked into an inn rather than sleeping out. The travelers appreciated a roof over their head and a soft bed even if the accommodations were a bit spartan.

In the morning when they woke, Rune planned the day out. He would make his final deliveries in the city, but the city streets would not permit the mule team and wagon to pass easily. He met with a local porter that morning at the inn, who returned to the inn with a two-wheeled cart by midmorning. The remaining cargo was unloaded from the mule team and onto the cart drawn by two horses. Rune also hired another porter team to carry Ratana. After loading the cargo and personal effects and transferring Ratana to the new porters, Rune, Lamai, and Camon bid farewell to the driver and footmen. Rune paid the driver for his services, and they pulled away with the local porters. The carts were smaller but nimbler, which made navigating the increasing traffic near the city easier.

The city came into view by midday. As the highway continued south, it crossed a broad river on a twin-span set of bridges before it intersected another major east-to-west road south of the river at a large roundabout. The city itself was set on a large hill rising above the surrounding plain, glistening in the sun. All the buildings were an earthy yellow color built from local limestone with slate shingle rooves. There was an outer wall at the base of the hill that had numerous gates with streets coming in and out the city into the plain. Halfway up the hill, an inner wall was a bit higher than the outer wall. It had numerous watchtowers overlooking the city and plain. At the pinnacle of the hill was a massive cathedral towering hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape. It had giant, clear, vertical windows that gleamed brightly at midday. And yet still, there was a massive spire towering over the already high cathedral. A sculpted hand bearing a torch topped the spire. It was lit and burning brightly, even in the midday sun.

“That’s a sight for sore eyes,” commented Rune, walking next to Camon. “I never get used to seeing this place after a long journey.”

“I certainly agree…” Camon said, not paying much attention to the scene.

“You seem unimpressed,” Rune commented.

“It’s impressive, no doubt. I enjoy seeing it, but I grew up here. Well, not in the city, but it’s been a common sight for me.”

They continued towards the city, whose scope and scale was hard to grasp from afar. When they got to the gate, it was midafternoon. At the gate, Rune gave instructions to the porters attending to Ratana, “Take Ratana to our apartment in the northeast quarter. We’ll deliver the remaining shipments and be back by evening. Tomorrow, we will take her to the Healers.”

“I’ll go with Ratana,” Lamai said.

“As will I,” Achara volunteered.

“I have some business of my own in the city,” said Camon. “I’ll meet up with you later if you can give me the address to your apartment.” Rune scratched it down on a piece of paper and the party split up, each going their separate ways.

Camon went into the city and slowed until the others were out of sight. He then made his way up the main street from the gate through the lower city, passing businesses and residences. He kept his eyes to the ground and walked quickly to avoid making eye contact with anyone. After several minutes of walking, he got to an open gate in the inner city. He passed through without any problems. The inner city buildings were taller and more ornate in their architecture than the ones in the lower city. Camon continued up the hill towards the cathedral as it came into view as he turned a corner. The street opened up into a large courtyard that surrounded the cathedral. It was paved with gray marble and was highly polished to where it almost looked as if it were wet. Camon could see the reflection of some of the overhead clouds in the pavers with the sun gleaming off the surface.

The courtyard itself was abuzz with pedestrians going to and fro. There were several priests in their priestly garb of a white robe and golden stole. Each wore a large silver medallion on a heavy chain about his neck. Also present were a few Inquisitors patrolling the grounds and guarding the entrance to the cathedral. Camon kept to the edge of the courtyard, making his way around towards the cathedral’s side. He went to a large cube-shaped basalt-colored box with runes and an inscription on it. The box itself was taller than he was. He laid his hands on the outside of the box and bowed as if he was saying a prayer. He uttered some guttural words, then stepped back about three paces away from the box. The runes glowed, but only slightly and were hardly noticeable in the bright afternoon sun.

After a few seconds, the glowing stopped, and Camon lifted his head looking both left and right. He went around the box’s backside and looked for a specific glyph on the box, and he pressed it. He heard a movement, then out from a slot on the bottom of the box came several dozen gold coins. Camon knelt, picked up the money, and put them in a pouch slung across his shoulder. He glanced around again, then stood up and backed away from the box slowly towards the cathedral. He turned and walked along the wall of the cathedral and then climbed its stairs. He passed an alms box, where he dropped in one of the coins before he turned and left the building. He made his way back across the courtyard and back down the street he had entered from, keeping his eyes to the ground and his pace brisk. After leaving the upper city, he ducked down a side street and found a small tavern he frequented.

Upon entering, the barkeep noticed him immediately and bellowed, “Camon! Long time, no see!” The place was empty other than Camon and the barkeep.

“Behar, my old friend. Good to see you too. I’ll take a quick round. I can’t stay long but wanted to check in on you and see how things were going and what news there was in Rahtneua.”

“Business is good, as you might know,” Behar said. “Lots of folks are coming out of the north for the winter, and given the cold nights, folks don’t want to be outside, so they come in here to get a drink and some food. What’ll it be?”

“The usual, but let’s keep it small,” Camon said.

Camon seated himself at the bar, and the barkeep brought Camon half a pint of ale, and Camon sipped it.

“Lots of rumors flying about some news up in the north. About some animal attacking Neuasut,” the barkeep said.

“Heard about that. News travels fast,” Camon said.

“Yeah, but nothing else too exciting is going on. Some are expecting early snows this year. Some folks out of the West say they’ve already seen some snow,” Behar added.

“Anything from the east?” Camon asked.

“Now that you mention it, there was an odd man in town last week. He didn’t come to my tavern, but a friend who owns one down in the southwest quarter mentioned it. He said that the man was an odd-looking fellow that was asking around for someone. The description matched you, but other than that, I don’t know the exact details, but you might want to go down there and ask,” Behar said.

“Lots of people come around asking,” Camon noted.

“Yeah, but my friend wouldn’t have brought it up to me if it wasn’t something of note,” Behar said. “In any case, you wanted to know the news, so I thought I’d tell you.”

“Thanks for the tip. I’ll look into it,” Camon said. He finished his ale and bid farewell to Behar and left the tavern. By now, it was late afternoon, and Camon walked back to the address Rune had given him.

Later that evening, just as the sun was going down, the travelers reconvened at the apartment in the northeast quarter. It was a large apartment with several rooms and ornately furnished with couches, tapestries, and sculptures of local flare. It overlooked a courtyard below with a fountain, a manicured lawn, and carefully shaped topiaries. Rune was the last to come back.

“We’ve done well this go around,” he told Lamai. “Somchai will be happy. We were days ahead of schedule with no lost cargo or unexpected expenses.”

“The blessing of the Light was with us,” she commented. Achara had prepared a dinner from produce and meat she had bought in a nearby market. She poured some ail into some flagons and served the meal to Lamai, Rune, and Camon.

Camon offered a toast, “To our good friends along the journey, and the Light.” They all drank a solemn drink.

“Tomorrow, we will go to the Healers. It’ll be good also to get out and enjoy the city,” Rune commented. “We still have a few weeks before the cold sets in.”

“Do you always winter here in Rahtneua?” Achara asked.

“Yes. Somchai and the boys should be here in the next few days. I’m surprised that they did not catch up to us along the way. Traveling by coach is much faster than traveling with a freight wagon,” Lamai answered. She paused for a moment, “I just hope that the healers can help Ratana, or all this is for naught.”

“They will,” Achara assured. “They will.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” Lamai answered.

After the meal, Rune lit a fire in the large fireplace while Achara lit a few candles about the room. The night was more somber than usual. There was no noise from the insects in the forests, no wind whispering through the trees, and no footmen there to play his lute. The silence was almost haunting after having spent several months on the road. Only the crackling fire felt familiar. Each person stared into the fire as the night past. There was little in the way of conversation. There were just a few stories from Camon about life in Rahtneua and from Lamai about how much trouble Ratana and her brothers used to get into when they wintered in Rahtneua as children. The common theme was that they were glad to be safely in Rahtneua. As the fire died down, they all went off to their respective rooms to settle in for the night.

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