The sun shines on the just and unjust alike, and has done so since the Dawn of Time, but in the courtyard of the Guild of Sorcerers, at the base of their tower, it was muted and impotent. No warmth touched the immaculately cut hedges that lined the wrought-iron fence, and the soot-colored stone of the central tower was cold to the touch. No ivy grew along the tower, and no birds made their nests in the hollows and crannies of the ancient building. A drunkard, stumbling home from a nightly binge, would not dare rest his back against the gates, not even for a moment.
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Figures, many swathed in robes and deep hoods, came and went from time to time, talking amonst themselves in hushed voices. The heavy oaken doors stood open at all hours. The sorcerers held no fear of thieves or intruders.
One such figure stepped out of the shadows of the guild and strode down the marble steps, into the cold courtyard. Though he bore no outward symbols or sigils, some inexplicable quality, perhaps the cut of his robes, or the set of his shoulders, betrayed his elevated status. At the sight of him, those few sorcerers who remained in the courtyard fell silent, and hurried away on whatever business they might have had. The stranger was alone, and this seemed to please him.
He pushed back his hood. If the brightness of the day, or the clear warmth of Spring's last whispers touched him at all, he did not show it. His eyes, the pale grey of new-forged steel, swept the skies and the world above in one perfunctory glance. Old, were the eyes, and if ever they had held any love for the simple pleasures of life, it had been stamped out many ages ago, replaced now by a calculating coldness. Many students in the guild aspired to be like him, and he found this mildly amusing. He was dead inside, and he accepted this. His eyes looked now into the far distance, and saw the shapes of things to come. He was not alone in this, though he fancied himself alone. For all his cold logic, he was a romantic at heart.
What the lone sorcerer saw on the horizon, he did not say, but in the warm darkness of a private tavern, another creature saw...and understood.
Midday saw the activity, even in Market Square, slow to a crawl. Merchants and patrons alike sat down to their lunches. In the center of the square, Mae Trembull stirred the contents of a giant stewpot with a spoon the size of an oar. For three and six, any Jack or Jilly could take away a bowl of Mae's hot soup, and as noontide came on, the semicirle of patrons sitting on the grass around the pot grew large indeed. Dockworkers strode into the pubs, some to drink their lunches, others to wolf down mutton stew or shepherd's pie. Miggins's Pie Shop did a rousing trade, despite the recent hike in prices. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a fine meal to eat in the sun. Bards ranged along Main Street, busking for coins and coppers. A particularly talented young woman outside the Stag's Head was drawing an impressive crowd, both from inside and outside the tavern. The audience was clapping wildly in time to her fast-dancing tune, and some young buck was rappatapping back and forth around the street with his lass. A priest of Kylia watched from behind the tavern windows, an amused grin on his face.
No one gave the procession a second look. Merrick and his watchmen passed by all unnoticed, and started up the relatively quieter stretch of street leading toward King's Square. Merrick kept point, his strides long and deliberate. Behind him followed a tall, broad-shouldered elven woman in ornate armor, and a small, wiry man dressed in woodland colors, walking side by side. With one came the other, as surely as the shades of night were tethered to the sinking globe of the sun. Lunice was elven royalty, heir to the rank of Baroness in An Chathaire. In Manderia, she served as Assistant Guildmaster to the Rogues, under the expert tutelage of Zero. Beside her shining armor, the quiet, introspective ranger she had taken for a mate seemed very small. His name was Wekli, and he was a northerner, a forest-dweller from the untamed wilds near Westwood. Elven royalty was forbidden to marry outside the race of elves, and Wekli's official status- more than a servant, less than an equal- was never certain. If this bothered either of them, they did not show it.
Logartha kept pace a few steps behind. As Merrick's lieutenant, he would normally have walked beside the old man, or just behind, but Lunice and Wekli were personal friends to the boss, and Logartha knew all about discretion and valour.
Just behind Logartha, a skinny, dirty-haired boy shuffled along in a haphazard, jittery way familiar to all boys whose bodies are rapidly becoming strange and alien things, at least to them. The boy called himself Snitch, and woe to anyone who laughed at him or his name.
Nobody gave them a second look. In Manderia, a traveller can see stranger things just by walking around, and a really dedicated traveller can see much stranger things for half a copper, in the right places.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.