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The Northern Wastes, late Summer's Beginning, 992 KY
Rodder Pawl looked down the long, curving ridge jutting out of the lake and shivered. What a fate it would be for his horse to lose her footing and drag him caravan and all down the steep wooded hillsides into that lake, icy blue even on this warm summer day with the air full of sharp green and warm brown smells. But the track was wide, his caravan sturdy, and his mare sure-footed. There would be no accident before he entered the walls of Gremassem.
Pawl was enjoying himself as he worked his way through the Northern Wastes. Mr Brown had set him up with the caravan, the mare and a good selection of merchandise, and he'd gone village to village as a peddler, selling, trading and gathering information. Most of the villages he passed through were Gremas and so spoke his grandmother's tongue, and the ones who weren't spoke it as a trade language. Bless his gran. She'd spoken the Gremas to him every day of his life while he was at home, and he spoke it as cleanly as if he'd been raised a deerherder. No one could guess he was bred and born in Corland. That would go a fair way to keeping him safe.
Had he known how much fun and profit there was to be had on the road, Pawl would have become a peddler sooner. But he never forgot his objective, the mission Mr Brown was paying him so very much to accomplish. He was to find his dead employer's daughter Mattisanis Ambleson: the girl herself at best, news of her at worst. Why she was so important, Mr Brown declined to say. Pawl knew it was a tricky business--that much Mr Brown had said--and that he must be careful not to let anyone know he was looking for the girl.
What kind of tricky business might now be in sight. He'd learned on his last few stops that Ruvin, the bastard brother of King Harsin, was at Gremassem. Pawl wasn't exactly sure how the missing girl might be connected to Ruvin, but it struck him nonetheless. He wondered if Mr Brown knew who Ruvin the Bastard was, and where he was; not many folks thought on him and his brothers these days.
Pawl cracked his whip lightly above his horse's head, catching the thong as cleanly as any Maryakuspan dandy, and the mare trotted onto the serpentine ridge. The road was taking them to the largest island of the dozens that dotted the huge lake. Atop the sheer rock that made up its cloverleaf shape sat an immense old castle that took up every square inch of it. Towers topped in light red stone and ringed with round windows stood at each of its many corners; all were capped with what looked like great green metal funnels. Gran had talked about this place a great deal when he was little: "Aye, the grand isle, the hall of great warriors, the home of Farr's true way, the home of the Headman of the Gremas, the pride of our people. Some day, Roddie, some day I hope you see the great towers of Gremassem rising from the Lake Laagrem, for I am old and will never see it again." Well, here I am, Gran. Wish me peddler's luck.
Pawl passed through the great iron gates on the ridge and finally through the huge doors into Gremassem's grand interior, a huge expanse more like a village than a courtyard. He could hear word of his arrival already shouted from person to person: "Peddler's here! He looks well-stocked! Tell the women and the warden--peddler's here!" An ostler took his horse's bridle and guided him to an open space near a long gallery; Pawl jumped down from the driver's bench, helped the ostler unhitch the mare and let him lead her off for grooming and feeding. His caravan would be safe enough from the hubbub in this quiet corner. It might even be quiet when he bedded down there that night.
He went about the wagon, opening the many little doors in its sides and arranging his wares enticingly on the shelves that dropped down from them. Times like this, when everyone was excited to see him, the smell of money was in the air and the anticipation of a good haggle was upon him, Pawl thought of ditching Mr Brown's assignment and continuing on as a peddler, refreshing his wares through trade and the occasional trip back to Arren--where the well-connected Mr Brown would undoubtedly find him and kill him for taking coin for no work. Ah well, he'd keep looking for Miss as best he could. In the long run the pay would be better anyway.
Pawl rubbed his thin hands together and began assembling the smile that loosened many a feminine purse string--and sometimes feminine laces. He'd never counted himself as handsome, but for some reason he did well up here. He looked up, ready to charm some matron or girl, but instead encountered the steady gaze of a man in traditional Gremas clothing made in rich silks. The man's brown eyes turned down at the outside corner, giving him a melancholy appearance.
Pawl's heart skidded to a stop, then took off running. It was Mr Adrikov, the man who'd paid Pawl a gold piece to help him elope with Miss, and the man Mr Brown had warned Pawl against. Suddenly Miss's disappearance and Ruvin the Bastard's residence at Gremassem seemed more likely connected than not, and Pawl began to wonder if he shouldn't have asked for more gold than he'd gotten from Mr Brown. Should he acknowledge the man? Perhaps Mr Adrikov didn't remember him. He would remain watchful but disinterested.
Mr Adrikov sauntered up to the caravan. "You have some interesting wares, my man," he said in the Gremas.
"Thank you, sir," said Pawl, trying to keep his voice level. "Anything you might wish to examine?"
"It can be fairly said that someone will want to examine you and your wares," smiled Mr Adrikov. "You're awfully far north, Rodder Pawl," he murmured in Tremontine. "Come for another gold piece? Or perhaps you've already gotten one from someone else. You're playing some kind of game, and I am fairly sure I know what it is. I may even be playing it myself."
Pawl's insides twisted; the game was up, indeed, but perhaps he might at least find out what he came to know--if not for his employer, then for his own heart's ease. "Here is a fine pelt, sir, taken from the largest silver fox ever seen in the forests of Alavis," he said in louder Gremas. "A pelt of rare price." The two leaned their heads over it. "Mr Adrikov, sir," he whispered in Tremontine, "I'm fair sure my life is in your hands. If you're going to give me up, please just tell me, is Miss all right? Mistress is dead, you see--"
"Listen, Pawl, I think we may be of use to one another. We may have common cause--or we may not. That remains to be seen. Nevertheless, I shan't give you away if I might be sure of you. I will cover for you, and if you can be of use to me I'll even see a few coins into your purse. But you must do as I say. Are you my man?"
Pawl looked around him. The women of the castle were converging on the quiet corner of the courtyard; lounging in doorways were tall, hard-faced men with long blonde beards and long sharp swords at their sides, all of them watching him. A word from Mr Adrikov and it was certain the tip of one of those swords would press straight through his heart. Then again, if Mr Brown found out he'd turned away from his assignment--or possibly made cause with his enemy--he might end up on the point of a different sword, or worse.
But Mr Brown was in Arren, and Mr Adrikov was here. "I'm your man," said Rodder Pawl. "Tell me what to do."
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