An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Stilt District Tiberius

Tiberius had rarely left the palace in recent years, and he most certainly had not frequented the area through which Navarius was now leading him. Known as the Stilt District, it was an extension of the city that had literally grown up over the waters of the River Kharnine. As far as the sage understood, the district encompassed several square miles of homes, shops, wharfs and warehouses and had been built on stilts that kept them all several feet above the surface of the water itself. He could almost feel the ebb and flow of the Kharnine’s waters beneath him—and had little confidence in the aging, wooden construction. The Stilt District had been rebuilt several times over the years. He would not be comfortable until they found this woman and got back onto solid ground.

And well away from the Master of Whispers.

Tiberius bore little love for Navarius. The spymaster, who had originally come from the Easterly Isles of the Endless Sea, was unpleasantly proficient in his art. While there was little that he could not uncover, his methods were less than admirable. The tropical islands of his homeland were renowned for producing plants and fruits with a wide range of interesting properties, and Navarius was a well-practiced alchemist. When combined with coin from the Queen’s coffers—and the occasional use of sharpened steel or red-hot iron—secrets fled from the spymaster. Altogether, it made him a valuable resource for their present endeavour, Tiberius had little faith in the man’s goodwill.

“How much further?” he asked.

“Not far. It is just around the corner now.”

“I sincerely hope that this information of yours is genuine.”

“Oh, I am sure it is, old friend. I am sure it is.”

Tiberius was not sure that he liked the intonation of the spymaster’s voice, but there was no point in turning back now. If Navarius was scheming, it would be more toward his own advancement rather than any physical harm to Tiberius himself. Still, he would keep his ears wide open. The Master of Whispers was clever and crafty and rarely revealed his true intentions, but he was not infallible.

“And here we are,” said the spymaster. Coming to a stop, he placed one hand on Tiberius’ shoulder, guiding him gently towards an open door. “The woman you seek is waiting inside. I will wait outside and give you some privacy.”

“Of course,” replied the blind sage, faking his belief in what they both knew to be a polite lie. For Navarius, the very idea of privacy was like an insult to his name. Tentatively, Tiberius entered the building. The air within was cold, and smelled of sea salt, musk and something sweet that reminded him vaguely of sunberries. Judging by the echo of his footsteps, he determined that he was walking into a large, sparsely furnished space. Across the room, he heard someone shift suddenly, as though startled by his presence.

“Hello?” came the soft, quiet voice of a woman. Her words sounded strained, as though she had been recently weeping.

“Greetings,” he replied carefully. “My name is Tiberius. I am a servant of the Queen.”

“The Queen?” the woman cried, almost hysterically. “Oh, by the Nine! Please! You need to tell her I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I never said you had, my dear.”

“Then why am I being kept here like this? I haven’t done anything wrong…”

“My apologies for any confusion or fear we may have caused. I would just like to ask you a few questions. Is that alright?”

“I…I guess so…”

“Thank you.” Embers and ashes, Navarius, what have you done to the poor girl? “My associate tells me that you have seen prince Jayslen recently. Is this true?”

“Yes, but that’s no crime, is it? I was just telling some friends what I saw. I… I thought it was an interesting story. I didn’t mean any disrespect. It was just talk.”

“No, my dear. It’s no crime. The prince has been away for some time, and we very much need to find him and…bring him back to the city. It is a matter of some urgency, you see.”

“If you say so…but it’s like I’ve told the other man already. I was working in Ronnex. I’m an escort for wealthy men, you see, and I was with this spice merchant.”

“Do you remember his name?”

“No. He was passing through and I only ever met him the one time. But we were just starting off our evening in one of the local taverns, listening to a hired storyteller and his minstrel—a pretty girl, long blonde hair. Would do well in my line of work. Anyhow, this storyteller was pretty good and he was just finishing up his third or fourth tale when this other man gets up, walks across the room and asks the blond girl to go with him.”

“And you think this man was the prince?”

“He said he was. Those were the first words out of his mouth. ‘I am Prince Jayslen. I need you to come with me.’ Or something like that. Poor girl looked scared out of her mind. Guess I would be too. The Prince has something of a reputation. Anyhow, the storyteller, he didn’t seem to care much for what was happening and quickly put himself between the prince and the girl. Then he threw some silvery powder in his face. I don’t think it hurt him, but it distracted him long enough for the storyteller and his girl run. Got out of there so I fast I don’t think they even got paid for their work.”

“And you’re sure it was Jayslen?” Tiberius pressed. It certainly sounded like Jayslen—bold, straight to the point and expecting everyone to do exactly as he wished simply because of who we was. Or, in this case, who he claimed to be.

“No. That’s just what he said. I’ve never seen the prince before. But he was tall, broad shoulders, with dark hair and a thick beard. That’s just the way I’ve always heard Jayslen described as. That is what he looks like, right?”

“I wouldn’t know, dear.”

“You’ve never seen him? I thought you said you worked for the Queen.”

“There’s no light in here is there?” Tiberius asked, silently cursing the spymaster as realization set in. Locking the poor woman in a cold lightless room was in character for Navarius, but that did nothing to ease the sage’s disgust.

“Obviously. Are you, blind or something?” said the woman.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, I am.”

“Oh… I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to…”

“Think nothing of it. I was not aware that we were sitting in darkness, so I am sorry too. But this storyteller, can you tell me anything else about him?”

“Not much. He was handsome, I suppose, though prettier than I normally like in a man. A bit long in the face too. Seemed rather timid, except when he was telling his stories. Then he spoke with a lot of confidence.”

“A name, perhaps?”

“I can’t remember.”

“What about the tavern?”

“That I do know. The White Wyvern. One of my favourites”

Thank the Nine. If they could find the tavern and speak to its proprietor, their was a chance they could discover the name of this mysterious storyteller and his lady friend. If it was the prince that the woman saw, and if the storyteller did run, there would be no doubt that Jayslen would have followed. But for a whole month? If this woman’s story is true, that places him in Ronnex, about four weeks ago. In that time, the prince could have travelled halfway across the Realm. Still, it was more information than they had had when the sun rose, so Tiberius tried to be grateful.

“Very well, my dear,” he said to the woman. “I think that will be all.”

“Oh thank you. Thank you. Thank you. But can I please have my clothes back? It’s so cold in here. I’m absolutely freezing.”

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