Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 13
“Gharis again,” murmured Tobimar.
“Appropriate. It was the easiest of the outlying towns for us to get to from Rivendream,” Poplock said. He was feeling perhaps unreasonably cheerful and optimistic; getting out of the vile, sanity-eroding nastiness of Rivendream had that effect. Maybe Evanwyl wasn’t the sparkling perfection of Kaizatenzei, but compared to Rivendream Pass, well, close enough. “How do you want to do the reconnaissance?”
Tobimar frowned. “People there might recognize me, so I can’t go too far in.”
“Neither of us can even get close,” Rion said reluctantly. “We are…were, in my case…known throughout Evanwyl, and there’s no one that would mistake us for anyone else unless we try disguises.”
Kyri shook her head. “And against the forces we’re worried about, I don’t know if disguises would help. You’re not really much better off, Tobimar, except that you’re not so tall that you’ll stand out.”
“That’s why I’m going to only go in close enough to be able to hear if things go too badly wrong. It’s really going to be up to Poplock.”
“Yep,” agreed the little Toad, checking his pack and making sure it was well settled and its subtle camouflage was working. “As far as I know, no one except maybe the Watchland himself ever twigged to the fact that I was something more than a pet. And I’m small enough that people often don’t even notice me.”
“True,” Kyri said. “All right; Rion and I will stay back here and wait for you two. Do not take any chances you can avoid, Poplock. I don’t want an alarm or a fight if we can evade it.”
“Hey, I don’t stab people who don’t deserve it. Trust me.” He gave her a pop-eyed smile so she knew he wasn’t really annoyed; she returned the smile and bowed, then kissed Tobimar quickly.
It wasn’t a rainy night, as it had been the first time they approached the little town. Poplock pointed out a dark street that led to a tiny copse, a sort of park, not even a stone’s throw from the Southern View, the main inn and gathering spot in Gharis. Tobimar nodded. “Okay, I’ll wait there. Good luck.”
“See you in a bit.”
Poplock dropped from the Skysand prince’s shoulder and scuttled through the grass. He could make better time bouncing along the main road, but that would make him more visible. Toads didn’t stay on streets often, not when they had a choice.
A few minutes took him to the wall of the Southern View. Constructed of large logs carefully fitted and laid in an interlocking pattern, the inn also had verminseal wards on it, with some security webbing in place as well, as he could see by looking at it through one of his special lenses. But it hadn’t changed since the time they’d come here searching for Thornfalcon, as far as he could tell.
He squinted up. Sure enough, there were a couple of vents under the eaves. That allowed air circulation through the building, which could get stuffy otherwise. He climbed swiftly up to the roof using the log ends, which were also the anchors for the security and verminseal wards; this meant their outer edges weren’t inside the wards, but normally that wouldn’t matter much; the only vermin that attacked big wood blocks were kept out by the preservative paint.
Fortunately, the fact that they were relying on the cheaper security webbing meant that there were significant gaps in the coverage–significant to a toad who was less than four inches across. The webbing had a six-inch spacing, which made it almost easy to get through and enter the vent.
Remembering the mazakh ducts, Poplock looked carefully inside, but this wasn’t even really a duct, just an opening to permit good air circulation through the building; he just had to remove and replace the grating that kept debris like dust and leaves from entering.
The attic was filled with various dry goods–beans, gravelseed flour, smoked meats hanging from the ceiling, and such. It didn’t take long for Poplock to figure out how to ease his way into the gaps at the side of the floor and drop down, first to the second floor and then to the first. They build everything so open in Evanwyl. Almost unfairly easy.
He reminded himself that he was just about to hit the hard part of this job. He was now hanging upside down, looking into a pantry with a half-open door through which came the sounds of cooking, someone moving about, stirring something, rattling of pans. “More tineroots, and where’s the roast for Gillie?”
Poplock poked his head back up, found that–as he had hoped–the ceiling down here was a thin layer of boards concealing the supporting beams and braces. It was only about six inches high, but that was more than enough space for him. He scuttled along, following the sounds of movement and the structural components until he figured he was over the common room where most people would gather. Hopefully I’ll get some idea of what’s going on around here.
For the first time he had a problem. Listening was all well and good, but seeing people was really important. Words could say one thing while expressions, gestures, and body posture said another, something that old Hiriista had proven when he figured out that Poplock wasn’t an ordinary toad.
The problem was that the ceiling boards were really well fitted. There was barely a hint of light seeping through them. That left only a few choices. He could try to lever one of the boards so that there was a gap he could look through; he could bore a hole through the wood and peek through, either by eye or using a small mirror; or he could take a chance at being spotted and just go to the edge of the ceiling and peek down from between the gap between the ceiling and wall.
After turning the possibilities over in his mind, he opted for the last. Levering boards you hadn’t fitted yourself could break them or cause obvious sounds or movement. Boring a hole could easily end up with splinters or shavings dropping down where someone could see them.
He scuttled quietly over to one side, which he thought would give him the best view, and then very slowly and cautiously lowered himself until he could just make out the room below.
The initial glance was encouraging; there seemed to be about as many people in the little inn as he remembered from their first visit, which meant that business was reasonably good. People’s expressions also covered the gamut but were tending towards good cheer, something he would definitely not expect had, say, a Demonlord announced its overlordship of the country and begun crushing the citizenry.
A young man and young woman–both black-haired and dark-skinned, like the majority of people in Evanwyl–were waiting tables and taking orders, directed partly by an older woman with graying hair who was also going in and out of the kitchen. I remember her…Gam, I think it was?
The man who had been here on that visit, of course, was gone; Vlay had been a collaborator with Thornfalcon, one of the few who knew of the Justiciar’s very unheroic tastes and assisted him in the procurement and disposal of people when necessary. Gam must not have known, if she’s still here.
Poplock settled himself down and listened. Tobimar knows I’ll be here a while. You couldn’t gather good intelligence if you weren’t patient. Momentarily, Poplock wondered about Kyri and Rion, but shrugged. Rion had had plenty of opportunities to betray them before. If he was really in league with their enemy, his best bet was probably to just go along with them and then backstab the party when they were already in battle with Viedraverion. If he wasn’t, well, the two had plenty to talk about; sometimes even in Rivendream Pass they’d ended up discussing their younger days to the point that Kyri almost seemed to have forgotten Tobimar was there.
“Hey, Pingall, how goes it? Have a few days next week?”
“Ah, so it’s the harvest you’re ready for? Sure, I have a day or three. Good weather we’ve been having.”
“Not like three years ago. Remember that drought? Like to have lost the whole crop.”
“Oh, yeh, that was bad. Now, not as bad as the one in 2112, though…”
Poplock moved around from point to point along the edge of the rafter space. Most of the discussions were like that–talk of crops for farmers, shipments and manufacturing points for merchants and smiths, a few children out with their parents demanding treats, an apprentice mage of some sort trying to study while her larger companion kept interrupting with questions that showed that he wasn’t perhaps bright enough to understand her answers.
Then he heard something that would have made his ears prick up, if that was something physically possible for a Toad. “…war’s not going well, I hear.”
“Oh, have you heard something since the last quarter-year?”
“My son works the road to the south, you know, and a runner came through–about beat, he was, too. Seems the rumors are true.”
Silence; Poplock noticed the whole inn had suddenly quieted. The protests of the youngest child at the far table were being shushed.
“You mean…” the questioner’s voice dropped to a penetrating whisper, “the Black City?”
“That’s what he said,” the first person, an older woman, answered. Her tone was that of someone both horrified, and incredibly pleased to be the one bearing important news. “Said that the City’s sitting right in the center of Hell itself. Said that the Sauran King marched an army right through Hell’s Edge, had them open the gates that were never opened so they could pass through.”
“Great Balance, Enn. That sounds like…”
“Chaoswar, so they say,” Enn continued, with that same horrified relish in her voice. “And that’s not all. He says the Empire sent an army through right after. Both the Dragon and the Archmage are on the move. What does that say?”
“I don’t believe it,” a deep-voiced man said, though his tone was uncertain. “The Black City’s the center of All Hells, not something sitting on this world.”
The debate went on below. The bit about the Black City wasn’t news to Poplock; he, Kyri, and Tobimar had been at the Spiritsmith’s when it happened, and the Spiritsmith himself had told them what they had seen. But the idea that the massed armies of the Dragon and of Idinus of Scimitar himself had gone together to face the threat…that was news, and not really good news. Well, it was good that someone was facing the forces of Kerlamion, but Poplock had a bad feeling that once the King of All Hells had a foothold on Zarathan he wasn’t going to be easy to kick back off.
The smiles were fewer and the atmosphere of the inn had changed. The discussion of a Chaoswar that might already be upon them had thrown a pall over the entire crowd. Some were already leaving.
Then Poplock caught a fragment of another conversation.
“…to believe. Haven’t been any travelers through Evanwyl in months.”
“Not quite true. There’s that group of youngsters that showed up over to the Balanced Meal.”
“Strange ones, those are. Though they say the one boy’s been here before.”
Been here before? Could that be…
“Oh, aye, I know the one. Looks like he could be a by-blow of old Kyril Vantage, eyes just like Miss Kyri he has.”
Poplock felt his broad face trying to split into a grin.