((Author’s Note: Sorry, everyone, I made a mistype and called the trade city ‘Eriskar’. The name of the city is Kelvrir, and Eriskar is the general name for the region under Alra dominion. This has been corrected. My apologies.))
As the townspeople congregated, faces darkened with grief and soot and with ash staining their clothes gray, Varlaine felt nothing short of dismay. Of course, he masked it, watching the situation unfold from a distance. Naz reached her hands down to pat the heads of the children who’d come to greet her, offering each some words of acknowledgement before going to speak to their mother, a woman who stood alone and walked with a weight on her shoulders that the prince couldn’t fathom even as he tried. While she did, a hand clapped onto ‘Laine’s shoulder and shook.
His stomach tightened abruptly, and the salted pork that he’d swallowed down earlier in the morning threatened to make its return in the mud at his feet. Swallowing it down, he turned his head to see the guard that Naz had been speaking with before. Nico, she’d called him. He looked friendly enough, but the hand that squeezed ‘Laine’s shoulder was stronger than the man put on.
“Sorry, did I scare you?” The guardsman asked. Varlaine shook his head, and the older man broke into a grin as he released the boy. “I figured maybe you two would like to get out of sight.”
“Please,” Eryn sounded less comfortable than ever. For her sake, ‘Laine nodded in agreeance, and Nico gestured for the pair to follow. They did, Eryn on Cass’ back and Varlaine on foot, leaving his horse tethered to the stage with the treasure they had recovered. Together, they slunk into an alleyway between two houses that still stood with all four walls, though the shattered window they stopped by left little comfort in the prince’s heart.
“Didn’t get to introduce myself.” Nico reached one hand out, extending it to Eryn first. She had to lean over to reach, but when he had her palm the older man took a moment to kiss the top of her hand. “Nicomenda Bellant. One of the few remaining town guard, and not a bad shot besides.” While Varlaine wanted to be annoyed at the blatant flirtation, something that Eryn took to with a smile and notably heated cheeks, he found himself focusing more on Naz. The mercenary woman was going around the stage to climb up its steps, standing just behind the line of goods they’d brought.
“E-eryn. Eryn Fitch.” The rider tucked blue hair behind her ear as she gave her name. “Royal guard in training. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I think Naz is about to speak,” Varlaine interjected. The other two looked at him and then at the square, where people had congregated around the stage and started to quiet down. The respect that she commanded left him confused and intrigued; in the palace, the term ‘mercenary’ was as dirty as ‘harlot’ or ‘slave’. People like Naz sold their lives, and were therefore worth little when compared to the people who bought their services. As he crept forward enough to lean against Cassius’ side and reach a hand up for Eryn’s, Varlaine did not feel so valuable; the rider taking his palm in her own and squeezing assuaged him in the same way a fleeting breath of air would the terror of a drowning man bobbing at the surface.
As Naz stood tall in her silver armor, the people hushed each other. She seemed confident enough in front of the crowd, clearing her scratchy throat and straightening her back to stand taller. Once they’d quieted down, she spoke in her rough, harsh voice. “People of Dalren! I return with gifts, and with news.” Despite the distortion that made her sound much older than she appeared to be, Varlaine couldn’t help but pick up a musical lilt to her voice. It beckoned for attention, and had him listening to what she said with as much intent as any of the townsfolk.
“The men, the criminals who have burned your homes and murdered your kin, have been slain.” She stopped to swallow, and to allow for the scattering of applause and satisfied chatter. When it stopped, she gestured with her arms at the recovered gold and gems at her feet. “Better yet, we have reclaimed your jewelry, your gold, your heirlooms. And then some!” Naz’s voice rose, and the crowd’s excitement followed. Varlaine arched his brows in surprise. She had been so stiff, so reserved, when they had spoken over the last two days. Her skill with the peoples’ energy rivaled that of some of the speakers and entertainers he’d seen in his father’s court.
“At my feet is a handful of the gifts we bring back to you. When you have men and women able, I will take them to the rest—but with this bounty, I bring conditions… and a warning.” Her tone darkened, lower, and the peoples’ giddiness ebbed as quickly as it came. They leaned in to listen closer, collectively.
“First: ensure all personal effects find their way home. Wedding bands, lockets, family marks, these are to be returned to their owners. Widows regain the belongings of their husbands. Widowers, their wives. Orphans, their parents.” A clear-cut rule, which was sensible enough. Indeed, nobody seemed to be arguing it aloud, prompting her to continue. “The rest is to be divided among the living by need. The disabled, the old, the unfit. There is enough to buy many of you a new life.”
The speech seemed to be taking its toll on her, despite the energy she carried. Stopping for a moment, Naz paced and swallowed, lifting a hand to rub at her throat. The people she delivered her address to were gracious enough to let her, either out of respect or sheer joy at her offering. When she was able, the redheaded Lor’tsun woman resumed.
“It is my suggestion that you take these spoils and leave this place immediately.” That was a firm statement that stirred some dissent. Before people could protest too loudly, she raised a single hand to the air and held it up, palm out. “I have met with people from the capitol. There has been fighting at the palace. It will soon spread here.” Some of the denials and complaints that had started to form died out just as quickly, settling into a listening, albeit nervous, mob. “I cannot confirm the attackers, but Dalren is not fit to withstand battles… or even another bandit attack. I urge you to take the spoils I bring with you and travel west, to Kelvrir.”
“What is Kelvrir?” Eryn whispered down to Varlaine.
“It’s a trade city on the border between Revengard and the Alra territories. From what I understand, it’s very large and considered a neutral ground,” Varlaine explained. Nico interjected with his own information.
“I hear it’s full of Alra aristocrats who ‘sympathize’ with the poorer humans there. Big money, big talkers.” He added. “More Alra than Revengardian.”