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"Ambassador, this way please." Domlin grunted as he stood. His hind quarters had all but gone numb from sitting in his majesty's antechamber. He had been there for over an hour awaiting permission to enter on a court summons.

Noble bastards.

The runner, a boy of no more than fourteen, headed for the massive, oaken double doors that led from the plush antechamber into the king's private audience hall. The doors were masterfully decorated with intricate carvings depicting various scenes of glorious battle, surrounded in winding vines of ivy. Domlin snorted, as he did every time he approached the hall. If Aelrod could even lift a long sword – let alone wield the thing – it was a miracle.

Guards stationed on either side of the entrance, armored in polished metal breast plates and garbed in the purple and gold of the palace at Renalor, moved to pull aside the heavy doors. The graying ambassador stepped over the threshold, his slight paunch seeming to grow as he inhaled a deep breath. Noble grace was not one of his strong suits, and he had long ago given up playing at it, but it still made him uncomfortable to be under the scrutiny of his betters.

"Domlin, welcome old friend." Aelrod smiled that overly charming, toothy smile of his. The king's teeth were immaculate, one of the many things about him that had always grated on Domlin. It bothered him like it did when a bard's voice sounded a little too pretty, or when a man's sword had no nicks or scratches on the blade. It just didn't seem right.

Everything about the king was like that. He kept his brown, shoulder-length hair slicked back with oil and tied into a pony tail, never a single strand out of place. The man's face was always shaved smooth, and yet the skin was never broken. He smelled of perfume, but it was never overpowering, and Domlin was certain that he had never seen the king in the same outfit twice.

Today he was wearing a purple jacket which extended almost to the floor and was inlaid with intricate patterns of gold thread. The jacket was trimmed in white fur, Brumaltese snow wolf if the ambassador had to guess. Beneath the jacket the king wore the standard silk tunic and tight breeches common to the nobility – purple and black respectively – as well as a pair of black boots woven with the same gold thread as the jacket. Domlin fought the urge to roll his eyes, instead returning the king's smile with one of his own, followed by a quick bow as he approached Aelrod's big, oak desk.

The king was standing which was generally an indication that he was feeling impatient. "Come on man, move those feet. The midday gala begins in under an hour and I am an utter mess." The king smiled, though the mirth never reached his eyes.

When the older man did not respond, the king sighed. "You are here because I need you, Domlin." The graying ambassador snorted, raising an eyebrow at his king.

"That's hardly a bloody surprise, now is it?" Domlin had never been any good at holding his tongue around the nobility, particularly when they were trying to butter him up for something. Offending their noble sensibilities was simply too much fun.

Aelrod's demeanor hardened, his eyes narrowing as he continued. "You will depart for Sorence on the morrow, for your usual fee. There is a great deal of bickering between the Ishtadis and the westerners, and I'll not it have it turn to war. Those Primian trade routes mean too much to this kingdom. I'm sending you with your two buffoons, whatever their names are. You will also be accompanied by a Tyrilian spy, a master infiltrator by the name of Cralis. He is one of mine, and he is very good at what he does. See that he has the means to accomplish his task, and we will have you back on Tyrilian soil in a few, short months. Cralis will provide you with the details."

Domlin stroked his stubbly chin with one meaty hand as he considered it. The king had just given him Corval and Pragor, which was odd, but certainly welcome. As hired swords went, they were the best money could buy – both knew their place, and their price was always fair. Normally the king would have first tried to convince him to take knights of the crown, knowing full well that Domlin would refuse; it had always been his favorite bargaining chip. Under normal circumstances, Aelrod would let Domlin request the mercenaries and there would be a familiar, droning speech about the professionalism of trained knights and the unnecessary risks associated with hiring men whose only allegiance was to gold darics and tavern wenches. Then the king could deny any subsequent requests on the basis that he had already compromised on the guard detail.

The fact that his majesty had willingly offered to give him hired swords instead of knights could mean that the king was betting on Domlin to refuse the assignment unless he was allowed to negotiate a more amenable agreement than what was customary. Then again, it could also mean that his majesty was making a power play, goading Domlin to ask for something else so that the king could flat out deny it. Domlin would, of course still be required to take on the assignment or be imprisoned for treason. Despite his apparent daintiness, the latter sounded more like Aelrod, and it meant that he was desperate.

While Domlin had little desire to hop on a ship for Sorence – that would mean a month with nothing to do but drink and watch the endless expanse of ocean that was the Primian – he supposed there was nothing for it. Besides, if the king's intelligence was true, then his majesty was right. A war between Calida and Tandor on one side and Anawar and Ishtad on the other would spell trouble for the kingdom. He supposed there was only one choice he could make.

"I'm in, on one condition. I get a wagoner this time, my pick. Corval and Pragor'll serve me better if they're not worried with the horses." The king raised an eyebrow, weighing the ambassador's ultimatum before shrugging and waving the matter off as though it were of little importance.

"Fair enough, Domlin. You shall have your coachman, and I trust his fee will be well worth your efforts." The king's eyes narrowed slightly as he said, "Now, get out of my hall." Aelrod's voice lost any trace of frivolity, leaving no room for further discussion.

The king had never liked Domlin, though he usually made it a point to at least pretend to. Domlin had long suspected that his majesty's preoccupation with appearances was a ruse. It was the perfect cover for his true cunning and would serve well to keep his adversaries guessing.

It made sense, really. The king would certainly have a number of enemies, both outside Tyrilia and within its borders. Domlin could think of a number of noble lords with strong claims to the throne, and most had been used poorly by his majesty at some point. By appearing more concerned with the day's selection of perfume and noble raiment than the care of the kingdom, his grace painted himself as weak and incapable. It would make men underestimate him, and that was a powerful weapon.

Not that it mattered. Domlin had his assignment, and he would see it through – for the coin if for nothing else.

The graying ambassador bowed and turned for the door. Before he could exit the room, the king said, "Oh, and Domlin? One more thing." Domlin could almost feel the man's spite heating his back, as though it were the warmth from a roaring hearth. "Should you fail me, I shall tear your bleeding heart from your chest and feed it to my hounds." Aelrod's voice was a dagger, his words the venom upon its blade. Domlin ground his teeth, not slowing as he reentered the antechamber.

Once the massive double doors were closed behind him, Domlin beckoned to the young courier who stood in wait by the door leading to the courtyard. "I'll have my things, now. And get a saddle on my bloody horse." The ambassador growled the last few words. He hadn't meant it for the boy, but the runner tensed all the same, bowing quickly before turning and darting for the courtyard entrance.

Domlin pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, squeezing his eyes shut a moment as he made his way to the castle's guest wing. He had been the ambassador to Calida for seven or eight years now, a position he had become quite comfortable in. Corval and Pragor had always accompanied him on his often long stints overseas, and he had generally enjoyed the assignment, but this was something different. Domlin had no connections in Sorence or in any of the Ishtadi nations, connections that would be critical to the success of any negotiations.

Aelrod was no simpleton; he would understand the subtleties at least as well as Domlin, which made the paunchy man nervous. Something was going on, something more than "bickering" between Calida, Tandor, and their Ishtadi neighbors, and Domlin suddenly found himself feeling a great deal like a lackey in some immense game of Lords and Lessers.

Even more troubling was the king's insistence on the addition of the palace spy. Aelrod had spies everywhere – it was a well-known source of the man's power. That he would make known the addition of this Cralis person to the ambassadorial voyage was odd at best – better to just stow the man away in the cargo hold of some smuggler's rig than to try and pass him off as a regent on foreign assignment. Of course, it might be nothing, but the ambassador was a cautious man, and trusting his gut had kept him alive more times than he cared to count.

Domlin sighed, his thoughts wandering to the silk-and-velvet tapestries that hung from the palace's stone ceiling like massive, tasseled blankets. Their colors – purple trimmed in gold, woven through with the golden stag of Renalor – had remained unchanged since the first Tyrilians had taken their little plot of land out of Dela'Moria's backside. Actually, back then Dela'Moria had been called by a different name, though Domlin had never been good with the Darini tongue.

His thoughts were interupted as he arrived to find the door to his quarters open wide. Two young pages and an old cottar were busily tidying the room, presumably preparing it for its next guest. Aelrod must have ordered it while the ambassador had withered away in the man's antechamber. It was just like him.

"Cram it all! Don't you bloody vultures have anything better to do?" Domlin marched into the lavishly furnished room, loosing expletives like cannon fire. The old cottar immediately bowed and made for the door, while the less experienced pages hesitated, their youthful eyes wide with surprise. "Out!" With that, the two boys nodded brusquely, making haste for the door. The ambassador slammed it in their wake, a smile of satisfaction spreading on his lips. "That never gets old," he muttered to himself.

Despite the intrusion, Domlin was glad to find his leather rucksack already packed with an extra pair of clothes and a handful of jerked oricken, a kind of gamey rodent that he had become fond of over the years. It was hardly pleasing to the palate, but it was as good as he was likely to do on the ocean voyage to Sorence.

With a sigh, the graying ambassador hefted the rucksack and the wide-bladed short sword that rested in his belt sheath on the bed. He would need to find Corval and Pragor tonight, if they were to set sail on the morrow.

Domlin took one last look at his palatial guest room, saying a mental farewell to the luxury he had grown to expect over the last several months. He heaved another sigh, consciously bending his mind to the task at hand. Besides, his overseas forays were always vastly more engaging than the affairs of nobility, for their capriciousness if nothing else.

With a grin, the paunchy ambassador turned and headed toward the castle's front entrance. He made several turns through its maze-like entanglement of throughways and antechambers before finally passing through the massive, double doors that lead to the grassy promenade.

Domlin exited into a stream of golden sunlight, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the city beyond the palace. He wasted no time as he crossed the castle's front lawn and passed through the massive archway that allowed passage beyond its looming whitestone walls.

For all of its beauty, Renalor stank like a mountain of putrified herring, even so close to the palace. Still, the smell was familiar, and it had a peculiar way of blending with the massive port city's beautifully constructed architecture, lending it a certain allure. Domlin found himself smiling again, happy to be about some business that didn't involve pouring over embassorial missives or listening to the droning orations of foreign dignitaries.

He took to the street, turning his head for one last look at the smooth whitestone palace, its grandeur unmatched by anything the ambassador had ever seen. Of course, for all of its elegance, the construction was one of fortitude as much as it was of splendor. When Erefort – the last Olanis king – had moved the capitol from Verilimar, he had made fortification the top priority. The palace had always been close to the sea, and it was imperative that it be defensible.

"Care for a baguette, my lord?" Domlin was startled from his musings by a gangly hawker, his small wooden stall moderately stocked with several varieties of baked goods. His was the first in a seemingly endless row of such stalls on either side of the street, backing up to the palace wall on one side and the mass of inns, taverns, and ristorantes that crowded Lordsgate on the other.

Renalor was large enough that it boasted several markets of varying degrees of regality. The one in Lordsgate was haphazard out of necessity, all available plots having been crowded out by any number of large structures that were meant to serve the wealthy and the noble.

The market was a necessary stepping stone between the palace and Oldward, the city's less savory side, though Domlin would have been glad to have avoided the late afternoon congregation, given a better route.

Having resigned himself to fighting the crowd, the ambassador leaned into his shoulder, employing it as a sort of battering ram as he merged into the boisterous throng of market-goers.

Most of the faces were Tyrilian, though there were certainly a fair number of Sorencians, bronze-skinned Ishtadis, and any number of other peoples from the southern continent of Irya, the Calidans and Tandori more-or-less indistinguishable from the native Tyrilians.

Renalor was something of a cultural melting pot, though Domlin expected the Sorencian capital of Sirai would prove even more diverse. Of course, if he were to ever know for certain, he would need to track down his mercenaries. They were likely to be somewhere in Oldward, probably the Red Foxtail if he were to hazard a guess.

The graying ambassador remembered his coin purse at the last moment, snatching it from the loop at his belt. It wouldn't be the first time he'd been theived blind by a cunning cutpurse in the middle of a bustling market.

After winding his way in and out of the mass of bodies at Lordsgate, Domlin finally found himself at the opposite end of the market, where he headed northwest for Oldward. His nose was as good a guide as his eyes, the smell of detritus mingling with the musk of the sea as he closed in on the city's poor district.

The buildings quickly changed from the beautiful stonework structures of Lordsgate to the chaotic arrangement of haphazard wooden shanties that was Oldward. Their boards were warped from the moist sea air, rusty nails protruding from unkempt siding, paint cracking and flaking off. At one time – before the late King Erefort had made Renalor his home – Oldward had been the entirety of the city. Back then it had been the primary port for shipments bound for Beladrad in central Lathia – still the largest city in all of Tyrilia – and any number of smaller cities that had sprung up in between. Of course, Renalor had grown to become a close second in terms of population. With the needs of both cities being met by the port at Renalor, business was booming. A whole new era of merchant kings had arisen in the shadow of the palace, and with it, Oldward had been left to wither and decay in isolation. Of course, that also meant that the city watch took little care to maintain the peace, having become more concerned with the safety of the wealthier citizens of Lordsgate. As a result, Oldward had become something of a haven for all manner of unsavory sorts. It was just Domlin's style.

After only a few blocks, the graying ambassador found himself at the Red Foxtail. It was plain, even for a tavern in Oldward, the sign above the door probably thirty years old, if not older. The whole visage of the place fit right in with the antiquity of the surrounding structures.

The tavern was one in a line of several, buildings that had once served some purpose to the townspeople, having been converted to places of debauchery when much of the mercantilism had moved to Lordsgate.

Domlin stepped inside, his senses immediately assaulted on all fronts. The air within was warm and even moister than the sea air outside; smoke hung in the air like early morning fog, only adding to the stuffiness. Then there was the noise. Even this early in the evening, the sun only just beginning to drop below the horizon outside, the tavern was almost wall-to-wall with deckhands, wagoners, mercenaries, and drunkards of all shapes and sizes. The ambassador drank it in, relishing the moment.

It only took a quick scan to locate Corval and Pragor. The pair of bulky mercenaries sat at a round table made for eight, toward the back of the establishment. They were joined by four men he didn't recognize.

Domlin crossed the wood-plank floor, weaving around patrons and bar wenches alike as he raised a hand to hail the two swordsmen. They could have been twins inasmuch as their physiques were concerned, though they looked nothing alike in the face. Not to mention the fact that Pragor had dark brown hair, a stark contrast to Corval's blond mop.

"Dom? By Azjran, it is you!" Corval's face split into a wide grin, Pragor joining him as the pair stood and greeted their old friend. "We thought for sure you'd gone off and married the unsightly daughter of some desperate nobleman." Pragor's boisterous laughter rang out over the ruckus. Domlin just shrugged.

"She'd have to be worse than unsightly for a man to hand his daughter over to the likes of me." Corval grinned as Pragor's laughter redoubled.

Pragor slapped the ambassador on the back, goodnaturedly. "Good to see you Dom. It's been too long." The big man paused a moment, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "I suspect you've brought us a job, so what of it, old man?" Domlin snorted as Pragor ushered him to a chair, all three taking seats. It was just like the pair to go straight to the heart of the matter.

Domlin raised an eyebrow at the other four men – sailors if he were to hazard a guess – turning an inquisitive gaze on Corval. The swordsman's shaggy blond hair whipped about as he jerked his head to the side, indicating that the others should find seating elsewhere.

"You suggestin' we leave?" The biggest of the four, and plainly their leader, sneered at the muscular mercenary, his teeth black with rot.

Domlin spoke before the others had the chance. "Call it what you like, friend, but this table's taken." The paunchy ambassador could have just as easily leveraged the royal seal he kept in his pack, but he was feeling stubborn.

The sailor who had spoken snarled, his eyes threatening. With that, all four men stood, unceremoniously shoving their chairs behind them. Corval and Pragor responded in kind, Domlin rising from his seat a moment later.

Any idle chatter was abruptly snuffed out like a candle flame as all eyes turned on them. Most of the Foxtail's patrons casually stood from their seats, making for the outer fringes of the common room to enjoy the impending brawl from a safe distance

. A few even headed for the door, though a fight in Oldward was typically viewed as entertainment. Bets would be taken by the tavern's serving wenches – the experienced ones were quick to react, the owner shouting at one of the new girls to join in before the opportunity passed. His intensity was understandable. After all, bookmaking was one of the most lucrative businesses in the poorer part of the city. Of course, the real challenge was gauging the odds at the onset. The deckhands would likely be the favorites, if only for the advantage of their numbers.

Of the four, three were well-built, the fourth more girthy than anything. The leader was tall, the others of roughly average height. Domlin expected them to put up a good fight.

Just as the ambassador was about to round on the nearest assailant, the deckhand pulled a wicked-looking dirk, the weapon seeming to materialize out of thin air. His friends followed suit, the narrow blades having been concealed within their trousers, probably with Arusian slick straps. They were comprised of a small scabbard and a pair of leather fasteners. The sheath would be belted at both the point and the base to keep it flat against the thigh, making it almost impossible to notice the weapon under a loose-fitting garment. Each dirk would have been forged as a single piece of steel, the hilts hammered flat to lay flush against the leg.

Domlin cursed himself for a fool. His own sword was still sheathed in the belt beneath his chair – he'd never bothered to buckle it on. While the ambassador was familiar with the art of disarming an assailant, attempting it was hardly an ideal risk. Besides, Domlin wasn't as light on his feet as he used to be.

He was at least relieved to hear the crisp scraping of metal on hardened leather as Corval and Pragor drew their own swords. Still, the dirks would have the advantage in close quarters, and four blades against two was anything but a comforting scenario.

"That's enough." A man unfamiliar to the ambassador casually stepped up behind the deckhand that had initiated the fight, firmly pressing the point of a battle-worn longsword against the back of the sailor's neck. Domlin was fairly certain he had seen the stranger at a table in the corner, though it was difficult to be sure. The man's unkempt hair flowed well past his shoulders, shrouding his downcast face in shadow so as to make his features entirely indistinguishable.

The tall deckhand spread his arms in supplication, the dirk held in a loose grip between his thumb and palm, the other fingers of both hands extended. "Easy friend. We got nothin' against you." The stranger gave no response, his sword arm unflinching.

One of the sailors smiled slightly, clearly unconcerned. "It's just the drunk, Garig" At that, the fear visibly faded from the leader's face, his eyes narrowing as one corner of his mouth raised in a smirk.

"Kill him." Garig spun free of the sword's point as he gave the order, leaving the mysterious swordsman exposed.

Before anyone could so much as blink, the stranger's sword lashed out with such speed that Domlin's eyes could scarcely follow the movement. Garig's body went limp, and he collapsed onto the big wooden dining table with a thud. Blood gurgled from the sailor's neck in rhythm with his slowing heartbeat.

An almost deafening silence fell over the Foxtail as its patrons stood in disbelief. Corval and Pragor raised their swords, preparing for the sailors to make a move. At the same time, Domlin hazarded a cautious step toward the sword beneath his chair, his eyes locked on the three remaining assailants.

"Bets are off!" The tavern owner's gruff voice cut through the silence like a knife. The declaration was met with an instant cacophony of dissenting voices, most sounding more than a little irate. Men started pressing into the center of the common room, and before Domlin had a chance to digest what was happening, the entire establishment erupted in violence. Forks, pewter jacks, chairs, and anything else a man could get his hands on became makeshift weapons. Domlin quickly bent down, snatching up his pack and sword belt from the wooden floor, the quarrel with the deckhands already forgotten.

"Make for the door, boys – I'm right behind you!" Domlin slung the pack over his shoulder, moving headlong into the mob. Corval and Pragor were a step ahead of him, both men sheathing their swords and bringing their fists to the ready.

Pragor rolled his heavily muscled shoulders, hunching slightly in a pugilist stance. Corval just grinned, his approach more brute force than style as the pair set about shoving, slugging, and generally dissuading anyone who sought to impede their retreat. Pragor decked one fellow so hard the man crumpled to the floor in an unconscious heap.

One of the sailors spotted Domlin heading for the door and singled him out, the tavern windows sending evening hues of sunlight dancing along the silvery blade of his pointed dirk. The graying ambassador pulled his own sword, sidestepping to avoid a pair of grappling brawlers that pushed their way toward the center of the common room.

Without warning, the deckhand lurched forward, seeking to capitalize on the distraction. With both hands wrapped around the hilt of his short sword, Domlin drove his knuckles into the sailor's arm, deflecting the thrust a finger's width from his rib cage. The maneuver left the paunchy ambassador standing with his sword raised over one shoulder, and he wasted no time before bringing the blade down with a mighty bellow, the sound of it lost amid the den of noise reverberating throughout the tavern..

The sailor darted backwards, the blade making a wide arc through the air. The man stumbled as his heel caught on another patron's leg, struggling to keep his balance as Domlin sought to press the advantage. Before the older man could make his move, the stranger who had killed Garig suddenly appeared beside the sailor. One moment there was only air, the next, there he stood, so close to the man that their tunics actually brushed up against one another.

The stranger had sheathed his sword, his apparent lack of concern puzzling. With a start, Domlin noticed the hilt of a small dagger held in the man's left hand, the blade already buried in the sailor's gut. The man turned his head, his brown hair falling away from his face enough that the ambassador could just make him out. He was middle-aged, his features well-defined without being gaunt, and he had some of the most striking, crystal blue eyes the older man had ever seen. Domlin couldn't shake a feeling of recognition, though he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

The stranger nodded slightly before unceremoniously wrenching the dagger from the man's side and turning for the door. Domlin followed suit, sliding the short sword back into its scabbard as he shoved his way toward Corval and Pragor, both of whom were on their way out the door.

The ambassador made his way through the mass of bodies in short order, stumbling through the doorway and out into the rusty glow of the setting sun, its dim radiance casting the dereliction that was Oldward in a soft shade of deep orange. Corval, Pragor, and – not surprisingly for his apparent speed – the stranger had all beat him to the street.

The graying ambassador joined the three men on the gravel road in front of the Foxtail, grinning for all the world like a mischievous youngster. "Last time I had that much fun, it was in the green and gold of a Lathian regular." Corval returned the grin, Pragor just shaking his head. The mystery man raised an eyebrow, his expression unamused. Domlin turned an inquisitive eye on the man. "Nice of you to lend a hand. Got a name?"

"Irvin." The man stood statuesque, returning the ambassador's stare. Apparently he wasn't much of a conversationalist.

Corval stepped forward, slapping Irvin's shoulder with the palm of one hand. "Irvin's the best wagoner this side of Beladrad." Pragor nodded his agreement. "Thought you swore off the sword, though?" Irvin shrugged.

"I did." At that, both Corval and Pragor burst into laughter, as though the man had made some epic jest.

Domlin just grunted, his mind on business. "How about a job, then?" The paunchy ambassador eyed the man expectantly. Again Irvin just shrugged.

Corval looked to Pragor who nodded. "We're in. Irvin too."

Domlin nodded. "Well then, we best be about it. My new friend's just killed two sailors and ruined a fine gamble. I'd say he's not likely to be in the best regard 'round these parts."

Corval covered his mouth with his hand to stifle a laugh, and the four men set off, Domlin in the lead. "We'll get a couple rooms and set off at dawn. You boys ever been to Sorence?" None had, and Domlin just sighed. This was bound to be interesting, at any rate – four men, none of whom had the slightest idea what they were getting into, and a palace spy they'd never met or seen, probably as trustworthy as the false identity he was sure to employ. Still, it sounded like more of an adventure than lounging about the palace for another year. The ambassador smiled to himself. This just might turn out to be fun, after all.