The Carnival of Disarray

The Carnival of Disarray

Below is my submission for the War-torn open call of Wizards of the Coast for a novel for their Eberron campaign setting. Again my submission did not win (this was my third piece rejected by Wizards) but I got a personal response from the editors (rather than a form letter) and a promise to keep me in mind for future projects. Soon after this Wizards was bought by Hasbro and there was some kind of culling of editorial staff. I’ve never heard another personal word from them since.

The following is excerpted from the opening chapter of the proposed novel…

The city of Newthrone sweltered under the heat of the dawning tropical sun. Even at the foot of the city’s fortified walls, where the night’s last shadows cowered against the coming day, there was no relief. Down on the docks the cries of seabirds seemed leaden, falling through the cloying air. The sailors and riverboat crews who were rushing to launch their vessels on the morning tide laboured as though the air was a heavy, wet cloak that suffocated all unmercifully. Q’barra’s wet season tormented the people of New Galifar, while tinkers and magewrights did brisk trade in arcane artifacts that cooled the air or staved off the insects. Expensive bathhouses chilled the water of their marble-tiled pools with rune-inscribed oars that channeled the power of Risia, the plane of eternal winter. The better homes and businesses used silver fans of cunning artifice to cool the air with the same power. While the poor suffered, leaving their sweaty beds to earn their keep in the brutal heat, those who could afford to, hid themselves away in cool refuges built from money and magic.

At an hour after dawn, Prentice Ash made his weary way along the King’s Way, Newthrone’s central road. From the docks at the mouth of the Whitecliff River, the King’s Way bisected the city, running straight up the hill to the palace of King Sebastes ir’Kesslan, ruler of New Galifar. Through the heat, Prentice could see the palace’s white plaster walls and its dome roof, gleaming in iridescent swirls of blue and green. The intricate mosaics on the dome’s surface were made of opalescent shells, harvested over a generation from the oyster fields of Adder Bay. The palace looked down upon the city, standing proud above the miry streets. Where the palace met the city, two servants knelt on the marble steps, scrubbing away the mud of the returning night patrols of the city watch.

With his head down, watching for puddles, Prentice was intent on finding refuge from the heat. His long, ash-grey hair was tied back in a single plait, which kept it from his neck. Nonetheless small trickles of sweat gathered in his collar and ran down his back inside his short-sleeved war-coat. Gathered at the waist by his midnight blue sash, the heavy, charcoal-coloured garment fell to below his knees. The motion of it as he walked stirred the air, but the breeze it made gave no relief. Beneath his coat he wore loose trousers of heavy cotton tucked into unkempt but serviceable leather boots. As he walked, he kept his left hand on the sheathed sword at his waist, to keep it from swinging. Prentice’s feet splashed the edge of a puddle as he crossed the opening of an alleyway and drew near to his destination, Mrs Mennox’s coffee house.

Although his mind was focused on the inviting coolness of the basement eatery, he noted in passing that he did not recognize the lamplighter standing up the ladder on the alley’s corner, polishing the brass covers to the corner’s everbright lantern. Tending the lamps was a relatively important occupation, exclusively carried out by magewrights of the King’s own court. Although not a prestigious job, it was nonetheless well-paid and steady work. The position was frequently passed down in a family. Prentice didn’t know the name of the man who usually tended the lamps on this part of the King’s Way, but he would recognize him in a crowd.

The presence of the different lamplighter was percolating through Prentice’s thoughts as he passed by a shadowy doorway where a man and a woman clutched each other in an embrace. The man was a sailor, by his clothing, and it looked as though he might be leaving his trollop to ship out, with a kit bag on the doorstep by his feet. It was unusual that a sailor would have lodgings in this part of town, so far from the docks. He was late as well, if he was shipping out on the dawn tide. Prentice had almost passed the couple completely before he noticed that the door behind them was closed and locked tight. In their passion, they bounced against it several times, but it did not swing inward.

Prentice was only a dozen paces from the door of Mrs Mennox’s shop, tending to the left side of the road when another pedestrian, a man, approached him from the opposite direction. There was nothing extraordinary about the approaching man, nothing to mark him out as aught but another citizen of New Galifar, going about his business at the start of another day. He moved one step into the street, to let Prentice pass him on the right. The two men passed beside each other, Prentice with his eyes on the muddy road ahead, the stranger apparently looking down towards the Whitecliff river. The other man lashed out with a swift and deadly knife stroke, aimed straight at Prentice’s kidney’s. For all of its accuracy, the assassin’s thrust found only air. With a small side-step, Prentice blocked the man’s arm at the wrist, then twisting, adroitly locked the attacking limb back against itself, forcing the knife to point at its owner’s throat. The man recoiled from the point, but as he did so, Prentice took advantage of his shifting balance and with a neat tripping kick, drove the man down onto his knees, all the while retaining control of the knife hand. The would be assassin found himself kneeling in the mud, his own knife locked at his throat, while the other members of his team, the fake lamplighter and the false lovers, rushed belatedly to his aid.

“You were very good,” Prentice hissed in the assassin’s ear as he held him in a controlled grip. “But you should have gotten better partners. They gave you away!”

The three ambushers stood back a few paces, their eyes ranging back and forth between their leader and the prey, wondering what to do next. The ‘sailor’ and the ‘lamplighter’ both had long bladed poniards in hand and the trollop hefted an iron headed mace. They were armed for an ambush, not an open conflict and though Prentice had yet to draw his sword, he was clearly a dangerous foe in a street-fight.

“Today’s hunt has gone awry,” Prentice declared, addressing the three uncertain ambushers. “Call it a lesson in the craft and go your way. Live to see another day!”

“To the fiends wif that!” declared the chief assassin, still on his knees. “Rush ‘im you gutless dogs! You can take ‘im; think o’ the money!” The man’s words were strangled off by an agonized gasp as Prentice tightened his grip and broke one of the knuckles on the assassin’s knife hand. The man hissed angry gasps for breath, but said no more. The others watched, obviously nervous, but still faintly hopeful of success. At that very moment a House Lyrander airship sailed low overhead. It was barely the height of a tall mast from the ground, one moment invisible and unheard behind the close-crowded houses, the next roaring into view, its shadow covering much of the street in a sudden morning twilight. The soarwood hull was easily forty yards long and the crackling elemental ring rumbled like distant thunder. It flew over the city like a graceful bird in flight, before disappearing from view again, turning in a wide arc towards the grounds of the palace. Lyrander sky vessels were rare in New Galifar and the sudden appearance of one in the middle of the tense standoff broke the nerve of the uncertain three. They bolted down the street, towards the docks, their abandoned boss spitting quiet curses after them. Prentice’s icy blue eyes watched them flee, then looked down at his last problem.

“Now, what about you?” he asked his prisoner.

“What about me?” replied the assassin.

“Why did you attack me?”

“Why not?”

Prentice spun the man about suddenly and planted a hefty kick into the man’s chest that flung him backwards into the mud. Before he could rise, Prentice leapt forward, landing on top of the man, with one knee pressed into his throat. The assassin clawed futilely at the mud as he struggled to get breath into his lungs.

“Why…did…you…attack…me?” repeated Prentice, leaving long pauses between his words, prolonging the man’s suffocation. Then he eased the pressure on the assassin’s throat enough for the man to answer.

“For the money, why d’ya think?” he gasped.

“What money?”

“The bounty,” the assassin said, the pain in his throat making his voice hoarse. “Tha…Tharashk…Khalar d’Tharashk and…and the Finders is offerin’ three…three thousand for your head! Didn’t you know?” Prentice didn’t know, though he wasn’t too surprised to hear. Prentice had recently been instrumental in putting a stop to a smuggling ring suspected to have ties to the House of Finding. He shook his head wearily.

“So this is just business, right?” he asked the man underneath him. The assassin tried to nod, but Prentice’s knee kept him from moving his head freely. “Fine, well is it business you’re willing to die for? What do you say, do you want to live?” The man was clearly puzzled by Prentice’s question.

“Why would you show me mercy?” he asked.

“Mercy is like water in the desert,” Prentice explained. “Everyone needs it!” The assassin sneered.

“You let me up, an’ I’m goin’ for you, make no mistake!” he said. Prentice was astonished at the man’s willingness to invite his own death. The assassin managed to shrug his shoulders awkwardly in the mud.

“Three thousand is three thousand!” he declared sullenly.

Prentice sighed and leaned his knee down against the prone man’s windpipe. The assassin struggled for many moments, desperation lending him the strength to raise an arm to claw at Prentice’s face, but Prentice merely batted it away. Soon the constricted airflow took its toll, and the man passed out. Once he was completely still, Prentice removed his knee and then leant down to check the man’s breathing. Though his breaths were ragged, the unconscious man still lived. Prentice laid the palm of his hand on the man’s throat and, whispering prayers he learned so long ago it seemed like another age, he healed much of his attacker’s wound. Still unconscious in the mud, the man nonetheless breathed easier and Prentice was confident that he would survive.

“Some people are too stupid to live,” Prentice whispered, shaking his head and standing up. “But I won’t have your blood on my hands!”

He turned away and walked the last few yards up the street to the door of Mrs Mennox’s. Leaning on the heavy, bronzewood portal, he stepped in to the stone landing at the top of the short flight of stairs down into the basement shop. Inside, out of the morning sun, Prentice was embraced by the enticing coolness of chilled air that was circulated by two silver fans that waved back and forth from the ceiling beams. Each was shaped like the vast wing of an eagle and they folded and swept back and forth with the graceful motion of a bird in gentle flight. Prentice drew in the cool air and shed the oppressiveness of the outside heat like a man shedding a cloak. Then he bent down to try and brush the mud from his boots.

“Don’t be leavin’ that muck on my doorstep!” cried a hearty, female voice from across the shop. Still bent over, Prentice stopped brushing and looked over the tables, trying to find the owner of the voice. The coffee house was empty save for a single patron, a young man in a cotton tunic, sitting at the main counter and eating a pie, his back to the door. There were dirty plates and cups on several of the wooden tables. The breakfast customers were almost all workers, who ate before dawn and then left for work. The coffee house’s day customers would arrive soon. At last Prentice located the voice’s owner as she emerged from behind a white-washed hardwood pillar. Mrs Mennox, a stout, aging dwarf with long auburn hair in a dozen beaded plaits. Wisps of grey shot through her locks and there were crow’s feet around her eyes. Her limbs were strong though and she carried herself with impressive energy. Mennox was an institution in Newthrone, having served coffee and pies in her shop since she arrived in the city nearly twenty years previously. None knew her first name; she was Mrs Mennox to all, and always had been. No one had ever met Mr Mennox. She wore a black apron over a tan-coloured blouse and canvas skirts and she bundled between the tables to the foot of the stairs. There she planted both feet and glared up at Prentice with nut-brown eyes.

“What do you mean by this, comin’ in ‘ere all filthy with mud?” she demanded. “Don’t brush another bit onto my floors!” Prentice straightened up and held up his hands apologetically.

“It’s done now,” he said. “Perhaps one of your staff could clean it up?” He nodded in the direction of the kitchens, where one of the coffee house’s two gnome serving maids emerged with a wooden tray almost as long as she was tall. The maid put the tray on the edge of one table and cleared the dirty dishes onto it in a series of swift, unerring motions. Then the tiny girl leant forward under the tray and slipped it onto her head. Balancing the load of crockery with one hand, the girl seemed to almost dance back to the kitchen, the dirty dishes not even so much as clinking.

“I don’t pay them good money to mop up after the likes of you!” declared Mrs Mennox.

“I can go, if you’d prefer,” offered Prentice, half turning to the door.

“You will not!” Mrs Mennox ordered. “Now that you’re ‘ere you’ll pay your way! Now get down these stairs and order something. Mind you leave the mud up there!” With that she turned on her heel and headed back behind the counter, where a series of brass pots were bubbling with percolating coffee over a small hearth. She snatched a cloth from where it was tucked behind her apron and began to mop the counter top. When the serving girl came back from the kitchen, Mrs Mennox pushed a small stack of dirty cups at her.

“So what’ll you have?” Mrs Mennox asked as Prentice made his way to one of the cleaned tables.

“A cup of your finest brew and a pie,” Prentice ordered. He pulled his sheathed sword from his sash and leant it up against the table as he sat down.

“Preferably one without any dog meat in it,” he added with a sardonic smile.

“Dog meat?” snorted Mrs Mennox in disgust. “As if I’d waste good dog meat on the likes of you!”

“No cat, either!”

“Cat?” Mrs Mennox seemed almost incredulous. “We haven’t had cat for weeks!”

“Rat then,” finished Prentice, smiling. “But make sure you cut the tails off first!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mrs Mennox said, turning to the coffee cups to hide an involuntary smile. “Tail’s the best part of a rat!”

The young man eating his pie on a stool at the counter listened quietly to the interchange between Prentice and Mrs Mennox and he now stared uncertainly at the half-eaten pie in front of him. He hesitantly pulled back a remaining piece of crust as if he half expected to find a pair of beady rat’s eyes or a tail, waiting there in his meal. Swallowing heavily, he began to push the unfinished meal away. Mrs Mennox saw him do it however and gave him a withering stare that froze him in place.

“Oh it’s bally pork, you daft beggar!” she said contemptuously. The man took back his pie quickly, fearful of offending her, but he couldn’t bring himself to finish it. Mrs Mennox took a small pewter cup to Prentice’s table, a dark splash of black coffee steaming in the bottom.

“You’re goin’ ta ruin my custom with your foolish talk,” she said as she put the cup down in front of him. Prentice smiled at her and she returned his smile warmly. “That’s from the Whitecliff plantation beans, harvested last year. Was a good crop that!”

Prentice raised the cup to his lips and sipped at the near boiling liquid. The finely brewed flavour spread over his tongue like a pleasant wave and he almost sighed.

“Thank you,” he said, nodding to his hostess. The dwarven woman leaned in momentarily.

“There’s word about that someone’s put a price on you,” she whispered. “Caution be the order of the day.”

“House Tharashk,” Prentice said knowingly. “Someone just mentioned it to me.” Mrs Mennox threw her hands in the air in mock frustration.

“Why do I bother?” she said to herself as she went into the kitchens. “Why do I even bother?”

After she was gone, the young man at the counter stood up quickly. He fished into his pouch at his belt, fiddling nervously with the coins to pay for his meal. Looking up momentarily, his eyes met Prentice’s and then looked back in uncertainty at the half-eaten pie on the counter. His face went grey and he looked about to say something when Mrs Mennox walked back into the serving room carrying a pie. She glared at him and he nearly jumped. He pulled a coin out of his pouch and slammed it on the counter top without looking at, pulling his hand back as though the coin were burning hot to the touch. Then he rushed out of the coffee house, his features a pallid mixture of fear and illness. Prentice wondered if he were going throw up. Mrs Mennox laid a fresh pie on the table in front of Prentice along with a folded copy of the Korranberg Chronicle. Prentice unfolded the broadsheet and read the date on the front page.

“Dravago?” he read out loud. “A month ago?”

“That’s my most recent,” said Mrs Mennox with an apologetic shrug. Though the Chronicle was the most widely published broadsheet on the continent, Q’barra and New Galifar were not important enough to be on its regular distribution route. Most people in Newthrone sufficed themselves with local news, from a paper that grandly titled itself The News of New Galifar, but Mrs Mennox always did her best to get copies of the international broadsheets when she could. Several sailors on different merchant vessels knew they could always be assured a hearty meal at Mrs Mennox’s, as long as they paid with recent copies of the Breland Ledger, the Sharn Inquisitive or the Chronicle. Mrs Mennox collected the young man’s coin from the counter and held it up for Prentice to see.

“Gold!” she said with a roll of her eyes. It was more than enough for ten pies. She put the coin into the pocket of her apron. If the boy got the courage up to come back, she’d return it to him.

Prentice laid out the broadsheet on the table top and alternately sipped at his coffee and ate bites of his pie while he read month-old news from across the continent. The stories were either sensationalist speculations about the wealthy and powerful, or tales of monsters slain and ancient treasures recovered. Prentice wondered idly which sort of story contained the greater portion of fictions and lies. His pie was two thirds eaten and he was carefully following a convoluted story about influence peddling within the Thranian Church, when the door of Mrs Mennox’s shop swung wide and three individuals stepped in. From his seat against the far wall, Prentice could see both the main entry and the kitchen door clearly and he watched the three newcomers casually, while dabbing crumbs of piecrust with a finger.

The new arrivals were an odd mix of individuals. There was a dark-haired human man, a blonde-headed half-elf and a hobgoblin who stood behind the other two and close to a foot taller than both. The hobgoblin wore an ornate leather jerkin, dyed red and embossed with a complex pattern that was picked out with gold thread. Crossed on his back were a bastard sword and an eight-string orchanet lute; the top of each poked over one shoulder and the other. Prentice marked him as a Dhakaani battle bard, as he surveyed the empty coffee shop with the arrogant confidence typical of hobgoblins who, of all the goblinoids, recalled vividly the glories of their lost empire.

The half-elf was harder to place. Her long blonde hair was tied back in a single thick plait that was woven through with alternating blue and red ribbons and hung almost to her waist. She had high cheekbones and bright eyes. Her tall, athletic form was clad in a breastplate and greaves of finely wrought mithral and a skirt, sandals and gloves of equally fine leatherwork. The sandals were an unfortunate choice, unsuited as they were to the wet season mud. At her belt she wore a short sword and on her back a small, round shield patterned with red and blue leather. She carried a full helm with a dyed horsehair crest tucked, military fashion, in the crook of her right arm. Prentice wondered if she were an officer in the military of a foreign country, perhaps Thrane or Karnaath. Like the hobgoblin, she had a disdainful air, though her face was flushed with the heat and sweat stains showed under the arms of her silk under-tunic.

The third man was all too familiar to Prentice, as he was to most citizens of Newthrone. He was Baron Okthir d’Karnathe, Castellan of the Royal Palace and Commander of the City Guard. The Baron wore the long, grey tabard of his office, embroidered with the emerald green serpent and black ship of the New Galifar royal coat of arms. His hair was oiled and neatly woven in the traditional twin plaits of the nobility. His chisel cut beard was waxed and fashionably curved. In spite of the heat outside, he was cool and self-possessed; rumor had it that his suit of splinted mail had been arcanely wrought to keep its wearer comfortable and dry regardless of the weather. The Baron’s cold eyes searched out Prentice’s table and his lips turned up in a cruel smile that was nearly a sneer. Pulling his gloves from his hands, Okthir led the other two down into the coffee shop and towards Prentice.

“What’ll you have?” Mennox called as she came back in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

“We have business with the Master Inquisitive,” said the Baron with a dismissive wave of his hand. His voice lilted softly in the fashion of the Royal Court. “You need not wait upon us.”

Mrs Mennox humphed quietly to herself at the suggestion that she would wait upon anyone, courtier or no, but said nothing further. She withdrew to behind the counter and watched while the trio clustered around Prentice’s table. For his part, Prentice continued to sit, sipping at his coffee and declining to rise at the Baron’s approach.

“What news, Prentice Ash?” Okthir asked. He affected a disinterested air, but his eyes revealed an unmistakable contempt. “I myself have heard word that a price is now being offered for your apprehension and delivery to a gentleman of the House of Finding.”

“Not often that you refer to House Tharashk as ‘gentlemen’,” Prentice observed, trying to sound casual. His left hand edged towards his sword however, his fingers gently curving around the scabbard.

“It’s quite an amount, apparently,” the Baron continued, ignoring Prentice’s verbal riposte. He leant in towards the seated man, his expression hardening to a contemptuous glare. “Enough even to tempt a relatively wealthy man, such as myself.”

Prentice met the Watch Captain’s hateful gaze calmly. He looked momentarily to Baron Okthir’s two companions, wondering if the two foreigners were hirelings brought in to take him hostage. It didn’t seem likely, as they stood by, unready for a fight. They even seemed a little perplexed by the Baron’s behavior. Prentice’s eyes returned to the Baron’s face and the two men stared, each silently pushing the other to flinch. The moment stretched in near silence. The sound of the arcane silver wings sweeping back and forth seemed like the pulsing of a slow heartbeat, as if time had slowed down to drag out the unnerving confrontation. From her position behind the counter, Mrs Mennox’s nerves began to get the better of her.

“Everything all right, luvs?” she asked gently, hoping to defuse the imminent conflict. Prentice raised his hand to her, but didn’t look away from Okthir’s eyes.

“That’s alright, Mrs Mennox,” Prentice said with an iron voice. “Baron Okthir was just telling me about a bad financial decision he was thinking of making; an investment with no hope of a future return.” The standoff continued for one drawn out moment longer, then Okthir smiled and stood straight once more.

“Perhaps some other time,” he said with a sniff of the cool, coffee house air.

“Was this the business you came to discuss?” Prentice asked without relinquishing his grip on his sword. The hobgoblin grunted quietly, in what might have been a vague approximation of a polite cough. Okthir’s features twisted momentarily in an angry sneer that the two standing behind him couldn’t see, then his polite courtier’s face returned.

“I am here with a royal commission, Prentice Ash,” he said as he reached into his belt and drew forth a document case emblazoned with the insignia of New Galifar. When the Baron opened the case, the papers inside looked as if their ink had not yet dried. Prentice cocked his head quizzically at the documents, clearly puzzled.

“A royal commission? To what task?” he asked.

“Well, when the Lord Chamberlain told me that he needed a man familiar with the ways of the primitive lizard-folk and accustomed to dealing with the refugee scum from Cyre, naturally your name leapt to mind.”

Prentice rolled his eyes, pointedly refusing to rise to the Baron’s paltry insult.

“What is expected of me?” he asked wearily. Royal commissions typically paid poorly and often came with the threat of imprisonment if they were refused. It was in part because of a previous commission from the Court that Prentice was in his current predicament with House Tharashk.

“This young woman is the Lady Xarianthe Collisbar, of Aundair,” said Okthir, introducing the woman in a courtly fashion. She clicked her heels and bowed her head in formal acknowledgement of the introduction. “She and her companions are recently arrived in search of a childhood friend of Lady Xarianthe’s. A scholar named…” The Baron paused and waited for Xarianthe to provide the scholar’s name. It took the half-elven noblewoman a moment to realize why the Baron had lapsed into silence.

“Professor Trothkaer Blaksung, of the Korranberg Library,” she eventually stammered. The moment’s lapse seemed to embarrass her deeply, making Prentice think that she was probably accustomed to the ruthless courtly politics of Aundair. The rougher manners of New Galifar politics might well be a shock to her.

“Yes,” continued Okthir, unaware or unconcerned by the lady’s discomfort. “A gnome, from Zilargo. She was working on an archaeological site near that excremental cluster of hovels called Wyrmwatch, uncovering an ancient temple, apparently. The lady Xarianthe has lost all contact with her friend apparently and she has come to see that no harm has come to her. The Court would appreciate your assistance as a guide to the lady’s party, for the journey to Wyrmwatch and then on to the Professor’s digs.”

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