Ieuan Cardew arrived at 57 Argent Lane – the address that Wesley had given him in the cloth district – and was pleasantly surprised to find what appeared to be a converted inn attached to a modest warehouse. As fronts went, it was very convincing. It became even more convincing when he went inside and discovered that it was a real business. A clerk at the elegant front desk, rose and extended his hand to Ieuan. "Master Cardew, I assume?"
"The same." Ieuan favored him with a roguish smile and clasped his hand. "Can I assume that my office is ready? And my samples in order?"
"Oh, absolutely, Master Cardew. And Master Douglas will be along as soon as I inform him of your arrival. He's most eager to finally meet you."
"I'm certain he is."
"Come this way and I will show you to your office."
"And your name?"
"Quaymark, sir. Anything you need – anything at all – I will be more than happy to acquire or arrange for you."
The clerk led Ieuan down a long corridor to the far rear of the building. Ieuan grew edgy at seeing they had put him in the office farthest from the rest of their people. It would either reduce his importance in the eyes of his customers or make them suspicious of him. His pride itched. Ieuan's more legitimate family members had frequently treated him as an object of shame, despite everything his father had done to persuade them to accept Ieuan. It only became worse when his half-brother became Lord Cardew on the death of their father.
Ieuan's training could not completely suppress his irritation. "Is there a reason for putting me back here?" Like some unwelcome mongrel…
"Oh, yes, sir." Quaymark nodded, smiling as if he found the idea quite brilliant. "We were told that you would want access to the private stairway and the garden entrance. We don't wish for our competitors to gain access to goods as expensive and rare as what you deal in before you have had ample opportunity to secure our various trading deals."
Ieuan gave him a long, considering glance as they stopped at the last door and Quaymark opened it for him. He stepped inside and a wide grin lit his face. The large office had deep, expensive carpeting in shades of lush green. Chairs and a matched pair of brocade sofas framed a low table. A huge hard rock maple desk dominated the rear with ornate, overstuffed chairs before it. A liquor cabinet and a wine rack took up the corner left of the desk with a private bar in front of it. Shelves lined two walls, filled with various products in green glass jars, bottles, and small piles of burlap bags, all meticulously labeled. In a corner behind the desk waited dozens of crates with Ieuan's name stenciled on them.
He strolled over to the bar and nosed in the cabinet before checking out the bottles. It was all well-stocked with the finest that could be had. Ieuan took a bottle of Faewinian Blue Rose from the wine rack, fished a corkscrew out of the cabinet drawer, and a delicate wine glass from a shelf.
"Make yourself comfortable, Master Cardew, while I fetch Master Douglas."
"I intend to." Ieuan opened the bottle, inhaled the exquisite bouquet and then filled his glass.
As soon as he was alone, Ieuan went to the crates. He took a long swallow of wine, set the glass on his desk, and used his belt knife to pry the lid off a crate. Nestled in cotton were bottles of Fire Blossom Absinthe, a highly addictive liquor from the east coast, hideously expensive to import. There were two kinds in the crate, some with a red label and others with a green one. It was absinthe blended with fermented Pollendine and just enough spices and fruit extracts to flavor it in an interesting fashion. The connoisseurs of the Larquentali City State knew not to drink much of it at a time, and they always sipped it very slowly. They respected its dangers while savoring its taste and effects.
Green Label Fire Blossom was strong stuff, but relatively milquetoast compared to Red Label. He would introduce his targets to the lighter stuff first. Once he was ready to close the deals, he would bring out the Red Label.
"Close the deal. Rolls off the tongue nicely, don't you think, Master Cardew," he said to himself, dragged his finger across his throat and chuckled. "Of course, Lord Cardew will sound even better when opportunity presents."
Wesley's network could actually move supplies and fill orders from a variety of places. It was the kind of set up that only a vampire could achieve because of their longevity – immortality until someone puts a stake through their hearts or tears their heads off.
He moved to the desk, settled into the well-padded leather chair, and began opening all the drawers to investigate the contents. The largest drawer on the bottom right had four sturdy leather satchels and a matching knapsack in it, all very expensive and well-tooled. He pulled out two of them and tossed them atop the desk. Then Ieuan perused the shelves with his wine in hand, picking out his samples with care and carrying them to the desk, which he soon had filled with what he believed would sell best, including several sampler-sized bottles of Fire Blossom. Then he sat down and packed his satchels.
"This is going to be a very productive day." Ieuan patted the satchels, looped their broad straps over his head and settled them at his sides. He stood, drained the last of his wine and worked the cork back into the bottle.
Ieuan turned at the new voice and faced a rotund mon of business in a blue linen tunic over trousers, his neck, wrists and fingers awash in expensive jewelry. "Master Douglas! What a delight to meet you at last. My employers in Gormondi have had nothing but praise for your efforts here."
Douglas beamed. "I work hard at it. Very hard. Whatever the company requires. You'll tell them that at the main office, won't you?"
"Of course, I will."
"Let me show you around and introduce you to people. You'll want to know where to go for things. Who to talk to. You've no idea how excited everyone was to hear that you were coming."
"Really?" Ieuan schooled a pleasantness into his voice, forcing a smile to match Douglas' own. A trace of misgiving danced along the edges of Ieuan's mood. If the story had become too complex, it would be very easy for him to slip up somewhere. He intended to ask Wesley for more details.
Douglas bustled down the hallway with Ieuan in tow. "Oh yes, indeed. We're all very excited about the new markets that this venture will open up for us. Since the destruction of Charas three years ago, there has been only two places on the west coast for the mages to gather: Ildyrsetts, which has become far too stodgy for the young folk, and our own Azure Circle Mage School. As a result, we're awash with young mages of every stripe. It's a growing market, ripe for exploitation. It's veritably screaming for goods and services."
"And that's why the main office sent me."
Although Douglas moved with great alacrity, by the time they reached the end of the hallway, he was breathing hard and his face had gone red.
"You don't look well."
Douglas stopped in his tracks and drew himself as erect as possible, which only made his girth that much more noticeable. "I'm quite healthy, really. It's just that I don't walk much. I spend so much time at my desk…"
"Where you do wonderful work." Ieuan patted his shoulder. "Before we get this tour underway, let me make a suggestion?"
"Oh, but of course. Suggest away, Master Cardew."
"You're much too important for a mere tour. How about I take you and the missus to dinner tomorrow night after I've had time to get settled into my apartment and visit all of my contacts in Rowan City?"
Ieuan wagged a finger at him in gentle approbation. "You've much more important matters to care for than exhausting yourself over a mere tour. One of your aides should be perfectly capable of providing that. No, I think that dinner is in order. Is there a place you fancy?"
"Hinkty Molly's. It has a singer there with a voice from heaven. And the food is without peer. All the youngsters from the school and the faculty go there to dine. Even the king has been seen to sup there."
"That sounds perfect. So are we agreed to dinner at Hinkty Molly's at say, oh, eighteen bells?"
"It will be a pleasure."
"Of course it will." Ieuan administered another friendly pat to Douglas' shoulder. "Now, I mustn't dally. I've people to see and places to visit. Tomorrow night we can discuss the company's new venture to our hearts' content."
Ieuan gave him a nod and strode off through the building. Once outside, he headed for Dock Street. He knew where he was going without having to ask directions. Ieuan had spent hours pouring over maps of Rowan City while waiting for Corradeo and Eginhardt to arrive.
As Ieuan walked, he took in the decorations going up to welcome Prince Richard Gryphonheart. King William Gryphonheart, desperate for an alliance and military aid against the Minnorian Empress, had promised his nine-year-old son to King Aejystrys as husband to her five-year-old daughter, Elynnis. In return, Aejystrys had marshaled her forces – the largest standing army in the region – and marched to his aid. The child was to be handed over upon Aejystrys' arrival in Merkreth's Crossing, and then Jumped to Rowan City by a translocationist mage in the Sacred King's employ.
It would be rather amusing if the boy died. It would serve King William right for being such a pain in the ass. William and his inner circle had snubbed Ieuan after his father died. Suddenly bereft of his father's patronage, Ieuan, the bastard son of a Gormondi noble, had found himself unwelcome at court and at home. His legitimate and now ruling half-brother had made it clear that he had no use for him.
Ieuan resisted the impulse to try and worm his way into the palace. Much as he would like to see the little prince dead, the palace was not part of his job: that assignment belonged to Vakadis. The school and the lifemages were Ieuan's targets. Corradeo had a simple strategy: get in and get out and never let the enemy know they had been there. Someone else either did most of the work for them or caught the blame without having done anything at all. The back of his throat itched, alerting Ieuan to the one appetite that he was still getting accustomed to: a craving for fresh blood, preferably straight from pulsing veins.
His initial destination was the Azure Circle Mage School, anticipating that meeting Headmaster Miccan Heyers would require an appointment. The school lay in the northwest, upon a series of terraced shelves carved into initial rises at the foot of the South Talon. Rowan City had plenty of room to grow compared to the crowded cities and towns of Ieuan's homeland. The houses, many of them built of logs, were fine dwellings with expansive yards. The closer that Ieuan came to the school, the more often he saw wide, cobble stone drives and carriage houses to the side of the main houses.
This was not the place to sate his arcane appetites, although the well-dressed females made his throat itch. New to the changes in his body since becoming sa'necari, it seemed that Ieuan was constantly hungry for another taste of blood. Corradeo had assured him that it would ease in time. The arcane components of blood could not be found in simple meat and drink – which Ieuan also consumed – and his cravings frequently drove him to distraction. Wesley had informed him that there were poor districts, inhabited mostly by refugees from the Minnorian War, where he could sate himself. He intended to tour them once he had made his initial contacts.
An ornate wrought iron gate stood open at the entrance to the school and people were flowing through it in large numbers. The air crackled with energy to his necromantic senses. Ieuan could taste anger, outrage, and a heady mix of fear in their auras as they crowded past him.
It tickled his senses. He paused to inhale it, savoring the flavors and the way it spread pleasure through him. His loins tightened, his throat itched more intensely, and his fangs were threatening to descend. Ieuan took a pocket flask from his shirt and swigged blood wine from it. The blood eased him and he recovered his self-control. It reminded him that he had not had his fangs in a vein since dawn.
Returned the spelled flask to his pocket, Ieuan noticed the way that the guards at the gates were watching him. He sauntered over.
"Pardon me, I'm Ieuan Cardew. I was told to speak with Elizar Meggs about getting an appointment with Master Miccan Heyers. If you could direct me, I would appreciate it."
They pointed him at the far side of the school commons where a stately stone building dominated the lower terrace. Beyond that Ieuan caught a glimpse of the student dormitories. He had not required the directions he asked for, but was loath to betray the slightest knowledge of the grounds. Again, Wesley's maps and diagrams were firmly at the front of his mind – until he passed the first cluster of trees and emerged into the open grounds. In the very middle of it wood had been piled up for an enormous bonfire. In the center of that stood a gigantic wickerman shaped by craft and magic into the likeness of a mon whom Ieuan recognized from sketches Wesley had provided him with: Headmaster Miccan Heyers. The students were going to burn him in effigy. Myn circled the effigy with their hands linked, and it took only a sweep of his eye to determine they were all women. Male students dotted the grounds in little clusters, watching the women with expressions ranging from nervous to supportive.
A student lit the pyre with a gesture.
Then the chants began. At first, it was just the women, and then some of the male students joined in.
MICCAN IS A DICKSTAIN.
NO MORE BUGGERING BASTARDS.
An incredulous grin quirked the left side of Ieuan's mouth. He shook his head, laughing. Apparently the headmaster had student troubles. Opportunity glimmered before him. He watched a little longer, and then made his way through the clamoring throng.