Prologue: The Merchant

The true prologue to the Crossroads story I begin writing a long time ago and then took offline. The plot and characters of that novella are much more fleshed out now, though it remains to be seen how much of it will end up on here.

Thago is burning.  The river is burning.  The Floating God is burning.  It began with unrest, an uprising among the slaves of the lower barges, made perilous by an attack by the servants of the Two-Eared Crown.  Coincidence, surely.  So the magisters and princes must have thought.  Coincidence, perhaps, they would take to their grave.  But the Merchant knows this was not coincidence.  It was fire, built and kindled and sparked by singed, practiced hands, spread by design and the carelessness of those who saw coincidence in such things.  And now Thago is burning.

With this certainty, the Merchant finds himself in the plaza before the palace which was once a temple.  The northern and eastern launches have been blockaded; the bridge to the trade barges is ablaze, and the flames now lick the palace’s western walls.  The southern dock below swarms with the enemy, and above, the Riversworn guard their trapped princes, awaiting reinforcement that will not arrive in time, hopefully and foolishly unaware that their only path out is through the force massing beneath them.  The Merchant draws his sword and locks his shield to his arm.  His task is impossible but clear: He must somehow give them enough time.

Five race up the steps now.  They are scouts meant to reconnoiter, but they charge anyway, seeing only the Merchant in their path.  Their spears stall upon his shield, and he dispatches them quickly.  One tumbles down the steps, two die to his blade, two are pushed from the plaza to the churned water fifty feet below.  One will drown, the Merchant knows.  The other will be rescued by his countrymen.  But there is little time to dwell on either fate, for a much larger host of soldiers has begun its determined ascent.

Many fall before him–seven more are hurled into the water, fifteen bleed out there on the plaza, nine thrown down the steps collide with eleven climbing, and two more collapse, skulls fractured by the spur of the Merchant’s shield–but the number on the plaza with him continues to grow.  He is driven back to the palace entryway, certainty resolving that his vain gift is reaching its limits.  Then the soldiers fall back.  They open a wide circle as a silhouette crests the stairway behind them.

The Merchant recognizes this one, recognizes the tattered regalia, the scar over his broken nose, the long knife set ablaze by magical gifts twirling in his hand.  This is Brother’s general, the one called Ignigoet, Pyrotechnic of the Left Hand.  It is betrayal then.  The Merchant suppresses a roar and hurls himself at the smirking man.

Their engagement is swift and brutal.  Ignigoet parries the first thrust, catching the Merchant’s shield with his offhand.  They separate.  Ignigoet throws a barrage of knives into the Merchant’s shield.  Then the flames upon them detonate, and the Merchant is scorched and sprawling, and time has run out.

He dimly notices the knife cut his throat as he stares up at the plumes of smoke in the night sky.  The general kneels over him, but the smirk is gone.  His face is impassive, and the burning eyes therein do not belong to Selenus Ignigoet.  The Merchant realizes too late that this is no betrayal at all.

And then he is gone.

Top Image: From Stories, by Rae Johnson

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