Just before they entered the plaza, Caer noticed a figure leaning in the doorway of a tavern that had yet to open for business. The man wore a cloak of subtly embroidered, dark, felt cloth which trailed to the heels of his boots. His bright, golden hair was uncovered and exploded in uncontrollable curls over his collar and shoulders. His eyes gleamed with a brilliant intelligence and, as their party approached, there was a delighted smile warming the contours of his square face.
Caer had never met Durban Chola before but knew in an instant from every description he had ever heard that this was he. So Caer looked away quickly and fixed his gaze between the ears of his pony, hoping against hope that they were not the reason for Chola’s early morning outing.
But the cloaked figure detached itself almost lazily from the doorway and moved to stand in their path. Behind, Caer heard the slight rasp as one of the soldiers drew a sword. His own Zoukai reined in, hands on their pistols. Durban Chola made a sweeping bow in the middle of the road.
“Good morning, Most Honoured One. The city of Alfor is graced with the presence of Qabal Vyazin this Fairtide.” He managed to make the compliment sound sincere and as he rose from the inappropriate act of respect, his gaze was clear and guileless. “The Castellan of Lynaz must be distraught I am sure at your absence from his city. Unless, of course, the Black Vavasor remains there to keep him company in your absence and assure him of your continuing invested interest?”
If Qabal was angered by this insolence he gave no sign of it. His narrow face remained expressionless. “Step aside, Chola,” he returned quietly, “or I will have you removed.”
Chola’s eyes, the colour of freshly gathered honey, suddenly danced with mischief and swept across the two soldiers, pausing there as if appreciating an excellent joke, before their gaze briefly embraced Caer. “But of course, Most Honoured One. How inconsiderate of me to delay you. You must be eager to see the cargo Alexa the Fair has rescued from the Wastelands.”
Caer felt the nobleman stiffen in his saddle.
“And what is your interest in that? Tell me,” the Warlord demanded, his voice low, but crisp as with frost.
The amber eyes glittered, holding something that could have been mockery and belying Chola’s disarming smile.
“I have no interest, Most Honoured One. The cargo is way too rich for me, although I would think it well suited for your needs and your purse. But be sure to view it all and don’t forget to ask to see the kashlihk fighting-slave. I have heard he is better in hand-to-hand combat than the Vavasor Jariq himself,” the blond man said, his gaze moving to rest on a point somewhere behind Caer with an expression of sublime innocence. “I am sure the Vavasor would be deeply disappointed to miss out on a chance to put that to the trial.”
Caer felt a chill of apprehension. He did not understand what Chola was trying to do, but instinctively felt it was dangerous in some way. He could not think of any reason why either Qabal or Chola should be interested in the Kashlihk and it worried him that they were. The blond man made another overdone flourishing bow and stepped aside leaving the road clear.
“I do hope the Castellan of Lynaz does not pine away in your absence, Most Honoured One, but Lynaz’s loss is undoubtedly Alfor’s gain. And please give my sincerest regards to the Black Vavasor – when you return to Lynaz of course.” The honeyed eyes were lit with secret mirth as he turned and sauntered away to vanish around the street corner.
Qabal watched him go with hooded eyes and an expression that made Caer feel very glad that he was not a friend to Durban Chola.
Artwork by Ian Bristow