The Balance of the Rose
Copyright© 2014 by R22CoolGuy
Mann spent a pleasant evening with the Archduke and Archduchess in their private quarters. They were curious about the sword that he wore, since they had never seen a sword burst into flames before. Oh, sure, they had read about the phenomenon in biblical texts, as well as in other stories from bygone eras, but never really thought they were true. Mann danced around the subject, stating it was a parlor trick to intimidate his opponents, and Alexander remarked that he could see that it certainly would work. Maria tried to press him for more information but Mann tried to steer the conversation away from Caledor's uniqueness and on to other things.
Maria was also curious as to his plans and without giving too much away he explained that he was traveling north through the Alps, and had intended on hiring on with a caravan as an extra guard. Alexander commented that they would soon be traveling north, back to Austria and that Mann was more than welcome to accompany them. After weighing his options, he thanked them for their offer and accepted. The cousins had already planned to start their journey homeward in three days. Mann decided he would use that time to secure better armor and replenish his dwindling supplies. He bade them goodnight and turned in.
Ciril and Damijan returned to Castle Wallachia late in the evening and chose not to disturb their master until morning. Instead they, with the aid of the rest of their brethren, continued to search for their missing brothers using all of the resources available to them. They looked for fluctuations in the normal flow of power; they looked for areas of concentrated usage of that same power. They even made use of scrying stones specifically attuned to the sorcerers. All to no avail, like Baldomr before them, Gregor and Henrik were gone, utterly and completely gone! Three sorcerers missing in a matter of days. In all of the history of the Moravian Sorcerers nothing like that had ever happened before!
Ambassador Reznik was beyond angry; a perfectly thought out plot spoiled by an innocent bystander. A strange traveler just happened to be passing by, who could have accounted for such a thing? Perhaps not so innocent; he spoke of Moravian Sorcerers in a tone that suggested personal knowledge. He would have to report this unexpected change in plans to his master, but he needed more information before he reported his failure. Reznik needed to know more about this unlikely savior and he knew just where to go to find the resources he needed.
Mann was up bright and early the next day after a restful night's sleep. After sleeping on a cot, on a straw mattress in the inn, and finally on the ground, the feather bed was like sleeping on a cloud. His bed chamber was large enough that it afforded him the room to stretch, exercise, and practice his sword forms. After a good morning workout he washed up using the basin and pitcher and went in search of breakfast.
The rest of the household was not up but the cook made him some hot oatmeal with fresh fruit and a steaming cup of tea. Mann sat at a small table and consumed his meal while the kitchen staff prepared breakfast for the household. Several moments had gone by as Mann finished his breakfast when the governor stuck his head into the kitchen.
"Ah, Signore Mann, there you are," Marcello announced. "If you are finished I was wondering if I might not have a word with you. It concerns my actions last evening."
Mann nodded and after thanking the kitchen staff followed Marcello to his study. Again he offered Mann a seat and sat as well.
"First, I wish to apologize for my actions last evening," Marcello began. "I acted rashly and in haste and I should not have. From what I have been able to discern you are an honorable man who acted in an honorable fashion."
"Your apology is not necessary, but I thank you for it."
"Last night, two things happened which have caused me a great deal of unrest. First, your sword; truly fantastic, but how is it even possible? I saw the carvings on the blade glowing, and there was a flame flickering up and down the blade as well."
"A parlor trick to incite fear in my opponents, nothing more," Mann replied with a shrug. "Second?"
"Second, you spoke of the Moravian Sorcerers. What do you know of them? How do you know of them?"
"Nothing definite, just rumors and vague innuendo," Mann shrugged. "Why?"
"Most people do not believe they actually exist," Marcello explained. "I, however do believe so. I had hoped that perhaps you had witnessed something firsthand to help lend credence to my suspicions. What are your impressions of Signore Reznik, the Moravian envoy?"
"Truthfully, I do not trust him. I think he knew about the plot firsthand. Did you see the way he reacted to Her Highness's presence? He did not expect her to be there. You need to be careful around him."
"Those were my impressions as well," Marcello nodded in agreement. "I just do not know what to do about it. I have no solid proof that he was part of this plot, so I cannot confront him directly."
"Hmmm ... Perhaps I might be of service? Where is this outpost of Moravia?"
Marcello gave him directions to the Moravian Consulate as well as to several shops that Mann wanted to visit. Marcello asked if he would need any guards and Mann chuckled saying he had everything under control. He left a quick message letting the Archduke and Archduchess know he was going out and would return by the mid-afternoon. He bid Marcello a good morning and departed.
Karith awoke to the sun streaming through the window, lighting the entire room. More like a prison, she thought dejectedly, as she rose and began to stretch before beginning her morning exercises. She had started a routine, where she spent some time perfecting the movements that she remembered and that were taught to her by Mann. She shifted from unarmed to armed forms and quickly and fluidly moved through them as well. She remembered them from the time before Karith and Mann, and almost was at the point that she was satisfied with her efforts. Almost. She finished her cool down exercises and quickly bathed before getting dressed. She had taken to wearing her sword whenever she went out from her room, so she belted it on. She also continued to wear the hidden dagger that Marianne had given her on her first night in the castle.
She left her gilded cage in search of breakfast and her guide, for she had decided to spend the day outdoors. She was slowly coming to her wits' end and decided to take matters into her own hands. She had questions for her father, important questions, and was tired of being kept from him. She needed Prince Tarn to come forth with the location of her father, and it was he that she decided to search out and question at breakfast.
Breakfast was laid out in the great room but Karith found it empty. Disgusted she sat down and ate a quick breakfast, already planning her next course of action. She had explored every level of the keep - well, every known level - and - still she had found no trace of her father, so she decided to expand her search to the outdoors. After finishing breakfast she left the room and was waiting for her escort when she heard a blood curdling scream of anger echoing from the hallway to Tarn's private study.
"Ooh, someone has just received some bad news," Karith chuckled and turned at the throat clearing sound of her escort.
"What?" she asked chuckling some more. "I am ready for our outdoor excursion, lead on."
Ciril and Damijan stood outside of their master's study and knocked.
"Enter," they heard from the other side of the door and opened it, entering the study.
Prince Tarn had his back to the door staring out of the large window, arms crossed behind his back.
"Master?" Ciril announced them.
"Ciril? Why have the two of you returned so soon?" Tarn asked turning and facing the two sorcerers. "Did you find anything from the Savoy? Do you know who this stranger is?"
"No, Master, we did not find anything of use in Savoy. Master, we have lost contact with Gregor and Henrik. They were last sensed on the road to Milan but their trail abruptly stops there."
Tarn's scream of rage could be heard throughout the first level of the keep. Ciril and Damijan both flinched and then took an involuntary step backward away from their master in fear for their lives. It took several minutes before Tarn wrested back control of his emotions.
"I have lost three sorcerers without knowing who this white-haired stranger is!" Tarn bellowed. "Send out riders, put a bounty on his head. Contact every outpost we have. I want him found, and then I want him dead!"
Mann was passed though each of the gates without incident and entered the main thoroughfare in front of the castle. He had decided to walk and stretch his legs, so he left Thorn in the care of the castle's grooms. It was a beautiful day in late summer and the street was busy with commerce. He had several stops in mind and decided on a jeweler first. As he made his way down the street three men stepped away from what they were pretending to be doing and began following him. Two shadowed him from either side of the street and one trailed directly behind him.
In a previous life Mann would have already picked up on the tail that had been shadowing him since he first left the castle. In his defense, he had almost 15 years of experience in the tradecraft of a thief in that previous life. He still had some innate ability and his senses still worked, but he just was not experienced in this life in understanding what his intuition was trying to tell him. Nevertheless, he began to get an uneasy feeling, like something was tickling the base of his neck, an itch that would just not go away. He tried to shake it off on two different occasions but the feeling would not go away. Finally, he began to understand what the itch was telling him. He had a feeling of deja vu and remembered the same itchy feeling before, from the road to Milan and the sorcerers. What tripped his memory was the same feeling of being watched, the difference being that this time his current watchers were not using magic to track him.
He began to slow his gait while watching who changed pace with him. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible he began scanning the many travelers looking for anything that would give him a clue as to who was following him. As he passed store fronts and shop windows he took a moment to look at the reflections from the street for whatever was causing his feeling of unease. He finally noticed a man on his right who seemed to be watching him and trying to look inconspicuous at the same time. It was not working out since Mann had marked him. So, one for sure, and probably more as well.
Mann saw a side street ahead on his left, and when he reached it he quickly turned left and hurried up the street, moving through the crowds. He spotted a shadow from the adjacent building up ahead to his right and stepped into it, pulling his hood up.
Mann shifted to the Shadow Realm and drew Caledor and waited. It was a few moments later when he noticed a man slide around the corner across from him. The man whom he had previously identified as stalking him inched his way down the street, sticking close to the wall. A second man entered the street from Mann's side, mimicking the first man. The second stalker, Mann correctly deduced made his way down the street and stopped just in front of his position. Both stalkers were searching for something, or someone, and Mann knew he was their intended prey. What the two men failed to realize was that the prey had become the predator; the hunters had quickly became the hunted.
Mann continued to watch the street as pedestrians walked up and down while the two men continued to make their way down the street searching for him. The men turned around and made their way back down to where Mann was standing and shook their heads before heading toward the main thoroughfare. Mann stepped in behind as they stopped in the middle of the main thoroughfare and conferred with another man. So, there were three tailing him. The discussion went on for several moments and turned quite animated at one point, with the third man seemingly yelling at the other two.
He left the area and moved down the street until he found a shadowy area, removed the hood of his cloak, and shifted back to the Material Plane.
Again, in a previous life Mann would never have left the men unmolested. He knew, said knowledge based on years of experience, that anyone tailing him was a danger and should be dealt with. At a minimum, he would have trailed them back to their origins and determine why they were looking for him. Mann in this life lacked those life experiences and left the men to their own devices. Time would tell whether he had made a smart decision.
Mann stepped out of the shadows and right into a woman briskly moving down the street, knocking her to the ground. After helping her to her feet and apologizing for running into her, he continued down the street toward his first destination. That small misstep with the woman did not go unnoticed.
Arriving in the center of the business district he found the shop he was looking for, right where Signore Marcello said it would be. The tinkle of a bell announced his entrance to the small jeweler's shop. A short elderly man stood behind a long counter of richly stained dark wood. Mann approached the man and smiled.
"I am told that you are the finest jeweler and engraver in all of Milan. I wish to commission several trinkets. Are you interested?"
"Perhaps, Signore. It would depend on what you have in mind and how much you are willing to spend."
"I wish several medallions, gold medallions, the size of gold pieces with these marks, one on each side. Price is not an issue if the quality is as good as your reputation says it should be."
Mann pulled the sleeve back from his right wrist and turned it to show the shop owner. The owner reached out with his hands, and after receiving a nod from Mann, gently grasped his arm, inspecting both marks.
"Yes, what you ask for is easily done. Do you have the pieces or do you wish me to provide them as well?"
"If you have five blanks that could be engraved with the marks then that would be acceptable. I also require a vine of roses circling the medallions, on both sides."
"If you can give me a couple of days I can complete what you request. Is that all?"
Mann also asked for a braided black cord, half as big around as his pinkie, with the ends dipped in silver. He also wanted the ends engraved with the same markings as the coins. He removed the piece of rawhide from his hair so that the jeweler could use it to take dimensions and make a pattern. The jeweler agreed to both commissions and Mann left five gold pieces with Savoy markings as a down payment. The shop owner asked Mann to return in two days and Mann thanked him, retied his hair and left the shop.
Mann's next destination was to an armorer and again Marcello's suggestions, as well as his directions, were invaluable. Arriving at a open shop area with an active forge behind it he looked around for the proprietor. Mann was interested in a padded leather jerkin, thick enough to absorb the swing of a sword. He found the armorer/blacksmith/swordsmith in the back, working a piece of armor in the hot dirty forge.
Mann explained to the armorer what he desired and the man took him next door to the tanner's shop and introduced him to the tanner. The three men discussed what Mann required, and then they fitted him for a leather jerkin with plated shoulder epaulets. Mann added a pair of supple deerskin gloves to the order, as well. The tanner had the basic jacket already in stock and adjusted it to Mann's size, while the armorer added the plated epaulets. Mann paid both men for his purchases, and after slipping on the armor and gloves he left the shop. Having finished his shopping, he now made his way to the Moravian trade house.
As Mann made his way down the thoroughfare that familiar tickle at the base of his neck appeared. By now he had come to trust the feeling of being followed and began to carefully scan the area for the tail. He identified two of the three men that had been following him earlier, deducing, incorrectly, that they must have been searching for him throughout the shops of the area and stumbled across him when he left the armorer's. The men had in fact been alerted to his presence when he knocked the woman to the ground, and had been tailing him using more discretion then their previous attempt. When the crowded street made it necessary for them to move closer to their prey their efforts had been revealed.
Mann realized that more drastic, as well as finite, measures were necessary if they were going to be this persistent in following him. His previous plan of live and let live obviously was not going to work. Perhaps, he thought, he should rethink that entire philosophy and remove threats as they presented themselves, regardless of how small or insignificant they might seem at the time. Deciding he had mused enough, Mann turned back to the matter at hand.
He decided to stay to the center of the flow of traffic, continuing toward his objective, and see what his tails had in mind. Sure enough, they were shadowing him from either side of the thoroughfare as he traveled through the various open air shops and stands of the market district. They did not seem to be interested in stopping him in any way, but appeared more interested in where he went. Continuing on his errands, he made for the home office of the Moravian Ambassador.
Reznik was up early and already at work when the message arrived concerning a man that the empire wanted information on. From the description Reznik concluded that Signore Mann was most likely the person of interest. The message gave him specific instructions concerning the white-haired stranger: that he was presumed dangerous and should be approached with caution. Information concerning his whereabouts was more important than actually confronting him. The various outposts and spy networks were charged with identifying his location and reporting back to the empire before taking any measures to attempt his capture. Based on the wording of the message Reznik concluded that this Signore Mann was very, very dangerous and that the empire wanted him very, very badly.
Reznik was in the process of crafting a reply to the message when he heard the tinkle of the bell on his outer office door signaling a patron entering his establishment. He ran an information gathering service and it was not unusual to have clients entering the office. He put the memo down and opened the door of his inner office to greet whoever was there. He did not expect to find the subject of the message and his thoughts standing there!
"Ambassador Reznik, you and I have a problem," Mann stated matter-of-factly as he approached. "You are going to tell me your involvement in the attempted abduction yesterday."
"I do not know what you are talking about," Reznik replied, backing up toward the open doorway behind him. "You are Signore Mann, correct, from the castle?"
"I believe you know exactly who I am," Mann replied with a smile, while with a wave his hand he caused the door to slam closed behind Reznik. "You were not thinking of leaving, were you?"
Reznik spun around in shock at the slamming of the door. He turned back around facing Mann and backed up until he was against the door.
"N-n-no, I-I was not trying to leave," he replied licking his lips. "Yes, I remember now who you are. What do you want with me?"
"Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. I already asked you."