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A Trick on the Tailby Giulio N. Caroletti
1. DANCE ON A VOLCANO
She was a very beautiful girl. Brown eyes, black hair, a real beauty...to find her, clearly a Thyatian woman, in Sundsvall, was more than a surprise. She reminded me of someone I had known when I was younger, when I was just a centurion of the Thyatian legions in the Hinterlands.
A twelve years old girl who lived with her uncle, a colonist who had recently settled near Raven Scarp. I remember the sore look in her eyes...
"Are you the General?"
"No, milady. I am just a centurion."
"Ah...where's the General?"
"There she is, see? Leila ben Nadir..."
"A WOMAN ? I hoped to see a beautiful General in his shining armour...I suppose I will concentrate on you, then. After all, the Generals are all old, aren't they?"
Her parents had been killed by Alphatian brigands not far from West Portage.
"How many Alphatians have you killed, centurion?" "Not many. To be honest, not a single one." "Never killed an Alphatian? What kind of soldier are you? How can a Thyatian become centurion if he hasn't killed an Alphatian?" "We are on rather friendly terms with the Alphatians, nowadays." I could see the rage grow in her eyes.
"Alphatia must fall. One day I will be a General, like Leila, but I will avoid squabbling with these primitives in this stupid useless jungles. I will take my troops and conquer Alphatia." Knowing what had happened to her, I didn't laugh. It was a strange feeling to see such a determination in her big eyes, and consuming hate.
I felt a chill run through my spine, and thought to myself that that girl had been born under a bad omen. It was easy to see that she would become a very beautiful girl, and somehow I sensed that this would become no blessing for her. I felt very sad, and within I sought an answer to a question I have posed myself too many times: why did I fight? My life was a life of killing, and I had chosen it. Was there another chance? Kill or be killed...is this life in Mystara? Is there really no other way, but fight or let someone else fight for you, refusing to touch your sword and then having murderers at your service, like far too many illuminated merchants of Darokin? Or pretend to act in the name of justice and law like our Senators? Or simply avoid any hypocrisy by victimising underlings openly like in Glantri or Alphatia?
Was it enough to pretend to bring the light of Thyatian civilisation to the barbarians of the Hinterlands, who probably preferred being left alone, and whose lands were not too useful to the Empire? But it is not among the duties, much less the rights, of a soldier, to think over these matters. Our duty has always been obey. Wish it had been different. Wish that my life had been different, that I had made the right choices.
I was in Sundsvall, as I said before. When I saw her, I thought that she was that girl. I couldn't understand what she was doing there. She seemed very comfortable in her Alphatian silk-clothing, walking through the streets in the company of other aristocrats. She passed a few meters from me, I looked her directly in her eyes, ignoring the fact that not many servants would act the same in that land. She saw me. I was sure she had blushed faintly. I walked for a while not too far in front of her, and then entered the inn where I was lodged. I didn't know why I had acted so...maybe I was just curious, curious to know what she was doing in Alphatia, after all that had happened to her. But when I entered in my room, too tired to think, I just said to myself that my mind had played my a joke, and that I simply couldn't remember right.
Then I fell asleep.
I heard a knock at the door and I immediately woke up.
"Yes?", said I, with my heavy Thyatian accent.
"Mister, didn't wanna disturb you, but I received this for you." I didn't reply. I got up from my bed and unlocked the door. I opened and stirred the pock-marked face of a servant.
"Well? Where is it?"
"Where's my tip?"
I groaned and gave him a coin. He smiled and gave me a letter.
I locked the door, and turned to my room. A bed, a chair, nothing else.
What more could a poor Dunadaler of Thyatian origins afford in Sundsvall? I was very surprised by the city. It seemed that no logic guided its building. Poor inns, taverns and homes of servants was mixed among the palaces of the wealthy, emphasising the contrast between the magic using aristocracy and the servant class. Normal-looking houses were few, and belonged generally to the gentry.
I looked outside the window. The light was fading slowly, in that early spring evening. I had probably slept a couple of hours. I yawned, then I watched the letter and opened it with a knife.
I HAVE BEEN TOLD THAT YOU ARE SEARCHING FOR A JOB.
CONSIDERING THAT DURING MY LADY'S PAST STAYING IN DUNADALE YOU HAVE SERVED HER WELL, I ENCOURAGE YOU TO SEARCH THE FORTUNE IN HER PALACE AT THE GLASSHOUSE ROW. YOU ARE REQUESTED TO SHOW UP AT 11.00 TOMORROW MORNING.
NO DELAY WILL BE ACCEPTED.
-IN THE NAME OF HIS MISTRESS,
ERTRAN, HOUSEMASTER OF LADY ELOISE
Well, what did THIS mean? I thought about the encounter I had that afternoon with *...but I had to be careful. What did I know about Alphatian servants and their masters? This Eloisa could had heard that I was looking for a new master, after the death of the old one during the Thyatian conquest of Dunadale...or, better said, my assumed identity was.
In a land like Alphatia, it is better to lie outright, than use complicated magic to assume another appearance. Alphatians are so used with magic that they will surely detect any form of illusionism, if not of real top class...but they are much less careful when confronted by direct action. I had learned it during the years of the War of Wrath, especially during the siege of Redstone, and the months I spent with the guerrilla troops of Phileus Furmenglaive on the Isle of Dawn. How many Alphatians had I killed during those days? And now I was in their capital. It still showed the scars of the Glantrian magic. The Imperial Palace had been rebuilt, but now Zandor was on the throne. Zandor had always seemed a madman, according to what the Alphatian magicians had said...but when he had reached the throne, he immediately showed how much this was false. Maybe Zandor was more Thyatian than Alphatian, and he had deceived all the magic users with his apparent power lust and desire of wealth and fame, or was he so Alphatian that he was able to reign brilliantly because he knew it was the only way to hold the power?
It was not important to me, anyway. I didn't care what the Alphatian Emperor wanted, or what he was. And most servants in Alphatia didn't care the same. Two years had passed since those days. It was now AC 1011. And my task in Sundsvall had nothing to do with Zandor.
It felt like dancing on the edge of a volcano when, the morning after, I entered the Palace of Lady Eloisa. I was a little nervous. I didn't understand why they had chosen me for the mission. I was not suited for it. But they sought a high-in-rank. And they sought someone who had ties with the men who had fought in Redstone, during the famous 1005-1007 siege. I was a centurion primi pili, that means the most experienced of the non-commissioned officers, but I took soon the place of the captain of the 4th banner of the XXth Cohort, that died three days after the start of the war. I had spent my time in the Army mostly fighting...but I knew it was my duty to avenge all the men that had died because of the betrayal of one.