Ledram felt as though he had fallen face first into mountain of spice. It was the first thing he’d noticed as he disembarked, an aroma that was at once was hellish and heavenly. Sharp, stinging pepper and subtly sweet lilac coalesced into an invisible fog of flavour, concealing tones of strong spirits and sewage. It wafted over the harbour, and as Ledram approached the city it grew in potency.
Led through the winding streets by Tors, Ledram was assaulted by a wash of colours, more vibrant than he had ever thought possible. Purples and yellows of the richest hues, a rarity among the people of Anwex, cloaked even the poorest of souls, and glittering gold bedecked much of the populace. Buildings were wreathed with fine carvings, and stained with exotic pigments.
“Not what you expected,” Tors called over his shoulder, attempting to compete with the screeching of strange birds and the clamour of carts.
“I’ve seen more wealth here in ten minutes than half a lifetime on the island,” Ledram mused, his head on a swivel.
“If you think the city looks wealthy, imagine what the Empress has lining her pockets.”
“If we can ever find our way to the palace…”
Tors snorted. “Foreign thugs in her majesty’s private estate? We’d be hung by our stones over the city gate. Our accommodations are a bit more modest.”
“We’ll be sharing a tent outside the city.”
Ledram glared at Tors, who refused to turn around. “You hauled me across the world on that thrice-damned boat and I’m forced to bunk with you?”
“Just like old times!” Tors exclaimed energetically, turning to Ledram with a grin that only served to deepen Led’s frustration. “Oh come now,” Tors scolded, turning away from his comrade, “a few days of camp life won’t kill you. We just got to wait for the rest of the sellswords to make their way across the sea.”
“Wait? How many sellswords is this wench looking for?”
“Her imperial majesty,” Tors corrected, “is not one to do things half-assed. And I’d recommend avoiding that particular title. The Empress is not known to be a forgiving soul.”
Ledram shrugged. “Have no bloody choice, do I?”
“Unless you’d like to sail home.”
Ledram didn’t respond.
The pair wound their way through the city, passing grand fountains and gilded temples on their trek to the city gates. Along the way, merchants called them to their stalls, shoving lengths of exotic fabric and skewers of spiced meat in their faces. Without a crown to his name, Ledram passed them by, though his stomach had been empty for the past week.
After what seemed like an eternity, Tors and Ledram passed the gates of the city, and stepped into a sea of tents. Bonfires spewed smoke here and there, and patrolling the narrow streets of the camp were men from all corners of the known world. There were many pale islanders, like Led, and a number of tan individuals of Telucian decent, armoured in scales of painted metal. A few wild eyed brutes thundered along, a head taller than most and wreathed in matted red hair.
“It’s a bloody army,” Ledram exclaimed, “she’s building a bloody army!” He turned to Tors, who’s face was crossed with worry. “You don’t need a force like this to intimidate some yokels!”
“Well, friend,” Tors stammered, “these are big villages, you see. And it’s better to be over prepared, right?”
“What about them?” Ledram shouted, pointing at a Telucian soldier sat at a campfire. “You said it would look bad if the Empress’ personal guard had anything to do with “pacifying” villages.”
“Well, they’re… watching the rest of the mercenaries, making sure they don’t get out of hand.”
“Which is why they’re camped outside the wall?”
Ledram placed a hand on the sword on his side, and stared his comrade down. “What’s going on, Tors?”