Change of plans, part nine

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Harbend opened the door to his small office and called on the main lights. He'd chosen quarters in the western, older parts of the city, and the buildings here showed their heritage by displaying narrow slits rather than the more modern wide windows that allowed more daylight in. The slits were glassed of course. An addition to all old houses several hundreds of years earlier, but one that increased the need for lamps.

He'd bought several oil lamps in order to be able to work during evenings when the main lights didn't quite suffice. Late work was a must here where the days grew considerably shorter during winter.

The rooms were generally smaller in this part of the city as well, designed during an age when defense was more important than luxury. Great wars had raged then, some almost reaching the city itself when it was but a fortified display of power, a provincial capital when Keen was still part of an ancient empire now long gone.

Harbend used to feel the shadow of that empire looming closer when Hasselden was his center of operations. From there ships could take him to the southern tip of the Ming peninsula in a day or two, and visiting traders sometimes still boasted of Ming Hjil de Vhat and La, the ancient capitals from where emperors had ruled all of the northern world.

Now all that remained of the twin capitals were an insignificant fishing town to the far north on the peninsula and a mass of haunted ruins on the isthmus, the latter half a day's ride from a small town usurping the name of the once great city.

But he wasn't in Hasselden now. He was standing in his office in Verd, and sounds came from a back room that should have been quiet. He rounded his desk and made his way through the doorway to find out who had intruded on his privacy.

The sight made his heart jump.

"Uncle! And Horse-lord Kanir, what a pleasant surprise!" They stared back at him in disdainful incomprehension and he caught himself. Quickly he repeated himself in his native tongue.

"You have been here long indeed when you greet your family in such a harsh language." The words carried a barb, but Harbend could see the affection shining in his uncle's eyes. He looked old, but then he'd always seemed old to Harbend. Beardless now, but with long, white hair. He'd become thinner as well since Harbend last saw him.

Ramdar Garak, Harbend's uncle, was by far the oldest of three brothers and as such head of their family and therefore responsible for leading the noble line. He already had two married sons securing the continuity of the line.

The sensation of listening to words spoken in Khi filled Harbend with joy. Years had passed since he last had a chance to hear it.

"You are right, of course. I apologize most deeply for my bad manners." Harbend bowed, as was expected from him.

When he rose he saw the horse-lord still keeping his steely gaze. A hard man in his fifties he commanded all cavalry under the noble line of the Garak family, a line Harbend was more than satisfied he wasn't part of. Vildir Kanir wore the long leather coat coming with his position, and he'd worn it for as long as Harbend could remember. Horse-lord Kanir was large, large the way a predator loomed over its prey before striking, and Harbend assumed he had very little fat hidden under the clothes. There was gray in his black hair now though, and new lines streaked his face. Change came even to this pillar of stability.

"When did you arrive, and how?" Harbend asked.

"We sailed for Rhuin. They still keep their coasts clear with the help of Nijan and us, but there we learned that the only way north was by land. We were fortunate enough to buy passage in Ira."

"Ira?" Harbend drew a mental map. It didn't make sense. "But the caravan route from there to Kastari takes ages!"

"We didn't join a caravan."

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