Chapter 4.2: Sleeping Beast

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Karloh brought the coach to a halt at the crest of the final hill and the Great City became visible for the first time. Lenard drew his chestnut mare to a stop alongside the carriage.

"Dehn," said Karloh. Spread out into the haze below them, the sprawling scale of the city was immediately apparent.

"Looks like a fucking cesspool to me. A great big shit pond," said Praster.

"After the Age of Chaos, Taegar Calazar and his heirs built a vast empire, razing the ruins of the Vegar and casting them into the ocean," said Karloh.

Praster looked bored. Lenard was fixated on some unfocused point ten yards ahead as if neither hearing or seeing anything at all. His thin, sunken eyes and pale skin lent him a sickly look. It had been a long ride up the Great Northern Highway, perhaps a good rest was exactly what he—all of them—needed.

"I see they prefer to build more out than up," was all Praster would add.

Most of the city could be seen from their vantage, the bustling harbor on the south end to the Calazar castle on the hills directly across from where they stood. The city was populated mostly by one-floor hovels and low, earthen buildings. Even the castle itself, though vast and mazelike, never rose to more than three or four levels. The upper part of the sprawling palace, however, was built into the steep side of a mountain and thus still projected the appearance of height and power.

"The Dehns are a strong, winter-hardened people," said Karloh, steering the coach back onto the the Great Highway. The afternoon was giving way to evening, but they started the descent with no particular urgency. "Eighty percent of the kingdom's population resides right here in the city, and half the rest either chip ore from the Shield or sail the seas for the salt harvest."

"They have winter up here? I mean, true winter like from the Vegar legends?"

"If there is winter left in the world it is here. And it's dark, too, in the short months. The city is often snowbound from the Turn of Night until Spring Half-light."

They descended a switchback and a view of the Calazars' famous castle was framed in the U-shaped valley. "A fierce castle for a fierce lot," Praster suggested. "They force their prisoners to lie in salt water day after day until their skin shrivels right off their bones."

"There are truths and there are legends," Karloh said. They rounded another switchback and the castle circled out of view. "But if I had to be someone's prisoner, I would not choose the Calazars."

Half an hour later, they reached the valley floor and the Great Highway widened further and passed under the open outer gate of the city. There was a circular junction just inside, and—like the trunk of a tree forking into its many branches—the highway divided endlessly into a hundred tributaries. Karloh paused at a crossroad, deciphering a plaque of hand-chiseled wooden signs.

"There," he said, pointing to a scrawl of words near the bottom. "Zuzinal. In the lower east side, directly in-between the central markets and the soldier's field. There are inns there and places to get a merchant's permit. And it puts us close to our objective."

"Keep your head on a swivel, boss," Praster said in a low voice. "Looks like you might be the only blackie in the entire city."

There was no doubt Dehn had little of the diversity found in most of the realm's big cities. Every person Karloh saw seemed a copy of the last: curly dark hair, gray eyes, and skin as white as a winter frost. Almost as if they were all related. In some manner—as it was known that Taegar Calazar (not to mention his subsequent heirs) was fond of liberally spreading his seed—it was likely that in a distant way they were.

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