Chapter Twenty-Five

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Londinium sprawled over a low soggy landscape, springing unnaturally from the edges of the Tamas River. The sight had always given Aidan an uneasy feeling. The walls of Rome still stood about it, maintained in the absence of the empire by merchant princes who relied on them to keep out invaders and keep in their gold. Ships of every size bobbed and tossed in brackish water running with the filth of the city, edged by an even filthier port. Thick black smoke rose from the Northeastern corner, where Aidan assumed the sickened dead were being burned in heaps. Already, the smell reached the gates. Aidan swallowed the bile that rose in their throat, whether at the scent or the prospect of having to step inside the foul metropolis, they could not be sure.

Beside them, Riona had a hand pressed over her mouth and nose, face paler than usual. Two guards stood at the gate, questioning those wishing to enter the city. Already the pair of them had been waiting for over an hour. Aidan had discussed with her on their walk exactly what their lie would be and that she should remain silent. She had not argued, seeming quite content to defer the negotiations to them.

Finally, the farmer in line ahead was pushed through the gates by the two guards, each taking an apple from his cart for good measure. The farmer opened his mouth to protest but thought better of it and shuffled inside.

"Alright then, what's this?"

Aidan and Riona stepped forward. Riona's head was lowered so that she did not meet the guard's searching gaze.

"We are looking to book passage on a ship to Armorica," said Aidan, affecting a Dumnonian accent to match Riona's. "My wife and I lost our farm in a fire, and we're looking for a fresh start."

One of the guards eyed them over the brim of his apple, juice dripping down his chin and into his scraggly beard. "Where you from then?" he asked through a mouth full of pulp.

Aidan ignored the instinct to smirk at him. "We've walked all this way from Dover. We're right tired, sir, just looking to have a rest and be on our way."

The other guard took Riona's chin suddenly in a brutish grip. She let out a yelp, and Aidan gripped their sword hand into a tight fist.

"So, she amn't mute." The man was grinning down at her with a wolfish expression. "Your husband looks like a sodomite, and you seem like you would appreciate a good tumble with a real man."

Riona looked as if she might spit directly in the guard's eye. Aidan silently prayed she would not. Instead, she hesitated and then broke out into a sobbing wail. The man instantly let go and stepped back as if burned.

"Awww, leave her alone," said the other guard. "We got enough people to get through."

Aidan took this as permission and hastily drew Riona to their side and ushered her through the gates while she continued to cry like a banshee. When they were a safe distance away, they released her. The sobbing immediately ceased.

"Are you alright?" Aidan asked.

Riona looked up at them and nodded, her eyes dry and bright.

"What inspired that performance?" they asked with a sly grin.

Riona's face lit up in a flashing smile. "Nothin men like that hate more than womanly emotion."

Aidan's mouth opened to reply, but nothing came. They let out a barking laugh and then ruffled her hair affectionately. "I need not worry about you so much, Mori-genā."

Riona shrugged as Aidan led her deeper into the city.

It was not long before they came to the central markets, which hummed with activity and life. The tapestry of color and sounds were overwhelming. Riona's hand lay loose in Aidan's, who guided her like a lost child through the throngs of people and stalls. As they went, Riona would tug meaningfully on their sleeve, distracted by a vendor or particularly beautiful woven rug.

"Can we not stop, Aidan?" she pleaded.

Occasionally they relented, allowing Riona to run her hands over fabrics from far away places, pucker her lips around dates slathered in honey and ground nuts, or stare wide-eyed at the jewel traders as they examined piles of loot. All about them, voices competed for attention. Two men in elaborate silken robes and long beards argued loudly over a donkey that stood as a silent disinterested sentinel between them. All about roamed people from every corner of the globe. Londinium had never lost its importance to world trade, even after being abandoned by Rome.

Aidan pushed by a clump of confused looking scribes dressed in the Byzantine style, and Riona spoke. "Where are we going?"

"I have an...acquaintance with whom I need to speak," Aidan answered over the cacophony of sound.

They moved out of the main bazaar, and slowly the crowd began to thin. Without the bodies, spices, and other scents to mask it, the grit and odor of Londinium lay exposed in the thick summer air. Riona stifled a gag. To the sides of the wide cobblestone road stood gutters, brimming with refuse and reeking of sewage. So much in fact that most of it jumped the bank and spilled into the streets. Native Londoners trudged through it seemingly undisturbed. Added to this were the sharp, bitter smells of the tanneries. Butchers hung raw dripping meat from their doorways, the blood dripping into the rivers of filth. Riona pressed a hand to her face.

"There are many sides to the city," said Aidan quietly. "Not all so fair as the markets."

The pair were moving down a slight slope. The further they went, the more densely packed and smaller the buildings became. Dusk was falling, and only the occasional torch mixed with the decaying orange light of the sunset. Riona instinctively drew closer to Aidan. They came up beside a bleak-looking structure. It was loosely constructed of mud so worn and holey Aidan was sure you could see through it if you tried. A tattered and stained piece of fabric stood for a door. Aidan lifted back the flap with one finger, exposing the weak, wavering light that came from within.

"Mishka."

"Aidan Andraste..."

The owner of the voice approached, melting from the shadows, pale as a ghost, a lanky slip of a man with sunken grey eyes and thin wisps of blonde hair that clung to his forehead. Mishka cocked his head to one side and observed Riona between narrowed eyes. "Who have you brought to my door?"

"No one of your concern."

Mishka straightened and fixed Aidan in an icy but removed gaze. "Everything is of my concern."

Aidan pushed Mishka aside and pulled Riona indoors, the curtain falling closed behind them. There was a heavy silence. Riona's gaze flickered between the two of them worriedly, her teeth gnawing on her bottom lip.

Aidan stood a bit straighter. "Have you heard anything from the North?"

"Makda has pulled all of their followers south, looking for something or someone." Mishka's gaze fell performatively on Riona. "I wonder what."

"Is Taelthin with them?" Riona's question came suddenly, and Aidan startled.

Mishka, too, seemed taken off guard for only a moment. "They will be soon, I would imagine," he answered in oily tones, "That's two bits of knowledge from me so far, what have you got in exchange?"

Aidan pulled a rolled up a battered scroll with a worn but still unbroken seal and handed it to the man. Mishka ripped it open, his eyes worming over the page. He laughed softly, the sound was like sheaves of paper rubbing together. Aidan's blood went cold at the sound.

"So you and Makda have had a falling out," Mishka taunted quietly, "precious."

"If Ibrahim, Orfeo, or Ava come looking for me, tell them to meet us in Dùn Ad."

Mishka made a neutral sound in their throat. "One of Talethin's favorite hideouts was once a fishing village on the Aerish Sea near Solway." The man glanced sidelong at Riona. "Not so far from Dùn Ad."

"Time to go," said Aidan.

Riona balked. "But—"

Aidan pressed one hand into the small of her back and pushed her from Mishka's hut. They could feel the man's watery eyes following them out of view.

"The less time we spend around Mishka, the better," said Aidan beneath their breath, "The man makes money off of information, and his customers know that. It's a wonder he's still alive."

"What now?" she asked quietly.

"Now we find some food and a bed," Aidan replied.

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