The sounds of the market greeted Brayand long before he saw the tents and stalls that beckoned to passersby. No matter the day or season, the markets of Alden rang with the sounds of commerce. Men and women, young and old, foreigner or citizen, all came to partake from the excitement. Street performers ranged from musicians to upstart wizards, dramatists to artists, each with a unique style and flavor.
Not to mention the goods available for purchase. While most performers kept to the edges of the market, welcoming new visitors as it were, the central square was packed with row after row of stalls, each alluring in their own way. Enchanted tools, fine art, fruits and vegetables, dried meats, spices, and still it went on. Even dwarven caravans could not pass up the bounties of Alden, bringing with them the rare ores and gems of their mountain homes. One could come to the market every day, and still be enticed by new and exotic goods.
After the council meeting, Brayand could want nothing more than to wander among the various stalls and vendors. Crowds of people gathered around a young mage, deftly performing magic tricks as families gathered around him. Children giggled as he threw a baton into the air, only to have it fall back to the ground as snow. Applause rang out, causing a smile to break on Brayand’s face. Surely, he thought, if those who called Alden home were safe, then working with the nobles on the council was worth it.
The meeting had gone about as well as he had expected. The request Liatur had presented was to be funded by the Empire, and workers would be arriving within the month to begin construction. The wizards’ tower, as most referred to it, was one of the most ancient buildings in Alden. Situated in the center of the city, it dominated the sky with its odd-shaped wings and jutting additions. For years, archmage Velsyph had insisted on constructing floating wings for the tower, as was common throughout Halslad. The council, in a rare moment of defiance and union, continued to vote against such a measure.
Lord Telinstrom had remained furious from the start, his gaze boring deep into Liatur and Brayand until the very end. Briefly, after the High Mage’s proposal had been discussed, the high general attempted to draw interest in his expansions to the barracks and outer fortifications, but due to the work that would be required on the tower, the council voted to table his suggestions.
The rest of the meeting had gone as expected. Lord Nerison gave his report on his visit to Nostovol. Lord Albindor reported on the state of the port and of exports to Daelin and Suin. Lord Laisonen discussed the numbers of merchants traveling through Alden to the valley cities and beyond. The arrival of visiting royalty from Keto next week. And so on. Much of the rest of the morning was mere political shuffling, in greater part between Lord Telinstrom and Lord Dausilund, the stablemaster.
Through the babbling crowds, a cry rang out, “Make way!” Brayand turned towards the command as five knights bearing the crest of House Laisonen attempted to navigate the hectic streets on horseback. Their armor glimmered in the noonday sun, radiant silver and red, emblazoned as a fire upon their chests and shoulders. The head of the group also bore the banner of his House, catching what wind there was as they went forward.
As the band passed through the crowds, one of their horses brushed against the stand of a fruit vendor. Baskets flew at their purveyors, goods crashing to the ground amidst the disheartened cries of customers and vendors alike. The knight, for his part, appeared not to notice, instead calling for those before him to make way. Brayand frowned. This was not the way knights should behave.
The rearmost knight followed in the other’s wake, noticing the disheveled stand. Immediately, he dismounted from his horse, removed his helmet, and joined the effort to clean up the mess. Even at a distance, Brayand could hear the knight’s apologies for the incident. The governor relaxed, as he saw money exchange hands between the knight and the merchant. The knight bent down again, picked up one of the apples that had been broken, then mounted his horse and worked to rejoin his companions, who had not yet noticed his absence.
A voice from behind Brayand drew his attention, “It’s a pity.” Brayand turned to see who was speaking. Lady Elisten stood only a few feet away, dressed in one of her less colorful dresses. Blue linen, embroidered with a pattern of Juralen daisies, covered her from head to toe, but it flowed so that it did not restrict her movement. Her brown hair was neatly pinned, keeping it safely out of her face. She smiled, gazing at the crowd.
“I’m sorry?” Brayand asked, not sure whether she was speaking to him or not.
“I said it’s a pity,” she repeated. “Such a glorious spring day, to be overshadowed by politics.”
Brayand laughed slightly. “True,” he responded, “But it is our burden to bear, so that the sun can continue to shine on our fair city.”
She frowned. Looking at him, she said, “When I first took this position for you, Brayand, I felt that way. But now,” she stopped, her eyes catching on the young mage. At that moment, he gently levitated the children a few feet off the ground, to the fear of their onlooking parents. “I wish I could return to my family’s home, in Ilinshire. I don’t think I ever realized how good it was there.”
Brayand nodded. There is certainly nothing here that resembles the place,” he agreed.
“Alden is wonderful,” she said, almost apologetically. “But I find it odd that in a place with so many people, everyone is so isolated.”
“From what?” Brayand asked.
“From everything,” Lady Elisten tried to explain. “From trees, from animals, from riverbeds. From each other. I’ve been here for almost half an hour, and no one has tried to speak to me. And they aren’t talking to each other, either. I’ve been watching.”
Again, she paused, lost in a distant memory. “Do you remember,” she began, her eyes still fixed on the young mage, “when we were young, playing along the river, throwing stones and sticks into the water?”
Brayand nodded, smiling. “And then,” he added, “I recall that you may have pushed me in.”
Lady Elisten laughed. “Only after you tried to push me in!” she exclaimed. Her laugh seemed to break through her thoughts, and together they began to pass through the market, admiring the assortment of wares available for sale. “Besides, that pales in comparison to your attempt at goat riding.”
Brayand laughed. “At least I tried,” he said. “If only I had held onto the horns tighter. I’m certain I could have mastered the sport.”
“Mm,” Lady Elisten agreed. “You would have been crowned the goat-riding king of all Juralen.”
Conversation lulled as they went through the stalls, admiring the wares on sale that day. Jewelry made from the precious stones of the Haral Mountains, ancient books written by authors long-since forgotten. The young wizard had returned the children to the ground, and was now making dragonlings appear, blowing tufts of smoke at each other.
“How are the preparations coming for the festival?” Elisten asked. “Is Laisonen cooperating?”
Brayand chuckled. “As well as could be expected. Everything should be in place by the end of the month. He and Albindor have been debating the course for the parade, and whether it should end at the port or not.”
“What do you think?” Elisten asked?
“I think that until they come to me for arbitration, I won’t worry about it.” Brayand smiled. “The presentation of our newest frigate would make a fitting end, though.”
“A warship to celebrate five hundred years of peace?”
“A symbol of prosperity in our golden age,” corrected Brayand. “It’s meant as a representation of the people of Alden and the power of the Empire.”
Elisten snorted. “Power and resources used for frivolous ends isn’t symbolic,” she quipped, “it’s a waste.”
Brayand sighed, silence returning to the pair. “Perhaps,” he began, as they cleared the main road, heading towards the castle, “that time spent trying to ride a goat has proven useful.”
“How so?” Lady Elisten asked, her attention drawn by a display of flowers for sale.
“It’s very much like being governor of Alden.”