Kalik sat patiently and sipped his cup of coffee, it was slightly more bitter than he liked, but not enough that he could be bothered with complaining. He slipped in and out of conscious thought, periodically glancing at his time-dial. His companion was late, they were supposed to meet here almost 15 minutes ago. As the afternoon air filled his lungs, the scent of his drink couldn’t quite smother the aroma of ashes mingled with mild undertones of lavender and cherry blossoms. He watched the bustling of the town square; carts and crates of goods, both magical and mundane, coming in and being sent out. Lumbering bodies loading and unloading sacks and crates. In the central plaza a crier stood atop a raised platform reading the morning reports into a vocal amplifier, as townsfolk and travelers alike milled about in the shade of the squares greenery, listening for the information pertinent to their day. On the west side of the plaza various merchants and tradesman peddled their wares and services from the shelter of booths to passersby. Street urchins, beggars, and the otherwise destitute, lurked nearby. Waiting either for someone to take pity on their misfortune, or for a brief moment where no eyes fell upon them. Unfortunate souls unaffectionately referred to as the “Spark-less”, or more simply “Mutes”. For reasons yet unknown to arcane scholars, roughly one-in-eight children are born with virtually no propensity for thaumaturgical manipulation.
As Kalik watched from the east side of the plaza, where the more well respected and better established shops resided, he realized a part of himself felt uneasy. How easily in another life he could have been counted among them. After all a world that turned by the grace of the spark had little tolerance for those with none of their own. Granted, being Spark-less didn’t inherently bring damnation. Kalik was living proof of that.
“Would you like more coffee sir?” a woman’s voice whispered from over his shoulder.
He twisted slightly in his seat to get a look at her. She looked to be average in height, with an exceedingly small frame. She wore a scarlet robe adorned with silver traced patterns and hemming that danced in spirals and lines. Kalik thought that at some point the robe must have looked exceptionally stunning on her, but as it hung loosely from her withered and frail frame it looked a forlorn vestige of a time long lost. She held a plain silver kettle in her hands, and her arms where unnaturally narrow, giving her the appearance of a sapling with clothes draped over its growing branches. The skin on her hands and upper face was a sickly grey, the same color as the ash that coated most of the world outside of city walls. The lower half of her face was obscured by a wrapping that extended up from the robe, pulled taught above the bridge of her nose to keep it from slipping. Her eyes were nonexistent, in their place glowed orbs of a soft blue-green, a color everyone knew all too well. The color of raw magical energy.
“More coffee sir?” She repeated softly. Her voice hung unnaturally in the air, as if it were traveling from very far away, a trait that those like her all possessed. A trait that never failed to send chills up Kalik’s spine.
“ah, yes please.” Kalik replied, quickly averting his gaze.
As she poured the hot black liquid into his cup he felt bad for his haste in looking away. He always did. After all she was a person, in a technical sense. She had a soul, and felt the drag of existence just like him, although her existence was likely a painful one. Kalik really hoped it wasn’t painful though.
“Thank you” he murmured, looking back up to her and smiling meekly as she began to walk away.
She looked back at him and paused for a second. A very long second that felt uncomfortably longer than it likely was. “My penance is servitude.” she droned before turning away and returning to the back of the cafe.
Kalik sighed, he could never tell if the shriven were appreciative or insulted by his awkward attempts at humanizing their existence. There was many like her, known as the shriven or pennant. Fugitives that were sentenced to an existence of servitude beyond their natural life, as punishment for the highest of crimes. Or that’s how it started at least.
On the table before Kalik was a small book, The Fall of the Sable Empire: A Pocket Guide. He’d spent most of the morning reading through it, and felt he understood its gist. Apparently after the collapse of Sable Empire most of the continent was plunged into disarray. The barons and lords of the capital fought over the mantle of reigning ruler, or rather the scraps that remained of it. The truth was that the land was splintered in the conflict. While some were content with the prospect of everything returning to the way it was, many of the outlying colonies and settlements rallied around the idea of independence. The result was 11 years of a series of small wars that unified and re-splintered the factions vying for control. In the end, many of those seeking independence rallied under the banner of the practitioners of the Argent Creed. With the Creed’s resources, and the freedom fighters resolve, the conflict was brought to a slow end. Their final victory was claimed through the surgical assassination of the High Lord Aleon, a Sable loyalist that had crushed most of the opposition before the Creed stepped in. Upon seizing the capital, the Creeds leadership known simply as the Argent Sages, oversaw the immediate dissolution of the Council of Holding. The council had acted as neutral law keepers during the period of civil unrest, and while they were technically a holdover of the Sable judiciary, the factions had largely ignored them. Due in part to their declared neutrality, but mostly due to their efficiency. Despite the state of things over those 11 years, law and order within major cities and settlements remained notably intact. Shortly thereafter, former members of the council mysteriously began disappearing. The official story is that they retired to the countryside after being relieved of the burden of law keeping, a story Kalik thought awfully convenient. His suspicions were only compounded by Argent’s sudden interest in revision of laws regarding the use and conversion of pennant prisoners.
“Yer lookin like shite today.” jeered a voice to Kalik’s left.
“That’s just my face, Freya.” he replied without looking. Truthfully her greeting had startled him, he’d become so engrossed in his thoughts he hadn’t heard her obnoxious foot steps. In an effort to maintain composure he feigned intense fascination with a group of pennant unloading a cart in the square.
“Too right, ‘ner ‘ave been easy on the eyes ‘ave ya?” she tossed her satchel onto the table, it’s metal buckles clacking on the glass surface.
Freya chuffed, “Aye. Information gatherin is delicate work.”
Kalik grinned, “Didn’t realize you knew the meaning of the word delicate.”
Freya rolled her eyes as she collapsed into the seat across from him.
“Anythin good?” She nodded to the cup in Kalik’s hands.
“Strong coffee, marvelous tea, nothing you’d appreciate.” Kalik took a long sip from his cup. One of the pennant unloading the cart dropped a sack, spilling what appeared to be potatoes into the street.
“Oh, look et mister cultured, lookin down ‘is nose wit’ ‘is fancy leaf water!” Freya pantomimed sipping from a saucer cup, popping her pinky out in an exaggerated fashion.
“Indeed, but worry not Freya, we’ll make a proper lady of you yet.” Kalik raised his cup and winked. “We’ll have you drinking leaf water before next winter!” returning Freya’s pinky salute as he took another hearty sip.
“Not bloody likely, me pa’d shrive ‘im self jus’ ta be sure I ‘ner ‘ear the end of it.”