The caravan went up north along a branch of Redwater River and entered the Grand Canal leading to the king's city after it passed Silver City.
Theo had once learned from the Chronicles of Graycastle that 200 years ago, it had been an uncultivated land here. In order to ship silver dug out from the mine back to the king's city, King Wimbledon I had summoned the Mason Guild and nearly 10,000 handymen and spent 20 years creating the canal to link the king's city and the silver mine. Gradually, a city had formed in the vicinity and had been later named "Silver City" by the late king.
Nevertheless, Theo could now hardly make a connection between the current prosperity he saw and the deserted land 200 years ago. On either side of the canal lay fertile farmlands, behind which at a distance were packed villages. The scene reminded him of the Kingdom Main Street in Border Town. Theo believed if the construction of the main street was completed, there would be a dense population at the foot of the Impassable Mountain Range as well.
"I've heard you're from the king's city?" A lady's voice said to him at the side.
Theo turned around and found the leader of the caravan, Margaret, was talking to him. He nodded and replied, "I lived in Inner City before becoming a guard in the palace."
"How do you feel like returning to your native town?"
"To be honest, it's just so-so," Theo answered, "if it's not because of His Highness' order, I actually prefer to stay at Border Town. It's true that the king's city is bustling but it's suffocating at the same time." [Especially for lower nobles,] Theo added within himself.
"Really?" Margaret smiled. "How much do you know about Roland, I mean, His Highness?"
"Why did you ask that?" Theo's heart stopped with a queer jerk.
"I think he's incredible. You must have heard of various rumors about his ungovernable behavior in the king's city, but he's... completely different from what people believe he is. Both his manners and ideas are inscrutable." Margaret paused for a moment and then continued, "I can tell from the steam engine invented by him that the prince is a learned man, but why are the soldiers trained by him also so different?"
Theo glanced about the soldiers from the First Army on the deck. Considering that they should keep a low profile in the king's city, the soldiers neither carried flintlocks nor wore military uniforms. Instead, they were all dressed up like any ordinary guards of a caravan, in a leather jacket, with a wooden pike on their backs. For most of them, it was their first time to leave the Western Region. They looked around with some curiosity and exchanged a few words with each other from time to time. Nobody, however, took off his shoes or lay down his weapon.
Compared with these soldiers, most of the mercenaries hired by the caravan had already gone into the cabin to avoid blinding sunshine. As for the few left on the deck, they were all lying on their backs in shady areas, shoes off and disarmed.
"I don't really know, either. Perhaps His Highness used to be pretending." Theo spread out his hands, looking as puzzled as Margaret. He was not trying to hold back anything, for he truly had no idea. Ever since Prince Roland came to Border Town, the life in the town had experienced dramatic changes.
"Is, is that so?" Margaret neither agreed nor disagreed. She was silent for a while until she suddenly pointed to the front. "Look, that's the city wall of the king's city. We're almost there."
An ashy, shadowy shape gradually entered Theo's sight. Theo could sense the magnificence of the city wall from a far distance, for this piece of architecture was the most remarkable work completed by the Mason Guild before its dissolution. The wall was the highest and thickest in the Kingdom of Graycastle. It was said that in order to further facilitate continuous patrolling and immediate reinforcement, there were even built-in chambers and passages in the wall that could accommodate nearly 1,000 soldiers.
When Theo could clearly see the city wall, he also caught sight of refugees.
Hordes of peasants were gathering outside the suburb of the king's city. Along the city wall, numerous sheds were set up, in front of which were fire pits. From the white smoke running out of the pits, it seemed those refugees had been in a good condition and had not suffered from famine yet. Nevertheless, nobles in the king's city would not continuously offer food. Once they had got enough laborers, they would soon send soldiers to drive the rest of the refugees away.
"What are you going to do?" Margaret asked curiously, "ask His Highness' soldiers to persuade them to go to Border Town?"
"No, this is inefficient and will be too conspicuous." Theo shook his head. "You should know very well that there're only two feasible ways in the king's city to get things done. One is to lobby with officials, and the other is to hire Rats."
"Precisely." Margaret laughed. "I wanted to remind you, but it looks like that won't be necessary. Well, feel free to contact me if you need any financial help." Margaret handed Theo a plate and said, "My store managers will contact me immediately if you show this to them, not to mention that you can directly withdraw gold royals of any amounts under 100 with it."
"Thank you." Theo took the plate. It was a crystal-clear dark red stone, the end of which was engraved with a line of words written in a language he had never seen.
"You're welcome." Margaret chuckled. "His Highness will pay these loans off, both interests and principals."
After the boat anchored, Theo asked the soldiers from the First Army to wait for his news at the suburb and try to avoid the patrol team in the king's city as much as they could. He, on the other hand, entered the city with the caravan. When Theo passed through the city gate, he noticed the guards there had tightened the security, obviously to screen out refugees from the Eastern Region.
The first thing Theo saw after he entered the city was a line of towering gallows.
On the gallows hanged four women, whose hands were tied behind their backs. Under the scorching sun, their bodies produced a terrible odor that made Theo frown.
"Timothy is conducting a massive witch-hunt in the city, and these are all victims." Margaret sighed. "Well, not exactly. Some of them were simply playthings abused, used and abandoned by nobles. The search has provided those nobles with an excellent opportunity to get rid of the witches they've been fed up with. It's hard to say that between being locked up in a dim cell alive and being hanged, which is better... Anyway, I hope they can rest in peace."
After spending half a year in Border Town, Theo had learned witches were not as evil as the church claimed to be. Other than possessing some weird abilities, they were no different from ordinary people. From the figures of the women on the gallows, the youngest of whom had probably been only 14 to 15 years old. At this thought, Theo felt the long-gone suffocating feeling suddenly came back to him again.
No big changes had taken place during his half a year's absence. Other than the main street right across the city gate, which was a bluestone road, all the other alleys and sideways in the king's city were mud roads. The roads cracked in the blazing sunlight of mid-summer. Dust and ashes sprang up every time a carriage passed by. It was unbelievable that the capital of the kingdom had even poorer infrastructure than a remote town beyond the Western Region.
After crossing two streets, the caravan arrived at the marketplace, where Theo bid Margaret farewell and turned to an alley alone.
He located the tavern named "Covert Trumpeter" effortlessly and pushed the door straight open.
"Hey! We aren't open until night!" Someone yelled.
Theo took no notice of the man but went straight to the bar. Instead, he said to the stout bartender there who was busy wiping wine glasses in a low voice, "Do you still remember me?"
"Who the heck are you? Didn't you hear that the tavern is only open at night?" The bartender put down the wine glasses impatiently and sullenly looked up. While he was growling, the two servers who had been tidying tables and chairs also slowly approached the bar. "I'll count to three... S... sir Theo?"
"It's me." Theo spat on the floor. "I came to let you know a good deal."
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