Beyond the shade of the forest, a whole city churned under the sun. The architecture was beautiful and diverse. There was a sensible lack of height, no keep nor dungeon, no tower nor steeple. A notable feature as many chose to display their power through structures visible for miles.
Ten fully armored men galloped to meet them. Fifty soldiers on foot came after them. The powerful force was both a security measure and a statement. This was only a detachment; the place wasn’t fortified but still heavily guarded. Aleander did not need any document to justify his arrival. His face was apparently well known to the sergeant.
The outline of the city was two miles away. The deforested area around it was separated into small crops, each growing bright and luxuriant fruits and vegetables. Toikem thought magic might be at play. His attention was drawn back to the buildings before they reached the city streets. Most of the buildings were stone even the outer ring of houses. Probably a precaution against fire, a dreadful event in such a crowded space. The Emperor was rich enough to offer the service of masons to peasants.
When the exited the suburb, the first wooden building they found was a typical northern longhouse. From then on it became pretty clear the city was an architectural garden rather than a natural agglomeration. Longhouses had been abandoned long ago in the north, along with many other customs.
The city had been planned. The streets were perpendicular. Most of the buildings were symmetrical. Geometry ruled every single construction. Typical buildings, relative to both native and foreign cultures were present. Toikem was surprised to hear a drunken cacophony come out of walls reminiscent of an Ormond temple. He suspected the place to be a bawdy-house, not that he was a client of such establishments.
The Imperial palace was easily identifiable. Standing on a pedestal of purple marble, grey walls of rock shone with engravings filled with gold and punctuated with jewels and gems. The humongous decorations depicted historical scenes and theological ones. Above the main door, a gigantic piece of agate had been chiseled in the shape of a leopard’s head with black spots of inset jet. The eyes were onyx with golden bands that resembled the pattern of a real iris.
The guards at the door wore elegant brigandines of red and black. The mirror shields on their torso were gilded and engraved beautifully, but Toikem was sure there was steel beneath the coating. On their belt, two swords of different sizes. In their hand, a long spear both ceremonial and sharpened. Both were about thirty years old and had broad shoulders. Toikem met her sister’s look and understood that his first impression was probably right: the guards were uncommonly disciplined. If anyone should have a service near irreproachable, it was the Emperor after all.
“Sir Seneschal,” one of the men called when Aleander tried to walk right in. “The reeve has asked that the Gents be searched before they come in.”
The detachment of sixty men that had accompanied them formed a semicircle around them and weapons were drawn. Toikem froze on his horse. Kayla, who had already dismounted Alba, came near him and grabbed the rein. Ardens immediately calmed down, contrary to his owner.
Toikem’s sister wasn’t nearly as stressed as he. She merely sighed, bothered by the constant need for precautions.
“I already did this in Longval,” Aleander complained.
“You do not have the proper expertise, Sir Seneschal,” a man replied as he calmly exited the building. He was of average size, with grey hair and beady blue eyes. He did not bear any weapon but for a black leather scourge. “We will have the mages look at their equipment,” he continued. “We also want to make sure they didn’t retrieve anything harmful on the way to the palace.”
“Courtesy dictates that travelers be left alone the day of their arrival,” Aleander complained.
“That is the point, Sir Seneschal. These Gents have not crossed our threshold yet.”
Aleander bit his tongue and lead his horse away, the soldiers moving away to allow his passage.
Kayla whispered to her brother, “You’d better alight now, Tom. No need to make them more nervous than they already are.”
Toikem agreed and waited with her in silence under the gaze of the reeve and sixty soldiers. The grey-haired man was probably the most powerful commoner in the vicinity, but Toikem doubted he could order such a search by himself. The military mind rebelled at public orders. If the reeve had been conveying the Emperor’s command, he would have said so. The game of murmurs had started long before their arrival, and the fact nobody knew them would only make it worse. Toikem knew swords were not the most prominent danger in political places.