Raulin had visited quite a few places in his time, in size from a hermit’s cave to the largest cities he could travel to safely. The size generally didn’t matter to much to him, but the quality of the town did. Therefore, it was important for him to make a flash judgment on what to expect while visiting. He always asked these three questions: was the main road cobbled, did it smell nice, and did the guards smile and nod at you?
Carvek ranked at “charming backwater”. The main road was tidy, but not paved. They did have oil lamps and the businesses seemed in good shape, despite an odd crooked sign or broken shutter. Carvek was very close to the sea, so it was unfair to rank its smell based on the easterly winds that blew the unsavory smells from the wharfs inland. There was a gate, but no guards manning it. People were congenial enough, at least nodding at him if not smiling. All-in-all, a pleasant place that might be in need of some upgrades.
While he smiled and nodded back, his mind began checking off what he needed to do. First, he had to establish a base of operations, namely a place of lodging. This was to be on the fringes of the city in some dank cellar room with leaks and rats and mold. It would be acceptable to find a place in the middle if there were several contracts in one place, but still, leaks, rats, mold.
“Hello, goodman,” Raulin said to the young man behind the counter of the beautiful hotel on the main road. “Do you happen to have any vacancies?”
“How many days?” he asked, opening the ledger on the counter.
“Two, perhaps three.”
The man ran his finger down the column, then consulted a calendar next to where he stood. “I think we can accommodate that, sir. The charge is eight silver per night. We have a shared lavatory on each floor for bathing and a sink in each room as well as a balcony for the upper rooms. Yours is on the third floor.”
“Oh, will it be facing the castle I saw when I came in? It was gorgeous.”
“As a matter of fact, your room faces the main road and gives a grand view of Fiaston Estates.”
“Wonderful,” he said, fishing two gold coins out of his pocket. “I’ll pay the third night as I leave, yes?”
“Of course, sir,” the man said, handing him his change. We have a smoker’s lounge for gentleman to your left and a parlor for the ladies to the right. Will you be staying with anyone else?”
A sensible question to ask. No decent hotel would want an unmarried couple in their rooms. “No, goodman. I’m traveling alone, writing about the various castles in Gheny.” He pulled out his leather-bound notebook with his contracts. “I believe there is another castle nearby that I can visit.”
“Yes, sir. Though Fiaston is our pride and joy, Railis is also quite beautiful. It’s much older and in need of repairs, but the glass works in the dining hall are breathtaking when lit in the evening.”
“Thank, goodman. I plan on venturing out to see more of Carvek this evening. May I take my room now and freshen up from my travels?”
“Absolutely,” he said, handing him the key to the room. “There is someone available at all hours of the day, but if you prefer to view our visitor’s guide,” he said, pointing to a large book on a table, “it has all the restaurants, sites, and areas to see in and around Carvek.”
“Wonderful, thank you,” he said before taking the staircase opposite the main door up to the third floor.
The room was quite cheery. The curtains were a light, yellow floral print that billowed gently in the breeze. The four poster bed was made of cherry, but the duvet was a soft blue. A matching bureau with mirror held a scrimshaw bowl with a dogwood flower floating on the top. Raulin breathed in the scent and smiled. It was better than expected.
He had nabbed a newspaper from the lobby and sat outside on his balcony, pretending to read it. The balcony was made of spindly iron that was bolted to the side of the wall. It’s sturdiness was in question, but Raulin felt comfortable enough that, if anything was going to kill him, it wasn’t going to be him falling during leisure time.
The castle was not what most would consider a proper castle, but he’d known people who could argue for years over such a thing. It was a beautiful chateau of white stone and a blue roof surrounded by walls with ramparts, a barbican, and four towers in each corner. That was all in order. What drew away from it’s validity was it all seemed ornamental. The ramparts had no merlons, only a delicate fence in the front made of iron in the fashionable eyelash pattern. The front gate was wide and Raulin suspected the portcullis’s chains hadn’t been touched in decades. And the walls were made of wood in a crisscrossed pattern, painted to fool the eye into thinking they were the same stone as the gatehouse. It was comparatively indefensible and that’s really what Raulin thought was the deciding factor on his opinion. A proper castle needed to hold against a siege and protect its people behind its walls. Fiaston was beautiful, but not somewhere he’d want to be caught in if they were bombarded.
The question was, was this the right castle? Perhaps he should have asked that before taking the hotel room, but it was a question that might arch some eyebrows if asked too soon.
Isken had said that counts in Gheny were non-peerage titles. When Raulin had pressed a little more, he had said that they were given the position as a boon from the king, either when the government created a new county or when an earl’s line died out. Raulin suspected that either the earl had been a terrible nobleman or it was the former, new county, new count. If so, the fact that the castle had poor defenses would suggest that Fiaston was the one to keep his eye on.
In the worst case, he was relaxing in front of a very pretty estate.
He watched as people walked past the two guards on duty without forming a line. Each raised their hands and showed a piece of paper or a badge quickly, then kept on with their day. He contemplated that it might be possible to steal whatever it was for access, but it would take time Raulin felt he’d rather not spend. There was a group walking on the ramparts, listening to someone speak. A tour, learning about the castle. That might be a possibility for access.
He went downstairs to inquire with the innkeeper. “Tours run daily at nine, twelve, and three o’clock,” the owner said from behind his counter, “except on Mondays and Thursdays.”
“Oh? What happens then?” Raulin asked..
“The bailey is opened for respected merchants. They may bring tables and booths to sell their wares at the market.”
Much better. That was a key to a plan in the making. “How do the guards keep up with all the people? Do large lines form? I’d hate to have to wait in lines to see the count.”
“Oh, no, sir! No lines at all! Everyone is let through without a pass or excuse, though it might be difficult to see the count. He’s quite a busy man.”
This was good. A way in without hindrance and almost a confirmation that the count lived in Fiaston. He looked at the clock on the wall briefly. “Ah, I think it might be too late to get a tour today. Perhaps Friday,” he said to the innkeeper, who made some polite share of disappointment.
Raulin asked about other local attractions and pretended to take some in-depth notes about each in his notebook. He left and played the part of a wide-eyed tourist, sight-seeing at the park and at the temples. He got sucked into a conversation with a priest in the Skethik temple and had difficulty ending it, but managed to with as much grace as possible.
The ruse was only necessary in case things went poorly and he needed to unmask to escape. He’d traveled the world several times and had seen every god’s temple at least thrice. Carvek’s held nothing of interest to him. He was bored, but smiled politely and looked attentive as he toured each.
After those five places, he felt he was established enough to pass by the castle to get a closer look. Raulin smoked tobacco so rarely that he still didn’t know how to roll his own cigarettes, so he bought a paper case of five and matches at a shop near Fiaston. He leaned against a wall across the street from the main gate and puffed shallowly as he observed the castle further.
He could see a small window of the bailey beyond the opening. It appeared that the people filing in were immediately banking left or right into the barbican and farther on to the wall. He guessed it was double thick and had offices inside for administration of the county.
What he really wanted was a closer look at the chateau in the rear, offset to the right. He could only guess from the views that it had three stories, though it might be four or have different sections he couldn’t see that rose higher. He guessed it was a standard rectangular shape with the sleeping quarters on the third or fourth floor.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” a man asked. “Pride of the city. Much nicer than the viscount’s keep. Mind if I borrow one?”
It was an odd way of phrasing he wanted to take a cigarette, but Raulin understood what he meant. He passed him one as well as lighting a match and holding it up for the man. His new friend wore clothing quite rich and fashionable, with a felt bowler hat, a pocket watch chain, and even a silk kerchief in his pocket. Raulin guessed he could afford his own tobacco, but didn’t care what his reasons were for being without in that moment. Raulin wouldn’t smoke more than one and it gave him some opportunity to pick some information from this man.
“Do you have the time? I fear I’ve arrived late for the three o’clock tour, but wanted a smoke before I went in.”
The man deftly retrieved his watch and flipped the cover off with a flick of his wrist. “Three eighteen. I fear you are too late for the last one of the day.”
“Bother. I was hoping to catch one before I left Carvek.”
“Well, my generous friend, I do happen to know a thing or two about our city’s illustrious keep. I could give you a tour here, though I’m afraid it will only be imaginary.”
While the two shared their poisoned air, the man, Armone, passed his information along to Raulin. He was full of tidbits and trivia and, having just graduated from the basic coursework at Amandorlam, he wanted to show that it wasn’t a wasted education. When he pointed things out, he gestured with the cigarette, a trail of smoke following the tip as he waved it around. Most of what he told Raulin was useless numerical facts; how many people visited daily, how much work was produced, the overall style of decoration used inside the chateau. Armone was too new to the greater world to understand that reciting information for information’s sake was theft of air.
He listened patiently, then started to steer Armone into the direction he wanted. “Now, I was noticing that the keep, while exquisite, seems a bit under-defended. Is there a reason for that?”
Armone nodded while taking a drag. “It’s a newer keep, built twenty-three years ago. Gheny hasn’t been in a war or had a huge fear of piracy for hundreds of years, so the newer castles are built to impress, not for defense. They make up for it by having a crack force of guards.”
“Really? Even amidst all the heavy traffic they’ve managed to protect the castle?”
“Well, everyone entering today is regulated. They’re more ticketakers than guards five days of the week. And the other two, on market days, they run drills.”
Raulin made sure not to show his smile to Armone. “So they let everyone in during the market days and they have no guards? Sounds like a risky schedule.”
“Oh, the guards aren’t far, if something should happen. And there’s a few inside the manse at all times. The count and his family are usually out on market days, touring and participating in events and festivals.”
Raulin asked a few more questions, to throw off the suspicion that he wanted a certain piece of information and was done with Armone when he got it. When his cigarette ran low, he crushed it under his foot. “Thank you, Armone. I feel as though I lost nothing being late today.”