Chapter 3: Laurus

Language is strange.
It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t sound so bad. Deserters eat dessert in the desert. Laurens smirked at the thought.
“I would kill for some ice cream”, mumbled Laurens when he headed to the Bearpaw Inn.
Literally. He has killed for less. He once killed a man who took a sip of his beer. Sure, that was a long time ago and he was payed to kill the man anyway, but if that man didn’t take a sip of his beer, he would have lived a couple hours longer. That man was a bad gambler and Laurus loved winning. Every summer his thoughts returned to that magical day, fifteen years ago. It was the first and only time Laurus tasted ice cream. He had a job escorting some rich noblemen’s son to the university and when he got there, some man was selling strawberry ice cream from a cart. It was unheard of. Ice with flavour? In the summer? How do they get ice in the summer? Do they toll it from the icecaps to the south? That doesn’t make sense. The scope of ice cream costed  a bronze coin and if they took it from the icecaps, a scope would have cost at least two silver. That would be no problem for Laurus, he was willing to spend his only gold on some more, but must people don’t think the same. He questioned the man selling the ice cream, but he just said that they make in the university, but doesn’t know how. He traveled the next year to the universe, but wasn’t allowed to enter the University grounds without permission. It’s one of the most heavily guarded places in the world. He tried getting a similar job, but most students had guards of their own. Others didn’t trust someone who’s bagging for a specific job and was willing to work for free. The last time he tried, he messed up. Five years ago he forged some acceptance papers and traveled cloaked, posing as a student, to the university. He even hired a carriage and two guards. He was caught at the gate and thrown into the university’s jail. He was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. Marcus needed to cast in his favour from Lorne’s emperor- earned by quelling a rebellion in the north. They university reluctantly complied. The university is strange place. Not by the looks of it, it looks quite boring.  It consist of ten large round buildings, all the same size. But the rest is strange. The university doesn’t belong to any country. It’s a small, but independent region. The top layer of the society from Lorne, Floren and Elos consists of students from the university. They accept just over a hundred student each year and the battle for a place is fierce. One noblemen once offered to donate ten ships, a large mansion and a massive plot of land for a spot for his son. They denied him. Not because of the donation, the university doesn’t have any problem accepting those, but because his son wasn’t bright enough. They only want the best of the best or the best of the mightiest. Like Helena, the smartest woman Laurus knows and daughter to a rich merchant. She’s a bit uptight, but incredible smart. And Max, of couse. Son of Helena and one of the most accomplished captains in Lorne’s army, the instructor of the old emperor and the hero of the Lighting War. Their first and only son. Their prodigy. While Laurus has never met Max, he has heard a lot of him.
Marcus is the must virtuous person he knows, but being humble about his son and daughters isn’t one of those virtues. He brags, sometimes daily, about how his son used to beat veteran soldiers twice his age in duals, how Veo outsmarted her teacher when she was 12 and could skip some boring subjectes and how Andrina single-handedly found the entrance to the mythical tombe of the first emporer when she was barely twenty years old. The University confiscated the scrolls she found – the first know writing from that era and got twenty gold coins for her service. Or twenty gold for her silence. Same thing. Marcus doesn’t talk a lot about Andrina. It’s a touchy subject. She left after a big fight and Marcus blames himself.
But flavored ice cream, the complete independence, the immersive wealth or the importance students don’t make the university a mysterious place. It’s the age of the members of the university’s counsel. The youngest member of the counsel is a hundred and twenty years old, the oldest hundred and seventy. They are the only people in the known world that make it over a hundred.
But nobody knows how do they do it. Students vowed to solve te secret, rich and sick merchants offered to pay insane amounts of gold, dying kings and emperor’s threatened to invade the university, the underworld tried to infiltrate the university. Nothing worked.
Laurens arrived at the Bearpaw Inn and entered. He donned a exhausted face and walked to the bar looking like every step could be has last. He sat down, sighed and eyed the innkeeper with a small smile. He wasn’t going to listen to Marcus. Get it, get out? He knew nothing.
“Hard day?” asked the innkeeper when he spotted Laurens.
“I thought it would be easier,” said Laurens “I used to work for a brewer in Domer, hauling big casks to innkeepers. I thought working on a farm would be easier. Working in the sun sounds relaxing. It’s not. There is no downtime, just a continues flow of menial labor.
“A farmhand? I could have guessed that by the looks of you. You work for the Backers? They always hire a lot of hands.
“I don’t know. I started this morning. I just know they don’t pay me enough for this type of work.”
“That would be the Backers. They are a greedy bunch. They always hire out of towners, so they can pay them less without upsetting their surroundings. So, let me guess. A large beer and something to eat?”
“Just a large beer, thanks”.
The innkeeper nodded, drew a beer out of the cask and put it in front of Laurens.
“Enjoy. Let me know when I can get you something else.”
“Thanks, will do”, mumbled Laurens before he downed the half of his beer.
The key to not getting noticed is by being some who isn’t interesting. Someone who doesn’t have a story to tell. Marcus doesn’t get that. His idea of stealth comes from stories. He probably imagines a man wearing a big black cloak, covering half of his face, sitting alone in the corner, staring at people. But everyone notices that guy. Especially in a small town like Minerve. Maybe they don’t stare at him, but they are watching every move he makes.
Laurens turned and watched the room with bored eyes. He was looking for Max, but a conversation got his attention. Four soldiers were talking about Elos. He started at a old painting on the wall to their right, but studied the soldiers from the corners of his eyes. And he listened. Laurens recognised places and names. Their names. We should leave at first light.
He focused on finding Max. He scanned the room earlier, but he didn’t noticed anyone who matched the description of him. He should stand out. He expected to find Max sitting in the middle of the inn, surrounded by laughing women and nodding men, hoping to get some of his scraps. But he was not there.
“Sir”, said Laurens to the innkeeper.
“Yes? Another beer?”
“No, maybe later. I was wondering, is someone called Max staying in this inn?”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“He’s the one who said I could find work here”.
“I don’t want no trouble in my inn”.
“Oh, no, no,” laughed Laurus “I worked with him back in Domer. He’s a good friend. I was just going to ask if he know some other job, something lighter. My back can’t take this kind of labor. I’m not that young anymore.”.
“I see” nodded the innkeeper empathetically “Yes, Max is staying here. But he barely leaves his room. Not for work anyway.”
“Is he allright?”
“I don’t know. He’s not a talker. And I don’t ask a lot of private questions to men who pay with silver.”
“Which room is he in?”
“He doesn’t want to be disturbed. He asked me that specifically.”
“I get that. He’s probably sick or something. I just wanna check on him. Maybe he does need my help. If he doesn’t answer, I’ll leave him. I promise.”
“Allright. He’s staying in room 5, the door on the far left”.
Laurus nodded, finished his beer, left two bronze coins on the counter and headed upstairs. He knocked on the fifth door.
“Who is there?” said a frail voice.
“I was wondering if you brought some strawberry ice cream from the University?”
“Haha, yeah. How did you know?” laughed Laurus.
“Well, the story about a thirty year old man posing as as student is well know in the University. Most people don’t believe it really happend, but my mother confirmed it was true and it was you. Is she here?”
“Not here, but close. We are staying in the Smiling Tree Inn. Can you open the door?”,
“Oh, yes. Sorry”, mumbled Max when the removed the bolt from the door and opened the door.
Max didn’t look like the images Marcus painted of him. His shoulders were slumbed, his eyes unfocused and he looked pale – almost as pale as a Maurus barbarian. He reacted so slowly, that it would be impossible to image him beating a veteran soldier. You couldn’t see these realisations in Laurens face. He looked friendly, even a little bit excited. He knew how to hide his thoughts. Useful for gambling and these kinds of situations. And he knew fathers lied about their sons. His father did. According to his father, Laurens was a wealthy hog trader in Floren. So rich and busy that he can’t find to time to visit his family and the curious friends of his father.
“Nice to finally meet you Max, you have your mothers eyes.”
“And nice to finally meet the living legend of the ice cream infiltrator.”
They both laughed. He did have the wits of his mother.
“Ready to meet your parents?”
“I guess. How are they?” said Max, looking uncertain.
“Good, good. Except this running for our lives business, of course”.
“So, it’s started?” said Max with a grave and knowing face.
“What do you mean? What do you know?”
“I just know the basics of the world outside the university. The murder of the emperor by the schemes of Lord Alaric. The retribution. The army invading the northern region, the siege and fall of Oswin. But there must be more. My father served the army loyally for more than twenty years. He quelled rebellions. Fought against Maurus. He killed hundreds of men to save tens of thousands. He was even chosen to train the emperor himself. And now, the most loyal person I know is fleeing the nation he served for so many years. It must be big.”
Laurens nodded.
“I knew something was coming. The University functions as a neutral zone, it never takes sides. But this time it is different. A lot of things are happening. The first murder of a counse..” whispered Max.
“Let’s talk about this later, okay?” interrupted Laurus. “It’s not safe to talk about us or affairs concerning the University. Let’s grab your stuff and head to Smiling Tree. We need to leave at first light”
“Is it that bad?”
“It’s not good”.
Max nodded and started gathering his things. He grabbed some cloths, scattered around the floor, and some frail looking books and tucked them away in his bag. He was ready in a minute.
When they descended the stairs Laurens asked if Max could wait for him outside. Max nodded and left the inn. Laurus went to the innkeeper, who was watching them with a curious face.
“I think I know the cure for what happend to him.” said Laurens.
“So, he’s sick?” said the innkeeper.
“His heart is sick. His girlfriend left him a week ago and he’s broken up about it. But I know the cure. Have you heard about the a establishment called the Golden Rose up north?
“Yeah, that would fix him up.” laughed the innkeeper.
The started to walk toward the Smiling Tree Inn. It took longer than Laurens hoped. It look like Max didn’t have the strength to put one feet in front of his other. Maybe he was sick. Or maybe just afraid to meet his parents. He kept his head down, looking at a old ring on his right hand. Was it a gift from his father? Or a girlfriend he left at the university? Maybe he did had a broken heart.
They entered the Smiling Tree inn and saw the group. They were drinking, eating and laughing. Laurens smiled. Time for bigger smiles. Time to introduce their lost son. Helena noticed them first, but it wasn’t a smile Laurens saw, it was shock. After a couple seconds she recovered, smiled and poked Marcus with her elbow. He looked up and again: shock. It took him longer to recover.
“Max!” shouted Veo when she saw him.
Veo ran to him with a big smile and hugged him.
“I missed you so much, Max. It’s been too long.”
“I missed you too, little sister.”
“Mother. Father. Good to see you.” said Max stoically.
Helena embraced him, holding him tight and whispered. You could see a small tear flowing down Helena’s check.
Max nodded while Helena whispered and granted her a smile when she released him.
Marcus followed
Son. Good to see you. I missed you. How was the journey? ” hoping

Max tried his best. He tried to eat something. He tried to answer some questions. But you could see how much effort it took him.

After a little while Max excused himself, saying that he still tired, and left to their room. Shortly after Veo followed.

I got some bad news” said Laurus with a grave voice
The talking stopped at everybody stared Laurus
“They know. Lord
didn’t flee. He rode to the western cities, gathered his forces and fortified . And word got out how he escaped. They know we smuggled him out of the burning city. They know we fled. They say we’re traitors. They don’t know where we’re heading. Some say the captial of Elos, some say Floren. Everyone is searching for us. There five gold on your head, Marcus. And one gold on Julia’s and mine. Onfair, I’m definitely worth two” joked Laurus with a unconvincing smile.
Nobody laught. They looked at each other.
“Can we make it?” asked Helena.
“Maybe” said Marcus “the border is close. If we ride hard… yes, probably.”
“So, first light tomorrow?” asked Julia. Laurus and Marcus nodded.
Julia stood up, grabbed Leo’s hand and they left to their room. She looked resolved to make to most of their last night together in relative privacy. Laurus looked at Marcus and Helena who were whispering comforting words to each other while holding hands beneath the table. This was the first time Laurus felt true loneliness.