Across town, within a big, fancy room in a big, fancy house, Amara Valda prepares for the day ahead, studying herself in the mirror and running through a mental checklist to ensure everything is in order.
As usual, it is.
Dress? The very latest fashion.
Mother’s necklace? Safe, secure and polished to an improbably high sheen around her neck.
“Marvellous,” Amara declares to her reflection. “Now, off to find Katherine.”
Amara, her father and brother have been vacationing in Goldharbour at their family’s traditional estate, which has belonged to Amara’s uncle ever since her father moved to Porthaven.
Still, the Valdus’ family estate is practically Amara’s second home. She knows it well enough that she could get around with her eyes closed.
She’s never done it, of course, because that would be the very height of foolishness and utterly unbecoming of a well-bred gentlewoman such as herself.
Amara’s similar familiarity with Goldharbour also makes her the ideal guide to show Katherine around the city. Amara can think of no better way to spend the day than accompanying her foremost sworn companion around her favourite city.
Amara moves from her room, through the halls of the house, down a grand flight of stairs and into the absolutely enormous dining room.
“Goodness,” she says, seeing the lone figure sitting at the long table. “Are they still not awake?”
“They are not,” her uncle answers, his voice seeming very small and quiet in the vast emptiness of the dining room.
“Well, we are on vacation, I suppose,” Amara mutters. Still, she expected better from her father and brother.
“Let them be, Amara,” her uncle urges. “Most people use vacation as a chance to relax.”
“I will be leaving for the day,” she announces. “I’ll be showing Katherine around the city. I should be back in time for dinner.”
Amara hesitates by the door and turns towards her uncle. “Your collar is crooked, Uncle. And you’re covered in crumbs,” she declares. “And there’s a smudge on your badge.”
She shakes her head in exasperation.
“Goodness, Uncle. You’re Captain of the Guard. What will people think if they see you looking like a slob?”
“Disrespecting the Captain of the Guard is a crime,” he notes.
“It’s not disrespect if it’s true, Uncle,” Amara counters.
“Fine,” he concedes.
He promptly brushes off the crumbs with the back of his hands, fiddles with his collar, breathes on his badge and attempts to polish it with his sleeve.
He looks up expectantly at Amara. “Better?”
“Slightly,” she admits.
“Didn’t you say you were leaving?” he asks.
“Yes. I suppose I’ve done all I can to help you,” she answers. “Good day, Uncle.”
“Have fun,” he calls as she heads for the door.
Waiting outside the inn for Amara, Kat and Estelle watch the hustle and bustle of the streets of Goldharbour. Goldharbour is one of the largest cities in Realmgard and one of the most popular destinations for tourists on their honeymoons, vacations, or business meetings.
Built on the seaside, it’s like a Porthaven where everything is bigger, older, fancier and more expensive.
Most of the buildings are impressively large and elaborate, fresh paint gleaming bright in the morning sun. On the roof of each of those buildings the bright yellow gryphon flag of Goldharbour flies proudly.
The city has good reason for that pride. Goldharbour has nearly a thousand years of history to its name, fancy shops, well-kept boulevards, beautiful beaches and expensive day spas, and everything else that might make people flock to a city from all across Realmgard.
Even the pigeons seem better-behaved — and somehow better-dressed — than their cousins back in Porthaven.
Kat doesn’t really care about any of that, though. She just wants a real breakfast. Through the noise of the thriving city and dreams of waffles and breakfast sausage, Kat hears a familiar voice calling her name.
“Katherine! Katherine! There you are!”
There’s only one person in the world who insists on calling Kat ‘Katherine’. That same person is the only person Kat will allow to get away with it.
Kat turns in the direction of the voice to see Amara striding with confident poise and purpose through the crowded streets towards her.
Even though they’ve been best friends for as long as they can remember, Katherine Darkstone and Amara Valda probably couldn’t be any more different.
Kat has often heard herself described as a tomboy, and occasionally as her father’s firstborn son by people who thought they were safely outside of either earshot or punching distance.
Amara is probably the most dignified, proper, beautiful lady Kat has ever met.
Amara can produce a meticulously annotated and academically-verified list tracing her family back to before the foundation of Goldharbour.
Kat knows her great-grandfather was named Steven and that the stories say that some Darkstone somewhere along the line supposedly married a mermaid.
Amara’s family has a centuries-old coat of arms officially recognised by the Armorial Society of Realmgard.
Kat’s family has a mailbox with their name on it.
One of the few things Kat and Amara have in common is that they’re both tall. Amara has an excuse, though. She’s an Elf. Elves are always tall, like how water is always wet. Kat is just really tall.
Even taller than Amara.
In fact, their friendship is a direct result of Kat’s tallness. Amara used to go after the other kids when they sang their mean songs about Kat. Amara is actually sort of scary when she decides to go after someone.
Of course, she never goes after anyone without good reason.
Amara’s family was one of first to settle in the cluster of fishing shacks that eventually grew to become the Free Mercantile City of Goldharbour, but she was born in Porthaven.
Years ago, her father was appointed as Goldharbour’s ambassador to Porthaven; when his term ended, he decided he liked Porthaven so much that he chose to stay and start a family. Most of Amara’s extended family still lives in Goldharbour — including her uncle, the current captain of the city guard — so she often comes to visit.
“Welcome to Goldharbour, Katherine,” Amara says, wrapping Kat in a tight hug.
She turns to Estelle and curtseys with the ineffable politeness created by generations and generations thoroughly baked into the uppermost crust of society.
“And you, too, Mrs. Darkstone. I trust you’re well?”
“I’m very well, Amara, thank you,” Estelle answers.
Kat is Amara’s best friend, and Estelle is a close second. Amara’s own mother died when Amara and her brother were very young. Kat and Amara were best friends even back then, so Kat remembers spending a lot of time at Amara’s house doing all she could to help her best friend feel better.
It was, as Kat recalls, about as successful as trying to put out a forest fire with a glass of water. Amara cried a lot, which made Kat cry a lot.
In the absence of her actual mother, Amara adopted Estelle as something of an honorary mother. Estelle, in return, has been more than happy to adopt Amara has an honorary daughter, largely in hopes of her serving as a civilising influence on her actual daughters.
Amara wears her mother’s emerald necklace as a memorial wherever she goes. It is her most treasured possession. Once, she put it away in the wrong drawer and spent most of a day panicking and tearing apart her house trying to find it. They laugh about it now, but it was scary to see Amara so upset.
If she ever loses her mother’s necklace for real, Kat doesn’t know how she’ll survive.
“And how are you, Katherine?” Amara asks.
“Ugh,” the sleep-deprived and grumpy Kat answers simply.
A look of concern flashes across Amara’s pretty face, followed by a flurry of questions, “Goodness, Katherine! What’s happened?”
She extends a desperate hand to Kat’s forehead to check her temperature.
“Are you sick? Do you need to lie down? A physician? Leeches? Two physicians? I know a few healing spells that might help.”
Kat stares blankly at the Elf until her addled, bombarded brain can catch up with the tempest of words. “What? No. I’m fine. I just have to share a bed with Dunstana while we’re here. I couldn’t sleep last night. She snores.”
She rubs her bleary eyes.
“Ah,” Amara says. “Well, if you’d like, I’m sure Uncle wouldn’t object to you staying with us.” She smiles nostalgically. “It has been far too long since we’ve had a proper slumber party.”
Kat seriously considers the offer. The mansion must have a spare bedroom she could use. And even if she ends up on a couch again, at least she’d fit on an Elf-couch. And, of course, Amara doesn’t snore.
“In the meantime,” Amara continues. “Breakfast?”
“Yes!” Kat exclaims, loudly enough to draw confused glances from several passers-by and send the genteel pigeons of Goldharbour scattering into the air.
“Will you be coming with us, Mrs. Darkstone?” Amara asks, wilfully ignoring Kat’s sudden outburst. And the subsequent stares of the startled burghers of Goldharbour.
“As long as you don’t mind spending your morning with an old lady,” Estelle replies.
Amara seems genuinely offended by the very suggestion and stops just short of gasping in abject horror. “Of course we don’t mind! And you’re hardly an ‘old lady’, Mrs. Darkstone. You’re the very picture of vigour and vitality. And of grace and beauty, of course.”
Estelle smiles at Amara’s insistent compliment. “Thank you, dear.”
“Shall we be off, then?” Amara asks.
“Yes, please,” Kat answers.
Amara loops her arm through Kat’s and they wade into the hustle and bustle of Goldharbour, with Estelle following close behind.
Amara’s elegant, shimmery summer dress clashes with Kat’s threadbare, all-season, multi-purpose black pants and shirt, and tattered vest. Amara’s long, glimmering, silver-gold hair shimmers as brightly as her dress.
For an Elf, Amara has a pretty plain hair colour, unlike Kat’s pink-haired aunt and cousin. Kat’s own hair is a black mass of bedhead, barely forced into compliance by the ribbon holding it in its ponytail.
Estelle, being a beautiful, well-dressed, well-mannered lady herself, seems more like Amara’s mother than Kat’s. And she’s definitely tall enough to be an Elf. All she’s missing is the pointy ears.
Pointing with an immaculately manicured, long, delicate finger, Amara eagerly explains the significance of each and every building and market stall they pass. Kat looks on in disinterest with heavily lidded eyes. Other than the fact that everything looks more expensive here than back home, Kat has yet to notice any significant difference between Goldharbour and Porthaven.
They’re both cities by the sea that became rich and famous thanks to their vast fleets of merchant ships. This in turn led to each city hiring pirates to interfere with the other’s fleets, which itself was ultimately responsible for the rise in wealth and prominence of the Family Darkstone.
Over the course of their shared history, Goldharbour and Porthaven have often exchanged stern words with one another, occasionally escalating to exchanges of cannon fire.
In recent generations, though, the two cities have realised that it is to the benefit of everyone involved to become partners in trade, rather than rivals. The subsequent treaties signed by the two cities have established what has become known as the “East Realmgard Sempiternal Maritime Concordat”.
Of those, Kat understands only the words “east” and “Realmgard”.
The alliance between Porthaven and Goldharbour has made both cities significantly richer, and allowed them to direct their ambitions against what they have mutually decided are their true rivals.
The preposterously-named alliance’s energy is currently focused on surpassing the coalition of trade cities along Realmgard’s northern coast with the equally preposterous name of “The Most Excellent Free and Hanseatic Fraternity of the Serene Republics Boreal”.
Kat figures it’s only a matter of time before the two alliances decide that making money is better than making enemies and merge into some terrible super-alliance with a name at least sixteen words long.
As Amara continues to serve as their tour guide through the streets of Goldharbour, Kat notices something. There are posters set up on the walls at regular intervals. They haven’t yet passed close enough for Kat to get a good look at them, but there have been so many that she’s sure that they must be important.
Even from a distance, Kat can see they are each marked with an image of two gryphons, just like on the flag – the official seal of the council of magistrates that governs Goldharbour.
“Hey, Amara?” Kat asks, pointing to one of the posters. “What are those?”
A bashful look crosses Amara’s face. “I, ah, am afraid that Goldharbour has been having some trouble with a pair of bandits lately. They’re quite dramatic, to hear Uncle tell it.”
“Dramatic? What do you mean?” Estelle asks with a cocked eyebrow.
“They run around the city calling themselves the Bandits of Goldharbour,” Amara explains disdainfully. “Apparently, they’re quite fond of making an entrance and then a grand exit once they’ve grabbed whatever valuables they can get their miserable little hands on.”
She dismissively waves her hand. “But I wouldn’t worry about it,” she assures her companions. “They don’t seem to pay much attention to the tourists. And, besides, Uncle has his best men on the job. I don’t expect we’ll hear much more of the Bandits of Goldharbour.”
“I hope so,” Kat mutters.
The last thing she needs is a pair of bandits ruining her one chance at a normal, entirely uneventful day.
As much as Kat just wants to ignore the posters and spend none of her free time thinking about bandits, she feels herself drawn by a morbid sense of curiosity to read one of the posters.
Big, official-looking letters spell out the words:
Dirk Broadsword (aka Chad Dashington, aka The Ochre Pimpernel)
Alison Steel (aka Delilah Blade, aka Lizzie the Face-Scratcher)
The Bandits of Goldharbour.
Whose heinous crimes include, but are not limited to:
Threats of violence, actual violence,
brigandage, theft, larceny, burglarisation,
startling a magistrate,
general mischief and assorted chicanery,
mockery of an Officer of the Guard’s hat,
theft of an Officer of the Guard’s hat,
stomping upon of an Officer of the Guard’s hat,
undue public displays of affection, and chewing loudly.
Below the lengthy indictment of the Bandits of Goldharbour is an artist’s approximation of the two. They look barely older than Kat. In his portrait, Dirk Broadsword looks like he stepped out of one of the illustrations in those ridiculous pulp romances on Amara’s bookshelf.
In fact, he looks exactly like the hero of that The Dowager and the Highwayman book Amara wouldn’t stop gushing about.
Alison Steel, on the other hand, is young and pretty and, frankly, doesn’t seem much like a vicious bandit.
But Kat, of all people, knows that looks can be deceiving. Compared to a pirate little sister, a bandit who happens to be pretty doesn’t seem all that ridiculous.
Amara speaks up, bringing Kat’s attention away from the poster and the possibility of banditry, “You know, there’s a café near here that Uncle quite likes. I’ve never been myself, but he has only good things to say about it.”
“Breakfast is breakfast,” Kat says with a shrug.
They cross the street and step into the café. In a way, it reminds Kat of her favourite dockside tavern back home, the Hammered Nail. If, that is, the Nail happened to inherit a vast fortune from a wealthy but obscure uncle and turn its life around.
Of course, the Nail would never turn its life around. That’s part of its charm.
Where the Nail is covered in grease and dirt, everything inside of the café is made of gold or silver or ivory and polished to such a bright sheen that it makes Kat’s eyes water. Instead of a clientele of pirates, thieves and vagrants, the café is filled with the highest of Goldharbour’s high society, dressed in frilly sleeves and powdered wigs and drenched in exotic perfumes.
They’re about a hundred times as fancy and proper as Kat, and they even somehow manage to be more fancy and proper than Amara.
Kat would probably be intimidated to find herself surrounded by such finery, if she at all bothered to pay any more than the barest possible attention to it. As it is, all she cares about right now is the fact that she smells food.