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James Lowder

Crusade

1

The King's Men

King Azoun IV of Cormyr paced back and forth before a window in his castle's highest tower. After two or three steps in the circular room, the king paused and threw open the wooden shutters. Restlessly clasping his hands behind his back, he looked out on Suzail, the capital of his rich and expansive kingdom. What the monarch saw of the city from that vantage troubled him greatly.

Suzail sprawled contentedly in the bright, early spring sunshine. As on most mornings in good weather, crowds filled the narrow streets, heading toward or returning from the capital's bustling marketplace, doing what people in most of western Faerun's larger cities did each day. Servants ran from their masters' homes to shops, then returned with goods purchased. Watchmen, dressed in the livery of their office, settled disputes and kept the peace. Wealthy merchants argued among themselves about the price of ivory or cloth or wheat. Freebooters and sailors wandered through the various inns and taverns, searching for a new adventure or just a good barroom brawl. In all, Suzail looked that morning much like it had for all of King Azoun's twenty-five-year reign-peaceful and prosperous.

Unclasping his hands, Azoun ran his fingers through his silver-shot brown beard. 'Why hasn't it affected them, Vangy?' the king asked without turning around.

'Eh?' a voice sighed. 'What did you say?'

Azoun turned slowly to face Vangerdahast, royal magician of Cormyr, chairman emperius of the College of War Wizards. The paunchy mage was hunched over a chessboard, staring intently at the finely carved ivory pieces. In the bright cold light from the window, Vangerdahast looked to be the veteran of fifty winters or so. Azoun knew better. Despite the color in his wrinkled cheeks, his steady gaze and steady hands, the royal magician was well over eighty. His magic had helped him stave off old age for many years now.

'Why hasn't the Tuigan invasion affected my subjects?' the king repeated. 'Do they think the war won't touch them at all? They're going about their lives as if nothing is wrong.'

Straightening his back with a short groan, Vangerdahast cast a quick glance at his opponent in the chess match-a short, stout man with gray hair and sparkling blue eyes-then turned to Azoun. The mage recognized the puzzled tone in his king's voice, which told him that Azoun was genuinely bothered by the subject he'd broached. Vangerdahast had heard that inflection many times since he had been hired by King Rhigaerd II, Azoun's father, to tutor the young prince in heraldry and ethics. However, the tone had never been so prevalent in Azoun's voice as it had been since the Tuigan horsemen interrupted trade between Faerun and the eastern lands of Kara-Tur a little over a year ago.

'Actually, Your Highness,' Vangerdahast began, 'you've already answered your own question, though calling the Tuigan incursion a 'war' might be a bit premature.' When Azoun didn't object, the wizard continued. 'The barbarians have done little so far that really touches the lives of the average Cormyrian. Since they charged through Rashemen into Ashanath last fall, they've not moved west. Must I remind you that the nearest Tuigan is well over one thousand miles to our east, on the other end of the Inner Sea? Having barbarians camped there is hardly a direct threat to Cormyr.'

Vangerdahast's opponent in the chess game moved his queen and smiled. 'What about lost revenue? Haven't the attacks on Thesk and the countries around it slowed trade?' the stout man asked. 'Surely the guilds care about the money.'

'The guilds, especially the trappers, are the biggest opponents of any military action against the Tuigan,' Azoun noted. He shook his head. 'They feel we should wait until the barbarians threaten Cormyr directly before spending money to fight them.'

'For once, the guilds are correct,' Vangerdahast said a bit peevishly. 'The Tuigan are not an immediate problem.' The wizard looked at the chessboard, noticed that his opponent wore a grin, and cursed softly. 'You're supposed to announce your move, Dimswart. Now, what did you-ah, the queen.'

'And I believe that's checkmate,' Dimswart stated flatly. 'Your chess game really hasn't improved in all the time I've known you, Vangy.' The gray-haired man, also called the Sage of Suzail, knitted his fingers behind his head and leaned back against the room's whitewashed wall.

Snorting in irritation, Vangerdahast stood up. 'We've more important things to do in the castle than play games all day. Now that you're retired and all your daughters are married, I suppose you do little else but pore through obscure texts and hover over chessboards. Why, even the supposed 'Sage' of Shadowdale, Elminster, does more important work than you.'

Dimswart's smile faded, and he opened his mouth to reply to the royal wizard's insult. It was common knowledge that Vangerdahast held a longstanding grudge against the legendary sage and wizard, Elminster-though the origin of the feud was long forgotten. So to have Vangerdahast compare one unfavorably to him was quite a barb. The stout sage never had a chance to reply, though, as Azoun cleared his throat noisily, signaling an end to any further digressions.

'My esteemed royal wizard is correct,' the king said as he placed a hand on Vangerdahast's shoulder. A slight smile crossed Azoun's lips, but its warmth didn't quite reach his dark eyes. 'There are important matters to consider at the moment, the most pressing of which is the crusade.'

Vangerdahast frowned at the use of the word 'crusade.' Azoun noted the expression on his friend's face, then turned back to the window. 'I know you object to my plan. However, I've considered the matter carefully, and I believe that it will be better for Cormyr and the rest of Faerun if I follow my own best judgment. . despite opposition from the trappers. After the discussions I've had with the leaders of the Dales and Sembia, our own lords, and a few others, I believe I can recruit a large number of allies. If they agree to support this venture, I will lead it.'

Slowly Azoun rested one hand on the edge of the window and bowed his head. 'The Tuigan are hurting the entire continent of Faerun,' he said, anger in his voice. 'Including Cormyr. And if these barbarians, these 'horsewarriors,' are harming my people, I must challenge them. A crusade is the only way.'

Vangerdahast's frown deepened. He stalked to Azoun's side, his heavy brown robe hissing along the ground as he walked. 'Look there,' the wizard said, pointing out the open window. 'The nearest Tuigan raider is in Ashanath, half a continent from here. You can't possibly think they'll invade us soon. And can you really tell me that the horsewarriors have put a serious crimp in our economy?'

Raising his head, the king looked out at the city once again. In the direction Vangerdahast pointed lay Suzail's docks. The port was busy, as was usual for that time of year. Ships bearing the colors of countries and free cities from all over the Inner Sea dotted the piers, and Cormyrian traders bound for those places and more filled the rest of the harbor. Hundreds of sailors and longshoremen swarmed over the docks, loading and unloading cargo. Cloth and livestock, gold and ivory, art treasures and other, more precious things poured into the city by the hour.

Azoun slowly traced a path with his eyes from the dock to the foot of his tower. Closer to the piers, the king saw dozens of inns and businesses, all bustling with trade from the harbor. Moving his eyes over the slate or wooden roofs of these establishments, the king saw the wide, dusty thoroughfare called 'the Promenade.' This street, like the docks, was filled with traders from throughout Faerun and other parts of Cormyr. As Azoun watched, wagon after wagon of goods rolled past, not to mention the mob of merchants and citizens who trod the Promenade as they went about their business. The noise of the people in the streets mixed with the shrill cries of the seabirds that lofted over the harbor, creating the backdrop of sound Azoun had grown accustomed to in his years in Suzail.

The king's eyes crossed the Promenade and lit upon the sprawling, interconnected buildings that made up the royal court, the seat of Cormyr's bureaucracy. Just the day before, he'd received a report that the royal tax collectors expected a rise in income this year from tariffs levied on merchants.

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