The citizens of little Granprix are gathering in coffee shops, inns and hostelries, and the buzz of conversation flows out into the streets, around the squares in towns and villages, along the pews in churches, amongst the market stalls and along the docksides.
War is coming.
Who can have failed to notice the nervousness of the foreign nations stationed in Granprix following the debacle of Byzarbia? Men from far-flung places in the pay of the disgraced Kind Raoul of Grenouisse, barely able to speak their own language, let alone the clever dialect of Duke Zigor’s kinsmen, eye the townsfolk nervously and the hard country folk, tough as their beloved hills, more warily still.
Fisherfolk report great fleets of ships lurking offshore, merchantmen and men’o’war too, their huge masts o’ertopping the great castles of the coast. And travellers, freshly checked by the customs men of Prunkland who man the barriers separating Granprix from the lately-annexed Cap del Dit del Pen, now known as Kap Ludwig, share scuttlebutt of a province stuffed with men of many nations, of uniforms of white and blue and green and scarlet and gold, of tattoo-armed sailors filling the portside ale-houses.
From further afield, rumours of armed men speaking languages not recognised, of strange beasts and wild ceremonies carried out in the dead of night, of virgins taken from their pleading parents and dread sacrifices to terrible gods by savages from another planet.
Curiosity and terror, excitement and fear, hopes of liberation and secret apprehension.
Shadowy figures move stealthily in the shade of forest foliage. The sun breaks through the branches of an overhanging tree, and steel sparkles suddenly on high.
A young officer spots the glittering glade. A telescope is taken from its sheath and brought to eye. He watches for a moment; a minute; and then a minute more.
“Laddie,” he says softly to his sergeant, “those trees are hiding men, and men that are not ours.”
Paper and pencil are quickly put to use, and an anxious-looking rider gallops up. “To the Baron at Castell Sebastian,” says the officer, “and I want you there ‘ere noon.”