Monday, April 5, 2010

Twenty Three (sorry about the hiatus)

Moving lightly across the flat warehouse roofs, Garenol crouched to avoid creating a silhouette in the now strong morning light. His feet padded assuredly over gravel and tar, the gentle scratching noises that heralded his passing being interrupted with brief silences as he leapt effortlessly from one roof to the next, glancing downward in anticipation of possibly being spotted by early workers, although he thought this unlikely. Being a national holiday, he was banking on there being few people in this commercial ward of the city, and he was right. He saw no one moving in the blocks up to the still smoldering ruin of Karderek’s warehouse, not even a cordon marking off the pile of rubble, which he spied when he was two blocks away, peering out from around a small box that held the trapdoor entrance to the building he was standing atop of. The lack of any barriers or roping off of the site he found strange. Clearly the fire had been put out by a fire brigade, water puddles were standing in every imperfection of the cobblestone streets and alleys around the smoking ruin, and the gutters trickled in a streaming hiss in a noise audible even to Garenol high above on the rooftop. But nothing seemed to demark the rubble as potentially dangerous, strange in a city with such well regarded social services as Venne.

Squinting in an attempt to discern more detail from his distant vantage, Garenol was puzzled enough to decide he needed to move up closer. He leapt another roof closer, crouching way down and proceeding forward with his hands supporting his weight in front, wary of being spotted. He crawled slowly forward across this closer warehouse roof, feeling the tackiness of the graveled tar under his gloved hands and concentrating on keeping his movements quiet. He moved up flush with the wall edge that circles the roof in a low half wall. Garenol then pushed himself up to his knees, gently rising to peer over the edge of the wall onto the scene of Malus’ adventure of the night prior.

The burning of the warehouse had left behind only ash and cinders. Lazy black smoke still rose from the crumbled warehouse, mingling in the air above with occasional gouts of dirty steam from the piles of burnt timbers into an acrid haze. A far exterior wall still partially stood upright, smoking wooden beams slowly peeling away from the scorched red bricks. The scene was unremarkable: the fire had been put out efficiently with great amounts of water, but the materials used to build the structure had doomed it to a quick, furious conflagration.

Garenol continued to look for any marks of distinction in the rubble. No one was moving in or near the burned structure. He’d still seen no one, and was debating whether or not to move down to the building. He rose slightly in his crouch at the wall’s edge, looking out over the edge for a drainpipe or ledge that would enable his descent. On the corner nearest the burned warehouse, he spied a pipe that would be suitable. He edged his way closer to it, returning his focus to the ruin, keeping an eye out for any movement.

Clambering noiselessly down the pipe, Garenol approached the rubble swiftly, scanning the ground to try and determine if any concerted effort had been made in the ruins. He assumed that if the gold had been discovered, that tracks of a composed effort of numerous men would be apparent in the mud and ash of the street. Oddly, from his approach across the cobblestone crossroads, he saw not only no muddy track or wagon imprints. He saw no tracks at all.

Grunting to himself with slight frustration, he began swiftly to circle the smoldering property, now fairly certain that no one was nearby. Obviously, the fire brigade must have approached from a different side. He scanned the ground while moving about the perimeter, growing quickly annoyed at his lack of findings. After a few minutes, he had completely worked his away around the smoky perimeter. He found nothing.

Aside from trickles of grayish water slowly running out of the ruins, he saw no tracks. No hooves, no feet, no wagon wheels. Just a few quickly diminishing streams of water running into the storm drains. He thought to himself at first that the fire brigade’s water pumps may have erased evidence of their presence, but it surely wouldn’t have done so completely. He saw not one print, not even in areas where the ash and water had collected into soft, mushy puddles. Confused now, he stood for a moment and stared at the ruins, contemplating now scenarios in which this situation was possible. Short of a concerted effort of fairly powerful mages, not much made sense to him. He was already guessing that the gold was gone before he heard Malus’ feeble attempts at quiet approach.

Turning to see his companion clanking up the street, Garenol waved him closer impatiently. “Come over here, you oaf. We have a problem.”

Malus looked up at Garenol from watching his armored legs as he moved over the wet cobblestones. “The gold is gone, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know yet, the ruins are too hot.” Garenol replied, looking back to the ruins. “I need you to show me where these boxes would have been.”

Malus raised a gauntlet covered hand, pointing a metal finger to a point in the ruins. “If anything still remains, it will be over there.”

“Notice anything strange?” Garenol asked as he reached into a leather pouch on his belt, producing a beaker filled with a milky liquid. He drew one of his thin daggers and began cutting away the wax seal on the beaker’s mouth.

Malus looked from the ruins to the cobblestones around the front of the warehouse. He grimaced in thought for a moment. “The fire brigade must have come up from the back side,” he finally offered with a shrug, still looking for traces of activity.

“Same thing I thought,” replied Garenol, now working the cork out of the beaker, having cut away the wax covering. “But I already circled the place. However this fire was put out, nothing has touched the ground here since you left last night.”

Malus eyed Garenol suspiciously, “That can’t be right, I even heard the fire brigade bells.”

“I know,” said Garenol with a sigh, “I can’t figure it out either. But I do have some theories.” He held up the beaker of milky fluid to the light as he finally worried the cork loose. Malus looked at the beaker with mild curiosity.

“Drinking already?” he asked with a smirk.

“Hardly,” replied Garenol before he quickly drank the contents of the beaker. “Just something I started keeping on my person when I began working with you.”

Malus watched as Garenol put the cork back into the beaker and put it back into his pouch. Garenol’s cheeks had flushed into a shade that Malus had not seen on the typically pale elf before. Winking with an arrogant little wave, Garenol walked directly out into the hot, smoking ruins.

Malus blinked a few times, watching Garenol proceed over the crumbling timbers and bed of coals underneath. Neither Garenol nor any of his equipment was being affected by the heat, fire and smoke in any way. Malus nodded in a grudging respect. Good idea, that potion.

Garenol walked quickly and assuredly over the uneven surfaces of the ruin, glancing around appraisingly for anything remarkable. As he neared the spot that Malus had indicated, he turned back to Malus, still standing in the street.

“About here?” he asked Malus.

“Roughly,” Malus replied, “There were a number of boxes. If anything remains, you should be able to find it in that area.”

Garenol began poking around carefully with the tips of his boots, the enchantment of the potion rendering them invulnerable. All he saw in his immediate area were pieces of the collapsed roof. He began throwing aside pieces of roof beams and the tiles that once covered them. He cleared a space all the way to what had been the floor of the warehouse, intact but scorched, the top layer of the wood cracked and black, slowly forming into still hot coals. He found nothing of note. No melted gold, no scorched boxes or burlap bags.

After satisfying himself that there was nothing to see in the area, Garenol stood up straight, rising to the balls of his feet and stretching his back. Whatever had been here, whatever Malus had seen, was gone. He looked back to his assigned companion. Malus was looking back down the street he had approached on, no doubt looking out for an possible passersby. Garenol wondered for a second if Malus had the resources available to accomplish something of this magnitude. Then he stifled a laugh. Malus couldn’t even bluff at cards. Gifted in certain areas, the man was not a good criminal by any stretch of the imagination, and this odd undertaking had required an orchestrated operation of a magnitude that even he, Garenol, could hardly comprehend. Garenol quickly dismissed his appraisal of Malus as a culprit.

He cleared his throat and spoke loudly to get Malus’ attention. “Whatever was here, it’s all gone,” he stated flatly. He began to pick his way back through the rubble, still looking carefully at the ruins around his feet but already satisfied with his conclusion.

He stepped free of the ruins near Malus and walked back to him. Malus, for his part, stopped looking up and down the streets that approached the warehouse.

“Still no one has come near,” Malus said without inflection. “This holiday has cleared out the area.”

“I know,” Garenol said, moving past Garenol back to the alley where there horses were tied, no longer wary of spies or witnesses. “But whoever made off with the gold, and extinguished the fire . . . This was a massive undertaking Malus. We are not the only rogue element in this city now. Judging by the complete lack of evidence and disappearance of an almost immovable amount of gold, I don’t even think we are the big fish in this pond anymore.”

Malus nodded, fingering the haft of his handaxe absent-mindedly. “So now what?” he asked, obviously frustrated with mystery and anxious for a task he was skilled at.

“There’s nothing to be done with this for now,” Garenol said, gesturing back towards the warehouse. “Time we got refocused. We still have the final job here before we go back to Pareil.”

“The archbishop,” Malus said, a slight smile playing across his face. “That is a task more to my liking.”

Garenol glanced across at his companion, “Surveillance first, Malus.”

Malus’ smile quickly dissipated, “Fine,” he replied grudgingly.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Update on Where We Are Going

As we are ending the third nine weeks at school this week and then going into spring break, I am taking the opportunity to really sit down with some colored pencils and outline where I want this book to progress, making the individual character arcs, their links, etc. It is a remarkably dense process, but one I really hope will enable my writing to move more smoothly, and enable the multiple story lines to be more coherent and flowing, and consistent with one another. I doubt enough folks are following these installments closely enough to be really disappointed, but if you are reading this, rest assured that work is being done, just behind the scenes. I never realized before how much non-narrative structure had to exist behind fiction, as I never wrote much of it before. Pretty neat process, just not always producing something that would entertain. Have a good one.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Departure Into an Ongoing Debate

I’ve been having this internal debate for a couple of months now that I would like to share. Having been raised in the church, I’ve never really had a period of my life in which I was not under at least some of the auspices of the Christian tradition. It has been an inescapable facet of my life, and a critical pillar of my development, and my identity for as long as I can remember.

As I watch Christianity as it is popularly conceived in the world at large, I am often embarrassed of those who label themselves as Christian. Too often it would seem that the most vocal self identified Christians are typically the most hateful and/or most resistant to anything in the world culture that would seem to in any way challenge or complicate the views that they have espoused.

Now, of course I am not going to waste time writing about how immensely stupid creationists are. Nor am I going to feed the hatred of people like Pat Robertson or the Westboro Baptist Church. I think that any intelligent person, Christian or otherwise, can reasonably see that the most shrill and vocal people that identify themselves to the public as Christians are not representative of the body of Christianity as a whole. Further, I could argue that they aren’t really embracing of a Christian ethic at all, but I won’t beat that old, tired horse in this medium.

What I would like to ruminate on is the role of identity among Christians. Particularly, I would like to share the debate I currently have both with myself and a few people I enjoy talking to.

To summarize our debates, I will try and frame the question succinctly.

To what degree is a self-identified Christian’s disavowal of their own good characteristics and actions actually doing that person psychological harm?

That is a densely packed question. Let me unpack it here now that I have proven to myself that there is just one question.

Let us say for the sake of argument that Henry is a young adult in his late twenties or early thirties. He is gainfully employed, has a reasonable home or apartment, reliable transportation, and enough money for food and reasonable amounts of personal entertainment. He has a couple of friends that he has satisfying interactions with, a good, talking relationship with his extended family, and a significant other with whom he has an enjoyable relationship (both emotionally and physically).

To this point with Henry, we see an individual with the three lowest levels met on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (an interesting little theory pointed out to me by my wife, and her psychology degree). Henry has his needs met on the levels of physiology, safety, and love/belonging.

The next level of the hierarchy involves esteem. At this level, the individual’s needs are to be accepted and valued by one’s self and by others. Of the needs combined in this level, self-esteem is the primary component, as one’s perception of his/her worth and value to others will be colored by whether or not one considers one’s self worthy and deserving of this respect. Thus, people with a low sense of self esteem or worth tend towards inferiority complex, where they strive for the esteem of others, but do not either accept or achieve it due to the underlying problem of their lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

So that’s a psychology 101 approach to the hierarchy. And the reason I have chosen to focus on this fourth level is that I have begun to think about the role of personal religion in this level. Obviously, the role of a personal religious belonging will start at this level, if we are being honest.

Of course, religion is often a part of the third level of love and belonging, as many people are Christian because they were raised in the church by family members, or brought into the church by a significant other or close friend. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to show a very significant number of people who came to be a self-identified Christian without any influence from a friend or family member, or someone they share a significant relationship with. Even if that person would like to contribute their religious belonging to a ‘conversion experience’ or divine will, I highly doubt that these events took place in a vacuum and wholly apart from any human relationship. So at its core, religious belief stems from social mechanism, as one group of faithful propagates another group.

But that only scratches the surface and relegates religious belief to the status of club or organization. I am not so cynical as to say that the church is simply a country club or the PTA. After all, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as Christians would seem to take away from it something beyond social and familial belonging, even if many are only church members for those reasons. I feel it is a safe assumption that many heartfelt Christians have some of their self-identity and self-worth inextricably linked to their chosen identification as Christian, and whatever that entails to them, insofar as they strive to be a ‘good’ member of the faith.

So here comes by big concern, and the debate I have not been able to resolve in a satisfying way for myself. I have personally known a great number of Christians who, when they do something good, or something beneficial happens to them, or they excel at something, attribute these positive things to God, or Jesus. In Jesus’ name. Not by my will, but by His, etc. Insofar as things happen in their life that they would be proud of, or find self worth or ego inflation in, they attribute those things to God.

As a corollary to these attributions of good things to God (Jesus, the Holy Spirit), these very same people, when confronted with a negative aspect of their personality, or something they have done that is wrong, or selfish, or mean, they will, when taking responsibility at all (people who consistently shift and deny blame are not part of this, and a whole other long discussion), will typically accept that the fault is theirs, that they are ‘only human’. That whatever shortcoming they have, it is their fault and something they should work to improve or correct. Or in the case of certain negative attributes, something they should pray that God help them correct, or that God’s will fix it.

Either way, here is the issue simply put. Positive things the person does are attributed to God. Negative things the person does are from some fault they, as an individual person, have. In only one case does the individual involved actually end up owning or identifying the behavior or characteristic, if I am looking at it correctly. Only when the person of Christian self-identity does ‘bad’ do they actually own the action or behavior. If they do the right thing, or something good, then naturally this activity is attributed to God, to God’s glory, in His name, and so on.

So, with my admittedly limited background in the psychology of personality, it would seem that for a person who has personally adopted an identity as a Christian, that their only way to meet needs in this tier of the hierarchy would be to do things that are only attributable to them as an individual. Which, in this line of reasoning, only leaves them with negative character traits for self-identity or establishing self-worth. After all, anything that would generally be considered a positive activity is not through their own agency, but through God who strengthens them.

To actually ‘own’ any personal agency, and to have any self-identity or self-worth, it would really seem that a devout person at this level of need fulfillment would have to seek out their own negative behavior to establish an identity. After all, they have been taught in the faith that the good they do is to glorify God, that pride is a deadly sin, that arrogance leads to man’s downfall, and so on.

So it would seem to me that those who are devout in the faith, particularly if they come to it in their formative years, when so much of a person’s personality development has yet to be settled, actually have a real stumbling block in terms of self-esteem and self-identity. If the hierarchy is in any way true, then a person is going to have needs for self-esteem and self-worth, and I am legitimately worried that a certain type of person, particularly religiously faithful persons, are robbing themselves of their own positive characteristics by being conditioned to disavow them or attribute them to an external agency (God).

Even more sinister is the idea that no matter what, the human animal seeks out these needs regardless. And if the individual is left without positive recourse in seeking self-esteem, why wouldn’t they seek out negative, or bad, activity. After all, if they sin, then that sin is upon them as an individual. Regardless of the negative or bad judgment, the identification as a sinner, a ‘bad person’, or as a morally weak individual, is at least some sort of personal identifier. Even a bad identity would seem to be preferable to the human ego over no identity at all. Better to be a bad person, than to be nothing at all. To think otherwise would be ridiculous: the self, even in its most base and negative actions, seeks to establish itself as an independent entity.

So, in establishing in the individual the common Christian ethic, by which we see the positive actions and things in our lives as happening through the agency of a loving God, and the negative or sinful things we do as a fault on the part of the human individual, is the religion somehow robbing the self at this level in the hierarchy of human needs? In attributing the good things that a person can think and do away from them to some other agent actually robbing the self of its identity? And does the self, in reaction to this taught and then absorbed denial of self-pride in positive characteristics, seek out the only ways in which it, as a human, can find some self-identity, by embracing only the negative characteristics and actions that ‘make them human’?

When Henry finally explodes and beats up his girlfriend, or starts driving drunk, or stealing from his job, is it because as a self he is looking for an identification he can embrace as a self, even if it is ‘abusive’, ‘dangerous drunk’, or ‘thief’? When a vocal and outspoken evangelical Christian gets caught in a cocaine-fueled tryst with a gay prostitute, of course it is hilarious to the dominant culture that readily embraces the public fall of a polarizing individual. But what about the individual? What in that person’s personality was so missing and neglected that they would seek out such a self-destructive behavior in a way that will ultimately get them judged in public? Is it simply because they need to be identified somehow, as anything good they do serves in no way to enrich them as a person, because they have been trained religiously to disregard it and even to be embarrassed when their good actions and thoughts are praised?

Of course, I am not seeking to give folks who do these sorts of things a way out or a pass. Ultimately I believe that the individual must be able to control their own actions to a great degree, if not completely. But I do wonder at what Christianity as a religion accomplishes if it robs the individual of something that by its very nature it needs to be a complete person.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Halfway to the First Goal: Some Reflections

First of all, I never really thought I would make it to this point, halfway through the amount of text that most of the internet seems to suggest is standard for a first novel submission (around 100,000 words). Second, there is no way in hell I can tie up the storylines I want to in another 50,000 words.

Which is pretty much fine with me. I don't think genre fiction, particularly sci-fi and fantasy, really hold to those submission standards. It would seem that the opposite is almost true, that these genre publishers actively seek out the next series to be as big as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. And the reasoning is sound: when new books come out for either of those series, they are immediate best-sellers. Something about the fantasy genre lends itself to reader loyalty to certain series, even if they get stale (Like WOT did in the middle books) or stall out completely (like ASOIAF has).

So with the notion that a series ends up being a type of investment with dividends for a publisher, I think that what I am currently writing here (Garenol and Malus, etc.)opens itself to the opportunity to be a multiple volume story (I think using the term 'epic' self-referentially is asshole-ish). But the story would become every large in scope eventually, spreading from my current handful of characters to dozens, eventually hitting every part of this created world, and detailing what will become a world war.

But that is far down the road. I am not posting progression today because I really need to build an outline of where I would like this to all proceed. I can already look back into the consolidated text and find logical fallacies or contradictions in motivation or chronology, so I know that I am going to have to have a reference frame proceeding forward. I find it amazing how even something that I am basically creating out of my head can quickly become chronologically incorrect, or contradictory. For example, last night I went back and read through the three pieces that I have written so far about Michael and Yen, and already I am itching to rewrite, as those characters have evolved in my mind already to the point where I wish to edit their initial appearance. But I know on some level that if I go back into the text already to begin self-editing that I will never actually finish at all. So if you (all three of you) notice a logical fallacy, or contradiction, or timetable mess-up, please make a note of it somewhere and let me know after I decide I have enough to actually begin to edit for submissions, which I will announce.

Another thing, in the interest of full disclosure. Most of these stories are either an amalgamation of the time I spent in high school playing a highly modified version of Dungeons and Dragons with a close group of friends, or they are plots I have created using those characters along with my own. Some of the characters were ones I played, others were played by friends (both from the original game in high school, and in college when I used the source material to run another group), others are my own creation. I have yet to show this writing to the members of this original group. I figure that most of the fellow players, like myself, would find it acceptable that a character they played in the game would be somehow remembered this way, even if I am taking a number of liberties with the character's and the storyline as a whole, which I am.

However, the vast majority of the background material (geographical, political, mythological) here came from a single person, who ran the games we participated in during high school. It was his hand that created the nations and many of the characters I will eventually reveal. I am really banking on his benevolence when I reveal this as something I may try to profit from. Although nothing has ever been published, I definitely feel a moral obligation to receive the approval of this individual in particular, and the group of players as a whole, before this ever advances any further than a vanity project on a small blog. Even to the degree where a percentage of any realized proceeds would be involved, I will want to get the approval of these individuals before I send any of this material beyond this current, not for profit, medium. At a certain point, I would not be able to say with any honesty where homage and devotion to collaborative story-telling end, and outright theft and plagiarism begin. So some of what I write will have occurred originally as a collaborative narrative with a background and context created by another individual, and thus I do hold an obligation to the other individuals involved in that process.

Here's to hoping that they are nice about it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Twenty Two (50,317 words as of this post!)

Tacit awoke to a murderous amount of sunlight streaming into his airy room from the vaulted windows that ran down two sides of the large, elegant inn, terminating here in the corner suite, offering a view of both the rebuilt Hall of the Confederacy and the Crystal Cathedral. He groaned, rising from under the downy quilts to squint at the expanse of gleaming, clean glass bathing the whole of his room in blinding white light. He couldn’t even turn his face to the windows facing the Crystal Cathedral, the building itself reflecting a truly burning white light straight through the room, leaving every surface of the elegant room glittering.

Tacit propped himself up against the large, carved wooden headboard, shading his eyes with one hand. Last night’s back and forth conversation with Jean Pareil had taken hours, the minor spell requirements adding time and delays to the process of the conversation, as Tacit at one end would cast a spell, sending a number of sentences out across over a thousand miles into the ears of Jean Pareil, who would respond with a spell of his own.

Although Pareil sounded exuberant with Tacit’s research discovery, that positive praise had not alleviated Tacit’s negative feelings regarding Crynus and Brevarious, who Pareil had confirmed were currently ‘operating’ in the city of Venne, under his, Pareil’s, control, direction, and protection. He grimaced at the picture of the two lunatics loose in the city, Malus no doubt caving in skulls and leaving a path of destruction. And Garenol, his fellow elf, who should know better, being himself a royal, probably giving Malus’ leash too much slack and drinking himself into a stupor in between bouts of uncontainable explosions and silent, surgical murders.

Tacit now understood the use of such operatives, and their usefulness to an operation such as Pareil’s. His understanding did little to alleviate his wariness of the stability or loyalty of either. He’d seen the amounts of gold deposited in the name of each man, and knew their pay for the dirtier aspects of operations far outweighed his own.

Of course, Tacit valued his citizenship and place in the Strasstruppen above petty concerns of pay. Malus and Garenol are mindless thugs, he thought to himself, finally swinging his bare feet over the side of the bed, slipping each into a low leather shoe. If they are working in the city, fine, but they need not know that I am here. After today’s work, I will be headed outside the city anyway.

Tacit walked to the richly decorated dressing table against the wall across from the foot of his bed. His eyes finally adjusted to the sheer white gleam of the room, still marveling at the beauty and extravagance of the suite. Tacit had protested vehemently when Jean Pareil had informed him of the reservation here in the Confederate Crown, but his superior would not brook second-guessing. If King Galen was good enough to make him a minor noble for a small amount of time, he’d have to play the role. Clothes, attitudes, transportation, and especially in his displays of wealth. Tacit would just as soon have taken a room above a tavern somewhere off the main thoroughfares, but the nobility of Haarkedamia always seemed, to him and Pareil both, to behave as if their displays of wealth justified and solidified their positions in society’s upper strata. They had shared a laugh at the flamboyance of the attire King Galen had teleported to him; gold embroidered tailcoats, ascots and cravats resplendent with minute embroidered details and exotic fabrics, tight riding breeches in absurd peacock colors.

Tacit had to admit he liked the boots, though. The renowned leatherworkers of Wood’s End had outdone themselves on the subtle, tobacco brown kneeboots. The tall boots fit Tacit’s legs as if sewn directly over his bare skin, and once donned, felt as if they weighed nothing, although Tacit knew they would take the harshest of beatings, his initial ride into Wood’s End ending with a day’s travel in mud and torrential downpours. He’d decided to keep the boots after the assignment ended, no use letting something obviously tailored just for him go to waste.

Tacit reached into the cut crystal basin that acted as a sparkling centerpiece to the dressing table, bringing a double handful of clear, cold water up and briskly splashing his face, pushing loose hairs away from his eyes and forehead, brushing them back behind his pronounced, pointed ears. He looked up at the framed mirror that rose from the back of the table, looking at his bleary blue eyes, flecked with the streaks of red that denoted yet another late evening. He’d finally come out of his magic trance well past midnight, having heard the fire brigade wagons streaking through town once again, their bells heralding the presence of his occasional companions and fellow operatives. He’d shook his head, regarding the rather nice carpet underneath him, at the sound, hoping that whatever chaos the two were no doubt nurturing into life, that it was for the good of his master’s plans.

He thought back to an argument that had taken place between himself and Jean Pareil. The offices of the Strasstruppen’s central command occupied a truly nondescript building in Tribunus City, the imperial capital and largest city east of the Barrier Peaks. The elegant city of spires, flying buttresses and white marble sometimes looked to Tacit to shrink back from the Strasstruppen’s keep, a squat, square keep of enormous brown marble blocks, ensconced within its own defensive perimeter: a planed flat expanse of deep green lawns for a quarter mile in every direction from the building, occasional lone Constantinian Pines standing tall and spare from the wholly neutral landscape.

Many citizens avoided the building consciously, and Tacit always held back a laugh, looking out the windows of Pareil’s offices onto the unnaturally beautiful lawns, expecting every time to see elegant and beautiful elven families eating on the lawns, enjoying the surroundings as they did the innumerable parks of Tribunus City in which they paid homage to their country’s rugged beauty. Instead, he always saw the same sight; an empty landscape, the streets that marked the ends of the property moving along quickly as those who rode and walked those roads deliberately avoided the lawns and the view of the building itself. As if somehow a truly dull brown building housed a nation’s collective dread and terror.

That morning’s briefing had not progressed well, as Tacit remembered, walking quietly across to the armoire that the porters had deposited his new clothing in after carefully laundering and ironing each piece. After a few months of small intelligence gathering missions to carefully gauge the aptitudes and weaknesses of Garenol and Malus, Pareil had sent the two operatives into the Allthorian city of Fauston for an assassination. Tribune only knew where Pareil had acquired the two men. Garenol was an understandable recruit: well connected with an axe to grind and martial skills. But Malus, Tacit did not trust Malus to do anything except sow discord and chaos, and apparently for no other reason except his own amusement. Tacit had gone to Jean that morning to express his concerns, and had received a stinging rebuke for his troubles.

“I am just not sure with this recruit you are sending into Allthoria,” he had led in, delicately, still too grateful for his promotion and inclusion in Pareil’s operating team to be too forceful. “The man strikes me as unstable, and completely disengaged from anything that doesn’t gratify either his physical appetite or his enjoyment of killing and chaos. You set me over them, for which I am eternally grateful, but in that role of responsibility I would be remiss not to share my feeling about a subordinate,” he had stammered out, standing stiffly in front of the beautiful expanse of blond wood that covered Jean Pareil’s desk, hands clenched behind him.

“So,” Jean Pareil had started off, leaning across his desk and opening an ornate lacquered box, taking a long, thin cigar from it. The elf was older than Tacit by at least half a century, the white streaks spreading back from his temples belying his age where his ageless smooth features would not. The streaked hair, once dirty blonde, was now shot through with stark white, was close cropped in the older Imperial fashion, emulating an emperor now dead for well over 500 years. His dark eyes hardly showed any color aside from black, although the constant movement of the dark orbs showed an active, inquisitive intelligence. “What would you suggest we do? Remove Malus from the assignment? They are already across the frontier, moving south into Allthoria. How long have you been holding these doubts back?”

Leaning back, he took a tinderstick from a small pewter cup and struck it off a rough patch on the cup’s side. He let the sulfurous tip burn off, and then held it to the cigar’s end, puffing the cigar into a gentle ember glow. “You now come here to suggest what? An extraction? A complete replanning of the mission the two of them were assigned? Perhaps sell them out to the Allthorian authorities to enrich our positions with them?” He took a long draw on the cigar, his gaze making Tacit uncomfortable. He had yet to ask Tacit to sit down.

“You come in here, with a mission underway, to share your belief that one of our operatives is unsuitable, with no suggested solution to your perceived problem.” Pareil shook his head disapprovingly, still staring at the now perspiring Tacit. Pareil stood up, the thin cigar clenched between his teeth, and leaned out over his desk, his height giving him an even more imperious look. He slolwly took the cigar from his mouth, looking at the burning tip with an appraising eye. He had then gestured at Tacit with it forcefully, pale blue smoke twirling in the still air of the room. “Son, you have to begin thinking like an agent of the Strasstruppen. We have to be able to rely on you to think independently. I need to know I can send you into any situation, in any country, with a certain set of goals, knowing that how those goals are achieved is up to your superios discretion and wise judgment. That is the gift of truly remarkable agents; autonomous thought leading to successful action.”

Jean sighed deeply, rubbing one temple of his slender head with his free hand. He sat back down, gesturing with resignation to a leather-covered chair in front of his desk. Tacit moved quickly to occupy the chair, gripping the armrests to combat the shaking of his hands. He tried to calm himself, taking deep breaths and focusing on the beat of his heart, rattling in his chest, willing it to slow down. He did not dare break eye contact with his superior.

Jean smoked quietly for a few moments, finally looking from Tacit to the walls of his personal office, to a suit of chain armor and weapons hung from the wall to Tacit’s right. Tacit followed his gaze to the wall, admiring the display himself. He read down an impressive list of battles and campaigns that were carved into a small stone plaque beside the armaments. He recognized most of the names, and was impressed by the list, a memorial of around one hundred and fifty years in combat experience. Tacit remembered listening to Jean’s war stories from his time before the Strassstruppen.

Jean began again, in a calmer tone, “I am going to send you to Fauston. Your assignment is to observe Crynus and Brevarius as they go about their assignment. Do not be discovered by either of them and make a detailed observance of their activities. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Tacit said immediately, in a tone he hoped sounded confident. “I will depart immediately if there is nothing else?” He watched Jean expectantly.

“Gather your equipment, you will be teleported in to be there earlier than the other two and establish yourself in the city. Do not fail in this, Tacit. I need to know that when I am gone that this operating cell will be in capable hands.”

Tacit rose to his feet with a surge, color rising in his face at the unexpected compliment. “Sir.” He turned and left before anything else could be said, unable to stifle a smile for more than the brief moment it took him to leave, closing the door swiftly behind him.

Tacit finished dressing as his memories played back. He was smiling to himself at how horrible that meeting had been, except for that ray of hope at the very end. But his smile faded quickly as he remembered the operation that came after: Fauston, and the disaster it became.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Twenty One

Garenol leapt up the steps of the Bloody Fist, hoping that Dorick would have a horse or know a close stable. He worried that the fire brigade would have noticed something amiss during the warehouse fire, and waited for the ruins to cool enough to investigate. If that had happened, today was going to devolve quickly. People could be relied on to overlook small things, and surely a few coins found in the charred warehouse wreck would be pocketed without incident. But the amount of money Malus had reported wasn’t even portable enough to steal with a concerted effort of allied criminals. Even worse, if melted into a solid mass, it would be even more immovable, an incomprehensible mystery to fuel speculations among an already uneasy nobility and merchant population. Garenol sped up as his speculations began to race in his head.

Moving through the open tavern door, Garenol spotted Dorick, chatting from behind the bar with a few customers seated there to enjoy breakfast. He jogged over quickly, slapping his hands down forcefully on the bar, coins clinking underneath one.

“Dorick, I need a horse, do you have one in the stable to spare?” Garenol asked impatiently, interrupting the jovial talk Dorick was engaged in.

Dorick looked up slowly from where he had leaned over the long counter, his laughter dying away, to be replaced by a wry look. He cleared his throat. “Oh certainly, liege, I believe the city coroner’s horse is stabled and available out there right now.”

Garenol’s expression, unflinching, did not betray him. “Look, Dorick,” he said hurriedly, revealing the generous stack of coins, “I need a horse, at least for the day.”

Dorick sighed, tilting his head to judge the height of the stack of gold on his bar. “My horse is in the far back stall, to the left. Be kind to him, he was a gift. The saddle is in the large chest on the wall of his stall.”

“Thanks Dorick,” Garenol said quickly, already turning for the door once again.

“And Garenol,” Dorick said in a schoolmarm’s warning tone, “This,” scraping the coins off the counter into an apron pocket, “is just a rental fee for the day. Make damned sure that animal is returned to me.”

Garenol waved a dismissive hand back over his shoulder as he disappeared through the open doorway, stumbling between two city guards on their way in the door. The two glanced after him briefly, then continued on into the room; the smell too good to bother with an inconsiderate elf.

Garenol ran back down the alley, now unconcerned about the condition of his boots. He leapt the stable’s low gate effortlessly, and yelled at Malus, “Saddle up, be with you in just a moment,” as he ran past the confused man. Malus blinked a few times, and continued to saddle his new mount.

Garenol skidded to a halt at the back of the small stable, looking left into the final stall. In the dim, he could make out a dappled gray stallion, not as tall or broad as Malus’ horse, but rippling with defined muscles under its sleek, smooth skin. Garenol gave a low whistle. Being raised with high bred horses, he recognized a beautiful specimen when he saw one. The noble animal turned at the low whistle, regarding Garenol coolly. He patted the horse on the flank, moving carefully around him to the box that was nailed into the stall’s plank wall. Lifting off the lid, he saw yet another surprise, an elegant Quintheniar riding saddle, crafted by the wood’s dwelling elves of the small nation of Quintheniar, north of Haarkedamia, nestled between the large human empire of Allthoria and the Barrier Peaks.

Garenol lifted the saddle carefully, marveling at its crafting and how little it weighed. A delicate ivy pattern was embossed into the tanned leather, and hand hammered silver metalwork was delicately interwoven where common iron would be found on most saddles. “Some gift,” Garenol said to himself, lowering the saddle back into the box and taking up a saddle blanket. “No wonder he wants it back,” he continued under his breath as he slung the blanket over the animal’s back. “Have to ask old Dorick about what kind of friends he has made in Quintheniar when I get some time.” He continued with the saddle, quickly readying the proud looking horse for riding.

Malus looked around the corner into the stall, “Ready when you are,” he said quietly, eying the horse as Garenol adjusted the stirrups. “Pretty little horse,” he said before disappearing once more around the corner.

Garenol laughed, patting the horse on the flank reassuringly as he swung into the saddle gracefully. “You’ll rue that joke if we are getting chased. This little monster will run circles around that brute Malus stole. Won’t you?” he finished, leaning out over the horse’s neck, taking up the reins. The animal snorted and stamped with its front hooves, obviously ready to move. “My kind of horse,” Garenol said, letting the animal back out of the stall, shaking out its mane and snorting.

He popped the reins lightly, and the excited horse trotted to the stable gate, nosing the wooden gate open and proceeding into the alley, ignoring Malus atop his big mare. Garenol smiled as he bounced past. Malus shook his head, then steered his mount in behind Garenol, following him down the alley onto Meridian Street.

Garenol waited at the entry to the main thoroughfare, trying to find a sufficient gap to steer his mount into the boisterous street traffic. Malus pulled his reins lightly, steering his horse around Garenol’s mount and directly into the street, pedestrians stumbling and diving to get out of his huge mount’s way.

Garenol yelled a belated warning to clear the way when he realized what Malus was doing, then sheepishly steered his own horse into the large wake left by Malus’ passing. He tried his best to ignore the glare of the people on foot that surrounded them both, their eyes numerous and accusing. He gently prodded his horse with his heels, getting as close to Malus as he could.

Malus turned in his saddle, looking back and down at Garenol, who had advanced as close as possible to his large horse. He smirked, “You did say we needed to hurry.”

“Which part of we may be in danger here did you not understand?” Garenol hissed back, deftly maneuvering his mount into a small gap to draw alongside Malus.

“Fine, better a seen enemy and open confrontation than this ridiculous subterfuge and sneaking around,” Malus replied under his breath, looking sideways at Garenol and not paying attention to the crowd scrambling to avoid his horse’s hooves. “Why should we concern ourselves with this money and who finds it? We can’t take it ourselves, so why are we so worried. If someone seeks us, let them come.”

“Malus, whoever brought that money here is running a massive operation of some sort. If it’s Jean Pareil, we need to know how in the dark we really are. If it isn’t, I’m sure that he would want to know that someone with access to huge amounts of Tribunus gold is moving it into Haarkedamia. This is bigger than a couple of minor assassinations.”

“Bigger than Polk?” Malus retorted, the look on his face agitated. “What we do in his death with shake this nation more than money.”

“You don’t get it, fool,” Garenol snapped back, struggling to keep his mount near Malus’ chestnut mare. “What you found is the most important thing right now, we need more information.”

Malus grimaced, pulling his gaze forward over the top of the parting crowds, squinting ahead. “As I said, on your head, Crynus.” He spurred his horse with the heels of his armored boots, the horse bolting forth into the teeming mass of people, toppling a fruit cart. Garenol followed, cursing Malus’ short sighted stupidity. At least he was going to go back to the warehouse with him. Garenol was now worried about an encounter with authorities at the site. He hoped Malus would let him approach the site surreptitiously and gather what information there was to be had.

Malus led the way through the throngs in the streets carelessly, his forceful steering of the large horse creating ripples of resentful, cursing pedestrians at his passing. Garenol fell in line behind him, tiring quickly of trying to move carefully through the crowded streets at Malus’ side, and embarrassed by the looks that he and Malus were receiving. He mumbled to himself as he followed, his hood drawn up over his face to both obscure his features and block the accusing stares. He let his horse fall into step behind Malus, thinking that Malus should at least remember how to get back to the warehouse.

Malus lead the way back to where the warehouse was carefully, taking an occasional turn off the direct path then veering back a block later, watching behind them carefully for anyone following them. Fairly certain that they were still operating unseen, he picked up the pace, letting his mount break into a quicker gait when they entered the more industrial part of town, since the crowds thinned here considerably.

After twenty minutes of riding, Malus brought his horse to an abrupt halt. Garenol’s horse stopped automatically, jolting Garenol out of his disaffected trance. He threw back his hood and took in the surroundings, anonymous warehousing and large workhouses with wide avenues to permit great trade wagons to maneuver between the buildings. The smell of burning wood drifted to his nose, and his features crinkled at the acrid smell, prevalent although they were still blocks away from Karderek’s warehouse.

Malus dismounted, and walked back to where Garenol sat, still mounted on the wiry dappled gray. “We should walk from here.”

“Fair enough,” Garenol replied, swinging out of his saddle, “Where shall we put the horses, valiant leader?”

Malus glared. Turning away from Garenol, he walked back to his mount without a reply, taking the reins and walking the chestnut mare into an alley across the street from where they had stopped. Malus looked up and down the street. Finding no one apparent, he led his mount into the dark alley. Garenol watched this process with amusement. Then he too led his horse into the alley, finding Malus carefully hitching his horse to a drainage pipe leading down from a neighboring rooftop.
Garenol did likewise, while looking back towards the alley entrance. The odd angle of the building here created a blind spot where they were standing: the horses could not be seen from the street. Garenol nodded at the appropriateness of the location. Turning to Malus, he asked. “Would you like to stay here? I can go up from this spot and approach by rooftops.”

“How will I know if I am needed?” Malus replied, his suspicion of this new plan obvious, “We are still at least five blocks away.”

“If things go bad for some reason, you will know,” Garenol said with a sly smile, moving his cloak back away from his limbs, getting ready to climb the drain pipe. “If I am outnumbered, I stop being subtle. You’ll hear it.”

Garenol placed a foot back into his stirrup, stepping up lightly onto the saddle, then pushing off the saddle, jumping without a noise to the drain pipe, his leap carrying him already well up the side of the warehouse. His horse craned his neck to see what had happened, but Garenol was already clambering out of sight over the ridge at the top of the roof.

Malus watched him go, a disapproving look spreading over his face as he reached up to stroke his horse’s mane. Bane would be a good name for you, he thought as he looked at the great beast, amusing himself by thinking of the shocked looks of all the people who’d leapt out of their way earlier. He hoped this detour would alleviate Garenol’s paranoia, he was hungry again.

Monday, March 1, 2010


The smell of the Bloody Fist’s house cured bacon and sausages drifted lazily out of the open front door of the tavern, acting as a beacon to the crowds who were slowly moving along the street outside. The fog was slowly burning away, revealing a blue sky unmarred by clouds, twinkling over Lake Venne and giving the wet cobblestones of Meridian Street a jewel-like gleam. Garenol watched the growing crowd from the table he had secured after a few hours of restorative sleep, the previous night’s exertions, both physical and oenological, melting off his slim frame as he enjoyed his second breakfast.

The first, smaller meal had awoken him in his room, as Dorick himself had delivered a tray of steaming sweet rolls and a little pot of smoky Allthorian tea. Garenol had thanked Dorick profusely and eaten lustily, willfully ignoring Dorick as he quickly glanced around Garenol’s room, no doubt seeking any sign of wrongdoing the previous evening. Finding nothing to satisfy his suspicions, Dorick had thrown Garenol, now propped up on his pillows, a sideways glance, which Garenol accepted with a benevolent smile, waving a half devoured slice of plum bread at Dorick. Grumbling, Dorick had departed, not at all looking forward to the morning’s inevitable unpleasant surprise. He knew Garenol’s light, cheerful mood was almost never good for anyone else. He sighed to himself as he marched back down the stairs into the kitchen quickly, hoping that whatever it was making the mad elf so cheerful would at least be easily cleaned up.

Garenol had dressed quickly for the holiday, sending a loose linen shirt down with the morning porter for steaming as he donned a pair of doeskin breeches, tucking the close fitted ends of these into the top of his nicer boots; deep burgundy and cobbled out of horse hide. He then took from his pack a hauberk of fine chainmail, the delicate looking links carefully looped together and then sewn onto a thin, fitted leather shell. He felt the interior of the armored piece carefully, checking that the soft cotton lining sewn to the leather was flat and still intact. He donned this armor over his bare skin, tying tightly all the loops sewn into the armor’s side seam, running down the side of his torso, using the mirror to ensure that the armor was fitted correctly. It would be his only defense against a blade in the close crowds that were sure to be in the streets today. He took his shirt back from the porter who knocked again in a few minutes’ time, the gold pressed into his palm by Garenol ensuring his speed, donning it hastily. He rechecked his appearance in the mirror, ensuring that the shirt covered his armor completely.

Turning back to the bed before leaving the room, he looked to his swords, hanging in their sheaths from the footboard. Garenol debated the merit of going outside armed today. The physical deterrence of obvious arms would keep him from being accosted or hassled by almost everyone, but would render him more conspicuous. In the end, hoping for a smooth day of observation and planning, Garenol took two sheathed daggers from his pack, sliding one into his belt at the small of his back, and one along the supple leather of his boot. He sincerely hoped he’d not have to resort to them today, as a spell would be a beacon of flashing light to other casters in the large crowds, rendering his anonymity in the city void. He wished he had learned some more subtle magics.

Once on the porch, Garenol had occupied a table farthest from the tavern’s wide open doors, already looking around for Malus, in the hopes that the man could be intercepted before he went inside. Garenol had waved down an already busy serving girl, and asked for another pot of Allthorian tea, and the traditional Haarkedamian full breakfast. Garenol loved being back in the south, where breakfast tended to take the form of enormous plates of pork products, eggs, and potatoes. He hoped he’d be able to eat before Malus showed up.

In accordance with his wish, breakfast arrived quickly, the rumors of Garenol’s generous gratuities having spread quickly through the staff. He tipped the young lady well, thanking her politely, informing her that under no circumstances should she bring wine, or any alcohol at all, even if Dorick insisted. He’d need a clear head for intelligence gathering, and today already looked to be warming up. He shuddered at the thought of a head full of wine in a hot crowd of peasants, swiftly cutting apart a dark smoked sausage and shoving it into his mouth.

Garenol finished his breakfast quickly, watching the street in front of the tavern for Malus to appear. He hoped that the final assignment that Malus undertook had gone without incident. And if he survived, Garenol thought with a grin, well, I guess that is acceptable as well. He leaned back from the table, tossing his cloth napkin nonchalantly beside his plate, cradling the hot cup of dark tea in his slender fingers.

The street running between the Bloody Fist and the little boathouses on Lake Venne was already busy with people. Garenol watched in amusement the variety of people moving in both directions on the wet cobblestones. Small families of laborers enjoying the morning before the day’s festivities, looking out at the still fog ensconced lake. Push carts and small wagons displaying multitudes of goods and food, their workers and owners already loudly hawking their wares in the quickly improving sunlight. The occasional carriage of one of the city’s wealthier merchants or a minor noble, clattering loudly down the street behind elegant carriage horses.

Most of these conveyances of the wealthy and powerful had a man or two riding on the back or moving quickly alongside, each visibly armed and scanning the faces of the crowd carefully. Garenol smirked at how fast those with something to lose had become paranoid. No doubt his and Malus’ actions of the previous night had already sent fear and dread through the upper echelons of Venne’s population. Good, Garenol thought to himself, sipping his still warm tea, if the minorly important figures are scared, that’ll take focus off an even bigger target. He stopped looking at the crowd when he thought of Polk. He still didn’t have a good idea of how best to approach their last task in the city. He laughed quietly to himself when he thought that maybe Malus would have a plan. He had to stifle a louder chuckle at the form he was sure Malus’ plan would take; probably a haywagon full of incendiary tar rolled up the steps of the Crystal Cathedral, then ignited, followed by Malus riding up the aisles of the main temple on a huge black warhorse, cutting down all who were within a sword’s breadth of him.

After half an hour, the sun had fully burst through the fog cover, bathing the city in welcoming, warm sunshine. The only remaining fog moved out over the lake, slower to warm than the crowded streets and buildings. Garenol continued looking for Malus as another pot of tea was brought.

He finally spotted his partner, far down the street back towards the poor district of Venne. He groaned at Malus, on horseback, armed and armored, the crowd parting well before his arrival. Oh well, he thought, setting his tea aside and moving to the steps to intercept Malus on arrival, so much for subtlety.

Garenol stopped at the cusp of the top step, standing with his arms crossed, looking disapprovingly at Malus. Malus continued to ride down the cobblestone street, either oblivious to Garenol’s stare, or ignoring it. As he drew close to the Bloody Fist, Malus steered the horse closer to the porch. Acknowledging Garenol with a curt nod, he pointed towards the alley at the far end of the building and continued riding, steering the horse into the alley running alongside the tavern. Garenol watched him depart, rolling his eyes at Malus’ behavior. He moved down the steps after a moment, walking alongside the long porch and turning into the alley.

The close, dim quarters between the Bloody Fist and the neighboring building were still damp, condensation dripping from the eaves of both buildings. Garenol stepped carefully in his dress boots, avoiding puddles and occasional trash. Malus had reached the far end of the alley, where a small gate denoted the entrance to the Bloody Fist’s small stable. Malus dismounted expertly, swinging down from the saddle with a jingling noise that sounded to Garenol like a large sum of money jostling around. He hurried to catch up with Malus, now curious about the large man’s evening activities.

Malus opened the gate and lead the horse through as Garenol caught up to him.

“Busy night?” Garenol asked facetiously, eyeing the two jingling bags tied to the pommel of the saddle. “Care to introduce me to your new friend?” he continued, reaching out to pat the flank of the rather well-bred horse. “She’s a pretty lass, not quite what I pictured you on, though.”

Malus ignored the jibes, leading the big chestnut mare into an empty stall to his left. He removed the horse’s lead and bit, patting her gently. Garenol raised an eyebrow at this behavior. Now this is a side I’ve never seen, he thought to himself, an amused look playing over his face. Malus used a nearby pitchfork to toss some fresh hay from a bale into the stall.

He then unsaddled the horse efficiently, belying a previous aptitude that Garenol was unaware of. He’d never seen Malus care for a horse before, but it was obvious that he was well versed in the practice. Malus tossed the two sacks of coins to the dirt floor inside the stall, their coins making a wealthy clinking noise as they landed heavily. He moved out of the stall holding the saddle across his broad chest, stirrups slung carefully up and over the seat. He moved to a saddle rack at the front wall, and slung the big saddle across it. Dusting his hands off, he finally turned to Garenol, expressionless as always.

“Last target was a little complicated,” Malus stated blandly, “the place ended up burning.”

“Yes, I’m sure that had nothing to do with how you approached the target,” Garenol said sarcastically, moving around Malus towards the horse’s stall. He bent and grabbed the drawn neck of one of the bags of coins, straining in physical effort to lift it. “Care to explain these?” he asked, shaking the bag slightly.

Malus shrugged, “That,” gesturing to the larger of the two bags, “was the cargo that Karderek was protecting.” Malus then pointed to the smaller bag that Garenol was holding, “That one was the money he was packing to take with him.”

“Take with him?” Garenol asked, placing the bag he was holding on the ground. “I guess he got worried about the explosion and earlier deaths, and was going to leave town for awhile.” Garenol unlaced the leather strap around the bag’s neck, reached in and produced a handful of Haarkedamian gold coins. “Nice unexpected bonus I guess.”

“Not those,” Malus said, pointing to the other bag, leaned against the loose boards of the stall. “There were crates of those bags in the warehouse. They were warded.”

“Warded? Why would a merchant go to the hassle of having some gold coins warded?” Garenol dumped his handful of coins back into the sack, and stood up. “I don’t see what’s so secretive about some money. Everyone here knows he was wealthy.”

“Warded. Twice,” Malus replied, taking off one of his gloves, revealing a hand the color of boiled lobster, blisters already yellowing. “One cold, the other a damned lightning trap. And not just some money, Garenol, twenty crates, each probably holding twenty of these,” Malus gestured with his burned hand down at the large bag. “It would have been close to half a million in gold. You should look at those. I don’t think he was fleeing from us, the events of last night all happened too quickly for him to be preparing to flee with a small fortune on the other side of the city.”

A confused look crossed Garenol’s face as he tried to lift the larger bag and could not. Four hundred bags like this were more money than most of the Confederacy States would raise from taxes in a year. He was thinking back to his tutors in his father’s keep. He remembered hearing that Wood’s End ran all its municipal and state functions with something like one hundred fifty to two hundred thousand a year. He gave up on lifting the bag, going down on one knee in front of it and untying the drawstring. He reached into the bag and produced a single coin. He held it up into a beam of sunlight that permeated the stall from the rickety plank roof above them,

The Tribunus Eagle showed brightly in the beam of light, dazzling Garenol’s eyes, which had been adjusted to the dim of the stable. He narrowed his gaze into a squint at the coin’s mint marks, then gasped.

“What in the nine hells is this much Tribunus coin doing here, Malus?” he exclaimed, rising to his feet quickly, still holding the coin. “That’s enough money to run a nation,” he said incredulously, suddenly very nervous about the scope of the work they were involved in, “or it would fund an army, a whole army, for a couple of years. Why do the high elves want to send this much money down here? They don’t even share a border with Haarkedamia.”

He flipped the coin to Malus in frustration. Without thinking, Malus grabbed the coin with his burned hand, cursed and dropped it. He glared at Garenol, but Garenol was lost in thought, rooting through the bag looking at the coins. Each one he withdrew was the same: a brilliant, large Tribunus Imperial, shining as if it had just left the mint.

Malus picked up the dropped coin and walked closer to Garenol. He tossed the coin back into the bag. “If we are here to destabilize the Confederacy, maybe Tribunus is playing some part in that? After all, Jean Pareil is a Tribunus elf. Maybe their involvement down here is getting bigger. They have the money, Tribunus is huge.”

Garenol looked up at Malus, “You don’t get it. This is not a large amount of money. This is,” he paused, “or was, a whole nation’s output. Pay and supplies for tens of thousands of soldiers and battle mages, an insane amount. I can’t even begin to wonder how it got here. The power it would take to teleport the weight of it,” he shook his head in wonder, “a dozen skilled mages linked in casting. An entire wagon train to transport it normally. You said the warehouse burned?”

Malus nodded dumbly, “Yes, the warehouse was burning when I finally opened a crate. I kept that one. It’s a lot of money.” Malus shrugged.

“It won’t burn, you oaf. It may not even all melt if it was warded with protective runes or the structure burned itself out quickly enough. We have to go back. Something is not right here. Doing these small things for Pareil is one thing, if something larger is happening, I want to know.” Garenol looked back to the horse. “I assume she was Karderek’s get away plan? If he wasn’t getting away from you, who was he getting away from?”

Malus shrugged.

“I’m going to need a horse, too,” Garenol stated, rising back to his full height. “If Karderek was involved with a Tribunus plot, I want to know why we were kept in the dark, and who else would be after him. Polk may have to wait a day.”

Malus shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. “I dislike this suggestion that we deviate from assigned tasks, Crynus,” he stated dully.

“Look,” Garenol said, making eye contact with the big human, “we need to know what we are getting in to here. If the merchant was in danger for holding this Tribunus gold, we may be in danger as well, seeing as how we are here working for them. Gods, Malus, we may very well have been sold out. We need to know. We need to go back to the warehouse and see if we can find anything.”

Malus stared down at Garenol for a moment. Finally, he grunted in assent, wagging a bright red finger at Garenol. “This abberation is on your head, Crynus.” He moved back to the front wall to get his saddle again. “Go get a horse, I will wait here.”

“Fair enough,” Garenol said, turning to leave the stable, “Don’t go in the Bloody Fist, Malus.”

Malus grinned to himself as Garenol departed. Of course he wasn’t going to be so stupid as to raise more alarms, but no reason to let Garenol think he was smart enough to realize that, either. He walked back over to his new horse, talking gently to her. He had yet to decide on her name.