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.

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