Book III - Chapter 4

 

Chapter 4

[Farstrider Trade Company]

Eveth and Alem arrived to shouting.

Loud, blusterous, somewhat threatening: the conflict that presented itself upon the market street in front of Stefano’s shop was the center of attention.

“Think you can just go about business as usual?” Someone shouted. “You think we don’t know your lot is responsible?” Lead by a shirtless man with prominent crest of the Mercenary’s Guild boldly tattooed on his back, a small group of armed men had surrounded the store front.

“First you offer coin, then shouts, now threats, but the answer you receive will always be the same.” In front of the shop, looming over them by a full pace, Stefano’s prized bodyguard, Howard replied. “Run back to those who pay you, and tell them of your failures.”

“How about you put down that broom of yours and draw your sword, eh?” The leader of the group stepped closer, hand on a long dagger’s grip. “Take a swing, big guy.”

“Aye, give it a draw. We’ll see who fails then. Let’s find out.” Another shouted, weapon in hand.

“Me?” Howard asked, voice booming like thunder as he began to laugh. “No, it is not me you should concern yourself with.” Cupping a hand to his cheek, he turned and shouted. “Nathaniel!”

The men on the street silenced for a moment, as they stared at the large swordsman. Perhaps, at first, it was simply the volume of such a shout, which quelled them. The noise was so loud that every passerby on the street had quieted. What kept them silent, though, it was the following sound of drums.

Heavy, pounding, thumps: approaching from a distance.

“What in all the fu-”

The shop door flung open with such force, dust shook from the shutters on the windows to either side. Hunched low, simply to avoid hitting their head upon the upper threshold of the door frame, an even larger man emerged to stand beside Howard.

“Brother Howard, who are these men?” The larger man rose up to full height, flexing muscles that quite audibly creaked.

“A good question, Brother Nathaniel.” Howard answered.

“Are they customers of esteemed Master Stefano?” Nathaniel asked, reaching behind him to pull free a massive double-sided ax. “I like customers.”

“No, brother Nathaniel. They are not customers.”

“Then what are they?”

"Fools.”

“I see.” Nathaniel replied, shouldering his weapon. “I do not like fools.”

By the time Eveth and Alem had managed to reach the scene, the originally shouting men had already begun to disperse. Some still issuing threats, but very much from a distance.

“Trouble, again?” Alem asked, cautiously, as they walked up. “Merchants send them?”

“They only send weak, who pretend to be strong. It will never be enough.” Howard turned, smiling wide to reveal teeth, stained with tribal markings and gold. “Still, it is good you have returned safely. Honored Alem, honored Mage.”

“It is good.” Nathaniel added, bowing his head. “Master Stefano has been expecting you.”

“Has he, now?” Alem asked. “We’re early.”

“We have already made tea.” Howard elaborated, finally setting his broom aside to guide them inside. “Allow me.” He dipped low to avoid the arch, as he lead them inside the shop. “Have you both eaten?”

“I’m fine.” Eveth replied.

“I think we’re quite alright-”

“I will prepare something.” Howard nodded, ignoring both of their attempts, as he opened a door within the hallway for them to enter, before bowing once more, and leaving them beside it. “Brother Nathaniel is quite the hunter.”

With that, the man lumbered off, but in almost ghostly silence. Despite, what their large height and frame might have suggested, as soon as they were out of sight, it felt as though any sense of their presence was erased.

“Where in all the Light did Stefano find them?” Eveth whispered quietly. “Not just one, either. Now he’s got two!”

“I don’t know. He has a gift for these things.” Alem whispered back, before he took a deep breath and entered the room. “Stefano, we’re-”

“Alem!” He didn’t get a chance to finish. “Welcome, welcome! Eveth, it is so good of you to stop by. I feel as though you never visit!” Dressed in bright colors beneath a vibrant glowstone on the ceiling, Stefano beamed at them from behind a paper-covered desk. “Come, come! Sit down, make yourselves at home! Have some tea!”

“Good afternoon, Stefano.” Alem replied. “ You have my apologies, I know we’re early.”

“Nonsense!” Stefano stood, pulling aside several stacks of paper, and moving a set of chairs out from behind the clutter of the office. “In fact, it’s excellent you’re here early: you would not believe the things I’ve heard today.”

“Anything to do with the Merchants?” Eveth asked, as she took a seat. Warily, she eyed a lute, hanging on the wall. “They had whatever leftovers are still breathing from the Mercenary Guild making trouble outside, again.”

“Business as usual, I’m afraid. At this point, I’m not sure if the Merchant Guild is sending them, or if this is something of their own initiative.” Stefano leaned back in his chair. “On the subject, though: rumor has it of yet another earthquake, just last week, which caused one of their warehouses to collapse.” He smiled. “Later, though. Later. Such isn’t important, not now.” Flipping through several pages, Stefano deftly plucked one free, excited. “For here, is much more interesting news.”

“Is that the Emperor’s seal?” Alem asked. “Imperial trading contract, of some kind? I could do another trip.”

“No, no: this came from a friend. One you’ve met, I believe, who recently made a risky venture from the Western Port. He purchased it off of a refugee, of all people.”

“Ah, that trader. Welsh, was it?”

“Mm.” Stefano nodded. “He has a connection with a Mage known for storage runes and similar artifacts. More valuable than ever, these days. Yet, he also has a keen eye for worldly affairs.”

“A refugee, you say? So, it’s from the Northern Continent?” Alem asked.

“The very same.” Stefano handed the page to Alem. “See for yourself.”

“There’s been talk aplenty of what’s been happening there, but no one seems to be able to confirm a damn thing.” Alem mumbled, pulling out a worn looking pair of glasses, as Eveth leaned over beside him, craning her neck to see as well.

“Interesting.” She stated. “I haven’t heard much news from that side of the ocean, recently. Nothing reliable, at least.”

“Besides the fire.” Alem corrected, eyes skimming the page. “They all agree on that.”

“Aye, besides the fire.” She agreed. “Last I heard, it’s still going. Lot of talk that it can’t be put out, but I have to imagine those accounts are exaggerated.”

“Ah… well. Listen here, then.” Pulling out a monocle, Stefano began to read- from another copy of the page, which seemingly sprouted from nowhere at all.

To any willing and able, heed the call.

The Northern Continent is Lost, but the Southern Continent still holds.

By the Emperor’s Might, we will split the ground, and part the stone.

If flames are sated by the Oceans, alone, under the First King’s honor: we shall let them drink.

Such is the will of the Emperor, such is the will of man.

“Recruitment?” Eveth asked, following the scrip on their own copy. “Page lists some decent rates for Mages, and laborers…”

“We’re taking local jobs, for the moment, Stefano.” Alem frowned. “I know we need coin, but we’re not going that far for it.”

“Oh, hush. I’m not suggesting you cross an ocean.” Waving away the comments, and the copy of the page… somehow (they blinked at that) Stefano pulled free another page. “While this is intended as recruitment, in context, it’s so much more.” Stefano continued. From his desk, he pulled free another paper. This one, more formal. “I was sent a letter, here, by one of my connections to the coast. They work closely with the grain markets of Southern Continent. Of which, we currently have quite the stake in, I might add.” He paused. “Did the Imperial Office honor their payment agreement this month?”

“The royalty?” Eveth frowned. “No.”

“As I expected, then. We’ll need to be creative. Much as those cost, they’re the only reliable investment, as of late. Grain is approaching its weight in gold, soon enough.” Stefano clicked his tongue as he accepted the news, before pointing to the new page in his hand. “Regardless, this letter is a courtesy.” He handed it to Eveth. “In it, they speak of rising prices, due to what has been referred to as a situation of eminent domain, along the isthmus.”

“Imminent what?” Alem stared, blankly. “Not sure I’m familiar.”

“The Empire is… forcibly acquiring property?” Eveth asked, confirming as Stefano nodded excitedly. “Farmland, it says?”

“Farmland.” Stefano returned.

“For what?” Eveth asked.

“That’s the question, now isn’t it?” Stefano smiled wider. “You tell me.”

“Not to be used for crops, I take it.”

“No, not unless…”

“Unless?”

“Well, unless you count the fish.” Stefano finished.

“What’s are you talking about?” Alem interjected. “What about fish?”

“You said this was on the isthmus.” Eveth’s eyes widened. “Didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“Are they insane?” Eveth passed the letter to Alem.

“In my opinion, desperation and insanity seem to share roots.” Stefano mused, before turning to Alem. “What’s wrong, Alem?”

“Hold on.” Alem looked about the room, visibly uncomfortable. Slowly, he stood up. “There it is again…”

“What is it?” Eveth turned to him.

“There’s another one, on its way.” Alem warned. “We should try to get outside.”

“Oh, not again. I just had the front rooms repaired.” Stefano complained, already maneuvering around his desk. “Howard!” He shouted, opening the door to find the large bodyguard right outside the door: tray of tea and meat-baked biscuits in hand. “Oh, there you are. Best head out to the back. Keep the Ro’ from panicking. I fear we’re due for another quake.”

“Yes, Master Stefano.” Howard retreated at once, quickly handing off the tray to Alem, just as he stepped outside.

“Wait a moment!” Alem yelled after him, to no avail.

“Come along, quickly.” Stefano encouraged, as the trader continued to lead them back down the hall, out the front door. Together, they almost made it outside, before the floor began to shake. In the distance, bell towers began to ring. “I swear, they’ve been happening much too often.”

“What in all the Light am I supposed to do with this?” Alem asked as he fought to keep the tray steady, following Stefano and Eveth out the door. Beneath their feet, the ground was in motion. Heavy-handed shakes, causing stumbles and curses.

“Eat them.” Stefano shouted a reply, over his shoulder.

Still, by the time they managed to get outside, the quake had all but ceased. Leaving in its wake several collapsed market stalls, and shouting in the street.

“Light, this is a mess.” Eveth stated.

“Only a small one, this time, though.” Stefano glanced down the road, before looking up to confirm his building. “No lost shingles, at least.”

“Really wish they would stop.” Eveth poked her staff at a large crack, running through the street. “Near the Academy, just the other day, I saw half a building was sunken in. Earth-focused Mages were molding things back into place.”

“Aye, it’s trouble.” Alem agreed. frowning at the now tea-soaked bread. “I don’t suppose anyone’s hungry.”

“Still no.” Eveth wrinkled her nose, as Stefano tactically continued inspecting his roof.

Leaning above them, though, a large hand reached down and plucked a soggy biscuit from the tray.

“You are too kind, honored Alem.” Nathaniel said, grinning down with a wide and toothy smile. On his shoulder, the battle ax caught the sun, wicked edges shining. “These are my favorite.”

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