As the news sunk in, I remember thinking that insisting Vitus keep the bottle of wine to himself may have been a mistake. It was far from anyone’s idea of a fine vintage, but when it came to getting a man pissed, it managed the job admirably. And what more could one ask of a bottle of cheap wine?
We needed a plan, but not everyone had the same priorities as I. I knew already that Caderyn and Drazar were only working for Skuza as a means to an end – not that said end was particularly clear to me – and weren’t overly concerned with his welfare as long they were going to make some money on the job. I could have really done with Valerius right then to bolster their spirit, but he had gone after Skuza, taking Catranasia with him, presumably to take advantage of her abilities as a merchant.
Vitus seemed to be the only other one who was overly concerned with getting the boss out of the city in one piece, and he was spending most of time lamenting his poor lot in life. Fjorlief was doing what she could to get him to talk sense, but he seemed to be happy with his face in his hands, grunting and questioning what he may have done in his life to be so badly mistreated by the fates. All very entertaining, but we had other concerns. If we were to formulate a plan to get out of the Profinarium to rescue Skuza, we needed everyone together.
Brand had expressed his desire to sleep away from the hostel, preferring the underside of a wagon to a roof over his head, and Drazar had likewise wanted to steer clear of the crowds, but for different reasons. While Caffees was purchased for our wagon master, I walked into the night to find them, doing my best to remember under which animal totem our wagons were secured.
Skuza had reluctantly parted with some coin in regards to our evening off the road, paying a few paltry coins to keep a watchman stationed through the night with his precious cargo; a light burning through the night. Sadly, he wasn’t the only merchant to take such precautions, and several scrawny looking types were posted around the open patch of land used for corralling the vehicles. Each looked like they would be unable to hold even one vagrant with a will, but undoubtedly offered some piece of mind to fools who new little of the world.
Eventually I spotted the carved wooden Ablec that was perched atop the pole that our wagons were secured to, and another rodent looking excuse for a man was indeed present, lantern held high. At no point did he even try to stop me as I walked between the wagons, even though I had no recollection of him having been retained while I was present. In the middle of the wagons sat Brand and Drazar, neither talking to the other. “I have news, bad news”, says I, “and I think it best discussed while we walk, keeping us away from prying ears”.
They both nodded, gathering their things and not pressing me for answers until we were clear of our no doubt dauntless protector’s hearing. It seemed that no matter what the weather, dozens of caravans and their beasts of burden could change any surface into rutted wet mud. The smell was particularly noteworthy, but I’m sure your imagination will do a far better job of conjuring up just how unpleasant it was than my words ever will.
So as we trudged through ankle deep filth I filled the two of them in on the basics of the meeting I had just come from, and was unsurprised to find Drazar wanting in his desire to see Skuza safely from the garrison town. Brand was quick to come up with suggestions though, including that we concentrate on getting the wagons free. Although I had instantly thought of getting Skuza to safety, he was right. Fulfilling my contract was a goal with its own reward, but having some coin in my pocket would allow me to be a little more discerning in my next choice of patron.
I wondered aloud if that would mean we would be better off bringing the boss with us here first, but Brand shook his head, “It was Vitus that dealt with the livery staff over there. I’m sure he could get the animals without needing Skuza around”. We still had to deal with the fact that the doors wouldn’t be opened again until dawn, and just how inebriated our wagon master was. As I was breaking that particular news to them, we were close enough to the covered drinking area for the two of them to see Vitus engaged in a heated discussion with Fjorlief.
From this distance we couldn’t hear the details, but by the time we were close enough to make out the words, it seemed he was still stuck in the same self pitying rut in which I had left him. Fjorlief, a woman growing more and more interesting to me by the minute, stood close to him, towering a good foot above his head, was looking him in the eye. When he finally seemed to have run to the end of his current lamentations she swung her hand round with lightening speed and slapped him across the face so hard, I almost felt it.
By the gods it did the job though, and he was soon looking considerably more sober and ready to act. With excellent timing, Catranasia made an appearance meaning I got to tell the whole sorry tale one last time. Apparently she had been off selling some goods to ensure that we had some pay in our pockets. A nice plan, thought up by Valerius if I was any judge. I didn’t doubt that Skuza wished us well, but I was less sure that he would have given us a second thought once away from the Profinarium and in close proximity to a hot bath.
Still, we would almost certainly need to bribe a gate guard or two if we were to get out of here under the cover of darkness, and having coin in pocket would make that possible. The young lady also seemed aware of guards who would be more likely to take said bribe, and how much it would cost. While talking on such things – including a man of the underworld whose help would almost certainly be needed – Vitus made his decision and stood up, slightly unsteadily. “Right, that’s it. I can get through the gates to the Piamarium, and if I need to, I’ll drag back Ser bloody Skuza. You lot, get everythin’ else sorted”.
He lurched through the crowd and was making his way to said gates looking as steady as a new born toma walking on ice. Brand was close by and within earshot for a hushed word or tow, “Follow him a way will you? Just make sure he gets to the gates of the Piamarium in one piece”. He nodded shortly and was up and on his feet instantly, but within seconds I had lost sight of his darkened form as it walked away through the bustle.
Vitus had asked for a full turning to see to our employer’s safety, but there was little we could do in that time. None of us fancied drinking anything more, and had already eaten our fills. We had company though, so we asked around some of the less reputable looking types to confirm the stories we had heard about Shepard – a man in the know it seemed – and his base of operations in a place lovingly titled the Crafty Bastard.
Although I still had many years left to me to learn valuable life lessons, even then I knew that the more comically entertaining the name of the drinking establishment, the more likely it was to be full of cut-throat bastards and thieves. Time would prove me amply right on this, but for the moment, I only had Drazar to contend with.
He was clearly ill at ease. His eyes flickering constantly behind the slits in his mask, his fingers tapping out badly timed rhythms on the beer slicked table and his head never still for longer than a second. Imagine a child really wishing to be excused from a dinner table to take a massive shit and I think you might have an idea about how much he was fidgeting. “What the hell is wrong with you man”, I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.
“I just, don’t feel comfortable here. Not around so many of… these people”. Well shit, thinks I, working for a Pelosian was one thing, but being surrounded by them, and many of them decked out in legion clobber, was really getting to him. We didn’t have the time for any such foolishness though, especially if we were about to do something very foolish to try and rescue a possibly wanted man.
“Listen, I can see you look like crap right now, and that means other people can too. You square that shit away or we’ll get some very unwanted attention. There’s nothing to be done right now but sit and wait, so just accept that instead of worrying about bad things that most likely won’t even happen.
“Look around you. this place is full of stranger people than you, and a hell of a lot of them have moles with them. So, calm down, and we’ll have a much better chance of getting out of here together, and with our wages.”
That seemed to calm him down somewhat, but if you paid enough attention it was clear he was still on edge, just trying his damnedest to keep it hidden. Silence again settled upon our table, as we had exhausted all topics of conversation related to the evening’s events. Those around us were less silent, but I was still able to hear something out of the ordinary, and looked once more towards the Hutzlunr woman I found so enchanting. Something was different about her, and it goes to show just how blinkered I had been that I hadn’t noticed it before.
Sat on the table in front of her, a small collar around its neck, nibbling away at a discarded lime rind, one end of its lead held in Fjorlief’s hand was a small and desperately ugly creature. As I stared, perplexed by what I was seeing, she must have noticed where my attention was directed. “What?”, she asked, “This is Sally the Pelosian Fighting Mole. I bought her.” There was a hint of defiance in her voice, as if she expected to be chided for making such a purchase, but I could think of no reason to care about what she did with her own coin.
“Very well”, I replied, “but isn’t Sally an odd name for such a creature”?
“Her full name is Sally the Pelosian Fighting Mole. How is that not a good name for a fighting mole?” I had no easy answer to the logic of that question, so returned to sitting in silence, awaiting Vitus’s return.
* * *
Within a turning, but with little to spare the Pelosian was seen striding towards us once more. He had clearly sobered up some in the intervening time, his gait much more steady and deliberate. What was even more obvious though, was that he was alone. My heart sank, and the hardened expression on his face seemed to drain the life out of all of us.
He sank back into his seat before saying a word, “the daft old bastard seems to think that because he’s a Numare he will be tried as such and can easily argue that he is not to be detained. Valerius did his best to convince him otherwise, but he’s a stubborn sod when the mood takes him. Luckily, Valerius also volunteered to stay with him, and make nothing else can go wrong”. He looked about him as he finished, possibly hoping for some more wine, but coming to his senses before ordering any.
“So, we have another plan then?” I asked. And over the next few minutes we managed to come up with something. Catranasia knew this Shepard fellow, and had contacts within the garrison’s underworld. With Brand, Vitus, and Caderyn keeping her company we made our way to the Crafty Bastard. Fjorlief, Drazar, and myself made sure to keep some distance though, watching out for any agents of the banking house that was attempting to call in Skuza’s debt that might be following to try and stop us from interfering.
As we began our journey to the even worse parts of the city, its inhabitants were starting to call it a night, meaning the streets were busy with folk staggering to a bed, or other location they could lie undisturbed for a few hours. Although this meant it was hard to keep track of any potential threats, it also gave us the same advantage. With Fjorlief and myself towering over the crowds we were a much more obvious target than the darkly dressed group who we needed alive and able to deal with Shepard.
The further we got into the slums of the Profinarium the more dregs we saw. The less attractive the hookers became, and the more they must have grateful for the lack of municipal lighting. Any person we bumped into could have been a thief, and I was constantly aware that all I wanted to do was to pat my purse to make sure it was there, but absolutely certain that all it would accomplish would be top signal a thief as to exactly where it was about my person.
Still, we made it there in one place, and by the Gods it was a hole that I would be unhappy even pissing into. there was no doubting which of the scumbags that festooned this place was Shepard though. he held court like the syphilitic head of a decaying once noble family. On the table in front of him was a scavling, and he was maliciously toying with it as he engaged with his lackeys. I was glad to be free to stand away from this contemptible bastard and let others speak to him, but if the negotiation I witnessed was anything to go by, I wasn’t surprised that Catranasia had to throw her lot in with Skuza.
I ordered a round of horrendous Gennova for the three of us overseeing the conversation, and did my best to let as little of it as possible pass my lips as I pretended to sip on it. Some advice dear reader if you ever find yourself having to deal with the likes of Shepard. Firstly, never admit to desperation.
This put us instantly on the back foot and gave him the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength. Secondly, don’t tell someone like that what you’re willing to pay; let them ask and negotiate them down. Luckily it seemed that Shepard had a thing for our young trader, and was willing to help, for a price. It seemed to be understood that he would take his payment by claiming what he wanted from the back of one of the wagons, but Catranasia was quick to counter here, instead suggesting some of teh treated moss we had all taken from the cave of the dead.
Its narcotic properties were obviously of interest to Shepard, and he nodded in agreement, telling us where we were to meet our wagons that his men would ensure were taken from the enclosure. The fact that he was so sure that his men would have no problem doing this, and in fact already seemed to know which wagons were ours, granted him a smattering of my respect. Mind you, it’s also a bit worrying to know that an organised criminal could have such easy access to your possessions whenever he wanted.
The others were soon up and out, but I held our little troop back before following, just in case Shepard had dispatched a man or two of his own to keep an eye on them. Once more though, we were lefty alone and made our back to the hostel to gather what little of our gear we had left in the rooms that I had paid for. Not exactly money well spent, looking back on it, but then the purchase of the wine didn’t do us any favours either. Some of Skuza’s poor fortune must have ribbed off on me that night.
With little time to spare before our meeting, we walked towards the West Gate. We once again split into two groups the better to keep an eye out for potential danger, but were not accosted. The West Gate led out to the legion encampment, and I could practically hear Drazar’s rapid heartbeat as we closed in. On several occasions we walked past groups of soldiers, marching in unison even when in tunics rather than armour, but thankfully they seemed more interested in drinking and women than giving us any trouble.
We had with us the young girl from the ranch, who had been unsure as to what she should do with her new found freedom, but had weighed up the odds and decided to stay with us for now, rather than risk being once again returned to servitude. She attracted some attention, but after her treatment was skinny and pale enough for it to be cursory at best, and before long we were greeted by the sight of our home on wheels with accompanying beasts.
So far, so good, with only an army to get through before we were free. Thankfully, Shepard had kept up his end of the bargain, and we were soon at the exit to the encampment, with only a couple of armed men in our way, and they were already moving back the large doors to allow us to leave.
A breathed easier as we put the city behind us, but knew that my work wasn’t over yet. “Vitus”, I called, getting his attention, “Do you know what Valerius’ half of the plan is?”
He nodded, “There is a pair of statues at the side of the road, a few miles in our direction. We are to wait there for them, giving them until twelve turnings before we move on without them”.
“Well, in that case my friends, I will see you in a few hours. My job is to protect Skuza as well as his property, and I think you lot should have no problem with a few wagons.” With that I stepped off the slow moving wagon and let them pass in the direction of the statues. No one tried to stop me, but I can only imagine that Fjorlief let me go with a heavy heart and a keen desire to me safely returned to her side. As I have said, I was a cocksure young man back in those heady days.
I had a few hours left until dawn, and then the Gods knew how long it would take Valerius to see Skuza safely from the city. I would be waiting for them though, making sure that Ser Eduardo knew that I could be trusted.