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I will strive to keep my own interruptions to a minimum; however, I do believe some explanation is in order. We here at the catalog hold true to that keystone belief of the Brothers of the Pen: “Knowledge is meant to be shared.” Only through arming ourselves with the sword of knowledge can we slay that monster ignorance and hope to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Now, imagine my dismay when stories with no or questionable sources were simply being logged and then shelved, forgotten. These tales of dubious origins, these dead letters, are still worthy of consideration despite their patchwork form. So I have made it my mission to pull the stories together with the folios we have here and my own resources so that a valuable asset can be added to strengthen our understanding.
~Valfor, First Brother of the Dead Letters
This particular tale was quite hard to piece together. Fragmented retellings were rare in sellsword company halls, a few old timers might add a line or two around a cheap brew. The khemics were, of course, quiet as always about the topic of human experimentation. As for written accounts, I could only pull from two. One was from a merchant who fancied himself a writer. He had only heard the story secondhand from a third aunt, it would seem. The other was the most fascinating bit. It came from a supposed confession by the White Street Butcher. The letter had been mailed to a retired Watch Captain. It rambled a bit but seemed quite genuine. It had been signed “Yours in damnation.”
~ ~ ~
There wasn’t much to the market square in Croftton. Agriit realized there never had been, though it had seemed so much bigger when she was a girl. Croftton had the distinction of being Rolian’s smallest city. It was just a step above the local hamlets, with a wall of mismatched stone held together with cheap mortar. So small there were only two taverns. The Braying Sheep was down on Dog Street, and the Hayside Taphouse was nearby. That is where they were headed, if she could ever tear Adem away from the stalls.
He was handsome, all dark haired and swarthy. He was her employer’s son, and it was his body she was supposed to be guarding. Though he loved to make that job difficult, as was the case at the moment. Adem was a natural deal maker and loved to haggle, must have been in his blood. He always seemed compelled to move from stall to stall and barter for some trinket or bite to eat.
She had been waiting on him to finish his shopping for hours now as the hot sun cooked her in her hard leathers. They covered every inch of her, leaving no skin showing. A white facewrap showed nothing but scowling, baby blue eyes. Those eyes rolled when she heard Adem call out.
“Fifteen silver! You must be mad! A simpleton wouldn’t pay that. Is that what you take me for, some unschooled yokel?” Ah, he was at that game again. He must really want whatever the guy was selling. Agriit tracked him down at a booth covered in baubles of polished stones and crude rings.
“Hey, stranger.” He turned to her with a frown on his full lips but a smile in his chocolate eyes. “Would you believe he’s trying to sell this for fifteen pieces?” Adem handed her a necklace of silver. The chain was woven in such a way that it resembled rope. In the center was an amber stone inlaid with the symbol of a scythe cutting wheat. It was beautiful and well worth the price the man was asking.
“That seems a bit high for something with such an obvious tarnish.” she said, handing it back to the merchant. His plump face turned sour and sausage-sized fingers shook indignantly as he snatching it from her. “Tarnish!” He held it up to his eyes, turned it this way and that. “Where?”
“The wheat is an off-gold unlike the scythe. And you can see how the amber is muddy. Amateur work, really.” She watched the merchant’s look turn from anger to confusion. She wondered if he had been here when she was a girl. Had she stolen from him? Had he chased her with a pitchfork for pilfering his lunch?
“I noticed the same thing myself. Was thinking on getting it as gift for a friends daughter but at that price…”
“Now see here, fifteen is more than fair. This setting was made by a Las jewel smith, in the art for fifty years.” The man puffed up his chest.
“His eyes must be going. I wouldn’t part a shilling more than eight for it.”
“Nine and it’s yours.” The salesman’s eyes narrowed at both of them, but the scent of coin had him ready to make the deal.
“Done and done.” Adem brightened up and counted out the silver florins one at a time as he handed them to the man. “A fair and reasonable trade my good man.” He then turned to Agriit and took her by the arm. “Now, let’s be off.” The merchant was left to scratch his head and wonder if he might have been had.
“You nearly lost the game with that daughter comment. Why wouldn’t you want something nice for her?” Agriit ordered them both a pint of ale and mutton chops.
“Now see, if he had caught that I would have just said she was a brat.” Adem munched on a bit of pale cheese, his eyes wandered the crowded floor. “Besides, I thought it would look good on you.” She fiddled with the necklace, the amber standing out against her dark leather. “And it does.”
“Dressing me up now?”
“Well, you need a bit of spice.” He gestured to his own clothes. A deer skin vest, the stitching all dyed red. A long undershirt made from Mandrian spider silk and pants stained in wine. He also wore a ring on every finger of his left hand. Each a different metal, with a different colored gemstone in the center. “That outfit is far too plain.”
“It is comfortable,” she said, adjusting her head wrap so that her mouth was left uncovered. He tossed his hands up in mock surrender.
“So you used to live here?”
“Yeah, years ago when I was a girl.” She’d hated the idea of coming here, tried to convince him to set up his meeting in another city. Too many bad memories in this place, so many ghosts on every street.
“You’re still a girl,” he winked at her. “Last I checked anyway.”
“It’s been a while, things change.” She ran her boot up his leg, let the tip press lightly against his crotch. “Maybe you should check again.” Agriit wondered when she had fallen for him, when this had stopped being just another job. They had been lovers for some time now. Sneaking around at his father’s house, sharing a tent on his travels, and oft a bed. He never questioned why she hid herself. Never looked at her with anything but lust when she was bare before him.
“Oh, I should, but I hope things haven’t changed to much since this morning.” The waitress came by with their food. She was a young thing with full hips and a weak smile. She kept glancing back to the crowded bar, her hands made knots in her apron.
“Can I get you anything else?” Her voice stuttered a bit.
“No, unless you’ve got more of this cheese?” Adem seemed oblivious to the girl’s nervousness.
“Afraid not, last wheel got cut up a few tables ago.” Someone thumbed their fist on a table by the door, enjoying a good joke by the laughter that followed. The girl jumped at the sound. Agriit kept her eyes moving as the waitress left.
The taphouse was in full swing. At the bar, farm hands guzzled down pitchers of pale amber or dark house brews. The tables were full of families enjoying some time away from their fields. One section catered to a few well-drunk militiamen. Their swords were in a heap around them, along with several empty bottles. Agriit took hold of the hilt of her own blade for comfort.
“Who was that trader you meet earlier again?” She asked, eyes still looking for anything unusual in the crowd.
“Old Trent.” Adem said, his voice full of contempt. “A thorn in my father’s side for years. Fled Durra right after we declared the island free from Mandria and Rolain. While my family and others worked to establish trade routes and contacts. He was busy spreading awful rumors.”
“About what? I can’t imagine your old man doing anything too scandalous” Agritt took a long drink. The beer tasted of wheat and a sweet spice. Adem hadn’t touched his yet, more interested in the mutton.
“A trader lives or dies by his good name. People think you are a cheat or your wares have a habit of going missing and your business dies. Called us swindlers and sneak thieves and a lot worse.” His face darkened. He gave his drink a swirl just as a group of young men crowded in close to their table. Four of them were helping a passed out friend to the door. They jostled the table and caused some of Adem’s beer to splash out onto the wood. It took on a reddish hue and Agritt darted her hand over the mouth of the glass.
“What are you…” She silenced him with a look and traded him drinks. The group passed by, laughing like boys half their age. “Keep eating and talking. Like nothing is going on, Hopefully they didn’t see us.” She looked to the waitress who hadn’t taken her eyes off them since delivering the food. She took a drink and urged him to do the same. There was a subtle taste of something spoiled, like milk that was just about to go bad. As Adem took a drink the waitress visibly relaxed.
“Someone is trying to kill you.” Agritt could feel pins and needles all over her body as her stomach went cold. Her legs grew heavy and a twitch worried her left hand.
“Are you serious? What just happened?” She pulled off her glove and watched as her skin, usually the light green of spring grass, darken to a swampy moss. “Lilly Rot by the taste. Not easy to find but pretty quick. We need to leave, hold your stomach.” Adem did so, looking shocked.
“What about you? You just drank that.” The beer had turned the color of river clay.
“I’m fine.” She felt the room spin just a bit. “Drain your glass.”
“Agriit” She never realized before how cute he looked when he was worried. The look she gave him convinced him to listen to her. There had been moments like this before, when she all of a sudden gave him a quick command. Sometimes it was out of the blue and mundane. Change the route they were on or switch rooms in the middle of the night. But every time had lead to his safety.
Where other traders complained of lost goods or cut-purses in the night, he had been safe and sound. She’d kept his purse from burglars and their route clear of ambushes enough times for him to trust her instincts.
“Just get up and I’ll help you toward the door. Whoever it is probably doesn’t know things are amiss.” Adem stood up and leaned heavy on the table. “Good now stagger some.” He did so and Agriit moved to steady him. That stinging numbness was getting worse. Her legs were wooden as they moved through the throng of people who had just entered.
“Tied on one too many there?” A strong arm took Adem’s other side and Agriit’s free hand moved to her sword. Silvery eyes sparkled from a hairy face, like two stars in the night sky. She felt her blood run cold.
“Yeah brother, got to celebrate!” Adem laid it on thick, slurred his speech and gave the man a wide grin. He’d then grimace and gag a bit, as if he were sea sick. The stranger looked like his father might have been a bear, with a barrel chest and arms like tree trunks.
“Let me give ya a hand here.” He parted the crowd with ease. “What are you celebrating, friend?”
“I’m the luckiest man tonight.” Adem gave Agriit’s hand a shake and pumped it up and down as they made it outside. “We’re getting married!” Agriit let out a groan and then her best bubbly laugh. The man’s sparkling eyes bored into her. She felt naked under his gaze.
“Well. You are a lucky one.” He started pulling them onto the main road. “Where ya headed?”
“Oh, it’s not far. Not far at all.” Adem tried to disengage from him but that arm just grew tighter.
“Must be that new inn then, the one next to the tailor?” He started them in that direction, not waiting for an answer. Adem caught her eye but Agriit just nodded. An awkward silence fell with the sun.