Vincent wearily walked along the weed choked pair of ruts that passed for a road in this remote backwater. He felt surprisingly strong given the poison that had been coursing through his system a mere half hour before.
He glanced back at Morithes. Though he denied it, the young monk was showing visible signs of fatigue. He was in remarkable physical condition, so Vincent attributed his current state to poisoning. Lyn worried Morithes might fall from his saddle so they were walking. He didn’t remember much about the battle that had so weakened the young man, but Lyn said that Morithes had certainly saved his life.
“What am I doing,” he thought to himself. His mother was home, alone, while he was out risking his life on what might prove to be a fool’s errand. The link between the book he had found and his father was tenuous. The odds that it might actually lead him to his father were slim, at best. Though his mother had no need for monetary support, his father had seen to that, for her to lose her son as well as her husband might be more than she could bear.
Up ahead he could see the “main road” as they called it in the village, though to him it looked like a pair of wide dirt ruts with just fewer weeds than the barely visible path he currently followed. They would be back to the inn in a half hour. He reflected back to the events of the last few days, so as to take his mind from questioning his actions.
Vincent had set out to Kanley’s house hoping for answers and expecting a fight. As fate would have it, he found neither.
As he approached Kanley’s home he was somewhat surprised to find someone else peeking into the windows of the nondescript cottage. She was tall, dark haired and armored – a set of light plate armor, to be exact. Vincent knew he could outrun her if it should come to that. She carried a spear, but no shield. “Could she be a town guard,” he asked himself. Unlikely, as she had no identifying marks, and while female adventurers are fairly common, they were unusual in the male dominated magistrate.
Vincent sheltered in the shadow of a nearby house and observed her for a moment. She attempted to look into the house again. Given the darkened interior, Vincent doubted she could make out much. The street, though lit by sporadic lamp posts, was quite shadowy which meant the interior of an unlit house would be just a hint shy of complete darkness. She abandoned the window, walked to the door, and tried the handle, which was unsurprisingly locked. She stepped back and eyed the front of the house.
No burglar would dress like that. Also, she was standing in the street openly, not trying to conceal her presence. “So, she’s not a burglar, and not a guard,” he thought. Vincent’s father’s words came back to him, “unlikely is not the same as impossible, remember that.”
“To heck with it,” Vincent muttered to himself. He stepped into the street and began walking toward the house. The woman paid little heed to his approach until it was apparent he was headed toward her. She pivoted back to her right to face him.
She was young, probably just past twenty years. She was tall and too pretty to be wearing all that armor, in Vincent’s personal opinion. Her face, though young, seemed to convey an unusual wisdom beyond her years. Vincent thought that if he had to translate his first impression of her into words they would be that she was an “old soul”. She wore a silver symbol on a cord around her neck, but Vincent couldn’t quite make it out in the dim light. Though not what he would call graceful, her movements were those of someone accustomed to wearing armor. Vincent had been trained to wear armor, but given the size and strentgh of some of the beasts his father had described to him he trusted his reflexes more than he trusted a metal plate, no matter how thick it was. “The ability to not get hit is superior to the ability to take a hit,” his father had told him.
“Evening. Do you know the man that lives here?” Vincent inquired.
“No. He does not appear to be home,” the woman replied.
Vincent paused briefly but before he spoke again they were interrupted. “Oh, he won’t be coming home again,” someone interjected from behind Vincent.
Spinning to find the source of the interjection Vincent noticed a man approaching from the far side of the street. Had he been there all along? Either he had snuck up on the two of them or he had been there all along and Vincent had walked right past him. Either way, he knew what his father would have said, “too careless—too careless by far.”
The stranger was tall and lean, nearing six feet. He had short brown hair, green eyes, and dressed in loose, simple clothes. He had a staff that had too many nicks and tell-tale scratches for it to be just a walking stick. It was a weapon and the man knew how to use it. The staff had an odd cloth wrapping around the top of it. His movements were graceful and crisp. Vincent doubted he could outrun the newcomer. If this man was trouble then he would have to find a different means of dealing with him.
Vincent listened to the exchange between the other two in the street while he sized them both up.
“How do you know he won’t be coming back,” the young woman inquired.
“Because he’s been arrested by the magistrate for murder,” the stranger replied.
“Whom did he kill?”
“A dock worker named Devic. Ever heard of him?”
“No. How do you know about all this?”
“I witnessed it. I disabled him then turned him over to the townguard. He hangs in the morning.”
“Very well, then it would appear my concern with him is done.”
“So why are you two standing in the street in front of Kanley’s home? A suspicious person might think you were involved with him in something improper.”
“This man, Kanley, had been harassing one of my people. His death will end that.” She said “my people” with great emphasis, as though she or they considered themselves separate from everyone else. “Who are her people,” he wondered.
The two turned and looked at Vincent expectantly.
Vincent’s training told him to be careful, that he didn’t know these two people. Two minutes was not long enough to make an evaluation of their intentions. His mind warned him to step back, slow down, and evaluate further before trusting them with any relevant information. His father’s voice came back to him, like a mantra. “When in doubt, trust your instincts son.”
Quelling his over analyzing mind, Vincent spoke. “I wanted to ask him about a book he sold. I thought he might tell me how he came by it. It belonged to a friend of mine who has been missing for two years.”
“Well, in the morning the townguard will be along to clear out Kanley’s house.” The stranger gestured toward the door. “Maybe we should see if there is any information inside that could help you before they ransack the place”
Vincent walked over to the door and knelt down. He briefly examined the lock. It was a simple one. He was no master burglar, but he had some skill with locks and knew this one wouldn’t take long to open. As he took out his tools he suppressed a resurgence of his overly-cautious, logical side. “Trust your instincts son.” Repeating the phrase made him feel calmer.
The front door creaked slightly as it swung open. The interior of the home was dark except for the faint reflected light that squeezed around the three forms in the doorway. They stepped in and Vincent shut the door behind them. “See if you can find a candle or lamp.”
The woman’s voice came to him from the darkened room. “Won’t that attract attention?”
“Not really, it’s unlikely anyone that would see the light will know that Kanley won’t be coming back,” Vincent explained.
“Shield your eyes, this will be very bright until they adjust.” With that a blazing light shone from the end of the stranger’s staff. He had removed the cloth wrapping and a ghostly flame silently flickered on the end. After his eyes had adjusted to the light Vincent realized it wasn’t as bright as he had first thought. The one room first floor of the house was well illuminated by the pale light.
The furnishings of the house were simple. One might even say they were beneath the neighborhood’s standards. They were roughly formed, practical items that wouldn’t look out of place in a much smaller, humbler home. A stone fireplace was centered on the right wall, opposite a small, round table and three chairs on the left. The window to the right of the front door was next to a set of shelves that contained simple clay crockery, some chipped, others apparently missing. To the left of the entrance was a padded wooden chair that sat in front of the window to that side. The back wall of the room had a stairway climbing from the back left of the room to the second floor. Just past the fireplace was a simple table with a shelf underneath. The shelf contained a pitcher and wash basin along with a wooden cup filled with several mixed pieces of cutlery. Underneath the stairway in the back of the room was a simple writing desk and chair.
The threesome drifted to different parts of the room. The woman moved to the shelf and was examining the crockery. The stranger moved to the back toward the stairs. Vincent took out his tinder box and lit a candle he found on the table. The light was small and wan, but the room was small enough that it was sufficient. The woman moved to follow the stranger upstairs.
After the light from the stranger’s staff had faded to a dull glow on the stairway, Vincent took one of the fireplace pokers and carefully spread the ashes in the fireplace out. Nothing appeared to be hidden there and the ashes themselves seemed ordinary. Leaving the poker laying on the hearth he stepped toward the table with the wash basin. It was cheap, and hardly worthy of notice. Proceeding on he moved toward the writing desk then suddenly stopped. Stepping back a pace he put his weight on the floorboard again. “Yep, it’s definitely loose,” he thought. Dropping to his knees he examined the floor. There was a loose board about a foot long sticking out from the front corner of the fireplace. Based on the way the floor boards were laid out, Vincent figured the entire board must be about three feet long with two feet of it under the fireplace. He carefully examined the cracks around the board. Definite signs of it having been moved were apparent. The corners of the board were slightly rounded and there was no dirt packed between it and its neighbors, unlike the rest of the floor. He saw no signs of it being trapped or rigged in any way.
Pausing he looked toward the stairs. The dull glow had faded even more. That plus the footsteps from above told him they had moved toward the front of the second floor. They would not be coming back down immediately. Working quickly, Vincent took out his dagger and carefully pried at the end of the board. Easily it pivoted up. As he got his fingers under it he could see that the end of the board showed signs of having been pried up many times before. He pulled the board up and out of the slot it rested in and gently set it aside. The hollow space it left was dark in the pale light of the candle. Vincent retrieved it and held it over the opening, careful not to drip wax into the hollow. Laying on the cold, damp earth under the house’s foundation were several rolled parchments and a small, leather bound book with a tie cord. Glancing toward the stairs again out of paranoia, Vincent reached in and withdrew the various contents. The parchments were of good quality and each was sealed with red wax. Pressed into the wax was a signet of a flaming eye.
He quickly placed all the papers in his backpack and began to put the floor board back in place. As he was sliding it back he could hear the other two’s footsteps returning to the stairs. He carefully returned the floorboard, moved the candle to the wash stand, stood up and dusted himself off. Hurriedly, he brushed his foot over the floor board to rearrange the thin layer of dirt he had disturbed around the board. It would pass a cursory examination, but any prolonged search of the area would reveal the floor board and that it had been very recently removed.
In a few quick steps he was at the writing desk. Setting his candle on a nearby shelf, he quickly searched the desk. He opened the hinged writing surface and removed several sheets of parchment and a vial of ink he found within. Carefully he placed them in his backpack with his own stores of each. He could see light coming around the staircase which meant his new companions were returning. He closed the desk, retrieved his candle, and returned to the round table opposite the fire place. He set his candle in the center and turned as the other two reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Nothing up there but a bed, wash stand and night table. There’s some old, broken furnishings stored in the back, but none of it looks like it’s been moved in ages,” the young man said. “Did you find anything?”
“Nope, nothing of any interest,” his rational side told him to say, but trusting to his father’s instructions instead he said, “Yes, I found some parchments with opened seals and what I think is a journal. They were hidden under the floor. I haven’t had a chance to look at them yet.” He removed them from his backpack and set them on the table.
Each of them took a seat. Vincent picked up one of the parchments and carefully unfurled it. His companions each inspected another. The parchment was mostly blank, with just a few short paragraphs neatly penned at the top. It was dated one month ago and it appeared to be a set of directions. They were short and precise, to the point of being terse.
Information regarding viscount’s socializing is of no consequence. Similarly, trade negotiations with Dyvers are of no consequence. Gossip of slavers of no consequence.
The river-folk are an untapped well of information — find a means of getting that information.
The final briefing of last report is considered of highest importance. Press informants for more information of this type. Dispose of informants that cannot provide the type of information needed.
The Master, 18th Sunsebb
The woman had a look of scrutiny on her face as she scanned her parchment. “These appear to be orders from someone called ‘The Master’.”
The young man had propped his staff against the wall so that its light bathed the table. He examined the seal as he spoke, “This one as well.” His brow creased as he squinted at the lump of wax.
Setting his parchment back near the center of the table, Vincent unwound the tie cord from the small leather book. He turned it over in his hands twice before carefully opening the cover. Inside were journal entries in a small, hurried style of cursive script. He thumbed through the pages and counted seven entries in all. Returning to the first page, he began to quickly read.
I have taken a job as spy master for an unknown individual. All correspondence is with anonymous “Master” via blind drop locations. Must progress carefully — my instincts tell me the money is too good for the little that is being asked of me. Makes me wonder just who I’ll be serving.
My job continues to pay better than my instincts tell me it should. I’ve discovered who picks up my reports — a traveling merchant named Venet. He appears to be a moderately successful merchant. He travels to Verbobonc on a regular schedule, so he would appear to have no need to hire informants here.
Venet also picks up reports from at least two others in Verbobonc. I’ve been able to identify these other handlers, but dare not approach them. The chance that they might report my curiosity is too great. I suspect that would be a bad thing for me.
“The Master” is paying a lot of money for spies in Verbobonc. Not “high profile” informants either, but accountants and laborers, cooks and maids. None anywhere close to the viscount, as one might expect, but rather on the docks and in the naves.
It occurs to me that anyone willing to pay so much money to learn information might also pay to preserve their secrets. I need to learn more about who I am working for. This is a dangerous game, but I trust my wits better than I trust the fickle favor of Norebo — if I must gamble to make my fortune then it should be on my own terms.
Venet has a two week trade route. He starts at Verbobonc, loads up on various foodstuffs and supplies, then travels to the outlying villages. His route seems to be first to Swan, then Kron, and finally Cienega Valley, before returning to Verbobonc. It doesn’t seem like that route should take two weeks. I must be overlooking something or there is more to his route than meets the eye.
Why would Venet include Cienega Velley in his route? C.V. is on Gillendyl’s Run which is still navigable by river boat at least that far. How can he compete with river traders? Does he have some favorable trade agreements or is there another reason for him going there?
I have confirmed that Cinega Valley is accessible by river boat. I must make plans to follow Venet soon. I need more information before I proceed past the point of no return.
By the time he had finished the journal the other two had finished their examinations of the parchments. He passed the journal to the priestess and examined another parchment.
Rumors of yellow sailed ships of no consequence. Rumors regarding fate of “T” of no consequence.
Report contained no mention of progress regarding river-folk informants.
Activities of Cuthbertines of great interest. Seek for more of this type of information.
The Master, 4th Fireseek
Vincent returned the second parchment and retrieved the third.
Endeavor to get an informant within Cuthbertine circles. Information regarding missing canon of utmost importance.
Your report shows no progress regarding river-folk—if progress is not shown soon, other arrangements will have to be made.
The Master, 18th Fireseek
Vincent returned the parchments to the table and waited for the young man to finish his inspection of the journal.
The woman spoke first. “This explains why Kanley was harassing a young girl of my people, but it brings up new questions such as why this Master wanted a spy in the first place.”
“That’s the second time she’s used the term ‘my people’,” Vincent thought. Her accent, and mannerisms hinted at Rhennee ancestry, but her physical traits were not those of the river-folk. She was too tall and her hair straight, where they were known for their curly hair.
“Logic is a useful tool, but a tool is only as clever as its wielder,” his father had told him. Logic said she couldn’t be Rhennee, but that was apparently what she considered herself nonetheless.
“And who is this ‘T’ they refer to,” she continued. “And why is a missing clergyman of interest to them?”
“Well, I doubt we’ll be able to figure out more than Kanley already has,” the young man said. “So, rather than waste time covering ground he’s had weeks or months to investigate, why don’t we just ask him? He doesn’t hang til the morning. He might tell us nothing, but than again, he might.”
“You were the witness that turned him in. Maybe the guards will let you speak to him,” Vincent proffered. “While you do that, I’ll see what I can find out about this merchant.”
“I must inform a young friend that she no longer has anything to fear from Kanley.” As she rose, she continued. “But tomorrow I want to learn more about this ‘Master’ and why he is so interested in my people.”
Vincent and the young man followed her lead, rising from their seats. As he did so, the young man spoke. “I will head immediately to the magistrate and request an audience with Kanley. Shall we meet in the morning?”
“What time,” Vincent asked.
“How does 9 o’clock sound? We can meet at the entrance to the Temple of St. Cuthbert.”
The young woman nodded curtly. “Agreed.”
“Since we’re going to be working together, at least for the moment, we should probably introduce ourselves. I am Morithes, humble laymen follower of St. Cuthbert,” the young man explained.
“I am Lynnessa of the Rhennee, faithful servant of Geshtai,” the young woman responded. “But you may call me simply Lyn.”
Both turned to Vincent, awaiting his reply. “I am Vincent Corello, native son of Verbobonc.”
“May the gods bless this gathering and bring us success,” Lyn intoned in a low voice.
“VINCENT!” Lynessa broke him from his reflections. He could tell from the tone in her voice that she was shouting, but her voice sounded distant. He turned to locate her as her voice seemed to come from behind him. He spotted her about twenty yards behind him kneeling under a tree. Morithes was sitting with his back against the tree, one leg sprawling out into the trail, the other propping up his elbow. His head was leaning back to rest on the tree trunk.
Looking around as he walked back he estimated they were five minutes from the village. Rau was walking slowly at his side – he had no idea where Bur and Nod, his more playful younger dogs, had gotten off to. “Probably chasing birds or a rabbit,” he thought with a grin. The trained dogs had proven to be capable companions. Just an hour ago they had detected and sprung an ambush by the two biggest frogs Vincent had ever seen. Though large enough to swallow a halfling whole, the frogs had proven no match for the canine trio.
Vincent walked up to the tree and flopped onto the ground next to Morithes. “Yeah, I could use a break too,” he said with a grunt as he landed. He glanced sideways at Lynessa. Concern was plainly evident on her face. He made an inquiring look at her while nodding at Morithes. “Is he going to be okay,” he mouthed.
Her face turned to uncertainty as she shrugged and nodded halfheartedly. She laid her spear on the ground and set with her back against the tree opposite Vincent. “It’s a nice day…I see no need to rush back to town. Let’s just enjoy the lovely spring day.”