‘tween Rat and Rumor

Year 345 FW, Late Winter, in the Midlands

1, Bennet

I trudge into the guildmaster’s office and slap a job posting on to the man’s desk. He grunts. I sit uninvited in his little guest chair.

“Not for you” he says, succinctly.

“Oh? Why not?”

“It’s in Socali,” he replies.

My ears fold, and I stubbornly set them forward again. “I’ve never been to Socali,” I give back.

He eyes me, silently agreeing with the wisdom of that statement.

“Who’s the client?” I ask, stubbornness full set in now. Hell, it had been this man who’d urged me to take any damn job off the board at all.

Last week, I had been wandering my way through the midlands, joining small guide groups and keeping chillbains thinned. You never quite got rid of chillbains, they crop up all winter anywhere there are poor and hungry souls.

Honestly, hunting bains is great for keeping wild guides like me from being hungry too. Towns always have running bounties, and I often make my living each winter hopping hall to hall, just hunting. It’s a whole lot more fun than most alternatives, like staying in one place and guarding some warehouse full of goods that wont ship till spring.

But, in a grain field outside a minor train town named Yucca, the fight went sideways and took a chunk out of me. After, my team carried my passed-out, half-iced carcass to the temple of the Child here in town. Graces to the Child, her temple had a master healer, and I’m still alive to think back on all this and be bitter.

The problem is, every coin and stone I had was forfeit, and to hear the priests tell it, I still owed. They’d suggested I find a different line of work and sell all my enchanted weapons to pay my debt.

Priests are funny that way.

The message I took away is that if I ever wanted healing from the Child again, it was probably time to find some higher paying jobs.

The job board had nothing of the sort except this one old card. It bore a little circle in one corner, which meant small teams preferred, and three red stripes in another corner, which meant really fluffing dangerous.

The guild hall’s master pours two measures of something brown from a bottle on his desk into a pair of actual glasses, not clay mugs. He pushes one to me despite having cut me off from alcohol an hour earlier.

“Me, actually,” he says. “Name’s Bennet Freeman.”

I grunt. His ear had been cut and not healed, but with the rest of the scars on the old human’s face, I’d not given it any thought. He nods at my dawning realization, and I feel my ears heat with embarrassment. You’d think I’d pick up on something like that a lot faster.

Then he goes on. “I got out of Socali six years ago. The guild helped me, so I give back any way I can. We’re trying to get a better foothold in there these days.”

He runs out of steam so I find my inner need for work and prod the conversation. “Well, I have an itching to go anywhere I haven’t been. Tell me more?”

He seems almost sad but takes a draw and continues. I sip too, matching pace. The booze is sparking strong and my throat burns, but I master it like a champ and keep my game face on.

“Package delivery,” Bennet Freeman states like it’s nothing.

Silence stretches. Courier jobs are common and don’t usually get labeled really fluffing dangerous.

“Light sigil,” Bennet says with a nod at the marking on my inside arm. “Can you do illusions?” he asks.

“Not well, but I’m a full-spectrum elementalist. My sigils are just my strongest talents. I’m also pretty good with air, and can work fire in a pinch.” This is a standard line I use in interviews a lot. The symbol of light on my wrist and the symbol of water next to it advertise to the world that I’m a mage with at-will control over those elements, as long as I have sources of lux energy.

That’s the bigger problem with losing all my money. To me, stones are more than money, they’re the crystalline stores in which lux energy can be cached. I’m not just poor, my limits as a mage have been reset too.

“Damn,” Bennet says into his drink, not seeming to care about what I said. “Illusions would be useful.”

After another silence I ask, “It’s not a legal package, is it?” Even someone as smart as me eventually gets there.

“Not in Socali,” the guildmaster agrees. “It would help a lot of people though.” He makes a scrunched face and I think he’s trying to smile at me.

“Am I allowed to see what I’d carry?”

Bennet considers this for another moment then drains his drink in one gulp and stands. I echo the motion and follow him out of his office, trying to breathe through the burn of the booze. You could probably spark my breath from that single slug.

The guildmaster leads me around his bar, through the common room of the guild hall, and into a back closet that looks like it mostly holds cleaning things. There he takes a simple wooden crate down from a high shelf, staggering a bit under the weight.

Helpfully I catch it with him. We heave it to the floor and the man undoes a simple latch then opens the box.

Inside, nestled in a bed of straw, is a glistening, metallic gold feather, full on as long as my forearm, and thick as a slab of uncooked bacon.

I quirk my head and hold a hand over the thing, sensing for the subtle pressures of power. I feel some. Ancient. No visible runes, but powerful. Sleeping.

“Artifact,” I say.

“Vixen’s Quill,” he replies. My eyes widen, and I notice the tip has indeed been shaped into a pen.

“Adds inspiration to any words written,” I reply.

“Oh, you know her story?” the guildmaster raises an eyebrow, clearly surprised.

“I love a good story,” I reply, actually entranced with the thing.

“Well here,” he says, closing the box again and latching it before standing. “Let’s go back out front and I’ll tell you one.” He leaves the crate on the floor where it is and pushes me out of the closet before him.

By the time we’re settling on our own sides of the bar, a question has dawned on me. “How do you write with it, if it’s so heavy?”

The guildmaster makes a brief chuckle. “You charge it, of course. Bleeding thing soaks a stone of lux per page. But it’s as light as a real feather then. And it can change a war.”

“As Vixen did,” I fill in. Vixen is a local goddess in this part of the midlands. I’d been to her temple once while I was otherwise killing time in Sha’vel. She’s an inspiration goddess and doesn’t do healings, so the church isn’t very rich. But her temple grounds are a big winding garden and I thought the place was really peaceful and kinda fun. Heck, one of her priestesses and I had made out a little bit, inside a grove of whithered old nobby trees.

“Right,” the guildmaster agrees, popping the nice memory I was enjoying. “Vixen drafted papers for all four of the states that came to be Fratta, wrote the messaging that got people onto the new charters, and made the country.”

“Socali’s already part of Fratta,” I point out.

He laughs another brief cackle. “Don’t kid yourself. We built a fence around Socali fifteen years back. You know there’s checkpoints, right? Watched both sides.”

I quirk my whiskers, frowning as I think it over. “So the job is to carry an illegal artifact into Socali, avoid being pressed into service by some crime family, and deliver the thing to…” I realize the punchline is as likely unpleasant as the rest of it.

“The good guys,” the guildmaster replies solemnly, and I know my fears are on course.

I’m going to take the job anyway, of course. I have to.

At least Socali should be warm, I tell myself. My hip is still stiff from being a claw width from dead, and I’m absolutely sure another snow-filled field of bains will not help that.

Given the crazy risk, I talk the pay up to three stones for a week of work, and even manage to get him to give me half of that up front. Bennet knows I’m totally out of money and need something for supplies, so I’m glad he cuts me a bit of a favor here. He gives me a train chit, a single stone, and a handful of coins. That plus the stone I had in my bags for emergencies, and I feel like I’m not totally helpless.

We spend the afternoon talking plans and logistics so I can leave on the morning train. I won’t take the package by train through the checkpoint, Bennet tells me, the train guild plays too level. Instead I’ll hop off at some tiny stop and he’s got someone who will take me across by road.

That’s at least half way to having the job done, I guess. We have a contract witnessed so I don’t have to carry something so incriminating with me. Then I take my own impression of light off the contract anyway and hide it in the stone he gave me, just in case he somehow loses the original. If nothing else, it’s a way to charge the stone with lux.

The next morning I catch my train, and with mechanical efficiency, myself and my package are delivered through the endlessly rolling grassy hills of the midlands.

By the day’s end, I find myself sitting on my crate at the edge of the train terminal in some little no-name place. Exactly six houses are in sight, scattered around the tiny vale, and none of them show any activity.

Time passes and the sun sets. In two of the houses lights are struck. A tiny light stone on a pole overhead sparks on as well, automatically, a metal shield over it bouncing its illumination down towards the platform.

More time passes and I’m still surprised at how quickly it gets dark this far south.

Eventually, an empty, flat wagon rattles up the street, harnessed to a spiked mechanical drive wheel by means of a rusted metal frame. Slowly the wagon rattles up and comes to a halt next to me, and the cart’s driver sets his device to idle and looks down from his seat towards where I sit.

I’m just on the fringes of the train platform’s light, so we can make each other out well enough. Well, I can make him out anyway, but he’s human and their vision isn’t so good.

I stand, picking up my short spear and standing in easy rest. “May I come aboard?” I ask politely.

After a moment I decide this isn’t the guy and go to sit down again, but then he grunts and says, “Child’s grace, it’s cold tonight.”

It’s not really, but, “Celes knows, springtime is coming,” I reply, returning to attention.

The driver eyes me another moment then moves his gaze to the box behind my feat. “Set ‘er in the middle then hop on,” he finally yields.

I heave the crate into place and then settle myself on top of it. The driver engages his wheel and rolls us down the dark street and out of town. The wheel purrs softly as it operates, grinding against the dirt road. Our wagon rattles behind.

In time we turn off towards a farm. There we stop at a barn and a woman and younger man come out to meet us. All four of us silently load sacks of beans onto the cart, completely covering my crate. I settle myself back on the top of it all, wrap myself in my heavy kyrin-fur winter cloak, then the driver and I rumble back out to the road and towards Socali.

I know I’m new to this all, but it does bug me that I’m supposed to be pretending to guard a wagon full of beans. That doesn’t seem like something any normal merchant would hire a fighter-mage of my stripes and experience to do.

Truly, I feel like I stand out here even worse than I did on the train.

I keep silent about it though, and just play my role. The cart driver or merchant or whatever he is yields no conversation either.

I give up and catch a little sleep among the pile of beans.

I wake again when we hit the west-gate checkpoint at sunrise. I stand properly on the side and try to look fierce but uninteresting. I’m just a hired private guard. Nothing but a guard.

My guild crest is inspected. The sigils on my wrist are inspected. My fuzzing ears are inspected, like somehow you could clip a cat’s ears and be subtle about it.

My short spear is inspected, and the question is posed whether it’s an artifact. That surprises me, though I should have expected it, I guess. I have no idea what the weapon is actually made of, but I assure them it’s totally inert and has no active effects that I know of.

The inspectors keep making a fuss though, and my own wagon’s driver is getting grumpy.

As tension builds, I realize that’s the very point. I’d heard about this, but facing it is totally different.

I quietly fish a couple small coins from a pocket and try to subtly pass them. Quite quickly, one of the inspectors almost snatches them from my grasp. He’s far more practiced at this than I. He weighs them in his palm and sneers like I’ve underpaid.

I frown deeper and growl, just a little.

He looks at the line of wagons stacking up behind us, decides I’ve paid enough after all, and we’re waved on.

“You overpaid,” my driver grunts at me as we clear the checkpoint and I climb behind him again onto the pile of beans. “Half crown would have done it.”

I grumble noncommittally and our wagon rolls towards the city, our spiked wheel occasionally striking sparks from the pavers as it pulls us forward.