â€œThis is certainly a pleasant smell,â€ Errant said with a wrinkled nose as they stepped out of the confines of Great Forkâ€™s city walls and into the shabby opulence of the docks.
â€œHuh, I guess they do all smell the same,â€ Rose noted lightly, her right hand resting comfortably on the rounded pommel of her saber.
The dockyard of Great Forks was thankfully just like any other waterfront she had ever visited. The reek of dead fish and other unidentifiable filth filled the air, pushing back the cloud of perfumes that occasionally drifted in from the city proper. It was a bad stink, but at least it was one that she was familiar with. Row upon row of packed piers lined the lazy curve of the banks of the Rolling River as it fed into the massive Yellow River along the northern shores. The steady current kept the waters relatively clean, and prevented most of the stink from becoming a nauseating rank that plagued most of the harbors she had visited in the islands of the West.
They stood outside eastern gate, which led out to the middle of the docks and the frenzied activity of countless workers, sailors, and travelers. Clusters of squat warehouses and other buildings covered the seventy yard strip of land between the walls and the water leaving many almost randomly spaced loading docks where wholesalers and dockmasters conducted their daily business, and cargo sat ready to be loaded onto waiting barges or to be delivered into the city. Dotted among the warehouses and office spaces were dive bars, drug dens, and gambling holes, all innocuous and unadvertised but plainly recognizable for those who knew what to look for.
It made her feel a bit better that even in Great Forks there were still places in the city that dispensed with all the pomp and flair that the place was known for.
The secret orders from Oversight were still on her mind. She was used to mission changes of course, as a mission without at least three in-mission updates in West was pretty much unheard of, but she didnâ€™t like procedural secrets. It was borderline treasonous as far as she was concerned, and she had a gut feeling that Errant suspected that she was holding something back. What the Hell am I getting into?
â€œSo whereâ€™s this friend of yours?â€ Rose asked, raising her voice somewhat to be heard over the general bustle.
Her partner nodded towards the northeast and replied in kind, â€œThereâ€™s a Guild trading post in the northern tip of the docks. If heâ€™s in town, heâ€™ll be there.â€
She raised a halting hand and rubbed the bridge of her nose with the other, â€œWait, wait, wait. You donâ€™t even know if heâ€™s here?â€
Errant shrugged and started walking, â€œHeâ€™s here. Probably.â€
Rose pressed her lips into a thin line but marched after him all the same, glaring at the Old Realm characters that spelled out â€˜bad luckâ€™ on Errantâ€™s tunic as they fluttering mockingly at her. As the man moved through the controlled chaos of fast moving cargo and bodies, they encountered many groups of swarthy, muscular men were very much willing to hurl curses as they hurried by with their loads. She rattled her saber and snapped off a few oaths of her own in response to the ones that were aimed at her and noticed the Journeys snickering at some of her choices in vocabulary.
She held back a smirk and shrugged it off. It was about time she had some fun on this trip of theirs.
The docks spanned the entire eastern edge of the city so their hike through the busy port took over an hour, but she did not mind. She felt right at home with the rough and tumble world of ships and sailors, and it seemed to her that Errant enjoyed the walk less than she did. A selfish bit of joy, but she took it. Eventually, Guild banners and flags began to appear atop ships, across warehouses, and outside offices with increasing frequency as they neared the compound, though the activity was no less lively.
As the high banners of the Guild compound came into view, Errant stopped in his tracks. â€œBout time I changed,â€ Errant noted offhandedly and moved off the beaten path as it were, ending with a turn down a short alley between a cluster of storehouses. â€œKeep watch will you?â€ he requested without looking back and began fumbling through his pockets.
â€œA Resplendent Destiny?â€ Rose asked with a raised brow then scanned the far side of the alley along with any potential hiding spots between the ends. She crossed her arms when her partner gestured affirmatively, â€œIn public? Youâ€™re just asking for a Spider bite.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why youâ€™re here,â€ Errant replied nonchalantly. A moment later he had a messy bundle of iridescent light clutched in his fist. The Journeys flicked the bundle like a rug and it unfurled into the shape of a long cloak. With quick flair, he threw the garment over his shoulders and in an instant the radiance of the cloak enveloped him until it became a cocoon. Then just as quickly, the shell burst into a cloud of prismatic ribbons and motes of light that faded into nothingness after a couple breathes, revealing a slightly shorter man with a long trail of black hair and fairly expensive merchantâ€™s garb in the form of a long red and brass colored robe bulging with various pouches and trinkets that chimed with every movement.
The man who was Errant Venture bowed with a flourish, his hair falling over his shoulders as he did so, â€œEnterprising Endeavor, daring explorer and scavenge trader extraordinaire at your service, my dear,â€ he introduced himself before straightening and appraised her with brown eyes that matched Errantâ€™s in every way save for color.
â€œAll right, E.E,â€ Rose replied, playing the part as to not contradict the minor change to the Tapestry and offend the Pattern Spiders, the Loom of Fateâ€™s eight-legged caretakers. Resplendent Destinies were artificially created lives with their own separate destiny built into the Loom of Fate. When an agent takes on that destiny they become a part of Creation in ways they normally would never be able to achieve.
Such as being memorable. â€œSo what am I?â€ Rose asked with a raised brow and a fist on her hip.
â€œIâ€™m about to enter the lionâ€™s den, if you will,â€ said the merchant, â€œA bodyguard would be most appreciated.â€
â€œYou think thereâ€™ll be trouble?â€
â€œEhh perhaps,â€ he answered with some reluctance. â€œWe did not part on especially friendly terms the last we met.â€
Rose sighed. Figures. Then shrugged and nodded, â€œFine by me. I wonâ€™t have to come up with a ResDes of my own on the fly.â€
Endeavor clapped his hands cheerily, â€œGood, good!â€ he said and began moving back towards the street, â€œLet us by on our way then!â€
Over the course of the ten minutes that it took for them to reach the Guild trade compound, Rose decided that she preferred Errantâ€™s brand of annoyance over Endeavorâ€™s.
Melasâ€™s Tits, this guy wonâ€™t shut up!
She breathed a sigh a relief when they reached the trade post and were halted in front of the closed gate of steel reinforced wood leading into the Guild compound by the guard captain. There were four guards in all at front of the gate. Judging from the hodgepodge of weapons and armor, she pegged them for mercenaries. Her charge beamed jovially at the lead man who seemed to have a perpetual grimace. â€œGood afternoon sir!â€ Endeavor welcomed loudly.
â€œWhatâ€™s yer business here, coin-purse?â€ the captain snapped gruffly from under his pot helmet, his eyes immediately darted from Endeavor to the saber that hung behind Roseâ€™s hip. The three men behind him followed their leaderâ€™s gaze and then began whispering amongst themselves. Rose crossed her arms and glared back in response.
â€œWhy Iâ€™m here to see my dear friend, Teel Venn, of course!â€ E.E. answered, unperturbed by or perhaps oblivious to the guardâ€™s rudeness. â€œI make it a point to visit whenever I happen to be in town. Oh! Where are my manners? I am Enterprising Endeavor, daring explorer and scavenge trader extraordinaire!â€
The guard captain puffed his chest beneath his lamellar breastplate and took a step forward, â€œNobody gets through here without an appointment with the Trade Lord. And I got no word that heâ€™s expectinâ€™ somebody today. That means you ainâ€™t been invited, so piss off.â€
â€œWell now, now,â€ Endeavor said hastily before the guard had the chance to do anything else. Swiftly reaching into a seemingly random pouch and producing a small sack of what sounded like coins, which the gatekeeper was only too quick to examine after the merchant tossed it over to him. â€œIâ€™m sure Teel will vouch for me,â€ the self-proclaimed adventurer insisted, â€œjust let him know Iâ€™m here and heâ€™ll let me right on in!â€
â€œSure, sure,â€ came the distracted reply, the captain already sifting through the coins with his eyes. â€œBrannic! Let the Trade Lord know that thereâ€™s ahhh whatâ€™s yer name again, coin-purse?â€
â€œEnterprising Endeavor!â€ the Sidereal turned mortal replied enthusiastically, â€œdaring explorer and scavenge trader at your-â€
â€œI heard ya!â€ The guard snapped tersely. Rose felt the urge to thank the man but said nothing, keeping her glower as one of the other guards, presumeably the one called Brannic, slipped through a door near the gate and disappeared into the compound.
As the two of them stood outside of the Guild compound with the three remaining sourly mercenaries, Rose took a step back and let Endeavor try to mingle while she took in the environment. The warehouses and offices nearby were busy with activity, but no one gave what was going on in front of the compound any notice, as though they were trained to not see anything that might endanger their lives. The guards did not spare her another momentâ€™s notice after the first exchange either, which was unsurprising due to her kindâ€™s unique relationship with reality.
The ResDes was one of the most potent resources at a Siderealâ€™s disposal when interacting with Creation, allowing them to intermingle seamlessly with beings outside the Bureau of Destiny and make lasting impressions. She also knew for a fact that many of her colleagues crafted their ResDes identities specifically for the purpose of discreetly living out whims and fantasies that would otherwise appear unseemly for an agent of heaven, rather than design them to most effectively carry out their responsibilities.
As Rose watched her Sidereal partner turned chattering junk trader however, she could not tell what he had been thinking when he made that.
After several tense minutes the guard called Brannic returned from within the compound; tense mostly due to Endeavor trying to sell armor care products to the already short-tempered guard captain, who looked as though he were about to skewer the merchant despite the bribe. The two mercenaries whispered for a few short breaths, and then the leader waved for the others to open the gate.
â€œLetâ€™em in boys. The Trade Lord gave his say so,â€ the guard captain snapped with what Rose would call suspicious enthusiasm and gestured for them to enter. â€œRight this way, coin-purse. Ya know the way in aâ€™course.â€
â€œOf course! Of course!â€ Endeavor replied obliviously and marched right on through, â€œI am a regular after all, you know.â€
Rose sighed. This isnâ€™t stupid at all, she thought dryly and followed several steps behind the merchant. She suppressed a smirk at the confused and surprised looks on the weak-willed guardsâ€™ faces as she walked by, knowing that her existence had already begun to fade from their memories.
It was not the first time Rose found herself inside a Guild trade post, and this one had little different in function from the others she had visited. Two rows of store houses lined the western end opposite the slave pens, which were for the moment empty. She did not have to guess why the cages were vacant. At the far end of the central courtyard and auction block was a large administrative palace, where the regionâ€™s Trade Lord often resided and conducted their business. In form, the buildings were done to match the aesthetics of the host city, constructed with the same domed roofs and mural covered walls that were popular in Great Forks, but were made even more ostentatious by the incredibly bright paints and the use of semi-precious stones. It was as though whoever had built this place had tried a little too hard to fit in. A low five meter wall of stone reinforced wooden palisades ringed the trade post and were angled slightly inward, more to keep people in than to keep them out.
The Battles counted about a dozen guards standing beside various doors or patrolling the grounds, and a handful of house slaves tending to the property as she followed Endeavor across the courtyard. The clouds of perfume returned which almost but not quite masked the stench of unwashed bodies of people who were no longer there. Old blood stains dotted the grounds here and there, many of them congregating around or on the dingy wooden platform at the center.
Moving on, Endeavor marched his way to the palace, where the two door guards gave them entry, much to the merchantâ€™s pleasure. â€œGood! Good!â€ he boasted happily and often, but Rose kept her mouth shut, eying the guards warily and noting that all of the exterior guards had been relocated inside and were watching them. The gate, of course, had been closed once more.
Not stupid at allâ€¦
The interior of the palace was all vaulted ceilings and multicolored silk banners that diffused the warm yellow light of the glowstone lamps and muffled the echoes of their footsteps. The walls were of wood and polished plaster colored with reliefs and murals, and the floors were rug-softened tile. A number of lounge chairs were scattered around the waiting room, where guests could await their turn with the Trade Lord in luxury.
She counted another half dozen mercenary guards who stood watch in alcoves and hallways nearby, two of which guarded an opulent set of double doors on the opposite side of the room. The pair of guards before heavy doors stepped in front of them as they approached, their ornate tower shields forming a solid wall of steel.
â€œThe Trade Lord will only see his guest,â€ the one on the left grunted curtly, â€œyour woman will have to wait here.â€
â€œLike Hell I-â€ Rose snapped before Endeavor interjected loudly and jovially.
â€œNow, now, my dear. Thatâ€™s quite all right. My dear friend Teel has always been a man of procedure. An ordered house is a profitable house, as I always say.â€ He guided her back towards the waiting room with a hand on her shoulder. â€œWhy donâ€™t you wait here, hm? The seating and drinks here are excellent, if I do say so myself. But try not to abuse the amenities too much, eh? Haha! I wonâ€™t be long so donâ€™t you worry!â€
He then gave her a hard slap on the back, which she did not appreciate, and proceeded prance over to the guards who parted their shields and opened the doors for him.
â€œMarvelous!â€ Rose heard Endeavor exclaim as he went inside. She looked back in time to catch a glimpse of a second, smaller waiting room before the guards closed the doors with a loud bang. The Battles clicked her tongue and shrugged, the idiot could take care of himself.
She then picked a lounge chair at random, settled down on it and threw her feet up. A male salve with a youthful face appeared shortly after with an offering of wine, which the Chosen of Mars accepted with a short nod. As the man-child left the room, Rose took a sip, her trained palette detecting nothing out of the ordinary. That assessment, sadly, also included the quality of her drink. Ah well, booze is booze.
She turned on her side and propped up her cheek on a fist. With her glass in her free hand, she glanced around the room. There were even more guards now and she did not have to waste the effort of checking their threads to know that they were up to no good. They must have thought that they could handle one lone girl since they didnâ€™t even go to the trouble of poisoning her drink. She yawned and took another sip of her wine before setting it down.
Careful to keep her actions hidden, she reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a thin strip of paper. It was an old, prewritten prayer strip that has seen better days. Hostility Clearance Requests were not used often in the West as she was used to dealing with beings that were on the Bureauâ€™s kill-on-sight list, but she figured sheâ€™d play by the books on her first assignment in the paper loving East. A momentâ€™s concentration and a bit of essence later the strip burned away in a barely perceptible wisp of smoke. Request sent.
Now the waiting part, she thought with a mental sigh. She rolled her body back to a sitting position and glanced at the approaching guards with a smirk. At least she wonâ€™t be bored.
â€œWonderful,â€ Enterprising Endeavor chortled and clapped his hands excitedly before he pushed open the doors leading into Teel Vennâ€™s audience chamber. A haze of incense billowed in his face and he breathed in the overpowering scent with gusto.
The room was in a word, soft. Paper thin banners of silk fluttered lazily against the gentle breeze made by a pair of water powered fans. The running currents that pushed the wheels of the clever devices and fed the fountains that lined the room also lent their tranquil noise to the atmosphere. Thick rugs overlapped one another in an appealing mosaic of patterns, color, and textures with luxurious silk cushions piled high and abundantly in a semi-circle facing a raised dais. Upon the stage, perched cross-legged on top of a comfortable legless throne sat his dear friend, Teel Venn.
â€œYou have some nerve showing your face again, you motherless Fae-lover.â€
Former dear friend.
â€œNow, now, isnâ€™t that rather harsh?â€ Endeavor replied jovially as he kept walking towards the simmering Trade Lord.
â€œThatâ€™s far enough!â€ Teel Venn growled as the merchant stepped inside the half-ring of cushions.
The disguised Sidereal stopped misstep then stooped over one of the cushions, â€œIâ€™ll just sit here then,â€ he acquiesced with a hint of meekness, silently noting the Trade Lordâ€™s tightening grip on the throneâ€™s armrest. Pushing the Guild official a bit further, Endeavor straightened his clothes after settling into his seat, making sure to take slightly more time to do so than was proper, before he met Teelâ€™s hard glare with an expectant stare.
Teel eventually broke the silence with a loud hrumph and leaned back against his chair. â€œForty seven mercenaries, sixty two slaves, countless pieces of equipment, and my reputation. Lost in that hole you insisted held treasures beyond imagining!â€
And a level three Malfean breach, but whoâ€™s counting? Errant noted behind Endeavorâ€™s jovially grinning mask. â€œA slight miscalculation, I assure you! Indeed, I am well on my way of paying you back for that little incident. I just need a little information, thatâ€™s all-â€
â€œHah! Begging for scraps again? Your audacity never ceases to amaze me. But no, not this time. This time I give you nothing, and you give me your head.â€
Endeavorâ€™s eyes darted around the room, â€œTeel, Teel, come now. We can be civil about this.â€ His cheery demeanor then dropped briefly into a sly stare that was almost out of character, â€œThree men in the rafters, one under the trapdoor to my right and two hidden behind your rather fetching chair. Is that all loyal men you can afford?â€
â€œEnough to keep you occupied until my men deal with that wench of yours,â€ Teel Venn sneered, but the Sidereal could easily pick out the surprise the Trade Lord tried to keep from seeping into his posturing.
The self-proclaimed adventurer snapped his fingers and leaned forward, â€œHow about wager then. If my girl wins, you tell me what I want to know and-â€
â€œAnd if I win, you would give me your head? Willingly? I find that hard to believe a snake like you could possibly do such a thing,â€ the Trade Lord grunted and crossed his arms. The Journeys knew the man enjoyed a good bet, however, especially when it was stacked in his favor and already knew what his opponentâ€™s answer was going to be. All it took was a bit of baiting.
â€œIâ€™d swear by the Dragons themselves if youâ€™d believe it! Besides,â€ he said with a reassuring flap of his hand, â€œI certainly wouldnâ€™t be able to stop you if you best my guardian now wouldnâ€™t I?â€
A moment flashed before Teel Vennâ€™s lips formed a grin that did not touch his eyes, â€œYou have a deal. Bodyguard or no, sheâ€™s no match for my new retainer.â€
Endeavor leaned back against his seat and sighed with feigned condolence, â€œTeel, my friend. Heâ€™s probably already dead.â€