Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 5:00 p.m.
Oliver had been almost as anxious about returning to the Verdant Stag as he was eager. He needed to ensure all his people had escaped the night before. He had a few local coppers in his pocket, and at least one of them would give word when a Stag was arrested, along with relaying other relatively harmless information about the goings-on of the local law enforcement.
Both he and Liza were well known around these parts. Though most didn’t know him as the leader of the Verdant Stags without his mask, he was an obviously wealthy man that enjoyed “slumming it” with those poorer and more dangerous than himself. People surely suspected he was involved in some sort of crime or nefarious activity, but that was not so uncommon for the wealthy. As long as they didn’t discover his true efforts and goals until it was too late to stop him, that was fine.
Liza was recognized for what she was—a powerful and dangerous sorceress, one not bound by the restrictions of the law.
Together, they received nods and wary looks as they passed the citizens who were heading home as night fell.
He looked at the peoples’ coarse, patched clothing, the dirt lining the tired wrinkles of those who had grown old while still young, and the cobbles of the streets that had been washed clean by the river-swelling torrents of rain, but would soon be coated with filth again. Shops had picture signs instead of names, for those who could not read, which was most of them.
Men and boys without jobs skulked on the corners and in the alleys, smoking cat’s-cough and glaring out at the world, some of them with gang colors or symbols displayed with varying levels of subtlety.
A woman hacked up blood into her handkerchief, then tucked the cloth away in her pocket and continued to beg for alms.
He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and let out a deep sigh, walking a little faster. This would all change when he ruled. The Stags might have control over only a tiny portion of the city at the moment, but he was already making things better. If he could just continue building—but that was the problem. The Morrows were not willing to let him continue.
He’d been pouring his personal funds into the Verdant Stag and its endeavors. The fortune he had amassed over many years was dwindling, and now the agricultural component of the plan, which had been almost ready to start production, would need another influx of funds as he rebuilt the warehouse and paid for greater security so that people were not afraid to take the jobs he offered.
He needed something that would bring in more money than cheap food for the masses, but could still be traded freely. Perhaps a product with a wealthier market, like the foodstuffs that would normally be imported from a more tropical climate. His own household budget for spices and honey was high enough that he might as well have been buying gold and silver by the ounce. Shipping was dangerous and expensive, and moving products over land had its own difficulties. In some instances, it simply wasn’t feasible. He planned to replace the roof of the warehouse with glass, which should allow him to grow at least some of those more exotic foodstuffs indoors, but this was yet another exorbitant expenditure. Nevertheless, it would avoid the need for magic to imitate the light of the sun. Over time, the cost would be less.
Liza broke him from his thoughts, murmuring, “The girl…she’s the one they’re looking for?” Her gaze was on a copper, who was questioning a store owner in the doorway of the man’s shop.
Oliver gave her a look, but didn’t respond aloud.
“That’s answer enough, I suppose,” she said. “Do not worry, I have no love for Gilbrathan law, and no need for reward money. Idiot coppers tried to question me about the whole commotion when it first happened, and I sent them packing. As if I would’ve been so sloppy with the getaway, even assuming I decided to steal from the University.”
Oliver sighed and shook his head, but he couldn’t help smiling slightly.
They made it to the Verdant Stag not long after, and Liza took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink while Oliver continued on to Katerin’s upstairs office.
Katerin froze for a moment when he walked into the room, her eyes sweeping over him for damage like a worried mother. After a second of silence, some of the strain around her eyes and in her shoulders receded. “Took you long enough,” she muttered.
“Is everyone alright? Any arrests? Did we manage to get Jameson to Healer Nidson’s?” While he spoke, he moved to the safe in the attached closet at the back of the room and began to go through the somewhat complicated process of unlocking it.
“No arrests, but a couple injuries. I have already paid Nidson.” She hesitated. “Jameson…did not make it.”
Oliver straightened and turned to face her. “What?”
“We got him to Nidson, but…his heart stopped working. Nidson restarted it, but…it wouldn’t take. Jameson died.”
Oliver stared at her, taking in the bags under her eyes and the way she leaned a hand against the back of her chair for support. “Did Nidson give him blood?”
She frowned in confusion. “No?”
He ran a hand down his face, rubbing at the skin. “Jameson, and Cooper too. Have you told their families, yet?”
She shook her head. “But word spreads quickly. They might already know.”
“We will pay for the funerals. And…” He turned back to the safe, pulling out two full coin pouches, each with one hundred gold counted out within. He slipped one into his pocket and removed thirty gold crowns from the other. He divided the thirty gold into two smaller purses and set them on Katerin’s desk. “Give their families a stipend, for the next…three years. Fifteen gold a month.” Spreading it out made it less likely for the families to be the target of a theft, and kept anyone from spending recklessly if they were the type to do so. It also put just a little less pressure on the Verdant Stag’s finances.
Katerin looked as if she wanted to disagree, but slumped instead. “I suppose they were killed working for us, and at what was supposed to be a safe job. But you cannot start compensating the family of everyone who is killed or injured in Stag territory. And what about that second purse you took?”
“Payment for Siobhan’s help. She…had a mishap. The coppers have some of her blood, and they have attempted to scry her—and failed!” he added quickly, raising his hands placatingly. “Liza is helping her, but—”
“But Liza would expect you to sell your firstborn to pay her fees, or go home if you couldn’t,” Katerin grumbled. “Oliver…you realize what this means? If they recognized her, they’re going to be digging into the whole thing much deeper than they otherwise might for a fight between two gangs. They’ll be sniffing around the Verdant Stag.”
“I know.” He clenched his fists. “But it’s too late now. We’ll pretend innocence as best we can. If they bring any of our men in for questioning, remind them to stay silent until you can get them out. If they question you personally, deny any knowledge to the point of belligerence, if you have to.”
She looked torn between screaming in anger and crying, but in the end only shook her head with exhaustion. “I hope this girl is worth it, Oliver. You’re making quite a large investment in her.”
“We will see,” he said, knowing that no words from him would actually sway her opinion. “Do you have the addresses of Cooper’s and Jameson’s next of kin?” Notifying their families of their fate was a responsibility that couldn’t wait, for honor’s sake if nothing else. When she nodded, he said, “Send someone to tell them before the day is out. Go yourself if possible.” He would have preferred to do it himself, to handle this terrible duty with the respect it deserved, but he would have to go in his mask, and that would be worse than sending another in his place.
“Are we doing anything else about what happened last night?” she asked.
He rubbed his hand over his face again. “Of course. This cannot be allowed to continue. I am accompanying Liza to the Night Market.” He ignored Katerin’s grimace of distaste when he mentioned the sorcerer’s name. “I’ll see if I can pick up a few more battle or warding artifacts there. I’m quite sure Siobhan plans to brew us an extensive series of battle potions. We need to recruit more people to the enforcers and emergency crews. Our people were ineffective out there, even considering their disadvantage. Many of them haven’t been trained well enough for this. Talk to Huntley, maybe he’d be willing to run a more thorough training program.”
“I’ll get on it right away.”
“We can only hope the injuries the Morrows sustained last night cause them to be more hesitant, rather than lashing out in a show of force. Either way, no more shifts for the workers at night. I have some other ideas, but we need more money, time, and people,” he said.
Katerin gave him a grim smile. “Well, we are working on all three things already. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do.”
Before stepping away from the safe he hesitated, then grabbed another coin purse and put it in his pocket before leaving.
“Don’t forget to replace those!” Katerin called after him. “I have those funds earmarked for expenses already.”
He grabbed a spare battle wand from their tiny armory, changed his cloak, and slipped his mask back on, then commandeered an off-duty enforcer to guard him as he left.
Liza shot a look to the man, whose eyes scanned their surroundings for threats as they walked down the street.
“We’re carrying quite a lot of money and going to some questionably safe places,” Oliver explained in a low voice. “If nothing else, the appearance of protection might deter opportunists.”
She snorted. “You realize you are walking with me, right? Anyone stupid enough to try to steal my gold will find themselves with a smoking hole through their abdomen, and the coppers daren’t come after me without at least a full squad.”
Oliver opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Right.” Perhaps the bodyguard wasn’t needed, but it couldn’t hurt, and he’d already agreed to pay the man. It would be churlish to send him back now.
When they reached the Night Market, Liza took the lead, striding to the door of The Elementary, a shop whose display window held some common spell components. The listed prices were much higher than they should have been.
Oliver motioned for their guard to stay outside, and the man posted himself beside the doorway, tracking the other occupants of the street with a suspicious gaze.
Shelves lined the walls and filled most of the small, somewhat dingy shop. Liza ignored all of that, walking to the counter in the back where a tired-looking young man was labeling a bottle of beetles. “I’m here to see Harvester.”
The shopkeep looked her and Oliver up and down, then silently pulled out a stone disk from below the counter and placed it on the surface.
Liza palmed her Conduit and pressed her other hand flat to the disk. Pieces of it shifted and turned like a puzzle, and then the center rose up.
The shopkeep nodded and turned to motion to the wall behind him. Oliver only then noticed the outline of a hidden door, flush with the wall on either side and wallpapered over. Had that been there, visible but unnoticed, the whole time, or had whatever Liza done revealed it?
He followed her through the door into a huge storeroom filled with wide, towering shelves, each of which held various exotic materials and components within glass spheres covered in spell arrays. There were the more mundane but still valuable components like dragon scales, but he also saw rare, precious things like the tiny, sleeping dryad laying in a bowl of rich dirt, or the glowing feather the size of his leg that he was pretty sure was from a creature native to the Plane of Radiance.
Still, what caused his breath to catch in his chest was not any of the fantastical things on display, but the active planar portal in a clearing in the middle of the room.
He took off his mask to stare at the portal. It was a shimmering sphere, the bottom tip of which barely touched the center Circle of the spell array inlaid in gold and white marble on the floor. Five beast cores, glowing so bright a yellow they almost seemed white, powered the spell from component Circles positioned around the main one. The sixth component Circle held what looked to be a fish made entirely of water, wriggling weakly through the air of the glass containment sphere it was trapped within.
Past the heat wave-like surface of the sphere, he could make out what looked like a coral reef and some waving seaweed, and within it, a crouched form that he mistook for a boulder until its arms moved and he realized it was a person.
Oliver turned to Liza, eyes wide. He wanted to ask a question, but for once his tongue failed him.
She raised an unimpressed eyebrow, but he noticed that the edge of her mouth quirked up as she took in his expression. “Harvester should be out soon. Even he cannot remain alive underwater indefinitely.”
Oliver cleared his throat. “I admit, I didn’t know the Night Market had a place such as this. I’m in need of some battle and protection artifacts, preferably used and recharged. Where would you suggest I go?”
“Two doors down. Tell them I sent you and that you’re new to the market. If you hurry, you might even get back in time to meet Harvester.” Something about the way she said the last sentence sounded somewhat ominous.
“Right. Will I be able to get back here, though? The magic password disk…”
“Send the shopkeep back for me, if he won’t let you through.”
Oliver put his mask back on and left, somewhat reluctantly. He motioned for his guard to stay where he was and walked two shops down. A small symbol had been carved subtly into the doorjamb—the mark of the Nightmare Pack.
The space within was more open than the previous shop, with artifacts lining the shelves on the walls, leaving the center of the room clear. A quick glance showed no restricted artifacts, only things like light crystals, self-cleaning chamber pots, and ever-inking pens. He walked up to the woman at the counter and repeated Liza’s words.
The proprietor eyed his mask, then called up their shop boy from the room at the back to take her place. She waved for Oliver to follow her into the back. “What are you looking for?” she asked.
He took a quick glance around the room, noting the items on the shelves, the boxes stacked against the back wall, and the utter lack of anything overtly suspicious. “Do you have any protective artifacts? Things that would ward against the more common battle spells? Or basic battle artifacts?”
She nodded and moved over to one of the shelves. A quick movement of her hand on the wood, and the rung flipped upside down. The items that had been on it did not slide off, seemingly stuck to it, but the new side also had items. Different items.
Oliver surreptitiously looked at the other shelves to see if there were items stuck to the bottom of them all that he simply hadn’t noticed. There were not.
The shop owner smiled. “Liza’s work. Ingenious, I thought. The coppers can raid us all they like when we refuse to pay their bribes, but there’s never any evidence.”
So that was why Liza had told him to mention her name. “She is very talented,” he agreed. If only she were also affordable, the Verdant Stags would be unstoppable. He stepped forward to examine the artifacts on the shelf, and the shop owner began to explain them.
Underneath his mask, Oliver’s face broke into a wide, foxlike grin.
There were a couple circular knuckle guards with basic shielding spells meant to ward against stunning and concussive blast spells, which were the coppers’ most common attacks. They could work together, for better defense, or individually. He took both.
She offered him a pair of gauntlets with a general-purpose energy-reflecting spell woven into their surface, but they were new, and much too expensive. He’d only brought a hundred gold to spend.
He took a bundle of spark-shooting wands, figuring they could be useful as a distraction, a signal, or even just a threat, if the user’s enemy did not know the wand held only a non-combat spell.
He turned down a ring that would open basic non-magical locks, as well as a wand that shot acid, but bought a ring that could cast a contact stunning spell. His largest purchase was a general-purpose injury protection ward that the shop owner assured him would make physical damage less likely over a radius of ninety-nine feet in every direction. Despite its price compared to the other things he had chosen, he knew such a nebulously defined spell couldn’t be very powerful, but it might still make a difference in a fight, and could be placed in the Verdant Stag or another important location, like the micro-farm he was creating.
By the end, his coin purse was completely empty. As he watched her place the artifacts in a plain bag she pulled off the wall, he said, “I noticed the mark of the Nightmare Pack by the door.”
Her movements slowed, but she nodded, peering up at him with slightly more suspicion.
“I hear the head of the Verdant Stag is interested in meeting with the Pack leader. How would I pass along that message?”
She didn’t answer immediately, instead counting out the gold he had given her and then handing him the bag. “I can send a runner,” she said finally. “Any particular message you want to pass on?”
Using the shop’s supplies, Oliver wrote a quick note, which he folded and sealed before handing to her. He flashed her one of his signature charming smiles and only belatedly remembered the mask. Perhaps he could have it spelled to mimic his expressions. Then again, a crescent smile of darkness stretching across its smooth surface might be more disturbing than humanizing…but that could be good, too.
“I hope the Stags aren’t looking to start any trouble?” she asked reluctantly.
He shrugged. “Not as far as I know, but I’m just the messenger.”
Her own mouth quirked up wryly as she took the letter. “Right.”
When he returned to The Elementary, Liza was just exiting the hidden back room, a wooden box in her arms. As the door shut behind her, Oliver caught a glimpse of the person on the other side. He’d had enough of being surprised for the day, and so managed to keep from reacting outwardly. The two of them exited the shop and began walking back toward Liza’s house, trailed by the completely superfluous guard.
Keeping his voice low, Oliver murmured, “Harvester is a troll?”
A somewhat cruel smile spread across her face. “Half-troll. How do you think he’s still alive, after so many dips into the Elemental Planes? Best supplier in the business.”
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