The girl who sat before me was a picture of stillness, as if her breath had been stolen by a blow to the gut. Despite her inaction I knew her mind would be reeling. How could I have known? Why would I expose her? What now? Her breath returned. She reached for her hood and, to her credit, she defiantly and decisively pulled it back to reveal herself.
Blonde tresses framed a youthful face, her complexion smooth and fair and largely untouched by the sun. Her green eyes hid her apprehension behind a mask of anger and yet as they darted from me, to my fawning new friends, to the lawless boors beyond, they marked a calculating mind. She was judging her risk and exposure. Could the situation be saved?
If my presence alone was not enough to generate some curiosity, then our confrontation certainly was. Eyes had begun falling upon us. Only my close proximity to her obscured the girl from a hundred pairs of eager male eyes. I stepped aside.
“Why are you doing this to me?” She hissed as a murmur swept through the crowd. She was a pretty young thing. She wouldn’t last half a day beyond the borders of civilisation without falling victim to foul play. And she knew it.
“Ever the lament of the powerless,” I noted. “You might as well ask winter why it’s cold.”
“Heartless witch!” She cried as tears began to pool in the corners of her eyes.
“Perhaps. Tell me your name, child.” I asked.
She hesitated and then with no other recourse available to her other than petulant refusal, she said “Sera. Sera of House Durant.”
I nodded. And then left her sitting on the kerb of the sidewalk, alone, angry and very afraid.
I returned to the insurgents. Their conversation had become heated. “Lord Lestamore,” I called to my porcine new acquaintance and he instantly turned at my command, ready to ingratiate himself at a moment’s notice. “Be a dear and find me our Captain Agammon. Bring him to my coach.”
“But how…” he began before I waved him away and turned my attention to the two stout brothers standing silently and uncomfortably a short distance away. “Edwick, Warwick. To me,” I commanded and spun on my heels to head in the direction of my carriage. Before long I heard their heavy steel capped boots behind me as they strode to match my pace.
As I reached my carriage door, I stopped and turned to face them, pulling a purse from my soft suede belt pouch. “You are with me now,” I told them. “You are to be my guards and retainers for as long as I deem fit. Food will be provided and you will be paid a fair wage.” I handed each of them several silver and then paused to give them the opportunity to speak. Almost instantly I noticed their formerly tense posture relax. They glanced at each other quickly and then both nodded acceptance. Some people are so used to the yoke that they despair in it’s absence.
“Your tenure begins now,” I said before stepping inside my carriage and resting myself on the plush cushioned seat. Edwick and Warwick took to either side of the coach. From within, the light lace and gauze curtains defeated prying eyes yet allowed me to observe my surroundings practically unimpeded. I looked for Lestamore now, searching for his portly frame amongst the conscripts. At some length I found him, he was conversing with another man and gesticulating emphatically in my direction. He seemed to be having difficulty convincing the captain to accompany him. With persistence and no small amount of whining and wheedling, both men eventually started towards me.
I used this opportunity to study the captain, Agammon, to best determine my course of action. It became instantly clear that, unlike Lucas, this was not a man who could be kowtowed. He appeared a grizzled veteran of many years, black hair was cropped short and his face was weathered and lined in a seemingly permanent grimace. His eyes pierced the carriage with a startling intensity. I must alter my tactics. This was not a man who would suffer the whims of a mere merchant’s daughter gladly, no matter how great their fortune.
I closed my eyes and turned my mind inward, searching for leverage. There was some familiarity to the name Agammon. I sought it’s source and I recalled a volume from Egorian’s public library on the civil war that brewed within Cheliax after the god Aroden fell. Artemis Agammon had taken to the field as commander of the forces of over half a dozen allied Houses in an attempt to seize the throne for his Lord. He had achieved some success before his assassination.
I marked the man before me at perhaps forty years of age. Given that Aroden fell over a century past, that would make our captain either a grandchild or great grandchild of his predecessor, assuming that he was even of the same blood. I decided the risk was worth gambling upon.
I exited the cabin before the captain was at my door. It would not do to keep him waiting. “Captain Agammon,” I called to him warmly. “A pleasure. Lucas, you are dismissed.” I pressed a coin into Lord Lestamore’s palm. I would not have him owed a favour, small as it was. He regarded it momentarily before bowing and removing himself with an air of disappointment.
I turned back to the captain, his annoyance was palpable. “I won’t keep you long. This rabble will take a firm and attentive hand to keep in line. Not that such a task will prove difficult for a man of your heritage.”
“My heritage?” He eyed me suspiciously.
“Indeed. Your great grandfather Artemis is still spoken of at some tables. To bring the armies of six disparate Houses and unite them against a superior force to repeatedly win the field is no mean feat. There is much to be learned from his strategy.” My own strategy had passed my lips and was in play. I hoped it was a subtle enough ploy to win some favour from this unforgiving man and prayed to Irori that my knowledge of history held true. To fail here would be to suffer a trip without attendants, which was utterly unthinkable!
He held my gaze steadily for some time. I could feel perspiration upon the nape of my neck. “It was eight,” he said finally.
“My pardon?” I responded. I had him.
“Eight fractious Houses he rallied together into an army so formidable that House Thrune was forced to employ a poisoner to top him. Without their leader, the army fell to infighting and were slain to a man on the field. Or so the story goes.”
“My mistake, Captain.” It was no mistake at all, of course, merely a ruse to engage the man. And a successful one at that.
“What do you want?” The captain was shrewd enough to understand that he was being manipulated, yet appeased enough by my flattery to open a dialogue.
“Simply put, I am a Lady of means and yet I am without attendants. I desire three souls from your company to act as my retainers. I have chosen Edwick and Warwick here as my guards, and the girl Sera to be my personal attendant.” I threw him a small purse. “I hope the gold you hold in your hands is suitable compensation for your time and trouble.”
Captain Agammon weighed the purse thoughtfully. It was much more than I had anticipated offering, but if the captain had been inclined to refuse my offer there would be no changing his mind.
“Done,” he said. “But they are your concern now. You feed, house and arm them. If they cause any trouble it’s on your head.” He left then, the purse of gold clutched in his hand. He spied Edwick for the first time standing by the carriage door, tall and solid as a statue carved from marble.
“This one?” He called to me.
I inclined my head, “And his brother.”
The captain judged the weight of the purse again before tying it to his belt. “Seems you got the better part of the deal,” he said wryly.
“You’re clearly not familiar with House Veil,” I laughed. Then I said to Edwick, “Fetch the girl.”
The company finally got underway. The brothers drove the carriage from the seats at the front. I had armed them with a pair of longswords from my small supply of goods. They seemed barely proficient in the use of the weapons, but their immense strength would compensate nicely. And really, how difficult is it to hit something with a glorified metal stick?
Sera sat opposite me in the cabin. I would have said that an awkward silence pervaded the space, but I was quite comfortable reading one of my many tomes on the subject of demonkind. Sera, on the other hand, refused to look in my direction. She was little more than a child, I supposed, and she was clearly ill accustomed to being treated in a manner that could be called less than kind. She had much to learn.
“Do you read, child?” I decided to break the silence.
“I was taught to read, yes,” her gaze did not leave the window.
“Disseminate this volume, then. If you can.” I handed her a slight text on the economics of commerce in north Avistan by one Sudas Grant. Hardly a scintillating read, but it would help gauge the mind behind that pretty face. She read the title on the spine and turned her nose up in distaste.
“Not your usual fare?” I asked in amusement.
“Why would I want to read this?” she queried.
“Something to pass the time, perhaps. Suit yourself.” She tossed the tome to the seat beside her and resumed gazing at the countryside as we made our way further and further from Egorian. Hours passed in what I suspect was interminable boredom for the girl. She eventually recanted and retrieved the book. I made it a point to pretend not to notice as she began leafing through it.
As dusk fell, the company ground to a halt and were instructed to set up camp on the side of the highway. Warwick drove the wagon carefully off the road and we settled a hundred feet from the main encampment. I directed them to the storage compartment of my carriage, where they hauled forth my tent and began their preparations.
Once the brothers had a small fire crackling away, I interrupted Sera’s scrutiny of the book. “Time to earn your fare, girl.” I said and tossed her an apron. “Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to Cook. Warwick will show you where to find everything. I hope my trust in you was not misplaced.”
As she began to exit the cabin, I stopped her with a question. “What do you think of Grant’s comments relating to commerce in a post-Aroden society, particularly in relation to Mendev?” It was partially a trick and ultimately a test of the substance behind those luminous green eyes.
She stopped at the cabin door. “I’d say that Aroden’s demise has done wonders for Mendev, given that it only formed as a result of his death.” She looked at me for the first time since our initial meeting that morning, gloating in her response, before leaving with her apron in hand.
Clever girl. She had potential, this one.