I’d been through Altar Brook’s trading post several times before, and it never seemed to get any more pleasant. The spiked palisade walls of sturdy wood loomed over the waters, dominating the small, rocky island in the fork in the river. Armoured guards stood posted at the end of the deceptively sturdy bridge of rope and thick boards that crossed the shallow waters into the outpost, but they gave us nothing but cursory glances as we passed.
The trading post was far too small for anything resembling an inn, but a silver coin pressed into the hand of a merchant bunking down for the night gave a spare wagon for a bed. It wasn’t what I was used to, but my training with the Order had taught me to be more appreciative of something as simple as shelter from the night sky. Dusk had come to Queensdale, and the clouds kept threatening a light rain that refused to fall. Combined with the wind, it was making the evening unpleasantly chilly.
While I had secured the wagon, Baen had purchased food from one of the small stalls. She returned with skewers of charred meat – drake I assumed – lathered in a spicy white sauce. It was passable, going well with our bread, and we ate in relative silence as we sat in covered wagon with our legs hanging over the end. Grapple ran to and fro, and at first the guards and traders cursed and swore at her, but once they realised the beast was eagerly killing rats they gave him first grumbling encouragement and finally even began tossing her treats. I did my best to ignore the canine grins she seemed to be casting my way on a regular basis.
I let my focus wander from person to person, taking in what each of them saw one by one. None of them seemed particularly interesting or interested in us, though I know a few spared me a glance, no doubt curious about my blindfold and my comparatively fine attire. A priestess of Kormir in uncharacteristic black, or just some rich blind girl? I resisted the urge to smile mockingly at them, satisfied in the knowledge that none of them would ever know.
One set of eyes, however, didn’t just glance and move on, though I only noticed it after a few minutes of eating. They stared directly at us, boldly, from somewhere across the muddy outpost, and when their vision hadn’t shifted after a solid twenty counts, I nudged Baen with my elbow. “Two points right, past the fire. Maybe twenty metres and wearing a hat of some sort.” I told her quietly between bites. “Someone’s staring at us.”
“And with you being so inconspicuous, who’d have thought?” Baen muttered, but nevertheless gave a casual look in the direction I’d described. “I see ’em.”
Looking through her sharp eyes, I could barely make out the figure sitting comfortably on a barrel, partially hidden in the shadows of the outpost’s wall. Human-sized, but any other features were hidden beneath a long, road-muddied coat and a wide-brimmed hat.
I was debating what to do when the figure hopped lightly off the barrel and began making their way towards us. I tossed my empty skewer away, wiped my mouth with my handkerchief and let my hand rest casually near the butt of my pistol.
“You don’t need it.” The figure said, now standing just a few paces from us. The voice was a woman’s, cultured, and I thought I detected a somewhat buried Ascalonian accent. “Not here looking for a fight.” She pushed the brim of her hat up with a gloved finger, revealing a smooth skinned face, practically as pale as mine, with a few neat locks of smooth blond hair hanging near crystal blue eyes. “Just looking to train the untrainable.”
“Ah.” I sighed, shifting my hand away from my weapon, and the woman moved closer, leaning up against the side of the wagon. “I thought we weren’t to have face time with anyone till after we’d met with Coalpaw.”
“Plan’s changed.” She said with an easy shrug. “I wondered how long it would take you to notice me.” She looked directly at Baen she spoke, but I knew she was addressing me. “Seems that little trick of yours has its limits.” I bristled, but she went on before I could speak. “My name is Tianne Moravel. Lightbringer. I’ll be functioning as your handler for this little task, and I’ll be one delivering you your ‘merchandise’.”
“I thought we were done being supervised.” Baen muttered.
“Don’t worry, Galmond.” Tianne flashed a smile. “I’ve got other business to take of, so I won’t be holding anyone’s hand during this. You two have a decent enough record that the Preceptors think you can be trusted with this. Besides, we’re short-handed so you’ll have to do.”
“So why’d the plan change?” I asked, already growing weary of Tianne’s condescension. I’d not have tolerated it from anyone else, but she did outrank us by a considerable margin. It wouldn’t do to cause too much trouble with one annoying superior who could likely dash my dreams of ascension in the Order before they’d even taken off.
“Well, our new player is making more waves, and things are moving faster than predicted.” Tianne shrugged again. “As you know, this ‘Misericorde’ has been arranging for just about everyone to be in debt to their organisation in one way or another, but over the last week things they’ve become more… aggressive. Three ships are now effectively owned by this organisation in so far as we can tell, and not even the captains knew who exactly they owe their coin to.”
“Knew?” Baen asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Yes.” Tianne shrugged. “They’re all dead now, by murder or by ‘accident’ and the Misericorde’s installed new captains on each ship, and Coalpaw is one of them. They’re upping their game.”
“Or cleaning up loose ends.” I said, and Tianne nodded.
“Regardless, the actual details of your mission haven’t changed.” She said. “You just needed to be brought up to speed, especially since it relates to your contact.”
There was a new player rising in the criminal underground of Lion’s Arch, known only as the “Misericorde” through word of mouth. He or she was busily setting up a complex financial empire of debts. Damaged property, resource shortfalls, somehow the Misericorde’s coin always seemed to appear right where it was needed. The loans were generous enough, with what seemed like a reasonable degree of interest, and many a merchant or craftsman had eagerly accepted the terms. But when the repairs went too slowly, or whatever shipment was inexplicably delayed by some mishap, the interest rate climbed and climbed until eventually all the victim owned was owed to their mysterious loaner.
Our mission orders had been very concise, which made sense given the Order’s predilection for secrecy – come into Lion’s Arch disguised as smugglers with connections in Kryta’s underworld looking to fence valuable relics and begin what might be a lucrative business partnership with this new rising star. We were to make contact with Darrus Coalpaw, a supposed agent of this Misericorde, and through him we’d infiltrate the organisation and discover the true identity of its leader. Baen and I had both done undercover work for the Order before, but always under the supervision of a more senior agent. This was to be our grand debut, and I was determined to ensure it went well.
“This is the first part of what you’ll be trying to sell.” Tianne unslung a small bag from her shoulder and tossed it casually to Baen, who caught it handily. “It’s the first of several objects I’ll be delivering to you in Lion’s Arch, but it should get the attention of the Misericorde’s people.” Baen patted the satchel. “It’s the hilt of a broken sword, dates to before The Searing.” Tianne explained. “It was one of the heirlooms of House Sinriad, a noble line of Ascalon, and it’s worth more than enough to whet the appetite of your soon-to-be business partners.”
“When will we have access to rest of the store, and what’s in it?” I asked. “We can’t make promises if we have no idea what we’re promising.”
“There’s a small ledger in the bag.” Tianne said. “It has a complete list of all the items.”
“How many of them actually exist?”
“About half, they’re all noted.” She said. “I can’t imagine it’ll come to even that amount being necessary.” Her blue eyes hardened for a moment. “If it does you’ve both done something very wrong.”
“It won’t come to that.” I said confidently. “This shouldn’t be difficult.”
“Cocky.” Tianne barked a short laugh, but her eyes didn’t smile with her. “Don’t let it get to your head, because if you don’t do this right you’ll be out of the field.” I clenched my jaw at the thought, but managed a begrudging, stiff nod in deference to her authority. “Possibly indefinitely.”
“I said it won’t come to that.”
“I’ll bet.” Her expression changed, suddenly amicable again. “Tell me about your route.”
“We’re going northeast.” Baen answered coolly, brushing off the tension. “We’ll cross through Guardian’s Pass, then head back down southeast to reach Lion’s Arch.”
“You should make it there in plenty of time to meet with Coalpaw.” Tianne said, nodding in approval. “But be careful both on the road leading to the pass and beyond it. You’ll be right near Nebo Terrace and the centaurs have been growing bolder and bolder with every year.”
Centaurs. I gritted my teeth, hoping my reaction wasn’t as obvious as it felt. Baen would notice, but then she’d know to look for it, and I was relieved to reaffirm that I could trust her not to do anything as telling as look my way.
“We’ll be fine.” I said, changing the subject. “Tell us about Coalpaw. We’ve not had a proper description of what to look for.”
“Darrus Coalpaw, by his name I’d have hoped you’d figured out he’s charr.” Tianne began. “We don’t know much about his past, other than that he’s severed ties with the Charr Legions and is now captain of one of the ships we were talking about.”
“What’s he look like?”
“Dark grey, black paws, horns like this.” Tianne’s hands came up, suggesting a pair of thick tusks that swept back from behind her ears. “Apparently he’s big, even for a charr, and he’s got three silver rings in his left ear and another through his lower lip.”
“Should be easy enough to identify.” Baen said, and I nodded. “We’re still going to find him at this tavern the… what’s it called? The Jaem?”
“The White Jaem, yes.” Tianne said, giving a small frown. “He’ll be waiting there for a further two weeks, but I wouldn’t trust that schedule.”
“He thinks we can bring him into a lot of money. He’ll wait.” I scoffed.
“Don’t be so naive, Varr.” Tianne said, a small, arrogant smile forming on her lips. “If this deal falls through Coalpaw will have a dozen others waiting. Don’t overestimate your importance to him or his master.” I bristled at the condescension in her tone, but somehow managed to hold my tongue. “Remember get him on your side, don’t try to intimidate him. You can only carry a bluff with an empty hand so far, and if I have to come in and save your lives because you couldn’t manage a simple task like this one your future will be very dull. I’ll personally guarantee it.”
Tianne left us with that threat, pulling the brim of her hat down and, at least so far as either of us could tell, leaving the outpost entirely. There was something particular about the way she walked, a gait that was so casual it was impossible to pick out of even the small crowd. Her clothing had been non-descript brown, her hat not so uncommon that it wasn’t crowning the heads of a dozen local travellers, and yet it was the way she moved that meant she had vanished from our sight faster than reason suggested possible. I might have found that I didn’t like her, but I had to admit that the lightbringer had some definite talents.