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Argethafen gleamed in the sun, shining a silver light that brightened the central sea. The whitewalls reflected the rippling sea and all of the sun's smattering of light along its surface. The dockmaster, Hernan, held his wide brimmed hat defensively over his dock listings, his quill scratching across the paper, etching the day's docking over his logbook. Across his feet, a grey-haired wolfhound lay at his feet, panting under the heat with a smile worth half a doubloon, the dockboy would say. The dock itself held seventy five ships daily, two hundred at its peak. Every week, eight hundred thousand tons of cargo was shipped to and from the city. Glass, food, leather, textiles, spices, stone, timber, clay, alcohol, and some even rumored slaves were transported, though if any contraband like forced labor or illicit substances were transported, Hernan didn't know about it.

Officially.

The swarthy skinned Dwemorlock cursed in his wicked tongue and walked away after reporting his shipment, leaving Hernan with his flesh crawling. Strange folk they were, with their long legs and gold rings pierced across their flesh. They were tolerated for their coin and their seafaring ability, but never was there a more cursed people, their sculpted forms a rosebud above the thorns. As long as they paid their dues and gave Hernan some coin on the side, they could 'buy' what they wanted and take it back to their blighted land.

'Tck tck' he called with a click of his tongue, his hound hoisting itself to its feet and happily gazing up at him as it paced back and forth. Hernan ripped the three pieces of paper with today's report off the clipboard and folded it up with a neatness that came with years of repitition, walking away from the dock and giving a salute to one of the laborer's he knew named Gorgio, wishing him a fine day. All shipping halted mid-afternoon, the weather a dozen leagues out was growing volatile. Any newcomers were not only unlikely, but as good as dead if they were not desperate brigands. Pirates could be good for business, but not the desperate kind.

Chickens scattered off the road as he strode into the marketplace. The buildings of Argethafen were like most late 5th age cities on northwestern Torek, in the Drauffan style. Stone buildings with large blocks and the expanse of the stone walls broken up by overlaid tracery. Pointed arches and columns held up the more expensive and esoteric buildings, which included the guild house and the accompanying yards. The first slip was for the Tratta, and he stepped passed a few apprentices and journeymen speaking about their late nights before initiations. He pushed past them and they moved aside, mumbling excuses like the chickens clucked. He held his head high, straightening his mustache and plumed hat, entering the double doors under the archway into the central guild hall, passing up the stairs into the grandmaster's office.

He opened the door into a meeting, freezing in his tracks and wondering if he should strongarm through or offer apologies. There was a young man in the room along with an older, scraggly gent sitting across from Grandmaster Montelle. All three turned to regard him, though the younger fellow was lost in thought even as he looked directly into Hernan's eyes.

"Oh, right. The logs." Montelle said with an aristocratic air, waving Hernan to come forward. He smiled when the dockmaster did as he was bade, thanking him like the old friends they were. "Very good, Hernan. Punctual as always. Oh, I am glad you're here! I was just speaking to our newest Tradesfarer, and giving Cogman a much needed rest." He indicated the gruff looking man at that, who looked none-too-pleased at this development. In fact, he was so distraught he stood up without the grandmaster's permission, which was against guild etiquette and stormed out of the room, pushing past Hernan without due respect. He would receive a letter of condemnation and would be fined or be given a set of tasks to complete for forgiveness, if he was interested in keeping what status he had at least.

"Ah, the new tradesfarer," Hernan said, giving a nod with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. Damn it all to the thirteen hells, he thought to himself. Cogman was in his pocket, but he didn't even know who this young fellow was! He didn't even have time to make connections with this young one, not for a week. Would he be gone by then? He kept his face cheery in front of old Montelle. "He's uh, a bit young, isn't he?"

"He's right sir," the youth replied humbly. He seemed to have gathered his wits a bit. His white shirt was crossed by a red and gold sash that wound across one shoulder down to his belt, where he no doubt kept measuring devices, his coin, and parchment. At his hip was a satchel, and leaning against the chair was an oaken staff, the head was carved into the visage of a seadragon. "There are many more worthy members who deserve this. I still have four more years before I can vote in the Tratta's assembly."

"Well, seems he's got a good head on his shoulders." Hernan agreed, wholeheartedly. By Orilon, the lad could be a singer! He had the voice for deal making, Hernan would give him that. He seemed trimp, with the haleness of youth, though he likely wasn't fit for hard labor. Those green eyes looked like they could see far. Maybe one day he would be shrewd enough to worry Hernan, but now he was just concerned with the lads naivety and ignorance. "Tradesfarer is a dangerous job, Montelle. You won't even let them have league enlisted guards, because they're too valuable to lose. Do you not value this boy? Let him finish his schooling, aye?"

"He's 23, he's no boy." Montelle replied, a surety on his face, set as hard as the oaken desk he rested his elbows on. His shock of white hair was almost invisible with the overcast, whitened sky blanketing the window behind him. The only real color in the room was the boy's strawberry blonde locks and outfit, and the burgundy carpet. "And I trust him more than Cogman, between you and I. Now, go help him gather what he needs for tomorrow's book keeping, and make it quick. He leaves as soon as the storm abates, and my astronomer's have assured me that would be in two days."

Hernan and the lad sighed, and the youth got out of the cushioned chair and gave the sign of the Tratta to Montelle, before giving a polite bow to Hernan, extending his hand. Hernan took it reluctantly. "So, what's your name, lad?"

"Aldrik Maynard, sir. Journeyman in the League of Tratta."
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"Step forward prisoner," the nasaly voice of the clerk whinnied. The voice grated on Inez’ aching head, but she suspected it would grate less than a blow to the back of the head from one of her jailors. Perhaps a grate deal less. The pun made her smile as she obediently she shuffled forward, the chains that bound her to a line of prisoners, every one of them as miserable looking as she felt, rattled as she did so. The clerk looked at her from behind his desk. It was a nice desk, of a dark wood that had been hand tooled with scenes of mythology that Inze didn't recognize, least whiles through the headache that pounded behind her dark eyes. Bloody potato merchants and their bloody wood. It was a jarringly nice desk for the chilly, dank, prison and the clerk seemed to think himself a great man despite his apparently menial post. He was a sour faced man with an outsized nose and pock marks on his cheeks. Inez decided that his name was Weaselface.



"What is her crime?" the Weaselface demanded of one of the jailors, a pudgy man with a lazy eye and an apparent itch in his crotch that he seemed perfectly happy to scratch in public. The guard scowled, as though he hadn't been asked exactly this same question for each of the thirteen unwashed prisoners who had proceeded her and glanced down at his own parchment.



"Assault of one of the Leagues excisemen, drunk and disorderly conduct, assault of a League guardsman, arson, property damage, lewd acts in public, defacement of League property, assault of a Guilded Merchant, carrying an illegal weapon, besmirtching the name of..." The clerk waved him to silence and Inez intially low opinion of the quill pusher raised a notch. That still kept him somewhere between the dung one couldn't get of one’s boot and the slime that accumulated at the corner of your mouth when you were really thirsty, but it was SOME improvement.



"Lets just mark it as assault shall we?" he simpered. Scritch scratch. Twitch Twitch. Inez felt her pulse in her temples. Just a few drinks Ruiz had said, it would be fun he said. Well in the unlike event the old Calaverdian pirate wasn’t dead with a knife in his back in some alley, Inez swore she would kill him. Even if he was dead she would kill him, just see if she wouldn’t!

“What is the damage?” Weaselface demanded of the guard. Crotch-itch scratched himself as he peered at the parchment, clearly at the limits of his ability to read.

“Well she burned half of Genavan’s tavern, drove a magistrates coach into a…”



“In coin, if you please,” the clerk demanded wearily. Crotch-itch frowned and peered harder.

“One thousand marks yer honors,” he replied sarcastically. The clerk sucked his lips against his teeth, evidently impressed by the bender in spite of his own best efforts to remain non-chalant. Had there been a carriage? The wine fumes in her head clung like mist of a summer glacier over her memories of the previous night. She seemed to recall tumbling off something tall and further evidence was provided by bruises on her rump. There had been something about burning down the Burgermiesters hall to show the potato eaters the proper respect for the south. Evidently she hadn’t succeeded, which, given the situation, was probably to the good.



“Well?” demanded the clerk, leaning forward to peer down his beakish nose at her. Inez was of the blood of old Estania had fought many great battles in her time, some for gold, some for honor, still others for love, she was too proud to vomit on her boots infront of this cretin. Just.



“Well what?” she demanded attempting to put her hands on her hips only to be snugged up by the chains that manacled her.



“Do. You. Have. A. thousand. Marks,” the clerk responded, speaking very slowly the way one might speak to a child.



“I appear to have left my coin purse in my other pants,” Inez responded with sarcasm enough to transcend the cultural divide. Several of the prisoners snickered and even Crotch-itch smiled. Hawknose, however, did not seem amused. In the manner of minor bureaucrats everywhere, he considered himself an important man, and while he was happy to indulge in mockery when it was at the expense of others, he was unable to tolerate it when it was aimed at his own august personage. His beedy eyes harden and his lips curled in a sneer of contempt.



“Then you will be relieved to learn the council of Alderman allows the payment of such debts by a period of indentured labor,” he snapped, biting off the syllables like winter soured apples.



“Rather a long period to pay off such a sum I fear,” he sneered, clearly relishing the prospect of passing sentence on a woman who had dared to mouth off to him. Inez stifled a groan that she felt reasonably confident would end in her puking up a gallon of terrible northern wine.



“There are several brothels that I’m sure would be happy to have you, once we scrub off the grime,” Weaselface leered, “probably the quickest way to clear your debts.” Inez drew herself up to her full, if somewhat unimpressive height of five feet and six inches, tossing her dark hair back in a defiant gesture that held all the pride of Estania. She was a lithe woman, all trim muscle and wiry strength. She had the build of a very athletic dancer, and if there were any fat on her it wouldn’t have filled a milliners thimble. In retrospect that probably hadn’t helped with the drinking.

“I piss on your brothel shop keeper!” she snapped in her clipped Estanian accent. Weaselface’s eyes bulged in outrage and he pounded his fist on his desk like a judge in a courtroom.

“How dare you?!” Weasleface demanded, veins standing out on the side of his neck and eyes bugging out like he was about to scumb to the apoplexy.



“How dare I?” Inez demanded, her firey temper, always willing to pick a foolish fight, flaring to full life.

“How dare I? I am Inez y Carmen de Calavria! I was first through the breach at Validia, I drove the Duke of Pyra from the field with only five hundred men, I cut my way free of the siege at Aratino and….”

“She burned down half of Meadrow and feel drunk on her ass,” Crotch-itch put in helpfully. Laughter rolled up and down the line of prisoners but it didn’t touch Weaselface’s eyes. Scritch scratch scratch went his quill as he made some note on the parchment before him.

“You are a fighter then?” Weaselface asked, a hard and ugly look coming to his eyes. Inez nodded defiantly, the adrenaline pumped into her system doing more than an icebath to clear away the hangover. She tried to lounge dangerously but the effect was, admittedly, spoiled by the chains.

“Take her to the trials,” Weaselface declared with a snap of his fingers, after she is given a proper thrashing, give her a couple of years in a quarry to teach her some respect. Two malodorous guards stepped forward and began removing her shackles with quick deft hammer blows. Then, seizing her by both arms began to drag her out of the line and up some stairs towards the surface.

“I piss on your quarry, and I piss on you inkfucker!” she shouted back, earning snickers from the guards even as they hauled her away.

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The League of Tratta was not kin to your average guild or artisan community. It's members were not counted in individuals, but in cities. 'Sovereign Members' they were deemed, where the local government or lord cooperated with their conglomerate in a relationship that was generally mutually beneficial. The League brought trade, protected trade, to the markets and ensured the money flowed without restraint. Pirates grew scarcer, and information of foreign markets reached the ears of the Masters of the City. Aldrik knew these reasons well, but still some cities were stubborn. Some wanted to control their own guilds within their borders, tax the merchants and charge them annual duties, and believed the League brought foreign spies and unwanted northwestern influences. Some even believed them puppets of the Kings of the North.

Aldrik had to keep all of these in mind and reacquaint himself with the subtleties of the political sphere if he was even going to gain one charter in four years, much less all of them. He sighed and etched his name on the final document, sealing his fate for the next part of his life. He almost wished he had become an associate of the League, with looser obligations and his own trade to ply. But he had wanted full membership as an agent, with all of the benefits that accompanied it.

The room he sat in was the yard library, a 'yard' meaning a block of the guild property cordoned off for apprentices and agents from a particular area of the continent, like a loose fraternity organization. Shelves and books and firelight surrounded him, shadows undulating to the pitter patter of the hard rain that coated the city buildings from without. There was a low rumble in the distance, followed by a flicker of light from the window. He hoped it wasn't a portent for things to come as he finalized the agreement. Slowly but neatly and without standing up, he handed the documents to his yardhead, Tortuccio, who stood just before him in the manner befitting one who was about to prime him on his oaths. He wore the floofy, stylish chaperone hat most of the well-to-do men of influence in Argethafen enjoyed. Which meant by now it was worn by ever more common folk and so soon would be out of fashioned.

"Very good, these all seem to be in order, Aldrik." He said, flipping through the pages with an adroit hand. "You'll be missed, I'll tell you that. Rogier and I, especially. But we'll see you down the way, as they say. You still remember your oaths, do you not?"

"Of course." Aldrik assured him.

"They'll be tested here like never before, boy. You'll have men try to bribe you, skim deals, you'll see women more beautiful than you can imagine. But keep your wits in your head and your cock in your pants. No bribes, no falsifications, no taking advantage of guild assets, and no romantic attachments until you have completed your scholarship with the guild. Understand?"

"I think I can handle it," Aldrik chuckled, giving his winning smile. He always seemed amused when dealing with older gentlemen. They took things far too gravely and always assumed the worst. Though Aldrik was far more anxious about other matters. Tortuccio looked at him intensely, though what he wished to ascertain was a mystery. "It's the miles at sea, the threat of violence, disease, and a halting of my studies that I'm more worried about."

Tortuccio waved it away, finally smiling back. "The Captain of your ship has been employed with the League for fourteen years, and he'll be under your command in all matters except in the unlikely event your ship is attacked, and in that event, you'll be in Carrack, with the latest swivel mounted cannons and ballista, and a well seasoned crew who have spent many years as privateers. And not only that, but you'll have your own personal bodyguard, under your command as the captain is."

Aldrik blinked, eyes wide as the implications ran through his head. The descriptions now made it all seem very real. He shook his head. "Sir, I... I don't know if I'm worthy of all of this."

"Well, too bad." Tortuccio said. "You've already signed the papers." He closed the ledger with the documents he signed with the finality of a guillotine. Somehow even past the storm outside, the book closing was loud. Aldrik got to his feet, knowing this was just the next step in graduating to a level beyond associate. He pulled at his tunic and straightened his garb, beginning to say something clever before his elder cut him off. "Would you like to meet her? She's in the foyer."

"Ye-Wh-... S-She, sir?"

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Damn potato farmers couldn't even do a trial at arms right, Inez thought as her guards helped her down out of the wagon that had been commandeered to bring her to the practice yard. By the stink of cow dung, the dusty yard catered more to live stock than training. Despite the miasma that hung over the place, the idle and bored of Argethafen had turned out for some free entertainment. They crowded the split railed fence, calling out bets, insults and advice to the two men circling each other in the center. One was a scarred looking veteran with a short grey beard, the other a strippling youth with lank greasy blonde hair. The swatted at each other with wooden practice swords. The veteran's blade cracking hard against the boys wrist and raising a yelp and a cheer from the crowd. The veteran said something and shoved the boy towards a group of men, mostly young, leaning against the fence. A line of men, some sullen and hunched, some bright eyed and hopeful, waited for their turn to be tested.

"Those are the men who have been picked for the city watch," one of the guards told Inez helpfully. They seemed decent sorts, at least they had made no attempt to grope or assault her.

"You put criminals in your city watch?" she asked, intrigued. The guard snorted.

"Some of our best baliffs started off as thieves, the inside line and all," he snickered. Inez shrugged, these Northerners were a strange lot and no mistake.

"What about that one?" Inez asked as she took her place in line, her sex attracting snickers and leers. She was a fine looking woman she knew, and young enough, even if she had packed alot into her twenty six summers. She met approving glances with haughty disdain. Her eyes fell upon a fit looking man sitting apart from the would be guardsmen. He had a red welt across his forehead but was grinning broadly regardless.

"Who is that?" she asked, nodding with her chin towards the happy man.

"The best fighters get guild apprenticeships, more money, travel, sign on bonus," the guard explained. Inez nodded thoughtfully at that considering her options.

It took a quarter of an hour for Inez to reach the front of the line. Most of the bouts she had seen ended quickly, disappointed country lads getting a whack across the shoulders and being sent on their way. A few of them were chosen to be guardsmen but no others joined the smiling man on his barrel. Inez curled her lip in disdain, a handful of Estainian lads would have shown them a thing or to in short orders.

"You havin' a fuckin' laugh?" the swordsmaster asked as Inez stepped into the dusty yard. She took one of the practice swords from the rack and made a few experimental swipes to get the weight. It was a little shorter than she was used to, but the weight was just right.

"Why don't you run off home sweetheart, your liable to get hurt if you stay here," he sneered, eliciting laughter and cat calls from the onlookers. Inez was careful to appear inept, gripping the sword loosely with a limp wrist.

"Its too far to run, and who would want to leave all this. The stinking shit... and then there is the dung as well," she mocked taking a deep breath of shit smelling air and giving him a mocking smile. The swordmaster spat a gob of spit into the dirt and took up his stance.

"Reckon I'm gonna enjoy this," he snickered. Inez doubted that very much. He took a step towards her raising his sword. There were a lot of ways to use a sword, and Inez should know, her father had employed a half dozen swordmasters, each with a different technique. He had spent a fortune dotting on his daughter and her passion for swordplay and it had paid for itself time and again over the years. Transforming instantly, her grip hardened into a proper fighting stance and she leaped forward, catching his blade between the guard and blade of her own weapon and twisting into him like a dancer. He was tired, even if beating up farm boys took little effort, but Inez was quick as lightning. She twisted her blade hard, wrenching at his sword and lashing out with her elbow, cracking him on the point of the chin. He reeled back, spitting blood, the sword clattering to the dirt. With a dramatic flourish she tapped him on the head with the training blade for good measure, raising a chorus of cheers and groans from the crowd. The division was more or less along wagering lines, but there seemed a general feeling that the swordsman was a little too full of himself.

"You poxy bitch!" the swordmaster cried in shock, he stepped forward and picked up his sword, coming at her for real this time, launching a series of cuts at her head. Inez hadn't earned a reputation on cheap tricks alone though. There were those who called her Black Inez and Inez the Hellcat, though those people were hundreds of miles away and most of them wanted her dead. She parried his first few strokes with a left right series of downward parries, allowing her shorter stride to foul her opponents footwork. He over balanced slightly and then she was on him, all blazing speed and precise strikes, each blow pushing her opponent into a wider guard, keeping her point inside his arc. The swordmaster backed away, off-balance, panicked by the fury of her assault. She feinted left, cracked her blade down on his wrist then struck his blade from his hand with casual ease.

"Bitch!" he cursed clutching his wrist the swordmaster growled and reached for the sword.

"Enough!" A richly dressed man was crossing the field, expensive robes glittering with gold thread.

"Your eminence, we are still conducting..." but the new comer was having none of it.

"I think our young lady has shown enough of her mettle, certainly any more and we might need to find a new swordmaster," he chuckled as though the joke were hillarious.

"Come with me young lady, we will take you to the guildhall," he explained, then paused wrinkling his nose and taking in her overall disheveled condition. "After we visit the baths I think."
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Aldrik wasn't a warrior. Far from it, in fact. His diet and youth kept him trim, and many an older man envied him his lack of a pot belly. He sometimes wished he was a far older gentleman, already. Their wizened faces spoke of decades of experience and wisdom, and loyal service. They always told him to be thankful for his youth, and he tried to be, though they did a hell of a job convincing him of that. They kept him busy from sun up to sun down, and even after. Not to mention his dues, oaths, studies, and his logbooks he kept secured.

Well, he supposed that was about to change.

He straightened his garb and cleared his throat, waiting for the knock that would signify he enter. Tortuccio was out escorting his new guard into the foyer. Apparently she had been late, through no fault of her own it seemed. Outside of the door, he heard another door open and Tortuccio's voice over the din of the deep creaking, followed by a bold but very feminine voice in an accent he couldn't quite catch this far removed. He imagined they would speak for awhile, long waits being a staple of the League. But there was a loud two-hit strike on the door, and he opened it up with just a moment's pause to gather his wits.

The foyer was as large as most living areas, with an entry table by the door that held two bottles, one with whiskey and the other with mead. Beside them was a bust of Alchimedes III, one of the six founders. A lotus flower from Shi'Ran bloomed from a pot beside the bust, the petals looking almost like a hat. Pictures adorned the room, and even in the foyer, there was a bookshelf of novels and nonfictional studies. It was a very good looking room, but the woman that stood at the center was the most attractive thing in the chamber, even though he had no doubt she could cut him into ribbons.

Her fingernails trimmed in the swordsman's style, she wore a stylish jerkin over a doublet, her swordbelt tied tight at her slim waist, and brown breeches that hugged her legs. She was a strange mixture of dangerous and good looking, with dark features and a confident look to her. Aldrik wasn't going to ask if this was the one, knowing just by how she held herself that she had experience in some sort of martial pursuit, be it militarily, mercenary, or guard.

"Aldrik, may I introduce you to your bodyguard, Inez of...where was it again?" Tortuccio inquired blithely.

Aldrik knew it was rude to wait, and so he stepped over to her and brushed his rich locks of hair out of his eyes, extending a hand to shake hers.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, fraulien. Aldrik Maynard."

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It was amazing how rapidly ones fortunes could change if one kept ones head. This morning, Inez had been in prison, penniless and with few prospects. Now she stood bathed and dressed in better clothing than she had seen in many months. Her hair had been brushed and tied back and she had a sword belted at her hip. A fine piece, if simple and unadorned, with a comforting weight at her hip. She felt more like her old self than she had in months. That wasn't an entirely unmixed blessing of course but she supposed she would have to take what she could get. A small brass badge depicting a sword beneath a sail had been pinned to her doublet, representing her new found rank as an apprentice armsman of the league. There had been some kind of signing bouns apparently, but it had been taken in payment of her debt. While better than prison this too was something of a mixed blessing. She certainly wouldn't have chosen to become a lackey of these League coin counters, but work was work, and it beat the alternatives of brigandage or selling her sword to the reeking swine that passed for lords in this pine tree infested hell.

As contracts went, the one she had signed was fairly generous. Given that she hadn't had much in the way of a choice about signing it, she did not feel that her honor was truly committed to the venture, but being on the move would probably be healthier for her than waiting for an assassin to find her and take her head back to that dog Salazar. Her apparent charge was also something of a surprise. She had expected, as was the way of things, to be assigned to some jowly old fool hauling herring from port to port. This merchant seemed young and vigrous, out of place among the merchants she had so far seen.

"I am Inez de Calavria," she responded, hesitating a moment at the unfamiliar custom before reaching and and shaking his hand firmly.
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Later that night...

They had gotten acquainted, though mostly through small talk. Tortuccio gave her and Alrik assurances of one another, which was slightly off putting, but he did take the liberty of taking Alrik to the crew. Inez hadn't been invited by the elderman but she came anyway, which Alrik thought was prudent so he didn't complain. The rain poured down around them, but they had an invention the league called 'umbrellas' that kept the rain off of them. Such a simple design, it was hard to think they were new. The streets themselves still had some walkers and citizens, but the majority were inside to hide from the storm. It felt like forever before they made it to the ship, but once they did, Alrik caught his breath, and he whistled appreciatively.

The Arxregnum was huge; a veritable castle of the waves. Four masted, the main mast carrying a square sail while the mizzenmast carried a lateen sail. The square sail was used for speed and the lateen rig allowed for maneuverability. There were iron fittings on its upper hull, giving it a sheen of fading sunlight far above them as they drew closer. Tortuccio gave a call twice, impatient to be let aboard.

"Let's hope they respond with more gusto you to, Alrik," he said, though Alrik soon found it was useless griping. Once the plank was dropped, Alrik found the crew very amiable, albeit a bit rough around the edges. The Captain was a bearded man of tall stature, wrapped in a cloak of white and grey. By the crucifix style hilt of his sword and the way he walked, Alrik theorized he was an ex-crusader. He introduced himself as Captain Ingvald, and gave a sign with his hands Alrik didn't recognize. His men did not introduce themselves, at least not formerly. Each man gave a wave or some sort of acknowledgement, all coming from different walks of life. They were all older than Alrik, but younger than the Captain, who's beard greyed at its edges.

Alrik and Inez were then shown to their rooms, across the hall from one another, both of equal size to the Captain's cabin. Ingvald had even offered to let him use his quarters, but Alrik declined, satisfied with comfortable quarters and a map of the known world hammered upon his wall so he could plot their next course. Inez and the new tradesfarer now had the night to peruse or speak, or go to the mess hall and eat. Alrik decided to make the most of it, pouring over the map and other books with his door half cracked open, musing to himself and fretting over their first heading. If he had this responsibility, he needed to have a destination plotted as soon as able.
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Since she was a girl Inez had liked ships. She had spent many hours sitting in the orange groves on the bluff that overlooked the Bay of Calavria, watching them drift in on their majestic sails. When she had grown older she had sailed on them herself, though as a passenger rather than a sea farer. In the south where the tides were slight, the favor was for oared galleys rather than these high sided cogs. She could well remember coming ashore at Angira in the dead of night, wading ashore with weapons held high over head, or slipping out of the bay of Biantoro against the teeth of the storm, the day before the great city fell. She supposed she would have been greatful for a ship like this then, rather than trembling in terror as the waves washed over the shallow freeboard, hauling for all she was worth with bucket and pump to keep the ship afloat.

The crew seemed a decent enough group as far as sailors went. There had been the usual covert leers of course, but that was more or less par for the course. They had kept their mouths mostly shut other than token offers of deference to their new tradesfarer. The captain seemed a little more reserved, probably less than pleased to have to take orders from a man a decade or more his junior. As yet Inez was unsure as to why Alrik would even need a bodyguard, perhaps when they reached their destination it would be helpful to show status by the show of a hired sword. The cabin assigned to her was roomy and well appointed, surprisingly so for a bodyguard. Perhaps the League felt it necessary to keep some kind of seperation between her and the crew, and the small resentment of a large cabin would go along way towards that. It made a certain kind of sense, if part of her job was to head off potential mutiny, though in all likelyhood it just made certain she would be the first victim of any such attempt. A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth, well if you wanted a safe life you didn't become a Condottieri. Having no possessions beyond the sword and two uniforms she had been given by the League when they had inducted her, it didn't take more than a moment to get settled in. It also meant it didn't take more than a minute or two for her natural restlessness to kick in, and after a moment she headed across the hall to Alrik's cabin.

"So," she said pressing herself through the door, gripping at her belted sword to stop it from clattering against the bulkhead.

"Where are we headed first, o illustrious employer?"
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Alrik was a dangerous man, one of the most dangerous in the league. Not with his fists or the sword, but in every area a scholar and merchant was. His mind and keen eye moved in unison, plotting the most judicious and expedient route to get the best job done as quickly as possible, even with the uncountable variables they were likely to face. Moving out of Argethafen, there was around 200 miles north until they made it into the frigid sea, which did not give much promise of wealth. They needed to focus southwards and along the eastern coast, which they needed to get to going through a circuitous route around the islands to the east that was said to be the den of vikings, and at all costs they needed to avoid the Island Nation of Noxtuga and the Isle of Sencoshima to the south, which meant they needed to continually travel south until they reached safer waters, or go between the islands through some of the traveled but risky routes more intrepid sailors braved. Going north and around was also an option, but it wasted a week of their time, and in those waters were large serpents. Not that there weren't any south, he thought to himself.

His intense gaze was as broken as his thought process when Inez entered his quarters. He briefly thought about making some boundaries between them to help him think, but it wouldn't do to be rude to the only sword that was sworn to his service beyond indirect service to the captain under his command. He made sure to convince himself of that justification, and it wasn't her pleasing dark features that made his tongue seem too unruly to speak for a moment.

To his credit, he didn't let it show beyond a mere moment, and he was also a bit too tired and worried to let it get to him. "Well, when every route I have can lead to death, hard to say," He replied, even his dry tone buttered up by how smooth his voice carried. He didn't know how worldly Inez was, but he wasn't about to give a lecture that she didn't need. Better if she had questions and asked them herself. Not everyone enjoyed long orations like he did, and he still got tired of them when it wasn't an interesting or prudent subject. "We, meaning the League, have over half the cities on the western coast, so it would be best to go east, and if the routes are deadly, I guess I need to think on what is the best first stop, instead."

With two dozen independent city states, he couldn't even begin to choose. Itacestor City, Takahn, Yhesra, the Alesean Peninsula? He gave a small laugh when the city of Basileos entered his mind, dismissing that as foolhardy even for him. He supposed the ship's defenses and speed were good enough to handle more humanoid dangers than beast, and he couldn't afford to be slow moving at the start of the race. He spoke his thoughts aloud. "Yhesra, I think. It has three royal houses that work in a council, and if I can convince one of the dukes, the other two will follow to stay in competition with them. I hear it's also beautiful there," He looked in her direction and gave her a smile, and winked. "Baby steps for our first stop, yes?"

Once he firmly stamped the pin onto Yhesra and began to peruse the sea routes with his eyes, he realized her question had set his mind into action. He was glad he hadn't pushed her out, out of hand. He cleared his throat and brushed some of his hair with a flick of his hand, turning back to her. "Would you like a drink? I need one." He said with a staunch recourse. "I've got whiskey or brandy." Alrik had the distinct feeling if Inez were a proper lady she might think it forward, but he guessed she wasn't as prim as that.
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Inez shrugged her shoulders and took a bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet. The bottles were placed in odd little wells in the wood and then surrounded by cloth, apparently to prevent them spilling or breaking in rough weather. These northerners thought of everything it seemed. She took a pair of brass cups and poured a measure into each cup, setting on down before Alrik.

"It's your ducat," she told him with a grin and took a belt of the liquor. There were worse jobs than bodyguard work and it didn't seem like this would be particularly onerous. It was easier if she told herself she wasn't working for the same kind of money grubbing merchants who bankrolled Salazar. Alrik moved to pick up his own liquor but Inez slapped her hand down atop the cup. The tradesfarer looked confused and a little angry. Inez made a choking noise and grabbed at her throat, staggering back eyes bulging, face contorting into a rictus of pain. Alrik jumped to his feet eyes wide, only for Inez to snicker, her face returning to normal and her feet stabilizing.

"Just getting in the mood, you know in case one of the crew decided to poison you," she grinned.
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Now that the little scare was over with, Alrik took that drink. He tried not to show it, but he smiled. At least she had a sense of humor, he had been afraid his bodyguard would be a walking brick. Then again, he hadn't imagined it would have been a woman, either. He raised the glass to his lips, and spoke before he took his sip. "That would be counter productive to my mission." He glibbed. The whiskey burned on the way down. That was how he could tell it was good, he had been told when he was younger.

"On a darker note, poison will be a problem, likely. But in the courts of Yhesra, and you needn't worry about that, you're just here for physical guarding. Though now that I think of it, I should have a taste tester..."

The conclusion reached him very visually, his face transitioning from self assured to what could only be described as 'uh oh.' He noticed she was looking at him, and he gave a shrug, brushing it off. He was smart, capable, and handsome, but he was still a somewhat sheltered young man. This woman might not have his education, or even his status as a merchant of the league, but he had no doubt she had seen more of the world than he had. He had only been on the sea once, when he had been shipped from his childhood home to begin his apprenticeship. "How many times have you been at sea?" He was about to ask, and he got most of it out of his mouth when the door, half closed by Inez's half-hearted push was kicked open.

It took only a moment for the two of them to spin and see the figure before they struck. It was one of the crew, the one with the snaggletooth and rat-like eyes. In his hands was a crossbow, one made for scouting and reconnaissance instead of warfare, but it could still cut through the hide of a bull elk. At his hip was a heavy-bladed falchion, and in his eyes were murder. But not hatred. Alfrik could tell immediately it was out of self interest, but he hadn't the time or inclination to voice that thought when he lowered his crossbow and fired right at Alfrik's midsection.
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It was funny how you never regretted having a sword even when you didn’t need it. The thought floated lazily through a detached part of Inez mind as she watched the sailor level the crossbow. Things seemed to move very slowly. The door banged against its stop and began to swing back to. Alrik’s eyes widened with shock. The crewman’s face blanched with panic at finding two targets instead of one. The sound of a gull cawed through the gallery window. The twitch of muscle preparatory to the trigger pull. The slow decent of Alrik’s glass, dropped in shock, the last few drops of liquor sloshing inside. Sunlight glinted off the razor sharp barb of the quarrel. People though to Inez as brave, but she felt her bowels tighten with fear. She was always afraid in battle, the trick, her father had taught her when she tearfully confessed to feeling afraid, was to channel it into action. Adrenaline surged through her veins like fire. Inez had once been called The Hellcat, and she lived up to that sobriquet now. Without any conscious thought her booted foot lashed out, kicking Alrik’s legs from under him. The tradefarer gave an undignified squawk and crashed to the deck, the bolt passing close enough to pluck a puff of stuffing from his coat. Inez’s heart was pounding now, the familiar clarity settling over her like a comfortable pair of boots. The assassin should have shot her and taken his chances at finishing Alrik off with the heavy knife that hung at his belt. Well he wouldn’t get a second chance if she had anything to say about it. All this had passed in a frozen half instant, the illusion broken as the bolt thudded into the bulkhead on the far side of the room, splitting the timber with a crack. Time seemed to leap back to full speed and Inez was ready for it, hurtling across the room at the would be assassin. The sailor, his face a mask of chagrin, took a staggering step back and overbalanced. He grabbed for the door and succeeded only in throwing it half closed into Inez’ path. She struck the door awkwardly, pain flaring in her side, distant and academic, to be worried about later once her blood had cooled. Ricocheting back, she caught herself against the desk and sprang forward again, catching the door and throwing it open. The sailor was on his feet now, mostly so at any rate, lurching down the hallway in a staggering shamble. Inez was through the door, her foot kicking out at the discarded crossbow, sending it spinning after its owner like a missile. It hit him below the knees, knocking him sprawling onto the companionway that led up to the main deck. Inez lunged after him, springing onto his back, fingernails digging at his neck for want of any other weapon. She didn’t even have a knife for the Black Lady’s sake! The sailor screamed and bucked, trying to throw Inez off. She scratched at his face and bit down hard on his ear, tasting the oils from his hair and the products of his poor hygiene. The sailor roared in agony and spun hard, driving her powerfully into the bulkhead with teeth rattling force. Howling in pain he thrust her away and she lost her grip. He turned to run, making it up two stairs before Inez’ lunge caught his ankles and tangled them. He tumbled forward into the door hitting it with a crash and flinging it open to the bright sunlight. Inez was after him, on her hands and knees for a step and then on her feet. She burst out onto the deck, taking in the shocked faces of a dozen sailors, frozen in their duties like an oil painting as their fellow, bleeding from the ear and screaming, staggered onto the deck, pursued by a wild eyed woman they had seen only moments ago with their master. One particularly full witted boy was in the middle of tarring a line, gaped open mouthed, oblivious to the hot tar he was dripping onto his bare foot.

“Help me for the God’s sake!” the sailors screamed, but his fellows were too shocked and confused to do any such thing. He ran across the deck, sure footed, leaping over a low hanging line, weaving between the nest of ropes and cables with the ease of long practice. Home ground advantage or not there was no way he was going to outrun her. The same thought evidently occurred to him because, with a desperate yell, he finally pulled the knife from his belt and whirled to face her, eight inches of steel gleaming in his fist, eyes so wide that the white went all the way around.



“Never a bloody sword when I need one,” she groused to herself, noticing for the first time the taste of blood on her lips. “Never a bloody…” He came at her with an awkward lunge, his entire weight on his front foot. Doubtless he had been in a few tavern brawls, but he was no knife fighter. There were bravas in the south who made it an art, Carmen Sanchez wouldn’t have been caught dead making a lunge like that, not in a thousand Black Days. Inez twisted sideways and caught the sailors wrist twisting hard. He clubbed at her with his other hand, but he was overbalanced and the blow merely bounced off her shoulder. She drove her elbow back into the pit of his stomach, turning her body into it as she had been taught. Breath exploded from his lungs and he staggered backwards, mewling like a beast. Inez turned and opened her mouth to call for him to surrender. Before the words could come, a foot of bloody steel burst from the would be assassin's chest. He stared down at it in obvious shock for a moment, blood welling up around the blade and pouring down his shirt to spatter the immaculate deck below. He lifted a hand as though to touch the blade, stiffened, and slumped sideways, head lolling, a gout of blood erupting from his lips. Inez stared in shock as the captain she had met earlier shoved the body forward, sliding it off his crusader hilted blade like offal.



“Are you hurt milady?” he asked, stooping to wipe the blade clean on the dead man’s shirt.

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Alfrik wasn't a fighter, but he wasn't a coward either. Once Inez had pushed him out of the way and proceeded to give chase to the would-be assassin, he gathered his wits and steeled himself, going over to grab his staff before bursting out into the hallway. He saw the tail end of Inez pursuing the man up the stairs, and so he followed, making it topside just in time to see the Captain shove and then pull his blade out of the man's back before kicking him into the timber. The lanterns had been lit, and there was still a bit of red from the sun in the distance across the sea.

Inez had done her job admirably. He was lucky she was assigned to him, though he could have gone without the demonstration. Alfrik had luckily not pissed himself, so he supposed he was braver than he had initially thought. Approaching, the Captain gave him a nod, now sliding his clean blade into his scabbard. Alkrik knelt down and helped his bodyguard to her feet, though the stench of the corpse was overwhelming, and the bloodied body was a bit much for him. The man had also likely shat himself at the end, which just caused his wave of nasea to hit harder.

"Excuse me," he said, hurrying to the side of the ship and throwing his head over, losing his lunch and much of the brandy he had supped over the side, tears in his eyes as his body pushed out whatever contents had made him feel sick, not knowing it was the sheer psychological shock of the violence. He had seen public hangings before, but suffocation and neck breaking was a bit more tame than a messy death from the bellyful of blood pooling onto the deck.

"You alright, sir?" One of the crewmen asked. A scruffy, weasely fellow with a kind voice. He approached and patted Alfrik's back as he finished his unceremonious vomiting. Despite the lack of dignity in it, he regained his composure quickly, to his credit. The trasefarer brushed his hair out of his eyes and cleared his throat, blinking away the tears from his red eyes. The entire crew watched him like dogs watching their master walk by. That was better than being judgemental, at least.

"I am, thank you." He said, pulling at his coat to straighten it as he approached the captain. Alfrik looked at the corpse again, feeling a bit less disgusted now. He hoped this mission didn't make him too comfortable with bodies, but something told him this wouldn't be the last corpse he would be near on this venture. "Captain, do you know this man? I recognize him."

"Aye, he was one of my new crewmen." The fellow admitted, his voice like grating stone. Alfrik could imagine he would be frightening when angered. "Aulden, if memory serves. He joined a fortnight ago at Argethafen."

"Did anyone else join with him?" Alfrik inquired, glancing at the other crew.

"Aye, he and two other lads by the name of Jahn and Horden joined around the same time. They're over there," Ingvar said, motioning to his right with his bearded head. Alfrik did not have to guess who the men were, because he could see their faces going white when both men gazed at them. The two deckhands hands went up, one dropping the broom he had. They seemed good sized men with workman's calluses, one had a straw colored beard and the other had a lazy eye.

"We didn't know him," one of the men said. "We just joined the same time, is all! Honest, sir."

The captain called for the body to be taken away as Alfrik looked at the two men, watching them with a heavy glare as he considered what to do. The merchant stroked his fine chin. "I won't punish men who have done nothing amiss," Alfrik said at last, causing them to breathe a bit easier. "But if you would, captain, keep these men under watch for the current voyage, if that's at all possible." He spoke up next to speak to the two men. "If you're innocent, you'll have nothing to worry about."

"I can't spare many men, particularly because I just killed one." The captain declared. "But the crew will be a bit more wary now. After all, if you're dead, we lose our contract."

Alfrik looked at the captain with a comically raised brow, but the man didn't seem to notice as he barked for his men to get back to work.
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“I just don’t get it,” Inez told Alrik as she sat in his cabin, booted feet up on the table as she rasped a whetstone down the length of her sword in slow rhythmic motions. The boots were her own, one of the few things she did own that hadn’t been given to her by the league and deducted from her pay. They were cavalry boots, or had been once, crafted by a master out of supple, brown, Estanian leather, with gilt buckles and intricate stitching. Hard use had taken its toll over the years, and the heels had been worn down by the miles until they were better suited to walking than riding. A fine network of cracks had appeared at the heels and toes from the constant flexing, and the gilt was worn and faded. Old Guierlelmo would have tutted to see his gift so dillipated. The rest of her ensemble was guild issue, dark grey trousers and a white cotton shirt, cinched at the bottom by her sword belt, she hadn’t bothered with the tabard, a needlessly showy thing that was more of a nuisance than a help, save for actual official events. The ship was bustling along under a gentled wind, making good time for once. There was a slight unpleasant thumping every few seconds as the great square prow battered it’s way through the increasing chop of a late afternoon.



“I mean to say,” she continued, lifting the blade and peering down the length of it for any nicks or imperfections.

“I suppose he might have had reasons to kill you. Maybe you tupped his sister or his wife, or maybe he just hates all bean counting merchants,” Inez mused in a tone that suggested that such hatred was both natural and understandable, thinking of King Salazar back in Estania, grinding its people under his heel on the back of loans and trade concessions to money grubbing northern merchants.



“Afterall who didn’t dream of stabbing their landlord? But let’s say he sticks you with a crossbow bolt,” she jabbed the point of her sword to emphasize the point.

“What does he do then? He has a dead merchant and leagues of ocean in all directions, nowhere to go you see?” Maybe he planned on framing me for it she thought. Possible but hardly the sort of chance to stake your life on.



“Alrik?” Inez asked, the merchant was staring distractedly off into space again. Clearly the killing earlier was something novel to him and was taking a bit of getting used to. He had been somewhat distracted all afternoon while they had asked questions of the hands and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to make some sense of it. No one, it seemed, knew anything or at least they weren’t saying. The captain had been of no help, continually calling men to loosen sheets or set thingamagigs or whatever it was sailors did to fill their days. He had been incurious, merely shrugging his shoulders philosophically at the whole affair. Maybe this sort of thing happened often enough at sea, Inez wasn’t in a position to judge, certainly employers looking to save a fee, or enemies looking to remove a captain who rudely refused a bribe sometimes resorted to such tactics.

“Are you with me, o noble patron?” she asked.
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Alrik sat apart from her, staring at the wall opposite of the massive map. He heard every word of what Inez was saying, though he made no sign of it apart from occasionally pinching the bridge of his nose or rubbing his temples, processing all that happened on his first night onboard. No one made it to the age of ten without seeing some sort of death, be it public hangings, dead bodies on the streets from disease or past-night criminalities, or even the killing of chickens in the market place. But this was the first time someone had tried to kill him, and then had bled out in front of him. He supposed he didn't put any value on the would-be assassin's life, but he had said hello to the man, attempting to remember his face so he could make friends later.

He glanced at Inez, the woman casually now picking her nails clean with a knife, her sword polished and sharpened to accommodate for the recent use. He should feel thankful for her saving his life, even if she would just give a platitude like it was what she was paid for. Oddly, he was more annoyed at her callous manner whilst he was still a bit put off by the whole affair. The crew didn't seem to have lost any respect for him, having watched him recover himself in record time. But Inez was another matter. Finally, Alrik got up, his normally smooth, debonair manner broken for a moment.

"Why would I know his fucking plan!? I didn't think the League would hire anyone who meant to kill me! Maybe he was going to steal the longboat and rendezvous to one of the islands, I don't know!" He vociferated bemusedly. "And I don't know why he would want to kill me beyond my mission. I haven't done anything! I haven't tupped anyone! I-" He stopped, realizing just what he had said, but then he brushed past it, not elaborating. "I'm just here to..." He started again, and then sat back down on his chair, deflating. "-to do business." Well, Alrik was pretty confident that wasn't going to happen again. At least on the ship.

The door opened, and Alrik idly looked over at who it was, thinking the Gods had a sense of humor and were about to disprove his theory. Luckily, it was only one of the deckhands, stepping in and setting down a tray of food by Inez's propped feet. It was a large potato, with cheese and butter, along with pulled pork and various spices and small buns of bread. It was a lot of food, but it was clearly meant just for him and not his bodyguard. The man, sporting a large nose and a bandana tied around his balding head, gave Alrik a nod.

"Compliments from the captain, sir."

"Tell him I said thank you." Alrik replied mechanically. He thought it strange he had vomited in front of the captain so the man decided to feed him, but he supposed he felt he should replace his lunch with something nice. He didn't know whether to take it as a token of goodwill or a cynical slight. The deckhand gave him a small bow, and then left the room. After taking a moment to pause, Alrik took a breath and picked himself up, pulling his chair over to the table.

"Put your feet down and get a knife. I'll split it with you." He said, taking his tabard off and setting it behind his chair back, the merchant wearing simple linen as a shirt. He looked at the blade she was using to clean her nails. Some of his humor was returning, it seemed, and he gave her a small smile. "Not that one."
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Clearly Alrik was a little more wound up than she thought. She wondered if she could remember the first time she had seen it. Death by violence wasn’t like seeing an old woman slip away, or a sick man breathe his last. The siege of Mari Casteen when she had been thirteen or fourteen? Her father had been wounded in the fighting and wasn’t expected to live. Her mother had rushed her to his side, as much to get an ironclad declaration of inheritance from him, a young daughter vs a pair of grown but bastard sons. She remembered the bodies stacked against the wall, pierced by crossbow bolts or spitted with steel. Some of them had been burned alive with oil and pitch. Her mother had been horrified by she had been morbidly fascinated. The stink had been beyond belief though, so many unburied dead ripening in the sun while grim faced soldiers tossed them into pits or piled them on pyres. Her mind snapped back to a seemingly unimportant detail the way it sometimes did. Never tuped ANYONE? It was like a unicorn. By the Black Lady she needed to get this boy laid.

Composing herself, she tucked the knife away and picked a clean one from the cutlery box. Damned Potato Eaters. Still she was hungry and her stomach was a little sour. It had been a considerable time since she last had any wine, but it was probably good for her to try and space that out. If you thought a man who had been roasted in his armor smelt bad, then you had never had the chance to see one who went out from the drunkard’s liver.

“Well there is always the simple crazies,” she said dismissing the matter and carving herself off a slice of potato with one of the dull butter knives. She popped it into her mouth and chewed. Like most northern food it had been cooked to the point that it felt personal, but it was tasty enough. Besides, there was never a bad time to take a nap, grab a bite, or visit the latrine. You never knew when you might get another chance.

“This one time at… Palona maybe? Bardice? Anyway this man comes up to me, tries to stab me right there in broad daylight, screaming something about how I seduced his wife… or cheated at cards… or maybe that I killed his brother?” she realized the story was beginning to meander somewhat and also wasn’t really making her point.

“So… somewhere you don’t remember, someone tried to kill you for a reason you also don’t remember?” Alrik sumiried, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yeah well I went for a bard but I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” she responded around a mouthful of potato.
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