“There is a fine line between pleasure and pain.”
I approach Hormundad's gateway network, silently contemplating the attack. There was no reason for anyone to catch onto me so soon. The operation in Hormundad hasn't even started yet. Of course, there is a chance that Dorver sold me out, but I can't believe that. Money talks, and Dorver is about to make a lot of it.
Let's assume that it was him. He could've apprehended me at any time while I was inside his guild. The basement would've been the perfect spot to catch me. Just one exit and a lot of highly trained guards. There was no reason to send a bunch of incompetent fools who attack me on the street.
That doesn't make sense.
The only other people who might know me well enough to suspect something are those guys. Especially Fae and Kiara. They even admitted that they saw my backpack and took a look inside. Who says that they didn't take a close look at the mask and the spear? I doubt that Kiara would've recognized the importance of the mask. She is an ability user.
But Fae has magic. She is an elf and my attackers were elves. It fits. Fae would've recognized that the enchantments on my mask are revolutionary for this world. If she put it on... which can be easily checked. The mask's most important feature isn't the ability to enhance the user's senses, but to record everything which was seen or heard while using it.
I pull the mask from my belt and put it on. “Replay time-frame. Three weeks ago.” The mask switches to a scene of me watching the carriage in front of me. “Next day. Next day. Next day. Next hour. Next five hours. Show next activation.” Okay, I don't remember watching my own broken body lying on a carriage.
There is Kiara and Brian. Tristen. That confirms it. Fae used the mask. So why did she give it back and say nothing? Why the abduction attempt by the elves?
Let's assume for a moment that Fae is what she is, a normal adventurer. I refuse to believe that I was unlucky enough to run into some sort of secret agent. But I know that she was with the military for a long time. She must have at least some status at home. Her loyalty surely lies with her people and the Alliance's races aren't as nice and brotherly with each other as it seems on the outside. There have to be frictions. Why else would some of them prefer to live in their own communities? Only the humans and the beastmen live in mixed cities.
Every good little soldier would give his faction a heads up if he stumbles across something important. So let's assume that Fae found out about the mask. She feels the necessity to inform her people. What does she tell them?
'Hey, watch out for a girl named Joyce. She has these freaky magical items and knows how to fight. Her origins are also suspicious. Might be a good idea to keep an eye on her.'
Or something along those lines. They put me under observation, but Fae's report failed to convey the full extent of my powers as a mage. She didn't know all that much about me. After seeing me interact with the merchants and the library, they start thinking that I am spy and decide to catch me. For whatever reason.
I doubt that the attack was officially sanctioned by the Alliance as a whole. This was a small group which operated under cover, possibly of their own accord. An official apprehension by the Alliance would've looked different. I am thinking about lots of soldiers and people going to jail all around me. Outright killing my contacts only makes sense if they want to hide the fact that they caught me.
That makes at least some sense. They tried to catch me and to stop anyone from asking questions. Either all the elves as a group, or just a small faction. The elves who attacked me were incompetent, to say the least. Currently, I have to assume that it was just a weak faction.
Of course I’ll need confirmation for my theory. At least I have a clan name, Finguld. I've to find out more about them once I return to the Alliance.
My breast-pocket vibrates and I retrieve the communication crystal. It's the one I got from Dorver, so I answer it and feel the privacy ward activating automatically. The merchants sure pour a lot of money into their communication crystals.
“Someone tried to kill me!”
“How did you know?”
“Four of them just tried to mug me.”
“You obviously escaped.”
“I did, they didn't. Seems like someone found out about my knowledge and tried to snag my expertise. I suggest for you to increase your security detail.”
“Not that early! My people are trustworthy!”
“I am afraid that the leak was on my end. A different project of mine. It had nothing to do with the chests.”
There is some mumbling on the other end. “Don't worry about me. The merchant guild wouldn't be worth shit if it would be that easy to assassinate a guildmaster. I am used to assassination attempts. A lot of money comes with a lot of risk. But what about you?”
“I'll leave the Alliance for a few days. I heard that the northern beaches in the Murian Sociocrathy are very beautiful at this time of the year.”
“You aren't two timing me, are you?”
I snort. “Never! Just lying low for a while. The elves will think twice about their next actions once the company is running and I've made a name for myself.”
“You know... being famous isn't always a good thing. The elves might be off your back, but you will gain a dozen other enemies.”
“That will be my problem. Is there anything else?”
“No. I guess not. Have fun at the beach.” He ends the call.
I put away the communication crystal and head into the large building which houses the gateway network. The entrance is huge. Large enough for several carriages with lemus, so I take my own animal with me. The building turns out to be a single, large hall. There are several dozen huge, metal rings with numbers above them. And people, lots of people! It’s as if I am at a modern airport.
A long row of counters with beautiful saleswomen manning them is pretty self-explanatory. I head over and wait until it's my turn. The human blonde who greets me a few minutes later smiles and waits for me to make the first move.
“I need to go to Jebli Port, Murian Sociocrathy.”
She nods. “That's a long jump and crosses into another nation, which costs extra. Thirteen gold.”
Thirteen what! That's enough to pay four weeks of rent for a room in a good inn! I pull out my pouch and start counting gold coins. “I'll never understand those prices!”
“Crossing over to other nations costs at least ten gold,” the woman chirps happily. “The nations want to limit trade.” She hands me a metal plate with a number on it. “Portal 4-2. The gate to Jebli will be active at every full hour. That's in about ten minutes. You can take the gate any time you want as long as you have this chip.”
I nod and follow her instructions, just to arrive barely in time after getting the numbers wrong. It wasn't the fourth portal in the second row, it was the second portal in the fourth row. Luckily, the guy who was operating the portal informed me of my mistake.
The mage who is operating the portal looks over the crowd and instructs us to line up. He wants us to pass through the portal as quickly as possible, once it's open. After giving us ample instructions and taking away our chips, he presses a few runes at the side of the big metal ring and the air shimmers. Then the scene switches to another hall and he ushers the waiting people forward, myself included.
Maybe I should research their portal technology. It's difficulty should be on par with the spacial chests. Though it seems like it takes a lot of energy, otherwise they wouldn't urge us to pass through so quickly.
I step to the other side and find myself in a similar hall, although much bigger. The seaport of Jebli is one of the largest ports in the known world. I leave the gateway network and buy myself a map at one of the vendors in front of the large building.
Guided by the map, I head straight to the largest shipyard. I researched the facility beforehand and made sure that it's the one with the best reputation. A little helpless, I walk onto the large complex which consist of many different buildings.
“Okay. Maybe I am a little too green behind the ears? Where is their office?”
A helpful dockworker who overheard me points at one of the smaller buildings. “That one, Lady.”
Oh, sometimes it pays off to be female. I grant him a smile. “Thanks.”
Then I hurry to the indicated building before the man can get the idea to ask me out. I already had to rebuff several people while I was in Hormundad. The adventurers with the caravan didn't dare to approach me, because they saw my abilities, but that wasn't the case in a city full of people.
I enter the house and am greeted by a secretary. “Hello, what can we do for you?”
Let's just be blunt. “I want to buy a ship, but not a regular one. I want it custom made.”
She nods and gestures towards a door. “You might want to speak with the owner? Take a seat and wait until he calls for you.”
I nod and do as I was told. To entertain myself, I pull out the rough sketch of my wishes in order to study it.
Half an hour later, the door opens and a fat man walks out. He doesn't even glance at me and leaves the building. The secretary nods and I enter the room.
It's a small office and a man is waiting behind a neatly arranged desk. He is about thirty, has brown hair and a prominent chin. “My name is Lukas, first heir of the Gamblin Family Shipyard. What can we do for you?”
I take the seat opposite from him. “Call me Beatrix. I am a citizen of the Alliance and I heard that your shipyard is the best one in the known world.”
He smiles coolly. “We take pride in our reputation.”
I place the sketch in front of him. “I want something like this.”
He eyes the piece of paper with raised eyebrows. “I am afraid that we don't have something 'like this'. This isn't even a proper blueprint.”
“Ah, but that's why I am hiring you. I want you to create a ship which fulfils these specifications. A transporter, extra sturdy with steel reinforcements.”
He studies my piece of concept art. It's not much more than that.
“The ship will be too heavy and too broad. You can't expect proper speed from something like that. Even if we give it twice as many sails.”
“Well, you can change it. The most important point is the sturdiness. I want it to be as big as possible, while being sturdy enough to beach it. I want to transport goods between places without proper port. There will be no other choice than to risk running into reefs and other navigational hazards.”
Lukas scratches his chin. “That will be costly. We'll have to hire a few mages to create a steel hull with reinforcement spells. Do you want to transport goods between islands?”
I nod. “Something like that. How big can you make the ship for three thousand gold?”
He does a few mental calculations. “Maybe forty metres? Fifty tops. Loading area may be two to four thousand cubic metres. No, let's say two if you really want to house such a large crew.”
I reach into my backpack and retrieve a small chest from it.
Lukas raises both hands. “Oh, wow! Wait! Such things take time and we only start work once we receive the full payment up front.”
Ignoring him, I place the chest on his desk and open it. “Three thousand gold. And if I get the ship within six months, you can keep the chest.”
“Ahem.” He looks down at the chest, then he reaches into it. His whole arm disappears inside it. When he retrieves it, he balances a pile of gold coins on his palm. “I am sure we can make it in five.”
“Perfect. Where is the contract?” I want to get this done. There are a lot of things to do before I return to the Alliance. Five months may sound like a lot of time but it isn't.
“Where is my whore?!” I call out and take a sip of my bottle. The beer is horrible and this brothel's service is lacking. On top of everything, the bed is too soft and the room is too dark. I wonder if that's intentional because they'll send me some ugly wench? They take good money and then they don't deliver. It's clear that I need a better job.
The door opens and all my complaints go out of the window. I even drop the bottle.
A black haired beauty with a perfect, hourglass figure steps into the room. She is still dressed, but that problem can be solved quickly enough. “Darling! Turn around and show yourself. You are a diamond!”
She smiles and closes the door behind her. Then she twirls herself around as she steps closer, showing off her body.
Lying in this bed with such a bombshell in front of me feels like a waste. So I try to get up, but she hops onto the bed and straddles me between her perfect thighs. The goddess runs her hands up my chest and to my neck.
I do the same with her legs and run my hands up her flanks. I am about to squeeze those perfect bouncers of hers, when her lust inspiring expression turns cold and her hands close around my neck. She squeezes and my air is cut off.
Choking, I quickly forget about fondling her and try to get her hands away from my throat, but those thin arms of hers are like steel pipes. All my bucking only brings me closer to unconsciousness. Panicking, I try to hit her, but my magic is drained away and something presses me down. It feels like my whole body weighs a few tons.
It's a demon in the form of a beautiful woman!
She turns my face left and right, studying my features. One moment before I black out, she lets go and I draw in a direly needed breath of air. She pats my forehead and rips away my shirt. “You are Captain Gregor?”
I quickly nod. The thought of lying doesn't even cross my mind. I survived by not crossing those who are clearly more powerful than me. Be it woman or man.
“They say that you and your crew aren't against operating outside the law. A quick job as pirates isn't a problem?”
This time I shake my head. Piracy is punished with death. I would never be so stupid as to admit my deeds in front of a stranger. She would be able to blackmail me.
“Oh, well. That's too sad. There must be two Gregors who look very similar.” Her hands close around my throat.
She stops and raises her eyebrows. “You are what?”
“I am the one you are searching for!”
The devil smiles. “That wasn't so hard, was it? Well, I've a job for you and your crew.” She reaches behind her and pulls out an envelope. “This contains informations on various accounts with the merchant guild. There are also some instructions for your future job. At this moment, there is no money on the accounts, but in a few months there will be more than you need.”
I nod quickly.
“You'll use the money to pay your crew. In five months, you will sell your old ship. Then you'll go to the Gamblin Family Shipyard. The envelope contains information on a certain Beatrix who ordered a vessel which is fit for your needs. Your new ship is the Levia. This will be enough to identify yourself as her crew.”
She squints her eyes at me. “Follow the instructions inside this envelope to the last detail. Understood?”
“Of course!” As if! Once she lets me go, I am out of here!
A devilish smile appears on her face and she covers my mouth with one hand. Leaning forward, she presses my head down into the mattress. “Then let's get to the fun part. Sealing the deal, in blood.” The white nail of her index finger elongates and sharpens.
What the fuck is she!? I try to squirm away, but the force is still holding me in place. I was never a strong mage. It's just enough to keep a crew of peasants under my thumb.
In response to my movements, she shifts her hips and uses her thighs to hold me still. Her nail closes in on my chest and she stops, thinking about something. “You'll probably like this a little too much, sicko. You got boner when I started choking you. Just don't get off while I am working. Okay? I like my pants.”
The tip of her fingernail lowers onto my skin and she starts cutting!