The air was filled with the pleasant smell of fresh cut and polished wood. In the end, they had gone with cherry wood for the flooring of their new headquarters.
“You've got this?” As he looked up the large gallery with the simple wood railing, Corco addressed Brym who had come to the entrance to see them off. All around himself the prince could hear the hammers and saws which put the work into the old construction. The building had belonged to another merchant group, but the business had been run out of the city by the fierce competition. Fortuitous for Corco and his companions, since they were able to buy their new first branch office on the cheap. All it would need was a bit of repairs before they would be ready to open. For a long time now, the carpenters had been working on the showroom up front, but finally, the new main building of the Fastgrade merchant company was nearing completion.
“Yeah, no worries Bro. Atau is here as well, so we'll be fine. You can go and pick up your stuff.”
A short nod of gratitude and Corco turned to leave, both Ronnie the alchemist and his attendant Fadelio in tow. Since the incident in Whiteport, the warrior had rarely ever left the side of his master, worried for his safety. Still, the master wasn't in any way feeling safe, as rude as that might have been to the powerful warrior. The sudden attack in front of Lordspire Castle had left a deep scar in his mind. The one in his left chest was still there as well, as a constant reminder of his negligence. It was the reason he had decided to order a special item after they had settled down again.
Their new headquarters was no longer set in Balit, but it wasn't very far away. For their new home, the merchants had chosen the old-familiar city of Etra. For the second time in as many years, Corco was forced to spend his spring in this place. Though many towns they had seen over the past four seasons had been in even worse condition, he still hated the dirty, grimy town with a passion. Still, it was the ideal location to relaunch their business, though not everyone shared Corco's opinion on the issue.
“This still isn't a great idea, is it? Shouldn't we take distance from the assassins, rather than move in closer and hold out our necks?” Ronnie asked as he looked around, worried about an ambush in broad daylight.
“You're still complaining about that? Etra's perfect for our purpose, in every regard,” the crown prince replied in a casual manner. “It's a free city, which means that there's no lords above us to just take whatever they want. Positioned around it are three different lordships, which means that we have our pick for who to trade with and where to get our sugar beets. Etra's domain over the Culcas river even leads right into the sea, which means we won't have to pay any customs tax so long as we work inside the city's guild system. Plus, we've already bribed all the officials to open shop here. No need to waste all that money. By the time the paint on our first branch office is dried, we'll be all set to go.”
“Yes, perfect. And then Duke Herak can come in and siege the city right besides his lands. We will not be able to operate like this. We are far too close to the flame.”
“Look, the duke also lost a good man the last time he attacked us.” This time, it was Fadelio who answered the alchemist's worries. “Now that Herak knows what we can do, he'll be a lot more careful in his actions.”
“It's not only that. Our little stunt with the good doctor Freigen riled up Whiteport something fierce. Now the Whiteport Lordship has sent half of its giant fleet to put pressure on Borna, all just so they can get their hands on Herak. For a good while, that dude will be far too busy to worry about us. We'll just have to get ourselves established by the time he can catch his breath and the heat dies down. Speaking of heat, we're here.”
While immersed in their talks, they had reached the noisy, sooty goal of today's trip. Corco entered the solid oaken door, reinforced with cast iron bars, and went into the blacksmith's shop.
“Welcome, sire, welcome. ” Together with a gust of intense heat, the frank voice of the shop's owner greeted them. As always, the strong-looking blacksmith had his eyes on the door as he worked the steel in between his tongs. Though only a muffled sound escaped from beneath his leather mask, one could still feel the positive energy he would surround his guests in at all times. The smith put away the glowing iron, before he removed the mask to reveal a full, well-maintained beard.
“I assume sire is here to pick up his order?” asked the large man as he brushed his hands clean on his leather apron.
“That's right. There you go, 2 gildern.” Already prepared, Corco put the coins on the scratched table at the front of the smithy, the space where customers would be handled. “Please check their veracity.”
With a frank smile, the smith walked over and swiped the coins away, as he gave a nod to Fadelio and Bombasticus, who had stayed behind at the door.
“No need, sire. Of course I would trust the great seer of the lords. If I did not, why else would I do this sort of work?”
The smith moved behind a counter to the side, put there to exhibit some of the finer pieces of his work. This sort of advertisement would be considered unusual for a craftsman in the middle ages, but considering Etra's special status it wasn't anything strange. After all, the city was essentially run by merchants, so the smith's marketing ideas weren't that surprising to Corco. Soon, the blacksmith's face returned from beneath the counter, a heavy looking piece of chain mail armor in his hands. With a grand gesture, he slammed the linked rings of iron on the well-worn table. The fact that the furniture didn't buckle under the jangle and clang of the heavy iron spoke much louder of its quality than its superficial blemishes had done.
“You should know sire, I could get in some serious trouble for this sorta work, I really could. We're not supposed to make any more armor, on account of the trouble we made for the bornish King last time.” The man's sneer looked dismissive. Free cities were notorious for their lack of respect towards the lordships and there were constant power struggles between them.
“I never forced you, so you took the work by choice. Why do it if you're so worried?” With a heavy groan, Corco forced the chain mail off the counter. Quadruple chains linked behind one another. At least twice as heavy as an ordinary chain mail. Luckily, Corco had been in diligent training for over a year now or he would have embarrassed himself.
“Of course I wanted to support the wise seer of the Lords. We need some good, faithful people in here. Lately, there's too many suspicious strangers. There's this uncanny cult going around in the back alleys, the Reverers they call themselves. Keep telling us that the great Lords in heaven do not deserve our prayers and respect. Seems like it's been coming out of Borna. By now some of the merchants have been infected by the nonsense as well. I really do not like it. A good, respectable priest like yourself will need some protection in this godless town.”
“I will do my best. You mind if I try the armor right here? That way I won't walk out in the open with it.”
Before he left and found problems with the product at home, he would much rather try it on first.
“Please do. Over there would be fine.”
Corco nodded and turned fast to leave for a darker corner of the smithy, the one the pious blacksmith had pointed towards. Though he didn't mind the man himself, there might be problems if he stayed and talked some more about religion. Not for a second had Corco believed in the nonsense of the Arcavians and lying about his core beliefs was absolutely not his style. He felt bad about exposing the blacksmith to danger over a lie, but there was little he could do now that the work was done. If worst came to worst, he would just have to take the man in for protection.
As Corco came back with the heavy iron slung over his shoulder, Ronnie and Fadelio, who had been waiting by the door, moved with him, engaged in their own conversation. While the crown prince was embroiled in a war with the heavy armor, an attempt to get it over his head, Fadelio and Ronnie were still discussing the matters of Duke Herak.
“Why are you even coming along with us if you're this scared? Aren't you just here to complain? Not like we need any extra muscle with me around,” Fadelio said.
Meanwhile, the warrior stepped up and did his best to help his master get the chain mail over his head. After a slew of groans and sighs, at last, the armor dropped down with a jangle, laying itself heavily onto the crown prince's shoulders.
“If you must ask, warrior, I still call Etra my home. However, someone forced the great Bombasticus on a pilgrimage around the world, wasting my time for an entire year. Since such a long time has passed, the rats have taken hold of my shop. Even though there is little to be done about all the tinctures and herbs which have been taken-”
“Which were useless in the first place.” After the hard part had been done, Fadelio had put gray robes over Corco's head, which silenced his voice. The armor would be much more efficient if it was hidden. Corco's muffled voice prompted an annoyed look from the great alchemist, who decided to ignore the interjection.
“Though the tinctures were taken, the still was too large, and did not seem important enough to the unlearned.”
“Hiding the thing inside a wooden frame was pretty smart, right?” Corco bragged about his idea as he adjusted his robes.
“Sure, but an attempt at theft was still made and the still has been thrown to the floor. I will have to ask the local smith to repair a few parts before work can continue.”
"How do I look?” As the smithy wouldn't provide them with a mirror, Corco could only rely on the fashion sense of his companions.
“It's...” Fadelio frowned, unsure of how to answer. Being struck by an idea, the warrior unshackled his weapon from his waist and presented the polished axe head as a mirror. Finally, the prince could see his new look. His face had always been a bit round, even though his body was on the slim side. Now, with the added size from the layer of metal, he truly looked...
“You look overweight.” Instead of the warrior servant, the much franker alchemist answered the prince's question.
Corco slapped his robes, in an attempt to measure his new girth. “Isn't that good? From today on, I'll be a merchant anyways. Pretty sure merchants are supposed to be fat.”
As Corco moved towards the door, the smith on the other side of the room gave them a friendly nod.
“I will be taking care of business and then follow along later,” Ronnie said. He still needed those parts fixed if they wanted to make any more brandy in the future.
“Sure you can't get your parts any other time? We can wait too.” Still worried about one of his own moving by himself, Corco turned to ask his alchemist if he needed assistance.
“No, there is still much work to be done for you as well as me. I would rather do it now, so long as the Duke is still busy with other matters. His plight will not last much longer. Of course, the tensions between Whiteport and Balit have been quite severe, but there will be no war. Sooner or later, King Albius will return to his senses and stop wasting money. And once he is freed from the nuisance, there will be nothing left to stop the duke from wiping us out. By now, Dukle Herak will know just who has been at fault for his recent troubles... after we have killed one of his men, no less.”
While the frightened alchemist was immersed in his monologue, Corco already had his hand on the door, out into the fresh air of spring.
“You're not wrong. The duke will come back with a vengeance. Even if war were to break out, I doubt Whiteport can beat Borna at sea. I've seen the ships of both sides. It won't even be a fight.” Corco thought back to Whiteports massive fleet of rowing boats, and to Borna's sailing ships, to the bronze cannons on board. He'd rather not see Borna become too powerful too quickly. Unfortunately, he couldn't do much to influence the outcome, beyond providing Whiteport with the kind of technology he would never hand over to the Arcavians.
“So we need to be prepared.” Corco interrupted the pessimistic Bombasticus. “You want your revenge too, don't you? What we need to do now is establish ourselves here in Etra. Once we supply all the lords of the west with wine and sugar, Herak won't be able harm us any more without hurting himself. Only then will we get the chance to force more mistakes, and achieve our goals.”
After he had turned to the door again, Corco opened his path into the sunshine outside. Though the illumination of the spring day made even the dirty roads of Etra seem lively and pleasant, the rays failed to brighten Corco's grim face. Not long now, just another year at most. Only then, finally, could they meet their foe as equals.