Rich Burton stepped through the back door of the rather seedy eating-place. He drew the attention of the two patrons who were perched on tall stools in front of a long bar. The bronze collared rabbit ’folk woman who was acting as cook and waitress acknowledged him with a nervous curtsey. His cold blue eyes swept the room. With one hand resting on the hilt of his sword Rich slipped his breather mask on with the other before striding out into the foggy street.
A roar of mixed joy and despair came from the arena across the road as he left the narrow grubby eatery. At least it proved easy to obtain a cab this close to one of Conimbriga’s arenas. It wasn’t a firewagon, just something that had more than a passing resemblance to one of the old hansom cabs. Only on Earth the horses weren’t fitted with bulky breathers.
Rich strolled into the Caradix Emporium trying to look as if he owned the place. One of the bronze collared uniformed footmen came up and took his cloak and breather mask. Footman XI passed the gentleman a claims tag and directed one of the guides to lead the gentleman to the main receiving room. As the customer followed the scantily clad leather collared young woman he hurried to alert the sales force that they had an extremely rich foreigner in the Emporium.
Sales VII hurried to be in place to meet the new customer. Sales XIV nodded and withdrew half glad to cede the place to his more experienced colleague.
Sales VII bowed politely when the stranger entered. The customer was armed and armoured, that by itself was unusual, but unless he was mistaken that chainmail was made from mithril. Sales VII held his bow for slightly longer than was strictly appropriate before straightening. “How may the Caradix Emporium serve you master?”
Rich nodded perfunctorily and smiled slightly at this gold collared slave. “I have only recently arrived in your fair city and I have need of a valet and a guide. The guide should know some of the less salubrious areas and inhabitants as I have in mind a... Well let us say a somewhat risky venture.”
Sales VII bowed again and led the way deeper into the Emporium. He was thinking furiously. He suspected he knew the ideal guide but he doubted this arrogant foreigner would agree. As for a valet, there were several possibilities. He ushered his client into one of the luxuriously appointed display rooms before directing the attendant to fetch the merchandise he decided would best serve this client’s needs.
Soon the display room held the six slaves the Emporium, and Sales VII considered best suited to act as valets. Sales VII shivered in apprehension as the customer looked at him with narrowed suspicious eyes. There was something in the depths of those eyes that worried him.
Rich invoked his ability and ascertained that Sales VII considered these six slaves to be the most suitable valets available currently. He then turned his attention to the slaves in question.
“Show me your hands please,” ordered Rich. He moved down the short line of slaves before returning to stand in front of the short stocky – half dwarf? He certainly looked to be a half dwarf, and those calluses looked to be similar to the ones he had gained as a result of wielding a sword.
Sorenar glanced furtively up at the man standing in front of him. His mithril chainmail was finer than any he had ever seen. It was truly superb workmanship. Then the pommel and guard on his broadsword were also of mithril, only no dwarf would have engraved a fish on the pommel.
Rich snorted, “How did you get those boy?” he asked indicating the calluses on Sorenar’s hands.
Sales VII held his face expressionless with some effort.
Sorenar answered as he had been coached, “I used to cut wood for my father master.”
Rich snarled, “I’m a truth reader, never lie to me again. Now tell me the true tale.”
Sorenar jerked back slightly. “I—I used to use a sword m-master.”
Rich stared for a few minutes before producing a large coin that he tossed to Sales VII. “I’ll take him and I want to see him in a silver collar. Not having a valet in leather or bronze.”
Sales VII glanced at the mithril coin in his hand and bowed so low his forehead almost touched the floor. “It shall be as you desire master.”
Once the potential valets had been removed a new set of slaves was led in for inspection. The new selection was a far scruffier band. Rich looked long and hard at Sales VII before turning to question the assembled band, finally he decided.
“So Sales VII, any more or is this it?”
“There are a few others master, but they don’t know the city as well.”
“Very well. I’ll take him,” Rich pointed to a short slender man with a greenish tint to his skin and a mouthful of sharp teeth. “And her,” this time he pointed to a wheezing slightly hunched elf girl.
Sales VII held his expression blank through the force of long experience. The foreigner had not picked the slave he had expected him to select. But he had not picked the one he personally considered the best suited as a guide. At least the Emporium was going to get something for the dying elf.
Rich produced three gold Nobles. “Will this cover it? And stick the girl in a pool of preferably salt water and let her use her gills before they dry up and take her lungs with them. I have no use of a dead sea elf. Bronze collars I think.”
“Yes master, your will be done,” agreed Sales VII.
= = = O = = =
Overseer IX watched bemused as the elf girl clung to the bottom of the pool, her skin fluttering at the sides of her chest as her gills worked to expel the water she was breathing in. He had assumed the idiot noble was killing the elf he had just purchased but—
Trainer XIX finished exchanging two of the newly purchased slaves’ collars and was waiting to fit the water breathing elf with the bronze collar her owner had purchased. “I thought that one was going to die soon. What made you think of trying to drown her and why haven’t you done it before if it works.”
“Her owner ordered it. According to Sales VII he said something about her gills collapsing and taking her lungs with them.”
“That’s a new one on me. That carver that came in with this one is in much the same state. Maybe we should stick him in the pool too. No great loss if he dies after all.”
“Let us see if it does this one any good first. Any loss is a loss and I never thought anyone would be daft enough to buy this one.”
* * *
Minnow endured. Her gills were hurting as the fresh water of the shallow pool tried to leach out the salt they needed. But already she could feel her body recovering, she was breathing, she was no longer exhausted.
‘How did he know? How did my new master know? How much does he know?’ the thoughts went round and round in her head.
Finally, all too soon one of the overseers pulled her out of the pool by the rope that was tied round her waist. One of the trainers removed her collar and replaced it with a bronze one. Minnow stood straight and fingered her new collar in resignation.
The overseer was examining her minutely, and then he said, “Try to see if the carver will benefit from a ducking Trainer XIX.”
* * *
Artificer III carefully examined the breather masks the foreign noble had provided for his new slaves. They were of good workmanship and used chemical reactions to filter the air. The idea was ingenious and effective. The chemical reservoirs needed to be exchanged frequently but it looked to be easy to do. They wouldn’t last as long as a properly enchanted breather but they would be far cheaper. He’d have to find something to replace that flexible material but it would not be difficult to recreate these.
After asking when the slaves would be ready to be turned over to their new owner he went in search of the supervisor.
Darintus Galeontar the Emporium’s part owner and supervisor made time to receive Artificer III. He always made time to listen to his gold collared slaves. No one gained a gold collar without proving to be loyal, ambitious and intelligent. He watched and listened as Artificer III demonstrated the strange looking masks and showed him the chemical reservoirs.
“Master, would it be possible to obtain at least one of these and a couple of recharge packs. They should be cheaper to produce than the current models, and any competent craftsman could do the job with the help of an alchemist or chemist.”
Darintus Galeontar rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Return to your tasks Artificer III, and thank you for bringing this to my notice.”
* * *
Eldaan stood quietly beside the valet. He was feeling shocked, he had expected to end up as a sacrifice for one of the arenas. He had after all been taken up as a thief and his blood was another count against him. No one liked or trusted goblins. But expendables did not end up wearing metal collars. The collar meant he had some rights, not anywhere near as many as the valet in his silver but he couldn’t – legally – be disposed of out of hand.
Eldaan waited quietly, motionlessly while the valet kept looking round and fidgeting. When the elf girl who had been sold with him finally arrived Eldaan was surprised. She was wearing a bronze collar like his and was walking straight and smoothly, no longer shuffling along. Her face did show signs of strain.
When the girl joined them the valet seemed to collect himself from wherever his mind had been wandering. “Our new master is a truth-reader,” he warned sotto voiced just before one of the overseers led them out of the holding room. As they left one of the artificers handed them each a breather mask. Eldaan promptly examined his carefully as if his life depended on it, as in fact it did.
They found their new master frowning at a tray containing several elegant bottles while a ring on his right hand flickered redly. Eldaan suppressed a grin Hardin Brandy and Gulph Wine not to mention Tincture of Suulmar. Slow poisons all, very popular but they were addictive and would kill you in the end.
Eldaan watched his new master carefully trying to take a measure of the man who held his life in his hands. His master looked them over and his lips thinned when they rested on the elf girl, then he produced two – pads? From some kind of bag of holding, only his bag of holding didn’t need a bag! The pads were handed to the elf.
* * *
Minnow was startled anew when her new master passed her a pair of gill guards. She hastily raised her tunic and used them. Their enchantments were solid if slightly strange; they seemed to incorporate an automatic release if submerged.
Half an hour later Minnow found herself entering a DUNGEON! Their owner strolled though the back door a nice eatery and they were in the dungeon! Most of the themes featured the sea or coastal areas such as mangrove swamps. Finally they slipped through a hidden door into a nice set of rooms that overlooked a large pool.
Then their new master, Rich Burton, explained everything. He was the agent of a sea goddess who was fighting the New Gods. A year’s faithful service and then they would be freed. Rich swore it in his goddess’ name. And they could move to a better world if they wanted.
= = = O = = =
Captain Bordal Vitrius stared glumly at the half filled tankard of ale on the rickety table in front of him. Dercat Gutripper was snoring with his head resting on the table. Gunner Telman was contemplating the collection of empty tankards that he had been collecting throughout the afternoon.
One of the scantily clad leather collared barmaids of the Flying Pig Tavern came round with a jug and filled one of Gunner’s tankards and collected the empties while he was distracted.
Gunner blinked blearily at the empty table, “That was sn-sneaky of he-her c-cap.” *hic*
Bordal eyed his chief gunner and despaired. They had had a bad couple of cruises and the Silver Sparrow needed urgent repairs. She was still worth a pretty penny and if he sold her he would be able to live for several years but he’d have to go back to work for some conniving townsman.
Gunner and Bordal ignored the far too common sound of shots coming from the street. They clashed their tankards and drank. Gunner sighed and joined Dercat on the table.
Captain Bordal contemplated his loyal officers and signalled for a refill. He watched incuriously as Greenie came through the door of the tavern. Greenie seemed to have done well for himself; he was dressed better than was his habit.
‘Ah poor Greenie he’s been collared, bronze though I wonder why anyone would waste the ready doing that.’
The next person through the door was a rich man in a hooded cloak. Bordal’s eyes tracked to the slender girl that accompanied the rich man.
‘So he’s got his very own elven doxy, Bronze collar too.’
Then Bordal was jerked out of his contemplation by Greenie who had made his way to his table unnoticed while he was distracted.
“Good afternoon captain Bordal. My master is looking to charter a sky ship,” said Eldaan, “Are you interested?”
Captain Bordal blinked, ‘damn it of all the times to be drunk,’ he grumbled to himself.
“I could be interested, yes. But I’ll need something up front Greenie.”
Eldaan smiled showing many teeth. “I’m sure my master won’t be unreasonable captain. And I feel I should warn you he’s a truth-reader.”
Bordal hissed in disgust, in his view truth-readers were only slightly less obnoxious than mages. Then the rich man was standing by his table. He carried a faint odour of gunpowder with him. The doxy stood at his shoulder and was watching the tavern with wary eyes.
Captain Bordal signed to one of waitresses. “Sit, sit, do you fancy anything sir?” then he turned to the waitress who was eying the elven doxy with distaste. “Get me a coffee and a sobriety potion, and get the gentleman whatever he wants.”
Rich looked round the dirty tavern and the ill washed tankards, “I’ll have an ale please.”
Once captain Bordal was feeling more himself they got down to serious bargaining. Once a preliminary agreement had been reached they withdrew to examine the Silver Sparrow. An untouched tankard of ale remained on the table.
* * *
Rich could see that the Silver Sparrow was – well worn. It had obviously been in the wars at some point in the recent past and needed some loving care in the form of the attentions of a shipyard. Eldaan kept up an informative running commentary in a low slightly hissing voice.
He smiled blandly at captain Bordal, impressed that the man had managed to get this near wreck safely to harbour. This could be just what he needed to fulfil Mother’s wishes. He placed a hand a hand on Eldaan’s shoulder and squeezed gently, approvingly.
“So captain, I believe we can do business but, but I will require a formal contract. The base duration will be a year and a day. You will go where I say though you will be allowed, nay, encouraged to tell me if something I wish is – inadvisable. I will pay the crew’s salaries at the standard rate and purchase the necessary supplies. You will arrange for suitable repairs and I will negotiate with the shipyard of your choice to have them carried out. I do not guarantee that I will not use a different shipyard should your chosen yard seem exorbitant. You will be paid a sum at the end of the first year.”
Captain Bordal wasn’t happy. This would mean they would be shackled to this stranger for one year. They would be in debt to him for one year, or as good as and that would give him rather more power over them than he liked. But he would keep the Silver Sparrow and they would be free at the end of the year, and they would have a sum of cash.
The two men retired to shipyard’s office to discuss the terms of the contract and then they involved the representative of the shipyard to discuss the necessary repairs, timetables and costs. Some hours later everything was signed and agreed and both the lawyers who had been called in were grumbling. Nobody liked truth-readers after all, especially lawyers. They tended to act like grit in the smooth operation of business as usual.