One of his ships had just come into port with a cargo of fine wine from the Homelands. That was normally a lucrative trade but this time his agents had not been able to acquire nearly as much as usual, and what they had gotten had been far too expensive. Apparently, some sort of pest from the eastern continent had made it across the ocean to the Homelands, and was ravaging the grape fields there.
Zeckus sighed in exasperation. It was a small thing really, but lately there had been a lot of small things.
Everyone knew the best wine came from the Homelands. Human civilization had developed there for over two thousand years before they had expanded across the ocean in Imperial times after all. The wildlife here outside the Homelands was almost as hostile to grapes as it was to humans, and now some of it had invaded humanity’s ancestral home.
There was nothing he could do about that, but perhaps he could turn this setback into an opportunity. With advanced warning of the wine shortage he might be able to buy up some of the local vineyards while they were still cheap.
They might be of poor quality but the shortage would still drive their prices up. He might even be able to figure out a way to improve the quality of the local wine! That would earn him a pleasant profit indeed.
With a smile, he went to work writing up a series of new orders for his agents. He had almost finished when he was interrupted.
“Your sister Kleia is here to see you, sir,” his secretary announced from the doorway.
Zeckus frowned. He hadn’t heard the door open. What was his sister doing here so late? It must be important, and that meant bad news.
“Thank you Gregory. See her in please,” Zeckus told his clerk as he finished writing a line on the parchment in front of him.
He then put his quill down neatly next to his ink pot and looked up just in time to see his sister enter.
Kleia was a short woman who, like Zeckus, had their family’s blonde hair . However, she wore it long all the way down to her back. Her somewhat pudgy figure and plain face gave her a matronly quality, but that had not always been the case. When she had been younger she had been considered quite pretty, but ever since her husband’s death she had started to put on a little weight and had changed the way she dressed.
Zeckus supposed that with two kids and her husband’s businesses to run she simply didn’t have the time, or need, to care about her appearance.
He hadn’t ever bothered with such things, which is why he was more than a little overweight himself. If either of them wanted the intimate sort of company then he knew they could both afford to just pay for it.
“Greetings Zeck, how is my little brother?” Kleia asked with a smile as she entered the room.
Zeckus gave her a polite smile back.
“I’m fine, thank you for asking, sister. What brings you to my office at this time of night?” he asked her back.
“Oh Zeck, must you always be so to the point. It is a rather unattractive quality in a man you know. No wonder you haven’t been able to find yourself a good wife,” she replied as she sat down across the desk from him.
“I’m thirsty, why don’t you have your man there bring me a cup of tea,” she added after she had made herself comfortable.
“As you wish,” Zeckus answered.
He picked up and rang a small bell with a wooden handle that had been sitting on the corner of his desk next to a stack of papers. His secretary immediately stepped into the room in answer to his summons.
“My sister would like a cup of tea, Gregory. Why don’t you bring both of us one,” Zeckus told the man.
Gregory nodded in acknowledgement and left to fulfill his master’s command.
“Now what is this about dear Kleia,” he asked his sister again.
She pouted at being rushed but answered all the same.
“I have just received reliable word that Alfesso and almost his entire caravan were robbed and put to the sword on the road from Eastpoint last week,” she told him.
Zeckus blinked in surprise. That was not what he had been expecting to hear.
“That’s horrible news. I will have to remember to get Gregory to send his poor widow some flowers,” Zeckus remarked.
Kleia rolled her eyes.
“Of course brother, but I’m not here to talk to you about such trivialities. This tragedy will have a huge impact on our businesses. I thought you deserved a heads up. It’s not as if we both didn’t have enough problems already. What are we paying such high taxes for if bandits are being allowed to roam the countryside and slaughter honest merchants freely,” she said with indignation.
“It’s for the wars, sister. That’s where all the coin is going. The wars are a bottomless money pit, and they’re slowly strangling this country to death. You’re right about the effect of this on our businesses though,” he said with a sigh.
“Of course I’m right. I have more experience in these matters than you. You learned book keeping from me after all. Father was always terrible at that sort of thing, even though he was a great negotiator,” she reminded him.
Zeckus didn’t need the reminder. He knew the cheery and somewhat empty headed act his sister put on was just that, an act. Having people underestimate her had served her well over the years.
He decided to ignore her attempt to sidetrack the conversation. He didn’t want to get drawn into another conversation about their deceased father. It was too late in the evening for that.
“I wouldn’t have thought that bandits would strike so far south. To overcome Alfesso’s guards it must have been one of the larger northern bands down from the Iron Teeth. They’ve been a problem since the fall of Coroulis, and the accursed conscription just keeps making it worse. After over a decade with next to no troops returning home even the most backwards peasants will realize something is up,” he complained.
“King Namirius can’t afford to let any veterans go home. He needs every soldier he can get to keep the borders secure,” Kleia remarked. “His father may have won the war against Deveshur but that whole country has descended into bloody chaos. Every month it seems a new noble joins the fight to claim the throne and take back the land we annexed from them. Not to mention we still have to worry about Hulgaron to the south.”
“Yes, but that means he just keeps throwing men into battle after battle until they’re all dead. No wonder there are so many deserters heading north to join these bands. They know if they stay in the army it’s practically a death sentence. As a policy that one leaves something to be desired, especially since we’re the ones being raided,” Zeckus replied sarcastically.
“So what are we going to do about it? I think influencing military policy is a little beyond us,” she remarked.
“If they’ve set up in the area we may have to completely stop sending goods north. With the high taxes the king demands and what it would cost to pay for the amount of guards needed to protect a caravan I don’t think we could squeeze out a profit,” he reluctantly explained.
“There must be something we can do? Maybe we could pay the bandits off. If they simply rob every caravan that crosses their path they will soon run out of targets. Merchants will just start avoiding the entire area and that won’t profit them. ” she mused aloud.
“Do you know whose band it was? You mentioned that almost everyone had been killed. That means there were at least some survivors,” he asked with interest.
“No sorry, all I have are statements from the survivors. They were woman and children the bandits released. The bandits didn’t apparently announce who they were and the survivors don’t remember anything I could use to identify them beyond how large the band was,” she replied.
“Werick the Wolf supposedly has the largest band, but he usually operates in northeast Deveshur. From the rumors I hear he’s busy setting himself up as some sort of warlord there. He’s also supposed to have the morals of a hobgoblin, so I doubt he would let any prisoners go. They’re worth more than a few coins to the right, or wrong, sort of people,” he guessed.
“True, outlaws with any sense of morality are in short supply these days. None of them are anything at all like the White Raven. Now there was a dashing outlaw. They still tell stories about him you know. They’re especially popular with the young ladies,” Kleia reminisced wistfully.
Zeckus smiled at his sister’s tone. He remembered hearing more than a few tales about the White Raven himself when he had been younger.
He imagined the stories the young men had recounted were quite different from those that had been shared amongst the women. Both were undoubtedly equally fictional though. Zeckus forced himself back to the matter at hand.
“There are a few bands that might let non-combatants go though. The question is how many of these are large enough and could be that far down below Riverbend. My guess would be the Black Snake. She’s always been a hard one to figure out. Something unpredictable and daring like this suits her, and she has a fairly large band,” Zeckus speculated.
“I hope you’re right. From what I know of her she is the type that would keep to her end of a bargain if we fill her pockets with enough gold,” his sister replied.
“Maybe, but in order to strike a deal with her we would probably have to work through the Broken Wheel Company. Those scum are basically nothing but bandits themselves and would charge us a painful fee just to connect us with her, if they would help us at all,” he told her.
Kleia tilted her head to the side and she appeared to fall deep into thought. However, Zeckus only had to wait a few seconds before she smiled and turned back to him.
“Leave that to me. I might have some contacts there I could use. It’s not a sure thing but some people owe me a few favors,” she replied.
Zeckus frowned at his sister’s response. He didn’t like the idea of her having anything at all to do with the Broken Wheel Company. They pretended to be just another merchant consortium but they were rumored to be involved in every sort of unsavory practice. Everything from forced prostitution to the buying of stolen goods and assassination was attributed to them.
Zeckus had a lifetime of experience as a successful merchant to draw on, and he had good reasons to believe that most of those rumors were true. No one knew who ran the company, but the most credible rumor Zeckus had heard was that it was secretly owned by a conglomerate of the oldest merchant families on the continent. Whoever they were, they had connections, resources, and ruthlessness that put his to shame.
“What are you thinking about little brother? You’ve gone silent on me. It’s rather rude you know,” Kleia asked him with a chuckle. Her question interrupted his thinking.
“I’m thinking I would rather not deal with the Broken Wheel. I want no part of the things they do. They’re killers and much worse,” he replied gravely.
“So you’re fine with dealing with the Black Snake but not the Broken Wheel?” she asked him with amusement plain in her voice.
The question surprised Zeckus. He thought it over for a second or two and realized it was true, but before he could answer her there was a polite knock on his door.
“Come in Gregory,” Zeckus yelled in the direction of the doorway.
His secretary then stepped into the room with two large steaming cups of tea in his hands. He swiftly walked over and placed them before Zeckus and his sister.
Kleia gave the man a smile and thanked him while Zeckus simply gave him a nod of approval. His job done the man left the room and closed the door quietly behind him.
“Now where were we?” his sister asked before she took a sip of tea.
“I was just about to tell you that yes I do find the Broken Wheel more repugnant than run of the mill bandits. I understand outlaws such as those that serve the Black Snake and the Wolf. I wish the army would go in and hang the lot of them, but I must admit that to some degree life has forced them down their path. Not so the Broken Wheel. The bandits that plague our roads are a symptom of the times. I suspect the Broken Wheel is part of the disease,” Zeckus told his sister seriously.
“Little brother, have you been reading those dreadful pre-Imperial philosophers again. That was unusually deep for you,” his sister joked.
“As a wise man said so many years ago, ‘Only when a man has turned his gaze inwards can he truly begin to see the world’. However, I don’t need the wisdom of ancient philosophers to know that I want nothing to do with the Broken Wheel Company,” he told her.
“You make it sound like I was talking about buying into it, or forming a partnership with them. I was just suggesting I might know someone who could broker a deal between us and Herad the Black Snake. It would simply be a favor paid for a favor owed,” she replied with a roll of her eyes.
Zeckus scowled and drank a few more sips of tea while he thought it through. He couldn’t stop his sister from doing whatever she wanted. After her husband’s death she had acquired control of his family’s rather extensive business holdings. If he was being honest with himself those holdings were probably larger than the one’s he had inherited from their father.
If they did manage to strike a deal with Herad that allowed them safe passage then that would give them a near monopoly on the trade from Anstabul all the way north to Riverbend. That was not an inconsiderable market. Riverbend may not be what it once was but it was still a medium sized city that supplied the south of Eloria with a fair amount of timber, fur, and ore.
Zeckus mumbled quietly as he quickly ran some rough numbers through his head. Even after having to pay the king’s taxes and Herad’s bribe he should still be able to earn a profit. Riverbend and the smaller cities and towns on the way there would badly need the supplies they shipped as well.
“Fine Kleia, I can’t stop you so I might as well join you and keep an eye out. Let’s see if you can get in contact with our new local bandit captain, if indeed it is the Black Snake,” he told her with a sigh of displeasure.
Zeckus and his sister spoke for a few more minutes as they finished their tea. Soon though, Kleia excused herself and returned home, leaving Zeckus alone in his office.
The merchant got up from his desk and walked over to his window. He felt a feeling of weariness come over him as he gazed outside.
Outside the darkness of night had settled over the city. A few lights shone out from homes across the city but Zeckus remembered a time when the lights had been far more numerous. Every year it seemed like the city grew darker.
His sister’s visit had distracted him from his business but he still had things to finish tonight. He had many responsibilities and it was getting harder and harder to fulfill them.
Zeckus was a good merchant. He knew this to be true. He was able to make deals and put ventures together that earned him substantial profits, or they would have if the times had been different. He didn’t know how much his sister knew but the truth was that Zeckus had to fight hard to keep his company afloat. He managed to stay out of debt only by selling assets.
At the current rate it would take many years for his business to go under but inevitably it would. Taxes were just too high and the war was causing all non-essential markets to shrink. People just weren’t buying, and he didn’t blame them.
Farms everywhere were being abandoned and the desperate were turning to banditry, which just made everything worse. Several of his less canny peers had already gone bankrupt. He suspected poor Alfesso’s lost caravan had been a dangerous gambit meant to keep his business financially afloat. That gamble had obviously failed and cost the merchant more than simple gold.
The truth was Zeckus badly needed something like the deal his sister had just proposed. He had interest payments on debts that needed to be paid soon and he didn’t have the gold on hand to pay them.
The real question though was whether his sister had known all this, and whether her visit had been a carefully staged act, whose sole purpose was to manipulate him into accepting her offer. He wouldn’t put past her. She was both remarkably loyal and upsettingly ruthless.
After one last long look out into the night Zeckus turned away from the window and his idle thoughts. He sat back down at his desk and picked up his quill.
After dipping the tip into the inkwell he went back to writing out his agent’s new orders. It wasn’t like he had any real choice but to accept his sister’s deal anyway. He could only hope that somewhere out there something was happening that would halt the world’s slow slide into ruin.