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1402nd Year of the Third Round

Day Two of Week Thirty-Two

Vegalhold

Having awoken into the grassy, tree-ringed knoll we’d parked the company in, Pritchard dragged me to that little drop-down desk on the outside of his wagon before I’d even found a nice bush to upset. He sat down at his desk, splayed out half a dozen sheets and started yapping. For half an hour I ‘Ahuh’ed and ‘Mhm’ed my way through some long-winded explanation before succumbing to boredom.

“Pritchard,” I said, placing a hand on his shoulder, the other on his quill to stop his scrawling. The sun pressed at my back, casting us both in our own shadows as I leaned down over his make-shift desk. “My goodness I’m so very impressed with your work, but we do need to get going, don’t you know? When you dragged me here I assumed it was to clear out an issue? Which I am so very, very happy to do for you, my dear and most trusted accountant, even though I haven’t had anything in or out of me yet.”

“I… am glad you appreciate me so much, but there’s no issue.” He rubbed ink off onto his black vest idly, pushing back rolled sleeves up his aged fore-arm. “It’s good news, actually.”

“Mhmm?”

He flipped through the four pages of figures he’d spewed out, somehow, since we’d stopped, pointing at one. “Well, I took a look at the yield Stefan put out this morning, it’s more than we expected, by about thirty percent – some four gallons. And we’re getting back much earlier than we thought, reducing travelling costs. And I included the estimated interest, just to be sure…”

I stood up straight, stared at the sky through the window and breathed deep. “Mhmm.”

Out in the camp Raufa had ventured from her wagon, was silently shaving and chopping some potatoes, which Madeline gleefully took from the stoic brute to fry. A couple of fine working women. The pair of them, toiling hard over breakfast, set my heart pounding. Pritchard was still talking.

“…that, we’re green. As of today.”

“Green?” I asked, mostly just repeating the last coherent part, eyeing lustfully the view before me. Shapely and sweet, the pale flesh of one, the deep, delectable tones of the other. Madeline and Raufa, and their sweet, succulent fruits. Or vegetables, rather. Sun’s rays, but just the thought of those delicious, sumptuous potatoes are setting my mouth watering even now.

“Green,” I said. “That’s good.”

“I… was expecting more celebration.” Pritchard said.

“Hmm? For what? Oh, I’m sorry Pritchard, I was just thinking about… Business plans. Expanding our network of clients and such. Tell me again?”

“The… Again, the updated estimate of the yield, based on what Stefan left out this morning, along with the savings still in Vo mean that, technically speaking, we’re in the green. Our current funds, after this sale, will exceed our debt.”

All thoughts of potatoey flesh fled my mind as I stared at Pritchards sticky little form, then actually looked at the numbers for the first time. As I did he re-explained, with precisely the same vigor, the same figures I’d ignored just a minute before. It went a little something like this:

Projected Assets

14,143 – Bank of Vo -525 – Employee Pay

2,000 (Approx.) - Personal -45 – Misc.fund, expected

267.5 – On Hand -5 – Bribe to see Mayor

7,000(Approx.) – Expected yield

14.5 – Remainder of previous week’s misc. fund.

~23,425 -575

Debts:

-19,005(approx.) – Bank of Vo, Debt

Projected Total Assets, end of Week Thirty-Two

4,447 (Approx.)

“Oh.” Ipaused, rubbing at my scalp. “Oh. Oh my. Oh, you sexy bitch!” I yelled.

‘What?” Pritchard asked, pushing his chair away in a hurry. “What? Who?”

“Not you,” I said. “The numbers. But yes, Pritchard, you are a handsome, gorgeous, handsome man! But… We’re Green!”

A sausage hand slapped my shoulder, turned me. Raufa’s broad slab of a face came close.

“Something wrong?” she blurted out, flicking her brown eyes at Pritchard.

“No, something’s right! Oh, Pritchard, I’d kiss you if I were up for that sort of thing. Maybe Raufa would?”

“No.” Not a shred of pride nor joy crossed her face and, thus dismissed, she returned to Madeline and the pot, who’d dropped her work to peek on tippy-toes at the commotion.

“Madeline, dearest!” I called, leaning out from the door.

“Yes, boss?”

“Break out the good…” I had no idea what rations she’d gotten. “The good! Whatever we have that’s good!”

“Yes boss!”

“We don’t have anything,” Pritchard muttered.

“Actually, I keep a bottle of 1305 Vintage Oblissian Red for just such an occasion,” I said, tapping my nose as I remembered. “Time to break it out, I think.”

“Oh well, that is good,” Pritchard said. He’d turned the chair fully around and leaned against the back, a sly look on his face. “And why not bring Stefan out, let him know too?”

“Stefan?” I said, turning away from Madeline all but diving into her ration trunk. “Oh, he’s. He’s sleeping, I’m sure, after all that work.” I gave a smile and a twist of my head, that old salesman charm that I’m always sure will comfort someone, but never seems to.

“Oskar, I know I’m not supposed to ask…”

“Then I’m glad the matter is settled,” I said.

“But I’m going to ask anyway.”

“Ahuh.”

“Just… We’ve been at this a while now, and I’m concerned you’re being strung along.”

I turned to Pritchard proper, leaned against his desk.

“Pritchard, please.”

“No, Oskar¸ please, let me finish?”

Pursed lipped, but nevertheless feeling generous, I nodded my assent.

“All I ask… Rather, all I want to say, is… That I… Now that our operation is profitable, we’re likely to want some… Renovations? Changes in infrastructure and the like, now that we’re not crippled and chained in debt.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing Pritchard,” I said, feeling a little ruffled. “Debt is just the motivation a man needs to get out into the world and work. Profit’s good and all, but I must say I’ll miss that grim, hellish, shadowy weight about my ankle.. Thank goodness we’ll still have taxes.”

“I… Yes, of course Oskar. But… I’ve never even seen the man, he refuses to come out during the day… I just wanted to say maybe we should find ourselves another chemist… Madeline knows the equipment, surely she could…”

“I found some venison!” Madeline called across the way. “It’s… It’s cookable? Lots of character! Yes? Okay!” She took it and a handful more things, brought them back to the fire and set about her preparations with Raufa.

Part of me wanted to fire Pritchard then and there. Certainly some schools of thought would have agreed – questioning authority, and all that. But I really couldn’t fault him. As far as he and everyone else knew, Stefan was a freak who shunned sunlight, dressed like a blanket with a knife behind its back, and refused to speak to anyone but me. And the truth is worse, after all. The skeletal prick is a mass murdering solar-terrorist. Wasn't he supposed to have held his own against a couple Enkili? I’ll have to ask him for that story.

“Pritchard I understand your feelings, and I appreciate your concern,” I lied. “But the fact of the matter is, there are no other chemists capable of distilling Dragon Piss. Madeline is the cook and the Mechanic. Maybe a gaggle of Moketta could do it, but so you know how much they cost? Would you enjoy having them biting our ankles in the meantime? No, Stefan’s our only chance.” I slapped a hand on his shoulder, bent down to meet his eye, ever so thoughtfully. “Please Pritchard, trust me as your commanding officer to assess and deal with any risks of this sort, and not let it worry you. You can believe in me. I’d never lie to you.”

“Ahuh,” Pritchard said.

“Incidentally, how are you feeling?”

“Like I breathed in an entire sewer and am rotting from the inside out.”

"I'm sure it's not all that bad. I’ll grab the wine. Wake up the twins, would you?”

I fetched the wine, eager to celebrate – it was actually a 1395, but none of them would realize the difference – and hopped back into the sunset, bottle and glasses in hand. Sensing the occasion, Madeline had set out the table, and was even now straightening the cloth as Raufa and Pritchard set out the stools. From my right May dropped down from her wagon, a yawn and a stretch to the skies. She all but skipped towards me.

“Hey, Bosskar,” she said, still tying her hair down with that orange-dye bandana. Peering up from below her dark-brown bangs were those eyes that seemed to want to be interested in what I had to say, but just couldn’t quite manage it.

“Something happen?” she said, examining the bustling camp. “War back on?”

“Oh, I wish,” I said, laying out each glass and working at the bottle. “Dragon Piss when chemical warfare is allowed? We’d make millions. But hey, we’re almost there despite that. Guess what!”

Her eyebrows raised dryly. “What.”

Framed by the curve of her shoulder, our camp struggled into motion, each figure skittering to work. All, save one. The flap to the twins shared tent remained conspicuously open and dark.

“Where’s Henrique? Don’t tell me he’s still sleeping.”

“No, I kicked him out last night,” she said, folding her arms. “He got this Cantrip in Vegalhold, makes things grow. Said he showed you it.” I hummed affirmation. “He used it on his… Stuff.”

“His... Oh. His, I see. And, ah. It… grew?”

“No. Stuff grew on it.

“Oh, even better. Not the first time, I’m sure.”

"No, but he was having trouble getting it off, stinking up the room, so I sent him out. I think he spent the night down by the stream… scraping.”

“Ah… Slap him for me, will you?”

“Sure. Anyway. I hear he broke something on your Dragon hunting trip, too. Seems like you picked the wrong one of us to take, eh?”

Hot air blew out my nostrils. I abandoned the bottle, unopened, onto the table. I know a lead-in when I hear one.

“If we’re going to do this, let’s step over here.” I led her behind my wagon and under the shade of the trees. A few disturbed squirrels squeaked their displeasure at their chasing ground being co-opted.

“There, now it’s just you, me, and Mama Myria. You’re going to ask me to fire Henrique.”

“Yes.”

“What, really?”

“No,” May said, shaking her head. “Idiot. Just, how about next time you take me instead of him, when you and Raufa go...”

“Drain a Dragon of its piss?”

“Great image, thanks. There’s not some better name for it?” May asked, the distaste written across her face.

“Of course, and I’ve even had some people give me alternatives. I refuse to use them. It’s Dragon Piss. Like my father told me, there’s no reason to be ashamed of your bodily functions. I say, nor anyone else's. Not once you’ve had a bath, at least. It’s accurate name!”

“It’s gross, but, fine. I’m just asking that maybe next time you want to bring one us along, you bring me? You promised you’d let us move up, but I think it’s clear that Henrique isn’t the on to move first.”

With a brief shake of my head I examined her face, filled with pity. A thousand condescending thoughts came, so I plucked the least of them.

“Oh, it’s ‘Gross’, is it? You realize in the last Round we’d all be charging face-first into battle? Fodder for ol’ Grandpa’s entertainment. Compared to being eaten by one of the Twenty, or un-made by some Enkili, selling Dragon-Piss is a privilege, an achievement! You smell acrid, toxic waste, I smell progress. Hell, its more than that. It’s the opportunity of a life-time, and no amount of ‘Grossness’ will ever change that for me, and it shouldn’t for you either. That’s your first lesson. Oh, here’s your second one. Say ‘Thank you sir.’”

“Thanks.”

“Good enough. Keep that button nose of yours brown as can be and you’ll fly high.” I gave her a hearty slap on the shoulder. “Certainly, I’ll be glad to take you along next time, and soon enough you’ll have a company of your own by the time you’re my age!”

“I appreciate the thought, but I don’t want to be where you’re at when I’m forty.”

“Okay. Wow and ow. I’m thirty-one.”

Skeptical eyes peered through slits at me. “That’s depressing.”

Sensing, somehow, that the conversation was soon to end I started towards the camp.

“If by that you’re referring to my mature nature, all I can say is I got my youth done away with rather swiftly. Now I’d like to point out that you just insulted your boss twice.”

“Yeah, fair. Still take me?”

“Stop insulting me.”

“Yes Bosskar.”

“Shadow Raufa. Now go away.”

With a nod May broke off. Henrique, looking precisely like he’d spent the night in a bush and not slept a moment of it, emerged dirty, hunched and walking with knees well apart from the river-facing camp edge. May stopped by him, hands on hips, spoke a few words, then gave Henrique one hell of a swipe across the jaw. Henrique took it rather in stride. They joined arm in arm and wandered to the table where the drinks were being poured by Pritchard.

I approached but held myself suitably aloft, watching the preceding with just the right mix of disdain and pride. That careful balance required to maintain a troupe like this is something like a dance, or courting a girl, except I don’t end up injured or depressed, respectively.

Obviously not sensing my attempt at managing the atmosphere, and with every ounce of stealth that made her so good at her job, Raufa appeared at my shoulder. A knife through the skull would have been less jolting than finding her there. She loomed for a minute over my shoulder, emanating an aura of menace and body-odor, then tapped my shoulder.

“Yes, Raufa?” I said, managing not to squirm under her gaze and shadow.

“Don’t drink.”

“Ah, yes I know. Never fear.” I pat her oversized arms. “Those days are long behind me.”

Her eyes burrowed into mine, leering over me from the shadow of her unbound hair, face soulless and unfeeling. “Good.”

Here’s some reflection: Raufa is fucking terrifying.

“We’re green, then,” she said.

“Yes.”

Pritchard approached with the filled cups, handed one to me and one to Raufa. A gentle whiff of the potent, fruity notes set my blinking worse than the piss fumes, nostalgia, thirst and regret all in one. I handed it off to Raufa. She poured one into the other, shot it down and handed the empty cups back to Prichard.

“That was for a toast…” Pritchard said, the cups held impotently in his hands.

“Don’t care.”

She spared him not even a look in the reply, to which he nodded slowly, sadly, and scuttered off to the rest, chatting away as they waited. Poor man, his barely mustered excitement blown away by Raufa’s powerful indifference. Hilarious.

“And May will be shadowing you, not Henrique.”

Her meaningless leering lingered a moment more, until she broke it off. Never can be sure what that girl is thinking. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to’ve put more effort into raising her. But, of course, I hardly made it through that time myself.

“She ask for that?” She said, harsh, dead eyes now fixed on some nothing on the horizon.

“In a way. Insulted me a fair bit on the way.”

“How?”

“She called me old.”

“Good.”

Not even a smile. I clicked my tongue, irritation bubbling through. “Go get another drink.”

She paced away, interrupting Pritchards attempt to engage Madeline in conversation. The blonde cook slapped on a failing smile and greeted Raufa like some girly-girl buddy.. Pritchard abandoned his effete flirting, backing off in a shudder. Raufa snatched the bottle before he could take it away, ignoring Madeline completely, and upended the bottle into her gullet in about five seconds flat. Dock her pay for that.

“Alright. Gather ‘round everyone.” Those last few conversations had rather wilted my thunder, but even at my worst I pride myself on managing a hell of a speech. “Friends and comrades, for those of you who haven’t heard, as of today, thanks to all of our hard work, we are officially profitable!”

“WOO!” Madeline called into the silence of my breath. Everyone glaring at her did nothing to dampen her spirits. “Piss Merchants!” She is quickly becoming my favourite.

“Thank you, thank you.” I said in practiced humility, waving her down. “As we arrive at Vo, and sell off what we’ve gained, my first stop shall be the Bank of Vo, to settle our debts. From there on out, we’ll be unshackled, free as a bird to pursue all the financial opportunities we desire, with no-one but regular Contest and Communal taxes to bother us!”

“Does this mean we’ll get raises?” May asked.

“Not with that attitude! Stefan will start taking a portion of the Piss for his own uses – which was the deal all along, and we’re not to question what he intends to do with it. In fact for the sake of your digestion I suggest not even thinking about it. You see, friends, comrades, now on every ten oranges is seven in our pockets, instead of three. As such, it’s all the more worth it to work harder than ever before! So, I propose a toast. To the last five years of hard work, and the next eternity of more hard work, but more profits. Cheers!”

Glasses and voices remained firmly un-raised.

“So… We’re not getting raises?” May asked. “You’re taking all the money.”

“Actually, I don’t get paid, and I still won’t be,” I said with a firm voice. “Pritchard?”

“It’s true,” Pritchard said, as if he were announcing my death.

“Then… Why bother?” Henrique asked. “What’s the point of making money if you’re not going to use it?”

“Profit is its own reward,” I said. “Look at it this way, all the money will be going to the company And who is the company? It’s us! And as the owner of the company, I guarantee your fruits will not go wasted.”

“No… What?” May muttered. She leaned forward to speak to Pritchard. “The fuck is he talking about? I don’t understand.”

Pritchard shrugged, sipped his wine.

“Sun’s balls.” I rubbed at my eyes. “Look. We’ll consider raises once we know all the facts in a month or so. Happy?” I waited, and found no response. “For fuck’s sake. Just raise your fucking glasses.”

Stiff arms erected, elevating glass and wine. The excitement was palpable.

“Cheers,” I muttered, and let the glass drop.

“WOO!” Madeline squealed. People drank their wine, and a wet blanket descended on the camp. It’s depressing just to write about. I’m going to bed.

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A note from Cadagan

Hey if you're enjoying the story so far, a review or comment really helps. May your days be pleasant and your piss be as gold as a Dragon's.


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Cadagan

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