Morning sun slithered through the curtain and window pane as I open my eyes. New day, something every mercenary should be grateful about, second to the purses of gold we collect. My name is Alicia, and I’m one of those people; whose dream of future lays in the pile of gold and the glory of the song they sing in the taverns all across the realm. The ray of light bathed me, caress my red wavy hair and help it shone brilliantly.
“Welcome to another morrow, Lady Rosebud,” I heard a familiar sound from the corner of the room. I nearly leaped towards the owner of that low voice but I throw my stare instead.
“Divines be damned, for FUCK’S SAKE Davey! I thought you’re supposed to go home last night,” I yelled.
The man stood up, his lean body was covered by a blanket, my blanket, hung on his shoulder like a cape while his striped colorful pants looked way messier than it should be and his faded grape-colored tunic lying down by the sofa he slept on previously. He stood there; topless with his smooth skin contrasted my battle-worn one. I always say that scars that I get from the fights I had tell stories of loss and glory, some are healed and fading away while some persistently stay.
But his smooth skin tells no story and I’ve yet to know whether it’s a result of this trickster never have to fight or because his… skillset help him to cover the scars and conceal his stories. Knowing him, this might be true for both parts.
Knowing me, this might be just me being paranoid.
“You were asleep Ally, and I can’t leave with the door unlocked or locked from outside,” he answered while scratching his head.
“Bullshit. Now put on your shirt.”
“Oh come on!” Davey replied.
“Of all people in this town, you are probably one of the few who can come in and out from my room without key, unnoticed. So don’t act like you can’t lock the door from the outside.”
“Okay fine, your leather sofa was too comfortable and when I rest there for a while, Marv jumped and sleep on my chest. I have no heart to wake him up.” As Davey muttered his nonsense, I heard a bark from a golden spaniel that peeked from under my bed.
“See?” Davey suddenly sound excited, “Marv, tell her I was telling the truth.”
“Are you trying to lie using my dog?”
“You’re in cahoots with my dog?”
Davey rolled his eyes.
I groaned and threw myself to my bed with Marv jumped and curled himself on my side. “Don’t try to be cute with me, Marv. You’re supposed to be on my side,” I muttered while wiggling his muzzle. “And for you mister Philippe, aren’t you supposed to be somewhere in the castle right at this moment?”
Davey yawned while stretching his arm over his head. Little tears dropping from the corner of his hazel eyes before he wiped it off his defined cheekbones. “Maybe you’re right, wouldn’t want the king to notice his jester is missing, wouldn’t we?” He folded the blanket-turned-cape and put it in the laundry basket as he walked out from my room.
“Oh by the way, there’s a job. Someone wants to see you, and it seems like a big fish to catch,” said Davey while standing in front of the door, unopened.
“Got several gold coins just to forward the information directly to Ms. Alicia Rosebud. Big fishy-fishy, isn’t it?
“Got that. When and where will this meeting going to be?”
“Careless Whisker, tomorrow by sundown. Look for emerald cape and azure hood.”
I nodded and stood up as Davey walked out from my room. I peeked through the window and see him walking away from the tavern I reside and slowly moved into the shadow between the snowy alleys. His tall and lean body gradually hunching and somehow shrinking, the steps he took suddenly limping and when he turned around I saw his cheekbone and jaw changed position and looked uneven. Davey has transformed himself into Tully, the court jester. Had I never seen this before, I wouldn’t notice the similarities between him and Davey.
I stare at the sky and watch the snow falling down. Yule is coming closer and it’s the sixth one I spent away from Rozenville Mansion. I’d be lying if I say I don’t miss its long echoing hallway where I used to run as a little girl while the tall windows towered me on one side and lines of painting of other ancient Rosebuds stare at me from the other sides with their judging eyes.
Okay I don’t really miss the latter, they remind me of my dad and he’s the least thing I miss from that house.
Marv barked and I look at his way-too-old-to-be-puppy eyes.
“Aww,” I said as I lead down and pick him off the floor. “I’m not really mad at you, Marv. I know you like Davey and like him to be around. I kinda like him too,” I said while stroking his fur.
I closed the door behind me, Marv barked happily while circling around my leg. I kneel and pet him a little. “Not today buddy,” I talked. “There are some businesses I have to handle. You be a good boy, stay here and play with Fahreed while I’m away, okay?”
“You call me, Miss Alicia?” a youthful voice was heard from below the stairs, owned by a young elf.
“No, Fahreed,” I replied while walking down the stairs towards the boy. “I was talking to Marv. Could you please take care of him for a while? I will be out for some times and I don’t know how long before I’ll be back. You know how he is, it shouldn’t be hard.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Fahreed replied while nodding excitingly with his elf-eyes opened widely. In the age of 14, he is one of the youngest in Vermilion Nest; a small guild that I established not long after I arrived in this town after leaving my home in Wheldrake. Most of the contracts that came in to this building arrived through familiar names, with only on special occasions and requests I execute contracts by myself and the rest are being handled by the other members of the guild.
“New job, Alicia?” a heavy booming female voice talked from behind me. I turn around and see a dragonborn lady. She wore a leather apron over her shirt; her black scaly arm is covered in flour and cookie dough, and she look way tired than her usual self.
“Yes Mama Yashira. How’s the Yule preparation going?” I replied.
“People are being helpful I suppose,” she shrugged. “Strider clearly tried to be helpful and J’henne also trying her best to understand the concept of cooking, but I think their best feat is still on the missions.”
“The keyword is ‘trying’, Mama Yashira.”
“The keyword is ‘trying’ indeed,” she answered with a smile. “Say, you don’t want to bring them to your mission instead? They would be a greater help there than here.”
I shook my head. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry. Keep the boys here; they deserve rests after a whole year of missions. Staying away from the blades and closer to their family is healthy for their mental conditions.”
Mama Yashira patted my shoulder.
“Just take care out there. I never like the idea of these solo missions of yours, they make you susceptible.”
I say nothing and just nodded.
Shellshore is something else. This port city-state is full of people, close and far with different races and businesses bustle the whole city, not just the marketplace. We got the humble merchants of the southeast across the sea with their silk and spices to the conniving-looking troupe of bards with their crates of unbranded alcohols, ready to be re-bottled and relabeled as whatever necessary.
From the corner of my eyes I see Khov Ravanthas; Omario the wood elf, Hjalldor the dwarf, and Ammir the tiefling, all wearing their nouveau riche-du-jour gaudiness with silk floral cape, rings of rubies and gold showering their body. Meanwhile, their gang of legged snake people entourage, Yuan-Ti, hissing steady behind them as they debated with a guy with crimson cape and silver armor in front of carts with rose insignia painted on their side. Whoever you are, in this town people are bonded together by one interest and one interest only: gold.
Shellshore, the Capital of all capitals.
As the sun setting down, I stepped into the dingy bar Davey mentioned: Careless Whiskers. Not my usual area to be in, but a job is a job. I sense pairs of eyes stare at me when I stroll in between the tables towards the bar. Naturally, given half of them have encountered me one time or another.
“What d’ya need, Miss Rosebud?” the bartender asked me. That half-orc with top knot smiled while pointing to row of bottles behind them. “We have all sorts of liquors from all over the realms, yeh. Have assortments of cocktail meself if you want to try.”
“I got mine,” I replied while showing my flask.
“I’m afraid we not allow outside drink, Miss. It’s bad for business, yeh?”
I put down several gold coins on the bar and stare at that half-orc’s eyes. “This should be enough to get myself a bottle of Firebrand. I won’t drink it, so you can sell it again so you get double the profit of that single bottle, but I’ll still be drinking my own drink from my own flask and I don’t want to hear anything about me being bad for business?”
That half-orc looked a little hurt, but still taking the coins and start serving other bar patrons. I feel a little bad for him, but dead woman on your bar is way worse for business compared to one little flask.
I eyed the whole room, searching for the color combination Davey told me and it didn’t take long to spot someone wearing muted green charmeuse cape and blue moiré hood on this area full of either brownish rags or shiny glamour velvet and silk.
Is this person purposely trying to get robbed or something?
That person sat alone in the table for two, an untouched glass of ale lay on the table. I walked toward that table, pulled the chair and sit.
“Davey sent me here,” I said calmly. “Anything I can help?”
The person in front of me lowered down the hood, revealing almond-shaped gray eyes that stared straight to me. She still has that plumpy freckled cheeks framed by wavy red hair like mine, only meticulously braided on the side of her head all the way to the back.
“Yes Alicia, I really need your help,” she answered with her soft voice.
I stop for a minute, taking my breath to process who I see in front of my eyes. “Hi Guinevere, haven’t seen you in a while,” I replied to that woman. I think my voice tremble a bit, but I didn’t know if it really was or not. All I know, at the moment my breath got a little heavier.
Davey Phillipe, when we meet again I will definitely slice your pretty face and dip it to the sea water.
“Are you okay, Alicia? You look a little pale,” that woman who goes by the name Guinevere Rosebud, hunched a little, closing in and stare at my face.
“I’m fine, Guinny. What are you doing here, and how did you find me?”
“You are great in a lot of things, but being subtle isn’t your best trait. You never change your last name, your guild is pretty known in the underworld, so it’s quite easy to find you once I know who to pay.
“Subtlety isn’t your best trait as well,” I replied while pointing at her cape and hood.” “Was it Davey that found you?”
“No, but he’s my final contact. It took me three steps before I get to him.”
I groaned a little.
“I need you to guard me, Alicia. I have a very important meeting in this town and I can only bring one bodyguard. It has to be someone I can trust with my life; it has to be you,” she told me with a voice lower than before.
“With whom?” I asked.
“Three Friends,” Guinevere replied.
“Three Friends… Khov Ravanthas? What business do you have with those bastards? Divines, is this why they’re talking with the guys with Rosebud carts out there?”
“Partially, but not really…”
“Elaborate,” I cut her hesitation.
“Rosebud’s carts were constantly raided since several months ago on the road between Wheldrake and Shellshore. We didn’t know who the raiders were, but it naturally alarmed us so we keep on raising the security until one day the attack got so big it’s almost a small battle on its own. In between the chaos, the raiders managed to steal The Flora.”
I sunk my face deep to both my palms. The Flora is Rosebud’s heirloom, a gold necklace with giant rubies cut and arranged in a shape of rose. I loathe that object’s tackiness but I understand how important it is to the family.
“How the fuck…” my voice got muffled by my palms but I know Guinevere heard me clearly.
“It was… snatched.”
“Who would wear such jewelry to a batt…” I stopped mid-sentence realizing only one person is overcompensatingly vain enough to do such thing. “Was it Da’?”
“Verily, it was your father,” she answered.
“That gimp tool…”
“Alicia, he’s still your father,” Guinevere cut me off.
“Exactly my problem. What next? He got killed or something?”
“Alicia, can you stop being such a pain for at least five minutes?”
“Just continue, Guinny.”
“No, he didn’t die. He got injured pretty badly, though. The raids were actually more to an annoyance than actual robbery, and this led Uncle Brendan to believe he could end it all by handling the battle on his own. Hence, they prepared the biggest security army hiding in one decoy delivery. Little did they know, the previous raids were…”
“Were baits; the coming raid that came afterwards were way bigger than before and managed to eliminate a good chunk of Rosebud’s private guard. Now, suddenly a group of thugs showed up, offering “security” for the coming deliveries from Wheldrake to Shellshore,” I finished her sentence.
“Am I close?”
Guinevere’s eyes opened widely in shock.
“Had you not missed some details, I’d be suspicious you worked for them.”
“What, the detail that they “coincidentally” have The Flora in their hands and hold it as a ransom to make House of Rosebud sign permanent security deal?”
“How do you know?”
“I know how much of a nincompoop Da’ is, I know this town and how that trio does their businesses. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together, if only you guys pull your head out from your asses every other day to see what’s happening on the street.”
Guinevere sighed heavily. “Can we keep the attitude in minimum, please?”
“Only if you pay me to. So far, the job you offer is to be a muscle, no words about how I behave during the contract time and I warn you, buying my mouth is way more expensive than buying my hands.”
“For someone who actively rejects merchant life, you really know how to pull and move gold around,” Guinevere hissed cynically.
“Guinny, I rejected Rosebud’s merchant life, not the concept of mercantilism. I have lifestyle I need to afford.”
Guinevere and I walked away from Careless Whiskers back to the inn she stayed for the night. We still have one more sleep before the meeting with Khov Ravanthas tomorrow noon, and I need to prepare some exit strategies.
“One thing I don’t understand, Guinny,” I talked as we stroll on the alley between buildings. “Why me? Don’t you have…” I have a sudden bitter taste in my mouth, forcing me to pause. “Don’t you have that person?”
“You mean Engelbert?” she replied.
“Whatever his name is. If anything, he’s the one that should be here seeing he’s the closest heir Da’ have at the moment.”
“He was with Uncle Brendan when the attack happened. He tried to protect him, but one of the raider’s axes sliced his kneecap off and almost chopped his other leg. It wasn’t a pretty sight when they brought him home.”
“He can’t walk for now so you have to deal with all these on your own?” I said while do a little hop in between my steps.
“He can’t walk anymore, and could you please stop doing that?” Guinevere voice rose.
“Do that… stupid dance steps when we talk about my husband lost his legs.”
“Did I dance?”
“Oh, did you dance? You…”
Our conversation suddenly got interrupted by sound of footsteps and snickering sound of laughter from behind us. I look at their general direction and see some legged Yuan-Ti, three to be precise, walking towards us. They all dressed the same: green short pants with knee and shin armor but weirdly no shoes (some said to me it’s part of their belief to always be one with the ground), shirtless with only either pauldron or cuirass, and all are bringing curved blades as weapon of choice. I notice they were some of the Khov Ravanthas’ entourage I saw earlier.
“I thought it was already made clear, Lady Rosebud. No funny business or the discussion won’t happen,” one of the Yuan-Ti spoke. He looks a little different than the other ones; shorter but more buff, with yellowy scales on the snake side of his body. “I don’t think hiring a local bodyguard is something you could do in the current situation. You need security, you come to us.”
“Which Lady Rosebud, me or her?” I asked while walking slowly towards the leading snake-man.
“What do you mean whi—” a flash of silvery wind in the form of my rapier sliced his throat open before he can finish his sentence. He gargled with his hand trying to close the gaping wound in a feeble attempt to stay alive while I ran and jumped over his shoulder towards the second Yuan-Ti, he swung his blade down, tried to aim me but I slide aside with knife on my left hand. I swung it and pierced his unprotected Achilles tendon and slice it open. I heard a shriek, that big humanoid snake fell down right next to me. The third one stare at me with fear on his eyes and I roll to stab the falling Yuan-Ti several times on his back with my knife, piercing in through his lung.
“Tell your bosses to wait,” I said to the third Yuan-Ti as I stood up, blood on my hands and my armor. “Your deal with her is to meet tomorrow by noon,” I continue while walking closer and closer to him. “So unless you guys want more red snow to fall on this city, stay away from my client.”
Before he can answer or move, I leaped swiftly and sunk my knife deep into his left thigh. The third Yuan-Ti roared, he raised his hand and swung his blade, hitting the empty air as I dodged to the side. I kicked the hilt of my knife and sunk it even deeper to his thigh. The Yuan-Ti stared at me angrily as he fell down to his knee.
“Leave,” I hissed. “And show that blade on your leg to your paymaster, they will get the message.”
He then ran away, limping with a bloody leg leaving a trail of red on the falling snow.
I turned around and see Guinevere, staring at me with horror and tears gathering on the corner her beautiful grey eyes.
“What do you expect, Guinny? Banter over dinner?” I said while taking a copper whistle from my pocket and blow it, letting out a strange noise that sounds like a high-pitched growl.
“What are you doing?” Guinevere spoke with trembling voice. I shushed her as reply.
Almost immediately, I heard clicking sounds from the sewer hole. A pair of reddish eyes from a kobold peeked. I threw several gold coins into the hole.
“The pigsty, as usual.”
“Kruth,” the voice from the sewer replied and they leave as fast as they came.
“Let’s leave,” I said while taking Guinevere’s hand.
“But what about the bodies?” she said while staring at the two Yuan-Ti that’s still fidgeting on the ground.
“The Underkins will take care of them.”
As I answered, a gang of orcs and human dressed in raggedy outfits came rushing into the alley and start stabbing the Yuan-Tis. Guinevere stared at them, still in horror before I pulled her off the vicinity.
“Why are they stabbing the body?” she asked
“To make sure the dead is dead before they fed them to the pigs. Best way to get rid of unwanted bodies.”
“Can’t you just leave them for their kin to take and give proper funeral?”
“Guinny, remember what I said about how you guys should occasionally pull your head out from your asses every other day to see what’s happening on the street? This is why. Things are different out here.”
“You can let my hand go, it’s okay,” she said.
“No,” I answered. “I’m not letting you go; I don’t want anyone to take you away from me.”
She fell silent, and I feel her hand grabbing mine in answer of me grabbing hers.
Continued in part 2