- 5a (Argentum’s Song – PG)
As soon as Martha got around the street corner and out of Ladin’s sight, she gave in and allowed herself to skip with joy. It wasn’t because the errand she was on was giving her a great adventure in an exciting urban area. Rather, because it wasn’t. This ‘hub’ of northern life could not possibly be the wealth of potential Ladin had been dreaming of. With the population only a tenth of the average city down south, and an even lower ratio in variety of goods to trade, Martha found it hard to see any way he could make this risk profitable.
“Martha, wait up!”
Franklin’s voice caused Martha to stumble mid skip. She looked over her shoulder and saw him jogging up behind her.
“Yeash, what’s the hurry? I would have expected you to draw out the opportunity to get out of that flea’s nest they call an Inn, not rush it.”
Martha returned to a slow plod as he caught up.
“Well at least moving quickly helps ward off the chill better than a thin shawl over a cotton frock.”
“Fair enough … it is festering cold up here. You’d have to be brain-turned to live here voluntarily.”
Martha felt her face heating up and looked away. She wasn’t going to give Franklin the satisfaction of a reaction. They had been here less than two days and that was all it had taken for Franklin to slide from treating her like a lady, to showing off his mastery of the local curse words. He was treating her as if she were nothing more than one of the serving wenches at the Silver Cog. The ones who had been giggling around him since they had arrived. She hurried to change the topic in an attempt to ignore his obvious lack of respect.
“Besides, I’m happy. Ladin’s invested a lot on this speculation of his. Developing a caravan to this ‘fountain of silver’ over the mountains was supposed to be his next big business break. This can’t be what he was expecting.”
“What do you mean? The silver veins in the area are about the only thing these yokels do have to trade. Why wouldn’t it be what he was expecting.”
“Sure there’s a decent supply but haven’t you been paying any attention to the prices? The locals are so desperate for it to line their weapons, that the price is barely less than it is back home. There’s no way he’ll be able to recoup the expense of the caravan with profits from silver. He might not have to pay those of us he has a contract on, but he still other expenses.”
- 5b (Argentum’s Song)
They walked on in silence for a couple more blocks and made it to the main road, which they turned down together. A large crowd was gathered around a young man in a purple hat and colourful, patched, cloak with many pockets. He wore a half-mask with brass rings surrounding crimson tinted glass disks before his eyes. It made him look inhuman, like one of the golem constructs or watchers of legend.
“And now, for the grand finale, a piece of tek so fascinating that it rivals the powers of the gods themselves. I present to you the crown of my portfolio that earned my title of tinker fifth class. Today, you will join the ranks of the Alchemist and Council of Seven in witnessing the miraculous. I present to you – life!”
With this he swept the tail of his cloak and backed away from a slowly dissipating puff of smoke. When the smoke cleared it revealed a wooden duck. The duck had been carved with great skill, it’s wings, legs, neck, beak and tail carved separately and hinged into place. It was a remarkable piece of art, but Martha had seen toys of even better workmanship in the homes of some of her friends in years past. Franklin clearly wasn’t too impressed either.
“That’s not alive, it’s just a festering piece of wood.”
The performer turned toward Martha and Franklin.
“What? Can you not hear the ticking of it’s heart? It seems that you are unconvinced, a scoffer of the tinker’s craft. I don’t suppose you would be willing to place a wager on your claim?”
Franklin grinned, tugged the purse of Ladin’s coins from Martha’s belt and pulled out a silver penny which he threw to the performer before Martha could stop him.
“I don’t know what you have planned but it had better be good if you want to keep that coin.”
The tinker nodded, pulled off his hat and then lay it, with Ladin’s silver inside, beside the duck on the street.
- 5d (Argentum’s Song – PG)
The guard had nodded to two fellow militia, who to Martha’s eye, seemed to be moving to surround the tinker and keep him from running off with the money. The charlatan must have noticed them as well as he stopped edging toward the alley behind him and turned back to his wooden duck. The crowd was growing restless and calling for the proof.
“Fine, fine, settle down. Proof you shall have.”
The tinker bent down, crushed the crust in his hand, and began laying a line of bread crumbs before the duck. He kept peering over his shoulder as he did so. However, when he had no more bread, and the militia had made it evident he wouldn’t be escaping the consequences of his boast, he straightened up and cleared his throat.
“Duck. I say to you, live!”
On the last word, the ducks eyelids parted, revealing glass disks patterned after the actors own. It’s head swivelled to the right and then the left, as if examining the crowd. There was a collective gasp as the wings and tail began to flap and wave. It’s movement looked much like that of the marionettes Martha had seen in the South, with the notable exception of the lack of strings. Franklin remained unmoved however.
“So far I’ve only seen one of three claims met.”
The duck centred its head, lowered its neck and parted its beak. It pushed itself forward with it’s legs, scraping bread and dirt into its bill, snapping it shut and then raising it’s neck to ‘swallow’. When it lowered its neck for a second scoop the previous mouthful was gone. The crowd backed away, many clinging to pendants hanging from their necks, as it repeated the wonder over and over again. The street urchin rushed forward while it was still half way to its creator. He seemed determined to expose the fraud before the tinker could disappear with the coins.
The ducks eyes opened even wider in astonishment. It’s wings and tail shot straight up and a stream of pellets shot out from under the tail and spattered the soldier’s boot to the delight of the crowd. Then it’s bill dropped open with a strangled quack, its ticking stopped and it fell over on its side.
“He’s killed my duck! Get the boy, he’ll spend the rest of his miserable life as a drudge for this!”
- 5e (Argentum’s Song)
Martha, and those around her turned her attention to the young wretch who was already fleeing down a side alley. By the time she looked back, the tinker, the coins, and the duck had disappeared. Before long the rest of those gathered also began realizing the tinker and the youth might have been in league. There was some good natured grumbling about being cheated, but the only two who weren’t grinning at how they had been tricked into paying for their entertainment were Martha and the militia man with his soiled boot. Franklin was actually leaning against a wall and laughing out loud.
Martha grabbed the purse of coins back from him and stomped past the militia squad as two friends were telling the other man to cheer up and offering to cover his first round at the ale house. A few footsteps later Franklin was at her elbow with a similar mission.
“Come on. Don’t be mad. That was better entertainment than I’ve seen even at court. Worth far more than a half penny.”
“No doubt that was why you chose to offer up a full penny then. Easy to do when it isn’t your hide on the line. I’m the one Ladin will hold responsible if I can’t get everything necessary for the evening meal with what is left.”
“Ah, you’ll do fine. You’re better at haggling than any one else on the caravan. Why else do you think Ladin sent you to market?”
The way the words came out of Franklin’s mouth they felt more like an insult than complement. As if worrying about bartering or money was beneath anyone of real stature. Franklin stopped and grabbed her elbow.
“That really was better than anything I’ve seen before.”
“O.K. I get it. You aren’t sorry you stole the money.”
“No … the duck. That was better than any tek I’ve seen down South. Why couldn’t Ladin stock up on that before he returns?”
Martha shrugged and looked up at the prominent ‘clock tower’ jutting up from the middle of Phoentown. A gift to the steward from the tinker’s guild, its purpose was similar to a sundial but worked whether the sun was out or not. It also chimed on the hour. She had heard other rumours about the power of the local tinker’s guild, how it had access to the secrets of many similar tek. Some claimed undead watchers guarded the guildhouse, others that the tinkers had harnessed the power of the golem titans themselves.
“I haven’t seen any of it for sale have you? I’m pretty sure that tinkers the world over are prohibited from actually selling tek secrets. Even the clock tower is manned by tinkers as opposed to city officials, isn’t it?”
“It’s just hard to imagine Ladin low on wealth. Surely he’s got something up his sleeve.”
- 5f (Argentum’s Song)
“It’s just hard to imagine Ladin low on wealth. Surely he’s got something up his sleeve.”
“If he does, why is he be sending me to pick up food for mother to make dinner with instead of buying meals at the Silver Cog?”
“Have you tasted the swill they’ve been serving? Even your mother cooks better than that. Besides, why do you even want Ladin to lose money on this trip?”
Martha rolled her eyes. Sometimes Franklin could be a real stone wall.
“How about because it’s time that he got some bad luck too? Ladin thinks he’s so smart. So much smarter than your father or mine, that his schemes could never unravel and leave him broke.”
“Right … and then what? You think if he experiences failure that he’s just going to forgive all our debts and cancel our contracts? Not festering likely.”
“It’s called justice Franklin.”
“Sure, whatever. Look, here’s the tavern where I’m supposed to meet some silver merchant for Ladin. He wants me to bring him back for dinner if he seems on the level, so you’d better hurry. I’ll see you back at the Inn.”
Martha got a better grip on her basket and kept walking toward the market. Franklin was so infuriating sometimes. He was treating this whole caravan as if it were just some short adventure, and he could afford to. She’d heard enough rumours to know that even after losing one of his ships, Franklin’s father could have rounded up the debt he owed Ladin if he’d actually tried. It was just more comfortable to give a contract on his son until his next ship came in. He wouldn’t have to change his standard of living and it was also a convenient way to give Franklin a slap on the wrist for some embarrassing prank or other that he’d pulled. Ladin seemed happy to go along with it because it stroked his ego to have a noble as a bodyguard, even if it was only temporary.
Well Martha’s father didn’t have a ship coming in and it wasn’t just a short romp of an adventure for her. Her father had worked hard and struggled for years to rise into the lower levels of the aristocracy. This had resulted in her knowing a life of privilege for the first fifteen years of her life. What she hadn’t known until this past year, was that the last few years of that life had been purchased based on the potential of investments Ladin had advised her father in. She was sure the crafty merchant had considered them too risky for himself but a win/win situation if someone else borrowed from him to invest. An outrageous amount of interest if they succeeded or everything the sucker owned if they didn’t.
Martha remembered when she lived frustrated that she wasn’t able to wear a new gown at every ball like some of her peers did. Now she would have been happy to have just one of her old ones to swap with her servant outfit on special occasions. She knew the past year was instrumental in keeping her from becoming the spoiled brat she had been heading toward. However that didn’t stop her from hating Ladin for what he had done to her family and it burned her that it seemed to have no effect whatsoever on Franklin.
- 5g (Argentum’s Song)
Pheonton’s market was similar to the markets she had gotten used to working over the past year. Row after row of vendor sitting by their wagon displaying their goods. The odd semi permanent structure for a cheese maker, butcher or the like. There were differences too of course. The chill air deadened the smells somewhat, and there was much less variety. The vegetables were stunted and Martha had to pick and prod at the produce to find anything Ladin would find acceptable. Once selected it took every last haggling trick she had learned over the past year to be able to cover the bare necessities with the silver coins she had left. So much for the hope of being able to pocket the extra and save up to buy a little off of her term of indenture. Martha sighed and started back toward the Silver Cog.
As she neared the Inn she saw Franklin ushering a burly man through the front door. Looked like there would be company after all. Martha picked up her pace and slipped into the kitchen through the servant’s entrance.
“Mother I wasn’t able to find -”
“Your mother isn’t here girl. Ladin sent your parents out on an errand. He’s expecting you to prepare dinner instead.”
The gruff Innkeeper’s wife cleared off a small corner of the kitchen table and indicated with her chin Martha could use it before returning to kneading dough on the larger part of it. Well that was just great, now Martha not only had to make dinner on her own but she somehow had to do it while keeping out of the way of the Mistress of the house. Martha laid out the eggplant, tomatoes, lady fingers, chopped mutton and goat cheese on the table and set the rice to boil. She was oiling up a skillet when the kitchen door creaked open and she heard Ladin’s voice.
“Ah … here she is already hard at work. A very good worker that girl, and don’t let the red hair fool you. She’s got enough fire in her to lend her some initiative but she’s manageable.”
Martha wiped her hands on her apron and looked up quizzically. Ladin, Franklin, and the stranger were standing just inside the kitchen. It was hard to figure the stranger’s age due to how weathered his face was. He’d clearly spent a lot of his life outside in the elements. There was, however, enough grey in his thick moustache to place him in at least her father’s generation. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her at all.
“So it’s not enough that my fool husband is allowing servants back here to cook private meals, now I’m being expected to put up with the presence of the snob who insulted my cooking by asking for such a deal in the first place? This room, at least, is my domain and I won’t have a trio of men standing around gawking in it. Get out now.”
“Now Mistress Boise don’t get all worked up, I hadn’t heard the girl return and just wanted to find out how much longer we should be expecting to wait before dinner was ready.”
“It’ll come faster without you delaying it, I can tell you that much for certain!”
Ladin chuckled and backed out with his hands up in mock surrender.
“Well, good as it smells I imagine we still have enough time to get Thom to pull out his reeds and play us a tune or two. What do you say Walt, shall we set aside business for now and work out the rest of the details after dinner.”
Walt grunted and gave a curt nod as he also left. Martha was almost too stunned by Ladin’s complement to her cooking to react but managed to pull the cuff of Franklin’s tunic and raise an eyebrow before he followed the other two back out. He gave her a sly smile.
“Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”
- 5h (Argentum’s Song)
Franklin’s hand dropped to the hilt of his sabre as a broom swatted his calf with an audible thump.
“You too. Out now.”
Mrs. Boise’s eyes locked on to his and she raised the broom for a second swat. Franklin relaxed his grip and turned to leave.
“You really should be more respectful Ma’am. I won’t be indentured for ever.”
Mrs. Boise snorted in disgust before returning to her flat bread. Martha was glad the men had been chased out. Walt’s eyes hadn’t left Martha until the door jamb blocked his sight. She just wished she could have gotten more information out of Franklin before he left. She wasn’t able to dwell on it long though as she was soon juggling the preparation of three hot dishes to coincide with the rice finishing up. It was made easier though, as Mrs. Boise seemed to be in her way a little less. Once Martha even thought she caught something a kin to pity in her eyes.
Thom was just wrapping up his third song as Martha lay the food out on the table.
“Ah, excellent. I do so like your stuffed eggplant, and those greens and cheesey tomater gravy look well worth the wait as well.”
“Martha go and get a third plate of rice for Thom. He’ll eat with Mr. Walter and myself. That was some fine playing if I say so myself.”
Martha had no idea why Ladin was in such a good mood, but if it was keeping him from his grumbling, she wasn’t going to complain. She quickly brought in the third plate but Thom avoided eye contact instead of his customary wink. Martha stood back against the wall beside the Inn’s two serving girls to wait for leftovers.
“Franklin, why don’t you put on a show for us with your fancy moves while we eat. Show why we had no cause to worry about those two weirs we met on the way up here.”
Franklin smiled broadly and hopped onto an empty table top while drawing his weapon. Apparently, Franklin had smuggled two thumbclaws from the weirs into Phoentown and found someone who had helped him fashion them into a necklace of sorts. Ladin had been upset at first but, since no one had turned, he ended up encouraging him to foster the implication that Franklin had been responsible for the beasts’ deaths. Martha imagined he felt more secure if the locals thought highly of his bodyguard.
Franklin arranged his stance so he was showing off his morbid jewellery and fencing skills equally to the girls along the wall and the three men who were eating. Then he launched into a practice routine that had been impressive the first time Martha had seen it, but not as much the fiftieth. As the girl beside her gasped, Martha rolled her eyes and looked out a small window. The sun had dropped beneath the mountain ridge long ago and the valley in which the city was nestled was more shadowed than illuminated. What errand could Ladin have sent her parents on that would be keeping them out so late?
- 5i (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Walter drained his wooden cup and clanked it loudly on the table getting Martha’s attention. He stared at her and repeated the action with the empty cup two more times before Martha figured out he was expecting her to fill it. She picked up a clay water jug and hurried over.
“We’ve seen and tasted enough. We got a few more questions that needs answering though.”
Walter grabbed Martha’s wrist, nearly causing her to drop the water jug and forcing her to make eye contact with him.
“We’ve seen ya know how to make fancy food. What we need to know is can ya do the basics? Answer now, can ya boil eggs, milk goats, skin a hare, fry taters?”
Martha, confused by the barrage, simply nodded an affirmative to the query.
“Very well, We’ll pay the four weight then. Morale has dropped in the camp since Cookie was turned and the boys need better fodder.”
Walter released Martha’s wrist and turned to Ladin.
“What we really want to know though is, how much is the contract on the boy?”
“Oh, much more than he’d be worth to you I’m afraid. Eight weight is still remaining on that debt.”
Walter whistled slowly.
“It’ll take him a hundred years to pay that off under standard law … how did you ever let him come into so much debt?”
Franklin cut off Ladin’s response with fire in his eyes.
“Lord Franklin the third is my father and he’ll be paying off my contract as soon as we return home.”
An eyebrow nearly as bushy as it’s corresponding moustache raised at that information.
“Unless he has the bad luck of losing his second ship to the same bunch of pirates I fully expect it is.”
“Well … seeing as how folk that can wield a sword well enough to hold off weirs are rarer around here than Argentum, we spose we better snatch him off your hands before you return.”
The blood drained from Franklin’s face and Martha began to put some of the pieces together. Both of the youth started talking at same time.
“Please Ladin, you can’t separate me from my parents.”
“Don’t do this. Father will pay a bonus if you don’t, you know he will.”
- 5j (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Both of the youth started talking at same time.
“Please Ladin, you can’t separate me from my parents.”
“Don’t do this. Father will pay a bonus if you don’t, you know he will.”
Ignoring Martha’s pleas, Ladin nodded at Franklin.
“He’s probably right you know … it would be bad business to sell his contract here.”
“A full weight bonus? We’ll pay nine weight for him. If this boy can rescue one shipment from ambush to weirs he’ll make it up. And boy quit yammerin’. Unlike the gal, you ain’t going to be any use without motivation. We’ll give a weight bonus for every weir that you take down. Nine weirs and you’re free without your pappy having to pay a thing and with a job waiting for you if you decide to stay on.”
Ladin smiled broadly and pulled two contracts out of the inner pocket of his jacket while Walter sent one of the serving girls to deliver a message. Martha considered making a break for it, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. There were too many witnesses here, she’d never be able to deny it. A proven escape attempt, successful or not, would only add to her family’s term of indenture. By the time the contracts had been adjusted a short, stocky man walked into the Inn with a sack over his shoulder.
“Walt this had better be good. I had to drop a big hand and I don’t like carryin’ over half a score of weight this far after sundown. Even if the thieves guild has lost as much power as the rumours say.”
“Earl, Shaddup. You’ll be happy enough ye did it come next meal time.”
Earl clearly wasn’t impressed by the two youth but he kept his peace and stood by the door after handing over his burden.
Martha cringed as Ladin patted her shoulder then made her face emotionless. She wasn’t going to shed a tear in front of her tormentor.
“Don’t worry Martha. With the price I was able to get for you, your parents’ debt has been knocked down enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if they worked themselves free in thirty years or less. And Walter’s a good law abiding man, he’ll register your whereabouts so they can find you after that.”
Walter put a loop of rope around Martha’s wrists and tugged her to her feet and out the door. Franklin was still ashen faced but allowed to walk without that humiliating treatment. Earl looked them over one last time and finally spoke.
“I sure hope ya know what yer doing Walter, they don’t seem worth thirteen weight to me.
“You’d rather we risked our kin up on those mountains? Or maybe yours?”
That seemed to silence Earl and Martha shuddered. It just wasn’t fair! Even when his schemes failed, Ladin not only managed to break even but to pull a weight’s worth of profit out of it as well.