Today’s Tuesday Short Story is by Thomas Gronek. Thomas found Dungeons & Dragons at a tender age and has wasted his time and money on gaming ever since. He currently is trying to expand on his meagre writing skills, unused since getting the “F” in English during senior high.
“Always Get Paid Up Front” is inspired by the “Age of Electrotech” Radiance RPG (www.radiancerpg.com) by Dario Nardi.
This is the story’s first publication.
Always Get Paid Up Front
A Gun-Witch Tale, by Thomas Gronek
“So, let me get this straight: You want me to break into a heavily guarded trade ship, steal a priceless and irreplaceable jewel, and get it back to you without being detected or captured?”
For at least the tenth time in as many minutes, Lord Barron Welsh wondered what in the Nine Hells he was doing here.
Sitting in a low-rent tenement house in the Lower Quarter of the Free Trade City of Sterling, the noble member of the royal court of the Kingdom of Ellands tried to still his thoughts. Across from him at the corner table was a highly recommended mercenary with a reputation for being both discrete and competent. He had numerous doubts about the whole arrangement and nothing said in the last few minutes had quelled any of them.
Ah well, the die is cast. Let’s see what score comes face up.
“Ah, yes. It does seem a little far-fetched for just one person, I know,” Welsh replied to the question. “But it was brought to my attention that you had a history of doing jobs exactly like this.”
“Actually, it sounds like fun.”
Francesca Rossi Marischino de la Talia couldn’t help but grin. Nobles were all the same, no matter what land they were from. Worried about everything, from being out of style with clothing, to losing their noble titles, to having an angry peasant rebellion burn down their estate. In her experience, nobles worried best and did everything else second.
This one was no different. With the possible exception of losing his title for real very soon.
“The war’s going badly for you, isn’t it? How exactly is one jewel going to change that?” Francesca narrowed her eyes and gazed intently at the minor lord for a moment, the charm spell coming easily from memory.
Lord Welsh took a moment to clear his throat, in a somewhat obvious delaying tactic. But when he answered, it was the truth and nothing but.
“Well, yes. But that’s common knowledge. There’s no way any of the Northern Kingdoms can stand alone against the sheer might and strength of the Eastern Empire. We Northerners are a fractious and unruly lot. Un-united for the last two centuries, at war with each other for the last hundred years. Easy pickings for the Empire. But the jewel alone isn’t going to change that. It’s what the jewel represents that’s important to my people.”
Francesca thought it over for a moment and then made another query: “What of the others? They don’t see the threat knocking at the door?”
“Calusa and Eaton are at war again,” Barron stated matter-of-factly. “The cease fire lasted three months, almost a record. Freeland and Sarcossa have a firm trade agreement and a mutual defense treaty, but are too far removed from the Empire’s borders to care about the dangers. The others are too small or unimportant to influence the region, and will no doubt fall in line quickly enough if my homeland falls. Better to be annexed and set favorable terms than to be ground underfoot and looted like a bandit camp.” The noble eyed her with a wary glance. “I would have thought you would be a little more informed about this. You are from Talia, yes? Your accent and darker skin betray your origins.”
“I don’t do politics, your lordship. And I haven’t seen my birth homeland since I was six.” When I was sold like a cow at market. Francesca pushed aside the old memory. It didn’t serve her here and now.
Welsh picked up his drink and finished it in one gulp. “So, can you do it?”
Francesca thought it over for another moment and then spoke aloud a truly profane sum of money.
The rest was bargaining. After a few back and forth volleys, the amount for the deed was merely offensive, and somewhat less than outrageous.
The noble lord stood up. “It will take a few days for my organization to raise that kind of funds. The Trade Ship Venture will be docked at Port Thirty-Eight for the next week. That is your deadline. When you have possession of the item, meet me at Port Twelve at the Free Ship Whale Song. I’ve commissioned it for this matter alone. I won’t see you again until you have it and we conclude our business.”
Francesca held up a hand to keep him from leaving. “In matters such as these, it is customary to have a sum for advance payment, your lordship.”
Welsh laughed out loud. “Hah, you think me a fool? To have any sum near that amount on my person in the lower parts of a free trade city? No, my dear. While your reputation for honesty now is known, so is your history as a pirate in some circles.”
Damn it, he knows. Did his homework, this one. Francesca lowered her hand. “All right, sir. Payment as promised and I’ll hold you to it.”
* * *
Two days later, Francesca stood at the gateway to the Lower Docks at the set of the sun.
For the past two days, she had prepared. Parties were thrown, friends invited. Drinks were consumed, love was made, drugs were taken, food eaten. And in the mornings after, she went down to her crafting room and brewed potions and cast spells and built up her powers for when they would be needed.
After all was said and done, Francesca put on her best clothing, strapped on her weapon belt, swore oaths to long forgotten gods and spirits, and set about to do the deed as promised.
The guards at the docks checkpoint were more than willing to let her pass. Francesca’s reputation as a fair and generous briber of officials and law-enforcement officers was well known. Gold opened more doors than keys in the free trade cities. Port Thirty-Eight, at the far end of the docking way, had a magnificent steel trading vessel docked at it. Two guards in the standard grey wool, gold-buttoned coats of the Trade Guard Corps stood watch at the end and top of the passenger ramp, musket rifles held at cross.
Francesca stood in the shadows at the corner of a small shack, looked at her pocket watch, and waited.
At nine o’clock precisely, dark clothed figures stole their way up from the waterline and stealthily crawled along the dock surface. When within a few steps of the lower gangplank guards, they simultaneously grabbed at the guards’ pouch belts and set about giving the two a thorough thrashing.
The guards at the top of the ramp, more observant, raised the alarm and ran down the plank to fend off the attackers.
After a brief struggle, the dark clothed robbers took off running, heading for the far end of the pier, no doubt to leap into the black waters and make a clean getaway. As the guards took chase, Francesca stilled herself, cast her illusory disguise, and ran for the ramp.
As soon as she set foot on deck, the main hatchway opened with a thunderous clang, and a single figure emerged. A half open waistcoat and disheveled appearance betrayed the officer as having been awakened by the alarm. Officer of the Watch asleep on the job, tsk tsk.
“Sir! We are under assault! Ruffians from the Thieves’ Guild attempting to board and pillage!” Francesca tried her best to put enough panic in her voice to set the man into motion, but without sending him into a panic as well.
The officer seized on the report and true to form as a lifelong soldier reacted instead of waiting to think things out. “Call out the guards! Sound the general alarm! All hands to stations and repel boarders! Get to it man! We’re under attack!” If anything betrayed Francesca’s appearance as anything other than another Trade Corps member, the officer did not pick up on it.
“Yes, sir! Sir, with your permission, sir! I will go to the cargo deck and see it secured! This could be a distraction feint, sir!” Which it is, she thought to herself. Kindly please don’t notice.
The officer nodded. “Good man. Send up the others and take two with you. The cargo must not be lost!”
Oh, indeed not. That would be a terrible crime. Francesca entered the hold with the barest hint of a smile.
* * *
Trade ships were all the same, made with the same deck plans and layouts. While this made it easier for sailors to find their way around, it also made it easy for Francesca to head for the most secure part of the ship: the forward storage vault.
As she’d expected, there was a single guard at the desk at the steel door. A quietly cast sleep spell put him under without fuss. As the watch guard, he had the key. She unlocked the door and entered.
In front of her was a nine-year-old girl.
In a simple but colorful silk dress, she was as thin as a reed and round in face. Long blond hair, straight as a line, fell to her shoulders. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, widened in shock at Francesca’s sudden entrance. “Who are you?” she inquired in a high voice.
Young, but pretty. She’ll be a heartbreaker when she’s full grown. More importantly, what in the name of the abyss is she doing in here?
“Guard Adams, miss. Sent here to secure the vault. There’s a minor ruckus up top.”
The girl frowned. “You don’t look like a guard. You’re not even in uniform.”
That’s impossible. She couldn’t see past my disguise. Unless… Francesca’s heart sank with a sudden realization. “What do I look like I’m wearing, miss?”
She brightened immediately. “I like your boots. I’ve never worn ones that go above the knees. The gold trim is neat, too. But how do you do all those buckles up the side? It would take hours to put those on and off.”
Dung heaps of joy, she can see. “OK, miss. Er… I’m sorry. What’s your name?”
“Joy. Joy Masterson. From Ellands. Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand.
Francesca took it gently and returned the shake. Manners, too. She’s well bred. “Hello, Lady Masterson. I’m Francesca.”
“Oh, I’m not nobility.” The little girl frowned. “Just everyone treats me that way. It’s because I’m special. I wish I wasn’t. But everybody says I’m too important to be treated like a normal girl.” She paused. “What’s that on your arms?”
“My tattoos? Those are tribal waves. Blessings from the sea gods, for good journeys.”
“And is that a real gun? I’ve never seen one up close. Is it gold?”
Francesca shook her head. “Look, Joy. I’m sorry. I’d love to talk about my tattoos and clothes and everything else all day long but I’m afraid we have to go.”
The frown was back. “What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere with you. I have to stay here. I’m on a trip. I’m going home, you see. For years I was at my grandmother’s home in Eckland. But now I’m going home to Ellands.”
A third voice interrupted. “Yes, you are. And you, you’re going to the brig until we sort this out.”
Francesca whirled, her hand going for her pistol, but froze when she saw the guard’s rifle barrel pointed at her face.
“Don’t move,” he intoned solemnly.
“OK,” Francesca replied. And then she moved.
Ducking under the rifle and sweeping up with her left arm, she knocked the gun off aim and swept in close. A quick kick to the guard’s knee brought him down to a kneel, which allowed her to smash her pistol butt into his nose. Blood flowed freely as he grabbed his face in pain. Francesca cast a quick curse of dumbness to render the guard mute, and a fast choke hold and a few moments later he was incapacitated.
Francesca stood up and holstered her gun. “Well, that was well done. Now, Joy, we have to go. I’ll explain everything later, I promise….” She trailed off as she noticed that she was talking to herself in an empty room.
* * *
The girl had made her way to the upper deck. Francesca stood at the hatchway, surrounded by a half dozen Corps members with pointed rifles. The watch officer, having taken a moment to button up his coat, stood with Joy at the far end of the deck. His scowl was most impressive.
“I don’t know who you are or who you’re working for, but the jig is up. I know you’re not one of my guards. The girl can see through any magical disguise.”
“It’s not just that, is it? She can’t be affected by any magic. She’s an animus, isn’t she? Or as known in the Northern Kingdoms, a Perfected Pristine Jewel of Purity.”
The scowl deepened. “You’re well informed for a kidnapper. Did you know the value of the prize before taking this fool’s errand?”
No, I didn’t. I sure as hell would have charged a lot more. “We can still talk this out, you know.”
The officer laughed out loud. “What’s to talk about? You’re on a trade ship, guilty of assault and attempted kidnapping. By laws of both sea and free city I have every right to execute you right now.”
“True,” Francesca replied. “But then, if you did that, you would miss all the fun.”
If it was possible, the scowl deepened further. “What fun?”
“This fun.” Francesca grabbed a potion off her belt and uncorked it.
“Stop her! Before…” The watch officer never got a chance to finish his order. The rainbow flare shot up into the sky a hundred paces before bursting into a cavalcade of sound and light.
“Impressive, but pointless. You should have used that to blind us and make off with the girl. A costly mistake.” The scowl was now a sneer.
“True again,” Francesca said. “But it wasn’t meant for you.”
“I don’t see what that could possibly accomplish…” The officer trailed off as he felt the blade at his throat. Black masked figures held long knives at every guard’s back.
Francesca’s smile grew.
* * *
Whale Song was a less impressive ship than the trade vessel. Stout wood and sails marked her as a last generation free ship, but released from the contracts of the Trade Corps she could take on less than legal work without having to report it to her owners. Like smuggling.
Francesca stood with Joy at the gangplank and waited. It didn’t take long.
“You have her. Excellent.” Lord Barron Welsh strode down the ramp with a determined gait. When he tried to take the girl’s arm, Francesca drew her pistol in a lightning blur and put the barrel to his forehead.
“Let’s, for a moment, forget that you deliberately misinformed me about the item I was to recover. Let’s also forget, for a moment, mind you, that you haven’t paid me yet. Let’s just talk, for a moment, about you…”
The lord remained calm. “All right, that’s fair. I suppose I owe you that much.”
“Good. We can be civil.” Francesca holstered her gun. “Why her? She’s a Jewel of the North, I get that. But why?”
“It’s very simple. The winter equinox is less than two weeks away. The Tomb of King Fulon can only be opened on the night of the equinox, by a Northern virgin. However, the spells and wards that hold the main burial chamber are quite untouchable. The old magics are stronger than those of modern times.”
“Which is meaningless to an animus. She can walk right through them.”
“So it’s about treasure. The king was buried with a fortune and you want to claim it.”
“No, my dear, nothing so pedestrian. He was buried with the Crown of Iron Thorns.” Welsh sighed. “The crown is an artifact of immense power. Whoever bears the crown is immune to poison, disease, and aging. On top of that it’s also a cultural relic. Anyone who holds it can claim a divine right to rule the Northern Kingdoms.”
“So why are you trying to hand over the girl to the Empire?”
Welsh’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever do you mean?”
Francesca smiled. “I had the navigator of the Whale Song at my house the other night for a party I was throwing. A lovely young man. But he talks in his sleep. Your course takes you to Crown’s Rest. The capital itself…”
Welsh turned red with anger. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand!”
“That you’re a traitor?”
“No, harlot. I’m a patriot!” Welsh calmed himself. “If someone, anyone, with Northern royal blood tries to claim the crown, wars will break out everywhere in all the kingdoms. Even civil wars—no kingdom will have only one claimant. The blood will flow like wine during Summer Festival.” His shoulders slumped. “For two centuries, my people have bled and died. Now the Eastern Empire gives us a chance to live in peace. To have one generation where no son or daughter dies with a kinsman’s blade in their gut.”
He lifted his head. “What I do, I do to save lives. Not that I expect you to understand. You ‘don’t do politics’, remember?”
Francesca gave up. “Fine. We had a contract. Pay me and we’re done.”
Welsh took the girl by the arm. “Come with me, my dear. You won’t be harmed, I swear it. And, as for you: come as well.”
Francesca followed the lord and girl up the gangplank, then pulled up short at the sight of twenty crossbows pointed at her. Agents in the distinctive black and red leather armor of the Imperial army’s intelligence service. Even two wizards, in black and red robes.
“Don’t try anything, witch. We will counter any spell or action.” The captain of the imperial forces was deadly serious. Francesca held still.
Welsh looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, I truly am. But I’m afraid your fee for services rendered is simply too much. You may take this small sum, and your life. I give it to you as a courtesy only.” The pouch was a pittance compared to the agreed upon amount—but her life was ample payment.
* * *
As Francesca watched the Whale Song set out, she weighed the coins in her hand. From what she had spent on preparation and hiring the Guild to run interference, she had lost a year’s wages.
“Damn it, girl. Let this be a lesson to you,” she said to herself. “Always get paid up front!”