A Convincing Bargain
Being held hostage isn’t fun. This wasn’t my first playing captive and it sure as hell wasn’t my last go at it. In my line of work, something like this isn’t considered out of ordinary. I knew that this was ultimately going to lead to a very constructive conversation so I didn’t bother wasting my time and energy looking for escape routes and weak links in the squad holding me hostage. Instead, I just basked in the peace and glory of this peculiarly beautiful place.
The town centre was much busier than the inner parts of the town. Anomalous things weren’t an anomaly around here. Every person I could see was clearly well off. Everyone had all the food they needed, they wore the best clothes you could buy in a place like this and it applied to even the smallest vendors. The structures in these parts were extravagant for a small town and were very well maintained. I saw several specimen at the butcher’s porch that people would sell their kids for in the mainland. I saw a few stalls sell apples. Apples!! A single apple would sell for 2 golds in the mainland. These weren’t even imported from the outside. The apples were clearly grown here. Only one thing could explain how these people were able to grow apples in the desert lands of the west.
I saw a lot of things that I never hoped to see again. Things of the past that I thought would never resurface. The sight of all this made me well up. Now, we were at the gates of the lord’s keep. For the first time since I entered the town, did I see guards. The thugs around me were just hired muscle. The guards opened the gate and we walked in.
The lord’s keep wasn’t too extravagant. It was no better than the rest of the buildings in the town centre except for the size. The keep was huge. It was large enough to cram every person in the town if they needed shelter in special circumstances. The grounds spread wide and were well-tended. Multiple teams of guards circuited around the grounds which felt quite unnecessary. The place looked like it had too much security. Much more than it could possibly need.
We made our way inside the building through the main door into a giant hall. Two parallel stairs ran up to the first floor like most manors and on the sides were offices, quite heavily occupied and busy. I was taken around the stairs and into a very shady room. They asked me to sit inside while most of the party left except two who stood guard in front of the room. I still had all my weapons and equipment on me which made me wonder why they went to such lengths to abduct me but never bothered to disarm me. That’s the most reckless and irresponsible work I’ve seen from an abductor yet.
My feet twitched while I sat there thinking about how I was losing precious time. I kept thinking about my encounter with the boy over and over again. I was convinced that I was right about him but I still kept looking for any explanation to prove myself wrong. How convenient would that be? Time flew and after what seemed like half an hour, the guards called me out. I walked out and they escorted me to a room beside the office near the stairs. The door was closed. One of my escorts walked up to the door and knocked thrice.
‘Come in’, came a voice from inside.
The escort opened the door and I saw the back of a man, sitting on one end of a long table. He had long straight greying hair and wore a lavish robe. I walked in with my escorts who directed me towards a seat on the opposite end of the table. One escort stopped by the door and closed it from inside while the other one stayed by my side.
‘Please…. Have a seat’ said the man. He only looked a few years younger than me and was sporting a very calm and confident demeanour. I sat down facing him, waiting for him to speak. He peered at me as soon as he saw me but shook his head and began.
‘I’m terribly sorry for putting you through such a tiresome ordeal. You see, we don’t get too many visitors here. As you may have noticed on your way here, we have more than a few good reasons for being so cautious. It’s been years since I’ve had to do something like this. That’s how uncommon a visitor is for us. So, tell me. What brings you to the town of Vereen?’
‘I’m very sorry about abruptly troubling you my lord. I just came here looking for an old friend of mine and I recently learned about his demise which leaves me with nothing more to do here in your town. I assure you that I will leave here at once without giving you any more trouble.’ The man looked reasonable so I had to walk the same road as him if I were to get out of this fix without causing any problems. But the man suspiciously peered at me again as soon as he heard my voice.
‘Haha, please. Do not mistake me for the lord. I’m just the head of the merchant’s guild in this place and I provide counsel to the lord. He is too busy to worry about such trivial matters so I decided to deal with it. I used to be an outsider just like back in the day and I have a strange feeling that I’ve seen you before.’ He leaned forward in his chair as he peered at me. This would be the worst place for my cover to break.
‘I don’t suppose you have. I’m sure you must be mistaking me for someone else. I’ve never been to this place before and I come from a place much farther than the capital. I have no memory of seeing you either.’ I tried to be as composed as possible.
‘It’s not just your appearance. This voice, I remember it.’ Suddenly his eyes opened wide.
‘Do you mind pulling your left sleeve back?’ he asked me with excitement.
I looked at him for a few seconds and put my hands on the table. ‘Actually, I do. I would like to leave. My business here may be unfinished but my employer expects me to show up soon.’
‘Oh but we’re not done yet. Please, I insist.’ He sneered at me as he said that. Both the guards in the room squeezed their hands on the hilts of their swords to show me that they meant business. I leaned back on my chair and sighed. Slowly, I pulled my left sleeve back, revealing the long scar on my forearm. I knew I was busted.
‘If it isn’t Randall Smith!!’ he said in total astonishment. ‘What in the world brings the Randall Smith to Vereen!? Definitely not an old friend.’
‘How do you know me?’ I asked him. Not too many people knew about the scar. He sighed in response to the question and commanded his guards to leave the room for the two of us. As they left, he began again.
‘You may not remember me but I was in the guild back in the day. A few years before it was disbanded by the High King. I wasn’t a big name like you. I was just a fence who dealt with the small rat thieves. Back then almost everyone in the guild knew about that scar and how it came to be.’ He smiled. ‘I still find that story hard to believe.’
The small clues were enough for me to pick on. I closely examined his sharp, pale face for a while. ‘Sheepus… is that you?’ I knew my guess was right when I saw the shock in his eyes.
‘Wow Randall. I consider it an honour that you remember me even though it has been so long. But I don’t go by that name these days. My days as a small time fence are behind me so as a merchant in the nobility, I use my real name. Mikhail Holloway. I insist that you keep my past between us. I’ve left that life behind for a long time and I don’t want it to affect my standing in this place. You see, I’ve got a good thing going on here and I don’t want anyone to mess it up.’
‘You don’t have to worry about that Mikhail. I’m just here to meet someone. It’s a one-time thing. I assure you that I will forever be out of your lives once I’m done with my errand.’ I told him reassuringly.
‘Who is it that you want to meet?’ He asked me inquisitively.
‘Mirriam Forrest. I was hoping to meet her husband Kenny before I came here but I recently learned of his demise so I’ll have to make do with her. I have something that belongs to them. All I want to do is deliver it and see how she’s doing before I leave.’
‘No! How do you know Kenny? I did a thorough background check on him after his death. He lived in a remote island before he came here. He hardly knew anyone and lived a reclusive life. There’s no way you know him. Who sent you?’ I grew uncomfortable as his stance got more and more offensive. Kenny’s murder was probably one of the very few blotches on his perfect record with this perfect town and the mention of his name had seemingly hit a nerve.
‘Wait a second. I know that the thieves guild was re-established since the cold war. They’ve established strongholds throughout the Western Kingdom. Don’t tell me you got back into the guild.’ He paused and stared at me for a moment while my resolute silence gave him the answer to his questions. ‘You’re a scout for the guild, aren’t you?’ I remained unshaken throughout. Neither did I respond nor did I react. I could talk my way out of a situation like this with most people but fooling someone as smart and well-connected like Mikhail wasn’t something I could manage. This was the time for negotiation, not deception. An alpha merchant like him wants to cut the best deal possible and I had to come up with the best bargain if I wanted a way out of this.
‘You!! You’ve doomed this place.’ Astounded, he stood up from his seat. ‘All these years I’ve cloaked and protected this town. The era of despair hit immediately after the Waynecastle massacre and trade was just tumbling in every corner of the nation. I couldn’t bear the ugly sight of it so I fled back here, to my hometown. I didn’t have any family back here, but this was my childhood home. I was surprised how different this place was from the rest of the world. I worked with the merchants here for a year. We ventured to different towns and cities and saw how the world around us was crumbling. We merchants understood what we had while the rest of the townsfolk to this date remain obnoxiously ignorant of the outside world. They don’t know the plight of the people living outside and that was only because we merchants protected them from this information.’
‘After the one year I spent travelling and trading, I realized why Vereen was still alive and prospering. I felt the presence of the soul in this place. That realization gave me a sense of mission. After learning about the darkness and desperation glooming around, I took a pledge to protect this place from the evil outside. Taking charge and leadership was the first step. I quickly climbed the ranks in the trade business using my skill and experience as a fence. I vowed to the lord to hide this town from the world outside.’
‘A lot of steps had to be taken. Firstly, we made it so that going out of the town was frowned upon if you weren’t a merchant. Then the merchants were asked to hide the truth about the suffering of the world outside, even from their own families. We understood what was at stake here. We had to keep the circle small so we kept other people from trading outside. We always had enough money so we created all kinds of jobs here so that every single person had something to do without having to leave town. We hired guards and maids that we didn’t need. Hired accountants, bankers and bureaucrats that we could do without. We made this town completely self-sufficient. Everyone has a job and everyone is wealthy.’
‘We also have very planned and careful trade expeditions when we venture outside. It’s a smoke and mirrors expedition where we make plenty of diversions and keep circling around to hide the location of our place. Our caravans are heavily armed so we have never faced an ambush either.’
‘For over a decade we’ve remained hidden, we’ve remained safe. But now it’s over. You’ve come here and you’ve marked this place for death. We’re strong but we’re not strong enough to face the thieves guild. Once the word reaches out we’re doomed. Everyone would rush in here and ravage this place till there’s nothing left. The desperate folks outside will eradicate the last piece of soul from the country just to live on for a few more days.’ It broke my heart to see the man’s psyche get torn apart. He knew that everything he built and protected all these years was going to crumble. The one thing he swore to safeguard was about to be taken away from him. He was vulnerable and this was the time to strike the iron.
‘Listen Mikhail. None of us in the guild ever suspected that this town would still have the greens. Judging from the placement of a small town in a position so awkward in the maps, we expected it to be a wasteland. I was shocked to the core when I walked in here. It didn’t take me long to understand what was going on here and as you might know, I have good reason to feel the presence of the soul compared to most people. I knew what was at stake here. What you have here is beautiful and important and it needs to be protected. I understand that. Now, if you kill me or keep me locked up, it won’t be long before a follow-up party shows up. Trust me, they won’t be too easy to capture and squeeze. Their duty is to observe and report back to the guild and that will attract a lot of attention. Not the kind of attention you need.’
I had laid down the stakes for him and it was time to make the offer. ‘I don’t want the guild to ever set foot here. I know it’s absurd to ask this as a thief, but give me a chance. Let me try and take their attention elsewhere. I can’t guarantee you total success but even today I am a top member in the guild and my voice is taken seriously.’ There was no collateral that I could offer but I couldn’t give him anything more than basic assurance. ‘This place is much more than a chest to be looted. This place is the future of the world. I’ve seen too much despair in this world and I don’t want to see the innocuous people here to have to face the same fate.’
I stood up and walked up to him. I placed my hand on his shoulder and assured him. ‘Consider me a part of your mission Mikhail. The guild is my family but I’ll even face them if I have to protect this place. Only a few people know about my venture here and I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure their silence. Let me go and deal with the situation. I just have one request. Grant the Forrests’ permission to leave this place.’ A million thoughts ran through his head as soon as he heard my offer.
‘Why?…. Why them? What do they have to do with anything?’ The offer was solid but he needed to understand the this strange variable.
‘I’m sorry Mikhail but I can’t tell you anything about that and I don’t want you to think any more about that. The safety of this town is of the utmost importance and their exit won’t hinder it. I’ll ensure their security outside and make sure that they are under the best care. They have an important role out in the world that they can’t fulfill by living here. I know you have a lot of questions but I am not at the liberty of answering them.’ He sat back down in his seat and rubbed both his hands on his face while considering his options.
‘I know it’s a lot to ask. Entrusting something so valuable to a thief like me is an enormous gamble but you know my history and you know I have enough reasons to protect the soul.’
After taking a moment to think, he looked up to face me. ‘I used to look up to you Randall. You were an adept thief but more importantly you were a great man. You always put the interests of your fellow-men before you and that’s why everyone respected you. Please Randall, don’t betray me. You can leave and so can Mirriam and her kid. They are family to me, like every single person in this town. I am entrusting everyone’s fate on to you. Please….. do not forsake us.’ He stood up and shook my hand. I gave him a promising nod and we left the room.
Here’s the next chapter : Chapter 4 : A Confounded Mother