7-1 The End of the Beginning
Edge was in a bad mood. He’d been in a bad mood for two days now. It was partly because of the cold, but mostly, it was the void. The sudden evacuation of his bank account left a huge vacuum that sucked away all his joy.
He wasn’t broke, not yet. However, he wouldn’t have quite as much comfort if he were to find himself abruptly retired. That was the problem with mercenary work. Any day, you could lose a limb, break your spine, have upwards of fifty percent of your body chewed off. Then, you weren’t a mercenary anymore. With all your skills firmly locked in the killing things sector of the economy, you weren’t set up to be much of anything. That was why the smart ones built a little nest egg. Something Edge used to have.
Thinking back to what’d gobbled up his juicy egg, Edge glared irritably at an unassuming shop front and forced the attendant girl to jump backwards and cower behind the curtains. Even the rover only had tire chains as a winterization option. No one needed removable sleds and treads for the winter months. Where would they even store the damn things?
He would’ve said exactly that, but the Captain felt too sorry for the woman just because they blew up a little of her car. Well, all of her car, but the car wasn’t that big before they turned it into a smoldering wreck.
Edge sighed out his frustration and stopped his feet. Looking around he realized that he was almost lost. He’d certainly never seen this obnoxiously quaint boutique before. However, Narabesque was hard to get lost in, at least compared to winding streets of his youth. With only a little effort, he was able to move back onto his original course. Then, a few minutes later, he was standing before his destination.
Looking over the relatively squat building, Edge was again forced to marvel at the difference with Evelyn’s palatial offices. That was the difference between a branch office and the head. Quite a depressing distinction. From failing to live up to one third the height, to the completely mundane materials, lacking gilding or filigree, there was no comparison. The local office of the crimson raiders was almost pathetic. You wouldn’t even realize it was a branch of one of the four major guilds, except for the sigil that hung over the glass doors. A red shield with a drawn on it that was either holding a spear or impaled upon it. It was hard to tell.
Shaking his head at that mystery for not the first time, Edge pushed open the doors. Inside, he was greeted by a large, round desk and a young woman who was doing her best to replace her look of exhausted boredom with a smile. Edge explained his situation to the girl, whose every flustered movement screamed new hire, and was quickly sent up to his only contact in this lackadaisical building.
Jogging up the stairs to the third floor, Edge soon found himself before the office of the man he’d met no more than four times. Moving through the door, he found himself in a very mundane office with a mundane desk and a smiling man sitting behind it. His name was… Ed, or Fred, or something. Fraud was the firs thing that came to Edge’s mind at the sight of him. He had that sort of smile. It gave you the feeling that, even if he was telling you the sky was blue, he was able to find some angle to it.
Edge didn’t like meeting Mr. Fraud. Not only because, on their fourth meeting, he couldn’t get away with asking his name again and would have to make it through using ‘you’ and ‘friend’ a lot. However, the Captain’s close relationship with the E.M.T.L. through his niece made their relationship with the other three big guilds a little shaky. They had to take what they could get.
“Ah, Edge, just the man I wanted to see,” Mr… Fraud declared upon seeing Edge’s face, standing and opening his arms widely. “Please, take a seat.”
“Thanks,” Edge muttered, not hesitating for a second before dropping himself into the chair Mr. Fraud gestured to. “You had something for me?”
Mr. Fraud’s smile widened as he lowered back into his own seat. “It’s about what we were discussing before. Something came across my desk that could get you out of this city before spring.”
“How?” Edge asked, immediately sharpening his gaze into a suspicious glare. “Did someone manage to clear one of the passes? Or did someone discover another route? An unknown dwarven tunnel?” As the words came out of his mouth, Edge grimaced at them himself. How much would the information on something like that cost him? If Mr. Fraud here was the only one of his contacts who’d heard about it, quite a lot, probably.
“Not through the mountains,” Mr. Fraud responded with a shake of his head. His smile didn’t change at all, but still somehow took on a mocking tone that made Edge irritable.
“Where, then?” Edge asked, leaning back in the stiff chair and doing his best to keep his aggression from his voice. “We aren’t gonna go for a sea route.”
“I never once imagined you would,” Mr. Fraud responded with a shake of his head, his tone almost effervescent. “I was talking about the eastern route.”
“We’ve already decided that we’d rather winter here than risk getting stuck in San Ranto,” Edge responded. To keep himself from narrowing his eyes into a glare, he closed them entirely and pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew this guy was keeping his statements intentionally vague. It was a strategy, or a habit, either way it wasn’t endearing.
“And if I could give you a way through San Ranto without being stuck there?” Mr. Fraud asked, steepling his fingers and looking over them. “It’d be your only way out of here before the thaw. How much would that be worth to you?”
“Are you talking about people smugglers?” Edge asked, opening his eyes and allowing himself to glare. “We aren’t going to pay a bunch of guys to shoot us in the back and leave us in a ditch.”
“Your prejudices aside, I’m not selling you a service,” Mr. Fraud replied with a shake of his head. “I’m offering you a job.”
Edge widened his eyes and scratched his head as he asked, “A job that can get us through San Ranto without being detained?” Then he narrowed his eyes again and allowed some venom to mix into his words as he said, “We wouldn’t take a job from that mad bastard even in the best of times. For you to even think about it now…”
“It’s not for the king,” Mr. Fraud declared, frantically waving his hands in dismissal. “Not directly…”
“What are you being so cryptic about?” Edge asked, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Why not just come out and make your pitch?”
Mr. Fraud’s smile finally slipped from his face and he closed his eyes as he shook his head slowly. “I’ve already had four teams reject this job. I was hoping to ease you into the subject, you’re the last team I can reach out to on such short notice. Obviously, my plan didn’t go all that well.”
“What kind of job is it?” Edge asked, not wasting any effort empathizing with the man.
“It’s for the Forestry Guild,” Mr. Fraud answered, laying his head back in his chair and staring at the ceiling. “They already accepted a request to scout path to Aurorias. All the old roads big enough to move regiments down were ruined in the last campaign. San Ranto needs someone to get their people from A to B. The rangers, on the other hand, need some people to protect their man while he does his work.”
The rangers… not a group of people with a good reputation. They didn’t really have a bad one, either. They were just, generally mysterious. Elves were mysterious, so were the abandoned dwarven ruins, monsters had their own ways of being mysterious. Mysterious things got mercenaries killed.
“Protect him from what?” Edge asked, pinching the corner of his lip has he weighed the costs and benefits in his mind.
“Monsters, bandits, the usual,” Mr. Fraud answerd with a casual twirl of his finger.
“The knights?” Edge asked, raising a solitary eyrbrow.
“It shouldn’t come to that,” Mr. Fraud responded with a shake of his head. “…But if it should…”
“Clear an escape? That’s a big ask,” Edge tried to picture the situation. The knights would have to be dispersed if they were relying on backwoods routes, but they’d be outnumbered at least by 4 times. “How much would we be getting?”
“That’s for you to negotiate yourself,” Mr. Fraud answered with a shrug. “I’m sure you know how much the Forestry Guild values its members, few as they are.”
Edge turned his gaze to stare deeply into the corner of the room. He’d never worked with a ranger before. The idea of talking price points with that cryptic bunch sounded so tedious that he was already getting an ulcer just thinking about it.
In the face of Edge’s silence, Mr. Fraud’s face took on a shadow of desperation. “I’m sure it’ll pay well, and the field commander will be the one in charge on the ground. There’s no way the knights will be crazy enough to pick a fight with the ranger they hired. It should be so easy, it’s boring.”
Barely registering the man’s words in the midst of his thoughts, Edge turned back and was immediately surprised by the stress painting Mr. Fraud’s face. He had to wonder what the consequences were for failing to fill requests like these. There was no way Mr. Fraud was in charge of this branch, not if he was meeting with Edge. Probably third rung from the top. The perfect place for shit to land.
Thinking about that, Edge smiled and stood. “I’ll have to discuss it with my team, but I don’t expect it to be too hard a sell.”
Hearing Edge’s words, Mr. Fraud’s grin returned with a vengeance, this time dripping with nothing but relief. Hurriedly, he stood from his own seat and extended a hand across the table. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
As Edge grabbed the proffered hand, a thought struck him and he asked, “What kind of commission will you be seeing from this, anyway?”
“Ten percent of whatever they pay you,” Mr. Fraud answered, returning a firm handshake. “Industry standard.”
Edge narrowed his eyes at that. Evelyn only ever took seven and a half. After second’s thought, he said nothing, however. He simply released the man’s hand and turned away.
Evelyn would happily keep them trapped in this frozen hell for another four months. After the disaster that was their last commission, that wasn’t something Edge would allow. They were getting out of this damned city, even if it was on the coattails of a suspicious ranger.