Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nothing is Free

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The damp and gloomy hallway seemed endless. With the weak light of the torch trying vainly to burn away the shadows, Cid resigned himself to even more time spent below ground, in these accursed catacombs beneath the city of Torvado, which had belonged to the once mighty, now extinct, Sarykan civilization. Keeping the dead company was not at the top of his list of fun things to do, and wandering around looking for stable paths did not make it onto the list, either. An expert mercenary and adventurer could think of plenty of other things to occupy his time.

The world he lived in was always an interesting puzzle to think about. Long ago, the world was ruled by mages, men armed with the power of gods. That was back when the Sarykan civilization had thrived in ancient Sukeban, and before the mages got a bit too big for their voluminous robes.

The mages back then ruled the same way women did these days. They sought ever greater power, and used their soldiers to pursue their goals. The big difference was that mages had that handy little tool called magic. As would be expected, the deaths were in the millions upon millions, and they nearly ended up destroying the world. They definitely succeeded in burying plenty of their cities, he silently grumped. Their destructive tendencies complicated his job considerably!

Not that he had cause for complaint, or so he told himself. The Duke of Torvado paid high prices for genuine Sarykan artifacts, and money talked. Of course, the only trouble with hunting for those genuine Sarykan artifacts was that they were almost inevitably well hidden in extremely unpleasant locations, with the easy treasures long picked clean by other adventurers, and the more valuable treasures always protected by deadly traps that had visibly claimed more than their fair share of unwary adventurers. He wondered at the perversity of the ancient mage rulers of the world. Did they just like having opportunities to show off their godly powers?

Not that the traps were very original. In his childhood, Cid had been an avid reader and had discovered, much to his amusement, that almost all of the traps within the catacombs had not only been described within many of the books he had read…. they were downright cliché.

With a sigh, he looked around once again. The gloom was typical; the long abandoned Sarykan ruins had been thoroughly buried by millennia and in this case, further buried by the construction of a city. Duke Arutairu had assured him that this particular section should be empty, but Cid was not so sure. More than once, he had been forced to fight off greedy scavengers who did not have the sense to leave him be while he hunted. The sword he had forged had saved his hide more than once, and had been instrumental in getting him out of some of the more… original Sarykan traps.

Squinting into the gloom, Cid thought he saw some light at the end of the tunnel. Strangely, he thought of the Duke’s daughter, Danae. A pretty teenage girl, easily fifteen years his junior, owner of a healthy sense of adventure mingled with naiveté. To her, everything was new and shining. He himself had long ago made peace with the world, and viewed everything with cynicism. That was not totally his fault –not many people could view the world the same after a partner betrayed them into a trap, and left them to die. Among other awful memories. Ever since then, he’d worked alone, not trusting a soul.

He smiled humorlessly as he realized how like a mage that made him. When the world had ended, not all the mages had died. There had been a very few survivors, but nowhere near enough to rule the world. So they withdrew to the northern continent of Basileus, where they quietly built up their strength, trusting no one, working quietly in rumor until they went for round two and declared war on the world.Cid blinked after he entered a doorway he had seen, startled. Not only was this portion of the catacombs well illuminated by gaps in the ceiling that let in fair amounts of daylight, it was also relatively intact. Looking around, he could see cavernous palaces, aesthetically designed temples, and small homes, all made of stone.

Shrugging, he headed toward the nearest temple, hoping to find something of use inside. Taking the steps two at a time, he kept an eye out for anything suspicious. Surprises could be quite unpleasant for an adventurer, and always worse in a Sarykan temple.

Looking inside, Cid could not resist a slow, incredulous whistle. Not only was the temple altar amply bedecked with golden necklaces and figurines carved of precious stones, the bodies of dozens of his fellow adventurers liberally decorated the temple floor. Appraising the place with an expert eye, he noted several likely-looking traps. Cid stooped to pick up a rock, and then threw it violently against one of the floor tiles. He was not surprised when a pair of sharp metal needles rose from the floor, resulting in what more than likely would have been an unpleasant separation of the left and right sides of the body. Humming a dancing tune, he got to work setting off each trap from a distance, memorizing its location, and then resuming. When he had finally found each trap, he nodded, and then made his way up to the altar, keeping a close eye on his steps.

Once there, he smiled at the treasure. Cid removed a small bag from his belt and began filling it with golden necklaces and rings. The bag was small by necessity, to give him maximum freedom of movement, while allowing him to easily carry out a fortune. “Greed kills more men than bad planning and lack of skill put together,” he murmured softly.

Not that the old mages had been greedy. The War of the Orders had pitted the united nations of women against the mages. Soldiers and fleets sworn to the female rulers of the Order of Despoina fought against the mage knights and their warriors of the Order of Basileus. It was patriarchy versus matriarchy in the most brutal fashion. The Order of Basileus brought northern Seleucia under its direct rule as a standstill developed. Eventually, the Order of Despoina could no longer send men to die fighting against those who had once been their masters. They compromised –Basileus kept all it had won, and Despoina kept all it had preserved.

His small bag firmly tucked away, he turned his eye to the jade figurine. A green as dark as his own eyes, it was ornately detailed, easily capturing the essence of its subject, which, he decided, could not have been more appropriate. The subject was an idealized, perfect depiction of a beautiful Sarykan princess. Well, maybe not perfect –for all he knew, the sculptor had taken artistic liberties with the looks of his subject in order to protect his own hide. The figurine stood two hands tall, her delightfully curved body and long legs wrapped in the beautiful clinging silk dress the Sarykan women seemed to prefer. Her long hair was wrapped in an intricate braid, and her face was, Cid decided, far more patrician than many of the so-called nobles he dealt with. She also bore a striking resemblance to Danae. Some long ago ancestress, perhaps?

Either way, the figurine would make a fat bonus in his wallet. Not that he was stupid enough just to walk up and take it. Something that well carved had to be well protected. Tossing rocks all around it, Cid was puzzled, then alarmed, to note that nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.

“Wonderful… If I pick it up, it’ll probably let some boulder loose that will chase me out of the city, or drop a rock pillar on me, or some other ridiculous cliché…” he muttered sourly.

Still, he thought it best to be cautious. Picking up a rock that seemed to be about the same weight as the small statue, he carefully took the figurine, then placed the rock in its stead. Looking around warily, he sighed when nothing happened. Making his cautious way out, he paused outside the temple gate. And groaned in annoyance.

His exit was now blocked by giant blades that swung back and forth, a pendulous and fast moving death trap waiting for the slow of foot and wit to attempt to cross. And just his luck that there was no other way out! He would have to run through that mess. Now was a bad time for the Sarykans to have been original. Especially like this. Gritting his teeth, he walked over to his exit, thinking dark thoughts about what he would like to do to the thrice-damned Sarykan architect who had come up with this particularly devious menace.

One…two…three…four…five… Cid quietly counted how long it took for the first blade to reach its outermost point of its arc before it would swing by again. He had a two count window to slip by. He positioned himself to the far left, did his count twice, then on the third repetition of two, leapt through, the blade swinging by where he had been. One down. However many left to go. The worst part so far as he was concerned was that all this effort was for a pittance! Well, a pittance and to avoid becoming dead adventurer on the floor.

I am definitely demanding a bonus for this!

***

Cid stood in the private reception room of the Duke’s castle, impatient to be gone from the gaudy place. Duke Arutairu, a fat and pasty man with more money then taste, stood behind his desk, greedily pawing at the riches that had come from far beneath his domain. Every time Cid encountered the Duke, he tried to puzzle out how the devil the man had ever inherited the position of battle leader for this frontier province. While women might rule most of the world, places like the frontier and the unclaimed lands were entrusted to men. Just like the days of the War of the Orders, men still did the dying on the battlefield.

Danae stood off to one side, her eyes on him. Or at least, he felt her eyes on him. Every time he turned to look at her, the gaze he was sure was focused on him was elsewhere. Two guards stood at the door of the room, supposedly to protect the Duke, but Cid was not worried. The two were not professional soldiers, just peasants who looked like they knew what they were doing. The Duke really shouldn’t announce that he was all about appearances like that.

“Excellent work, Cid!” the Duke exclaimed, pleased at the treasures Cid had risked his neck to get him. “Now, what was it we agreed on? Fifty copper coins for each treasure you brought back?”

Cid snorted in annoyance, sourly remembering that it always came down to this. Forcing his client to pay up the agreed upon wages. He knew of adventurers who agreed to less, and he could not believe how stupid they were. One client had attempted to double-cross Cid, and had paid for that effrontery with his life. He hated dishonest people, and hated being cheated even more. Glaring at the Duke, in his pompous laces and silks, he coldly declared, “Ten silver for each ring, twenty silver for each necklace, and seven hundred gold for any works of art. At those pre-agreed rates, you now owe me two hundred ninety silver coronets and seven hundred gold crowns. Plus a bonus of my choosing at a time of my choosing.”

The Duke looked up at Cid, angered. It was pretty obvious that no one had ever spoken to the fat pampered bastard like that, especially not a lowborn Alesian frontier peasant. No doubt Arutairu had been scheming on how to wriggle out of what he had promised to pay. “And if I don’t feel like paying?” the fat man asked nastily.

Cid did not bother to draw his sword. Even with their pikes, the two guards were hopelessly overmatched, and they knew it. He swaggered over to the Duke’s desk, leaned in close, and spoke softly in a casual tone that belied his words.

“You know what’s interesting about impalement? How long it can take to die. It all depends on how the impaler does the task. If it’s done right, the impaled takes days to die. You aim through the guts, under the rib cage, into the left lung, and out the back. It’s unfortunate, but the impaled usually end up defecating at this point. But really, that’s no concern of the impaler, so long as he stays in front. Usually, the impaled tries to pull himself free, even if it is a hopeless exercise. I suppose they just want to get away from the smell. But they usually don’t have the strength to get away. So there they stay, stuck in their own shit, unable to breathe, each beat of their heart utter agony.”

The Duke’s brown eyes rose to see the promise of death present in the jade depths of Cid’s eyes. “But I’m certain that you’ll never have to know about that first hand, will you, Duke Arutairu?”

The Duke’s pasty countenance had paled to the color of paraffin wax. By now, he would be busy recalling just whom he was dealing with. Not simply “Cid.” He was dealing with the man who rumor and reputation called “The Mercenary,” a man whom merchant princes and noblewomen feared, who was owed favors by the rich and powerful, a man who enjoyed the high regard of the Grand Duke himself. As Cid’s dishonest client had learned in slow agony and mired in his own excrement, it was a reputation well deserved.

“Ah, yes. Thank you for reminding me,” the Duke said weakly. He gestured to his daughter, his hand festooned with rings as gaudy as the reception room. “Danae? Please lead our friend to the treasurer.”

Smiling shyly, the girl curtsied, her mane of brown hair firmly tucked into an intricate braid. Preceding him out the door, she led the way toward the treasury, glancing back at him every few steps with eyes filled with admiration. Following her, he began to relax, to ponder the nature of whatever bonus he would demand. It was probably her figure that provoked the errant thought, but maybe his bonus would not be monetary, this time. Just maybe, it was time he settled down with a pretty wife. After all, he could not keep adventuring forever. Eventually, he would grow old, and his wits would wither. And he rather liked the thought of twisting the knife into this Duke’s pride. But for the moment, the bonus could wait. He needed to get paid.

Nothing is free. Especially not me.

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