From the Last Confessions of Guy the Magnificent, Day the Second

Day the Second

Good morning, confessor mine. Lovely weather you’re having out there in the fort, it’s a shame you and your faithful can’t spend more time enjoying it. Though I suppose I’m one keeping you from a day in the sun at the moment. Where was I? Ah, yes, the humble burg of Aster.

A few evenings after I was deposited from my escape of the Dawnward’s wreck, I was comfortably residing in a small apartment above a distillery. It was a home that left a little to be desired in location, but made up for in privacy. I’d sold all of the Captain’s little vials except for one at what I now know was a considerable loss. That was a lesson that still rankles to this day, Inquisitor. You know those mistakes, the ones that are so obviously a product of ignorance that they leave you a bit ashamed looking back.

No? I see then.

Equally enlightening was the local currency of trade. Good King Aster’s court issued the normal array of coins, all bearing his stern likeness in base metals. The value was not in the material, of course, but in the faith one put in the kingdom’s stability. Aster, despite its questionable value to the worlds of art or culture or artifice, was nothing if not stable, so its currency, backed by its boring king, was a valuable trade commodity for honest merchants around the Young Kingdoms. A staid and conservative hedge against the more dynamic kingdoms, as it were.

However, the treasurers of the Kingdom of Aster had bound little watch spirits into the currency. These invisible minders kept track of all transactions, whispering to the great vault what they were spent on and by whom. This was, obviously enough, not something I was interested in being a part of. Securing payment meant barter and other less satisfying methods of exchange.

You’ve taken a vow of poverty, dear Inquisitor, and so I’m certain you’ve never had a the thrill of possessing a fat stack of coins and baubles worth the yearly income of the average man many times over. But take it from me, the feeling is intoxicating enough that the barter goods I was offered were simply not worth it. Not to mention that moving on with an cart’s worth of assorted chickens, raw minerals from the Junk Mines and the like was a little too high-profile for me.

Instead, I took my payment in services and connections. First among them was my apartment, complete with the rank smell of sugars being reduced into the swill that was Aster’s favorite liquid inebriant. Second was a series of introductions to what passed for the local Guild of Larcenous Activities.

Don’t look at me like that, fair Inquisitor. It wasn’t actually called that; it went by the Brotherhood or the Night something or another. The Guild is merely my shorthand for those institutions that seem to sprout universally when sophonts congregate in urban locales.

Aster, being a predominantly human culture, was not entirely ready for my hirsute ethnicity, but I’d learned the arts of illusion for a reason. Carefully wrapped in a simple charm and a concealing cloak, I took to the streets to follow-up the contacts my bartering had revealed.

I won’t bore you with the various details of my careful teasing out of the underworld. I can see the sun through the bars, rushing towards the horizon, and I haven’t even said a word about the princess yet. Let me move along then:

Aster has a large and well-organized criminal underworld, run like a shadowy arm of government by elements loyal to the King himself. It was integrated directly into the various arms of his government in all but name only. As a result, it tended to behave itself. Thieves needed permission from their superiors to pull off jobs, permission which, depending on the level of preëmptive compensation offered by the target, was often not forthcoming. It was a distastefully civilized way to run an underworld and it bothered me somehow.

Possibly because it meant that I would have to jump through hoops and advance through the ranks before I could reasonably expect to collect the funds to depart the city in the manner I desired. And possibly for purely philosophical reasons. Fortunately, the criminal structure of the city produced a pool of talented youngsters who were equally as cut off from illegitimate gains as I was. It was child’s play to recruit them into a working cell of criminals working outside the organization’s structure.

In short, I started a crime spree. The hardest part was establishing a network of fences for all of the stuff we sold. My little crew of renegade criminals and I took Aster by storm. It’s been so long, and I’ve run this particular type of operation so many times since, that I forget my companion’s names, now that I’m pressed to think of them.

But it was such a ‘good trick’ that it worked out pretty much the same every time I tried it. We had the ‘Strong One’ to crush heads and draw attention when necessary. A ‘Fast One’ to draw blood when it had to be done. A ‘Smart One’ to take care of the traps and locks that stood between us and our loot. And me, the face and leader. The smoother of ruffled feathers and so on.

It was clear that we went a little too far when we robbed the King’s summer home. But the plan materialized so perfectly that I couldn’t help myself. We thought of ourselves as Gods of Crime back then, and like so many divinities our failure was hubris. When the message from the ‘rightful’ criminal organization arrived, telling us that it was time for them to acknowledge their mistake and include us in their operations, we were all too puffed up on our importance to think that it was a trap.

Or if it was a trap, that it could hold the likes of us. It should come as very little surprise that this overconfidence was our undoing. Are you smiling, Inquisitor? Overconfidence did land me in this cell, after all.

&&&

The meeting was at the Guild’s headquarters, a ramshackle set of warehouses that had grown into each other over the years. Their rough exterior fit in with the run down character of the neighborhoods adjacent to the port’s fields. Even in the growing darkness of twilight I could see some signs of fire damage on the wooden roof, scars leftover from the Dawnward’s slow demise.

They filled me with a degree of good humor. From a few rooftops away, my compatriots and myself were picking out the guild’s guards and timing their patterns. We slipped through them and into the main building. Arriving in style had certain benefits, we decided.
We found the building empty of people. It was especially disconcerting to my compatriots, who’d spend time in the building before we’d formed our splinter group. I heard their concern through intakes of breath and shocked exclamations of “It’s never empty.” Despite the emptiness, the building was in near perfect order. There was even food set out on one of the tables. The chairs, however, were arranged haphazardly, as if left abruptly.

“We should go,” I said.

“They didn’t even take the money,” one of my compatriots (was it the fast one?) said as we passed a table full of blank gold coins, waiting for the imprint of a forger.

“I believe I mentioned leaving?” I said as I hurried towards one of the hanging ropes we’d come in on.

In hindsight I think there was a brief tingle on the back of my head, the barest of psychic glances I might have noticed one time in a hundred. In a quiet, meditative environment. With my heart roaring and my instincts shouting an animal desire to be out from under this roof, I’m fairly certain the first real sign of trouble when was my joints locked up and I stumbled to the ground.

After that there was just the awkward view of the ground as I lay on my side. Chance put one of my compatriots, the smart one, in my view as he, too, fell. We sat there frozen, all of our muscles locked. Including those that pumped the heart and the moved the lungs.

In the silence, I heard a pair of footsteps, metal on stone and carpet. I may have…reinterpreted some of the dialog along the way just to smooth the telling and save strain on my memory, but the first words I heard King Aster say in my presence are verbatim.

“Ah, yes, here we are,” he said as he stood over my prone form. Has your heart ever stopped, Inquisitor? Or whatever equivalent you have in your chest? If the two sensations are at all comparable, you’ll understand how grateful I was to hear that beat start back up again. A panicked, arrhythmic pounding, mind you, but compared to the awful silence a moment before hand…

Unfortunately, my compatriots were not graced with the return of their basic functions. As I watched, still paralyzed, the flickering in the smart one’s eyes grew more desperate. As the King decided what to do with me, it grew slower, less responsive. Some indescribable light went out of it and I watched the soul depart to begin its journey into the arms of the Gods Below. Beyond his eyes, he never even twitched.

Perhaps that’s why I have such trouble remembering their names.

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