Smuggler's Road


About this chapter

Rating: MA

Content Warnings:

Genre: Fantasy/Adventure

Along the northern coastline where the golden sands transform into the dark soiled of the farmlands and the towering cliffs are kissed ferociously by frothy blue waves; there is a city. It hugs the expansive inlet that forms Queen’s Bay, the mouth of which is framed by the powerful archways of the aqueduct that provides clean water to the wells and bathhouses of its people. To the west of the inlet, one can see the great sandstone lighthouse of Pranesi, commissioned by a queen of Verdant’s past, maintained by a queen of the present, and unfailingly guiding ships into the docks for as long as there has been a record kept on its history. To the east, sitting high above the rooftops and expanding ever outwards until the base of its towers climb like ivy up the cliffs and into the sky is the royal household and the palace estates. Only the Queen and her family may reside there, perhaps with some favored members of her court. It is flanked or perhaps surrounded, by impressive towers, each representing one of the Five Houses of Verdant and headed by a member of the Queen’s council. Beyond the well-guarded gates and flowing down the hillside lies a sprawling neighborhood of protruding villas and manor houses of the noble (or suitably moneyed) families within the capitol, most if not all of which bare the mark of a citizen and all the privilege that implies. They like to remain close to the palace when conceivable as currying favor is much more difficult from a distance.

Down in the basin where most of the people live and work one may find themselves drowned in the cacophony of sound and color that is Verdant culture. It spreads outwards from the docks, traveling through lime-wash buildings and cobblestone streets until it reaches the towering walls and wide gates which stand between them and the wilds of the desert. Atop the gates stands large barrel-mouthed horns that catch the wind and release a low, bellowing noise whenever a sandstorm begins to approach, warning the people to take cover. In the center of the city there is a magnificent fountain from which anyone is free to come and drink their fill, and behind it stand the royal grain houses, where each bit of barley is accounted for and dispensed to the people in fulfillment of Verdant’s promise that no one who lives within her nation will ever go hungry. Warrior soldiers are a frequent sight as the House of War has its main compound within the Proper, the War Matriarch herself sits on the Queen’s Counsel. These women make for impressive figures in their blue fatigues and sturdy boots, a reminder to every little girl that the most secure route to citizenship is through military service.

From the crack of dawn till the last throws of sunlight, there is nowhere in the Proper that is not bustling with activity. Temple spires release a musky, herbal scent as the priestesses go about their work, offering to heal to those in need and devotions to their patron goddess Tiamati. Shopfronts set under tidy second-story homes are filled to the brim with their customers. Barkers standing at the door and invite people in to sample the wares or see what’s been brought overseas from the newest shipments. Taverns open the doors wide, ensuring they let in a steady ocean breeze while folks drink amber ales and sip wine so dark it is almost black. Food vendors stand at the grill, slicing dripping meat onto flatbread with thick sauces and peppers to suit the pallet. Children run about screaming in delight as their fathers try to wrangle them in while the mothers do business. Minotaurs stand tall above the crowd with their brass-capped horns as they make deals for the freshest produce from the Farmlands and shout orders to their thralls. With their heads half shorn and their faces downward to avoid unwanted attention, thralls jump to obey, serving their time for crimes or debts unpaid with the promise of going home to motivate them. Entertainers bedecked in their mismatched clothing stand about on every street corner, offering a song for a few coppers or charming the crowd with juggling or sleight of hand tricks. The city guard keeps a watchful eye over the happenings, but they rarely have much to do besides breaking up a tavern brawl or perhaps nabbing a cutpurse in the act. Beyond the walls are a footpath of covered stalls and nomadic carts displaying the works of the Gabelin folk, their dyes, and embroidery a highly valued commodity if one is willing to haggle with them at length. They have bright yellow eyes that rarely blink and large, bat-like ears seem to catch every hesitancy with startling accuracy. Everywhere in the Proper, there is the motion of lives being lived with intent.

Off the main street, distanced from the comings and goings of the more decent folk there stood a woman with dusky blond hair and a poorly carved mark on her chin that indicated either a botched citizen’s mark or one that had been illegitimately obtained. Irez watched the crowd come and go with a passing interest as she stood at the mouth of an alleyway, ensuring her associates had the privacy they needed. She paid little mind to the scuffle proceeding at her back, knowing full well that they wouldn’t be going anywhere until she said so. He had given them a good chase at first, but all it had taken was a few well-placed punches to the gut for him to understand that he was better off accepting the beating as quietly as he could. She let the twins work him over for a while until the man let out a soft wheeze before calling an end to it. Irez jerked her head and a tall yenya with dark stripes along his snout snorted and covered his features with the hood of his cloak, taking her place as a lookout. Vexali would have to be very careful not to be spotted, as his kind weren’t well-received within Verdant as a whole, much less within the cities. The keen fear folks had from their people made the two Yenya capable enforcers, and Irez liked to bring them out in instances such as this. Pasmati, a shorter but keen-looking Yenya stood waiting, teeth bared with a threat of casual violence towards the man kneeling in the dirt and trying to catch his breath. Irez heaved a sigh, crouching down in front of him and reaching out to straighten his clothing with feigned politeness. “I want you to know I’m not angry, Vashmid. I’m just disappointed.”

The man made a harsh, wet noise, licking the blood from his busted-up lip and staring at her through the one eye that wasn’t bruised and swollen. He rubbed a hand through the loose threads of his hair, trying not to make any sudden moves. “It was never my intention to disappoint you, Irez,” Vashmid said between unsteady breaths. “I’ll find a way to pay you back. I will…”

“Maybe I’d be less disappointed if you explain to me how you managed to bungle a shipment so badly that you brought the port authority down on your head.” She asked through a smile that displayed how content she would be to end this discussion right now if he failed to come up with a suitable excuse.

“There was n-no bungling. I swear. We were loaded up and set to sail with the morning tide. The fishing boats came back from their early morning pass and word got around the docks that there was a pirate vessel spotted just off the coast waiting for victims.” Vashmid kept his tone respectful as if he could get her to understand that he hadn’t intentionally orchestrated this somehow. “Every ship in port was grounded until one of the naval boats could be put into the water to go check things out. That alone delayed us a day.”

“I’m not much for long stories myself. I guess just don’t have the attention span for it.” Irez told him, pulling a long dagger from its sheath and trailing it up under Vashmid’s bushy beard till she felt the scratch of his chin hairs against the blade.

“We had a new crew!” Vashmid trembled, not daring to raise his hands or else she might cut him anyhow. “They weren’t on the roaster yet, last-minute hires to cover the people we lost from the hurricane! They didn’t know anything. We hadn’t had the chance to start paying them off. One of them must have discovered the secret hold and found the cargo. That’s the only way the port authority could have known.” He swore with tears in his eyes, sweat pouring off his brow as he shook. “I barely managed to sneak off and swim ashore. Everyone else got taken in for questioning.”

Irez made a disapproving tsk in the back of her throat, looking up at the yenya next to her. “See, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes it so hard for me to trust people. Vashmid, I find it very hard to believe that out of the whole crew you are the only one who managed to escape the guards. I mean if it were me I would have let myself be arrested to throw off suspicion and then traded them information so I could avoid enthrallment. But I guess that’s the difference between you and me.” She put a hand around the back of his head and grabbed the hairs on his neck, pushing the dagger till she could see a divot in his flesh. “I think of these things.”

“I-I noticed! I’ll have to keep that in mind for next time.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions.” growled the female Yenya with a grim inflection.

Irez let go of his with a jerk, standing back up and rubbing her chin. Despite the seeming glare of her features, she wasn’t actually angry with anyone. Perturbed to be sure. But angry didn’t solve her problems in there here and now. One cargo hold lost at sea was understandable, it happened from time to time and you couldn’t be in this trade without accepting certain losses and accommodating. But a second loss to the authorities could only mean trouble down the line. Arrests meant inquiries, which inevitably meant more arrests. Sooner or later someone was bound to start talking and once they did the entire House of Thralls would be breathing down the necks of the city guard for a suitable response. Would they find anything? Possibly. Even bureaucrats were bound to show competence now and again and a guard could always get lucky. What mattered more to Irez was what this would mean for her future prospects.

She glanced speculatively at the man who knelt before her, awaiting his fate. It would be less of a headache to slit his throat and dump him in the sewers. But if she did there was a good chance someone would recognize him and trace his name back to the ship’s ledger. That would only serve to confirm suspicions that there was an illegal transport ring right under the nose of Verdant’s own Proper. If she wanted to get rid of this pest she’d have to find another method of doing so. For now, he was still potentially useful. “Would you like a chance to make this up to me?”

Vashmid lifted his head with dour hope that he might survive the day. “Whatever you want. Anything. Name it.”

Irez held up a finger. “First thing? I want you to find these crew members you told me about. Question them. Get them piss drunk, beat the brains out of them, I don’t care. But find out who opened their mouths and make sure they can’t do that again. If I don’t hear something about a body face down in the water within the next few days I’ll find a stone to tie to that beard of your and throw you face-first into the ocean.”

“Yes. Of course. I don’t remember their names but I know their faces. I’ll find them.” He promised with a shaking voice, eager for any way to get out from under her thumb.

“Second, I want you out of the Proper. If you’re here sooner or later people will come looking. I don’t care if you run to the Red Wastes or stowaway on another ship but get gone and get gone fast.” She ordered him quickly, thinking of ways to close off potential trails back to her. Vashmid knew their system well enough that she needed to maintain him as a resource, but she wasn’t going to stick her neck out more than she had to. “I don’t want to see you till next season. Speaking of which…” She hovered over him, arms crossed as she licked her gums behind tightly closed lips. “Fifty percent of your shipment goes to me.”

“What?” Vashmid found his balls from somewhere, shooting her a cringing look of disbelief. “You can’t do that! I have my own backers I have to pay off. You’ve never been to other ports. There are bribes that have to be paid, people who need to be convinced to look the other way. That comes out of my profit.”

“That’s very interesting. Tell me, who else supplies you with cargo?” Irez opened her arms as if asking him to produce a list of names on command. She was starting to reach the end of her good temper and it would put a crimp in her day if she had to slit his throat after all this trouble. “Can you name anyone else who has reliably turned up with shipments that you have reliably lost? No?” She waited for him to answer, her grin turning wide as he avoided her gaze. “That’s what I thought. Do what I tell you. Lastly,” she considered her options and heaved a sigh. “You’ve still got a brother who works in the guild transport, right?”

“Cousin. By marriage.” He confirmed with an empty voice that acknowledged she had him on the hook for whatever she wanted.

“The guild always has an easy time processing shipments with little scrutiny from the port authority. Get hold of your cousin and find something on him. I refuse to believe anyone related to you doesn’t have a foothold in dealing under the table. Find something and get it to me. I’ll take care of the rest.” Irez nodded to herself, satisfied with the amount she’d been able to extract from this little meeting before she snapped her fingers. “Go. Get out of my sight.”

Vashmid did not need to be told twice. He scrambled up to the end of the ally and planting his back to the wall as he tried to avoid getting any closer to the Yenya than absolutely necessary. Vexali made a low growl and snapped at him, sending the fool running off to do Irez’s bidding. Pasmati rolled her eyes towards their human friend with derision, swiping her bottle-brush tail against the cobblestones. “Tell me we’re not depending on that twit to accomplish anything.”

“I generally don’t. This is a rare moment where he has just as much to lose
as I do.” The woman brushed back the tufts of fur on the Yenya’s cheek with a lingering fondness. “What’s wrong, Pasmati? You worried about me?”

“I’m worried about what you’ve got planned. We’d have had enough if it was just the hurricane but two lost shipments won’t sit well with her ladyship.” Pasmati reminded her candidly even as she leaned into the touch. Her brother joined the two of them, his wide paw pads making no sound on the stone. “Maybe you should take your own advice and head out of town till next season.”

“I can’t afford that. If Lady Jesmene finds out I picked up and left I’ll be lucky to keep my head on my shoulders, not to mention maintaining my contacts and reputation.” Irez huffed, a frown working its way over her features as she set herself into a more determined mindset. “No. I’ve got work to do. There’s time for one more run before the sandstorms begin to come in. What routes haven’t we tried in a while?”

Vexali scratched behind his ear with a low, mindful growl. “There’s always Lodestone. Thralls vanish in the deep mines all the time so they’re usually good for a dozen or so. It won’t make up for everything but it may show your backer that you intend to carry through.”

“It’s a long walk from Proper to the Lodestone mines, most of it along a patrolled caravan route,” Pasmati noted with a concerned tone.

Irez considered the possibility, leaning her head back as if to let her thoughts rattle around her brain. She did still have contacts stationed there and it had been a season or two since she flushed their resources. With the right plan and a few more hands to get the work done, it might be entirely possible to come out of this stable if not ahead. “There aren’t any other points close enough to get back in time. It’s Lodestone or nothing and you know how much I hate nothing. You two need to get clear of town before someone reports a couple of scraggly Yenyas prowling through the streets. Give me a few days to see if Vashmid makes good on his end. If I can get that cousin of his under my control we may have work to do soon so get yourselves prepared.”

Pasmati gave her a reassuring lick on the cheek, the hot breath against her neck thrilling even through the stress. “We’ll be ready. Keep safe till then. I know you like to think you have eyes in the back of your head but I’ve gotten an awful good view of it on a regular basis and so far I haven’t seen anything staring back at me.” She teased while her brother groaned and made a complainant in the form of a guttural moan.

“Next time try pulling my hair and see what you find.” She grinned and gave Pasmati’s tail a soft tug at the base before they headed off. There was a grate at the end of the alley, leading down into the sewer system and out to the ocean if you knew which paths to take. Irez had mapped them carefully and left marks on the bricks so she and her companions would know where to go. The twins were very good at not being spotted when they didn’t want to be so she held little worry for them. There was plenty to go around in every other aspect of her life right now.

Irez straightened herself up, considering her next move from this point on. Lady Jesmene would know about the debacle soon enough if she didn’t already. The woman had a propensity for being marvelously well informed. If her ladyship had even a glimmer of suspicion about Irez there would be no hiding from her wrath. The smartest thing to do would be to stay out of sight until she was ready to go on another run, but make it clear she had no intention of leaving in a hurry. In the meantime, she’d need to flesh out her own crew. There was always someone who was willing to get a job done without bothersome questions provided you had the coin to pay. But this fell under a different heading. You could pay someone knife a minotaur before you could convince anyone to help you sell a thrall.

There was no getting around the fact that it was a brutal business to get into. Thralls were by law the property of the Queen, dispensed at her pleasure and to the benefit of the public to redress their crimes and debts through labor. There was a much fancier and more official way of putting things yet it all boiled down to the same outcome. Stealing a thrall meant stealing from the Queen, which the law took a very dim view of in general. If you were lucky enough to become a Citizen you could apply for one via the House of Thralls, which Irez had never been qualified to do. She’d always felt it ironic that someone who had gotten into the trade had never actually had a thrall to boss around. She’d seen them of course, with most of the poor bastards working in the farmlands under the minotaurs or in the military compounds scattered through Verdant. A good chunk of them were responsible for maintaining the Proper’s infrastructure; their sentences spent repairing the streets, maintaining the aqueduct, and even lighting the posts of the more decent neighborhoods at night. It was impossible to grow up in Verdant and not know that anyone walking around with half their head shaved and the look of a kicked dog was a thrall.

Where Irez came into the whole process was simple enough. Someone was always willing to pay for things they shouldn’t have and wanted anyhow. It was surprisingly more difficult to keep such things local. Thralls couldn’t be sold, traded, or exchanged without permission from the House of Thralls, which meant paperwork. Mind you someone was always open to bribery but all it took was one cracked wax seal to have an entire line of people end up under questioning. Verdant didn’t do prisons, which meant a guilty charge would find themselves exiled or enthralled, and it was up for debate as to which one made for a worse outcome. At an easy fifteen years per illegally obtained thrall, Irez would have to live a hundred lifetimes to cover all of them.

Which made for all the more incentive not to get caught.

On the other hand, smuggling overseas had proved itself to be a very lucrative business opportunity. It was much easier to explain a missing thrall than a traded one and far less paperwork to boot. If you learned to take them from the right places and who to shuffle the workloads around to then a thrall could vanish for years before anyone picked up on the error and went looking. By that point the poor bastard had long since suffered an unrecoverable demotion in status and Irez had been paid for her part in it. If the House of Thralls didn’t do its job adequately enough and a few ships full of thralls never saw their homeland again it was more their fault than hers. At least that was the way she had chosen to see things.

Irez moved her way patiently through the streets, doing her utmost to avoid attention or seem as if she was trying to hide. She could have taken the sewer paths but if her backer was in a foul mood and had decided to send one of her lackeys to question Irez then she didn’t want to make it any easier for them to grab her. Instead, she took her time browsing the stalls and making a few cheap purchases, trying to be clear that she wasn’t intending to vanish as she planned her next move. She had gotten used to looking over her shoulder, one of the few benefits of growing up in the slums of the Proper known as Pauper’s Den. Otherwise, she might not have noticed that she was being trailed. There was a figure, dressed in a straw hat and garbed with poor cloth, who was keeping back a fair pace yet changing the position to stay within a line of sight. Irez huffed to herself. There was no avoiding it then. She’d have to answer directly or make herself look bad in the process. Irez turned around and caught the figure’s eye before she could pretend to be begging for coins. Irez pulled an orange from her pouch and peeled it with her knife as she approached, dropping it into the faux beggars’ bowl and walking away. Sure enough, as she rounded the corner Irez spotted her newly acquired shadow skulking after her

There were plenty of side streets and corners between her and Pauper’s Den. Any one of them would have been a decent spot for an ambush. One turn and the hum of activity from the shops dulled. Two turns and you couldn’t hear it at all. A few more blocks and you stopped seeing the city guard milling about to keep an eye on things. The further she got from the activity of the marketplace the more narrow and shaded everything became, building stacked up precariously against one another. The limestone wash crumbled to revealed old brick and decaying mortar and corners tended to stockpile debris. People around this part didn’t linger outside for very long during the day and not at all once night fell. Irez stopped at her own home, of which a finer and more exemplary display of Pauper’s Den architecture did not exist, pushing open the door and kicking it closed behind her. She didn’t bother with a lock and key. That was like putting out a sign that said “Please Rob Me” in bold lettering. Anything she had worth hiding was well hidden. She took down two wooden mugs and poured a measure of cheap barley beer in each one, sitting down onto a pile of old pillows to wait for her guest.

It didn’t take long. The door creaked open and the figured dressed in rags stood there with the sun at their back, shrouding them in a bleak shadow. They turned their head, examining the room with interest before letting themselves walk inside, the door swinging shut with a clatter behind. “You spotted me.” Complained the gravely voice underneath the wide-brimmed straw hat.

“I assumed you wanted me to. If I’d have known you were trying to be subtle I would have pretended not to see you.” Irez gestured to the pillows, inviting the figure in for a drink. “Were you sent to talk?”

“I was sent to discuss.” She answered, lifting off the hat to reveal a thin mouth set into a wide jaw and eyes that were a touch yellow. She walked over to the table, taking a seat and leaning forward with gauged interest. “You had to know someone would be sent. Lady Jesmene does not take kindly to interruptions, much less ones that bring the authorities into the mix. She wants to know if you have any excuses to offer.”

“I wouldn’t waste her time. However, seeing as you haven’t killed me outright, I would like to assume she’s amiable to continuing our profitable relationship.” Irez eased herself back, sipping at the cup while she waited for a response. She got one in the form of a dry and un-amused laugh. “Did I say something funny?”

“What makes you think I’m not here to kill you and dump your body in the sewers?”

Irez shrugged. “I feel like you would have done it already. Besides, I’ve been a very productive addition to her business up until recent events. How many runs have I managed on time with the cargo intact? Surely that’s got to be worth another chance.” Irez smiled with guile in her dimples, hiding the nervousness beneath her skin. The figure tapped on the table, their nails making little wooden clacking sounds as they considered the best move. Irez decided to press the opportunity. “I’ve already started laying the groundwork to move before the season’s change.”

“You won’t have enough time to do a full circuit…”

“Because I’m not planning on one.” Her swift interruption cutting off her guest’s concerns. “This is a turnaround operation. One-stop, there and back. Bare minimum crew to maximize the profits from a sale.” She did not like the inflection of the figure’s chuckling, it had an edge of disrespect that made the hair on the back of her neck prickle.

“I’d be interested in knowing how you plan to manage that. The port authority is already in the process of scouring every ship in the harbor. Cargo checks are likely to continue for weeks if not months and once the sandstorms begin to come in they’ll be docked till the rains start.” The guest took the mug and sipped at it cautiously. “Not to mention fewer folks will be open to bribery with the House of Thralls fired up enough to hogtie a gryphon. How do you plan to get around that?”

Irez rolled her eyes. Did people never think beyond the end of their nose? “By not bribing anyone.” She leaned forward, inviting her guest to lean in. She didn’t dare reveal too much of her plan, especially not when she was still in the prep work stage. She knew better than to try and keep Lady Jesmene in the dark though. She had to offer enough information to give her backer confidence that she could deliver as promised. “I won’t bore you with details except this; tell Lady Jesmene to expect her payment in full when I return.”

“And if your scheming falls through?”

“I expect you already have a plan for that.” She responded with a glower. “Now if there is nothing else you’d like to ‘discuss’ I have a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time.”

Her guest seemed to be weighing the pros and cons of this brief interview, deciding if it would be better to deliver a message or a bloody limb. A thick and uncomfortable silence clung to the room until she stood up, putting her hat back on. “Be assured that you will have someone keeping an eye on you. Think your movements over carefully, and consider yourself lucky that she still has some faith in you to deliver.”

Irez pouted before saying in a mocking tone, “You don’t want to stay and finish your drink?” All she got in response to her jib was a gruff humph before the intrusive woman slipped out the door and away down the street. Irez stayed where she was for a long time, sipping her beer and contemplating her next move. Despite all her insistence that they would need to move quickly, there was a great deal to consider before she risked everything. Irez didn’t get the feeling that this was meant to be a threat so much as a provocation. An inquiry to see how she’d react. Or perhaps just a reminder of who was still in control. Whoever had been captured for questioning was either very good at keeping their mouths shut or in all possibility didn’t know who to point a finger at. The best way to run this business was to keep everything compartmentalized. Someone like her ladyship could afford to lose ten Irez’s and still turn a suitable profit so long as none of them opened their mouths. Which of course only a fool would do. You didn’t just go around accusing noble-born, battle-proven Citizens of breaking Verdant’s most cherished laws without having evidence. Loyalty on the other hand could be a prized asset. Letting yourself take the fall was known to result in unusually short sentences, significantly reduced charges, or remarkably cushy terms of service for someone who was arrested for enslaving thralls.

Irez had no intention of letting herself end up in such a position again. Two lost cargos meant two back payments due. She put down her cup, heading over to a corner of the room where there were clay jars and old barrels stacked up on top of one another. She popped open the lid of one of the barrels, reaching down into the bottom and undoing a hidden latch. This allowed the bottom to pop loose with a heavy click. Irez hooked a finger over the edge and drug it up, revealing a tunnel with a ladder propped up against the wall. Irez swung her legs in and got a foot onto the rung, climbing down a bit before putting the lid back on to cover her trail. The basement was not very large, perhaps only big enough for her to take four or five steps in any direction. Despite being fairly short Irez had to crouch a bit to avoid hitting her head. She took out a matchstick and lit a few of the candles, with a little light she could see the line along the brick walls indicating how high the seasonal flooding could rise. This led her to suspect her shack had once been an overflow regulation building back when the Proper had been much smaller. Over the years she had put some effort into ensuring it would not cave by installing support beams and reinforcing the walls. There was a brick pathway off to one end, blocked by some old rucksacks and wooden beams, which lead to the sewers if she needed a fast escape route. Irez leaned up, checking the bricks along the ceiling until she found the one she was after, tugging it free from the cheap plaster she had done herself and reaching her hand up into the hole. A spider or two crawled over her fingers and she shooed it away until she reached a wooden box covered in webbing and dirt. She fished this out along with an old leather-bound book stored in an oil-treated cloth to keep the water out.

She lay both items down on the floor, opening the box and counting out her funds before checking them against the ledger with an unhappy frown. Irez had thought herself used to the rise and fall of the business but this had not been a good season for transports. She would barely have enough to cover the costs of paying for sword hands to manage with, with almost nothing left to live on unless she wanted to dip into her reserves. If all of that failed, if catastrophe struck and left her out in the wilds, Irez realized she wouldn’t even have the coin to buy passage on a ship. She closed her ledger with a resolute smack, touching it to her head as her thoughts whirled towards a steady course of action. That was what she had gotten a reputation for, after all. Being a stable, reliable resource one could depend upon to deliver. Typically she had a set method for her runs. You never wanted to grab too many thralls from one area if you could avoid it. That would only raise suspicions. So you ran a circuit between cities, farmlands, and mining areas, taking a little from each and then rotating from year to year depending upon what you needed. This involved the usual routine of paying off someone to request more thralls than they needed, bribing a representative or a magister to make the paperwork vanish, and giving a cut of the profits to whoever was going to smuggle and ship the thralls out of Verdant. The most aggravating part of the whole system was always getting the cargo from one point to another without trouble. Irez had a fairly sustainable group she worked with that could successfully intimidate a bunch of thralls into submission. By now the raid from the port authority was going to be all over the city, which meant anyone smart would be lying low.

That meant a new group and a smaller one than she was used to working with. If she wanted to get anything out of this venture at all she’d need to take at least two dozen thralls from Lodestone, and she didn’t like to run that many without six to eight swords. She’d have to figure out another way. One that would not include spending her own coin. Not for the first time, Irez felt it was a pity that she didn’t have any friends in the House of Thralls who could help her out. Their representatives were notoriously difficult to bribe or even threaten as they tended to come from enthrallment themselves, making them quite protective over their duties and ridiculously proud of those little signet rings they wore.

As she sat there in the little runoff basement surrounded by debris, green mold, and ten years of earnings dwindling away in a hidden box, Irez felt the threads of her plan begin to knit together into something feasible.