The Golden Guild: New Meat

After making a few forays into the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, the Dorato Guild realized that it would need to supplement its numbers with some new talent. We return again to the guild’s reluctant leader, Princess Megaera, as they begin their search…

The Golden Guild: New Meat

~Breakfast~

“Anja.”

I blinked. It was very early in the morning, and I still wasn’t entirely awake yet. “What?”

The girl Captain Adler had brought before us blushed rosily. “Anja. Anja Schutze. That’s my name,” she said. She spoke quickly, rushing through her sentences as if she was eager to get them over with so that she could return to being silent again. She was short — so short that she looked a child even though her application said she was four years my senior — and seemed dwarfed by the enormous crossbow she wore slung over one shoulder. She shifted its weight nervously as we regarded her, but she hadn’t taken her eyes off of me since she entered the room.

I suppose I only have myself to blame for that. I don’t really look the way a guild leader is supposed to. I’m far too young, for one, and Captain Adler says I look too delicate to be a real adventurer. But I can’t do anything about either of those things, can I?

Schutze… I wracked my brain trying to remember. I finally recalled that it was a northern name, which combined with the blonde hair, pale skin, and icy blue eyes, seemed to indicate that our prospective recruit hailed from one of the city-states there. I reminded myself to be especially polite, as northerners are notoriously touchy about social etiquette.

“So Captain Adler says you’re an arbalist?” I said, trying to dispel the awkwardness.

“Well… not really.” She looked away. “I’m actually an engineer — a tinker and mechanist. That’s my specialty, anyway. But…”

“But she had a bit of a mishap with the Engineers’ Guild and got herself ejected,” Captain Adler clarified with a grin.

“Mishap?” Phoebe said suspiciously. “What kind of mishap?”

Anja refused to meet our eyes as she squeaked “Explosions.”

“An explosion?” I exclaimed.

She sighed. “No. Explosions. Plural.” She looked as though she’d confess to burning down the World Tree if it would get her away from all those stares. “It was part of an experiment, see. The point of experiments is to find out what’ll happen, and if you don’t know what’ll happen you can’t be entirely sure what won’t. Explosions are just an occupational hazard when you’re an engineer, and everyone in the Guild is allowed a few, but…”

“But you went over your quota?” Jin said with a knowing smirk.

Anja’s embarassed silence was our answer. Finally she said “I can’t work as an engineer without the Guild’s approval, so I need a new job. Captain Giselle and I have worked together before, so when I heard her guild was recruiting again, I thought it couldn’t hurt to look into it.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t have much experience with fighting, but I’m a dead shot with Tessie here–” with this she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the mammoth bow “–and I’d be able to assist with any technical problems you might have — off the books, of course.”

“You named your bow?” I asked.

“Of course.” At the mention of her weapon, she smiled — rather prettily, I thought — for the first time. “I built her myself, after all, and pull a lot of care into every aspect of her design. If you can’t show affection for something you’ve made yourself, what can you show it to?” She glanced at me again and flushed, smile vanishing.

“At any rate, I can speak to her skill,” Captain Adler said. “I’d never seen a ship disabled so adroitly. The captain didn’t even notice anything had happened until he was already halfway sunk.” Anja’s blush became, if anything, even redder, making me wonder whether their previous escapades were entirely above-board.

“Perhaps a demonstration is in order, Princess?” Phoebe said.

Anja’s eyes narrowed, and flashed to Captain Adler. “Princess!?” she hissed.

“So they say,” Captain Adler responded evenly. “Look, she’s got the tiara and everything.”

“It’s no great thing,” I said. Now it was my turn to blush. “It’s not like I’m the heir or anything. Besides, I’m more like an ex-princess. I’m sure Father has disinherited me by now.”

“Ah — no, my Lady,” Phoebe said primly. “His Royal Majesty may not legally strip you of your birthright without first bringing charges against you, and he can’t do that unless you’re physically present. Moreover, he must prove that you knowingly and deliberately performed treasonous and/or seditious acts with the intent of harming the kingdom. It’s to prevent monarchs from trotting out trumped-up charges in order to make their favored child the heir. You’ve disobeyed him, and that will merit some punishment, but he can’t disown you.”

There wasn’t much anyone could say to that. I always forget that Phoebe knows more about the law of the land than even my father. The Royal Guard is trained to be loyal to the throne, not the individual sitting on it, so they’re required to know the precise limits of the office’s authority. The greenest recruit in the Royal Guard probably knows more about the kingdom’s legal system than the prime minister.

“I sincerely apologize for any offense I may have provided Your Highness,” Anja said nervously, curtseying as gracefully as was possible in her bulky arbalist’s gear.

“Come now, that’s not necessary,” I said. “If I wanted to be bowed and scraped to, I’d have stayed at the castle. We’re all working for the glory of the Dorato Guild here. I’m more interested in your skills than your ability to mouth polite formulas.”

“The demonstration, Princess?” Phoebe prodded.

I glanced at Anja. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” I said slowly. “If Captain Adler is willing to vouch for her, that’s good enough for me. Unless you have some specific objection?”

“No, my Lady,” Phoebe said.

“Oh, thank you!” Anja gushed suddenly. “I appreciate this more than you can know. You won’t regret this, I promise.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” I muttered.

Jin stood up. “Come now, Megaera, don’t spook the girl.” She turned to Anja. “Let’s step on over to my office, shall we, and draw you up a contract.”

Anja looked back at me one last time as she was led from the room, her expression unreadable.

~Lunch~

The wooden weapons clattered against each other, the sound echoing across the small practice yard where Phoebe was testing our newest potential recruit.

The place was busy today, but it was busy every day. In a city where guilds congregated from all over, the training fields where warriors could polish their skills and would-be adventurers audition for prospective employers never emptied. Even in the dead of night, rows of torches illuminated mock duels and heated contract negotiations. We’d been lucky to stake out even this tiny circle for out own purposes today.

The recruit in question was a swordsman, tall, blond, and slimly muscular. I watched him curiously as Phoebe put him through his paces in the ring — his brand of swordplay differed substantially from my own. My father’s swordmaster had taught me a graceful, elegant school of fencing that focused on evasion and striking the foe at their weakest point. This man, on the other hand, attacked with quick, brutal, wide swings. It was easy to imagine these blows severing limbs and cracking skulls, should they connect.

“What do you think?” I asked Jin, who was leaning against the railing, watching the flow of people pass by rather than the battle raging in the ring.

She looked perfunctorily at the battle, then shrugged. “He seems to be doing all right for himself — although I’m no judge. You know that swordplay holds no interest for me.” She looked away again. “Phoebe doesn’t seem too happy, though. I wonder if that’s a bad sign?”

I wasn’t so sure it was. Phoebe expects mediocrity as a matter of course, and she’s trained not to reveal expressions of disappointment or contempt. The only time Phoebe shows emotion is when things don’t go the way she expects them to, and if this swordsman was pressing her, it might speak well for him.

They circled each other warily, with Phoebe calling out the names of moves and stances every few minutes. The swordsman would then perform the requested action, and they’d clash again for a while longer. I recognized the first several techniques she called, but as the match progressed they grew more estoric and obscure. By the end Phoebe was shouting gibberish at far as I was concerned, but the swordman responded to each of her commands without hesistation and never slowed his attack.

Finally they stepped away from each other. Phoebe gripped her spear in both hands, held it horizontally at shoulder level, and nodded, a gesture I recognized as one of respect. The swordsman acknowledged the nod with one of his own, then gathered the wooden practice weapons and returned them to the lender while we conferred.

Phoebe walked over and tugged her helmet off, her silver hair spilling out. She was sweating profusely in the noonday sun. “He’s competent,” she said between pants. “His style is more reckless than I think is proper, but I suppose there’s more than one way to skin a lynx.” Phoebe has the soul of a drill sergeant, so I decided that if that was the most cutting criticism she could think of, this man must be very skilled indeed.

“He has no fear at all,” she continued. “No sense of self-preservation. He didn’t even flinch away from my attacks. Of course, it’s easy to be brave when you’re just sparring. He might not be so good in a real fight.”

“No worries there, I shouldn’t think,” Jin said, pulling out a sheaf of paper and flipping through it. “He spent the last two years as a gladiator in the pits. You don’t walk out of there alive unless you know your way around a weapon. There are also some unconfirmed reports that he did some freelance soldiering in the western wars a few years back. Plus the usual mythic stuff.”

“The what?” I asked, confused.

“Mythic stuff — you know, ‘this guy’s such a terror that he couldn’t possibly be a normal human; he must really be an elf or a demon or a legendary hero.’ Stories like that. All the best soldiers accumulate mythic stuff after a while. Pile of nonsense, usually, but it helps you get a read on someone’s reputation.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I don’t know about this one, you guys. He might be too rich for our blood. Skill like this usually doesn’t come cheap.”

“Let’s ask him,” I said. “Here, he’s coming back.” I motioned in his direction, where he was slowly threading his way through the crowds back to where we were standing.

“Well, my Lady Knight,” he said once he reached us. “And my Lady Guildmaster and Lady Treasurer, of course. Do I meet your exacting standards?” His voice was low and his tone amused.

“Passably so, yes,” Phoebe said stiffly.

“So let’s talk hard numbers, shall we?” Jin said, pulling out a blank piece of parchment and a hunk of charcoal. She began industriously scribbling. “Let’s say… standard arrangement, plus, oh, two percent of total profits?”

“Agreed,” said the swordsman.

Jin’s knowing smirk flickered, and she seemed uncertain for the first time in all the time I’d known her. “Um, what?”

“Those terms are acceptable to me. Is there some problem?”

“Uh, no,” said Jin. She seemed at a loss. “But you– you’re sure you don’t–”

She was interrupted by the swordsman tugging the charcoal out of her hand. Gripping it between thumb and index finger, he signed a single word — “Tristan” — in nearly-illegible scrawl at the bottom of the page. “Wonderful. We have a contract, then. The Dorato Guild, yes? I’ll go collect my personal effects and report for duty at your headquarters. Until then, good day.” He saluted briefly, then turned and began sauntering away.

“What’s wrong, Jin?” I asked once he was out of earshot.

“He didn’t haggle,” she said, still amazed.

“Was he supposed to?”

“He should have. Two percent — at our current rate of income, that’s not enough to afford sword grease, much less enough to risk your life for. What’s his angle?”

I frowned. “You’re not offering our recruits a liveable wage?”

“Well, no — not at first. That’s how haggling works, Princess. You start out unreasonably low, they start out unreasonably high, and eventually you work your way to an acceptable compromise. That’s civilization.” Her eyes continued scanning the contract, as if there was something there she’d overlooked. Then she shrugged, folded it into quarters, and hid it up her sleeve. “Ah well. If he wants to try and get by on one meal a day, that’s his business, I suppose.” She began walking away, whistling tunelessly.

Phoebe looked at me, frowning even more severely than usual. “If that man signed for that contract, it means he’s not looking for money. I wonder what it is he is looking for?”

~Dinner~

“This is all garbage,” Phoebe grumbled as she browsed through the piles of plate and chain metal.

I walked over to stand next to her, trying my level best to see the flaws that had her so disgusted. “It looks all right to me,” I said cautiously.

“It pleases you to joke, Princess, but this armor is so cheaply-made that I’d not put any confidence in its efficacy.” She poked a breastplate gingerly with two fingers, as though its mediocrity might be contagious. “It’s weak here, and here.”

“Well, we can’t all wear the golden armor of the Royal Guard,” I said.

“I’m aware of that, but I’d rather enter the labyrinth naked than trust my life to anything this rat’s nest has for sale.” She turned away in a huff.

“I’m sure the monsters would appreciate that.”

Calling the place a “rat’s nest” was a little ungenerous, I thought. It was actually a fairly fancy boutique, and the armor that had so vexed Phoebe was polished until it gleamed. I was sure that if Jin had been along, she’d have blanched and hustled us out before we could even consider purchasing anything from the place.

“Megaera? Megaera, is that you?”

I turned at the sound of my name and was suddenly assaulted by what could only be described as a pink blur. It grasped me in a massive bear hug, squeezing the air out of my lungs in one desperate gasp.

“It is you! Megaera! Oh, it’s been too, too long!” My assailant loosened her grip enough that I could pull back and take a good look at her. I recognized her immediately — I’ve never met anyone quite like her.

“I almost didn’t recognize you in that armor,” she said. “You look positively fearsome! Aren’t you going to introduce me to your stony-faced friend over there?”

“Uh… right,” I said, trying to gather my scattered thoughts. Where were my manners? “This is my cousin, Dame Phoebe Crepusculo. Phoebe, this is–”

“Tatiana, Tatiana Vecchio,” she gushed, grabbing Phoebe’s unresisting arm in both hands and shaking it vigorously. “Megaera and I are old, old friends — from the academy, you understand. It’s such a pleasure to meet you! Dame Phoebe, yes? I take it that means you’re a knight? How ferocious you must be!”

Phoebe looked as though she might strangle Tatiana with her bare hands, so I rushed to change the subject. “What brings you to Armoroad, Tatiana?”

“The same thing that brings anyone to Armoroad, my dear — the labyrinth, of course!”

“You’re an adventurer?” the prospect seemed strange to me. Tatiana’s father was an immensely successful shipping magnate, richer than some countries, and he’d ensured that his daughters didn’t want for anything. Why would one of them risk her life dungeon-delving considering that she could spend her entire life doing it and still make less than her weekly stipend? To cover my confusion, I asked “What’s your trade?”

“Oh, I’m a zodiac. You know I always had a knack for spellcraft back at the academy.” That was true enough. At the academy, most of the magical prodigies had been dour, scholarly types who spent their nights charting the stars and experimenting with magical formulae… except one, a pink-haired girl who was the life of every party, fretted over fashion and giggled about boys — and thoroughly outstripped all of them in skill.

“So you joined a guild? I have as well,” I said.

“Oh, no,” said Tatiana with a silvery laugh. “I could never join one of the guilds in this town. They’re manned by barbarians! No class or civility whatsoever. No, all my dungeon exploration has been done on a for-hire basis. You know how it is.” She was silent for a moment, regarding me speculatively. “Although — you say you’ve joined a guild?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s all grown rather complicated, really…”

“How fascinating!” she said. “Well, that settles it, then! I’ll simply join your guild! What a perfect solution! You don’t already have a zodiac, do you?”

“Uh, no,” I said, caught off balance. “I’m not sure that our treasurer has allotted enough space in the budget for a new hire this month, though…”

“Nonsense,” she said, looping her arm through mine. “You just introduce me to your treasurer and I’m certain we’ll be able to work out an acceptable deal. This will be wonderful, Megaera! Old friends, exploring the mysteries of the labyrinth hand in hand! It’s just as we dreamed when we were girls. Now, you simply must let me treat you to dinner. I know a place a few blocks from here that’s to die for, and we have ever so much catching up to do! I must know how a Princess of the Diluculo found herself in a guild.”

She dragged me out the door into the setting sun, Phoebe’s armor clanking as she sourly trailed along behind.

~Midnight Snack~

The shriek that escaped from my lips as I was readying myself for bed was a fair bit more girlish than I would have liked, but there wasn’t any help for that. I rushed from my bedroom into the tiny commons area, where Phoebe was studiously tending to her armor and Jin, Tristan, and Captain Adler were huddled around a small table, betting pennies at a card game that I didn’t understand.

“There’s a snake in my bed!” I said, completely oblivious to the fact that I was standing there in nothing but my chemise.

Phoebe didn’t bother looking up from her work. “Princess, how do you expect to survive in the labyrinth if you can’t deal with one small snake?” she asked dryly.

“Killing snakes is one thing. Sleeping with them is quite another. Could somebody just get rid of it for me?”

“This snake,” Captain Adler said thoughtfully. “Is it green with a red stripe along the side? About yea long?”

I nodded.

“I should have known,” the Captain said ruefully. “Ntombi!”

From another room a young girl padded in, walking on all fours. She moved with smooth, catlike grace. It was hard to judge her age since she was so slender, but her skin was dark — darker than anyone I’d ever met. She regarded Captain Adler curiously.

“Get your friend out of Princess Megaera’s room,” the Captain commanded sternly.

Ntombi loped over to where I was standing. She eyed me suspiciously, then began sniffing my bare ankles and feet. “What are you doing?” I cried, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.

“Don’t bother. She doesn’t speak the language,” Captain Adler said. “Anyway, don’t worry about it. She sniffs everybody. It’s just her way of getting to know you.”

Eventually my scent seemed to satisfy Ntombi, as she stood upright — I had to stop myself from saying she stood on her hind legs — smiled broadly at me, and toddled into my room.

Phoebe was frowning. “Who is she?”

“Beats me,” the Captain said, shrugging. “She’s from the jungles to the southeast — you can tell that by the color of her skin. I guess she’s a wildling — raised by wolves or whatever. We found her in the guildhouse about two years ago and couldn’t get her to leave. You might say she’s a member of the guild.”

From inside the darkened room came a series of sounds. First we heard what sounded like three short barks, then a series of wheedling cooing sounds. “What’s she saying?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Captain Adler said. “I’ve got a pretty good ear for languages, but I can’t make heads nor tails of what she says. That doesn’t seem to bother her, though. It might just be animal noises.”

Tristan lowered his cards thoughtfully. I noticed Jin took advantage of his lapse to get an eyeful of them. “No, it’s definitely a language,” he was saying. “Human languages have a certain cadence to them, and her speech has that.”

Ntombi emerged from my room, still on two legs and still cooing. The snake was coiled around her arm and was responding to the cooing with what sounded like contented hissing.

“Make sure your friends stay out of other peoples’ rooms from now on,” Captain Adler told her. “If was fine to let them wander around when it was just us, but other people live here now.”

Ntombi rolled her eyes and returned to the room from which she came.

“Her ‘friends’?” I asked.

“Her animals,” the Captain responded with a roll of her eyes. “She keeps them, here in the guildhouse. As long as we keep them fed, she’s as loyal as anyone you could ask for.”

Jin frowned and tapped the table. “How much is she costing us? There’s no mention of her in any of the old budgets. How much is she being paid?”

“She isn’t,” the Captain said.

“You don’t pay her?”

“We tried,” the Captain protested. “Or, rather, Sieg did. He said not paying her was exploitative, and he was always too much of a goody-two-shoes for that. But she tries to eat coins, and she gives gems to her friends to play with. She doesn’t seem to understand money.”

Jin suddenly fanned herself with her cards like a noblewoman. “Oh, Captain Giselle! You’ve just made me the happiest girl in the world! You said the magic words: ‘Free labor.'”

“Not quite free,” Captain Adler said. “You should see how much the feed bill comes to.”

“I’m not entirely comfortable with this,” I said. “Is it entirely moral to take advantage of that poor lost girl like this?”

Captain Adler shrugged and returned to the game. “You’re welcome to try and chase her out, if you like, but it probably won’t work. She always comes back. Besides, if you want to be a stickler about this, she’s technically got more seniority in this guild than you do, Princess.”

I returned to my room amidst a chorus of snickers, my cheeks burning.

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