Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Winding Road: Departure

By Frank Gori

Tonight was the most elaborate shell game Malleck would ever play. Tonight a fortnight of planning would either yield its fruit or disaster would strike and lead he and his company to ruin.
In the dead of night he was leading his caravan into the Embassy of Sand and out of the city while four decoy caravans filled with mercenaries left by Hub’s four main gates simultaneously. In the morning another four real caravans would leave with double the usual guard.

Liara and he had dissected the Tradesmen attacks and determined the likely spies and informants.  Most were likely unintentional, which made little difference in the outcome, blood had been spilled and more would be spilled tonight and on the morrow. Information had been carefully dispensed to each suspect and where Mal’s foes struck would expose the guild’s information leaks. In the end it made little difference who was treacherous and who was carelessly incompetent, the result would be blood for blood.

Liara’s goodbye kiss lingered on Mal’s lips, it was filled with an ardor he had longed for but dared not hope. She then whispered in his ear that she knew that another had crept into his heart, that he wasn’t ready to realize that fact yet, that it was ok, and he had her blessing. For the third time since that whisper he glanced at Bellany and felt a twist in his gut.  What that meant would take time to sort out; the only thing certain was that it would be trouble.

One could not afford distraction when negotiating with the Lash-ti-Nowish. The unannounced arrival to the Embassy of Sand to negotiate immediate asylum and passage was a secret kept between only Mal, Laz, and Liara herself. Despite the tight information security, the Lash were prepared for their arrival and ready to negotiate.

For a price they would summon the embassy’s elder Sandkeeper and summon a sand gate to transport the caravan halfway to the Geato Marsh. The cost proposed was safe passage for an additional carriage containing a representative of the Lash and two servants and five favors payable to the Lash representative. That was unacceptable, in the hands of a Lash that would be pretty much ceding command.

“One favor in addition to the passage ,” he replied. After all favors was the Lash’s favorite currency.

“Four favors,” the Lash representative replied.

“Two favors and I want the Lash coming along to agree to follow my orders while on the journey, except when calling in favors of course.” Malleck punctuated the statement with a smile.

“Three favors, agreed on the orders and she gets the honest answer to three questions,” was the Lash’s response. It was an underhanded addendum, a wily Lash could easily wheedle information to gain leverage for more favors. 

“You clearly do not respect me, we will leave by a more traditional route,” Malleck turned away and started gesturing to the caravan. It was a calculated risk, time to see who would blink first. To the Lash’s credit his people were truly turned around and almost through the embassy gate before he broke.

“Wait, it can be one favor and the representative will cooperate, and one truth payable now,” he offered.

Mal spun in his heel and extended his hand, “agreed.”

“Were you bluffing?” It was the Lash’s one question. She wasn’t going to like the answer.

“I was confident you’d stop me, but I was prepared to walk away if you had not. Your elders would have dealt me more favorable terms tomorrow night if need be.” Malleck said it in a flat voice and studied the face of the negotiator. Most would find it hard to tell, but Malleck determined his Lash counterpart was a female, she was also dressed for travel. Her carriage and driver would not be far, and her masked dwarven bodyguard would be the third. “I believe that coming to even a less favorable deal would be preferable to not being to arrange your own passage…” Mal added.

The pupils of her eyes widened a touch, and she tilted her head in a nearly imperceptible gesture of surprise. Malleck could tell she was young by the size of her scales and that gesture alone. The young Lash was being trusted with a negotiation, and she was being guarded by a ronin dwarf contractor.

“You’re a sand oracle aren’t you?” Malleck regretted the question immediately.

“I am. Why would the elders offer you a better price tomorrow, if you came back to negotiate again it would betray your bluff,” it was a good question she asked and because she answered his he was under obligation to reply. On entering the Embassy of Sand one was required to read and understand the Lash’s terms of conduct. It was also why he didn’t ask her name.

“Tonight and tomorrow will eliminate our information security concerns,” Mal replied truthfully because to do otherwise here would forfeit his freedom or his life. The Merchant College boasted a Lash on the faculty, he taught the art of negotiation. Even being schooled by a Lash did not prepare one to negotiate with a Lash when the stakes were high. Mal felt he was on even footing with his counterpart which likely meant he was only slightly in over his head. 

“I assume you are prepared to leave and have provisions, I’d like to be out of Hub before daybreak.” Mal kept his tone even leaving no room to interpret the statement as a question. Volunteering his preference for haste gave his counterpart more information, but also implied a quid pro quo.
“I am prepared, we anticipated the need for haste and the portal will be ready within the hour,” the Lash woman smiled as she added, “mammals call me Salomena.”

Malleck smiled back. Salomena would hold her leverage on him for as long as possible. She would manipulate every conversation she had to gain information and more an advantage. Based on the resources committed, the Lash had an interest in Tribute, the mining town that was the intended destination of this caravan. Mal needed to know what that interest was, and he needed Salomena to use her favor before he got the caravan there. Mal resolved to make the road a meandering path the winded its way slowly to the destination. Mal had sacrificed too much to gain the contact and contract rights to negotiate with the rumored loyalist mining community. He would not allow the Lash to compromise the promise of that market, the price he paid was too bloody and high.