The Aurora pulled next to one of the exquisitely carved stone piers of Ere’Vaasra. At the bosun’s call, men threw mooring ropes over to guidesmen waiting on the quay. The gangplanks were lowered, and the captain went down to speak to the harbormaster while the crew began to set up the cargo winch.
Aurelia tried her best to stay out of the way of the flurry of activity. She was leaning against the railing on the quarterdeck, staring down into the water below. What was left of the sunlight made the water beneath her cast a nearly perfect reflection. A nearly-average height woman stared back at her. Straight, shoulder-length brown hair framed a face with olive skin and bright blue eyes. A scar just above her right eyebrow marred an otherwise unremarkable face. Her gear was mostly leather or loose cotton, and her traveling cloak was lined sealskin, good for keeping her from getting wet.
One of the ship’s officers stepped out onto the quarterdeck. Aurelia turned around and smiled at him. “Sorry, I know this is normally for officers only, but I thought it the best place to stay out of the way while the ship was moored.”
The officer, a dark-skinned Deltaran man wearing the deck attire of House Dulsaer, the Great House in charge of shipping, smiled back at her. “It’s fine. As an honored guest aboard the Aurora, you are entitled to the quarterdeck as well. And… good call staying out of the crew’s way. They are anxious to unload so that they might enjoy their time ashore.”
Aurelia raised her eyebrows. “Do you mean to say that this entire trip, I could have been spending my evenings here instead of gambling with the crew in the ship’s hold?”
The officer smiled at her again. “I would have mentioned it earlier, but you seemed to be more than happy taking their coin, night after night.”
Aurelia smirked. There hadn’t been a night she hadn’t come out ahead. Her pouches were filled with copper and silver coins from all areas of the world now. “Point taken.”
The officer nodded and turned serious. “I hope your trip aboard was suitable for someone of your stature. I do regret the one incident in the hold; our crew is normally far better disciplined than that.”
Aurelia chuckled. “Not as much as that particular sailor regrets it, I’m sure. I’d say that I was sorry that his injuries kept him from his duties for over a week, but… I’d be lying.”
The officer looked uncomfortable. “Yes, well… that’s over with now.” He stopped to listen. “I believe it is safe for you to make your way off the Aurora now.”
Aurelia nodded. “Thank you, sir. I’ll grab my stuff and be off in moments.” She pushed herself off the railing and made her way to the door.
“Miss Oreseus.” The Dulsaer officer called to her. She turned around with an expectant look in her eyes. “Whatever brought you up to this corner of the world… I hope it will be worth it.”
Aurelia blinked at the officer for a few moments, then nodded, and turned to get her stuff from her quarters.
Running an empire, especially one the size of the Moresian Empire, required a massive bureaucracy. A little over a century ago, Emperor Aurus I had transformed the burgeoning bureaucracies into what were now referred to as the “Great Houses”. Their authority came not from any land controlled, but directly from the Emperor himself. Only the most skilled bureaucrats rose through the treacherous ranks of the Great Houses, but the reward was worth it: within their purview, the Great Houses were considered to be the final authority in anything in the Empire related to their responsibilities.
Which is a huge reason why Aurelia was transfixed by an argument she had overheard on her way from the piers to the trading area of the docks. On one side were three men wearing the violet tabards of the Northern Lights, two of them obviously security for a shorter man who was yelling loudly. The people he was arguing with looked to be mostly sailors, but among them was a thin, severe looking man in a blue working tunic with gold trim. A shipmaster from House Brotia, most likely.
“The Emperor’s edict was clear! Any resource extracted from Vashra is the property of the NLTC, who have the final say in what is done with it!” The short man in the violet tunic shouted, “That includes anything from the, appropriately named, Gulf of Vaasrai! You cannot trade or sell your oil without an NLTC permit!”
“You must be joking!” the severe looking man in blue piped up. “And just how far into the sea does the NLTC have authority over, hmm? The gulf is a veritable treasure cache for whaling, and now you and your greedy little company-” the severe-looking man poked his finger into the shorter man’s chest, causing the short man to turn bright red “-can’t stand that people with proper Great House authority are exerting their influence up here. House Brotia controls the fishing and whaling industry of the Empire. Your company controls the exploitation of a new colony… and poorly, from what I’ve heard.” A few of the sailors behind the Brotia shipmaster chuckled.
“That does it! I’ll have you hauled before the magistrate!” The short man, his face now a deep red, marched off, followed by his security goons. Aurelia watched him leave, her brow furrowed in thought. This company seems to be willing to go out of its way to brush aside the Imperial bureaucracy, she thought to herself. What exactly have I gotten into?
She felt a tap on her shoulder, and whirled around, dagger appearing in her right hand. The man who touched her, a courier in a legion tunic, raised his hands and backed off immediately. “My apologies, miss, but you fit the description of someone I was told to look for that was supposed to arrive on the Aurora, a Miss Aurelia Oreseus.”
Aurelia turned to face the courier. The man was definitely of kanthyri descent, thin, with brown hair and pale skin. Probably some noble’s son serving a minor role in the Legions to cover the Emperor’s service requirements, Aurelia thought to herself. “Well, you found her,” Aurelia commented. “Which means you’re either really lucky, or really unlucky. I haven’t decided which yet.”
The courier turned slightly paler and swallowed. “Well, miss… the Governor’s bailiff wanted me to find you and make sure you were escorted to the room we have set aside for you.”
Aurelia blinked and stared at the courier for a few long moments. The courier shifted awkwardly under her gaze. “And since when does a Governor’s bailiff do a private company’s dirty work?”
The courier scratched his head. “Well… things aren’t as clear-cut up here in Vashra as they are in Milasylla. The NLTC’s influence is everywhere, especially in this city. It gets worse the farther you get into the city.”
Aurelia wanted to ask more questions of the courier, but he had slipped forward at an accelerated pace and she found herself struggling to keep up. As they moved deeper in, the city seemed to envelop them.
The difference between the old and new structures in Ere’Vaasra was glaring. The new buildings, built mostly of wood, were typical structures of basic kanthyr design, the kind she had known for most of her life. The old buildings were exquisitely carved towers, every one of them unique. They reminded her of giant Siridan chess pieces.
“You’ll be staying at an inn just off the market district,” the courier was saying. “You’ll have your own room, and you’ll be given a living stipend for your time in the city. Company officials will be in contact with you within a few days, most likely.”
Aurelia made her way past a stall selling ghoulfish as she followed the courier, the smell almost overwhelming her. The ghoulfish vendor was an older woman with calloused hands, gesturing at Aurelia with one of her ghoulfish. Aurelia was waving her off and turning away when she noticed a purple-bordered paper nailed to the woman’s stall. She took a few steps back toward the stall to read it.
“This merchant stall is authorized to conduct transactions by the Northern Lights Trading Company”
Aurelia frowned as she turned away from the woman’s stall and hurried to catch up to the courier. “So even fishmongers need the company’s permission to conduct transactions up here?” she asked him. “House Nathos must be a bit upset.”
The courier slowed down, letting a cart of linen bolts pass them on the street. He chuckled. “You could say that, yes. Nathos may manage the Merchants’ guilds in the rest of the Empire, but no guilds have been allowed to form in Vashra. Trust me, it gets more complicated from there. I’ll show you.” He pushed forward through the crowd, Aurelia following closely behind.
They arrived in a large plaza with small shops, stalls and carts forming a marketplace. The courier pushed toward a small crowd forming around a three-way argument. On one side were men in the now-familiar violet tabard of the NLTC; the second side had merchants and guards wearing the symbolic pin and bracers of House Durants, the Imperial army’s support bureaucracy; and finally, a group of angry-looking legionnaires waited impatiently.
The argument was tough to follow from the distance Aurelia was at, but she thought she got the general idea of it: the legionnaires were short on crossbow bolts and looking to Durants for resupply; Durants wanted to use Vashran wood for making the bolts; the NLTC wasn’t going to let Durants use Vashran wood without paying for a permit. Aurelia shook her head at the absurdity of it all.
The courier smiled at her, shrugged. “Another day in Ere’Vaasra. Hope you can fall asleep to the sound of bureaucrats yelling at each other.” They moved out of the marketplace to a small street with only the organically-carved towers along the sides.
“If I wanted to hear bureaucrats yelling at each other, I would have accepted the Chancellery’s offer of a full-time position back in Milasylla.” Aurelia sighed. Of course, she thought, that very well could have lead to more wetwork. Her stomach twisted at the thought.
Aurelia caught the dagger by the handle just before it hit her leg. She lobbed it back up into the air, and glanced around the inn room as the dagger idly tumbled. The bottle of brandy on the table was empty, as well as the bottles next to it. She snatched the dagger out of the air as it came near the table’s surface. That’s…what? Four bottles in as many days? Aurelia asked herself.
Not that there was much else to do. Her stay at the inn was covered by the NLTC, so long as she remained present and available at any time.
For four days now, she had waited. She went downstairs during mealtimes; otherwise, she remained in her room, playing stones against herself, drinking, and practicing the knots she had learned from the sailors on the Aurora. The inn itself wasn’t bad at all; it had been built out of one of the intact elven towers. The outer walls still had elven scrollwork carved into it.
Aurelia caught her dagger again and grumbled to herself. She was about to head downstairs for another bottle of brandy when someone knocked on her door. She jumped, startled; she nearly forgot to catch her dagger before it hit her leg. She stood up, straightened her tunic and said “Enter.”
The door opened, revealing three forms. Two, a man and a woman, were dressed in ringmail with violet tabards and carried swords at their sides; the third, a tall, thin man wearing a finely detailed violet tabard over silks, nodded at Aurelia. “May we come in, Miss Oreseus?”
Aurelia nodded, and the three of them made their way into the inn room. The tall man made his way over to one of the seats at the table and gestured for Aurelia to sit across from him; the two in armor remained standing near the door. Aurelia closed the door and sat down.
“I must apologize for the delay in coming to you.” The tall man started speaking. ” It’s been a very complicated week for us and the governor. The politics would bore you, I’m sure. Oh!” he exclaimed. “Where are my manners? I failed to introduce myself. I am Burgomaster Julian Duvayne. I’m the company’s chief representative here in Ere’Vaasra.”
Aurelia bowed her head to the tall man. “A pleasure to meet you Mr. Duvayne. Thank you for sending the courier to find me, as well as boarding; I hope to prove that I’m worth the investment. As my contract mentions, I am something of a ‘security expert’. I look forward to assisting you and your company with security as best you see fit.”
Julian smiled. “I appreciate the offer Miss Oreseus, I really do. I am tempted to keep you here in Ere’Vaasra to help with our security situation; we’ve lost quite a few shipments and good people to bandits and… worse here in Vashra.
“The matter which I am tasking you for, however, is much more important.” At that, Julian pulled out a wand and concentrated for a moment. A brief look of dismay crossed his face as he tapped the wand against the table, then closed his eyes and concentrated again.
Instantly, a man appeared in the center of the room; Aurelia managed to conceal her surprise, only twitching slightly. The man was a nearly-middle-aged kanthyr, with pale skin and dark hair with grey on the edges. He was slightly shorter than Aurelia, wearing traveling clothes, a set of ornate bracers, and carrying a walking stick in his hand.
After a few moments Aurelia noticed that the man wasn’t moving. She stood up and stepped closer to the man, taking in the details. He was neither blinking nor breathing. She smirked and attempted to poke the man; her finger met no resistance. She glanced back to the Burgomaster.
“This man is Duren Parethian. A skilled wizard trained in divination. More importantly, he’s a renowned explorer, surveyor, and cartographer. He has been in our employ for almost ten years now, and has been personally responsible for discovering the locations of no less than eight major veins of precious metals, despite the fact that divination magic acts… oddly up here. Our company owes much of its success to his work; if it weren’t for him, we’d still be struggling to find those veins.”
Aurelia nodded, still looking at the silent image of Duren. “Sounds like the company found the right man for the job, then.”
The Burgomaster gave her a smile that looked suspiciously like he had bitten into a Deltaran limon. “Yes, we did. He was rewarded accordingly; he could have retired to a personal estate in Dubril with how much we’ve paid him. He continues the work, though. He loves exploring for the sake of it. The fact that he sends us regular updates with the locations of nearly literal treasure troves ensures that we’ll continue to support him. A win-win situation.”
Aurelia nodded, looking now at Julian. “What happened?”
Julian frowned. “A few months ago we sent him east. He had normally been exploring the land south of here, north of Kavdia and the Cabrynian Northmarches. We sent him east because the northern part of our territory was still relatively unknown to us.
“For the first part of his journey, everything was fine. He was last seen in civilization in the town of Eafton, in the march-hold of Eldanion. We received regular reports for about two weeks afterward.”
Julian stopped and sighed. “That sending was the last we heard from him, about a month and a half ago. It’s possible that something up here is interfering with his sending stone; I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. We are, however, forced to assume to worst.”
Julian looked Aurelia in the eyes. “As you can imagine, his work would be very valuable in the hands of certain groups. Locals who want to get rich. Agents from House Tel’Morian who want to take over mining operations up here. I could continue, but I think you get the point.” Aurelia nodded.
Julian continued. “Your assignment, Miss Oreseus, is to find Duren Parethian and bring him back to Ere’Vaasra. If that proves to be impossible, you are to acquire his journal and maps by any means necessary and bring them to me. Above all, neither Parethian nor his notes can make it into the hands of competitors. Do I make myself clear?” Aurelia gave a quick nod.
“Here is an emerald favor; use it to get what you need for gear in the marketplace. A guarded trade caravan is scheduled to leave Ere’Vaasra in two days; this caravan will pass through Eafton on its route.”
Julian stood up and the illusion of Duren disappeared. “If you succeed, you will be greatly rewarded. The company takes care of its own.” At that he gestured at the two guards, and the three of them left the room, leaving Aurelia alone.
Aurelia shook her head. Finding a skilled explorer in unmapped terrain without the benefit of divination magic. Someone who had been missing for over a month now.
Aurelia looked over at the empty bottles of brandy. “Well, at least they’re starting me off with the easy jobs,” she said sarcastically to the bottles, a weak smile on her face.