In the Dark

Sikhandyn was left with just one question, but it was probably the most sensitive one.

He waited for the man to answer Sofia's question. Then, choosing his words carefully, he asked:

"What can you tell us about the Black Crocus? And is our work with your organization limited to this one mission, or are there prospects for longer-term collaboration or permanent membership."

Astaban takes the offered flask, examines it for a second, and then takes a swig from the flask. He sets the flask down on the table, savoring the taste for a second, and then picks the flask back up and hands it back to Karn.

He then turns his attention to the map, studying it for a moment. He runs a finger over the indicated site of the mine, then turns to the robed man and asks, "So, if we wish to avoid... imperial issues, where do you suggest we avoid?"

After speaking, he stands up, paces back to the corner where he started, stands there for a moment, and then comes back towards the table at a slower pace, finally sitting back down at the table.

Your host seems to ignore Sikhandyn's question and instead focuses towards Astaban. "The phalanxes of Astan have occupied all territories west of the River Hwen, comprising a portion of Merui and nearly half of Sudren.

"Sudren's forces did not put up much of a fight for their western marches, instead melting into the jungle and forest to fight a protracted war on their own terms. It will be a long time before Astan can muster enough strength to push further east.

"In Merui, the hill-country of the southern Veldt is only lightly populated and there was but a token resistance to the Astan invasion. River Forge, the capital of Merui, lies on the south bank between the Rivers Hwen and Hmin. It is a heavily fortified city and can be supplied by land or sea; we expect Bar-astan's forces to erect a siege once they can ferry across enough troops to block the land access and guard the riverbanks. Once River Forge falls, only the horse people of the eastern Veldt will separate Astan from the sands of Elui.

"The Astan army has set up a strong garrison at the knee of the Hwen, almost due east of Astangard. However, the mine is four day's ride from that fortress, so we expect you will be beyond the range of their scouts."

Finally, the robed man looks back towards the wizard. "You ask excellent questions, Sikhandyn. For now, suffice it to say that we are who we are, apart from the empire and its interests. The government, for its part, seeks to deny our existence--a position that for now is convenient for us. Should you be successful, there are other 'odd jobs' available. Should you fail, there are other 'job seekers'."

The robed man's voice takes on a very serious, biting tone.

"You may ask yourself, 'How can it be that such an organization can remain hidden? All it would take is one rat to betray the lot.' Ah, but everyone has their secrets to hide from the tax-collectors. And every tax-collector has his price. If one of our 'job-seekers' tries to alert the government, we simply make it known that they have not paid their taxes. Should a tax-collector snitch, we merely tip off the Prince's Guard to the extent of the bribes he has been accepting. Either way, the wagging tongue will soon be on a wagon-train to the front lines.

"A fate I'm sure none of you wish to share."

Sikhandyn nodded with a discreet smile.

'Touché' the young man thought. He remembered his own dealings with the tax-collectors upon Simon's death. The robed man's message was extremely clear, and the remembrance bitter.

But more importantly, coming from the member of a powerful secret organization, the solid answer - combined with the implied threats - appeared as a healthy signal of trustworthiness. Exactly the kind of signal Sikhandyn had been hoping for, and trying to elicit in an environment where secrecy did not facilitate trust building...

'That man does mean business, and he's probably quite good at it. He has the upper hand, and he knows it.' the wizard thought.

"Indeed." Sikhandyn answered.

He paused.

"Very well. I for one am ready to discuss the logistical details with the quartermasters as soon as my comrades are." the young man concluded, turning slowly to check if his companions needed more information.

Karn scratches his cheek with his knuckles with a slight frown and then smiles slightly. Giving a slight bow he places a fist into the other palm and says, "Thank you. That seems to cover things. Let's get to it."

'I think this will give me a chance to use what I've learned from Uncle Chan as it should be used and to perfect my skills. And it won't be boring.', he thinks.

Crises averted, it seemed no one else thought what Annette said was silly, Maybe this was a good decision after all. Maybe I really can continue on without my siblings...

She stands upright, off the bench, and nods respectfully at the robed man as she says, "Thank you for this opportunity. I...we won't let you down."

She looks around the room, hoping to see that everyone else is in agreement.

Sofia didn't seem impressed by the cloaked man's answers - her eyes were still pointedly staring at the figure sitting at the table. But, she guessed, nobody could get them a guarantee better than "we think it would be out of range", so she stayed silent. She was hesitant to promise to not let anyone down - Sofia had never left the city in her life and exploring anything sounded absolutely alien to her.
Her mind raced thinking about what she would possibly have to take with herself... That she could ask her more experienced companions though, another issue was not so simply resolved.

"And how far the mine is? How many days should we expect to be absent?"

The robed figure directs his hooded visage towards Sofia. "Two weeks' ride, assuming you make no unexpected stops. Our horses are among the best in the world, hand-picked from the finest Meruian stock."

"As for the sum total of your absence,"
the man continues in his deep, sonorous voice, "that depends on how much exploring you do. And your success, of course."

Your secretive host turns finally to look at Wyngrad. "Do you have any questions, young job-seeker, or are you ready for the challenge?"

Astaban looks at the robed man as he answers the questions posed to him. He seems to grow deeper in thought at the answer to the question about time away.

He then turns to the robed man and says, "It's a bit longer than I've managed to be away before, but not totally unreasonable. I'm in. Thank you for the opportunity."


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