The Crate

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For background: This vignette, written in collaboration with the players of the characters depicted, takes place between 1/13 and 1/15/5120. The Flock, a player-run organization that sought to take control of Mist Harbor, had recently taken some orphaned children from the hands of the isle's defenders with the excuse that the Flock was better able to protect them. The defenders wanted to make sure the Flock did not win the PR war.

She scanned the smoky room, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The Half-Elf wasn't hard to spot; her gaze was drawn immediately to the coal-black cascade of curls and the scar on his upper lip. She strode to where he stood spectating a rowdy game of darts and curled her finger to beckon coyly to him, but her whisper in his ear when he stooped to hear was shaky with nerves.

"Gavrien? We met before, remember? I need your help."

The swarthy man tilted his head to eye her with sharp assessment, scratching at the stubble along his jaw. "Keep talking," he said after a long, silent pause that bordered on uncomfortable.

"I have a job," she whispered, and then her voice caught and she swallowed audibly. "I need a blacksmith who can be discreet and won't ask questions. Not here, I'm afraid of being traced. I was hoping South Haven..."

He grunted and gave a slow nod. "Might do, might do." He raked her with his amber gaze again, then glanced away. His posture softened to a casual slouch and the smile he gave her was a leer of invitation, incongruent with his next words. "Dunno your business and not getting in the middle of it, but can give you a couple names, places to go. You bring trouble to my contacts, I bring trouble to you, got it?"

She froze for a moment. Then she nodded slightly, and brought her lips to his ear once more. "I promise it's for a good cause. Please."

Gavrien snorted his derision. "Don't give a damn about your cause," he muttered in response as he turned, jerking his head in an indication to follow. There in the backroom, beyond the ears of the pub's motley patrons, he told her what she needed to know. Juspera, her heart still pounding, let the directions slip from her mind and clung only to the easiest things to remember: the scorpion, and the name.

The next morning she crept through South Haven, her head swiveling, on alert. She was a creature of alleys and streets; but these were not her streets, not her alleys. It was toward the eastern end of the Crooked Way that she finally she spotted the scorpion, painted above a yawning open doorway. She stepped in. The smith was at the anvil; he was a small but powerfully-built Human, dark hair shaved on the sides of his head, muscle rippling along his arm as he swung the hammer. On a table nearby stood finished pieces: curious small blades with severe curves or grim-looking spikes, the purposes of which she declined to imagine.

At a pause in the din she called out, "Sol!" The smith turned and fixed her with startling violet-green eyes in a sooty, delicate-featured face, and Juspera realized she was in fact looking at a woman. After an astonished pause, she took a breath and explained the work she wanted done, the price she was willing to pay. The woman laughed.

"You're out of your mind, Dhe'nar," she snorted. "Triple your offer and I'd consider it."

Juspera squinted and tried to calculate how much silver was left from the firewood donations, but then, confused, she simply nodded. She'd spend her own coin if she had to. "I'll toss in another hundred thousand if you can have the order ready for me in a sealed crate by midnight," she said. The smith grunted and turned immediately back to her work. Uneasy, Juspera backed out. She would have to trust Gavrien's instincts.

She made her way to the fletcher's next, where she scanned the selection of paintsticks behind the counter. With a frown, she asked the elderly Sylvan attendant whether they had any orange ones in back. He went to check. As soon as he was out of sight she heaved herself up and over the counter, snatching a black paintstick and darting out the door.

Paper. She needed paper, a large sheet. She asked at the scrivener's, browsed the pawnshop for scrolls. Nothing suited. She was walking back down Triton Road when the elegant facade of the library caught her eye, and she entered.

"Do you have any books of maps?" she asked at the desk.

"Of course," said the librarian, a demure auburn-haired woman with a kind smile. "Let me show you."

"I'd like to see a map of the Empire that's really big. Really detailed I mean."

"Are you looking for modern or historic maps?" The woman put her hand on a glass case, inside which was a sizable tome bound in decomposing leather. It was longer than her arm. "We have this remarkable volume from the reign of Emperor Krellove Chandrennin. It's five hundred years old and shows the Empire as it existed then, barony by barony, all in exquisite detail."

Juspera nodded vigorously to the woman, who smiled.

"Let me take it out for you. You'll need to keep your gloves on when handling it, please."

"Oh, I always keep my gloves on."

The woman carefully laid the volume on a table, opening it to expose a gloriously illustrated map of old Tamzyrr. Every side street and building was detailed, down to the last hovel; the titles and legends were outlined in gilt. The librarian stepped back and folded her hands, watching Juspera.

Juspera fidgeted. She pretended to study the map. The woman was still there, smiling pleasantly. Humming under her breath, Juspera reached a deft hand into her pocket for a gold ring. Then she stretched down to scratch her shin, setting the ring on the ground just before her toe. Humming louder now, still scanning the map, she kicked her leg out, sending the ring shooting across the floor to carom loudly between some bookshelves on the other side of the room.

The librarian startled. "Oh, dear," she said. "Let me just check on that noise. I hope it's not the rat again..." Gathering her skirts, she hurried in the direction of the ring.

Juspera swiftly drew her dagger and sliced down the side of the map, tight against the binding, then lifted it, folding it into squares as the gilt flaked and came off. She shoved the map in her pocket and and brushed the flecks of gilt from the table, then turned the volume to another map as the librarian returned. "Thank you, I'm done," she said, and stood, moving quickly to the door.

It was a tense walk back to the Landing. At Aspis, she curled up on the couch and closed her eyes, slipping immediately into a fitful nap.

The last of the day's sunlight slanted through the leaves shading the patio where she sat with a slender Elf whose face was hidden under a cowl, save for misty grey eyes and a glint of silver hair.

"That might be enough information about Socius," Juspera said quietly, then leaned in. "Did you bring the stuff for my project?"

The Elf hesitated for a moment and then nodded. Reaching into her robe, she retrieved a small jar of tar-like black salve, which she placed carefully on the table, followed by a crucible and several varicolored refraction lenses. "I'm not going to ask what you want these for but please promise me that no one will get hurt?"

Juspera swept the items into her satchel and stood. "I promise. Though... I can't promise you'll get these things back. And I'm sorry, I've got to meet another friend. At least I think she's a friend."

Her companion nodded. With a wistful look behind her, Juspera exited the cafe, transporting back to the Landing. She couldn't speak a peep of her project; she knew how eagerly that information would be mined if things went south. Still, she needed to lean on others, at least a little. She'd drag in anyone she had to to get this thing done. Anyone but Xanthium.

She sidled into the alley off the town square, exhaling as the false night from the buildings on either side enveloped her. Then she felt a stir of air; she turned, catching a flash of green in the glow from a streetside lantern. The figure silhouetted before her was slight, shorter even than Juspera herself.

Juspera grinned. "You're early. Did you find some?"

The melodic, slightly accented voice seemed to float in the evening air. "I did, it is no trouble at all." Her head tilted down slightly as she gazed at the carefully wrapped package. "Do you think this will be enough? And do you need any other supplies?"

Juspera's grin widened. "This is it for now. But I never know what I'll need. Maybe we can stay in touch." As she took the package and slipped it into her satchel, though, her grin faded. "I've got another person to hunt down, then I have a delivery to pick up. I hope."

The air stirred slightly with the gentle flutter of wings. "Do keep in touch, though I know nothing of tonight." A stray beam of light caught the faint twinkle in the hazel eyes. "Travel safely."

Dipping into a hasty curtsy, Juspera stepped out of the alley and turned her bracelet again, launching herself back to Mist Harbor. Her head spun; it seemed like days ago that she'd been in Solhaven. But there was something she still desperately needed, a piece without which the whole project would fail.

When she walked into Greth's, her spirits lifted to see what she was hoping to see: there at the bar sat a tall Sylvan, red hair cascading down her back, aquamarine patterning gracing her neck and face. But she was slumped in discouragement. The two redheads chatted quietly for a while about the recent attack before moving to other subjects.

"Have you been talking to the shopkeepers, by any chance?" asked Juspera.

"I have actually," responded the other woman. "How can I help?"

Juspera grinned. "I need somebody who's a gossip. Any ideas?"

An immediate nod. "I have the perfect somebody." Her friend snickered. "She doesn't care for me much... but the woman never takes a breath."

Juspera grabbed the other's shoulders in excitement. "Really?"

She nodded. "Come with me a moment?"

They passed through the dark streets to a blue stucco building with daisy-patterned curtains.

"Miss Daisy. She knows everything about everything."

"What time does she open?"

"She's always open, but she herself doesn't come in until early afternoon I think?"

Juspera winced, but then nodded. It would have to be in daylight. "All right. I can do this." She turned to her friend. "Thank you so much. You are the final piece that's going to make this thing work. Well, not counting Miss Daisy."

The two embraced and then it was another turn of the bracelet, another gut-wrenching twist. It was almost time. Juspera visited the bank, then made the long slog to Solhaven in the dark. She paced quickly through its streets, taking a deep breath before entering the Crooked Way. She found the place more easily this time. A light was on inside.

When she entered, the smith barely nodded to her. Juspera handed over the sack of coin, its weight almost too much to hold with one arm. In response, the woman turned and pushed a wooden crate at her with a boot-clad foot. Juspera quickly shouldered the crate and stepped out. It took most of the distance back to the Landing for her stomach to unclench.

That night in Aspis, she knelt on the hardwood floor and took out the neat package she'd been handed in the alley. She took a peek to confirm its contents, then used the black paintstick to write a single word on the package in her best handwriting. After that, she unfolded the map and spread it in front of her. Then she flipped it over. She began to sketch shapes on the back side, then drew her dagger and cut out each one. Laying the perforated map over one side of the crate, she carefully colored in each cutout with the paintstick, and then stood and tossed the map in the fire. The floor where she'd been kneeling was scored with a couple dozen fine lines and littered with strips of gilt-dusted vellum, but she didn't care. It was almost done. Collapsing on the couch, she drifted into another restless sleep.

The following day, she teleported back to Mist Harbor, crate on her shoulder and an adze in the other hand. She walked to the little stucco building as quickly as she dared, her eyes flicking to either side, on the lookout for passersby. She ducked into an alley as someone drew close, then she slipped out and set the crate down right in front of the building. She set the blade of the adze into the gap between the crate and its lid, and jerked.

Nothing happened.

She jerked again. It wouldn't open. Taking another quick glance around her and cursing, she grabbed the crate lid with her free hand, then screamed another curse when a splinter went nearly knuckle-deep into her thumb. Without stopping to remove the splinter, she began to smash at the crate in a cacophonous fury until it split open, spilling its contents into the street. Juspera sucked in an awed breath. The blacksmith had done exactly what she'd asked. It was even better than she'd imagined.

The damaged crate lay much as if it had just fallen from a cart and smashed there. Juspera reached quickly into her satchel and drew out the alchemical supplies she'd been given, dropping them on the mess. On top of that she threw the little package. Then she withdrew to the alley across the street, to wait.

Ten long minutes later, she held her breath to see a dowdy woman shuffle into view and head for the stucco building. The woman stopped when she came to the crate in her way, staring down at it. Juspera watched the woman's gaze take in the the crucible, the colored refractory lenses, the jar of mysterious black salve; the neatly-wrapped package, labeled now with the word LANCETS; and, beneath them, the pile of wrought iron. The jumbled iron circles must have been a puzzling curiosity. They looked almost exactly like collars and manacles, except they were far too small: they wouldn't have fit anyone larger than a halfling, or a child.

She watched Miss Daisy blink, dumbfounded, then glance at the side of the crate. In boldest black were stenciled there the words: PROPERTY OF THE FLOCK.

The woman stared another moment, and then her jaw began to slowly drop. Juspera's hand went to her bracelet to give it a swift turn, and disorientation took her -- but not before she heard Miss Daisy begin to screech for her neighbors to come see.