#13 – The Merchant and The Minstrel

The merchant paced around his tiny room, rolling through a mental checklist, marking his fingers for each item. He had no more time, not another day. The administrator had passed away shortly after the fire, and the word among the guards was that his oldest son was returning to claim his inheritance. He would find out. He would take an inventory, and discover what the merchant had been doing. It had to be today. Everything was nearly ready. The whispers were planted, and he hoped they would spread fast enough. Just to be sure, he went to his work station, and took a few coins from the city’s pay pool, and rushed down to the market, where his new friends often lounged about. He put the coins in the hands of a desperate man, and told him some lies too incredible not to share. He returned back to his office, and collected the account books from the table top, the maps from the basket, and a personal journal he had stuck to the underside of the desk.
His first trick, when he came into his power, was to give certain special guards another name. He didn’t change their name in his account books, he just added another one. When payments were distributed, his favored friends would collect twice. The guards he worked with became fast friends when he doubled their wage in a single day, and that enamored sentiment would pave the way for his second trick.  He would borrow coins for a few days, and then return more than he had taken. They called it investment, but little did they know that the extra they received was just a portion of the most recent lender’s coin. He continued this cycle, and with a little human nature, he owed nearly every guard a weeks worth of coin.
He used the borrowed money to buy more favors. He bribed guards, musicians, cooks, and even an aspiring owner. He bought rare items, tasks, time, sabotage, and the favors of the poorest free men. It was quite a game, and he was able to pay for safety and luxury from the city’s pockets. It all came down to today. With his belongings well packed, he paid a man to take them to Jethrow’s quarters. If one of his agents failed, he would face the rage of every person on this mountain, but if they did as they said they would, he would be set free.
Like most men up in these clouds, he was a creature of greed, and he was counting on that base reaction for everything. He had spread two lies, and one truth. He lied to the poor men, and told them that the administrator planned to starve them away. He lied to some owners, and told them that the enslaved men were planning a revolt. He told it true when he slipped to a free man, that the city had no more money to pay the guards.
He himself had bankrupted the mountain’s coffers with his tactics, and when the administrator’s son would arrive, the books would be the first thing he would want to see. So the books went out the window, where they sailed and scattered down the mountain side. The general unease that was brewing below, had turned audible with the absence of the usual merriment. Men were tense, waiting for something to happen, and those few men whom he had put in-the-know, were getting greedier with every task. The poisoner he sent to Jethrow’s had demanded four times what they agreed on, and the merchant feigned outrage as he paid him with the city’s money.
Jethrow’s guards had been the hardest to work around. The discipline around Jethrow’s home was sharp, and he had to make some grandiose promises, none of which he could keep even if he wanted to, but his reputation for being a master of coins lent him an aura of believability.
A sharp roar of a rampaging man, a tunnel away, caused the merchant to prick up like a rabbit alerted, and he quickly hid under the table. A guard who had just caught word from another, furiously screamed for the merchant, and when he didn’t see him at his table stormed off in search. He had no doubt, that man was looking to collect what was owed before hell broke loose. Under the table, the merchant unwound his tell-tale leg wrappings, and dressed them about his face and body. They concealed his nice clothes, and to an unfamiliar eye, made him appear like many of the other desperate slaves. The merchant grabbed a nearby silver platter, and placed some at-hand flowers across it. He walked out of the administrator’s quarters with slow patience, putting great effort in taking equal strides. He had been exaggerating his limp for the past few days, trying to set the expectation of his frailty. When he crossed the black entrance, under the blue stars, a guard he knew well did not recognize him.
He was crossing the grounds to Jethrow’s entrance way, when a commotion erupted below them. Voices rose all across the mountain, bells tolled, and whistles blew. Armed men flowed like rivers from all around, converging on the path that led to the common area below. He stood, with his head down, waiting for the torrent of vicious flesh to pass him by. It seemed unending, and he shuffled along towards the orange entrance, and as the guards at the entrance were more concerned with a mob of revolting slaves, than with a simple gift bearer, he was let on up. The agent he had in Jethrow’s quarters had done his task to perfection. He had loaded the merchant’s goods in one of Jethrow’s flyers, and the minstrel was drugged senseless. The agent, a hulking guard with a prostitution addiction, did not recognize the merchant either. It was only when the merchant stopped and uncovered his mouth, that the guard took notice, and with a mental flash remembered what he was told to do next. The merchant hobbled out to the terrace, and began to twist and tie his ribbons together. His hands were slick with sweat, and his fingers ached as he put all the strain he could on getting tight knots. Two of Jethrow’s flyers had just been tethered, front to back, when the agent emerged out on the terrace carrying a limp minstrel. The merchant pointed to the frontal flyer, and the agent placed her in the pilot seat. He stood with fascination in his eyes, trying to understand what the merchant’s intentions were. The merchant reached into his belongings and recovered a bag of coins, counted to the number, and tossed it to the agent, who beamed a dumb smile. He turned and began to walk back inside, when lightning seemed to strike him dead. A flash, a bang, and the agent collapsed. When the merchant stopped cowering, he saw Jethrow, barely dressed, holding a metal stick that wafted smoke. As Jethrow approached, the merchant dashed to his belongings in the rear flyer, and found the antidote.
It was a relic from long ago, filled with a human fluid that sloshed within a tube of glass. He remembered the instruction the traveller who sold it to him bestowed. ‘Stab them with the pointy end, and push the fluid into the body. It will wake up any man and give him burning energy.’ He stabbed the minstrel, right in the breast, and before he could push all the fluid in, she shot awake, wide-eyed with rapid breaths. He got behind her flyer, and pushed her towards the cliff. As she rolled forward, he moved for the second flyer, and saw Jethrow beginning to run after them. The minstrel teetered over the cliffs, and dragged the merchant after her. Jethrow’s screams were drowned out in the growing distance by the shrill cries of a squealing man.

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