The Lord Mayor
When the group arrives at the Iron Keep, Sir Elton stops them near the entrance. “Please,” he tells his charges, “wait here. Lest we all rush inside and make a scene.” Jakes wants to argue, but the guildmaster shushes him. “I alone will go in and speak with the Lord Mayor and the Captain of the Iron Guard.” The old guildmaster grimaces at the thought. “And I understand that Olliver Grundt will be present as well. It should be a wonderful conversation.”
“Then let us come in and support you,” urges Elaine.
“No,” he says gently, placing a hand on the young cleric’s shoulder. “Please, wait right here. This won’t take long. The Allway willing,” he adds, glancing up at the sky.
Then, nodding to the cleric, Sir Elton turns and enters the Keep alone.
There’s nothing for the companions to do but stand around in a nervous circle and wait.
The minutes seems to stretch on forever, but in fact less than a quarter hour has elapsed when Sir Elton emerges from the Keep. Following after him, a few steps behind, are Olliver Grundt, the Guildmaster of the Darkblades, and Harriet Swordsteel.
Olliver Grundt is a short, squat man squeezed into a colorful silk suit of yellow and blue. His stooped, rotund frame holds a hint of the man’s former glory as a warrior, though his aged body now bends under the weight of his years. His hair and mustache, both flowing and white, billow in the wind.
Beside him stalks Harriet Swordsteel. The companions bristle at the sight of the woman. She’s wearing her familiar form-fitting armor now, as well as her serrated sword. And an amused smirk.
Before she can say anything, Mathos steps forward.
“Well, well. If it isn’t Harriet Swordsteel,” says the mage. “Pfft. More like Harriet Swordsteal. Am I right?” He scans his companions’ faces, nodding smugly.
Jake tilts his head. “What’s that supposed to mean, Mathos? You just said her name twice.”
“No, no, Jake,” corrects the mage. “The second time I said ‘steal’, as in to rob or to burgle. Because she’s a thief, get it?” And then, after a moment’s consideration, he snaps his fingers. “Oh, I see what happened there. Homophones.”
Jake shakes his head.
“Well, the point still stands,” says the mage, waving an index finger at Harriet. He makes a hissing sound, like of something hot and sizzling. “Burn.”
Harriet rolls her eyes, arms crossed beneath her breasts, and snorts dismissively.
Sir Elton put his hands out urging peace. “It’s okay. Scarlet is to be released,” he says. “Be calm.”
“That’s right,” says Harriet with false sweetness. “We’ve decided not to press charges. This time. But you should really get your friend some help. She has serious issues.”
“What?” Elaine steps forward. “How dare you?” She looks to Jake. “How dare she — right?
Jake is nodding. “Just like that, huh?” His eyes are focused on Harriet. “You’re just dropping it? I suppose you probably feel pretty bad, stealing the Crown of the Sun King from us and all.”
Harriet throws back her head, laughs. “Stealing the crown from you? Please. We found the crown. In the Hall of Ancestors right where the Legends said it would be.” She grins at Jake. “And finders keepers, Rucksack. Simple as that.”
“It’s Redstone and you know that, and that’s not how finders keepers works,” says Jake through clenched teeth. “At all. Because we didn’t lose the crown, you stole it from us. You found squat.”
“Tomato, tomato,” she says, winking.
Mathos points at the female swordarm, turns to the others, and scoffs. “Okay, just so we’re clear, those are simply two different pronunciations of the same word. Where’s the wit? Where’s the cleverness in that? And I get that it’s supposed to be a cute little observation on the nature of subjectivity, but come on, who even pronounces it tomato anyway? Hmm? I mean, my play on words was much more inventive.” He clears his throat. “I’m just saying. Right, Jake?”
But Jake is not paying attention to the mage; he is watching his guildmaster, Sir Elton Highstar.
An armored member of the Iron Guard has approached, and is presently whispering into Sir Elton’s ear. The old guildmaster listens for a moment, nodding.
“Come, Jake,” he says, after the message has been received. He places a hand on the swordarm’s shoulder. “Let’s go fetch, Miss Song.”
* * *
“So, you actually did it, huh?” Jake stands beside Sir Elton, grinning in at Scarlet, who is on the other side of the metal bars, in a cramped cell with nothing except a stained mattress on the floor. “Punched Harriet in the face. Nice. I assumed that by ‘the next time you saw her’ you meant the next time we happened to run into her somewhere. But you went straight to the source.”
Scarlet shrugs. “Yeah, turns out I couldn’t wait.”
“We’re getting you out right now,” Elton tells her. “Just hang tight.”
“Sorry,” she says, frowning, and bows her head to the old guildmaster. “If this drops some shit in your lap.”
Elton chuckles. “I don’t mind cleaning up your shit, Scarlet Song.”
Jake makes a noise in his throat. “Don’t say it like that.”
“And I especially don’t mind after hearing that those bastards stole the crown,” the old guildmaster continues. His mustache huffs with outrage. “Truthfully, I figured as much after they arrived yesterday, making a huge scene and showing off their prize like they were a bunch of damned heroes.” Elton nods. “I knew they’d gotten it away from you somehow. I was just hoping you all were alright. I’m glad you’re back safe.”
A member of the Iron Guard enters, keys rattling as he sorts through several on a thck ring. Finding the one he wants, he steps between Jake and Sir Elton and unlocks the cell door. “You’re free to go,” he grumbles, stepping aside.
* * *
Mathos, Elaine, and Hamfrd are waiting together on the street just outside the entrance to the Iron Keep when Scarlet emerges. The cleric’s face sags with relief. Hamfrd is grinning wide. Scarlet nods in their direction, an amused smirk twisting her lips.
Harriet Swordsteel and Olliver Grundt have gone.
Hamfrd laughs. “Out already, eh?”
“I’m free to go,” she says.
The big man grins. “Can’t believe they had you arrested for throwing a punch.”
“Yeah, funny story,” says Scarlet. “Turns out the Captain of the Guard, the Lord Mayor, and the Lord Mayor’s wife were all there at Darkblade Manor to have brunch with the Grundts when I showed up.”
“Celebrating the crown’s recovery, no doubt,” says Elton, frowning.
Scarlet nods. “Exactly.”
Jakes pounds his fist into his open hand. “Those bastards. They stole the crown! That should have been us having brunch with the Captain of the Guard and the Lord Mayor and his wife. Even though now that I’m saying it out loud that sounds terrible and boring and stuffy as hell. Who the heck wants to have brunch with the Lord Mayor?” He shivers, then looks at Scarlet. “But still. That was our boring brunch, damn it! Did you tell them that we were the ones who found the crown?”
“I might have mentioned it once or twice. I was mostly swearing. A lot.”
“And what?” Scarlet scowls. “What do you think, Jake? They apologized about the mix up. They gave the Grundts and Harriet a stern talking to, and then they took the crown away from them so that they can give it to us and we can get all the fame and glory instead. I think they may have even mentioned a parade,” she adds, sneering. “Their way of saying sorry.”
“Wow! They did all that?” asks Mathos. “For us? That’s fantastic!”
“She’s being sarcastic,” Jake informs him.
The mage deflates. “Oh.”
* * *
HIGHSTAR HOUSE, LATER THAT DAY
“You wanted to see me, Elton?”
“Come in,” says the older man, waving the swordarm into the room. “Shut the door.”
Jake does as he’s asked, and then steps forward. Glances down at the scattered books and parchments covering Sir Elton’s oak desk. Scribbled notes, scratched out numbers and figures, tables of addition and subtraction.
The old guildmaster, waiting for Jake’s attention to return to him, puffs absently on a pipe. The cinnamon-scented tobacco smoke wafts into the air, gathers around the crisscrossing wood beams overhead.
“Don’t you want to sit?” asks Sir Elton, gesturing to a highbacked chair of green upholstered cushion, opposite his seat at the desk.
Jake draws his mouth into a tight line. “I’m still too angry about these last couple of days. The Darkblades and the crown. Them throwing Scarlet in jail like that.”
“She did trespass and commit assault.”
“True,” concedes Jake. “Still, that was pretty badass, you have to admit.”
“Miss Song’s badass-ness is not in question.” The old guildmaster pauses to puff on his pipe, loosing a fresh cloud of smoke into the air.
“Then what?” asks Jake, eyeing the guildmaster keenly. “Something is up.”
Sir Elton chuckles, but there is little mirth in it. “The Lord Mayor was none too pleased by today’s . . . excitement. He let his feelings be known quite clearly to me this morning.”
“Well, that’s not anything surprising,” says Jake glumly, becoming infected by the older man’s subdued mood. He steps forward and seats himself in the cushioned chair.
“Not surprising, no,” says Sir Elton. “But it’s different this time. He’s out for blood. Ours.”
“What does that mean?” asks Jake.
* * *
INSIDE SIR ELTON’S STUDY, EARLIER THAT DAY
“Make any excuse you like,” the Lord Mayor says. “The fact of the matter is, she broke into Darkblade Manor and assaulted one of the residents therein.”
Sir Elton sighs heavily. “I’m quite sure Miss Swordsteel is capable of absorbing a single haymaker with no lasting ill effects. And as for Scarlet ‘breaking in’, you said just a moment earlier that she walked right in the front door. That’s hardly what I would consider–”
“I was there, Highstar. Don’t quibble the details with me. Breaking in, walking through an open door. Regardless, the official charge is trespassing. You should thank your precious Allway that she didn’t break through a locked door or force open a window. The young woman would be in even more trouble than she currently is.”
“For a punch.”
“And for trespassing.”
The two men stare at one another with distaste.
“Anyhow, it’s all elementary anyway,” the Lord Mayor says eventually. “As I understand that Lord Grundt plans to drop the charges against your woman.”
“That’s awfully nice of him,” Sir Elton says, grinning around the end of his pipe. “Good old Olliver.”
“Yes, I understand the two of you have some past relationship together as friends, or compatriots, or whatever it was that the two of you–”
“We adventured together,” Sir Elton chuckles, puffing, “as much younger men. If you can believe that.”
The Lord Mayor scrunches up his nose at the sound of the word ‘adventure’, sniffs as if something smells rotten. “Yes, about that . . .”
“About Olliver and I?”
“I don’t know if this is some sort of friendly competition or rivalry or spat between your two guilds,” continues the Lord Mayor, “but frankly, I dislike the direction things are headed. And it ends today. With this incident. And with the crown of the Sun King.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s right, Highstar. You know as well as I that the recovery of the crown is a major event. News of its discovery and of those who recovered it will spread far and wide. As will the name of the city they call home: Gulfside. As of today, there is no competition between your two guilds, friendly or otherwise. The Darkblades have now etched their names into that Book of Legends you hold so dear as bonafide heroes, while your motley group of–”
“Heroes?” gasps Sir Elton, choking on the tobacco smoke curling around his head. He coughs for a full minute, struggling to gather it under control, gagging and hacking.
The Lord Mayor watches, lips curled down, shaking his head.
“Heroes?” Sir Elton croaks, once he can speak again.
“As for your so-called guild, Highstar. Let me be quite clear. I’m watching.”
“Gulfside shall heretofore be known far and wide as the home of the Darkblades, the heroic adventurers who recovered the Legendary crown of the Sun King. I won’t have some gang of troublemakers sullying their reputation, and by extension the reputation of Gulfside, by dragging them down into some petty contest of . . . urination? A pissing contest, to use the vulgarity you’re no doubt more accustomed to.” His face is an expression of revulsion. “Honestly,” he continues, “distance? Duration? What is even judged in such contests? Regardless. The time for shenanigans is at an end. Is that understood?”
* * *
Jake’s face is one of disgust. “The Darkblades — heroic adventurers?”
“Those were the Lord Mayor’s exact words.”
Jake can’t help but shake his head and grin ruefully. “And he actually said, ‘the time for shenanigans is at an end?'”
Sir Elton nods, puffing on his pipe.
“And you said?” prompts Jake. “What did you say to him?”
Sir Elton ceases to puff, and instead chews on the end of the pipe between his teeth. He sucks in a breath. “I told him that I agree. And that I would make sure, from here on out”–the old guildmaster’s smile is hollow–“there would be no further . . . shenanigans.”
“What?” Jake pounds a fist into his open hand. “Damn it. This is all because they stole the crown from us. We had it in our hands, and they took it from us after we’d done all the work to get it. And then they nearly killed us. We’d have died without Mathos shielding us from the whole tomb collapsing.” Jake pauses, considering. “Actually, if that secret passage weren’t there, we’d have been flattened anyway.” He shakes his head. “That was a lucky break.” He lapses into the silence of a man ruminating over how close to death he’s been.
Sir Elton listens to the swordarm, nodding sympathetically. “Nevertheless, Jake. This isn’t a game. We can’t afford to anger the Lord Mayor any further. Not right now.”
Jake tries to speak, but the old guildmaster cuts him off with a raised finger.
“For the time being, we’re going to keep our heads down, stay out of trouble, and focus on what all adventure guilds should focus on. The adventuring part, Jake. The adventure. The quests, the treasure. Exploring ruins. Battling monsters. Hero stuff, like from the Legends.”
“But we do all that already,” Jake replies, “and when we finally get our big break, the Darkblades come in claim it as their own. It’s not right!”
“It’s not right,” Sir Elton agrees. “But it is what is.” He stares at Jake until he’s certain he has the swordarm’s full attention. “Stay away from the Darkblades. Keep yourself focused on our own affairs. Forget about what they’re doing.”
“I can’t protect you right now from the Lord Mayor. I need your help with this. The others need your help with this. For their sake and your own Jake. And mine. Keep them out of trouble.”
Eyes downcast, Jake nods.
“Most especially, keep Scarlet away from the Darkblades. Keep her away from Miss Swordsteel most of all.” Jake looks up. “We brought her home from the Iron Keep today, but the next time . . .” The old guildmaster spreads his hands helplessly. “I can’t promise anything.”
Jake is nodding.
“I’d implore her myself,” continues Sir Elton, “but truthfully, the woman frightens me a little.” He chuckles, and Jake can’t help but crack a smile and join him in light laughter.
Taking a breath, the swordarm says, “I’ll try. But she doesn’t always listen to me.”
“Yes she does,” replies the old guildmaster. “More often than you think. They all do. They look to you, Jake, so lead them. Lead them through this rough patch. And keep focused on the future. We’ll grow this guild as big as the Darkblades. Bigger! Have faith.”
Jake bows his head, takes another deep breath.
After a moment, he raises his eyes. Nods.
“I have faith, Elton. Thank you. We’ll make you proud.”
“You already do,” says the old guildmaster. He tilts his head to the side, grins. “Proud . . . with a touch of occasional indigestion.”
Jake grins, turns to go.
“What I want is for you to make yourselves proud.”
Sir Elton watches the swordarm go, then leans on his desk and the scattered papers there and sighs. He sets down his pipe and settles back in his chair, replaying the remainder of the conversation with the Lord Mayor in his mind.
* * *
SEVERAL HOURS EARLIER
“There’s a fine line between an adventuring guild such as yours, Highstar, and gang of troublesome hoodlums. A fine line.” The Lord Mayor speaks with his hands out before him, fingers steepled together. “Cross that line and one goes from accolades to shackles. Am I making myself clear?”
Sir Elton’s mouth is a tight line. He nods.
“Now, in my role as Lord Mayor, I am head of the city’s government. I’m also in charge of its law enforcement. I have many methods available to me with which to deal with those who refuse to follow the laws of our fair city. And I also have methods by which I can assure that adventuring guilds — again, such as yours — remain respectable organizations that stay on the right side of the law. It is, after all, my responsibility to keep Gulfside safe for all of its citizens. And I think we can both agree that wild, out of control, and dangerous armed troublemakers make Gulfside less safe for everyone.
“One such method at my disposal are the Guildlaws. As codified in the Book of Legends, those tomes that adventurers such as yourself and your guild seem practically to consider divine. So, I’m sure you’re familiar with them.” He puts his hands together, smiles at the guildmaster, leans forward. “I think, perhaps, it’s time to reinstate the Guildlaws.” He gleefully notes Sir Elton’s shocked face. “If you insist that your little band of thugs is more than just a criminal gang of n’er-do-wells, that they are, rather, a guild of adventurers, worthy of the respect that title affords, then I believe it is time that they begin to truly act as one. To that end, you may start by paying the monthly guild fee, as outlined by the Book of Legends. You will pay this monthly fee from now on.”
Sir Elton’s mustache quivers on his upper lip with rage.
“I’ll be sending some folks over from the Treasury,” the Lord Mayor continues. “We’ll be auditing your books starting this month, and every month thereafter. And of course, as the home base of your guild, the city of Gulfside will also begin taking our ten percent of all income claimed in the name of your guild, including ten percent of any and all monies earned through the trade, barter or resale of goods and items including weapons and armor, jewels, gemstones, objects d’art, non-circulation coins, and . . . well, as I said, I’m sure, being an adventurer yourself, you’re cognizant of the contents of the Guildlaws as they are laid out in your Book of Legends. I realize that nowadays the Guildlaws are very much thought of as an archaic curiosity. I’m taking a very traditionalist approach to this, you see. I really just so adore you adventurers.”
The old guildmaster has no words; his face has gone red all the way to his ears, a sight that brings great joy to the Lord Mayor. He continues:
“From this day henceforth, you shall document and catalogue every item that comes into the possession of your guild while in the act of adventuring with a value greater than zero. If at any time, your guild is found to be hiding their gains so as to avoid paying the ten percent tithe, you will be in violation of the Guildlaws. I don’t think it’s necessary to explain what that would mean.” The Lord Mayor smiles cruelly. “It wouldn’t be good for you.”
Leaving his words hanging there in the air, the Lord Mayor stands.
“Now,” he says to Sir Elton, “I believe a member of your guild is presently sitting in a cell. Shall we attend to that?”
* * *
After Jake has left Sir Elton Highstar alone in his study, the old guildmaster sits before his desk, surrounded by shelves lined with rare books and decorated with precious items from his adventuring days. He sets down his pipe and sighs heavily.
His breath sends a ripple through the parchments scattered over the desk’s surface. It is the first batch he has pulled of the mess of records that are his chaotic financials, his credits and tabs, as well as scribbled notes from hours earlier as he attempted to figure out the exact state of his current monetary situation.
The Lord Mayor has promised that servants of the Treasury will be by in the morning with the first monthly bill for the newly-instituted guild fee. The precise amount (as laid out in the Book of Legends as part of the Guildlaws) is determined by a number of variables such as the population of the home city, esoteric measurements of the local economy’s strength, and the number of persons present in the guild in question just to name a few; and as such, it requires the application of an equation by accountant-types who understand the vagaries of numbers far more than himself.
Glancing through the notes and the scratched out math and the mess that is his financials, Sir Elton sighs again. He can’t do this on his own, not with the Lord Mayor so intent on finding fault with the guild. He’s practically looking for an excuse to disband them, or worse. Sir Elton thinks the Lord Mayor would prefer to see them all in a cell.
So he’s going to need help.
Settling back in his chair, Sir Elton picks up his pipe. Strikes a flintspark, and puffs the packed tobacco back to life. As a fresh cloud gathers around him, he brings a hand up and rubs his chin, considering.
He will need help. But who?
End of Part One