The Lady and the Augur
Scene: Audran’s Antiques, Fortune’s Junction
Audran’s Antiques was a bit of an odd duck. Tucked inside an alleyway at the very edge of the Heart district, where it gave way to both the Gem Road and the Storehouses, it counted as one of the town’s ‘reputable’ businesses, but only just. The lighting inside was dimmed, as if the owner were unwilling to broadcast his prosperity, and littered with knick knacks and curios brought from the four corners of the Blessed Isle, ready to be sold at a reasonable price after an utterly unreasonable amount of haggling.
“Welcome to Audran’s Antiques, how can I help—” The words of the servant boy manning the counter died in his throat as he realized who the two visitors who had just stepped inside were. “W-welcome inside sirs, I mean, great ones,” he began, stammering over his words as he bowed deeply to them, his eyes filled with admiration, barely-restrained curiosity, and possibly even some fear of disappointing his visitors. “M-masters Jacek is in the backroom, do you need me to announce you before you come in? Or, pray to you, or anything else?” The last part was added quickly, and more than a little fearfully. Rook didn’t recognize his face. He must be very new, a recent addition to the Cult.
Rook’s jaw clenched, but he kept his tone even. “No need. Just keep tending to your duties, and if anyone comes in asking for Master Jacek before we are done speaking to him, tell them he will be back shortly.” He sympathized with the boy- it hadn’t been all that long ago that he might have been in his place- but he was still unused to the attention his new status conferred. There was no time to waste, though. He swept past the back curtain, trying to ignore the feeling of eyes digging into his back. “Sorry to disturb you, Preem. Do you have a moment?”
“Well! I was wondering when you’d come around, boy. It’s been some time.”
The man speaking was seated behind a small desk, surrounded by piles of parchments so massive the top of his head could barely be seen through them. Delicately, a gloved hand slipped between the towers and pushed one aside, revealing a face lined with age, which bore a small, satisfied smile.
“Let’s see now. Something must have brought you and your foreign companion, whose acquaintance I’m pleased to make...here, no doubt. Let me guess: work, the completion of which requires information that only I can provide. What is it that you’re looking for? I’m afraid I’m fresh out of prophecies today, unfortunately, if that’s what you’re after.”
"We'll not keep you for too long, sir." Grace piped in. He noticed the stacks of paper and did not envy whatever kind of work the man had to be wrapped into. "We're looking into two things, Nepenthe and one Ilscha Karina. Our trail begins there."
“Ah, yes, that one,” Jacek replied, his mouth twisting into a frown. “A confidante of the City’s greatest philanthropist, and a noted benefactor of the poor and needy. Also a fallible human being, just like the rest of us...present company excluded, of course. Give me a moment to remember where I put her information...”
Leaning forward, the augur tented his fingers before his face, in a gesture Rook had seen many times before. The man who’d raised him was putting the vast reservoir of information within his head in order, seeking a specific, singular datum relevant to the matter at hand.
“Here.” His hand darted out, seizing a scroll from the middle of the pile to his right. It wavered unsteadily, threatening to collapse, but his other hand grasped the top of the pile and pressed down, stabilizing it for a few moments until it could stay standing on its own once again. Graciously, he offered them the prize he’d managed to retrieve from the great beast.
“That’s one matter taken care of. You’ll have to be more specific about the other, I’m afraid. I could fill several shelves with the information we have on the Nepenthe. As a matter of fact, I’ve done so already, even.”
Rook cleared his throat. “Our focus for now is on Dame Ilscha, sir, and tracing connections around her. I assume- and correct me if I am wrong- that her known personal connections will be mostly covered in her individual file, but I seem to recall that she has specific ties to Wordweaver’s Alley, as well? That seems like a good place to start.”
“It’d be a good place to start when looking into just about anyone, boy,” Jacek said, accentuating his words with a quick nod. “Business might flow through the Heart, but good information always arrives at the Alley eventually. You’ll want to look for Lizeh, the rumormonger. Wide dame, cheerful, loves the color green...if anyone might have something to add to the file’s details, it’ll be her. And if you think there’s any reason to doubt her information, seek out Yunru. He hates her so deeply he’ll take any chance to ruin her reputation by proving she deals in falsified information. Just be careful not to find yourself dragged into one of their little power games, hmm?”
"Does this happen often there? The… misinformation attempts?" Grace piped in.
“Misinformation yes, attempts, no.” Jacek extended his hand outward, as if to display something in his palm. It was a gesture Rook recognized, and which meant his guardian was about to begin a lesson. “You have to understand, stranger, being known as an information market means Wordweaver’s Alley is also the perfect place to distribute false intelligence from. The information brokers do their best to make sure their information is accurate — no one would buy from a seller reputed for offering poor quality products, after all — but sometimes certain pieces of counter-intelligence slip through the cracks. In those instances, rivals looking to discredit the seller benefit clients, as they provide a ready source of verification. This way, every rumormonger has an incentive to stay sharp, they’re forced to sell their information at a higher cost to offset investigative expenses, and the clients can be certain they can act on it with reasonable confidence. Everyone wins, wouldn’t you agree?”
Grace forced back the distress he's been feeling. The man in question is being as helpful as he can be in his line of work. Ain't his fault.
"I'd say it depends on where you stand in it, but you make a good point... I suppose I have another question. Would you know if people have been buying property in Nepenthe lately?" He asked. Of the idea that, ‘everybody wins’ the only way it made sense to Grace’s mind is if they approached the Gateway Tournament from the opposite angle.
“Can’t say I’ve heard of any major movements in the real estate market as of late. Of course, ‘as of late’ only extends as far back as before this last week. Since then, the district’s been flooded with offers from the city’s business moguls and construction syndicates, seeking to buy the residents’ homes at any cost. They have yet to see much success, however. The Goddess of the Nepenthe has issued a terminal ban on such sales, and few of its denizens are brave enough to defy her word.”
Grace nodded, and thought on what the old man was saying. It sounds like this goddess will be calling the shots after the tournament ended. The would-be contractor would have to contest with her to make any kind of progress. Grace couldn't be sure, but he had an idea that someone had to have talked with Linnea Aurea beforehand. Maybe the architect of the reconstruction project. maybe his partner. Or Mnemon. Someone had to, or the contractor would be sitting on their cash with Dragons circling the hoard. Like wolves around its prey.
Still, that’s just one angle.
“The people in charge are fine with this?” He knew he should just stay quiet, but questions keep forming.
“Even if they object, I can’t see anyone truly being willing to pick a fight about it at this moment.” Rook nodded to his mentor, a small apology for interrupting. “We already know Linnea Aurea is likely to enter the tournament herself, but…” He frowned. “It seems out of character for her to put her foot down so strongly- not unheard of, but I would say rare. This wouldn’t go unnoticed...” He closed his eyes, clearly reviewing information in his head. “If anything, I might say this is favorable to any major players who might be already looking ahead; leaving the markets open to speculators would only increase the chance that some outsider- or worse, one of their rivals- gets lucky.” He nodded. “I think what we can conclude from this is that the Goddess herself is confident in her position, even if she doesn’t win- she’d rather negotiate from where she already was than gamble.” He glanced at Jacek. “Would you agree?”
“Perhaps…” Jacek drawled. “Or perhaps she fears the unknown, and dares not risk anything, when the tournament itself has placed her livelihood in jeopardy. Tell me something, boy, how long do you think the city’s powers have known of this contract?”
Rook’s face flushed and he cast his eyes downward. “I’m… Not sure, sir. Longer than it’s been official, I’m certain, but…”
At least twenty-eight years, Grace thought. After the contract's rejection and bogging down before being forced through, and flipping the table… long enough for everyone involved to be scrambling for a new plan.
"You think what she's doing isn't a knee-jerk reaction?"
“The opposite, actually. Given the timeframe we’re dealing with, it’s unlikely to be anything but that. It is a rare trait to become more aggressive when caught off-guard. Most people try to retreat and stabilize themselves instead, and I believe our goddess is no exception to this norm. Do you follow me, stranger?” Jacek asked Grace, fixing his eyes on his face.
He nods. Sounds like one game is being played between the goddess and some unseen opponent. How many other players, and other games?
"Hence her forbiddance on deed sales. But if she opposes what's happening, this would only be a delaying tactic. There'd be ways to circumvent this."
“Precisely. The countermove would naturally beget its own countermove, and this would continue until one of the opposing forces secured an unanswerable advantage -- and most likely, that’ll take the form of the renovation contract.” The augur clapped his hands, as if to emphasize that’d be the end of the matter. “We cannot be certain of what the Goddess’ goals are at the moment, but what we can be sure of is that she is scrambling to achieve a better position, one from which she can actually take action to pursue her agenda. Learning what her moves might be, who she is struggling to hold off, and what her overall plans are…that, I believe, is a job best suited to our little cells premier agents.”
Another nod. That would be up to Fidelity. But whatever she and the doctor find out will need to be seen as improving her position against her opponent. Though something nagged at Grace, the perceived desperation.
"I think I have one last question. What do you think she'd do if she lost?"
Rather than answering, Jacek furrowed his brow. Moments passed and became minutes, and still he didn’t move. Just as he seemed to have settled into imitating a statue, his hand darted out and seized one of the reports in the pile. He read it quickly, then let out a sharp snort of disgust.
“Smitings? Divine plagues? Curses? Your guess...is as good as mine.” The words came out grudgingly. It was obvious, even to someone not familiar with him, that he hated admitting there was something he did not know. “We have no records of the Goddess of the Nepenthe being pushed to the brink in such a way. I will investigate this matter. You, meanwhile, should hope this does not come to pass. Even a lesser god’s wrath is no laughing matter.”
Grace wasn't sure about what a goddess would do, but a sore loser with power? That he could imagine.
He looks to his companion, Rook, wondering if he had something on his mind.
Rook, who had been staring intently at the floor, relaxed suddenly. “Something is bothering me, sir. Do we know if anyone has reached out to Linnea? Regardless of one’s backing or convictions, it seems… Strange, to me, to leave the goddess whose domain you might be forcibly reshaping in the dark.”
“Not officially. There’s been a conspicuous lack of prefectoral emissaries visiting the Nepenthe as of late. Unofficially, only the Goddess herself can say...but my instinct is there’s been nothing by silence. Why do you ask, boy? Any suspicions?”
“Just a hunch. If she’s being left to dangle…” His mouth twitched. “Either she truly has no place in whatever designs are being enacted, or someone wants her to think that. My guess is the latter, but I couldn’t say who- there are too many possible candidates for now. The important detail, for now, is that she’s probably looking for allies.”
’But wouldn’t all that suggest she had no idea of the original contract from long ago? Or the architect, who wanted this to happen?’ Something about this isn’t adding up for Grace…
“And if she is, she’ll want to make sure they’re true,” Jacek finished, nodding in agreement. “When in a precarious situation, the only thing worse than having no allies is trusting a false friend. When will you make a point of speaking with her?” ‘When’, both exalts noticed Jacek had said. Not ‘if’.
“What do you think, sir?” Grace tried his best not to sound as curious as he could be. Whatever he knew would pale compared to the old man who’d been here all his life. Check the corners of his mouth, and where his arms may be reaching for. He did that last time, and Grace thought that there’d be a page containing something that’d remind the old man...
[@AnonymousIdiot, you rolled 1,2,3,4,4,4,9 for a total of 1 successes
“I think you know your own goals, stranger,” Jacek said, a lopsided smile dawning on his face. “And if you wish to make good on them, you should act, sooner rather than later.”
‘Nothing… I guess it’s our move.’ Grace thought. “It’ll be someone else’s task, but that one may want to have this knowledge shared. We came seeking a connection with Nepenthe and Ilscha, and it seems we’ve lingered a bit long.”
“And without even reviewing the dossier, I might add,” Jacek remarked, cheerfully. “If she is your target, you’d do well to make some time to go over it.”
“Regardless, sir, we’ve taken enough of your time for the moment.” Rook turned to Grace. “I can make sure our compatriots are informed of Aurea Linnea’s situation while you look over the documents- does that sound acceptable?”
“Hmm. Right!” Grace says. “Thank you so much for your time, good sir. Good morning!”
“We have some space in our backrooms you can use, stranger. Take the door to the right of this room’s entryway, follow the corridor to its end, then go through the door on your left. Feel free to use it for as long as you have to. Now it’s time for you both to depart, shining ones.The city’s future rests on your shoulders.” He waved his hands in a slow sweep, theatrically shooing them away. “Spread your wings now, and remember: be swift. Be excellent. Be gone!”
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