The White Badge of Deceit; Chapter 2

A plain black carriage with no escort rolled through the farmlands of Dreicounty on the road north from the Slothjemian Coreland. It was a carefully cared for vehicle, and its exquisite condition revealed it as not a run-of-the-mill mode of transportation, but as the vessel for an important person who wished to travel incognito. The two horses were of ordinary appearance, but like the carriage, they were well taken care of, and even a casual examination would reveal the steeds had been bred from fine stock. Atop the carriage the driver and a footman were dressed unremarkably, but their posture and attentiveness suggested a military bearing. This was certainly not a middle-class merchant traveling in a common carriage to some innocuous rendezvous. This was something more sinister, or at the very least, more interesting.

This was also not the first time this carriage had made this journey. The horses and their unmarked vehicle had been up this road several times. Their destination was always the same. Just ahead there was a gentle division in the road, where the road split to go northwest to the Grey Alps, a dwarven duchy that was part of Slothjemia, and northeast to Barokovia, another Slothjemian duchy. Here in the vast fertile farmlands of Dreicounty, there were few towns, and no large cities. And where the road divided there was only a large, multistory inn and roadhouse that had spread haphazardly to include a stable, a smithy, and of course a public house. Massive oak trees spread their branches over the whole structure, keeping it in shade during these warm summer months. In the winter, the barren appearance of the place was nothing short of unnerving, complete with fallen leaves all about the grounds and carrion feeders nesting in the lofty heights of the trees. This was Blauhaven.

The woman who owned this rambling operation was rumored to be a witch. Her name was Bex. Even at a distance, observers found something about her unsettling. Up close the effect was more profound. She was impossibly thin, with a figure more like a gangly prepubescent boy than a woman nearing her thirtieth birthday. Her skin was pale as a corpse, and her eyes as black as a crow. Her black hair was straight, long, and never out of place. Her lips were painted dark blue most of the time, but sometimes black, or a dark blood red. Never bright colors. She had never been witnessed smiling, had never laughed, and only spoke if all other methods of not communicating had failed to drive people away. Needless to say, Bex was not the one responsible for greeting and tending to the customers. For every job required around Blauhaven, there was somebody else to do it.

Even as the plain, black carriage made its way to Blauhaven, these employees were busy at their tasks. Bex knew it was coming. And she had a pretty good idea why. Bex made her way to the tavern to let Twitch know that company was expected.

She paused in the doorway from her office, and looked down over the mezzanine at the solitary figure below. Twitch was leaning back in a chair, his legs crossed atop the table in front of him. In his lap was his mandolin which he strummed almost sleepily, a smile on his shadow elven face as he turned his gaze up to where she stood watching him.

“Afternoon, Bex.” He kept playing lazily. “What’s up?”

She replied “The master will be here soon, Twitch.” With that she turned, and went back to her sanctum.

Twitch chuckled. “Of course. No rest for the wicked.” He looked over at the troll tending the bar. “Hey there, Gumble! We have a special guest inbound. Bring out the good red wine, and fetch some roast beef.”

The troll grinned, waved, and lurched into the kitchen grunting directions to the staff. There was the sound of food being prepared, and a degree of enthusiasm at the prospect of a paying guest.

The shadow elf stopped playing long enough to draw a comb from his pocket, and run it through his long white hair. He continued humming the tune he had been playing, but with no more urgency or energy than his lazy strumming had produced. The glass in front of him was halfway filled with a strong, locally produced plum wine that the people in Dreicounty called tzuica. He had developed a strong affection for the spirit. Being an elf, his constitution did not permit him to consume vast quantities of alcohol, but he did so enjoy the flavor. Even on a hot day such as this, it was refreshing.

The suspiciously drab carriage pulled up in front of the roadhouse as the manager of Blauhaven, a perpetually cheerful gnome named Florrvin, came clattering out of the kitchen with a platter of bread, roast beef, and cheese. Right behind him one of the barmaids, a voluptuous orc named Gwena, was carrying two bottles of red wine and a handful of glasses. Twitch moved his legs off of the table in a swift motion that gave a clue to his physical prowess and speed of reflex. The staff set down the food and drink, then very quickly retreated into the safety of the kitchen. No sooner had they reached their own haven did the carriage footman swing open the front door of the tavern, and hold it for his distinguished passenger.

The fellow entering the tavern with something of a low-key flourish was clad entirely in black, save for a large silver chain around his neck. He carried no swagger stick or cane as would a proper gentleman, but instead he carried a wicked looking small-headed war axe with a silver head. He was very nearly as round as he was tall, his human features dark as though he spent all day in the sun. He removed his large, floppy black hat and handed it to the footman without looking. The man in black had not shaved in days and his thick salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back with grease to hold it in place. A broad grin crossed his face as he strode forward, hand outstretched, to greet Twitch.

Twitch stood up, and moved a few steps to meet his visitor. The shadow elf was easily a half-foot taller than the human who more closely resembled a tall dwarf. They clasped hands tightly, both smiling widely. “Twitch, you old demon! So very good to see you again.” The human’s voice was uncomfortably loud in the empty tavern and echoed the great joy he must be feeling at seeing an old friend. “I understand I owe you a great debt for saving my life recently. That fellow Jax, from Kugahloo, was forcibly retired and with not a minute to spare.”

The shadow elf motioned for the man in black to have a seat. “Was an honor to serve, milord. Our information was exquisite. More of a cake walk than a campaign.” The two men sat at the table, but not across from each other. The man in black sat on the same side as Twitch, turning his chair to face him. He grabbed some food and poured a glass of wine while he spoke.

“Whatever the case, a job well done. I placed payment into your account, and brought a little something for you as well.” He looked at the still open door and motioned for the carriage driver to bring in a small chest. The driver set the chest down on the now quite cluttered table and then left to tend to the carriage. The footman closed the door as he also left, his shadow quite evident through the smoky blue glass as he stood outside on sentry duty.

The man in black produced a key, and unlocked the little chest. He left the key on the table in front of Twitch and opened the box to reveal a tidy stack of coins in all denominations. With a raised eyebrow Twitch looked at the cache of money and said “Any particular reason they are all Geldenreich in origin?” The man in black laughed.

“We’ll get to that.” He settled back in his chair and took a bite of beef and a swig of wine. “You just got back from the south. Maybe you should take some time to visit family.” He grabbed a handful of bread and gnawed it while he watched the shadow elf.

Twitch gave a weak little laugh and replied “I don’t think I would even recognize my family. Nor they me. It has been many years since we were last together.” He poured himself some wine too. “Shadow elves are not widely known for their strong family ties.”

Laughingly the mystery guest nodded, and after taking a big bite of cheese he said, with a mouth full of food, “We’ve received a letter from your aunt. She says your sister wants to see you again.” He waved his hand in the air and shook his head. “Not my place to meddle, I know. Just bringing you the news as I hear it.” He pointed a fat finger at the chest of coins. “More urgently I need you to go to Geldenreich. Our enemies have been busy, and I do not wish to be left in the dark when their plans come to fruition.”

Twitch and the man in black leaned close together and their voices fell to a virtual whisper. The visitor produced a leather document pouch from the copious folds of his cloak, and handed it to Twitch. The shadow elf listened raptly as the fat, dark man took a break from feasting to tell him of his next mission.

“Ever since the Romillian War, our restless dwarven neighbors have been talking more and more with the human leadership of Geldenreich. They know that our intelligence capabilities are strong in Romillia, so they have been holding secret meetings in Debreken, a large city just across the border with Geldenreich that serves as a regional capital. We have tried to get a man in to see what is going on, but without success.”

The man in black tapped the leather dossier pouch. “You’ll find everything in there that we currently know. Geldenreich has exceptional defenses against magic, including gate and teleport spells. They are also very guarded against scrying of all types, so simple divination has proven useless. It looks like you will have to enter and exit like any other mortal. And how you go about getting the information is entirely up to you.”

Twitch continued watching the visitor as he spoke. “There is one complication you need to be aware of. The head of security for the Romillian-Geldenreich talks is a woman. And no ordinary woman, either. She is Yvonne Faustenburg, a sorceress engaged to be married to one of Geldenreich’s most powerful men, Archduke Klarence Balderisch von Hersterrn. He is what you might call my opposite number in Geldenreich. He has to be handled very carefully. Yvonne is….” The visitor paused while he chose his next word carefully, “disposable.” He looked Twitch square in the eye. “Should she be taken out of the equation it would be a boon to Slothjemia. Understand?”

The shadow elf nodded. “Understood.” The two men took their wine glasses, and clinked them together.

The fat man continued. “She is having to work with a vile fellow named Karcher, the man responsible for internal security in that province. He is headquartered in Debreken, and has a small army of thugs in black leather armor to make sure problems go away and stay away. He is a threat to your mission, but we understand how he functions. Knowing him has made our job easier on a number of occasions. So try not to kill him. Maim, certainly, but let’s not force the Archduke to replace him just yet.” Twitch just smiled and nodded.

“Very good.” The man in black sat back in his seat. “You’ll find the rest of the details in the dossier. Study it and form up a plan of action. In case you run into trouble there is contact information inside for some strong-arm talent that has been placed at your discretion, a fine fellow you have worked with in the past. I have to return to Jordrakenschloss tonight. No timeline, but obviously the sooner we have the information we need, the better off everyone in Slothjemia will be.” He resumed eating. “No sense letting this delicious fare go to waste.” He laughed. “Sometime I should just travel here for fun and not always on business. I love this place.”

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