The Shadow of the Rose
Chapter 9

Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy

Lady Laura's enthusiasm surprised Aaron when he broached the subject of taking Anastasia dress shopping with her. She wanted to know all about her, how they knew each other, etc. After finding out that she was Aaron's ward, she seemed even more excited for some reason. Not one to understand women, Aaron did not dwell on it. Not surprisingly, Rac-Nur preferred being bodyguard to the young charge as well.

The discussion with Walton and the King lasted into the night. The Guild Council had approved his takeover and asset split. The King presented Aaron with the title of Marquis de la Rose and the land surrounding the old castle in the Thangdaemon forest as his march, which was perfect, since the land was legitimately on the border of the kingdom.

The King sent a dispatch to Realto to expand their patrols to include the area surrounding the castle. Aaron would have to make other arrangements in the near future. Perhaps a garrison within the castle as an outpost for Realto. Aaron put that on his mental list to discuss with Marcus. He could hire guardsmen and station them there. The grounds and barracks were large enough to house an entire company, including support craftsman, and their families. Aaron just gained an army!

The next morning, after breakfast, the shopping troop left the palace for Anastasia's residence in the middle city. Arriving at the door, Aaron knocked and waited. Stefan opened the door and greeted them.

"Good morning milord," Stefan stepped back, holding the door. "Miss Anastasia is waiting in the sitting room."

"Very good, Stefan," Aaron smiled. "Lead on."

Stefan closed the door and led them into the sitting room. Aaron noticed that the decor was definitely feminine.

"Miss Anastasia," Stefan announced. "Lord Whiterune and company."

Aaron and the shopping group entered the sitting room.

"Lady Anastasia, may I present Her Highness, Lady Laura Ragnarak, Duchess of Malkur," Aaron announced.

"Lady Laura, I have the pleasure of presenting, Lady Anastasia de Ponce, Marquise de la Rose," Aaron bowed, sweeping his arm back.

"Your Highness," Anastasia curtseyed.

"Please, you do not need to curtsey," Lady Laura stepped forward and grasped both of Anastasia's hands. "Your guardian may not have told you, but he is the adopted son of the Duke of Realto and nephew of the King of Aithen. I should be curtseying to you. Come we have shopping to do."

"When did you find out about that?" Aaron asked with an arched brow.

"I have my resources as well," Lady Laura smiled, "although, I should be mad at both you and the King for leading me on like that."

"He was concerned about your safety and looked to me for help," Aaron shrugged. "He thought it better that you were unaware of his and my connection. You will get to Malkur safely with me involved."

"Anastasia, this is Rac-Nur," Aaron turned to her and introduced the dark elf. "He will be with you at all times now, and is responsible for your safety."

Anastasia smiled at Rac-Nur and nodded to Aaron. Aaron explained that he had business to attend to and would not be accompanying them on their excursion. If his business finished up early he would look for them in the shop district of the middle city, if not, then he would meet them back at Anastasia's home, two hours before the funeral. He handed Stefan his clothes and handed a pouch of gold to Anastasia and told her to have fun. He bid Lady Laura, and now Lady Anastasia, a good morning and left.

Aaron dropped down into the lower city and the Guild Quarter and made his way to the home of the Fighters' Guild. Aaron was contracting long term for a company of men; eight full squads, plus support and tradesmen.

The Guild would, for a nominal fee, take care of all of Aaron's needs, including tailoring a specific livery of Aaron's own design if needed. Aaron described the bounding hart heraldry of the House of Whiterune and left a significant amount of gold to start the proceedings. He would return in a day to interview prospective officers and sergeants for the company. Satisfied with the results of his business with the Fighters' Guild, Aaron left the guild and proceeded to his next stop.

Arriving at the Merchants' Guild, he set up an operational account with sufficient funds for the house. He also made inquiries about property in Malkur. The guild would pass on his requirements to Malkur where the guild there would locate prospective properties for review when he arrived. Aaron had only one stop left to make in the lower city, and proceeded to the Central Quarter and the 'Deathmark' taproom.

Entering the taproom and heading to the bar, Aaron passed his token across to the bartender, who placed it in a small recessed area under the bar. A small section of the back wall slid in and out of the way, exposing a small anteroom. Aaron entered the room and waited for the wall to close behind him then, instead of making the traditional three knocks, Aaron simply opened the door. Stepping into the council room, Aaron acknowledged the members in attendance.

"Lord Whiterune, how may we be of service?" Lord Gnola asked.

"Lords, are you aware of a plot to abduct the daughter of the Duke of Malkur?" Aaron asked. "I ask, because she is now under my protection."

"To use your own words, Lord Whiterune," Lord Elwes replied. "Contrary to popular opinion, we are not behind every nefarious plot in the five realms."

"I did not ask if you were behind it, Lord Elwes," Aaron replied, irritation obvious in his tone. "I asked if you were aware of it. So, that would be a no?"

"We are not aware of, nor have we sanctioned, any plot to abduct the Duke of Malkur's daughter," Lord Qatar replied.

"Well, that is disturbing," Aaron remarked. "But, also a relief."

"We understand that you are now the proud owner of a merchant house," Lord Remy acknowledged, "without having to use your talents. We understand Master de Ponce died in his sleep?"

"Yes, that is what I understand as well," Aaron nodded. "My plan to move is on schedule. All that is needed now is to solicit clients."

"We can steer clients in your direction, if that is acceptable," Lord Qatar replied. "Perhaps you would be willing to provide a discreet service for a more discerning clientele?"

While there was not a black market trade in the five realms per se, certain items were inherently restricted in availability; one-step cobra venom, for example, as well as the venom from its northern cousin, the Wobra, or winged cobra. Various alchemistic ingredients, as well as sorcery potion ingredients, were difficult to come by as well. Most of the former were restricted simply due to the risk of procurement and/or transportation. However, there could be a lucrative business in the acquisition, handling, shipping and selling of these highly dangerous, yet sought after, items.

"I was thinking along the lines of rare or hard to come by items, both procurement and shipping," Aaron explained. "Items, that the end user would normally either have to obtain for themselves, or pay someone else a significant finder's fee to obtain for them."

"Yes, I believe we were thinking along those same lines," Lord Gnola smiled, clapping his hands together. "After your transition to Malkur is complete, we will contact you with a list of names and articles to obtain."

"That would be most acceptable," Aaron replied. "What would be your fee?"

"Our fee?" Lord Qatar asked. "You misunderstand, Lord Whiterune. We would require no fee. One does not charge equals. Perhaps at some point in the future we might make use of your services, in some manner? An exchange of talents, if you will."

"Alright," Aaron replied slowly. "I think those terms would be acceptable."

"Very good, Lord Whiterune," Lord Remy replied. "Is there anything further?"

"No, thank you for your time and trouble," Aaron replied. "Good day, lords."

Aaron turned and stepped through the door and closed it. A moment later, the passage through the wall opened and Aaron stepped back into the taproom and retrieved his token from the bartender. After enjoying a glass of Gnomish, Aaron left the 'Deathmark' and headed back to the Guild Quarter. Aaron's meeting with the 'council' started him thinking about his plan and the type of individuals he would need. Those individuals would need a particular skill set to acquire the items Aaron's clientele would desire. And he knew just the place to look.

Tanith's patience was wearing thin. Not content with being cooped up after such a long time in hibernation, she needed an activity, an outlet. She was good with weapons, yet being a fighter held no passion for her. She liked 'things', baubles, pretty trinkets, expensive things. She finally came to the conclusion that she was bored and needed excitement. Leaving the inn, she had a destination in mind and went to search it out.

Unlike most guildhalls, the Thieves' Guild was not open to the general public. If you wanted something enchanted, you went to the Sorcerers' Guild. Likewise, if you wanted a specific type or piece of armor, or specialized weapon, you went to the Armorers' Guild. You did not go to the Thieves' Guild unless you were a thief or wanted to become a thief. Finding the guild was one thing, entering was quite another. Entrance to the guild was a test. If you could not get in, you did not belong in.

It took Tanith several hours to identify the home of the Thieves' Guild. It was located amongst a row of tenement homes in the lower city and looked like a rundown abandoned building. Tanith discreetly searched the building for an entrance, and then the entrance for traps. She might not be specifically trained for thievery, but she was naturally cautious and had the 'true-sight'.

'True-sight' was the ability to see things as they truly were, and using it she could sense the different traps, tripwires, and finally the trip mechanism for the door itself. Satisfying herself that there were no additional traps, she gently opened the door with her parrying dagger and looked around the threshold and interior and then entered the local home of the Thieves.

The door opened to a large reception area where an elderly gentleman sat behind a desk. The room was square with doors at all of the cardinal points. Walking up to the man she smiled.

"I wish to test to join the guild," she remarked matter-of-factly.

"Other than the ability to enter, any qualifications?" he asked, nonplussed. "You do not look like the type to join this guild, if you get my meaning, miss?"

"Nevertheless, I would like to join the guild," she replied bluntly. "I have no formal training, but I have enough innate ability that I believe I could be useful."

"Yes, miss, that is what they all say," he replied. "You would be admitted as an apprentice, and would train for advancement from there."

"I would like the opportunity to test for journeyman," Tantih growled menacingly. "I am sure that I would pass."

"That is highly unlikely," he replied, shaking his head. "It takes several years to acquire the necessary skill to pass the test to be a full-fledged member."

"How about I just kill you now, and then find someone else to assist me?" Tanith smiled, causing the man an involuntary shudder.

"Well, you got spunk, that is for sure," he laughed. "Just follow that door to your left there."

"Thank you," Tanith replied abruptly, and then turned toward the door. "Humans!"

Tanith returned to the reception room several strenuous and grueling hours later, holding a thief's token from Malkur.

"I wish to make myself available for any contract work," she told the man behind the desk. "I will check back tomorrow."

Smiling at the man seated there, she left quite satisfied with her achievement.

Aaron returned to the Guild Quarter and to the Thieves' Guild, where he talked with Master Drexil about recruiting able bodies for his business idea. The meeting lasted several hours, after which Aaron had a list of possible candidates. Master Drexil promised to communicate with his counterpart in Malkur, concerning Aaron's desires. Aaron left the lower city and returned to the middle city, looking for Lady Laura and his ward.

Searching the shop district for Lady Laura and Lady Anastasia proved fruitless. They were nowhere to be found and Aaron did not feel like enough time had transpired for them to have been finished. He checked with several dress shop owners and they had been in, but no one knew where they were heading. Aaron returned to the residence and Stefan had not seen them since they left earlier that morning. In his arrogance, Aaron had let his guard down; he thought that the city provided sufficient protection. Once again he had been lulled into complacency and it may very well have cost him dearly this time.

"Damn, I am stupid," he thought. "I should have forced that coin on Laura, and provided one for Anastasia as well."

A discussion with his swords provided no help. They had no specific ability to detect them. The swords apparently took little notice of most beings. There were specific entities that they were aware of, or in the case of the Thangdaemons, had trained themselves to be aware of, other than that, most beings were beneath them.

Aaron was at a loss as to what to do, so he did the only thing he could think of, he began to track their movements through the shop district and the middle city. An hour later he came upon a dead end. They had been in the dress shop just up the street and yet no one had seen them since. He checked with both the upper and lower gates and they hadn't passed through either. Aaron was running out of ideas, so he returned to the spot just down the street from where they were last seen.

"Black Rose, can you or Red Rose detect magic?" Aaron asked, "specifically the recent use or residue of, magic?"

"Yes, My Lord, I have that ability," Red Rose responded. "Magic was used here recently, its presence has not yet dissipated. Goblin magic, My Lord."

"Goblin magic?" Aaron replied. "I do not understand? What would goblin wizards be doing in this part of the city?"

"It is goblin magic, My Lord," Red Rose insisted. "Its trace leads down that alleyway." The sword pulled Aaron toward an alley.

Pulling both swords, Aaron allowed Red Rose to lead him down the alleyway, which dead ended at the upper city wall. Looking around, Aaron found nothing, yet Red Rose sensed that goblin magic had been used in this area, and recently. Well, the alley was a dead end; what now? Then he had an idea and backtracked out of the alley and down into the lower city and the Central Quarter. Entering the Central Quarter, Aaron looked around, stepped into the shadow of a nearby building and pulled up the hood of his cloak.

Shifting into the Shadow Realm he made his way to a certain rundown warehouse and entered. The warehouse was empty, the dead body removed. No trace of anyone ever staying there remained. Another dead end.

Aaron removed his hood and shifted back to the Material plane and searched the building top to bottom, nothing remained. Now Aaron was out of options! And then he remembered the scrying stone! But did it actually work? The sack produced perfect roses, exactly how Aaron envisioned them, but could it create an actual working magical item?

Aaron reached into his cloak and removed the bag of holding. Reaching into the bag he removed the scrying stone and placed the bag back in his cloak. Holding the stone in his hand, he began to draw power from the surrounding area. Aaron began to slowly pump Eldritch into the stone and concentrated on Rac-Nur. He chose the Dark Elf because of their time together. Aaron figured he had a better sense of the Dark Elf than any of the women.

The stone had some small ability, but Aaron's added power coupled with his almost desperate need to locate his companions transformed the stone into the magical device Aaron desired. Unfortunately, it also caused a rather large beacon to anyone looking for the use of Eldritch.

The stone began to glow as a black mist swirled around within its confines. The mist began to dissipate and Aaron saw a dark place, with Rac-Nur chained to a wall, clearly unconscious. Aaron concentrated on the stone and added more power, trying to pull the view out. Aaron's view expanded and he saw Lady Laura's two bodyguards also chained and also quite unconscious. No sign of the three ladies. Now, to determine where they were. Aaron continued to draw power and began storing it in his swords as he concentrated harder trying to get a view of where they were located. He pulled his view back out of the room, out of a tunnel, out of an ornately decorated cave mouth, and finally a picture of the Dragon's Back Mountains, north of Malkur, north of Creton. The home of the Mountain Folk. Aaron released the image and let the power dissipate. He had a location, a starting point. If they were harmed, well, he could not think about that. Now, how to get there?

Tanith was walking through the bazaar when the power flow hit her. Someone had tapped and used a significant amount of Eldritch. By now she had the feel of the WitchLord and knew he was the source of that usage. She was able to pinpoint his location and hurried back to her room and her map. Reaching her room, she studied the map and coordinated on it where she felt the power usage from. Aithen, the once and powerful High City. He was not that far, now, should she go there or wait on him here? What if he needed her? What if he was in danger?

"Well, now you are being overly melodramatic," she chided herself. "He is a WitchLord, after all, not some lowly vagabond thief."

Getting her emotions under control, she decided to travel to Aithen, search him out and offer her services. She needed to meet him anyway, this just provided the reason. Packing her things, she turned around the room and after satisfying herself that she had everything, she vanished.

Tanith reappeared on the Old Kings' Highway, just west of Aithen and walked to the city gates. Entering the city she began to scan for Eldritch, as well as, looking for a Tarran male. There, she felt his presence, the residue of Eldritch, and he was close. No! His presence faded and disappeared. Now, what to do? Should she return to Malkur and wait, or stay here and hope he returned? She decided to stay in Aithen and secure a room and wait. First, she needed to check in with the local guild, so she travelled to the Guild Quarter and searched out the Thieves' Guild. Finally finding the building she defeated the test and entered the guild. As she entered the foyer a door to her right opened and a man came out and approached her.

"May I help you?" he asked.

"Yes, I am from Malkur and I will be staying in Aithen for a few days," she smiled, handing over her token.

"Malkur, you say?" he looked her token over and then passed it back to her. "My name is Drexil, and I am the master here. I may have a line on some work if you are interested?"

"What type?" she asked, taking her token and putting it away. "I am called Tanith, by the way."

"I am currently not at liberty to say," he replied looking her over. "Where are you staying?"

"Nowhere yet," she replied. "Any suggestions?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact," he nodded. "The 'Golden Pony' is one of the nicer inns. It may take a day or two, but I will leave word when to return. There is someone I want you to meet. Is that acceptable?"

"Yes, very much so," she smiled. "I will await your message."

Tanith left the guildhall and using Drexil's directions headed for the inn and booked a room. Now all she had to do was wait on the WitchLord.

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