Rogo's dark robes looked awfully heavy to wear in the unseasonably warm weather, but Leytan was aware that his prospective employer was returning from the north. Indeed, the expression on Rogo's face spoke of relief rather than discomfort; he was used to warmer climates than the north of England, while winter in Scotland must have seemed like hell frozen over.
Indeed, despite the sun being out, the first thing Rogo had done upon entering the The Crazed Heifer was to walk up to the fire and warm his hands over it. Now if that was not thin blood, what was?
Leytan had little respect for those who could not appreciate the cold of course, unless they could pay well. That was the only reason he had agreed to this meeting; because he knew that Rogo could pay well.
"The terms do seem a little... spiteful," grunted Leytan in his usual, deep-but-hushed tones - so hushed in fact, that Rogo had to lean closer to hear him over the sound of some jester in the corner of the tavern playing a lute. Considerately, Leytan spoke up a little, "Is this shipment something sensitive?"
"Spiteful?" Rogo bristled. "Not spiteful. And I would not say sensitive either. A little moody perhaps."
If Rogo D'Ara was not a natural for this environment, he was certainly a natural for the trick of keeping a secret. Leytan had done business with him once before, and was struck then by his great capacity for answering a question truthfully without giving a true answer. He would have made a fine politician in his native Castille were he of high enough birth. As it was, he had done very well for himself as a trader and business broker. He had done many a deal on behalf of Kings and Warlords throughout western Europe, and was a formidable man just for the networks of contacts he had. His face was narrow and lined, his hair turning prematurely grey, suggesting the stresses of his industry were taking their toll on him, but there was still a certain vigour and confidence to his manner that commanded a nervous respect.
"Only moody?" Leytan tried his best to sound curious rather than suspicious, but Rogo did not respond, so Leytan had to try again. "If you want us to ship goods across the border, we'll need to know exactly what they are."
"A thousand for a simple pick-up and drop-off?" sniffed Rogo. "With that sort of money on offer, does it matter?"
"Yes it does," insisted Leytan mildly, "because there's nothing simple about it. The East Highlands are not exactly round the corner from here. The thought of scaling the hills and mountains of Scotland at this time of year appeals not a jot."
Rogo scratched the side of his nose thoughtfully. "I can offer an extra thousand perhaps, if that will allow me to stipulate a 'no-questions-asked' clause in the contract."
"It would have to be more than that," snapped Leytan. "Scotland is hostile turf for anyone coming from over the border, even traders. To say nothing of having to trek through the Winteria province to get to the Highlands. She may be kin of mine, but we're not on good terms with the witch who's appointed herself Queen there." Leytan took a pull from his tankard, which was full of the renowned local beverage, 'dungeon juice'. He had developed a fondness for it - so long as it was chilled, of course. It was always chilled in winter. "We need quite a motivation to go that way, you see. And in this business, as well you know, motivation takes the form of money or knowledge."
Rogo sucked in air through his teeth. "I only have three thousand with me, Leytan. If I up my offer any more, I would not have enough left to cover the costs of my journey home."
Leytan put on a well-practiced expression of boredom, one he always employed when bartering with someone who was trying to win favourable terms through appeals to his conscience. In a tone of the most profound flatness, he answered, "Oh woe. How my heart heaves for your plight. Why, I think I will break out into a sweat of blood."
Rogo's expression melted into resignation. He had not made such a success of his career by being stupid or by wasting time, and he could clearly see that he was going to have to give ground. "What I tell you remains completely confidential of course?"
"My crew are professionals," grunted Leytan, "and discretion is part of professionalism."
"That is not answering my question."
"Yes it is," Leytan sighed as he took another sip of dungeon juice. "You know it is. Just as I know that if we did leak any information, you could let so many people know about it that within a few months no one in Europe would be prepared to hire us."
"Fine." Rogo downed the remainder of his own drink and got to his feet. "Follow me."
Leytan looked suspicious and reached under the table for the knife at his side. "Why?"
Rogo scowled at the implied distrust. "Murderous ambush in the forest is not my forte as you well know, Leytan. I am merely not prepared to reveal the details in front of a tavern full of strangers."
Leytan made a cursory perusal of the people at the other tables. He could see a couple of sorcery students angrily arguing bitterly with a bearded, kilted man about the inequities of clan hierarchies - his responses were largely composed of suggestions that their interest in politics was an attempt to compensate for their inability to find themselves lady-friends to dally with - while most of the other clientele looked so inebriated that they would hardly be aware if a war between two armies of super-sorcerers broke out right outside the front door, let alone notice the details of top secret business negotiations conducted at a hush.
But there was no harm in being careful, Leytan supposed. He finished his own drink and got to his feet as well, but kept his hand on the pommel of his dagger as he followed Rogo to the exit. After all, 'no harm in being careful' worked both ways.
* * *
"Weapons?" Leytan made a worthy attempt to hide the unease in his voice, and to keep his expression neutral, but Rogo was good at reading people and picked up on it immediately. "You want us to ship a consignment of weapons?"
"I know what you're thinking," the Castillian smiled, too reassuringly for Leytan to be reassured, "but that is why I did not wish to discuss this in front of a packed tavern."
"So why did you insist on meeting me in one?"
"Just my way," answered Rogo not-at-all.
They had put a few trees between themselves and the tavern before stopping to resume discussions, and yet many of Rogo's answers were still too mysterious. Leytan was certainly not convinced by this latest one, but let it pass. He had bigger matters to address. "What kind of weapons?"
"Look, I have had a long and difficult trip," complained Rogo, "and my negotiations for selling these arms were long and intricate."
Rogo looked unashamed. "There would be little point in me coming all the way to the Scottish Highlands if I could not make a substantial profit..."
"And I suspect," interrupted Leytan forcefully, "that this profit is many scales more substantial than the two thousand you are offering me."
"One thousand," Rogo corrected him. "And you are merely deliverymen, Leytan. They are not your goods to take profit on..."
But it is still our risk to take, Leytan thought sourly, but he did not say it out loud. It was a redundant point after all; the risk was always the hauler's when cargo was involved, it was what they were paid for. "You still haven't answered my original question, Rogo," he said instead. "What kind of weapons are you expecting me to haul all the way to the Higlands?"
Rogo sighed and his foot idly toyed with a tree root that had broken through above the ground. "Now I really have make the point, Leytan," he responded, "that it makes no difference to you whatsoever what they are. You needed to know that they were weapons, and I can respect that. But why quibble over which type?"
Leytan sniffed. "Because it occurs to me that they might be stolen. And if they are, I need to know what they are, and more importantly, who made them, because they might choose to chase after me with even more weapons of the same type; only to test them on me, not to sell them."
Rogo looked genuinely affronted. "They are not stolen! You offend me."
"You have a very thin skin if you are offended," sneered Leytan, "the type that comes out in bruises in a light shower. Not quite how I see a man in your line of work, Rogo."
"I will not answer," Rogo stated in stubborn tones. "I would like you to respect my wishes."
Leytan looked unimpressed. In his experience, the expression 'I would like you to respect my wishes' was the classic ploy used to uphold a fait accompli, neutralising all honest discussion before it could begin. Still, this was business, not a forum for debating the merits of freedom-of-expression. "An extra five hundred," he demanded, "in return for no further questions."
"You shall have it," Rogo agreed after a pause.
"Very well," Leytan said stiffly. "I will put your offer to the others."
"Ah," murmured Rogo. "Now I do need a quick answer..."
Leytan gave Rogo a narrow-eyed look. "I will put it to the others," he repeated very firmly indeed. He started backing away; he would not risk turning his back on anyone, even a bookish type like Rogo, while in these woods. "You should have my answer tomorrow." He then added, as an afterthought designed purely to prevent Rogo arguing any further, "Kindly respect my wishes."
Leytan then ducked behind a tree, and was gone.
* * *
Rogo re-entered the Crazed Heifer, and deliberately took a seat, not at the corner table he was sat at with Leytan before, but at one next to the table where the argument was still raging between the students and the kilted clansman.
After a moment, the clansman appeared to notice him, got to his feet and walked over. The two students looked very pleased with themselves, assuming that because he had walked away, he was admitting defeat. They were quite wrong of course. He was not the type to admit defeat that easily.
Without waiting for invitation - invitation was not something the Scots waited for very often when it came to entering the north of England - he sat himself down at Rogo's table.
"Black McGrew," Rogo greeted him with charmed innocence, and barefaced dishonesty, "I had not realised you were here."
"That were a bounty hunter ye were talking to, was he not?" McGrew growled with deep suspicion.
"He might have been," the Castillian non-answered.
McGrew reached forward and grasped Rogo by the scruff of the neck. "What were ye talking to him about, Rogo?"
Rogo remained calm. "This is neutral territory, McGrew. Unhand me."
McGrew's eyes darted from side-to-side and he realised that his violent gesture had not gone unnoticed. It was never a good idea for a visitor to hostile climes to violate the neutrality of a safe zone. Life could get very uncomfortable if he found there were no safe zones to retreat to. He gently released Rogo and sat back a bit.
"I should let ye know, Castillian," McGrew snarled nastily, putting much contemptuous emphasis on the term of nationality, "that we know ye visited the Campbells while ye were north of the border."
"Do you?" smiled Rogo, with a feigned innocence that was so obvious that it could only have been that he wanted the fakery to be known.
"Now let me see," continued McGrew. "Ye're up in Campbell territory. Ye come south and ye talk to bounty hunters, and ye have those carts full o' goods waiting for ye at Carlisle." Rogo glanced up at him sharply. "Oh aye," nodded McGrew smartly, "we know all about them." He leaned forward menacingly, but lowered his voice. "Ye done some kind o' deal wi' the Campbells, haven't ye?"
"I might have done."
"And that bounty hunter," McGrew pressed, completing his own logic, "he's the guy shippin' what ye're sellin', ain't he?"
"He might be."
"I got a health warnin' for ye, Rogo," hissed McGrew. "If ye want to keep yer lungs in yer chest, ye keep yer dirty nose outta the feud. The way we see it, anyone helpin' the Campbells, be he Scot, Sassenach or Spaniard, he becomes a Campbell."
Rogo shrugged peacefully. "That information might be useful to me, but I do not see immediately how. After all, I only said I might have done a deal with the Campbells. I might," he added with clever slowness, "not have."
McGrew scowled, got to his feet sharply and headed for the exit. Rogo smiled to himself at how remarkably easy it was to manipulate McGrew. Rogo had said virtually nothing to him in all the time he had been in the Crazed Heifer, and yet still he had very easily conveyed all the information to him that he had wanted to, and more importantly, he had convinced him of it completely. It had taken virtually no effort.
Rogo waited until he was sure that the clansman was long gone, then plucked out a quill and a scrap of parchment from his pocket. He gestured to one of the serving maids, who walked over.
"A pot of ink, if you would be so good, Milly," he requested. "And bring me a fresh pot of ale as well."
She returned with his order in quick time. Rogo thanked her, and asked her to wait for one moment before she departed. He took a quick sip of ale, then dipped his quill in the ink pot and started writing some notes on the parchment. He was writing in Aragon Spanish so there was no danger of Milly being able to read it over his shoulder; she could scarcely read English, let alone any other language. When he was done, he blew on the parchment to dry the ink, then folded it over and handed it to her. With a single gesture of his eyes and no words, he instructed her to take the parchment over to a scruffily-attired boy who was standing by the entrance, mopping the floor.
As soon as the boy received the parchment, he dropped the mop on the floor and was out of the door in a flash, bounding into a breakneck run that startled Milly.
Rogo sat back a little, smiling contentedly, and drank some more ale. Yes, this had all gone splendidly well so far.
Lady Constance Mercury was less than impressed. A lot less. She was always difficult to impress anyway, but current circumstances left her bitterly unimpressed.
Firstly, she was not impressed with where they were. Leytan had suggested that they hide out in the Dunn Wood for a few days, as a precaution, after he had grown suspicious that whereabouts of their cavern base had been discovered by Lord Fear, who was not in the best of moods with them after that business with the Amber-Duplicator. The problem was that the Dunn Wood was not an impressive choice of hiding place for a lady of aristocratic blood. It was too cold, too damp, too unlit, and too unimpressively full of insects.
Secondly, she was not impressed that there was no privacy from the other members of the crew. She felt especially galled at having to endure January Mallory's deeply unimpressive presence for all hours.
Thirdly, she was most unimpressed of all to discover that Leytan had been doing her job for her.
"There is a reason why I do the negotiations round here, Leytan," she growled dangerously.
Leytan shook his head with a coolness that was second nature to him. "Not with Rogo," he announced firmly. "He knows me, and he made clear that I was the only one he was prepared to talk with."
"But I should still have been there," insisted Lady Mercury. "These negotiations require my particular skills..."
"Hardly," retorted Vyrrian Wren, who was never one for keeping his impulse to speak out in check, and who in recent times had become particularly likely to speak out when he felt that Lady Mercury was belittling one of the others. "I mean, it's not like Leytan hasn't done a bit of haggling in his time, is it? I mean is it though? And I mean... I mean it's not like he's agreed to anything without discussing it with the rest of us, is it though?"
"Maybe not," sniffed Lady Mercury, "but I am sure I could have extracted the information that he could not."
Leytan kept his expression neutral in a way that he knew Lady Mercury would find both fascinating and difficult to argue with. "You don't know Rogo," he answered simply. "Every trick of diplomacy that you have mastered, he knows, and can pull off ten times better. It would have made no difference if you had been there. Now," he added with a change of tone, "in spite of my theft of your thunder, may I assume we have quite finished with trying to resurrect your ego? We need some kind of consensus. Do we go ahead and accept Rogo's offer?"
"Jan-Jan no like it," squeaked a small voice from just below Wren's elbow, where the tiniest and twee-est of the crew was snuggling up to keep warm.
"And why's that?"
"Scot-scot-land is cooooooooooold," explained Jan-Jan.
"I find that rather appealing," answered Leytan.
"You would," grunted Wren. "I agree with Jan-Jan though. I don't like it either."
Leytan was genuinely a little surprised at this. He had half-expected Wren to be all for the mission simply because Lady Mercury was against it. Wren had started taking a certain pleasure from needling her for some time now, after all. "I take it," Leytan sniffed, "that you have a more sophisticated reason for your doubts than the climate?"
"As a matter of fact, I have," nodded Wren. "I want to know more about where we're heading, and why there's a market for these weapons there."
Leytan looked grim. "There's been a feud between the Clans Campbell and McGrew for generations now. Rogo has hired us to ship these weapons to the Campbells. Presumably they are for use in the ongoing feud. Does it really matter?"
Wren looked annoyed. "Of course it matters. It means, as well as Aesandre, we also have to worry about the McGrews attacking us."
Leytan nodded. "That did occur to me. However, we can by-pass both threats quite simply."
"How?" demanded Mercury.
"Winteria is a province in the south-east of Scotland," explained Leytan, "and the McGrews are based in the mountains of Glendach, near the west coast. We can take ship from an eastern port, say Newcastle or Berwick, and simply sail around Winteria. Then we can take port once we are north of the Firth of Forth. We should be beyond Aesandre's interference then, and all the while we will be a very long way east of where the McGrews can reach us."
"You sound confident," sniffed Mercury.
"Always my strength," confirmed Leytan.
"What exactly do any of us know about sailing?" asked Wren.
"One need not be a fish to know how to swim," answered Leytan in a manner so oblique that Wren wondered whether he had been spending rather too much time talking to Rogo.
"But one need be a mariner to know how to sail, Leytan," warned Lady Mercury, not hypnotised for a moment by philosophical non-answers.
"All taken care of," explained Leytan coolly. "We can hire a galley and crew. There will be many of them available at this time of year."
"With good reason," commented Lady Mercury. "At this time of year, the seas are so rough that the mariners push their prices up. Hardly anyone can afford to hire them."
"We are planning to make a profit of some kind from this, aren't we, Leytan?" asked Wren uneasily. "I mean, if we spend a fortune on hiring the ship..."
"Rogo is offering us fifteen hundred, three-quarters of it in advance," explained Leytan, "and we should be able to get a boat and crew for the four days the journey will take for comfortably less than two hundred. One hundred if your negotiating brilliance is truly all you say it is, ladyship."
"I am grateful for your faith in me," lied Lady Mercury.
Leytan shrugged and turned to leave. "I'll tell Rogo we're not interested then."
The thought of missing out on fifteen hundred sovereigns clearly got to Wren very quickly. "Ah now hang on, Chief," he said hurriedly, "we didn't say that."
On one of those rare occasions in his life, Leytan smiled.
* * *
Leytan was informed when he got back to the Crazed Heifer the next morning that he could find Rogo at Wolfenden, which rather surprised him. He could hardly imagine what business the Castillian would have there. It was a very public place for one thing, and for another, it only had small-time traders working the market. With his political contacts, Rogo tended to deal with nation-to-nation bargaining and the like. The sort of small-time petty shopping that was the mainstay of Wolfenden market seemed somehow beneath what Leytan expected of him.
Sure enough, Leytan did indeed find Rogo in Wolfenden, apparently purchasing food from one of the market vendors.
"Ah," grunted Rogo as he saw Leytan approach. He glanced at the vendor and gave him a discreet wink. "See what I see?"
The vendor squinted slightly, then nodded. "I see continued profit heading our way."
"Indeed," nodded Rogo quietly. "He would not bother coming all this way just to inform me he was not interested. He is going for it." Rogo reached into his cloak and plucked out another parchment, one that had the mark of a triangle on it. "Write an update to the Trinity on this. Tell them that the first strand of the plan continues, that the masters may proceed with the second strand." He handed over the parchment. "Oh, and that I will be making arrangements for the third strand. Just in case the rumours we hear about a truce..."
"Understood," nodded the vendor. He put the parchment in his cloak, and began covering his small stall with a drape.
Rogo stepped away so that he would not be too close to the vendor once Leytan joined him.
"Leytan," he greeted with a smile, "do you have good news for me? Tell me you have good news."
Leytan eyed the vendor, noticing that he was closing for the day, and in something of a hurry. He gestured towards the vendor with a nod of the head. "Something I said?" he asked, although only so Rogo could hear him.
Rogo glanced over at the vendor nonchalantly. "I doubt that. He was supposed to finish up a few minutes ago. Stopped especially for me. Man is most charitable when he sees his fellows in hunger. Especially when he can profit from it."
"You don't appear to have purchased much food for a man who's hungry, Rogo," commented Leytan.
Rogo stiffened his shoulders slightly. "I ate it quickly. My hunger was that great."
Leytan said nothing, but his eyes told how little he believed Rogo's explanation. He watched as the vendor wheeled the stall up to the wall of a small hut on the edge of the village square, and then stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
"Anyway," continued Leytan, returning to business, "in answer to your question, yes, I have good news."
"Oh excellent," declared Rogo, bringing his hands together in a brief parody of applause.
"I've discussed it with the rest of my crew, and they have agreed to your offer."
Rogo smiled. "I knew they would."
"Life must get very dull for you," commented Leytan sourly, "knowing so much."
"It lacks a certain flavour of... surprise, it is true," conceded Rogo, reaching into his cloak. He pulled out a large bag of coins. "Twelve hundred sovereigns. More than enough to cover the advance I promised, yes?"
Leytan grasped the bag, pulled the drawstring that was holding it closed, and then peered inside. He hardly had time to count the contents, but it looked close enough. "Thank you. I'll go now and help the others make preparations for our journey." He re-tied the string.
Rogo nodded politely, and while Leytan turned and walked away, he proclaimed, "Always a pleasure to do business with you, Leytan. I hope you feel the same way."
"On that score," Leytan called back without turning or breaking stride, "I will let you know... after I'm back."
Rogo smiled to himself and headed off in another direction.
From the door of the hut, a boy suddenly came running out into the square in a flash, bounding into a breakneck run. He was carrying a parchment.
"Jan-Jan feel seasick..." came the moaning voice from the deck of the vessel.
"Oh you can't be again," sighed the long-suffering tones of Wren. "I only finished cleaning up the mess from last time."
"Jan-Jan feel really seasick..."
Seeing no option, Wren suddenly picked his small companion up and carried her to the side of the small ship.
"No!" cried Jan-Jan, kicking and squirming in panic. "No! Wren-Wren does not throw Jan-Jan overboard!"
"Don't put ideas in my head," fumed Wren, struggling to keep Jan-Jan still. "If you're going to be sick, be sick over the side this time. Not all over the gangplanks."
Jan-Jan struggled a bit more, but soon realised that all that was now keeping her from a very cold bath was Wren's grasp. She looked down at the water and the nauseous feeling at the top of her stomach multiplied.
"BLLLLEEEEEEEAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!!" she cried, and out poured so much semi-digested food into the sea that it seemed impossible for a creature so small to contain so much within it.
Wren turned his head away in quiet disgust, and tried to keep Jan-Jan not merely at arm's length, but some way beyond it, if that were possible. He really was feeling the indignity of playing nursemaid to a girl with a stomach so weak that she could get drunk on spring water. But he had to do it. The captain of the sloop they had hired, a large, baity fellow called Eastin, was a very meticulous and fussy man, hyper-sensitive and protective. He had nearly burst into tears when he had introduced the ship to Leytan and his crew, and they had looked less than thrilled at the prospect. He had then burst into anger, demanding an immediate apology and retraction for their offensiveness.
"Retraction?" Lady Mercury had asked, confused. "We never said anything."
"You did!" squealed Captain Eastin. "You did! I saw that look on your faces. Take it back! Take it back, now!"
Equally, when Jan-Jan had thrown up the first time, Eastin was on his feet, raging at the top of his voice again, appalled that anyone could dare to sully the pristine gangplanks of his beloved and mighty galleon with the foul stench of their stomach lining.
No one dared point out to him that what he was calling a mighty galleon was scarcely fifteen feet long, and had only just been big enough for carrying the arms shipment, nor that the pristine gangplanks were so weathered that they looked as if they could snap if someone tried to do a dance on deck. The Fire & Ice crew just quietly agreed among themselves that the man had serious delusions of grandeur and that they should do their best for the duration of the voyage simply not to tread on his toes.
But mopping up a huge stream of feline vomit from the floor had not been a pleasant price to pay for a quiet life, and so Wren was determined not to be put through it again.
Leytan was sat on the raised deck at the aft of the ship, staring out to port where the Winterian coast of Scotland was visible about a mile distant. They had been travelling parallel to it for over a day now.
Lady Mercury walked over and sat next to him. Leytan's expression rarely varied from saturnine grimness, and indeed that was evident now. But nonetheless, Mercury had noticed there was more in his bearing, and had been since before the mission had started.
"What ails you?" she asked.
The lie was so obvious that Mercury felt there was no point in getting angry about it. "This mission is beginning to worry you, isn't it?"
"Rogo was lying to me about a number of things," Leytan answered. "I can tell. And the only reason why he would lie about them is because they relate to us and this mission in some way."
"You suspect he is setting us up?"
"Well what exactly?"
Leytan's eyes cast downwards towards the water, which was calmer and more settled than he had had a right to hope for before setting off. "I'm not sure," he conceded. "I'm not even sure that it makes the situation we're heading into any more dangerous than it would have been anyway. But there's more going on here than we know about." For the first time he turned and looked her straight in the eyes. "A lot more."
Lady Mercury looked back, and tried to find the words to ask a question that had been on her mind for a long while. "If we complete the mission as instructed," she asked carefully, "will we be in danger for it?"
Leytan shook his head very slightly, "I doubt it. Rogo's paid us an awful lot of money in advance if all he wants to do is set us up. But there's still something wrong, something he is doing that we don't know about." He turned back towards the shore, which was still drifting slowly past on the horizon. "And I can't help feeling," he concluded, "that it would very much be to our advantage if we did..."
* * *
The final day at sea had been a more difficult one. Rain had tumbled from the sky, and there was an occasional ominous rumble of thunder. The temperature was also getting far lower.
By the time the sloop had finally put into shore, its occupants were all wet, cold, and dishevelled. Lady Mercury was complaining to anyone who would listen - which was no one - and to a fair few others besides, about how undignified she felt with her fine gown drenched in rain and seaspray. No one would argue with her, as much because they felt the same as out of fear of her haughtiness.
While the ship's crew helped unload the arms shipment, Leytan settled the final payment for hire of the ship. Captain Eastin tried to impose a fine for the mess Jan-Jan had made throwing up, but when seeing the dangerous expression on Leytan's face, he decided to waive it.
The crew of bounty hunters then hired a couple of carts and purchased some horses from a nearby village, loaded up the arms chests onto the carts, and then set off inland, hoping uneasily that they were going the right way.
They had arrived in Scotland. Now the real journey could begin.
Click here to read Part 2.