They were professional, the shopkeeper had to give them that.
She sat on her stool in the corner as the three men barged into her small shop and assumed a defensive perimeter in the main area. One stood near her, the others took up positions that allowed them to cover the entire room with a glance—or a blade.
The lone customer perusing spices on a lower shelf didn’t seem to notice the newcomers until she straightened up to find three large, burly men in an assortment of studded leather and plate mail all staring at her. With a nearly audible gulp, she stepped toward the merchant, who waved her off with a raised hand.
“Come back next week, dear,” she said. “We will settle your account then.”
Clutching her purchase to her chest, the woman scurried out the front door like the hem of her dress was on fire. The shopkeeper brushed a long lock of snow-white hair out of her face, touched one of the blue-green bird-of-paradise feathers dangling from her earring, and regarded the nearest bodyguard calmly. “There is no one else here. He can enter freely.”
To his credit, the sellsword didn’t take her word for it, but stepped around the small counter she was sitting in front of to check the tiny back room and adjacent storeroom for himself. The others remained where they were, the one in the left corner keeping his gaze on her, the third one walking to the front door.
For her part, the shopkeeper’s gaze flicked to her staff next to her, a tall core of ash topped by a large iron crescent that looked like it could make a fearsome weapon. The bottom of the crescent held a few smaller iron rings, and off those dangled a multitude of items; animal teeth and odd-looking leaves, copper and bronze-capped crystals, lenses, and even small glass orbs, all on leather thongs. She looked back at the three men in the room, and decided not to pick up her staff…yet.
The first one returned from his search and nodded to the bodyguard at the door. He opened it, and the nobleman she had been waiting for walked in. He glanced around the small room, pursing his lips at the dusty shelves of various cooking supplies, bric-a-brac, and other miscellaneous trinkets for sale.
Then his gaze fell upon her, and he sized her up, frowning slightly at the feathered earring, at her beringed fingers, and her light-blue-green eyes and mauve-painted lips. He cast a puzzled glance down at her clothes, which were a mish-mash of styles and pieces from across the continent, including everything from a leather skirt from the coastal seafarers to a tasselled, brightly-dyed red-and-yellow overskirt that somehow went with her gold-trimmed leather bodice and silken-soft leather cape that was thrown over one shoulder. And all over it were various belts and straps and pouches and other odds and ends.
“You are… not what I was expecting.” He took a cautious step forward, the sharp scent of his cologne making her nose want to twitch. He was dressed in a suit of soft, deep blue suede, with a matching half-cape on his own shoulder and an ornately-handled rapier riding low on his left hip. The shopkeeper noted the lack of wear on both the handle and the supple gloves he pulled off his hands, and figured the blade was more decorative than useful.
“My appearance is unimportant…all that matters is what I have for you,” she replied, using the eastern accent, as she figured he would expect it. Besides, it was appropriate enough for this task.
His nostrils flared, and he leaned forward slightly, the movements making his vulpine face look even more predatory. “The information I’ve been searching for? The proof that House Barseil has been amassing a mercenary force to strike at my own House?”
“Have you ever seen a Capyreal butterfly?” the shopkeeper asked him as she rose from her stool.
“What?” he asked. “What does that have to do with anything?”
She held up a hand. “Indulge me, if you would. The Capyreal butterfly is found far to the east, beyond the Ansaral Mountains. It is delicate, beautiful, but the range it can travel is incredible, and one can cover hundreds of leagues during its lifetime.”
He twirled a hand impatiently. “So?”
“So it touches hundreds of plants during its journey, taking seeds from some to plant elsewhere, and feeding on others. And during its lifetime, it carries bits of every plant it has touched within it.”
The nobleman stepped forward, a hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. “Woman, I suggest you begin making sense more quickly—”
“Peace, my impatient friend, for I am coming to the heart of my tale.” The woman stood before the nobleman, her gaze still on him, although she could also see the bodyguard nearest her out of the corner of her eye. She shifted her hip, moving a quiver that held a dozen different branches of various plants and trees within easy reach. Selecting a bright green-and-yellow front, she held it in both hands as she continued speaking.
“Although the Capyreal butterfly may not realize how its actions affect plants it lands on days or even months later, the seeds it deposits in new places often grow into plants that are…unexpected for the region.” The bodyguard nearest to her shivered, and a fine sheen of sweat appeared on his brow.
“And the circle of life continues, yes, I remember falling asleep to this lesson when I was eight, what of it?”
“I am glad that you remember that so well, my lord. Do you also remember the hunting trip you took to the base of the Capyreal Mountains when you were seventeen?”
“I—” The nobleman’s forehead wrinkled.
While he thought, the bodyguard nearest her clutched his stomach, his eyes wide. “Hurts…so much!” he muttered, and staggered for the door.
“Hey—hey, where do you think you’re going?” the lord demanded.
“Stomach—feels like its eating itself…I gotta get help!” The bodyguard, now sweating profusely, stumbled outside, calling for assistance as he ran. The door quietly swung shut behind him.
The noble turned back to the shopkeeper and signalled his remaining bodyguards to advance. “I don’t know what you did to him, sorceress, but—”
“I had nothing to do with his condition—it seems he was ill from the moment he stepped inside my shop.” She fixed him with her intent blue-green-eyed gaze. “Tell me, my lord, do you remember such a trip?”
“I—do, but that was years ago. What of it?” he asked, suddenly hesitant.
“You and your party encountered a small group of hunters during that trip. Your group laid claim to a stag that they had brought down. There was an argument, and at the end of it, three good men lay dead upon the ground. You paid a small fine and left the area with no further justice meted out, leaving the families of those men to starve.”
His eyes widened. “How did you know—”
“That is also unimportant. What matters is that word of your heinous deed was passed from person to person, until it was decided that action must be taken. That is why you are here.”
“What? What are you talking about?” the noble demanded. “I came here because the spy I hired had delivered word that they had the information I was looking for.”
The shopkeeper had replaced the plant in her quiver, and now drew out a crooked stick that looked almost wand-like in her grasp. “Yes…this informant of yours, a middle-aged man, straw-blond hair, brown eyes, walks with a slight limp in his right leg?”
“Yes, that’s him—look, what does an unfortunate misunderstanding have to do with my meeting here? I demand to know what is going on!” The noble motioned his bodyguards forward, but when they tried to step toward the shopkeeper, both men found themselves unable to move or draw their weapons.
“That is exactly what I am trying to explain to you,” the shopkeeper replied. “The man you thought you were hiring did exactly what you requested of him. However, the message he sent you to meet him was intercepted by another person in my employ, and a very different message was delivered to you—one that brought you to this very shop.”
As his bodyguards struggled, the noble whirled around and bolted for the door. But when he threw it open, he found himself facing an impenetrable wall of earth that blocked the exit completely.
“I have been watching you for several months now,” the shopkeeper said, holding a small obelisk of reddish stone in one hand. With her free hand, she reached out for her staff, which lifted off the floor and floated into her fingers. As she grasped it, the crystals and orbs all rose into the air, still tethered to the iron crescent, and floated about it like winking stars. “That itch you no doubt felt sometimes when you were partying and gossiping and scheming against the other nobles, often it was nothing…but just as often it was my scrying of you.”
The prisms and lenses and glass balls all shimmered and shifted, and suddenly, different images of the lord involved in his various activities appeared in each one. Here he was drinking and gambling—and cheating—at a card table. There he was beating a man who was being restrained by his bodyguards. In yet another vision, he was accepting what looked like a shipment of illegal arms, paying for it in gold.
“For you see, my lord, it was a simple matter to select the most…appropriate bait to lure you to this shop…and what better way than to play on your own paranoia?” she said.
“No—NO!” Stumbling backward, the nobleman whirled around to face her. His fingers groped for his rapier and he tried to draw it. But even as he did, his hand relaxed and the ornate blade fell to the floor. “You…what have you…done…” he mumbled as his eyes, along with the panicked eyes of his two struggling bodyguards, drooped closed, and the three men sank to the floor, all fast asleep.
“Spilled blood cries for spilled blood in return… no matter how many years ago it was,” the shopkeeper said as she kicked the noble’s blade away, then swiftly bound his hands, feet and gagged him.
Grabbing the man’s bound feet, she began dragging him toward the back room. Along the way, she stopped at the counter and pulled back the curtain covering the space underneath. The bound and gagged shopkeeper, a portly, balding man in pants, a linen shirt, and sweat-stained vest, stared back at her with wide eyes.
“Once again, my apologies for my insistence on renting your shop,” she said. Taking the noble’s fat purse from his belt, she tossed it into the shopkeeper’s lap. “Take this for your trouble—he certainly won’t be needing it anymore.”
With that, she grabbed the noble’s bound feet again and disappeared out the back door of the shop, hauling her prize behind her.
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.