Far from the familiar comfort of her homeland, an intrepid young traveler bravely ventures west into the vast, unforgiving wilderness of the west. Although she carries herself with the mysterious elegance of a wanderer, her eyes show the burning determination of a woman on a mission. For you see, today she has set forth on an expedition of discovery. An operation of enlightenment.
She is here for research.
Your name is Kakar-Sutheeth. You’re a writer!
Specifically, you are a writer who prefers the complex and nuanced language of the Imperials. Unlike your highly efficient native tongue, human languages have thousands upon thousands of ways to say the exact same thing. Every synonym has a metonym with numerous different connotations, leading to endless possibilities.
Someday, with luck, you might even find a way to translate your name that obscures its actual meaning of “Porcupine Dodger”. Your nameday ceremony went weird.
Anyway, you are here for research. Over the last few months you’ve spent many a sleepless night pouring over news reports, Imperial Guard affidavits, and the occasional dimestore romance paperback, all as research for your up-and-coming novel. You’ve been working on it for quite some time, and you can already sense it will be a total hit. You’re aiming for it to be the sort of book that really resonates with the common folk, and you’ve been working your tail off to ensure every page is of the finest –
It’s… also your first book. But thank you, you suppose.
Oh! It is no ordinary tale of heroes, knights, and clashing armies like one might expect! Instead, you are delving into the darkened depths of the criminal underworld and the alluring, multifaceted characters that populate it.
The criminal societies of the human lands have always been a passionate interest of yours – and a big part of your decision to study their language. Your three-chambered heart skips a beat at the thought of those rebellious souls who eke out their livelihood dancing around the unforgiving edge of justice’s blade. Some take these enormous personal risks for profit or noble ambition; others do it to protect and care for their loved ones in the only way they know how. You just can’t help but admire the astute sense of liberation to it all, living as one pleases on the fringes of society’s oppressive rules and regulations.
Unfortunately, a life of crime isn’t conducive to a fledgling writing career. Though you don’t have much experience with actually getting paid for writing, you imagine that legitimate writing work and the associated benefits are easier to come by if the publisher isn’t afraid of being raided by the Empire for evidence.
But with that being said, you also must admit that the research for your novel has gradually stagnated. No matter how much you read about the human criminal underworld from the safety of your toxic swampland, you cannot help but feel there’s a difference between looking at words on a page and actually experiencing that dangerous and exciting setting for yourself. While you aren’t cut out to live your whole life as a criminal, you think you are mature and intelligent enough to handle some firsthand research into the criminal lifestyle. You think, if it helps you better capture the essence of that enigmatic culture, it may be to your benefit to actually commit a crime.
And that’s why you are going to buy a cocaine.
You’re well aware that this endeavor requires you to skirt with the boundaries of the law. It’s research into the criminal lifestyle, after all; if you want claws-on experience, you’re going to need to actively get into the thick of things.
This isn’t a decision you are making on a whim, either – no, you’ve spent many a late night planning this scandalous foray. To properly write about them, you need to meet with actual, unincarcerated criminals. Captured criminals won’t exude that certain je ne sais quois that you imagine lives and breathes within an active law-breaking community. The crime you reach them through obviously needs to be something that involves a community, disqualifying simpler crimes like jaywalking and petty theft. And finally, you don’t think you’re truly desperate enough to get involved with a violent crime like the murders or muggings you hear characterize the human Thieves’ Guild. That leaves you with one very good option:
As best you tell, the risks are low. You aren’t planning to eat the drugs, just buy them and find a place to dump them on the way home, and they’re not even a serious drug like “the ‘skoom”. You’ve already planned a meeting with a non-violent group of drug-seller-people, and based on the level of secrecy you had to work through to even get their location, you don’t think there’s much chance you’ll get caught in the act. And, even if you do get caught, it’s not like your physical prowess is high enough that you have to worry about losing any from a few days of substandard prison food.
This is the location you were given. It doesn’t look like much, and you find yourself questioning just how much you should’ve trusted a random, cloaked figure in a bar. Then again, if this is any sort of reputable house of bad repute, you assume the criminals wouldn’t put a sign over the door.
“Hey, kid. Wanna buy some drugs?”
“I… may or may not be here for some matters of mutual interest… vis a vis the purchases of some of your wares…” You wink and hope you’ve gotten the point across without actually saying you’re buying a cocaine, up here in the street, yo. That sort of illegality should take place behind closed doors.
The doorman steps aside and gestures for you to enter. “Right, right. Come in, we’ll get you sorted out. Janky Nate sent you, right?”
“Yes, that was the… guy or lady, who sent me.” You have no idea who Janky Nate is. Maybe they were the cloaked figure in the bar?
“So…” you say, torn between the sacred bond of secrecy and satisfying your own smoldering curiosity, “This is quite the, uh, establishment you’ve… established. Underground.”
Your guide beams at the compliment. “Thanks! This whole place used to be part of a backwoods general store, respectable enough to advertise in the Courier. Of course, they didn’t advertise, so no one ever knew what it was. Now, people in nearby towns are so used to ignoring the place, it’s pretty easy to stay hidden.”
“Which has its uses!”
“Yeah,” he replies. “This far from town, we don’t even need to lock the door. The only people we have to look out for are the Legion, but even they’d knock first, unless they were acting undercover.”
“I’m not a secret agent trying to shut down your organization!” you exclaim, desperately searching for some way to prove your claim.
“That, uh, probably wasn’t necessary, but okay.”
“Dude,” another guard adds, “you’re like fifteen. Also, a reptile.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry,” you say. Inside, you both commend and envy the criminals’ ability to keep calm and rational in this potentially dangerous situation.
“But no,” your guide continues, “I didn’t have you figured for trouble. The Emperor’s undercover folks, they’ve got a look to them. You know the type: cold, imposing, and carrying a gigantic katana with the Imperial insignia on the hilt. And the guy we’re looking for is, well, a guy.
“Right,” you repeat. You try to show you’ve been paying attention and ask, “But… ‘guy you’re looking for’? Do you have someone in mind?”
“Whispers and street rumors, kid. Does the name ‘Butterbard’ mean anything to you?”
Butterbard? You shake your head no.
“Me neither. Other than the monicker and some tall tales claiming he’s from out west, we haven’t heard anything too solid – if we did, rest assured we’d be packing up and moving out. It ain’t normal for Agents to get sent after minor drug ops; if he’s scoping us out, it’s probably for our other wares.”
You nod respectfully. This guy seems to know his way around running an illicit business – picking a location, knowing the environment of the trade, and even diversifying services. Better yet, he’s even picked up on how you’re not a threat to his organization – and you aren’t! – so he’s filling you in with lots of useful information.
As the two of you continue deeper into the tunnels, you wonder what other goods or services this man privateers. Maybe he deals in stolen art, re-distributing timeless works to whoever has enough money to truly appreciate them. Or maybe he commands a bastion of rogue thieves, doing dirty, off-the-books work for the highest bidder – if the price is right.
You can hardly contain your excitement. Reading and fantasizing about it was one thing, but you’re about to truly witness the secret base of operations for an actual criminal organization. You can’t wait to find out everything you can about how they work and what they do.
The criminal chuckles uncomfortably. “Oof. Right. I didn’t consider the wares in here might be awkward for you, since… yeah.”
Noticing your frozen stare, he continues. “Don’t worry, though! You’re not in any danger. You’re one of the good ones.”
“What does that mean, uh, particularly?” For the moment, you’re too terrified to be offended.
“You know, the good ones. The civilized lizards, who are smart like people and can function in Imperial culture and all that. These ones aren’t like that; they can’t even speak. They just make noises like an animal.”
“Please don’t take my mother,” one of the slaves says in perfectly coherent Jel.
“Just… don’t think of them as members of your race; think of them as you-shaped beasts of burden. I mean, they were born into slavery, so it’s not like they’re a part of your culture or anything. They’ve never even had that weird tree sap that makes you guys turn out normal.”
“You… you don’t even give them sap on their Nameday?”
“Woah, hey kid, you don’t have the right to impose your values and customs on them. They’re slaves, their parents were slaves, most of their grandparents were slaves… it’s their cultural identity, and we can’t just take that away from them and overwrite it with something you think is right and proper. We’re not bigots.”
The other guard nods. “Yeah. That is pretty fuckin’ racist of you.”
You are literally too horrified to point out all the levels on which his line of thinking is flawed and deplorable. But, you also have to protect your own interests and safety first. “And… you’re sure you only deal in slaves born into slavery?”
“Except that one.”
“Yeah. We rented a warehouse for a smuggling job and found him in there, his tail stuck in an old printing press. Didn’t seem right to leave him there, so we decided to sell him into slavery. But don’t worry about that.”
You are very, very worried about that.
“Jim, the buyer’s here for all the Argo- hey, why’s that one out of the cage?”
Your guide tilts his head in your direction. “Oh, don’t worry about her. She’s one of the good ones; she’s prolly just here for drugs.”
“But, hey, you don’t mind if I put our little drug deal on hold and take care of this first, right? No offense or anything, but this is a major sale, so you’re kind of a low-priority at the moment.”
You gulp and nod helplessly.
“Much appreciated. Just sit tight, this is standard stuff, shouldn’t take long.”
“Welcome to our establishment! We hope you found the place all right?”
You recognize the new figure as a High Elf. You’ve never met one before, but the perpetual scowl and sheer pomp with which he carries himself matches every story you’ve heard. He sneers at the criminal’s question. “Of course I found it alright. You gave me directions, and I’m perfectly capable of using a map.”
“You sure are. Can we get you anything? A drink? Maybe something to eat.”
“I would love to attend to the business I came here for.”
“Right. And you’re here for some lizards.”
“You’ve… clearly anticipated as much..”
The High Elf casts a sharp glare in your direction.
“What’s this one doing out in the open, and unbound?”
“Oh! This one’s not for sale. She’s… uh… ours. Don’t worry about her.”
That is an excellent idea, you realize. You’re beginning to conclude that you are completely and utterly out of your element, and getting yourself captured and sold into slavery isn’t the sort of research you’re willing to conduct. You look around, taking a cautious step back toward-
“Hey, I like your initiative!”
“You want to take our guest’s coat for him, don’t you?”
“That won’t be necessary,” the elf cuts in. “I don’t want… it… getting its grubby little lamina sheddings all over my six-thousand-drake coat.”
“Nonsense! I’m sure she’s great at taking coats. Servitude is practically part of their cultural heritage at this point!”
“Gods above, if it is truly necessary…”
You’re not sure if this counts as common ground with the elf, since he’s racist as fuck, but you don’t really want to take his coat, either. However, you do want to get out of this hideout, like, pronto, so this seems to be a good excuse to look around for an escape route. After all, coats need to go somewhere, right?
You decide to try door number one.
In hindsight, you wish you hadn’t tried door number one.
The bald criminal yells for you to “not worry about that, it’s just wares that tried to get away”. If you weren’t in literal peril, your writer side might appreciate his uncanny ability to terrify you more by trying to calm you down.
This is better.
You’ve just got to throw this on an empty hook and then casually stroll out of this place, looking like you have some sort of important slavery to get back to. Servants and stuff slip in and out of rooms all the time, and you imagine slaves are no different. So long as nothing really bad starts happening out there, it shouldn’t be any problem to-
Alright, you’re not going to question how all of those gigantic katanas fit in th…
In the most literal of figurative senses, you realize shit is about to go down. This only restores your resolve to make like a tree and abandon this crumbling place.
Alright, no. Stepping into that room with an Imperial agent’s katana strapped to your back is not going to keep this spark-strewn powderkeg from exploding all around you. And, running headlong out of this room and to the exit is going to draw way more attention than you need.
You’re not sure where any of this place’s exits are, only that it’s underground, which bars any answer as simple as “windows”. You hastily stuff all the katanas back into the agent’s coat before hazarding a glance at the rest of the room. He and the criminal are busy discussing the sale, so it shouldn’t be any problem to…
“And where are you slinking off to?” the undercover agent asks.
“No, I was…. it wasn’t-” You dance and stumble around for words, looking for some way to defend your actions. Or, if possible, an excuse to leave. The agent, however, cuts you off.
“Do not speak back to me, property. A slave is meant to keep quiet and know its place. Now, get out of the way – and stay where I can see you, lest you try to run off with all the coin you no doubt saw in my coat.”
Right. No reason to assume this is going to escalate and turn into a disaster. Agents are supposed to be stealthy, after all, resorting to force only as a last resort. It’s entirely possible that the Imperial agent is here to simply gather more information and take it back to Imperial Agent HQ. Admittedly, your research has been fairly one-sided when it comes to the workings of law enforcement, but right now, you’re just going to cling to the hope that this whole thing passes by quietly without-
“Oh yeah. I should ask before we proceed any further: You’re not an undercover agent, right?”
“Yeah,” one of the other guards adds, “I mean, you’d have to tell us if you were an Imperial agent. Super rude to keep something like that secret, especially when we’re doing something touchy like illegal slave trafficking.”
The elf seems almost as annoyed at their line of questioning as you are. Fortunately for you, he plays it cool. “I’ve certainly heard the hearsay of Imperial investigations into local underground slaver rings. But, with everything on the Empire’s itinerary, are your kind honestly so simple as to believe it would be wasting its most skilled agents on a bunch of halfwit lizards?”
The bald criminal laughs. “Yeah! The bigwigs up at the ‘City probably think we’re doing them a favor, since they’re-“
“-uh… would be poor beggars, who would pollute the streets… otherwise.”
“But, if you’re quite finished with doing everything but sell me the creatures I came here to buy, can we proceed with business?”
The criminal nods. “Yeah. Let’s get this shit sealed, dealed, and square mealed.”
“I assume you’ve saved my prior correspondence or otherwise managed to retain some memory of our previously agreed-upon terms and prices?”
“Of course. We’ve got our reputation to uphold, after all.”
“And to confirm once again: this stock was all bred as slaves? No chances of a fresh, unbroken capture?”
“Nope! Well, one of them might have a little problem with saying that sometimes, but I promise every slave we sell is second- or third-gen. Those two are the sweet spot, and beyond that it’s just iguanas.”
“I see. And these are the slaves I’ll be getting? These ones, right here? You’re not simply going to hand over a bunch of rowdy Nords as soon as the sale is made?
“Oh gods no! We’re not racists. I assure you, we only trade in lizards.”
“Yeah,” the other criminal cuts him off, “as far as we’re concerned, all other races are created equal.”
“Cute, human, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Okay, no, you’re pretty sure the only thing that would accomplish is getting every single person in this room to start fighting, with you smack dab in the middle of it. And, while your personal affinities have made you no fan of the law-man, you also have some serious reservations about looking out for a bunch of slave traders. Not to mention the elf sounds like he might actually be here on orders to free the slaves, making his racism part of the act. You’re willing to keep quiet for that.
Right now, you’re on a precarious line where every party here thinks they can trust you, and any deviation from that is probably going to end in horrible, violent death. Your best bet is just to stay quiet, keep calm, and let this exchange go smoothly, after which you can make your excuses and hightail it out of here. As long as nobody does anything really stupid, everything should be fine.
“But… anyway, I assume you’re paying in cash?”
“Can you take Valerica? It gets me double miles with the Traveler’s League.”
“Gods, that woman is going to put local banks out of business someday. Yeah, our conjurer can run it.”
“Well, I guess everything’s in order here. Let’s wrap these lizards up and get this place looking like a respectable crackhouse again before Butterbard comes and blows our whole operation.”
“Ah, hold on a moment.” The elf holds up a finger and winces. “Butterbard?”
“Yeah, you know. The agent who’s snooping around the area. Word on the street is he’s this big black guy codenamed Butterbard.”
“The agent? No way, Jim. All the rumors I’ve heard say he’s Nordic. Far north, born and raised.”
The other guard pipes up. “I dunno, I figured he was Breton. They’ve got that whole ‘secretive elitist’ thing going on. That’s why he called himself Betterbard. He’s just way fuckin’ better at it than everyone else.”
“No, no,” she says, “I’m almost certain he’s a Nord. Codename: Bearbird.”
“Oh yeah! Bearbird! That name definitely sounds familiar now. It’s very Nord, too: quick like a bear, ferocious like a bird. Bearbird.”
“No, that’s… Nord?” The elf actually scoffs. “Do you truly believe a Nord, of all insipid, sub-elven creatures would have the finesse or capacity required to serve as an elite agent of the Blades?”
“Dude, that’s pretty fuckin’ racist. But like… even then, why not? I mean, they’re the Emperor’s lapdogs… they take all sorts.”
The elf throws his hands up. “But that doesn’t make sense! Everyone who’s anyone with the slightest bit of half-competence in this criminal underworld knows that Briarbird – two common words: Briar, bird – is a highly-skilled undercover scout and close-quarters-combat specialist, far beyond the bumbling and maladroit incompetencies of a Nord.”
“Well maybe he plays up his Nordic-ness, and that’s why no one suspects him?”
“Are you physically capable of comprehending the sheer idiocy of the words you are so desperately trying to form into a coherent sentence?” The Imperial agent is all but foaming at the mouth now. “No Nord could exhibit the talent necessary to survive a single day of the work performed by Briarbird! No Nord – nay, no non-elf – could have succeeded in any of his numerous accomplishments. The agent we are discussing singlehandedly quashed not one but two southern political rebellions, rescued sixteen dark elven hostages, unharmed, from an orcish fortress, and learned enough Illusion magic in one week to disguise himself as a Sentinel head of state! Does that sound like the work of a petulant, cud-chewing human, or even that of a barbaric, bone-licking Wood Elf? Do you truly think it possible that anyone but a High Elf could even encroach on the such sheer, unparalleled skill that Briarbird’s accomplishments display?
“You’re totally him, aren’t you?”
“I simply know the perils of this industry. Competence comes with discipline and intelligence, which both come naturally to my race.”
The other criminal joins in. “No, I mean, dude. We weren’t even suspicious of you until your tirade about how great Betterb-”
“BRIARbird! For divines’ sake, we’ve already established that the alias you are attempting to remember is Briarbird.” He sighs, and his voice drops back down to a speaking volume. “But I suppose this means it’s time for plan A.”
“Isn’t ‘plan A’ supposed to be the first one you co-”
“And what about you? Do I need to kill you too?”
You shake your head and insist, “No. No! I mean, I am completely fine with that thing, that you just did. Go, uh, Empire!”
“Well good.” Briarbird retrieves his literal coat-of-arms and dons it with an oddly fluid grace. “Among the multitude of weaknesses the lesser races possess, worst is the wasteful amount of expensive wand shots required before you stop moving.”
“Oh, good. You didn’t take my money after all.”
“And speaking of the lesser races,” he steps up to the caged slaves, who look to him with equal eagerness and apprehension. “I have reason to believe one of you is an architect from the city of Thorn.”
“We’ve been introduced, Briarbird. Several times by now.”
“Strange. You must’ve been wearing something else.”
“Courier work is, by all accounts, a waste of my unparalleled talents, but I have orders to find you and deliver this.” Agent Briarbird drops a sealed scroll through the cage bars. “Let it be said, any tardiness in the delivery is your fault for not being at home when I arrived. Try to stay out of trouble next time, rather than selfishly making your problems mine.”
Right! Right. Your mind is still taking a moment to catch up to everything. You carefully tread around the shredded and melting corpses, looking for something that could be a key to the cage.
This was supposed to be a research trip to help you write about human criminals. You weren’t exactly planning for it to end with a huge massacre and you becoming an impromptu abolitionist. Of course, you’re not even sure it could be called “abolitionism” when slave trading is already illegal in this province, and you were just…
Holy crap, you haven’t even broken the law yet! You had one job.
You hear a voice come from across the room. “There is no key.”
“The slavers didn’t have a key. The cage has a regular lock, but they were using picks and spells to open and close it. That way, nobody could steal the key from them and escape.”
“Now that is clev-”
“I mean, everything about this situation is horrible. What should we do? I’m not a mage, or a thief. I could try Towering the lock, but it looks too complex for that.”
“Hold your bag closed.”
“You’ve, uh, kept that pent up a while, then?”
He nods. “I was locked in a cage for three weeks. I suspected I’d need it sooner or later.” You notice a cold shift in his tone as he continues. “Although, I had hoped to escape to the Marsh through my own efforts.”
Falling into Jel, he addresses the freed slaves, explaining the way up to the surface and the direction they should walk to reach the nearest town. These bodies account for everyone he’s seen in this slaver group, he tells them, but that is no reason to throw caution to the wind. Find people-of-the-root, seek aid from them, and travel east to the Marsh.
“You’re… not going with them? I mean, speaking personally, today’s been a traumatic disaster and I was planning to go cry into a pillow for a week and never feel safe again.”
“I’m needed at the Imperial City, at the request of a close friend. He rarely asks my help unless it is needed, and it would be uncordial to leave his pleas unanswered. But, obligations of friendship aside, I will be glad when it is once again time to return home.”
“Ah. I was hoping I hadn’t lost this forever.”
“And, forgive me for asking, but would you have any spare attire? It’d be unbecoming to arrive in the capitol wearing torn, blood-soaked, and perforated armor off a dead bandit.”
“Um, no. There’s an extra coat and a shoe locker in the closet, but -”
“-you’ll still need to strip pants off a dead body, unless-”
“As someone who has crisscrossed the heartland extensively, trust me when I say that humans do not care. As long you’re wearing some article of clothing, they’ll see a giant crocodile in clothes and it’s all the same to them.”
“Also, we’re reptiles.”
“You know, I feel like I may be letting human concepts and sensibilities have too large of an influence on my worldview.”
“That’s absolutely horrible.” The stranger pulls on the coat and turns to the exit. “Anyway, I am sorry you were caught in the middle of this. I assume you were here for illicit substances; the bandits’ storeroom is back in the main hallway, third door on the right. I’ll leave you to that, although in the future I’d suggest steering clear of human provinces and the monsters that populate them.”
“They’re not bad.”
You can feel the dull hum of a photosynthetic healing spell coming from the escaped captive, but he doesn’t reply. “Humans, I mean. They’re not bad.”
You are about to turn and leave when he finally speaks up. “I know they’re not all bad. After all, I’m traveling to a city full of humans, to meet a human. He is a good friend.”
“But I mean, even the bad ones, they’re not… bad.” Hearing them come out of your mouth, you realize your words make absolutely no sense, but you push on: “They’re just doing what they think they have to do to protect themselves and the things they care about, eking out a living the only way they know how.”
“I like you. You talk like a hatchling who hasn’t been in a cage for three weeks, or her whole life.”
You swallow. “Wow, that… that makes me feel like a huge fucking jerk.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“But yeah… there’s plenty of things to like about humans. They’re industrious, and they’re creative. They figured out like a million ways to prepare corn, and somehow each one tastes completely different. They have pretty, white eyes, and swirly-cuppy ears. Not to mention fuzzy parts all over their body, and they generate their own body heat, which you have to admit, on the coldest of nights, would be kind of-”
“Careful. Keep going in that direction and you’re going to end up bedding a catfolk.”
“Oh no no no no no no no no nooooo. I’m not racist or anything, but ew, gross, did not need that mental image ever thank you very much.”
“But I mean, maybe if he was hot.”
Another moment passes, after which the architect stands up and stretches. “Well, thank you for the company. But, the sooner I finish my business at the city, the sooner I can be back among our own kind. You want the rest of this? The exploded spider goo makes it tangy.”
You cock an eyebrow. “I’m seventeen. I can’t drink in this province.”
“You were buying cocaine.”
“Yes, and look how well that turned out for absolutely everyone involved.”
“Give me that.”
You just broke the law.
Additional resource credits:
Cider – background work
Rawrunes – inking on rant sequence