Even aside from the true purpose behind Ron’s visits to the Market Place every four days – both Cradwick’s and those his employers requested – Ron just enjoyed getting out of the forge and wandering aimlessly with no actual purpose. Even a small Market Place such as South Fairview provided was better than nothing at all, and sweating in that steaming, sooty forge…. He’d learned fast enough, but he would be grateful to move on to another assignment. Ron had had all he could take of the continual ringing of the hammer on steel, and the heat of the fire, the coals, the ashes….
So Market Place days every fourth day were near holidays for him. He scoffed at himself – how far he had fallen. The South Fairview Market Place, a holiday.
Nevertheless, he had taken to the people here. They were wary of strangers, but Ron had come with references that had impressed them. Falsified, of course, but these people didn’t know that. They were good people, and he felt bad deceiving them –
And then he narrowed his eyes. The second he grew a conscience, he would lose track of his real assignment.
Ron had been posted here almost two years now. He would be, in all actuality, eighteen in just a few months, though the workmen here believed him to be sixteen. Ron pretended to be a likable, all-around, friendly apprentice, the South Fairview sort of street boy these people all recognized. It was this ability that had gotten him placed here, his employers told him. His conscience did rise up to nag him on some nights, but he had learned to squash it.
He really didn’t know what he was doing here – stay, observe, report. Spy. Very well and good. Such assignments only lasted about three months, perhaps four. But near two years? He was reporting the same thing over and over. Ron had begun to wonder if his employers had forgotten him – or if they simply wanted him out of the way. After all, a placement in South Fairview? The shittiest part of the entire capital of Romeny? At least station him in Fairview Proper, or even in another Rommish city… Bridge Port, or Sunderham, he’d even take Ashtonport.
At the same time, on nights when he lay awake, pondering the meaning of life and of his ever-ongoing post here, Ron considered that perhaps South Fairview was an excellent station, especially for someone like him, just coming up in the ranks. Overflowing with all the scum and criminals a city could offer, South Fairview hid away every villain in its alleys and back corners. They all smiled and nodded at you in the street, and many of them looked entirely respectable, all while they picked your pocket in passing, or sneaked into your home in the night to lift your valuables.
Perhaps Ron had been sent here to study them all. For he’d seen them all as he walked past them in the street and learned their tricks himself before he had even arrived.
He knew which of the street gangs were responsible for what type of crimes. The Castle Grates, for example – they were the largest street gang in most of Romeny and spread from just south of Fairview Proper to South Fairview. While they spent most of their time thieving and stealing incoming river imports up and down the Rosh River, they were otherwise harmless. They retreated to the tunnels beneath the streets through the grates in the streets and were near impossible for the Crown Guards to catch, and so they named themselves the Castle Grates, but more usually the Castle Greats, as they were mostly successful at lifting their targets. They rarely resorted to killing, though.
Smaller gangs were just petty competitive block and street gangs, struggling for dominance over their own several blocks, occasionally resorting to beatings or even killings. The Crown Guard would step in on a tip and clean out the streets from time to time, but they never quite quashed them. Every city had its villainy, and South Fairview was the humming life of Fairview’s.
Ron breathed in the clean, crisp air. Observation of petty street crews and thieves were a complete waste of his talent. Unless, of course, his employer wanted a spy with extraordinary blacksmithy capabilities, for those he was certainly developing.
The smell of sandalwood and cedar blew along in the breeze. He took his time, glancing over the intricate carvings etched in wood at one wagon, nodding with polite interest to another vendor who attempted to sell him jams and jellies. Ron was not fond of figs and he knew this vendor filled most of jams and jellies with fig and very little of them with berries, as he liked to coax passersby with.
The delicate tinkling of bells sounded at another wagon, where the matron sold intricately embroidered cloth and occasionally, lace. Her fingers were rough and calloused, and Ron knew that she did all of her own clothwork herself. Ron also noticed that her hands were slightly shaky, and, upon occasions when neither she nor anyone else was observing him, he left a few silvers for her. She was growing older and would need to put money away and hire an apprentice. He liked helping the people who deserved help.
On rare occasions, a spice merchant made his way through South Fairview, having traveled successfully through the RiverLands. Though he usually only bore mustard seed, cinnamon, pepper, curry on occasion, and a few others, the folks of South Fairview used their few coppers to buy his wares immediately out. Ron wasn’t sure he trusted the man, but he pleased the residents, and his merchant papers were up to date, or he wouldn’t be selling here in the Square.
Finally, he bought a plum today instead of a pear. The shy daughter of the fruit vendor hid behind her mother. Ron pretended not to notice her, but he had the feeling that the fruit vendor knew he was feigning. He paid for his fruit, nodding respectfully to her, but she glowered at him until he passed on. Ron didn’t blame her. He was, after all, for what she could tell, sixteen, while her daughter was probably fourteen.
After he passed, he snuck a glance over his shoulder. The girl was looking downcast after him. Ron smiled and rolled his eyes. She brightened. He winked and continued down the cobblestone street. Ah. If his mother could see him now…. He could just hear the scolding. He looked down at his leather boots for a few steps with a small smile playing on his face. Too much of a flirt, she’d say, be a gentleman….
Yes, mother… he thought fondly.
Ron let his smile fade. He looked up after he double-checked to see that his tunic laces were still loosened and tucked backward.
He stood on his side of the cobbles, as always, and glanced with nonchalance across the street, waiting for his employer’s representative to show himself.
It was a simple code to follow, really. Ron polished his plum with his sleeve and shaded his eyes with his hand. He was running out of simplicities – he couldn’t appear impassive much longer. On a whim, he bent down and brushed dirt from his boots.
While Ron was bent over, he saw his employer’s representative amble into view across the street.
Ron stood up and yawned, though he watched the man. Usually, it was the same person, but occasionally not. Sometimes, he dressed in impressive noble attire; others, he looked to be falling down drunk with half his tunic untucked and a suspender half down his shoulder, his hair sloppy and unkempt. Today, he looked as most other South Fairview men, a simple tunic and woolen breeches, leather boots. But at all times, his face was guarded and his eyes were sharp, just as today.
Today, he tossed the apple in his hand a few times before he took a bite of it, though he did not look in Ron’s direction. Once he turned in Ron’s direction, Ron bit into his plum and turned back in the direction of the Market Place.
In a few seconds, he glanced in the reflection of a vendor selling glassware, but saw no sign of his representative. How, Ron marveled, did he do that? He had tried to follow him upon occasion at first, but then received a blank slip of parchment at the forge with an apple peeling nailed to it by a knife. Ron didn’t need assistance to figure out that he was not to follow his representative again. Though that merely served to raise the level of Ron’s idolatry for the man’s sheer ability. He had spent the next year working on his vanishment techniques – his goal was to melt away unseen, to disappear as softly as smoke. A year and a half later, Ron was certain he’d made it half-way to his goal. He was quite light on his feet – but as for melting away…. He had yet to melt away unseen.
Ron grew impatient. He wondered just what was being delivered. Ron never knew ahead of time what was being delivered, but often it was a piece of work already completed by a master craftsman, ready for a mysterious customer to pick up, and thus the secret to Ron’s success as Master Cradwick lay in his drunken haze nearly every day. Most South Fairview customers only wanted nails, handles, horseshoes, and items of other similar simple nature.
Ron knew he was only to give his absence an extra twenty minutes, but he always threw in ten more in the event of unforeseeable circumstances, such as Cradwick rousing himself during a delivery.
Ron still took great personal amusement the day they delivered an iron trunk, trimmed with intricately carved bronze bracings and adornments. Being made of iron, the trunk was quite heavy. Ron had turned back onto Wagon Way that day to see his two representatives, glaring at him from down the dusty path, where they leaned against the neighboring business.
Just as they were about to drop off their heavy delivery, Master Cradwick had roused himself from his drunken haze and stumbled out to the outhouse, where he was taking a very loud, and it seemed, a very long shit. Ron’s representatives had been forced to wait until Master Cradwick had cleared the contents of his bowels before delivering the trunk. Ron had waited until they had left before he stepped outside for a good belly laugh, imagining their repulsed faces, over and over.
It was a simple code, though he got it wrong the first time. Every time he went to the Market Place, he was to unlace his tunic laces and fold them inside. He would also buy a piece of fruit. Then he would wait at the start of the Market Place wagons until his employer’s representative met him across the street. Ron would wait and watch for direction, and then take a single bite of his fruit, which indicated understanding and acknowledgement.
His representative always had a piece of fruit as well. If he juggled it, as he had today, then at least one delivery would be dropped off at the forge, usually in the back. Most often, jugs of wine mixed with sleeping potion were delivered for Cradwick and left regularly in the back; these were never made note of in the Market Place.
Deliveries of craftsmanship or sometimes supplies for the forge that were not found or imported to South Fairview were left at the forge. Ron wondered what he would find today when he returned. He had found all sorts of things, breastplates, kettles, lanterns, even a sword once.
If two men stood in the Square talking to each other face to face, then when Ron returned to the forge, someone would speak to him with information. If two men stood in the Square side by side, then information would be left for Ron at the forge. If the two men stood side by side talking, then he was to go to The Brew House and wait to be approached for further instruction.
If Ron needed to give his representative information that was important but not an emergency, he was to write it down on pigeon parchment and leave it under the back rafters of the forge before he left for the Market Place, then buy two pieces of fruit.
If Ron needed supplies unavailable to him, he should write the list down on pigeon parchment and leave the list under the back rafters before he left for the Market Place, then kick his boot twice on the cobble.
If there was some sort of trouble, Ron was to leave both his tunic laces open on the outside instead of tucked inside.
Once he observed his representative’s instruction, Ron was to tug his laces farther open and take a bite of fruit to indicate that he understood, and then leave. They were never to actually meet each other’s eyes, nor acknowledge that they saw each other, nor that knew each other in any way whatever.
Every two weeks, Ron was to write on pigeon parchment all that he had observed and leave it under the rafters. He never knew who collected it or of what importance it served, or even who it ultimately was read by in the end, but he continued to perform this duty. Much of the time, what he wrote in such tiny letters was almost word for word the same as previous weeks. So little changed in South Fairview. Ron really strained to watch and listen for more of note and interest, but truly, nothing else beyond the usual South Fairview villainy, nighttime goings-on, criminal disturbances, and plots occurred.
Although, of late, he had been recording the rising number of incoming soldiers. Soldiers dressed as commoners, who, to a practiced eye, stood out more than they would as if uniformed. He recorded their incoming, their actions, and what they did while they were in South Fairview. Ron had to admit to puzzlement as to the reason they were passing through more and more, and certainly as to why they posed as commoners. He wondered also where they were going. But that was ultimately for his employer to pass judgment on.
And Ron had heard nothing thus far from his employer. He only knew that he going to continue at this post. The only other way he might leave it was if his representative did not show. If his representative did not show on a meeting day, then Ron was to do absolutely nothing. He was to continue his routine as normal, go to the Market Place every four days as Master Cradwick bade him, buy a piece of fruit, but not look for a representative. He was just to continue his work as an apprentice, continue watching and listening, as usual, for one full month. If a representative showed in the Market Place who used the protocols, Ron was to disappear that night – get out of Romeny altogether and stay low for at least three months, until he deemed it safe to find out what was happening. Otherwise, after one full month, he was to disappear with no word to anyone, and return home. In either event, though the former more so than the latter, he could assume the mission was either over or compromised.
Rarely, however, was he taken by surprise. He had been recording the movements of these soldiers, whether they came in by river or by Southern Romeny, and how they left. He had built up a small – effective, but small – network of informatives who were happy to throw in a few whispers of input for a few coppers or, depending on the information, perhaps, a bronze.
No one expected the lad with the blacksmith apprentice sigil on his tunic to be keeping abreast of such shady events. He even had the sister of a Castle Grate who sometimes gave him the times of the next ferry takeover if, she insisted, he bought one of the soaps from her wagon. Usually, Ron paid her extra for the soap and dropped it into a shopper’s basket on his way home. What was he to do with lavender petal soap?
But yesterday, he had been surprised, and little surprised Ron. Actually, his mind was still reeling. Luvian – Ron had not given the innkeeper the credit he was actually due. Ron knew that Tank was a veteran of the Twenty Years War. Everyone could see that on his face – the big man was quiet, still kept himself in what Ron would consider nearly prime fighting condition if not entirely. Somewhere behind that silent face that rarely smiled, Ron believed there to be a tortured soul, appalled somehow at what he had done in the War, forcing himself to relive it every day in penance.
But Luvian. Luvian was almost as big a man as Tank. Dark eyed and swarthy, his arms were thick and it was clear he was quite strong, even covered with the flour of the bread he took such pleasure in baking.
Until last night, Ron believed Luvian had always worked with his family here at The Brew House, and so most of South Fairview said. His father before him had built the brewery, and Luvian and his family lived and worked here. Ron knew that during the Twenty Years War, soldiers came through and burned the brewery to the ground and that Luvian, his father, Mags, and Tank rebuilt it.
The skill Luvian showed last night against those soldiers proved that he was more than a simple innkeeper, however. While Tank was just an Army soldier, Luvian had some serious combat training.
Ron recalled needing to close his mouth twice. Once when he watched Luvian slam that soldier onto the table and pierce his hand with a knife – neatly between the tendons, Ron recalled noticing, very neatly done…. And twice when Luvian tossed that same knife with enormous force clear across the bar, where it sank to the hilt into the wood. Not just once, but twice last night, Ron had reassessed his opinion of the burly innkeeper.
He knew he had called out to warn Luvian about the soldiers drawing their knives, but his warning had gone as unheeded as a small boy tugging at his mother’s skirts, for both Tank and Luvian were well aware of their captives’ actions. Soldiers never forget, the saying went. And now Ron knew one more new thing about South Fairview – that Luvian had fought on the battlefield during the Twenty Years War, well enough to have accrued deadly tactics such as what he still practiced perfectly last night.
Ron considered. The man was just an innkeeper. A veteran. Was it even worth reporting?