"All right Kirra, what is our next step?" Lady Alsha asked as they stepped out of the tavern and onto the busy street. It was late afternoon and the city was bustling with people going about their business, doing all they could to make use of the fading daylight. There wasn't a great deal of daytime left for them to continue their investigation, and if they made the attempt after nightfall, they were sure to attract a great deal of attention.
Kirra remained undeterred by the lateness of the hour, though he was having reservations of a different sort. "Something is going on. We know that now. Don't you want to take command?"
"If it comes to that, yes," Alsha replied, but she smiled and insisted, "but you're doing well. I see no reason to step in yet."
"Very well," Kirra agreed, resolving to make good use of the experience, "I suppose we need to find out more about this Sabreeza. Unless you think that we should confront him openly?"
"I think a little more reconnaissance is in order," Alsha agreed. "Where should we look next?"
"If he leads the merchant guild, perhaps we should visit a merchant in the area?" Kirra wondered aloud, then with a mischievous grin he said, "Maybe we should visit the fruit vendor across the street."
"That sounds like a solid idea," Alsha replied with a reserved smile. "However I don't think the fruit seller is a big enough player to provide us with the information we require."
"So we need someone more established, with more to lose if he falls out of favor with Sabreeza," Kirra responded thoughtfully.
"Good, you're starting to think like a proper investigator, Kirra," Alsha commended, clapping him on his shoulder, "Do you have any merchants in mind?"
Kirra began walking down the street, looking in detail at every shop and stall they passed. He had no idea what he was looking for, but he was hoping that he would spot something that would lead him in the right direction. After a block of walking he had yet to come up with anything. He was sure he had missed something, and was starting to get frustrated. Alsha was looking at him with concern, though he knew that she wouldn't say anything until he asked. Driven by the need to avoid letting her down, he stopped walking for a moment to calm himself. Drawing upon his heritage, he took several meditative breaths and reached out with his Gor senses.
The difference was subtle, but by entering that state he became calmer. It was a calm like that of being at the eye of a storm, giving him the opportunity to observe the swirling chaos around him with greater clarity. In this state, he could see and hear things that a full-blooded human would never perceive.
His eyes flashed open and he saw what he had missed. In a window of a shop across the street was a sign that read: "twenty-five years serving Pentalus". He smiled as the words rolled through his mind. If there was any indicator of a well-established business, that was it.
"How about that one?" He said to his commander, pointing at the small shop.
"A blacksmith, huh?" Lady Alsha replied. She shrugged and smiled as she conceded, "It's worth a shot I suppose. Okay, what's your plan?"
"I don't know, to be honest," Kirra answered, shaking his head helplessly, "I would prefer to do it without threatening the shop owner."
Lady Alsha nodded understandingly. It wasn't a tactic she was keen on either, and Kirra knew she was more than happy to support that line of thought. But he was at a loss on how to avoid it, and he breathed a sigh of relief when Alsha offered a suggestion. "We could always go incognito."
"What exactly did you have in mind?" Kirra asked, intrigued by the prospect.
"Mr. Swallow ought to know a thing or two about the area, considering all of the diligent watching over the pillars he does here," Alsha replied dryly, drawing a snicker from Kirra. She went on with a broad grin, "Perhaps he'll be able to give us a tip or two on blending in."
"You really want to go back to that old man?" Kirra asked. "I didn't think you cared for him."
"I don't," she said with a sigh. Raising her hands helplessly she added, "But what other option do we have?"
They returned to where they had first met with the old clerk earlier that day, before following him to the alleyway where they had begun their investigation in the first place. They climbed the two flights of stairs that led them to Mister Swallow's cluttered office, pausing outside his door as they watched the clerk through the window, bent over a desk covered with ledgers. Kirra knocked four times on the door and Mister Swallow looked up with a start and then moved toward the door with a ledger still in his hand. When he answered their knock, he was muttering to himself about the Knights of the Order and was genuinely embarrassed when he saw who had come calling. In his chagrin he invited them inside, surprised to see them again.
When they explained that they had been looking into the matter of the missing pillar, Mister Swallow was delighted. He admitted to them that he hadn't expected anything would come of it, but was pleased they had taken him seriously. Mister Swallow proved to be a much greater help than they had expected, and was able to direct them to a nearby shop where they could acquire less conspicuous outfits.
They were back on the street a short time later with sunset fast approaching, heading back toward the blacksmith shop. They had left their armor behind with Mister Swallow, knowing that even a glint of it through their new heavy cloaks would betray their true identities. Kirra had gone so far as to add charcoal dust to his platinum hair, giving it a gritty appearance, while Alsha had settled on wearing a hood and dust mask instead. Both hoped it was enough to prevent them from being recognized, and that they would be seen as newcomers to the area.
Still, the changes had not come without consequences. "This cloak is the itchiest thing I have ever put on," Kirra complained, using all his willpower to prevent himself reaching back to adjust it again, "What is it made out of, wool or burlap?"
"You're the one that chose it, Kirra," Alsha reminded him. "Stop complaining, we're almost there."
"I'll try," Kirra promised. Even as the words left his mouth he had to grit his teeth to avoid cursing about the cloak again. He contemplated tearing it off his back when they arrived at the front of the blacksmith's shop. In the face of his next task he forced the irritation to the back of his mind, and took a deep breath before pulling open the wooden door and stepping into the shop.
Racks of swords and knives lined the walls, and a single suit of armor sat on display in one corner. Behind the counter was a large array of swords which appeared to be of finer quality. His eyes instantly fell upon those, and a plan for how to proceed formed in his mind. He directed his focus to the large, bearded man behind the counter who greeted him with a smile and said, "Welcome to the Blacksteel Anvil! What can I do for you today?"
"I'm looking for a new sword," Kirra answered smoothly, "to complement the one I've already got." He moved back his cloak to display his curved blade. The blacksmith's eyes widened as he gestured to have it drawn and presented to him. Kirra complied with a nod, drawing it from its gilded sheath and handing it formally to the blacksmith.
It was a remarkable blade, light and strong, and made with a metal that resembled silver but held a much keener edge. The hilt was crafted of a dark wood known as Ebrani, and had been treated to preserve it through the centuries. It was the finest sword that Kirra had ever seen, and was the one thing he had left of his father's, who had also been a Knight of the Firmament. The blacksmith seemed no less impressed by the blade's quality, and Kirra knew there would be little chance of him finding a match among his stock.
"Oh my, that is a splendid blade!" the blacksmith exclaimed as he whistled through his teeth, "Where on earth did you get it?"
"It's a family heirloom," Kirra explained, deciding that telling the truth on this matter would chance very little. "It's a quicksilver blade, Gor made. I understand that there is little chance you have one that will compare, but I'm interested in training with two weapons, and I would like to be balanced."
"Ah, well you're right that there isn't much I have that even approaches this in quality, but you're welcome to look at what I have in stock," the blacksmith replied, returning the blade to Kirra. Kirra sheathed the sword as the blacksmith gestured to the swords hanging behind the counter and said, "I carry fine blades made of the highest quality Hawthane steel. It's not Gor, but it serves the Knights of the Firmament just fine."
"You supply the Knights?" Kirra asked in surprise as he pointed at one of the blades. It was a curved sabre of similar length to his own blade, but as the blacksmith handed it over for his inspection he found it to be much heavier. He shook his head and it was taken away, and Kirra resumed looking over the blades.
"Most certainly," the man answered with pride, "I've had many men and women from the Order venture into my shop over the years, looking for a new blade to help them uphold the law."
"Sounds like you're a true patriot," Kirra replied with a smile, trying to avoid sounding patronizing. "Well, I'll keep looking at what you have, but I hope you won't be offended if I don't choose one of them."
"With a blade like that, I'll be surprised if you can find its match anywhere in Pentalus," the owner conceded, then added with a shrug, "At least not cheaply."
"Are there any other merchants in the area that might carry something of such a quality?" Kirra asked, taking his gaze off the weapon racks and meeting the man's eyes so that he knew he was serious as he explained, "Money is not an object."
"In this area?" the blacksmith asked, leaning back on his heels with a thoughtful expression. "To be honest . . ." He paused and scratched his chin, "I'm not sure."
"What about the local merchant's guild?" Lady Alsha asked, stepping up to the counter and lowering her dust mask, "Would they have some idea?"
Kirra was glad she hadn't decided to remain silent. He had been at a loss for steering the conversation in the direction it needed to go, and was even more grateful when the blacksmith replied, "I suppose you can always ask. Their charter house is on the other end of the block."
"Will they provide me with the answers I'm looking for?" Kirra asked, following through on the opening that Alsha had provided him. "I don't want to waste my time if I'm just going to get tied up in bureaucracy."
"Maybe," the blacksmith answered dryly. Rolling his eyes he added, "For a price."
"What do you mean?" Alsha asked.
"Well, I try to avoid saying anything bad about the guild," the blacksmith replied with a nervous chuckle.
"Come on," Kirra insisted, "I need to know what I'm getting into."
"All right, I suppose it won't cause any harm in telling you," the blacksmith agreed after his eyes darted cautiously to the window at the front of his shop. "It's rough being a merchant in this section of the city," he explained with a sigh, "The local guild is run by a man named Huzain Sabreeza. Ever since he took over the guild, it's become more of a thieves' guild than a merchants' guild, if you ask me. Hell, ask anyone, they've all felt the pressure since he came to power."
"What do you mean?" Kirra asked, letting his genuine interest show on his face, "What exactly has he done?"
The blacksmith leaned forward after glancing at the window again and explained, "He forces taxes upon us at outrageous rates. I've had good friends in the area who have been forced out of business because they either couldn't or wouldn't pay." He continued with an angry tone, "If I weren't so well established, I'd probably be feeling the pressure too."
"From the quality of your wares, I'm not surprised you have enough customers who keep coming back," Kirra replied honestly. "Still, that is very unfortunate news. Why haven't you mentioned it to those Knights who frequent your shop? Aren't there laws against guilds imposing such hefty taxes? Where we're from, the guilds are kept in check by the government."
"As much as I hate to speak ill of my friends in the Order, the Knights would never do anything about this," the blacksmith replied bitterly, "Why would they waste their time solving the problems of peasants? It's simply not in their nature. Besides, if I were the one who ratted Sabreeza out, then I'd be taken out of business for sure, and long before the Knights ever did a thing. They'd be too tied up in bureaucracy to help me in time."
Even though he wished the blacksmith's mistrust of the Order was unfounded, Kirra had to agree that the evidence supported the man's case. The Order had become bureaucratic, if it had ever been any different. "That is unfortunate," Kirra replied sincerely, "but we do what we must for our survival, don't we?"
"Indeed my young friend. You speak with a great deal of wisdom for one your age," the blacksmith replied with a sly smile, "I've got a daughter I'd like you to meet, if you're available."
"Is she pretty?" Kirra replied with a smile of his own. He laughed at the blacksmith's surprised expression and said, "I kid, my good sir. I must decline your offer I'm afraid. I've already promised myself to someone else. Thank you for the compliment all the same."
"Ah well," the blacksmith said as his smile faltered, "I'm sure she'll find a man in time. As for you," he added with a touch of finality, "I suggest you shop around. If money is no object, then I suppose it is worth your while to go to one of the more prestigious shops. Perhaps you could order something special from a shop in the Everbright City if you find someone with contacts there."
"I'll keep that in mind," Kirra replied with a nod. Realizing that the blacksmith had tired of their conversation, and had been offended by the rejection of his daughter, Kirra made to leave and said, "Thank you for your time. I'll make sure to recommend the Blacksteel Anvil to my friends when they're in need of a new blade."
"You're too kind," the man replied with a tight smile. Kirra responded with a casual wave as he made for the door with Alsha right on his heels. It wasn't until they were a good distance from the building that he finally slowed down. Only when he realized that he had to catch his breath did he realize how fast a pace he had set.
"That was interesting," Lady Alsha said without emotion. Kirra didn't look toward her at all. What he heard in her voice was disappointment, and he didn't want to see it in her face.
"We didn't find out anything about what Sabreeza was doing in that alleyway," Kirra replied bitterly, "It felt like a waste of time to me."
"Actually," Alsha admitted, "I learned quite a bit."
"About our mission?" Kirra asked, maintaining his bitterness until he decided to look at her face. He didn't see the disappointment he had expected, and instead saw an expression of support.
"No, most of what that old man told us were things we could have found out from practically anyone," she admitted, "Though it is nice to know that there are still decent people around." She smiled slyly as she added, "He was pleasant to talk to, and I'm sure his daughter would have been as well."
"No thanks," Kirra replied with an involuntary shiver, "I'd rather not go down that road."
"Why is that?" Alsha asked quietly. "Because you're promised to someone? You never told me you were courting anyone."
"I'm not," Kirra admitted, "but I don't fancy the idea of taking up with a random merchant's daughter either."
"But you would take a son?" Alsha stated more than asked, her feigned surprise disappeared as she smiled at him again.
"I . . ." Kirra started to reply, but then it was his turn to be surprised as he asked, "How did you know?"
"Oh please, it's not that hard to tell when you're watching for it," Alsha explained, draping her arm around his shoulder. They started to walk down the street again as she went on, "There's more than one reason why your fellow Knights have an issue with you. It's not just because they think you're useless. They worry about sleeping in the same barracks, and sharing the public baths with you. Needlessly, I'm sure. I've never met a man in the Order that I'd want to have a little fun with, and I'm willing to bet your feelings are the same."
"You've got that right," Kirra conceded, "So how do you feel about it?"
"Please. If I had a problem with it, do you think I'd be treating you this way now?" Alsha asked incredulously. She laughed heartily and Kirra looked at her in surprise. She waved her hand in apology until she managed to bring herself under control. With a sincere smile she said, "Personally, I think that you have the potential to become the greatest Knight the Order has ever seen. All you need is a chance to prove yourself."
"Thank you," Kirra replied sincerely, "I normally don't care what other people think about me, but I've always had a great deal of respect for you. Your opinion of me does matter."
"Remember when I said I learned a lot in there?" Alsha asked, and when Kirra nodded she went on to explain, "I was talking about you. Even though we didn't learn much more about Sabreeza, you handled the situation very well. You're proving that you have the capability to lead an investigation, which, as you know, is at the heart of what we Inquisitors do. You're in the right place, Kirra, and it's only a matter of time before everyone knows it."
"Well at least there's one good thing that happened today then. I suppose with the new information we do have grounds to investigate a little more openly, don't we," Kirra replied with a grin, "Maybe we should return to the Order and gather the rest of the company."
"When that happens I'll have to take control again," she reminded him, "Are you sure that's the direction you want to take the investigation?"
"I think so. We'll have more chance of arousing suspicion if we were to go straight to the guild seeking answers, and that seems to be our only other option," Kirra replied, shrugging. "I'd rather have the force necessary to back us up if things didn't go as planned."
"I happen to agree with you," Alsha said with a broad grin, "Let's return to Mr. Swallow and collect our things, and then we'll gather the rest of the crew and return in the morning."