Streamers of fog yet lingered in the air, the humidity slowly ebbing away to more tolerable levels as the sun finished its work burning it off. Here, in parts of the slums leading to the Shallows, the air smelled of the fens only a mile or less away, the air rich with life and the subtle undertone of rot. At least the street was still stone, although in a terrible state of repair. The Areck slums were, after all, a blight upon the fair city of Alliria, a stain that should long ago have been scrubbed away. If not for the providence of its denizens, their ability to procure what was needed that teh rest of the city couldn't lower itself to dealing in, it probably would have been cleansed long before. Vance D'arle was not happy to have to trudge into this place, on foot no less. His drab clothes were well made, fine wool as opposed to the linens and silks he might otherwise wear. Traveling into this party of the city, though, it was wisest to remain inconspicuous and try not to draw any attention to his elevated status, especially to the rats that infested this part of the city. They were not overly fond of their betters, after all, and there were enough of them to pose a serious problem. Damn that woman! She had steadfastly refused to meet with him in the Inner City, as was proper! The nerve she showed in that was galling, appallingly so, but there was nothing to do but play this charade out to its conclusion. The company was small enough that it couldn't pose much of a threat to his mercantile interests, but large enough to achieve his overarching goals. The audacity of the commander could be dealt with later, after the contract had been accepted and their end of the bargain held up. His destination was a single story building on a compound closer to The Shallows than he would like to go in person. As he stepped around a curve in the uneven street, the place came into sight. Dressed stone for a foundation, although that only extended a foot or two above the ground before being replaced by wood whitewashed to the same color as the stone itself and, surprisingly, that of the rest of the city. Rich red, black, and gold accentuation was visible everywhere on the exterior of the building, including the fence that doubtless contained a sparring yard and other elements of the company compound. The main building was where he was headed, of course. He hurried along, well-heeled boots splashing in puddles. As he approached, the colorful accentuation became clearer, some kind of tribal symbology that was lost to him. They had said the woman was from the west, out on the savannah, a former member of some backwards tribe living out in the wild. Vance sneered to himself; a company headed by some primitive barbarian with only the thinnest skim of city sophistication about them. Reaching the door, he quickly wiped the sneer away, noting the lack of any security posted at the door as he stepped inside. Door closing behind him, D'arle stepped into a large room, stone floor swept clean, walls washed as white inside as they were out. A few chairs were arranged along one wall, as if a place like this had much business, and a desk stoo to one side of the center of the room. The walls behind that desk were occupied by cabinets, pull-out drawers closed and each identified with a glyph of unknown origin to the merchant. A girl, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, sat at the desk. She was clearly of local stock, plain of face with dark hair tied behind her neck. She wore a well made dress of wool, died red, black, and gold - company colors, Vance decided - and was bent over her work, quill pen scribbling and scratching on cheap, thin paper. She didn't even bother to look up, and he had to quash his irritation. In front of him, another door headed deeper into the building, and yet another door in the same corner looked to head towards the fenced in area he had seen when coming in. A pair of enormous feathers, stylized, were burned into the wood of the door. "May I help you?" a voice drawled at him, and Vance turned to see that the girl had finally deigned to notice him. She still held the pen at the ready, but was looking at him intently. He couldn't help but notice the scar across her cheek, and the intensity of her gaze. "Vance D'arle," you peasant, he desperately wanted to add. Instead, he sketched the shallowest of bows to the woman. "I am here to see the commander of the company. I have an appointment?" he said, indicating the paperwork scattered on her desk. "A moment, if you will." She shifted a few papers, and then nodded. "Yes, sir. Please take a seat. The Warhawk will be with you in a moment. I see she is expecting you." She immediately went back to her paperwork without another word, and D'arle was forced to accept being dismissed by some slum urchin. Instead, he took a seat in one of the chairs along the wall - they looked threadbare and cheap but, as it turned out, were quite comfortable. With little else to do, he sat, and waited. While he waited, he looked around the room. It seemed to lack as much personality as the exterior of the building had, serving a function and little else. There were no wall hangings, no paintings or murals. Only a window, set into the wall next to the door and barred with iron, and from that the late morning sunlight streamed in, motes of dust twinkling in the air. Aside from the girl rising to file some of the endless stacks of paper on her desk, the only other person he saw was a strange black hooded individual who opened the door from the yard, looking at him and the room, before ducking back out. The only thing Vance could see of its face was its mouth, and if Vance could have he would likely have struck them in their face. Even without seeing the rest of whoever it was, there was a sense of mockery there. "Sir?" Vance looked up, shaken from his thoughts. "The commander will see you now. Just through that door there, the one with the feathers on it." The girl was gesturing with a hand and, once she saw that he had noted where to go, she went back to her work as if he were the least important thing in her life. With a grunt, he got to his feet, and strode across the stone floor, boots thumping heavily. Before he could touch the latch, a voice called from within. "Come in," it said. He drew the door open, and stepped into a different world. The light was dimmer in here, he noted as he shut the door. A woman was just in the act of getting to her feet from a pile of cushions on a floor layered with colorful carpets. The walls were hung with the cured hides of a variety of animals so that not a single inch of the walls were left to be visible, and that along with the coloration of the ceiling gave the room the distinct feel of being within a tent. Barbarians, he thought to himself as he stepped forward. The woman in question was stretching as the door closed, back arched and arms over her head in a way that made him have to swallow hard for a moment. A well made woman, clearly athletic and in good shape. She wore a linen shirt of decent make, and trousers that were tight enough to leave little to the imagination. She eyed him throughout, as though she knew exactly what she was doing and was interested in seeing his reaction, to which he carefully avoided giving any. Standing straight, she turned away from him, intricately braided silvery-white hair swinging across her rump as she did, the whole thing woven through with the bones of birds and feathers until it looked as they it were an attempt to mimic a headdress. "Ah, Vance D'arle," she said suddenly, her words thickly accented traders' tongue. The Savannah was heavy in her inflection, leaving little doubt of her origins. "Please, a seat you should take." She indicated a chair towards the back of the room, sitting in front of a desk carved with pagan symbols and feathers, charms, and other things he could scarcely guess at. She rounded the desk, and then sat down heavily, leaning forward and lacing her fingers together in front of her. "Sit, sit," she said again, impatiently, as he made his way to the chair in front of her. "Your contract, it is very interesting," she said as he settled down, picking up a stack of the same cheap paper he had seen up front. "The price, it is much. You value your daughter very much," she said. The eyes looking over her hands reminded him of a storm on the horizon, first grey, then blue, and they were sharp with an intelligence that he did not expect to find in a barbarian such as her. "How can one put a price tag on ones' own flesh and blood?" he replied with a shrug. "I find that I can put a price to anything," she replied. She gestured around her haphazardly, a serious expression on her finely boned features. "This, it costs much. People of the cities, they need much coin for such small land, and more still to put rock and wood on it." She shook her head, but those hawks' eyes never left his. Weighing, measuring, seeming to pierce to his soul. For a moment, he wondered if he was making a mistake. This woman was not what he expected, not half the fool he was hoping for. Either that, or she was doing a great job of hiding it. "Be that as it may, I have offered my price for the safe return of my Alexa. I trust you've had an opportunity to look over the proposal and the details involved in this task?" At least, all the ones that he was going to put forward. With any luck, he wouldn't have to pay anything in the end, and he would be rid of....well, he could wish, anyway. "Yes," she said curtly. "The wording, I find it odd in places. An advocate I have had look it over, look for any shifty language," she said, accent still thick enough to require him to think on what she was saying. "A thousand crowns gold is a hefty sum. Forgive me you must, but I wonder if there is something you are not telling me. This request, it is detailed, but it does not appear to contain enough danger to warrant the price." She grinned at him then, a mirthless thing devoid of any humor. "Of course, if your money you wish to throw away, then take it I shall." "Because they are criminals, and there is no telling what you will encounter. And because they are criminals, I do not want them to buy you off, either." It was plausible enough, of course. "It will already be difficult enough to do without her being killed, but I have more faith in a mercenary company than I do in the Guard." The commander snorted at that, but her expression remained unreadable. "Still, a tidy sum. Of course, for this work a small team is better. Half a dozen or so, no more. The cost will be in the travel and supplies required." Vance nodded in agreement. "The Falwood isn't terribly far away, but it is difficult terrain." "Not so difficult. Easier to approach than the open, sneaking is an option," she replied. "I dislike the amount of intelligence you have given me. Familiar you are with your foe, it would appear, but not with their numbers." She set the papers back on the table, leaning back in her chair as she did so. "So? Is it more money that you need? This is already a ruinous contract as it is." "Money? No. I wished to take the measure of the man who hires us. You come from wealth, from power, and trust for that I have not." She eyed him, face hard enough to detract from its natural beauty. "A taste for politics of the city-dweller I have not. I will not wait for a poisoned knife in the dark. I will accept your contract, Vance D'arle, but I will also have you know that if treachery it comes to..." She gestured behind her. An armor stand bearing a hardened leather breastplate, leather vambraces, and leather trousers stood there, and a sword with a long hilt and three feet of single edged, slightly curved steel wrapped in leather with it. Vance hadn't really noticed before, but the walls were lined with weapons, some in good shape and some broken, likely trophies. Bows, spears, swords, shields, and a few tattered, blood-stained standards as well. "A good day to you," she said, a smile finally on her face. It was a predatory one, though, and held little warmth. - "Tian, your thoughts?" The shadows in one corner of the room seemed to blur, and then a shape stepped from them. Tian stood taller than the Commander did, and every inch of flesh was covered in black leather save for the bottom of his face, barely exposed beneath a black leather cowl. Two great knives, very nearly swords, hung at his hips. "You want the honest truth, Warhawk?" he asked, and smirked. "Man is full of shit. He's hiding something but I don't know what it is. But what did you expect, dealing with someone rich enough to be of noble blood?" She stared at the door where the man had just left a few minutes before, expression as unreadable as it had been when he had been there. With a sniff, she turned to the armor stand, and picked up the weapon, the heft of it in her hands bringing some calm to her torn thoughts. "Turn this down, a part of me says. But the money, it is good. A step towards bringing righteous vengeance upon those who wronged my people, this is. But..." She trailed off into silence. "But this might leave you dead, rotting in the open under the trees. Just another slain by the machinations of your so-called betters." Tian's voice was serious, but soft. "Can't say as I haven't been there before. The call is yours to make, of course, but I believe you have already made it." She looked at him, a gleam of something dangerous in her eyes. "Aye, I have. You'll be coming along for this. I do not have many to spare, so we'll need to recruit or find contractors. Every faith in you I have, to procure what is needed. Cynthia will arrange whatever money is needed." She didn't need to hear his assent, or to even turn to know that the former assassin was gone from the room. There is something underneath all of this. May the spirits protect us, and the ancestors shield us from treachery.