Seeing no reason to continue on to Arbeven at this point I told Autane this morning that he could stick with us or head for home as he saw fit. He didn’t need to be told twice – he packed up and was gone in a few minutes. I can’t imagine what he thinks of me. Actually that’s not true, it’s pretty easy to imagine what he thinks of me, I’m sure he considers me quite mad. I suppose he’s correct in that. Maybe when I first woke up in that dirty alley in Graltontown you could say that a quest for revenge made sense. But since then I’ve amassed quite a fortune, I could settle down, forget the whole thing with the Duke and live a better life than I had before. The way things stand now, I’m unequivocally better off – I have my freedom. So what can you call it other than madness that I still pursue this course? I’d call it justice. And justice is a harsh mistress (and not in the good way if you know what I mean). Justice is like an orchid – it need as a lot of attention because it is utterly fragile.
Orchids need a certain temperature with little variance allowed. They need the full sun in the morning and shade the rest of the day. When you water them you need to allow the soil to dry completely before watering again. Once a month they need to be fed. They need to be sheltered and cared for otherwise they will wither and die. Justice is the same, it doesn’t spring up on its own like a weed, it only comes about after careful husbanding (wifing?). Is it madness to put so much effort into sustaining such a delicate thing? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make it any less rewarding. Stopping now and living the high life would be satisfying, but nowhere near as satisfying as having the Duke broken before me. I want him to beg. I want him to offer me anything. I want him to abase himself knowing that I’m going to kill him anyway but so desperately wanting to believe that he can supplicate himself one more second of life that he does it anyway. That will be something very grand indeed.
Since Martialla has been skulking around these woods being a bandit for a while I assume that she’s knows the way around pretty well but I got the distinct impression she only halfway knew where were going as we set out. I can’t judge her too harshly though since she was nice enough to take on my appearance so I could see what my hair looked like and fix it. I’ll never get tired of seeing myself in profile – I should be on a coin! You never really know what you look like just from a mirror. Even if you’re ugly (which you probably are) I recommend checking it out if you ever have the chance to see someone magically disguise themselves as you. Granted that usually happens right before you get killed by that person but it’s still worth it. After we had been walking for a while Martialla had the poor grace to bring up the reason why I had left in the first place.
“I couldn’t help but notice that you returned with no adventuring party at your back ready to plunge into conflict for us.”
“Indeed, when I got to their dumb hideout most of them were dead. Which made their hiring price much lower but it hardly seemed worth it at that point. And get this, the ones that weren’t dead were too poorly off to help us at all. I had to save them! I was very put out. It’s just impolite is what it is. People have no manners these days.”
“You often say as much. Where does that leave us then? You said you wanted to go back to the Manor, shouldn’t we head to Obsis to see if they have some adventuring party there?”
“Oh, I’m sure they do, but what’s the point? They’ll just run off after some crystal sword or something as soon as I hire them. Or they’ll get killed by the demon lord whose daughter they massacred in an airship. I don’t know what I was thinking trying to hire those sorts in the first place. They’re useless.”
“So we’re back to what? The two of us and our wits against the entire castle?”
“You don’t have to say it like that, look where our wits have gotten us so far! I was thinking maybe we head into Alleene and get a whisper campaign going about the Baron being subverted by Kostelos devils, see if we can get some manner of uprising going. Maybe there’s some Kostelos hate-group we can get on our side.”
“That sounds unpleasant.”
“When did you get so squeamish? You’re the bandit queen for the Gods sake.”
“And quite a queendom it is. I’d just rather accomplish our goals without resorting to race-baiting if possible.”
I snorted “Baby.”
After we had been traveling for several hours while Martialla was telling me a very amusing story about a wizard at a joust we started to hear the sound of a bell ringing – not like a church bell but like the bell you’d put on a sheep or some such. Assuming that it was a trap we decided to investigate – better the trap you know about right? I had forgotten how sneaky Martialla can be when she wants to move unseen. I tried to do the same but after a while she got frustrated and just cast an invisibility spell on me. Without even asking. The nerve! I would have agreed had she asked, but it’s the presumption you know? Ask me before you put a spell on me okay? Thus inveigled we continued on to find a string of mules and pack-beetles being led through the woods by one lone fellow. The mules and insects were laden with all manner of goods. The man leading them was a tough looking fellow dressed plainly except for a long black and red greatcoat of quality craftsmanship. I signaled for Martialla to dismiss her spell and then remembered she couldn’t see me. Feeling embarrassed I whispered for her to remove the invisibility and we strolled out.
“Good day to you sir, what brings you to these parts of the wood?”
He was quite startled to see a pair of twins appear out of nowhere and whirled around for a moment as if expecting more of us to appear as well before speaking gruffly. “Nothing to see here ladies, this is official kingdom business.”
“How impressive. And what business might that be?”
He flashed a badge at us “I’m a tax collector, interfering with my duties is a hanging offense!”
I flashed my badge back at him “We’re well aware of that. We’re with the royal auditor’s office. Chief Inspector Gamache, this is my associate Inspector Wexford.”
Martialla nodded brusquely “We’ve had our eye on you for a while.”
“Indeed we have inspector, indeed we have. You’re quite a ways away from your appointed rounds aren’t you? What taxes are you collecting out here exactly? Nuts from squirrels? Honey from bees perhaps? Do the bears owe the Crown some salmon? Do the sprites pay you in pinecones?”
His look became desperate “Now see here . . .”
“There’s only one reason that I can see you being out here in the woods tax collector. Malfeasance.”
Martialla nodded “Misappropriation of funds. Fraud. That’s also a hanging offense isn’t it Chief Inspector?”
“No Inspector, it’s a capital offense, but they find much crueler ways to be rid of rogue tax collectors that a simple rope. Normal people are expected to steal now and then so they get normal punishments. But a tax collector forsaking his duty and lining his own pocket? That calls for something . . . special. An example must me made you know?”
“Ah, of course Chief Inspector.”
The man’s face had gone pale as the summer moon “No you’re mistaken, I just . . .”
“Don’t compound things by lying man, your goose is already cooked, don’t make things worse by pissing me off.”
Martialla shook her head sadly “The Chief Inspector has a terrible temper.”
“That I do Inspector, because if there’s one thing I hate it’s a man who betrays his country. Diverting royal funds? That makes me sick it does. Now before you spew anymore lies lead us on to whatever forest-hole you’ve taking your ill-gotten gains. If you cooperate with us things will go easier for you. You might even save your life.”
Martialla affected a hopeful tone “You still have a chance to get out of this with your skin intact. But you can’t hide anything from us.”
Terrified, the fellow lead us on a ways to an overgrown hunting cabin that looked long abandoned – it looked enough like the Whiterock cabin to give me a frightening flashback. I could feel the Whiterock ring throbbing on my finger but it always does that. As a last gambit our traitorous tax collector bade us to enter first but we politely declined. There were no protectors within but he did have some crude traps protecting his stolen bounty – a bear trap in a cut-out hidden under a rug, a swinging axe-blade, a pitchfork rigged to fall on your head, that sort of thing. We ordered him to disarm them and then had him march around the place just to be sure. The goods were below, through a trapdoor leading to the cellar, the opening of which really gave me a powerful false impression of being back at the Whiterock cabin and with its history of horror. Did the ring throb more painfully? I can’t say that it didn’t. The tax collector stood miserably in the corner with Martialla’s rapier on him while I climbed down to check it out. There was some money of course but it was largely made up of luxury goods that could be stored in such a place relatively safely – fine clothing, semi-precious stones, spices, liquor, tobacco, that sort of thing.
Coming back up I gave the tax collector an impressed whistle “That’s quite a nest egg you’ve built for yourself, how long have you been at this to amass such an impressive fortune? Don’t answer that. Answer this instead, do you have a family? A wife, a couple kids, that sort of thing?” He shook his head wretchedly “You should have said yes, I’m looking for a reason to let you live sir.”
“You told me not to lie to you.”
“Yes I did, and a good man you are for listening. Well, I suppose pure altruism is as a good a reason as any. You richly deserve death my friend, not only for stealing from the Crown but also for being stupid. Don’t you know this forest is full of bandits? Bringing your ill-gotten gains here is foolish in the extreme. But I shall show you mercy for I have no desire to kill you today. Nor to drag you back to the capital to be tortured – which is what would happen. Have you ever heard someone say that if they knew now what they knew then they’d do things differently? This is your opportunity to do that. I’m giving you a second chance. The deal is you hand over your badge, we tell everyone that we found you dead – slain by bandits – and the bandits had all this stuff, which they obviously stole from you. In death you will be a hero. You go somewhere far away and tell no one about your former life. Start a new one. Get a job as a clerk or something. Find yourself a wife. Do things differently. Forget about the greed that led you to this path. And every day when you wake up thank the Gods that you are still alive because a lot of other people aren’t. Think about how you still have the opportunity to make different choices and how people that have died wish they had that opportunity.”
He didn’t need to think long about that. He handed over his badge and I had him leave his coat as well because I like it. He unloaded the rest of his stolen goods and then mounted up one of this beetles and led his now cargo-less train due west. Once he was out of sight I tossed the badge to Martialla.
“Here, this might come in handy.”
“Getting caught with a badge like this when you don’t deserve it seems like a handy way to get yourself executed too.”
“You’re already an outlaw, what do you have to lose? Besides, my advice? Don’t get caught.”
“That’s good advice, I don’t know why more criminals don’t think of that. Can we take all this stuff or do your seemingly limitless magic pockets actually have limits?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
Funds: 23,045 platinum, 52,143 gold
Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Ring of Disguise, Badge of Last Resort, Tankard of the Drunken Hero, Censer of Dreams, Enchanted White Pathfinder’s Gear (effects as Iadaran Dress Uniform) Belt of Physical Might +4, Versatile Vest, Expedition Pavilion, +1 Human Bane Endless Ammunition Light Crossbow with Sharpshooter’s Blade, Ring of Urban Grace, Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Better Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet, unknown gauntlets, mysterious staff, tooth-sword, Cape of the Mountebank, Sandals of Sprinting, +1 Agile Rapier
Noble’s outfit (5) collegium ring, pocketed scarf, wrist sheath, signet ring (2) assortment of fake signet rings, silver chain set with moonstones, gold and emerald ring (2), garnets (700), gold necklace with jade pendant, ivory combs, tax collector’s badge, gold bracelet with ivory inlays, silver necklace set with rubies, gold earrings with jade inlays, silver and gold brooch, silver necklace with ruby pendant, disguise kit, covenant ring , tiny diamonds (27), Saryah Phidaner gown, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55) personal signet ring, tiara, masterwork red and black long greatcoat, lots of luxury goods
Revenge List: Duke Eaglevane,
Piltis Swine, Rince Electrum, watchman Gridley, White-Muzzle the worg, Percy Ringle the butler, Alice Kinsey , “ Patch”, Heroes of the Lost Sword, Claire Conrad, Erist priest of Strider, Riselda owner of the Sage Mirror, Eedraxis, Skin-Taker tribe, Kartak, Królewna & Bonifacja Trading Company, Hurmont Family, Androni Titus, Greasy dreadlocks woman, Lodestone Security, Kellgale Nickoslander, Beltian Kruin the Splithog Pauper, The King of Spiders, Auraluna Domiel, mother Hurk, Mazzmus Parmalee, Helgan van Tankerstrum, Lightdancer, Bonder Greysmith, Pegwhistle Proudfoot, Lumbfoot Sheepskin, Lumber Consortium of Three Rivers, Hellerhad the Wizard, Forsaken Kin, Law Offices of Office of Glilcus and Stolo, Jey Rora, Colonel Tarl Ciarán, Mayor Baras Haldmeer, Rindol the Sage, Essa