Guttering Flame.

When the powerful converge they have only two questions: Who is attacking the Brotherhood and how will they stop them?

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1. Guttering Flame.

 

Brascus waved the acolyte away from the table. The man's existence forgotten the second he left the weak pool of light. Four candle's lit the table, one before each man. The flame's burning with a green tinge in the marsh gas rich environment. The light illuminated each face and a small oval of the table, nothing more. The rest of the room was in darkness; the two acolytes worked by touch in the area beyond the meagre glow of the candles. The tiny flames painted each man's face with shadows, obscuring his features, drawing all emphasis to his voice as he spoke.

"By the gods Brascus, I know we're at war but do we need to drink such foul tasting wine?"

Brascus turned a withering stare on the man who had spoken.

"We are not here to drink wine Gerhard. We are here to work out what sort of situation we are in, and work out who is attacking us. Then to stop them." Brascus looked each man in the eye. His mind had long since learned to ignore the demonic air that the harsh light lent to the faces around the table. As grand master he knew control and power lurked way beneath the surface.

"Ever since we expanded into this city over a year and a half ago we have been hard pressed, and we don't even know who is attacking us. Three of our society are dead and our hold on the dock is crumbling. We all know that this is no coincidence; it is a concerted attack. I have gathered you all here to listen to your reports." Brascus looked at the smooth, youthful face to his left.

"Rodrigo, you investigated the failure of half brother Tomas' business and his subsequent suicide. What have you uncovered?"

"I have had my clerk look over the late half brother Tomas's accounts. All was going well until last October. The competitive edge that all members of the society enjoy ensured that his business was doing well. Then things suddenly started to go wrong. He lent heavily to the notorious gambler Andrus Hiswell. I admit to being dumbfounded by the fact that he lent to him at all, let alone lending as extensively as he did. Predictably Andrus lost it all and failed to repay his debts. Whilst Tomas' men took physical reparation from Andrus the money was gone." Rodrigo took a swift sip of his wine.

"Then the truly fatal, if I may use that word, mistake was made. Tomas invested all his liquid capital in a high risk venture to smuggle rare Hijab plants and seeds from Greman. The potential profit was huge but so was the risk. The Hijab plant and any progeny are jealously guarded and none have ever been cultivated outside of Greman. As you can no doubt predict, the venture failed. The airship and crew were seized as they tried to take off. Tomas lost everything." Rodrigo's hands were briefly illuminated as they entered the yellow pool of candle light on the table. Rodrigo turned them palms upward.

"But Tomas still had a profitable Marsh gas refinery. Unfortunately his gas supplies became contaminated with explosive by-products. After several high-profile accidents business dropped off and Tomas' losses could not be sustained. Had he been a full brother he would have had access to other funds but as a half brother his options were limited. He took his own life once he heard a petition for his arrest as a debtor, had been made to the Council."

There was silence from around the table, until Rodrigo continued.

"This catastrophic sequence of events was no accident. In amongst Tomas' papers were a number of letters from Master Hugo of Katertan urging him to lend to Andrus Hiswell and then to invest in the ill-fated venture in Greman. These letters were all in Brotherhood cypher and stamped with Master Hugo's seal. I have contacted Master Hugo via my agents, he had no knowledge of either the letters or the advice they contained. I have been able to backtrack the letters to the dirigible docks here. The messenger who received the letters at the dock stated that he got them from a man dressed like an airman. He also said that the man did not act like a airman. I was also able to ascertain that each time a letter was delivered, different airships were in dock; yet the airman delivering them was the same man."

Brascus leaned forward, his face looming large in the light.

"That was a careless mistake."

Rodrigo exhaled loudly through his nose.

"I don't believe that it was a mistake. The knowledge contained in the letters required both planning and resources. It would have been an easy thing to pay a different airman from any old blimp in port to pass on the letters, why scrimp on this expense? I believe that it was so that we would know that the letters came from this city." Rodrigo raised his eyebrows causing shadows to dance over his face.

"But this seals it for me my friends. Why would Tomas kill himself with a soldier's knife? Where would he get such a thing, and why would he bother? I will tell you my thoughts, it was not his knife. A kitchen knife? A pen knife? These I could believe they would be easily at hand for a desperate man. But why a soldiers knife? It was not just a weapon, it was a message, from his killer." Rodrigo sat back, as the others around the table began talking over each other. After a few breaths Brascus spoke.

"Peace! Thank you Brother Rodrigo. You have given us much to think on, much we did not know. Now Arnuldas you have looked into our problems with the stevedores. Tell us, please, what is riling the Dock workers?"

Arnuldus shifted his muscled bulk. His deep voice was clipped as he dropped letters in the manner of a born in the Mangrove slums of Brote, but his manner was confident and commanding.

"There have been real problems. It started near the outpost supply dock. The dockers there started demanding more wages. We've got no real financial advantage in terms of docking fees but we do get preferential cargo transit scheduling. We met with the Grandmaster." Arnuldas inclined his head towards Brascus before continuing.

"We instructed our merchants to agree to the pay increase. The playing field was still tipped in our favour and the effect on profits was negligible. Unbelievably this seemed to make them bolder. They demanded a base payment, plus a tariff depending on cargo type. The demands always seemed to weigh heavier on Brotherhood shipping. We tracked down the problems to two particular dockers, who claimed to have moved from the docks at Hithlot. They stirred up the others with tales of how different it was in Hithlot, how much better it was at Hithlot. They formed an unofficial guild and tried to pressurise us. We tried having them killed of course, but the two Glot-Snake wranglers we hired to do the deed disappeared shortly after they accepted the contract. Then our agent on the inside died in a tavern brawl. Witnesses told the guard that he started the fight and that he drew his knife first, but he had a reputation as a cool-headed man, not the sort to get himself killed in a drunken melee. Although the impact on brotherhood finances has been negligible the situation is vexing and we are still a long way from claiming control of the docks." Arnuldus wiped a thin sheen of sweat from his brow as he sat back his report finished.

The acolytes refilled the glasses on the table. Brascus drank a sip before continuing.

"And you Gerhard, you have more bad news for us?"

Eyes glinted in the candlelight as they turned to look at the neatly turned out brother. The candle light making his trim grey beard look almost silver, but his eyes looked like sunken pits.

"Indeed Grandmaster, most foul news. Brother Asil's death in a duel, seems linked to these other issues in this troublesome city. It appears that brother Asil challenged some visiting Marsh gas prospector, after learning of an affair between his wife and this prospector. It seems he first learnt of this affair from a servant who worked for him. Being a prudent man he investigated further; he had his wife watched. His watchers confirmed his fears after witnessing his wife steal away from their house in the dead of night, and enter the lodgings of this Gas hunter. This intelligence enraged Brother Asil who, instead of trusting in us to assist in orchestrating a just resolution, he challenged the man to a duel. The dual lasted scarce ten breaths before brother Asil was fatally slashed across the neck." Gerhard stopped for a breath, as if in contemplation.

"I had the servant snatched from the street and brought in for questioning. It did not take long for me to discover the truth. The servant had been paid to lie about his mistress' unfaithfulness. Furthermore when Brother Asil's men watched the lady sneaking out of their home they were in fact watching this selfsame servant dressed in the lady’s clothes! The prospector was no more than a travelling assassin, a duellist for hire. It was no true duel for honour, it was an execution. I questioned the servant at length about who had paid him but he claimed he knew nothing of him, even unto death. I could discover no more lines of enquiry and my investigation concluded." Gerhard leaned forward his eyes meeting those of the Grandmaster.

Brascus steepled his fingers in front of his face, the shadows they cast hid his eyes.

"It seems we know much of what has happened but nothing of who is doing this to us. We are at war and we have no idea who the enemy is."

"Perhaps I could shed some light on the matter?" a new voice asked. The grunts and exclamations of outrage at the unthinkable interruption were cut short by an explosion of light from a pair of shuttered lamps. The light from the lamps left the men around the table blinking and confused.

"Ysac what is the meaning of this?" asked Brascus peering uncertainly at his acolyte.

"Well it seemed so cruel watching you blundering around in the dark. I thought I might put an end to all this yabbering which, whilst I find it gratifying in parts, is getting tedious."

The men around the table were all seasoned business men and even more experience conspirators, not one of them missed the relevance of the word gratifying.

"You are the traitor!" said Gerhard accusingly.

"I prefer to think of myself as 'The defender of my city'. You see I was born here but none of you were. I did join your society willingly, but when I saw the sheer contempt I was treat with I decided that things needed to change. I decided that I would prevent you from controlling this city as you have so many others. At least until the society was adjusted to my satisfaction."

Gerhard and Arnuldus began to rise. As they did so the second acolyte raised a loaded crossbow from beneath a trestle table.

"You can only kill one of us," said Arnuldus.

"Not true," said Ysac producing a sand-glass from behind a decanter of wine.

"I have already killed you all. By the time the sand runs out the poison will have done its work and you will all be dead." All the eyes in the room moved to the sand-glass and the rapidly emptying top bulb.

"Now all that remains is to see what you can give to me, in exchange for the antidote."

"Arnuldus, sit down. I can see that you want to, the poison is weakening you even as we speak. You too Gerhard." The men sat slowly.

"Arnuldus, I want you to stay on as a full Brother overseeing the docks. Your methods and temperament are agreeable to me. Should that change however, I would let you know that I know you and your brother killed the priest in Brixteth. True, I know that the priest had tried to rape your mother but I doubt the temple will see any mitigation in that. They would certainly punish your mother for helping dispose of the body. Your mother and brother must remain in Brixteth. They are my surety of your... Obedience. Here." with the last word he rolled a small vial to Arnuldus.

"The antidote. Drink it. You will die if you do not."

Looking dubious Arnuldus broke the seal and drank the contents of the vial, screwing his face up as he did so.

"Good. Now Rodrigo your son studies at the University of Glarth, does he not? Hmm I hate to stoop to such unsophisticated depths but your compliance buys his life. Here." Ysac rolled a second vial to Rodrigo who drank it readily.

"Now the rest of you present me with some difficulty. I have found pasts full of lies, greed and vice, but no more than many successful merchants. You have all proved to be very difficult to stop on an individual basis. That was why it was necessary to press so hard, so that you would call this council, to get you all here at the same time. Now unfortunately I have no need for you. Goodbye." As he finished speaking Ysac flicked down the shutters on the lanterns, plunging the room into darkness except for the few guttering candles.

The men left to die, began to swear, plead and to lurch across to where Ysac had last been standing, frantically trying to get their hands on the antidote. Within a few minutes it was over. Isaac opened the shutters, flooding the room with light once again. The light revealed Arnuldus and Rodrigo sat, pale faced, at the table. The other men were sprawled in disarray across the floor.

Ysac walked over to Brascus' abandoned chair. Once he had righted it he sat.

"Now you can still call me Grandmaster, but the candle thing has to go." With that he blew out Berscus' candle.

 

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