The Mercenary Guild was located in the Lothbury District, close to the higher-end merchants that most needed its services, but on a back street, so that the fighters’ foul language — and fouler smell — wouldn’t offend the area’s classier customers. Matilda felt a little out of place walking past the fine art gallery, the tea house, and the castle furnishing emporium with a big “we deliver” sign in the front window. There was a smaller “hiring delivery drivers and guards” sign right below it. Matilda made a mental note. A film crew might want to buy castle furnishings, and may even have rented an entire castle to use as a set.
Following Joe’s directions, she’d walked down Lawless Alley to Upping Street, then east for about half an hour until she got to Lothbury and checked out the shops around the little square at the intersection. There was a little flower garden in the center of the square, and the cobblestones around it were swept clean. And while there was vehicle traffic along Upping, Lothbury Street itself was free of delivery wagons — just the occasional tasteful carriage parked in front of a store here and there.
There was a weapons store here, too, but it featured mostly the kind of high-end designer swords that were good for hanging on a wall, or wearing as an accessory to a fancy ball. In a real battle, the jewels and filigree would get in the way. One time, another fighter’s fancy pommel had caught under her thumbnail and pulled the entire nail off the nailbed. That had stung. Not as much as it would have in real life. World of Battle had the pain settings dialed way down. Nobody would ever want to go into battle if the pain settings were realistic.
A fat man in a King Henry the Eighth outfit gave her a scornful look. She recognized him from that morning. He was the Chamber of Commerce security chief, the one who’d threatened to fine her for leaving a dead body lying around. If anyone knew where a film crew was at work, it might be him. She looked at him, but the name label didn’t show up automatically. Right. Krim had no in-world user interface. Just the basic bio interfaces that people had been equipped with the fifteen hundreds — sight, sound, smell, touch, and whatever the fifth sense was. Oh, right, taste. That reminded her of the rat pie vendor, which, in turn, reminded of her of the man’s name. Marshal Henderson Trask.
“Glad to see you keeping the peace, sir,” she told him, tapped her forehead as if doffing her hat, and nodded. “I’ve been chatting with your man Joe. You run a tight ship and are well respected by your men, I hear.”
She hadn’t technically heard Joe say that, but she was sure he would have, if she had asked, particularly if she’d told him she would be repeating his comments to his boss.
“As long as you know not to cause any trouble,” he said. “Krim is a small place, and we all know each other here. I’m keeping my eye on you.”
“Speaking of knowing each other…”
But he was already walking away, and she hurried to catch up to him. For a big man, he could move.
“If I could have a moment of your time…”
Without pausing, he glanced back at her, and said, “Bring five written references from merchants and come see me at my office.”
“Actually, I just wanted to know if there was a film crew…”
“I don’t discuss our members’ business with the public,” he said. “Talk to our public relations officer.”
She had doubts about how useful a publicity flak was going to be. On the other hand, a film might be considered good marketing by the local merchants. Especially if they didn’t realize how few people actually watched Roland’s films.
“I’ll be sure to stop by,” she told Trask. “And I’ll bring the references. Sir.”
Trask nodded back at her and walked into a shop. Snackamuffins Art Us. The scent of baked goods wafted into the street through the shop’s open door. Sugar, cinnamon, vanilla… meringue? Matilda’s mouth watered and she suddenly realized she was hungry. Without a health meter to keep an eye out for, she now had to rely on the grumbling in her stomach to tell her when it was time to eat. The feeling of emptiness in her belly took her back to her childhood, to that nice moment right before dinner when her parents brought food out and put it on the table.
She glanced into the shop and the door swung shut behind Trask. She had no money for marzipan and, anyway, if she was going to eat on Krim, she’d want something substantial and meaty. Though by now, she could even eat a rat pie.
She turned north, onto a slightly less fashionable stretch of Lothbury Street, then made another left on Stunkansian Way. Joe said that the Mercenary Guild was somewhere along here… and there it was. A grim, imposing stone building behind iron gates. There was the sound of metal hitting wood coming from the courtyard, a little too irregular to be someone chopping wood. Sword practice, most likely. Matilda grinned and walked in.
The bored guard sharpening his knife at the entrance barely gave her a look. He would probably have raised the arm if she’d been accompanied by an angry horde. Or if she developed the kind of reputation she had on World of Battle. Maybe she should reconsider her plans to go after Roland? That’s what her therapist would tell her.
The guild’s entrance hall featured a gift shop, a wall full of wanted posters, another wall with help wanted flyers, and a half-open door labeled “administration.” This was all potentially useful but she walked past to the back hallway, following her nose to the smell of stew, and her ears to the sounds of happy laughter and the clinking of ale mugs.
There were about a dozen people sitting around three wooden trestle tables, who all put down their spoons and reached for their swords when she walked in.
She raised her hand. “Joe sent me,” she said.
“Ah, a new recruit!” One of the mercenaries stood up. “I’m Esau Gaynesford, guild president. Join us for dinner?” Esau gestured at a spot across from her and the mercenary sitting there picked up his plate and mug and moved on the bench. Matilda nodded her thanks at him and took his spot.
Esau flicked her eyes at someone else, who immediate jumped up.
“I hope you’re not a vegan or a teetotaler,” Esau said. “All we’ve got is mutton stew and ale.”
“My kind of food,” said Matilda.
“Then dinner is on us,” said Esau. “And you can eat like this every night if you’re a guild member.”
Matilda leaned back as a mercenary put a wooden bowl and a mug of ale down in front of her and she pulled a metal spoon out of her vest.
That reminded her.
“Anybody know a thief so good he can reach into your vest and take a purse without you hearing or feeling him?” she asked the mercenaries.
“Shanwei O’Griffy Lamusa,” Esau immediately said and the men and women around her nodded. “He can take the hair off your head and you wouldn’t notice.”
“The trick is to keep your valuables in your boots,” said one mercenary.
“Wear an assassin’s cloak,” suggested another. “Everyone knows assassins have poisons and all sorts of other nasty things in their pockets. Thieves won’t go near them.”
“Buy a money belt,” said Esau. “That’s what the merchants do.”
“It’s a little inconvenient though,” said a mercenary. “You pretty much have to get undressed each time you want to pay for something. Boots are better. You’d notice if someone was crouching down near your feet trying to get into them.”
“Well, you guys are certainly the most helpful and welcoming mercenary guild I’ve walked into,” Matilda said. Then she realized that it was because they couldn’t look up her reputation score just by looking at her. They’d learn soon enough, as they got to know her.
“We have a job board, classes, we even have a health plan,” said Esau.
“Yup, there’s an on-site amputator,” said Esau.
One of mercenaries raised the stump of an arm. “He does haircuts and shaves, too.”
“And what are the dues?” asked Matilda.
“Very reasonable,” Esau said. “This is a new grid, and a new guild, so we have an introductory offer. Plus, you can pay over time — we can automatically deduct the dues in small, very reasonable payments, from your first few work placements.”
“It’s actually the best deal on Krim right now,” said the guy missing his left hand.
“Well, there’s also the Armforge Guild,” said the man next to him.
Esau glared at him.
“Well, it’s true,” he shrugged. “Their dues are half of ours. And all you have to do is pledge fealty to their leader, pass their initiation, get the tattoos — oh, and there’s a real-world background check.”
“I think I’ll go with you guys.” Matilda took a bite of the stew. “No, I’m definitely going with you guys.”