He immediately noticed that something was out of the ordinary. The street was busy, as usual, with city folk rushing around, but today their motions seemed nervous, even frantic. To his left, Simion noticed two angry women yelling at each other. He suddenly remembered Whitehands’ necklace, and glanced around nervously for a moment. He quickly dismissed the thought however as surely it could not have caused such a panicked reaction among so many people. He unexpectedly recalled the guard he had killed the night of his heist. That murder was certainly not the reason for the unrest. It struck Simion as tragic for a moment, as he realized that the absence of a prized jewel would easily provoke more of a reaction that the cold-blooded ending of a man’s life. Perhaps even more tragic was that Simion thought of the jewel he had stolen before the man he had murdered. When had he become so callous? Of course, he never killed if he could avoid it, but when he did have to kill, he did it efficiently without hesitation. It was just part of his line of work.
Simion was about to query a passer-by about the cause of the commotion, but he suddenly observed a written notice posted on a nearby well. He walked over to it and read it carefully.
His Majesty, Hendrik Stoneworth the First, sovereign ruler of Vidliank and all the Gaurvian people, has solemnly issued this call to arms.
In the interest of defence against an invading horde of Iceborn, all men of fighting age, being no less than fifteen years of age but not having surpassed forty years of age, are hereby ordered to report to their nearest city barracks for conscription into the royal militia.
Simion stood motionless, feeling numb. He read the note again, more carefully, digesting each word individually. He looked around at the nervous mass of people, sharing their anxiety. He turned, and started running. He headed to Cadius’ residence, hoping to find his friend still asleep. He rounded one corner after another, dodging pedestrians, horses and carts alike.
He arrived at Cadius’ lodging and pounded furiously on the door. Simion could faintly make out the sound of several voices talking softly. Suddenly, they stopped and after a moment, the door opened. A burly, balding man Simion recognized as Barl, one of Cadius’ toughs, looked him over before asking him what he wanted. Simion told the guard his name, but before he could continue, the door was swung open the rest of the way and Cadius merrily invited him in. His friend led him to a large common room where several men of considerable disrepute sat around an oval oaken table. The men looked up at Simion as he entered and offered him a chair.
Looking around the table, Simion saw a skeletal old Ornish man with a fine aquiline nose whom he identified as Wendyll, a jeweller skilled at reshaping cut gems, and finding good homes for stolen merchandise. Sitting next to Wendyll, in sharp contrast of the old man’s scrawny frame, was the ample form of Maron, a whoremonger. Across from him sat Gregor the Grim, blacksmith, fence and black marketer, whose unending success was never enough to bring any cheer to his demeanour. Finally, Simion noticed Urman the Unhinged, the Qumish assassin whose dull mind had proven to be no impediment to his cunning or his pride.
As distasteful as his present company was, these men were the closest thing Simion had to a family. Simion’s mother had been an underage whore, who would not even have recognized Simion’s father if she had laid eyes on him again after he paid her fee for her services. His mother couldn’t provide even the barest care for him during the few years he knew her before her death. Simion taught himself to pick pockets in order to eke out an existence, ever at odds with the local authorities. One day Simion tried to pick the pocket of a more skilled thief than himself, and earned a few loosened teeth instead of a purse. Luckily, the older thief decided Simion could prove to be of value to him, and took him under his scabrous wing. Simion would squeeze in through windows too small for a man, in order to open a door or window from the inside. As Simion improved at his trade, he would simply steal everything himself and let the older man fence the goods. That was when Simion first met Wendyll. Eventually, Simion’s adopted father was arrested and publicly executed by Gaurvian soldiers. Simion carried on, relying on Wendyll and Gregor to discreetly move any valuables the thief happened to acquire. It was through them that he met Cadius.
Cadius had been born into the family of a struggling merchant. From his father’s stoic honesty, which had always kept his profits small, Cadius learned not integrity, but the futility of virtue. The pair had become a formidable team and had risen to the shady heights of Brockton’s felonry.
“Have you heard the decree?” asked Simion.
“Oh yes, we were just discussing it in fact,” explained Cadius. “Please, sit and discuss with us.”
“What can we possibly do? I don’t like the idea of abandoning my people to the Iceborn, but I can’t say the prospect of soldiering is any more appealing.”
“That is as clear a statement of our dilemma as is possible, I think,” commented Cadius. “After lengthy discussions we have come to a similar statement of issue. Now, we must make some decisions.”
The sounds of a brief struggle were suddenly heard just outside Cadius’ door. A moment later, the door was flung open and a dozen soldiers dressed in the silver and blue of Gaurvia burst into the room with weapons drawn.
“Well, what have we here? Looks like a bountiful harvest to bolster Brockton’s levies!” sneered the soldiers’ leader.
“Lieutenant Archibald, what an unexpected honour it is to have you visit me! Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, I am currently otherwise engaged, perhaps you could return at sunset?” offered Cadius as politely as a practiced courtier.
“It’s Captain Archibald now, scum,” returned the leader, brushing off Cadius. “Now all of you, on your feet. By order of His Majesty, Hendrik Stoneworth the First, you are all to come with me to report to your local barracks. Resistance is not recommended,” he added with a snarl.