Chapter 78: Kingdom 20
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A crowd had gathered around the inn’s yard, Benzhi ran over to see what the commotion was. Gisael and Reyas were sparring. A simple training exercise, the tall, leggy Reyas with her raven hair tied into a ponytail and her skin-tight, runed leather armour, was practising adapted forms with her double-bladed staff with Gisael in her bamboo silk which barely covered her breast and groin area who wielded twin ebony blades.
Benzhi noticed the crowd were either men drooling at the combatants or women looking on in variations of awe to jealousy. No incident had attracted the crowd other than three beautiful women engaged in combat practice. Anastasia was leaning against the fence, waiting her turn.
He sent a warning through the link, with this many onlookers best to keep their abilities in check, practice qi sight or qi body techniques which were less obvious. There was agreement, no need to inform any potential enemies of their abilities.
The inn Melvina had chosen was ideal for the task ahead. They were able to rent a private room, Melvina drafted letters to prospective agents to come for an interview and sent Stolley, the Balfour page, with the letters to deliver.
“You have to tell them the region you represent,” Melvina told Benzhi, “it’s your strongest asset the fact that your territory is so large, varied and prosperous.”
“Ah, well, there is more to it,” Benzhi explained vaguely. “How about we do this; Skorrick is the representative of the Stoneskin Clan, and the Vanguard is his bodyguard. Just as blackcloaks can be hired by nobles, the dwarves hired the Vanguard. This way I can be present, and we are not leaking information to the wider world that Benzhi is the leader, or some ludicrous title, of the Alpine Forest.”
Melvina nodded, “very well, I am not sure the reason for this. What about Carney’s presence?”
Benzhi looked at Carney, “she represents the traders who will be shipping the dwarf goods.”
“Then the merchant guilds will be trading with Carney, not Skorrick,” Melvina explained.
“Very well,” Benzhi said, “Skorrick and I are hired by Carney, that works well. The Vanguard is for protection while Skorrick is her dwarven liaison and logistics. She has an exclusive arrangement with the Dwarves.”
“That’s better,” Melvina said, “I will work up the letters with Carney as the principal.”
“Ah,” Carney said, “this is a little over my head.”
Benzhi waved his hand, “don’t worry you will be fine, Melvina and Skorrick will assist. And I will form a qi link with you so I can send you messages in secret.”
Carney beamed, “thanks. I won’t let you down.”
Jax sat at the table with the four adults Benzhi, Skorrick, Carney and Melvina. He had listened to everything intently, while Benzhi had kept the boy by his side since his beating by the overbearing merchant.
Benzhi turned to him, they would have to wait quite some time for any agents to turn up at the inn. “Where do you live?” he asked the boy.
“Since me ma died I live in the servants quarters of the Merchants Guild Master,” Jax replied.
Benzhi rubbed his chin, “do you have any possessions there you need to retrieve? I should ask; do you want to go back there after things settle down?”
“No Master, I do not. That was not the first beating, and if there is a job with you, I would be happy,” the boy replied.
“Don’t call me Master, Benzhi is fine,” he was unused to all these titles and labels. All they seemed to achieve was make some feel more important than others. “We will have a job for you, could you do as Stolley does, act as a page?”
“Yessir, I can do that, I know the city and merchants well,” Jax said.
Benzhi viewed him under qi sight, as he did with everyone, to get a measure of his qi core and possible talent. As with most men, Jax was not talented beyond mundane by much at all.
He thought about testing a theory on Jax, feeding him some concentrated kernel and see if that developed his core. But, he wanted to talk to Kebo first. It might be difficult to host Kebo in the city, even if the little fellow showed up. Benzhi had sent a message a week ago and still no sign of the diminutive gatekeeper.
“Do you know the agents?” Benzhi asked Jax.
Jax nodded, “I see everyone who comes through the guild, and I hear a little,” he said.
“What sort of things do you hear?” Melvina asked intrigued.
“Most of their deals are done in rooms and on the second-floor balcony. From my post, I can hear what happens on the balcony above, unless the street is noisy,” Jax answered.
“Do you understand much of what is said?” Melvina asked.
Jax shook his head, “I understand when they are unhappy with the deal or speak good and ill of a person. But I do not understand their deals, most merchants talk in circles. Or they promise everything only to find months later they are taking back or denying their promises.”
Benzhi laughed, “that sounds about right.”
The list of agents was extensive, Benzhi had no idea there would be so many in a city this size. There would be at least a hundred thousand people living here, but why would they need twenty or more agents. There could not be so many groups like his to represent.
Melvina explained, “the agents represent nobles and other guilds, there are many clients for only twenty agents. There are farmers to represent, crafting guilds, nobles own many different businesses’, and even merchants of one guild may use an agent when interacting with another. Even the blackcloaks use agents.”
After a few hours the prospective agents streamed through, Carney had a set of questions to ask and references. The agents also questioned their holdings and prospective business in turn.
With the assistance of Skorrick, Melvina and the link with Benzhi, Carney was able to handle the meetings with aplomb. Her natural confidence and her beauty shone through. Although she was nervous to start, she became more adept with each and every meeting.
“There are no standouts so far,” Carney summarised after the tenth and last meeting of the day. Others had sent notes back with Stolley expressing interest, but they were otherwise engaged. Stolley returned with invitations for the following day.
That evening the party had dinner at the same table, Melvina had left for the Balfour estate, but they had added Jax who joined them to make nine. Which was fortunate, because, despite all of Benzhi’s qi abilities and Gisael’s superb senses, it took Jax to notice they were being watched by one of the city’s more notorious guilds.
Jax was twelve years old, and until very recently bellboy at the Merchants Guild and he could spy a footpad keeping tabs on them at the inn.
“Don’t look,” Jax said, “but that man leaning on the pillar with the brown cloak, he is a footpad, I am certain.”
Benzhi noted the man with qi sight, studying his core and circulation, it was common amongst men, but it would enable Benzhi to spy him across a roof or through a wall if needed.
“We have no fear of them Jax,” Benzhi responded, ‘they can watch us all they want.” Benzhi communicated with the Vanguard through the link to stay sober and wary, contrary to his words to Jax.
The second day’s meetings were done. They had seen everyone on the list. What was promising was everyone agent showed up and pled their case. Skorrick liked the young man who had recently taken over from his father, the Tangsten family agents. Both the son and his mother worked together and came across as reliable, honest and hardworking.
Carney liked an older woman had gone from being a shopkeeper to an agent. She was crafty and intelligent. Skorrick did not like her because she had no family, she was alone. Also, Jax had heard she had gotten to where she was by stepping or screwing people over.
“Is there no one else?” Carney asked, “should we get the two front-runners back for second interviews?”
“That is the entire list,” Melvina said.
“I think we missed one,” Jax said.
“Who?” Melvina asked.
“He was a nice old man, Master Ventiry, was his name. I have not seen him in a month though,” Jax said.
“Do you know this person?” Carney asked Melvina and Stolley.
Melvina shook her head.
Stolley, who was silent unless spoken to volunteered, “I have delivered a message to this Master before.”
“Why was he not on the list then?” Carney asked.
Melvina got to writing, she knew the missive off by heart and had it finished quickly.
Stolley left with the message in hand, “I guess we wait,” Carney said. She looked at Benzhi, “you are quiet.”
“I don’t need to say anything when you are doing a superb job,” he replied.
Carney went red under his praise. Melvina shook her head at the younger woman, she had such a crush on Benzhi it was agonising to watch.
Within an hour Stolley returned with a reply.
Melvina read it out loud for everyone, “To the Alpine Forest Folk. My father has not been well for the past few months, he had passed all his clients on to Zanders and Crane as caretakers while we hoped for a quick recovery. However, it does not look like he will get well anytime soon. So it is with my deepest regrets that we must pass on this opportunity of representing the Alpine Forest in matters of Trade and Diplomacy. Thank you for contacting us, it means so much that our name is well regarded, but I cannot in good faith serve such an eminent client with the limited experience I have. Yours faithfully, Sable; daughter of Ventiry.”
“This is an opportunity,” Benzhi said.
Carney looked at him and then at Jax, “he was well regarded?”
Jax frowned, “most Merchants were afraid of him. They did not like him because he got the better of them and none of their tricks worked.”
Carney nodded, “sounds perfect. What is the plan Benzhi?”
“If I can heal him, we will have won an ally for life,’ he replied.
Skorrick agreed, “I be liking the honesty of the daughter. But I do not think we should all go we are too many for someone sick like this. I think just you two go.”
Benzhi smiled, “with Stolley to lead the way and our page Jax in attendance. We may send for you later Skorrick, if successful we may need to talk numbers.”
The four made their way to Ventiry’s home. Stolley leading Carney with Benzhi and Jax at the rear. Benzhi was watchful of a tail from a footpad, it did not take him long to spy one following them.
He merely kept an eye on the footpad, he may have to corner one in the near future, for a nice chat, but right now he was more concerned with the task ahead.
Stolley knocked at the door, a lady in her mid-thirties answered. She had brown hair tied up in a bun, glasses and ink stains on her fingers. Her blouse was beige and tight around her chest and stomach. It was tucked into a patterned brown skirt which flowed down to her ankles.
“Milady,” Stolley announced she looked interested in the party behind him, “Milady Carney has brought a healer and her page to visit you and your father.” He motioned towards Carney when announcing her.
Sable peered at Carney through her glasses momentarily and then looked at Benzhi. Her eyes widened slightly at the six foot one athletic frame with slightly pointy ears and tight black leathers leaving nothing to the imagination.
She caught herself, cleared her throat and said, “come in, come in.”
Jax paused at the door, and Benzhi waved him in as well. Stolley went back to the inn as planned.
Sable brought the trio through to a meeting room which had couches, a low table, and numerous shelves stacked with scrolls and books.
“Qahwa?” she asked, offering her guests a local drink similar to coffee.
Benzhi nodded and smiled, this drink was heaven sent, and after only a couple he loved it.
Carney replied, “two please, one for myself and one for Benzhi.”
After a few minutes of pleasantries and sipping qahwa Sable broached the subject of their visit.
“Milady Carney, it is very kind of you to bring a healer,” she eyed Benzhi hardly believing he was a healer, “but my father has been seen by the best in the city and the general consensus is his advanced age is not something that can be overcome with cures.”
Carney waited for a moment before replying, “Milady Sable, I am not one to make claims on the skill of the healers of Sandstone or my…” she paused, “friend Benzhi, but is there any harm in allowing him to try. I assure you it will be worth your while.”
Sable looked sad, she was torn between hope and the despair that could follow.
“My father is very sick, I would rather he wasn’t disturbed or worse, his hopes raised only to be dashed,” she replied.
Benzhi stood, his presence had an impact on Sable that he was not aware of, she shivered at his confident aura. “I will take a look at him now. I will not disturb him, I will not even touch him,” he announced with authority overriding their whole conversation.
Sable stood and led Benzhi to see her father, she opened the door quietly to the main bedroom of the house, she held it open for Benzhi while he proceeded into the room. Her father was sleeping in his bed, the room was filled with steam and Sable closed the door behind Benzhi. She went over and pumped a blower sitting above a cauldron, adding more steam to the room.
Benzhi held up his hand for her to stop. If he were successful the steam would no longer be needed, and he could smell the herbs, they were probably designed to cause drowsiness.
He inspected Ventiry with qi sight and could immediately see the problem with his lungs and the cancerous cells. Cancer formed black spots and was easy to identify under his qi sight, he had seen it a few times now.
Benzhi had the qi kernels and his shield, he would be able to destroy the damaged cells or repair them given time.
He nodded to Sabre, “leave me for a few hours. This is something that can be healed.”
She looked askance at him, hope rising in her chest. Sabre went back to the sitting room with Carney and Jax and waited for the few hours that Benzhi needed.
Benzhi started late in the afternoon and went into the night repairing Ventiry’s lungs and throat. It took a substantial amount of qi, so he bit into a kernel, taking the concentrated qi directly into his system.
Ventiry woke when he was almost done and rasped, “who are you?” Benzhi was sitting beside the bed in a chair he had grabbed from across the room.
“I am Benzhi, leader of the Alpine Forest and your healer,” he said simply.
Ventiry produced a raspy laugh, “I have heard of you. To think you would be here at my bedside.” He sat up, feeling his chest, taking a deep breath and exhaling.
“Sheepshaggers! You have healed me!” Ventiry rejoiced.
Benzhi had not finished, he held up his hand for quiet and for Ventiry to stay put.
“Ok boy,” he said, Ventiry did look over seventy, especially in his emancipated state, “finish your work.”
After another ten minutes, Benzhi was done. He stood and smiled at Ventiry.
“Master Benzhi,” Ventiry said much more politely this time, after coming to his senses, “how can I ever repay you.”
“That will be easy,” Benzhi replied, “we will be your only client for the next year.”
Ventiry laughed, “done!”