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Chapter 32 - In the Depths of Desperation, Part I

He entered the Smug Mug to find the sisters sitting or standing in a circle about one of the tables. Upon it lay two mounds of the caravaners' gifts to them -- in the one pile, coins, segmentums, and the few singletons; in the other, brooches, some cheap jewelry, and assorted odds and ends. Art took a glance at the first pile and ballparked some four or five singletons or equivalent in silver. The other pile wouldn't be as easy to evaluate but would probably cost somewhere in the range of six to twelve singles to buy. Pawning them off, however? Three, maybe five singles? He doubted they could get seven, unless he'd overlooked something silver or golden in there. All in all, that would bring the sisters' assets up to twenty four singletons. Almost twice as much as what Amplisa had told him the day before.

"It's quite the windfall, what they gave us… but how much are we going to be able to buy with this?" asked Oriana.

"Fiona, did you check up on the wagons as I'd requested" asked Liene, turning to a sister with flaming red hair.

"I did, elder sister Liene. The only wainwright in town is Argyle and Sons, and their prices range from four to eight segments."

"Good work, Fiona. Suzanne, what's your report on the horse prices?" asked Liene, turning to another one of the sisters.

Susanne replied, "A pair of good draft horses costs ten, eleven singletons."

Liene seemed to flinch at the cost. "That much? Were there any cheaper ones?"

That wasn't good, thought Art. They'd need at least a pair of draft horses to carry just a wagonload of supplies, and they almost certainly needed more than one wagonload unless they wanted to be back here inside of a week.

"Well yes, but those cheaper ones were smaller and looked like they could hardly pull any weight…" -- "How much were they?" -- "Four singles each? The cheapest one I saw was three sing eight, and that was a sickly little thing." -- "We'll have to take that one, and the next cheapest… With the kind of money we have, we can scarcely afford any better," said Liene.

Art wanted to slap himself. He'd forgotten in his earlier calculation, that the sisters would need to buy wagons and horses to draft them. A pair would be all they could afford to still have enough left over to buy things. He mentally went over the math: If they bought just flour, a person needed at least two and a half pounds of it a day. A wagon could hold two thousand pounds, or roughly eight hundred days' worth of flour, or four days' worth for two hundred sisters, if his earlier estimate of their numbers was anywhere close.

That amount of flour, factoring in a premium for buying them from a town, which was the only place they could get that much flour, would cost four singles. Add in another eight sing four for the wagon and the two horses to go along with it, and a single wagonload would cost them twelve sing four. With their twenty four singletons they'd be able to load up two wagons, eight days' worth of flour for the sisterhood, and that was it. Just their round trip to Tristram and back would take almost as long in total. Two thirds of that money would be invested into the horses, so they could return in a week's time and sell a pair of horses and load up another two wagonloads, so it wasn't quite a matter of them facing starvation inside of a fortnight, but this was not looking all that great.

When he brought himself out of his thoughts, the sisters had just about arrived at the same conclusion as a group. The thought of it didn't look heartening to them in the least. Every single one of them was staring at the table. "Well, let's get on with it," said Amplisa. "Suzanne… I want you and your team to take these and see if you can't pawn it off for at least six singles. Paige, your responsibility will be to try and convince at least some of the people you recruited yesterday to stay with us even if we can't afford to pay their keep." -- "Perfect, then my group will go buy the horses and wagons," said Liene.

Within moments all the sisters and stood up. Suzanne and dumped the assorted trinkets and potential valuables into a ruck sack, with several sisters whom Art had yet to know, following out after her. When Paige and her team headed out the door, Art followed, with Roland, Natalie, and Jezebel following shortly afterward.

"Coming with us?" asked Paige as she and the others saw Art's group catching up to them. -- Nod. "I can't speak for the others, but if anything, I'd like to help," said Art. -- "Same here," said Roland. -- "Well, feel free to tag along." They began walking as a group down the street. -- "Where are we headed?" asked Natalie. -- Art replied. "Ah, let me guess, the open square where you'd been recruiting for mercs yesterday?" -- Paige grinned. "Got it in one. Not bad!"

[Wherein the recruits show up and report for duty and ask the sisters for money, and soon find out they don't have enough to pay for them, and the mercs are fed up and start to leave.]

Within a few moments they'd arrived at the square. The mess of a wooden platform in the center of open space had yet to be repaired, and it reminded Art of the battle that he'd seen fought there. He looked around and saw that a good two dozen of Paige's recruits had already gathered there in wait. He recognized Iron Bars, from the fight the giant of a man had had with Jezebel, though not any of the other faces.

One of the men standing alongside Iron Bars, who possessed spiky black hair and wore gleaming brass knuckles, saw them first and approached. "Sisters! Was wondering when you'd get here. You sure like to keep us waiting." That caught the others' attention and they all stood at attention.

"You have our thanks, Kyle," said Paige. "We'll be headed on out today."

"Ah, good, was wondering if you were going to make us wait a day again as you did last evening. Well then, since our employment starts now, you have the money ready?"

"Ah, yes, about that…" -- "What, 'there's been a bit of a snag'?" said Kyle. "I've heard that one a million times." -- "Well, not so much as a snag, as--" -- "Come on, out with it, I haven't got all day." -- "You'll have your money, but it will have to wait until after the mission is over."

"That wasn't part of our arrangement," said Iron Bars in a deep voice. -- Kyle added, "Yea, what are you, new to this? Money up front, money each day, and money at the end, that's how it's always been done."

Paige put out a hand to interrupt him. "That's never been how the sisterhood operates. We're the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye. We don't very much trust outsiders until you've proven yourselves dependable."

"Are you hearing this?" Kyle said, turning to the other mercenaries standing beside him and sounding like he'd run out of patience. He then turned back to face Paige. "Listen, Paige. I'm not interested in your excuses. We don't have to serve with you, we have other opportunities available to us. So unless you want us gone, pay up and pay up front."

"Don't think I don't know what prospects you have," retorted Paige. "I was asking around too, yesterday. Seems you lot haven't had any decent work for a few weeks now. Oh, maybe some simple guard work, but nothing significant. And even if the likes of that comes around, is that really what you want? Looking after someone, peaceful day in and boring day out, without a hint of adventure? Or do you want glory, loot, riches? That's what I'm offering you."

"Yes, glory and riches and danger."

"If you're afraid of danger, Kyle, you're in the wrong profession." -- "You!--" -- Another mercenary gave him a soft nudge. "Let's hear what them out," he advised. -- "David--" -- "Maybe they'll have something worth the delayed payment," David suggested with a tilt of his head, before looking at Paige. "Right?"

"Exactly," said Paige. "Our ancestral monastery is located at the pass east to Aranoch, right along the silk road. Help us take it back, and the wealth we've accumulated will be yours for the taking. Not to mention how many countless caravaners looking to pass through the place will thank you for opening the pass. For the good you'll do, you'll go down in history."

"Yeah? And just why should we trust you?" asked Kyle. "For all we know, you could use us and then the moment we've fought your battle for you, you might throw us out to the wolves. Or we might die without ever seeing any of what you're promising us. I say no go unless you show us the silver first."

"Isn't it obvious?" said Iron Bars. "They don't have the money. Isn't that right, Paige?" And with that, all their eyes bored down at her. -- "We… Alright, I'll admit it. We don't have the money right now. But! Once the monastery is ours again, you'll have your money, no doubt about it."

"But lady, that's exactly what I'm not so sure about," said Kyle. "Yesterday you promised us standard payment for mercenary work. Today you promise us money when all is said and done. Who's to know whether tomorrow you might forsake us entirely?" -- "Oh, that's exactly what they'll do, alright," said Iron Bars. He spat on the ground. "Working for a woman? That's just asking for trouble. You'll never know if they'll stab you in the back the moment you've turned away."

"We would never do that! On our honor as the Sisters of--" -- "I don't care about your damn order, I just want to see the money," said Kyle. He turned to those standing behind and to his side. "Isn't that right?" -- "Right!" -- "Aye! Silver up front!" -- David added, "Yeah, I don't think I can accept waiting till the war's over for the gold, Paige. If you're not willing to part with the silver, then I think we're done here." He turned to leave. -- "No wait!" -- "What else is there to say?" retorted David, not bothering to turn back to face her.

"You girls should just give up on your war games while you're still breathing, and thank your stars you're still alive," said Iron Bars.

Jezebel came to the sisters' defense, saying, "You're only saying that because you don't know what they've been through, Iron Bars. I've spent the past day with them, and thus I see them as strong-willed and resolute in the face of great adversity. To fight on after losing their homes, their fellow sisters, after seeing potential allies turning their backs on them one after another, as you lot are doing now… Great men have balked at lesser challenges."

"Great men?" Iron Bars retorted. "Truly great men would have crushed their enemies at the outset, not flee their homes with their tail tucked between their legs and begging about for other men to solve their problems for them. You women all think you're somebody. Let me clear that misconception up for you. If the rogues hadn't insisted on remaining chaste and keeping all their potential suitors at arms' length, if they hadn't been so keen to remain an independent all-female order, would they not have others fighting by their side, men who could actually fight and defend the sisterhood from their foes? Would they be in the situation they find themselves now? Would they have none upon whom they could depend on?" He shook his head. "There's a reason why every woman needs a husband, not just to protect them but also to give them sound advice where women would be led astray. But the sisters never did anything but reject that wisdom, did they? And so the situation they find themselves in today is nothing but their own making, so if they have to suffer for it, well then, so be it, there's not a more fitting justice. 'Great men', pah!"

"How dare you denigrate the sisterhood like that?" Natalie shouted back in outrage. "You're so used to the idea of seeing men rule it over women, that you can't possibly imagine an alternative where the women can take proper care of themselves. Or maybe you can imagine it, and the very thought of it strikes you with such discomfort that you absolutely can't bear to put up with it, and must do your level best to put them down?"

"Must I quote scripture to you? Hadn't the Anointed One said that there is a place meet for all women, and that is beneath her father before marriage, and beneath her husband after?"

Paige protested, "That was over a thousand years ago! The younger scriptures say nothing to that extent!"

"Ah, picking and choosing what passages you live by? Why, that's not so different from what I'm doing at all!"

Natalie joined in: "How can you be so blind on this matter? Isn't the very existence of the Sightless Eye proof enough? The order has, for centuries, thrived as a political entity, despite all their neighbors looking to topple them!"

"Oh? And after all these centuries, what have the sisters accomplished? This vaunted monastery full of women, what has happened to it now? Are they now not broken before the night of the invaders?"

"Through no fault of their own! They came under attack from an enemy greater than them, who attacked in the middle of the night! Or are you seriously claiming that no realm ruled by a king has ever fallen?"

"Besides," added Jezebel, "What makes you think you have any right to judge the sisterhood? Do you think you're more qualified to lead them than their abbess? When's the last time you've adjudicated on disputes? Never, 'cause you're a mercenary just like me. When's the last time you've decided on political policy? Or established diplomatic ties with other powers? When's the last time you led a small army of renowned adepts of the bow?"

"Into defeat? Never. Because I at least hadn't gotten my men and I killed in battle. Which, as you'll notice, can't be said of that abbess you seem to worship, Jezebel!"

"After what, only two years of mercenary work? That's nothing compared to the history the sisters have under their girdle!"

Art chimed in, "I've personally seen how brilliant Kashya has been. Back in Thistledown she managed to acquire ammunition, raise morale, provide much needed entertainment, enlist new sisters, and show potential would-be rabble-rousers why that would be a bad idea, all in one stroke. And that was just the first day I saw her, and she is just one among the sisters' leadership. As for you? Last I saw, despite your bluster about how men are smarter and stronger, it took you some hundred exchanges to fight your opponent to a standstill, I had to step in to save your hide, and you still lost to Jezebel here. Which, might I add, is a woman. So much for your claim, eh?"

"That was an underhanded trick she played!--"

"A loss is a loss, admit it!" demanded Jezebel.

Instead of doing so, Iron Bars spat on the ground between them. "This is gone on long enough. I've no interest in anything you have to say, girl." Iron Bars shot her a look of loathing, turned away from her, and took off. And before a stunned and speechless group of the sisters, the rest of the cohort started disbanding.

"Really, guys?" asked Roland at their backs. "I understand you all may not see eye to eye, but we're talking about more than just the sisterhood here -- all the outlying villages to the east risk being run over by the redskins! That's countless innocent civilians, who'd never done anything wrong by you. And you're going to leave just like that? Is money all you care for? Have you no honor?"

"Save the honor for the people who got themselves killed for nothing," said Kyle with a brief look back. "Or shove it up your ass, for all I care."

"Don't bother," said Art, putting an arm on Roland's shoulder to placate him. Roland stared at the ground in frustration. "Yet another potential group of allies gone, just like that."

Art turned to see Paige sag in despair, the looks of defeat in the other sisters' eyes. Looking at them, he felt a pang of sympathy for their plight. For that hope to be so suddenly torn away from them, again and again, first with the count, then with the bishop's unwillingness to provide them with any money nor immediate templar assistance, and now with the mercenaries which Paige and her group had so tediously tried to collect… No one should have to go through anything like that. Two dozen mercenaries could go a long way toward helping the sisters win their war, and losing them in one fell swoop would be a disastrous blow to their chances. And yet… what could he do?

Natalie shouted out after them, "Really now, you're going to just pack yourselves up and leave? Seems the sisters were wrong to think you could have possibly helped them win their war. You lot can't even overcome your own cowardice! And you consider yourself a man? Why, you're just as effeminate as the women you look down upon!"

Iron Bars turned back to her in outrage. "What did you say, bitch?"

Natalie took a few steps forward. "I called you craven, unmanly. What, are you going to challenge my claim? Judging from how quickly you flee with your tail between your feet, I doubt you'd have the balls for it."

He strode back in cold fury to stand looming in front of Natalie. "You. Will. Take--"

With a sweep of her arm Natalie brought forth her blade of unseen sharpened air against the unsuspecting man's throat and nicked his flesh, causing a thin trickle of blood to dribble down his neck. "What were you going to say? Take this blade and stick it into your neck? Well I can do that--"

"BACK!" Iron Bars shouted with a voice as loud as thunder. A shockwave of air swept out before him, right into Natalie before passing on to buffet Art, Roland, Jezebel, and the sisters. In its aftermath Natalie had fallen to the ground, cringing with eyes shut and hands plugged over her ears. Art couldn't hear anything else but the intense ringing in his ears, and found himself also on the ground. By his side, the rest of his group hadn't fared any better, having been completely taken by surprise. Paige had thrown up her hands in surrender. The passersby all about them had ducked or crouched, some dropping their belongings, and now stared at Iron Bars and at them.

With a smug look of victory, Iron Bars walked away from them. Roland got up and started to help first Art, then the others to their feet. Natalie recuperated, with a twisted look of sheer anger on her face, shouting something which Art could only barely make out: "The gall of that man! If I don't put him in his place…"

That sonic boom brought to mind the man's battle with Jezebel. A symphony of thunder and lightning. From what he'd seen, the man had more than enough combat prowess and was skilled in several mental ways, and had the sound tactical mind and intelligence to take full advantage of his abilities. The way he'd come up with counters to anything Jezebel tried, in the heat of battle… He'd rarely seen anyone who could do such a thing. Watching the man leave just like that, it struck Art that losing the potential help of such a capable man would be quite the loss, never mind how he'd been fought to a standstill against Jezebel. After all, Art couldn't get the better of her in that fight either.

But how could he get the man to stay by their side, to fight alongside the sisters as Roland had promised? The man seemed to completely lack the honor that Roland had. Unlike Natalie, the man clearly had no interest in helping them out of his own good nature. In fact, everything he'd just seen about the man spoke volumes of his misogyny. And unlike how he had an indenture contract binding Jezebel to him, he had no such binding with Iron Bars…

The thought of the indenture contract gave him an idea. He turned to Jezebel, shouting, "Now look what you've done, Jezebel, you've made the man angry!"

Jezebel rounded on him with a look of utter surprise. "What? That wasn't me that attacked him, that was all Natalie!"

Art replied as if he hadn't heard her words, still shouting. "I think you owe Iron Bars an apology!" -- To which, he saw, Iron Bars came to a stop and turned to glance his way. He'd managed to get the man's attention; so far, so good.

She sputtered, "Wha-- you want me to give him an apology for him having said the damnedest things out of his mouth? Me? When I wasn't even at fault? Really?"

"Don't give me that, Jezebel, you know damn well that it was your fault."

"What the hell are you playing at?" asked Roland under his breath.

"Art, you had better explain yourself," said Natalie, giving him a cold glare. "Because if not…"

"She talked back to a man and mocked him, and that alone is deserving of strict punishment, isn't that right, Iron Bars?" He turned to see a grin creep up Iron Bars's face. "And what would you say is the right way to go about doing just that? Preferably something that will leave quite the memory, so she doesn't dare try it again. Hmm… A whipping? A beating? No, that doesn't seem quite what I'm looking for… Any suggestions?" he said, looking pointedly at the man. Iron Bars chuckled and started walking back toward the group. Like the man was a caught fish and Art was just reeling him in, he thought.

"Jezebel, I thought you said that Art was a champion for the sisterhood?" said Natalie. -- "I thought so too.." -- "Then what the hell happened? I mean, what the fuck!" -- And the sisters were staring at this development wide-eyed as well.

Iron Bars came to a stop before Art. "Just a beating would be letting them off too easy, and they'd just keep right on challenging you." -- "My thoughts exactly," said Art. -- "Art, why are you!--" -- Said Iron Bars, "What these shrews need to keep them in line is to have them learn to obey. I'm thinking, put them under the power of a man, and make them obey that man's every command. Even if they don't like it. What do you think, Art?"

Art rubbed his chin in mock thought. "Ah, that's most wise. Teaches them who's the man in charge, while at the same time deriving satisfaction out of it. I like it. Do you think such a man who's given such a charge would find it to his liking?" -- "Why, I imagine such a man would," Iron Bars replied with a broad grin. -- "And what's the first thing a man might want from her?" -- "I can think of many things, eventually, but the first thing? Probably have her kneel before him and offer to do whatever he commands."

"Well, that settles it," said Art, turning to Jezebel. "Jezebel, go kneel before him and offer to obey him in whatever he says."

"What the hell," muttered Paige. -- Jezebel's jaw dropped wide open. "What? Why should I?"

"Why, because I told you to, why else?"

"And just who do you think you are, to be telling me what to do?"

"I'm your master," replied Art, and in the same moment he withdrew his abridged copy of Jezebel's indenture from the pocket within his tunic and held it out for everyone to see.

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