A Personal Favor

Lily and Iris sat across from Serena in an excessively comfortable sofa. Between them was a low tea table, upon which an ornate ivory tea set rested, along with a silver tray that held various pastries. Serena had in her hands a cup of tea poured from the ivory set, from which she periodically took a sip.

Serena regarded them with sharp eyes, to which Lily responded by maintaining an expressionless face. After several moments of silence, Serena gave in.

“Would you like some tea? The set is made from dragon bone, very expensive. It’s supposed to enhance the aroma of the tea, though honestly I can’t really tell the difference.”

Lily’s mind began to analyse Serena. Her introduction was clearly meant to make them feel more at ease, but she emphasised her wealth and knowledge. The reason she drank the tea first was to assure them it was safe to drink. The bit about not knowing the difference was either meant to display sincerity or it was meant to accentuate that she had spent a large amount of money for no discernible reason, proving her affluence. She was trying to impress them, and make them comfortable with her. She wanted something.

“…Yes please, I’ll have some tea.”

No reason to turn down a good cup of tea, even if it was clearly a calculated offer.

“My pleasure.”

With a delicate motion, Serena took the teapot in hand and filled out three cups. As she did, Lily noted the scars that adorned her hand.

Lily and Iris graciously accepted the cups, taking a sip. It had a strong minty smell, with a comfortable lemony aftertaste that lingered in Lily’s mouth. Iris, having no tastebuds, simulated enjoyment and displayed an expression of content on her youthful face. Seeing this, Serena smiled and leaned back.

“So, that was quite some trouble back there, with those slavers, wasn’t it? Good thing I was there to negotiate.”

Serena glanced at them expectantly, causing Lily to smirk slightly as she snatched the obvious bait.

“Ah, yes. Thank you very much, miss Serena. However, I am curious. Why did you help us, whom you have just met?”

Serena caught the smirk, nursing one of her own as Lily continued the charade of verbal manipulation. The pretense of calculated negotiation was often as much of a formality between negotiators as basic politeness.

“Ah, well, that would be because of this.”

Leaning forward, Serena unbuttoned her blouse, exposing her right breast. Just below her nipple, there was a faded scar, in the shape of a magic circle flanked by a pair of wings. A slave brand. She reached up to her neck and unbuttoned her collar, displaying a ring of scarred tissue, indicating that a <<Slave Collar>> had once occupied that position.

“Now, I couldn’t just sit by and watch as more innocent girls were subjected to what was once my grim fate, now could I?”

Lily almost burst out laughing. Charity? The brand seemed genuine, and Lily would have felt inclined to believe her, if not for the fact that Serena had been too meticulous and calculating thus far for this to be an act spurred by compassion. The woman clearly wanted something from them.

“I hardly think you’d stake the reputation of your organisation by taking in a pair of frail girls purely out of compassion, Miss Serena.”

Lily smiled as sweetly as she could and pressured Serena for her motivations. Serena shook her head and made disapproving sounds as Lily flouted the unspoken rule of negotiations: to never directly state your point of inquiry.

“I noticed the marks of the Slave Collars on your necks. That made my decision.”

“Like I said, I dou-”

“Let me finish.”

Serena silenced Lily’s interjection with a glare, and sipped her tea.

“As I’m sure you’ve experienced, it takes an extraordinary strength of will to conquer the pain and break free of the Collar. I should know. I’ve done it once, myself.”

Lily smiled. Finally they were getting somewhere important. So she took the collar marks as sign of their strength. That did open several questions, though. One of which was likely appropriate to pose now.

“How did you know we broke the collars? What if I told you our last owner was a kind individual who bought then released us?”

Serena recrossed her legs.

“Naturally, the possibility did come to mind. Yet the probability of that happening was very small. I was a slave for five years, and I’ve been a member of the guild for ten. In all that time, I’ve never seen or even heard of a slave being released. Still, in the unlikely case that you hadn’t in fact broken the collars of your own will, it would have been a simple matter to dispose of and conceal the bodies of 2 nameless slave girls. Thankfully, the intrusion of our mutual friend confirmed that was not the case.”

Lily blinked at the casual mention of murdering Iris and herself, but otherwise did not react. The fact that Serena had intended to kill them if they were not suited for her goals was highly telling. Her request was likely something for which she could not allow witnesses. Lily decided it was an appropriate time to resume her line of inquiry.

“So, why exactly were you seeking out people who had illegally escaped from slavers by breaking their slave collars? It seems like a highly specific selection criteria. I do hope you don’t screen all your candidates the same way.”

Serena blinked at Lily’s unconcealed snark. Then she burst out laughing.

“No, surely not. Yours was a special case. As it happens, I need a personal favor. The motivations of it I cannot explain without going into my past, but suffice to say, the reason I escaped from slavery in the past, the years I worked to attain this position in the guild, along with all the information and affluence it grants, were all for the sake of accomplishing this one wish.”

She gestured grandly at the room around her as she spoke, drawing attention to the ornate furniture and grandiose design. Then she set her teacup on the table, hands trembling slightly. She clenched and unclenched her fists, body shaking.

“Yet… now that I’ve attained this position, I find it restricts me from fulfilling this wish.”

She abruptly stood up and started pacing the room, keeping her back to Lily.

“I happen to have a vendetta I should like to enact against a particular group of slavers, based in a fortress to the north. Unfortunately, they have official licenses for slavery, and as a public figure and head of the Oparil branch of the Guild, I cannot formally or personally wipe them out, without risking the ire of the nobility or the reputation of the Guild.”

She turned to Lily and flashed a brilliant smile, clearly carefully cultivated over the course of numerous negotiations.

“However. You two, as new, unknown members of the Guild, are perfect for this. You have the mental fortitude to withstand the pain of breaking the collar. You have reason to take revenge on the slavers. If you can withstand such inhuman pain, surely you must have some reserve of strength.”

“And should we fail?”

“Naturally, the guild would be terribly remorseful for the selfish, impulsive actions of two fledgling adventurers who decided to go rogue in the futile pursuit of foolish vengeance.”

Throughout her proclamation of her contingency, Serena’s smile never faltered. Lily resisted the urge to shudder. The dragon was purely and simply terrifying. This woman, was scary in a very different way.

“And what’s in it for us?”

“Aside from the fact that I’d have to kill you on the spot to keep my extralegal plans secret?”

She turned her back on Lily again and continued to speak, making a show of placing her hands on her rapier. Iris tensed up, but Lily squeezed her hand to calm her down. Better to not show hostility right now.

“I do believe that would be motivation enough, but if you were to complete the request, I’ll let you immediately upgrade your adventurer rank to Gold, and pay you 150,000 Pars in renumeration.”

Lily’s eyes strained to widen, but she kept them carefully under control, reaching out and taking Iris’ hand, who responded by gripping firmly. The Gold rank, she could care less about. But the money, though… 150,000 Pars was no small sum. When she decided to start earning money to head home, she had taken a gander at the exchange rates. 150,000 Pars was equivalent to about 200,000 Jins – the main currency of her home continent, <<Jin-Asalys>> – and back in Azoria, that had been enough to purchase a moderate-sized villa. Even taking into account inflation over the last three years, that amount should be more than enough to get her a ticket on a ship back to Jin-Asalys, with plenty to spare. Already decided in accepting the request, Lily nonetheless continued to assume a guise of suspicion.

“And what’s to stop us from agreeing just to leave here safely, then informing the officials and slavers after we’re a safe distance?”

Without taking her hands off her rapier, Serena turned back to face them, again with her business smile.

“Why, naturally, I’d deny your allegations as slander. I am, after all, a woman in a high position of power. It’s unlikely that anyone would believe that such a prestigious individual as I would have the stupidity to commit what amounts to a criminal act. As for you, it would soon be known throughout the world that a pair of new, unknown adventurers had taken advantage of the guild’s trust and fled the land with a sizable amount of the treasury funds in tow. Whoever these adventurers were, they would be marked as an enemy of the guild, to be apprehended on sight by all guild members. And I’m sure these are all outcomes we wish to avoid, yes?”

Though Lily thought it was impossible, Serena’s smile grew even wider. This time, despite Lily’s self-control, her body quivered slightly, which caused Serena’s eyes to twinkle. Iris stood up and casually stepped between Serena and Lily. Seeing this, Lily placed a hand on Iris’ head and gently pushed her back into the sofa, stroking her hair; an action which elicited contented sighs from the silver-haired girl.

“We’ll take the job.”

Serena pushed up her glasses and sat back down across the table, smile vanishing, replaced by a detached, professional air.

“A wise decision. Let’s talk details.”