Anneliese’s voice rang out from one of the Resound Jewels in the room, filling the space of the small room that was hidden away on the second floor of the Ezov.
“This is Siren, of the Frunzeit Branch, reporting in.”
I held the Resound Jewel up to my mouth and spoke into it.
“This is Lighthouse. Authenticate Avalon-32.”
“Siren authenticates 74820.”
“This is Lighthouse. Authentication confirmed. Please switch to Channel Seven.”
“Affirmative, Siren out.”
I switched over to another of the Resound Jewels and spoke into it.
“All branches have reported in. Commence reports, starting with Kroenlig. Prioritise Topic Indigo.”
A female voice promptly responded across the connection.
“Kroenlig reporting. No movement reported in the East branches. Discontent continues to grow, but nothing of substance has taken root. There was some talk of rebellion in Felkris, but the Duke promptly sent his army into the city as a show of force, and the dissenting voices were quickly quieted. I conclude my report.”
“Thank you. Moving on, Heltshire, your report please.”
This was the darker side of the Serene Ezov. It was certainly a perfectly legal organisation, serving food and drink to its customers around the country, while also serving as a gathering point for fans of Rosalind to meet and make merry. But in addition to the Ezov’s primary function as a monetary venture capitalising on Rosalind’s popularity, it also served as Elysium’s exclusive information network.
Excluding this branch in the capital, there were a total of 16 branches of the Ezov around the country. Each branch had a small, hidden room filled with Resound Jewels, which was where the heads of each branch made their reports. The 16 branches were divided into regions, with 4 branches per region, and a single branch in each region serving as the main branch of that region: Kroenlig was the main branch of the East, Heltshire was the main branch of the South. Jorgenvale was the main branch of the North, and Frunzeit, where I had met Elysium, was the main branch of the West.
Once a week, each branch of the Ezov would collate the information it had managed to gather about various topics into a list, which was then relayed to the main branches of each region. Once every fortnight, the main branches would swap information among themselves via the Resound Crystals. Meanwhile, once per month, all four main branches would deliver a regular report to either Elysium or myself, depending on who was available. This occasion here recorded was one such regular report.
The authentication and codenames we used were Elysium’s idea – she was afraid of our communication network being compromised by a third party, and put these measures into place to ensure that the words we exchanged would not leak out of these hidden rooms. It took nearly five sessions before I was able to get used to these measures, but that spoke volumes about their effectiveness.
Heltshire delivered its report, then Jorgenvale. Just like Kroenlig, both branches reported increasing unrest among the citizens across the land, but reported that no agitators or would-be revolutionaries had emerged. That the people were unhappy was inevitable – the current Emperor did nothing for his people, spending his days entertaining the nobles and advisors that fawned on him and sought his favour. With the sovereign thus distracted, many of the regional lords were beginning to take advantage of his inaction to impose corrupt practices and self-serving laws on their lands. The country had been in such a state for some time, but recently, the people had grown more verbal in their protests, and Elysium suspected that it was only a matter of time before something broke. It was that breaking point that we were trying to identify. Thankfully, it seemed that while people were complaining, there was yet to emerge any sort of organised movement to correct the situation – and as long as that remained the case, we had nothing to worry about.
Finally, it came to the Frunzeit branch’s turn to report.
“Frunzeit reporting. There’s been some suspicious movement, particularly towards the capital. Y’all be careful, Gli- Lighthouse.”
My eye twitched when she almost used my real name.
“What kind of suspicious movement?”
“People have been seen leaving the city under cover of night. There’s been an influx of orders for weapons, particularly smaller, concealable weapons. There have been some agitators speaking openly in the streets, proclaiming that the current Emperor is corrupt and must be deposed.”
“Were they arrested?”
“That’s the thing – they were arrested, but were set free some time later, without fanfare. No executions, no long-term imprisonment, no whippings or fines. Just arrested without incident, and free the next day. Something stinks.”
I lapsed into silence. As the Kroenlig report had said, the Empire was usually careful to eliminate voices of dissent that grew too public, usually sending in soldiers under the pretense of improving public order. The fact that someone was spreading unrest in Frunzeit – one of the Empire’s biggest cities – and suffered no consequences stank of intrigue. Something suspicious was clearly taking place.
I made a mental note to consult Elysium about this, then turned my attention back to the report.
“All branches, I appreciate the report. Continue to monitor the situation, and contact this branch if you find out anything of substance. For the time being, let’s move on to Topic Concord, starting from Kroenlig.”
“Acknowledged. Banditry is on the rise in this region – there have been five reported cases of attacks on caravans, up from only one last month. The local lord has dispatched patrols to guard the routes, but the attacks seem to always occur during the gaps in the patrol schedule. It’s as if the bandits know when the vulnerable times are.”
“That is my suspicion, yes.”
I bit my lip and noted this information. The contents of these conferences would be passed to Bainel as well as Elysium, so that we could structure plans around them. We could warn Bainel to divert his caravans away from Kroenlig, but that was only a temporary solution, and would result in a loss of profits for him.
“Thank you for your report. We’ll pass the information to our patron. Moving on, Heltshire, if you would.”
The other three branches provided their reports on the current affairs of their region, then moved on to information about local economies, such as which regions had a shortage and surplus of which goods, or which regions had experienced good harvests, and of notable changes in commodity prices across the regions. Bainel would be pleased with this information – with this much information at his fingertips, he would be able to turn a tidy profit. As the reports came in, I made notes on a small notebook, so I could pass the information on to Elysium and Bainel at a later time.
Finally, the reports on the various subjects came to an end, and the meeting drew to a close. Without mentioning details, it seemed that the public order around the country as a whole was deteriorating. Crime rates were on the rise, and merchants were starting to avoid sending caravans without attaching an appropriately large guard detail – the economy was suffering for it. In addition, the drought of the last month had ruined a good number of harvests, and the outlook was bleak. Well, we couldn’t do anything for the failed harvests, but we could do something about the rise in crime.
“Thank you all for your reports and continued hard work. Before we end this conference, there is one last item on the agenda – an announcement.”
“Is it that? Are we finally doing it?”
“Indeed. From today onward, we’re moving onto phase two of the Ezov Project.”
Three of the four women on the other side of the conference let out audible gasps. Anneliese simply laughed.
“We’ll begin with Kroenlig – put up a request to find and eliminate the bandits you mentioned earlier.”
“And the reward?”
“We’ll start it off at… a 12,000 Ciry bounty for anyone who can find and subjugate the bandits, and bring back proof of the act. Tell those interested that they can sign up as individuals or in a group, though the bounty will be the same for both options, 12,000 Ciry for the group to split amongst themselves. While we’re at it, toss in a 20% discount off Rosalind-related merchandise for a year, as well.”
“For the rest of you, put up similar announcements in all branches. Let them know that we’re officially in business, and begin telling our customers about the possibility of using us to source for manpower.”
The Ezov Project. The first phase, setting up the branches in each major town, establishing a communications network, and spreading our name and consolidating our customer base was finally complete. With that, we were finally able to enter the second phase. In this phase, we would begin to accept requests from our customers, which would be prominently displayed within the branches. Therein, interested parties such as mercenaries could contact the branch and indicate their interest in the work. The biggest advantage we offered was that jobs would be shared among all branches of the Ezov, meaning that placing a request in one was equivalent to sending a call for help throughout the entire country, which we hoped would incentivise the use of our service.
With the dissolution of the Adventurers’ Guild some decades ago, merchants had been left to their own devices, forced to seek out protection for their caravans using their own devices, often with disappointing results. The second phase of the Ezov Project intended to use the influence of the Ezov to establish the Ezov as a replacement for the guild, serving as a mediator to connect potential jobs with individuals who sought such work. Rewards would, of course, be provided by the client who offered the job, but we would also occasionally pay out rewards from our own coffers for jobs with no official client, such as the bandit subjugation this time round. The cost was heavy, but Elysium had given the approval for our first request to be from the Ezov itself. She called it a marketing stunt, and we had a seperate budget specifically for that purpose.
With this, we hoped that public order would improve and the economy would be revitalised, though above all we hoped that the 2% commission we took from all requests would eventually make us rich.
With this move, the influence and name of the Ezov would spread even farther through the land and, accordingly, our profits would increase.
I delivered my final instructions regarding the second phase to the four ladies, then fielded any queries they had, and finally breathed out a large sigh of relief as the conference ended and the voices from the Resound Jewel faded. All that was left was to wait and see if people would respond to the call; and if they did, it would be the birth of a new era: the era of Rosalind and the Serene Ezov.