robertliguoriwritesstuff

The Master of Coin

It was Danni who first saw the strange creature, hovering in the sky in the village of Dorenston on Market Day. Danni was not yet 12, and was both inventive and given to flights of fancy, but she also had a touch of the fey about her, and (it was rumored) a Warlock not too far removed in her parentage, and who truly did see things others could not on occasion. It was her description of the creature that caused concern. An orb, perhaps a foot in diameter, metallic yet flexible, studded with glass lenses and strange implements, that simply spun in the air for a few heartbeats, then vanished, did not sound like something a girl would simple imagine.

It would probably have gone remarked, if Danni hadn’t told her cousin Melian, who tended bar in Dorenston Tavern, and if Jalak the Silver-Tongued hadn’t been stopping by that day, and if Jalak hadn’t been eager to trade tales of strange creatures with Kelder in exchange for hearing the bona-fide Tales of Heroism of his adventuring company.

But it did come to pass that Kelder heard of a strange orb, and that Kelder had heard many tales. And so it was that Kelder remembered, for he had a mind as keen as his rapier’s tip, and so it was that Kelder spoke to his friend Corim, Wizard of the Fourth Circle, and plans were arranged for Kelder’s band of heroic adventurers to be in Dorenston next Market Day.

As Kelder had predicted, the strange orb did indeed appear when and where it had before. But before it could complete its rotation, Corim had trapped it in a sphere of magical force, and bound an inverted summoning circle around it, preventing it from fleeing into whichever dimension from whence it had come.

“Hail to you, little one.” said Kelder to the imprisoned orb, which did nothing but continue to rotate and whir occasionally. “Let’s have a look at you, then. That’s only fair, since you seem to be looking at us. Who are you looking for, little one? And more importantly, why-”

There was a rising whine and a tremor as an outside force contested Corim’s circle, and at his warning and Kelder’s shouted command, the people of Dorenston backed a good ways away. They had heard tales of wizardly battles, from Jalak and others, and (with the exception of Danni, who had ducked behind a building and was watching carefully) had no desire to see one up close.

The rising magic ceased abruptly, and Shilandra, always alert to danger, shouted a warning and raised her bow, for a strange figure was now walking slowly up the road.

The figure appeared to be a human male. He walked slowly, hands raised palms-outward in the universal gesture of peace and supplication. He would have created slightly more peace and calm among Kelder’s adventurers were it not for his face, which was fixed and unmoving (albeit in a friendly smile), or if the formal black barrister’s robes he wore did not ring with the sound of metal on metal as he moved, or if he had left footprints in the dust as he approached.

“Hail to you!” called the probably-not-a-man. “I’m afraid I must insist that you release my drone at once.”

“Hail to as well, stranger.” replied Kelder. “And I’m afraid we’ll need an explanation before we can do that.” After a moment, he added “Oh, and we will not accept ‘So my drone can work these specifics acts of evil! Mwahahah!’ as an explanation.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” said the figure, his expression shifting to one of contrite apology. “Were you not informed? Ah, well, we could only spread the initial word to the major cities. We weren’t expecting magic traps in village markets this early. If I swear to you that the drone is doing no harm and observes only transactions performed publicly, will you allow it to continue its rounds? We are on a schedule, you know.”

Kelder shot a glance at Lady Alysdandra, Paladin of the Silver Star, who nodded, confirming that the figure was either telling the truth, or carefully protected.

He then turned to Corim, who frowned and examined the stranger’s words for traps and loopholes, but found none, and nodded.

(Meanwhile, Danni, who only rarely got a chance to see real magic up close, looked carefully at the stranger with the gaze that pierced the veils and looked beyond the merely visible, let out a strangled squeak, and fainted.)

“If that orby thing isn’t spying on anyone, I don’t see any reason to keep it locked up. But while Corim undoes the circle and the wards…what is it that we weren’t told, stranger?”

“By the edict of Primus One-In-All, God of All That Is Lawful and Ordered, Master of the Clockwork Nirvana, Shaper of Hierarchies, Magister of-”

“Yes, yes, we’ve heard of him.”

“Oh, good! Well, I’m the new anthropomorphic personification of trade, commerce, and economic activity! While I have quieter and less direct methods of observation in most of the major cities, regular, short-term trade events like this lovely fair also fall under my purview! But don’t worry, once we’ve established a baseline of data gathered, direct appearances my by drones will be much more rare! Now, I’m afraid I must also…oh. Oh dear.”

The stranger’s face changed again, into a black scowl.

“Kastelin the Cunning, in Magiln, on the intersection of Broad Street and Kncut Lane. She is using alchemy and illusons to counterfit! This cannot be permitted! This must be stopped! This…”

The figure’s face shifted again, to an expression of rage that looked almost natural, then one final time, back to his initial friendly smile.

“Excuse me for asking, Kelder and friends of Kelder. I see that you have already accepted a contract that will take you through Magilin on your way to Leyanda. Would you, by any chance, be available for hire once you reach Magilin?”

– – – – – – – – –

The transaction happened, for the most part, quickly and smoothly. Guildmasters and craft cooperatives were sometimes observed by strange orbs of living clockwork, and were sometimes approached by figures who dressed all in black, and who left no sign of their passage, save for when they traded. They were men and women, of all the civilized humanoid races. Rumors were spoken of others as well, of a dappled black-and-white goblin who had begun to address the thief’s guilds, and of a great grey dragon who was raising a horde like none the world had seen before. But there were always rumors.

The new anthropomorphic personification did not make friends. Every incarnation of him had an uncanny ability to predict exactly how much a given individual would require to take on a job, and would offer nothing more. He always dealt fairly, honestly, and with the utmost and most exacting scrupulosity. And he priced himself accordingly.

– – – – – – – – –

“I say we call him Coin.” said Shilandra. “It’s a good name. I hear that people are talking about raising a Temple of the Coin over on God Lane. It fits him.”

There was a quiet sigh of displaced air as the anthropomorphic personification appeared.

“Ah, hello, my friends-” he began.

“You’re called Coin now.” Shilandra interrupted.

Coin took his new naming with the same shrug he took most attempts to humanize him. “As you will. I’m very pleased you are here. I have a job for you!”

“Another fraud case?” asked Alysandra. She hadn’t particularly enjoyed pursuing crimes against coinage and trade when there were bandits and murderers roaming the world undeterred.

“Very similar! We have identified a forger. Specifically, the forger responsible for the artifice scandal in Jorom, with lead directly to the speculation bubble that drove the Joromi crusades to acquire-”

“OK. Who are we arresting, and where do you want him?” interrupted Kelder. For an entity of cosmic and quasi-divine power, Coin was amazingly accepting of being interrupted and disrespected.

“Valak Klethi. And we want him dead. This is an assassination job, not an arrest.”

There was a moment of silence.

“That costs extra.” cut in Shilandra.

“I’m afraid it doesn’t. Valak is a trained and skilled artificer; transporting and imprisoning him would be indeed worthy of additional payout. Simply murdering him, however, is straightforward, simple, and entirely within your ability.”

“We’re not really assassins.” said Kelder. He shot a quick look to Alysandra, noting that her face had gone blank.

“Of course you are. Well over half of the jobs you have taken have involved the infiltration of a stronghold or dungeon and the death or destruction of the stronghold’s leader. Kalak Webfoot, Krayd the Butcher, Lyzarius Fire-Talon…”

“Those were monsters!” Shilandra responded.

“And only one of them started a war, and that war ended quickly and decisively because of your actions. Valak has also started a war once, and refuses to cease his trade. We simply do not have the capacity to detect and remove his forgeries from circulation without stopping him from producing them in the first place, and we do not have the power to do that in any way other than paying agents, such as yourselves, to stop him. Given his actions and his abilities, murder is the most efficient way to do this.”

“I respectfully decline to murder a man for committing forgery.” spoke Alysandra, in clipped, harsh tones. This was ordinarily a great violation of adventuring company protocol, but she had made her decision, and as she looked to her friends and siblings-in-battle, she knew they felt the same.

“Very well. In that case, I don’t believe we have any further business to discuss at the moment. Please feel free to help yourselves to the refreshments on your way out!” Then, with a quiet pop, Coin was gone again.

– – – – – – – – –

They said that Valak’s death opened the floodgates, but it was a very fast, very precise flood. Everyone knew that Coin would work with saints and sinner alike, and even the lowest scoundrel knew that Coin would pay well and fairly as agreed, and not send you into a deathtrap unknowing. He might pay some other low bastard to kill you instead, but only if that was cheaper than paying you not to do whatever he was going to kill you for.

The first confirmed counter-assassination was done by Withrax the Insatiable’s dragonborn agents. The red-scaled assassins sprung their trap in the middle of a crowded marketplace, trapping Coin in an inverted summoning circle and smashing him to ruin with warhammers forged with the energy of elemental Chaos. The intricate mechanical workings of Coin’s innards were exposed, revealing him to be a clockwork creation. The assassins teleported out moments later.

Moments after that, another Coin appeared. “I’m sorry about that!” he said to the shocked bystanders. “Inevitables are already being dispatched to handle the miscreants. Now, let’s see. Before I was attacked, we were discussing futures trading of wheat over the next three years…”

– – – – – – – – –

Withrax felt the discharge of the wards from deep within his lair. Just one, with a flavor to the magic that he knew well by now. So, the puppet wished to address him once more. Well, there was no risk there; he had long since taken the measure of the contrivance the mortals called Coin. With a growl, the guards and snares slid aside, allowing Coin passage.

Withrax growled again as Coin entered, palms upraised. The suggestion that Coin could threaten Withrax at all was deeply insulting. It would have been worth tearing the construct apart for, were it not for the opportunity to gloat. For Withrax, like most dragons, valued very, very little about his own safety, but one of those things was his fortune, and another was his pride. He had beaten Coin, and now he would gloat.

“I am impressed!” called Coin, from far below him. “I did not expect anyone to learn the dark arts of economics as quickly as you did, Withrax. Nor did I expect any to bue willing to spend as much as you have to assault the structures I have built. You have proven a formidable business rival.”

“I am your doom, little puppet.” growled Withrax. “I have taken the pretty patterns and promises you have woven to ensnare the mortals and made them my own. I have surpassed you, little godling.”

“I am here to negeotiate cessation of hostilities between us.” said Coin, exactly as he had the dozens of time before. This time was different, of course.

“And if I refuse? And if I set my agents to buy and sell as I have instructed them?”

“The economic shocks will destabilize the gold standard itself. You would wipe out at a stroke the value of your hoard.”

“Mmm, yes. And a dragon with a worthless hoard is a pitiful joke, a contemptuous pretender. But it remains a dragon still. What will you become, Master of Coins, when coins themselves become as dust?”

“I am willing to offer you five percent of my net operating budget for the duration of your natural life.”

The offer shook Withrax. He had learned enough to understand what that meant, how much more that could be than any simple sum of gold or treasure.

“Fifty percent.”

“We do not negotiate.” Coin returned.

“I know that you can spare more, little godling. I have learned more of your methods than you yourself know. You are weak, godling. There are techniques and methods within your Art that you yourself do not know. Perhaps, if you had prostrated yourself before me, I might have left you and your pitiful system intact, to serve me, and truly learn how much greater than you I am. Perhaps I could have taught you how you could have truly cut costs, truly grown efficient. I could have kept you alive on fifty percent. And now, I will trigger the order, and as you end, you will know that I-”

The mountain rumbled, and Withrax started. There was nothing from the wards-

The wards had been bypassed. But only the magic of an elder dragon could have done so without his knowledge.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t come to an accord.” said Coin. He sounded genuinely regretful. “If it makes you feel any better, this is an enormous inconvenience to me.”

“What have you done?”

The mountain shook again.

“In the event that you didn’t accept my offer, I also offered three and a quarter percent to every member of the Council of Wyrms to kill you and your agents. In truth, they would have held out for five each, but after I explained what your plan would do to the value of their hoards-”

It would have been best to ignore the construct. It would have been best to focus all of his power, all of his magic, all of his centuries of wit and cunning, on finding a way to escape, at any cost. But Withrax was prideful, and so instead tore Coin apart and melted his remains to rivulets of liquid metal, to mix with the gold of his hoard, and felt some manner of satisfaction from doing so. Then Withrax’s lair imploded.

– – – – – – – – –

The power of Coin was much reduced, in the months and years to come. Coin himself could spare far fewer avatars; it was said that the one Withrax had died to destroy was the very last of his discretionary bodies, and that until his debt to the Council of Wyrms was paid, he could communicate only through his drones. But the work Coin began continued, and the Council of Wyrms quietly (and sometimes, not so quietly) worked to ensure that the wheels and gears of the world’s economy turned, and collected their payment.

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