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A few hours later, the shipment of metal ore entered town just as expected. The guards were awake now, and they didn’t act at all like they had just had a battle where they might have been knocked unconscious. The time was now evening, and the streets were busy as people were heading home from their jobs. Well, many of those homes were just hovels created in certain alleys, since that was the best anyone in the working class could afford. At least they were able to feed their families, usually.
Thus, when the inconspicuous cart full of metal ore heading toward the castle was suddenly stopped by a man shouting halt, it drew a lot of eyes. The guards put their hands on their swords. They were suspicious, but they weren’t on high alert or anything. The person in front of them was Drake, and beside him were his street toughs.
Although they were dressed better than they once had in the Capital, they only appeared to be mildly wealthy laborers, perhaps Blacksmiths or mediocre Merchants. Nothing that would cause the guards to worry. It wasn’t like they were moving gold coins. Metal ore was heavy, and you needed tons of it. It might be valuable, but who could steal it in the middle of town?
“What is it that you want?” One of the men asked, his hand only lightly touching his sword as he waited for an answer.
“That carriage you have right there. You’re coming from the local steel mill, right?”
The steel mill was right next to the iron mine and was ultimately where all of their metal was processed. These men then brought it into town where the local Blacksmiths would do what they were asked. While most cities had freelance Backsmiths, who were only occasionally hired to do bigger jobs, all of the Blacksmiths in Alerith were picked up by Lord Reign. He had strict quotas he had them meet every month. Although they were paid, it was only half the price of normal work. If they wanted to do jobs that made them any money, they could only work on them after making their quotas.
That meant that the Blacksmiths in this city were expensive and difficult to hire. Why did they put up with it? For the same reason! They were expensive, and they could act as selective and snobbish as they wanted to the public. Any who could handle the quotas could then sell their extra ware for five times the price they could sell it anywhere else. Furthermore, there was never a lack for work. As to what they made for Lord Reign, that would be the Knight’s armor that was being used to build his army.
I had assumed the Knights I had encountered were all provided by Imperial Cloud Meadow. They had even led me to believe this. While some of them might have been brought over as teachers to help the new Knights, most of them were selected locally. They were raised to knighthood using counterfeit Knight token, given good armor produced in bulk at the expense of the citizens, and then trained by a few skilled Knights from another country. I didn’t know another way to say it other than that he was building an army.
So, when we were attacking the steel ore, this too was weakening Alerith as a whole.
A tense silence had followed after Drake had pointed at the cart of steel almost accusingly. The steel was covered with a tarp so that no one could see what was inside, but that wasn’t to say that this was a particular secret. They had guarded the journey, but if anyone wanted to get rich robbing steel, they’d be better off stealing the shipments after they were turned into swords and armor. That’s when they started to gain real value.
The shipment was guarded because of convenience, and the cart was covered to keep things from falling on and into the shipment, as well as to keep the shipment from accidentally bouncing out of the cart. No one would think that metal ore would be worth stealing, and no one would treat a metal ore shipment like it was something hidden.
“Yes, this is steel ordered by Lord Reign!” The man announced, feeling no reason to keep such a fact secret.
He used the name Lord Reign not because he knew the man, but because he reckoned the name would deter anyone who was bothering them. Lord Reign may be the noble of this city, but he was notoriously fickle and had punished or enslaved countless people for upsetting him. No one wanted to end up being the next person to fight for their lives in his coliseum. Therefore, his name was enough to cow just about anyone. It seemed like Drake wasn’t as easily moved by the name as others would be.
“Then, I’m in need of purchasing some steel! It’s kind of an emergency, you see?” Drake announced in a loud voice that could be heard by everyone.
The man’s brow furrowed. After all, it was pretty bold to buy something that was reserved for Lord Reign. However, the transporter also knew that this particular shipment was twice what Lord Reign wanted. Lord Reign was a stingy man, and any amount they dug over his quota, rather than being bought at a marked-up price as one would think, was marked down. That is to say that Lord Reign wouldn’t take extra produced steel except on a discount.
“This steel is for Lord Reign, apologies!” The guard answered this way anyway.
Lord Reign was feared.
“I need some steel! Not a lot. Just a ton or so. I’ll pay you five times the going rate!”
“F-five!” This caused the guard’s eyes to nearly bulge.
The guard was probably thinking that this guy must be desperate. It was true that Lord Reign had a monopoly over the iron mine and the steel mill. Anything extra, he’d purchase at a discount, only to then sell that to the people at the same price. This meant that like everything else, there was always a high demand for steel. It was a rotten deal that only benefited Lord Reign, and the millers that these transporters worked for had become extremely bitter because of the injustice of it all.
On the other hand, no one had explicitly told them that they couldn’t sell extra material on the side. If they set up a merchant kiosk, they’d be under the same massive taxation that brutalized everyone else, and at that point, they should have just sold directly to Lord Reign, but this was a different case. This guy approached them wanting to buy some of their surplus. In short, they had the opportunity to make quite a bit of extra money on the side!
Drake only gave an innocent smile.
Drake pulled out a large coin purse and tossed it to the guard before he could give a definitive answer. The guard instinctively caught the money and looked inside. Feeling the weight of it on him, all of his doubts started to melt away. Even if Lord Reign became angry at this, it likely wouldn’t fall on them. Lord Reign wasn’t the type to deal with commoners. He would likely go to his employers at the Steel Mill.
At five times the original value on a ton, even if they fired him over it, he’d have a nice little nest-egg to carry him to his next job. That would certainly involve moving, as Alerith was an awful place to work, even for a guard. Although there were rumors around town that said Lord Reign was picking out skilled bodyguards and turning them into Knights, which are nobility, many people were suspicious of this. The bodyguard here just happened to be one of those that had ignored the offer on more than one occasion.
Alerith, in general, felt suspicious, and many people were starting to feel like something big was about to go down in the city. Many people were very interested in moving away as soon as they had the chance. For this bodyguard, his chance seemed to have arrived.
“Very well, where did you need the steel dropped off at.” The bodyguard asked.
“How about I just collect it right here. I have a storage ring for this kind of thing.”
“Hmph, your choice.” The bodyguard responded upon seeing the man gesturing with his ring.
To any Commoner’s mind, a storage ring was the telltale sign of a noble. Since this guy had it, he was either a noble or the retainer of a noble. In that case, he was someone who was all money and no brains. Since he was buying steel at five times the going rate, this wasn’t difficult to believe.
The guard brought Drake around the horses to the back of the cart. He then grabbed the tarp covering it and tossed it aside.
“Take only one ton!” He ordered,” Not an ounce more!”
He was expecting Drake to reach out and absorb his share. However, instead, Drake stared blankly for a minute, then threw back his head, and yelled at the top of his lungs.
“What kind of fool do you take me for? Trying to sell me rocks as if they were steel!”
His voice caused the crowds of people to quiet down. Everyone who was passively paying attention to the cart blocking the way in the middle of traffic now had their full attention on the cart and the transporters.
The bodyguard spun around, looking where Drake’s eyes were located. On the cart, was exactly what Drake described. Rocks. They were just useless, worthless chunks of stone piled up under the tarp. Where processed steel was supposed to be was nothing of any value.
“Wait… what is this symbol? The notorious bandits, Reign’s End? Are you telling me you were robbed by bandits, and then tried to sell it off on me before your boss found out!”
A symbol had been scratched into the carriage. No one at all knew what it meant. It was a wavy line with two parallel lines through it vertically, and then a cross over it. They now knew that it belonged to a gang who, by their very name, allied themselves counter to the current Lord.
Drake swiped the coins from the bodyguard, who was still standing there dumbfounded with his mouth open.
That man had no memory of his cargo being stolen. I had made sure of that. As Drake stormed away as indignantly as he could, leaving the giant commotion he had made in his wake, he winked at me as he passed.
That’s one way to make a name for yourself.