Chapter 1

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Adéline Châteaufoy hated being here.

The meeting room, known as the Crown Board Room, that the lucklyn matriarch found herself in was perhaps too opulent for her tastes, but she could appreciate the artistry in the architecture. No, it was the company she was currently with that turned her stomach.

Adéline was seated near the end of the long oval table where each Lord-Executor of the Lurindor territories, including herself, was seated. Her seating was not unexpected. As the leader of the territory that held out the longest from submitting to a unified Lurindor rule (on multiple occasions in Lurindor's long history), it was natural that she was ostracized as she was. Only the tenacity of her clan and the beleaguered lucklyns of Valderêve allowed the Rochefort territory a seat on Lurindor's Executive Cabinet.

Directly seated across from Adéline was Angrid Harkûr, the dwarven matriarch of Dol Harkûr and leader of the Harkûr Trade Guild. The dwarven city's desire for minimal interaction with the rest of Lurindor and absolute stance on neutrality landed her almost in the same position as Adéline. Although the two agreed on many things, Adéline could not rely on the dwarves as true allies. She knew, and understood, that Angrid would not hesitate to side against her if it meant the continued prosperity of Dol Harkûr.

Seated to her left was Giovanni Biancardi. Adéline actually did not mind Giovanni. Although still another human overlord over her people in the territory of Foycomté, Giovanni was known to actually embrace the lucklyn lifestyle of simple prosperity. However, although he treats the lucklyns under his rule better than the others, Adéline had no doubt the man was just as profit-driven as the others.

Across from him was Bianca Dinovio of Santo Venito. From what Adéline could discern from her policies, it appeared that Bianca cared for the prosperity of the people living in her demesne just as much she cared for the prosperity of her own house. A nice sentiment if true, but lucklyns still did not get the same opportunities as others. Adéline suspected it was just a policy that happy customers and buying customers.

Now Enzio Montari, there was the scum that was the poster boy of everything Adéline stood against: a manipulative bastard that openly abuses her fellow lucklyns in Valdargent, running them practically as slaves in the silver mines, all in the name of profit. He was an enemy for sure.

Maria Sotillini of Mariporta was also a potential enemy. The old woman was tough and uncompromising. She was a true patriot and supporter of the current system. And she had the strongest fighting force in Lurindor at her beck and call.

Adéline knew that Dario Teredoro of Ferrocittà was greedy and ambitious. There had been many rumours of him managing to twist deals and contracts into unfairly favouring himself. Still, perhaps that greed may be of service to her, if she was careful.

Meanwhile, there was Cyrano Varano who controlled the demesne of Blébonté. Adéline knew that the man considered himself a true aristocrat, claiming relations to one of Lurindor's past noble families. While not cruel to his subjects, he had a reputation of being incredibly vain and self-centered, considering the mostly lucklyn population of Blébonté as his own personal subjects.

And then there was Florenza Regalia. Unlike the others, she controlled no territory. Instead, she was the chief executor of the Trade Regulation Authority, the closest thing that Lurindor has to law and order. As much as the vaunted TRA claims that it is completely neutral, it was no secret that the organization played the game of corporate politics just as much as the others.

Finally, there was the man who Adéline would consider as her primary foe: Niccolo Sovrani. He was not a man to be underestimated. After he had somehow engineered a flawless takeover of the remaining Amiatti assets, Sovrani had become the most powerful man in Lurindor.

And at the head of the table was an empty seat of the Crown-Executor of Lurindor. Once held by Vittoria Amiatti, Sovrani had the good graces to resist sitting there himself, at least until the legal issues to his claiming control of Lurindor were settled.

"The board had gone over your proposal, Lady Adéline," Sovrani declared. "It's certainly very ambitious, and equally interesting. Are you sure these are the terms you wish to agree with? "

"Indeed," Varano drawled. "As I understand it, Rochefort will be footing the entire bill, while the rest of us reap the profits."

"Rochefort will be satisfied with those terms," Adéline replied smoothly.

"What's the catch here, Châteaufoy?" Teredoro asked pointedly. "No one in Lurindor is that generous, not even you."

"No catch, Lord Teredoro. The profits may not be apparent nor immediate, but the endeavor is successful, the benefits of Rochefort will certainly outweigh the costs. All we desire is complete non-interference from Lurindor in how the endeavor is managed."

"You're up to something, aren't you, Rochefort?" Sotillini accused, glaring at Adéline.

The lucklyn woman kept her cool. "Everyone is always up to something in Lurindor," she retorted. "Question is, how can you profit from it?" She turned to Sovrani, the question more directed to him.

Niccolo smirked a little. "Despite our questions, the board is close to agreeing to your proposal. There is but one more thing you can do to get us to agree. I think you know what that is."

Adéline knew, just as she knew that despite what he said, only getting Sovrani's agreement would be necessary. She was apprehensive at the thought of it happening, but was comforted by the thought that if all went well, it would not matter.

"It is agreed then," Adéline declared. "The Executive Board will agree to the Viridian Marches project.

"And Rochefort will fully support the Sovrani claim to the Emerald Crown."

"Be it so known that the bearers of this charter has been charged by the Châteaufoy Trade House, acting upon the greater good and authority vested within them by the office of the Interim-Executor of the Emerald Crown, has granted the right of exploration and travel within the wilderness region known as the Evergreen Plains. Exploration should be limited to an area south of Onestrio's Trade Post down to the Greenbelt River, between the edges of the Draketooth Forest to the west, and the edge of the Old Arborfane Forest to the east. The carrier of this charter should also strive against banditry and other unlawful behavior to be encountered. The punishment for unrepentant banditry remains, as always, execution by sword or rope. So witnessed on this 1st day of Asmolan, 108th year of the Age of Reckoning, under watchful eye of the Lord-Executor of Rochefort and authority granted by Lord Niccolo Sovrani, current Interim-Executor of the Emerald Crown."

Lady Adéline Châteaufoy, addressing the assembly of expedition volunteers at Châteaufoy Manor, Rochefort, Asmolan 1st, 108 6A

It was the 108th year of the Sixth Age, the Age of Reckoning.

Under the rule of the Amiatti Conglomerate, the merchant nation of Lurindor swiftly recovered from the devastation of the Tyrant's World War from over a century ago. However, ten years ago, the entire Amiatti family and their immediate retainers all disappeared overnight. The second most powerful Trade House, the Sovrani Syndicate, deftly swooped in, and acquired the now-abandoned Amiatti assets. Now controlling two Great Trade Regions, the young Lord-Executor of the Syndicate, Niccolo Sovrani, claimed the position of Interim-Crown-Executor of Lurindor while the courts of Lurindor's Trade Regulation Authority finalized his acquisition.

In light of Sovrani's efforts to consolidate his control of the nation, the Châteaufoy Trade House embarked on a new endeavour, one that they hoped would secure a prosperous future for the second-class lucklyn population of Lurindor. To this end, the lucklyn overseers of the trade territory of Rochefort announced to the public that they would sponsor four expeditions to explore, and eventually colonize, the untamed lands of the Viridian Marches.

For thousands of years, the lands bordering the south of Rochefort have exchanged hands between a multitude of disparate parties; the Châteaufoy endeavor would be but one of the latest attempts to claim this land rife with opportunities. Four groups answered the call to adventure.

The Crimson Falcon Company was a notable mercenary company in Lurindor, but of late, its founder and leader, Adrianna Falcone, felt the need to establish a legacy far more grounded than a group of soldiers-for-hire. Over a hundred soldiers strong, plus support personnel, with over two decades of combat experience, the Crimson Falcons were the best equipped expedition to tame the wild Ursan Highlands, and its numerous Storm Bear tribes.

Given the charter to the neighboring Drakethorn Glades, the Drelevo Trade Company would be in prime position to control valuable trade routes to rich, foreign nations. Its leader, the young Rafael Drelevo, had only recently inherited the company from his recently deceased father, and seemed eager to establish himself outside of Lurindor. With his company's assets, paired with those of his new wife, Drelevo was perhaps the best-supplied expedition of the four.

The Duloup expedition had perhaps the most significant local support. Theodore Duloup was someone the lucklyn inhabitants of Lurindor desperately needed: one of their own who broke past the system to gain fame and fortune on his own. With many years of adventures under his belt, Duloup had amassed wealth, skills, and strong companions at his side. Now, the lucklyn adventurer felt the need to settle down, and do something productive with his fortune. At the behest of his cousin Adéline, Duloup had volunteered to tame the Thalamech Uplands, and expand the lucklyns' sphere of influence in the region. All he had to do was pacify the native centaur tribes that caused so much trouble along the southern border of Rochefort lands.

The last of the four expeditions was not much of an expedition at all. Unlike the others, they numbered only four, supplied with just the gear they had on them. They would explore the Evergreen Plains, and end the burgeoning bandit kingdom that threatened Rochefort's trade. As the region with the least valuable resources, and the most dangers, few held any expectations of success from the Evergreen Company, as this group of four would be known.

Arina Seta Onda was a young human, abandoned by her family for the misfortune that surrounded her. Her calamity carried with her to the family that took her in, the lucklyn Montplaisir merchant house, for they met their end in a massive fire. Having lost her love in the blaze, Arina volunteered for the expedition. Heeding the whispers of her constant, mysterious companion Mister Angelcakes, it would be in this untamed land where she will be reunited with her Marcelette, either in life or death.

For the caelephilim Davona Sawali, it was the prospect of battling bandits that prompted her to sign up. Ever since her mother was killed by bandits when their family fled from the southern totalitarian Ashaki Empire, Davona burned with vengeance against outlaws. Wanting to follow in her late mother's footsteps and become a paladin of Kaï-den, Davona joined the Rochefort City Guard, becoming its youngest member, while she studied and trained at the local Temple of Kaï-den. Having passed the Trials, Davona resigned from the Guard, and eagerly volunteered to be part of the Evergreen Company.

The kitsune Cethin had seemingly joined the group on a whim. He never seemed to take things seriously. The fact that he could occasionally be seen whispering to a ring on his finger only added to his aura of oddness. Nonetheless, the mischievous kitsune easily got along well with his new companions.

The mysterious Jupus Thane was the most secretive of the group. The gnome's dourness seemed to go hand in hand with the faint sewer scent wafting from his presence. Few knew of what skills Jupus was capable of, even his new companions, but they did know at least that the gnome had a large dire rat as his constant companion. Said rat was presently waiting just outside of the Châteaufoy Manor, much to Jupus' annoyance.

Normally, such a ragtag band of disparate individuals of their like would be instantly dismissed for such a grand endeavor. However, there were no suitable volunteers forthcoming to tame the dangerous region that bordered most of the Rochefort southern border. There was, however, one major point in their favor in Lady Adéline’s opinion, and that was that the four young volunteers held no ties to any of the other major trade houses. House Châteaufoy would have the opportunity to become the main influence should the Evergreen Company succeed in forming a colony.

After the ceremony, the four new companions would have the chance to discuss their situation at the after party. With drinks in hand, the four of them had gathered.

“So,” Arina started after a moment of awkward silence, “quite the motley crew we are.”

Jupus grunted. “Aye. About the only thing that binds us is the perilous fate that awaits all of us.”

“You can rest assured that I’ll watch each of your backs, no matter the danger,” Davona offered.

Cethin chuckled. “At least one of us seems eager for this venture,” the kitsune said before taking a swig of his wine.

Arina raised an eyebrow at him. “You seem quite chipper yourself.”

The kitsune smirked. “Danger or no, adventure is adventure. In fact, the more dangerous, the more exciting.”

Arina and Jupus shared a worried look. The former aristocrat sighed, and raised her glass. “Here’s to adventure, then.”

The other raised their glasses as well, but their toast was rudely interrupted by a sneering voice.

"I had wondered who would be foolish enough to agree to the Evergreen expedition. If this is your whole party, you might as well stay home," a smug Rafael Drelevo stated.

The Evergreen Company, despite only just being formed, would not let such a statement rest unanswered. 

"Thanks for the advice, asshole, but the only thing I'd ever consider taking from you is haircut tips," Arina had bluntly retorted.

Drelevo laughed at that. "Don't worry, I'll be done with Drakethorn soon enough to take care of your charge for you. No need to pressure yourselves into succeeding."

While Arina and Drelevo sparred words, Cethin snuck around to stand behind the young merchant. Using his natural abilities, he quickly shifted into Drelevo's appearance. He then proceeded to silently make funny faces at Drelevo as himself. Drelevo was blissfully unaware of the entire mockery, though some onlookers had to do a double take at the spectacle.

Alerted by the growing laughter around them, Drelevo became aware of a presence behind him. He turned around, only to come face to face with Cethin, who quickly reverted to his natural vulpinoid form. Drelevo had to resist from jumping. 

"Hey fox, go back to your owner," he mumbled to cover his shock as he walked off. Cethin couldn't help but grin. He could swear that he felt his ring and patron, Tuck Tootle, laughing along.

However, not all of their encounters were antagonistic. Soon after they were relieved of Drelevo’s presence, the lucklyn adventurer Theodore Duloup approached them. 

"I saw your little talk with Drelevo there, and it was quite amusing," he said with a friendly smile. "Ignore that spoiled brat. Sale gosse was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I have to commend you all for your bravery. In general, the Evergreen has few riches and too many problems for almost anyone to profit from. I imagine that's why you four have this opportunity, no one else wanted it."

"Well, hardly feels like an opportunity," Arina said. "It feels more like scraps thrown to a few desperate souls."

Duloup chuckled. "I understand, but you’d be amazed at what riches you can make out of mere scraps if you’re desperate enough. Believe me, I would know.” 

The lucklyn gave the four new companions each a critical look. “Tell you what, I’d like to invite you to talk to my quartermaster outside. I'll arrange for him to give you a pair of healing potions to each of you. Do you have horses? I'll give you a horse each, fully saddled."

The party was taken aback at the generosity. Their colorful past made them suspicious. "You are too kind, sir," Davona said. "But I must ask, why the sudden generosity?"

"You simply remind me of my first days of braving the unknown. I know how hard it is, and I hope this gesture of good will will be remembered."

"Do you want something in exchange?" Arina asked.

"Consider this a small investment, and a token of friendship," the experienced adventurer told them. "Besides, I'd rather have you as a close ally beside that fop."

And so, the Evergreen Company departed from Rochefort, having made a friend of one party, a rival with another, and being completely dismissed by the last.

The Evergreen Company's destination was a small trade post known as "Onestrio's". It laid directly south of Rochefort, about two days’ ride by horse. Owned and operated by the married couple Onestrio and Sabina Lucelli, it had served as the main trade post for regional hunters and trappers to sell their goods and purchase supplies. 

Onestrio had been satisfied with what he had created; independence away from the burdens of the urban lifestyle, but not so far out of reach to not feel its benefits. However, over the past six months, such trade had been replaced with extortion. The bandits of the Evergreen Plains had finally expanded their predation to this far north.

“Finally, it’s been weeks since I sent that request!” the burly, bearded tradesman bellowed upon the Company’s arrival, much to their confusion.

“I thought our charter came from House Châteaufoy?” Davona said.

Onestrio became equally confused. “What are you talking about? The guard request was in my name!”

“Oh!” Arina realized. “I believe there is a misunderstanding, sir. We are not guards for hire. We are the Evergreen Company, chartered to explore and colonize the Evergreen Plains.” 

She presented Onestrio with their charter. The tradesman’s confusion turned into visible annoyance and frustration as he read through it.

“Blast and curses!” the man exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air in frustration. “I ask for guards to protect honest and independent trade, and those daft misers up north instead make plans to take over?!”

“Yeesh, calm down there, buddy,” Cethin muttered.

As the man stomped around the trade post’s yard, a homely woman came hurryingly out from the main building. She addressed the party first.

“Please excuse my husband Onestio’s composure,” she said, giving the party a small bow. “He has been under much duress in recent times. I am his wife, Sabina, and I bid you welcome to our trade post.”

Letting her husband work off his frustration, Sabina invited the Company to sit for a meal, and informed them of the current situation in the area.

Over a bowl of hearty soup, Sabina explained to the newcomers that a few years ago, a powerful man known only as the Stag Lord rose to power, and beat all the bandits of the Evergreen Plains into serving under him. Although the bandits had left them alone for a while, six months ago, bandits of the Stag Lord came to the trading post to take their goods and money. Since then, they have always arrived during the first week of each month to claim their tribute from the couple.

The Company agreed with each other that halting this extortion should be their first task, with Davona particularly eager to finally face down these brigands. They quickly gathered the details from the Lucellis, and learned the names of two of the bandit group's leaders: Ravenna, who was the Stag Lord's lieutenant in this area, and her second-in-command, Vico. They had started their extortion racket on the trade post over six months ago, suddenly showing up with a dozen other outlaws. That number remained the same when they returned the following month. However, in the third and fourth months, only eight bandits returned, with only Vico in charge, and eventually that number lowered to six for the last two months. Onestrio suspected that the bandits had become lax with how easy their pickings were.

Over the next couple of days, the Evergreen Company made plans on a welcome party for the bandits. After familiarizing themselves with the trade post's layout and the surrounding area, the Company had only to wait a couple of days before they caught sight of half a dozen riders approaching at a leisurely pace from the south. The men were each heavily armed, and could not be mistaken for a hunter or trapper. These were certainly the bandits, and their casual approach bespoke their lack of wariness.

The riders strode through the gate and into the trade post's inner yard. Only Onestrio could be seen, bent down fixing the wheel of a cart. The bandits dismounted, and a rough-looking man with a goatee, wearing a distinctive green cloak, strode ahead of them.

"Onestrio! Time for our usual business!" Vico called out. Onestrio stood up, and glared at the man, but Vico only smirked. "Come on, now. Don't make that face! Just show us the goods, and we don't have to play."

Vico's men chuckled. Onestrio grumbled, but led them to the storehouse. Two of the bandits sat down at the nearby long table, while the rest followed Vico to help carry the goods. Onestrio opened the door to the storehouse and stepped a few feet back to the side.

"Speaking of play, where's that pretty little wife of yours? We could use a little pick-me-up before we head back!" Vico remarked as he headed into the storehouse. His men laughed at that.

That was when the Evergreen Company sprang in action.

Cethin, who laid flat on the rampart's upper walkway, and Jupus, similarly posed atop the stable's roof, loosed their crossbow bolts and arrows at the bandits. From behind the stables emerged Davona, who ran to the gates and began pushing them closed.

At the same time, Arina leapt from behind the cart, and struck her rapier at the nearest bandit. She would occupy them while Davona sealed the only available exit. The Evergreen Company had no intention of letting any criminal escape.

"What the Seven Hells?!" one of the bandits cried out.

"It's an ambu–ack!" another shouted before being cut off by Cethin's bolt striking him in the chest.

Vico came stomping out of the storehouse. "What the Abyss is happening out here?!" the bandit leader shouted. He did not get far, as Jupus' trick arrow unfurled mid-air, and wrapped around Vico's legs. The bandit fell face first into the dirt.

The battle was now in full swing. The bandits recovered from their surprise, and drew their longbows, while Vico struggled to free himself from the trip arrow.

After securing the gates, Davona equipped her shield and drew her sword, and charged at the bandits. However, her targets saw her, and fired their bows first. Davona's armor protected her from much of the damage, but one arrow slipped through her armor's gaps into her shoulder, badly crippling it. The paladin fought through the intense pain, and continued her attack, cutting through the scrambling bandits.

Davona was struck by another painful blow as another deeply pierced her other shoulder. She could feel herself fading, but sheer determination kept her on her feet, still in the fight.

The bandits scrambled around the trading post yard, firing their longbows at their attackers. However, with blood streaming down from her splint mail, Davona charged at them, slashing and harrying. One by one, bandits were cut down. One of them panicked, and tried to flee, but took a crossbow bolt in the back by Cethin.

The battle was not completely one-sided. Vico proved why he was the leader as he quickly recovered from his fall, and succeeded in firing several well-aimed arrows into Jupus. However, the Evergreen Company was relentless. They closed in onto Vico, and cut him down. When the dust settled, all of the bandits were on the ground, unconscious and bleeding out.

"So, we're all good now, right?" Davona gasped. She was wobbly on her feet, and her lower half of her body was drenched with her own blood. "Great, I'm just going to fall unconscious now." And the paladin collapsed to the ground.

"I don't know about you folk, but I feel great!" Cethin quipped, walking around the cart from where he took cover. The kitsune was untouched.

Jupus just shook his head as he gingerly climbed down from the stable's roof. He held back any smart remark as he accepted Cethin's healing magic. He then proceeded to stabilize the bandits. He almost lost the last one, fumbling around with the man's wounds. Fortunately for the bandit, he managed to stabilize on his own.

With his hands drenched with the man's blood, Jupus would then comment, not quite so confidently, "Er, yeah, I totally did that," Jupus said, his hands drenched with the man's blood.

The Evergreen Company had won the battle, the first of many to come. It was a satisfying start to their endeavor, but none of them could imagine the web of plots they just stepped into.

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