In a small room made entirely of fine, lustrous wood, an atmosphere of modest elegance and wildness was perceived, as a soft scent of the forest wafted from it, while the floor was covered with a huge beast skin, which served as a carpet.
Also, its interior was lightly hidden behind a blanket of white smoke coming from an object located at one corner, which was similar in appearance to a gas lamp, made of greenish glass and mounted on a silver assembly.
It was wispy, almost indiscernible, for much of it drifted out of the open window, carried by the wind to the clear sky.
From the room, since it was on a second floor, the observable view was that of a cozy town, which was far from being modern, having most of its structures raised with timber worn by time, yet far surpassing any small village.
In the nearby streets, people were walking silently or chatting quietly among themselves with their friends or relatives. They were few as the schedule was not conducive to wandering, plus they were all dressed in neat and tidy clothes without being too conspicuous while wearing wide-brimmed hats to protect themselves from the sun.
The surrounding condominiums revealed that this location was in the upper-class area, so noise was scarce. However, in the distance, one could faintly hear, as if in whispers, the shouts of those who, for a living, were trying to sell their merchandise to passersby.
The passing of the hurrying carriages was also audible, with their heavy wheels scraping and the gallop of the beasts pulling them, who, with their intimidating bearing, urged everyone to get out of their way.
Such a lively exterior contrasted greatly with the interior, where only the sound of pen touching paper, with the occasional gulp, was heard. It all came from its sole resident, who, seated in a chair padded with black wool, wrote document after document, which he then placed on one of the two piles formed by these, located on the sides of the wooden table on which he worked.
With his trademark coat hanging on a coat rack in a corner to one side of the entrance, the thickly bearded merchant was toiling incessantly in his quiet office, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt paired with brown pants and black-framed glasses that sat on his tired eyes.
Then, just as he had extended his arm to take a crystal glass half-filled with water, the door was knocked four times with a particular rhythm.
”Knock; Knock; Knock; Knock”
Even so, indifferent to the call, the man, having taken a drink to quench his thirst, returned to focus on his duties and, as if it was his expected reaction, the door opened after a few seconds, entering through its frame, someone he had not met for months.
The one who arrived was his son, one who, without looking up, he greeted.
”Boy, so you’re back safe and sound. That’s a good thing”
”Father… Yes, I arrived in the city a few hours ago, although I was delayed due to the checkpoint at the gate”
”I understand, as usual, they are so problematic with busy people”
Hearing his changed voice, which was huskier than before, he finally looked at him, finding in front of him someone who had an appearance very different from that in his memories was recorded.
Examining him from top to bottom, he noticed his growth. His size had increased, as his body had stopped being slender to suddenly gain more muscle accompanied by broad shoulders, plus on his previously hairless face had grown a short unkempt beard that was covered with sweat due to the journey he had done.
The young man had left behind his appearance of innocent youth to obtain an impression of maturity and manliness, just like his father. Thus, with a smile on his face, he spoke to him.
”Praise the Goddess. As far as I can see, the treatment has been worth its price, for it even worked on you. At last, you no longer look like a woman”
From the father’s mouth came a sincere compliment, which was not to the son’s liking, as he responded with a reluctant and reserved assent, a reaction noticed by the receiver, who, playing down his discomfort, continued the conversation.
” Now then, tell me, why have you come to me? Don’t tell me you’re here just to greet your old father”
The merchant spoke jokingly as he took a sheet of paper from the pile on his left and raised it to his eye level, where he began to read it carefully.
”No… I mean, yes. Of course, I wanted to see you…”
”Stop it. I don’t want to see you act like a bootlicker now that you’re taking over the leadership of the company’s main caravan…”
With one of his hands, once he had placed the document he was holding on the table, he signaled the young man to stop talking while with the other, he held the bridge of his nose to relieve his tiredness and blurred vision after placing his glasses on his forehead.
”Have a seat and get to the point. I’m in no condition to waste my time playing with you. I need to finish this soon to go get rest”
”All right, Father”
Following the instructions he received, the young man walked to a seat by the window, wanting to get some fresh air to cool his exhausted body.
”Well, without further ado, this time, I came to you to ask you about the people who will be my escorts in my future travels. I wish to know if these have already been decided and if that is the case, I would like them to meet in this city in the next few days so that I can begin to engage in a solid relationship with them”
”Hmm… That’s a good question, which has two answers, both affirmative and negative”
Having calmed a little of his weariness, the merchant began to rummage through the mountain of papers in search of two of them, and when he found them, he took them in one hand to hold them out in front of him, urging his son to grab them.
Meanwhile, the latter went to where he was and, after having them with him, returned to his seat, where he prepared to read them, but before he could do so, his father told him about the contents engraved on them.
”There you have the two groups of candidates that the headquarters has chosen for you. Now, it is up to you to decide who will accompany you, whether you prefer experienced adults with high fidelity to the company or young rookies who you can train to be loyal only to you”
”… I see. The two options are both quite risky”
With a wry smile, the young man shook his head.
”Well, you’re right. However, don’t let it get to you. After all, the same thing happened with me and your grandfather, for no matter how much we want to avoid it, large-scale trade is a job that involves living hand in hand with danger”
”Of course, you can take your time to decide. You don’t need to get back to me today but try to do it in three days at the latest”
The man, assuming that his son would leave the room to think calmly, lowered his glasses to his eyes and continued processing the pending documents. However, to his surprise, he received an immediate response.
”I choose the inexperienced young people”
He spoke confidently as he folded the papers in his possession and placed them in the left breast pocket of his shirt.
”Because if, by any chance, the old men discover our alliance with those who attacked them, captured them, kidnapped their women, and raped them in front of their eyes, it is safe to assume that I will end up dying after being tortured in indescribable ways. After all, unlike you, I have no trusted guards to defend me amid a riot”
”A reasonable conjecture. However, you have to know that among the young people are included some children who grew up listening to their father’s traumas, coming to share his pain and hatred for the monsters who took their old life away from them. So, if they learn the truth, you will end up dying anyway”
”Yes… I didn’t want to think about it, but you are correct”
”Despite that, I am confident in my speaking skills”
Before the merchant could finish his words, the young man interrupted him.
”I am sure it will be easy to deceive a group of ignorant fools, for I have been prepared for it for years. Moreover, as you pointed out, I possess a talent for speech, and although I previously doubted its existence, I put it to the test while I was in the sacred realm”
Instead of scolding him for what he did, the man raised an eyebrow in surprise at what he heard.
”Yes, it was not easy to stay in that damned place. No intention of blaspheming against the gods, of course. What I resented there were the workers, from the annoying maids who woke me up every day before the sun rose to participate in the blessing ceremony given by the high priests, to the paladins who made me train like crazy, without caring that the skin on my hands was torn or that I was faint from exhaustion. The worst of all is that, when walking through the temple and its surroundings, I had to do it wearing a thin tunic, which did not help at all to protect me from the cold of the night and go barefoot so as not to dirty the house of the goddess. Absurd, there were so many problems that I had to go through, such as…”
The conversation between father and son, which consisted mainly of listening to the young man complain, continued uninterrupted for an hour.