And so it begins...

 

Chapter 1
 —The Crux—

   

     It is true that healing is an art. Healing was big business in Renamere, however there was one tiny problem—it was illegal, at least for those not in the employ of the government. Sure, the healing arts that relied on herbs and medicines were technically allowed despite the stifling regulations, but you could scarcely make a living on it. Unfortunately, that meant that Dirjek Harns was finding himself on the wrong side of the law these days. After all he had a family, and he wasn’t about to let them starve.
     Dirjek pulled the cloak’s soiled brown hood up over his head as he set out from the tree. It was already past dusk, but even still it was better to take the extra precaution. He reached out to grab the rungs of the giant wooden ladder that he’d have to climb to reach the overlook. His thoughts immediately went his family.
     He was at home with his boys, Samuel and Gregory. They giggled as they tried to beat him at a game of hobblestone. They always got such a kick out of ganging up on him, and turning the game into a wrestling match. Though she worked away in the kitchen, Dirjek knew Mara watched them—she always had. As she worked her tired fingers into the dough, her loving eyes and gentle smile never left her family. He thought about his family; his family and the countless struggles they had faced these last fifteen years. It was just a memory, but Dirjek was sure he could hear her thoughts. It wasn’t much—and yet it was everything. It gave him the courage to keep going, to keep climbing.
     In the days of his youth, apothecaries like his father were respected professionals, and they were well compensated. It was more than just a good living for Dirjek though; he had a natural affinity for the craft. It was only natural for him to follow in his father’s footsteps, taking up the family business, but in the fifteen years since the Republic was formed, things had changed.
     The Republic was heralded with great promises of security and prosperity, but what it delivered was heavy regulation and oppressive laws. No common industries were spared. By law all businesses were required to be licensed in order to provide goods and services. Yes, everyone knew it was just another gimmick—another way for the government to reach into the taxpayers’ pockets one more time. But to the keen observer, it was much more than that. The licensing essentially turned all trade goods into controlled substances, forcing business owners to track and report all purchasing, selling, and consumption. Even simple common herbs like tharumine, crabweed, and moon thistle—which were the lifeblood of an apothecary—were now subject to such scrutinous regulation. That was troublesome enough, but it went deeper than that. The new regulations actually controlled the pricing as well, and with each passing year the business owners’ margins seemed to shrink even further.
     Still lost in his thoughts, he ascended the ladder. The thirty-something year old man wasn’t exactly big. Not with the wages he’d been forced to live off, he was lucky to have any meat on his bones at all. Even still, he was a tall chap, a whole head taller than the average man, and those long limbs made for an easy climb.
     As he reached the top of the ladder, he groped about until his hands found the anchor points. Once his grips were secure, he started to pull himself up over the ledge and onto the overlook. It was a beautiful night. It was a newer moon, but the skies were clear and the stars shone all the brighter as he stood and stared at the Imperial Gardens, reflecting on the choices that lay before him.
     There were other means of turning a coin in Renamere, but the audits were so frequent and the penalties so severe that few took the chance. Dirjek knew of a few other shop keepers in the business who had tried to carve out a little extra by purchasing extra supplies on the black market. Sadly, those stories all ended in the same tragic manner. Depending on the severity of their crimes, those shop keepers either wound up jailed or executed, leaving their families irreparably broken.
   Life hadn’t been fair to them. It was a common sentiment, echoed by millions, but for Dirjek and Mara it was an all too true story. She had left behind many approved suitors for the man she loved, the young and ambitious son of an apothecary. His dream of taking his father’s business to the next level promised them wealth and for her, more importantly, it promised a sense of security.
     Against her parents’ wishes, young Mara left her schooling and her suitors behind, to chase a man and his dream. As a newlywed, Mara was denied her inheritance, so she sold off all of her possessions to invest in Dirji’s family business. She raised over nine thousand dobs, about two years’ worth of pay. It was to be the investment that would give her husband’s dream wings.
     Dirjek’s plans to secure the largest contract in Renamere hinged upon one single factor, whether or not they could supply the massive demand the contract required. It was a huge commitment of capital just to have the raw materials in place. It was during the earliest stages of the political shift that gave life to the Republic. Political bullies tried to scare them out of the decision. They warned of the sure financial suicide that came with taking such a huge risk, and they were warned of the pending regulations that would hammer the industry if the votes ever passed. But in good faith, they rented a storehouse and filled it with the goods needed to fulfill the order, in an effort to lock in the contract.
     As the contract was awarded to them, the father and son team went to work. As the massive orders came in, balms, antidotes, elixirs, and tonics were delivered. About a month had passed, and tragedy struck. The news came to him through a frantic worker. The storehouse had caught fire. In the end, there was nothing they could do to stop the blaze. They lost everything in that fire. The storehouse and all the supplies, everything was gone, everything except the contract.
     With two years’ worth of salary in herbs and supplies lost to the fire, they could never fulfill the contract. There were plenty of rumors and suspicions surrounding the fire, but never anything that would hold up in court. In addition to the losses, legal troubles ensued in light of the contract breech, leaving the family in deep debt and nearly destitute. Everything in their life was crashing down on them, and despite Dirjek’s best attempts at finding remedies, the stress was too much for Mara’s body—and the baby. In the midst of life falling apart around them, the newly married couple was left to grieve for the child that they would never meet this side of eternity.
     Dirjek spit as if he might get rid of that bitter taste, but those memories still fouled his mouth. Life had been a struggle in the years that followed. Every day was a battle to find a way to earn enough to feed and clothe his now family of four. He had done well just to pay off the debts. It was one less noose around his neck, but the boys were growing and it was getting harder and harder to fill their stomachs. For years Dirjek saw opportunities to skirt the law, and for years he just couldn’t do it—he wouldn’t do it. The price was too high. Times had grown desperate though. Dirjek Harns wasn’t about to start buying and selling herbs and other reagents on the black market, no, that was too predictable and honestly it was a lousy gamble. Sure, it would help him feed his family, but if he was going to risk going to prison—or worse, the payoff better be worth it. No, he had other plans.
     He scanned his surroundings. The coast was clear, there were no guards in sight. His pulse quickened and his breath seemed to go easier than it came. A towering rod iron fence surrounded the imperial gardens. There was no way he was scaling that thing. No, the gate that stood before him was the only entrance point. His eyes fell on the large rusted iron lock that secured the gate, and his mind shifted back a couple of months.

 

     “We’ve followed every rule to the T,” pleaded Dirjek.
     The auditor, dressed in long black trousers and a long black shirt, said nothing as he pored over the ledgers. His crooked finger traced each entry on the page and his beady eyes followed, yet he said nothing. Dirjek studied the familiar symbol that was embroidered into the black clothing with scarlet thread. Three arrows, each with a single barb on one side, came together to form a triangle that pointed downward. A thin circle broken into three equal parts sat inside the triangle, with a solid circle at its center. It was the unmistakable mark of the Republic.
     Dirjek forced his eyes off the symbol and said, “This is getting ridiculous, this is the third random audit this year. What are you guys hoping to find?”
     The auditor ignored him still, and with wracked nerves Dirjek began pacing back and forth in his tiny little shop. Then for the first time in twenty minutes, the auditor spoke, causing the hair on the back of Dirjek’s neck to stand on end.
     “Aha,” said the pudgy nosed auditor.
     “Aha what?” was Dirjek’s flippant reply.
     “Your records match ours,” said the auditor in his monotone voice.
     “Uh, yeah that’s kinda the point there, stuffy.”
     The auditor shot him a vile look, then said, “Not when you’re out of compliance!”
     “What are you talking about?” demanded Dirjek.
     The auditor snapped, “Records show you bought elderberry and tharumine last week.”
     Dirjek offered a quizzical look and said, “Yes, I bought half a pound of elderberry and five pounds of tharumine—all within legal quantities.”
     The little, round faced man snapped the ledger book closed and said, “Not when you grow tharumine on your flat.”
     “The flats are all dead, the drought has killed everything. Everyone knows that,” said Dirjek as he folded his arms across his chest.
     “The law expressly forbids exceeding the stocking limits of trade goods and supplies,” said the auditor.
     “I didn’t exceed anything, the rooftop garden is dead, you idiot. We haven’t had rain in almost two months. Everything is dried up, all across Renamere. Do you want to go look at it?” said Dirjek.
     “Men who lack conviction waver in the face of adversity,” replied the auditor.
     “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” asked Dirjek.
     “Mr. Harns, you broke the law. You should have had faith—the Republic provides. Since this is your first offense, I’m going to let you off with a minor warning. I will be confiscating the elderberry and the tharumine that were obtained illegally, and I will be levying a fine of sixty dobs for your crime,” said the auditor.
     Dirjek’s jaw nearly fell to the floor. “Sixty damned dobs, what in Halor’s Balls for? That’s nearly a week’s earnings... and wait, did you say the elderberry too?”
     “Don’t make the mistake of expanding on your criminal record, Mr. Harns. Hand over the herbs, and I’ll come back in a week for the payment.”
     Dirjek slammed his fist on the counter and shouted, “You’re not taking my elderberry, it’s damned expensive and I’ve never grown it. It’s not even possible in this climate.”
     “Mr. Harns, the elderberry was obtained during an illegal transaction. It leaves with me now, or it leaves with the soldiers outside—either way, it now belongs to the Republic.”
     Dirjek was forced to hand over the herbs, or risk further legal woes. The Republic and their ridiculous and oppressive laws had struck again, and it was going to hurt. The going rates for elderberry and tharumine were one hundred and twenty dobs and twenty-five dobs respectively. With the fine and the loss of goods, this little violation had just cost his family a hundred and forty-five dobs. Ten days’ worth of earnings—gone.

 

     The bitter memories lingered, but his mind shifted to the task at hand.
     “You can do this Dirji,” he assured himself in a whisper.
The young apothecary made his way to the garden gate, and pulled the iron tools from one of the leather pouches that hung from his belt. He took a deep breath and gave himself a head nod of confidence before sliding the tools into the lock. No turning back now Dirji.


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