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.
    That was easier said than done though. His reluctance to follow through with his plan was coming to a front. More like an all-out battle of the wills warring inside of him.
    “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’ve worked my ass off, and for what—to resort to being a common criminal? You bastards,” hissed Dirjek through clenched teeth as he pried the rusty lock open.
 He carefully lifted the lock free and swung the gate open just enough to slip inside.
     Once inside the moonlit gardens, he made a beeline straight for the arboretum. Dirjek set his sights on one particular greenhouse that stood off to the right about a hundred paces. Within a few seconds of padding across the soft grass and Dirjek was needling the lock with his tools. Ka-thunk. The lock was sprung, and the last door between Dirjek and his payday was swinging wide open.
    Despite all of the Republic’s laws and regulations, organized crime had its place throughout the empire, and Renamere was certainly no exception. Crime lords ran the black market, of course, which primarily funneled cash and goods throughout the sprawling empire, but it was more than that. It was about the outsourcing of dirty deeds. It should come as no surprise that theft was the primary service offered by the burgeoning enterprise known as Renamere’s Finest. But with the stakes being so high, Dirjek wasn’t about to split his earnings with anyone. Besides, he wasn’t about to perform a typical black market operation anyway.
    It is true that healing is an art, but it is also true that it comes in many forms. Few artists bore such capabilities in Renamere, or anywhere within the empire. Fortunately, Dirjek Harns was much more than just an artist, he was a transcendent talent. He remembered well the day he discovered that truth.

   “Help! Dirji, help,” shouted Mara.
    Dirjek dropped his bowl and rushed into the bedroom. Horror rocked him as he took in the scene. Mara lay in their bed, soaked in blood—her blood.
     “Dirji, what’s happening to me?” cried the hysterical young wife.
    Her bloody hands trembled as the fear arrested her. The section of the blankets that was between her legs was drenched in dark red blood. As Dirjek tried to process everything before his eyes, Mara wailed as she doubled over in pain.
    “What happened?” yelled Dirjek.
    “I dunno, it just started hurting. So bad,” said Mara before crying out in another throe of anguish.
    Dirjek was now by her side, frantically searching his pocketed apron for an herb to lessen her pain. As he went to reach for an herb, something told him to grab a pinch of maker’s touch instead. His deft fingers snatched up dried flower petals that faded from sky blue to a deep shade of purple. Instinctively he began to roll them between his fingers to crumble them, but once more something told him to go against his first thought, and to instead sprinkle them over Mara. It made no sense to do so, but the force of his intuition was so intense that he could not resist. Dried petals fell from his outstretched hand.
    The slender petals spun and tumbled as they fell away like feathers, and then the most unexpected thing happened. The petals stopped falling. Instead they hung suspended a foot above Mara’s abdomen. Tiny shimmering particles of emerald light began to rain forth from the floating herbs. Dirjek gasped in disbelief as brilliant green light slowly poured down on Mara. He didn’t know why, but intuition spoke to him once more, and he listened.
    Dirjek pulled back the covers and slid her blouse up enough to reveal her stomach just in time for the lazy drops of verdant light to touch down. The droplets of light flooded the pale skin of her abdomen. Her skin had hundreds of spots where it had been infused with light, and each glowed brightly. Then the glowing traces of light began to move beneath her skin. In the span of just a few seconds, the lights swirled into a myriad of patterns, before they all shot down toward her reproductive system.
    Mara shot upright with a deep gasp. Her eyes grew wide, and then they were normal once again. She looked around at her body in dumfounded amazement.
    “What, what is it?” demanded Dirjek.
    Mara couldn’t even speak though, she was too busy touching her lower abdomen as she felt about for any lingering traces of pain.
    “Dirji! It’s gone! Whatever it was, it’s gone!” she cried with relief. “The pain, it’s all gone!”

     Thirteen years had passed since the day Dirjek discovered his strange ability to draw power from herbs. Unusual gifts were not unheard of, but in this corner of the world, it was believed that those gifts belonged to the Republic. With this one talent alone, Dirjek was sitting on a gold mine, yet unsanctioned usage of such a gift warranted death under the law. It was a fate so cruel it could only be fashioned by a pantheon of wicked gods, or at least that’s how he saw it.  
     Dirjek scanned the greenhouse as he took inventory. The pale light of the moon diffused through the room, but it was enough for him. He wouldn’t have needed the light anyway; the sickly sweet scent gave it away. He found what he had come here for, bogneedle, lots and lots of bogneedle. It was the reddish-green needle like sprouts that grew in tufts of boggrass. Here in the imperial greenhouse though, he didn’t have to dig or hunt. There were trays and trays of the sprouts. Working with a quickness that only the fear of being caught could produce, he stuffed the small leather pouch that hung from his belt. Dirjek crammed his fist into the pouch to create more room, then continued stuffing the pack.
    “Hold it right there,” said a voice.
    It hit him like the crack of a whip. Chills shot down his spine. Dirjek cringed.
    The stranger spoke again, “Stealing from the Imperial Gardens, eh? You’re going to pay for this one. Now slowly turn around and let me get a look at your ugly mug. Nice and slow it is, real easy.”
 Dirjek took a deep breath as he tried to calm his nerves, but the pounding of his heart was unabated. He exhaled slowly, then his pitch-covered fingers scrambled to tie the pouch closed, but stray bogneedles clung to his sticky fingers.
    “Slow does it, or I’ll stick you right here an’ now,” warned the guard as he reached for his sword with one hand.
    Dirjek thought to fight, he thought to run, but unable to move, he simply froze. Then the guard’s rough hand landed on his left shoulder. In an instant, Dirjek reacted. Spinning out to his left, he twisted around the man’s outstretched arm. The guard began to draw his blade from its scabbard, but Dirjek instinctively threw his outstretched hand toward his would-be captor. Bogneedles flew free from his palm.
    As the blood tinted sprouts tumbled through the air, they came to life. Where bogneedles once flew, large shimmering dagger wasps swarmed. Before the scream had even left the guard’s mouth, the wasps were on him. Biting and stinging with the full force of the hive.
    Dirjek didn’t wait around to see what would come of the guard. He took the invitation to depart with eager strides, whispering, “Get those looked at in the morning.”
    Behind him, the guard howled into the night like a madman as dozens of pockets of venom swelled. Dirjek sprinted across the grassy quad and made his way past the arboretum once more on his way to the gate. Within seconds he crossed the distance and wriggled out through the garden’s rusty gate, and then he was off into the night.
    “Father, when you look down on me, please know I didn’t want to do it this way. They left me no choice,” said Dirjek, as tears swept down his cheeks.

                                                                                                                                      ∞

     Sunlight from the lazy morning sun started to filter into the apothecary shop. The thick, wavy panes of stained glass glowed in a beautiful array of greens and yellows that made up the floral design. The room itself was rather plain, much like every other shop in Renamere. Thick wooden planks made up the floor and ceiling, while dull cream colored plaster covered the walls. There were two tall wooden bookcase type shelves, which held a very meager assortment of herbs and balms, and then there was the small counter behind which Dirjek sat busily attending to his work. Beyond him, was a door that backed into the kitchen, where Dirjek would prepare his herbal remedies.
    When the front door swung open, Dirjek never took his eyes off his ledger as the stranger staggered in. Instead of paying attention to the haggard customer, he continued to balance his books.
    “I’m in need of healing,” groaned the soldier.
     Without looking, Dirjek replied, “I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place my friend, there’s no healing here. Against the law and all.”
    Irritation bubbled up in the customer’s voice, “Aye, you know what I mean mixer. Not healing, but something to help take this away, or at least take the edge off.”
    Dirjek made an exaggerated sigh as he looked up and closed his book. Then with much effort, he gave a wide-eyed look and a gasp to suggest he was entirely by shocked the smattering of welts that covered the man’s face and arms. But then in that moment, as he studied the customer’s somehow familiar face, his mind flashed back to a distant memory, some fifteen years before.

   Sam Harns stared at the charred remains. The previous night’s fire had been a complete loss. The aged timber that made up much of the old warehouse never stood a chance. The fire patrol arrived, but it was too late. Not even the water weavers could extinguish the blaze in time. The old man began to weep. A petite young woman with mousey features and short brown hair placed a gentle hand upon his shoulder.
    “It’s going to be okay,” said Mara with her ever youthful optimism—which had yet to be eaten away by life’s harsh truths.
    The old man couldn’t bear to look at her, or anyone for that matter. Everything they had dreamed of, and every cent of their collective families’ money had gone into this venture. The dream was dead.
    “It’s going to be okay Pops, it really is. Isn’t that right Sergeant Searles,” said Mara as she turned to the young soldier.
    Sergeant Searles was observing the burnt remains of the warehouse, but he didn’t respond.
    Mara persisted, “You’ll make this right, won’t you Sergeant Searles?”
    “Huh? What do you want me to do about it?” he replied.
    Mara smiled and said, “You’re going to perform your investigation.”
    “Investigation, for what?” was his sharp reply.
    Mara replied, “For arson, what else?”
    “There’s no case for arson,”
     A crowd was growing in the streets. Dirjek arrived just in time to witness his new bride’s first meltdown. He stepped between her and the soldier, as a fiery barrage of unladylike words smattered the Sergeant.
    “Woah, woah! What’s going on here,” asked Dirjek.
    Searles snapped, “Put your woman in her place, or I will.”
    “In my place! You churlish, sheep-biting, canker-blossom! My place is putting my boot in your a—“
    “Mara!” exclaimed Dirjek with dismay.
    Searles said, “I’m warning you, you’d better get this barker back on a leash.”
    Dirjek spun back toward the guard.
    The fist plowed into the young soldier’s face, dropping him with a single punch.
    “Put that on a leash,” snapped Mara.
    Dirjek shouted as he turned, “What the hell Mara?”
    “What? That louse bag had it coming,” she replied.
    “Nice shot kid,” said a chuckling Sam Harns.
    Sergeant Searles wasn’t laughing though, but everyone else in the still growing crowd was. His face grew a deep shade of red as he climbed to his feet, and reached for his cutlass.
    “Hold soldier,” commanded a new voice.
    Sergeant Searles spun to find another officer on horseback a few paces behind him.
    Searles said, “Lieutenant Dawes, they assaulted me!”
    “No, she assaulted you,” replied the Lieutenant.
    “She’s under arrest.”
    “No she’s not,” replied the Lieutenant calmly.
    “These people have had enough lessons for today, they don’t need any more. Besides, do you really want to publicly arrest a woman for decking you,” said Dawes.
    “What do you mean lessons?” demanded Dirjek.
    Lieutenant Dawes sighed as he shifted his smug gaze from Searles to Dirjek.
    Lieutenant Dawes slowly replied, “Greed. You and your family tried to subvert the system, and manipulate the market to gain an unfair advantage over licensed Republic vendors. It is because of actions like this that force the Republic to take action. New regulations are coming Mr. Harns, be sure to never attempt anything like this again.”
    Dirjek said, “What are talking about? We bought herbs and supplies, that’s all we did.”
    “No, you bought out the market, depleting the supply, driving up the cost of the goods that you now control. That’s not how the Republic works, Mr. Harns. It is a new day, one where men do not exalt themselves over each other,” said Dawes.
    Dirjek’s fists balled as he said, “We acted completely within the law.”
    Dawes allowed his eyes to drift away until they settled on a pretty little thing in a canary yellow dress, then he said, “The laws are changing, Mr. Harns, and those laws apply to mixers just as much as anyone else.”
    Dirjek gritted his teeth as he fought back tears. “We poured everything we had into this.”
    “Costly mistakes are often the ones we learn from best,” said Lieutenant Dawes with cool indifference.
    “So the Republic burned it down to teach us a lesson?”
    Lieutenant Dawes reluctantly shifted his gaze from the girl in yellow back to Dirjek and said, “No one burned your warehouse down, Mr. Harns. Besides, you’re looking at this all wrong. Consider it a blessing. Had you continued your little operation here, you’d have been in big trouble when the new laws go into effect.”
    With fire in her eyes, Mara asked, “What in Halor’s Balls are we to do now?”
    Lieutenant Dawes began to eye Mara and said, “We all have needs my dear—and the Republic provides.”
    Lieutenant Dawes winked at Mara, and tugged on the reins as he led his horse away.

     I’ll be. After all these years, the Republic lap dog returns to his vomit.
    “What in Halor’s Den happened to you?” asked Dirjek.
    “I…I stumbled into a nest of wasps. Can you help me?” asked the guard.
    “What kind of wasps were they?” asked Dirjek.
    “Dagger wasps, I think, but it was dark. Seriously, you’ve got to help me. I’m about to claw my skin off,” pleaded the man as he raked at the sores on his neck.
    “Dagger wasps eh,” replied Dirjek as he offered the man an appraising look, as if he had to plumb the depths of some great mystery.
    The guard said, “I dunno, I…I just know it burns. Halor’s Balls it burns.”
    “I can give you an elderberry tonic and a jinseed balm, that’ll cost you fifteen dobs,” said Dirjek as he made his way past the man toward one of the bookcases.
    “Fifteen dobs! That’s robbery, man!” shouted the guard.
    A heartfelt smile played across Dirjek’s lips and he said, “The Republic provides. Besides, I don’t get to make the prices. I’d think a captain in the imperial army would know that. If you got a problem with the prices, take it up with your district senator.”
    The guard responded, “Damnit, I’ll pay it. But do I really need both? Can’t I just get the balm?”
   Dirjek turned back to the guard with a sour look and said, “Sure, if you’re certain that there’s no infection. Have you washed your hands each time you dug at those welts?”
 The guard’s face flushed at the thought, then he said, “Better take the tonic too.”
 Dirjek bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from smiling. He furrowed his brow as he carried out the ruse. “Very well. Pay up, and I’ll brew the tonic.”
 The soldier dug into his coin purse and retrieved a small handful of coins, and spilled them onto the wooden counter top. He counted out fifteen and put the remaining two back in his purse. Dirjek swept the coins into his hand and deposited them in a metal box that was just out of sight. The guard cringed with the sound each coin made as it fell.
 Dirjek turned his back to the customer as he made his way into the kitchen. “On the shelf behind you, you will find a small container of the jinseed balm. Go ahead and begin applying to the areas where you’ve been stung. Now the elderberry tonic is a potent brew, one you’re not going to enjoy, but it is the strongest medicine we have readily available here in Renamere, for this type of condition.”
 The guard grunted, “If you think I’m worried about the taste, then you have never met my wife and you definitely haven’t been to Bruno’s pub. That local brew of his tastes like tar, and goes down about as easy too.”
 Dirjek allowed himself to chuckle at that, then said, “It’s less about how it goes in than how it comes out. Doesn’t happen to everyone, but I recommend keeping your leathers loose for the next day or two.”
 The guard simply shrugged at the warning, “Yep, his brew does that too.”
 “Just a moment longer, I’ve got to get the water to a boil, then you should be good to go.”
 “Aye,” said the guard as he smeared the gritty ointment over dozens of strawberry sized welts.
 Dirjek then casually asked, “How’d you get stung so bad?”
 “Like I told you, I stumbled into a nest,” replied the guard in a voice that suggested he was withholding information.
 “Doing what?” prodded Dirjek.
 “Hunting a sneak-thief up in the imperial garden.”
 “In the garden? Who’d do such a foolish thing?”
 The guard shot him a distrustful glare and said, “I’d like to know that too. Hey, you’re a mixer—”
 “An apothecary,” corrected Dirjek.
 “Right, so what’s bogneedle used for?”
 Dirjek turned his nose up at the mention of the herb, then said, “Not much, when you have a choice. Nasty stuff, full of sap which invites bugs. It has a good smell though, so sometimes people will dry them out and use them to make fragrances. It can also be used to treat tide fever.”
 The guard’s ears perked up at the sound of tide fever. “Tide fever eh, that’s got to be pretty valuable then wouldn’t you say?”
 Dirjek shook his head to reject the notion before the guard had even finished, then he said, “No not really, not in Renamere anyways.”
 “And why is that?” asked the guard, as his tone shifted to more that of a hound dog.
 Dirjek was quick, cool, and matter-of-factly in his reply, “No one really uses it anymore because tharumine does the job better and truthfully, it’s generally easier to keep in supply.”
 “Why’s that?”
 “Well…,” said Dirjek with a slight pause, “tharumine is native to this region. In the days before the Republic, all you had to do was go outside the city walls and in a day you could harvest all you’d need for a season. The law prohibits that nowadays of course. Instead whatever we can’t grow on our rooftops, we must purchase through approved channels, limiting how much we can purchase at any one time, but it is always available, and these damned rooftops are so small.”
 “What is bogneedle worth then?”
 “Oh… if I had to guess, I would think one… maybe two dobs per pound,” said Dirjek.
 “Per pound? That’s all?”
 Dirjek shrugged and nodded as he mixed the contents in the ceramic mug full of hot water.
 Then the guard said, “Then why in Halor’s balls would anyone risk stealing a worthless weed?”
 “Beats me,” said Dirjek with another convincing shrug.
 Dirjek slid the mug of hot herbal water across the counter top toward the guard, and gestured for him to drink. The man seemed lost in thought for the moment though, and before he took the mug, he pulled those two remaining coins back out from his coin purse.
 “You seem like an honest fellow. Keep an ear out and let me know if you hear anything about a sudden interest in bogneedle and I’ll make sure you get a few more of these,” said the guard as he dropped the two dobs on the counter top, then picked up the steaming mug and took a drink.
 “Aye, and how will I find you captain…?”
 “Dawes, Captain Dawes. I have eyes and ears all over this quarter. If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me,” said Dawes, with a certain air of arrogance seeping through for the first time.
 Dirjek said, “Captain Dawes, it seems that the jinseed balm is counteracting the venom quite nicely.”
 Much to his surprise the captain took a moment to think about it and said, “Wow, I think you’re right. That worked fast. Well done mixer. And this tonic isn’t half bad, almost has a sweet taste.”
 Dirjek bit his cheek once again and simply nodded.
 Captain Dawes pulled his previously discarded tunic back on, covering his mottled chest. Then he took one final drink from the mug, finishing the contents with a gulp. Then in clichéd style, the soldier slammed the mug on the counter top and released a mighty belch. Dawes then tipped his cap toward Dirjek and turned to leave.
 Dirjek had one last question.
 “So you’re a captain... who’d you piss off to get stuck with an evening patrol? Isn’t that what they have sergeants for?”
 Dawes grunted his satisfaction and without turning he said, “Some men don’t know how to keep their women, apparently, that’s my fault.”
 As the captain strutted away, Dirjek was sure he heard the words good day, but his only response was, “Not for you, you sorry bastard.”

                                                                                                                                ∞

  Dirjek walked into the cottage and closed the door behind himself. He set his cloak down on the back of the nearest chair and tossed a bulging coin pouch down onto the old pine table.
 “Oh my, today was a good day,” said Mara.
 “He came, just like I said he would,” he replied.
 “Is all of that from him?” she asked.
 “No, but I did get seventeen dobs from him.”
 “How?”
 “Five for jinseed balm, ten for elderberry tonic, and two—”
 “Elderberry tonic?” she interrupted. “You haven’t had elderberry in months, it was all confiscated!”
 “I know that, it was an herbal tea infused with bogneedle,” said Dirjek with a smirk.
 The little woman was not amused.
 “Dirji, if they catch you they’ll hang you!”
 “Relax Mara, no one’s going to know,” said Dirjek. “Bogneedle gave it the sweetness it needed and the few drops of red thistle oil will send his digestive system into the same miserable disarray as the tonic. He’ll never know the difference.”
 “But bogneedle and red thistle oil won’t cure an infection,” she shouted.
 “The jinseed balm is an antiseptic and that is probably overkill for wasp stings,” countered Dirjek.
 “You better be right Dirji,” said Mara as she moved into his waiting embrace. “Because I’ll kill you, if you get caught.”
 Dirjek cracked a smile and said, “You won’t have to.”
 Mara gave him a little punch in the chest, and then she fell back into his embrace for a long moment. He ran his fingers through the awkward curls in her short brown hair. He lifted her face to his, and he kissed her. Then he started to laugh.
 “What?” she asked.
 “The best part, you’ll never guess who it was,” he said with a grin.
 “We don’t know any guards,” she replied.
 Dirjek chuckled and said, “Oh, you know this one.”
 “Stop playing, who was it?”
 “It was the great and honorable Captain Dawes.”
 Mara’s eyes opened wide and her mouth fell open. “Are you serious?”
 “Serious as red thistle oil,” he replied with his permanent grin.
 The two of them had a good laugh. As they celebrated the misfortune of the man who had wronged them so many years ago, Dirjek’s mind drifted. He’d never been one for the use of force or exact revenge, but for fifteen years he had prayed for justice.
 “The Republic provides.”
 “What was that dear?” asked Mara.
 Mara’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
 He turned to her and said, “Oh nothing.”
 “Oh, okay. So, what are you going to do now?”
 A broad and mischievous grin crossed his face and he said, “I’m going to become a healer.”


I hope you enjoyed this sampling of The Republic. For just a $1 pledge, you can come along for the rest of the journey.

Tiger Hebert ©

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