Hana almost tripped over her own feet, which would have been an impressive feat given that she was standing still. "Garthol? Has he been sitting there the whole time?"
Garthol was sitting unobtrusively on a chair halfway between Coda's group and the official discussion involving Natalia Plinth. He was facing the former group, so his self-indulgent grin was visible as he stretched his massive arms above his head before standing and rejoining his friends. His arms were also very visible, as he was wearing a dark green shirt with very short sleeves. "I was. That bunch of windbags hushed themselves when I sat down, but they forgot I was there after a few minutes and they keep arguing in circles so I didn't really miss anything. I'm more than just muscle," he said, sounding no less like gravel than before.
"What's the situation?" Coda asked. Hana noticed that he and his friends had all found more suitable clothes than the free respawn rags from the temple. The outfits were all quite basic, and limited to dark green, brown, grey, and in Bindiby's case pale blue. Hada figured they'd spent more of their limited funds on armour and weapons, which were currently concealed within backpacks.
"The noble lady is offering to summon an army to deal with the blockade. The mayor, guard chief, and various guild representatives are arguing about the details," Garthol said quickly.
Bindiby frowned so forcefully her eyebrows almost met. "Summon how and from where? 'Summon' can mean a lot of different things and many of them—"
"Cool it Bin, I know! It's a regular living army of ground troops, nothing to worry about. They're just a few days' march north of here, in Listerrance. Lady Plinth has a friend there who will gladly send help."
"Gladly in exchange for what?" Vil asked with sour skepticism.
"That's what about half the argument is about."
Bindiby asked the obvious question. "And the other half? Is it about how they plan to get word to this friend in Listerrance?"
Garthol nodded, showing off his neck muscles. "Spot on, Bin. She can signal her friend instantaneously using a Celestial beacon. But that's got all sorts of downsides."
"Radiation damage, likelihood of summoning Celestial beings, and can only be done well outside the safe zone," Bindiby listed, counting on her fingers.
"Exactly. The only upside is it doesn't require getting past the blockade, only close to it," Garthol said.
"Are they discussing where's the best place to activate the beacon?" Coda asked.
"Yeah, that came up. Going out to sea and activating it underwater is popular. The beacon will work regardless but it won't irradiate the landscape."
Bindiby and Coda nodded, and the former said, "That should reduce the range required from the safe zone too."
"That's what they're saying, but Lady Plinth is not so keen on being dunked underwater, and doesn't want to let anyone else have her necklace. So she's asking a high price for her help," Garthol said.
"Money, or goods?" Coda asked.
"She asked for a cut of tax revenue, and when that was strongly resisted she suggested something to do with apprenticeships."
Hana had been listening in silence, drinking in the details and connecting them to the facts and suspicions she already had. The final word was a very signficant hint. "That's what all this is about. Funneling more labour to this or that lord's cities. The only question is whether she's working for or against the instigators of the blockade."
Stoni felt the warm glow of accomplishment wash over her character's body, bringing temporary relief from the ongoing discomfort of existing in this world.
Clearly I'm on the right track. But I still have no idea who the people behind this are, or what their intentions are. It's a shame I didn't get any specific personal memories from Natalia's player, like I did for Granny V. But she didn't have a character and was acting as herself with her family, so that's not a typical situation.
"Not everything is part of a scheme to manipulate the availability of virtual labour," Vil said. Stoni pulled herself from her musings in time to see Vil looking at her with intense skepticism.
"Actually, it's more likely than you think," Coda said, speaking with the certainty that came from years of experience. "It's best not to think about it too much. Whatever we do we're probably playing into someone's plan, so it would be a waste of energy to try avoiding any action that... Well, you know what I mean."
"Do you think there are any lesser evils?" Stoni asked, hoping to learn some vital information about who was pulling the strings, without looking too ignorant.
"Well, some of the twelve great families are decent or mostly decent. Some are just out for profit and some seem to take pleasure in exploiting people. I don't think I need to say which I mean. But the more scrupulous families aren't so deeply entwined in all this VIVID skullduggery. So the best option is usually whatever brings us the most enjoyment in this world."
"And the fastest progression," Vil added. "The more we can earn here, the better our lives will be. So the sooner the blockade is cleared, the better."
"Right," Coda agreed. "We can't control which of the great families ultimately benefits. That all depends on who's the most underhanded, and who has the most plans within plans."
"Lady Plinth is definitely scheming something," Stoni said as she thought over the details. "She logged out yesterday during a picnic brunch outside Star Town, which means today should be her away day. So either the council are talking with another hireling, or she didn't use her full time so she could log in now for this meeting."
"Interesting," Coda said. "She's got to have the Noble class, which is very Mystique intensive, so any hireling would have to be very compatible to be able to use the relevant abilities. In addition to being loyal to whichever family she's part of, of course."
"Yeah, she's a Noble, a Sage, and a Shade Striker," Stoni said casually. Too casually, she quickly realised when the entirety of Coda's group began staring at Lady Plinth with fearful awe.
"A triple-classed Noble, in Star Town. And I've never heard of her before," Coda muttered mostly to himself. "Somthing big is definitely up, and someone wants to be sure it happens the way they want it." He looked back to Stoni, and she was sure he was about to say something reproachful about her breaking character or using information she shouldn't have access to. He didn't get the chance, but she regardless resolved to try harder to be Hana instead of letting Stoni show.
"So should we try to thwart her?" Garthol asked, looking eager to hit something.
"It'll be useless to try to talk the council out of going along with whatever she wants, but we could try messing with her plan," Coda said.
"Maybe sink her boat early," Vil suggested.
"We'd make a powerful enemy," Robin said. "And it might delay clearing the blockade so a lot of players will be mad at us too."
Hana nodded, glad to hear a voice of reason. The blockade was putting a big crimp on her activities as a Messenger.
"Yes, that will give us a lot of unique quest opportunities. In fact, we might be able to join the blockade, which will open up even more possibilities." Coda was careful to keep his voice low even as he grew more excited.
Hana stared at him, not believing what she was hearing. "Making enemies is a good thing?"
"We're not here to knit hats," Vil snapped. "Having powerful enemies is the quickest way to gaining powerful allies. And if we can bait a few of the noobs into hunting us down outside the safe zone, well that's free loot and combat training without having to track down monsters that are worth our time. And there's nothing to find this side of the blockade."
"Um," Hana said. "I suppose. I'm just a Messenger."
"Then maybe it's time you turned your quest in," Coda said in a way that was clearly a dismissal.
"Yeah, I think should. Maybe I'll see you or be you later."
"That's an odd thought," said Bindiby, who looked pleased to finally get a word in. "You must be a highly rated hireling to get Lady Plinth."
"Uh, yeah. Well... not so high since she zero starred me for ripping her dress."
"That was you? When she first came in here she was..." Bindiby's voice trailed off, as she realised her shout had drawn the attention of the subject of conversation.
"Er, I'd best be going," Hana said, and fled.