Bells sang out in the sunny morning air. Birds scattered against the blue sky, swiftly rising into the breeze. The bustle and clatter of thousands of people against the cobblestones in the city slowly rattled to a halt, faces beginning to turn toward the center, where the high walls around the Divine DIstrict stood. As one, voices began murmuring.
The city of Norborough was dominated by two things; the guilds that ruled, and the gods that favored them. Each god had their own favored profession, a guild that they blessed. In return, each guild honored their god through festivals and rituals. The gods never interfered directly in mortal lives, and apart from those who were chosen in the ritual every year, very few ever communicated directly with them, but their presence in the realm of Tularth was still strong, kept by the devout faith of their people. Of all the guilds established in the nation, in Norborough, the Merchants' Guild dominated. Situated on the crossroads of the two main roads that crossed Tularth's borders and went on into the neighboring countries, the guild profited from keeping Norborough as a kind of stronghold.
Not far from those high walls, sunlight slanted in through the windows of the Dyami family's guild home. Seventeen year old Etain laid sprawled across her blankets, her tousled brown hair catching gold from the sun. She stirred as the bells chimed through the city, a pale hand fumbling for her coverlet, pulling it across her eyes to block out the intruding rays. Her mother's shrill voice foiled her attempt to return to her comfortable drowse.
"Etain! ETAIN! Young lady, you had better be awake, you are missing morning devotions!"
Rolling off of the mattress, Etain shuffled barefoot across the wood floor, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Obedient to her mother's shouting, she knelt before the small altar on the north wall of her room. Bridgeta, the merchants' goddess, stared at the teenager, gilt lips curved in a smile. Etain regarded the statue as she joined the litany, her voice adding to the chorus in the city. Her mother had given her the icon as a gift on her sixteenth birthday, and while it was handcrafted by artisans in the capital city, and surely very expensive, and while she was sure her mother had gotten it at an excellent price, there was something about it that Etain had never liked. The delicately carved eyes had a glint of avarice about them, and there was something just a bit to eager to please about the smile touching Bridgeta's lips.
Etain shook her head, clearing her mind of such blasphemous thoughts, placing her palms on the floor and finishing out the recitation of the names of the gods. She bowed her head, closing her eyes for a moment, soft locks falling about her face. With a soft sigh, she pushed herself upright, the lace bottom of her nightgown brushing the tops of her feet as she made her way down the ornately carved staircase.
Her mother had already resumed work at the desk, ledgers filled with tiny, perfect handwriting spread in front of her. Hearing Etain's footsteps, Deiene Dyami, head woman of the Merchants' Guild, stood, smoothing thin hands down the front of her plum colored robes. Her ash colored hair was fading to silver, and lines were appearing at the corners of her eyes and mouth, but even as her beauty aged, the steel underneath shone through. Deiene gathered Etain into a perfunctory hug. Somehow, even her mother could make an embrace feel like a business transaction, putting an invisible distance between the two while drawing Etain close. "Etain, love, come sit with me. It is time you learned more about how the guild works."
"Yes, ma'am." Etain perched on one of the high backed chairs, sitting toward the edge in an attempt to make the most uncomfortable seat tolerable. Her mother pushed a ledger toward her, a red marking pencil laid across the page.
"As women in the guild, we are responsible for the records and books of all the traders that contract for our family. When you are old enough to start a family branch with a husband, you will be the difference between success and disaster in the early years. Do not misunderstand me, traders are normally goodly, honest, gods fearing folk, but there are a few who will not hesitate to try to slip things by, especially working for a younger family. This ledger is from a trader who has contracted with our family for the first time take it and review it. No mistake is too small to catch and remember, it may not be a mistake."
Etain pulled the book down into her lap. A dizzying swarm of information swam before her eyes, each of the small numbers needing her attention. Twirling the red marking pencil between her fingers, she began her work. When Etain finally returned the ledger to her mother, it was well after midday, and her stomach was rumbling loudly, making it known that its needs had been ignored. Deiene raised an eyebrow at her daughter. "Well?"
"There is something wrong with the ledger, but I just don't know how to put all the pieces together," Etain began to explain. "The numbers are too perfect, too even. Almost every transaction works out to a whole silver piece, there are no smaller units present. The other thing, for the volume of goods the trader reported, and the wagon he reported taking them in, and his ending numbers of goods sold, there's an odd discrepancy, like the wagon wasn't full the whole time, or if it was, the goods were unreported." Her brow creased, and she rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Does that even make sense?"
Deiene smiled at her daughter, obviously very pleased that she was able to put the puzzle pieces together. "It is not the exact answer, but it is close enough that you would be justified in an investigation, which would provide you the correct answer the trader had kept his own business on the side, run out of one of our family's wagons, and while he did sell our goods, he never kept the ledger along the way. Instead, he created his records in reverse from the ending amount of silver he needed to return to the guild. This trader contracted for us about three years ago just once. He was guild barred for his deception. Do you understand how he could have done that?"
"Yes ma'am," Etain smiled back at her mother. She had passed the test that had been set for her that day. It gave her a small sense of satisfaction to know she could do it, but at the same time, a small lump of fear grew in her throat. If she would be responsible for that every day, looking at every ledger, every number with suspicion, she was not certain she wanted to start a branch of the family in the guild. It was what she had been born to, however. Families were defined by the profession of their fathers and grandfathers, and to break with the profession was to disown her family itself.
"Bridgeta smile on you, daughter. There are sweet rolls in the kitchen, break your fast, but remember that your father is coming home tonight, so there will be a feast in honor of both him and you. The gods test is tomorrow, remember, love."
"Thank you, ma'am."