Merrick rapped against the thick wooden door.
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A narrow slot, set at eye-level, slid open. A pair of eyes filled it.
"Huh? No, th-"
"Listen," said Merrick. "I don't know what the damn password is. I've been gone for months, and Zero changes it every week. My name is Merrick, and I have pressing business with your guildmaster." The old man leaned in toward the slot. "Pressing enough that he will be very unhappy with you if you don't open this door."
"You could do with a little more respect," said the man behind the door. "You may have noticed that you're out there, and I'm here. As far as I say, you can wait as long as it takes for me to find my guildmaster and speak with him, and you can thank-"
Merrick lashed out, quick as a striking snake. Suddenly one of his hands was inside the window and wrapped around the man's nose.
"Now," said Merrick calmly. If you yell for help, or attempt to attack me, I'll break your nose. I don't really want to do this, but I will. My supply of patience is dangerously low at the moment. What you can do, to avoid having your nose twisted off your face, is open this door. Then, when you have opened the door, you can lead the three of us to your guildmaster."
"He won't mind being awakened. I promise. Now open up."
The bolt was thrown back. Merrick stepped backward, let go of the man's nose, and withdrew his arm.
The door opened. A young man with dark, suspicious eyes stood there, rubbing at his nose.
"Was that really necessary?" he said.
"No," said Merrick. "You just caught me on a bad day."
The young man surveyed them. "You look like rogues," he said.
"I'm going to choose to take that as a compliment," said Merrick. "May we come in, please?"
The young rogue stepped back far enough for them to file into the narrow hallway.
"Do I get any names?" said the young man. "Or will you grab my nose again?"
Merrick glowered, and appeared to consider his options for a moment. "If you've been paying attention, you will remember that I gave you my name, which was Merrick. The one-eared elf behind me is Lunice, and the ranger who looks like a drowned rat is called Wekli. We are friends and allies of the Rogue's Guild, and we have come a long distance to speak with Zero.
"That is," added the old man. "If he hasn't been ousted and replaced by a pigeon or something since I've been gone."
The young man blinked.
"Nothing," said Merrick. "Nevermind. What about you? Did you come upon a name at some point in your life?"
"My name. Sniktch."
"Forgive me," said the old man, a trace of a grin tip-toeing across his face. "I thought you had a cold."
The dark-eyed young man- really no more than a boy, still- took on the expression of someone about to say something cruel, biting, and probably not true...then decided against it. He turned on his heel and started down the hall without checking to see if they were following.
"They're recruiting young," whispered Lunice. She was watching the bony, awkward form retreat down the hall.
"Maybe they've started an orphanage in our absence." Merrick shrugged. "Come on. He's about to turn a corner."
"I thought you knew this building," said Wekli.
"I do," said Merrick. "I just want to make the boy feel useful."
"Zero? Sir? Uh...sir?"
"Mwfz? ...who's there?"
"I'm sorry to wake you, sir. There are people here who wish to speak with you."
"What? At this hour of the night? What people?"
"A, uh, an old man who looks a bit like a vagrant, an elf, and a short human. The vagrant says he knows you, said his name was-"
Zero leapt to his feet. "You didn't keep him waiting outside, did you?"
Sniktch rubbed absently at the bridge of his nose. "No, sir," he said.
"Good lad. Give me a moment." Zero shrugged out of his undershirt and began throwing clothes on.
A few minutes later, he stepped out into the reception room.
"Merrick!" he said.
The old man stood, and sketched a short bow. "Good to see you again," he said.
"Where have you been? I was told you were dead-"
"Happens. You didn't believe it again, did you."
"Good. Hey boy." He turned toward Sniktch, who was hovering nervously in the door. "I could use a pot of hot tea about now. Would you do us a favor and go put the kettle on?"
Sniktch frowned. He looked at Zero.
"Tea," said Zero. "Would be very nice."
The boy nodded respectfully, and sprinted toward the kitchen.
"Good lad," said Zero. "Shows a lot of potential."
"You should teach him some manners," said Merrick.
"That would explain it, then."
Zero raised an eyebrow. "Let's move into the common room," he said. "I imagine you all would like to sit down."
The moment before Merrick set foot inside the common room, he thought to himself that one of the truly wonderful things about the Rogue's Guild was the fact that the common room (including the bar) was open all hours of the night.
The moment after Merrick set foot inside the common room, he was thinking about something else entirely.
"Andrew?" He boggled. "I thought you were...you had...am I losing my mind in my old age, or is something very strange going on?"
Andrew Rimilia, who was- to Merrick's further stupefaction- tending bar, looked up and blinked. "Oh," he said. "Yes. Talia said you would be by any minute..."
One of the figures sitting at the bar turned around and smiled at him. "Hello Merrick," said Talia.
The other, smaller figure stepped down off the the three-legged stool. Guise sketched a bow. "It is good to see you once more," he said.
"Aye," said Merrick, scratching his head. "Aye...why is it that I suddenly feel like the only one left out of the conspiracy?"
"I told you that I was planning to stay the night with friends in the city..." said Andrew.
"My friends happened to be named Talia and Guise."
"And you didn't know they were rogues?"
Andrew shrugged. "It was none of my business, really. Until tonight."
"What happened tonight?"
"They offered me a job."
"A job you couldn't refuse?"
"A job I couldn't refuse."
Merrick nodded. "That's the Rogue's Guild," he said. "Advancement through the sneaky and underhanded practice of being completely honest. Never trust an honest man, I say."
"No. Only trust a VERY honest man. A normally honest man has something to hide. Could I have an ale, please?" Merrick pulled out a chair and sat down.
"What happened to your ear?" asked Talia. She was staring at Lunice.
"I-" said Lunice.
Merrick, Lunice, Talia, and Zero jumped. Sniktch was standing in the doorway, holding a tray.
"Yes," said Merrick, who was the first to recover. "Please, uh, please just set it down over there, will you?" he gestured at a table.
Sniktch set the tray down, muttered something Merrick was sure his mother would have been shocked to hear, and left the room.
"Now," said Zero. "Would be an excellent time to tell me exactly what happened."
"Very well," said Merrick. "I'd best start with this, then..." He reached down and drew the black dagger out of the makeshift holster his shin.
Six people held their breath.
"We set out," he said. "From Manderia, aboard a trading ship bound upriver..."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.