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"Sit down, all of you."
They pulled out chairs and sat down around the table.
"I'm pleased to see you here," Ashenbach said. He laced his hands together on the table. The candle danced and flickered. "Would any of you care for anything? No? Fine."
He paused for a moment, watching them watching him.
"All three of you worked for Magruder, yes?"
"And you want to continue working here, yes?"
"Good." He pointed across the table at the tall, broad-shouldered priest. "You are...Jarek?"
"You're a priest of Kylia?"
"In good standing?"
Jarek raised a cynical eyebrow. "Ye-es. Why?"
"Just a question." Ashenback gestured with a flicker of his eyes at the scale mail under his robes. "Are you expecting trouble?"
"Good." Ashenbach smiled thinly. "And you are Des?"
She nodded back at him. There was something about her face, about the set of her cheekbones, that spoke of elvish blood, somewhere in her family.
"Is that short for anything?"
Ashenbach raised his eyebrows. The young woman looked back, impassively.
"You work as a bard day-to-day?"
"Are you a licensed musician, or do you busk?"
She fixed her eyes on him. "Licensed musicians work on palace grounds, and they don't wear what I wear. Nor are they so young." She looked down for a moment at her brightly colored skirts, her decorative corset, the long, tapered sleeves of her shirt. No. A licensed musician was more likely to be seen in severe black, high-necked black, dusty from work in churches and long hours reading tedious books on outdated composition in the days of the kings. Of the fifty-odd members of the Guild of Musicians, all but four were male.
Ashenbach shrugged. He turned toward the third member of the party, who was staring unabashedly at his host's horns. Ashenbach waited. Eventually the man noticed. He blinked.
"And you are Mikal." This was not a question. "I've heard of you."
"Have you?" Uncertain.
"Yes. You have something of a reputation, even so young. What is it you do, again?"
Mikal coughed. "I- well- I work for a lot of different people. Errands, and such." He scratched behind one ear. "Errands..."
"Yes. Must be a lot of errands need doing dressed in black, wearing full compliment of daggers."
"...don't know what you're talking about-" He shrugged a little further under his cloak.
"Of course." Ashenbach leaned back in his chair, glass of wine in hand. Of the three, the priest was likely the oldest, and the least predictable- being a follower of Kylia, a strange and often tempermental goddess at the best of times. He saw real intelligence behind the pretty eyes of the bard...behind all their eyes, in fact. That was good. There was something else, too...a kind of sardonic amusement, especially from the girl. Odd. He thought maybe the
Mikal now...Mikal would be useful.
"Let's see, then..." Ashenbach put down his glass. He leaned forward over his hands. "You want to continue here, you work for me. Keep your other jobs, please. In fact, I encourage it. I know Magruder was running some sort of paper-of-news, a rumor-mongering operation. I plan to operate a cleaner house. Now, you hear anything, see anything, find anything you think might be useful, you come back to me, you report it as soon as you can to me- and ONLY me- and if it's even remotely useful, you will be paid. Twenty-five gold crowns per useful story, with a very real possibility for improvement over time. However." He leaned even further forward, lowering his voice to something near a whisper. "If I find that you've been talking to others before me, I will be very, very unhappy. Am I made clear on this matter?"
"Yes," said Jarek. "I think we understand you." He looked unmoved, but Mikal and Des were looking at each other apprehensively.
"Do you agree to my terms?"
"Will this conflict with either my priesthood or my job?"
"Hmm?" Ashenbach looked over at him. "You work elsewhere too?"
"Yes. I work at a brewery and tavern. Will that be a problem?"
Jarek met his eyes evenly, not intimidated.
"I don't expect it will, from what I can see." Ashenbach cocked his head. "What say you. Want the job?"
Jarek nodded. "I do."
"And you, Des? And you, Mikal?"
They chimed in their agreement.
"Excellent." Ashenbach smiled again. "I look forward to working with you." He leaned back in his chair. "Well, now. I think that covers it. Feel free to ask if you have any questions. If not, you are free to go."
They stood up to leave. Mikal pushed back from his chair, turned toward the door...and felt a hand on his arm.
Ashenbach was standing next to him. He blinked, surprised, and looked across the table. Hadn't the man- or whatever he was- been sitting there a second ago?
"If I could keep you just one more moment..."
"Er. Yes. Of course. What can I do for you?"
"In the future, I may have a certain type of job that needs doing. Word on the street is, you may have the skills to do it. You follow me?"
"I think I might."
"Good. I may contact you for work of this special kind in the future. If I do, I can assure you of special payment. A king's ransom. Do I have your attention?"
"Wonderful. In that case, we're done."
The thief left.
"You trust him?"
"Not a bit. You?"
"No." Des rubbed at her arms. "Felt like he was measuring me. Sizing me up."
Jarek nodded. "Of course. He was."
They walked in silence for a while.
"Which way are you going?" Des said. "I mean, where are you going now?"
"Back to the Stag's Head. I have work to do."
"Do you think they would...have a problem with music...inside?"
Jarek shrugged. "I doubt anyone would mind. Musician would liven up the place. Can you play that lute?"
"Of course!" She was looking at him, mildly offended.
"There are a lot that can't. Who just use them as props. Don't take offense."
They continued up Willow Street, talking in low voices. Behind them, Mikal emerged from the Bunch of Grapes and slipped into a nearby alleyway. They took no notice.
The sun staunchly refused to come out from behind the grey wall of cloud. Across the city, Zero went about getting fifteen his rogues prepared to join the watchmen. Etiquette for the Rogue's Guild was easy; they had none, only a species of mutual respect that hearkened back to the days of formal hospitality. The problem, as Zero saw it, was that the code of respect applied only to other Rogues. As far as most of the guild was concerned, the rest of the city could go hang. Not a good attitude for watchmen to be copping.
"And if someone on the street approaches you?" he said again.
"Nod. Be polite. Shake hands. Talk about the weather," they chorused.
"And if they are rude?"
"Apologize. Walk away."
"And if someone attacks you?"
Zero nodded. His hooded eyes were expressionless. "Be polite. Not foolish. Make us proud."
Far away, a shattered, broken man...who remembered, distantly, calling himself Ganthor...was learning the finer points of pain, suffering, and madness.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.