You have to wait a bit before you see Tessa Carle come in to the Sleeping Steward. She is tall and slim, bright auburn hair in a braid. She slips through the tables gracefully, a frown on her face whenever anyone thinks to chat her up. One drunk she gives a look to freeze him in his spot when an errant hand reaches for her. She takes a seat at the bar and orders a meal.
- Stern is right, – I muse. – Almost permanently annoyed. – But is it because of the Chatterton Six? This suspect I’ll have to follow for a bit. I settle into my seat to watch her for a while, scanning the room for any games that I may be able to try so it’s not too obvious I’m just sitting there watching someone.
There are a couple of games available, dice or cards, and the players are more than happy to welcome another chair at the table. The mood is friendly, with an amicable competitiveness that says there are no hard feelings as long as there is no cheating.
Carle remains at the bar for her dinner, and for a long time the seats on either side stay empty. Either the regulars know she doesn’t welcome chit-chat, or something about her body language warns people off. She seems polite enough to the staff, though, and despite her obvious reluctance to interact with any of the other customers, she lingers over the meal and a drink afterwards. She puts coins on the bartop, and a quick glance tells you the tip is generous.
“Send a bottle of wine to my room,” she says as she stands and adds some silver before heading for the door to the privies.
I gamble quietly while she eats, not really worrying about winning or losing the copers and occasional silver. After I’m sure she went to her room for good good, or wants it to look that way, I finish up one round of the game then go outside, find a shadowed alley I can see most of the inn from, and watch it for an hour or so.
About 45 minutes later, you see her step out the front door. The street here is still relatively busy, and she stands by the door for a moment, as if trying to decide what to do. After a moment, something seems to catch her attention in the alleyway to the left of the door almost directly across from you. She slips something into her jacket pockets and then steps into the mouth of the alley. It is unlit, and you can’t see much other than that she seems to squat, perhaps to look at something for several minutes before she stands again. She stays there for a moment, then shakes her head as if to clear it, and heads for the stables on the other side of the alley.
I detach myself from the shadows in the alley and walk down the street a few score paces before crossing as if I belong there. Then I slowly make my way back to the stables, listening.
”- and we saved the worst of the grain for ya mare,” the stable-boy is saying to her. His voice sounds like he’s trying to suppress laughter.
“And muddy water, I hope? I don’t want her to get too pampered.” Her own voice is firm, as if she is serious and doesn’t recognize the humor. “A silver for you then.” He takes the coin with thanks and says he’ll be going in to get his dinner.
You can hear her open a stall door and the soft whicker of a horse. “Enjoying your vacation are you? Here, I brought you an apple. I couldn’t find one with worms, so you’ll have to take a fresh one.” There’s a crunch before she speaks again. “And for you,” as another stall door opens, “one, too.” There’s a long pause while the horses enjoy the treat. “I was hoping to get you home, boy,” she murmurs with the first note of gentleness you’ve heard. “But I can’t see a way to do it. A couple of more days, then time to move on.”
I continue walking past, hoping Kaz had better luck than me on my initial surveillance. I head back to the Chattering Ass to give my report.
As you step past the edge of the stable, you pass between two men heading toward the stable doors. Both have their hands on the hilts of their swords – not something necessarily unusual, except as you turn your head to watch them pass, you can see another person approaching the entrance from the other side. A look passes between him and the pair you pass, and you can see he already has a blade drawn, held down against his leg.
- Shit, – I think. I could keep going, but it’s three on one. I turn around and throw a thunderstone ten feet in front of the pair I passed, both as a warning to the woman inside the stable and a gambit to disorient the thugs. The one closest to the street staggers, and holds both hands to his ears with a grown. The one near the stable turns, but not before I land my sap in a solid blow against his skull. The third man keeps going for the entrance to the stable.
Tessa Carle steps to the door, but does not step outside. She lifts her hands, fingers moving, but the third man does not slow. He reaches to grapple her, but a quick draw of her knife backs him off. As she retreats into the stable, with both the deafened man and the third thug following her, I slap my opponent with my sap one more time and then duck past him. His sword glances off my armor (though I know I’ll have a bruise later), and I dive past him to get into the stable. Inside, the third thug says to Tessa, “Come on, girl – Hugh just wants to talk to you.”
But Tessa isn’t in the mood for talking. Her knife slips across the belly of the deaf man, who falls to the ground within seconds, and I am forced to kill the other. The last man – the one I sapped twice – sensibly decides to flee. But before he does so, he looks at Tessa at the rear of the stable. “He’ll just send more, you know,” he says before running.
I keep my sword out, but pointed down at the ground until I know whether I stepped in on the right side. “That were fuckin’ exciting’, weren’t it.”
Tessa Carle looks at you through narrowed eyes, and keeps her long, thin dagger up. She backs up and crouches down to check the man who passed out. In the lamplight, you can see the edge of the wound across his belly – a light cut, nothing deep – is turning black. Her mouth tightens as she stands, wipes the blade, and turns back to you. “That’s one way of putting it.” With her free hand, she reaches out to soothe first a chestnut mare and then a taller black stallion in the next sall. But her body language is still tense.
“You got a tale for the Watch? They’ll be here soon.”
“I think I’ll leave it to someone else to explain.” She steps forward, hesitates. You realize she’s calculating the time required to fetch her belongings from her room and return to retrieve the horses, and calculating as well how far she can trust a stranger who came to her aid.
“Fuckin’ bullies,” I mutter as I realize I am about to become entangled with the object of my surveillance. “Get yer stuff, go to the Chattering Ass,” I give brief directions. “I’ll bring your horses after I talk to the guards.”
In the moment that follows, you can tell she is thinking about simply taking the horses. But then she nods curtly and slips past you, knife still in hand. She pauses at the door. “Don’t scare the stable-boy,” she says softly, and then she is gone.
A handful of guardsmen arrive, efficient about their business, but with most of the fight having happened inside the stable, the bystanders haven’t alarmed them too much. A middle-aged woman with a broken nose is in command, and introduces herself as Shira Moller.
“Bryan,” I offer. After she asks me what happened, I answer, “Well, I was inside gambling earlier, and I was coming back. When I passed the stable, I heard a woman’s voice – don’t know what she was sayin’ – but these three were passin’ by, weapons drawn and tryin’ to hide ‘em, like. Didn’t like the looks o’ it, so I threw the thunderstone hopin’ to scare ‘em off, but it didn’t work. There was a tussle. She had a dagger, got that one,” I indicate the one with the blackened wound, “then she ran. Little ungrateful I feel that was. I did fer this ‘un, the last ran.” I shrug. “An’ here we are.”
“Hmmm.” She squats to examine both bodies, nose wrinkling at the black wound. She almost touches it, then thinks better of it. “You mind repeatin’ that for a priest? Won’t take us long to get somebody here.” Shira beckons over one of the other guard and you hear her ask him to get both a cleric as well as a runner to send to the Vind Hall tos ee if a clerk might recognize the two.
“Sure, no skin off my nose,” I shrug indifferently. – I just hope I stuck close enough to the truth. -
The priest gets there first, a paunchy man who goes first to the wounded man. A muttered prayer, followed by another, and he beckons the men to take him out. “Not sure how he’ll be, Shira. Maybe well enough to question tomorrow. If he isn’t dead. Now you,” he gives you a smile, “this won’t hurt a bit.”
When the spell is cast, Moller asks you to tell her what you said before. You can feel the compulsion as you speak not to lie. When you are done, the priest nods, and takes his leave. The other guards carry the dead body out, and she thanks you for your time before leaving._
I wait for the stableboy to peek his head back in. “I need these two horses readied to go as soon as you can.” I hold up my hand to forestall his objection. “I’m with the lady.”
“Aye, really?” He’s surprised. “I didn’t think she’d have anybody with ‘er.” He saddles both. “She ain’t as bad as she seems. Alluz got a spare coin. An’ she likes this ‘ere ‘orse more’n she cares to let on.” As he leads them out, the chestnut mare gives you a sorrowful look, as if apologizing for all the trouble her owner has brought you.
I pull out my silver pouch and give him a coin. “Don’t drink this all up,” I caution with a smile. As I ready to lead the horses out of the stable, I realize it has started drizzling rain.
“Figgers,” I mutter. I lead the horses through the streets to the Chattering Ass, where I hand over another silver to get the horses settled.
Inside, I pause to shake out my cloak and scan the room for both Carle and Kaz, warning away the latter with a brief look, then move to stand by the fire to dry my cloak some more. I let Carle finish coming up with her story before I join her.
“I go by Vermillion,” I say without preamble, sitting and motioning for a barmaid. “Waddya drinkin’?”
“I go by Tessa. Wine will be fine.” She looks tired. “I’ll buy. It’s the least I can do.” A couple of tables over, Kaz tends his own drink. The look he gave you when you came in had been nothing that anyone would note, but you know him well enough to realize he’s wondering what the fuck happened.
I settle into a tankard of dark beer. “So. Why does Hugh want to talk to you?”
Tessa raises one eyebrow. “You don’t waste any time getting to the point, do you?”
I shrug. “Well, I might be next, so I’d like ot know how deep the shit – pardon – I stepped in is”
“Deeper than you can possibly imagine.” She takes a sip of her wine, considering. “He thinks I can help him with … with a quest. He’s a fool with dreams of riches beyond imagining.”
“Does this have to do with the Chatterton Six? ‘Cause that would be some pretty deep fuckin’ shit.”
“What?” Her look is one of surprise, as if the question caught her off-guard. “Chatterton Six? Those anti-League people?” She shakes her head. “No, those poor bastards’ problems have nothing to do with me or Hugh Vernon.”
“Wait,” as it suddenly hits me, “A’nari Keep Hugh Vernon?”
“A’nari Keep Hugh Vernon, yes.” She sets down her wine glass. “If he sends anyone after you, just tell him the truth. You don’t know anything. Where I came from, or where I’m going.”
“Fair enough, I guess. I’ll only be in the city for a couple more days anyway. Where is he based, in case I need to have a talk with him about leaving me the fuck alone?”
“In Halveet mostly. Or you can find him through the Vind. As for me, I’ve obviously stayed too long in one place.” She glances around the room. “I should have left after I finished my business here,” she murmurs, and you can hear in the words and her voice someone who has spent more time on the road than she could possibly want.
“How long has he been after you?” I frown. “Maybe you should have a talk with him about leaving you the fuck alone.”
She smiles with little humor. “The shit, as you say, goes deeper than that.” Tessa pulls coin out of her pocket, enough to reimburse you for the stabling her horses here, as well as for the drinks. “I’ll be leaving early in the morning, assuming the rain clears. If I don’t see you … thank you again. Most would have just kept walking.”
“I’ve been on the receiving end of a three-on-one fight, and I hate bullies. Listen, I work at the Nightsong Guild in Tarrish. Mostly, I find stolen items and return them to their rightful owner, but if you ever need more discreet help with a bully than the Vind would provide, send a message.”
Tessa studies you, thinking about your words, and you get the feeling she’s not the sort to trust people easily. But she nods. “Vermillion. Nightsong Guild in Tarrish.” She pushes her chair back and heads for the stairs to whatever room she hired, dodging around people as if she doesn’t want to even brush up against anyone. You realize she never offered her hand.
I finish my beer and order another, giving Kaz time to make sure she is gone before he approaches.
Kaz picks up his mug and sits down across from you. “Well, that was quite a surprise. You forget how to surveil from a distance? Or did she spot you?”
“Neither. As I was leaving after my initial reconnaissance – didn’t think I knew that word, did you? – three guys tried to jump her in the sables.” From there, I relate everything I saw and did, concluding with my opinions that Tessa Carle has other things on her mind than the Six and Strawley has nothing on his mind other than chocolate.
“You’re regular white knight coming to the aid of the damsel in distress.” He shakes his head. “As far as I can tell, the secretary is about as straight an arrow as possible.” He takes a drink from his mug. “Shame. I was sure it was her.” He falls silent for a minute or two, thinking. “We get a chance, we can ask around about this Vernon, find out if he’s likely to cause trouble for you.”
“A couple questions couldn’t hurt, but there’s no need to call attention to myself,” I nod. “Hey, do you have pen and parchment handy?”
“Got some upstairs. You planning to write a love note?”
“It’s not that. She just seems beaten down a bit. Was going to share some o’ my chocolate. Was going to share with you, too, but if you’re gonna be a smartass…”
He perks up. “Chocolate? You got chocolate? Shit, if you’d told me that sooner, I’d’ve volunteered to write a poem for you.”
I look around the common room conspiratorially. “Not here,” I whisper sharply, as if everyone will descend on our table like vultures.
Up in his room, I trade him a piece of chocolate for his parchment, pen and ink. The note reads simply, “To make your travels a little easier – V.” I drop a handful of bites worth in a pouch from which I moved my copper. I give it to the innkeeper to get it to Tessa when she comes down in the morning. Then I go to bed because it has been a long day.
Before you retire for the night, Kaz tells you he’s going to do a little more “reconnaissance” first. “I’ll try not to entangle myself with my target,” he makes one more dig.
The next morning, you get up to a sunny sky and wet streets below your window. Downstairs, over breakfast, the innkeeper gives you a sealed note, with a pouch that jingles with coin.
V – Thank you again. I am bold enough to bed another favor. The stallion is not mine. His owner’s bag an belongings are with the innkeeper. Someone at the Vind might recognize the seal of his signet ring. He had black hair and brown eyes, with a half-moon scar near his left eye. If you don’t care to go to the Vind Hall yourself, there’s a lawyer in Darilei who offered to handle it – Allenel Gilford. I should have taken him up on the offer in the first place. Safe travels. – T.
Though I dislike the Vind on general principle, they do have their uses, so after breakfast I take the Stallion to he Vind and explain what I need (resisting the urge to speak slowly and use small words).
The clerk is an elderly man who looks sharply at you, perhaps snesing you aren’t happy to be there. He takes the signet ring and confers with his colleagues before coming back to say that they will need to check with the other Vind Halls. “You can leave the horse with the stabling fee. If he’s not in our registry, we can find him,” the clerk says confidently. “You can chck with any Hall to see if we’ve delivered the items. Until then, we’ll give you a voucher for them” Behind him, the others are carefully cataloging everything in the saddle-bags, including a pouch of gold and silver and several low-value gems.
On the way out, you stop to peruse the board, curious to see Hugh Vernon’s latest posting. The Fourth Expedition is set to leave in a couple of weeks, you note.
As your eyes pass over the wall, you suddenly see it. The drawing is an older one – one of a girl barely before adulthood, and smiling. Whoever drew it hadn’t seen her in years, you imagine.