Espionage and Etudes

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Espionage and Etudes both come at a price.

Passer-byes looked on in muted curiosity while a petite, blonde, and somewhat attractive woman pounded on the back door of the tavern, shouting, “You forgot to pay me, you foul troll!” Her efforts were in vain as they went completely ignored. She kicked the door with a soft leather boot and cursed with words that no lady should know and gave up with a huff, giving a tentative smile to the onlookers. By their faces, it was obvious that a few were contemplating giving her aid. She pushed her long golden hair behind a slightly pointed ear. The onlookers quickly looked away, perhaps deciding that it was best they mind their own business. It didn’t’ surprise the woman. They had heard of her, heard her sing and play the lute, and most of them probably whispered about a darker reputation than that of a comely bard.

It was all rumor and conjecture, but this mystery was part of the bard’s allure. The nobility paid good money for an entertainer of intrigue. A woman of beauty and mystery was a wonderful draw to any noble woman’s soiree, guaranteed to make the event a success. They’d be dazzled by her voice, enraptured by her lute, and enthralled by the fantasies that she herself inspired them to entertain about her. She had many pasts, and no past. However lucrative this usually was, this same intrigue turned away any help she could have otherwise gotten. It was a shame. She was a favorite of many patrons, and it was a shame that none were present to champion her.

Miffed at the lack of coin in her purse, she straightened her shoulders and secured her lute case across her back. The day was not yet lost. She made her way to the main street while she plotted ways to receive the compensation she was owed. The street was crowded, filled with excited whispers and rampant gossip. Magistrate Thaslay was dead after a sudden illness. She knew about the death hours ago, but it was interesting to see how the population was now reacting to the news. If only they knew. She was pulled back to some particularly vengeful, though delicious, thoughts when her attention was drawn to a cacophony across the street in front of the Governance building.

By first appearance, it seemed as though the town guard was arguing with a Knight of the Order. “This is an outrage! How was I to know that wasn’t the real chef!? I was hired to protect the Magistrate from knives and arrows, not poisoned pastries!” The knight was indignant, proud despite obviously failing in his task.

Taliesen paused and watched the scene unfold from across the street. Mystery and intrigue indeed. Had this fool knight succeeded in his task, then hers would have been successful as well. The coupe actually cost her a bit of money, since any information she could have gathered on the recently deceased was now moot. It was a shame that he had doomed them both to a poor evening. It wasn’t as if she was entirely without options, though. She simply needed to strum the right chord for the right person.

The surly, and rather large, human in the guard uniform scowled at the man he had just thrown out. “You can crawl back to your order and cry to them if you want, but remove yourself from these premises before I and several of my good friends remove you to a cell.”

The knight rolled back his shoulders, seeming twice his actual size, almost like a blowfish in breastplate. “My family…”

The town guard snickered. “Has disowned you, I’ve heard. You can’t call the Cantu name, no matter who whelped you.” There was something exchanged between the two, through Taliesen did not see what it was.

And like a blowfish, the knight deflated. As if it had been the tale of Halfling Tom and the Giant, the town guard had bested the knight.

The Cantu name was one that Taliesen knew. They were a prominent Elven family in Capital of Lyndhol. It was interesting that this man was son of that house when it was painfully obvious that he was human. The knight turned away but not before casting a smoldering scowl at the guard. He would have demanded satisfaction had the guard not been in the right. Even despondent and shamed, however, Taliesen couldn’t help but notice the look of a tough, intimidating, and surprisingly helpless knight in distress. A sly smile crept onto Taliesen’s face as she prepared to pluck the strings of fate.

***

Eric Cantu, Knight of St. Cornelus; son of the favored mistress of the late Jonathan Cantu, the Third; half-brother to Jonathan Cantu, the Fourth, Marquis of Cantu; Protector of the nobility of Vestus; and newly fired protector of the Pellan Magistrate, felt the strong urge for a strong drink. Clenching the letter of disownment from his half-brother, complete with the Cantu insignia, he made his way through the crowd on a mission to find the nearest flagon of ale.

The Hanged Horse wasn’t the finest establishment, and had Eric read the name, he might have realized that. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. His mission was not to be hindered by such trivialities.

It wasn’t long before the aroma of stale smoke and musk assaulted Eric’s nose. Nevertheless, he took a seat at the bar, waving for the burly barman to deliver up some of his strongest brew. With a curt nod, the barman silently slid a flagon down toward his hand. Eric downed half of it in the first draft.

“Didn’t know Knights were allowed to drink like that, Sir.” The barman cocked a hefty eyebrow to his patron, leaning against the kegs as he cleaned a mug with a filthy rag.

Eric grunted. “They damn well do when the situation warrant’s it, believe you me.”

Wordlessly, the barman nodded his approval, and returned to scanning his more unscrupulous clients.

The drink was stale and tasted more than slightly watered down. Eric wasn’t sure he cared. The dark, loud, and foreboding atmosphere meshed well with his dark mood. He had a reputation, a good one. One failed job had apparently been all his elven half-brother had been looking for to disown him. Cut off from his family name, a knight in disgrace… Eric didn’t want to think about the repercussions this might have with the Order, both for his failure and his lack of family connections. No matter how hard he worked, “Youngest Knight of the Order of St. Cornelus” just translated to “lucky bastard with connections” to some, and those persons were going to push until his honor demanded satisfaction.

If he had any honor left.

He lifted the flagon to his mouth and took a more thoughtful drink.

The bartender returned and leaned over the bar, whispering conspiratorially with a furtive glance to the other patrons, “Say, you Knights don’t have one of those ‘vows of charity’ things, do you?”

Eric’s eyebrows furrowed, and then he realized what the barman meant. “You are thinking of priests.”

“Ah.” He leaned back and gave Eric a smirk. “Right then.” And then he left.

The odd question somewhat worried Eric. Thinking that it may be time to leave, he downed the rest of his ale and half rose to leave, and then caught sight of the slip of a female sitting at the bar next to him.

“Oh, please don’t leave yet. You may be the most interesting person here,” she said. Her voice was delicate, melodious. It was a shame that he couldn’t make out her features under the heavy cloak. He sat back down and studied her. She was very petite. Elven maybe? No, the elongated point of her ears would have been obvious even under the hood. Half-elf, then, he decided.

He shook his head. “I’m not entirely sure that is true, madam.”

She laughed. The sound turned more than a few of the near-by heads. “Nonsense,” she replied. “Let me rephrase. There is no one here more interesting to me.” She pointed to his empty mug. “May I?” She took the mug and sniffed its contents without waiting for permission. “Ugh. This is revolting.”

“Um, yes, it is,” he said cautiously and took it from her gloved hand. “Is there something you need of me, Madam?”

The hood nodded. “Undoubtedly, though I believe there is something you need from me as well.” She waved down the barman, who seemed to answer her faster than anyone else that evening. She leaned slightly over the bar and spoke in a low voice, holding out the mug. “Surely this is not the best of your finest stock.”

“Err…” the barman replied.

She crooked her finger at the barman to come closer, and she whispered in his ear. His smirk flitted across his face for an instant. Straightening up, he nodded at the woman, who had sat back down. “Right away, Madam.” He left with the mug, leaving his associate to watch the bar.

Eric frowned at the woman. “I’m mystified.”

Again, she laughed, though it was more of a soft, private laugh. “I’m sure you are. Allow me to elucidate. We share a common problem that I believe we are both in better positions to solve for each other.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Elucidate further.”

He imagined that she smile under the darkened hood. She sounded like she was smiling. “We both need to be paid. I need a strong arm for negotiations, and you need… a more refined touch.”

Eric frowned. How much did this woman know? He had an idea. “If you are looking to establish a connection with Cantu, you would do better to look elsewhere.”

She sighed. “You silly man. Not every woman is after fortune.” She paused. “Well, your family’s fortune.” So she was after a fortune somewhere. “I am simply looking to exchange services. I help you receive your due reward, while you help me receive mine.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What is the catch?”

The barman was back, and laid down a mug of clear amber liquid and a thin glass of presumably wine. The woman took a delicate sip from the glass. “On me. Consider it a good will gesture.”

He took a cautious sip from the mug. It was potent and heady. He took a drink. If the swill he had first been served was ale, then the liquid in this glass was undoubtedly ambrosia. He looked at the minx beside him. How had she coaxed this out of the epitome of corner-cutters?

He smiled and took another sip. Perhaps it was worth the risk to accept her offer. Besides, honor agreed with him helping the distressed maiden, though truth be told, he was surprise that she hadn’t drawn blood from stone yet.

“Madam, I don’t even know your name.”

She held up her glass. “My name is Taliesen. To joint ventures?”

He considered her raised glass, and after a moment of deliberation raised his own. “Eric Cantu. To joint ventures.”

They both took a drink.

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