Kingmaker - As the Ravens Gather

Easy Coin

For the fourth time in the last hour, Dannel cursed the tardiness of drunken merchant’s sons. The damned fool had been due to stagger by this alley an hour and half ago. She had trailed him three nights in a row! He always staggered home this way. Where the hells was he? Her legs were cramping from crouching behind this cursed barrel, and the rattle-brained idiot had six gold crowns of hers that she had basically handed to him back in the tavern’s dice game. She had fed him drinks all the while. When Dannel left him, he was already well in his cups, and his purse was screaming her name. She’d almost risked snatching it from him there, but she liked Grommel and his wife and didn’t want to hurt their business by stealing in their tavern.
The halfling shifted silently, slowly bringing her hand up to scratch her nose. As if the lush would hear me, she thought. He couldn’t hear Aroden rising from the dead under his feet! She felt the weight of the sap in her hand. A fool like that was destined to be parted from his coin. She was doing the gods’ work. Yes indeed. A holy act, she told herself.
A sweet noise drifted to her upturned ears. The boy was singing loudly to himself as he staggered down the street. Finally, she thought. I’d best take care of him quick before he brings down the ghost of the Stag Lord himself with his caterwauling.
As the young man passed by the alley opening, Dannel took a quick step forward and prepared to leap atop him.
“Lovely night, isn’t it?” a voice said behind her. The cutpurse was so startled she all but tripped. Spinning around, she reached for her short blade.
“Now, now, there’s no need for that, Miss Dannell.” Out of the alley’s shadows, a tall thin form emerged. It was a man, wrapped in a dark overcoat. A hood was pulled up over his head, and the darkness of the alley hid his features. The shadows seemed hesitant to let him go, and appeared to play at his feet.
“Who are you? Why are you skulking around in the dark? And what do you want from an innocent maid?” she said in her most girlish voice. In response, the figure threw back his head, crowing with laughter. His mirth was joined by the shriek of a bird somewhere behind him, the sound of which sent a cold shiver down Dannel’s spine.
Oh. Oh no, she thought. I’m in big trouble.
“M’lord,” she stammered, dropping to a knee. I’ve just been caught by the Baron of gods’ damned Narlmarch!
“Oh please. This is the River Kingdoms. We don’t require such formality here.” The man was at her side, pulling her up. “We lords of Narlmarch are an informal group, you will find.” She could see his face now. He had a broad, easy smile, and his green eyes twinkled as he looked down at her. She had seen him from a distance and knew he was a handsome man, but up close . . . whew. She felt flustered. At some point she realized he still had her hand and was speaking.
“ . . . I’ve been watching you, young lady.”
“M’lord, I meant the lad no harm. Just a frakkin’ prank, of course. Why, I’ve known the bloody boy for years . . .”
The baron’s eyes glittered, and his lips curled into a smirk.
“Now, now, Dannel. No need wasting your breath. You are speaking to a fellow street rat, one who has taken coin from dozens of beardless youths who looked just like that one. I suppose this was part of the joke?” He handed her back her sap. Handed it back? When did he take it? She was baffled to the point of silence . . . a condition she had rarely experienced.
“I’m not here to arrest you, my dear.” The baron lowered his hood and ran a hand over his shaven head. A shadow fluttered down out of the darkness to land on his shoulder . . . a raven. The thing cocked its head and stared down at her. The blasted thing made her feel weird.
“Then what would you have of me, m’lord?” Dannel asked, tucking one of her wild red locks behind her ear in a way that the boys liked. She let her other hand wander to her cleavage. The baron smiled again and then crouched down. The two were eye to eye.
“Why, Dannel the Damned. I wish to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m going to make you a legend.” In the roofs above them, a dozen ravens all begin to screech.



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