Zhang sipped her pint and watched the Hay Bales patrons. The blacksmith Sammet sat quietly staring into his glass. He looked stoic, but Zhang knew that he was nursing a heartache; the barmaid Bella was lavishing her attentions on some young caravan guard that had been frequenting Grommel’s tavern down the Pike. The baron’s man Redgik stood among a crowd of locals, dryly recounting his exploits with the Council. In this one, he himself apparently fired the killing shot that killed some otherworldly troll. It was hard to believe that this snot-nosed lickspit would stand against a troll, but Zhang knew that the baron’s man was indeed a deadly shot with a bow. And at the far end of the crowd, Zhang marked the dark archer himself, Markoa Half-elf. His hood was up and no one else seemed to notice him but there he was, half in the shadows, pointed ears perked up and listening to the conversations around him.
The young fisherman that had been watching her for the last half hour finally stood up and began maneuvering his way through the crowd towards her. Zhang rolled her eyes. He was handsome, this one. But she had no time for boys tonight. She was expecting a visit.
She was surprised Dannell wasn’t perched in her usual spot, holding courts with tales of their most recent adventures. Surely their efforts to clean out that goblin nest to the west would have earned the halfling some free drinks. Zhang knew that Katelyne was on the road, pocketing merchant coin as a caravan guard. Perhaps Dannell had followed her down the Pike. Zhang suspected that the halfling was occupied with a certain offer that had come her way. Dannell didn’t know that she was aware of the conversation with the Raven. A friend had seen the two speaking in an alley several nights ago, and Zhang had sniffed around. Apparently the baron was putting together a personal guard. She was slightly offended that he had come for Dannell first. The halfling had skills, true, but Zhang had Meerover eating out of her hand. Nothing happened in this town that she didn’t know about. She knew the Gorumite was getting married before he did. She would have thought that a man with the baron’s reputation for intelligence would value someone with her . . . unique skills.
“M’lady, might I offer you a draw from my cask?” The young suitor had arrived. He made no attempt to hide his admiration, his eyes scanning her from boot to crown.
“I have my own,” she responded, though she favored him with a smile. Not her best, she didn’t want to make a slave of the boy. Regardless, his eyes lit up.
“Please, m’lady. Let me do you the honor.” He muscled his way next to her, displacing several other bachelors who had positioned themselves next to her but had yet to work up the courage to make their play. His rivals glared at him and grumbled in their cups. The boy is bold, Zhang thought. She tossed her black hair over her shoulder, and settled her dark-eyed gaze on him. He responded with a white-toothed smile.
“I would love to share your ale, my sweet. But my bearded love is insanely jealous.”
“Your bearded . . .”
“The Lord Marshall? Brother Zero? Our former treasurer? I’ve been spending nights with Beardie for several months now.”
“Beardie?” the young man looked like he was ready to throw up on his shoes. Or hers.
“Yes, that’s what I call him. Look,” she said, leaning in and adopting a conspiratorial whisper. “I shouldn’t tell you this . . . but you know when they brought our Gorumite general in town? He was ripped from groin to chin?” She looked dramatically from left to right. “Lord Corben had stuck his tongue in my ear on the night before the Council left town. Beardie had sworn he would make Corben pay, but I never thought . . .”
The youngling knocked three men over in his haste to escape her. With great discipline, she kept a straight face. So easy, she thought. Coward. If he had been brave enough to offer her a drink after that tale, she would have likely given the boy a night to remember. Oh well, she sighed. She was here for business.
Almost as if on queue, she noticed the shadowy bird squatting on a barrel across the street. It was about time. She had begun to wonder if the man would ever show up.
She waited five minutes, but the bird never moved, and none of its feathered companions joined it. It only sat there watching her. Finally Zhang stood up and slowly zig-zagged through the crowd, losing the attentions of several admirers on the way. As she slipped out of the Bales and across the street, the bird fluttered away silently, disappearing down a dark alley.
Oh, come on, she thought. But no one else seemed to notice, so Zhang followed her feathered chaperone. Within minutes, she found herself in a shadowed dead end. She saw him in the corner, hiding in the shadows, but she pretended she didn’t. The boys do like to make an entrance, she thought.
She released an exaggerated sigh and looked around blindly. Finally he made a move.
“Good evening, m’lady.” Zhang thought about feigning surprised, but she chose to abandon the charade.
“M’lord Baron,” she said, curtsying low.
The sorcerer paused for a moment. She saw a grin spread across his face.
“I had heard you were sharp, Zhang.” He stepped towards her, but she stood her ground, hands on her hips.
“And I had heard you were mysterious, m’lord. But a dark alley? Really? I have to say I’m disappointed. It seems so . . . cliché.”
The wide grin widened further.
“Well, m’lady. You are so well-informed. Perhaps you know why I’ve sought you out?” He leaned back against the alley wall, his arms crossed in front of him.
“Why, you want to make me legend, of course,” she said, returning his smile. She ran her fingers through her hair and gave him her most alluring look. But the baron didn’t respond . . . at least not the way the boys usually did. His face grew still, and the smile faded away as he stared intently at her.
“No,” he said firmly. Zhang was stunned, truly stunned for a second.
“No, Zhang Yu, I emphatically do not want to make you a legend.” Her heart sunk. Why? What had she done? How could he not want her to serve him? How could he not . . . want her? But then she caught the hint of a smile return to his face.
“No, my dear, I have something very different planned for you. Something very different indeed.”
Well, this should be interesting, she thought.