The new arrival joined the crowd in the bar of The Featherless Parrot, one of Shalem’s business inns. What was meant by a “business inn” was simply a place where it was more likely that the patrons were making deals than that they were being entertained. It suited the visitor to be in such a place.
Those who watched him—and there were many—saw a youngish man with a slightly effeminate look. It was so obvious that he didn’t really belong in this place, that most assumed that he really did. Nobody could be as weak and inattentive as he looked, and yet alive, unless he was very competent indeed.
It was some time before anyone decided to contact the visitor. Making contact with a stranger in a business bar could be dangerous, though this one didn’t look like he was waiting for anyone in particular. He seemed to be just enjoying a drink and some dinner, as unlikely as that might be. It was possible he was looking to hire, and was waiting for someone to contact him.
“Welcome to Shalem.” The tone was not welcoming, but the visitor looked up into the face of a middle aged man.
“Really?” he said, with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “I kind of doubt it.”
“Well, as welcome as anyone is here. Why are you here?” It was abrupt, but one approach was as good as another.
“I’m just looking around,” said the visitor. “I’m in from Malethia via Aagerinar, security consultant to the East Coast Commercial Guild.”
It was a little bit too much information, but it fit with the careless and incompetent attitude. It indicated confidence. And one who claimed to represent the East Coast Commercial Guild would have the necessary backing, assuming he really did represent them.
“Do you need any information?” asked the local. This would be seen as an obvious offer to sell, as no information was free in Shalem.
“Perhaps.” The visitor paused. “And perhaps I can provide some in exchange.”
“What would you like to know?”
“I’m looking for a tolerably reliable source of guards, not too expensive. The tasks will not be excessively demanding and the potential rewards reasonable.” The visitor did not seem to mind putting his cards on the table. “What would you like in exchange for giving me a rundown of the potential sources? I’ll understand if you give better than normal recommendations for your own organization.”
“What do you have?” asked the local, wondering how the visitor could know that he represented potential people for hire. Then he recalled that this would be the most common reason someone would approach a lone individual in a business bar. It just wasn’t usually done with this little preparation.
“Well, I have some good information, useless to me, but perhaps of interest to someone here. I would exchange that information for a good rundown on mercenary organizations. I would be very annoyed, however, if your information did not prove as valuable as mine.”
“And I if yours is not, or is not exclusive.”
“I think you can count on exclusivity. The value of the information could be quite high, provided you know how to manage it.”
There was a considerable space around them now, as people who didn’t want to appear involved moved aside, and thus removed the cover for those who would dearly have loved to hear the conversation. The inn’s manager cursed as he realized that the entire conversation was taking place too far from any of his listening holes for him to get even the gist of what was going on. Nobody sat in the middle of the room for such a conversation!
“Very well,” said the local. “What’s more, I’ll go first, but I expect value!”
There were several minutes of conversation, with the local doing most of the talking, and the visitor occasionally nodding or asking brief questions. The local was convinced that he was talking to the real thing, that this person was indeed who he said he was. He was glad he actually knew something about hiring guards, and he gave information he was certain would not get him caught.
When the visitor was satisfied, he said, “OK, here’s your information in payment. I came here on the Serinon, based out of Uligar, which I joined in Malethia. They made a stop in Aagerinar harbor, where I had some contact, let us say with an individual in a bar like this—always allowing that Aagerinar has no bars quite like this.”
“What my contact told me was that Marita, heir to the Earl Northmarch, and also third in line for the Duchy of Aagerinar, is coming here on an official visit, or at least as official a visit as one makes to Shalem.”
The local started to interrupt, but the visitor raised a hand slightly and he stopped.
“You’re about to tell me that this is already well-known. And indeed it is. It is so well-known that a visitor newly arrived like myself already knows that it is well-known. What is much less known, and indeed seems to be practically unknown here, is that Marita is not on speaking terms with her father, or with the duke, though she is good friends with the ducal heir, Alexander. The reason for this is that she is rumored to have killed in the neighborhood of 17 people, and is a suspect in perhaps as many robberies. She was actually tried for murder but was not convicted. The claim is that she’s only 17 years old, but nobody knows precisely where she was born or when. She is adopted, you know.”
The local didn’t know, but he nodded.
“My contact believes that she is, in fact, an operative of Aagerinar intelligence, and carries out her activities on behalf of the government. In addition, he has good reason to believe that she is coming to Shalem for the purpose of killing Lucius, head of family Grunder, in retaliation for his killing of an Aagerinar shipmaster last month. Aagerinar authorities believe the killing was done simply to avoid paying a bill, and the authorities here, as we both know, would never convict a head of one of the commercial families.”
“And how do I know you are telling the truth?” asked the local.
A look of contempt came over the visitor’s face. “If you can’t judge what I say by now, you don’t deserve your job. Decide quickly!”
The local could not really be sure. He wasn’t entirely sure how the visitor expected him to be able to judge such intelligence so quickly, yet the visitor seemed so confident! He didn’t want to appear to be a fool or incompetent, and he wasn’t sure that he would be able to deal with the results if the visitor became angry, so he decided to accept the information. His customers could judge its value for themselves. He would have to think of ways to present it that would make it appear more definite!
Lucius joined Marita for a dance at the reception put on by the Aagerinar commercial representative. He was uncomfortable being there in the first place, knowing not only that he had killed the master of an Aagerinar registered ship, but that the Aagerinar authorities believed he was the culprit. Then had come the message that this very young lady was here to kill him in retaliation. The more he thought about the presentation of that message, the less he could find of substance to support it. Nonetheless, he would appear weak if he refused the invitation and even weaker still if he refused to dance with the guest of honor.
She looked 17, she talked like a 17 year old, she seemed to be an empty headed moron of a noble. The only reason she would be accused of theft or murder just had to be convenience. Yet now, at the moment when he should be feeling reassurance, he was becoming even more certain that she was here to kill him. When their eyes met, he simply became sure that she knew who he was, what he had done, and that she meant him to die for it. He was glad he’d hired extra guards. When he got home, he would double his guard again. Nobody would get within a kilometer of his home. He would be surrounded by guards when he moved around.
Later, he watched again as she danced with the sergeant who had come with his additional guard detail. He’d asked the man to size her up and let him know.
He would have been interested in a conversation between the sergeant and one of his men, as the sergeant commented that Marita had mentioned a number of difficulties Lucius had experienced in paying employees in full in a timely manner. Her off-hand comments had shaken him up. The trooper himself had heard similar rumors in the town. Would they get their pay? Would they even survive that long. Mentally, they began to compare their positions with those of the regular guards. They discovered that they were generally in the open or in temporary positions, while the regular guards were in well-prepared and well-concealed positions.
The assassin positioned itself on the south wall, just in view of the guardhouse at the front of the building. It had been trivially easy to get into position, one that was just above a household guard position. It watched until the captain of the hired guards appeared, and then a single crossbow bold through the neck killed him instantly. What was clear to the other guards at the front gate was that the bolt had come from the direction of a household guard position.
This was it! This was how Lucius avoided payment! The pattern was repeating itself. Immediately they began to fire back.
Lucius heard the fighting start and turned to his own chief of security. It took him only seconds to think it through. It had all been a trap. False information about someone coming to kill him forces him to hire new guards. The new guards are actually in someone else’s pay, and they are the ones actually hired to kill him. He didn’t pause long enough to think about how his enemies had arranged to get him to hire just the right guards.
“Go!” he yelled to the chief of security. “Kill them all!”
The assassin fairly glided through the battle. Everyone was so busy chasing one another that they had no time to notice another invader. Occasionally it had to put a crossbow bolt through someone or pause to hack a body with a sword.
It ended in the office of Lucius, head of the Grunder family. As the door slid open, as several traps designed for his security were sprung, but somehow did not touched the assassin, he knew that he had been played. As his eyes met those of the assassin for a moment just before it plunged a dagger into his heart, the full realization dawned.
A few minutes sufficed to empty the safe of easily transportable items. The battle was still going on as the assassin left.
Marita, reputed playgirl, thief, and assassin boarded her ship and left the city the next day. Hundreds of witnesses said she could not possibly have had anything to do with the battle and the death of Lucius, head of family Grunder.
She had just happened to be present again at the wrong time and place.