Jenna grunted in exertion as she rubbed the waxy substance into the oak countertops. It was early afternoon and business was slow at the small book store where she had been working for the last several months. As the only employee, it usually fell to her to clean and maintain the pleasant little shop while Nathal, the owner, doted lovingly over any new books under the pretense of inventorying them. But she didn't mind, she actually enjoyed the physical labor. The effort gave her a sense of accomplishment she couldn't get from dealing with customers or reading the books she made her livelihood selling. Not that she didn't try, she just wasn't much good at the useless chatter that made people want to buy something.
The bell above the shop's elegantly decorated front door chimed, startling Jenna from her musings. She looked up, seeing a man of medium height and wiry build enter the shop. His clothes looked expensive but practical, and she noted that his hands never strayed far from the dagger on his hip. He noticed her watching him and, hooking his thumbs casually into his belt, made a show of perusing the books on display. An alarm went off in her head immediately. There was something wrong about the man being there. She doubted he was there to steal anything. Telflam was a lawful city and there wasn't much of value among the crowded shelves in the front of the store, although Nathal did keep some rare and expensive books in the back. Still, thief or no, this man was clearly out of place in a book store.
Uncertain how to deal with her instincts, Jenna decided to deal with the oddly unnerving stranger as a normal customer while remaining wary. Stepping around from behind the counter, she greeted him, "Good afternoon sir, anything special I can help you find?"
Turning slowly, the stranger looked Jenna up and then down again, apparently pleased with what he saw. Jenna noticed a faint scar on his left temple, which made her uneasiness grow until she felt slightly nauseous.
"I'm here to settle our account." he replied smoothly.
Unsure as to what to make of the stranger, Jenna waited for him to continue. He didn't. "I'm not... um, account?"
"Don't waste my time. I'm here for the monthly payment."
"Payment? Payment for what?"
Growing impatient, the stranger snapped at her, "I'm here for the same reason I come to this pathetic hole every month."
Jenna was baffled. Was this man here to rob them?
"Don't play with me girl, I'm here for my money. Now give it over!"
She was still confused as the stranger pushed her out of the way roughly. Fear, anger and outrage rushed through her as she jumped to her feet. If this bastard thought he could just walk in off the street and take anything he wanted he was in for a rude surprise! Letting out an angry yell, Jenna charged the stranger. Hearing her coming, he spun around, lashing out with the back of his hand. It connected with a solid smack, knocking her against the counter. Suddenly the stranger's dagger was in his hand.
Hearing the commotion, Nathal came running out from the back of the store where he had been inspecting several new books. Seeing the stranger standing over Jenna, who was strewn across the countertop, he quickly figured out what had happened.
"Mr. Xian!" he cried, "My most sincere apologies! This is completely my fault. I forgot entirely that you were due this afternoon. Please, give me but one moment to fetch your package."
Keeping his eyes fixed on Jenna while turning his head toward the sweating, overweight shop keep, Xian replied, "You have a 30 count."
Jenna, as scared as she was confused, looked at Nathal with a silent plea for help. He frowned slightly and shook his head, disappearing through the thick curtain separating the private area of the store from the public one.
"I'll be right back Mr. Xian."
Xian's cold look turned into a sneer as he studied Jenna. "You're not very smart are you?" he asked bluntly.
Not knowing how to reply, Jenna stayed quiet, leaning against the counter and trying to stop her heart from pounding through her chest.
"What's the matter?", he taunted, "I knock all the piss n' vinegar out of you?"
Remembering her dignity, Jenna slowly rose to her full height. Still eyeing the knife, she asked, "Who are you?"
Xian snorted and shook his head, "You really don't know do you?" Her puzzled expression made him laugh.
Nathal entered the front room holding a small bag that chinked as he moved. "Mr. Xian, I have your package ready here, with a little something extra for any inconvenience we may have caused you. Please, allow me to apologize again for the confusion."
Xian grabbed the bag from Nathal, making sure to feel the weight of the coins inside. With a satisfied grunt he slipped the bag into his pouch and, after sparing a dirty look for both Nathal and Jenna, glided out the door.
"Jenna! I'm so sorry, I should have told you."
Jenna winced as she reached up and felt the side of her face, which was already starting to swell. "Nathal, who was that man? What's going on? Why did you give him all that money?"
Nathal sighed as he walked over and put his arm gently around her shoulders. She tensed, but didn't pull away. "Business in Telflam is... regulated. There are certain administrative bodies that require a monthly fee to make sure things remain peaceful and consistent enough for commerce to thrive."
"But I thought you just paid the city for a license to open a store in the shop district and that was it. That guy, Zeon, or whoever he was, he didn't even look like he worked for the government." She paused for a moment, thinking. "Nathal that man forces you to pay him every month or he'll kill you!"
At that moment the door chimed as a young, well-to-do looking couple entered the shop. From the look on their faces they had clearly heard Jenna's outburst, and seeing Nathal soothing the bruised teenager stopped them in the doorway. Nathal quickly scampered across the shop toward them.
"Ahhh, good afternoon. My name is Nathal Ogim, and I would normally welcome you to my humble book shop," leaning closer, he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "but at the moment I'm having a bit of a family crisis with my niece" he lied. "If I could trouble you to call again tomorrow I can promise you my full attention. And to make up for any inconvenience I...". Nathal's voice faded into the background as the truth of what had just happened began to sink in. That bastard was stealing from Nathal! Not only that, he was threatening him. Jenna bristled at the memory of Xian's arrogance. By the time Nathal had bustled the couple out of the door with promises of special treatment upon their return, Jenna's disposition had changed from frightened and confused, to indignant, then to angry.
"Nathal, that man, he's a thief. We have to go to the city watch and tell them what happened" she said.
Nathal shook his head sadly. "Jenna, you don't understand. Xian isn't acting alone. There's nothing the watch can do to help."
"Not acting alone? Well we'll just find out who else is-"
"No Jenna," Nathal interrupted, "you still don't understand. I'm not paying Xian, I'm paying the Shadowmasters. Xian is just an agent. I don't even know how many members there are or how it's structured, let alone who they are. What I do know is they control Telflam. All of the shops in this area of the city pay monthly dues, it's just easier, and safer, than trying to change things."
"But can't we at least try? If we go to the watch they might be able to pick up Xian and find out who's in charge of the whole organization. They might be able-"
"No!" Nathal interrupted again. "Jenna, think for a moment. Suppose they have as agent in the watch. What do you think they'll do to us if we, if you, start causing problems? Do I look like a fighter?" He gestured at his squat frame. "I practically sweat reading about physical exertion. I beg you Jenna, for my sake, leave this be."
Not able to counter Nathal's reasoning but still unwilling to forego justice, Jenna stared at Nathal for several long moments before slowly nodding her head. "Alright Nathal, if that's what you want, I'll not do anything."
Visibly relieved, Nathal nodded. "Praise the lady Deneir" he breathed. "Now that that's settled, let's get this place cleaned up a little shall we?" He waved his hand toward the mess on the counter that Jenna had fallen into when Xian slapped her. "The different quality sheets of paper are all jumbled together, and that ink bottle looks as if it's near to toppling off the edge."
Nathal continued to prattle on about the store, eager to change the subject. He had met Jenna while she was looking for work about three months before, and in that time he had come to regard her almost as family. Although he spent many evenings with his brother's family, he had no wife or child of his own. And despite Jenna's unwillingness to speak of her past, Nathal had deduced that she had left home reluctantly, if not entirely against her will. She also gave him the impression that she was trying to hide a profound sadness, and her icy treatment of the young men who came into the shop gave him some idea why. Occasionally, when she first began working for him, Nathal could hear her muffled sobs from the hallway outside of her room. Nathal wasn't looking for a ward, but Jenna's honesty and passion was a welcome respite from the shadowy politics and self-interested cynicism that was the norm in Telflam.
At that moment, however, Nathal was less interested in reminiscing than figuring out what Jenna was thinking. In the months he had known her, he came to understand that she had about as strong a will as anyone he'd ever met in his 42 summers, with a temper to match. It occurred to him that she had given in far too easily. "Oh dear," he thought to himself, "I do hope she isn't planning on doing anything foolish." Genuinely concerned for her, he resolved to speak to her more about the matter the next day; for now she wasn't going anywhere.
Jenna was moving with noticeable enthusiasm the next morning as she left to buy food for the day. She had several stops to make on her daily run, and she figured she would inquire about Xian at each of them. Discreetly, of course.
"Good day Mr. Franso", she said politely as she entered the bakery.
"Good day to you Jenna, I've got your bundle for you here," he said as he turned to take a basket with three loaves of bread and some assorted cheeses in it from the shelf behind him. "That do it for ya today?" he asked as she handed over the previous day's empty basket and some coins. Unlike many merchants, Franso didn't allow customers to keep tabs open.
"Actually... I was wondering if you might help me find someone. An uncle. Of mine. I haven't seen him since I was little and I think I saw him in town yesterday." The lies she had prepared and practiced so many times over came stumbling off of her suddenly leaden tongue.
Caught off guard, the baker looked askew at Jenna, wondering what she was up to. That she was lying was obvious enough.
"Err, might help if I knew what this 'uncle' of yours looked like lass," Franso replied, stressing the word "uncle". Jenna didn't notice.
"He's a bit taller than yourself, though not much, fairly thin, with a scar on his face right here" she said, pointing to her left temple.
Franso's breath caught in his throat. He knew immediately who she was looking for. In fact, he was expecting a visit from the very person she was describing that afternoon. But why would a young girl want to find Xian?
"Ya know, that sounds familiar," he said, tapping his chin to buy time to think, "I'll tell ya what. I'll ask a few of me friends and tomorrow when ya come back I'll have a sure answer one way or another. That sound fair?"
Jenna's eyes lit up. "Oh would you Mr. Franso? That'd be great. I'll see you tomorrow then."
"Bye then", Franso smiled and waved as Jenna left his shop. As soon as she left his expression turned serious as he pondered what this meant. Franso wasn't an evil man, but he was a practical one. Living in shadowy Telflam meant making difficult decisions almost daily, and he had a family to feed. It quickly occurred to him that he might be in a position to profit from the information he now possessed. His heart sank as his thoughts started to coalesce into a plan. Of course he felt bad for the girl, whom he had known for several months and thought of as a friendly sort, but this was business.
It was late in the afternoon when Xian finally made his way to the bakery. Franso was cleaning the shop and equipment for the next day's use when he felt the sensation of being watched. He turned to find Xian leaning casually against the dirty counter, picking his nails with his dagger. Xian gave Franso a large, warm-looking smile; Franso shivered.
"Franso, my friend," Xian said quietly. "How long has it been? About a month I believe... actually if memory serves it's been exactly a month."
"Ahhh, yes Mr. Xian. Good to see you again. I was expecting you."
Xian frowned as Franso employed his own tactic against him. "Enough small talk baker, you have something for me." It was a statement, not a question.
"Um, yes. Actually I have something that might interest you more than your normal fee. Information that -"
Before he could finish the sentence Xian was on him, pinning him roughly against the wall with his arm across Franso's throat and his dagger pressed to Franso's belly.
"Don't push me baker," Xian hissed through clenched teeth, "where is my money?"
Flushed, panicked and almost unable to breathe, Franso pointed to a small nook under the counter. "There", he managed to gasp.
Xian shoved him roughly away from the nook he had pointed to and backed toward the money. He had seen desperate men do desperate things before, and despite the fat baker's unassuming appearance he knew that one quick dagger thrust, or one odd gesture that released a spell from a purchased magical token could violently end his push toward controlling the entire city's underground. Sparing several quick glances at the nook, Xian reached down and grabbed the money sack. The weight felt right but he checked the contents anyway. It was all there.
"Now, about this information..." he said, drawing out the last word.
"Well Mr. Xian," stammered Franso, "I was hoping we might reach an agreement. Things have been a bit tight around here lately, and I thought this little-"
"Tell me what you know fat man," Xian interrupted, his voice rising slightly, "and I will tell you what it is worth."
Quickly mopping sweat from his brow, Franso told the collector about Jenna's questions. "And I was thinking, sir, that the fact that someone is looking for you, even if it is a young girl, might be worth a month's dues. It might even save your life!"
Xian looked up at the baker, "I'm touched by your concern," he sneered, but he was too busy thinking to be angry at the man's impertinence. The name, Jenna, and the description, they matched that foolish girl from the book store. Why would she be looking for - ahhhh, of course. He thought of the proud defiance she had shown, even when she was clearly beaten. The dolt wanted revenge! Whether she would try and kill him or just capture and turn him over to the authorities he didn't know, nor did it matter.
His eyes snapped back into focus. "Does anyone else know of this? Who have you told?"
"No one! I told her I would ask around today and tell her what I found out tomorrow morning when she came in for her daily purchases."
"And? Exactly what were you planning to tell her?"
"Whatever ya wanted me to Mr. Xian. I figured you'd be in today and would have something ya wanted me to say."
Xian stopped for a moment and thought. This baker was a clever one; he'd have to keep a closer eye on him. Still, for all his brazenness he had created an opportunity for Xian. Depending on what happened Xian might have to silence him later, but for now something approaching gratitude crept up on him.
"You've done well Franso," Xian said mildly, sheathing his dagger smoothly, "here's what I want you to tell the girl tomorrow."
Xian's relaxed tone calmed Franso enough that he was able to listen carefully. At the end the baker nodded slowly. "If I might be so bold sir, since this information is useful to you, and things being a bit slow, would you be willing to..." Franso's question trailed off as he nodded at the bag in Xian's hand.
Frowning slightly at the baker, Xian upended the bag, dumping half its contents on the counter, and left.
Franso was hardly surprised the next morning when Jenna arrived earlier than usual. She tried to put on a mask of nonchalance as the baskets and money exchanged hands, but Franso could see she was barely able to restrain herself from asking him about Xian. He decided to get it over with.
"Oh yes, and I spoke with someone yesterday about your uncle. I think I may have an idea where he might be found. Another customer remembered seeing a man that looked like the one ya described at a tavern called the Wailing Wench down by the docks. Said he usually comes in after dark."
"Really? Oh thank you Mr. Franso," Jenna replied. She turned and practically sprinted out of the store.
Franso was surprised at Xian's insight. The thief had predicted her reaction almost perfectly. He was also surprised at how easily he had justified deceiving the girl, and he realized with a jolt that he felt almost no remorse. "By the gods," he thought as he leaned wearily against the wall, "what kind of man have I become?"
Ronar had been enjoying the trip so far. As the head of Telflam's Tyrran paladins, his life consisted almost entirely of tedious paperwork and logistics, or so it often seemed. He looked around from the saddle of his massive warhorse at the bedlam of a city at work and sighed contentedly. The ride through the city had only taken part of the afternoon and nothing interesting had happened, but it still felt good to be doing something. He looked over at his squire Rodigo, who was staring with big round eyes at a voluptuous young woman standing in the entrance of a tavern, and smiled. Officially Ronar frowned upon that type of behavior from a paladin-in-training, but unofficially Ronar knew that were he in his sixteenth summer he too might be openly gawking at the young woman. He cleared his throat loudly.
"Rodigo, do you have the list of necessary supplies handy? I'd like to see if we can pick some of them up on the way to the docks." It was already growing dark and Ronar doubted they would get much accomplished that day.
Startled, Rodigo turned to face Ronar and started to stammer a reply.
"Take your time", said Ronar, suppressing a smile behind his neatly trimmed white beard.
After a few moments Rodigo produced a single parchment with a long list of supplies on it, including two stallions.
"I believe we should try to find the herbs Mr. Jenson requested first sir. We are close to several shops that may have them, and he can be quite difficult if he feels unappreciated."
"Yes that sounds like a good idea," muttered Ronar, "No sense riling the cook."
Rodigo looked up at the paladin from his smaller squire's mount, wondering why Ronar had proposed - insisted actually - that they handle such a menial task. Ronar was nearing the end of his 37th year in Tyr's service and his 51st year altogether. He had served in dozens of campaigns, he had been there when King Azoun IV of Cormyr struck down the Tuigan Kahn, he had risen through the ranks of Tyr's service to become the head paladin of a major city. So why was he riding about running errands for, among others, the cook? Rodigo shook his head as if to rid himself of the thoughts. Ronar had his reasons, he was sure, even if he didn't understand them.
The afternoon passed quickly for Ronar and his squire, with Rodigo doing most of the talking, bargaining and purchasing. Ronar allowed his squire more autonomy than most paladins would, believing the additional responsibilities would better prepare Rodigo for the leadership role Ronar could already see him growing into. However when they arrived at the stable in the docks district late that afternoon Ronar reasserted control. Spices and trinkets were one thing, but buying steeds to be trained as warhorses was not something to be left to a squire.
The horse merchant turned out to be more tight-fisted than Ronar had expected, and the sun had already set as the two started to make their way back across the city to the temple, new horses in tow. As with most port cities, Telflar's dock district was home to a multitude of taverns, brothels, gambling dens and probably much worse. Ronar seemed wary but unimpressed. Apparently not many people considered an armored warrior brandishing the holy symbol of Tyr to be either a potential mark or a potential customer because everyone generally kept out of their way.
Jenna had never snuck out of her room above the book store before - she'd never had to. Nathal hadn't put any restrictions on her comings and goings, and she'd not felt the need to indulge in the city's night life. Tonight, however, she decided it would be better if Nathal didn't know what she was going to do until she did it. He'd lectured her again earlier on the importance of leaving the matter alone, but she'd made up her mind already. She regretted having to sneak around like some cutpurse in the night, but she was sure Nathal would thank her once the city watch had Xian in a jail cell.
She crept down the stairs and out the back door. She had asked a member of the city watch where the Wailing Wench was and had planned her route earlier in the day. She had also attached her dagger to her belt, making sure it was concealed by a loose-fitting shirt. Once outside she quickened her pace. She didn't like being out at night in the city, and she certainly didn't want to be in the docks district too late. After short while she approached the tavern and veered down a side street.
Xian watched her turn down the deserted street toward him and smiled. Stupid girl. He'd told the baker to send her to the Wailing Wench precisely because the shortest route between the book store and the tavern would take her down this street, which was more of an alley really. Most people would have had the sense to stick to the well-lit, patrolled streets, but the thief knew his target well enough to know she would take the shortcut. As she got closer he noticed a slight bulge on her left hip, and that she wasn't swinging her left arm naturally. A dagger. His smile grew.
Jenna was halfway down the side street when a hand suddenly covered her mouth from behind and she felt the point of a dagger in her lower back.
"Make a sound and I'll cut your spine and leave you here to bleed out. Got it?" hissed Xian.
Jenna nodded, trying not to squirm. How could she have been so stupid! She tried to steady her racing thoughts as she felt Xian's hand leave her mouth, reach under her shirt and yank the dagger from its hiding place. He looked at it, sneered, and tossed it away.
"Piece of crap," he muttered. "Now, turn around. Tell me something girl, exactly what did you plan to do when you found me? Did you expect me to surrender to you and face the gallows? Or were you thinking more along the lines of a little personal vengeance?" By the time he finished speaking his face was so close she could feel the heat of his breath. His dagger was now poking her in the stomach.
"I... I'm not sure," she stammered honestly.
"Ahh, but you came anyway. Don't bother girl, I understand. It took guts coming after me all alone. That or someone dropped you on your head as a babe. Still, we might be able to... reach an agreement." His dagger slid gently up her stomach, then flashed down, landing cleanly in its sheath. For a moment she was confused, until the thief suddenly shoved her against a nearby building.
Reacting instinctively she brought her knee up hard into his groin. As he doubled over, Jenna grabbed two fistfuls of hair and jerked his head down into another knee strike. Xian stumbled backwards, blood running freely from his nose. Jenna ran after him punching wildly.
Although he had been taken by surprise and hurt, Xian was no novice to street fighting. He backpedaled with his hands raised in front of his face until he regained his senses. He quickly saw that although she was a ferocious brawler, Jenna had no real skill. He waited for another wild blow to pass him, then stepped in and hit her with a solid left hook. She crumpled with a cry of shock and pain and Xian followed her down. Laying on her in a way that made it hard for her to breathe, he whispered, "Now my dear, where were we?"