A mousy young woman sat at a desk, picking her nails with a dagger and chewing on a piece of sassafras root. Her short, sharp nose twitched as she ran her fingers through her short brown hair. Plain, distinctly unpretty brown eyes glanced up every now and then to see if anything new had happened in the room. It hadn’t, so she went back to her personal grooming.
A moment later a slight figure dressed in a worn colorless tunic and breeches threw open the outer door and strutted across the floor, passing the antique weapons rack and completely ignoring the tapestries of battles hanging from the walls. He carried some sort of fruit filled pastry in one hand while the other brushed stray wisps of dark hair from his face back further on his head. He hurried past the woman at the desk, breathing, “Morning, Sheena,” in a cheerful way as he did so. Most people with her attitude toward mornings would have grunted in response, but from Sheena it was more of a squeak that translated to, “Morning, Herb.”
Herb opened the door behind and slightly to Sheena’s left and disappeared into the office beyond, leaving the office silent but for the sound of Sheena’s nail file once more.
Less than five minutes of continued boredom later, the outer door once again opened and another slight figure entered. Sheena was accustomed to fewer than two interruptions before her midmorning tea break and this second intrusion annoyed her, although she had still to look at anyone yet that morning, let alone say anything that required any degree of thought.
The figure who had just entered was different from the first in two ways. First, although he too had dark hair and colorless clothing, his robes were obviously well cared for. Secondly, this figure took a moment to take in his surroundings. He gazed at the weapon rack and noted various exotic weapons of mysterious origin. He examined the tapestries, noting the meticulous workmanship and the historic battle they commemorated. Finally, he observed the secretary at the desk who was apparently trying to pull something out of her left ear. “Precisely what I was looking for,” he muttered under his breath with only a small degree of sincerity.
As he approached the desk, Sheena decided which rude tactic she would use. She decided on the ever reliable casual speech patterns and lack of eye contact that had served her so frequently in the past. She carried out her plan by continuing to focus her gaze on the desk, moving her finger intently around inside her ear, and speaking in the annoying accent she had learned at the farm she had grown up on. Her father and mother had always used it, and it had always bothered her, so she felt confident it would bother this stranger enough to drive him out of the office. “Yeah, what do ya want?” She demanded with a twang in her voice, turning to look vaguely in the direction of the stranger as she finished.
What she first noticed was that this was not the usual fat, ugly merchant or petty duke that she and Herb usually dealt with. He was slim and handsome and was stroking a well groomed and attractive goatee, although, there was a fairly large and very blue lizard sitting on his shoulder. The second thing she noticed was that she actually didn’t want to be rude to him. She quickly took a mental survey of everything in her appearance she needed to straighten up. Then she just as quickly pulled her finger away from her ear, yanked the sassafras root from her teeth with her other hand, and finished up by rapidly ensuring her hair was not too badly damaged. She still looked like a mouse, but at least it wasn’t a rude mouse anymore. After a half moment that to her seemed interminable, she realized she also needed to correct her tone of voice and wording. She used the court accent she had learned while tormenting ladies-in-waiting from the castle and rephrased, “What may I assist you with, Sir?” her voice only breaking once in the whole sentence.
The stranger grinned a grin he hoped any intelligent observer would recognize as longsuffering and condescending, but the secretary would perceive as charming. It worked. He watched her suppress a sigh as he spoke, “I need a company to recover something of mine. I heard that Herbert Spearpoint can assemble an excellently skilled and qualified group. Have I come to the correct place?” The lizard blinked, as if it too was seeking the answer to this question.
Sheena looked at him until she realized that the stranger had stopped speaking, having asked a direct question. “Oh, uh . . . I mean, yes. Yes Sir,” she managed to get out. “I’ll go find out if he can see you.”
She stood up in a hurry, eager to please, and knocked over her chair. Flushing, she moved to pick it up when she realized it was righting itself. As she looked towards the stranger, he winked, acknowledging that it was his doing. Her mind stuttered for a moment and finally came up with the thought, “He winked at me!” She managed a cautious smile, and as the stranger gave a full grin, she turned to the door Herb had moved through and thought, “Even his teeth are handsome!”
As she turned to the door, the dark stranger thought, “Fool,” and kept his peace. The lizard seemed to grin a little.
As Sheena opened the door, she cautiously peered around it to see what was going on. Usually Herb woke up very late in the morning, came to work, and slept in his office chair for a couple hours more. This morning, he had come in earlier than usual, had been less grumpy, and was not sleeping in his office. He was leaning back in the chair on its rear legs, one hand flung out to balance himself as he tried to balance on one leg while the other hand tried to feed his mouth the pastry. The whole act was impressive in an eight-year-old sort of way, and Sheena was relieved to find that not only was Herb not sleeping, he seemed to be happy. This was confirmed when he spoke.
“I’m happy today, Sheena,” he said. “I’m having a great morning, like destiny is coming my way. Make sure no clients get in to talk to me until at least mid afternoon.” He popped the pastry in his mouth and took a very large bite. He then proceeded to make quiet animal-like noises. Whether they were expressions of pleasure derived from the consumption of the pastry or small grunts caused by the exertion from balancing on the chair, Sheena wasn’t sure.
She tried to speak to him, but wasn’t sure how to communicate how important it was that Herb met with the most attractive and charming man she had ever seen in her pitiful life if only because she desperately needed to please him and keep him in the office. She pondered this on a minute while Herb chewed, mouth open, and swallowed. “By the way,” her boss queried, “What do you need?” He popped the remainder of his breakfast into his mouth and continued balancing. More grunts followed.
“Well, it’s just that . . . well . . . um… There just maybe . . .” she tried to figure out what to say. Her little brain wasn’t very used to tactful or persuasive speech, and finally it burst through the blockade hindering it’s expression. “You have a wizard here you have to meet with,” she blurted in her usual mean-spirited tone, usually reserved for clients.
“Uh’m bufee,” Herb managed to say around a mouthful of fruit and flaky crust.
“You don’t look terribly busy,” A third voice broke in. Sheena recognized it as belonging to the tall, dark stranger. Herb had no idea who it was, and he didn’t have much time to think about it immediately, since the surprise had caused him to lose his balance and choke on his pastry. Fruit flew everywhere and so did limbs as Herb fell to the floor, bruising his backside and his ego, but only temporarily. Herb’s ego had remarkable healing capabilities.
“What the . . .?” was the first halfway intelligible thing that came out of Herb’s mouth. Pulling himself up by the edge of his desk, he glared about the room, trying to find the vandal who had attacked him this way. His eyes rested briefly on his secretary, who was attempting to creep unnoticed out the door. He was about to scream at her when he noticed the stranger who had already claimed the only other chair not soiled by half-chewed pastry, and was calmly stroking his pet lizard. “Who are you?” Herb demanded immediately, feeling a pressing need to regain control of his day. It had been going so well, and this person could not be allowed to change his course towards destiny.
“I compliment you on your professionalism,” the dark man responded in a tone Herb wasn’t entirely sure was sarcastic. “My name is Argin, a sorcerer by profession. I need a group to recover something for me. I understand you organize such expeditions.” The lizard nodded to emphasize the remark.
“Sometimes,” Herb responded cautiously. “For a fee . . .” He quickly added, even more cautiously. Then having felt that he hadn’t been clear or cautious enough, he amended, “A very large fee.” The better to get this man out of here. This wizard probably wanted them to find root of swamp squash or drake dung or some equally detestable ingredient to his sorcerer’s potions.
The wizard grinned an unamused grin (as did the lizard, or so it appeared) and said, “I understand that. I’m sure we can come to a mutually agreeable amount.” The lizard stretched its back, revealing there were wings.
Herb finally started to consider the proposal. This stranger was either rich or had a vastly different method or reckoning wealth than Herb did. And it didn’t appear that the mission was to seek out the bark of a tree shaped like a deity or anything ridiculous like that. The presence of the winged lizard bothered him somehow as well. It wasn’t a dragon, being far too small even for a hatchling. But it wasn’t a forest drake either, the claws and teeth were too short and the tail too long. What could it be? It was time to get serious and find out details. “What do you need us to do, Wizard?” he asked. He had chosen the term ‘wizard’ to address the man on purpose. Depending on how it was used and who used it, it could be an insult or an honor. How this stranger responded would determine what sort of man he was. It was a dangerous tactic, but Herb had paid to have defenses against magical attacks placed in his office, and was reasonably sure of being able to survive if the sorcerer got hot under the collar. If the man took it as a compliment, then Herb knew he would be easily conned and manipulated.
The stranger was neither offended nor flattered by the remark, however. He simply got to business, ignoring the appellation “I need you to recover Zy-Krawn’s Jewel,” he said plainly.
Herb nearly fell out of his chair, this time with laughter. Zy-Krawn was a legend from thousands of years ago, a tall-tale about an evil tyrant-mage who had reigned in blood an terror for a couple hundred years. It was mainly used to scare kids into being good, but in recent years it wasn’t even told for that anymore. Herb reminded himself this was probably a serious client, and if he was crazy, it was best to humor him until he left or the constables came anyway. “And where am I supposed to find that?” He asked.
“I know you think this is an insane idea from a crazy man who thinks he is a wizard,” the stranger said. The sorcerer’s lizard began to pick its teeth with it’s claws, looking occasionally at Herb. “But I have researched this for longer than you have been alive. Never mind my appearance, I am a mage, and appearances can be deceiving. I know the legend of Zy-Krawn is true, or at least mostly so. And his Jewel does exist, and will give the one who possesses it fantastic powers. I have determined that it is located in cave at the top of Potter’s Mountain, just outside of town.”
“Yeah, well, Potter’s Mountain is haunted. That’s gonna cost you some money.”
“You don’t seriously expect me to accept you believe in fairy stories of vengeful miners?”
“Doesn’t really matter what you accept, Wizard, I run this job, and I make the rules. My crew might take exception to this detail, and I’m not too happy about the possibility of running into some dead man who thinks I’m jumping his claim. Can you pay enough for me to put up with that, or are you going to leave my office now?” The lizard stopped and glared at Herb, ruffling some scales to look bigger. For a minute, Herb was afraid he’d pushed his luck a little too hard and the sorcerer was going to attack him.
After a tense minute the lizard relaxed and started nibbling on the strangers’ chin. The wizard chuckled;. “I think you’ll find that I can pay you plenty.” He produced a bag seemingly out of no where and tossed it onto Herb’s desk. The sound of coins clinking told Herb exactly what it was.
Herb disregarded what was considered polite in his business and opened the bag. Platinum crowns. A lot of platinum crowns. Herb was impressed and excited, and tried to hide it. He could smell the riches. “This is a good start. What else can you do?”
The lizard glanced at Herb perturbedly; the sorcerer glanced at Herb with an annoyed eye and nearly sighed. “I have four more bags like that one you can have once you’ve brought me the jewel.”
“Where did you get this money?” Herb pressed. He didn’t want to gain possession of missing money the constables were looking for.
The reptile’s eyes flashed red, and the sorcerer sighed in impatience. “I’m a man of means. Do you want the job?”
Herb considered a moment. “One more thing. If there’s no danger, why are you willing to part with so much money just to have me run up a mountain?”
“I never said there was no danger. Although I’m sure that will be minimal. But time is of great importance here. I have . . . friends . . . who are . . . eager . . . to see the jewel.”
“I can have a team assembled and ready to go in the morning. Where should be bring the jewel when we’ve recovered it?”
The lizard relaxed considerably and started to nuzzle up against the sorcerer’s neck. “I shall want to interview them, of course.”
“If I can trust your money, certainly you can trust whoever I choose, hmm?” Herb had a firm rule about letting his clients pick and choose members of his groups. They always ended up selecting faithless priests, clumsy thieves, and stupid warriors.
The sorcerer laughed. “Very well, Herbert Spearpoint. Bring the jewel to my residence near the Tower of the Magi on the Street of Carvers, between the market and the docks. It is a large house of gray stone. I will pay you your money there.” He stood to leave, but turned as he reached the door. “I should warn you, I will know if you try to give me a fake jewel. I will be very disappointed if this is not done quickly and correctly. I am not well known because the few who have had reason to learn of my power have never been able to tell anyone about it.” That said, the reptile on his shoulder glared coldly at Herb for a moment, and the Mage was gone.
Herb shrugged it off and started making mental notes about this job. Maybe this was his chance to meet fate. The platinum would be plenty to buy him a small, legitimate business where he wouldn’t have to risk his neck so often. He’d be free and able to grow old, fat, and happy, but now he needed to prepare. “Sheena!” he bellowed.
The secretary came in slowly, a mystified look on her plain face. “What?” she asked softly.
Herb snapped his fingers in frustration. “Stop fantasizing, woman, we’ve got work to do.” Have the Shriner, Cristobol, Tim, and Blinder meet me at the Red Bow Inn tonight. Tell them it’s big money.”
“Huh?” Sheena wondered. “Oh, yeah, sure, Boss.” She slowly walked out the door, still dreaming of the tall stranger who had entered her life.