A few days later, Hronsonn’s Horn and Hamhock was even rowdier than usual. Within an hour of Ventyr being there, six glasses had shattered (not all against the floor), two fights had broken out, and eleven patrons had been expelled. He’d nearly forgotten the way Dag Hronsonn could use that almost primal bellow to silence the chaotic room when necessary. He took a moment to appreciate it as the mountainous norn stepped out from behind the bar to remove another patron.
Hronsonn walked back in toward the bar, and the din began to build again. The sylvari turned back to Harper, who sat across the rough, pine table. “I’m sorry. Where was I?”
Harper laughed, shaking his head. “Bless the six, that norn can yell. The skritt. You were just finishing up about relations with Skrittsburg.”
“Oh, yes.” The sylvari leaned back in his chair. “Well, there’s not much more to tell. Once our engineers came with spare parts, the skritt took it as a peace offering and allied with us.” He took a slow sip of wine as he ruminated. “Their desires are simple, but they’re an honorable enough people.”
The noise in the room continued to grow, but the two were close enough that it didn’t really impact their conversation. Besides, the activity gave them something to settle their attention on in the pauses between words.
The sylvari’s attention fell on his clothing again. He felt uncomfortable in common, human garb. He felt especially out of place in that cotton tunic with frills down the center. It bounced slightly with every movement, leaving a near permanent scowl on his face whenever he walked. But he was stuck in town longer than he intended to be, and the commanding officer at the Vigil Hall had instructed him to blend in with the civilians.
“So,” Harper broke the lull, “this current mission of yours— it’s been three days. Any word on when you’re moving on?”
The sylvari followed the table’s grain with his finger, not looking at his associate as he answered. “Another seven days. It’s the soonest I can get an escort.”
“Escort? Since when do you need an escort?”
He looked up from the table, “They say there’s increased bandit activity on the road east of here. The Captain believes a party is less likely to be attacked.”
Harper shot him an incredulous glance, but said nothing.
Ventyr’s face went hard. “I’m not happy about it, but orders are orders. So, I wait for an escort.”
“Always a good soldier.” The man shrugged and started to shift in his chair. “Look, thanks for the drink. I need to get back to the shop. It’s almost happy hour. You know, the hour that’s happy for everyone but the staff.” He smiled as he stood and reached for his friend’s hand. “It’s good to see you. Let’s do this again before you leave.” He winked. “This old man needs more stories of adventure.”
They shook hands, and Harper was gone. His squat frame and balding head bobbed away, disappearing into the crowd closer to the door. The sylvari sat for another few moments, alone, before rising from his seat to flag down the busy barmaid.
As he raised his hand, a voice spoke, less than a foot from the back of his head, “And just where the hell have you been?” He knew the voice. It was edgy but not angry, dancing with self-satisfaction. In his mind he could already see the sassy expression and sardonic curl of her lip.
Sure enough, when he turned, he found the familiar face of Penny Arkayd, standing just inches from him, arms crossed and not giving him any ground to move in. Behind her was Eddie and an asura with chalky, gray skin.
“So, Carrot-stick?” She repeated, drawing his attention back to her. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Hello, Penny,” he said, with a subtle expression only she recognized as happiness. “It’s been a long time.”
For a brief moment no one moved. Then, Penny lunged, embracing her friend, who had no time to really reciprocate. And just as quickly, she backed away and slapped him in the arm. “That’s for being away so long. Where were you? I’ve been bored!”
“I’ve been on assignment elsewhere.”
“Oh yeah,” she mocked, “another assignment for the great Vigil.” She looked down at the rest of him. “They also the ones dressing you like a pirate?”
The sylvari scowled almost imperceptibly and leaned around her. “Hello, Eddie. I see you’re still keeping Penny company.”
Eddie grinned and reached to shake his hand. “It’s good to see you, Ventyr. Welcome back.”
“Tell me you haven’t been in town long,” Penny interjected. “Because if you have, and you haven’t come to see me, I’ll carve something offensive in your wooden hide right here and now.”
Ventyr smirked subtly. “No, Penny. I’ve not been here long. I’m only here on a quick assignment.”
The asura had stood quietly by throughout the conversation, obviously part of their party, though he’d not yet been introduced. “Hello,” he greeted, stepping out from behind the two humans and extending his hand. “You must be a friend. My name is Minkus, Minkus the Large.”
Two hours and a dozen empty cups later, the crowd in the pub was thinning, but the four were seated around Ventyr’s table, still talking.
“Alright.” Minkus paused, perched atop his stool. He turned from Penny to Ventyr, perplexed but enjoying the humor of it. “So you became friends because you got her thrown in jail for a night?”
Penny broke in, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t forget the part where he also got thrown in jail.” She pointed across the table. “After he turned me and those nightmare dealers in to the Seraphs, they questioned who he was and how he’d gotten into the mix, as they should have! They took his staff and threw him in the cell after me. Served him right, too.” She took a gulp from her cup, barely finishing before going on. “If I’d had my pistol, I would have glued his sorry, orange ass to the wall.”
“Right.” Minkus nodded, grinning. “So you both were thrown into jail. And— you started talking?”
“Oh, yeah.” She threw back another swig. “Can’t shut this one up; it’s just blah, blah, blah, all the time. No, he didn’t say anything. He just sat there. Eventually I had to say something, so naturally I told him off.” She shrugged, enjoying every bit of the retelling. “After we sat there for a while longer, finally he spoke. He told me about the sellers being nightmare court he’d had a history with and that the tech was probably stolen. I had no idea. All I knew was some new guys in town wanted to sell me gear they said was cutting edge, for an unbelievable price.” She tossed a hand for flare. “I guess I should have seen it coming.”
Penny leaned back in her seat and continued, “In any case, nothing about this guy made any sense. I mean, here’s this tree man who shows up in my shop out of the blue. He busts the place up— I mean, destroys it. Lightning. Fire. The works. And the look on his face? Gods.” She shivered. “Like Balthazar himself. The only things in worse shape than my counter were the two scumbags he came after.”
“They deserved it,” Ventyr interjected. “What I gave them that night was just.”
“See what I mean?” Penny continued. “That’s a scary man. Anyway, he calls down fire and brimstone, then gets me, the scumbags, and himself thrown in jail, and he just sits there, looking satisfied, like he’d do it all over again. He scared me and pissed me off all at the same time. Nothing about him made any sense. I spent weeks just trying to understand what made him tick.” She pointed across the table again. “Three years later, I still don’t understand him.”
The sylvari turned to Minkus. A subtle smile cracked his lips once more. “If Penny can’t figure it out, she can’t let it go, so she hasn’t let me go.”
“No sir,” she agreed. “When you’re in town, you’re obligated to see me.” Pleased with herself, she crossed her arms and glared at him.
Minkus thought about it all for a moment, shaking his head. “You certainly are an interesting pair of friends.”
“You have no idea,” Eddie said, rolling his eyes.
Penny quickly stood to her feet and started away from the table. “I’ll be back, gentlemen. Time to use the little ladies’ room.”
As Penny left, the norn barmaid with the wicked right hand approached to clear some of the empties from the table. Since that first visit, she’d made it a point to flirt with Minkus whenever possible. She, and most of the patrons, had made a game out of how uncomfortable it made him. Before she could say or do anything, though, Minkus shifted, turning his attention wholly to the sylvari across the table. “So, Ventyr, you said you’re headed back east soon?”
Ventyr finished his sip and replaced the goblet on the table. “Yes. That is what I’m told.”
“We’re planning to leave soon, too,” Minkus replied, grinning. “I was going to stay longer in Divinity’s Reach, but Penny has a delivery to make in Snowblind Peaks, and, well, traveling with a friend is even more enjoyable than traveling alone. There is so much to see in this world, but to have someone to share it with—” He paused, suddenly aware of himself, “But, you don’t need me to tell you that, what with your assignments and travel and all.”
Ventyr smiled, noticeably. “No, Minkus, you are correct. There is much to see.” He paused, looking out the window into the darkened street outside, remembering what had brought him here. He turned back, more sober. “You said you hail from Metrica?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he replied.
“Then you’ve already seen wonderful sights on your journey, I’m sure.”
“Oh yes, indeed.” Minkus’ eyes lit up. “One of my favorites was the Grove. I’ve never seen a more magnificent tree, or landscape, or city— I’m not even sure how to classify it!”
“Yes,” Ventyr replied, only half present, “the Grove is a majestic place.”
“Oh, come on,” said Penny, who’d suddenly returned. “The Grove is probably nice, but nothing beats the Reach. There’s no point being anywhere but here,” she said, gesturing to everything around her.
“And yet,” Ventyr replied, “you find yourself traveling soon, I hear.”
Penny sat back down gracelessly and eyed the asura. “Oh, you hear, do you?” She turned back to Ventyr. “Yeah, I have a sale to make, and unfortunately I have to leave to make it. But the pay is great, and Biggie is willing to join me. It won’t be long before I’m back here in my own bed.” She leaned back in her chair and took a deep draught of her ale.
“And you’re not traveling by asura gate? Say, to Lion’s Arch?” He asked her. “That would easily cut your travel time in half.”
“Pfffft,” she spat. “Asura gate? Have you seen the prices on those things? They’re cheap enough for people, but as soon as you take a dolyak through, they take you for all you’re worth. I’d like to keep enough of these earnings to make the trip worth it, thank you.”
Ventyr silently leaned forward over the table, glancing cautiously around him. “If you two are set on foot travel, you could travel with me and my crusaders, at least as far as our paths align.” He lowered his voice. “I’ve heard word of an increase in bandit activity in the Queen’s Forest. We could afford you protection, and we wouldn’t mind the company.”
Penny replaced her drink on the table and leaned in as well. “I don’t know why we’re whispering,” she said, “but it sounds like a decent idea.” She sat back in her chair again. “What day will you and your honorable team be ready?”
“The sixty-ninth. We leave at dawn.”
“Whoa, the mighty tactician has spoken,” she scoffed. But then she suddenly turned more serious. “Honestly, though, is your commander person going to be OK with this? Those guys can be stiff.”
“I can persuade him,” Ventyr said. “And it’s sergeant now.”
Penny’s eyes widened a little and her lips parted in a smile, equal parts pride and mockery. “Oh, a promotion. Good job, Carrot-stick.” He nodded his gratitude. “OK,” she continued, “we’ll be ready at dawn on the sixty-ninth.”
Ventyr turned his eyes to Minkus. “Is that good with you?”
Minkus looked surprised at the question. He’d grown accustomed to Penny making decisions. “Um, yes— I mean, of course.” He grinned, broadly. “The bigger the traveling party, the better.”
After the travel talk and Penny’s work to suck the last drips of ale from her flagon, the conversation fizzled out. Eddie began to drift off, Minkus knew his morning routine was fast approaching, and Penny had a mind to return to her work. They exited the pub and each went their way into the night.
Not a minute later, the pub door opened again, and a small figure slipped out, looking both ways and hugging closely to the wall as it rounded the corner and headed westward down the street. It sped so silently through the Western Commons that a small group of drakehounds chained in a yard had only time to raise their heads and catch its scent before it was past. The figure briefly emerged from the shadows to cross an intersection, padding quietly across the cobblestone, only to disappear again into a slim alley between buildings on the other side. It paused at the next corner, then swept across the road and vanished into the willows around the Melandru Plaza, stopping just behind a trunk, where a similar figure waited.
“Yes, of course it’s me,” said the one who’d come from the pub. “How many other asura are out here?”
“What did you find?”
“It’s as we thought,” he said. “Sylvari, male, Vigil soldier, but posing as a civilian—not a good job of it either. He’s also not staying in town long, which matches the alert we got from Brisban. Tell Kikka I’m tracking his movements. I’ll watch for signs of the item. Should an opportunity arise, I’ll collect it, without confrontation, just as instructed.”
“Without confrontation— such an abnormal request. But that’s just fine. After Plixa’s incident, I have no desire to cross Kikka.”
The pub spy sighed. “Agreed, I suppose.”
“Is that all?” the other asked.
“Yes. That’s all.”
“Excelsior. I’ll send word back.”
Silence fell once more. The two figures turned in different directions and vanished once more into the shadows of the Western Commons.