Halcyon: Tavern Remix (Finneas)

File this under “cool things in my world”: my friend Cam has published her first work of fiction and it’s a great read! There’s a bit of mid-life liberation, some kink, and the most fascinating reason for collective housing in there. I enjoy the strength of Cam’s dialogue and the way that she sets her scenes. I’m really proud of her and you should check it out if dark romance, realistic love stories, and strong characterization are things you enjoy.

***

This piece of my writing is based on one of Brandon Sanderson’s writing assignments from the lectures of his on writing fiction and sci-fi that I watched in their entirety a few weeks ago. He’s a fairly solid lecturer and the class is divided into two areas: meta on writing, and meta on marketing yourself and your work on different routes to publication. If it’s of interest to you, check it out. I found it worthwhile.

The assignment involved running your characters through the same scene. Observe what they observe. Focus on characterizing them and the world by showing, not telling. Use a very basic character sketch: Passion 1, Passion 2, Secret, Proficiency, Handicap.

I think that I definitely tell more than I show and it’s a habit I’d like to break. I am pretty sure it’s the leftover influence of school. That said, I’m pretty happy with the way this piece turned out and I can see why the exercise has value. My intention is to re-write this tavern sequence from each perspective because I’m finding it really useful. Practice, practice, practice, right? By the time this book is done I’ll have written it five or six times, I’m sure. ;P

I’m still writing a pile in the background, just a lot of it is very rough and not ready for sharing yet. Updates will be infrequent, but they will still occur.

Setting: The tavern in Clearwater where Finneas, Quinn, and Torrin meet Aryn and Shaava.

Finneas:

Passion: Making Music

Passion 2: Cooking

Secret: Agent of Kaprys’

Proficiency: Ingratiating himself with others

Handicap: Halfling height

Finneas held the scented handkerchief to his nose as he threaded his way through the crowded tables, his halfling stature bringing him closer to assholes than most metaphors about being in bars suggested. There had to be a song in that, somewhere. The weight of his lute was familiar on his back, unlike the burdensome sheaf of paper sewn into the liner of his jacket. He needed a reliable courier. Failing that, some muscle would be good. A mage would be better, but they were always thin on the ground, preferring research to the real world. Fools. Even so, if they were going to find what they were looking for—who they were looking for—it was going to be here in Clearwater or not at all.

A server with hair like summer wheat glided by, tray held high, trailing the scent of deep fried pickle spears. “Shandy!” he called, pitching his voice to carry over the din.

“In a minute, Finneas! There’s a table in the back if you want it,” she called back, swinging her tray down onto a table, serving dimples and smiles alongside the spears. Hearty approval erupted from the table, the glint of coins changing hands holding Finneas’ attention. They were short on coin and Clearwater was a place where that could change. He fought clear of the crush and found the table, climbing the sturdy bench and onto the scored surface itself before waving Quinn and Torrin over. At Quinn’s acknowledging wave he jumped down and liberated his lute from captivity, tuning it deftly. Time to get to work.

Finneas had a gift for hitting the ground running, his sense of people and song so finely honed it was practically magic. Make your audience laugh and they’d line your pockets, buy your drinks, and tell you everything they thought you’d want to know. Make them weep and the most burdened might give you what you desperately needed in a moment of reflection, the subtleties of an eyebrow twitching or a bitter smile speaking volumes to the literate. Within three tables he’d made four copper and helped a young man courting by making his date blush at bawdy lyrics. Small favours like that paid dividends if your currencies were coin and information.

The mood in the less inebriated parts of the room was that of forced joviality, talk skirting around banditry plaguing nearby farms, irritation about how more ‘foreigners’ were passing through than usual. That was interesting. Clearwater was one of the largest settlements in these parts and was well known as a traveller’s waystop. There were all kinds here. It was part of the town’s appeal. Finneas made mental notes as he wandered, picking out familiar faces and popular strangers for his attention. Soon he had enough in hand to pay for dinner and a few gossipy tidbits to chew over while he waited for the food to arrive.

Shandy was setting down three tankards and a basket of sausage rolls when he returned. Finneas blessed Torrin’s confidence in his abilities to make enough to cover their tab. He was hungry. Grabbing one of the sturdy pastries he sat on the edge of the table and regarded Shandy expectantly. “Anything new, my girl?”

“A few things,” she replied, pretending to wipe a spill with her rag. “Ali and Brynn want to talk to you. They’re both with clients right now. And Cook says to give you this,” she withdrew a small pouch from her apron pocket, stitched closed with navy thread. Information, then, Finneas realized, slightly disappointed. Everett had some spice blends that Finneas really wanted to get his hands on. Well, business before pleasure and all that. “I’ll bring the plates when they’re ready. You here all night?”

Finneas nodded. “We are. I’m trying to hire on, so if you get inquiries don’t be surprised.”

Shandy raised an eyebrow. “Any room for a wench that wants to leave town?”

“In my bed,” Quinn interjected with a wink.

“Keep dreaming,” Shandy grinned, lobbing her rag at him.

Quinn caught it easily. “Every night.”

Shandy rolled her eyes, accepting the cloth back. “Flatterer.” She redirected to Finneas with an expectant look.

“Sorry, lovey,” Finneas replied, hiding his actual sorrow behind his casual demeanour. She deserved better than this taproom, better than this town, but life was full of sad songs like hers. He couldn’t rewrite them all. “If you bring your guitar in the mornings, I can give you lessons until we leave.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Shandy’s gift was her pragmatism. It was part of what made her such a good contact. “I’ll go check with Cook.”

Finneas pulled the small pouch open once she was safely away. Four obsidian gles nestled against a folded piece of paper. Finneas’ eyebrows rose and he set to reading. The cypher didn’t register as unfamiliar to him anymore, although the way Quinn’s breathing was deep with concentration as he read over Finneas’ shoulder indicated he was still struggling to pick it up. Finneas finished it and handed it over, letting Quinn work through it on his own. He offered the pouch with the gles in it to Torrin. “What do you make of these? Everett said they were left in one of the rooms after a passel of sailors checked out.”

Torrin’s eyes widened in shock as he poured the gles into his hand. Their obsidian colour merged almost perfectly with the Quarried’s own skin. “Gles are for directing the Mindless. Why would sailors have them?”

“Question of the hour,” Finneas replied, shrugging.

“Can you tell where they’re from?” Quinn asked, folding paper and handing it to Torrin.

“There’s too much vibration in here for me to try,” Torrin replied, skimming the document before tucking it and the gles back into the pouch and returning it to Finneas. “Later.”

Finneas nodded, spotting Shandy. “Well, let’s eat and then the night can go from there.”

“Who are we waiting on?” Quinn asked, taking a pull on his tankard.

“The Daughter didn’t say,” Finneas admitted. “I wish she had. I don’t think she knew for sure; she said that she put the call out and a contact said they’d arranged it with someone they trusted. They’ll have a letter of introduction. You know how it is.”

“Yeah.” Quinn fell silent as Shandy settled platters in front of them. The savoury aroma of beef gravy wafted through the air. “Damn. That smells amazing.”

“I’ll be sure to let Cook know,” Shandy replied, eyeing the doorway across the room. “I have to go. I’ll come check on you in a bit.”

Finneas waved her away, mouth already full of perfectly roasted beef. He closed his eyes and almost groaned. Such an improvement over the campfire stews and pottages they’d been living on in Anaevin. The greyport had a lot to recommend it; that said, gastronomic complexity was not one of those things. He had some grains of paradise in his bag. Should he give some to Everett and see what the man could do with those?

The sound of Brynn’s sparkling laughter broke over the buzzing of the taproom. Quinn grinned and ran his hands through his hair as she came into sight.

“Boys! What a treat!” Brynn shared Shandy’s pale blonde hair and lake blue eyes—the colouring was common here. Beside her Ali’s wild ginger curls and warm brown eyes were a marked contrast. Both women wore the figure hugging dresses favoured by the local Whore’s Guild: modest enough in terms of necklines and hems, tight enough to advertise exactly what was being sold, their colour a subtle indication of going rates. Brynn’s soft rose gown was more expensive to dye and maintain, a well known fact in a town that saw dye traders through on a regular basis. Ali’s indigo was more common, used to dye the overalls common to the farmers around here.

Finneas mentally tallied his take from earlier and came up short. He paid for their time and their information. It was only fair. “It’s lovely to see you, too, Doves. I’m on the shy side tonight, but if you’ll give me an hour I’ll do what I can.”

“Finneas, you know it’s no trouble,” Brynn laughed, settling onto the bench between he and Quinn. Quinn immediately put his arm around her and pulled her close, the two of them sharing a brief moment of reconnection.

“Even so,” Finneas grinned. “It won’t take long. The crowd hasn’t seen a musician of my caliber in a while. They’re feeling generous.”

“Well, then,” Ali smiled, taking a seat beside Torrin, “We’ll stay here and supervise the lads while you get to it.” She pulled a deck of cards from her bag and set them in front of Torrin, levelling a challenge with a wink.

“Bless you both.” Finneas wagged a finger at Torrin, “You behave.”

“Because I’m the problem.” Torrin snorted his laughter, shuffling the cards.

“The worst!” Finneas called over his shoulder, stepping back into the crowd.

He was serenading a stuffshirt when he noticed Shandy leading someone to his table. Claiming his take he drifted back in that direction, stopping for a few hails where the speakers looked lucrative. His gradual approach gave him time to take in the stranger. Human, tall, fit, and fair, he was wearing a pilgrim’s cloak over well-tailored clothing. He walked like he was used to having a sword on his back but his gait was strange, missing the solid heel strikes Finneas expected from someone who had such upright posture he might as well be standing at attention in a military parade. As Finneas approached the table, details resolved. Blue eyes and a chin that looked like it couldn’t grow a beard if it wanted to, even though he looked to be early twenties. Somber expression… Was he preoccupied? Thick? Constipated? It was hard to say. Amulet of Keltyr around his neck—well, that made some sense of the carriage and the cloak, Keltyr’s being a martial order and all.

A drunken bray of laughter made Finneas cringe as he wandered past, approaching his table behind the newcomer. The quality of his clothing and sword indicated he was comfortably off and hadn’t been fighting for his life lately. That was to the good; Finneas didn’t need to inherit anyone else’s enemies and wasn’t sure this particular to-do list was going to have them rolling in coin before it was over. It was a risk taking on another helper, riskier to try for the two sets of hands he was looking for, but it couldn’t be helped. If this was what the Daughter said it was… well, money would be the least of their problems. As Finneas approached the table he moved past the stranger, passing Brynn a pouch of coin under the pretense of landing kisses on each cheek. She made it vanish quickly. To where, Finneas couldn’t imagine. Those dresses were tight.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” he said, meticulously securing his lute in its case and tucking it under his seat. His legs were too short for it to be stepped on, which couldn’t be said for any of the rest of them. Bloody skyscrapers.

The girls set up a delightful racket, through which Finneas got the information they wanted him to have. It took longer than normal with an unfamiliar face sitting at the table—things needed to be couched, and rightly so—but the Doves were experts and Finneas an old hand. Shandy came by as Brynn and Ali were giving the update to take the newcomer’s order, obviously smitten. Finneas was listening to Ali while watching Shandy’s shameless flirting, gleaning the man’s name—Aryn—and a sense that Aryn really didn’t know anything about women. The halfling wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse. He’d err on the side of caution, though. Too many plans had been undone because someone underestimated the fairer sex. Shandy’s retreat gave Finneas the opening he’d been looking for.

“My apologies, friend! I’m Finneas Goodbarrel, of the Invictan Goodbarrel Meaderies. I didn’t catch your name?” Finneas caught Aryn’s eye and gave him his most winning smile.

Aryn studied Finneas with more clarity than he’d shown with Shandy. Finneas took that as a good sign. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Finneas. I’m Aryn.”  

“I assume you have a letter for me?” Finneas said, extending a hand expectantly. Aryn nodded, passing a sealed scroll. It took all of three seconds for Finneas to work out the key, decoding the missive with the same fluency as tuning his lute. All was in order. “Great. Welcome aboard.” He tucked the letter into the pocket in his jacket for more careful review and memorization later. “Introductions: Aryn, this is Quinn and this is Torrin. They will be travelling with us. These lovelies are Brynn and Ali, who will not.”

Aryn inclined his head in a friendly nod. Finneas was relieved that Aryn didn’t seem upset to be sharing a table with two ladies of negotiable virtue. He had no room in his life or crew for lofty assholes. When you were three and a half feet tall there were already an over abundance. The sound of Quinn clearing his throat brought Finneas’ attention around again. Shandy was approaching, directing a rotund man through the crowd to their table. A chain of heavy gold links rested on a shirtfront whose straining buttons were a miracle of the tailor’s trade. Finneas hid the speed at which he wrote the man off. They didn’t stand a chance if they couldn’t move fast and this gentleman looked as if he was more accustomed to sedentary comfort than a life on the road. The man pulled the chair at the end of the table out and settled his girth comfortably.

“Finneas, this is Austell Charlin, responding to your ad.” Shandy’s voice was blithe but the look on her face told Finneas Charlin had already said something that had set her teeth on edge. That wouldn’t do, either. If Finneas showed up in Invictus with a crew member who casually insulted women his mother would box his ears after throwing the offender onto the street. Strike two.

“Charlin, what a delight!” Finneas’ professionalism was consummate. You didn’t burn bridges in this line of work. A wandering minstrel lived and died by his charisma, a spy more so. “Tell us about yourself!”

Charlin’s voice was a pleasant tenor with no evidence of the wheezing Finneas expected from a man of his size. The bard incrementally adjusted his opinion as Charlin spoke, adding points when the man displayed initiative and cleverness, docking him when casual slips of the tongue gave more information than was strictly warranted. The latter was the biggest concern. Strike three.

“And for our final question,” Finneas interjected smoothly as Charlin took a breath to continue an increasingly detailed story about his magical accomplishments, “Can you cast something to enchant and entertain?”

“Here? Now?” Charlin looked confused.

“But of course!” Finneas smiled encouragingly. “Where better?”

Charlin was clearly taken aback. “No. Magic doesn’t work that way.”

Finneas allowed his face to fall, the exaggeration wringing his features with the ease of long practice. “That is such a shame! I’d heard rumours of creativity and daring and was so looking forward to seeing if they were true.”

“I can cast, you know,” Charlin said, insistently. “Give me enough time and I can bring results that will knock your socks off.”

“I have every confidence! But sadly, ours is a road-show, ready to perform at a moment’s notice. Your flair, however skillfully crafted, will not be a good fit for us.” Finneas stood on his bench, shaking Charlin’s hand enthusiastically. “Thank you kindly for coming to call, it was a pleasure. Have a pint on us for your troubles. Shandy will hook you up.”

Charlin gave Finneas a perplexed look as he shifted to his feet. “The ad said you were looking for a mage. It didn’t say anything about a road show.”

“Limits of ad space, my good fellow. Wandering players can’t afford to spend all of their gleanings on printed characters or there would be nothing left to drink!” Finneas’ laugh was a boisterous dismissal. Charlin nodded, still slightly confused and turned toward the bar, inexorable as an iceberg.

“Wandering players?” Aryn asked with a raised eyebrow, tapping the handle of his tankard.

“Metaphorically speaking, of course. We’re certainly not staying here,” Finneas replied, watching Charlin as he crossed the floor. “It’s not my fault if he understood something else. That was a waste.”

Ali nodded. “Charlin means well and he’s good for a local weather witch and finding lost objects and such. But I don’t think he could do anything of real use for you, Finn.”

“Well, we have a few days. If we find what we are looking for, great. If we don’t, we improvise.” Finneas hopped down from the table and rustled through his bag for the grains of paradise. “I want pickle spears.”

“Two orders,” Quinn said, tightening his arm around Brynn.

Finneas tipped his hat and made his way to the kitchen. He inhaled deeply as he pushed past the swinging doors, immediately wrapped in an ambiance of sautéing onions and browning meat. “Everett, you wily dog! Where are you?”

“Goodbarrel, you rat! What the hell are you doing in my kitchen? I had a catcher in here not three days ago!” Everett’s amused voice boomed from the back. Finneas followed it, weaving to stay out of the way of the undercooks, finding Everett standing in the open frame of the back door cooling off. “Good to see you, Finneas,” the man said more quietly, clapping a hand the size of a serving platter onto Finneas’ shoulder.

“And you, too,” Finneas replied with genuine warmth. “I got your message and I come bearing gifts.”

Everett grinned, stepping back into the kitchen, leaving the door open to the night. There was no risk of thieves coming in this way. The last time someone tried, Everett took an index finger off with a cleaver. News like that travelled fast. “What did you bring me?”

Finneas handed over two small jars. “Grains of paradise and tonka beans. I’m not even sure where they come from, but be damned if they aren’t something I’ve never seen before. Don’t bite the beans. They’re beyond bitter unless ground finely.”

Everett looked intrigued, opening the jars and sniffing deeply before exhaling his approval. He moved to the table kept in the back for the kitchen staff and separated half the contents of each container into jars of his own before handing them back to Finneas. “I’ll do something with them for breakfast. I assume you’re staying?”

“For a few days. I need a cover to get us back to Invictus. And a mage.”

Everett’s whistle was low. “Tall orders.”

“Any leads?”

The man shook his shaved head slowly. “No, but I can put some feelers out. Caravan master might be a good start. With the brigands around more people are travelling that way.”

Finneas winced. “That bad?”

“Worse,” the cook affirmed, wiping his hands on his apron out of reflex. “There have been some deaths.”

The bard filed the information away. “I’ll start with the caravan master, then. Let me know if you hear anything.”

“You know I will. Let me know what you think of breakfast,” Everett replied with an easy grin.

“You sure you have a stomach for criticism so early in the morning?” Finneas jibed as he made his way back through the kitchen. Everett’s chuckle faded as Finneas passed the scrawny cook tending the fryer. “Two orders of pickle spears, my good man.”

The kid nodded, making short work of the order. Finneas successfully balanced the baskets all the way back to the table, no thanks to the idiots who couldn’t be bothered to watch where they were going. You’d think an eye-watering vermillion hat with extravagant yellow feathers would be enough to announce his presence but apparently not… Brynn and Ali had departed in his absence but Quinn looked content so it had been under good terms. Finneas pushed the baskets up on the table before taking his seat again.

“Ali says there are a few other magic workers in town. She’s working on getting them to come out,” Torrin said, pulling a piping hot spear from the pile.

“If they’re from here, they won’t leave,” Quinn observed, snagging one for himself and leaving it on a napkin in front of him to cool.

“You’re probably right,” Finneas agreed, picking up his tankard to discover Shandy had refilled it while he was away. Gods bless that girl. “Still. Never hurts to ask.”

“What kinds of qualities are you looking for, Finneas?” Aryn asked.

“Some kind of detection or tracking skills would be great. Quinn is the man when it comes to physical trace and pathfinding, but none of us have the Sight.” Finneas watched carefully as he imparted the information. Keltyr’s temple sometimes produced—or recruited, it depended who you asked—priests with the Sight. He was mildly disappointed when the pale man shook his head in commiseration.

“I can’t help you there,” Aryn said. “My talents tend toward fighting and healing.”

“You’re a healer?” Finneas asked, barely managing to contain his excitement at the words.

“Not a Medius,” Aryn cautioned, “but I have field experience from my time in the marines and Keltyr shored those skills up when I joined the temple.”

“Well, isn’t that just the coin in the cake,” Finneas said, chomping a pickle spear with intense satisfaction. When the baskets contained nothing but crumbs he carefully wiped his fingers and pulled his lute from its case once again. He handed Aryn a keystone before settling off. “Key to your room. I’m back to work. The rest of the evening is yours. If you want to stay around in case of further interviews you can, but I don’t expect it.”

Aryn nodded comprehension, tucking the keystone into his belt pouch. “I don’t mind.”

“Attaboy, cleric,” Finneas grinned, perfecting the tuning on his lute as he walked away.

***

The rest of the night was profitable in terms of lining their pockets and a bust in terms of hiring mages. Finneas counted his gleanings in the privacy of the room he shared with Quinn and Torrin, the archer deftly sewing half the take into the hems of their cloaks for storage.

“I’m not sure he’s all there, Finneas,” Quinn said, picking out stitches and correcting a seam. “Who doesn’t realize Shandy is flirting with them?”

“He may not appreciate women,” Torrin observed, buffing a nick out of one of Quinn’s slivers.

Finneas shrugged. “Wouldn’t surprise me. He’s prettier than most of the women in the pub tonight.”

Torrin sighed. “Don’t be like that, Finneas.”

“Like what, Torrin?”

“Right?” Quinn asked, snapping the thread off a knot and putting his needle away for the night. “Torrin, that’s a face that is going to bring us more attention than we want. And Finn, are you sure you want another god-touched with us? Isn’t Torrin cramping our style enough already?”

Torrin snorted.

“He’s a healer, boys. We can always put a bag on his head—I mean, buy him a cloak with a deep hood.” Finneas finished with his counting and tucked the smaller coins back into the belt pouch that Torrin carried. He was short and couldn’t run so fast. Torrin was huge and didn’t run from anything. Finneas hadn’t seen a would-be robber decide to go round for round once they realized Torrin was the one with the purse, but if he ever did, he’d write an ode to their brass balls. “Besides, he’s connected to the network. We deal until we’re told not to deal anymore.”

Matched nods met his pronouncement.

“In the meantime, Everett is making something epic for breakfast, so there’s that to look forward to. Quinn, we’re going to check out the caravan masters in the morning, see what we can turn up. Torrin, can you go see if you can find a horse that can actually carry your weight? That poor nag you’ve been riding looks done in.” He rummaged in the brim of his hat and pulled out a mid-grade faceted emerald. “Should be enough. Get the change in smaller stones if you can.”

Torrin took the stone, turning it over in his palm. “I’ll try. If you give me those gles I can sit with them tomorrow. I might be able to work out where they come from. There aren’t too many obsidian veins on this side of the Talai.”

“Good plan.” Finneas tossed the pouch to him, the chink of the gles seeming loud in the room. “Turn in, boys. Day breaks early.”

***

The caravan master had been a waste of time, insulting Finneas within seconds of opening his mouth. Finneas gave Quinn a knowing look and played it up, stalking off in a huff. Quinn followed his lead, right around the corner of the building and into the shadow of an overgrown lilac bush.

“The hell was that about, Finn? He wasn’t that bad.”

“There’s a woman in there with no weapons and no shoes and that doesn’t make sense.” Finneas pulled out one of his handkerchiefs and crushed a bundle of blossoms into it before shoving it back into his pocket.

“Trust you to notice someone’s feet,” Quinn smirked. “You think she might be a mage?”

Finneas stared at the warehouse door as others rejected from the hiring were expelled back into the day. “Just think it’s worth some follow up, that’s all.”

Quinn shrugged. “Fair enough.”

Finneas was about to call off their lingering when she appeared, walking quickly while skirting the puddles that riddled the road. She was Ryesh—the pointed ears were a dead giveaway—but the milk-white colour of her skin confused him. He was familiar with most of the Ryeshi houses and had never encountered it before. The way her skin and robe matched was a terrible look for her, casting her more wraithlike than fair. To be fair, part of his assessment of her as wraithlike had to do with how frighteningly thin she was. Her hair was in some kind of intricate braid that wrapped around her head, the dark teal coils the only elaborate thing about her. Plain clothes, no cloak, no obvious gear. The way she moved like a spooked deer made him think his assessment of her being unarmed was probably correct. Nothing that could defend itself bolted like that. She darted down a side street and Finneas made to follow, hearing Quinn slip away to try for another angle. Finneas wasn’t all that far behind her, but she was gone when he got around the corner. He frowned and scratched his forehead under his hat band while he waited for Quinn to find him again.

“Nothing,” Quinn reported as he rejoined Finneas.

“Me neither,” Finneas agreed, looking down the perplexingly empty road toward the village green. “So much for that.”

***

They returned to the inn to discover that Torrin and Aryn were deep in conversation with a young man with alarming freckles, two missing front teeth, and enough scars on his knuckles Finneas wasn’t sure they would bleed if you cut them. Torrin shifted down the bench enough to let Finneas settle beside him while Quinn dropped onto the other bench beside Aryn. “Afternoon, fellows! Who’s this?”

“Grant Drover, sir, at your service,” the youth said, thrusting his hand out to Finneas with such force Finneas had to dodge or risk being punched in the face.

“Grant!” Finneas beamed. “A strong name to go with strong hands! What you brings you here? It can’t possibly be the company.” Finneas gestured to Aryn and Torrin and flashed the young man a wink. Grant winked back and Finneas marked the boy’s slight discomfort with the god-touched in the gesture.

“I hear you’re looking to hire on, sir, and I am looking to get hired.” The gaps in his dentistry made an appearance as Grant gave his most winning smile.

“Are you now? And what can you do that a roadshow like ours might need?”

Grant reached behind Finneas’ ear and began pulling a series of scarves out of thin air. Finneas gave a slight start and the lad some credit—that had been a smooth transition. Grant worked through a series of almost immaculately performed tricks, appearing and vanishing coins and demonstrating some card work that was nothing short of fascinating. While he performed he kept up an incredible patter, eventually drawing most of the thin scattering of afternoon customers around their table to witness his act. Grant was unfazed by the additions to his audience, even incorporating observers on the fly. By the time he was done, the crowd was well and truly entertained.

“Well played, lad, well played!” Finneas crowed, doffing his hat and bowing elaborately in Grant’s direction. He immediately flipped his hat over and stood up on the table, walking around with it out expectantly. “Everybody, let’s give this young man a bit of coin for his performance!” A shower of coins followed, after which the crowd broke up, drifting back to their tables. Finneas glanced over the take quickly before pouring it into a pile in front of Grant’s seat. Not bad, really: mostly copper, a few silver, and one gold piece. Of course the gold was Finneas’ contribution, but Grant wouldn’t know that. Finneas remembered the first time he’d received a gold piece while busking and how it had given him confidence for weeks and then security during a run of thin luck later. It was the least he could do if he wasn’t going to hire the kid. Quinn and Torrin tossed their own coins into the mix, Aryn following suit shortly after. Grant stared at the pile in front of him with wide eyes.

“Card sharp or pickpocket?” Finneas asked casually, hopping off the table and settling himself back on the bench.

“Cards,” Grant affirmed, unashamed.

Finneas nodded. “You’re good at what you do. It’s not quite what we are looking for, but I’m definitely impressed.”

Confusion screwed up Grant’s smile. “I thought you were looking for a magician?”

“A mage, lad,” Finneas corrected with some sympathy.

Grant nodded stolidly, trying to keep the showman persona in place but not quite managing. “Figures.”

“If you’re willing to travel, I know a carnival troupe that would be lucky to have you. They berth in Anaevin over the winter, travel from early spring to late fall. They’d be on their way south around now and will come through Clearwater on their way.” Finneas watched the young man carefully. The gratitude wasn’t feigned and why the lad was running away to join the circus wasn’t a story he really wanted to know. He’d have to do more about it if he had details.

“Any lead you have on something like that would mean a lot to me, sir,” Grant said, nodding respectfully.

“Give me a bit to write up a letter of introduction and you can take it with you if you decide to test the waters,” Finneas offered. “As a matter of fact, Sit here and have a beer with us and I can have it done by time you’ve finished your pint.”

***

In the end, Grant’s interview was the best of the four that they’d had that day. At least the gap-toothed charmer had skills to back up his confidence. The middle aged woman who’d interviewed next was an herbalist with delusions of divine confidence. The jet haired Gadoan simply wouldn’t stop talking long enough to listen to any kind of instruction. Finneas had been slightly more optimistic about the last, a charismatic Frejan, but the way her clever fingers plucked at the false pocket in his jacket immediately disqualified her. He wasn’t working with anyone who would steal from him during an interview. It was a clear indication they didn’t have a mind for more intricate schemes or the patience to play a long game, and well, his line of work was the longest game to play.

“Well, boys, one more day and the bread will be too stale to eat,” Finneas yawned as Shandy started putting chairs up on the tables so she could scrub the floors. Aryn immediately got up and went to assist her. Torrin and Quinn exchanged a look.

“He doesn’t realize she’s hitting on him, right? We agreed on that?” Quinn asked with a skeptical expression.

Torrin nodded. “We did.”

“So why on earth would he help her? Usually you only do that kind of thing for girls you’re trying to impress.”

“He might just be a nice guy, Quinn,” Finneas replied, eyes tracking the cleric’s movement. “I mean, I’ve heard rumours those existed, but I’ve never seen one in the wild.”

Torrin gave them both long suffering looks and went to assist Shandy.

“It’s all in the set of the eyebrows, am I right?” Quinn asked Finneas with amusement, watching Torrin join in the furniture shifting.

“Oh, definitely. Sometimes seeing that look of pure exasperation on Torrin’s face is the only thing that makes the day worth living.” Finneas’ grin was easy. The three of them had been through too much together for a little ribbing to get in the way. Honestly, it was when they stopped ragging on each other that the problems started. “I’ll meet you upstairs?”

“In a while, yeah. I have plans with Brynn.”

“Excellent. You’re always happier when you’re getting laid.”

“True story,” Quinn nodded decisively and ran a hand through his hair. “If I’m not back by morning, I’ll come find you once I’ve woken up.”

“You got it. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Finneas replied, waving Quinn away.

“I’ll do a few things you can’t!” Quinn’s barb came back to Finneas over the archer’s shoulder.

Bloody skyscrapers. “Ha, ha, funny-man!” Finneas called back, adjusting the strap of his lute case so the weight of the instrument was properly distributed. “Just for that I’m locking the door!”

Quinn’s answering shrug was supremely unconcerned.

***

There was barely room to move between tables come sundown, the taproom overrun by hired hands come into town on their day off and trapped by the rain that had blown in as the night deepened. Finneas meandered, distracting himself by charming the labourers out of their earnings with the comic songs in his repertoire. Luck was a lady, filling his pockets with a steady trickle of small coins and gemstone pebbles. He barely got stepped on or walked into at all, which was something of a minor miracle given how often he found his gaze wandering to the door rather than staying on his audience. The answer to his inquiry was going to come through that arch tonight, although its form remained to be seen. Finneas was beyond impatient to make its acquaintance. Shandy caught his eye and jutted her chin toward their table, serving tray aloft and laden. Finneas nodded and made his way into her wake, taking his seat at the table just as she finished unloading their meal and took up flirting with Aryn again.

Finneas focused on his stew to keep himself from laughing at Aryn’s obtuseness. The comic relief was another good reason to keep the man around. Ali and Brynn came by the table, Ali taking a seat next to Aryn, Brynn standing behind Quinn and draping her arms around his shoulders. From them he knew that there weren’t any other local mages willing to undergo a public interview and Finneas had decided anyone not willing to meet in public was already out of the running. But Everett had sent a message saying Carter had been in touch with someone passing through that might work out, and Finneas was willing to stay until closing time on the chance that stranger might be his answer. The meal might have been fine, and knowing Everett, it probably was, but impatience made it impossible to taste. They needed to get back on the road.

The bowl in front of him was almost empty when he noticed Shandy directing a figure toward their table. Rain-soaked white robes immediately caught his attention and he cursed inwardly when the view of the individual’s feet was obscured by the angle of the table.

“Well, Doves, it looks like we have work to do,” Finneas announced cheerfully, carefully wiping his face on his lilac-scented handkerchief.

Brynn kicked up a pretty fuss that served solely to let the bustling room know she and Ali were no longer occupied. Finneas winked and played into it, showering both of them with compliments and praise while insisting they leave in a voice that carried. Ali grinned widely as she patted Torrin’s forearm before standing and linking arms with Brynn. The sway of their hips as they walked away drew appreciative glances from more than just Quinn.

Finneas watched obliquely as the stranger approached, growing more certain it was the girl from the caravan master’s office with each step the figure took toward the table. The pack was unfamiliar, as was the waterlogged, dun-coloured cloak, but the bare feet gave her away as soon as he could see them. Well, this should be interesting. Carter said she actually gave him a demonstration after we left. A viable option would be a good thing right now…

The scrape of a chair on the roughly hewn floor caught the halfling’s attention as Aryn stood and offered the newcomer his seat. The show of manners seemed to catch her off guard, given the way she paused before accepting the offer, but the pause was the only thing that gave Finneas that impression. He watched her like a hawk as she got settled, taking in the nuances of her body language and facial expressions. There wasn’t a lot to work with, unlike Aryn, whose whole existence was continually scripted across his features. She was a closed book with a stiff spine and a fine cover. Finneas was impressed. There weren’t too many people he couldn’t get a decent cold read on within moments of meeting them. His interest crept up another notch. Time to get her talking.

“Oh, excellent, we’re all here!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands once as if in delight. He allowed a bit of his hope to bleed through his showmanship-smile. “Carter said you might come by and I am thrilled that you decided to. I’m Finneas Goodbarrel of the Invictan Goodbarrels and these fine fellows are Quinn and Torrin. You’ve already stolen Aryn’s chair, so I assume you’ve made his acquaintance. What can we call you?”

She lowered her hood and smoothed a sodden lock of hair behind her ear. How she wasn’t blue with the cold he didn’t know. He’d seen people swimming who were drier.

“Shaavana, if you please,” she replied. The thin fingers she curled around the clay mug were steady, giving no signs of nerves or chill. Finneas tallied a point in her favour. She was drinking tea though, on a night where a little nip in the cup was sure to warm a body better than boiled leaf water. Here’s hoping she’s not part of a temperance movement. That’d be three strikes right there.

“Well met, Shaavana, well met. I hear you’re a mage?” Finneas leaned across the table, steepling his fingers together and fixing her with an expectant look.

She nodded once, holding his gaze with an unblinking one of her own. “I am.”

Finneas snapped his fingers with satisfaction. “Excellent!” He picked up his tankard and toasted her with it. “Are you any good?” A slight narrowing of her eyebrows and a minute tightening of her jaw told him pride was a button to push with her.

“I am,” she confirmed, her fingers still and easy around her mug. “Although it seems you must take me at my word.”

“Or not,” Finneas countered, raising an eyebrow. “Carter said you did some trick that impressed him this morning. Care to demonstrate?”

She regarded him steadily and he was at a loss for clues about what she was thinking. It was one thing to be reserved. She bordered on inscrutable. Finneas made a mental note to never play cards with her.

“Certainly,” she replied, raising her hand. Between one breath and the next her pale fingers were wreathed in a dazzling spectacle of splintered light, the shards shifting through greens and golds to blues and aquas and into violets and indigos that every dye-trader to pass through Clearwater would give their daily bread for.

Finneas couldn’t stop himself from leaning forward, his delight genuine as he tried to see past the effect. This was well beyond Grant’s capabilities, although the freckled imp had far greater showmanship than Shaavana did. The bard stole glances at the others, noting Quinn’s surprise, Torrin’s awe, and Aryn’s curiosity. “Well, isn’t that just the coin in the cake! Nice trick, Shaavana.”

“Thank you. You are kind.” She raised an eyebrow slightly while nodding acceptance of his comment before dismissing the spell.

Yes, pride is definitely a lever to use with her… “I mean, it helps that so far you’re the only one to make any sparks fly. Kind of narrows the field of eligible applicants.” She didn’t bristle at the backhanded compliment. He awarded her another point. He knew how he and the boys were. If she couldn’t handle something like that, she’d be better off not leaving with them at all.

“Doesn’t hurt that she’ll improve the view, either,” Quinn muttered. Finneas grinned. Trust Quinn to be looking out for the view.

The halfling drank deeply while he collected his thoughts and then set his tankard aside. “So here’s the deal, friends: I need to find a guy who doesn’t really want to be found and I need some help doing it. I’ve heard he could be in a few places that I don’t necessarily want to go to alone, hence enlisting all of you. It’ll take a few months, I wager. I intend to keep us low-profile. This guy is a greased pig, always slipping away when I get close to catching up with him. To that end, I’d prefer us to hire on as caravan guards and use them as a cover to get around while we try to flush him out. This gives us income as well, as I know for a fact that while Torrin is all about donating his time to worthy causes, Quinn never works for free. Presumably Aryn keeps his tailor well paid, and Shaavana, you need a new cloak. So income doesn’t hurt any of us, which is good because I can’t afford to pay you all that much until we get back to the Meadery. At the very least, I’ll get you to Invictus and comp you a drink while we are there. Sound good?”

Quinn grumbled into the foam on his beer. Finneas stopped himself from rolling his eyes through an act of will, knowing the argument that was coming because it had been had this morning. Twice. He cut it off at the pass. “I already told you, Quinn. I’ve got a bead on a caravan that will take us on as guards. It’s going through a few of the places I’ve got in mind.”

“Oh?” Shaavana asked with a slight tilt of her head. “I saw you at the caravan master’s warehouse. You were not hired.”

“I do,” Finneas confirmed nonchalantly. Saw me, did you? Interesting… She hadn’t given any indication that she was surveying the room and its contents when he’d been observing her. “I may be too short to guard for that particular gentleman, but a Goodbarrel’s always got options. I’ve explored them and arrived at this one.”

The mage blinked slowly. “That sounds… convenient.” He thought her tone indicated skepticism, but it was too soon to say. He needed more time to get used to her patterns of speech.

“It is,” Finneas returned dryly, and then turned pointedly to look at Torrin, edging her out of his field of vision, listening hard for her reaction to being ignored. None was forthcoming. Score another point. His fears about taking a woman into the group were being alleviated one after another. As long as Quinn didn’t try to seduce her, he was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be higher maintenance than they were prepared to deal with. Aryn was going to be more than enough on that score, Finneas was sure.

“Who is this person and why are you looking for him?” Torrin asked as if the answer didn’t matter to him one way or another. His obsidian skin seemed to absorb most of the light around him. Finneas tried not to think about how much magic it would take to animate stone. Torrin’s existence was improbable. Finneas would have said impossible, once, but he’d lived long enough now and travelled enough of the world to know only fools used that word.

“I’m collecting a debt for Dad. This guy owes the Meadery a lot of money,” Finneas replied, glibly, sticking with the cover story. As rehearsed Torrin nodded his understanding and Quinn gave an expression of realization chased with approval.  Finneas turned to look at Aryn. “So, pretty boy? You in?”

Finneas was pleased to see that the cleric looked satisfied and agreeable. It was always handy to have another fighting skyscraper around. A fighting skyscraper who could heal was doubly welcome. “Certainly. It sounds like you could use the assistance and I’m on my way back to Invictus, regardless.”

Finneas grinned. “Attaboy, cleric.” The bard turned to look at Shaavana. “And you?”

She nodded slowly. “I believe this may be a suitable arrangement.”

“Settled then!” Finneas crowed, slapping the table with his palm delightedly. He climbed up on his bench and then stood on the table itself. “Shandy! Where are you, girl? We need drinks!”

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