“He is an Izarite, as a matter of fact.”
“Now I’ve truly heard everything,” Shook snorted.
The Jackal brayed his characteristic shrill laugh. “Sonny boy, if you haven’t learned better than to think that by now, you never will!”
“He sounds like an intriguing individual,” Khadizroth said to their hostess, ignoring the two of them.
Branwen Snowe nodded, smiling at the dragon. “Infernomancy is not esteemed by the cult, obviously, but Mr. Agasti has exercised his craft—both of them—in Izara’s service. He is among the few trusted with the creation of shatterstones, and has provided legal services to local temples at no charge. I can personally attest that being a person not widely liked by the Brethren does not preclude being of service to them.”
“Shatterstones,” the Jackal chortled. “That’s got to be the silliest idea anyone’s ever had for defense.”
“I assure you, those things are not to be taken lightly,” Khadizroth murmured.
“More to the point,” added Shook, “what the hell legal services would the Izarites ever need? What kind of asshole sues a temple of Izara?”
“Such things do happen, now and again,” Branwen said ruefully, “but it mostly comes down to the fact that the majority of lawyers look to Avei for patronage. Their faith is not fondly disposed toward ours as a rule.”
The enforcer nodded. “Well, Avenists making trouble is something I definitely understand.”
“You could say it is what brings us all together,” Khadizroth added with a small smile at Branwen.
“To give the Sisterhood credit, I think blaming Basra on them is excessively harsh,” the Bishop replied, smiling back. “Creatures such as she are adept at squirming into organizations and hollowing out a niche for themselves. And it was Avei’s own who drove her out. Really, it was inspiring the way young Trissiny descended upon her. I am not pleased by violence as a rule, but to see an avatar of Avei’s righteous vengeance in action, one cannot help but be impressed.”
Shook and the Jackal snorted in unison.
“I have several times had the same thought,” Khadizroth said to Branwen, continuing to ignore them. The dragon gave her a warm little smile before returning his attention to the city map laid out upon the room’s sole desk. “So. This pattern is suggestive, obviously. What would you say are the chances that this Mortimer Agasti is in league with the Black Wreath?”
“The entire menace of the Wreath is that one can never be certain of that, about anyone,” Branwen replied gravely. “But I am as confident in Agasti’s loyalties as in anyone’s.”
“I dunno this guy but I’m inclined to agree,” Shook added, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. “The one Izarite warlock? Seems a little on the nose. The Wreath never do the obvious thing, even when it would be the smarter thing in their position. I honestly wonder if over-complicating everything isn’t a commandment their religion.”
“Then there is another explanation for the distribution of these sites you have identified around his establishment, your Grace,” Khadizroth mused, studying the map. “May I ask how you acquired this intelligence?”
“These reports come from the Thieves’ Guild,” she said. “My own contact, not the Church’s. Eserites are generally disinclined to respect any central authority; coupled with the general Western distrust for the Universal Church, it is unsurprising that these reports weren’t made available to Basra. I am reasonably sure they won’t be, either, so you needn’t worry about her learning these are not reports of chaos cultist activity.”
“How come the Guild hasn’t moved against ’em, if they know where they are?” Shook asked, his attention more focused upon her.
“Each of these six sites was the source of a single sighting,” Branwen explained, smiling vaguely at him. She had a tendency to appear oddly vapid when not speaking directly to Khadizroth. “A demon sighting, summoning residue, in one case just people in gray robes. Nobody has been harmed, that I have heard of, which makes all the difference. The Guild and the Wreath mutually avoid one another; it gets gratuitously ugly when they fail to, as I have observed since one of my fellow Bishops keeps deliberately setting that up. So long as the Wreath are not actually harming the people of Ninkabi, I don’t expect Eserite intervention. And they likely won’t. Whatever they are up to, the Wreath seldom create civilian casualties, I have to give them that.”
“What’re you thinkin’, K?” Shook asked.
“The obvious possibility is that the Wreath have some designs upon this Mortimer Agasti,” the dragon said, straightening back up and turning to gaze pensively out the office’s window. Branwen had brought them to a nondescript space owned by the Izarite cult, a two-room apartment with a cozy office-like space in which they now stood and a small, adjoining bedroom. “But that, I feel, is the less likely one.”
“The obvious answer’s always the less likely one with these assholes,” the Jackal chuckled. “Jerry hit that nail on the head.”
“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “they are using him as cover.”
“Trying to create ‘accidents’ to discredit Mortimer?” Branwen asked, her blue eyes sharp and alert once fixed on the dragon. “It occurred to me that this might be their goal. Their entire calling is to quell and contain demonic outbreaks. If they consider him a danger…”
“Possible, but I rather doubt it. Notably, the Black Wreath move to suppress lone warlocks, yes, but have historically been reluctant to face potential rivals. They go to great lengths to avoid the Topaz College, and flee from red dragons upon sight.”
“You may not’ve noticed, being cooped up with us the last year or so, but people fleeing from dragons ain’t just a Wreath thing,” Shook said dryly. The Jackal burst out laughing in near-hysterics; by this point, even Branwen knew to ignore him.
“Even so,” Khadizroth said, turning to face them again and folding his hands behind his back. “If Mortimer Agasti is a known and liked figure in the city, and closely involved with the Izarite cult, the Wreath are unlikely to have hostile designs upon him. Perhaps in years past they might have, but following their defeats at Tiraas and Veilgrad, their forces are considerably thinned. I cannot believe they would waste effort chasing mockingjays, which raises the question of what they are after in Ninkabi. What would be in character for them is using him as camouflage.”
“Yeah, I could see that,” the Jackal said, still grinning. “So long as they’re close to warlock boy, any miscellaneous demon shit that somebody reports is likely to get blamed on him.”
“The hole in that plan is the warlock himself,” said Shook. “Who better to hunt them down? If I was him, Wreath digging a burrow under my back porch would immediately become my first priority.”
“Mortimer is…quite reclusive,” Branwen said, frowning thoughtfully. “It is entirely possible he has not noticed any infernal presence nearby. Aside from his work on shatterstones, he has not done anything save look after his revenants within the walls of his club in years.”
“Do not forget, also, that the Wreath’s greatest weapon is their stealth,” Khadizroth added. “They can hide even from paladins, even from the gods, and that craft is Elilinist specifically, not merely infernal. A rival warlock might be one of the least likely parties to detect their presence.”
“Okay, so let’s say this theory’s right,” said Shook. “Wreath’s operating in that neighborhood, using this Agasti guy as a cover. What’s our play? Right off the bat I can tell you it’s not a good situation to wade into. Just the fact they were able to pick their own ground gives ’em the advantage. I like the Wreath better when they’re forced to meet on somebody else’s terms. Preferably mine.”
“Well spotted, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gravely, nodding. “Making targets of ourselves is not a winning move. As yet, it is unlikely the Wreath even know we are present and interested in them. That is our greatest advantage.”
“How’s about we make Basra a target?” the Jackal suggested, grinning as usual. “That’s where all this is leading up to anyway, isn’t it?”
“You know, that’s a pretty good idea,” Shook agreed. “If the whole objective here is cutting the legs out from under Basra, it’s a lot less likely to bite us on the ass if it’s somebody else who does it. Trick is setting that up.”
“It may be less tricky than you imagine,” Branwen said softly, “if approached in the right way. Simply introducing Basra to Black Wreath cultists directly will almost certainly result in some manner of explosion.”
“There’s no way she’s dumb enough to just lunge after bait like that,” Shook objected. “Nobody who’s lived that long and achieved what she has is that stupid.”
“Why, Thumper,” the Jackal cooed, “I didn’t know you thought so highly of our fearless leader! How long have you been nursing that crush?”
“First step in dealing with any asshole who needs a takedown is to give them full credit for their capabilities,” Shook said icily. “I made the mistake of not respecting one smarmy cunt once, and it’s the reason I’m stuck out here with you fuckers. I don’t mean to repeat my errors.”
“You may find it an amusing irony, Mr. Shook,” Branwen said lightly, “that Principia Locke has played a major role in cutting Basra Syrinx down to size on multiple occasions. She’s arguably the reason you are both out here.”
Shook went stiff as a plank, sucking in a long breath through his teeth. For a long few seconds, color rose in his face as if he were bout to burst a blood vessel.
Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed, and actually chuckled. “Y’know what? That actually is pretty funny.”
“Hmmm.” They all turned back to Khadizroth to find him smiling slightly, again looking down at the map. “I like this general line of thought. Rather than confront our enemies, let someone else exert pressure upon them. And ultimately, set them against one another without dirtying our own hands.”
“So, basically the thing Justinian does to everybody else,” the Jackal said lightly. “Hey, sounds good! Sure seems to work out okay for him.”
“We aren’t Justinian,” Shook pointed out. “And there’s a notable lack of a middle part in that plan. Pressure them how? And then, arrange that confrontation…how?”
“It is simply too early to lay out the final stages of such a campaign,” said Khadizroth. “The manner in which things develop will determine what pieces are in what position upon the board when the endgame approaches. It is a mistake to over-plan too far in advance, particularly when one knows as little as we do at the moment. Instead, we must seek to apply that pressure, and continue increasing it until an opportunity presents itself to move decisively.”
“What do you propose to do, Lord Khadizroth?” Branwen asked.
“Leverage the assets available to us, to begin with,” the dragon explained. “There are means within the mysteries of fae magic of laying triplines which may catch even the Wreath. I do not propose to set traps for them, but rather signals that will enable me to tell where they have been, and ideally, doing what. Unfortunately it is problematic for me to move about the city. Some things I can do from a distance, using only this map. For others, Vannae can travel more freely.”
“Somewhat,” Shook cautioned. “An elf will create less of an uproar, but they still aren’t common in cities. Especially out here in the West.”
“He can deflect some attention by adopting traditional costume rather than that suit he was wearing before,” Branwen suggested. “Many people cannot tell one elf from another, sadly. And city dwellers in general are somewhat jaded to novel sights. So long as he does not cross his own trail too frequently…”
“Elves can be pretty sneaky when they want to,” the Jackal drawled. “I mean, y’know, so I hear. Damn shifty elves, stealin’ our women and our jobs.”
“Great, more magic bullshit,” Shook grunted. “What’s that leave for us to do?”
“It would be tremendously foolish not to take advantage of the full range of talents available,” Khadizroth assured him. “To begin with, one thing we are equipped to do is draw official attention to this district and hamper the Wreath’s movements. In our own little cell are a Thieves’ Guild veteran, a succubus, and an assassin. If the three of you cannot create a stir that fills this neighborhood with police, no one can.”
“Oooh!” The Jackal sat bolt upright in the chair in which he had been sprawled, positively beaming. “Crime spree!”
“Now, hold on,” Shook interjected. “One of the few actually sacred sites to Eserites is in Ninkabi, and by Snowe’s account the local Guild is already aware of warlocks fucking around in this area. If anything resembling unauthorized crime starts happening consistently, the Guild will move into the neighborhood in force. And that will spook the Wreath into vanishing. Like the Bishop mentioned, they want none of that fight.”
“It will have to be a slow escalation,” Khadizroth agreed. “And ideally, of a nature that stirs up official presence in the entire city. The Wreath may be able to shift their focus away from Agasti’s local aegis, but that will only make them stand out more—and I think they will not leave Ninkabi entirely. There is, after all, a reason they are here.” He shifted to regard Branwen with a thin smile. “I have a theory about that, as it happens.”
“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
“I hesitate to comment prematurely. With luck, my efforts with Vannae will yield answers soon.”
“It’s not kind to lead a lady on, Lord Khadizroth,” she said, smiling.
“I hope I shall soon be in a position to make it up to you, my dear.” Khadizroth held her eyes a moment longer before turning back to the others. “So. Given those criteria, what do you think?”
Shook heaved an irritated sigh. “I think that job needs either a much bigger crew or more magic fuckery. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Shiri can whip up something like that, which I got a feeling is why Syrinx doesn’t like me takin’ her out of the HQ. Me, though, I’m not the guy for large-scale manipulation.”
“So,” the Jackal said, his avid grin a sharp contrast to Shook’s dour expression, “crime that torques off the authorities…but slowly…and doesn’t rile the Thieves’ Guild. Oooh, it’s like a puzzle box! I love it! I’m gonna get started right away!”
“Get started on…what, exactly?” Branwen inquired delicately.
“I don’t know!” the Jackal exclaimed with wild glee. “But I have a good feeling about this!”
“Makes one of us,” Shook muttered.
“I apologize for relegating grunt work to you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said, drawing his eyebrows together in a slight frown, “but we must also be attentive to the need to placate the Inquisitor. My work and Vannae’s I can justify to her as hunting cultists, as that will be precisely what we are doing. We already need to concoct some manner of cover that will satisfy her as to what Jack and Kheshiri are up to. Someone needs to be following up on leads the old-fashioned way, if only to have something convincing to report to her.”
Shook heaved a sigh. “Yep, sounds about right. Well, hell, I haven’t made any of my choices with the aim of gettin’ to do the glamorous jobs. And you’re right, K, that bitch as as paranoid as a shaken can of mice. We’d better start digging up some bone to throw her or she’s never gonna let more than three of us at a time out of her sight.”
“Basra is paranoid,” Branwen offered, “but also possesses wide blind spots, and a tendency to get tunnel vision once her attention is fixed on a target. Certain important functions in her brain are just missing. In fact, what’s wrong with her is very similar to what’s wrong with him.” She nodded at the Jackal, who waved back. “If you have developed any skill at managing his antics in the last year, you will find it applicable in maneuvering around Basra.”
“That is good to know,” Shook said, and winked. “Thanks for the tip, B.”
“Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” the Jackal protested breezily. “The woman is one big clenched sphincter rolling along in a ball of ego. At least I know how to have fun.”
“Basra has her amusements,” Branwen said, unsmiling. “She is particularly fond of murder, and of sexually abusing her subordinates. I urge you to be careful in dealing with her.”
“That’s just unsporting, that is,” the Jackal opined. “If you’re gonna sexually abuse someone, it should be at least a rival, if not a superior. Otherwise where’s the satisfaction?”
“You’re a twisted little fuck, aren’cha,” Shook grunted, stepping over to the desk. Ignoring the Jackal making kissy faces at him, he leaned over the map, his eyes darting back and forth across it a few times before he pointed to a specific spot. “This one has a lot more notes next to it.”
“Ah, yes, that’s a little cafe where there have been multiple suspicious sightings,” Branwen said, craning her neck to follow his indicating finger. “Well, three, which is two more than at any other location on the list. But those were three of the earliest; there has been nothing there in months.”
“Eh, this is busywork anyhow,” he said with a shrug, and stepped back from the desk, straightening his lapels. “And that’s where Syrinx will screech at me for not going if I don’t go there, so that’s a handy answer to the question of where to start.”
“I will have familiar spirits watching you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him, “in case you run into trouble. But remember: our ability to rush across the city to your aid is limited. Do be careful. This mission is not entirely a smokescreen, and there’s a real chance of the Black Wreath noticing someone dogging their heels.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Shook said with a grin. “That, plus I need to avoid the actual Guild. Thanks for keepin’ an eye out, K, but this ain’t my first rodeo. You guys do your magic shit and…whatever the fuck he’s up to.” He jerked a nod toward the Jackal, then turned and pulled open the front door. “Let me worry about the grunt work. That’s where I shine.”
“I still don’t know if it’s a great idea to split up,” Jonathan protested.
“How much of what we’ve done would you characterize as a great idea?” Melaxyna replied.
“That’s my point exactly. Even relative to all this noise in general, this specific thing doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“It’s a question of dividing our forces most efficiently,” Natchua said quietly. “Melaxyna and I are going to canvas nearby magic shops and practitioners. That is my area of expertise, and let’s be honest, social skills are not. I’m more in need of backup from the manipulator demon.”
“Empathy demon,” Melaxyna corrected primly.
Jonathan sighed, distractedly running a hand through his hair. “Well. I won’t lie, it’s a little reassuring to know you’re consciously aware of that.”
Natchua’s expression soured slightly, but she made no comment on his observation. “The opposite is true of you, Jonathan. You’re better at talking to average, working-class people because you are one. You’re also likable and forthright, and frankly you don’t need supervision.”
“Thanks, I guess,” he said a little wryly.
“I’m not sending out off alone without protection,” Natchua added in a softer voice, her expression growing more solemn. “I have ways of being alerted if you’re in danger, Jonathan. Believe me, I’ve taken steps.”
“Natchua, knowing infernomancy has been done at me is never going to make me feel safer.”
She pressed her lips into an irritated line. “Fine. Good. Don’t feel safe, because you aren’t; none of us are, that is the entire point of this. But either you trust me, or you don’t.”
He stared at her. “Trust? Do…we need to revisit how this all started with you lying to me for months?”
“We both know what happened,” she snapped. “And that I didn’t harm you, or let you be harmed. Either you trust me, or you don’t. It’s a choice, Jonathan. Sometimes the smart thing to do isn’t the right thing.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly, meeting her eyes. “Yeah, fair enough. I guess it’s sure as hell true that none of us are here to do the smart thing.”
Natchua cracked a smile in spite of herself, but just as quickly cleared her throat, smoothing her face. “Right, anyway. We’re off; you find some watering hole to gossip with the locals. Come on.”
She turned and strode to the mouth of the alley, both of them following. They emerged into the morning sun, earning a few curious glances from passersby.
“Yeah, good thing this isn’t suspicious,” Jonathan muttered. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the guy coming out of dark alleys with two—oof!”
Melaxyna flung herself forward, hugging him with her arms around her neck and her feet off the ground. “You be careful, Johnny! This isn’t Mathenon and you don’t know where anything is, and if you get lost we’re not gonna spend the whole day chasing you down! Got it?”
She dropped her heels back to the pavement and gave him a pointed stare from inches away. He stared right back, blinking in shock.
“Never try not to be noticed, that’s shifty as hell,” the disguised succubus muttered, barely moving her lips. “Be noticed doing something ordinary, nobody’ll remember that. All right, get outta here, y’big goon,” she added loudly, reaching up to ruffle his hair and then turning to flounce away.
This time Natchua was left to follow, herself looking bemused.
Jonathan smoothed his hair back into place while walking the other way, peering around. The business day was underway by that point, shops opening and people passing with increasing frequency. He surveyed each storefront in passing, just like any person new to the city and looking for a place to stop in…which was true, ulterior motives or not.
Passing the open door of a small tea shop, Jonathan slowed at the smell of bread and meat from within, suddenly reminded that he’d skipped breakfast, not trusting anything cooked by a succubus. And apparently they were going to be in this city until suitable hours for a nightclub to open…
That decided him. He stepped into the relative dimness, taking in the layout as his eyes adjusted. There were three other patrons sitting at a table in the back, and a young Jendi woman standing behind the counter, just putting a fresh pot of tea on an arcane stovetop.
“Morning, stranger,” she said with a smile as he slid onto a stool at the counter itself. “What’ll it be?”
“Cup of plain tea, please,” he said. “Whatever you’re brewing there is fine. And… Okay, I’m too hungry to be picky. What would you recommend for someone who’s unfamiliar with Jendi food but willing to be adventurous?”
“There’s no high cuisine here,” she replied, grinning. “If you want a good solid breakfast, my pasties are the same meat, cheese and cabbage in flatbread you can get anywhere in the Empire.”
“The same as anywhere in the Empire sounds perfect!”
“Then perfect is coming atcha,” she said, winking and reaching for one of the still-steaming pastries set below glass in the case next to the counter. “It’ll be ten pennies for that and the tea.”
Jonathan was already pulling out his coin pouch and counted out pennies without comment; that was steeper than what a similar meal would cost back in Tiraas, but he’d been living in Mathenon where everything was hellaciously expensive. It was downright refreshing not to be gouged, after living in a city of bankers.
He chewed and drank in silence for several minutes while she attended to another customer. A shopkeeper was the perfect person to pump for information, but Jonathan knew better than to be seen to be pumping; people mistrusted a nosy stranger. For the moment, the food was plenty distracting, considering how hungry he was. The pasty appeared to be full of goat, and spicier than he was used to, but still good. This was good, honest chow, the kind of thing a man needed to fuel a solid day’s work.
For a few minutes he just let himself sit there in a cafe and eat. Just a guy and his breakfast. It was strangely but deeply therapeutic after the repeated upheavals of the last few days. And the last twenty years.
And as luck would have it, the shopkeeper was the one to strike up the conversation, in the end.
“I get mostly people from the neighborhood in here,” she said, returning to Jonathan with a smile and topping off his tea unasked. “You’re a fresh face! And clearly not from nearby.”
“Aw, what gave me away?”
Her grin was a white flash in her dark face, a smile of good humor that warmed her brown eyes. “You just passing through, or settling in?”
“That kind of depends on my luck,” Jonathan said with a sigh, setting down his nearly-finished pastry on his napkin. “You know how it is, a guy’s gotta go where there’s work. I thought I had a job lined up this morning, but that turned out to be somebody playing some kind of prank on me.”
She frowned. “That’s a rough start to the day. What sort of prank?”
“Oh, sent me to a place that’s not even hiring, and frankly…” He frowned, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “It was weird. Kind of scary. You know about a place called Second Chances?”
The shopkeeper’s expression went flat. “They don’t hire, stranger.”
“Yeah, I sure as heck know that now. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I would swear it was a demon who answered the door. If I wasn’t passing by here and got distracted by the smell of your cooking I’d already be heading to the police.”
“If you’d met a demon who was afraid of being rumbled to the police, you wouldn’t have walked away,” she informed him. “That place is run by Mr. Agasti. Don’t you give him any trouble, he’s a good man.”
Slowly, Jonathan straightened up, setting down the teacup he had started lifting to his lips. “That so?”
“That’s so,” the woman replied, now meeting his gaze challengingly. “Yes, he’s a warlock, and yes, those are demons he’s got working his club. But Mr. Agasti has never hurt a soul, and done a lot of good for Ninkabi. You want to get by around here, you’d better not cause him any grief.”
Jonathan held her eyes for a moment, then nodded and raised his teacup again. “All right, that’s good enough for me.”
She looked slightly taken aback. “Is it?”
He shrugged, swallowed a sip of tea, and picked up his pasty again. “Sure, that hard to believe? I dunno the neighborhood, I’m new in town. It’s not the first neighborhood I’ve ever been to, though. If somebody rouses that kind of defense from the first random shopkeeper I meet, it almost always turns out they’re good people. I dunno how that works, him being a warlock and all, but there’s no reason I need to, is there? Everything’s better when folks mind their business.” He took a bite, smiling as he chewed.
The woman relaxed, and found a smile of her own. “Well, good. Sorry to get tetchy with you. It’s not always somebody new to the area is so down to earth about it.”
“Oh, I believe that,” Jonathan said wryly after swallowing. “Like I said, not my first day dealing with people.” He hesitated in the act of lifting his last bite to his mouth. “You mind indulging my curiosity, though? How’s a guy who summons demons get to be so well thought of by his neighbors? That’s something you don’t see every day.”
“No, that’s true enough,” she agreed, “Mr. Agasti is nothing if not special. Oh, hello there! Two Tiraan boys on the same morning, that’s new. You guys friends?”
Jonathan looked up, meeting the eyes of the man who had just stepped up to the counter from the door, whom he had never seen before. In fact, with one glance he was pretty sure this was not the sort of person with whom he was likely to become friends. The guy wore a suit about five times more expensive than Jonathan’s, had his hair slicked back with an excessive amount of oil, and in general projected a greasy quality he associated with aggressive salesmen.
“Not everybody from the home province is related, sweetheart,” the new arrival said condescendingly, then smiled, deliberately letting his eyes drop to her chest for a moment. “But maybe we can be friends, hmm?”
Her smile had already evaporated. “I’ll be right with you, sir,” she said curtly, then turned and strode off to check on the table at the back.
Jonathan chewed slowly on his last bite, stifling his annoyance. Quite aside from having his information-gathering interrupted right when it was about to pay off, now he was stuck next to the kind of man who urgently needed to have his face punched on general principles. It was enough to ruin the appetite.
The sleazy guy in the suit seated himself right beside Jonathan, regarding him with a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. “Funny conversation I just walked in on. What was all that about warlocks and demons?”
“Couldn’t really tell you,” Jonathan said noncommittally. “I was just about to find that out myself. I’m new to the area, too. If there’s demon stuff going on, that’s the kind of thing you want to find out about sooner than later, am I right?”
“Hell yes, and pun intended,” his new acquaintance agreed, extending a hand. “I’m Jeremiah.”
“Jonathan.” He grasped his hand and shook it firmly. Appropriately firmly, while Jeremiah stared into his eyes and squeezed hard enough he was clearly trying to hurt. One of those guys, if that hadn’t been obvious already. It wasn’t much of a hardship; the guy had decent grip strength, but Jonathan had spent his life working with his hands, and they showed it.
“So, Jonathan,” Jeremiah said in a tone that didn’t quite succeed at being nonchalant, “what brings you to town?”