A short bark of laughter burst from Jonathan, to his own slight surprise.
“I say something funny?” Jeremiah demanded. He still wore an attempt at an easygoing smile, though his eyes and voice had both gone hard.
“No, sorry,” Jonathan chuckled. “Your question just forced me to confront how ridiculous I am. Well, lemme put it this way: what’s the most likely reason for a man to find himself suddenly miles from where he belongs and floundering without properly understanding why?”
“Ahh.” The other man’s expression cleared, even growing into a knowing smile, and he nodded sagely. “A girl.”
Jonathan sighed. “Two of ’em, actually.”
“Hah!” Jeremiah snorted a terse laugh of his own, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice, brother. That makes you either the luckiest son of a bitch in town, or just the opposite. Maybe both at once.”
“No…I’m leaning toward opposite,” Jonathan mused, staring at the wall behind the cafe’s counter. “The whole thing is altogether more complicated than I ever wanted out of life. Thought I’d found something straightforward and…pleasant. But she wasn’t what she seemed, and then dragged an old flame into it, and now I hardly know what’s going on anymore.”
“That’s how they getcha, y’know,” Jeremiah said sympathetically. “There’s not a damn thing complicated about it until some bitch comes along and makes it that way. Long as you’re all confused and turned around, they’re in control. That’s what it all comes down to: who’s in control.”
Jonathan looked at him sidelong. “That’s a pretty grim outlook on relationships.”
He shrugged, grinning wryly. “It’s a pretty grim world, my friend. Dunno if you’ve noticed.”
“Well, you’re not wrong about that…”
The shopkeeper had come back over, her expression now stonily blank, and Jonathan deliberately kept his own clear of the annoyance he felt. He disliked it on general principles when men were sexually aggressive toward women (and the reverse, though the Avenist sect who were the only women likely to do that in public were rare enough he’d only run across two in his life). This wasn’t just general principles, though; quite apart from interrupting his own information-gathering efforts, the well-dressed stranger had made a thoroughly bad impression, and now Jonathan was part of it. Even if Jeremiah left right now he might well be getting nothing further out of this woman today, or anyone in earshot for that matter.
“What’ll it be?” she asked the new arrival in the terse, toneless voice of merchants everywhere who had not yet decided to lose a sale over their personal dislike of a customer, but didn’t care who knew how close they were.
“I think I’ll have what my new friend here is having,” Jeremiah said with a smirk, slapping Jonathan’s shoulder again. “And what’ll it cost me for a smile from you?”
“More than you can afford,” she said evenly. “It’s ten pennies for a pasty and tea.”
He had already shifted on the stool to reach into his pocket, and now slapped a doubloon down on the counter. “Keep the change, darlin’.”
“I don’t think—”
“What?” he demanded, the hard edge creeping back into his voice. “You don’t appreciate my generosity?”
She glanced at the coin, then back up at his eyes, and took one deliberate step back from the counter. “Coming right up.”
“You’re not much of a people person, are you, Jeremiah?” Jonathan inquired, sipping his own tea.
The man’s eyes cut to him and his expression darkened further, but just for a moment. Then, deliberately, he relaxed, even chuckled softly. “Yeah, well, you’ve got me there. I’ve spent a lot of time cooped up lately with the same few assholes for company. That’s not great for anybody’s social skills, but I guess my current friends like to play rougher than the general population. I should do better at being nicer to honest, hard-working folks out and about. You forgive me, don’t you, honey?” he added to the shopkeeper, again with a broad smirk.
“Sure,” she grunted noncommittally, setting a meat pastry and cup in front of him, then turning to fetch the teapot.
Jonathan kept silent for the moment, nursing the last of his own tea. It would be ideal if he could get some answers for Natchua here, in the first place he looked. He had some slight experience with evading investigators from the first time Hesthri had been part of his life, and plenty since then at being part of a neighborhood, and knew very well that one guy appearing in several places in the same day asking questions about Agasti and Second Chances was likely to spark rumors which someone could follow. Well, if it came to that, he’d hopefully be shadow-jumped safely back to Veilgrad by tonight. Not to mention that sometimes, you just didn’t get the ideal outcome. Most of the time, in fact. Life was about making do with what you were given.
Still, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on this spot…which meant having a reason to stick around here until Jeremiah left. Another cup of tea would do for a start; he held his up in a mute request for a refill when the shopkeeper came by again with the pot for his neighbor, and was gratified that she poured it with a thin smile and no talk of payment. Someone running a business like this was probably sensitive enough to the moods of her customers to observe that he wasn’t enjoying Jeremiah’s company much more than she. A bit less with each passing moment; the man’s last comments had sounded to Jonathan a lot like a coy euphemism for having been in prison.
He gave the fellow a sidelong examination while he munched with apparent satisfaction on his breakfast pasty. The pinstriped suit was clean and fit him well, and while the slicked-back hair just looked shady to Jonathan, it was further evidence that the man cared about his appearance and had money to spend on it. He was neither scrawny nor flabby, unlike the majority of men who wore pricey suits in Jonathan’s experience. In fact, those hands were not only callused, but had an unusual number of scars…
He shifted his gaze back to the far wall, putting the sums together, and hid a grimace behind another sip of tea. Physically strong, moneyed, aggressive streak, signs of a violent past, apparently recently in jail… Great. And wasn’t there some kind of Eserite shrine in Ninkabi? Jonathan wasn’t much for organized religion but he was sure he’d read that somewhere.
“I gather you’re not from this neighborhood, either,” he offered. The shopkeeper had already retreated down to the other end of the counter, but glanced at him and made a face.
Fortunately, Jeremiah appeared not to notice that, pausing to wash down a bite of pasty with a sip. “Why, no, I’m just passing through myself. Looking to get the lay of the land, you know how it is. Never know what kind of information might be important. Though when I hear people chattering about demons, I damn well pay attention to that, as we were just discussing. Speaking of, sounds like I interrupted a very interesting conversation.” He smiled at Jonathan, then shifted his focus to their hostess. “Please, don’t let me stop you. What’s all this about something strange in the neighborhood?” He kept his eyes on her while filling his mouth with another bite of pasty. The man had an unblinking stare that seemed calculated to unsettle.
She had busied herself with a nonsense cleaning task at the far end of the counter; Jonathan opted to come to her rescue. “From what the young lady was telling me, there’s not much to tell. Folks around here seem to think well of Agasti and his club. That speaks well of anyone, but if he’s a warlock and has still managed to get on the neighborhood’s good side, the fella must be the most upstanding citizen in town.”
“Oh, for sure,” Jeremiah said agreeably. “But there’s no way he’s just…left alone to do his business. Guy like that must get checked up on by all kinds of interested parties. Topaz College, Silver Legions…” He still had his gaze pinned on the shopkeeper, and the expression was draining from his face, leaving a blank mask of focus like a prowling cat sighting a songbird. “Black Wreath. What about that, darlin’? How often do you get shifty-looking spellslingers coming through here, asking nosy questions?” A humorless grin cracked his lips. “Like these, for example.”
“This is a safe neighborhood,” she said shortly. “Trendy people come here to spend money, and the city guard keeps a very good presence. I’m sure the Empire keeps an eye on Mr. Agasti.”
“Not what I asked you, is it?” Jeremiah said tonelessly. His food and tea were lying suddenly forgotten on the counter, next to the doubloon she still had not picked up. The intensity of his stare couldn’t be taken for anything but a threat.
“I sell tea and pastries,” she snapped, picking up his hostility. “I don’t know anything about cults or warlocks. If you like gathering rumors, you might try being civil to people.”
“Oh, I get by, trust me,” Jeremiah said in a low tone, flicking his wrist as if adjusting his cuff. Another doubloon slid out of his sleeve, though, and he flipped it into the air, caught it on the backs of his fingers, and began slowly rolling it back and forth. “So let’s try this again, bitch. When I ask you a question, you give me an answer, and we both stay un-ruffled and on our respective sides of the counter.”
“That’s enough of that.” Jonathan was only slightly surprised it was his own voice which had spoken. He had just been thinking it was smarter to stay out of this, and yet he couldn’t muster any regret for intervening. Even though Jeremiah looked to have been about to extract exactly the intel he needed, there were some things that were just not to be tolerated.
The other man turned that flat stare on him, and Jonathan met it without flinching. His lack of fear caused a further tightening of the muscles around Jeremiah’s eyes.
“Friend,” the thug said in the tight voice of someone holding anger barely in check, “I think you wanna stay out of this.”
“I surely do,” Jonathan agreed. “I want to do a lot of things that I can’t. Unfortunately, the way I was raised, a man doesn’t act abusively toward a lady, or allow others to do so.”
Jeremiah curled his lip in a sneer. “Well, there’s your out. A lady isn’t going to be slinging tea in some hole-in-the-wall shop. Lucky for our little friend, here, since I never met an actual lady who didn’t urgently need a bite from a knuckle sandwich, just by default.”
One of the other patrons from the table in the back rose and hurriedly left the shop; the other two men he was with stayed where they were, eyes on their drinks but no longer speaking. Well, good; hopefully the guy could find a nearby guard. Jonathan saw Jeremiah see this, noted the aggravated flare of his nostrils, but he made no attempt to intervene. The man was, at least, professional enough not to cross a major legal line. So far, at least.
“I don’t concern myself with judging anyone else’s character,” he said, meeting Jeremiah’s strained fury with calm. “I concern myself with myself, and that’s all I recommend a man does. There are some kinds of mistakes that make you less of a man, friend. You’re very close to making one now.”
Jeremiah surged up from his stool, seizing Jonathan by the collar and dragging him forward; he kept his own seat, but barely, not struggling.
“Listen here,” the enforcer hissed, “you’re going the right way for an ass-kicking. Is that what you want?”
“No fighting in here!” the woman behind the counter ordered, her voice high-pitched with worry.
Jeremiah started to turn toward her, his expression promising worse than harsh words, so Jonathan moved quickly to recapture his attention.
“Okay, and then what?”
Jeremiah focused back on his face, narrowing his eyes. “What?”
“Let’s say you kick my ass,” Jonathan said evenly. “What comes after that?”
“Are you— What, you’re just gonna sit there and let it happen? You an Omnist or something?”
“I’ve never had much use for religion,” Jonathan admitted, allowing himself a small grin. “Fortunately for you; some Omnists are more dangerous to manhandle than a Sister of Avei. No, I fought in his Majesty’s Army and I’m not one to get pushed around by some punk in a cafe. But still,” he added as the arm holding his collar tightened further, “let’s be realistic. You’re, what, ten years younger than me? I haven’t been in a fight in at least that long; you look like this ain’t even your first one today. You’d probably win that. So, what then? There’s probably a guard heading this way already. Best case scenario, you miss out on the rest of your breakfast. And for what? It’s not like you gain anything from this.”
“Definitely not an Omnist,” Jeremiah sneered. “That’s the kind of limp-wristed pussy talk I’d expect from an Izarite. When someone pushes you, you push back. Sounds like your papa forgot to teach you something important. A man’s nothing if he can’t command respect.”
“So it’s about respect?” Jonathan said mildly. “I think you’re going about that the wrong way, friend. Nobody in here is going to respect you one bit more for roughing me up. They’ll respect you less for laying a hand on the girl. Hell, be honest with yourself. Would you respect yourself any more after that?”
Jeremiah hauled him forward until their noses were nearly touching, forcing Jonathan to grab the edge of the counter to avoid being pulled entirely off balance. “I don’t need life lessons from you, old man.”
“From who, then?” Jonathan countered. “If you’re after respect, son, you’re going about it the wrong way. Respect is earned mutually. All this’ll get you is fear, at best.”
The younger man’s expression was a vicious combination of a sneer and a grin. “Yeah? Well, I guess fear’s enough, for practical purposes.”
“Is it?” Jonathan asked quietly. “Don’t you think you deserve better?”
They were close enough he could feel his breath. Jonathan met his stare, waiting for the punch. He fully intended to give an accounting for himself, but he hadn’t dissembled; he was out of practice and anyway had been better trained with staff and wand than his own fists. He frankly would have bet on Jeremiah if it came to a brawl.
He was actually rather surprised when Jeremiah slowly eased back, relaxing his grip until he had released his collar entirely. Jonathan settled back on the stool, watching him closely still. Sucker-punching someone after faking them into dropping their guard was a classic trick.
The punch still didn’t come, though. Instead, Jeremiah took a full step back and straightened his lapels, then ran a hand over his hair, as if the little grooming ritual helped brush away his incipient rage.
“Y’know,” he said in a much milder tone after a moment, “you remind me of a friend of mine. You a shaman, by any chance?”
“Can’t say I am,” Jonathan replied, raising an eyebrow. “If you’re friends with a shaman, though, my advice would be to listen to him more often.”
“Yeah, that’s his advice, too,” he said wryly.
The shopkeeper cleared her throat. She was holding a full, steaming teapot as if thinking about throwing it or its contents. “All right, buddy, you need to leave.”
Jeremiah gave her a long, cool look, and Jonathan’s first thought was that this was all about to start up again.
Instead, the thug nodded politely to her. “Right you are, miss. Seems I’ve been entirely out of line.” He rapped twice on the countertop with his knuckles. “My apologies for the trouble. You folks enjoy your tea, now.”
Pausing only to give Jonathan a brief, considering look, he turned and sauntered out.
Everyone waited until he had passed beyond view of the front windows to relax. Then Jonathan blew out a heavy breath. “Whoof. Well! Least he’s less of a hothead than some punks that age. I thought for sure that guy was going to start breaking furniture.”
He turned back to the shop’s proprietress just in time to have another pastry slid in front of him, this one a puffy sweet piece dripping with honey and candied almonds.
“On the house,” she said with a warm smile. “I don’t get many white knights in here, and they’re exactly the kind of customers I want to come back.”
“Oh,” he said, actually feeling slightly flustered. “Well. I don’t think I can take a reward for doing the bare basics of the right thing…”
“In that case,” she said, picking up the doubloon Jeremiah had left behind, “your buddy there paid for you. Is that more acceptable?”
“Well, I guess he owes me,” Jonathan agreed with a grin, carefully picking up the sticky bun. “It’s socially incorrect to throttle somebody before dinner. I’m pretty sure I read that in an etiquette manual somewhere.”
She grinned back, leaning on the counter in front of him. “You know what, I think I can see how you ended up with two girls after you, mister.”
He sighed, the smile fading. “Yeah… And at half my present age I might’ve daydreamed about that a bit. Amazing how much pure trouble it turns out to be in practice. Well, anyway! Seems like we were discussing something a little more pleasant before all that noise, but I can’t for the life of me remember what?”
Jonathan took a bite of his free pastry, chewing contentedly and waiting for her to respond. Maybe this would work out after all.
He was lost in thought as he made his way back up the street, hands jammed in his pockets. The sun had risen most of the way toward its zenith and Ninkabi was fully alive, the avenue crowded with shoppers browsing the stores and vendor stalls set up along the sidewalk. A veteran urban dweller, Jonathan navigated through them without really noticing them.
There hadn’t been a lot more to learn about his quarry from the cafe, but he had whiled away most of an hour in far more pleasant conversation after the Eserite had left, both with the owner and a couple of other regulars. The discussion had touched upon Mortimer Agasti and his club a few more times, but did not linger there, and Jonathan hadn’t tried to steer it back. That would have been overplaying his hand, for one, and besides, all the cloak-and-dagger lately had left him missing ordinary chitchat with ordinary folks. It was a nice little reprieve. Who knew when the next chance would be?
Anyway, Natchua and Melaxyna were probably getting all the scuttlebutt they needed from the local magic shops. For his part, Jonathan planned to warn Natchua to lay off a little as soon as he found her again. Agasti was a rich man, a lawyer, and a warlock, three traits which by themselves made a man difficult for common people to like. That he was so well thought of by his neighbors meant he was probably one of the more aggressively decent people in the city. That, or a truly insidious villain, though in Jonathan’s experience people who could actually pull off that act were more likely to be found in chapbooks than real life.
Quite apart from the fact that Natchua and the rest could find themselves in a world of trouble if they riled up the whole city against them, it was starting to seem to him that the best approach in this case was the direct one. If Agasti was harboring this “friendly” khelminash demon, the two of them would probably respond better to an open invitation than to being stalked.
Something sharp jabbed the small of his back through his coat.
“Hello again,” Jeremiah’s voice said pleasantly from just behind Jonathan’s ear.
He came to a stop, slowly turning his head to regard the thug’s smiling face from, again, far too close for his liking.
“Morning,” Jonathan said calmly. “Fancy meeting you again.”
“It’s a smaller town than it seems,” Jeremiah replied. There was a slight tug at Jonathan’s belt as his wand was removed from behind. “Let’s walk and talk, Johnny boy. Just up ahead, alley on your left.”
For a moment, he pondered whether that was an actual wand poking him in the back.
“And what’ll you do if I just start yelling for the police?” he asked.
“Run like hell,” Jeremiah replied. “But it’ll be too late for you to appreciate it. Or, you can do what I fucking tell you, and get to go back to juggling your two girls at the end of the day. That’s the way I prefer, myself.”
“You have a persuasive argument, there,” Jonathan agreed, moving forward. The other man kept pace with him, uncomfortably close, no doubt to conceal from other passersby the fact that he was holding a weapon against him. It was just a few yards, and nobody intervened, nor appeared to notice. Considering a city guard never had showed up at the cafe after one of the other patrons had slipped out in search, he didn’t have high hopes of one coming to his rescue now.
Ninkabi’s alleys were as likely to be tunnels or crevices, in truth, and this was one of those; they were a level down from the uppermost tier of this island. It was even darker in here than in a similar space in Tiraas or Mathenon.
“If you’re just looking to get back at—”
“Oh, let me reassure you on that point.” Jeremiah gave him a sharp push between the shoulder blades. Jonathan staggered forward, but caught himself quickly and turned to face his assailant, hands still in view to his sides. He hadn’t actually been ordered to show them yet, but it was generally wiser to be extra soothing toward a twitchy person brandishing a wand. Which the fellow actually did have, he noted now, a sleek, powerful-looking model that likely cast deadly energy beams instead of arcs of electricity. Jeremiah held it at the waist rather than aiming properly, but at that range he would have to be truly incompetent to miss.
Jonathan didn’t suspect he was.
“No hard feelings,” the enforcer said, grinning. “I respect a man who can talk his way out of a beating. Not my own way, to be sure, but you gotta appreciate skill wherever you see it. Nah, this is just business.”
“Well, I admit I’m perplexed what business we even have.”
“The same, I think.” The man’s smile faded rapidly. “You were in there pumping the locals for information about the local warlock. I might have bought your random stumblebum act if you hadn’t then, as I said, talked our way out of a beating. Got my wheels turning; back where I’m from, they offer actual training in that particular ability. It’s very useful, in my line of work. And then it occurred to me you were sittin’ there chatting about demons, nonchalant as you please. So! Let’s start with who the fuck you are, who you work for and what you’re doing here. Then we’ll move on to whatever you learned from that feisty little piece slinging tea back there.”
Jonathan stared at him. And then, in spite of himself, laughed.
“Is this another one of those things where you just suddenly realized how ridiculous you are?” Jeremiah asked dryly.
“Exactly, yes. Would you believe I’m just a guy with a knack for diplomacy and an unfortunate history of getting tangled up in matters way above my pay grade?”
“Yeah, that’s surprisingly plausible,” Jeremiah agreed. “Are you gonna tell me now you’re not acting on behalf of a more significant player?”
“Well…as to that.”
“Yeah, I thought so. Let’s start with a name.”
“Let’s start with a discussion,” Jonathan countered. “It occurs to me once you get what you need, your incentives aren’t to let me walk out of here having seen your face. It doesn’t really serve me to hurry up and hand over what I know, then, does it?”
The flash of light was almost blinding in the dark alley, but it was constrained enough by the tight beam to leave Jonathan’s eyesight sufficiently intact to discern what had happened. It left a smoking line along the stone wall just to his left.
“That’s what I love about these wands,” Jeremiah said lightly. “Dead quiet. If I decide I’m tired of your crap, I can put a beam through your head at any moment and nobody’s gonna hear a thing. By the time they find your corpse, I’ll be long gone. So let me clarify your position, asshole: the guy with the wands is the guy making the decisions. You want to walk out of here, start by not convincing me you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“I’d be very surprised,” Jonathan said, in just as dry a tone, “if you’ve ever heard of who I’m with.”
“Oh, I get around. Try me.”
They dispersed instantly, leaving Jonathan disoriented and in a new position, closer to the mouth of the alley and facing Jeremiah from behind. The enforcer was just spinning about in confusion, brandishing his wand, when a streak of bruise-colored energy slammed into him, sending him staggering to the dirty alley floor with his weapon clattering away across the pavement.
He immediately started pushing back upright, his teeth clenched in pain, and a second shadowbolt slammed him back to the ground. This time, he stayed there, gasping.
“In fact, he does know me,” Natchua said, lowering her arm. “His name’s Jeremiah Shook. He spent a week bumming around Last Rock a couple of years ago, till he incited some kind of adventurer riot and got hauled off to the capital in cuffs. I’m very curious what the hell he’s doing here, why he is pestering you, and most especially…”
She gracefully held out one hand, palm up, and darkness coalesced around it. The shadows dispersed to leave her holding a reliquary, an iron-bound tube of green glass with a single rose suspended in its center. It had a newer metal chain and several enchanted rings attached to one end that looked like they had been tacked on after the fact by a different artisan than its maker.
“…just what he is doing with this.”