The Three Sisters Inn was full tonight, possibly too crammed with traders, guild officials, and sojourners from Íarchol for him to escape the notice of prying eyes. The barber slipped the black hood over his head and drew the cloak tighter around his belly. It would not do if anyone caught sight of the three blue emblems emblazoned on his vest. Luckily, it was the hour when men had drunk enough of Molly’s ale to dull certain senses and heighten others, but the girls were scarce tonight. Off in the corner two men danced cheek to cheek, keeping time to the melancholy song being piped by one of the Íarchins. Keeping head down, he wandered unsteadily between long tables towards the staircase that led to the rooms. It wouldn’t do to act sober or purposeful.
“Damn these stairs,” he muttered once he began the slow climb up the narrow flight. He paused to catch his breath at the top before waddling down the dimly-lit hall to the fourth room on the right. Three knocks. Pause. Then two more.
The door opened a crack, and an eye peered out. “Who’s there?”
“I think my bulk alone would answer that question, Tarl,” the man wheezed. “How many three-hundred pound barbers do you know?”
Already, the air felt stuffy, the room too small as he stepped across the threshold. The lamp cast scarcely enough light for the place. The barber had half a mind to keep the door open, but that’s what fools did—trust in light to save them, just as the cruel believed darkness covered all sin. Well, he was in between the damned and the saved, so one lamp would do just fine. He closed the door behind him and stood there, dripping with sweat and wheezing like an old man. Tarl looked scarcely better. The tanner was swaying side to side, his brown tunic and breeches still covered in soot.
“How drunk are you?” the barber asked.
Tarl looked down at his work-worn hands. “Drunk enough.”
The barber glanced at the little girl lying on the small hay bed in the corner of the room. “How long has she been out like that?”
“Just a little while,” Tarl said. “She’ll stay that way for the rest of the night.”
The barber nodded once. “Good enough. He’ll be here soon; then we can conduct business and be on our way.”
“Is that what you’re callin’ it now? Business?”
“In light of the unfortunate circumstances that are about to plague us, yes.” The barber unloosed the tie to his long cloak and flung it on the larger bed against the right wall. “I’ve made it my business to secure peace when war looms on the horizon. What else would you call it?”
Tarl pointed to the three blue emblems emblazoned on the barber’s vest. “I can think of a few other words—”
A sharp knock at the door.
“Who’s there?” Tarl barked.
“Someone who’ll slit your throat if you don’t let him in,” a quiet voice replied.
The barber heaved his body onto the center bed and motioned for Tarl to open the door. “It’s him.”
Tarl opened the door wide enough for a tall gentleman to step inside. He wore the maroon cloak and gold badge of the drapers guild, with knee-high leather boots. A rather good disguise, the barber thought. Too blond, though. He liked his men a bit more dark and brooding. His women too. Still, a handsome face, with a strong jaw framed by short hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. The barber had to admire the cut and shape of both.
The draper looked over to the corner bed. “Is she—”
“Asleep,” Tarl said.
The draper nodded, withdrew a small bag from his cloak, and opened it to show the gold coins that filled it to the brim. He picked one coin out and tossed it to Tarl. “Test it.”
Tarl threw it back at the draper’s feet. “Ain’t doin’ this for money, damn you.”
“What my friend here is trying to say is that there are more important things at stake,” the barber quickly added, picking up the gold piece. He bit into it. Soft, just as it should be. He dropped it back into the draper’s money bag.
The draper drew the strings close. “You secure those stakes with this exchange, providing what you say about the girl is true.” Four long steps brought him to the small form asleep in the corner. She had seen no more than seven or eight years. He knelt down beside her and brushed a lock of dark hair from her eyes. “Are your certain this is the one?” he asked softly, his face unreadable.
“Oh yes,” the barber answered. “Our sentries have watched her wandering the Seven Woods alone for the last six months now. It took some time to catch her, for she seemed to know the forest better than the woodland guards.”
“I’ve heard legends about your woods,” the draper said, still gazing at the little face. “Ours die so quickly.”
“Any forest will die if you lay an axe or fire to it,” the barber retorted. “Which is why we are all here. Now, let us get on with it.”
The draper stood up. “Why are you so nervous, sir barber?” he asked softly. “Do you know, perhaps, of others?”
“I didn’t know about this one until your visit a year ago,” he said. “I found her. I know of no others, nor have I heard any tales of them. May Neáhvalar forgive us.” He signed a circle in the air then folded his hands. Tarl briefly looked up, did the same, then cast his eyes on the floor.
“If your god had wanted them safe,” the draper said in a voice as smooth as the silk he wore, “he would have saved them in the first place, don’t you think?”
“Such matters are beyond me,” the barber sighed. “I am no priest, nor do I belong to the Order of the Seven Wood. I only wish to keep the passages between Gaelastad, Íarchol, and Lailethas clear of Nemaron soldiers.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll have your peace.” The draper hurled the bag of money straight at the fat man’s chest. “And your pay.”
The barber flinched slightly as he caught the bag. Let the brute think he was only doing it for the money and the security of the guilds.
The draper went to kneel by the little girl. He placed his hand gently on her forehead. “Where will you take her?”
“To the center of the Seven Woods,” Tarl slurred, “where we found her.”
The draper’s ice blue eyes lighted up—with understanding or desire, the barber couldn’t tell. “An excellent choice,” he said, gently kissing her brow and reaching for a second time into the depths of his cloak.
Whatever their choices tonight, the barber thought, they were damned, all of them. No, this is to keep damnation from coming, another voice inside his head argued. The moonstone blade flickered purple in the candlelight, its jeweled hilt half hidden by the draper’s hand. The barber turned his head away. The Winter will invade before the Nemarons. This little human girl could do nothing to stop the violent winds and snow that would come with the Elementarí’s waking.
But the real Terakhein girl was out there, hiding. Somewhere. He prayed this sacrifice would buy them time. Neáhvalar, let someone find her—before he does.