Richard Lee Byers

The Black Bouquet


Aeron sar Randal grinned as the caravan came through the gate. He'd spent tendays preparing for that moment, and he could hardly wait to watch the trick unfold.

The travelers' cloaks were brown with dust, and their boots, caked with mud. They looked weary from tendays on the road. Or was it months? Aeron, who'd never in his life ventured more than two days' walk from Oeble, was vague on matters of geography.

No matter. The important thing was that the wayfarers had spent the journey watching for bandits, orcs, and all the other perils infesting the Border Kingdoms, finally swinging wide around Oeble itself, a notorious nest of robbers and slavers in its own right. Having finally reached the Paeraddyn, a walled compound on the southern edge of town that was supposedly the city's only 'safe' inn and marketplace, they were starting to relax. It was natural, inevitable, and he could see it in their faces.

Clad in a beggar's rags, vile-looking sores made of tallow and paint mottling his legs, Aeron sat on the ground near one of the horse troughs. From there, he could survey the entire bustling courtyard, and every member of his crew could see him. He turned toward the inn and nodded.

Slouching and scratching, Kerridi came through the door a moment later. She was a big, brawny woman, but pleasant of face, and possessed of a merry, generous nature. Aeron thoroughly enjoyed the occasional nights he spent in her bed.

Beholding her there, though, few would have envied him the experience. The brown stain on her teeth and layers of padding around her middle made her uglier than nature intended, but it was primarily her ferocious scowl that transformed her into the very image of a shrewish wife.

She cast about until she seemingly spotted Gavath sitting at one of the outdoor tables. The scrawny little man had mastered the art of looking like an ass, the better to cheat, swindle, and lift the purses of the unwary, and he'd exercised that peculiar knack to the utmost for the job at hand. His garish, straw-stuffed doublet proclaimed him a would-be fop devoid of any vestige of taste. Pomade plastered strands of black hair across his crown in a ridiculously inadequate attempt to hide his bald patch. Gems of paste and glass twinkled on his fingers. Smirking, he was chatting up a pretty, flaxen-haired serving maid young enough to be his daughter. She was no doubt enduring the clumsy flirtation only for the sake of a generous tip. Gavath had paid the lass a great deal of attention over the course of the past few days, much to his supposed spouse's displeasure, the two of them making sure that everyone staying or working at the Paer noticed.

Thus, few but the newly arrived travelers were particularly startled when Kerridi started screaming invective and abuse. Most of the folk in the courtyard merely grinned and settled back to watch the next scene in the ongoing domestic farce. Kerridi advanced on Gavath, who quailed and goggled in dread. The serving maid scurried for safety.

Gavath attempted to stammer out some sort of excuse, or perhaps simply a plea for mercy. Kerridi lashed him with the back of her hand, a meaty smack that knocked him off his bench. She kicked him until he rolled away and scrambled to his feet. Then, still shrieking, swinging wildly, she chased him about.

Everyone began to laugh, and though the scene truly was comical, that wasn't the entire reason. Dal, who was loitering near the well munching on a pear, deserved some of the credit. Clad in a simple brown laborer's smock and breeches, his nose and cheeks ruddy with broken veins, the old tosspot didn't look like most people's notion of a wizard, but when sober, he was a halfway decent one, able enough to use his magic to influence the emotions of a crowd.

Kerridi connected with another solid buffet, or so it appeared. Gavath hurtled backward and crashed through the side of the pen containing the inn's population of goats, whose flesh and milk served to feed the patrons. At that same instant, Dal, his timing impeccable, surreptitiously cast a spell to alarm the animals. Bleating, they bolted from the enclosure and raced madly about, bumping into people and tables, frightening the horses and ponies, reducing the entire courtyard to chaos and confusion. Except for those unfortunates who were knocked off their feet, drenched in spilled beer, struggling to control fractious mounts, or scrambling to catch the escapees, everyone laughed even harder.

Aeron glanced around. Nobody was looking at him, so he pulled a small pewter vial from inside his shirt and quaffed the bitter, lukewarm contents. It was the last swallow of the potion, and he rather regretted the final expenditure of a resource that had extricated him from several tight spots. But Kesk Turnskull was paying him enough to make using the draught worthwhile.

Sorcerous power tingled through his veins. He could still see his lower body as clearly as before, but from past experience he trusted that he truly had become invisible to the eyes of others. Dodging the scurrying goats, he rose and stalked toward the caravan.

Kesk had told him who to look for, and he spotted her easily enough. She was a female scout or guide, slender, long legged, sun bronzed, clad in leather armor dyed forest green. A broadsword hung at her hip, and she had a bow and quiver of arrows strapped to her saddle. Even with her curly chestnut hair cropped short, she was comely in a stern sort of way. She was smiling at the commotion in the yard but not laughing outright, and didn't look as if she'd entirely relaxed her vigilance.

Well, that was all right. Aeron was confident she wasn't as able a guard as he was a thief. He'd been surprised when Kesk hired him for that particular job. He'd thought the tanarukk still disliked him for his refusal to join the Red Axes. But really, it made perfect sense. The outlaw chieftain knew that no one in his own crude gang of cutthroats possessed the finesse to snatch a prize from within the confines of the Paeraddyn.

Suppressing an idiot impulse to kiss her or tweak her nose, Aeron crept by the ranger. Her head didn't turn, reassuring proof that she didn't hear or otherwise sense him. He examined the baggage lashed to her sorrel mare.

She had a couple scuffed old saddlebags, but only one that, from the distended shape of it, looked to contain a box like the one he was seeking. He started to unbuckle the flap, and everything went wrong.

The saddlebag shrieked like a thousand teakettles sounding at once. Green light pulsed around Aeron's limbs, outlining them. He was sure the radiance was plainly visible to others as well, that he was a phantom no longer. The guide spun around and started to draw her sword.

One disadvantage of such a long blade was that it took a moment to clear the scabbard. Like many folk in Oeble, Aeron was a knife fighter, and could have used that second to throw one of his hidden daggers of fine Arthyn steel.

But he didn't. Though adept with a knife, he had little taste for bloodshed. It was one reason he'd always committed his thefts by dint of trickery, and perhaps it was why he tore the screeching saddlebag free and risked a desperate lunge forward.

He reached the woman in green a bare instant before she would have readied the broadsword. He punched at her jaw. The impact stabbed pain through his knuckles, but she fell backward. He kicked her in the head in hopes of keeping her down.

Aeron whirled and sprinted for the open gate. Spears leveled, two of the Paeraddyn's own guards scrambled to block his path. Another, stationed atop the wall-walk with its merlons, cocked a crossbow. Dal's enchantment had disposed the warriors to mirth, but only within limits. The deafening scream of the saddlebag sufficed to recall them to their duty.

Aeron cast frantically about for another way out, even though he knew none existed within easy reach. He wasn't supposed to need one. If the theft had gone as planned, he, in his guise as a humble beggar, would have limped out the front entrance before anyone realized aught was amiss.

The crossbowman pulled the trigger. Aeron twisted aside, and the quarrel just missed him. Half a dozen of the ranger's fellow wayfarers glided toward him, fanning out to flank him as they came.

Then two of them swayed and crumpled to the ground. Aeron surmised that Dal had surreptitiously thrown a

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