The boy scurried across the open square, pausing beside her with eyes wide and breath misting in the night air. Niamsha Pereyra frowned at him. Another of Nijel’s spies, but one she couldn’t bring herself to dismiss. His brown eyes tugged at her grief in a way that Nijel must have intended, the innocence and hue reminiscent of the brother Niamsha had failed to save.
“What, boy?” Her sharp words sent the boy cowering into the shadows of her porch.
“Ya asked fer news when the merchants come,” he replied. “First one’s coming in just now.”
“Then get to the tavern.”
A twinge of guilt rubbed at her conscience. He was just doing what she’d asked. Or so he said.
Niamsha hiked her skirts up, hands full of rough fabric and hem still brushing the ground, and stepped into the dark. She knew these paths by now, her feet well accustomed to midnight treks through the worn, smooth dirt roads. The tavern sat behind a row of houses, hidden from the street. A poor place for a public business, but this town didn’t have the bustle to support a proper tavern anyway. Not enough to support much of anything. No tavern, no inn, the makeshift guild hall lost to the brutality of war almost a decade ago. Most would have taken one look at the ramshackle community and kept moving.
Instead, Nijel had appointed Niamsha to take over the long-abandoned guild hall and turn it into a place where he could gather his followers when he passed through. Perhaps he’d intended for her to create a less wholesome establishment, but she’d had other plans. And a local tavern brought in enough coin from the field workers to cover expenses for her side projects. Nijel had always been expedient in that way. Between the Rendell house in High Lord Arkaen’s home town and this guild hall, she was beginning to think he enjoyed repurposing old, forgotten buildings into new life.
Pushing the door open, Niamsha strode into the dim light and scanned for her guests. Just arrived, the boy said, but the common room sat empty. They should have been here. Unless the boy had lied to her. Her heart pounded at the thought. She had no illusions as to the boy’s loyalties. He’d slipped up several weeks back, hiding a note in a poor spot when she entered a room. Common-born gutter boys didn’t read. Not in these parts, at least.
The door cracked open behind her, just enough to let the cold breeze rush up her spine.
“Nisha.” Nijel’s voice was colder than the wind that chilled her hands. “What a pleasure to see you tending to my partners so diligently. I knew you could be trusted with my interests.”
Niamsha spun around to face him. “Of course, Nijel.”
He must have known she intended no such thing. His eyes sparkled with malice, the shared secret a threat he held over her. One word and he could take her life.
“Come along.” He waved a careless hand at her. “We should prepare. I’ve word a new speaker plans to join our cadre. I’ll need as much information as possible before answering his petition.”
She followed him into the back room, the table chipped and scarred from past negotiations gone wrong. A pitcher of ale sat in the middle of the table, the clay starting to sweat as the heat from the room clashed with the chill of the liquid. No seating, so Nijel wanted his guests off guard. Niamsha stepped forward, circling the table as if her life didn’t hang on Nijel’s whims. He chuckled.
“Don’t be ashamed of ambition, dear,” Nijel said. “I did not find my place by letting others choose for me. I only ask that you respect the efforts I’ve taken for your well-being.” He fixed her with a knowing smirk. “You wouldn’t be here, but for me.”
“Would that be worse?” She shouldn’t have said it, but the wear of this life weighed too heavy for a moment. Just enough to betray her own disgust with her new position.
“Nisha.” His sorrow almost sounded genuine. “How cold this country would be with you removed from it.”
He didn’t sound like her ‘removal’ would be a simple matter of living elsewhere. She hadn’t meant it that way. Emrys’s death still haunted her–she might seethe for the chance to avenge his loss–but she had no plans to let her life to end early.
The door opened before she could answer. A heavyset man entered, pausing at the sight of Nijel as he rubbed at a scar on his chin. He glanced at Niamsha. Stared at Nijel. Stepped inside.
“Didn’t think you lived, lad.” The merchant, Heikkan Carrillo, nodded at Nijel, his casual tone a shock against the tension of the room. “She got you here, too? Just like the rest of us.”
“Young Nisha is my liaison,” Nijel replied. “Though I admit I’m quite surprised you answered, Heikkan. Obedience was never a strong quality of yours.”
Heikkan glowered for a half-dozen breaths. “Obedience is for pets. Men offer loyalty, and loyalty must be earned.”
“Indeed.” Nijel grinned, but she could hear the rising fury in the clipped tone of his voice.
“Earned,” Nijel continued. “Just as your Lord Phoenix earned the men Griffin gathered, protected, and trained. As Kumiho and the Dragon earned the honor and respect the Serr-Nyen owed to their proper rulers. As Griffin earned the betrayal of her army?”
“Griffin went mad.” Heikkan snarled the words like a curse. “I know you believed in her, but you weren’t in the meetings. You didn’t hear. Lord Phoenix–“
“Told you lies,” Nijel interrupted. “Griffin had plans to support Sernyii through our transition. To give power to those who aided her cause. What has Lord Phoenix done for your land since the war? Nothing but enslave his former allies and sell his loyalty to the very empire he opposed.”
“Well.” Heikkan jerked his head at Niamsha. “I did come for a reason. Girl said we got a new power in town. Calls himself the Siren. Supposed to have plans for us all.”
“That is perhaps the first true thing you’ve said.” Nijel paced around the table and lounged against the wall, his lips curling into another smirk. “I do have plans, old friend. Many, many plans.”
Heikkan took a step back, eyes widening at the response. His gaze locked onto Nijel’s, an instant of locked eyes and matched wills. And then Heikkan laughed.
“It would be you, I suppose. Too damned smart for your own good. Always were. We’ll talk, then. When the others get here, we’ll have plenty to discuss.”