Ardry stepped through the doors of the Four Shields tavern. He dropped his pack and bow wearily on a table, then slouched into a chair. There was one other person in the tavern at the moment, standing by the bar, nursing a goblet of something. He was a Gharu’ndim, dressed all in plain grey, with an eye patch covering his left eye.

“Red wine, please, Iquba,” Ardry called to the bartender. She nodded, used to his late-night entrances, and poured out a cup of the house red.

The stranger laid a handful of coins on the bar and took the cup of red wine to Ardry’s table. He set the cup in front of the weary scout. “You’re Ardry the Dubious, are you not?” the stranger asked.

Ardry took the wine, sniffed it, and took a slow sip as he appraised the stranger. Finally, he gestured to the other empty chair at the table. “That’s me. Who are you, and how do you know me?”

The stranger smiled as he sat. “Forgive me, my name is Qath. Qath al-Haddash. I know of you, because you have acquired a reputation as an intrepid scout. Your uncle Aliester speaks highly of you.”

Ardry laughed. “Ah, Uncle Aliester. All right then. By the way, you’re going to need a better costume than just an eye patch if you want to get into the proper spirit of the festival. I mean, look at the Town Criers out there…”

All the humor dropped out of Qath’s face. “This is no costume.”

“Oh. Uh, my apologies, then, Qath. Can I ask how you lost your eye?”

“Icepick. Baionna. Fifteen years ago, in Ispar. Any other questions?”

“I guess not.” Ardry sipped his wine cautiously. “So what did you want to talk about? This isn’t just a social call, is it?”

“I was hoping to be able to compare notes with you,” said Qath, recovering his coolly pleasant tone. “I am also a scout, and a scholar of sorts. A merchant of information. And I believe we have a mutual interest in tracking Viamontian activity…”

Ardry frowned. “You make yourself sound like a spy.”

Qath shrugged. “No more a spy than you, I think. I read some of your earlier reports, back in the days of the Virindi Schism… Not to mention your detailed reconnaissance in the matter of Zaikhal, not too long ago.”

“All right then, Qath, I’ll play along. Let’s talk Viamontians.” Suddenly nervous, Ardry looked around the room to see if anyone else could possibly overhear their conversation.

Apparently pleased to get down to business, Qath leaned close and spoke softly. “The invader King has dispatched his dogs throughout the known lands, ransacking tombs, catacombs, long-lost libraries… I have been studying their movements for some time. I think I am close to discovering what they are truly after.”

Ardry laughed. “Varicci’s looking for something to help him win the war. They don’t even know what they’re looking for – they’re just hoping they’ll recognize it when they stumble over it.”

Qath shook his head. “The Rouleans underestimated the Viamontians thus. Do not repeat their mistake. Then again, who am I to speak to an Aluvian about underestimating Viamont?” His smile had turned sharp, and there was a gleam of cruel amusement in his eyes.

Ardry gritted his teeth. “All right, fair enough. What do you want from me?”

“I need you to help me, ah, investigate another Viamontian installation. Quickly, before they can make further progress.”

Ardry gulped down the last of his wine. “All right, this is where we stop talking about this in public.” He stood, shouldered his pack, and picked up his bow. “Let’s pay a visit to the local lifestone, and then we can go for a walk to discuss this proposal of yours.”

Qath nodded silently, finished his own drink, and stood to leave. Ardry stopped suddenly and turned to Qath. “Just so you know, I don’t trust you a bit.”

Qath laughed. “I would be disappointed if you did.” They looked each other in the eye for a long moment, then nodded simultaneously and headed for the door.

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