Asher leaned back in his chair and cast a tired gaze around the alehouse as he drew a refreshing sip from a frosty mug of cold spiced cider. A small fire crackled in the middle of the room, washing the other occupants in a warm, orange glow. Of course, there were few drinkers here, as it was midday. Seated with Asher was a large, portly man on his fourth or fifth basket of fried mushrooms, and a petite woman in fine clothes sipping warm tea. Papers and maps and diagrams were strewn about their table in the far corner of the alehouse, which almost certainly would have drawn attention if this were a busy, metropolitan tavern.
But it was a lazy work day, and for all anyone knew, these three folks were merely drawing up business plans of some kind. Nobody cared.
In fact, Asher had spent the past week studying up on the region and local politics by day, and practicing the art of the Aldori Dueling Sword by night. His two companions, naturally, were members of the Balance Corporation. Their job was to prepare Asher for an upcoming special assignment, which would require him to pass as a noble of the Orlovsky House, and as an Aldori swordsman. And though his studies were coming along easily — he picked up on the swordplay almost immediately — the trio was getting bored with spending hours upon hours going over charters and maps and family trees. The woman in particular had to keep muttering under her breath in order to remind herself that she was getting a hefty paycheck for this job. Today was their last day before they returned to their cover: A small, family-owned bed and breakfast just outside the city gates. Asher would soon be left to his own devices, to meld into the society here in Restov until the Balance Corporation gave him the official assignment.
The alehouse door swung open, and in marched four men, garbed in impressive armor and adventuring gear, and carrying a variety of well-used weapons. Asher looked on in amusement as the few regulars at the bar dropped their conversations and stared, mouths agape, at the newcomers. The bartender put his hands on his hips and glared. The woman with Asher put her head in her hands and groaned, “Young adventurers, ugh.” The fat man chuckled and clapped the woman on her back.
The leader of the adventurers loudly called out an order for four pints, and strode over to Asher’s table, and addressed him thus: “What cliche nonsense is this? Brooding characters and maps in the dark corner of the alehouse, hah!”
“Watch yer tongue, stranger. Yon lady and sir are of House Orlovsky,” the bartender admonished.
“Oh aye?” The adventurer chuckled. “But they’re no nobles of mine. If any want respect from me and mine, they’d better hath skill at the blade or the bow!”
“You may address me however you see fit,” Asher calmly replied. “But I wonder what brings four men such as yourselves here to this little alehouse in Restov, to poke fun at its occupants?”
“Have ye not heard the rumors, fancy sir? That Restov is to issue charters to bold men to settle the Stolen Lands?”
“‘Tis only rumor, I am sure. But you’re welcome to feed yourself to the owlbears and bandits,” Asher said with an icy chuckle.
“Rumor, is it? We are only the first to arrive. We passed other groups like ours on the trail. All manner of folk are rushing here now, dreaming — like us — of starting our own little kingdom!”
The woman groaned again, slumping over with her head on the table. Her inn might be overrun already with the very sort of folk she disliked. The fat man stood, giving her shoulder a squeeze, and said “We best get back to manage our cottage.” The two left, not making eye contact with the adventurers. The four adventurers pulled up seats and sat at Asher’s table, paying no heed to the various documents.
“Ye have the shifty eyes of a thief,” sneered the leader after a sip from his pint. His companions laughed at the insult. “I’ve seen ye eyeing my sword and buckles. And add to that the fact yer sittin’ in the dark corner. Cliche, thief.”
Asher leaned in and whispered in the man’s ear, “Welcome to Restov, Observant One. I advise thee to choose thy bed with great care. Check under it for me. I’ve killed assholes in their sleep for less than unkind words as to my character.” And with that, Asher rose, grabbed the man’s ale mug, and strode out of the bar, tossing his papers in the fire.
Asher stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the other members of House Orlovsky. Granted, they were only a handful — but the room was just as full with city guards and servants. The doors were locked – meaning the servants would have to wait for a guard to allow them to pass from this room to another as they went about cleaning the mess. Various endtables were overturned, and the floor was littered with shattered glass and china. There were some spatters of blood here and there, still fresh, like the matching cuts and bruises on the faces of the Orlovsky noblemen.
Yet there they stood, each face a mix of pain and the sort of haughtiness that all nobles exhibit. All nobles but one — Asher was still trying to get the haughty look just right, and it came off as more angry than anything else. That’ll do for now, I suppose, Asher thought to himself. They had been standing this way for nearly an hour now, not saying a word; the only sounds came from the cleaning servants and the ticking of a grandfather clock, reminding the group with every second that it was almost dawn now.
Suddenly, there was a sharp knock at the door, and a guard opened it, permitting Dymitri Korsoff entrance. With most of the Orlovsky family on vacation, Dymitri was acting matriarch of the House. Still in his riding coat and boots, he was obviously summoned in a hurry. “What,” he snarled, “have you all done?!”
Asher and the five other low-level noblemen beside him said nothing. Some cast their gaze to the floor; others grimly bit their lip.
Dymitri continued, “Never in all my years as a proud member of this House have I had to deal with this! This is outrageous! Look at the damage you idiots have caused! Oh, you’ll all pay a pretty penny to have this House back in order before the rest of the family returns, I–”
“Sir,” one of the city guards calmly interrupted. “If I may. The fight among your cousins is the least of your worries.”
The nobles nervously shifted their feet.
The guard cleared his throat, and explained, “A man… another of your relatives, as I understand… has been found murdered upstairs. We believe one of your other relatives did it.”
“No,” Dymitri said in a small voice. “No, no, no…” He ran upstairs, and moments later, let out something between a howl and a cry. Indeed, he had found the body of Rufus Orlovsky, eyes bulging, lips purple, body hanging out of the bed where he slept. Though normally incredibly fit, poor Rufus had felt ill four the past couple of days, and so stayed behind while the rest of his family went on vacation. After many long minutes, Dymitri came back downstairs, fighting back tears.
“Who could have done this? And why? WHY?” Dymitri’s voice broke.
Each of the nobles took this opportunity to loudly and violently begin blaming one another.
“ENOUGH!” Dymitri roared, and the chaos ceased. Turning to the guard who spoke earlier, Dymitri asked, “Why do you think my cousins have done this? Rufus was family! They have nothing to gain by his death.”
The guard responded, “We know yon Rufus had been awarded a charter from the government this morning, on behalf of House Orlovsky. It is missing from his room, now. We’ve instructed the servants to bring it forth immediately if they find it while cleaning.”
“You’ll not find it lying somewhere in the house,” Asher said softly.
“Oh? And you know this how?”
“Because cousin Bernard here beside me has it tucked into his waistband.”
Bernard turned on Asher, forcing him against the wall with his forearm, and yelled “You lie! How dare you accuse me of-”
But it was too late. Asher deftly tucked his hand into Bernard’s baggy pajama pants, and pulled out a scroll that had been folded down into a tiny square. As the guards pulled a screaming Bernard to the floor and bound his hands with rope, Asher handed the scroll to Dymitri. Dymitri read the scroll, and his brow furrowed.
“Ah, this is not, I think, meant for House Orlovsky. Rufus alone may have enjoyed the rights granted by such a charter but… clearing the stolen lands? Bah!” Dymitri thrust the charter back in Asher’s hands. “Ye may have it, I care not. Why would Bernard kill for such a charter?”
Asher pretended to read the charter — in truth, he knew what it was the instant he saw the city clerk hand it to Rufus this morning — before answering “Perhaps Bernard here wanted to found his own kingdom.” Asher looked over his shoulder to see the guards dragging Bernard outside.
“Come cousins, let us clean the house and prepare the funeral. I’ll ride to summon the others at daybreak. Today is a sad day in the history of House Orlovsky… so sad…” Dymitri’s voice trailed off as he sank into a chair, sobbing.
Asher smirked, while the others were too absorbed in their grief to notice.