The barmaid didn’t offer her name to me as she would have to any other unfamiliar man who entered the tavern, but it was there at the front of her mind. Florence, though she preferred to be called Peggy. I could have dug deeper into her thoughts and memories to find out why, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. She was just another loose end I was going to have to tie up at the end of the night, another irritation in a long chain of them.
The wooden clock on the wall read half-past eleven as I moved toward a table in a dark corner, trying not to draw the attention of the half-dozen border guards who were preparing to leave. I wished only to be left alone, to get the information I needed and move on. The hood of my cloak blocked my peripheral vision, but I kept it up to cover the shoulder-length hair that would identify my status as an outsider in this strange land.
A red-haired brute bumped my shoulder as he slipped into his heavy coat, and he cursed at me. His friends laughed. They’d have been more cautious if they’d understood what I was.
For the sake of my mission, I allowed them to leave unharmed.
Peggy knew what I was. Every time she glanced in my direction, her thoughts jumped to the preserved dragon head in the back room. She pushed the thoughts away, refusing to make the connection. It was an attitude I was familiar with. The people in this country, Darmid, feared magic. They’d spent centuries destroying every form of it within their borders, protecting themselves from a threat they didn’t understand.
Few things irritated me more than willful ignorance. I needed to get home to Tyrea before I snapped and strangled one of these people who so reminded me of spooked cattle.
The barmaid ignored me as the seconds and minutes ticked audibly by on the intricate monstrosity mounted behind the bar. Her anxiety grew, pushing out of her in high, fluttering waves that I ignored. I breathed slowly and deeply, focusing my magic on the area outside of the inn, staying aware. All was quiet. Peggy and I were alone.
She jumped as a tiny door on the clock snapped open and a bright red bird popped out, tweeting an off-key tune that did nothing to lighten the atmosphere. It pulled her out of her anxious stupor, and she turned to me.
“Drink?” she squeaked.
I shook my head, and she went back to sharing her attention between the door and the clock.
“We’re closing soon,” she said a few minutes later. “Do you…” she hesitated, torn between emotion and professionalism. “Do you need a room?”
“No. Only a few more minutes, and I’ll be on my way.”
She nodded, but made no move to begin closing up.
The door flew open, blown back by a gust of wind and rain. A slender man entered, wearing a black coat matching those of the men who had left earlier. He struggled to pull the door shut behind him. The hat he wore low over his eyes had done little to keep his face dry, and his thick mustache dripped rainwater down the front of his already-soaked garments.
He nodded to the barmaid and removed his hat as he passed. “The usual,” he muttered.
He turned his head from side to side as though sniffing for danger, paused as he caught sight of me, then hesitated for a moment before sliding onto the bench across the table from me.
I took a moment to reach outside of the building again with my mind. He had followed my instructions, and had come alone.
Drops of water from the hem of his coat made dull tapping noises as they hit the grimy floor, out of time with the clock. He knocked his fingers on the table and pretended he wasn’t afraid, but his thoughts pressed out of him, propelled by uncontrolled emotion. Fear, dread, a touch of excitement. Seeing a person so exposed repulsed me, and once again I longed for this assignment to be finished.
So finish it, I thought.
“You are Jude Winnick?” I asked him, dropping my voice to a pitch and volume that grabbed his attention but left the barmaid unable to listen in.
She interrupted us, leaving the safety of her post long enough to deposit a cup of sharp-scented spirits in front of my companion. She ignored the droplets that sprayed the table as she retreated.
He drank deeply, then wiped his mustache on the sleeve of his coat. “I am.”
“Your brother is Myles Winnick, the magic hunter?”
“Might be. Might not be.” His words were confident, but his voice trembled. “I know who you are, Aren Tiernal. I know who your brother is. I could turn you in.”
Half-brother. Even as I worked to gain Severn’s favor, I couldn’t help but distance myself from him in my mind. “Is that why you answered my message, why you came here tonight? Are you going to place me under arrest?” I allowed myself a small, humorless smile and leaned forward, catching his gaze with my own. “No one knows you’re here.”
He licked his lips and took another long drink, then signaled to the barmaid to bring more. She looked away.
Winnick cleared his throat. “What do you want?”
“Your brother has been a busy man lately.”
Winnick snorted. “Well, he’s good at what he does. He sniffs out people like you better than a fox after rats.”
“I’m looking for a magic-user born in your country. Any one would do, but your brother is killing them off. It’s inconvenient.”
“Not for us, it isn’t.”
“It could be.”
Another attempt to drain the dregs from his cup, and a scowl. “Why don’t you talk to Myles about it? He’s the magic hunter. I’m just the muscle.”
I leaned back and rested my hands on the table. “Your brother is well-protected, and I don’t think he’d be interested in speaking to me. But you—you could get close to him. Pass on a message. I heard a rumor that he’s captured another Sorcerer. Perhaps he’d be interested in letting me take that person with me. Far less messy for your people than trying and executing him.”
The drink must have been strong. Winnick’s inhibitions were lessening after just one serving, his confidence growing. He pushed the cup too far to the side of the table, and it clattered to the floor. “And help you Tyreans? Not bloody likely. What do you want him for, anyway? As I hear it, your country’s just lousy with people like you. What do you want with ours?”
“That’s not your concern.” Nor is it mine, I added to myself. My brother Severn, regent of Tyrea, had ordered me to bring him a magic-user from Darmid, and to make sure no one in our own country saw me do it. I didn’t care what happened to them after delivery. I just wanted to find one so I could leave this magic-barren land behind and return home for a reprieve from the manipulation and the killing.
I wasn’t eager to see Severn again, but some things couldn’t be avoided.
Winnick grinned, revealing several gaps in his yellow teeth. “What if I told you we’d just executed that one this morning? That he died bitching and moaning about his innocence, how he couldn’t help having magic?”
I clenched my hands into fists under the table, but held my temper in check even as my pulse quickened. “I would be displeased if I heard that. Is your brother tracking anyone else right now?”
“I don’t know.”
But he did know. Had I not been able to read his thoughts with magic, the shift in his eyes and the nervous twitch of his wrist would have given him away.
“Look at me.” He obeyed, and in an instant I was past his almost non-existent defenses, probing his thoughts. “Where?” He felt me in his mind, and tried to push the name of the town away, but I caught it. Widow’s Well.
“How uplifting,” I whispered as I released him.
He collapsed back against the booth and tried to pull his thoughts together. “You’re a monster,” he gasped.
“I wouldn’t have to be if you’d cooperate.”
“I’ll never help you.” He shuddered, then pushed his short hair back from his brow. “My brother will hear of this, and his superiors, and theirs.”
“I’m terrified.” I glanced at the barmaid. She stood straight and still, jaw clenched as she listened, looking anywhere but at us. At least her ignorance and fear were working in my favor.
“Are we done?” he asked. His right hand slipped under the table.
“Don’t.” I spoke sharply enough that the barmaid risked a glance in our direction. “This won’t end well for you if you attack me.”
He didn’t listen. The hunting knife gleamed dully in the lamplight as he raised it and held it tight in his trembling fist. I gritted my teeth. I should have taken that drink.
Winnick stood and adjusted his grip on the knife’s bone handle. “I don’t think you mean for this to end well for me either way. I know about you people, and where your power comes from.” He blinked and looked around. “I shouldn’t have come. Making a deal with the bloody devil himself, that’s what this was.”
I stood, reached slowly into my pocket and produced a heavy gold coin, which I set on the table. “So you’re not interested in a reward for the information you’ve so generously shared?”
His eyes widened, and he swallowed hard. His left hand reached for the coin, but he pulled back. In that moment of unguarded distraction I forced my way deep into his mind, past thoughts, memories and desires. He tried to close himself off, but it was too late.
I had all of the information I was going to get from him. I decided I would alter his memory and let him go. After all, Severn wanted this done quietly. I could be done with Winnick in a matter of moments and go on to search elsewhere for a magic-user.
Memories flooded Winnick’s mind. Images of people he had helped his brother hunt down. Men, mostly, and hardly any with significant power. A few might have been classed as Sorcerers if they’d had the education and opportunity required to develop their talents, but not one had been given the chance. I saw them hanged. I saw a young woman screaming as the hunter and his men dragged her away from her crying children, as her neighbors looked on and did nothing. And I saw this man and his brother laughing over their victories in this very tavern. My breath caught in my throat as rage finally overtook me.
Winnick bared his teeth in a mad grin. “You see that?” he whispered.
He tried to back away. I didn’t let him, and his eyes widened as he understood the extent of my control over him. His knife clattered to the floor, though he tried to hold onto it. His thoughts turned to pleading, his emotions to fear and desperation as he tried to anticipate how I would hurt him.
A low moan escaped his throat, and behind him the barmaid clapped both hands over her mouth. I ignored her. She wouldn’t remember any of this once I was through with her, and neither would Winnick. Not until he had to. Not until the suggestion I planted in his mind was ready to become action.
To hell with subtlety.
I leaned closer, and whispered to him what he was going to do.