The Laughing Loon's Lode

            I thought I was being noble, but alas, I was merely being brash.

            In the distance, a loon laughed. And then came the chattersome bark of a merfox in reply.

            A young man walked alone beneath the tarps of the Slough Inlet. However, he was alone in an emotional and spiritual sense. For he wove his way between the people that busied about, below the broadly bright summer sky that peeked between the emptied clouds.

            She was the most beautiful creature I've ever seen.

            He passed a shabby old house near the edge of town. There was an old man in a broken rocking chair upon the porch. And from the upper floor, he heard the singing of a eunuch. Rage welled up in him, and he clenched his folded, hairy arms together tighter.

            The loon began to shriek, and splash.

            Looking out across the wide river, he saw the creature. Beyond the edge of a shabby old pier, the white-speckled black bird was flapping its wings in the water, trying to intimidate a brightly-blubbered merfox that had swam too close. And beyond, the young man noticed a gray loon chick.

            A fish jumped, in the water.

            Footsteps treaded through the sand, behind him.

            She got in the way, he realized, of a family. Just like that merfox. I must get her away from that man, lest she break apart some poor woman's betrothal.

            "Are you Rossel, of Gabe Enterprises?" a woman's voice, calm and inquiring.

            He turned to see them, and wiped an unfrequent tear from his eye.

            A tanned, tall boy, with a childlike face, stood behind her in an elaborate robe. The boy spoke, with budding charisma, "He fits the bill, Naieyle. The alemaster said he'd have hairy arms, a decent build, average height... and a scar notching across the bridge of his nose."

            Silently, he eyed the woman. She had light armour and a lithe build. And there was a slim blade sheathed upon her belt of many pockets. A short cape trailed behind her. Its edges were frilled with purple thread, like a doily.

            "Well, are you tradesman Rossel?"

            "I am," the young man answered. "As is my father before me. I am Rossel Windsmire the Third. And who might you be? Did you come about the job I posted at the tavern?"

            "Aye, though we'd like more information." She paused, "I am Naieyle von Haeville, daughter of Haeville's blacksmith and niece of Baron Armâtre." Once more, she paused, "And this is my traveling companion, Allerk ibn Gerauhd of... Kaldeiyeep, was it?"

            "Pwonteiyeep," the boy corrected, "Not quite that far south." He spoke in a surprisingly mild accent. It reminded Rossel of a great mercenary who'd once served his father.

            "Great," Rossel pronounced, drawing a grin that almost met his wide cheekbones. Two silver earrings dangled from his ears, with tiny black gemstones, and they were the only hint at his wealth. His tunic remained nondescript. And nobody would know that it was dragon-tendon that bound his sandals. "Have you eaten?"

            "No," she told him.

            And as if on cue, the boy's stomach rumbled. He grinned awkwardly.

            "Then we shall eat at the The Laughing Loon's Lode, beside the inn, and we shall discuss our business there." Rossel proposed, as he nervously tugged upon one of his earrings.

            "You said you are a Windsmire. Do you know one Sir Brutan Windsmire?"

            Rossel frowned, as he followed them towards the tavern, "I can't say that I do. But the reaches of House Windsmire extend far. Some to business I dare not think of. Where does he hail from?"

            "Crownlake Castle," she told him, "our destination."

            "Well, then I might meet him there," Rossel mused, "once we've shipped the egg."

            Allerk laughed nervously, "Oh, I think we'll be seeing him before we get that egg over to Crownlake."

            "Oh?" Rossel asked, as he watched Naieyle playfully hit the boy, as if what he'd said had damaged her pride.

            The tavern loomed before them, next to the harbour's boathouses. A sign loomed overhead, brightly painted. It swung in the wind, and dripped overhead. Below the letters was the painted and carved form of a loon splashing its wings just as Rossel had seen earlier. And below that, was a lodestone tied to the sign. It seemed to be pointing them inside.

            "If your paddling's as pride worthy as your cynicism is, then we won't be seeing him until we get there," she said, as she pushed open the door of the tavern.

            Rossel followed them in with a quizzical look on his face, and realized that he had completely forgotten about getting Marlew away from the bards. Even if I cannot court her, I will be content to save a stranger's marriage.

The End

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