The Silver Phoenix had seen better days, to be sure. It was a wonder how the tavern—a gloomy, grimy establishment that looked to be on the verge of sliding off of its foundation and falling into the Murkintir River—managed to stay in business. Perhaps the proprietor kept its doors open out of the hope that one day it would burn to the ground and rise from its ashes as its name suggested. It couldn’t have been a good omen, therefore, that the decorative wooden phoenix that had once perched atop the tavern’s hanging sign had snapped jaggedly off to be replaced, in this particular instant, by a large black bird, which had glided out of the night to adopt the vacant position.
It was a raven, of course—a big one, at that—and if one had observed it carefully, one might have noticed that it seemed to take a decidedly unbirdly interest in the strange trio that entered the tavern at precisely nine o’ clock on October 27, 1216, A.R. It was a date that would go down in history—but in that moment, none but the raven knew it.
There weren’t many in the decrepit little inn on that dark, cloud-streaked autumn night. This meant, of course, that there were few present to witness the arrival of these three strangers. They were of an unfamiliar sort in these parts, and seemed out of place in the dusty, rotting corpse that was the Silver Phoenix. Well-dressed they were, like rich people. And their eyes…there was just something about their eyes. The regular customers, seated at the bar, glared at the newcomers over their tankards of watery ale, brows furrowed in suspicion, as the three selected a table in a shadowy corner and sat down.
Henry was nervous. Alasdair had advised him against bringing his dog into the place, as she would be sure to draw unwanted attention—although, from what Henry could tell, they were attracting quite a bit of unwanted attention as they were—so he had left her outside in the carriage, where she was now howling and probably sabotaging their inconspicuousness more than she would have if he had just let her tag along. Cringing at the muffled, mournful cries emanating through the tavern’s walls, he glanced at his pocket watch.
“He’s late,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Have patience, your lordship,” said Alasdair MacQuarrie, Alt-Mage of Murkintsen, with a grin. “We’ve been here naught but two minutes.”
Henry looked up at him wordlessly. The words sounded like something his future mother-in-law would say. Thinking about it, he could certainly tell that Alasdair and Sorcha were siblings. He hadn’t realized it until he had most recently seen the latter at Carviliet the week prior, but between their dark, loosely curled hair, the shape of their eyes and their golden complexions, it was remarkable that the resemblance had never struck him so soundly before. And it was interesting indeed, he mused, that out of Alasdair’s two children and Sorcha’s three, only one had turned out to look remotely like them. One pair of blue-eyed blonds, one set of pale, freckled redheads, and Seoc. Cute, chubby little Seoc. Although it was hardly likely that the chap was cute and chubby anymore. Henry wondered how badly two years of prostitution and eighteen months of imprisonment had messed up his face.
A fresh round of baying rang forth from outside.
“Could you quiet your hound, please, Henry?” Alasdair’s wife, Mialina, said under her breath.
Nodding, Henry stood up and walked for the exit. He felt the heat of a dozen eyes on him. Standing with his hand on the door, ready to push, he hesitated. He didn’t like it, stepping out alone like this. What if the Earl of Darkarbor—or someone else that wanted his head—had managed to track his position? Was it really wise to venture into the night without either of the other mages at his back? He looked back at Alasdair and Mialina.
He winced and tried to shake the word from his mind, but it clung there with needle-like claws. What was he, afraid of the dark? He was a mage, for Rezyn’s sake—although, that wasn’t guaranteed to help him if he got into trouble. Even after years of training, he only had a tenuous grasp on his powers.
Magic, however, was not the only tool he had at his disposal. He placed his right hand on the hilt of his sword and shouldered open the door.