Rheyk Shilamizane quietly navigated the crowded streets of the Golden Ring that surrounded the largest lake on Tal, his ever-wary eyes keeping vigilant watch over his surroundings and the people therein. An overwhelming majority of such people were sergals, particularly of the southern clan, their fur being short to cope with the extreme changes of the desert, and colored to blend with the light sand that filled so much of Tal. They were bipedal creatures, their legs and talon-like paws adapted for running and combat, which fit their fierce, yet graceful look. There were some individuals whose fur was thicker or darker – or, in many cases, both – which indicated they had northern blood within them, but had either never had any part with the northern clans personally, or had denounced them and sought refuge here.

 It was the perfect place to hide. Even if he would stand out by being one of very few agudners, there were enough people around that even those who might be looking for a stranger who did not seem to belong would not find him. Shrouded by a hooded cloak in spite of the day’s heat, one would not even be able to pick him out as a minority species in this area, effectively making him disappear. Furthermore, he made no actions to call attention to himself. He spoke with the vendors of the markets courteously, even when haggling over the prices of their wares, and always spoke with as little import as possible. He knew that if he were to even give the slightest of hints as to why he was here and was traveling so much that the enemy would certainly learn of it, and that simply was unacceptable to him. So he spoke of the weather – it was always dry, sunny, and oppressively hot – the wares the merchants had to offer, and of course, about the food and drink of the local establishments. While mostly simply pleasantries meant to avoid any sort of discussion about which he wished to keep a secret, it was good to know which establishments were good, and which weren’t in the opinions of the locals. He would be able to find a cover much more effectively armed with that knowledge – a rougher establishment, so long as he stayed out of the focal point of attention, would dissuade any spies from making a move on him. He shook his head a bit to himself. Who was he kidding? There were no spies looking for him beyond attempting to locate and identify him. The north did not take him seriously – not yet. That would come with time, as all things have a sometimes-infuriating tendency to do.

  It was late in the morning when Rheyk finally found refuge in a crowded, dimly lit tavern that was tattered and worn with use as well as time by many people who most oft looked as tatter and worn as the walls within which they gathered. Nary an individual paid the shorter, concealed agudner as he carefully shouldered his way into the establishment. The agudner was well shorter than the average sergal at just over five feet in height. The hood obscured his face, which was a muzzle that was softer, and yet somewhat like that of a sergal’s, if shorter and less pointed. His sandy brown fur was rather similar to a southerner’s coloration, but several shades browner, even when not hidden by his cloak. His feet were hooves with two toes, with thin lower legs that widened out by the time they ended at his hips. His legs were like a sergal’s in that they were digitigrade, even if he only had hooves and not paws to meet with the ground. He could still run far enough, and fast enough, to hold his own. The only potentially unique aspect of his appearance were his eyes – a bright, vibrant, sapphire blue that stood out against his fur, though well obscured from the casual observer by his hooded cloak.

“What do you want?” the bartender – a southern sergal with pale beige fur and the usual hazel eyes – asked tiredly, if unpleasantly enough, whilst wiping down the roughly textured counter.

Rheyk was mildly impressed this place even had a wooden counter, considering just how rare – and expensive – wood like that was, rough or not. “I would like a pint of whatever you have,” the agudner replied shortly, if quietly and respectfully enough.

The bartender snorted a bit, but turned to grab a mug, filling it with the house mead, before placing it on the counter heavily and grunting. “That will be twenty five shells,” he said, clearly seeming uninterested in the individual who was currently his customer.

Rheyk felt the corner of his mouth twitch in distaste, but he otherwise kept his demeanor as neutral as possible. With a slow, short nod of his head, he pulled out his small bag, pulling out a small, dry, but intact looking pine nut. He then set it down on the counter and quietly said, “That should be more than enough for the price which you ask.” With that, he took the remainder of his money and the pint of mead with him to an empty seat, where he could be left in peace to drink and observe the people around him. He noticed first the dull roar of conversation that pervaded the place. None of the voices were raised enough above the others for more than a couple seconds, which made listening in to any conversation difficult at the very least, if not downright impossible. With a small nod to himself, he took a sip of the mead, before looking into the glass. While not bad mead, it certainly was not the best he had ever tasted, that much was certain. He wrinkled his nose slightly, before he took another small sip with a small, almost resigned sigh.

At the same time, three sergals made their way through the door – one taking the appearance of a northerner, and two appearing to be of southern origin. They appeared to be together, so Rheyk did not pay very close attention – any northern/southern aggression would not come from between those individuals. He set down the pint, before he noticed with growing apprehension that they were making their way to his table. He carefully wrapped a hand around the hilt of his dagger, keeping his face neutral and as obscured as possible. He did not rise to meet the sergals when they paused within striking distance. Instead, he nodded his head slightly. “Morning,” he said politely, before gesturing to the seats around the table. “Please, sit. What brings you me?” he asked, before taking another sip of his drink. His voice, while laced with an accent that harkened a much older time, was on the lower end of the spectrum, easily baritone, if not bass in tone.

“You are the agudner?” The northerner spoke first, his voice more tenor in range. The question was not an accusation or one spoken in malice. It was asking for confirmation, or almost stating a fact.

“Yes, I am,” Rheyk replied. “What do you need from me?” he asked quietly, but pleasantly enough.

“We heard your plea to the southern council to move troops to protect civilian populations from the ravages of the north,” said one of the southerners, her voice somewhat low for a female, yet unmistakably feminine in tone.

“I am sure you heard their dismissal and denouncement of it, then,” Rheyk said, only slightly allowing his frustration over that to seep into his tone. The fact that not only had the southern council dismissed his suggestion to move to guard the northern reaches of their territory, they had denounced it as heresy and attempts to – what was the term? “Incite rebellion against the neighboring nation to the north.” Yes. Those were the words of the pitiless cowards who would have the blood of countless thousands upon their heads – thousands who needn’t to perish at the hands of those who were planning to do nothing less than subjugate all of their dominion. He could care less about that – but the slaughter and ravaging of those who had no part in the conflict – that he could not bear to stand by and tarry any longer.

“That’s why we are here,” said the third sergal. “We have decided that against the judgment of the council, it is imperative to draw the northern forces away from the villages in the southlands. We cannot stand by and violate our duty, even if we are no longer in the service of the army.”

“So what are you proposing?” the agudner inquired quietly. “That we create a small band of fighters to take on Rain and her forces? It’s a suicide mission at best…” he said, shaking his head a bit. “We won’t be able to meet in decisive battles like the east, or even the south, as unprepared as they are. We’d have to ambush, overwhelm and destroy quickly, and then disappear.”

The agudner’s words were met by sly grins. “The northerners fear nothing more than that which is unknown. If done right, not only would this save lives, this could give a psychological blow to the northerners like nothing has so far.”

“I do not care about that. I only care about cleaning up the mess that the southern government has made before anyone realizes they have made it.”

The End

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