The Laughing Bride Tavern,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

The man who stepped through the Laughing Bride’s front door was plainly dressed. The hot, humid February night was blacker than the inside of a boot, but thunder rumbled out over Howell Bay, and occasional flashes of lightning lit the banks of heavy cloud rolling steadily in across the city of Tellesberg. Even though no rain had fallen yet, the fact that the visitor wore a poncho was certainly understandable, despite the temperature, under the circumstances.

“Can I help you?” the tavern’s owner asked as he stepped across to personally greet the newcomer. It was late, and with the threatening weather, the Laughing Bride was scarcely packed.

“I’m looking for someone,” the man in the poncho said. “I was told to ask for Master Dahryus.”

“Ah.” Something might have flickered deep inside the publican’s eyes. If so, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, like one of the cloud-buried lightning flashes out over the Bay, and he nodded. “He’s taken the private taproom for the evening. Through that arch,” he pointed, “and down the hallway. Last door on the right.”

“Thank you.” The man in the poncho nodded and headed down the indicated hallway. He paused outside the door of the taproom for just a moment, almost as if he were drawing a deep breath. Then he knocked once, crisply.

The door opened quickly, and he found himself facing a youngish man dressed like a moderately successful merchant or shop owner.

“Yes?” the younger man said courteously.

“I have a message for Master Dahryus,” the man in the hallway said once more.

If there might have been a flicker of something in the tavern-owner’s eyes, the brief tightening of the younger man’s expression was unmistakable. But he stepped back courteously enough, inviting the other man into the small taproom, then closed the door behind him. There were just under a dozen other men present, and all of them turned their heads, looking at the newcomer with expressions which varied from calmness to obvious uneasiness. In some cases, possibly even fear.

“Ah, there you are!” another voice greeted the new arrival as yet another man — this one considerably older and rather better dressed than the fellow who had opened the door for him — looked up from a quietly intense conversation with one of the others seated around the small tables.

“I apologize for my tardiness . . . Master Dahryus,” the newcomer said. “It was a bit difficult to get away without raising any questions.”

“That wasn’t a criticism,” the man called “Master Dahryus” said reassuringly. “I’m just happy and relieved to see you after all.”

The man in the poncho bowed slightly, and Master Dahryus’ waving hand invited him over to take a seat.

“Seriously,” Dahryus continued as the late arrival obeyed his unspoken invitation, “I was beginning to feel a bit anxious. Baron Wave Thunder’s agents have proven even more effective than I’d anticipated.”

“I’ve noticed the same thing, My Lord.”

“I believe we might stay with simple ‘Master Dahryus,’ even here,” Dahryus said.

“Of course.” The man in the poncho colored very slightly, and Dahryus chuckled and reached across the table to pat him on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry about it so much, my son. Old habits die hard, and this isn’t exactly something any of us expected to be facing, now is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” the other man said feelingly, and this time two or three of the others snorted or chuckled in harsh agreement.

“Unfortunately, we are facing it,” Dahryus continued, “and given that we’ve all just agreed that Wave Thunder’s agents appear to be everywhere, we’d all best get into the habits of successful conspirators. Which is why, even though I realize one or two of you already know one another, I think we’ll avoid using any names tonight. Agreed?”

Everyone nodded, and he smiled thinly.

“Very well, my friends. In that case, it’s time we were getting down to business. We have much to discuss — much which will come as a surprise to many of you, I suspect. And, as I promised when first we came together, the time to strike draws rapidly closer. Indeed, if tonight’s meeting goes as planned, that time is almost upon us.”

The others looked back at him in silence, their expressions a blend of excitement, anticipation, determination, and fear, and his smile grew broader and warmer.

“Yes, we do indeed have much to discuss and to plan. But first, will you join me in a moment of prayer?”

* * * * * * * * * *

“– confident you can see why the arrangements near the convent are critical to our success,” Master Dahryus said some hours later. “And given the location of your manor, you’re definitely the one of us best placed to see to those details. So, if you’re willing to shoulder the responsibility — and the risk — we’ll leave their arrangement in your hands. The most important thing to remember is that none of the rest of us can play our part until those arrangements are solidly in place. If any problem should arise, or if you should discover that you require additional funds or any other assistance, you must let us know promptly so we can adjust our schedule. Father Tairyn will know how to contact me at any time, should there be need. It may take some days for any message from him to reach me, but be assured that it will.”

“Of course, Master Dahryus,” the man to whom he’d been speaking said, and pushed back his chair. He stood, bowed to Dahryus and the two others who were still present, then left the taproom.

Even as he stepped through the doorway, the abrupt, torrential rush of a thunderstorm came pounding down on the Laughing Bride’s roof. Thunder crashed suddenly almost directly overhead, shaking the tavern about its bones, and Dahryus shook his head as the door closed behind the departing man.

“I fear Langhorne is providing an appropriate backdrop for this evening’s meeting,” he said.

“In more ways than one,” the man who’d arrived late agreed dourly.
“I’m not looking forward to the walk clear back to the Palace through this.”