The King's Other Castle. It was such a ridiculous name for a tavern, yet Karlen drew crowds all the same. Velveteen seats, gold plated fixtures, and other little touches made it easy for folks to forget their ordinary lives. They were just here to relax. Except for Aztra at the bar, who hiked up her skirts and slid two pins in her hair. It was time to go to work. Her seasoned gaze scanned the crowd, eliminating potential marks with each pass.
The first to be granted serious consideration was a corpulent noble. His clothes were slovenly, and he had unwisely kept his long locks despite a very receded hairline. Even more atrocious than his fashion sense were his table manners. The sot could barely keep food in his mouth, and sauce dribbled down his chins. Imagine what he would be like with a woman... Aztra shuddered. Pass. Even if he hadn't shoved every spare cent down his throat, overweight men tended to be less receptive to her... gifts. Her hand twitched to check her hairpins, which were still secured. Good. Moving on.
The next man was certainly easier on the eyes. Strong features, impeccably dressed, surrounded by a gaggle of adoring fans, he looked every bit the merchant prince... but that was as far as it went. His suit was barely worn, and his stories about the finance world were months out of date. It was all a ploy to bed some beautiful albeit stupid ladies. His coin purse probably bulged with coppers. Pass. He'd probably lose her money. She briefly contemplated revealing his deception, but decided against it. After all, the more women drawn to his table, the less competition there was for her. Play on, little amateur. Let's hope Lord Harlden doesn't hear about you wooing his daughter.
Her third option was a rugged sort of fellow who stared at the table while his companions caroused around him. His kindly face was dotted with scars, no doubt with a heroic tale behind each one. Aztra could almost smell the musk of his armor. She rose from her stool only to sit back down abruptly. Her new vantage had revealed the object of her target's attentions; his wedding band. Indeed, there was some internal struggle churning in the lad's gut. It would take ages to woo a man like that, assuming his friends didn't step in. Regrettably... Pass.
The fourth candidate was so perfect, Aztra wondered how she had missed him before. Tucked away in the corner, the young man wore the outfit of a clerk in the Royal Administration. Perfect. Today was payday. Best of all, there was this... fragility to him. He'd even stuck his nose in a book to avoid any unprompted conversation. If she could talk to him without arousing any suspicion, the poor little virgin would be putty in her hands. Aztra slapped her palm against the bar. Karlen set two glasses of wine before her with a mutter of, "Good hunting." She twirled off towards the back with a smirk on her face.
"Joran? Joran?" Aztra called. Tears welled up in her eyes. The clerk slowly set down his book. No one could resist a damsel in distress, even a poorly-lit one.
"Something wrong, ma'am?" he asked. His voice was smooth, charming even.
"I went to go get me and my beau a drink, he's run off without me!" She set her glasses on the table and slid into the booth. The young man opened his mouth, but Aztra interrupted, "I'm Rahela, by the way."
She slid a glass of wine his way and raised her own. "To new friends, then?"
"Uh..." Whatever protests he had died upon his first good look at Aztra. "To new friends."
It had taken another glass, but Cyric finally seemed to be enjoying himself. A scribe in the Royal Financier's office, he was supposed to meet some colleagues who never arrived. Aztra suppressed a smirk. They would be here tomorrow, just like every month. Oh well. Their loss. She rose shakily to her feet, and before she could take one unsteady step-
"C-can I walk you home?" Cyric asked.
Aztra laughed. How predictably sweet. "Actually, I'm staying right here. I've never been to the capital before. 's why I was so upset, when Joran disappeared." She could see the disappointment creep into his features. "But! That's no reason you can't!" She leaned heavily on Cyric's shoulder, and he guided her towards the stairs. Karlen threw her a wink as the duo stumbled down the hall. "This's it." Aztra unlocked the door with one hand and reached for her hairpins with the other, pulling them out with a flourish. A small groan indicated her success. "Omigosh, I'm so sorry. Did I stick you?"
"I-It's nothing." Cyric winced, clutching at his upper thigh.
"Here, lie down on the bed." He hobbled over to the mattress and gently eased himself onto it. Aztra sat next to him, checking the time. They were well ahead of schedule. Ample time to reward a job well done. Besides, he was pretty cute. She pressed her lips against his and felt herself go weak in the knees.
Not just the knees. Her entire body. "Damn," she thought. "Did I manage to stick myself too?"
"No dearest," Cyric replied, and there was an edge to his voice. "You're actually one of the better mortal poisoners I've met." Aztra got a rough kiss in return. A mindreader? Mortal? Gods, what was this man? He breathed a response into her ear, but she never heard it.
Vaalfar laughed as he shoved the woman aside. What a rush! His arousal had little to do with appearances, though she had been quite lovely. No, he'd witnessed that primal fear in her eyes, the realization that she was his prey rather than the other way around. What was supposed to be an ordinary hunt had completely turned his night around. The arrogant, lower-class grifter made for excellent fare. Who'd have thought? "You know..." he mused aloud. "Were it me, I'd have gone for the hero. He was actually separated. Ah well. Live and learn." Vaalfar cast an eye over her corpse and chuckled. "Figuratively speaking."
A red sun rose over The King's Other Palace, and the bartender pounded on a door with his meaty fist. "Az! It's Len! Open up!" When no response came, Karlen reached for his own key. "Damn, woman. Are you still asleep?" He shoved the door open. "Not trying to cut me out, are ya... Oh gods!" Aztra lay sprawled across the bed, the color drained from her skin. Don't panic. First things first.
It took Karlen a few minutes to ferret the late Aztra's savings out of their various hiding places. It had been nearly two hundred platinum, enough to keep the inn running the rest of the season. "Thanks Az," he thought as he wrapped her up in a sheet. Then, the bartender plodded his way down the empty halls. "No, officers. I don't know where she went. Shame though. One of my best waitresses. Never a nicer girl than that one." Karlen finally reached the cellar and started to dig. [I]"Sorry, Az. Can't have you shuttin' me down."