Find the last story in the saga here.
It was a great day to make a sale. After weeks of blizzards and downcast skies, Valefall was finally witness to the sun. The denizens of the town at the base of the Crystal Peaks were out in force, trying to get through as many of their daily tasks as they could while the weather still allowed it. The town cryomancers—Valefall was large enough to have several—busied themselves with clearing the streets of snow, starting at the town square, where the shops and taverns congregated.
Tayte couldn’t help but smile as he sauntered through the square. It was nice walking around without protecting his face from the snow with layers of leather and wool. His hair flowed free, happy to no longer be shoved into the back of his hood. Hair such as his deserved to be flaunted, sleek and black like a raven’s wing, freshly washed too. He ran his hand through it, as he smiled at a group of women. One of them waved back, the miller’s girl with coal-colored hair. Not as nice as his, but nice nonetheless. Dalla was her name, or Helga, perhaps Frida. It was one of those early letters for sure.
It’s Una, a frustrated, feminine voice echoed in his head. And you’re the worst.
“I would have gotten it right eventually,” Tayte muttered, trying to move his mouth as little as possible. “I think I might stop by the mill after we get paid. Take Una out for a night of romance.”
Does that mean you’ll just get sloppy drunk again and beg her to be with you?
“It’s called seduction, Liath, and it’s a much more complex process than you make it out to be.”
Not from my point of view. You know, before I bonded with you, I didn’t even know what being drunk was. It’s not really a thing I can do.
Tayte blew a kiss to Una and stepped into an alley, where he could talk freely with his other half.
“Well then you should be glad you can experience it vicariously through me. Besides, if you had a body, you would understand. I have needs that must be met.”
Inside his mind, a retching sound echoed.
Gross. Why did I have to get stuck in the body of a pig? Your sister would have been so much nicer.
“I believe the word you’re looking for is refined gentleman. And the only reason you think that is because you haven’t spent enough time with her. She’s like a fun vortex, just sucking it all away.”
Sevi is just more mature than you.
“Ugh, enough about her, let’s focus back on me again. How do I look?”
The snow piled atop the roofs of the buildings began to spill down, pouring itself into a swirling mold of Tayte. It was like looking into an icy, slightly agitated mirror.
“Ugh, at least if I had bonded with Sevi, I’d be pretty.” Liath whined.
The first time he had heard a woman’s voice coming from his mirror copy, it had been unnerving, but Tayte was used to it by now. He admired the image, making sure he hadn’t missed anything when he had shaved this morning.
“Hey, words hurt, okay? Even if you don’t mean them. Smile, I want to make sure nothing’s in my teeth.”
Liath beamed and he inspected her copy of his mouth carefully, relieved when he didn’t find anything. There had been a fair amount of strife in the first weeks of their bonding over Tayte’s gender. For reasons Tayte couldn’t fathom, Eauath always manifested as copies of their host. Tayte chocked it up to a lack of creativity.
“Alright, we’re good. You can poof now.”
Liath rolled her eyes and the swirling mass of snow collapsed into a lifeless pile. Tayte continued on his way, shifting his hefty pack to rest more comfortably on his shoulder. It was a rugged leather pack, sturdy and efficient, but very plain. Sevi had won out in their argument, Tayte had wanted something fancy, worthy of his pending status as the richest man in Valefall.
We should go over the plan, just so I know when to help.
Tayte massaged his brow. “Okay, so remember how I told you that you weren’t going to help?”
“I meant it. I’ve been doing this for years on my own, I don’t need you to help out. In fact, you helping would be the worst thing to do with the people I’m gonna meet with. Remember the Huntsmen I told you about?”
The ones who kill winterborn and cryomancers?
“And manifest, which I now am. So, we’re just gonna keep that little bit of info to ourselves. Which means no helping.”
A sense of gloom washed over him.
“Hey cut that out. No screwing with my emotions, remember?”
I was just communicating what I felt.
“Well it doesn’t feel good, so knock it off.”
That’s kind of the point…
Liath had a heart of gold, which was great, except Tayte had a heart for gold. Doing the right thing and becoming obscenely rich were two goals that were often at odds with each other. They worked it out well enough for the most part. Liath helped him get paid, and occasionally, with much chagrin, he would flip a bum a coin or two.
“This is for my—I mean, this is for our safety. You’re sitting this one out unless things go very wrong, okay?”
How will I know when they go wrong?
“Feel free to help out if they try and murder me. Or if I give the signal.”
Oh, I like the signal! It’s fun, it makes me feel like I’m a spy.
“That’s the spirit,” Tayte said as he slipped out of the alley and down the road. His meeting was in one of his favorite taverns, recently abandoned after a snowslide had taken out the back half. They were to meet at mid-day, which meant he had about two hours to prepare.
This area had been almost completely abandoned, a fate that had befell a few too many parts of Valefall recently. The storms were certainly getting worse, which was good for business and terrible for everyone else.
The Iron and Anvil was a stocky, wide building, as its name would suggest. Tayte had argued multiple times that it should be The Hammer and Anvil, but the tavern owner hadn’t budged.
“The saying is hammer and anvil, and he knows that. I feel like he’s just trying to be unique.” Tayte rambled on as he tried to open the front door. It seemed to be stuck on something. “Thematically, it just makes more sense, right?”
I kind of like it. It has a ring to it.
“You’re supposed to take my side,” Tayte grumbled as he heaved and the door slowly opened, grinding across the wooden floor.
It was a tragedy to see one of his favorite spots in town in such disarray. The front half of the building had remained relatively untouched, but the back had caved in, destroying several tables and part of the bar. Snow had consumed a sizeable portion of the floor as well. The only good thing to come of it was the partially collapsed roof let in a lot more light.
A burly man with arms the size of Tayte’s torso was standing in the center of the tavern, arms crossed with a disappointed look on his face.
“Oh, um, hello Gunnar. I didn’t think you’d be here,” Tayte said, rubbing his head sheepishly.
“Tayte, why did you just break my door down?” Gunnar growled. Gunnar had two states: annoyed or angry, it was why they two of them got along so well; those were the only emotions Tayte caused.
“Well, if you’d refer to my previous statement, I did not think you’d be here.”
“Why would I not be here?”
“It kind of got destroyed, so I figured you would abandon it. At least, for a little while. You know, long enough to do business.” Gunnar stared Tayte down as he spoke, tapping his foot in a steady rhythm of frustration. “Though, now that I’m thinking about it, it does make sense that you would be here.”
“Because it’s my tavern?”
“Because it’s your tavern.”
“So, why are you breaking into my tavern?”
“Breaking in is a loaded term, I would prefer ‘borrowing momentarily’.”
“Mhm.” Gunnar grabbed his shovel and began to slowly move forward. He used to be a steward of Valefall, and retired to enter the blacksmithing trade before finally setting up the tavern. Suffice to say, the man was a hunk of meat that Tayte had no intention of fighting.
Do you need help?
No, I’m fine, we’re pals. Tayte thought. Talking in thought was a lot harder than it looked, he was only just getting the hang of it.
Seems like he wants you to leave.
“Really? Amazing. That must be your emotional awareness at work.”
“What was that?” Gunnar asked as Tayte found his back pressed against the tavern door.
“Oh, just chiding myself for not getting your permission first. Because, you know, this is your tavern and I am just a humble guest.”
Gunnar was inches away now, towering over Tayte. He thrust the shovel into Tayte’s chest and dropped it into his hands.
“You want the place, you clean the place.” The elderly goliath of a man walked to the bar and poured himself a drink.
Tayte sighed. “You bet.”
He struck the snow with the shovel and it turned out to be less snow and more a giant mound of ice. Tayte sighed again. He looked over to Gunnar with wide, pleading eyes as the man uncorked a new bottle.
“Hey, think I could have a drink too, while you’re at it?”
Tayte’s face fell. “Yeah, that’s fair.” He dug his shovel into the ice and managed to chip off a small bit. That was enough work for now.
He noticed one of the framed paintings that had previously hung on the back wall was at his feet. It was an old combat manual detailing a man striking another with the pommel of the weapon. There was a tear along the bottom now.
“Aw, I liked the one. I always felt like the guy doing the pommel striking was scrappy, like me.”
“You mentioned that a lot when you drank.”
Tayte laughed awkwardly. “I get a bit talkative, don’t I?”
“I don’t know, how’s the winter crystal business going?”
Tayte cringed. Sevi had made him promise over and over he would keep their harvests a secret until they sold the product. Though to be fair, she should know how much his promises were worth.
“Oh, she’s gonna kill me when she hears about that. Um, how many people did I tell?”
“Just me, repeatedly. You promised me half for being a good friend.” Gunnar pulled out a washcloth and began to wipe down the bar, accomplishing little in actually tidying up the place.
“I didn’t know you could do jokes, Gunnar. I’m impressed.”
Tayte sucked some air through his teeth while Liath giggled inside his head.
“Well, I didn’t have my wits about me then, obviously you can’t hold me to that deal.”
“I didn’t want to, but you were quite insistent.”
“Gunnar, you’ve gotta learn when to cut me off. That’s all I’m saying.”
Gunnar grunted and began to fix a barstool that had been damaged in the snowslide.
The two worked in uncomfortable silence for a while, Tayte doing the least he could do and still be considered working.
“What did you want to use my tavern for, anyways?”
“I’m meeting some potential clients who were interested in the winter crystal.”
“And you couldn’t do that at your house because…?”
“I can’t let them know where I live, that’s ridiculous. How do you expect me to screw them over if they know where I sleep?”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to admit that you’re attempting to screw over your clients. Who are they anyways? Do I know them?”
Tayte paused. This was territory he didn’t want to get into with Gunnar. The man had very polarized opinions. He decided he would deflect instead of telling the truth, it usually worked out for him.
“Probably not, they’re from out of town.”
“Where from? I know most people in this area of The Skels.”
“I have no idea. Probably from a lot of places.”
“They part of an order?”
I don’t think the deflecting is working. Liath said as Tayte chewed his lip. She sure did love telling him things he already knew. Stupid floating snow person.
“Tayte?” Gunnar grumbled, stretching the name.
“They are part of the order of…” Oh, I got it! The order of Winter.
“The order of Winter…”
“The order of Winter Crystal Friends? I’ve never heard of them. They been around for a while?”
“Nope. They’re pretty new.” Tayte winced. He dropped his voice to barely audible whisper. Talking in his head was still weird to him.
“You had one job, Liath.”
I think the name is cute.
“And you’re planning on screwing these people over?”
“Yeah. But, in an instructional way? Like a ‘hopefully next time you’ll be more careful with your gold’ kind of way.”
“How kind of you.”
“Thank you, it’s nice to finally get recognition.”
“So, what does this order do?”
“They, um, befriend winter crystal?”
“Why did you phrase that as a question?”
“It, um, was a test?”
“I see. Did you fail, or did I?”
I think you did, Liath said, now bound in the throes of laughter.
“You did. But don’t worry, it’s a difficult test.”
“Ah, I’ll try to do better next time.” Gunnar said stoically.
The room went silent for a minute or two as Gunnar focused on hammering the barstool back together.
Did… did that work? Liath asked. Tayte wouldn’t question it if it did, that’s for sure.
Sometimes the gods just favored certain individuals. Especially if those individuals were talented, smart, handsome, and above all—
“You’re meeting with the Huntsmen, aren’t you?”
“Damn it. Come on, gods!” Tayte tossed the shovel to his feet.
I’m sorry, Tayte. I thought we had really done it. A wave of genuine disappointment washed over him thanks to Liath.
“You’re lucky you’re powerful,” Tayte mumbled.
Gunnar stood silently, waiting for Tayte to make eye contact. Eventually, after putting on his best innocent face, he did.
“Tayte, what is the one rule I have in my tavern?”
“Pay your tab by the end of the week.”
Gunnar rolled his eyes. “The other one rule.”
“Because they are evil, murdering bastards who killed your… sister?”
“Niece. I knew it was one of those.”
Gunnar pointed to the portrait hanging behind the bar. It was of a huntsman with a comically hideous face attacking a beautiful watcher with two crystal blades.
“I commissioned that to commemorate her sacrifice. This is not something I will budge on.”
Tayte approached Gunnar. “Come on, Gunnar. I really need this sale, and I already told them to come here.”
“I don’t care. You aren’t bringing them here.”
“Oh come on! I’ve been helping you clean for half an hour and you can’t even lend me your tavern?”
“It’s been about five minutes. And you’ve barely made a dent.”
“Ah, but a dent has been made. That’s friendship right there, and friends let friends conduct shady business deals in their taverns.”
“What am I supposed to do now? I can’t just send a raven and tell them to meet me in the town square,” Tayte whined.
Gunnar shrugged. “Figure it out.”
“But I was going to screw them over. Don’t you want to help screw over the Huntsmen?”
Gunnar grunted and poured himself another drink. “What exactly is your plan?”
Tayte beamed. “Okay, so in my research, I found that there’s a standardized price for winter crystal, but only for small amounts at a time. And, when I say small, I’m talking not even enough to make an axeblade.” Tayte began to giggle and heard Liath join in.
He knew she really didn’t understand, she just liked laughing alongside him.
“So, we’re going to charge them five times the standard amount, and because…” he burst out laughing. “Because we have so much of it. Th-they have no choice but… but to pay us!” He slammed his fist into the bar and howled with diabolic laughter. Gods, he was a genius.
“Your genius plan is to overcharge them? I thought you would steal the money and keep the winter crystal or something that doesn’t end up just giving them what they want.”
“What, why would I do something like that? They’d kill me. Huntsmen are very serious people.”
Gunnar groaned and pinched his brow before pouring another drink.
“And when you set up the meeting, did you agree on the prices?”
“Doesn’t that mean you really aren’t doing anything but getting more money than you normally would?”
“Well, yes. But it’s so much more money.”
“Enough to rebuild this tavern?” Gunnar eyed him.
“Hah, way more that tha—” Tayte paused. Gunnar’s face had a familiar expression on it.
“I know that look, I have it all the time. You’re planning something.”
“You want the tavern for the deal? You pay for it to be rebuilt, all of it.”
“I pay a flat fee that goes to rebuilding, which we will negotiate later.”
“Then you’ll just take the money and run. Don’t think you can pull one over on me. I know your type Tayte.”
“What, kind-hearted, generous bachelors who only want to do a bit of good in this cruel world?”
“No, selfish bastards.”
“What did I say?”
Gunnar let a hint of smile creep onto his face. The ale must be getting to him.
See that, Liath? That’s how you charm them. I’m a charmer. Tayte thought.
You sure are.
Tayte couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic. Their moods influenced each other. She might be riding high on his joy.
“I’ll pay for half the costs.”
“Deal.” Gunnar slammed his flagon onto the table and stuck out his hand. “Come over here and shake on it.”
“Wait, you said that too quickly. I’ll pay for a quarter of the costs.”
“Too late, half or nothing.”
Tayte sighed and let his hand become enveloped by Gunnar’s mitts. “You’re a clever one, Gunnar.”
“So I’m told.”
Tayte grabbed his pack and hoisted it onto the bar. He took several cloth-wrapped axes and laid them out. “Now, where’s the best places to hide these for if it gets ugly?”
Gunnar chuckled. “I’ve got a few in mind.”
Two hours later, everything had been set for the meeting. After he helped place the emergency supplies, Gunnar had left his tavern in the Tayte’s hands. Now, Tayte waited at the bar, whistling random tunes to distract himself while he kicked his feet in the air. Tucked deep within the many pockets of his outfit, Liath’s Winter Crystal focus rubbed against his leg. He had to ensure the Huntsmen didn’t notice the errant glow it gave off or the business deal would quickly turn into an execution.
Why do they hate us?
“They think you’re the cause of the Winter. Who knows, maybe they’re right. Doesn’t make much difference to me. The longer the Winter goes, the richer I get.”
Still, I feel like if they took the time to know me, they’d end up liking me.
“Of course, who wouldn’t like you? It’s like having my very own conscience.”
Aren’t you supposed to have that anyways?
“Not if you’re a shrewd businessman such as myself. That’s why I’ve got you.”
A knock at the door started it off, and nearly startled him off his chair. He stood and straightened his hair while he eyed all the various places his weapons had been tucked into. No matter where he was in the tavern, there was at least one within a few steps.
“You remember the code?” Tayte asked Liath.
Of course. Good luck, Tayte, I believe in you!
“Let’s do this then.” He raised his voice. “Come in!”
The door slid open a bit and then stuck. He heard a man grunt with exertion and move it just a bit more.
“You—you’ve gotta sort of force it open.”
“Oh, I didn’t know if I had broken it.” A nasally voice replied.
“No, that’s just how it is after the snowslide.”
Two gloved hands appeared on the door, followed by two more, and the door was eventually fully forced open. Four Huntsmen entered the room, all fairly broad men in black leathers, some with green sashes tied around their waists. Tayte had expected two or three, four made warning bells go off in his head.
“Gentlemen,” Tayte began, giving the Huntsmen a collective nod. “How was your trip?”
“Long,” the nasally Huntsman replied. “How was your harvest?”
“Lucrative. Would any of you like a drink before we begin?”
“We’ll drink when the deal is done. Where is the crystal?” Another Huntsman said.
This one had bug eyes and a clear attitude problem. Tayte could hear the irritation in his voice. That wasn’t good. It would be difficult to resist the urge to push his buttons.
“All business with you lot, huh? I can respect that.” Tayte noticed one of the Huntsmen was scanning the tavern, his eyes glowed an eerie green. “What’s he doing?”
“Making sure there’s no magic here. You wouldn’t believe how many witches try and set up fake meetings to draw us into traps.”
In his head, Tayte swore and Liath chided his language. If they saw Laith’s crystal it would be bad.
“Yeah, aren’t witches the worst? Well, there’s no magic here, unless you count my good looks.” He laughed nervously and slid into a table just in time to hide his leg from the apparently all-seeing eyes of the glowing Huntsman.