"Can't sleep?" "Not a wink," Duresh said. A lie. "What is it?" "Big." A glance across the light of the candle. "Something big." Elan sat opposite to him at the table. The small hours of the morning, when all the taverngoers had gone home or to their rooms. Day had yet to break outside. The darkness, awaiting dawn. Just them in the main room of the Silver and Steel inn/tavern. Even the husband and wife innkeeper and barkeep had gone to bed. The tables and chairs all empty. The bar abandoned. The quiet. The single light of the candle between them. She was a good friend. An independent sellsword. Duresh hadn't worked with her before. But they often met and shared drinks with one another. Each telling the other of their own exploits. Some details pruned, in Duresh's case. Likely in her case too, but he'd no way to know. Not without being...impolite. And he liked her company. And she his. For a native Vel Anirian, she wasn't very judgmental. Yes, a good friend, and an early riser. He woke himself earlier to meet her here. To give her a chance. To maybe save her from what was coming. Elan propped her elbows up on the table. She had a small and demure smile. Hard to notice. But he saw it there. Now. "Lots of coin?" she asked. "Yes." Another lie. "Quite a lot." "Important contractor, eh?" "Naturally." Her fingers entwined. Drumming them gently against the backs of her hands. "Be a sweetheart and send me a tip first, yeah? I've finished my last job seven days ago. Keeping an eye out." Duresh stared across the candlelight. His gaze unbroken. He said, "I urge you not to take any jobs in Vel Anir for a while." A slight narrowing of her eye. "Why's that?" The flame of the candle danced softly. A bead of wax slowly running down the side. "A variety of things I've heard," Duresh said. Bending the truth. "All of it more substantial than mere rumors. Something will happen, and it will happen soon. And I will tell you here and now: you do not want any part of it." Elan wasn't very much swayed by his warning. "I'm a sellsword for a reason." "Of course." Duresh stood and placed his chair properly under the table. "But still I urge you, as a friend. And I should hope that you take my words into consideration. Farewell, Elan." And Duresh turned and walked to the door of the Silver and Steel and stepped outside into the gloom of the night's dying hour. Unsure if he would see his friend Elan again. * * * * * Today was the day of the Homeland Parade. A day for the extolling of the Anirian Guard and for the further instillment of an esprit de corps among the citizenry. And for those non-humans in the city during the festivities, perhaps a tacit show of intimidation. Though still a new event, a rare occurrence happening once every few years, it had proven massively popular within Vel Anir the first and subsequent times. Merchants and traders and showmen of all stripes flocked to the city and Anir Square was bursting at the seams with activity. Goods from all across Arethil were bought and sold, wonderful shows put on throughout the city in addition to the main parade, and coin flowed with all the vigor of the Baal-Asha River. Even recruitment from non-native humans into the Anirian Guard spiked, as well as retention among those already serving. Perhaps it brought hope to those who believed in a future of continued peace for Vel Anir. Perhaps they hoped it was an attempt for Vel Anir to forge itself anew, into a city focused moreso on trade, much like Alliria or Elbion. A hope that the Anirian Guard might live up to their namesake and 'guard' rather than conquer. They hoped in vain. And Duresh knew it. Though the Homeland Parade was ostensibly about the whole of Vel Anir and the supposed peace enjoyed through the tireless efforts of the brave fighting men and women of the Guard, and that it was one of the few days in which the Seven Houses would put aside their differences to partake in the spirit of togetherness of the festival, it was a thin veneer. Eventually, one House would use the day to make a daring political move. Yes. And today was that day. The House in question? Banick. * * * * * Clear skies above. Sunlight gracing the whole of Vel Anir. Duresh walked through Anir Square. The open market areas were all packed with people, foreign and domestic. Plenty of humans, of course, but elves and dwarves and orcs and others too in smaller numbers. They all gathered around on the flats of the open plazas and hung out from windows of inns and taverns and some even were allowed to sit on the edges of rooftops, their feet dangling. The constant din of talking and laughing and singing and merriment. Displays of the arcane from magicians and merchants pushing their carts loaded with food and water and ale through and matches of bareknuckle brawling and other fights upon which people placed their bets and cheered and there were live demonstrations of art and performances from bards and sword-swallowers and bold shows of non-magical fire-breathing and all manner of entertainment one could imagine. The parade proper had yet to reach this portion of the Square. But it was due soon enough, as it marched through the main thoroughfares of Vel Anir. Guardsmen and women stood at distanced intervals alongside the wide road through, keeping it clear and indeed it was the only stretch of space not packed with people. Duresh walked to and stood beside the door of a particular shop, out of the way of the majority of the revelers in the open plaza. Grayson's Tapestries. He held his hands behind his back and waited, his right palm open and ready, his left shoulder leaning lightly against the building. As per his orders from his handler, which had come from the Crentor family, and which in turn had come ultimately from House Banick. He knew the signal. The placing of a single Elbion zoldo into his palm. If it didn't happen, the Banicks had decided against their ploy, and nothing would come of this day. But if it did, then all the pieces would be in place, and he would then need to move into position. And Duresh would capture the darling daughter of a rival House. Kristen Pirian. And she would be delivered right into the hands of a growing threat to Vel Anir itself. The self-styled 'Master of The Blades'.