"You might let the boy up before he grows gills, Buck."

"What would be wrong with that, Nathan? Might come in handy if we ever need to cross another flooded river."

Ezra watched from the curtained doorway as Buck lifted his hands from the steaming pool of water and a spluttering Jaydee shot to the surface.

"Now, one more time. What’s my name?"

"Buck." Jaydee gasped out as he pushed back the dripping locks of hair from his eyes. "Your name…is Buck."

"That’s right and don’t you forget it." The mustached fighter nodded his head in satisfaction and leaned back against the edge of the naturally formed pool.

"But I’m sure the ladies back home…"

Jaydee laughed and dodged clear of Buck’s sudden lunge. Splashing water to blind his attacker, the young man scrambled back and leaped out of the bath. A wild race began around the edges of the stone cavern with the two naked men being cheered on by their friends.

Ezra was about to step forward when a small sound caused him to turn back.

"Lord Standish, your mother sent us down to see if we could serve you."

Two of the resident maids stood just behind him, their arms loaded with towels and bathing supplies. As usual for Maude Standish’s servants, both women were young and very beautiful. And by their quick glances, both were extremely interested in the events taking place in the next room. Deciding that life was far too short to waste such an opportunity, Ezra gave them a small bow and a welcoming smile.

"By all means. I’m sure my friends will greatly appreciate your assistance." Stepping to one side but making sure he still had a perfect view, Ezra gestured for the maids to precede him into the chamber.


Vin was of course the first to notice the new arrivals and nudged Chris in the ribs to get his attention. The fighter took one look and shook his head in resignation. Tossing a sponge across the pool at Nathan, he directed the healer’s attention to the two staring women. Nathan grinned and tapped Josiah on the arm who, turned and instantly broke out into loud guffaws of laughter.

By this time Buck had captured Jaydee and had him firmly gripped in a chokehold with an arm around his neck. The two men were putting on a good show for their audience and were oblivious to the two additional viewers.

Jaydee finally spotted the two smiling women as he struggled to pull Buck’s arm away from his throat. Quickly dropping his hands to protect a much lower part of his anatomy, he tried desperately to alert Buck to their danger.

"Buck! Buck! Look!"

"Now, you think I’m really going to fall for that?" But the fighter did glance up as Josiah’s echoing laughter filled the cavern. He saw the two maids and behind them a grinning Ezra. Pulling Jaydee around as a living shield, Buck merely nodded his head and smiled warmly at the women. "Ladies."

The maids curtsied back and the redheaded one held out the tray of oils as she spoke. "The Lady Standish sent us down to help with your bath. We would be more than happy to wash your backs or give you a massage when you are finished."

Buck’s grin grew even larger but Jaydee remained frozen in embarrassment as his friend continued to use him for cover. Luckily, Chris finally came to his rescue.

Speaking up from his place in the steaming pool, the mercenary politely declined. "Tell the Lady Standish that we appreciate the offer but we can manage just fine on our own. Perhaps another time."

The young women were obviously disappointed but tried not to show it. Placing their burdens on a nearby bench, they made their way as slowly as possible from the cavern with numerous backwards glances. The redhead paused at the door and gave Buck an encouraging wink before ducking out of sight.

Jaydee released the breath he'd been holding and let his body relax. Almost immediately he jerked forward again with a small cry, finally breaking free of Buck’s loose grip. "Pits, Buck!"

"Sorry, boy. Believe me, it’s not because of you." The fighter grinned unrepentantly at his young friend’s distress. As Jaydee jumped clear, Buck’s natural reaction to the two young women became blatantly apparent.

Jaydee’s face remained a bright shade of scarlet as he quickly returned to the pool. Buck followed at a slower pace and sighed as he eased back into the water. "Would have been nice to have a real back rub right now. Did you have to send them away, Chris?"

"Now that Ezra is here we have some things to discuss and I would rather not have you distracted."

Deciding that was his cue, Ezra discarded his own robe and moved to join the others in the pool. He was well aware of the six pairs of eyes watching his every movement but chose to ignore them as long as he could. He concentrated instead on the wonderful feeling as he lowered his body into the naturally heated water.

One of Fransco’s most famous resources was its numerous underground pools. There were several large ones that served as public baths and a few private caverns like the one below Standish Hall. The castle was reputed to have a massive cavern beneath its foundation but only special guests of the king were allowed there.


Cracking one eye open, Ezra finally looked directly at Chris. He expected anger, a scowl of displeasure or at the very least annoyance. The mirth in the green gaze caught him completely off guard. Opening both his eyes he settled more comfortably in the pool while clearing his throat to speak.

"A very deep subject that." Ezra looked around at the circle of faces and was both surprised and pleased to see that each of the expressions mirrored the mercenary’s. ‘Yes, mother. True friends indeed.’ Giving a small sigh, he felt tense muscles finally relax as at least one of his worries was laid to rest.

"Gentlemen, you see before you the only son and heir of the late Alric Standish."

"The same Alric Standish that was one of the king’s financial advisors?"

Ezra was impressed and nodded his head in reply to Chris’ question.

"The same. He was murdered one night on his way to meet with the king concerning the matter of some missing jewels from the royal treasury. They never did find his killers." Frowning at the unpleasant childhood memory, Ezra focused on lathering up a washing cloth before continuing his story.

"While still fairly young, it became quickly apparent to me that there were many unscrupulous members of the upper-class ready and more than willing to take advantage of the situation. Luckily my mother, Maude Standish, proved to be more of a profiteer than the whole lot of them. We …disagreed… about a number of issues and as soon as I considered myself capable enough, I left."

"And took up the life of a traveling minstrel?" The others seemed content to let the mercenary do the questioning so Ezra directed his answers to him.

"Among other roles. I have been many things in many places, Chris. All of them much more appealing than that of Lord Standish."

From Buck’s position there came of snort of disbelief and Ezra looked to see the man shaking his head. "Pits. You’d rather be living in a no-place town like Four Winds when you could be enjoying all this? You’ve got everything here."

"Not everything, Buck. Not the most important things." Damn. Ezra ducked his head beneath the water to keep from having to explain his last comment. First mother and now them. Might as well make a ballad of his life and sing it on the city streets.

When Ezra finally surfaced, it was to discover that only he, Chris and Vin remained in the pool. The others were standing nearby using the supplied towels to dry their bodies before donning robes to return to their rooms.

As each of the men turned to leave, they gave the ‘minstrel’ understanding smiles, which managed to make Ezra feel both embarrassed and comforted at the same time. He had honestly expected the men to turn on him when they discovered his duplicity. The fact that they continued to regard him as a friend was almost overwhelming.

Nathan was the last to leave and warned the three men not to stay in the heated water too much longer as it would drain what little energy they had remaining.

Ezra resumed his washing, letting his eyes follow the cleansing suds as they were carried away along the subterranean channels of water. A soft, contented moan made him look up and he saw that Chris and Vin had altered their positions somewhat. The half-elf had his head resting on his crossed arms along the edge of the pool while the mercenary massaged oil onto his exposed shoulders and back. The pale skin glistened in the glow from the lamps and Ezra watched as if mesmerized, his breath quickening in response to the sight.

"So, you left as soon as you felt ‘capable?’

It took a moment for Chris’ questioning statement to penetrate Ezra’s straying thoughts.

"Ahem…yes, that is to say, as soon as I felt able to adequately defend myself with a blade."

"Your style of fighting, it always reminded me of old Master Doner. You studied under him?"

Again Ezra was impressed by Chris' knowledge. Obviously the man had spent more time in the capital city then he had ever let on. And not just as a common soldier. "Alas, I fear I was not his favorite pupil. He was rather upset with me when I took my leave after only a couple of turns of teaching."

Chris snorted and shook his head in exasperation. "I can understand why he was upset if you can fight as well as you do without completing your training. Imagine what you could have been had you stayed."

"If I had stayed I would probably have become nothing more than a spoiled aristocrat. Paired. Drunk. Fat."

This time it was Vin that made a skeptical sound as he raised his head and stretched languorously. "Yeah. Just like I would have grown up to be a blacksmith had I stayed in my village."

Such an image was so ludicrous; it caused Ezra to laugh out loud. "Point taken."

Chris followed Vin from the pool, taking his time to stretch out his own thoroughly relaxed muscles, fully aware of Ezra’s lingering gaze as he did so. The lord-turned-minstrel was revealing more than just his true identity and Chris was almost loath to end their conversation.

Discovering that Ezra was the heir to a small fortune with a residence in the wealthiest part of the city had been a surprise but not the shocking revelation the man had obviously expected it to be. His past may have been a carefully guarded secret but his true spirit had always been clear to Chris' experienced eye.

Tying his robe securely around his waist, the mercenary reminded Ezra of Nathan's warning before leaving with his partner.

Sighing deeply, Ezra closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the edge of the pool. For the first time in he didn't know how many turns, he actually felt it safe to completely relax.


Like all of the more public rooms of Standish Hall, the dining room reflected an understated opulence. The large table and matching chairs were of a rich, darkly stained wood but crafted in a very simple design. The fabric that covered the walls was a subdued pattern that did not detract from the landscape artwork or the assorted polished bric-a-brac that adorned the side tables.

Ezra led the way into the dining room and was once more reminded of how lucky he was that his mother had such good taste. Expensive, perhaps, but still very acceptable. If only her selection in pairing partners was as equally refined. But of course personality had never played a very important role in her courtships. Ezra had long ago perceived that his mother was driven by a fundamental fear of being poor so her suitors were always carefully chosen based on wealth, not character.

The table, which was large enough to seat twenty guests, had eight places set at one end with the remaining portion holding a wide assortment of beverages and appetizers. Ezra was relieved to see that the drink selection included fruit juice and plain water. He was determined to make it through the remainder of the night with a few secrets and his dignity intact.

As the men were selecting their drinks and deciding where to sit, Giles stepped into the room and made an obvious show of clearing his throat. Moving to one side as soon as he had everyone’s attention, he allowed the Lady Standish to make her grand entrance.

Rolling his eyes, Ezra nonetheless did his duty and moved forward to take his mother’s hand and lead her to the table. "Allow me to introduce the lady of the house, my mother, Maude Standish."

"Gentlemen." Ignoring her son's slightly exasperated look, the Lady Standish dipped her head gracefully and allowed her son to introduce her to each of his friends.

As they made their way around the room, Maude took the time to carefully scrutinize the men and compare their appearances to the facts provided by her paid informant.

"Jaydee." Not quite as young as she had imagined him but still obviously the youngest. Very polite, almost shy. And that hair! Tsk. If those unruly bangs were trimmed then his beautiful dark eyes would be easier to see.

"Buck." Oh, dear. Her informant hadn’t exaggerated. Well, the maids would certainly enjoy themselves during his stay. Nice mustache.

"Nathan." Ah, the healer. Very handsome, almost noble looking. Amazing that such large, strong hands could channel the gentle power of healing.

"Vin." Surely he wasn’t the half-elf? Not with those blue eyes and wavy, brown locks. Although, if he took more after his human parent…? And the points of his ears could be hidden beneath his hair. Perhaps she would get a chance to see them before he left.

"Chris." What a cold stare. Definitely the mercenary and the leader. And handsome. Yes, it was plain to see why Ezra would put his trust in this man.

"And finally, Josiah." The oldest of them all, surely the stone wizard. Ah, there was his staff leaning against the wall. And his eyes, so knowing. Years of experiences. This is a man that has seen and done much in his lifetime but is now at peace with himself. Not too bad looking. Perhaps…in another life…

"Madam, thank you for welcoming us to your home." Josiah held the deceptively fragile appearing hand in his own callused palm as he bent his head in a polite bow. For some reason he was finding it hard to look away from the woman standing proudly before him and he unconsciously tightened his hold on the cool fingers.

For her part, Maude felt equally mesmerized and was loath to reclaim her hand. But turns of self-control and practiced behaviors finally reasserted themselves and she stepped gracefully back to encompass all the men in her greeting.

"I assure you, gentlemen, the pleasure is all mine. Friends of Ezra are always welcome and I do hope you find your stay at Standish Hall to be a pleasant one."

Chris cleared his throat and stepped forward, his expression even more serious than usual. "We’re grateful for the warm welcome but it’s only right that you should know, our presence here may put you and your staff in danger."

Maude raised an elegant eyebrow and turned an amused smile to her son. "It won’t be the first time danger has visited this hall at the heels of my son. Luckily, my servants all have hidden talents that make them quite capable of handling almost any situation. Now, let’s not keep cook waiting any longer. I am sure she has had enough time to fix a decent meal and it would be a shame to put her efforts to waste."

To say the meal was ‘decent’ was a gross understatement. Despite the short notice, the cook turned out a five-course meal that left all the men feeling positively stuffed. Even Jaydee, with his near bottomless stomach, found it difficult to finish off the last bite of his sugar-frosted desert.

At first the conversation during dinner remained light and centered mainly on the fair and current events of the city. But Maude proved to be a veritable fountain of information and as the last of the food was consumed, Chris finally took advantage of that readily available knowledge.

"So the guards don’t patrol as often as they used to?"

"No, and rumor has it that the size of the army has been reduced by at least a third."

Buck slapped his hand down on the table. "Pits, Chris. What does Orrin think he’s doing? He can’t expect to keep up a full border guard with an army that size. And if we were suddenly attacked …"

"He may not even be fully aware of the dismissals, Buck." Chris turned back to Lady Standish. "You say he has a new commander?"

"Yes, it happened just after the last snow season. Commander Sorel retired quite suddenly. Everyone thought he would recommend his second as the new commander but instead he presented this Haris fellow to the king. Of course, Orrin had no reason to doubt Sorel’s judgement so Haris has been the commander ever since."

"And he’s been slowly shrinking the size of the army." Chris leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms thoughtfully over his chest. "That’s going to make it even harder for us to find contacts that we can trust."

"Yeah, and so much for me joining his guards." Jaydee slumped in his own seat and rested his head on his fist. Buck gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder.

"Don’t count yourself out yet, kid. Knowing Chris, I don’t think this Haris is going to stay military commander. Once we talk to the king …"

"That’s ‘if’ we can talk to Orrin. I was really counting on using Sorel to get through to him." Chris stood and began pacing the length of the dining room as his agitation grew.

"Well really, if all you need is an audience with Orrin then I don’t see the problem." Maude leaned back in her own chair and took a dainty sip of wine.

Chris almost stumbled as he spun to face Ezra’s mother. "Don’t see the problem…?"

Maude smiled as she placed her glass back on the table and picked up a small silver bell. Before the last chiming ring ended, Giles appeared at the doorway.

"Yes, my Lady?"

"Giles, whatever did I do with that invitation from the king?"

"The one that invited you to meet the ambassadors during their stay at the castle?"

"Yes, that’s the one."

"I believe it is on your desk in the library. Shall I fetch it for you?"

Maude smiled at the surprised looks on the faces of the men gathered around her. Only Ezra seemed to take the revelation as an everyday event and simply raised his glass in a silent salute to his mother.

"Not necessary. If memory serves me correct, I believe the date for the audience is the day after tomorrow?"

"Yes ma’am, the morning before the parade. And I believe that Lord Standish was also included in the invitation."

"Of course, and it would only be natural for us to have a couple of bodyguards escort us to the castle, what with all the riff-raff that has gathered for the fair." Rising gracefully from her place at the table, Maude gave the seven men a nod goodnight and allowed Giles to escort her from the room.

"Well, I’ll be Pitted." Buck stroked his mustache as a wide grin slowly crept across his face. "Ezra, you are one lucky son-of-a…"

"Ahem, yes, well and on that note gentlemen," Ezra stood as well and made as if to follow his mother. "I think that now would probably be a good time to adjourn to our rooms and…"

"Not just yet." Chris returned to his chair and tossed back the last of his drink. "The invitation is for the day after tomorrow. That gives us one whole day to scout the town and learn everything we can about Haris and maybe get a lead on this mysterious Listrel."

Ezra sighed and dropped heavily into his seat. "Then by all means, please proceed with the assignments but I give you fair warning, I shall not set one foot out of my bedroom until the sun has cleared the top of Bysha’s Spire."

Chris smiled grimly. "That’s fine, Ezra. I expect the rest of the upper class have the same schedule and that’s who I want you to spend time with tomorrow. Listrel is supposed to be a gem merchant that caters to the wealthy so you stand the best chance of actually making contact with him."

Pursing his lips thoughtfully, Ezra slowly nodded his agreement. "But I think it will be necessary for me to enlist the aid of my mother. My ‘wander lust’ has left me sorely lacking in contacts where as …" Ezra suddenly paused as a new thought entered his over-tired brain. "Mother. She has a particular fondness for loose stones."

Chris realized immediately what his friend was thinking. "She might already know about Listrel. She may have actually done business with him."

"If you gentlemen will excuse me," Ezra stood up again and this time Chris did not stop him. "I think I will visit my mother’s room on the way up to my own. I will leave word with Giles as to my exact plans for tomorrow. Please feel free to do the same."

"Hey, Ezra." Buck called out to the man as he reached the door. "What's a fella have to do to get a little 'room service' around here?" The fighter's lecherous grin made it clear exactly what kind of personal service he was wanting.

"Don't worry Buck, after your performance in the bathing room, I'm sure there will be someone checking in on you later tonight." Turning his gaze to the youngest, he couldn't resist adding, "Jaydee will probably receive a little extra attention tonight as well."

The youth's blush was all that he could have hoped for. Turning to leave once more, he made a mental note to himself to have Giles pass the word along that certain rooms were off limits to the amorous maids.

A chorus of ‘good nights’ followed him through the door and Ezra couldn’t help thinking that all things considered, it really was a very good night. It was a great relief to have his true identity finally revealed to his friends and know that they still accepted him as simply Ezra and not Lord Standish. Perhaps this questing business wasn’t such a bad thing after all.


"Buck, you and I will visit the taverns that cater to the guards. We’ll see what we can learn about Haris and the changes he’s made." The mercenary turned to Nathan and Josiah with their assignments. "I don’t think it would be a good idea for either one of you to visit the Centers. Instead, I want you to move about the streets. Pick up what you can from the locals. Any gossip or rumors that strike you as unusual."

The two men acknowledged the instructions but Josiah had one question. "What about the scroll?"

Chris thought for a moment before answering. "Carry it with you. That will probably be the safest way to handle it. Leaving the scroll here would make it easier for anyone with tracking stones to find it."

"What about me, Chris? Do I get to come with you and Buck?" Jaydee’s muscles were almost visibly tense with pent-up excitement. He was obviously looking forward to meeting real guardsmen in the service of the king and still hopeful about joining those ranks.

Across the table from Jaydee, Vin also looked to Chris expectantly. But where Jaydee’s dark eyes shone with eagerness, the blue eyes of the tracker held more than a hint of dread. If Chris asked him to wander the crowded streets of Fransco he would do it but Bysha’s Tears, he didn’t know how useful he would be. In fact, he would probably end up being more of a hindrance.

"No, Jaydee, tomorrow I want you and Vin to go out to the fair."

"Go to the fair?" Jaydee frowned in confusion. "But…what good will that do?" The young fighter didn’t wait for an explanation. He reached his own conclusion before Chris could speak. "This is just like back in Four Winds. You’re trying to get Vin and me out of the way while you…"

"Jaydee." Buck’s firm voice cut through the youth’s angry words and brought them to a halt. "How many times have I got to tell you? If you’re going to ask questions, keep your mouth shut long enough to hear the answers."

Jaydee slouched down into his chair and crossed his arms angrily over his chest. Sticking out his chin defiantly, he shifted his glare from Buck back to Chris.

The blond mercenary fought back a grin knowing it would not be appreciated. "We know that Cardimal is planning to assassinate Orrin very soon. We are guessing that it will be during this festival. Now, even with the king dead, he will need supporters ready to help him move in and take over the castle. He might be able to hide the men and weapons here in town but it is more likely he is using the fields where the fair tents are set up. I want you and Vin to scout the area and look for anything suspicious. It’s a huge area to cover and you’ll have to do it without being too obvious." Chris turned his attention to Vin. "Think you can handle the crowd?"

"The tents are set up in the fields outside the city?"

"That’s right and they’ll have quite a bit of space between them to allow for wagons and people to pass through. No walls and probably a good steady breeze from the north."

Vin seriously considered the matter for several moments. He wanted to do his part but he had to be honest with himself and Chris. "I’m willing to try. Out in the open I should be able to handle it and being in a field, I suppose I could just head to the nearest piece of forest long enough to catch my breath if I had to."

Jaydee was quick to lend his support. "It'll be a whole lot different outside the city, Vin. You’ll be fine."

The matter apparently settled, Nathan stood and stretched his arms above his head. "Well, good. Then we all know what to do tomorrow. I think Ezra had the right idea for once. I’m ready to get some sleep."

"I think on that we can all agree." Josiah followed the healer’s example but picked up his glass as he pushed away from the table. "May Bysha smile upon our endeavors tomorrow and see us all safely reunited."

Everyone joined in on the toast with Buck taking an extra drink ‘for Ezra.’ It was a weary but contented group of men that slowly made their way through the manor and up the grand staircase to their chosen rooms. Tomorrow would hopefully see them one step closer to completing their journey and saving the king, not to mention the entire kingdom from the combined threat of Wartolin and Cardimal.


The glow of the bedside lamp reflected from the polished wooden beads of Nathan's bracelet as he slowly stroked them with his fingers. The healer's thoughts drifted lightly from memories of the short time he had spent with Trian to fantasies of what might lay ahead.

Would they have a large family? Oh Bysha, he hoped so. But how did Trian feel? They had had so little time to talk and there was so much they had yet to learn about each other. Where would they live? Would she be willing to move to Four Winds? Sighing wistfully, Nathan finally slipped the bracelet back on his wrist and blew out the lamp. Sleep came easily and with it pleasant dreams filled with the laughter of children.


Buck grinned and rubbed his hands together gleefully as he moved to answer the quiet knock at his bedroom door. 'Good ol' Ezra. Wonder if it's the blond or the redhead?'

Throwing the door open wide, he gave an elaborate bow to his late night visitor. "My Lady! I ... I...uh," Buck stammered to a halt. "I, that is, I mean, my 'Ladies'. Uhm, which one...?"

Three smiles were his only answer as the fighter was gently but firmly pushed back toward the bed. His last rational thought was a silent but heartfelt 'Thank you!' to good ol' Ezra.


"You're being very foolish. Old age has obviously stolen your reason." Josiah paced the length of his room as he mumbled out loud. "She has her pick of the wealthiest men in the city. Men that can offer her all the fine things that women desire."

The stone wizard finally stopped his pointless march and threw himself down on the bed. With a loud groan he covered his face with a pillow but still he was haunted by visions of Ezra's mother. While his mind continued to spell out all the reasons a pairing would never work, his heart beat with a steady pulse of hope.


"Remember Giles, not a sound before the sun clears the Spire."

"Of course sir. And I took the liberty of adding another layer of material to the windows. It should remain quite dark throughout the day."

Ezra nodded his thanks as he began to undress. Watching the old servant turn down the covers of his bed, the lord of Standish Hall felt a sharp pang of guilt.

" have kept you up so late."

"That's quite alright sir. Will you be needing anything else?"

"No. Thank you."

Giving a slight bow, Giles moved to the door only to pause with his hand on the latch. "Ezra. It is good to have you back."

Caught off guard again, the wandering lord of Standish Hall finally admitted the truth. "It's... it's good to be back Giles. It really is."


Vin pulled the blankets up to his chin as he squirmed to get comfortable on the too soft mattress. Trust Ezra to have beds that felt like slices of fresh bread. No wonder the man complained so much about sleeping on the ground.


"What?" Vin cracked an eye open and stared at his partner in surprise. Chris stood at the foot of the bed, his expression very serious.

"Grackles. You know, those birds that come through after the last frost?"

"I know what they are. What I don't know is why you..."

"Remember that day we were out hunting and a flock of 'em landed in the clearing near my cabin?" Chris sat down on the end of the bed as he spoke, pushing Vin's feet over to make more room for himself. "There were so many of them you almost couldn't see the grass."

Vin smiled at the memory. "Made me think of ants swarming a dead caterpillar."

"Hmm, yes...well, you remember what happened when you threw that rock?"

"Looked like a black mist swirling up into the trees."

"And the noise they made?"

"Couldn't hardly hear myself think."

"But they didn't do any harm. All noise and feathers for a few days and then they were gone."

Ah, so that was it. This was the talk that Vin had been expecting and dreading all night. "You're trying to tell me that those crowds of people out there are like flocks of birds."


"Birds I know don't try to steal your pouch or stick a knife between your ribs."

Chris sighed in exasperation. This was going to be harder than he'd thought. "Vin, I'm not telling you there aren't dangerous people in this city but I'll guarantee you won't hear the dangerous ones on these streets no matter how hard you listen. And if they're really out to get you, you probably won't see them either."

"That's supposed to make me feel better about tomorrow?" Vin's brow furrowed in confusion. He had been expecting Chris to tell him his concerns were unfounded, not that he had been right.

The mercenary could see that his bird tactic was not working so thinking quickly, he decided to try a different approach. "Remember that time..."

"Chris, I'm not afraid of the people." Vin shook his head and pushed the covers aside as he sat up. Sitting cross-legged, the half-elf chewed his bottom lip for a moment as he tried to find the right words to make his partner understand. "It ain't just numbers of people or the amount of noise they make; a lot of it's being packed so close together. What I's not really fear." His hands gestured helplessly as he tried to explain. "It's having them brush against me, touching me even if it is just by accident." Vin shuddered as he recalled the nightmarish hike through the crowded streets. "Can't breath right 'cause every breath I take taste like it's been in someone else's mouth. And everywhere I look, there's a body or a building blocking my way. Makes me feel closed in. Trapped. I look around and all I see are strangers staring back at me. I...I feel..."

"Lost? Alone?"

Vin ducked his head. "Sounds stupid I know. How can a person be alone or lost surrounded by an entire city?"

"It's easier than you think. And tomorrow you're going to have to go back out there without your friends to shield you." Chris leaned forward and lifted the small, wooden dragon that Vin had placed on the table beside the bed. "But you will have this." The mercenary held the carved figurine up so that the light reflected from the blue, gemstone eyes. "And wherever you go, you'll never be truly alone."

Vin reached out and closed his hand around the dragon. "And if I get lost?"

Chris smiled. "Then I'll find you."


"Bysha, I can't...*yawn* believe I ate *yawn* the whole...zzzzzzzzzzz"