In which a tale is told and some thieves taught a lesson.
"Thievery," the black-garbed man remarked, "is a much-neglected art."
And everyone in the tavern looked around, grinned, and settled in with their drinks to listen.
"Interesting observation, Jedar. There's a story to go along with it, I presume?" a man at a nearby table said.
"A story? Well – if you really want one." And Jedar leaned back in his seat, took a drink of ale, and started talking.
"It was down west in Saldaea. I was Hunting along with a young woman calling herself Ahi – maybe some of you know her? Pretty girl, carries two swords, talks at a rate of maybe a word a month -"
"If she was travelling with you, Jedar, I'm surprised she got that much in," one man called out. The comment, and the laughter and catcalls that followed, received only a lazy grin for response.
"At any rate, Ahi set a record for silences. The only time I ever heard two words in succession from her was the time I bet everyone I could make her say three – and I never tried that bet again. During all of what I'm about to tell you about, she never said a thing. It was in one of those taverns – you know, the ones where everyone looks suspicious of everyone and no one appreciates a good story."
He stretched, settled in again and continued.
"I was trying to make conversation with a few of them when an old friend of mine walked in. Any of you ever heard of Jarim Knifehand? No? Jarim has the quickest hand and the sharpest blade of any man I've ever met – he threw knives with Shandra once, the green-eyed girl they call the Rose with Thorns, and lost by half a fly. Long story. You have heard of Shandra, I take it? I thought so – she has a tendency to make an impression on people.
"So when Jarim came in, we had a drink and swapped news about the Horn. He hadn't had any luck, he said. I had a bit more of a story to tell him." The black-clad Hunter's eyes took on a sudden gleam.
"You see, I'd been travelling a whole lot up to then – from down south of Illian right up to the foothills of the Mountains of Dhoom. I bargained with Domani, politicked with Cairhienin and argued logic with sisters of the White Ajah. And I found – I found -" He paused, and everyone leaned forward, eyes wide. "I found -"
"What?" the man at the nearby table demanded. The crowd seemed to be holding its collective breath.
Jedar's grin was positively manic. "Nothing!"
Everyone slumped back into their seats.
"Jedar – that was cruel."
"That's roughly what he said, too," Jedar replied with a shrug. "Then he burst out laughing. But there were a few more people listening, and they didn't think it was quite so funny. I noticed a shadow – looked up – and there were a quartet of block-shaped men with "thug" written all over them. They didn't think much of my story, and they wanted some compensation for having to listen.
"Well, there were four of them and one of me, so I let them have my purse."
"What?" the man nearby said again. He looked disappointed, an expression shared by most of the listeners. "Jedar, you didn't."
"I'd have been a lot more annoyed about it," the Hunter went on, "if I hadn't been so distracted by what was going on behind them. You see, while they'd been glaring at me, Jarim had slipped up behind them, and he was using that nice sharp knife of his to slit their purses."
His audience burst out laughing.
Jedar shook his head in mock disbelief. "I swear it, that man has hands faster than a striking snake. He got everything halfway valuable from their belts and pockets, and even the rings off their fingers, without them ever noticing a thing. And if I hadn't been looking straight at him, I wouldn't have noticed either.
"So they left, with my purse – and a very poor bargain it was too, for I'd lost most of my money betting that I could get Ahi to talk – and we sat down again and counted up our new-found wealth. Those thugs must have been stealing from a few people before us, because to cut a long story short, we're now considerably rich Hunters."
Scattered applause came from the crowd at the tale's conclusion.
"So what happened to Jarim and Ahi?" the man at the nearby table said finally. "Did you split up after you left Saldaea?"
"Hmm? Well, not exactly." Jedar's expression was bland. "Have you checked your purse lately?"
The man blinked, then put his hand to his purse – or rather, where his purse should have been. Everyone in the tavern gaped. Then looked around.
Leaning against the tavern door, one on either side, were two figures. One, though half-hidden by the shadows, was clearly a young woman, and everyone could see the two swords across her back.
The other took a step forward, looking amused. A heavy purse dangled from his hand for a moment, then described a perfect arc to the table in front of the startled man.
"Don't mind us, friends," he called. "Just keeping in practice."