Excerpt: Decision Time

* AUTHOR’S NOTE: Another out-of-sequence excerpt from my fictional short-story…the editing is much more fun than the NaNoWriMo daily word-count grind was!

Sepultur’a walks across the cobbled bridge towards the tavern. It is still early enough that the marketplace is bustling with shoppers, so the tavern is virtually empty when she walks in. She was expected, though; Evesori is sitting at a table near the fireplace, along with the guild-leader and a young man who is deep in conversation with the guild-leader. Evesori is wearing tight breeches, thigh-high leather riding boots, and a corseted top with short, ruffled sleeves and a halter-styled, linen bodice with a lacy décolletage. As usual, her breasts seem to be in danger of over-spilling the low-cut top – Sepultur’a wonders if Evesori uses some sort of small magic spell to keep her clothes on. The guild-leader is wearing a black suit with a white shirt underneath. The shirt has a ruffled collar, fastened with a small ruby brooch. His face is uncovered and he sips a deep red wine from a golden goblet. His hair is brown and cut in a style that Sepultur’a associates with soldiers and the military. His face is thin and clean-shaven, with a mildly vulpine appearance, but he is not unattractive. His eyes are still intensely piercing, although a bit less so since his full countenance is finally visible. Sepultur’a figures that the cowl he was wearing when she first saw him simply made his gaze far more distinct than normal. She takes a relaxing breath, smiles, and approaches their table. A fourth chair stands empty, as if waiting for her. She walks a bit closer, then stands quietly and waits. The guild-leader is just finishing his conversation with the young man, who is wearing the rough sack-cloth garb of the village-folk. Sepultur’a notes the young man’s form as he stands, shaking hands with the guild-leader. This other recruit has the tall, muscular build of a wood-hewer, quite similar to Endymion’s.

“Well then, Theo – it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! Welcome to our little family,” the guild-leader is saying as he shakes the young man’s hand. “Please be sure to visit the bank as soon as you can, and let the moneylender know that you have joined our ranks. They will provide you with a small sum of money from our coffers, as well as the tabard that you will be expected to wear at our formal gatherings. You will be notified beforehand which meetings are formal and which are not.” Theo grins and salutes smartly. “Aye, sir – hail and well met! ‘tis a right pleasure to have made your acquaintance. Me da’ will be happy to hear of this development. This oafish son of his will make him proud, yet!” The guild-leader sees Sepultur’a standing there and waves her closer. “Ah – here is another one. I hope that she brings good news, as well?” He gestures to the empty chair, bidding her to sit as he turns to Evesori. “Evie, my dear…would you kindly escort young Theo to the bank and assist him?” He drops a wink. “We wouldn’t want him to be wearing the wrong colours now, would we?” Evesori jumps up and links her arm with Theo’s, pressing close to him. Theo’s eyes widen at the generous view this provides, and grins a bit foolishly as she steers him to the door. “As you wish, milord,” she purrs as she leaves, dropping a similar wink at Sepultur’a as she passes.

Sepultur’a smiles, a bit hesitantly, then sits down in the chair indicated by the guild-leader. He sips his drink, then looks at her expectantly. “Well, seeing you return is most welcome. Please, don’t keep me in suspense – have you come to join our family?” He smiles in a friendly manner, eyes crinkling pleasantly at the corners. Sepultur’a smiles in return, choosing her words carefully. “Well, I had a couple of questions to ask of you, before I render my decision…if that is acceptable with you, that is?” She hesitates, then finishes: “I don’t mean any disrespect, nor am I trying to pry into affairs which are none of my business, but I need a few, minor things clarified.” She presses her hands together, almost in supplication, as she says this – it is something that she has done since she was a small child, and is an unconscious action on her part. He beams broadly, noting her gesture and chuckling to himself as he answers her aloud. “I would question your intellect if you didn’t have questions,” he replies easily. “People who ask questions tend to be smarter than most, and those who would join a group without question are those that don’t stay around long.” He takes another sip of his drink, savoring it. “Ask your questions, please,” he says, fixing his penetrating gaze on her. “I will answer them to the best of my ability.”

Sepultur’a takes a breath, clearing her thoughts, then presses forth. “Well, first of all – I have to ask, is your guild based here, in this town or this land? I have familial obligations back in my homeland, and wouldn’t be able to relocate here permanently.” She smiles almost apologetically. “Any guild that I join would have to allow me that freedom – I hope that is understandable.” He sips at his drink as she speaks, eyes half-closed as he listens. “That is an excellent question, and one that I don’t think anyone has posed to me before.” He opens his eyes, peering at her as if seeing her clearly for the first time. A gentler smile curves his thin lips. “Family ties and obligations are things that most people seem to run from – at least, in my experience.” He sets his drink down and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms. “You have nothing to fear, milady,” he states firmly. “If you already have a permanent home, then you will always be free to return to it whenever you need to. Just know that loyalty to your guild-family is expected – if any of your guild-brothers or -sisters are in need of your help, and your blood-family needs it not, then be prepared to defend the guild as you would your own kin.” He takes up his drink once more. “Of course, if your kin need you before we do, then there would be no question that you should return home and see to their health and well-being.” He smiles at her again, then sips from the cup. “Priorities must always be met,” he finishes.

Sepultur’a is pleased by this, and can barely contain her joy. Her head whirls; could it really be so easy? The other questions she had thought to be important seem to fade from her thoughts. She beams happily as she says, “Well, then; I confess that is the sole question of concern which needed to be asked. I must confess; If you had responded negatively, then I would have gracefully and respectfully declined your honourable invitation. As it stands, I see no reason why I shouldn’t accept, so…” she proffers her hand to shake his and solidify her acceptance. He looks at her hand, then sets his drink down and stands, staring at her with an inscrutable expression. He moves quickly to her side, kneeling and taking her hand in both of his, kissing it softly and lightly stroking her fingers with one of his. “You are no coarse lad, milady…a mere handshake isn’t sufficient for one of your grace, beauty, and gentle nature.” He gazes into her eyes with that same mysterious expression. “You are a lady of refinement who seeks to find herself. Our guild, our family, will help you.” He stands, gently guiding her to her feet as well, and bows low before her. “Welcome to our little family, milady. It is an honour to have you join us.” He releases her hand and bids her sit again, but it is she who bows low to him. “I thank you, many times over. This means a great deal to me,” she says. “However, I do have an obligation to fulfil on the morrow, and hope that it doesn’t interfere with any…family business. Guild-family, of course – not my blood-kin.” He smiles and reseats himself, gesturing for her to continue. She sits as well. “I have to enter a lair of spiders. It is far underground, just on the edge of the swamps of the lizard-folk to the far south.” She waits for a response. When he doesn’t speak, she presses on. “I had joined a guild of adventurers just yesterday; they extended their invitation before I met your…family, and didn’t expect that you would recruit me as well. There isn’t an issue with me belonging to another guild alongside of yours, is there?” Realizing that this is one of the other questions she had meant to ask, she looks at him, a worried expression crossing her face in spite of herself. He smiles reassuringly. “Not at all, milady, not at all…in fact, I might know of this spider-den that you mention. I just might have braved it myself, in the not-too-distant past, and…” he pulls a bit of folded parchment from a hidden pocket of his suit-jacket and sets it on the table. “…and, I just might have drawn a map of it so that I wouldn’t get lost in there, on the off-chance that I would have need to return to it.” His smile widens, exposing shockingly white teeth. “There are many fabled treasures there, ripe for the taking – and there is more than enough for any and all adventurers who brave its depths. If you need our help there, you have only to ask.” He takes up his cup again, draining the last bit of drink from it.

Sepultur’a sits quietly for a moment, not daring to speak. She can’t believe her good fortune – acceptance in not one, but two guilds! She now has the chance to prove herself to her family and make a name for herself. A chance to mold herself into the type of woman that would make Endymion proud. She smiles, her eyes shining softly in the light from the fireplace. “Thank you,” she says fervently. “I will do all that I can to do the family proud.” He looks at her, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “I have a question or two that I would ask of you,” he states, waving at the bartender and indicating that he would like two drinks to be served. Sepultur’a raises her eyebrows, surprised that he would be interested in anything about her. He leans forward in a conspiratorial manner. “I don’t know your name – and you haven’t asked mine. How did we manage to forget that little formality, I wonder?” His eyes bore into hers again. “I…I’m sorry – I didn’t even think to ask; I didn’t think that it was my place to do so,” she stammers, embarrassed at her lapse of courtesy. “Please forgive my forgetfulness!” She stands and bows low again, speaking as she does so. “I am called Sepultur’a by my family and friends,” she states. “How should I address you?” she inquires, not certain if calling him “milord” would be sufficient or even acceptable. Only Evesori appears to refer to him in that manner, from what Sepultur’a has observed thus far. He smiles at her, easing her worry. “Please – call me Draven. Lord Draven or Master Draven is acceptable during formal gatherings…but still a bit fussy for my tastes.” He shrugs, almost apologetically. “We aren’t stuck on many formalities, but some ceremonies and gatherings require it.” Sepultur’a sighs quietly and relaxes, glad that she didn’t offend him. The serving-girl comes over to the table, carrying a tray that bears two wine-glasses and an iridescent pitcher. She sets the glasses on the table, then pours a bit of mead into each glass, filling them halfway. She sets the pitcher on the table, then curtsies and leaves after accepting a bit of coin from Draven. Draven takes one of the glasses and offers it to Sepultur’a, who accepts it with a smile. He takes up the other and raises it to her, lightly touching the edge of his glass with her own. “A small toast to you, Sepultur’a – I say again, welcome!” He takes a small sip, and she does the same. The drink is a sweet mead that she doesn’t think that she’s tasted before, so she sips again, letting the flavor run across her tongue. He watches her intently as she does this, a mysterious smile playing across his lips.

Another question pops into her head, and she is asking it before she has time to think about it. “Speaking of ceremonies – is there some formal ceremony that takes place for those of us who are new recruits? I’ve always wondered what a guild initiation is like.” He smiles at her eagerness. “Indeed, there is,” he says, draining his glass and then refilling it, and pouring a bit more into Sepultur’a’s glass as well. Taking up the glass again, he swirls the mead slightly, then sips again. “But, that won’t take place for another two weeks. You will get a formal invitation within the next few days, and Evesori or another member of the family will assist you with procuring a tabard – but it is late, so that can wait. In fact,” he continues, “You can get a tabard after you receive your formal invitation. Since you have an underground adventure ahead of you, we might as well wait and see if you are successful with it first!” He toasts her again, fixing her with another direct stare. “I’m certain that you will have no troubles, though…” he trails off, his eyes scanning her face. “You seem to be a lady who can handle herself quite capably.” He looks down into his glass. “I haven’t encountered a personality as quietly formidable as yours for quite some time,” he muses, more to himself than aloud.

A few hours later, Draven gallantly escorts a very tipsy Sepultur’a back to Ingvar’s inn. Evesori watches him with narrowed eyes as he leaves the tavern with the new recruit. Her annoyance is palpable, even though she says nothing aloud to the others at her table. She merely scowls momentarily, drains her mug of ale and calls for another, then leans up against Theo and strokes his burly chest, nestling her head against his shoulder. Theo is halfway to drunk himself, but not blindly so. He stares down Evesori’s gaping blouse, enjoying the generous view she is providing him. That view is apparent to anyone and everyone who walks past their table, but Theo doesn’t give two shits about it. He is happy to have her hanging on him while the guild-master tends to the other new recruit…

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