Chapter 12 Part 3: Mr. Mystery Man
Approximately one year ago...
The tavern air was warm and thick with the smell of beer. Chatter built up as a wall of sound all around. At the back of the room, a small band kept feet tapping and heads bobbing to a quick, steady beat as the fiddler and his melodies danced over the song. Burning lamps hung overhead from the vaulted ceiling, keeping the room alight as night fell. Vibrant red rugs lined the walls, displaying several different patterns and pictures in their brightly colored threads. The wall art distracted from the stained wood floors that had seen too many spills and too many fights - as scratches marked where tables and chairs were pushed and bumped. And at the center table, in a bar filled with thieves and rowdy characters, sat James. Though no one there knew him by that name.
His hair was longer, reaching just below his chin, while the top half was tied up in a short ponytail atop his head. He had a full beard and wore a smile at all times, and he was laughing.
Sitting beside him at the round table was a dark haired woman with her hair pulled back into a long, full ponytail. She wore light leather armor and kept a sword at her side. She was laughing with him and shaking her head.
"I swear I'm so sick of hearing about these dragon myths and all this wackjob Letteran fiction," she spouted. "They keep acting like the ‘gods’ will return to us. Milan yesterday was tellin' me how back in Lettera they even got shrines for 'em. Like they're really that serious."
The red-haired woman beside her rolled her eyes. "Of course they are, Bel. 'Cause the dragons are real."
"Oh yeah, Mona? Then how come we've never seen 'em?" James retorted.
Ramona stuck out her tongue. Her brother Hoss sat at the fourth corner of the table and shifted in his seat, causing the chair to squeal across the floor as he pushed it and leaned back. He looked on James with disapproval.
"You've heard the stories, idiot. It's more than just myth," he said in a low voice.
Bella scoffed and gave James a pat on the back. "You're just salty that Liam's a skeptic like me. And of course, you're uh," her eyes looked him up and down. "A Teran."
Hoss's upper lip wrinkled, and he shot a glare at James. "No. He knows what I'm salty about."
An awkward silence fell over the four as Hoss's gaze pierced through James's conscience, and James cleared his throat, a smile coming to his face as a carefully thought out habit of Liam's character. "Geez, with that kind of intensity you'd think he's actually seen a dragon," Liam spoke, pulling at the collar of his jacket with a nervous flick of his eyes towards Bella.
Bella eagerly took the opportunity to clear the air. "Oh yeah, isn't that right?" Bella smiled, turning to Ramona, instead of her still glaring brother. "Your grandmother saw a dragon once, right? Which one was it again? Svida? Ivar?"
Ramona tried to smile in return, but her attempt was weak. "Oh, yes, yeah. She saw... Ivar..." her voice trailed off into a quiet mumble as her eyes focused in on someone behind Bella and James. The two turned around at the same time, looking up to see Rita: a tall, slim woman with dark skin and dreads tied up behind a bandana. Faint smile lines and frown lines creased her face alike, and at the moment, she was wearing a smile - but not the kind that was friendly. She reached out and put a hand on James's shoulder.
"I just need to steal him away for a moment," she said to the others. James took his cue and got up, giving Bella a playful shoulder punch goodbye before turning and following Rita through the bustling crowds of the tavern until they slipped out the back door.
As soon as the door closed behind them, the cloud of sound surrounding them became muffled, and the stark comparable silence made James nervous.
Rita didn't usually pull him aside to talk alone. Ever since he'd joined her gang under the guise of Liam, everything seemed to be going well, or at least, well in the sense that no one had discovered his true identity. In a gang full of thieves, somehow he'd managed to hide in plain sight. Whether it was because he looked different enough from his posters, or because he had already been on the run so long that his name was forgotten in the passing of time, he'd thought himself lucky. Even though he'd been roped in and joining was far from voluntary, it was at least, better than being killed or caught.
Which was why the look on Rita's face made him even more nervous. She gestured to the small table on the back patio, and the two stump-like stools. As the clamor of the tavern became noise in the background, he began to hear the chirping of crickets and the humming of other insects. The warm, humid air stuck to him like a layer of sweat, and the half-moon above provided sufficient light along with the single torch by the door.
He took a seat, watching her closely while maintaining his cheerful exterior.
Wordlessly, she bent down and reached under the table. As she pulled the journal up and placed it in front of him, his heart dropped into his stomach, and he stared at his leatherbound secrets in her hands. Their eyes met.
"I decided to figure out where you were sneaking off to every night," Rita explained, her voice cool as a smile tugged at her lips. The look of someone who had the upper hand. "And it's clever. Your hiding place, that is. It's too bad I'm good at finding valuable items... being a thief and all." She turned the journal around in her hands for a moment, and James watched in agonizing silence.
"I've noticed you getting antsy, but I want to keep you around," she said, bringing her eyes up again to meet his. "So here's the deal. You keep helping us on heists, and I'll keep your little secret, Tiberius."
James was passed out in the grass.
Small dim flecks of light patterned his face as the moon shone through the trees overhead, and she watched him from a distance. Even with his eyes closed and his chest rising and falling peacefully, he looked a lot rougher than she'd ever seen him. He'd briefly attempted to clean up his hair a bit so it looked less like a part of the forest floor, and as he rested it swept back and away from his forehead.
Despite her attempts to help him get more comfortable, he'd brushed her off and fallen asleep almost instantly as soon as he'd laid down on the ground. They'd stopped in what she was sure was just a random spot in the forest, despite James ordering them to like it was intentional.
She had noticed him slumping in the saddle. He was probably just exhausted, which she could understand. She felt exhausted too, even though she wasn't struggling as much to keep her eyes open.
Getting knocked out cold didn't count as sleep. Not in a way that was restful, anyway. She still didn't know exactly how many hours she lost, but she hadn't slept since she started her search for Matt. James. She shook her head at herself. Already, there were too many names to keep up with.
She busied herself with taking care of the horses. As much as James needed a break, they did too, so she made sure to take off their saddles and all the weight they were carrying around. She brushed them slowly and carefully, letting each stroke act as a repetitive movement to calm her. She'd started with Elliot and then worked on Billy - not because Elliot was her favorite, but because she wanted to take her time with Billy. With Elliot out of the way, she felt she could finally stop and think.
Which might not have been a good idea, because as soon as she stopped to do so, a downpour of worries washed over her.
She brushed through Billy's mane. She tried to focus on his steady breathing, or on his slow chewing of some plant below, but she kept finding herself looking back at James.
She was out in the middle of the forest with a stranger, and not just any stranger: a man wanted for treason against his kingdom. She didn't know what parts of him were genuine and what parts of him were just an act to keep a low profile - or whatever he was doing as "Matt." Nothing about him seemed sure anymore. Even the few things he'd said in his sleepy haze, if honest, were all vague and left her with more questions than she had answers. She wanted to believe he was being honest with her, but she worried that the two of them had broken their trust in a way that was irreparable.
She'd invaded his privacy, but he'd lied about who he was entirely. Maybe she deserved it. If she'd just kept her curiosity to herself, she and James would still be Clandestine and Matt, and when they ran into Alexander... well...
Clandestine sighed and took a step forward, pressing her head against Billy's neck. She wouldn't be able to sleep until more things were settled. She turned around and looked down at James once again, but this time walked up to him and stopped at his feet.
James had told her to wake him up before sundown so she could get some sleep too. So she inched forward and poked him in the side with her boot. His eyes immediately shot open, which caused her to flinch away, but he didn't move or say anything. She looked over at Billy, who gave her no aid in deciphering James's state of alertness, and she shrugged. She bent down and waved a hand over his face. No response.
She decided to poke him in the side a few more times with her boot.
"I'm up," he finally said, his voice sounding rough, like a low growl. "You can sleep now," he added as he slowly sat up.
Clandestine frowned and looked down at her shoes. "I know that. But..." she cleared her throat, keeping her voice quiet. "What are we doing after this? We can't go monster hunting again, can we?"
James stared up at her with a blank look. She was beginning to think that maybe that was his normal look instead of the smiling eyes she'd grown used to.
"Can we talk about this after you sleep?" he asked.
Clandestine sighed. "I don't think I can unless I know what's going on," she said as she got down and sat down beside him. She noticed how he subtly tried to inch away and stopped as soon as she saw. She managed to muster the weakest of grins as she looked over at him, but it faded as soon as it came.
"Do you know where we are?" she asked.
He looked over to the horses. "Roughly. I'm familiar with this forest."
She nodded. "You also looked at your maps, huh."
Both of them simultaneously looked at the papers sticking out of his pant pocket. He hesitantly reached for them before his hand course corrected and rested in his lap.
"Uh, yeah," he responded.
Clandestine hummed in thought. "So where are you planning on going?"
James was silent for a moment before his gaze drifted to her. She met his eyes, and tucked her legs up to her chest, holding them.
"Do you really want to come with me?"
She blinked. The question caught her by surprise. She hadn't thought he would even give her a choice, with how adamantly he insisted she shouldn't have come in the first place. She knew that she liked being with him, even if he was a little more cold as of late. She wanted to get to know the real him. She really did. But her stomach squirmed as she thought of the uncertainty of their future, and what that would even look like if she stuck with him, if he actually wanted here there, or if he was just asking out of obligation or courtesy. When she thought about how little she knew of him, and how many things could go wrong, or right, she wasn't sure.
"I... I don't think I know," she whispered.
He looked away. He pulled out a map from his pocket and started to unfold it. "Then we can head to Ruddlan. We can split off there. The least I can do is make sure you make it back to civilization safe-"
She put a hand on his shoulder to stop him, but the moment she did she realized it was the wounded shoulder. He stopped speaking abruptly and looked down at her hand. She lifted it off with an involuntary apologetic smile, but she didn't want to be smiling for what she said next. She wanted him to know she meant it and wasn't just saying it to be 'nice.' She took a deep breath to reset her face.
"I'll make sure you get there safely too."
Their eyes locked for a second - and for the briefest of moments, she felt... a connection. Until he dropped his eyes to the ground again in the physical equivalent of a mumble. Clandestine watched and waited quietly for some kind of response, but changed her mind after a few seconds.
She hopped up to her feet and hurried over to their bags that rested against the trees the horses were tied to. With a bounce in her steps, she reached into her bag and pulled out James's hat, then ran over to him with a growing smile. Before he could say anything in protest, she put the hat on his head and wiped her hands together at a job well done.
"There!" she teased. "You look weird without your hat. Now uh," she plopped back down beside him and sighed. "I think I’m gonna sleep now."