* * *
Kamaria sat across from Talib and pushed bread around her earthen flatware. The olive oil had soaked into the rough bread a while ago and it left shiny trails on her plate. Well, she thought, not her plate. She looked across the table at Talib and each child at her side. Her eyes shifted first to the child to her right, then to another child to her left. These last four children now shared a bond with her. Their parents had fallen in the battle against the bandit horde. The pair next to Talib was brother and sister, but the children on the bench next to her were orphans with no one to comfort them.
Talib pushed his plate away and cracked the bones in his neck. First to the left, and then to the right. “I must look for Jezebel,” he declared and rose to his feet.
Kamaria met his gaze. “You’d abandon us?” she asked, a lilt in her voice betraying her disbelief.
Talib sighed. “I have to rescue Jezebel,” he insisted.
The feeling of betrayal from only days before washed over her. She clenched her jaw, her mind replaying the scene of Talib and Jezebel together in front of the fire. “I’m shocked that evil lurks in your soul, Talib,” she scoffed. “Only someone with evil is his heart would abandon five orphans and go chasing after that-“ Kamaria closed her eyes and tried to focus her rage. “Girl,” she continued.
Talib’s lips quirked into a crooked smile. “Evil?” he asked. “Then I guess doing a good thing sometimes means being evil.”
Kamaria slammed her palm against the table hard enough to make the plate jump. The flush that crept up her cheeks matched the pain that flowed along her arm. The orphans to either side of her flinched at her outburst. Talib returned to a sitting position and reached across the table, placing his callused hand over hers. She felt the heat from his body traverse the same synapses as the pain from only a moment ago. She blinked and slid her hand out from under his. She ignored the splinter she picked up in her palm, and clasped her hands below the table.
Her mind again wandered to the time in the Dawn Forest. Talib’s words hung like an albatross around her neck. She knew that Talib was not evil. In her heart of hearts, she also admitted that Jezebel was not evil either. A harlot, maybe, but not evil.
She sighed. “I’ve heard that the Marquis and the Denizens of Dawn are in our tiny village. Maybe you should leave the rescuing to the professionals.”
Talib opened his mouth to protest, but was interrupted by the shifting of their rough-hewn bench. Two women Kamaria’s age sat on each side of the increasingly crowded table. One seized the bread from Kamaria’s plate and popped the whole piece in her mouth.
The other tilted her head to the side, and admonished her companion. “Asis,” she hissed, “manners.”
Asis brushed crumbs from her tunic. She let out a loud belch, stood, stepped away from the table, and offered an insincere curtsy. Her eyes darted from one empty glass to another. She shrugged, grabbed the bowl of olive oil, and slurped loudly. The orphaned children snickered and even a scowl from Kamaria did nothing to prevent the chorus of giggles. Talib even allowed a smile to transform his stern features. Asis’s companion rolled her eyes.
“Relax, Jahan,” Asis declared as she settled back on the narrow bench. “The young lady merely provided the first round of negotiations.”
“Negotiations?” Kamaria inquired.
“For our services,” Asis insisted.
“Services?” Kamaria asked.
Asis swiveled her gaze to Talib. “Are you the keeper of our friend of few words here?”
Talib sputtered. “I doubt anyone would dare claim something like that to our Kamaria,” he declared and straightened his spine. His puffed-out chest wasn’t very intimidating, but Kamaria appreciated the gesture nonetheless.
Jahan shot Asis a withering glare. “We represent a militia for hire,” she declared.
Asis squeezed the arm of the closest orphan. “We’re also recruiting.” She looked at Talib. “You’re a bit old to join our ranks, but we could make an exception.”
“Your rabble hardly counts as a militia,” a baritone voice sounded over the din of the tavern. A man of average height strode to the table and placed his golden gauntleted hand on Jahan’s shoulder.
Kamaria examined the newcomer, and realization let up her face. “Mi’Lord,” she whispered. I knew the Denizens of Dawn were here, but I never imagined I’d meet the Marquis myself!”
Jahan scoffed. “Ejaz,” she hissed, “this is a private conversation.”
Kamaria looked from the Marquis to the impudent girl in front of her. Since the Marquis’s helm was resting on the hilt of his sword, she could see the family resemblance between the two. She glanced around the room, hoping to see Lady Zoraya. Her cheeks flushed with the realization that she was more interested in seeing his betrothed, rather than the Marquis of Dawn.
Kamaria locked eyes with Jahan’s. “I accept your offer of help,” she declared. She allowed a satisfied smile. “I’m skilled with the bow,” she announced.
Asis peeked beneath the table. “I see a quiver with-“ she pushed Kamaria’s quiver with her toe, “-three arrows.” She squinted. “Are those bat bones?” she queried, a smirk rising on her lips.
A look was exchanged between the Marquis and his sister. Jahan’s nod was almost imperceivable, but Kamaria’s keen eyes caught the exchange.
“Pili,” the Marquis of Dawn shouted.
A short, rotund, disheveled man pushed through the crowd. He had a quiver across his chest as well as his back, The Marquis reached into Pili’s quiver and offered three fine golden arrows to Kamaria. “Perhaps you should show your skill to my sister’s friend.”
Kamaria looked from the proffered arrows and back to Asis. She tried not to shrink from the man, but did a poor job.
Jahan interrupted. “You may keep the arrows regardless of any decisions.”
Kamaria took the arrows, gathered her gear and walked toward the tavern door. The eyes of all in attendance followed her. She paused and looked over her shoulder. “Well,” she projected her voice over the returning clamor, “you coming?”