| There was only one way out. But one would have to weave his way through the taproom filled to bursting with drunken mercenaries. Not the ideal scenario for any man stuck in the farthest corner from the exit, much less for a woman.
Of course the drunken men might not recognize her for what she was. After all, women in these days actually looked like woman with all of their soft curves and wide hips. And large breasts. She, on the other hand, had none of these things. Whipcord thin and on the tall side of five feet, she had broader shoulders than hips and did not look the part of a lady. She didn’t mind though; her trade was easier done in the guise of a cloaked male.
It was her trade that had brought her to the farthest corner of this musty and noisy tavern. In fact, she was still awaiting the arrival of her client, a man by the name of Archer. In his correspondence he said he was dark haired and tall. Though there were plenty dark haired, tall mercenaries making quite the racket in the taproom, she assumed Archer would arrive in an appropriate state to make business arrangements. She pulled the cloak tighter around her head and tucked an errant strand of hair back into her hood. She began picking dirt from under her fingernails. Archer needed to hurry up.
The scrape of a wooden chair across the wooden floor gave pause to her idle activities. She was met with the appreciative sight of an attractive young man who was dark haired and tall and sober.
“Archer I presume.” She said in her lowest whisper. It was easier to do business when the client remained unaware of her sex.
“Erin.” He answered with the pseudonym she had provided in the letter detailing their rendezvous point.
She noted with little interest that Archer had the sort of arresting green eyes and strong jaw that made women flock around men. His type was cliché, arrogant, and nearly impossible to work with.
“Here are my rules,” Erin began. She knew it was best with this type of alpha male to get straight to business instead of employing her usual preliminary game of polite conversation. “I charge about forty gold for this sort of work. Plus an investment of fifteen silver, rounds not pennies, before I begin. This covers any costs of travel or disguise. I don’t torture.”
“I wouldn’t expect any less. Your references are impeccable,” He replied.
“Who is it then?”
“You could say an old friend of mine. He’s a count or a duke of the land next to the junction of the Helm and Heather rivers. A popular trading area. He’s planning something. Some have said he’s smuggling weapons in, exotic ones, though no one has been able to get a concrete answer.” The end of Archer's statement lilted with his implied request.
“I’ll have your information within a fortnight.” She answered.
Archer handed over a small leather satchel. “That is the initial payment then. And we have a deal.” Archer offered his hand, but as a rule she never shook hands. She had surgeon fingers, delicate. They would be a giveaway if she touched his calloused ones. A muscle in Archer's jaw ticked at her blunt refusal; he retracted his hand.
“One last condition,” Erin said. “Get me past the mercenaries, to the door.”
Archer looked amused. “And why is it that a trained spy and reputable assassin would need my help traversing a taproom?”
She responded with an upward curl of her lip. She couldn’t stand mockery, least of all from a handsome, haughty man. “They’re all obscenely drunk. They are all obscenely drunk mercenaries.” She hoped that would be explanation enough.
Erin led the way, while Archer took a guard’s position at her back. They had almost reached the only exit when her shoulder lightly brushed the arm of a particularly large and angry looking mercenary. The usual drunken fight ensued.
She had been right of course, about the volatile nature of the taproom crowd. Archer managed to spin her away before a ham-shaped fist invaded the space her body had vacated. She found that she was being pressed quite forcefully into a wall, the hard planes of his body insistent on the willowy ones of hers. A long lock of hair escaped from the hood of her cloak, but Archer was staring intently at her face. There was no expression of shock on his features. No disgust over her lack of a feminine figure. She raised her eyebrows defiantly. So what if he had known from the start that she was woman? She would just have to be even more discrete with their arrangement.
“If you so much as tell a soul— ”
He interrupted. “Why on earth would a woman choose a taproom in the most dangerous part of the city to meet for the arrangement of an illegal spying detail?”
“That's not your concern.”
His features were a mask of incredulity. “Look at your face. It’s obvious what you are. No man is that beautiful. You’re lucky everyone here was drunk. Otherwise... nevermind. Let’s just get you out, yes?” Archer gripped her shoulders and thrust her toward the door.
Once in the darkness of the street, where her blush was hidden, she was more comfortable. She didn't care much for being called beautiful.
“I’ll check in with you every evening then, to make sure you’re all right?” He was too insistent. The long blade of her nose crinkled in distaste.
“I’ll see you in a fortnight. I’ll tell you what I’ve found out about your Count. You will pay me forty gold. And then I disappear until you find a need for my services again.” She whisked away in the darkness with an angry flap of her cloak. Never again, she thought, will I ever host a meeting where there is only one way out.