By the glow of candlelight, Milas Treelane pressed his signet ring into the hot candle wax on the envelope. The family heirloom left a distinctive mark – a letter T surrounded by oak leaves. He tossed the message on the pile of mail for the morning courier and rubbed his eyes. No more queries to answer, requests to make, or reports to read. All the Merchant Guild’s business was done. With tired satisfaction, the Halfling sighed, causing the candle to flicker. Shadows flitted around the room, just as a sudden knock at the door made him jump.
Shades! Who would that be at this time of night? He listened again. Three soft taps followed by a loud one. With an effort, he pried his small stout frame from his sitting room chair and shuffled his bare feet across the hardwood floor. He slid the shutter over the peephole aside and peered through.
“Riasean,” he said. After lifting the latch, he tugged the door open. “You made it back quickly.”
Clad in a worn leather jerkin over his heavy linen shirt, high leather riding boots, and buckskin pants, Riasean snaked his tall, lithe frame through the small doorway into the house. The angled eyes snapped to Milas. “Well, as you say, time is money.” He ran a hand through his disheveled hair, revealing pointed ears that betrayed his elvish heritage.
Milas pushed the door shut. “True enough. I trust you had no problems.”
“No more than expected,” Riasean replied. He glanced about the room, his eyes scrutinizing the bookcase in the sitting room.
The Halfling moved toward a side hallway and motioned for Riasean to follow. The Elf trailed Milas into the next room, which turned out to be the kitchen. “Take a seat,” Milas said heading to the pantry.
Riasean found a stool to sit on. His eyes wandered about the room until they settled on the flames in the fireplace. Milas opened the pantry and pulled out some bread and butter. “Would you care to eat?”
“No, thank you,” Riasean replied. “But could you put some tea on?”
“Ah, I was just thinking of having some myself.” He set the bread and butter down on the kitchen table, filled a teapot and hung it in the fireplace. Silence permeated the room, except for the crackle of the fire. It was soon joined by a slow scraping noise as Milas spread the butter slowly on a piece of bread. In low tones, he asked, “So how did it go?”
Riasean gave him a sidelong glance. “Do you really want to know?”
Milas paused. “No, I guess not.” He tilted his head to one side, “But what did Arnor do after he read my note?”
“Talk mostly,” Riasean said, yawning. Milas smiled, and his eyes twinkled. “Tried to bargain his way out, didn’t he?”
Riasean nodded with pursed lips.
“You did what I asked you to?”
Riasean raised an eyebrow. “When I take on a job, I always follow through. No exceptions.”
“Good answer. That is why I hired you,” Milas replied with a smile. He waited, but the Elf said nothing more. The Halfling twirled the signet ring on his finger and cleared his throat. “Have you got it?”
“Of course,” Riasean replied. He reached into his jerkin and pulled out a small gold ring.
Milas’ eyes widened. The Elf dropped the ring into the Halfling’s outstretched hand. On the flat side of the signet ring was a letter F, surrounded by tea leaves. “Oh yes,” Milas soothed. “This is Arnor’s ring all right. Did he like my note?”
“Not particularly,” Riasean replied. He sat back with folded arms, “It certainly made things more complicated than they needed to be.”
Milas shrugged. “That is why I paid extra for special delivery.”
Riasean sniffed. “True, no arguments; it was your choice.”
A grin spread over Milas’ face as he continued to stare at the ring. “Serves the old fool right for undercutting me on that grain deal.”
Riasean shifted in his seat. “I trust this satisfies the terms of our contract?”
Milas stared until he comprehended what Riasean said. His hand snapped shut on the ring. “I suppose you want to get paid now?”
“Yes,” Riasean answered glancing at the fireplace. “I want to be in Tenoach tomorrow, and I have another package to deliver tonight.”
Milas blinked. “So soon? That was quick.” He dropped the ring into his breast pocket and gave it a reassuring pat.
“Well, sometimes opportunities just present themselves.”
Milas laughed. “Yes, I understand that well. Mind if I ask who the recipient is?”
Riasean shrugged. “Sorry. I can’t tell you. Professional courtesy. You do understand?”
“Yes, I do. Reputation is everything.”
Milas took a bite of his bread. “Indeed.” He chewed, then raised a finger. “I’ll be right back with your money.” He slid off his chair and hobbled into the sitting room. With a glance back to make sure Riasean did not follow him; he reached into the bookshelf and slid out a book titled “Medicinal Herbs.” In the empty slot on the bookshelf sat a small leather pouch. He pulled this out and replaced the book. Too bad for Arnor. He ought to have backed off on that grain deal; it would have been cheaper for everyone. However, my loss is just a pittance to his.
Upon returning to the kitchen, he found Riasean was pouring water from the tea kettle into two cups.
The Elf spoke without looking at him. “The water was getting ready to boil.”
Milas nodded then held up the bag of coins. “Here’s your payment, as we agreed.” He dropped the bag with a noisy clink on the table and sat down.
Riasean pushed a cup in front of the Halfling and sat down as well.
Milas waited for the Elf to examine the money pouch, but Riasean made no effort to. He nodded toward it. “Aren’t you going to count the payment?”
“In a moment,” Riasean replied. “But first some tea.”
“You are a trusting sort. Never suspected that,” Milas replied with a chuckle. He glanced into his cup. Green leaves floated on the surface. “Oh, camellia leaves. My favorite.”
“Yes,” Riasean replied, cradling his teacup with both hands.
Milas picked his up and swirled it around, sniffing the aroma. “A bit different than I remember, though.”
“Special blend,” Riasean said and took a swallow from his cup.
The Halfling shrugged. “It’s been a while, though.” He sipped the cup, and the familiar bittersweet flavor graced his tongue, along with something else. “Tastes like almonds.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Riasean said staring at his cup. “But I don’t drink tea, much.”
Milas took another swallow, and the almond flavor filled his mouth. “Where did you say you got this?” He asked. Feeling a bit light headed, he leaned heavily on the table.
“I didn’t,” Riasean replied, his eyes now fixed on Milas. “If you must know, I got it from Arnor.”
The room seems to be slightly moving as Milas stared at Riasean. “From Arnor?”
The Halfling slumped forward as his stomach lurched, and he suddenly wished Riasean would leave. “Aren’t you late for your other job?”
Riasean put his cup down, and Milas saw that it was only water. “No, I’m done for the night.”
Sweat poured down Milas’ face as he caught himself. “What do you mean? You haven’t left yet.”
“Didn’t need to,” Riasean replied, his eyes glinting.