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For Alex/Zanna/whatever you're calling yourself today. Happy Midwinter from Em, December 2001

Jordan walked quickly through twisting alleys and unnamed streets, his mud-spattered brown cloak flying out behind him. These were the places not even the King could get maps of - no one who knew them well enough to draw one would even consider selling their secrets. Thick mud and dust covered everything, and while the larger roads were lined with beggars, here there were only the children and the elderly, like living skeletons too weak to move. Long ago, he had numbed himself to the terrors of that hidden world. It was a necessity, as it had been necessary to increase the number of knives hidden among his clothes.
Just staying alive was becoming more difficult, and the messages he carried in their waterproof envelopes went unsigned more often than not. Something big was going to happen soon - even the people on the streets could sense a tension in the air that hadn’t been there a year ago. Even in broad daylight, very few people stopped to talk in the streets now, and in the rain men and women hurried to get wherever it was they needed to go, only stopping when it was impossible for them to continue forward. No one dared draw attention to themselves by tossing a few coins to beggars.
As the heavens truly opened up and the steady drizzle that had been going all night and morning suddenly became sheets of rain, Jordan stopped thinking to himself and began to run; waterproof envelopes were wonderful things, but even enchanted ones weren’t indestructible. Soon, he stood at the mouth of an alley, the buildings to either side looming up to block out the meager sunlight. Checking quickly that the message he carried was secure, he slipped a knife out of its hiding place and gripped it tightly as he plunged into the pit of shadows. An old man passing by a minute or two later heard a muffled thumping sound like a fist striking wood - three times, then once, then three times again. He’d already passed, though, when two soft clicks echoed faintly through the alley, as a door opened and closed on silent hinges.
Once inside, Jordan hung his dirty cloak on a hook by the fire. A young man moved ghostlike through the flickering firelight, bringing a number of maps and two mugs of hot cider over to the large, plain wooden table in the center of the room. His voice was gentle as he murmured, “It’s good to see you, old friend. Nasty day for you to come and visit, but I appreciate the thought.”
This was the game they played, the game they’d always played, and it suited them both to act out the normalcy that was sorely lacking in their everyday lives. “I said to myself today, ‘It’s been too long since I visited Simon, and he could probably use some cheering on a day like this,’ so here I am,” Jordan replied. “Besides, everyone who’s anyone knows you’re the best cook this side of the Semme.”
“Oh,” countered Simon, grinning, “so there are better cooks on the other side of the Semme? Is that what you’re saying?”
“No,” Jordan laughed, but then his eyes seemed to dim. He studied the top of the wooden table for a moment or two and then looked up, his voice now quiet as he continued, “Lord Manderly - you remember him, across the river? - will need more soldiers soon, and good ones, if he’s to stay in power. I’m off to the Palace, tonight, to get a letter to the King, and then I head back. I may stay the night here if I think it’s safe, but I have to be well on my way by first light. The Duke will probably need me back over there as soon as possible.”
The air grew heavy, then, as each of the two men absorbed himself in his own thoughts. Years ago, Jordan had been on his first assignment in Kenton, and Simon had been Jordan’s contact. He’d been on many more assignments since then, a number of them in Kenton, and in that time he and Simon had become friends. They trusted each other, and often Simon needed to help get Jordan into or out of the city. It was Simon who gathered supplies and disguises and anything else his friend might need.
Finally, though, Jordan picked up his mug, took a gulp of cider, and stood up. “Let’s get to work - the ball starts in a few hours, and I want to time it so I get there right in the middle of everything.” Nodding, Simon walked over and the two men began studying the maps and discussing their plans for the next twenty-four hours.

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