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Targeoff leaned against a tree, watching the path to Farstrider Lodge. Nearby, an enormous tallstrider carefully preened her lovely turquoise feathers. The hunter glanced at her from time to time, amused by her vanity.

“They’re perfect, Purty. Take a break, huh?” He retrieved a handful of grapes from one of his pouches and tossed one towards her. The bird deftly plucked it out of the air and swallowed it, eyeing him brightly.

“Couple more months.” He tossed her another grape; again she nipped it out of the air. The tiny fruit were barely morsels for a bird larger than himself, but she liked showing off. “Couple more months of errands for Garron, then we’ll re-enlist.” He scowled. He’d made the same decision before, two or three times--after the Legion invaded he had absolutely made up his mind to re-up. Garron always talked him into working for him just a bit longer, just this one last project His Nibs wanted done, one more business arrangement that needed a reliable courier. And the work paid well. A lot better than he’d ever been paid as a corporal.

Purty tilted her head and made a soft, querulous whoop-whoop, sweet-talking him for more grapes. He smiled and tossed two at once. She snapped them both out of the air and looked at him proudly. “Well done,” he agreed.

“Does it do any other tricks?”

Targeoff stood up straight, surprised. The approaching man was less than twenty feet away. How had he gotten so close without either of them noticing?

“You must be Targeoff.” The newcomer continued towards them, wearing a faint smile. There was no warmth in that look; it was the look of a cruel child watching a bug impaled on a pin. Look at it struggle, how fascinating. Purty clacked her beak rapidly several times, a warning to Targeoff: danger, be cautious. He lay a soothing hand on her back. He didn’t like this stranger, either, but he had a job to do.

“Please identify yourself, sir.” This was obviously the man he’d been sent to meet, but the precaution was necessary.

The amused smile deepened. See how it wriggles on the pin, that smile said. “Neil Mordin.” He retrieved a paper from his robe and handed it over for inspection. “The letter from your Captain Garron.” The letter confirmed the man’s identity; Targeoff recognized the dwarven captain’s seal. He nodded and handed it back.

“I believe you have something for me.” Mordin replaced the letter, faintly amused smile never leaving his face.

“Yes, sir.” Targeoff walked over to his horse and dug into a pack. He brought back a sturdy box eight or ten inches square, swaddled in several layers of rich velvet. He passed the box over.

Mordin looked at him closely, losing the amused smile for the first time. “You didn’t open the box, did you?”

“No, sir.” Targeoff felt offended. “I was ordered not to.”

“Of course.” Mordin was back to being amused.

“I was told you would have something for me to deliver, sir.” The hunter didn’t want to prolong the encounter, but he had orders.

“Yes.” Mordin reached into a bag slung over his shoulder and pulled out a pear-shaped package the size of a desk lamp. “Do not open this, either. Deliver it to your captain. He’ll know what to do with it.”

“Yes, sir.” Targeoff took the package. It was wrapped in silk, and felt like it was padded with quilted felt.

“Have a care.” Mordin made the box disappear into his bag. “It’s well-packed, but it is delicate. Handle it gently.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mordin looked at the tallstrider with his chilly smile, as if they were just the quaintest little insects he’d ever seen. “I have business in the lodge, so I will take my leave. Safe journey, Corporal Cartwright.”

“Goodbye, sir.” Targeoff watched the man until he had entered the lodge, then returned to his horse and carefully packed the pear-shaped item away. Purty stayed where she was, watching the door to the lodge suspiciously. Targeoff swung into the saddle and gave a low whistle, calling the tallstrider to his side. He reached over and caressed her throat under her beak, as one might scratch a cat under the chin.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he soothed her. “We probably won’t ever see him again.”

He set the pinto into an easy trot, heading south, the tallstrider keeping pace.