It was a beautiful afternoon in the City of the Dead, a park-like cemetery on the eastern side of Waterdeep city. Jaina was lounging on a stone bench enjoying the fleeting warmth of the high autumn sun seeping through her leather trench coat. The bench was on the perimeter of a large circular intersection where many of the cemetery pathways converged. At the center of the intersection sat the statue of Ahghairon. Jaina and her companions had come to meet a mysterious contact who had sent them a message the previous night to meet them near the statue at high sun.
While waiting for the meeting time, Jaina engaged in one of her favorite pastimes: people-watching. Artisans and city officials were spread throughout the cemetery enjoying their lunch breaks. Children were chasing each other around and playing games. An artist was painting a portrait of a young noble couple. A middle-aged tiefling woman holding a single red rose walked anxious circles around the statue. Two individuals, a human and a half-elf, casually bumped into each other, brushing shoulders while the human discretely handed off a small pouch to the half-elf. Two City Watch guards strolled through the intersection, glancing around at everyone, occasionally studying a piece of parchment.
Wonder who their looking for, Jaina thought as the guards left the intersection.
Jaina also kept an eye on her companions. My’ra was skittering about the statue as a squirrel accepting treats from passersby and chasing around other squirrels. It seemed like the young druid was having a good time. Squid was hidden in a nearby tree, his cat-like tail visibility swishing back and forth above the leaves of the branch he was on. She wondered if the tabaxi was chattering while he watched the people in the cemetery.
Findol shifted in his seat next to her, the rings of his chainmail clinking together. Unlike Jaina, who leaned comfortably against the bench’s backrest and sat with crossed legs, Findol was perched on the edge of the bench with his back straight, shoulders tense, and right foot furiously tapping. He eyed everyone that looked their way or came close to their bench with unhidden suspicion.
Regarding Findol, Jaina wondered, not for the first time, why the cleric was still here and why he kept agreeing to be paired with her for their outings in the city given how the two of them had parted ways back in Baldur’s Gate when they were kids. The two former friends had randomly run into each other at the Yawning Portal tavern here in Waterdeep one afternoon. What was expected to be a one-time conversation over a pint had turned into a bar brawl with a troll followed by a now weeks-long fellowship between the two of them and the two former sailors My’ra and Squid.
Those chaotic weeks had seen the four companions get mixed up in a gang turf war, delve into the city’s sewers to infiltrate a cult’s hideout, dealing with the aftermath of a fireball explosion in front of their place of residence, and sneaking into a noble family’s villa in search of a mechanical man only to find themselves fighting alongside the villa’s guards to beat back an incursion of Zhentarim operatives. They had fought undead skeletons, mini-beholders, possessed scarecrows, and a crawling brain. Jaina barely recognized her life anymore.
This morning was really the first chance since the pint in the Yawning Portal that Jaina had time to sit and think, her first opportunity to wonder about Findol’s continued presence and participation in their little escapades through the city. He had been very useful on their adventures, and Jaina had no doubt that without Findol and his gods given magic, she and the others would not have survived these past two weeks. However, the cleric seemed to chafe at times with the way the group had to go about getting things done, occasionally employing more underhanded, sneaky, and roundabout solutions. But he pressed on for reasons that Jaina, irritatingly, still did not know.
“You’re staring,” Findol said.
“I am,” Jaina said.
“Why?” he asked, side-eyeing her.
“Just trying to figure you out.”
“Hmph,” Findol said, blowing air out his nose. “Well, please stop.”
Jaina continued to stare, but after a few seconds, she said, “You seem uncomfortable.”
Findol turned to her with a raised eyebrow.
“With what we are doing I mean. Working for the Harpers, infiltrating hideouts and homes of nobles, trading information with less than reputable sources. Those things.”
“I just prefer more direct approaches to all the sneaking around. This subterfuge takes too long and it is too underhanded for my liking.”
“Understandable,” Jaina said, nodding. “But you’ve come to a city where subterfuge is the Game that is played here. If you want to get anything done, then you have to play by that Game’s rules.”
“I am well aware of how this place works and how people of your ilk do things,” Findol said, his eyes flaring. “I have learned a thing or two since we parted ways in Baldur’s Gate. Do not take me for the young and naive fool I was back then.”
Jaina looked way. After a few uncomfortable moments, Findol did the same.
Staring back into the crowds of people meandering through the intersection, Jaina thought back to that day in Baldur’s Gate almost thirty years ago, the day Findol had learned Jaina’s true nature. For seven months Jaina had worked Findol, gaining his trust, becoming his friend and confidant, all for the purpose of gaining information for a client. After acquiring and delivering the information, Jaina made a rookie mistake, a mistake she has only ever made once. She told Findol the truth.
That was the first time Jaina had ever seen adulterated anguish and rage directed towards her. It was also the last time the two had spoken until their pint in the Yawning Portal.
After her confession, Jaina had kept tabs on Findol up until he had left Baldur’s Gate. Where he had disappeared to and what had caused the once easy-going elf to become more gruff and rigid, Jaina still did not know. She had a feeling her betrayal had been the catalyst for the change. Findol was not the first nor the last person Jaina had manipulated to achieve her own ends as an intelligence agent in Baldur’s Gate. However, for some reason, her handling of Findol still left her feeling uneasy.
Findol cleared his throat. “So, what should we be looking for? How do we spot this Istrid Horn before he or she spots us?”
Jaina let out a quiet, steadying breath before answering. “Well, given that this person contacted us via flying snake message, we know they are a Zhentarim operative or at least trying to pose as one. They also asked us to meet them in broad daylight at a well-populated location with multiple avenues of ingress and egress. This speaks to the individual being well versed in the Game we are playing, so it might be difficult for us to spot them coming. They’ll more than likely be dressed plainly and in such a way as to not attract attention. Chances are we won’t know it’s them until they have either approached us or attacked us.”
“Wonderful,” Findol said, frowning. He eyed everyone around them with even more suspicion than before.
Jaina’s smirk returned and she picked up her visual scanning of the people around them.
A few minutes later, Findol asked, “You said this person would be well versed in the Game as you keep calling it?”
“I assume they would be, yes,” Jaina said, eye a human male reading on a nearby bench she caught staring in their direction.
“Well, what if they weren’t?”
“Then I suppose they would be obviously acting at trying not to be obvious.”
“Would a hooded dwarf wearing polished plate mail armor who keeps glancing over her shoulder be such a person?”
Jaina took her eyes off the reading human and followed Findol’s gaze. She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. Walking purposefully towards them from across the intersection was indeed a shortish, hooded individual wearing a too-small cloak over a bulky set of full plate armor. The figure was trying and failing to look like they were not staring at Jaina and Findol.
“Huh,” Jaina said.
Findol tensed, his hand slowing inching towards the grip of his mace. “Should we be worried?” he asked.
“Possibly,” Jaina said, continuing to eye the hooded figure. “Let’s just see how this plays out, shall we?”
“Hmph,” Findol said, remaining tense, but bringing his hand to rest on his lap. Jaina quickly reworked her expression into a well-practiced disarming smile. The familiar fluttering of butterflies started growing in her belly. After more than thirty years of playing, nothing compared to the rush of the Game. And despite Findol’s discomfort with it, the Game was about to begin again.