Alma Neiman was known for nothing.
Which in her line of business, was to her benefit.
The Horned Owl, however, was known for her skills in relocation throughout the kingdom. She had been employed by assassin and mark alike, and that gave her the kind of power she needed to guarantee herself and her clients' safety.
It was best no one recognized her, she knew. And among her clientele, in the palaces of the far-reaching kingdoms and in the dungeons of unfriendly nobles, she was grateful for it.
But on days like this, when she waited at the tables placed outside an inn, watching joyful reunions of friends, she wanted to tell someone.
Just let one person know that it was her, she was the Horned Owl, her name was Alma Neiman and she had saved countless lives.
She wanted to tell herself that she fell into this, but she knew it wasn’t true.
First, she was relocating her recently orphaned friend to help escape vicious creditors in their city. They were bent on wringing parental debt out of him, despite the impossibility.
But not too often after, she was consulting with every pompous prince who had insulted the wrong noble.
Or, it felt that way. She had only advertised her assistance to the people who deserved a second chance.
But the word had spread as quickly as the patrons of her services — and for the most part, the worst customers paid the best.
She wondered, sometimes, if she had competition somewhere she didn’t know about. If there was someone else who believed that everyone deserved a second chance. She hadn’t turned anyone down yet and doubted she ever would. But she wondered.
“You look awful lonely.”
The Owl turned to blink at the newcomer to her table. She was wearing glasses that magicked her eyes to a deep yellow-y color, and her appointment was told to look for them. The man in front of her did not look like her appointment, but perhaps he was cleverer than he seemed in correspondence
“I’m contemplating if I am or not.” She smiled, and so did the newcomer. He had an easy smile, she thought.
As he sat at her table, she put her hand towards the chair. He sat down anyway, and she blinked again.
Maybe he was the right age. You never could tell with princes.
If this wasn’t the prince, she needed him out of this seat before someone got hurt.
“Well, I’ll provide you a short respite from the contemplation. Despin,” he reached out a hand, “at your service.”
And it was her appointment! She smiled, smoothing down her nervousness. There was a flash of… amusement? on his face, but it passed quickly
“Nice to meet you, Despin. I hear you’ve taken interest to the history of the city of Cliffwood,” She pulled several wrapped parchments from her messenger bag.
It was particularly nerve-wracking to have this conversation in such a public place, but she always acquiesced to location requests for meetings. Sometimes, it was the last time her client would ever see their own city, and she knew that was painful.
“I… yes, an interest.” He quickly lost some composure, and she smiled.
“Cliffwood has a rich history and a thriving trade market. Many people consider Cliffwood the gateway to traveling the wilds, if you take an interest in those things, as well.” She smiled as she watched his face relax.
She handed him the wrapped parchments, “This will have everything you need to learn to become proficient. I’m staying at The Twin Tree,” she gestured down the alley towards her inn, “if you have any more questions. You know who to ask for.”
She started to stand, and he followed standing, too fast. His chair fell down, and several other tables glanced at them.
She blinked back at him.
“I still have many questions. They would be best answered here, I think.”
She reached her gloved hand into the messenger bag, rifling for her dagger. He stepped towards her and she looked up..
“Hmm. Well, I can answer more questions, but I don’t know that it will ease your study,” she said, pointedly. He seemed not to hear, and righted his chair. Her hand wrapped around the dagger in her bag.
“Is Cliffwood…. what is it like? Are there many people?”
She reminded herself not to scoff. But he would know this if he would read the papers like she told him in her letters. “Yes, there are plenty of people. It’s a larger city than Northpass here, combined with all the outskirt villages.”
“What are the people like? Are they pleasant to talk to?” More of the nearby tables were leaning towards the conversation.
“Decidedly more pleasant than this conversation will become if you keep me here much longer.” She hissed, hoping her voice wavered less than it sounded.
She felt people watching, and her face heated. He had to know he was making this dangerous for both of them.
She stepped back from the table and glanced towards The Twin Tree. It wasn’t too far, and she knew she had friends there.
He stood again, stepping closer to her with some kind of determined look.
Her grip on the dagger tightened. She wasn’t very effective with it, but he wouldn’t have to know that if she got away.
So she did what she was better at.
She threw herself into a sprint, aiming for the alley that would cut right to the inn. She bet she knew these streets better than he did - princes didn’t frequently study the alleys behind inns.
She knew this alley twisted oddly, and he wouldn’t. As she neared her alley, she turned behind her to see him following - but not fast enough.
She turned a sharp right into the alley and then twisted left into the tight space between the two buildings that lead back towards the inn.
The two alleys were barely connected, but she had learned this trying to get out of the inn once - and it had served her before. It let out right at the back door of the inn.
She slowed her run to a quick walk, trying to quiet her breathing and her steps. He must be coming into the alley about now. She was only steps away from the inn’s door
but so was he. A shape stepped in front of the door to the inn, blocking her passage.
He was too close.
She swung at him, dagger pulled from hilt. He wasn’t there anymore, and she reached out further with it. Miss again.
Turn to run again, and he grabs her dagger holding wrist, and she tries to shake her arm free. The dagger falls. No one is passing the alley.
“What do you want? I can’t help you if you kill me!” Her last words barely squeaked out.
He paused, shaking his head. “Oh. I don’t need your help with what I said I did.”
He was dead serious now, and her fear mixed with anger. Of course, it would be one of them.
“I’ve never had one of you pose as a client before. I can’t help you. I couldn’t possibly remember all of the people I relocate. I’ve told every one of you that.”
“What? You get many proposals?”
“You get business proposals all the time? You’d think you would have taken one by now. The rumors say you’re not exactly weighted with coin.”
She shook her head. “I do get business proposals all the time, and I do take them. Most of them don’t waste my time like—”
“No, you’re not understanding. I meant that I want to—” He let go of her wrist now, stepping away, “I want to work with you— I think that you could…” He paused, stepping away again, “I’ve messed this up, but why don’t we go to your Inn. I'll explain. The Two Trees?”
“The Twin Trees.” She said, regretting she had told him. There wasn’t a safe way to get away from him now.
“Okay, the Twin Trees. I have a proposal for you."
As soon as she was half on the bar stool, he was talking.
“It was a test.” He said it without looking at her and raised a hand to beckon the innkeeper. The innkeeper eyed him suspiciously.
“No, it wasn’t. At best it was a foolishly cobbled together insult to my pride. At worst it was a death sentence.” Her hands were still shaking.
The innkeeper reached under the bar for his cudgel, and she shook her head. Not yet.
“That’s a little dramatic.” He smiled half-heartedly.
“There are people out there trying to find the people I help. They would pay to take me, to try and get information on where I’ve sent them. You put me at risk - and for what?”
He leaned towards her, earnest. “I want to help you.”
“With what? An early retirement?” She saw the innkeeper smile from the corner of her eye and internally congratulated herself.
“You’re right. I could have done it better. I’m just desperate. You do something no one else does, and I want to do it, too.”
“And what is it that you think I do?” She was hedging her bets that his investigation skills were as subpar as his capacity for subterfuge.
“You give people new lives. My sister, she married a man who is only alive because you saved him from the punishment of a vindictive duke, he says. He says you knew it wasn’t fair. You risked that for him.”
Alma was feeling painfully aware of the innkeeper and his wife listening. They suspected, she was sure, but never knew. It kept them safe.
She leaned closer to him — she couldn’t erase their memories or magic them back in time. She might as well commit. “And why? Why do you want to do what I do?”
He shrugged, “I’m bored.”
“That’s not true, or even close to a good enough reason. I don’t do this out of boredom.”
“Fine.” He breathed in, the way they always did when they started their story.
“You could have — I think you would have — saved my father from the creditors. You could have saved my family. But you weren’t here to do it.”
She blinked, trying to suppress the sudden onset of regret she had no reason to feel, “I can’t be everywhere at once.”
“But what if you could be?”
“Too many people means potential betrayals. And lost lives. I could lose my reputation, and they would lose their second chance.” her little longing voice popped up, but someone would know. Someone else would see how good you are.
“What about just… two people? What about me and you?”
“I don’t know you. And you don’t seem to know much of anything.” You didn’t, either. You could have a partner. You wouldn’t have to be lonely.
“Then train me.”
She shook her head at her own thoughts. You could share your office. Travel together. Never get ambushed again. And he would always be impressed. He’d learn and grow and you would save more people.
He interrupted her thoughts, “Haven’t I proven that I’ll go to… great lengths… to get what I want? What I want is to help you. What I want is to do what you do. And if you don’t let me join you, I’ll just have to… become your competition.” His chin jutted out and he crossed his arms.
It would have been intimidating if he had put just slightly less effort into making it look so.
The innkeeper’s wife interrupted her rationalizations. She leaned over the bar, two ales in her hand.
“Business deals always require provisions. It’s on the house.” She said, waving away the boy’s coin.
As she left, she leaned in towards Alma. “I’d take it,” she whispered, “he’s the right kind of stupid.”
She turned her face away from him. “You wouldn’t make very good competition.”
“I think I’ve proven, too, how inconvenient I can be. Maybe not good competition, but good competition.” He smiled again, and she saw a self-awareness she hadn’t seen much yet.
She grabbed the mug, wrapping both hands around it. She stared into it for a long time. The thoughts were all quiet. Now, when she had to decide, there was nothing to use for the decision.
“If we’re going to be in business together, I need to know your real name, Despin.”
He scrambled off the seat, grinning. “It’s Schwartz. But I go by my middle name. My dad’s name. So Lance is better.”
“Do I have to call you ‘The Owl’ all the time?”
She paused, taking a deep breath. A little laugh rose in her that she hadn’t expected.
“I suppose not. It’s Alma.” She reached out her hand.
“Alma? That’s pretty.” He took it.
“Yes, Alma. Alma Neiman.”