Tobias started to open his mouth, but shut it firmly under the weight of Jo's scowl and looked away.
"You'll keep that information to yourself, of course."
The magician's gaze came back up and met her eyes steadily. "Of course."
J'jali Attar, Jo wished. "Good. Until the end of the heat, Honored Magician."
"Yes, until then, Honored Guard."
Jo lingered as Tobias walked away down the nearly deserted avenue, waiting to see which side street he turned down before ducking back into the tavern
"Haik!" She spotted the broken-nosed guard now sitting at one of the long tables. "I appreciate the custom, but next time don't go scaring 'em before I've even heard the job, hey?"
"Sure, sure. Did ya take it?"
"Haven't decided yet, but don't worry, you'll get your finder's fee if I do. Jerom? Make sure the squad gets started drilling after the heat breaks."
"Sure t'ing, boss," the older mercenary answered. "Where're you gonna be?"
"Not sure yet, but for now I need to go talk to Master Azrab."
"Thanks." On that wry comment, Jo headed back out into the heat. As she walked down the dusty street of caravansaries and taverns, even the hawkers along the sidelines only called out muted offers beneath the scorching sun.
Two turns later and the dust gave to cobblestones, the squatting vendors to high mud-brick walls wrapped around private villas. Jo stopped at the gates of one residence. It belonged to one of Master Azrab's merchant clan relatives; a third cousin, twice removed by marriage if she remembered correctly.
Thud thud. The flat-handed pounding on the thick wooden doors brought a servant to question her and then let her in.
She trailed the servant across a dusty courtyard and then down a stucco-covered hallway past doors of hanging cloths pulled aside or curtains of beaded strings. This far back from the courtyard, the thick brick walls under the stucco still preserved the morning’s cool much the same as the tavern Jo had left. Even the rustles and pings of the string curtain the servant finally ducked through sounded calm and crisp compared to the muted afternoon streets.
A moment later, the servant returned through the strands of molded clay and semiprecious stone beads and waved the guard into room.
"Honored Master Azrab," Jo greeted the short, wiry man seated inside on a divan behind a low table. Jo knew hawks that had gazes less intense than the caravan master's. She gave a shallow bow to Azrab and then another to the blank-faced man sitting next to him on the divan. "Honored sir."
A third man sat to the side, cross-legged on a rug. He wore the same tunic, trousers, sword-belt and curved desert knife as Jo, and his face was also a deep weathered brown under thick black hair. He sported a short beard in addition.
"Honored captain," Jo acknowledged him.
"One of my caravan guards," Azrab explained to the second man. "Guard Jo, be known to my cousin Amrouk, master of this home. Now, you’ve something to report?”
"I've been offered a few days of freelance guard work while the caravan is in town, and I want to make sure it won't create problems for my honored employer before I accept."
"See, Amrouk?" Azrab leaned closer to his kinsman as he spoke, "Even one of the garrulous desert warriors can give a polite and succinct report. Hold that up as an example for the employee we were discussing earlier." He nodded back to Jo, "Continue."
"Yes, sir. One of the shopkeepers in town apparently needs to travel to Eret and wants a guard for his business while he's away," Jo said. Dry humor colored her voice as she continued, "The complication is his magician kinsman, who mentioned when he described the job to me that the locals don't much like him."
"Gods in the desert," Amrouk muttered. Jo, Azrab, and the captain all looked at him sharply as his neutral expression gave way to annoyance. "Are you talking about Nerses and Tobias?"
"If Nerses is a thread merchant and Tobias the magician, then yes," Jo said warily, "What should I know?"
"Tobias and his cousin, Nerses' wife, are part of that Adorai cult, only after Tobias joined them here two years ago it came out that they're apparently a different sect of Adorai than the rest of the cultists in town," Amrouk explained.
The scars across Jo's cheek thinned as she scowled. "Honored sir, please tell me I did not just put my nose in a demon-blasted religious debate."
"Not quite. Tobias has been helping his cousin make embroidered charms for sale in addition to their regular thread trade. Mostly little good luck stuff," Amrouk added with a dismissive wave, "But apparently some of the spells draw heavily from Adorai symbolism. The other Adorai took offense at the idea of a magician using their god for profit."
"Unhappy little gods." Jo looked over at Azrab. “Honored master, if you want me to stay away from this, just say the word.”
“Amrouk, didn't you say they stopped selling those charms?” Azrab asked his cousin instead.
Amrouk nodded. “Two months ago Nerses told the local assembly he wouldn't sell them any more to keep the peace.”
Oh shit, Azrab's got that scheming glint in his eye. Jo kept her face stone-still. Damn you for bringing me this job, Haik! I'm gonna make you get your finder's fee from the master and good luck with that.
“But obviously there's still some tension.”
“Azrab, you can't be serious,” Amrouk answered. “Nerses' peace gesture shut up the public complaints but I'd be surprised if it did a thing for the private resentments. No one can figure out that damn magician's deal. It makes people nervous.”
“Jo, what did you think of Tobias?” Azrab asked.
“I don't know how to judge a magician's power, sir,” Jo temporized.
“Then I expect you to learn, promptly. Aside from that?”
“Harmless, sir. There's intelligence there, but he seemed...” Jo ran a thumb over her sword calluses as she recalled her conversation with Tobias. “Young. Soft.”
Azrab nodded. “Guard Jo, you will insist on getting paid at least partly in trade with some of those charms. If they are firm in refusing, then I don’t care what you do. But if they agree to the trade, then you will take that job.”
Jo stood silently in the face the caravan master's orders. He wanted her to take a job involving a magician, religion, and feuding neighbors. She wondered which of those was mostly likely to come back to bite her in the ass.
"Is there a problem?" Azrab asked. Amrouk snorted derisively.
Blank as sand after a storm, Jo told herself, just like the Ram and your war uncles taught you. Certainly don't show that you think he's being an idiot, when even his own kin disagrees with him!
"Considering the consequences, sir," she answered instead. "For all the magician seems a fool now, he's young enough that he might yet wisen up."
"I shall see to the consequences of my orders," he assured her.
Well if you're gonna promise me that, and with a blood relative for a witness...
Jo bowed to him. "Thank you, my honored employer. For such consideration, I will ask that only seven-eighths of the room and board costs I save you while on this job be credited to my pay."
"Done, so long as you remain unscathed. If I have to pay to heal you, then that's where the money is coming from."
Jo smiled. "Then I shall go negotiate for the terms of the magician's job to include the charms."
"Excellent!" Azrab waved for her to go.
"I still think this is foolishness," Amrouk muttered, but he looked away when Azrab frowned at him.
Jo gave both men another short bow. "Honored masters."
Azrab nodded in acknowledgement and she left, the beaded string curtain jangling in her wake.