Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters, they all belong to Tamora Pierce.

The tavern was packed almost to bursting, as it always was on one of the larger market days. Many had travelled from the capital's outlying villages to purchase the rarer items that couldn't be found in their small communities. Those who hadn't left for home before darkness fell decided to pass the night in Corus rather than risk travelling on the roads, which were often dangerous even in the daylight. Now they all jostled against each other, seeking to claim a bit of floor space to sleep on as almost every bed in the city had long since been rented for the night.

In a small corner of the tavern, as far removed from the bustle and noise as possible, sat two women. Like the others they had visited the city for market day, but they weren't from any distant village; both of them worked at the palace. They sat close together, heads down, critically surveying what they had bought a few hours before. Once they were satisfied that they hadn't missed any fault during their inspection at the market stall, they allowed themselves to relax. They sipped the wine that had been provided for them, pleasantly cool in the crowded room, and fell into idle conversation.

The door swung open and another man slipped into the chaos. Although he too was a stranger in Corus, it was clear that he wasn't from any of the nearby villages or hamlets. He walked with a rigid back and grimaced whenever anyone brushed against him, disgust contorting his handsome features. His attire was mostly modest, but he displayed some obvious signs of wealth: a ruby glinted in the lobe of his right ear and the edges of the shirt which peeked out from underneath his tunic were finest red silk. With swiftness and grace that belied his powerful build, he dodged through the crowd to arrive at the rough wooden counter that served as a bar. He began speaking quickly and quietly to the man serving drinks to the deluge of customers, casting furtive looks around the room.

One of the women, the younger one with a mass of brown curls, glanced up from her battered tankard. As she caught sight of the newcomer, her eyes first widened in shock before narrowing in distaste. She leaned close to her companion and murmured something in her ear. The older woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. At that moment the newcomer moved away from the bar, following the man he'd been talking to as he moved to a door in the back of the room. Before her companion could protest further, the young woman dived beneath their table. A few seconds later a cat darted out, running towards the two men. The older woman called after her, but after attracting more than a few curious glances she snatched up their purchases and the small pile of clothes on the floor and hurried from the tavern, all the while muttering mutinously under her breath.

The woman-turned-cat followed unnoticed behind the man as they left the main room and entered a small corridor. The tavern worker indicated a door at the end of the hallway before hurrying back to his customers, looking relieved to be away. Being careful to stay in the shadows, the woman-cat slipped after the man as he entered the new room.

"Abran!" A gruff voice called. "What kept you?"

"I had difficulty finding this place. This city is worse than a maze," the man known as Abran took a seat next to the cold grate, where two other men awaited him. Like him their attire spoke of wealth, and their accented Common suggested they were not natives of Tortall.

"Are you sure it is wise to meet here?" One of the men asked. He was at least a head smaller than his companions and his eyes constantly darted about the room, as if he expected to be leapt upon at any moment. "We're so close to that fool and his palace, if someone were to-"

"We have explained our reasons countless times," the man who had greeted Abran snarled. "This city is the largest in the land and people from every imaginable country reside here. If we were to go to a smaller city we would stick out like tigers amongst kittens. Here we will go unnoticed."

"Our meeting will be brief, Benat," Abran sneered, not bothering to conceal the contempt in his voice. "I trust you can contain your cowardice for a few minutes."

Anger at being spoken to in such a way and fear of the two larger men played over Benat's face. For a moment it looked as if he might argue back, but then the fear won out and his mouth shut with an audible snap. Crossing his arms over his chest, he sank as far as he could into his tattered armchair. While all eyes were focussed on Benat, the woman-cat took the opportunity to slink closer to the small group, hoping to hear everything that was said without being seen.

Abran paused for a moment, relishing Benat's submission, before addressing the other man. "Where are they?" He asked.

"Unforeseen circumstances have forced them to take a longer route," the man said, frowning. "Nevertheless, they should still arrive at Green Lake before the week is out."

Abran drummed his long fingers against the chair. "Isn't the road an option? Felek is leading, he knows enough about concealment magic to-"

"There are fifteen in the company, excluding Felek." The man interrupted, waving his hand dismissively. "Out of all of them he's the only mage. He cannot risk a draining beforeā€¦" He trailed off, his eyes coming to rest on something crouching in the shadows beneath Abran's chair. "Beast!" He roared suddenly, leaping to his feet and advancing on the woman-cat's hiding place. "Evil creature!" He aimed a kick at the woman-cat, but she easily dodged him and the blow landed instead on Abran's shin.

"It's just a cat!" Benat cried over Abran's howl of pain and anger.

"They're wicked!" The man snarled. "They bring nothing but bad luck!" He lunged at her, but she darted around him and jumped onto the windowsill and then out of the open window. Once in the street, she didn't slow her pace until she found a dark alleyway. She slipped inside and a few moments later a starling burst out, winging its way towards the bright lights of the palace.