Needle in a Haystack

Jenna paused on the side of the street and tried to pat the sweat off her face. Did she really think she would be able to find him, one man, in the largest city in the world?

When she had set out from Troven with the idea of tracking down Dar, she hadn’t understood the scale of the place, or indeed how far she’d need to go just to reach the city gates.

She’d managed to escape the house and buy a seat on the general carriage route to Parna. It had taken over a week, relentless movement, the oxen pulling the covered cart plodding on, hour after hour. They were slow enough that people could, and did, get off and walk for parts of the day.

And every evening, an identical way station, identical food, identical beds. She felt as if she was in some strange time loop and only the slowly changing scenery allowed her to believe they were making progress.

Then, Parna. The carriage station sat a short way outside the city gates, surrounded by other inns, stables, livestock yards and more. All for travellers converging on this one, giant city from across the known lands.

She told the manager of the inn she needed to deliver a message to a member of the Imperial Embassy staff, but didn’t have an address.

He raised an eyebrow at such carelessness and she shrugged, “I daresay it’s nothing more than a love note, I’m told he was rather handsome, but it’s a friend who asked me and I did make a promise. I have to at least try.”

He chuckled at that and suggested she start in the centre, go straight to the palace and make her enquiries at the public office of the government service building.

She thanked him, shouldered her pack and joined the crowd moving towards the city gates.

Not for the first time, she blessed her parents’ practical bent. For all that she was high Torven nobility, she had been raised to be able to blend in to almost any situation, most importantly, into general town and city crowds. Not so rich as to be a target for the poor and not so poor as to be a target for the rich. She blended in with the merchants and tradespeople going about their business and affected to be doing the same.

Through a combination of kindness and luck, she found herself at a wide desk, confronting a bored but pleasant looking government official. The woman looked up from the quick notes she’d made from her previous conversation.

“How my I help?”

Jenna flushed, “It’s going to sound very silly I’m afraid, but I’m trying to get a message to a member of your diplomatic staff. He was assigned to your Torven main embassy a few years ago, but returned to Parna last year. I promised my friend I would try and contact him, something to do with her ill brother and him being kind, but she had no details.”

“Ahhh, and do you have a name?”

“Just ‘Dar’ – I’m sure it’s short for something but he never told me. Or her.”

“So you met him?”

“Yes. He’s probably a bit older than me, very tall and has a long black beard.”

The official narrowed her eyes, “I may be able to help. That’s quite a distinct description, very few members of our staff wear beards.”

She waved over an attendant, “Could you please see this young lady to anteroom five? I need to make some enquiries on her behalf and it may take a little time.”

Jenna thanked her profusely and followed the attendant down a long corridor.

They waved her into a simple sitting room and left her there with the promise of tea and refreshments.

She sat, and looked around the room. She’d come further in less than a day than she could have possibly thought. She had been bracing herself for outright scorn at her bizarre request and lack of information.

The tea arrived, with a generous serve of fresh bread and jam. Jenna hadn’t eaten since the porridge at the final waystation that morning and it was well into the afternoon by the time she’d reached the palace.

She was debating a second cup of tea when the door to the anteroom opened and a man walked in, stopping and staring at her in amazement, “Jenna? What are you doing here?”

She stared back, confused. Who was this man? He walked like a king, stood like a warrior and had the face of a god.

He frowned and moved to crouch in front of her, “Jenna? Are you alright?”

His voice, surely not. Her own voice quavered, “Dar?”

“Yes it’s me, I forgot you might not know me without the beard. What’s happened?”

She shrank back, “Who are you?”

“Later. First, I need you to tell me why you’re here.”

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