“Is he ready?”
“More than ready, my lord.”
“No further resistance?”
“Not since the spell was cast. He believes he was always one of us, and he is most loyal for it.”
“Good.” A pause. “What of our adversaries?”
“There has been no sign of movement as of this moment.”
“But they will come to oppose us again, I have no doubt. We will need to prepare. See to it.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Steven Rogers awoke to the sound of crisp knocking on the door of his room. He glanced out of the window by his bed and judged it to be just a little earlier than the time he usually wakes up. People normally weren’t in the habit of bothering each other this early in the morning, so it was probably something important.
“I’m coming! Give me a moment!” he called out.
“Captain Rogers! I’m just here to inform you that your presence is required in the main hall as soon as possible. There is an urgent missive for you,” the messenger announced.
“I understand. I’ll be there shortly. Thank you!”
Missives that were given out in the main hall tended to be extremely important, and were usually sent down by the War God Fury himself – through his high priests of course. Knowing that made Steve more alert than he usually would be just after getting out of bed. With that spurt of energy, he quickly went through his morning routine and then dressed appropriately for his meeting.
When he entered the hall soon afterwards, he found that he was not the only one there. Standing in the middle of the room in a modest grey dress was Margaret Carter, known as Peggy to her close friends, of which Steve was proud to be one of. Peggy was also one of the finest clerics Steve has had the pleasure of knowing in his time as a paladin of the War God Fury.
“Steve!” Peggy exclaimed in happiness as she spotted him entering the hall.
“Peggy,” he greeted, a big smile on his face. “So, I assume that we’re to be sent on the same quest?”
“It does seem likely.”
There was a subtle clearing of someone’s throat and both Steve and Peggy’s attention snapped to the front of the hall, where Phil Coulson now stood. Coulson was the highest ranking priest in the Church and his presence added an even clearer element of importance to the new quest Steve and Peggy were to be sent on. It was said that Coulson had the ability to meet with the War God directly, and had done so countless of times.
There were also whispered rumors that Coulson was a demigod himself. Considering the man’s startling efficiency and eerie near-omniscient knowledge of many, many things… Well, should the rumor ever prove to be true, Steve would not be shocked. Not in the very least.
“Steven, Margaret, thank you for being prompt in your response to your summons despite the early hour of the day,” Coulson said in his almost preternaturally calm and unruffled voice. “We have been monitoring a particular cult organization and of late, it has become more overt in expanding its reach. You may find the name familiar; they are called HYDRA.”
Steve froze. HYDRA, yes indeed, he knew the name. A few years ago, he had encountered members of the cult. He had left that meeting bearing the loss of his first and best friend, and while he had mostly moved on, sometimes the gap in his life that was once occupied by Bucky still ached very, very deeply. Beside him, Peggy too, tensed up. She had been with him and Bucky on the day of that fateful encounter. It was her steadfast and unwavering presence, despite her own grief, that helped him deal with the loss.
“HYDRA’s plans have been linked to the devil known as the Red Skull, and they appear to seek to aid the devil in dominating and conquering the mortal plane. It is a situation we must prevent at all costs. The War God has decided to send the two of you on a journey to cripple HYDRA’s northern stronghold, one of their central bastions of power as of late. Your efforts over the years have proven you most capable and therefore suitable for this quest.”
A part of Steve wondered if the God of War or Coulson knew about their altercation with HYDRA from those years back. It wouldn’t be too surprising if they had that knowledge and that it played a part in the decision to send him and Peggy instead of the other paladins and clerics of the Church.
“Just the two of us?” Peggy asked with a slight furrow of her brow.
“Yes, just the two of you,” Coulson affirmed. “No one else has been deemed suitable for this task. You may, however, gather comrades to help you on your journey, if the need for other areas of expertise should arise. Discretion is advised, however, when choosing additional compatriots. As of this moment, we do not want to unnecessarily alarm the general populace. Even in our Church, only the highest ranking members know the full details of your quest. Do you have any more questions?”
Both Steve and Peggy shook their heads.
“Very well. You are scheduled to depart tomorrow. We have arranged for some supplies and a guide who has traveled across various parts of the lands to accompany you. Take care on your journey. We expect good news from the two of you.”
The guide that Coulson arranged for them was a man by the name of Clint Barton, and was probably the only other person outside of the Church who knew the nature of their quest. Coulson introduced them in the early morning of their departure and also handed them a scroll containing more information that would aid them. Introductions made, Coulson wished them all luck before leaving to attend to the rest of his duties for the day.
Clint was a man of average height but he had a wiry build that spoke of some form of martial training. Then there was the way that Clint carried himself. A sort of feel to him that seemed to suggest that there was more to the man than being just a guide. When Steve saw the bow and quiver next to Clint’s traveling pack, he wasn’t too surprised.
“I used to hunt,” Clint explained, likely in response to seeing how Steve was looking at his weapon. “And there’re always bandits lurking in the woods preying on travelers, especially those who travel alone.”
Steve decided that men who had tried to trifle with Clint simply because he was traveling alone would’ve been in for a nasty surprise.
“I hope you’re all good with walking long distances. Coulson didn’t want to attract too much attention by requesting steeds for us,” Clint added.
“We’ll be fine,” Peggy replied firmly.
It was not uncommon for most of their journeys to be done on foot unless extreme haste was required, so both he and Peggy were used to it. Coulson was confident that they would have enough time to reach the HYDRA fortress in the far northern mountains. If they had to make haste for whatever reason, horses could still be obtained along the journey.
When each of them had finished their pre-departure preparations and were ready to leave, Clint gave a sudden, sharp whistle. From the skies, a hawk descended and landed on Clint’s left shoulder. The archer smiled a little as he reached out to gently stroke its side.
“This is Artemis,” he said. “She’ll be coming with us.”
“She’s gorgeous,” Steve said sincerely.
“She is,” Peggy agreed.
“Good. Now that we’ve all been introduced, we should probably leave.”
The early days of their journey were mostly uneventful. Clint was an excellent guide. He knew the fastest routes and had an exceptionally keen eye for spotting danger, be it in the form of traps and snares or approaching bandits. Thanks to that, they made good time and encountered far less trouble than Steve usually did when he was traveling alone or with the other clerics and paladins.
There were still some skirmishes with highwaymen where Steve had the opportunity to see Clint’s very formidable archery skills. He had yet to see the archer miss, even from the most improbable angles. Clint could also handle himself in close combat and during the odd times when he was just slightly becoming overwhelmed, Artemis (who normally stayed out of the way during a fight) would swoop in to claw at the assailant’s eyes. No doubt master and hawk had their own system of handling a fight.
Eventually, they determined that the most expedient route to HYDRA’s icy mountain fortress was through a town called Ironfields, reputed to be ruled by a notorious warlock famous for terrorizing any battlefield he had chosen to tread upon. It was always wise to treat such rumor with some skepticism as it was not uncommon for gross embellishments to occur. But it appeared that in every place they had stopped at, the townspeople were all in agreement about the warlock’s battlefield might, his proclivity to flirt, as well as his ability to forge weapons of quality that even the dwarves were hard-pressed to find fault with it.
Dwarven weaponry was of almost incomparable quality. The only humans known to have gained their grudging recognition were those from the Stark clan. As far as anyone knew, the Starks had no blood relations this far up north and the true origins of Antonius the Capricious (or the Death-Dealer as the more opinionated folk called him) still remained a mystery.
As far as Steve knew, Antonius had come to the attention of the War God, and therefore the Church, back when he had still been active on a myriad of battlefields that preceded the more peaceful times they were currently experiencing. There had been the fear that Antonius’ formidable prowess on the battlefield and by virtue of being someone who came out of nowhere, could lead to catastrophic outcomes should he decide to pursue a path of evil like what a great number of other warlocks has done so before him. The Church had not been able to determine his origins. But as Antonius never showed signs of becoming power-hungry and seemed content with merely rendering his services for a sizeable fee, the Church had become less worried about the warlock. That had been roughly seven years ago.
Steve didn’t like to judge a person solely by reputation, but there was precious little known facts about the man. Despite the Church’s efforts to discover Antonius’ past, they still hadn’t been able to find much more than hearsay. All warlocks tended to be met with suspicion and for a warlock with a reputation built primarily on war, weapons, and little else to go on with… Steve had to concede that it would be prudent to be more careful. Peggy was also of the opinion that they should minimize the length of their stay in town as short as possible. Clint, on the other hand, had no opinion on it. Steve had realized early on that not much really rattled the archer, perhaps because of the time he’d spent wandering the lands alone with only Artemis as his companion.
It was early evening by the time they approached the outskirts of the town and the previously cool weather was starting to get a little chilly. As the town came within sight, they were surprised by the state of the houses. Usually the poorer areas of any town were on the outskirts, but it appeared that all the houses that they could see had brick walls and tiled roofs, standards which even some normal housing in other cities did not meet. Walking further inside towards the town center revealed the mix of the town’s population. Many different races were present, humans still the most prevalent, but there were a good number of elves and dwarves, as well as a few other races too. There were also, strangely enough, no children around.
“Interesting place, huh?” Clint commented, his eyes scanning around them and undoubtedly cataloguing everything in sight.
Steve wasn’t sure what he expected of the town, but perhaps he’d expected to see some neglect, especially in the poorer areas. Antonius’ reputation didn’t generally give one the impression of being a particularly caring ruler who would see to all the needs – and then some – of those he governed. It was a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong in that aspect. The lack of children running about, however, was puzzling. This was a new town but surely there would be some families too.
As they made their way past the outskirts and towards the town center, they were occasionally given quick, almost furtive, looks by the resident population. Some of the residents seemed to disappear from sight once they’d spotted their traveling group as well. Others, all dressed in semi-standardized wear, were giving them obviously assessing looks before continuing on their way. Steve deduced that they were a patrol force. All in all, there weren’t any signs of outright hostility, but Steve couldn’t help but feel that the people didn’t seem to like the presence of new travelers.
Xenophobia felt a bit odd in a place where the population was made up of such a diverse mix of races, but it was probably still likely. As with many things, little oddities were quirks of nature.
“Rhodes, there’s a group of three travelers that have just entered town. They look like they’re staying the night,” Natasha said as she entered the office in a manner that seemed like she just materialized out of thin air.
Travelers weren’t very common in their town, especially not those who stayed overnight. Rhodes and Natasha had an agreement that any traveler that appeared remarkable in any way was to be noted and carefully observed. Tony did not know about this, but more often than not, Tony was completely oblivious to the existence, much less the meaning, of the word “safety” when applied to himself.
By this time, Rhodes was more or less accustomed to Natasha slipping in and out of a location without a whisper of sound and calmly asked for more pertinent information instead. “Defining traits?”
“All human, two males and one female. The female appears to be a cleric from the star pendant she wears around her neck. The taller male looks to be a warrior, though the symbol on his armor suggests that he worships the same deity as the cleric. Possibly a paladin. The last man is likely their guide; he’s an archer,” Natasha reported smoothly.
Rhodes frowned slightly. A cleric and a possible paladin in town? Not really a good thing. Tony’s days on the battlefields were over, but that particular part of the man’s history still caused others to want his life, or at the very least capture him. Then there were those who wanted Tony to use his abilities for themselves, though that was less likely with the current group in town. There was also the slight but still reasonable possibility that the Stark clan had finally decided to track down their wayward heir. Tony had made it expressly clear that he’d take death over returning to the clan that had all but thrown him out because of his warlock powers manifesting. Rhodes might find it difficult to keep Tony out of the trouble his friend sometimes sought out, but he’d sure as hell try to keep any pursuers away. Not to mention, from all he had heard – and not heard (the latter occurrence was far more informative than one would think) – from Tony about the Stark clan and especially Tony’s father, he would not want to return his best friend into their tender loving care anytime soon. If ever.
“We’ll have to find out more about them. Natasha, can you do that?”
Natasha hesitated and that was when Rhodes belatedly realized that she had sounded unusually certain about the second man – the archer. While it was easy to assume that if someone had a bow, he’d be an archer, Natasha never once made any of her observations sound like they were cold hard facts. It was probably due to her upbringing as a spy-assassin in a murky underworld where not everything was as they appeared and it translated over into most situations presented to the woman.
He hazarded a guess. “That archer… does he have any link to your past?”
Natasha nodded. “He’s not a bad person, but I’ve… used him before. He may recognize me, even under disguise, which may not bode well.”
If their spymaster admitted unease, then it was truly a sticky situation. Unfortunately, she was also their best bet at successfully obtaining information from the trio even with such odds, and this traveling group was of high importance. They needed to get accurate information about them. Sending Pepper as a substitute was not an option, regardless of how everyone in town would drop whatever they were doing to defend her at the slightest sign of hostility. Tony would also kill him for doing that, never mind the fact that Pepper wasn’t trained in subterfuge or any real form of self-defense, unlike Natasha.
“I can still do it,” Natasha added. “But we’ll need a backup plan, just in case.”
“A backup plan? Is something happening?” came the voice of Virginia, known as Pepper to her closest friends.
“Pepper, a trio of travelers is staying the night here. We’re doing the usual, but one of them used to know Natasha. It might be a problem,” Rhodes replied.
Normally, neither he nor Natasha liked to involve Pepper, but there was no point in trying to lie to the lady in question now that she was present and had even overheard some of their discussion. Pepper was very resourceful, so she could help in coming up with a contingency plan.
“There’s one female, likely a cleric, and two males. One may be a paladin; the other an archer. The archer is the one who might recognize me, even in disguise,” Natasha added, showing that she was in silent agreement with Rhodes about involving Pepper.
Pepper made a considering noise as she ran over the information she was given. “A possible paladin and cleric. If you’re right about that – and you usually are – they won’t let anything happen in a public space like the inn. I think that regardless of whether your cover is blown, Natasha, you should extend an invitation for them to be our guests here. This way, we can keep an eye on them in case of anything suspicious, and if nothing happens, it’ll serve to show them our hospitality,” she suggested. “Plus, I think it’s time we attempted to correct how Tony is perceived because of his battlefield reputation and generally just from being a warlock. Don’t you agree?”
The other two nodded in agreement with Pepper’s last statement. It would certainly help in keeping Tony safe if less people were out for his hide based on flawed information.
“Won’t Tony have issues with having unexpected guests?” Rhodes then asked. “Isn’t he in his busy phase now?”
Surprisingly, Natasha smirked at the question, valid though it was. “He won’t grumble for long. They’re all easy on the eyes, to say the least.”
Tony wasn’t quite as superficial as he liked to make people believe he was, but all three of them knew well enough that Tony was less likely to have serious complaints about being interrupted if it was for a non-boring, visually appealing cause. It wasn’t as well known, but they also knew that Tony had no qualms about appreciating the physical form of either gender.
“I’ll get him out and presentable, don’t you worry,” Pepper added a tad smugly. “It’s been three days since he last surfaced, long enough for me to have the right to do as I please.”
For a town of its size, there was only one relatively small inn available. The tavern they’d entered was by no means physically small, but it appeared that more space was dedicated to communal wining and dining than actual rooms to sleep and rest in. It was possibly because the town did not receive many visitors that stayed overnight. As a result, they were able to easily get two rooms for a decent price and it appeared that they were the only travelers in town at the moment. Steve and Peggy moved their belongings up into their respective rooms while Clint stayed behind to chat with the innkeeper, which he found wasn’t really an easy task.
The innkeeper was quick to offer tips on the best places to buy food and supplies, as well as general advice about the weather and terrain of the area further up north. But when it came to local gossip, there wasn’t much that he could find out. If his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him, and they rarely ever did, Clint swore that the innkeeper’s eyes went cold and guarded at his probing even though the man’s lips were still turned up in a smile. Gut instinct told him not to try asking about Antonius despite having originally been in his plans, and so Clint bid goodbye and retreated up to the room he was sharing with Steve.
“Something’s up with this place,” he declared after shutting the door to the room and locking it. “I’ve never had this much trouble trying to get my hands on local gossip.”
That was indeed news to Steve. In all the various places they’d stayed in previously, Clint had easily been able to chat up the locals for handy information.
“Nothing at all?”
“It was fine learning about the best places for us to get supplies, learning more about the climate and what to expect further up north. But in the way of local news, pretty much nothing. Not even the most harmless bit of gossip. I also had a feeling that if I tried asking about Antonius, we’d be shown out of the door faster than you could blink. So I didn’t even bother.”
“You make it sound like the innkeeper is protective of Antonius,” Steve observed.
“Less protective, perhaps more wary? I mean, we’ve all heard about the man’s reputation. He’s a warlock, says he’s retired from his mercenary, warmongering ways, but he’s probably still ruling this place with an iron fist and has a ton of enemies from the past. Probably nobody wants to be seen or heard giving out information about Antonius in case they get into trouble.”
“The state of the town doesn’t seem to suggest that Antonius is cruel.”
“Just a façade? Or maybe it’s a carrot-and-stick approach. Give the residents incentive with good housing while still making sure they know what happens if they cross him? Though with how rich Antonius supposedly is, he could just be throwing gold at everyone all the time to make sure they do his bidding.”
Clint was definitely a lot more jaded than Steve himself was, despite them being close in age. Sometimes, Steve felt that Clint’s past was a lot more colorful than what he had let them know. As they journeyed together and Steve saw more of how Clint behaved and interacted with the world, it seemed odd for Clint to be a mere hunter in the wilds. In any case, Steve was still more likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt than Clint would and in this situation, he was hoping that perhaps Antonius’ reputation had also been unduly exaggerated.
Steve was silent for perhaps a tad too long. Clint looked at him again, possibly reading the skepticism and hope for a more positive reason, because the guide spoke again.
“You really like trying to see the good side of people, don’t you?”
“I just think that maybe he does have a past as a mercenary, but it doesn’t mean that he’s a bad person. Times were hard back then with constant warring between lords and cities and it’s possible he only became a mercenary because it was a way to get by. He did disappear from the battlefields when things started becoming more peaceful. I just think that if he was really a warmonger like what some of the rumors seem to say, he wouldn’t have built a village that grew into a town that is, for all purposes, a peaceful place.”
“War changes people, Steve. He could’ve started out of necessity, but who knows if he’s still the same. And well, warlocks don’t have the best reputation for staying on the straight and narrow, or even keeping much of their sanity. Besides, it’s known that warlocks gained their power by making deals with supernatural entities. Even if war hadn’t changed Antonius, the contract he made with whatever creature to gain his powers would definitely have had an effect on his psyche.”
Admittedly, Clint had a point. Plus, there was something dark that settled in the other man’s expression that made Steve think that Clint had personal experience in what he was talking about. It would not be surprising that Clint himself had worked as a mercenary, despite only having told them that he used to be a hunter before becoming a guide.
Technically, Steve supposed, “hunter” could be an accurate term. It was just hunting humans. But it had always been a trait of his to give someone the benefit of the doubt, even more so when he didn’t actually know them yet. But he guessed that right now, what Antonius really was like was not a major concern of theirs.
Tony wasn’t sure what to expect when Pepper all but dragged him out of the workshop to prepare for dinner. She said that there would be guests and it was important that he didn’t make a bad impression. Tony supposed that at least she hadn’t said to make a good impression, because he wasn’t sure if he would ever succeed on that front. He didn’t like to disappoint her, even though it happened more often than not.
So Tony cleaned himself up as told and changed into the clean clothes he found already laid out on his bed. The combination of a deep red dress shirt and black dress pants weren’t the most formal garb he owed, for which he was glad. He rarely entertained guests in his home that required formal attire. To be honest, he never conducted any proper business in the mansion, even if he fobbed off to Rhodey and Pepper that the women, and sometimes men, he brought back had important business to discuss with him. Not that they believed him; they knew him too well for that.
Which made it strange for guests that he knew nothing about to be invited to the mansion.
At this moment, there was a knock on his door and he called out, “Come in, Pepper.”
When Pepper appeared, she took in his appearance with a satisfied smile. “Good, I was afraid you’d put up more resistance.”
“Against you? My dearest lady, never!”
Pepper just shook her head, knowing how much that proclamation wasn’t true. “Okay Tony, I have some information about our guests that you should know. They’re travelers staying in town and two of them are subjects of the War God Fury-”
“Wait. Are you telling me that these guests are pompous, “I-am-holier-than-thou-just-because” clerics?”
“Well, one of them is a paladin.”
“A paladin,” Tony repeated, his voice devoid of inflection. “Because that’s so much better than just clerics. Why did you decide to invite them, Pepper? Did I do something to seriously annoy you?” he continued, voice taking on a slightly more plaintive note towards the end.
“It’s not that, Tony. This… This is for your sake.”
Then it clicked. It was another manifestation of Rhodey’s and Natasha’s ideas for his safety. When did Pepper get involved in it? Though most probably, she’d been in on it with them from the start. Natasha must have learnt about these travelers via her super-secret spy network, told Rhodey and gotten Pepper involved.
“This is about protecting me, isn’t it? In case they’re actually here to capture or kill me, and what? You think this will preempt it or change their minds? Well if there’s a paladin, he probably wouldn’t condone outright murder, so there’s that. But why bother to invite them? I know Rhodey and Natasha have their own ways of dealing with these situations, and it never involved me directly.”
“It’s different this time. The last person in the group is someone from Natasha’s past. She said it was possible that he’d see through her disguise.”
“There’s a guy who encountered Natasha in her Black Widow days and didn’t end up dead?” Even as Tony expressed his incredulousness (and with good reason), he knew that this couldn’t be good.
Whoever this last guy was, chances were that he was probably a trained assassin as well.
“Apparently so,” Pepper replied calmly. “Natasha didn’t say what went on between them, but told us that he’s an excellent archer; she’s never seen him miss a mark.”
The trained assassin theory was looking more and more likely. So maybe it was the archer’s presence that had gotten Pepper and Rhodey worried for his life. Though why would a cleric and a paladin even associate with an assassin?
“So, he’s an assassin?”
“He wasn’t when Natasha knew him. She thinks that he’s their guide.”
“Okay. So, how does inviting these people to dinner help with anything?”
“We think it’s time that you cleared up your reputation a bit.”
“Reputation? What reputation?” Tony answered blithely, though in truth, he was well aware of what was said about him outside of the town he was technically in-charge of.
Pepper gave him a look that told him that she was on to his bullshit. As usual. Nevertheless, she still explained. “The reputation that you gained when you were still a mercenary with unprecedented talent in the art of destruction and more importantly the rumors that suggest you’re a warmonger. You know that there are people who would like to see you brought down or even killed.”
“Pepper, even if I had never been on a battlefield, there would still be people who want me dead. I’m not a nice person, you know that.”
“There’s no harm in doing this. Besides, you need to socialize more.”
“Really, Pepper? I need to socialize?” Tony said with a deliberately lewd leer.
It didn’t have an effect on Pepper, who merely glared a little and said, “Yes. The kind of socializing that doesn’t involve the bedroom. You’re going along with this, Tony, and you’re not going to screw it up on purpose.”
Tony gave a dramatic sigh but did not protest any further. Pepper, Rhodey and Natasha had to have planned this to the letter and had all sorts of contingency plans. Natasha, especially, would not have qualms in drugging him just to get him to agree. It was better to save his dignity and agree to the dinner rather than fight a losing battle.
He could be pragmatic when it was required. He just hoped really hard that this dinner would not be too much of a chore.
Later in the evening, Steve and Clint met Peggy down in the common room of the inn for their evening meal. They had just settled down at a table when a redheaded barmaid approached them.
“Sirs, ma’am, I have a message from Lord Antonius. He would like to invite you to his home for dinner,” she said shyly, not really keeping eye contact with any of them.
Steve and Peggy looked at each other in surprise. This was… unexpected. They had not thought that their presence would have been noticed by the warlock. It would be impolite to decline the invitation at best. At worst, Antonius could think that they had some agenda being in his town. Steve glanced at Clint, wanting to see if he had any opinion on this matter but found that his attention was focused unerringly on the barmaid. The serious expression on his face was akin to the times they had gotten into skirmishes with brigands.
Before any of them could ask Clint what was wrong however, Artemis suddenly appeared, flying straight for the barmaid and landing on her shoulder. There was, strangely enough, no sign of panic or fear on the barmaid’s face, but there couldn’t have been a way for her to know that the hawk would not attack her. Right?
“Natalie?” Clint finally spoke, his tone was slightly shocked.
The barmaid, who hadn’t been properly meeting their eyes previously and had appeared to be shy and unsure of herself, straightened up and all at once, her entire demeanor changed. She looked up properly at each of them, her gaze hard and piercing, as if she could see all of their secrets with just one look. She held herself as if she was poised right on the edge of movement and there was a grace about her that felt not unlike that of a panther. Steve felt himself becoming on edge.
“Clint,” the woman finally acknowledged, and even her voice was different. Still soft, but with a core of steel underneath. “I had guessed that you’d see through my disguise eventually, even without Artemis.”
The hawk in question was still perched on her shoulder. Clint’s smile was strained, looking almost like a grimace.
“Well, she always liked you.”
“Excuse me,” Peggy interrupted, though not sounding all that sorry about it. “Who are you exactly?”
“My name is Natasha – ‘Natalie’ was a cover. I’ve come on Lord Antonius’ behalf to invite all three of you for dinner and to spend the rest of your stay there, however long it may be, as his personal guests. It is rare for us to have visitors from the Church of Fury and he would like to extend a warm welcome. We have many guestrooms available for your use.”
“We have already acquired rooms here,” Peggy said.
“You will be refunded fully. Lord Antonius has already reimbursed the inn for their loss of business.”
As if on a cue, the innkeeper appeared with a bag of coins which was handed over to Peggy. Now, there really wasn’t a good way to decline the invitation without seeming rude and ungrateful. Steve stood up and then bowed slightly.
“We would be honored to take up Lord Antonius’ invitation.”
“I will be waiting here to accompany you to the mansion,” Natasha replied.
Despite the fact that that was all Natasha said, Steve could not help but hurry as the three of them headed back to collect their belongings. He couldn’t say that he was looking forward to the dinner, but it would be an excellent way for him to determine, once and for all, just what sort of person Antonius was.
When they returned to the common room, Natasha was indeed waiting for them. Artemis was still on her shoulder, but when Clint came into sight, the hawk flew to him instead. Clint had been quiet since Natasha revealed her true name and Steve was curious as to how they’d known each other. He wasn’t going to ask, however, because from what he had seen so far, Clint and Natasha probably had not parted on good terms. Clint seemed to be shocked that “Natalie” was a false name and Steve guessed that the archer probably had put a lot of trust in “Natalie”.