After a long and grueling journey scouring the Realm for signs of the king, Duchess Ambrosia rode her horse into the courtyard of a downtrodden inn. It was the only place she had come across in the last 20 miles and it looked a whole lot better than the previous inn she had considered--and dismissed when vermin ran out from a hole under the wall of the great room. Night would be falling soon and she had no desire to spend another night sleeping on the ground. Dismounting, she threw the reins to the stable lad and tossed him a coin to ensure her horse would be well treated. She grabbed her satchel from the saddle, and headed inside. Taking a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dimness, she blinked a few times until her vision cleared. Then she spotted the barkeep and headed to the bar.

"Have you seen anyone around these parts who resembles this portrait?" she asked, pulling the parchment from her bag and sliding the picture across the bar. Sitting down on the stool opposite the barkeep, she waited.

He glanced at her, then down at the picture. "Nope. Can't say as I have. Want anything I actually can provide?"

Ambrosia glanced up at the barrels of spirits stacked behind the man. All she saw was ale. Sighing under her breath, she asked, "Is this the entirety of your offering?"

"Yep. 'Tis what we drink around these parts. Nothin' fancy like a lady like you'd be used to."

Inwardly she laughed. She knew her white leathers were grey from the grime of traveling. She could feel the powder of dust on her face. Though she couldn't see her hair, she knew it must be a fright. She knew she couldn't look less like a lady than she did at this moment. "How much for a glass and a room for the night?" At that moment Ambrosia's stomach rumbled and she pursed her lips. She could eat the hardtack another night, but it wouldn't be her choice if she could help it. "Do you serve food here, too?"

"We do. Nothin' fancy, mind. Missus makes a thick stew with hearty bread on the side. I believe tonight's stew is lamb."

"That will do. How much?"

"One tree for the ale, 5 trees for the food, and 20 trees for the room."

Ambrosia poured some coins out of her purse into her hand. Mixed amongst the trees was a silver round. She felt the barkeep's gaze and looked up at him.

He gestured to her coins. "Make it a silver and I'll throw in a hot tub of water delivered to your room. A lady like you probably would enjoy washing off the road a bit."

"Wouldn't anyone?"

"Most just go back to the crick and take a dunk. Saves them some coin. Nice lady like you, though, it wouldn't do to be out alone taking a dunk in the stream."

"Shady types hanging around?"

The barkeep didn't answer, just motioned with his eyes to the great room. Casually, Ambrosia looked around the inn. The great room was filled with tables, most had a few people at them. She thought it would fill up as the night progressed since it was the only place for miles around. At one of the tables a group of nine men intently watched her. She didn't let her eyes settle on them as she didn't want them to know she noticed them. No need to start something if she could avoid it. She noted their clothes were leathers with reinforcement and padding. Swords and knives were prominently displayed, the sheaths utilitarian. From their clothing, their postures in their chairs, and the way they watched the room, she could tell these were not ordinary men and not locals. No. Not farmers or trappers. Perhaps retired soldiers. Or perhaps bandits. Whatever they were, they were worth keeping a close eye on for trouble.

Ambrosia turned back to the barkeep and slid the silver into his hand. "You might want to keep your wife in her room tonight away from their sight. It might be safer."

The barkeep scowled as he picked up a glass and began wiping it with a towel. "I'm more concerned 'bout you. The boys and I'll take care of Mary and keep her safe. You, on the other hand, will have to fend for yerself. If trouble breaks out I'll do what I can, but I can't cover everywhere."

The barkeep's eyes widened as Ambrosia's look turned ferocious
.

"I'll deal with any problems if they come my way, barkeep. Just keep your people safe. I can handle myself." Ambrosia reached across the bar and took the empty glass from the barkeep's hands, nodded to him, and rose from the stool. "Which room?"

He frowned, then reached below the bar and produced a key. "Number 2. It's next door to my rooms, in case there's a need in the middle of the night. I'll get my boys to bring a tub right up. Do you want your dinner brought to your room?"

"Thank you. It may be wise."

The barkeep nodded and handed her the key.