Raulin had promised himself that he would remain cordial to Anladet, to give her space. He had decided that, looking over their conversation more closely, it made the most sense that he had been a little too strong in his actions. She might be concerned that, having to spend the next eight months together, any leap into a relationship could be a foolish idea. He still felt there was something there, though, and he wouldn’t give up. He’d just be slower and more friendly.
Of course, he was also still her guard. And as her guard, it was his duty to watch over her and make sure she was safe. He had peeked in a few times throughout the night, in between wandering the town, and saw she was drawing in enough customers to nullify his need to pay her table a visit. He still made sure she was doing well that evening.
He should have been watching out for Al. Even though he had been acting strangely, he was sitting in his room, so Raulin thought him safe enough. Maybe it would have been better for Raulin’s emotional state if he had let Anla take care of herself.
One of the men sat and gave her a bowl of stew. He thought that was a good idea, an excuse to talk with her that he should have thought of. He watched as the man had his reading, then moved closer to her. This was the point she normally would have stiffened her posture, been more formal, and closed herself off from his advances.
But, she didn’t. She leaned in. She rested her chin in her hand and she smiled. Perhaps she knew him? He continued to watch, even though he would have told a man in his position that he was being foolishly naive.
Anla suddenly straightened her spine and he thought the man had finally said something that she found too indecent. Instead, she stood, took his hand, and led him to the stairs to the rooms on the second floor.
He couldn’t recall ever having the same feeling in his life. He’d had women move on from him while he still thought there was some relationship between them, but the passion had usually been waning. Once it was plainly because the girl liked it when men fought over her. Neither had bothered him very much. This, however, cut him from his gut to sternum in a hard, stinging sensation.
She didn’t want him. Not only that, but instead of remaining alone, she had picked some man she had just met to bed, someone who had spent less than an hour in her company. Raulin had hoped that part of her initial rejection was due to the lack of general interest, since he’d never seen her with another man in the months they’d been traveling together, but he had been wrong.
Gutted, he walked back to their, his, room at the inn, locked the door, and laid down in his. He didn’t fall asleep for some time, though he wasn’t sure if it was because he was thinking about her or because she wasn’t there.
By morning, he was over the worst of his anguish, but he still had a simmering anger over the events. It wouldn’t do to let her know how much she had hurt him, but there was still a way to get a few barbs in, to let her know that her actions weren’t appreciated.
As he had expected, Telbarisk and the wizard arrived at the oak tree before her. Al waited about five minutes before asking where she was. “Oh, I’m sure she’ll be along soon,” Raulin said. “Let’s give her some time.”
“Do you know where she is?” Al asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” he said, folding his arms and leaning against the tree. “She’s at the other inn.”
“Let’s go get her, then, and we can hit the road and be away from all these people.”
“I said let’s give her some time. She’s still busy, or maybe saying goodbye.”
“The man she was with last night.” He kept his tone as casual as possible, but the thought lit a fresh fire in his chest. “It’s not polite to pry, so we’ll just let her come at her own pace and say nothing when she arrives.”
“Why couldn’t she have just done her piscarin-lying instead of prostitution? Did she need money?” Al mused.
Raulin paused at this. What if this wasn’t romance? She had seemed happy, he thought, and she’d be here already. “I think she still has a lot of gold on her person. But, what she does in her spare time is not any of our concern.”
Al seemed to agree to this. Telbarisk, understanding nothing of whoring or of what had really happened or why Raulin would be upset over the whole thing, sat perfectly content against the trunk.
And so they waited. And waited. The morning passed into lunch time. Al read half of a Kiesh the Black novel, though he had read it before and was glossing through quite a bit of it. Raulin grew more and more irritated that she was also waylaying them.
“Should we check on her? What if the man she was with was rough or didn’t want to pay?” Al finally asked.
“Feel free,” Raulin said, almost snapping at him. “If she gets cross with you, don’t be upset with her.”
The wizard disappeared for some ten minutes, then came back alone. “The innkeeper says that all the rooms are empty. She’s not there.”
Some other situation, where they weren’t tethered together, would make him think she had decided to run off with the man and that their group were disbanded. But she knew there were strange circumstances with them. This was beginning to puzzle Raulin, who led them to the inn.
The innkeeper was at the bar, which was through the one door in the lobby. “Would you prefer our room tonight, sir?” he asked, remembering Raulin from the day before.
“Actually, I’m looking for a woman. You might remember her from last night. She would be the dark-haired girl who sat in the back and read people’s fortunes.”
“Ah, her,” he said. “I’ll have to thank her if I see her; I noticed a bit more than usual buying my drinks. She went upstairs with a man after dinner and I haven’t seen her since.”
He clenched his jaw for a moment. “Is there anyone who might have seen her leave?”
The innkeeper nodded, then called out for his wife. A plump woman with dimples on her flour-smudged face and her hair back in a kerchief came in from the front, wiping her hands on her apron. “Kiena, did you see where that oracle girl went this morning? The one from last night?”
She twisted her mouth to the side. “She left with that man in room three early this morning.”
“Did you see which way they went?” Raulin asked.
She shook her head. “I had to get on making the pies for tonight. I saw a few other men joined them out in the street, but I didn’t see which way they headed.”
Raulin sucked in his breath and walked brusquely to the door. He turned after some thought. “Thank you. Do you happen to know of anyone who’s also up at that hour that has a shop on the crossroads? The blacksmith, perhaps, or a grocer?”
The innkeeper responded. “Old Ranvi would be too busy to pay attention, but you can try him at his forge. Maybe you’ll get lucky. The market and most of the other shops that are open early are farther down the street.”
Raulin’s shoulders slumped. “Thank you again for your help.”
“There’s Chockwell,” Kiena said. “He’s usually up early.”
“He’s the priest that takes care of the shrine to Queyella.”
“Queyella?” Al asked. “The Sea Goddess has a shrine hundreds of miles from the shore?”
“She’s the goddess of travelers,” Kiena said, laughing in a patronizing way. “We get a lot of travelers, so it’s fitting that She cares for them.”
“Thank you very much,” Raulin said, heading towards the door. “I think I’ve already gotten my share of luck today.”
* * *
The light was bright, which caused Anla to blink rapidly. It had been dark last she remembered, in a room dimly lit with lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Wood and a ceramic bowl, coins and runes, the smell of stew and beer. This place was green, cool but not cold, somewhat damp on her legs, birds twittering and the smell of smoke and fire.
Movement in front of her made her startle as her eyes focused. “Why won’t you move?” the figure asked.
“You stopped moving, sat here, said you couldn’t walk any farther. Why?”
“I don’t know,” she said. The voice sounded a little familiar.
“You need to tell me or the Man With the Coin will be upset.”
This made her anxious and sad, but she didn’t know why nor who that was. “But I don’t know. Who are you?”
At that moment, things finally became clear enough to her. She was sitting in a forest clearing in front of the man from last night. “My name is Sakilei and you need to think. What would make you break my magic like that?”
His eyes. She hadn’t seen in the dim light, but they were the same color as her own, some puzzling hue between green and blue, gray and brown. His features, so much like her brother’s, not quite human and not quite elven, sharp eyes not totally feral, high cheekbones, but not strangely high. And, of course, his ears, not round, but not the sharp point and length of her tribe.
“You’re a baerd,” she said.
“Yes, and so are you. But somehow you’ve broken my spell and that has the Man With the Coin upset and worried.”
“No,” she moaned, again feeling the need to make whoever that was pleased.
“Will you walk if I promise not to put you under again?”
“Good. Now, normally the Man With the Coin will let me bring his bounty out of the spell only when we’re farther away from towns. You have to listen to me and obey the rules or else he’ll have to do some unpleasant things. Do you promise to listen and obey?”
She nodded enthusiastically.
“The Man With the Coin will be pleased to hear that. All right, listen because I will not repeat myself. You belong to the Man With the Coin. Since you are a baerd, you will fetch a good price in New Wextif. You should be thankful; half-breeds are usually sold cheaply at market and I hear their lives are unpleasant and short. You, however, will be sold to another bounty hunting group for a good price and you will help hunt down our kind until you are no longer useful, like the half-breed who found me.
“I have already impressed you while we were upstairs in my room, but I will tell you as well. You cannot escape. You cannot hurt the Man With the Coin or anyone else in his posse. You cannot sabotage they’re route nor can you ask for help from anyone. If the Man With the Coin tells you to do something, you will without hesitation, whether or not you want to.”
“If they try, I will fight them,” she said, understanding then the full gravity of her situation.
He frowned and narrowed his eyes. “No, you won’t.”
“You don’t think I will?”
“I know you would if you could, but you can’t. If they want you, they will have you.”
She felt sick at that thought and she must have looked upset enough because Sakilei continued in a softer tone. “For what it’s worth, they probably won’t. Casquio, that’s the Man With the Coin, feels that half-breeds are like animals and would rather rut with his horse. Akmillin, the young pup with the blond hair, is under his thumb, thinks he’s some sort of hero, and therefore also thinks you’re disgusting. He’s learning the ways of scouting, so he’s not around much anyway. Tellenhi is the archer and Ripole is the gentleman. I don’t know for sure with either of them, but the Man With the Coin won’t like it if things get complicated.
“You’re also a baerd. Higher price, especially if you’re untouched. Scarring or damaging you will drop your price as will as incapacitating you with a child. Just on that, I think you’re safe. And maybe your buyer will also be as considerate.”
“And you? What happened last night?”
“Nothing,” he said, looking away.
“Nothing? You had me under your spell and…”
He scoffed, his eyes flashing with anger. “Like begets like. One human, one elf, means one half-breed child. If they mate with an elf or a human, their children are safe. If they mate with another half-breed, they will have half-breeds. I won’t risk to bring another one of us into the world. It’s bad enough that I have to see my people, my kind, reduced to slavery; I couldn’t bear if it were my own child.”
His tone was nowhere near as warm and flirtatious as it had been last night, but it grew even colder than it had. “I brought you upstairs and you slept on the floor. That’s all.”
“Why don’t you escape?” she asked. “Why don’t you do something to stop this?”
“Stupid girl,” he said, glaring at her. “Don’t you think I would if I could? I am under the same rules as you, more of them. I cannot run away. I cannot ask for help. I cannot hurt the posse and the Man With the Coin. I cannot help the half-breeds run away. I cannot do anything that would help them run away. Many rules, few openings. I’ve tried to think of ways for many years. Nothing.”
“What if I can help you escape?” She whispered, “I was traveling with people who will save me.”
“Is this why you sat and couldn’t move?”
“Yes,” she began. She would have said more, but Sakilei stood up and moved towards Casquio, who was already walking towards them.
“She has a party she was with that might cause us problems. This is why she sat and didn’t move.”
“Oh,” the man said, though he smiled at the news. “I doubt a few vagabonds are going to give us much trouble.” He squatted down next to Anla and tipped her head up with his fingers. “None of them are trackers, are they?”
“No,” she said, thinking quickly. “They’ve probably already left with the money.”
“See, no problem.” He turned to speak to Sakilei. “How is she doing? Are we going to have any problems with her?”
“She has promised to obey,” he said.
He turned back, reached inside his shirt, and drew out a necklace with a gold Ghenian coin threaded with the chain, one side painted red. “I am the Man With the Coin. Sakilei has told you about what that means?”
“I obey your rules and do whatever you tell me to do,” she answered. Living on the streets had taught her many things, including when it was pointless to fight and that it was better to pretend to be meek to live another day.
“Good,” he said. “I am very pleased at this. Obedient, pretty, young, skilled, and in good health.” He pushed her chin down to open her mouth. “You have all your teeth, too. Yes, I think you will probably fetch the highest price I’ve ever seen at the market.”
“May I ask a question, sir?”
“Polite, good. One question.”
“Have you ever captured a little girl, maybe ten or eleven, in Hanala or a boy younger than that in Hanala or south of there?”
“Those your siblings?” he asked and she nodded. “No, I don’t recollect that, but maybe some other group did. We usually stick to the country, unless we get a nice request from someone, so we haven’t been in Hanala in a long time. Maybe we’ll look for them, though, before we head to New Wextif. Older sisters make great bait.
“All right,” he said to Sakilei, “we’re going to ditch camp and start moving, now that she’s sorted out. Ten minutes.”
When he was out of earshot, Anla turned to the half-elf and hissed, “Why did you tell him that? I’m trying to help you!”
“Don’t tell me anything,” he said sadly. “The less you say to me, the less I’ll have to tell him.”
“You have to tell him when I try to escape?”
“Yes, every time. So, don’t try, don’t tell me anything, don’t talk to me. It’s better that way. Just obey and you’ll get through this fine.”