Alpine knew a strange situation when he saw one. He was a peculiarity, too; a wizard on the road far from a city, looking for adventure. He didn’t stand out, though, since no one really knew he was a wizard. The woman in the corner, however, stood out like frozen laundry on a windy day.
She sat the corner farthest from the door, up against the stairway to the rooms upstairs.. She wasn’t with anyone that Al could tell and she wasn’t waitressing. It might raise a few eyebrows back in Whitney, where women had a little more autonomy, but here in the countryside of Sharka, it was a bit odd. Especially a woman so comely and so unprotected.
She was dark haired with captivating eyes that tilted up slightly. She would be incredibly stunning if she wore clothing more befitting her small stature and gained a little weight. As it were, her high cheekbones shadowed her face dramatically and her collarbones stuck out in a way closer to starvation than exoticism. Her appearance didn’t seem to bother the local men, though. Al had counted eight of them sitting at her table during the better part of an evening, a little under half the men in the tavern. The rest probably understood they were too old or too poor to have a fair chance at her hand.
The woman spoke quietly, occasionally pulling out a bag of runes. Even stranger. A piscarin, so far from the docks of a city. Was that normal for a small town in Sharka?
Al kept drinking the beer at the bar, watching the woman in the corner, trying to decipher the situation. The bartender leaned over. “No offense t’ya, sir, but I’m thinkin’ she may be out o’ ya league. Piscarin or no, some man here would surely be a fetching match for her.”
Al turned back to the man. “Oh, I’m not…no. Just curious.”
“I’m thinkin’ she’s quite a mysterious lady. My guess,” the bartender said, leaning a little closer, “is she’s a noblewoman, in disguise, checkin’ out ‘er locals. Hopen she finds us all right.”
“We may never know,” Al said, taking a long swig.
“Well, she be free agin’. Why don’t ya go ask ‘er what secrets she be holdin’?”
“I bet I’ll be as successful as a sailor trapping the Gamik Sea.”
“Heh, that bein’ a good one, sir. Good luck to ye.”
Al waited a few minutes, then decided it was worth the entertainment, if not the education. He brought his beer over with him and asked if she minded if he sat down. She waved him to join her.
“Are you looking to have your fortune told?” she asked.
“Seems a good way to spend a few minutes,” he said, putting his beer down on the table.
“Three coppers, unless you’d like a stronger connection.” She held her hand out in front of her.
“Let’s make this interesting shall we?” He placed two coins on the table. “I will pay you one copper for the reading. If you can guess three things about me, I will give you one gold.” Why did I just wager a gold?
She eyed the coin hungrily for a moment, then returned his gaze with a sleepy one. “The spirits frown upon gambling. I will accept and beseech them to forgive my weakness.”
Al picked up his beer and snorted into it. “I’m sure they will.”
The woman drew six tiles from her bag. She placed them into three pairs, then waited a few moments. While Alpine found her to be quite easy on the eyes, what he enjoyed more was how she watched him. It was if she were peering out from a bush, an intelligent look but one of action and speed, of breaking down walls and necessary evils. “You are not from around here.”
“Obviously. Be more specific.”
Her mouth hardened for a second, then faced smoothed into placidity. “You’re from a city. You’re from the north.”
He nodded and slid the gold coin a thumb’s length towards her.
“You are a learned man. Many letters surround you.”
He slid the coin again.
“You are seeking something important in your life. Love. You are looking for a woman.”
Al placed his finger over the gold coin and slid it back towards him. “You were doing so well, too.”
“Wait!” she said, then slipped back into her mask of ennui. She cleared her throat. “Perhaps it isn’t a woman you seek then? Is it companionship of another kind?”
“Are you propounding I’m a Uranian?” he asked. He placed the gold coin back in his pouch as the woman began to apologize. He held up his hand. “I’m not, but that’s besides the point. You were incorrect about the last part so our deal is off. I’m sorry you weren’t connected to the spirits enough.”
He didn’t leave immediately, though. He watched her go through a series of non-verbal tries. First, she flirted with him, her eyes looking into his, then bashfully away. When that didn’t work, she grew cold, leaning back into the darkened corner with her arms crossed. Finally, she ignored him, looking around the room for her next client.
“You broke your facade,” he said after he finished his beer. Her gaze to him. “Just for a moment, I saw someone whom I found much more interesting. I’d rather talk to her and not deal with this fake piscarin thing you’re doing,” Al said, waving his hand in front of her face.
It occurred to him in that moment that the beer might be stronger than he thought.
“I’m not a fake, m’lord. I just don’t always hear what the spirits are trying to tell me.”
“That’s…disappointing. I don’t like piscarins, did the spirits tell you that? They’re cheats. Every single one of them. They say they can tap into the spirit world through magic. They make us wizards look bad by comparison.”
“You’re a wizard?” she asked, looking piqued for the first time.
“I am. .rd Alpine Gray, but just Al is fine, if you want to be friendly. I notice the spirits neglected to tell you that.”
“The spirits don’t tell me everything.”
Al sighed deeply, meeting her gaze with a disappointed one. “You seem like an intriguing person. I’m in the mindset to meet engaging people and have conversations with them. I feel like going for a stroll. If you’re so inclined as well, I’ll wait a few minutes before I start staggering down the road.”
Al left her at the table, the woman staring ahead with a thoughtful look. He paid his tab. “What’s in that beer exactly?” he asked the bartender.
“Oh, we brew it wit’ a herb some not from ’round here be findin’ a bit strange.” He looked over. “Sorry about your luck.”
“We’ll see,” Alpine said.
He stepped outside, stretching his limbs and pacing back and forth in front of the tavern. The sun was set for the night, but there was still enough light to silhouette the trees across the road. Flies gathered around the oil lamps in the town center, which consisted of just the tavern, a general store, an area with some stalls that suggested a daytime market, and a few houses. Frogs and insects chirped all around him. Al found it peaceful and beautiful.
The white, many paned door to the tavern creaked open and closed. He turned and saw the woman from inside standing there, her arms clasped before her.
“If you prefer, we can walk under the lamps. I am a gentleman, but I understand a savvy woman is cautious.”
“No need,” she said, joining him. “I can handle myself better than my appearance would suggest.”
He offered his arm, which she patted kindly but didn’t take. “Introductions, then? I was being honest about being a wizard. I can show you my stole, if you would like proof.”
“I believe you,” she said, “and I think there are easier ways to prove it. My name is Anladet.”
“Lovely name. Arvonnese, if I’m not mistaken.”
“My father was from Arvonne. He settled here some twenty years ago.”
“Really?” he asked. “Does he speak of it often? Arvonne culture is a particular interest of mine.”
“Some,” she said, sadly. “I can speak and write the language and remember some tales of his.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“Slake my curiosity, then. What are you doing in a tavern here, in the middle of lumber country?”
She stopped walking, then turned back towards the town. “Well, if you must know, I’m hunting for the missing daughter of the duke. I think that makes us competitors.”
“Competitors?” he asked, looking confused. “No… That would be the first I’ve heard of it. What makes you believe I’m doing the same thing you are?”
Anladet looked surprised. “A wizard, from a place at least a day’s ride from here, hanging around in a bar? And you’re not looking to take a bride home? You must be down here for a reason.”
“Not particularly.” He paused. “It might be forward of me, but I’d like a little measure on tonight’s discussion. I’ll tell you why you were wrong if you tell me how you were right.”
She studied him for a moment. “Those are trade secrets. I’ll have your word that, if I tell you, you won’t turn around and tell everyone in the tavern?”
He connected his fingertips together in the sign of trust. “I already know it’s a show. You won’t be disappointing me. And while I’m not fond of cheating, I never ruin a man’s, or woman’s, job.”
“All right. You don’t have the local accent. It’s a rather jarring thing, if you’re not used to it. I’ve heard enough Eerians to know their accent. A little clipped and never a hard ‘v’.”
“Well, you could have been wrong, if I hadn’t picked up the Eerie accent. So, you’re observant, then. How did you know I was a man of words?”
“Your arms and hands,” she said. “You don’t have a cut, bruise, or scrape on them. Your hands don’t have any calluses. You’re not a lumberjack, that’s for sure, nor do you do anything dangerous or physical. Your, um, physique doesn’t make one think of hard labor. Therefore, something scholarly.”
“Okay. And why did you think I was in search of love?”
“No ring,” she said, pointing to her own left hand, “and you’re young. You didn’t seem to be in a rush and you didn’t have any satchels with paperwork in them. I usually just guess when I’m fairly sure I’m right. I guess I wasn’t this time.”
“No. I’d rather not go into it, but let’s just say I’ve been there and done that.”
“Recent break-up, then? I’m sorry to hear about it.”
“Thank you. Anyway, I’m not looking for romance at this point. I’m looking for adventure. I’ve lived in a rather stagnant and boring life for the last seven years and I want to try something different. Can you help me out with that?”
“How?” she asked, then raised her eyebrows. “Do you mean, you want to join me in finding Lady Silfa?”
“Yes. I propose we team up. We can split everything right down the middle, costs and rewards. I can offer what I have in supplies and skills. I won’t be angry if we don’t find her, nor will I hold it against you. What do you say?”
Anladet smiled. “I usually work alone, but I’d be willing to consider it. Let me think it over tonight while I do some more work. Meet here me in the morning, when the market opens in town. I’ll be gone by noon if you dawdle.”
Al waved to her as he walked back into the tavern. He walked up the stairs to his room and didn’t notice the jealous looks from all the men thinking he was the luckiest man in the world.