Anladet had barely sat down on the stone wall across from the tavern when Al opened the white door and stepped out, stretching. His thick hair was disheveled, but arranged in a way that made her think he actually might have tried taming it that morning. His clothing was changed, though still a tunic and breeches with loafers.
He’s come to say he’s reconsidered, she thought. No one would dress in those clothes if they were hunting a group through the woods.
“I’m surprised to see you up so early,” she said. “How was your night? And your morning?”
“Good, actually. Yours?”
“It was well.” Though muggy and full of bugs, the night had been warm enough. She had saved herself the four silver they wanted to charge at the tavern and slept outside.
“Good. Well rested for our chase, then?”
“Did you still want to join me?”
He smiled broadly. “Yes! Did you still want me to?”
“Yes, but…” And here Anla ran into a slight issue of propriety. She had learned over the years of living on the streets that, unless you wanted to make yourself a target, you should keep your mouth shut. Some of her friends had had a knack for doing the opposite, finding a rich looking person and cajoling their way into a tip, but many were used as whipping posts for people too wary to trust a street urchin. She had seen a few hobble back to the warehouse, bleeding, bruised, and with potential breaks in their bones and spirits. It was enough to make her very cautious when it came to sharing information.
Then again, she could fend for herself. “Alpine, were you planning on changing your attire before we depart?”
He looked down at his clothes, then back up at Anladet. “No. Why?”
“We’re heading into the woods.”
He still looked confused.
“Mosquitoes. Branches. Miles and miles of terrain. You will get chewed and scratched during the day, then sprout blisters overnight. And once I start, I’m not going to stop because you can’t go on.”
“Oh,” he said, seeming dumbfounded. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Do you have different shoes? Longer socks you could wear?”
“Long socks I have. I don’t have better shoes, but these are well broken in; I doubt they’ll give me blisters.”
Anla hopped off the wall. “We can buy supplies before we begin. We can include some pelt scraps if they have any, should your feet get bad.”
As they began walking, Al said, “Before we begin, I have one question I’d like to ask.”
“I’ll try to answer it as best I can.”
“Do you have a lead?”
She inhaled, letting her breath out slowly. Here’s where she would begin to choose her words carefully. “I do. I tracked them from Hanala to here. As far as I can tell, they are the people who have the duke’s daughter.”
“You’re a tracker, then,” Al said. “That’s great. I’m guessing you know how to find a trail in a forest by the way the leaves are bent or whether there are animals around. That sort of thing. Can you teach me while we’re out following them?”
“I can try, but it takes years of experience.” She stopped walking and Al paused with her. Anla thought about the situation. He seemed eager, watching her with an expression that seemed like he was afraid to ruin their discussion. She wasn’t totally sure, but she felt he was deferring to her, hoping she would take charge. He felt much less like one of those rich men and more like a client she was reading for. Despite earlier reservation, she decided to put some measures in place, to secure her secrets.
“Alpine, I have a few rules and stipulations before we begin. If you can agree to them, I think we can establish a partnership. The first is silence. I don’t mind conversation, but if I hold up my hand, I will need you to be quiet until I put it down. The second is you need to keep up with me. I can cover a lot of ground in one day. I can’t work with someone who dawdles. Lastly, well, I wanted to be upfront about the financial portion. I made some money last night, but even assuming I find the lady quickly and get her back to Hanala as fast as possible, I will barely have enough money for provisions for myself. If you front any money for her food, clothing, and comfort, you can take it out of the reward. If we find her. I believe you said you didn’t mind if we failed, that you wouldn’t expect me to pay you back.”
“True. I wouldn’t. But I’m not a rich man. I have some money to keep me wandering for a while, but not forever. I will agree to your rules, but don’t expect luxuries. I can front enough for basics.”
She nodded and waited. “No rules of your own?”
“No, I think things seem in order.”
Anla was taken aback by his level of trust. What if she decided to run off with the lady while he slept, to claim the reward herself? What if she sacrificed him in order to get to the lady? There were so many little ways to fool a man out of his due.
“All right,” she said. “Do you need some time? Usually ruly grue hits a man hard in the morning. I can go get our things while you rest for a while.”
“Is that what I was drinking? I didn’t feel drunk when I spoke with you.”
“Just confident and chatty. There’s a saying they have around these parts. ‘Ruly grue is a mighty brew, makes men witty and makes them true’. They put some herb in it that gives you the better effects of getting drunk without the slurring and dizziness. It’s supposed to give a man one nasty hangover, however. I figured you’d be nursing that today and might not make the deadline.”
“I feel all right. Of course, being a wizard does have some benefits.”
“You can cure a hangover?”
“Not exactly. We can heal faster, some of us at least, and that includes sobering quicker than most. I didn’t drink much last night and I must have slipped into the Calm at some point.” He shrugged.
“Do you need any more time for yourself? Perhaps to gather your things.”
“Yes,” he said with a soft chuckle. “I just need to settle my bill and grab my things. Shouldn’t be more than a half hour.”
When Al returned, he had strapped to him the most enormous pack Anla had ever seen. It might have been normal on most men, but with his lack of height and size it appeared even larger. “Alpine, that’s a ridiculous bag you have.”
“Al,” he corrected her, “and I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed.” He looked at the stained and ripped sack she held tightly in her first. “We should get you one.”
“Often the merchants just let you take a burlap sack that has a hole in it. You can make it work with larger items.”
“No. If we’re going to do this, you need a proper pack. We’re hitting the general store first.”
There was a pack there, olive in color, that had a tie attached to the top panel to protect everything inside. The straps were loose, but easily cinched with twine the owner provided. “How much?” Al asked.
The owner looked him up and down. “Seven gold.”
Al began counting out the gold while Anladet looked on, astounded. “Um, no,” she said, putting a hand over Al’s and lowering his pouch. “It is a wonderful knapsack, but the straps need to be adjusted. It’s used, too. Look at the fraying here on the side,” she said, pointing to an area that was totally intact. “We couldn’t pay much more than nine silver, five copper.”
The owner grabbed the pack. “It’s a sturdy item! Look, see how I can stretch it without it ripping! Five gold.”
“Yes, canvas should do that. If the bottom was reinforced more, I would feel better about paying so much. One gold, two silver.”
This went on for ten minutes until they had settled on a price of two gold, five silver, three copper. Al paid it gladly as Anladet put the knapsack over her back, depositing her sack of items and her folded cloak inside.
“Thank you,” he said. “You just saved me almost five gold!”
“I didn’t save you anything,” she said. “Everyone inflates their prices expecting people to haggle with them. He probably paid five silver for it and made two gold off of the sale. He’s happy for the profit and we’re happy not to have to pay seven gold. It’s a game.”
Al looked thunderstruck. “Everyone does this?”
“Yes. Here, I’ll show you. Keep tally on the original price and what we pay for it in the end.”
Anladet went through the market and bought food she knew wouldn’t perish in the next few days. She bought some fruit and vegetables, a loaf of bread, hard cheese, and some salted venison wrapped in paper. “Would it be wise to get a couple of blankets or do you have those tucked away in there?” she asked while she placed the rest of the food in her knapsack.
Al stared ahead. “That was, almost a gold and a half you saved us on food. Kriskin malor, how much have people been ripping me off over the years?”
“They didn’t rip you off, Al, you just didn’t realize that there are hard prices and soft prices in the market. The value of something changes all the time. Use that to your advantage, not theirs.”
He snapped out of his thoughts. “I think I’ve wasted so much money over the years. Um, I have a blanket. Let’s get one for you and maybe one for the lady?”
“One for me. We can always share or get her one after we succeed.”