In which Kai receives some worrying news
When Valarien read the note that Ewan had considerately left for the sleepers, he let fly a stream of expletives that caused a whole flock of peëmarcy birds to take flight, clucking with disgust. Even the leaves on the trees seemed to wilt.
Kai listened in frank admiration, for the wizard neither repeated himself, nor allowed a single 'um' to interrupt his fluency. Noting the absence of two of the horses as well as their riders, the warrior put two and two together and achieved a creditably accurate total.
"The 'Serendipity'?" Kai asked, when Valarien finally came to the end of his furious obloquy.
He almost flinched himself as the wizard glowered at him.
"They - have - gone - on - a-head," Valarien announced slowly and trenchantly. "They - wanted - to get - an early - start... If this takes less than three days, we shall be doing well - very well indeed. No time for breakfast. Get packing and let's be off."
For once Kai didn't take offence at the wizard's peremptory orders.
By the time they reached Harlonne - at a gallop - Valarien had calmed down somewhat. Then he spotted the horses and began another tirade. They collected the abandoned mounts and led them to the town. As they trotted over the bridge, Kai asked where they were likely to find the errant pair.
"Heaven only knows," replied the wizard, tight-lipped. "The message said they'd meet us at the - um - west gate after breakfast but that is indulging optimism beyond the bounds of sanity. They will be stoned out of their tiny, juvenile minds in some pot-house, whore-house, round-house or - um - back alley, and Harlonne is not a small town like Larenna. It could take days to find them."
"Then where do we start?"
"The - um - 'Serendipity', I think, but first we'd better stable the horses."
The 'Serendipity' had just opened up when Kai and Valarien arrived at the beginning of their hunt for the pleasure-seekers. It was mildly satisfying to have hit on the right location first time. Unfortunately, no one could be found who knew anything of the revellers' intended destination after they had quit the tavern. Hearing of their well-oiled state when they left, Valarien felt that their next objective ought to be the town lock-up. There, they would no doubt be expected to bail the two out - and probably pay for damages...
Just as they were leaving the tavern, a rather vacant looking youth who had been staring at them, slack-jawed, for some time, tugged at Kai's sleeve.
" 'Ere, mister. Your name Caspar?"
Kai shot him a searching look, but found nothing.
"Might be. Why?"
"Got a message for yer, if yo're 'im."
Kai held out an imperative hand and the youth laid a folded and sealed parchment upon it.
"Thank you," he said and tossed the lad a couple of silver coins.
"Coo! Thanks mister," the lad replied, and scampered off before anyone could deprive him of his prize.
Kai broke the seal with great foreboding and read the contents.
"Ohhh shhit!" he breathed at last.
"Trouble?" Valarien asked, a worried crease between his brows.
Kai looked thoughtfully into the wizard's face, as if debating with himself what to say. His face showed profound regret as he came to a conclusion.
"Sorry about this," he said, and dropped the wizard with a short right jab, much as Ewan had done in Perizada's chamber.
Valarien crumpled slowly, leaving Kai just enough time to catch him before he hit the floor. He grinned ruefully at the tapster.
"It's for his own good," he explained, dragging him over to a vacant settle. "Look after him, would you? This should compensate you for your trouble. When he comes round, tell him to wait for me here."
He thought for a moment.
"If I - er - don't come back... before tonight - tell him to save Kieran for me. Thank you."
The warrior left the 'Serendipity' in some haste lest the wizard wake before he had lost himself in the labyrinth that was the artisans' quarter of Harlonne. When he was satisfied that he was well clear of any pursuit by Valarien, he stopped, drew the letter out of his scrip and read it again. This was going to take very skilful handling if they were all to come out of it with whole skins. Valarien, at least, was safe - for the moment anyway. Drat those two, and their ill-conceived jaunt.
He wondered what Vash'târik had in mind. Of his intentions, Kai was in no doubt - just the mechanics of it. He reviewed the situation. Vash'târik had clearly got the drop on those two. That couldn't have been too difficult under the circumstances. Kai frowned. Vash'târik probably still had Glitch with him - and how many more? Could they be trusted to keep their side of the bargain? Probably not, but then, he wasn't planning on keeping his.
No, Leon and Ewan would most likely be kept alive for the time being. Vash'târik couldn't expect him to put his neck in a noose unless they were. Kai didn't like to think about their situation, or how they were being treated. Obviously, the best thing would be to find his friends, but that was next to impossible.
It occurred to him that Vash'târik, or one of his minions might be watching him already. He looked sharply over his shoulder but detected no sudden or suspicious movement. The message specified midday. That gave him several hours. Perhaps he was not expected quite so soon?
A plan was beginning to form, inchoate as yet, but a start nevertheless. First, he must find himself a base from which to operate, and in pursuance of this aim, enquired after lodgings. After visiting several unsuitable houses, he was directed to a Widow Fredaine in the Street of Mummers, a singularly inappropriately named thoroughfare.
Although the day was still young, the street resounded to the sounds of troubadours, minstrels, jugglers, tumblers and street entertainers of all kinds, vociferously importuning merchants on their way to market. He did not envy the old widow-woman her noisy locality.
His momentary vision of the ancient and care-worn dame died on the spot the instant he beheld the Widow "Call me Désirée" Fredaine. Although well past the first flush of youth, she was certainly far from senile decrepitude. She was tall with ample curves. A jolly, good-humoured face was saved from homeliness by a pair of twinkling green eyes that held a distinct hint of mischief.
The terms of tenure having been agreed upon, Désirée conducted Kai up to his room at the top of the house. It overlooked the street. The widow maintained a flow of cheerful and inconsequential conversation throughout, apparently to set him at his ease.
It worked sufficiently well for him to disclose more about his purpose than he either realized or intended. She was very interested indeed in his rescue mission and offered every assistance in a manner that suggested she would be more than happy to take over the whole project. Well, if she was so keen to be of assistance, he might as well make use of her. His next priority was a disguise of some kind.
"Oh, me dear," she exclaimed, "I got just the thing for you. You're about the same build as me old man. You could borrow his Harlequin costume, mask an' all. He was used to be an actor in a travellin' company - well, so was I for that matter. Come to think of it, I could get out me Columbine costume an' come with you - assuming I could still get into it," she added doubtfully.
"Actually, I was hoping to pass unnoticed," Kai explained when she paused for breath.
"Well, nobody would give you a second glance among that lot, dressed as Harlequin," she pointed out reasonably.
"Possibly not," he concurred, "but my business takes me away from this area - I think."
"Why? Where are you heading for?"
"A tavern called the 'Honest Tradesman'."
"Oh, yes, I know it. Down Market Street. Hm, you could go as a pedlar or some such. Not much of a disguise, though, is it? Unless..."
"Unless what?" Kai asked with some misgivings.
"We-ell, perhaps you would not care for it..."
"You might as well say it and have done."
"Unless you dressed as a woman. Of course, I realize it might seem a bit strange to someone not used to the theatre, but indeed, my old man often played a dame and I've plenty of old costumes," she finished in a rush.
"Fine," he said. "Find me something suitable, please."
"You don't mind?" Désirée sounded almost surprised.
"Needs must when the devil drives, I fear."
"Right." She regarded him with a professional eye. "You're a mite tall for a woman. What say you to an old crone? You could walk with a stoop then, and not look quite so conspicuous. You could borrow me old man's stick, too, since you can't very well cart that great sword around with you. It's not an ordinary walking stick - it has a sword down the middle of it. My old man found it useful on occasions..."
"Thank you, you're very kind."
"Not at all. It's not often that a bit of excitement comes my way. Sometimes, I really miss the travellin' life. I miss me ol' man, too. 'Specially nights "
Désirée gave the warrior a broad wink and a hearty nudge in the ribs.
"You're not unlike him, you know," she added, dropping her voice to what she imagined was a sultry whisper, then cracked out laughing at the expression on his face.
"Well, now," the widow went on, wiping the tears from her eyes, "you take yourself off to market and get yourself something sell - pegs is probably a good idea; you won't sell out o' them too quick - while I sorts you out some clothes."
Some time later, Désirée, warming to her cloak-and-dagger activities, crept out of her back door to make sure the coast was clear before seeing off her new guest with a cheery wave.
It took Kai quite a while to reach the 'Honest Tradesman'. Let alone he was supposed to be old and slow, he found some difficulty in co-ordinating his movements in a natural manner, encumbered as he was with a long voluminous black skirt and large red shawl - which kept slipping - together with a basket of pegs in one hand and sword stick in the other. His landlady had also bestowed upon him a straw bonnet to disguise features, which despite a recent shave and some stage make-up, were distinctly masculine. He paused every now and then to look around for signs of Vash'târik, crying his wares as he did so.
Arrived outside the 'Honest Tradesman' a good hour in advance of the appointed time, Kai found himself a pitch at the entrance to a narrow alley across the street. Carefully, he scanned all the buildings round about but saw nothing untoward. After a while, he beckoned a street urchin and, offering him a penny on his return, sent him into the tavern to inquire if there was a message for Casper. There was not. Kai sat himself down to wait, sporadically entreating people to buy pegs off an old woman.
Shortly before midday, he saw a familiar figure coming towards him, carrying a covered basket and accompanied by a well-grown youth.
"There you are, me ol' dear," said Désirée breezily. "I brought you a nice hot beef pie for your lunch - an' my lad, Beauregard, to lend a hand, if you need it. I can spare him for today. Now be a good lad, Beau. Make yourself useful - and don't get in the way."
With this admonition, she beamed at the pair as if well satisfied, and took herself off with bouncy strides. Beauregard, mindful of his instructions, stepped into the alleyway so as not to obscure Kai's view of the street. He went down on one knee to inquire quietly how he might be of service.
Kai gave him a brief résumé of the situation, together with descriptions of Vash'târik and Glitch, then despatched him to the tavern to keep watch from within. Meanwhile he himself tucked into the pie which was excellent.
It was now well past noon, and still there was no sign of activity from Vash'târik and friends. Kai was beginning to worry that something had gone awry when Beauregard returned, not from the tavern, but from up the street. A brief nod to the peg seller, and he disappeared into the 'Honest Tradesman' re-emerging shortly afterwards with a folded parchment.
Kai struggled to his feet as befitted an elderly dame, calling on the lad to buy some pegs for his mother. Beauregard grinned and stuffed the parchment into the basket.
"It's a good job I wasn't any later goin' in the 'Tradesman'," he said, or I'd've missed 'im. A little wizened feller, 'e was - came in the back door - left the letter on the bar and - 'Message for Casper,' 'e says, 'to be collected,' 'e says - an' disappears out the back door again, sharpish-like. I thought it best to follow 'im, since the message wa'n't goin' anywhere. He went right past our 'ouse, which was very fortunate as Ma was watching for me out the window an' came an' joined me. I say it was fortunate, 'cause the little wizened man met up with somebody under cover of the racket in our street. They talked a while, an' something - money probably - changed hands, then they split up, one goin' one way, an' one goin' the other. Ma said she'd meet us here later an' nipped off sharpish after the other feller while I followed the wizened one. He took 'imself off to the... er... 'Bridge of Thighs'." Beauregard blushed slightly. "It's... erm... it's a knocking shop," he explained.
"And what do you know about knocking shops?" asked Kai, teasing him.
"Oh, I know all right," Beauregard replied with a slightly artificial airiness. "No need to say anything to Ma, though," came the not unexpected caveat, which, Kai thought, was probably unnecessary on two counts.
Funny how adolescents almost invariably viewed their parents as innocent of such matters without pausing to consider how they themselves were created.
"Anyway, as I figured that my man's part in it was over, I thought I'd better collect your letter and report back. So here I am," he concluded.
"You've done remarkably well," Kai said with all sincerity. "I only wish certain of my companions were as sensible! Now, I think it would be best if you were to return to the tavern and keep an eye out for anything unusual - suspicious - you know. Oh, and you'd better take a few pegs with you in case we're being watched. Thank you kindly young sir!"
Kai squatted down again and broke the seal on the letter. He spread open the single sheet of parchment which bore a short, one might almost say, hurried, message, directing him to the 'Hare and Hounds' tavern in Hunters' Way. It concluded by warning him not to be late or his friends would pay a dearer price than they had already...
The implied threat of mistreatment - further mistreatment - had Kai in an agony of impatience to be gone. Yet could he afford not to await his landlady's coming? He had not long to wait, however, before Désirée appeared around the corner at the end of the street, practically at a gallop, and clearly bursting with news.