"Congratulations on a job well done! The Bank of Aiedo has received instructions by letter transmission to fund the commission, and here it is!" The Hunters' Guild secretary slid four thousand meseta across the counter. "Come again to the Hunters' Guild where we enrich the lives of hunters!"
Alys Brangwin groaned as she collected her fee. Some days she was absolutely convinced that being a hunter didn't pay half what it should.
"Hard time of it, Alys?" asked Kris Sandbourne, another hunter who'd just collected her fee for a local monster extermination job. She still wore the headcloth and loose cloak she'd worn to keep off the hot sun of the Motavian desert.
"Not hard; tiring." Alys was a tall woman with long brown hair she kept off her face with a wire circlet, wearing a black bodysuit under a red dress with white gloves and boots. She had immense self-confidence, but unlike some hunters who took boasting to an art form she never bothered to claim her jobs were any easier than they had been. "Twelve days tracking down Milo Burch, and when I finally did catch the wriggly little con artist, my only telepipe broke during the scuffle. So it was another five days hauling him back to Termi, all the while making sure he didn't slip away. I haven't had a decent night's sleep in three weeks and my stomach is going to disown me if I eat one more meal of dried travel rations."
"I'm surprised you didn't stay in Termi. It's supposed to be a lovely resort town."
"It is pretty, and I admit that I did stop by and took a look at the statue of Alis Landale, but one thing about tourist resorts is they charge tourist prices. So I bought a telepipe and came back to Aiedo."
"Going to spend the night in your own bed for free, then?"
"Right, but first I need to get some food in me, real food, and I don't have the energy to cook it myself."
Kris tapped her left temple with her index finger twice.
"Aha! So it's dinner and drinks at the Guild bar and restaurant?"
"After which I intend to sleep for about three days."
"Would you care to join me, then?"
"The company might keep me awake, at least--"
"Or put you to sleep," Kris interrupted with a grin."
"--but since I've just come into money, I'm buying."
"Never say no to a free meal, that's my motto."
The Guild bar was its usual self that evening, with hunters toasting their successes and swapping stories of their most exciting jobs, some of which were even true.
"Hey, Alys!" the bartender called. "Good to see you back."
"Hey yourself, Garn."
"You want the usual?"
"Sure, but we're here for the food tonight."
A broad-shouldered hunter grinned at the two women from the bar.
"You're looking as hot as ever, Alys. Sure you won't have a drink with me?"
"Around you, Joss, I become very, very cold," Alys shot back. His drinking buddies burst into laughter at the big hunter's discomfiture.
Kris looked at Alys with amazement as they found a table in the back.
"I can't believe you shot Joss down like that. He's yummy!"
"He's improved since the first time I met him, but he's still a blowhard who's never had a relationship last longer than three days."
"Oooh, but what a three days they'd be!"
Alys raised an eyebrow.
"Well, you're welcome to him. I prefer a man who'll stay committed to me at least as long as he does to his Guild missions, not to mention one who won't brag about it afterwards to everyone in the bar."
Kris smiled wickedly.
"I'd give him something to brag about."
Alys was spared the trouble of answering by the waiter's arrival. The women placed their orders and soon a crawler steak, medium rare, and a frosty mug of ale were sitting in front of Kris while Alys contemplated a bowl of spiced noodles with shredded roast pork cooked Motavian-style served with tea and a glass of Amber Eye wine. Alys wolfed the first half of her food, then settled down to a more sedate pace to let her taste buds have a chance to enjoy it.
"So tell me about your job," she asked, making conversation.
"Nothing much to tell. A Meta Slug got out of the cave north of town and I hunted it down. Well, actually, I lured it into a pit and dropped rocks on it. Didn't even have to use my sword." She patted the hilt of her weapon.
"Those are the best kind of cases," Alys said.
"I guess yours wasn't so easy, though. Would you mind telling me about it?"
"If you have the patience..."
* * * * *
Alys had to admit that Termi was beautiful, an oasis of green in the Motavian desert. Lanes--they weren't quite large enough or commercialized enough to be called streets--wound their way through lawns of soft grasses while palm trees swayed in the wind. Small wonder the town was Motavia's most popular resort. Bright yellow butterflies fluttered merrily past, completing the impression of blissful tranquility.
Of course, the hunter knew that appearances were deceiving. If Termi was as placid as everything appeared, there would have been no need for her to come there. Alys didn't take vacations; she found prolonged inactivity grating, and relaxing was something she did better in her own home than in strange places surrounded by people she'd never met. Travel was often interesting, sometimes even exciting, but never restful.
Besides which, as a hunter she got to see the far corners of the world and get paid for it, too.
Her client this time was the town's Chief Marshal. Most towns used military rank for their guard officers, but Termi had to be different and exotic. The airy, whitewashed headquarters was larger than Alys would have expected from the town's size, and inside she was met by a clerk while another one worked busily filling out paperwork.
"Alys Brangwin, from the Hunters' Guild, to see Chief Marshal Denton."
"Oh, yes," the clerk replied, her blonde ponytail bobbing up and down as she nodded, "he's expecting you. Go right in."
She pointed out a door in the back of the office; Alys thanked her and weaved her way between the desks.
"Come in, come in, and shut the door behind you."
Alys complied with the request, though it was unusual. Most people on Motavia left interior doors open or didn't even have them, so the air could circulate freely and cool the building in the hot climate.
"Alys Brangwin, eh?" the marshal said in a deep, rumbling voice. "Didn't think my little job would interest the Eight-Stroke Sword. Or did you just see it as a chance to get paid to see Termi?"
"I'm impressed," she replied. "You've managed to get off on the wrong foot with me twice in thirty seconds, first by using that ridiculous nickname and then by implying I don't take my work seriously. I think that's some kind of record."
Denton chortled. He was a huge man, at least three hundred and fifty pounds on a body that was big to begin with. His face was plump, with jowls around his mouth, but the tiny green eyes that looked out from that face were hard and alert with intelligence. He waved a plump hand at a chair.
"Sit down, Alys. I'm glad you're living up to your reputation."
"For professionalism or orneriness?"
He laughed again, his belly shaking.
"I prefer to call it plain speaking. It's something a man like me hears little enough of."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"Because appearances," he replied, gesturing with his pointed index finger, "are the main concern of Termi's Town Council. How things will look." Denton leaned back in his chair, which creaked as his weight shifted. "Termi is barely more than a village," he changed the subject, "but it's got me, this office, and five deputy marshals to enforce the law. Why do you suppose that is?"
"The tourists," Alys answered at once.
"You're quite right. During the prime season, we get hundreds of out-of-towners. Most are here to enjoy the climate and visit the Hill of the Person of Courage...which is as ponderous a name as I've ever heard. Sometimes, though, they're visitors of another sort. Criminals, smugglers, racketeers...who'd notice a couple more strangers in a village that bases its economy on attracting outsiders? About the only other town where the underworld could meet as freely is Aiedo, because of the market, and that place is lousy with you hunters. So, I've got three times the men this office would expect to have."
The marshal sighed, then chuckled.
"Listen to me; I'm talking like this place is a nest of villainy. Well, we've got our local crooks, too, petty thugs who steal from the tourists directly instead of legally through high prices. That's my problem now, a man named Milo Burch. He's a con artist--collects donations for civic improvement funds that don't exist, sells shares in bogus mercantile concerns, that sort of thing." He set a big hand on a stack of reports on his desk. "Oh, yes, we have quite a lot of information about Mr. Burch's activities. What we don't have is Mr. Burch."
"So you've called for a hunter."
"Right. We can't arrest the little weasel because he slips in and out of town, and the council doesn't want my deputies chasing people through the desert. So we turned to the Hunters' Guild."
"It sounds simple enough, so why isn't it?"
"Two other hunters accepted this job before I did. They both returned to the Guild and resigned the commission in failure." In fact, the Guild secretary had asked Alys to take on the job as a personal favor, in order to save the honor and reputation of the Guild. "I know one of them personally and one by reputation, and neither is an incompetent. There's some reason why they failed."
Denton drummed his fingers on the edge of the desk.
"The fact is, both of them cut a cold trail. From the moment they arrived in town, Burch didn't so much as show his face. The first hunter spent a week looking and in searching the wilderness around Termi, the second nearly two, but neither of them got so much as a glimpse. It wasn't just them, either; my deputies didn't see hide nor hair of him. Once the hunters left, Milo was back in business, and we started getting complaints again.
Alys managed to suppress a grin. Now things were starting to get interesting!
"So what does Burch look like?"
"Ahh, let me see." Denton began to leaf through the stack of documents on the desk. "He's medium height, a little on the thin side, fairly handsome. Apparently he's got that cool, self-assured manner down pat, so he can put across his deals." Denton chuckled as a sudden thought struck him. "Did you know he sold the contract to refurbish the statue of Alis? Auctioned it off, bold as brass, and the lucky 'winner' almost had to be hauled off by main force to keep him from taking a chisel to the heroine. Ha! Here it is." He pulled out a page and handed it to Alys.
"That's a sketch one of our clerks did two days ago from the descriptions of some witnesses. The hair changes color and style, though, sometimes he has a beard, and he always uses different names. Heck, we don't even know that Burch is the right one. It's just the one we've heard the most often."
"That sounds typical for his sort. Can I keep the sketch?"
"Sure, why not? It isn't doing me any good." He paused for a second, then added, "If you're wondering why I haven't given you a profile on his combat skills, it's because we haven't got one. Fighting isn't his stock in trade, and if he's ever gotten into a brawl no one's reported it to us."
"I can see that; his type of criminal doesn't deal in violence unless he has to." Alys paused, thinking, then asked, "I assume the other hunters fully searched the wilderness around Termi?"
"Yeah; that second one, Delk I think his name was, even spent a full week doing nothing but checking out possible campsites, caves, water holes, that sort of thing. I thought you said you knew the two of them were good at their job?"
"I did, but I had to ask. One last question, Marshal Denton."
"Heck, call me Paul. The only ones who call me Marshal are crooks and politicians. Not that there's much difference."
"All right, then, Paul. If I wanted to send or receive a message by letter transmission, where would I go?"
"The Shield of Alis. It's the armory."
Denton chuckled again.
"Yep. Fact is, the stuff ol' Quinn makes is a little out of most people's price range, on account of the protective magic he puts on it. Psy-armor, he calls it. Takes a long time to enchant a piece, and the magic wears off after two, three years, so there's not much call for it. But, Quinn won't give it up; he's one of those artist types that puts his feelings into the metal. So he runs a letter transmission service to keep the meseta coming in."
"In that case," Alys replied, rising, "all I need now are directions."
"Just a little northeast of the south entrance. You can't miss it."
Alys had heard that before, but she bid farewell to the Chief Marshal and fortunately discovered that while it was not quite impossible to miss the armory it would have been very difficult. The clerk on duty was a young girl with short blue hair.
"May I help you?"
"I hope so. I'm looking for a man, and I think you might have seen him. He'd have picked up a letter two or three days ago."
"We do get a lot of business," the clerk replied doubtfully. Alys handed her the sketch, and the girl's face brightened. "Oh, yes, Mr. Dover. Clayton Dover. He's a trader, running goods back and forth between here and Monsen. Occasionally he gets business news sent to him by his contacts in other cities."
It was a good cover, Alys reasoned, to explain why an alias was around often enough to get regular mail but not so often that the marshals would start being suspicious.
"That's Clayton, all right. Do you happen to know his address? I'd like to look him up while I'm in town."
The girl shook her head.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know that. Mr. Gagne--that's the owner, Quinn Gagne--doesn't ask for an address or other personal information to rent a mailbox. He says that it's an invasion of the customer's privacy and none of his business."
"It's all right; I'll find him the hard way. You've been very helpful." If she had known an address, nine to one it would have been fake anyway.
"Thank you! Do you need to send a message?"
Alys shook her head.
"Not yet, but hopefully soon."
She left the Shield of Alis, a tight smile on her face. She'd had an idea about Burch, and so far it had been right, though part of her would have preferred to be wrong. With luck, her second deduction would be right as well. The hunter began a walking tour of Termi, locating the various inns and boardinghouses. In most towns, Alys stuck out like a sore thumb, a beautiful stranger with paired slashers hanging from her belt. Termi was different. Termi drew people from all across the world, farmers, merchants, artisans, scholars, even native Motavians on occasion. One hunter more or less wasn't news; it didn't generate gossip. That was good, because Alys didn't want her quarry to bolt.
The inns were out, especially the largest and best in town that catered to the tourist trade. Milo Burch couldn't show up there without Denton's deputies catching sight of him sooner or later. There was always the chance that someone was being paid off to "overlook" him, but Alys wasn't going to look into that unless her first theory didn't pan out. What she wanted were boardinghouses and shops where the back room was to let as an apartment, places that catered to long-term residents. On the fifth try, she struck gold.
"Oh, yes, I know who you mean. Jonny Pride; he rents room two." The matronly landlady laughed. "'Course, I've only got two rooms, so maybe it's kind of silly to number them, but the lodgers seem to like it. Easier for them to give their address to people that way, don't you know."
"You were talking about Jonny Pride?"
"Yes, mercy me, that I was. That picture could almost be Jonny, except of course that Jonny's hair is much longer than that. Poor man, he's been so sick these past two days, and just after getting over that last bout of flu he had that kept him in bed for a couple of whole weeks. You ask me, that man needs a doctor. There's nothing better than hot soup and bed rest, but when a body gets that sick, well--" She broke off suddenly and looked Alys over, her eyes widening with curiosity.
"Say, you're a hunter, aren't you? Just what do you want with Jonny, anyway? I can't believe that such a nice man has done anything wrong."
"No, I suppose you wouldn't."
"Nothing. I would like to see 'Jonny,' though. I suspect the sight of me will have him back on his feet in no time."
Alys brushed past the landlady, sparing her the effort of facing the moral quandary of weighing her loyalty to the law against her loyalty to a boarder she liked. The door to Room 2 was unlocked.
"Is that you, Mrs. Gold?" a quavering voice asked from the direction of the bed. Alys couldn't make out his features clearly, since the shutters were closed and the lamps unlit.
"Afraid not, Milo."
"Milo? My name is Jon...Jon Pride. I'm afraid you've got the wrong room."
Alys ignored him.
"You know, Milo, you look like you need more sun." She walked over to one of the windows and threw open the shutters. The face on the pillow was the same as the one in the sketch, though his brilliant green hair was shoulder-length.
"What are you doing?" he exclaimed indignantly. "I'm a sick man! Get out of my room at once! Mrs. Gold!"
The landlady bustled in at once.
"Here, now, miss, I don't know who you are, but you can't be coming in here and upsetting my tenants."
"My name is Alys Brangwin, I'm from the Hunters' Guild in Aiedo, and I've been hired by the Chief Marshal's office to track down this fugitive, who appears to be somewhat closer to home than they thought. Does that clear things up for you both?"
"Alys Brangwin?" Mrs. Gold gasped. "My word, and here in my own house! I'm so dreadfully sorry."
Every once in a while, that reputation is actually good for something.
Milo Burch sighed heavily and threw back the covers.
"I suppose that every game must have an end," he said pleasantly, with no trace of weakness in his voice. "At least I can have the pleasure of telling my fellow prisoners that it took the best of the best to lay me by my heels."
"Spare me the flattery; I'd like to keep my lunch down."
He tapped his temple twice.
"Aha! Say no more; I understand completely. Shall we be off?"
He slipped his feet into his boots and strolled jauntily towards the door, taking his capture with the same devil-may-care attitude that a good sportsman feels towards victory and defeat alike. The play is all--what matter the result?
The debonair gallantry lasted through three steps towards the door, whereupon he shoved Mrs. Gold hard into Alys and ran for it at a dead sprint.
Alys had been expecting something of the sort, but she still had to catch the landlady and help her steady herself before she could get after Burch, snatching one of her slashers from her belt and locking the boomerang-like weapon's blades into position for throwing. By the time she got outside the boardinghouse, the con man was already getting away down the street.
Seizing the chance before things turned into a pell-mell chase through the streets of Termi, Alys hurled the slasher. The spinning blades passed within an inch of Burch's left arm, wrapped around his torso without touching a thread on his fancy shirt, and came within a hair's breadth of nicking his right elbow before flying back to Alys's hand.
In Milo's profession, he understood the critical importance of a good demonstration and was under no illusions that the hunter had somehow missed. He stopped dead in his tracks and turned slowly, hands up.
"Um...is it too late for me to decide to come quietly?"
* * * * *
Kris finished off the last of her steak with a flourish.
"Okay, I'll admit it, I'm completely confused."
"Joram and Delk are first-rate trackers. If Burch had fled town, at least one of them would have found traces of it. So, I assumed that he hadn't fled. No one had stopped to think that he might be a permanent resident of Termi; all he had to do when hunters were looking for him was go home and invent an excuse not to leave."
"Then what was all that about tracking him for twelve days?"
Alys swallowed a mouthful of noodles, a sour look on her face.
"Denton's formerly senior deputy let Burch go to the bathroom before tossing him into a cell. The weasel slithered out a window. This time, he really did leave town, so I had to go fetch him." She pushed her empty bowl away.
"Oh no," Kris giggled. "I'm not sure I'd like to know what you had to say about that."
"Not without earplugs, no," Alys agreed.
"Well, after a story like that, I'm definitely buying dinner, and I won't hear another word about it."
"You haven't asked about the letter transmissions."
Kris blinked. Alys' voice had gone very cold and serious.
"But then, you already know that someone at the Guild was tipping Burch off when a hunter was coming."
She tried to feign surprise, but Alys wasn't having any of it.
"Your brother, isn't he? I guessed whomever was guilty would approach me soon after I got back to see if I'd learned about them, but you two have the same nose and you both do that thing where you tap your head when you get an idea. What's his real name, anyway?"
"Alec...Alec Sandbourne. Oh, Alys, he's my brother. I couldn't let him be hunted down like--"
Alys wasn't watching Kris bury her sobbing face in her hand. She was watching the other hand, which was stealing down her belt, entirely too near her sword-hilt. Alys had taken the precaution of hooking her leg into the rungs of Kris' chair as she finished her story, and now she pulled, spilling the con man's sister onto the floor before breaking the noodle bowl over her head; Alys was far too tired to play games with a hunter of Kris' ability.
"Hey, Garn," Alys called. "Have someone go fetch the guards and tell the secretary that we've found the informant. If anyone needs me, I'll be in bed, probably until Tuesday." She got halfway to the door before remembering one last thing. "Oh, and by the way, you can put the bill on Kris' tab. She said she wouldn't hear another word about it."