Knowing the right people can sometimes be more important than having the information on hand.
— Saul da Grasil
Linsan woke up sprawled across her narrow bed, one foot hanging off the edge and her head pulsing with a headache that felt like one of her father's saws tearing into her forehead. With a groan, she planted her hand on the side table and levered herself up into a kneeling position.
Something heavy slid off her thigh and tumbled toward the edge of the bed. Immediately, she thought about her violin and grabbed it before it could break. Her fingers bumped against the edges of her case and she managed to dig her fingertips into the opening before it completely fell off the bed.
Awake from fear, she rolled over and hauled her case back on the bed. Propping it between her bare thighs, she ran her fingers along the lid before opening it.
The case was empty.
Her heart skipped a beat.
Pushing her auburn hair out of her face, she looked around frantically. She didn't remember coming back to her room, nor did she remember creating a bed from her clothing for the Sterlig. The neck stuck out from a pair of her underwear and she had one of her shirts tucked over the curves as if it was wearing a pair of pajamas. Her mother's award pin had been used to tuck in the outfit.
Linsan stared at the instrument for a moment and then snorted with amusement.
Her laughter ended abruptly with another throb of her head. With a moan, she pressed her palm against her skull and looked around for clean clothes that weren't propped up on her musical instrument.
A half hour later, she was dressed and ready to face the world again. She had her travel pack slung over her shoulder and her case held with both hands. Memories danced across the back of her mind, a night of dancing and singing not to mention the applause. She slowed down with a smile. The audience loved her judging from their cheers and calls for more sets. Even with the haze of her hangover, she couldn't help but feel a quickening of her heart and a growing desire to bask in the attention again.
Stirring herself, she headed straight for the main room. However, as soon as she came around a corner, she came up to a packed hallway. Surprised, she slowed down and joined a line that had formed that brought her closer to the main room.
The noise was almost deafening. Her headache throbbed in pain as she saw far more people packed into the tight quarters of the relatively large room.
Linsan stalled in the entrance but someone jostled her from behind. Overwhelmed, she stepped into the room while searching for some place to look around without being in the way. Not even the main entrance to the pub looked safe with steady streams of people, luggage, and staff going in and out.
“Lin!” Ragon stood on a chair in the corner. He waved to her and called out her name. His dark hair was wild, sticking out in tufts and he had a scruff of a beard. In one hand, he had a large glass that was only half-full of beer but he was splashing the contents in all direction with his waving. “Over here!”
Thankful for someone familiar, she waved her pack over her head and made her way around the jostling folks and over a line of luggage before sitting down in a proffered chair. Looking around, all she could see was a press of travel dresses, luggage, and suits. “Wow! I've never been anywhere so crowded.”
Wendil, wearing a dark flowered hat pulled down to her eyebrows and a simple flowered dress, picked up a glass of lager and sipped at it. “It's worse at the end of a weekend. Everyone is in a rush to head home. We usually wait for the noise to die down before heading out.”
Ragon dropped a glass of lager in front of Linsan. “Sometimes, if I'm lucky, there are fist fights. I like those. As long as I'm not the one swinging.”
Wendil glared at him. “You just like it when the women fight over their luggage.”
Ragon shrugged, his eyes sparkling. “Why not? Nothing like seeing a flash of ankles or a blush to keep me going in the long days of working.”
“How does anyone get out of here?” Linsan asked.
Ragon gestured around and then toward the door. “Follow the lines back from the exit, you'll see it is actually really organized. Kuris and the others with the orange hats tell everywhere where to line up. Outside, Ganil and her gang wrangle the horses and wagons up and bring them according to the dance cards. Basic order is: food, check out, get in line and then get out. As long as no one jumps line, this entire room will empty out in thirty minutes.”
Linsan's jaw opened with surprise. “If someone jumps the line?”
Ragon chuckled. “Then I get to see someone get kicked out of the inn in a most agreeable manner. It's even better than the mouse fights.”
Linsan looked around for Brook but couldn't see far through the press of people. She lifted herself up and peered over the sea of hats, feathers, and faces but still couldn't spot her travel companion. With a frown, she wondered if she was in the wrong place.
A young girl tugged on Linsan's shirt before setting down a full platter of food. “Breakfast for you, dame,” she said before diving back into the crowds.
Linsan looked down at the heaping pile of eggs, grilled sausages, and breads. There was even fresh fruit on the edge. Tucked under the other side was an envelope with her name on it. “What is this?”
Ragon reached over to snatch up one of the fruits. “Best food in the city. I may not make a lot performing, but food is on the house for the entertainment.”
He tapped on the envelope. “Your cut of the night's proceeds. You probably want to count it later, that way you won't make us feel bad. You were stunning and everyone is going to be talking to you for months.” He leaned toward her and whispered loudly. “I made almost thirty-six cuks last night.”
Wendil smirked. “Forty-two and that is because I don't insist on playing songs with asses.”
Linsan smiled. “I wasn't that good.”
Ragon pointed at her. “You were and you know it. Once you get over the jitters, you are going to steal the show every time. You are beautiful, talented, and competent. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”
A warm feeling filled her. She smiled and toyed with the edge of the table.
From the other side, Wendil gestured to the lager. “You going to drink that?”
His mouth full, Ragon snorted. “Of course she'd want more of the piss that got her here.”
The idea of prolonging the hangover didn't appeal to Linsan. She pushed the foaming liquid over and traded it for a glass of clear water from in front of Ragon. After squeezing a bit of fruit juice into it, she wiped her hands and drank. “That's what I needed. My mother always said don't drink spirits in the morning.”
“Bah,” Ragon said grabbing Linsan's old lager to pour half of it into his own glass before returning it. “More for me. I'd rather not go to work sober, if you know what I mean.”
Linsan looked over her shoulder again for Brook.
“You with someone?” asked Wendil. “You seem to be looking.”
“Yeah, a woman named Brook. We grew up together but… not really. We were heading over to Moon Waters together. Both of us…” It took a moment to remember what she had told Ragon and Wendil earlier. She cleared her throat. “Both of us have some questions about the Sterlig.”
When she noticed the others were looking at her with obvious questions, she blushed and dug into her breakfast. It was good, richer than she had in a long while with just a hint of spiciness.
Ragon swallowed loudly. “What does she look like? Pretty? Unmarried? Nice tits? I mean really firm ones that—”
Wendil smacked him. “Women are more than breasts, Rag!”
He laughed and waved her off.
Wendil turned back to Linsan. “She wasn't staying with you? I saw you had your own room.”
Linsan looked at Wendil curiously.
Ragon smirked. “Were you stalking Lin?”
Wendil's cheeks colored. “I was not! I was in the room next to her and we stopped at the same time. She even asked how to dress up a baby before crashing.”
It was Linsan's turn to blush. That explained a little about the violin in the nest of clothes. Then she answered. “No, Brook got her own room before I got inside. She had a reservation. Probably for one of the expensive rooms. She likes to live like she dresses, fancy.” Linsan remembered how Brook stood out among the others. “Even for her, she is always dressed up pretty like she's going out on a night.”
Ragon's eyes lit up. “Oh, was she driving the pink Glasscoaster buggy?”
“I don't know what type, but it has big wheels and it's pink.”
He grinned. “She is beautiful. Is she married? Do I have to get rid of her betrothed? I'm a noble fighter.”
Wendil reached over and smacked him before stealing the rest of his drink. “The car is probably registered with the Artificer Academy or the Mechanics and you are never going to get within miles of that tailpipe. Either of them,” she finished wagging her finger.
Ragon sighed. “Yeah, sweet buggies like that always go with the Pistons anyways. No chance it will be driving into our garage.”
Linsan almost choked on her food.
Raul smacked her shoulders until she stopped coughing. “Are you okay?”
“You're with the unaffiliated mechanics in town?”
Ragon said nothing for a moment and then grinned broadly. “Dorsen and Sons, only unchained mechanic in thirty leagues. I'm neither Dorsen or one of his four daughters.”
“Are you one of his sons?” Linsan asked.
Ragon grinned and winked. “Dor doesn't have sons. He had two but they both turned out to be girls. I blame him drinking on the job for not seeing it earlier.” Then he shrugged. “Not really. Everyone knew he had four daughters before he put up that sign, but he's a penny-pinching bastard and left it up. All five of them of them work the garage. I'm just their errand boy and do the little jobs around the shop.”
Wendil tapped the edge of her hat. “I own a hat shop in town, about five streets down.”
It was obvious that Wendil was feeling left out of the conversation but Linsan was too close to be pulled aside. She looked pleadingly at her for a moment and then turned back to Ragon. “I… we were going to be visiting you today.”
Ragon blinked. “You were?”
Wendil almost choked on her drink. “You were?”
“Yes. Have you seen a… a… 1842…” Linsan struggled to remember the car. “Deanglen Black Lighting?”
Ragon smirked. "No chance in the Seven Saints' Assholes that someone drove a Black Thunder into our shop. Why would they?"
Linsan realized her mistake. “Black Thunder. It isn't registered with any of the guilds and there were probably three guys in it. One of them had a guitar that did fire magic.”
Wendil tapped the table frantically. She was draining the glass but kept going until it was done. Slamming it down, she said with a spray of foam, “The fire guitar is Tilbin. Remember, he played here a few years ago. Did the whole light and dance show?”
Linsan's heart swelled. They had heard of the murderers.
Wendil turned to Ragon. “Do you think he's still hanging around Mayforn and Gabaw? Those three were always sticking together ever since Gabaw got fired by Dorsen.”
“Did they have fire powers too?” asked Linsan, her voice cracking.
Wendil nodded. “Oh, but you better stay away from those three, Lin. They are trouble no matter what they are doing. Last I heard, they were blackjacking across the country.”
Linsan shook her head. “Blackjacking?”
“Arson, stealing, and robbing people. They are just assholes on a good day but brigands in the middle of the night. They hadn't gotten to murder as far as I know but I doubt it would stay that way. They were always chasing after the next score.”
Ragon shook his head. “Gabaw got caught trying to filing off the registration numbers off of vehicles and selling them at Dorsen's.”
Linsan's stomach twisted violently. “Arson? Like setting someone's lands on fire?” Or killing Duncan?
Wendil shrugged. “Yeah, if someone wanted to ruin some trees, I guess. There had to be… a….” Her voice trailed off. Then she gasped in surprise. “Do you think that is what happened to your family? I heard the Sterlig Forest had caught fire some years ago.”
Linsan nodded slowly.
Ragon groaned. “Oh, that would be horrible. I'm still dreaming of hearing your play and it's only been a night. There is something about you and that instrument.”
“That would be Tiblin.” Wendil shook her head. “He'd murder his father if someone paid him.”
“He killed his best friend's wife, remember. Nasty, nasty man. It was over land ownership in some shitty town, but that didn't stop him. Be careful, Lin. Be really careful, he won't hesitate to hurt you if come up on him.”
Ragon started to say something but then his eyes glanced up. Sharply inhaling, he stood up abruptly just as Brook slapped her hand on the table next to Linsan. She was wearing a dark green gloves with the fingertips exposed. To Linsan's surprise, Brook's fingernails had been painted to match.
“Get up! We need to get out of this damn place and find my buggy! No one is bothering to help me,” she snapped.
Linsan jumped before turning to look up at her. She wasn't surprised to see that Brook was wearing an elegant evening dress but the contrast between her companion's outfit and everyone else was startling. Brook's blue dress looked more like the ones in the paintings, with ruffles and delicate embroidery. It was coordinated with her gloves and her fingernails. She even wore a hair piece with a bit of lace that covered part of her face and her dark curls.
The words died in Linsan's throat.
Compared to the other women in the pub, Linsan was overdressed. Linsan had noticed it before but the contrast was almost painful.
Brook held out her hand with an exasperated scoff. “Well? Get up.”
Linsan looked back. “We should wait. The lines will clear out soon enough and we can get going.”
The green glove tightened into a fist on the table. "I have no interest “You just want to spend more time with these… tuneless…” She shook her fist as she struggled with the word. “… ragamuffins!”
Wendil's jaw drop in shocked.
Ragon just smirked.
Brook leaned over and hissed, “Get up and help me get my damn car. We need to get to Dorsen and Sons and see if they found those damn—” She cut herself off and looked sharply at the other people at the table.
Ragon smoothly stood up and held out his hand. “Excuse me. You can call me—”
Brook settled a withering glare at him and his hand.
He pulled his hand back and then set down. He gave Linsan a sympathetic look. “I can see why you didn't want to spend the night with her. I bet she bites in her sleep. Or at least kicks.”
There was a stunned silence around the table.
Linsan looked up to see Brook's cheeks were colored underneath her scowl. Then she turned away. “Ragon, just tell her what you told me.”
Ragon crossed his arms over his chest.
He rolled his eyes and then sighed. “Fine.” Rolling his head to the side, he stared at Brook. “Tiblin and his friends would never go to Dorsen's. Not after Gabaw got fired from there when—”
“How would you know that?” Brook's voice cut him off.
Ragon snapped his finger and held up his hand. “Listen, Snake Tongue”.
Brooke drew herself up, a look of outrage on her face.
“I work at Dorsen's. If you are capable of closing your pretty mouth and listening, maybe I—”
Wendil smacked Ragon.
He glared at her but then continued. He appeared to calm down. “If they were going anywhere with a shiny car like Lin described, they would head straight for Geb's barn. It's about a day's walk off the main road leading to Moon Waters to one of the smaller villages.”
Brook glared at Linsan who ducked her head.
“How far?” Brook asked.
Ragon smiled. “Sit.”
“Well, then I guess you're going to miss it, snake in ruffles.” Ragon smiled. It looked cheerful but there was a hardness in his eyes.
“Ragon,” said both Wendil and Linsan.
“No, if she's going to be a snake, why would I help her?”
“I beg your pardon,” Brook said, her back straightening.
Ragon leaned forward. “You don't have a ticket which means you haven't checked out. Even if you got in line, you're going to be waiting at least a half hour before you get into that Glasscoaster of yours and head out.”
Brook's jaw tightened.
“So, please sit and relax. Getting breakfast won't stop you since you don't have to talk to Dorsen or his daughters.”
“Sons,” Brook said.
“Daughters,” said everyone else at the table. Linsan grinned at the private joke.
Brook tensed for a moment. Then she looked around at the crowded room.
“Come on, give me a chance,” Ragon said, a bit of his charm rising in his voice.
“I'd rather drink poison.”
He grinned and held up his empty glass. “A lager then? Or do you prefer something stronger.”
Brook made a face before she pulled out a seat between Linsan and Wendil. Primly, she sat down. “Tea. As strong as they'll make it. Then plenty of cream and sugar.”
Wendil leaned forward. “Grabil or Tinkoil style. Or something more exotic like Nasanogin?”
“Asanōgi,” Brook said prolonging the middle. It also began and ended with a vowel, which gave it a jarring sound when every name Linsan had heard started and ended with a consonant. “I like it with a lot of cream and sugar.”
Linsan looked at the two.
Wendil grinned and tapped her hat. “I serve tea to my customers. They like to hear the exotic styles. Asanōgi is pretty rare though, it is almost burnt tea with an obscene amount of cream and sugar.”
Brook seemed to relax. Her eyes scanned over Wendil for a moment. “Millinery?” When Wendil nodded, Brook held out a gloved hand. “May I see?”
Wendil's smile glowed as she took off her hat and handed it over.
Inspecting it carefully for a moment, Brook relaxed even more before she handed it back. “Very well,” she said, “I'll play. Tell me more.”
Linsan gently nudged her with an elbow.
Brook's jaw tightened. “Please?”