It is considered poor form to demand payment from hitchhikers. However, requests to pay for meal and supplies are allowed, as long as they are truly requests and not demands.
— Gardol de Hastor, The Changing Ways of Transportation
After another day of disappointment, Linsan didn’t have hopes for the next village. After the good luck with earning her keep with her violin and then catching a ride with Maril, she had hoped that the gods would reveal the murderers within hours. Sadly, even as wagon stopped at each village throughout the day, no one could provide even a hint to the men Linsan was chasing.
With a sigh, she leaned against the canvas bags heaped on the side of the wagon and peered down at the wheel. There was still mud still clinging to the wagon. As the wagon rattled over a wooden bridge, flecks of half-dried mud cascaded down and created a path.
Maril groaned. She squirmed in her seat for a moment before flicking the reins to sped up her horse along the bridge.
“Going to make it?”
The older woman waved her hand dismissively. “Been doing this ride for thirty years. I know every bathrooms and water closet for fifty leagues. It’s the way my dad had to travel and it’s the way my girls will when they become old ladies.”
She pointed ahead to a brightly painted building on the side of the road. “In fact, Old Gal’s Pals has one of the best ones in the areas. Old Gal runs the general store and the public house here in Jonas’s Gate. Gal’s sisters are all pepper farmers and they all make award-winning chili. Once a year, they have a fair for their meals and you really appreciate indoor plumbing that night.”
Maril grinned. “Those girls really like to be comfortable when enjoying their rings of fire. They have books, perfume, and even heated water.”
Another groan faded her smile. She wiped her forehead and returned her attention to the road.
Linsan watched her for a moment and then sat back down. She watched as the village revealed itself among the trees.
“Lin? You got a few crowns on you?”
“Yes, do you need me to get anything from the store?”
“Some willow bark would be nice. Something to chew on, not drink. I’ve been peeing enough as it is.”
Linsan had enough for that. “No, that’s okay. I can get those. Fair is fair. After all, you are giving me a ride.”
“Thanks.” Maril groaned again. “Hitch the horses too.”
As soon as the wagon came to a stop in front of a building with a mural of pepper flowers, Maril hopped and and rushed inside.
Linsan crawled out of the back and gingerly took up the reins. Slipping off the wagon, she gave the horse a wide berth to tie the reins to a hitching post. Unsure of the knot, she did her best before stepping back to look around.
It was another village, just like the dozen she had pass since the beginning of her adventure. It had been built at the intersection of two dirt roads. Except for what looked like four businesses, there were only a few dozen houses that clumped around the center of the village.
Linsan considered her options: she could easily identify the general store behind her, a blacksmith, and a carpenter. The fourth was less obvious, but there was a sign hanging from one screw. Curious, she walked across the street to peer at it.
It was a bank.
Remember what her parents had done, she stuck her head inside the open door. “Hello?”
A young man in his mid to late twenties yanked his feet off a counter. There was a thump as he looked around wildly for a moment before focusing on her. “Oh! Sorry.” He had an nice voice and a tousle of dark hair.
“Are you on Ralonix?” She hoped she got the name right.
His eyes widened. “It’s our own network. Are you expecting money?”
Nervous, she inched inside. “I want to send a message. I can do that, right?”
He looked stunned for a moment.
Linsan stepped back.
“No, no! Please, come in. I don’t get much business here during the day. Yes, of course you can send a message. Have you done it before?”
“No.” She hefted her violin case on her shoulder and walked up to the counter. The wooden floor underneath her boots creaked.
“Linsan Sterlig. My parents just opened the account.”
He was starting to reach for a thick leather tomb but then stopped. His hand went to a thick pad of paper instead. Pulling it open, he leafed through it. “Sterlig… Sterlig… here you go. You have a code?”
“I’m suppose to write it down?” She felt uncomfortable with the new experience but she trusted her father’s directions.
Shrugging, he put out a piece of paper and a pencil on the counter.
She write it down and showed it to him.
He peered at it, referred to something in the paper, and then nodded. “Good. It matches. According to this, messages are collect on arrival so you don’t have to pay anything now. Let’s see.”
The banker fumbled with some papers before he handed her another one, this one had about a hundred squares in five lines. “Okay, fill out the message. One letter per square, put a space between the words.”
Unsure of what to write, Linsan hesitated for a moment. “What’s the name of the village?”
The banker half-stood with a look of surprise. Then he looked around furiously and started pawing through papers.
Linsan looked curiously.
He let out a surprised noise and pulled out a piece of paper. “Most of the time I’m dealing with folks… sorry. Here!” He flattened the paper on the counter and tapped one of the first symbols. “Just put this in a box by itself. It doesn’t need any spaces around it. It’s a good one to memorize, it means the name of the sending bank.” He shrugged. “In most cases, it’s the same as the village.”
The rest of the paper had other single-square images to use for each of the surrounding villages, the next town, and other common phrases.
With his help, Linsan wrote a quick message that said told her parents she was safe, still on her way, and she was still looking.
He took the completed note and set it down. A large box filled with white tiles came out from a drawer.
Curious, she watched as he pulled out the tiles for the letter she had just written and placed them in a stack. Each tile was made of some sort of crystal or glass. Flickers of energy raced along the side.
He looked up in surprise. “You have a powerful talent.”
“Yes. I can’t use this spell with you in the bank, you might cause something to crack. I can’t afford to replace these.”
Blushing, Linsan backed away. “Sorry.”
At the door, she remembered her purpose. “Excuse me, have you seen three guys in leather dusters? I don’t know when, maybe in the last few days. One of them had a guitar on him?”
The banker didn’t appear to be listening to her as he concentrated on stacking tiles.
Linsan sighed and turned around.
“I can’t tell you about them,” he said suddenly.
She froze. “W-What?”
“Banking regulations. I can’t tell you what they were doing in the building.”
Spinning around, she grabbed the door to peer in. “But they were here, right?” Her voice rose in excitement.
He peered up at her, nodded, and then returned to his tiles. “Try Gal’s. They stopped there for dinner.”
Linsan gasped and then raced away. Her violin thumped against her hip as she crossed the road and into the general store.
Inside, the brightly-painted business was both a store and a public eating area. The separator between the two was a table filled with jars of peppers, jellies, and other savories. Everything had a pepper motif from the murals on the walls to the tablecloths underneath the supplies. Even the little price tags neatly affixed to the wall had hand-drawn peppers.
Her ears pounding with hope, Linsan looked around for someone to ask. She spotted the hallway leading to the water closets before her eyes caught movement on the corner of her eye. Turning, she saw an old woman sitting behind a counter reading a book that had a half-naked man painted on the front.
The older woman set down her book and gave Linsan a brilliant smile. “Welcome to Old Gal’s! It’s my place and you can call—”
“Actually,” interrupted Linsan.
“Oh, the bathrooms. Just down the hall, door is open—”
“Sorry, I actually have an important question.”
There was a faint creasing around Gal’s eyes. She cleared her throat. Her annoyance was painfully obvious.
Linsan cringed. “Sorry.”
After a second, Gal’s expression grew less stern but didn’t quite disappear. She didn’t speak but picked up her book and tapped it against the counter.
Quietly berated, Linsan waited impatiently as Gal rapped her book a few times before setting it down carefully.
Linsan opened her mouth.
Gal stopped her with a look. She rotated the book slightly on the counter. Then, she folded her wrinkled fingers together and leaned forward. “Now, how may I help you?”
Sheepish, Linsan forced herself to take a deep breath. She wanted to scream or call out. She was close to finding out that she was going in the right direction. “T-The banker said three men had come in earlier. They all had long, ground-length coats and wide-brimmed hats. One them had a guitar. Have you seen them?”
Gal smiled brightly. “Of course, Sweetie.”
Linsan grabbed the edge of the counter. “R-Really? You saw them!?”
A stern look stopped her.
She trembled as she forced her fingers off the counter. “S-Sorry. I’ve been chasing them for a few days now and no one else had seen them.”
“I can’t imagine why, it’s been four… no three days since they came driving through.”
Linsan froze, her heart pounding and the world spinning violently around them. “T-Three days? How did they get here so far? No, it can’t be them.”
Gal shrugged. “Not a lot of people play guitars. And wear coats like that. Sounds like your guys. Your band abandon you?”
Linsan took a deep breath. She considered lying. “N… No.”
“What’s are those?”
Gal grinned. “Pretty girls like you chasing after singers because they got a wink or just want a chance at their beds?”
Linsan stared for a moment. Then her cheeks began to burn. “No… no! They stole something of mine… ours and I’m trying to chase them down.”
Gal cocked her head for a moment, her eyes peering at her.
“Please?” Linsan whispered. “I just need to find them. I’ve been going for three days since… since…” Tears welled up in her eyes. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t want to say they were murderers. “… I just need to find them. I swear.”
Gal’s eyes softened slightly.
Gal shrugged. “Well, you are a couple days behind them. They were just for dinner before driving off. They didn’t even stay here for the night. Just bought a few snacks, two jars of jam, and headed out.”
“Left? At night?”
“Well, they are making those auto-driving vehicles faster these days. It was a pretty nice one too. All black and gold. You don’t see fancy ones in villages like this very often.”
Linsan froze. They had a car?
Tears burned in her eyes. She couldn’t catch up with a vehicle. Not with a wagon and definitely not on foot. She gripped her violin tightly as she tried not to burst into tears.
Gal’s eyes flickered as she stared at Linsan’s face.
“S-Sorry.” Linsan wiped her eyes. “I didn’t mean… I… sorry. I’ve never done this and they… I can’t catch up, can I?”
She stepped back, and shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t,” she whispered to herself. Tears ran down her cheeks as she shook her head.
Gal didn’t say anything.
Wiping her face, Linsan took a deep breath and tried to stop the sudden despair that had slammed into her. All she wanted to do was drop to the ground and curl up in a ball. Or scream at the top of her lungs.
No, she couldn’t. Not in front of Gal.
She spotted the chews that Maril wanted. With a shaking hand, she picked them up along with some snacks and carried them over to the counter. “C-Can I get these?”
“Of course, Sweetie,” Gal said in a sympathetic voice. “That will be four crowns.”
As Gal took Linsan’s money and recorded the sale, Linsan lost herself in despair. With a car, the murderers would easily outpace her. Even at her best, she couldn’t hope to catch with them. However, she was heading in the right direction and now she knew to ask about a car.
Would it matter if they would get to Moon Over Stone Waters long before her? How long would it take to set up a sale? Or if they already had a buyer, how long before they moved on?
“I’m sorry, Love, I thought you knew.” Gal handed her Maril’s supplies in a small paper bag.
“I didn’t. It just…” The storm of emotions made it impossible to make a decision. “… I’ll catch them sooner or later,” she finished with a lie.
Gal leaned over and peered at her closely. “What did they do?”
Linsan hesitated. Was she suppose to say she was chasing murderers? Or thieves? Her parents haven’t given her any suggestions. Then she sighed. “They killed a friend and stole something precious from my family. I was hoping to catch up to them, tell some guards about it, and then somehow get them back home to pay for their crimes.”
The harsh look on Gal’s face hardened. “Killed?”
Linsan nodded. “He was a friend. He ran a local bank in Cobbler’s End. Like the one here. “And… and… I just want to find them.”
“That mean you’re leaving to go after them? By yourself?”
“I have to wait for someone. She’s in the bathroom.”
A smile broke the harsh expression on Gal’s face. “I thought I saw someone rushing by. Well, why don’t you sit down and help yourself to some bread and jelly. It’s my special recipe. On the house.”
“I really should get going.” Linsan gathered up her purchases. “Thank you.”
Dejected, Linsan returned to the wagon to wait for Maril. As she did, her mind worked through the overwhelming realization that she will never catch up to the others. She couldn’t stop though, she had to keep hunting them down. Palisis may be lost forever but if she could bring the murderers to justice, it would be worth it.
She noticed Old Gal coming back from the bank without remembering when the older woman had left the store. Linsan watched her for a moment and then returned to her musings.
When Maril finally came out, it felt like it had been an hour. “Sorry about that. Oh, is that willow bark?”
Old Gal came out with a basket. “Wait!”
Linsan watched curiously as the old woman came to the side of the wagon and stopped. “What’s the name of your friend? The one who died?”
Gal shoved the basket in Linsan’s hands. “My nephew said there was a shut down notice for your bank and Duncan’s death was announced. It may be a lie but it’s a realistic one. Here, take this for the road.”
“T-Thank you,” said Linsan in shock.
“I don’t know if it would help, but they are heading to Stone Water right now.”
“Moon Over Stone Waters?”
Gal said, “Probably. The message was short but they were ‘on schedule for the sale in Stone Waters.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
A sob rose in Linsan’s throat. She was going the right way. “Y-Yes! How did you find that out?”
“He’s my nephew. Now, take the basket and catch up.”
Old Gal shrugged and patted Linsan’s hand. “I don’t know, but I found that the Divine Couple blesses those who try so don’t give up and you’ll make it. Good luck and may the Couple look over you.”