The monberry shop on the corner of the Dyemakers Road and Lowhill Street offered no defenses for the patrons and no protection for eavesdropping. The colorful wooden tables and chairs were laid out within a moderately-sized railed-in area that allowed the customers to both see and be seen. For those seeking to rendezvous with friends or associates the setup was ideal. For those seeking to hold a clandestine conversation it was decidedly less so.
“I have to confess,” Teo said. “This is not quite what I expected when you said we needed to continue our conversation somewhere safer.”
“You don’t feel safe here?” Dae asked. She took a long, slow pull from her lemon water and watched the vampire fidget.
“I feel exposed,” Teo said. “This is too public, we’re going to be seen.”
“There are a number of spots we could be observed from,” Dae said. “And with most of them we couldn’t even tell if someone was watching us.”
“And yet you brought us here from that lovely, little, secluded alley,” Teo said. “Shouldn’t I at least be wearing my hat?”
“Not with the great big umbrella we have overhead,” Dae said. “Plus that would defeat the purpose of this.”
“You want us to be seen,” Teo said, understanding flickering to life in his eyes. “You want anyone who was following you to know you’ve spoken to me specifically.”
“It’s for your own good,” Dae said.
“How do I profit from this?” Teo asked.
“You have information I lack,” Dae said. “If you give it all to me, then it will be too late for anyone to kill you.”
“I think anyone foolish enough to tail a member of the Dawn March in her own city would be happy to kill me out of spite,” Teo said.
“Probably,” Dae said. “You’re could be the one loose end they need to tie up , but if I’m right and you’re seen talking with me now there won’t be quite the sense of urgency involved in silencing you.”
“You seem to know quite a lot about what’s going on,” Teo said. “Do you even need the information I carry?”
“I don’t know all that much,” Dae said. “What I have is a lot of guesses based on weak evidence. With luck, you can help turn those into actual clues.”
“I’m afraid what I know is largely unsupported as well,” Teo said.
“I’m not looking for trial-ready testimony,” Dae said. “I just need to know who to keep an eye on.”
“That will be challenging in this instance,” Teo said. “I’m gifted at tracking people and the one following you eluded me.”
“We’ll see about that in a bit,” Dae said. “For now though explain why you were out in the tempest last night?”
“As I said, I was searching for a group of merchants from Inchesso,” Teo said. “Or at least people who were traveling as merchants.”
“Since you don’t seem the type to follow people for their snack potential, I’m going to assume that there was something special about these merchants which attracted your attention?” Dae placed her lemon water on the table and stretched her left arm across her chest to loosen her shoulder muscles. A glance around the plaza they were in confirmed her suspicions that her quarry wasn’t in place yet.
“They carried no merchandise,” Teo said. He drank from his cup of hot monberry as though the stuff was as precious as the blood his body actually craved. With any other drink such behavior would have attracted attention but it was how the rest of the patrons of the shop consumed the beverage as well.
“Perhaps they were traveling to purchase their wares in Nath and bring the merchandise back to Inchesso?” Dae asked.
“Possible, but unusual,” Teo said. “Most merchants try to make money in both directions of a trading route. Bring to Gallagrin goods that are plentiful in Inchesso and then return to Inchesso with goods found only here.”
“Odd to pass up that sort of profit but you saw something else that tipped you off, didn’t you?” Dae said.
“I was traveling to Nath on the roads from Elinspire when I first met them at a Traders house where road from the Inchesso border joins up,” Teo said. “I overheard them muttering in Cascalain, one of the dialects I’m familiar with. I tried to join in on their conversation but they rebuked me and fled to their rooms for the evening.”
“Not an atypical response to encountering a vampire on the road I would imagine?” Dae asked.
“In hindsight, no, it was not, but it did pique my interest in them,” Teo said. “I might have forgotten all about them though as the hurt feelings faded if I hadn’t run into them one more time, at the Gailman’s Bridge checkpoint.”
“Did they see you there?” Dae asked.
“No,” Teo said. “I was being somewhat aloof. I didn’t have the toll needed to pass the bridge.”
“Gailman’s is a Royal bridge,” Dae said. “There’s not supposed to be a toll to use Royal bridges.”
With Gallagrin being a land of mountains, and gorges, and wide, powerful rivers, the maintenance and defense of its bridges was a serious cause for a concern. And a serious opportunity for those seeking to supplement their income.
“Yes, someone should tell the Duke about it,” Teo said. “Though it’s probable that he already knows as the ‘merchants’ bore a letter which allowed them to pass unhindered.”
“And you believe he wrote it?” Dae asked.
“Gailman’s Bridge is on Telli land. Apart from the Duke’s, the only seal a letter like that could carry which would have enough force to carry the bearer through is the King’s or Queen’s and as you say, the Royal bridges are supposed to allow free passage, so why would they pen a writ of passage for just one group?”
“Several possible reasons I can think of,” Dae said. “At least on the King’s side. But I can tell that you’re story is not done yet.”
“Indeed,” Teo said. “The incident at the bridge left me with a deeper curiosity as to the merchants motivations and connections so I followed them.”
“I’ve read that vampires are superlative hunters,” Dae said, stretching her right shoulder muscles. Her eyes glanced briefly upwards as she did so and a predatory grin rippled over her lips.
All of the curtains on the second floor of the Hotel Weskette which lay across the plaza were drawn open. All of them except one.
Dae was delighted to see this because it was just the kind of mistake an out-of-towner might make when doing a quick survey of the environment. Twenty minutes earlier the curtains at the Weskette had all been drawn shut. The second floor rooms were rented by the hour though, so the cleaning staff did multiple passes through them and left the curtains open to show their availability for occupancy, a fact Dae had learned on an earlier case which had taken nearly a crate of the worst bilge she could find to blur her memories of. She would have to check with the reception desk at the Weskette, but her gut told her that it was very likely that her mystery pursuer was watching her and Teo as they spoke.
“Hunting prowess is an innate aspect of our condition,” Teo said. “It’s much easier to be silent when your heart is absent.”
“And what did your pursuit reveal?” Dae asked.
“That for as talented as my natural abilities make me, the ‘merchants’ are somehow better,” Teo said. “I lost them twice on the trip to Nath. Both times I recovered their trail only by exerting myself to get ahead of them and lying in wait at choke points they were required to pass through.”
“That’s unusually skillful for a group of merchants,” Dae said and asked, “How many traveled in their company.”
“A half dozen,” Teo said. “Or a half dozen that I could see. As things went, I can’t swear that there weren’t other traveling with them as outriders. That may have been how they were able to throw me off the trail.”
“That’s an impressively large group to hide from a pursuing vampire,” Dae said. “What did they do once they reached Nath?”
“They took up residence in the Low Quarters,” Teo said. “They didn’t stay in any one location long, but they visited the same taverns repeatedly.”
“Did you approach them again?” Dae asked. They were too far from the Weskette for any observer to understand what they were saying, but luring her mark in closer seemed an unlikely prospect from Dae’s perspective. Whatever her pursuers orders were they didn’t include open mayhem in the light of day on the streets of Nath by all appearances.
“No, I wanted to get a sense of what brought them to Nath and I doubted they would be very forthcoming,” Teo said.
“Why the trip into the rain then?” Dae asked.
“I followed them earlier that day to the Duke’s castle,” Teo said. “I feared his life might be in danger but they proceeded into the palace under the same letter they showed at the bridge checkpoint.”
“Why would you fear for the Duke’s life?” Dae asked.
“My countrymen’s reputation as poisoners and cutthroats is largely incorrect but not wholly unearned,” Teo said. “When someone wishes to hire an assassin, I am afraid to say that Inchesso is often where they turn.”
“So what happened when the merchants left the castle?” Dae asked.
“I don’t know,” Teo said. “I waited for the rest of the morning, and through the afternoon for them to emerge but I saw no further sign of them. That’s why I was revisiting the locales I’d seen them in and inquiring if they’d been by that evening.”
“And then you ran afoul of the Watch,” Dae said.
“Not to mention a most unusual member of the Dawn March,” Teo said. “This morning, when I felt recovered, I returned to my roost overlooking the castle’s main gate. I saw you enter and I saw one of the ‘merchants’ take up a perch perilously near my own. When you emerged he began to follow you, and I to follow him, and that brings us to where we sit presently.”
“Not quite,” Dae said. “There’s some bad blood between you and the Duke otherwise you would have gone to him with your concerns right away.”
“Once, maybe,” Teo said. “But I am no longer welcome in his home or his holdings. By rights I shouldn’t even be here.”
“What offense did you commit against him?” Dae asked.
“I loved unwisely,” Teo said.
“That would be Ren I take it?” Dae asked.
Teo nodded, but didn’t speak.
“What was your position in the household?” Dae asked.
“I was given to Duke Telli as a page when I was young,” Teo said. “I rarely saw him, so I can not claim to have much connection with the man, but I attended to his children often.”
“As a vampire?” Dae asked.
“No, that came later,” Teo said. “I was badly injured in a hunt when I was fifteen. The Duke ordered me left where I lay, believing my wounds to be fatal. He was probably correct but Ren disagreed with him and stayed behind to tend to me. He kept me alive until the witching hour stole in and the Blood Mother found us.”
“Is that why Ren has your heart?” Dae asked.
“No,” Teo said. “It was his long before then.”
“And the Duke wasn’t fond of this arrangement I take it?” Dae asked.
“Duke Telli doesn’t pay much attention to his youngest son,” Teo said. “We were together for years and nothing was said of it. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that he ‘discovered’ us and cast me out.”
“And what happened to Ren?” Dae asked.
“I don’t know,” Teo said. “I imagine at least banished from their home at Elinspire. The Duke was ranting about that as he beat me.”
“Does Ren have somewhere else to go?” Dae asked.
“His mother’s kin, though the Duke did not provide for them overly well from what I have overheard,” Teo said.
“You were traveling to Nath when you encountered your countrymen,” Dae said. “Why?”
“I sought to plead with the Duke,” Teo said. “Not for myself but for Ren. I thought he might believe that everything he saw and heard was because my vampiric nature had taken over and that Ren was blameless.”
“That would have left quite a burden on you,” Dae said.
“Yes, well, I planned to leap into the great fire pit in the center of the Duke’s hall to prove my words,” Teo said, “But it’s come to me that such a plan may not produce quite the result I was hoping for.”
“No, I suspect it wouldn’t,” Dae said.
“So where does that leave us?” Teo asked.
“That leaves me to track down some more information and, hopefully, be assaulted by one or more Inchesso assassins,” Dae said. “You on the other hand will get to enjoy the Queen’s hospitality while you are under arrest.”