He was a very nondescript-looking man. His clothes were nondescript; his features were nondescript; and his expression, as he glanced up at the count, was nondescript.
"No," he said.
The count rumbled, running a finger under his large nose. He was a florid, well-fed man with a problem. The problem made him anxious. When he was anxious, he breathed heavily. The papers on the table fluttered with every breath, as though possessed by his anxiety, but were prevented from escaping by a silver ashtray.
"You don't understand. This is urgent."
"I do understand," the man said calmly. "You want to assign me a task any constable could manage. Perhaps you've mistaken me for an errand boy." He rose to leave.
"Wait!" the count pleaded. He heaved a bulging sack onto the table, caressing the lumpy surface wistfully as it left his hands. "Does this look like an errand boy's wages?"
The man hefted the bag assessingly, plucked out a random coin for inspection, and sat down, running his thumb over the reeding as though it could tell him secrets.
"I'm listening," he said.
X X X
The old woman pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. It was plainspun brown, of decent quality, but not very warm.
"I hope you can at least do what you're supposed to," she muttered.
Thus far, it seemed to. The townsfolk hardly spared her a glance as they passed. More tellingly, the young town guards all but ignored her. A shabby brown shawl for a shabby old granny. The perfect prop.
She passed half-timbered houses on ever narrower cobblestone streets. This was a walled town, and that the people felt safe inside of it was evident in their relaxed pace, the amiable tone of their conversations, and the calm and hospitable way they interacted with the many strangers in their midst. Indeed, foreign traders and their wares were local additions to the local commerce. That was why, after two minutes of near panicked deliberation, she'd set out for this place.
That had been three days ago.
Abundance of trade meant better roads, for the Hansa guilds made it their business to maintain the arteries along which their income flowed. It meant quick travel from town to town, with horses and lodgings readily available. Right now, that was to her advantage. Later, she knew, it would turn against her.
A brisk wind puffed down the winding street in front of her, tugging at the hem of her shapeless dress and setting the shawl fringe a-dance.
"Thank God spring is coming," she murmured. The air no longer held the bite of winter, but the nights were still cool. There would be plenty of time for sleeping outdoors later, no doubt, but she had no intention of doing it tonight.
The wind had done her a favor. A sign it had set to swaying caught her eye as it flicked between the dim light from streetlamps and the even dimmer light of the evening sky.
The Four Flagons. Yes, that was it.
She pushed in along with another group, pleased that the dust on her clothes matched the dust on theirs. For a moment she could pretend that she was in a group of travelers, just one of several, clutching packs of hard-won goods intended for barter or sale in distant Kontors. Ah, that was the life -- taxing, uncertain, rewarding.
The others peeled away at the desk, returning to rooms rented out earlier, and the illusion was broken. She sighed. It had been nice while it lasted.
The young man at the counter looked up from his parchments. The owner's son, most likely, or else a trusted apprentice. His fair hair was set off by the scarlet of his feathered cap. "A room for you, Auntie?"
Bless him; his trade had taught him to speak courteously to all comers, whatever he thought of the state of their clothes. Who knew; old ladies could be influential Hansa matriarchs as well as ordinary travelers.
Except that influential matriarchs rarely traveled in shabby solitude. No, he was just being polite.
"A rug by the hearth, if you have one to spare," she said, nodding to the step-down room away from the dining area. Already the lights there were dimmed down, throwing the bodies of weary travelers into bundled shadow, shadow tinged with faint warmth from the great ember-filled hearth. Every few hours, she knew, a catfooted attendant would move through and quietly rake the coals. Some such attendants were also pickpockets and murderers; she could only hope that The Four Flagons refrained from hiring either.
"Two coppers for the night, then." The attendant held out his palm, and she fumbled two pfennig into it. She dearly wanted a room and a bath, but the less she spent, the less attention she would attract. Anyway, an old woman would take a long time climbing the steps to the second story and the private chambers there. She didn't have that to spare.
"There's three rugs empty, and the powder room is in the far corner." The attendant pointed helpfully.
"Thank you kindly."