It had not been a pleasant morning for the attendant. He had overslept; Jan had to shake him awake, and when he stumbled out to the desk yawning and rubbing his eyes, it was to find a polite but insistent guest waiting for him. Then, when the attendant rang for a stable boy, he found that said stable boy had slipped off to visit a girl, in essence deserting his post shortly after relieving the boy who covered the night shift.
Last but not least, during the irresponsible lad's absence...
"That's not my horse, the guest said, eying the stiff-kneed nag with distaste.
"If you please, sir," the bellboy stammered -- he'd been drafted on the spot and looked out of place with reins in his hand -- "she's the only white horse in the stable."
"She?" The attendant snatched the stall tag from the bellboy's nervous fingers. "You bumbler, this guest brought a gelding. That mare belongs to -- " he peered at the hastily scrawled lettering -- "a tinsmith from Peterskirche!"
The guest pushed past both of them and strode into the stable next door, helping himself to the staff entrance in the wall. Calfskin boots crunched lightly through clean straw. Sunlight glittered through narrow bands of dust, and horses put their heads over their stall doors and whickered, but his gelding's stall was empty, though someone had thoughtfully shut the door. And, to add insult to injury, a few marks atop the feed...
He crossed to the tack wall opposite, scanning. There; the empty hooks where his saddle and hackamore had hung, pointing like accusing fingers.
He slapped his hip and turned away, and as he did a thin glimmer caught his eye, something brighter than dust in sunlight.
It was a thread of translucent grey fabric, itself almost colorless but iridescent where it caught the light, dangling from a splinter in the wood.
He ran it through his fingers; soft, fine stuff it was. He recognized the feel of it, etched into his memories by a time he would rather forget. But the look -- that was new.
He retraced his steps and gleaned those few marks form the manger. Poor coin for someone wearing such fine clothes.
The attendant appeared in the stable door, with the shamefaced look of someone who'd just endured a sound scolding; behind him bobbed a stout man in good clothes who could only be the owner of the inn.
"Good sir, my humblest apologies. We will of course guarantee you a new horse. I've fired that idiot, but I've no idea who could have done such a --"
"I do," the guest said absently, plucking another thread from the manager. His normally colorless eyes were green with interest.
The owner blinked. "You do?"
"It's a woman," the guest said, rubbing the second thread. "In fine cloth of Flanders."
X X X
He sat nursing his drink while the owner and attendants ran around yelling and tripping over each other. He wished they wouldn't try to be so helpful; it only made it hard for him to think. He had to listen to their prattle with half an ear in case they said something important.
"The pigeons have been sent --"
"Replies due any minute --"
"Friedrick is fetching a steed from the riverfront --"
His prey had a conscience. He fingered the five marks meditatively, puzzling at the mind that had left them. Those coins complicated the story Count Augsburg had told him.
She stole something of great value. She must face Hansa justice.
She'd stolen his horse, too. Instinct told him that here, at this place he'd lighted in almost by chance, his quarry had flushed from beneath his feet.
No one had seen her; at least, no one had seen a woman matching the description he had from the Count. And yet she had been here.
There was no way she could have known about him. The taking of *his* horse, specifically... that was accident. She had an eye for horse flesh, that was all.
And it had bothered her.
She stole something of great value.
He still puzzled over that. The Count had buttoned his lips, refusing to elaborate on what and where. The stolen object might not even be in her possession anymore, he had said; the emphasis had been on the thief facing trial. Hansa justice was exacting, especially when it came to stolen goods.
He was startled out of his reverie by the attendant and owner colliding almost under his nose.
"Friedrick has brought you a fine bay mare," the attendant began, but the owner shoved him out of the way.
"I've seen word for all Hansa inns to keep watch for your gelding --"
The bellboy pushed between the two of them, holding aloft a pigeon paper. "I have word from our man at the gate," he said, smug with the importance of his news. "A burgher woman left town at daybreak. She was riding your horse."
The guest held out his hand. Reluctantly, the bellboy surrendered the source of his importance.
The other two crowded close impatiently. "What direction was she headed?" they almost shouted.
The guest, having flicked his eyes over the paper, handed it back. The bellboy had already read it anyway. "North," he said, more to himself than to them. His mind was already racing ahead, considering all the possible routes.
Minchen. She was headed for Minchen.
He finished off the rest of his drink and got to his feet. It would be no easy matter catching up to his horse.