Valeria was fuming. She had gotten back to the barge only to learn that a mule train had departed for the Convent almost as soon as they'd made port in Tristram. Her belongings had automatically been packed up and were already on their way. The captain of the barge assured her that there would be at least two more small caravans leaving in that direction before Caravan ended, and that she should have no trouble catching up with her gear.
That didn't change the fact that she was stranded in Tristram in a borrowed dress, with no voice, and only a few gold coins to her name. "Who told you to move my things?" Valeria wrote.
"Sister Sylverwraithe," answered the captain, squinting to interpret Valeria's ragged, angry handwriting.
"I'll kill her," she tried to wheeze. The sound that came out was somewhere between a hiss and a chirp.
|As Valeria reached the bottom of the
gangplank, a big fat Holstein trotted up to her to investigate her. The perfect end to the
"Pardon?" asked the captain.
"Where is she?" wrote Valeria.
He didn't know.
Valeria started writing an in-depth critique of the captain's intelligence and breeding. She was even going to include a diagram of his family tree when she realized the riverman was waiting patiently for her to finish her note. He was a very big man with knotted muscles and powerful callused hands. Valeria crumpled the note, stuck it in her pocket, and thanked the captain for his time. The last thing she needed was another dip in the Talsande.
There were a dozen or so cows milling around the dock near a stack of wooden crates and barrels. As Valeria reached the bottom of the gangplank, a big fat Holstein trotted up to her to investigate her. The perfect end to the perfect morning.
She was about to push her way around the cow when she heard the voices of two men coming from the other side of the wooden barrier.
The first voice had a Riparian accent: "Please, Mr. Lester, you have to understand. The shipment of star melons I was expecting was lost. You have to give me more time."
The other voice was that of an older man. Its tone was gentle and folksy, but the underlying menace was clear: "Now, you know the rules. I'd like to make an exception, but how do you think my other customers would feel about that? It just wouldn't seem right. Now, you have until the end of Caravan to make good on your debts."
"But that's not enough time," pleaded the first man. "What am I going to do?"
"Well," suggested the other man, "if you honestly can't come up with the money you owe me, there's certainly nothing I can do to make it magically appear. I'm sure we can work out some other arrangement. Perhaps your sons can come to my farm for a few seasons to work off your debt."
"My sons? But how will I run my business without them? I'll go broke!"
"Well then, what about your daughter? I can always use an extra milk maid."
There was a silence. That suggestion obviously hadn't gone over well either.
"There are a few games of chance going on here in town during Caravan," offered the second man. "I've been known to wager a few coins myself now and then. In friendly games, of course. Perhaps you can win the money you owe me." There was a significant pause. "But then again, that's the real reason you're in this mess, isn't it? Well, I'm sure you'll work something out before Caravan leaves."
"Now, now. I wish I could stay and visit longer, but I've kept my cows standing on this cold riverbank for too long as it is. It's bad for their milk, you know."
Wishing to avoid meeting the man who seemed to be in such dire straits over what was surely the star melon harvest she had destroyed, Valeria had begun inching around the crates to go the other direction. She suddenly found herself face-to-face with the second man. She let out a gasp.
He was a wiry, tanned man in his early sixties. He wore a pair of olive-drab bib overalls and a straw hat on his head. The crow's feet around his slate-gray eyes seemed to deepen as he looked her up and down.
Valeria had been stared at by men many times. Often simply because she was a beautiful young woman, but more commonly in open-mouthed shock at whatever insult she'd just delivered. This man looked at her in a way she'd never been looked at before. It was as if he was coldly calculating whether or not she had any value to him. Apparently, he decided that she had none. He tipped his hat to her, "Young miss," he nodded, and allowed her to pass.
Valeria fought down the shudder she felt and hurried past him. She wondered if that was how a mouse felt when a snake was watching.
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