"Quack!" the duck declared with a dignified, even pompous air. Alys Brangwin was glad that someone was able to manage some dignity out of the situation. She might have been Motavia's most celebrated hunter, but a floppy hat with bells might have been more appropriate at that point.
"Your job request to the Hunter's Guild," she said with admirable patience, not even gritting her teeth...much. "Your job request stated that your 'most priceless treasure' had been stolen. At no time did you mention a dog!"
Ernest Lyons looked up at her, wide-eyed.
"But what did you think I meant?"
"Money. Jewelry. Artworks. Antiques. Some priceless heirloom. Maybe some otherwise worthless trinket with irreplaceable sentimental value."
Alys's client gave her a look of such blank incomprehension that she almost felt guilty for being annoyed. He blinked several times behind his wide, wire-rimmed spectacles, which combined with his receding hairline, pudgy cheeks and generally plump build gave him something of the look of an Abe Frog wearing clothes.
"But...but why would I offer five thousand meseta to recover something like that?" Ernest asked, his confusion puzzling. "Those are just things. Why would anyone care so much about objects?"
Now she did feel guilty.
"You've got me, but they do."
Ernest shook his head.
"I just can't understand that."
Glancing around the room, noting the two brightly-colored songbirds on their perch, the small gray mouse nibbling grain in its cage, the potted palm, and of course the duck which occupied the second of the room's two chairs, Alys could believe it.
"All right, so what can you tell me about the missing dog?"
"His name is Robin, and he's black with a green patch on the back of his neck. He's about this tall." Ernest held his hand at waist height. "He's very friendly and can do all kinds of tricks. He can even balance his ball on his nose!"
"You said he went missing two days ago?"
Ernest's head bobbed up and down rapidly.
"Robin didn't come home for supper! He's never late for his dinner, so I knew that someone had taken him. The...the town guard just laughed at me, so I contacted the Hunter's Guild at once!"
"Ernest, you can't just let your dog run loose around town. Animals are like children; they need supervision to function in human society. He could have gotten hurt, or lost, or--"
"Robin would never set a paw wrong! He's a very intelligent and well-behaved dog! Besides, today I found this shoved under my door!"
He handed her a scrap of paper, his expression still indignant.
We haf yr dog! Put 100 miseta under the big rok near the ded tree if you wannit bak!
"The handwriting is as bad as the spelling," Alys murmured. "It looks like a kid wrote this. Is there anybody you know who doesn't like you, or Robin?"
Ernest frowned, his fleshy brow furrowing in thought.
"Well, there's Tamm Geiger. He said that Robin got into his chicken coop and the chickens ran off in all directions, but I don't believe a word of it. Three hours to catch one little flock of chickens, indeed!"
"Then there's Owen Charter. He claims that Robin dug up and ate half the carrots in his vegetable garden. As if Robin would ever do such a thing! He's far too well-mannered!"
"Still and all..."
"Oh, and there's Victoria Gray, who runs the general store. She actually threw a vashal-fruit at Robin! Of course, she claims that Robin jumped against the fruit-stall and knocked it down, but--"
"Apparently Robin is the terror of the village," she muttered under her breath. Out loud she asked, "Who's the town guard?"
"Jonas Reeve. He doesn't like Robin either. No wonder he wouldn't take me seriously! He'd probably be just as happy if Robin never came home!" The very thought of it made Ernest gasp. "Oh, Alys, you wouldn't let that happen, would you?"
"I like dogs," Alys said. "They usually obey better than people do. Where does the guard live?"
"Down at the end of the street on the left. You can tell because his house has a jail cell built into the side."
"Thanks. This 'big rock near the dead tree' in the note--does that mean anything to you? Some local landmark?"
"Of course. There's a sixty-foot palm that was uprooted two years ago in an earthquake. It fell south of town, and there's a large boulder that was thrust up through the ground by the same quake just next to it."
"Alys...do you really think you can find Robin for me?"
"I'm going to do my best."
Alys welled up the street as the afternoon sun beat down. Vennat was no different than a dozen other villages she'd been to, with a dusty street well tamped-down by feet and cart wheels, flanked by neat buildings of yellow-white stone with castle-like crenelations around the flat roofs, occasionally with domes slotted with ventilation windows. Here and there wooden signs swung from poles over doors, marking shops, a doctor's office, a tavern, and the local law. The latter was right where Ernest had said it was, and a tall, lean man sat on a bench out front. Never one for the oblique approach, Alys walked up to him.
"Are you Jonas Reeve?"
The man looked her up and down. He was around fifty, the stubble on his cheeks liberally speckled with gray, his complexion and build reminding Alys of a tough old piece of rawhide. His shirt and pants were the same off-white color as the buildings, and he wore a pair of crossed black belts on his torso as weapon harnesses; one had three flat throwing knives while the other supported a sturdy head-knocker of a truncheon at his waist. His eyes traveled up and down Alys, paying more attention to the paired slashers at her belt than the body beneath her white-piped red dress or her long brown hair. She appreciated that.
"Yep." He was winding string around a couple of crossed sticks, securing a triangular piece of cloth to the frame. It looked kind of like a kite to Alys, only it was no more than eight inches long and the shorter side of the frame wasn't covered.
"So what do I call you? Marshal? Sergeant?"
"Just 'Guardsman' will be fine, if you have to use a title. No use for anything fancier out here."
"Usually that's when people like to insist on it."
Jonas turned his head away and spat into the dust.
"More fool them. Here, it's just Guardsman Reeve. Better yet, call me Jonas. We'll save the official names for when you get into official trouble."
"That might be now, since I'm here to see you officially."
"Kinda figured on that. Don't get a lot of strangers paying social calls. Hunter?"
"Damn," Jonas said, shaking his head in amusement. "Ernest really up and did it, didn't he?"
"Begging your pardon, but finding a lost dog doesn't really seem the caliber of work for a hunter."
"You'd be surprised. Besides, it isn't a lost dog. Ernest got a ransom note today."
"Seriously? I guess that does make it official."
"You want to go inside?"
Jonas shook his head.
"No point. Not like I've got files on local dognappers to look up. Have a seat."
Alys sat down. More than likely, the 'files' on local crooks were sitting next to her anyway. Besides, it was a nice day.
"Since you got my name, what's yours?"
Jonas's head swiveled around to face her, his hands stopping work on the toy in his lap for the first time.
"Alys Brangwin?" he asked, surprised.
She sighed, knowing what was coming next, and answered, "Yes."
"The Eight-Stroke Warrior? The biggest, baddest hunter on the planet came to Vennet to look for a dog?"
"Please, don't use that stupid nickname," she said in a pained voice, and Jonas chuckled.
"Guess I won't. It is pretty silly, isn't it?"
"You have no idea."
"Well, if this dognapping's enough to bring you down here, guess I'd better take it seriously. What kind of ransom are they asking?"
"A hundred meseta."
Jonas screwed up his face in confusion.
"A hundred? Ernest loves that big ol' mutt. He'd pay ten thousand for it easy."
"He's paying five as it is," Alys said.
"No wonder you took the case."
"He just called it a missing treasure on the Guild listing, but I guess that means different things to different people."
Jonas knotted off a thread on his model.
"Is that a glider?" Alys asked, changing the subject abruptly.
"Huh? Yeah, a toy one."
"Did you know that some Native Motavians actually use full-size ones to fly with?"
"Uh-huh. There's a village where they have a race every year. I was hired to catch someone who'd stolen the lead inventor's design. She offered to let me fly the glider when I recovered it, but I've never really been much for thrills for their own sake."
Jonas shook his head.
"Wouldn't catch me going up in one. I like keeping my feet on the ground."
"I guess Ernest's dog didn't. From what he said, Robin's a bit of a troublemaker. Of course, he doesn't believe a word of it. He thinks that people who don't like Robin are making up stories."
"That'd be how he'd see it."
"How do you see it?"
Jonas set the model glider down between them and leaned back, considering the matter.
"Robin's a good dog," he said. "He's not mean or vicious, wouldn't bite anything more than a chew toy. Problem is, Ernest ain't a good owner. He loves Robin, sure enough, but won't teach him manners, won't even keep him fenced. Dog's like a kid. You don't teach it how to act right, it won't. So it gets in trouble now and again 'cause it don't know different."
"Would he be hard to steal?"
"Can't think why. Friendly dog, would go off with anyone. Then you'd just have to tie him or shut him up in a room."
"I guess it would be especially easy since Robin probably knows everyone in the village by now."
"One more question."
"Just one?" Jonas was surprised. "Figured you'd have more than that."
Alys shook her head.
"Maybe, but I don't think so."
"Like to earn your fees instead of leaning on the local law, do you?"
"Actually, local law was the point of my question. What's the fine amount here for letting a dog run loose and get into trouble?"
"Same as for any other annoying but dangerous nuisance."
"I'm guessing one hundred meseta?" She suddenly raised her voice and shouted, "Robin, speak!"
A loud bark echoed from inside the building behind them.
"Good boy!" Alys called. She then turned to Jonas. "Care to explain?"
"How'd you know?"
"You didn't want to go inside. Maybe because you like the sun and fresh air. Maybe because there was something you didn't want me to see. Then there was this." She picked up the glider. "The ransom note had me thinking of a child to begin with, both from the spelling and because of the ransom amount. Only a little kid would think of a hundred meseta as a ransom."
"That's why I did it that way. Since I was only asking for the amount of the fine, it only made since as a kid's prank. Had my nephew write the note. That can't have been all, though."
"That's how intuition works. You see something, it reminds you of something else, and the next thing you know, it's an idea. And hey, all it took to check was to call a dog. Now, about that explanation?"
"I feel for the guy."
"Yeah. He loves his animals, and he mostly treats them right. But he's gotta learn, he's gotta take responsibility for that dog. It ain't just 'cause someone's gonna punch Ernest in the face sooner or later. Heck, truth be told I like the dog better than the man, and he could get hurt or killed running loose. A fine won't mean nothing, but worrying over what happened might make him stop and think. Guy like that, only way he changes is if he thinks it's for the dog's own good."
"Works for me."
"So what're you going to tell him?"
"I was thinking about the truth. I found the dognapper, I rescued Robin, and building a nice fenced yard would keep the dog from running off where nasty people and things could hurt him. I can even recommend a guy right here in town who's good with wood who might help him put the fence up."
"True enough. You're pretty confident about it, though."
Alys leaned back.
"Uh huh. I am."
"Some. But it works either way. It's just a question of whether I have to add a line about how I had to fight the dognapper to rescue Robin by force."
Jonas gave her another wide-eyed look, then grinned, tipped his head back, and laughed heartily.
"Heck, looking at it that way, I'd be confident too."
"I thought you'd agree," Alys said, smiling back. She picked up the glider. "May I?"
"Be my guest."
She gave the toy a flick of her wrist and sent it flying outwards. It caught an updraft, then banked left, swung in a circle, and landed back in Jonas's lap. Alys clapped him on the shoulder.
"C'mon. I have to see a man about a dog."