“Jacques! Nice to see you again!”
Marie smiled as the man pulled out a barstool and sat down. Pleasure showed in his crinkled face when she pulled a particularly good bottle of rum from the rack.
“Nice to be back, Marie. Those trails get longer every time I walk them, let me tell you. I don't even know why I'm still in the business.”
“You know that; half the province would be wandering around lost if it wasn't for your maps.” She leaned on the counter, pouring the rum into a glass. He rubbed his eyes.
“I suppose you're right. Still, it would be nice to have some young blood around to help carry everything. Ah well. Can't have the world.”
“So,” Marie said confidentially, “what's the latest news?”
Jacques laughed. “You just never change, do you Marie?”
She smiled at his tease. “It's nice to have some constants, isn't it?”
“Indeed it is, especially with what's been spotted in the other towns. But I'll get to that later.” He picked up the glass and drained it. “First things first. That young couple down in Pole Valley is finally getting married.”
“You mean Reed and Rika? About time, we've only been expecting that for three years now.”
“Denise up in Eagle Ridge finally had her baby, a fine healthy boy. She's going to name him after his father, rest his soul.” Jacques bowed his head for a few seconds in respect as Marie did the same. “And you know that little boy who broke his leg in Ra...”
“Enough already, Jacques, what did you mean when you said that something was spotted in the other towns?”
“Patience, patience, Marie. You surely can't expect me to tell you that until I've had a few drinks.”
“Yes I can. The last time I bought that excuse you wound up snoring on the floor, stone drunk, and when you finally woke up you told me you couldn't remember.”
“I couldn't, and besides, do you really think I'd cheat you out of a fascinating story like this?”
“Fine. One more round and I'll tell you.”
Marie sighed, and poured the rum. Jacques sipped it slowly this time, examining the tavern with a practiced eye. He caught sight of Anna, busing an empty table with her long brown hair pulled back out of her face.
“Hey, who's the new girl?”
“Oh, you mean Anna? Good kid. I bought her off some of those ruffians that sometimes come through here, they claimed they rescued her from a monster. From what I've been able to get out of her, they actually kidnapped her.”
“Huh, reminds me of that kidnapping in Red Grove a while back... Big reward for that one, even now nobody knows who did the deed. Lot of people trying to find out, though.”
“Yes, Jacques, we all know about that. Now what were you going to tell me?”
Jacques looked sorrowfully down at his empty glass. “I don't suppose I could get one more round?”
“Fine.” He sighed. “There's been a celestia seen going from town to town, rumor has it he's headed in this direction.”
Marie paled. “A celestia? Oh dear... those flying menaces are never good news.”
“It gets better. He managed to beat up around 15 drunks in a tavern before he burned the place down, but the one that noticed what he was actually talked to him for a while. He claimed to be looking for a friend, even gave her name and a little description. I forget the exact details, but the guy said something about the kidnapping.”
“Should've known a celestia would be involved in that. That poor girl... I wonder where she is now.” Marie shook her head. “I hope it doesn't come this way. You never know what they'll do; savages every one of them.” Marie hadn't noticed that Anna was listening.
“That's not true!” The two turned simultaneously to face Anna, who had her hands on her hips and stared at them defiantly. Her green eyes blazed, calling all attention to them as she defended the race of fliers.
“Anna,” Marie said, cautiously. “Perhaps you've never met one. They're savage, great winged beasts who would as soon kill you as look at you.”
“I have met them! They're kind, and gentle. Just because one or two have done bad things doesn't mean they all have.”
Jacques examined Anna, long and slow, as her and Marie's voices rose louder and louder, each defending their view without relenting. “Wait a minute... Haven't I seen you somewhere before?”
“Jacques, this is none of your business,” Marie snapped at him, without taking her eyes off Anna.
“No, really, I thought you looked familiar, I just can't place where I've seen you before. When was it...” He closed his eyes and thought for a while. “A couple years ago, north of here... near one of the big rivers... Ah yes, Red Grove. That's where it was!”
“Red Grove?” Marie turned to Jacques, curiosity burning in her eyes. “Where the kidnapping was?”
“That's the place, four years ago. I was up there while I was charting the Sky Divide in detail. Now if only I could remember what she was doing there...” He rubbed his eyes. “Not that this rum is helping much.”
“Anna,” said Marie sternly, “I think you've got some explaining to do.”
“I... I...” she stammered, looking for an escape.
“Oh, no. That can't be it. You couldn't be...” Jacques looked up at her, disbelieving. “I must be drunk.”
“What is it, Jacques?” asked Marie, firmly.
“The girl that got kidnapped. Her name was Anna.” He stared at Anna, like she would vanish any second.
“Anna? Is that true? Was that... you that was kidnapped?” Marie seemed almost as disbelieving as Jacques at the thought.
She didn't answer right away, staring at the wooden floor. Finally, she spoke.