Ellison glanced at the wall clock on his way out of the depot. It was getting close to dinner time, so instead of trying to hunt Matilda around the city he decided to go to the Barley Bow for his usual meal. There was a good chance she’d show up on her own, anyway, to steal his food. The Barley Mow got a new cook recently, and the menu had actually gotten pretty good.
So he spent a couple of coppers and caught a ride with a driver heading in the right direction.
Tonight’s menu included herb encrusted pork chops, field greens salad with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing, and a white lasagna — tomatoes still hadn’t been discovered yet. There was a desert menu, too.
The inn was always packed now, even though the proprietor tripled the prices. Ellison had to sit at the bar.
Matilda magically appeared just as he was about to bite into his porkchop and squeezed in between him and the guy sitting on the next stool over.
“Hey,” the other guy said, then saw who it was and scooched over. She glared at him until he picked his plate and abandoned his seat.
“That’s better.” She said down, pulled out a knife, and speared Ellison’s pork chop.
“I got you your own plate,” he said. There were, in fact, two plates of pork chops in front of him.
“Stolen meat tastes better.”
He sighed and pushed his plate over to her.
“I tracked down most of the people on the list,” she said, with a mouth full of pork chop. “Or, at least, people who knew them well. A couple came off as a little hinky, and I’m going to dig deeper.” She finished chewing and swallowed. “But nobody really jumped out at me.”
“I’ve got a solid lead,” Ellison said. “Remember the two Armforge guys from the hiring hall?”
“Griffin and…” she began, her mouth full of food again.
“Benjamin.” Ellison cut her off so she could finish chewing. “Those two. They lied about the two delivery guys. They gave the wrong names to Clinio and gave the wrong descriptions to me. It definitely sounds like they’re hiding something. Plus, it pretty much clears Clinio. If he was on the take, too, their stories would have matched.”
“So what…” she began.
“What now,” he said, cutting her off, “Is that we do a deep dive into Griffin the Squint and Benjamin Goldberg. I’ll head back to the main office and look at their real identities. Can you track them in-world?”
“That they might lead us to where they’re keeping the victims? Yes, I do. Do you think you can follow them without them noticing?”
She opened her mouth.
“Just nod yes.”
She glowered at him, but closed her mouth and nodded. Then she looked down at her plate. The porkchop was gone. She poked her fork at a gooey white mass nestled next to the green beans. “What’s this?”
“Skirrets aligot with thyme, cheese and garlic,” said Ellison. “And haricot verts amandine.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Cheesy mashed potatoes, but with skirrets instead,” he explained.
She took a bite and moaned.
“Apparently, with enough butter and cream you can even make skirrets taste good,” he said.
“Remind me to meet the cook before I leave,” she said. “I’m going to pass the word that if anyone even says boo to them, I’ll skin them alive.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not kidding. I just bought a new skinning knife and haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.” She turned and glared at the patrons around her. “Did you all hear me? Anyone touches the cook…” Those closest edged back slightly and she nodded.
“Anyway,” said Ellison. “The other thing I wanted to ask you if maybe we should just grab them up right away. Force them to tell us what really happened. Do you think we can get them to talk?”
“The direct approach, huh?” She thought about it. “Armforge trains their people to withstand torture, and in how to kill themselves quickly when captured. And if we’re able to capture them and keep them alive, their coconspirators might notice that they’re missing and move the captives out of the city before we can get to them.”
“If they haven’t already,” said Ellison.
“I think we should put a couple of assassins on them,” said Matilda.
“They’re good at stalking their victims and not being seen,” said Matilda. “They even have competitions and everything. We hire some assassins, see if the guards lead us to the rest of the gang. And if they don’t, we can still torture them later.”
“I can help,” said Ellison. “I’ll spread the word that we’re looking for the delivery guys and can’t find them, and put out the fake descriptions Benjamin and Griffin gave us. I’ll coordinate with Clinio, so he knows what’s really going on and doesn’t accidentally spill the beans. As long as they think they’ve got us fooled, they might avoid moving Raphe and Wynefrede. I mean, moving captives is always a risk. There’s a good chance that whoever took them has them in a basement somewhere, out of sight, waiting for things to die down before they move them.”
Matilda finished the last of her skirrets with a loud slurp then reached for Ellison’s other plate.
Good thing he’d ordered three dinners, he thought, as the bartender brought him the rest of his meal. He picked up his fork and was about to dig in when Matilda growled at him. He froze, fork in the air, and she grabbed his plate from him, tilted it, and scraped the pork chop, skirrets aligot and haricot verts on top of the plate she already had in front of her.
He opened his mouth to protest and she bared her teeth at him and he edged away. He looked over at the bartender, but the man was over by the slate board near the entrance, crossing out the dinner special and writing the words “sold out” next to it.
“I guess I’ll go grab something on Facepage,” he said.
“You do that,” Matilda said, her mouth full again.
“Before I go, do you want to tell me why you were looking into the Royal Season?”
She shook her head.
“You know, I’ll find out eventually.”
She didn’t say anything, just rolled her eyes and went back to the food, shoveling it in like someone was going to take it away from her.
Ellison doubted anyone would try. On the other hand, the Barley Mow’s new cook was a genius. There might well be an idiot who’d think it was worth the risk.