Thursday and Friday
Ariana gave her target a full day’s head start.
She wanted to give him plenty of time to clear out of the safe house she’d set up for him; she wanted to make sure he presented sufficient challenge to be interesting.
When she was ready – when she thought he was ready – it was no issue at all to slip out of the house. Her family had no interest in her activities, as long as she made the obligatory social appearances and stayed away from anything potentially embarrassing for her Lady Mother.
When she’d first gotten out of the service, she’d been bored and chafing under her enforced leisure time. Now – now she had something to do, and the last thing she wanted was for people to notice her. So she was quiet about her leaving and made sure to leave a tolerable excuse with the staff.
Her target wasn’t in the cabin anymore and he’d done a very good job of covering his tracks. She found places the dust had been wiped clean, however, so someone had been here. Chances were her prey had taken her peace offering.
The rain had been coming down in random but heavy showers, as it had been for the last three days. If she’d been trying to track him by scent, he would be well covered. But just tracking with dogs – that was for amateurs and sports-people, not for Ariana.
She was – had been – the Agency’s best tracker. She’d once found a target in the middle of downtown Sacramento with nothing to go off of but a police sketch. Tracking down her fox wasn’t quite as challenging as the best the Agency had given her. Still, it was a lot more fun than playing hide-and-seek with domesticated slaves, and worlds more fun than sitting pretty, watching politics and social maneuvering happen around her.
It took her almost twenty-four hours to find his spoor. He knew a few tricks, she granted him that. Maybe he’d been in the armed forces, back in America, before he was taken? That meant he could be dangerous, too. She stared at the single footprint, smudged, mostly-hidden, and felt her heartbeat rise.
Her phone vibrated against her hip. Ariana swore silently and glanced at the screen. Her mother’s butler.
She could ignore, perhaps, one call. But then there would be another, and another.
She picked up the call. “Hello?”
“Lady Ariana? Conrad calling. Your mother wishes to see you at dinner tonight at five in the evening.”
Ariana checked her phone. Three-thirty. “I will be there, Conrad. Thank you.”
It wasn’t his fault, she reasoned. It was her mother, establishing control. And the thing about her mother was that she pushed only as hard as you pushed back.
Ariana took a picture of the foot-print. She would return to the trail tomorrow, since it was unlikely that dinner would not drag on into the dark hours.
George was clean, dressed, and fed. The night in the cabin had been the best gift anyone had given him since he’d ended up in this godforsaken place; the toiletry kit had been the second-best. He had slept, which was both a novelty and dangerous. The woman was unlikely to let him go simply to swoop in and pick him up while he napped – but Californian nobles were insane, and this one was clearly no exception.
Once he’d cleaned himself up, he was presentable enough to slide into the nearest town. The cash she’d given him wasn’t enough for a bus ticket, but once he’d lifted a wallet at a cafe, he had enough with a bit left to spare.
Taking the wallet had been surprisingly easy. There had to be pickpockets in California, didn’t there? He wondered briefly if such a crime was punishable by death or slavery or such, all the while dropping his napkin, dipping his fingers into the open purse, and coming out with the overstuffed leather monstrosity.
A few minutes later he did a similar move to replace the wallet. If she paid for lunch with a credit card, it might be quite a while before she noticed the loss.
And if they hung petty thieves here, well, George didn’t plan on being around long enough for that to become an issue.
His ill-gained handful of bills had gotten him on the bus, one more guy among a crowd of people. He sat in the middle, read the local paper, and chatted tolerably about sports when the guy next to him struck up a conversation. He didn’t know the local teams, but it didn’t take all that much effort to agree that boy they kinda sucked this year, too bad it’s not like it was in past years, maybe next year.
Sports talk was always the same, in every country. There was always a “maybe next year.”
He didn’t take a bee-line for any border; that would be obvious. Instead, he took a short-run bus north and west for a couple cities. It was taking him further into California, sure, but it was taking him further away from his insane pursuer, and at the moment, that was the important thing.
In the small college town where the bus deposited him, he rented a cheap hotel room for a night. It was a risk, he supposed, but sleeping outside made you stand out, too. Right now, he needed to look like a normal guy, doing… what?
He sat at breakfast the next day, nibbling on his food and eavesdropping shamelessly. Backpacking, he decided. He would be backpacking up to Canada. Students did it sometimes, and George still looked young enough to be a student, if he let his hair get a little unruly. He could be doing a photo tour of the mountains, perhaps.
He lifted two more wallets before he left the diner and bought a cheap camera and a mid-range backpack in two different stores. Backpackers could walk, too. Or hitchhike; the people he’d overheard had been combining walking and bus rides with hitchhiking.
It was a reasonable cover story and, what’s more, it put him heading towards the Canadian border with no reason to pretend otherwise. George set off out of town, smiling for the first time since he’d been kidnapped.
Her mother was introducing her to a boy. To a man, Ariana supposed, but he was young and thin and shy and ducked his head and said very little, as if he was afraid of Ariana, or her mother, or his mother, or perhaps all three.
That was all too common. So many Californian nobles were quiet and retiring and walked all over by the women in their life. They had very little fight in them, and less flight, not even the sense the Goddess had given a rabbit.
“What would you do,” she murmured, while their mothers were already picking out the wedding colors and drawing up lineages, “if I were to say ‘run, so I could chase you?’”
He looked at her uncertainly. “Your ladyship?” She could see the color retreating from his face, as if abandoning his freckles.
“Mmm. Never mind, just a passing fancy. We ran the foxes the other day, you know.”
He swallowed and nodded. “Your lady mother has a reputation for that, my lady.”
“She does, doesn’t she?” She looked him up and down. “You can relax. I’m not going to stick a fox tail on you. Goddess and Consort, you’re a member of the nobility!”
He looked down at his toes. “Thank you, your Ladyship.”
“They’re talking about making you my Consort, you know, not selling you to me.”
He peeked up at her through long pale lashes, and for the first time showed a bit of spunk. His lips twisted, and his voice was dry. “There’s a difference?”
She was still chewing that over when she made it back to the growing-cold trail. She had tracked her prey to a small town, following the rare footprint, the place where he’d stopped for lunch, the woman at the police station complaining of her wallet being purloined – and returned, sans cash.
He was smart. If he’d been dumb, he would have taken the credit cards, and she could track him by those.
If he’d been dumb, this wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
She’d just ferreted out his bus ticket when her phone rang again – her mother’s butler once more. “Can’t it wait?”
“Your Lady mother is eager to see you taking your place in society.” Conrad sounded sympathetic. “I told her you were out enjoying nature, but she insisted you could enjoy nature in the context of a garden party, your Ladyship.”
Garden parties. Well, perhaps the terrified boy they wanted to be her Consort would be there. They could commiserate, and it might even make her mother happy.Want more?