The walk to the strange man’s cave was only an hour because of the rolling limp that affected his walk, and, it seemed, his speech patterns. He would go up and down, up and down with his tales as they walked, telling Raizel all about the Empire’s plans to read everyone’s mind, only to turn around and whisper, so very quietly, that the birds were there to spy on him, and then be back to shouting again.
Three times, Raizel offered to go on ahead, and three times he turned her down, each time more angrily than before. The last time, he swept both hands in wide denial, as if clearing off a table. “You only want the falcon for yourself! I will get some other child to get it, someone who is less greedy!”
Raizel could see those fifty sed slipping out of her fingers. “There won’t be any others,” she pointed out quickly. “I’m the last one to head out for the Census. It took me longer to count my family than everyone else.”
That seemed to placate him. “The Ennizaba family has always been a large one. Large and proud, proud and large. Surprised they agreed to the taxes at all. Surprised they will let the Census know them.”
“Well, you know how it is.” Raizel wasn’t sure he did, truth be told, so she explained. “There’s only so much business you can do if you’re not on the rosters. People who are concerned about such things, they want to see the seal that says you did the lawful thing, they want to know that you pay your taxes just like them.” Her mother had explained it to her not a week ago. And then her great-grandfather had added some choice words of his own. The Ennizaba family was, indeed, very proud about such things – which probably had more to do with Raizel’s delay in leaving than any of the adults would willingly admit to.
“Sometimes you cannot get around such things, this is true.” The man nodded. “That is the way of the Empire, always eating up everything one wants to do. They color the way that the people think, and thus do not need to police. If people police each other because their thoughts have been changed, the Empire can concentrate on other matters. And I wonder, and you should wonder, what those other matters are.”
“Of course.” Raizel had other worries than what the Empire was up to. “How much longer?”
“Not far, not far. You can see it up ahead, there, see?”
“You are not digging in the dark hill!” The voice came from ahead, although Raizel could see nobody in front of them. “No! You cannot dig in there!”
She could, too, for fifty sed! Raizel peered ahead, wondering who was getting in the way of her handful of money. She could almost feel it in her pocket already…
A man came lumbering up over the tiny hillock ahead of them, a man nearly as round as the hill, wearing an apron that was so white as to nearly be blinding and a blue cap which covered all of his hair. An innkeeper or a bartender or a waiter, probably, and no waiter would stay that round, not in the tight little restaurants around here. “You cannot dig in the dark hill!”
“And who tells you that we’re going to, mmm?” complained the man who was going to pay Raizel. “Who said such a thing to you?”
“I know you, Triner Tralrn, I know you well, and you do the same thing every time you have a chance. You crag poor children to dig for you. Not this time! No, you cannot dig it up!”
“Look, he is going to give me fifty sed to dig up this box.” Raizel didn’t really have time for the old men to fight; she needed to get to the train station. “Are you going to give me sixty sed not to dig it up?”
The probably-an-innkeeper eyed Raizel for a moment. “From the mountains, mmm”
Of course she was; they were still in the mountains. Or at least still in the mountain region. “Yes.”
“Listen, you cannot.” He clasped his hands in front of him. “I beg you, do not.”
“Old man, what are you worried about?” The man with Raizel, Trinner Tralrn (and that was a low-country name if she’d ever heard one), glared at the round man. “You don’t care one whit for the treasure or anything else buried under that mountain as long as your secrets stay there!”
“And you don’t care one whit for my secrets as long as you can keep the birds out of your brain!” countered the round man. “And now you have this child involved.”
The child really wanted to get her money. If Raizel had wanted to listen to old men argue, she’d have stayed home.
“Look, I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t really care about your secr-” she stopped as the man grabbed her arms with both of his hands. “Let go of me.” She knew her voice was level but she was ready to shout if she had to.
He lifted his hands up and stepped backwards. “When you find the missive. The black missive. You’re going to find it. When you find it, please destroy it. That is all I ask, and I implore it of you. Please. The missive.”
“Dig up his treasure, destroy the black missive.” She nodded. “I can do that.” For her fifty sed.