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Story: "Finding the Library" (Part 3 of 4) - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Story: "Finding the Library" (Part 3 of 4)
Below is Part 3 of my Aether Dancer story, "Finding the Library."  (Begin with Part 1, Part 2.)

"Finding the Library" (Part 3 of 4)

Nobody remarked on their leisurely passage. The town was quiet, only a few people out. A traveling clockworker rumbled past in a wagon bedecked with shiny gears. Two gentlemen strolled by, trailing their own serfs laden with packages. The baying of hounds drew nearer.

Sesha raked her gaze along the streets, searching for anything that might help. The clockworker was far too alert and his wagon too conspicuous. The rain barrel and manure pile were insufficient to the cause. The mule slyly lipping the knot of his tether, however, would work perfectly. Another minute and the clever beast would have released itself. Sesha slipped a flask from her backpack and poured the contents over the mule's hooves as she helped it untie the rope.

"Phew, what's that smell?" Tomo said, waving a hand.

Sesha pondered how to explain "urine from a bitch in estrus" to a serf, and then just improvised, "Perfume of a girl doggy in a very friendly mood. The bloodhounds and coonhounds will follow that instead of you." The mule pulled loose from the hitching post and trotted briskly away, head held high. Clearly he knew how to make good on an escape. That only left Tomo.

Sesha retrieved her backpack and nudged Tomo toward the edge of town. "Head downhill until you find a creek," she instructed. "Get in the water -- go north or east if you can -- but in any case keep wading for at least a day. By the time your Lord's men can pick up your trail here in town, it will be too late."

"They'll just go back for the clockwork hounds, if the others lose the trail," Tomo said.

"Don't worry, I'll take care of the clockwork hounds too," Sesha said. "You get moving."

"Thank you for everything," Tomo said. Then he took a bucket hung from the hitching post beside the watering trough, and trudged away downhill. Nobody would pay attention to a serf going to fetch water, even at twilight. They'd just assume he was too lazy to finish his chores before dark.

Sesha hurried to the trader's wagon where she had left the rest of her gear; it was safer to travel with someone than alone. Working fast, she stripped off her plain cotton shirt and pulled on her fine silk blouse, the one salt-dyed in sunset shades of scarlet and tangerine and gold. She let down her hair, shaking it into a froth of curls. Then she slung her clockwork mandolin over her shoulder and headed toward the tavern.

"I've no bed to offer in trade," the tavernkeeper warned her as she settled by the hearth.

"Don't need a bed," Sesha said agreeably. "Spot me supper and keep my mug full of cider, if I draw a crowd for you?"

The tavernkeeper brightened. "Sure," he said. It was a better deal that he would usually get. Traveling entertainers tended to bargain hard, and Sesha could at need, but right now she just needed a place to perform.

With the flick of a switch, the clockwork mandolin tuned itself. Hidden gears adjusted the strings. Sesha played a couple of quiet evening songs about finishing the day's work. The few people already in the tavern drifted closer. Eyeing them carefully, Sesha identified mostly family men, so she played songs of home and love. Then she threw in a livelier adventure ballad about the airship Shrike  and her formidable captain. Men cheered and clapped. Sesha twiddled with her mandolin again, turning on its clockwork amplifier. The tavern door opened, admitting several more people -- younger ones this time, in a boisterous mood.

When the bloodhounds and coonhounds went baying down the street in entirely the wrong direction after the friendly-smelling mule, Sesha could hardly hear them over the noise of the crowd. She simply dialed up the amplifier a little more. The growing audience roared approval. Sweat stuck Sesha's shirt to her skin.

The waitresses had to squeeze through the crowd, holding trays high overhead, as Sesha yelled drinking songs. People sang along, badly. Some pounded their mugs on the tables. Grinning, the tavernkeeper sent out more drinks to make up for what sloshed over the tables and floors.

With no warning, the door burst open and four serftakers charged inside, three of them with clockwork hounds on chains and one with a wrench trying to service the largest hound. A squeal of feedback made people clap their hands over their ears.

[Concluded in Part 4 ...]

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