Chapter 17 Part 3: A Bargain
Clandestine could feel the sweat on the back of her neck as she was brought to the mayor's office. It had been a few hours of waiting. She could see the streams of light pouring in through the tall bay windows slowly change direction, casting warmth over the hall she was waiting in by the staircase.
She'd been in situations similar to this before - at least, in fancier homes, waiting on wealthy people with monster problems. But she'd never finagled her way in to meet with a mayor, and she was nervous. Her leg shook erratically and her heel tapped against the wood floors as she studied the entire hallway over and over, trying to occupy herself with something to do as guards passed by and gave her bored glances, or lifted their noses a little like they were above her.
The walls were lined with patterned wallpaper - geometric shapes of faded yellows and reds, framed by brown floorboards and wooden floors. Long carpets stretched down the halls, matching the walls in red threads, though worn down in the center footpaths. A few paintings were spaced out along the walls - all beautiful works of art that looked like they would have taken forever to complete, framed in equally exquisite gold-painted woodwork.
A few lanterns filled the gaps between paintings, but they didn't need to be lit during the daytime with the generous amount of light spilling through the windows.
If she wasn't potentially an unwelcome guest she would've felt far more at peace in such a beautiful home. But her stomach was uneasy with busy butterflies.
They'd asked for her papers to take up to Barlowe to review before even letting her know if Barlowe had agreed to meet with her, and the uncertainty was driving her mad. She'd only been half-serious when she considered the possibility of the guards being able to tell her paperwork was fake, but with the amount of time it was taking, Clandestine was starting to really think she'd gotten caught.
It made time feel like it was stretching on forever. Clandestine lost all sense of how much time had passed in the waiting. Sweat gathered in her armpits like a little pool and she became self-conscious on whether others could see it through her jacket, or if they could tell she was guilty of having fraudulent paperwork. Curiously, she lifted up her arm to check.
"Clandestine," a voice called out beside her. Her arm smacked back down at her side and her head shot up.
Another servant with another unfamiliar face. He looked very plain, but very proper, with a tie neatly tucked around his collar.
"Ms. Barlowe has agreed to meet with you at this time. Please, follow me to her office."
Clandestine sprung up out of her seat with a too-quick, too-eager nod and a smile that felt the fakest she'd ever done. The servant gave her a once-over, and she couldn't tell if he was suspicious or unbothered, but she was sure he saw right through her.
In silence, he led her down a hallway, passing more works of art, more big windows, a lot of closed doors, and a bust of some guy she didn't recognize on a desk with flowers around it. She tried to pause and read the inscription on the statue's plaque but the servant ahead of her was moving quickly, and she was afraid to miss a turn or get in trouble.
Finally, they stopped at a double-door entrance, and the servant opened one of them, gesturing for Clandestine to enter.
Suddenly Clandestine was starting to think this was a very bad idea, but it was far too late to back out now.
She straightened up and held her shoulders back as she walked into the room with as much confidence as she could muster. This was just another monster hunting gig. She was just talking to a client. This was going to be fine.
Or so she thought until she sat down in a velvet-lined chair in front of the large, curved desk and Ms.Barlowe spun around in her chair to face her.
A line of large windows stood behind Barlowe, lighting up the room with the natural light. Neat, organized stacks of papers were lined up on both sides of the giant desk she sat at. Barlowe was older than Clandestine expected, with more grey than black in her small afro that was pushed to the back of her head with a band that slicked back the front around her forehead. Barlowe was heavier than she'd imagined too. Her cheeks sagged a little around her chin and little bags hung under her eyes. Her whole body filled the entire chair, and it was a big swivel chair.
Clandestine wasn't sure why she'd been expecting someone who looked like a soldier, or someone like Silva... who was a leader of a guild, not a city.
"You smell like a forest," Ms. Barlowe said with what sounded like disappointment.
Clandestine blinked. "Yeah, um, because I was in a forest. Recently."
"Your papers are out of date. When was the last time you had them issued?" Barlowe asked, her voice sharp. "Ten, fifteen years ago?"
Clandestine could feel the back of her shirt, wet, clinging to her skin. Barlowe found out her papers were expired. Expired, not fraudulent. Clandestine wasn't sure if this was good or bad luck. She swallowed and forced an awkward laugh. "Oh gods, that's embarrassing. Yeah, it's been a while since I've had my papers renewed."
Barlowe half-rolled her eyes, sliding papers across her desk towards Clandestine. It took Clandestine a second to realize they were her own.
"Honestly, you freelancers are doing a terrible job of making yourselves look credible," Barlowe went on. "But things must be really desperate for you if you're resorting to threats of blackmailing and misinformation."
Clandestine still felt sweaty under Barlowe's critical gaze. She smiled politely. "I'm sorry I haven't made the best impression, Ms. Barlowe, but I wanted to make sure I met with you as soon as possible, seeing as the issue of the loosed griffin is a matter of some urgency. And from what I understand, you want it to be kept quiet, which is why I wanted to offer my services privately."
Barlowe's expression remained very serious as she listened to Clandestine, with her hands folded together in front of her on the desk.
"What did you say your name was again?"
Clandestine blinked again, glancing down at the papers Barlowe had just handed back to her. "Clandestine."
"No last name?" Barlowe asked.
Clandestine smiled, though it was something compulsive, now, when she got questions like that. "If I have one I never learned it."
Barlowe's lips pinched together and she hummed.
"I'm already aware of the griffin situation, and I've been informed of the details. My people did a thorough investigation of the scene."
Clandestine nodded sharply. "Of course, as expected."
"I have some of my men searching the forests but a monster hunter with more experience would be useful," Barlowe continued, though by the way she was looking at Clandestine, it was like she was trying to figure out it Clandestine really knew what she was doing. Clandestine remained quiet.
"There aren't many local monster hunters left to commission, especially ones willing to work with griffins..." she hummed, reaching across the desk for a cigar that rested by a circular little ashtray.
Clandestine stared at her as she reached in a drawer, pulled out a matchbox, lit the cigar, and started puffing.
There weren’t many monster hunters left?
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Well, griffins that are trained for the games are conditioned to be far more aggressive than normal. There’s been a few… accidents,” she replied, drawing out the last word. “And in these parts, we try to keep the wild griffin population under control, since they can be a menace to our cattle and crops. So most griffins are learnin’ that humans aren’t friendly.”
Clandestine let out a soft "oooh" of understanding and nodded at Barlowe's explanation. That would make sense why Barlowe might not think it worth to bother with monster hunters anymore. But if the griffins were as aggressive as she said then a monster hunter was all the more needed, and angry lion birds didn't scare her. At least, no more than other monsters did.
"Well, I can assure you I am fully capable of tracking a griffin and luring it if given the proper information. I just need to know the story - if you know it's injured, which way it flew, even what food it likes to eat, so I know where it might hunt."
Barlowe took one long look at Clandestine, taking another puff from her cigar and blowing out smoke from her lips to the side of the room. It didn't look like she was going to agree. Or like she believed her at all. The silence between them was stretching on, as more of the cigar's smoke filled the air and the smell wafted over to her, almost making her gag.
Clandestine held back a cough.
"I'll do it pro-bono!" she spouted suddenly.
Barlowe's eyebrows shot up.
"I'll pay you," she retorted, before adding. "If it works out."
Clandestine stared, eyelids fluttering in disbelief.
Barlowe scoffed. "If you manage to get the griffin by tomorrow, this time, I'll pay you five hundred. If you can't get the issue settled by then I'm calling in a hunter from the isles. I can't afford to waste any more time."
Clandestine stuttered. "Wait. Five hundred... copper?"
Barlowe burst into laughter, the first time Clandestine had seen her mouth upturned into a smile. Clandestine wasn't sure she liked it. "No, gold!"
Clandestine almost never took actual notes from a client but when Barlowe had handed her a quill and paper she took some of the best notes she had ever taken in her life. Her handwriting was barely legible, but when Barlowe started reading off all of the information about the griffin and what they found out when they searched her cage and questioned the witnesses Clandestine wrote so fast she thought her fingers were going to snap. Barlowe didn't slow down either.
By the time she was briefed on everything she felt tired and anxious, almost forgetting about the plan to make sure the griffin was kept free in the first place and getting its egg back instead. And saving a kid.
But she quickly remembered when Barlowe cleared her throat and said:
"One more thing."
Barlowe gestured to the servant with a quick sort of hand signal, who had been standing by the door all that time. She'd forgotten he was there.
"Two of my guards will go with you. I believe you've already met them."
Clandestine had to quickly fix her expression because the moment Barlowe said those words her face fell into shock. She mustered up a weak, pleading smile.
"Oh, what? That won't be necessary. I prefer to work alone." That was a lie. "Partners just slow me down."
Barlowe shook her head, taking another puff of her cigar. "That's the deal. You have the information, and you'll be working on my terms. Now go find that griffin before it causes me more trouble."
Clandestine's smile twitched but she nodded agreeably. "Ah, well I'm sure a couple of extra hands will be a good help. I can cover more ground that way. Thank you, Ms. Barlowe."
Barlowe only gave a terse nod and pointed to the door with her chin.
That was her cue to get going.
As Clandestine turned around, she realized that the servant had left and returned in the brief exchange between them. He looked like he was standing taller and more alert.
"Mr. Kingsman has arrived, and his-" he paused half a second, eyes flicking to Clandestine. "His contact from the Moonlight Kingdom should be here shortly. He's here if you're ready."
Barlowe nodded. "Send him in," she said, before giving Clandestine a stern look. "You may be on your way, Clandestine."
Clandestine nodded and scurried towards the door as the servant opened it, trying to catch her breath and think about a plan. She'd have to ditch Barlowe's soldiers somehow if she wasn't actually going to catch the griffin, but she wasn't sure how to do that. Her mind started racing.
Then her heart stopped.
Just as she left Barlowe's office, Alexander was there, standing before her, eyes locking onto her and widening, like he was surprised to see her too. Clandestine froze.
But... he didn't say anything. Their eyes met in the most intense stare Clandestine had shared in her life but there were no words spoken. After a short two seconds, he tore her eyes away from her, walked into Barlowe's office, and the door was closed behind them.
Clandestine was alone.
She had to get out of there.
Panic pulsed through her as she retraced her steps, trying to not get lost in the mansion, but somewhere she had taken a wrong turn. She'd stepped into the wrong hallway, and ended up by the wrong exit, by the wrong doors, and had to run back around and find the bust with the flowers, the halls with the paintings she remembered, and so many carpets. But the running around didn't last long. By the time she found the bust of the guy's head she'd been discovered - and fear shot through her.
It was Mindy. From the front gate.
Mindy stood in the middle of the hallway, shifting her weight to one hip, looking at Clandestine like the lost child she was in the grand mansion.
"You think you're going to run off without me?" she said with a scoff. "Barlowe wants and eye on you for insurance. I'm coming with. Let's go. Hogarth got the horses."
Clandestine swore her nerves were going nuts. Her left eye twitched and she smiled. "Horses?" she said, emphasizing the fact that the word was plural.
Mindy gave her a flat look. "Yeah. Yours. Mine. His. We're not walking. Now like I said, let's go. We're losing daylight," she said turning with a wave of her hand down the hall.
Clandestine shoved her hands in her pockets, nodding her head even though Mindy couldn't see. She followed behind her in earnest and tried to muster up some enthusiasm.
"Yeah, of course! Let's get a move on and go catch a griffin!"