By Stephen Schamber
Egilhard wasn't halfway through his meal yet when the girl finished hers. She picked up her dishes and took them into the kitchen, where she must have washed them, because she emerged with her hands dripping. She slipped quietly out of the tavern, making eye contact with no one, but he was not the only one who saw her leave.
Alone at his table, which was in the far corner of the room, a chubby man with short brown hair and beard and slightly bulging eyes watched her walk out the door. He had a greedy, calculating expression on his face. Egilhard had seen the same expression on slave traders in other parts of the world. He found it an odd reaction to someone leaveing a tavern, but the man didn't move from his table. Unsettled and suspicious, Egilhard turned back to his food.
"What's her story?" he asked the barmaid softly when she had returned to the counter, twitching his head at where the girl had sat.
"Emmie is her name," she told him, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "You came in with that Dwarven caravan?"
The corner of his mouth gave a guilty twitch. He'd given himself away. "I did, and I'll be leaving with it in the morning," he assured her.
She took the words as he'd intended them, a promise that he meant the girl no harm.
"I was merely curious."
She shrugged, apparently deciding he was trustworthy, and continued. "She's an orphan. Her parents died about six months ago when their house burned down. They were from someplace in the north, so she doesn't have any other family here. She's been living on the streets ever since then. Many of the orphans wind up the same way."
"Nobody takes them in?" Egilhard questioned, careful to keep any accusatory tone out of his voice.
"Not often," she told him, shaking her head sadly. "Graybank doesn't have an orphanage. Either the baron or the mayor would have to devote the funds for one, and neither is particularly generous. This isn't a prosperous town, and the head tax is high. Most of us barely have enough to pay it for ourselves and our children."
Egilhard's nostrils flared angrily before he managed to suppress the emotion. Head taxes usually exempted children, and this was one of many reasons why.
"Her parents came here fairly regularly," the barmaid continued, oblivious to his unguarded moment. "I try to make sure she at least gets a good meal every so often. I can't afford to take her in though. I have my own children to think about, though I won't pretend I haven't been worried about her lately."
He raised his eyebrows inquiringly as he took another drink. "Why lately?"
"I suppose you wouldn't know about that, would you?" she mused, regarding him steadily again.
Egilhard decided he'd just passed a test he didn't know was occurring when she continued to speak.
"Several of the boys have disappeared in the last couple of weeks. The boy street urchins, that is. The town guards have dismissed it, saying they've just left town or are hiding somewhere. Well, you heard what they're like earlier; they resist anything that would involve extra effort."
"And most would probably prefer they stay gone anyway," Egilhard speculated aloud. "Why look for a street urchin? They steal, hide in the town to sleep, and make nuisances of themselves. They're a problem."
"Exactly," she confirmed gloomily. "The other street kids claim they were kidnapped. All the kids have one or two secret hiding places of their own where they sleep and keep their things. Apparently there are signs of struggle in these boys' usual spots, and everything is still there. A street kid doesn't have many possessions to begin with, and nowhere safe to store them. They wouldn't just leave them behind."
"No. That wouldn't make much sense," Egilhard agreed, pondering the problem.
"Emmie's got good sense though," she said, as much to reassure herself as inform him. "She's careful, and I don't think she always sleeps in town. Of course, she's never told me exactly where she sleeps, with good reason. With no property rights to protect them, all the children are secretive about those things. She should be alright."
Egilhard went back to his meal as the barmaid was called away again. He personally suspected the missing children were connected to the bandits. People complained about street urchins, but very few really wished them ill. Too young to work for pay and with no one to take care of them, they were left to provide for themselves as best they could. Most townsfolk were sympathetic, and would overlook their bad habits as long as they weren't too disruptive.
However, it couldn't be denied that street urchins often had criminal tendencies, and they didn't all reform when they grew up. Few wished them ill, but just as few would miss them if they vanished. Any number of unpleasant things could and did befall street children. Kidnapping was only the start. He was reminded uncomfortably of the look on the face of the man at the corner table as he watched Emmie. The culprit could be in this room right now, he mused.
As he was finishing his meal Egilhard came abruptly to a decision. Perhaps he was being unduly suspicious, but it wouldn't hurt to investigate a bit.
He stopped the barmaid as she was about to leave the counter again. "One last question before I go," he said quietly. "Who's the brown-haired man at the table in the corner?" He was very careful not to look around at the man, in case he happened to be watching.
The barmaid knew without looking who he was talking about, and didn't look either. "He's been around for a few months now. I've never learned his name. He rotates between different taverns, I assume to listen to the talk. He's never ordered more than ale here. I'd thought he must be a buyer for brick or clay that's getting shipped somewhere out of town," she finished, giving him a questioning look.
"Thanks for the food and the information," Egilhard said as he stood "Caravan guards are light sleepers. We'll keep our ears open tonight," he promised. She gave him a tired smile and nodded her thanks, and he walked out of the tavern.