It was late when Panthea arrived back on Kniroch. The moon had set long before her arrival, and she was tired. Had she not still had things to do she would have been in bed. Instead she switched her bag to her other shoulder, yawning as she did. Nothing in it was particularly heavy, thankfully, just unwieldy. Ever so often it would settle in the wrong position, and then she’d need to move things about, to stop them from pointing her in the back. As she passed by her cottage she couldn’t help looking at it. Her bed was calling to her. Her bed had been calling to her for hours, but she had a client. The client came first. Then sleep. Sometimes it was a curse that she could travel to all five of Kniroch’s sibling worlds, and sometimes it was a blessing. Had she not been able to travel her life would have been so very different.
Having to walk past her cottage did make the journey feel much longer than it would normally have done. Each step felt like three. Pushing herself to keep going wasn’t easy, but Panthea had never let a client down yet. Finally she stepped into the tavern, and looked over at where he was sitting. It was the same place he’d sat when they first met. He must have felt her eyes on him, because he looked over at her. Forcing a professional smiled onto her face she made her way over to him, part of her wishing she’d never taken the job on in the first place, because there was something about him. Once again she pushed the thought aside. As long as he could pay her it didn’t matter who he was, or why he wanted anything from Labyrinth.
Those eyes didn’t leave her the whole time she was crossing the tavern. Panthea slipped into the seat opposite him, gesturing at Leah to bring her a drink. “Have you got it?” His voice was full of the same impatience as the last time they spoke, and then he shook his head. “I’m sorry. We’ll wait until your drink is here.”
“It’s fine.” She managed to keep that professional smile right where it was, even though she couldn’t help wondering who he really was. The way he didn’t look like he felt quite comfortable in his skin made her wonder if he was wearing a glamour, or if he’d taken the skin of someone else. Either was possible. “Do you have the money?”
One day she was going to start taking a deposit. There had been more than one time when she’d found herself out of pocket for a journey. If someone couldn’t pay Panthea would take whatever it was to auction, but she knew she would never get as much as she spent, which meant living off the land. As he studied her, looking almost amused, Leah put Panthea’s drink in front of her, and once more she told herself it didn’t matter who he was if he could pay. The money would be more than enough for her to be able to pay her rent without worrying about whether she was going to be able to afford food too. With Leah gone he took a coin purse that seemed to be well hidden from somewhere, before counting out six coins that he placed on the table.
“Is that sufficient?”
When she looked down at the coins she saw they were Atharan. Panthea knew of places where she could exchange most currencies, but Atharan was always easier, and it did make it even harder for her to place him. “Yes, it’s sufficient.” She ran her tongue over her bottom lip. “You came to me for a reason.”
He nodded. “You’re said to be the best. I needed the best, and, if you prove yourself to me today, I do have more work for you.”
“What sort of work?”
“Show me you have what I asked for.”
The tavern was a place Panthea knew well, as it was the place all of the travellers did business, so she felt comfortable tipping out the crystals. Each one of them represented a day of work for the Astrum Talpas. “Good.” He smiled. “You look tired.”
“That’s what happens when you need crystals from Labyrinth. I wouldn’t spend time there otherwise, and the work is going to pay for my continued comfortable living, so that really is all that matters. Six days in return for income that will keep a roof over my head for another moon is more than worth it. Are you happy with my work?”
“I am. Go to bed, Panthea. I’ll come and talk to you in the morning about the other jobs I have for you.” He gestured for her to take the coins, and she did. Having them in her hands made them more real than they had been when they were sitting on the table. “Do you care what I’m going to be using these crystals for.”
“No, my job is to get them for you. What you use them for is entirely up to you, because once they’re in your hands no one will know I had anything to do with you getting them, except for the Talpas, and they aren’t going to say anything. They like me, fortunately, otherwise you never would have received them, and they asked me to pass on a warning – using the crystals incorrectly will come back to bite you.”
Smiling again, he nodded. “That sounds like the Talpas.”
“You know them?”
“I’ve dealt with them more than once through the years. They’d rather I not visit now, so I don’t.”
Panthea nibbled her bottom lip. “Do you think they knew I was there for you?”
“There aren’t many other people who know these crystals exist, and, to be honest, I much prefer it that way. Like they said using the crystals incorrectly will come back to bite me.” He shrugged. “I don’t know why they believed I needed the warning. It’s not as though I’m stupid.”
“Maybe they thought this time things were different.”
For a moment he was silent, before he slowly nodded. “You could be right about that.” He picked up the glass he had in front of him. “This is something I knew to think about. The Talpas know me. They know what I’m likely to do. That warning… it’s more than it seems. It has to be.” He drank the last of whatever he’d had. “Thank you for passing it on. I wasn’t exactly friendly before.”
“Not many of my clients are. It’s to be expected when you’re the only person who can get something for them.” She sipped her own drink, grateful for Leah’s thoughtfulness. Just one sip of it perked her up. “Do the other races know you?”
“Some do, some don’t. Those that do know me know me well.” He stood. “I look forward to speaking with you in the morning.”
With that he was gone, leaving Panthea to her drink… and to her thoughts. If the Talpas had asked him not to return… her teeth stayed buried in her bottom lip as she tried to work out what it meant. She’d never known anyone else they’d asked not to return, and yet still be happy to do business with them, because if they did know she’d gone there for him they would have stopped her if they weren’t happy with the situation. At least she assumed that was how it would work. Feeling even less certain about her client she stared into her drink.
“He came in every night you were gone, sat right there, and drank until closing.” Leah took the seat he’d just vacated. “I don’t know what to think of him, Thea, and you should be careful.”
“I always am.”
“This one’s different. You can see he’s not comfortable in that body, which would explain the drinking.”
“Yeah, it would.” Looking up, Panthea brushed a hand through her hair. “I don’t know what to think of him, either. There’s something about him that makes me think I’m making a huge mistake, but I can’t turn down the money right now, because if I do…” She shook her head. Her money problems weren’t something she liked to talk about. “Things are bad, Leah.”
“I know. Do you really think we haven’t been keeping an eye on you?” Leah shook her head. “If things get so bad you can’t afford your cottage all you have to do is let us know. You’ve always got a place here.”
“You’re on your own right now. Your mum knew what you were like, and she made us all promise not to let you work yourself into the ground. Please don’t do that. She wanted you to be happy, more than anything, but I don’t think you are. Not right now.”
“Don’t lie to me. Your mum and I were friends for a very long time, Thea. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” Their eyes met for a moment. “Talk to me when things get hard. Please.”
“Things are always hard. That’s just the way things are.” Panthea stood, draining the last of her drink as she did. “Thank you for caring, but I am fine.”