“C’mon dummy, we need to get this over to the other side of town,” Genna said.
<You’re welcome to carry it on your own> her ass answered back. <I’m tired. This is the third load we’ve hauled today.>
“Oh, who taught you to count,” Genna grumbled to the grey animal plodding along at her side.
<You did, smartass>
“Look who’s talking,” Genna answered in their time-word ritual.
Just then, a hawk plummeted out of the sky, landing lightly on Frank’s back. A message tube was strapped to the magnificent bird’s leg with a cord of red leather. “Important,” Genna thought to herself.
She gingerly reached past the wickedly hooked beak to grasp the end of the tube and twist. A scrap of parchment fell out and she caught it in her left hand. Returning the cap to the tube, she patted the bird of prey on the head.
“Thanks,” she said sincerely.
With a cry that sent a shiver up her spine, the falcon leapt to the air and, wings beating furiously, rose into the afternoon sun.
<What did the bird want?> Frank asked.
“Dunno,” Genna replied, shading her eyes to try and follow the falcon, now just a speck in the bright sky. When she could no longer see even that, she returned her gaze to the rolled up message in her hand.
Inspecting closer, she realized that there was a dot of wax holding the outer curl tight to the rest of the roll. The last time she’d seen a sealed message was ages ago, and that was to let her know… her thoughts trailed off as her hand began to shake.
Frank, as ever attuned to her mood, asked <What is it?>
“Sealed message,” she replied.
<You don’t think…> Frank’s mental speech trailed off. It seemed even he didn’t want to think about what a sealed message delivered by falcon could mean.
They stood there in the street together as the birds flew from gutter to gutter above them, searching for bugs crawling in the leafy detritus. Genna took a breath and the spell was broken. She absently patted Frank’s side and reached her thumbnail under the wax seal and broke it. The tightly coiled message sprang open in her hand and she smoothed it flat in her palm.
As she read, she breathed a sigh of relief. Frank, sensing through their link that it was not what his mistress had feared, twitched his ears forward again and relaxed.
As Genna read further, she grew puzzled. It was a summons, but not like she’d seen before. Usually, when she was to appear before a register or a tester, a simple letter was dropped off at the apartment she shared with her younger sister. It would give a date and time and some blithering speech about rights, duties and obligations of licensed citizens.
This one was written in beautiful calligraphy and politely requested her presence at the palace at her convenience. That meant as soon as she was presentable, she was certain, but there was nothing else to the summons. No reason, no signature, nothing. Odd.
“We’ve gotta move, Frank,” Genna said, slapping his rump lightly. “This’ll be the last load of the day.”
At this, the donkey perked up and started walking immediately. Genna laughed brightly. “You’re going to work now so you can be lazy later?”
<Is there a problem with that?>
“No, dear friend, it just makes me laugh.” Frank snorted his own amusement and together, they walked briskly up the cobbled street towards their destination.
Genna’s thoughts were elsewhere, though, curiosity piqued. It was therefore Frank who noticed that they were being followed.
<Someone’s behind us,> he warned Genna.
“You think they want to steal this shipment?” Genna asked, thoughts returning to the job at hand.
<Whoever it is, they weren’t there before the message-bird landed.>
Genna glanced surreptitiously into a shop window’s glass as they passed it by, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever it was, but the glass was too rough to see anything reflected in it, other than in jumbled up shapes that made no sense.
Genna quickened their pace somewhat, but Frank really had hauled three previous loads that day and was too tired to do much more than a faster than normal walk. Fortunately, it seemed like whoever was following was content simply to keep their distance, and though Genna caught a glimpse now and then as they turned corners heading toward the store where they were to drop off this latest load, she never was able to make out any kind of detail.
She and Frank reached the store and went around back to the unloading dock, She tied Frank’s lead to the bar set into the wall for that purpose, making sure he had enough slack to reach the trough of water, and went to find the manager to explain why they wouldn’t be able to fetch his last load.
When she came back out, the stock boys had already taken the load off Frank’s back and he was happily resting in the shade of the building. “Okay, we’re going to have to make up that extra load some other day if we want to make our usual commission this month, but we’re okay to leave off for today. Ready to go home?”
<Yes,> Frank answered, happy to know that he would soon be eating and sleeping in the comfortable stall behind Genna’s apartment building with the other bonded animals.
They made good time getting home, and though Genna was watching carefully, she never saw the man who tracked them all the way back to their home.