The horse steadily trotted along the overgrown path, Charlie slumped in the saddle, the professor lying on the cart, propped up on a folded blanket. Here and there, the rolling green hills glinted gold.
The professor sat up. “Do you hear hoofbeats?”
She raised her head, just barely. “Yeah.”
“Should we be concerned?”
Another horse crested the hill behind them at a canter, rode up alongside them and slowed. The smart dandy in the saddle doffed his tricorne. “A very good morning to you.”
The professor glanced at the back of Charlie's head, and followed her lead in remaining silent.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the dandy continued. “My name's Beau. I'm a... travelling salesman. Perhaps I can interest you in some moth-eaten paper?”
From his overcoat pocket, Beau produced several sheets of paper dotted with neat rectangular holes.
Charlie pulled gently on the reins, and her horse slowed to a stop.
Beau leafed through the bundle. “How much do you suppose this would be worth?”
The professor scrambled down from the cart and ran his fingers through his wild hair. “More than you can imagine.”
“An answer I like,” Beau said. And then he looked the older man up and down, taking in his ragged appearance. “How much do you have on you?”
The professor patted his pockets. “Uh...”
“I see. What a shame.”
Beau spurred his horse on, stopping abruptly a moment later at the sabre barring his path.
Charlie said, “How much is your life worth?”
Beau shrugged. “Depends who you ask, really. Regardless, a price you'd be hard pressed to extract.”
Her sabre blurred through where Beau's neck should have been, if he hadn't suddenly been leaning out of his saddle, pressing a pistol to her side. With a blast of smoke and flame he shot her. Still her blade came down, and Beau tumbled from his saddle to avoid it.
As Charlie dismounted and he scrambled to his feet, she said, “You're fast.”
He spread his hands, producing two loaded pistols in the motion. “And you're bulletproof. What are the chances of us meeting like this? I think a hug is in order.”
She swung at him twice more, and each time he stepped aside with preternatural speed and cat-like grace.
“Should I shoot you again?” he asked. “Or shall we both accept that it's futile for us to fight?”
She let a half-smile form on her wind-blasted features and sheathed her sword. “We need that paper.”
The professor crawled out from beneath the cart, clearing his throat. “I thought it best to let you settle this between yourselves. My friend, you can have untold riches. But only after we follow that code to its source.”
Beau beamed. “A treasure map!”
“In a way,” the professor said. “But the treasure is a puzzle in itself.”
“Or so you would say,” Beau mused. “To maintain your importance once we know where we're going.”
Charlie said, “We?”
“We three,” Beau clarified.
“Please,” the professor said, extending shaky hands. “Let me see those papers.”
Beau drew a long breath through his lips and then exhaled slowly. “I... suppose. As long as I'm now a part of your little treasure syndicate.”
Charlie's face was unreadable. “Sure.”
“Wonderful! And a chance for us to catch up... sister.”
The professor frowned. “You don't look like-”
“We're not,” Charlie said curtly.
“Family in a very modern sense,” Beau said. “Let's get going. We can talk on the way.”