It had been a long ride back from "The Crooked Kobold" and with every step the horses took, the money in the men's sabertaches jingled with an accusatory tone in Von Mack's imagination, "Gone, gone, gone. She's gone, gone, gone." He was relieved to call a halt that evening and set up camp for the night.
He left the details of the camp set up to Lieutenant Ziegler and the Sergeants, and instructed them that he wanted to be left alone as much as possible tonight. Soon the camp was filled with the muffled sounds and smells of horses being picketed and groomed, firewood being gathered, sentries being set, rations being cooked, and the hum of quiet conversations among the men. Von Mack knew that they were content; and why not? No casualties to man or beast. Ten Thalers for every man jack of them. That was a lot of money to these troopers, and yet ....Von Mack had hoped for so much more.
He took the time to draw the old charges, clean, oil, and reload his weapons before the sun set. It was an old habit that had served him well. For in Von Mack's business, anyone who did not take care of his tools did not live long. He found the routine strangely comforting, as his hands seemed to require no conscious direction. He then set tooth to the first hot food that had passed his throat in days. After he had finished eating, he pulled his pipe and tobacco pouch out and lit his pipe with a burning twig from the fire. Due to the covert nature of this mission, Von Mack had forbidden any fires. It was like welcoming back an old friend.
As he puffed away, he settled back against his saddle. He stared into the bed of coals, as the fire burned down. He had always enjoyed watching the blue flames dance and cavort among the ashes as night settled in. "No plan survives contact with the enemy.", had been one of the platitudes nagging at him all day. For a bit of fluff that was supposed to be tottering around all on her own, Her Grace sure had a lot of people around her that were familiar with firearms and cutlery....and not afraid to use them. Von Mack, always a suspicious cuss by nature, suspected more than just a little duplicity from his informant. He looked forward to having a frank exchange with his source as to the defination of the word, "unescorted".
With the benefit of hindsight, his decision not to charge into the village had been the correct one. Let the other unexpected contenders bleed each other, and hope that fortune will reward the patient hunter. That Sachen-Window Captain was a worthy opponent, and to come so close to the prize and watch her slip over the border was a bitter pill to swallow. Worse was the fact that the Stagonian Border Guards had gotten a good look at his face. That would make further operations along the Stagonian border more of a challenge, because Von Mack had always made it a rule that his face was the last thing his opponents saw in this world, if then. Garrottes and daggers to the kidney were much easier from behind. Much to his surprise his pipe had gone out, and he reloaded it with his favorite Virginia Leaf.
Von Mack had been very surprised to discover Milady De Winter among the competion for the Duchess. Now there was an operation that he could only dream about. A good information network, generally reliable Horse and Foot at her disposal, and the talents of "Her Nibs" herself. He wondered if the Lady would be having a few words with her own sources. This was not the first time Von Mack had crossed swords with her, but he was sure that this was the first time she was aware of his active participation. There were greater forces pulling the strings around here, and Von Mack resented being used for someone else's agenda.
After his third pipe, Von Mack slowly drew out from his cloak, a packet of carefully phrased letters. Each of them had different addresses and were variations of the same theme, "Her Grace is in my power. How much are you willing to pay for her return/continued captivity/disappearance?" One by one he committed them to the flames and watched them curl and burn among the dancing blue flames. By the flickering light, he scrawled a new letter.
I regret to inform you that despite my best efforts, she has crossed over the Stagonian border with an unexpected heavy escort, and is no doubt well on her way to King Ludwig. If you desire another attempt, deposit 250 Thalers with Messrs. Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe......"