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Authors: Hilari Bell

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BOOK: Rogue's Home
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No, he hadn't sent any notes this evening. Why would he do a fool thing like that? He blinked in surprise at the writing, and said it looked like his but he hadn't written it.

He didn't know anything about the fires.

He'd never heard of Yorick Thrope.

He'd heard of Max, of course, but had never dealt with him and had no personal feelings one way or the other.

Michael asked if he knew a balding man in his early thirties, and Mistress Mapple shifted impatiently from foot to foot. It was clear that we
were
chasing greased pigs, and I was worrying about what might be happening back at Max's house when Jimmy said, “Sir?”

His voice was soft, but something in it froze us in our tracks. We stared at him, but he was staring at the fireplace. Smoke wisped over its back wall and up the chimney, which it obviously shared with a fireplace in the room beneath us. Where there was a fire. Obviously.

“It's been getting bigger for several minutes,” said Jimmy. “I just wondered…”

“The downstairs parlor is off-limits,” said Mistress Mapple. “If they've started a dice game there…”

A puff of smoke too large for the chimney to handle burst into the room, and the soft crackle of fire came with it.

Michael ran for the stairs, Jimmy behind him, followed by Mistress Mapple and me with Joe Spinner bringing up the rear.

When he reached the front hall, Michael paused, unsure which of the doors concealed the room he wanted. He turned to the first and threw it open on darkness and silence.

Mistress Mapple knew where she was going. She came off the stairs like a charger, yanked open the third door, and leapt back as heat and light poured into the hall. Fire flowed up the walls, up the draperies at the long windows, over paintings and shelves, but the floor was not ablaze. There was no way it could
have started at the base of every wall like this unless it was set, and in the second before Michael slammed the door shut, I saw several oil kegs lying empty by the hearth.

“Mistress Mapple,” said Michael crisply. “How many servants sleep here?”

“Just two men and the kitchen girl.” Mistress Mapple backed away with little, mincing steps, as if someone else controlled her feet. Her eyes were fixed on the smoke puffing under the door. “We had to let two of them go, when the rev—”

“Fine. I want you to wake the men to fetch us buckets from the well, while you and the girl get everyone out. Jimmy can raise the alarm. We may be able to keep the fire in check till help arrives.”

“That's good. But I'll go.” Her steps grew more decisive, as she headed toward the front door. “I'll raise the alarm. Go for help, yes, go for help, that's what…” She ran into the street and vanished.

Michael clutched his hair. “All right, Jimmy, you go get everyone out. Find—”

“I know where Croft and Marky's rooms are,” Joe Spinner volunteered. “I'll fetch them, and some of the stouter lads, and we'll make you two a bucket line.”

He hurried off, and Michael looked less harassed. “Jimmy, you get folks out. Start at the top floor, open
every door, and don't let anyone stop to dress or pack anything. Get them
out
.”

Jimmy nodded. He looked frightened, but there was sense and purpose in his face as well. He took the stairs two at a time. Michael turned to me, but I was already heading out the front door, looking for…yes, there it was, with worn blankets piled beside it. Everyone sets out water barrels on Calling Night.

Unfortunately, it was outside, and the fire wasn't. The full barrel was far too heavy for the two of us to lift, and there was no lid, though we threw the worn blankets in to contain its splashing. The only way we could move the barrel was to tip it onto its edge and roll it. Once we figured that out it moved fairly quickly, but it took all our strength to roll it up the two steps to the front door, and a wobble on the second step cost us a quarter of the contents. We took a moment outside the parlor door to wet our doublets and dip our heads in the barrel to drench our hair.

The blankets were completely soaked. We used my knife to cut strips off one of them to tie over our mouths, and Michael had the sense to cut another to wrap his hand in before he touched the doorknob.

I was surprised when it didn't hiss.

Water trickled from Michael's flattened hair. He took a deep breath and opened the door, and the fire
inhaled and belched out a wave of heat that seared the exposed skin around my eyes like a sunburn.

Flames rippled over the walls. The empty oil kegs by the hearth sent up a pillar of fire, and golden ghosts flickered and vanished in the carpet fringe. But the floor was still clear and the ceiling was just beginning to burn.

Michael grabbed an unburned section of the carpet's fringe and started to roll up the rug, denying the fire easy access to the floor. I left him to it and attacked the blaze around the door, for I'd no mind to put out the fire on the far wall only to find our escape cut off.

The flames hissed and vanished when the wet blanket struck them, and hope flared in my heart. I put out the flames on one side of the door and turned to the other side, but by the time I'd finished that, orange tongues were licking up the wall I'd first drenched. I remembered the empty oil kegs and swore.

My blanket was drying, so I stepped into the hall to wet it again. The coolness of the air made me realize how hot the burning parlor was. My eyes itched. I plunged my blanket into the barrel, then my head. I was blinking water from my eyes when Michael backed from the room, coughing, and I went back in to tackle the walls again.

I made some progress, but the blanket didn't hold
enough water and I was wondering if we had any chance at all when a stranger ran into the room and pitched a bucket of water at the flames. I forget the two menservants' names, but I'll never forget their faces. With four of us wielding buckets and blankets, we actually did some good until the water barrel was emptied.

Then the servants organized a bucket line with a few of the strongest inhabitants, drawing the heavy buckets from the well, but they didn't come fast enough, couldn't come fast enough, and the fire was gaining on us.

The whole ceiling was ablaze. While water thrown at a wall runs down to douse the wall below it, water thrown at the ceiling douses little but the thrower…except when Michael threw it.

The first thing I noticed was that he had frozen, staring up at the ceiling. My immediate thought was that it was about to come down—a persistent fear that kept me ready to leap for the door at the slightest creak of timber. I grabbed his arm to drag him out, but there wasn't anything wrong with the ceiling. In fact, the fire had died in the blackened patch he stared at.

His muscles were hard as wood under my hand.

“Michael?” He couldn't hear me over the roar of the
flames. “Michael!” I shook him and he turned slowly, his reddened eyes dazed and…fearful?

Not that fear wasn't an intelligent reaction. I was terrified. But Michael wasn't usually that sensible.

I shoved a full bucket at him. He took it with his right hand and almost dropped it—he'd been using his left hand to spare his wrist. But then he turned and hurled the bucket's contents into the flames above him, and another black patch appeared.

Bucket after bucket came through the door, and we pitched them up. In my case it wasn't much use, but Michael's buckets worked better. Too much better. So much better that even as my hair dried and began to scorch, and the flames crept down the walls, I noticed and wondered.

Michael worked like a man possessed. When I heard the crack of timber I'd been waiting for, I grabbed his arm again to pull him from the room. He actually fought me for a moment, but then the ceiling creaked and he heard it. We leapt to the door and stumbled out together, slamming it behind us.

The hall was no longer cool, and the top half was full of smoke through which nightshirted old men drifted like wraiths. The fire bell tolled in the distance.

“You can't go back!” Jimmy perched on the bottom stair, barring the way up. His voice was hoarse. “You
gotta go outside. Outside, gaffer. Out!”

“But I want to get my whittling knife. You hustled me out so fast, I didn't have a chance—”

I gripped the old man's shoulders and shoved him toward the door. “Out!”

“Humph. No respect these days.” He wandered off into the smoke, muttering.

“Did you get them all out?”

Jimmy took a breath and coughed. “We cleared the upper floors, but we can't get 'em out of the building. They can't see the fire, so they don't—”

The crash of the falling ceiling shook the room. The parlor door exploded open, and fire billowed into the hall. The old men scattered, then shuffled for the street door. Michael stood, staring into the blaze.

“Can the ropers get upstairs anywhere else?” I had to shout now, to be heard over the flames.

“No,” Jimmy yelled. “Joe and the kitchen girl are on the other stairs.”

The last of the old men filed through the door. “Come on, then.”

I grabbed Michael's arm on the way past, and this time he didn't resist as I hauled him into the raucous cold of the night. The fire bell was louder out here, and the local fire-team leader had arrived and was shouting chaos into order. We tumbled down the steps
and moved to one side, pulling the clean, sweet air into our lungs.

Fear still sang in my blood, but I now had time to realize that my face, hands, and arms stung, and my throat felt as if someone had taken a file to it. I also realized that I was holding a full bucket of water, though I'd no memory of picking it up.

The room next to the parlor started to burn, light welling from its windows. Half a dozen of the fire crew had stopped working and were staring at me. No, not at me. At Michael.

Michael stood, firelight glaring on his exposed face as the gazed into the burning room.

“Michael.”

He didn't move, but a low growl rose from the men who'd seen him, and they started toward us.

“Michael, run!”

I shoved him away. His astonished glance took in the men coming toward us, and for once in his life he did the sensible thing and fled.

I used the only weapon I had, dousing three of them with a sheet of cold water as they passed. It was more effective than I'd expected, for all three forgot about Michael and turned on me. I knew better than to resist.

Unlike Jimmy, who sprinted after them and
grabbed one of the leaders. “He didn't do it! Listen to me! I was with—”

The man tried to shake him off, then grabbed Jimmy's shoulders and shoved him away. He stumbled back, and his head hit the building behind him with a thud that made me flinch. But his hands clutched the bricks as he slid down the wall, which I hoped was a good sign. The chase had taken him away from the burning building, so he was in no danger of being trampled.

The road Michael had taken sloped down, and I thought I saw an eddy in the crowd several blocks away.

Standing on tiptoe, I could see all the way to the river. On any other night it would have made little difference, but on Calling Night the streets were almost as bright as day. Michael was ahead of the pack, but he was still bruised from his last encounter with a mob, and the work he'd put in this evening had taken its toll—they were gaining on him.

If it had been dark, he might have slipped away, but with torches and candles blazing from all sides he didn't have a chance. So he ran for the river. And the river began to burn.

I could see only a thin wedge of it between the buildings, but I grew up in this town. When the first
small raft of blazing, pitch-soaked timber came floating past, I knew what would follow.

Michael reached the bank as the first wave of flaming rafts burst into view, and the spectacle froze him in his tracks. Perfectly silhouetted against the luminous water, the idiot.

The mob responded with a hail of stones.

He staggered, almost falling, and my heart contracted with fear. Then he recovered and ran, splashing, into the river, which glittered at the disturbance like liquid gold.

He slowed to dodge a burning raft, and another hail of stones found him before he reached the deep water and began to swim. Michael was a strong swimmer.

The leaders of the mob raced into the river, then waded back out. A few more people hurled stones, but as the magnificent flotilla swept down the current, shuddering and jostling, the ripples of Michael's movement were lost.

Michael
was
a strong swimmer, but given the temperature of the Nighber this time of year, he might have been better off to take his chances with the mob.

I settled back and unclenched my teeth from my lower lip. The chaos was finally getting organized, and one of those miraculous pumps was rolling through the street. The fire didn't seem to have made too much
headway. I was more concerned for Jimmy, who still lay in a crumpled heap against the wall across the street. Not a good sign.

Scanning the scene, I noticed another man doing the same thing. His face was turned away, but firelight gleamed on his bald crown. I sighed—and went to tell Sheriff Potter to send someone to tend young Jimmy.

Michael was on his own.

C
HAPTER
11
Michael

B
y the time the implacable current swept me past the last of the buildings, I was so cold I could barely force my legs to carry me onto the shallow bank. For a time I simply lay there, shudders racking my body. Then, blinking water-fogged eyes, I saw that the fire had followed me. One of the burning rafts that had made the swim so hazardous spun lazily along the shore I'd washed up on.

I'd thought I couldn't move, but now I saw that fire was life, warmth was life, and I wanted it the way some men crave rum or a woman's body. I crawled several yards before I found the strength to stagger to my feet and into the shallows. One hand under a joint of the logs that formed the raft's base sufficed to drag it out—four feet across and blazing like a bit of fallen sun. Another raft had come to rest half a dozen yards
downstream. 'Twas a long way over the mud, and the buried stones bruised my numb feet, for I'd pulled off my boots in the river. I dragged it over by the first one. Then I dropped between them, the fire so close, 'twas almost like being back in the burning parlor. But even that memory had no power to overcome my exhaustion; within moments I fell asleep.

The next time I woke the sun was rising, its light a benediction over all living things. The fire rafts smoldered sullenly, and the ground beneath me leached heat from my chilled flesh. Frost rimmed the brown grass, making it beautiful. I realized that I might die, but the thought held no urgency, and the aching cold that had roused me seemed distant. In fact it might be better if I died, freakish thing that I'd become. With a little groping my mind found the magic that had risen last night in response to the fire. Sometimes 'twas centered in the core of my body, sometimes it seemed to fill me to the extremities of my skin. If I opened my eyes, I knew, my changed sight would see its radiance about my flesh. I didn't open my eyes.

I did try to use the magic to warm myself, for I sensed, or thought I sensed, that I might be able to do this. But it refused to respond to my will, and I didn't know how to make it. Yes. Better to die.

I felt the hands that grasped and shook me and
heard a voice babbling, but it was too much trouble to respond. I wished whoever it was would go away, for I wanted to sleep.

But soon I was dragged onto something soft, and sensed wood beneath it and to the sides. Soft cloth fell over me; then I felt the shifting instability of water. A boat. 'Twas as good a place to sleep as any.

 

My next awareness was of warmth. Too much warmth. I lay on a pallet covered with silky fur, with more fur above me—a lot more, judging by the weight. I stretched, enjoying the softness against my bare skin, even when my bruises protested. Then I felt a smooth stone against my belly, and my knee bumped another. Why were there rocks in my bed?

I opened my eyes and saw rows of sticks, well chinked with mud, like an orderly beaver's den. The soft fur was rabbit, and atop that layer on layer of sheepskins. The stones, no doubt, had been heated and thrust beneath the furs. No wonder I was hot. Then I remembered where I'd seen such walls before.

I sat up, scattering pelts, and Nettie's Ma, who was crouched beside her kettle, looked up and smiled. “Decided to stay with the living, I see. Good choice.”

I was suddenly aware of my nakedness and clutched a sheep pelt to my torso. It prickled after the rabbit fur.
“Who undress—Ah, where are my clothes, Mistress?”

Her laughter was warm and rich. “Your clothes are outside drying, for I just finished washing 'em. And I undressed you, wicked old woman that I am. But I promise you, young Sir, there's very little
I
haven't seen.”

'Twas no doubt true, but that didn't stop me from blushing so hard, it warmed me better than fur and hot rocks.

She laughed again and brought me a bowl of stew. Hunger overcame my embarrassment, though I tried to keep the pelt wrapped round me as I ate.

“You must be hollow as a drum, but don't make yourself sick. Your friend's kept this long, he'll keep a bit longer.”

“My friend?” I asked though a mouthful of stew. It was mostly barley, and I didn't recognize the meat.

“He's been walking the marish since just after dawn, looking for you.”

“How do you know he's looking for me?”

“Because every few minutes he calls out, ‘Michael.'”

The stew no longer tasted so good. “How do you know he's a friend? There might be a number of people looking for me.”

The creases around her eyes deepened. “I figure he's a friend, 'cause every now and then he calls,
‘Answer me, you stubborn son-of-a-bitch.'”

“Fisk.” My mouth stretched in a smile. “He must be frantic by now. Mistress, I need my clothes. Will you guide me to him?”

“Aye, I'll take you, but you can't have your clothes—they're wet. Finish your stew; I'll come up with something.”

So it came about that I went in search of Fisk wearing nothing but a few old blankets—wool, not the precious fur. The day was cold but gloriously bright, and birds sang their welcome to the sun the townsfolk had called back last night. I was glad Nettie's Ma did the poling, for there was no way I could have assisted and kept my decency. Despite my sore wrist, and her undoubted skill, it still felt strange to sit, blanket-wrapped like a babe, while an old woman carted me about.

Fortunately, Fisk wasn't far off. We heard him before we saw him, and the voice that called my name was rough with shouting, smoke, and mayhap worry as well.

I called back as soon as he came into view. He went rigid, hands lifted to shield his eyes, and I waved and called again. He sat down then, quite suddenly, right where he stood.

By the time we drew near, he had seated himself
more comfortably on a grassy mound, and his expression was sardonic. “Good morning, Noble Sir. Which do you want first, the bad news, the bad news, or the worse news?”

His voice sounded even rougher when he spoke, and I smiled. “Let me think about it. If you come aboard, I'll introduce you to Nettie's Ma, the captain of this craft.”

Fisk eyed the raft dubiously, and I remembered that he couldn't swim. But he stepped aboard and balanced himself, at least as well as I had the first time. He carried a pack, and I reached for it eagerly. “Clothes? Bless you, Fisk!”

“What else is a squire for? Mistress, you have my sincere thanks. I know how much looking after he needs.”

“Squire?” Nettie's Ma cocked her head like a curious crow.

“He's a knight errant. That's why he gets into so much trouble.”

“That'd do it.” Her eyes laughed but I stiffened, realizing for the first time that she must have seen the broken circles tattooed on my wrists. She clearly didn't care, but I wished, quite passionately, that I could dress and hide them. Ridiculous, for on this small raft to dress to hide my wrists would reveal all the rest of
me. I clutched my blanket tighter.

“You may as well start with the worst news, for it can't be too—Wait! Nothing's happened to your family, has it? Worthington had them safe!”

“No, they're all fine, and since the house is still standing, they decided to come home today. But two men died in that fire last night.”

A chill twisted through me. “So Mistress Weaver's not the only one he's killed. But how? I'd have sworn everyone got out.”

“Most did. Jimmy and the kitchen girl cleared everyone out of the upper floors, and the fire team cleared the ground floor. These two had got hold of a jug of rum and decided to celebrate Calling Night in the traditional way. They hid themselves in a room in the cellar and got dead…” Fisk grimaced at the trap his tongue had set, but went on “…dead drunk. The smoke killed them. From the look of things, they never woke at all. Still…”

“Yes. Our enemy has a lot to answer for.”

“That's what the town thinks too, except…Are you ready for the bad news now?”

“Go ahead.” His face told me 'twas serious, despite his light tone.

“The townsfolk don't think it's some mysterious arsonist. They think it's you.”

“But I have an alibi for Thrope's office, and last night. Surely Jimmy…” The look on his face stopped me. “What happened to Jimmy? You said everyone got out!”

“He did get out. Stop wiggling like that—you're rocking the raft. The doctor says he'll be fine. When the mob went after you, he tried to stop them, got shoved aside, and hit his head. He's awake and alert this morning, though he's got the mother of all headaches, but he doesn't remember much after midday yesterday, and nothing at all of the three or four hours before the blow. The doctor says it's often that way with head injuries, and that most of his memories will probably come back over the next few days or weeks, though probably not the time right before the accident.”

“And what does Jimmy say about almost being dragged to his death by a couple of strangers?”

“Not much, since he doesn't remember it.” Fisk smiled suddenly. “He's a bit embarrassed, to be regarded as a hero when he doesn't remember doing anything. But you should see the way the kitchen girl looks at him.”

I had to laugh. “He's really all right?”

“So the doctor says.”

“Then the worst is that I've no alibi? Wait a minute
what about Mistress Mapple?”

“She could only testify as to what we did after she arrived. And
we
have no alibi. But that's just the beginning. The sheriff's looking for you.”

I tensed, but Nettie's Ma, who'd been listening with interest as she poled us along, snorted. “He's welcome to try. No one finds anything in the marish if we don't want them to.”

“Mistress, 'tis a courageous offer, but enough men—”

“No,” said Fisk. “She's right. No deputy's ever gotten anything out of the marish but fever and snake bite. And having looked for you, I'm beginning to see why. I was trying to follow the riverbank, such as it is, and I've no idea where I was when you found me.”

“You weren't far off,” Nettie's Ma told him. “When the river wanders into the marish, it gets lost too. With folk, depends on what they've done. Some we help. Some we even let stay. The others find their way out and circle around to the Fallon Road. Or they don't.” There was no change in her serenity as she said it.

“So why are you helping me?” I held out my wrists so the sun shone on the tattoos.

“Those are just marks, boy. One fool judicar's opinion. I make my own judgments.”

“And very well, too,” said Fisk cheerfully. “But how did you find him? How did you even know to look?”

I hadn't thought to ask those questions, and the gaze I turned to her was full of wonder.

She laughed. “No, I'm no Savant. I didn't find him, Dibby did. He was out gathering rafts—the riverburning keeps the marish in firewood for half a year, for the frames hardly burn at all. He brought you to me because my house was closest, and you were so cold it was a near thing.”

It sounded simple, but I still wondered.

“All things considered,” I said to Fisk, “I'm surprised Sheriff Potter didn't hold you.”

“I think he thought about it, but he decided to leave me at large so I could lead him to you. There was a very healthy beggar sleeping by the back gate, and the street sweeper has Max's street just about spotless.”

“Where are they now?” I asked with some foreboding.

“Watching the house,” said Fisk. “Don't worry, Noble Sir, I was dodging deputies when you were in the schoolroom. They think taking those red cloaks off makes them invisible. The reward bothers me more.”

“Reward?” I began to feel beleaguered.

“For your apprehension. The city, at the judicary's request, put up two hundred gold roundels. The Merchants' Guild, out of civic concern, added another two hundred, and Yorick Thrope threw in fifty for
spite. Not bad, for an amateur.”

“I'm flattered. I suppose it's dead or alive?”

“The writ doesn't say. Why bother? You're unredeemed—no need for a hearing. But rumor has it you're a very dangerous man, and dead would be safer. And that's enough money to ensure there'll be more than deputies hunting the marish.”

Nettie's Ma
tsk
ed. “Poor dears. They'll get all muddy.”

Fisk laughed, but I didn't. “I have to go. I won't bring danger here.” I should never have followed Fisk in the first place. I had wanted to help the Maxwells, to prove that even unredeemed I might still be of use in the world. Now I saw that was impossible, that no one who cared for me could remain untouched by the disgrace that marked me. I had to leave. But go where? Despair clutched my heart.

Nettie's Ma started to protest, then paused. “If you have to go, then you may. But I promise no one will find you here, for even magica hounds can't track through water for more than a hundred feet or so. At least stay till the search has stopped.”

“And until I can get you a disguise,” said Fisk. “And some boots. We also need to agree on a place to meet. Fallon perhaps? I can elude the deputies myself, but it'll be harder to get Chanticleer and Tipple past them.”

I opened my mouth to say I'd leave the horses…and couldn't say it. Chant and Tipple where the only friends who wouldn't be condemned just for traveling with me, and Fisk, curse him, knows my weaknesses.

“Then it's settled.” His eyes gleamed at having out-maneuvered me. “You'll stay here till it's safe to leave. I'll come again this afternoon with a disguise, and we'll get you ready for the road.”

I wondered what ruse he would come up with next, to keep me here till he could clear Max, for Fisk was too loyal to abandon either his family or me. Whatever it was, I couldn't allow it to succeed—yet even as I resolved to flee, a part of my heart rebelled. My presence had brought danger with it, but I
had
assisted with the investigation. If Maxwell's enemy hadn't used my status against us so cleverly, I could have helped them…just like a real knight errant.

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