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Authors: Hilari Bell

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BOOK: Rogue's Home
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“Find anything yet?”

“Did you get Mistress Bessie back to bed?”

The questions clashed, and Fisk replied impatiently, “She's all tucked in with her drink. What have you found?”

“Not much.” I pushed the book toward his chair as he sat down. “It begins with the loan—these initials are probably the bank in Fallon he borrowed from. But all his business dealings are in here, so it's cursed complicated. And for some strange reason he failed to label any of the entries ‘embezzled funds.'”

“Hmm. I wonder when his loan came due. Here, you check this ledger. Look for the initials of the Fallon bank—he may have used honest money for some of the payments.”

I opened the other ledger and scanned down the proper column, starting just after the time of the fire. I'd almost reached the time Maxwell was framed when Fisk made a sound of satisfaction. “Here it is! No notation, the clever bastard. He just added a one in the thousands column—nice to embezzle round numbers. And hard to catch with a simple scan. It could even be passed off as a mistake if someone noticed it. But he has to have taken
more than a thousand. How much was the loan for?”

“Fifteen thousand gold roundels.”

But it wasn't I who'd replied. Worthington stood in the doorway, mud and snow dripping from his boots. His expression was a combination of anger, amusement, and…respect? Or mayhap 'twas regret. The four men who stood behind him, swords drawn, had the town crest and crossed swords of deputies embroidered on their cloaks. My heart raced, but I rose to my feet slowly. So as not to provoke him to any hasty action. Like our execution.

A ledger slid into my hands—the fake. Fisk held the other, and by the sudden narrowing of Worthington's eyes, he'd no idea which was which. What was Fisk up to?

Fisk stepped back. The window was behind him, and only someone standing where I was could have seen his free hand slide between the closed curtains.

“Very clever,” said Fisk, “to buy yourself some deputies. No wonder Potter never found anything on you. But tell me, how did you get away from Nettie's Ma so fast?” He was stalling.

“The old woman? What does it matter? It's only in ballads, Master Fisk, that the villain stands around confessing to the captured hero.” Worthington turned
to the deputies. “Kill them.”

“Wait!” Fisk and I yelped together.

“If we're killed in your house, in the middle of an investigation, Potter will ask a lot of questions,” Fisk went on urgently. His hand still fumbled between the curtains. He couldn't stall forever. I had to draw their attention, but how? I'd only a dagger against four swords—if I threatened them, they'd laugh. A coal snapped in the fireplace. Fire. Fire and magic. Mayhap I could create a distraction, after all.

Worthington was answering, “…but these four men will swear they found you piling my valuables into traveling packs, and between your known past and your friend's character—”

I leapt back, thrust the ledger into the coals, summoned the magic within me, and willed it to burst into flame. A great explosion of fire that would draw all eyes.

Nothing happened.

Worthington and his henchmen gazed at me, puzzled. I tried again, reaching out to the fire, my magic charged with my need. Nothing. The ledger's cover began to smolder. Worthington snorted.

“Get that out,” he told one of the deputies. The man took up a fire poker and pulled the charred ledger
from the hearth. I should have known better than to trust my freakish Gift. But at least they were looking at me.

Worthington smiled. “I don't know what you think you're—”

Fisk leaned back. For a moment I saw nothing amiss, but as he continued to tip, the windows flew open and he toppled out.

'Twas a good twenty feet to the ground, and for a moment fear for him displaced my fear for myself. Then I remembered the thick bushes around the house. I wouldn't have known whether there was a bush beneath that window, but Fisk must have or he wouldn't have done it. My squire takes great care of his own skin.

“After him,” Worthington yelled. The deputies ran for the window. “No, not that way, fools. Down the stairs, you and you—quick! He knows about you!”

Two of the deputies hurried out and thundered down the stairs, loud enough to wake…well, not the dead, mayhap, but at least the staff. The others turned toward me.

I had backed away when they rushed the window, which left me cornered against the bookshelves. With just a dagger, even two swords were too many. One of
them started behind the desk after me and the other came around the front.

“Wait!” Without Fisk's to echo it, my voice sounded thin. “If you kill me and Fisk escapes, you'll add murder to the charges against you.
He's
already killed, but you haven't.”

Murder is a debt that can't be redeemed in gold, and sometimes the judicars demand a life in payment. The deputies stopped, casting uneasy looks at their employer.

“He's right,” said one. “If the other one gets to Potter…”

Worthington smiled. “This one is unredeemed. No one can touch you for killing him, and if
he
talks to Potter…”

They turned back to me. “Hold on! Don't you want to know what happened to the last man he bribed?”

Evidently they didn't, for they kept coming. I grabbed a small chair, threw it at the one behind the desk, and hurled myself at the other, dagger drawn.

He whipped up the fake ledger and my dagger struck…and stuck quite firmly. I might have worked it free, but my opponent wrenched the ledger away. I took advantage of this brief distraction to launch a kick at his groin. It connected so solidly I winced, but
that didn't slow me as I ran past him.

Worthington stood in the doorway, reaching for his dagger, but he was too late—I crouched and charged like a bull, ramming him into the wall opposite the door.

He fell, and I ran to the stair that would take me down to follow Fisk. I'd gone down only three steps when two rumpled brown heads appeared, coming up. Servants, sufficiently low ranked to sleep near the kitchen. One carried a poker, the other a broom. They looked more appalled to see me than I was to see them, and that was saying a lot. I didn't pause to curse my luck but turned and ran back past Worthington, who was climbing to his feet. There were more stairs at the other end of the hall.

“He's going up!” Worthington yelled. “We'll have him trapped!”

I prayed 'twas not so. Taking Fisk's route out a third-story window would break bones, even if there were bushes beneath me.

Fortunately it took my pursuers some time to get organized; Worthington was still yelling for them to follow when I reached the top of the stairs and started down another hall.

In most manors this size these rooms would be
guest rooms, and mayhap house the most respected servants as well. I hoped they were unoccupied. In the middle of the corridor a semicircular niche opened amid several windows. But the couches and chairs placed there afforded no promise of cover or escape, and I ran on, trusting that the end of the corridor would hold a stair going down.

I never learned if it did or not. Just past the hallway's midpoint I heard voices, and boots upon the stair, and I opened the door of the nearest room, springing inside.

'Twas dark within, but the Green Moon had risen and I could make out the windows, the pale shape of the empty bed, the chairs by the fireplace…and the pitcher and basin on the washstand.

My sore wrist protested the pitcher's weight but I ignored it, hurrying quietly back to the door to listen. I was just in time to hear two men run by, and prayed they'd all go thudding past and up—or down—the stairs.

In the cold, quiet room my breath whistled like a forge's bellows, and sweat stuck my shirt to my body.

“Hey!” My pursuer's voice was muffled but the words were clear. He sounded like he was right outside my door, pox rot him. “What if he went into one
of these rooms? We ought to wake the others and search 'em.”

The reply was too distant to understand, mayhap because my pulse was pounding in my ears.

“Maybe somebody ought to watch the stair,” the first voice said. “And make sure he doesn't come back this way.”

I crouched and pressed my face to the floor. I could see his feet in the corridor outside. Bare feet, with hairy toes. There wouldn't be a better chance.

I rose to my feet, tightening my grip on the pitcher as I reached for the doorknob.

“Well, I dunno,” he was saying. “I think we ought to wake—”

He yelped as I flung open the door, and the pitcher swung up and struck his head with a sickening thump. I hoped I'd not damaged him badly. If I killed someone, unredeemed as I was, there'd be no mercy for me.

'Twas the servant with the broom, and he dropped it as he staggered. I dropped the pitcher and snatched up the broom, though it made an unwieldy weapon. Speed was my best defense, and fear lent my feet wings as I dashed back down the corridor, pursued by shouts and running footsteps.

The windowed niche loomed on my left, and I
swerved in to snatch up a chair and cast it under the feet of the deputy who led the chase.

He went down with a shout of pain, and the servant behind tumbled over him. With both of them rolling on the floor, I'd have gained a good lead, were it not for the portly dame who emerged into the corridor in her nightgown, awakened by the noise.

Her heart was as stout as she was. She stepped into my path and grappled with me. We danced a few dizzying turns before I broke away and ran down the stairs, leaving the broom in her furious clutch.

The servants' cries drew Worthington out of the study. As I clattered down the stairs, he had plenty of time to draw his dagger and brace to meet me. “Stop, you rogue, or I'll—”

But I didn't stop and he lifted the dagger to strike. 'Tis the kind of amateur mistake that Fisk so scorns. I caught his wrist in my left hand as he started to bring it down, punched him in the stomach, and ran on, barely breaking stride.

The staircase that led to the front door was long and wide, but the hall below it was clear, and hope flooded my heart as I hurtled down. Then the front door opened and red-cloaked deputies streamed through, at least a dozen, more than I could ever fight, and I stumbled to a stop and looked up.

One of Worthington's deputies stood at the top of the stairs. His posture was hunched, like a man recently kicked in the groin, his expression as unfriendly as the drawn sword in his hands. His partner limped up to join him, and Worthington tottered forward, clutching his stomach, and shouted to the men below, “Kill him! He's dangerous! He's unredeemed! He robbed my house and assaulted me!
Kill
him!”

This was the moment to burst into eloquent accusations against Worthington. Fisk would have done so. But I could think of nothing to say that would convince them to take the word of an unredeemed man over Worthington's. I was also out of breath.

The mob below parted around a smallish man, who pulled off a fur-lined cap to reveal his shining pate.

Worthington cried, “Potter, he's dangerous! Kill him! Now!” He shoved the deputy beside him toward the stair, and I realized he was giving his men an excuse to act. They realized it, too, and started toward me.

I looked wildly about for somewhere I might go, or something I might do, and found nothing.

Potter looked up at me. “Why should I kill him? He's not going anywhere. And I advise you two”—his glare pinned Worthington's deputies in their tracks—“not to do anything rash.”

“Before anyone does anything, you should listen to
me,” I put in. It wasn't eloquent, but it seemed to be enough. Potter nodded reassuringly and started giving orders to his men.

But I stopped caring about Potter, for another man had pushed through the crowd, bareheaded, with scarlet scratches on his face and hands. Fisk. And beside him, small and neat, was Nettie's Ma. She carried Worthington's ledger.

I sank down on the step, though I've no idea why the joyous singing of my heart made my knees give way.

Fisk and Nettie's Ma climbed up and sat beside me. Up close, Fisk's scratches were even more impressive—which you'd expect from a twenty-foot fall into a juniper bush. But I already knew most of his story.

“What happened in the marish?” I asked Nettie's Ma. “I feared for you when Worthington came back so soon.”

She snorted. “He never got a chance to lay hands on me. But he was clever enough to realize he couldn't, and as for keeping him in talk…” A wry smile twisted her mouth. “He agreed instantly to any term I set. Why not, since he didn't mean to keep his word? After about ten minutes it became pretty obvious I was stalling. He's not a fool. I don't know what he thought was going on, but he turned around in the middle of
one of my speeches and took off for home. I followed him till he picked up his henchmen. He passed by two other deputies before he found one he wanted, which made me realize we'd better get some law on our side as well.”

I gazed at Nettie's Ma in amazement. “I thought you never left the marish.”

“I mostly don't,” she said. “But there's no reason I can't. And this seemed like a good time for it.”

“She went for Potter,” said Fisk. “And I ran right into the pack of them, with Worthington's men on my heels and gaining. They'd probably have caught me in the grounds, if they hadn't had to wrestle with that ridiculous mutt.”

“So we've won.” I could hardly believe it, even now.

We all turned to look at Worthington. He sat in a chair in the upper hall, ignoring the servants and deputies milling around him. His face was pale but composed, and you could see thoughts racing behind it. His eyes flicked to the ledger Nettie's Ma held, and his face turned a shade grayer.

“Aye, we've got you, you sleek bastard. Here's for that poor lad whose pack I've got.”

BOOK: Rogue's Home
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