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Authors: Hilari Bell

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BOOK: Rogue's Home
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The guardsmen stayed with Michael until the rowdies gave up and returned to town, and I was grateful. We could have outrun the mob on horseback, but getting Michael into the saddle might have posed a problem. I wondered whose orders the guards were obeying. His father's? Lord Dorian certainly wouldn't do Michael any favors.

I brought Tipple up to Michael as the guardsmen turned back. He kept walking, like a puppet under the control of some relentless master, for a dozen more yards. I was about to speak to him, though I don't know what I'd have said, but it proved unnecessary. A bridge rose in the road before us, crossing a small river, and Michael's steps quickened. He turned off the road and marched through the thick, dead grass, hardly breaking stride to pull off his boots. He stumbled down the bank and waded into the river, which rose to mid thigh, and then knelt and ducked his head beneath the water.

I'd only a moment to become alarmed, for he surfaced shortly, scrubbing his hair. His recently mended shirt drifted down the stream as he washed his arms and chest, followed by his stockings and britches. I
contemplated the probable temperature of the water and decided it was no part of a squire's duties to retrieve them.

I did get out a dark wool blanket and threw it over Chanticleer's saddle in the hope that his big body and the sun would warm it. I also scraped the mud off Michael's boots. I was glad he hadn't worn them into the water—he hadn't another pair.

The cold drove Michael out quickly, and even so his skin was mottled red and blue. The black circles on his wrist stood out boldly. As I took his hand to pull him up the bank, he looked at them curiously.

“W-w-w-well, at l-l-least th-th-that's over.” His teeth were chattering so hard, he barely got the words out, but his voice sounded natural. I grabbed the blanket and tossed it to him, trying to conceal my surging relief.

“You'll just have to learn to keep your shirt on, Noble Sir. But you have to do that, anyway.” Which he did, for the scars of a flogging, no matter how nobly acquired, were almost as incriminating as the tattoos. Between them, Michael would never convince anyone he wasn't the most vicious criminal unhanged.

He was trying to dry himself without unwrapping the blanket, a task of some difficulty, but at that he frowned and said, “No longer noble—nor sir, neither.
But I still won't conceal my shame. 'Twould be a lie.”

I gazed at him in exasperation. No sane man would make such a ridiculous resolution, and if he did, it would probably last about three days. But if Michael got stubborn about it, he might last…three months at the outside. And I wouldn't be there to help when his resolve was broken.

Come home at once.

It was a good thing Willowere was on my way. I had stayed as long as I could—longer than I should have. I turned to the pack and began pulling out his clothes. Warm clothes.

I served a late mid-meal beside the river, and Michael ate, though not with much appetite. We didn't get far in the few hours of daylight that were left, but we came across a prosperous farm just as the sun set.

Without consulting Michael, I rode forward to negotiate with the farmer for a place to sleep. The man had no spare rooms, but he was willing to let us sleep in the barn for a price low enough that for once I didn't haggle. A stew pot bubbled over the fire—mutton, by the scent—and I bought two bowls of that as well, for warm food is best if you're facing a cold night.

While the farmwife dished it up, I paid her husband and counted the remaining money into two equal parts; one part I returned to Michael's purse, and one
went into the purse Lady Kathryn had handed me. It wasn't robbery, I told myself. Most of Lady Kathryn's generosity turned out to be in silver, copper, and brass. The gold was the remains of my earnings, selling wrinkle cream to break Michael out of Lady Ceciel's castle. If I'd earned it, I wasn't stealing it, right?

It was still hard to meet Michael's eyes when I went back out to the farmyard. Fortunately, I'm a very good liar.

I told Michael about my meetings with Lady Kathryn and what she'd said about letters, and he laughed for the first time that day. Somewhat to my surprise, he didn't forbid me to defy his father's will.

“You think she'd obey me any more than she obeys Father?” he asked when I commented. “I thought you had sisters. I don't suppose…”


Michael's gaze slid away. “I don't suppose she said anything about Rosamund, did she?”

“Ah…” Rosamund was his father's ward. I'd seen her only once, but I remembered her. She was actually beautiful enough to explain, if not excuse, Michael's love-struck idiocy in her presence. I thought fast. “Yes, Lady Kathryn did mention her. She said she cried for you.”

It was almost true, and Michael let the subject drop.

We finished our stew and made our beds in the hayloft. The night was clear as crystal, and the smoke from the farmhouse fires drifted into the barn, competing with the homely scents of cow, horse, sheep, and chickens. The pigpens, happily, were outside and downwind.

There was no sound but the small rustling of the slumbering stock, and the even softer rustle of Michael shivering.

After a long ride and a warm meal, I wasn't cold. And I knew Michael had recovered from his icy bath, for on the road he'd opened his cloak to admit the brisk air. It was the other events of the day he couldn't overcome.

The slightest wind would have drowned the sound. I listened for perhaps half an hour before I stood and pulled my bedroll through the hay to join his, murmuring something about the cursed cold nights. He said nothing as I lay with my back against his, but after a time the shivering stopped and his breathing took up the rhythm of light sleep. Anyone who's done a bit of burglary knows how to judge a man's sleep by the depth of his breathing.

I waited till he passed into the heavy sleep of exhaustion before rolling quietly from my bed. On a pallet of hay I wasn't that quiet, but Michael and I had
been camping together for several months—his sleeping mind found me familiar.

I had no fear of waking him as I dressed and rolled up my blankets. I did lead Tipple out of the barn and down the road before I saddled and bridled her, for the thin jingling of the buckles might have roused him. Tipple looked curiously for Chanticleer, but she knew me and didn't prance or neigh.

He'd freed me from my debt when I'd rescued him from Lady Ceciel—I owed him nothing. And he'd told me then that I could have Tipple, so this wasn't theft, either. The stars glittered, for it was late enough that the Creature Moon rode the sky alone, and it was waning. Besides, I needed Tipple to get home.

Three months that letter had been on the road. Anything could have happened by now.
A dreadful disaster has befallen us. Come home at once.
I wondered again why a woman who was as sensible as Anna face-to-face couldn't write a coherent letter. I even wished that Judith had written it. My second sister had the disposition of an alley cat with a toothache, but she'd have described the exact nature of the disaster in the first paragraph, and I'd have had some idea if there was anything I could do after three months, or if it really was sufficiently dire to make me leave Michael right now.

I could have left him a note, made up all sorts of soothing drivel. But I didn't want my last words to him, even written words, to be a lie. I'd been with this lunatic too long—he was starting to corrupt me.

I could have told him the truth, too, but he'd have insisted on going with me. I'd tried to tell myself I didn't want to drag him into more trouble—and that letter meant serious trouble—but good as I am at lying to others, I generally don't lie to myself. At this point, Michael's problems couldn't get much worse. I hadn't told him because I didn't want to bring an unredeemed man home to my sisters. It was hard enough going myself, but Anna had asked for me. With or without her judicar husband's permission.

Come home.
She'd filled a whole page with frantic nonsense, but those two words were all that was necessary. Especially with the three words that followed.
We need you.


t took over a month to catch up with my lightfingered friend, and by the time I did, I was ready to strangle him for the inconvenience of the journey, never mind the rest of it.

When I first awakened, alone in the hayloft, I paid no heed to Fisk's absence. Frankly, I thought he'd gone out to piss. Even when I saw that Tipple was missing, I thought he'd gone to fetch us breakfast—which is a sign of how disordered my mind truly was, for the only source of breakfast was right across the yard. It was only when I lifted my purse and felt its light weight that I realized what had happened. Even then I thought I must be mistaken. I had to sit down and count the wretched stuff before I could convince myself that Fisk would rob me. But once I'd counted it, there could be no doubt—he'd left me
plenty of silver and copper, but a full half of our gold was gone.

My first reaction was a fury so intense, 'twas a good thing Fisk and Tipple had a fair head start. Had I caught him then, I know not what I might have done. But why shouldn't he rob me? I was as invisible to the law as I was dead to my family. No longer noble, nor sir.

I was no one at all.

I started to shiver again, in spite of the lingering warmth of my blankets. Any debt Fisk had owed me was long paid. And he'd never truly been my squire, any more than I had truly been a knight—an idea I now recognized for the mad fantasy my father had called it. A part of me had always known that, but some other part had thought that if I believed it hard enough…

Fisk had been right to call me crazy, and he was right to flee from me now. No sane man would tie his fortunes to mine, and Fisk was profoundly sane.

I saddled Chant in a daze of depression and rode for half the morning, pushing him a bit too hard for his still-mending leg, as I alternately cursed Fisk for his faithlessness and myself for expecting anything else. But eventually my bitterness began to wane, and
a different realization crept over me: Fisk would not have done this.

If he'd wished to leave me, he'd had better chances. I had declared him free to go, debt paid, when he'd rescued me from Lady Ceciel. Even the painful conviction that he'd gone because I was unredeemed I eventually dismissed. Fisk had known that was coming for weeks. He could have left me before it occurred, openly, with Tipple and the half our funds I judged him to have taken.

So why had he gone now?

By this time I'd let Chant's pace fall to a weary walk. I was so wrapped up in my own misfortunes that a shameful amount of time passed before I remembered the letter Fisk had received in Toffleton, but once I did, it all came clear. The letter must have been a summons, and a compelling one. I remembered Fisk reading by moonlight, so intent I had to jab him in the ribs to warn him of impending attack. He'd refused to tell me of the contents so steadfastly that eventually I'd given up nagging him about it, and then forgotten it. But now…

The reason he'd refused to tell me, that he'd left so stealthily, must be because it summoned him into some sort of trouble or danger in which he didn't wish
to involve me. Fisk was always trying to protect me from everything, from legal prosecution to chills, and cursed annoying I found it. Especially now!

I urged Chant back to a faster pace, thinking of the nearest towns in which I might locate Fisk's trail. I spent several more hours rehearsing what I intended to say to my well-meaning but wrongheaded companion when I caught up with him before it occurred to me to wonder whether I
catch up with him. If he was headed into danger, my presence might do Fisk more harm than good.

But I made no move to slow Chant's pace or turn him in another direction. Fisk had helped me out of too many scrapes for me to let him face trouble alone. If he wasn't trying to protect me, if he truly didn't want the company of an unredeemed man, he could tell me that and I would go with no harm done beyond some hurt to my feelings—and I was becoming accustomed to that.

At the time I had no doubt I'd catch him quickly, for Fisk is city bred, and traveling on horseback in winter takes some hardihood. But I reckoned without several factors. The first was Chant's slowly healing leg, which obliged me to set a moderate pace. The second was that Fisk knew where he was going, while I had to stop
and inquire for him in each town I passed—a task that would have taken even longer if I hadn't remembered the letter carrier's trick and asked after Tipple rather than Fisk. Even so, I overshot him when he turned north to cross Blue Marrow Pass into the Yare River valley, and doubling back cost me a full day. 'Twas as I tracked him down the wide, fertile valley the Yare had cut through the surrounding mountains that I finally remembered the peddler had asked Fisk if he'd lived in Ruesport and realized where he must be going.

Knowing Fisk's destination let me travel faster, but one thing still slowed my pace—the need to earn money on the road. Fisk's method for doing this involves betting a tavern crowd that they can't figure out the mechanism of a particular card trick. Once he convinced me it wasn't cheating, I had to own the convenience of it, for it took under an hour and could be done after dark when our day's journey was over. But the only way I know to earn traveling money is to stop and work for it. Once I turned north, the weather was too bitter to spend even a relatively mild night in the open, and paying for lodgings and food took its toll on my thin purse.

I started trying to find half a day's work for room
board, and a few silver roundels as soon as I passed into the Yare valley. The first few times I had no difficulty, for I've done this before. But one afternoon I was helping build stalls in a new barn, and I grew so warm that I rolled up my shirtsleeves.

The broken circles on my wrists had long since ceased to startle me, even the way the magica ink made them glow to my sight—for when Lady Ceciel dosed me with her foul potions, she changed something about me, mayhap the nature of my sensing Gift. Before, like all others with that particular talent, I could detect the presence of magic only by reaching out till I felt its energy tingle against my skin. Ceciel had not, thank goodness, turned me into some sort of magic-using freak, but once her potions began to work, I started
magica, as a sort of light that glowed around the creatures, plants, and items that had it. 'Twas most disconcerting, and I'd told no one of it, not even Fisk, for I hoped 'twould pass off in time.

So when I rolled up my sleeves, as half the men in the barn had done already, and saw the others staring at my wrists, for a horrified moment I wondered if they too could see that whitish glow. Then I realized that the circles themselves accounted for their shock and dismay.

I'd told Fisk I would not conceal my shame, and I meant it. I might no longer consider myself some sort of knight, but a man's honor is in his own keeping, and even being unredeemed didn't change that. The details were too wearisome to recount. I stood straight and told them that I'd had some trouble with the law and incurred a debt I couldn't, with honor, pay.

They seemed to accept it and we went on working, though now they eyed me askance, and the casual conversation that had passed among us was silenced. But when the day ended and 'twas time to collect my wages—five silver roundels promised—the master carpenter gave me only a few copper fracts. When I protested, he grinned and said 'twas all my work was good for—a base lie, for I am handy with tools—and if I had any complaints, I could take them to the law, which of course I couldn't.

I must confess my thoughts turned to Rosamund that night. She'd always been outside my grasp. Beautiful and Gifted, she was destined to wed far higher than a baron's fourth son. The gulf between us had always been uncrossable, so its widening shouldn't have troubled me. But it did.

The next time the circles on my wrists were revealed in the course of a day's work (my hands and arms were filthy with the oil I'd worked into some leather
strapping, and I had to wash them), the saddler fired me on the spot, quite perturbed, for he'd never have hired me if he'd known. At least he paid me for the work I'd done.

Thus it went all through the journey, and I soon found I could place men into one of two categories: the honest, who wouldn't hire me at all, and the dishonest, who'd hire me but not pay. The longer this went on, the more dismaying I found it, and becoming Rupert's steward began to look better to me…which I found more dismaying than all the rest. If I gave up the freedom for which I'd paid so high, I would truly lose myself.

My knowledge that Fisk was going into some difficulty and would need my aid kept me traveling onward—though my doubts about whether an unredeemed man's presence might prove more disaster than aid were growing. Still, if he wanted me gone, he could tell me so. After the trouble I'd gone to chasing him down, he owed me that much truth.

Despite these tribulations I was only half a day behind him when I finally reached Ruesport. As I said, I'm a better winter traveler than he, and Tipple was the slower of our horses even in good weather. I stopped Chant on the last hill before the road descended and looked over the city. 'Twas a bright day, mild enough
that the snow, about six inches deep here, would be crusted tomorrow morning.

The old town of Ruesport had been built in the arms of the Y formed where a small busy river (the Nighber, I later learned) rushed out of the mountains and into the Yare. Cities being what they are in these peaceful days, the buildings had long since outgrown the walls of the Oldtown, especially on the lower, flatter land on the Yare side, though a surprising number of buildings perched among the rough hills from which the Nighber raced.

Past the turbulence where the two rivers met, the Yare, already large, became great. Wharves lined the river's pregnant curve, and even in the month of Pinon dozens of ships rested there.

I saw no sign of cultivation in the flat sweep of land beyond the docks, though I knew the sea was still some leagues farther on. This seemed odd, for the land south of town was heavily farmed. Rising in my stirrups to see better, I caught the glimmer of sun on standing water and realized that west of the town, before it reached the sea, some part of the river spread out into a vast marsh.

The most outstanding features of the city itself were the several sweeping bridges that spanned each river. The ones that overleapt the Yare were particularly
impressive, for the bluff on which the Oldtown rested was about forty feet higher than the other side of the riverbank, so the bridges not only spanned the river, they also rose to the higher ground on which the old walls sat. What kind of timber was strong enough to span…Ah. Peering at the distant beams, I saw a faint, telltale glow in the shadows beneath the bridge and whistled softly. To harvest magica trees that size without incurring the Green God's wrath, they must have made an incredible sacrifice.

I'd be riding Chant over those timbers soon, for somewhere in that spread of humanity my errant comrade lurked. The end of my journey should have made me feel triumphant, but what if he didn't want me? It seemed far more likely now than it had when I'd first set out, and dread made my heart heavy in my chest. But putting it off would make it no better, and I was cursed if I'd run from Fisk after traveling all this way just to confront him. Lifting the reins, I urged Chant forward with some care, for the road was busy this close to town, and the snow was packed and slippery.

As we passed among the buildings, the snow turned to dirty slush, which did little to enhance the looks of the place. The buildings had more wood in them and less stone and brick than I was accustomed to, and the
roofs were topped with wooden shingles instead of thatch. 'Twas only five days before Calling Night, and folk were setting out greenery and affixing torch brackets to their homes and shops.

I was interested to see lampstands, which even in the daylight glowed with magica's eerie gleam, along the main streets. Those who live near swamps have always used phosphor moss as a temporary light source, though it fades in a few hours. Breeding that much of the magica form of the species, and keeping it alive in streetlamps, bespoke a plentiful supply and great care on the part of the lamp tenders.

With the holiday coming the townsfolk were merry, and the road was full of the amusing pageant humanity makes of itself. I passed a coach stopped dead between two inns, both of whose landlords had run out to entice the passenger to stay with them. A brisk quarrel broke out between a housewife holding a broken bowl and a potter—though they broke off arguing to watch the best show of all, which was picking its dainty way through the slush.

He wore a doublet of delicate blue silk, slashed in so many places it couldn't possibly provide any warmth, and a stylish short cape slung across one shoulder. The lace that trimmed his collar dripped halfway down his thin chest, and the feathers in his
hatband (the hat was blue, too) fell halfway down his back. The real sport came from his tall walking stick, from which blue ribbons, ending in white tassels, dangled almost to the ground. The tassels had attracted a tiny, scruffy dog, which charged at them, yipping, and then scurried away when the dandy struck at it with the staff. But the staff's movement made the tassels dance, and the mutt leapt in for another assault.

The dandy cursed, swung at the dog, minced a step or two, and repeated the process—evidently never thinking to wrap the ribbons round the stick until the dog lost interest. Or mayhap he was too proud to do so. I pulled Chant to a stop to watch and so had a perfect seat for the next act of the farce, which began with the cries of a carriage driver to make way as he tried to maneuver his coach through the crowded street.

The dandy obviously recognized the carriage, for he turned to the street and struck a noble pose, one hand on his hip, one foot lifted to the base of a convenient lampstand. His long-nosed face lifted to gaze into the distance—which fixed his eyes on the window of a butcher's shop where several fat, plucked geese hung by their necks.

BOOK: Rogue's Home
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