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Authors: Hilari Bell

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BOOK: Rogue's Home
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He'd quite forgotten the dog, which seized a tassel
and began to worry it, growling fiercely. Color rose in the dandy's cheeks, but he held his pose, smiling grimly for the passing lady. I couldn't see inside the coach, but surely only a lady could inspire such a performance.

And all for naught. Just before the coach reached him, the traffic cleared. The coachman snapped the reins, the horses broke into a trot, and the coach rolled by so briskly that the wheels sent a wave of slush over the fellow's boots up to the knees of his blue silk britches.

The dog yelped at the drenching and scampered off, and the street erupted with smothered guffaws. It seemed I wasn't the only one watching the show. I tried not to laugh, for 'tis never pleasant to look a fool, but I couldn't restrain my grin.

The dandy, who'd been brushing at his knees and cursing, raised a face red with ill temper. His gaze passed over a pair of sturdy, laughing carters and passed me before it settled on a snickering apprentice, mayhap twelve or thirteen, with thick steel-rimmed spectacles and an apron full of wrapped packages.

The dandy strode forward, splashing in the slush, and grabbed the boy's jacket. “How dare you laugh at me, you snotty whelp.”

Merriment vanished from the boy's face. “I'm sorry
Sir. It was only—Here! I said I'm sorry!”

The dandy had yanked him around and slammed him into the shop wall. The boy made a move as if to free himself, then glanced at the packages in his apron, which would fall if he released his grip. “I'm sorry!” The boy's voice rose to a wail, but no apology could lessen the dandy's humiliation.

“I'll teach you to mock your betters.” He lifted the tasseled staff to strike.

I have no memory of dismounting, but my hand closed around the staff before it could fall—just as the smith's hand had saved me in Toffleton, a good turn that surely deserved another.

The dandy tugged on the staff, but I didn't let go. “No God looks after mankind, Sir, but that's not to say you may mistreat this lad.”

He released the wide-eyed boy and turned to me. The boy took to his heels. Gazing into that furious face, I didn't think the boy cowardly in the least.

With a contemptuous sneer, the dandy looked me up and down, and opened his mouth to speak…then his knee shot upward, aiming for my groin. Thankfully he missed his target, striking my upper thigh instead, but the mere thought of that blow connecting made me bend protectively.

The dandy's free hand cuffed my ear, and I was
sufficiently distracted that this time he wrenched his staff away. He lifted it to strike as I straightened, and I caught it as it whistled down. The blow stung my palms smartly, but I was too angry to care. I pulled the staff from his grip and tossed it aside.

“You, Sir, need a lesson in manners far more than that boy does.” I grasped his doublet as I spoke, and thumped him into the same wall where he'd held the young apprentice. He didn't resist, mayhap knowing that not many will fight a man who isn't fighting back, but his eyes glittered with malice.

“A gentleman, Sir, accepts the small misfortunes of life with good humor and good grace.” I suddenly realized that I was quoting my father, who had often lectured my brothers and me on gentlemanly behavior. The irony stung, but I had fallen into the rhythm of it and would not be stopped.

“A gentleman does not use his strength against those weaker than himself—don't slide your eyes away like that. Those carters were laughing harder than the boy, but they were bigger than you, you contemptible bully. A gentleman—”

“Help!” the dandy shrieked. He came to life in my hands, struggling to free himself, though not very hard. “Help! Murder! Brigands! Help!” He sounded just like Fisk.

It should have warned me, but I was quite startled when two husky men tackled me to the muddy cobbles and began to pummel me. I squirmed, kicked, and pummeled back, but I was getting the worst of it when the sound of tramping feet heralded the arrival of half a dozen leather-aproned workmen, led by the young apprentice with steel-rimmed spectacles.

They hauled my assailants off me, and it might have ended there but for the arrival of some seven or eight young men, robed like law clerks, who pitched in on the dandy's side.

I cried out, “Wait!” but no one listened, and the street erupted into a maelstrom of flying fists and boots. I must confess I wasn't entirely sorry for it—after all the frustrations of the last few weeks, I'd enjoy bashing someone.

Honest pedestrians scattered like pigeons. The nearby merchants closed and barred their shutters, then came out to join the fray. The potter, alas, failed to get his shutters closed in time. A black-robed clerk hurtled into a pile of pots, then broke even more crockery righting himself and struggling clear of the shards. Although most of the merchants took whatever side they fancied, the potter's wife rushed out the door on our side—and she wielded a wicked broom.

I worked my way through the chaos in determined
search of muddy blue silk and finally reached the dandy, though I acquired a bruised eye and a bloody nose in the process. He was prancing around the edges of the brawl, striking at my supporters with his ridiculous staff, which he'd somehow reacquired.

I took it from him again and landed a solid blow to his stomach. When he doubled over, I lifted my knee to meet his unmarked face. He fell then, and I was turning in search of a more worthy opponent when I was stunned by a washboard breaking over my head. I went to my knees and stayed there for some seconds, so I missed the deputies' arrival. But the hands that helped me to my feet and then kept hold belonged to a man whose scarlet cloak bore the crossed swords and town crest that indicate a minion of the law.

For a moment I was sorry, but looking at the shambles we'd made of the tidy, prosperous street, mayhap 'twas time to stop.

I was cheered to see that all involved were on their feet, none seriously injured. I put a handkerchief to my bleeding nose and saw the blue-clad dandy who'd started all this talking earnestly to the deputies. With a sinking heart, I noted they didn't restrain him (though one of them still gripped my arm) but listened with respectful expressions. 'Twas only then that I remembered I was unredeemed, and my heart sank so low
that not even the discovery of the dandy's hat, trampled to muddy ruin, could cheer me.

I was at this man's mercy, and from what I'd seen, 'twould prove a scant commodity.

The deputies let me lead Chant over the great bridge to the older part of town, and then down a short, straight street lined with tall stone buildings to the Council Hall. 'Twas six stories high and had once been a fortress, I judged. The banners of the town's guilds flapped on its walls, their brave display only slightly faded by sun and weather. The sheriff's office, down several flights of narrow stairs, was near the old dungeons, windowless and lit by several oil lamps even in the day. But a small charcoal brazier in the fireplace warmed the room well enough—even before a dozen men crowded in.

The dandy had asked the deputies to bring only me, but the potter, a man I took to be the apprentice's master, and several others had come along, all of them quarreling and gesturing. Pulling my guard with me, I made my way to a corner and stood quietly. My nose had finally stopped bleeding, so I put my kerchief away. I could do nothing about the bloodstains or the mud, and I knew how disreputable I must look—even if no one saw my wrists.

The sheriff put up with the din for mayhap two minutes before roaring for silence. When he got it, he turned not to the dandy, whose lower lip was quite swollen, but to the potter.

The potter launched into a detailed account of his broken wares, their quality, their worth, and the necessity that he be instantly compensated for their loss. It took the sheriff a while to work through these mercantile concerns, though when he got round to it, the potter gave a fair description of the events. He'd been watching the dandy, whose name was Thrope, and had seen the whole affray.

His tale gave me a chance to study the sheriff, a man in late middle age with a neatly cut rim of hair embracing his baldness. His features were blunt and rough, and the arms under his plain shirt were thick with muscle. By this, and the small scars on his face and hands, I judged it likely he'd once been a man-at-arms. Such men are often chosen as deputies and sometimes rise to sheriff—though more often that job is given to someone higher up the social ladder. This man made no pretense of rank or wealth, for his clothes were as rough and serviceable as my own, though a great deal cleaner.

When the potter finally finished, the sheriff, whose
name, coincidentally, was Potter, looked around the crowded room and picked out the principal players.

“Master Thrope, come forward if you please. And you, Sir.” He gestured for me to come too. “You're a stranger to Ruesport?”

I wiggled through the crowd, trying to display more courage than I felt. “I was just riding in when all this started.”

“I see. Check him out, Ferrin. And unless the rest of you have something to add…”

'Twas a clear dismissal, and most of the men shuffled from the room, but the man I'd guessed to be the apprentice's master stepped forward instead. “Stranger he may be, Rob Potter, but he did a good thing this day. The Lock Makers' Guild will remember it.” He glared at the dandy, but I paid little heed, for one of the guards had taken my wrist and was undoing my cuff buttons.

“I can see why the judicar'd be angered,” the lock maker went on. “But he'd no call to beat an honest boy, and if this…” His voice trailed off, for no one was listening.

They were staring, frozen, at the broken circles on my wrists.

The silence stretched for a long time, and it was Judicar Thrope who broke it. “I don't believe I need
to say another word. You know your duty, Sheriff.” He turned and minced out.

The lock maker looked at my wrists, then at Sheriff Potter as if to speak, then at my wrists again. He turned and followed Thrope without another word.
If any hand be turned against thee, thou mayst claim no redress from thy fellow men.

Sheriff Potter was watching me. “You're a bit young for this, aren't you? Pull his shirt down, Ferrin.”

I flushed with shame and anger, but 'twas useless to protest, so I undid my doublet and removed it, and the deputy pulled my shirt from my shoulders. He whistled, long and low, turning me so Sheriff Potter could examine the scars on my back, which he did for an absurdly long time—it took no more than a glance to see I'd been flogged.

'Twas by a half-mad shipmaster for spilling a pail of paint, and had nothing to do with the law. But no one would ever believe that, and I was fuming at the injustice of it when the guard finally let me turn round again.

“So, stranger.” The sheriff rounded his desk and sat down. “What's your name?”

“Michael Sevenson.” He didn't ask me to sit. I felt as if I was standing before my tutor's desk, or my father's, waiting to be scolded for some misdeed, and set my
teeth over simmering resentment. The man was only doing his job.

Potter signaled all but two of his guardsman to leave the room, and I pulled up my shirt and put my doublet back on, trying to keep my fingers from quivering as I did up the buttons.

“What brings you to Ruesport, Michael Sevenson?”

This would surely bring Fisk more trouble than any help I could give him would be worth.

“Does it matter?”

“I think it might.”

Then he waited, as if he'd all the time in the world, until I shrugged and said, “I'm seeking a friend.”

“Does this friend have a name, Michael Sevenson? Or is it Sir Michael?” He'd caught my noble accent, even in the few words I'd spoken.

“Not anymore,” I said, and one of the guards snorted contemptuously. When a noble goes unredeemed, 'tis usually for a crime that would have hanged a humbler man.

They thought my family had bought off some judicar. My cheeks burned, but the sheriff asked patiently, “Your friend's name?”

He would persist until I gave it. “Fisk.”

A slight frown creased the man's brow. “Is he a stranger here too?”

“Yes. No. That is, I believe he lived here once, but he doesn't anymore.”

“Fisk, Fisk,” the sheriff murmured, in the manner of a man trying to remember. Then his eyes widened. “Maxwell let him come—” He broke off the unguarded exclamation, and sat silent a moment, factoring new information into some equation. “So.” His gaze returned to me. “You're a friend of young Fisk. I'd hoped he'd do better for himself, but I suppose it was too much to expect.”

“You know Fisk?” Somehow, I never thought of anyone knowing Fisk, though he must have encountered many people in the erratic course of his life. And now an unredeemed man was claiming him as friend in a town full of people whose opinion he might care about.

“I'd not say I know him. I was only a deputy when he cleared out, but I remember the story well enough. A pity.”

A pity Fisk had ended up consorting with a scoundrel like me.
I said nothing.

“However, I do know Yorick Thrope.” Neither his face nor his voice revealed more than the bare words, but the clear implication was that to know the man was to hate him. My heart lifted, cautiously. “I know Master Maxwell, too.”

Decision made, he rose to his feet and put on the brown woolen jacket that had hung on his chair back. “I've a notion that you're trouble, Michael Sevenson, but if Horatius Maxwell will give warrant for your good behavior, I'll release you into his custody.”

So much confused me in this speech that he had time to dismiss the remaining guards and haul me halfway up the first flight of stairs before I found my voice.

“You're not charging me?”

“For getting involved in a brawl? I'd have to lock up twenty others with you. I haven't heard a single word to say you started it—indeed, I've heard testimony to the contrary.”

BOOK: Rogue's Home
2.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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