/ Language: English / Genre:sf_detective / Series: Markhat

The Broken Bell

Frank Tuttle


Frank Tuttle

The Broken Bell

Chapter One

Babysitting banshees is a nerve-wracking business.

And after a morning with Buttercup, my nerves were not only wracked but wrecked and possibly wreaked as well.

Buttercup is all of four feet tall. She weighs forty pounds soaking wet with a big rock in each hand. And despite what you’ve heard about banshees, there isn’t a mean bone in her tiny body.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy a bit of old-fashioned banshee mischief when Mama Hog and Gertriss are away and there’s no one but Uncle Markhat to play with.

Buttercup’s favorite game is to make that banshee hop-step that transports her from place to place without the trouble and fuss of walking through the space between her and, for instance, the top of my desk.

Hop, appear, giggle, hop. From desktop to floor and back again, all in the space of a blink, with my good black hat clutched in her tiny banshee hands.

“That’s my good hat, sweetie.” I put on my most winning talking-to-the-kids smile. Darla claims it looks more like a grimace, as though someone was stepping on my toes, but it’s the best I can do. “Let’s find something else to play with.”

Hop blur, hop blur. She went from floor to desktop, vanished, poked me in the small of my back and was gone when I turned.

Shoes came tap-tap-tapping right up to my door. Not men’s shoes, but female ones.

They stopped. The lady knocked. No hesitation, no furtiveness.

Buttercup appeared at my side. She put my hat in my hand and clung to my leg with what I fervently hoped was purely platonic fervor.

She might be tiny, and she might be a thousand years old, but I’m very nearly a married man I’m told.

“In the back. Get under the covers. Don’t make a sound ’til I come get you.”

Buttercup doesn’t speak much Kingdom, but she understands it well enough. She nodded once and was gone. I heard my bedsprings squeak through the door Buttercup hadn’t bothered to open.

I put my hat on the rack-right above the new tan raincoat Darla had left there the day before.

Funny. The hat was a gift from Darla too. I wondered how long it would be before my entire wardrobe was the product of Darla’s keen eye for my clothes.

The lady at my door knocked again. Three-leg Cat rose, arched his back and yawned silently before sauntering toward the door, eager to slip outside.

I forced a smile and obliged cat and woman.

Darla stood at my door, grinning. Three-leg dashed between her ankles, circling her once and issuing a rough loud purr before darting away at a three-legged gallop.

“Mama swears you’ve never risen before noon.” Darla’s brown eyes glinted. She was wearing something high-necked and purple, and the one hand I could see was wearing a silk glove. “Are you sure you’re decent at this unholy hour?”

I made a show of looking at my elegantly rumpled attire. “I seem to be clothed, though by whom I don’t recall. Do come in, Miss Tomas. And bring that picnic basket with you.”

Darla glided in, and the heavenly smells that wafted up from the basket she carried came with her.

The basket wound up on my desk while we greeted each other. Clever devil that I am, I managed to snag a sticky bun from the basket and bring it up and around Darla so that I had a bite ready when we finished the good morning kiss.

Darla turned and laughed and took a bite and then we sat.

I chewed and swallowed. The bun was hot and sweet and perfectly baked.

I took another bite and lifted an eyebrow.

“So, what brings you out with the wagons, Darla dearest?” I asked. “It’s so early the vampires haven’t taken to their crypts yet.”

One of the many things I like about Darla is her utter lack of pretense.

“I’m here to ply you with pastries and my feminine wiles. I want to hire you, Mister Markhat. I want you to find someone for me.”

I choked down my sticky bun. All the play was gone from her eyes, all the mirth from her voice. She had her hands in her lap and she was not smiling. I’d only seen her do this once before.

“Tell me.”

“My friend Tamar is getting married. I believe I’ve mentioned that? Big wedding, rich families, we need to get you a new suit because you’re my date?”

I nodded. I recalled the name, was fuzzy on the date, was secretly hoping against hope something would come up and I’d be spared the spectacle of watching a masked priest drone on about the holy state of matrimony.

I’d seen quite a bit of the state of matrimony lately. Its fickle nature kept my partner Gertriss and I in business. Holy wouldn’t be my first choice in describing anything matrimonial.

“Tamar’s intended is a man named Carris. Carris Lethway. You might know the name.”

I whistled. “Lethway as in the Lethways who have the big house up on the Hill?”

“The very same.”

“I’ll need a fancy suit.”

“I hope so. But we won’t be shopping for one today, dearest, because Carris has gone missing.”

I’m not as crass as many claim. I didn’t make cracks about runaway grooms and quick trips on fast horses to isolated villas down South.

“Missing.”

“His family claims he’s out West, on family business. That’s a lie, Markhat. Tamar would know. Carris wouldn’t have just left without a word this close to the wedding.”

I just nodded.

“They’re rich. Has the Watch gotten involved?”

“Tamar went to them. They went to the Lethways. They were told Carris was fine, that he was away on business. The family hinted that Carris changed his mind about marrying Tamar.”

“Could that be true?”

“No. It could not.” Darla looked me in the eye. “I’ve known Tamar for years. She’s neither deluded nor hysterical. Something has happened to Carris, or someone is keeping him away against his will. Will you bring him home? For me?”

“For you, my sweet, I’ll try.” I moved the picnic basket aside and brought a writing pad and a sharp pencil out of my desk.

“You know what I need. Names, dates, all of it.”

A tiny hand reached up, and a sticky bun vanished. Darla squealed and grabbed at the air and managed to snag Buttercup and haul her giggling onto her lap.

“Babysitting again?”

“It’s all I do these days.” I put pencil to paper while Darla tickled Buttercup. “Whenever you’re ready.”

It took a while, but I got it all. At one point, Buttercup put on my hat and imitated me stomping across the floor with her diminutive banshee hands clenched at her back. Darla doubled over in laughter.

I’m surrounded, I tell you, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it.

Darla left for work. Buttercup curled up on my unmade bed for a nap moments after.

I put butt in chair, left my door propped open and watched Rannit amble past. I couldn’t chase down Darla’s Tamar’s groom until either Gertriss returned from staking out a certain door in a particular flat, or Mama Hog made it back from Elfways and her weekly breakfast with spook doctor Granny Knot.

The first one who returned, Mama or Gertriss, would have the pleasure of watching Buttercup for the rest of the day.

I listened to the banshee’s dainty snore and wondered for the thousandth time whether hiding her in plain sight was a clever plan or a doomed bit of foolishness. Not that we had much choice-it was either take her in, turn her out into the woods or let the likes of the Corpsemaster have her. Even Mama, no fan of anything that smacked of Elves or the Faery folk, wouldn’t consider any of the latter actions.

I was pondering, lost in thought, not dozing the least bit, and that’s why I didn’t see the three angry road apples until they were nearly over my threshold.

They weren’t city folk. Their clothes were homespun, handed down and patched and handed down again. There wasn’t a matched pair of boots on their feet. Those hats had been scraps of castoff leather not many years ago.

But it wasn’t their clothes that raised my hackles. No, it was the set of their bearded jaws and the squint of their stern eyes and the way the lead man holding the scrap of paper clenched in his fist looked as if he meant to choke it.

I knew those looks.

They were looking for trouble. Worse, they were looking for me.

I stood. Too late to close the door and lock it. They’d seen me, seen me see them and no locked door was going to stop them.

I keep a lead-weighted knocking stick under my desk. But after another look at the burly country muscles of those long, sunburnt arms and a brief wink of steel from under a shirt, I reached up and took my mighty sword Toadsticker from his hooks.

That didn’t stop them, but it did slow them.

I planted myself in my doorway. That would keep them facing me, at least for a moment.

“You gentlemen are walking with a definite air of purpose.”

They stopped, keeping a Toadsticker-length of space between us.

“We’re lookin’ for a finder’s outfit,” said the biggest. He was squat and bow-legged, with a face full of old pox scars and fetid breath that would have set Three-leg to gagging. “A finder named Markhat.”

I gave Toadsticker a casual twirl.

“And what might your business be with this finder named Markhat?”

The man’s piggy little eyes narrowed. I named him Piggy. His companions, two worthies I dubbed Cabbages and Sheep, who might have heard of soap but had never been formally introduced to a cake of it, shuffled and reddened.

“That’s fer us ’an him to ken.”

“Then start kenning. I’m Markhat. Whoa, you-”

I didn’t have time to say anything else. Piggy rushed me, Cabbages reached under his shirt for a knife and Sheep produced an iron shortsword.

I gave Piggy a solid whack under his chin with Toadsticker’s point. That snapped his head back and drew a little blood, and he backpedaled so fast he went down on his sturdy country ass. Cabbages got a kick in his groin, and I just slammed my door hard in Sheep’s face, yanked the door open again and dropped him with a blow to the head from the flat of Toadsticker’s blade.

Cabbages took to his heels and ran blind onto the street.

The thing about ogres and their manure carts is this-they don’t stop. Well, they do if they can and the whim strikes them, but this one couldn’t and didn’t. Cabbages went down squealing under its ogre-hewn oak and iron wheels. The ogre roared and dropped his handles and reached under the cart and yanked Cabbages out, feetfirst, before tossing his squealing, bloody bulk casually into the heap of refuse old Mr. Bull had just put out for the trashwagons.

Mr. Bull appeared from within his shoe repair shop and, by way of saying welcome to Rannit, he began beating the twitching Cabbages with his surprisingly sturdy broom.

Piggy found his feet. I knocked his knife away, shoved him down again and planted the sole of my good right boot directly on his windpipe.

I kept Toadsticker aimed at his little friend Sheep, who was facedown and moaning and showing no signs of anything more ambitious than a bit of profuse bleeding.

“Why don’t we start over?” I pressed down a bit, risked a glance over my shoulder to see if the ruckus had wakened Buttercup. If it had, she was staying out of sight. I thought of her asleep on my bed and pressed on Piggy’s throat just a little harder. “Here in thriving, cosmopolitan Rannit, we greet each other like civilized men, with a hearty ‘good morning, sir.’ Mr. Bull, you’re either going to break your broom or kill him-why don’t you go back inside.”

Mr. Bull cackled, gave Cabbages a savage kick to the head and doddered back into his shop.

“Now, let’s see if you’ve learned any manners, shall we?”

“You bastard.”

I let my boot take a few more breaths away.

“Tut, tut, little man. Assault and foul language. You’re never going to win Citizen of the Year, at this rate.”

I let him turn purple. Then I eased up. Let him gobble for air just long enough to keep him conscious.

“Who sent you?”

He cursed more, tried to spit in my eye, cussed when it fell back in his own. I laughed.

“We’ll see if you’d like to try that with the Watch.”

“Boy. Boy, what ’ere you doin’?”

Mama came bustling up, wheezing and puffing. She had her right hand in her ever-present burlap bag, and I’d bet good beer her hand was clutching that wicked meat cleaver she favors.

“These three worthies came to call on me, Mama,” I said. “They turned mean without so much as a hello. The cheek, can you fathom it?”

Mama glared. The man under my boot paled.

“You. You’s one of Efram Sprang’s boys, ain’t you? Don’t you lie to me, I’d know them Sprang bug-eyes any damned where.”

“Mama? You know this man?”

Piggy tried to speak. I cut him off.

“I knows his kinfolk. Don’t I, boy? Let him talk.”

I relented. Piggy sputtered and coughed. I took my boot off his neck but put Toadsticker’s point right at the base of his fat chin and let him feel it.

“Gilgad Sprang. I’m Gilgad Sprang.”

Mama snorted. “I knowed it. You Sprangs never was long on brains. You come all this way to start trouble, did ye?”

Gilgad, son of Efram, tried to rise. I put him flat on his back with a tiny thrust of Toadsticker’s bright steel.

“I haven’t told you to get up.”

Mama grunted. Her hand was still in her bag. “I reckon he barged in and came at ye, all fists and boots, is that it?”

“Knives and swords, Mama. Without so much as a good morning.”

Mama’s face darkened. “Knives, was it?” She spat. “Like I done said, these here Sprangs is dumber than the pigs they keep. What about them two?”

“We were never introduced. What about it, you? Those brothers, sons, or truly ugly daughters?”

“My boys. Gerlat. Polter. If they’ve been kilt, I swear, I’ll-”

“If they’ve been killed that’s your fault, turnip burglar. You, there. What’s your name?”

I spoke that to a kid who was watching from the sidewalk.

“Itchy. I ain’t with them.”

“I know. But if you want to earn a pair of coppers, go fetch the Watch. They’re probably two blocks north at that place that sells biscuits on the sidewalk.”

“Three coppers.”

“No coppers if you say another word. Scoot.”

He scooted. A crowd began to gather, and Piggy got red-faced and restless when the laughter started.

“You want to tell me why you and your brood pulled knives on me?”

“Go to Hell. Take that there witch-woman with ye.”

Mama cackled.

“Witch I ain’t, Gilgad Sprang. And that’s a bad piece of luck for you, and do you know why?” Mama leaned close and poked his bloody nose with her crooked forefinger. “A witch might be moved to show you some mercy. But not me. You is doomed, and all your kin, and ain’t no way past that now.”

And then she muttered a long string of nonsense words and shook a dried owl in Piggy’s face.

He shut up, something like fear showing in his piggy eyes. I watched a mob of street kids empty his sons’ pockets. Both seemed to be stirring and moaning a bit, and I let out a breath I’d been holding.

It was one thing to summon the Watch when you had three bloodied but breathing assailants to present. But even on Cambrit Street, corpses require a lot of explaining.

Whistles blew, and I heard the hurried clip-clop of Watch ponies and the rattle of a Watch wagon.

Mama gave the head of the Sprang household a good hard kick in the face before backing up a step.

“I’m leavin’. If’n you needs a witness, send ’em to my door.’

“Thanks, Mama. I’ll keep you out of it if I can.” Mama isn’t any more popular with the Watch than I am. Years ago she kneed a Watchman in the groin when he barged into her place looking for a street kid she was hiding in a barrel. Neither she nor the Watch was much on forgetting or forgiving.

“See me when you’re done, boy.”

The wagon rounded the corner. Mama trundled away, muttering.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” I said as four blue-capped Watchmen approached, wiping the remains of the breakfast I’d so rudely interrupted off of their thick wool shirts. “Let me tell you about the morning I’ve had.”

Chapter Two

I didn’t have to make the trip downtown to file an official complaint. Turns out half the neighborhood had seen the altercation, and in a rare display of civic mindedness, people had actually lined up to give their accounts to the Watch.

I attributed that more to Mama’s presence on the scene than to any affection for the neighborhood finder.

Even so, the evidence was clear-I had been the subject of an armed, unprovoked attack.

And so I was sitting in Mama’s tiny parlor, Buttercup at my feet, while the Sprangs were enjoying the dubious hospitality of Rannit’s least accommodating public house, the Old Ruth Gaol.

“And then the Watch left,” I said while Mama stirred that enormous black pot she always has on the boil in the back of the room. Today it stank of rotten eggs and burnt hair.

Mama sighed. “How long you reckon they’ll keep ’em locked up?”

“Hard to say. If they can pay the fine, maybe a couple of weeks. If they have to work it off, could be a couple of months.”

Mama grunted. “I was hopin’ it would be a mite longer than that.”

“Spill it, Mama. You knew that man. Bet you also know why he came looking for me.”

“He don’t care nothing for you, boy.”

“Gertriss, then?”

“I fears it.”

Damn. Gertriss had started to tell me once why she’d left Pot Lockney, the pastoral ancestral abode of Hog women since time began. We’d never finished that conversation. I’d never asked, assuming she’d finish the story when she was good and ready.

Now, though, I’d need to press for answers.

I started to speak, but Mama raised a bony finger to her lips and nodded toward Buttercup, who played with dolls at my feet.

I forget sometimes Buttercup is a centuries-old banshee who understands far more Kingdom than she chooses to speak.

“I need to know this, Mama.”

“Tried to tell you once, didn’t I? And as I recall you got all uppity about people needin’ their privacy.”

“That was before the Sprangs tried to carve out my kidneys.”

Mama stirred. “Well. From what I hears, and this is all third-hand mind ye, I reckon she kilt a man who-,” Mama hesitated, picking words carefully, “-who got determined with her. I ain’t got no use for a man what mistreats woman. No use at all.”

Whatever was in the pot threatened to come sloshing over the side. Mama cussed and slowed her stirring before continuing.

“Sounds to me like she did what she had to do.”

“There’s some what don’t see it that way.”

“These Sprangs. They his family?”

“That’s where it gets bothersome, boy. The man she kilt was a Suthom, from over Gobbler way. Ain’t no relation to the Sprangs.”

I frowned. Buttercup saw and handed me the doll she was cooing wordlessly to.

“Thanks, sweetie.” I took the doll by its hands and made it dance on my knee. “So why did these Sprangs come looking for Gertriss?”

“That Suthom boy she killed. Word is he had bought a big patch of farmland from the Sprangs. He was figurin’ on settin’ up with Gertriss there. Well, he paid them half, promised the rest. But she kilt him before he delivered. I reckon they figure she took the half of the money he was holdin’, and I reckon they wants it.”

I nearly forgot to keep the doll dancing.

“Whoa. They came all this way looking for Gertriss because they think she has half of the money a dead man promised them for a farm he’ll never live on?”

“You a city boy. Listen. That Suthom promised that there money to them Sprangs. In their way of thinking, Gertriss was his, and that means she promised it too. So he might be dead, but she ain’t, and by old law she still half-owns that patch of dirt and she owes them half that money.”

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“Them Sprangs look like they was jokin’, boy?”

“No. No, they didn’t.” I gave Buttercup’s dolly a big dance finish and handed it back to her. She clapped her hands and giggled and hugged me before scampering off to Mama’s back room.

“So if that’s all true, why jump me? They figure I owe them money too?”

Mama grumped and looked away, but I got a glimpse of her face before she turned, and I’ve been a resident of Cambrit Street long enough to recognize Mama’s many faces. I was seeing the rarest of all her faces-the guilty one.

“Mama.”

“Well, they must have got word Gertriss is workin’ for you now.”

“That isn’t reason to start carving on me, is it?”

Mama gave the contents of her pot a glare.

“I reckon word might have got around that she was a mite more than any ol’ employee.”

I groaned. I’d surmised that myself before she spoke the words.

I’d also surmised how the Sprangs, and everyone else in rural Pot Lockney, might have gotten those particular words.

“Why, Mama? Tell me that.”

“Boy, I didn’t think they’d come stomping to Rannit aimin’ to spill blood. I swears I didn’t. A man from the city? A man what knows city people, knows the Dark Houses by name?” She gave her potion a savage turn. “I reckoned them stump jumpers would stay put and let that damn land sit fallow for five seasons, and then it would be theirs and no trouble for us. You.”

“I hate to point out the obvious, Mama, but that isn’t the way things are turning out.”

“I knows it. I’m sorry, boy. But there’s something else a goin’ on here. Something I don’t know about.”

“Do tell.”

“But I aims to find it out. I aims to put it right.”

“I hope you aim to do that before the Watch cuts the Sprangs loose.” I shook my head and had a disturbing thought. “How many Sprangs are there, anyway, Mama? Are there are more of them out there, sharpening their knives and planning trips to Rannit?”

“I don’t know, boy. But I will be a findin’ out.”

“You know we’ll have to tell Gertriss.”

“I know. I’ll be the one.”

“I’ll come back around when I’m done with a bit of snooping. Don’t worry, Mama. She’ll be mad, but she’ll get over it.”

Mama shrugged, unconvinced. Her relations with her niece hadn’t been what Mama was hoping for. This incident wasn’t going to help, not one bit.

Kids. They grow up, whether anyone likes it or not.

I rose, waved goodbye to Buttercup, and headed for Mama’s door.

“Back before Curfew,” I said. “Better make sure you check the peephole before you open up.”

“I ain’t stupid, boy. And I ain’t likely to get bushwhacked by the likes of no Sprangs, neither.”

I bit back a retort and headed for the street.

My plan was to head downtown and pay Darla’s friend Tamar a visit. Darla would be hurt if I sent Gertriss instead, and even more hurt if I kept Tamar waiting all day.

That was my plan.

I had to change it when the Corpsemaster’s black carriage came rolling down my street.

People scattered. Doors and shutters slammed. Hell, the crows picking scraps off the street took to the air and flapped away, all business, without so much as a single harsh caw.

Fool me, the only one left standing when the horseless black carriage rolled to a buzzing halt.

The buzzing came from the cloud of flies that engulfed the accursed contrivance. The cabdriver was a dead man, who sat atop the carriage and grinned down at me from a face that was mostly skull. I wondered what small fault won him his place atop the black carriage.

He clacked his lipless teeth in greeting. I think he would have dismounted and opened the door for me had I not reached out and opened it myself.

There’s no point in denying Hisvin’s carriage.

Not unless you wish to wind up sitting atop it.

I clambered in.

Evis was there, wrapped in yards and yards of black silk and hiding his eyes behind the black lenses of those fancy spectacles the halfdead favor on their rare daytime excursions.

Seated across from him was a dead woman. She hadn’t been dead long. The undertaker’s rouge on her cheeks and the make-up on her hands lent her a nearly lifelike appearance.

“Good morning, Mr. Markhat,” she said. Her voice seemed natural, save for a slight slurring. Her gums behind her too-red lips were white. “I trust you won’t mind if I take up a portion of your day?”

I nodded a grim hello at Evis, unable to read his eyes behind the dark glasses.

“Always happy to be about the Regent’s business.”

The Corpsemaster laughed through the dead woman’s throat. “Well put, finder. I believe you know Mr. Prestley.”

“He’s in trouble too?”

She ignored me.

“There is a thing I wish to show both of you. I can, of course, count on your discretion afterward.”

She hadn’t spoken it as a question. The threat was clear enough.

I settled back into my seat. It was cushioned and it rode on springs to smooth out the potholes. Had it been any other seat in any other carriage I’d have been glad of the luxury.

“This thing-”

The dead woman raised a finger to her dry pursed lips.

“Nice seats in this carriage,” I finished.

The dead woman smiled. Evis rustled in his silks. I wasn’t sure he was awake. I hear the slumber of a halfdead is akin to a coma.

We rattled on. The dead cabman cracked his whip at horses that weren’t there, while a dead woman watched me through eyes gone flat and dry.

All in all, my day was off to a decidedly rocky start.

Evis began to snore.

I clasped my hands behind my head and leaned back into the Corpsemaster’s fancy carriage seat. If Evis was so unconcerned he could slumber, I wasn’t going to be seen fretting.

The Corpsemaster smiled.

“I should’ve brought a picnic basket,” she said. Her smile was so wide it cracked the thick undertaker’s rouge and let slivers of grey peek through at each dimple. “We’re going to have such fun.”

I didn’t ask. I didn’t dare.

I was getting sleepy. It was happening so quickly I almost didn’t notice it. My eyes drooped shut and I caught myself and opened them with a start, terrified at the prospect of dozing off across from Encorla Hisvin, sure that would be construed as a mortal insult to one who bore no insult, however slight.

My arms fell to my sides, heavy as wet sand, and suddenly just as useful.

“Sleep now,” whispered the dead woman. My vision was failing. She leaned forward toward me and stroked my cheek with fingers oh so cold. “Better if you sleep.”

I didn’t have words. Didn’t have the strength left to speak them.

“Sleep.”

I fought with everything I had. Lasted maybe another pair of heartbeats.

I hoped I wouldn’t dream.

Somebody had my right arm and was yanking on it.

“Wake up,” shouted a gruff voice, so close to my ear I could feel warm breath. “You’re too damned heavy to carry.”

The voice was male and unfamiliar. I managed to open my eyes about the time I went spilling out of Hisvin’s carriage and onto the cobblestones below.

An effort was made to catch me, but it was halfhearted and accompanied by a pair of loud guffaws.

I landed, rolled, stood. I would have punched someone in the gut had my eyes not been blinded by a sun that beamed down hot and bright.

“You’re awake. Good. Here’s some water. You’ll want it.”

A cold pitcher was pressed into my hand. I squinted about me, trying to arrange my most recent memories into some semblance of order so I’d know who to hit first.

“Drink it,” said a different voice. “The longer you wait the worse your head will hurt. The Corpsemaster’s naps aren’t the restful, healing kind.”

“Do tell,” I managed. My throat was so dry it came out in a rasp. I gave up on any plans for pugilistic retribution and drank.

The water was cold and clear. It tasted of peppermint and another herb I couldn’t name.

“I’m Piper. This is Lopside.”

I lowered the pitcher.

The sun wasn’t just hot and bright. It was far too hot, far too bright. And it was beaming down out of a sky so blue it appeared to have been freshly scrubbed and painted.

Hadn’t the sky been the color of old lead when I’d set foot in the Corpsemaster’s black carriage?

It was hot. Summer hot, dog days hot, not the milder early spring hot it should have been.

Chills made tiny footsteps up and down my spine. How long had I been in that damned carriage?

I mopped sweat. Felt my clothes stick to me. Hell, I was soaked.

My shadow was pooled and tiny at my feet, on cobblestones that made up a circle maybe twenty yards across. There were patterns set into the circle, formed by swoops and swirls of copper and lead that intersected and wove and parted and looped in ways that made my eyes water.

I thought at first the cobblestone circle was fenced at its perimeter. But as my eyes and head cleared, I could see that while the circle was bounded by a ring of waist-high stakes topped with ornaments of some kind. There was no fencing between them.

Beyond the circle was an endless plain of swaying green grass that flowed like a sea away in every direction. No trees. No walls. Not a hint of Rannit. Nothing but tall green grass rippling in the wind.

And no telltale sign of wagon-wheel ruts that might mark the long way home.

“What the Hell?”

Piper and Lopside snickered. “You all say that,” said Piper.

Piper was little more than a kid. His face still bore an enthusiastic crop of pimples. His Army uniform was too short at the ankles and the sleeves, which only accentuated his boyish appearance.

He wore plain Army dress blues. But the uniform, though familiar, wasn’t complete. His name wasn’t sewn over his chest. No unit identifier. There was no collar insignia, nothing to mark him as infantry or cavalry or sorcerer’s corps or Wagoner. He showed no sign of rank at all. The Sarge would have burst a vein at the sight of such a uniform.

“Would you mind waking your pal, Mr. Markhat?” asked the other man. “I’d rather not startle a halfdead, no disrespect intended, sir.”

Lopside was maybe my age. His uniform matched Piper’s, in that it didn’t tell me a damned thing.

“You didn’t seem to mind startling me.”

“Kids these days.” He rolled his eyes at Piper. “Maybe this will help. You’re a guest of the Corpsemaster. This place doesn’t have a name, because it doesn’t officially exist, but we call it the Battery. Everyone who comes here arrives asleep. You’ll leave the same way, get back home a few hours after you left. No, I don’t know where we are in relation to Rannit. No, I don’t know where the trees went. And no, I don’t know why it’s so damned hot. It’s been this way for eight months. You get used to it.”

I drank some more water.

“Fine. I’ll wake my friend. One question first.”

“I probably can’t answer it. But I’ll try.”

“You said everyone arrives asleep. Who is everyone? Who else comes here?”

“Can’t answer that.”

“Didn’t think so.” But it hadn’t hurt to try. I tossed him the pitcher and eased my way into the carriage.

“Evis,” I said. I poked him gently. “Wake up.”

He didn’t stir. He’d managed to cover his face in a fold of his cloak and I braced myself and yanked it back, exposing his pale face to the sun.

If Lopside hadn’t grabbed me by my belt and hauled me out of the carriage ass-first my career as a finder might have ended then and there, at the hands of a grumpy vampire.

“Evis,” I said, mopping blood off my cheek. “It’s me, dammit. Wake up.”

“Finder?” I kept my distance while Evis composed himself. “What the Hell?”

“Told you,” muttered Piper.

I sighed and grabbed the pitcher.

Chapter Three

Once Evis was shielded from the sun, we set out.

The cobblestone circle, Lopside explained, was just the point of arrival. Leading away from it was a cobblestone path that bore the same metallic swoops and turns as the circle. I learned quickly not to try and follow their meandering path, because that made one’s walk unsteady. Piper and Lopside were clear on the deadly consequences of stepping off the path.

The things lurking in the grass, they explained, were always hungry.

The path, like the circle, was lined with waist-high wooden stakes each painted a cheery white.

Human skulls watched from atop each stake. Fresh white skulls, so new they gleamed. Each skull bore an equally preserved pair of bright blue eyes, and every set of eyes in every gleaming skull followed you as you passed.

“Twenty-two thousand, eight hundred and six,” said Lopside as we walked.

Evis was faster to catch on than I.

“How long did it take you to count them?”

“A month. We get bored sometimes.”

Skulls. They were talking about the skulls. Twenty-odd thousand.

I moved my ass to the center of the path.

“How much farther?” Evis’s voice was strained. Even beneath yards of black silk, I imagined that impossible sun was bright enough to nearly blind him.

“Not much.” I heard a far-off shout, and Lopside waved us to a halt.

“They got the oh-threes ready a day early,” he said.

I was about to ask him what the Hell he meant when something louder and sharper than thunder split the air.

Bam. Bam. Bam.

The blasts were so loud I felt them in my chest, felt them rattle my teeth.

Unseen things in the grass made waves on its surface as they fled. Piper laughed.

“Reckon they got the mixture just right that time.”

“Shut your mouth,” Lopside spoke. “Let’s make sure they’re done.”

Smoke billowed up in the distance. The blasts faded, and the smoke dispersed, blowing over us in gouts.

It stank. It was strange, but not entirely alien. I realized I’d smelled something like it, once before.

“Cannon,” said Evis softly. “Remember that smell from Werewilk, Markhat? Same thing.”

“Ours are better,” said Piper. “They’re still using a two-to-one ratio of-”

“I said shut your mouth,” snapped Lopside. “No talking out here.”

Piper reddened and fell silent.

Evis pulled back enough silk to let me see his dark lenses. “Well. This should prove interesting, after all.”

A horn blew ahead of us, then again, and again.

“All clear.” Lopside motioned us forward. “Keep walking. Stay on the path. When you get to the painted red line, close your eyes and take one more step.”

“You’re not coming?”

“Orders. Get moving. He doesn’t like to wait.”

Evis was already in motion. I shrugged and caught up.

“You know what’s going on?”

“Not entirely,” he whispered. “But I’ve heard rumors. It seems Avalante’s research into mundane projectile weapons has been resumed by the Corpsemaster.”

There was nothing around us but a prairie. Ahead was just more of the same, cut only by the curving path we followed.

“It’s flatter than ogre-stomped. And empty.”

“I suspect not.” We walked on a bit in silence, and there it was-a thick red line of paint directly ahead.

And nothing on the far side of it but weeds.

Evis paused. I looked back but Piper and Lopside were hoofing it toward the carriage.

Evis and I were privy to a few of the Corpsemaster’s most intimate secrets. I knew the location of the house he called home. We both knew of the army of the dead he kept hidden in plain sight across Rannit.

Knowing such secrets doesn’t help either Evis or I sleep soundly.

Because if we were to both vanish suddenly, say after being eaten by whatever lurked amid those tall grasses, the Corpsemaster could sleep more soundly.

“I’ll go first, if you wish.”

“Bah. You’d just snatch up all the good beer. Better we go together, don’t you think?”

Evis laughed and nodded. We made our way to the painted red line. Evis threw his hood back and grimaced at the sun, and I loosened my collar and pushed down my hat.

We stepped across at the same time. I’ll have to ask Evis if he closed his eyes, like Lopside suggested. I know I damned well didn’t.

There was a flash, and a sensation of falling, and then the sneaky sun swung around so that it shone not in my face, but on my back.

And then there was noise. And men. And wagons and horses and the fall of hammers and the smell of wood burning.

Hell, we had just stepped into the midst of a bustling work camp. A line of canvas Army field tents stretched off as far as I could see. Stables and barns followed it. Tall, brick smokestacks attached to tin-roofed sheds dotted the landscape haphazardly. The stink of a nearby outhouse filled my nose. Men ambled, marched or idled by the hundreds.

All of them had just appeared from nowhere.

I turned around.

The cobblestone path was gone. Behind us was a smaller circle, twin to the big one we’d left behind, ringed by a thick band of bright red paint.

Beyond it was sand. Red sand, red rocks, shadows that fell long and dark over a wasteland the color of rust.

My head began to pound anew.

Evis pulled his hood back over his face.

“Hurrah. We’re not dead.”

“Not yet.”

“Always the ray of sunshine.”

A dozen armed men trotted toward us. The one in the lead slowed and met my gaze. He had a pair of vertical silver pips on the front of his cap, barely big enough so see.

“Mr. Markhat. Mr. Prestley. Welcome to the Battery. Come this way.”

The man was bellowing. Bellowing, but smiling. I bellowed right back.

“Says who?”

He frowned. “The Corpsemaster. That good enough for you?”

I sighed. “Sorry. We’ve been knocked out and sent on a hike and the sun keeps changing places. It’s not been a good morning.”

A wagon rolled up behind the troops eyeing Evis and me. I didn’t even notice at first it was being driven by a corpse.

The ponies whinnied and stamped their feet, looking back over their shoulders nervously.

“Well, you won’t be walking anymore. Get on.”

He turned and dismissed his detail. They faded into the milling crowd with obvious relief on their faces.

“I’ll come along, give you the two penny tour.” He stuck his hand out. “Call me Rafe.”

I shook his hand. He was still shouting. I began to wonder if the man was partially deaf. If so, he was getting an early start. He was probably ten years my junior.

“I’m Markhat. You knew that. This is my friend Evis. He’s a deaf mute.”

“I am nothing of the sort.” Evis shook Rafe’s hand as well. “Just Rafe? No rank?”

Rafe shrugged. “Orders. We don’t talk rank with outsiders.” He climbed aboard the wagon, sliding right up to the corpse without any sign of hesitation before turning around and motioning Evis and I into the bed of the wagon. “You probably have questions.”

We clambered aboard. The dead man stank, but there wasn’t a fly to be seen.

The corpse snapped his reins, and we rolled forward, winding our way between men and mounts and stacks of lumber and wafts of odd-smelling smokes.

“So this is where the Corpsemaster is building his cannons.”

I hadn’t phrased it as a question.

Rafe nodded. He was sun burnt and peeling. His hair was sticking out in shaggy red clumps beneath his cap. The skin on the backs of his hands was pocked with tiny burns. “Has been for ten months. How’s the weather back home? Storms been bad this spring?”

“No worse than usual. You haven’t been back?”

“Nobody goes back, unless it’s in a bag. But the pay. Oh, the pay.” Rafe grinned.

Evis leaned forward. “So, the cannons? They are operational?”

“You’ll see for yourself. But yes. We can blow the shit out of ten-foot thick walls from a mile away. Knock down infantry by the hundreds with one shot. In another month, we’ll have the big aught-eights ready to ship back home.” He waited for a response, obviously under the impression that either Evis or I had any idea what a big aught-eight might be. “An aught-seven can put a hundred pound shell nearly six miles. We figure the eights can do nine.”

Rafe raised his hands at our blank faces. “Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. Look. You know how cannons work?”

“A thick iron tube is packed with a powder that explodes when lit by a spark. This propels an iron sphere out of the tube at great speed.” Evis looked at Rafe over the tops of his dark glasses. “Is that correct?”

Rafe nodded and grinned. “That’s exactly how the first cannon, the old Henry, worked, Mr. Prestley. Were you on the halfdead-er, the Avalante team-working on them, during the War?”

“I was not,” replied Evis. “But I’ve read their reports.”

“Then you know about the problems they faced. The unstable powder. The balls that got stuck and cracked the cannon bodies. Misfires. Duds.”

Evis nodded, with a sideways glance at me. Whoever Rafe was, one thing was clear-the boy liked his cannons.

Rafe waved his hands. “We’ve fixed all that. No more random explosions. Well, hardly ever. No more cracked shafts. And the rounds-Mr. Prestley, we have explosive rounds now. Timed rounds. We can penetrate walls or burst them in the air over troops or…”

Rafe went on, describing in intricate, enthusiastic detail a brand new method of slaughter. I couldn’t follow all of it. There was talk of trajectory calculators and paper fuses and friction primers, delivered in a throaty bellow that got hoarser as Rafe grew more animated.

I shrugged at Evis and quit trying to follow Rafe’s running description of Parrot guns and howitzers.

I watched the camp instead.

Everywhere I looked, there was more of it. More and more of the structures were brick. The largest brick buildings were set apart from other structures and flanked by thick mounds of sand. I spotted a couple of suspicious building-sized holes in the ground, also flanked by mounds and heaps of rubble that had been left where they fell.

And everywhere there were men, moving with a purpose. They wore the same plain uniforms. My original estimate of hundreds was quickly giving way to thousands. No one shied away at sight of the dead man driving the wagon.

In the distance, I heard crashes and booms. Not thunder, as it lacked the volume and intensity, but something much like it.

Rafe grinned. “They’re just burning old powder kegs,” he shouted. “Can’t re-fill ’em. They tend to blow.”

“Wouldn’t want that,” I agreed.

Rafe turned back to Evis and resumed his cheery recounting of the wonders of an aught-eight, which could apparently be crewed by six men and fire twice a minute.

I thought back to the weapons Evis and I had seen that day, many months ago, at Werewilk. They had been small affairs, and yet a few of them had brought down the entire House within moments. The things Rafe were shouting about were, I gathered, rather more destructive.

A chill ran up and down my spine.

Thousands of soldiers. A frantic, secret weapons development program. Funding that flowed from a bottomless purse-hell, just feeding several thousand men would require tens of thousands of crowns a day. But if you also have to clothe them and house them and pay them and provide them with big Aught Eights to fire, you were getting ready for something bigger than just another Victory Day parade.

“Rafe,” I yelled, cutting him off in mid-sentence. “When’s the big day?”

“The big day? Sir?”

“When do the first of the big ones ship back to Rannit?”

I was guessing. But it was plain Rafe didn’t know how much or how little we knew.

He almost answered me. But then a ghost of caution whispered in his sunburnt ear, and he bit back the words.

“Best ask the Corpsemaster, sir. I’m just an engineer.”

I didn’t need a date anymore. I’d seen such a date existed.

And that scared me worse than any number of dead carriage drivers or mysterious booms.

Evis regarded me over his glasses and then drew Rafe back into a spirited recounting of something called a back-handled caisson stabilizer.

I put my head in my hands.

Rannit was going to war. The words ran hobnailed through my mind.

The carriage driver turned and winked. I stared at my boots for the rest of the ride.

“Mr. Prestley. Markhat. Welcome to the Battery.”

The Corpsemaster had shed its female body for a male one. His new body showed no signs of trauma or decay, save for a paleness of features and dark circles under his unblinking eyes. The body was maybe twenty-five. Its hands were smooth. He looked like a banker would look the morning after he breathed his last.

I nodded a greeting. Evis did the same. Rafe stood shifting from foot to foot, staring at the dirt.

“Prepare a Howler crew,” the Corpsemaster said to Rafe.

Rafe straightened, beaming. “Solid or explosive round?” he asked without a hint of fear or any honorific. “The new short delay shells are ready.”

The Corpsemaster chuckled. “You choose,” he said. “Make haste.”

Rafe charged away, bellowing at the gaggle of soldiers who lingered nearby.

The Corpsemaster smiled a dry little smile and began to walk. He was setting a brisk pace on the dead man’s legs.

“I trust your journey was not unacceptably unpleasant?”

We had to trot to keep up.

“Not at all,” I said. “Very restful, as a matter of fact.”

“Liar.” The Corpsemaster glanced sideways at me. “The secrecy under which the Battery operates is paramount. I can make no exceptions, even for old and trusted friends.”

Old and trusted friends. Neither Evis nor I dared comment.

“You nearly saw me bested by a pair of cannon, not so many months ago,” continued the Corpsemaster. We were climbing a small hill toward a perfectly flat top. “I will not be bested again. Behold, gentlemen. I give you the future of warfare. Angels help us all.”

Below us stretched a long, shallow valley. The other side of it was maybe three hundred yards distant, and the bare, sandy soil was blasted down to the reddish bedrock in some places.

A dozen or so flat-topped hills lay beside ours, all in a careful line. I wondered how many thousands of shovels had worked to create this.

Wheels rattled up behind us, and a dozen men with them.

And then something else.

I’d seen such a thing before-a thick-walled iron cylinder taller than me, and fatter, and hollow. Fixed to a pair of wagon wheels, and the wheels were fixed to a sturdy wooden tail that kept the cylinder aimed upwards at a slight angle.

“Follow,” said the Corpsemaster. We did, barely getting out of the way of the cannon and its crew.

Rafe trotted up, wiping his hands on a rag. “Now?” he asked.

The Corpsemaster pulled out a shiny brass pocket watch. “Now,” he said, starting it with a click.

Rafe whirled. “Load,” he bellowed.

Six men snapped from stillness to action, handling tools and descending on their machine with the studied precision of a bawdy hall dance troupe. One dipped a sponge set on a pole into a water bucket and ran it down the throat of the cylinder. Another shoved a burlap parcel into the barrel as soon as the sponge was out. The sponge man whirled his pole around and pushed the burlap parcel to the back of the barrel while a man at the rear slammed something shut on the cannon’s back end.

Evis poked me in my gut and then stuck his fingers in his ears. I followed suit.

It dawned on me why Rafe seemed half-deaf despite his youth.

The contrivance was aimed quickly by a man in the rear, who sighted along the tube and adjusted the rear-facing tail with a hooked wooden rod set into the end of the tail. Two other men fussed with a massive iron sphere and hoisted it expertly into the cannon’s maw despite its apparent weight.

That was rammed home and tapped twice. All but the spongeman were behind the cannon by the second tap, and he joined them a heartbeat later. There was motion, one of the men at the rear shouted “Ready,” and then Rafe bellowed, “fire.”

The Corpsemaster clicked his stopwatch.

The cannon cried thunder, and heaved a great gout of smoke, and the blast hit me in the chest with sufficient force to knock the fool breath right out of me.

On the far wall of the Corpsemaster’s young valley, something struck and exploded, sending up a vast plume of shattered earth and leaving behind a smoking crater large enough to hide wagons.

“Twenty-six seconds,” said the Corpsemaster.

“What?”

The Corpsemaster repeated himself. Rafe heard it that time, and started bellowing at his crew, who were by then halfway ready to fire the awful thing again.

The thing-the cannon-needed only a crew of six stalwart young men. No years of sorcerous schooling. No decades of perfecting spells that themselves took years to create.

Just six men, a cannon and whatever bits of iron and powder they stuffed into the thing.

“Heaven help us.”

I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud.

“That, gentleman, was a Howler. Firing an explosive ten-pound round fused to detonate a half of a second after firing. Its effectiveness as a projectile weapon is formidable, especially considering it can be fired twice a minute until the barrel begins to soften.”

“That’s twenty-two rounds with this barrel,” shouted Rafe. “Then we have to douse it with water and wait twenty minutes. The newer ones will go twenty-seven rounds.”

“Indeed.” The Corpsemaster smiled. “I trust you gentlemen are favorably impressed. I shall never again be caught lacking appropriate firepower.”

“It’s a big chunk of Hell put on cute little wheels.” I couldn’t force a smile. “And I gather this is a small one, at that.”

“It is the smallest of the mobile units. Designed for use against infantry and enemy guns in a changing battlefield environment.”

“And just when do you foresee this battlefield being joined?”

“Fire,” bellowed Rafe, and again the cannon belched fire and raised a rain of shattered rocks on the far side of the valley.

“Thank you, Rafe. That was three seconds faster. Return the weapon to the armory.”

Rafe nodded and barked out the orders.

Within moments, Evis and the Corpsemaster and I were alone on the flat-topped hill.

I surveyed the far side of the valley. It was blasted and scarred down to the bedrock, and that too was shattered and pitted. I thought of Rannit’s old walls. Centuries to build.

Hours to be felled.

The Corpsemaster sighed. Even for a dead man, he looked suddenly tired and sad.

“What I am about to tell you is unknown, outside the High House. I trust you will keep it so. Because, gentleman, war is coming to Rannit.”

Smoke from the cannon drifted over us. In the distance, Rafe’s powder kegs burst, one after another, with the sound of infant thunder.

Evis spat a cuss word.

The Corpsemaster smiled through pale lips. “Don’t despair, gentlemen. This time, you’ll both be officers. With rather handsome pay.”

I groaned, plopped my ass down in the red sand, and narrowly avoided crying like a fresh-spanked baby.

The ride back to Rannit was mercifully brief.

Evis and I awoke at the same time. The Corpsemaster’s black carriage was just crossing the Brown, heading up to the Heights and Evis’s digs. The bridge clowns gave us wide berth. There are still stories circulating about the last bridge clown that dared caper at the Corpsemaster’s carriage.

Rannit’s sun shone bright and cheery, a sentiment neither Evis nor I shared. I judged it to be mid-day, which was plainly impossible since we’d been gone for hours and hours, but you can’t argue with the sun.

Or the Corpsemaster.

“I own a small estate in the south, by the Sea,” said Evis, softly. “I’m told it’s lovely. And peaceful. Very peaceful.”

I grunted. I didn’t own any estates, in the south or elsewhere, but heading for the Sea was looking better by the moment.

“You could change your name to Smith,” I said. “Claim to be a jeweler. Live happily ever after, untroubled by war.”

Evis repeated his curse word from earlier in the day.

The Corpsemaster would brook no such betrayal by either of us, and we both knew it.

I wished a bridge clown would dare the corpse driving the horseless carriage just so I could punch something. That’s not a nice thing to admit.

“Drafted. When I woke up, if someone had told me I’d be drafted back into the Army before the sun set again, I’d have laughed in their face.” Evis gritted his long vampire teeth. “When are you going to tell Darla?”

“Not until I absolutely have to.”

“You’re just delaying the inevitable.”

“I’m just hoping for a miracle.”

“Might as well hope for a rain of money.” Evis muttered his word again. “I am not wearing Army issue boots, I’ll tell you that much. Corpsemaster or not.”

I had no answer. The carriage rattled on.

Hell, when was I going to tell Darla?

What was I going to tell Darla?

“Sooner is better,” said Evis, his eyes hidden behind dark lenses. “She’s going to know something is wrong.” He regarded me for a long moment. “You haven’t set a date for the wedding yet either, have you?”

“What are you, Mama Hog’s apprentice? Going to read my palms next?”

“You haven’t.” He shook his head. “Dirty angels, Markhat, do you think the woman is going to wait forever on a shaggy cur like you?”

“I think that’s between Darla and I.”

“You’re right. It is. But I’ll be the one who has to listen to you mope if she gives you the boot. So at least start hinting at it. Let her know you’re serious.”

“How the Hell do you listen to someone mope?”

“It’s all in the lingering silences and long sighs,” replied Evis. “Damn, Markhat. We’re back in the Army. The damned marching yes-sirring-stand-at-attention-fall-out-give-’em-Hell-boys-damned Army. How tall is this bridge? Think we should just jump now and save ourselves a world of worry?”

“There isn’t a bridge in the world tall enough to save us that.”

Evis grunted.

“I hate it when you’re right.”

Then he covered his face with a fold of black silk, and we rode in silence all the way to Avalante.

Chapter Four

I rode back over the bridge alone.

We established that we’d arrived at Avalante at two in the afternoon on the very same day we’d left. Evis’s butler had been sure-yes, sir, it is indeed Tuesday-if a bit perplexed by the query. I was equally perplexed as to how we’d managed to ride so far from Rannit that the sun had changed but not miss supper.

I shoved that thought aside. That thought, and my new status as Captain in Encorla Hisvin’s private branch of the Army of the Regency.

It wasn’t a thing I could ignore forever, but I decided I’d ignore it for the rest of the day.

“Fees don’t earn themselves,” I opined to the empty cab. Inspiration struck.

“You up there, driver? Can you hear me?”

A single thump sounded on the roof.

“You know this address?” I gave him the address Darla had given me. “Can you take me a block from there, drop me off? I’ll find my own way home. “

Again, a single thump.

“Thanks,” I shouted. It never hurts to be polite, even to carriage drivers with no skin on their skulls.

Away we went, scattering pedestrians the whole way there.

Darla’s friend Tamar, she of the missing groom, lived with her family in a middling good part of Rannit south of the High House and so close to the Square that their windows rattled when the Big Bell clangs out Curfew.

I stepped out of Hisvin’s black cab and ambled around before I headed for the Fields residence. Walking clears my head, and my head needed a good clearing, so I just stuck my hands in my pockets and followed the first good-looking woman I spied.

Derth was the name of the street. It had fresh-laid cobbles, wide sidewalks and those newfangled sewers that run under the streets. I did avoid stepping on the iron sewer grates because with my luck, I’d be the first of Rannit’s pedestrians to fall through and be forced to swim home to Cambrit Street.

The woman I wasn’t following set a jaunty pace, the heels of her shoes click-clacking quickly away. She headed east a block and then about the time I’d decided she was married, but not happily, she darted into a hat shop and left me adrift in Downtown, without goal or purpose.

On a whim, I followed my nose. I’d declined Evis’s offer of lunch, and now I regretted that. Avalante might be a house of halfdead, but they set a fine table despite their dietary preferences.

I passed up a pair of cafes until the aromas of fresh bread baking and fresh coffee brewing led me to a pair of copper-trimmed oak doors.

Etched in the door glass was FIELDS.

My reflection looked curious. Darla mentioned that Tamar’s family, the Fields, owned a dozen bakeries spread around Rannit.

The door opened. A round, short man old enough to be my father looked at me and smiled.

“We’re not as expensive as you think,” he said. “Did I mention the coffee is free if you try our new cinnamon buns?”

“You did indeed.” I stepped across the man’s threshold. If Hisvin had offered free coffee I might have signed up on the spot. “Angels above.”

I spoke the last in somber tones of reverence, because as Heaven is my witness I have never smelled such delights.

It wasn’t just coffee brewing. There were many coffees brewing, each with its own distinctive aroma, rich and tempting. And that wasn’t merely bread baking-yes, there was bread, but there were also pastries, cakes and pies.

The shop was small. It was done up in cherry and brass, everything clean and polished. There was a bar, and a glass-fronted case, behind which wonders rested.

Behind the bar was a brass machine that radiated heat. Wet sputters issued from it, and steam wafted up.

The small man stuck out his hand. It was covered in flour, but I didn’t care. He had a good handshake.

“Welcome to our newest cafe,” he said, beaming. “I’m Gordon Fields, proprietor, chef, barista and everything else. Emma. Emma, we have a customer.”

A pair of swinging doors flew open at the other end of the bar and a matronly woman with a spot of flour on her nose came darting out.

“Meet the Missus,” said Mr. Fields. “I hope you’ll forgive our unpreparedness. We decided to open a day early, but it appears the staff showed up at the wrong address, and…”

“The gentleman doesn’t care to hear about our troubles,” said Mrs. Fields. “He wants coffee. And a bun, if I know the look of a man who’s skipped lunch. Is that right, sir?”

I smiled. Maybe it was the way the place smelled. Maybe it was the way the couple didn’t draft me into the Army. But I decided I liked them.

“That’s exactly right, Mrs. Fields,” I said. “In fact, make it two buns.”

I parked my fundament on a leather-covered stool.

The Fields flew into a frenzy of motion. Mugs appeared, were exchanged after a flurry of whispers. Buns were considered, rejected and finally selected.

“Two it is, then. Might I suggest our cheese biscuit, with egg, to make up for your missed lunch? You’ll be wanting something with a bit of meat in it, will you not?”

“Perfect,” I replied.

“And the other-a cinnamon sticky, dribbled with fresh honey? “

“Just what I was thinking.”

Mr. Fields beamed. “Coffee. Now, we have seven varieties, sir. Ipswitch Black, Moorland Dark, Seaforth, Ashburn…”

“Do you have anything that tastes like Army issue?”

“That would be Ipswitch Black, sir.”

“Then give me whatever is the least like that.”

He laughed. “A fellow veteran. Ashburn is what you want, sir. With a dollop of fresh cream and two spoons of sugar.”

“Ashburn it is, then.” I smiled as the Missus heated my buns in a stove, peering in at them through the crack in the door with a fierce eye and a frown, just as Mom had done.

“I did tunnel work.” I said. “You?”

“The Sixth. Infantry.”

I nodded. We let our smiles return. Mine came slower, because it was dawning on me that this jolly little baker and his rose-cheeked bride were the aunt and uncle of the girl I’d come looking for, if not her parents themselves.

“That smells wonderful,” I said while Mr. Fields busied himself with carafe of coffee. “Your family is certainly lucky, to have a gourmet chef in the house.”

The woman smiled. “Angels, sir. I haven’t cooked a meal at home in ages, have I, Gordon?”

“No time for it, love. But we’ve not missed many meals, have we?”

They laughed. A steaming mug of coffee appeared before me.

The steam wafting up was vapor from Heaven itself.

I took it in my hands and brought it to my lips and knew, then and there, I’d be bringing Darla around before the sun set, and many times thereafter.

I realized they were both watching me.

“That, sir, is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted.”

The Fields let out their breath and exchanged a smile.

I gulped coffee. I’d intended to see both sets of parents, but this wasn’t the way I’d intended on doing it. Certainly not before seeing the bride-to-be. And certainly not while enjoying the man’s hospitality.

Mrs. Fields fussed with the new brass oven and produced a pair of buns-one dripping with melted cheese and showing the edges of fresh-baked ham, one glazed and smelling of sugar.

I dug in. I kept my ears open, in case they mentioned anything about the wedding, but their talk was strictly of ovens and servings and waiters and prices.

The cheese and ham was as good as the coffee. The sticky bun, oh, the sticky bun. It was marvelous, and I knew instantly it was the twin to the bun Darla had brought me a few hours or several days ago, depending on how many of Hisvin’s carriage rides one counted.

“How was it, sir?”

“Best coffee in the Kingdom, Mr. Fields, and that’s not idle praise. Same for the buns, Mrs. Fields. Works of art, both of them.”

They beamed. Mrs. Fields took her husband’s hand and squeezed it.

“First customer is on the house,” said Mr. Fields.

I shook my head. “I’d feel like a thief if I took advantage of your hospitality.”

He started to protest but his wife elbowed him gently in the ribs and laughed. “Take his money, Gordon, we can’t make a living giving lunch away.”

He made a what-can-you-do face and quoted me a price. I counted out the coins, plopped a couple of extra ones down too.

“Now, sir, I was only joking,” said Mrs. Fields. “That’s far too much, even with a tip.”

“I’m hoping that will make what I’m about to say easier to swallow,” I said. They exchanged perplexed glances.

“My name is Markhat. I’m a finder by trade. I had no idea who you were when I walked in here, but if you have a daughter named Tamar I’m in the neighborhood hoping to speak with her.”

They both kept their composures. No reddening of faces, no sputtering. If Mr. Fields hadn’t started twisting his dishrag savagely, neither would have displayed a hint of consternation.

“And why would you be speaking with our Tamar, Mr. Markhat?”

“It’s about her fiance, Mr. Fields. Carris Lethway. I’m sure you know he’s gone missing.”

“Wherever that scheming little bastard has gone, Mr. Markhat, he hasn’t gone nearly far enough.” Mr. Fields might be a bald, red-faced, round-bellied little baker, but a hint of genuine murder crept into his voice. “He’s broken her heart. Not that I’m surprised. Those Lethways are-”

“Hist!”

The cheerful brass doorbell rang, the door opened and a smiling blonde woman rushed in, her arms laden with bags and parcels and a tiny yapping dog in a knitted basket.

“Mum, Dad, I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t get a cab and then the warehouse was out of the good confectioner’s sugar and Mr. Tibbles got out of his basket and nearly got run over and I gave an ogre some bread,” she said, showing no signs of breathlessness. “And Lars at the second bakery says he needs more split oak tomorrow and then I remembered the turning forks, and I went back to get them but Mum had already left. Who are you? I’m Tamar. This is Mr. Tibbles.”

She thrust various parcels at her parents and let Mr. Tibbles loose on the pristine counter-top and stuck out her hand for me to shake.

She was pretty. Ten years my junior, as tall as my shoulders, with pale yellow hair and soft brown eyes that I’d have described as impish had they not been shadowed with worry. She was dressed in what Darla calls City Smart-slim knee-length brown skirt, narrow black belt tight at the waist, white blouse with pearl buttons set off with a short tan jacket.

See, I do listen when Darla talks.

My smile was suddenly far less difficult to force.

“The gentleman was just leaving, Tamar,” said Mr. Fields. “Get Mr. Tibbles off my counter and help your mother in the back, won’t you?”

“This is Mr. Markhat, dear,” said Mrs. Fields. “He’s come about the wedding.”

Defeated, Mr. Fields scooped Mr. Tibbles up and darted for the back. Tamar grabbed my hand with both of hers and held on as if she were falling down.

“You’re Darla’s Markhat. The finder. Oh, you’re just as dashing as she said, even with crumbs on your chin. Did you have the cinnamon bun, or the cheese? I think we’re putting too much cinnamon in the glaze, but Mum wants more. Darla’s Markhat himself.”

She finally let go of my hand.

“That’s me. Darla’s Markhat, in the flesh.”

She smiled.

“Is Darla here too?”

“No. She’s not. But she asked me to come and see you.” I paused, waiting for the implications of a finder showing up on your doorstep when you’ve just lost a fiance to surface. In my experience, people want to discuss such things in private, well away from Mum and Dad and even the excitable Mr. Tibbles.

“Is she coming, then?”

Mrs. Fields sighed.

“It’s all right, dear. He knows. It’s what he does.”

Tamar deflated, just a bit.

“Darla told you?”

“She’s hired me on your behalf,” I spoke as quietly as I could. “That’s why you and I need to talk. Privately.”

Mum squeezed her daughter’s hand and glided away. Tamar didn’t look up at me at once but when she did she was smiling again.

“Carris loves me,” she said. “Whatever else people say, Mr. Markhat, you can believe that. He loves me, and I love him, and we’re going to be married, and there’s nothing anyone anywhere can do to change that. Mr. Tibbles. Come here.”

She spoke the last just loud enough to reach her father in the kitchen. There was a crash of pans, and a skittering of little clawed dog feet, and Mr. Tibbles darted through the swinging doors and leaped into Tamar’s arms.

“Shall we go, Mr. Markhat?”

Mrs. Fields was gone, and I could hear voices, not happy ones, in the kitchen.

I dropped another coin on the counter. It was the least I could do, after spreading such joy.

“Let’s,” I said. “I saw a nice little park with benches not too far off. Does that meet with Mr. Tibbles’s approval?”

The little beast looked up and me and snarled, its beady eyes mad with barely controlled rage.

Tamar laughed and closed the basket. “Don’t mind him, Mr. Markhat. The park will be fine.”

I opened the door to the merry tinkling of the bell and out we went.

Mr. Tibbles peeked out of his basket and growled at me the whole way there.

The park was tiny. It was really just a square patch of grass worn sparse and brown by people’s feet that had refused to stay on the cobblestone sidewalks despite the clearly lettered sign admonishing them to spare the grass. Four freshly painted white wooden benches had been provided, one at each corner of the square. There were so many smokestick butts on the ground Tamar refused to let Mr. Tibbles out of his basket, claiming he ate the wretched things.

This didn’t suit Mr. Tibbles at all, so we conducted our entire conversation over his indignant yips and attempts to escape from his basket.

“So, Darla has hired you to work for me?”

Mr. Tibbles poked his head out. Tamar pushed it back in.

“I’m to find your fiance, Miss Fields. Working with you seems to be the best way to accomplish that.”

She nodded, still wrestling with her diminutive canine terror. “Well. The first thing you need to know is that my father hates Carris. Why I don’t know. Carris has been nothing but courteous since we met. Mother adores him, of course. Carris, that is, not Father, although she loves him too, naturally.”

I was glad I wasn’t trying to write this down.

“How long have you two been walking out?”

“Two years last Yule.” Mr. Tibbles launched a furious assault on the basket lid, causing Tamar to hold it down tight with both hands. A pair of kids passing by stopped and pointed and laughed. “We met at a bakery, of all places. Not one of ours. Isn’t that odd? It makes Father furious, but sometimes I just need to taste something new. And it’s good for business, otherwise, how would we know what the other bakers were doing? We’d never have known about the apple fritters, for instance, had I not wandered into Gorman’s that day.”

“How indeed? Tell me about Carris. About his family. You say your father doesn’t like him. Well, how do his folks feel about you?”

“I’m not sure they’d know me if I walked into their parlor. Which isn’t to say they have any objections to me, Mr. Markhat. They just never seemed to care much either way what Carris did, or who he planned to marry. Have you met them yet? They’re…haughty. Yes. Haughty. Old money haughty. Carris’s father was a Colonel during the War. They still act as if people ought to be throwing them parades every afternoon just for being who they are. Mr. Tibbles, stop that!”

She gave the basket lid a good thump. To my amazement, the creature within stopped struggling.

I seized the silence and lowered my voice.

“You’re not going to like my next few questions, Miss Fields. But I have to ask them anyway. I hope you understand that.”

“I’m not pregnant. We didn’t fight over money. I haven’t cheated on Carris, and he isn’t cheating on me. The wedding was as much his idea as it was mine. I know my father isn’t thrilled about me marrying Carris, but he’d never hurt a fly. Does that cover most of what have to ask?”

I lifted an eyebrow. Tamar grinned and did the same.

“I’m not as dumb as people think, you know,” she said. “I talk a lot, yes, but that’s because other people talk so little. Carris talks as much as I do, did you know that? Not to everyone, but to me. Getting married at Wherthmore was his idea. ‘We’ll kiss just as the Broken Bell sounds,’ he said. That’s how he proposed. Do you know about the Broken Bell, Mr. Markhat?”

I may not be a good churchgoing Wherthmore man, but I know about the Broken Bell and the age-old tradition that says couples who marry as it peals out on Wrack Day are twice-blessed by the Angel Fury. Why an Angel of Matrimony would be named Fury is not something I ponder much.

I nodded. “I’ll do everything I can to have him under the Bell for you, Miss. So. When was the last time you saw him? Details. Everything you can remember.”

Tamar took a deep breath and launched into it. Mr. Tibbles listened in silence, and then began to snore.

I sat on that park bench so long my backside bore the imprint of the slats. Most of the time, I have to wrestle people to the ground and pull on their tongues in a search for pertinent details. With Tamar, the problem wasn’t a lack of information, but a veritable flood of it. Trying to latch onto the useful bits was akin to snatching gnats out of a windstorm.

But I knew more than I did before I’d ruined the opening of the Fields’s new bakery.

Carris liked dogs, even Mr. Tibbles. Carris disliked the sound of bugles. Carris knew ten words of Ogre. Carris was once struck by a Watchman’s truncheon after he punched the Watchman for making a lewd comment about Tamar, and he’d spent a night in the Old Ruth for the pleasure.

I was beginning to like this Carris.

But I was no closer to finding him. He’d said nothing about a trip, business or otherwise, before he’d vanished. The last time Tamar saw Carris had been a dinner date, at which they’d talked wedding plans and decided to fire a caterer and had enjoyed roast beef that was a little too chewy. Then they’d lingered on the porch of the Fields home, said their farewells and made plans to meet for lunch the next day.

Tamar swore Carris hadn’t been bothered, or worried, or distant. She had no inkling anything was wrong until he missed their lunch date.

That had been two days shy of two weeks ago.

Tamar had gone to the Lethways, and had been told by a butler that Carris was called away on urgent business, and no, the master of the house was not able to receive visitors, and no he couldn’t divulge any details, certainly not.

And that had been that. Tamar’s conversation with the Watch had been equally fruitless. Which didn’t much surprise me, since the Lethways clearly outnumbered the Fields in butlers and money. The Watch is careful with whom they dispense their justice.

I left Tamar with a promise I would start looking at once. I’d been elated when she hadn’t asked me where I planned to start looking, because as I walked back toward Cambrit I wasn’t entirely sure.

The obvious destination was the Lethway house. But if the Lethways had been willing to stonewall their only son’s lady love, I doubted they’d be any more receptive to a finder wandering in off the street.

The late afternoon sun left the bustling street half in cool shadows. People were smiling and laughing. Even the Watchmen failed to scowl and bellow. I should have been enjoying the walk, but my legs grew heavier with every step and I could hardly keep my mouth shut from yawning.

I’d started my day by being attacked by Sprangs. I’d taken a ride in the Corpsemaster’s black carriage. Sweated under a sun that didn’t feel like mine. Slept some forced hex-borne sleep. Hell, I’d been drafted into the Army.

I decided my work ethic could take the afternoon off. No point in trying to dazzle the Lethways with my verbal charms when the best I could muster was a puzzled yawn.

I wished I’d asked the dead cabman to hang around. The walk back to Cambrit was going to be a hike. But the cabs in this part of town would charge extra just for visiting my humble neighborhood, and I’d tipped the Fields too generously to allow myself that luxury.

So I walked, hands in pockets, hat turned down. People gave me room. When I’m grumpy, it shows.

I tried to keep my mind off all things Army. Tried to forget sleeping in tents, fighting in the rain, freezing every night and going hungry every day. I’d thought that was over and done.

I kicked at a loose cobblestone, had a brief, terrible vision of Rannit’s walls coming down, of that foul-smelling cannon smoke sailing ghostlike down its streets, heard people screaming, flames roaring.

I was so preoccupied I didn’t even notice the cab rattle to a halt on the street beside me.

“Boss?”

I shook off my vision. It was Gertriss, in a plain brown hat, leaning out of the window, smiling.

“Boss, where have you been? I’ve been looking all over.”

“Lunch with the Regent. The man never shuts up. Nice cab. Room for two?”

The door swung open. I clambered inside, barely getting my butt on the bench before the cabman snapped his reins and the cab lurched ahead.

“Boss, you look awful.”

“We’ve got to work on your flattery skills.” I took off my hat and rubbed my eyes. “Did you catch Smithy with his lady of the afternoon?”

Gertriss looked anything but awful. Since giving up her career as a swineherder and settling in Rannit, she’s made an amazing transformation. Blonde hair, green eyes, trim figure-I’m always surprised she’s able to go unnoticed in a crowd like she does.

“I’m afraid so. She’s not the lady from the bank, either. It’s his wife’s younger sister.”

I grimaced. “You’re sure?”

“They took a room at the hotel. I took the next one. The walls are thin. I’m sure.”

Rannit rolled past my window, happy and unfaithful and well fed and warm.

“Hell of a way to make a living.”

“Boss, what’s wrong? And where have you been? You’re filthy. Where did you find red dust?”

I followed Gertriss’s gaze down to my shoes and my knees. Both were dusty, with that strange red earth from the Battery.

“Never mind that right now. Have you been home yet? Talked to Mama?”

Her eyes flashed. “No. Why? Something happen?”

“The Sprangs happened. All the way from Pot Lockney. Showed up at the office early this morning, looking for you.”

She went pale, licked her lips, measured her words.

“Oh no. Boss, I’m sorry. Were they rude?”

“You could say that. But don’t worry. I’m sure their manners are much improved. They’ll be spending some time in the Old Ruth for assaulting one of Rannit’s most beloved citizens.”

“Assaulted? They went after you? Why would they do that?”

“It seems Mama has been her usual helpful self. She let word get back to Pot Lockney that you and I share more than just an office.”

Gertriss reddened.

I waved it off. “Look. What’s done is done. You had nothing to do with it. The Sprangs are locked up. We have plenty of time to figure out what to do with them when they get off the work crew. If you cry you’ll ruin that mascara. Anyway, it could be worse.”

“Worse? Boss, you don’t know them like I do. If they think you and I…if they, um…what could be worse?”

I put my hat back on. “Not the time or the place, Miss. Tell me about the errant Mr. Smithy. That’s an order.”

I put my head back and suffered the bumps and didn’t listen to a single word Gertriss said.

Chapter Five

I fell asleep again halfway back to Cambrit. Gertriss says I dreamed, and they must have been troubling dreams, because I clenched my fists and mumbled. If she caught any of the words she had the good grace to pretend otherwise.

I stumbled out onto the sidewalk while Gertriss counted coins. The cabman made a pass at her, which she ignored, and when I saw he meant to repeat it, I glared and he snapped his reins and took his leave.

I had just enough time to thank my errant guardian Angel that Mama wasn’t outside on her stoop waiting for us when Mama flew out of her door and stomped toward us, her grizzled old face set into a wrinkled scowl that would have turned Trolls, had any been lingering nearby. She had Buttercup by the hand, and though the tiny banshee tried to resist Mama’s pulling, she was dragged along anyway, blinking in the light, her false wings sagging and drooping.

I ushered Gertriss inside and said the magic word-beer.

I have an icebox in the back now. It’s a tiny one, barely big enough to hold a chunk of sawdust-covered ice and eight tall, dark glasses of Biltot’s best, but it will keep them chilled for a week.

“Boss? Now?”

“Two. One for me, one for you. If Mama doesn’t like that, tough. Go. I’m in a mood.”

Gertriss went, vanishing about the time Mama came stomping through my door.

“Where the Hell you been, boy? And where is that niece of mine? I reckon we all got to have a talk.”

She let Buttercup go. Buttercup did a little hop-skip and hugged my knees, looking up at me with something like worry on her fragile little face.

“Your dolls are in the back, honey,” I said. “Go play while the grownups talk. Scoot.”

Buttercup nodded and vanished.

I could see Gertriss’s shadow under my backroom door. I knew she had the beers, and I knew she was lingering, probably giving Buttercup a hug, taking a few extra seconds before facing Mama’s inevitable assault.

I sank into my chair and threw my hat at the rack and missed and didn’t give a damn. My joints ached, my head was stuffed with cotton, and I was thinking it was time to remind one and all whose hospitality it was they were abusing.

“Where I’ve been is working. Same for my associate. She answers to me, and I don’t answer to anybody. She and I are going to drink a beer. You can have one, or you can not, or you can leave. But I’m not about to be yelled at or have my staff yelled at by the general public. Is that clear?”

Mama made strangled snuffling noises, but stood her ground.

“Gertriss, our beverages. And bring the folding chair for our guest. If she’s staying. Are you staying, Mama?”

Mama surprised me. “You knows I am, boy. And, boy, I reckon I’ll have one of them fancy beers. Seein’ as we’re all drinking to excess these days.”

I heard glass tinkle as Gertriss pulled another Biltot out of the icebox.

“I didn’t know you liked beer, Mama.”

“I reckon there’s lots you don’t know about me, boy.” Gertriss came in, beers and chair filling her hands, and Mama helped her without a word, save for a single “thank ye” that was neither dripping with sarcasm nor delivered in a hiss between clenched gums.

“Mama’s being polite, Gertriss. I think we’re in for some bad news.”

“That you are, boy. Miss. I reckon your boss has done told ye about the Sprangs?”

Gertriss nodded. She hadn’t touched her beer. Mama guffawed and drained a quarter of hers in one loud draught.

“This ain’t half bad.” Mama wiped her lips. “Go on, drink it. It ain’t like you’re a little ’un no more.”

Gertriss nodded and took a sip.

“I done wrong, to both of you,” said Mama. “I told things I hadn’t ought to have told. I done it thinkin’ I was protecting you, niece. I didn’t have no way of knowing it would bring them Sprangs all the way here, to do what they come to do.”

I shut my mouth by filling it with beer.

“Mr. Markhat knows you didn’t mean any harm.”

Mama took another expert swig of my uptown beer. “And what about you, child of my sister? You have a right to be angry. And a right to say so.”

Gertriss clenched her beer so hard her knuckles went white and shook her head.

“You didn’t kill anyone, Mama. I did that. That’s why they came.”

“We both knows why you kilt that man, child. Neither of us blames you.”

I nodded. “He had it coming. I’d have killed him myself, had I been there.”

Gertriss was shaking. She couldn’t speak. I wasn’t surprised-she’d been with me for more than a year, and we’d never discussed this in any but the most oblique terms. Getting it out wasn’t going to be easy.

“I still can’t believe I ever agreed to marry…him.” She spoke in a whisper, after a long bout of shaking. “I never…loved him. But all the other girls were married, and there weren’t many men left, and I’d given up on coming to Rannit, did you know that, Mama? I hated Pot Lockney. Hated the pigs. Hated it all-but I was afraid. Afraid of leaving. Isn’t that stupid?”

“No, child, not at all,” said Mama. Her voice had no rasp, no bluster. “I was afraid too. They sold me to a tinker. Did you know that? Nine years old, and sold to a man my grandfather’s age, because I was stunted, and had the Sight. I really ought to send a pox upon them.”

Gertriss laughed despite herself. I raised an eyebrow at Mama. She didn’t respond, so for all I know that story was the truth.

“So when Harald started coming around, I went out walking with him. I knew what he was. I’d heard the stories. But he was sweet. Brought me flowers. Said I was pretty.”

“He was right about that,” I said.

Mama shushed me with a glare.

“He said he’d buy us a farm. Said I could raise the swine, and he’d herd the cattle. Said we’d have a big fine log house and two horses and a well of our own.” She took a big draught of beer, and her face went pale. “Might have been the promise of a well that pushed me over the edge. All those years of hauling buckets.” She shook. “And then one night he came around drunk. He wasn’t talking flowers and log houses. He…He…”

“I reckon we knows that part,” said Mama. “So you kilt him. And rightly so. Harald Suthom was a mean drunk, quick to rape, and from what I hears quick to kill. Ain’t nobody cryin’ no tears for his worthless ass, child.”

I’m not sure Gertriss heard. Her face was pale, and her eyes were wide. She was looking at me but not seeing me at all.

“I tried to just get out of the house,” she said. “All I wanted to do was get away from him. Come to Rannit. Get away from him. But he wouldn’t let me go, Mama. He hit me, knocked me down. I kicked him but he was too drunk to even feel it. He pushed me down on my bed, and I always sleep with a knife under my pillow. A good plain sharp knife, that’s what Daddy always taught us girls. A good sharp knife, put where you can reach it when you need it most.”

She blinked and was back with us.

“Daddy would have been proud. A good sharp knife, where I could reach it. Harald didn’t even know I’d cut him at first. He was laughing when he died. Laughing and cussing. Then he just fell on me. Dead. Stinking. Dead.”

Mama rose and went to Gertriss and hugged her and whispered for a long time. I sat there awkwardly and drank beer.

When Mama let Gertriss go, they were both crying, both trying hard to hide it.

I rose. “We all need another beer.” I left and took my time.

When I came back, beers in hand, Three-leg Cat was perched on Mama’s lap, purring and preening as she scratched him behind his one intact ear. Gertriss was fussing with her makeup, squinting into one of the new tiny glass mirrors ladies have begun to carry in their purses this season.

I distributed beers. Mama’s first bottle was empty. Gertriss had hardly touched hers. I hate to see good beer get warm, so I took it.

I gathered the emotional storm was over. But there were still things I needed to know. “So the Sprangs came here looking for money.”

“Mostly.” Mama took a draught and belched, loud as any man, and Gertriss laughed. “Vengeance, too, after they heard Gertriss had took up with a man. They can’t take no vengeance on women. But they’ve got their eyes set on you, boy, thanks to me.”

I shrugged. “How much money are we talking here?”

“Mama’s eyes went hard. “You ain’t thinking about paying them road apples, ’ere you?”

“Why not? If the price is right, it seems like a good way to get rid of them for good. How much?”

“Eight crowns,” said Gertriss softly. “In Old Kingdom coin. They won’t take Regency paper, or anything but gold.”

I snorted. “Hell. Eight crowns. Fine. I can afford that. I’ll pay them, when they get out of the Old Ruth. By then they’ll be so ready to get the Hell out of Rannit they probably won’t stop running long enough to count it.”

“I can’t let you do that, Mr. Markhat.”

“What is it with Hog women? I said I’d pay them. It’s not a fortune. If you want, call it a loan. Even on what your cheapskate boss pays you, eight crowns won’t take that long.” I frowned. From their expressions, I was missing something fundamental to the situation. “This is some Old Law country thing, isn’t it? Do I also have to give them an ear? Agree to consort with their oldest, ugliest daughter? Spill it. I’m a city man, remember?”

Mama sighed. “Tell him the rest, child. I’m liable to tell it wrong.”

I put my beer down a little too hard.

“Wrong or right, ladies, somebody better start telling me something right now.”

Gertriss cleared her throat. “I didn’t know this, until today. I swear I didn’t, Mr. Markhat. Mama just told me.”

“Keep talking.”

“Harald. Harald-he had a brother.”

“Lots of people do. So?”

“He’s dead too.”

Silence. Gertriss was on the verge of tears. I looked to Mama.

“Kilt with the same knife that kilt Harald,” she said. “On the same night. The Suthoms reckon Gertriss kilt him too.”

Gertriss wouldn’t meet my eyes. My mouth went dry.

“I have to ask, Gertriss. You know I do. Did you kill them both?”

She shook her head.

“I didn’t know nothing about the other Suthom boy ’til today,” said Mama. “The Sprangs got big mouths. They talked it all up and down the Old Ruth, about how they come to Rannit to put the vengeance on the man what took up with the woman what killed the Suthom boys. I reckon they aims to kill you, boy, and then go home and collect a reward from the Suthoms. So I ain’t sure eight crowns is going to stop this mess. I ain’t sure at all.”

I swallowed the rest of Gertriss’s warm beer, opened my cold bottle, and took a swig of it too.

“And I thought my day couldn’t get any worse. Funny old thing, life.”

Gertriss burst out crying, and I thought seriously about joining her.

It was nearly Curfew before I got the women settled enough to finish talking things out.

We were all out of beer. My throat was dryer than the Regent’s tears. Gertriss had cried away most of her make-up, leaving nothing but dark circles under her eyes. Even red-nosed and a bit raccoonish, she was still fetching.

Mama was gruffing and puffing and threatening to set out for Pot Lockney at first light to “set them Suthoms straight.” I’d dissuaded her from that notion only barely, and at the cost of most of my voice.

I’d filled two notebook pages with times and names and dates and places. I wasn’t ready to leap to my feet and declare the identity of the real murderer of Harald Suthom’s brother Ash, but I had my suspicions.

“I still say they can’t know the same knife killed both Suthoms,” I said. “Especially if the second body wasn’t found for nearly a month.”

Mama shook her head. “Old woman Nilkill says it were the same. She fancies herself a blood witch. If she says both Suthom’s blood is on that knife, that makes it so, boy, in Pot Lockney.”

“How convenient. And they know it’s Gertriss’s knife how, exactly?”

Gertriss sighed. “I carved my name in it when I was ten.”

I groaned. “Well, at least now I know you didn’t kill the second Suthom, Miss. You’re too smart to use a signed knife.”

“Boy!”

“Sorry, sorry, fine. So Harald Suthom meets his well-deserved demise at around eight of the clock. Gertriss is on the road by nine. Sometime in the next few days, Ash Suthom is dispatched with the same knife, wrapped in old burlap, and laid to rest in a briar patch. He lies there until a bear pulls him out and scatters him over old man Ferlong’s cotton patch. That about right?”

Mama and Gertriss exchanged glances, then nodded yes in unison.

“Since we know Gertriss didn’t kill Ash on her way out of Pot Lockney, that means somebody else did. Any idea who? Was Ash as charming and well-loved as his older brother?”

Mama shrugged. “Ain’t none of them Suthoms worth a damn. But I’d never heard tell of Ash ’til today.”

“He was quiet,” said Gertriss. “Never heard him speak. People were scared of him, just for being a Suthom, but I never heard any stories about him. He worked the cows. He paid his bills. He didn’t cause any trouble at the inn. That’s all I know. Except that I didn’t kill him.”

I doodled on the paper, drawing a little stick man with a knife in his back.

“So who found Harald?”

Gertriss looked at Mama.

“Way I hear it, it was his foreman, come looking to roust him out and get started working. They knowed he’d been to see Gertriss, he’d bragged about it. Came in and found him dead in her bed, and her gone.”

I gave my little stick man Xs for eyes.

“So for all we know this foreman took the knife out of Harald and then left it in Ash.”

Mama shrugged. “Ain’t no way for me to know that, boy. Nor you.”

“And then a bear helpfully pulls the corpse out of a briar patch and makes sure he gets a proper burial, right after the good people of Pot Lockney remove a signed knife from his back. How fortuitous. Miss, the next time you go to all the trouble to wrap a corpse and drag it into a briar patch, you might consider removing the murder weapon at some point during the festivities. Especially if said weapon carries your name.”

Mama opened her mouth to gruff at me, but caught on. Gertriss got there faster.

“Someone wants me blamed for Ash’s murder.”

“Oh yes. Bear my ass. They hoped the body would be found, but it wasn’t. So they helped matters along. Now, we’re looking at one of two things here. One, they knew you’d killed Harald, and they knew you’d left town. That made you the perfect pick for killing Ash, too, nothing personal, just business. Or second, somebody back home hates you enough to kill a second man just to make sure you’d be hanged for killing the first. Who would want to do that to you, Miss? Who hates you that much?”

“No one.” She shook her head. “Honest, Mr. Markhat. Nobody.”

I dropped my pencil and leaned back in my chair. Fatigue was settling over me like a coat made of rocks.

“All right. We can worry about who killed the Suthoms later. Right now, here’s what we do.”

And I spent my last bit of wile making plans for the night.

Chapter Six

The Big Bell clanged out midnight before I lay my weary head down to sleep.

My plan to keep Mama and Gertriss safe from any lingering Sprangs involved installing a pair of ogres at Mama’s door. I chose ogres because they’re out and about after Curfew, and are thus easy to find, and because short of a Troll or a brace of the Corpsemaster’s newfangled cannons there isn’t a better deterrent against mischief than half a ton of implacable ogre.

I lucked out and managed to catch up with a Hooga, who agreed to bring his cousin Hooga in on the deal. Don’t ask me how ogres keep identities established when they all bear the same name. But this was a Hooga I knew from Darla’s old job at the Velvet, and we were still on an eye-dipping basis, which practically makes us littermates according to Mama’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things ogre.

I’d given Gertriss orders that she wasn’t to venture outdoors for anything. She didn’t like that, any more than Mama liked hearing the same, but I had to trust they understood the necessity of staying safe behind a wall of ogres until we had a handle on the Sprangs.

So I handed out coins right and left and made sure the Hoogas understood spilling blood was only to be done as a last resort.

That done, I turned my attention to the bigger picture, a task made well nigh impossible by my sudden tragic lack of beer.

After the Hoogas trundled away with Gertriss, Mama and Buttercup, I put my feet on my desk and got out a pad, and tried to make sense of my sundry confusions by putting them down on paper in the form of questions.

Where is Carris Lethway? appeared at the top of my page.

Who or what compelled him to leave, and why? followed.

Exhaustion does strange things to the mind. I didn’t realize I’d written Who has more animosity toward the marriage between Carris and Tamar-the Lethways or the Fields? until after I’d written the last word.

I put a big question mark under that.

More entries followed-Was I really drafted? was asked twice, with heavy underlines, and When to tell Darla? below that.

Finally, I scribbled something unflattering concerning Corpsemasters and wild goats and headed to bed.

I dreamed that night. I saw cannons, rows and rows and ranks and ranks of them, hurling thunder and belching flame. I saw the sky criss-crossed with lingering smokes, heard the shriek and howl of battle.

I wasn’t alone, in my dream. The Corpsemaster was there. Not as a corpse, either. She was a woman-a somewhat plain, somewhat aged, somewhat weary woman, with tired green eyes and messy grey hair and a face that had long ago forgotten how to smile.

It seems we talked, at great length, about Rannit and the Regent and battles and wars. I don’t recall anything that was said, or asked, or answered, save that it seemed a great loss of life was both looming and inevitable.

When I woke, in that middle of the night’s deep dark, I was not rested. Something stirred in the shadows of my room, and for an instant I thought I spied Three-leg, stretching before prowling out to terrorize his streets.

But it was Buttercup in my room, crouched by my bed, her tiny face wrinkled in worry.

Before I could speak, she handed me a ragged sock-doll, hugged my neck and vanished.

Damned if I didn’t sleep well after that, a banshee’s tattered doll suspiciously close to my pillow.

Morning came, bringing with it sunlight and singing birds and Three-leg’s insistence that I rise at once. I pushed him off the bed twice before he roused me by raking claws across my bare back.

While Three-leg dined, I gathered clean clothes and wrapped them in a bundle and stepped out into the street after a quick peek through my barely-opened door. I stopped by Mama’s briefly on my way to the bathhouse. The Hoogas were in place, upright and immovable as granite statues. I don’t speak enough ogre to do more than say hello, but my old friend Hooga can nod for yes and shake for no, and thus I was able to establish that Mama had received no visitors during the night.

I started to knock, but decided on a bath first. I bade the Hoogas good morning, and when I emerged from the hot water a half-hour later I was shaved and soaped and not quite smiling.

Rannit was stirring to life around me. Old Mr. Bull was on his stoop, sweeping away whatever imaginary soil collected during the night. The newcomers to the neighborhood, the Arwheat brothers, were taking the iron shutters off their windows and trading shouts in their harsh Southlands tongue. They smiled and waved as I passed, and went back to screaming at each other the instant I returned their greeting.

Mama met me at her door and thrust a steaming mug of coffee at me before I even spoke.

“Good morning to you too.”

“Here’s something for you, boys.” Mama reached inside and came out with two black hunks of ogre hash. The Hoogas took them, sniffed them, and ate them without ever taking their big ogre eyes off the street.

“Come on in, boy. Ain’t nobody up yet but me an’ you.”

I dipped eyes with Hooga and followed Mama indoors.

Mama keeps her windows covered with burlap curtains. The only light comes from candles. The candles are handmade by Mama herself, and while I’m sure each has a specific arcane purpose they all smell like sun-baked manure.

I breathe through my mouth when I visit Mama, most days.

Her card and potion shop was dark and fragrant, but not quiet. Two sets of snores sounded from the back, and neither was dainty.

I sank onto Mama’s rickety client’s chair and sipped her coffee.

“So, no Sprangs came calling last night.”

“Nobody came calling.” Mama spoke softly. “Not that I figured they would.”

“I don’t like this any more than you, Mama. I’m paying the Hoogas, remember?”

“Wasting your coin, you are.”

I shrugged. Maybe I was. Wouldn’t be the first time.

“We can’t keep her in that room forever, boy. Nor me.”

“I know.” Mama’s coffee wasn’t half bad. Or maybe the stench of her blue-flamed candles was making it hard to taste the chicory she prefers.

“So, what you reckon on doing about it?”

“I reckon on talking to the Sprangs again,” I said. “In fact, I’ve given some thought to bailing them out myself.”

“Boy!” Mama forgot to be quiet. The snoring continued. She glared and forced herself back into her chair and shook her head. “Why would you do a damn fool thing such as that?”

“First, because I’d know when they were out. Second, because the Old Ruth might get one or more of them killed, and if it does they’ll lay that at my doorstep too. Third, because I might just convince them to forget this whole mess and head back home owing me a favor, instead of coveting my head.”

“Foolishness, boy. Them Sprangs will turn on ye the instant the jail doors open.”

“If that happens there’s the Watch. If the Sprangs go in again, they won’t be getting out anytime soon, bail or not. You know that.”

“Do you drink a lot at night, boy? Have you taken up weed? Bailing the Sprangs out is the damn stupidest thing I’ve heard in a long time, and you’ll get nothing but trouble if you do.”

“It was just a thought, Mama.”

“Well then, you need to keep on thinking. Or give it up entirely, I ain’t sure which.”

From the back came a sneeze and the sound of a thin, hard bed creaking.

“Well, we’re in for it now,” whispered Mama.

Buttercup appeared at my knee, smiling and rubbing sleep out of her eyes.

“Good morning, Miss.” I tousled her hair and poked her gently on the tip of her nose. I pulled her doll out of my pocket and handed it back to her. She accepted it solemnly, her banshee eyes suddenly serious. “Thanks. Someone snores like a big girl.”

She stuck out her tongue and yawned.

Gertriss popped out of her door, not smiling. Her hair was a tumble, and she had dark circles under her eyes. I decided I would most certainly neither tousle her hair nor poke at her nose.

She was enveloped in an enormous nightgown that must have started life as a mainsail on a frigate. Her bare toes only peeped out when she walked. I caught Mama glaring at her red-painted toenails.

“Good morning.” I decided to keep things friendly. “Hope you slept well.”

Gertriss managed a nod and shuffled off to Mama’s tiny kitchen, groaning as she went. From out of sight came the sounds of cups rattling and sugar being spooned.

Buttercup pulled my cup down and stole a sip of my coffee.

“Fie!” snapped Mama. Buttercup giggled and skipped away, vanishing before reappearing behind Mama with her fingers waggling beside her ears.

Gertriss reappeared, bleary-eyed, sipping coffee and shuffling. “Morning, boss.”

I nodded. “Mama says the Hoogas didn’t bash any heads last night.”

“If they did they were quiet about it. Boss, how long can you afford to pay them? Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to buy a door and put a bar on the inside?”

Mama puffed up. “I ain’t havin’ no garrison gate on the front of my establishment. Makes the clients feel nervous.”

“And ogres don’t?”

“Shows what you know. Business will double today just to get a up-close look at ’em. Bah.” With that, Mama rose and hustled off to her kitchen, dragging Buttercup along by one of her long ears.

“I heard what you said about paying out the Sprangs,” said Gertriss in a whisper. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

“It does? I imagined you’d be on Mama’s side.”

“She has a point. I’m not saying she doesn’t. But knowing where they are is also a point. And as pigheaded as they are, getting them out of the Old Ruth might be the only way to get them to listen. Too, I’ve got money saved. I might not be able to pay all of it, but I can do half.”

“I’m not asking you to do that.”

“I know. I appreciate that. But I’m insisting. And you know how Hog women can be when we don’t get what we want.”

I sighed. “Deal. We split it. But we make it conditional to the Sprangs-they leave Rannit, no loitering, no sightseeing, no sneaking back here with clubs. And we have the Watch witness it all, so the Sprangs get tossed back in the Old Ruth if they break the terms of release.”

Gertriss pushed a wild tangle of golden hair out of her eyes and nodded. “I think it’s a good idea, boss. Cheaper than ogres, in the long run.”

“Ha!” snapped Mama from the back.

I laughed. “Fine. Look. Until we know they’ve been rounded up, you need to stay put.”

Gertriss grimaced.

“I’ll head by the Old Ruth, see what the payout is. And then I’ll stop by the Magistrate and see if I can get a judge to sign off on this. With luck, we’ll be able to get it done tomorrow, the day after at the latest.”

Gertriss lowered her voice to the faintest of whispers. “If it takes any longer than that, boss, just get me a cell at the Old Ruth,” she said.

“I heard that, you ungrateful child.”

Gertriss winced, rose, headed for her room.

“Hurry,” she said, making no sound, just mouthing the word before she closed her door.

Hurry I did.

The Sprangs, had made themselves quite popular at the Old Ruth by fighting with jailers, prisoners and even each other. They’d managed to increase their original fines by a surprising margin, which made Gertriss’s offer to pay half not only generous but necessary.

I didn’t speak to the Sprangs themselves, preferring to wait until I knew I could arrange bail. So I cooled my boots for two hours down at the courthouse on Beld, waiting for a judge to deign my petition worthy of the Regency’s precious time.

I wasn’t entirely miserable. The high ceilings in the old courthouse made it breezy and cool. The benches weren’t padded, but they’re wide and deep and angled just right, which makes sitting on them not merely tolerable but enjoyable. And the pair of legal assistants buzzing about with papers and writs and lawyers were young and energetic.

I decided the redhead was my favorite, because she smiled even when she thought no one was looking. The blonde was better looking, and her skirt was certainly better fitting, but her smile vanished as soon as she thought she lacked an audience. To me, that spells trouble.

I wasn’t quite napping when the blonde strolled up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. “Sir,” she said. “Judge Hastings will see you now.”

I rose, stretched and thanked her.

“Down the hall, second chamber on your right. Have a good day.”

And she was gone, her smile falling as soon as she turned away. I never saw the redhead again, which is probably for the best, since my Darla isn’t fond of redheads.

Judge Hastings was a man of few words-specifically, yes, yes, no, yes, and yes. He scribbled notes in his ledger and scribbled more on a roll of parchment and then made the whole thing legal simply by sliding the parchment between the jaws of his seal and bopping the apparatus with his wizened fist to emboss the paper.

He handed it to me, and I knew without a word I was dismissed. In accordance with His Honor’s reluctance to waste words, I left without using any, the Sprang’s freedom and my bid for peace from them in my hand.

I started to head back to the Old Ruth and see if I could convince someone there to let me make my pitch to the Sprangs, lest Gertriss and Mama come to blows confined in such close quarters.

But the morning was gone, and my dealings with the Old Ruth in the past left me with the certainty that I’d need to be the first one through the doors to get the Sprangs out before Curfew. Poor Gertriss would have to hide under the covers one more day, and I’d be out more coins to the Hoogas for tonight.

Which isn’t the way running a business is supposed to work. I resolved to pay the Lethways a visit and see what I could glean concerning the whereabouts of missing groom Carris. But first, I’d need to see my client.

I hoofed it from the courthouse to Darla’s, glad of a cool day and a few clouds. She met me at her door with a kiss, finished up a conversation with a pair of chatty customers and finally hustled me into the back after putting Mary in charge of the sales floor.

“So tell me, intrepid finder of all things lost, what have you found for me today?”

By then, we’d said a proper good morning to each other, and were perched at a sewing table while the fringes of gowns hung down and tickled our heads.

“I found your Miss Tamar, and her mother and father, and of course the inimitable Mr. Tibbles,” I said. “Lovely people. Except Mr. Tibbles. He made rude comments about my hat.”

Darla shook her head in mock dismay. “I hear he wets the rugs too. Scandalous.”

I laughed. Darla frowned, though, and traced her fingertips down my cheek.

“There’s something else.” She wasn’t asking a question.

I told her briefly about the Sprangs and the mess they’d brought from Pot Lockney. I hadn’t intended to tell Gertriss’s story, too, but it all came out. Darla nodded, as though she’d known it all along, and it’s entirely possible she had.

“A few nights in the Old Ruth ought to have them ready to run back home,” she said. “Now why not tell me what’s really bothering you.”

Can’t put one past that woman. Someday I’ll learn not to try.

“Took a ride yesterday,” I whispered, Angels know why, sound barely carried in that room filled with hanging clothes and bolts of fabric. “Black carriage. No horses.”

Darla just took my hand. “Will we ever be free of it?”

I knew the answer to that. It’s no. But I didn’t speak it to Darla.

“What did he want?”

And the weight of that question-What will you tell Darla? — fell full upon me.

“Not the time or the place.” Darla’s doorbell rang. Feet began to shuffle on the sales floor outside. “But don’t worry. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“Liar.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

Mary poked her head inside, asked for Darla.

“Go,” I said. “I’m off to find this missing groom. See you tonight? After work?”

“Indeed you will, Mr. Markhat.” She kissed me on my forehead. “And bring your mouth. You’ll need it to talk.”

I forced a smile. She saw right through it, but she squeezed my hands in parting and let me go my way.

Traffic was picking up. A dead wagon rattled right past me, heavy laden with the night’s pale leavings. The Regent has ordered the wagons covered now, and I was glad of it. Word was the number of bodies hauled daily to the crematoriums was on the increase. Soon there’d be grumbles about halfdead and the Truce. And then there’d be a spectacular murder or rumors of another range war out West and the halfdead and their Curfew-breaking victims would be forgotten.

Until the rumors start up again.

It’s an old tradition, in Rannit. Grumbling. And quickly forgetting.

I shook off my reverie and headed downtown. I planned to walk as far as Northridge and then hail a cab to the Hill. It was time to beard the Lethways in their opulent lair, and employ my clever ruse to trick them into revealing the whereabouts of their only son Carris.

I was hoping the walk would promote the formulation of my clever ruse. A block later, I hadn’t made any progress in that regard, which meant my entire plan of attack centered around the words “Hello, I’m Markhat, where pray tell is that son of yours?”

I was so engrossed in my machinations mental it was another block before the tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose, and it dawned on me that I was the object of a stranger’s sudden, intense attention.

I didn’t turn and look. That’s the kind of stunt that ends with bloody noses or worse. I watched glass shop-fronts until I identified my interested stranger and satisfied myself that he was working alone.

I cussed out loud and drew a sour look from a little old lady in a veiled dowager’s hat.

The kid was a Sprang.

Not even a full-grown Sprang. He might have been ten at the most. Ten, and wandering around Rannit clad in homespun burlap and mismatched shoes.

He was filthy. His hair was wild and matted. The dirt was so thick on his face I could see it plain in a dim reflection. The streaks in the dirt must have been from tears.

Hell. The kid had been out all night. After Curfew, outside, with hungry halfdead roaming the streets.

I almost repented of my plan to set the elder Sprangs free. They’d not said a word about a kid.

I didn’t want to snatch the kid there on the street. Even the most sessile Watchman would probably come out swinging at the screams of a child, in this part of town, in broad daylight.

So I circled back, hoping the kid was so lost already he wouldn’t realize I was taking him back to Cambrit. I kept a nice slow pace, making sure he didn’t lose me. If he knew he’d been spotted, he didn’t let it show.

I bought a bag of biscuits from a pushcart vendor on Rains. The kid hid behind a fence and watched me through the cracks. I paused to tie my shoe on Borom. The kid nearly got himself run over by an ogre and his cart.

By the time I’d hiked back to Cambrit, he was stumbling along, exhausted, either not realizing he was back where he started or just too tired to care.

I slowed and let him catch up. I slowed more, and he kept coming.

In the end, I just caught him up under his arms and hefted him over my shoulder. He didn’t even cry.

The Hoogas dipped their eyes in greeting as I approached. “Delivery for Mama Hog,” I said, loud enough to be heard inside.

Mama’s door rattled, and she poked her head out.

“Boy!”

“Indeed it is,” I said, passing by her and depositing the limp Sprang on her table. I patted him down for knives, found a single thin, worn blade, and handed it to Mama.

“Another Sprang, I believe. Followed me all the way downtown. Looks like he’s been out all night.”

Mama gobbled, her face reddening with the same anger I’d felt.

“Wash him. Feed him when he’s awake. If he wants to leave, fine, but remind him what happens around here at night.”

“I ain’t runnin’ no orphanage.”

“He’s not an orphan. Yet. Here are some biscuits. I’ll be back before dark.”

Gertriss opened her door, and I waved and winked then I was outside and away.

I took a cab, this time. I’d walked in a big circle and wasted a lot of time, and I still had the Lethways to face.

If there were more Sprangs lurking about, they didn’t make themselves evident. The bridge clowns capered and mocked me as the cab clattered over the Brown River Bridge. I must have looked somber because they adopted furrowed brows and pursed lips and puffed out their cheeks. I tossed them a few coppers as the cab left the bridge, and hoped some of the superstition about clowns and good luck lingered on.

I’d abandoned any pretense of cleverness. I simply didn’t know enough about the Lethways to even guess at a tack. My best option was an old favorite-keep the conversation going for as long as possible, and hope something useful is revealed along the way.

I knew I’d be lucky if I even managed to sit across from an actual Lethway. If Tamar hadn’t managed to get past the butlers, my chances were slim indeed.

The cabbie wound his ponies up the Hill. We passed House Avalante, where my friend Evis lay sleeping, deep in his dark, cool crypt.

I knocked the dust off my hat and smoothed back my hair and waved at Evis, though I knew he couldn’t see.

The Lethways have a big new house three-quarters of the way up the Hill. Their blood oaks are maybe half the age and size of those that shade Avalante, so rather than lurk in the shadows, House Lethway gleamed in the bright midday sun.

It was modest, as Hill houses go. A mere three stories tall. But it had the usual high swooping slate-tile roofs and ornate leaded glass windows. There were, however, no Old Kingdom turrets, no mock crenellations along the eaves, no pretense of garrison gates where the rather plain front door stood.

And no guardhouse, and no ogres, and no dark-suited toughs with wary eyes and broad shoulders idling about, either.

I paid the cabbie, tipped him generously, and suggested he might earn another handsome fee by swinging back this way in an hour. Then I adjusted the tilt of my hat and marched toward the front door, my face set in what I hoped was an expression of forthright determination.

I didn’t get the chance to knock. I was two full strides from the Lethway’s door when it opened and a pair of stalwart gentleman sauntered out.

They wore dark suits. Their eyes were wary. Their shoulders were broad.

They weren’t quite ogres, but they weren’t far from it, either.

“Good day, gentlemen.” I stopped, rocked back on my heels, clapped my hands together as though thrilled to be meeting such devoted youths.

The pair exchanged an exasperated glance. “Wedding business,” muttered one. His companion nodded.

Sometimes, fortune smiles.

I beamed and smiled my widest.

“Weddings are indeed my business,” I said. I put a lot of cheer into it. “Walter and Walter, florists extraordinaire. We’ve managed to secure ten dozen of the eastern white roses Miss Fields requested.” I fished in my jacket’s breast pocket and withdrew the papers, which would free the Sprangs but wouldn’t pass for a flower bill on close inspection. “If one of you gentlemen could sign for this…”

“Not going to be any wedding,” offered one worthy.

“Third one she’s sent up here this week. Crazy broad,” offered the other.

“You’ll get paid,” added the first, to me. “Take the money and forget it. There ain’t going to be a wedding, you got that?”

I adopted an expression of concern. “But, sirs, I spoke to the bride last evening-”

They turned and threw open the door. “Like I said, the House will pay your bill,” said one, beckoning me inside. “But just this once. You show up here again and it won’t go so good for you. You understand?”

I slipped my papers back in jacket and nodded, deciding that the floral agents of Walter and Walter probably had little experience in trading tough talk with House soldiers.

The pair of toughs led me across a marble-tiled foyer and into a sitting room that could have used at least one window. I spent a few moments idling there, listening to the House, unable to do more than catch a few muffled footsteps and hear a snatch of conversation I couldn’t begin to follow.

An older gentleman ushered me wordlessly from the tiny sitting room, down a hall with oak-paneled walls, and into a larger sitting room that had not one window but two. Portraits kept me company, three to a wall, scowling at me from beneath the powdered white wigs and ruffled collars popular in the years before the War. None looked happy. A loud clock ticked on a mantel.

By the time I reached my third sitting room and a middling comfortable couch with dragons worked into the wood frame and claw feet, I was fighting off yawns and hoping the grumbles from my stomach weren’t audible all the way outside. I’d spent more than an hour just ambling from room to room, and I was no closer to a Lethway than I had been at home in my bed.

I wondered if I’d been forgotten, then decided the servants were merely playing a game of let the money-grubbing tradesman waste his day. I wondered how many of the caterers and reception planners that Tamar sent to Lethway just gave up and left before collecting their fees.

I listened. If anyone was moving around nearby, they were doing so in sock feet, and I doubted that.

I rose, made sure my Avalante pin was plainly visible, and sauntered out of my sitting room and into the perilous bowels of Lethway itself.

The House was quiet. If bustling was being done, it was being done elsewhere. I picked a hallway at random, ambled down it, found a flight of stairs leading up, took to them. I met an older gentleman clad in a butler’s black tails halfway up the first flight. I saw his eyes cut to my Avalante pin and then cut away.

I picked halls at random, left closed doors shut, ventured into a couple of open ones. The second floor was surprisingly empty, aside from servant’s quarters and a couple of unfinished guest rooms. I did find a family portrait-Mom and Dad Lethway, he much older than she, flanking a ten-year-old kid who must have been Carris.

No dirt on his face. No straw hat on his head. My, what a difference a few dozen copper mines make.

I ran out of things to explore, so I gathered my nerves and took to the final flight of stairs leading up.

At the top, voices and footfalls sounded. A woman laughed. Glassware tinkled. Knife and fork clattered on a plate.

Lunchtime. I headed away from the sounds and the smells, preferring to lurk a few more moments.

I wish I could claim I followed the pattern of wear on the floors or discovered Carris’s room by recognizing the patina on his doorknob as only a man his height would make. But the truth is I was guessing, and I opened every door that wasn’t locked, and his was the third one I tried.

Tamar’s picture, painted by someone with talent, hung on his wall. There was a pile of fabrics and fake silk flowers heaped on his dresser. Beside the pile was a notepad, just like the ones I use, and on it were scribbled notes.

Red fireflowers for grooms, read one entry. Yellow for rest.

Below that was Meet bev. supplier tomorrow noon.

I flipped through the pad, found more of the same.

“You missed that meeting, didn’t you?” I said. “I wonder why.”

I poked through the rest of the room, found nothing suggestive of a man planning a panicked flight away from the jaws of impending matrimony. What I did find, hidden in the far corner of the topmost sockdrawer, was a box that held a golden ring.

Tamar’s ring. I’m no jeweler, but I’m no infant, either. A man on the run could sell that ring for a quarter of its worth and still finance a very long trip. The fact that he hadn’t sold it told me he hadn’t planned on leaving at all.

I put the ring back where I found it, smoothed the bedcovers where I’d rumpled them, put everything as it had been. Then I put my ear to his door and listened for footfalls outside.

It was quiet. I opened the door and stepped outside and closed it behind me.

No one saw, shouted or rushed toward me with a club.

I was so happy I could have whistled.

But I didn’t. I patted my Avalante brooch and straightened my collar and decided that since Lady Luck was smiling I’d see if she’d join me for lunch.

I marched down the hall, all pretense of sneaking gone. Why sneak? I was a friend of House Avalante, and a lunch guest at Lethway. If any mere butler dared question my presence I’d show him the bottom of my nose.

I managed to locate the dining room by following the smells. The door was ajar, and from the hustle and bustle of servants and carts I gathered I’d nearly missed lunch.

I opened the door and stepped inside. A butler whirled to face me, his sudden expression of haughty offense marred by the full mouth of mashed potatoes he was struggling to swallow.

“I hope I’m not too late,” I said, before he could speak. “I was told downstairs there would be fried chicken. I prefer white meat.”

Lady Luck wasn’t just smiling but laughing and drinking straight from the bottle. A black-haired maid started filling a plate with chicken.

The butler fell into a fit of coughing. I breezed past him and helped myself to an empty glass and a pitcher of tea.

“Green beans, too, that’s a dear.” She smiled and piled them high.

Somewhere in the coughing fit, I suppose the butler spied my Avalante pin, because he tottered off to cover his mouth, waving the maids on as he turned. I grinned and grabbed a dinner roll. It was buttered and warm.

The maid pulled a chair out for me, and I plopped onto it.

“Too bad the meeting ran long. I was looking forward to lunch with the family.” I tore into the chicken.

“Oh, sir, the Lady never takes her lunch here anymore,” quoth the younger of the two maids. “Dines in her rooms, you know. Hardly leaves them, these days.”

“Hush, Margaret,” said the other, eyeing me with something like suspicion. “Fetch the gentleman a napkin.”

“This is good,” I said, between mouthfuls. “Someone here knows her business.”

“And what business brings you here, sir?” asked the suspicious maid. I pretended to wipe an errant crumb off my lapel, in case she hadn’t seen my brooch.

“Morris ram stabilizers,” I replied. Bits of Rafe’s conversation with Evis crept back to me. “Did you know that straight-bore mining drills wear out after only eighteen days? But not with a pair of Morris stabilizers on the forepins. They’ll go twenty-six days, or better. Factor that in with the savings in site idle time and wages spent on repairs, and you’ll see an overall boost to your profits of nearly one and a quarter percent over any six-month period. And I don’t have to tell you how much that means in profits over the life of a copper mine.”

I did not, in fact, have to tell her anything of the sort, because she gathered up a stack of plates and stomped from the room. Whether she’d bought my line of mining lore or was off to fetch the headsman I didn’t know.

Margaret of the inky-black locks grinned and poured me more tea.

“My father was a miner,” she said in a whisper. “I grew up around mines. There’s no such thing as a ram stabilizer, is there?”

“There probably ought to be,” I whispered back. “Are you going to scream for the Watch?”

“Depends. Are you here to help or hurt?”

I swallowed and met her eyes squarely.

“I’m here to bring Carris Lethway home.”

She just nodded and gathered plates.

“End of the hall. Take a right. Next time, a left. Third door on the right. Be gentle. She’s a nice lady. Just sick with worry.”

“Worry about Carris?”

She didn’t answer. She scooped up plates and fled, leaving me alone with a table-full of scraps.

I did linger and finish my chicken. I’m sure that illuminated a deep-seated flaw in my soul, but, as I said, it was good chicken.

Chapter Seven

I counted doors. One, two, three.

Outside door number three sat a silver platter.

Someone hadn’t touched her lunch.

I paused, listened, heard nothing.

So I knocked.

“Mrs. Lethway?”

I barely heard the muffled reply.

“Mrs. Lethway? May I speak to you, please?”

“Go ’way.”

I winced. The Lady might have missed her meal, but she wasn’t wanting for drink. Not just a dainty sip for milady, either. I could smell whiskey through the door.

“It’s about Carris, Lady. Please.”

“My Carris? Where is he? Is he alive?”

I heard hurried footsteps behind the door and then fumblings with the latch.

Fumblings, and then a soft thud, as though a wife-sized body sank slowly to the floor.

And then snoring.

I cussed. So close. I tried a few more times to rouse the sotted Mrs. Lethway, but to no avail.

Lady Luck seldom smiles all day.

I hadn’t been able to ask Mrs. Lethway a single question, but she’d managed to answer the most important one of all.

I took off my Avalante brooch once I hit the first floor landing. Few of Rannit’s florists were also associates of the Dark Houses.

I passed servants going about their duties and got nothing but nods and smiles. I found my most recent sitting room, heard voices inside, and hesitated for the barest fraction of a second. I’d gotten what I came for, and the front door was just strides away and unguarded, but Darla had given me the hat I’d left on a hook in that room and I was loathe to leave it.

The door was ajar. I stepped through it, not smiling.

The pair of stalwarts who first met me at the door glared and converged on me.

“Where have you been?” demanded the largest.

I made the same huffing noise deep in my throat that I’d seen barkeep Eddie make at customers who dared hint that his glasses could use a wash. When that was not met with violence, I snapped my fingers under the bulky man’s nose.

“I was left waiting-me, left waiting! — in this room for hours,” I said. “Hours! I was forced to seek out a water closet. The hospitality of your House, sir, is nothing short of brutal.” I poked him in the chest with my finger. His face went purple with suppressed rage. “You may inform the groom he will need to seek the services of another florist. Do you hear? I will not stand for rudeness. Walter and Walter has a long history of being retained by the finest families in Rannit for their nuptial floral needs. We have no need of your sort of coin, no need at all. Good day, sir.”

With that, I turned, snatched my hat off the hook, and marched for the door.

The other man darted ahead of me and opened it for me and slammed it behind me.

I squinted in the sunlight. I was unthrashed, well fed and immaculately hatted. I had learned that Carris’s mother knew nothing of his whereabouts and feared him dead.

Not a bad morning’s work, for a humble wedding florist.

My cabbie was long gone, leaving me to hoof it back down the Hill in the hope an empty one would rattle along before I developed blisters on my heels.

The green and pleasant lawns of the Hill kept me company as I walked. The shade was generous and cool. The Houses, all set well back from the street, were quiet and stately, whether they housed murderous halfdead or Rannit’s living rich.

You’d think walking down the Hill would be easy. And it is, at first, but any long walk on an incline becomes difficult after a while. Especially if the walker has been spending too much time behind desks and various restaurant tables of late.

I’d worked up a sweat before I was even a quarter of the way down, and still no friendly cabs drew near. By the halfway point, I was mincing and hopping and my visit-the-rich-folks shoes were reminding me with every step they were neither broken in nor made for long downhill hikes.

So when the peaked roofs of Avalante rose above the blood-oaks, I put my brooch back on and mopped the sweat from my face and decided my dignity could withstand a bit of begging for a ride downtown. I wouldn’t trouble Evis, of course, who would still be deep in his vampire slumber, but I was known to enough of the daytime staff to make the occasional nuisance of myself.

And so it was that I crossed the Brown River Bridge for the second time that day aboard one of Avalante’s many carriages. The bridge clowns gave us wide berth, as they do all of the Dark Houses. I waved at them anyway and got obscene gestures back for my troubles.

My driver, a taciturn older gentleman named Halbert, struck a clown square in the face with the core of the apple he’d been munching on when we left. The clowns applauded and bowed.

“Good throw,” I shouted.

“Thankee.”

I thought for a moment. “Drop me off at the corner of Harold and Skinner, will you?”

I’d told him to head for the offices of Lethway Mining when we’d left Avalante. Now I was having second thoughts about being seen arriving in a cab bearing Avalante’s crest. I doubted the Lethway patriarch was going to be pleased by my visit, and there was no need to drag Evis into this.

“Whatever you say.”

We rattled off the bridge, and I settled back and gathered my thoughts.

Seeing a man like Mr. Lethway is no easy task. He employs a building full of secretaries and assistants and managers just to make sure he seldom actually sees anyone himself.

When I passed through his doors, I was still unsure of which words I would speak to the smiling young woman perched behind the slab of polished granite that took up half the room. The walls were dark oak, recently polished with something that contained lemon juice. The floors were marble. The potted plants in the corners probably earned a higher wage than half of Rannit would ever see.

A bent little man in a fancy footman’s outfit closed the doors behind me. “Welcome, sir,” he said, his voice barely audible. “May I take your hat?”

“You may indeed,” I said. My smile would have dazzled, had there been enough light. “Thank you.”

I crossed to the desk while my hat was slowly conveyed to a row of gold hooks on the wall. Judging by the number of hats already hanging there, Lethway Mining was having a busy day.

“Good afternoon.” I rested my elbows on the granite desk and leaned down a bit. The girl behind the desk smiled, but it was a practiced, neutral smile, and I suspected she wore it all day, whether I was standing there or not.

“Good afternoon.” Her voice was as smooth and as practiced as her smile. “With whom is your appointment?”

“I’m here to speak with Mr. Lethway. My name is Markhat.”

Her smile never wavered. Her eyes did, lowering, inspecting some document I couldn’t see.

“I won’t be on your list.” I lowered my voice to conspiratorial whisper. “This is a private matter.”

“I’m sure it is, Mr. Markhat. But this is a place of business, and if you don’t have an appointment, I’m afraid Mr. Lethway isn’t available. Good day.”

“Has anyone told you lately you have lovely eyes?”

“My husband. Twice a day. Simmons will fetch your hat.”

“Tell Simmons to hold on for just a moment. Mr. Lethway needs to see me, even though he doesn’t know it yet. This is important.”

She sighed. Her eyes were indeed lovely, but they weren’t softening.

“Important or not, no appointment means Simmons fetches your hat.”

Someone tapped me on my shoulder. I hadn’t heard anyone approach. I turned my head, and marveled that a man so big could move so quietly.

“Does dis man have an appointment, Miss Marchin?”

“He does not.”

“Den why is he still here, Miss Marchin?”

“He was just saying goodbye. Weren’t you, Mr. Markhat?”

I straightened, nice and slow, so no ham-fisted giants in my vicinity would misinterpret my action as preparatory to rudeness.

“I was indeed. Good day, Miss Marchin. Give my best to Mr. Marchin and all the little Marchins.”

“Simmons has your hat,” spoke the giant. “Dat’s him. By the door. You have the nice day.”

Indeed, the grizzled Simmons was standing by the door, my hat clutched in his shaking hand. His grin was small but spiteful.

I turned to face the behemoth behind me.

He was a full head taller than me, and then some. He’d clearly left his neck in his other shirt, possibly because there wasn’t room on a single human frame for a neck and those shoulders. His chest bulged, and not from fat. His arms were more ogre than human.

He had short, black hair slicked back with oil and a crooked, flat nose and much to my surprise, all of his teeth, which gleamed a pearly white.

His eyes were neither dim nor close-set. I even fancied I could see humor there.

“My name is Markhat,” I said, adjusting my tie. “Who might you be?”

“I might be da pleasant gentleman what shows you polite-like to the door, or I might be da man who picks you up and throws you through it,” he said, still smiling. “Who do you want me to be?”

“Look. You’ve both got me all wrong. I’m not a salesman. I’m not a mooch. I need to see Mr. Lethway on an urgent private matter, and-”

“Den I’ll be the second one,” said the giant.

He put his hands under my arms and picked me up before I could say another word.

I could have done a couple of things, in that moment. I could have boxed his ears, for instance. Or poked my fingers in his eyes. Or kicked him in the groin. Yes indeed, I could have dealt out any number of crushing blows, since his hands were occupied and I was facing him in close quarters.

But I didn’t. Mainly because my ribs were bending double and he’d squeezed the breath out of me.

But also because he winked.

So I deigned to allow myself to be carried unceremoniously from the downtown offices of Lethway Mining. As we passed Simmons, I did manage to reach out and grab my hat, which I stuck jauntily on my head.

I waved to Miss Marchin, who did at least wave back, and my giant took a pair of steps into the street so the door could shut before he put me down on my feet.

Passers-by laughed and pointed. I adjusted my jacket and caught my breath.

“I hope you’ll forgive that, Mr. Markhat.”

“Oh, I enjoyed it. My thanks for not throwing me over your shoulder. That would have been undignified.”

He laughed.

“I know who you are. Markhat the finder. Why would you be wanting to speak to the boss?”

“No offense, but that’s between him and me. And speaking of names, I missed yours.”

“Dey calls me Pratt.”

“What’s with the dey and the den?”

He shrugged. “It suits the character. People are more comfortable with big dumb men than big smart ones. I like to keep people comfortable.”

“My ribcage disagrees. Look. If you’re as smart as I think you are, you already know why I need to see your boss. Can we leave it at that?”

He regarded me for a long moment.

“You have a reputation, Mr. Markhat. So I’ll arrange something. But not here. Somewhere private. You know the Troll’s Den?”

“Fancy cigar place? Off Trotline?”

“The very same. Can you be there tonight, around Curfew?”

“I can do that.”

“Den we’ll see you dere. You have the nice day.” He turned, opened the doors, and shouted over his shoulder. “And don’t be comin’ round no more. You ain’t welcome.”

I turned on my heel, managed to fill my lungs with a wheeze and a cough, and marched away with my head held high.

I didn’t march home, though. I decided I’d sample another cup of good Fields coffee and see if I could find Tamar. She wasn’t my client, technically, but keeping her informed seemed like a good way to keep my actual client happy.

The walk to the bakery wasn’t a long one. I got there well after the lunch rush and well before the pre-Curfew scramble for supper, which meant there were a half-dozen diners scattered about the place, talking in groups of two over steaming cups of coffee or tea.

Mr. Fields was behind the counter. He looked up when the bell attached to the door rang, saw me and failed to break out into a warm welcoming smile.

“She’s not here,” he said. “Not going to be here, either.”

I settled onto a stool right across from him just as Mr. Tibbles yapped from the kitchen.

Mr. Fields shrugged and cussed. “Damn that animal.”

“Causing you grief is not my intention, you know.”

He set a cup of coffee before me and turned away.

“I’m just trying to find out what happened to your daughter’s fiance. I know you don’t like the young man. But I suspect he’s in trouble.”

“If he is, he’s in it because the Lethways themselves are trouble. I don’t want my daughter taking their name, finder. If she does, trouble is going to find her too.”

He’d spoken so softly I’d barely heard him.

“Sounds like you know more than I do.”

“What’s this going to cost me?”

I leaned in closer, lost.

“I don’t follow.”

“How much will it cost me to have you let this go, finder? How much will it take to make you go away, and let things settle down on their own?”

“I don’t like talking to your back.”

He turned.

“I don’t like talking to you. At all.” Something like menace blossomed on his puffy face. “Name your price. Or maybe you’ll find trouble yourself. Real soon.”

I took a swallow of coffee and dropped a couple of coppers on the counter.

“Needs sugar.”

“I mean it.”

“So do I.” I raised my voice. “Tamar? Miss Fields?”

From the kitchen came a renewed yapping, and then Tamar popped through the swinging doors, Mr. Tibbles struggling and growling in her grasp.

“Mr. Markhat. I was hoping you’d drop by. Say hello, Mr. Tibbles.”

The mutt bared his teeth and growled.

“He’s warming up to me. Care to take a stroll? We need to talk.”

“Of course. I was just leaving anyway. Goodbye, Father. See you at home.”

She planted a kiss on Mr. Field’s flushed cheeks, and I escorted her through the door, feeling her father’s glare on my back with each step.

I mourned my last cup of his coffee, because I’d not dare drink another. My palate is overly sensitive to hemlock.

Tamar’s breathless narrative continued all the way to a sidewalk cafe a full two blocks from her father’s listening ears. Along the way, I learned that she despised trumpets but adored flutes, that she felt this season’s hats were far too enamored of lace, and that Mr. Tibbles was experiencing one of his frequent bouts with gas.

The latter I didn’t need notification thereof, since most of the walk put me downwind of Mr. Tibbles.

I took us to a table and sent the waiter away with orders for hot tea and a plate of cookies. “Nothing with nuts, please,” added Tamar. “They’ll just make Mr. Tibbles worse.”

The waiter nodded, as though the dietary habits of Tamar’s dog were common knowledge among Rannit’s finer eateries.

“Now then,” she said as the waiter hurried off. “Tell me what you’ve learned.”

I told it all. I did neglect to mention the bribe her father had offered me, or the threat he’d made when I’d refused it. Both could wait, hopefully forever.

Hot tea and cookies arrived. I sipped the tea, and remembered my huffing and puffing of late, and let the pastries go. Tamar dived in and ate four, and Mr. Tibbles polished off the rest.

“So you’re breaking Curfew tonight,” she said. “Where?”

“A place that caters to Curfew breakers. The name doesn’t matter. The fact that Lethway wants to talk is all that’s important.”

“How do you know the Colonel will come? You didn’t speak to him, but to that large person.”

I shook my head. “Men like Lethway don’t let their hirelings arrange their social schedules. He knew I would be coming around. He had Pratt watching out for me.”

“How could he have known that?”

“I’ll ask him when I see him.”

Tamar laughed. “You don’t much like the man, and you haven’t even met him yet. Men are so funny. How do you keep from killing each other, all the time?”

“Good question. Mainly we don’t because it’s a lot of work. Now. How many florists and caterers and tailors have you sent up the Hill, Miss Fields? They weren’t surprised to find another one on their doorstep.”

“I’m only sending them the ones any groom’s family would traditionally pay for. And they’ve paid them all, Mr. Markhat. That in itself is significant, is it not?”

“It might be.” I was thinking Lethway gladly paid them just to avoid scandal. Tamar was convinced they were paying them because the wedding was still on. I couldn’t share her enthusiasm, but I saw no need to wound her, either.

“I’m going to make a couple of assumptions now, Miss. You aren’t going to like them. But I need you to consider them, even so.”

“Carris has been kidnapped, is that what you mean?”

I nodded.

“I’m also going to assume that the kidnapper or kidnappers may have reached out to more than just the Lethways,” I said. “It’s possible they might also have demanded payment from the father of the bride.”

Tamar’s eyes went wide, and for the briefest of instants, she was silent.

“Oh my.”

“Oh my is right. Think carefully. Has your father’s attitude toward Carris always been hostile, or has it taken a sudden turn for the worse? If so, when?”

She thought. She bit her lower lip and Angels bless her, she thought carefully before she replied.

“Oh my.”

“Tell me.”

“When we first started walking out, Father was…cold. He didn’t want to hear me talk about Carris. He didn’t want him coming around. But he was at least civil. Civil but no more. When we announced our engagement, he was the same. Mother said he was just sad at losing his little girl. We thought he’d get over it. And of course he’s always hated the Lethways.”

“Why? Why hate the Lethways?”

Tamar shook her head. “Something about the Army. Father was in the same regiment, the last two years of the War. He used to rail about what an incompetent officer Lethway was whenever the name came up. But isn’t that what soldiers do? Hate their commanders?”

“Universally. But I can’t recall half their names. Seems like your Father knew Lethway well. Did they serve together directly?”

“No. Dad was a cook. Lethway was a Colonel.”

“Why indeed. All right. Your father hates all things Lethway, and he was none too thrilled when you decided to take their name. But there’s something else, isn’t there?”

“I hope not.” Even Mr. Tibbles had the sense to fall quiet. “But one morning I came in early. We weren’t open yet, didn’t even have the ovens ready. But there was a man with Dad, and they stopped talking when I came in, and the man left. Dad seemed angry, but he said it was a tax collector trying to double-dip.”

“Go on.”

“Later that day, Mother mentioned something about the wedding and Dad threw a plate of coffee cups against the wall. I had my back turned, Mr. Markhat, but I knew he didn’t just drop them. It was so loud. And his expression was so angry. Mr. Markhat-do you think they asked for money, and Father said no?”

I put my hand on hers. Mr. Tibbles bared his teeth, but I bared mine back and he wisely let it go.

“If he did say no, Miss, that was the right thing to do. It might even buy us time.”

“But-”

“You can bet they visited Lethway too. And you can bet he didn’t turn them down. They were just taking the chance they could double their profit without any extra work, Miss. That’s all. I’m sure Carris didn’t suffer for it. If it happened at all.”

“Why would Father do such a thing?”

“He’s watching out for you, Miss. Please don’t forget that. And for Heaven’s sake please don’t go accusing him of anything. This is assumption. It’s probably not even true.”

“You think it is. Tell me you don’t.”

“I think it’s possible. That’s all. And it doesn’t much matter, unless it helps me learn who’s making the demands.”

“Will you ask Father?”

“When the time is right. At the moment, he’d probably show me the underside of his boots. I’m not very popular with him right now either.”

Tamar laughed a sad little laugh. “Is Father going to hate all the men in my life, forever?”

“He sure will. Often with reason. But that’s just the way of the world, Miss. Like you said, men are funny.”

“I suppose. So. What’s next?”

“I meet with your future father-in-law tonight. See what I can shake loose.”

“Isn’t that dangerous? Going around after Curfew, I mean?”

“Vampires never bite finders, Miss. We taste of sunlight and purity.”

She laughed. “I see why Darla likes you. She does, you know. When are you going to set a date? You’re already engaged. You haven’t been kidnapped.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” I rose, remembering pressing appointments elsewhere. “I’ll find you tomorrow.”

“How about lunch, right here?”

I shook my head. “It’ll be much later. Where will you be at quitting time?”

“Home. Come around to the back yard. I’ll be in the garden, unless it’s raining.”

I tipped my hat. Mr. Tibbles awoke and yapped at me, his little-rat teeth bared and menacing.

I did indeed have errands to run. I took a pair of cabs hither and yon, and was down to my last silver half-crown by the time I made it home.

My door beckoned. Beyond it lay a bed, of sorts, and some peace and quiet. I had strong suspicions I wouldn’t see much of either for a while.

But I’d left Mama saddled with a miniature Sprang, and though the Hoogas still stood watch on her doors, I decided I’d better poke my head in and at least make sure Mama and Gertriss hadn’t started wrestling yet.

The Hoogas greeted me with ogre eye-dips, and I managed to ascertain that they’d bashed no heads that day. I listened, didn’t hear screeching, and knocked.

Mama came to the door and peeked through the crack.

“Boy,” she whispered. “I’ve got this lot to sleep. Keep your voice down.”

I slipped inside.

Mama had every candle she owned lit and smoking. The aroma was thick and floral. I gagged and made a face.

Mama handed me a wet rag. “Put this under your nose, else you’ll get sleepy too.”

I shoved it over my mouth. It had no odor, but it did render the candle-scent far less potent.

“Mama?”

“All that yellin’ and screamin’ was upsettin’ my nerves,” she whispered. “Sounded like a war in here. Even got Buttercup riled, and she nearly cut loose with one of them howls of hers. I didn’t have no choice.”

“Who was screaming?”

“That Sprang child. Screaming bloody murder. I ain’t never heard the like, boy.”

“He wasn’t making a sound when I left him here.”

“Well, he got good and loud after you left. Hollerin’ for his daddy. Hollerin’ for his brothers. Hollerin’ as loud as he could and fightin’ and clawin’ for all he was worth.”

“What set him off?”

Mama sighed. “Boy, I just don’t know. I set him down with a bowl of soup-good soup, mind ye-and Gertriss wiped his face off and I put a spoon in his fool Sprang hand. And then he went to screamin’ and fightin’. Had to get a Hooga to snatch him up and put him in a bed.”

“He was out all night. Maybe something he saw scared him out of his wits?”

“Sprangs ain’t born with much in the way of wits. But maybe, boy. I tell you I just don’t know. But something ain’t right with that child.”

“You mean aside from being a Sprang.”

“That’s what I means. I ain’t sure yet. But I’m brewing up a special hex, boy. Something that ought to let me see if’n mine ain’t the only hex riding this here child.”

I forgot and lowered my rag.

“You think the kid is ensorcelled? Mama, what the Hell. He’s just a bumpkin kid.”

Mama pushed my rag back up under my nose.

“I don’t know nothing of the sort. Yet. I’m just sayin’ I think I smells a hex. On a child. I tell you this, boy-if somebody has hexed that there baby I’m goin’ to have their gizzard in a bag, and no mistake.”

“What kind of hex, Mama?”

“I won’t know nothin’ ’til I’m done, boy.”

“When will that be?”

“Not ’til after mornin’.”

I cussed.

“Listen, boy, what else am I supposed to do? I gots a banshee and a hexed devil-child and a headstrong niece all under my roof at once. They was about to tear the walls down. You ain’t here to help.”

“No, I’m out trying to resolve this mess. Which I’ve got a start on.” I showed Mama the papers from the Judiciary. “Going to get them out first thing in the morning.”

Mama muttered. It was neither flattering nor supportive.

“Thanks, Mama. How long can you keep them asleep?”

“The young ’un, all day and all night. Gertriss and Buttercup will be stirrin’ any minute now. You’d best git, unless you want a good earful from your partner about how she ought to be out and about and so forth.”

I stood. Mama glared up at me.

“I’ll be out most of the night. Tell Gertriss not to worry.”

Mama just grunted. I got out of there before anyone awoke and resumed howling bloody murder.

Chapter Eight

I hoofed it back to my office after a conversation with Mr. Bull. I took off my shoes and laid out fresh socks and a shirt. Then I fed Three-leg and enjoyed a two-hour nap. I didn’t waste any time pondering who’d hexed the Sprang’s youngest urchin, or why-the night would hold far more pressing perils, and even those I shoved aside.

So I did manage to doze until Mr. Bull began to pound on my door at the appointed hour.

“I’m up,” I yelled. The pounding ceased, and his shadow fell away from my door.

I rose, gathered up my toiletries and clothes, and headed for the bathhouse. I was breaking Curfew with the rich folks, and it wouldn’t do to appear as anything but well dressed and groomed.

Too, I had another stop to make at Darla’s. I’d be cutting our date short, and she wasn’t going to like that. And I’d be breaking Curfew, and she’d like that less.

But the things I wasn’t going to do or say were going to be regarded as the worst insult of all. I couldn’t help it. There wasn’t going to be time for a long talk, much less time to break the news about my new position in the Corpsemaster’s secret army.

So I bathed in a hurry and bought yellow fireflowers along the way. Then in a fit of desperation I bought a box of fancy chocolates sealed with a red silk ribbon. The cab driver grinned.

“You’ve either done something, or you’re about to do something; which is it?”

“Both,” I replied.

“You should have bought roses.”

I gave him Darla’s address. He took the hint and shut up.

The ride to Darla’s was brief. I spent the time glaring at the fireflowers and thinking the cabbie was right. I was delaying the inevitable, and I knew it, but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with any way around it.

Drafted. It didn’t seem real. But the black carriage was waiting, and one day soon it would come for me again, and I might be brought home or I might find myself counting skulls out of boredom with the lads at the Battery.

Darla deserved better.

Then why have you waited? asked a snide little voice. All that time wasted. Now it might be too late.

I shoved the thought aside and cussed. The cab rolled to a halt, and I gathered my flowers and my box of fancy chocolates and clambered out.

Darla popped out of her door while I was fumbling with coins for the driver. She was wearing a high-necked brown top that had flower-shaped brass buttons and new black pants and shoes so shiny I knew they’d never been worn. She was dressed to go out, but she saw the flowers and the candy and her face fell.

Just a bit, only for an instant, but I saw and she saw me see and we wound up standing there on the sidewalk facing each while trying to decide who would speak first.

“For me?”

“For you,” I replied, offering up flowers and candy. “An apology for ruining your evening.”

“You haven’t ruined anything. These are beautiful. But we’re not going out, are we?”

“Sorry. No. Not tonight. I’ve got this client, see, and she expects results, and the only way I can get them is to meet certain people at a certain place at a certain time.”

She crossed her arms over her chest.

“This certain time is after Curfew.”

“I’m afraid so. No way around it, sweetheart. Some people can’t be negotiated with.”

“Did you try?”

“Darla. Honey. It’s your case I’m working on. I tried seeing old man Lethway during office hours and got tossed into the street. This is the only way.”

She sat on her stoop, her arms still crossed. Her hair tossed about in the evening breeze.

“So there’s no time to talk about your carriage ride either. How convenient.”

I couldn’t decide whether to sit or keep standing.

“I didn’t plan things this way. You know that.”

“Actually, Mr. Markhat, I’m not at all sure I know that at all. I’m beginning to think I don’t know a lot of things about us.”

“Darla, that’s not fair. It’s your case I’m working on. You asked me to do this.”

She brushed her hair back, but didn’t look at me.

“If it wasn’t a meeting after Curfew it would be something else.” She raised her hand when I started to protest. “I need to be a part of things. I need to be the first one you tell things, good or bad. I know you well enough to know something was said in Hisvin’s carriage. You’ve probably told Mama. You’ve probably told Evis. You could tell me right here, right now, probably in a hundred words or less. Why won’t you? Why?”

I didn’t answer right away. Even now, I have no idea what I was going to say; when I finally got my mouth open, but it was too late. Darla rose and darted up her steps and slammed her door behind her, leaving flowers and candy forlorn on her stoop.

I knocked, but my only response was the metallic clank of her sturdy door-bolts being thrown.

The cab that had dropped me off came rattling back down the street, heading in the opposite direction. He saw me standing there, saw the flowers and the candy on the stairs, and he rolled to a stop. Wisely, he didn’t say a damned word.

“You were wrong, by the way,” I said as I climbed back inside. “Roses wouldn’t have helped.”

I had the cab take me back by my place so I could pick up Toadsticker. I don’t take it to Darla’s-it’s just a reminder that my business doesn’t always involve pastries and friendly banter.

Darla’s words, and the hurt in her voice, haunted me all the way home. She was right.

And so was I. Which made fixing it difficult.

I didn’t pop back in at Mama’s. I didn’t hear any screaming or glass breaking, and the Hoogas appeared serene, so I just waved and darted in my place and came out with Toadsticker strapped to my waist, hidden under my long coat.

I had a sword on my belt, a knife in my boot and a pair of brass knuckles in my right pocket. The Avalante pin given to me by Evis was on my lapel. I was as ready as I could possibly be to break Curfew with a pair of well-heeled cigar aficionados who might decide during the conversation to reduce my number of functional appendages.

I caught myself glaring at passers-by. Damn it all, anyway. If Darla thought she was unhappy now, wait until she found out the truth.

I had the cab drop me a block from the cigar house. I found a bar and I planted my butt there until Curfew warning-two peals, silence, two more peals sounded, and the barkeep got red-faced and sputtered and finally worked up the nerve to ask me to leave. I plunged out into a street already nearly empty, aside from hurried figures shuttering windows and locking doors and looking furtively about as though they expected to be gobbled up by vampires in the next moment.

I unbuttoned my coat. I didn’t need to. Hell, the halfdead haven’t claimed a victim in the good part of town in years, but I was in a mood and I knew the sight of Toadsticker glittering in the lamplight would keep run-of-the-mill muggers away.

I found a shadowed alley across from the cigar joint and lurked there, waiting. The owners must be well connected, I decided, because they neither shuttered the windows nor turned down the lamps. I could see shapes moving about, but couldn’t discern much else through the curtains.

I waited until Curfew proper rang out, and then I crossed the empty street and marched up to the front doors.

They weren’t locked. I walked through, and a pair of uniformed kids took my coat. I was told I was expected and led down a long hall and into a room the size of a house.

It was paneled in walnut and the floors were covered in rugs and the fireplace at the far end was blazing. The room held a dozen people, sitting and speaking in hushed tones in four little bunches scattered throughout the cavernous room. There were no windows, and it was hot, and from the thick haze of smoke that surrounded Lethway and Pratt I gathered they’d spent the evening sitting too close to that unnecessary fire and puffing away on rich man’s tobacco.

Lethway was older than I’d expected, but trim and shaved and sitting bolt upright on a couch designed for slouching. He wore his white hair in an Army officer’s peel and his boots were officer issue and the walking cane leaning by his right knee was topped with the gold dragon’s head of the Sixth.

“Well, well,” said Lethway. His voice was strong and showed no hint of drink despite the half-empty bottle on the table beside him. “Mr. Markhat at last. We feared you discovered other appointments.”

“You said after Curfew. It’s after Curfew. I’m here.”

I sat across from Lethway. That left me facing both men, which wasn’t the perfect place to be if they decided to jump me, but I didn’t think they’d risk making a ruckus indoors with witnesses around.

Mr. Lethway nodded. A pair of waiters appeared and politely ushered everyone save a trio of well-dressed gentlemen and the three of us out. When the last waiter left, he locked the door behind him.

The three stragglers took up stations behind me. They did not sit. They did not speak.

They didn’t need to.

“So that’s the way it is.” There was a box of cigars at my elbow. I opened it, took one out, used the clippers on the table to snip off the end, and put it in my mouth. “Either of you gentlemen have a light?”

“Pratt. If you please.”

Pratt hefted his bulk from the couch with a grunt and fished in his pocket and produced a fancy sparking lighter. I leaned forward, and he stood close. His lighter rasped and sparked and I inhaled.

It was a good cigar. Not as good as the ones Evis gets, but close.

I blew out blue-grey smoke.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Don’t mention it.” Pratt sat back down.

“Tell me what you know, Mr. Markhat.”

“I know a great many things. Geography, for instance. Did you know the Brown River runs for one thousand, two hundred, and sixteen miles past Rannit before it reaches the Sea?”

His tanned face flushed. Pratt glanced Lethway’s way, waiting for some long-established hint.

“I came here to talk, Mr. Lethway. And I’ll be glad to tell you what little I know about your son’s disappearance. But bullying me isn’t a good way to start. I’ve been bullied by bigger and better, and frankly, you’ve lost your touch.”

He went full-on purple.

“You are insolent.”

“That I am. And you’re stubborn. Your only son has been kidnapped, and instead of trying to help the man who’s looking to bring him home you lock him in a room and make scary noises at him. That’s no way to be. Let’s start over, shall we? My name is Markhat. I have reason to believe your son Carris has been kidnapped. I’d like to find these people before they hurt Carris. This is a good cigar.”

His knuckles were white and his jaw worked silently but in the end, Lethway swallowed the urge to have me decapitated on the spot.

“I don’t want your help, Mr. Markhat. I don’t want anything to do with you. Carris is away on family business. He realized marrying that…commoner was a mistake. She is deluded, or greedy, or both.”

I shook my head. “She’s neither. And Carris is no more away on business than I am king of the ogres. But I’ll tell you something you don’t know, in a gesture of good faith. I think the kidnappers came to see Mr. Fields as well.”

He sputtered and lifted his empty glass and tried to drink from it. I shook my head.

“So you didn’t know that. Good. I’ve told you something you didn’t know. Why not do the same for me? He’s your son, Mr. Lethway. Trusting the kidnappers to keep their word may seem like the best plan, but I’m here to tell you they don’t often keep it. It’s too easy to just silence the only witness and head East with the money. Don’t let that happen.”

“Damn you. Stay out of this. What is it going to take? Money? I have money-more than you can imagine. Name your price. Name it, damn you, and go.”

“No. That isn’t going to happen, Mr. Lethway. Like it or not, I’m going to find your son. You can help. It won’t cost you a cent.”

He glared at me. “I don’t tolerate insolence. You had a chance to walk out of here a wealthy man. You turned that down. So be it. Pratt.”

Pratt stood. His expression was somber, almost apologetic.

“No blades. These are good rugs.”

Pratt nodded and cracked his knuckles.

“You’re going to murder me, right here?” I took a long puff of my cigar. “You never even offered me a drink. And here you are, making snide remarks about commoners. The cheek of you, man.”

Pratt moved.

So did I. I leaped to my feet and feinted left and darted right and managed two good steps before arms closed around my waist. Toadsticker’s scabbard has an open end, just for occasions such as that. I pulled him half-out and backed up and jammed the blade backwards, hard. Someone yelped and I shook him off and hit another man with my shoulder and charged toward the door.

Pratt was there, fists lashing out toward my midsection. I whirled and leaped and got tangled in someone’s feet and went down and got kicked. Toadsticker lashed out again, giving me time to get back up, and a sprint took me toward the door.

It was locked. I knew that. I put my back to it and held Toadsticker at the ready, low and level. Pratt and his three companions closed slowly in on me while Lethway kept his distance.

“You can’t take us all,” said Pratt. “Good try. But you ain’t leaving here. Why not make it easy on yourself?”

I started banging on the door and yelling.

“No one will answer, Mr. Markhat,” said Lethway. “You see, I own this establishment. No one else is here.”

He smiled a grim little smile.

And at that very moment, someone banged on the door from the other side, and replied to my shouts with shouts of their own.

“City Watch,” came a voice. “We have a warrant. Open this door or we break it down.”

“It’s locked,” I yelled back. “Break it down. Murder! Mayhem! Quickly, man, I’m a member of the Regency.”

And while Lethway goggled and sputtered, the Watch brought that door down, right at my back. I dropped Toadsticker as the door fell, and hoped like Hell I’d get him back.

A half-dozen Watchmen poured in, swords and crossbows at the ready, giving everyone a good Watch glare.

“How dare you,” began Lethway.

“Shut it, Pops,” barked a Watchman. “”We’ve got a warrant for a finder named Markhat.”

“That’s me,” I said, raising my arms. “I’m Markhat. Guilty as charged. Ready to pay my debt to society, officer.”

Pratt stifled a grin. A trickle of blood ran down the forehead of one of the men I’d tangled with. A second was clutching his stomach, where behind his hand a red stain grew. The Watch sergeant saw and spat on Mr. Lethway’s good rug in disgust.

“Take him. The rest of you lot. What the Hell was going on in here?”

“They were just showing me the error of my ways, Officer.”

“I am the owner of this establishment, Sergeant. My name is Lethway.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass what your name is, Pops, unless it’s on my warrant. Shut it. You.” He whirled me around while another man lowered my arms and fitted shackles on my wrists. “You are under arrest for the murder of a…” he looked down at his paper, “a Mr. Harry Tibbles, late of Barclay Street. You have the right to remain silent. I have the right to kick your ass all the way from here to the jailhouse if you give me trouble. Shut up and walk.”

I winked at Pratt as the Watch led me off to jail.

And so it was that the famous finder Markhat spent his first night in a modern Rannite jail.

The facilities, I must report, were less than amenable. The toilet consisted of a hole in the floor. The smell that issued from said void was persistent, indescribable and utterly inescapable.

My Avalante pin, my sword and my obvious genteel bearing did at least rate me a cell of my own. My neighbors on either side were crammed into their similar accommodation ten to a cell, and my special treatment was the source of the evening’s commentary. I have never been so glad to be bordered on two sides with sturdy iron bars. I was careful to avoid coming within grabbing distance of my new neighbors, which left me confined to a narrow strip of filthy stone floor that was three paces long and less than a pace wide.

The Sprangs were in the Old Ruth. I was enjoying the hospitality of a much newer jail with the less colorful moniker of Number 19 Municipal Holding. The guards were taciturn but efficient, going so far as to toss a filthy pillow between the bars when it was noted that my cell lacked either cot or stool.

I did not sleep. The noise was one factor and my neighbors another. The few times I did doze I was showered with whatever debris they could collect.

I had not considered the consequences of going to jail dressed as I was. So I sat upright and alert and pondered the injustices of Rannit’s unwritten class conflicts while I waited for morning and Gertriss.

I expected to be released before lunch. The Regency’s case against me hinged on the murder of a small, furry man who resided in a hatbox, and even the kind of lawyers I can afford can easily handle that.

Guards came, new prisoners shuffling before them. Doors screeched and then clanged shut. Men shouted and hooted and laughed. Guards left, bleary-eyed and yawning.

That is the rhythm of life in a jail. Endlessly repetitive, unbearably boring. I wondered how many men died trying to escape not to freedom but away from the awful unchanging sameness of the jails.

After an eternity, light began to creep in from the narrow windows set well out of jumping reach along the wide hallways. A sparrow flew inside and was greeted with a brief, reverent silence. Then the light grew bolder, and the breakfast carts came bumping down the hall, and before I’d even had a chance to sample what appeared to be scrambled eggs and hard biscuits a pair of guards approached my door and set me free.

In the end, I got Toadsticker, my shoes, my coat, and all the contents of my pockets-even the loose coins-back. I signed a receipt and was told the charges against me had been dropped and if I ever pulled a damn fool stunt like that again the warden would personally shove my ass down the nearest shithole, head-first.

My belongings were shoved in my hands and I was hustled through a tall armored door and then I was blinking in Rannit’s morning sun, a free man at last.

Free but in his sock feet. I was struggling to get my shoes on when Gertriss came darting around the corner, breathless and grinning.

“Boss.” She hugged me, nearly knocking me over since I was standing on one foot. “Boss, are you all right? I thought they’d changed their minds. I’ve been waiting out front for half an hour.”

I looked around. They’d put me out the back door, like a common criminal.

“Their way of saying ‘and don’t come back,’ I suppose. Thanks, Miss. I’m fine.”

She wrinkled her nose. “No offense, boss, but you don’t smell so good.”

“I smell like jail. Which is perfectly acceptable, since that’s where we’re going next. Would you rather stick with me and face the Sprangs, or head back to Mama’s?”

“I’ll take the Old Ruth, Boss. I’ve got a cab waiting.” A Hooga popped around the corner, dipped his eyes at me, and then withdrew. “He insisted on coming, at least until you were out.”

“I knew he would.” I got my shoes tied, refilled my pockets, got Toadsticker strapped to my waist. It was too warm for the coat so I threw it over my shoulder.

And then I put my back to Number 19 Municipal Holding and told the cab driver to make for the Old Ruth.

He raised his eyebrows and grinned.

“Touring a lot of jails, are we, sir?”

“Trying to pick a favorite.” I flipped him a couple of coins. “I can’t recommend this one. The bed linens weren’t ironed.”

He laughed, and I climbed aboard with Gertriss and we rattled away.

Chapter Nine

Gertriss was right. The stench from the hole in my cell had pervaded my clothes. We brought both cab windows down and that helped, but everything I was wearing was going to need the tender attention of old Mrs. Chong and her secret magic laundry mix.

Gertriss filled me in on the youngest Sprang, who Mama had tied to a chair before dabbing him liberally with some malodorous potion she’d finished brewing about the time I’d poked Toadsticker into someone’s gut. The Sprang kid thrashed and yelled, Gertriss reported, until Mama finished dribbling three full handfuls of her brew over him.

“After that, he calmed right down,” said Gertriss. “He quit cussing. Quit yelling. He was confused for a little while, but then he asked for water and said please, so Mama untied him. He drank. He ate two biscuits, and then thanked Mama and asked if he could see the ogre again.” Gertriss shook her head. “He was a different child, Boss. Probably even a polite one, by Sprang standards. Buttercup even peeked out at him and smiled.”

“So you think he really was hexed?”

“Mama thinks so. I tried my Sight. Never saw a thing.” She seemed troubled by that. I wondered if she was losing touch with her Hog-born Sight, and from the way she bit her bottom lip I guessed she was wondering the same thing.

“Mama have any idea who might have hexed a kid?”

“If she does, she isn’t saying. But she’s angry, boss. Really angry. I wouldn’t want to be whoever she thinks did that. Even if they’re still in Pot Lockney, that might not be far enough away to keep Mama from taking a whack at them.”

I hadn’t considered that. “Think she might try? Is that even possible?”

Gertriss shrugged. “A year ago I’d have said no. Now, I’m not sure. Mama isn’t what I thought she was.”

“Mama is Mama.” I didn’t need to say more. “But the kid-does he have a name, by the way? — he’s fine?”

“His name is Rainy. Mama swears he’s free of whatever was riding him. He’s calm and perfectly rational. Boss, Mama thinks the hex was designed to make the Sprangs want to murder me and you. It started small. Just a little voice whispering how awful we are. The longer it goes, the more powerful it gets.”

“So the elder Sprangs like me less today than they did when I was kicking them around Cambrit. Lovely.” My morning’s plan, to free the Sprangs, revolved wholly around gaining their trust. If they were hexed to hate me against reason, that was likely to be a hard sell.

“Mama got any of that potion left?”

Gertriss nodded. “She knew you’d ask. She made a big batch. Enough to bathe them in it. She said that it hit Rainy so hard because he’s a child. No hex works that well on adults. So maybe they hate you, but by now they probably hate jail more.”

I grunted. I hoped so. I didn’t see the Sprangs accepting my invitation to come over and have a nice bath without Hooga and Hooga holding them by the scruffs of their necks.

We were close to the Old Ruth. The streets were rough, the pedestrians ragged, the smells of the crematoriums pungent.

“I guess we’ll have to hope for the best. You brought the release papers?”

She produced the wax-sealed folder.

“You sure you want to do this, Miss? You can wait in the cab, if you want. Might even be the best idea.”

“No, Mr. Markhat. I’m coming with you. I did what I did, but I had reason. I’m not running anymore.”

I smiled. “Good for you. Just don’t get within grabbing distance.”

The cab rolled to a stop. The weathered, stained wall of the Old Ruth engulfed us in sudden shadow.

“Let’s get this done, Miss.”

“Yes. Mr. Markhat?”

I paused, half-in and half-out of the cab.

“Thanks.”

“We’re partners,” I said, offering her my hand. “Now, come on. Sooner we get these road apples heading home, the sooner I can get a bath.”

She laughed. We headed inside.

The Old Ruth isn’t a cheerful place. Despair and rage have sunk into the stones. The place reeks of human waste.

Local lore claims that thirty or so weedheads a day expire inside those walls. I no longer question that figure, save to say it’s probably too conservative. Number 19 Municipal was an Old Kingdom palace compared to the Old Ruth.

Gertriss and I were shuffled from guard to supervisor to jailer to magistrate. Each visit required a review of the papers I’d procured yesterday and payment of some obscure and likely fraudulent fee.

Gertriss chipped in on those, or the Sprangs would be in the Old Ruth yet.

Our journey took us from the street level offices to a hall two stories underground. In the bad old days, when the Old Ruth had been a fortress, construction had gone down instead of up. Nowadays, the lower you go, the darker and damper and fouler the Old Ruth gets.

The air was enough to choke a Troll. Gertriss was having trouble speaking without gagging. I was faring little better, though the smoke from the numerous torches was burning my throat. We hadn’t seen a single magelamp since leaving the stairs.

Broke and hoarse, we were finally led into an abominable stonewalled room divided by a row of iron bars. The bars sported rust and something darker. A bored guard seated himself on a stool in the corner beside Gertriss and I, a head-knocker in his pudgy fist.

The door closed behind us. Another opened on the far side of the bars.

Feet shuffled, and chains clanked. In marched the Sprangs, sullen, filthy and wary-eyed.

“You.” The eldest Sprang glared at me and spat. His sons followed behind, the youngest supported by the eldest, who glared but was silent.

They were masses of blood and cuts and bruises. Gilgad’s right eye was swollen shut. His lips were bloody. His hair was matted and dark with blood.

His sons were worse. Polter, the youngest, swayed and murmured, his eyes shut, blood trickling from his nose and mouth.

“Bitch.” Gilgad spoke to Gertriss. She didn’t flinch.

“What you need to do, Gilgad Sprang, is shut up and listen. You can either walk out of here, right now, today, or you can rot here. Call my partner names and I’ll decide for you, and I’ll decide to let you rot.” I nodded toward his youngest son. “Your boy is in bad shape. Another day in here and he’ll be dead, and you know it. So are you going to shut up and listen or are you going to bury a son?”

I could see him clench his jaw. Something, him or the hex, wanted to tell me to go to Hell almost bad enough to lose a child.

I almost felt sorry for him then.

He managed to bite back the word.

“All right. Here’s the deal. This paper gets you and your sons out of jail. It does that because the lady and myself agree to pay your fines and fees. Do you understand that, so far? Just nod.”

He nodded.

“There are conditions. First, that you and yours walk out of jail and keep walking right out the East Gate and hitch a ride with a cargo wagon and go home. And once you get home you never ever come back. Because-and this is important, Mr. Sprang-if any of you are ever picked up in Rannit again, all your fines and fees are tripled and you are brought right back here and I tell you this true, you will never see the sun again, or breathe free air. You’ll die here. I’ll see to that. Do you understand?”

He licked bloody lips. “I understand.”

“Tell me what I just said.”

“You pay us out. We go home. Never come back.”

“Good. Now I’m going to ask you a question, you murderous little git. And you’ll answer it, or I swear I’ll tear this paper up and go have myself a big, hot lunch. Why did you come all this way to go after the young lady and I?”

“She stole from our kinfolk.” His voice took on a low growling quality. “She kilt, and she stole.”

“I see. So you were so upset at the financial loss of your kinfolk that you decided to hike all the way to Rannit and do a bit of murder yourself. Touching. Family means everything to you, doesn’t it?”

“City folk ain’t likely to understand,” he said.

“I do understand kids have no business being outdoors in Rannit after Curfew, Mr. Sprang.”

A ghost of confusion passed over his bloody face.

“My boys ain’t babies,” he said. “They’s grown men.”

“Rainy too?”

“I brung Gerlat and Polter.”

I dared put my face close to the bars.

“Then why the Hell did I pull Rainy off the street yesterday? Why did he spend a whole damned night-a whole night, Mr. Sprang-out with the vampires, after Curfew? Why?”

“You’re lyin’. Rainy ain’t in Rannit. I brung Gerlat and Polter.”

“I am not lying. Rainy is here. And alive, thanks to me and Miss Gertriss and Mama Hog. It’s a miracle he survived one night. He’d not have lived through another. And you tell me you didn’t bring him?”

“I ain’t fool enough to bring a child on a man’s errand.”

Gertriss stepped up beside me. “He’s telling the truth, Boss. About Rainy. He didn’t bring him.”

Mr. Sprang glared at Gertriss, but she neither looked away nor stepped back.

“I don’t need no help from you, you-”

“Remember what I said about insulting my partner.”

He clamped his mouth shut.

“We just saved your son’s life. We’re offering to pay you out and send you home. Seems like you owe me a favor, Mr. Sprang. But you hate me even more for that, don’t you?”

“I’d kill you where you stand, if’n it wasn’t for my boys.”

“Does that make sense to you? Does it?”

“Mama took a hex off Rainy,” said Gertriss. “A hex cast to make him hate Mr. Markhat and I.”

“Same hex is riding you,” I added. “Think about it, Mr. Sprang. That day we met. You and your boys pulled blades on me without even knowing for sure who I was. Have you ever done anything like that before?”

“Your woman. She kilt my kin.”

“She’s nobody’s woman but her own. So you were close to Harald Suthom? You loved him like a son? Bounced him on your knee as a baby?”

“He was kin.”

“What color eyes did he have?”

The eldest Sprang hesitated.

“You don’t even know. You don’t know because it never mattered much to you. And it never mattered much because Harald Suthom was a two-bit, lousy sonofabitch, and you know it. So you think about this, Mr. Sprang. You think long and hard about who might have hexed you and your grown sons here and little Rainy too. Because they almost got Rainy killed.”

“I ain’t believing a word of this.”

I shrugged. “I don’t really care what you believe. I told you the truth. Whether you believe or not is another matter. Now, are you willing to sign these papers and get out of Rannit and stay out of Rannit? Will you take Rainy and go home and leave Gertriss and I alone?”

Polter moaned softly. In the distance, an echoed scream rose and fell and died.

“We’ll go,” he said, at last. “Just let us go our way. And we’ll let you go yours.”

“Gertriss?”

Gertriss stared.

“I don’t think he’s lying, Boss. They’ll go home.”

“Then let’s get this done. And you better listen good, Mr. Sprang. Because if I ever see you in Rannit again, you’ll wish the Watch was there. Because I’ll kill you myself and feed you to the ogres. Understand?”

He didn’t speak. But he did lower his eyes and nod.

I woke up the guard. “Fetch an officer,” I said. “We got some papers to sign.”

He grumbled and rose and went.

The Sprangs slumped against the wall and muttered amongst themselves. None of it sounded threatening.

“Think the Old Ruth is stronger than the hex?”

Gertriss frowned and considered that.

“Maybe,” she said at last. “Depends on who cast it.”

“You know of any witch women back home who might have that kind of skill?”

Gertriss shook her head. “Old Granny Gint could probably turn them all into blue-jays if she wanted to. But she wouldn’t. She’s dead set against any kind of black hex.”

I grunted. “Any kin to Harald Suthom or this lot?”

“None. She’s not responsible, Boss. I’m sure of that.”

“Then we’ve got ourselves a stray wand-waver.”

She didn’t reply. I didn’t blame her.

Freeing the Sprangs took maybe five minutes. Papers were signed by myself and Gertriss and passed between the bars and the Sprangs scrawled their marks. The clerk read the terms of the release aloud in a rapid-fire sing-song that escaped everyone in the room, but we nodded and raised our right hands and spoke the oath that bound us to the terms and set the Sprang clan free.

They didn’t release the Sprangs at once, nor did they allow us to mingle. So while they were led away, still in rusty shackles, Gertriss and I hurried back up toward the street and a cab.

The Sprangs were coming to Mama’s to pick up Rainy, and the Hoogas still had orders to pound them on sight. Since the family Sprang didn’t appear to need another beating, we arrived first, and I kept the Hoogas handy, but asked them to refrain from any violence unless the Sprangs started it.

They didn’t. No one spoke. I’d thrown a couple of coppers into the mix, which allowed the Sprangs to hire a wagon for their trip out of town. Polter was stretched out flat in the back of it, still moaning. His color wasn’t good, and a trickle of blood leaked from his ears. Mama just shrugged as she dribbled her anti-hex potion on him and then looked away.

Rainy didn’t even recognize me. He ran past me and grabbed his father’s waist and hung on.

“Now git.”

Mama spoke those words, and they were the only words spoken the whole time.

They got. The Hoogas watched the wagon roll out of sight, and then they sagged a bit. Mama gave them hash and I gave them coin. Then they shambled away, heading back to whatever it is ogres do when they have a pawful of money.

“You’re sure the Sprangs are heading home?”

“That they is, boy. Ain’t nobody could hex them back here again. Not today, anyways. They’s beat, and they’s hurt, and they is stupid but they ain’t crazy. Go on and do your business. We’ll be safe.” Mama looked suddenly grim. “’Leastways ’til I knows what I’m dealing with.”

A bath did wonders for my aroma, if not my spirits.

I lingered a long time in that hot copper tub. Steam wafted off me. Soap worked its homespun magic. Mr. Waters doesn’t allow clients to bring in beer, but one must have followed me from home because there it was, in my right hand.

I bathed and sipped beer and allowed myself the luxury of not pondering the events of the night and the day. I’d been assaulted. I’d had myself arrested for the murder of a little man with four legs. I’d been freed.

And someone in Pot Lockney might be hexing the whole village to come after my head while I lay there bathing.

I had no doubt Hisvin could not only discern the identity of the person who had hexed the Sprangs but probably also make them appear with a flash, caught up struggling in whatever dead hand Hisvin happened to be wearing at the moment.

Which would leave me even further in Hisvin’s debt.

I took a long draught of beer. No. That wasn’t going to happen. The moment I let the Corpsemaster fight my battles, that was the moment I became just another shuffling body in her legion of shuffling bodies.

I put my beer down on the floor and sank beneath the water. I could hear muffled sounds, under there-the tap of blind Mr. Waters’ stick, the sound of distant voices, a peal of sudden thunder. But it was muffled and distant and, best of all, no problem of mine.

I stayed down there in the warm, wet deep until I needed air. When I rose, sputtering and dripping, Mr. Waters was there.

“You got company, Mr. Markhat.” He tapped my tub with his stick. “Fancy carriage. Driver’s name is Halbert. Something about a meetin’ up to Avalante.”

I pushed back my hair and found my beer and drained it.

“Tell him I’ll be right there. And thanks. The water was extra hot, just like I like it.”

“Well, Mr. Markhat, you was extra fragrant.” He laughed. “I knows the smell of a jailhouse, I do. Thought you might appreciate a true hot bath.”

“It’s a perilous life I lead.” I stood and a towel was placed in my hand.

“Your clothes are hangin’ up,” said Mr. Waters. He tapped his way toward another customer. “I’ll tell the cab-man directly.”

I dried and dressed. My stomach reminded me I’d skipped Mama’s offer of supper. I consoled myself with the thought that I’d soon be dining, even if it was with the dead.

“I still cannot believe you had yourself arrested.” Evis took in a long draw of his freshly lit cigar. “You’re a piece of work, Markhat.”

“Not to split hairs, but Gertriss swore out the warrant.” I leaned back in Evis’s good leather chair and didn’t quite dare to put my boots on the edge of his desk. “I stood right there and listened to her do it. Even signed as a witness.”

“They didn’t catch on that their witness was also their murderer?”

I shrugged. “It was late in the day. I knew I could rely on the never failing vigilance of our officers of the Court.”

“What would you have done if Lethway hadn’t tried to carve you up? What if he’d had things to say?”

“If he’d had things to say he had plenty of time to say them. Too, I checked downtown and found out he pays the taxes on the Troll’s Den. Meet after Curfew, alone, in a place he controls? I knew he was planning something inhospitable.”

Evis chuckled. We had dined-or at least I had, while Evis had sipped something dark and thick from a crystal goblet. I’d opted for the chicken and the peas and the muffins, and I’d cleared two full plates. Avalante’s kitchens might belong to the halfdead, but there was no denying their skill with poultry.

My cigar was smooth and soothing. Evis’s office was dark and deliciously cool. The only light came from a few distant candles and the sporadic glimmering of the sorcerous doo-dads he collected and kept behind glass in the enormous curio cabinets that lined two walls of his inner sanctum.

I emulated Evis’s puffing and we let the silence linger for a bit.

“So, how much was the fine?”

“Two crowns.” I winced at the memory. “The Court is loathe to be made a fool of.”

Evis shook his head. “It was six crowns before we intervened, you know.”

“You intervened? When?”

“You think someone wearing an Avalante brooch can get pulled in for murder and we don’t know it? Tsk, tsk. I wasn’t even surprised when they told me it was you.”

“So why did I spend the night in Number 19, then?”

“For all I knew you wanted to be in there. Relax. I was coming down myself, had Gertriss not sprung you.”

“I’m touched.”

“You should be.” Evis produced a match and scratched it and made a flame. The end of his cigar glowed red, and he pulled air through it. “So. You’ve made an enemy of the Lethways. You’re sure he meant to kill you?”

“He wasn’t going to lift a finger, himself. But yes. His associates were out for blood, never mind the new rugs. They didn’t intend for me to leave there alive.”

Evis clasped his pale fingers behind the back of his head and frowned.

“Why, I wonder? You don’t know where this Carris is, or who took him. Odds are you won’t ever know. Seems a bit heavy-handed. ”

“Thanks for your confidence in my deductive abilities.”

“You’re welcome. But kill you, for daring to ask questions? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Nothing about this makes any sense.” I told Evis about the Sprangs and the Old Ruth. He puffed away, his white eyes closed, while I laid it out.

“I don’t believe in coincidences, pal. Are you sure there’s no connection between these hillbillies and the Lethways and the Fields?”

“Let’s see. A rich mining magnate from Rannit. A bunch of hick pig farmers from a village so poor they can’t afford dirt for their floors. A middling-successful baker with a headstrong daughter who hasn’t been any farther East than Grant Avenue. No. I don’t think there’s any way all that is part of the same mess.”

Evis shrugged.

“You should have had the hicks tailed,” said Evis after a while. “In case their wand-waving friend met them on the road out of town.”

“Ha. I did in fact do that very thing. The Sprangs spoke to no one. No one spoke to them. They were last seen hauling Polter aboard a leather convoy, bound for Vicks.”

Mama had actually arranged that, without my knowledge, using her ragtag army of street urchins as tails. They’d followed the Sprangs well out of town before turning back to report to Mama and claim their bounty of biscuits and ham.

“You know you could always call on certain persons of high rank and standing for help,” Evis said. “She isn’t going to like hearing that renegade spell-casters are taking swipes at her officers.”

“No. Not yet.” I thought about that. “Not ever.”

Evis smiled a toothy smile. “Always the optimist,” he said. “But you might as well face it. We’re in deep with Hisvin, whether we like it or not.”

“I don’t like it one bit.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re officers in her army now. Why not take advantage of the privileges of rank, since we’re forced to endure the burdens?”

“Have you asked her for favors?”

“Nope. Doesn’t mean I won’t. More beer?”

“Always.”

Evis grinned behind his hand. “So, what’s next? Do you go after this missing groom, or do you try and trick your wand-waver into showing himself?”

“Both. Mama is brewing up something she swears will let me track the hex caster. And I’m going to talk to Lethway again too. Just he and I, this time. Somewhere public and crowded.”

“Good idea. He’ll be thrilled to sit and drink with you. Now then. Tell me what’s really got you worried.”

I’d had too much beer and not enough sleep. “Say again?”

“Darla. You’ve told her, have you not?”

“Not in so many words.”

Evis let out a hissing sigh.

“Angels, Markhat, I’ve been dead for ten years. Why is it I know more about women than you?”

“This is good beer.”

Evis stretched, yawning. He forgot to cover his mouth. I concentrated on my beer until he was done.

“Keeping some late hours?”

“House Avalante never sleeps,” he replied. “Things are already happening, Markhat. Iron stocks have gone up so far and so fast people are going to suspect the Army is buying ore as fast as they can mine it. And work has already started on the old walls, making them ready for cannon emplacements.”

I frowned. I hadn’t heard a word.

Evis guessed my thoughts. “It’s just whispering, here and there,” he said. “But give it another week. People will see things being prepared, and there won’t be any denying the Regent is getting ready for something.”

I consulted the bottom of my beer bottle.

“We hear Prince has bought up a hundred and fifty barges. Wouldn’t that be a smart way to bring a few thousand cannon down the Brown?”

“So it’s really going to happen.”

“Looks that way. The other Houses are beginning to hunker down. You’d better wrap this Lethway business up soon. The day is coming when you may have to close shop for a while.”

I cussed, took one last blessed draw from Evis’s good cigar, and stood.

“Thanks for the beer and the company.”

“Don’t mention it. Old Hammer the cook likes it when he sees a couple of empty plates. I think Darla would at least feed you on a regular basis, Markhat. Something else to think about.”

I found my hat. “Talk to you later, Evis.”

“That’s Captain Prestley, if you please.”

The door opened silently as I reached for it. A pale, silent figure bade me follow.

I followed. I didn’t need his mostly-shuttered lantern. I knew the way by heart.

In fact, I reflected, the lightless halls of Avalante were far more familiar than Rannit was turning out to be.

An Avalante carriage took me home.

Post-Curfew traffic was heavy. Most were black House carriages, bearing their thirsty halfdead passengers to and fro in search of the unwary, the unwise and the just plain stupid.

But most of the traffic was Army. There were cabs and wagons and huge eight-wheeled lumber barges, some loaded with bricks or tarp-covered masses that could have been cannons or catapults or nude statues of the Regent.

All rattled and rushed through the night, safe from the predations of the Houses as long as they were uniformed and going about the Regent’s business.

I understood now how the preparations for war were going at least in part unnoticed by the law-abiding citizens of Rannit. The army was working at night, using the Curfew as a cover. I was sure the soldiers themselves weren’t doing much talking, on pain of long months in the brig or worse.

On a whim, I asked the driver to take a side trip toward Seward, where the longest section of Rannit’s Old Kingdom wall still stood.

He replied with a cheery “Yes, sir” and away we sped, bumping over cobbles and trash.

I watched through my window. Most of Rannit was dark and sleeping. Lights shone here and there, though, and from a few windows figures watched us pass.

We crossed the weatherworn remains of the Old Bazaar and wound our way through the narrows streets of Crike. Crike was awake, if hopelessly drunk. Fires danced in vacant lots, surrounded by huddled figures who shouted and drank and wobbled in the shadows.

Three dark carriages followed us into Crike, but did not emerge. Which meant a few of the careless revelers would be found by the dead wagons in the morning, drained and still.

Emerging from Crike onto Seward was akin to leaving the land of night for that of day.

Oil-lamps lined the street. Huge magelamps, borne by wagons, were parked at regular intervals along the old wall, aimed up so that the top was bathed in lights. Men hurried up and down ladders, bearing tools. A ramp of oak timbers allowed wheelbarrows and small wagons to be driven to the top of the wall.

Hammers fell. Men shouted. A team of ogres hooted as they pulled a pallet of bricks up the ramp, one powerful ogre yank at a time.

My driver whistled. “What is that?”

“New aqueduct.” I wasn’t about to start spilling any of the Corpsemaster’s beans in public.

“They’re building it at night?”

“Easier to work the iron in the dark. Can you wait right here? I’d like to get a closer look.”

“You’re the boss.”

I closed the cab’s door and sauntered toward the bustle.

I don’t know what exactly my intention was. Maybe I was just delaying going home because going home meant lying awake and remembering the hurt on Darla’s face.

Come to think of it, that’s probably correct. Maybe I was remembering that hurt even then, which is why I didn’t notice someone had fall into step beside me.

“Good evening, Captain.”

I’d never have known it was the Corpsemaster save for the bemused tone and the oh-so-faint trace of an accent I’d never managed to place.

What body she was wearing was a mystery. She was clad toe to crown in a plain black robe. The cowl left face in shadow. Her hands were concealed by black gloves.

There was no odor, no buzzing of corpseflies. For all I know, she was out and about in her own flesh and blood. It’s not the sort of thing one asks.

“Good evening, Corpsemaster.” I nodded toward the construction. “It seems to be going well.”

She sighed. “We are at least eight days behind schedule, and nearly a hundred thousand crowns over budget. At this site alone.”

I shook my head in silent commiseration.

“What brings you out, Captain? Not that I’m displeased to see you taking an interest in our efforts.”

“Working a case. Thought I’d swing by here and have a look.” I stopped and squinted into the magelamps. “People are going to start talking about this pretty soon.”

She just shrugged. “Talk is the least of my worries. Do you know of a place called Ringor?”

“North of Prince, isn’t it? Big lumber exporter.”

“There are indications they have allied with Prince. It seems someone has produced an heir to the Old Kingdom.”

“Again?”

She chuckled. “As you say. Again.” She kicked at a loose cobblestone with the tip of a shiny, black boot. “Why are people so eager to revive the very monarchy that nearly cost us the war and drove the Kingdom into chaos and poverty?”

“Human nature. Live and don’t learn, that’s us.” I spied the Corpsemaster’s horseless carriage making its way slowly toward us, fading in and out as it passed beneath street lamps and magelights. I tensed, wondering if I’d been drawn to the site by her, if I was about to be whisked away to a place where the sun was too bright and the day was too long.

“At ease, Captain. I have no plans to spirit you away.” She turned toward me, and I saw the briefest flash of a weary smile before the shadow of her cowl swallowed it up. “You are free to go home. If, of course, you can stay out of jail for an entire night.”

I dropped my fool jaw open but no words came out.

“Oh, come now. There is little that goes on in Rannit of which I am unaware. And you need not fear my interference in your private matters. I will only meddle with such if and when I am asked.”

“Thank you.”

“Although it won’t do for my officers to be arrested with any degree of regularity. I do ask that you keep your brushes with the Watch to a minimum.”

“I’ll try, sir.”

The horseless carriage drew up behind us. The corpse that sat atop it was more skeleton than flesh. His stovepipe hat set well below the empty eye sockets.

The Corpsemaster clambered aboard without a farewell, and the black carriage surged away, whip cracking at mounts that weren’t there.

All around me, workers turned away, pointedly not meeting my gaze.

I turned away from the lights, and found my cabman dozing, and set about for home at last.

I even dozed on the way. I was awakened by the cab slowing abruptly and the cabman soothing his ponies with soft clicks of his tongue.

“Bit of a fire up ahead,” he called.

I was instantly awake. I opened the door a crack to get my bearings.

The cab was maybe half a block from home. I could plainly smell the smoke.

I leaped down onto the sidewalk, nearly breaking a leg, but I stayed upright and broke into a run.

The door on fire was mine.

By the time I got there, the flames were taller than the top of my head and climbing. People were shouting for water and running into each other in the dark. Old Mr. Bull in his white nightgown and pointed white night cap hobbled up to my door and emptied his chamber pot at the root of the growing blaze.

Mama was among those bellowing and running. She was fully clothed down to her iron-toed boots. Gertriss was nowhere to be seen.

I charged into the fray, struggling to get my coat off to use as a flail.

The source of the blaze was obvious. Someone had simply filled a tall wooden bucket with trash and set it ablaze after putting it next to my door. I kicked it away, sacrificed my good coat to cover it, and the Arwheat brothers from a few doors overthrew wet blankets over the streaks of flame still climbing the walls.

Fire hissed and smoked, but was clearly on the wane.

Mama looked up at me and cussed and turned on her heel and waddled away at full bore.

I charged after her.

Gertriss was alone. The fire was a ploy. Even Mama had been sucked in, not knowing I wasn’t home.

People tried to stop me and talk, and I shouldered them aside, caught up with Mama then passed her.

There were lamps and torches on the street. By the bobbing lights I could see Mama’s door standing wide open, and I knew damned well she hadn’t left it that way.

I had Toadsticker out, low and level, just like I’d been taught. I hit Mama’s threshold at a run and dodged immediately to my right, where the rickety little table she uses for card readings shouldn’t have been. It was there, though, and I sent it flying.

Mama’s was pitch dark. I thought I saw a faint hint of movement. I grabbed one of Mama’s thousand jars with my left hand, and I threw it as hard as I could.

It exploded in a shower of glass and a stench so vile someone in the dark actually puked.

I charged them, felt something solid slice the air on the left side of my face, felt the something sharp graze my shoulder. But then my right shoulder plowed into a chest and I knocked someone off his feet, and we damned near took down Mama’s wall by slamming into it.

Light flared. Mama screeched. She shoved the torch she was carrying right into a stranger’s face, and I whacked him good on the side of his fool head with the flat of my blade about the same time Mama used a stool to make the stranger’s ability to ever sire children a matter of considerable doubt.

He slid to the floor, vomit still running down his chin, his hair singed and smoking.

I grabbed him, threw him face down, put a boot on his spine.

Mama was already past me, howling for Gertriss and Buttercup.

She had the torch. I couldn’t do anything but stand there helplessly and wait.

Mama came trundling back, her face ashen.

“They ain’t here. Boy, they ain’t here.”

“Mama!” It was Gertriss, from the door. Mama whirled, and the light caught Gertriss in a flimsy nightgown, one hand at her neck, the other gripping Buttercup’s hand.

The tiny banshee yawned and rubbed her eyes.

Mama yelled and slammed her door shut in the faces of a dozen curious onlookers.

“How did you get outdoors?”

“Buttercup.” Gertriss shivered. “We went through a wall. Right through it.”

I raised an eyebrow. The banshee was getting stronger. She’d never been able to do that with me, though she’d tried.

The man beneath me groaned. The stink from Mama’s jar was spreading.

“Mama. You know this man?”

Mama leaned over, raised the man’s head by yanking on his hair, and shoved the torch close enough to singe him anew.

“I don’t. I knows you can hear me.” She emphasized her point with a kick to his side. “What’s your name?”

The man groaned, but offered nothing more.

“The Watch will be around in a minute. You. Nobody in Rannit is going to blink if I skewer an arsonist. Give me an excuse. I dare you.”

I hauled him to his feet, keeping his right arm twisted behind his back.

“Mama, get the door.”

She did. I shoved him through it, right into the small mob that was forming. A few greeted him with punches and kicks.

“Thanks for your help,” I said, keeping the man on his feet as he swayed. “Mama and I appreciate it.”

“We hang him here, no?” offered one of the Arwheat brothers.

“We have rope and a scaffold, yes?” exclaimed the other.

“Maybe when the Watch is done with him. And certainly if we ever see him here again.”

The Arwheats were eyeing an exposed beam on the building next to Mama’s.

“I fetch rope, just in case, no?”

The man I was holding finally processed the gist of the conversation and started to struggle. I twisted his arm until it nearly broke, and kept it that way until a tall, black Watch wagon finally rolled down the street and disgorged a trio of beefy, bleary-eyed Watchmen.

“Good evening, officers,” I said, cheerfully. “Look what we caught, just for you.”

Chapter Ten

First light, and there I was, still scrubbing the soot and charring off my poor abused door.

It wasn’t going well. The bottom of the door had caught fire. I was sure it was burned so deeply a determined foot could make a hole all the way through it. My prized glass pane and its painted lettering was a loss. The heat had cracked the glass and the painted letters were gone and among the numerous unpleasant tasks facing me on that bright and cheery day was buying a new front door.

Too, there was no sign of Three-leg Cat. He was missing his breakfast, and that was never done.

Gertriss read my thoughts.

“He’ll be back. I’m sure of it.”

She was seated in my chair, her feet propped on my desk, ostensibly keeping an eye on the street while I was occupied with the door. Gertriss had gotten no more sleep than I last night, but she looked fresh and rested.

Her skirt was slit up one side, and a lot of leg was showing. Maybe she read that thought, too, because she swung her legs down suddenly.

“So, what do we do if Mama is right?”

I dropped my brush into the bucket long enough to huff and puff a bit.

“If Mama is right and he was another hexed hillbilly like the Sprangs, then we need to start planning a trip to Pot Lockney. Doors are expensive. My cat has been discommoded. I shall surely vent my wrath upon those responsible.”

“You’ll need me to come with you, boss. Unless you’d rather take Mama.”

I grinned.

“You sat up all night waiting to deliver that one, didn’t you?”

“Not all night. But I do have a point. Don’t I?”

I shrugged. “I was planning on taking you anyway. Can’t watch you here and take on rogue sorcerers there. Too, you’ll need to school me in the homespun ways of country folk, lest I demand bacon from the haunch of a virgin swine, or something equally scandalous.”

“When will we be leaving?”

I grabbed my brush. “That’s a problem. I need to find Carris Lethway before I go. The wedding date is fast approaching.”

“True.” Gertriss bit her lip.

“Spill it. You’ve got an idea?”

“Sort of. You won’t like it.”

“You’d make a lousy salesgirl, Miss.”

“Why not ask Evis to let Mama and Buttercup stay at Avalante, until people stop marching here to set us ablaze?”

“Mama. At Avalante.”

“Surely they have a guest house?”

“Mama? At Avalante?”

“You said that once already, boss.”

“I may say it again. Right before I say no. Anyway, where would you stay?”

“With you. We could watch each other’s backs, boss. Darla wouldn’t mind. She knows it’s strictly business. And since everyone in Pot Lockney thinks we’re a couple anyway, what’s the harm?”

I shook my head. “Evis is my friend, Miss, but there are things I just won’t ask.”

“You don’t have to. I already have. Evis said yes.”

“What?”

Gertriss blushed a bit.

“I had…a feeling, boss. A Sight thing. Trouble brewing. So I sent Evis a letter, asking if Mama and Buttercup could stay at Avalante for a while. He said yes.”

“When did you do all that?”

“Yesterday.”

He’d known the whole time we’d been drinking last night, and the sharp-toothed devil hadn’t said a word.

Gertriss spread her hands. “Boss, I overstepped. I’m sorry.”

“No. No, you had a good idea, and you acted on it. That’s what I pay you for.” I got off my knees and sank onto my client’s chair. My door was a loss anyway.

“It’s a good plan, Gertriss. I’m just frustrated. Not moving too fast these days. Always a step behind.”

“You’re as sharp as ever, boss. Just tired. And you’ve got a lot on your mind. I can see that plain as day.” She sat up straight, put her hands on my desk, touched her fingertips together in a mockery of my trademark pose. “You nearly killed our latest caller, you know.”

“My patience is running is pretty thin. And for all I knew he’d brought friends. Wasn’t time to be dainty.”

She shrugged. “I never did thank you for coming to my rescue.”

“I didn’t. Buttercup did.”

Gertriss shivered. I guess walking banshee-style through solid walls was an acquired taste.

“So, Mama smelled another hex.”

“Same one as before. Somebody back home really hates me, boss. I’m sorry it’s followed me here.”

“Don’t apologize for some crazed wand-waver’s actions, Miss.”

“Sorry, boss.”

“Don’t apologize for apologizing, either.”

She made a rude gesture and frowned at the door. “Mama is coming to see us.”

Indeed, an instant later, I heard Mama slam her door shut and come stomping our way.

“This ought to be refreshing.” I shooed Gertriss out of my chair, and she perched on the end of the desk, remembering to cover her exposed knee an instant before Mama appeared in my open doorway.

“Boy,” she said. Her countenance was grim. She carried a small iron stew-pot that steamed and stank of sun-baked dead things rubbed with burnt hair and topped off with Three-leg Cat’s ten most malodorous gastric emissions.

Gertriss and I gagged as one.

“Oh, now, don’t start carryin’ on like you ain’t never smelled nothin’ ripe before.” Mama brought the foul pot inside, where it burbled and steamed and left a trail of stink. “This here brew is gonna save your skins, so you might be appreciative of my efforts, you might.”

Gertriss pinched her nose shut. As a veteran of the Troll War, I struggled to maintain my stolid military bearing and opted to hold my breath instead.

“Mama.” Gertriss’s eyes dripped with tears. “What. Is. That?”

“This here is a hex against hexes, child. You’d know that by now if’n you was taking any interest in your heritage, but seein’ as you ain’t, I’ll have to explain it.”

“Can you explain it outside, Mama? Or let me hire a carpenter and frame up a window we can open before we start?”

Mama grumbled and set the stew-pot on my desk and then began to rifle through her burlap bag. Before I could speak, she produced a top and clanged it down hard on the bubbling mess on my desk.

I made for my door, and waved it open and shut in hopes of driving some of the stench outside. I swear I saw an ogre trip as he went past, and a pair of idlers sharing a morning chat let out shrieks before fleeing for safety.

“Ain’t nobody can say it ain’t potent, can they, boy?”

“That they can’t, Mama. So, what is it? Do we just sit next to it, safe in the knowledge that nobody will ever walk down Cambrit Street ever again?”

“It’s a potion.” Gertriss released her nose. “You took something from the Sprangs, didn’t you, Mama? And from the last visitor?”

Mama cackled. “Damn right I did. Hairs. Got some from all of ’em.”

Gertriss nodded. “The hairs from the Sprangs weren’t enough, because that was one hex, is that right?”

Mama allowed herself a small smile. “That’s right, niece. But two hexes, cast from the same hand-oh, I can work with that. Oh yes, I can. This here potion, it’s gonna show you who’s been hexed a third time. Ain’t going to be no sneakin’ up on anybody. No, sir. I has had enough.” She waggled a finger at me. “Somebody is a fixin’ to pay. For comin’ after my kin, and them that I holds in high regard. People has forgot who Mama Hog is, has they? Well, by damn, I’m about to remind ’em.”

Something inside the stew-pot popped and made the lid dance. Mama slapped it and muttered a word I couldn’t make out.

“Good for you,” I said. “Mama. How does this work? Please tell me I don’t have to drink it.”

“Drink it? Boy, how long you knowed me? Have I ever tried to pour anything down that throat of yours save for tea and coffee?”

I shrugged. “So it’s not dessert. Great. But specifics, Mama-what does it do, and how?”

“If it’s like most potions, boss, we’ll need to dab a bit of it here and there, and let it dry. Is that right, Mama?”

Mama nodded.

I grimaced, not in love with the idea of dabbing that concoction anywhere.

“And if someone being ridden by the same hex that drove the Sprangs and the firebug gets close to it, we smell the whole pot, all at once, all over again.”

“Well, I reckon you know a mite more than I was given’ you credit for knowin’, niece. That’s just how it works. A dab on your door. A dab on any door. Nobody gonna smell it but you.”

“Any door? What about objects? Pens, hats, money? Would that work too?”

“It will. Anything. Can’t wash it off, neither. I makes my brews to stick.”

I nodded. If the stuff worked, it certainly had potential.

And in any case, it would probably repel mosquitoes.

“Thank you, Mama. I mean that. I know you put a lot of work into this.”

“Hush. Now. I been askin’ about that last one, the firebug. I talked to old Mrs. Ramsay. Her son spent the night in the Old Ruth for tryin’ to snatch a hair off’n an ogre on some fool bar bet. He claimed the firebug was a Packer from over Deep Ditch way. Niece, you ain’t kilt no Packers, have ye?”

“Mama.”

Mama cackled. “Well, I had to ask. Now this Packer seemed a mite slow, dim-witted I mean, according to Mrs. Ramsay’s son.”

“If Mrs. Ramsay’s boy is pulling on ogre hair he’s no genius himself, Mama, but go ahead.”

“Well, don’t that sound odd to you, boy? If this Packer be touched in the head, how’d he go thinkin’ about setting your door on fire to get everybody looking the wrong way?”

“So somebody was helping him?”

“Somebody smart enough to stay their distance. Somebody hexed, too, I’m thinkin’, because there was enough spent hex in the air to cover two men thick and strong.”

“Damn.”

Mama nodded. “So there’s another one out there, smarter than the rest. More dangerous.”

I rose and closed and locked my burnt door.

“Gonna take more than a door to end this, boy.”

I sat and sighed. “I know, Mama. Going to have to take the fight to the wand-waver. Either of you have any idea who that might be?”

Both Mama and Gertriss shook their heads. I muttered an unkind word.

We spent another hour turning over possible motives. I couldn’t see anything about a two-acre cornfield that would be worth hexing for, let alone killing. Gertriss was sure that the land her late fiance had paid down on was nothing special, and that no princely sum was ever involved. And both were adamant that Harald Suthom’s family didn’t number any witch women, anyone with Sight, or any wand-wavers.

But my door and my missing cat were testament to the fact that someone with magical talent and a connection to Gertriss’s former fiance was determined to see us dead.

Mama at Avalante. The words ran hob-nailed through my mind. Mama and her cleaver, and that famous Mama mouth, setting her halfdead hosts straight with her salty down-home homilies at every opportunity. I’d be lucky if Evis himself didn’t yank my silver brooch off my jacket and rescind my beer privileges forever.

But the idea, repellent though it was, was looking better. I couldn’t be everywhere at once. The Hoogas couldn’t spend their lives guarding Mama’s door. And Buttercup needed somewhere safer than Mama’s back room until this was all over.

There are times, in life, when you must either bow to the inevitable, or be crushed by it.

“Gather up Buttercup and some clothes, ladies,” I said. “Enough for a good long stay.”

Gertriss nodded. Mama’s face pinched and glared.

“And just where you think I’m a goin,’ boy?”

“I need you to watch over Buttercup, Mama. And the safest place to do that right now is at Avalante.”

Mama expanded. Her eyes narrowed, and her jaw clenched.

“If’n you thinks I’m going to sleep under the same roofs as them halfdead devils, boy, you are mistaken.”

“Mama. Please. Hear me out.”

It wasn’t easy, getting a single word, much less a dozen in a line, past Mama’s grumbling.

But I’ve had lots of practice. In the end, Mama cussed and muttered, but she agreed.

“Wonderful. Let’s get you packed.” Gertriss started to bring up her plan to stay with me, but something in the set of Mama’s jaw stopped her cold. For once, I was glad that Gertriss still regarded Mama with a certain measure of terror.

We even packed a bag for Buttercup, who helped us by stuffing it with whatever was closest at hand, be it a spoon or a jar of feathers or a stray bent nail.

Mid-morning saw me putting Mama, Gertriss and Buttercup into a cab and sending them off for Avalante. My last sight of them was of Buttercup leaning out the window and waving before Mama grabbed her and yanked her back inside.

The cab rounded the corner, and I was alone, with only an ensorcelled murderer lurking close by to keep me company.

“Good morning, Miss Marchin,” I said to the woman seated behind the enormous marble desk. “Remember me?”

She smiled, but only a bit.

“Let me guess. You still don’t have an appointment, do you?”

“Oh, I hardly need one, Miss Marchin. Mr. Lethway and I are practically brothers, these days. Why just the other night we shared a cigar at the Troll’s Den. You can ask Mr. Pratt, who I suspect is now tip-toeing up behind me, aren’t you, Mr. Pratt?”

“Dat I am, Mr. Markhat.” There was humor in his voice. I turned around and greeted him with an outstretched hand.

He surprised me by taking it, and surprised me further by not breaking the arm to which it was attached.

His grip was firm but not threatening. Had I not known better, I would have suspected he was happy to see me.

“You got some nerve, coming back around here.” He spoke quietly and kept smiling for Miss Markin’s benefit. “You expecting lunch and a pat on the head?”

“Lunch would be nice. But before anyone pats me on the head, you might want to peep outside. My carriage belongs to Avalante. They know I’m here. Should that carriage return to Avalante empty, there will be unhappy people in unusually high places.”

“Is dat so? Well. Tell you what. Let’s you and I sit on a bench outside and have a little chat. Miss, I’ll be right outside.”

And then he sauntered out the door.

“If Mr. Lethway should inquire, Miss, I prefer fried chicken to baked. And dark beer to pale.”

Miss Markin stifled a snort. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I followed Mr. Pratt out into the sun.

The street was busy. Pedestrians were three deep on the sidewalk. Cabs and carriages and ogre-carts choked the cobblestone street with rattles and scrapes and shouts from the drivers.

Mr. Pratt, true to his word, settled on a bench in the shade of the Lethway building. I sat beside him, leaving room to dart away should any cutlery inadvertently appear.

“Nice morning, Mr. Pratt.”

“Indeed it is, Mr. Markhat.” He pushed the brim of his hat down and closed his eyes. “Now what am I going to do with you?”

“I imagine you have instructions regarding that. Something involving burlap bags and a shallow grave?”

He chuckled. “Why dig a grave when the Brown River flows south all night? But yes. That’s the spirit of the thing.”

“So why am I not being bludgeoned?”

“Too many witnesses, for a start. I’m glad you didn’t come sneaking back around to the House. I might not have had a choice, in that instance.”

“Me, at the Lethway home? You have me confused with someone else.”

“Sure I do.” He opened his eyes and turned toward me. “She’s not always been a drunk, Markhat. You ought to know that.”

“Who?”

A hint of menace crossed his face. “You know damned well who. Mrs. Lethway. You spoke to her, didn’t you?”

“Briefly. We didn’t have much of a conversation.”

He nodded. I decided to fill the silence before one of us thought better of consorting with the enemy.

“You just admitted Carris has been kidnapped, you know. I don’t think your boss would appreciate that.”

“Funny thing, Mr. Markhat. You know who hired me, eleven years ago, and why?”

“Nope.”

“Mrs. Lethway. Bodyguard. For her and the kid. While Mr. Lethway was off squeezing extra pennies out of his precious mines.”

My heart began to pound. I hoped it didn’t show.

“But here you are, working for the patriarch.”

“Kid grew up. House Lethway has its own security. Mr. Lethway doesn’t like it when the Missus leaves the House. When he settled back in Rannit, she didn’t need me anymore. He did.”

But you raised little Carris, didn’t you? I didn’t speak it aloud. I didn’t need to.

I’d found an ally- all I had to do was hope he didn’t reluctantly, and with deep and heartfelt regret, murder me.

“Mr. Lethway doesn’t seem too concerned about his son.”

“Mr. Lethway doesn’t give two damns about anything but getting another crown richer.” He realized he was speaking too loud, and he took a breath. “I don’t think he plans to pay any ransom, Mr. Markhat. He’s stalling them. Begging for time. That’s not the right way to handle a thing like that, is it?”

“I’m afraid not. Kidnappers don’t practice much patience.”

“They sent an ear in a box last week.” He swallowed and got control of his voice again. “Think it was his?”

I sighed. “I hate to say it, but yes. Probably so.” I let that sink in. “How are they communicating?”

“We get letters. They come here, all hours, delivered by street kids who got the letters from weedheads who got the letters from people they can’t describe. They pay the weedheads in smack and weed right after they deliver, and not one of them has been able to remember a thing. Even when I helped them try to remember.”

I nodded. Using weedheads as couriers was a common practice in Rannit’s thriving kidnapping industry. Most don’t recall their own names after years of puffing weed.

“The letters. Can you get them?”

Mr. Pratt shook his head. “He burns them after he reads them, Mr. Markhat. Doesn’t want a scandal.” He spat into the street. “Bastard even burned the ear.”

I cussed. There wouldn’t even be any evidence to turn over to the Watch, if I somehow surmised who the kidnappers were.

“How much are they asking?”

He let his eyes wander the street before speaking. Maybe he thought a bit too. But eventually, he spoke.

“That’s another funny thing, Mr. Markhat. I don’t think they’ve asked for money.”

“What makes you think that?”

“I can read, Mr. Markhat. Emily-Mrs. Lethway-she taught me. The letters are two, sometimes three pages long. I haven’t been able to read one up close yet, but who takes three pages to say ‘Give us so much money or else?’”

“So if it’s not money, what is it?”

He looked up at the sky and shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe it’s some rival in the business, demanding that Lethway move out of their territory. Maybe it’s some union thing. Who knows what motivates the rich, these days.”

“Same thing that always has. Money or the means to lay hands on it.”

“Cynic.”

“Bet on it. Look. Any chance you could snag one of these letters before Lethway gets it?”

“Been trying. He’s a hawk where they’re concerned, though. Haven’t even come close yet.”

“Keep trying.” I wondered if I could believe a word of this. But I couldn’t see any angle to it. If Pratt wanted to finish what Lethway had started in the Troll’s Den, all he had to do was invite me to a quiet room upstairs. He hadn’t.

“Did they ever mention a deadline?”

“He let that slip once.” Pratt gave a date.

It was also the date of the wedding. I cussed under my breath.

“What?”

“Nothing. Probably nothing. Same day as the wedding. They probably picked that on purpose, to give it a little extra emphasis.”

“Makes sense. I looked into the Fields. Bakers. Carris loves the girl. Don’t think they’re involved.”

I just nodded.

“So where does all this leave me and you, Mr. Pratt?”

“Well, Mr. Markhat, in a moment, I’m going to stand up and grab you and make a big show of threatening you. You’ll say something smart and push off. I’ll report you spun a line of nonsense and tried to bribe me.”

“Won’t your boss know we talked for a long time?”

“He’s in a meeting with the mining union right now. My partner is out back having a snort. Miss Marchin will tell the boss we talked, but as long as she sees us arguing that’s all she’ll tell.”

“You take a lot of chances.”

He shrugged. “So do you. Look, Markhat. I like the kid. I like the lady. I’ve got some money of my own. If you can find out who’s got Carris, and where they’ve got him, I can sure as Hell pay you a fee and go and get Carris myself. “

“I’m already working for his fiancee. But when I find out who took Carris, I’ll be back around to talk. I won’t accept any payment, but I might ask a favor. You in turn will refrain from decapitating me. Deal?”

He laughed. “Deal. Now. You can punch me, if you want. Not in the jaw. I just had these teeth fixed.”

I rose and backed away, into what I was sure was Miss Markin’s view. I put up my hands in a stay back gesture.

Mr. Pratt came roaring off the bench and clamped those beefy paws hard on my shoulders and gave me a powerful shove.

“Next time you come around dis place, I feed you to the ogres,” he bellowed.

I took a step forward, but didn’t swing. Whistles blew, and a pair of blue-capped Watch sergeants came charging out of a cafe.

“What’s the problem here?” demanded the first.

“White shoes after Armistice Day,” I replied.

“Beat it, both of you.”

I turned on my heel and made for my borrowed carriage, a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

Chapter Eleven

Neither smile nor song lasted all the way across town. I had time to kill before my meeting with Tamar, which meant I had time to go and try to mend fences with Darla.

Which also meant I’d have to tell her about Hisvin and the cannons and the war and my new rank.

I wasn’t eager to speak about any of that, to Darla or anyone else. And Hisvin would probably shoot me with a pair of Aught Eights if she knew I was about to go spilling state secrets to my fiancee.

“Well, I didn’t like getting drafted, either.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” I shouted. “Talking to myself. Sign of not drinking enough.”

The driver laughed, and before I could prepare any elaborate speeches or, better still, come up with a convincing stall for time, we were in front of Darla’s dress shop.

I bade my borrowed driver to wait. He was dozing before I finished. I took a deep breath and ambled up to Darla’s door and marched through it with a smile.

The place was busy. Half a dozen women were idling about, chatting and oohing and ahhing over the latest creations. Mary the salesgirl had two clients to herself, Darla had a pair and Martha herself, Darla’s partner, was pinning fabric around a plump girl standing on a stool with her arms spread.

Darla smiled at me. I’ve gotten proficient at reading her smiles, and I thanked a nameless Angel that she smiled her I’m-genuinely-glad-to-see-you smile.

There’s a plain wooden chair in the corner put there just for me. I parked my fundament upon it, pulled down my hat, and allowed myself the appearance if not the substance of a brief nap.

My appointed chair and I kept each other company for the better part of an hour before Mary closed the door with a weary sigh, Martha darted into the back to make hasty alterations, and Darla stuffed a surprisingly thick wad of newfangled paper money into the till.

That done, she propped her elbows on the counter and put her chin in her hands and smiled at me again.

“Business is good,” I said, rising. My knees popped like dry twigs. “How does it feel to be Rannit’s most sought-after purveyor of high fashion?”

“It feels exhausting. Kiss me. Mary, avert your innocent gaze.”

Mary giggled and busied herself folding things that didn’t need folding, and I obliged my Darla with a kiss.

“Can you take a walk?” I half-hoped she’d say no. “Or a ride? I have Evis’s good carriage, right outside.”

Darla pretended to frown. “A ride? Are you trying to trick me into a small enclosed space with you?”

“Perish the thought. I was going to stay here, in my chair, while you toured Rannit. That way Mary won’t be scandalized.”

She grabbed my hand. “Mary, we’re going out for a quick scandal,” she called. “See that the Watch arrests this man at once, will you?”

And away we went.

I told the driver to just drive. He took the hint. We rolled along, going nowhere.

“Nice weather.” Darla sat beside me, gazing out her window, giving every appearance of not having a care in the world. “I think it may be a cool night, though.”

“That’s just mean.” I took off my hat and put it in my lap. “I’m ready to talk. “

Darla turned. “Whatever about?”

“I’ve been drafted. As in back into the Army. Hisvin’s private branch of it.”

She blinked.

“I wish I was joking, Darla dear. But I’m not.”

“I don’t understand. Why does…that person need a private army?”

“Because Rannit is going to war.” I explained about the cannons, and the Battery, and Prince, and the barges even now bearing their deadly cargo down the Brown toward us. Spilling the whole mess didn’t take three minutes.

Three minutes, and all our lives changed forever.

“So you’re a Captain now.”

I nodded. “So I’m told. So is Evis, by the way. He’s thrilled too.”

“And what does a Captain earn, in this private army?”

It was my turn to blink.

“Earn?”

“Earn. You’re an officer. Officers are paid. You didn’t even ask?”

“It didn’t seem to matter.”

She sighed.

“I could be whisked away again at any moment. War is coming. These cannons scare even Hisvin. I did make all that clear, did I not?”

“You did. And don’t think I’m not scared, to my bones, because I am. But Markhat-if we’re going to make it as a couple, we’re going to have to face things together. Good things. Bad things. Every thing.”

I nodded. Words weren’t coming.

She tried to find a smile.

“You never talk about your parents.”

“Huh?”

“I’m just changing the subject. Tell me about your father.”

“Not much to tell. Dad left Mom to go be a soldier.”

“Did he come home, when he was done soldiering?”

“They sent a letter. Died out West. Mom didn’t last too long after.”

She pushed my hat aside and found my hands and clasped them.

“You are not your father.”

“People get killed in wars.”

“That doesn’t mean we should stop living.”

“I haven’t. Stopped living. But.”

Rannit flowed past us, ogres and cabs and Watchmen, all bellowing and rushing and unaware of what their futures held. We watched in silence for a bit.

“I thought you were getting tired of me.”

I cussed. “Sorry. No. I’ll never get tired of you. I’m not trying to get out of anything, Darla. I just don’t want to leave you a widow.”

“So you’d break my heart instead? You nearly did, you know. Break my heart.”

“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t. I lived through one war, Darla. Barely. Now I’m older and slower and nobody’s luck holds forever. Does that make sense?”

She just nodded. She nodded and sank her head on my shoulder, and we held hands and didn’t speak.

“You need to ask how much a Captain earns,” she said after a while. “Not because it’s important. But because you need to stop thinking about this as a death sentence. Hisvin needs to know you plan to survive. I need to know you plan to survive.”

“I’ll do my damnedest.”

She snuggled up closer.

“We could run away.” She shivered. It wasn’t cold. “We could run away, right now, tonight.”

“Thought about it. Take you and Three-leg. Run and keep running until we got our paws wet in the Sea.”

“We’d live in a grass hut.” She shivered again. “You could fish all day. I could wear tropical flowers in my hair.”

“I pictured things the other way around.”

She laughed, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“We’re Rannites, born and bred, aren’t we?”

I felt her nod her head yes. I wrapped my arms around her.

“Then we stay. Stay and see it through.”

“As long as we stay together, I don’t care what else happens. We are staying together, aren’t we, Markhat?”

“We are.”

“Then that’s all that matters.”

We rode. Darla cried a bit. Then with one last fierce hug she was my smiling Darla again, fussing with her makeup, gently needling me about needing a haircut and a shave befitting an officer.

We talked about Tamar too. I laid out my meeting with Lethway and my night in jail and my conversation with Pratt. I assured her I would find Carris Lethway before Hisvin dragged me off to war, and she countered by indicating that as long as the war was being directed at Rannit’s walls I was expected home for supper each evening, cannons or not.

I let her out in front of her shop. She hopped down and said goodbye and nothing in her face indicated she’d just learned about a war marching our way.

“See you tonight,” she said. Then she waved and whirled and was gone.

“Where to?” called the driver.

I gave him Tamar’s address. Darla’s perfume lingered in the cab. My shoulder was still damp where she’d cried.

Tamar wasn’t at the shop. Her father was, but so was a crowd of hungry diners, so all I got from him were glares. I’d hoped to chat with him, maybe get him rattled enough to talk about why he hated Carris Lethway. But there are times and there are places, and this was neither.

I did the next best thing and went to the man’s home to sit on his chair and speak to his daughter. Tamar had given me the address, so I settled back into my seat and watched the street from there.

If Mama’s rogue hex casters were following me, they were too good to be seen. I grinned at the thought of the cab fares they’d be racking up, even trying. Keeping up with me on foot today wasn’t going to be possible.

The neighborhoods changed a few blocks from the Fields home, losing the shops and the eateries and the bathhouses in favor of lawns and homes and parks. While it wasn’t the Hill or the Heights, it was nice. Nice and freshly painted and new. The roofs didn’t lean. The walls didn’t buckle. Glass windows weren’t broken.

I spied a white house with blue shutters and a blue door beneath a spreading oak. A white cat lay curled on the porch swing. Two black dogs played behind a picket fence.

Darla would love that place, I thought. I wondered how much it would run, and whether a man on Captain’s pay could afford it.

My next thought was wondering how far from the walls it stood, and would it withstand cannon fire.

I turned away. The driver missed a turn and swung around, and then we were at the Fields home, and I clambered out.

“Wait here a bit,” I said.

“You got it.” He was parked in a patch of shade. He pulled out an apple and began to munch.

I hadn’t taken a dozen steps toward the house when I heard a familiar frenzied yipping, and Mr. Tibbles came charging out of the half-open door.

He saw me. He stopped, yapped furiously for a moment, and then turned and ran back toward the door, barking over his shoulder and watching me the whole time.

Dogs are dogs, even if they’re tiny and done up in ribbons.

I charged the door. I wasn’t hauling Toadsticker around in broad daylight, but I did have a pair of brass knuckles in my left pocket and my Army knife down my right boot. I paused at the door long enough to retrieve both, and then I darted inside.

Mr. Tibbles stopped yapping, but kept his hackles up and growled a low, determined growl. He mounted a carpeted stairway and bounded up it, huffing with each leap. I followed, knife in hand, glad for the carpet and the dog’s sudden attack of good sense. Last thing I needed was a barking dog announcing my arrival.

Halfway up the stair, crashings and screams sounded from above. A man yelled, another bellowed, and then a woman screamed and glass broke.

Mr. Tibbles leaped over the last stair tread. His paws hit a hardwood floor and skittered and slid. He ran in place for an instant, legs pumping, and then he found his footing and raced down a short hall with me on his heels.

At a corner, the little dog yapped. A man shouted “Shut that damned mutt,” and I heard heavy boots come thump-thumping my way as Mr. Tibbles vanished around a corner.

An instant later, he reappeared, airborne and tumbling. The man who’d just kicked the little dog hove into view.

He had time to open his mouth before I punched him in it. The brass knuckles made a mess. Blood and teeth flew.

He had a short wide knife. I slashed first, cutting deep into his wrist. He dropped his blade, and I kneed him in the groin. When he went down I lashed out and landed a good solid kick on his head.

Five paces away, his partner had his arms around Tamar’s waist. He was behind her, holding her aloft, laughing and shaking her, while she kicked and screamed and tried to reach his face.

He didn’t see me for those four crucial steps it took me to get close enough to knock the living Hell out of him with the hilt of my knife.

I had a clear shot to the back of his head. He began to fold without a word, but before he could fall Tamar sprang free and grabbed a black oak walking stick from beside a bureau and brought it down hard, square on his temple.

I grabbed the stick, but was too late. The man had a dent in his skull. His breath rattled and wheezed and he collapsed, ruined head lolling. I knew without checking for a pulse he wouldn’t be getting up and grabbing young women from behind ever again.

I heard a groan. My dog-kicking friend was being savaged about his ears by Mr. Tibbles, who was making a good show of small-scale mauling. I parked Tamar in a chair and made my way to the survivor, who regained enough presence of mind to bring his hands to his face and weakly call for help.

I kicked him in the gut. Mr. Tibbles looked on with approval. Tamar began to cry.

“You move and I’ll kill you,” I said. “Nod if you understand.”

He nodded. Blood was gushing from his mouth and running freely down his shirt.

I returned to Tamar, kneeled in front of her, made her look me square in the face.

“Were there more? Did you see anyone besides these two?”

Her gaze went past me and locked onto the dead man on the floor. The pool of blood around his head was expanding.

I shook her, gently. Mr. Tibbles growled.

“Miss Fields. How many?”

“Two,” she said. Her voice was distant. “Just these two. They said they were here to see Father.”

“Did they come in a carriage?”

She just stared.

“All right. Here’s what we’re going to do. Which of the next-door neighbors is your favorite?”

“The Marshalls.”

“Good. We’re going to go see the Marshalls. You have them summon the Watch. I’ll stay here. Can you do that?”

“I killed him.”

“No. I killed him. I came in and found you struggling and we fought and I killed him.”

“No. I did it-”

I put my face close to hers.

“No. I did it. Me, you understand? They laid hands on you, and I barged in and we fought. You’re in shock. But that’s what happened.”

“But…”

“But nothing. I killed him. Got it?”

She tried to form a word and failed. I gathered her up, and Mr. Tibbles leaped into her arms, and we sidled around the moaning man.

“I catch you up and walking, I’ll kill you,” I said. “Stay put or die. Your choice.”

I took Tamar out of there. I didn’t like leaving the man behind, but if they’d come in a carriage they probably hadn’t come alone, and I didn’t want to risk giving anyone another shot at Tamar.

I might not be so lucky next time.

I made my way out of the Fields home without incident. The road was filled with cabs and carriages. None slowed or stopped. Tamar was turning pale and shivering. I couldn’t see any marks on her, but I was beginning to wonder if she’d taken a blow to the head during the fracas.

I yelled once I was out the door. My driver saw a distressed young woman and bloody brass knuckles and dived from his perch to the street, a fair-sized Avalante sword suddenly gleaming in his hand.

“We need to get next door,” I shouted. He came running, dodging cabs right and left. “Keep an eye out for company.”

The Marshalls were home. They took Tamar in and sent a lad for the Watch and within moments Tamar was surrounded by a dozen anxious men of various ages, weapons at ready, while another half dozen maids and cooks stood at the doors with rolling pins and skillets in case their men-folk were taken by surprise.

I brushed off questions, and my driver and I hustled back to Tamar’s house.

The dead man remained, but he was alone. A trail of blood led out the door, and then stopped, and I knew I’d let my best chance of getting to the bottom of this mess stroll cheerfully away.

“Never a dull moment,” said my driver. “You hurt?”

He was looking at my gut. I was bleeding from a shallow gash right above my navel. I hadn’t felt a thing.

“It’s nothing. Ruined another shirt, though. Which way you think he went?”

The driver shrugged. “No way to tell.”

“You’d better take off.” The bleeding was getting worse. I cussed and found a handkerchief and pressed it to the wound. “I had to kill one of them. The Watch is likely to scoop you up too.”

“We can both be gone before they get here.”

I shook my head. “Thanks. But head on back to Avalante. Tell Evis I’ll be a little late dropping by tonight.”

Whistles began to blow. “My name’s Reggie.” He stuck out his hand and realized I was in no condition to shake it and grinned. “Tell you what. I’ll be parked two blocks north of here for the next three hours. If they cut you loose, I’ll give you a ride.”

“Deal.” My head was beginning to swim, but I wanted to pilfer the corpse’s pockets before the Watch had a chance to do the same. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

We parted. I hurried through the door and back up the stairs, wary but alone, half-expecting the dead man to be gone too.

For once that day, I was lucky. The corpse was still there, staining the Fields' floor with a dark pool of blood. The walking stick that had killed him was gone. I realized it must have been his, since the other man had taken it.

I knelt and searched his pockets. All were empty. No copper, no paper, no helpful scrap of this or incriminating corner of that.

His blank eyes stared up at me. They were as cold and merciless in death as they had been while he held Tamar and laughed at her distress. I reached down and closed them with my bloodied hand.

The Watch burst inside, whistles blowing, men shouting.

“Up here,” I called. I turned but remained on my knees and put my hands high up over my head. “Second floor. I’m a licensed finder. The girl is safe next door.”

Booted feet came rushing up stairs. I waited for the forces of Law and Order to come thundering my way.

Reggie the driver promised to wait three hours.

I was wondering if I’d be out in three years.

It’s a good thing my story was simple and basically true, or I’d never have managed to tell it so many times without getting tripped up. I told it to the sergeant on the scene. I told it again a half dozen times on my way to the Watch house downtown. I told it again another dozen times, at least, inside the Watch house.

Each retelling was met with more of the same. The same blank impassive faces, the same rounds of questions, the same heavy sighs and orders to write it down and sign it and then start over again.

I was never charged, although I admitted killing a man. They never used his name, which told me they didn’t know him either. No one ever hinted that Tamar landed the killing blow, which told me she’d managed to stick to the plan.

After a small eternity spent reliving the same twenty seconds of terror over and over again, I was simply ushered into a crowded waiting room and told not to leave Rannit.

Waiting for me was Tamar, still pale, and her father, still furious.

I stood. My back ached and my mouth was as dry as a mummy’s scalp, and all I wanted to do was go home and have a bath.

“I’m not the one who got you out,” said Mr. Fields, his voice low and barely audible over the din of the waiting room. “I’d have left you to rot.”

“Father.” Tamar hugged me briefly. She was still shaking. “He saved my life.”

“He’s the reason your life was in danger in the first place.”

“No, Mr. Fields, that just isn’t true. Those men would have come around had I never been involved.” I leaned down to put my face level with his. I’d had a long day so I poked him in the chest with my finger. “Thing is, Mr. Fields, they didn’t come to see me. They came to see you. But you wouldn’t play nice, so they came to get your daughter. I don’t know who they are, or why they did such a thing. But I believe you do. And the longer you keep that a secret the longer your family is at risk.”

“How dare you-”

“Is it the same people who took Carris Lethway? I’m betting it is. Which means you and the Lethways have something in common, besides kids in love. Are you going to tell me what that is, Mr. Fields? Or am I going to have to keep digging?”

A couple of Watchmen were taking an interest in our conversation.

“You’re mad,” he sputtered. “Mad.”

“I’m not the one keeping secrets while men come after his daughter.”

“Stay away from us,” he said. “Stay away. I’m warning you.”

“Are you making threats against my person, Mr. Fields?” I raised my voice. “Are you threatening me with bodily harm in a Watch house?”

His round little face went from red to purple.

Tamar grabbed his arm.

“We’re leaving,” she said. “Father is overwrought.”

“He certainly is. I’ll walk you out. These streets aren’t safe.”

“Stay away from my daughter. Stay away from my home.”

“If I’d stayed away today you’d be childless, Mr. Fields, and I think you damned well know it.”

To this day, I believe Fields would have murdered me on the spot, Watch house or no, had Tamar not hauled him forcefully around and marched him out the door.

“Two men tried to kidnap that pretty young woman not six hours ago,” I said, loud. “Be a shame if they tried again, right outside a Watch house.”

To my amazement, a trio of burly young Watchmen exchanged nods and followed Tamar outside.

I let the Fields go. No point in further infuriating any secretive bakers with my presence just yet.

“You really got a way with people,” quipped a Watchman.

“I missed my calling. Should have been a priest. What time is it, anyway?”

“Five of the clock, near enough.”

I’d thought it was later. I had plenty of time to head back to my office, take care of a few things and then head on over to Avalante to see if Mama had reduced the place to ashes yet.

“Thanks,” I said. I knocked a layer of imaginary dust off my hat and headed for the door, and for the second time in as many days I stepped out of a Watch house a free if somewhat disheveled man.

I took care of a number of chores that afternoon.

I didn’t replace my door. Not yet. Not when there was still a good chance persons would set fire to it again any moment.

Instead, I nailed a couple of oak planks across the burnt spot, on the inside, to deter any door-kickers. I also dabbed a fresh layer of Mama’s stink-hex all over the doorframe. So far, I’d smelled nothing, but I’d forgotten to ask how long the stuff would last out in the sun so I figured I’d err on the side of caution.

I also rubbed a generous dollop on the wall of the Girt building at the corner of Cambrit and Holt and on Mr. Tackart’s famous sausage sign at the other end of my street. I pass one or both corners every day, and so would anyone coming to see me with mayhem on their mind. Whether I’d smell even Mama’s hex-stink over the open sewers was anybody’s guess.

It was dusk by the time I managed to wind a fresh bandage across my belly and have a wash and head for Avalante. I even picked up three bunches of daisies, one each for Mama and Gertriss and Buttercup. I doubted that a day of captivity, even in the shadowed opulence of Avalante, had left anyone but the banshee in an amiable state of mind.

I made my way back across town without being followed. I knew Gertriss would insist upon leaving, so I spent most of the trip preparing careful arguments against that.

House Avalante, I noted with some relief, still stood, shaded beneath its monstrous oaks. The mighty doors were intact. Jerle, the day man, met me with his customary lack of a smile. The air inside was cool, distinctly lacking in the odor of wood-smoke, and no screams issued down the walnut-paneled halls.

“Did a woman named Mama Hog make it here today?” I asked.

“Indeed, sir. You are expected.” He took my hat and coat. “Mr. Prestley is occupied. Bentley will show you to a parlor.”

“Just don’t let her at the wine. Makes her want to dance. We don’t want that.”

“Indeed not, sir. Bentley.”

A well-dressed halfdead glided out of a doorway. His eyes were covered with dark glasses. He smiled with his lips, without showing any teeth.

“This way, Mr. Markhat.”

I went.

Bentley took me a parlor I’d never seen before. It was only one floor down, which is at least three floors above Evis and his cavernous rooms. He opened the door for me, motioned me inside, and closed it behind me.

I sat. My stomach growled. The room, despite being underground, was hot and stuffy. I was loosening my tie when the door opened again and Gertriss and Buttercup darted inside.

Buttercup darted, actually. Gertriss was merely hanging on. Buttercup squealed at the sight of the flowers and did a happy little dance around my knees.

“Here you go, kid,” I said, handing her a bunch of yellow daisies. “And for you too,” I added, handing another to Gertriss.

I didn’t like the look on her face.

It was, in fact, the I-have-bad-news look I’ve come to know too well.

That, and Mama’s absence, sent me sinking back in my chair.

“Oh no. Don’t tell me. They’ve locked Mama up already.”

“Worse, boss.” She pulled up chair to face me and sat herself before brushing a lock of golden hair out of her eyes.

“Boss, Mama’s not here. She slipped out right after we arrived. I’m sorry, boss. She’s gone.”

“Gone where? Back to Cambrit?”

“She’s not in Rannit at all. She’s heading home. To Pot Lockney. Going after the hex-caster herself.” Gertriss fished in a pocket. “She left a note. I was trying to get Buttercup settled in, and by the time I noticed it was quiet, it was too late.”

I took the paper and cussed.

Mama, I realized, had this stunt planned the whole time she pretended to argue about staying at Avalante.

And I’d lapped it up and not seen it coming. “Not your fault, Miss. Mama played us both. I just gave her a head start and an excuse to pack a bag, bringing her here.”

Buttercup reached up and stroked the stubble on my chin and giggled. Gertriss pulled her back and sat her on her lap while I unfolded Mama’s note and read.

“Boy,” it said. “You ought to have knowed I wasn’t going to sleep in no house of the halfdead. And that hex-caster ought to have knowed not to mess with Mama Hog.”

I snorted. Typical Mama. How she crams so much ego into such a tiny frame ought to be studied someday.

“I’m going home. I keeps a house outside Pot Lockney. House is called the old Plegg house what sits on Plague Hill. I’m going there, and I’m going to set up shop and before I’m done I’m going to nail me a hex-caster’s head to my front door. It’s partly about you and my niece and partly about me. If’n I don’t pull this here hex-caster’s teeth, boy, people hereabouts are going to start taking the name Hog lightly. I won’t have that. You wouldn’t either, and you knows it. Now, I reckon you’ve got your hands full with your work, and I’ve got mine to do. So don’t be coming to Pot Lockney, thinking old Mama needs help. Because I don’t, boy, and that’s a fact. You tell Miss High and Mighty the same thing, you hear? I’ll send letters back as I can. And when I’m done, boy, you won’t be needing to worry about no more hexed folks setting your door alight. I’m going after blood, and I aims to spill it. Mind that banshee and my niece. And yourself. I’ll work as fast as I can but this ain’t over yet so you watch your step.”

She’d left it unsigned. I folded it and handed it back to Gertriss, who sighed and patted Buttercup’s tousled head.

“Got to give Mama one thing. She caught us both with this one. Did you know she had a house in Pot Lockney?”

“Everybody knows Plague Hill, boss. It’s haunted. Been haunted forever. I had no idea Mama owned it. There’s going to a panic when she starts lighting lamps, I can tell you that. The whole hill is cursed. Something from the old days.”

I grunted. “It’s cursed now if it wasn’t before. All right. We can’t go chasing after Mama with a banshee in tow, and even if we caught up to her there’d be no turning her back. Agreed?”

Gertriss nodded. “If she’s gone after the hex-caster’s head she won’t stop until his teeth are in her pocket.”

“Well put. So. We work our end, figure out as much as we can about the people the caster is sending.”

“Sounds good.” Buttercup began to sing softly, her words either a made-up babbling or some pre-Kingdom tongue dead so long all knowledge of it was lost. “Of course, that leaves you here with Buttercup. Could be a long stay.”

Gertriss bit her lip. She wanted to protest, but Mama left her without any real options, just as Mama intended.

“So I just sit here. Take naps. Comb my hair. Is that it, boss?”

“Enjoy it while it lasts, Miss, because it won’t last long.” I rose. Buttercup played with her flowers. Gertriss glared, not at me in particular, but at everything in general.

“I’ve got to see if I can roust Evis out,” I said. “Then I’ll head home. I’ll drop back around tomorrow, check on you two.” I crouched and put myself eye level with Buttercup. “You be a good girl for Aunt Gertriss.”

The banshee pinched my nose and broke into squeals of laughter. Gertriss gave me a forced half-smile and gathered up Buttercup, and we were both nearly at the door when Bentley swung it silently open.

“Allow me to show you to your rooms, Miss,” he said. “Mr. Markhat. Mr. Prestley would like to see you. Take the hall to the stairs. I believe you know the way.”

“I do indeed. Miss. Miss.”

Gertriss bade me goodnight and followed Bentley away. Buttercup looked up at me from her shoulder and winked as they vanished around a corner.

I took to the stairs. I’d never been left alone in the House before. It sounded of that peculiar quiet one can only find in deep places underground.

I hurried even deeper into the dark.

Evis is indeed a vampire, but the man keeps fine cigars.

Chapter Twelve

It was my turn to puff away on an expensive cigar and fail utterly to blow smoke rings while Evis did the fuming and muttering.

“Markhat, you don’t understand. Mama left the House unseen. Unseen, I tell you. That can’t happen.”

“Maybe not, but it did.” I let smoke crawl out of my mouth. “Mama is mostly put-on, but the old girl has a genuine trick or two up her sleeve, I suppose. Although I suspect she just sat in a dustbin and let Jerle put her by the curb.”

“This isn’t funny, Markhat. An elderly soothsayer breached House security. From within. You couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. But Mama did it, somehow.”

Evis rose and paced. The lit end of his cigar glowed bright in the perpetual shadow of his office. His dead eyes shone bloody in the glow.

“We’ll ask her how she did it when she gets back.”

Evis shook his head and sagged a bit. “Yes. Yes, we will. And you know damned well she’ll just cackle and spit in our eyes.”

“Probably. But if you bring a House wand-waver or two into the room, and have them ask her, politely, how she pulled one over on them, she might spill it. As long as they are appropriately awed by her obvious skills.”

Evis looked at me, his eyes still glowing in the cigar’s crimson light.

“You think that would work?”

“An appeal to Mama’s ego? Seriously? How could it fail?”

A ghost of a grin crossed his pale face.

“You just earned another cigar, Captain.”

I grimaced. “Finder. I’m not in uniform. Won’t ever be, hopefully.”

Evis returned to his chair.

“Speaking of the Army-”

“Let’s not.”

“Oh, but we must. I did something yesterday, you see. I think you’ll be interested to hear about it.”

“Unless it involves desertion, probably not.”

Evis chuckled and fished another cigar from the case and clipped the end off with a silver clipper before handing it to me. I snuffed my old one out and took one of the fancy matches from the box and lit it, first try, on the scratching-stone beside the box.

I sucked and puffed until it was well and truly alight. Evis waited until then before speaking.

“I rode down to the Old Wall. Same place you did, I understand. Busy place. Soldiers milling around. Officers thicker than flies at a funeral. Do you know what I did, Markhat?”

“Ran over the first lieutenant you saw?”

“I walked right up to the man in charge. I identified myself only as Evis Prestley of House Avalante. I ordered the man to assign fifty of the troops guarding the street onto the scaffolds so they could lay bricks. I ordered another twenty-five to assist with the mixing of mortar.” Evis took a long draw. “Can you guess what happened next?”

“Before or after he ordered you beaten to a bloody mess?”

Evis shook his head.

“He complied. With each and every instruction. Without question. Without hesitation.”

“You’re joking.”

“I am not. Un-uniformed, un-credentialed and outranked, I gave a series of orders. Orders which were immediately followed. I suspect you could do the same.”

“What the Hell?”

Evis waved his cigar. “Why were we drafted into the Corpsemaster’s army?”

“Because she’s a capricious monster who thought it was funny?”

“Possibly. Or partly. But consider this. We have apparently been given authority far in excess of our assigned rank. We were inducted, but not deployed. Indeed, we have been given no orders of any kind-is that so?”

“So far, that’s true. What are you thinking?”

“Politics. Finder. Even the Corpsemaster has obligations. Allegiances to maintain. New alliances to forge. Enemies to quell. Friends to placate.”

“Victims to torture. Corpses to steal. I get that. She’s a busy old spook.”

“The cannons. The gunpowder. Developed in secret. The war, kept secret thus far. What does that suggest?”

I took a puff and longed for beer. “I just assumed she was keeping the cannons to herself. Wand-wavers don’t like to share their toys. Especially the toys that make magic obsolete.”

“True. But what if one or more of Rannit’s other wand-wavers is working with Prince? What if the Corpsemaster is working alone because she is the Regent’s last ally?”

I took that in.

“Beer would be nice.”

Evis pressed the thing behind his desk that summoned a servant and a bucket of ice-cold beer.

“That would put us on the wrong side of some very nasty people.”

Evis nodded in the dark. “Indeed.”

The beer came. We cradled our bottles and drank in silence for a bit.

“So why bring us in? The Corpsemaster hardly lacks for bodies, warm and otherwise.”

“I wondered that too. Until last night. Now it seems obvious.”

“I’m afraid it’s not obvious to half the room,” I said. “Take pity on the unschooled finder, and spell things out for him, will you?”

Evis drained his beer. “It’s like this. She hasn’t given us orders because she doesn’t want to know what we’re doing. Because if she knows, maybe somebody else does too. We’re dealing with wand-wavers here. You and I know there’s no telling what kinds of things they get up to.”

“So we’re to operate outside her camp because, despite all the precautions she’s taken, you think someone on the inside is working for Prince?”

“Working for Prince. Working against the Regent. Working for the highest bidder. Doesn’t matter to us. We’ve been given the means to upset everyone’s apple-cart, at least once, and I think she expects us to do something so clever that even she’s surprised by our wit.”

I drained my beer. “And what, pray tell, would that mighty feat be?”

“No idea whatsoever. I figured all that out. It’s your turn to stop the war.”

“Going to need more beer.”

“Cutting you off after that one. Military decorum, you know. Can’t have our esprit de corps coming out of a bottle.”

I blinked.

“You’re serious.”

Evis nodded. “I am.”

“You think the Corpsemaster wants us to win the war. Us. You and me. All by ourselves.”

“I think she wants us to do whatever it is she can’t do.”

“Which is?”

“That’s what we’ve got to figure out. Here. Look at this.”

He reached into the shadows at the end of his desk and twisted the neck of a lamp. Light flared, revealing the map spread over the entire right-hand side of his enormous oak desk.

Rannit was at the south end of the map. The Brown River bisected Rannit and ran the length of the map, all the way up to Prince.

Evis stabbed Prince with his bony fingertip.

“Word is they’re sending four hundred barges. Each loaded with twenty-two cannon, seven man crews, and enough ammunition for five hundred volleys.”

“That’s eight thousand, eight hundred cannon.” I frowned as I multiplied. “Fired four and a half million times.”

“Give or take, yes. With forty thousand infantry marching along the Brown as escort, who are in turn supported by at least three wand-wavers. If my information is correct, that would be the Storm, the Quiet Man, and Mother.”

I knew the names. They were Hisvin’s equals, if not her betters.

“How good is your information?”

“Very good. The House has been watching this situation for some time.”

“Forget their cannons. Does the Corpsemaster have a chance against those three?”

Evis shrugged. “Hard to say. Storm is getting on in years. We hear the Quiet Man went daft after the Truce. We know Mother nearly bought it during the War when Hisvin dropped a mountain on her. And there’s always the chance the wand-wavers will only stick together until they see a weakness in one another. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went at each others’ throats on the march here.”

“We can hope.”

“We’d better do more than hope.” Evis leaned over the map. I did the same. “You know anything about barges, finder?”

“Worked a couple of summers on the docks as a kid. Barges are slow. They don’t steer worth a damn. They stink. Any of that help?”

“Four hundred barges, finder. I’ve never been up north. How wide is the Brown, most of the way?”

“Wide and shallow. You’ll see barge masters run five or six abreast, some places. Single file, others. ” I frowned. “Are these Gantish barges, Evis? Or the ones they use up above Prince?”

“They’re not Gantish. We checked. They spent last year building them about twenty miles north of Prince.”

“Then you can’t sink the damned things, Evis. Gantish barges, maybe, because they have hulls and decks. But not these northern barges. Most of them are nothing but three layers of logs planed down and banded together with iron and chain. They don’t sink, and they won’t burn.”

Evis nodded, his white eyes distant.

I rose. I knew Evis’s office well enough to pace it in the dark.

“And they’re flanked by an army.” Something in a display case flashed at me. “With arcane support.”

“Some would call that unassailable.”

“Which is why the Corpsemaster isn’t attacking the barges.”

“Possibly. Or perhaps she knows there isn’t time to move men and material to a suitable ambush location.”

I halted close enough to see the map.

“They’ve got one shot at this, don’t they?”

“One, and one only. If they don’t take Rannit quickly, they’ll be bankrupt and unable to pay their troops or resupply their cannon. The principals have each committed their personal fortunes to this, as well as emptying Prince’s coffers. I suspect the Regent and the Corpsemaster are in similar straits. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. But maybe we’re thinking too big. We can’t sink the barges, or burn them out, or take a whack at the troops. You agree with that?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“But maybe we can delay them. Keep them hemmed up. Make them bleed money. How long can they pay the troops?”

“I’ll have to inquire as to the specifics. I suspect no more than a matter of weeks. What are you thinking?”

“The Battery. Remember where Hisvin showed us her toys?”

“I do. What of it?”

“Those big holes in the ground? The ones that used to be buildings?”

“I believe she said those sites were the result of accidents. Accidents involving the gunpowder, which is unstable during production.”

“We can’t get enough cannon up there soon enough to just blast away at them. Even if we did, the wand-wavers would knock them down. I see that. But Evis. This place.” I put my finger on a squiggle in the River, about two-thirds of the way from Prince to Rannit. “Sheer high bluffs. The River narrows to a spot barely wide enough for two barges to pass. I know we can’t get cannon up there-but what if we just dumped a couple of wagons of the gunpowder on the bluffs and lit it and ran like Hell? If we could knock the top off the bluffs, we might make the River impassable, at least until they spent a month hauling rocks out of the mud.”

Evis pondered that.

“Merely dumping powder onto the bluffs wouldn’t work,” he said. “But powder inserted into shafts drilled into the bluff-faces…”

A nagging thought struck me. “Of course, if that was such a good idea, Hisvin would have already done it.”

Evis lifted an eyebrow. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Because if her plans to block the bluffs became known, our foes might take steps to secure the bluffs before we arrive.”

“Looks like they’d do that anyway.”

“Not if they believe Rannit is drawing all its efforts toward a confrontation at the city walls. And not if by some miracle they are oblivious to the extent to which the Corpsemaster has mastered the art of explosive manufacture.”

“That’s a lot of ifs.”

“And not enough beers.” He produced another pair of bottles from the bucket, and glared at his map as though he could force it to surrender and save us all a world of trouble. “Tell me more about these bluffs. Are they limestone or granite?”

By midnight, the bucket was empty.

But our map was covered in scribbles and scrawls.

It was late when Evis kicked me out so he could run downstairs and convince his bosses that spending a fortune now to blow up a pair of cliff faces might save them several fortunes in the days to come. So late that I didn’t bother asking to see Gertriss, who I hoped was asleep in a big soft bed.

I went home, once again in a shiny black Avalante carriage. Curfew had fallen hours before, leaving the streets quiet and the windows dark. A crescent moon peeped between high, fast-moving wisps of clouds, not quite bright enough to cast any shadows.

I heard the sound of hammers in the distance, and knew why they were falling, why the men were working. I wondered how many hammer-blows of hard work would be undone by a single cannon firing. Then I imagined eight thousand cannons firing upon Rannit, and I envied the Moon her station so far above our troubles.

I had the carriage drop me five blocks from home. I waited until it was gone before I broke from my place in a deep well of shadows and began to walk.

On foot, the street was not nearly as silent. I heard the odd voice raised inside the shuttered buildings about me. Somewhere near, a trio of drunken Curfew-breaking revelers hooted and barked in song. A lonesome tomcat cried out, and went unanswered, and I wondered if Three-leg was ever coming home.

Two blocks from home, I stopped, watching and listening. If anyone was following me they were wearing felt-soled boots. I let the silence linger, and then I crossed the empty street and ducked into another pool of shadow.

Ahead was old man Eaton’s barber pole. The red spiral was long gone, wiped away by the sun and the rain and Eaton’s legendary miser’s fist.

The wind shifted. On it rode the stink of Mama’s hex-brew.

I’d dabbed the barber’s pole earlier. Which meant someone with murder in his heart had passed this way since then, headed for my door.

I took a moment to rearrange certain accoutrements. Toadsticker found his way into my right hand. The brass knuckles slipped around the knuckles of my left. My knife moved from my boot to Sticker’s empty scabbard. I buttoned up my dark coat and pushed my hat down and worked my way from shadow to shadow, heading home.

I finally hit Cambrit. I peered around a corner long enough to see my door. It wasn’t aflame. There was no one on the street, no one lurking in any spot I would’ve chosen to lurk.

But I smelled the stink, strong and steady, and I knew damned well he was out there.

So I waited.

You’d be surprised how hard just waiting can be. Especially when you’re waiting for trouble. After a while, the urge to charge in and do something, do anything, becomes almost unbearable.

I’d seen that urge get too many men killed during the War.

I made myself comfortable. I shifted my weight from knee to knee. I concentrated on my breathing. I let time pass, let it act as my silent ally.

An hour passed.

Another.

Finally, right after the tired moon set, my hidden friend gave in to impatience.

He’d been hiding in the narrow alley beside Mr. Bull’s place. That alone showed he wasn’t bright. That’s a dead end, a shallow three-walled coffin with no way out.

He was a big man. Ogre big, nearly. Tall and thick, with long hair tied back in a ponytail. His boots were loud on the quiet street. He huffed as he walked.

He reached my door. He put an ear to it, listened, tried the knob.

I started moving myself, using the shadows, watching my feet.

He put a massive paw on my door and pushed. When that didn’t work, he put his shoulder against it and pushed again.

I saw the frame give a tiny bit.

He withdrew, took a pair of steps back, and then hurled himself at my door, shoulder-first. It gave way, and he rushed into the sudden inky darkness.

There was the sound of heavy things falling, and a muffled cry, and then silence.

I darted to stand beside my splintered door and dared a quick look inside.

It was dark, but I saw the boot-soles upright on my floor, and heard a faint moaning.

I darted across for a better look. My man was down, his head buried under a pile of loose bricks and jagged stones, and I didn’t think he was faking an injury.

Finding loose, broken bricks in Rannit is easy. Earlier in the day, I’d gathered quite a stack. Rigging them to fall if visitors failed to reach up and tug on a rope beside the door wasn’t as easy as picking up brickbats, but it had certainly been worth the effort.

My visitor stirred. Bricks slid and fell. He was even bigger up close. I pushed what was left of my poor door shut and grabbed the length of stout rope I’d wisely left tacked to the wall. I hog-tied him before he could do much more than wiggle.

Then I lit a couple of lamps, shoved my desk out of the way, and sat on my chair, close enough to give him a good thump on the back of his head with Toadsticker, should the need suddenly arise.

He just watched me, his eyes wary. He didn’t bluster or beg or threaten.

His clothes were shabby and worn, but they were city clothes from Rannit, and if his boots had ever seen the quaint pastoral beauty of Pot Lockney they didn’t bear the marks of the journey.

“Local boy,” I said. I let Toadsticker glimmer a bit in the lamplight. “Out to make a little extra money, are we?”

He spoke then. He was apparently displeased with my hospitality and my parentage.

“Tsk tsk.” I interrupted his narrative with a friendly swat. “That’s no way to talk. Not when I’m holding a sword. Think what might happen if I took offense.”

He shut up.

It was only then I noticed he didn’t stink of Mama’s brew.

I sat up straight. I’d smelled it outside. So if I wasn’t smelling it here, that meant my trap hadn’t managed to snare all the Markhat-haters in the neighborhood.

“You’re not alone.” I twirled Toadsticker as though winding up for a blow.

“Wait. Wait. He paid me. Said he wanted you pounded good before he came inside.”

“Pounded good. I see. Was slipping a knife between my ribs also part of the deal?”

“Mister, I said I’d give you a beating. I didn’t say nothing about killing. You can ask around. That ain’t my line.”

“I’ll let the Watch do the asking.” He paled a bit at that. “You got a name?”

“Mills. They call me Grist.”

“I’ve heard of you. Fists for hire. Glad you had your little accident before you found me napping.”

I had heard the name. Never in connection with a killing. Which didn’t mean he was really Mills, or that Mills never killed. “Now, about the man who paid you. An out of towner?”

He frowned, wondering how much I knew, and what lies he might dare tell. “Some hayseed from a farming village. Pots Locked or Pig Valley or some such damned place. He never gave a name and I never asked. Hell, mister, I took a half a crown and said I’d beat you down. I didn’t come in for murder. Ask around. I do beatings, but I never killed a man.”

“Half a crown. With another half a crown to come?”

He tried to nod. “As I was leaving. That was the deal.”

“So if I look in your pocket I’ll find half a crown.”

“All right. All right. Twenty-five jerks. But that’s the truth, I swear it.”

“This hayseed. Where did you meet him?”

“The docks. A guy knew a guy who heard somebody wanted somebody beat.”

“And what does he look like?”

“Short. Bald. Fat. Missing teeth. Smelled like pig shit.”

I shook my head in mock dismay. Toadsticker gleamed in the faint light.

“That’s everyone down at the docks. Not good enough. Too bad for you.”

I didn’t have to raise the sword.

“No! Wait, all right, wait. I followed him after we talked. He’s staying at a place called the Bargewright. Room on the ground floor. Mister, I’m telling the truth.”

I kept my face impassive. “You followed him? Why?”

He made frantic gobbling noises until I nudged him with steel.

“Because they promise half up front and the other half afterward and sometimes the only money they’ve got is the first half. I need to know where to look if they short me. That’s the truth.”

I sighed and took Toadsticker away.

“I’m going to leave the money in your pockets. I figure it’ll take you about an hour to work past those knots. When you’re done, what are you going to do, exactly?”

“Leave. Leave and never come back.”

“Do you have plans that involve you running down to the docks and paying a visit to the Bargewright?”

“No. No. Mister, I’ll leave here and go home and you’ll never see me again.”

I rose. “Tell you what. Clean up this mess and I won’t come looking for you.”

“Anything you say. I promise.”

“Right. I’m leaving. If you’re still here when I get back I’m either giving you to the Watch or feeding you to the halfdead, depending on the hour. You didn’t see a cat around, did you?”

“A what?”

“Never mind.” I stepped around him, shoved my desk back in its place, and wrestled my ruined door open.

“Try not to bleed on my floor, will you? The maid gets squeamish.”

I yanked the door shut before he could reply.

The street was still quiet. No trace of hex-stink lingered. But I knew where the stinker was headed, and I intended to meet him there.

Chapter Thirteen

There’s no way to get a cab in Rannit after Curfew. But a man in a hurry with a pocketful of coin can get a horse and saddle, if he manages to rouse Mr. Flemmons out of his bed without beating down his door in the process.

I managed it. Which meant I not only had the advantage granted by an intimate knowledge of Rannit’s highways and byways but the added speed of four talented hooves. The saddle rubbed my ass raw, and I drew the stares of a couple of halfdead out on the prowl, but I made it to the Docks unpunctured and well in advance of any short, fat hayseeds fleeing Cambrit on foot.

I helped myself to a barn near the Bargewright and made sure my mighty steed Rosie had water and hay. Then I made my way down the pitch-dark street toward the flickering candlelit windows of the Bargewright.

Places like the Bargewright cater to lumberjacks and cattle ranchers and everyone else who has reason to float cargo down the Brown but lacks the funds to end their journey downtown in the clean inns. No, the Bargewright had a leaky roof and thin walls and, if they supplied anything with generosity, it was the cheap booze and the day-old stew.

I walked around the place to find all the doors. Turned out there was only one that wasn’t chained and locked, and it was the front door, so I grinned and ambled inside.

The common room was dim and smoky. A fire that wanted tending was smoldering in a crumbling fireplace. Flies buzzed about, feasting on pools of spilled beer and the remains of abandoned meals.

There were three men and two women scattered about the room when I opened the door. By the time I’d taken two steps inside, they were gone.

“Wise choice.” I took a moment and dabbed the doorframe with Mama’s hex goo. I loosened my coat. I poked up the fire before I choked on the smoke.

Then I turned a chair so that it faced the door and I waited to surprise my out-of-town friend.

I figured a fat man, on foot, would need a good forty-five minutes to make it from Cambrit to the docks, even at a steady run.

An hour and half passed, banged out by the Big Bell’s smaller sibling, before I heard boots and heavy breathing outside.

A man dove inside and slammed the door behind him.

His beady little eyes were wild. His bald, round head was bathed in sweat and streaked with dirt. He was gasping for air and trying to mouth words but couldn’t get them out at first. He stank of hex-brew and to a lesser extent of pig manure.

He saw me. But whatever he’d seen outside was occupying all his mind.

“Vampires,” he managed to gasp. “Outside. Chasing.”

“Well, you can relax. They won’t beat down the door. Curfew says you’re fair game if they catch you outdoors, but once you cross a threshold the chase is done.”

He gobbled air and regarded me with eyes going wary.

I pushed my hat back.

“Of course, there’s no telling who might be waiting for you inside, is there?”

He knew, then. I’m sure he’d seen me before, even followed me. While he stood there panting and sweating, it dawned on him who I was, and I watched his little brain piece together the events he knew must have led me here, and what that meant for his next few moments.

I had him. I had him, and he knew it. He had nowhere to run. Halfdead behind and finders before. I braced myself for the begging and the denials.

The last thing I expected that fat turnip-herder to do was open the door and charge back into the dark.

But that’s just what he did.

I leaped to my feet and charged after him.

I didn’t even hear him scream. I saw a blur of movement, black shadows whipping within blacker shadows, and as I drew Toadsticker the fat man’s body slumped to the street and a pair of halfdead were suddenly standing before me.

Their mouths were red and wet. Their dead pale eyes were fixed upon me.

“I’m with Avalante,” I said. I tapped my silver House pin. “Evis Prestley is a friend of mine.”

“The finder,” said one.

“How amusing,” said the other. A trickle of blood ran down his chin. “Was that a friend of yours?”

“Hardly. He tried to kill me earlier. I was hoping to ask him why.”

“Apologies.”

“Regrets.”

I didn’t like the way they kept smiling.

“Evis is, in fact, a very good friend of mine.”

They laughed high, hissing laughs before turning and gliding away.

I went to the fat man’s side, felt for a pulse at his neck.

I felt no beating of a heart. When I pulled my hand away, it was wet.

I cussed a bit and turned him over and searched him for pockets and papers. I found a key, a last meal in the form of a half-eaten biscuit he had probably consumed in that alley across from my place, a couple of copper coins, and a short length of wood carved with what felt like mystical symbols.

I cleaned my hand on his shirt and left him for the dead wagons. He no longer stank of Mama’s hex-brew. I guess that departed with his heartbeat.

An ogre passed, pulling an empty cart. He sent the dead man flying up onto the sidewalk with a single casual kick.

Hell of a way to end a life.

The dead man’s room was much like his corpse-it reeked of body odor, and the only thing that could cleanse it now was a hot fire.

I used Toadsticker’s point to move clothing and suspect bits of trash around. He hadn’t come to Rannit with anything except a burlap bag and an extra pair of boots, but he’d somehow managed to collect quite a few articles of used clothing, most of them filthy and probably housing legions of lice and fleas. What he intended to do with a load of filthy clothes is not something I’ll ponder.

I didn’t see the tiny chest of drawers at first. It was stuck in a corner and covered with rags. But Toadsticker’s point found it, and I scraped the debris away and there it was-three legs and leaning, but sporting three closed drawers.

The bottom two were empty. The top one held a sweat-stained paper envelope. Inside were two folded sheets of Army-issue yellow paper, and scrawled on one was my name, my address and a largely inaccurate map of Rannit and the Docks. Gertriss was mentioned as well, though listed as living at my place.

Scrawled below her name was the notation Get her first.

The next page was a map. It was drawn in a different ink and with a different hand. It started at a point north of Mama’s hereditary village of Pot Lockney and then wandered through the Northwoods to a point just south of Prince. Then it led straight to Rannit via the Brown.

No names, no brief but informative narration of dastardly plots, no hastily scrawled confessions by the hex-caster.

I folded it all and stuffed it in my jacket pocket and spent a few minutes poking around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hadn’t, so I locked the door behind me, left the key in the lock and tipped my hat to the lady in the next room who peeped out at me through her door.

“You know him?” I asked.

She slammed her door shut and locked it.

I tossed the dead man’s wand into the dying fire and watched it for a moment. It burned just fine. Whatever power it might have held was as dead as its last owner.

I shrugged and saddled up and headed home. The sky turned pink. I met a dead wagon, and I yelled to the driver he had one in front of the Bargewright.

He just shrugged and spat.

Another day dawning, in Rannit.

Darla was sitting on my stoop. A basket sat beside her, and so did Three-leg Cat.

Darla smiled. She didn’t mention Curfew or the breaking thereof. She did rise and hug me wordlessly and let me smell her fresh-washed hair.

“Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

“Not at all. Three-leg kept me company. I know you’ve been worried about him.”

“Worried? Me? I knew the fleabag would show up when he got hungry.”

Darla laughed and let me go. She stayed close, though, and kept hold of my hands.

“He said the same thing about you.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“There’s blood on your jacket.”

It had been dark. I hadn’t noticed.

“It isn’t mine.”

“That is perhaps not as comforting as you think it is.” She gave me a quick kiss and grabbed the basket. I went to my door, didn’t bother with the key and opened it.

“I’ll be damned.”

Grist had stacked the bricks neatly in a corner.

Darla surveyed the bricks and the remains of my brick-dropping apparatus.

“Darling, what happened here?”

“Had a gentleman come calling,” I said. “He meant to surprise me. I surprised him first. He cleaned before he left, though. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Darla held up her hand for silence and then set about opening the basket and dispensing the contents atop my desk.

“Did your visitor have anything to do with Tamar’s missing groom?”

She’d brought a jar of strawberry jam. I have a considerable weakness for strawberry jam.

“He was part of the crew after Gertriss. By the way, Mama has flown the coop. Gone to Pot Lockney to confront the hex-caster.” I grabbed a biscuit. “Still warm.”

“Coffee too.” She poured.

I ate and drank, speaking between swallows. I told her about Pratt, about the attempt to snag Tamar. I told her a man died, but I didn’t specify who killed him, and she didn’t ask.

“You should either stay at Avalante or at my place,” said Darla while I prepared another biscuit with jam. “You can’t drop bricks on everyone who comes to see you.”

“True. I’d soon run out of bricks. I don’t think there will be any more hexed callers for a while, though. The blood on my jacket? That was the last of them, I think. Halfdead got to him before I did.”

Darla shivered. I put my biscuit down and took her hand.

“Enough about that. You asked about Tamar. I do have a thought or two in her regard.”

She eyed me over a slice of toast. “Pray tell.”

“Let’s say the same bunch that grabbed Carris was also after Tamar.”

“Seems likely, doesn’t it?”

“It does, oh light of my life. Which leads me to believe that the Lethways and the Fields have something more in common than just a pair of kids in love.”

“What?”

“I have no idea. But look. Tamar said someone came to see her father a few weeks ago. Shouting ensued. Aside from me I don’t think Mr. Fields shouts at many people. Have you met him?”

“A few times. He seemed very…baker-ish.”

“Exactly. Now, Pratt tells me he’s not sure what the people who grabbed Carris want. What if it’s not money at all?”

“What else could it be?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Yet. Aside from their kids, the Lethways and the Fields don’t have much in common. Lethway runs a mining outfit. Fields pounds dough into donuts. Mrs. Lethway drinks to excess. Mrs. Fields prefers imported coffee. They don’t move in the same social circles. They don’t live in the same neighborhood. They don’t even travel the same streets.”

Darla swallowed. “So where do you start?”

“As far back as I can. They both served. Both in the Sixth, but not together.”

“You think they’re lying.”

“Somebody always is.”

She poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. “So you’ll go to the Barracks and look through old payroll records?”

I grinned. “You’ve been hanging around me too long.”

“I think I’ll come with you. I have the day off. Martha’s been wanting Mary to try handling the front. Will they let a woman in the Barracks, or will I need a false moustache and a hat?”

I thought of old Burris, the Barracks caretaker.

“Not only will they let you in, dear, I’ll probably be forced to resort to arms just to get you out.” I drained my cup. “Are you sure, hon? It’s dusty, and the rats are so big they’ve taken to wearing pants and shoes.”

She laughed. “Then I’ll see their outfits are fitted properly. Will you want to bathe before we go?”

She didn’t mention the blood specifically.

“Only if you wait in a cab,” I said. “Might not be safe here.”

“You just said the last hexed man was gone.”

“I said I think so. Better you wait in a cab. Oh, and thank you for breakfast.”

She smiled. “I’m always going to worry, you know.”

“I know. I wish that wasn’t so.”

“You are who you are.”

Three-leg leaped onto my desk, sniffed dismissively at my breakfast, and emitted the kind of odor only the prolonged ingestion of diseased sewer rats can generate.

We scrambled for my room behind the office. I grabbed clothes and shaving kit and we darted out, leaving Three-leg perched atop my desk, casually surveying the remains of our meal.

He meowed in triumph as I shut the door.

Bathed and shaved, with Darla at my side, I bade the cabbie head toward the Barracks.

I hoped we’d find answers. Or at least rule out a couple of questions. Maybe we’d find absolutely nothing but rat-chewed payroll ledgers, but trying is part of this business, and it’s not a part you can treat lightly.

Darla quizzed me on the way, mainly about how the payroll ledgers were entered, balanced and maintained. I laid it out as best as I could. Judging by her lifted eyebrows and snickering, my layman’s description of how a military payroll was disbursed and recorded was lacking to the ear of a highly skilled former accountant.

The Barracks is just that-barracks. Forty-seven long, low-roofed troop lodges, spread over five city blocks. When the War ended, the Regent ordered every record maintained by the Army brought back to the Barracks, where’d they’d simply been dumped. In the eleven years since the end of the War, a small dwindling army of former paymasters and clerks has doddered from stack to stack, trying to put them in some semblance of order deep in the Barracks.

It was there, amid the crumbling, moldering heaps of yellow-green papers that I would start finding in earnest. If you know a name, and you have the patience, you can often trace the history of any soldier from his pay. Even if you can’t find the full story from the old records, you can find other names, names of soldiers who’d lived and come home and who might remember the things I was paid to find out.

“We’re here,” I said as the cab rolled to a halt. Darla peeped out and wrinkled her nose in mock distaste.

“Are you sure? This looks more barn than barracks.”

“Barns are more luxurious.” I paid the cabbie and Darla let me help her out of the cab, and then we were alone on the street.

I tried and failed to bite back a yawn. The only sleep I’d gotten had been in the back of my borrowed Avalante carriage, and even four cups of coffee wasn’t keeping the cobwebs from forming.

“That’s what you get for carousing all night. Where’s the front door?”

“In typical Army fashion, the front door is on the side.” I started walking. She fell into step behind me, all business. Somehow she produced a smallish writing pad and a fancy brass pen. I hadn’t seen either in the cab.

“So we’re looking for any record concerning Lethway or Mr. Fields.”

“Right. We find them, mark them and gather them together. Then we trudge through them, looking for whatever is it we happen to find. That’s the door. Charming, isn’t it?”

The doors to the Barracks are old garrison gates tall and wide enough to admit a ten-horse wagon. Painted across them to let taxpaying citizens know where they stand are the words NO ADMITTANCE REGENCY BUSINESS ONLY.

I marched us up to them and was poised to start raising a ruckus when the hinges groaned and the right door swung inward enough for Burris the caretaker to appear, blinking in the sun.

Burris might be as old as Mama claims to be. He might once have been a tall man, but now he is set in a permanent stoop so profound he’d tip over if you took his cane. His eyebrows would make wonderful moustaches. The only other hair left is nested about his ears, giving him the appearance of a gap-toothed gnome.

“How can we be of service to you today, Miss?”

So much for Darla’s worries about sexism in the Barracks.

“We’d like to look through your payroll records, if we might,” said Darla. She smiled as she spoke. Nothing too big, nothing too obvious, but if she’d asked Burris for his false teeth and a handful of sunshine he’d have scrambled to hand them over.

“And good morning to you, Master Sergeant Burris. Remember me? Markhat, the finder?”

Burris snorted. “I remember you. Come right in, Miss. I’ll get you a table, a lamp and a nice comfy chair.”

He motioned us inside.

“Do I get a comfy chair too?”

“You’ll get a knock upside your head, any more smart talk.”

Darla laughed. “Yes, behave yourself, Mr. Markhat.” She grabbed my elbow. “I just can’t take him anywhere.”

Burris chuckled and led us down a dark, narrow hallway that stank of mothballs. “Now, Miss, what kind of payroll records ’ere ye after? We’ve got everything more or less separated by theatre. You got yer northern divisions in Barracks One. Yer western divisions in Two and Three. Yer eastern in Four, and yer southern in Five.”

“We want the western ones, then. The Sixth, specifically, isn’t that right, hon?”

I nodded an affirmative. If Burris was mesmerized by Darla’s presence into being helpful I wasn’t going to break the spell by speaking.

“Well now. The Sixth. Big one, the Sixth. We ain’t got all them filed yet.” Old Burris risked a half-turn toward Darla and grinned at her. “But don’t you worry none, Miss. We’ll find what yer lookin’ for. Yes, we will.”

Turned out Master Sergeant Burris was a poor prophet.

Not that I blame him much. When we finally traversed the many halls and passed through the numerous rooms that lay between the front door and Barracks Two, we were greeted by crates stacked upon crates stacked upon crates, sixteen crates high in places, in heaps and mounds that stretched as far as the eye could see.

“Oh.” That was all Darla said. But she covered her heart with her right hand, a sure sign of distress.

A pigeon fluttered and another cooed, somewhere amid the crates.

I rolled up my sleeves. Burris set about finding chairs and lighting lamps. Darla lowered her hand and walked up to the first open crate she saw and started reading.

I slipped up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” I said. “The crates with the actual ledgers will be marked in red. The ones with troop rosters will say rosters. The rest we can ignore.”

“That narrows it down to only a few thousand.”

“And you wonder why I yawn so frequently.”

She managed a smile. “This is actually part of an expense account.”

“Then we don’t need it. Over there. That one. Let’s start there.”

I pointed to a red crate, sitting alone at the edge of a teetering stack of ten. The lid was already pried off. We made our way to it, each grabbed a side, and hauled it over to the rickety old table Burris managed to push away from the wall.

I grabbed a fistful of papers. Darla did the same. Dust flew.

“This ought to be our best date ever.”

“Shush. Darling. Where are the dates?”

“Upper left corner. They write them all backwards.” I shrugged at her raised eyebrow. “It’s the Army. Don’t ask.”

She laughed, settled into her chair, and we plowed into our first red crate.

By mid-morning, I had sorted through two entire crates. Aside from disturbing a family of mice and raising a substantial cloud of dust, my efforts were for naught as far as finding any connection between Lethway and Fields.

Darla, on the other hand, was so engrossed she’d stopped speaking. She had covered the table and built another table out of empty crates and then she’d started just stacking papers on the floor while she darted between them, staring and muttering. Her notebook was filled with page after page of scribbles. They were in some accountant’s shorthand, so my peek at them told me nothing.

When Darla gets immersed in numbers, she might as well be out West. I handed her heaps of papers when she appeared to run low and Burris kept her supplied with coffee and freshly-sharpened pencils.

Noon came and went. Burris sent his clerk out for sandwiches. Darla ate hers on the move. I emptied another pair of crates before I found my first glimmer of a clue-a disbursement entry made out to one H. Fields, who bore the rank of private first class, and who was listed as officer’s cook.

Another half-hour of searching matched that ledger with another, and that one with yet another, and with that I was able to establish that Tamar’s father had indeed served as a cook in the eighth regiment of the Kingery Division of the second battalion of the Sixth Army of the West.

“Hurrah,” I said, leaning back in my chair and stretching. “I just confirmed what we already knew. Mr. Fields was a cook in the Sixth. I’d promote myself, if I weren’t already the boss.”

Burris snorted. He had an armload of papers and was waiting patiently for Darla to notice and take them from him.

Darla took the papers and smiled at Burris.

“Is there anything else you’ll be wantin’, Miss?”

“Another pot of coffee would be lovely,” said Darla. I swear she even batted her eyes.

She needn’t have done so. Burris was already shuffling off toward the kitchen, promising not only coffee but biscuits and honey as well.

“You’re going to give the old boy a stroke.” I rose and caught her from behind in a hug. “Now then. Care to tell me what it is that’s got you so excited?”

I nuzzled her neck. It’s a nice neck for nuzzling.

She laughed and settled back against me.

“I’m about to make you a very happy man,” she said.

“You do that here and we’ll have to haul old Burris out in a box.”

She turned in my embrace and draped her arms around my neck.

“Your Mr. Fields not just a cook in the eighth regiment of the Kingery Division of the second battalion of the Sixth Army of the West. He was a private cook, for an officer.” She rubbed the tip of her nose against mine. “Care to guess the name of that officer?”

“You don’t say.”

“I don’t. The records do. They knew each other well, my bleary-eyed intended. Didn’t you say they both denied ever meeting the other?”

“I did. They did.”

“Then you were right. Everybody lies.”

“You don’t.”

She smiled and kissed me.

A door down the hall slammed. We separated.

“There’s more.” Darla nodded toward the maze of papers she’d spread across the floor. “Someone was cooking the books. Nothing balances. Supplies were being bought and paid for, but weren’t being delivered. Dead soldiers were being paid after being buried. Someone in the Sixth was robbing the Kingdom blind.”

“Any idea who?”

She sighed. “Not yet. Maybe not ever. So much is missing. But they weren’t even trying, Markhat. Was no one reading anything?”

“I doubt it. The War wasn’t going well. And then it ended, the Kingdom collapsed and…” I shrugged. “Well, they put old Burris on the case. How much are we talking, just guessing?”

“Tens of thousands. Hundreds, perhaps.”

“Enough to set yourself up in style after the War.”

“Weren’t the Lethways already rich?”

“That’s a post-War house they’re in.”

“The Fields too.”

“Could just be coincidence. But why lie about serving together?”

Darla glared at the mountain of papers. “I’ll need more time. Lots more time.”

I chuckled and took her hand. “You’ve got a business to run, young woman. We’ll stick around until Burris locks the doors. But I don’t want to catch you hanging around here tomorrow. I think the Master Sergeant has designs on your person.”

She giggled. “I do like older men.”

Burris emerged down the hall, bearing a platter of biscuits and coffee.

“Well, don’t let me stand in the way of true love.”

She rushed down the hall to help Burris with the platter. I watched her go, then turned back to yet another box of forgotten scribbles and useless ciphers.

Damned if Darla and I didn’t spend the entire day and a good part of the evening in the Barracks.

When we finally emerged, dusty and bleary-eyed, we had established that Lethway and Fields were lying about their service together. And Darla was convinced that the Sixth was used as a private bankroll by someone high in the chain of command.

They’d been sloppy enough to leave plenty of tracks. Darla explained it to me, but most of the details just smiled and waved in passing. But what I did have a firm grasp of was the concept that money had been taken in for Army expenses that were never actually paid.

Darla was sure she could eventually lay the blame at the embezzler’s feet, if she had the time and access to the Barracks.

I reminded her such a feat might take months, even years, if the records were there in the first place. And, I pointed out, there were more direct means to find the answers that related to Lethway and Fields.

I planned to just show up and ask. And when they denied everything, I’d suggest that the Regency might conduct its own review of the records, if, for instance, someone from House Avalante suggested such an investigation.

Kicking a finder to the curb is one thing. Giving the Regency the boot is quite another.

For the first time since that morning Darla had bribed me with sticky buns, I felt like I was working the case.

I dropped Darla off at her place, and kissed her goodnight beneath her tiny yellow porch. I knew she was hoping I’d ask her to come with me on my visit to Mr. Fields, but knowing the reception I was going to get, I didn’t ask.

The cab rolled away from Darla’s neat little house. I could see her standing in the window, watching me go.

“Where to, pal?” called down the cabbie.

I gave him the address to the bakery. I was hoping Fields would still be there, even though it must be closing. Normally I don’t like to bother a man at his work, but I didn’t think he’d be any happier to find me on his doorstep at home.

My sleepless the night before was catching up with me. I put my face in the cab’s window and let the cool evening air rush past. Rannit stinks in my neighborhood, but closer to the bakery, it smelled of meals cooking and fresh-cut grass.

I wasn’t exactly revived when we arrived, but I felt a bit more coherent. The cab pulled right in front of the bakery, and I clambered out and paid the cabbie and sauntered to the doors.

They weren’t locked yet. The CLOSED sign was nowhere to be seen.

But neither was Mr. Fields, or anyone else.

Call it a sixth sense. Call it a touch of Mama Hog’s Sight. Call it what you want. But the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and a cemetery chill scampered down my spine. When I opened the door, I did so slowly, and as it opened I slipped my hand inside and caught that cheery little bell and I put my pinkie finger inside it to silence its cheery little ring.

Then I darted in and closed the door carefully behind me.

Voices. I heard voices, from the kitchen. Male and low and angry. In no way did they suggest a discussion about cinnamon was taking place.

I moved gingerly across the tile floor, thanking the Angels it hadn’t rained. My shoes would have squeaked, had they been wet. And if my hunch was right, squeaky shoes and tinkling bells were a good way to get killed, in that place and at that time.

The closer I moved to the swinging gate that led behind the counter, the better I could hear.

One of the speakers was Mr. Fields. There were two others. One did most of the talking. The other added occasional grunts or snorts to the conversation.

“…going to tell us what we want to know,” said a voice.

“I’ve told you I don’t know a damned thing,” replied Mr. Fields.

“He’s lying,” said the other voice.

“Could be,” said the first. “Maybe he needs reminding who it is he’s stalling.”

Then there came a crash and a rattle. Tin pots fell, glassware shattered, men grunted and cussed.

Outnumbered two to one, and with no assurances that Fields wouldn’t turn on me just out of spite, I did the only thing I could think of, which was go back to the door and yank it open and give that cheerful little bell a damned good shake.

The ruckus in the back abated, just a bit.

“Mr. Fields?” I called, good and loud. “Agent of the Regency. Time for your food service license inspection. Loomis, Charles, you two get started. Milton, take the back.”

Feet beat it, and a door slammed from somewhere in the kitchen.

I let out a sigh of relief. Assuming that every kitchen in Rannit has a back door that opens into the alley is a safe bet, unless it’s your life you’re betting.

Mr. Fields emerged. His nose was bloody and his shirt was untucked and missing most of its buttons. In his right hand was a long straight knife, and in his left was a wicked two-tined fork.

“What the Hell are you doing here?”

I plopped my butt onto a stool. “You’re welcome. Again. I dropped in for a cup of coffee. Are you going to stab me, poke me or pour me a cup?”

“Haven’t decided.”

“Want me to lock the door? Might be a good idea if your two friends from the kitchen head back. Also a good idea if you decide on stabbing me. Don’t want to scare off paying customers with violent acts of murder on the sales floor now, do we?”

“Do you ever shut that mouth of yours?”

“Hardly ever. It’s how I make my living. Take today, for instance. I spent all of it digging through old Army payroll records, Mr. Fields. Did you know most of them still exist? Well, they do.”

He glowered. He glared. But his hands were shaking and sweat was pouring off his fat little head. After a moment he threw the fork onto the floor and shoved the knife under his apron and stalked to the big brass coffee machine and set about pouring two cups of it.

“Two sugars, please. Hold the arsenic. But as I was saying. I spent all day going through these records, just to see if you and Mr. Lethway were not telling the entire truth about never having served directly with each other, during the War. Do you know what I found, Mr. Fields?”

He shoved the coffee cup at me and sat across from me. I took a sip. His cup never moved, and he didn’t meet my eyes.

“You were his personal cook. For two years, maybe longer. Why did you lie about that, Mr. Fields? Why did Lethway?”

“You’re going to get us both killed.”

“And if I just walk away, maybe take up turnip farming, is that going to keep those men from coming back? Is that going to keep them away from your daughter?”

He growled a curse word. But he didn’t reach for his knife.

I drank coffee and waited.

“I was the Colonel’s cook. Four years. Kept me off the front. Only Troll I ever saw was dead.”

“So you ran an officer’s kitchen. That’s nothing to lie about.”

“No.” He clutched his cup with both hands and stared down into it. “I wasn’t rich. Was just a kid. But I could read and write. I did my own requisitions. Handled the kitchen funds.”

It began to dawn on me.

“Whose idea was it, to skim a little off the top?”

“His.” He looked up at me. “I swear, finder. I was poor, but I was honest. It was the Colonel’s idea. Said he had some gambling debts. I kept a third of the take. Hell, it wasn’t much. At first.”

“But things didn’t stay small.”

He shook his head. His face was pure crimson. The veins in his forehead were swollen and throbbing.

Maybe he had been an honest kid, after all.

“The Sixth wound up at Killispill. Regional headquarters. The Seventh was already there. Hell, within a year we were feeding eight, nine hundred men a day. Double that the next year.”

“So a lot of money was involved.”

“A fortune. The Kingdom might have skimped on a lot of things. Hell, you know they did. But the officers got fed. Nobody asked any questions. They didn’t even look at the ledgers. We’d claim we spent a thousand crowns on beef, when we spent two hundred. It was like owning a bank, finder. Even when I tried to pull back, the Colonel wouldn’t hear of it. He got greedy. He’d have killed me, had I tried to stop.”

I nodded. That might have been true. Even if it wasn’t, it was something the baker needed to believe.

“And then the War ended.”

“It did. All over. Orders came down. You’re discharged. Thank you for your service.” He spat on his good clean floor. “Bastards.”

“So you and Colonel Lethway-you just split the take and parted ways?”

“That’s what we did, finder. I didn’t lay eyes on the man until Tamar-until my daughter started walking out with that fool son of his.”

“And the money?”

He lifted his hands, gestured to the coffee shop. “All gone, years ago. I built my business with it. Lost most of it the first five years. But it kept us afloat, long enough to get established.” He sighed and gripped his untouched coffee again. “I’m not proud of what I did during the War, finder. But I’ve never done anything like that since. I’ve worked hard and made a living for myself and my family. I want nothing to do with the Colonel or the past.”

“Those two men who just left. Were they part of this, somehow?”

He spoke quietly. “They know. I don’t know how they know, finder. Or who they are. But they know Lethway and I stole a fortune during the War, and they want something from him, and they want me to try and pry it out of him.”

“By blackmailing him.”

He nodded. “I told them to go to Hell.”

“They didn’t seem to be heeding your travel advice.”

“I meant to kill them, finder. I had a knife.”

“Brave. But dumb. Two of them, one of you? Maybe those are good odds when you’re dealing with rogue pastries, but not hired muscle.”

He mulled that over while his coffee steamed.

“You didn’t really kill that man in my house, did you, finder?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Tamar keeps crying. Talking in her sleep too. Telling someone she’s sorry.” He looked up at me. “I wish I’d told that son of a bitch to get stuffed the first night he walked into my mess tent.”

“You were just a kid with a potato peeler. He was a Colonel. Don’t beat yourself up too much. After all, you’ve got other people trying to do that for you.”

That got a ghost of a grin.

“Whatever it is they want out of Lethway, he isn’t budging.” I finished off my cup. “They cut off his kid’s ear, Mr. Fields. Sent it to him. He dropped it in the fireplace. I think the Colonel will let Carris die before he’ll cooperate.”

“I’m afraid you’re right about that.”

“That means they’re going to keep coming after you, Mr. Fields. Because if there’s one thing the Colonel is afraid of, it’s being exposed as a War profiteer.”

“So you’re saying I should blackmail Lethway?”

I smiled, big and wide. “No, Mr. Fields. I’m saying I should.”

Chapter Fourteen

Convincing Mr. Fields to hand over everything I needed to pry open Lethway’s lips took another pot of coffee.

But when that was drunk, he stopped shaking. His face wasn’t the color of hot coals. And the hate was gone from his eyes.

The worst had happened, and instead of tearing his world apart, I had emerged as the very man who might be able to put it safely back together.

All I had to do, of course, was live through my little talk with Lethway.

When I left the coffee house, I had a parcel under my arm. It was a pair of ledgers, wrapped in aged brown paper. He’d been keeping it close to him, all these years, moving it from secret drawer to safe to hidey-holes far and near.

When the pair of toughs had been threatening to cut off small but valuable bits of his person earlier, the very thing they sought was lying two steps from them, covered only by a baking tin.

But now it was mine. Two ledger books-one a copy of the book the Army had received-the other the real book, showing who got what, and when. Accompanied by receipts and signed orders and even a series of handwritten letters the Colonel had, in some moment of daft bravado, signed with his name and seal.

What lay between those covers was a hanging, even for a man of Lethway’s post-War stature.

I had to admire Fields' ingenuity. The ledgers proved Lethway made himself rich during the war, at the expense of the taxpayer. They only showed that Fields had carried out the orders given him.

If things came to a Court, Fields would likely claim he had no choice. And a jury might just buy that.

Clever little move, for an honest little baker.

The first thing I meant to do was stash the bulk of the evidence somewhere safe. I planned to take a single signed letter with me when confronting Lethway. That would be enough to establish the existence of the rest without risking the whole batch to a grab. I figured stashing the ledgers at Avalante would put them well beyond the reach of even a Lethway, so that word was on my lips when I stepped into the street to hail a cab.

I was in such a hurry to get to Avalante I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the people on the street. Oh, I had eyes for the pair who’d fled the bakery, all right, but no one nearby fit the requirements of a pair of murderous musclemen. No, it was nannies out walking with kids and bankers out for a bit of air and ladies in hats out walking to be seen.

But at the moment, they weren’t walking. Instead, they were clustering around a barker, who was in turn passing out handfuls of handbills. People were taking them and then walking into each other as they backed away, their eyes on the paper they held.

A lady walked past, her skirts whipping, such was her hurry. I planted myself in her path and gave her my warmest, most winning smile.

She frowned and tried to dart around me. I sidestepped, still smiling, and she thrust a handbill at me.

“Take it, I have two.”

And then she was away.

WAR, the handbill read. WAR COMES TO RANNIT.

I cussed and stuffed the awful thing deep in a pocket and stopped the next cab I saw.

No one, not even the Regent and the Corpsemaster and the Army, can keep a secret forever.

Especially not when half of the secret is heading south toward you with mayhem on its mind and the other half is being built at night all around the city walls. The handbill had lots of it wrong, but it had enough right to convince me the proverbial cat was out of the metaphorical bag.

The Watch would go after the barker and the handbill printer, of course. I doubted they’d catch either. But even if they did, the word was spreading, and I figured by tomorrow even the weedheads would know the peace was broken.

NINE CITIES ALLY AGAINST RANNIT, cried the handbill. ARMY OF A HUNDRED THOUSANDS ON THE MARCH AGAINST US NOW!

Wrong on both counts. But the numbers weren’t going to matter. Not with the cannons in the mix.

I hope Evis and his-well, our, I suppose-plan to render the Brown impassable to barge traffic hadn’t been tossed aside by his superiors in the House. I had little faith the scheme would actually accomplish more than making a lot of noise and ruining some good timber, but already I was not only grasping at straws but throwing the weight of my hope upon them.

That’s what war does to people. Makes them cling to any hope, no matter how empty it may be in the harsh bright light of day.

I slept most of the way to Avalante, despite having gulped down coffee all afternoon. My dreams were troubled and brief. I didn’t even awake, claimed the cabbie, when a bridge clown reached inside and tweaked by nose.

Jerle, the day man, let me in and took my coat. The old boy insisted on peeking inside the cover at the ledgers, just to make sure I wasn’t trying to smuggle in a trio of Troll assassins, but he was quick and professional about it and he even offered me a seat while he looked.

I didn’t think I’d catch Evis awake at such an unvampirish hour, but Jerle told me he’d been left word to show me right in if I happened to stop by. So I made my way to Evis with barely a yawn or stumble.

The first thing I heard when I drew near to Evis’s door was female laughter. I stopped dead in my tracks, wishing for the first time that a suave halfdead was gliding silently at my side, so he could knock at the door and make sure Evis wasn’t occupied before I barged in.

But I was alone, and Evis had left word, so I walked right to the door to knock.

The woman laughed again before I could lift my hand. I heard Evis speak, his words not quite clear, and the lady laughed again, and there was a tinkle of glass on glass and a slosh of liquor.

I knocked. If Evis was pitching woo he could always tell me to go away.

“Come on in, Markhat,” called Evis. “We were just talking about you.”

The door swung inward, meaning Evis had touched something behind his desk.

I stepped inside.

Gertriss was seated across from Evis, trying to decide whether to hide her cigar or take a puff. She’d already managed to put her glass of brandy down on the corner of Evis’s desk. I knew she’d done that in a hurry because she’d missed the cork coaster and even sloshed a bit of brandy on the polished wood.

Something squealed and caught me across my knees. I tousled Buttercup’s hair, and she greeted me by leaping up and wrapping her arms around my neck before sliding around to ride on my back.

“Boss,” said Gertriss. Her cigar trailed up a damning swirl of smoke. “I was just waiting for you.”

I trotted a half-circle around the room while Buttercup giggled and squealed.

“I see. Did Buttercup decline to smoke, or has she finished hers already?”

“Oh, knock it off, Markhat. The banshee is older than all of us put together, and you know it. It’s not like she’s never seen people have a smoke or a drink before.” Evis leaned back in his chair and blew a smoke ring. “Anyway, your junior partner here is helping me celebrate. We got the go ahead from the House. We’re going to blow the bluffs.”

Gertriss cringed. I disengaged Buttercup and sat her on the floor. I wasn’t happy with Uncle Evis, but when vampires babysit banshees, I suppose hoping for nursery rhymes and games of dolls and houses is a bit too much.

Evis reached behind him and groped for a moment amid the sorcerous knick-knacks he keeps in those huge glass cases of his. When he withdrew his hand, he held a glowing orb that trailed twisting wakes of dancing light.

“Here you go, kid. Play with this.”

He tossed it to Buttercup, who snatched it out of the air and began to coo and mutter over it, engrossed.

I pulled a chair beside Gertriss. “What’s that thing you just gave her?”

“Damned if I know. We’ve had it for a couple hundred years. Maybe she can figure it out. Did you hear what I said? We’re heading up the river. Going to stop the War before it starts. We’ll be heroes. Probably have a parade. Brass statues, for sure.”

I tried to take the luminous sphere away from Buttercup, but she did a little banshee hop-step and appeared all the way across the room.

“Oh, calm down, finder. Trolls could blast the House down around us, and we both know the banshee wouldn’t suffer a hair out of place.”

Gertriss handed me a cigar, and a flame appeared in her hand.

“Boss. It’s all right. Tell us what you’ve been up to. And what’s that you’re holding?”

I sucked in a long draw of very expensive tobacco.

“This is the stuff of Lethway’s nightmares. Evis, I’d like to keep this here. But before we get into that, tell me about the celebration.”

“The House agrees that blowing up the bluffs is cheaper than fighting a new war. In fact, they’re pulling out all the stops.” He leaned forward, his dead eyes almost gleaming. “We might actually make this work. I was hoping for grudging support, at best. I had no idea they’d hand me the keys to the treasury.”

“Good way to get on the Regent’s Yule list, keeping his city nice and intact. If it works, you’re heroes of the realm. If it fails, oh well, money will be the least of everyone’s problems, won’t it?”

Evis laughed. “Money is never the least of any problem. But look here, Markhat. Remember when I said it would take us a week to get the wagons and the gunpowder up the Brown?”

“I remember.”

“They’ve a got steamboat,” said Gertriss. Her eyes were wide, and I wondered how many of those tumblers of brandy Evis had offered her. “It’s amazing, boss. You have to see it.”

“A steam what?”

“Another line of research the House pursued during the War,” said Evis. “It’s a shallow-keeled, flat-bottomed boat. Burning wood heats water. The hot water turns to steam. The steam drives an engine. The engine-”

“Oh bloody hell,” snapped Gertriss. She grabbed my arm. “Boss, the thing can go upriver. No sails. No oars. No pulling it with chains and donkeys. You just point it north and feed it logs and it goes. Fast.”

“How many of those drinks have you finished, young lady?”

She shook her head violently. “Three. But I’m not drunk, boss. Evis, how fast did you say it could go?”

“Eight knots. Ten if she’s pushed, and she will be.”

“For how long?”

“The whole way. With luck. The steam engine is not without its problems. But our engineers say she’s ready. The House has issued its blessing. We set sail in two days, finder-steamboat and barges and gunpowder and all.”

I finished my brandy in one quick gulp. It burned all the way down.

“You’re serious.”

“Dead serious. Pardon the pun. We have a navy, finder. Hurrah for Encorla’s Irregulars. We fight on land and sea.” He lifted his glass. Gertriss did the same, and they clinked together, and vampire and partner drained their glasses.

“And this steamboat of yours can do ten knots, day and night. That’ll put it at the bluffs in, say, two days.”

“Less. But say two.”

“Hauling enough gunpowder to level a few thousand tons of solid rock.”

“We’ll be towing that on a barge well behind us, but yes.”

“Just how big is this thing, Evis?”

“Huge,” said Gertriss.

“She’s a two hundred and ten feet from bow to stern. Forty-two feet wide. Her draft is only six feet, under a full load. We’ll be seeing four. She’s down at the docks now, getting prepped. The paddle-wheel is under wraps, but it won’t be a secret much longer.”

“No sails.”

“None at all.”

“Did you think to add a couple of cannon?”

Evis froze, face blank.

“Angels and devils, finder. No. No, we didn’t. But we will. We will.”

Buttercup squealed. She was rolling her ball across the floor, where it trailed a twisting nimbus of light.

It reached an empty spot on the floor, and then it stopped, wobbled around for a bit, and rolled back to the little banshee-on its own.

I held out my tumbler for a refill. Gertriss obliged, filling her own glass as well, and chuckling at some secret joke with Evis.

I stayed for quite a while, drinking and smoking and plotting. I laid out my day with Fields, my plan to loosen Lethway’s clenched jaw, my hope that Mama would put a stop to any further hexed visitors before one of them put a stop to me.

All the while, I watched Buttercup play a spirited game of roll the glowing magic ball with a playmate who wasn’t there while Gertriss made googly eyes at Evis and he taught her how to blow a passable smoke ring.

Some days are just strange that way.

I didn’t see the steamboat, that night. Evis offered to take me, but a couple of glasses of his aged brandy left the weight of my day dragging me quickly toward sleep.

He did convince me to spend the night under Avalante’s roof. I didn’t relish the thought of a strange bed, but for all I knew half a dozen irate Sprangs or a pair of Lethway’s bully boys were waiting by my door. I couldn’t have fought off an assault of determined laying hens, and I knew it, so in the end I allowed myself to be domiciled in a guest room slightly smaller than a city block.

They even had a fancy bath with hot and cold running water. I managed to clean myself without being scalded or drowned, and after that I slept the sleep of the truly weary.

Being surrounded on all sides by vampires troubled me not at all.

Morning in Avalante feels like midnight. The halfdead are bleary-eyed and grumpy, disheveled and weary in their tailored clothes. Even taciturn Jerle was jovial by comparison.

I shared a sparse breakfast with the day folk cleaning staff. Their talk was of the trouble heading Rannit’s way, and was mostly filled with wild speculation concerning the Regency’s plans to defend the city and whether or not they would accept Avalante’s offer to take in the human staff and their families, should war reach Rannit’s gates. Most were only too eager to seek refuge beneath Avalante’s walls. A few planned to ride it out close to the Brown and flee by boat, barge and bathtub should the Regent fail to win the day.

Afterward, I went to see Gertriss and knocked, but after a long while she threw a pillow at her door and told me in rather harsh terms to go away. I heard Buttercup giggle once, but she never did more than that.

Evis was long abed. I stopped by my borrowed room and sat on the feather bed and plotted out the day. I’d need to find Pratt, and set a time and a place to corner Lethway. I needed to swing back by my office and see if it was surrounded by hillbilly thugs. And I hoped I could pay Master Sergeant Burris another visit-I might not have Darla’s keen eye for accounting fraud, but I could certainly take her a fresh box of old records to inspect, if the Sergeant could be persuaded to let his precious files leave the Barracks.

I hauled myself off the feather bed and headed out, availing myself once more of a sleek Avalante carriage. I bade the driver to swing by the docks before we crossed the bridge. I wasn’t sure, but I guessed that Evis’s steamboat was being made ready on the Hill side of the River.

I was right. Finding such an odd craft wasn’t hard, and my carriage was waved on past a makeshift barricade after a scowling dockmaster checked my name against his list.

I can always count on Evis to pay attention to details.

I left the carriage right by one of the three wide gangplanks that spanned the sluggish waters of the Brown and led onto the deck of the steamboat herself.

Being a landlocked Rannite, my familiarity with watercraft is mostly limited to barges and fishing tubs. I’d probably know what a mast was, if I saw one. And I could likely pick out a mainsail from a bed sheet three times out of five.

So when I say Evis’s steamboat looked more like a wedding cake than a ship, please take that statement as the opinion of one wholly unfamiliar with either subject.

But there you have it. Her hull was simply a shallow, flat oblong with a slight bow at the front and an enormous cylinder lined with long rectangular paddles at the rear. Sprouting up from this shallow hull was two stories of white gingerbread festooned with windows and doors. A balcony ran the circumference of the upper decks. Chairs and benches were scattered about it, behind an ornate iron rail.

Amidships, two enormous white cylinders rose above it all. I recognized them from Evis’s description as the smokestacks through which the exhaust of the steam engine was routed. Someone had painted a face on the front of the forward smokestack. It had angry eyes and an open toothy mouth.

The whole craft smelled of wet paint and fresh-sawn pine. A gang of men swarmed over her, furiously painting decks and bulkheads and her other assorted nautical bits with thick white paint. The painting crew exchanged shouts and curses with an equally frantic crew of mechanics with urgent business wherever the painters were working. Through it all lumbered ogres with armloads of split wood, which they hauled into the depths of the steamboat.

Neither painters nor mechanics raised their voices at the ogres.

I decided to keep my landlubber boots firmly on the docks. I did walk the length of the craft, paying special attention to the odd contrivance at the rear. The tarp Evis had mentioned was nowhere in sight. I could see how the paddlewheel might propel the boat forward. What I couldn’t discern was how such a heavy assembly was going to turn at all.

Men shouted. Smoke puffed from the smokestacks. The puffing became a billowing, and from deep within the vessel, a deep thump-thump-thump began to sound.

With a screech and a groan, the paddlewheel turned. The first revolution was slow, so slow I was sure Evis’s mighty boat was destined to remain moored at that dock forever.

But the next turn was faster. The paddles bit into the water with great wet slaps. Spray flew.

The steamboat began to pull against her moorings.

The next turn, and the next, were faster still. The spray of water became a furious downpour. The thumping of the engines became a roar.

The dock began to tilt and groan.

A mighty blast issued from the smokestack, a whistle made loud as thunder. Mechanics and painters alike cheered and waved their tools.

Then the turning of the paddlewheel slowed, the dock settled level and the troubled waters began to calm.

“I’ll be damned.”

An ogre turned and looked at me.

That was the first time I’ve seen an ogre wide-eyed.

“It’s called a steamboat,” I said to him. “Burns wood to make steam. Nothing to it.”

The ogre rushed away.

I stayed a few more moments. Long enough to watch two men paint her name across the bow. Evis hadn’t mentioned a name.

The Regency. Nice touch of political flattery. Suddenly the angry face on the smokestack made perfect sense.

I clambered back in my carriage and headed for my side of the Brown, while a small army of painters and mechanics and oddly subdued ogres made the Regency ready for war.

Much to my relief, the only stranger idling by my door was one of Mama’s street kids, a hard-eyed ten-year-old named Flowers.

He rose and stretched while I bade the driver to wait.

“Got something for you, mister.” He proffered a grubby envelope, along with his empty palm. “Mama said you’d pay two coppers.”

“Mama said nothing of the sort. She’s already paid you or you wouldn’t be doing this.”

“Awww. C’mon, mister. One copper?”

I fished in my pocket. “Done. Now hand it over.”

Copper and envelope changed places. The envelope bore Mama’s familiar scrawl, and I wondered how the devil she’d managed to get a letter back to Rannit so quickly.

I’d have asked Flowers, but he was away, heels and elbows pumping.

I stuck the letter in my jacket pocket and unlocked my door. I stepped aside as I opened it, just in case clever persons inside sent crossbow bolts whizzing toward the sudden sunlight.

They did not. Three-leg yawned atop my desk. The layer of flour I’d left just inside the door was undisturbed.

I closed my door quickly behind me, shook some food out in Three-leg’s pan and then settled into my chair to read.

Boy, began Mama’s letter. I reckon you’re all done being mad. I hope so. What I done is what I had to do, and ain’t nobody can do it but me, so I left. Tell your vampire friend Evis that fancy house of his ain’t locked half as tight as they thinks.

I’m back home. I’ve set a fire in my fireplace and my cook-stove. The Plegg House is lit and lived in, and I tell you, boy, that shook folks up a might, and then some. There was some that thought the Hog name was done hereabouts. There ain’t so many of them now.

I ain’t been here long, boy, but I’ve learnt a few things. First off, that Sprang boy what the ogre threw is going to live. He ain’t right in the head and he’s got a limp, but I reckon he wasn’t right to begin with so that ain’t much of a loss. There was a couple of other dunces that lit out of here swearin’ they was gonna get some vengeance on you and my niece. They ain’t been heard from again. Not that anybody is particular worried. They wasn’t held in much regard, save for being drunks and pig thieves. I reckon it’s a mite easier to hex the weak-minded into charging off to Rannit on some fool’s errand.

Next, this here hex-caster I’ve been hearin’ about-oh yes boy, I barely had them fires lit ’til I had people come scratchin’ around-he ain’t no local. I ain’t got a name yet, and I ain’t got no idea where he lives. But that don’t matter, cause I ain’t going to see him. No, I reckon he’ll be coming around to see me directly. And that there, boy, is going to be his un-doing. I aims to end this, and end this permanent.

Boy, them not being a local puts a new light on this mess. Now, there’s all kinds of magic, whether you believes in it or not. And this don’t smell nor look like the kind of magic we favors hereabouts. It does raise a stink like that kind of wand-waving Army types used during the War. I reckon we might be dealing with one of them, a small-timer, probably got hisself kicked out of Rannit or Prince or somewheres and came to Pot Lockney to earn a little money by taking on curse-works for the country folks.

If’n they was a wand-waver in the Army, they might still be using them same kind of spells and what-not. Watch out for them things. I reckon you know what to look out for.

Now, I aims to send letters once a day. If Mr. Pitcher’s pigeons fly straight and true to Granny Knot, you’ll be a getting them soon after. Don’t you be charging out here if I miss a day or two, Mr. Pitcher ain’t got but three of these extra-smart pigeons and I ain’t the only one sending letters to Rannit. I told him I takes priority but he’s a young man and he ain’t learned proper respect for the Hog name just yet. I reckon he will soon enough as I may have let a tiny little hex slip yesterday when he got all uppity about telling me his birds was first come, first served. See how he likes spending the night in his outhouse, we will!

I will write again on the morrow. Keep that niece of mine and that other one out of trouble.

She’d signed it simply ‘Mrs. Hog.’

I put the letter in a drawer. Three-leg licked his stump. Traffic rushed by outside, no more and no less hurried than usual.

Pratt, I decided. I’d go find Pratt first. Getting Lethway talking was the surest way forward, and it might be the only chance Carris Lethway had of getting home alive. I wanted to check on Tamar, too, but I didn’t want to put unnecessary strain on my newfound relationship with her father. If he’d had a chance to think about what he’d handed me yesterday, I didn’t want to know about it.

I rose and patted Three-leg’s ugly head, and I got a swipe of his claws across the back of my hand for my trouble.

“Good morning to you too,” I said as I left. He just glared and kept licking.

I reflected, as I rode, that I was getting far too familiar with Avalante’s largess with carriages. But I pushed such thoughts aside, and concentrated on how to lay my plan out to Pratt.

All I needed was a quarter of an hour in a place unsuitable for murder. Somewhere public. Somewhere that a few raised voices would go unnoticed. Somewhere that would throw Lethway off balance, someplace that would cause him to pause as soon as he realized who I was, what I knew.

I had a few such places in mind, but getting Lethway inside them would require a bit of kidnapping on my part, and that wasn’t anything I cared to do. So I needed Pratt, who knew Lethway’s habits and haunts intimately, to suggest something more suitable.

Of course, that would also leave me open to a double-cross on Pratt’s part, but if I failed to see that coming I deserved whatever I got.

Finding Pratt turned out to be easy. I asked my driver to roll by the Lethway offices without stopping, just to see who might be milling about. And, praise whatever Angel handles wild strokes of good luck, there was Pratt out front, hands in his pockets, talking with three other suited musclemen right by the bench we’d shared. I didn’t dare stop or wave, and I didn’t think he’d seen me. But when I signaled the driver to turn around, there was Pratt, neither huffing nor puffing, tapping at my door.

I flung it open. He was inside before the carriage even slowed. Away we went, just another black carriage rolling down a busy street.

“I’ve got something,” said Pratt.

“Letter from the kidnappers?” I kept my voice low. I trusted the driver but Pratt had no reason to do so.

He nodded and produced an envelope. I gathered from the size of it there was more than one page.

I took it, but didn’t open it. “Lethway seen this?”

“Not yet. Since it’s opened, he won’t ever see it. I’m taking a huge chance here, finder. Tell me it was worth it.”

“Oh yes. Because, Mr. Pratt, I’ve got something too. Something that’s going to get Lethway talking, whether he likes it or not.”

Pratt raised an eyebrow. “They sent his son’s severed ear, and he didn’t blink. What have you got?”

“Ruin. Poverty. Maybe even the gallows. Your boss did bad things during the War, Mr. Pratt. I’ve got the proof. Now all we’ve got to do is use it.”

“You sure about this?”

“I’m sure. It’s what he’s most afraid of. All I need is a quarter of an hour with him, Mr. Pratt. A quarter of an hour, someplace he can’t murder me outright. You know his habits. Tell me when and where.”

Pratt pondered this.

“You don’t have to be involved,” I said. “I know he’s still your boss. We can keep you out of it.”

He made a derisive snort. “I’ve had enough of Colonel Lethway,” he said. “It’s time I sought employment elsewhere.”

“Careful with that. He might take offense. You know things Lethway doesn’t want known.”

“I’m going to take his wife when I go,” he replied. “So I’m not overly concerned with Colonel Lethway’s delicate sensibilities. Let him try something. But you know what, finder? I don’t think he’ll bother.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“My problem. My worry. Let’s use whatever you’ve got to pry the bastard’s mouth open. I think he knows who’s got Carris.”

“I still think you should stay out of this as long as possible. You’re in a position to see things, hear things. Some of them might help bring Carris home. After that…”

I shrugged. Pratt was a grown man. If he felt like taking Lethway’s wife and slapping his face on the way out the door, that was his decision to make.

“Lethway. He has a woman.”

“On the side?”

He nodded and swallowed. He’d crossed the line, and he knew it and some of his bravado was fading.

“She has a place on Galt. He goes there twice a month. Before, they dine at a fancy place on Killjay.”

“The Banner?”

He nodded. “First Tuesday of the month. Last Friday. Never misses a date. Bastard.”

I counted days in my head.

“So they’ll be dining at the Banner tomorrow night?”

“Seven sharp. You thinking about making it a threesome?”

I grinned. “I might. He can’t have my head cut off between courses. Wait. Does he own the place?”

“Nope. They don’t even like him. He’s a lousy tipper.”

Wheels began to turn.

“I can be nearby, if you want.”

“Do you usually go?”

“No. Guess he’d rather I not see him and her together. He’ll have Rupert and Guinness. They’ll be a couple of tables over. Rupert carries a pair of long knives. Guinness prefers his fists.”

“Sounds like I can say my piece and get out alive.”

“You can, if you’re half as good as you think you are.”

“Ha. All right. Seven, the Banner, tomorrow night. If you can get away after Curfew, swing by my place on Cambrit. I’ll tell you all about it.”

He nodded. We’d passed Lethway’s offices. Pratt was sweating, and it wasn’t from the heat.

“I’ll make the block. You can get out around the corner.”

He stuck out his hand.

“However this goes, finder, I thank you.”

I shook it. “Let’s bring Carris home.”

“Yes. See you tomorrow night, then.” And with that, he was gone.

I didn’t wave, and he didn’t look back. I hoped Lethway was as disinterested as Pratt seemed to think. In my experience, the rich take more than a passing interest in anything and everyone around them that has the potential to separate them from their money, and Pratt fit that description.

“Where too?” called the cabman.

“Back to the Barracks,” I replied. Time to see if Darla’s charms lingered sufficiently to allow crusty old Sergeant Burris to bend a few rules.

I had a suspicion Darla’s big brown eyes would do precisely that. Pratt and Mrs. Lethway. Burris and my Darla. Hell, me and my Darla.

Angels, what fools these mortals be.

Chapter Fifteen

Pratt’s stolen letter wasn’t as much help as I’d hoped.

There was the usual cavalcade of threats, accompanied by graphic descriptions of what Carris would suffer unless their demands were met. The ear was mentioned, and it was noted that the next delivery would be a foot. Then a hand.

What didn’t appear was a demand for money. Instead, there were two pages of questions, festooned with mining jargon. How many raw tonnes of coal is your North End refinery consuming per week, for the last ten weeks? What was last month’s intake of sulfur, in standard wagons, among all ironworks inside Rannit? How many tonnes of raw iron ore did you ship via the Brown in the past six weeks?

There were also queries about carbon and sand. The whole mess was more industrial small talk than ransom demand. I couldn’t see where withholding it was worth watching your kid dismembered.

Industrial espionage by a competitor? Maybe, I decided. But why not take the time-honored route of dropping a few crowns in front of clerks or shipping managers?

Why not just watch wagons come and go and count them yourself?

I lapsed into a snooze well before we reached the Barracks. That was getting to be a bad habit.

The smell of smoke awakened me, though, blocks from the site.

I felt the carriage slow. Whistles blew. The smoke began to billow up, the single column becoming two columns and then three before merging into a single monstrous shaft of smoke that rose up to blot out the sun.

A pair of fire-wagons charged past, horses frothing and straining, water sloshing over the sides. Another pair of fire-wagons rushed past.

Ashes began to rain down. The day was still and calm. People looked toward their roofs, fearful that a spark would set their shakes alight. Blankets began to appear, and buckets of water, and men hauling ladders and shouting.

My driver pulled to the curb to let another pair of fire-wagons race past.

It was only then that I began to recognize the ashes that fell for what they were-scraps of old paper, yellowed to a familiar shade.

I stuck my head out the window. “You. Kid. What’s on fire?”

The youngster looked up at me. “The old Barracks. Every building afire, what I hear. Likely lose the whole block.”

The kid charged off.

“I’ll see how far we can get,” said my driver. The ponies were already snuffling nervously and stamping. The smoke was getting thicker by the moment. “But if we’re going to try, it needs to be now.”

“Get as far as you can. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

He nodded. “Not going to be much left,” he said.

I pulled my head back inside. The ponies reluctantly trotted forward, daring the stream of traffic rushing away from the inferno.

We made it another two blocks before the smoke and the hot rushing air left the ponies unwilling to take another step. I wrapped a handkerchief around my mouth and bade the driver to get out of the smoke. Then I made my way to the Barracks, coughing and stumbling, knowing too well what I would find.

And find it I did. The Barracks were lost. The flames towered and the mere heat of the blaze touched off fires a block in every direction. Some of them burned for three days. Of the Barracks, nothing would be left. Even the massive cornerstones cracked from the heat.

I got there just as they dragged Master Sergeant Burris out into the street. I only recognized him because his brass sergeant’s stripes and campaign ribbons were still intact. He’d collapsed just outside the Building Two, according to the Watch, and the heat that kept them back burned Sergeant Burris to a crisp.

Beneath him, still clutched in his charred hands, was a thick leather binder stuffed with papers. A Watchman rifled through them, shrugged, and dropped the binder on the ground.

I noticed something the Watch didn’t-the sergeant’s sword wasn’t in his scabbard, and he was missing two fingers on his right hand.

Maybe the Sergeant had dropped his sword on his way out. Maybe he’d been polishing it when he first smelled smoke. Maybe he lost the fingers when a burning beam fell on his hand.

And maybe, I thought, he hadn’t.

I left the Sergeant there, lying uncovered on the ground, as firemen and Watchmen stepped over his corpse.

When the Watch bellowed for me to leave, the Sergeant’s leather binder was under my arm. If anyone saw me take it they didn’t give a damn.

I thanked the Sergeant briefly, between fits of coughing, and then I put the heat to my back and stumbled away from the flames.

The smoke got so thick it nearly choked me, and it did manage to blind me. I would never have found my carriage had the driver not come looking for me, and I’d never have made it inside had he not shoved my ass in.

I told him to head for Darla’s. Her house, not the shop. It couldn’t be good for business to have soot-stained finders coughing and hacking all over the fabric. I was hoping she’d pop home for lunch as I knew she often did, and by that time I ought to have coughed my lungs clear again.

I sent the carriage home, and I sat on her tiny porch and watched a pair of bluebirds build a nest in the little house she’d hung out for them. When my eyes quit burning I opened the binder and leafed through the papers, but all I saw were rows of cryptic abbreviations and columns of numbers that might have been crowns or counts of Troll toenails, for all I could tell.

I hoped Darla would see more. Because if she didn’t, Master Sergeant Burris had died for nothing.

Traffic on Darla’s quiet street picked up. Snatches of conversation drifted my way. War, and rumors of war. The columns of smoke from the Barracks were easily visible, even from that distance, and I saw more than one person point and heard more than one person wonder if the smoke was the first sign of the coming invasion.

Even the ogres that passed through had their hackles up. By the time I spied Darla walking briskly down the sidewalk toward home, I’d witnessed half a dozen people trying to decide whether to flee their homes or start boarding up the cellars.

The peace, I reflected, was well and truly dead.

Darla saw me and waved. I forced a smile and waved back and lifted my butt off her steps, but I didn’t fool her, even for an instant. Her smiled died on her lips and she broke into a run and within moments she caught me up in a fierce hug and then pulled back, eyeing me for fresh holes or broken bones, I suppose.

“You’ve been to the fire.”

“I have. Got there too late. You heard it was the Barracks?”

She pulled herself close again.

“I heard. I hoped it wasn’t true. Sergeant Burris?”

I shook my head. She didn’t see, but she felt it, and she began to cry.

“Because we were there?”

“I don’t know.” I knew in my heart that wasn’t true. But some lies are worth the telling. “The Sergeant. He got out. Almost. He was holding a binder. I have it. On your porch.”

It took her a moment to speak. “Have you looked at it?”

“I have. Numbers, letters. Didn’t make any sense.”

“He died holding it?”

“He did. Maybe it was just in his hand when the fire broke out. But, hon, if it wasn’t-do you think you’ll be able to tell me what it was?”

“I’ll try.” She gripped me fierce and tight. “Who would do such a thing?”

“Someone afraid of their past. Or maybe a candle fell over. We can’t know which, just yet.”

“Liar.” She wiped her eyes on my sleeve and looked up at me. “He was such a nice man.”

“He was. But the place was a fire, waiting for a spark. I promise you, Darla, if someone did murder him, I’ll see that they pay.”

She nodded, swallowed, pulled away and wiped away her tears. People rushed by on the street. I caught the word war spoken several times, and I know she did too. Her gaze fell on the binder.

“Let’s have a look, then,” she said. “I’ll make us some tea.”

I kissed her then, for no damned reason at all.

Watching Darla work is one of my favorite pastimes.

She chews on pencils. She musses her hair. She paces and glares. She tacks papers up on the wall and writes on them, moves them around, rips them down and tosses them away when they fail to amuse.

I helped by drinking beer and keeping my mouth shut. I tried to follow what she was doing, but she kept to her accountant’s shorthand and I know it like I know Mama’s squiggly hex signs.

Three beers. That’s what it took for her to run out of ledger entries. She rearranged her wall of papers, crossed out things, drew lines between others. Then she stood back, sagged a bit and dropped her pencil.

“There it is.”

I nodded agreeably. “It’s a beauty, all right.”

She rubbed her eyes. “There were three of them, darling of mine. The Colonel. The cook. And a Lieutenant with the initials S.J.”

“Three of them.” I was not smiling. “That complicates matters.”

Especially since Fields had never mentioned a third party.

“Tamar’s father probably didn’t even know about S.J.,” said Darla, reading my mind. Again. “Looks like he came in late. Probably demanded that the Colonel deal him in.”

“You’re beginning to sound like Evis.”

She laughed. “I’m certainly associating with a rough element these days.” She slipped into my arms. “Fortunately, I have you to protect my virtue.”

I was searching for a comeback when there came a knocking at Darla’s door. She frowned. “I’m not expecting anyone.”

“Mr. Markhat? Is there a Markhat here? Hello?”

I let go of her.

“Never heard of him. Who are you?”

“Evis Prestley sent me. My name is Barlow. I have a message. And a carriage too.”

I crossed Darla’s living room and peeked through her lace-curtained windows.

A black Avalante carriage was parked at the curb. A smiling young man in Avalante black stood at her door. He didn’t see me, but he did push his Avalante lapel pin forward just in case I was peeking through the curtains.

His hands were empty. He didn’t have half a dozen bowmen at his back.

“I just remembered. I’m Markhat. Be right out.”

“I’ll wait by the curb.”

Darla sighed. “My virtue is safe once again. Hurrah.”

“Not for long.” I eyed her wall of papers. “Better take that down, hon. In fact-maybe I’d better take it with me.”

“Oh, no. I’m keeping it. Now scoot. Evis wouldn’t have sent a man here if it wasn’t important.”

“At least take it down? Lock your door. Keep it locked.”

“I’m staying with Mary tonight. She’s upset with all the War talk. You could give me a ride.”

“I could indeed. Packed yet?”

“I keep a bag ready.” She darted into her bedroom, popped out an instant later, bag in hand. She snatched her papers off her wall and shoved them down beside her unmentionables.

We left, locking her door behind us before dashing into the wild-eyed crowd lining the street.

I dropped Darla off at Mary’s and saw her to the door. Mary lives in a tiny walk-up in a New People neighborhood not far from my old friends the Hoobins. Mary’s four brothers live next door. They aren’t quite as large as the Hoobins, but unless a trio of ogres showed up looking for Darla I was sure Mary’s siblings could fight off just about anyone who offered their sister or her houseguests harm.

Darla couldn’t have picked a safer place to spend the night. Unless of course it was on a boat headed out of Rannit.

As my carriage wove its way toward Avalante, I watched and listened. What had been conversation and concern yesterday was rapidly building into the panic the Regency sought to avoid by suppressing news of the coming troubles. I saw cabs and carriages packed high with chests and trunks and kids and grannies. People were heading out, fearing Rannit’s fall under siege even if the old walls held.

I couldn’t really blame the people who decided to run. It took the Trolls eight weeks to breach Right Lamb’s defenses. We’d run out of food in five weeks. If it hadn’t rained the last two we’d have died of thirst. I slept with Petey tucked under my arm for fear he might be eaten despite the Army’s ban on anyone but me touching my tunnel dog.

A few minutes of memories from Right Lamb, and I was nearly ready to head for the hills myself.

Instead, I remembered Evis’s note, so I pulled it out and read it and cussed so loud the driver pulled to the curb.

“What’s that, sir?”

“Nothing. Never mind. Dammit.”

“Huh?”

I crumpled the note and threw it out the window. “Forget Avalante. Take me home. To Cambrit.”

“Cambrit, yes, sir.”

And with that, we were off.

I fumed and scowled. Damn you, Evis.

The Regency was underway, headed north to blow the bluffs. Evis was aboard, despite his earlier pronouncement that he would do no such thing. Accompanying him was Gertriss and Buttercup. And of course enough unstable gunpowder to blow a pair of cliffs to gravel.

Evis had written that the Regency was ready sooner than expected, and he saw no need to delay. He’d invited Gertriss along rather than leave her alone in the House, and of course that meant Buttercup was aboard the warship as well. His tone seemed to indicate they’d popped out for biscuits and tea.

All that laughing and giggling. Hell, Evis had probably cooked the whole thing up last night, and Gertriss was only too happy to go along.

I was to expect routine dispatches, starting tonight, which I could pick up at Avalante at my convenience. Important ones would be sent via courier to my office. I assumed that Avalante would be using some sorcerous device to communicate with the Regency, although Granny Knot’s trained pigeons seemed to work about as well.

One day soon, I decided, I was going to need to teach everyone around me a lasting lesson in manners.

Here and there I passed shops with boarded windows and hastily lettered CLOSED signs hung carelessly on the doors. Every corner sported a kid hawking handbills and the attendant tight-lipped crowds. I saw the Watch swoop down on a couple of barkers, but they simply dumped their handbills and vanished.

I stopped and grabbed a handbill myself. RANNIT TO FALL TO INVADERS, it announced, emphasizing its point with a crude rendition of the High House and the Big Bell consumed by leaping flames. OLD KINGDOM KING SEEKS TO REGAIN THRONE.

I crumpled it up and tossed it out the window. As if the man calling himself King was any more the cause behind this than myself, or old Mr. Bull.

We rounded the corner on Cambrit. I sat up and peeked out my window, hoping to find my poor door intact and unmolested.

It was intact, but it wasn’t alone. A big man leaned against it, and two of his big-boned friends helped him idle by squatting on either side of him. Their clothes were ragged and filthy, right out of Pot Lockney.

I cussed, sighed and bade the driver to keep going. If I was forced to fight my way to my icebox and its heavenly stash of beer, I needed reinforcements, and I knew a man who owed me a favor.

We walked all the way back to my place. I wasn’t in favor of it, but Grist insisted, claiming exercise left him sharp and invigorated.

I’d shrugged, half-hoping the trio of bumpkins might have given up and gone by the time we arrived at my office.

They hadn’t. Maybe it was the hex that brought them to their feet when Grist and I drew near. Maybe they’d sneaked around enough to see me from a distance and recognize me. Maybe they knew trouble was coming.

Too bad they didn’t know what kind of trouble.

Three big strong country boys. It took Grist exactly five blows to lay the trio out cold in the street. He took a single blow to his chin, which had all the apparent effect of a tap from a feather pillow.

“You are as good as they say.”

He grinned and nudged the biggest of the three with the toe of his boot. “What you want done with these?”

A small crowd was gathering. Flowers was among them. I flipped him a copper and bade him fetch the Watch.

“Leave ’em. The Watch can haul them off when they come around. If they get up and try to make tracks before that, put them back to sleep.”

“You’re the boss.”

I nodded. Hell, he’d not even drawn a deep breath. I made a mental note to never cross Mills. My stunt with the bricks wouldn’t work a second time.

I unlocked my door, peeped inside and saw the band of flour across my threshold was undisturbed. The stink of the hex was strong, but I decided it was all from the trio snoozing in the street, so I opened the door and stepped inside.

No one leaped atop me. No ballista threw from the shadows behind my desk. I went into the back and checked my tiny closet and peeked beneath my lonely bed. Aside from an ancient hairball hacked up by Three-leg in the prehistoric mists of time, I was alone.

So I did what all good officers do on the eve of war.

I put my feet on my desk and closed my eyes, and I slept, good and hard.

The Watch came and collected my new friends and left without bothering to wake me. Mills signed the complaint and that was that.

That bought me an extra couple of hours of sleep. I needed it, even though getting it made me miss the chance to head down to the Old Ruth and pester the new batch of hillbillies with questions they probably couldn’t answer anyway.

Judging from the dark and the quiet outside, I figured I had maybe three hours before Curfew. My first thought was to head up to Avalante to see Evis and Gertriss, and my second was to cuss when I remembered they were miles out of Rannit by now, steaming against the Brown with a few tons of temperamental gunpowder in tow.

My appointment with Lethway wasn’t until tomorrow night. Darla was safely tucked away with Mary. Tamar was still in hiding.

That left nobody to pester but Tamar’s parents.

I rummaged around in the back for a clean shirt and some socks that didn’t smell like Three-leg. In a fit of nap-fueled verve, I threw my shaving kit and a comb and some of that fancy hair tonic Darla favors into my bathing kit as well.

I gathered it all up and called Mills inside and laid out the night. He nodded and asked a question or two and was generally the very model of the highly paid employee.

He waited outside the bathhouse while I bathed. He sat across from me in the cab when we left. His eyes never closed, never stopped moving. He reminded me of me-a few years and a dozen centuries ago.

Had I really gotten that soft?

I didn’t bother with the bakery. I knew the law-abiding Fields would have shuttered the windows and locked the doors about the time I left the bathhouse. I had the cabbie take a circuitous route downtown, and make a few extra blocks before heading toward the Fields home. If anyone was following us, they were good enough to avoid being spotted either by myself or my sharp hired eyes.

I had the cabbie drive us past the Fields house a couple of times, confident we’d be lost in the steady flow of traffic. I saw lights in the windows and people moving behind curtains, but not a hint of mayhem.

I wondered just where they’d stashed Tamar after the kidnap attempt. My money was on the very house I was watching. Whether the kidnappers would bother to try and find out was anybody’s guess.

“We going in?” asked Mills.

“Nope. We’re just going to watch, for a while.” I pointed to a stand of shrubs that needed trimming just across the street. “It’s dark enough, I think.”

He nodded once. I called the cab to a halt half a block away and we hoofed it back to the bushes I’d chosen and picked out a couple of patches of deep shadow.

“So this is what finders do for fun,” whispered Mills.

“Most nights I have brandy with the Regent. This is a rare exception.”

Mills pointed with his chin. “I count seven people so far.”

“Should be ten at least. Maybe more, if Fields has any sense.”

“Does he?”

“Not sure.”

“So we’re waiting here just in case someone takes a stab at him?”

“That. Or anything, really. I’m just flipping over rocks, hoping something crawls out.”

“Ah.”

We didn’t speak again for an hour. The man was quiet. He shifted his weight from leg to leg and breathed through his nose and I believe if I’d asked him later how many bats swooped around the gas lamp at the corner he could give me a figure and not be making it up.

The Big Bell rang out Curfew. Cab traffic ground to a near halt. Pedestrian traffic was at home slipping sleeping caps on their weary little heads.

I was fighting off a doze when Mills tensed and lifted his hand to point.

He didn’t speak, but I saw it. A sliver of light grew abruptly to a slab and a man-shaped figure darted through it and then it was gone.

Mills gave me a What the Hell? look.

We’d just watched a door open in a wall that had no doors.

I squinted past the saw-edged leaves of the bush that concealed us. There, in the yard, a man darted toward the street. He was clad in a loose black cloak and his head was covered by a black hood, and he had the sense to keep his hands inside those long sleeves, but he couldn’t hide his girth or the fact that his short fat legs hadn’t been asked to run anywhere since the War.

“That’s Fields,” I whispered.

Mills nodded, watching.

A carriage came rolling down the street. Fields hustled right toward it, all but waving it to a halt. The carriage driver saw him, and slowed, and damned if they didn’t meet right under the street-lamp.

I never saw Fields clearly. I didn’t need too. Someone had removed the brass insignia from the carriage before leaving to pick up Fields-but they hadn’t bothered to wash down the door, which meant the shape of the Lethway Mining crest was plain even at a distance, and even in the dark.

“Amateurs,” whispered Mills.

I nodded. We waited. The carriage rolled past, Fields aboard.

I didn’t race out to stop it. If Lethway had lured Fields out with the intention of slitting his throat, he’d have sent a half dozen unsqueamish men to handle the job. I had a single assistant at my side, who might be willing to bruise a few heads for me, but would wisely draw the line at outright massacre.

“You didn’t expect that,” he said as the carriage vanished in the night.

“No. That’s the problem with kicking over rocks. Never know what’s under them.”

“What now?”

“No way to follow. So we wait. If he comes back breathing, I’ll ask him where he’s been.”

Another nod.

“I could make it over there, if you want. See how he did that door trick.”

I shook my head no. “We know he can do it. That’s enough for now.”

No argument. If only Gertriss were here to take note.

I had no idea where Fields was heading, or how long it would be before he returned, if he ever did. Part of me was sure the little baker had baked his last pie-if Lethway was getting nervous enough to burn down the Barracks, he wouldn’t blink at the prospect of decapitating a former partner in crime.

I had Fields dead if not buried when a quarter of an hour later the same black carriage rolled back around and halted briefly in front of the Fields’s house. When the carriage rolled away, Fields was halfway to his door, legs pumping, robes flapping.

“I’ll be damned.”

He didn’t bother with his hidden door, but walked right up to the front door, opened it with a key, and darted inside. He didn’t light a lamp.

I doubted Mrs. Fields or anyone else realized he’d been gone.

I’d have to keep a closer eye on my sneaky baker man.

“What was that all about?”

I shrugged. My back popped. Half the windows in the home were still lit.

“Why don’t we go ask?” I checked the street for halfdead, not really expecting any, but not wanting Mills to think me a man devoid of due caution. “We might even snare a leftover donut.”

“Both of us?”

An hour earlier I’d have insisted on going alone. Secret doors and midnight meetings left me less willing to take the risk.

“I’ll introduce you as Mr. Smith, if you prefer. Claim you’re new in town, from Horn or Latter or anywhere you please.”

He chuckled. “No need.”

We stepped out of our concealing shadow and made for the door.

A pair of butlers armed with crossbows greeted us. I could see another pair of worthies lurking behind various corners, ready to join the welcome should festivities be declared.

It took a bit of talking, but Mills and I were eventually frisked and allowed inside and gruffly seated at one end of a formal sitting room while half a dozen male staffers glared at us from the other. It was Mrs. Mills who made the first appearance, all smiles and welcomes, but even that didn’t reduce the number of men watching us or soften a single one of their expressions.

We did manage a pair of donuts. I’ve never been observed with such suspicion while consuming a glazed pastry.

Mr. Fields made us wait half an hour before he deigned to join us in a library. He surprised me by dismissing his staff and closing the door firmly behind them.

He left the door, crossed the room and settled back into a well-worn leather chair. That put a desk between us. Knowing the kinds of things I keep in, under and around my desk didn’t help my digestion.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon, Mr. Markhat.” He did not smile. “Who is your friend?”

“Mills,” replied Mills. “I’m just here to keep things civil. Don’t mind me.”

“I won’t.” Fields turned his gaze to me. “Well?”

“So, how is Pratt tonight?” I was guessing, but he flinched, just a bit, and I knew I’d landed the first blow.

“I don’t know any Pratt. I haven’t had any visitors, either.”

I smiled. “No need to receive visitors when you have a handy secret door you can slip out of whenever you like. You must have a paid a small fortune for that one. One way, isn’t it? Invisible from the outside, probably hidden in the back of a coat closet on the inside-”

He glared. I shut up. I’d made my point.

Better to leave them wondering just how much you know than to keep talking and stumble.

“I’ve made the acquaintance of Mr. Pratt myself, Mr. Fields. Funny, he never mentioned that you and he were friends.”

“We are not friends. I only met the man recently. And it was he who insisted we meet, Mr. Markhat. He said he had information about the men who tried to take Tamar.”

It was my turn to suppress a flinch. But I’m better at it than Fields, so I just turned it into a knowing sort of nod.

“Did he now.”

Fields cussed. “I didn’t need Pratt to tell me it was Lethway who arranged for those animals to invade my home and lay hands on my daughter, Markhat. I knew it from the start. All his man Pratt did was provide me with the proof.” He rummaged in his desk and pulled out a parcel wrapped in plain brown paper and thrust it on the desk.

“Here. As if you don’t already know.”

Mills saved me the trouble of formulating a reply by unwrapping the parcel himself.

Inside was the bloodied head of the walking stick that Tamar had used to kill her attacker. The Lethway Mining crest was engraved on it and covered in blood.

I nodded, as if I’d wrapped the thing myself.

“So now you know.”

“No thanks to you.”

“I wasn’t asking for any thanks. I’m going to pull Lethway’s teeth for you. You can thank me for that, when I’m done.”

Something in Fields’s eyes went cold.

“How much would you charge to just kill the bastard?”

I stood. Mills followed suit.

“Not my line, Mr. Fields. Believe me when I tell you this. You can’t afford the kind of muscle that would take.”

“I’m not a poor man.”

“And I’m not a stupid one. Good night, Mr. Fields. I suggest you get some sleep, and forget all about hiring a killing. All you’ll be buying is trouble.”

He had no reply. We showed ourselves out.

The street was quiet. A few carriages rattled past in the distance, barely audible above the crickets. I patted my Avalante pin and set a brisk pace, Mills at my side. If he was concerned about breaking Curfew he didn’t show it.

I thought about the bloody walking stick. I’d pinned that on the same people who had grabbed Carris. Now Pratt had seemingly laid that at Lethway’s door.

Why, though?

Maybe Lethway was worried that Fields might be tempted to turn on him, and wanted Tamar as leverage. Maybe Fields had never really written himself out of the Lethway payroll, and was bucking for a raise, and Tamar was Lethway’s way of saying ‘no.’

“My line of work is a lot simpler.” Mills must have guessed the nature of my thoughts. “Very little ambiguity.”

“Ambiguity pays my bills. Speaking of which. I need to head up to Avalante. I won’t dock you any pay if you decide you’d rather call it a night.”

Mills shrugged. “I’m not worried if you’re not. That pin ever actually turned any halfdead away?”

I thought back to the pair that had killed the little pig herder down on the docks.

“It has. They bow and doff their hats, and then it’s heels and toes and flapping capes.”

He laughed. “I’d like to see that, I think. I’ll come along.”

“We’ll be hoofing it.” A ghost of an idea presented itself. “Or not. Keep a sharp eye out for Army wagons. We might catch a ride after all.”

He lifted an eyebrow, but if he thought I was crazy he kept it to himself.

We set our sights on the tops of the crematorium smokestacks and headed for the Brown.

Evis was right.

I’d flagged down an army tallboy at the corner of Wesson and Grade. It was driven by a sergeant and conveying a pair of sleepy lieutenants.

I only had to say my name once, and Mills and I were welcomed aboard while the pair of lieutenants took to the street with barely a muttered curse and murderous glare.

The sergeant snapped his reins and we were off, headed for Avalante, courtesy of the Army of the Regency.

Mills ogled.

“How in the Hell?”

I shrugged. “Friends in high places. You really don’t want to know more than that.”

He closed his mouth. I turned away before my grin got any wider.

Bridge clowns avoid the black carriages of the halfdead, but they have no such respect for the weathered vehicles of the army. I was glad only a few clowns were present, since they took to throwing broken bricks and chunks of mortar. The driver raced across at breakneck speed, and I was doubly glad we weren’t meeting any traffic.

The driver, it turned out, had never been across the Brown, so he took several wrong turns before we found Avalante. I bade him pull to the curb and wait, and spent a few minutes reassuring him he was safer here in the heart of the halfdead district than he’d ever been in neighborhoods like mine-as long as he remained in uniform and atop an army troop wagon.

Mills and I left him there and made for Avalante’s tall, dark doors. They opened well before we arrived, and we were immediately surrounded by half a dozen pale, fluid figures dressed in Avalante black.

“Good evening, fellows,” I said, smiling. “You know me. This is my associate, Mr. Mills. We’ve come to hear the news from the fishermen.”

They nodded. None spoke. All formed lines flanking the doors, and a single pale hand bade us enter.

I glanced over at Mills. His jaw was set and his fists were clenched. But he managed a grin, and his step never faltered.

Jerle, the day man, was either in his bed or heading that way. A halfdead I’d never met appeared as we stepped over the threshold and guided us silently to a sitting room, then closed the door behind us.

Mills looked about. He chose a seat facing the door. A light sheen of sweat formed on his temple.

“Relax,” I said. “I’m practically House myself. You’re safer here than you are at home.”

He nodded and swallowed.

We didn’t wait long. Our pale friend was back, waving me forward, and asking Mills quietly if he would like refreshments while he waited.

Mills declined. I followed my new friend out, and was glad he closed the door behind me, but didn’t lock it.

“I trust you take no offense,” said the halfdead, when we were out of earshot of the waiting room. “You are known to us. He is not.”

“None at all. I prefer to do this alone, anyway.”

“Good.” We walked through halls as quiet as any tomb. I knew there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of halfdead around me, but they collectively made all the racket of a dropped silk hanky. “We have been in constant contact with the Regency, by the way. The news is promising.”

“So they haven’t blown themselves up yet.”

“Indeed not.” We came to a door flanked by a pair of live guards. My friend rattled off a string of nonsense words, and they stepped aside.

“Come,” said the halfdead. He looked hard at the door, and it swung silently inwards. “Evis is waiting.”

I didn’t have time to show him my famous lifted eyebrow trick, so I just hurried inside.

The room was dark, as halfdead rooms tend to be. So maybe it tricked my eyes into thinking it was larger than it really was. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one.

Ten paces away from us was a massive iron contraption so tall they’d been forced to dig away at the ceiling to accommodate the top of the thing. Ten men could have ringed it around at the bottom, if they were willing to stand right against the thing and really stretch their arms. I wouldn’t do it, though, because it leaked steam in hissing sprays and spat showers of sparks seemingly at random from between whirling sets of gears and cogs.

Furious, tiny lightning-storms played about a series of metal spikes set like a crown atop the thing. The smell was the same fresh clean smell you get after bad storms. The thunder was miniature, but constant.

A small crew of mixed day folk and halfdead rushed around the device, putting out fires with blackened, damp blankets or shoving odd-looking metal tools into gaps in the mechanism. They communicated in curses and brief exchanges of jargon that were no more intelligible than ogre or Troll.

“Are we ready?” said my guide, over the noise.

A harried human with burn marks over his thick canvas shirt turned to face us.

“We’re having trouble with the coolant, sir. Keeping it short would be advisable.”

My guide nodded. “Understood.” He pointed me toward a desk-like affair, upon which a shiny copper funnel rested, the wide end facing the chair. “Sit there. Speak slowly and clearly. You may expect a minute, perhaps less, before we lose the Regency.”

I sat. Mama Markhat didn’t raise her kids to pester vampires with stupid questions.

The funnel crackled, hissed and then it spoke.

“Hiya, Markhat,” came a voice. Evis’s voice.

“Hello, boss.” That was Gertriss. “Everything is fine here.”

I cleared my throat. The whole room was watching me, and the day folk were trying to hide their grins.

“Evis. Miss. And Buttercup-are you there too, honey?”

A high-pitched giggle sounded from the funnel.

“So. Another miracle of arcane science. Beats carrier pigeons, I suppose.”

“Not really. Fails all the time. Surprised it’s working now. But I wanted to talk to you more or less in person, Markhat. We’re making much better speed than I thought. We’re going to make the bluffs in plenty of time. Ahead of schedule, even.”

“As long as the barges don’t hit a log.”

“Always the ray of sunshine, Markhat. Listen. Your partner is worried-had any more visitors from her old hometown?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle.” I briefed her on Mama’s last letter. I didn’t mention Mills. The last thing I needed was a lifetime of chiding from Evis about hiring bodyguards every time he left town.

Evis spoke again as I wrapped up Mama’s exploits in Pot Lockney.

“By the way. If you see our mutual friends, please tell them thanks for me.”

“Thanks for what?”

“They’ll know. Oh. Are you keeping your sword handy?”

“Got it right here,” I lied.

“Don’t be an ass. Arm yourself.” The funnel issued a loud screech, and a fresh shower of blue sparks erupted from the top of the clanking ironwork in the center of the room.

Men and halfdead rushed about shouting. Buckets of a white powder were thrown wherever flames began to dance. My halfdead guide took my elbow and gently hustled me out of the room.

“Pigeons seldom burst into flames,” I noted as he shut the door firmly behind us.

He nodded. “I shall pass your observation on to the House. Is there anything else we can do for you tonight, Mr. Markhat?”

“Not a thing,” I said.

He raised the ghost of an eyebrow. “Surely you do not intend to walk back to your office?”

“The night air is invigorating.”

“I shall arrange for a carriage to meet you on the street. You may of course keep it for the night, if you wish.”

“I don’t want to abuse your generosity.”

He nearly smiled.

“We are allies. Evis has left instructions that you be assisted in any way possible. I shall make the arrangements.”

“Thanks.”

He nodded, and another halfdead appeared at my side, and soon I was back at the sitting room with Mills.

“All done?” he asked.

“For now. We’ve got a ride. I’ll drop you back at your place.”

He nodded. “You have the most interesting friends.”

“That I do.” I thought back to Evis’s admonition that I keep Toadsticker handy. “That I do.”

Chapter Sixteen

The ride back to Mills’s place was silent.

He snoozed. I pondered. Evis had gone to a lot of trouble to hold a brief conversation, which meant it must have been important.

Mention of our mutual friend meant Hisvin, of course. And asking me to convey his thanks was Evis’s way of letting me know he had something brewing with the Corpsemaster-something so private he didn’t want it spoken, even in Avalante.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d told me to keep Toadsticker handy.

My sword was a gift from Evis himself, last year. Its steel holds a charm against the halfdead.

Which makes his mention of my need of it doubly worrisome.

Trouble among the Houses? Trouble within Avalante itself?

Or perhaps one of the other dark Houses had decided to throw in with the invaders from Prince.

Which would make Evis and I prime targets for all sorts of unpleasantness.

I cussed. Mills stirred. I was going to keep Toadsticker handy, all right. To the point of bathing and sleeping with the hilt in my hand.

I dropped Mills off in front of his flophouse. He yawned and waved and vanished in the shadows.

My driver thumped the roof, wondering where to go next.

“Cambrit,” I said. “Take a couple extra turns. Make it a long trip.”

“You got it.”

I settled back, shut the curtain and sat in the dark all the way there.

I managed to get in and out of my office without suffering a beating. When I emerged, I carried a bag stuffed with clothes and shoes and shaving gear, and Toadsticker was on my belt.

Hillbillies under a hex I could risk. Halfdead with murder on their minds was another matter entirely. My door was built to keep out drafts and rain, not monsters.

I knew I could bunk at Avalante, if I wanted. And the idea did hold some appeal. But it would be hard to work a case from a walnut-paneled guest room, and I did have a case to work.

I bade my driver to just take turns at random while I tried to put together a plan. I’d have to sleep at some point. I’d need a place to change clothes. Darla’s was out, since the last thing I wanted to do was drag her into trouble involving the Houses. Ditto for just picking the lock on Mama’s door and sleeping there.

I’d need a hotel, then, until this mess was over or Prince’s cannons loosed damnation on the walls.

I sighed as I felt my pockets grow lighter yet again.

But I was in no hurry. I gave the cabbie Mary’s address, and on a whim included Lethway’s office building, and told him to take the most circuitous route he could imagine.

He did a good job of it. I watched the windows and the darkened, empty streets. If anyone was following us, they were doing it on foot, and if they were following us on foot they were quite the runner, because we kept a breakneck pace the whole way.

Of course, a couple of halfdead could pace us without breathing hard, but it doesn’t pay to entertain such pessimism when there’s not a damned thing you can do about it.

We passed by Lethway’s dark office building just as the Big Bell pounded out Curfew. At first glance, it appeared to be deserted, shut up for the night, but then I saw a bit of light under the blinds, and I realized the windows were shuttered and closed-not truly dark.

And then there were the three carriages parked out front. Their teams were steaming with fresh sweat in the glow of the street lamp. So there were people inside, doing whatever it is mining outfits do in the wee hours when the rest of Rannit sleeps.

From there we made for Mary’s neighborhood, finally reaching it an hour later. I liked the street immediately, even in the dark. There was a cheerful, wholesome quality to it, even though the homes were small and could have used a bit of paint and some new shingles here and there.

Mary’s house showed light in all the windows. I had the driver take us by slowly while I opened the window and listened.

I heard a snatch of laughter that was not Darla, but was female and untroubled. I was about to tell the driver to head out when the unmistakable yapping of Mr. Tibbles sounded from within Mary’s house.

I called us to a halt. The yapping of a tiny dog rang out loud and clear.

And if Mr. Tibbles was yapping away in Mary’s house, then Tamar wasn’t far away.

I cussed and told the driver to wait and did my best to hide Toadsticker under my coat as I made for Mary’s door.

Her porch light flared as I cleared the last five porch steps. Darla met me at her door. From the laughing and talking in the background, I didn’t think anyone but Darla even knew they had a visitor.

She lifted a finger to her lips,

“I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you,” she said. “Tamar is here.”

“I heard Mr. Tibbles.” I forced away my scowl. It wasn’t Darla I was angry with. “Half of Rannit can hear Mr. Tibbles. Why isn’t she hiding?”

Darla grabbed my arm and hauled me inside. A kiss may have taken place. There were no witnesses to the event.

“She got spooked, hon. She swore somebody was watching her. So she sneaked out and went to my house.”

“But you weren’t there.”

“No. But she knew I’d only be one of two other places.”

“So she spent the evening gallivanting around Rannit. Carrying a tiny barking dog, just to make sure everyone everywhere noticed her. Brilliant. Wonderful.”

Darla hugged me tight.

“I know. But she was afraid. She’s here and she’s safe.”

“Nobody here is safe as long as she’s here.” I managed to peek out the door. The street was still empty and quiet. “This isn’t good, Darla. It isn’t good at all.”

Tamar and Mary came rushing into the room. At the sight of me, Mary squealed and charged back the other way, and Tamar and Darla laughed.

“You’ve seen her in her nightgown,” said Tamar. Mr. Tibbles yapped at me from the crook of her elbow. “Good thing Darla is here, or you’d have to marry her, you know.”

“Miss Fields.” I took off my hat and hung it on a hook by the door. “It’s a good thing Darla is here for you, too, or I’d be forced to raise my voice. What made you think charging around town after dark was a good idea?”

She didn’t flinch. “I was being watched, Mr. Markhat. I’m sure of it. So I wrapped Mr. Tibbles in a towel and I stole a maid’s wrap and I sneaked down to the kitchen and then I walked out with a bag of trash, and I’m not sorry.”

Mr. Tibbles indicated his agreement by baring his teeth and growling.

I sighed and pulled one of Mary’s kitchen chairs around and sat on it.

“Tell me why you think you were being watched.”

“I peeped through the curtains sometimes. The same man was on the same corner all afternoon. He didn’t even move to the shade when the sun got hot. I know all of Daddy’s men, Mr. Markhat, and the man I saw wasn’t one of them. I left everything in my room. If they go in they might think I’m still somewhere in the hotel. Was that a smart thing to do, Mr. Markhat?”

I nodded. It was, actually. People seldom just walk away from their things, even when clinging to them puts them in peril.

“Still. You took an awful risk. Why didn’t you go home?”

“Because Father would have just sent me back there, Mr. Markhat. Or to another hotel. I’m tired of hiding. My wedding is just days away. Now then. Have you found Carris yet?”

Darla hid a grin.

“I’m close,” I said. “After tomorrow night, I hope to know who has him, or at least know more about them.”

Tamar nodded but did not smile.

“The caterers have been paid in full,” she said. “They need to know when to start icing the cake.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Darla shot me a look. “But you can’t stay here that long.”

“Mary said I could stay as long as I want.”

“Tamar, dear,” purred Darla. “He’s gruff, but he knows his business. I’m sure Markhat knows a better hiding place.”

“I do indeed. But moving her tonight isn’t the best way to handle things. We need crowds to hide in. Too, my Avalante carriage isn’t exactly inconspicuous.”

Tamar beamed and scratched Mr. Tibbles behind his scruffy little ears. “Did you hear that, Mr. Tibbles? We’re spending the night with Mary.”

“Are all the doors locked?”

Darla nodded. “Doors and windows.”

“Good.” I rose. “Lock this one after me.”

She frowned. “You’re leaving?”

“Only to send my driver home. I’ll be right back. Does Mary have a fireplace?”

“Of course. Why?”

“Then she has a fireplace poker. Keep it handy.” I kissed her on the nose and peeked through the door glass and then opened it quickly and waited there until I heard the locks click.

I asked my driver to ride around Rannit for a couple of hours before heading home. If anyone was keeping an eye out for finders in borrowed black carriages, that ought to prove amusing.

Then I headed back to Mary’s cheery little bungalow, my hand on Toadsticker’s hilt. I got indoors without incident, and I placed a straight-backed wooden chair across from the front door and angled it so I could see the room behind me.

Mary has a fancy brass clock on the mantel above her fireplace. It ticked and tocked the whole night long, while I watched windows and doors and fought off sleep by holding Toadsticker out level with my chest and balancing a glass on his blade whenever I felt the urge to doze.

Darla hadn’t asked where I intended to take Tamar. I still wasn’t sure. A hotel downtown, under an assumed name, I decided. With Mills idling in the lobby and keeping an eye on the stairs. I could hit up Fields for reimbursement later, and it was only then that I realized I no longer trusted the baker enough to tell him where I was hiding his daughter.

The brass clock struck out the third small hour when Darla emerged, wrapped in a blanket, sleep in her eyes. She curled up on the floor next to me and wordlessly went to sleep, her hand in mine.

Darla is beautiful, by the way. Far too beautiful to be walking out with a rogue such as I. But here she was, at my side.

Evis’s admonition to keep Toadsticker handy ran hobnailed through my mind. Hell, I was putting her at risk every day. If halfdead weren’t out there lurking, the kidnappers might be.

All because of me.

She opened her eyes for a moment and looked up at me and smiled and then fell fast asleep. In that brief moment, it appeared as if she was about to speak.

I listened to the wind outside, and I wondered until sunrise just what it was she might have said.

Mary appeared, clad in a high-necked dressing gown that concealed her so completely I would have been hard-pressed to identify her species, much less her gender. She shooed me into a corner and set about bringing her kitchen to life.

Bacon fried. Biscuits baked. Eggs scrambled. Toast toasted. Coffee perked, making wet sputtering noises that roused the rest of the ladies.

I was elected to take Mr. Tibbles for his morning constitutional. He appeared to be no more thrilled with the task than I, but apart from pulling at his leash and trying to hike his leg on my right boot, he behaved well enough.

I never left Mary’s yard. I did scandalize the neighborhood by waving to her sleepy-eyed neighbors and introducing myself as her beau until Darla dragged me back inside.

Tamar and Mary were already seated and dining. Two plates waited for Darla and I.

“Good morning, Mr. Markhat. Did Mr. Tibbles behave himself?”

“He was a model of decorum, Miss.”

“Are you still angry with me for leaving the hotel?”

“Furious, Miss. But I believe in letting bygones be bygones.” I munched on some sausage and swallowed. “You know you can’t stay here, though.”

“She can stay as long as she kens ta,” said Mary. “’Tis my house, and my say.”

“But she kens to go with me,” I replied. “Because if she doesn’t, I’ll do one of two things. One, I’ll just head downtown and tell her father where she is, and he’ll be along to fetch her and none too happy about it. Or two, I’ll put her over my shoulder and carry her out.”

Mary laughed. “Aye, I reckon ye would at that.” She topped off my coffee cup with a bitter black brew as strong as anything I ever drank in the army.

“Mr. Tibbles wouldn’t like that,” said Tamar. “Neither would I. But would you really? Men are always saying things they really don’t mean, just because everyone thinks they do.”

“He means it,” said Darla. “And he’s right. There are safer places. Places only a finder would think of. Isn’t that right, dear?”

She caught me with a mouthful of scrambled eggs, so I just nodded.

Tamar sighed. “Well. If you think it’s a good idea, then…all right. We’ll go.” Her face took on a sudden expression of genuine concern. “You aren’t about to tell me I have to leave Mr. Tibbles behind, are you? Because I won’t. I simply won’t.”

I swallowed. “No. Never. He goes where you go. That’s a promise, Miss. Me to you.”

She beamed. “I knew you wouldn’t really go and fetch Father. You’re not that kind of man.”

“Thanks. I think.” I drained my cup and wiped crumbs off my chin with one of Mary’s embroidered white napkins. “Finish up, ladies. We’ll be leaving soon. I’m going to go sit on the porch and see if anyone takes notice.”

“Where are we going?” asked Tamar. “Is it a secret place? Somewhere forbidding and mysterious? Will I need a hat with lace, or a veil? I have both. You never know which you’ll need, so I brought one of each.”

I dived in when she paused for breath.

“A veil, then. Mary, thank you for breakfast, and your hospitality.”

“Aye.” She shoved a paper bag of biscuits toward me. “Ye might be wantin’ them for later.”

I took the bag and headed for the porch. Darla followed me out while Tamar shoved bits of bacon toward an anxious Mr. Tibbles.

“So, have you decided where to stash Tamar, dearest?”

“Of course I have. All part of an intricate scheme I formulated long ago.”

Darla laughed. “In other words, you’re making this up as you go.”

“I prefer to think I’m acting with situational awareness in a fluid event dynamic.”

“You’re already talking like a general.”

We kissed at that point. A passing cabbie shouted his approval.

“You’re going to work?”

“As long as we have clients, and we do. Not everyone has headed for the hills.”

“Good for them.” I brushed her hair back, and a vagrant breeze pushed it right back on her forehead. “I’ll stop by before the store closes.”

Her brow furrowed.

“Oh.”

“Oh? Had you rather I not?”

“No, no, not at all. It’s the way you said it. You’ve got something going on after Curfew tonight, don’t you?”

I did indeed. A meeting with Lethway, who’d tried to murder me when last we sat down to fancy cigars and light conversation.

“Nothing terribly dangerous. And I won’t be alone.”

She grabbed me and shivered.

Tamar barged out, bag in her right hand and a squirming Mr. Tibbles in her left.

“We’re ready to go,” she said. Mr. Tibbles yapped his assent. “Isn’t this exciting? Is Darla coming too? I wore the veil. I can put Mr. Tibbles in the bag when we get there. You won’t mind, will you, Mr. Tibbles?”

Darla laughed softly and let me go.

“Be careful,” she said, and then she was off.

I darted out to hail a cab.

There’s a trick to hiding young women in fancy hotels. If you ever need to do so, never mind the reason, there’s a right way to do it, and a wrong way.

The wrong way seems the best way to honest folk. They think that by slipping furtively into the hotel and speaking in hushed tones to the desk clerk and paying in cash and calling yourself Mr. Smith you’ll simply sink down into a blessed state of total obscurity.

That’s why honest people are so easy to find.

Taking the sneaky approach just brands you as one of two things, in the minds of hotel staff. You’re either sneaking around on your spouse or you’re hiding from someone. So when inquisitive sorts start asking questions and perhaps handing out coins to the talkative, the hiding place is revealed as surely as if a giant hand reached down and ripped off the roof.

That’s the wrong way.

The right way?

Tamar rushed into the hotel lobby a dozen steps ahead of me. The pillow she’d placed under her blouse did a credible job of simulating the middle stage of pregnancy. She let me get in the door and take a single step before she turned on me and let loose a stream of loud, heartfelt invective that turned the heads of everyone in the lobby.

Once all eyes were upon us, she took off her wedding ring, which was actually a bauble purchased moments ago from a shady street jeweler for a couple of coppers, and flung it at my face.

“I told you if your mother didn’t leave I would,” she screamed, putting just enough screech into it. “I will not spend another hour under the same roof as that mean-spirited old warthog!”

“Honey,” I said, raising my arms in surrender. “It’s just another week-”

“You said that last week. And the week before.”

Right on cue, Flowers rushed in, freshly scrubbed and wearing the first new shirt he’d ever seen, much less worn. I didn’t trust his accent or his diction, so I’d told him to keep his mouth shut, and he did.

“Come, Reginald,” said Tamar to Flowers. “See? He can’t stand your mother either. Now pay the man, and pay him enough to keep me here until you remove that awful woman from my house!”

And with that, she turned and stormed up the stairs, Flowers in tow.

The room was suddenly filled with barely-suppressed snickering. I made a heavy sigh and approached the desk clerk, a grinning little man in his early hundreds, with my hands in my pockets.

“Trouble to home, is that it, sir?” he asked.

“Guess you could say that.” I leaned on the counter and lowered my voice to a whisper. The room went as silent as a tomb, as two dozen ears strained to hear something that wasn’t a bit of their business.

“How much for a room for the wife and son, for, let’s say, a week?”

“Might be cheaper to just rent one permanent-like for your mother.”

Laughter rippled through the lobby. The old man cackled.

“Have a heart. How much? I can’t move Mother now. She’s taken to her bed. What am I supposed to do?”

He cackled and named a price. It was a quarter again too much, but I didn’t haggle.

I did tell him my name was Smith, which touched off another round of laughter, and that I’d also want to purchase extra meals for the boy and laundry service for the wife. More coins changed hands. My next sigh was very real.

But it had worked. Anyone sniffing around for word of a single young woman who kept to herself and never left her rooms would be greeted with shrugs and shakes of the head. Tamar was an angry pregnant wife with a son in tow and a milksop for a husband.

And that, my friends, is the right way to hide a woman in plain sight.

I left my curiously estranged wife and headed for Granny Knot’s humble abode. Granny has a shack off Elfways-not on the trendy shops and eateries end, but on the old end, well removed from the last stop on the high-priced curio and ornate hat trail.

Granny wasn’t home. You’d think finding an aged spook doctor during the day would be simple, but most of the times I’ve knocked at Granny’s door I’ve knocked in vain. I gave up after a time and settled in the shade of her porch and watched her ne’er-do-well neighbors sneak by. Crows cawed and pecked and hopped in the cemetery next door. I didn’t care to know what it was that they worried. Sometimes the gravediggers don’t bother to go the full six feet.

My meeting with Lethway would commence in a few hours. I listened to the crows and planned my wardrobe. I’d don my new tan britches, my good white shirt and the shiny black shoes Darla got me for Armistice Day.

I would have to leave Toadsticker in the carriage. Swords simply aren’t worn in places like the Banner. I could probably get away with a dagger in my boot and brass knuckles in my pocket, but that would be the extent of my weaponry. Of course the whole point of surprising Lethway at the Banner with his mistress was to avoid a fight, but when tempers flare there’s no predicting how events might unfold.

I wondered if Pratt would stay away, and decided he probably wouldn’t. He might keep out of sight, but I was betting he’d be nearby. Since seeing Fields use his magic secret door and returning with the head of the walking stick that had killed Tamar’s would-be kidnapper, I’d realized Pratt was playing his own games. I hoped I wasn’t being used as a stepping-stone to further his own agenda.

A pair of street kids hopped up on Granny’s porch and gave me a pair of underfed hard looks.

“Whatcha doin’, mister?” asked one.

“Got any money?” inquired the other.

Combined, they weighed maybe fifty pounds, with ten of that being dirt, but they took another couple of steps forward. The dirtiest one slipped a hand in a pocket.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “Beat it.”

“He asked you a question, mister.”

“I said do you have any money?”

I cussed and stood up and whipped Toadsticker out. They were off the porch and well into the street before my knees stopped popping.

Granny Knot herself startled me by cackling.

“I seen you, Bobby Doris,” she shrieked. “I knows where your granny walks.”

The urchins doubled their speed. Granny cackled again, shifted her paper-wrapped parcel in her hand, and fumbled for her keys.

“Wonderful to see you, Mr. Markhat,” she whispered with a wink. “I trust you are well?”

I grinned and nodded and put out my hands. Helping old ladies with bags is just another of my many sterling qualities.

“Don’t you be steppin’ on them bees,” she shouted for the benefit of a couple walking past. “I got ham in all my hats. Ham and windows, so the ghosts can see out.”

We stepped inside, and she slammed the door behind her.

“Ham? Hats with windows?”

Granny shrugged. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to babble inanities all day long, Mr. Markhat? I was rather proud of that one. It was both original and intriguing.”

She walked into her cramped kitchen as she spoke, so I followed.

“You’ve come for word from Mama, I presume.”

“I have. Is there any?”

She shoved a bag of salt into a cupboard and nodded. “On the counter. I’ll brew up some coffee, if you like.”

“Thanks.” I spotted the tiny cylinder of tightly wrapped paper on the counter and pulled up a wobbly chair and read.

Boy, it began. I done poked a stick in a hornet’s nest, like I had a mind to, and you ain’t never seen the likes of the buzzin’ and the flyin’ about.

This here hex-master ain’t a local boy. I hears he showed up last year and took to lurking around the inns and the taverns, braggin’ about his hex-craft and showin’ off with lights and haints and so on. Damn fools hereabouts ate it up. ’Fore long, he was doin’ regular work, and askin’ dear for it too.

Well, I done put a stop to all that. I told it that he ate up souls and children besides, and when they said about the fever last Yule that took all them babies I said well there you go. The word of a Hog still has some weight hereabouts, I reckon, ‘cause before midnight I had a dozen callers to my door, all itchin’ to tell what they knowed about this here hex-caster.

He come from Prince, jest like I suspicioned. Still wears them Army doggers what you used to favor. He hides whenever wagon trains and stagecoaches stop in town, so I reckon he ain’t keen on meeting up with nobody from Rannit nor Prince neither, make of that what ye will.

He’s done told it around that he’s comin’ after me. I reckon he’s got to now, or hightail it somewhere else, cause I done put the word out on him. I’ll be waitin’, boy, and he’s gonna regret ever hearin’ the Hog name spoke before I’m done.

And there it ended. I bit back a curse. Mama had been long on drama but short on minor details such as names or descriptions or dates.

Granny pulled up a chair across from me and shoved a plate of sugar cookies my way.

“I take it Mama was less than informative?”

I sought out a cookie. Badmouthing Mama to her best friend didn’t seem like the ideal way to pass the time.

Granny chuckled. “She does enjoy the odd bit of obfuscation. But I daresay she will tell all, when the matter is settled.”

“She may be going up against a former army sorcerer,” I said. “I hope the matter winds up settled in Mama’s favor.”

“You will find Mama equal to her task. The coffee is ready. You take yours black, I believe?”

All the sugar in the world wasn’t going to take the bitter out of Granny’s brew, which resembled tar in both flavor and consistency.

“I do. These are good cookies.”

She smiled and poured. I thought about Mama facing down one of the horrors we troops used to avoid even though they were on our side and a literal shiver ran down my spine.

“Samuel, leave the gentleman alone, this instant.”

Granny glared at the empty air above me until I felt the faintest of breezes and the icy fingers running down my spine departed.

I stood.

“Oh, sit back down. That was only Samuel, out for a bit of mischief.”

I sat, but only with difficulty. Sometimes I forget what Granny does for a living.

“Now then.” Granny put a cup in front of me. It steamed and smelled of chicory. “Mama tells me you’ll be getting married soon.”

I nearly choked. “Mama tells a lot of things she ought not to.”

Granny’s bright little eyes sparkled. “She says she saw your wedding, with her Sight. Claimed there were fireworks in the sky, a band was playing and a priest was saying the words.”

“Fireworks.” I shrugged. “We haven’t had fireworks since before the War. Can’t even get them now. Hang burned to the ground, twenty years ago.”

“Nevertheless. That is what Mama described. And soon, she believed. Did you know she can tell how far in the past or the future her visions extend?”

I snorted and hid it behind my raised cup. Mama and her visions. She sure as Hell hadn’t seen a bunch of pig farmers trooping toward Rannit, knives drawn and my name on their lips.

And she hadn’t seen any visions of what army sorcerers did during the War, or she wouldn’t be so eager to yank the hex-caster’s nose.

Granny raised her cup. “Well, I suppose we’ll see,” she said after a while. “And please don’t worry about Mama. She’s far more formidable on her home soil than she is here, and even here she’s faced down vampires and emerged victorious.”

“Can’t argue with that.” I drained the cup and rose. “Thanks, Granny. I’ll check back tomorrow, see if another letter has arrived.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll send a boy if one comes. Samuel tells me you have an active few days ahead of you.”

“Does Samuel have any sage advice concerning these active days ahead?”

Granny cocked her head and was quiet for a moment.

“He says, and I quote, ‘Tell that there fool he’s ta be mindful of archers if’n he wants to stay above the ground.’ I’m afraid Samuel is a bit of a rustic.”

“Thank him for me.” It never hurts to be polite, even to thin air that was probably as empty as the Regent’s heart. “Take care, Granny.”

“You do the same, Mr. Markhat. Remember what Samuel said.”

“Always.”

And then I was out on Granny’s porch, blinking in the sun. The pair of toughs I’d scattered saw me, threw a pair of poorly aimed rocks my way, and vanished. A shimmering in the air that flew past my face suggested Samuel decided to seek them out and teach them a lesson about throwing rocks at Granny’s porch.

I had to walk all the way back to the genteel end of Elfways to hail a cab.

Darla added a cushion to my chair. I refused to ponder the implications of that as I waited for business to slow down.

I didn’t need to wait long. The snatches of conversations I managed to catch were mainly concerned with cancellations of various orders. Everyone gave variations on the same whispered reason-we’re taking a holiday, they claimed. A holiday out of Rannit.

Darla and Mary and even Martha took it with smiles and knowing nods. “Aye, they’ll all be back,” I heard Mary say in a brief lull. “Don’t ye be despairin’, you hear?”

More nods, more smiles. I don’t know Mary well, but I know my Darla, and her smile was forced and her nod was just a motion.

“Well, well,” said Darla when the last of the customers shuffled out the door. She perched in my lap, sending Mary into a fit of giggling and blushing. “A man, in a dress shop. What can we interest you in today, handsome stranger?”

“Something in a taffeta evening gown. But no lace. I’m barely twenty, you know.”

She laughed and kissed me. Mary fled for the back.

I kissed her back, since there were no longer any innocents about who might be permanently scarred by our scandalous lack of decorum.

“Tamar hidden safely away?” Darla asked somewhat later.

“She is indeed. Along with our son. Did I mention we had a son? His name is Richard. Or possibly Reginald. He needs a bath. Maybe two.”

“My, you certainly know how to get the most out of a morning, don’t you?”

I didn’t have a comeback, so I settled for another kiss. That always seems to work.

The door opened, all bells and chimes, and Darla leaped to her feet, smoothing her long skirt and pinching my ear as she moved away.

We didn’t get much time, later. I had barely enough to let her know what I had planned, and where, and with whom. I didn’t even realize I was doing that until after it was done.

She nodded and only asked me once to be careful.

I hated to leave. But I had a number of stops to make, and any one of them could turn into a long one, and Lethway’s time at the Banner wasn’t negotiable.

So I told Darla goodbye while yet another finely dressed lady canceled yet another order with yet another tale of a sudden trip out of town. We couldn’t kiss. We couldn’t hug each other.

I guess that’s something we’ll have to get used to.

My next stop was Avalante. I hoped to either speak to Evis through that sparking contraption we’d used before, or at least get an update on the Regency’s position. I was also going to need another all-night loan of a carriage. I was hoping they’d offer so I didn’t have to beg.

Jerle, the day man, was at his post. He greeted me with his usual beaming expression of utter and complete indifference. Yes, sir, you are expected, I was told. Yes, sir, I believe a message awaits you. If sir will follow me…

I followed. I expected to be led to the room, which housed the long-distance speaking device, but we just kept going down, and down, and down. Six stories down, and Jerle never broke a sweat.

I did. I don’t mind spending time in Evis’s office, which itself is some thirty feet, I believe, beneath the ground. I have long known that Avalante is more cavern than house-but I’d prefer to keep the details of what lies beneath comfortably in the realm of speculation.

Down we went, following a dizzying spiral of steps that passed firmly shut doors. The air grew noticeably cooler, though it never smelled dank. A couple of times, I felt a strong draft when we passed by ornate iron grilles set in the walls.

At last, we stopped at a door. Jerle opened it and beckoned me through.

As I crossed the threshold, a burst of noise struck me, grew, and kept going. I felt the telltale traces of a hex slide off my shoulders as we left a fancy be-quiet spell behind.

I won’t call it a room, because it was just too big. A chamber. That fits. It was so large I couldn’t see the ends of it. Massive stone columns rose up in regular rows all around me and faded off into the distance in every direction. Magelamps hung from the high smooth ceiling, casting odd shadows and making the movement around me a confusing, jarring hubbub that might have been anything from a riot to a dance.

Jerle let me take it in for a moment. Halfdead and human hurried past us without pause or note.

“Jerle, what is this place?”

“The sixth level, sir. This way.”

And he was off, moving easily through the maze of columns and bodies. I trotted along behind him, lest I be left there and forgotten.

There were no walls. There were, in places, long ranks of benches and tables, filled with odd devices about which vampires and day folk gathered. Some of them talked. Some poked at things with tools I couldn’t name. Some scribbled on paper, some smoked those fancy new smokesticks and some just stared off into space, oblivious to the din around them.

Devices flashed and spat tiny thunders and smoked and glittered. The smell of things burning was strong. One blaze broke out as we passed, but was quickly extinguished by a bevy of red-clad day folk who fought down the flames with buckets and blankets before it could spread.

“Almost there, sir.”

I was too busy huffing and puffing to reply.

Finally, Jerle came to a stop and exchanged a few whispers with a tall halfdead who regarded me over Jerle’s head with barely contained annoyance.

“So you’re the man who ruined the upstairs machine,” he said when the whispering was all done.

“I never touched the thing. I’m a pigeon man.”

He whirled and set about twisting this and pushing that on a twin to the machine I’d last seen six floors above.

Jerle moved to stand by my side. “Be seated,” he said, motioning me toward a table and a single chair. A curiously shaped brass funnel sat atop this table too.

I sat, leaned forward, waited for Evis’s voice to sound from within the thing.

For a moment, there was silence. And then a burst of noise, and then, just for an instant, the sound of something like music, if the musicians were Trolls and afflicted with serious throat infections.

The tall halfdead scowled anew at me and gave a brass wheel a savage twist.

The music vanished.

“…hit the bloody thing again,” said Evis.

“You’ll break it if you do and they’ll blame me,” I said. “Where are you? How are the ladies? Can I book a stateroom for the next pleasure cruise?”

A burst of noise drowned his next few words. “…are fine. Buttercup caught a fish. Miss Gertriss sends her regards. We are well ahead of schedule. Engines performing beyond expectations. Weather is holding. Any more visitors from the old country?”

“None. Mama is fine. Lot of people leaving the city, though. You may come home to find it empty.”

“Just so it’s in one piece. Have you spoken with our boss yet?”

“Haven’t had the pleasure. Will mention that you asked. Any sign of our friends from the north?”

“We started seeing their trash in the water yesterday. Stupid on their part. We now know they’re eating potatoes grown on Butler Farms and drinking Yotton beer from cheap pine kegs.”

“Hurrah. The war is won.” I wished for some privacy but wasn’t going to get it. “Is Gertriss there with you?”

“No. She’s taking a nap with Buttercup. Something wrong?”

“Mama’s taking some pretty big risks with the hex-caster. He's ex-army. From Prince. We all know Mama has a bad temper, but this isn’t some backwoods hex doctor we’re talking about.”

“She’s a tough old bird, Markhat. But if she loses this round, well, you and I will take a little trip that way once this is all over.”

“Hope it doesn’t come to that. When do you think you’ll hit the bluffs?”

“A good day early. Morning too. Plenty of time to make preparations. Did you know ogres get seasick?”

I never got a chance to answer. First came a deafening blast of that atonal music and a shower of sparks, and then a dozen red-shirts with their buckets of sand.

The copper funnel fell silent. The scowling halfdead shot me a look of pure hatred and called for help, and within moments the tall machine was surrounded by frowning workers who pointed and shook their heads and did a full week’s worth of heavy sighing in the time it took Jerle to arrive at my side and gently touch my elbow.

“I believe we should be going, sir,” he said.

We went. I pretended not to hear the unflattering commentary offered by the halfdead lamenting the fate of his machine.

Once we were three flights up, I relaxed a bit, but only a bit. Evis hadn’t shared anything worth ruining a long-talking dingus, and I didn’t think I’d revealed anything of worth to him. So why trot me down into the midst of Avalante’s secret machine works?

“I imagine sir will be wanting a carriage for the evening,” said Jerle. He opened a door. We were back up to ground level, and I’d not noticed.

“Now that you mention it, I would. With a driver who knows his way around a knocking stick, if you please.”

“I believe all our drivers are well versed in that particular art, sir. If you will wait here.”

I found a comfy chair and sat. Halfdead hurried past, all business, in greater numbers than I was accustomed to seeing. I wondered if they were preparing for the worst and decided they probably were.

I hadn’t even picked up an extra bucket of jerky for Three-leg. Or asked Evis about a room for Darla, should the cannons from Prince reach Rannit bombard our walls. Not that I was sure she would agree to take refuge with the halfdead.

“The carriage is ready, sir,” intoned Jerle. He pointed gently toward the door. “If you will show yourself out?”

“I will. And thanks.”

He nodded and was gone, a whispering halfdead on either side.

I showed myself out, as instructed. For the first time, there was no one at Avalante’s door to fetch my hat, so I fetched it myself and closed the tall thick doors carefully behind me.

Chapter Seventeen

“Of course I’m fine,” said Tamar. Mr. Tibbles looked up at me from her lap and growled. “I’ve caught up on my reading. I’ve written some letters. I’ve worked on the guest list for the wedding.”

“All from your room.” I didn’t ask it as a question. I was hoping the inference would be clear enough.

“Of course from my room. I’m not a ninny, you know. Although I don’t feel as if anyone is watching me. They really do think I’m your pregnant wife. The maids have been bringing up extra bits of food from the kitchen. They’ve said the most unflattering things about you, even though they’ve never met you.”

“All true, by the way.”

“So. Tonight you meet with my future father-in-law.”

I nodded.

“You’ll find out where Carris is, and you’ll go and fetch him.”

“That’s the plan.”

“Well, you’re aware the wedding is in three days?”

“Painfully.” I spoke fast to cover the gaffe. “You know, when this is over, you and Carris may have to make some hard decisions about maintaining family ties with the Lethways.”

“It will make for some awkwardness at Yule meals, won’t it though?” She shrugged and fed Mr. Tibbles another bit of bread. “I don’t care, Mr. Markhat. If we have to go and live in Sutton or Carland or even by the Sea, we will. I’ve had quite enough of people telling me who I can and cannot marry.”

“Good for you.” I rose. “Coming back here after Curfew will raise too many eyebrows. So I’ll be around in the morning. Hopefully with good news.”

“We’ll be here. Mr. Tibbles will be waiting. Won’t you, Mr. Tibbles?”

The dog had sense enough not to bark in reply. But I swear he met my gaze and gave me a stern look of doggie reproach.

“In the morning, then.”

I left. Maids whispered at my back, but no one else paid me any undue attention. There were no toughs idling in the lobby or pretending to look at handbills by the street doors. I circled the place a couple of times to see if anyone from one trip was still there the next, but no one lingered in place.

From there, I set forth in search of Mills, thinking I’d need someone watching my back if only for the look of the thing. Finding Mills wasn’t hard, and neither was hiring him. Getting him into some semblance of respectable evening attire was another matter, but luckily some of my clothes fit and what didn’t wasn’t so bad that it would attract attention.

The sluggard sun was setting by the time we got that squared away. There was no time to rest at Avalante, so I set Mills at my desk and took to my bed for a quick nap before confronting Lethway at the Banner.

My plan to drag information out of Lethway was weak at best. Tamar might be under the wary gaze of plotting eyes even as I lay down my head. Dozens of armed plowboys might be creeping toward my door as I lay, eager to fulfill the hex that rode them unawares.

So naturally, I slept, and slept hard, right up until I heard boots scrape at my back room door.

“Rise and shine, boss,” said Mills from the other side. “Time to go make powerful people angry.”

“What a wit,” I muttered. “All quiet out there?”

“So far. I need to make water.”

“Bathhouse is down the street. I need to make a stop too.” I rose, grabbed my things, made for the door. “Let’s get this done.”

Mills grinned at me, his face diabolical in the dark. Then he walked away.

I let out the breath I’d been holding. He hadn’t seen Toadsticker’s hilt in my hand, hadn’t realized that just for an instant something in his grin had rendered me temporarily homicidal.

I shook my head. Too many people out to get me. Too many angles to see at once.

I sheathed Toadsticker and hurried out into the dark.

Darla is convinced I spent my time waiting at the Banner by dining. That simply isn’t true.

First of all, heading into a confrontation with a belly full of roast beef is a good way to wind up carved into giblets oneself. My plan was to let Lethway finish his meal and down a couple of good stiff drinks before I showed my pretty face.

And second, the prices at the Banner are far beyond the reach of a simple working man. I could barely afford two glasses of beer, and what I could afford was sour.

But beer it was.

I sat at the bar, my back to the dining room. I sipped at my sour beer and waited for Lethway and his whore to arrive.

Mills did the same thing, at the other end of the bar. We’d entered a half hour apart. We didn’t speak. I was hoping we blended in with the bankers and managers and other well-dressed ne’er-do-wells, drinking and talking and eyeing the room for any unaccompanied ladies that might be passing by.

A mirror behind the bar let me watch the entrance without turning. I kept my hat pulled down low. Toadsticker was hidden under my light coat. The other items in my arsenal were secreted here and there, out of sight but in easy reach.

But it was the brown paper envelope in my breast pocket I was counting on to keep sword and dagger in their places.

The time rolled around. Right on cue, a suited heavy prowled past the maitre d', made a circle of the room and then vanished without a word.

That would be one of Lethway’s bully-boys, I decided, making sure no pesky wives or other such impediments were dining.

I was right. A minute later, Lethway sailed in, a wobbly brunette a quarter of his age on his arm. The maitre d' whisked them to a table. A waiter appeared. Chairs were pulled out. Napkins and silverware and menus and wine were dispensed.

Lethway took it in with scowls and grunts. His lady found a vacant smile and used that to hide her disdain for her hawk-faced suitor.

Whatever she was getting out of the deal, it soon wouldn’t be enough.

I risked a single nod to Mills, who saw but didn’t return it.

The table next to Lethway’s was soon occupied by his bodyguards, who sipped at crystal goblets of water and pushed around soup with a pair of silver spoons. They each gave the room a damned good glare and then they began to visibly relax.

The dining room was filling up. Waiters and wine stewards darted and dodged.

I couldn’t hear anything Lethway said over the refined din of three dozen conversations and the attendant clinking of forks and tinkling of crystal, but I could see him clearly in the mirror before me.

He growled an order to the waiter and sent back the wine in a snit and snarled something brief and nasty at his woman when she dared reach for a cracker from the basket by the candles.

A fresh vintage was produced, glared at, tasted, and deemed acceptable, though only barely. Salads arrived. His was shoved to the side of the table and whisked away lest, I presume, some vagrant leaf of lettuce offend the Colonel by its festive green coloration.

The woman was silent. Her eyes remained lowered. The way she gripped her linen napkin with knuckles gone white and stiff said all she dared not say.

Lethway guzzled down the entire bottle of wine by himself well before any hint of a meal arrived. The man could drink, and he did.

Another bottle appeared. Was rejected. Was replaced. Again, Lethway set about emptying it with the kind of gusto one sees in most of Rannit’s seedier alleys.

Halfway through the second bottle of wine, the meal arrived. She never bothered to reach for her fork. Lethway grunted and emptied his glass and grudgingly began to carve his steak.

I rose. Mills watched, but remained seated, according to plan. I put on my best smile and ambled between tables.

If Lethway saw me, he didn’t recognize me, right up until the moment I hauled a chair to his table and seated myself upon it.

The whore’s eyes came up and no sooner than my ass hit the chair than hers was up and standing.

“I need to go powder my nose,” she said, her voice ghostly soft.

“Take your time,” I said. She hurried away. Her steak smelled of heaven. “Mind if I join you?”

Lethway went ashen pale.

I picked up his woman’s fork and stabbed a bit of beef.

“Now, now. No need calling for your associates. This is a nice place, and I’m just an old friend dropping by to chew the fat.” I put the steak in my mouth, chewed, swallowed.

He’d been about to call for his goons when Mills joined them, just as I had. Mills was just sitting there smiling. Maybe they knew his face. Maybe they didn’t. But something his smile of his conveyed all kinds of things, none of them warm and friendly.

“In fact, I have lots of friends here. But that’s hardly worth mentioning. You going to eat that potato?”

“You’re a dead man, Markhat. Dead. You won’t live to see the sun rise.”

“Whoa. Keep your potato. I guess asking for your toast is out of the question?”

His thin old face twitched, and his jaw muscles worked like he was chewing.

“I’ll see you dead, you common street trash.”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. But there’s no reason we can’t be civil and have a conversation. About fires, for instance. I’m sure you heard the Barracks