/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Bardic Voices

Lark and Wren

Mercedes Lackey


BARDIC VOICES: Lark and Wren

Mercedes Lackey

Dedicated to Ellen Guon;

writer, musician, and lady of quality

And to those who dream, then work to make their dream a reality

A GHOST OF A CHANCE

A voice, an icy, whispering voice, came out of the darkness from all around her; from everywhere, yet nowhere. It could have been born of her imagination, yet Rune knew the voice was the Ghost's, and that to run was to die. Instantly, but in terror that would make dying seem to last an eternity.

"Why have you come here, stupid child?" it murmured, as fear urged her to run away. "Why were you waiting here? For me? Foolish child, do you not know what I am? What I could do to you?"

Rune had to swallow twice before she could speak, and even then her voice cracked and squeaked with fear.

"I've come to fiddle for you-sir?" she said, gasping for breath between each word, trying to keep her teeth from chattering.

The Ghost laughed, a sound with no humor in it, the kind of laugh that called up empty wastelands and icy peaks. "Well, then, girl. Fiddle, then. And pray to that Sacrificed God of yours that you fiddle well, very well. If you please me, if you continue to entertain me until dawn, I shall let you live, a favor I have never granted any other. But I warn you-the moment my attention lags, little girl-you'll die like all the others and you will join all the others in my own private little Hell."

CHAPTER ONE

The attic cubicle was dark and stuffy, two conditions the tiny window under the eaves did little to alleviate. Rune reached up to the shelf over her pallet for her fiddle case, and froze with her hand less than an inch away. Her mother's nasal whine echoed up the stairs from the tavern sleeping rooms below.

"Rune? Rune!"

Rune sighed, and her hand dropped to her side. "Yes, Mother?" she called over her shoulder. She'd hoped to get a little practice in before the evening customers began to file in.

"Have you swept the tavern and scrubbed the tables?" When Stara said "the tavern," she meant the common room. The kitchen was not in Rune's purview. The cook, Annie, who was also the stableman's wife, reigned supreme there, and permitted no one within her little kingdom but herself and her aged helper, known only as Granny.

"No, Mother," Rune called down, resignedly. "I thought Maeve-"

"Maeve's doing the rooms. Get your behind down there. The sooner you get it over with, the sooner you can get on with that foolish scraping of yours." Then, as an afterthought, as Rune reached the top step, "And don't call me 'Mother.' "

"Yes M-Stara." Stifling another sigh, Rune plodded down the steep, dark attic stairs, hardly more than a ladder down the back wall. As she passed the open doors, she heard Maeve's tuneless humming and the slow scrape of a broom coming from the one on her right. From the bottom, she crossed the hall to the real stairs taking them two at a time down into the common room.

The shutters on the windows on two sides of the room had been flung wide to the brisk spring air; a light breeze slowly cleared out the last of the beer fumes. A half-worn broom leaned against the bar at the back of the room, where Maeve had undoubtedly left it when Stara ordered her upstairs. Rune took it; her first glance around had told her that nothing more had been accomplished except to open the shutters. The benches were still stacked atop the tables, and the latter pushed against the walls; the fireplace was still full of last night's ashes. Nothing had been cleaned or put into order, and the only sign that the tavern was opening for business was the open shutters. Probably because that was all anyone had thought to tell Maeve to do.

Rune went to the farthest corner of the room and started sweeping, digging the worn bristles of the broom firmly against the floorboards. The late Rose, wife of Innkeeper Jeoff, had called Maeve "an innocent." Annie said she was "a little simple."

What Stara called her was "a great lump."

Poor Maeve was all of those, Rune reflected. She lived in a world all her own, that was certain. She could-and did, if left to her own devices-stand in a window for hours, humming softly with no discernible tune, staring at nothing. But if you gave her clear orders, she would follow them to the exact letter. Told to sweep out a room, she would do so. That room, and no more, leaving a huge pile of dirt on the threshold. Told to wash the dishes, she would wash the dishes all right, but not the pots, nor the silverware, and she wouldn't rinse them afterwards. Of course, if anyone interrupted her in the middle of her task, she would drop what she was doing, follow the new instructions, and never return to the original job.

Still, without her help, Rune would have a lot more to do. She'd never have time to practice her fiddling.

Rune attacked the dirt of the floor with short, angry strokes, wishing she could sweep the troubles of her life out as easily. Not that life here was bad, precisely-

"Rune?" Stara called down the stairs. "Are you sweeping? I can't hear you."

"Yes M-Stara," Rune replied. The worn bristles were too soft to scrape the floor the way Maeve's broom was doing, but it was pointless to say anything about it.

So Stara didn't want to be called "Mother" anymore. Rune bit her lip in vexation. Did she really think that if Rune stopped referring to her as "Mother" people would forget their relationship?

Not here, Rune told herself sourly. Not when my existence is such a pointed example of why good girls don't do That without wedding banns being posted.

Even though Stara was from a village far from here-even though she wore the braids of a married woman and claimed that Rune's father had been a journeyman muleteer killed by bandits-most of the village guessed the real truth. That Stara was no lawfully wedded widow; that Rune was a bastard.

Stara had been a serving wench in the home of a master silversmith, and had let the blandishments of a peddler with a glib tongue and ready money lure her into his bed. The immediate result had been a silver locket and scarlet ribbons from his pack. The long-term result was a growing belly, and the loss of her place.

Stara lived on the charity of the Church for a time, but no longer than she had to. After Rune had been born, Stara had packed up her belongings and her meager savings, and set out on foot as far as her money would take her, hoping to find some place where her charm, her ability to wheedle, and her soft blond prettiness would win her sympathy, protection, and a new and better place.

Rune suspected that she had soon discovered-much to her shock-that while her looks, as always, won her the sympathy of the males of the households she sought employment with, she got no favor from the females. Certainly on the rare occasions when she talked to her daughter about those long-ago days, she had railed against the "jealous old bitches" who had turned her out again after they discovered what their spouses had hired.

And so would I have, Rune thought wryly, as the pile of dirt in front of her broom grew to the size of her closed fist. The girl Stara had been was all too likely to have a big belly again as soon as she'd wormed her way into the household. And this time, the result would have been sure to favor the looks of the master of the house. She had no credentials, no references-instead of applying properly to the women of the household, she went straight to the men. Stupid, Mother. But then, you never have paid any attention to women when there were men around.

But finally Stara had wound up here, at the "Hungry Bear." The innkeeper's wife, Rose, was of a credulous, generous and forgiving nature; Innkeeper Jeoff a pious Churchman, and charitable. That alone might not have earned her the place as the serving-maid in the tavern. But luck had been with her this time; their pot-boy had signed with the army and gone off to the city and there was no one in the village willing or able to take his place. Stara's arrival, even encumbered as she was, must have seemed like a gift from God, and they had needed her desperately enough to take her story at face value.

Although the villagers guessed most of the tale easily enough, they too were obliged to accept the false story, (outwardly, at least) since Jeoff and Rose did. But Rune was never allowed to forget the truth. Stara threw it in Rune's face every time she was angry about anything-and the village children had lost no opportunity to imply she was a bastard for as long as she could remember.

They only said openly what their parents thought. Stara didn't seem to care, wearing low-cut blouses and kilted-up skirts when she went into the village on errands, flirting with the men and ignoring the sneers of the women. Back in the tavern, under Rose's eye, however, she had pulled the drawstrings of her blouses tight and let her skirts down, acting demure and briskly businesslike in all her dealings with males. Rune had more than once heard Rose defending her foundling to her friends among the villagers, telling Jeoff afterwards that they were just envious because of Stara's youth and attractiveness.

And that much was certainly true. The village women were jealous. Stara was enough to excite any woman's jealousy, other than a tolerant, easy-going lady like Rose, with her long, blond hair, her plump prettiness, her generous breasts and her willingness to display her charms to any eye that cared to look. Of course, none of this did any good at all for her reputation in the village, but Stara didn't seem to concern herself over trifles like what the villagers thought.

It was left to Rune to bear the brunt of her mother's reputation, to try to ignore the taunts and the veiled glances. Stara didn't care about that, either. So long as nothing touched or inconvenienced her directly, Stara was relatively content.

Only relatively, since Stara was not happy with her life as it was, and frequently voiced her complaints in long, after-hours monologues to her daughter, with little regard for whether or not Rune was going to suffer from loss of sleep the next day.

Last night had been one of those nights, and Rune yawned hugely as she swept.

Rune wasn't precisely certain what her mother wanted-besides a life of complete leisure. Just what Stara had done to deserve such a life eluded Rune-but Stara seemed to feel quite strongly that she deserved it. And had gone on at aggrieved and shrill length about it last night. . . .

Rune yawned again, and swept the last of the night's trod-in dirt out into the road. It would, of course, find its way right back inside tonight; only in the great cities were the streets paved and kept clean. It was enough that the road through the village was graveled and graded, from one end to the other. It kept down the mud, and kept ruts to a minimum.

As well wish for Stara to become a pious churchgoer as to wish for a paved road. The second was likelier to occur than the first.

Rune propped the broom in a corner by the fireplace and emptied the ashes and clinkers into the ash-pit beneath the fireplace floor. Every few months the candle-maker came to collect them from the cellar; once a year the inn got a half-dozen bars of scented soap in exchange. A lot of the inn's supplies came from exchange; strawberries for manure, hay and straw for use of the donkey and pony, help for room and board and clothing.

There were four folk working under that exchange right now; of the six employees only two, Annie Cook and Tarn Hostler, received wages. The rest got only their rooms, two suits of clothing each year, and all they could eat. While Rune had been too young to be of much help, she'd had to share her mother's room, but now that she was pulling her share of her load, she had a room to herself. There wasn't a door, just a curtain, and there was no furniture but the pallet she slept on, but it was hers alone, and she was glad of the privacy. Not that Stara ever brought men up to her room-she wouldn't have dared; even the easy-going Rose would not have put up with that-but it was nice to be able to pull the curtain and pretend the outside world didn't exist.

Provided, of course, Stara didn't whine all night. There was no escaping that.

With the fireplace swept and logs laid ready to light, Rune fetched a pail of water, a bit of coarse brown soap, and a rag from the kitchen, with a nod to Granny, who sat in the corner peeling roots. Annie Cook was nowhere in sight; she was probably down in the cellar. From the brick ovens in the rear wall came a wave of heat and the mouth-watering smell of baking bread. Rune swallowed hard as her stomach growled. Breakfast had been a long time ago, and dinner too far away. She was always hungry these days, probably because she was growing like a sapling-the too-short cuffs of her shirt and breeches gave ample evidence of that.

If I hurry up, maybe I can get Granny to give me a bit of cheese and one of yesterday's loaf-ends before Annie makes them all into bread pudding.

With that impetus in mind, Rune quickly hauled the tables and benches away from the walls, got the benches down in place, and went to work on the tabletops, scouring with a will. Fortunately there weren't any bad stains this time; she got them done faster than she'd expected, and used the last of the soapy water to clean herself up before tossing the bucketful out the door.

But when she returned the bucket to the kitchen, Annie was back up from her journey below.

Her stomach growled audibly as she set the bucket down, and Annie looked up sharply, her round face red with the heat from the oven. "What?" she said, her hair coming loose from its pins and braids, and wisping damply about her head. "You can't be hungry already?"

Rune nodded mutely, and tried to look thin and pathetic.

She must have succeeded, for Annie shook her head, shrugged, and pointed her round chin towards the pile of ingredients awaiting her attention. "Two carrots, one loaf-end, and a piece of cheese, and get yerself out of here," the cook said firmly. "More than that can't be spared. And mind that piece is no bigger than your hand."

"Yes, Cook," Rune said meekly-and snatched her prizes before Annie changed her mind. But the cook just chuckled as she cut the cheese. "I should ha' known from yer breeches, darlin', yer into yer growth. Come back later if yer still hungry, an' I'll see if sommat got burnt too much fer the custom."

She thanked Annie with an awkward bob of her head, took her food out into the common room, and devoured it down to the last crumb, waiting all the while for another summons by her mother. But no call came, only the sound of Stara scolding Maeve, and Maeve's humming. Rune sighed with relief; Maeve never paid any attention to anything that wasn't a direct order. Let Stara wear her tongue out on the girl; the scolding would roll right off the poor thing's back-and maybe Stara would leave her own daughter alone, for once.

Rune stuffed that last bite of bread and cheese in her mouth and stole softly up the stairs. If she could just get past the sleeping rooms to get her fiddle-once she began practicing, Stara would probably leave her alone.

After all, she'd done her duty for the day. Sweeping and cleaning the common room was surely enough, especially after all the cleaning she'd done in the kitchen this morning. Sometimes she was afraid that her hands would stiffen from all the scrubbing she had to do. She massaged them with the lotion the farmers used on cow's udders, reckoning that would help, and it seemed to-but she still worried.

From the sound of things in the far room, Stara had decided to turn it out completely. She must have set Maeve to beating the straw tick; that monotonous thumping was definitely following the rhythm of Maeve's humming, and it was a safe enough task for even Maeve to manage. This time she got to her fiddle, and slipped down the stairs without being caught.

She settled herself into a bench in the corner of the room, out of direct line-of-sight of the stairs. It hadn't always been this hard to get her practice in. When Rose was alive, the afternoons had always been her own. Yes, and the evenings, too. As long as Rune helped, Rose had made it very clear that she was to be considered as full an employee as Stara-and Rose had counted entertainment as "helping."

Rose had forbidden Stara-or anyone else-to beat Rune, after the one time Rose had caught her mother taking a stick to her for some trifle.

Rune carefully undid the old clasps on the black leather-and-wood case. They were stiff with age, and hard to get open, but better too stiff than too loose. Rose had taken a special interest in Rune, for some reason. Maybe because Rose had no children of her own. But when Rose died of the cough last winter, everything changed.

At first it hadn't been bad, really; it made sense for Rune to take over some of Stara's duties, since Stara was doing what Rose had done. And work in the winter wasn't that difficult. Hardly anyone came in for midmeal, there were very few travelers to mess up the rooms, and people came for their beer and a bit of entertainment, but didn't stay late. There wasn't any dirt or mud to be tracked in, just melting snow, which soaked into the old worn floorboards fairly easily. Really, winter work was the lightest of the four seasons, and Rune had assumed that once the initial confusion following Rose's death resolved itself, Jeoff would hire someone else to help. Another boy, perhaps; a boy would be just as useful inside the inn as a girl, and stronger, too. There had even been a couple of boys passing through earlier this month on the way to the hiring fairs who'd looked likely. They'd put in a good day's work for their meal and corner by the fire-and they'd even asked Rune if she thought Jeoff would be interested in hiring them on permanently. But Jeoff always found some excuse not to take them on-and Rune kept losing a little more of her free time with every day that passed.

Now she not only found herself scrubbing and cleaning, she was serving in the common room at night, something she hadn't had to do since she was a good enough fiddler to have people ask her to play. That was one of the reasons the Hungry Bear was so popular; even when there weren't any traveling musicians passing through, people could always count on Rune to give 'em a tune to sing or dance to. Why, people sometimes came from as far away as the next village of Beeford because of her.

But now-she was allowed to play only when the crowds asked Jeoff for her music. If they forgot to ask, if there was no one willing to speak up-then she waited on them just like silly Maeve, while Stara presided in Rose's place over the beer barrels, and Jeoff tended, as always, to the cashbox.

Rune bit her lip, beginning to see a pattern in all this. There were more changes, and they were even more disturbing. There was no doubt in Rune's mind that her mother had set her sights on Jeoff. Aiming, no doubt, for matrimony.

When Rose was alive, Stara had kept herself quietly out of sight, her hair tightly braided and hidden under kerchiefs, wearing her blouse-strings pulled tight, her skirts covering her feet, and keeping her eyes down. Rune knew why, too-Stara flung it in her face often enough. Stara had one bastard; she was not minded to attract the master's eye, only to find herself in his bed and saddled with another bastard.

But since Jeoff put off his mourning bands, Stara had transformed from a drab little sparrow to a bird of a different feather entirely. She was rinsing her hair with herbs every night, to make it yellow as new-minted gold and smell sweet. She had laced the waist of her skirts tight, kilted them up to show ankles and even knees, and pulled her blouses low. And she was painting her face, when she thought no one could see her; red on the lips and cheeks, blackening her lashes with soot, trying to make herself look younger. Where she got the stuff, Rune had no idea. Possibly a peddler, though there hadn't been any with things like that through here since before winter.

Stara didn't like being reminded that she had a fourteen-year-old daughter, and she certainly didn't want Jeoff reminded of the fact. It helped that Rune looked nothing like her mother; Rune was tall, thin, with light brown, curly hair, and deep brown eyes. She could-and occasionally did-pass for a boy in the crowded common-room. She was nothing at all like soft, round, doll-pretty Stara. Which was exactly as Stara wanted things, Rune was sure of it.

For there was a race on to see who'd snare Jeoff. Maeve was no competition; the girl was plain as well as simple-although it was a good thing she was plain, or she would have been fair game for any fellow bent on lifting a skirt. Rune wasn't interested-and half the time Jeoff absentmindedly called her "lad" anyway.

Stara's only competition would come from the village. There were a couple of young women down there in Westhaven of marriageable age, whose fathers saw nothing wrong with running a good, clean inn. Fathers who would not be averse to seeing their daughters settled in as the innkeeper's wife. None were as pretty as Stara-but they all had dowers, which she did not. And they were younger, with plenty of childbearing years ahead of them.

Much younger, some of them. One of the possible prospects was only sixteen. Not that much older than Stara's daughter. No wonder Stara wanted to be thought younger than she was.

Rune got out her fiddle and began tuning it. It was a little too cold to be playing outside-but Jeoff liked hearing the music, and once she started playing it was unlikely that Stara would order her to do something else.

The gift of the fiddle had been Rose's idea. She'd watched as Rune begged to play with traveling minstrels' instruments-and had begun to coax something like music out of them right away-she'd seen Rune trying to get a good tune out of a reed whistle, a blade of grass, and anything else that made a noise. Perhaps she had guessed what Rune might do with a musical instrument of her own. For whatever reason, when Rune was about six, a peddler had run off without paying, leaving behind a pack filled with trash he hadn't been able to sell. One of the few things in it worth anything was the fiddle, given immediately to Rune, which Rune had named "Lady Rose" in honor of her patron.

It had taken many months of squealing and scraping out in the stable where she wouldn't offend any ears but the animals' before she was able to play much. But by the time she was eight, minstrels were going out of their way to give her a lesson or two, or teach her a new song. By the time she was ten, she was a regular draw.

Rune was smart enough to remember what the common room had looked like on any day other than a market-day before she had started to play regularly-and she knew what it was like now. Rose's "investment" had paid off handsomely over the years-gaining in new business several times over the worth of the old fiddle.

But Stara-and there was no doubt in Rune's mind who was behind all the changes-evidently didn't see things that way, or thought that now that the extra custom was here, it would stay here. Rose could have told her differently, told her how it wasn't likely the Hungry Bear would hold anyone who didn't actually belong in Westhaven if there wasn't something beyond the beer to offer them. But Rose wasn't here, and Jeoff was not the kind to worry about tomorrow until it arrived.

On the other hand, although Stara was behind the changes, Jeoff was behind the cashbox. If Rune pointed out to him that he was losing money right now, that people weren't coming from outside the village bounds, and that those within the village weren't staying as long of an evening because she wasn't playing, well, maybe he'd put a stop to this, and hire on a good strong boy to do some of the work.

She thought again about going outside to practice, but the breeze coming in the window decided her against the idea. It was really too cold out there; her fingers would stiffen in no time.

She tuned the fiddle with care for its old strings; she wanted to replace them, but strings were hard to come by in this part of the world. If she was lucky, maybe a peddler would have a set. Until then, she'd just have to make sure she didn't snap one.

She closed her eyes for a moment, and let her fingers select the first couple of notes. The tune wandered a bit, before it settled on a jig, a good finger-warmer, and one of the earliest melodies she'd learned. "Heart for the Ladies," it was called, and folks around here usually called for it twice or three times a night when they were in the mood for dancing.

Rune closed her eyes again; she remembered the woman who had taught it to her as clearly as something that had happened yesterday.

Linnet had been her name, so she said; odd, how many of the traveling players had bird-names. Or maybe they just assumed bird-names when they started playing. Linnet had been one of a trio of traveling minstrels doing the Faire circuit, a mandolin player, herself on flute, and a drummer. Linnet was a tiny thing, always smiling, and ready with a kind word for a child. She had more hair than Rune had ever seen let down on a woman; she didn't wear it in a wife's braids, nor loose under a coif like a maid. The coppery-brown tresses were twined with flowers and piled in loose coils about her head when Rune first saw her, and later, it was tied in two long tails bound around with leather and thongs for traveling. When she let it down, it reached past her knees.

She had been as ready with her help as her smiles. When Rune brought out her fiddle, and attempted to follow their tunes silently, fingering but not bowing, she had taken the girl aside and played "Heart for the Ladies" over and over until Rune had gotten it in her head, then helped her to find the fingerings for it on the fiddle.

And then, the next day, when the trio had gone their way, Rune had practiced the piece for hours until she got it right. She'd waited until someone in the crowd that night saw her and called out, "Well, little Rune, and have ye got a new piece for us to hear?" the way some of them used to, half in earnest, half to tease her. This time, she'd answered "yes," and brought out her fiddle.

She'd surprised them all with the jig, so much so that they'd made her play it again and again-and then, several times more, so that they all could dance to it.

That night had brought her a pair of copper bits, the first time she'd been paid for her fiddling. It had been a heady moment, made all the headier by the first money she had ever owned.

She played the jig over twice more, until her fingers felt flexible and strong, ready for anything she might ask of them.

But what she asked of them next was the very latest piece she had learned, a slow, languorous love song. The lilting melody was the kind of song popular at weddings, but mostly not in the tavern.

A real fiddler had taught her this one; this and near two dozen more.

She smiled to think of him. Oh, he was a villainous-looking lad, with a patch over one eye, and all in gypsy-colors, half a brigand by his looks. But he had played like an angel, he had. And he'd stayed several days the first time he'd stopped at the Bear-because of the bad weather for traveling, so he'd said, and indeed, it had been raining heavily during all that time. But he'd had a horse-a pony, rather-a sturdy beast that was probably quite capable of taking him through rain and snow and anything else he might ask of it. It wasn't weather that had kept him, but his own will.

The rains pounded the area for a week, providing him ample excuse. So he stayed, and enlivened the tavern by night, bringing folks in from all over, despite the weather. And he'd schooled Rune by day.

Quite properly, despite her early fears as to his behavior. Fears-well, that wasn't quite true, it was half hope, actually, for despite his rascally appearance, or even because of it, she'd wondered if he'd pay court to her. . . .

She certainly knew at thirteen what went on between man and maid, male and female. She had taken some thought to it, though she wasn't certain what it was she wanted. The ballads were full of sweet courtings, wild ones, and no courtings at all-

But he was as correct with her as he had been bawdy with the men in the tavern the night before. He'd stopped her on her way to some trivial errand, as he was eating his luncheon in the otherwise empty common room.

"I hear you play the fiddle, young Rune," he'd said. She had nodded, suddenly shy, feeling as awkward as a young calf.

"Well?" he'd said then, a twinkle in the one eye not covered with a patch. "Are you going to go fetch it, or must I beg you?"

She had run to fetch it, and he'd begun her lesson, the first of four, and he had made her work, too. She worked as hard at her fiddling under his critical eye as she'd ever worked at any task in the tavern.

He saved the love songs until the last day-"A reward," he'd said, "for being a good student"-for they were the easiest of the lot.

If he'd introduced them at the beginning of the lessons, she might have suspected them of being a kind of overture. But he'd waited until the last day of his stay, when he'd already told her that he was leaving the following morning. So the songs came instead as a kind of gift from a friend, for a friend was what Raven had come to be. And she treasured them as completely as she would have treasured any material gift.

He'd returned over the winter, and again the next summer, and this winter again. That was when he had taught her this melody, "Fortune, My Foe." He should be coming through again, once the weather warmed. She was looking forward to seeing him again, and learning more things from him. Not just songs-though courting was not on her mind, either. There was so much she needed to learn, about music, about reading it and writing it. There were songs in her head, words as well as music, but she couldn't begin to get them out. She didn't know how to write the tunes down, and she didn't have enough reading and writing of words to get her own down properly so that another could read them. She had barely enough of writing to puzzle out bits of the Holy Book, just like every other child of the village, and there was no learned Scholar-Priest here to teach her more. There must be more . . . there must be a way to write music the way words were written, and there must be more words than she knew. She needed all of that, needed to learn it, and if anyone would know the way of such things, Raven would, she sensed it in her bones.

Raven was weeks away, though. And she would have to be patient and wait, as the Holy Book said women must be patient.

Even though she was almighty tired of being patient.

Oh, enough of such lazy tunes.

The trill of an early songbird woke another melody in her fingers, and that led to many more. All reels this time, and all learned from a rough-faced, bearded piper just a few weeks ago. He'd come to play for the wedding of some distant relations, and though he had not made any formal attempt at giving her lessons, when he watched her frowning and following his music silently, he'd played everything at least three times over until she smiled and nodded by way of a signal that she'd got the tune straight in her head.

He'd gone before nightfall, not staying-he couldn't have played at the tavern anyway; the pipes were not an instrument for indoors.

But this winter, after her fiddler had come and gone, there had been a harper who had stayed for nearly two weeks. He was a Guild Minstrel, and was taking a position at the court of the Sire. He was ahead of time, having come much faster than anyone would have ever expected because of a break in the weather, and had taken the opportunity to rest a bit before taking the last leg of the journey.

He was an old man, his hair half silver, and he had been very kind to her. He'd taught her many of the songs popular at the courts, and she had painstakingly adapted them for fiddle. He hadn't had much patience, but fortunately the melodies were all simple ones, easy to remember, and easy to follow.

But from those simple songs, her fingers slowed, and strayed into a series of laments, learned from another harpist, a real Gypsy, who would not come into the village at all. Rune had found her with her fellows, camped beyond the bridge as she had returned from an errand. Unaccountably, eerily, the girl had known who she was, and what instrument she played. It still gave Rune a chill to think of her, and wonder how it was the other musician had known all about her.

She'd stopped Rune as the girl lingered, watching the Gypsies with burning curiosity. "I am Nightingale. Bring your fiddle," she'd said abruptly, with no preamble. "I shall teach you songs such as you have never heard before."

With a thrill of awe and a little fear, Rune had obeyed. It had been uncanny then, and it was uncanny now. How had Nightingale known who she was, and what she did? No one in the village would have told her-surely.

And indeed, Nightingale had taught her music the like of which she had never heard before. The strange, compelling dance music was too complicated to learn in a single afternoon-but the laments stuck in her mind, and seemed to make her fingers move of their own accord. . . .

"Rune!"

She started, and opened her eyes. Stara had a mug in one hand, and most of the rest up on their pegs, above the beer barrels, and she had turned to stare at Rune with a strange, uneasy expression on her face. Rune got ready for a tongue-lashing; whenever Stara was unhappy or uneasy, she took it out on someone. And Maeve wasn't within reach right now.

"Haven't you practiced enough for one day?" Stara snapped crossly. "You give me the chills with that Gypsy howling. It sounds like lost souls, wailing for the dead."

Well, that was what it was supposed to sound like-

"-or cats in heat," Stara concluded, crudely. "Haven't you got anything better to do than to torture our ears with that?"

"I-" she began.

A cough interrupted her, and she glanced over at the door to the kitchen. Jeoff stood there, with a keg of the dark ale on one shoulder.

"We're going to be working in here for a while, Rune," he said. "I don't want to sound mean, but-that music bothers me. It's like you're calling something I'd rather not see."

Meaning he's feeling superstitious, Rune thought cynically.

"Don't you think Jib could use your help in the stables?" he said-but it sounded like an order.

"Yes, sir," she said, trying not to sound surly. Just when I was really getting warmed up. It figures. "I'll see to it, Master Jeoff."

But as she put her fiddle away, she couldn't help watching Jeoff and her mother out of the corner of her eye. There was something going on there, and it had nothing to do with the music.

It looked like Stara's ploys were working.

The only question was-where did that leave Rune?

CHAPTER TWO

With her fiddle safely stowed away, Rune made her reluctant way to the stable-yard-such as it was. This little road wasn't used by too many people, certainly not the kind of people who would be riding high-bred horses that required expensive stabling. When the Sire traveled, he took the roads patrolled and guarded by the Duke's Men. And when someone was sent to collect taxes and take the man-count, it was never anyone important, just a bailiff. This village never gave any trouble, always paid its taxes with a minimum of cheating, and in general was easy to administer to. There were robbers, occasionally, but when robbers cropped up, a quick foray into the woods by the local men usually took care of them. There were places said to be dangerous, because of magic or supernatural menaces, but the road bypassed them. People who traveled between here and Beeford were simple people, without much in the way of valuables.

So the stable was a bare place, nothing more than four walls and a roof, with a loft and a dirt floor. Half of it was the storage place for hay and straw-no grain; the inn pony and donkey were sturdy enough to live on thistles if they had to, hay and grass suited them very well. The other half had been partitioned into rough stalls. There was a paddock, where beasts could be turned loose if their owners couldn't afford stable-fees, or the inn beasts could be put if their stalls were needed for paying tenants. That had never happened in Rune's experience, though they had come near to it in Faire season. The loft stood over the half where hay was stored, and that was where Jib slept, hemmed in and protected by bales of hay, and generally fairly snug. Tarn Hostler, the stable-master, slept with his wife Annie Cook in her room next to the kitchen. In the winter, Jib slept next to the kitchen fire with Granny.

Rune hoped, as she took herself out the kitchen door, that Jib wouldn't try to court her again today. He was her best friend-in point of fact, he was her only friend-but he was the last person she wanted courting her.

She'd been trying to discourage him; teasing him, ignoring his clumsy attempts at gallantry, laughing at his compliments. She could understand why he had the silly idea that he was in love with her, and it had nothing to do with her looks or her desirability. There were two available women here at the Bear, for Jib was too lowly ever to be able to pay court to one of the village girls. And of the two of them, even a blind man would admit she was preferable to Maeve.

Jib was fine as a friend-but nothing more. For one thing, he was at least a year younger than Rune. For another-he just wasn't very bright. He didn't understand half of what she said to him, sometimes. He wasn't at all ambitious, either; when Rune asked him once what he wanted to be when he was a man, he'd looked at her as if she was crazed. He was perfectly happy being the stableboy, and didn't see any reason for that to change. He didn't want to leave the village or see anything of the outside world but the Faire at Beeford. The only wish he'd ever expressed to her was to become a local horse-trader, selling the locally bred, sturdy little ponies and cobs to bigger traders who would take them to the enormous City Faires. He didn't even want to take the horses there himself.

And-to be honest-when a girl dreamed of a lover, she didn't dream of a boy with coarse, black hair, buck teeth, ears like a pair of jug handles, a big round potato of a nose, and spots. Of course, he'd probably grow out of the spots, but the rest was there to stay.

All in all, she wished he'd decide to settle for Maeve. They'd probably suit one another very well as long as he told her exactly what to do. . . .

The yard was deserted, and Tarn Hostler was grooming the two beasts in the paddock, alone, but Rune heard straw rustling and knew where she'd find Jib. And sure enough, when she entered the stable, there he was, forking straw into a pair of stalls.

She grabbed a pitchfork and went to help him, filling the mangers with fresh hay, and rinsing and filling the water buckets at the paddock pump. The pony, Dumpling (brown and round as one of Cook's best dumplings), and the donkey, Stupid (which he was not), watched her with half-closed eyes as old Tarn gave them a carefully currycombing, brushing out clouds of winter hair. They knew the schedule as well as anyone. Bring back loads of wood for the ovens on Monday, haul food for the inn on Tuesday, wood again on Wednesday (but this time for the baker in the village), be hitched to the grindstone on Thursday, since the village had no water-mill, wood again on Friday for the woodcutter himself, odd jobs on Saturday, and be hitched to the wagon to take everyone to Church on Sunday. They'd done their duty for the day. Now they could laze about the yard and be groomed, then put in their stalls for the night, once Jib and Rune finished cleaning them.

"Hey, Rune," Jib said, after trying to get her attention by clearing his throat several times.

"You ought to see Annie about that cough you've got," she interrupted him. "It sounds really bad."

"My cough?" he replied, puzzled. "I don't have a cough."

"You've been hemming and hacking like a wheezy old man ever since I got out here," she replied sharply. "Of course you have a cough. You ought to take care of it. Get Annie to dose you. I'll tell her about it-"

"Uh, no, please," he said, looking alarmed, as well he might. Annie's doses were fearsome things that took the skin off a person's tongue and left a nasty, lingering taste in the back of the throat for days afterwards. "I'm fine, really I am, please, don't tell Annie I'm sick-"

He babbled on about how healthy he was for some time; Rune paid scant attention, simply pleased that she'd managed to elude whatever he'd planned to ask her. With that much nervousness showing, it had to be romantic in nature, at least by Jib's primitive standards of romance.

Which were at best, one step above Dumpling's.

She looked about for something else to distract him when he finally wound down, but fate took a hand for her-for his babble was interrupted by the sounds of hooves on the hard-packed dirt outside, and a strange voice.

They both ran to see who it was, just as they had when they were children, Rune reaching the stable door a little before Jib.

At first glance, the newcomer looked to be a peddler; his pony had two largish packs on its back, and he was covered from head to knee in a dust-colored cloak. But then he pulled the cloak off, and shook it, and Rune saw he was dressed in a linen shirt with knots of multi-colored ribbon on the sleeves, a bright blue vest, and fawn-colored breeches. Only one kind of traveler would dress like that, and her guess was confirmed when he pulled a lute in its case out of one of the packs.

He was very tall, taller than Rune, and lanky, with dust-colored hair, and wonderfully gentle brown eyes. The stable-master saw them both gawking from the shelter of the doorway, and waved them over abruptly.

They obeyed at once; Tarn told them to groom the minstrel's pony and put it in one of the prepared stalls, then come fetch the inn beasts when a third stall was ready. He himself took the stranger's packs, leading him into the inn as if he owned it.

Jib and Rune eyed each other over the empty pack-saddle. "Flip you for it," Rune said. Jib nodded wordlessly, and Rune bent down long enough to fetch a pebble from the dust at her feet. She spat on it, and tossed it into the air, calling out, "Wet!" as it fell.

It landed wet side up, and Jib shrugged philosophically.

She led the visitor's pony into one of the stalls, unsaddled him and hung his tack over the wall of his stall, and gave him a brisk grooming. He seemed to enjoy it, leaning into the strokes of the currycomb with an expression of bliss on his round little face.

When she had finished, Jib was still forking in hay for the new stall. She turned the pony loose in this temporary home, made sure that the door was secure (some ponies were wizards at finding ways to escape), and took herself back into the inn.

She was met at the inner door by her mother, who barred the way with her arm across the doorway. "His name is Master Heron and he's on his way to the Lycombe Faire," she said, as Rune fidgeted. "He promised Jeoff he'd play tonight, and that means that you serve."

"Yes, M-Stara," she replied, catching herself at the last minute before saying the forbidden word.

"Jeoff wants you to go down to the village and make the rounds of all the Guildsmen," Stara continued. "He wants you to tell them all that Master Heron will be entertaining tonight; from them it will spread to everyone else in Westhaven."

"Yes, Stara," Rune said, curbing her impatience.

"He has to be on his way first thing in the morning if he's going to make the Faire in time," Stara finished, dashing Rune's hopes for a lesson. "And you'd better be on your way now, if we're going to have the extra custom tonight."

Rune sighed, but said nothing more. If she got down to the village before the men went home to their suppers, they'd likely eat lightly or not at all, those who could afford to. Then they'd come here, and eat plates of salt-laden sausage rolls and sharp cheese while they listened to the minstrel, making themselves thirsty. They'd drink plenty of beer tonight to drown the salty sausages. Jeoff was probably already hauling up extra kegs and putting them behind the bar. It would be a good night for the inn.

And at least Rune would hear some new songs. If she was lucky, the minstrel would repeat them enough for her to learn one or two.

She turned and started down the path to the village, hoping to get back quickly enough not to miss anything.

The village of Westhaven was set back from the road, because there wasn't enough flat land for more than the inn right up beside it. Those who had business in Westhaven itself-not many-took the path up the valley to find the village. Rune usually enjoyed the walk, although it was a bit long, and a little frightening after the sun went down. But today, halfway between the inn and the first buildings of the village itself, she stopped; the path was blocked by two of Westhaven's girls, Joyse and Amanda, gossiping in the middle of the path and making no effort to move out of the way.

They knew she was coming; they could hardly miss her. But they pretended not to notice her, clutching baskets of early flowers and keeping their heads close together. Joyse, as blond as Stara, but thin, was the baker's daughter; Amanda, as round and brown as Dumpling, but without the pony's easy-going nature, was the offspring of one of the local farmers. Joyse, with her hair neatly confined under a pretty red scarf that matched her brand new kirtle, was betrothed already to another farmer's son. Amanda, in a blue dress that looked almost as new, but was already straining at the seams around her middle, was one of the contenders to replace Rose. From the way it looked, one or the other had been up to the inn, possibly to spy on Rune, Stara, or both. Rune had the feeling that Amanda would do just about anything to become the innkeeper's new wife, except surrendering her virginity before taking wedding vows.

Both girls looked down their noses at Rune as she approached slowly.

"Well, I wish I had time to play games in the hay and flirt with boys," Amanda said nastily. "Of course, some people have lots of time. Some people have all the time they want, not just to play games, but to pretend they're minstrels."

Joyse laughed shrilly, showing buckteeth, and looking uncannily like a skinny old mare whinnying.

"And some people are so lazy, they pretend to be working, when all they really do is stand around and make up stories because the truth is too dull," Rune said aloud, to a squirrel in one of the trees beside her. It chattered, as if it was responding to her. "And some people are so fat they block the path, so people with work to do can't travel it. And of course, some people are so bad-tempered that no one will have them for a wife, not even with a big dower."

Amanda squealed with rage, turning to face her directly, and Rune pretended to notice her for the first time. "Why Amanda, I didn't see you there. I thought it was a pony blocking the path."

Amanda's round face turned bright red, and her hands balled into fists beside her skirt. "You, little bastard-brat-were you talking about me?"

"Talking about you?" Rune shrugged, and pretended surprise. "Why would I bother? There's nothing at all interesting about you. I'd put myself and that squirrel to sleep talking about you. Besides, you know what Father Jacob says about gossiping. He says that women who spend their time in idle gossip spend three hundred years in hell when they die, with their lips sewn shut." She shuddered artistically. "I'd never want to end up like that."

"I'll show you how you'll end up," Amanda hissed, taking a step forward.

But Joyse grabbed her shoulder, bent to her ear, and whispered something fiercely to her, stopping her. Rune had a fairly good idea what the general gist of the advice was, because the last time any of the Westhaven youngsters had tried to turn a confrontation with Rune into something physical, it had ended with the girl getting her hair rubbed full of mud while Rune sat on her back. Not even the boys wanted to risk a physical fight with her; she was taller and stronger than most of them, and knew some tricks of dirty fighting Tarn had taught both her and Jib (though Jib never kept his head long enough to use them) that they didn't.

Rune took one deliberate step forward, then a second. Joyse whispered something else, her eyes round with urgency, and Amanda backed up-then turned, and the two of them flounced their way up the path. Rune watched them go, seething inwardly, but refusing to show it.

She'd won-sort of. In most ways, though, it had been a draw. They could continue to pick on her verbally, and she could do nothing, and they all three knew it. Most of the time she couldn't even get her own hits in when it was a verbal confrontation. It wasn't fair.

She waited a few more minutes for them to get far enough ahead of her that she shouldn't have to encounter them again, then continued on her way. Slower, this time, trying to get her temper to cool by listening to the blackbirds singing their hearts out in the trees around her, trying to win themselves mates.

There was this much satisfaction; at least this time she'd been able to give as good as she got. And none of them would try to touch even Jib, these days, not even in a group. Everyone knew she was Jib's protector. She wasn't averse to using teeth and feet as well as fists when she was cornered, either. They had to keep their abuse verbal.

One of these days I'm going to write a song about them, she thought angrily. About Amanda, Joyse, all of them. All of them pretending to be so much better than me . . . but Amanda steals her mother's egg-money, and Joyse only got Thom because her father promised to help his father cheat on his taxes. And they don't know I know about it. That'd serve them right, to go to a Faire and hear some strange minstrel singing a song mocking them.

Not a one of them ever missed a chance to tell her that she was scum. It would be nice to watch their faces as someone told them exactly what they were. And why not? When Raven came, maybe she could get him to help her with that song. With his help, surely it would be picked up by other singers.

Savoring that sweet thought, she picked up her pace a little. The first stop was going to be the chandler's shop.

Maybe with luck she'd get through this without having any more little "encounters."

After the chandler, she left her message at the tannery and the baker's, wishing she could stay longer and savor the wonderful aromas there. The baker said nothing about her little encounter with his daughter; she hadn't really expected that he would. If he knew about it, he'd likely just chalk it up to the "bastard-brat's" bad breeding. But since Rune had gotten the better of that exchange, and in fact had not said a single thing that-taken literally-could be called an insult, she doubted either girl would even mention it to a parent.

In fact, she thought, as she crossed the lane to the smithy, she'd handled it rather well. She'd simply said that some people were fat, were gossips, and couldn't get a husband because they had such terrible tempers. She'd only repeated what the Westhaven priest-shared with Beeford-had told all of them about the fate of gossiping women. She hadn't once said that either Amanda or Joyse were anything other than dull. And while that was an insult, it was hardly one that was anything other than laughable.

The smithy was full; Hob and his two older apprentices, hard at work on sharpening farm tools gone rusty after a winter's storage. They stopped work long enough to hear what she had to say; she spoke her piece quickly, for the forge was hot as a midsummer day, and plain took her breath away. All three men paid her little heed until they heard her news. Then they reacted with considerably more enthusiasm; it had been several weeks since the last real minstrel had been through, after all, and spring had brought with the new growth a predictable restlessness on everyone's part. Tonight's entertainment would give them a welcome outlet for some of that restlessness.

The next stop on Rune's mental list, as she passed behind the smithy and the blacksmith resumed his noisy work, was the carpenter-she'd take this shortcut behind the smithy, between it and its storage sheds, for the smithy and the carpenter's shop lay a little to one side of Westhaven proper, on the other side of the tiny village pond, out where their pounding wouldn't disturb anyone, and where, if the smithy caught fire, there'd be no danger of houses taking flame.

"Well, look what jest wandered inta town." The blacksmith's son Jon stepped out from the side of the shop, blocking her path.

She stopped; he grinned, showing a mouth with half the teeth missing, and rubbed his nose on the back of his hand, sniffing noisily. His manners hadn't improved over the winter. "You lookin' fer me, girl?" he drawled.

She didn't answer, and she didn't acknowledge him. Instead, she turned slowly, figuring that it would be better-much better-if she simply pretended to ignore him. He'd grown over the winter. Quite a bit, in fact. Suddenly, her feeling of superiority to the rest of the village youngsters began to evaporate.

As Hill and Warran, two of the farm boys, moved out from the other side of the blacksmith shop to block her escape, the last of her assumption of superiority vanished. They'd grown over the winter, too. All three of them were taller than she was, and Jon had huge muscles in his arms and shoulders that matched his father's. Becoming his father's apprentice on his fifteenth birthday had developed his body beyond anything she would have anticipated.

It hadn't done much for his mind, though. She whirled at a sound behind her, and saw that he had already moved several paces closer.

"What do you want, Jon?" she asked, trying to sound bored. "I'm busy. I'm supposed to be delivering messages from Master Jeoff. I left one with your father," she concluded pointedly.

"What's the matter?" he asked, scratching his behind with one sooty hand, and grinning still wider. "You in a big hurry t' get back t' yer lo-o-over?" He laughed. "What's Jib got, huh? Nothin', that's what."

So, now it was out in the open, instead of being sniggered about, hinted at. Someone had finally said to her face what everyone in Westhaven had been telling each other for a year.

"He's not my lover," she said as calmly as she could. "I don't have any lover."

"Then maybe it's time you got one," said Hill, snickering. "Little lovin' might do you some good, string bean. Teach you what a woman's for."

"Aww, Hill, she just means she ain't got a real lover," Jon said genially, flexing the muscles of his shoulders, presumably for her benefit. "She just means she wants one, eh?"

"I meant what I said," she told him defiantly.

"Ah, don't fool around, Rune. We know your Mam's been in ol' Jeoff's bed since Rose died. An' we know 'bout you. Your Mam wasn't any more married than m' Dad's anvil." He advanced, and she backed up-into Hill's and Warran's hands. She suppressed a yelp as they grabbed her. "You got no call pretendin' that you're all goody-good." She struggled in the farm boys' hands; they simply tightened their grips.

She stopped fighting, holding very, very still, part of her mind planning every second of the next few minutes, the rest of her too scared to squeak. "Let me go," she said, slowly, clearly, and sounding amazingly calm even to herself.

"Yer Mam's a whore," Jon said, his grin turning cruel, as he reached out for her. "Yer Mam's a whore, an' yer a whore's daughter, an' if yer not a whore now, ye will be-"

He grabbed her breast, crushing it in his hand and hurting her, as he slammed his foul mouth down on hers, trying to force her lips open with his tongue.

She opened her mouth and let his tongue probe forward-and bit down on it, quick, and as hard as she could, tasting blood briefly.

At the same time, she slammed her knee up into his crotch.

As Jon screamed and fell away from her, she brought her heel down hard on Hill's instep, and slammed her head back against his teeth. That hurt, and she reckoned she'd cut her scalp a bit, but it surely hurt him worse.

Hill let out a hoarse cry and let go of her immediately, and bumbled into Warran. She pivoted as much as she could with Warran still holding onto her, and kicked Hill in the knee, toppling him; he went down, taking Warran with him. As Warran fell, she managed to pull free of the last boy's grip-and she pelted away as fast as her legs would carry her, never once looking back to see if she'd hurt them seriously or not.

She ran all the way out of the village, her side aching, her head hurting, half blinded with fright. No matter who might have been following her, she still had longer legs and better wind than any of them. When she slowed and finally paused, near where she'd been stopped by the girls earlier, she couldn't hear any pursuit.

That was when she started to shake.

She started to drop to her knees beside the path, then thought better of the idea. What if there was someone following? What if the boys recovered and decided to come after her?

But she had one place of shelter, one they wouldn't know about-one that was completely defensible.

She got off the path somehow, and fought her way through the brush some twenty or thirty feet into the forest. And there was her shelter, the biggest oak tree for miles around. She forced her shaking legs to carry her up the side of the forest giant, and into the huge fork, completely hidden from below by the new young leaves of lesser trees. There she curled up, and let her mind go blank, while she shook with reaction.

After a while, her heart stopped pounding in her ears, and she stopped feeling sick to her stomach. Mostly, anyway.

Her mind began to work again, if slowly.

She put her hand to the back of her head, but surprisingly, didn't come away with any blood on it, though she felt the hard lump of a rising goose egg back there. That, and a torn and dirty shirt were the worst she'd taken out of the encounter.

This time.

She chewed some young leaves to get the nasty taste of Jon out of her mouth, but she couldn't get the nasty feel of him out of her mind.

One thing was certain; her immunity had vanished with the snows of winter. The girls might leave her alone, but she was completely at the mercy of the boys, even in daylight. The girls might even have set their brothers on her; that would certainly fit Amanda and Joyse's personalities. And that this attack had taken place in daylight meant that they were not particularly worried about hiding their actions from their parents.

That meant their parents didn't care what they were doing to her. If anything happened to her, nothing would be done to punish her attackers. That had always been true-but the threat of attack had never included rape before.

The boys had said it all; her mother was a whore, she was the daughter of a whore, therefore she was a whore. No one would believe anything else. Anything that happened to her would be her own fault, brought on her own actions, or simply by being born of bad blood.

Not even the Priest would help, unless she took holy vows. And even then-he might not believe that she was an innocent, and he might refuse her the protection of the Church. She had nowhere to turn to for help, and no one to depend on but herself.

How long was it going to be before she was cornered by a gang she couldn't escape? It was only the purest luck, and the fact that they hadn't expected her to fight back, that had let her get away this time.

Next time she might not be so lucky.

Next time, they might win.

The realization made her start to shake all over again.

It felt like hours later that she managed to get herself under control, and climb down out of the tree-but when she made her way back to the inn, no one seemed to have missed her. At least, no one seemed to think she had taken an extraordinary amount of time to deliver her messages.

After much thought, she had decided to keep quiet about the attack; after all, what good would complaining about it do? None of this would have happened if the boys hadn't been sure they were safe from punishment. Jeoff wouldn't do anything to risk the anger of his customers, Stara and Annie Cook would be certain she'd brought it on herself, and Jib would only get himself into fights he couldn't hope to win. No one would care, at least, not enough to help protect her.

But she could protect herself, in clever ways. She could refuse to go into the village alone, or better still, she could send Jib to run errands for her, trading chore for chore. Even if it meant more of the kind of work that might stiffen her hands. . . .

Better that, than the little entertainments Jon and his friends had planned.

But she didn't have long to brood on her troubles, for despite the fact that she hadn't been able to deliver more than half her messages, word of the new minstrel had traveled all through the village, and the men and their wives were already beginning to take their places behind the rough wooden tables. There were three couples there already; the baker and his wife, and a couple of the nearer farmers and their spouses. The place would be full tonight, for certain.

She dashed upstairs to change her torn shirt for a clean, older one-a loose and baggy one that didn't show anything of her figure-making sure no one saw her to ask about what had happened to the first shirt.

She stripped off the shirt and frowned-more in anger now, than fear-at the bruises on her breast. She touched it gingerly; it was going to hurt more later than it did now, and it hurt bad enough now that she waited long enough to wrap her chest in a supporting and protecting-and concealing-band of cloth. She slipped the new shirt over her head, pledging herself that she'd find a way to make Jon hurt as much as he'd hurt her.

If he didn't already. She hoped, devoutly, that he did. He'd surely have a hard time explaining away his bitten and swollen tongue. She was quite sure she'd drawn blood, for there'd been blood on the back of her hand when she'd wiped it across her mouth. With any luck it would be so bad he'd have to drink his meals tonight and tomorrow. And she had a notion his privates ached more than her breast did right now.

The thought made her a little more cheerful.

She scraped her hair back and tied it into a severe knot at the nape of her neck. There had been no sign from any of the adults today that they thought the way the boys did, but she had no intention of finding out the hard way. When she made herself look like a boy this way, most of them actually forgot she was a girl. And she didn't want to start anything among the beer-happy men-she knew for a fact that she wouldn't be able to defend herself from a grown man. Stara was safe enough behind the bar, but she was going to be out in the open.

A few months ago, with Rose in charge, anyone bothering "the wenches" would have found himself getting a rap on the head or hand with a spoon-or invited to leave and not return, which could be quite a punishment in a village with only one inn. Rune hadn't ever thought that the situation might change-

Until this afternoon. That changed everything.

Now, she wasn't taking any chances.

For a moment she hesitated at the foot of the stairs, afraid to face the crowd, afraid that she might see knowing looks in their faces, afraid of what they might be thinking-

But Annie Cook seized her as soon as the red-faced woman spotted her, and shoved a tray of sausage rolls into her hands, not giving her a chance to think about anything else.

The young minstrel was in the common room, tuning his instrument, as she delivered the salty sausage rolls to the customers. He glanced up at her as she passed, and smiled, the setting sun coming in through the inn windows and touching his hair and face with a gentle golden light. It was a plain, friendly smile, unlike the leers of Jon and his companions, and it warmed a place within her that had been cold all afternoon.

The next time she passed, this time with a tray full of beer mugs, he stopped her, on the pretense of getting a mugful of beer himself.

"I understand you're a fiddler," he said, quietly, taking his time about choosing a mug. "Will you be playing tonight? Do you think you'd like to try a duet?"

If only I could- But Stara had given her direct orders. She shook her head, not trusting her voice.

"That's too bad," he answered, making it sound as if he really was disappointed that she wouldn't be fiddling. "I was hoping to hear you; well, let me know if I do anything new to you, all right? I'll make sure to try and repeat the new songs so you can pick them up."

Speechless now with gratitude, she nodded emphatically, and he took his mug and let her go.

As the evening passed-and the women left-the atmosphere in the room changed. Some of the men from the village, who a month ago would never have dreamed of taking liberties, were pinching and touching Maeve, their hands lingering on her arm or shoulder-or, when they thought no one was watching, her breasts. Maeve seemed oblivious as usual. And neither Jeoff nor Stara were doing anything about it. Now, more than ever, Rune was glad she'd made herself less of a target. As she'd hoped, some of the men, with several mugs of dark beer in them, were calling her "boy." As long as they thought her a boy, she'd probably be safe enough.

True to his promise, Master Heron watched her closely at the conclusion of every tune he played. If she nodded, she could be sure he'd play that song later in the evening, and as the crowd grew more intoxicated, he could repeat the songs a little more often. His hat, left at his feet, was quite full of copper by now. There was even a silver piece or two among the copper. Rune didn't know for certain what he was used to, but by the standards of Westhaven he was doing very well indeed.

Finally he pled the need to take a break, and as Rune brought him more beer and a bit of bread and cheese and an apple, the villagers gathered closer to ask him questions. She ran into the kitchen and out again, not wanting to miss a single word.

"Lad, you're the best these parts have heard in a long while. Are you a Guild Bard?" the mayor wanted to know.

Of course he'd ask that, Rune thought cynically. It's always better if it comes from a Guildsman. As if the music cared who plays it!

"No, that I'm not," he replied, easily. "Look you, Guildsmen always wear purple ribbon on their sleeves, purple and gold for Bards, purple and silver for Minstrels. I doubt you'd ever see a Guildsman through here, though; they're not for the likes of you and me. They play for no less than Sires, and sure they'll tell you so, quick enough!"

He said it so lightly that no one took offense, not even the mayor, who looked a bit disappointed, but not angered.

"No, now I'm just a rover, a Free Bard, seeing that everyone gets to hear a bit of a tune now and again," he continued. "Though after the Faire, I'll admit to you I've been asked to play for the Sire."

That put the mayor in a better humor. "So what's the difference, lad?" he asked genially. "Besides a bit of ribbon, that is."

"Ah, now that is the question," he replied, with his eyebrows raised as high as they could go. "And the answer to it is more than you might think. It's not enough to be able to play, d'ye see. The Bardic Guild seems to think that's only part of what a man needs to get into it. You've all heard of the great Midsummer Faire at Kingsford, right by Traen, have you not?"

All heads nodded; who hadn't heard of the King's Faire? It was the greatest Faire in the land, and one or two of the crowd, the mayor being chiefest, had actually been there once. So great a Faire it was, it couldn't be held inside the capital city of Traen, but had to be set up in its own, temporary city of tents, at Kingsford nearby. It lasted for six weeks, three weeks on either side of Midsummer's Day, with a High Holy Mass celebrated on the day itself, adding the Church's blessing to the proceedings.

"Well," Master Heron said, leaning back against the hearth, so that the firelight caught all the angles of his face, "it's like this. On the second week of Kingsford Midsummer Faire, the Guild comes and sets up a big tent, hard by the cathedral-tent. That's where they hold trials, and they go on for three days. Anyone who wants can sign up for the trials, but there aren't many that make it to the third day."

"You didn't make it, then?" said Ralf, the candle-maker, insolently.

But Master Heron only laughed. "I never tried," he said, "I'm too great a coward to face an audience all of musicians!"

The others laughed with him, and Ralf had the grace to flush.

"So, here's what happens," the minstrel continued. "The first day, you sing and play your best instrument, and you can choose whatever song you wish. There's just one catch-as you play, the judges call out a kind of tune, jig, reel, lament-and you have to play that song in that style, and improvise on it. The second day, you sing and play your second instrument, but you have to choose from a list of songs they pick, then you drum for the next to play. And the third day, you go back to your first instrument, or on to your third, if you have one, and you play and sing a song you have made. And each day, the list of those that get to go on gets shorter by half." He laughed. "Do you see now why I hadn't the courage to try? 'Tis enough to rattle your nerves to pieces, just thinking on it!"

The mayor whistled, and shook his head as the crowd fell silent. "Well, that's a poser. And all that just to get in as an apprentice?"

"Aye," Master Heron replied. "When I was young enough, I didn't have the courage, and now-" he spread his hands. "Wouldn't I look foolish now, as an apprentice?"

The men nodded agreement, as Rune went back to the kitchen, aflame with ambition, but half-crushed as well. She could compose, all right-yes, and she played her fiddle well enough, and drummed too, and sang-

But he'd said quite distinctly that you had to have two instruments, or even a third, and be proficient on all of them.

Even if she could find someone with a lute or mandolin to sell, she could never afford it. She could never afford the lessons to learn to play it, either-and that was assuming she could find a teacher. And if she waited for minstrels to come along to teach her, the way she'd learned fiddle, she'd be an old woman of eighteen or twenty by the time she was ready to go to the Midsummer Faire and the trials.

Well, she could play the shepherd's flute, and even she could make one of those-

No. That was no kind of instrument for the trials before the Guild. These were people who played before princes and kings; they'd hardly be impressed by someone tootling simple shepherd's jigs on a two-octave pipe.

Then the mayor put the crowning touch on her ambitions, placing it out of the realm of "want" and into "need." For what he told the rest, told her that this was the way out of all her problems. Apprenticeship to the Guild would not only get her out of this village, out of danger, but it would place her in a position where no one would ever threaten her again.

"I heard that no one touches a Guild Bard or a Guild Minstrel, am I right, Master Heron?" he asked.

The minstrel nodded, though his face was in shadow now, and Rune couldn't read his expression. His voice held no inflection at all. "That's the truth, sir," he replied. "Only the Church has a right to bring them to trial, and if anyone harms a Guild musician, the Church will see to it that they're found and punished. I'm told that's because a good half of the Guild apprentices go into the Church eventually-and because musicians go everywhere, sometimes into dangerous situations."

No one could ever harm her again. She was so involved in her own thoughts that she hardly noticed when Master Heron resumed playing, and had to forcibly drag her attention back to the music.

There had to be a way to get that second instrument, to get to the trials. There had to be!

CHAPTER THREE

The customers stayed later than usual, and only left when Master Heron began pointedly to put his instrument away for travel. By the time the evening was over, Rune was exhausted, too tired to think very clearly, arms aching from all the heavy trays and pitchers she had carried all night, legs aching from the miles she'd traveled between kitchen and tables, bar and tables, and back again. From the look of him, Master Heron wasn't in much better shape. There were hundreds of things she wanted to ask him about getting into the Bardic Guild, but she knew from experience how his arms must feel after a night of non-stop playing, and how his tongue was tripping over the simplest of words if they weren't in a song.

So she left him alone as she carried the heaps of dirty plates and mugs into the kitchen again-and predictably, was recruited as dish-dryer and stacker, for Granny couldn't cope with putting the plates away. So she walked several more miles returning mugs to the bar and dishes to the cupboard. By the time she was able to leave the kitchen, he'd gone up to his room and his well-earned rest.

The common room was empty at last, fire dying, benches stacked atop tables, and both pushed against the walls, shutters closed and latched against the night. She didn't see her mother anywhere about, which in itself was predictable enough. Stara did not much care for kitchen and clean-up work, and never performed either if she had a way out of doing so. Rune expected to find Stara up in her own attic cubicle next to her daughter's.

But when Rune reached the top of the attic stairs, the moonlight shining through the attic window betrayed the fact that Stara's bed was empty.

Odd. But she'd probably gone to visit the privy before turning in. Rune stripped off her shirt and breeches, and slipped into an old, outworn shift of Rose's, cut down to make a night-shift just before Rose had taken sick, expecting to hear her mother coming up the stairs at any moment, and hoping this wasn't going to be another night of complaint.

But as Rune crawled under the coarse sheet of her pallet, she froze at the sound of murmuring voices in the hall outside Jeoff's rooms below.

One was certainly Jeoff. And the other, just as certainly, was her mother.

Suddenly Rune was wide-eyed; no longer the least bit sleepy.

She had only time to register shock before the closing door below cut off the last sound of whispers.

Stara-and Jeoff. There was no doubt in Rune's mind what was going on. Stara had been unable to get Jeoff to marry her by simply tempting him, but remaining just out of reach. So for some reason, tonight she had decided to give the man what he wanted to see if that would bring him before the altar.

She must be desperate, Rune thought, numbly. She'd never have gone to him otherwise. She must think that if she lets him sleep with her, guilt will make him want to make an honest wife of her in the morning. Or else she thinks she can seduce him into marrying her, because she's such a fabulous lover. Or both.

Whatever was going on in Stara's mind, there were a number of possible outcomes for this encounter, and they didn't auger well for Rune.

The worst threat was that her mother would slip and become pregnant. In all the time Rune had been paying any attention, Stara had never once calculated anything correctly if it involved numbers greater than three. That made a pregnancy horribly likely-if not this time, then the next.

Rune stared up blankly at the darkness of the roof above her. If Stara became pregnant, married or not, it would mean the end of Rune's free time. She'd have to take all of Stara's work as well as her own for months before the birth, and after-

And doubtless the added expense of a non-productive mouth to feed would convince Jeoff there was no money to hire any more help.

And Rune would have to help with the baby, when it came. As if she hadn't already more than enough to do! There would be no time for anything but work, dawn to dusk and past it. There would be no time to even practice her fiddling, much less learn new music, or work out songs of her own.

No time for herself at all . . . things were bad enough now, but with Stara pregnant, or caring for another child, they'd be infinitely worse.

Her eyes stung and she swallowed a lump in her throat as big as an egg. It wasn't fair! Stara had a perfectly good situation here, she didn't need to do this! She wasn't thinking-or rather, she wasn't thinking of anyone except herself. . . .

Rune turned on her side as despair threatened to smother her, choking her breath in her throat, like a hand about it. At least I'll have a roof over my head, she thought bleakly. There's plenty that can't even say that. And food; I never go hungry around here.

But that wasn't the worst possible situation. Supposing Stara's ploy didn't work? Suppose she couldn't get Jeoff to marry her-and got with child anyway? Jeoff probably wouldn't throw them out of his own accord, but there were plenty of people in the village who'd pressure him to do so, especially those with unmarried daughters. He was a member of the Church, a deacon, he had a reputation of his own to maintain; he could decide to lie, and say that Stara had been sleeping with the customers behind his back, so as to save that reputation. Then, out she'd go, told to leave the village and not return. Just like the last time she'd gotten herself with child.

Oh yes, and what would happen to Rune then?

She might well be tossed out with her mother-but likelier, far likelier, was that Jeoff would get rid of Stara, but keep her daughter. After all, the daughter was a proven hard worker, with nothing against her save that she was a light-skirt's daughter, and possibly a bastard herself.

That wasn't her fault, but it should give Rune all the more reason that she should be grateful for a place and someone willing to employ her.

And what would that mean, but the same result as if he married Stara?

Rune could predict the outcome of that, easily enough. She'd wind up doing all her work and Stara's too.

Eventually Jeoff would marry some girl from the village, like Amanda, who'd lord it over Rune and pile more work on her, and probably verbal abuse as well, if not physical abuse. It would depend on just how much Jeoff would be willing to indulge his wife, how much he'd support her against the "hired help."

And when the new wife got pregnant, there'd be all the work tending to her precious brat. Or rather, brats; there'd be one a year, sure as the spring coming, for that was the way the village girls conducted their lives. It was proper for a wife to do her duty by her husband, and make as many babies as possible.

No time for fiddling, then, for certain sure. No time for anything. At least Stara was old enough that there likely wouldn't be another child after the first. With a new, young wife, there'd be as many as she could spawn, with Rune playing nursemaid to all of them.

Unless Rune told them all that she wasn't having any of that, and went off on her own, to try her hand at making a living with her fiddle.

And for a moment, that seemed a tempting prospect, until cold reality intruded.

Oh, surely, she told herself cynically. A fine living I'd make at it, too. I'm not as good as the worst of the minstrels who've been here-and surely they aren't as good as the Guild Musicians, or the folk who make the circuits of the great Faires. Which means, what? That I'd starve, most like.

What would be better-or worse? Starvation, or the loss of music, of a life of her own? A dangerous life alone on the open road, living hand-to-mouth, or a life of endless drudgery?

She sniffed, and stifled a sob. There didn't seem to be much of a choice, no matter which way she turned-both lives were equally bleak.

And what about Stara herself? Stara was her mother; how much did Rune owe her?

If she did get with child, and Jeoff did throw her out, Stara would be in an even worse plight than Rune faced. She would be pregnant, out of work, nowhere to go, and no longer young enough to charm her way, however briefly, into someone's household.

For a moment, Rune suffered a pang of guilt and worry. But no one forced her into Jeoff's bed, she told herself after a moment. No one told her to go chasing after her master, hoping for a wedding ring. She's the one that made the decision, to risk her future without even a thought for what might happen to me as well as her!

That killed any feelings of guilt. If Stara got herself into trouble, it was her problem, and she could get herself right back out again. Why should I suffer because my mother's a damn fool? She doesn't even want me to call her "Mother" any more.

But that brought up still another possibility.

There was no doubt of it that Stara didn't like having a fourteen-year-old daughter; that she thought it made her look old. If she decided that Rune was a liability in her plan to capture Jeoff and become his wife, she might well do something to drive Rune away herself.

It wouldn't even be hard to find an excuse. All Stara would have to do would be to tell him that Rune was sleeping with Jib or any of the boys from the village-or, most likely of all, with the musicians that had been passing through. The villagers would be glad to believe such tales, and might even make up a few of their own.

And Jeoff was like any other man; he was fallible and flawed, and subject to making some irrational decisions. Even though he was enjoying himself with Stara-or perhaps, because he was enjoying himself with Stara-he would never tolerate openly loose morals on his premises on the part of anyone else.

While the large inns-so Rune had heard, from the female musicians-were tolerant of such things, Jeoff never had been. He could get away with forbidding prostitutes to use his inn because most of his custom was local. Larger inns couldn't afford such niceties, and in fact, larger inns often kept whores to supply their clients. But the folk needing rooms out here, off the main roads, most often traveled alone, or with a long-time partner. In a case like that, if the partner was a female, and the male of the pair said they were married, then they might as well have posted the banns, so Jeoff didn't enforce his rule. There was no inn nearer than Beeford, and that gave him something of a monopoly on trade. Those who needed Jeoff's rooms had no choice-and the locals would come to drink his beer whether or not he allowed loose women about.

In fact, Jeoff and Rose had been considered pillars of the community for their godly ways. That was part of what made Jeoff such a good marital prospect now.

And that was precisely what made it likely that he'd dismiss her at the first complaint of looseness, particularly if it came from her mother.

Maybe I just ought to turn whore, she thought with another stifled sob. At least then I'd have something in the way of a trade. . . .

Despite Jeoff's strictness, she wasn't entirely innocent of the ways of light-skirts. Some few of the travelers, men with gold and silver in their purses rather than copper and silver, had brought with them their own, brazen, hard-eyed women. And once or twice, other travelers in Faire season had met such a woman here, each departing in another direction after a single shared night. Jeoff had never turned these men away; they paid well, they often carried weapons or acted haughtily, and as if they were either dangerous or important. But he had served them himself, not permitting either Stara or Rune anywhere near them, and Rose had always worn a frown the entire time such women were under her roof.

Then there was the fellow who came through at Faire-time with his own tents and wagons, and a collection of freaks and "dancing maidens." His "maidens" were nothing of the sort, whatever his freaks were. There were always a lot of male visitors from the village to his tents after dark when the Faire closed. . . .

She turned on her back again, biting her lip in remembrance. That man-he'd made her feel so filthy, just by the way he acted, that she'd wanted to bathe every time she had to be anywhere near him. . . .

He'd hired Rune once, when his own musician took sick, having her play for the performances given during the day. Rose, innocent of what those performances were like, had judged she was unlikely to come to any harm during the daylight hours and had given her leave.

The dancers hadn't danced, much. Their costumes seemed to consist of skirts and bodices made entirely of layers and layers of veils. Their movement was minimal, and consisted of removing one veil after another, while wiggling in a kind of bored pantomime of desire to the drumbeats. It wasn't even particularly graceful.

Rune hadn't said anything to anyone; if Jeoff knew what was going on, he didn't bother to enlighten Rose, and Rune doubted anyone else would tell her. There wasn't any reason to; Rune sat behind a screen to play for the "dancers," and no one in the audience had any notion who the musician back there was. She'd needed the money rather badly, for strings and a new bow, the old one having cracked to the point that Rune was afraid to subject it to too much stress-and she'd given her word that she'd take the job, and felt as if she couldn't walk out on it once she'd agreed. But she'd been horribly uncomfortable, embarrassed beyond words, and feeling vaguely sickened by what she saw from her hiding place. She'd been glad when the regular musician recovered from his illness after two days and resumed his place.

It hadn't been the taking off of clothes that had bothered her, it was the way the women had done it. Even at thirteen, she'd known there was something wrong with what was going on.

The Church said displays like that, of a woman's body, were forbidden, and a sin. Rune had never quite reasoned out why that should be so-for the Holy Book said other things, entirely, about taking joy in the way of a man and a maid, and celebrating the body and the spirit. But the dancers certainly seemed to feel the same way as the Church-yet they kept dancing, as if they reveled in doing the forbidden. And the men who came to watch them gave Rune the same feeling. There was something slimy about it all, tawdry and cheap, like the way Jon had made her feel this afternoon.

The man who ran the show was horrible, able to make almost anything sound like an innuendo. He was using those women, using them with the same callousness that Kerd the Butcher displayed with the animals he slaughtered.

But they, in turn, were using their audience, promising something they wouldn't deliver, not without a further price attached. Promising something they probably couldn't give-promising gold, and delivering cheap gilded lead.

And the men in the audience were part of the conspiracy. They certainly didn't care about the women they ogled, or later bedded. They cared only for the moment's pleasure, sating themselves without regard for the women, using them as if they were soulless puppets. Things, not human beings.

No, she couldn't do that . . . couldn't reduce herself to a creature. There was something wrong about that. And not the Church's notion of right and wrong, either. No matter what happened, she could not put herself in the position of used and user. . . .

And yet, that's exactly the position that Stara put herself in. She was no different from any of those hard-eyed women who stayed only the night, from the "dancers" at the Faire. She had determined on a price for herself, and she was using Jeoff to get it, with never any thought of love or joy involved.

And Jeoff was most definitely using Stara, for he was taking advantage of her by demanding what he wanted without "paying" for it first, forcing Stara to put herself in the position of begging for that price.

It would be a different story if they had come together with care for one another.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Whatever came of this, it would probably spell trouble for Rune.

And with that comforting thought, exhaustion finally got the better of her, and she slept.

" . . . and when I got out of the kitchen, he was already gone," she lamented to Jib, as they raked the area in front of the stable clean of droppings, and scattered water over the pounded dirt to keep the dust down. "I picked up a few songs from him, but he really was awfully good, and he knew more about the Bardic Guild than anyone I ever talked to before. There was so much I wanted to ask him about! I wish I hadn't had to work so hard-I could have gotten a lesson from him-"

"It don't seem fair to me," Jib said slowly. "I know Stara wasn't doin' anythin'. She was just foolin' around the common room, actin' like she was cleanin' mugs and whatall, but she weren't doin' nothin' but fill pitchers now an' again. Them mugs was still dirty when she was done. Cook was talkin' about it this mornin' t' Tarn."

"I shouldn't have had to play server," she complained bitterly, swinging the watering can back and forth to cover as much ground as possible. "They should've let me fiddle, like they used to. You can't have a whole evening of music with just one musician, not if you don't want him to wish he'd never walked in before the night's over. Master Heron was tired, really tired, by the time he was done. If they'd let me play, I could've let him take a good long break or two. And he wanted me to play, he said so, he wanted to know if I would play a duet with him. He could have helped me, taught me songs right-"

"Well, heckfire, Rune," Jib replied, sounding, for the first time in weeks, like her old friend instead of the odd, awkward stranger who wanted to court her. "I dunno what t' say. Seems t' me pretty rotten unfair. Ye know? Looks t' me like your Mam is gettin' what she wants, an' ol' Jeoff is gettin' what he wants, an' all you're gettin' is hind teat. Ev'body here is doin' all right but you, and ye're th' one pickin' up the slack."

Rune nodded unhappily, as they walked back to the stable to put the watering cans away under the shelves by the stable door. "Nobody ever asks me what I want," she said bitterly. "Anything that needs done, they throw on me, without ever asking if I've got the time. They all seem to think they can do whatever they want with me, because I'm not important. I'm just a girl, just Stara's brat, and I don't count. I'm whatever they want me to be, with no say in it."

And that includes Jon and his friends.

"Well, ye got a roof, an' plenty t' eat," Jib began, echoing her pessimistic thoughts of last night. "This ain't a bad life, really-"

"It's not enough," she continued, angry now. "I hate this place, and I hate most of the people in it! I don't want to be stuck here the rest of my life, in this little hole back of beyond, where everybody knows everything about everybody else, or they think they do. And they think that they're so good, God's keeping a special place in heaven for them! I can't get anywhere here, because no matter what I did, I'd never be good enough for them to even be civil to."

Jib's brow puckered, as if he had never once thought that someone might want something other than the life they now shared. That Rune would want the freedom to play her fiddle, he should have understood-she'd dinned it into his head often enough. But that she'd want to leave was probably incomprehensible. He certainly looked surprised-and puzzled-by her outburst. "Well," he said slowly, "What do you want, then?"

Rune flung her arms wide. "I want the world!" she cried extravagantly. "I want all of it! I want-I want kings and queens at my feet, I want wealth and power and-"

"Na, na, Rune," Jib interrupted, laughing at her in a conciliating tone. "That's not sensible, lass. Nobody can have that, outside of a tale. Leastwise, no musicker. What is it ye really want?"

"Well, if I have to be sensible . . ." She paused a moment, thought about what it was that was making her so unhappy. It wasn't the drudgery so much, as the loss of hope that there'd ever be anything else. And the confinement in a corner of the world where nothing ever happened, and nothing ever changed, and she'd always be looked down on and taken advantage of. "Jib, I want to get out of here. The people here think I'm scum, you know that. Even if the High King rode up here tomorrow and claimed me as his long-lost daughter, they'd look down their noses at me and say, 'Eh, well, and she's a bastard after all, like we thought.' "

Jib nodded agreement, and sighed. He leaned up against the doorpost of the stable and selected a straw to chew on from one of the bales stacked there.

"So?" he said, scratching his head, and squinting into the late afternoon sunlight. "If ye could go, how'd ye do it? Where'd ye go, then?"

"I'd want some money," she said, slowly. "Enough to buy another instrument, a guitar, or a lute, or even a mandolin. And enough to keep me fed and under shelter, and pay for the lessons I'd need. I couldn't do that here, it would have to be in a real city. Even if I had the money, and the instrument, I can't keep going on like I have been, begging for time to play, and making do with lessons snatched from other minstrels. I need to learn to read and write better, and read and write music, too."

"All right," Jib responded, pushing away from the doorpost. "Say you've got all that. What then?" He led the way towards the door on the other side of the stable-yard, where they both had chores awaiting them-her to clean the common room, him to scrub pots for the cook.

"Then-" She paused just outside the inn door and looked off down the road with longing. "Then-I'd go to the big Midsummer Faire at Kingsford. I'd march straight in there, and I'd sign right up for the trials for the Bardic Guild. And I'd win them, too, see if I wouldn't. I'd win a place in the Guild, and a Master, and then just see what I'd do!" She turned to Jib with such a fierce passion that he took an involuntary step back. "You said nobody had money and power and kings and queens at their feet outside of a tale? Well, the Guild Bards have all that! All that and more! And when I was a Guild Bard there'd be nobles come wanting me to serve them, begging me to serve them, right up to kings and even the High King himself! I could come riding back in here with a baggage train a half dozen horses long, and servants bowing to me and calling me 'My Lady,' and a laurel and a noble title of my own. And then these backwater blowhards would see-"

"Oh, would we now?" asked Kaylan Potter mockingly, behind her.

She whirled, already on the defensive. Kaylan and three of his friends lounged idly against the door to the common room. Kaylan and his friends were almost fully adult; journeymen, not 'prentices, tall and strong. They looked enough alike to be from the same family, and indeed, they were all distant cousins, rawboned, muscular and swarthy, in well-worn smocks and leather vests and breeches. She wondered, frantically, if she was in for another attempt like the one Jon and his friends had made. Her heart raced with sudden fear. Surely not right here, where she'd thought she was safe-

No. Her heart slowed, as the young men made no move towards her. No, they were older and smarter than Jon. They wouldn't risk their tavern-privileges by trying to force her on the doorstep in broadest daylight. Elsewhere, perhaps, they might have made some sort of move-but not here and now.

But they were not particularly amused at her description of them-by implication-nor her assessment of their parents and neighbors.

"We'd see, would we?" Kaylan repeated, looking down his snub nose at her. "And just what would we see? We'd see a braggart, foolish girl-child with her head full of foolish fancies getting her comeuppance, I'm thinking. We'd see a chit with a head too big for her hat learning just what a little fish she is. We'd see a brat who never was able to win even a village Faire fiddling contest learning what it means to brag and fall. That's what I think we'd be seeing, eh, lads?"

The other three nodded solemnly, superior smirks on their dark faces.

Her heart squeezed in her chest; she felt her face grow hot, then cold.

"Oh, aye," said Thom Beeson, his hair falling into his eyes as he nodded. "Aye that I'd say, seein' as the wee chit couldn't even win the Harvest Faire fiddlin' contest four years agone, and her only competition a couple of old men, a lad claimin' t' be a Guild 'prentice, and a toy-maker."

She gathered all her dignity about her and strode past them, into the tavern. There wasn't anyone in the common room but Maeve, who was sweeping the floor with a care that would have been meticulous in anyone but her. The four young men followed her inside and threw themselves down on a bench, their attitude betraying the fact that they figured they had her cowed. "Now, how about beer and a bit of bread and cheese for some hard workin' men, wench," said Kaylan carelessly. "You can be a first-rate servin' wench even if you're only a second-rate fiddler."

She held her temper so as not to provoke them, but it was a struggle. She wanted to hit them-she wanted to throw their damned beer in their smug faces. And she didn't dare do any of it. Thom was right, damn him. She had lost the Harvest Faire fiddling contest four years ago, and it had been the last contest their little village Faire had held. She'd never had another chance to compete. And they all remembered her failure. So did she; the remembrance was a bitter taste in her mouth as she filled their mugs from the tap and took them to the table.

She thudded the filled mugs down in front of them, so that they foamed over, and turned on her heel.

"So, what else were you going to show us, wench?" Kaylan asked lazily. "Is it true that you're takin' after your mother that way?"

Someone else had been spreading tales, it seemed. Already she was judged-

"Or are we gonna hear more boastin'?" Thom drawled. "Empty air don't mean a thing, wench. If ye could fiddle as well as ye can yarn, ye might be worth listenin' to."

She lost the tenuous hold she had on her temper.

She spun, let the words fly without thinking about the consequences. They had challenged her too far, in a way she couldn't shrug off.

"What am I going to show you?" she hissed, her hands crooked into claws, her heart near bursting. "I'll tell you! I'll do more than show you! I'll prove to you I'm the best fiddler these parts have ever seen, and too good for the likes of you! I'll go fiddle for-for-"

"For who, wench?" Thom laughed, snapping his fingers at her. "For the Sire?"

"For the Skull Hill Ghost!" she snarled without thinking. "I reckon he'd know a good fiddler when he heard one, even if a lout like you doesn't!"

Thom threw back his head and laughed. "From braggart t' liar in one breath!" he said derisively. "You? Fiddle for the Ghost? Ye'd never dare set foot on Skull Hill in daylight, much less by night! Why, ye never even step outside th' building oncet the sun goes down! I bet ye're so 'fraid of the dark, ye hide yer head under the covers so's th' goblins don' git ye!"

"Liar, liar," taunted Kaylan, wagging his finger at her. "Little girls shouldn't lie t' their betters. Little girls should know their place. Specially when they're old 'nuff t' be big girls." He grinned, insinuatingly. "Specially when there's big boys as can give 'em things, an' do nice things for 'em, if they've got the wit t' be nice back."

If she'd had any notion of backing down, those words put the idea right out of her head.

"I'll show you who's a liar!" she shouted, too angry to keep her voice down. "I'll show you who's the better around here! I'll go tonight! Right now! Then we'll see who's the coward and who isn't!"

She dashed for the stairs, and took them two at a time, grabbed her fiddle from the shelf, and pelted down the stairs again as fast as her feet could take her without breaking her neck. She burst into the common room to see Jeoff just entering from the kitchen, alerted by the shouting. He turned around to see her hitting the bottom landing with a thud.

"Rune!" he called, holding out a cautionary hand. "Rune, what's a-goin' on?"

"You tell him," she spat at Kaylan, as she headed out the door, fiddle in hand, at a fast, angry walk. "You started this, you bully-you tell him."

By then she was out the door, and the walk had become a run, and no one of Jeoff's girth was going to be able to catch up with her. She pelted down the dirt road as hard as she could run, her fiddle case bumping against her back where she'd slung it, her heart burning within her and driving her to run even faster, as if she could outdistance the cruel taunts.

At least her parting sally should get Kaylan and his friends into a situation they'd have a hard time explaining themselves out of. Jeoff wasn't going to like losing his help for the night.

She took the road away from the village, deeper into the forested hills, slowing to a walk once she was out of sight of the inn and it looked as if there wouldn't be any immediate pursuit.

By then, her side hurt and she was winded and sticky with sweat and road dust. And by the time she reached the place where the Old Road joined the new one, she'd had ample chance to cool down and think about just how stupid she'd been.

The Old Road represented a more direct path through the hills-but one that was never taken after dark. And, more often than not, local travelers avoided it even in daylight. Hence the overgrown condition of the Old Road, the grasses sprouting in the eroded ruts, the bushes creeping up onto it a little more every year. Even though the Old Road would save the weary traveler several miles, no one took it who had the slightest chance of being on it after the sun went down.

For there was a ghost that haunted the place, a vengeful, angry ghost; one that inhabited the Skull Hill Pass. It was no legend; it had been seen reliably by the few very fortunate souls who had managed to elude his grasp by fleeing his pursuit past the running water of the stream at the foot of the hill. The new road had been built fifty years ago, or so Rune had been told, after Father Donlin went up on the hill to exorcise the Ghost, and was found up there in the morning, stone cold dead, with a look of utter terror on his face.

That, in fact, was how most of the victims were found; and no one who ever went up there at night returned alive. Those few who had escaped death had been going down the hill when the sun set, having miscalculated or suffered some mishap on the road that had delayed them past the safe hour. There had been five victims besides the Father that Rune herself knew about, and stories spoke of dozens. . . .

No one knew how long the ghost had been there, nor why he haunted and killed. Granny Beeson, Thom's grandmother, and the oldest person in the village, said he'd been there as long as she remembered.

And now Rune was walking straight up the haunted hill, into the Ghost's power. Deliberately. Seeking the Ghost out, a spirit that had killed a holy priest, as if her music had a chance of appeasing it.

With more than enough time, as she climbed the uneven, root-ridged track, to regret her impulse.

She squinted through the trees at the setting sun; she reckoned by the angle that once she reached the top of the pass, she'd have a little more than half an hour to settle herself and wait for her-host. There seemed fewer birds on this track than the other, and they all seemed to be birds of ill-omen: ravens, corbies, blackbirds, black boat-tails.

She tried to think if any of the ghost's other victims had been female. Maybe he only went after men-

But, no. Granny Beeson had said that two of the dead had been lovers running off to get married against the girls' parental wishes, so the thing killed women too.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she berated herself. If I live through this, I am never going to let my temper get me into this kind of mess again. Not ever. I swear.

But first, she was going to have to survive the rest of the night.

CHAPTER FOUR

As sunset neared, the few birds that had been about made themselves vanish into the brush, and Rune was left alone on Skull Hill without even a raven for company. It might have been her imagination, but the trees seemed a little starved up here, a strange, skeletal growth, with limbs like bony hands clawing the sky. It seemed colder up here as well-and the wind was certainly stronger, moaning softly through the trees in a way that sounded uncannily human, and doing nothing for her confidence level.

She looked around at the unpromising landscape and chose a rock, finding one with a little hollow. She spent some time pulling up some of the dry grass of last year's growth, giving the rock a kind of cushion to keep the cold away, and sat down to wait. As the crimson sun touched the top of Beacon Hill opposite her perch, and crept all-too-quickly behind it, she began to shiver, half with cold, and half with the fear she had no difficulty in admitting now that she was alone.

Of all the stupid things I've ever done, this was one of the stupidest.

It was not a particularly spectacular sunset; no clouds to catch and hold the sun's last rays. Just the red disk sinking towards and then behind the hill, the pale sky growing darker-deepening from blue to black, and all too soon; the stars coming out, brightest first, pinpoints of cold blue-white light.

The wind died to nothing just at sunset, then picked up again after the last stars appeared. Rune took out her fiddle with benumbed fingers, and tuned it by feel, then sat on her rock and fingered every tune she knew without actually playing, to keep her fingers limber. And still nothing happened.

She was tired, cold, and her fear was fading. Her bones began to ache with the cold. It would be so easy to pack up, creep down the hill, and return to the inn claiming that she'd fiddled for the Ghost and gotten away.

The idea was very tempting.

But-that would be a lie and a cheat. She swore she'd do this; she pledged her word, and even if the villagers thought her word was worthless, that didn't make it so. If she broke her word, if she lied about what she'd done, what would that make her? As worthless as the villagers claimed she was.

Besides, they probably wouldn't believe me anyway.

The moon appeared, its cold silver light flooding over the hills and making them look as if they'd been touched with frost. She marked time while it climbed, keeping her fingers warm by tucking them in her armpits, and taking out the fiddle now and again to make sure it was still in tune. There was a great deal more life around here than there had been in the daylight-unless her presence had frightened everything away until she stopped moving. Owls hooted off in the distance, and a few early crickets sang nearby. Frogs croaked in the stream below her as bats and a nighthawk swooped through the pass, looking for flying insects. And once, a great hare loped lazily down the road, pausing in surprise at the sight of her, and standing up on his haunches to take a better look, for all the world like a white stone garden statue of the kind the Sire had in his pleasure-garden.

At the sight of him, she lost the last of her fear. He was so quizzical, so comical-it was impossible to be afraid of a place that held an animal like this.

She chuckled at him, and he took fright at the sound, whirling on his hind feet and leaping into the underbrush in a breath.

She shook her head, relaxing a little in spite of the chill. There was no Ghost, most likely, and perhaps there never had been. Perhaps the "ghost" had been no more than a particularly resourceful bandit. Perhaps-

The moon touched the highest part of her arc, marking the hour as midnight, just as the thought occurred to her. And at that moment, absolute silence descended on the hill, as if everything within hearing had been frightened into frozen immobility.

The crickets stopped chirping altogether; the owl hoots cut off. Even the wind died, leaving the midnight air filled only with a stillness that made the ears ache as they sought after the vanished sounds.

Then the wind returned with a howl and a rush, blowing her shirt flat to her body, chilling her to the bone and turning the blood in her veins to ice. It moaned, like something in pain, something dying by inches.

Then it changed, and whipped around her, twisting her garments into confusion. It swirled around her, picking up dead leaves and pelting her with them, the center of a tiny, yet angry cyclone that was somehow more frightening than the pounding lightning of the worst thunderstorm.

It lashed her with her own hair, blinded her with dust. Then it whisked away to spin on the road in front of her, twisting the leaves in a miniature whirlwind less than ten paces from her.

Her skin crawled, as if there were something watching her from the center of the wind. Malignant; that was what it felt like. As if this wind was a living thing, and it hated every creature it saw. . . .

She shook her hair out of her eyes, hugged her arms to her body and shook with cold and the prickling premonition of danger. She couldn't take her eyes off the whirlwind and the swirling leaves caught in it. The leaves-it was so strange, she could see every vein of them-

A claw of ice ran down her spine, as she realized that she could see every vein of them-because they were glowing.

She'd seen foxfire-what country child hadn't-but this was different. Each leaf glowed a distinct and leprous shade of greenish-white. And they were drawing closer together into a column in the center of the whirlwind, forming a solid, slightly irregular shape, thicker at the bottom than at the top, with a kind of cowl-like formation at the very top.

Kind of? It was a cowl; the leaves had merged into a cowled and robed figure, like a monk. But the shape beneath the robe suggested nothing remotely human, and she knew with dread that she didn't want to see the face hidden within that cowl. . . . The wind swirled the apparition's robes as it had swirled the leaves, but disturbed it not at all.

Then, suddenly, the wind died; the last of the leaves drifted to pile around the apparition's feet . . . if it had feet, and not some other appendages. The cowl turned in Rune's direction, and there was a suggestion of glowing eyes within the shadows of the hood.

A voice, an icy, whispering voice, came out of the darkness from all around her; from everywhere, yet nowhere. It could have been born of her imagination, yet Rune knew the voice was the Ghost's, and that to run was to die. Instantly, but in terror that would make dying seem to last an eternity.

"Why have you come here, stupid child?" it murmured, as fear urged her to run anyway. "Why were you waiting here? For me? Foolish child, do you not know what I am? What I could do to you?"

At least it decided to talk to me first. . . .

Rune had to swallow twice before she could speak, and even then her voice cracked and squeaked with fear.

"I've come to fiddle for you-sir?" she said, gasping for breath between each word, trying to keep her teeth from chattering.

And it's a good thing I'm not here to sing. . . .

She held out Lady Rose and her bow. "Fiddle?" the Ghost breathed, as if it couldn't believe what it had heard. "You have come to fiddle? To play mortal music? For me?"

For the first time since it had appeared, Rune began to hope she might survive this encounter. At least she'd surprised this thing. "Uh-yes. Sir? I did."

The glow beneath the hood increased, she was not imagining it. And the voice strengthened. "Why, mortal child? Why did you come here to-fiddle for me?"

She toyed with the notion of telling it that she'd done so for some noble reason, because she felt sorry for it, or that she wanted to bring it some pleasure-

But she had the feeling that it would know if she lied to it. She also had the feeling that if she lied to it, it would not be amused.

And since her life depended on keeping it amused-

So she told it the truth.

"It was on a dare, sir," she stammered. "There's these boys in the town, and they told me I was a second-rater, and-I swore I'd come up here and fiddle for you, and let you judge if I was a second-rater or a wizard with m' bow."

The cowl moved slightly, as if the creature were cocking its head a little sideways. "And why would they call you second-rate?"

"Because-because they want me to be, sir," she blurted. "If I'm second-rate they can look down on me, an'-do what they want to me-"

For some reason, the longer she spoke, the easier it became to do so, to pour out all her anger, her fear, all the bottled emotions she couldn't have told anyone before this. The spirit stayed silent, attentive through all of it, keeping its attitude of listening with interest, even sympathy. This was, by far, the most even-handed hearing she'd had from anyone. It was even easy to speak of the attack Jon and his friends had made, tears of rage and outrage stinging her eyes as she did.

Finally, her anger ran out, and with it, the words. She spread her hands, bow in one, fiddle in the other. "So that's it, sir. That's why I'm here."

"You and I have something in common, I think." Did she really hear those barely whispered words, or only imagine them?

She certainly didn't imagine the next ones.

"So you have come to fiddle for me, to prove to these ignorant dirt-grubbers that you are their-equal." The Ghost laughed, a sound with no humor in it, the kind of laugh that called up empty wastelands and icy peaks. "Well, then, girl. Fiddle, then. And pray to that Sacrificed God of yours that you fiddle well, very well. If you please me, if you continue to entertain me until dawn, I shall let you live, a favor I have never granted any other, and that should prove you are not only their paltry equal, but their better. But I warn you-the moment my attention lags, little girl-you'll die like all the others, and you will join all the others in my own, private little Hell." It chuckled again, cruelly. "Or, you may choose to attempt to run away, to outrun me to the stream at the bottom of the hill. Please notice that I did say attempt. It is an attempt that others have made and failed."

She thought for a moment that she couldn't do it. Her hands shook too much; she couldn't remember anything-not a single song, not so much as a lullabye.

Running was no choice either; she knew that.

So she tucked her fiddle under her chin anyway, and set the bow on the strings. . . .

And played one single, trembling note. And that note somehow called forth another and another followed that, until she was playing a stream, a cascade of bright and lively melody-

And then she realized she was playing "Guard's Farewell," one of her early tunes, and since it was a slip-jig, it led naturally to "Jenny's Fancy," and that in its turn to "Summer Cider"-

By then she had her momentum, and the tunes continued to come, one after another, as easily and purely as if she were practicing all by herself. She even began to enjoy herself, a little; to relax at least, since the Ghost hadn't killed her yet. This might work. She just might survive the night.

The Ghost stood in that "listening" stance; she closed her eyes to concentrate better as she often did when practicing, letting the tunes bring back bright memories of warm summer days or nights by the fire as she had learned them. The memories invoked other tunes, and more memories, and the friendships shared with musicians who called themselves by the names of birds: Linnet, Heron, Nightingale, and Raven; Robin, Jay and Thrush. When only parts of tunes came, half-remembered bits of things other musicians had played that she hadn't quite caught, she made up the rest. She cobbled together children's game-rhymes into reels and jigs. She played cradle-songs, hymns, anything and everything she had ever heard or half-heard the melody to.

When she feared she was going to run dry, she played a random run, improvised on that, and turned it into a melody of her very own.

It happened with an ease that amazed her, somewhere in the back of her mind. She'd wanted to write songs, she'd had them living in the back of her mind for so long, and yet she'd never more than half-believed that she was going to get them to come out. It was a marvel, a wonder, and she would have liked to try the tune over a second and third time. But the Ghost was still waiting, and she dared not stop.

Hours passed, longer than she had ever played without stopping before. Gradually the non-stop playing began to take its toll, as she had known would happen. Her upper bow-arm ached, then cramped; then her fingering hand got a cramp along the outside edge. The spot below her chin in her collarbone felt as if she was driving a spike into her neck.

Then her fingering arm burned and cramped, and her back started to hurt, spreading agony down her spine into her legs. She fiddled with tears of pain in her eyes, while her fingers somehow produced rollicking dance music completely divorced from the reality of her aching limbs.

Her fingers were numb; she was grateful for that, for she was entirely certain that there were blisters forming on her fingertips under the calluses, and that if she ever stopped, she'd feel them.

Finally, she played "Fields of Barley," and knew a moment of complete panic as her mind went blank. There was nothing there to play. She'd played everything she knew, and she somehow had the feeling that the Ghost wouldn't be amused by repeating music.

And there was no sign of dawn. She was going to die after all.

But her fingers were wiser than she was, for they moved on their own, and from beneath them came the wild, sad, wailing notes of the laments that the Gypsy Nightingale had played for her. . . .

Now, for the first time, the Ghost stirred and spoke, and she opened her eyes in startlement.

"More-" it breathed. "More-"

Rune closed her eyes again, and played every note she remembered, and some she hadn't known she'd remembered. And the air warmed about her, losing its chill; her arms slowly grew lighter, the aches flowed out of them, until she felt as fresh as she'd been when first she started this. Free from pain, she gave herself up to the music, playing in a kind of trance in which there was nothing but the music.

At last she came as far as she could. There was no music left, her own, or anyone else's. She played the last sobbing notes of the Gypsy song Nightingale had told her was a lament for her own long-lost home, holding them out as long as she could.

But they flowed out and away, and finally, ended.

She opened her eyes.

The first rays of dawn lightened the horizon, bringing a flush of pink to the silver-blue sky. The stars had already faded in the east and were winking out overhead, and somewhere off in the distance, a cock crowed and a chorus of birdcalls drifted across the hills.

There was nothing standing before her now. The Ghost was gone-but he had left something behind.

Where he had stood, where there had once been a heap of leaves, there was now a pile of shining silver coins. More than enough to pay for that second instrument, the lessons for it, and part of her keep while she mastered it.

As she stared at the money in utter disbelief, a whisper came from around her, like a breath of the cool dawn wind coming up off the hills.

"Go, child. Take your reward, and go. And do not look back." A laugh, a kindly one this time. "You deserved gold, but you would never have convinced anyone you came by it honestly."

Then, nothing, but the bird song.

She put her fiddle away first, with hands that shook with exhaustion, but were otherwise unmarred, by blisters or any other sign of the abuse she'd heaped on them.

Then, and only then, did she gather up the coins, one at a time, each one of them proving to be solid, and as real as her own hand. One handful; then two-so many she finally had to tear off the tail of her shift for a makeshift pouch. Coins so old and worn they had no writing left, and only a vague suggestion of a face. Coins from places she'd never heard of. Coins with non-human faces on them, and coins minted by the Sire's own treasury. More money than she had ever seen in her life.

And all of it hers.

She stopped at the stream at the foot of the hill, the place that traditionally marked the spot where the Ghost's power ended. She couldn't help but stop; she was exhausted and exhilarated, and her legs wouldn't hold her anymore. She sank down beside the stream and splashed cold water in her face, feeling as if she would laugh, cry, or both in the next instant.

The money in a makeshift pouch cut from the tail of her shift weighed heavily at her belt, and lightly in her heart.

Freedom. That was what the Ghost had given her-and from its final words, she knew that the spirit had been well aware of the gift it had granted.

Go and don't look back. . . .

It had given her freedom, but only if she chose to grasp it-if she did go, and didn't look back, leaving everything behind. Her mother, Jib, the tavern . . .

Could she do that? It had taken a certain kind of courage to dare the Ghost, but it would take another, colder kind of emotion to abandon everything and everyone she'd always known. No matter what they had done to her, could she leave them for the unknown?

Her elation faded, leaving the weariness. She picked herself up and started for home, at a slower pace, sure only of her uncertainty.

Go-or stay? Each step asked the same question. And none of the echoes brought back an answer. The road was empty this time of the morning, with no one sharing it but her and the occasional squirrel. A cool, damp breeze brought the scent of fresh earth, and growing things from the forest on either hand. It was a shame to reach the edge of the village, and see where the hand of man had fallen heavily.

The inn, with its worn wooden siding and faded sign, seemed shabby and much, much smaller than it had been when she left yesterday. Dust from the road coated everything, and there wasn't even a bench outside for a weary traveler to sit on, nor a pump for watering himself and his beast. These were courtesies, yes, but they cost nothing and their absence bespoke a certain niggardliness of hospitality. She found herself eyeing her home with disfavor, if not dislike, and approached it with reluctance.

Prompted by a caution she didn't understand, she left the road and came up to the inn from the side, where she wouldn't be seen from the open door. She walked softly, making no noise, when she heard the vague mumble of voices from inside the common room through the still-shuttered windows.

She paused just outside the open door and still hidden from view, as the voices drifted out through the cracks in the shutters.

". . . her bed wasn't slept in," Stara said, and Rune wondered why she had never noticed the nasal, petulant whine in her mother's voice before. "But the fiddle's gone. I think she ran away, Jeoff. She didn't have the guts to admit she couldn't take the dare, and she ran away." Stara sounded both aggrieved and triumphant, as if she felt Rune had done this purely to make her mother miserable, and as if she felt she had been vindicated in some way.

Maybe she's been telling tales to Jeoff herself, the way I figured.

"Oh aye, that I'm sure of," Kaylan drawled with righteous self-importance. "Young Jon said she been a-flirtin' wi' him day agone, and she took it badly when he gave her the pass."

So that was how he explained it, she thought, seething with sudden anger despite her weariness. But how did he explain his swollen tongue and bruised crotch? That I hit him when he wouldn't lay with me?

"Anyways, she's been causin' trouble down to village, insultin' the girls and mockin' the boys. Think she got too big fer her hat and couldn't take it t' have her bluff called." Kaylan yawned hugely. "I think ye're well rid of her, Mistress Stara. Could be it was nobbut spring, but could be the girl's gone bad."

"I don't know-" Jeoff said uncertainly. "We need the help, and there's no denying it. If we can find her and get her back, maybe we ought to. A good hiding-"

I'd turn the stick on you, first! she thought angrily.

"Well, as to that," Kaylan said readily. "Me da's got a cousin down Reedben way with too many kids and too little land-happen that he could send ye the twins to help out. Likely ye're goin' to want the extra help, what with summer comin' on. Boy and girl, and 'bout twelve. Old 'nough to work, young 'nough not to cause no trouble."

"If they were willing to come for what Rune got," Jeoff said with eagerness and reluctance mixed. "Room, board and two suits 'f clothes in the year . . . haven't got much to spare, not even t' take a new wife, unless things get better."

Rune looked down at the bag of silver coins at her belt, hearing a note in Jeoff's voice she'd never noticed before. A note of complaint, and a tight-fisted whine similar to the one in Stara's voice. And as if she had been gifted with the Sight of things to come, she knew what would happen if she went into that doorway.

No one would ever believe that she had dared Skull Hill and its deadly Ghost, not even with this double-handful of coins to prove it. They'd think she'd found it, or-more likely-that she had stolen it. Jeoff would doubtless take it away from her, and possibly lock her in her room if suspicion ran high enough against her, at least until she could prove that she'd stolen nothing.

Then when no one complained of robbery, they would let her go, but she'd bet they still wouldn't return her hard-earned reward to her. They'd figure she had found a cache of coins along the Old Road, dug it up in the ruins in the Skull Hill Pass, or had found a newly dead victim of the Ghost and had robbed the dead.

And with that as justification, and because she was "just a child," Stara and Jeoff would take it all "to keep it safe for her."

That would surely be the last she would see of it, for Stara would see to it that it was "properly disposed of." She would probably spend a long night closeted with Jeoff, and when it was over, the money would be in his coffers. She'd promise it all to him as her "dower," if he agreed to marry her; and since there wasn't a girl in the village who could boast a double handful of silver as her dower, he'd probably agree like a lightning strike. Stara would tell herself, no doubt, that since this ensured Rune a home and a father, it was in her "best interest." Never mind that Rune would be no better off than before-still an unpaid drudge and still without the means to become a Guild Bard.

Jeoff would hide the money away wherever it was he kept the profits of the inn. Rune would never get her lessons, her second instrument. She would always be, at best, the local tavern-musician. She would still lack the respect of the locals, although Jeoff as her stepfather would provide some protection from the kind of things Jon had tried. She'd live and die here, never seeing anything but this little village and whoever happened to be passing through.

If she was very lucky, Jib might marry her. In fact, Jeoff would probably encourage that idea. It would mean that he would not have to part with any of the Ghost's silver for Rune's dower-assuming she could induce any of the local boys to the wedding altar-and he would then have Jib as an unpaid drudge forever, as well as Rune and her mother. He would do well all the way around.

She would still have the reputation of the tavern wench's bastard. She would still have trouble from the local girls and their mothers, if not the local boys. And there might come a time when beer or temper overcame someone's good sense-and she still might find herself fighting off a would-be rapist. There would be plenty of opportunities over the next few years for just that kind of "accident." And the boy could always pledge she'd lied or led him on, and who would the Sire's magistrate believe? Not Rune.

That was what was in store for her if she stayed. But if she followed the Ghost's advice, to go, and not look back-

What about Mother? part of her asked.

A colder part had the answer already. Stara could take care of herself.

If she couldn't, that wasn't Rune's problem.

Besides, I've been standing here for the past few minutes listening to my own mother slash what little reputation I had to ragged ribbons. She's not exactly overflowing with maternal protection and love.

Her jaw clenched; her resolve hardened. No, Stara could damned well take care of herself. Rune wasn't about to help her.

But what about Jib?

That stopped her cold for a moment. Jib had been as much prey to the village youngsters as she had, and she'd protected him for a long time now. What would they do when they found out he didn't have that protection anymore?

How could she just leave him without a word?

She moved into the shelter of some bushes around the forested side of the inn, leaned up against a tree, and shut her eyes for a moment, trying to think.

He didn't need to worry about rape. No one was going to try and force him because his mother had the word of being a slut. His problems had always stemmed from the bigger, stronger boys seeing him as an easy target, someone they could beat up with impunity.

But the bigger, stronger boys had other things to occupy them now. They'd all either been apprenticed, or they'd taken their places in the fields with their farmer-fathers. They had very little time to go looking for mischief, and there'd be no excuse for them giving Jib a hiding if he'd been sent to the village on an errand.

Nor did Jib have to worry about the girls' wagging tongues. They didn't care one way or another about him-except, perhaps, as to whether or not he'd been tupping Rune. That might even earn him a little grudging admiration, if he refused to tell them, or denied it altogether. They'd be certain to think that he had, then.

Besides, one way or another, he was going to have to learn to fend for himself eventually. It might as well be now.

Sorry, Jib. You'll be all right.

She worked her way through the bushes, farther along the side of the inn, to stand below the eaves.

There was one way into her room that she hadn't bothered to take for years, not since she and Jib had gone swimming at night and hunting owls.

She looked up, peering through the leaves of the big oak that grew beside the inn, and saw that, sure enough, the shutters were open on the window to her room. Stara hadn't bothered to close them.

Very well, then. She'd make the truth out of part of the lie. Carefully, she put the fiddle down beside the trunk and pulled the pouch of coins from her belt, tucking it into her shirt. It was safer there than anywhere else while she climbed.

She jumped up and caught the lowest limb of the oak she'd been leaning against, pulling herself up onto it, and calling up an ache in her arms. It was a lot harder to climb the tree than she remembered-but not as hard as fiddling all night.

From that limb she found hand- and toe-holds up the trunk to the next branch. This one went all the way to her attic window, slanting above the roof and sometimes scraping against it when high winds blew.

She eased her way belly-down along the branch, with the pouch of silver resting against her stomach above her belt. She crept along it like a big cat, not wanting to sling herself underneath the way she had when she was a kid. It was easier to climb that way, but also easier to be seen. The branch was still strong enough to take her weight, though it groaned a little as she neared the roof.

When she got to the rooftop, she eased herself over, hanging onto the branch with both hands and arms, feeling with her toes for the windowsill. This part was easier now that she was older; it wasn't as far to reach.

It was a matter of minutes to pack her few belongings in a roll made from her bedding: shirts, breeches, a winter cloak that was a castoff from Rose, a single skirt, and a couple of bodices and vests. Some underclothing. A knife, a fork; a wooden dish and a mug. Two hats, both battered. Stockings, a pair of sandals, and a pair of shoes. Rosin for the bow, and a string of glass beads. An old hunting knife.

She hesitated about taking the bedding, but remembered all the work she'd done, and lost her hesitation. Jeoff owed her a couple of sheets and blankets at least, she figured, for all the work she'd done for him without pay.

Then she tossed the bundle into the brush where she'd left her fiddle, and eased herself down over the sill, catching the branch above and reversing her route to the ground.

Bedroll on her back, fiddle in her hand, and silver in her shirt, she headed down the road to Beeford and beyond, without a single glance behind her.

CHAPTER FIVE

Rune paused for a moment, at the top of what passed for a hill hereabouts, and looked down on the city of Nolton. She forgot her aching feet, and the dry road-dust tickle at the back of her throat no amount of water would ease. She had been anticipating something large, but she was taken a bit aback; she hadn't expected anything this big. The city spread across the green fields in a dull red-brown swath, up and down the river, and so far as she could see, there was no end to it. A trade-city, a city that had never been under attack, Nolton had no walls to keep anyone out. Nolton wanted all comers inside, spending their coin, making the city prosper.

The strategy must be working, for it surely looked prosperous. Houses of two and even three stories were common; in the center, there were buildings that towered a dizzying ten or eleven stories tall. The cathedral was one; it loomed over everything else, overshadowing the town as the Church overshadowed the lives of the townsfolk.

She had also been expecting noise, but not this far away from the city itself. But already there was no doubt that she heard sounds that could only come from Nolton; even at this distance, the city hummed, a kind of monotonous chant, in which the individual voices blended until there was no telling what were the parts that comprised it.

She had anticipated crowds; well, she'd gotten them in abundance. There had been some warning in the numbers of travelers for the past day and more on the road.

Although there were throngs of people, until today she hadn't been as apprehensive as she might have been. After all, the whole way here, she had made her way with her fiddle and her songs-

It hadn't been easy, drumming up the courage to approach that first innkeeper, trying to appear nonchalant and experienced at life on the road. She'd taken heart, at first, from the heavy belt of silver coins beneath her shirt. The Ghost had thought her worth listening to, and worth rewarding, for that matter. The memory gave her courage; courage to stride up to inns with all the assurance of the minstrels that had been her teachers, and present herself with an offer of entertainment in exchange for room and board.

It got a little easier with each approach, especially when the innkeepers stayed civil at the very least, and most were cordial even in their rejection.

Not that she had tried great inns; the inns where the Guildsmen and lesser nobles stayed. She didn't even try for the traders' inns, the kind where every traveler had at least a two-horse string. No, she had stuck to common enough inns, the sort simple peddlers and foot-travelers used. Inns like the one she had grown up in, where she figured she knew the custom and the kind of music they'd prefer. She'd been right, for they welcomed her; always, when they had no other musicians present, and sometimes even when they did, if the other musician was a local or indicated a willingness to share out the proceeds.

No one ever complained about her playing-although she dared not try her luck too far. She didn't want to run afoul of a Guild Minstrel, so she kept her ambitions modest, collected her pennies, and didn't trespass where she had any reason to doubt her welcome. There would be time enough to play for silver or even gold, later; time enough for the fine clothing and the handsome pony to ride. Time enough, when she was a Guild Bard. She didn't want to give any Guildsman reason to protest her admittance.

So for now, she pleased the peddlers, the farmers, and the herdsmen well enough. She took her dinner, her spot by the hearth-fire, and her bread and cheese in the morning with no complaint. She collected the occasional penny with a blessing and a special song for the giver. Every copper saved on this journey was one she could use to buy lessons and that precious instrument when she reached Nolton.

And when there was no dinner, no spot on the hearth-she slept in barns, in haystacks, or even up a tree-and she ate whatever she had husbanded from the last inn, or doled out a grudging coin or two for the cheapest possible meal, or a bit of bread or a turnip from a market-stall. Twice, when the inns failed her, she was able to avail herself of a travelers' shelter operated by the Church. For the price of a half loaf, she was able to get not only a pallet in a dormitory with other woman travelers, but a bath and two meals. Dinner was a bowl full of thick pease-porridge and a slice of oat bread, and breakfast was more of the bread, toasted this time, with a bit of butter and a trickle of honey. More copper, or silver, produced better food and accommodations, but she saw no reason to waste her coins.

The hidden price of this largess was that she also had to listen to sermons and scripture at both meals, and attend holy services before and after dinner and dawn prayers in the morning.

She had been left alone, other than that, though any females with a look of prosperity about them were singled out for special attentions. Those who were single, and well-dressed, but not Guild members, were urged to consider the novitiate-those who were married or in a trade were reminded that the Church favored those daughters who showed their faith in material ways.

Those two rest stops were enlightening, a bit amusing, and a bit disturbing. She had never quite realized the extent to which the Church's representatives worked to build and keep a hold on people. It was true that the Church did a great deal of good-but after years of living in an inn, Rune had a fair notion of how much things cost. Oat bread was the cheapest type there was; pease-porridge just as inexpensive. The Hungry Bear had never served either, except in the dead of winter when there were no customers at all and only the staff to feed. Granted, both meals at the hostel were well-made and food was given out unstintingly. But the labor involved was free; as was the labor involved in keeping the travelers' dormitory and bathhouse clean. That was provided by the novices-the lower-class novices, or so Rune suspected; she doubted those of gentler birth would be asked to scrub and cook. The Church was probably not making enough just from the meals and the price of lodging to make the kind of profit a real inn would-but there was another factor involved here, the donations coaxed from the purses of the well-off. The Church got more than enough to make a tidy profit in "free-will offerings"-at least on the two occasions Rune observed. So the lodging was a pretense for extracting more donations. For all the prating about the poverty of the Church, for all that what she saw was as bare and sparse as the clergy claimed, the money had to be going somewhere.

She couldn't help wondering as she walked away that second morning; what happened to all that money?

Was there something beyond those stark, severe walls, in the places where the layman was not allowed to walk?

It was a good question, but one she didn't dwell on for long. She had her own agenda, and it had nothing to do with the Church's. She simply resolved to keep a wary eye on dealings that involved the clergy from here on. So long as they left her alone, she'd hold her peace about their profits.

Nolton had become her goal very soon after leaving the Hungry Bear, once she'd had a chance to talk to other travelers. For all that she'd never been outside the bounds of her own village, she knew what she needed out of a town. Nolton was the nearest city with enough musicians to give her a choice in teachers-dozens of inns and taverns, she'd been told, with all manner of entertainers.

Musicians could make a good living in Nolton. The rich had their own, family musicians as retainers-there were several Guild Halls which often hired singers and players, even whole ensembles. There were even instrument-makers in Nolton, enough of them that they had their own section in the weekly market. It was not in the direction of the Midsummer Faire, but she wouldn't be ready for the trials for at least a year, maybe two. So direction didn't much matter at the moment. What did matter was finding a good teacher, quickly.

She hadn't once considered how big a city would have to be in order to provide work for that many musicians. The number of ordinary folk that meant simply hadn't entered her mind; she'd simply pictured, in a vague sort of way, a place like her own village, multiplied a few times over.

Now she found herself standing on the edge of the road, looking down on a place that contained more people than she had ever imagined lived in the whole world, and suddenly found herself reluctant to enter it.

With all those people-the abundance of musicians abruptly became more than just a wide choice of teachers. It had just occurred to her that all those teachers were also competition. Suddenly her plan of augmenting her savings with her fiddling seemed a lot riskier. What if she wasn't good enough?

But the Ghost thought I was. The weight of the coins she'd sewn into the linen belt she wore under her shirt served as a reminder of that.

Still-she was good in a little village, she was passable in the country inns; but here she was likely to be just one more backwater fiddler. The tunes she knew could be hopelessly outdated, or too countrified to suit townsfolk. And she'd heard that everything was more expensive in cities; her hoard of coins might not be enough to keep her for any length of time. Apprehension dried her mouth as she stared at the faraway roofs. Maybe she just ought to forget the whole idea; turn back, and keep on as she had been, fiddling for food and a place to sleep in little wayside inns, traveling about, picking up a few coppers at weddings and Faires.

Tempting; it was the easy way out. It was the way her mother would have counseled. Stick with the sure thing.

But the thought of Stara's counsel made her stiffen her back. Maybe she should-but no. That wasn't what she wanted to do. It wasn't enough. And look where Stara's counsel had gotten her.

She gave herself a mental shake, and squared her shoulders under her pack. It wasn't enough-and besides, practically speaking, this fiddling about was a fine life in the middle of summer, but when winter came, she'd be leading a pretty miserable existence. Many inns closed entirely in the winter, and it would be much harder to travel then. Her pace would be cut to half, or a third, of what it was now. She'd be spending a lot of time begging shelter from farmers along the road. Some of them were friendly; some weren't. Then there were robbers, highwaymen, bandits-she hadn't run afoul of any of them yet, but that had been because she was lucky and didn't look worth robbing. In winter, anything was worth robbing.

No, there was no hope for it. The original plan was the best.

She took a deep breath, remembered the Ghost-with a bit of a chuckle to think that she was finding comfort in the memory of that creature-and joined the stream of humanity heading into the city.

She kept her eyes on the road and the back of the cart in front of her, watching to make sure she didn't step in anything. The pace slowed as people crowded closer and closer together, finally dropping to a crawl as the road reached the outskirts of the city. There was no wall, but there was a guard of some kind on the roadway, and everyone had to stop and talk to him for a moment. Rune was behind a man with an ox cart full of sacks of new potatoes, so she didn't hear what the guard asked before she reached him herself.

A wooden barrier dropped down in front of her, startling her into jumping back. The guard, a middle-aged, paunchy fellow, yawned and examined her with a bored squint, picking his teeth with his fingernail. She waited, stifling a cough, as he picked up a piece of board with paper fastened to it; a list of some kind. He studied it, then her, then it again.

"Name?" he said, finally.

"Rune," she replied, wishing her nose didn't itch. She was afraid to scratch it, lest he decide she meant something rude by the gesture. He scribbled a few things on the list in his hand.

"Free, indentured or Guild?" came the next question. She wrinkled her forehead for a moment, puzzled by that middle term. He looked at her impatiently, and swatted at a horsefly that was buzzing around his ears.

"What's matter, boy?" he barked. "Deaf? Or dumb?"

For a moment she was confused, until she remembered that she had decided to wear her loose shirt, vest, and breeches rather than attract unwelcome attention. "Boy," was her. But what on Earth was he asking her? Well, she wasn't Guild, and if she didn't know what "indentured" was, she probably wasn't that, either. "No, sir," she said, hesitantly. "I-uh-"

"Then answer the question! Free, indentured or Guild?" He swatted at the fly again.

"Free, sir." She was relieved to see him make another note. He didn't seem angry with her, just tired and impatient. Well, she was pretty hot and tired herself; she felt a trickle of sweat running down the back of her neck, and her feet hurt.

"From Westhaven, sir," she added. "My mother is Stara at the Hungry Bear."

He noted that, too.

"Profession?" That at least she could answer. She touched the strap of Lady Rose and replied with more confidence.

"Fiddler, sir. Musician, sir, but not Guild."

He gave her another one of those sharp glances. "Passing through, planning to stay a while?"

She shook her head. "Going to stay, sir. Through winter, anyway."

He snorted. "Right. They all are. All right, boy. You bein' not Guild, you can busk in the street, or you can take up with a common inn or a pleasure-house, but you can't take no gentry inns an' no gentry jobs 'less you get Guild permission, an' you stay outa the parks-an' you got a three-day to get a permit. After that, if you be caught street-buskin', you get fined, maybe thrown in gaol. Here." He shoved a chip of colored wood at her with a string around it. She took it, bewildered. "That shows what day ye come in. Show it when yer buskin' or when innkeeper asks fer it, till ye get yer permit. Mind what I said. Get that permit." He raised the barrier, and she stepped gingerly past him and into the town.

"An' don't think t' come back through an' get another chit!" he shouted after her. "Yer down on the list! Constables will know!"

Constables? What on Earth is a constable? She nodded as if she understood, and got out of the way of a man leading a donkey who showed the guard a piece of paper and was waved through. The fellow with the ox cart had disappeared into the warren of streets that led from the guard-post, and she moved off to the side of the road and the shade of some kind of storage building to study the situation.

She stood at the edge of a semicircular area paved with flat stones, similar to streets she had seen in some of the larger villages and in the courtyards of the Church hostels. That only made sense; with all these people, a dirt street would be mud at the first bit of rain, and dust the rest of the time. Storage buildings, padlocked and closed up, made a kind of barricade between the open fields and the edge of town. The streets led between more of these buildings, with no sign of houses or those inns the guard spoke of.

She watched the steady stream of travelers carefully as she rubbed her nose, looking for a system in the way people who seemed to know what they were doing selected one of the streets leading from this crossing.

She took off her hat and fanned herself with it, the sweat she had worked up cooling in the shade of the building. No one seemed inclined to make her move on, which was a relief. Finally she thought she had a pattern worked out. There weren't so many streets as she had thought; just a half dozen or so. The people with the bits of paper, the ones with beasts laden with foodstuffs, were taking the street farthest left.

That probably leads to a market. There won't be any inns there; too noisy and too smelly.

The three streets on the right were being followed by folks who were plainly Church, Guild or noble; mounted and well-dressed. The street directly before her was taken only by commoner folk, or by guards, they were all people who'd been waved through without being stopped, so it probably led to homes. A wide assortment of folks, the kind questioned by the guard before he let them in, were taking the market-street or the one next to it. After a moment, she decided to take the latter.

She made her way across the fan-shaped crossing-area, darting under the noses of placid oxen, following in the wake of a peddler leading a donkey loaded with what looked like rolls of cloth. As she had hoped, he took that second street, and she continued to follow him, being jostled at every turn before she got the knack of avoiding people. It was a little like a dance; you had to watch what they were going to do, but there was a kind of rhythm to it, although she lost her guide before she figured it all out. After a few moments, she settled into the pace, a kind of bobbing walk in which she took steps far shorter than she was used to, and began looking around her with interest.

All the buildings here were of wood with slate roofs, two or three stories tall; the upper stories overhung the street, and some were near enough to each other that folk sat in their open windows and gossiped above the heads of the the crowd like neighbors over a fence. For the most part there was scarcely enough room for a dog to squeeze between the buildings, and the street itself was several degrees darker for being overshadowed. A gutter ran down the center of the street, and she assumed at first that it was for the dung of the beasts-but a moment later, she saw a little old man with a barrow and a shovel, adroitly skipping about his side of the street and scooping up every fragrant horse-apple in sight, often before anyone had a chance to tread on it.

He acted as if he was collecting something valuable; he certainly didn't miss much. And what he didn't get, the sparrows lining the rooftops swooped down on, scattered it, and picked it over, looking for undigested grain.

Behind the fellow with the barrow came another, with a dog cart drawn by a huge mongrel, holding a barrel with boards bulging and sprung so that it leaked water in every direction. Rune stared at it, aghast at what she thought was his loss through foolishness or senility-and then realized it was on purpose. The water washed whatever the dung-collector had missed into the gutter, where it ran away, somewhere.

It wasn't the arrangement itself that caught her by surprise, it was what it implied. Here were people who spent all day, every day, presumably making a living-keeping the streets clean. The very idea would have made someone from her own village stare and question the sanity of anyone who proposed such an outlandish notion. This was not just a new world she'd jumped into, it was one that entertained things she'd never even dreamed of as commonplaces.

She felt dizzy, rootless-and terribly alone. How could she have enough in common with these townsfolk to even begin to entertain them?

But the next moment she heard the familiar sounds of a jig she knew well-"Half a Penny"-played on some kind of fife or pipe. She craned her neck to try and spot the player, waiting impatiently for the flow of the traffic to take her close enough to see him. Finally she spotted him, wedged in a little nook under the overhanging second story of one of the houses, with his hat on the stones in front of him, and a bit of paper pinned to his hat. He was surrounded by a mix of people, none very well-born, but of all ages and trades, clapping in time to his piping.

She focused on that brightly colored bit of paper. That must be the permit the guard told me I had to get-

She tried to get over to him, to ask him where he'd gotten it, but the crowd carried her past and she wasn't sure enough of her way to try and fight her way back. Still, his hat had held a fair amount of coin-which meant that someone thought country jigs were good enough entertainment. . . .

The houses began to hold shops on the lower level, with young 'prentices outside, crying the contents. The street widened a bit as well, and she began to spot roving peddlers of the sort that walked the Faires, trays of goods carried about their necks. The peddlers seemed mostly to be crying foodstuffs: meat pies, roast turnips, nuts; bread-and-cheese, muffins, and sweets. One of them passed near enough to her that she got a good whiff of his meat-pies, and the aroma made her stomach growl and her mouth water. It had been a long time since noon and her hoarded turnip.

But it wasn't only caution that kept her from reaching for her purse of coppers; it was common sense. No use in letting any thief know where her money was; she'd felt ghostly fingers plucking at her outer sash-belt a number of times, and at her pack, but the clever knots she'd tied the pack with foiled them, and the pouch, lean as it was, she had tucked inside her belt. If she let pickpockets see where that pouch was, she had a shrewd idea it wouldn't stay there long. She mentally blessed Raven for warning her to make a cloth belt to wear inside her clothes for most of any money she had, once she was on the road.

"It won't keep you safe from true robbers," he'd said, "Not the kind that hit you over the head and strip you-but it'll save you from cut-purses."

There was more advice he'd given her, and now that she was a little more used to the city, some of it was coming back, though she hadn't paid a lot of attention to it originally. The lessons in music had seemed a lot more important.

"Never ask for directions except from somebody wearing a uniform or from an innkeeper. If you find yourself on a street that's growing deserted, turn around and retrace your steps quickly, especially if the street seems very dirty and dark, with the buildings closed up or in bad repair. If a friendly passerby comes up out of nowhere and offers to help you, ignore him; walk away from him or get by him before he can touch you. Never do anything that marks you as a stranger, especially as a stranger from the country. That'll show you as an easy mark for robbers or worse."

All right then, exactly how was she going to find an inn, and a place where she might be able to set herself up as the resident musician?

This was a street of shops-but sooner or later there had to be an inn, didn't there?

Maybe. Then again, maybe not. There were other streets branching off this one; maybe the inns were on these side streets. She'd never know-

She spotted a dusty hat just ahead of her; a hat that had once been bright red, but had faded to a soft rose under sun and rain. Something about the set of the rooster feathers in it seemed familiar; when the crowd parted a little, she realized that it belonged to one of the journeymen who had been in the same inn she'd played at last night, and had tossed her a copper when she played the tune he'd requested.

She'd overheard him talking quite a bit to a fellow in the Apothecary's Guild. She remembered now that he had said he wasn't from Nolton himself, but he was familiar with the city, and had recommended a number of inns and had given directions to the other man. She hadn't paid attention then-the more fool her-she'd thought she would have no trouble, as an inn-brat herself, in finding plenty of places.

But he bobbed along in the crowd with a purposeful stride; he obviously knew exactly where he was going. An inn? It was very likely, given the time of day. And any inn he frequented would likely be the sort where her playing would be welcome.

She darted between two goodwives with shopping baskets over their arms, and scraped along a shop front past a clutch of slower-paced old men who frowned at her as she scooted by. The feathers bounced in the breeze just ahead of her, tantalizingly near, yet far enough away that she could all too easily lose their owner in the press. She found herself stuck behind a brown-clad, overweight nursemaid with a gaggle of chattering children on their way home from the Church school. The two eldest, both girls, one in scarlet and one in blue, and both wearing clothing that cost more than every item she'd ever owned in her life bundled together, looked down their noses at her in a vaguely threatening fashion when she made as if to get past them. She decided not to try to push her way by. They might think she was a thief, and get a guard or something. In fact, they might do it just to be spiteful; the pinched look about their eyes put her in mind of some of the more disagreeable village girls. She loitered behind them, and fumed.

But they were moving awfully slow, as the nursemaid called back the littler ones from darting explorations of store fronts, time and time again. The rooster feathers were bobbing away, getting ahead of her, their owner making a faster pace than she dared.

Then, suddenly, as she strained her neck and her eyes, trying to keep them in sight, Red-Hat turned into a side street, the rooster feathers swishing jauntily as he ducked his head to cut across the flow of traffic. Then hat and feathers and all disappeared behind a building.

Oh, no- Heedless now of what the unfriendly girls might say or do, Rune dashed between them at the first break, ignoring their gasps of outrage as she wormed her way through the crowd to the place where Red-Hat had vanished. She used her elbows and thin body to advantage, ignoring the protests of those whose feet she stepped on or who got an elbow in the ribs, taking care only to protect Lady Rose and her pack.

She broke out of the crowd directly under the nose of a coach horse.

It snorted in surprise, and came to a hoof-clattering halt. She flung herself against the wall, plastering herself against the brick to let the coach pass. The driver cursed her and the other foot-travelers roundly, but the well-trained, placid horse simply snorted again at her, as if to register his surprise when she had appeared under his nose, and ignored her once she was out of his way. The wheels of the coach rumbled by her feet, missing them by scant inches, the driver now too busy cursing at the other folk in his way to pay any more attention to her.

She sighed, and wiped her sweating brow when he had passed. That was a lot closer than she cared to come to getting run over, and if the horse hadn't been a particularly stolid beast, she could have gotten trampled or started a runaway. But now that the coach was gone, she saw that this street carried a lot less traffic than the main street; it should be easy to find Red-Hat.

She peered down the cobblestone street, but the conspicuous hat was nowhere to be seen. For a moment her heart sank, but then she raised her eyes a little, and couldn't help but grin. There, not twenty feet from her, swung a big, hand-painted sign proclaiming the "Crowned Corn Public House, Drink and Vittles," superimposed over a garish yellow painting of a barley-sheaf with a crown holding the straws in place. Beside it swung a huge wooden mug with carved and white-painted foam spilling over the sides, for the benefit of the illiterate. Whether or not Red Hat was in there, the presence of the beer mug meant that it was a "common" place, and its clientele shouldn't be too different from the travelers she'd been entertaining. If she couldn't strike up a bargain here, she could probably get directions to a place that could use a musician. If the owner proved unfriendly, at least now she knew that the inns were on the side streets.

I can retrace my steps if I have to, and find another. She trotted the remaining few steps to the door, and pushed it open.

She blinked, trying to get her eyes to adjust quickly to the dark, smoky interior. The aroma that hit her, of smoke, baking bread and bacon, of stew and beer, was so like the way the Hungry Bear smelled that she could have been there instead of here. But the crowds! This place was packed full, with more people than the Bear ever saw except at the height of Harvest Faire. There were five or six girls in bright, cheap skirts and tight-laced bodices, and young men in leather aprons, breeches, and no-color shirts scurrying about the room, tending to the customers. She despaired of being able to catch anyone's eye to ask directions to the owner, but one of the girls must have caught the flicker of movement at the door, for she bustled over as soon as she'd finished gathering the last of the mugs from an empty table.

She appraised Rune with a knowing eye, a little disappointed that it wasn't a paying customer, but willing to see what Rune wanted. "Ye be a musicker, boy?" she asked, and Rune nodded. "Come wi' me, then," she said, and turned on her heel to lead the way through the crowd, her striped skirts swishing jauntily with every step. There evidently wasn't any prohibition here about fondling the help, and the many pats and pinches the girl got made Rune very glad for her boy's garb.

She pushed past two swinging half-doors into what could only be the kitchen; it was hot as the inside of a bake-oven and overcrowded with people. On the wall nearest the door stood a pair of dish-tubs on a tall bench or narrow table, with a draggle-haired girl standing beside it and working her way through a mountain of mugs and bowls. Rune's guide heaved her own double-handful of wooden mugs up onto the table with a clatter, then turned to the rest of the room. It was dominated by the bake-ovens at the far end, all of them going full blast; three huge windows and the door open to the yard did little to ease the burden of heat the roaring fires beneath the ovens emitted. There was a big table in front of the ovens, with a man and a woman rolling out crust for a series of pies at one end, and cooling loaves stacked at the other. Another table, next to that, held a man cutting up raw chickens; beside him was another woman slicing some kind of large joint of cooked meat. A third table held six small children cleaning and chopping vegetables. There were other folks darting in and out with food or the dirty dishes, and a knot of people at the oven end.

"Mathe!" the serving girl shouted over the din. "Mathe! Sommut t' see ye!"

A short, round, red-faced man in a flour-covered apron detached himself from the clump of workers beside the ovens, and peered across the expanse of the kitchen toward them. His bald head, shiny with sweat, looked like a ripening tomato.

"What is it?" he yelled back, wiping his brow with a towel he tucked back into his waistband.

"Musicker!" the girl called, a bit impatiently. "Wants a job!"

Mathe edged around the end of the table by the oven, then squeezed in between the wall with the windows and the children cleaning vegetables to make his way towards them. Rune waited for him, trying not to show any anxiety. The serving girl watched them both with avid curiosity as Mathe stopped a few feet away.

The owner planted both fists on his hips and stood slightly straddle-legged, looking her up and down with bright black eyes. As keen as his eyes seemed to be, however, she got the feeling he didn't realize she wasn't a boy. Plenty of young men wore their hair longer than hers, and her thin face and stick-straight body wasn't going to set any hearts aflame even when she was in skirts. Certainly the serving girl had made the same mistake that the gate-guard had made, and she wasn't going to correct any of them.

"Musicker, eh?" Mathe said at last. "Guild?"

She shook her head, wondering if she had doomed herself from the start. What had the gate-guard said about jobs she could take? There had been something about inns-

"Good," Mathe said in satisfaction. "We can't afford Guild fees. From country, are ye? Singer or player?"

"From down near Beeford. I'm a player, sir," she replied. "Fiddle, sir."

"Got permit? When ye come in?" he asked, "Where's yer chit?" These city-folk spoke so fast she had to listen carefully to make out what they were saying.

Wordlessly she showed him her scrap of wood. He took a quick glance at it.

"Today, hmm?" He examined her a moment more. "You know 'Heart to the Ladies'?" he asked, and at her nod, said, "Unlimber that bit'a wood and play it."

She dropped her pack on the flagstone floor and took Lady Rose out of her traveling bag, tuning her hastily, with a wince for her in this overheated room. She set the bow to the strings, and played-not her best, but not her worst-though it was hard to make the music heard in the noisy kitchen. Still, the serving girl's foot was tapping when Mathe stopped her at the second chorus.

"Ye'll do," he said. "If we c'n agree, ye got a one-day job. Here's how it is. We got a reg'lar musicker, but he took a job at a weddin'. We was gonna do wi'out t'night, but music makes the beer flow better, an since here ye be, I don't go lookin' a gift musicker i' the mouth."

He chuckled, and so did Rune, though she didn't get the joke, whatever it was.

"Now, here's the bargain," Mathe continued, wiping the back of his neck with his towel. It was a good thing he was mostly bald, or his hair would have been in the same greasy tangles as the dishwasher girl's. "I feeds ye now; ye plays till closin'. Ye gets a place by th' fire t' sleep-this ain't no inn, an' I'm not s'pposed t' be puttin' people up, but you bein' on yer three-day chit th' law'll look 'tother way. Ye put out yer hat, I get two coins outa every three."

That wasn't as good a bargain as she'd been getting on the road, but it sounded like he was waiting for her to make a counteroffer. She shook her head. "Half, and I get bread and stew in the morning."

"Half, an' ye get bread'n dripping," he countered. "Take it or leave it, it's m'last offer."

Bread and butter, or bread and honey, would have been better-but butter and honey could be a lot more expensive in the city, where there were neither cows nor bees. "Done," she said, putting out her hand. They shook on it, solemnly.

"All right, then," he said, rubbing his hands together in satisfaction. "Beth there'll show ye where t'set up, and gi' ye the lay'a the land, an' she'll see to yer feedin'. Don' touch th' girls 'less they invite it, or m'barkeep'll have yer hand broke. Oh, one other thing. I don' let me musickers get dry, but I don' let 'em get drunk, neither. Small beer or cider?"

"Cider," Rune said quickly. The last thing she needed was to get muddle-headed in a strange eating-house in a strange city, and although small beer didn't have a lot of punch to it, drinking too much could still put you under the table, and if it was this hot all night, she'd be resorting to her mug fairly often.

Mathe had given her an interesting piece of information. So inns didn't necessarily take sleepers here? That was worth noting. She reckoned that would suit Stara just fine-it would mean less than half the work . . . but this place wasn't called an "inn," it was something called a "public house." They must be two different things-

"Good lad," Mathe replied with satisfaction. "Don't talk much, sensible, and ye drive a good bargain. Ye'll do. Now get 'long wi' ye, I got my work t' tend."

Beth laughed and wrinkled her nose at him, and Rune picked up her pack and followed the serving girl out. Her hips waggled saucily, and Rune wondered just what constituted an "invitation." Certainly the girl was trying to see if this new musician could be tempted.

Too bad for her I'm not a boy. I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint her if she wants a sweaty-palm reaction.

There was just enough of a clear path behind the benches and tables to walk without bumping into the customers. They edged around the wall until they came to a corner with a stool and a shelf very near the bar, and the massive bartender presiding over the barrels of beer and ale; his expression impassive, statue-like.

"Here," Beth said, gesturing at the stool, flipping her dark hair over her shoulder. If she was disappointed that Rune hadn't answered her flirtations, she didn't show it. Maybe she was completely unaware she'd been flirtatious. Manners could be a lot different here than what Rune was used to. "This be where ye set up an' play. We likes country-tunes here, an' keep it lively. If they gets t' clappin', they gets t' drinkin'."

Rune nodded, and tucked her pack behind the stool. Lady Rose was still in her hand, and she set the fiddle down on top of the pack gently, so that the instrument was cradled by the worn fabric of the pack and the clothing it contained.

"Look sharp here, boy," Beth said, and Rune looked up. "Ye see how close ye are t' the bar?" She pointed with her chin at the massive barrier of wood that stood between the customers and the barrels of beer and wine.

Rune nodded again, and Beth grinned. "There's a reason why we put th' musicker here. Most of ye ain't big 'nuff t' take care'a yerselves if it comes t' fightin'. Now, mostly things is quiet, but sometimes a ruckus comes up. If there's a ruckus, ye get yer tail down behin' that bar, hear? Ain't yer job t' stop a ruckus. Tha's Boony's job, an' he be right good at it."

Beth tossed her curly tangle of hair over her shoulder again, and pointed at a shadowy figure across the room, in a little alcove near the door. She hadn't noticed it when she first came in, because her back had been to it, and the occupant hadn't moved to attract her attention. Rune squinted, then started. Surely she hadn't seen what she thought she'd seen-

Beth laughed, showing that she still had most of her teeth, and that they were in good shape. "Ain't never seen no Mintak, eh, fiddler? Well, Boony's a Mintak, an' right good at keepin' the peace. So mind what I said an' let him do what he's good at, 'f it come to it."

Rune blinked, and nodded. She wanted to stare at the creature across the room, but she had the vague feeling that too many people already stared at Boony, openly or covertly, and she wasn't going to add to their rudeness.

A Mintak . . . she'd heard about the isolated pockets of strange creatures that were scattered across the face of Alanda, but no one in her village had ever seen so much as an elven forester, much less a Mintak. They were supposed to have bodies like huge humans, but the heads of horses. The brief glimpse she'd gotten didn't make her think of a horse so much as a dog, except that the teeth hadn't been the sharp, pointed rending teeth of a canine, but the flat teeth of an herbivore. And the eyes had been set on the front of the head, not the sides. But the Mintak loomed a good head-and-a-half above the bartender, and that worthy was one of the tallest men Rune had ever seen.

Beth came bustling back with a bowl of stew, a mug, and a thick slice of bread covered in bacon drippings in one hand, and a pitcher with water beading the sides in the other. "Take this, there's a good lad." She'd evidently decided that Rune was terribly young, too young and girl-shy to be attracted, and had taken a big-sisterly approach to dealing with her. "You get dry an' look to run short, you nod at me or one'a th' other girls. Ol' Mathe, he don't like his musickers goin' dry; you heard him sayin' that, an' he meant it."

She put the pitcher on the floor beside the stool, shoved the rest into Rune's hands, and scampered off, with a squeal as one of the customers' pinches got a little closer to certain portions of her anatomy than she liked. She slapped the hand back and huffed away; the customer started to rise to follow-

And Boony stepped forward into the light. Now Rune saw him clearly; he wore a pair of breeches and a vest, and nothing else. He carried a cudgel, and he was a uniform dark brown all over, like a horse, and he had the shaggy hair of a horse on his face and what could be seen of his body. His eyes seemed small for his head; he had pointed ears on the top of his head, peeking up through longer, darker hair than was on his face, and that hair continued down the back of his neck like a mane. He looked straight at the offending customer, who immediately sat down again.

So Boony kept the peace. It looks like he does a good job, Rune mused.

But there was dinner waiting, and beyond that, a room full of people to entertain. She wolfed down her food, taking care not to get any grease on her fingers that might cause problems with the strings of her fiddle. The sooner she started, the sooner she could collect a few coins.

And hopefully, tonight Boony's services wouldn't be needed. Nothing cooled a crowd like a fight, and nothing dried up money faster.

She put out her hat, wedging it between her feet with one foot on the brim to keep it from being "accidentally" kicked out into the room, and re-tuned Lady Rose.

Cider or no, with all these people and only herself to entertain them, it was going to be a long night.

* * *

"Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen," Rune counted out the coins on the table under Mathe's careful eye. "That's the whole of it, sir. Nineteen coppers." The candle between them shone softly on the worn copper coins, and Mathe took a sip of his beer before replying.

"Not bad," Mathe said, taking nine and leaving her ten, scooping his coins off the table and into a little leather pouch. "In case ye were wonderin' lad. That's not at all bad for a night that ain't a feast nor Faire-day. Harse don' do much better nor that."

He set a bowl down in front of her, and a plate and filled mug. "Ye did well 'nough for another meal, boy. So, eat whiles I have my beer, an' we'll talk."

This time the stew had meat in it, and the bread had a thin slice of cheese on top. Getting an extra meal like that meant that she'd done more than "all right." She could use it, too; she was starving.

The public house was very quiet; Beth and the other girls had gone off somewhere. Whether they had lodgings upstairs or elsewhere, Rune had no idea, for they'd left while Rune was packing up, going out the back way through the kitchen. Presumably, they'd gotten their meals from the leftovers on their way through. Boony slept upstairs; she knew that for certain. So did Mathe and one of the cooks and all of the children, who turned out to be his wife and offspring.

Right now, she was was thinking about how this would have meant a month's take in Faire-season at home. She shook her head. "It seems like a lot-" she said, tentatively, "-but people keep telling me how much more expensive it is to live in the city."

Mathe sipped his own beer. "It is, and this'd keep ye for 'bout a day; but it's 'cause'a the rules, the taxes, an' the Priests," he said. "Ye gotta tithe, ye gotta pay yer tax, an' ye gotta live where they say. Here-lemme show ye-"

He stretched out his finger and extracted two coppers, and moving them to the side. "That's yer tithe-ye gotta pay tithe an' tax on what ye made, b'fore I took my share." He moved two more. "That's yer tax. Now, ye got six pence left. Rules say ye gotta live in res'dential distrik, 'less yer a relative or a special kinda hireling, like the cooks an' the kids and Boony is. Musickers don' count. So-there's fourpence a day fer a place w' decent folks in it, where ye c'n leave things an' know they ain't gonna make legs an' walk while ye're gone. That leaves ye tuppence fer food."

Rune blinked, caught off guard by the way four pennies evaporated-close to half her income for the day. "Tax?" she said stupidly. "Tithe?" Fourpence, gone-and for what?

Mathe shook his head. "Church is the law round 'bout towns," he told her, a hint of scolding in his voice. "Ye tithe, lad, an' ye base it on what ye took in. Same fer taxes. If ye don' pay, sooner 'r later they cotch up wi' ye, or sommut turns ye in, an' then they fine ye. They fine ye ten times what they figger ye owe."

"But how would they know what I owe them?" she asked, still confused. " 'Specially if I work the street-"

"They know 'bout what a musicker like you should make in a night, barrin' windfalls," he replied. "Twenny pence. That's two fer Church an' two fer tax. An' if ye get them windfalls, the lad as drops bit'a gold in yer hat an' the like, ye best r'port 'em too. Could be sommut saw it go in yer hat, an's gone t' snitch on ye. Could be 'tis a Priest in disguise, belike, testin' ye."

This all seemed terribly sinister. "But what happens if I couldn't pay?" she asked. "I mean, what if I'd been holding back for a year-" Ten times tuppence times-how many days in a year? The figures made her head swim. It was more than she'd ever seen in her life, except for the windfall of the silver. And she panicked over that for a moment, until she realized that no one knew about it but her-nor ever would, if she kept her mouth shut.

"Happened to a girl'a mine," Mathe said warningly. "She owed 'em fer 'bout three year back; spent it all, a' course, stupid cow. Couldn't pay. She got indentured t' pay the bill."

Indentured? There was that word again. "What's 'indentured,' Mathe?" she asked.

"Worse than slavery," boomed a voice over her head, so that she jumped. "Worse than being chattel."

"Ol' Boony, he's got hard feelin's 'bout bein' indentured," Mathe offered, as Boony moved around to the other side of the table and sat down on the bench, making it creak under his weight.

"There are laws to keep a slave from being beaten," Boony rumbled. "There are laws saying he must be fed so much a day, he must have decent clothing and shelter. The Church sees to these laws, and fines the men who break them. There are no such laws for the indentured."

The Mintak nodded his massive head with each word. Now that he was so close, he looked less animal-like and more-well, human wasn't the word, but there was ready intelligence in his face; he had expressions Rune was able to read. His face was flatter than a horse's, and his mouth and lips were mobile enough to form human speech without difficulty. His hands only had three broad fingers, though, and the fingers had one less joint than a human's, though the joints seemed much more flexible.

"Boony didn' know 'bout tithin' an taxes when he come here," Mathe said, as Boony took a turnip from the bowl at the end of the table and began stolidly chewing it. "He got indentured t' pay 'em. An' he's right, the way indenturin' works is that ye work fer yer wage. But yer wage goes first t' yer master, t' pay off yer debt, an' there ain't no law saying how much he c'n take, so long as he leaves ye a penny a day."

And a penny, as she had just learned, wouldn't go far in this city.

"I was bought by a greedy man who used my strength in his warehouse, took all, and left me with nothing," Boony said. "He thought I was stupid." A dark light in his eyes told her he'd somehow managed to turn the tables on his greedy owner, and was waiting for her to ask how he'd done it.

"What did you do?" she asked, obediently.

Boony chewed up the last of the turnip, top and all, confirming her notion that he was herbivorous. He laughed, a slow, deep laugh that sounded like stones rolling down a hill. "I was so very stupid that I did not know my own strength," the Mintak said, smiling. "I began to break things. And when he ordered me beaten, I would catch the hand of the overseer, and ask him, ever so mildly, why he did this to me. Soon I was costing the scum much, and there was no one in his employ willing to face me, much less beat me."

"That's when I bought 'im out," Mathe said. "I've had a Mintak cust'mer or twain here, an' I knew th' breed, d'ye see. He earned back 'is fine a long time agone, but he reckoned on stayin' wi' me, so we've got 'im listed as adopted so's he c'n live here." He and the Mintak exchanged backslaps, the Mintak delivering one that looked like a fly-swat and staggered his employer. "He'll run th' place fer the wife when I'm gone, won't you, old horse?"

"May God grant that never come to be," the Mintak said piously. "But admit it-you are the exception with indentures."

Mathe shrugged. "Sad, but Boony's got the right 'f it. And 'member, boy-if ye get indentured, the law says ye work at whatever yer bondholder says ye do. That means 'f he runs a boy-brothel. . . ."

"Which is where a-many young men and women go," Boony rumbled. "Into shame. The law says nothing about that. Nor the Church."

Mathe made a shushing motion. "Best not t' get inta that. Best t' jest finish warnin' the young'un here." He took another pull on his beer, and Boony chomped up a couple of carrots and a head of lettuce, jaws moving stolidly. She took the opportunity to finish her food.

"All right," Mathe said after a moment of silence. "Tonight, ye sleep on that straw mat by th' fire-which's what payin' customers'd get if I took any-an' in the mornin' I feeds ye, an' yer on yer way. Now, ye know where ye go first?"

"To get a permit?" she ventured. He shook his head.

"Not 'less ye got a silver penny on ye; that's th' cost 'f a street-buskin' permit. No, ye go straight t' Church-box on t'end 'a this street, an ye pay yer tithe an' tax from today. Church clerk'll put down yer name, an' that goes in at end 'f day t' Church Priest-house w' th' rest on the records. Then ye busk on street, outside Church-box. By end'a day, ye'll have th' silver penny, ye' get the permit. Go get that fr'm same place; Church-box. Then ye busk where the pleasure-houses be, thas on Flower Street, 'till ye can't stay awake no more. That'd be dawn, an' ye'll have 'nough for tithe an' tax from t'day."

"This is the one time you may safely skim a little, to pay for the permit, in all the time you may be here," the Mintak rumbled. "They will not expect you to play enough to earn double wages."

She nodded. "But-" she began, then hesitated.

"So?" Mathe said, as his wife shooed her children up the stairs behind them to their living quarters.

"Don' be t' long, eh sweeting?" she called. "Boy's a good'un, but ye both needs sleep."

Mathe waved at her, his eyes fixed on Rune. She dropped her eyes to her hands. "What I-really came here for, to Nolton, I mean, was lessons. I-want to join the Guild."

"I told you," Boony said, booming with satisfaction. "Did I not tell you he knew more than to be simple busker?"

"Ye did, ye did, I heerd ye," Mathe replied. "Ye won yer bet, old horse. Now, boy, lemmee think." He rubbed his bare chin and pursed his lips. "There's places t' get secondhand instruments, an' places t' get lessons. Sometimes, they be th' same place. Tell ye what, I gi' ye a map i' th' mornin'. Tell ye what else, sommut 'em gonna know where there's places lookin' fer musickers. If ye got a place, ye don' need no permit-or ye c'an git one, an' play double, by day fer pennies i' th' street, an' by night fer yer keep."

Rune could hardly restrain herself. This was far more than she'd expected in the way of help. "I don't know how to thank you, sir," she said, awkwardly. "I mean-"

"Hush," Mathe said. "Thank yon Beth an' Boony. 'Twas she brought ye back; 'twas he tol' me I'd best sit ye down an' 'splain how things is 'round here, afore ye got yersel' in a mess."

"I've already thanked Beth, sir," she said, truthfully, for she'd asked the girl what her favorite tunes were, and had played them all. "It was kindness to take me back to you and not show me the street."

"Well, she said ye had th' look'a sommut that knew his way about an inn," Mathe replied, blushing a little. "I figgered if ye did, ye knew what t' play t' please m' custom. An' ye did; sold a good bit'a beer t'night. Ye done good by me."

"I'm glad," she replied sincerely. "And thank you, sir," she said, turning to Boony. "Although I'm sure I know your reasons-that you didn't want to see a weaker creature put in the same position you'd been in. I've heard many good things about the Mintak; I will be glad to say in the future that they are all true."

Boony laughed out loud. "And I will say that it is true that Bards have silver tongues and the gift of making magic with word and song," he replied. "For I am sure you will be a Bard one day. It pleases me to have saved a future Bard from an unpleasant fate. And now-" he looked significantly at Mathe.

The man laughed. "All right, old horse. It's off t' bed for all of us, or m'wife 'll have Boony carry me up. G'night, young Rune."

He and Boony clumped up the stairs, taking the candle, but leaving the fire lit so she could see to spread her blankets out on the sack of clean straw they'd given her to sleep on.

She had thought that she'd be too excited to sleep, but she was wrong. She was asleep as soon as she'd found a comfortable position on the straw sack, and she slept deeply and dreamlessly.

CHAPTER SIX

Breakfast, dished up by Mathe's wife after the morning cleaning crew rousted her out of her bed, was not bread and drippings nor leftover stew; it was oat-porridge with honey and a big mug of fresh milk. When Rune looked at her with a lifted eyebrow, she shrugged, and cast a half-scornful look at Mathe's back.

" 'Tis what my younglings get," she said, "Ye need a healthy morning meal, ye do. And I told Mathe, I did, that you're not much bigger nor they. Bread and drippings, indeed, for a growing boy! Ye'd think the man had no childer of his own!" And she sniffed with disdain.

Rune knew when to leave well enough alone, and she finished the porridge with appreciation. She gathered up her things, slung her pack and Lady Rose over her back, and headed for the outer door. She found the owner there, as if he was waiting for her, and somehow she wasn't surprised when Mathe slipped a packet into her hand as she bade him farewell. The cooks from last night were already hard at work in the kitchen; the serving-boys were scrubbing down tables, benches and floor, while the girls swept the fireplaces and cleaned beer mugs. Mathe took her outside, and stood on the door-sill, closing the door behind them.

The street before them had a few carts on it, but not many. By the angle of the sunlight it was about an hour past dawn. In the country, folks would already be out in their fields, working; here in the city, it seemed that most people weren't even awake yet. Since Rune had always preferred lying late abed, she had the feeling she was going to like being a city person.

"Ye go straight down this street, east," Mathe said, waving his hand down the quiet, sunlit lane. Dust-motes danced in the shaft of light that ran between the overhanging buildings. "At second crossing, there be a little black stall. That be Church-box; there be priest inside, ye gi' him yer tithe an' tax, an make sure ye gi' him separate. Elsewise, he'll write all fourpence down as tithe, an' leave ye owin' fourpence tax."

And I wonder how many people that's happened to? I bet the Church wouldn't give it back, either, even if you could get them to admit that a mistake was made.

She nodded, slipping the packet into the pocket in her vest. It felt like bread; maybe even bread and cheese. That would be welcome, in a few hours. It meant something more she wouldn't have to buy.

And courtesy of Mathe's wife, too, she had no doubt. That was a good woman, and very like Rose.

Mathe continued with his directions and instructions. "Now, then ye go 'cross street; there be couple stalls sells vittles. Play there. There's always a crowd there-ye got the people as come t' pay tax an' tithe, ye got people as wants a bit t'eat. It's a bit too noisy fer a singer, but ye'll do fine. Nobody got that as set yet, that I heerd of. Here's bit'a map." He handed her a folded paper, and watched as she unfolded it; the maze of lines was incomprehensible at first, until she resolved it into streets, and even found the one the public house stood on, the gate she'd come in by, and the street she had followed. "See, this here, this's where we be. These little red dots, thas some'a them teachers an' instr'ment makers. See if any on 'em'll do ye." He nodded as she folded it up and stowed it in her belt-pouch, where the ten pennies from her evening's labor chinked. "Now, if I was in yer shoes, I'd play till after nuncheon, thas midmeal, when people stop buyin' things at stall, an then I'd go look up some'a them teachers and the like. But thas me. Think ye'll do?"

"You've done more for me than I ever hoped, sir," she replied honestly. "I can't begin to thank you."

And I don't know why you've done it, either. I'm glad you did, but I wish I knew why. . . .

He flushed a little with embarrassment. "Ah, musickers done me a good turn or twain, figger this helps pay back. When I was jest startin' this place, musickers came round t' play jest fer the set-out, 'till I could afford t' feed 'em. Then I got my reg'lar man, an' he bain't failed me. So-I gi' ye a hand, ye gi' sommut else one 'f it's needed-"

Someone inside called him, urgently, and he turned. "Can't be away a breath an' they need me. God be wi' ye, youngling. Watch yerself."

And he dashed back inside, shouting, "All right! All right! I'm gettin' there fast as I can!"

Rune headed up the street, in the same direction Mathe had pointed. It was considerably quieter in the early hours of the morning. Shops were just opening, merchants taking down massive wooden shutters, and laying displays in the windows behind thinner wooden grates to foil theft.

The shops here seemed to tend to clothing; materials, or clothing ready-made. She passed a shop full of stockings, hats and gloves, a shoemaker, and several shops that appeared to be dressmakers and tailors. The Crowned Corn seemed to be the only inn or public house on this street, although there were vendors of foodstuffs already out with their trays about their necks. They weren't crying their wares, though; the streets weren't so full that customers couldn't see them. They ignored Rune for the most part, as being unlikely to have enough spare coin to buy their goods.

A cart passed, and Rune noticed another odd contrivance, just under the horse's clubbed tail. This was a kind of scoop rigged to the cart that caught any droppings. A good notion, given the number of animals here. That would mean only those carts without the scoop and horses being ridden would be leaving refuse. The city, while not exactly sweet-smelling, would be a lot worse without the care taken to keep it clean.

The merchants were doing their part, too; there were folks out scrubbing their doorsteps, and the street immediately in front of the shop, right up to the gutter-line. How the folk back in the village would stare!

Not even the late Rose was that fanatical about cleanliness.

On the other hand, there weren't that many people in the village. With all these people, all these animals, there would have to be extra precautions against the illnesses that came from dirt and contaminated water.

The little black stall that Mathe had called the "Church-box" was plainly visible as soon as she crossed the first street. It had an awning above it, supported by carved wooden angels instead of simple props. And without a doubt, the awning was decorated with painted saints distributing alms, to remind the pious and impious alike where their tithes were going.

In all probability, the stall was the last business to close at night, and the first to open in the morning. The Church never lost an opportunity to take gifts from her children.

There was a grill-covered window in the front of the stall, and beneath it, a slot. Behind the window sat a bored young novice-Priest in his plain, black robes, yawning and making no attempt to cover his indifference to his surroundings. He blinked at her without interest, and reached for a pen when he saw she was going to stop and give him something to do. Or rather, force him to do something.

"Name?" he mumbled. She gave it; likewise her occupation, and that she was beginning her second day in Nolton. He noted all of it down, and warned her, in a perfunctory manner, that she would have to purchase her permit to busk before the fourth day. From him, of course. And that it would be a silver penny. He did not issue any of the warnings Mathe had, about what it would mean if she neglected to do so.

"Here's my two-pence tithe for yesterday, sir," she said, pushing the pennies across the counter to him, through the slit. He took it, with a slightly wrinkled nose, as if in disdain for the tiny amount, but he took it, nevertheless. She noted that he seemed well-fed; very well-fed in fact, round-cheeked and healthier than most. His hands were soft, and white where the ink of his occupation hadn't stained them. He dropped the two coins into something beneath the counter, just out of sight, and made a notation after her name. "And here's my two-pence tax," she said, shoving those coins across when she knew he'd made his first notation and couldn't change it.

He frowned at her as he took the two coins. "You could have given it to me all at once," he grumbled, making a second notation. She blinked, and contrived to look stupid, and he muttered something under his breath, about fools and music, and waved her off.

She turned away from the window. Well, that was that; fourpence lighter, and nothing to show for it. Could have been worse, she supposed. If she hadn't been warned, sooner or later the Church would have caught up with her. . . . Boony's description of his treatment as a bondservant hadn't been inviting.

Although the idea of seeing a bondholder's face when he realized that the boy he'd thought he'd bought off was a girl was amusing, she didn't care to think about what would have followed that discovery. Probably something very unpleasant.

Across the street were the two food-stalls Mathe had described for her, with a bit of space in between for a tall counter where folk could eat standing up; one was red-painted, and one was blue. She crossed the street under the disdainful gaze of the novice-Priest and approached the first stall-holder.

"Would you mind if I put out my hat here, sir?" she asked politely of the thin fellow frying sausage rolls in deep skillets of lard. He glanced up at her, and shook his head.

"So long as ye don' drive th' custom away, 'tis nobbut t' me," he replied absently. Encouraged, she repeated her question at the second stall, which sold drink, and got the same answer.

So she found a place where she wasn't going to be in the way of people buying or eating, and set her hat at her feet, with her pack to hold it down. She took the fiddle from her carrying bag, gave Lady Rose a quick tuning, and began playing, choosing a simple jig, bright and lively.

Although she quickly attracted a small crowd, they were mostly children and people who didn't look to have much more money than she. Still, they enjoyed her music, and one or two even bought something at the stalls on either side of her, so she was accomplishing that much. And as long as her listeners bought something, she wasn't likely to be chased away.

By noon bell, she'd acquired a grand total of three pennies, a marble dropped in by a solemn-faced child, a little bag of barley-sugar candy added by a young girl, a bit of yellow ribbon, and at least a dozen pins. She'd never collected pins before, but any contribution was better than nothing. Once she'd straightened and cleaned them, pins were worth a penny the dozen, so that wasn't so bad, really.

The bad part was that she'd fiddled most of the morning and not even gained half what she'd gotten in the public house last night. She was a long way from the silver penny that permit would cost her. She took a moment for a breather, to look over the traffic on the street.

Early days yet, she told herself, as the crowds thickened, the street filling with folk looking for a bit to eat. The first noon bell seemed to signal a common hour for nuncheon, which the people back home called midmeal. She took her eyes off her hat and fixed them on the faces about her, smiling as if she hadn't a care in the world. When you're fiddling, think about music, Raven had admonished her. Don't think about your dinner, or where you're going to sleep tonight. Tell yourself you're happy, and put that happiness into the way you're playing. Make people feel that happiness. . . .

The faces of those about her changed as they got within earshot of the fiddle. They generally looked surprised first, then intrigued. Their eyes searched the edge of the crowd for the source of the music, then, when they found it, a smile would creep onto their lips. And, most times, they'd stop for a moment to listen. She found herself looking for those smiles, trying to coax them onto otherwise sour faces; playing light, cheerful tunes, tunes meant to set feet tapping.

Her efforts began to pay off, now that she was looking to those smiles for her reward and not the money in the hat. A couple of children broke into an impromptu jig at her feet once; and a young couple with the look of the infatuated did an entire dance-set beside her until the glare and a word from a passing Priest sent them laughing away.

She played a mocking run on her fiddle to follow the fat, bitter man, and thought then how odd it was that the Church seemed to frown upon everything that was less than serious-

But frivolity puts no coins in their coffers, she reminded herself-and realized that the crowds had thinned again; the second noon-bell had rung, and the stall-keepers on either side of her were cleaning their counters instead of cooking or serving customers. She finished the piece, then looked down at her hat, and saw that the three pennies had multiplied to nine, there was a second bag of sweets beside the first, and a veritable rain of pins covered the bottom of the hat.

"Eh, lad," said the second stall-keeper, leaning out to examine the contents of her hat with interest. " 'F ye got no plans fer them pins, I trade 'em fer ye. Fifteen pins fer a mug'a cider, an' don' matter what shape they be in, I'll swap. Wife c'n allus use pins."

"Same here," said the sausage-roll vendor. "Fifteen pins fer a roll."

Well, that would take care of her nuncheon with nothing out of her pocket, and she'd be saved the trouble of straightening the pins herself. And dealing with them; she hadn't a paper to stick them in, and she didn't relish the idea of lining them up in rows on her hat. She'd probably forget they were there and put her hand on them. "Done, to both of you," she replied, "and grateful, too."

"Good enough," said the sausage vendor. And when a count proved her to have forty-three, offered her two rolls for what was left when she got her cider. She stowed the rest of her take in her pouch and pack, put away Lady Rose, drank her cider, and considered what to do with the rest of her day, devouring her rolls while she thought.

It really wasn't worth playing her fingers off for only three pennies, not when she needed to find a place to live, a teacher, and a second instrument, in that order. So, with a wave of farewell to the two vendors, she packed herself up, and took out her map.

After a few times of getting turned around, she learned the trick of following it. It was too bad that none of the places Mathe had marked were terribly nearby, but there were three that were kind of in a row, and she headed in their direction.

The first shop was in the middle of a neighborhood where her shabby clothing drew dubious looks; nearly everyone she saw on the street wore clothing like the wealthier farmers' sons and daughters wore to Church services back home. One look in the shop window convinced her that this was no place for her. The instruments hung on the wall were polished and ornamented with carving and inlay work; they might well be second-hand, but they were still beyond her reach, and so, likely, was the teaching to be had.

The second place was much like the first, and she caught sight of some of the students waiting their turns. They were very well dressed, hardly a patch or a darn or let-down hem to be seen, and most of them were much younger than she. From the bored expressions they wore, she had the notion that the only reason they were taking music lessons at all was because it was genteel to do so.

She left the brightly painted shops behind, passed through a street of nothing but wrought-iron gates set into brick walls a story tall, gates giving onto small, luxurious gardens. The gardens were beautiful, but she didn't linger to admire them. Some of those gates had men in livery behind them, and those men wore weapons, openly. No point in giving them a reason to think she was here by anything other than accident.

That street became a street of shops; food shops this time, Vegetables, fruit, wooden replicas of meat and fish and poultry, all displayed enticingly inside open windows, with the real meat and dairy products lying on counters inside, or hanging from the rafters and hooks on the walls. Here, the clothing of the folk in the street had a kind of uniform feel to it; all sober colors, with white aprons and caps or dark hats. Servants, she decided. Sent from those houses behind her to buy the goods for dinner. How strange to have a servant to send out-what a thought! To wait, doing whatever it was that rich folk did, until dinner appeared like magic, without ever having to raise a finger to make it all happen! And then to go up to a room, and find a bath hot and waiting, and a bed warmed and ready-a book, perhaps, beside it. And in the morning, to find clean clothing set out, breakfast prepared. . . .

She daydreamed about this as she wormed her way down street after street, each one getting progressively narrower, and gradually shabbier. Finally she found herself on a street much too narrow for a cart, unless it was one of the dog carts; a street that even a ridden horse would probably find uncomfortably confining.

There was only one shop in the street that had three instruments hanging in the window, although it had other things there as well; cheap copper jewelry, religious statues, cards of lace and tarnished trim that showed bits of thread on the edge where it had been picked off a garment, knives and a sword, a tarnished silver christening-goblet. . . .

A small sign in the window said "We Buy and Sell" and "Loans Made." Another sign beneath it showed two pairs of hands; one offering a knife, the other a silver coin. A third, smaller sign said "Music Lessons."

She looked back up at the instruments, a lute, a harp, and a guitar; they were old, plain, but well-cared-for. There wasn't a speck of dust on them anywhere. The strings looked a little loose, which meant they weren't kept tuned-something that would warp an instrument's neck if it wasn't taken down and played often. Whoever had hung them there knew what he was doing.

The street itself was quiet; one of those "residential" areas Mathe had spoken of. There was another food-shop on the corner, but otherwise, this seemed to be the only store in this block of buildings. The rest were all wooden, two-storied, with slate roofs; they had single doors and a window on either side of the door, with more windows in the overhanging second story. A rat might have been able to scurry in the spaces between them, but nothing larger.

The buildings themselves were old, in need of a new coat of paint, and leaned a little. They reminded Rune of a group of old granddams and grandsires, shabby, worn, but always thinking of the days when they had been young.

Instruments and lessons-and a place where she might find somewhere to live. This was the most promising area, at least insofar as her purse was concerned, that she had encountered yet. She opened the door and went inside.

The interior of the shop was darker than the public house had been, and smelled of mildew and dust. When she closed the door behind her, a bell jangled over it, and a voice from the back of the store said, "Be patient a moment, please! I'm up on a ladder!" The voice matched the store; a little tired, old, but with a hint that it had been richer long ago.

Rune waited, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness of the shop. The place was crowded with all sorts of oddments, even more so than the tiny window. Behind and in front of her were floor-to-ceiling shelves; on them were books, stuffed animals, neatly folded clothing, statues of all sorts, not just religious, one or two of which made her avert her eyes in flushed embarrassment. There were dusty crystals, strange implements of glass and metal, lanterns, and cutlery. All of it was used, much of it was old, and some of it looked as if it had sat there for centuries. Every object had a little paper tag on it; she couldn't imagine why.

Suspended from the rafters were cloaks and coats, each with moth-bane festooning the hems. The shop itself was barely large enough for Rune, the shelves, and the tiny counter at the rear of the shop.

After a moment, an old man dressed in a dust-colored shirt and breeches pushed aside the curtain behind the counter and peered at her, then shook his gray, shaggy head.

"I'm sorry, lad," he said regretfully. "I'm not buying today-"

"And I'm not selling, sir," she interrupted, approaching the counter so he could get a better look at her.

He blinked, looked again, and chuckled; a rich, humor-filled sound that made her want to like him. He reminded her of Raven, a little. And a little of that Guild Minstrel. "And you're no lad, either. Forgive me, lass. What can I do for you?"

A little surprised, since no one else had seen her true sex through her purposefully sexless clothing, she took another step forward. "My name is Rune. I'm a player, sir," she said, hesitantly. "I was told that I could find an instrument and lessons here."

"That's true," the old man said, his sharp black eyes watching her so closely she felt as if her skin were off. "You can, as you know if you saw the signs in the windows. But there's more to it than that-the things that brought you to this shop in this city. Now, I like a good tale as well as any man, and it's late and near time to close up. If you'd care to share a cup of tea with me-and tell me your tale?"

Part of her said not to trust this man-here he was a stranger, and offering to share his hospitality with another stranger-

But the rest of her thought-what could he possibly do to her? He was old, he moved slowly; he couldn't possibly out-wrestle her in a bad situation. Where was the harm in indulging him?

And there was more of Raven's advice. If you find yourself with someone who cares for his instruments, no matter how old, or how plain-or even how cheap-you can trust him. He's a man who knows that all value isn't on the surface. And he may have some of that hidden value himself.

"I'd like that, sir," she said, finally. But he had already raised his tiny counter on the hinges at one side, and was motioning her through as if he had never expected she would do anything other than accept. She pushed the curtains aside, hesitantly, and found herself in another narrow room, with a staircase at the farther end leading up to a loft. This room was just as crowded as the shop. There was a stove with a tiny fire in it, with a kettle atop; a broken-down bed that seemed to be in use as seating, since it was covered with worn-out cushions in a rainbow of faded materials. There seemed to be more furniture up in the loft, but the shadows up there were so thick that it was hard to see.

Besides the bed, there was a basin and ewer on a stand, a couple of tables piled with books, two chairs, and a kitchen-cupboard next to the stove. Everything stood within inches of the furniture beside it. There wasn't any possible way one more piece of furniture could have been crammed in here.

Rune took a seat on one of the chairs, placing her pack and Lady Rose at her feet. The only light came from a window at the rear of the room, below the loft, covered in oiled paper; and from a lantern on the table beside her.

There was a thump, as of heavy shutters closing, the door-bell jangled, and then a scraping sound of wood on wood came to her ears as the old man pushed the bar into place across his shutters. A moment later, he pushed aside the curtains and limped into the room.

Instead of speaking, he went straight to the stove at the rear and took a kettle off the top, pouring hot water into a cracked teapot that was missing its lid and stood on the shelf of the kitchen-cupboard beside him. He brought the pot and a pair of mugs with him, on a tarnished tray, which he sat down on the table beside her, next to the lamp, pushing the books onto the floor to make room for the tray.

"Now," he said, taking the other chair, "My name's Tonno. Yours, you said, is Rune, as I believe. While we wait for the herbs to steep, why don't you tell me about yourself? You're obviously not from Nolton, and your accent sounds as if you're from-hmm-Beeford, or thereabouts?"

She nodded, startled.

He chuckled and smiled, a smile that turned his face into a spiderweb of tiny lines, yet made him look immensely cheerful. "So, how is it that a young lady like you finds herself so far from home, and alone?"

She found herself telling him everything, for somehow his questions coaxed it all out of her; from the bare facts, to how she had managed to come here, to her desire for a place in the Guild. As the light beyond the oiled paper dimmed, and her confidence in him grew, she even told him about the Ghost, and her secret hoard of coins. Somehow she felt she could trust him even with that, and he wouldn't betray her trust.

He pursed his lips over that. "Have you told anyone else about this?" he asked sternly. She shook her head. "Good. Don't. The Church would either take a lion's share, or confiscate it all as coming from demons. I'll give you a choice; either you can keep them hidden and safe, or you can give them to me, and I'll provide you with that instrument you want and a year's worth of lessons-and give you whatever's left over, but I'll have it all changed into smaller coins. Smaller coins won't call attention to you the way silver would. I can probably manage that just on what I've saved."

She thought about that; thought about how easy it would be for the money to just trickle away, without her ever getting the lessons or the instrument. If she paid him now-

"This won't be just lessons in learning tunes, mind," Tonno said abruptly. "I'll teach you reading music, and writing it-you'll have the freedom to read any book in this shop, and I'll expect you to read one a week. I'm a hard teacher, but a fair one."

She nodded; this was more than she had expected.

"Can you play me a tune on that little fiddle of yours?" he asked-and once again, Rune took her lady from her case, and tuned her. This time, with care-for Tonno was a fellow musician, and she wanted to give him her very best.

She played him three pieces; a love song, a jig, and one of the strange Gypsy tunes that Nightingale had taught her. The last seemed to fill the shadows of the room with life, and turn them into things not properly of the waking world. It wasn't frightening, but it was certainly uncanny. She finished it with gooseflesh crawling up her arms, despite the fact that she had played the tune herself.

When she'd finished, Tonno sighed, and his eyes were a little melancholy. "I'll tell you something else," the old man said, slowly, "and I'm not ashamed to admit it, not after listening to you. I'm no better than a talented amateur. I knew better than to try and make a living at music, but I promise you that I know how to play every instrument in this shop, and I'm quite good enough to give you basic lessons. And believe me, child, if you've learned this much on your own, basic lessons in a new instrument, the ways of reading and writing the tunes you surely have in your head, and all the education you'll get from reading whatever you can get your hands on for the next year will be all that you need." He shook his head again. "After that you'll need more expert help than that, and I can probably find someone to give it to you. But I don't think that you'll need it for at least a year, and tell the truth, I wonder if some people who heard you now might not hold you back out of jealousy to keep you from outstripping them. When you get beyond me, I can send you out to others for special lessons, but until then-"

She let out the breath she'd been holding in a sigh.

"Can we chose an instrument now, sir?" she asked. "I'd like to make this a firm bargain."

They picked out a delicate little lute for her; she fell in love with its tone, and decided against the harp that Tonno thought might suit her voice better. Besides, the lute only had four strings; it would be easier to tune and keep tuned in the uncertain climes a traveling musician was likely to encounter. They agreed on a price for it and the year of lessons, and Rune retired behind a screen to take off her belt of silver coins. She knew she had spent a lot getting to Nolton; even augmenting her cash with playing on the road, the coins had been spent a lot faster than she'd liked. There was some left when they got through reckoning up how much three hours of lessons every day for a year would cost. Not much, but some. She could go ahead and buy her permit; and she would have a hedge against a lean spell.

When the commercial exchange had been accomplished, an awkward silence sprang up between them. She coughed a little, and bit her lip, wondering what to say next.

"I probably should go," she said, finally. "It's getting darker, and I've taken up too much of your time as it is. I'll come about the same time tomorrow for my first lesson-"

"Now what are your plans?" he asked, interrupting her. "Never mind what you're going to do tomorrow, what are you planning on doing tonight? You don't know the city-you could get yourself in a bad area, wandering about."

"I need a place to live," she said, now uncertain. Daylight was long spent, and she wasn't certain if those who took in lodgers would open their doors to a stranger after dark.

"What about a place to earn your keep?" he asked. "Or part of it, anyway-I-know someone looking for a musician. She could offer you a good room in exchange for playing part of the night. Possibly even a meal as well."

There was something about his manner that made her think there was a great deal more about the place than he was telling her, and she said as much.

He nodded, reluctantly. "It's a public house-a real one, but a small one. In part. And-well, the rest I'd rather Amber told you herself. If you want to go talk to her."

Tonno's diffident manner convinced her that there was something odd going on, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. She frowned a little.

He shrugged, helplessly. "It's only a few blocks away," he said. "And it's in the area where there are a lot of-places of entertainment. If you don't like Amber, or she doesn't like you, you can try somewhere else. That area is safe enough you could even busk on the street-corner and buy yourself a room when you have the two pence." He smiled apologetically. "I often go there for my dinner. I would be happy to walk you there, and introduce you to Amber."

She thought about it; thought about it a long time. In the end, what decided her was Tonno's expression. It wasn't that of a man who was planning anything, or even that of a man who was trying to keep his plans hidden. It was the anxious look of someone who has a friend of dubious character that he likes very much-and wants his new friend to like as well.

Rune was well enough acquainted with the way the world wagged to guess what Tonno's friend Amber was. A public house-"of sorts," hmm? A small one? That might be what it was below-stairs, but above . . .

Amber probably has pretty girls who serve more than just beer and wine, I'd reckon.

On the other hand, it couldn't hurt to go look. People who came to a whorehouse had money, and were ready to spend it. They might be willing to toss a little of it in the direction of a player. As long as Amber knew she was paying for the music, and not the musician.

Besides, if there was one thing the Church Priests preached against, it was the sins of the flesh. It would ease the burden of having to pay the Priests their damned tithe knowing that the money came from something they so violently disapproved of.

"All right," she said, standing up and catching Tonno by surprise. "I'll see this friend of yours. Let's go."

And I can always say no, once I've met her.

CHAPTER SEVEN

In the streets of Nolton darkness was total, and at first the only light they had to show them their footing were the torches at the crossroads, and the occasional candle or rushlight in a window at street level. Tonno kept a brisk pace for such an old man; Rune had to admire him. It helped that he knew the way, of course, and she didn't. He kept pointing out landmarks as they passed-a building that dated back several hundred years, a place where some significant event in the history of the city had occurred, or the site of someone's birth or death. She would strain her eyes, and still see only one more shapeless bulk of a building, with a furtive light or two in the windows. Finally she gave up trying to see anything; she just nodded (foolish, since he wouldn't be able to see the nod), and made an appreciative grunt or a brief comment.

The street Tonno led her to was not one she would have found on her own; it was reached only by passing through several other side streets, and the street itself was about a dozen houses long, and came to a dead end, culminating in a little circle with an ornamental fountain in the center of it. It was, however, very well lit, surprisingly so after the darkness of the streets around it; torches outside every door, and lanterns hanging in the windows of the first and second stories saw to that. There was an entire group of musicians and a dancer busking beside the fountain, and from the look of the money they'd collected on the little carpet in front of the drummer, the pickings were pretty good here. The fountain wasn't one of the noisy variety; it would be easy enough even for a single singer to be heard over it. A good place to put out a hat, it would seem.

The musicians looked familiar, in the generic sense; finally she realized that they were dressed in the same gaudy fashion as the Gypsies the harpist Nightingale traveled with. If this "Amber" didn't prove out, perhaps she'd see if they'd let her join them. They didn't have a fiddler, and they might recognize Nightingale's name or description, and be willing to let her join them on the basis of a shared acquaintance.

Most of the places on the circle itself were large, with three stories and lights in every window, sometimes strings of lanterns festooning the balconies on the second and third stories, as if it were a festival. There were people coming and going from them in a steady stream; men, mostly. And, mostly well-dressed. Whenever a door opened, Rune heard laughter and music for a moment, mingling with the music of the quartet by the fountain. There were women leaning over the balconies and out of the windows; most disheveled, most wearing only the briefest of clothing, tight-laced bodices and sleeveless under-shifts that fluttered like the drapes of the Ghost-

She shivered for a moment with a chill, then resolutely put the memory out of her mind. There was no Ghost here-and anyway, he'd favored her, he hadn't harmed her.

Sheer luck, whispered the voice of caution. She turned her attention stubbornly to her surroundings. Here was warmth and light and laughter, however artificial. There were no ghosts here.

All of the women, she had to admit, were very attractive-at least from this distance. They flirted with fans, combed their hair with languid fingers, or sometimes called out to the men below with ribald jokes.

She'd have to be a simpleton not to recognize what kind of a district this was. It might even be the same street Mathe had mentioned as a good place to busk at night. Her guise of a boy would probably keep her safely unmolested here-she'd seen no signs that these brothels catered to those whose tastes ran to anything other than women.

But Tonno took her to a tiny place, just two stories tall, tucked in beneath the wings of the biggest building on the circle. There were lights in the windows, but no women hanging out of them, and no balcony at all, much less one festooned with willing ladies. The sign above the door said only, "Amber's." And when Tonno opened the door, there was no rush of light and sound. He invited Rune in with a wave of his hand, and she preceded him inside while he shut the door behind them.

The very first thing she noticed were the lanterns; there was one on every table-and every table seemed to have at least one customer. So whatever this place was or did, it wasn't suffering from lack of business. The common room was half the size of the Bear's, but the difference was in more than size. Here, there were no backless benches, no trestle tables. Each square table was made of some kind of dark wood, and surrounding it were padded chairs, and there were padded booths with tables in them along the walls. The customers were eating real meals from real plates, with pewter mugs and forks to match. And the whiff Rune got of beef-gravy and savory was enough to make her stomach growl. She told it sternly to be quiet, promising it the bread and cheese still tucked into her pack. No matter what came of this meeting, she had a meal and the price of a room on her-and tomorrow would be another day to try her luck.

She'd certainly been lucky today, so far. It was enough to make her believe in guardian spirits.

Across the room, a woman presiding over a small desk beside a staircase saw them, smiled, and rose to greet them. She was middle-aged; probably a little older than Stara, and Rune couldn't help thinking that this was what Stara was trying to achieve with her paints and her low-cut bodices, and failing. Her tumbling russet curls were bound back in a style that looked careless, and probably took half an hour to achieve. Her heart-shaped face, with a wide, generous mouth, and huge eyes, seemed utterly ageless-but content with whatever age it happened to be, rather than being the face of a woman trying to hold off the years at any cost. The coloring of her complexion was so carelessly perfect that if Rune hadn't been looking for the signs, and seen the artfully painted shadows on lids and the perfect rose of the cheeks, she'd never have guessed the woman used cosmetics. Her dress, of a warm, rich brown, was of modest cut-but clung to her figure as if it had been molded to it, before falling in graceful folds to the floor.

Any woman, presented with Stara and this woman Amber, when asked to pick out the trollop, would point without hesitation to Stara, ignoring the other entirely. And Rune sensed instinctively that any man, when asked which was the youngest, most nubile, attractive, would select Amber every time. The first impression of Amber was of generosity and happiness; the first impression of Stara was of discontent, petulance, and bitterness.

She found herself smiling in spite of herself, and in spite of her determination not to let herself be charmed into something she would regret later.

"Tonno!" Amber said, holding out both hands to him, as if he was the most important person in the world. He clasped them both, with a pleased smile on his lips, and she held them tightly. "I had given up on seeing you tonight! I am so pleased you decided to come after all! And who is this young lad?"

She turned an inquiring smile on Rune that would likely have dazzled any real "lad," and yet was entirely free of artifice. It didn't seem designed to dazzle; rather, that the ability to dazzle was simply a part of Amber's personality.

"Amber, this lass is my new pupil, Rune. And, I hope, is the musician you've been asking me to find." Tonno beamed at both of them, but the smile that he turned to Rune held a hint of desperation in it, as if he was begging Rune to like this woman.

We'll see how she reacts to being told I'm a girl, first-if all she's interested in is what she can get out of someone, and she knows that as a woman I'm not as likely to be manipulated-

"A lass!" Amber's smile didn't lose a bit of its brightness. In fact, if anything, it warmed a trifle. "Forgive me, Rune-I hope you'll take my mistake as a compliment to your disguise. It really is very effective! Was this a way to avoid trouble in public? If it is, I think you chose very well."

Rune found herself blushing. "It seemed the safest way to travel," she temporized. "I never wore skirts except when I planned to stay at a hostel."

"Clever," Amber replied with approval. "Very clever. Now what was this about your being a musician? I take it you have no place yet? Tonno, I thought you said she was your student-" She interrupted herself with a shake of her head. "Never mind. Let's discuss all this over food and drink, shall we?"

Rune glanced sideways at the customer nearest her. She knew what she could afford-and she didn't think that this place served meals for a penny.

She thought she'd been fairly unobtrusive, but Amber obviously caught that quick sideways glance. And had guessed what it meant-though that could have been intuited from the threadbare state of Rune's wardrobe. "Business before pleasure, might be better, perhaps. If you'd feel more comfortable about it, we can discuss this now, in my office, and Tonno can take his usual table. Would that be more to your liking?"

Rune nodded, and Amber left her for a moment, escorting Tonno to a small table near the door, then returning with a faint swish of skirts. Rune sighed a little with envy; the woman moved so gracefully she turned the mere act of walking into a dance.

"Come into my office will you?" she said, and signaled to one of the serving girls to take care of Tonno's table. Obediently, Rune followed her, feeling like an awkward little donkey loaded down with packs, carrying as she was her worldly goods and the fiddle and lute cases.

The office was just inside the door to the staircase, and held only a desk and two chairs. Amber took the first, and Rune the other, for the second time that day dropping her packs down beside her. Amber studied her for a moment, but there was lively interest in the woman's eyes, as if she found Rune quite intriguing.

"Tonno is a very good friend, and has advised me on any number of things to my profit," she said at last. "He's very seldom wrong about anything, and about music, never. So perhaps you can explain how you can be both his student and the musician I've needed here?"

"I'm self-taught, milady," Rune replied with care. "Last night, my first in the city, the owner of the Crowned Corn said I was good enough to expect the same profit as anyone else who isn't a Guild musician. But that's on the fiddle-and I can't read nor write music, can't read much better than to puzzle out a few things in the Holy Book. So that's how I'm Tonno's student, you see-on the lute, and with things that'll make me ready for the Guild trials."

Amber nodded, her lips pursed. "So you've ambitions, then. I can't blame you; the life of a common minstrel is not an easy one, and the life of a Guild musician is comfortable and assured."

Rune shrugged; there was more to it than that, much more, but perhaps Amber wouldn't understand the other desires that fired her-the need to find the company of others like herself, the thirst to learn more, much more, about the power she sensed in music-and most especially, the drive to leave something of herself in the world, if only one song. As she knew the names of the Bards who had composed nearly every song in her repertory except the Gypsy ballads, so she wanted to know that in some far-off day some other young musician would learn a piece of hers, and find it worth repeating. Perhaps even-find it beautiful.

No, she'd never understand that.

"I will be willing to take Tonno's assessment of your ability as a given. This is what I can offer: a room and one meal a day of your choice. This is what your duty would be: to play here in the common room from sundown until midnight bell. I should warn you that you can expect little in the way of tips here; as you have probably guessed already, this is not an inn as such."

"It's a-pleasure-house, isn't it?" She had to think for a moment before she could come up with a phrase that wouldn't offend.

Amber nodded. "Yes, it is-and although many clients come here only for the food, the food is not where the profit is; it is merely a sideline. It serves to attract customers, to give them something to do while they wait their turn. Your capacity would be exactly the same. You would not be expected to serve above-stairs, is that clear?"

The relief must have been so obvious in spite of Rune's effort not to show it that Amber laughed. "My dear Rune-you are a very pleasant girl, but a girl is all you are, no matter how talented you might be in other areas. This house serves a very specific set of clients, by appointment only. And let me tell you that the four young ladies entertaining above are quite a peg beyond being either girls or merely pleasant. Beside them, I am a withered old hag indeed, and their talents and skills far outstrip mine!"

Irrationally, Rune felt a little put out at being called a "pleasant young girl"-but good sense got the better of her, and she contemplated the offer seriously for the first time since Tonno had brought the possibility up.

This meant one sure meal a day, a particularly good meal at that, and a room. She need only play until midnight bell; she would have the morning and noon and part of the afternoon to busk before her lessons with Tonno. Not a bad arrangement, really. It would let her save a few pennies, and in the winter when it was too cold to busk, she could stay inside, in a building that would, by necessity, be warmly heated. Still, this was a whorehouse . . . there were certain assumptions that would be made by the clients, no matter what Amber claimed. If Amber wanted her to dress as a female, there could be trouble.

"No one will bother you," Amber said firmly, answering the unspoken question. "If you like, you can keep to that boy's garb you've taken, although I would prefer it if you could obtain something a little less-worn."

Rune looked down reflexively at her no-color shirt, gray-brown vest and much-patched breeches, all of which had been slept in for the past three days, and flushed.

"Tonno can help you find something appropriate, I'm sure," Amber continued, with a dimpling smile. "I swear, I think the man knows where every second-hand vendor in the city is! As for the clients and your own safety-I have two serving girls and two serving boys below-stairs; you may ask them if they have ever been troubled by the clients. The ladies do not serve meals; the below-stairs folk do not serve the clients. Everyone who comes here knows that."

Rune licked her dry lips, took a deep breath, and nodded. "I'd like to try it then, Lady Amber."

"Good." Amber nodded. "Then let's make your meal for the day a bit of dinner with Tonno, and we can call tonight's effort your tryout. If you suit us, then you have a place; if not-I'll let you have the room for the rest of the night, and then we'll see you on your way in the morning."

A short trial-period, as these things went, and on generous terms. But she had nothing to lose, and if nothing else, she'd gain a dinner and a place to sleep for the night. She followed Amber back out into the common room, where she sat at Tonno's table, ate one of the best beef dinners she had ever had in her life, and listened while Amber and Tonno talked of books. The only time she'd ever eaten better was when the Sire had sent a bullock to the village to supply a feast in celebration of his own wedding, and Rune had, quite by accident she was sure, been given a slice of the tenderloin. The beef she'd normally eaten was generally old, tough, and stewed or in soup.

During that time, she saw several men leave by the stairs, and several more ascend when summoned by a little old man, so bent and wizened he seemed to be a thousand years old. They were all dressed well, if quietly, but for the rest, they seemed to fit to no particular mold.

As soon as she'd finished, she excused herself, and returned to Amber's office for Lady Rose, figuring that the office was the safest place to leave her gear for the moment. Fiddle in hand, she came back to the table, and waited for a break in the conversation.

"Lady Amber, if you please, where would you like me to sit, and what would you prefer I played?" she asked, when Amber made a point that caused Tonno to turn up his hands and acknowledge defeat in whatever they were discussing. They both turned to her as if they had forgotten she was there. Tonno smiled to see her ready to play, and Amber nodded a little in approval.

Amber's brows creased for a moment. "I think-over there by the fireplace, if you would, Rune," she said, after a moment of glancing around the room for the best place. "And I would prefer no dance tunes, and no heart-rending laments. Anything else would be perfectly suitable. Try to be unobtrusive-" She smiled, mischievously. "Seduce them with your music, instead of seizing them, if you will. I would like the clients relaxed, and in a good mood; sometimes they get impatient when they are waiting, and if you can make the wait enjoyable instead of tedious, that would be perfect."

Rune made her way around the edge of the room, avoiding the occupied tables, a little conscious of Amber's assessing eyes and Tonno's anxious ones. That was an interesting choice of music, for normally innkeepers wanted something lively, to heat the blood and make people drink faster. Evidently the "inn" was not in the business of selling liquor, either. It must be as Amber had said, that their primary income came from the rooms above. Rune would have thought, though, that an intoxicated client would be easier to handle.

On the other hand, maybe you wouldn't want the clients drunk; they might be belligerent; might cause trouble or start fights if they thought they'd waited longer than they should. So-must be that I'm supposed to keep 'em soothed. Soothing it is.

She found a comfortable place to sit in the chimney-corner, on a little padded bench beside the dark fireplace. She set her bow to her strings, and began to play an old, old love song.

This was a very different sort of playing from everything she'd done in inns up to this moment. There she had been striving to be the center of attention; here she was supposed to be invisible. After a moment, she began to enjoy it; it was a nice change.

She played things she hadn't had a chance to play in a while; all the romantic pieces that she normally saved for the odd wedding or two she'd performed at. Keeping the volume low, just loud enough to be heard without calling attention to the fact that there was a musician present, she watched her audience for a while until she became more interested in what she was playing than the silent faces at the tables. The serving-girls and men gave her an appreciative smile as they passed, but that was all the reward she got for her efforts. It was as if the men out there actually took her playing for granted.

Then it dawned on her that this was exactly the case; these were all men of some means, and no doubt many of them had household musicians from the Bardic Guild whose only duty was to entertain and fill the long hours of the evening with melody. That was why Amber had warned her she should expect little in the way of remuneration. Men like these didn't toss coins into a minstrel's hat-they fed him, clothed him, housed him, saw to his every need. And on occasion, when he had performed beyond expectation or when they were feeling generous, they rewarded him. But that only happened on great occasions, and in front of others, so that their generosity would be noted by others. They never rewarded someone for doing what she was doing now; providing a relaxing background.

Ah well. If I become a Guild musician, this may well be my lot. No harm in getting used to it.

After a while, she lost herself in the music-in the music itself, and not the memories it recalled for her. She began to play variations on some of the pieces, doing some improvisational work and getting caught up in the intricacies of the melody she was creating. She closed her eyes without realizing she'd done so, and played until her arm began to ache-

She opened her eyes, then, finished off the tune she'd been working on, and realized that she must have been playing for at least an hour by the way her arms and shoulders felt. The customers had changed completely; Tonno was gone, and Amber was nowhere to be seen. One of the serving-girls glided over with a mug of hot spiced cider; Rune took it gratefully. They exchanged smiles; Rune found herself hoping she'd be able to stay. Everything so far indicated that all Amber had claimed was true. She hadn't seen the serving-girls so much as touched. And both the girls, pretty in their brown skirts and bodices, one dark-haired and one light, had been friendly to her. They acted as if they were glad to have her there, in fact. Perhaps the clients were making fewer demands on them with Rune's playing to occupy their thoughts.

When she had shaken the cramps out, and had massaged her fingers a bit, she felt ready to play again. This time she didn't lose herself in the spell of the music; she watched the customers to see what their reaction was to her playing.

A head or two nodded in time to the music. There were two tables where there were pairs of men involved in some kind of game; it wasn't the draughts she was used to, for the pieces were much more elaborate. Those four ignored her entirely. There were another three involved in some kind of intense conversation who didn't seem to be paying any attention either. Then she noticed one richly dressed, very young man-hardly more than a boy-in the company of two older men. The boy looked nervous; as an experiment, she set out deliberately to soothe him. She played, not love songs, but old lullabies; then, as he began to relax, she switched back to love songs, but this time instead of ballads, she chose songs of seduction, the kind a young man would use to lure a girl into the night and (hopefully, at least from his point of view) into his bed.

The young man relaxed still further, and began to smile, as if he envisioned himself as that successful lover. He sat up straighter; he began to sip at his drink instead of clutch it, and even to nibble at some of the little snacks his companions had ordered for their table. By the time the wizened man summoned them, he was showing a new self-assurance, and swaggered a bit as he followed the old man up the stairs. His two companions chuckled, and sat back to enjoy their drink and food; one summoned one of the serving-boys, and a moment later, they, too, were embroiled in one of those games.

At first Rune was amused. But then, as she started another languid ballad, she felt a twinge of conscience. If the boy had actually responded to what she'd been doing, rather than simply calming normally, then she had manipulated him. She'd had her own belly full of manipulation; was it fair to do that to someone else, even with the best of intentions?

Did I do that, or was it just the liquor? And if it was me, what gave me the right?

She wondered even more now about these invisible "women" Amber employed. Did they enjoy what they were doing? Were they doing it by choice, or because of some kind of constraint Amber had on them? Were they pampered and protected, or prisoners? Just what kind of place was this, exactly?

She had finished her second mug of cider and was well into her third set, when the midnight bell rang, signaling the end of her stint. There was no sign that the custom had abated any, though; the tables were just as full as before. While she wondered exactly what she should do, Amber herself glided down the stairs and into the room, and nodded to her. She finished the song, slid Lady Rose into her carrying bag, and stood up, a little surprised at how stiff she felt. She edged past the fireplace to Amber's side, without disturbing anyone that she could tell. Amber drew her into the hall of the staircase, and motioned that she should go up.

"At this point, the gentlemen waiting are in no hurry," she said. "At this late hour, the gentlemen have usually exhausted their high spirits and are prepared to relax; past midnight I probably won't ever need your services to keep them occupied."

They got to the top of the stairs, where there was a hall carpeted in something thick and plushly scarlet, paneled in rich wood, and illuminated by scented candles in sconces set into the walls. She started to turn automatically down the candlelit hallway, but Amber stopped her before she'd gone a single pace. "Watch this carefully," the woman said, ignoring the muffled little sounds of pleasure that penetrated into the hall and made Rune blush to the hair. "You'll have to know how to do this for yourself from now on."

She tried to ignore the sounds herself, and watched as Amber turned to the shelves that stood where another hall might have been. She reached into the second set of shelves, grasped a brass dog that looked like a simple ornament, and turned it. There was a click, and a door, upon which the set of shelves had been mounted, swung open, revealing another hall. Amber waved Rune through and shut the door behind them.

This was a much plainer hallway; lit by two lanterns, and with an ordinary wooden floor and white-painted walls. "This subterfuge is so that the customers don't 'lose their way,' and blunder into our private quarters," Amber said, in a conversational voice. "I never could imagine why, but some people seem to think that anything ordinary in a pleasure-house must conceal something extraordinary. The serving-girls got very tired of having clients pester them, so I had the shelves built to hide the other hall. I took the liberty of having old Parro bring your things up to your new room so you wouldn't have to; I imagine that you're quite fatigued with all your walking about the streets today."

Rune tried to imagine that poor, wizened little man hauling her pack about, and failed. "He really didn't have to," she protested. "He-he doesn't-"

"Oh, don't make the mistake of thinking that because he's small and a bit crippled that he's weak," Amber said. "He wouldn't thank you for that. He's quite fiercely proud of his strength, and I have him as my summoner for a good reason. He can-and has-brought strong guardsmen to their knees, and men constantly underestimate him because of the way he looks."

"Oh," Rune said weakly.

"You'll meet everyone tomorrow; I thought you'd rather get to sleep early tonight," Amber continued, holding open a door for her. "This is your room, by the way. You did very well, just as well as Tonno said you would. I'm happy to welcome you to my little family, Rune."

Rune stepped into the room before the last remark penetrated her fatigue. "You are?" she said, a little stupidly.

Amber nodded, and lit a candle at the lantern outside the door, placing it in a holder on a little table just inside. "The bathroom is at the end of the hall, and there should be hot water in the copper if you want to wash before you go to bed. In the morning, simply come downstairs when you're ready, and either Parro or I will introduce you. Goodnight, Rune."

She had closed the door before Rune had a chance to say anything. But what could she say, really? "Wait, I'm not sure I should be doing this?" That wasn't terribly bright. "Just what is going on around here?" She knew what was going on. This was a whorehouse. She was going to entertain here. The madam was a gracious lady, of impeccable manners and taste, but it was still a house of pleasure-

But this was certainly the oddest bawdy-house she'd ever heard of.

She looked around at her room-her room, and what an odd sound that had! There wasn't much: a tiny table, a chair, a chest for clothing, and the bed. But it was a real bed, not a pallet on the floor like she'd had all her life. And it was much too narrow for two, which in a way, was reassuring.

There's no way anyone would pay to share that with Amber, much less with me.

The frame was the same plain wood as the rest of the furniture; the mattress seemed to be stuffed with something other than straw. Not feathers, but certainly something softer than she was used to; she bounced on it, experimentally, and found herself grinning from ear to ear.

There were clean, fresh sheets on the bed, and blankets hung over the footboard, with clean towels atop them. The plain wooden floor was scrubbed spotless, as were the white-painted walls. There was one window with the curtains already shut; she went to it and peeked out. Less than an arm's length away loomed the wooden side of the house next door; there were windows in it, but they were set so that they didn't look into any windows in this building, thus ensuring a bit of privacy. Not much of a view, but the window would probably let in some air in the summer, as soon as the warmer weather really arrived. It was better than being in the attic, where the sun beating down on the roof would make an oven of the place in summer, and the wind whistling under the eaves would turn it into the opposite in winter.

Her room. Her room, with a latch on the inside of the door, so she could lock it if she chose. Her room, where no one could bother her, a room she didn't have to share with anyone. Maybe it was the size of a rich man's closet, but it was all hers, and the thrill of privacy was heady indeed.

She looked longingly at the bed-but she knew she was filthy; she hadn't had a bath in several days, and to lie down in the clean sheets unwashed seemed like a desecration. It also wouldn't give Amber a very good impression of her cleanliness; after all, the woman had gone out of her way to mention that there was water ready for washing even at this late hour. That could have been a hint-in fact, it probably was.

She took the towels and went to the end of the hall to find the promised bathroom. And indeed, it was there, and included the indoor privies she had seen in the Church hostels, which could be flushed clean by pulling a chain that sluiced down a measured amount of water from a reservoir on the roof. There were two privies in stalls, and two bath-basins behind tall screens. One was big enough to soak in, but the other wouldn't take as long to fill, and she was awfully tired. Both the baths were fixed to the floor, with permanent drains in their bottoms.

She filled the shallow bath with equal measures of hot and cold water, dipped from the copper and a jar, both of which were also fed by the roof-reservoir. As she dipped the steaming water out of the top of the cauldron, she longed more than ever to be able to take a good long soak-

But that could wait until she had a half-penny to spare for the public baths and steam-house. Then she could soak in the hot pools, swim in the cold, and go back to soak in the hot pools until every pore was cleansed. She could take an afternoon from busking, perhaps the Seventh-Day, when people would be going to Church in the morning and spending the afternoon at home. That would mean there'd be fewer of them in the streets, and her take wouldn't be that much anyway; it wouldn't hurt her income as much to spend the afternoon in the bath-house.

But for now, at least, she could go to bed clean.

She scrubbed herself hastily, rinsed with a little more cold water, and toweled herself down, feeling as if she were a paying patron. And if this was the treatment that the help got, how were the patrons treated?

With that thought in mind, she returned to her room, locked herself in for the night, and dug out her poor, maltreated bread and cheese. It was squashed, but still edible, and she found herself hungry enough to devour the last crumb.

And with the last of her needs satisfied, she blew out the candle and felt her way to her bed, to dream of dancing lutes dressed in Gypsy ribbons, and fiddles that ran fiddle-brothels where richly dressed men came to caress their strings and play children's lullabies, and strange, wizened old men who lifted houses off their foundations and placed them back down, wrong-way about.

She woke much later than she had intended, much to her chagrin. She hurried into the only clean set of clothing she had-a shirt and breeches that had seen much better days-and resolved to find herself more clothing before Amber had a chance to comment on the state of her dress.

When she found her way down to the common room, she discovered the exterior doors locked tight, and a half-dozen people eating what looked like breakfast porridge, and talking.

One of those was the most stunning young woman Rune had ever seen. Even in a simple shift with her hair combed back from her face, she looked like-

An angel, Rune thought wonderingly. She was inhumanly lovely. No one should look that lovely. No one could, outside of a ballad.

The girl was so beautiful it was impossible to feel jealousy; Rune could only admire her, the way she would admire a rainbow, a butterfly, or a flower.

Her hair was a straight fall of gold, and dropped down past her waist to an inch or two above the floor; her eyes were the perfect blue of a summer sky after a rain. Her complexion was roses and cream, her teeth perfect and even, her face round as a child's and with a child's innocence. Her figure, slight and lissome, was as delicate as a porcelain figure of an idealized shepherdess.

Her perfect rosebud mouth made a little "o" as she saw Rune, and the person sitting with her, who Rune hadn't even noticed at that moment, turned. It was Amber.

"Ah, Rune," she said, smiling. "Come here, child. I'd like you to meet Sapphire. She is one of the ladies I told you about last night."

Rune blinked, and made her way carefully to the table. Anyone with that much beauty can't be human. She probably has the brains of a pea-

"Hello, Rune," Sapphire said, with a smile that eclipsed Amber's. "That isn't my real name, of course-Amber insisted we all take the names of jewels so when I leave here and retire, I can leave 'Sapphire' behind and just be myself."

Amber nodded. "It will happen, of course. This is not a profession one can remain in for long."

"Oh," Rune said, awkwardly. "Then-"

"Amber is not my real name, either-at least, it isn't the one I was born with," Amber said easily.

"I'll probably become 'Amber' when I take over as Madam," Sapphire continued. "Since there's always been an 'Amber' in charge here. This Amber decided to take me as her 'prentice, so to speak. I already help with the bookkeeping, but I'm going to need a lot more schooling in handling people, that much I know."

Rune nearly swallowed her tongue; this delicate, brainless-looking creature was doing-bookkeeping?

Sapphire laughed at the look on her face; Rune felt like a fool. "You're not the first person who's been surprised by Sapphire," Amber said indulgently. "I told you the ladies were all something very special."

"So are you, love," Sapphire replied warmly. "Without you, we'd all be-"

"Elsewhere," Amber interrupted. "And probably just as successful. All four of you have brains and ambition; you'd probably be very influential courtesans and mistresses."

"But not wives," Sapphire replied, and her tone was so bitter that Rune started.

"No," Amber said softly. "Never wives. That's the fate of a lovely woman with no lineage and no money. The prince doesn't fall in love with you, woo you gently, carry you away on his white horse and marry you over his father's objections."

"No, the prince seduces you-if you're lucky. More often than not he carries you off, all right, screaming for your father who doesn't dare interfere. Then he rapes you-and abandons you once he knows you're with child," Sapphire said grimly, her mouth set in a thin, hard line.

"And that is the prerogative of princes," Amber concluded with equal bitterness. "Merchant princes, princes of the trades, or princes by birth."

They both seemed to have forgotten she was there; she felt very uncomfortable. This was not the sort of thing one heard in ballads. . . .

Well, yes and no. There were plenty of ballads where beautiful women were seduced, or taken against their will. But in those ballads, they died tragically, often murdered, and their spirits pursued their ravagers and brought them to otherworldly justice. Or else they retired to a life in a convent, and only saw their erstwhile despoilers when the villains were at death's door, brought there by some other rash action.

Apparently, it wasn't considered to be in good taste to survive one's despoiling as anything other than a nun.

"Well, I'm not going to let one damn fool turn me into a bitter old hag," Sapphire said with a sigh, and stretched, turning from bitter to sunny in a single instant. "That's over and done with. In a way, he did me a favor," she said, half to Rune, half to Amber. "If he hadn't carried me off and abandoned me here, I probably would have married Bert, raised pigs, and died in childbed three years ago."

Amber nodded, thoughtfully. "And I would have pined myself over Tham wedding Jakie until I talked myself into the convent."

Sapphire laughed, and raised a glass of apple juice. A shaft of sunlight lancing through the cracks in the shutters pierced it, turning it into liquid gold

"Then here's to feckless young men, spoiled and ruthless!" she said gaily. "And to women who refuse to be ruined by them!"

Amber solemnly clinked glasses with her, poured a third glass for Rune without waiting for her to ask, and they drank the toast together.

"So, Rune, how is it that you come here," Sapphire asked, "with your accent from my own hills, and your gift of soothing the fears out of frightened young men?"

Rune's jaw dropped, and Amber and Sapphire both laughed. "You thought I hadn't noticed?" Amber said. "That was the moment when I knew you were for us. If you can soothe the fears out of a young man, you may well soothe the violence out of an older one. That is a hazard of our profession. Oh, our old and steady clients know that to come here means that one of the ladies will be kind and flattering, will listen without censure, and will make him feel like the most virile and clever man on Earth-but there are always new clients, and many of them come to a whore only because they hate women so much they cannot bear any other relationship."

"Then-I did right?" Rune asked, wondering a little that she brought a question of morality to a whore-but unable to believe that these two women were anything but moral. "I thought-it seemed so calculating, to try and calm him down-"

"The men who come here, come to feel better," Amber said firmly. "That is why I told you we serve a very special need. We hear secrets they won't even tell their Priests, and fears they wouldn't tell their wives or best friends. If all they wanted was lovemaking, they could go to any of the houses on the street-"

"Unskilled sex, perhaps," Sapphire commented acidly, with a candor that held Rune speechless. "Not lovemaking. That takes ability and practice."

"Point taken," Amber replied. "Well enough. Our clients come to us for more than that. Sapphire, Topaz, Ruby, and Pearl are more than whores, Rune."

"I'm-" she said, and coughed to clear her throat. "I'm, uh-beginning to see that."

"So how did you come here, Rune?" Sapphire persisted. "When I heard you speak, I swear, you carried me right back to my village!"

Once again, Rune gave a carefully edited version of her travels and travails-though she made light of the latter, sensing from Sapphire's earlier comments that her experiences had been a great deal more harrowing than Rune's. She also left out the Skull Hill Ghost; time enough to talk about him when she'd made a song out of him and there'd be no reason to suspect that the adventure was anything more than a song.

Sapphire sat entranced through all of it, though Rune suspected that half of her "entrancement" was another skill she had acquired; the ability to listen and appear fascinated by practically anything.

When Rune finished, Sapphire raised her glass again. "And here's to a young lady who refused to keep to her place as decreed by men and God," she said. "And had the gumption to pack up and set out on her own."

"Thank you," Rune said, flattered. "But I've a long way to go before I'm a Guild apprentice. Right now I intend to concentrate on keeping myself fed and out of trouble until I master my second instrument."

"Good." Amber turned a critical eye on her clothing, and Rune flushed again. "Please talk to Tonno about finding you some costumes, would you?"

That was a clear dismissal if ever Rune had heard one. And since she had decided to take advantage of her promised meal by making it supper-especially if she was going to dine like she had last night-she took her leave.

But she took to the streets in search of a busking-corner with her head spinning. Nothing around here was the way she had thought it would be. The folk who should have been honest and helpful-the Church-were taking in money and attempting to cheat over it at every turn. And the folk who should have been the ones to avoid-Amber and her "ladies"-had gone out of their way to give her a place. Of course, she was going to have to work for that place, but still, that didn't make things any less than remarkable. Amber was about as different from the fellow who set up at the Faires as could be imagined-and the ladies, at least Sapphire, as different from his hard-eyed dancers. They seemed to think of themselves as providing a service, even if it was one that was frowned upon by the Church.

Then again, it was the Church who frowned upon anything that didn't bring money to its coffers and servants to its hands. Doubtless the Church had found no way for the congress between men and women to bring profit to them-so they chose instead to make it, if not forbidden, then certainly not encouraged.

Rune shook her head and stepped out into the sunlight surrounding the fountain. It was all too much for her. Those were the worries of the high and mighty. She had other things to attend to-to find breakfast, pay her tax and tithe, buy her permit, and set up for busking until it was time for her lessons.

And that was enough for any girl to worry about on a bright early summer morning.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Midmorning found her back on the corner between the drink-stall and the sausage-stall, and both owners were happy to see her; happier still to see the badge of her permit pinned to the front of her vest. She set herself up with a peculiar feeling of permanence, and the sausage roll vendor confirmed that when he asked her if she planned to make this her regular station. She didn't have a chance to answer him then, but once the nuncheon rush was over and he had time again to talk, he brought it up again.

She considered that idea for a moment, nibbling at her lip. This wasn't a bad place; not terribly profitable, but not bad. There was a good deal of traffic here, although the only folks that passed by that appeared to have any money at all were the Church functionaries. Still, better spots probably already had "residents." This one might even have a regular player later in the day, when folk were off work and more inclined to stop and listen.

"I don't know," she said truthfully. "Why?"

"Because if ye do, me'n Jak there'll save it for ye," the sausage-man told her, as she exchanged part of her collection of pins for her lunch. "There's a juggler what has it at night, but we c'n save it fer ye by day. Th' wife knows a seamstress; th' seamstress allus needs pins." He leaned forward a bit, earnestly, his thin face alive with the effort of convincing her. "Barter's no bad way t'go, fer a meal or twain. An 'f ye get known fer bein' here, could be ye'll get people comin' here t' hear ye a-purpose."

"An we'll get th' custom," the cider-vendor said with a grin, leaning over his own counter to join the conversation. "Ain't bad fer ev'body."

Now that was certainly true; she nodded in half-agreement.

"Ye get good 'nough, so ye bring more custom, tell ye what we'll do," the cider-vendor Jak said, leaning forward even farther, and half-whispering confidentially. "We'll feed ye fer free. Nuncheon, anyway. But ye'll have t' bring us more custom nor we'd had already."

After a moment of thought, the sausage-vendor nodded. "Aye, we c'n do that, if ye bring us more custom. 'Nough t' pay th' penny fer yer share, anyway," he said. "That'll do, I reckon."

His caution amused her, even while she felt a shade of annoyance at their penny-pinching. Surely one sausage roll and a mug of cider wasn't going to ruin their profits in a day! "How would I know?" Rune asked with a touch of irony. "I mean, I'd only have your word that I hadn't already done that."

"Well now, ye'd just haveta trust us, eh?" Jak said with a grin, and she found herself wondering what the juggler thought of these two rogues. "What can ye lose? Good corners are hard t' find. A' when ye find one, mebbe sommut's already there. An' ye know ye can trade off yer pins here, even if we says ye hain't brought in 'nough new business t' feed ye free. Not ev'body takes pins. Ask that blamed Church vulture t'take pins, he'll laugh in yer face."

That was true enough. She looked the corner over with a critical eye. It seemed to be adequately sheltered from everything but rain. The wind wouldn't whip through here the way it might a more open venue. Sure, it was summer now, but there could be cold storms even in summer, and winter was coming; she was going to have to think ahead to the next season. She still had to eat, pay her tax and tithe on the trade-value of what she was getting from Amber, and enlarge her wardrobe. Right now she had no winter clothes, and none suitable for the truly hot days of summer. She'd have to take care of that, as well.

" 'F it rains, ye come in here," Jak said, suddenly. "I reckon Lars'd offer, but he's got that hot fat back there, an' I dunno how good that'd be fer th' fiddle there. Come winter, Lars peddles same, I peddle hot cider wi' spices. Ye can come in here t'get yer fingers an' toes warm whene'er ye get chilled."

That settled it. "Done," Rune replied instantly. It wasn't often a street-busker got an offer of shelter from a storm. That could make the difference between a good day's take and a poor one-shelter meant she could play until the last moment before a storm broke, then duck inside and be right back out when the weather cleared. And a place out of the cold meant extra hours she could be busking. That alone was worth staying for. These men might be miserly about their stock, but they were ready enough to offer her what someone else might not.

She left the corner for the day feeling quite lighthearted. On the whole, her day so far had been pretty pleasant, including the otherwise unpleasant duty of paying the Church. She'd been able to annoy the priest at the Church-box quite successfully; playing dunce and passing over first her tithe, counted out in half-penny and quarter-pennies, then her tax, counted out likewise, and then, after he'd closed the ledger, assuming she was going to move on, her permit-fee, ten copper pennies which were the equivalent of one silver. She'd done so slowly, passing them in to him one at a time, much to the amusement of a couple of other buskers waiting to pay their own tithes and taxes. They knew she was playing the fool, but he didn't. It almost made it worth the loss of the money. He had cursed her under his breath for being such a witling, and she'd asked humbly when she finished for his blessing-he'd had to give it to her-and he'd been so annoyed his face had been poppy-red. The other buskers had to go around the corner to stifle their giggles.

Now it was time to go find Tonno's shop-she needed at least one "new" outfit to satisfy Amber's requirements, and Tonno knew where she was going to be able to find the cheapest clothes. That expenditure wasn't something she was looking forward to, for the money for new clothing would come out of her slender reserve, but she had no choice in the matter. Amber's request had the force of a command, if she wanted to keep her new place, and even when she'd gotten her old clothing clean, it hadn't weathered the journey well enough to be presentable "downstairs." It would do for busking in the street, where a little poverty often invited another coin or two, but not for Amber's establishment.

On the other hand, the money for her lodging was not coming out of her reserves, and that was a plus in her favor. And she did need new clothes, no matter what.

When she pushed open the door, she saw that Tonno had a customer. He was going over a tall stack of books with a man in the long robes of a University Scholar, probably one of the teachers there. She hung back near the door of the shop until she caught his eye, then waited patiently until the Scholar was engrossed in a book and raised her eyebrows in entreaty. He excused himself for a moment; once she whispered what she needed, he took Lady Rose and her lute from her to stow safely behind the counter until lesson time, then gave her directions to Patch Street, where many of the old clothes sellers either had shops or barrows. She excused herself quickly and quietly-a little disappointed that he wouldn't be able to come with her. She had the feeling that he'd be able to get her bargains she hadn't a chance for, alone.

It was a good thing that she'd started out with a couple of hours to spend before her first lesson. Patch Street was not that far away, but the number of vendors squeezed into a two-block area was nothing less than astonishing. The street itself was thick with buyers and sellers, all shouting their wares or arguing price at the tops of their lungs. The cacophony deafened her, and she began to feel a little short of breath from the press of people the moment she entered the affray. The sun beat down between the buildings on all of them impartially, and she was soon limp with heat as well as pummeled by noise and prodded by elbows.

She now was grateful she had left Lady Rose with Tonno; there was scarcely room on this street to squeeze by. She tried to keep her mind on what she needed-good, servicable clothing, not too worn-but there were thousands of distractions. The woman in her yearned for some of the bright silks and velvets, worn and obviously second-hand as most of them were, and the showman for some of the gaudier costumes, like the ones the Gypsies had worn-huge multicolored skirts, bright scarlet sashes, embroidered vests and bodices-

She disciplined herself firmly. Under-things first. One pair of breeches; something strong and soft. Two new shirts, as lightweight as I can get them. One vest. Nothing bright, nothing to cry out for attention. I'm supposed to be inconspicuous. And nothing too feminine.

The under-things she found in a barrow tended by a little old woman who might have been Parro's wizened twin. She suspected that the garments came from some of the houses of pleasure, too; although the lace had been removed from them, they were under-things meant to be seen-or rather, they had been, before they'd been torn. Aside from the tears, they looked hardly used at all.

She picked up a pair of underdrawers; they were very lightweight, but they were also soft-not silk, but something comfortable and easy on the skin. Quite a change from the harsh linen and wool things she was used to wearing. The tears would be simple enough to mend, though they would be very obvious. . . .

Then again, Rune wasn't likely to be in a position where anyone was going to notice her mended underwear. The original owners though-it probably wasn't good for business for a whore to be seen in under-things with mends and patches.

It was odd, though; the tears were all in places like shoulder-seams, or along the sides-where the seams themselves had held but the fabric hadn't. As if the garments had been torn from their wearers.

Maybe they had been. Either a-purpose or by chance.

Perhaps the life of a whore wasn't all that easy. . . .

Her next acquisition must be a pair of shirts, and it was a little hard to find what she was looking for here. Most shirts in these stalls and barrows were either ready to be turned into rags, or had plainly been divested of expensive embroidery. The places where bands of ornamentation had been picked off on the sleeves and collars were distressingly obvious, especially for someone whose hands and arms were going to be the most visible parts of her. Although Rune wasn't the most expert seamstress in the world, it looked to her as if the fine weave of the fabrics would never close up around the seam-line. It would always be very clear that the shirt was second-hand, and that wouldn't do for Amber's. As she turned over garment after garment, she wondered if she was going to be able to find anything worth buying. Or if she was going to have to dig even deeper into her resources and buy new shirts. She bit her lip anxiously, and went back to the first barrow, hoping against hope to find something that might do-

" 'Scuse me, dearie." A hand on her arm and a rich, alto voice interrupted her fruitless search. Rune looked up into the eyes of a middle-aged, red-haired woman; a lady with a busking-permit pinned to the front of her bodice, and a look of understanding in her warm green-brown eyes. "I think mebbe I c'n help ye."

She licked her lips, and nodded.

"Lissen, boy," the woman continued, when she saw she'd gotten Rune's attention, leaning towards Rune's ear to shout at her. "Can ye sew at all? A straight seam, like? An' patch?"

What an odd question. "Uh-yes," Rune answered, before she had time to consider her words. "Yes, I can. But I can't do any more than that-"

"Good," the woman said in satisfaction. "Look, here-" She held up two of the shirts Rune had rejected, a faded blue, and a stained white, both of lovely light material, and both useless because the places where bands of ornament had been picked off or cut away were all too obvious. "Buy these."

Rune shook her head; the woman persisted, "Nay, hear me out. Ye go over t' that lass, th' one w' th' ribbons." She pointed over the heads of the crowd at a girl with a shoulder-tray full of ribbons of various bright colors. "Ye buy 'nough plain ribbon t' cover th' places where the 'broidery was picked out, an' wider than' the 'broidery was. Look, see, like I done wi' mine."

She held up her own arm and indicated the sleeve. Where a band of embroidery would have been at the cuff, there was a wide ribbon; where a bit of lace would have been at the top of the sleeve, she'd put a knot of multicolored ribbons. The effect was quite striking, and Rune had to admit that the shirt did not look as if it had come from the rag-bin like these.

The woman held up the white one. "This 'un's only stained at back an' near th' waist, ye see?" she said, pointing out the location of the light-brown stains. "Sleeves 'r still good. So's top. Get a good vest, sew bit'a ribbon on, an nobbut'll know 'tis stained."

Rune blinked, and looked at the shirts in the woman's hands in the light of her suggestions. It would work; it would certainly work. The stained shirt could even be made ready by the time Rune needed to take up her station at Amber's tonight.

"Thank you!" she shouted back, taking the shirts from the woman's hands, and turning to pay the vendor for them. "Thank you very much!"

"Think nowt on't," the woman shouted back, with a grin. "'Tis one musicker to 'nother. Ye do sommut else the turn one day. 'Sides, me niece's th' one w' the ribbon!"

She bought the shirts-dearer than she'd hoped, but not as bad as she'd feared-and wormed her way to the ribbon vendor's side. A length of dark blue quite transformed the faded blue shirt into something with dignity, and a length of faded rose-obviously also picked off something else-worked nicely on the stained white. And who knew? Maybe someone at Amber's would know how to take the stains out; they looked like spilled wine, and there was undoubtably a lot of spilled wine around a brothel.

Now for the rest; she had better luck there, thankful for her slight frame. She was thin for a boy, though tall-her normal height being similar to the point where a lad really started shooting up and outgrowing clothing at a dreadful rate. Soon she had a pair of fawn-colored corduroy breeches, with the inside rubbed bare, probably from riding, but that wouldn't show where she was sitting-and a slightly darker vest of lined leather that laced tight and could pass for a bodice when she wore her skirts. The seams on the vest had popped and had not been mended; it would be simplicity to sew them up again. With the light-colored shirt, the breeches, and the new vest, she'd be fit for duty this evening, and meanwhile she could wash and dry her blue breeches and skirt, and her other three shirts. Once they were clean, she could see how salvageable they were for night-duty. If they were of no use, she could come back here, and get a bit more clothing. And they'd be good enough for street-busking; it didn't pay to look too prosperous on the street. People felt sorry for you if you looked a bit tattered, and she didn't want that nosy Church-clerk to think she was doing too well.

She wormed her way out of the crowd to find that two hours had gone by-as well as five pennies-and it was time to return to Tonno.

* * *

Rune's head pounded, and her hands hurt worse than they had in years.

Blessed God. She squinted and tried to ignore the pain between her eyebrows, without success. Her fingers and her head both hurt; she was more than happy to take a break from the lesson when Tonno ran his hand through his thick shock of gray hair and suggested that she had quite enough to think about for the moment. She had always known that the lute was a very different instrument from the fiddle, but she hadn't realized just how different it was. She shook her left hand hard to try and free it from the cramps, and licked and blew on the fingertips of her right to cool them. There wouldn't be any blisters, but that was only because Tonno was merciful to his newest pupil.

Playing the lute was like playing something as wildly different from the fiddle as-a shepherd's pipe. The grip, and the action, for instance; it was noticably harder to hold down the lute's strings than the fiddle's. And now she was required to do something with her right hand-bowing required control of course, but all of her fingers worked together. Now she was having to pick in patterns as complicated as fingering . . . more so, even. She was sweating by the time Tonno called the break and offered tea, and quite convinced that Tonno was earning his lesson money.

It didn't much help that she was also learning to read music-the notes on a page-at the same time she was learning to play her second instrument. It was hard enough to keep notes and fingerings matched now, with simple melodies-but she'd seen some music sheets that featured multiple notes meant to be played simultaneously, and she wasn't sure she'd ever be ready for those.

"So, child, am I earning my fee?" Tonno asked genially.

She nodded, and shook her hair to cool her head. She was sweating like a horse with her effort; at this rate, she'd have to wash really well before she went on duty tonight. "You're earning it, sir, but I'm not sure I'm ever going to master this stuff."

"You're learning a new pair of languages, dear," he cautioned, understanding in his eyes. "Don't be discouraged. It will come, and much more quickly than you think. Trust me."

"If you say so." She put the lute back in its carrying case, and looked about at the shop. There were at least a dozen different types of instruments hanging on the wall, not counting drums. There were a couple of fiddles, another lute, a guitar, a shepherd's pipe and a flute, a mandolin, a hurdy-gurdy, a trumpet and a horn, three harps of various sizes, plus several things she couldn't identify. "I can't imagine how you ever learned to play all these things. It seems impossible."

"Partially out of curiosity, partially out of necessity," Tonno told her, following her gaze, and smiling reminiscently. "I inherited this shop from my father; and it helps a great deal to have a way to bring in extra money. But when he still owned it and I was a child, he had no way of telling if the instruments he acquired were any good, so when I showed some aptitude for music, he had me learn everything so that I could tell him when something wasn't worth buying."

"But why didn't you-" Rune stopped herself from asking why he hadn't become a Guild musician. Tonno smiled at her tolerantly and answered the question anyway.

"I didn't even try to enter the Guild, because I have no real talent for music," he said. "I have a knack for picking up the basics, but there my abilities end. I'm very good at teaching the basics, but other than that, I am simply a gifted amateur. Oh-and I can tell when a musician has potential. I am good enough to know that I am not good enough, you see."

Rune felt inexplicably saddened by his words. She couldn't imagine not pursuing music, at least, not now. Yet to offer sympathy seemed rude at the least. She kept her own counsel and held her tongue, unsure of what she could say safely.

"So," Tonno said, breaking the awkward silence, "It's time for your other lessons. What do you think you'd like to read? Histories? Collected poems and ballads? Old tales?"

Reading! She'd forgotten that was to be part of her lessoning. Her head swam at the idea of something more to learn.

"Is there anything easy?" she asked desperately. "I can't read very well, just enough to spell things out in the Holy Book."

Tonno got up, and walked over to the laden shelves without answering, scrutinizing some of the books stacked there for a moment.

"Easy, hmm?" he said, after a moment or two. "Yes, I think we can manage that. Here-"

He pulled a book out from between two more, and blew the dust from its well-worn cover. "This should suit you," he told her, bringing the book back to where she sat with her lute case in her lap. "It's a book of songs and ballads, and I'm sure you'll recognize at least half of them. That should give you familiar ground to steady you as you plunge into the new material. Here-" He thrust it at her, so that she was forced to take it before he dropped it on her lute. "Bring it back when you've finished, and I'll give you something new to read. Once you're reading easily, I'll start picking other books for you. It isn't possible for a minstrel to be too widely read."

"Yes, sir," she said hastily. "I mean, no, sir."

"Now, run along back to Amber's," he said, making a shooing motion with his hands. "I'm sure you'll have to do something with those new clothes of yours to make them fit to wear. I'll see you tomorrow."

How he had known that, she had no idea, but she was grateful to be let off. Right now her fingers stung, and she wanted a chance to rest them before the evening-and she did, indeed, have quite a bit of mending and trimming to do before her garments were fit for Amber's common room.

The first evening-bell rang, marking the time when most shops shut their doors and the farmer's market was officially closed. She hurried back through the quiet streets, empty of most traffic in this quarter, reaching Amber's and Flower Street in good time.

None of the houses on the court were open except Amber's, and Rune had the feeling that it was only the "downstairs" portion that was truly ready for business. There were a handful of men, and even one woman sitting in the common room, enjoying a meal. As Rune entered the common room, her stomach reminded her sharply that it would be no bad thing to perform with a good meal inside her. As she hesitated in the stairway, one of the serving-girls, the cheerful one who had smiled at her last night, stopped on her way to a table.

"If you'd like your meal in your room," she said, quietly, "go to the end of the corridor, just beyond the bathroom. There's a little staircase in a closet there that leads straight down into the kitchen. You can get a tray there and take it up, or you can eat in the kitchen-but Lana is usually awfully busy, so it's hard to find a quiet corner to eat in. This time of night, she's got every flat space filled up with things she's cooking."

"Thanks," Rune whispered back; the girl grinned in a conspiratorial manner, and hurried on to her table.

Rune followed her instructions and shortly was ensconced in her own room with a steaming plate of chicken and noodles, a basket of bread and sliced cheese, and a winter apple still sound, though wrinkled from storage. Although she was no seamstress, she made a fairly quick job of mending the vest and trimming the light shirt, taking a stitch between each couple of bites of her supper. The food was gone long before the mending was done, of course; she was working by the light of her candle when a tap at her door made her jump with startlement.

"Y-yes?" she stuttered, trying to get her heart down out of her throat.

"It's Maddie," said a muffled voice. "Lana sent me after your dishes."

"Oh-come in," she said, standing up in confusion, as the door opened, revealing the serving-girl who'd told her the way to the kitchen. With her neat brown skirt and bodice and apron over all, she looked as tidy as Rune felt untidy. Rune flushed. "I'm sorry, I meant to take them down-I didn't mean to be any trouble-"

The girl laughed, and shook her head until her light brown hair started to come loose from the knot at the back of her neck. "It's no bother," she replied. "Really. There's hardly anyone downstairs yet, and I wanted a chance to give you a proper hello. You're Rune, right? The new musician? Carly thought you were a boy-she is going to be so mad!"

Rune nodded apprehensively. The girl seemed friendly enough-she had a wonderful smile and a host of freckles sprinkled across her nose that made her look like a freckled kitten. She looked as if she could have been one of the village girls from home.

Which was the root of Rune's apprehension. Those girls from home hadn't ever been exactly friendly. And now this girl had been put out of her way to come get the dishes, and had informed her that the other serving-girl was going to be annoyed when she discovered the musician wasn't the male she had thought.

"Well, I'm Maddie," the girl said comfortably, picking up the tray, but seeming in no great hurry to leave with it. "I expect we'll probably be pretty good friends-and I expect that Carly will probably hate you. She's the other server, the blond, the one as has the sharp eyes and nose. She hates everyone-every girl, anyway. But she's Parro's daughter, so Lady Amber puts up with her."

"What's Carly's problem?" Rune asked, putting her sewing down.

"She wants to work upstairs," Maddie said with a twist of her mouth. "And there's no way. She's not nowhere good enough. Or nice enough." Maddie shrugged, at least as much as the tray in her arms permitted. "She'll probably either marry some fool and nag him to death, or end up down the street at the Stallion or the Velvet Rope. There's men enough around that'll pay to be punished that she'd be right at home."

Rune found her mouth sagging open at Maddie's matter-of-fact assessment of the situation. And at what she'd hinted. Back at home-

Well, she wasn't back at home.

She found herself blushing, and Maddie giggled. "Best learn the truth, Rune, and learn to live with it. We're on Flower Street, and that's the whore's district. There's men that'll pay for whores to do weirder things than just nag or beat 'em, but that doesn't happen here. But this's a whorehouse, whatever else them 'nice' people call it; the ladies upstairs belong to the Whore's Guild, and they got the right to make a living like any other Guild. Got Crown protection and all."

Rune's mouth sagged open further. "They-do?" she managed.

"Surely," Maddie said, with a firm nod. "I know, 'tis a bit much at first. Me, my momma was a laundry-woman down at Knife's Edge, so I seen plenty growing up. . . . and let me tell you, I was right glad to get a job here instead of there! But young Shawm, he's straight from the country like you, and Carly made his life a pure misery until me and Arden and Lana took him in hand and got him used to the way things is. Like we're gonna do with you."

Rune managed a smile. "Thanks, Maddie," she said weakly, still a little in shock at the girl's frankness. "I probably seem like a real country-cousin to you-"

Maddie shook her head cheerfully. "Nay. Most of the people here in town think just like you-fact is, Amber's had a bit of a problem getting a good musicker because of that. Whoring is a job, lass, like any other. Whore sells something she can do, just like a cook or a musicker. Try thinking on it that way, and things'll come easier." She tilted her head to one side, as Rune tried not to feel too much a fool. At the moment, she felt as naive as a tiny child, and Maddie, though she probably wasn't more than a year older, seemed worlds more experienced.

"I got to go," the other girl said, hefting the tray a little higher. "Tell you what, though, if you got clothes what need washing, you can give 'em to me and I'll take 'em to Momma with Lana and Shawm's and mine tonight. 'Twon't cost you nothing; Momma does it 'cause Lana gives her what's left over. Lady Amber don't allow no leftovers being given to our custom."

"Oh-thank you!" Rune said, taken quite aback. "But are you sure?"

Maddie nodded. "Sure as sure-and sure I won't never do the same for Carly!" She winked, and Rune stifled a giggle, feeling a sudden kinship with the girl. "I'll come by in the morning and you can help me carry it all down to Momma, eh?"

Rune laughed. "Oh, I see! This way you get somebody to help you carry things!"

Maddie grinned. "Sure thing, and I don't want to ask Shawm. I got other things I'd druther ask him to do."

Rune grinned a little wider-and dared to tease her a little. "Maddie, are you sweet on Shawm?"

To her surprise, the girl blushed a brilliant scarlet, and mumbled something that sounded like an affirmative.

Rune could hardly believe Maddie's sudden shyness-this from the girl who had just spoke about being brought up in a whorehouse with the same matter-of-factness that Rune would have used in talking about her childhood at the Hungry Bear. "Well, don't worry," she said impulsively, "I won't tell him or Carly. If that's what you want."

Maddie grinned gratefully, still scarlet. "Thanks. I knew you were a good'un," she said. "Now I really do have to go. The custom's gonna start coming in right soon, and Shawm's down there by himself."

"I'll see you down there in a little bit," Rune replied. "And if you can think of anything you'd like to hear, let me know. If I don't know it, I bet Tonno does, and I can learn it from him."

"Thanks!" Maddie said with obvious surprise. "Hey-you know, 'Ratcatcher'? I really like that song, and I don't get to hear it very often."

"I sure do!" Rune replied, happy to be able to do something for Maddie right away in return for the girl's kindness. "I'll play it a couple times tonight, and if you think of anything else, tell me."

"Right-oh!" Maddie said, and turned to go. Rune held the door open for her, then trotted down to the end of the hall to hold open the door to the stairway as well.

She returned to put the last touches on her costume for tonight and get Lady Rose in tune, feeling more than a little happy about the outcome of the day so far. She'd gotten her first lesson, a permanent busking site with some extra benefits, acquired the first "new" clothing she'd had in a while, been warned about an enemy-

And found a friend. That was the most surprising, and perhaps the best part of the day. She'd been half expecting animosity from the other girls-but she was used to that. She'd never expected to find one of them an ally.

She slipped into her new garb and laced the vest tight, flattening her chest-what there was of it-and looking down at herself critically. Neat, well-dressed-and not even remotely feminine looking. That would do.

Time to go earn her keep. She grinned at the thought. Time to go earn my keep. At a house of pleasure. With my fiddle. And my teacher thinks I'm going to be good. Go stick that in your cup and drink it, Westhaven.

And she descended the front stairs with a heady feeling of accomplishment.

CHAPTER NINE

"I can't imagine what Lady Amber thinks she's doing, hiring that scruffy little catgut-scraper," Carly said irritably-and very audibly-to one of the customers, just as Rune finished a song. "I should think she'd drive people away. She gives me a headache."

Rune bit her tongue and held her peace, and simply smiled at Carly as if she hadn't been meant to overhear that last, then flexed her fingers to loosen them.

Bitch. She'd fit right in at Westhaven. Right alongside those other sanctimonious idiots.

"I think it's very pleasant," the young man said in mild surprise. He looked over to Rune's corner and lifted a finger. "Lass, you wouldn't know 'Song of the Swan,' would you?"

"I surely would, my lord," she said quickly, and began the piece before Carly could react, keeping her own expression absolutely neutral. No point in giving the scold any more ammunition than she already had. Rune got along fine with everyone else in the house; it was only Carly who was intent on plaguing her life. Why, she didn't know, but it was no use taking tales to Lady Amber; Amber would simply fix her with a chiding look, and ask her if it was really so difficult to get along with one girl.

The young man looked gratified at being called "my lord"; Amber had told her to always call men "my lord" and the few women who frequented the place "my lady." "It does no harm," Amber had said with a lifted eyebrow, "and if it makes someone feel better to be taken for noble, then it does some good."

That seemed to be the theme of a great many things that Amber said. She even attempted to make the sour-tempered Carly feel more contented. Of course, the girl did do her work, quickly, efficiently, and expertly-she could serve more tables than Shawm, Maddie, or Arden. That was probably one of the things that saved her from getting the sack, Rune reflected. If she'd shirked her work, there would be no way that even Amber would put up with her temper.

Now that summer was gone, and autumn nearly over as well, Rune was a standard fixture at Amber's and felt secure enough there that she had dropped the boy disguise, even when she wore her breeches instead of skirts. The customers never even hinted at services other than music, for she, along with the rest of the downstairs help, did not sport the badge of the Whore's Guild. And that made her absolutely off-limits, at least in Amber's. In one of the other houses on the street, that might not be true, but here she was safe.

She knew most of the regular customers by sight now, and some by name as well. Tonno's friends she all knew well enough even to tease them a bit between sets-and they frequently bought her a bit of drink a little stronger than the cider she was allowed as part of her keep. A nice glass of brandy-wine did go down very well, making her tired fingers a little less tired, and putting a bit more life in her hands at the end of a long night. That was the good part; the bad part was that her income had fallen off. There were fewer people on the street seeking nuncheon during the day, the days themselves were shorter, and winter was coming on very early this year. Jak and his fellow vendor had been looking askance at the weather, and Jak had confessed that he thought they might have to close down during the bitterest months this year, shutting up the stalls and instead taking their goods to those public houses that didn't serve much in the way of food.

If that happened, Rune would still have her corner, but no shelter. Already she had lost several days to rotten weather; rains that went on all day, soaking everything in sight, and so cold and miserable that even Amber's had been shy of custom come the evening hours.

The winter did not look to be a good one, so far as keeping ahead of expenses went. The best thing she could say for it was that at least she had a warm place to live, and one good, solid meal every day-she still had her teacher, and a small store of coin laid up that might carry her through until spring. If only she didn't have the damned tax and tithe to pay. . . .

No one made any further suggestions, so Rune let her wandering mind and fingers pick their own tunes. Today had been another of those miserable days; gray and overcast, and threatening rain though it never materialized. The result was that her take was half her norm: five pennies in half and quarter pence and pins, and out of that was taken three pence for tithes and taxes. The only saving grace was that since her corner was right across from the Church-box, the Priest could see for himself how ill she was doing and didn't contest her now that she was paying less. Nor, thank God, had he contested her appraisal of her food and lodging as five pennies. She hadn't told him where it was, or she suspected he'd have levied it higher. She'd seen the clients paying over their bills, and the meal alone was generally five copper pennies.

It's a good thing I've already got my winter clothes. I'd never be able to afford them now. The local musicians had a kind of unofficial uniform, an echo of what the Guild musicians wore. Where Guildsmen always wore billowy-sleeved shirts with knots of purple and gold or silver ribbons on the shoulders of the sleeves, the non-Guild Minstrels wore knots of multicolored ribbons instead. Rune had modified all her shirts to match; and since no one but a musician ever sported that particular ornament, she was known for what she was wherever she went. During the summer she'd even picked up an odd coin now and again because of that, being stopped on the street by someone who wanted music at his party, or by an impromptu gathering on a warm summer night that wanted to dance.

But that had been this summer-

A blast of cold wind hit the shutters, shaking them, and making the flames on all the lanterns waver. Rune was very glad of her proximity to the fireplace; it was relatively cozy over here. Maddie and Carly wore shawls while they worked, tucking them into their skirt bands to keep their hands free. She couldn't wear a shawl; she had to keep hands and arms completely free. If she hadn't been in this corner, she'd be freezing by now, even though fiddling was a good way to keep warm.

The winter's going to be a bad one. All the signs pointed in that direction. For that matter, all the signs pointed to tomorrow being pretty miserable. Maybe I ought to just stay here tomorrow. . . .

Carly passed by, scowling. Just to tweak the girl's temper, Rune modulated into "I've A Wife." Since it was quite unlikely that Carly would ever attain the married state, it was an unmistakable taunt in her direction. Assuming the girl was bright enough to recognize it as such.

On the other hand, staying here tomorrow means I'd have to put up with her during the day. I can't stay in bed all day reading, and it's too cold to stay up there the whole day. It's not worth it.

Maybe Tonno could use some help in his shop. . . .

She changed the tune again, to "Winter Winds," as another blast hit the shutters and rattled them. She told herself again that it could be worse. She could be on the road right now. She could be back in Westhaven. There were a hundred places she could be; instead she was here, with a certain amount of her keep assured.

Sapphire drifted down the stairs, dressed in a lovely, soft kirtle of her signature blue. That was a rarity, the ladies didn't usually come downstairs after dark. Rune was a little surprised; but then she saw why Sapphire had come down. While luxurious, the lady's rooms were meant for one thing only-besides sleep. And then, it got very crowded with more than two. If clients wanted simple company, and in a group rather than alone, well, the common room was the best place for that. There were four older gentlemen waiting eagerly for Sapphire at their table, a pentangle board set up and ready for play.

If all they wanted was to play pentangle with a beautiful woman who would tease and flatter all of them until they went home-or one or more of them mustered the juice to take advantage of the other services here-then Amber's would gladly provide that service. And now Rune knew why Carly was especially sour tonight. Bad enough that she wasn't good enough to take her place upstairs. Worse that one of the ladies came down here, into her sphere, to attract all eyes and remind her of the fact. For truly, there wasn't an eye in the place that wasn't fastened on Sapphire, and well she knew it. Though Carly was out-of-bounds, she liked having the men look at her; now no one would give her any more attention than the lantern on the table.

Sapphire winked broadly at Rune, who raised her eyebrows and played her a special little flourish as she sat down. Rune knew all the ladies now, and to her immense surprise, she found that she liked all of them. And never mind that one of them wasn't human. . . .

That was Topaz; a lady she had met only after Maddie had taken her aside and warned her not to show surprise if she could help it. What Topaz was, Rune had never had the temerity to ask. Another one of those creatures who, like Boony, came from-elsewhere. Only Topaz was nothing like Boony; she was thin and wiry and com-

pletely hairless, from her toe and finger-claws to the top of her head. Her golden eyes were set slantwise in her flat face, which could have been catlike; but she gave an impression less like a cat and far more like a lizard with her sinuosity and her curious stillness. Her skin was as gold as her eyes, a curious, metallic gold, and Rune often had the feeling that if she looked closely enough, she'd find that in place of skin Topaz really had a hide covered in tiny scales, the size of grains of dust. . . .

But whatever else she looked like, Topaz was close enough to human to be very popular at Amber's. Or else-

But Rune didn't want to speculate on that. She was still capable of being flustered by some of the things that went on here.

Her fingers wandered into "That Wild Ocean"-which made her think of Pearl, not because Pearl was wild, but because she reminded Rune of the way the melody twisted and twined in complicated figures, for all that it was a slow piece. Pearl was human, altogether human, though of a different race than anyone Rune had ever seen. She was tiny and very pale, with skin as colorless as white quartz, long black hair that fell unfettered right down to the floor, and black, obliquely slanted eyes. She and Topaz spent a great deal of their free time together; Rune suspected that there were more of Topaz's kind where Pearl came from, although neither of them had ever said anything to prove or disprove that. Occasionally Rune would catch them whispering together in what sounded like a language composed entirely of sibilants, but when Rune had asked Pearl if that was her native tongue, the tiny woman had shaken her head and responded with a string of liquid syllables utterly unlike the hissing she had shared with Topaz.

But for all their strangeness, Pearl and Topaz were very friendly, both to her and to Maddie, Shawm, and Arden. Maddie frankly adored Pearl, and would gladly run any errand the woman asked of her. Shawm, white-blond and bashful, with too-large hands and feet, was totally in awe of all the ladies, and couldn't even get a word out straight when they were around. Arden, tall and dark, like Rune, teased them all like a younger brother, and took great pleasure in being teased back. He was never at a loss for words with any of them-

Except for one; the fourth lady, Ruby, who was the perfect compliment to Sapphire. Her eyes were a bright, challenging green, in contrast to Sapphire's dreamy blue. Her hair was a brilliant red, cut shorter than Rune's. Her figure was athletic and muscular, and she kept it that way by running every morning when she rose, and following that by two hours of gymnastic exercises. Where Sapphire was soft and lush, she was muscle and whipcord. Where Sapphire was gentle, she was wild. Where Sapphire was languid, she was quicksilver; Sapphire's even temper was matched by her fiery changeability.

Predictably enough, they were best friends.

And where Arden could tease Sapphire until she collapsed in a fit of giggles, he became tongue-tied and silent in the presence of Ruby.

And Carly hated that.

Well, fortunately Ruby was fully occupied at the moment-so Arden could tease Sapphire as she teased the old gentlemen at her table, and Carly only glowered, she didn't fume.

All four of them, plus Maddie, were the first female friends Rune had ever had. She found herself smiling a little at that, and smiled a bit more when she realized that her fingers had started "Home, Home, Home." Well, this was the closest thing she'd ever had to a home. . . .

One by one, the four ladies had introduced themselves over the course of her first few weeks at Amber's, and gradually Rune had pieced together their stories. Topaz's history was the most straightforward. Topaz, like Boony, had been a bondling, and had been taken up for the same reason; failure to pay tax and tithe. She had been a small merchant-trader until that moment. Amber had bought her contract from one of the other houses at Pearl's hysterical insistence when the tiny creature learned that Topaz was in thrall there.

"And just as well," Topaz had said, once. "One more night there, and . . . something would have been dead. It might have been a client. It might have been me. I cannot say."

Looking at her strange, golden eyes, and the wildness lurking in them, Rune could believe it. It was not that Topaz had objected to performing what she called "concubine duties." Evidently that was a trade with no stigma attached in her (and Pearl's) country. It was some of the other things the house had demanded she perform. . . .

Her eyes had darkened and the pupils had widened until they were all that was to be seen when she'd said that. Rune had not asked any further questions.

Pearl had come as a concubine in the train of a foreign trader; when he had died, she had been left with nowhere to go. By the laws of her land, she was property-and should have been sent back with the rest of his belongings. But by the laws of Nolton, even a bondling was freed by the death of his bondholder, and no one was willing to part with the expense of transporting her home again.

But she had learned of Flower Street and of Amber's from her now-dead master, and had come looking for a place. Originally she had intended to stay only long enough to earn the money to return home, but she found that she liked it here, and so stayed on, amassing savings enough to one day retire to a place of her own, and devote herself to her other avocation, the painting of tiny pictures on eggshells. As curiosities, her work fetched good prices, and would be enough to supplement her savings.

Sapphire's story was the one she had obliquely referred to that first morning when Rune had met her; carried off and despoiled by a rich young merchant's son, she had been abandoned when her pregnancy first became apparent. She had been befriended by Tonno, who had found her fainting on his doorstep, and taken to Amber. What became of the child, Rune did not know, though she suspected that Amber had either rid the girl of it or she had miscarried naturally. Amber had seen the haggard remains of Sapphire's great beauty, and had set herself to bringing it back to full bloom again. And had succeeded. . . .

Then there was Ruby, who had been a wild child, willful, and determined to be everything her parents hated and feared. Possibly because they had been so determined that she become a good little daughter of the Church-perhaps even a cleric-Priest or a nun. She had run away from the convent, got herself deflowered by the first man she ran across (a minstrel, she had confided to Rune, "And I don't know who was the more amazed, him or me") and discovered that she not only had a talent for the games of man and maid, she craved the contact. So she had come to Nolton ("Working my way"), examined each of the brothels on Flower Street, then came straight to Amber, demanding a place upstairs.

Amber, much amused by her audacity and impressed by her looks, had agreed to a compromise-a week of trial, under the name "Garnet," promising her a promotion to "Ruby" and full house status if she did well.

She was "Ruby" within two days.

Ruby was the latest of the ladies, a fact that galled Carly no end. Carly had petitioned Amber for a trial so many times that the lady had forbidden her to speak of it ever again. She could not understand why Ruby had succeeded where she had failed.

Sapphire left the gentlemen for a moment and drifted over to Rune's corner. Seeing where she was headed, Rune brought her current song to an end, finishing it just as Sapphire reached the fireplace. The young gentleman who had earlier requested a song hardly breathed as he watched her move, his eyes wide, his face a little flushed.

"Rune, dear, each of the gentleman has a song he'd like you to play, and I have a request too, if you don't mind," Sapphire said softly, with an angelic smile. "I know you must be ready for a break, but with five more songs, I think dear Lerra might be ready to-you know."

Rune smiled back. "Anything for you ladies, Sapphire, and you know it. I didn't get to play much out on the street today; my fingers aren't the least tired."

That was a little lie, but five more songs weren't going to hurt them any.

"Thank you, dear," Sapphire breathed, her face aglow with gratitude. That was one of the remarkable things about Sapphire; whatever she felt, she felt completely, and never bothered to hide it. "All right, this is what we'd like. 'Fair Maid of The Valley,' 'Four Sisters,' 'Silver Sandals,' 'The Green Stone,' and 'The Dream of the Heart.' Can you do all those?"

"In my sleep," Rune told her, with a grin. Sapphire rewarded her with another of her brilliant smiles, and started to turn to go-

But then she turned back a moment. "You know, I must have thought this a thousand times, and I never told you. I am terribly envious of your talent, Rune. You were good when you first arrived-you're quite good now-and some day, people are going to praise your name from one end of this land to the other. I wish I had your gift."

"Well-" Rune said cautiously, "I don't know about that. I've a long way to go before I'm that good, and a hundred things could happen to prevent it. Besides-" she grinned. "It's one Guild Bard in a thousand that ever gets that much renown, and I doubt I'm going to be that one."

But Sapphire shook her head. "I tell you true, Rune. And I'll tell you something else; for all the money and the soft living and the rest of it, if I had a fraction of your talent, I'd never set foot upstairs. I'd stay in the common room and be an entertainer for the rest of my life. All four of us know how very hard you work, we admire you tremendously, and I want you to know that."

Then she turned and went back to her little gathering, leaving Rune flattered, and no little dumbfounded. They admired her? Beautiful, graceful, with everything they could ever want or need, and they admired her?

This was the first time she had ever been admired by anyone, and as she started the first of the songs Sapphire had requested, she felt a little warm current of real happiness rising from inside her and giving her fingers a new liveliness.

Even Jib thought I was a little bit daft for spending all my time with music, she thought, giving the tune a little extra flourish that made Sapphire half turn and wink at her from across the room. Tonno keeps thinking about what I should be learning, Maddie doesn't understand how I feel about music, and even to Lady Amber I'm just another part of the common room. That's the very first time anyone has ever just thought that what I did was worth it, in and of itself.

The warm feeling stayed with her, right till the end of the fifth song, when Sapphire laughingly drew one of the gentlemen to his feet and up the stairs after her.

She played one more song-and then she began to feel the twinges in her fingers that heralded trouble if she wasn't careful. Time for a break.

She threw the young gentleman a good-natured wink, which he returned, and set off to the kitchen for a bit of warm cider, since it was useless to ask Carly for anything.

They admire me. Who'd have thought it. . . .

Rune let her fingers prance their way across her lute-strings, forgetting that she was chilled in the spell of the music she was creating. Tonno listened to her play the piece she had first seen back in the summer, and thought impossible, with all its runs and triple-pickings, with his eyes closed and his finger marking steady time.

She played it gracefully, with relish for the complexities, with all the repeats and embellishments. She couldn't believe how easy it seemed-and how second-nature it was to read and play these little black notes on the page. She couldn't have conceived of this back in the summer, but one day everything had fallen into place, and she hadn't once faltered since. She came to the end, and waited, quietly, for her teacher to say something. When he didn't, when he didn't even open his eyes, she obeyed an impish impulse and put down the lute, picking up Lady Rose instead.

Then she started in on the piece again-this time playing it on the fiddle. Of course, it was a little different on the fiddle; she stumbled and faltered on a couple of passages where the fingering that was natural for the lute was anything but on the fiddle, but she got through it intact. Tonno's eyes had flown open in surprise at the first few bars; he stared at her all through the piece, clearly dumbfounded, right up until the moment that she ended with a flourish.

She put the fiddle and bow down, and waited for him to say something.

He took a deep breath. "Well," he said. "You've just made up my mind for me, dear. If ever I was desirous of a sign from God, that was it."

She wrinkled her brow, puzzled. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked. "It was just that lute-piece, that's all."

"Just the lute-piece-which you proceeded to play through on an instrument it wasn't intended for." Tonno shook his head. "Rune, I've been debating this for the past two weeks, but I can't be selfish anymore. You're beyond me, on both your instruments. I can't teach you any more."

It was her turn to stare, licking suddenly dry lips, not sure of what to say. "But-but I-"

This was too sudden, too abrupt, she thought, her heart catching with something like fear. She wasn't ready for it all to end; at least, not yet. I'm not ready to leave. There's still the whole winter yet, the Faire isn't until Midsummer-what am I supposed to do between now and then?

"Don't look at me like that, girl," Tonno said, a little gruffly, rubbing his eyebrow with a hand encased in fingerless gloves. "Just because you're beyond my teaching, that doesn't mean you're ready for what you want to do."

"I'm-not?" she said dazedly, not certain whether to be relieved or disappointed.

"No," Tonno replied firmly. "You're beyond my ability to contribute to your teaching-in music-but you're not good enough to win one of the Bard apprenticeships. And I've heard some of your tunes, dear; you shouldn't settle for less than a Bardic position. Of all the positions offered at the Faire, only a handful are for Bardic teaching, and you are just not good enough to beat the ninety-nine other contenders for those positions."

Good news and bad, all in the same bite. "Will I ever be?" she asked doubtfully.

"Of course you will!" he snapped, as if he was annoyed at her doubt. "I have a damned good ear, and I can tell you when you will be ready. What we'll have to do is find some of my truly complicated music, the things I put away because they were beyond my meager capabilities to play. You'll practice them until your fingers are blue, and then you'll learn to transpose music from other instruments to yours and play that until your fingers are blue. Practice is what you need now, and practice, by all that's holy, is what you're going to get."

I guess it's not over yet. Not even close. She sighed, but he wasn't finished with his plans for her immediate future.

"Then there's the matter of your other lessons," he continued inexorably. "I've taught you how to read music; now I'll teach you how to write it as well-by ear, without playing it first on your instruments. I'll see that you learn as much as I know of other styles, and of the work of the Great Bards. And then, my dear, I'm going to drill you in reading, history in particular, until you think you've turned Scholar!"

"Oh, no-" she said involuntarily. While she was reading with more competence, it still wasn't something that came easily. Unlike music, she still had to work at understanding. History, in particular, was a great deal of hard work.

"Oh, yes," he told her, with a smile. "If you're going to become a Guild Bard, you're going to have to compete with boys who've been learning from Scholars all their lives. You're going to have to know plenty about the past-who's who, and more importantly, why, because if you inadvertently offend the wrong person-"

He sliced his finger dramatically across his neck.

She shuddered, reflexively, as a breath of cold that came out of nowhere touched the back of her neck.

"Now," he said, clearing the music away from the stand in front of her, and stacking it neatly in the drawer of the cabinet beside him. "Put your instruments back in their cases and come join me by the stove. I want you to know some hard truths, and what you're getting yourself into."

She cased the lute and Lady Rose obediently, and pulled her short cloak a little tighter around her shoulders. Tonno's stove didn't give off a lot of heat, partially because fuel was so expensive that he didn't stoke it as often as Amber fueled her fireplaces. Rune would have worried more about him in this cold, except that he obviously had a lot of ploys to keep himself warm, He spent a lot of time at Amber's in the winter, Maddie said; nursing a few drinks and keeping some of the waiting clients company with a game of pentangle or cards, and Amber smiled indulgently and let him stay.

I wonder what it is that he did for her, that they're such good friends?

Rune followed him to the back of the living-quarters, bringing her chair with her, and settled herself beside him as he huddled up to the metal stove.

He wrapped an old comforter around himself, and raised his bushy gray eyebrows at her. "Now, first of all, as far as I know, there are no girls in the Guild," he stated flatly. "So right from the beginning, you're going to have a problem."

She nodded; she'd begun to suspect something of the sort. She'd noticed that no one wearing the purple ribbon-knots was female-

And she'd discovered her first weeks out busking that every time she wore anything even vaguely feminine out on the street, she got propositions. Eventually, she figured out why.

There were plenty of free-lance whores out on the street, pretending to busk, with their permits stuck on their hats like anyone else. She found out why, when she'd asked the dancers that performed by the fountain every night. The permit for busking was cheaper by far than the fees to the Whore's Guild, so many whores, afraid of being caught and thrown into the workhouse for soliciting without a permit or Guild badge, bought busking permits. The Church, which didn't approve of either whores or musicians, ignored the deception; the city frowned, but looked the other way, so long as those on the street bought some sort of permit. Real musicians wore the ribbon knots on their sleeves, and whores didn't, but most folk hadn't caught on to that distinction. So, the result was undoubtedly that female musicians had a reputation in the Guild for being something else entirely.

But still-the auditions should weed out those with other professions. Shouldn't they? And why on Earth would a whore even come to the trials?

"The reason there aren't any females in the Guild," he continued, "is because they aren't allowed to audition at the Faire. Ever."

She stared at him, anger warming her cheek at the realization that he hadn't bothered to say anything to her about this little problem with her plans before this.

"I imagine you're wondering why I didn't tell you that in the first place." He raised an eyebrow, and she blushed that he could read her so easily. "It's simple enough. I didn't think it would be a problem as long as you were prepared for it. You've carried off the boy-disguise perfectly well; I've seen you do it, and fool anyone who just looks at the surface of things. I don't see any reason why you can't get your audition as a boy, and tell them the truth after you've won your place."

She flushed again, this time at her own stupidity. She should have figured that out for herself. "But won't they be angry?" she asked, a little doubtfully.

Tonno shrugged. "That, I can't tell you. I don't know. I do know that if you've been so outstanding that you've surprised each and every one of them, if they are any kind of musician at all, they'll overlook your sex. They might make you keep up the disguise while you're an apprentice, but once you're a master, you can do what you want and they can be hanged."

That seemed logical, and she could see the value of the notion. So long as she went along with their ideas of what was proper, they'd give her what she wanted-but once she had it, she would be free of any restraints. They weren't likely to take her title away; once you were a Master Bard, you were always a Master, no matter what you did. They hadn't even taken away the title from Master Marley, who had lulled his patron, Sire Jacoby, to sleep, and let in his enemies by the postern gate to kill him and all his family. They'd turned him over to the Church and the High King for justice, but they'd left him his title. Not that it had done much good in a dungeon.

"I intend you to leave here with enough knowledge crammed into that thick head of yours-and enough skill in those fingers-to give every boy at the trials a run for his money," Tonno said firmly. "I trust you don't plan to settle for less than an apprenticeship to a Guild Bard?" He raised one eyebrow.

She shook her head, stubbornly. Guild Minstrels only played music; Guild Bards created it. There were songs in her head dying to get out-

"Good." Tonno nodded with satisfaction "That's what I hoped you'd say. You're too good a musician to be wasted busking out in the street. You should have noble patrons, and the only way you're going to get that is through the Guild. That's the only way to rise in any profession; through the Guilds. Guildsman keep standards high and craftsmanship important. And that's not all. If you're good enough, the Guild will make certain that you're rewarded, by backing you."

"Like what?" she asked, curiously, and tucked her hands under her knees to warm them.

"Oh, like Master Bard Gwydain," Tonno replied, his eyes focused somewhere past her head, as if he was remembering something. "I heard him play, once, you know. Amazing. He couldn't have been more than twenty, but he played like no one I've ever heard-and that was twenty years ago, before he was at the height of his powers. Ten years ago, the High King himself rewarded Master Gwydain-made him Laurel Sire Gwydain, and gave him lands and a royal pension. A great many of the songs I've been teaching you are his-'Spellbound Captive,' 'Dream of the Heart,' 'That Wild Ocean,' 'Black Rose,' oh, he must have written hundreds before he was through. Amazing."

He fell silent, as the light in the shop began to dim with the coming of evening. Soon Rune would have to leave, to return to Amber's, but curiosity got the better of her; after all, if Gwydain had been twenty or so, twenty years ago, he couldn't be more than forty now. Yet she had never heard anyone mention his name.

"What happened to him?" she asked, breaking into Tonno's reverie. He started a little, and wrinkled his brow. "You know, that's the odd part," he said slowly. "It's a mystery. No one I've talked to knows what happened to him; he seems to have dropped out of sight about five or ten years ago, and no one has seen nor heard of him since. There've been rumors, but that's all."

"What kind of rumors?" she persisted, feeling an urgent need to know, though she couldn't have told why.

"Right after he vanished, there was a rumor he'd died tragically, but no one knew how-right after that there was another that he'd taken vows, renounced the world, and gone into Holy Orders." Tonno shook his head. "I don't believe either one, if you want to know the truth. It seems to me that if he'd really died, there'd have been a fancy funeral and word of it all over the countryside. And if he'd taken Holy Orders, he'd be composing Church music. There's never been so much as a hint of scandal about him, so that can't be it. I just don't know."

Rune had the feeling that Tonno was very troubled by this disappearance-well, so was she. It left an untidy hole, a mystery that cried to be cleared up. "What if he gave up music for some reason?" she asked. "Then if he'd gone into the Church, he'd have just vanished."

"Give up music? Not likely," Tonno snorted. "You can't keep a Bard from making music. It's something they're born to do. No," he shook his head vehemently. "Something odd happened to him, and that's for sure-and the Guild is keeping it quiet. Maybe he had a brainstorm, and he can't play, or even speak clearly. Maybe he took wasting fever and he's too weak to do anything. Maybe he ran off to the end of the world, looking for new things. But something out of the ordinary happened to him, I would bet my last copper on it. It's a mystery."

He changed the subject then, back to quizzing Rune on the history she'd been reading, and they did not again return to the subject of Master Bard Gwydain. Eventually darkness fell, and it was time for her to leave.

She bundled herself up in her cloak, slung her instruments across her back underneath it to keep them from the cold, and let herself out of the shop, wanting to spare Tonno the trip up through the cold, darkened store. As she hurried along the street towards Amber's, the wind whipping around her ankles and crawling under her hood until she shivered with cold, she found herself thinking about the mystery.

She agreed with Tonno; unless she were at death's door, or otherwise crippled, she would not be able to stop making music. If Gwydain still lived, he must be plying his birthright, somewhere.

And if he was dead, someone should know about it. If he was dead, and the Guild was keeping it quiet, there must be a reason.

And I'll find it out, she decided, suddenly. When I get into the Guild, I'll find it out. No matter what. They can't keep it a secret forever. . . .

CHAPTER TEN

Rune fitted the key Tonno had given her into the old lock on the front door of the shop, and tried to turn it. Nothing happened.

Frozen again, she thought, and swore under her breath at the key, the ancient lock, and the damned weather. She pulled the key out and tucked it under her armpit to warm it, wincing as the cold metal chilled her through her heavy sweater, and flinching again as a gust of wind blew a swirl of snow down her neck. She glanced up and down the silent street; the only traffic was a pair of tradesmen muffled in cloaks much heavier than hers, probably hurrying to open their own shops, and a couple of apprentice-boys out on errands. Other than that, there was no one. The slate-colored sky overhead spilled thin skeins of flurries, and the wind sent them skating along the street like ghost-snakes.

Whatever could have been in God's mind when He invented winter? Thrice-forsaken season. . . .

It didn't look like a good day for trade-but Scholars made up half of Tonno's business, and days like today, she had learned, meant business from Scholars. They'd be inside all day, fussing over their libraries or collections of curiosities, and discover they had somehow neglected to buy that book or bone or odd bit of carving they'd looked at back in the summer. And now, of course, they simply must have it. So they'd wait until one of their students arrived for a special lesson, and the hapless youth would be sent out On Quest with a purchase-order and a purse, will-he, nill-he. Those sales made a big difference to Tonno, especially in winter, and made it worth keeping the shop open.

She pulled out the key and stuck it back into the lock quickly, before it had a chance to chill down again. This time, when she put pressure on it, the lock moved. Stiffly, but the door did unlock, and she hurriedly pushed it open and shoved it closed against another snow-bearing gust of wind.

"Tonno?" she called out. "I'm here!"

She flipped the little sign in the window from "Closed" to "Open," and made her way back to the counter, where she raised the hinged part and flipped it over. "Tonno?" she called again.

"I'm awake, Rune," he replied, his voice distant and a little weak. "I'm just not-out of bed yet."

She frowned; he didn't sound well. She'd better get back to him before he decided to be stubborn and open the shop himself. In weather like this, or so Amber told her, Tonno did better to stay in bed.

She pushed the curtain in the doorway aside and hurried over to his bedside. Before he had a chance to struggle out of the motley selection of comforters, quilts, and old blankets he had piled, one atop the other so that the holes and worn spots in each of them were compensated for by the sound spots in the others, she reached him and had taken his hand in both of hers, examining the joints with a critical eye. As she had expected, they were swollen, red, and painful to look at.

"You aren't going anywhere," she said firmly. "There's a storm out there, and it's mucking up your hands and every other bone you've got, I'd wager."

He frowned, but it was easy to see his heart wasn't in the protest. "But I didn't get up yesterday except-"

"So you don't get up today. what's the difference?" she asked, reasonably. "I can mind the shop. We'll probably get a customer or two, but not more. That's hardly work at all. And I'm not busking today; it's too damned cold and I'll not risk Lady Rose to weather like this. I might just as well mind the shop and give your lessons to-who is it today-Anny and Ket? I thought so. They're bare beginners. Easy. I could teach them half asleep. And their parents don't care if it's me or you who teaches them, so long as they get the lessons they've paid for."

"But you aren't benefiting by this-" Tonno said fretfully. "You should be out earning a few coppers-"

She shrugged. "There's no one out there to earn coppers from. I picked up a little in my hat at Amber's last night, enough for the tax and tithe. And I am benefiting-" She gave him a wide grin. "If I'm here, I'm not there, and I don't have to listen to Carly's bullying and whining."

"You haven't been tormenting her, have you?" Tonno asked sharply, with more force than she expected. She gave him a quizzical look, wondering what notion he'd gotten into his head. Surely Carly didn't deserve any sympathy from Tonno!

"Not unless you consider ignoring her to be tormenting her," she replied, straightening his bedcovers, then putting a kettle on the stove and a brick to heat beneath it. "I try not to let her bother me, but she does bully me every chance she gets, and she says nasty things about my playing to the customers. She'd probably say worse than that about me, but the only thing she can think of is that since I dress like a boy sometimes, I might be a poppet or an androgyn. That's hardly going to be an insult in a place like Amber's! It's just too bad for her that the clients all have ears of their own, and they don't agree with her. Maddie is the one who teases her."

Tonno relaxed. "Good. But be careful, Rune. I've been thinking about her, and wondering why Amber keeps her on, and I think now I know the reason. I think she's a spy for the Church."

"A what?" Rune turned from her work to gape at him. "Carly? Whatever for? What reason would the Church have to spy on a brothel?"

"I can think of several reasons," he said, his face and voice troubled. "The most obvious is to report on how many clients come and go, and how much money they tip in the common room, to make certain that all taxes and tithes have been paid for. That's fairly innocuous as things go, since we both know perfectly well that all the fees are paid at Amber's and on time, too. There's another reason, too, though; and it's one that would just suit the girl's sour spirit right down to the core."

"Oh?" she asked, a cold lump of worry starting in the pit of her stomach. "What's that?"

She couldn't imagine what interest the Church would find in a brothel-and if she couldn't imagine it, it must be something darkly sinister. She began wondering about all those rumors she'd heard of Church Priests being versed in dark magics, when his next words cleared her mind entirely. "Fornication," he said. "Fornication is a sin, Rune. Although the laws of the city say nothing about it, the only lawful congress by the Church's rule, is between man and woman who are wedded by Church ceremony. And, by Church rule, sins must be confessed and paid for, either by penance or donation."

Her first impulse had been to laugh, but second thought proved that Tonno's concern was real, though less sinister than her fears. She nodded, thoughtfully. "So if Carly keeps a list of who comes and goes, and gives it to the Church, the next time Guildsman Weaver shows up to confess and do penance, if he doesn't list his visit to Amber's-he's in trouble."

Tonno sighed, and reached eagerly for the mug of hot tea she handed to him. "And for the men of means who visit Amber's, the trouble will mean that the Priest will confront them with their omission, impress them with his 'supernatural' understanding, and assign additional penance-"

"Additional guilt-money, you mean," she finished cynically. "And meanwhile, no doubt, Carly's record-keeping is paying off her sins for working in a brothel in the first place." She sniffed, angrily. "Oh, that makes excellent sense, Tonno. And it explains a lot. Since Carly can't have a place at Amber's, she'll do her best to foul the bedding for everyone else. And she'll come out sanctimoniously lily-white."

She picked up the hot brick and tucked it into the foot the bed, replacing it under the stove with another. The heat did a great deal of good for Tonno; already there was a bit more color in his face, and some of the lines of pain around his eyes and mouth were easing.

He took another sip of tea, and nodded. "Do you see what I mean by suiting the girl's nature? Likely she's even convinced herself that this was why she came to work there in the first place, to keep an eye on the welfare of others' souls."

"No doubt," Rune said dryly. She stirred oatmeal into a pot of water, and set it on top of the stove beside the kettle to cook. "She'll always want the extreme of anything; if she can't be a highly paid whore, she'll be a saint. What I can't understand is why Amber lets her stay on-you pretty much implied that she knows what Carly's up to."

Tonno laughed, though the worry lines about his mouth had not eased any. "That's the cleverness of our Lady Amber, dear. As long as Carly is in place, she knows who the spy is. If there is truly someone whose reputation with the Church is so delicate that he must not be seen at Amber's, then all the lady needs to do is make certain Carly doesn't see him. And I suspect Lady Amber has whatever official Carly reports to quite completely bribed."

Wiser in the ways of bribery than she had been a scant six months ago, Rune nodded. "If she got rid of Carly, someone else might get his agent in, and she'd have to find out what his price was."

"But if she stopped bribing the old official, he'd report on what Carly had given him already." Tonno shrugged. "Amber knows what's going on, what's being reported, and saves money this way as well. And what does Carly cost her, really? Nothing she wouldn't be paying anyway. She'd have to bribe someone in the Church to be easy with the clients, no matter what."

Rune shook her head. "I guess I'll have to put up with it, and be grateful that I personally don't care that much about the state of my soul to worry about what working in a whorehouse is going to do to it. I'm probably damned anyway, for having the poor taste to be born on the wrong side of the blankets."

"That's the spirit!" Tonno laughed a little, and she cheered up herself, seeing that he was able to laugh without hurting himself. She gave the room a sketchy cleaning, and washed last night's supper dishes. By then the oatmeal was ready and she spooned out enough for both of them, sweetening it with honey. She ate a lot faster than he did; he wasn't even half finished with his portion when she'd cleaned her bowl of the last spoonful. She put the dish into the pan of soapsuds just as the bell to the front door tinkled.

He started to get up from sheer habit, but she glared at him until he sank back into the pillows, and hurried to the front of the shop.

As she'd anticipated, since it was too early for either of the children having music lessons to arrive, the person peering into the shop with a worried look on his face was one of the University Students. The red stripe on the shoulders of his cloak told her he was a Student of Philosophy. Good. They had money-and by extension, so did their teachers. Only a rich man could afford to let his son idle away his time on something like Philosophy. And rich men paid well for their sons' lessons.

"Can I help you, my lord?" she said into the silence of the shop, startling him. He jumped, then peered short-sightedly at her as she approached.

"Is this the shop of-" he consulted a strip of paper in his hand "-Tonno Alendor?"

"Yes it is, my lord," she said, and waited. He looked at her doubtfully.

"I was told to seek out this Tonno himself," he said. The set of his chin told her that he was of the kind of nature to be stubborn, but the faint quiver of doubt in his voice also told her he could be bullied. Another of Tonno's lessons: how to read people, and know how to deal with them.

"Master Tonno is ill. I am his niece," she lied smoothly. "He entrusts everything to me."

The soft, round chin firmed as the spoiled young man who was not used to being denied what he wanted emerged; in response to that warning, so did her voice. "If you truly wish to disturb him, if you feel you must pester a poor, sick old man, I can take you to his bedside"-and I'll make you pay dearly for it in embarrassment, her voice promised-"but he'll only tell you the same thing, young man."

Her tone, and the scolding "young man," she appended to her little speech, gave him the impression she was much older than he had thought. Nearsighted as he was, and in the darkness of the shop, he would probably believe it. And, as she had hoped, he must have a female relative somewhere that was accustomed to browbeating him into obedience; his resistance collapsed immediately.

"Scholar Mardake needs a book," he said meekly. "He looked at it last summer, and he was certain he had purchased it, but now he finds he hadn't, and he has to have it for his monograph, and-"

She let him rattle on for far too long about the monograph, the importance of it, and how it would enhance Scholar Mardake's already illustrious reputation. And, by extension, the reputations and status of all of Mardake's Students.

What a fool.

She tried not to yawn in his face, but it was difficult. Jib had more sense in his big toe than this puffed-up popinjay had in his entire body. And of all the things to be over-proud of-this endless debate over frothy nothings, like the question of what a "soul" truly consisted of, made her weary to the bone. If they would spend half the time on questions of a practical nature instead of this chop-logic drivel, the world would be better run. Finally he came to the point: the name of the book.

"By whom?" she asked, finally getting a word in. Of all of the Scholars, the Philosophers were by far and away the windiest.

"Athold Derelas," he replied, loftily, as if he expected that she had never heard of the great man.

"Ah, you're in luck," she replied immediately. "We have two copies. Does your master prefer the annotated version by Wasserman, or the simple translation by Bartol?"

He gaped at her. She stifled a giggle. In truth, she wouldn't have known the books were there if she hadn't replaced a volume of history by Lyam Derfan to its place beside them the day before. It was bad enough that she'd known of the book; but she'd offered two choices, and he didn't know how to react. He'd loftily assumed, no doubt, that she was the next thing to illiterate, and she'd just confounded him.

He'd have been less startled to hear a pig sing, or an ape recite poetry.

She decided to rub the humiliation in. "If your master is doing a monograph covering Derelas' work as a whole, he would probably want the annotated version," she continued blithely, "but if all he wants is Derelas' comments on specific subjects, he'd be better off with the Bartol translation."

Now the young man had to refer to the slip of paper in his hand. He looked from it, to her, and back again, and couldn't seem to come to a decision. His face took on a pinched look of miserable confusion.

"Perhaps he'd better have both," she suggested. "No knowledge is ever wasted, after all. The Wasserman is rare; he may find enough of interest in it for an entirely new monograph."

The Student brightened up considerably. "Yes, of course," he said happily, and Rune had no doubt that he would parrot her words back to his Scholar as if they were his own, and suggesting that the shop-girl hadn't known what a rarity the Wasserman was, so that he'd gotten the book at a bargain price.

Before he could change his mind-it was his master's money he was spending, after all, and not his own-she rolled the floor-to-ceiling ladder over to the "D" section, and scampered up it. The Student virtuously averted his eyes, blushing, lest he have an inadvertent glimpse of feminine flesh. As if there was anything to be seen under her double skirts, double leggings, and boots.

Besides being the most long-winded, Philosophers were also the most prudish of the Scholars-at least the ones that Rune had met. She much preferred the company of the Natural Scientists and the Mathematicians. The former were full of the wonders of the world, and eager to share the strange stories of birds and beasts; the latter tended to make up for the times when they lost themselves in the dry world of numbers with a vengeance. And both welcomed women into their ranks far oftener than the Philosophers.

Doubtless because women are too sensible to be distracted for long by maunderings about airy nothings.

She came down with both books clutched in her hand, eluding his grasp for them so easily he might not even have been standing there, and took them behind the counter. There she consulted the book where Tonno noted the prices of everything in the shop, by category. It was a little tedious, for things were listed in the order he had acquired them, and not in the alphabetical order in which they were ranked on the shelves. But finally she had the prices of both of them, and looked up, reaching beneath the counter for a piece of rough paper to wrap them in.

"The Wasserman, as I said, is rare," she said, deftly making a package and tying it with a bit of string. "Master Tonno has it listed at forty silver pieces."

His mouth gaped, and he was about to utter a gasp of outrage. She continued before he had a chance. "The other is more common as I said; it is only twenty. Now, as it is Master Tonno's policy to offer a discount to steady clients like your Scholar, I believe I can let you have both for fifty." She batted her eyelashes ingenuously at him. "After all, Master Tonno does trust me in all things, and it isn't often we have a fine young man like you in the shop."

The appeal to his vanity killed whatever protest he had been about to make. His mouth snapped shut, and he counted out the silver quickly, before she could change her mind. He knew very well-although he did not know that she knew-his Scholar was anything but a steady customer; he bought perhaps a book or two in a year. What he did not know-and since he was not a regular customer, neither would his Scholar-was that she had inflated the listed prices of both books by ten silver pieces each. She had heard other Scholars speaking when she had tended the shop before, chuckling over Tonno's prices. She heard a lot of things Tonno didn't. The Scholars tended to ignore her as insignificant.

So whenever she had sold a book lately, she had inflated the price. Scholars would never argue with her, assuming no woman would be so audacious as to cheat a Scholar; their Students never argued with her because she bullied and flattered them the same way she had treated this boy, and with the same effect. And when she added the nonsense about a "discount," they generally kept their mouths shut.

She handed him the parcel, and he hurried out into the cold. She dropped the taxes and tithes into the appropriate boxes, and pocketed the rest to take back to Tonno. Merchants with shops never went to a Church stall the way buskers and peddlers did; they kept separate tax and tithe boxes which were locked with keys only the Church Collectors had. The Collectors would come around once a week with a city constable to take what had accumulated in the boxes, noting the amounts in their books. Rune actually liked the Collector who serviced Tonno's shop; she hadn't expected to, but the first day he had appeared when she was on duty he had charmed her completely. Brother Bryan was a thin, energetic man with a marvelously dry sense of humor, and was, so far as she could tell, absolutely honest. Tonno seemed convinced of his honesty as well, and greeted him as a friend. And whenever she was here and Tonno was ill, he would make a point of coming to the back of the shop to see how the old man was faring, pass the time of day with him, and see if he could find some way to entertain Tonno a little before he continued on his rounds of the other shops.

She dipped a quill in a bit of ink and ran a delicate line through the titles of the two books to indicate they had been sold, and returned to Tonno.

He sat up with interest, and demanded to know what had happened. He shook his head over her duplicity with the spurious "discount," but she noted that he did not demand that she refund the extra ten silvers.

"You should update your prices," she said, scolding a little. "You haven't changed some of them from the time when your father ran this shop. I know you haven't, because I've seen the prices still in his handwriting."

He sighed. "But people come here for bargains, Rune," he replied plaintively. "Even when father had the shop, this district was changing over from shops to residences. Now-it's so out of the way that no one would ever come here at all if they didn't know they'd get a bargain."

"You can make them think you've given them a bargain and still not cheat yourself," she said, taking the empty bowl from the floor beside his bed and swishing it in the painfully cold wash-water until it was clean.

"I hope you put what was due in the tax box, and not what was in the book," he said suddenly.

She grimaced, but nodded. "Of course I did. Although I can't for the life of me see why. That Scholar isn't likely to tell anyone how much he paid, and you need every silver you can get. We may not have another sale for a week or more!" She put the bowl back on the shelf with a thud.

"Because it's our responsibility, Rune," he replied, patiently, as if she was a child. He said that every time she brought up the subject of taxes, and she was tired to death of hearing it. He never once explained what he meant, and she just couldn't see it. There were too many rich ones she suspected of diddling the tax rolls to get by with paying less than they should.

"Why is it our responsibility?" she asked fiercely. "And why ours? I don't see anyone else leaping forward to throw money in the tax and tithe boxes! You and Amber keep saying that, and I don't see any reason for it!"

He just looked at her, somberly, until she flushed. He made her feel as if she had said something incredibly irresponsible, and that made no sense. She didn't know why she should feel embarrassed by her outburst, but she did, and that made her angry as well.

"Rune," he said slowly, as if he had just figured out that she was serious. "There truly is a reason for it. Now do you really want to hear the reason, or do you want to be like all those empty-headed fools out there who grumbled about taxes and cheat when they can, and never once think about who or what they're cheating?"

"Well, if there's a reason, I'd certainly like to hear it," she muttered, skeptically, and sat down in the chair beside his bed. "Nothing I've seen yet has given me a reason to think differently, and you're the one who taught me to trust my eyes and not just parrot what I've been told!"

"You've lived here for almost half a year," Tonno replied. "I know that there's a world of difference between Nolton and your little village; there are things we do here that no one would ever think of doing back in Westhaven." She made a face, but he continued. "I know I'm saying something obvious, but because it's obvious, you might not have thought about it. There are things that people take for granted after they've been here as long as you have; things that are invisible, but that we couldn't do without. Dung-sweepers, for instance. Who cleans up the droppings in Westhaven?"

"Well, no one," she admitted. "It gets kicked to one side or trodden into the mud, that's about it."

"But if we did that here, we'd be knee-deep in manure in a week," Tonno pointed out, and she nodded agreement. "Who do you think pays the dung-sweepers?"

"I never wondered about it," she admitted with surprise. "I thought the dung must be valuable to someone-for composting, or something-"

"It is, and they sell it to farmers, but that's not enough to compensate a man for going about with a barrow all day collecting it," Tonno pointed out. "The city pays them-right out of that tax box." She rubbed her hands together to warm them, about to say something, but he continued. "Who guards the streets of Westhaven by day or night from robbers, drunks, troublemakers and thieves?"

She laughed, because it was something else that would never have occurred to her old village to worry about. "No one. Nobody's abroad very late, and if they are, there's no one to trouble them. If a drunk falls on his face in the street, he can lie there until morning."

But she couldn't keep the laughter from turning uneasy. It might not have occurred to them, but it would have been a good thing if it had. A single constable could have prevented a lot of trouble in the past. If there'd been someone like the city guard or constables around, would those bullies have tried to molest her that day? Even one adult witness would likely have prevented the entire incident. How many times had something like that happened to someone who couldn't defend herself?

Was that how Stara had gotten into trouble in the first place, as a child too young to know better? Was that why she had gone on to trade her favors so cheaply?

If that incident with Jon and his friends hadn't occurred, would Rune have been quite so willing to seek a life out in the wider world?

"That will do for a little village, but what would we do here?" Tonno asked gently. "There are thousands of people living here; most are honest, but some are not. What's a shopkeeper to do, spend his nights waiting with a dagger in hand?"

"Couldn't people-well-band together, and just have one of them watch for all?" she asked, self-consciously, flushing; knowing it wasn't any kind of a real answer. "I suppose they could pay him for his troubles-" Then she shook her head. "That's basically what the constables are, aren't they? That's what you're trying to tell me. And they're paid from taxes too."

"Constables, dung-sweepers, the folk who repair and maintain the wells and the aqueducts, and a hundred more jobs you'd never think of and likely wouldn't see. Rat-catchers and street-tenders, gate-keepers and judges, gaolers and the men who make certain food sold in the marketplace is what it's said to be." Tonno leaned forward, earnestly, and she saw that the light was fading.

"I suppose you're right." She lit a candle at the stove, but he wasn't going to be distracted from his point.

"That's what a government is all about, Rune," he said, more as if he was pleading with her than as if he was trying to win an argument. "Taking care of all the things that come up when a great many people live together. And yes, most of those things each of us could do for himself, taking care of his own protection, and his family's, and minding the immediate area around his home and shop-but that would take a great deal of time, and while the expenses would be less, they would come in lumps, and in the way of things, at the worst possible time." He laughed ruefully, and so did she. It hadn't been that long ago they'd had one of those lump expenses, when the roof sprang a leak and they'd had it patched.

She could see his point-but not his passion. And for something as cold and abstract as a government. "But you don't like paying taxes either," she said in protest, and he nodded.

"No, I don't. That's quite true. There are some specific taxes that I think are quite unfair. I pay a year-tax leavened against the shop simply because I own it, rather than renting, and when my father died, I paid a death-tax in order to inherit. I don't think those taxes are particularly fair. But"-he held up his hand to forestall her comments-"those are only two taxes, with a government that could leaven far more taxes than it does. I've heard of cities where they tax money earned, then tax the goods sold, then tax every stage a product goes through as it changes hands-"

She shook her head, baffled. "I don't understand-" she said. "How can they do that?"

He explained further. "Take a cow; it is taxed when it is sold as a weanling, taxed again when it is brought to market, the rawhide is taxed when it comes into the hands of the tanners, taxed again when it goes to the leather-broker, taxed when it is sold to the shoemaker, then taxed a final time when the shoes are sold."

Her head swam at the thought of all those taxes.

"That kind of taxation is abusive; when the time comes that the price of an object is doubled to pay the taxes on it, that is abusive. And governments of that nature are generally abusive of the people that live under them as well." Tonno leaned back into his pillows, and he looked like a man who was explaining something he cared about, deeply.

As deeply as I care about music, she thought in surprise. She had found his secret passion. And it was nothing like what she would have expected.

"Before you ask," he told her, carefully, as if he was weighing each word for its true value, "I can tell you that you'll get a different definition of an abusive government from nearly everyone who cares to think about such things. In general, though, I would say that when a government is more concerned with keeping itself in power, and keeping its officials in luxury, whether they were elected to the posts, appointed, or inherited the position, then that government is abusive as well. Government is what takes care of things beyond you. Good government cares for the well-being of the people it serves. Abusive government cares only for its own well-being. The fewer the people, the less government you need. Does that seem clear to you?"

She thought about it for a moment. She'd begun listening to this mostly because she respected Tonno, and this seemed to mean a great deal to him. But the more he'd said, the more she began to get a glimmering of a wider sphere than the one she was used to dealing with-and it intrigued her in the way the things the Mathematicians said intrigued her. And now she realized that Amber had said basically the same things, in cryptic little bits, over the past several months. Reluctantly, she had to agree that they were right.

Still-this was the real world she was living in, and not some Philosopher's book, where everyone did as he should, and everything was perfect. "But what about the stories I keep hearing?" she protested, taking one last shot at disproving his theories. "The things about the inspectors who take bribes, and the gaolers who turn people loose no matter what they've done, so long as they've got money enough? What about the clerics at the Church stalls, who'll take all your money as tax or tithe, then insist you owe as much over again for the one you didn't pay? I bet they pocket the difference!"

Tonno shrugged, then chuckled a little, though sadly. "You're dealing with people, Rune, and the real world, not a Philosopher's ideal sphere," he said, echoing her very thoughts. "People are corruptible, and any time you have money changing hands, someone is likely to give in to temptation. So I'll give you another definition: since there's always going to be corruption, a good government is one where you have a manageable level of corruption!"

He laughed at that one. She made a face, but laughed with him. "Right, I'll grant your stand on taxes, but what about tithes? What's the Church doing to earn all that money? They take in as much as the city, and they aren't hiring the rat-catchers!"

"What's the Church doing-or what is it supposed to be doing, rather?" he asked, his expression hardening. "What it's supposed to be doing is to care for those who can't care for themselves-to feed and clothe the impoverished, to heal the sick, to bring peace where there is war, to be family to the orphaned, find justice for those who have been denied it. The Priests are bound to make certain every child can read and write and cipher, so that it can grow up to find a place or earn a living without being cheated. That's what it's supposed to be doing. That, and give the time to God that few of us have the leisure for, so that, hopefully, God will know when we have need of His powers, having run out of solutions for ourselves."

She nodded. That was, indeed, what the village Priest was supposed to deal with-when he wasn't too busy with being holy, that is. He seemed to spend a great deal of time convincing the villagers that he was much more important than they were. . . .

Tonno took note of her abstracted nod. "And we all pay tithes to see that it gets done-because one day I may be too ill to care for myself, you may find yourself in a town on the brink of war, your friend's child may lose its parents, you might find yourself in the right-but up against the Sire himself, with no hope from his courts. And some of that is done."

"But?" she asked, a little more harshly than she intended. Nobody had seen that justice was done for her-or Jib. Had she been raped, would the Priest have lifted a finger to see that the bullies paid? Not a chance. More likely he'd have condemned her for leading them on.

"But not enough to account for the enormous amount of money the Church takes in," Tonno replied, his mouth a tight, grim line. "And I could be in very deep trouble if you were ever to repeat my words to a Church official other than, say, Brother Bryan. The Church is an example of an abusive government; it punishes according to whim, or according to who can afford to buy it off. Within Church ranks, dissenters must walk softly, and reform by infinitesimal degrees if at all. The Church is a dangerous enemy to have-and there's only one reason why it isn't more dangerous than it is. It is so involved in its own internal politics that it rarely moves to look outside its walls. And for that, I am profoundly grateful."

This last colloquy aroused intense feelings of disquiet in Rune's heart; she was glad when he fell silent. She'd never thought much about the Church-but the few glimpses she'd had from inside, in the hostels, only confirmed what Tonno had just told her. If the Church as a whole ever decided to move against something-

-say, for instance, the Church were to declare non-humans as unholy, anathema, as they had come very close to doing, several times, according to the history books she'd read-

She shivered, and not from the cold. Boony, Topaz-they were as "human" as she was. There was nothing demonic about them. And when would the Church end, once it had begun? Would exotics, like Pearl, also fall under the ban?

What if they decided to ban-certain professions? Whores, or even musicians, dancers, anyone who gave pleasure that was not tangible? That sort of pleasure could be construed as heretical, since it took attention away from God.

And what about all those rumors of dark sorceries that some priests practiced, using the mantle of the Church to give them protection?

She was glad to hear the shop bell, signaling the arrival of one of the two youngsters due for lessons today. Ket was due first; he was late, but that was all right. Her thoughts were all tangled up, and too troubled right now. It would be a relief to think about simpler things, like basic lute lessons.

She forgot about her uneasiness as she gave Ket his teaching, then drilled Anny in her scales. The children were easier to deal with than they normally were; this kind of weather didn't tempt anyone to want to play outside, not even a child. And Anny was home alone with her governess, a sour old dame who sucked all the joy out of learning and left only the withered husks; she was glad for a chance to get away and do something entirely different. The lute lessons and the sessions she had with her dancing teacher were her only respites from the heavy hand of the old governess.

So it wasn't until after they'd left that Tonno's words came back to trouble her-and by then she had convinced herself that she had fallen victim to the miserable weather. She made a determined effort to shake off her mood, and by the time she left Tonno curled up in his blankets with bread and toasted cheese beside him and a couple of favorite books to read, she was in as cheerful a mood as possible, given her long walk back to Amber's through the dark and blowing snow.

And by midnight, she'd forgotten it all entirely.

But her dreams were haunted by things she could not recall clearly in the morning. Only-the lingering odor of incense.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Rune sailed in the door of Tonno's shop singing at the top of her lungs, with a smile as wide and sunny as the day outside, and a bulging belt-pouch.

"Well!" Tonno greeted her, answering her smile with one of his own. "What's all this?"

She leaned over the counter and kissed him soundly on the cheek. He actually blushed, but could only repeat, "Well! Welladay!"

She laughed, pulled her pouch off her belt, and spread her day's takings out on the countertop for him to see. "Look at that! Just look at it! Why, that's almost ten whole silver pennies, and a handful of copper! Can you believe it?"

"What did you do, rob someone?" Tonno asked, teasingly.

"No indeed," she said happily. "Do you remember that city ordinance that was passed at Spring Equinox session? The one that was basically about female buskers?"

He sobered, quickly. "I do, indeed," he replied. The ordinance had troubled him a great deal; he had fretted about it incessantly until it was passed, and he had warned Rune not to go out on the streets as a musician in female garb once it was passed. Not that she ever did, at least, not to busk. The ordinance had been aimed squarely at those females who were using busking to cover their other business; it licensed inspectors who were to watch street and tavern musicians to be certain that their income was derived entirely from music. A similar ordinance, aimed at dancers, had also passed. Rune, of course, had either not come under scrutiny-at least that she was aware of-because of her habit of taking on boy-disguise, or she had passed the scrutiny easily. For some reason it never occurred to the inspectors or to those who had passed the ordinance that males might be operating the same deceptions. But the ordinance had pretty much cleared the streets of those women who had bought cheaper busking licenses and were using them to cover their other activities. The ordinance directed that any such woman be made to tender up not one, but two years' dues in the Whore's Guild, and buy a free-lancer's license as well. The Whore's Guild and the Bardic Guild had backed it; the Whore's Guild since it obviously cut down on women who were practicing outside the rules and restrictions of the Guild, which set prices and ensured the health of its members. Amber hadn't said much, but Rune suspected that she both approved and worried.

She partially approved of it, obviously, because she felt the same way about those women who were abusing the busker's licenses as Rune felt about amateur musicians who thought they could set up with an instrument they hardly knew how to play and a repertoire of half a dozen songs and call themselves professionals. But Rune knew that Amber and Tonno both worried about this law because the Church had also been behind it-and they feared it might be the opening move in a campaign to end the Whore's Guild altogether, and make the Houses themselves illegal.

It had been hard for Rune to feel much concern about that, when the immediate result had been to free up half the corners in Nolton to honest musicians and dancers, and to send even more clients to Amber's than there had been before. Amber had been forced to add a fifth and sixth lady; both of whom had passed their trial periods with highest marks-which had made Carly even more sour than before. Carly now stalked the hall of the private wing with a copy of the Holy Book poking ostentatiously out of her pocket. And she spent most of her time off at the Church, at interminable "Women's Prayer Meetings." She had even tried to drag the boys off to a "Group Prayer Meeting," but both of them had told her to her face that they'd rather scrub chamber pots.

The two new ladies, Amethyst and Diamond, got along perfectly well with the other four; Rune liked them both very much, especially Diamond, who had the most abrasive and caustic sense of humor she'd ever encountered. It was Diamond who had suggested her current project.

Diamond was an incredibly slender woman with pure white hair-naturally white, claimed Maddie, who often helped Diamond with the elaborate, though revealing, costumes she favored. Diamond had been in the common room one night (dressed-so to speak-mostly in strings of tiny glass beads made into a semblance of a dress) when Rune had played a common song called "Two Fair Maids" at a client's request. Diamond had politely waited until that client had gone upstairs before she said anything, but then she had them all in stitches.

"Just once-" she'd said vehemently, "just once I'd like to hear a song about that situation that makes some sense!"

One of the gentlemen with her, who Rune had suspected for some time really was nobly born, had said, ingenuously, "What situation?" That had pretty much confirmed Rune's suspicions, since it would have been hard to be a commoner and not have heard "Two Fair Maids" often enough to know every word of every variant.

Diamond, however, had simply explained it to him without betraying that. "It's about two sisters in love with the same man," she told him. "He's been sleeping with the older one, who thinks he's going to have to marry her-but he proposes to the younger one, who accepts. When the older one finds out, she shoves the younger one in the river." She turned to Rune, then, and included her in the conversation. "Rune, what are all the various versions of it after that?"

"Well," Rune had answered, thinking, "There's three variations on how she dies. One, the older girl holds her under; two, she gets carried off by the current and pulled under the millrace; three, that the miller sees her, wants her gold ring, and drowns her. But in all of the versions, a wandering harpist-Bard finds her-or rather, what's left of her after the fish get done-and makes a harp of her bones and strings it with her long, gold hair."

"Dear God!" the gentleman exclaimed. "That's certainly gruesome!"

"And pretty stupid," Rune added, to Diamond's great delight. "I can't imagine why any musician would go making an instrument out of human bone when there are perfectly good pieces of wood around that are much better suited to the purpose! And I can't imagine why anyone would want to play such a thing!" She shivered. "I should think you'd drive customers into the next kingdom the first time they caught sight of it! But anyway, that's what this fool does, and he takes it to court and plays it for the Sire. And, of course, the moment the older sister shows up, the harp begins to play by itself, and sing about how the little idiot got herself drowned. And of course, the sister is burned, and the miller is hung, and the bastard that started it in the first place by seducing the first sister gets off free." She curled her lip a little. "In fact, in one of the versions he gets all kinds of sympathy from other stupid women because his syrupy little true love drowned."

"And that's what I mean by I wish that someone would write a sensible version," Diamond said, taking up where Rune left off. "I mean, if I was the wronged sister, I wouldn't blame my brainless sib, I'd go after the motherless wretch that betrayed me! And if I was the younger sister, if I found out about it, I'd help her!" She turned to Rune, then, with a mischievous look on her face that made her pale blue eyes sparkle like the stone she was named for. "You're a musician," she said, gleefully. "Why don't you do it?"

At first Rune could only think of all the reasons why it wouldn't work-that people were used to the old song and would hate the new version, that the Bardic Guild would hate it because their members had written a great many of the variants, and that it wasn't properly romantic.

But then she thought of all the reasons why, if she chose her audience properly, picking mostly young people who were in a mood to laugh, it would work. There were not a great many comic songs out in the world, and she could, if she managed this successfully, get quite a following for herself based on the fact that she had written one. In fact, there were a great many really stupid, sentimental ballads like "Two Fair Maids" in existence; if she wrote parodies of them, she could have an entire repertory of comic songs.

And songs like that were much more suited to the casual atmosphere of street-busking than the maudlin ones were.

She'd started on the project in late spring; she already had four. She'd moved to a new corner, vacated by one of the buskers-that-weren't, on a very busy crossroads. It wasn't a venue usually suited to busking, but she'd made a bargain with one of the Gypsy-dancers who had reappeared at the fountain in Flower Street with the spring birds. Rune would play the fiddle for her to dance from exactly midday until second bell and split the take, if the Gypsies would hold the corner for her to play from two hours before midday till the dancer showed up. No one wanted to argue with the Gypsies, who were known to have tempers and be very quick with their knives, so the corner was Rune's without dispute.

Now what she had planned to do, was to alternate lively fiddling with comic songs, to see how well they did, and if she could hold a rowdy crowd with them.

She had discovered this afternoon that not only could she hold the crowd, she now had a reputation for knowing the funny songs, and there were people coming to her corner at lunch just to hear them.

And furthermore, they were willing to pay to hear them. Every time she'd tried to go back to the fiddle today, someone had called out for one of her songs. And when she'd demurred, protesting that she'd already done it, or that people must be getting tired of it, at least three coins were tossed into her hat as an incentive. In the end, she had made as much during her stint alone as she and the dancer had together.

She explained all that to Tonno, who looked pleased at first, then troubled. "You didn't write anything-satiric, did you?" he asked, worriedly. "These were just silly parodies of common songs, am I understanding you correctly?"

She sighed, exasperated. He was beating around the bush again, rather than asking her directly what he wanted to know, and she was tired of it. "Tonno, just what, exactly, are you asking me? Get to the point, will you? I'm not one of your Scholar customers, that you have to build a tower of logic for before you get a straight answer."

He blinked in surprise. "I suppose-did you make fun of anyone high-ranking enough to cause you trouble? Or did you sing anything satirical about the Church?"

"If anybody in one of those songs resembles someone in Nolton, I don't know about it," she told him in complete honesty. "And I must admit that I had considered doing something about a corrupt Priest, but I decided against it, after seeing Carly leaving my room. It would be just like her to take a copy to the Church with her, when she goes to one of her stupid Prayer Meetings, and find a way to get me in trouble."

Tonno let out a deep sigh of relief. "I'd advise you to keep to that decision," he said, passing his hand over his hair. "At least for now, when you have no one to protect you. Later, perhaps, when you have Guild status and protection, you can write whatever you choose." He smiled, weakly. "Who knows; with the force of a Guild Bard behind a satiric song, you might become an influence for good within the Church."

"What are you so worried about, really?" she asked, putting her instruments down on the counter. "Did Brother Bryan tell you something? Is the Church planning on backing more of those ordinances you don't like?"

He shook his head. "No-no, it's that I've been debating doing something for a while, and I've been putting it off because I didn't have the connections. Remember when I started sending you to other people for lessons this spring?"

She nodded. "Mandar Cray for lute, and Geor Baker for voice. You told me you weren't going to be useful for anything with me except for reading and writing." Mandar and Geor were two of the people she had considered as teachers when she first came to Nolton, as it turned out. Both of them were Guild musicians; both had very wealthy students. Had she approached them on her own, she probably would have gotten brushed off.

But both were clients and friends of both Tonno and Amber, and both had heard her sing and play. They were two very different men; Mandar tall and ascetic, Geor short and muscular; Mandar hardly every ate, at least at Amber's, and Geor ate everything in sight. Mandar fainted at the thought of bloodshed, let alone the sight of blood, and Geor was a champion swordsman. But they had one other thing in common besides being clients and friends of Amber and Tonno-they both adored music. For the opportunity to teach someone who loved it as much as they did, and had talent, as opposed to the rich, bored children who were enduring their lessons, both of them cut their lesson-rates to next-to-nothing.

They wouldn't teach her for free-for one thing, that could get them in trouble with the Guild-for another, they felt, like Tonno, that paying for something tended to make one pay attention to it. But they weren't charging her any more than Tonno had, and she was learning a great deal he simply could not show her.

"I've been wanting to find someone who could teach you composition," Tonno said, his expression still worried, "But the only Bards I knew of in the city were either in a Great Household, or-in the Church."

Rune's mouth formed a silent "O" of understanding. Now all of Tonno's fussing made some sense. If he'd wanted to find her a teacher and she'd gotten herself in trouble with the Church-

But he wasn't finished. "I didn't have the contacts to get you lessons with any of the Church Bards," he continued. "But last week Brother Bryan mentioned that he'd listened to you playing out on the street and that he thought you were amazing. He still thinks you're a boy, you understand-"

Rune nodded. Brother Bryan had never seen her in female garb; she and Tonno had judged that the best idea. Many Church men felt very uneasy around females for one thing-and it seemed no bad idea to have her female persona unknown to the Church, after all the ordinances and the snooping Carly was doing. They might not connect the "Rune" that busked with the "Rune" that played at Amber's. And even if they did, they might not know that Rune was really a girl, if Carly hadn't gone out of her way to tell them. Rune didn't think she had; she just reported the activities going on, but because she knew Rune's sex, she would probably assume the Church did, too.

"Well, Brother Bryan was very impressed by what he'd heard. He asked if you composed, then before I could say anything, he offered to see if he couldn't get Brother Pell to take you in his class." Tonno was clearly torn between being proud and being concerned at a Church Collector's interest in his pupil. "That's why I wanted to know what your comic songs were about; if you'd done anything to annoy the Church officials, going to that class could be walking you into a trap. The Church has no power outside the cloister, but once they had you inside, they could hold you for as long as they cared to, and the city couldn't send anyone to get you out. Assuming they'd even bother to try, which I doubt. The only people the constables and guards are likely to exert themselves for have more money than you and I put together."

Rune's mouth went dry at the bare thought of being held by the Church for questioning. She recalled the high walls around the cloister all too well-walls that shut out the world. And held in secrets? "They wouldn't-"

He saw her terrified expression, and laughed, easing her fear. "Oh, all they'd do, most likely, is try to frighten you; to bully you and make you promise never to write something like that again." He cocked his head sideways, for a moment, and his expression sobered. "But if they connected you with the musician at Amber's, they could threaten other punishments, and make you promise to spy at Amber's in return for being set free. I doubt Carly is terribly effective."

"I wouldn't do that!" she exclaimed, hotly.

"You might, if you were frightened enough," he admonished her. "I'm not saying you also wouldn't go straight to Amber afterwards and tell her what they'd gotten from you, but don't ever underestimate the power of a skilled Church interrogator. They could make you promise to do almost anything for them, and you'd weep with gratitude because they had forgiven you for what you'd done to them. They are very skilled with words-with innuendo-with making threats they have no intention of carrying out. And they are a force unto themselves on their own ground."

"And maybe they're as skilled with magic as they are with words?" Rune frowned; those were some of the whispered rumors she'd heard. That the Church harbored Priests and Brothers who were powerful magicians, who could make people do what they wanted them to with a few chosen words and a spell to take over their will.

"Possibly," Tonno conceded wearily. "Possibly; I don't know. I've never seen a Church mage, and I don't know of anyone who has, but that doesn't mean anything, does it? Since you haven't angered them, and don't intend to, you're unlikely to see one either. Let's face it, Rune, you and I are just too small for them to take much notice of. It's not worth the time they'd spend."

"Something to be said for being insignificant," she commented sardonically.

He nodded. "At any rate, I'm quite confident that you'll be in no danger whatsoever, if you want to take these lessons. Brother Bryan told me that Brother Pell is-well, 'rather difficult to get along with,' is the way he put it. I pressed him for details, but he couldn't tell me much; I gather he has a bad temper and a sour disposition. He doesn't like much of anybody, and even someone as even-tempered as Bryan has a hard time finding good things to say about him."

"Sounds like taking lessons from Carly," she said, with a wry twist to her mouth.

"Perhaps," Tonno replied thoughtfully. "But there is this; Bryan said that by all reports, even of those who don't like him at all, Pell is the best composition teacher in all of Nolton."

"Huh," Rune said thoughtfully. "I'd be willing to take lessons even from Carly if she was that good. Am I supposed to be a boy or a girl?"

"Boy," Tonno told her firmly. "Women have very little power in the Church, at least here in Nolton, and I gather that Pell in particular despises the sex. Go as a girl, and he'll probably refuse to teach you on the grounds that you'll just go off and get married and waste his teaching." He gave her a long, level look, as he realized exactly what she'd said. "I take it that you want the lessons, then?"

"I said I'd even take lessons from Carly if she had anything worth learning," Rune replied firmly. "When can I start?"

She didn't feel quite so bold a few days later, as she meekly showed her pass to the Brother on watch at the cloister gate. In the year she'd been here, she'd never once been inside the huge cathedral in the center of Nolton, big enough to hold several thousand worshipers at once. In fact, she avoided it as much as possible. That wasn't too difficult, since there was no use in busking anywhere near it; the Priests and Brothers made a busker feel so uncomfortable by simply standing and staring with disapproval that it was easier to find somewhere else to play.

It was an imposing, forbidding edifice, carved of dark stone, with thousands of sculptures all over its surface; there wasn't a single square inch that didn't hold a carving of something. Down near the base, it was ordinary people doing Good Works, and the temptations of the Evil One trying to waylay them. Farther up, there were carvings of the lives of the saints and all the temptations that they had overcome. The next level held the bliss of Paradise. The uppermost level was carved with all the varied kinds of angels, from the finger-length Etherials, to the Archangels that were three times the height of a man.

There was a sky-piercing tower in the middle of it, carved with abstract water and cloud shapes, that held the bells that signaled the changes of the hours for everyone in the city. Inside, she had been told, it was different; not dark and foreboding at all, full of light and space-those carved walls held hundreds of tiny windows filled with glass, and most of the ones near the ground were of precious colored glass. Every saint's shrine, every statue inside had been gilded or silvered; places where the light couldn't reach were covered with banks of prayer candles. When the sun shone, or so Tonno claimed, the eye was dazzled. Even when it didn't, there were lights and reflective surfaces enough to make the interior bright as day in an open meadow.

She hadn't cared enough to want to see it, although it was quite an attraction for visitors just to come and gawk at. Behind the cathedral was the cloister; a complex of buildings including convents for men and for women, a school, and the Church administrative offices. All that was held behind a high wall pierced with tiny gates, each guarded day and night by a Brother. Rune had never been inside those walls, and didn't know anyone who had.

Plenty of people had been inside the cathedral though. The High Priest of Nolton was said to be a marvelous speaker, although, again, Rune couldn't have said one way or another. She hadn't cared to see him, either, though Carly went to the service he preached at as faithfully as the bells rang.

From the little she saw outside the walls, the cloister was twice as forbidding as the cathedral, because it had none of the cathedral's ornamentation. Now that she was inside the walls, it was worse, much worse. The place looked like a prison. The buildings were carved of the same dark stone, with tiny slits for windows. It looked as if it was a place designed to keep people from escaping; Rune hoped she'd never have occasion to discover that her impression was true.

The Brother at the gate, anonymous in his dark gray robe, directed her to go past the building immediately in front of her and take the first door she saw after that. She walked slowly across the silent, paved courtyard; nothing behind her but the wall with its small postern gate, nothing on either side of her or before her but tall, oblong buildings with tiny passages between them. Nothing green or growing anywhere, not even a weed springing up between the cobblestones. It seemed unnatural. A few robed figures crossed the courtyard ahead of her; none looked at her, no one spoke. In their dark, androgynous robes, she couldn't even tell if they were men or women.

Once past the first building, she felt even more hemmed in and confined. How can anyone bear to live like this? she wondered. No need to look for a reason why Brother Pell was so sour; if she had to live here, she'd be just as bitter as he was.

There was another Brother at the door of the building, sitting behind a tiny desk; once again, she showed her pass, and was directed to a second-floor room. She looked back over her shoulder for a moment as she climbed the stair; the Brother was watching her-to be certain she went where she was told? Possibly. That might be simple courtesy on the part of the Brothers. It might be something else. There was no point in speculating; she was just here for composition lessons, not anything sinister. She didn't want to stay here a moment longer than she had to. Let the Brother watch; he'd see only a young boy obeying, doing exactly what he was told.

She opened the designated doorway and went inside. There was no one there, and nothing but one large desk and six smaller ones. She discovered that she was the first to arrive of a class of six, including her. The classroom was a tiny cubicle, narrow, with enough space for their six desks arranged two by two, with Brother Pell's large desk facing them, and behind that, a wall covered in slate.

Brother Pell appeared last, a perfectly average man, balding slightly, with his hands tucked into the sleeves of his gray robe and a frown so firmly a part of his face that Rune could not imagine what he would look like if he ever smiled. If he had been anything other than a Brother, she would have guessed at Scholar or clerk; he had that kind of tight-lipped look.

There was a nagging sense of familiarity about him; after a moment, she knew what it was. She had seen this man often, out on the street, ever since the ordinance against pseudo-buskers had been passed. Presumably he was one of the inspectors. And now that she thought about it, she realized that there were a great many more Brothers and Sisters out on the street since the ordinance had been passed. Interesting; she had never thought of them as being inspectors, but it made sense. The inspectors were being paid very little, about the same as a lamp-lighter or a dung-sweeper. Unless you had no other job, it wasn't one you'd think of taking. A few of the real buskers had become inspectors by day, and did their busking at night. But Church clerics-well, it wouldn't matter to them how small the fee was. It was very probable that, since everyone in the Church took a vow to own nothing, their fees as inspectors went to the Church itself.

Very interesting, and not very comforting, that the Church who had backed the law should send its people out into the streets as an army of enforcers of that law. She'd have to tell Tonno about her suspicion and see what he said.

Brother Pell did not seem to recognize her, however, although she recognized him; his eyes flitted over her as they did the other five boys in the class without a flicker of recognition. He consulted a list in his hand.

"Terr Capston of Nolton," he said, and looked up. His voice, at least, was pleasant, although cold. A good, strong trained tenor.

"Here, sir," said a sturdy brown-haired boy, who looked back at the Brother quite fearlessly. Of all of them, he seemed the most used to being in the tutelage of Brothers.

"And why are you here, Terr Capston?" Brother Pell asked, without any expression at all.

Terr seemed to have been ready for this question. "Brother Rylan wants me to find out if I have Bardic material in me," the boy said. "I'm for the Church either way, but Brother wants to know if it will be as just a player or-"

"Stop right there, boy," Brother Pell said fiercely, and his cold face wore a forbidding frown. "There is no such thing as 'just' a player, and Brother Rylan is sadly to blame if that's the way he's taught you. Or is that your notion?"

The boy hung his head, and Brother Pell grimaced. "I thought so. I should send you back to him until you learn humility. Consider yourself on probation. Lenerd Cattlan of Nolton."

"Here-sir." The timid dark-haired boy right in front of Rune raised his hand.

"And why are you here?" the Brother asked, glaring at him with hawk-fierce eyes. The boy shrank into his seat and shook his head.

"You don't know?" Pell said, biting off each word. He cast his eyes upward. "Lord, give me patience. Rune of Westhaven."

"Sir," she said, nodding, and matching his stare with a stare of her own. You don't frighten me one bit. And I'm not going to back down to you, either.

She had expected the same question, but he surprised her. "No last name? Why not?"

That was rude at the very least-but she had a notion that Brother Pell was never terribly polite. She decided to see if she could startle or discomfort him with the truth. "I don't know who my father is," she replied levely. "And I judged it better than to claim something I have no right to."

One of the other boys snickered, and Pell turned a look on him that left Rune wondering if she scented scorched flesh in its wake. The boy shrank in his seat, and gulped. "You're an honest boy," he barked, turning back to Rune, "and there's no shame in being born a bastard. The shame is on your mother who had no moral sense, not on you. You did not ask to be born; that was God's will. You are doing well to repudiate your mother's weak morals with strong ones of your own. God favors the honest. Perhaps your mother will see your success one day, and repent of her ways."

If Rune hadn't agreed with him totally about her mother's lack of sense, moral or otherwise, she might have resented that remark. As it was, she nodded, cautiously.

"Why are you here, Rune?" Now came the question she expected.

"Because there is music in my head, and I don't know how to write it down the way I hear it," she replied promptly. "I can find harmonies and counter-melodies when I sing, but I don't know how to get them down, either, and sometimes I lose things before I even manage to work them out properly." He looked a little interested, so she continued. "Brother Bryan heard me on the street and told my first teacher that he'd get me a recommendation into this class if I wanted it. I wanted it. I want to be more than a street busker, if it's in me. And if it's God's will," she added, circumspectly.

Pell barked a laugh. "Good answer. Axen Troud of Nolton."

Brother Pell continued the litany until he had covered all six of them, and Rune realized after she watched him listening to their answers that he had formed a fairly quick impression of each of them from both their words, and the way they answered. And as he began the first session and she bent all of her attention to his words and the things he was writing down on the slate behind him, she also realized that unlike Tonno, Brother Pell was not going to help anyone. He would never explain things twice. If you fell behind, that was too bad. You would keep up with him in this class, or you would not stay in it.

She had a fairly good idea that the timid boy would not be able to keep up. Nor would one of the boys who had answered after her; a stolid, unimaginative sort who was more interested in the mathematics of music than the music itself. And they might lose the first boy, who was plainly used to being cosseted by his teacher.

At the end of that first lesson, she felt as drained and exhausted as she had been at the end of her first lute lesson. If this had been the first time she'd ever felt that way, she likely would have given up right there-which was what the first boy looked ready to do.

But as she gathered up her notes under Pell's indifferent eye and filed out with the rest, she knew that if nothing else, she was going to get her money's worth out of this class. Pell was a good teacher.

And I've been hungry, cold, nearly penniless. I fiddled for the Skull Hill Ghost and won. If the Ghost didn't stop me, neither will Brother Pell.

No one will. Not ever.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Rune rang the bell outside the Church postern gate again, though she had no expectation of being answered this time, either. When after several minutes there was no sound of feet on stone, she beat her benumbed, mittened hands together and continued pacing up and down the little stretch of pavement outside the Gate. Her heart pounded in her chest at the audacity of what she was about to do, but she wasn't going to let fear stop her. Not now. Not when the stakes were this high.

She told her heart to be still, and the lump in her throat to go away. Neither obeyed her.

Tonno had taken a chill when he'd been caught between the market and his shop three weeks ago, on the day of the great blizzard, and it had taken him hours to stumble back home. The blizzard had piled some of the city streets so deeply with snow that people were coming and going from the second-floor windows of some places, although that was not the case with Amber's or with Tonno's shop. Rune had been busy with helping to shovel once the storm was over, and it had taken her two days to get to him. By then, the damage was done. He was sick, and getting sicker.

She had gone out every day to the Church since then, to the Priests who sent out Doctors to those who had none of their own. Each day she had been turned away by the Priest in charge, who had consulted a list, told her brusquely that there were those with more need than Tonno, and then ignored her further protests. Finally, today, one of the other women in line had explained this cryptic statement to her.

"Your master's old, boy," the woman had whispered. "He's old, he's never been one for making more than the tithe to the Church, no doubt, and he's got no kin to inherit. And likely, he's not rich enough to be worth much of a thanks-gift if a Doctor came out and made him well. They figure, if he dies, the Church gets at least half his goods, if not all-and if he lives, it's God's will."

That had infuriated and frightened her; it was obvious that she was never going to get any help for Tonno-and when she'd arrived today, he'd been half delirious with a fever. She'd sent a boy to get Maddie to come watch him while she went after a Doctor-again. And this time, by all that was holy, she was not going to return without one.

She had been in and out of the cloister enough to know who came and went by all the little gates; one lesson the Brothers had never expected her to learn, doubtless. She knew where the Doctors' Gate was, and she was going to wait by it until she spotted one of the physician-Brothers. They were easy enough to pick out, by the black robe they wore instead of gray, and by the box of medicines they always carried. When she saw a Doctor, or could get one to answer the bell, she was going to take him to Tonno-by force, if need be.

Her throat constricted again, and she fought a stinging in her eyes. Crying was not going to help him. Only a Doctor could do that, and a Doctor was what she was waiting for. She tried not to think about what he'd looked like when she left him; transparent, thin, and old-so frail, as if a thought would blow him away.

She stopped her pacing along enough to cough; like everyone else, it seemed, she'd picked up a cold in the past two weeks. She hadn't paid it much attention. Beside Tonno's illness, it was hardly more serious than a splinter. As she straightened up, she heard the sound of feet approaching; hard soles slapping wearily on the stonework. The Church certainly didn't lack hands to see that the streets about the cathedral and the cloisters were shoveled clean. . . .

She turned; approaching from a side street to her left was a man in the black robe of a Church Doctor, laden with one of those black-leather-covered boxes. He walked with his head down so that she couldn't see his face, watching his step on the icy cobbles.

She hurried to intercept him, her heart right up in her throat and pounding so loudly she could hardly hear herself speak.

"Excuse me, sir," she said, trotting along beside him, then putting herself squarely in his path when he wouldn't stop. She held out her empty, mittened hands to him, and tried to put all the terror and pleading she felt into her face and voice. "Excuse me-my master's sick, he's got a fever, a dry fever and a dry cough that won't stop, he's been sick ever since the blizzard and I've been here every day but the Priest won't send anybody, he says there's people with greater need, but my master's an old man and he's having hallucinations-" She was gabbling it all out as fast as she could, hoping to get him to listen to her before he brushed her aside. He frowned at her when she made him stop, and frowned even harder when she began to talk-he put out a hand to move her away from his path-

But then he blinked, as if what she had said had finally penetrated his preoccupation, and stayed his hand. "A fever? With visions, you say?" She nodded. "And a dry, racking cough that won't stop?" She nodded again, harder. If he recognized the symptoms, sure, surely he knew the cure!

He swore-and for the first time in months of living at Amber's, she was shocked. Not at the oath; she'd heard enough like it from the carters and other rough laborers who visited some of the other Houses on the street. That a Brother should utter a hair-scorching oath like that-that was what shocked her. But it seemed that this was no ordinary Brother.

His face hardened with anger, and his eyes grew black. "An old man with pneumonia, lying untreated for two weeks-and instead of taking care of him, they send me out to tend a brat with a bellyache from too many sweets-" He swore again, an oath stronger than the first. "Show me your master, lad, and be hanged to Father Genner. Bellyache my ass!"

Rune hurried down the street towards Tonno's with the Brother keeping pace beside her, despite the hindering skirts of his robe. "I'm Brother Anders," he said, trotting next to her and not even breathing hard. "Tell me more about your master's illness."

She did, everything she could recall, casting sideways glances at the Brother as she did so. He was a large man, black-bearded and black-haired; he made her think of a bear. But his eyes, now that he wasn't frowning, were kind. He listened carefully to everything she said, but his expression grew graver and graver with each symptom. And her heart sank every time his expression changed.

"He's not in good shape, lad," the Brother said at last. "I won't lie to you. If I'd seen him a week ago-or better, when he first fell ill-"

"I came then," she protested angrily, forcing away tears with the heat of her outrage. "I came every day! The Priest kept telling me that there were others with more need, and turning me away!" She wanted to tell him the rest, what the old woman had told her-but something stopped her. This was a Brother, after all, tied to the Church. If she maligned the Church, he might not help her.

"And I simply go where the Priests tell me," Brother Anders replied, as angry as she was. "Father Genner didn't see fit to mention this case to any of us! Well, there's going to be someone answering for this! I took my vows to tend to all the sick, not just fat merchants with deep pockets, and their spoiled children who have nothing wrong that a little less coddling and cosseting wouldn't cure!"

There didn't seem to be anything more to add to that, so Rune saved her breath for running, speeding up the pace, and hoping that, despite Brother Anders' words, things were not as grave as they seemed. But she was fighting back tears with every step. And the old woman's words kept echoing in her head. If the Church wanted Tonno to die, what hope did she have of saving him?

But this Brother seemed capable, and caring. He was angry that the Priests hadn't sent him to Tonno before this. He would do everything in his power to help, just for that reason alone, she was certain.

After all, many Doctors probably exaggerated the state of an illness, to seem more skilled when the patient recovered-didn't they?

She had left the door unlocked when she went out; it was still unlocked. She pushed it open and motioned to the Brother to follow her through the dark, cold, narrow shop.

Maddie looked up when Rune came through the curtain. "Rune, he's getting worse," she said worriedly. "He doesn't know who I am, he thinks it's summer and he keeps pushing off the blankets as fast as I put them back-" Then she saw the Brother, as he looked up, for his black robe had hidden him in the shadows. "Oh!" she exclaimed with relief. "You got a Doctor to come!"

"Aye, he did," the Brother rumbled, squinting through the darkness to the little island of light where Tonno lay. "And not a moment too soon, from the sound of it. You go on home, lass; this lad and I will tend to things now."

Maddie didn't wait for a second invitation; she snatched up her cloak and hurried out, pushing past them with a brief curtsy for the Doctor. Brother Anders hardly noticed her; all his attention was for the patient. Rune heard the door slam shut behind Maddie, then she ignored everything except Tonno and the Doctor.

"Get some heat in this place, lad," the Brother ordered gruffly, shoving his way past the crowded furnishings to Tonno's bedside. Rune didn't hesitate; she opened the stove door and piled on expensive wood and even more expensive coal. After all, what did it matter? Tonno's life was at stake here. She would buy him more when he was well.

And if he dies, the Church gets it all anyway, she thought bitterly, rubbing her sleeve across her eyes as they stung damply. Why should I save it for them?

Then she pushed the thought away. Tonno would not die, she told herself fiercely, around the lump of pain and fear that filled her. He would get better. This was a conscientious Doctor, and she sensed he'd fight as hard for Tonno as he would for his own kin. Tonno would get well-and she would use some of the money saved from last summer to buy him more wood and coal-yes, and chicken to make soup to make him strong, and medicine, and anything else he needed.

"Boil me some water, will you, lad?" the Doctor said as the temperature in the room rose. Tonno mumbled something and tried to push Brother Anders' hands away; the Doctor ignored him, peering into Tonno's eyes and opening his mouth to look at his throat, then leaning down to listen to his chest.

"There's some already, sir," she replied. He turned in surprise, to see her holding out the kettle. "I always had a fresh kettle going. I kept giving him willow-bark tea, sir. At first it helped with the fever, and even when it didn't, it let him sleep some-"

"Well done, lad." Brother Anders nodded with approval. "But he's going to need something stronger than that if he's to have any chance of pulling through. And do you think you can get me some steam in here? It'll make his breathing easier, and I have some herbs for his lungs that need steam."

She put the kettle back on the top of the stove, as he rummaged in his kit for herbs and a mortar and pestle to grind them. Steam. How can I get steam over to the bed- If she put a pan of water on the stove, the steam would never reach as far as the bed; if she brought a pan to boil and took it over beside the bed, it would stop steaming quickly, wasting the precious herbs.

Then she thought of the little nomads' brazier out in the shop; one of the curiosities that Tonno had accumulated over the years that had never sold. If she were to put a pan of water on that, and put the whole lot beside the bed-

Yes, that would work. She ran out into the shop to get it; it was up on one of the shelves, one near the floor since it was ceramic and very heavy. It was meant, Tonno had said, to use animal-droppings for fuel. If she took one of the burning lumps of coal out of the stove and dropped it into the combustion chamber, that should do. As an afterthought, she picked up the wooden stool she used to get things just out of her reach, and took that with her as well. There was a slab of marble in the living area that Tonno used to roll out dough on; if she put that on the stool, and the brazier on that, it would be just tall enough that she could fan steam directly onto Tonno's face. And the marble would keep the wooden stool from catching fire.

She set up the stool with the marble and brazier atop it, then carefully caught up a lump of bright red coal in the tongs and carried it over, dropping it into the bottom on the brazier to land on the little iron grate there. Then she got an ornamental copper bowl, put it atop the brazier, and filled it with water. She didn't look at Tonno; she couldn't. She couldn't bear to see him that way. When the water began to steam, and she started fanning it towards Tonno's face, the Doctor looked up in surprise and approval.

"Keep that up, lad," he said, and dropped a handful of crushed herbs into the water. The steam took on an astringent quality; refreshing and clean-smelling. It even seemed to make her breathing easier.

She tried not to listen to Tonno's. His breath rasped in his throat, and wheezed in his chest, and there was a gurgling sound at the end of each breath that sounded horrible. The Doctor didn't like it either; she could tell by the way his face looked. But he kept mixing medicines, steeping each new dose with a little hot water, and spooning them into Tonno's slack mouth between rattling breaths.

She lost track of time; when the water in the bowl got low, she renewed it. At the Doctor's direction, she heated bricks at the stove and kept them packed around Tonno's thin body. When she wasn't doing either of those things, she was fanning the aromatic steam over Tonno's face.

And despite all of it, each breath came harder; each breath was more of a struggle. Tonno showed no signs of waking-and the hectic fever-spots in his cheeks grew brighter as his face grew paler.

Finally, just before dawn, he took one shallow breath-the last.

Rune huddled in the chair beside the bed, silent tears coursing down her cheeks and freezing as they struck the blanket she'd wrapped herself in. The Doctor had gently given Tonno Final Rites, as he was authorized to do, then covered him, face and all, so that Rune didn't have to look at the body. He'd told her to go home, that there was nothing more to do, that the Priests would come and take care of everything-then he'd left.

But she couldn't leave. She couldn't bear the idea of Tonno being left alone here, with no one to watch to see that he wasn't disturbed.

She let the fire go out, though, after piling on the last of the wood and coal. There was no point in saving it for the damned Priests-

Let them buy their own, or work in the cold, she thought savagely. I hope their fingers and toes fall off!

But she just couldn't see the point of buying any more, either. After all, Tonno didn't need the warmth any more. . . .

It's all my fault, she told herself, as the tears continued to fall, I should have gone after a Doctor before. I should never have gone to the Priests. I should have found Brother Bryan and had him help me. I should have seen if Brother Pell was any use. I should have told Amber that Tonno was sicker than I thought-

But what could Amber have done? Oh, there were Herb-women attached to the Whore's Guild that kept the members of the Guild healthy and free of unwanted pregnancies, but did they know anything about pneumonia?

Probably not-but I should have tried! I should have gone to everyone I knew-

If she'd done that, Tonno would probably be alive now.

She'd spent hours talking to the empty air, begging Tonno's forgiveness, and promising him what she was going to do with the rest of her life because of what he'd taught her, and trying to say good-bye. She'd cursed the Priests with every curse she knew, three times over, but the essential blame lay with her. There was no getting around it. So she stayed, as the shop grew colder, the water in the pan beside the bed froze over, and the square of sun cast through the back window crept across the floor and up the wall. It wasn't much of a penance, but it was something.

She'd long ago talked herself hoarse. Now she could only address him in thought. Even if her voice hadn't been a mere croak, she couldn't have said anything aloud around the lump of grief that choked her.

I'm sorry, Tonno, she said silently to the still, sheet-shrouded form on the bed. I'm sorry-I did everything I could think of. I just didn't think of things soon enough. I really tried, honestly I did. . . .

And the tears kept falling, trickling down her cheeks, though they could not wash away the guilt, the pain, or the loss.

The Priests finally arrived near sunset, as another snowstorm was blowing up, when she was numb within and without, from cold and grieving both. A trio of hard-faced, vulturine men, they seemed both surprised and suspicious when they saw her beside Tonno's bed.

When they asked her what she was doing there, she stammered something hoarsely about Tonno being her master, but that wasn't enough for them. While two of them bundled the body in a shroud, the third questioned her closely as to whether she was bonded or free, and what her exact relationship to Tonno had been.

She answered his questions between fits of coughing. He was not pleased to discover that she was free-and less pleased to discover that Tonno was nothing more than her teacher. She had the feeling that this one had been counting on her to have been a bonded servant, and thus part of the legacy.

I'd rather die than work for you bastards, she thought angrily, though she held her tongue. I can just imagine what the lives of your bonded servants are like!

"I see no reason why you should have been here," the Priest finally said, acidly. "You did your duty long ago; you should have been gone when we arrived." He stared at her as if he expected that she had been up to something that would somehow threaten a single pin that the Church could expect out of Tonno's holdings. That was when she lost her temper entirely.

"I was his friend," she snapped, croaking out her words like an asthmatic frog. "That's reason enough, sir-or have you forgotten the words of your own Holy Book? 'You stayed beside me when I was sick, you fed me when I was hungry, you guided me when I was troubled, and you asked no more than my love-blessed are they who love without reward, for they shall have love in abundance'? I was following the words of the Book, whether or not it was prudent to do so!"

The Priest started, taken aback by having the Holy Words flung in his face. It didn't look to her like he was at all familiar with that particular passage, either in abstract or in application.

She dashed angry tears away. "He gave me something more precious than everything in this shop-he gave me learning. I could never repay that! Why shouldn't I watch by him-" She would have said more, but a coughing fit overcame her; she bent over double, and by the time she had gotten control of herself again, the Priest who was questioning her had gone out into the shop itself. She looked outside at the snowstorm, dubiously, wondering if she should just try to stay the night here. It wouldn't have been the first time-in fact, she'd been sleeping on the couch, just to keep an eye on him these past two weeks. Then one of the other two Priests came back into the room and cleared his throat so that she'd look at him.

"You'll have to leave, boy," the Priest said coldly. "You can't stay here. There'll be someone to come collect the body in a moment, but you'll have to leave now."

"In this snow?" she replied, without thinking. "Why? And what about thieves-"

"We'll be staying," the Priest said, his voice and eyes hard and unfriendly. "We'll be staying and making certain the contents of this place match the inventory. There might be a will, but there probably isn't, and if there isn't, everything goes to the Church anyway. That's the law."

What would I do if I didn't have anyplace else to go? she wondered-but it didn't look as though the Priest cared. He'd have turned anyone out in the snow, like as not-old woman or young child. Unless, of course, they were bonded. Then, no doubt, he'd have been gracious enough to let them sleep on the floor.

He stared at her, and she had the feeling that he expected her to have a fortune in goods hiding under her cloak. She took it off and shook it, slowly and with dignity, trying not to shiver, just to show them that there wasn't anything under it but one skinny "boy." Then she put it back on, stepped right up to him as if she was about to say something, and deliberately sneezed on him. He started back, with the most dumbfounded and offended look on his face she'd ever seen. If she hadn't been so near to tears, and so angry, she'd have laughed at him.

"Excuse me," she said, still wrapped in dignity. "I've been tending him for two weeks now. Out of charity. I must have caught a chill myself."

Then she pushed rudely past him, and past the other two, who were already out in the shop with Tonno's books, candles, and pens. She managed to cough on them, too, on her way out, and took grim pleasure in the fact that there wasn't a stick of fuel in the place. And at this time of night, there'd be no one to sell them any. Unless they sent one of their number back to the cloister to fetch some, which meant going out into the storm, they'd be spending a long, cold night. There wasn't any food left, either; she'd been buying soup for him from one of his neighbors.

I hope they freeze and starve.

She wrapped her cloak tighter around herself before stepping out of the door-which she left open behind her. One of the Priests shouted at her, but she ignored him. Let him shut his own damn door, she thought viciously. Then the wind whipped into her, driving snow into her face, and she didn't have a breath or a thought to spare for anything else but getting back to Amber's.

This wasn't as bad a storm as the one that had killed Tonno, but it was pure frozen hell to stagger through. She lost track of her feet first, then her hands, and finally, her face. She was too cold to shiver, but under the cloak she was sweating like a lathered horse. It seemed to take forever to beat her way against the wind down the streets she usually traveled in a half hour or less. The wind cut into her lungs like knives; every breath hurt her chest horribly, and her throat was so raw she wept for the pain of it and tried not to swallow. She was horribly thirsty, but icicles and snow did nothing but increase the thirst. She wondered if she'd been the one that had died, and this was her punishment in the afterlife. If so, she couldn't imagine what it had been that she'd done that warranted anything this bad.

When she got to Flower Street, she couldn't bear to go around the back; she staggered to the front door instead. Amber would forgive her this once. She could clean up the snow later, or something, to make up for it. All she wanted was her bed, and something hot to drink . . . her head hurt, her body hurt, everything hurt.

She shoved open the front door, too frozen to think, and managed to get it slammed shut behind her.

She turned in the sudden silence and shelter from the wind to find herself the center of attention-and there wasn't a client in the place. All of the ladies were downstairs, gathered in the common room, around the fire, wearing casual lounging robes in their signature colors. And all seven sets of eyes-Amber's included-were riveted to her, in shocked surprise.

That was when the heat hit her, and she fainted dead away.

She came to immediately, but by then she was shivering despite the heat; her teeth chattering so hard she couldn't speak. She was flat on her back, in a kind of crumpled, twisted pile of melting snow and heavy cloak. Sapphire and Amber leaned over her, trying to get her cloak off, trying to pry her hands open so they could get her unwrapped from the half-frozen mass of snow-caked wool. Amber's hand brushed against her forehead, as Rune tried to get enough breath to say something-and the woman exclaimed in surprise.

"I-I-I'm s-s-s-sorry," Rune babbled, around her chattering teeth. "I-I-I'm j-j-just c-c-c-cold, that's all." She tried to sit up, but the room began to spin.

"Cold!" Amber said in surprise. "Cold? Child, you're burning up! You must have a fever-" She gestured at someone just out of sight, and Topaz slid into view. "Topaz, you're stronger than any of the boys, can you lift her and get her into bed?"

The strange, slit-pupiled eyes did not even blink. "Of course," Topaz replied gravely. "I should be glad to. Just get her out of the cloak, please? I cannot bear the touch of the snow."

"I'm all r-r-r-right, really," she protested. "Th-th-this is s-s-silly-"

Rune had forgotten the cloak; she let go of the edges and slid her arms out of it. Sapphire pulled it away, and before Rune could try again to get to a sitting position, Topaz had scooped her up as easily as if she weighed no more than a pillow, and was carrying her towards the stairs.

I didn't know she was so strong, Rune thought dazedly. She must be stronger than most men. Or-maybe I've just gotten really light- She felt that way, as if she would flutter off like a leaf on the slightest wind.

"No-" Amber forestalled her, as Topaz started for the staircase. "No, I don't think her room is going to be warm enough, and besides, I don't want her alone. We'll put her on the couch in my rooms."

"Ah," was all that Topaz said; Amber led the way into her office, then did-something-with the wall, or an ornament on the wall. Whatever, a panel in the wall opened, and Topaz carried her into a small parlor, like Rose had in the private quarters back at the Hungry Bear. But this was nothing like Rose's parlor-it was lit with many lanterns, the air was sweet with the smell of dried herbs, the honey-scent of beeswax, and a faint hint of incense.

But that was when things stopped making sense, for Topaz turned into Boony, and the couch she was put on was on the top of Skull Hill, and she was going to have to play for the Ghost, only Tonno was in the Ghost's robes-she tried to explain that she'd done her best to help him, but he only glared at her and motioned for her to play. She picked up her fiddle and tried to play for him, but her fingers wouldn't work, and she started to cry; the wind blew leaves into her face so she couldn't see, and she couldn't hear, either-

And she was so very, very cold.

She began to cry, and couldn't stop.

Someone was singing, very near at hand. She opened gritty, sore eyes in an aching head to see who it was, for the song was so strange, less like a song than a chant, and yet it held elements of both. It was nothing she recognized, and yet she thought she heard something familiar in the wailing cadences.

There was a tall, strong-looking old woman sitting beside her, a woman wearing what could only be a Gypsy costume, but far more elaborate than anything Rune had ever seen the Gypsies wear. Besides her voluminous, multicolored skirts and bright blouse, the woman had a shawl embroidered with figures that seemed to move and dance every time she breathed, and a vast set of necklaces loaded with charms carved of every conceivable substance. They all seemed to represent animals and birds; Rune saw mother-of-pearl sparrows, obsidian bears, carnelian fish, turquoise foxes, all strung on row after row of tiny shell beads. The woman looked down at her and nodded, but did not stop her chanting for a moment.

Everything hurt; head, joints, throat-she was alternately freezing and burning. She closed her eyes to rest them, and opened them again when she felt a cold hand on her forehead. Amber was looking down at her with an expression of deep concern on her face. She tried to say something, but she couldn't get her mouth to work, and the mere effort was exhausting. She closed her eyes again.

She felt herself floating, away from the pain, and she let it happen. When her aching body was just a distant memory, she opened her eyes, to find that she was somewhere up above her body, looking down at it.

Amber was gone, but the strange Gypsy woman was back again, sitting in the corner, chanting quietly. Rune realized then that she felt the chanting; the song wove a kind of net about her that kept her from floating off somewhere. As she watched, with an oddly dispassionate detachment, Pearl and Diamond entered the room; Pearl carrying a large bowl of something that steamed which she set down on the hearth, Diamond with a tray of food she set down beside the Gypsy.

Diamond kept glancing at the Gypsy out of the corner of her eye. "That's not one of the Guild Herb-women," she said finally to Pearl, as she moved a little away.

"No," Pearl confirmed. "No, this is someone Amber knows. How?" Pearl shrugged expressively. "Amber has many friends. Often strange. Look at us!"

Diamond didn't echo Pearl's little chuckle. "Ruby says she's elf-touched," the young woman said with a shiver. "Ruby says she's a witch, and elf-touched."

Pearl shook her head. "She may be, for all I know. The Gypsies, the musicians, they know many strange creatures."

"Not like this," Diamond objected. "Not elf-touched! That's perilous close to heresy where I come from." She shuddered. "Have you ever seen what the Church does to heretics, and those who shelter them? I have. And I don't ever want to see it again."

Pearl cocked her head to one side, as if amused by Diamond's fear. "We-my people-we have old women and old men like her; they serve the villages in many ways, as healers of the sick, as speakers-to-the-Others, and as magicians to keep away the dark things that swim to the surface of the sea at the full moon. She deserves respect, I would say, but not fear."

"If you say so," Diamond said dubiously. "Is she-I mean, is Rune-" She cast a glance at the couch where Rune lay wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, her face as pale as the snow outside, with the same fever-spots of bright red that Tonno had on his cheeks.

"Yes," Pearl replied with absolute certainty. "She has told Amber that the girl will live, and if she makes such a pledge, she will keep it. Such as she is cannot lie-"

Rune would have liked to listen to more-in fact, she would have liked to see if she couldn't float off into another room and see what was going on there-but at that moment the old woman seemed to notice that she was up there. The tone of her chant took on a new sharpness, and the words changed, and Rune found herself being pulled back down into the body on the couch. She tried resisting, but it was no use.

Once back in her body, all she could think of was Tonno, and once again she began crying, feebly, for all the things she had not done.

Her head hurt, horribly, and her joints still ached, but she wasn't so awfully cold, and she didn't feel as if she was floating around anymore. She felt very solidly anchored inside her body, actually. She opened her eyes experimentally.

Maddie was sitting in the chair where the old woman had been sitting, working on her mending. Rune coughed; Maddie looked up, and grinned when she saw that Rune was awake.

"Well! Are you back with us again?" the girl said cheerfully.

Rune tested her throat, found it still sore, and just nodded.

"Hang on a moment," Maddie told her, and put her mending away. She went over to the hearth, where there was a kettle on the hob beside the steaming bowl of herbs-herbs that smelled very like the ones Brother Anders had used for Tonno. That-it seemed as if it had happened years ago-

Something had happened to her grief while she slept. It was still with her, but no longer so sharp.

Maddie picked up the kettle and poured a mug of something, bringing it over to the couch. Rune managed to free an arm from her wrappings to take it. Her hand shook, and the mug felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds, but she managed to drink the contents without spilling much.

It was some kind of herb tea, heavily dosed with honey, and it eased the soreness in her throat wonderfully.

"What happened?" she said, grateful beyond words to hear her voice come out as a whispered version of her own, and not a fever-scorched croak.

"Well," Maddie said, sitting herself down in the chair again. "You made a very dramatic entrance, that's for certain. Nighthawk said that she thinks you got pneumonia-Nighthawk's the Gypsy-witch Amber knows that treats us all for things the Guild Herb-women can't. Anyway, Nighthawk says you got pneumonia, but that your voice is going to be all right, so don't worry. It's just that you're going to be all winter recovering, so don't think you can go jumping out of bed to sing."

"Oh," Rune said vaguely. "What-what am I doing here?" She gestured at Amber's neat little parlor, in which she was the only discordant note.

"Amber says you're staying here where we can all keep an eye on you until you stop having fevers," Maddie said fiercely-and something in her voice told Rune that her recovery hadn't been nearly as matter-of-fact as Maddie made it out to be. "Then you can go back to your room, but you're going to stay in bed most of the time until spring. That's orders from Amber."

"But-" Rune began.

"That's orders from Amber," Maddie repeated. And the tone of her voice said that it was no use protesting or arguing. "And she says you're not to worry about what all this is costing. Or about the fact that you're not playing in the common room for your keep. You've been part of Amber's for more than a year, and Amber takes care of her people."

Rune nodded, meekly, but when Maddie finally left, she lay back among her pillows and tried to figure out exactly why Amber was doing all this for her. It wasn't as if this was the same set of circumstances as when she'd nursed Tonno-

-or was it?

She fell asleep trying to puzzle it all out, without much success.

She dreamed of Jib; dreamed of the Hungry Bear. Like her, he was two years older-but unlike her, he was still doing exactly the same things as he'd been two years ago. Still playing stable-hand and general dogsbody. His life hadn't altered in the slightest from when she'd left, and she was struck with the gloomy certainty that it never would, unless fate took an unexpected hand.

She woke again to near-darkness; the only light was from the banked fire. There was another full mug on a little table beside her, this time with doctored apple cider in it. She sipped it and stared into the coals for a long time, wondering how much of her dream was reality and how much was her fever-dreams.

What was going to happen to Jib? He'd been her friend, her only friend, and she'd run off without even a good-bye. She hadn't ever worried about what was going to happen to him with her gone. Was he all right? Had the bullies found something better to do, or were they still making his life a torment?

Was he satisfied? How could he be? How could anyone be satisfied in the position he held? It was all right for a boy, but no job for a man. But unless something changed for him, that was what he'd be all his life. Someone's flunky.

Now she remembered what he'd wanted to do, back in the long-ago days when they'd traded dreams. He'd wanted to be a horse-trader; a modest enough ambition, and one he could probably do well at if he stuck to the kind of horses he had experience with. Farm-stock, donkeys, rough cobs-sturdy beasts, not highly bred, but what farmers and simple traders needed. Jib knew beasts like that; could tell a good one from a bad one, a bargain from a doctored beast that was about to break down.

She tried to tell herself that what happened to him wasn't her responsibility, but if that was true, then it was also true that what happened to her was not Amber's responsibility. Yet Amber was caring for her.

Jib was old enough to take care of himself.

Well, that was true-but Jib had no way to get himself out of the rut he was in. He had no talent at all, except that of working well with animals. If he went somewhere else, he'd only be doing the same work in a different place. Would that be better or not? And would he even think of doing so? She knew from her own experience how hard it was to break ties and go, when things where you were at the moment were only uncomfortable, not unbearable. It was easy to tell yourself that they'd get better, eventually.

She fell asleep again, feeling vaguely bothered by yet more guilt. If only there was something she could have done to help him. . . .

Weak, early-spring sunshine reflected off the wall of the House across from her window, and she had the window open a crack just for the sake of the fresh air. She'd been allowed out of bed, finally, two weeks ago; she still spent a lot of time in her room, reading. Even a simple trip down to the common room tended to make her legs wobbly. But she persisted; whether she was ready or not, she would have to make Midsummer Faire this year, and the trials. For her own sake, and for the sake of Tonno's memory.

If only she didn't owe Amber so much. . . . Her indebtedness troubled her, as it did not seem to trouble Amber. But at the least, before she left, Rune had determined to walk the length and breadth of Nolton, listening to buskers and talking to them, to find Amber a replacement musician for the common room. That wouldn't cancel the debt, but it would ease it, a little.

"Rune?" Maddie tapped on the half-open door to her room; Rune looked up from the book she was reading. It was one of Tonno's, but she'd never seen fit to inform the Church that she had it, and no one had ever come asking after it. She had a number of books here that had been Tonno's, and she wasn't going to give them back until someone came for them. She reasoned that she could always use her illness as an excuse to cover why she had never done so.

She smiled at Maddie, who returned it a little nervously. "There's a visitor below," she said, and the tone of her voice made Rune sit up a little straighter. "It's a Priest. He wants to see you. He was with Amber for a while and she said it was all right for him to talk to you-but if you don't want to, Rune-"

She sighed, exasperated. "Oh, it's probably just about the books I have from the shop. The greedy pigs probably want them back." She tugged at her hair and brushed down her shabby breeches and shirt. "Do I look like a boy, or a girl?"

Maddie put her head to one side and considered. "More like a girl, actually."

"Damn. Oh well, it can't be helped. You might as well bring him up." She gritted her teeth together. He would show up now, when she was just getting strong enough to enjoy reading.

Maddie vanished, and a few moments later, heavy footsteps following her light ones up the kitchen stairs heralded the arrival of her visitor.

Rune came very near to chuckling at the disgruntled look on the Priest's face. Bad enough to have to come to a brothel to collect part of an estate-worse that he was taken up the back stairs to do so, like a servant.

That's one for you, Tonno, she thought, keeping the smile off her lips somehow. A small one, but there it is.

"Are you Rune of Westhaven?" the balding, thin Priest asked crossly. He was another sort like Brother Pell, but he didn't even have the Brother's love of music to leaven his bitterness. Rune nodded. She waited for him to demand the books; she was going to make him find them all, pick them up, and carry them out himself. Hopefully, down the back stairs again.

But his next words were a complete shock.

"Tonno Alendor left a will, filed as was proper, with the Church, and appointing Brother Bryan as executor of the estate," the Priest continued, as if every word hurt him. "In it, everything except the tithe of death-duties and death-taxes was left to you. The shop, the contents, everything."

He glared at her, as if he wanted badly to know what she had done to "make" the old man name her as his heir. For her part, she just stared at him, gaping in surprise, unable to speak. Finally the Priest continued in an aggrieved tone.

"Brother Bryan has found a buyer for the shop and contents, with the sole exception being a few books that Tonno mentions specifically that he wanted you to keep. Here's the list-"

He handed it to her with the tips of his fingers, as if touching her or it might somehow contaminate him. She took it, hands shaking as she opened it. As she had expected, they were all the books Tonno had insisted she keep here, at her room.

"If you have no objections," the Priest finished, his teeth gritted, "Brother Bryan will complete the purchase. The Church will receive ten percent as death-tithe. He, as executor, will receive another ten percent. City death-taxes are a remaining ten percent. You will receive the bulk of the moneys from the sale. It won't be much," he finished, taking an acid delight in imparting that bad news. "The shop is in a bad location, and the contents are a jumble of used merchandise, mostly curiosities, and hard to dispose of. But Brother Bryan will have your moneys delivered here at the conclusion of the sale, and take care of the death-duties himself. Unless you have something else from the shop you would like to keep as a memorial-piece." Again he pursed his lips sourly. "The value of that piece, will, of course, be pro-rated against your share."

She thought quickly, then shook her head. There was nothing there that she wanted. Everything in the shop would be forever tainted with the horrid memories of Tonno's sickness and unnecessary death. Let someone else take it, someone for whom the place would have no such memories. Not even the instruments would be of any use; she could only play fiddle and lute, and Tonno had sold the last of those months ago, during the height of summer.

The Priest took himself out, leaving her still dazed.

She didn't know what to think. How much money was "not very much"? Assuming that Brother Bryan only got a fraction of what the contents of the shop were worth-and she did not doubt that he would drive a very hard bargain indeed, both for her sake, and the Church's-that was still more money than she had ever had in her life. What was she to do with it? It beggared the pouch full of silver she'd gotten from the Ghost. . . .

She fell asleep, still trying to comprehend it.

This time, her dreams about Jib were troubled. He was plainly unhappy; scorned by the villagers, abused by Stara, ordered about by everyone. And yet, he had nowhere to go. He had no money saved, no prospects-

The village toughs still bullied him, and without Rune to protect him, he often sported bruises or a black eye. They laughed at him for being a coward, but what was he to do? If he fought them, they'd only hurt him further or complain that he had picked the fight, not they. They never came at him by ones or twos, only in a gang.

He'd had an offer from a horse-trader a month ago, an honest man who had been stopping at the Bear for as long as Jib could recall-if he had some money, the man would let him buy into the string and learn the business, eventually to take it over when the trader settled down to breeding. That was the answer to his prayers-but he had no money. The trader would keep the offer open as long as he could, but how long would he wait? A year? More? No matter how long he waited, Jib would still never have it. He got no pay; he'd get no pay for as long as Stara was holding the purse-strings. If he went elsewhere, he might earn pay in addition to his keep, but only if he could produce a good reference, and Stara would never let Jeoff give him one if he left.

He worked his endless round of chores with despair his constant companion. . . .

Rune woke with a start. And she knew at that moment exactly what she was going to do.

The days were warm now, and so were the nights-warm enough to sleep out, at any rate. Now was the time to leave; she'd be at the Faire when it opened if she left now.

But leaving meant good-byes. . . .

She hugged everyone, from Ruby to the new little kitchen-boy, with a lump in her throat. She'd been happier here than anyplace else in her life. If Tonno were still alive, she might have put this off another year.

Not now. It was go now, or give up the dream. Tonno's memory wouldn't let her do that.

"We're sorry to see you leave, Rune," Amber said with real regret, when Rune hugged her good-bye, her balance a little off from the unaccustomed weight of her packs. "But Tonno and I always knew this place wouldn't hold you longer than a year or two. We're glad you stayed this long."

Rune sighed. "I'm sorry too," she confessed. "But-I can't help it, Amber. This is something I have to do. At least I found you a replacement for me."

"And a good one," Diamond said, with a wink. "She'll do just fine. She's already giving Carly hives."

"She doesn't want to do anything else but work as a street-busker, so you'll have her for as long as you want her," Rune continued. "I was very careful about that."

"I know you were, dear," Amber said, and looked at the pouch of coin in her hand. "I wish you'd take this back. . . ."

Rune shook her head stubbornly. "Save it, if you won't use it. Save it for an emergency, or use it for bribes; it's not a lot, but it ought to keep the lower-level Church clerks happy. I know that's what Tonno would like, and it'd be a good way to honor his memory."

Half of the money she'd gotten from the sale of the shop she'd given to Amber, to repay her for all the expense she'd gone to in nursing Rune back to health. A quarter of it had been sent to Jib, via the Gypsies, with a verbal message-"Follow your dream." There were things the Gypsies were impeccably honest about, and one of them was in keeping pledges. They'd vowed on their mysterious gods to take the money to Jib without touching a penny. Once it had gone, she'd ceased to have nightmares about him.

The remaining quarter, minus the Gypsies' delivery-fee, and the things she'd needed for the trip, ought to be just enough to get her to the Midsummer Faire and the trials for the Bardic Guild. She had a new set of faded finery, a new pack full of books, and the strength that had taken so long to regain was finally back. She was ready.

Amber kissed her; the way a fond mother would. "You'd better go now, before I disgrace myself and cry," the Madam ordered sternly. "Imagine! Amber, in tears, on the steps of her own brothel-and over a silly little fiddler-girl!" She smiled brightly, but Rune saw the teardrops trembling at the corners of her eyes and threatening to spill over.

To prevent that, she started another round of hugs and kisses that included all of them. Except Carly, who was nowhere to be seen.

Probably telling the Church that I'm running away with my ill-gotten gains.

"Well, that's it," she said at last, as nonchalantly as if she was about to cross the town, not the country. "I'm off. Wish me luck!"

She turned and headed off down the street for the east gate, turning again to walk backwards and wave good-bye.

She thought she saw Amber surreptitiously wipe her eyes on the corner of her sleeve, before returning the wave brightly. Her own throat knotted up, and to cover it, she waved harder, until she was forced to round a corner that put them all out of sight.

Then she squared her shoulders beneath her pack, and started on her journey; destination, the Midsummer Faire.

And Tonno, she thought, as she passed below the gates and took to the road. This one's for you, too. Always for you.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

All the world comes to the Midsummer Faire at Kingsford.

That's what they said, anyway-and it certainly seemed that way to Rune, as she traveled the final leg down from Nolton, the Trade Road that ran from the Holiforth Pass to Traen, and from there to Kingsford and the Faire Field across the Kanar River from the town. She wasn't walking on the dusty, hard-packed road itself; she'd likely have been trampled by the press of beasts, then run over by the carts into the bargain. Instead, she walked with the rest of the foot-travelers on the road's verge. It was no less dusty, what grass there had been had long since been trampled into powder by all the feet of the fairgoers, but at least a traveler was able to move along without risk of acquiring hoofprints on his anatomy.

Rune was close enough now to see the gates of the Faire set into the wooden palisade that surrounded it, and the guard beside them. This seemed like a good moment to separate herself from the rest of the throng, rest her tired feet, and plan her next moves before entering the grounds of the Faire.

She elbowed her way out of the line of people, some of whom complained and elbowed back, and moved away from the road to a little hillock under a forlorn sapling, where she had a good view of the Faire, a scrap of shade, and a rock to sit on. The sun beat down with enough heat to warm the top of her head through her soft leather hat. She plopped herself down on the rock and began massaging her tired feet while she looked the Faire over.

It was a bit overwhelming. Certainly it was much bigger than she'd imagined it would be. Nolton had been a shock; this was a bigger one. It was equally certain that there would be nothing dispensed for free behind those log palings, and the few coppers Rune had left would have to serve to feed her through the three days of trials for admission to the Bardic Guild. After that-

Well, after that, she should be an apprentice, and food and shelter would be for the Guild and her master to worry about. Or else, if she somehow failed-

She refused to admit the possibility of failing the trials. She couldn't-not after getting this far.

Tonno would never forgive me.

But for now, she needed somewhere to get herself cleaned of the road dust, and a place to sleep, both with no price tags attached. Right now, she was the same gray-brown as the road from head to toe, the darker brown of her hair completely camouflaged by the dust, or at least it felt that way. Even her eyes felt dusty.

She strolled down to the river, her lute thumping her hip softly on one side, her pack doing the same on the other. There were docks on both sides of the river; on this side, for the Faire, on the other, for Kingsford. Close to the docks the water was muddy and roiled; there was too much traffic on the river to make an undisturbed bath a viable possibility, and too many wharf-rats about to make leaving one's belongings unattended a wise move. She backtracked upstream a bit, while the noise of the Faire faded behind her. She crossed over a small stream that fed into the river, and penetrated into land that seemed unclaimed. It was probably Church land, since the Faire was held on Church property; she'd often seen Church land left to go back to wilderness if it was hard to farm. Since the Church owned the docks, and probably owned all fishing rights to this section of river, they weren't likely to permit any competition.

The bank of the river was wilder here, and overgrown, not like the carefully tended area by the Faire docks. Well, that would discourage fairegoers from augmenting their supplies with a little fishing from the bank, especially if they were townsfolk, afraid of bears and snakes under every bush. She pushed her way into the tangle and found a game-trail that ran along the riverbank, looking for a likely spot. Finally she found a place where the river had cut a tiny cove into the bank. It was secluded; trees overhung the water, their branches making a good thick screen that touched the water, the ground beneath them bare of growth, and hollows between some of the roots were just big enough to cradle her sleeping roll. Camp, bath, and clear water, all together, and within climbing distance on one of the trees she discovered a hollow big enough to hide her bedroll and those belongings she didn't want to carry into the Faire.

She waited until dusk fell before venturing into the river, and kept her eyes and ears open while she scrubbed herself down. She probably wasn't the only country-bred person to think of this ploy, and ruffians preferred places where they could hide. Once clean, she debated whether or not to change into the special clothing she'd brought tonight; it might be better to save it-then the thought of donning the sweat-soaked, dusty traveling gear became too distasteful, and she rejected it out of hand.

I've got shirts and under-things for three days. That'll do.

She felt strange, and altogether different once she'd put the new costume on. Part of that was due to the materials-except for when she'd tried the clothing on for fit, this was the first time in her life she'd ever worn silk and velvet. Granted, the materials were all old; bought from a second-hand vendor back in Nolton and cut down from much larger men's garments by Maddie. She'd had plenty of time on the road to sew them up. The velvet of the breeches wasn't too rubbed; the ribbons on the sleeves of the shirt and the embroidered trim she'd made when she was sick should cover the faded and frayed places, and the vest should cover the stains on the back panels of each shirt completely. That had been clever of Maddie; to reverse the shirts so that the wine-stained fronts became the backs. Her hat, once the dust was beaten out of it and the plumes she'd snatched from the tails of several disgruntled roosters along the way were tucked into the band, looked both brave and professional enough. Her boots, at least, were new, and when the dust was brushed from them, looked quite respectable. She tucked her remaining changes of clothing and her bedroll into her pack, hid the lot in the tree-hollow, and felt ready to face the Faire.

The guard at the gate, a Church cleric, of course, eyed her carefully. "Minstrel?" he asked suspiciously, looking at the lute and fiddle she carried in their cases, slung from her shoulders. "You'll need a permit to busk, if you plan to stay more than three days."

She shook her head. "Here for the trials, m'lord. Not planning on busking."

Which was the truth. She wasn't planning on busking. If something came up, or she was practicing and people chose to pay her-well, that wasn't planned, was it?

"Ah." He appeared satisfied. "You come in good time, boy. The trials begin tomorrow. The Guild has its tent pitched hard by the main gate of the Cathedral; you should have no trouble finding it."

She thanked him, but he had already turned his attention to the next in line. She passed inside the log walls and entered the Faire itself.

The first impressions she had were of noise and light; torches burned all along the aisle she traversed; the booths to either side were lit by lanterns, candles, or other, more expensive methods, like perfumed oil-lamps. The crowd was noisy; so were the merchants. Even by torchlight it was plain that these were the booths featuring shoddier goods; second-hand finery, brass jewelry, flash and tinsel. The entertainers here were-surprising. She averted her eyes from a set of dancers. It wasn't so much that they wore little but imagination, but the way they were dancing embarrassed even her; Amber had never permitted anything like this in her House. And the fellow with the dancers back at the Westhaven Faire hadn't had his girls doing anything like this, either.

Truth to tell, they tended to move as little as possible.

She kept a tight grip on her pouch and instruments, tried to ignore the crush, and let the flow of fairgoers carry her along.

Eventually the crowd thinned out a bit (though not before she'd felt a ghostly hand or two try for her pouch and give it up as a bad cause). She followed her nose then, looking for the row that held the cook-shop tents and the ale-sellers. She hadn't eaten since this morning, and her stomach was lying in umcomfortably close proximity to her spine.

She learned that the merchants of tavern-row were shrewd judges of clothing; hers wasn't fine enough to be offered a free taste, but she wasn't wearing garments poor enough that they felt she needed to be shooed away. Sternly admonishing her stomach to be less impatient, she strolled the length of the row twice, carefully comparing prices and quantities, before settling on a humble tent that offered meat pasties (best not ask what beast the meat came from, not at these prices) and fruit juice or milk as well as ale and wine. Best of all, it offered seating at rough trestle-tables as well. Her feet were complaining as much as her stomach.

Rune took her flaky pastry and her mug of juice and found a spot at any empty table where she could eat and watch the crowds passing by. No wine or ale for her; not even had she the coppers to spare for it. She dared not be the least muddle-headed, not with a secret to keep and the first round of competition in the morning. The pie was more crust than meat, but it was filling and well-made and fresh; that counted for a great deal.

She watched the other customers, and noted with amusement that there were two sorts of the clumsy, crude clay mugs. One sort, the kind they served the milk and juice in, was ugly and shapeless, too ugly to be worth stealing but was just as capacious as the exterior promised. No doubt, that was because children were often more observant than adults gave them credit for-and very much inclined to set up a howl if something didn't meet implied expectations. The other sort of mug, for wine and ale, was just the same ugly shape and size on the outside, though a different shade of toad-back green, but had a far thicker bottom, effectively reducing the interior capacity by at least a third. Which a thirsty adult probably wouldn't notice.

"Come for the trials, lad?" asked a quiet voice in her ear.

Rune jumped, nearly knocking her mug over, and snatching at it just in time to save the contents from drenching her shopworn finery. And however would she have gotten it clean again in time for tomorrow's competition? There hadn't been a sound or a hint of movement, or even the shifting of the bench to warn her, but now there was a man sitting beside her.

He was of middle years, red hair just going to gray a little at the temples, smile-wrinkles around his mouth and gray-green eyes, with a candid, triangular face. Well, that said nothing; Rune had known highwaymen with equally friendly and open faces. His costume was similar to her own, though; leather breeches instead of velvet, good linen instead of worn silk, a vest and a leather hat that could have been twin to hers. But the telling marks were the knots of ribbon on the sleeves of his shirt-and the neck of a lute peeking over his shoulder. A minstrel!

Of the Guild? Could it be possible that here at the Faire there'd be Guild musicians working the "streets"? Rune rechecked the ribbons on his sleeves, and was disappointed. Blue and scarlet and green, not the purple and silver of a Guild Minstrel, nor the purple and gold of a Guild Bard. This was only a common busker, a mere street-player. Still, he'd bespoken her kindly enough, and God knew not everyone with the music-passion had the skill or the talent to pass the trials-

Look at Tonno. He'd never even gotten as far as busking.

"Aye, sir," she replied politely. "I've hopes to pass; I think I've the talent, and others have said as much."

Including the sour Brother Pell. When she'd told him good-bye and the reason for leaving, he'd not only wished her well, he'd actually cracked a smile, and said that of all his pupils, she was the one he'd have chosen to send to the trials.

The stranger's eyes measured her keenly, and she had the disquieting feeling that her boy-ruse was fooling him not at all. "Ah well," he replied, "There's a-many before you have thought the same, and failed."

"That may be-" She answered the challenge in his eyes, stung into revealing what she'd kept quiet until now. "But I'd bet a copper penny that none of them fiddled for a murdering ghost, and not only came out by the grace of their skill but were rewarded by that same spirit for amusing him!"

"Oh, so?" A lifted eyebrow was all the indication he gave of being impressed, but somehow that lifted brow conveyed volumes. And he believed her; she read that, too. "You've made a song of it, surely?"

Should I sing it now? Well, why not? After the next couple of days, it wouldn't be a secret anymore. "Have I not! It's to be my entry for the third day of testing."

"Well, then . . ." he said no more than that, but his wordless attitude of waiting compelled Rune to unsling her fiddle case, extract her instrument, and tune it without further prompting.

"It's the fiddle that's my first instrument," she said, feeling as if she must apologize for singing with a fiddle rather than her lute, since the lute was clearly his instrument. "And since 'twas the fiddle that made the tale-"

"Never apologize for a song, child," he admonished, interrupting her. "Let it speak out for itself. Now let's hear this ghost tale."

It wasn't easy to sing while fiddling, but Rune had managed the trick of it some time ago. She closed her eyes a half-moment, fixing in her mind the necessary changes she'd made to the lyrics-for unchanged, the song would have given her sex away-and began.

"I sit here on a rock, and curse my stupid, bragging tongue,

And curse the pride that would not let me back down from a boast

And wonder where my wits went, when I took that challenge up

And swore that I would go and fiddle for the Skull Hill Ghost!"Oh, that was a damn fool move, Rune. And you knew it when you did it. But if you hadn't taken their bet, you wouldn't be here now.

"It's midnight, and there's not a sound up here upon Skull Hill

Then comes a wind that chills my blood and makes the leaves blow wild-"Not a good word choice, but a change that had to be made-that was one of the giveaway verses.

"And rising up in front of me, a thing like shrouded Death.

A voice says, 'Give me reason why I shouldn't kill you, child.' "The next verse described Rune's answer to the spirit, and the fiddle wailed of fear and determination and things that didn't rightly belong on Earth. Then came the description of that night-long, lightless ordeal she'd passed through, and the fiddle shook with the weariness she'd felt, playing the whole night long.

Then the tune rose with dawning triumph when the thing not only didn't kill her outright, but began to warm to the music she'd made. Now she had an audience of more than one, though she was only half aware of the fact.

"At last the dawnlight strikes my eyes; I stop, and see the sun

The light begins to chase away the dark and midnight cold-

And then the light strikes something more-I stare in dumb surprise-

For where the ghost had stood there is a heap of shining gold!"The fiddle laughed at Death cheated, thumbed its nose at spirits, and chortled over the revelation that even the angry dead could be impressed and forced to reward courage and talent.

Rune stopped, and shook back brown locks dark with sweat, and looked about her in astonishment at the applauding patrons of the cook-tent. She was even more astonished when they began to toss coppers in her open fiddle case, and the cook-tent's owner brought her over a full pitcher of juice and a second pie.

"I'd'a brought ye wine, laddie, but Master Talaysen there says ye go to trials and mustna be a-muddled," she whispered as she hurried back to her counter.

But this hadn't been a performance-at least, not for more than one! "I hadn't meant-"

"Surely this isn't the first time you've played for your supper, child?" The minstrel's eyes were full of amused irony.

She flushed. "Well, no, but-"

"So take your well-earned reward and don't go arguing with folk who have a bit of copper to fling at you, and who recognize the Gift when they hear it. No mistake, youngling, you have the Gift. And sit and eat; you've more bones than flesh. A good tale, that."

She peeked at the contents of the case before she answered him. Not a single pin in the lot. Folks certainly do fling money about at this Faire.

"Well," Rune said, and blushed, "I did exaggerate a bit at the end. 'Twasn't gold, it was silver, but silver won't rhyme. And it was that silver that got me here-bought me my second instrument, paid for lessoning, kept me fed while I was learning. I'd be just another tavern-musician, otherwise-" She broke off, realizing who and what she was talking to.

"Like me, you are too polite to say?" The minstrel smiled, then the smile faded. "There are worse things, child, than to be a free musician. I don't think there's much doubt your Gift will get you past the trials-but you might not find the Guild to be all you think it to be."

Rune shook her head stubbornly, taking a moment to wonder why she'd told this stranger so much, and why she so badly wanted his good opinion. Maybe it was just that he reminded her of a much younger Tonno. Maybe it was simply needing the admiration of a fellow musician. "Only a Guild Minstrel would be able to earn a place in a noble's train. Only a Guild Bard would have the chance to sing for royalty. I'm sorry to contradict you, sir, but I've had my taste of wandering, singing my songs out only to know they'll be forgotten in the next drink, wondering where my next meal is coming from. I'll never get a secure life except through the Guild, and I'll never see my songs live beyond me without their patronage."

He sighed. "I hope you never regret your decision, child. But if you should-or if you need help, ever, here at the Faire or elsewhere-well, just ask around the Gypsies or the musicians for Talaysen. Or for Master Wren; some call me that as well. I'll stand your friend."

With those surprising words, he rose soundlessly, as gracefully as a bird in flight, and slipped out of the tent. Just before he passed out of sight among the press of people, he pulled his lute around to the front, and struck a chord. She managed to hear the first few notes of a love song, the words rising golden and glorious from his throat, before the crowd hid him from view and the babble of voices obscured the music.

She strolled the Faire a bit more; bought herself a sweet-cake, and watched the teaser-shows outside some of the show-tents. She wished she wasn't in boy-guise; there were many good-looking young men here, and not all of them were going about with young women. Having learned more than a bit about preventing pregnancy at Amber's, she'd spent a little of her convalescence in losing her virginity with young Shawm. The defloration was mutual, as it turned out; she'd reflected after she left that it might have been better with a more experienced lover, but at least they'd been equals in ignorance. Towards the end they'd gotten better at it; she had at least as much pleasure out of love-play as he did. They'd parted as they'd begun-friends. And she had the feeling that Maddie was going to be his next and more serious target.

Well, at least I got him broken in for her!

But it was too bad that she was in disguise. Even downright plain girls seemed to be having no trouble finding company, and if after a day or two it turned into more than company-

Never mind. If they work me as hard as I think they will in the Guild, I won't have any time for dalliance. So I might as well get used to celibacy again.

But as the tent-lined streets of the Faire seemed to hold more and more couples, she decided it was time to leave. She needed the sleep, anyway.

Everything was still where she'd left it. Praying for a dry night, she lined her chosen root-hollow with bracken, and settled in for the night.

Rune was waiting impatiently outside the Guild tent the next morning, long before there was anyone there to take her name for the trials. The tent itself was, as the Faire guard had said, hard to miss; purple in the main, with pennons and edgings of silver and gilt. Almost-too much; it bordered on the gaudy. She was joined shortly by three more striplings, one well-dressed and confident, two sweating and nervous. More trickled in as the sun rose higher, until there was a line of twenty or thirty waiting when the Guild Registrar, an old and sour-looking Church cleric, raised the tent-flap to let them file inside. He wasn't wearing Guild colors, but rather a robe of dusty gray linen; she was a little taken aback since she hadn't been aware of a connection between the Guild and the Church before, other than the fact that there were many Guild musicians and Bards who had taken vows.

Would they have ways to check back to Nolton, and to Amber's? Could they find out she was a girl before the trials were over?

Then she laughed at her own fears. Even if they had some magic that could cross leagues of country in a single day and bring that knowledge back, why would they bother? There was nothing important about her. She was just another boy at the trials. And even if she passed, she'd only be another apprentice.

The clerk took his time, sharpening his quill until Rune was ready to scream with impatience, before looking her up and down and asking her name.

"Rune of Westhaven, and lately of Nolton." She held to her vow of not claiming a sire-name. "Mother is Stara of Westhaven."

He noted it, without a comment. "Primary instrument?"

"Fiddle."

Scratch, scratch, of quill on parchment. "Secondary?"

"Lute."

He raised an eyebrow; the usual order was lute, primary; fiddle, secondary. For that matter, fiddle wasn't all that common even as a secondary instrument.

"And you will perform-?"

"First day, primary, 'Lament Of The Maiden Esme.' Second day, secondary, 'The Unkind Lover.' Third day, original, 'The Skull Hill Ghost.' " An awful title, but she could hardly use the real name of "Fiddler Girl." "Accompanied on primary, fiddle."

He was no longer even marginally interested in her. "Take your place."

She sat on the backless wooden bench, trying to keep herself calm. Before her was the raised wooden platform on which they would all perform; to either side of it were the backless benches like the one she warmed, for the aspirants to the Guild. The back of the tent made the third side of the platform, and the fourth faced the row of well-padded chairs for the Guild judges. Although she was first here, it was inevitable that they would let others have the preferred first few slots; there would be those with fathers already in the Guild, or those who had coins for bribes who would play first, so that they were free to enjoy the Faire for the rest of the day, without having to wait long enough for their nerves to get the better of them. Still, she shouldn't have to wait too long-rising with the dawn would give her that much of an edge, at least.

She got to play by midmorning. The "Lament" was perfect for fiddle, the words were simple and few, and the wailing melody gave her lots of scope for improvisation. The style the judges had chosen, "florid style," encouraged such improvisation. The row of Guild judges, solemn in their tunics or robes of purple, white silk shirts trimmed with gold or silver ribbon depending on whether they were Minstrels or Bards, were a formidable audience. Their faces were much alike; well-fed and very conscious of their own importance; you could see it in their eyes. As they sat below the platform and took unobtrusive notes, they seemed at least mildly impressed with her performance. Even more heartening, several of the boys yet to perform looked satisfyingly worried when she'd finished.

She packed up her fiddle and betook herself briskly out-to find herself a corner of the cathedral wall to lean against as her knees sagged when the excitement that had sustained her wore off.

I never used to react that badly to an audience.

Maybe she hadn't recovered from her sickness as completely as she'd thought. Or maybe it was just that she'd never had an audience this important before. It was several long moments before she could get her legs to bear her weight and her hands to stop shaking. It was then that she realized that she hadn't eaten since the night before-and that she was suddenly ravenous. Before she'd played, the very thought of food had been revolting.

The same cook-shop tent as before seemed like a reasonable proposition. She paid for her breakfast with some of the windfall-coppers of the night before; this morning the tent was crowded and she was lucky to get a scant corner of a bench to herself. She ate hurriedly and joined the strollers through the Faire.

Once or twice she thought she glimpsed the red hair of Talaysen, but if it really was the minstrel, he was gone by the time she reached the spot where she had thought he'd been. There were plenty of other street-buskers, though. She thought wistfully of the harvest of coin she'd reaped the night before as she noted that none of them seemed to be lacking for patronage. And no one was tossing pins into the hat, either. It was all copper coins-and occasionally, even a silver one. But now that she was a duly registered entrant in the trials, it would be going against custom, if not the rules, to set herself up among them. That much she'd picked up, waiting for her turn. An odd sort of custom, but there it was; better that she didn't stand out as the only one defying it.