Sunday, June 10, 249

Ladyshearth Lodgings

Coates Lane

Port Caynn

being an account of the events of Friday, June 8,
at the Summer Palace
beginning at dawn on that day

Achoo woke me, having natural errands to run. I was at a loss at first. My window looked out over rose vines, which would have hurt my poor hound dreadfully. It also looked out into pouring rain. I spat into it and closed the shutter. Seemingly these vile mages wished to ensure that we never got Prince Gareth’s trail again.

Happily my uniform, clean and dry, was folded and stacked before my door. It took me but a moment to put it on and to find a pair of the room’s last resident’s sturdy shoes. They did not fit. I had to put on my own boots, which were nearly as wet as when I’d taken them off.

Pounce remained abed. Achoo led me through the smoky-smelling halls, trusting her nose to guide her outside. We ended in the kitchens. There I came to a halt while Achoo raced through an open outer door into the rain. Tunstall stood before the hearth, a pan in one hand and a spoon in the other. He spoke to an audience of ladies, gentlemen, and soldiers of the King’s Own who gathered around the great worktables. Two of the ladies were placing utensils on trays. A third was trimming flowers to fit prettily in a pair of thin vases. Master Farmer was in the kitchen as well, gutting and cleaning some fine, fat trout with the speed of a practiced cook.

“Now, see, my mother never held with Bazhir seasonings,” Tunstall was saying. The mot with the curling red hair who had gone off with him the night before assisted him, passing him what he needed. “But my lady has a taste for dishes with cumin, and she got me to like it, too.”

“You’re in service to a lady, Tunstall?” asked one of the men in the King’s Own. “How can you manage that and yet be a Dog?”

Tunstall looked down at his chickpeas and took a breath. This was always a difficult moment when we dealt with the nobility. “I mean my lady Sabine of Cahill, the knight. We are good friends.”

From the deep silence, I knew they all realized how close that friendship was. I sucked up my courage, because speaking before these folk was not to my taste, and said, “Cooking? You’ve got a mage and a Dog cooking?”

Tunstall and Master Farmer both looked at me like my brothers caught stealing sweets.

“What’s most magecraft, if not cooking?” Master Farmer asked. “As for this, if you want a meal that’s not stale or raw, then we cook, or you do, Cooper. Our poor friends here don’t know how.”

It seemed our circumstances, living in the half-destroyed palace, lacking servants, with few high officials keeping an eye on everyone, led to a relaxation of the rules. Certainly I felt comfortable enough to say, “All these folk and none of you know anything? Not so much as how to boil an egg?”

One lady held up a bandaged hand. “I got this cutting the bread.”

“Goddess save us all,” I said. What a menagerie had assembled in that kitchen, between the nobles and we Hunters. “Has anyone collected eggs today?”

My sole answer came from a number of pairs of blinking eyes. I didn’t dare ask about milk. Someone must have done the milking, or we’d have heard the cows, but that someone was not in the kitchen.

I went over to Master Farmer. “As soon as you can, please tell my lord Gershom that servants must be brought in,” I whispered. “We can’t look after an entire palace.” I saw a stack of baskets and pointed to three ladies. “You will come collect eggs, for Their Majesties,” I told them. I found pails and chose two mots and two coves who had something intelligent and humorous about their faces. “You may learn to milk cows, also for the sake of the realm.”

I walked out of the kitchen into the rain, not entirely sure they would follow. They did. They knew where the farm buildings were, nicely hidden behind hedges and trees. The nobles used the barns for canoodling, from what I heard.

I showed the ladies how to deal with the hens, with results of a mixed kind, including a number of scratches and smashed eggs. Our luck was better in the cowsheds. Some hostlers who had gone with the royal party to Blue Harbor the night of the attack had milked cows as servant lads. They were already seeing to that work. They were happy to let the gentlemen carry the buckets to the kitchen.

I did not return with them. Sooner or later Tunstall would remember that I knew how to make pasties. He would set me to baking for everyone. We all would be far better off if the nobles went crying to Lord Gershom for servants he could trust. As long as Master Farmer, Tunstall, and I were the only Dogs present, we should be about Dog work. Right now, with the curst rain washing away His Highness’s scent, it seemed to me the closest Dog work lay in the ships that had been raised from the ocean floor last night.

Achoo found me in the garden. Together we walked down through the gardens along paths that had turned to small streams. At least the area was now cleared of the dead. The gardens were being washed clean as the crushed flowers and bushes recovered from their injuries. No one was silly enough to be out in the wet like me. Even the guards at the gate that overlooked the sea cliffs kept to their shelter. They stuck their heads out, ready to object to my departure, but saw my uniform and opened half of the gate for me. Achoo raced through. I followed at a more clumping pace, thanks to my shoes.

Using my spelled mirror, I saw that even the shreds of the path spells were gone this morning. I hoped they got some more mages and soldiers here soon, as well as servants. I didn’t like having this beach and these paths open. Summer is prime raiding season for the fearsome ships from Scanra and the Copper Isles. Even the Yamanis sometimes reach this far south in their attacks.

When I prepared to descend in Achoo’s wake, I saw that any raiders might think twice before they tried to come up. The heavy rains had turned the path into a rushing stream.

“Achoo!” I called. “Achoo, where have you gone?” She had vanished.

I heard a yelp from below. I reached out to grab a rock at the side of the path, hoping to climb it to see where my empty-headed hound had gone. My boots slid on the mud under the water, pulling me into the current. Now I knew what had happened to Achoo. The tumbling water thrust me down the steep hill, ramming me into stones and gravel. I broke all of my nails as I tried to grab for a hold on the rocks. I had nothing cushioning my back, and only a thin summer-weight tunic and breeches between me and a ten-squad of bruises.

The stream dumped me at the foot of the cliff and sank into the sand as I cursed the cod-kickers who had called the rain. Achoo ran to me, whining as she licked my hands and arms. After the water, her tongue was startling in its warmth.

“I’ll live, girl,” I told her as I struggled to my feet. My poor friend was covered in mud. I ran my hands over her body and limbs to be sure she had taken no hurt. Once I was certain that her bones were unbroken, I looked around us. “I daresay neither of us will be happy about it for a day or two, but we’ll both of us live.”

Achoo gave me her encouraging “roof,” the sound that usually meant “We’ll do fine.”

The tide had come in. The pair of ships that had been raised by Master Ironwood and Mistress Orielle from the bottom were now moored fast to the very stones of the cliffs by heavy ropes. They were half afloat, tugging at their ties to the land, but moving very little. Rope ladders hung from the bow of each vessel. Someone had gone aboard after the mages brought the ships up.

I wiped my muddy face on my muddy arm. Achoo whined as the sea winds blew rain, spray, and the darker scent of bad things done into our faces.

Tunggu, Achoo,” I told her. “There’s no way you can get aboard one of these.” Even my girl couldn’t climb a rope ladder.

Achoo whined louder and yipped, her way of arguing. She even tucked her tail between her legs, which always made me feel like a brute.

“It’s for your own good, so stop that,” I said gently. I know how it feels to be left behind when I want to Hunt. “If you think of a way to climb up, you’re welcome. Go find someplace out of the rain.”

I looked up around the rocks at the foot of the cliff until I found a stone that ought to be out of the water if the tide came all the way up to the rocks. There I left my boots and stockings. Achoo slunk up and lay down beside the stone, the very picture of misery and abandonment.

I walked down to the closest ship, the Lash, and gripped the rope ladder that hung from her prow. Swiftly I clambered up. At the deck I discovered that each vessel had a flat canvas top from rail to rail, with the naked masts poking through the cloth. I was suspicious right off. Checking the canvas with the mirror in my pocket, I saw that it glowed with the same magic as the rest of the ship, part of the trap that had kept the dead from floating to shore. I wondered if we ever would have found the vessels had it not been for Master Farmer. Somehow Ironwood and Orielle did not seem like the type to investigate the cove.

I put my mirror in my pocket and dropped through the opening at the prow onto the deck. My feet went clean out from under me, sending me on a skid across the slanting deck until I struck a barricade. It gave in a way that made me scramble back from it. In the dim light that came through the holes around the edges and masts, where the canvas met wood, I squinted at what lay before me. I’d hit the bodies of two rowers bowed over their oar. Shaking, I made the Sign against evil on my chest. Only when I’d caught my breath did I inch closer for a better look. There was sommat strange about the way they sat, bent over, arms stretched out, thrusting on their oars, as if they’d been frozen in the middle of their work.

I moved closer still. Mithros witness it, the oar had grown up and over their hands, holding them there.

For a moment I waited, trembling, trying to work up my courage for what must be done. I scolded myself for a coward, and numbered all the corpses I’d handled. Wasn’t it me that washed Holborn and laid him out for his burial, without a tear? I’d dug bodies out of scummer and sewer water with little more than a kerchief over my mouth for the smell, so there was no good reason for me to falter.

I slid over until my legs dangled in the gap in the wood where the oarsmen sat. Then, carefully, begging the dead mumper’s pardon like he had the ears or the soul to hear me, I reached down to take anything that might be in his pockets.

Sparks leaped up to shock me. I yelped and flinched, brushing the dead oarsman’s arm. Bigger sparks jumped to me, stinging harder.

“Pox and murrain, protection spells!” I snapped. I tried to wriggle away on the ship’s deck. I touched the cove accidentally with my foot and got spark-bit one more time. “Ow! Plague take all mages who won’t lay a protection spell that doesn’t hurt!” At last I thought to use my head. I took my mirror out again and looked about me for magic. Spells of a deep purple color, almost black, coated the ship’s wood and the captive dead. More spells, dull bronze in color, were fixed to the canvas overhead.

“Spells to keep any from picking the pockets of the dead, and spells to keep the ship and the dead from rotting, I’ll wager,” I said to myself. “And never a thought taken for a poor Dog who needs to collect evidence.”

Vexed, I sat back and thought. I needed to explore the rest of the ship. I hadn’t brought a lamp, not knowing the sails covered the deck. I chose to deal with that first, returning to the prow, where I had boarded. There I drew my long knife. Someone had started a cut in the canvas already—last night, mayhap, when folk were looking to see how the ships went down. It even could have been Master Ironwood or Mistress Orielle who had sealed them this way.

Starting at the cut, I dragged my razor-sharp knife through the canvas, down the spine of the ship, admitting what light there was along with the rain. I had to step around a cove who was collapsed facedown on the walkway that ran between the rowers’ benches. From the whip that still lay in his fist, I could tell he was the overseer. It was the deck that held him. It had grown around his feet, and then his hands. I shuddered when I saw it had also grown up around his face. I wasn’t about to try to examine the contents of his pockets. Some other poor mumper could have that chore.

At last I reached the ship’s stern. The wheel gripped the pilot’s wrists in its wood. The rail had wrapped a cove and a mot in its wooden embrace. They leaned forward, pressed down by the sail. When I cut the heavy cloth entirely in half and flung it off of them, they remained bent over, their bodies stuck in that position. From long nights with the healers who worked with the dead to tell Tunstall and me what they’d died of, I knew all of these corpses would remain in their final positions for at least one more day, mayhap two. The priests called it Death’s rigor. I thought it was a curst sad way to be stuck after dying, and prayed that when my end came, I would get caught flat, in my bed.

I poked them, and the pilot, with my baton, with no results. Feeling bolder, I reached out to search the woman’s pockets, if she had them. The moment I touched her skirts, the protection spells sparked out at me, leaving a blister on one of my fingers. I cursed myself blue, for all the good that it did.

Back down the walkway I went, throwing the leaves of sail to either side to lay the deck partially bare. I knew rain would not wash the powerful spells away and I wanted to see the deck more clearly.

At the stern rail I leaned over to see if Achoo had come to sit at the foot of the ladder and stare woefully at me. Instead I looked straight down into Tunstall’s face as he climbed the ladder, his glowing rock shining through his tunic.

“Cooper, you hurt my feelings, running off,” Tunstall called as he swung onto the deck. “Just for that, no chickpeas with eggs and cheese for your breakfast.” He slipped to fall on his back.

“It’s slippery,” I told him, trying not to smile. I have been in some bad places where I have thought that Mattes Tunstall looked like the handsome young god in the stories. This was not quite that bad. Still, I could have kissed him. The place had me well spooked.

Tunstall grunted and sat up. “Now that you warn me, it is slippery.” He set about pulling off his boots and stockings. He tucked his stockings inside his boots and threaded the boot tops through his belt. “What have you found so far?” Tunstall asked, rubbing his knees. Of course they pained him on a day like this.

“Protection spells. Nasty ones that bite.” I showed him the red spots on my hand. “As for the crew, the ship grew up around them on deck, and the sails came down, sealing them underneath,” I said, helping him to his feet. “They were trapped.”

He took his glowing rock from his tunic. I went around to the rail and found a point where the sail had been threaded through an oar hole. Tunstall helped me to pull the cut canvas back so we could see how it was fastened. The cloth came out in a neat strip from the mainsail, went through the oar hole, and wove itself back into the sail, without a seam showing. It made me think of how the wood of the oar, the wheel, and the rail had all come out and around their victims, then returned to the main piece, as if it was their nature to grow around human flesh.

“Beghan,” Tunstall whispered. It was a word in his native Hurdik that meant something like “so bad I want nothing to do with it.”

“We don’t get a choice, remember?” I asked. “We have to follow this trail to its end.”

“I’m hoping the prince’s trail doesn’t stink so bad,” Tunstall muttered as he looked at the oarsmen closest to us. With the sail pulled back he could see the neat bands of wood that locked their hands to the oar. “My skin is creeping. Let’s see what’s below, Cooper. They’re not paying us by the hour.” He walked carefully toward the big hatch at the stern of the ship.

“So far we’ve not been paid at all,” I reminded him, following. “And I can’t say much for the food, either.”

“You could have had my chickpea dish.” Tunstall knelt by the hatch cover and lifted it away to reveal the hold. By the light of his stone lamp we could see what lay below. There were stairs, or a sloping ladder with wide steps, all stained with old blood. Water gleamed at the bottom.

Tunstall turned and began to descend, the lamp lighting his way. Once he was down, I sucked up my courage and followed him.

Tunstall made room for me at the foot of the ladder and held the glowing rock up to reveal the contents of the ship’s hold. A large gap in the keel lay half in, half out of the sea-water that rocked the ship gently. This vessel was not fitted for long travel, but I already knew that, because it was a small galley. There were a few crates, barrels, and sacks placed in the stern and in the shadows of the bow, just touched by the light. Six people lay in bunks fixed to the hull, three on each side. All of them were chained to their bunks. I could see those in the middle and bottom bunks. A hand dangled from one top bunk. The occupant of the opposite one had half crawled out of hers before she had drowned. Seawater had soaked everything down there, clean up to the underside of the top deck.

There was no telling how many others had been aboard. They could have been swept out to sea through the gap in the center of the keel. The hole itself was near twenty feet long and twelve feet wide. I wondered how long the ship had stayed afloat with so much of its keel missing.

I took out my spelled mirror and used it to look around the hull. There was magic laid over everything. “I’ll try to check for anything they might carry, or what’s in the bags, if you insist,” I said to Tunstall. “But it’s spelled. You’ll have to put up with me yelping and whimpering if you do.”

“Hmpf.” Like most of the senior Dogs, Tunstall had learned a lot about magic over the years. “Let me try.” He left the ladder and waded around me, bending down to peer at the body in the middle bunk on my left. He held the stone lamp up so we could both see everything clear.

“A lass, perhaps twelve or thirteen, blond, just blooming,” he said, and reached into the boxlike bed, for her arm, I suspected. “Ach!” he cried as sparks bounced off his arm and chest.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” I asked him. I aimed the mirror at the broken wood in the keel, but it showed me only the thin purple sheet of the protection spell.

“Both ships are alike, Master Farmer told me this morning, except for this one being set up to carry slaves,” said Tunstall. “They had a big enough mage, or mages, to do that thing with the sails and the wood, to trap the crew on deck, then sink the ships, all at once. But we knew that.”

I sighed. “It’s more complicated work than slavers usually pay for.” I shifted Tunstall’s arm so the flameless lamp lit the chain that secured the lass to her bunk. Then I moved his arm up and down so we could see the chains that ran into the top and bottom bunks as well.

“I’ll take that back now, if it’s all the same to you,” my partner told me as he tugged out of my grip. “Where’s your stone lamp?”

“Back in my room. I hadn’t planned to go exploring today,” I replied. “This is a slave ship, Tunstall.”

“Seriously?” he asked me, his eyes wandering over the hold. “I thought it was one of the Carthaki emperor’s pleasure boats.”

I elbowed him. “Did Master Farmer know if the other one is a slave ship?”

He shook his head. “Looked like a plain raiding vessel, he told me. He just knows what he learned from Mistress Orielle.” He looked at my face and sighed, tucking the stone in his tunic. “Let’s go have a look, then, or you’ll pester me to death.”

“I didn’t say a word!” I cried as I followed him up the ladder.

“You don’t have to, Cooper. I know that look on your face. I ought to, by now.”

We stepped onto the deck. Of course, since I’d cut the canvas all the way down, the rain fell onto us without hindrance. Tunstall held his hand over his eyes. “It’s raining harder, isn’t it?”

From his mouth to the gods’ ears, the rainfall poured, sounding like drumrolls where it hit the canvas. We scrambled for the rope ladder, slipping and sliding all the way. Tunstall didn’t even bother to put his boots back on. Through it all the stone lamp kept glowing. Curious, I looked north along the beach as we descended the ladder. It was hard to tell, the rain streaming down as it was, but I will swear on my mother’s grave I could see the great boulder shining even through that.

Achoo leaped at me as soon as I touched my feet to the sand, yipping with glee. Eagerly she washed my face, even though the rain was doing that for her. At least in this downpour the fresh mud had been washed from her fur.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I told her, rubbing her ears. “You wouldn’t have liked it up there, I swear it.” She was shivering dreadfully as I hugged her. Gently I moved her away so she would stand on her own four feet. “We need shelter,” I said to Tunstall. “She’s freezing.”

“Poor girl,” Tunstall said. He bent and lifted my poor Achoo into his arms. “What wicked thing did your ancestors do, that you should get a sarden detail like this, eh?” He looked at me. “Why in the storm gods’ names didn’t you leave her in your room?”

I glared at him. “She slid down the cliff first. Had I known, I would have stopped her. Speaking of which, how did you get here?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I climbed down the rocks. I wasn’t going to risk breaking my neck. There’s a bit of a cave next to the path. Let’s put her there before she drowns.”

He was right. I cursed myself for not thinking of it before, but then, I hadn’t turned that way once the stream, now a waterfall, had dumped me on the beach. We took Achoo to Tunstall’s cave, so she at least would be out of that poxy wet. Before we stepped inside, I used my mirror to look at the sky. The heavy gray clouds were woven through with threads of magic that were the same color as those in the storm last night. I promised myself that if I ever encountered the mage who sent this downpour on us all, I’d go sea fishing with him, or her, as shark bait.

I retrieved my shoes and stockings from their rock and placed them on a ledge in the cave. Tunstall left his boots there as well, while I gave Achoo very strict orders to remain. She was so cold that I believed she would stay put this time.

Back into the mess we went, almost running into the Lash before we realized we’d reached the water’s edge. We made our way south, squinting, until we found the second ship, the Rover. Up the ladder we went. When we stepped into the small open area in the prow, clear of the interlocked sails that covered the deck, I drew my knife to cut a path for us.

Tunstall stopped me. “I’d rather crawl under there than be drenched anymore.”

I sheathed my blade, thinking it would take a while to oil it and dry out the sheath when we were done. “You first,” I invited him.

He pulled his stone lamp from his pocket. “Follow me, then.”

“Tunstall? How long do you think those things will shine?” I asked as we ducked under the canvas. “Kora’s lights don’t last more than an hour—two, if she remembers to refresh the spell.”

“I don’t know,” Tunstall said, kneeling beside the first pair of rowers. “Ask Master Farmer. They’re his stones.”

I grimaced at the bad joke. “Why can’t you? I’ve talked with enough people of late.”

Tunstall shook his head. “One day you won’t have me to take up any extra chatter for you. Then what? You’ll have to do it all yourself.” He raised the lamp so I could see that these rowers, too, were gripped to the oar by the wood. “Master Farmer doesn’t seem that bad.”

“He was decent about the cooking,” I agreed. “And he didn’t whine in all the rain last night. I do wish I knew more about him—my lord never said anything of him to me.”

“Folk usually only talk about great mages,” Tunstall replied. “And how often do you get to sit down and talk the work with my lord these days?”

“True enough,” I said. My life was far busier since Achoo had come to me, and it wasn’t fit for me to be seen often with Lord Gershom. Folk might think I was his Birdie, reporting to him on our kennel’s goings-on. When I did visit, he and I usually talked about crime in Corus.

Tunstall turned and went on to the stern of the ship, down the middle. I followed him close enough to hear him say, over the pounding of rain on canvas, “If we stay on this Hunt together, let’s pray he knows enough to keep us alive!”

When he reached the hatch to the hold, he pulled it off and descended the ladder one-handed, the lamp held out so it would light the area below him. I waited for him to halt before I went down, listening as I strained my eyes to see what lay there.

The Rover was no slave ship. There was no setup for narrow bunks with chains attached to the foot. Like the Lash, the Rover sported a great hole punched through the center of the keel. My mirror revealed the magic that had made that hole, the same mix of colors that painted the upper deck to trap the crew. There were protective spells of a deep crimson shade different from that destructive power. Amulets, spells cut into the wood around us, and charms twinkled white in the mirror. I wondered how long they would last now, with no one to renew them.

From the ladder we could see a crate or two remaining in the prow and the stern, and a wine jar afloat in the water that had come in through the hole. Some cutlasses, daggers, and small shields still hung from nails on the keel. Blankets floated on the water. The rest of the hold was empty as near as we could tell.

We had to search what was there, or we had to try. Tunstall stung his hands on the magic on the cargo. I picked up another blister trying to see what was in the pockets of those who stood on deck around the wheel. That was enough. We were happy to get off that ship.

We found the foot of the cliffs, where I retrieved my footgear, and used them to guide us to the cave where we had left Achoo. We had to dodge a hundred tiny waterfalls that poured off the heights, all produced by the steady, hammering rain. I threw another curse toward the unseen mage, or mages. I wanted to hang them upside down on these same cliffs in their own storm, a kind of natural version of the torture called the Drink. See how they liked it.

Achoo greeted us with dancing and a wagging tail when we found her. We were in no hurry to leave the shelter of the cave once we reached it. Sitting on a rock, I watched my partner and rubbed Achoo’s wet fur, wondering what was going through Tunstall’s mind. I’d respected him from before my Puppy year—he was a legend in the Lower City, him and our former partner, Goodwin. Being his only partner over the last two years, I had learned there was plenty that went on in his fuzzy nob that most folk didn’t expect. He played the part of lolloping barbarian so well that it never occurred to many that he’d have died young if he was who he seemed to be.

“These Rats have deep pockets, Beka,” Tunstall said at last. “Deeper than my old mother’s loincloth.” He always swore his mother had birthed twelve children and had a bottom as big as a bridge. “Deep enough to throw away two ships, their crews, and nearabout thirty slaves—if they did drown all of the slaves. I think they did. The group we followed to the river was a small one.”

I nodded. That all matched what I was thinking. I was proud of myself for following Tunstall so far.

“Magic that big is never cheap. Whoever Hunts these Rats will need plenty of mages of their own, and who’s to say they can be trusted?” Tunstall rubbed the top of his skull. “Curse it, I hate handling mages, you know I do. But this Hunt is lousy with them already.” Tunstall looked at the ceiling of the cave and blew out a huge breath. “I’d like Goodwin on this, so I would. No insult to you. You’re the best new Dog I’ve ever worked with.”

I looked at the sandy floor, hoping he couldn’t see the color in my cheeks. I knew he liked me. We’re still partners, after all! But this was serious praise, coming from an old-timer like him!

“Still, we could use Goodwin,” he said. “Too bad she’s gotten to like going home with her skin in one piece.” He was very quiet for a long moment. At last he got to his feet. “It’s not getting drier out there.”

I nodded and stood. “We’ve faced rough Hunts before,” I reminded him. “It’s the royalty that itches me. I don’t want to fail Her Majesty.”

“We won’t, then,” Tunstall said. “We’ve got Achoo, right, girl? And Achoo hasn’t lost a lass or lad yet.”

She knew he was complimenting her. She bruffed and wagged her tail, ramming Tunstall in the side with her head.

He’d cheered me up, too, because he was right. Achoo had found every little one we’d been set to find. Surely a prince was just a little lad with better clothes than most.

“Goddess, thank you for our hound,” I said as I threaded my boots and stockings through my belt. Squinting, I plunged into the rain. Tunstall and Achoo ran out past me.

The flooded trail that had swept me down before was even deeper and faster after all of the morning’s extra rain. Achoo couldn’t even keep her footing. We backed off and checked the other paths, but they were no better. Tunstall slung Achoo over his shoulders and went first, barefooted still, gripping the slabs of rock on the right side of the path with hands and feet to make the climb. I clambered up a foot on the left side and did the same, though not so ably. I slipped and slid, bruising and scraping my poor bare feet.

And what does my cracked partner do, partway up that small river channeled by the rock walls? He halted, turned his head back, and shouted over the roar of rain and storm-stream, “Why did the looby go into that back room alone anyway?”

I stared at him. I couldn’t believe it. Then I could, because it was Tunstall. When he had a question, he’d ask it, and wait for the answer, no matter what. “What are you doing? Go!” I cried. “Before we drown!”

“Why did Holborn do it?” he demanded. He shifted himself so Achoo could sit better on his shoulders. She looked at me and whined.

“Goddess save me,” I whispered. “I want a partner who doesn’t need to be locked up and fed caudles!” I leaned my face against the rock for a moment, then looked at him again. “Holborn didn’t think!” I shouted. “He was always looking for a chance to bag more Rats and claim to be the best Dog. He didn’t think! His partner, Ahern? He said that’s why he was glad Jane Street and Flash District paired up for that raid.” My voice caught. I had to clear my throat. “Ahern said Holborn was always like that, charging on in, and he thought having me there would slow him down. But it didn’t, and the slavers had guards waiting for somebody to do just what Holborn did.” I wiped the water out of my face with my shoulder. It figured. Just when I cried a little, the stupid rain was easing.

It made me feel better to see that Tunstall was looking at the sky, not at me. “Letting up,” he said. “Stopping maybe.”

I heard a whipping sort of noise and cursed our positions. We were out in the open. The only way we could get to our weapons was by letting go of the rock. That meant dropping into the hard current of water in the path, which could well knock us off our feet and sweep us back down to the ocean.

Tunstall was braced with his feet as well as his arms. He was groping for his baton when we both saw what made the sound. A pair of climbing ropes dropped along the sides of the path. In another moment two coves of the King’s Own swung down on them, bouncing off the stone like dancers. With great leaps they soared over Tunstall and me, then halted just behind us.

“My lord Gershom’s calling all over for you two,” one of them said. “Mistress Orielle looked in her glass and found you for us. You’re lucky my cousin and I are climbers.”

“We could wait. The rain’s stopping.” Tunstall wasn’t the best of rope climbers. “The water will go down fast enough.”

The other was grinning. “Of course, Guardsman. We’ll go back and tell that to my lord Gershom, right off.”

I reached over and seized the rope. “I’m going,” I said. “I’ll take Achoo.”

Tunstall sighed. “No.” He got the rope behind himself and my hound so that he gripped it in each hand, leaning against it with his bum. I’d positioned my rope in the same way around me. Tunstall had learned to climb rocks in the eastern hills, while I had learned it only last year, chasing murderers with Achoo in the Royal Forest. It was amazing how useful I found the skill among the warehouses along the river.

We were two-thirds of the way up the cliff when the rain, which had looked good to stop completely, began to pour again.

A handful of ladies-in-waiting watched for us from the kitchen doorway. As soon as they got a look at us they started to grab drying cloths. I looked around for Master Farmer. He stood by the largest hearth, stirring a pot of something that smelled very good.

He looked at us. “You’re wet.”

Tunstall scratched at his whiskers. “With those powers of observation, I’ll wager the army and the City of the Gods were fighting over you,” he said.

“Naw,” Master Farmer replied with his three-cornered grin. “The army found out I don’t know my left foot from my right. It’s a problem. Would you like to be dry, then? I can do that much for you.”

“Five days staked in the blazing sun won’t dry us off, but you’re welcome to try,” said Tunstall.

Master Farmer looked at me. “Cooper? Have you objections? I can dry your hound off, too.”

I ground my teeth. I hate it when magic’s put on me, but we were summoned before Lord Gershom. It was bad enough that I wore a muddy uniform. It would be so much worse to have it wet into the bargain. I nodded, keeping my eyes on the floor. “Thank you, Master Farmer.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “You don’t seem eager. I won’t force you.” It was funny, that he truly seemed to want to know.

I nodded at the floor again. “I dislike being soaked a little worse than I dislike being magicked,” I explained. “But there’s no sense in being foolish about it when Achoo’s shivering and we have to attend upon Lord Gershom.”

For a moment everything around my legs and Achoo turned dark blue. Then they took on their normal colors. Achoo’s curls were even straight. My breeches hung without a wrinkle. So too did my tunic. Touching the boots and stockings I’d tucked into my belt, I found they were dry as well. I sat on a bench to put them on as I inspected Tunstall. He looked as if maids had pressed his uniform and shined his boots.

One of the gentlemen who attended the king ran into the chamber. He halted when he saw us. “My lord Gershom wants to know where—” He stopped. I would have wagered a week’s pay that the words Lord Gershom had actually used were not those the gentleman said. “Where in the gods’ names have the three Hunters gotten to, Scanra? He requested their appearance some time ago.”

We looked at Master Farmer. He shrugged. “I wasn’t going to see him without you. It didn’t seem fitting.”

We followed the messenger. Achoo remained in the kitchen, curled up by a warm hearth. Since I felt she’d had enough excitement for the morning, I let her stay. I looked around for Pounce, but he was nowhere in sight. I suspected he was still cozy in bed.

The messenger led us to an open door, but he did not follow us into the room beyond. He closed the door behind us. My lord sat at a desk, his long hair falling forward into his face as he scribbled on a parchment. He’d secured a study for his work, one that was lined with maps like his study at home. There were five chairs besides the one that he used. There were books and scrolls in shelves along the walls. Master Farmer wandered over to look at them.

My lord finished what he was writing and scattered sand over it to dry the ink. “Where were you?” he demanded, glaring at us. “There’s work to be done!”

Growing up in my lord’s house, I was no match for that growl, which always meant some servant was in trouble. I wanted to run. Luckily, Master Farmer and Tunstall were made of sterner stuff. Master Farmer looked over his shoulder and said, “I was cooking breakfast with Tunstall’s help. You need servants, Gershom. The nobles can’t cook, they upset the hens, and they’re helpless with cows. Unless you want Tunstall, Cooper, and me to do all of the chores while everyone continues to eat cheese and raw vegetables. The bread’s getting stale, you know.”

My lord glared him into silence. Master Farmer took a chair, leaned back, and crossed his legs at the ankle. He looked prepared to lounge there all day.

Tunstall explained, “Me and Cooper did some nosing about after us lads finished cooking breakfast, my lord.” His owl eyes were perfectly calm. “We had us a look at the raiders’ ships, since they’re above water.”

“But it’s pouring outside!” my lord protested. “How did you even get down there?”

“We climbed it,” Tunstall replied. “It was a sarden holiday to manage, too.”

My lord leaned back and put his hands behind his head. “Take a chair, you two,” he ordered. As we obeyed, he said to Tunstall, “Go on. What did you find?”

“Not as much as we hoped,” Tunstall replied. “Protection spells kept us from searching the cargo or the bodies. Most of the goods were washed out of the holes in the keels of the ships, along with anyone who was belowdecks. Those who were chained down in the Lash are still there, along with the deck crew.”

“The mage or mages used the ship to trap the ones on deck,” I said. “The sails were woven together. Then they wove themselves through the holes made for the oars, to make a flat cover over most of the deck. The wood—the oars, the wheel, the rail—grew up over the hands of those who touched it. They couldn’t have freed themselves.”

My lord and Master Farmer made the Sign.

Tunstall reported, “The Lash is a slave ship. I believe once the six bodies are taken from the bunks on the Lash, you’ll have six of the missing folk from this palace. The other ship is a cargo vessel built for speed. Most of the warriors would have come on that.”

“They disguised themselves as slave transports to get past Blue Harbor and Port Caynn, perhaps,” Master Farmer said.

“To pass unnoticed by nearly anyone,” my lord said. “Who would pay attention to slave traders moving up and down the coast at this time of year? Everyone’s taking cargoes north and south.”

“We’ll learn more if we can search the bodies and the cargoes,” Tunstall said. “Where they came from, if they are branded slaves—”

“That’s as may be, but you and Cooper won’t be the ones to do the search,” my lord replied, sitting up straight. “Master Farmer can do it. Are the protection spells yours?” he asked the mage.

Master Farmer shook his head. “Ironwood and Orielle took care of that, to keep what was on the ships from rotting faster. I can ask them to undo the spell work.”

“What’s his Dog experience?” Tunstall protested. “What does he know of searches?”

“I’ve done private Hunts for Lord Gershom in past years,” Master Farmer said, his eyes half lidded. “And I’ve served three years at the Kraken Street kennel in Blue Harbor. I’ve lost count of the searches I’ve done there. I don’t know what the Jane Street kennel has in the way of mages, but I work on handling of the victims of crimes, inspection of evidence, handling mages, and the detection of poisons and spells. That’s in addition to five country Hunts out of Blue Harbor as well as street Hunts. None as big as this, but have you done so great a Hunt yourselves?”

“Enough,” Lord Gershom snapped. “Tunstall, I’ve worked with Farmer off and on for four years and he’s a good man. I hope that is enough for you.”

My lord is a strict judge of coves and mots. If he says they are worthwhile, then it is so. When my lord glanced at me, to see if I would argue, I busied myself with picking Achoo fluff from my tunic.

“Tunstall and Cooper are to take the ship that is now at the palace dock on the Ware River,” my lord announced. “They are to carry a packet of messages that I have spent most of the night writing.” He shoved the packet, wrapped in oiled cloth over leather, at us. Tunstall carefully picked it up and handed it to me. “Here are your orders.” He gave us one document each. “Show that to any who question you. Cooper, is there any chance that Achoo can pick up the boy’s scent if you were to go up and down the river?”

I shook my head. “After this kind of rain all last night and all today? None, my lord. Had your ship come earlier this morning, mayhap, but …” I thought it over, remembering the powerful stream that had sent me thumping and bumping down to the foot of the cliffs. “No. It was too heavy even then, and it rains still.”

“Very well, then,” Lord Gershom said with a nod. “Tunstall, you and Cooper will take that packet to Sir Tullus at Port Caynn and hand it to him only, then wait in the city for his orders. Tell no one else what you have seen here. Part of his instructions will be to set you on the greater Hunt, so don’t worry about being cut out. Farmer will bring you whatever he learns from the ships. Cooper, one thing—write up the investigation so far, but do your best to keep Farmer’s name, Tunstall’s name, your name, and Achoo’s name out of it. I want all of the information, but in a pinch, I want no one to know which Dogs, and which hound, were on this Hunt, do you understand?”

I wanted to scratch my head like the men did when they were confused, but Lord Gershom’s lady had beaten the habit out of me when I was small. “I don’t know if I can do it, my lord, but I’ll try.”

“That’s good enough for me, Cooper,” he said. I felt my insides warm up, like they always did when he praised me. Until they did, I didn’t know how cold they were.

My lord looked at Tunstall. “Questions?”

“Which boat do we take to Port Caynn, my lord?” Tunstall asked.

“She’s called the Malia. She’s one of the few ships permitted to wait at the royal dock on the Ware River. All of the peregrine ships are in use, so it’s a slower trip than our last one. Anything else?” my lord asked, raising his brows.

I had a question—“why can’t we pick up the Hunt from here?”—but I also knew the signal of those raised brows. He might ask, but truth to tell, he wanted no more questions. Instead I pulled the brass medallion with its strange insignia from my pocket. “My lord, this goes with the evidence to be examined. I found it on the northern end of the beach last night, along with other things we left in a pile there. This was too small to leave.”

“I’ll take it,” Master Farmer said, holding out his hand. My lord gave me the nod. I passed the medallion over to the mage. He took out the lens he used for seeing magic. “There’s no magic in it,” Master Farmer said, turning the medallion over in his fingers. “And I don’t recognize the insignia.”

“We’ll have someone render it on paper and send it around,” Lord Gershom replied. Looking at Tunstall and me, he said, “Very well, then. Get your things and go. Master Farmer, stay with me.” He wet his pen with ink again and began to scribble. Tunstall and I left the room.

Pounce awaited me in my chamber, along with my pack. It was dry, gods be thanked. “You missed all the falling down and getting bruised and talking about it with my lord,” I told him as I stuffed everything into my pack.

No, I didn’t, Pounce replied, stretching out to his full length with a yawn. I heard everything.

I glared at him. “You couldn’t have helped when I was tumbling down the cliffside?”

The toughening up will do you good, he said, the dreadful moralizing beast. Achoo was there to look after you.

“I nearly landed on Achoo!” I snapped, checking to see I had forgotten nothing.

You will feel better when you’ve had a hot bath and a belly full of proper hot food, Pounce said wisely. You’re always scratchy when you’re uncomfortable.

I walked out of the room. I can never argue with him. I don’t know why I try.

Achoo sat before my door, thumping it with her tail in her eagerness to get moving. Tunstall met us at the center corridor. Mistress Orielle stood with him. “I’ll show you out,” she said, matter-of-fact. She wore pale blue today, and pearls in her ears. She had also thrust a handkerchief in her sleeve, as if she expected to cry some more. “No one can object if you use the front entry when I am with you. Besides, I bear a message from Her Majesty.” She guided us back down the open hall where we’d first encountered her, past the sitting room where we’d met the king and queen. A soldier in the King’s Own opened the front door for her and retreated down the hall when she waved her fingers at him.

When the soldier had turned his back to us, Mistress Orielle reached into a hidden pocket inside her overdress and drew out two small purses. She gave one to Tunstall and one to me. “For expenses,” she told us quietly. “Her Majesty does not want you to find yourselves coin-pinched while you seek her baby. She has every faith in you both.”

“That faith could be misplaced,” Tunstall replied, keeping his voice down. “His Highness may be beyond our ability to find.”

“She only asks you to do your best,” Mistress Orielle told us firmly. “And I wish you luck, as much as it is in my poor power to bestow.”

We thanked her. In saying farewell, Tunstall asked her to give the queen our promises to try everything we knew and sent our message of hope for success to the queen.

Outside, two men of the King’s Own waited for us with the horses we had ridden here. Everyone looked surly in the rain, except my chestnut mare. She touched noses with Pounce and Achoo, then watched as Pounce leaped to my shoulder. I mounted, careful not to dislodge my friend.

As we rode I did some thinking while I watched Achoo get covered in mud all over again. Normally I wouldn’t have minded the chance to see Sir Tullus of King’s Reach. I’ve missed him at the Magistrate’s Court ever since he took up the post of Deputy Provost of Port Caynn two years back. The new magistrate we have is well enough, but once I recovered from being scared of Sir Tullus, I thought he was a bit funny. The new magistrate is too humorless for me. The only thing about him that I like is the fact that he would rather Tunstall give evidence of our hobblings, even if I was the Dog that did the work. He has no patience for my stutterings in front of a crowd. If he can avoid calling on me, he will do so, every time.

It was knowing that Tullus would see us in uniforms we had worn through weather and muck that disheartened me. I liked to look my best going before him. Just now I felt like an unmade bed, while the sky continued to piss on me.

The boat landing lay some eight miles on the other side of the main road, across from the palace gate. That was why we hadn’t seen it the night before. We’d been at least four miles upriver.

At the dock rode a tidy craft, a normal ship, with a crew that wore the blue tunics and white breeches of our navy. Seeing our approach, they ran out a gangplank. A mot with the silver sleeve and hem embroideries of a naval mage stood at the foot of the gangplank. Only when she had traded passwords with our guides and checked our orders did she allow Tunstall and me to board. We left the horses behind.

Tunstall, the animals, and I napped for part of the journey. We shared bread and cheese with the crew for lunch. Afterward I worked on my reports while Tunstall played cards with the sailors. It was a quiet and welcome time until we reached the docks at Port Caynn. I enjoyed it as long as I forced myself to concentrate on my report and not on taking the road to Hunt for Rats.

The ship entered the ocean harbor at Port Caynn around mid-afternoon. I found it strange to come at the city this way. Every other time I had seen the place, it had been from the land, from the high ridges or from the rooftops. It was a pretty town, if you didn’t look too close at the streets, and you didn’t venture into the wrong districts. The Ridge Gardens were plain beautiful, and I’d never had better food at so many eating houses.

But we weren’t there to eat. As soon as we docked, Tunstall, Achoo, Pounce, and I were on our way uphill to Guards House. Sir Tullus had sent an escort and horses for our packs. At first my battered legs complained, but the pace uphill soon warmed them up. We stopped for broiled lamb on skewers and fresh cherry juice, the lamb being for Achoo and Pounce as well as us humans. Between the food and a proper walk, my spirits improved despite the rain.

“Folk here must have good legs,” Tunstall remarked as we neared the top of the ridge. “Going up and down all day.”

I grinned at him. Certainly my legs had improved in the short time that Goodwin and I had Hunted colemongers in Port Caynn. It had prepared me for my future with Achoo. “The locals need them, to work off all the seafood they eat,” I said.

Tunstall made the most horrendous face. I had known he would. “Seagoing bugs and snails,” he said. “Give me a man’s food.” Tunstall had not tasted seafood until he’d been a Dog five years. From what I’d heard, he’d gotten angry at having to pay for something he insisted was a joke, not food. He would eat fish, though he preferred freshwater, just as he preferred freshwater eels. Anyone who put seafood on his plate risked a drubbing.

Guards House loomed above us, safe behind its gray stone wall. Our escort took our packs inside while Tunstall showed our orders to the guard at the gate. He sniffed at our soaked, crumpled uniforms and the animals who bore us company. I let Tunstall go ahead of me into the courtyard, then asked the guard who hadn’t sniffed, “Is Sergeant Axman on duty?”

“He is, and he’ll be none too happy about the condition of yon hound,” the guard told me, just as stiff-rumped as his friend. “Why didn’t you clean up afore you came in?”

“Because our orders said we weren’t to loiter about like a pair of fat-assed gate-sitters,” Tunstall said. He’d turned to see why I was gabbing with the guards. “We don’t have time to make ourselves pretty for the riffraff. Cooper, there’s work to do.”

Pounce leaped to the ground as we crossed the courtyard. Without me telling her, Achoo fell in step one foot off my left heel. Following our packs, we climbed the steps and passed into Guards House.

The guard had told us the truth. Sergeant Axman, who had saved my skin three years ago, was indeed on duty. He raised his eyebrows at both of us as Tunstall showed him the packet with the Provost’s seal and asked for a meeting with Sir Tullus.

“Welcome back, all of you,” Axman said, hopping down from his tall chair. Achoo was flailing Tunstall and me with her tail. “How long has it been since our last meetin’? Five months since a Hunt brought you my way?” He clasped arms with Tunstall.

“Indeed—we were on the trail of boat thieves,” Tunstall replied.

“I need not ask if you found them,” Axman said with a smile. “You always do with this fine lass.” He did not speak of me, but of Achoo, who was sniffing Axman’s pockets already. The sergeant was a hound breeder and there were always treats to be found on his person. He was one of Achoo’s greatest admirers. I never had to remind her that he was her friend.

“Achoo,” I said in complaint. “I taught you better manners.”

“But she knows there are exceptions for old friends, doesn’t she?” The sergeant lowered himself to one knee to pet my girl.

“Norham, take the desk,” the sergeant called to a guardsman who was polishing the metal cressets set around the room. “I’ll guide these messengers to Sir Tullus.” He fed Achoo treats that he makes up himself. He’ll give me bags of them when I visit Port Caynn, but never the recipe, and four-legged dogs go mad for them.

Norham came to the desk as Axman rose and dusted his hands. He took us to the door to the inner offices at Guards House. “Even the creatures, Sergeant?” Norham asked.

Axman pointed a blunt finger at Norham. “Don’t you go callin’ Achoo Curlypaws a creature,” he said firmly, his eyes like steel. “She’s one of the finest hounds that ever picked up a scent. And you argue with the cat at your own risk.”

Norham sputtered. “I don’t argue with cats,” he protested. By then we were through the door and out of earshot.

Tunstall was chuckling. “You like to keep them on their toes, Sergeant Axman?”

“These second-year Dogs, they think they know it all,” Axman replied. “If their desk sergeants notice the signs before they get themselves killed, they send the lads—you never see the lasses get their heads swelled up like that—the sergeants send the lads up to me.” The sarge came to a halt before a door I recognized as being the one to the Deputy Provost’s office. “You can’t tell me what Hunt you’re about this time, can you? The nobles’ mages are stirred up. They’ve told Sir Tullus somethin’s gone amiss at both palaces, but no one’s sendin’ word out. Our peregrine ships have been called out of port. And the messenger bird just came with word that the Malia, a Crown messenger ship, is docked in our harbor, and you were aboard.”

Tunstall looked at me, since I know the sergeant better. I put my hand on Axman’s rock-hard arm. “I’m sorry,” I told him softly. “We’ve got orders to keep it quiet.”

Axman made the Sign on his chest. “Then I’ll not hinder you.” He rapped on the door.

A voice I knew well shouted, “Chaos is in it, I was trying to nap!”

Axman opened the door. “Sir Knight, I’ve two weary Dogs here with sealed orders from my Lord Provost.” He nodded for us to go in.

The office had changed some since I’d first seen it three years ago. The beautiful wood of the walls, ceiling, and moldings was still well cared for. The former Deputy Provost had allowed only maps of each Guard District and maps of the surrounding countryside districts on the walls. Sir Tullus had beautifully woven tapestries on the walls as well, showing scenes from the legends of the Great Gods. I would have loved to take a closer look at them, but I have never been able to relax around the man who used to be the magistrate for Jane Street’s Evening Watch. I had spent too much time hearing him say, “Tell it slowly, Cooper,” or “While we live, Cooper,” to be at ease with both of us in so small a room.

He had changed Sir Lionel’s plain, depressing furnishings, too. The big desk had a couple of carved stone figures and a beautiful ebony bowl on it. There were tapestry-work cushions on the chairs in front of the desk, and bright Carthaki rugs on the flagstones of the floor. The horn in the old windows had been replaced with glass. I’d heard that Sir Tullus had inherited a bit of money on the death of a great-uncle. Clearly he liked to spend it on comfort. Sir Lionel’s old single bookcase had been replaced by five, all stuffed full. After two years of sitting in Sir Tullus’s courtroom, hearing him deliver judgments, I figured he’d read them all.

Sir Tullus himself got to his feet the moment he saw who we were. “Tunstall and Cooper, Mithros save me. And on a Hunt, from the look of you.”

He’d not changed since he’d left the Jane Street court. He still had that single eyebrow across his forehead, and his cheeks were still ruddy. He dressed like a noble with money and sense, in a tunic of a dark brownish red that suited him, with golden-colored embroideries at the hems and collar. He wore the Deputy Provost’s signet ring on his right hand, a wedding band on his left. His black hair was cut in a short, military style, and if he used the perfumed oil in it that was the noble fashion, I could not smell it.

Tunstall and I bowed. Behind us we heard the door close as Sergeant Axman left. I took the packet of documents from Lord Gershom and set them before Sir Tullus with another bow, then gave him my own orders. Tunstall passed me his to set before Sir Tullus.

“Very good,” Sir Tullus said, taking the seat behind his desk. “Sit down, both of you. From the look of this, I may need a little time.” He went over our orders first and set them aside. Then he sliced the seal clean off the packet and cut the ties with a small, sharp dagger. Sir Tullus opened the wrapping and selected the first document.

He hadn’t read the entire page before he said, “Mithros and Goddess save us!” He turned and yanked at a bellpull behind him so hard that it snapped. “Parrot pox,” he grumbled. “I do that once a month at least. You’d think they’d make the sarden things tougher.”

The door opened. A lass of fourteen, a message runner, stuck her head into the room. “Sir Knight?” She frowned as Sir Tullus held up the rope pull. “You broke it again, sir.” I don’t believe she was close enough to see that Tullus’s hand was trembling with vexation.

“When will you trade for chain, like I keep asking?” Sir Tullus demanded. “Wine, three cups, some pasties. At the run, lass!”

“Aye, Sir Knight.” The runner left us, closing the door.

Sir Tullus looked at Tunstall and me. “You were there?”

“Not when it happened, Sir Knight,” Tunstall replied. “Lord Gershom in Corus got word that something was amiss and collected Cooper and me for the early Hunt. And a mage, Farmer Cape.”

Sir Tullus grunted and returned to reading his document. As he read, he swore under his breath and made the Sign twice before the wine and food arrived. The runner came back then, setting the pitcher and plates at the front of Sir Tullus’s desk so we might serve ourselves. It seemed the Deputy Provost preferred such informality. Once she’d poured the wine, the lass left us alone together in the room once more.

Tunstall and I tried not to gobble the pasties as Sir Tullus read the first document three times over. It was hard. Until Sir Tullus had mentioned food, I had forgotten that I’d had scant food all day. The pasties sat well on my belly. From the way Achoo gulped the one I passed along, it sat fine with her, too. Pounce was apparently uninterested, since he had curled up in a patch of sunlight and gone to sleep.

Sir Tullus put the document down at last and knocked back the contents of his wine cup, which he had not yet touched. He went to the door and opened it. “Good idea, to stay there,” he said to someone outside.

We heard his runner say pertly, “You did break the bellpull again, Sir Knight.”

“None of your sauce. Another round of those pasties, and the fritters I like,” he told her.

“Sir Knight, might she also bring twilsey or barley water?” Tunstall called. “Cooper’s not what you would call one for spirits.”

“Thank you,” I told my partner quietly. I’d never have had the sack to ask for myself.

“And some nice cold twilsey or barley water,” Sir Tullus said. “Off you go.” He closed the door.

We turned in our chairs to look at him. All of his normal ruddiness was gone. He’d spoken cheerfully enough to his runner, but the look on his face now was that of a cove who’d taken a hard shock. He came back to his desk and poured himself another cup of wine.

“Gershom’s orders are for me to send a number of messages out and wait on replies,” he told us, staring at the cup. “I’ll need to keep the two of you at hand for a couple of days. There’s a lodging house we use for out-of-town Dogs, Ladyshearth Lodgings.”

“I know it, Sir Knight,” I said. “Goodwin and I stayed there when we had our Hunt in ’47.” I glanced at Tunstall. “We didn’t have time when we were here the last couple of times, but you’ll like the place.”

“Good,” Sir Tullus said. He opened a drawer in the side of his desk. “You’ll need coin for a change of clothes.” I heard metal clink. At last Sir Tullus held up a small leather bag and tossed it to Tunstall. My partner weighed it in his hand, nodding with approval. “Account for every coin, remember,” Tullus said. “I’ll try to get you back to Corus for a day at least, to pack.” He sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. “I knew certain factions at court were getting restless, but I never thought they would be such idiots. Folk will lose their heads for this, and families their titles.”

“They should, if they had a hand in what we saw,” Tunstall replied, his eyes hard. “More than a hundred and thirty dead, with the King’s Own, the guard on the main gate, and the servants. That’s not counting their own people that they drowned or melted. They deserve not a whit of mercy.”

Sir Tullus nodded. “I don’t see why Gershom picked you two. Was there no one else?” I was starting to feel vexed and hurt when he looked at me and said, “It’s because of your loss, Guardswoman Cooper. Surely you would be happier at home.”

Here again was sympathy for my grief, grief I didn’t feel for a man I didn’t love anymore. I looked down, unable to bear the kindness in Sir Tullus’s eyes. I felt like a liar before him.

“She will not be happier at home,” Tunstall told him. “She has been good, Hunting with me, haven’t you, Cooper?” I nodded, and Tunstall continued, “And Jewel and Yoav are too old for this.”

“Jewel is, at any road,” I made myself remark. It was better to speak than to listen to them talk about me. To Sir Tullus I said, “I thank you for your condolences, but truly, I am easier at work. I will not say that I am the best Provost’s Guard for this, but Tunstall is, and Achoo is. Even Nyler Jewel does not come with my hound.”

Achoo, hearing her name, sat up and whuffed softly. She seldom talks loudly if she doesn’t have to. She is the quietest hound in all Corus, as far as I have been able to tell. Sir Tullus got up and came around his desk to greet her. As I told her to treat him as a friend, he saw Pounce in his patch of sunlight. Pounce blinked at him.

“Master Pounce, good day to you,” he said gravely, scratching Achoo behind the ears. “I apologize for not greeting you earlier, but you did not go to any effort to make yourself seen.”

You had other things on your mind, Sir Tullus, Pounce replied. We have all been thrown into a storm of fate. We can forgive old friends if the amenities are let slip.

“A storm of fate?” Tullus asked with a crooked smile. “I would have called it an unholy mess. Though it’s been coming, with all the loose talk that’s been going around. I just never expected the attack to take this form, the craven swine! To threaten a child for their ends—Mithros’s spear, that takes gems the size of the palace.”

“You’ll get no arguments here, Sir Knight,” Tunstall replied.

“Pardon, Sir Tullus,” I said, rubbing my temples. My head was beginning to ache. “You expected this?” I felt as if everyone had done so except me.

There was a tap on the door. It opened and the runner entered, a big tray laden with food and a pitcher in her hands. Sir Tullus lifted away pitcher and cup and poured, handing the cup to me. As his runner placed the tray on a table, he frowned. “Chopped meat?”

“Sergeant Axman sent it for the creatures,” the runner said, placing the plates on the floor. “Beef and egg for the hound, and chicken and egg for the cat. And we apologize for those not being ready earlier, the cook not understanding that Sergeant Axman meant Cook was to make them up right off.” She grinned at Sir Tullus, picked up the tray with the empty plates, and left the room.

Sir Tullus sat by the table instead of behind the desk. I gulped down the raspberry twilsey, a boon to my parched throat, and poured myself another cup while Sir Tullus selected a couple of fritters and Tunstall a cheese pasty.

“Anyone with eyes and ears on the Council of Lords has expected some trouble for the last two years, Cooper,” Sir Tullus said, once he’d chewed and swallowed his first mouthful. “Mages, particularly great ones, are a haughty crew, the nobles are feeling ill-treated, and His Majesty is no longer prepared to let things pass. He has grown up and the treasury is very low.” He noted our alarmed faces and smiled. “I have this place spelled against eavesdropping once a week. That was yesterday. My young friend there can’t hear me bellow with the door open.”

I whistled in spite of being a bit uncomfortable around him still. I’d been in his courtroom when he bellowed. That was a very good sound-stopping spell.

“I wouldn’t work in here without such magic,” Sir Tullus said. “That was part of my predecessor’s difficulty. People who did not have his best interests at heart spied on him.”

I swallowed a snort. That was the mildest way of putting the last Deputy Provost’s troubles.

“I don’t see how His Majesty can be growing up at the age of forty-three,” Tunstall remarked. “Isn’t it a bit late?”

“It gives the rest of us old fools hope,” Sir Tullus replied. “It’s been going on since his marriage to Queen Jessamine. That mother of hers raised her to take an interest in the running of the realm. Once Jessamine and Roger were married, she began to ask questions. Well, no man likes to look a fool to an adoring young woman. He asked his ministers to tell him what they’ve been up to. He started reading his reports to her. They talk about the kingdom’s affairs.”

“I begin to see the problem,” Tunstall said quietly, polishing off a third pasty. I was picking at one, having eaten enough for a time with the first plate. I think Tunstall’s legs are hollow.

“You do indeed. For years Prince Baird and the rest of the Council of Lords handled the realm as they liked.” Sir Tullus dunked a fritter in his wine and ate it. “Then His Majesty wanted to know what they did. Next he started to change things. Some of the nobles don’t like that. Remember the winter of 247—the Bread Riots in Corus until Midwinter. His Majesty overruled his councillors and opened the royal smokehouses and granaries. He even let commoners hunt in parts of the Crown forest lands.”

“Why was that a problem?” I asked. Living in the city, I have little experience of life on noble estates.

Sir Tullus rubbed his chin. “Nobles are a proud lot, Cooper. They feel that if the king grants permission to hunt the Crown lands, it must be to nobles only.”

“And in years gone by, the king allowed only nobles to buy from the royal granaries and smokehouses in hard times. The nobles sell the goods to their people for much more than they paid,” Tunstall added. “Or they trade for a promise of labor on the nobles’ lands, or for someone’s children as slaves. You know what folk will do when they are hungry.”

I do know.

“You heard of none of this about the council uproar in ’47, Cooper?” Sir Tullus asked.

“That winter wasn’t a time for us to sit and collect the gossip, Sir Knight,” Tunstall explained. “We were busier than fleas on a hot griddle, with folk rioting and stealing food. Mithros bless the king, he made certain the Dogs were fed in the kennels, that we might keep working.”

And Rosto shared what the Court of the Rogue had with his friends, I thought.

Sir Tullus, done with the fritters, stood and went back to his desk. He wiped his fingers on a cloth that lay there, and began to look at the other sealed documents that had been in the packet. “Well, with luck there will be no hard winter this year,” he said, almost to himself. “The seers are predicting a good harvest, if the trouble they see in our future does not interfere with it. I’d wager the attack and kidnapping is the trouble they’ve been seeing.” He looked at us. “I need to get to work on this. Why don’t you two—you four,” he said with a nod to Pounce and Achoo, “go on to Ladyshearth Lodgings and settle in. I doubt I’ll have anything to tell you at least until tomorrow noon.”

We stood and bowed, then left him. His runner bowed to us, then entered his office while we headed on down the hall. In the main waiting room, Sergeant Axman was seated behind his desk once more, perched on his tall chair. He pointed to a pair of bulging packs that lay on a bench.

“I guessed at your sizes, but I’ve a good eye for such things,” he said. “I’d a feeling those packs of yours don’t have extra uniforms, stockin’s, and the like. There’s combs and other useful things, too.”

Tunstall grinned and offered Axman his arm to clasp. “Mithros loves a good sergeant, Lord Gershom always says. My thanks, Sergeant Axman.”

I smiled up at him. “Thanks,” I said. “I know I’ll feel like a new mot in a fresh uniform.”

“I’ve had my night calls, too,” Axman replied. “And not from a bordel, either! Get on with the two of you. I sent word ahead to Serenity. She’ll have your rooms and supper waitin’.”

He was as good as his word. Not only did Serenity have rooms prepared for us, but there were tubs of hot water inside them. She even had food bowls waiting outside her kitchen door for Pounce and Achoo. They couldn’t say they ever starved, working with me.

When Tunstall and I were clean and dressed in fresh uniforms, we found a good supper put on the dining room table. We spoke little, mostly because five other Dogs who were staying at the house at the same time had come off watch and were there to eat with us. They were closemouthed, too, doubtless being weary after their day’s work. I thought back on all I had learned about the current mess and how it might have led to a royal kidnapping.

“I said, Cooper, mayhap you should go to bed.” I looked up. Tunstall was leaning over the table to stare at my face. None of the other diners remained with us. Even their dishes had been cleared away. Only Tunstall and Serenity were left.

Achoo was curled up at my feet, Pounce on the chair beside me. He’s right, Pounce said. Only this morning you slid down a cliff and burned yourself trying to search magicked ships. He looked at Tunstall. Sleep wouldn’t hurt you either.

I got to my feet. “I think you’re both right,” I admitted. “We should get rest while we can.” I knew that once we had our own orders, chances for a good night’s sleep might come rarely.

In my room, I tried to work on my journal more, but I am tired. I’ll catch up in the morning. Who knows how long we will be here, after all?

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