Sunday, June 10, 249

Ladyshearth Lodgings

Coates Lane

Port Caynn

One of the afternoon.

being an account of the events of Saturday, June 9,
beginning at dawn on that day

Achoo woke me at dawn yesterday, of course. We went out, nodding to the busy cook and cook maid, and returned, to go to bed once more. I roused again as the city’s clocks struck nine and cleaned myself up, then visited the kitchen to beg breakfast for my two friends. The crosspatch maid who had been here during my last Port Caynn visit was having her morning meal in the kitchen. She remembered us.

“Don’t you go feedin’ them nasty pigeons on your windowsill, like you done last time!” she said, pointing a finger at me. “This is a decent house, and why Serenity lets you in with all your livestock—”

“Enough,” the cook snapped. “You cross old mud turtle, leave the Dog alone. These two creatures are as neat and well trained as them that live here. Neater than some I could name. So just stop yer gob.” She grinned down at Pounce, who was bumping against her shins. “Some folk just don’t appreciate a gentleman like you, Master Pounce.” She looked at me. “Now, Guardswoman Cooper, what will you have for your breakfast?”

My belly happily full, I returned to my room. There I opened my shutters to a bright, sunny day and a soft breeze. It was a pleasure to set my soggy laundry outside for the maids to wash. I hoped the crosspatch maid got the task. Then I sat down to my table and this journal. First I recorded what had taken place beginning on Thursday the seventh. I finished that and began the other report that Lord Gershom had requested, the one which did not mention Tunstall, Achoo, or me, all in official Dog cipher. I was just finishing when Tunstall hammered on my door at the end of the noon hour.

“Cooper, it’s a beautiful day, and I’m cursed if I’ll waste much more of it!” he bellowed. “Come out of there!”

I opened my door, rubbing my cramped writing hand. “You’re a cracked lad with the manners of a Cesspool bum-washer, you know that?” I asked him.

Tunstall leaned on the doorframe, taking no offense at all. He never did. Goodwin once told me I might bash him with an oaken club, to see if that might make a dent, but it seemed to be hardly worth the trouble.

“Is the report done?” Tunstall asked. When I nodded, he said, “Then you’ve no excuse. Pounce and me are bored.” He wasn’t storying me. Pounce sat at his feet, yawning at us. “Send it to Tullus and let’s amble,” Tunstall ordered. “You know I can’t stay put, not while awaiting orders. Mistress Serenity says she can use her Gift to find us if aught happens—that’s why they keep folk like us here.”

He had a point. Neither of us waits well. I wasn’t sure what would occupy his restless mind until I bethought myself of his flowers. He has a name for himself in Corus for the miniature blooms he grows. Doubtless he’d like to see the flowers in Port Caynn, if I could learn where fine ones were.

Serenity was in the dining room, going over her accounts. “That’s easy,” she said when I asked her. “You’ve been there, Cooper, though it was in the fall. Ridge Gardens. The lower levels on the north side, they’ve got the best flowers.” She looked at me, raising a brow. “Strange. I never took you for the flower sort.”

“Oh, that would be me,” Tunstall said. “I grow them at home.”

Serenity dropped her pen. “You’re that Tunstall! But nobody ever said you were a man! Or a Dog! You’re not pulling my skirts, are you? The same Tunstall that grows the Goddess Glory, the rose that’s no bigger than my thumbnail?”

Tunstall bobbed his head, rubbing his hair nervously.

“Maiden save me, you here and me having no notion!” Serenity looked at me. I was leaning on one of her chairs, waiting for her to finish flower talk with Tunstall. “We can talk more tonight. Enjoy the sun and the garden,” she said, picking up her pen again.

I held out my sealed report and a coin. “Do you have a runner to take this to Sir Tullus as soon as may be?” I asked her. “He’s waiting for it.”

Serenity took the paper and drew a sign on it in fire that was almost blood-colored. Immediately she looked to be holding a basket of flowers. “I’ll take care of it right away,” she replied. “Ginmaree!” she called. Instantly a gixie in boys’ trousers raced in from the kitchen.

With the report matter settled, Pounce and Achoo bounded out of the door ahead of us. We caught up with the animals in Coates Lane and wove through the traffic, taking the streets pretty much northeast.

We walked in silence for a time before Tunstall remarked, “I hope we’re kept on this Hunt. That ghost-eyed glare of yours is as good a weapon as Achoo, especially with Rats who know they’ve crossed the gods by taking the heir. The way your eyes go all pale and burning like winter ice, they see the Crone in you. They always give up more than they want to when they catch your eye.”

I shook my head. I’d have called him a superstitious hillman, but I’d seen it happen often enough that I had to believe it. Even Holborn stepped back when we fought. He’d said it was my eyes, too. I think they are simply a pale gray or blue, but I’ve never seen my face when I’m angry. “You spook me when you talk that way,” I told Tunstall.

“I’m not spooked,” my partner told me. “What with your eyes, your pigeons, your dust-demons, and Achoo, you’re the most valuable partner in the Lower City, mayhap all Corus. On a Hunt like this, I think we have the best chance to find our boy with what the two of us can do together.”

I halted to stare at him as a blush crept over my face. Tunstall’s compliments were rare. I knew I would treasure this one. I was too shy to say as much, so I just gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder.

The Ridge Gardens were slightly crowded, but not badly so. Children played on the wide areas of grass, watched by nursemaids and parents. Nobles walked along, eyeing each other’s fashions and gossiping. The governor’s guard marched along in pairs, dressed in their maroon and black uniforms, carrying spears and batons. They were trained to pay no attention to deliberate distractions, like the little group of lads who trooped behind them, making faces.

Tunstall and I walked toward the north end of the gardens where the wealthy showed off their summer clothes. Tunstall was so fascinated by the flowerbeds there that at length Pounce, Achoo, and I found a bench in the sun where we could laze. For a time I watched my partner as he inspected one flower after another as he might eye a piece of evidence.

I was leaning back with my eyes closed, imagining Tunstall questioning a flower for its crimes, when I heard the familiar whir of pigeon wings. I did not bother to open my eyes to see if I was right. I have known that sound since I was a child.

Several landed on the ground before me. I always carry pigeon and dust spinner food, so I scattered a handful of cracked corn among the birds. They went after it as the voices of ghosts rose in the air.

“—tell her it wasn’t me,” an old mot’s voice said.

“I am saying, my lord is up to something. Or didn’t you notice he’s buying weapons?” That was a young cove talking.

“What is your lord’s name?” I asked the spirit.

“No!” he replied, panicked. “He’ll kill me if I tell you!”

“Lad,” I said gently, “he already has.”

At that, the spirit sighed. “He did,” he said. “I remember now.” And he was gone.

“You know I’ll love you forever. I would never betray you!” A young mot this time, terrified.

“No, halt!” another, older cove said. “That thing will fall right over!”

I tossed out more corn. One of the pigeons hopped up onto the bench and looked me over. This was the most ordinary of pigeons, blue-black all over, with white rings around its eyes. Its back feathers were ruffled and it trembled as if it were weary to the bone.

I murmured a blessing to them, wishing them peace from their lives’ fears and safe passage to the Peaceful Realms. That was enough for most of them. I could feel the spirits leave their birds, the ghosts having said what they needed to say. The black one on the bench stayed where it was.

“Have you something important to say?” I asked the bird.

“Speak with respect,” a cove’s voice snarled. “You’re no better than those treacherous, lying curs at the palace!” My body crawled with gooseflesh. Did this one know sommat useful? “They’ll wish they had kept me soon enough. After all I did for them, they murdered me in my bed!”

My throat seized up for a moment. “So you’re one of the cleaning folk, then?” I asked, my voice as innocent as a welloff child’s. “In the way of knowing the little passages and halls where the servants go—”

“Slut!” the ghost snarled. “Doxy! How dare you speak so to the Lord High Chancellor of Mages!”

I crossed my legs at the ankle easily, turning my face up to the sun. “Any old bogle might say the same, and me with no way to prove it. I can’t see you, after all. Tell me sommat you’ve done recently that I might know of.”

Lazamon of Buckglen wasted time calling me the kind of names given to some of my friends in the Lower City. Finally, when he ran out of terms for whore, I said, “If you want vengeance on your killers, I’m your only chance to get it, traitor.”

He was silent for a moment. I gave his poor bird of burden some more corn. At last he said, “What gives a guttersnipe like you the right to call me anything, let alone ‘traitor’?”

“I’ve just come from the Summer Palace,” I said. “Very nice work, undoing all those spells with no one seeing you at it. And yet your partners decided they could do without you even after that.”

“Spare me your jumped-up moralizing,” he muttered. “You understand nothing of the stakes.” He added bitterly, “Your king wants to regulate mage work! He says we owe a debt of service to the Crown! Well, he’ll soon learn I won’t do as some randy bastard with a title bids. He’ll rue the day he crossed my friends and me!”

I yawned, despite the hammering of my heart when Lazamon spoke of his fellow conspirators. Then I said, “Your friends didn’t value you so high, did they?” I eyed a broken fingernail as if I’d naught better to do. My luck still held. No one had looked to see a Dog conversing with a pigeon. “Give me their names. It will be a fine vengeance on them. You could greet them in the Peaceful Realms once they’ve taken the king’s justice.”

“I’ll not give you names,” the ghost snarled. “You can tell him the misery I have left for him to die on!”

“I thought your talk of vengeance was all smoke,” I replied. “You must be a mage—you’re not enough of a man to avenge your own death.”

“I hate your swiving, childish king more,” Lazamon retorted. “He’ll pay now, and his brood mare. For every lash and blow the child receives, his parents will weaken. Every meal the child does without, the parents will go hungry. It is my finest work, and it cannot be undone, because the maker of it is dead.” He sounded so pleased that I would have killed him myself, had he been alive in front of me then.

“Then you made your own death, snake pizzle,” I whispered. “No wonder they killed you.”

“The problem’s easily enough solved, Guardswoman.” There was a sneering tone in his voice. “Only find the prince and keep him in good condition.” His voice was beginning to fade. “That shouldn’t be so hard, should it?” And he was gone.

“It’s a good thing the Black God has a kinder heart than I have,” I told the spirit as his pigeon took flight. “Shame on you, punishing the child for the deeds of the father!”

The Black God forgives all, it’s said. That’s why he’s a god, I suppose, and why I’m a Dog. I don’t have to try to forgive a lousy, sarden canker blossom like the Chancellor of Mages.

We had to get word of the painful connection between the prince and his parents to Sir Tullus, and Lord Gershom, right away. I looked around for Tunstall and Achoo. They were on the grass, Tunstall having bought a ring toy for her to play with.

“A Birdie, Cooper?” Tunstall asked, throwing the ring for Achoo down the open green. My partner had seen me talk with the pigeon. “Any useful information?”

“Maybe so,” I replied. Keeping in mind that we had to be sure no one was eavesdropping, I added, “A ghost from Corus found me here.” There was a marvel in itself, that he’d found me. “We need to get word to Sir Tullus right off.”

“My arm grows weary in any case,” Tunstall said. When Achoo returned with the ring, he towed her along as she hung on to her half. Pounce chose to walk just ahead, as if to tell passersby he did not know us and did not wish to be associated with us. Tunstall asked, “Did you know they have some types of lavender here that I can’t grow in Corus? And clematis?”

“Did you pick some, so you can plant it when we go home?” I asked.

Tunstall looked as if I had just asked him to take Her Majesty’s favorite pearls. “It’s a public garden, Cooper! If everyone did that, there would be no flowers left!”

I rolled my eyes at him. “I had no idea I was such a vile rusher.”

Tunstall grimaced at me. “You don’t understand gardeners, Cooper, don’t try to deny it. What I’m thinking is that Serenity may be able to get me seeds or clippings. Without stealing.”

“If your tribe’s headman could hear you now,” I told him. “All civilized and proper! Without stealing, indeed!”

“What he doesn’t know won’t give him the gripes.” Tunstall let Achoo have the wooden ring.

When we came to Guards House, the sergeant on desk duty told us Sir Tullus had someone with him. Tunstall hauled his orders out of his inner tunic pocket and pointed to the seals. The sergeant grumbled, but he sent a runner to inquire of Sir Tullus. To his surprise, the lad returned with orders that we were to come to the Deputy Provost right away.

Farmer Cape sat before a small table in front of the desk, wolfing a large plate of food. Seeing us, he raised a hand and waved. Sir Tullus gave the new runner orders for more food and drink not just for Tunstall and me, but for Achoo and Pounce as well. Once the lad had gone, closing the door after him, Sir Tullus said, “I know what brings Master Farmer here, but I thought you were resting up.”

“We were, but Beka took a visit from one of her Birdies,” Tunstall said, taking a seat when Tullus motioned to it. “One that came all the way from Corus.”

“How would Beka’s informants know to look for her here?” Master Farmer asked, wiping his mouth on his handkerchief.

“She doesn’t have the usual sort of Birdie,” Tullus explained. “Beka talks to ghosts, the restless ones that ride pigeon-back.”

I squirmed on my own seat. I didn’t know what to make of the look in Master Farmer’s blue-gray eyes. “I’ve read of such things,” he said at last. “I’d never thought I would meet anyone with such a Gift, though. You have your surprises, don’t you, Guardswoman Cooper?”

“And you don’t, Master Farmer?” I asked. He grinned at me.

Sir Tullus cleared his throat. “So who was this ghost, did it say?”

“He said, right enough,” I replied. Here was the part I’d not told Tunstall, not out in the street. “It was Lazamon of Buckglen.” As they stared at me, horrified to hear the name of the murdered Chancellor of Mages, I told them the rest of it, including the spell that passed the child’s pain and weakness on to his parents.

For a moment after I finished there was silence. Then Master Farmer got to his feet and started feeling inside his belt buckle. Before any of us could ask what in any god’s name he was doing, we heard a click. He brought his hand up. In it was a round mirror the size of his belt buckle. The click must have been the catch that held it to the metal. “Sir Tullus, I need the most magic-proof room you have,” he said. “Lord Gershom has to know right away.”

Sir Tullus led Master Farmer from the room. Tunstall went to Master Farmer’s plate and picked in a bowl of olives beside it. He was saved from scavenging from the plate itself when Tullus’s runner brought a tankard of ale for Tunstall, raspberry twilsey for me, and egg tarts for both of us. We’d eaten half when Sir Tullus returned. He closed his door and poured himself a glass of wine from the bottle he’d been sharing with Master Farmer, but he did not take his chair. Instead he rested against the edge of his desk before us, staring into his wine.

“What’s happening to the realm?” he asked softly, though he didn’t seem to expect an answer. After a moment he looked at us. “Farmer has orders for you from Gershom.” He sorted through his papers one-handed until he produced a sealed document. He gave it to Tunstall, who opened it and began to read. Sir Tullus continued to speak. “He wants you, Beka, and Master Farmer to wait here while Tunstall goes on to Corus. Tunstall will carry a letter for one of your friends in which you will tell her what to pack for a long Hunt.” I nodded. We’d done this before. Tullus went on, “Tunstall will go on to Corus with your requirements and orders for Sabine of Macayhill to join you. Gershom wants you here because if word comes of the reappearance of those who attacked the palace, he wants you able to pursue instantly, by peregrine ship if need be. Lady Sabine will be useful in the event—in the probability, particularly considering Lazamon’s statement—that you have to deal with the nobility.”

Tunstall handed me the letter, grinning broadly. Of course he would be happy if Lady Sabine was to be with us.

My lord Gershom also wrote that he’d sent messages to the cities and towns on the great rivers that flowed east of the Summer Palace. The Deputy Provost in each was to report any party that included children or slaves under the age of ten to Lord Gershom by magic or fast courier, even pigeons if they had birds for the Summer Palace. We were to go where such parties were reported and Hunt them down. Sir Tullus was to go to Corus to gather other Hunters.

Sir Tullus cleared a place on his desk and set out a sheet of parchment, a reed, and a bottle of ink. “Write your friend,” he ordered me. “I want Tunstall in Corus before dark.”

I wrote to Kora and Aniki. I needed the cuirass that had been too big to pack last time, my weighted gauntlets and baton, and my personal kit of medicines. I had enough uniforms and stockings now for a long Hunt, thanks to Sergeant Axman, but I added three more breast bands and loincloths each to my list.

Master Farmer returned as Sir Tullus was sealing our letters. “I got word to Gershom.” He poured himself ale from the pitcher and settled into his chair once more. “Beka can guess what he said first.”

I had to laugh at that. I knew well the kind of words my lord would use to greet bleak news like this.

“He says he’ll alert Their Majesties, though he feels telling their mages at this point is a bad idea,” Master Farmer continued.

“Does he think their personal mages might be in the plot?” Sir Tullus asked. “Or would Lazamon distrust them, since they give their service to the Crown directly?”

I’d thought of that, and if I’d thought of it, I knew Tunstall had. Master Farmer grimaced. “Gershom understands the problem. He has approved a plan of mine, which I’ve put in motion. I called to my master.”

“Bringing in a stranger?” Sir Tullus asked with a frown. “What if this master is part of the plot?”

Master Farmer picked up what looked to be a tansy cake and rolled it up. He smiled. “Mistress Catfoot is a recluse. She teaches only rarely, and she chooses her own students. I do not believe a conspiracy conducted at the palace level has touched her.”

“Recluse?” Tunstall asked. “Is she any good?”

“She is very good,” Master Farmer replied. “The imperial university rates her as a black robe, one of twelve now living.” He looked at Sir Tullus. “She cares nothing for money or status. She would never take part in a plot that has led to so much danger for the realm.”

“If she cares nothing for money or status, why would she help Their Majesties?” Sir Tullus inquired.

“She loves children,” Master Farmer said with a shrug. “And she likes me. She says I’m not hopeless, at least. She wouldn’t have come if His Majesty were one of those warlike kings, or if civil war were not a possible outcome of all of this.” He stuck the tansy cake in his mouth and chewed vigorously. When he caught me staring, he pointed at his stomach and said, his mouth full, “ ’Ongry.” Once his mouth was empty, he said, “She can protect Their Majesties, as well as they can be protected against such a spell. Better, she can do it without Ironwood and Clavynger being aware she does it.”

“She can’t ward them completely?” Sir Tullus asked, frowning. My belly clenched.

Master Farmer looked at him and at us with something like pity. He could tell we didn’t want to hear that. “The boy is their blood and bone,” he said gently. “Down to the finest vein and last bit of marrow, in every hair and pore, he is both of them. There are countless doors into their bodies through that little one. No mage can block such a spell completely. Lazamon was very skilled.”

“We’re swived,” Tunstall said gloomily.

“No, we’re not,” I said fiercely. If I let Tunstall get into one of his bleak moods, it would take a dreadful great amount of spirits and a dreadful big, furniture-breaking, wall-smashing fight to cheer him up. “Lord Gershom will get word, and we’ll put Achoo on the prince’s trail, and we’ll find the lad and them that took him. We’ll take a lunch to their execution and give Achoo a whole roast for the work she’s done, my word on it.”

Pounce leaped into Tunstall’s lap and slipped a little. From the scream Tunstall let out, I knew Pounce had used his claws to hang on. That’s better, Pounce said so only Tunstall and I could hear. No sulks. I cannot see what lies ahead very far, but you will get your Hunt. Satisfied?

Tunstall sat up immediately. “If you speak so, hestaka, then I am content.” To Sir Tullus and Master Farmer he explained, “We get our Hunt.”

Sir Tullus grinned. “I don’t suppose you will say where to look?” Pounce washed a paw, and the nobleman sighed. “No, you never do,” he remarked. “Very well. Tunstall, you go to Corus, now. The ship’s being held for you. Hurry back as soon as you can with Lady Sabine and all she will need. They will hold a fast ship at the docks for your return.”

Tullus handed the letters to Tunstall. My partner got to his feet and bowed to the Deputy Provost. He looked at me and hesitated, as if he wanted to say something more, then shook his head and left.

Sir Tullus waited for the door to close behind him before he looked at Master Farmer and me. “Cooper, see Master Farmer to your lodgings. His room should be ready by now—I sent a messenger to tell them. Master Farmer, do you need to send word for additional gear of your own?”

Master Farmer stood, grabbing another couple of tansy cakes. “I thank you, no. My lodging is in Blue Harbor, so I had the opportunity to pack more than did Tunstall and Cooper.”

“I know Cooper, but I don’t know you, Master Farmer,” Sir Tullus said, his black eyes serious. “You mages learn to keep secrets, it’s true, but this is a very big one. Don’t get drunk. Don’t fall in love with one of the women of the town and babble. In fact, you should go to bed nice and early. Virtue is a splendid thing.”

Master Farmer saluted Sir Tullus and gave him that idiot’s grin that tasked Tunstall so. I bowed and towed him out of Tullus’s presence before he said aught to annoy the peppery knight.

While Tunstall and I had walked up from the docks the day before, Master Farmer had been granted the courtesy of a wagon. He, Pounce, Achoo, and I climbed in for the ride to Serenity’s. It was quiet, with only Achoo’s challenges, or greetings, I’ve never learned which they were, to other dogs along the way.

Master Farmer stretched out in the bed of the wagon and finished his cakes. “Is there a place where we can get a good meal tonight?” he asked. “I haven’t been here without being too busy to try the eating houses.”

I frowned at him. “Do you ever think of anything but eating?” I asked, feeling cranky.

“I can stop,” he replied, and gave me that silly grin—upside down, because I sat beside the carter. “After I’ve eaten.” He waved at his long body. “Look how much of me there is to feed. My poor old ma had to sell two of my brothers to manage it.”

“She never,” I told him.

“Oh, right. I didn’t have brothers. But she would have, I was that big of an eater,” Master Farmer assured me.

“Cracknob,” I muttered, turning to face forward again. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the carter grinning.

Quiet was what I needed when we got to Serenity’s. After I introduced Master Farmer to her, I told him I needed to work on my own records and to sleep for a time. He agreed that a rest would do both of us good. Looking at him one last time before Serenity took him upstairs, I realized he was tired. How much magic had he done since I saw him last?

I stepped into the kitchen and released Pounce and Achoo into the rear yard to laze, then went upstairs. I had found a book of maps in Serenity’s sitting room and wanted to study it. That kept me occupied until I took Achoo for a short run. Then we returned for a nap.

I woke when someone rapped on the door. “Who is it?” I called, rubbing my eyes.

“Farmer,” he replied. “We have a supper invitation. They say they’re friends of yours.”

I got up and opened the door. Master Farmer looked better rested than he had earlier. He smiled at me and handed over a slate with writing on it. Reading it, I had to smile. “I know Nestor and Okha from other times I’ve been here,” I explained. “And supper at the Landlubber’s Rest will suit us both.” Then I remembered Tunstall’s dislike of seafood. “Unless you don’t like seafood?”

“I love it,” Master Farmer replied.

“Then we’ll—oh, pox.” I looked up at him. “I didn’t bring … dresses. I’m on a Hunt, I didn’t think I’d need them.”

He’d been standing with a length of blue wool in a deep blue color over his arm. He offered it to me. “Serenity sent it, with a shift. She says she keeps such things for women Dogs stuck in the same situation.” Under the dress were a few sheets of paper. “And my findings from the folk who died on the ships. Tullus forgot to show them to you and Tunstall.”

With the dress and shift over my shoulder, I looked the documents over. “You get anything from the coins?” I was careful not to mention any particulars about where the coins had been or what he looked for. Safe enough to house Dogs who visited Port Caynn Serenity may be, but no one must have any suspicion of what we were doing there, all the same.

He shook his head. “Between the sea and the magic, very little information was left. Most of the holders were mercenaries. Some were slave traders. None of them expected what happened to them.”

“But nothing from the amulets?” I asked, surprised he could learn from one and naught from the other.

Master Farmer shook his head. “Not the amulets. Not any of them. The few times I tried were—bad. My teacher, Cassine Catfoot—she says it’s because I’m so irreverent. I think I’m just not that good with magic that touches gods.”

I saw names he had gathered from the personal items, a few combs, eating sticks, knives. I placed the names in my memory palace, the one I had created in my mind for this Hunt, and went on to read his notes about magic. If there were to be more mages to face, I needed to know all I could about them.

Master Farmer made note of the power he and the royal mages had placed upon the ships. That was to keep the dead from rotting before they could be looked at. The way he wrote it, such spells were like a skin that could be peeled off the body. Then he described the spells and magics that had made the crime possible. All the usual ship magics Master Farmer had thought to see—spells against dry rot and barnacles, charms for fair winds—were missing, as if the power to sink the ship and them on it had scoured those things away. The magic that had forced the ship’s deadwood to grow, he noted, was a muddy color that came about when more than two magics were combined. They blended until it was very hard to separate them. Master Farmer meant to leave that for Their Majesties’ mages and his teacher Cassine.

When I finished I returned the notes to Master Farmer. “Give me a few moments to clean up for supper,” I told him. Pounce and Achoo slipped past me into the hall. “And don’t you think you’re going with us!” I told them.

Absolutely not, Pounce replied. Cook has promised fish for me and chopped meat for Achoo. And you know I cannot abide those loud, busy places you visit with Nestor and Okha. Give them my regards.

“They know he talks?” Master Farmer asked as I began to close the door to my room.

“He’s not shy about telling folk,” I said. “But he does hate eating houses and gambling places.” With a nod, I closed the door.

I had only boots to wear, as so often is the case when I visit Port Caynn. I did have my Sirajit opal necklace with me, which was a bit of pretty. I stared into it for a moment, looking at its many fires, and allowing myself to relax. Then I left the room and joined Master Farmer downstairs.

Outside Serenity’s gate, we turned right on Coates Lane. I watched a string of dark blue fire flow out of Farmer’s chest and vanish. “What did you just do?” I asked Master Farmer. “Won’t other mages know what you’re about?”

“My Gift is now spread too thin for anyone who isn’t looking to notice,” he explained. “I don’t need much to keep people from eavesdropping on us. I weave my power in with all the unused bits of charms and spells around us, and any mages that try to listen hear only street chatter. At the same time I take in all the unused scraps and keep them for myself.”

I stared at him. “Scraps? Scraps of the Gift?”

Master Farmer smiled. “Any settled place is covered with bits of magic from old spells.” He swept his arm before us as if he revealed the street, and he did, in a way. Patches of multicolored light, layered over the cobbles, buildings, carts, animals, and even the people themselves, gleamed like opals, then faded. “They’re a fish-swiving beast to clean up, but if you know how to work with the stuff, there’s plenty you can do with it.”

“Useful,” I said, impressed. “Clever. I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Master Farmer shrugged. “I worked it out when I studied with Cassine. Not many people realize how easy it is to collect other mages’ Gifts and the scraps of power that no one ever cleans up. And this way I save most of my own Gift for other things. So tell me about you and Tunstall. How did you become partners?”

As we walked through the city I explained how Goodwin and Tunstall had me to train for my Puppy year and about Goodwin’s decision to leave off being my partner to take up desk duty as our sergeant. Then I set out to learn how he’d become a mage.

“Ma was an embroiderer,” he said after I’d teased him enough about it. “With two girls before me and two more after me. Pa was a riverman, gone for long times, so she sewed for rich folk that could afford really good work. They had the idea that Ma’s designs had a little more to them than the plain embroiderers’ work did. Not enough that she could charge mage prices, but enough that we had meat twice a week. Is that gem you wear an opal?”

“Sirajit. There’s all kinds …” I stopped my tongue, seeing the grin he gave me. “But you’d know that, being a mage.” I took it off and let him look at the stone by torchlight. He examined it as I would, angling so he found the fires that were tucked away in different parts of the stone. “I thought you were a farmer, or you let them think you were a farmer,” I said.

He gave me the chain to put on once again and we continued our walk. “Well, eventually Ma purchased a farm and I worked there sometimes. But you don’t learn magic that way. One day a new customer arrived to the shop. She brought her mage uncle along. I was eleven or so, not long after I’d taught myself some control over light, and I was watching my younger sisters. They were bored at their sewing, so I switched their threads for colored streaks of light. They’d sew like that for an hour at least before they got bored again, and their sewing got better. Then I could do my own embroidery with them occupied. Master Looseknot caught me making the threads for my sisters.”

“What did your mama say about the streaks of light?” I asked him as we skirted a brawl in front of a drinking house.

He shrugged and suddenly I could see him as a lad, already growing big and clumsy with it, his power itching him like fleas. “I never let her catch me. She’d want me to get lessons. We couldn’t really afford them. And I was already in school all morning.”

“Lazy lad,” I said jokingly.

“Ah, you sound like my mother,” he replied, amused. “As if I didn’t chop and haul wood, and mind the cow and the geese and the chicken, and work in the garden, and carry ribbon and trim and thread upstairs and down! And embroider for the shop when I was good enough!”

“I can see you suffered,” I told him gravely. “With meat on the table only twice a week.” We only had meat once or twice a month, if that, when we lived on Mutt Piddle Lane.

“Exactly!” he said, knowing I joked. “At least, I thought I suffered. I didn’t know the meaning of the word. Master Looseknot, the customer’s uncle, caught me that day. He talked Ma into letting me come for afternoon lessons, free of charge. He knew I would repay him.”

“And you have,” I said.

Master Farmer nodded. “He said there was no more he could teach me after four years, and that last year he sent me to mages all around town to trade chores for lessons. I began to travel after that, learning from whoever would teach me. By then I’d earned enough working with weapons charms and grain molds and such that Ma could hire a lad to do my work, and dower my sisters.”

“And where did the farm come from?” I asked. I could see the Landlubber’s Rest up ahead.

“That was when I found thieves who’d stolen temple offerings. They rewarded me well and told Mistress Cassine about me. My reward purchased Ma’s farm.” He sighed. “Please tell me food is in the offing somewhere. Otherwise I’m going back to that butcher’s shop, the one with the whole roasted pig in the window. It was only half an illusion.”

I waved to Nestor and Okha, who stood before the Rest. Nestor grinned broadly, while Okha waved a painted fan. Since the evening was a little chilly, I was certain Okha had only brought the fan to make me envious. He always has the most interesting things.

Okha hugged me, his perfume filling the air. Both of them kissed me on the cheek and murmured their consolations about Holborn’s death. The reminder shoved a spear of guilt into my heart. Truth to tell, I enjoy forgetting about Holborn. I enjoy being able to forget about him. That had to be wrong, with him barely cold in the ground. But this is my own book and I can freely say, I feel light enough to float without the worry of the last few months, about watching each word from my mouth for fear I will upset him in some way or that it will get back to him. That he will learn I was out and about with Tunstall and my friends or he’d seen me making merry with them, when he always said I never did with him.

I thanked Nestor and Okha. Their wishes came from a care for me, like those of my friends in Corus. My guilt was my own, no one else’s.

Nestor had heard we were in town, of course, through the Dogs’ grapevine of gossip, but he knew naught of our business. He accepted that we were bound to silence, though his raised brows and Okha’s told me they were deeply curious. Gods bless them, they did not pry.

Instead they drew out Master Farmer over a splendid supper that they insisted on paying for. We traded gossip of the doings of friends in the city. Okha got Master Farmer to talk about Mistress Cassine, since Okha had heard of her. Master Farmer was an engaging cove at this sort of gathering. He was no ordinary cityman, ignorant of Dog slang or business. He even knew some Port Caynn Dogs, having worked there on loan from Blue Harbor several times. He got Nestor and Okha to laughing and they talked with Master Farmer about folk whose names I’d only heard.

I did as well as I could, since all of me itched for an end to waiting. I want the real Hunt to start. I was glad to be here with good folk like Okha and Nestor, but I hate waiting. Somewhere that poor prince had been pitchforked into a monstrous world, the likes of which he’d never dreamed.

After supper, we went to the gambling house where Okha sings. I was glad to hear him and to see him all done up as a lady. Master Farmer didn’t as much as blink to see his supper companion transformed this way for the performance. When Okha finished his song in that deep, sorrowing mot’s voice of his, Master Farmer was the first on his feet, applauding.

We set off toward Serenity’s with Nestor only for company. Okha had hours yet before he would finish for the night. The coves were talking about how Okha and Nestor met and I was idling behind, listening. I was the first to hear Dog whistles off to the north, and then the brass clang of fire bells. I touched Nestor’s back and stepped away in case he forgot where he was, and swung on me. He turned fast, but his fist was only half raised. (He has more control than I do, but I’m only a four-year Guard, and he’s a sergeant.) He heard the noise then. We saw the source at the same time. Three blocks away a building had caught fire.

Nestor sighed. “They’ll need me. I’m sorry. It was a pleasure, if I don’t see you again.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said, wanting something to do.

He pointed at me. “Not you, not Master Farmer. I know your orders came in under Crown seal. With that, and your not talking about them—your first duty is the Hunt.” He thought for a moment and then looked at Master Farmer. “Unless … Master Farmer, the fire. Might you—?”

Master Farmer’s shoulders slouched the moment Nestor said unless. The look that Achoo gives me when she’s messed on the floor was in his eyes. “I wish to Mithros I could, Nestor, but I can’t touch a fire. Start one, yes. Put it out, no.”

Nestor looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, then rested his hand on Master Farmer’s shoulder. “Sorry to press a soft spot. And we don’t need healers,” he said as Master Farmer took a breath. “There’s plenty of them in that part of town. Gods go with you both, and Tunstall.” He strode off down the street toward the fire, catching up to a pair of Dogs who’d turned into the street from an alley.

Master Farmer and I walked on in silence. It was Master Farmer who broke it. “Gershom knows I’m bad with fire.”

“That’s not what I was thinking,” I replied.

He looked sideways at me, one eyebrow raised. “Oh? What were you thinking, then?”

“You can start them, but you can’t put them out,” I explained.

“Candle, campfire, brazier fire. It’s as if once the fire gets strong enough, it doesn’t want to be put out. Its power opposes something in my own power,” he told me. “Most of the people I studied with could at least pull the strength from a fire, enough that it was easily doused with water. I can’t even do that.”

“It must be maddening,” I said. “I’m sure they told you about it, too.”

“Yes, they did. Are you thinking I’ll be a weak link in the Hunt?” he asked. “I can’t move weather, can’t put out a fire—”

“Can see a ship on the ocean’s bottom, take a person’s essence from the things they’ve owned, sew,” I told him tartly. “Tunstall can’t sew. I think we’ll struggle along, Master Farmer. And you cook. I mostly run with the hound, and Tunstall’s cooking is, well, limited. You’ll do fine with us.”

He was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “It’s not just that I have pretty eyes?”

I couldn’t help it. I shoved him. “None of that talk, not even in fun,” I warned him. “We’re serious about our work.”

“I’m serious, too,” Master Farmer told me earnestly. “Very, very serious. Look. I’m making a serious face right now.” He thrust out his lower lip. I laughed in spite of myself and rushed him along back to Serenity’s. I wasn’t going to let a silly man or tension about the Hunt keep me from another good night’s sleep in a fine bed. Once we began, the real beds would come rarely, if I went by my past Hunts.

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