Though I knew I had to sleep, my body was not so willing. After enough flipping and flopping that even Achoo complained and joined Pounce on the rug, I got up. I tended my weapons, sharpening my long dagger and a handful of the thin knives that served as shield, ribs, and protection in my arm guards. I gave my leather sap an oiling and checked the waterproofing on the envelope in which I keep my journal. I could hear a distant city clock strike three as, my eyes heavy at last, I blew out the candle and went back to bed.
I woke near ten of the clock by the angle of the sun. When I opened my door, I found that someone had hung a slate from the latch. The plain writing read:
I have gone to make some purchases.
I can use your Dog tag to reach you if news comes; Serenity can reach me.
Why not go out and enjoy yourself?
(Cook fed Pounce and Achoo. Pounce said they could get back into your room again?!)
“You could have told Master Farmer how you two come and go from my room,” I said to Pounce.
I stuck my tongue out at him, but he ignored me. I would go out, then, but my enjoyment would be of a far different kind than that Master Farmer envisioned, I was certain. I donned loose breeches and a loose shirt only, no tunic. I coiled my braid around the back of my head and pinned it securely.
Pounce, seeing what I was about, jumped up on the bed and disposed himself to sleep. Achoo, also understanding why I dressed as I did, stood by the door, her tail waving frantically.
We had not taken a real run, a tracking run, since the morning of Holborn’s funeral. It was bad to let much time go by between practices. If I did, the next time I had to do the kind of running that a big Hunt required, it would be agony and I would be slow. In Corus it was my habit to run outside the city walls. Here we could run inside the city walls, which had no palace to interrupt our path.
It was a beautiful summer morning, promising to be warm. Achoo and I followed the Courier’s Road up along the side of the bay. Soon all that was on my mind was Achoo, running ahead but always in my view, the thump of my feet on the ground, and the sun on my head and back. Now and then Achoo would look back at me and grin, her jaws open, her tongue hanging out. Running was her favorite thing to do, always. Our only stops were at places where she could get a drink of water. Waiting for her, I could feed Corus dirt to the dust spinners I had met on other visits and free them of their burden of city talk. I refilled my small pouches with Port Caynn dirt for any new spinners I might meet on the road after I’d done so. Dust spinners are always grateful for a taste of foreign soil, something new, and they often give me fine gleanings of information in return.
We went back to Serenity’s as the city clocks struck one, not having heard from Master Farmer or Serenity. I found them eating a midday meal. “Any word?” I asked as, with my agreement, Achoo went to get the bone Cook was waving for her.
Master Farmer was gawping at me. It was Serenity who replied, “Naught.”
“Then I’m off to the bathhouse,” I said. “As soon as I collect a change of clothes.” Since Master Farmer was still gawping, I demanded, “Why do you stare at me like a countryman at the fair?”
“You ran all that time?” he asked, plainly gobsmacked.
“Why do you think Tunstall is the cook?” I asked him. “I’m the one keeps up with the scent hound. Mostly that’s on foot, to see the things she doesn’t care about, like trail signs, hoof marks, or suchlike.” I ran upstairs and fetched my belongings.
When I returned from bathing, things were very different. A cart loaded with leather packs sat in the courtyard. A cove, who I supposed was the carter, was carrying two of them into the house. Out came Tunstall, looking like a happy lad indeed.
“Cooper! Did you miss me?” he bellowed.
I grinned at him. “Why should I? I knew you’d be back.”
The sound of our voices, or mayhap his voice, brought Lady Sabine of Macayhill around the side of the house. “Beka!” she said cheerfully. “Goddess bless your heart and Maiden keep your arm true!” She clasped arms with me in a soldier’s hard grip. Just the sight of her made my heart feel light. She was dressed for the road in a brown cotton tunic over matching wide-legged breeches. Strips of gold embroidery decorated the collar and hems of the tunic. Like me today she wore her long brown hair braided and coiled, but the pins that held it in place were spiked steel, useful as weapons. Her riding gloves were tucked into her belt and she wore comfortable old boots. At her waist hung her longsword and dagger in their well-used sheaths, on a battered leather belt. She was one of those lady knights who believed in the work of a knight, not the glory of it. It was perfectly reasonable that she and Tunstall had met at a barroom brawl. I had tucked my fears for this Hunt well back, but I had not forgotten them. With my lady here, looking ready to fight and ride, several of them vanished.
“I was settling Drummer and Steady in the stable out back,” she explained. “Isn’t this a fine thing, getting to work with you and Tunstall? Who would have dreamed it?”
“I’m glad of the chance, though not the cause,” I replied.
“No, nor would any sane person be throwing flowers over it,” she told me. “But we will do our duty by the realm, and if the gods are merciful, we shall see our way clear.”
“Are you going to gossip, woman, or help get all this inside?” Tunstall called cheerfully. “I’m not paying you to laze about!”
She went toward him with her long-legged stride. “You aren’t paying me a copper shaving, remember?” she replied. “Impudent hill crawler!” She slung one pack over her shoulder and carried another by its strap. Tunstall had three. I gathered up what looked like a case for a bow as well as other, smaller packs. I wasn’t about to say anything to the others, but the addition of Drummer, my lady’s destrier, and Steady, her riding mount, was not a welcome one to me. They were a size down from the great horses bred for male knights, but they were nearabout as slow. We would have to go at their pace as much as at Achoo’s. The advantage of having an armored knight with noble connections, longsword, and bow was set off sommat by the speed her horses would cost us.
We finished unloading the cart. Serenity greeted Sabine as if she had a noble at her house every day, while Cook turned out a second lunch that would have pleased anyone, let alone a lady knight. There was enough for Tunstall and me as well—more than enough for me, and just enough for Tunstall. Master Farmer joined us, too, but for talk, not food.
“What of the capital?” Serenity asked when Lady Sabine had eaten enough to lean back and take a breath. “I’ve heard from the great temple there that the Chancellor of Mages has been murdered and the king will not allow a replacement to be appointed.”
Lady Sabine nodded. “That’s only just changed this morning. For now the First Priest of the Mithrans and the Eldest Daughter are dealing with things of magic. Hereward of Genlith has taken command of the palace. The Mithrans confirm it and documents under the king’s seal arrived with the orders. All those presently living in the palace are forbidden to leave it. Those who have left in the days since Gershom summoned these three”—she nodded to Tunstall, Master Farmer, and me—“are ordered to return and remain, under penalty of arrest. And the city is … under guard. Nobles and mages are not permitted to enter, and those who try to leave are turned back. Those who do leave are closely examined by soldiers and mages, to keep anyone who is disguised. Even the herds are being searched as they come in through the Forest Gate.”
“The nobles are furious,” Tunstall said.
Master Farmer rested his chin on his hand and favored us with his fool’s grin. “So will the mages be.”
I did not care about what went on in Corus, unless the kidnappers had taken our lad there. It was possible. What better place to hide him than in one of the country’s biggest slave markets? But, were I Lord Gershom, I’d have had trusted Dogs search the prince’s palace rooms and then take their scent hounds to the docks and the slave markets right off to see if the kidnapped prince was there.
The others talked, but I only listened. I was relieved when Sabine asked me to guide her to the bathhouse. When she invited me to bear her company, I did so, sitting on a bench rather than bathe twice in one day. We talked of weapons and fashions. She told me she’d seen Aniki two nights before, called out on challenge by a Rat who thought he had the right to rule her district. Sabine was proud because Aniki was putting to use the sword lessons Sabine gave her. It was one of my lady’s special cuts that my friend had used to end the fight and her challenger.
Those Gentle Mother worshippers could learn a great deal from Lady Sabine and Aniki.
On our return, we found we’d been invited to a second dinner with Okha and Nestor. The good news was that there were no deaths in the fire that had called Nestor away the night before. Master Farmer had straightened when Nestor told us that. Until then I hadn’t realized he’d been slouching a little, burdened by his failure to stop the fire.
Back at Serenity’s, I took Achoo for a run down along the harbor and back, enjoying the sea air and the smells of fish, salt water, and tar. A couple of coves thought I looked interesting, but Achoo’s instant, growling arrival at my side convinced them I was not worth the trouble.
“I can defend myself,” I told her as I always do. She whuffed at me and ran at my side from then on. She doesn’t believe me, though she’s seen me do it thousands of times.
Once home I lingered in the backyard for a time, playing with Achoo under Pounce’s supervision. Then I sat by the little stream, listening to the sounds it made. I didn’t know I had nodded off until Serenity came to wake me.
Why did you do that? Pounce complained to her. Do you know how hard it’s been to get her to sleep?
“She’ll catch her death out here, Master Cat,” Serenity insisted. “You have fur, she does not. Come in or not, as you like, but she needs her bed.”
All three of us returned to my room. I was awake enough to note down today’s events, but now I am sleepy once more.
Please, Great Mithros, god of Dogs and the law, please take us back to the Hunt soon. Can’t you hear that lad crying for his mother?