Commencing upon our being left to our own devices in a small armory
We hadn’t been sitting long when the door opened and a maid shooed in two lads of eight or nine years and a gixie of ten. Each carried a big, heavy tray laden with food, pitchers, and cups. These they placed on the table with care. The maid bustled around them, setting out her own burden of spoons and napkins. The young ones were not dressed nearly so well as she. They had only undyed linen tunics with short sleeves, pale brown in color and needful of a good wash, perhaps even several good washes. They wore no shoes. Their heads were ill-combed, and an iron ring clasped each child by the left wrist.
“Does my cousin require so many slaves?” Lady Sabine asked the maid.
The young mot ushered the slaves toward the door and curtsied to my lady. “Oh, no. There was a slave train passing through as Prince Baird and the men from Aspen Vale came, if it please you, my lady. They had a lot of green folk. The dealers thought it would be a good thing if they stayed and loaned us some of their stock. To give the slaves a bit of training in a noble house, you see, get them used to the stairs and all. They’ve been that helpful, with all the men-at-arms and lords that came with His Highness. My lord’s going to buy some. Is my lady interested?”
I held very still as Lady Sabine raised her brows. Our prince, Prince Gareth, was still here, as a slave. Right here. Farmer’s eyes blazed. Tunstall clenched his fists. Yet we dared not utter a word. If Count Dewin’s court mage placed listening spells anywhere, it would be in the rooms where he placed his guests.
“I shall consider it,” my lady told the maid. “My thanks. You may go.” She flipped a copper noble to the maid, who caught it and left with plenty of thank yous and my ladys.
Tunstall frowned at Lady Sabine. “Is that how you like to be treated?” It was just talk for the benefit of the listening spells, or so I figured. I had my own plans. Even if we were spied upon, Tunstall and I had found a way I could look about.
I took the leash from Achoo’s collar, working under the table. Having never done this with my lady or Farmer, I had no notion of how they felt about idling with the chance of being refused the Hunt. I did know how Tunstall and I had managed being tucked away like this in the past. I gave Achoo the hand signal we had worked out, also under the table. When I straightened, Farmer was giving me the fish eye. When I glared back at him, he offered me a cheese waffle with butter.
Achoo went to the open door and pawed at it as I had signaled her to do.
My lady had picked up a turkey leg and was answering Tunstall’s question about the treatment she’d received. “Don’t be a dolt, Mattes,” she told him. “I can’t tell them not to. They get in trouble if their lords catch them speaking to me improperly.”
I stuffed half of the waffle into my mouth and pointed to Achoo. “She has to go,” I mumbled. None of them were paying any heed to me, Farmer’s attention having been caught by my lady’s words. That was how I liked it.
“Never mind that,” Farmer said to her and to Tunstall. “Those slavers are still here. He may still be here. They may well give us the slip while we wait.”
Achoo and I walked out of the room into the great hall. There were no guards set to watch us. Maids, menservants, and slaves hurried here and there with loads in their arms. They were too busy preparing for the nobles’ return to attend to Achoo and me. Pounce came out with us. It amazes me how he can move so as to seem near invisible. He had jumped down from one of the packhorses and trotted along close to Lady Sabine, but the castle’s folk had been too busy watching her to take note of the black cat at her heels. Now he went out the main door to the courtyard.
Despite my excuse for her if she needed one, Achoo was not interested in going outside. She had her nose up in the air. I waited for her, trying not to tap my foot or otherwise distract her. Something had caught her attention and we could not move until she decided what it was. I only feared someone would notice that neither of us belonged there.
She trotted away, bound for the great hearth on the far wall. Easily, hands hooked in my belt as if we took a lazy walk, I strolled after her. She was sniffing around the hearthstones. The scent took her into the opening, where she snuffled around the kindling that had been laid there for the night’s fire. Back out she came, to a basket full of shavings and another of twigs for more kindling, then a third for small logs. That last she smelled only once. Then she went back to the shavings and twigs. She gave them a last going-over, and followed her scent away from them, down the corridor that led from hearth and hall. I followed, my back braced for a shout ordering me to halt. No one said a word.
Achoo took us outside, around the back of the keep. There, between the keep and the inner wall, wood for the castle fires was stacked under waxed cloths. Her scent led her to the kindling stacks, then out again, around the side of the keep.
We crossed a short distance. I thought we were bound straight for the kitchen, an old-fashioned one set apart from the keep, but Achoo changed her mind. She halted suddenly, her head turning to and fro, then took us to the closest building, the chicken coop. A manservant rushed up to the hen yard waving his arms as she sniffed among screaming hens at the nest. I whistled her back to me and flipped a copper to the cove. He went silent and pointed for us to go. We left, Achoo hanging her head. If ever a dog looked mortified, it was she.
I gave her a strip of dried beef. When we were out of the man’s sight, I said, “It’s well enough, girl.” We dodged a flock of outdoor hens. “I know plenty of human Dogs that would just have gone clean through the place and back to the keep, not thinking that boys who go into henhouses are either stealing or fetching eggs for a cook. At least you follow what is truly there.”
Achoo found the main scent and took it to the kitchen. My thought by then was that they’d put the lad to work as a kitchen slave. That explained his being in the great hall. He’d been ordered to help clean out the hearth at some point, mayhap more than once. It explained as well his presence in the chicken coop. Now, in a large and busy kitchen, I waited to the inside of the door while Achoo did her finest work, her nose to the ground as she sorted through all manner of scents to find the one she wanted. Even with herbs and cheeses hung everywhere, four kinds of meat on the spit, and fresh herbs and young onions being chopped, Achoo could not be fooled. My belly might growl as my nose filled with the smell coming from that whole roasting pig, but Achoo cared nothing for that when she was Hunting. She worked around the feet of cooks and helpers and skirted two pups as they wrestled with a thick rope.
One cook swore at her, but she was too busy to do anything. Another cried, “Get that beast away from me!” but she and the others had too much to do other than aim a kick at the nearest animal. Five other dogs sat before the fire, hoping some meat would fall.
I could see that Achoo had our lad’s scent all the time. She finally halted by a small keg that was placed beside the spits of meat.
Of course, I thought, squeezing past two mots who were heaving a good-sized bag of almonds onto a table. Turning the spit is a good task to give a child of four. Everyone can watch him to be sure he doesn’t let the meat burn. I’d done such work at Provost’s House, but there my aunt Mya had wrapped the turnspits in leather so they wouldn’t burn my palms. These turnspits had no such wrappings. Had they given the lad cloths, or had they forced him to turn them with no protection for that soft, noble skin?
The gixie who turned the spit now shrank away from Achoo. She was mayhap six or so and armed with handfuls of rags. If she loosened her grip, they dropped to the floor. As she gathered them, she risked smacking her head on the lower turnspits.
I went to her and helped her pick up the rags. “May I have these for a moment?” I asked her. I found my right glove. “Here. This is big, but it will keep the turnspit from burning you.”
She giggled once it was on, since she could barely fit two fingers where they belonged, let alone the others and the thumb. Still, she could use the palm to hold the spits as she rotated the meat. In addition to the pig and chickens, there were five ducks and two haunches of venison to brown. There were also the watching dogs to run off. She had a little broom for that purpose. They were hunting dogs, high tempered and not at all patient with slaves who would not feed them. I saw bite marks on her legs as well as whip weals on the backs of her arms. The bite marks were not bad, but they must have hurt all the same. “Jaga, Achoo,” I said, and pointed to the spits.
Achoo looked at me with reproach, an owl asked to guard a mouse’s nest. She had been walking the circuit of the kitchen, following our lad’s steps around the tables as she dodged the cooks’ swats and curses. She had also looked down the hall behind the gixie’s turnspit. I had to do something first, so I put Achoo to guard work, gave the gixie my last chunk of cheese, and fetched my small sewing kit. I quickly threaded the needle, thanking the gods once again for giving me the wit to put forth the coin for this small collection of needles, pins, and thread tucked into a leather wallet. In simple repairs to my own kit it had paid for itself within a year of its purchase, and it also allowed me to do small favors that were often repaid in information. I began to stitch the rags together, one on top of the other.
The gixie looked over her shoulder at me as she turned the spitted chickens. “What are ye doin’? Ye should not be here, like as no.” She was from the Lower City.
“Act the same as you always do, and no one will say a thing,” I told her. “This corner is dark, and so’s my uniform. Do your work, and we’ll be fine.” There was a fast exchange of snarls and a whirl of fur. Then the hound who’d tried to steal some of the meat ran yelping from Achoo. The others backed up enough that a cook and a maid noticed they were there, and beat the hounds out of the kitchen with their dishcloths.
The gixie took a quick mouthful of cheese. She ate with it clutched tight to her chest, her head bowed over it, as if she expected someone to steal it. Someone probably might if they weren’t all so busy here. “Is he yours?”
Another young slave lurched by us with a load of sticks for the oven where bread was baking. He didn’t even glance our way.
“Achoo is a she, and yes, she’s mine.” Sitting there only barely hidden from view, I had no time to explain about the Dogs and their scent hounds. Besides, she might well lock up tight if she knew I was an official. “Do you always turn the spits?”
“Only since this mornin’,” she told me. “No-Skin did it afore me, but he’s gone now.”
“No-Skin?” I asked, wondering if she joked with me. I’d never known a slave who joked, at least not with someone who wasn’t a slave.
“That’s what they called him, so everyone ’ud remember not t’ beat him so it showed on his skin. They was to use only straps over his clothes, or open hands or fists, and not so nothin’ gets broke,” the girl explained. “One o’ th’ gixies punched his face so’s she cut his cheek, and there! The Viper, the mage, she did the gixie just like that! And her ma started screamin’ ’cos her babe’d just died and now they’d killed her little one, and snap! Dead ma into the dirt with the babe and the gixie. The captain that ran things told the Viper she’d wasted a bearing slave, and the Viper said she had her orders and he had his.”
“Viper, you say?” I asked, stitching quickly.
“One of the two mots that rode along with the slave train,” the gixie said. Looking around to be certain no one had an eye on us, she whispered, “They’s both mages, them two.”
I was in the middle of biting off my thread when she said that, making me freeze for a moment. Farmer had worked it out right. “What happened to No-Skin?” I asked when I knew I could speak calmly. It’s important, with folk who frighten as quick as slaves, to keep steady. The minute you get shaky, they will bolt. I put the first padded grip across my knee and started to sew a second one.
“We come here, and the captain offered us for work. He told the high-ups here that the trainin’ would be good for us,” the gixie said. “Me and No-Skin was teamed up on cleanin’ the hearth and fetchin’ eggs and turnin’ the spits, ’cos I done all them things before my last master went toes up and we was sold.”
“Was he any use to you, No-Skin?” I asked, glancing around the kitchen. A few maids had looked our way, but I was tucked well into the shadows, and the gixie kept her eyes on her work, turning first one spit, then another. She struggled with the pig. I longed to help her, but that would bring me into view of the rest of the staff. I would be sent away when we were discovered, and no doubt she would be beaten for chattering, if she did not get worse for talking with a Dog.
The gixie snorted at my question. “His hands was as soft as a babe’s!” she told me with scorn. “He got splinters in every finger, and he was scared gormless by the hens. They gave me a beating for not doin’ that work meself, and five strokes to the cook that sent us to the hens, and her a freewoman! They wrapped his hands in linen to turn spits till they took him away from that.” She shook her head. “But he was plucky enough. He tried to do his share, even when it hurt him.” Her shoulders slumped. “I don’t know what he’ll do without me to look after him. I’ve not seen him since they took him from here.”
“Who took him?” I asked as I finished stitching longer cloth strips to the second pad.
“One of the drovers came for him and told the cooks to give me his work,” she replied. “Then he just scooped No-Skin up under his arm and carried him off.” She looked at me. “What if they done for him like they done for the one that punched him?”
I shook my head. “He’s too valuable,” I said. “They’ll not so much as take him over Breakbone Falls, believe me.”
She looked at me as if I’d started to pop golden eggs from my mouth. “He’s valuable.” The way she said it, as if she were years older than six, told me she believed me not a whit.
I smiled a little. “Let’s just say them that sold him to your master stole him from the wrong folk. Now see here.” I showed her how to place the thick rag pad I’d sewn together against her palm, how to wrap the straps twice to hold it in place, and how to tie the cloth on her wrist one-handed so the knot wouldn’t interfere with her grip. I handed the other pad to her, its straps wrapped neatly around it. “For when the other wears out.”
She returned my glove to me, unable to speak. I didn’t think folk gave her things very often. I was getting to my feet when she looked up at me. “Travel safe, travel well,” she whispered.
The blessing is an old, honored one. Not many use it anymore. I gave the traditional answer, “May those who have gone before be always with you.” And then, because something urged me to it, I asked, “What’s your name?”
She scratched her head. “Linnet Beck, at least till the next master gets a big tarse boil and decides he don’t like my name.”
“Keep yourself alive, Linnet Beck,” I told her quietly. “Don’t ever talk about No-Skin again. If you need help and you can manage it, get word to the nearest Provost’s Guard that you want Beka Cooper, from Corus Lower City. You have that?”
Linnet didn’t seem too convinced of the message’s worth, but she repeated, “Beka Cooper, Corus Lower City. The Dogs.”
I gave her a smile. “That’s it. I can’t promise, but if you send for me, I’ll do my best to come, or one of my friends will. Achoo, mencari.”
Achoo, who’d been crouched in the shadows behind me, got to her feet and followed her scent, down the dark hall at Linnet’s back. That took us to the servants’ privy yard, the place behind it where huge barrels of garbage awaited the carters who would dispose of them, and back into the kitchen. Achoo’s nose led us into the pantry and out as the maid who’d been working there screeched at both of us. Down another back hallway we went and then up a servants’ stair. The climb was steep and dark, beyond the tall level that houses the great hall and into a newer portion of the keep. I could tell it was so by the lighter-colored stone and the lighter-colored mortar that held it in place. Achoo halted on the third story of this newer structure and scratched at the door on the landing, dancing with impatience. I opened the door onto a long hallway.
Achoo sniffed her way down the hall to one locked door. When she looked at me and whimpered, I glanced around. The place was dead quiet. I drew the Sign on my chest and removed my shoulder pack so I could get my lock picks out. All the time I worked on that lock, I was sweating. The moment I had the door open, Achoo and I slipped inside.
I was thinking a string of prayers to every god I could remember as I closed the door behind us. I called to my favorite ones twice. As soon as I looked around that large chamber I knew I was in dreadful trouble. A tall rack supported a suit of armor. A shield leaned against it, showing the bright silver sword-in-crown with the upended crescent. Our lad, Prince Gareth, had been in his uncle’s room.
Achoo showed me he’d been all over those rooms, the main chamber, the bedchamber, and the small chamber for the prince’s personal attendants. We were triply lucky that afternoon. No one was inside.
My hound traced the scent to the chairs by the hearth, to the tub that stood in the bedchamber, and back into the main room. As she did, I stood by the door, keeping it open a crack, listening for approaching steps and thinking. They had brought Gareth here, almost certainly to Prince Baird. This was bad news, the worst, and it lay on me like a weight. On feast days we had all seen the young prince with his big uncle. King Roger was wiry and lean, his younger brother of the same height, but heavier with muscle and good living. Prince Baird would raise his laughing nephew high in the air and the crowds would cheer them both.
Achoo gave a small yip from the bedchamber. I quickly glanced outside. Still no one had shown himself. I shut the door, locked it from the inside with my picks, and went to see what Achoo had found.
A red string bracelet, the kind a nursemaid would make for her charge, lay on a bedside table among a heap of jewels worn for dress occasions. Achoo nudged the bracelet with her nose and sneezed.
I unsheathed my dagger and turned the bracelet over with the point of it. The string was done up in nine knots for the Goddess, guardian of children, and the ends were braided for Mithros, whose laws bind the realm. Somewhere the maker had found tiny beads to thread onto it, one each of brown agate for protection, pink quartz for love, and onyx also for protection.
If only it had worked.
Achoo had gone on sniffing, her work taking her back to the front door of the rooms. I left the bracelet as I’d found it and followed her. When I opened the door a crack, I flinched. Pounce was waiting for us.
The count and Prince Baird just rode into the outer courtyard, he told us. They’re back from hunting. Get out of here at once!
“Achoo, kemari cepat!” I ordered. Once she dashed through the open door I hurried to lock it, struggling to control my shaky fingers. As the three of us ran for the stair I muttered, “Bum-swived yattering misborn tarses.” I tried to think of a lie for when they caught us, and failed. Instead I whistled for Achoo and Pounce to follow me up the steps rather than down.
No need to go up, Pounce told us. The servants use this stair. The nobles have a wider one paved in green marble for their use. What were you doing, anyway?
I signaled Achoo to follow us down. She did, sniffing, still on the track. Walking as if we belonged on that staircase, I explained to Pounce (silently) what we’d done in our time away from our companions.
I have been idling around the slave train, he told me. The slaves are kept near the goat pens while they supply the extra labor during the prince’s visit. They are guarded, so it will be difficult to talk with them unseen.
“Is it them who are in a trap, or us?” I muttered. Pounce didn’t answer. Instead he led us along another turn past the servants’ privies and along the large addition to the great hall. It was then that Achoo protested. The scent took her in another direction. I ordered her to heel. We needed to get clear of the newly arrived nobles. I did not want to face them without Tunstall at my side. For now, the Hunt must wait. I got Achoo to follow Pounce and me at last, but I could see she was going to complain of me to the other scent hounds at home.
Behind the new addition, where the original wall had been widened to include it, we found Tunstall, joking with men-at-arms who had pitched camp there. These coves wore royal blue tunics and gray trousers, with the crescent-on-its-back design, meaning the second son, on their chests.
“Well, look at this—my partner, Cooper,” Tunstall greeted me, beckoning for me to join them. “Taking the hound for a walk?”
He wished me to be casual. I knew that from his greeting and the wave of his hand. I didn’t know how relaxed I could be after those tense moments in the prince’s bedroom. Worse, any of these coves in blue and gray could put me in chains for the impertinence of having been there without leave. I stuck my hands in my pockets and whispered to Achoo, “Gampang.”
She whined at me. She didn’t want to meet anyone. She wanted to go back to the Hunt.
“Gampang.” I repeated as we drew close to the men. “Don’t argue!” I walked up to Tunstall and gave a nod to the coves who sat around him, on kegs, camp stools, or upended buckets, tending equipment and weapons as they relaxed. “Good evenin’, sirs,” I said in my Lower City accent. I looked up at Tunstall, who was lounging against one of their wagons. “Any word on where we sleep tonight, Tunstall? Here, or are we off on the road?” I would have loved to know what news he’d gathered, if anything, but there was no way to ask him here. I couldn’t even inquire if Farmer had gone nosing about. We all had parts to play, and we wanted to give these strangers no idea whatever that we were Hunting when we’d been ordered not to.
“You don’t want to be sleeping in that great hall,” one of the men-at-arms, a thin, muscled redhead, told me. “There’s fleas in the pallets. The count’s too cheap to pay a mage to get them out.”
“He’s not sleeping on them, is he?” asked another cove with the look of a Scanran. “Nor that mage from Aspen Vale. You won’t catch him doin’ flea-bane spells.”
Yet Farmer took care of the swamp bugs without a mutter, I thought. He insisted on it.
“We didn’t even stay the first night,” the redhead went on. “Came out and pitched our tents here, after a dunk in the river to rid us of the cursed fleas.”
“Farmer and me have been invited to pitch a tent with these good fellows,” Tunstall explained. “If you see Farmer, tell him?” He bent his head, scratching his neck and refusing to meet my eyes. “You and … the lady …,” he mumbled.
I propped my hands on my hips, put one leg forward, and began to tap my toe, as Kora so often did. It worked better in skirts, but it was still a good way to tell a cove, any cove, that you lose patience. It also makes coves think you’re a certain kind of mot, the kind they feel comfortable with.
“Best tell her before she sharpens you up with a broom about your shoulders!” one of the coves shouted.
“I bet she sets the Corus Rats to kissing the mules’ arses,” another called. “Stricter than their old mams!”
Tunstall pointed to the entry to the castle that was nearby. “You’ll find her up one set of stairs, in the ladies’ rooms,” he said, giving me the guiltiest of looks. “You’re to sleep in whatever room they grant her. And you’ll have to get a dress there, for supper.”
Dress? I mouthed at him. My back was to the men-at-arms so they could not see.
Tunstall shrugged helplessly. “It’s how they do things here, Cooper,” he said. The other coves laughed at that.
“Our women refused even to enter castle grounds,” the Scanran told me, a looking of understanding in his eyes. A few of the other men-at-arms were nodding. “Mithros be thanked, our captain and His Highness are upright men who won’t let good soldiers be humiliated.”
I wouldn’t speak up for myself, but they couldn’t go on thinking bad of my partner. “There’s naught Tunstall can say about it,” I told them. “Everyone thinks they rank Dogs, unless they’re dealing with my lord Gershom.”
“Everyone does rank a Dog,” said the redhead with a grin.
Tunstall laid a big, friendly hand on the redhead’s shoulder. “Not for long, though, eh, laddybuck?” he asked.
The redhead leaned to that side, doing his best not to grimace or complain about the strength of Tunstall’s hold.
I shook my head and walked to the castle door, Achoo and Pounce beside me. The coves didn’t need me to play their games.
The wing where the ladies were housed was much different from that of the men. I had to pass two armed guards to enter. One of them told me that if the ladies complained of my hound or my cat, out they would go, but they let me pass.
Once upstairs, I wasn’t sure which of the open doors I was to enter. I was looking from one to another when a tiny creature made of flying silk burst through one that was slightly open and raced down the hall. Achoo forgot herself and went tearing after, covering in three bounds what the little thing had done in twenty. Achoo trapped the small animal in the corner and was sniffing it in the crudest way when I heard a mot call, “Snowflake! Snowflake! You stole my ivory ribbons!”
A mot came out of the room where Snowflake, if that was the silky creature’s name, had been. She was nearly as pretty as the animal, dressed in an ankle-length tunic of cream-colored linen and a round cap of the same color. Her blond hair hung in two braids to her knees. When she saw her pet’s situation, she ran down the hall, crying, “You brute! Get away from Snowflake!”
“Achoo,” I said, but then the young mot halted. The bit of fluff was dancing under Achoo, running through her legs, and making it very clear that Achoo was her new best friend. Achoo was doing her best to lick the little thing, wagging her tail to show the affection was given back in full. Instead of screaming for the guards, the lady halted where she was and offered her hands, palms up, for Achoo to smell.
“Pengantar, Achoo,” I said. Achoo needed permission to greet human beings.
Achoo liked the lady’s scent. The mot liked the way Achoo held up her head and closed her eyes to have her ears scratched. “What a splendid hound you are,” the lady told Achoo as the hound danced. “You’re not like our hunting hounds at all, though of course they are very fine animals in their way.” With a glance at me she asked, “What manner of breed is she? I have never seen her like before.”
I would not shame Achoo by saying she was a breed only by grace of training. Without her great skill she would have been known only as a common street cur. “She is a scent hound, my lady,” I replied. I could feel Pounce leaning against my left boot to give me courage. Pounce knew I did not like to speak with the nobility, but this pretty mot could not be so bad if she liked proper four-legged dogs. “Not for hunting game, if it please you. Achoo and I are both in the service of the Lord Provost of the realm.”
She gifted me with a bright smile. “Achoo! What a delightful name!” She had discovered Achoo’s favorite behind-the-ear scratch. “I’m Lewyth, and this dreadful bit of disobedience”—she scooped up the fluffy creature as it tried to go around her—“is Snowball, the wickedest Butterfly Puppy ever bred.” She held the mite up to her face, where it proceeded to lick her cheek while wagging a plume of a tail. “Yes, you’re very wicked. Still, between you and me, I wouldn’t want a ribbon on top of my head, either. You were wise to run away.” She offered the tiny dog to me and I took it without thinking. It had a small, pointed nose, a black mask around two button eyes, and two upright black ears that were far larger than a head that size would normally sport. Except for the black fur on her skull and a saddle of black fur on her back, she was white, with tiny paws and a cheerful puppy smile. She seemed inclined to like everyone, because she started to lick my hands once she got used to being away from the lady.
“Why do you call your hound Achoo?” Lewyth asked.
“She sneezes when she gets a scent,” I explained. “My partner thinks she sneezes it out and breathes it back in so her nose is clearer the second time.”
“She’s a wise hunter, aren’t you, then?” Lewyth asked Achoo, giving her one more good scratch with both hands. “Our family breeds hunting hounds and Butterfly Pups, now they’re popular. We’ve never tried scent hounds. Were you and Achoo looking for someone?”
“I was ordered to find my lady Sabine of Macayhill. The men-at-arms told me she was up here,” I said. Mistress Snowball, being the trusting sort, had turned herself over in the crook of my arm, inviting me to give her a belly rub. The moment I did so, she began to wriggle gleefully. “This is a very happy-natured creature.”
It is a very silly creature, Pounce remarked to me. I wager its brain pan is also full of fluff.
“The Butterflies are like that,” Lewyth replied, holding her hand down to Pounce. “If you give them kindness, they will love you all your days. Now, I cannot believe this handsome fellow is a scent cat.”
I looked down to see Pounce boot her hand just like a true cat. He glanced at me and I saw his eyes were gold. I nodded. “No, Pounce just thinks I’ll make a muck of things if I roam without him to watch me.”
Lewyth giggled. “I’m not making fun,” she hurried to explain. “I have cats, too. You may as well come in with us. Lady Sabine is with the countess. You must be Guardswoman Cooper.” We walked into the room that Snowball had left so gleefully.
Achoo sneezed. She raced to the baskets of wood placed in the corner to supply the braziers that heated it. Eagerly she sniffed the wood, turning pieces over with her nose, as a handful of small creatures like Snowball rushed to defend their mistresses, barking most ferociously. Only with their ears raised did they come as tall as Achoo’s chest. Several cats with fur as long as the fluffy dogs’ started to flee the room, but halted when they saw Pounce. Slowly they formed a circle around him and sat, tails flicking.
“Achoo, kemari,” I ordered, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew very well why she was going from the wood baskets to every brazier, to and fro, as if she marked the steps of a child under orders to put fresh wood in each. When I thought we risked a call for guards, I repeated more firmly, “Kemari, girl!”
Achoo is easy to please, if I have not written it before.
“Ladies, ladies,” cried Lewyth. “This is Lady Sabine’s companion, Guardswoman Cooper. Achoo is her hound, and Pounce is her cat. She was told to meet her lady here, and our countess told us we were to supply her with a gown for supper.”
“And a bath, like as not,” said one of them, a black-haired lady in a rose-colored tunic. Had no one ever told her that if she continued to screw her face up, it would stick in that position?
A stately blond who had not moved from her chair during the fuss said, “Lady Wyttabyrd, the Gentle Mother adjures us to show grace to those beneath us in rank.”
I clasped my hands behind me and planted my feet. So now I was beneath them in rank. Usually talk of animals brings folk together. I’d hoped to ask some questions when things quieted, but that was impossible if I was no better than a servant.
The arrogant blond turned to me and gave me a smile that was no more than a curve of the lips. “What is your name?”
“My lady, I am Provost’s Guardswoman Rebakah Cooper, a four-year veteran of the Lower City District in Corus,” I replied.
Lewyth put a hand on my shoulder. “Where did this formality come from? Baylisa, there’s no need.”
If anything, the lady called Baylisa grew even cooler. “Lewyth, the Gentle Mother teaches us that a world in its proper order is a peaceful one.”
The other young ladies in the room bowed their heads and whispered, “So mote it be.” They retreated to chairs and picked up different kinds of needlework. The small dogs, plainly knowing this signal, came to sit by their mistresses’ feet, their faces as forlorn as Achoo’s when I called her to heel.
The mot named Baylisa turned her ice blue eyes to Lewyth and me. “We follow the ways of the Gentle Mother here,” she explained. “My younger sister Lewyth is still learning to keep a serene heart.” Lewyth took her hand from my shoulder. “The Gentle Mother could relieve you of the pain and struggle you face in that uniform, Guardswoman Cooper,” Baylisa went on. “There are men to perform such brute work. Your spirit cries out for the touch of a child’s hands, the peace of the spindle, and the completion of a family.”
I wanted to slap this clapper-jawed dismal-dreaming piece of jouster bait. Folk in the Lower City do not tell each other how to worship, or if they do, it is not for long. I clenched my hands behind me and said as calmly as I could manage, “Begging Your Ladyship’s pardon, but I am already in a god’s service.” I did not say that I knew swiving well what my spirit called for, and it was not a curst cage!
She sat back, her hand splayed delicately over her chest. It is a gesture that never fails to give me the royal itch. “You, in service to a god?”
“What is this?” I was never so glad to hear Lady Sabine’s musical voice in my life. “Cooper, is there a problem?”
I did not look away from Lady Baylisa. “We were talking religion, Lady Sabine.”
Another mot, older, said behind me, “Lady Baylisa of Disart is an eloquent advocate of the Gentle Mother among the women of our lands. She has brought many to see that the world has changed, the wars of old done with, and we must change with it.”
I decided I ought to face the mot who was talking, since the other mots rose to curtsy to her. I bowed when I faced her and Lady Sabine. She was a grim-faced bit of jerky, wearing her dark hair scraped back, braided, then pinned in coils under a sheer veil and a round cap. Her ankle-length tunic was blue silk, with tiny pearls stitched in patterns along the hems. One large teardrop-shaped pearl hung on a gold chain nearly to her waist. One of the little dogs, seemingly all fuzz, ran to her and barked for attention. She scooped it up and tucked it in the corner of her arm. I had to think some better of her for not worrying if the creature might shed its hair on her costly dress, but only some.
“Guardswoman Rebakah Cooper, this is Countess Aeldra of Queensgrace,” Lady Sabine told me. She looked as if she’d come fresh from the bath, her curly hair still showing some droplets of water. There was a silver net over her head. She had put on a long tunic in a shade of light blue that did her no favors. It was trimmed with pale pink braid threaded with a silver ribbon. Given the lack of travel wrinkles in the tunic, I knew it must be a loan from one of the ladies. They had even gotten Lady Sabine into a useless pair of soft, flat shoes. She ignored my obvious surprise at her dress to tell the countess, “My lady, Guardswoman Cooper is one of the Provost’s Guards I travel with.”
The countess looked me over while I fought the urge to scratch my bum. “Who is that monster?” she asked, nodding her head toward Achoo, who sat at my side.
“My lady, Achoo is a scent hound,” Lady Lewyth said, coming up to rub Achoo’s ears. “She’s the friendliest thing. She hasn’t bothered the cats in the least, and the dogs love her. But she’s a hound of degree, not a pet.”
“Though technically scent hounds, at least this one, are not hounds of degree,” the countess said coolly, “since the ones who work with the Provost are chosen on the basis of aptitude. They do not come from a recognized breeder of hounds for the hunt.”
If her rump were any stiffer, she’d break it every time she rides, I thought to Pounce.
If she fell on the steps, they would never be able to put her together again, he replied.
Fortunately, I have long practice at keeping my face calm when Pounce makes me laugh inside.
Countess Aeldra raised her voice. “Lady Baylisa, have proper clothes been produced for this person?”
Lady Baylisa nodded to a slave who’d tucked herself behind a cluster of noblewomen. She came forward with three tunics laid over her arms. Two were pink and one was pale yellow. I could see the stitching where one side seam had been repaired. They wouldn’t be giving their best to help me to pass muster in the great hall.
“Hold that first gown against you,” the countess ordered me. I took a breath. I had been thinking this over since the men had told me that I would be required to wear a dress for supper. I knew curst well they would ask no such thing of Tunstall. This was more of the Gentle Mother business, stripping fighting women of the symbols of their battles.
“Begging my lady’s pardon,” I said, looking at the ground in order to appear as meek as I could, “but I must wear my uniform at all times.”
The room went dead quiet. Even the little dogs seemed to know sommat was up.
“You will do no such thing,” the countess replied.
“Forgive me, Your Ladyship, but I must,” I repeated. “I am not here on my own. I am on a Hunt. In that respect I am here as a Provost’s Guard, which means I am on duty. I cannot go without my uniform.” I glanced at Lady Sabine, who gave me the tiniest of nods. “I have cleaner uniforms, wherever my bags ended up.”
“Ridiculous!” the countess said. “There is no need for your … work here! You are our guest, and as our guest, you will abide by the rules of this house!” When I glanced up, she had turned to my lady. “Lady Sabine, you are in charge of your party. Tell her to obey me at once!”
My lady started to scratch her head and stopped, remembering that was a rude, common gesture, I think. She had gotten it from Tunstall. “In fact, Countess Aeldra, I am not in charge,” she said. “I am employed in the service of the Lord Provost. It is Senior Corporal Matthias Tunstall who is in command of our group. You will easily recognize him at supper. He will be wearing the same uniform as Guardswoman Cooper.”
The countess pressed her hands together palm to palm and touched her fingertips under her chin. I was not sure if she was trying to pray or if she was calling on the household gods by imitating the coat of arms of Queensgrace. “It is a meal, with Prince Baird, the Baron of Aspen Vale, and his brother, who is a powerful mage, as our guests. You cannot possibly have reason to wear your uniform then or at any other time while you are in women’s quarters!” She was beginning to sport a bit of a flush on her cheekbones.
I glanced at Sabine. It seemed Master Niccols had not told his countess why we were here. My lady gave me a little nod to say she was ready to help me.
“My lady countess, I have every reason to wear my uniform here,” I told her quietly. “We search for a noble’s kidnapped child. My hound found the child’s scent in this very room when we entered it. We are working in this castle.”
Sabine rested her own hand on the countess’s shoulder. “Cousin, release Cooper immediately. She tells the truth. I informed your steward when we arrived why we were here.”
“He said nothing about evidence. I would have known of a kidnapped child,” the lady began.
“He is disguised as a slave,” I informed her. “He has been working here with other slaves. Would you have seen him, my lady?”
We heard a soft growl from below and looked down. Achoo had come over. She looked at Countess Aeldra, her lips peeled back just enough to show her front teeth. I could have told my hound to stop, but I wasn’t minded to just then.
“My sitting room, right now,” the countess said. “Baylisa, ask my lord if he will grant me the honor of his company as soon as may be!” She released me and led us to the back of the room, where a door stood open.
As Achoo, Pounce, Sabine, and I followed, I murmured to my lady, “So much for Gentle Mothers.”
Sabine shook her head. “I fear Aeldra needs to work harder on her peace of heart,” she replied just as quietly.
If she tries to handle Beka so roughly again, I will help myself to a piece of her skin, Pounce said.
Once we were inside the room, I closed the door behind us. It was more an office than a sitting room, though a crescent of chairs and chests with cushioned tops was placed near parchment windows. Three more chairs were set before the desk. The countess sat behind it and gestured for Sabine to have a seat, but she offered me no such courtesy. She glared at Achoo and Pounce. “These animals belong out of doors.”
“A cat!” the countess said. There could not have been more scorn in her voice if she had been drinking it. “Are there Provost’s Guard cats now?”
Sabine leaned forward, her face white and intent. “We need not explain ourselves here.” She reached into her sleeve and drew out a folded paper with a seal on it. “We are under the Provost’s orders. You will note he has used the seal of the Great Charter, which all noble houses are required to obey.” She placed the paper on the desk.
The countess opened it with her fingertips, as if she thought something in the orders might soil her skin. For a long moment she glared at the writing before she lifted the document to the light of the candles, turning it this way and that to examine it. Then she took a pinch of powder from a dish on the desk and sprinkled it on the seal. There was a flash of light and the scent of burning rope.
“Cousin, you teeter on the edge of insulting me,” Lady Sabine told her. She was straight as a baton on her chair. “Were I not a patient woman, you would have fallen over that edge just now. Those documents are not forgeries. By my blood and by my birth, my word as a knight of this realm should be good enough!”
Sommat in her eyes must have shaken the countess. The mot placed Lady Sabine’s paper on the desk and tried to smile. “I meant no disrespect to any oaths you have sworn, my dear. But this is an accusation of great weight, come from one common born.” Her gaze was frosty as she looked at me.
I burned, but I kept my gob shut.
“It is no accusation, Cousin,” my lady said, her voice and face still furious. “It is a fact. Someone brought that child into this house, into your ladies’ very solar.” She turned to me. “Where else, Guardswoman Cooper?”
Sabine I would gladly answer. “The great hall, the woodpiles that serve the hearth in the great hall and the kitchen, the henhouse, the kitchen, the hall where the noble guests are staying, the woodpile which serves that hall, and the ladies’ solar.” I glanced at the countess, who had folded her hands in her lap. “Achoo and I have not yet finished. We have not yet found where he is now.” I would give Linnet’s information, that a cart and several slaves, including Prince Gareth, had left the castle a day ago, to Sabine later.
“We do not harbor criminals!” the countess snapped.
She was not clever, saying things that were complete nonsense. “Most barrel trappers don’t walk the day with their coat of arms flying on a stick, my lady,” I said. “Plenty of them don’t even look that common.”
“Cooper,” Sabine murmured as the countess turned purple. “Apologize for being so forward.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, not trying very hard to sound that way. I even gave it a bit of a wait before I added, “My lady.”
Sabine half turned her head to look at me. I saw the corner of her mouth twitch in part of a smile before she looked at the countess again. “A barrel trapper is a kidnapper,” she explained. “A legendary kidnapper is said to have kept his captives in barrels until they were ransomed.”
The countess glared at me yet again. “Do you see what happens, Cousin?” she asked, her voice crisp. “They grub after these evil creatures so long they begin to look and sound like them.”
Someone rapped on the door and opened it. I expected the count, and so did the countess and Sabine. We got Tunstall and Farmer instead. It was as they were bowing and introducing themselves, Farmer showing the countess yet another copy of our orders, that the count arrived and with him Prince Baird.
Then came us kneeling, and being given permission to stand. The prince stepped on Achoo’s foot, making her yelp. He tried to apologize to her, offering her a strip of dried meat, but she hid behind me.
The prince looked at me with appeal in his eye. “Are you her handler, guardswoman?” he asked. “Please allow me to make it up with her! I would no more harm her than I would one of my own good hounds.”
I dared not say no to the king’s brother. “Makan, Achoo,” I told her quietly. “Pengantar.” With permission, she ventured out from behind me and accepted the prince’s treat, doubtless one of those he kept for his own hounds.
“Did you call her Achoo?” he asked merrily as he ruffled her ears.
Yet again did I explain how she got the scent. I could see the king in Prince Baird’s neatly arched brows, brown eyes, slender nose, and long mouth, but the prince was heavier in the jowls. He wore a short-clipped beard and combed his hair back into a gleaming horsetail. Plenty of hours in the sun had put gold streaks in that brown hair. He was more muscular than the king, too, which was to be expected. When the prince wasn’t fighting with our armies, he was hunting bandits or deer. His voice crackled as did those of folk who’d spent much time shouting.
Once he’d given Achoo a last treat, he accepted a glass of the wine the count had poured out for the nobles. Then he took a seat arranged in the half circle. When he beckoned, the count and countess sat on either side of him. Tunstall and I stood at review rest, hands clasped behind our backs, legs planted a foot apart. Farmer stood easily, his hands in the pockets of his breeches. That bought him a raised eyebrow from the prince, but no more. Provost’s mages were not exactly expected to conduct themselves in the same way as the rest of us. They were often considered cracked by outsiders and most Dogs.
“Your Highness, my lord, pray allow me to introduce the members of our company,” Lady Sabine said. When permission was given, she named each of us and we bowed. Farmer took his hands from his pockets for that, at least. Lady Sabine was very exact in telling these nobles that Tunstall was in command. When she finished, the count beckoned for her to sit by the countess. Only when Tunstall nodded his approval did Sabine take the chair.
Tunstall produced our orders. “Your Highness? My lord? If I may?”
The count extended his hand and Tunstall gave the papers to him. Normally we’d have shown our papers to the prince, since he was highest in rank, but as the lord of the castle and fief, the count had precedence. I only know scummer like this because I had to learn it for other Hunts. Nobles are a pain in the bum.
The count read the orders over, then passed them to Prince Baird. He read them, then looked at the count with raised brows as he gave the orders back to Tunstall. The count glared at us. “Do you claim one of us is the subject of your inquiries, Corporal?”
“Is our quarry here now, my lord?” Tunstall asked, his face all innocence.
“You dare!” bellowed the count.
“Actually, he was,” I said. “Achoo tracked his scent all over the castle. I’ve heard that he may be a part of a group of slaves that left here a day or two ago.”
“By Mithros!” The count lunged to his feet. “You searched my home without so much as a by-your-leave? I’ll have you whipped for that!”
Tunstall leaned forward, the orders still in his hand, pointing to the seal and the signature of the Lord Provost. Only the Lord High Magistrate could interfere with Dogs on a Hunt under those orders. Still, I wasn’t betting my skin on the count’s willingness to obey the law. I knelt by Achoo and hugged her. As always when I hugged too tight, Achoo fought my grip.
“Forgive me, Your Lordship, sir, but you don’t know what these hounds are like, once they’ve got the scent in their sniffers!” I explained, being as Lower City as I could. “I took her to do her business because the carpets and the wood was so nice, and off she went, with me yellin’ the proper commands and all, but she was on the track. She knew just where she was goin’, did the little circle every time he musta stopped, and every time I tried to grab her she was off again. Not that I’m the bravest about catchin’ her, savin’ your presence, my lord count, not after that time I tried to grab her when she was excited and she bit me so hard!” I showed him the great double-crescent scar on the back of my hand where Rush the Snapper bit me, the time I caught him with a purse full of coles. “So mayhap I’m not the quickest to hold her, and I could only follow as she led, pleading Your Lordship’s understanding. It weren’t me, I swear, it were the hound.”
“Not mad,” Tunstall said with a glare at Farmer. “She is hard to restrain.” He bowed to the prince and the count. “Her … circumstances … are such that she only responds, when she does, to Cooper. She is a fine scent hound, my lords, my lady.”
“I have told you time and again that the hound is a menace,” Lady Sabine said at her noblest. “It is poor handling that has ruined whatever training the creature was given.”
Snarl, I heard Pounce say in my mind. Achoo began a volley of barks and snarls that made her sound like the vicious animal we had named her. I calmed her down, seemingly, and we waited for the count to rule for me to be whipped or no.
“How is it, then, that she did not savage anyone in the solar?” the countess asked. I wanted to kick the old croaking corbie. “Lady Lewyth called her the friendliest thing.”
“Oh, that,” I said, half bowing since I knelt on the floor. “It’s the little animals, my lady. They calm her right down. Amazing, it is. That’s why we travel with my cat. Pounce keeps her steady. Seeing all them pretty little dogs and cats, she gentled enough that I could get a grip on her.” I looked anxiously at the count. “Please, Your Highness, I can’t help it that the finest scent hound in the Lower City is a little touchy. She’d’ve been dog meat if they hadn’t saw she’d work with me.”
“No, girl, curse it, the prince is ‘Your Highness.’ I am properly addressed as ‘my lord,’ ” the count fussed, with one look at the prince to make sure he didn’t take offense at my seeming misstep. “Obviously proper manners is not a thing taught in what training you people receive.”
The prince waved it away. “I am sure I can grant slack to those who enforce the law, Dewin,” he said.
“My lady, is there a problem?” Lady Sabine asked.
“Oh, no, not precisely,” Lady Aeldra replied. “Only that is the half-hour bell for the closing of the gates. Supper is in an hour. There are things to be seen to, and we have yet to sort out a sleeping place for you and your …” She took a breath, plainly searching for a word.
“Colleagues,” Lady Sabine told her.
“People,” the count said flatly. “My dear, this can be handled after supper. Sabine, you and the wench must dress. It is the rule of my house.”
I felt sick to my gut, but I stood and faced the old canker blossom. “Your Highness, my lord, my lady, I may not,” I told them, trying not to sound rude. I knew I was courting that whipping the count had spoken of. “I am a Provost’s Guard on a Hunt. I eat, I sleep, I do all manner of things, but until I bring down my prey, I am on duty. I wear my uniform.”
By the time I was done speaking, Tunstall had moved to stand beside me. Sabine was on her feet at my right, and Farmer was at my back. Achoo sat before me, quiet, acting not at all like the half-broken creature I had painted her.
The other nobles looked at us without a word. It was hard to read their faces. I think it’s something they’re taught when they’re young. Finally the count said, “Enough. We have guests we neglect, and no one is going anywhere tonight. If your kidnapped boy is here we shall find him tomorrow as easily as today. I will give orders to the guard to let no one with a lad or lass of that age leave without my permission. In the morning we shall investigate at a proper count’s court, not this rude sniffing at corners.”
“Tomorrow,” Count Dewin said angrily. “My patience has been tried to its limit. Your woman is permitted to wear her uniform at supper, but she is to stay away from our gentle young ladies, lest her violence corrupt them. Lady Sabine, I hope you will respect our beliefs and let no taint of the dark world you live in shadow their protected lives. My lady will provide for your sleeping arrangements and for those of the … hound.” He looked at Tunstall and Farmer.
Tunstall bowed. “The prince’s men-at-arms have invited us to camp with them.”
The count grunted. He and the prince left as we bowed. They left the door open so we could see Lady Baylisa and Lady Lewyth were outside, looking anxious. Lewyth held some tunics on one arm.
“She will remain in uniform for supper,” the countess snapped. She looked at me. “Have you a clean one, at least?”
“In my packs, my lady, but I—” I began.
The countess was not interested in speech with me. “Have the slaves bring her packs and Lady Sabine’s in here.” She took a deep breath. “It’s not the best choice, but I have no other chambers available where you might have privacy, Sabine. This—wench—may wait upon you, if she has any skills.” To Lewyth she said, “Have the slaves press the clean uniform.” She looked at me. “One of the slaves will show you to the baths. Hurry to wash up. There’s less than an hour before supper. A slave will bring food for your beast and show you where to take it to do its business.”
She bustled off while I looked at the floor and kept a grip on my temper. She had not asked if I wanted anyone to handle my things. I had grown spoiled by my company, who paid me the compliment of letting me do as I wished without orders unless orders were needful. I tried to appreciate Sabine instead of hate Lady Aeldra. These last couple of days, I’d come to think of Sabine as a fellow Hunter rather than a noble.
Tunstall closed the door to the solar before anyone could enter. Farmer flicked his fingers, surrounding the four of us and the two creatures with a whitely shining globe of light. “Quickly,” he said. “There are three very good mages in this castle and two of middling range. They will start to pry in a moment, and I would rather they think I am laughable. Speak quietly. The shield will keep anyone outside from hearing us, but there are some tricky listening spells in here.”
On the ship I’d felt rather cross that he had wanted to seem foolish before other mages. Here, where every hidden weapon could be an advantage against such powerful nobles, I was grateful he kept up his disguise.
“What have we learned?” Tunstall asked, his voice soft. “Cooper, report.”
I told them everything Achoo, Pounce, and I had observed. The most damning evidence, of course, was that of Prince Gareth’s scent and bracelet in Prince Baird’s rooms. The most discouraging thing I had to say was that my Birdie believed the lad was already gone and they knew that already.
“I managed to find where Prince Baird’s men-at-arms are camped,” Tunstall said. “They are not well pleased at being here. As Cooper knows, the women soldiers among them have chosen to stay in the village rather than dress according to the count’s rules. This household is strict Mithran for the men and Gentle Mother for the women. The lads say the whole Three Rivers area—Tellerun, Halseander, Banas—is going that way. They were visiting Aspen Vale, where the prince likes to hunt, and it was the baron and his mage brother who got the prince to visit the count.”
“Elyot of Aspen Vale is a Carthaki-educated mage,” Farmer told us. “An orange robe, their second-highest ranking. He likes the elegant life. His brother the baron is Graeme. They have deep pockets—plenty of money to finance a rebellion led by mages and nobles.”
Tunstall nodded. “There were interesting gaps in what the lads said. His Highness has been out of their view for hours at a time. They aren’t used to it. Seemingly Prince Baird is a big one for riding, hunting, and tumbling the local mots when he’s out in the country, not holing up in rooms with ‘whispering types.’ The lieutenant is unhappy. He thinks Baird gets into trouble if he doesn’t stick to what he does best. Folk like the baron and the count take advantage of him.”
“I found the slave dealers,” Farmer said. “They’re angry to be held here by a noble who isn’t buying. There’s a fair in Konstown in two days where they connect with their partners from Frasrlund and Korpita.”
“We need to search that caravan,” Sabine murmured.
Farmer shook his head. “It’s no good. The boy’s gone.”
The three of us flinched, as if we were on the same string.
“The new people—that’s all the slavers I talked to called them, the new people—left early today. It was clear the captain of the rest of the train thought they were crazy, but the two women insisted, and they had the right to leave. They were in charge of the new people. They took guards and a few slaves with them, including a boy of the right age,” Farmer whispered. “They all came from Arenaver.”
Another large bell chimed.
“The main gate’s closed,” Tunstall said.
“Lads, Beka has to get cleaned up,” Sabine told them. “She’ll attract more attention from our hosts, and we don’t want that. We’ll talk later.”
“There’s an herb garden in back of the kitchens,” Farmer said. “Let’s meet there once the household is at morning prayers.” He looked at our faces. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Everyone is required to go. Let’s meet, and say we didn’t know we were expected at their worship.”
The men left us then, letting Lewyth into the room. “Hurry, Beka,” she said, taking me by the arm. “The maid will bring the uniform down to the bathhouse!”
I ordered Achoo to stay before Lewyth half pushed, half pulled me through the ladies’ solar, along the hall, and down yet another stairway. “I can walk on my own, my lady,” I said, gently tugging my arm from her hold.
“Oh, forgive me! It’s just that you don’t know the countess! If any of us are late to a meal, it’s ten strokes with the switch on the backs of our legs,” she explained. “If we’re wrinkled or our hair is mussed, it’s another ten strokes. My mother says she trains perfect ladies, but I think she just beats the spirit out of us.”
The air had gotten hotter and damper as we went further down. The door at the bottom landing was decorated with the familiar image of the Gentle Mother, a woman with her hands outstretched, a veil over her hair, her eye cast downward, her robe strained over a swollen belly. A jar, sheaves of wheat, and clusters of grapes lay around her. Lewyth bowed and opened the door. I bowed, too, since it is always a good idea to show respect to any god.
The steam that flowed over us was perfumed with lavender, which I do not like. Bath attendants came toward me with outstretched hands. “A maid will bring a fresh uniform for her,” Lewyth told them. “She has to be in the hall in time for the supper bell!”
The attendants nodded.
“I’ll see you at table, Beka!” Lewyth told me. Then she was gone, and the attendants were stripping my clothes and insignia, with its companion Dog tag, away. One of them yelped when she found the spiked strap in my braid. Save for that, they were silent and accomplished. Those women had me, including my hair, soaped and scrubbed and into the cold pool faster than I could have done it myself. At least I managed to climb out on my own as a slave rushed in with my clean uniform, spread it on a bench, and ran off before I could give her a coin. The bath women dried me and slipped my insignia and tag around my neck. One cleaned my nails while two dried much of my hair before they combed it out and re-braided it.
As they worked on me, I asked, “Did any of you deal with the lad called No-Skin?”
Three pairs of hands went still. Then, slowly, one mot, then another, took up the combing again. The other one got back to work on my hands, hesitant at first.
“He may have brought some of the oils and soaps we use on the ladies down here,” one of the mots said. She was behind me, dealing with my hair, so I could not see her face. “Quiet lad.”
“Very quiet,” said the other mot with a comb.
“Not even five,” the one who cleaned my nails added.
“What did he look like?” I asked them.
“Big for his age,” said the one who knew how old he was. “He said he was four, and he was more than three feet tall, like a lord’s son! Brown skin, like one of those southerners from Barzun. Black hair.”
“Underfed. Scared of everything,” the second woman who combed my hair told me. “Everyone knew they were forbidden to whip him—that was enough to get us all talking—but he said there were other things they could do to hurt him.”
“Enough. He’s gone, and that’s all there is to that,” the first woman who combed my hair ordered. “We’ll never see him again and this one needs to get upstairs.” Hurriedly they coiled my damp braid and fixed it to my head with hairpins.
I was allowed to dress myself. Sabine had sent what was needful with that clean uniform, I suspected. I’d donned my loincloth and breast band and was about to pick up my tunic when the laundry maid presented me with a long-sleeved, thin silk shirt.
“For under the tunic, mistress,” she said quietly. She had not been one of those talking to me earlier. Now, as I handled the shirt, she and the bath attendants watched me. I wonder if they knew they’d each raised a shoulder, as if they expected me to strike one of them.
I wanted to refuse, but I remembered the tunics of the ladies-in-waiting. Despite the warming weather, all wore long sleeves. “Pox and murrain on these canting god-struck nobles,” I muttered, and I slid the silk shirt over my head and arms. Through it I could see the mots smile at each other, as if mayhap they agreed with me. I also stole a glimpse at their ankles. All wore an iron fetter. I did not doubt that they would be punished, just like the ladies, if I resisted the countess’s will any further.
How could such a harsh mistress follow any goddess of womanly kindness?
They looked at one another. Finally the oldest of them said, “Long enough that to hear myself called mistress makes me want to laugh.” She was not even smiling. She continued to speak. “My father gave me to the count instead of the tax, the year of the blight on our wheat.” I recognized her voice. She had been the one to say how frightened Gareth had been.
“And you?” I asked one of the others.
“You have no business asking these things of us, Dog,” she said, all scorn. She was that first speaker, the one who’d recognized the hair dye. “And if you are late, it is us that’ll get the whip for being too slow. Come visit out in the main court once the music begins. That’s when the day’s stripes are dealt out.”
I said no more, but donned the rest of my clothes and held out my hands for my gear. The attendants had cleaned my leather and metal so the metal shone and the leather gleamed. My boots looked near as good as the day I had bought them.
My knives, my arm guards, my baton, none of them were on my belt, only my pouches. Even the knives hidden in my boots were missing. Only my smallest eating knife remained to me. “Where are my weapons?” I asked. “I had a few of them. And my dirty tunic, I need that.”
“Weapons will be sharpened, oiled, and taken to your room with your clothes,” the oldest attendant said. “Only nobles may carry weapons to supper. Your blades are safe. Under the count’s law, a slave with a killing blade is skinned with it. Your dirty uniform will be cleaned and returned to you before prayers in the morning.”
I confess, I spent a bit of the king’s coin giving each of them a copper noble. The king could spare it. Besides, I had saved all that money during those nights in the marsh, with no inns to put up at, and no meals to buy.
At last I ran up the stairs to the ground-floor landing. To my relief, Pounce was there. It will be more amusing to sit with you, he said as we passed through the door. Though Achoo would not think so.
The cats seemed to like you, I told him as we walked down a short hall lined with expensive tapestries.
They are well enough, Pounce said. But I wish to stay with you. Your temper is rising.
I have never been in so noble, or so wealthy, or so nasty a house before, I replied. I’m not accustomed to the way things are done.
You are a commoner, Pounce said flatly. You do not get a choice about being accustomed, and if you are not more careful, you will not be given many more chances to practice being accustomed.
We could see people moving beyond the archway ahead, and tables. We had found the great hall. A wave of noise struck us.
You’re right, I admitted, hanging my head. I will try harder.
Which is more important, your pride or that boy? Pounce wanted to know.
I will do more than try, I told him crossly. Leave me be. Can’t you tell when I’m downhearted?
You will never end in the slave cages, Beka, Pounce said as we entered the dining hall. Not you, not your family. You’re safe.
The sight before me made me want to run back to the marsh. Slaves and servants, one fettered and wearing cheap tunics, the other clothed in colored and embroidered fabrics, ran to and fro. They were setting bowls, platters, and pitchers on the long tables that had been placed in rows down the length of the hall. Those who were already seated did not eat. Instead they talked to their neighbors or waited, looking around them. The dais now supported a long table covered in white linen. Branches of candles burned there. Those of us below the dais would make do with the torches on the walls.
Prince Baird’s men-at-arms were seated already, their uniform tunics as clean as could be expected for coves, most of whom had been hunting all day. I frowned when I saw Tunstall among them. Farmer sat across from Tunstall and the men-at-arms with an older cove and a younger one. They had the look of scribes or mages.
Wondering how I could fit among them when they were so snugly bracketed by other coves, I gave the hall another look and realized the pain of the night before me. All of the castle’s women, from the ladies-in-waiting on down to the lowliest of the serving maids, sat at the line of tables closest to the wall where I was. Half of another table, the next one, was also filling with mots, young and old. The remaining two and a half tables sat only coves.
I took a deep breath. I’d never seen anything like it.
Beka, take it with grace, Pounce told me silently. All of it. Remember you are here as Gershom’s representative. Do him proud.
He must have known I was about to walk away. I released the breath I was holding. But, Pounce, this is crackbrained, I told him in the same manner. How do they expect folk to understand each other if they’re separated when they aren’t rushing about their work?
They aren’t expected to understand one another, he replied. The women will learn to flirt over a friend’s shoulder, instead of close. The men will see the women as distant and unknowable. Their friends will be only men. The women will see men as strong and unknowable. Their friends will be only women.
The thought of Tunstall and Farmer, or Holborn, or Rosto, or even Lord Gershom, as strong and unknowable made me choke on a laugh. I held it back somehow. From the corner of my eye I could see Lady Lewyth bustling my way.
“Beka, wonderful, you’re here! I’ll show you where to sit,” she said, leading me along the row of benches closest to the wall. “I’d hoped to put you with your lady, but the countess has placed her on the dais, as a dinner partner for the prince.”
Thank you, Goddess, I thought. Surely it was the Great Mother Goddess who was in charge of seating arrangements. I loved sitting with my lady, but nothing short of chaining me to a plow dragged by a bull would have gotten me onto that dais.
“You’re here,” Lewyth said, pointing to an empty seat on a bench. “The countess chose this place for you, not me. I’m sorry.” She rushed back to her place among the ladies-in-waiting, up at the head of the table.
I wasn’t certain why she had apologized until I had seated myself and inspected my setting. It was for one person only. My trencher was a round of bread, not the length that was set between every pair of diners—all of the other diners. If she had written me a note the countess could not have made her wishes clearer. She did not want me to corrupt her Gentle Mothering household with my talk.
The mot a yard away on my right, a skinny thing who smelled of herbs, glanced over her shoulder at Pounce and me, then looked away hurriedly. I wanted to thump the back of her coiled, pinned, and veiled head, but I thought of Lord Gershom and behaved.
No, the truth is that I would never have done any such thing. My shyness has gotten much better since I was a Puppy, but mostly when I’m in uniform and acting as a Dog, or on my home streets. Socially, when there’s no work to do, I am as miserable as if I were standing before Sir Tullus on my first day at magistrate’s court. Lady Aeldra had done me a favor, making it plain I was out of favor with her. No one would be my supper partner, trying to find something we could talk about while I stammered like a goat, and other folk wouldn’t be gathered around as they did at other castles, asking me questions about the capital.
Suddenly everyone was getting to their feet. The nobles were walking to their places on the dais. I noted that the count’s chair was no higher than the prince’s, though all the others were two inches shorter. Prince Baird sat on his right, and Lady Sabine sat on the prince’s right.
On the countess’s left was a cove in his mid-thirties, brown-haired and sharp-nosed, with a rounded chin and a thin mouth. He wore a brown tunic with white embroideries and a great gold chain with some kind of yellow gem at intervals between the links. Lady Baylisa sat on his left, dressed in ice blue with a white veil over her hair. Her supper partner would be the other cove. I put his age at thirty, with no reason to think I was wrong, after winning last year’s competition at age-guessing in all the Corus districts. Plainly he and the older cove were related. They had the same brown hair combed straight back, the same brown eyes, and the same sharp nose. This one’s chin was slightly cleft, and his mouth was even thinner than the other one’s. He wore dark green. There was some kind of embroidery on his collar and cuffs, but the thread was dark, so it was impossible to see. He wore a large gem on a gold chain, one I recognized right away. It was a fire opal, smoothed and set still in its native stone. Its colors flashed in the light. When a slave tried to pour wine into his cup, he put his hand over it and shook his head, saying something to her. That’s when I saw his ring, another stone set in gold on his index finger. It was too dark for me to tell what it was.
Bloodstone, Pounce said. A very powerful one. I do not particularly like a mage who boasts of his power by wearing showy stones, do you? That is Elyot of Aspen Vale, the mage. The one with the gold and yellow-sapphire necklace is his brother, Graeme. He is a baron.
What do I care if he is a baron? I asked as a priest in Mithran orange and a mot in pale pink robes walked in to stand before the dais. Tortall is lousy with barons. Every time a king wants to thank someone for saving his arse somehow, he names him baron and gives him an acre of rocks.
Did I raise you to be this cynical? Pounce asked me as we all stood for the Mithran’s prayer.
You told me it was “worldly,” I replied, looking at the floor so as to seem devout. Pounce and I had entertained each other through prayers at Lord Gershom’s for years, and had begun again when our Hunts took us to noble houses. You said I needed to be worldly.
The Mithran finished and I was lowering myself to my seat when I caught an elbow in the shoulder from my left-hand neighbor. The one on my left, a mot with the strong arms and flour traces of a baker, had moved closer while I talked with Pounce. Her lips barely moving, she said, “There’s the Gentle Mother blessing yet.”
I straightened up in a hurry as the priestess began to call for peace and bounty, praising the fief’s strong men and calling for love and serenity for its women and children. I stopped listening. There were so many better things I could do with this time.
My belly growled, loud enough that the mot on my right and the mots across the table from me looked up and glared. I glared back. It was hardly my fault that it had been a very long time since our bread and cheese on the road.
Do you want me to claw at the embroidery on their hems until it unravels? Pounce offered. I am willing to make that sacrifice for you. The needlework is bad, anyway, and the colors are not well chosen. I would be doing them a favor.
I had to struggle to keep from laughing. At last the priestess called for the Goddess’s blessings on the royal family and ended. The count gave us the sign to take our seats. Servants began rushing about with more bowls and platters. They went to each of the nobles and placed food in their trenchers or not, as the pairs of diners agreed. For the rest of us, they dumped the serving dishes at central points and left. We lesser folk were to serve ourselves.
The baker turned to me with a basket of fresh rolls. “Take one, for that growlin’ belly. Where are you from, that you don’t know the priestess of the Gentle Mother?”
I took one. “Corus. My thanks, mistress.”
Her trencher mate leaned out around her to look at me. “And it’s true, thirty of you Provost’s Guard came here to arrest the count?”
“Not he,” said the one on my neighbor’s left. “Doin’ aught that ain’t writ down in—Fay, what’s that book them nobles set such store by?”
“The Book o’ Silver,” my neighbor, Fay, replied.
“Aye, that’n. If my lord ever thought of doin’ aught that wasn’t writ down in that Book o’ Silver, he give it up as soon as he thought of it. Like that there roll, do you?” the mot asked.
I looked at the bread in my hands and discovered I was down to the last bite. “Yes, I do,” I replied. “It’s very good.”
“Iris does the rolls,” Fay told me. “I do the bigger loaves, like these.” She tapped the side of their trencher. “And your’n.” A maidservant brought a large pitcher and set it before Fay. She half rose. “Herb and greens soup,” she told me, and poured some into my trencher. I tried to tell her not to give me too much, but I was too late and my trencher was full. It was wonderful soup.
“Listen,” I said when I’d had a few spoons full. “Mayhap you shouldn’t talk with me. The count and countess aren’t so happy to have Dogs in their home, and they’re particular vexed with me.”
Fay took a heavy gulp from her tankard. “So we heard. You’d look prettier in a proper tunic, you know. All that black makes your eyes ghost-colored. Like you’ve been witness to things that twist your tripes.”
I squirmed at that. These countrywomen who see more than their pots and their gardens, they do that to me. They speak their minds, too, just like my gran. Even Tunstall will fidget if such a mot gives him a looking-over.
Iris leaned around Fay. “And Master Niccols has taken his pleasures in my bed.” She winked. “We’re a wicked pair, Fay and me. Me for doin’ what I please, and Fay for Seein’ what folk don’t like. There’s none that’ll squeak to us about who we talk with. That’s why we sat here, instead of at our regular spot.”
“It’s not my fault if the gods gave me their Gift,” Fay said, and elbowed her friend. “But since I got it, I’ll speak it true. There’s naught my lady can say to halt me, either, not her nor her flower-mouthed priestess.”
They refilled their tankards and emptied them while I decided to take them at their word. Few people will cross any who have the magical Gift of Sight, as Fay claimed, for fear the next time a grim Sight came on the one so touched, she would share it. The notion of plump Iris tumbling the prim and pinched Niccols gave me a squeeze in my imagination. I changed the subject rather than think about that any longer. “Do the count and countess feast like this often?” I asked.
“Until the last year, no,” Iris told me. “Their Young Lordships being off at court and Her Young Ladyship being married, it got quiet here.”
“You can’t say quiet,” Fay argued. “Not during slave season, it’s not.”
“During slave season?” I asked between some more spoons of soup. It was the best I’d ever had, even better than Aunt Mya’s. Up at the head table I could see Lady Sabine daintily eating hers as the prince talked her ear off.
“Oh, aye, they come through every three-four weeks in summer, bound for Scanra, the Yamanis, or Galla,” Iris told me. Fay was scraping the last of their soup from the trencher. We didn’t get as much as the nobles did. “Most make no matter, but one a month stops here for my lord to look over.” Fay had moved in some and Iris and me had slid back so she could see me as we talked. She could also see the look of startlement on my face. “Don’t you know—no, you’re not from here.” Iris said it like everyone else was. “They have an investment in a slave tradin’ company. The count likes to see where his investment gets him.”
The skin on the back of my neck prickled. I wished the others could hear, but I couldn’t even see Tunstall or Farmer, hidden behind so many walls of people. I looked about, pretending I was trying to see when the next course would arrive. Casually I said, “So he got lucky, having a clutch of slaves on hand when the prince and the baron came for a visit.”
Fay snorted as a slave came up with a plate of jugged hare and dropped slices in the trenchers. I slipped a piece down to Pounce, who ate it and said, Too tart for you. Of late I have learned that my stomach does not care for things which are very tart, as jugged sauces tend to be.
Fay waited for the slave to move from earshot before she told me, “It weren’t no luck, Mistress Dog! My lord count brung them onto castle grounds as soon as they arrived. And that before he’d got the message that the baron was coming to visit!”
I started to reach into a pocket for a handkerchief, then remembered I couldn’t show nice ways if I was to convince folk I was an everyday dull Dog. I wiped my mouth on my arm, on that lovely thin silk. “I’ll wager they’ve been plenty of help, with three extra nobles and their folk visiting,” I commented, and took a seemingly deep drink from my tankard. It was filled with strong ale. I sipped and let the rest stay where it was. The last thing I needed tonight was a gut full of spirits. At the dais, Sabine and the prince were toasting each other with goblets of wine, but I had no fear for the lady. Her head is harder than Tunstall’s, and there’s not a Dog in Corus who will drink against Tunstall.
Iris snorted. She had already refilled her tankard and Fay’s. “Not enough help, my eye. They sent some of them away with their keepers before dawn.”
“Snatched ’em at their work,” Fay told me. “One lass who was kneading bread for me. That bossy slave minder, the one they called Viper behind her back, she grabbed that gixie and took her off with no apology to me.”
“Right in the middle of kneading,” I repeated for a comment. I nodded yes to a slice of lamb and another of baked fish. When the server moved on I said, “That’s bad. But surely you can get other workers. The count should have hundreds of slaves, getting them cheap as he must.”
Iris shook her head. “Only the debt ones, as owed his da and grandda. Slaves is expensive. You can’t just take your own when you like, my man told me. You have to sell them and pay investors their money back. I’m not one for slaves, anyway. You need three times as many to do the work of one free mot or cove. My man manages the apple farms for the count. He says the only places slave labor really pays off is the big fields like they have in Maren or Carthak.”
The mot on Iris’s left said something to them, taking their attention from me. I broke the fish up and fed it to Pounce under the table between bites of lamb, wondering if Iris’s man was right. It would explain why there were so few slaves in the city who didn’t belong to the temple, the palace, or the slave traders themselves.
We got stewed beef, new peas, and stewed greens while the nobles applauded the arrival of venison and the roasted, stuffed pig. Pounce had left me, so I worked on my food alone, watching the crowd. And then a thread of air wrapped around me, carrying voices.
“—six blades with rust. Six! I don’t call that satisfact’ry, nor will—” That was a cove, all military-sounding.
“—you’d think I was speakin’ Yamani, the way she gawped at me!” A mot, mayhap a bit older than I am.
There was a dust spinner nearby. It had sensed me, and the feel of it raced through the breeze that touched me in that huge chamber.
“—one kiss of your hand, no more. Only let me know I may hope!” A cove, educated and noble, and what a cracknob!
“—I’d say you jest, Niccols, save you have no humor that I know of.” I did not recognize this tight-arsed mot’s voice, but she was noble, no doubt of it. “Count Dewin would never place slaves in the guest wing. He’d cut off an arm before he’d soil rooms meant for the nobility.”
“Far be it from me to argue with my lady’s own cousin, but it’s true.” From his careful way of pronouncing things, Master Niccols sounded as if he might have had a bit more to drink than was wise. “He took them up himself—”
The rest was lost. I wondered if the spinner itself might have more. Where was it? Not inside. They were never inside. What kind of power did a spinner have that would cause it to sense me, and reach me, all the way in here?
The mots around me were well taken up in chatter. The ale pitchers had been replaced twice up and down the table. I tapped Fay on the shoulder and asked her, talking direct into her ear, where I might find a privy I was permitted to use. With her instructions, stooping as I slid between two servants bound for the door, I left the great hall.
Rather than follow the servants, I parted from them and raced up to the room, where I hoped to find doors unlocked and my packs with Sabine’s. I was right twice. The ladies’ solar and the countess’s office were open, and my packs were there, showing signs of the maids’ hunt for my uniform. Achoo greeted me with enthusiasm. She was hungry and ready to go outside. I saw a cot had been set up for my lady, and a pallet for me. I hoped that Farmer’s bug charm still held as I groped in my things.
With a packet of dust from the Day Market in Corus and another from Serenity’s garden in Port Caynn, I went outdoors, Achoo at my side. We walked along the skin of the great hall until we halted between two doors that opened from it to a broad terrace. Here breezes from the spinner found me, passing me strands of talk that flowed from the heated chamber across the terrace and down its steps into a good-sized garden. Torches lit my way and voices reached in my ears. I tucked myself in the shadows by the hedges and went in search of voices and spinner alike. Achoo ran silently at my heels.
“—going over the books and I cannot reconcile these amounts. We should have far more coin in the treasury.” That was the mot Niccols had called “my lady’s own cousin,” the stiff arse.
“Ignore it, Lady Rosewyn.” That was the count. “I had use for that coin.”
The second thread of conversation drowned out the first. “—well, I can do better than a plate-faced virgin nobody who talks of little but religion.” This cove’s voice I did not know. “If you like her so much, Graeme, you marry her.”
I did not hear the answer. Graeme, who was likely the baron of Aspen Vale, must have said something. There was a long pause before my speaker, Elyot, that would be, said, “I’ve never heard of him, but I’m not concerned. Did you see the way he bolted back the ale? No mage with any great power drinks like that. The risk is too great that our magical Gift will start to leak. Besides—”
His voice was gone. I was forced to listen to an eager cove trying to get his fambles into his giggling sweetheart’s clothes until the currents in the air led me to the far side of a stone-lined pond. There, on the middle of the broad path, turned my dust spinner. It was thin, like a narrow tornado, nearly twenty feet tall, and, I sensed, very old. No wonder it had so much power.
“Achoo, either sit or wander, but behave,” I told her. The clever thing had learned years ago to recognize when I listened to the air, and never bothered me when I did so. Now she trotted off to investigate an interesting rustle in the bushes.
I bowed to the spinner. She had bent herself almost in two, as if she were looking at me. Certainly she wasn’t about to bow to any of the many scuttling mortals that had come her way. “I give you greetings, ancient one,” I said and showed her my two packets. “I brought gifts for you, if I may.”
She slid forward, opening the packets herself. I hadn’t expected it. No spinner had done so before. It was painful as the dust and twigs that made up her base scratched my hands, but I held steady. Somehow she undid the tight knots I used to secure the small bags. Stretching out two thin, spinning fingers, she dipped one into each, sucking up it and its contents.
Fess, her name given to me in that moment, exploded outward, surrounding me and picking me up, lifting me high in the air. I held very still and prayed. I’d never had this reaction from a dust spinner before, but then, I’d never fed a very old, isolated spinner my entire supplies of grit from richly lived-in city districts, either. Not that I’d chosen to do so, but it made little difference in the end.
Her voice was as much in my skull as my ears. I showed her what I hunted in my mind: the image of the prince on the queen’s locket, the four-leafed bronze emblem I had found on the beach, and magefire of muddled colors.
The spinner swayed deep, moving up onto the terrace. Terrified, I began my prayers. If she dropped me now, I would smash like an egg.
Closer to the house she went, with me motionless at her center, until I stared at the open windows on the floor where the important folk stayed. I recognized Prince Baird’s rooms through one set of open shutters and murmured, “I was here today. He knows they have stolen his nephew. He’s part of it.”
The dust spinner leaned to the side. She stretched so far to carry me along the row of windows that I feared I might fall straight through the arm in which she bore me. We passed a large room for meetings, or so I guessed. Tunstall leaned against a table while the count, Master Elyot, the count’s mage, and the Mithran priest talked. The spinner did not bring me close enough to hear, but from the way Tunstall was smiling and shaking his head, they were offering him a bribe. They were in for a surprise if they thought he would take it. I was surprised he wasn’t striking someone, but he was using his company manners. He’d had to learn them, living with Sabine.
The spinner thrust me along, past an empty set of rooms, until we came to the last of them before the corner. Inside a richly embroidered tunic in the Aspen Vale colors was laid across the bed. A small handful of jewelry was on the stand there. Fess bore me closer so I could examine the things. I could tell these were Master Elyot’s rooms. Packs in the corner gave off a red glow, warning the servants not to touch them. On a table near the corner was a bowl filled with water for scrying. Various bottles and jars, also glowing red, were placed on the top shelf of the wardrobe. More clothes than he would surely need here were on the wardrobe shelves.
None of this would help me. I thanked Fess for her efforts. She was drawing me back when I glimpsed something through the red fire that warned folk away from the packs. I didn’t even have to ask my friend to stop. Seeing my mind, she moved forward to place me at the open window. I squinted at the packs.
There it was, stamped into the flap cover of each bag I could see. The four-leafed emblem we had searched for so long. Looking at the jewels again, I saw a token like the one I’d found on the beach half hidden in the pile, a bronze round with the bases of lance-shaped leaves on the edge. The rest was under the jewelry, but since I’d seen nothing else like it in all our searching, I was willing to wager that this was what I’d sought.
The spinner’s ancient strength was failing. She’d done quite a lot for me, and I will be forever grateful. I asked if she would mind taking me down.
She bent over. I was horizontal to the ground, that was plain. She began to twirl me in a great circle through the air. My supper churned. Between my belly and my fear that Fess was going to throw me into the upper branches of the trees, I was certain I was going to be sick. I tried to drag my hands to my mouth. The winds twisted about me so fiercely, gripping me so tight, that it took a great deal of my strength to clamp my palms over my lips and swallow back my own supper over and over.
Slowly, very slowly, Fess began to ease off her speed. I felt myself being lowered gently to the ground even as Fess poured any number of pieces of talk into my head. I would never be able to sort it all out. She’d held on to some of it as children hold on to special shells or rocks, because she liked the pretty sound. Whatever words had made them up were worn smooth over ages of her use.
In all of it was her thanks for the most incredible meal of her life. She wished me well as she set me gently on my feet.
“Splendid,” I said, feeling it to the bottom of my heart. “That was the most amazing thing.” I remembered to bow to her. Then I found a patch in the bushes where I could vomit up every scrap I’d eaten that evening.
Poor Achoo was at my side, whimpering, as we climbed the steps. She hates it when I get sick, even though her own vomits never distress her as they do me. I was reassuring her that I would be fine when Master Niccols and two men-at-arms halted us on the terrace. Master Niccols folded his arms.
“It was believed you understood you were to remain at supper and not go prying,” he said. “Where have you been? You look the very slut.”
Achoo growled. She knew an insult when she heard one.
I glanced at my clothes. I’d been shaking my tunic and breeches as we walked away from my leavings in the bushes, but odd bits of leaf and grit still clung to them and to the long silk sleeves of my undershirt. I touched my hair and could feel dirt and mussed strands.
Then I grinned at Niccols, showing teeth of my own. “I’ve been savoring your breezes and riding your dust spinner,” I told him. “The little tornado that always blows in the garden? They’re alive, you know. Yours is named Fess. She’s been here since before the stones were laid for the original keep.”
“Being a Dog, countryman, I’m more in the way of hearing things than you are.” I leaned closer to him so he got a whiff of my pukey breath. He backed up a step, making his coves back up. Now all three of them were off balance, retreating from a little mot Dog and her hound, showing I had them fearful. “Since I’m ill, I’m turning in for the night. And I’ll need food and water for my hound. If you have no objection?”
He’d regained his sack. “My men will take you there, wench,” he snapped. “They’ll get the food and see to it you do not stray.”
My hand went to the spot where my baton usually hung. In Corus I seriously would have considered giving this pompous mumper a nap tap and sending him to the cage Dogs for an afternoon of conversation. He knew more about the business of the slaves, I was certain of it. But I was not in Corus, and there was the Hunt to think on. I said nothing, gave him no polite farewell, but walked off toward the hall with his bully boys at my sides. Achoo led the way back to the ladies’ solar and the countess’s office.
As soon as we entered the solar, the coves shut the door behind me. I waited until a maid came with Achoo’s supper. Then, in the dark, Achoo and I skirted the pallets laid on the floor. I’d had a glimpse in the hall light before the maid closed the door again, enough to show me the path to the office. As we entered the room Sabine and I would share, a light flared in a lamp set on the desk. Pounce sat blinking next to the lamp, letting me know who had done that bit of magic.
“I didn’t know you could light things,” I said as I put down Achoo’s bowl and began to pull off my clothes. I stood in a clear spot where the dirt and twigs would fall on bare floor, not bedding or packs.
It’s very bad for your character if I do things for you too often, he replied in that training master way of his. But I do not see how you will be improved if you fall over a chair in here and break an arm.
“I’m surprised,” I said as I removed the silk shirt that had been so lovely in the baths. Now it had grease stains on the arms, as well as spinner dirt. “Usually you spare my character so little.”
You’re bitter, Pounce replied smugly. One day you will thank me. I am very proud of you. I thought you might well give in and crack Niccols’s skull for him.
“I have work to do,” I said. I stood there, feeling gritty and tired. “And he’s not bad enough for me to return and invite him to the back of the barn.”
There is a basin and a pitcher of water in that corner, Pounce told me. They brought it in a little while ago. You can dump what’s dirty in the privy behind the door in the opposite corner.
It didn’t matter to me that the water was cool. I was able to clean the grime from my face, neck, arms, and hands, and pour the dirty leavings down the small privy, leaving a clean basin for Sabine. Then I unpinned my hair, and combed out the bits and pieces that were caught in it. The strands were still wet, which meant that the grit had clung. I resolved to wash it in the morning if I woke before my companions. I put on the nightdress that someone had set out on my pack, then got my journal, ink, pen, and stone lamp. Setting myself up at the desk, beside my two lamps, I looked around for Pounce and Achoo. They had gone to sleep, curled around each other beside the pallet that had been left for me. I smiled at them and got to work. I had to catch up on as much of today as I could manage while I had quiet time.
I was asleep on the open journal when Sabine came in. “It’s after midnight, but not by much,” she told me when I asked the time. “I’ll take Achoo out. Go to bed.”
I blinked at her. “Did he try to get under your skirts? The prince?”
Sabine grinned at me. “No. He was with us six years ago when I told the king that if he did not take his hand off me, I would break every bone in it. He even reminded me of that tonight.” More quietly she said, “There’s something on his mind. Prince Baird will usually flirt with anything in skirts, and he didn’t even try. By the way …” She reached down the front of her dress and pulled something out. It was a metal stamp. When she showed it to me, I saw it was made in the shape of the four leaves.
“Where?” I whispered.
She pointed to a drawer in the desk and then very quietly replaced it there. She went to a little trouble to place it exactly as it must have been when she’d taken it, and closed the door. I clasped her shoulder, so she knew I approved. She gave me a cheerful wink.
Then she took my ink and put the stopper in the bottle. “Go to bed, my dear. You’ve had a hard day.”
I obeyed Sabine and sought the comfort of the pallet.