Wednesday, June 20, 249


For all that I’ve risen at dawn nearly every day of my life, if only to visit the privy or take Achoo to do the same, it is always a source of unhappiness to me. I am used to true wakefulness around eight of the clock, being an Evening Watch Dog who comes off duty at the first stroke after midnight. That brief waking at dawn is the world’s and the gods’ way of saying they still own me. My body wants relief, my hound wants relief, and one day a week I must report on my hobblings in the magistrate’s court beginning at seven in the morning. On this Hunt, of course, we rise at dawn to make use of the daylight. I would be far unhappier about it, I suppose, did I not want to find that poor lad and those Rats that have done this to him and his parents.

When Achoo nudged me awake, I groped for my clothes and belt. I did not bother with stockings, but thrust my bare feet into my boots. I tiptoed around Sabine’s cot and opened the door to the solar. “Quietly,” I whispered to Achoo.

I heard a rustle and turned. Sabine stared at me, one hand clutching a knife that had not been in view a moment ago. I pointed to Achoo. She blinked, then nodded.

“Take weapons,” she mumbled. “Nowhere’s safe.”

“Boots and belt,” I said, wondering if, in her half-sleeping state, she’d remember the nasty things in my belt pouches and the blades in my boots.

Seemingly she did. She slid her blade under her pillow, and was instantly asleep. Pounce moved onto the warm spot I’d left to continue his own slumbers. Even constellation cats like their naps.

Achoo and I slid into the darkened solar. Two lamps, one by our door, one by the main door, offered a bit of light, enough that I could see a path between the ladies on their pallets. Some offered snores to the Dream King Gainel. Others murmured. Their dreams were more peaceable than mine, where Holborn and I had been fighting again. That made dawn rising easier. It put a halt to the sight of his face, red with the fire spirits he’d been drinking, eyes narrow and cruel as he cried that I wrung all the joy out of life.

Carefully I opened the door, fearing to wake a lady and start an outcry, praying the guards outside were asleep. In fact, the guards were no longer there. Mayhap Niccols thought all those ladies were enough to keep me inside. In any case, the broad hall was empty.

We left the castle near the area where Tunstall and Farmer camped with the prince’s men. Certainly I couldn’t let Achoo ease herself where they walked, but the servants’ privy and the chicken coops were close by, and the barrels in which castle garbage was put. Surely no one could object if I took Achoo there.

We hurried past the men’s camp. Some of their hounds came to attention, watching us, but they were well trained. They would not make a noise or come for us unless we tried to enter the camp. Even at this little distance I heard men’s snores. Shivering a little in the cool morning air, I didn’t envy Tunstall and Farmer their night in the open. The warmth of the lady’s office had been a welcome change.

The servants were stirring already, but they said naught to me, nor I to them. They looked as sleepy-eyed as I felt as they visited the privy and ran in and out of the guest quarters. The slaves were about, too, carrying heavy loads of wood for the castle fires. They acted strangely, lifting a shoulder and running from me as if I’d hit them. Had I been more awake, I might have stopped one to ask what in the god’s great gut ailed them, but I was too busy waiting for Achoo to find a spot.

She did her business in back of the servants’ privy, but she was not ready to return to the ladies’ quarters. She wandered behind it, among the garbage barrels, until I lost sight of her. At last I got impatient and whistled her up. We were to attend that meeting with our partners while the household was at morning prayers. That had to be soon. The breakfast bread was already done. I could breathe its scent, heavy on the air that came from the kitchens.

My whistle got a reply, of sorts—two sharp barks. I disliked that. Achoo hated to raise her voice. She only did so when she could neither see nor smell me nearby and she’d found sommat she wanted me to look at.

“Achoo?” I called.

Again she called, two barks. This time, after a short wait, she barked twice again, then waited, and barked two times more. She needed me to come to her. I did so. She never called without reason, any more than she would shout. I picked my way through the muck that flowed between the privies and the barrels. The smell was thick as a Port Caynn fog. I breathed shallow with my lips open to spare my nose from truly taking in the stink. Searching among the barrels, I was amazed at how much this great castle could throw away. Everywhere I saw the marks of castle scavengers, looking for extra food or bits and pieces they could put to use.

Achoo stood next to a barrel with her tail tucked under her rump. She looked at me and whimpered. I went to see what she had found.

The gixie Linnet was sprawled naked atop heaped slops from the kitchens. Her face was purple and swollen. One of the pads I’d made so she could turn the spits without burning her hand was the rope used to strangle her, the bands of cloth I’d sewn for straps dug so deep in her neck I could barely see them. I tested one of her outstretched arms. It would not move when I gave it a push, a sign that the rigor of death had set in. That would have begun four to six hours after her murder, so she’d gone to the god at least that long ago. Carefully, with a whispered apology, I used my fingertips to push her up on her side. The blood in her body had flowed down into her back and bum, pooling there, turning that part of her skin purple. She had lain this way since death, as blood goes to the lowest place when we die, and does not move once it sets. They had killed her and dumped her in the garbage. I was certain they’d done it because she had talked to me.

I know I stood there a little time, thinking of prayers and forgetting them halfway through. The garbage scavengers, the human ones, the feathered sort in their spinning flight overhead, and the castle’s four-footed rats, none of them dared come near when I looked at them. Or mayhap it was the sure aim I had with the rocks that littered the slimy ground, a childhood skill I had never let rust. I do not think I’d killed more than a rat or two when I heard Farmer say, “Cooper? I was trying to meditate, and I heard Achoo bark.”

“You know her bark,” I said, letting the stones drop. My hands were filthy.

“It’s different enough from the hunting hounds in the camp. They don’t bark in signals,” Farmer explained. “Why are you here?”

He was behind me. I turned sideways so he could see the barrel and Linnet.

Farmer’s mouth went tight. His eyes were flint. “Goddess bless her, and Mithros curse the ones who did this,” he murmured, like a prayer. He asked me, “Is this the girl who talked with you yesterday?”

I nodded.

Farmer rubbed his chin, thinking. “I can find where she was killed,” he said quietly.

“Do so, if you please,” I said. “Anything we can learn …”

“It doesn’t hurt them, the things I do with the dead,” he said, digging in a pocket. “I swear it. I had a dead-speaker, a mage who can talk to them in the Peaceful Realms, ask for me. Those who remembered said the shell doesn’t matter once they’re done with it.” When I looked at him, he shrugged. “I worried that I was hurting them. That they might feel what I was doing to their bodies, and creating a seeming would bring back the pain of their deaths.” He produced a handkerchief and passed it to me. “Your face is, um, wet,” he explained.

My face? I looked down. The front of my tunic was damp. I’d been weeping without knowing it.

“I want His Majesty to put their heads on pikes over the palace walls,” I said to Farmer. I hardly knew my own voice, so dark was it. “I want them to rot up there, the target of every gull and crow in Corus.”

“If we recover the prince, I imagine you can request that, and the king will only ask you if you want ordinary pikes, or gold ones,” Farmer told me. “Will you wait here and keep onlookers back while I get my things?”

I nodded. He hesitated, then took his handkerchief from my hand and wiped my cheek. “You missed where your skin brushed some—dirt, there,” he explained. He gave the linen square back to me and hurried off, winding between the barrels, skidding a little in the muck.

I scrubbed my hands well on the handkerchief before I reached into the pouch for meat strips. I gave some to Achoo and told her that she was a clever hound, finding Linnet even when I wasn’t looking for her.

We were left alone until I saw Fay picking a path toward us. She was already well powdered with flour, beads of sweat making paths through it on her cheeks.

“They told me a cracknob in black was settling here like she meant to nest,” she told me as she drew close. “Stands to reason it’s you.” She looked at the body. “Ah—Linnet. Poor thing.” She made the Sign against evil on her chest. Then her sharp eyes took me in. “You’ll not get permission for a funeral from my lord and my lady. She’s a slave. And the house ones won’t touch her, not when she’s been left this way, as a warning. The outsiders will bury her away from the castle. You stay clear of that. My lady will have your hair just for being here. It’s unseemly.”

“It’s my work,” I replied. “She was murdered.”

“So she was,” Fay told me with a nod. “And every servant and slave in this house will be taking care that they aren’t the next. The sooner you and your friends are gone, the safer all of us will be.” She turned and walked away. “I’ll send some cloth you can wrap her in, but they’ll have to wash it and give it back.”

It was between her leaving and Farmer’s return that the pigeon came, landing on the barrel next to Linnet’s. It was one of the wood pigeons, three times the size of a city bird, gray and pink in their feathers. This one was pale gray on her back, almost gray-pink on her head. She looked at me with an inquiring eye, as if she wasn’t sure of me.

Luckily I had my belt on, and a full pouch of corn. “Yes, you’re looking for me,” I said, offering the bird the corn. “I’m her as speaks with the ghosts.” My hand was shaking, I was so upset, and my proper way of speaking had gone straight to Carthak.

“No one saw us talking.” Linnet’s voice came from the air around the bird. “ ’Twas the pads. I put ’em on both hands, ’cause they made it so easy to turn spits with the pigs on them.”

I heard steps. I turned, but it was Farmer. I put a finger to my lips and turned back to the pigeon. A boiling heat raced from my gut up my throat. “Those kitchen fussocks complained of you over those pads?” I kept my voice soft for all my rage. I’ve learned not to frighten the dead.

“No,” Linnet said. “A stranger come in, wantin’ to know if you’d been about and what you was askin’. I kept to me spits, but he saw the pads and asked if I made ’em myself. Boss cook said I’d no sewing nor time to sew.”

Farmer moved up beside me. Now the ear of his I could see was glowing a yellowish white. So was his mouth. I glanced at his hands. One forefinger shone the same color. He’d been at his strange powders again.

“They come for me at night, whilst I slept,” Linnet said. “They put a hood on me and took me someplace. They kept me hooded the whole time. I never saw their faces. They wanted to know what I said to the Dog.” I heard her sob.

I opened my mouth, to tell her she could go, but I closed it again. She had stayed behind because she wanted to. She was not leaving because she had sommat yet to tell me. I wanted her to have her peace, but I wanted anything that would lead us to her killers more.

“How did they speak, Linnet?” Farmer asked. Now I knew what this powder did. It made it possible for him to hear and speak with the ghosts. “What did they sound like? Noblemen? Countrymen?”

“Just one spoke. He was a hard man, a noble,” Linnet said. “I said the Dog only talked of the slave train and when they had come. He said I lied. He hurt me with magic. I told him the same thing until he got angry and killed me. The birds said the one who feeds and listens would come if I waited, so that’s what I did. And they were right.”

“What did you wait to tell me, Linnet?” I asked. I felt the bird peck at my palm. It was empty. I fetched out more corn for her and smoothed the feathers of her breast. “What’s so important that you would not leave until you spoke to me?”

“They dyed No-Skin’s hair black, and his skin dark brown,” she said. Our guesses were right, then. “He’s got a tattoo for the master’s—the count’s—slaving company on his right shoulder. The four leaves in the circle, that tattoo.”

Farmer tugged the bronze token from his breeches pocket. He held it in the hand with the glowing finger before the pigeon.

“That be it,” Linnet said. “That’s the company Master’s part owner of. They come by every summer, twice, so my lord and my lady can look over the stock.”

“Did No-Skin tell you his real name, or the name of his family?” I asked. “Did he tell you how he came to be a slave?”

“He told me nothin’,” Linnet replied. “He was afeared to. He gave me this great farrago of a tale, sayin’ if he told anyone anythin’, he’d be hurt for it, and any hurt he took, his parents would feel it. They could even die, if he was hurt bad enough. He said one of the mages with the slavers, the one called Viper, she showed him a picture of his ma bleedin’ ’cause a girl shoved him. Have you ever heard the like? And over a weak slave that could hardly work.”

“But you believed him, didn’t you?” I asked her quietly. I knew the sound in the voice of one I questioned, the sound of self-doubt and growing belief. “You knew there was sommat not right going on.”

“For what good it did me nor No-Skin,” Linnet retorted. Her voice was growing faint. “I’ll tell you this for free. The mage as hurt me? I heard him tell someone ‘they’re halfway to Frasrlund’ when they wrapped the cord around my throat. That’s where you’ll find No-Skin. I’m done now, Beka. I’m weary.”

“Black God give you peace, and accept my thanks,” I whispered to her.

“They was nice pads to use with the spits,” Linnet replied. I could barely hear her. “I wish I’d had ’em longer.” She was gone. The bird took off, circling her body before it headed out over the wall. A guard on the wall aimed his crossbow at it, likely thinking to shoot his supper from the sky. He did not see the small, blue-glowing stone that flew straight at him. When it hit, he dropped his bow with a cry and knelt on the walkway, clutching his head.

I looked at Farmer, wanting very much to hug him for saving the bird. Luckily for my dignity, he still glowed yellow at ears and mouth, which kept me where I stood. He shrugged and said sheepishly, “It seemed wrong to let him eat one of our Birdies.”

I slapped his back, as a fellow Dog would do. “Good work, Farmer,” I told him, so he would know I approved. I turned to Linnet’s corpse. Having my back to him made it easier to say, “I did not tell her they’d used the strings of the pads I made to kill her.”

“I didn’t get that part,” he admitted. “What were these pads?”

I explained about Linnet and her blisters from turning the spits.

“Seeing that you gave her one good thing on the day she died, forgive yourself, Beka,” Farmer advised. “If you hadn’t done that for her, and someone had seen her talking with you, her end would have been the same. She wouldn’t have had an act of kindness on her last day. Neither of you knew the use to which they’d be put.” Farmer unslung his pack and balanced it against the slightest edge of the barrel, that had been occupied by the wood pigeon, to open a front pocket and remove a handkerchief.

“You think Master Elyot was there? Linnet’s hard man, mayhap?” I asked.

“I am certain of it.” Farmer reached over and touched Linnet’s shoulder. His Gift sparked around his fingers and vanished. When it was gone, a glowing orange patch showed up on Linnet’s shoulder. It vanished shortly.

That’s Elyot’s Gift,” Farmer explained. “He gripped your Linnet’s shoulder.” He wetted his handkerchief with water from a flask secured to his shoulder pack, then wiped his mouth, ears, and hands with it. The glowing yellow stuff that had remained on his skin vanished. He took a deep breath. “Do you know, I believe I’d like to sit.”

I hesitated. “We were going to learn where Linnet was killed. Track her back from where we found her.”

Farmer grimaced. “I’ll try it in a moment,” he said. “I just need to collect myself.”

I remembered seeing a bench along a wall just beyond the first line of barrels. I couldn’t imagine why anyone might want to relax and smell the garbage, but I would not mind moving away from the sight of Linnet’s body.

“This way,” I told him.

“Interesting, to watch you at work,” he commented as he hoisted his pack onto one shoulder. “The birds just started coming to you?”

I nodded. “Ma took me to Granny Fern—my da’s mother. It’s in that side of the family.”

“Why your gran? Your father didn’t know how?” He thumped himself onto the bench and leaned back against the tower wall behind it, closing his eyes.

With him not watching me, it was easier to say, “I didn’t know him. He died when I was still in swaddling clothes, Ma said. Granny Fern knew what was needed, even if she didn’t hear the ghosts herself. Listen, if you don’t have to do it, why bother? The dead aren’t the best at conversation.”

Farmer smiled without opening his eyes. “My da was killed in a market riot. I never had the chance to say goodbye. Learning ways to hear the dead wasn’t just useful when I went to work for the Provost’s Guard.”

“Did you ever talk with him—your da?” I asked, curious.

“You know how they are, when the older dead are raised, don’t you?” Farmer asked.

I nodded. A friend in Lord Gershom’s service had made me go with her to a mage when she wanted to speak to her gran, dead ten years. Then, because Farmer’s eyes were still closed, I said, “Oh, yes.”

“At least my father remembered he had a son, even if he was foggy on my name. I continued to practice the skill and study of what could be learned from the dead in other ways. Eventually my district commander wrote Gershom about me.” Farmer sighed. “He came to visit. He was the first person who didn’t think it was wrong for someone of my talents to be interested in crimes instead of getting rich.”

“My lord gets lonesome, too,” I said, leaning forward to scratch Achoo’s ears. “None of his family took after the work like he does.”

He chuckled. “That’s interesting, because he told me he had a foster daughter who learned whatever he had to teach her as if she’d been born to it.”

I felt my cheeks turning red. “He did teach me a great deal,” I said in a tone that usually discouraged folk from talking.

Not Farmer. “He said she’d ended up with the best training Dogs in the city, and then the best partners,” he murmured. He opened his eyes and grinned at me—I was glaring at him by then—and looked over my shoulder. He sat up, the grin vanishing. I turned.

Five slaves, two of them women from the bath, had come. The bath slave who had told me to go yesterday held a length of folded cloth in her arms. “Didn’t I tell you?” she demanded of me, her eyes blazing. “Your pack goes nosing about, and poor Linnet ends in the muck. She’s there as a warning to the rest of us, Dog. Won’t any of us talk with you more!”

Farmer got to his feet. “You could be made to talk,” he said. I looked up at him and shivered. Were my eyes like that at times? That pale shade of ice? In that moment I knew his silliness was all a sham, and that the true Farmer was deadly.

“And will you kill us then, mage?” one of the older slaves, a cove, demanded. His arms were striped with whip scars. “You may as well, for we’ll die if the master finds out we’ve given his secrets to you.”

The bath slave glared at me. “We’ll bury Linnet. Our own way, the way we’ve always done. You’d best run if you’re to be clean before prayers.”

They turned and walked into the trash yard.

“Why did you say that?” I asked Farmer. “You wouldn’t have done it, would you?”

“If it would have advanced the Hunt, yes,” he told me. “But I’d have made it secret and painless. They couldn’t know that, of course. It’s not hard to do, but how many mages go to that trouble for a slave?” He looked down at his shirtfront and grimaced. “Bollocks, we are filthy. You’d best run to the baths, or however you mean to clean up. We have to meet Tunstall and Lady Sabine very shortly.”

I set off for the baths at the run, Achoo galloping at my side. I did not look back, not at Farmer, not at the slaves who had found Linnet. It is only now, as I write, that I am grateful that Farmer made me leave before they carried her away.

The women’s baths were empty. I seized a robe, filled a bucket, and plunged my tunic and breeches into it. I used a cloth and another bucket of water to clean the slime from Achoo. She stood patiently, used to the strange things I do. It did not hurt that she knew I would give her a treat at the end of it. Then I took a quick plunge in the bath myself.

With the robe tight around me and my wrung-out clothes in the now-empty bucket, we ran up the stairs. “You’d think, if they wished to be so careful of their ladies’ virtue, they’d build a door straight between the bath and where the ladies are kept,” I grumbled to Achoo as we waited for the hall to clear of servants with burdens. Once all were gone, I raced for the ladies’ solar.

I closed the door behind us and turned to an interesting sight. The young ladies, gowned in pale colors, their hair veiled for morning prayers, were gathered around a chair. Lady Sabine sat there, dressed for the day in maroon tunic and brown breeches, her face intent as she spoke to them softly. Those closest to her gripped her shoulders and arms, as if their touch could make her tale clearer.

“She wept,” I heard Sabine tell them in a voice filled with intensity. “She seized my hands and her tears bedewed my fingers, her mother’s tears. ‘You are young and unmarried,’ she said to me, ‘you cannot know a mother’s heart. Still, you are a woman, despite your coarse trade. I know there is tenderness in you. I know you have sweetness in your soul.’ ” Sabine hung her head.

One or two of the silly gixies gasped. Another sobbed outright.

“How could I deny her?” Sabine asked, her voice throbbing with pain. “ ‘My lady,’ I said, ‘I will do what I can.’ ‘No,’ she cried, ‘swear to me, swear by the Gentle Mother that you will let nothing keep you from your Hunt! Swear that no power in this world will hold you from finding my dear lad! Swear that you will lead your fellow Hunters!’ ” Sabine looked up at an invisible horizon, her eyes blazing. She was better than any Player I had ever seen. “And I swore it! ‘My lady,’ I told her, ‘there is naught that will keep me! Your lad’s name is writ on my heart, and I swear, each noble soul I encounter on the way will know of my search! I vow with all my soul, I will find your young baron and bring him home to you!’ ”

I fled into the chamber Sabine and I had shared before I ruined it all by laughing. I was not certain why she had enacted this madness for the young ladies, but she plainly had her reasons. She had been careful to keep up the tale that we searched for an older lad, the son of a noble, which was the important thing.

Pounce lounged on the countess’s desk, stretched out comfortably. If being a knight ever wears on her, she can make a living as a Player, he remarked. I am sorry about Linnet, Beka.

My amusement evaporated. “Me, too,” I said, putting my bucket on the floor. I searched out one of my spare uniforms from my packs and dressed. “I wish I knew who’d done it. I’d make them sorry, so I would.”

You have bigger chores ahead, Pounce told me.

The door opened to admit Sabine. She made certain it was closed before she blew out a chestful of air and said, “Well! I’ll soon know if that pays off!” She looked into the bucket I’d set on the floor. “I have no idea of how to dry this if we’re riding today,” she murmured. “I believe the countess will object if we hang it over her chairs.” Then she rested a hand on my arm, gently. “Beka, what’s wrong? Is it Holborn?” I looked up at her, horrified, and she explained, “It was your face when you came into the outer room. You looked as if you were grieving.”

I wondered if the name Holborn would always fill me with guilt. “No, no, my lady. I’ll explain later.”

She nodded and draped my wet things over the window ledges, remarking that the countess was not likely to come here before prayers and breakfast. I finished cleaning up and the four of us left the room. Only the Butterfly Puppies and the cats remained in the ladies’ solar, curled up on chairs and cushions. The little dogs wagged their tails, but only one tried to follow us outside. Pounce turned and said sommat to it. I don’t know he said, but I can usually tell when Pounce is speaking by the way he holds his ears and tail. The dog yipped and didn’t follow us outside.

“Why did you scare him off?” Sabine asked as we walked down the hall. “He was just being friendly.”

He didn’t want to follow. He had a warning for us, Pounce said. He said the men outside the doors last night had bad thoughts about us. That Butterfly Puppy is wasted on these people.

“We can’t bring another animal on a Hunt,” I said, alarmed. “Particularly not a special-bred noble one!”

I will think of something, Pounce replied. You need not worry.

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” I told Sabine and Achoo. I’ve known for years that Pounce has affairs of his own, and I’m always sure that one day I will get caught up in them. I have plenty of work of my own to do.

A gong was struck somewhere on the castle grounds, ringing out three times with a pause, three times with a pause, and three times more. Once we got to the lower levels, people walked by us, mostly servants, headed to the great hall. We slipped into the back hall and around, coming out near the kitchen privies.

By then the yards behind the kitchens were empty, save for chickens pecking in the dust. The herb gardens were on the far side of the coops and privies, so I did not have to see the garbage barrels at all. The gardens were large and well tended, guarded by a rail fence. Tunstall and Farmer were already there, Farmer perched on a seat made from half a barrel, Tunstall on a fence rail. Without a word, Farmer pointed at the ground in front of them. He’d drawn a circle in the dust with some sort of powder. I lifted Achoo over it.

Once all of us were inside—I would have loved to know how Farmer had made the circle around Tunstall and the fence rail with no break in the circle—Farmer whispered a word I did not understand. For a moment all the world around us turned white. Then the whiteness vanished. We could see the gardens clearly.

“Anyone who looks, or listens, will see and hear only the normal sounds,” Farmer told us. “They won’t see us. I think I got Master Elyot’s measure last night to build the spell to keep him out, and Count Dewin’s mage. I hope so, since I’m going to need to do so with every spell I use after this until the Hunt is done.”

Sabine nudged Farmer with her shoulder so he would share the keg seat with her. Someone had placed a wooden crate for me to use. “You think that Elyot is part of it, then?” Sabine asked.

“Assuredly,” replied Farmer. “I got him to show off a little last night for the count’s mage and me. I recognized Elyot’s magic. It was part of the trap we set off at the graves down the road. And he helped to murder a young slave girl last night, leaving his essence behind.”

“Has he recognized your power?” Tunstall asked. He looked worried. I certainly felt worried.

“Not from me showing off,” Farmer said with his looby grin. “I was too drunk.”

“You weren’t—” Tunstall began.

I couldn’t help myself. “Of course he wasn’t,” I interrupted. “Can’t you tell when he’s acting the crackbrain?” I glared at Farmer. “What did you do, vanish the wine from your cup?”

Farmer’s grin grew even bigger. “She’s so clever,” he told Tunstall as my lady chuckled. “I want to marry her when I grow to be a man.” He looked at me, and the grin turned into a proper smile. “I vanished it just as if I drank it. Created the spell myself, when I learned too many fellow mages were not to be trusted. I place the spell just inside my lips, where no one looks for it.”

“Elyot’s being part of it—if that’s so, then Graeme and all Aspen Vale is in it, too,” Sabine told us. “Graeme doesn’t move without his brother’s advice.”

“We’re getting things all muddled now. Let’s go one at a time,” Tunstall said, rightfully. “Cooper, you start.”

I opened my memory palace for all I’d done yesterday evening and this morning and made my report, though not word for word as I have written it up here. Sabine looked away when I told them of Linnet’s fate. Tunstall’s face went bleak. They did brighten when I told them, thanks to Linnet’s spirit, we knew part of the caravan, with the prince and the mage I called Viper, was on its way to Frasrlund. If we could catch up, if we got word to my lord, it might be we could exact vengeance for Linnet.

Sabine’s report came after mine. “I was trapped as Prince Baird’s companion throughout supper,” she told us. “I’d hoped to slip away after, but Countess Aeldra and her ladies caught me and subjected me to a thorough quizzing on the life of a lady knight. They also pried quite a lot on my travels with the three of you, which they seemed to think—though gods forbid they should say it!—are one long orgy.” She saw Tunstall turn his head, and said forcefully, “Mattes, don’t spit!”

“Truly, don’t spit,” Farmer said mildly. “You might blot out part of the circle.”

“I turned the discussion a bit when I asked Aeldra how she could soil her hands with slave commerce,” Sabine told us, her brown eyes wicked. “She gave me a great deal of scummer about slaves deserving their position or the gods would not have placed them there. She claimed we’ve been at peace with our eastern, western, and southern neighbors for so long because no one wants to lose the benefits of the current trade—no, Mattes, don’t smile, she truly did. She thinks only crude and unmanageable stock comes of war. Seemingly Queensgrace deals only in the most select stock, sold to those who tend their slaves as such expensive property deserves.”

Farmer snorted.

“She showed me their account book,” Sabine told him quietly. “They have financial links to some of the noblest families in the realm. Several of them have known resentments with regard to the Crown. I noticed purchases and sales between those houses all taking place this year.”

“They use the trade to communicate,” Tunstall said as I was thinking it. “To plan.”

“Perhaps even to move weapons and fighters closer to the capital,” my lady told him. “Groten and Disart made purchases this year, as have Palinet and Blythdin.”

“This is supposition,” Farmer said, frowning. He caught my look and explained, “Guesswork. From the word suppose.” He didn’t even seem to find me stupid because I didn’t know the word. “I could try to talk with the lady privately, but I would not want to be caught. We don’t need to draw attention.”

“And we can’t be diverted from our Hunt,” Tunstall said. “We pass this information on to my lord. Was there aught else, my lady?”

Sabine’s mouth went thin. “A lot of meaningless noise,” she said. “A great many silly hens putting their beaks in dust instead of grain.”

“You mean they wanted to know why you were with me,” Tunstall said.

“It was naught,” Sabine insisted. “The kind of babble women talk when they are out of the center of events.” She looked at the plants of the garden, or appeared to. “There is another thing, though you all may think me foolish for bringing it up.”

“You are never foolish, Sabine,” I told her. “Or if you are, it’s over what’s there to be foolish about.”

She nodded without looking at me. “It’s Prince Baird,” she said. “He’s not himself. I’ve been to enough engagements with him, social things. I know what he’s like. It doesn’t matter if you’re someone’s chaperone with a face to frighten bogles, he will flirt as if he’s besotted with you. He laughs, he jokes. There are reasons he’s the most popular guest at all the Corus parties. He makes anyone feel lovely and cheerful.”

“Not last night, I take it?” asked Farmer.

My lady shook her head. “His attention kept wandering. He was tense, and he drank too much. He mentioned that this country is splendid for hunting, but he’s not getting to do nearly enough of that, and far too much talking. He told me it was a relief to have me as his partner at table. A relief to speak of simple things, like hunting, and fighting. And he asked me if I’d seen Their Majesties of late.”

“Did he think you’d have been to the Summer Palace?” Tunstall wanted to know.

Sabine shook her head a second time. “He seemed … worried.” She looked up at us. “Frightened.”

Farmer and Tunstall traded looks, but it was Pounce who spoke. The men who guard the prince are worried for him, the cat said. The count and the men from Aspen Vale take him indoors. They allow none of the prince’s men to wait on him, but accept trays and pitchers from servants and wait on themselves. Sometimes they admit the countess to these meetings, and other guests who come here, but that’s all. When I glared at him, Pounce stretched gracefully and said, A cat hears what a cat hears.

“They’re not going to want to let us go,” Farmer said quietly.

“We’ll think of something,” replied Sabine. “Mattes will.” She smiled at Tunstall.

He’d taken out his dagger and sharp-stone and gone to work on his belt knife. “You won’t be surprised, then, to know the count tried to bribe me to his service last night.”

I said, “I saw you talking with them. A dust spinner lifted me up so I could look in the windows.” My hands were shaking. Dogs take bribes all the time, including Tunstall and me. This just seemed like a very bad moment to do so. “I thought you were refusing them.”

“What manner of service do they want?” Sabine asked.

“To turn on Their Majesties, of course, though I would not admit we were in search of the prince,” Tunstall replied, eyeing the edge of his blade. “I would not admit, nor would they admit they knew who we truly pursued, nor that they knew anything about the kidnapping. It was so civilized I was like to puke.”

“You told them no,” Farmer said.

Tunstall looked at him as if he’d gone mad. “I told them yes! With that Master Elyot sitting there with small lightings playing from hand to hand? I told them yes in my best Dozy Dog fashion, and I’ll thank you to think of a way to protect me, because they took a lock of my hair to ensure I’d be a good lad!” He looked at Farmer and me, his eyes sparkling as always when he’d fooled them that really should know better. “I said they’d best steer clear of you both, being you were Lord Gershom’s special pets. Seemingly His Highness had ordered them to leave you out of it, too, my dear. He has a soft spot for you.” Tunstall raised his brows. “Is there sommat I should know?”

“I taught him how to trap rabbits when we were children,” Sabine retorted, smiling at Tunstall. “We’ve always been friends. Not so close as grown nobles, with me serving in the field and him at court or off doing the rounds of the kingdom, but we have a liking for each other, and not that kind, Master Jackanapes!”

Tunstall looked at his knife and sheathed it. “He’s royal, and unwed.”

“And wishes to stay so,” Sabine told him. “What did they offer you, to report on our movements and keep us from finding the prince?”

“What else do folk like them offer folk like me? Wealth,” Tunstall replied. “Wealth and a title from the new king, since I aim higher than my station.”

“You do not!” my lady cried. “That is, you do as far as they may be concerned, but I don’t care!”

Tunstall’s smile was sidelong. “I had to tell them something to explain why I’d turn on Gershom, my dear,” he told her. “Wanting to marry above myself was what they expected, so that’s the excuse I gave.” He grimaced. “I can’t expect more than a barony, I was told, but should I do what is necessary to make it possible for a new monarch to rise …”

“If you kill the prince, Their Majesties will die, and your new masters will be able to place the blood guilt squarely on your shoulders,” Farmer said, his voice very soft.

Tunstall smirked. “They seem to believe I am too stupid, or too greedy, to have thought of that.”

Farmer nodded his understanding. Then he added, “I’ll wager that every spell placed on Their Majesties to find anyone who attempts their murder will soon lead the realm’s Ferrets straight to you.”

“I heard sommat like that could be done years ago,” Tunstall admitted. “I believe they thought I was too stupid to know that, too.”

Sabine’s hands were fists, her face white with rage. “I should kill all of them now.”

“We pass their names to Gershom as soon as we get clear of Elyot’s spells,” Farmer told her firmly. “We do not let them know we are aware of their tricks. As long as they feel Tunstall’s their man, that lad is safe. They can watch Their Majesties weaken as the prince is enslaved and know that all is well.”

The first servants were emerging from the castle. Tunstall looked at them, rubbing his beard. “Well, leaving will be a trick,” he admitted. “They want to keep us here a few days more. To let the slavers with the prince get more distance from us, would be my guess.”

“We’ll find a way out,” Sabine told him. “I have something I’d like to try.” She rose and kissed Tunstall on the forehead.

My partner stood and kissed her back. “We must leave here today,” he said. “They know we found traces of our lad here. They’ll be wondering how much else we know.” We all nodded. It was nothing we hadn’t already worked out.

Farmer scratched a couple of signs in the dirt, then broke the powder circle by drawing his foot across it. “They’ll think we’re servants until we’re inside,” he said. “Let’s go to breakfast, then see what the count has in store for us. Or rather, you go ahead. I have something to attend to.”

Most of the castle servants had already begun their work, breakfast being whatever they could fit in their pockets. In the hall, Master Niccols made certain that I sat a good distance from the young ladies again, while Tunstall returned to the far side and the company of the mages and the steward. Lady Sabine was given her seat next to Prince Baird once more.

Between the common men and the ladies-in-waiting stretched a wide open space. The area filled with two more rows of tables last night was empty now. Coming from our talk, I felt lonelier for my companions than I’d been the night before. Pounce climbed on the bench at my side again and ate whatever I fed him, leaning against me in a comfortable way. Achoo stayed at my feet. She had company there. The countess’s ladies had brought their Butterfly Puppies to breakfast. They were extraordinarily well behaved little creatures. I would not even have known they were present, had they not been frolicking around Achoo under the table. I heard repeated soft finger snaps and whispered names as their mistresses summoned their pets back to them. When they realized what was going on, more than a few of them actually smiled at me. I couldn’t help it. I smiled back. It’s hard to dislike anyone who loves her creatures as much as these young noblewomen did.

Breakfast was a short meal, happily. I felt an itching in my skin, a knowing that the lad drew further from us each day. I also feared what measures these mighty folk might take to keep us here. Farmer had done a number of tricks that looked good, like returning the seeming of life to the dead, whilst shattering the magical barricade appeared to point to some strength in his budget. Still, there were other mages here. Master Elyot was known to have great power, and the count’s own mage ought to be good for sommat. A count bold-faced enough to plot against his king would surely have a strong mage at his back. That left three unknowns, unless Farmer had turned up gossip or better about them.

I was half tempted to take Achoo and see if I might bargain with Fess to set us over the castle wall. We’d be on our way, and the others could catch up. I’d never tried such a thing with a spinner before, but first times tell the tale, Granny Fern always says.

As I laid misty plans, strangers entered the hall, taking seats on the benches at the lower ends of the tables that remained. Servants rushed to clear away the breakfast things. Clerks set books and documents before the count and his lady, while Master Niccols stood behind the count, a tall staff in one hand and a document in the other. The priest and priestess who had done the prayers the night before moved in, the priest to stand at the count’s right hand, the priestess at the right hand of the countess.

Tunstall had slipped away at some point while I was dreaming of escape. He returned now with documents of his own, Farmer behind him. I noticed Lady Sabine had risen from her seat beside Prince Baird and was walking around the men’s side of the hall. All of them looked grim and determined. My heart lifted. Mayhap we could get out of this den of traitors together. That would be so much better than me going out in a world that seemingly had villains behind every tree, or spending more time here.

“Achoo, tumit,” I whispered, getting to my feet. With Achoo and Pounce I went to join the others of my Hunt at the side of the hall opposite the prince, the count, and the countess.

A big cove in a tunic trimmed with marten fur stepped around us, glaring our way as he walked by. Master Niccols proclaimed, “Parris Eckard, silk merchant—”

Tunstall strode forward, seized the merchant by one arm, and dragged him back, saying, “No, my buck, your matter can wait.”

The merchant began to sputter. Farmer tapped him on the back. When Eckard turned to bellow at him, Farmer put a finger to his own lips, as if he said hush, but finger and lips were sparkling blue. The sparkling fire leaped to Eckard’s mouth, silencing him completely. When Niccols opened his mouth, no doubt to call the guards on us, Farmer made the same shushing gesture at him. In that moment Farmer’s magic appeared at Niccols’s mouth, stopping the words before they could emerge.

“Now, see here, Cape,” Master Elyot cried from his seat, “you can’t go about silencing the count’s subjects!”

“I can’t?” our mage asked, as innocent as the day. “I’m sorry.” The glow on the merchant vanished. “Do you want to speak?” Farmer asked him politely. “I’m very sorry I was rude.”

The merchant, frightened by that touch of magic, fled the room.

Farmer turned toward the dais. “I am sorry,” he explained, “but we must leave here. The more days that pass, the more danger to our quarry.”

Tunstall walked up to the dais, Lady Sabine and Pounce at his side. The nobles, prince, countess, and all, were on their feet, the count and countess red with outrage. As Farmer, Achoo, and I went closer to the dais, Farmer whispered in my ear, “Linnet was killed in a wood room not far from the kitchens. Elyot was there.”

For a moment I stared at Elyot, wondering how it felt to kill a little girl, or to watch that murder. I doubted he’d done the actual deed, when I’d had a moment to think. He could have managed it with no sign of murder at all, without using the present I had made her. I knew they’d used the pads to strangle Linnet as a warning to anyone who might find her, so it was possible Elyot had killed her like that, but my tripes said no. After four years of dealing with Rats, I’d learned that when mages murder, they prefer to do it with their Gift. It keeps their hands clean of death’s stains. They seldom use their hands when their Gift will do for them. I’ve not shared this idea with Farmer, though.

Elyot struck me as the worst of mages, strong, arrogant, and selfish. Someone else had strangled Linnet as he watched.

Tunstall knelt to the prince. So did the rest of us. Then Tunstall got to his feet again, which drew a gasp of shock from many of those watching. Farmer, Sabine, and I got to our feet, too. We bowed to the count and the countess when Tunstall did, and straightened when he did. He was our leader and he was making it plain that our orders put us outside the usual requirements for rank with these people.

Tunstall said, “Your Highness, my lord count, Farmer has said the truth. Our mission is urgent.” When the prince, the count, and the countess waited, Tunstall went on, “We have learned that our quarry has been here and is here no longer. How this came to pass must be investigated at another time, by other officials. We must follow the track of our quarry immediately. We are already a day behind. Thus, we take our leave of you, with thanks for your hospitality.”

He bowed, as did the rest of us.

He is wonderful when he talks as if he were gently raised, Pounce remarked from his position by my right foot. I am always surprised when he does it, and always delighted.

It is as I always tell you, hestaka, I heard Tunstall think, with Pounce’s help, A good Dog learns all manner of tools. Farmer and Lady Sabine held their bows a little longer than need be to hide grins. I love it when Pounce makes it possible for others to hear entire conversations this way. It makes me feel that they believe I’m not mad when I talk with him in my mind.

“I differ,” the count said.

We all snapped upright.

“I am not easy in my mind about these nebulous orders,” he continued. “You have taken them to mean that you may poke into any corner of my home, when the Great Charter expressly states that no officer of the Crown may interfere with the operation of a noble domain.”

“We have not interfered in any way,” Tunstall said, holding out our documents. “And we operate under orders bearing the seal of the Lord Provost himself.” He pointed to the seals. “By that same charter, you are required to grant and give aid to officers of the Provost’s Guard when those officers are on an officially designated Hunt.”

I was so full of pride in Tunstall I nearabout burst. He was forever telling me how useful it was to listen in the justice court, and there was the proof of it. He spoke like an advocate.

The count leaned back in his chair, linking his fingers before his chin. “As it happens, I question the authenticity of those seals.”

I heard a gasp. I’m fairly certain it came from Lady Sabine, who stood in front of me. She stiffened. I saw her right hand go to the hilt of her sword, while armsmen posted behind the dais came alert.

The count went on, “I wish to verify your mission with Lord Gershom. Now, my own mage tells me, and Master Elyot, that for some reason, we are unable to communicate with any mages, even those nearby. Master Farmer, have you tried to do so?”

Farmer hung his head. It was not the Farmer I’d talked with all morning who replied. “It’s not my long suit, sir—”

I couldn’t help it. He’d sucked me into his silly games. I leaned close and whispered, “My lord!” loud enough that others could hear me. Sabine half turned and gave us a scowl while Prince Baird covered a grin with his hand.

“My lord,” Farmer said sheepishly as he shrugged at me. “I’ve not reached anyone I should be able to reach. Mayhap it’s like a storm, only in the realms where magic comes from?” He looked at Master Elyot as if that leech’s whelp would answer.

Master Elyot shrugged. “I don’t understand it, my lord, but these things do happen, and there are times when we never learn why. I am unable to reach His Highness’s mage at our home estates, let alone the Chancellor of Mages in Corus.”

“Then I will send horse messengers to Corus and to Arenaver,” the count said. “Since your documents claim the Deputy Provost there will also confirm your Hunt. It will be but a matter of a few days for word to return from Arenaver.”

Not with the marsh bridge down, and you know it, I thought. It was Lady Sabine who cried, “We informed you that the bridge over the marshes has been burned! It will be ten days at least before a courier returns, and who knows what will befall our quarry in that time?”

It was as if she had signaled the young ladies of the countess’s solar. They rose to their feet in twos and threes, Lewyth and Baylisa leading them as they rushed over to halt in front of us, facing the prince, the count, and the countess. As one they dropped to their knees and raised clasped hands to the nobles.

“Please, Highness, my lord and my lady, please do not hinder them any longer!” Lewyth said, her voice loud enough for the entire hall to hear. “Forgive our intrusion, we mean no harm or impertinence, but hear our plea!”

Another miss cried, “We know their Hunt! We know a poor lad of tender blood and rearing has been taken from his mother by villains and poorly used!”

It was Baylisa who begged, “In the name of the Gentle Mother, let them rescue that poor stolen lad!”

“In the name of the Gentle Mother we pray!” said the maidens, bending their heads over their hands.

“We don’t understand things like seals and politics.” That was another of the young ladies. “But surely a mother’s pain must override these worldly considerations. Surely a child’s agony must take first place in your hearts!”

I knelt down beside Achoo as if to keep her calm when, truth to tell, I wanted to bray like a mule with laughter. I hid my face in Achoo’s fur. This was Lady Sabine’s plan, the one that had led to that early-morning conversation with the young ladies! How had she known what to say that would work them into such a frenzy of devotion? Surely never in the ordinary course of things would they have spoken out before men, and in defiance of the count!

I glanced up. Farmer’s legs were quivering in his boots and his hands were clenched into fists behind his back. Don’t laugh, I begged him silently, with a glance at Tunstall. My partner was in the same condition. Whatever you do, don’t laugh, or you’ll ruin it.

“Mithros’s spear, Dewin, let Tunstall and his people go.” That was Prince Baird, to my surprise. He lounged in his great chair, a broad grin on his face. Mayhap he found this show in the name of the Gentle Mother nearabout as funny as we did. “I’ll vouch for the curst seals. I’ve known Lady Sabine all my life. She’d never lend her name to anything off center.”

“Highness,” the count protested, trying to convey what words would say with only a look.

His Highness sat up. “Let them go, I said.” All of a sudden he was royalty, and not used to having his words questioned. “It’s bad enough you’ve got me tied up in conversations here. At least these Dogs can get in a good day’s ride.”

There was naught the count could do. Prince Baird was his superior in rank, for all that a noble might be near as good as a king in his home domain. Moreover, if he and his friends were trying to talk the prince into being king, it would be a bad idea to offend him. I’d thought Baird was part of it all, when I found No-Skin’s trail in his rooms. Now I wondered. Why would Baird let us go, if he was in the conspiracy?

Tunstall dispatched Achoo, Pounce, and me to the stables to have our mounts made ready. Sabine assured me she would have our things packed, even my wet uniform, as soon as she thanked the damsels of the count’s household. I wished I could say farewell to Lewyth and the Butterfly Puppies, and to Fess, but thought that it would be easy to slip burs under saddles and easier still to draw cinches too loose. I ran for the stables.

The hostlers greeted me with nods and silence as I asked for our horses. When one lad went to place my riding saddle on Saucebox, I halted him. “Pack it, if you will,” I said, slipping him a coin. “I won’t be doing much riding today, if any.”

His eyes widened. “You walk as th’ others ride?” he asked. Everyone around us halted work to hear.

I smiled at him. He reminded me of my brothers, one a horse courier and one a hostler in the king’s own stables. “I don’t walk,” I said, and he relaxed a little. I added, “I run, ahead of them, with her.” I pointed to Achoo. Not realizing that she was supposed to uphold the dignity of the Provost’s Guard at just that moment, she lay on her back, paws in the air, as she wriggled and scratched herself in the dust. “She’s a scent hound,” I explained.

An older cove laughed and spat in the straw. “Yon’s no scent hound,” he said. “My lord and His Highness, they’ve got scent hounds for any kind a prey. Yon’s a bastard dog. Mebbe she’s got some water dog in her, with them curls, but them’s no scent hounds, neither.”

I shrugged. “Have it as you will,” I replied. “What have I to gain from lying?”

They had the horses ready when our men came with their belongings. They were settling the last of the packs when Sabine came with ours. The young ladies had insisted on bearing our old leather packs as if they were a knight’s vestments, which touched me. The hostlers accepted them with much bowing and tugging of forelocks, then loaded them on our horses. As I settled Pounce on one of the pack mares led by Tunstall, I noticed that the prince, the count, and the countess had come to see us off.

“Achoo, kemari,” I called. She came away from the Butterfly Puppies that had entered the courtyard with their mistresses and trotted over to me, her tail a-wag. She knew we were going back to work again. I slipped Prince Gareth’s loincloth from my belt pouch and let her sniff it vigorously. She greeted it with happy sneezes.

Countess Aeldra brought the stirrup cup, a traditional drink of farewell in noble houses. The countess offered it to Farmer, as was traditional when a mage was present, a gesture to the departing guests to let them know the cup wasn’t poisoned. With a nod Farmer drew a circle in the air over it. When the circle burned gold, showing there was no poison or magic in the cup, he bowed to her. Then the countess offered the cup to Sabine. I looked away so the nobles wouldn’t see me glare. Shouldn’t they have given it to Tunstall as our leader? But no, to these folk, blood would always count more than work. I looked back in time to see Sabine take a sip, then pass the cup to Tunstall with a smile. He gave her a smile in return, took a drink, then offered the cup to Farmer. I looked at the count and countess and happily noted the purpling of his face and the stiffening of her back. Farmer drank and offered the cup to me, but I shook my head. I did not need any mead in me so early in the day, and it was almost always mead in a stirrup cup.

Mencari, Achoo,” I whispered while the count made a surly-sounding speech about a good end to our Hunt. Achoo began to sniff around for the trail, now a day old. She was bound for the outer courtyard as the count and countess walked back into their great hall without watching us go.

“Swive them,” Tunstall muttered. He said sommat else to my lady, but I did not remain to hear. I followed Achoo through the gate into the outer courtyard, across that, and on through the main gate. Halfway down the hill I glanced back. My companions were behind me. As I looked my last at Queensgrace Castle, I saw three coves observed us from the barbican. The tallest was Prince Baird. He was flanked by the brothers from Aspen Vale.

Ill fortune follow you all your days, I thought, then fixed my attention on Achoo. She was moving fast, giddy with the freedom of the road after her frustrating time inside those castle walls. I knew exactly how she felt.

Achoo turned northeast at the sign in the road, with the arrow directing travelers to The Galla Highway, the Great Road North, Richcaffery. I settled into my trot as we wove among folk coming to do business thereabouts. Achoo ignored them all, her nose and neck level. I thought of nothing but what I saw ahead of me and to either side. It was some way before we were beyond all sight of that great castle. I did not know how it had weighed on me until it was no longer visible off my left. I heaved a sigh. Never would I think of House Queensgrace without the reminder that my talk with Linnet and my gift of hand protectors had brought her to her death. She had not seemed to blame me, but I could not keep from blaming myself. Only when I saw Master Elyot and whoever did his strangling for him hanging from a gallows would I feel a small bit of relief.

I thrust my bitter thoughts from my mind and watched Achoo. I saw when she first stopped to sniff beside the road and knew she’d found the prince’s piss. She looked back at me, wagged her tail, and ran on. I noted the mess of browned grass and a bit of scummer without slowing my run.

I glanced back, but my companions were not within view, there being a ridge in the way. They traveled slower to make things easier for Lady Sabine’s horses while they could.

On we ran, Achoo and I, at our own steady pace in the warm early-summer sunshine. Folk in the fields waved as we passed, not knowing our business and not caring, or so I thought. They might ask their friends at night what they made of the woman in black, trotting after an ivory-colored hound, but unless they knew, we would remain an interesting curiosity.

We came to the intersection with the Great Road. Here our quarry had turned, bound due north. I left a trail sign at the nearest and farthest corners for Tunstall, though he could surely follow us with our Dog tags, and continued on my way. Here we kept to the right side of the great width of pressed earth, as those bound south kept to the left. The center of the road, the highest part of its gently curved surface, was reserved for the use of couriers. One of those passed me at the canter, headed south. She gave me a tip of the hat as she went by and I gave her a salute. I wondered if she knew of the mess that was the capital at present.

About four hours after I’d passed the courier, we reached one of the wayhouses kept on the Great Roads for travelers. I called Achoo to me and waited for our companions, who were not far behind us. Tunstall saw us hunkered down by the wall and led the way through the wayhouse gate. Once inside, he bought lunch for us all and a rubdown and bait for the horses.

We ate in silence outside the house, aware of the folk coming and going. Pounce decided I was in need of attention and spent the meal reclined across my shoulders, accepting the occasional tidbit. He complained loudly in cat when we got to our feet, and continued to do so, to other travelers’ amusement, until I climbed into Saucebox’s saddle. Once he realized that I meant to ride for a time, Pounce was quite willing to slide into the space between my lap and the saddle horn.

Much better, he told me as we followed Achoo out the gate. There is scant travel on the road ahead for some miles. If Farmer does as he should, you will be able to speak without fear of anyone overhearing.

“You would think he was in charge, not Tunstall,” Farmer remarked.

“I thought he was,” Tunstall replied with a grin. “Beka, Achoo is on track?”

“Very much so,” I said, loud enough for the other three to hear. “She’s picked His Highness’s scent up twice where he stopped to pee,” I reported. “I don’t know why they haven’t taken him in the cart and made better time. Seemingly they’re still letting the slaves walk.”

“They had warning we were still on their track, and they left Queensgrace before we arrived,” Sabine replied. “They don’t feel they have to rush. They might now, once they hear the count wasn’t able to keep us there.”

“So that block on magical communication was only for us?” I asked.

“Not even for us anymore,” Tunstall said. “Farmer’s been talking with Lord Gershom all morning.”

I was almost afraid to ask, but I did so anyway. “Their Majesties?”

“The king shows himself and bluffs that he’s hale and angry and wants things done,” Farmer told me, his face hard with anger of his own. “Her Majesty is not well. Weary, Gershom says, and losing weight for all that she eats enough. Now that he knows we have Prince Gareth’s trail, he’s sending other teams to inspect the doings of Prince Baird, the houses of Queensgrace and Aspen Vale, and their known friends. There is already a team on its way to us from Frasrlund.”

“I’m glad we’re out of such hustle and bustle,” Tunstall said flatly. “Assignments and delegations, deciding who to investigate, who to arrest first—better for upcity Dogs to handle that. We’re the right team for this task. My lady shone today, Master Farmer has given what we know to Lord Gershom, I supply the ideas, and Cooper gets among those who won’t speak with anyone intimidating. Perfect.”

Farmer and my lady smiled at Tunstall, plainly flattered as all daylight by his words. I was pleased beyond measure that he’d made them feel good by his recognition of their work. Someday I might lead a team.

“There is one thing,” he told us as we prepared to go on. “Before our stay at Queensgrace we could assume no one knew we were on the road for this particular Hunt. Now powerful folk do not like what we did there. Assume we are followed and stay wary.”

Sabine nodded gravely.

Farmer said, “Do you wish me to put out feelers? It’s risky. They might notice, but—”

Tunstall stopped him with a shake of the head. “We need you at full strength in case something comes up. Save your Gift.”

As we rode on, we left what had been mostly farmlands to enter forested country. It was here, in a clearing just off the road, that Farmer worked a spell of protection on Tunstall.

I had been bred to think an enemy with magic could work terrible things with someone’s hair, blood, or nail clippings, which was why anyone with sense burned theirs. To see Farmer go at the business of safeguarding Tunstall, you would think he did it only to soothe Tunstall’s nerves. A figure drawn in powder at Tunstall’s feet, the same figure drawn from the powder and earth on his forehead, and what Farmer had done vanished, on the ground and on Tunstall.

“There,” Farmer said, rinsing his hands with water from his flask. “It will be as if they hadn’t clipped that lock from your head. That hair will never keep its tie to you again.”

“It’s that easy?” Tunstall asked, frowning. “I’ve seen such things done before. They take hours. How do I know you’re not working a nimmer here?”

“Working a what?” Farmer asked.

“A swindle,” murmured Sabine. “Mattes, be reasonable. If Farmer leaves you open to tracking by these Rats, he leaves all of us open. I doubt Gershom would saddle us with a traitor.”

“Unless it’s Pounce,” I joked. Tunstall has the odd black mood. It’s always important to get him out of them in a hurry.

“Maybe I’m just better at this than those other mages,” Farmer said. “Now, be nice, or I’ll ask for my dirt and powder back.” Tunstall clapped his hand over the mark. We left it to Sabine to explain that it was already gone as Farmer mounted up and I settled Pounce on a packhorse.

Achoo led us steadily through the afternoon, her nose keeping us all on the Great Road North. We passed a number of turnoffs to towns, but Achoo kept on. The sun was touching the edge of the mountains to the west when we came upon a second wayhouse. We took supper there, but none of us wanted to remain if we could wring a little more from the day. We were burning with the awareness that the slaves and the mages who guarded them were mayhap three and a half, even three days ahead, or would be by the time we made camp, we’d made such good speed.

Leaving the wayhouse, we took up the running order we’d had back at Arenaver. I followed Achoo on foot. This time Farmer asked for my stone lamp. When he gave it back to me, it shone even brighter than a lantern. With that in my hand, I set out running just behind Achoo, as Farmer rode just behind me. Tunstall and Lady Sabine kept up for a short time, but the need to rest her big horses made them slow down and fall back, out of view. By then we were the only ones on the road, most folk preferring to retire into the protection of wayhouse walls than travel after dark.

The moon, near full, was rising when we reached a bridge over a small river. We halted while Achoo trotted down the bank to drink. There she stopped, whining. I could smell rot from the road, as could Farmer, from the way he covered his nose with his hands. Holding up my stone lamp, I approached the water. “Achoo, kemari,” I called. She was happy to run to me, where she hid behind my legs, quivering.

Here again was the work of the mage I called Viper. Dead skunks, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other game lined both banks of the river. Dead birds lay among them and dead fish floated atop the water. Even the reeds were dead. I cursed her silently to a doom far beyond the Peaceful Realms, begging the Black God to let her shade wander without rest and forgiveness forevermore. I’d never heard of the god denying his kingdom to any, but I thought if he started with the Viper, he would not be wrong in so doing.

“I’m surprised to see no dead humans,” Farmer murmured. He had dismounted and followed me.

I watched the fast-moving water. “Doubtless they’ve been swept downstream,” I replied softly. “And it wasn’t so long since they left Queensgrace.”

Farmer’s mage-light rose from him and spread, revealing everything around us until it reached the trees. I looked at him. “If this isn’t the Viper’s work, then there are other vicious mages in this area, and they should die,” I told him.

“Viper?” Farmer asked.

“One of the two mages that ride in the cart,” I explained. “Linnet called her that. She’s the one who killed the slave mot and the two little ones.”

“Ah,” Farmer said. “She would be the one who spoke at their grave, then. The one who made the barrier that killed animals there. The poison in the river carries the same strain of power that was on the dead slaves and in some of the magic.” Farmer went up to the road and led the horses to our side, tethering them away from the river. I remembered Achoo’s original errand and poured water from my flask into one cupped hand for her to drink. I continued to fill my hand this way until she was done. Finished, she joined Farmer’s horses.

I remained where I was, tense as I watched Farmer walk down to the small river. I knew better than to pelt him with questions when he was in this thoughtful mood. He would speak when he was ready.

I walked up to the road and waved my stone lamp over my head three times. In the growing dark to the south I saw an answering spot of light swing three times. I glanced back at Farmer, who had not moved.

Tunstall, Sabine, and the other horses arrived at the trot. “Pounce says you’ve found trouble,” said Tunstall. Pounce sat in front of Sabine again, looking very pleased with his place. Tunstall looked over my shoulder, seeing Farmer at the water’s edge, surrounded by his globe of soft light.

I reported what Achoo and I had found. Then I tried to put my stone lamp in my pocket. I’d clutched it so tight in my telling that my fingers had cramped shut around it.

Tunstall spat. “We’ll leave word for the local constable—there’s a town a mile off, according to the sign a little way back. We can still get in another ten miles—”

“Mattes,” Sabine interrupted. “We can’t do that. We’ll lose time if you go for help in the dark. And if Farmer can mend the river, we’ll save lives.”

“Let the local hedgewitch see to it,” Tunstall replied. “We can make more headway tonight.”

“I doubt if any local mage can manage the work,” Farmer called. “This creature—let’s call her Viper, as Cooper does—this Viper likes spells within spells. There’s a spell in this poisoning that will kill any mage who tries to fix it with the usual magics. There is a spell tucked in a level down that, if ignored, will recast the original poisoning spell at the dark of the next moon. And there is the basic viciousness of placing it in a river, which carries it far beyond the original setting point. Every moment we talk, more life dies.”

Can you fix it?” Sabine asked.

He took too long to reply for my comfort. At last he said, “Yes. Yes, I can, I will, and I must. By the time another mage of sufficient skill got here, it’s possible this poison would reach all the way to the Olorun.” He cocked his head at Tunstall. “Don’t you think the realm has enough problems without letting this one grow?”

Tunstall said sommat in Hurdik under his breath. “We’d best find a place to camp, then. Do you require help?”

Farmer turned to look at the water. Then he strode up the bank to the horse who carried his extra packs. “Cooper, if she doesn’t mind.”

“Beka’s been running all afternoon,” Sabine protested, but I put up my hand.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Will you look after Achoo?”

“Of course,” Tunstall replied. “We’ll set up watch on the road in case anyone is looking for us. Achoo, tumit.”

Achoo looked at me. “It’s all right, Achoo,” I said. “Go with Tunstall.”

She went, her tail a-wag, the hussy. She knew she could get more meat out of Tunstall than she could me.

“Pounce?” I asked as Tunstall and Sabine prepared to turn their mounts.

I prefer to stay at the camp, the cat said. What Farmer plans to do … it is not painful to me, exactly, but in close proximity to it, I will itch. I prefer not to itch.

“If I could spare Beka, I would,” Farmer said, trudging down to the river with his extra pack over his shoulder. “It is sad that human magic and that of the gods do not mix.”

I am not a god, I heard Pounce say as Tunstall and Sabine rode off.

“He’s a constellation,” I murmured to myself. The night seemed to clamp down as the others left. I hurried to get inside the bowl of light cast by Farmer, but it was the first thing to go. Instead he took my stone lamp and tucked it into the crook of a tree. Then he made me take off my belt and boots, assuring me the poison had not entered the ground under our feet. Together we shook out a large cloth that was in the big pack. Laid out on the riverbank, it showed a glittering circle made in golden embroidery, with written signs for Mithros at the east, the Goddess at the south, Gainel in the west, and the Black God in the north. At its heart was the circle of two halves, Father Universe and Mother Flame.

I gasped when I saw the whole of it. “Your stitchery?” I asked Farmer. He bowed to me with a grin.

Then he opened his shoulder pack. He set three jars, a vial, and four boxes on the ground, then set the pack aside. Next he unwound a roll of ribbon of an ugly shade of green embroidered in white and a second roll of cream-colored ribbon embroidered in pale blue.

I’d barely had a chance to inspect the embroideries when he asked, “Beka, will you get some things from the big pack for me?” I took the bag he’d mentioned from one of the horses and awaited his orders. “I’ll need my mortar and pestle,” he began. “They’re in a pocket by your right hand.” I retrieved them and started to rise, but Farmer said, “No, wait, please. In the flat outer pouch next to that one, you’ll find a map of Tortall in an oiled leather envelope, along with some other envelopes. They’re all maps. I just need Tortall.”

I couldn’t miss the Tortallan map. It flashed silver. I drew it a little ways from the envelope and saw that it was very differently marked from mine. “May I look at this, when there’s a moment?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. The flash on the map faded, which made me think he’d gotten it to do so in order for me to find it. “Next, in the pack main, you’ll find a fat cloth wallet about as long as my hand. I need that.”

I found the wallet, which glowed silver, as the map had done. The glow vanished when I picked the wallet up. “I have it,” I said.

“Under it is a leather-sheathed box. It’s my sewing kit. I’ll have that, and next to the sewing kit is my everyday mirror in a pouch. I want the pouch only, not the mirror. Leave the mirror where you can see it when we pack everything up. Last item, Beka. There’s a pouch full of nuts right under the kit and the mirror. I’ll take those.”

I stacked everything in my hold and carried it all to Farmer. Piece by piece he lifted everything from me, placing it all inside the circle on the cloth. The bag of nuts he kept in his hands, taking out ten or so. He returned the bag to me. From its weight, it was yet half full.

“Will you keep that near you?” he asked. “I may need it again.”

I agreed, but I don’t believe he was listening. Holding the nuts in his cupped hands, he whispered to them, then rubbed his hands together. The nuts did not fall out of his grip as I expected. Instead, Farmer produced a thin piece of something that looked like rolled dough or paste, which he ate. He stepped onto the cloth and lowered his irreverent arse on the linked symbols for the Father and Mother of the gods.

I looked near the river, where he had left his jars and vials. Had he forgotten them? From what I knew of magic, he would do his great working from within the circle he’d made—or she, if it was my friend Kora. If I had to pass anything to him over the circle, I would break the working as easily as if I had stepped on the powder circle Farmer had made in the garden that morning.

He saw me look. “I don’t need those for this part,” he said, startling me. “This is the part where I reclaim magic from some of my hiding places so I have enough to do all that needs to be done.”

“The magic you’ve—um—drawn from other people, right?” I asked.

“Some is my own,” he replied absently. “Whenever I think it safe, I put away some of my Gift. It grows back.”

“It grows back?” I asked, plumb bum-clappered at the idea.

“Of course it does,” he said calmly. “Otherwise mages could only ever do a few spells and retire.”

Once I’d given it thought, I realized it had to be true. Still, it gave me goose bumps to think of the Gift growing like a vine inside someone.

“Nuts, too,” Farmer told me. “Wonderful storehouses for magic, nuts. Don’t let any wild creatures get them, Beka. They’ll have a considerable surprise if they do.”

He shook out his hair, worked the kinks from his neck with a number of startling popping sounds, then went absolutely still.

The great embroidered circle blazed with light, not slowly, but all at once. One moment Farmer sat on a cloth, the next he was covered by a dome of gold fire. I could not see a thing of what passed inside. Instead I turned outward, keeping my eyes on the road and my ears set for any noise that did not belong to the night. The rush of water beyond the mage was a cruel mockery, tempting any living thing to its death.

At last I heard, “Well, that’s better.” When I turned around, Farmer was rubbing his eyes. The cloth wallet was open for one fold. It showed embroidered ribbons secured to the fabric. Except for all the threadwork, Farmer looked like a big-built man who most likely spent his days behind the plow or mayhap with herds.

I went to help him fold the cloth. “If you’ll put all of these things back?” he asked me with boyish hope in his eyes. Did he expect me to scold him for leaving the fetching, carrying, and packing to me? I waved my hand for him to get to his work and slung the folded cloth over my shoulder. My skin prickled where it touched my neck. I gathered up everything else as he stepped down to the edge of the water.

His voice came from the air by my ear. “You see, the problem’s twofold,” he explained as if we were talking over supper. “The river must be cleansed, and I want to confine that sarden Viper.” He went silent. I looked to be sure he was all right. He was raising his arms.

By the time I’d finished stowing everything as I’d found it, I felt his spell-making. Every hair on my arms and the nape of my neck stood on end. There was not a sound to be heard from the woods. I was willing to bet that any creature that could walk, crawl, slither, or fly had fled or gone to ground. Even the air had gone dead still.

I made myself turn.

Farmer had taken off his boots. He was covered in a sparkling blue sheath of fire from his shaggy hair to his muddy toes. The river itself shone a sickly green in the dark, the green of mold and rot. It was threaded with Farmer’s Gift, the magics he had taken from Ironwood and Orielle, a thick gold thread, and three other colors. They surged back and forth, the green trying to overwhelm all else. Farmer held his hands palms up as he spoke in a strange language. The blue sheath that covered him sent power flowing out over the little river to its opposite bank.

An image formed over the water, bright against the dark and the magic. It was that of a woman in dull olive silk, collapsed onto a floor covered with cushions. She leaned against a hanging-covered wall, pressing the heels of her hands into her temples as if she wanted to crush her own head. She’d managed to shove a veil and round cap off hair that was reddish brown with strands of gray. Her heavy-lidded eyes were a cold blue. She had to be the Viper, and I would remember her for when I found her at last. There was no sign of the other female mage who was supposed to be traveling with the cart.

The mixed-color fires rose from the river and flowed into the image of the Viper, swirling around until they swallowed her, forming an egg-shaped bubble. Farmer was whistling now, a soft, breathless tune. I’d have thought it nonsense, save that it called a rope of white fire up and out of the river and sent it into the image. There it wrapped around the bubble, covering what was already there. Now Farmer called back his own power. Like an obedient snake the glittering blue Gift returned to him and vanished into his skin. The Viper was left with only the white fire cocoon that held her inside it. I saw nothing of Farmer’s stolen magics beneath the white fire.

The Viper’s hands slowly fell from her temples. She breathed in a couple of gasps of air, then started to stand. She was almost on her feet when she fainted.

Farmer waved his hand. The image vanished. Then his own knees buckled and he fell into the river.

I ran down into the water and got him by the arms. I was slipping on the stones of the riverbed when the dozy charm chanter began to scrabble with his legs, getting his feet under him. Even with those signs of wakefulness I did not release my hold, but towed him back and up, onto dry ground. He was coughing and choking. I turned him on his side and thumped his spine to remind him to spit out the water.

“I hope your spells worked, or we’re both dead,” I snapped in his ear.

He flapped an arm as he spit out a mouthful of water and caught his breath. “Of course they worked,” he said. “I’m not some idiot apprentice who can’t do a simple working to clean up foul water. This was just a little bigger.”

“Keep spitting,” I ordered. I got one of his arms under my shoulder and stood him up. “Gods, did you have to eat everything set before you at Queensgrace?”

“I practically starved myself there,” he argued. “I’m just big-boned. If you weren’t such a scrawny scrap of a thing—”

“It’s all muscle, mage, all muscle,” I replied as we walked away from the water. He was starting to shiver. “Will any of those nuts be of use to you now?”

“Almonds, please,” he said. “There’s a pouch of the shelled ones in a pocket on the side of my pack, opposite the maps.”

I risked letting him go to stand on his own. He managed it. I got the bag of shelled almonds and handed it to him. I was about to get the shawls when he said, “Beka, wait a moment.”

I didn’t see it, but I felt it. Warmth wrapped me round like a head-to-toe blanket. When it ended, having lasted but a moment, I was dry. I put a hand on Farmer’s shoulder. He was dry, too.

“I was really drying myself, but I couldn’t control the field as well as usual, so you were caught up in it. Sorry,” the bold-faced liar told me.

“And if you hadn’t said ‘wait a moment,’ mayhap I’d believe you,” I told him. He was still too pale for my liking. “Mind that magicking of me, that’s all I’m saying to you.”

“Yes, Mother,” he replied, all meekness. I was not fooled. I was also warmed as much inside as out to hear us talking as I had with Tunstall over the years, those times when we were in deep and talked to calm down. It was good, in a Hunt so filled with shadows and menace, to have another Hunter that made me feel so comfortable when we were out on our own, far from any kennel.

I got two of his shawls and draped them around him. “Have you sommat to drink that will brighten you up?” I asked.

“The flask on my pack. Seriously, Beka, I’ll be fine with a little rest.”

“I’d as soon we did our resting back with Tunstall and Sabine,” I explained, going to retrieve his shoulder pack, stockings, and boots. “I wouldn’t put it past the Queensgrace Rats to set a hunting party after us tonight.”

“They’ll have to fix the portcullises on the main and the postern gate,” Farmer said, all innocence. “They broke about midday. Strangest thing. Both sets of chains rusted through in several places. Even with the smith working at dead speed, no one’s entering or leaving Queensgrace Castle until tomorrow.”

I stopped to stare at him. Then I couldn’t help it. I laughed until I got the hiccups. In that condition I retrieved my stone lamp as well. By the time that was done, Farmer had donned his socks and boots. I’d stopped laughing and hiccupping both. Farmer’s magicked almonds and brew had restored his strength. I took his shoulder pack and he his larger bag as we followed the road to Tunstall and Sabine. Their camp was easy enough to find, because Achoo and Pounce came out of the dark to lead us. I was roaring hungry by the time we reached them.

Although they were watching the road as we approached, they’d made camp and left the horses behind a wall of rock that extended off into the forest. The wall hid the camp and fire from view. They’d thrown ham, lentils, onions, garlic, and water into a pot and let it cook. The wind was in their favor or they never would have made something so wonderfully scented. The minute I caught a whiff of it, I feared I might actually drool.

I let Farmer tell our partners what he’d done while Achoo and I ate. Pounce came out of the dark to sleep by the fire. Plainly he’d taken care of feeding himself, though he did allow me to give him a bite or two of ham.

“But I don’t understand,” Sabine remarked when Farmer was done. “Did you kill her?”

Farmer looked at his full bowl sadly. “I didn’t kill her. I returned the power of the spells she had set to her,” he said with a sigh. He picked up his spoon.

“So she can use them again?” Tunstall demanded. “What sort of crackbrained notion is that?”

“She doesn’t know she has them,” Farmer said with his mouth full. “No more than she saw us—I made certain of that—or that I twisted them around her.” He swallowed and explained, “She sent her spells out. I sent them back with the power fixed to her. She doesn’t know it yet. She might feel a little warm, a little confined right now. Perhaps not. She may not notice any change at all until she casts her next spell.” He shoveled another spoonful into his mouth and chewed, smiling.

“What happens then?” Sabine wanted to know. “Farmer, it’s not nice to toy with your fellow Hunters!” Tunstall drummed his fingers on his thigh.

Watching Farmer, I thought, He likes it. He likes showing off when he’s been particularly clever. Whatever he did to the Viper, that was special, and he wants to brag a little.

I wanted to laugh again and elbow him in the ribs, like I would one of my friends at home. I felt that much at ease with him, for all that I’d known him for less than a month.

Pounce looked up. Tell us, by the dark between the stars, he ordered. You’re just dying to.

Farmer swallowed and coughed. Sabine handed him a cup of tea. Once he’d taken a big swallow, he bowed to Pounce. “A fellow’s got a right to enjoy his craft, doesn’t he?” he asked. He looked at the rest of us. “The next spell the Viper sends out, it will come back to her. The stronger the spell, the harder it will return. The little ones will go through—if she lights a candle, say, or makes herself look younger. But nothing bigger than that. The poison spells won’t kill her, now.” The smile on his lips and in his eyes went as cold and sharp as a sword. “I want the Crown to do that for her. But deadly spells will hurt her very badly.”

Nobody said anything as Farmer continued to eat. The only sound was the hiss of the fire. When he put down his empty bowl and drained his cup of tea, Tunstall said, “Remind me to stay on your good side.”

“Nonsense,” Farmer replied cheerfully. “You don’t cast poison spells that could end up killing half the countryside. Do you?”

“It seems like a stupid waste of power,” Sabine remarked, refilling Farmer’s cup.

“She likes to kill,” Farmer replied. “She likes to know that people who never heard of her will mourn because they accidentally crossed something she left behind. The river spells were placed to trap or kill some of us, but she enjoyed knowing others would die.” He accepted the full cup with a quiet thank-you. “You meet them, sometimes. Mages who like to leave their mark on complete strangers. For good and for ill.” He yawned hugely.

I found his bedroll among the packs. Sabine and I opened it up. “I’ll tell you, I’m curst grateful you pulled that Viper’s fangs,” Tunstall said as he helped Farmer into the bedroll. “Any chance she can get out of it?”

“She’d need help,” Farmer murmured. And he was asleep.

“We are blessed to have that one,” Sabine remarked quietly as she returned to the fire.

“So mote it be,” Tunstall murmured.

I think I spoke the same, though I’d begun to yawn as well. Tunstall and Sabine were talking when I fell asleep where I sat. Mayhap it was Pounce who told them I would not be doing first or second watch that night. Sabine got me into my own bedroll, where I had a fine, dreamless sleep.

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