Mistress Trout’s Lodgings
Nipcopper Close, Corus
We had spent the night of the 30th on the Great Road where it met the way to Queensgrace. We had to decide how we could return to the Summer Palace without having to deal with the marsh. In the morning we were just riding onto the Great Road when we saw the much larger party that was coming toward us. Soldiers in army uniforms encircled an enclosed cart. Their weapons were very good, their clothes and boots expensive. The cart itself was newly painted, with shutters over the side windows. At the head of the party rode a mot in pale blue whose pale blue scarf covered most of her light blond hair.
Seeing us, she turned and rode back to the cart. She stopped beside it and leaned down to talk through the window.
A door popped open on the side and another mot nearly fell to the ground in her rush to get out. The queen steadied herself, then ran through the soldiers, clutching a goldspangled veil over unruly curls. She even lost the veil as she drew close to us and flung her arms wide.
“Gareth!” the queen shrieked. Nomalla, his riding companion that morning, set the boy on the ground so he could get to his mama. Her Majesty stumbled and dropped to her knees in the dirt, where they clutched each other. The others and I dismounted and stood off at a respectful distance. The queen looked little better than her son. Her face was but skin over bone, and what I could see of her arms told me she’d lost flesh there, too. I wondered how many more days she would have lived if we hadn’t found Gareth.
I hand-signaled for Pounce and Achoo to come with me as I walked over to her and Gareth. “Just Dog work, Your Majesty,” I said, getting on my knees with a wince. “Farmer and Achoo and Pounce and Lady Sabine—she was brought in after I saw you—and Lady Nomalla, they took a pounding as well.”
“What of Tunstall?” she asked. “Was he—is he all right?”
I couldn’t answer her, but hung my head in shame. It was Gareth who said, “He betrayed us, Mama.”
Achoo whimpered and licked Gareth’s hand. My hound had been mourning her old friend, too.
“I am so very sorry,” whispered the queen. “That’s the problem with royalty, isn’t it? The stakes are just too high. People do things for royal stakes they would never dream of at home.” She touched my cheek. “Goddess bless you, Cooper, all the days of your life. And you, Pounce, and Achoo.” She sighed. “Cooper, would you give me your arm? Gareth, you may introduce me to the lady knights, if you will.”
As I scrambled to my feet so I could help the queen, she murmured to me, “The healers were very unhappy with me for coming, but I had to see my lad.” She kept hold of one of Gareth’s hands. “His Majesty is still too ill to move. Cassine says that when we three are together, she can undo the spell that hurts us so.”
I escorted her to Lady Sabine and Lady Nomalla. Farmer was busily talking with the woman who had told the queen of us. Finally the captain in charge of the queen’s party asked us if we could retreat to a nearby hilltop to talk, a place where he and his soldiers could see anyone who approached. While Her Majesty sat on the grass with the lady knights and the prince, Farmer came to collect me. I went, but my knees were unsteady. What if Cassine did not like me? What if she thought the partner of a traitor must surely be a traitor herself? From the way Farmer spoke of her, the great mage was a second mother to him. Her opinion meant a great deal to me.
She watched as we approached. She had removed her veil. The sun shone on silver-gold hair cut ear-length like a man’s. She was as tall as me but slender as a willow, with bright blue eyes and a very pretty smile. When she took my hand, her smile broadened until she was chuckling.
Farmer scowled. “Cassine,” he said with reproof.
She covered her mouth with a fine-boned hand and turned her chuckle into a cough. When she caught her breath, she squeezed my hand, which she still held. “He’s told me for years that girls aren’t as interesting as magic. I always said that one day he would find a woman who would be just as interesting. Now he has, and I don’t believe either of us conceived of that woman being anyone like you!”
I scowled, unable to help it. “That don’t sound good.”
“Oh, no,” Cassine protested as she hugged me. “It is! If he’s going to insist on being a Dogs’ mage, what better wife than another Dog?” She smelled of lily of the valley, and though I hugged her with care because I thought her fragile, I learned there was steel under her soft skin and her soft voice.
I could feel myself blush. “That was our plan,” I mumbled.
Cassine placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Very good, my dear,” she told me softly. “I couldn’t arrange better myself.”