They spent a good hour or two before a messenger arrived with a sealed parchment that provided the pier, day and estimated time of arrival of “the ship,” nearly 2-1/2 days later, and two addresses – a warehouse near the docks and a residence.
Bryan thanked the messenger and took the paper back to the couch and handed it to Iaondrin, reclaiming his seat. “Couple more places to check out before the ship gets here.” He brushed a kiss over her cheek. “You almost ready to take a walk?” It was dusk, by the time they got to Vernon’s office, the dimness would be just right.
Iaondrin read the message, and then folded it. “Disguised?” she asked, knowing the answer. They couldn’t risk having anyone who worked for Hugh Vernon spotting a Shal woman with long red hair near his properties.
“Yes,” he answered, probably unnecessarily. “We can’t let him get his hands on you.” As she got ready to draw the illusion over her, he said, “When we get close, we’re going to walk arm-in-arm and I’ll make it look like we’ve been drinking.” He took the wine bottle, dripped some on his hand and dabbed his clothes, motioned for her to do the same. “When we are across from the front, I need you to push me up against a wall and press yourself against me, kiss me like you can’t wait to get back to wherever we’re spending the night. That’ll give me some time to scan the front of the building. When I’ve seen enough, I’ll grab your… ah…,” he looked down at her rear, “and that’s when you pull away with a ‘not here’ and pull me further down the street.”
Iaondrin looked at him skeptically. “Is this all just a ploy to have an excuse to grab my ass in public?” she asked as she spilled a little of the wine on herself.
“Does that sound like something I would do?” he said too innocently, smiling. “No, it’s not a ploy. For that, anyway. I need a reason to stop and be the one looking at the building. That, of course, leaves out that I will probably be enjoying you wriggling up against me and then me grabbing your ass.”
“That may depend upon how convincing I can be. I don’t have a lot of practice at public displays of passion. Or non-public ones for that matter, though we’ve been working on that part.” Iaondrin re-corked the wine bottle and set it aside, then stepped back to lift her hands and call the threads, weaving the illusion around herself. Again, since he watched her cast it, Bryan would not be fooled, and likely wouldn’t be able to see it unless he squinted and looked sideways. But in the dark, someone unfamiliar with her would see a Shal woman of short dark hair, more buxom than Iaondrin herself.
“Just kiss me like you mean it, everything else will fall into place.” Bryan led her out by the hand, through the streets with other foot traffic winding down. A few blocks from the offices, he slipped his arm around her waist. Walking on what would be the far side of the street, Bryan on the side of the buildings, he leaned against her, letting them stagger a few steps towards the street, then back. His eyes scanned everywhere for the guards, but he murmured to her, barely audible, “Think of my lips on your stomach, breathing your name across your skin.” Then at a good spot, he whispered, “Now.”
Iaondrin hesitated for a moment, and then put both hands against his chest to push him against the wall of the nearby building. She pressed against him, chest to knee, and kissed him hard. Though her nervousness was apparent to him, just in the way she held herself, to anyone passing the pretense would not be readily apparent. She trailed her lips away from his mouth, to his jawline, so he could see more easily to the offices beyond.
The buildings on this street abutted one another, with shared walls, each of them narrow brick buildings offices with short flights of front steps leading up to the entries, most of them three stories with the occasional one either shorter or taller. The ground floors of most were dark, though the left front window of Vernon’s building and many others had lights on upstairs. There was no guard on the front stoop, though five houses further down there was one on duty for someone else. The roof-line looked clear from this angle, though Vermillion had noted a couple of shadowed figures crouched on other rooftops on their way here. In short, though Vernon seemed to have no exterior guards who could be identified as his, other businessmen on the street did have some, even if none of them paid any particular attention to the drunken lovers groping one another.
He turned his head back to her, kissed her again, lingering before letting his hand slide down her back and come to rest on her buttock. Time to go.
Iaondrin slid one arm around his waist and leaned her head on his shoulder as they turned to walk away. “What’s next?” she murmured, “warehouse or house?”
“From here? The house, I think. Warehouse might be too far,” he weaved a little as they moved up a couple blocks and turned off the road. He took her hand again as he started to move more normally. “Wasn’t too bad, was it?” They moved quickly until they were close – he wanted to get a look at the residence before the spell wore off.
“No, it wasn’t,” she admitted. Here, on this street, the buildings – nearly all two stories – were set back, and most had at least alleyways, if not full courtyards, separating them. It was an area for those who could not quite afford estates outside the city, but wanted to show off a bit of their wealth and still have a baker, or wine shop within a block or two. The occasional carriage came and went, and servants or laborers changing shifts walked the wide, well-maintained sidewalks. Vernon’s house was was behind a low stone wall – one a mere four feet high and more for decoration than anything else, without even a gate barring the way to the front walkway. It sat across from a larger house with a higher stone wall meant to provide true privacy.
After they walked past a few blocks turned down another road and walked back past the rear of the house and away, Bryan said, “He doesn’t seem very worried about us showing up.” And then it dawned on him. “He doesn’t know you have the ring.” It wasn’t even a question. “He doesn’t think we could be here yet.” There had to be a way to use that to their advantage. “You wanna cast that spell again we can go see the warehouse.”
Iaondrin didn’t bother answering aloud, just pulled her hand from his so it would be free to work the weaving once more. The lights of the threads flickered in the darkness, resettling the image about her again. She took his hand once more as they walked towards the docks. The streets here were busier, with the dockworkers and ships’ crews and those who catered to their needs still open for business.
Bryan strolled them past the address they had been given, looking for guards and checking the layout from the front. Once past, he turned a few corners, then walked back to get a look at the rear of the place.
The front of the warehouse faced towards the docks, with tall, wide doors, one of which was propped open to allow the warehousemen to move crates and barrels in and out. A quick glance showed two guards outside, not particularly watchful, chatting with each other and the laborers. It had the look of a place that so seldom saw trouble, everyone was complacent. The door was open enough to give glimpses of the open central area inside.
At the rear, the warehouse backed onto a wide alleyway, with the rear of another warehouse on the far side. The rear doors, similar to the front, were closed, but no guards were visible outside. There were no other entrances at ground level, though there were two shuttered windows at the upper level.
“So we’re not groping each other here?” Iaondrin asked.
“Not unless you want to,” he smiled, squeezing her hand a little. “I’m not sure it would smart of him to keep her here. There are a lot of people who have to go in and out during a normal day. And a lot of chances for someone who knows what they are doin’ to figure out how to get in and out when there ain’t no one here.” He led her back to the Four Mugs, ” ‘Course I’m not sure he thought this whole thing through anyway.”
“It doesn’t seem like a work of genius, snatching a horse,” she agreed. “But I didn’t see a place at the office where they could keep her. Maybe the house?”
“I hope he’s smarter than that or this will be no challenge at all. What’s to stop us from taking the Watch there and saying, ‘That’s my Lady’s horse’? What’s he going to do?” What indeed? “Here’s a thought. What’s he gonna do if we take the Watch to meet the ship?”
“I’d be perfectly happy for it not to be a challenge of any sort,” Iaondrin said. “So why don’t we do that then?”
“I don’t think we can go wrong if it’s Jaely. At worst, we learn they got off between here and Tarrish. If it’s not Jaely,” he shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess we’re stuck still investigating Vernon.”
“By ‘investigating,’ do you mean pulling his fingernails out?” She seemed quite grimly serious about it.
“Is that anyway for a Lady to talk?” he asked as they entered their inn. He asked for some wine bread and cheese to be sent up. In their rooms, he continued, “Don’t worry, Iaondrin. I’ll make sure Vernon knows better than to bother you again. Ever.”
She stood in the middle of the room, obviously not sure what to do next – try to read? Pace? “There’s always going to be someone else, though, isn’t it? I mean, not necessarily someone who will steal my horse, or want to kill me – at least I hope not. But someone who wants to curry favor. Don’t misunderstand, I’ll be more than happy to have Hugh Vernon develop some other obsession. But I don’t get to just shut the door and pretend the rest of the world isn’t out there, do I?”
Bryan sighed. “I don’t think so. At least until the Seat is filled. I wish I could tell you different this time.” He stepped up behind her and rested his hands on her hips. “You can just keep throwing me at them,” he suggested.
“And severed heads.” She put her hands over his, and pulled his arms around her. “She better be okay.” The livery men in Tarrish had said that ‘Walter’ had been good with horses, gentle, and she told herself that meant Jaely would be treated well as long as he was in charge of her. “Otherwise I’ll take him into <between> with me, and leave him there.”
“Oh, my Lady,” he sighed tenderly, resting his chin on her shoulder. “She’s sailing.”
“Snug in her stall, letting the waves of the ocean rock her to sleep.” She half-smiled at the thought. “It’s like she knows she’s going great distances, and she doesn’t have to walk them.” Iaondrin shook her head to clear it of the image of Jaely being pampered at sea. “Right now, it’s the waiting that’s going to drive me crazy. I wanted to get here ahead of them, but now I have to wait. I don’t do patience well.” For all that, she sounded calm, and she was not tense in his arms
He pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Tell me how you first decided you were spoiling her too much.”
“I think it was when I realized I always made certain to buy carrots or fresh apples for her,” Iaondrin said with a hint of a laugh, “even when all I carried for myself was hard-tack.” She was about to go on when a knock on the door announced the arrival of their food—and with it, another sealed message from Laibrook:
He keeps a mistress hidden from his wife at the corner of Eldridge and Ames.
Bryan frowned slightly as he read the note, murmuring, “I didn’t even know he was married.” Shaking his head, he added, “Hugh, you are going to have a very bad couple of days,” before handing the message to Iaondrin. While she read, he poured some wine and made her a plate of bread and cheese and a couple of strawberries and a few slices of apricot.
Iaondrin looked at the short missive and frowned. “That makes it sound like he has the mistress locked up in a trunk.” The frown deepened. “You don’t think he actually keeps his mistress locked up in a trunk, do you?”
“No, I don’t. Laibrook would have said he has a woman kidnapped there instead of calling her a mistress.” He motioned at the chair he set the plate in front of. “Sit and eat. You are going to want to be cross at Jaely for getting herself stolen, and you can’t do that if you haven’t eaten. And you can finish telling me what you were about to say about spoiling Jaely.”
“Like giving her the good winter blanket?” Iaondrin picked up the strawberries first, welcoming the invitation from Bryan to talk about light-hearted things. She started with how Jaely had looked in the seaside fishing village, housed in a lean-to hastily put together by the fisherman who unexpectedly found himself the owner of a mare he didn’t really want.
With light questions and comments, Bryan kept Iaondrin talking about Jaely and nibbling at food until she started yawning and rubbing at her eyes. Then he led her to bed, slipped off her boots, wrapped her in his arms and they slept.
Iaondrin slept deeply, and was still sleeping when Bryan awoke to another quiet knock on the door. The inn serving girl delivered a breakfast of fresh baked muffins and scones, and piping hot tea, and yet another sealed missive from Laibrook.
Dairy farm on west end of Dorsey held under false name – Hillcrest Dairy. Operations in Chade – dockside offices only, under own name.
He swapped out the trays of food with a thank you, then sat and poured himself some tea. The message was a little troubling. If the ship had stopped and unloaded Jaely on Dorsey, that would require another trip, and sailing. Bryan glanced towards the bedroom and made a face. A dairy farm would be a good place to hide a horse. They’d find out when the Gull made port the next day. His office in Chade didn’t sound, so far, like a place one could hide a horse. Bryan sat for awhile, trying to decide if they should give Vernon a chance to return Jaely without going any further. Would that give too much away, that I am here already?
The smell of the tea brought Iaondrin out of the bedroom. She walked out, shirt untucked, rubbing her eyes, only half-awake. She sat down and poured herself a cup, then sat back in the chair, to warm her hands on the mug and blow across the tea to cool it. “I don’t suppose someone delivered my horse, with a bow tied around her neck, did they?”
”’Fraid not. But she might not be on The Spotted Gull when it gets here,” he slid the paper over to her, then pulled apart a muffin and began to eat it. “I’m trying to decide whether we should ferry over and hope to get there before the ship and see if she gets off there, or wait and see if she is on the ship when it gets here, and if not, then go out to check the dairy.”
“He owns a dairy?” Iaondrin asked in disbelief. “I might have to steal one of his cows, just to get even with him.” She began to tear apart a muffin, mostly reducing it to crumbs without eating much. “Or figure out a way to sour their milk.” She began to pick up the pieces of the muffin one by one while she thought. “Well, if they take her to the dairy, then she’ll be there when we get there, I assume. But if we’re there and she’s not, and they unload her in Halveet before we get back … there are a lot of places to go to after that, if he’s not going to have Jaely shack up with the mistress. Then again, if we make a ruckus here in Halveet, while she’s at the farm, will that give him a warning to move her?” She sat back again. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
“You’re right,” he said as if she hadn’t rambled off several possibilities. “We wait here. If she gets off here, then we get the Watch. There’s usually some by the docks anyway. If she doesn’t, I talk to someone on the ship, captain if I can, and find out if they stopped at Dorsey. Then we take a ferry out as soon as possible and get her back.”
Iaondrin almost asked him to clarify what part she was right about, but he had gone on before she had a chance to break in. “Well, if they drop her off at the farm, maybe she’ll make friends. Cows, or goats or something. She’s a friendly sort.”
“We’re gonna need a bigger house,” he smiled slightly. “Try eating a muffin this time,” Bryan suggested, nodding at the crumbs on the plate in front of her. “I’ll go talk to Master Laibrook about what we now suspect. Then we are probably stuck here, at least during the day.”
Iaondrin frowned, and picked up another muffin, this one with blueberries baked into it, and took a bite without tearing it apart. “I’ll try to read. Maybe some other time, when I’m not needing to hide out so as not to alert a horse-napper to my presence, I can waste some time at the Libraries.”
“Exploding worms?” he smiled again. After making sure she ate the muffin, he gave her a kiss, promising to be back quickly. Visiting Laibrook, he told him of their plan to wait for the ship and if Jaely was on it, tell the Watch the horse was stolen in Tarrish. If not, they would go check out the dairy farm, as that seemed an ideal place to keep a horse without drawing suspicion.
“Let me know if you need to go to Dorsey. I can get a name of someone for you to call on, if you need help – extra set of eyes, or someone to smooth things over,” Laibrook said, “with the local constabulary.” He tapped a pencil on the top of his desk, obviously thinking about something. “If I may inquire – don’t tell me details – but are you sure they are safe?” He hadn’t asked before during either prior visit, while Iaondrin was present, but his concern, though muted, was obvious.
“Sure as I can be without knowing exactly where they are.” Bryan paused, trying to think of what more he could say that wouldn’t give away too much. “They are in one of the last places it would be thought to look for them, and even if they were located, they aren’t alone and it wouldn’t be easy to get to them.” He paused again, tilting his head as he puzzled through his own words, then shrugged. “I might be able to get a message to them.”
“Her father would like to send word to her. To let her know he misses her, and thinks of her.” Laibrook sat back in his chair. “If he were sure she could be safe – that he could trust those around him – then he would bring her home. And if she wanted to send word back to him… It would make his heart glad.”
“Write out the message and I’ll send it up the chain and we’ll see if it gets to her,” Bryan suggested. “They know who she is and so they know what they are up against. So they should know if it is safe enough to keep passing the message along. If it works, we could set up something for passing messages. I’m not sure we want her father sending regular messages to either of us, though…” The necklace? “Or, if he’s got a few thousand gold to spend, we could get him something that will allow him to talk to her.”
Laibrook raised an eyebrow, considering. Once Bryan explained what he meant, he nodded. “That would be a great gift to both of them, I am sure.”
They set it up so Bryan would order another necklace to be created when he got the coin from Arkus. He waited for Laibrook to get him the message he wanted sent to Maeva, then thanked him and went to the Skalds to send the message to Gilford with his own letter of explanation. Back at the inn, he told Iaondrin what had happened, then settled in to wait.
Iaondrin divided her time between reading, pretending to read, and pacing. At one point, she asked if Bryan had a deck of cards and any games to teach, but lacked the patience to actually learn the rules. Meals were delivered, and picked apart, and finally at least partially eaten. She woke early the morning that the Gull was set to arrive, repeatedly asked if she should take the potion now so they could go to the docks … what about now? ... is it time yet? before throwing herself on the couch to scowl at the floor and tap her foot in impatience.
Bryan moved to sit next to her. “Hey,” he said softly, turning her face to his gently. Not put off by her scowl, he leaned closer and brushed his lips across hers, then pressed more firmly, kissing her until she relaxed against him. Long moments later, he whispered, “It’s alright, Iaondrin. We’re right where we need to be, and we’ll probably see her today. May not be able to get her back today, but we’ll see her.”
“I know.” She repeated it, just to make sure she believed it. “The closer it gets, the more impatient I get. I want to go find Hugh Vernon and set his whiskers on fire.”
“Kiss me,” he suggested. When she blinked at him, he added, “How much time passed during our last kiss? Or were you just counting the seconds until it was over?”
“You are not getting into my pants until I have my horse back,” she answered, “no matter how creative your excuses are for groping me. Even if,” she finished with mock grumpiness, “the kiss was very nice.”
“You couldn’t make me get into your pants,” he offered a false protest. “I dare ya to try.”
Iaondrin just looked at him, blinking. “Exactly how dense do you think I am?”
He laughed. “Not dense at all, my Lady. I think you are a treasure.” He took her hands in his and pressed a kiss to each one. “But that does leave under your shirt, right?”
“I suppose.” She looked down at the front of her shirt. “I guess if you need a way to pass the time…”
“A treasure,” he murmured, then, “You were the one who needed a way to pass the time, remember?” He pulled her arms around his shoulders, put his around her waist. “I’ll not press you while you are… distracted, Iaondrin. Just know that I have missed you. Not just getting into your pants, but you as you are at home. It’s another of the reasons I am annoyed by Vernon.”
She didn’t say anything immediately, but eventually nodded. “I understand. I miss it, too.” She fell silent again, then asked. “So can we go now?”
“Yes, my Lady. I think we can go loiter on the docks now.” Not sure when, or even if, they would be back, they made sure they had all their stuff with them and headed down to the dock the Gull was supposed to put into.
The docks were busy enough with people – including people just waiting for passengers to arrive – that they did not stand out or draw attention by their loitering. Iaondrin began to pace when the ship approached, and the dockhands and crew starting tossing ropes back and forth and securing everything. “I thought this seemed to take a long time when I was waiting to get off,” she muttered.
When the laborers started unloading the hold, she stood chewing her bottom lip, eyes never moving. But neither Darryl Walters, nor Jaely, came off the ship.
Vermillion sidled up to one of the sailors from the Gull who had been unloading the ship. “Excuse me. Wasn’t there a mare loaded on the ship in Tarrish?” he asked. He needed to make sure.
“Aye, there was. Dropped ‘er off wit’ a bit of cargo on West Dorsey this morn.”
“Thank you,” Vermillion said and went back to Iaondrin. “We need to go to Laibrook, then get out to Dorsey.” They got the name of Laibrook’s contact then got on the next ferry out to Dorsey. A few questions and they were pointed to Hillcrest Dairy.
They were able to hitch a ride on a wagon that was headed up the track, and that would get them three-quarters of the way there before turning off to deliver some crates to another farm along the way. The driver wasn’t particularly talkative, but was friendly enough to share a bottle of cold strawberry wine with them. “Got some strawberry vines off the road,” he said to them as they jumped down, “on public land. Can help yourself if’n ya want.” With a wave and a snap of the reins, he set his draft horses to turn down a side-track to make his delivery.
Iaondrin perked up at the suggestion. “Jaely likes strawberries. I might even save some for her.”
Vermillion nodded, led the way up the road a bit. It didn’t take much traveling before there were fences running along the side of the road and cows out in the fields. On their right was a sign for Hillcrest Dairy next to a worn road up to a large farmhouse and barn. He sat down on the ground next to the sign, urged Iaondrin to do the same, “Because we’ve been walking all day.” He sat silently for a time, nibbling on some bread. “I’m not sure what to do now,” he finally admitted. “Part of me just wants to walk in, find Jaely and walk out with her, but, and it has to be considered, what if she isn’t here? I don’t really feel like waiting for dark to look around, but that pouch of Dust only lasts about thirty seconds.” He turned to gauge the distance to the barn. “I might be able to get to the barn and then skulk around some. I should have asked Azpiri for some potions to turn myself invisible.”
“I can give you about five minutes of invisibility,” Iaondrin volunteered. When Vermillion looked at her in surprise, she shrugged. “I didn’t mention it before because we didn’t really have a situation where it would have been of that much use. I can also try Azpiri’s scroll, to see if I can locate her.”
He muttered something about being too used to doing things the hard way, followed that up with a grumble about forgetting the tools they have at hand. Tilting his head to the side, he tried to decide if they should risk their one spell here, then nodded. “Try the scroll.”
Iaondrin pulled the scroll out and smoothed it over one knee so she could read the incantation, hands twisting in the air in front of her. When it was done, she rolled the blank parchment up and stowed it away. “If she’s here, she’s not in range – I need to walk around some.”
Vermillion looked around some, then shrugged. “Want some cheese to go with our bread?” They started up the road to the farmhouse to get some cheese and allow Iaondrin to see if the spell would reveal Jaely.
They fell in with others who were coming and going, buying milk, butter, cheese or other farm products for the use of the seaside villas nearer the beaches, or selling supplies that the farm needed for its operations. There was even a small shed near the barn where people lined up to buy smaller samples of the farm’s output, and Vermillion and Iaondrin were able to wander closer to it without drawing any unusual attention. Three steps away from it, Iaondrin stiffened, fingers clenching on Bryan’s, and when he looked over, she had an expression of fierce joy on her face. “The barn – past it, I think. She’s too far away to be in it.”
He looked around, didn’t see anyone to worry overmuch about. “Let’s go get your horse,” he said firmly and stepped out of line one hand still holding hers, other hand on his sword hilt, then followed her lead.
They were past the corner of the barn before anyone noticed what they were doing, and even then it was just a farmhand walking past with a bucket of water in each hand. He turned as they walked past, “Er, miss? Sir, can I help you?”
“No,” Iaondrin answered sternly, and started to walk faster. When there proved to be no gate through the fence that abutted against the barn, she let go of Bryan’s hand to scramble up and over the other side. The man set down both buckets, calling after her, but she ignored him, and gave a short, sharp whistle.
From the far side of the pasture behind the barn, among a group of horses, one chestnut mare came trotting over, ears and tail perked up. When she saw Iaondrin, she bolted over with as close to a look of “there you are!” that a horse could have.
“Miss!” the farmhand called again, and now a couple of others came over the fence with him.
Vermillion turned and walked directly towards the closest farmhand, stopping an arm length away, his palm firmly against the man’s chest. “Where is the man who brought this horse in this morning?” he asked dangerously.
The man stared at Vermillion in surprise, as if he had never seen the like – and he probably hadn’t. “Mr. Walters? He’s up at the house. Came in just this morning.” He looked over Vermillion’s shoulder, where Iaondrin had wrapped both arms around Jaely’s neck in a tight hug. “Ah, uh …” His eyes dropped to Vermillion’s sword, and he obviously didn’t know what to say.
“Would you please ask him to come over here? And whoever is in charge of this dairy farm, too. Thanks. I’ll wait here.”
The man nodded blankly, and waited until Vermillion dropped his hand. He waved the other men back, indicating they shouldn’t risk getting themselves hurt by getting in the middle of something none of them understood. He turned to talk up to the house, about 100 feet away, at a fast pace and disappeared inside.
Iaondrin stood, running her hands over Jaely’s neck and sides and legs, and dodging the horse’s unceasing nudging for treats. I’m not going to look, she thought, or else I’m going to want to set him on fire.
The farmhand appeared on the wraparound porch again, accompanied by a man, and a woman dressed in rough trousers and a shirt. He pointed over, talking to both of them. The second man – Darryl Walters, stepped over to the edge of the porch, and then froze when he saw Iaondrin’s red hair in the sunlight – and then Vermillion.
“Come on over here, Darryl!” Vermillion called. “We need to talk. Now.”
The man looked about, this way and that, obviously trying to calculate the fastest way to get as far from Vermillion as possible. The farmhand, in turn, held up his own hands as he talked to Darryl and the woman, and backed off – even without hearing his words, it was apparent he would have nothing to do with whatever the dispute was. The woman gave a chopping action with her hand, pointed at Darryl to tell him to stay put, and walked down the steps towards Vermillion.
As she came closer, he could see she was human, on the far side of her late forties, with shoulder-length curly brown hair pulled to the back of her head, and level brown eyes that considered him from under the wide brim of a farm hat. “I’m Stella Jordan,” she said in a voice with a clipped accent. “You have a problem with Mr. Walters?”
“You in charge?” he asked. At her nod, he said, “You wanna call the Watch or should I?”
Her eyes narrowed as she considered him, and then she – like the farmhand before her – looked past him to Iaondrin. “No need for that,” she said slowly, turning her gaze back to Vermillion. “You have an issue here?” Around them, the farmhands were staring, and even a few of the customers had stopped to watch, wondering what was going on.
“We are leaving with my Lady’s horse. You have a problem with that, call the Watch now. Get in our way, and I’ll call the Watch to tell them why I cut you in half before I explain who really owns this farm and why he might not want that known to the League.”
Her eyes narrowed again, and flashed with anger. But she knew there was nothing she could do – they hadn’t expected a surprise visit like this, and weren’t prepared for it. “Have a safe trip back,” she said, forcing a smile onto her face.
“Fuck off. And don’t let there be a next time. Let’s go, my Lady. Make sure you have all her gear.” As they were leaving, he glared a warning at Darryl that he should never again come to Tarrish, and then they were through the silent onlookers and back to the road, heading back to the town. “You are going to travel as fast as you can to the other side of Dorsey and get on a ship to Tarrish. It’ll be a shorter boat ride.”
“I_ am?” she asked, not sure she heard him right. “You mean, _we are, right?”
“No. I’m going to make sure Vernon understands he should leave you the fuck alone. I wasn’t thinking you wanted to be that close to him.”
“I don’t want to be close to him. But -” She stopped for a moment, then made herself continue, “But I don’t want to be that far away from you, either.” Jaely flicked her ears, perhaps in surprise at hearing her mistress admit that to someone else. The horse gave Bryan a look that, maybe, expressed her opinion that he had been a good influence on Iaondrin.
He found himself smiling, but, just for an instant, he saw her again huddled in her circle at the Cauldron on the island, thought about how it felt to have her in his arms. His anger at Vernon had kept him from thinking about how he would feel about being apart from Iaondrin. He reached for her hand—as much as he wanted her clear of this, he didn’t want to be apart, either.
Still, Iaondrin could see his point – get both her and Jaely away, where he didn’t need to worry about Hugh Vernon or his bumbling minions troubling them. “At least let me take the ferry back to Halveet and I can ride from there,” she offered as a compromise. “Dorsey is a long island, and it will be a long ride to the eastern end. If they’re determined to continue causing trouble, it will be easier for them to contain me on Dorsey than on the entire continent.”
“They won’t be able to contain you at all if we’re together,” he said finally, thinking quickly. “It might be fun to have him think he’s about to get everything he ever dreamed of before we crush him beneath our boot heels. It shouldn’t take too long, since I was just going to walk into his offices. Let’s get there before his people have time to tell him we already got Jaely back.”
The smile she gave him was swift and bright, and even Jaely looked surprised to see it. “Ride with me,” she said, “and Jaely can get us down to the ferry. Glare at anyone who tries to get ahead of us.”
Riding behind her, the seat wasn’t comfortable, but holding onto her more than made up for it. Not that many glares were actually needed this time of day to get on the next ferry back to Halveet. “If you can bear to be away from her for a little while longer, we can leave her at Laibrook’s shop, where there are guards, while we talk to Vernon.” No sense putting Jaely back near the scalawag.
Iaondrin agreed readily enough, and Laibrook was more than accommodating in agreeing to keep an eye on the mare. As they left, Jaely seemed determined to nose a carrot or two out of somebody, since Iaondrin had turned up woefully unequipped. “I’ll have to get an apple or something before we come back,” Iaondrin muttered, but the frown was only slight, and she walked with a spring in her step that had been missing as long as Jaely.
He held her hand as they walked, leading her back to the row of business offices they had visited just a couple of nights before. Walking up the path to the door of Vernon’s place, Vermillion told Iaondrin, “Don’t talk unless I talk to you first. He isn’t worth your time, hey? Feel free to frown and glare as necessary, though.” Then they stepped inside, Vermillion shaking out his left arm and making sure his knife was in easy reach.
Iaondrin had the frown firmly in place by the time they stepped through the front door. The front room was all polished wood, with a secretary sitting at the front desk. A hall ran past a staircase that turned upwards, leading to the back of the building with two doors off to the left. “Clarice!” a man’s voice called from one of the back offices, “make sure to order a bottle or two of bubbly! And send flowers to Nanette!” There was a pause. “Might as well send some to my wife as well,” he added with a laugh.
Vermillion shook his head. The man really wasn’t very bright. He looked at ‘Clarice’, then shrugged and walked past her to the office in the back, ignoring her startled exclamation of protest. Stopping in the doorway, he surveyed the office quickly. “Hello, Hugh,” he said in a tone between conversational and deadly. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t gut you right here and now.”
Vernon turned from a wall, which was covered with a detailed map of a mountainous area, that Vermillion could guess was the region around the A’nari Keep. He had a thumbtack in one hand and a pencil in the other. He looked at Vermillion in surprise. “Gut me?” he repeated, with a note of bonhomie. “Why my good man, we’ve not even been introduced, and I’ve already moved you to such strong emotions!” Then his eyes took in the next person who stepped into the doorway, Iaondrin with her glare. “Oh my!” he breathed, obviously pleased. “I thought you might never grace me with your presence!”
“Not knowing you is not a good reason, Hugh,” Vermillion warned, going on as if Vernon hadn’t addressed someone else. A quick move and Vermillion had Vernon shoved up against the map on the wall, meteoric knife pressed against his stomach and a hand on his throat. “You fucked with the wrong person.”
Vernon started to frown, beginning to suspect that things were not going to go quite as smoothly as he had hoped. “Now now,” he croaked around Vermillion’s hand on his throat, “let’s not over-react here.” Except it came out “lek’s nah ower-reah heah.” His eyes found Iaondrin again. “It’s just business, you see.”
There was a sound from the front room, and Iaondrin’s head turned to see what the secretary was up to. Her scowl deepened, and she lifted both hands. A few incomprehensible words, and there was a loud thump as the secretary fell, followed by a distinctive snore.
“Business? Business? Raiding my Lady’s childhood home? The place of the deaths of those in her House? Her family?” The quietness of Vermillion’s voice made the anger glittering in his eyes sharper. “Hounding her across the League for a dozen years? Sending thugs to try and kidnap her?” The point of the knife pressed just a trifle closer, the fingers at his throat tightened just a little more. “Sending four expeditions to die?” Vermillion cut off his air totally for a few seconds when Vernon tried to deny it. “Don’t lie to me, Hugh.”
“Vind know what they’re getting into,” Vernon wheezed in a hoarse voice. “If she
” He looked again at Iaondrin, “ if you would just tell us how to get in safe, and out again, then you’ll have your horse back. I promise, she’s being treated well.”
Vermillion smiled then, but there was no humor in it. “You didn’t look into the Nightsong Guild before doing this, did you, Hugh? Because one of the services the Guild performs for clients is returning stolen items to their owners. I’m very good at my job, and do you wanna know why, Hugh?” He went on without waiting for an answer. “It’s because I don’t mind getting my hands bloody.” He paused to let that sink into Vernon’s thick skull, then added, “Darryl Walters is never going back to Tarrish, and Stella Jordan is hoping she never crosses my path again.”
Vernon’s face went pale as his mind tried to process how the statements about Walters and Jordan paired up with Vermillion “getting his hands bloody.” He swallowed hard. “Wha – What d-did you do to them?” he asked in a whisper.
“We got my Lady’s horse back. So I’m going to ask you one more time, Hugh. Is there a good reason I shouldn’t gut you right here and now?” Vermillion pressed the knife hard enough to barely break the skin of Vernon’s stomach. “Maybe some promises you could make to the Lady A’nari and myself? Such as giving up all your ideas about getting into the Keep? Such as never, ever thinking about my Lady again let alone bothering her? And you might want to throw in ten or fifteen thousand gold as an apology gift for all the trouble you have caused my Lady over the years.”
Vernon was already mumbling out the promises, one after another, before Vermillion reached the end. Then he stopped. “Ten? Fifteen?”
Typical League merchant, it was the money that tripped him up, Iaondrin thought. She could tell he wouldn’t keep the promise about staying away from the Keep, but at least in the moment he paid lip service to the idea. The one to leave her alone? That one, he would keep, she could guess that from the slow stain spreading across the front of his pants. She was almost embarrassed for him, knowing too well what that fear was like, and looked away.
“You have a list here?” she asked softly, walking over to his desk. Vermillion hadn’t wanted her to speak, but she needed to ask. “Of those you sent to the Keep?” As Vermillion held him in place, she started opening drawers, flipping through folders. “Their names? Where they came from?” It was here, she knew it, he would keep meticulous records. “I want you to pay admission for each one, for the privilege of visiting my family’s grave.” File cabinet, first drawer rear, she found it. “I think fifteen will do it.” There was ice in her voice, and in her eyes, and around her heart, as she stepped closer. “Or shall I kiss you, Hugh Vernon?”
In that moment, holding the list of those he had sent to their deaths, she wanted to do it, to mark him. But he would not be alone when the hunt came, she knew, and even if some of those about him might be akin to Stella Jordan or Darryl Walters, not all of them would be.
“I’d pay, Hugh,” Vermillion advised. “There’s no way you could survive what hunts the A’nari and those they touch. Now listen closely. If I ever hear you are sending more people to the Keep, or if I ever hear that you are looking for my Lady or have even mentioned her in a conversation, or if I hear you haven’t paid these families, I’m coming back. And I’m not going to be so polite next time.” He pulled the knife away from the man’s stomach finally, held it so he could see it, then released him.
It took a hand, and then the other, on a back of a chair for Vernon to hold himself up. He gaped at both of them, obviously stunned that his oh-so-clever scheme had taken such a terrible turn for the worse. Iaondrin looked around the office once more, and then turned on one heel and stalked out. She stepped over the still-sleeping secretary in the front room without stopping, suddenly feeling the need to get far away from Hugh Vernon. She didn’t stop until she was on the sidewalk again, blinking at the sunlight.
Vermillion followed her out, not sure he shouldn’t have kicked Vernon in the balls for his trouble. He took Iaondrin’s hand and walked her down the street a little bit before speaking. “You alright?”
“I actually felt sorry for the fucker for a minute or two. Until I saw the list.” She bit the words off and shook her head. “I know you don’t like Vind, and you have reason enough. But those people – most of them, I bet, just wanted a big payday so they didn’t have to work again. And he probably offered them just a cut of whatever they could haul out in exchange for outfitting them.” She drew a deep breath. “I just want to go home now.”
“Just because they have no subtlety or finesse doesn’t mean I want them to die,” he told her. Back at Laibrook’s shop, Bryan thanked the jeweler again for all his help, assured him his message was on its way, and reminded him that he would get the necklace made when he got the money.
“Also, I think it would be good if Vernon’s wife found out about his mistress and the League found out about Hillcrest Dairy. In a day or so. I wouldn’t mind if a rumor went around about Vermillion being the one who broke Vernon because he threatened my Lady. And I’d like to know a good place to buy a horse for myself.”
Laibrook gave them the name of a stabler who always had a few horses available for sale, and simply nodded at the rest of Bryan’s words. Outside the shop, Iaondrin looked at Bryan in surprise. “But you already have two horses,” she pointed out. “What are you going to to with this one after you get back to Tarrish?”
“Are you proposing I walk to Tarrish? Because both of us on Jaely for the whole trip is going to tire her out in a hurry,” he told her. “I can always sell it if it doesn’t fit me. Won’t be the first time.” Bryan looked over at her. “Not everyone finds a horse that fits them as well as Jaely, and I used to just sail when I needed to go somewhere.”
Iaondrin twisted the ring on her finger with her thumb, and he could see her thinking about proposing they use it again. But then she thrust her hand into her pants pocket, obviously not wanting to do so. “We can sail. Maybe I can get something that will make me less nauseous. I’ve heard mint tea can help.” She sounded doubtful.
“I know you want to get home, but you don’t have to torture yourself to do it,” he said gently. “If you’re sure that’s what you want to do, we’ll find an apothecary who might have something that will help, but I’d rather not see you in distress.”
“You’re just worried that I’ll get your boots this time.” She walked on in silence for a bit, and then shrugged. “I should try it. If it doesn’t help, then I’ll know next time that it’s land travel from here on out.”
Bryan nodded and they wandered the markets and shops, asking a few different apothecaries what they advised. There was some consensus on a couple of leaves or roots, but some of the suggestions were wildly incongruent. They bought a little of this and a little of that to see what might work. Then they were on a ship heading home.
To be continued.