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The Stag and Otter
seregil balanced precariously atop the shard-lined wall, impatiently scanning the shadowy garden below for his misplaced partner. Alec had been right behind him when he'd shimmied out the library window, or so he'd thought.
Everything about this job had taken too long: finding a way in, finding the right room (for which they'd been given the wrong directions), then finding the stolen brooch in question, the possessor of which—one of the most vicious new blackmailers in Rh’minee—had very wisely kept in a casket with several dozen others. Seregil had to scrutinize each one by a lightstone's glow. If he hadn't been so fond of the young lady whose reputation hung on the success of this night's work, he'd have given up the whole damned mess hours ago.
Dawn was a faint smudge above the rooftops now. A weak but welcome breeze whispered through the yellowing leaves of the garden below. It tugged at the long, stray strands of dark hair clinging, sweat-plastered, to Seregil's forehead. Summer's heat was lingering into early autumn this year. His thin linen shirt was soaked through and rank under the arms. The swath of black silk across his lower face was sticking to his lips. He just wanted to go home to a bath and clean cool sheets . . .
Yet there was still no sign of Alec.
"Hey! Where are you?" he called softly. He was about to risk calling out again when he heard a muttered curse from the shadow of a pear tree near the house.
"I dropped it," Alec hissed, still out of sight.
"Oh, please tell me you're joking!" Seregil whispered back.
"Shh! They'll hear you."
The telltale scrape of iron against stone came from the nearby kitchen as some early-rising servant stirred up banked coals on a hearth.
Seregil climbed down the lime tree they'd used for a ladder, with every intention of collaring Alec and dragging him away—by force if need be.
The younger man's dark clothing made him all but invisible in the shadows, except for his blond braid. He'd pulled off his head scarf somewhere along the way and his hair gleamed tellingly over one shoulder as he scrabbled about on hands and knees, searching frantically in the grass.
Stubborn as always, Alec crawled back toward the house instead, frantically brushing his hands over the clipped turf. Seregil was reaching for Alec's braid when the sound of a door opening sent them both flat on their bellies. Neither breathed as a young servant trudged by with reeking pails of night soil, passing within a few feet of where they lay.
As soon as he was gone, Alec was on his feet, pulling Seregil up. "Found it! Come on."
"Now you're in a hurry?"
They ran for the tree. Seregil, the better climber, laced his fingers together and gave Alec a one-footed boost up into the lowest branches. Before he could follow, however, he heard a startled gasp behind him. Turning, he found the servant staring straight at him, empty pails on the ground at his feet. They stood eye-locked for an instant, then the child found his voice and shrieked, "Robbers! Mistress Hobb, loose the dogs!"
Seregil scarcely felt the rough bark of the tree as he launched himself up. He hadn't once been known as the Rh’minee Cat for nothing. In his haste, he was careless, though, and sliced his hand open on one of the pottery shards set into the top of the wall. Ignoring the pain, he vaulted over and landed in a crouch on the pavement beside Alec. As they sprinted away, two enormous mastiffs came pelting out through a side gate, and several men with them, armed with cudgels.
"Do it!" Alec hissed, eyes wide above his mask. "Do the dog thing!"
"I'd have to stop first, wouldn't I?" Seregil panted, trying to staunch his bloody hand in his shirttail as he ran. "Follow me."
The Temple District was not the sort of neighborhood in which masked men being pursued by large dogs went unremarked upon, even at this hour. The Scavenger crews were already at work, and Seregil collided with one of them as he rounded the corner into Long Yew Street. He kept his feet but had to roll awkwardly across the top of her stinking barrow, coming eye to eye with a rotting dog in the process.
"I'll have the Watch on you, you bastards!" she screeched after them as they pelted on. And all the while, their enemy the sun was rising, and the dogs were gaining.
Seregil caught Alec's arm and steered him down a side street lined with shops. Alec pulled away hastily.
"Bilairy's Balls, you stink!"
Seregil thought that certainly summed up their night's work.
At the far end of this street, a wall screened the sacred grove behind the temple of Dalna.
"Up," he ordered, making a stirrup of his hands again.
He winced as Alec thrust a dirty boot against his wounded palm and jumped. Making the top of the wall, Alec reached down to Seregil, but once again, it was too late. The dogs came boiling up, snarling and slavering.
Cornered, Seregil thrust out his bloody left hand, first and little finger extended and turned it like a key in a lock. "Soora thalassi!"
It was a minor spell, and one of the very few he'd ever been able to reliably accomplish. But this one always worked, and he'd probably done it thousands of times over the years. All the same, he held his breath as the dogs skidded to a halt. The larger of the two sniffed at him curiously, then wagged her tail. Seregil gave them both a pat on the head and waved them off.
Judging by the outcry close behind, though, their masters hadn't given up yet. With Alec's help, Seregil scrambled quickly up the rough stonework. They dropped over the other side and collapsed, panting, with their heads between their knees. It was still dark and cool in the beech grove. Overhead, the fading leaves rattled soothingly in the breeze. A small shrine stood nearby, and a broad path led in the direction of the temple.
Seregil breathed the fragrant, herb-scented air and willed his heart to stop pounding. A few of the brown temple doves fluttered down to join them, cooing eagerly for a handout. On the other side of the wall, he heard their pursuers pound by, cursing the dogs and still thinking their quarry somewhere ahead.
"Cut that a bit close, didn't we?" Alec pulled off his sweat-soaked mask and used it to bind Seregil's hand.
The salt stung the raw skin and Seregil winced. "We're going soft. Too much larking about. So, how the hell did you drop the thing?"
Alec pulled the brooch from inside his shirt. It was a delicate piece; a tiny crescent set with pearls. "It's so small. I was trying to put it somewhere safe, so I wouldn't—"
Before Alec could defend himself, a high-pitched voice called out, "You there! What do you think you're doing? This is sacred ground!"
Seregil stood up, scattering the doves. A half-grown acolyte came hurrying toward them, his short brown robe whipping around his skinny legs.
It was force of habit, more than anything, that made Alec and Seregil both head for the wall. Before he could find purchase, however, Seregil felt something like an attack of bees shoot through the backs of his legs, cramping his muscles and halting him in his tracks. Alec let out a yelp and whirled around, slapping at his thighs and buttocks.
"Peace, brother," Seregil gritted out as he faced down the outraged Dalnan. "We mean no harm."
"Lord Seregil? Lord Alec?" The boy made them a hasty bow. "Forgive me! I didn't realize you were here. There was an outcry just now and I took you for the thieves."
"I guess you startled us as much as we did you," Alec replied, with the full force of the country-bred guilelessness "Lord Alec" was known for.
Seregil smothered a grin as the acolyte laughed. Being a ya'shel—a half-breed—Alec still looked deceptively boyish at twenty. Somehow, all the evil and hardship he'd seen in his short life, most of it since meeting Seregil, had not dimmed his innocent glow. With those dark blue eyes and that golden hair, he could charm man or woman, old or young, with no more than a smile and few well-chosen words.
"I'm afraid we came straight on from the Lower City," Seregil said, feigning chagrin as he brushed a hand over his questionable attire. "My friend here is in need of some spiritual solace, after the drubbing we took at the gaming houses. Lost the coats off our backs, as you can see, and saw a bit of fighting."
"But what are you doing way back here?" asked the boy.
"Praying," Alec replied quickly. "I wanted to see Valerius, but it's so early I thought I'd meditate a bit until he was up."
"Of course, my lord. I hope you'll pardon my interruption. I'll tell him you're here."
Seregil watched him go, then raised an eyebrow at Alec. "You just lied to a priest."
"So did you."
"I lie to everyone. You're the good Dalnan boy."
"I haven't been a good Dalnan boy since I met you. All the same . . ." Alec went to the shrine and softly sang some prayer, the picture of piety.
Seregil left him to it, steeling himself to face Valerius. He and the priest had both been Watchers, and had worked together many times over the years, but Seregil's gut still tightened as he caught sight of the man striding toward them, his black beard and eyebrows noticeably bristling.
Valerius had been the high priest of Dalna in Rh’minee for four years now, but it hadn't smoothed his temper. He went straight for Alec and gave him a sharp cuff on the ear.
"That's for lying inside the precinct, you whelp!"
"Ow! Sorry," Alec said humbly, clasping the side of his head.
Valerius knew better than to raise a hand to Seregil, but his expression was enough to make the smaller man take a step back. "All the barking and yelling that just disturbed my morning meditation would be your doing, I take it?"
"All in a good cause."
Valerius snorted and folded his arms across his broad chest. A northerner like Alec, he was half a head taller than either of them and built like a mountain bear.
And just as ill-tempered, Seregil reflected sourly. Considerably more dangerous, too, even in a good mood.
"Well, I suppose that's better than what Brother Myus thought he caught you two at."
"I wouldn't!" Alec gasped, going red to the ears. "Not here."
Valerius gave him another disapproving look. The truth was he liked Alec and had always blamed Seregil for what he deemed the young man's fall into bad ways. In the eyes of most of Rh’minee society, Alec was a minor noble of no consequence beyond his somewhat scandalous association with the dissolute and clever Lord Seregil. The fact that he'd first been introduced to society as Seregil's ward only added to the gossip. But in Rh’minee, of course, that was generally a plus.
"So you're still up to your old tricks?" Valerius rumbled as they walked back toward the temple.
"Not much else to do, these days," Seregil replied. "With Thero still in Aur‘nen, there's been no—" He waved a hand casually, thumb hooked over the top of his third finger: the sign for Watcher business.
Valerius paused near the portico and lowered his voice. "And Phoria still hasn't summoned you? It's been well over a year now, hasn't it? After what the two of you accomplished for Skala in Aur‘nen, I should think she'd want you with her spies."
"Then you don't know Phoria," Seregil muttered.
"We hope to see her when she returns from the front," Alec told him, anxious to change the subject.
"Duke Tornus wrote to her on our behalf, offering our services again."
"Ah, yes. Will you be sitting with the Royal Kin for the Progress?"
Seregil gave him a wry look. "We haven't received our invitation yet."
Acolytes were spreading the morning crumbs for the doves in the temple courtyard. A few birds fluttered up at their approach, and one landed on Alec's shoulder. He offered it a finger and it perched there, preening.
Seregil grinned at Valerius. "See? Your Maker still loves him, even with me around."
"Perhaps," Valerius muttered.
Seregil regretted his choice of hiding place. Valerius's jibes about Alec still struck more deeply than Seregil liked to admit.
Friend, partner in their precarious secret business, and talimenios—there was no proper translation for all that encompassed, or the deep bond of heart and body he and Alec shared. Seregil had taught him guile and all the tricks of the nightrunner trade, but at heart Alec was still the honest woodsman he'd found in that northern cell, and for that Seregil would always be grateful. Loving Alec made him feel almost clean again, himself.
Valerius lent them light cloaks and they set off for the Stag and Otter to change clothes.
"Well, that could have gone better, but at least we got what we went for. That's the most fun we've had in ages!" Alec flipped the brooch up in the air.
Seregil snatched it in midair and shoved it into his purse. "Are you trying to drop it again?"
"I found it, didn't I?" Alec teased, determined not to let Seregil sink into one of his moods. "Admit it. That was fun!"
"Well, more fun than moping around Wheel Street, or at some noble's salon."
"And when have we been doing that? I'm quite out of fashion at court these days, along with most things Aur‘nfaie."
"Ingrates," muttered Alec.
There had been a number of notable shifts at court, following the death of Queen Idrilain two winters earlier—even with her successor, Queen Phoria, away most of the year, fighting in Mycena. Despite the obvious benefits of reopened trade with Aur‘nen, she had issued a royal decree: the Aur‘nfaie style of naming, popular since the time of the first Idrilain, was no longer used at court. Southern styles in dress, jewelry, and music were also out of fashion. Young men were letting their beards grow and wearing their hair cropped short about the ears.
Seregil's response had, of course, been to refuse to cut his hair at all. It was well past his shoulders now. Alec did the same, but braided his to keep it out of his face.
Among the general populace, however, Aur‘nfaie goods were in great demand. Whatever the nobles might do in public to please the new queen, the people hadn't lost their taste for luxuries and novelty.
The Harvest Market was bustling by the time they reached it, the huge square filled with the colored awnings and ranks of booths selling everything from cheap jewels and knit goods to live poultry and cheese. A Queen's Herald stood on the platform near the central fountain, announcing some victory on the Folcwine.