Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Free Fiction: chapter 1 of Dream a Deadly Dream

For free fiction Wednesday at Writers' Ink, we're offering the first chapter of Dream a Deadly Dream, book 2 in my Enclave series, available exclusively on Amazon.

Chapter 1

Fire arced from the woman’s fingertips.  White fire, wizard fire, leaping from her hands to the  White sparks spattered over the kindling then winked out, snuffed by the wet.
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sticks and leaves.
Hidden beneath a leaf-shedding privet, Cherai strained to see what the wizard was doing.  Her breath fogged in the cold air.  She clamped her lips together and breathed slowly through her nose.  Caution nagged her to steal away, but she lingered.  The wizard couldn’t see her.  The privet with its burden of tangled woodbine provided a good shelter.  Nightfall would soon cloak the hillside with dark clumps and spindly silhouettes.  She was safe.
This woman—stranger and wizard—she was doubly dangerous. 
She looked like an outcast noble.  Cherai should feel sympathy for her.  She remembered her own first days on the road.  But welding power—no.  Vaermonde had outlawed wizardry three generations ago.  The iron-gloved Inquisition quickly disposed of anyone practicing magickal arts.  With troubles haunting her heels, Cherai knew she should slip away undetected.  She should get back to the road, find another camp for the night.  A dry camp.  A camp sheltered from the wind.  She would settle for either.  While the fire snared the woman’s attention, she could slither away.  Yet she ignored the prickling caution.  Her cold, cold fingers dug into the wet humus.  The power that jumped from the wizard’s hands might be fascinating, but it was the faint trickle of woodsmoke and the warmth it represented that captivated her.
Wizard fire arced from the woman’s hands again, bathing the kindling with its energy, but the wet wood lacked combustible heat.  Smoke trickled up, nothing more.  The woman rearranged the sticks then reached inside her dark gown.  Wondering what magical tool she would produce, Cherai strained to see in the deepening twilight.  The woman drew out something small and white.  It unfolded into a sheet of parchment, and Cherai subsided with disappointment.
Lips pursed, the wizard scanned the words.  Her mouth twisted.  Then she shrugged and tore the paper across.  She splindled the pieces for dry tinder.  Then she jerked at the white cloth cuffs of her sleeves.  She ripped them free and tucked them with the paper spindles.
Cherai used the noise to push off the wet ground.  The lute strapped on her back bumped into her head.  She shouldered it out of the way and shifted to her hands and knees.  Ready to crawl out of the privet’s shelter, she glanced back at the campsite.  Her chance had died.  The wizard had wedged one spindle against the kindling.  Then she cupped her hands against the stacked sticks and conjured fire.
Reddish light tongued the paper, licking across it until the sparks coalesced into white flames.  They consumed the paper in a flash then nibbled at the white cloth before licking at the rain-damp kindling.  The woman fed in twigs, another spindled paper, and crackling leaves until the magicked fire burned orangey red and real.  She added more twigs and larger sticks.  Hot now, the fire devoured the wood in earnest.  Only then did the woman sit back and savor the heat.
Cherai yearned for that fire-heat.  She was bone-weary and bone-wet.  Last night she had dodged angry villagers.  This day she had slogged through the mire and muck of the unrepaired road to Marsden.  Intent on getting a safe distance from Feuton, she hadn’t stopped to eat.  She was wet and tired and cold and hungry and alone.
That last addition to her litany of ills evoked a grimace, but the prickling caution was right.  She was alone—because Raul was locked up in Feuton.
She had begun wandering the backways alone, but Raul had soon met and joined her.  For the three years that they slogged back and forth across Vaermond, they had taken turns at watch and shared their hard-earned coins.  With Raul shouldering half the road-yoke, Cherai had penned caution in a corner.  He had dared anything, any game, any scheme, trusting to his quick tongue and nimble fingers to work them out of calamity.  Raul wouldn’t have scouted the clearing.  He’d have marched in and camped beside this woman, wizard or no.
Raul, though, was locked in the Feuton innkeeper’s cellar while Cherai crouched alone beneath the privet, watching a wizard warm herself at a favored campsite.
Prudence made for cold nights.
After a last yearning for that wizard-sparked fire, Cherai scooted backwards over sodden leaves and humus that sank under her hands and knees and seeped into her woolen breeches.  The frayed cuffs of her buff coat soaked up the wet.  The vine-twined privet dripped water and sticky leaves.  The water dribbled under her collar, and she craved that fire even more.
Then a vine snagged her lute.  The wood rasped across the strings and tangled into them.  Cherai tugged on the instrument.  The privet rained water and leaves, but the vine held fast.  She shifted to one side then scooted forward.  The strings whined.  She checked the campsite, but the wizard hadn’t looked up from tending the fire.  Still safe.
Bracing on one hand, Cherai reached back and blindly worked her fingers along the strings to the snag.  The whorled vine was thick with age, leafless and hollow with death, yet it refused to give.  One by one, she fumbled the strings free, slowly working each over the gnarled wood.  The strings hummed as her callused fingers slid over them.  The last, thinnest string had sawed into a twist of the vine.  It bit sharply into her pushing thumb.  She coaxed and prodded, but it refused to work free.  A trapped feeling swamped her.  Run, run, her brain sang.  Desperate, she hooked a bent finger and jerked the string.  It twanged free.
“Who is there?”
Cherai dropped to the soaked ground.  The lute’s tuning pegs banged into her head.  She cried “ouch” into the wet leaves then risked a peek.  The wizard scanned the hillside, searching with a slow sweep that covered the overgrown slope.  She called again.  Cherai hid her pale face in her sleeve.  She didn’t dare breathe.  The wizard couldn’t see her, not in this tangle, not in the dusk.
“Come out.  I will not hurt you.”
She risked a look.  The wizard remained by her fire, but her gaze scoured the vine-rampant hillock, lingering on bushy mounds like this one.  Ducking her head, Cherai let her warm breath ooze into her sleeve.  As long as she stayed still, the slipping time would aid her.  Dusk rapidly leeched light from the day.  In a few minutes, smothering night would cover her escape.
The wizard’s eyes slowly trekked the hillside while the blackness descended.  She might have searched in earnest, tramping up the slope to beat out the watcher, but the young fire clamored for attention.  She turned to add good-sized sticks to the starving flames, and Cherai seized the chance to slither from under the privet.  She scrambled to her feet and sidled through the densely branched pines, her passage muffled by the carpeting needles.
Despite her racing heart, she hesitated when she gained the mucky road.  Wispy clouds sailed across the rising moon, round and silvery bright.  The road to Marsden lay bare and open while trees shadowed the road to Feuton, offering hide and shelter.  A mile back and over a hill was a leaning barn, long since abandoned to birds and rodents.  Going to Feuton might backtrack her into Raul’s trouble, but the dark and the barn seemed safer than open expanse.
A last look down the open road to Marsden, then Cherai slewed around—and collided with a human wall.
She recoiled, but iron fingers had manacled her wrist.  “No,” she cried and twisted away, but the grip didn’t break.
Her struggles dislodged the lute strap from her shoulder.  It slipped down her arm, its weight dragging against her struggles, hampering her.  Cherai clawed the hand cuffing her wrist.  Her captor repaid the injury by ensnaring her other arm in biting talons.  The grip was strong, her captor was tall, and fear rippled over her.  She was shaken, a rattling of bones to get her attention.  And it did, kicking in with logic as she realized her captor was the wizard.
“Hold still, boy!  I will not hurt you.”
Cherai forced herself to be still.  The memory of the white fire around the woman’s hands set off a different fear.  Against such wizardry, her fighting was nothing.  She tried to slow her breathing, but fear had a long jump on logic.  As she struggled with wild emotion, the wizard kept a hard grip on her arms.  She acknowledged that sense on the woman’s part, but it sorely clashed with her renewed desire to escape.
“You were watching me?  Answer me!  Were you watching me?”
“No!  I-I was—.”  She scrambled to get her wits in order.  “I camp here, whenever I come this way.”  There, that was safe.  What else?  What should she add?  She didn’t dare lie.  Lore said that wizards could spot liars, and she was in trouble enough.  Keeping close to the truth, she stammered, “I—I was—I wanted t-to s-see if it was s-safe.”
The rising moon reflected in the wizard’s eyes, shining like white-gold in her dark face.  “How long did you watch from the hill?  What did you see?”
“Nothing.  I s-saw nothing.  I s-saw your fire.”
“And you wanted to see who made it?  If friend or foe?”
“Yes!”  She snatched the proffered reason eagerly while her road-wary mind worked rapidly.  The woman’s accent named her outlander.  A faint change of cadence, a soft muting of syllables, placed her home far from Vaermonde or Tebraire.  Cherai had to tread carefully.  This woman was doubly dangerous, both stranger and wizard.  “I didn’t—I don’t want trouble, madame.”
The white-gold eyes swept over her.  Moon-bright, they seemed to pierce the darkness.
Cherai straightened her shoulders and returned the scrutiny, undaunted by the woman’s height.  No one had ever penetrated her disguise.  The road had carved her body into an angularity unexpected on a female.  Shoddy clothes and a badly cropped mop of curls hid any feminine softness.  Her contralto, low enough to be a youth’s tenor, completed her disguise.  And this woman had bought her disguise, for she called her “boy”.
The wizard’s fingers shifted to curl loosely around the jutting bones of her wrist, testing her racing pulse.  “You are wet and shivering, boy.  Tired as well, I warrant, if you have been on the road all day.  You can share my fire,” and she released her and stepped back.
A request, not an order.  The freedom reinforced that it was her choice.  Cherai wanted the proffered fire, but prudence whispered, Beware.  Her eyes blinked as her mind shifted, torn between fire’s warmth and caution.
As her wavering stretched, white teeth flashed in the wizard’s dark face.  “I am safe, boy, not some vulture who preys on younglings.”
That mis-reading of her hesitancy decided her.  That and a desire to believe—for if she did, she would get to camp by the fire.
. ~ . ~ . ~ .
And the fire was hot, bone-thawing and skin-searing hot.  Cherai knelt, her knees touching the ring of stones, and savored the heat.  Cold seeped away.  Tension dribbled away with it.  She closed her eyes, absorbing the heat and serenity.
Wood cracked.  She leaped to her feet.  The wizard, a broken limb in her hands, cocked a dark eyebrow before laying the wood by the fire-stones to dry.
Embarrassed, Cherai settled down, but her peace had shattered.  She kept a wary eye on the woman.  With the fire’s aid she saw more details than height and pale eyes.
The wizard might have sparked fire, but she looked as bedraggled as any wanderer this late in the season.  Her unbound blond hair straggled over her shoulders, too short for a woman’s pride although it curled like a primping courtier’s.  Her wet clothes were mud-spattered, but Cherai recognized their cost.  The dress was a deep grey velvet, slashed with primrose silk on the puffed sleeves and full skirts.  The rich fabric was crushed and stained from wear, the hem crusted with mud.  The fire revealed tiny rents and straggling threads on the wide bodice.  Missing lace and braid didn’t disguise her clothing’s richness.  Her only preparation for the road seemed to be her tanned boots.  Although wet and muddy, they were soled and stitched, not the softened hide that Cherai wore.
The wizard’s clothes, thought, might look far better than Cherai’s frayed and resewn garments, yet patched breeches suited the road better than skirts, another lesson she had learned during her first weeks on the roads.  She envied only the woman’s cloak, spread over a pack to dry.  It was dark, with threads hanging where its trimming had also been ripped off, but its worth was in the oiling to repel the wet.  With winter nearing, Cherai would have bargained away her lute for that cloak.
The woman looked up and spied Cherai’s scrutiny.  Her mouth twisted, but her question was a common opening.  “You camp here often, boy?”
“It’s a good spot.”  She shed her lute and her pack.
“You play?”
“I s-s-s—.”  The damnable stammer made its appearance.  She sighed and tried again.  “I s-sing, too.”
“You are a traveling bard, then?”
“From one end of Vaermonde to the other, hamlet, village and t-town.”  She tossed the question back, “And you?”  When the woman hesitated, Cherai knew she sifted through several lies.
“I “I suppose you would call me a healer.  Simple medicines, a few remedies gathered from here and there, very little that is special.  It is a chancy business I have learned, so I also do a little sleight-of-hand, enough to earn a coin or two and the good will of the villagers.”
Sleight-of-hand?  Is that what she calls fire-starting?  Cherai ducked her head to hide her questions.  “You’re new in Vaermonde?  From where?”
The wizard motioned vaguely east, beyond the border at Feuton.  Abruptly, she got up to break more wood over her knee, a boy’s trick.  She set it drying by the fire.
As she poked the burning wood, Cherai furtively studied her.  No silver streaked that blonde hair, but her light eyes had the weariness of those pushed without respite.  The fire cast her face into stark planes and shadowed hollows, chiseled out by weeks without a substantial meal.  This wizard might wear fine clothes, but something had disrupted her life enough to throw her onto the road.
Her own lean times were not so far removed that she’d forgotten what gut-empty meant.  “Are you hungry?  I have s-some food.”
The wizard looked up, her pale eyes reflecting the fire’s glow.  Then she smiled, an open expression that relaxed the harsh lines bracketing her mouth.  “I have been trying not to think of food since my supplies ran out.  I cannot say I have been successful.  Last night I had the most mouth-watering dream of succulent pork and sugared apples.  The acorns and over-ripe berries that I gathered this morning were not very appetizing.”
Laughing, Cherai burrowed into her pack.  “I’ve had those dreams.  They go away only when your belly’s stretched with tavern stew and brown bread.”
“Hardly comparable to the dream.”
“But just as hearty.  And much easier on your purse.  There’s not much,” she warned.  Only the little she’d scrounged before fleeing Feuton.  The biscuits were hard and tasteless, the meat salty and greasy, but it was food.  She passed it over.
When the wizard stretched out her hand, her gown sleeve shortened.  Firelight flickered on her exposed wrist, revealing an unusual tattoo around the fine bones.  Vivid with colors, the inks writhed like entwined snakes in a strange bracelet.  Surprise halting her hand, Cherai looked up.  Those clear eyes watched her.  She handed over the bread and meat.
. ~ . ~ . ~ .
The up-turned wooden crate made for a hard seat, but the hard-packed dirt drew heat from him.  Raul didn’t know which part he hated most:  the irons on his wrists or the ceiling so low he couldn’t stand straight or the unrelenting cold.  Little daylight penetrated the thick cellar walls.
They’d thrown him down here two nights ago.  The mayor had roughed him up, as was his right.  Raul had quite satisfactorily tupped the man’s wife.  Ten minutes later, and Raul would have been gone, heading back to his holey blanket in the hayloft.  Ten minutes earlier—.  He whistled.  The cellar wasn’t so bad.  He could be dead.
When the mayor had first snatched him away from his wife, who kissed as delightfully after as before, instinct had drawn up the wind that shaped in Raul’s hand as easily as breath.  He’d started to fly it out when he remembered Cherai.  Where was she?  If they had her and he used power for his own escape—well, she would be dead.  Vaermonde outlawed power, and the friend of a wielder could expect the same lethal treatment in a rough village on a backroad of the realm.  Even if they merely hurt her, Colonel DuBarrée would skin him alive.  Twice dead.
By the time he realized she was gone, wisely enacting Lady Caution, he was in the cellar.
Raul could have brought the house down and won his freedom.  He might could have.  Sometimes Air wouldn’t come to him.
He looked around the cellar, faintly lit by sun through the cracks.  No breakfast, and only soup and a heel of bread at noon, delivered by the innkeeper rather than his wife or daughter.  Were they going to starve him to death?
Cherai had warned him, but he’d seen the lingering look from the mayor’s wife, his third with the other two buried years ago.  When she brushed her ample bosom against him as she took cider to her husband, Raul forsook caution.  He sneaked out the tavern;  she sneaked out next, with never a word needed to make the tryst.
Now he sat shackled and unfed and wondering how long he had to endure the cellar before someone pointed out that tupping wasn’t an official crime in Vaermonde.
Stomping on the floor above awoke his hopes.  The mayor shuffled.  The innkeeper clomped.  The women were light of step.  If he could convince whoever came to give him a slit bit of iron, he’d pick the locks and be off, just a day behind Cherai.  Away from the village, she’d dawdle to give him time to catch up.  This wasn’t the first time he’d been delayed.  As Lady Caution, she kept their careful hoard of coins.  He could even abandon his pack.
The cellar door opened.  Light shafted down.  The light brightened, a lantern adding to the sunlight.  Ears told the hefty innkeeper came down with a firmer tread following.
Screwing up his eyes, Raul stood, unwilling to be on his arse.  His shackles clanked.  His head came close to a floorbeam as he tried to see who came down the steps.  Another man, taller, slimmer, booted rather than peasant-clogged.  Then Raul’s eyes adjusted to the new light, and he saw the uniform of a king’s dragoon.  His hopes soared.
Col. DuBarrée braced a gloved hand on the stair frame and scowled at Raul.  “Yes.  I know this man.  He’ll have to be freed.”
“Jayce won’t hear of it,” and Raul realized the innkeeper had brought the officer.  “He wants him flogged.”
“Take off the shackles.”
“Big pardon, Colonel, but Jayse is our headman.  He won’t like it.  His word’s law in Feuton.”
“I gave you an order.”  That curt voice threatened violence for any disobedience.  Raul’s negligent stance became less act and more reality as he anticipated his freedom.
“Yessir, but—.”
“The man works for me.”  His left hand pushed forward his swordhilt, as if relishing the wielding of it.  The pouring light gleamed on the steel.
Raul eyed steel and man warily.  Ruthlessness, not patronage, had fueled the colonel’s meteroric rise in rank.
His cold voice cut as sharply as any blade.  “Get those chains off.  Or will you disobey a king’s officer?”
“Sir.”  The innkeeper set down the lantern and produced a simple key.  The key rattled in the lock then clicked.  As the manacles dropped, the man braved an excuse.  “We didn’t know he was your man, Colonel.  He don’t look like a dragoon or any kind of king’s guard.  Begging your pardon, but we never would have treated him so rough.  What work can he do for a regimental officer?  He’s a rogue that travels the roads.  He lies and cheats and—.”
“The king has eyes everywhere.”
“In palaces and grubby alleys,” Raul chimed in.  “On main roads and forest tracks.”
“Shut up,” DuBarrée said, without heat.  “This arrest will be recorded in the capitol, innkeeper.”
The man stuttered.  “He deserved arrest, sir.”
“What crime did he commit?”
When the silence lengthened, Raul said, “Slept with the mayor’s wife.”
DuBarrée’s mouth twitched.  “My captains can’t be locked up for that, either.  Vaermonde doesn’t recognize that as a crime unless the lady cries foul.  I don’t hear her crying foul.”
He stepped aside for Raul to go up.  The innkeeper, coming last, spoke in a much reduced voice.  “It was a mistake to arrest him.  We’re good subjects of the king.  We’re loyal.  No one says aught against him, no matter what he trumped up to get the queen executed.”
The colonel stopped and looked down.  “Don’t say that much, innkeeper.  I know this was her home province, but that’s enough for the Iron Gloves.”
The lantern shook, scattering light.  “No, sir.  I won’t say no more.  We’re sorry, sir.”
“Enough, innkeeper.  I understand you didn’t know.  The error is now rectified.  No one needs to be punished.”
No one waited in the kitchen above.  Raul wondered where the innkeeper’s family was.  From DuBarrée’s few words, he knew where the mayor’s wife was.  That disappointed him a little;  a lot, when he gave it second thought.  But then, he hadn’t bothered to ask her name.
The air was fresh after the musty cellar.  Raul breathed deeply.
The dragoons had taken over the common house near the forge.  Lights gleamed from the tavern, and laughter and singing spilled out.  DuBarrée turned in the opposite direction, and Raul matched his strides.  He expected a reprimand.  He deserved one for getting caught.
The colonel started with a simple question.  “Where’s Cherai?”
“Gone.”
“Gone where?”
“On ahead.”
“You know this for fact?”
“That’s what we agreed.  One of us goes on;  the other catches up when he’s clear of trouble.”
“When you’re clear of trouble.  I don’t see Cherai stepping into it.  It’s you, fighting or gambling.  Bedding the headman’s wife, that’s a new one.”
“Not so new.  Getting caught at it is new.  What I need never comes up in our talks.  And my interest don’t stray to Cherai because she’s yours.”
DuBarrée’s head whipped around.  His eyes had narrowed to moonlit slits.  For the first time in all their encounters, Raul had truly surprised this man experienced in the cruelties of both war and court life.
“I never told you that Cherai is mine.”
“You didn’t have to.  What’s a comtesse to a dragoon officer?”  Then he wished the words unspoken as the sharpness returned to the man’s face.
“In a rose garden I met a young lady as alluring and as thorny as a rose.”  Then his mouth compressed, and the hawkish look returned.  “Does Cherai know of our arrangement?  No?  Keep it that way.”
“I remember your threat.”  They walked a few paces more.  Raul realized DuBarrée headed him toward the road.  “How did you know I was in that cellar?  I’d say that mayor didn’t advertise where he’d stashed me.”
“I asked the blacksmith.  I always ask the blacksmith.  As makers of locks, they know who’s been shackled.”
“You expected me to get into trouble?”
“What did the innkeeper call you?  Rogue.  Liar.  Cheat.  Thief.”
“He didn’t say ‘thief’.”
“And I know the man I pay good coin to.”
Rau shot his cuff and looked at the swirling tattoo on his inner forearm.  “So, the seeker didn’t work.  You just asked the blacksmith.”
DuBarrée undid four buttons on his jacket.  He withdrew a metal seal scribed with the same swirl.  He touched a corner of the metal.  Raul’s tattoo burned while greenish light flashed along the lines, centering itself in the design.
Raul jerked his sleeve back down to cover the light.  “That’s powerful magic.”
“And I can find you easily.  Just as well, if your weirding breaks out.”
Words that Raul didn’t want to hear.
They walked beyond the cluster of cottages and outbuildings.  No one roamed the harvested fields and orchards.  Cows and oxen had settled down in the pastures.  Laughter drifted on the wind;  the dragoons were drinking up the village’s supply of hard cider.  The other cottages were closed up tight, shuttered against the regiment.  Stabled horses nickered then quieted.
Raul didn’t counter DuBarrée’s comment about the weirding.  A Rhoghieri’s power was benign, but no one in Vaermonde cared.  Reclusive Rho or bloody wyre, beneficient wizard or baleful sorcerer, didn’t matter.  He’s seen only one escape, a Fire Rhoghiera, adept enough to transform into her element and burn out the very flames set to burn her then blaze her way to freedom.  Few were that strong.  He wasn’t.  And if the villagers had discovered exactly what they had chained in the cellar, the colonel would have found a dead man.  Who would he have sent then to look after his precious Comtesse Muirée?
“Anything you need back there?”
“Cloak.  Blanket.  Pack.”
He reached into another inner pocket and produced a small pouch.  Coins clinked when Raul caught it.  “Buy what you need in the next village, Rho.  This one’s seen enough of you.”
“I expected you to tear a strip off me.”
“Just find her.  Keep with her from now on.  You’re paid to protect her.”
DuBarrée’s troop was never more than a day’s ride from them.  How did that king’s officer manage that?  He kept his regiment roving around Vaermonde’s backroads with never a base.  Raul knew better than to ask.  “If Cherai discovers how close a watch you keep on her—.”
“She won’t.  She might have, in the first months, if she had ever retraced her road.  But she dared not stay more than one night, and you kept her on the move after that.  How are your reserves?”
Here was a chance to get a little ahead with coins.  “Running low,” he lied.  “We got winter coming up.  I planned to settle us in Vagraens near the Tebraire border.  A good large town, easy to get lost in.  She’ll be safe.”  Close to his old haunts, he didn’t add.  Close to the safety of the Haven that had banished him if anyone suspected Cherai was the missing countess and they had to flee.  In winter, DuBarrée couldn’t keep that close of a watch on them.
“No.  Not Vagraens.  Keep her away from the border.  Go south, near Lillunde.”
“People know us in the south.”
“They know your habits, you mean.”
“They know us.  They know more about Cherai than I like.  And they will remember.  Or do you want rumors that the missing comtesse Muirée is sheltering near Lillunde.  That will bring out the troops.  We’ll go to Isterre Province.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to like it.  Best place, believe me.  We’ve rarely ventured there.”
“And if someone recognizes her?  She’ll head straight into the Weirded Lands.”
“She ain’t left Vaermonde’s borders yet, colonel.  She won’t then, especially not into the marshes.  She’s got a regular spook about the Weirded Lands.  This marsh between Feuton and Marsden, it’s just a finger of the main one, but she don’t like it.”
“And you believe she headed on to Marsden when she had to pass the marsh alone.”
“She will.  She agreed with my plan.  She don’t like to backtrack and raise questions any more than I do or you want.  I’ll catch up to her, just like I said.”
DuBarrée didn’t respond.  He dug into that inner pocket and produced another small pouch.
Raul caught it, hefted it.  “This is a little light for winter.”
“You find Cherai, and you’ll get more.”
Knowing argument was useless, he pocketed it.  He had won the only point that mattered:  wintering in Isterre.  “If Cherai ever discovers I’m working for you, she won’t like it.  She’ll never accept me again.”
“She won’t explode.  She’ll flee.  That’s what she always does.”
“Know her that well, do you?”  He thought they’d only had one summer together, at court.  Could a man learn a woman’s willfulness in that short a time?
“Worried about losing your sinecure?”  The mockery riled Raul until DuBarrée added more darkly, “You should be worried what I’ll do to you if you let her find out.  I don’t want her alone on the road.”
“I don’t know why you let her be on the road at all.  It’s a rough life for a woman, rougher for a comtesse.  She’s adapted, but she still don’t suit it.”
“Her life’s in danger.  I might can save her from outright murder, but not from any trial on trumped-up charges.  And if the Iron Gloves get her into their bloody tower, I can’t help her at all.  Once they starts their tortures, she’ll admit to anything.  She holds the key to her father’s assassination.  Until we discover why that happened and why a hunt for her was immediately launched, Cherai the comtesse Muirée is not safe.  Cherai the bard she must remain.  To keep her out of the Inquisition’s hands, Rho, no more arrests for you.  No more attracting attention that will get a king’s authority looking at her.  The writ has been renewed early.  I’ve got a seeker of the Inquisition posted in my troop;  all of the regiments have.  Keep her safe.”
“You can’t keep her hidden forever.  Three years is a long time, Colonel.  And there are more dangers on the road than a king’s authority.”
“I pay you to keep her safe.  Or do you plan to renege on your contract with the duc?”
“I’m still Orlesse’s man.  He still playing ducks and drakes with the king?”
“None of your business, Rho.  Your business is keeping Cherai safe and hidden.”
The curt words put Raul in his place, lackey of a dragoon officer who was knave to a duc.  A weak card in any hand.  “What’s to do next?”
“You catch up to her.  I”ll take the troop to Marsden.  You find her and keep her off the main road for the next fortnight, until my patrol passes to the next desmesne.  Hear me?”
“I do.”
The colonel strode away.
Raul watched, wondering not for the first time whose man DuBarrée was:  king’s or duc’s?  His loyalty divided, he walked a blade’s edge, in as much danger were he found out as the comtesse, suspected of hiring assassins so she could inherit.
In the three years since Raul had put his bloody thumbprint to Duc Orlesse’s contract, he’d gleaned little about DuBarrée.  Born in a far north desmesne, he somehow owed loyalty to a southern peer, the most powerful in Vaermonde.  Dragoon officer, rising rapidly up the ranks, and swearing blood oath to protect king and kingdom:  how did the colonel reconcile his divided loyalties?
Maybe Orlesse had promised DuBarrée money or an additional desmesne once his niece the princess Aisdeinne rose to monarch—but that was a probably, not a given, and DuBarrée wasn’t a man who swore allegiance on a hope rather than a given.  Maybe the alliance was blood-based?
Raul shook his head and set a ground-eating pace along the road.
Only once had he and Cherai ventured into the far north, DuBarrée’s home province, when the king’s dragoons had inundated the roads.  That was not long after they met, and he’d pretended a need to evade the increased patrols.  With its steep ridges and steeper mountains that created a natural barrier to other lands, the northern region lacked easy access to the merchant and artisan goods.  Raul hadn’t minded the rough places they’d stayed, but even with a year on the road, Cherai had hesitated at some of the taverns.  The DuBarrée manor itself, honey-colored stones washed with strong rains, centered an estate that looked well managed.  The village lacked the size needed to raise a cohort if the colonel were called upon for the king’s army.
So, Guy DuBarrée and Orlesse kept the runaway comtesse safe from the king’s Inquisitors.  Political reward or a hidden blood alliance?  Raul remembered that unexpected softening of the colonel’s harsh features.  Maybe more had happened than that rose garden?  Maybe the predatory DuBarrée had had his heart stolen.
Too many strings tangled the snarl, and Raul didn’t know which one to pull to untangle them all.

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