Warren Lansark strode across the main yard of the keep, a furious glower aimed at the ground a few paces ahead of him.
All who saw his approach made a concerted effort to get out of his way. A gaggle of maids gossiping on the kitchen step hastily scurried out of sight, snapping the scullery door closed behind them. A village boy delivering a basket of supplies for the pantry noticed just in time that his path would cross the steward's; he made a hasty detour around the ramparts, the guards on duty nodding in sympathy when he explained the reason for his circuitous route.
Warren had been in a foul mood of late, criticizing everyone and finding fault in everything - well, even more so than usual. The puzzled servants could only trace this sudden surliness to the arrival of the Baron; this turn of temper certainly seemed to coincide with the arrival of their new master.
Truth be told, every one of the house staff had felt some misgivings at the prospect of serving a new lord, especially a common-born one. However, few of them had found anything to complain of. Master Cooper was amiable and fair, able to issue commands without resorting to arrogance. In fact, he was barely any trouble to wait on. The younger lads rejoiced that he was generous with his coin, tripping over each other for the privilege of running his errands. More than half the maids were struck by love-sickness, sighing constantly over his winning smile and his roguish good looks. Most of the men already considered him an honourary one of their own; His Lordship was never too grand to share a friendly word or a fiendish witticism, both of which delighted them.
In fact, no one could conceive of a master who would be better to serve, if serve one they must. No one, that is, except for Warren, who was distinctly less-than-enamoured with His Lordship. It was a topic of committed discussion among the lower household. Most of the servants concluded that pompous old 'Ren was so used to being the de facto despot of the manor, he could stand no competition for control of the place, even from his esteemed employer.
In truth, the reason for Lansark's irate mood was more complex - and perhaps, more petty - than that. Disgruntled to find himself the dogsbody of some mere pad-foot, he had been gleefully planning on finding many chances to hold the advantage over his master, using his own superior knowledge and familiarity with the household to trip his usurper up at every turn. Unfortunately for him, the Baron refused to let himself be wrong-footed - in more ways than one.
On that very first night, an hour after His Lordship's arrival, Warren had called at the master suite as promised, only to find both bedchamber and dressing room completely empty. Cursing the disobedience of his errant lord as he hastily searched the upper corridors, he had, in truth, been eagerly anticipating finding the overwhelmed whelp somewhere in the Keep's labyrinthine halls. With any luck, the 'master' would thereafter be completely dependant on his steward to shepherd him from one set of rooms to another, for fear of getting lost again. It would be fun to lead His Lordship about and boss him like a child - a pastime that should stretch to last the first few days of residency, at the very least.
Half-hoping that the baron had meandered up into the farthest tower and right off the edge of the parapet into the sea, Warren had instead heard a familiar lilt emanating from the dining hall. The baron was already there, seated at the table, nursing a glass of wine and talking animatedly with a maid who, blushing beneath her cap, steadily piled his plate higher and higher.
"Pardon me for gettin' ahead of myself, Lansark," he had said, turning to the door without a hint of surprise as Warren sidled in. "I know I was to wait for you, but I figured I'd best get to know the ways of my house for myself as soon as I could." He aimed a playful glance at the maid beside him, who absently tipped a ladle-full of stew onto the table beside his plate. "A travellin' man should always be able to sniff out the kitchen in a strange house," he declared, giving her a hearty wink.
Warren couldn't help but take it as confounded cheek, an audacious check against his own authority. Of course he well knew that he himself was the servant, and that he should by all rights be bowing and scraping before His Lordship's boots; yet somehow, he just couldn't bring himself to be so subservient. There was something almost belligerent about the man - some impudence in his manner which others took for affability, but which he himself saw as the calculated affront that it was.
The day that followed had only presented him with worse.
He had slept badly that first night - not wholly due to the promised storm that had blown in just before midnight - and risen early, to a day that was overcast, but showed signs of clearing. As the former son of a farmer, he was used to being knocked out of bed well before dawn; and he was more eager than ever to catch the Baron napping. Even an experienced rider, he reasoned to himself, would be exhausted after a three-day ride; and the ruckus of the previous night's squall would have further banished any restfulness. Surely a mere commoner would sleep like the Black God's own until noon at least, after such an exertion.
With intentions to innocently disturb His Lordship's slumbers by loudly performing some menial errand in the corner of the bedchamber, he had carefully opened the door; only to find the room once again deserted. The bed had been slept in, though the coverlet had been neatly smoothed back into place, ready for the maid to turn down. A neat pile of waiting laundry had been stacked, with an air of apology, upon an out-of-the-way cabinet.
Once again, he had gone off in search of his missing master. This time - pointed the right way by the bootboy, still happily jingling his newly-acquired pay in his pocket - he had found the Baron actually atop the highest tower, a spyglass in his hand and a half-finished chart spread upon the parapet in front of him.
"Good timing, Lansark," he had said, turning from his survey of the coast with a brilliant smile. "I was just in need of someone with a better knowledge of the surroundin' landforms than me. I spied some shoals near the mouth of the bay, but I wonder if you can tell me more about that formation-"
Once again, Warren found himself providing half-answers to questions he never would have expected and struggled to supply. After gleaning all he could from his stuttering steward and cheerily saying something about visiting the local harbour-master after breakfast, the Baron had finally stowed his spyglass in his pocket, releasing Warren from this unwelcome inquisition.
It was then that it happened.
A sudden breeze had plucked the chart from the Baron's hand. Secretly smug that all of this senseless work would go to waste, Warren had watched it whisk from His Lordship's fingers and flutter out over the precipice.
To his amazement, the Baron had sprung like an acrobat, landing crouched upon the parapet, and snatched the paper back again. One of his feet had been squarely planted upon the narrow ledge; the other had swung out and remained poised over open space, treading finger-widths from a sheer drop to rocks and rough seas far below.
The Baron had righted himself, rolled up his chart, and hoped down from the ledge with a nonchalance that had been chilling. One might have thought he had done nothing so remarkable as rise from his chair to retrieve a book and seat himself again; when in fact, he had just stepped within mere inches of meeting the Black God himself, casually righting himself again. He had left Lansark standing, struck dumb and almost immobile with shock, and gone in whistling to his breakfast.
That incident was several days ago now, but the memory of it still gave Warren heart palpitations. Now he strode across the courtyard, straying from the house he was supposed to be managing, on some half-forgotten pretext; his real purpose was to avoid the Baron as much as was reasonably possible.
At first, he had been merely disgruntled; now, he was almost fearful. He was afraid of the Baron - he didn't dare openly admit the fact to himself, but deep down, he truly was.
There's no way that man is as simple as he claims to be, Lansark muttered to himself, with inward indignation. There's some despicable secret to him, I'm sure of it. I wouldn't trust him with my back, not in a thousand lifetimes. There's something uncanny about him; something almost supernatural. I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be some sort of charlatan. Without a doubt he's a fraud... a fiend, a villain... a demon-
Warren jumped about five feet in the air. The sudden shout had so exactly echoed his thoughts, he believed for a moment that the Graveyard Hag was howling at the nape of his neck. After a moment, he realized that it emanated from the stables, the double-doors of which he found himself opposite. This was Jobrey's domain, and he was usually best left to it; Lansark could count the number of times he had entered it on one hand. Now, his curiosity piqued, he went in.
Inquisitive heads peered at him over half-doors; alert ears were pricked in his direction. Warren followed his own ears to the end of the building, where a tirade that sounded remarkably like Lansark's own inner-diatribe filtered down from the loft above.
He conspicuously cleared his throat. When this achieved no result, he called up the ladder: "Is there something wrong, Job?"
An ashen face appeared, framed by the hatch in the ceiling above him. An instant later, Jobrey had clambered down, wisps of straw turning his hair into a scarecrow's thatch, his eyes equally wild.
"A demon!" he said again, in a sort of hissing, anxious whisper. "A demon, I swear! I'm a heartbeat away from resigning! Never in my life've I had to deal with such fiendish, cantankerous, downright dangerous-"
"You mean the horse?" Warren interrupted, realizing, with thankful foresight, that he was in for nothing more than a string of curses if he let the groom run on unchecked.
"The horse?!" Jobrey repeated, incredulously, as if this was the last thing that would have occurred to him. As if on cue, a shapely head poked out of the nearest stall; a pair of brown eyes regard them with dignified calm.
"Well, the horse gave me a bit o' trouble afirst," Jobrey went on, in a distracted manner which startled Lansark; he knew that the groom had quite a temper, but he had never seen him this irate before. "She's a headstrong lass, that un', and I was strugglin' to make her behave. I was havin' a bit o' a cuss at her, when someone says righ' behind me, 'That's no way to speak to a lady!' I turn round, and who shouldn't be there but the blasted Baron hi'self!"
"The Baron?" Lansark exclaimed, in a tone no less dread-filled than Jobrey's own. "What did he say then?"
"What'd he do, more like!" Jobrey shouted, gesturing wildly. "He takes an apple from the pocket o' his britches, tosses it in the air, and - fwish!" He made a violent slicing motion with one broad hand. "Somethin' knocks it down; and when I look, if there ain't a dirty-great knife stickin' out of it! He goes over and picks it up, calm as you please - and the knife he threw has split it in two, clean down the middle!"
Jobrey paused to stare at Lansark in undisguised terror. Warren's own expression was not too much different.
"Then he feeds the apple to the horse, one half at a time - he hands the other half t' me to give her, and I don't know how I managed, me hand was shakin' so! - and if the animal hasn't been the soul o' innocence since then! 'That's the trick you need, Jobrey!' says 'is nibs, and off he goes, with a cackle that sounded no less than downright evil!" The groom leaned forward and clutched at Warren's arm; his grip was hard, but his manner was companionable as he looked earnestly into the steward's face. "Heed me, 'Ren - we'd best all clear out o' here, afore it's too late! I've lived all my life on this 'ere spit o' rock, but with crooks like that hereabout, it's just not safe. If I didn't have to send a packet home to me mam and da once in a while, I'd clear out now, never mind the loss of pay. Some things are far more precious than money!"
He released his hand, giving Lansark time to smother a wince. "That man's dangerous, 'Ren," he said, regarding his long-time acquaintance gravely. "I wouldn't put a thing past 'im! You watch yourself up there at the house, an' watch yer back - he'll put a knife in it just like that apple if any o' us displeases him, mark my words! "
With that, Jobrey turned and ambled into the tack room, darting fearful glances into every stall he passed , as if he expected some phantasm to spring out at him any moment.
Warren slowly retraced his steps, his thoughts in turmoil. Just what kind of man have we been made to serve? He wondered, for what felt like the thousandth time. Up until now, his doubts had been vague and unjustifiable, possibly misguided. Jobrey's story only confirmed his worst suspicions. Now that he had sure examples of the terrible feats His Lordship was capable of, all kinds of dreadful possibilities clouded his mind.
Is he some kind of brigand - a petty thug, perhaps? Or even an assassin? Some kind of criminal, surely - it would explain how he could have been awarded the one fief that was far from the capital as one would get without taking the Great Southern Road. Maybe Cooper was some kind of conspirator from the recent uprising who held some power over King Jon, and had been bribed into behaving himself with a parcel of land and a title? After all, the late Roald had been reputed as an ineffectual peace-keeper of a monarch; perhaps his son was just as timid when it came to dealing with ne'er-do-wells?
From being afraid, Warren was surprised to find himself suddenly angry.
This is my home! he muttered fiercely to himself. I won't have it invaded by gods-only-know what kind of crook! I'm going to find out what kind of criminal we've being made to deal with, once and for all - when the truth comes out, we'll run him out of the fief with garden hoes and kitchen knives, if we have to!
He glanced up at the keep's towers, feeling furtive and sly. He felt more in control of himself and his situation than he had in days. Already, he had come up with a hastily-formed plan.
He knew that the Baron was composing several important letters, and had been asked not to be disturbed. Letters! Warren scoffed. Instructions on how best to rob us and slit our throats in our beds, more like! Well, he certainly wouldn't disturb His Lordship; and while he could count on not being disturbed himself, he might do a bit of 'tidying' in the Baron's rooms.
With renewed resolved, he strode rapidly towards the keep's front door.
George stood in his dressing room, poring over a freshly-written letter. It was his first report to Jon - the first of many, he realized, grimacing as he imagined the countless reams of paper he would be required to write - at least two updates per month, and that was if peace prevailed! In this first letter, he had included detailed descriptions of the state of the castle, improvements to the fortifications that he deemed to be necessary, and the resources he expected would be required to make the Swoop a strong outpost against the Copper Isles. How ironic it was, he thought wryly to himself, that after years of stealing paltry pocketfuls of cash from the King's citizens, he was now assured an outright sizable sum, simply by asking for it in writing!
He had gone into this small dressing-chamber to fetch his coat, on his way down to visit the village's rider post. He knew that, for the sake of appearances, should delegate such a menial task to one of the houseboys. However, the simple errand was more significant than it outwardly seemed - and for now, the only one he could trust it with was himself.
He would give his messenger instructions to deliver the letter to Sir Myles at his townhouse; from there, it would assuredly reach Jonathon. In his report, George had addressed the need to appoint a delegated courier, who could be relied upon to deliver his reports directly to the palace. Birds were quick and convenient, but they were also easily intercepted, and, naturally, they couldn't be trusted with verbal messages.
He rather liked Jobrey Coltsham for the job; he could relay his reports to Stefan Groomsman, who had better access to the young king than most court nobles could ever dream of having. He also wanted to do something to get the disgruntled groom on his side. Jobrey, for all his theatrics, seemed steadfast and loyal. He would be placated by the post; and, George suspected, tickled by the prospect of working for a Rogue-turned-spy.
For now, this arrangement would suffice. As his fellow Spymaster, there was no one he trusted more as an intermediary than Sir Myles. He had written a note to Myles himself as well, asking for his advice. Though he had managed to command the loyalty of all the rogues in Tortall, he was still just a common-born, with absolutely no experience at managing a fief. Who better to ask for tips, than the man who had masterfully handled the affairs of Barony Olau for nigh on thirty years?
Well, perhaps the current custodian of Barony Olau, Sir Myles' heir, who ran things in his stead; and who had also taken charge of Trebond besides.
George ran a hand distractedly through his short crop of brown hair.
He should write a letter to her, he knew. He had been holding out as long as he could. He'd had other things on his mind, admittedly; but truth to tell, she was never too far from his thoughts.
It was because he cared for her that he had maintained silence in her direction. He didn't want to scare her off by coming on too strong - something he had come perilously close to doing enough times in the past. He had better restraint over his feelings for her now; he knew it was better to let her have her head, wait for her to come to him when she was ready.
If she was ever ready.
It paid off once, now, didn't it? he told himself. He smiled fondly - a secret, soft smile that he reserved just for her - as he thought of the last letter he had sent her. Almost three years ago it must be now, he realized, to his surprise; it felt like an age. Back when she had just newly become the Woman Who Rides Like A Man - how that title made him swell with pride, considering where she had acquired her mount! - and Lightfingers, merciful Black God rest his poor soul, had just returned after an ill-fated trip to the desert...
Coram felt a firm tap on his shoulder.
He wheeled around, hand going to the pommel of his broadsword. He didn't feel any safer for being in the middle of Corus' marketplace; here, a touch on the arm meant that someone could just as easily slip the purse from your belt - or put a knife to your throat.
He turned angrily on his assailant, then relaxed when he saw who it was - though only slightly. He didn't like anyone getting the advantage over him; but George must be very near the bottom of his list of preferred sneaks.
"It be ye," he growled, looked far from impressed by the fact.
"It be indeed," George replied, amiably. If Coram was unhappy to see the thief, he was doubly delighted to see the guardsman - though he would have been even gladder to see a small, red-headed figure by his side.
"It's been a time," he said, making polite conversation. The pair hadn't come face to face in nearly seven years - not since Coram and Alan's first arrival in Corus, when the lass' guardian had warned his mistress against pick-pockets, looking at George all the while.
If Coram's temper wasn't good, his instincts certainly were. Though, truth be told, George's own instincts - his Sight, to be exact - having told him that the copper-haired lad would be a worthy acquaintance, had been making his best impression by planting himself between Alan's sandbags and the rest of the market, warning some of his less-scrupulous followers that this obvious country-bumpkin was not to be made an easy mark.
Try explaining that to a battle-hardened warrior, George thought ruefully to himself. Maybe he would have the chance, one day.
Now wasn't the time. Since that first meeting, he had seen Coram around countless times, but had always thought it in his best interest to keep a respectful distance; given the way the guardsman's frown had deepened, his hunch had been right. Though they hadn't directly met in quite some time, he obviously still remembered George. The thief flattered himself that Alanna must have mentioned him in her manservant's presence from time to time.
"Not long enough," the grizzled old soldier replied. "The Lord Provost, though, I met not long ago. I'm sure he'd be very interested in meetin' the likes of yon."
"An acquaintance I fear we'll never have in common," George said serenely, though he added to himself, I should hope, if I value my skin.
As if he divined this inner thought, Coram snorted.
"We do, however," George said, hastily seizing on this sudden burst of good-humour, "have another mutual friend - a right noble one. If you don't mind me saying-"
"As a matter of fact I do," Coram rumbled, his irate tone taking on a dangerous new edge. "I happen to know just how you regard her, just what manner of interest you have; and I'll have you know that I don't stand for it. The Trebonds are a right respectable family, goin' back generations, name in the Book of Gold and all. The daughter of Trebond ain't got any business consortin' with the like of ye."
"And I respect your opinion," George answered, in the most placating manner he could manage. It was true - even if he far from agreed with that opinion. "However, if I might presume to be speakin' for the lady herself, I think she would say otherwise."
Coram regarded him with a grudging look. "True enough," he said, but he seemed reluctant to admit it.
"Since we agree on that point," George went on, turning his former tap on the shoulder into a companionable clap on the back, "mayhap she might appreciate if you could be givin' her this from me." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of parchment, sealed and stamped with the sign of the Dancing Dove - a bird in flight, clutching a ring in its beak.
Coram glared darkly at it. "Ye'd dare trust me to hand it to her, after what I just said?" he asked incredulously.
"No," George admitted, frankly, "but I haven't any other means of reachin' the lass, and as her closest companion for nigh on eighteen years, I know she trusts you - wisely - to do right by her. Why shouldn't I trust you in like?"
Coram looked at him carefully. George could see that he had made some impression, though the guardsman's eyes were still wary. "And if I burn it afore I reach the desert?"
"Then that's up to you," George said, flatly, "and I have no say in it."
They regarded each other for a time. Coram was evidently searching his words for trickery, weighing up what he had said; while George was endeavouring to give him his most sincere smile. He hoped to convey to the over-protective manservant that he meant his mistress no harm - quite the opposite, in fact.
At last, Coram snatched the letter, tucking it roughly into his tunic. "I must be goin' soft in me old age," he muttered darkly to himself.
"Never you, lad," George said, his grin redoubling. "Whilst you're in town, can I take you for a drink?"
Coram shook his head. Talking with and taking letters from a thief was bad enough; being entertained by one was out of the question. "I should be gettin' back to her. Gods know what mischief she'll have gotten up to, with only that blasted cat keepin' an eye on her." He fingered the edge of his tunic again. "Asides, I got other letters to be givin' her. Sir Myles wrote her, and her brother-"
"Not one from Jon?" George asked before he could stop himself, trying to keep his voice casual. He was aware that Coram was staring at him closely, and not just because he used such a familiar address to refer to the heir to the throne.
"Not this time," Coram replied thoughtfully, watching for any tiny reaction in George's face, which its owner was making every effort to mask. "But since he's her liege and she his vassal, he can likely reach her on his own whenever he wants her. Could send a whole company of the Own after her, if he wanted."
"I'm sure he could," George agreed, this time with a genuine smile. It seemed like just the sort of thing the proud young prince might do; and it made his own pair of unsuccessful agents look paltry by comparison. "Well, with all those letter in your trustworthy hand, you'll hardly be noticin' another note beside those, will you?"
Coram had obviously had enough. "Mithros, yer the livin' end," he muttered, turning away with a shake of his head. George could've sworn he saw the ghost of a smile on his lips before he faced the other way, stalking off across the market square.
"Give the lass my regards!" George called after him. "My fondest regards," he added, under his breath, as guardsman stolidly ignored him, disappearing among the crowd.
As he stood there, in the midst of his own domain, surrounded by the countless thieves and vagabonds who made up his faithful court, he couldn't help but feel a little forlorn.
George stared at the letter in his hand, though he hardly remembered that it existed any more.
He was thinking of that last letter he had written to her - how he had poured all his hopes and affections into it, in a feeble last-ditch effort to win her back. He had known that Coram wouldn't read it, had even half-suspected that he might deliver it; but he hadn't been at all sure that she would heed what he wrote.
Well, it hadn't exactly done him any disservice. Next he heard from her, she was standing outside his house in Port Caynn, the address of which he had had the foresight to include in his letter. Before a week of her stay was out, she had been sharing not just his roof, but his bed as well. At last, his patience had been rewarded - however briefly.
But it hadn't been enough to keep her, had it? And mayhap it wasn't wholly the letter that had done it. If she hadn't had that spat with Jon-
He hissed out a sharp breath, disgusted with himself.
Hadn't he decided, long ago, that Jon was his friend, and if his lass were to be happy with him, he would give them both his blessing? In a way, Jon had gifted him; if he hadn't behaved so badly and driven her away, he wouldn't have stood a chance. He had no doubt that if he had turned his back on the Rogue then, ridden south before ever Jonathon had a chance to make his disastrous proposal, it would've been he himself who had been rejected - and driven her straight into the prince's arms.
He sighed, suddenly wistful. He had had her for such a short while - what if that was all he would ever have of her?
He was thus torturing himself, when a powerful outside force tugged at the corner of his mind - the part which, through long years of habitual caution, he kept carefully trained on his surroundings. At the same time, his senses gave a familiar thrum.
To anyone who had never had the Sight, the sensation would have been highly disorienting. George had lived with it all his life; it troubled him no more than a slight itch. He was all at once in this spot, staring at his letter; and at the same time reaching out beyond, concentrating an ample part of his perception on the adjoining rooms. He was acutely aware of the chamber next door, and the corridor that led to it.
From an early age, his mother had used to wonder, with exasperation, how he could possibly find out so many things that weren't his business to know. He was nearly in his teens by the time she had realized that his Sight shielded him from her Gift. Suddenly, his heightened awareness of everything around him made perfect sense. As a child, he could detect even the lightest fingers that dared creep their way towards his wallet. As he grew older, he could always tell the precise moment when the owner of the rooms he ransacked for valuables was about to return. Countless times, his Sight had told him who was worthy or unworthy of his trust; helped him to find friends, and aided him in avoiding enemies.
Once, it had even informed him that a small, red-headed burglar was breaking into his room above the Dancing Dove.
Chuckling inwardly at another treasured recollection, George carefully tucked the letter into his pocket, leaving his hands free, and focused his keen hearing upon the connecting door that led to his bedchamber. A moment later, he heard another door - the one leading into the bedroom from the hall - give the tiniest of telltale creaks. Furtive footsteps made soft scuffling sounds on the heavy Tusainian rug.
George grinned to himself with his own distinctive brand of professional satisfaction. Despite his straining senses, which usually indicated some sort of threat, he was highly amused.
Thanks to his Sight, he had a good idea who it was on the other side of the door, sneaking a look through his belongings. Only one of the Swoop's servants was highly-appointed enough to make any plausible excuse for being caught going through his personal effects. He was rather impressed that the man had dared take the risk. However, he was hardly surprised. He had expected as much. In fact, he had anticipated it. He had left a particular chest, little bigger than a hat-box and ornamented with beautiful brass inlays, in a prominent position beside his desk. He had even laid a fine-tipped awl next to it, suggestively - invitingly.
As if the man in the next room were following his silent instructions, he heard a slight clink as the head of the instrument was wedged between the lid and rim of the chest. There was a quiet rasping sound, like metal scraping against metal; then another tiny click, as the catch gave way. He heard the box open, with an ominous creak of old hinges.
There came a frantic shout so loud, the maids later claimed to have heard it in the scullery below, through four floors of heavy stone.
It took George a moment to pull himself together; he had near collapsed from the sheer force of the mirth-filled, slightly-malicious laughing fit that had wholly engulfed him. His merriment was tempered a little by the fact that it was at his poor head steward's expense.
Still, he didn't feel too badly for him. He had brought it on himself.
Still chuckling heartily, George strolled out into the passage. A moment later, Warren Lansark burst out of the master bedchamber, his face deathly white and his hair in disarray, shuddering violently in every limb.
At the sight of George he froze open-mouthed, staring at him in abject horror.
"Well now," said George, trying hard not to dissolve into hearty guffaws again. "I take it you found my secret stash. You didn't hurt it none, did you?" He strode past Warren, who appeared to be fastened to the spot, and surveyed the damage.
The box had been thrust back into place with considerable force; one brass-capped corner was freshly dented where it had hit the floor. The lid was still slightly ajar. George opened it fully, inspecting what lay inside with calm disinterest. Its contents were a little jumbled up, but otherwise unharmed.
It didn't really matter, anyway; none of them were matching pairs.
"A bit of a keepsake, from old friends in Corus," he told Warren, who was by now gaping blankly at him. His tone as he said the word 'friends' plainly implied the opposite. "A few small trophies, if you will, with some fine memories attached to 'em - and little else besides."
He snapped the lid of the box firmly shut. The metallic thud seemed to rouse Warren from his stupor. He gave a violent start and hastily stood to attention, still looking very pale. He glanced guiltily at George, then turned his gaze shame-facedly towards the floor.
"These beauties have little value to anyone else, other than me," George continued, his voice light and genial, "so there's no point in other folks gawkin' at them. I'll be keepin' them in a safe place from now on, where no one else can stumble on them by accident. I'd appreciate if no one went lookin' for them again - or anythin' else among my things. Consider yourself warned, Warren Lansark."
Despite the content of his words, his manner was still only mildly teasing; the entire episode was far too funny to make him feel at all genuinely cross. I'll have to tell my darlin' all about it when next I write her, he gleefully told himself. Setting the box down again, he loped out of the room, clapping Warren companionably on the shoulder as he passed. All the way down to the rider's outpost, a wicked grin played about the corners of his mouth.
Warren watched him go in silence, hardly daring to move. Several long minutes later, he stole a hasty glance through the chamber door, shuddered once, then reached into his inner coat pocket for his flask, tipping it back for a very long swig with a hand that shook visibly.
Author's note: you have no idea how long I've been looking forward to posting this scene! I just had to show Warren finding George's 'collection'! To be honest, in the books, I wasn't sure if George actually had an assortment of ears, or if it was just part of his legend; but I couldn't resist treating Warren to the shock of stumbling across them!
I remembered George doing the trick with the apple and the knife in 'First Adventure'. I suppose he casually does it a lot, to keep his skills up to scratch; and it makes a nice display to put new rogues in their place. Here, I had him do it to scare the bejeebus out of Jobrey.
Remember that bit in 'The Woman Who Rides Like a Man' when Coram returns to the desert after the death of Akhnan ibn Nazzir with letters for Alanna, including one from George, which he had half a mind not to give her? I thought it would be fun to imagine how Coram got that letter - he and George make a wonderful odd couple in the rare instances when they come together!
I don't think Tamora Pierce has ever described what George's Sight is like. I know Aly has inherited the Sight from him, but hers seems to manifest differently to his, and is stronger; however, since both seem to have their abilities at least partially bestowed to them by the Trickster God, they might be similar. Anyway, I had some fun imagining and making up what George's Sight is like. If I've got it out of canon, please forgive me!
A lot got crammed into this chapter. I don't know when the next one will be ready, but hopefully it won't be quite as densely packed! ~ W.J.
EDIT: thank you to the reviewer who informed me that the Trebond name was written in the 'Book of Gold' not silver, it has now been corrected!
Also, I now realize that George and Coram would have spent some time together since the latter's arrival in Corus; George accompanied Alanna to Trebond on the way to the City of the Gods, and I assume George spent his stay there enduring Coram's rants. Someone should write a fic out of that, if they haven't already - I currently don't have the inspiration!