It was some time after Darius brought Resa out of the book and into the village before Dustfinger actually met her. He heard much of her, though, in the meantime. She'd been a rebellious little bird from the start, said Capricorn's men, smirking; she'd bit and scratched and fought like a devil as the soldiers had tried to take her to her room, and she'd succeeded in dragging her fingernails across Cockerell's face and kicking Basta sharply across his shins before Flatnose managed to pin her arms to her sides and drag her out of the church where the reading was taking place.
"A right wild one, she was," the men would laugh as they stood watch and talked women, "until she got the sense knocked into her."
"How?" one of the boys would say, and from the shadows Dustfinger would cringe, for this was a story he had not wanted to hear the first time and hated more with each subsequent retelling, a thousand times more acutely after he became acquainted with Resa.
She'd tried to escape, was how it went; she'd run for an open door a few days after her arrival, and she made it all the way to the very edge of the town, where the black jackets parked their cars and, more importantly, where the road to the rest of humanity lay. Dustfinger could see her in his mind, a thin, hunched figure, her blond hair tied back into a braid streaming in the autumn night's winds. She even made it past the guards on the cars. It was her bad luck that Basta was out with the dogs, on his way back from hunting down a farmer who hadn't paid his dues.
The dogs caught her at the side of the road where it met the lots, in the tangle of scrub where she'd tried to hide. Dustfinger cringed again to think of her, pale, fragile Resa, with Basta's big brutes snarling and snapping around her ankles. It hadn't been long before their master caught up with them, either, and there was no doubt in Dustfinger's mind of what Basta's intentions had been — night, and they two alone at the outskirts of the village. But Resa fought again, even fiercer than she'd done when she was dragged out of the book, for she could not scream.
Here was where Capricorn's men would drop their voices and check over their shoulders for Basta, their eyes alight with something like fear and something like gleeful contempt as they went on: "Took care of Basta pretty well, she did, for such a little thing; got his knife away from him and everything, before he thought to take hold of it. Ever see that scar he's got on his left wrist, under those long sleeves of his? That was from her." And then, "Good on her, I say," and, "Agreed. First girl to refuse him and do it convincingly, I think."
And Dustfinger — in the days after he came to know her — would smile from his corner of the world, and think proudly of Resa's spirit and quickness and ingenuity. But his smile would soon melt away, as someone would be sure to continue the account: "But no woman's a match for Basta, not for long, eh?"
Of course not. There was rescue to come for Resa, but Dustfinger still shuddered to think of what might have taken place had not a couple of black jackets, sent to find the wayward maid, discovered Basta before he could do more than grab Resa by the hair and around her waist. She was brought back to Mortola, and it might have ended there, but for that the Magpie's antipathy for Basta was outdone only by her antipathy for any who dared defy her or her son. So it was that she allowed Basta to be the one to beat Resa for her insolence in attempting to run from the village.
Resa was still healing two weeks after the incident — no wonder, as there was little care or comfort to be found anywhere in Capricorn's house — and it was then that Dustfinger first encountered her.
He'd been sneaking through the maids' quarters at the time, hunting for Mortola's latest hiding place for her keys. Gwin had gotten underfoot one too many times, and the Magpie finally had enough and trapped the martin in a birdcage. Dustfinger worried himself sick, as much as he hated to admit it, over his missing companion; he only learned of Gwin's plight after he overheard some of the senior maids whispering about it. The cage was in Mortola's room, and that was no difficulty for Dustfinger; the important matter was finding the key.
There was a new maid, he knew, a fighter. He'd heard the stories from the black jackets, seen Basta rubbing his left wrist where the bandages lay, but he had not yet seen the rebel for himself. Despite the urgency of his mission and the guilt he couldn't shake at the thought of Gwin starving and trapped in the Magpie's room, Dustfinger couldn't help indulging his curiosity as he passed the door behind which he knew Resa was quartered alone. His hand rested a moment on the doorhandle before he dared to turn it and slowly push the door ajar.
He remembered the tableau well, later, the faint moonlight falling from the barred window, making a pattern on the floorboards; the cot, the moth-chewed blanket which was scarcely disturbed by the slight figure beneath it; the gleam of the tangled hair, looking silver in the light from the window, unbraided and lying in waves around her face and down her back. Her eyes — argent, too, although when he would see them in the daylight they were pale blue — flicked up immediately and met his through the thin aperture between door and frame. There was a world of sorrow in those eyes, but it was shielded by wariness and a spark of fear. One of her eyes was bruised blue-black, and Dustfinger would learn later that Basta had thought to come and check up on the patient, renew his attempts to woo her, and hit her across the face when she denied him yet again.
Resa stirred, and a glint of metal caught Dustfinger's eye; for a crazy moment, he thought she had a knife. At second glance, however, he realized the truth. She was handcuffed to the siderail of the cot, and she'd tried to raise that hand to gesture to him. Wincing, Resa shook her head and beckoned him in with her free hand. Dustfinger cautiously complied, pushing the door further ajar and stepping into the moonlit room. He almost didn't register that he'd closed the door behind him.
"Nobody knows your name," he told her casually as he sat down on the wobbly chair beside the bed, beneath the window. She blinked her big shining eyes at him, looking surprised and a little less wary. "No," Dustfinger went on, tipping the chair back and putting his arms behind his head, "nobody thought to try and find it out. You didn't give them time, you know. They're not particularly happy with you right now."
She gave him a sardonic yes, I know look and pointedly put a hand to her bruised face.
"Ouch. Yes." Dustfinger examined her sideways, realizing fully what bad shape she was in. "What are you fighting for, anyway?" he asked, leaning back farther. "You'd be better off doing what they want — Capricorn and Mortola and all of them."
A defiant shake of the head, which brought a lock of silvery-blond hair down over her forehead; before she could move to brush it away, Dustfinger had done so himself, his fingers lingering a moment on her face. The maid pushed his hand away and pulled back, eyes flashing, mouth twisting with revulsion. That expression hit Dustfinger harder than the way she had huddled herself as far away from him as she could get with her hand still manacled.
"What?" Dustfinger pulled back himself and let the front legs of his chair fall to the floor with a heavy thump. "Am I too mangled for your taste, madam? Do excuse me." The bitterness in his voice burned even his own ears. He could feel his scars now, the way he always could when the blood rose to his face; they were like three hot fingers laid across his cheek, a gentle pressure on his flesh where he could sometimes feel his own pulse beating. It was a moment before he realized he'd reached up to cover them.
The maid regarded him from the corner of the bed. She was suspicious again, and perhaps even a little hurt. She hadn't expected him to want from her what it seemed all the men in this world wanted, thought Dustfinger. It was foolish of him to have acted thus so quickly. But she was as beautiful as the stars, her face — her makeshift voice — so much more full of emotion and passion than other women's faces...
He started when he felt her take his hand in hers. Dustfinger looked questioningly at her, but she only turned it so the palm faced upwards, gripping his wrist with the one of hers that was clasped to the rail. With the other, she traced something on his hand, her fingertip pressing into his skin. It was a moment before Dustfinger grasped what she was doing.
"Oh, no, no," he murmured, meeting the maid's now-softening gaze. "You've picked the wrong man to try and spell out anything. Although, I suppose you wouldn't do much better with any of Capricorn's men, as none of them can read worth spit." He snickered, and then cut off sharply as he heard it — a quiet, lilting little giggle. The maid, seeing his raised brows, blushed and shrugged.
"The songbird can laugh?" Dustfinger smiled, even if his smile wasn't so open as it used to be. "Fancy that. Pray continue, dear lady."
She giggled again, and then repeated the sign she'd drawn on his palm. She lifted her chin expectantly. Go on, then, her eyes said.
The smile faded from Dustfinger's face. He lowered his voice. "Once more, slowly, please." He studied the invisible mark, trying to picture it as it would appear in ink on a page. "Is it 'I'?" he asked finally. His companion shook her head, traced the letter again. A furrow of concentration dug into Dustfinger's forehead, and he cursed silently. No, he was certainly not the man for this game of deciphering. He had enough trouble with it when he could actually see the scrawlings. "'T'?"
That drew an emphatic nod from her. An instant later, she was at it again, outlining a different sign, one with more corners and projecting lines. Biting his lip, Dustfinger focused hard. It wasn't 'F', he knew, but the other. "'E'."
Her smile widened, and she began excitedly on another letter, so quickly that Dustfinger almost lost the two he had already found. "'P', is it?" he said.
A shake of the blond head, and a firmer touch on his hand.
She was gripping his wrist tighter, now, all her frustration showing in her face as she shook her head again. Dustfinger felt her nail digging into his skin this time.
"I could walk away, you know," he informed her, "and not have to go through this whole song and dance. I don't even know what you're trying to spell for me. Ouch!"
She had pinched the thin skin of his inner wrist; her fingertip moved exaggeratedly slowly this time, her blazing eyes locked onto his. If she'd been able to speak, he guessed, she'd have been screaming in his ear by this point.
"It's an 'R'," Dustfinger pronounced, with some dignity. "But what is 'Ter' supposed to mea-"
Again, the nail scraped his palm, and if he tilted his hand, he could almost see the scratch-marks shining pale in the moonlight. It was a familiar symbol. "Another 'E'."
They repeated the torturous process for two more letters, although Dustfinger had almost forgotten what 'A' looked like entirely and had the most trouble with it, the final letter. At last, the maid released his wrist, and Dustfinger flexed his fingers to get the blood flowing again. "I still don't quite understand," he said. "What was the first letter again? 'F'?"
With a very deep sigh, the maid held out her hand again, obviously demanding the return of his, but Dustfinger recoiled. His voice was petulant. "Hang on, darling, I need that. What's the point, anyway?" He stared straight at her for a few stubborn seconds. He was no match for those ice-eyes of hers, though, and in the end he reluctantly relinquished his hand, grumbling as she once more turned it over and placed a finger at its center.
The letters came easier this time, though — there were only four, all ones she'd given him earlier, and in the same order. She spelled them quickly, her touch like the brush of faerie wings on his skin. When she'd finished, she let him go and eyed him with anticipation.
She gave him a beaming smile and a nod. Dustfinger considered the word. "Resa," he repeated. "Resa. Your name, I presume."
A shrug — close enough, he guessed.
"You probably know who I am already."
Resa tilted her head to the side, crinkling her nose, and waggled her hand back and forth. A little.
"Dustfinger. Capricorn's resident pet and entertainer." There was more bile in his voice, but he reveled in it, and in this feeling of being able to speak without fear. Who would Resa tell, poor, iron-tongued thing that she was? He regarded her again, a smile playing around his mouth. Yes...who would she tell? Here, at last, was someone who might be trusted, someone to whom you could betray your deepest secrets. She didn't seem to mind him, even if she was blushing and fluttering her fingers for him to stop looking at her like that.
Footsteps echoed from the hall outside, and Dustfinger's head snapped up, his mind suddenly remembering his original purpose in coming to the house: Gwin, the birdcage, the key... Luckily, the steps went straight past the door without slowing. Dustfinger eased himself out of his chair and went closer to the cot.
"Take care of yourself, Resa," he said, tugging idly at the chain of the handcuffs with his forefinger. "I'll try to be back later, maybe bring you something for that eye. And a measure of cooperation wouldn't kill you. In fact– " his laughter grated in his throat – "it just might save your life."
Resa frowned at him, her face as determined as ever. It was a striking sight, those angry silver eyes contrasting all the cuts and bruises, and Dustfinger laughed again. Brief, cold laughter. He told her, "Think about it," and rested his hand for a moment on the one of hers which was cuffed to the bed. Then Dustfinger turned away and slipped back out into the dark hallway as carefully as he had come, leaving nothing behind but a faint scent of match-sulphur.