Chapter 18



“This makes me really, really nervous,” Skip grumbled.


Dante chuckled.


“I thought you would enjoy it,” he said. “Your first day outdoors in some time.”


“Yeah, well – “ Skip grimaced. “I thought we were going to the beach. We never talked about going into the city.”


“But here is where my duties take me today,” Dante said gently. “You seemed interested earlier.”


“I am interested,” Skip said awkwardly. “It’s just – I didn’t think about it. I mean, I didn’t think as far as carriages and disguises and all that.” He pulled at the half-mask he wore, extending from his brow down to the tip of his nose.


Dante squeezed Skip’s hand.


“It’s necessary, muírnigh,” he said softly. “Else you’d be mistaken for Kix – or, worse, recognized as not being the Vizier.”


Skip grimaced.


“So instead, what, I look like Kix in a clumsy disguise,” he said sourly.


“Exactly,” Dante said serenely.


“Huh?” Skip blinked.


“Many nobles disguise themselves as peasants to go into town for a few hours’ drinking or whoring,” Dante said. “Kix has never been given to such tricks, but no one need know that. Anyone thinking your appearance amiss will simply take you for the Vizier himself, disguised for an anonymous visit to town.”


“So, what, I’m pretending to be Kix?” Skip said skeptically.


Dante chuckled.


“Nay, you are pretending to pretend not to be Kix,” he said. “The rest will care for itself. Trust me, muírnigh, this is a common thing. The Vizier knows that, which is likely why he chose the very spell he did. Come, enjoy your first day of freedom from the castle, and your first day of duty at my side.”


“Well, there is that,” Skip agreed, grinning. He touched the wooden seat of the pony cart, frowning. “But somehow I thought Simon would have fancier transportation.”


“He does,” Dante agreed, smiling. “Grand carriages with soft velvet covered seats and coachmen in full livery to drive it. But how could we be seen in such state and maintain the pretense that you are not the Vizier?”


“Oh,” Skip said sheepishly. “Okay, I get it. So explain to me what we’re doing again.”


“We are visiting Lady Alicia’s warehouse,” Dante told him. “The Lady has eagerly agreed to meet with us there and to answer my questions, since we are, after all, working to clear her name in the matter of the poisoned cheeses. I think your viewpoint and ideas would be very useful in my investigation.”


“Oh,” Skip said again, nodding, trying not to beam with pride at Dante’s statement. Dante thought he’d be useful in an investigation, an important investigation! He’d always been good with his hands, clever as a mechanic, but nobody had ever accused him of being smart – quite the contrary, Kix had always been deemed the intelligent one and Skip had felt stupid next to his brother.


They rode through the city, Skip squirming under the curious glances directed their way – but as soon as a curious gaze fell on Dante, the watcher’s expression would turn closed and wary and the person would look away.


“Everyone’s afraid of you,” Skip murmured. “Is it because you’re Simon’s assassin, or because you’re a halfling?”


“Either,” Dante said, shrugging. “Both. It hardly matters, does it? In my work, it serves me well that people fear me.”


Skip frowned.


“But aren’t you . . . you know, lonely?”


Dante darted Skip a brief smile and clasped his hand under cover of their cloaks.


“Not anymore,” he said simply.


They rode a little further; then Dante pulled the ponies to a halt and jumped down from the cart, tying the ponies to a post. He reached out a hand to steady Skip as he climbed down.


“Is this it?” Skip asked dubiously, glancing at what looked more like a brothel than a warehouse. As if I’d know a medieval warehouse if one crawled up the privy and bit me on the ass, he thought with a grin.


Dante laughed.


“Hardly,” he said. “Lady Alicia would scarce be seen in such a place. No, we must cross the marketplace, and the law forbids unconfined livestock except at sunrise and sunset, when the merchants bring their wares and take them away. It’s to keep the citizenry from being trampled by a startled horse turned runaway. There are licensed goat carts to be had for hire, but in this crowd we’ll go as fast or faster on our own feet. Stay close and ware your purse, there are thieves aplenty hereabouts.”


Purse? Skip snickered. His entire worldly possessions at this moment consisted of a handful of change – worthless here – his lighter, his knife, the ring Dante had given him, and his earring and hair clasp. Still, there was a hell of a crowd in the big open market. In the past, crowds had never bothered Skip. But in this bizarre place where he felt like a total ignoramus, where he lacked the most basic skills and knowledge of any child in the street – such as the ability to ride a horse, for God’s sake! – he felt uncharacteristically timid and vulnerable, glad to walk close to Dante and let the aura of menace which the assassin seemed to exude protect him.


And protect him it did, at least from being stepped on or jostled. The crowd gave way before Dante, parting like soft butter before a hot knife. Those who actually looked at Dante quickly dropped their eyes and stepped aside with an expression of profound unease, as if they were afraid of attracting his notice – and probably, Skip realized, they were. Those not facing Dante stepped aside almost unconsciously, some of them shivering as if a chill had run up their spines. Had to be a darkling thing, then – certainly Dante cut an impressive figure in his black leather, but even lacking that, surely people would get out of the way of the king’s assassin. But obviously it was something sensed more than seen.


Skip thought back. Had he ever been afraid of Dante? Wary, certainly, but afraid? Yeah, but at first I was sick as shit, and by the time I was healthy enough to know the difference, I’d kind of, well, gotten to know him. Not to mention guzzled down a few doses of his blood. Wonder if that makes a difference. Anyway, it’s not like I haven’t walked on the dark side most of my life regardless. Still . . . how much familiarity, how long a friendship did it take to overcome that first instinctive fear? Simon and Kix, Jim and Blair had apparently done it, but . . .


But aren’t you . . . you know, lonely?


Not anymore.


No one? God, for how long? He looks like a kid, but he’s hinted that he’s older than he looks. He says he ages slowly. How old is he, anyway?


They were passing through a section of primarily food carts; the crowd was thicker here, and even Dante was having to nudge his way through. Abruptly someone collided with Skip; instinctively Skip said, “Oops, sorry,” even as he froze in astonishment.


The – er, person – who had run into him was undeniably female, with black hair coiled at the back of her head, a merry tanned face, and mischeivously sparkling dark eyes. She was also more than a foot shorter than Skip, and her ears were delicately pointed.


“My fault, good sir,” she chuckled. Abruptly one hand slid behind Skip’s head and pulled him down into a kiss that curled his toes. Just as abruptly she released him, giving him a broad wink, and disappeared into the crowd, leaving Skip gaping and blinking dumbly.


Tell me I didn’t just see – hell, kiss – an elf!


At the same instant, Dante yelped and whirled, glaring at Skip.


“S- -- “ Dante barely cut off the name, flushing with a mixture of outrage and amusement. “In the market? What possesses you?”


Skip blinked.




“You mean you – “ Dante glanced around and stepped close, leaning in to speak into Skip’s ear. “You didn’t just squeeze my bottom?”


Skip snickered.


“I think it was the kiss-and-run elf,” he said.


Dante scowled.


“What’re you on about?”


Skip glanced around and spied a more or less clear space at the side of one of the carts. He scooted over there, pulling Dante with him.


Are there elves here?” Skip asked, fighting down semi-hysterical laughter.


“In this part of the world? Rarely,” Dante said impatiently. “Why?”


“Well, I think one just ran into me, went tonsil-diving in my mouth, and groped you,” Skip chuckled. Then he caught sight of two severed leather strings hanging from Dante’s belt. “Uh . . . and probably stole your purse, too.”


Dante immediately reached for his hip, felt the dangling strings, and let loose with a string of words in some language Skip didn’t know, but whose meaning was pretty damned clear. Skip nearly choked on his laughter. He made a quick assessment of his own meager belongings – ring, earring, pocket knife, lighter, yep, they were all there. Must not have been worth stealing. Then again, his ass hadn’t been worth grabbing eather. That thought brought on a new wave of mirth.


We’ve just been kissed, groped and robbed by an elf, Skip thought, biting his lip hard so he didn’t howl with laughter in the face of Dante’s obvious fury. And just when I thought this place couldn’t get any weirder. Muggers in Dallas usually just shove a gun up your nose and beat the shit out of you. I could get to like this place.


“ – saw off her hands with a rasp!” Dante growled.


“Dante, Dante, calm down,” Skip said, fighting down his amusement. “Look, were you carrying a lot of money?”


Dante scowled furiously.


“No, but – “


“Then just write it off as an object lesson for me in why I should be real, real careful of my belongings – “ and my butt “ – in the market here, okay?”


“She grabbed my bottom!” Dante growled.


Skip raised an eyebrow.


“Dante, have you looked in the mirror lately? Anything humanoid enough to have hands would gladly grab your butt. It’s, like, a work of art.”


The corner of Dante’s mouth twitched; then he scowled again.


“And she kissed you!”


“Yeah, and that little lady could probably teach me a few tricky tongue moves,” Skip admitted, grinning broadly. Not to mention some tricky hand action. Okay, my stealing days are probably over, but shit that was quick! “Come on, Dante, we’ve got more important things to do today than fret over stolen pocket change.”


“I was going to take you shopping in the market,” Dante said, grimacing, although his anger seemed to be fading. “Buy you dinner, some trinkets and sweets.”


“We’ll come again some other time,” Skip suggested. “You give me plenty, and K – uh, you-know-who’s the one who likes sweets. I’m a salty snacks kind of guy. C’mon, let’s go talk cheese, okay?”


Dante gave a last general glowering look around the market, then sighed and led Skip on, this time skirting the worst of the crowd and gazing around him suspiciously, one hand on his sword hilt. Skip followed, still chuckling. He had no idea why, but the incident had somehow cheered him up. There was just something about being robbed, however nicely, that made this place seem a little more familiar and homey.


The warehouse was a large stone and log building not far outside the market, in a district with a number of large and small shops and several smokehouses, judging from the smells. Two mean-looking guards almost grudgingly admitted them, and Skip wondered idly if Lady Alicia had beefed up security since the poisoning incident. More than likely.


Lady Alicia was nowhere near the dainty noblewoman Skip had pictured from her name – she was middle-aged, plump and indisputably plain, with muscular arms that spoke of hard work. She wore a rather plain gown and an apron over it.


She also made no attempt at courtly conversation or evasion.


“I’ve had every cheese in the warehouse on the day I chose samples for the High Lord brought here for your inspection,” she said without preamble. “Apart from those I ate myself to test their quality, that is, and those already sold and consumed elsewhere – I bought back those I could. I’ve brought in every man and woman who so much as looked at the cheeses since they left my aging cave, and all the records for that batch going back to the purchase of the milk. I have for you the name of the boxman who made the crates, the farmer who supplied the packing straw, and the carter who took me and the cheeses to the High Lord’s castle. How else can I assist you?” She darted Skip a wary glance, and apparently decided that if he was in fact Kix in disguise, she was safer ignoring him entirely.


Dante had apparently decided to speak plainly too.


“Lady Alicia, let me state plainly that the High Lord does not suspect you of any wrongdoing,” he said gravely. “The nature and manner of the poisoning suggest to me that it was less likely an attempt on High Lord Simon’s life than perhaps a ploy to cast suspicion upon you. Have you any idea who might attempt such a thing?”


Lady Alicia’s stern expression softened almost immediately from defensive to thoughtful.


“I’ve rivals in business, of course,” she said, shaking her head after a long moment’s consideration. “Not many. I deal only in sheep’s milk cheeses, a smallish market. There’s always the occasional sheep farmer who thinks his milk was worth more than I was willing to pay, or the angry apprentice or worker I’ve discharged. But I can scarce imagine any so angry or so foolhardy as to poison cheeses meant for the High Lord’s table. A spell to spoil my milk or crack my cheeses, aye, perhaps that, but this? No. I am neither so loved within the guild as to draw jealousy, nor so hated as to draw vengeance on such a scale.”


If Dante was disappointed, he made no sign of it. He gravely surveyed Lady Alicia’s records of the particular shipment that had gone to Simon, then queried her as to the path of those particular cheeses.


“I hand-picked the best of each variety for High Lord Simon, of course,” Lady Alicia told him, leading Dante to the locked room where she had stored the other cheeses. “I selected the cheeses myself. The boxes had already been packed with straw. I placed the cheeses inside with my own hands. Then when they were loaded on the cart – “


“Not yet,” Dante said smoothly. “Did you yourself pack the straw around the cheeses and close the crates?”


Lady Alicie frowned thoughtfully, biting her thin lower lip.


“No,” she said at last. “No, I moved on and chose the next selection. I assume my assistant took care of the cheeses after that point. Shall I have him summoned?”


“If you would, please.”


Gilliam was a lanky young man, surprisingly quick-moving despite his awkward, coltish frame, with a ready smile.


“Yes, I packed the cheeses,” he said. “The packing straw was in a box by the crates – we keep it covered lest any dust or moisture get into it, which might harm the flavor of the cheeses. I packed in the straw around the cheeses – there is something of an art to it, you know. Pack the straw too tightly and the soft cheeses will be pressed out of shape and possibly cracked; too loosely and the cheeses may shift and bounce in transport and suffer similarly . . . “


Skip fought back a yawn, although Dante was still listening intently.


“And did you nail the crate closed?”


“Only a light tap or two,” Gilliam said. “As the cheeses were securely cushioned and as the boxes weren’t to be stacked, but taken forthwith to the High Lord’s castle, I saw no need to risk jarring the cheeses too much with a heavy pounding.”


“And did you load the crates yourself?” Dante asked.


“No, I had to keep up with her ladyship,” Gilliam said. “The apprentices do the loading, they know better than to drop a crate or handle it roughly in placing it in the wagon.”


“And which apprentices handled these particular crates on this particular occasion?” Dante asked quietly, and Skip began to see where he was going with this. If the crates weren’t nailed tightly shut, it would be easier to open them and tamper with the cheeses.


“I really have no idea,” Gilliam said, blushing. “But I will immediately find out.”


He vanished, presumably to rout out the unfortunate apprentices for questioning. Skip tried to ignore the savory aroma of the cheeses all around him. To his embarrassment, his stomach rumbled loudly. A slight chuckle escaped Dante before he could stifle it, and Lady Alicia’s lips twitched.


“Gilliam may be some time,” Lady Alicia said. “If you and your . . . companion . . . aren’t fearful of my wares, you could join me in a sampling in my office.”


“My lady, we would enjoy that,” Dante said unhesitatingly, following the lady into a smaller room. Skip shrugged and followed too. Even if Lady Alicia was behind the poisoning – and Skip was pretty damned sure she was not – she couldn’t be so stupid as to incriminate herself further by poisoning the High Lord’s envoys in her own warehouse.


Lady Alicia had some bread fresh from a nearby bakery, some early strawberries, a hard sausage that looked rather like salami to Skip, and hearty wine, as well as of course a basket of cheeses. Skip hung back long enough to let Dante and Lady Alicia serve themselves first – he figured if he was “in character” as Kix, there would probably be at least a little reluctance – before he gave in and stuffed himself. He realized he was probably giving Kix’s table manners a bad name, but he was too hungry and the food was too good for him to slow down. Lady Alicia looked more gratified than offended by Skip’s pigout, and Skip was glad to do his bit for political public relations.


Skip was well into his third plate full of food when Gilliam knocked on the door, entering with two apprentices, a boy and a girl, maybe eleven or twelve years old apiece, Skip guessed.


“Your pardon,” Gilliam said. “This is Apprentice Tomis and Junior Apprentice Lena. They loaded the cheeses that went to High Lord Simon.”


Skip knew something was wrong, felt it, even before Dante stiffened in his chair, his breath hissing in sharply. The assassin stood abruptly and strode across the room, ignoring Gilliam and Tomis and advancing on the wide-eyed girl. Lena backed against the wall, trembling, as Dante stepped close, and she whimpered when Dante grasped her shoulder firmly.


Lady Alicia stood, frowning.


“Milord Dante – “


“This one is touched by magic,” Dante said tonelessly. “How long has she served you?”


“Lena’s been with the guild a year,” Gilliam offered nervously. “We’ve had no trouble with her.”


“I don’t take apprentices who are Mage-Gifted,” Lady Alicia said, scowling.


Dante’s free hand cupped the girl’s face, holding her still as Dante gazed into her eyes. He shook his head.


“Nay, there’s none of the Gift in her blood,” he said. “Magic has only touched her in passing.” He released the girl, to her evident relief. “Tell me, young one, what transpired when you loaded the cheeses.”


Lena swallowed nervously, her voice unsteady.


“N-nothing, milord,” she said faintly. “Tomis was showing me the way of crating cheeses for shipment when Master Gilliam called that there were boxes to load, and we loaded them into the wagon.”


Dante rounded on Tomis; the youth swallowed hard and backed up a step.


“Well?” Dante said quietly.


“Lena’s telling the truth,” Tomis said. “We took the crates – “ Then he hesitated, glancing at Lena.


“What?” Dante said quickly.


“Well – “ Tomis took a deep breath. “I loaded the first crate. Lena was bringing out the second, and someone called me from the back room where we keep the spare drying racks. I thought it were Master Gilliam, and I ran in right quick, but there was no one there. I looked about a bit for Master Gilliam, and I found him with Lady Alicia in the counting room, and he said he’d not called. So I went back out, and Lena had loaded the other three crates already. We waited with the wagon until the driver came, and Lady Alicia.”


Dante turned back to Lena.


“How long was he gone?” he asked almost gently.


Lena frowned, puzzlement eclipsing fear.


“Surely it was but a moment,” she said softly. “I don’t remember.”


Dante turned to Tomis, who was frowning.


“A quarter hour at least,” Tomis said, shaking his head. “I had to look through the back room – the racks are stacked high, and I had to check the aisles between the stacks – and then find Master Gilliam, then speak to him, and I daren’t interrupt his conversation with Lady Alicia.”


“No,” Lena argued. “Surely not, I’d have noticed you gone.”


“A quarter hour,” Tomis said stubbornly.


Dante sighed, shaking his head. He turned back to Lady Alicia.


“Have this one escorted to the castle,” he said tiredly. “The High Lord’s Sentinel may wish to hear her tale, and the Vizier may wish to check the taint of magic on her, but I have little doubt what they will find. She’s but an innocent bespelled briefly, perhaps with forgetfulness, perhaps merely to render her unknowing for a brief time.” He glanced almost absently at Lena. “You have nothing to fear. The worst has passed you by already.”


Lena was pale and trembling, but she nodded silently.


Dante glanced at Skip, and Skip could feel that Dante was profoundly troubled. Something had shocked him badly.


“Time to go,” he said flatly. He nodded briefly at Lady Alicia. “Thank you for your assistance. I will tell High Lord Simon of your cooperation.” Lady Alicia nodded back just as briefly.


“Uh – yeah, all right,” Skip said. He followed Dante out of the warehouse, glancing back to make sure nobody was close enough to hear. “Dante, what is it? You know something, don’t you? Something about that girl?”


Dante nodded slowly.


“The magic on her,” he said. “I’ve felt its like before. Darkling magic. It has a – a smell, if you will, like no other. Were I of full Darkling blood, full Darkling power, I could have said you the name and clan of the one who cast it.” He sighed, frustrated. “I misdoubt that Kix and James will learn anything more from her. Too long has passed for James to get a scent, and Kix knows nothing of Darkling magic.”


Skip shivered.


“Does that mean the mage is, um, a full Darkling?” he said.


Dante sighed, shaking his head again.


“I cannot know,” he said. “It would be hard for a full Darkling to pass among humans without notice . . . but a powerful mage could wear a Seeming of normalcy. Half-blood or full, if they bear the Mage-Gift . . . “ Dante’s voice trailed off. “But what concern could any Darkling have with High Lord Simon?” he said softly, as if to himself. “And if one wielded such power, why so clumsy an attempt with the cheeses? It makes no sense. No sense.” He shook his head.


“What I want to know,” Skip said quietly, “is how a Darkling, full blooded or half blooded or whatever, who’s a mage too, got into the city after you alerted the guards.”


A long moment of silence.


“Aye, there’s a question,” Dante said softly. “There’s a question indeed.”


The walk back to the cart, and the ride back to the castle, were quiet, and when Skip reached for Dante’s hand, Dante squeezed his fingers tight.


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