A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1) (8 page)

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
5.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

"Bait," the Scholar King mused. "If we leave Venykhar Ghobhezh-Ykhave off the list of those for whom such bait might be intended, Rhydev Azhere's name springs to mind."

"No. There's more to this than Ycevi Ghytteve trying to lever concessions out of the silk clans." Arre was decisive. "I'd sooner suspect—" She broke off suddenly as an image crossed her inner eye: a fine-boned, manicured hand wearing a green-gemmed ring. "Who wears a green gem? Rhydev's is blue."

The Emperor shrugged. "You'd sooner suspect whom?"

"Oh. Zherekhaf. Your Prime Minister."

Khethyran raised his eyebrows. "Anything is possible. Arre, it's late. Let's go to bed."

***

Much later, after Owl had cried himself to sleep, Lady Ycevi returned. The scratch of Myncerre's quill, as she made notes in the household ledger, provided counterpoint to the boy's calm breathing. Lady Ycevi moved the lamp so a little light spilled onto the boy's pillow; his face was serene with sleep, despite the old track of tears. She turned to her steward. "Well?"

"You saw what he was like, earlier. That went on a long, long time. Eventually, he calmed down. I got some coffee into him and he woke. He drank another cup, and seemed much better. Lady, he knew the drug. He asked me if there was more
haceth
in the coffee. He told me he was very sensitive to
haceth
, and that even a small dose could kill him. Then he went to sleep."

Ycevi raised her brows. "And the tears?"

"He said he wanted to go home; and then he cried himself to sleep. 'Please, Myncerre,' he said. 'I want to go home.' I've never felt like such an ogre."

Lady Ycevi smiled cynically. "He's good."

"I'm not sure he's play-acting."

"Of course not. That's what makes him so wonderful. It's a pity about the
haceth
; I had hoped to have that extra control—but it isn't worth the risk. Will he be better tomorrow? It's time he met Cithanekh."

***

In the gray hours before dawn, Owl dreamed again of the thin man with the green ring. In the dream, the man sat at a table in a shabby tavern; another person joined him: Rhydev Azhere. The two were locked in serious conversation, but though he was curious, Owl could not make their voices come into his dream. Just before he woke, the scene shifted. The man with the green ring was still there, but now he was standing by the tall windows in Lady Ycevi's library. The man turned—as though at the opening of a door—and in the dream, Owl watched the changes in the man's expression, as he looked at someone for the first time. Then, Owl woke.

He was alone. On impulse, he rose and dressed. He crept to his door and tried the handle. It wasn't locked. Using all his stealth, he slipped through the servant's dining room, down a flight of stairs, through the empty library and into the entrance hall. Then he froze. Elkhar and Cezhar, two of Lady Ycevi's bodyguards, stood by the door. Cezhar started like a hound catching a scent and turned to the boy. Lamplight traced a scar like a whip cut across his cheek. At first, Elkhar took no notice of Owl. He lounged against the door while he cleaned his fingernails with the point of his dagger; then Cezhar looked a question at him—in the unmistakable attitude of a subordinate to a superior. Elkhar shrugged. As he raised his head to meet Owl's eyes, the single silver earring he wore glinted.

"Good morning, Owl," Elkhar greeted the boy.

"Good morning, Elkhar, Cezhar. I thought I'd go out for a walk before breakfast."

"Think again," Elkhar suggested.

Owl smiled ruefully. "I think I'll go back to bed until everyone else gets up."

"Much better."

Owl started away. Suddenly, he looked back at the men. "One of you could come out with me, to be sure I didn't run away."

"And leave our posts?" Elkhar shook his head. "The Lady might forgive you, but she'd flay us."

"Do you like her—the Lady, I mean?"

"Owl, go back to bed."

There was enough warning in Elkhar's tone to send Owl back upstairs. He crawled back into the mound of covers he had forsaken. Though he was sure he would be unable to sleep, the next time he opened his eyes, it was really morning.

Chapter Eight—Hints

Mouse was alone in the Trollop's scullery when Sharkbait slipped inside. The noise from the taproom was deafening; Donkey assisted with the rush. Squirrel was out, lighting someone's way; and Kitten and Ferret hadn't arrived yet. Mouse was putting finishing touches on a pen and ink portrait of Owl. Sharkbait watched her work.

"I must show you how to sign your name," he said, striving unsuccessfully for a light tone. "
Gods
. Poor Owl."

Mouse looked up at him, solemn. "How did you scar your face, Sharkbait?"

"With a knife."

"In a brawl?"

"Drop it, Mouse," he advised.

Mouse studied him in the disconcertingly intense way which made one certain she was storing the image for later use. Then she opened her leather case, removed three drawings, and laid them side by side on the dead hearth. Sharkbait's breath caught as he looked at them.

"Oh, child," he whispered. "You play a dangerous game. What
will
happen to you when you stop looking so sweet and harmless?"

Silently, Mouse picked up the middle sheet and held its edge to the lamp flame. The paper blazed up, curling and blackening. She held it until there was only a corner not burning, and then dropped the flaming sheet into the cold ashes in the grate. "Did you scar
yourself?
"

A muscle jumped in his jaw. "Mouse," he warned.

"The scar distracts the eye, but it doesn't destroy the likeness. After all, I see it."

"
Mouse
."

"Are you related? Why are you hiding?"

"
Mouse!
" He gripped the girl's shoulders, his amber eyes fierce and desperate. He lowered his voice. "It isn't safe for you even to ask those questions, much less to know the answers. Let it go. My past is dead—and deadly. Leave me as Sharkbait. Please.
Please
, Mouse."

Mouse slipped the two remaining drawings into her leather case. Then, she took out one of the charcoal sticks and handed it to Sharkbait. "Show me how to make my name."

They were still at it when Kitten and Ferret came in.

"Any word from your noble friend?" Ferret asked the longshoreman.

"Not yet," he replied. "I'm here because Donkey sent word that he wanted to talk to me. Do you know what he wants?"

Ferret shrugged. "I've no idea. Sounds like the crowd's thinning; if it is, Donkey will be along, soon."

At that moment, Squirrel came through the door; almost immediately, Donkey slipped in from the taproom. "What's troubling you, Donkey?" Sharkbait asked him.

"Sharkbait, do the names Elkhar or Dedemar or Rhydev mean aught to you?" Donkey asked him calmly.

Sharkbait's face went still as an effigy. "Why?" he whispered, his lips barely moving. "Donkey, why?"

"I overheard Elkhar and Dedemar speaking, this noontime. They talked about someone they called 'the Lady,' who was displeased because..." He faltered as he sorted the original conversation from the overlay of conjecture he had fashioned. "Because a wallet had gotten lost. The one named Elkhar called it 'evidence,' and all but accused the other man of making it disappear. There was a kill, which went smoothly: the Sea Hawk was murdered, but he didn't have the wallet when the watch found him. So the Lady was angry about the wasted money: money for the assassins, for the evidence—happen it was a great deal of money."

"Was that everything?" Sharkbait grated.

"Na. Elkhar told Dedemar he'd best throw her a bone—the Lady. And Dedemar said to tell her her puppy is meeting Rhydev tonight, after midnight, at the Replete Feline."

"The Replete Feline?" Kitten repeated. "That's where Magpie works—used to be the Fat Cat. Come on; it must be getting on toward midnight. Let's go!"

"No!" Sharkbait snapped. "Kitten, this isn't a game; or if it is, the stakes are too damned high!"

"Did that lot make sense to you?" Donkey asked.

"Enough of it did to convince me that this is no matter for children! It's Council politics; and there's nothing more vicious than Council Houses engaged in intrigue."

"So this has to do with the plot on the Emperor's life?" Squirrel asked. "Who's the Lady?"

"Don't you
listen?
" Sharkbait demanded. "
This is too dangerous!
"

"We listen," Donkey said placidly. "Happen we dinna agree."

Sharkbait studied their uncompromising faces. Pain and worry twisted his features and he raked his fingertips through his dark hair. "Gods," he murmured. "How will I live with myself if I let any of you get killed? Ferret." He focused on the thief, pleading. "Council intrigue is worse—far, far worse —than the infighting in the Thieves' Guild. It's no place for any of you, but think of Mouse and Kitten."

Ferret regarded the longshoreman levelly. "Happen I'm thinking of Owl."

"But this hasn't a thing to do with him!"

"Owl thought it did," Ferret said, her voice quiet, almost gentle. "And he said the Emperor needs us."

"I don't give a damn about the Emperor!" Sharkbait cried.

"You should," Mouse put in, primly.

"The Emperor's
always
a target, or a pawn, or a puppet. It goes with the crown; a warning isn't enough to save him. But if you get mixed up in this mess, someone's bound to get hurt."

"Give it up," Donkey suggested. "We're in it already. You willn't convince us otherwise. And if you refuse us your help, we're even more vulnerable. So who's the Lady?"

Sharkbait wrestled with his conscience, but finally, he sighed, turning one palm upward in a gesture of defeat. "Lady Ycevi Ghytteve—I'd guess; at least, Elkhar is a Ghytteve man. Ycevi is the Councilor for House Ghytteve. She's vicious, and she's always scheming. Rhydev is the House Azhere Council Lord. Azhere and Ghytteve are usually at each other's throats."

"Who's the Lady's puppy?" Squirrel asked.

"That I don't know." Sharkbait sighed again. "Though I daresay I could find out for you."

"Good," Ferret responded promptly. "I'll come with you."

"No."

"Then I'll follow you."

"
No
," Sharkbait repeated firmly. "I go alone, or I don't go at all."

"Very well," Ferret replied. "Who wants to come with me? Squirrel? Kitten?"

"
Ferret!
" Sharkbait cried, outraged. "What purpose would that serve? You wouldn't recognize the Azhere Councilor."

The thief shrugged. "You think I canna identify flash slumming?"

Sharkbait stared at her, then laughed mirthlessly. "And to think I wondered how you persuaded that tough scavenger Khyzhan to do what you wanted." He made an elaborate bow to her, then motioned her to precede him through the doorway. He looked back at the others. "And
you
, for the love of the gods,
stay here
."

***

"So who's Magpie?" Sharkbait asked as they lurked in the shadows outside the crowded tavern.

"Goodness. Aught you dinna know," Ferret retorted. "The rest of the world knows her as Adyce. She's a barmaid here."

"Oh. Her. Why do you call her Magpie?"

"She has a fondness for small, round shiny objects," Ferret said dryly. "Preferably silver. Shall we go in?"

"What? You're not planning to scale a wall and climb in a window?"

The thief ignored his biting tone. "The door's open," she pointed out, bland.

"Why, how observant you are. How
have
I managed without you?" He took her arm as they started inside.

The Replete Feline was crowded; there was no chance of securing a table commanding a view. Instead, they joined the press at the bar, and Sharkbait bought them mugs of ale. They nursed their drinks as they scanned the crowd covertly, all the while shamming a flirtatious conversation. When Ferret's cup was empty, she set it on a passing barmaid's tray and looked up through her lashes at Sharkbait.

"Let's go."

"What? Already?"

She smiled dazzlingly and nodded.

His answering expression was so wolfish, Ferret was hard put not to step back. "So you think he's here?"

She batted her eyelashes. "The table by the door; the man with the pointed beard, sitting with the skinny fellow with the green ring."

Sharkbait chucked her under the chin. There was something dangerous in the back of his eyes and in the grit in his voice. "My clever infant. Let's go."

They had to walk past the men's table in order to get out. As they drew abreast, the younger man hailed them. "I say, my good man: isn't she rather young?"

"
Have you taken leave of your senses?
" his companion hissed.

Sharkbait looked him up and down, with insolent attention, before he replied, "She's old in experience."

"It's barbaric—"

"My friend's had rather too much to drink," the man with the pointed beard began.

Ferret cut them both off. "Leave it," she said, firmly. "I must eat."

The thin fellow rose, pulling a purse from an inner pocket. "If it's money—"

"Cithanekh,
sit down!
" The older man made a grab for his companion's wrist.

What Ferret saw put real conviction in her voice. "Put that away! If you flash a Royal in here, you're apt to get us all killed." They stood, frozen like one of Mouse's pictures, until with a sigh, the man returned the purse to his pocket. "Look," Ferret patted his arm, consolingly. "It's kindly thought of, and I'm grateful; but you canna eat gold. Not in the Slums." Then she turned back to Sharkbait. "Come on, lover."

Sharkbait stopped walking once they were through the door and out of the spill of customers and lamplight. Ferret pulled him on. "Move," she urged.

He hesitated.

"Come on; let's run."

"Run?" he repeated, starting to move. "Gods, Ferret. You
didn't!
" Then, they were pelting for the twisting alleys of their home ground.

When they had put some distance between them and the tavern, they slowed to a walk. In the pallid light of the waning moon, Ferret saw the glint of Sharkbait's watchful eyes on her. She grinned, unrepentant.

"Yes: I picked his pocket," she answered his look. "So? I'm a thief."

"So much for being inconspicuous."

She hunched a shoulder. "He was going to remember us, in any case. Who is he, this Cithanekh?"

Sharkbait shook his head. "I'm not sure," he said slowly.

"Does that mean, 'I have a guess I'm not telling you?'"

"Yes." A deadly silkiness invaded his voice. "And you've pushed me as far as you will tonight, my sweet thief. Go back to the Trollop and send the others home."

"While you do what?"

But Sharkbait had already melted into the night.

***

Much later, Rhydev Azhere sat in his comfortable study, nursing a solitary brandy and thinking. He thought he had all the pieces, now, if he could just construct the puzzle... The boy, the beautiful Owl, was bait. The obvious inference was that Ycevi meant to use the boy to leverage some concessions out of
him
; but somehow, that was too obvious, too crude for a woman of her subtlety. So if not him, then who? He'd heard the rumors: Venykhar Ghobhezh-Ykhave offering five Royals for the child; but Ycevi had nothing to gain from House Ykhave. She wouldn't need expensive bait to lure the Council Lord of the artisans. The boy
could
be aimed at the Prime Minister; but if so, he doubted her ploy would work. Old Uncle Zherekhaf was truly unlikely to sacrifice his eternal, convoluted scheming for a fleeting passion, be the boy ever so appealing. No. He had another theory—and he thought he was right. Ycevi's young kinsman, Cithanekh, had the proper bloodlines; and—judging from his behavior this evening at that tavern—he was compassionate enough to be vulnerable, whatever his proclivities. Unless he was very much mistaken, the boy was aimed at Cithanekh.

It was a beautiful plan; it might even work. But if it would work for Ycevi, it would certainly work for him. The ticklish part was how to get the boy. After that, it would be a fairly simple matter to eliminate rival claimants and engineer a disaster for the Scholar King. The whole would take
delicate
conniving, but Rhydev was confident of his ability. He smiled very slowly. If he were
particularly
skillful, he might even enlist his uncle's support—and that truly would be an elegant piece of deviousness. Pleased with himself, Rhydev tossed off the rest of his brandy and went to bed.

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
5.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Passion Agency by Rebecca Lee
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Licensed for Trouble by Susan May Warren
Folly by Sabrina York
La costurera by Frances de Pontes Peebles
Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich
Sand and Clay by Sarah Robinson
The Hero's Lot by Patrick W. Carr