She led them home quickly, the two young men she knew and the one she didn’t, across the river three times and through all the convoluted byways of the city towards Fleuracy House. Even Barris with his long legs had trouble keeping up with her, which was the point, because she didn’t want him to have a chance to ask any of the questions she knew he wanted to ask. Questions for which there were only awkward answers.
Cagen Thul had done her a favor, really. Whatever impulse had driven Neda to challenge the foreigner to a duel had not been born of experience with the sword. If the watchman hadn’t stepped in when he had, she would have humiliated herself nine-times more thoroughly than his public rebuke had done. She could just imagine the ridicule that would have ensued, had she actually tried to cross swords with the Jurati. With Barris and Tierce there to witness, no less.
But what had she expected, invoking Evod as she had?
Night had settled fully on the river by the time they reached home; even the towering mansions of the High Bank had surrendered the day’s last light. Down below, nearer the water’s edge, shadows thickened into blackness, with the lights on the bridges making dotted lines across the river. In on a quiet street that cut up from the south shore of the Cille, Fleuracy House was hidden behind high stone walls, indistinguishable from its neighbors save for the twin falcons carved into the ironwood gate.
The gate was open, and torches lined the vine-wrapped arcade that led to the house, an austere, three-storied structure half-carved out of the hillside itself. Neda ran past the steward standing watch with barely a word. Evod’s influence still curled around her tongue, and she was desperately afraid of what she might say, if she had to say too much. It wasn’t fair. All she’d asked for was a little misdirection, so that she might go unnoticed on the Blade. Instead, she’d found herself stepping out of the crowd, pretending a competence she surely didn’t own. But everyone knew that Evod, who was sometimes called the Master of Lies, had a devious sense of humor.
She crashed through the door into the house, desperate to reach her room before anyone could stop her. Instead, she nearly crashed into her father, who stood waiting in the pilastered entry hall. Eristan Fleuracy was nearly sixty, with grey hair and wrinkles on his face, but even so it was hard to think of him as old. Beneath his formal, grey-green tunic he was lean and straight-backed, and still quick enough to catch his daughter by the elbow as she tried to fly by.
He held her fast while he leveled a hard glare at the three who spilled through the door in her wake. Words weren’t necessary, under that gaze. Both Tierce and Barris flinched from the unspoken rebuke, looking even more like boys than they usually did. They’d been due back at sunset, Neda remembered, in order to attend the Bell Guard dedication at the Gatehouse. Her father did not often set curfews on the young men he’d taken into his House, but when he did he expected to be heeded. There would be consequences after tonight, she was sure. She might have felt sorry for them, if she wasn’t tied up with her own resentment at not being allowed to go herself.
“Five minutes.” He didn’t raise his voice, but reproach shaped his words like a whip. “Then I want you back down here, appropriately groomed and dressed. We can discuss whatever excuses you have to offer for yourselves in the morning. Go.”
They went, shoulders hunched, eyes to the floor. Tierce looked up at her as he passed her on the way to the stairs, a bemused expression on his face, but Barris hardly acknowledged her. His jaw was clenched so tightly she could almost hear his teeth grinding together.
Not until the clatter of their footsteps had died away did Eristan turn his attention to the stranger that still hovered in the doorway. Releasing his daughter’s arm, he surveyed the Jurati swordsman with a critical eye, taking in the brightly colored clothing and jewels, along with the expensive sword that hung at his hip. “Who are you?” he asked. “Has my daughter been out collecting suitors dressed like that?”
“Very funny, father.” Neda yanked the cap off her head, loosing her hair that had been trapped beneath. The long, dark hair fell across her face and obscured a rising blush. She did not welcome talk of suitors at the best of times, but especially not when she was wearing clothes borrowed from the cook’s son. “He’s here to see you.”
“Is that so?”
The Jurati swept forward with a bow. “Sieur Eristan,” he said. His eyes, a light hazel, glimmered almost golden in the lamplight. “I am greatly honored. My name is Romeric Esard. I bear a letter, from Anieve aira Berdenne.”
“Anieve?” The name caught her father off-guard. He stared at Romeric a moment, and the stern lines on his face softened. “It’s been a long time…”
“So she said, before I left her.” The Jurati held out a square of folded parchment. “She said also that it would not matter.”
There was a wax seal holding the letter closed, but Neda could not make out the insignia pressed into it. Her father studied it a moment before breaking it open.
“She asks that I give you a place in my House.”
Romeric straightened his shoulders, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “I have some skill with the blade, Sieur. I would be honored to wield mine in your service.” Somehow, he managed to say it without looking smug. He had a right to boast, after his victories on the Bridge of Blades, but he didn’t. Perversely, his casual self-assurance rubbed Neda the wrong way.
Neither was her father much impressed. He looked at the young man over the top of the letter with raised eyebrows. “Really? Anieve suggested that I send you to my farm in Barasti.”
Doubt flickered across the younger man’s face. “She said that?”
“She seems to think time shepherding goats would do to teach you some humility.”
“I…” It was the first time she’d seen him unsettled since he drew his sword on the Bridge of Blades. As Romeric stumbled over his response, plainly dismayed by this unexpected turn of events, she decided she might like him after all. Especially when, despite his consternation at the prospect of a career as a shepherd, he dipped his head to her father and said, “If you think that’s best, I will be guided by your wisdom, Sieur.”
“I think that I do not need a goatherd who likely does not know the difference between a goat and its own fodder. You can stay here. We’ll discuss our obligations—yours to me, and my own to you—on the morrow.” Eristan refolded the letter in his hand. “Do you have something else you can wear tonight?”
“I left my belongings with the barge—”
“Tierce!” Eristan cut him off, his shout reverberating up through the hall. A moment later, Tierce peered down at them from the top of the stairs.
“See if you can’t find something for him to wear tonight. You’re close enough in size. Go on.” He waved Romeric towards the stairs. “Be quick about it. We are late already.”
The Jurati, his relief almost palpable, bowed again and murmured a quick thanks. He took the stairs two at a time.
When he was gone, her father exhaled softly. “Well, daughter, do you think your mother will approve?”
“I think you could bring a whole clan of Grennish hill folk to live here, and she would not object. She’ll put her foot down if you try to send him to the farm though.”
He chuckled in rueful agreement. Lesina Fleuracy was relentlessly detached when it came to matters of the Corregal house, but she was dictatorial about how the farm was run. She was in Barasti now, in fact, three days to the northeast, overseeing the spring planting. She would not thank her husband for sending an untried popinjay to her as a farmhand.
“I don’t think Romeric Esard is his real name,” Neda said unexpectedly, so suddenly that she surprised herself along with her father. The thought hadn’t even been in her head before her tongue had shaped the words.
Evod again, she knew. But was he twisting her tongue with more lies, or had he given her a truth this time? The Liar was only one epithet he wore. He Who Sees was how most called him, or the Open Eye, but he was also the Grey Watcher, and the Honest Knave, and sometimes just the Spy. To him truth and lies were but different sides of the same coin he played with.
Her father gave her a shrewd look. “You may be right. But Anieve would not have sent him to me if he was not trustworthy. Whatever his reasons are for hiding who he is, I don’t believe he means us harm.” He pinched the folds of the letter between his fingers, deepening the creases. “I’ll not trouble him about it. Nor should you.”
It was not an entirely reassuring response, but since she could not explain where her suspicions came from—or even if there was any foundation to them—she decided to let the matter drop. At least he was aware of a possible deception. But it bothered her, a little, that her father placed such trust in this unknown woman from his past. “Who is she?” she asked. “Anieve aira Berdenne. That means ‘of the honey crag’, doesn’t it? Is that where you met her? Did you…were you lovers?”
Sieur Eristan pursed his lips and considered her. “That’s a frank question for a girl to ask her father.”
She bit down on the inside of her lip, hoping she hadn’t gone too far. Growing up, he had always answered all her questions, even the uncomfortable ones. But she had never asked him something quite so personal before.
“I’ll give you an answer,” he told her then, “if you’ll tell me why you’re running about the city dressed as a boy.”
She opened her mouth, and then shut it again without saying anything. At her hasty headshake, Eristan nodded gravely.
“I thought so. Let’s just agree that some questions between father and daughter are better left unanswered.”
A short while later, Sieur Eristan Fleuracy left his house with the three young men in tow. From across the street, a woman watched them go. She was dressed in worker’s garb, with the badge of the Porter’s Guild on her shoulder, but that was mostly for convenience’s sake. In this city of stepped roads and terraces, most goods had to be carried by hand, and the Porters were the ones who did it. Porters could go anywhere, and were never questioned.
She recognized the foreign swordsman amongst the the Sieur’s charges, though he had changed clothes and now wore a badge on his shoulder, too. She’d caught the gleam of it in the torch’s light as they passed. Fleuracy’s twin falcons, no doubt. Her employer would be interested in knowing that, to be sure. Hopefully, the information would earn her an extra coin or two when she passed it on.
When the street was empty again, she slipped away from her hiding place. As she headed up the hill towards High Bank, she whispered a prayer to Evod. He Who Sees had a special fondness for those who watched from the shadows.