Elide almost choked on her stew. Anneith must have freed this table, then. Her plan had been to find a troupe or carnival to fall into, disguise themselves as workers, and this…
“We pay full price on that toll,” the beautiful woman said, “and we might get to that first town half starved and barely able to perform at all.”
Elide lifted her eyes to Lorcan’s—he gave a nod.
She took a sip of her stew, steeling herself, thinking of Asterin Blackbeak. Charming, confident, fearless. She’d always had her head at a jaunty angle, a looseness to her limbs, a hint of a smile on her lips. Elide took a breath, letting those memories sink into muscle and flesh and bone.
Then she pivoted in her chair, an arm draped around the back as she leaned toward their table and said with a grin, “Sorry to interrupt your meal, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.” They all turned toward her, brows high, the eyes of the leader going right to Elide’s face. She saw the assessment: young, pretty, unblemished by a hard life. Elide kept her own expression pleasant, willed her eyes to brighten. “Are you some sort of performing troupe?” She motioned to Lorcan with a tilt of her head. “My husband and I have been looking to fall in with one for weeks with no luck—everyone’s full.”
“So are we,” their leader said.
“Right,” Elide replied merrily. “But that toll is steep—for anyone. And if we were to be in business together, perhaps on a temporary basis…” Lorcan’s knee brushed hers in warning. She ignored him. “We’d be glad to chip in on the fee—make up any difference owed.”
The woman’s assessment turned wary. “We are a carnival indeed. But we have no need of new members.”
The bearded man and beautiful woman shot glances at the woman, reprimand in their eyes.
Elide shrugged. “All right, then. But in case you change your mind before you depart, my husband”—a gesture to Lorcan, who was giving his best attempt at an easy smile—“is an expert sword-thrower. And in our previous troupe, he made good coin matching himself against men who sought to best him in feats of strength.”
The leader turned her keen eyes on Lorcan—on the height and muscles and posture.
Elide knew she’d guessed right on the vacancy they’d needed filled when the woman said to her, “And what did you do for them?”
“I worked as a fortune-teller—they called me their oracle.” A shrug. “Mostly just shadows and guesswork.” It’d have to be, considering the little fact that she couldn’t read.
The woman remained unimpressed. “And what was your troupe’s name?”
They likely knew them—knew every troupe that patrolled the plains.
She scanned her memory for anything helpful, anything—
Yellowlegs. The witches in Morath had once mentioned Baba Yellowlegs, who had traveled in a carnival to avoid detection, who had died in Rifthold this winter with no explanation.… Detail after detail, buried in the catacombs of her memory, poured out.
“We were in the Carnival of Mirrors,” Elide said. Recognition—surprise, respect—sparked in the leader’s eyes. “Until Baba Yellowlegs, our owner, was killed in Rifthold this past winter. We left, and have been looking for work since.”
“Where did you come from, then?” the bearded man asked.
It was Lorcan who replied, “My family lives on the western side of the Fangs. We’ve spent the past few months with them—waited until the snows melted, since the pass was so treacherous. Strange things happening,” he added, “in the mountains these days.”
The company stilled.
“Indeed,” the raven-haired woman said. She looked to their leader. “They could help pay the toll, Molly. And since Saul left, that act has been empty…” Likely their sword-thrower.
“Like I said,” Elide chimed in with Asterin’s pretty smile, “we’ll be here for a little while, so if you change your minds … let us know. If not…” She saluted with her dented spoon. “Safe travels.”
Something flashed in Molly’s eyes, but the woman looked them over once more. “Safe travels,” she murmured.
Elide and Lorcan returned to their meal.
And when the barmaid came to take their money for it, Elide reached into her inner pocket and pulled out a silver coin.
The barmaid’s eyes were wide, but it was the sharp eyes of Molly, of the others at that table, that Elide noted as the girl slipped away and brought back their change.
Lorcan kept silent as Elide left a generous tip on the table, but they both offered pleasant smiles to the troupe as they vacated their table and the tavern.
Elide went right to the back of the line, still keeping that smile on her face, her back straight.
Lorcan sidled up close, not at all noteworthy for the front they were putting on. “You have no money, do you?”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Looks like I was mistaken.”
A flash of white teeth as he smiled—genuinely this time. “Well, you’d better hope you and I have enough, Marion, because Molly’s about to make you an offer.”
Elide turned at the crunch of dirt beneath black boots and found Molly before them, the others lingering—some slipping around the corner of the tavern, to no doubt retrieve the wagons.
Molly’s hard face was flushed—as if they’d been arguing. But she just clicked her tongue and said, “Temporary stint. If you’re shit, you’re out, and we won’t pay back the money for the toll.”
Elide smiled, not entirely faking it. “Marion and Lorcan, at your service, madam.”
His wife. Gods above.
He was over five hundred years old—and this … this girl, young woman, she-devil, whatever she was, had just bluffed and lied her way into a job. A sword-thrower indeed.
Lorcan lingered outside the tavern, Marion at his side. A small troupe—hence the lack of funds—and one that had seen better days, he realized as the two yellow-painted wagons clattered and wobbled into view, pulled by four nags.
Marion carefully observed Molly climb into the driver’s seat beside the raven-haired beauty, who paid Lorcan absolutely no heed.
Well, having Marion as his gods-damned wife certainly put an end to anything more than appreciation of the stunning woman.
It was an effort not to growl. He hadn’t been with a woman in months now. And of course—of course—he’d have the time and interest in one … only to be shackled by another one’s lies.
Not that Marion was hard on the eyes, he noted as she obeyed Molly’s barked order to climb into the back of the second wagon. Some of the other party members followed on piss-poor horses.
Marion took the bearded man’s extended hand and he easily hauled her into the wagon. Lorcan trailed, assessing everyone in the party, everyone in the makeshift little town. A number of men, and some women, had noticed Marion when she strode by.
The sweet face paired with sinful curves—and without the limp, with her hair out of her face … She knew exactly what she was doing. Knew people would notice those things, think about those things, instead of the cunning mind and lies she fed them.
Lorcan ignored the hand the bearded man offered and jumped into the back of the wagon, reminding himself to sit close to Marion, to put an arm around her bony shoulders and look relieved and happy to have a troupe again.
Supplies filled the wagon, along with five other people who all smiled at Marion—and then quickly looked away from him.
Marion put a hand on his knee, and Lorcan avoided the urge to flinch. It had been a shock, earlier, to feel how rough those delicate hands were.
Not just a prisoner in Morath—but a slave.
The calluses were old and dense enough that she’d likely worked for years. Hard labor, from the looks of it—and with that ruined leg…
He tried not to think about that tang of fear and pain he’d sensed when she’d told him how little she believed in the kindness and decency of men. He didn’t let his imagination delve too deep regarding why she might feel that way.
The wagon was hot, the air soaked with human sweat, hay, the shit of the horses lined up before them, the tang of iron from the weapons.
“Not much by way of belongings?” asked the bearded man—Nik, he’d called himself.
Shit. He’d forgotten humans traveled with baggage as if they were moving somewhere—
“We lost most of it on our trip out of the mountains. My husband,” Marion said with charming annoyance, “insisted we ford a rushing stream. I’m lucky he even bothered to help me out, since he certainly didn’t go after our supplies.”
A low chuckle from Nik. “I suspect he was more focused on saving you than on the packs.”
Marion rolled her eyes, patting Lorcan’s knee. He nearly cringed at every touch.
Even with his lovers, outside the bed itself, he didn’t like casual, careless contact. Some found that intolerable. Some thought they could break him into a decent male who just wanted a home and a good female to work beside him. Not one of them had succeeded.
“I can save myself,” Marion said brightly. “But his throwing swords, our cooking supplies, my clothes…” A shake of the head. “His act might be a bit lackluster until we can find somewhere to purchase more supplies.”
Nik met Lorcan’s eyes, holding them for longer than most men dared. What he did for the carnival, Lorcan wasn’t sure. Sometime performer—but definitely security. Nik’s smile faded a bit. “The land beyond the Fangs isn’t kind. Your people must be hardy folk to live out there.”
Lorcan nodded. “A rougher life,” he said, “than I want for my wife.”
“Life on the road isn’t much better,” Nik countered.
“Ah,” Marion chimed in, “but isn’t it? A life of open skies and roads, of wandering where the wind takes you, answering to no one and nothing? A life of freedom…” She shook her head. “What more could I ask than to live a life unchecked by cages?”
Lorcan knew the words were no lie. He had seen her face when they beheld the grassy plain.
“Spoken like someone who has spent long enough on the road,” Nik said. “It always goes either way with our kind: you settle down and never travel again, or you wander forever.”
“I want to see life—see the world,” Marion said, her voice softening. “I want to see everything.”
Lorcan wondered if Marion would even get to do that if he failed in his task, if the Wyrdkey he carried wound up in the wrong hands.
“Best not wander too far,” Nik said, frowning. “Not with what happened in Rifthold—or what’s brewing down in Morath.”
“What happened in Rifthold?” Lorcan cut in, sharply enough that Marion squeezed his knee.
Nik idly scratched his wheat-colored beard. “Whole city’s been sacked—overrun, they say, by flying terrors and demon-women as their riders. Witches, if one is to believe the rumors. Ironteeth, straight out of legend.” A shudder.
Holy gods. The destruction would have been a sight to behold. Lorcan forced himself to listen, to concentrate and not begin calculating casualties and what it would mean for this war, as Nik continued, “No word on the young king. But the city belongs to the witches and their beasts. They say to travel north is to now face a death trap; to travel south is another death trap … So”—a shrug—“we’ll head east. Maybe we can find a way to bypass whatever’s waiting in either direction. Maybe war will come and we’ll all scatter to the winds.” Nik looked him over. “Men like you and me might be conscripted.”
Lorcan bit back a dark chuckle. No one could force him into anything—save for one person, and she … His chest tightened. It was best not to think of his queen.
“You think either side would do that? Force men to fight?” Marion’s words were breathless.
“Don’t know,” Nik said, the scent and sound of the river now overwhelming enough that Lorcan knew they were near the toll. He reached into his jacket for the money Molly had demanded. Far more than their fair share, but he didn’t care. These people could go to hell the moment they were safely hidden deep in the endless plains. “Duke Perrington’s forces might not even want us, if they’ve got witches and beasts on their side.”