My seventeenth birthday came and went without any undue notice. I did not mention it. The last thing I needed was one more coincidence screaming my identity to the Captain. As it was, it was unlikely to occur to him that I had a birthday, even if I lived in the palace for years and years and grew visibly older.
Having learned of the possible danger, I avoided talking to trees, or even touching wood, and stayed far away from fire. Avery was quiet most of the time, and had taken to staying in the library, and even the Captain did not seem to remember how I had arrived in the first place. I had been in the palace barely half a year, including jail time, and I found I was being lulled into a strange complacency. Somehow I had become just another member of the staff. Even I seemed to be forgetting, but then my main motivation had been situational. That situation was becoming more and more unmemorable.
And in all that time, I never saw the king. He was always away on business, in the city on business, or elsewhere, doing whatever sane kings do. Assuming he was sane. Supposedly insanity was genetic.
But rapidly on the heels of contentment was boredom, and it struck with a vengeance alongside the hottest spring I had ever known. It was sweltering inside, it was sweltering outside, and there was not a lake or river in sight to ease my discomfort. My little room was the worst, somehow managing to hold in all the heat even if the door was wide open and the Captain’s office ten degrees cooler.
The king’s first trip of the spring, doubtless to some place more livable, required the Captain’s presence. I was free to do as I pleased.
I went into town to visit my old friends, beginning with the old Rosewood tree. I had not learned to use the staff, as I believed that would fall under the category of suspicious behavior in the Captain’s all-knowing eyes. Still, I brought it with so as not to offend the tree.
“Why do they call you a Rosewood when you do not grow roses?” I asked, after we had finished the ritual of admiring each other’s new growths—my hair is longer, thank you for noticing! Is that a new branch?—and I gained a few branch-shaped bruises.
“Is rose-pretty.” It lowered a few branches to show me the ruby red bark and tear-drop emerald leaves. I dutifully admired them.
At Padfoot’s there was a buzz of excitement. They had finally received recognized guild status as a junior partner of the Thieves Guild. The negotiations had taken moons since Bigfoot could hardly say outright that we had stolen their golden picks, although it was the main, and really, only, bargaining tool. It had not helped that he had not wanted to give them back. But after their dirty trick with the spoon failed, the Thieves Guild had been much more willing to negotiate.
Everyone cheered when I came in and drank to my health—it was strange to see the place all lit up. Apparently Bigfoot had decided not to move headquarters after all. Instead, they had spruced the place up with cushions and fancy little electric lamps.
And there was real food and drink!
They cheered for the next person to come in, too, so that solved one mystery. Bigfoot had said he would not reveal the thief, since that would be dangerous.
Avery whistled. They’re really coming up in the world!
I had to agree.
Frog appeared beside me. “Not bad, eh?”
“This isn’t even the best of it. Seen the sign outside yet?”
I had not, but what could be better than meat and cheese and colorful fruit juice?
“Bigfoot’ll tell you.” Frog pulled me along to the office, which still looked the same.
Bigfoot—Freddie?—struck a heroic pose. “Guess who cut a deal with the old man.”
Frog helpfully pointed up and whistled ‘crazy’.
“What, the old shopkeeper?”
Bigfoot deflated slightly and looked almost Freddie-like. Frog whacked me.
“Ow! Oh! You mean the old curmudgeon?”
Padfoots Junior Thieves Guild, for those who have not been, lies under not only the store, but the entire market square. All the old cellars are connected—at least, they are now, thanks to a determined group of youths with shovels. Mostly the entrances are blocked and forgotten by the above-dwellers, as they were closed when a giant rat epidemic broke out, back when the Mad King was but a young, mildly chaotic prince. Most of the technical owners are younger than that, or at least moved in more recently, and thus unaware of their extra subterranean footage, in no small part because the original owners’ solution to the problem was to seal the cellars and pretend they never existed at all.
Two exceptions to this were the old shopkeeper and the old curmudgeon. Both were not only aware of the cellars, they had attempted to unblock their entrances in the hope that the rats had all died. Their hope was not unreasonable, but it did prove to be false. Apparently there was quite a lot to live off down there.
One required payment, the other a student, and Padfoot’s, after extreme rat hunting, was open for business with Bigfoot on the throne.
Three years later, the entire cellar-system was connected and relatively clean and mostly free of rodents. The rest could be used as storage, but only the first two and the two on either side had real, breathable air.
“What sort of deal?”
“He’s given us the old house.” At eighteen, Bigfoot could own property. But would he have sold his soul for it?
“He’s taking a vay-cay-shun,” Frog drawled.
The 80-year-old that never left his chair? “We talking about the same old curmudgeon?” I asked. “He can’t even make it to his front door to grab the paper.”
“One o’ the padfoots went with.”
I looked between them, but they were serious and unconcerned. “You—he—what?”
“Relax, Leaf! He took Skippy.”
“Oh,” I relaxed. Skippy was a very cheery, capable sort of sixteen years, one of the original foots. He had a Talent to see people’s truth. I had always avoided him, which had not been hard since he was never around. If he had chosen to go, I could not fault Bigfoot for it. Skippy never made bad decisions.
“Thought he might see the world, find himself a pretty lass.” Frog was looking wistfully at something distant. Bigfoot seemed to see it, too.
I nearly left them to it, but Frog snapped out of it when I moved. He headed out to keep watch on the door while Bigfoot put me half to sleep with the story of his negotiations with the Thieves Guild. I stayed conscious enough to verify that he had not revealed me as the thief who stole from the Thieves Guild.
He had not, and it had been a major sticking point, with the Thieves Guild trying to hold out for the information. Eventually, Skippy more or less admitted to it, and that was part of why he left. Or his leaving was why he did it. It was not clear, or I was not a good listener.
I found myself nodding, thinking that if it were Skippy, he could have done it. Only Frog, Bigfoot, Skippy, and James knew it had been me in any case. And probably the Captain, who knew everything. The Thieves Guild was unlikely to look past ‘our most capable padfoot’, leaving me completely safe and without glory.
Thus the deal was struck, and the Thieves Guild got their picks back while Padfoots got guild status and a small purse. Bigfoot implied that, when they took official membership oaths, I should not bother to be present.
What a pretty way to thank the girl who risked life and limb to make them official!
That, and to get access to maps of the palace without having to talk to Skippy about silly things like reasons.
“Is that all?” I asked. I suppose irritation showed.
“Don’t be sore with me, Leaf. You know I’m right. It’s a risk no one needs, and your connection to Captain Winter is no secret.”
He was right, on both counts, so I tried not to be bitter. The Thieves Guild wasn’t exactly forgiving when they were the ones being thieved from.
“Anyhow, you got enough to worry a body.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Only, your Captain’s been asking questions, where you come from and the like. Wanted to know about that fellow you done in. Knows you for a woodcrafter. Wanted to know if you had made anything here.”
“What did you say?”
“Me? Nothing much.” He shrugged. “What can I tell? But the kids tell stories. Best be careful o’ that one.”
“Thanks, Big. I will.” At least I could rest easy knowing there was no way the Captain would drag Contessa Annalize to Padfoot’s to look at spoons.
“Didn’t tell him about your sister, but I reckon you should. Taken a lot on blind faith, not knowing.”
I wondered how they could know each other so well without ‘Freddie’ getting arrested. How strange that there were guilds of criminals, and somehow that was legal!
Frog was busy with some younger padfoots, but he waved his knives cheerfully.
Leaving Padfoot’s, I wandered aimlessly and attempted to solve the puzzle that was Captain Eliot Winter. By the time I found myself standing outside the Woodcrafters Guild, I had decided that he may have figured out that I was the missing journeyman, but he could not have guessed that I was also the unidentified fire mage. And if he knew that I was Horatio’s granddaughter, he surely would have done something already. After all, madness was genetic, and the Mad King had also been a fire mage.
Contessa Annalize was standing outside as though she had been waiting for me. It was no less suspicious when she cheerfully ushered me in and poured ice tea. Then she just waited, sipping her tea and looking at me expectantly.
I silently drank my tea and attempted to stand to leave. “Contessa Annalize—” I started to thank her, and she poured a second glass. I slumped back into the magical chair.
“Please, it is only Anna. As the youngest daughter of an average count, the title is all but meaningless.”
This, I later discovered, was true so long as you replaced youngest with favorite, average with affluent, and all with anything. Not knowing this, I allowed myself to be put at ease. “I really did not mean to come, I was only just exploring the city.”
“Yes, I imagine with Eliot away there is little for you to do,” she smiled sympathetically.
The Captain had given me a stack of books to read. “Ah, yes.”
Is Thorne here?
“Being a contessa and a woodcrafter must be tiring.”
“Oh,” she laughed, “it has its moments, but mostly I am one or the other.”
Ask. Avery was nervous, even in that room of soothing woodcraft.
Thorne was famous among woodcrafters, and the contessa was much more friendly without the Captain present. “Anna, how did you become a woodcrafter?”
“I have always loved woods and trees,” she smiled beautifully. “I started learning when I was very young, after Master Elody noted my interest and suggested it to my Father. My Talent appeared soon after.”
“How is it you are only a journeyman?” As soon I asked, I realized that the question was rude. That was probably Master Thorne rubbing off on me. It was perfectly normal to be a journeyman forever, never becoming a master.
She did not appear to be offended, though. “I have been a journeyman nearly ten years, but much of my time is occupied by other matters.” Other matters including but not limited to: meeting important persons, taking part in important meetings, and generally being wealthy and important. But I learned that later. “My family does not approve. Even Master Elody would only say that I have a long way to go.” She explained that Master Elody had passed some years before, leaving Masters Fallon and Jaqueline in charge of the Saliz Guild. And Master Thorne, when he bothered to be around.
“Is he here now?”
“Almost never,” she suppressed another laugh. “I think he regrets returning. And you?” Her curious expression was open and honest.
I shrugged, unsure of what to say. I had to assume that she had heard some from the Captain, and he had learned or gleaned details from everywhere. I had told few lies, and fewer truths, and each in different settings, but it was impossible to know how much information the Captain had or had given her.
“Do you regret giving it up? You could join here, you know. Eliot could not refuse, given your Talent.”
She did not know, then, that I had entered the palace by way of the dungeon. But she knew I was Talented. I shook my head. “It is in the past for me.”
She shook hers in turn. “You sound like Master Thorne.” I could not stop the smile, but she was not suspicious. “I cannot imagine—” she looked around the room. “Master Thorne has gone to Atelis. Evidently there is some fresh dispute there. Why is that?”
“It is corrupt, lawless,” I shrugged, being used to it. In Essel, all skilled people, be they honest or not, were controlled by the Count. In Atelis they were not controlled at all. “The count of Atelis accepts bribes from all quarters and leaves them to cheat, steal, even kill, as they please.”
“That is dreadful! How can people live like that?” Before she could become too depressed, she smiled wickedly, “Perhaps we should send them Captain Lawful.” I must have made a funny face, as she laughed. “We grew up together, Eliot and I. Even as a small child he was obsessed with justice. It is in his blood. His father is a judge.” She smiled fondly. “He helped convince my Father to send me here, rather than marrying me to some entitled man or another.”
She told me several other delightful anecdotes which I shall not repeat, and I shared a few of my own stories. Before I left we had reached a friendly understanding and agreed to make tea a regular event. As I returned to the palace, I felt considerably cheered and slightly cooler than when I had left it.
I only mentioned this because the Captain seemed quite surprised, upon his return, to find us cheerfully exchanging news in his office. Thus it happened that when the king made his proclamation about a festival and ball with all illustrious personages to be in attendance, she insisted that I be allowed to attend and even lent me this gown of hers, redone to my size. How was I to refuse?
Though I see now that I should have found a way.