Sedwin stands in the open door, his initial smile yielding first to bewilderment, then disbelief.
“What is going on here?”
Stellia wishes with all her heart that she could turn into a mouse and crawl into some hole.
Garroth steps into the room, slamming the door behind him. He drops the large bundle he is carrying and takes a step toward Nevynne. “Miserable little thief! I should have—”
Nevynne does not shrink from him. Instead, she stands up and raises her voice, undaunted by the massive—and furious—man towering over her. “Do not dare it!”
For a moment, the anger blazing in Garroth’s eyes dims. “What?”
“I am Nevynne of Combray, daughter of Ellyan, Duke of Cadannon and Margrave of Ren Arran. Of this I’ve provided sufficient evidence. I don’t know who you are, but unless you’ve noble blood in your veins, laying hands on me again will earn you an outlaw’s brand!”
“Insolent brat!” Garroth trembles with rage. He turns his blistering gaze on Stellia. “And you…”
“She tried to stop me,” Nevynne interrupts. “I wouldn’t let her.”
“Obviously.” Sedwin touches Garroth’s shoulder. The older man relaxes a little. “No one will manhandle you, My Lady.” He stresses the title meaningfully. “But we will demand an explanation. If you were a thief, no one here would be surprised to catch you rifling through their belongings. But why would Duke Ellyan’s daughter do such a thing?”
“To find out who her fellow travelers are,” Nevynne says. “You held my possessions ransom to force the same information out of me, remember?” She deposits the pilfered scroll in Sedwin’s palm. “All I ask is a secret for a secret. It seems a fair trade to me.”
“Perhaps.” Sedwin exchanges a glance with Garroth, who is still fuming. “But what is left for us to trade with, since you already helped yourself to what you wanted?”
“You know full well I did not find what I wanted,” Nevynne says. “You bear a letter of passage signed and sealed by Emperor Thedric himself, issued to Garroth by name. That says much, but not enough.”
“Ah, indeed.” Sedwin smiles. “Then perhaps until you come by something that says more, we shall leave matters as they were.”
“I wonder if that’s wise.” Nevynne purses her lips. “In Baramond we say that unanswered questions may do a man more harm than daggers. And this document raises a few. What might this letter make of you two? Once, you were in the Emperor’s service, but now you’re hiding, keeping yourself secret. The letter is old, too. What happened since it was issued? Did you fall from grace? And with whom? With Thedric? Or with the Guardian, on whose servants you now spy? Or both? And what is my duty in this, to Sovereign and Realm? Do I aid you, or suspect you, and if so, of what?”
“Blackmail!” Garroth thunders. He turns to Sedwin. “Don’t you see what the little snake is getting at?”
Sedwin sighs, seemingly at a loss as to what to do. “We know who she is, and where her loyalties lie. The same is true of Stellia.”
Garroth exhales noisily, expelling a miasma of ale and onions into the room. Stellia tries not to wrinkle her nose, lest she offend the already irritated men. Nevynne, however, makes a point of fanning the air with her palm.
“They should not be here,” Garroth says.
“But they are,” Sedwin replies. “And we both know why. They are my responsibility.”
“You want to do right by them, send them home.”
“And where would that be? Phoros, where a Parson is eager to imprison Stellia as a heretic? Cadannon, where Castle Combray lies in ruins, and Ingharad’s spies prowl the roads?”
“Then send them elsewhere. Wherever the least harm awaits.”
Sedwin looks at Nevynne, then at Stellia. “I doubt I can send these two anywhere they do not wish to go. So why not lead them, if not to the least possible harm, then to the most possible good they can do?”
“I like the sound of that,” Nevynne says.
Garroth releases another blast of ale and onions. “The decision is yours, of course.”
Sedwin gestures for Nevynne and Stellia to sit down again. He himself sits on Stellia’s bed, facing the two young women. Garroth remains standing, arms crossed, looking surly.
“The knowledge you seek brings with it risks and dangers,” Sedwin says. “And it will bind you to us, for better or for worse. Once you have learned who we are, and what our mission is, we cannot let you part with us until it is ended.”
“Think carefully,” Garroth adds. “Especially you, my rash and reckless Lady Combray. You can still walk out this door, and go your own merry way as though we’d never crossed paths.”
“I think not,” Nevynne says. “I do however pledge to keep your secret, and to aid you in your purpose as best I can—if it is just.”
“As do I,” Stellia mutters. She can’t manage to sound quite as determined as Nevynne; her heart is beating too wildly.
“Very well, then,” Sedwin says. “We were indeed in the Emperor’s service. I was once Thedric’s spymaster.”
“Spymaster?” Stellia cries out. “You?”
Sedwin smiles. “Does that strike you as so improbable?”
“I do not mean to question your competence.” Heat floods Stellia’s cheeks. “It’s just… you seem rather young.”
Garroth chuckles. “Many think that, looking at Sedwin. It is often an advantage in our trade for others to misjudge us. But it would be a mistake to underestimate either of us, or our skill in working together as one.” He pats his sword hilt with a brawny hand. “Sedwin is the hound’s fine nose. I provide the bite.”
“And just what has the hound been seeking to sniff out, since he lost his master?” Nevynne asks. “Or has he grown wayward and wild, without a leash to guide him?”
Garroth’s mien darkens again. Even Sedwin looks irritated for a moment.
“A leash is laid upon a beast against its will,” he says. “We are bound by loyalty and honor. It is a choice, yet one we shall never unmake. The Emperor is dead, but his son lives. And so now we serve him.”
NEXT: A Savior in Hiding