With a soft wave of his fine, flecked hand, the Blackguard brushed the trail of smoke from his nostrils. “The chit knew she was not supposed to be alone with a gentleman,” he concluded in that same light, humoured tone of voice, “but I do not believe she knew why.”
A face flashed upward in the circle of lamplight, teeth bared in a laugh. “You’re gammoning!”
The Blackguard shook his head.
“Someone has grossly miscalculated that chit’s education. Spurs going in the pot, Blackguard?”
Electing to hold onto his own glass of admittedly third-rate wine, the Blackguard leaned upon the back of a chair and swung up his heel, fingering the latches of his spurs. In the smoky gloom he could see the whole ring of men huddled round the depressed table, faces ruddy in the overhanging light, rough about the morals and well-versed in the art of ripping through life to gain one’s best advantage. It was a hot, close night within the room, with little air-flow and a peat-fire adding to the smoke and glow of the lantern; they were all stripped to the shirtsleeves, doublets hanging on the backs of their chairs. They were all enjoying themselves, but it did not escape the Blackguard’s notice that they all had their eyes on their own doublets—beautiful creatures of the highest order—lest someone should choose to quietly make away with them. In high humour, he put his heel back down and tossed both his spurs onto the centre of the table.
“There you are, gentlemen.”
Across from him, Darren, skipper of the Sagacity, jerked up his head at the Blackguard, the gold ring in his left ear swinging wildly in the light. “Are you losing your spurs to me, Blackguard?” he asked insinuatingly.
With that same cool smile, the Blackguard replied, “You are not my style—unless it turns out that you are a woman.”
There was a collision of derisive laughter. Darren set back his bulky shoulders, slammed the dice in the cup, and began to shake them. The shadow of his moving hands flew across the spurs—sharp, dove-shaped things lying like stunned birds on the tabletop, trailing their harness among a tangle of coins and a vial of Sleep. The Blackguard’s eye fell on the little bottle and his stomach cringed; he looked away quickly.
“Come on—give me Venus!” coaxed Darren, shaking the cup for all he was worth. Everyone braced, half-rising from his seat. The skipper flung the dice end over end upon the table, breathless until they stopped…
The Blackguard raised a finger.
“Yes!” Darren drove his fist into the shoulder of the next man.
“Go to the devil!”
Beside the Blackguard, Marcy spoke up, tongue red-lashing as it was wont to do. “Venus loves you by far the best, Darren. You seem to roll her overmuch.”
Soothingly, the Blackguard said, “Everyone knows Venus came from the sea. Perforce she would prefer seafarers.”
The blunt, dark-browed face swung round in the scarlet light. “ ‘Twas your spurs you lost.”
The man is bored of dice, thought the Blackguard. I wonder… With a little smile that had a decade ago been mistaken as shy he looked at the toe of one boot, shining in a slim patch of lamplight among the shadowed chair-legs. “Yea, they are my spurs. And presently I will play Darren again for them. Darren does not garner Venus’ disapproval, and I do not lose my spurs.”
“You could go on like this all night.”
“Indeed, we could!” The Blackguard flashed his disarming smile that was, he had been told, like a knife in the dark which is not meaning to be friendly. “But that would be poor sport. A gentleman knows when to salute and stand down.”
“A gentleman!” scoffed Marcy. “We all know you are the least of a gentleman among us, Blackguard.”
This remark was caught by every ear at the table and there was a collective stall in movement; every eye was on the two of them. Out of the corner of his eye the Blackguard could see Darren’s earring jinking softly in the light. He became acutely aware of his riding gages slipped inside his heavy sword-belt, in clear sight of all…
His lips lifted off his teeth. “Coming from you, Marcy, I believe that is a compliment.”
The man swung his head as if from a touch, but before he could launch back Lucius, Master of the Game, said, “Are you playing, Marcy, or aren’t you! I was in a passing fair mood and I am not interested in having you go steel to steel with the Blackguard.”
The Blackguard lifted his free hand dismissively. “I am not offended. I am aware my infamy precedes me.”
Darren waved his hands provokingly. “Then come and get me. Do you want your spurs?”
The Blackguard snapped his fingers and held out his palm for the cup. “For the pot,” he said honeyily, one eye still on Marcy. “Up to the hilt.”
“Damn you to the devil, Blackguard.”
The dice were slammed into the bottom of the cup and shaken until their spots must have fallen out. They spun like stars and the Blackguard cast them out on the table, looking like ivory jewels falling from a strange and twisted dream. They spun, crashed against the spurs, and stopped.
A good beginning.
Darren and the Blackguard duelled with the dice for twelve rounds, Lucius all the while keeping score—until the Master said, lifting his head from his tablet,
“The Blackguard needs only a pair of Twins to win this.”
The Blackguard met Darren’s eye. He was in the last stretch now. The skipper’s head shifted ever so slightly, acknowledgingly.
Time to win his spurs.
The ivory rattled, the heavy lamp-smoke swirled; the Blackguard’s head was bitingly clear in spite of it all and he saw the dice go crashing down, skipping, rebounding, whirling on invisible lines. He saw them hit the raised side of the table and come rolling back, falling into place with a pair of threes staring at the ceiling.
With a jerk of his hand and a vicious, triumphant smile, the Blackguard demanded to be given his spurs. His ears rang with the cacophony of their excited disbelief. With the gesture of one admitting defeat Darren himself leaned across and slapped the steel spurs into the Blackguard’s palm; they were cool and hard and familiar, and he was glad to have them back.
“I will leave you to Venus’ consort,” he said playfully, stepping from the table and slinging his doublet over one shoulder. He drained his wine and set the glass on a little niche in the wall. “You have given me enough enjoyment for one evening.”
“Go on, Blackguard—go back to the abyss from which you came!”
Nodding farewell to the pack of them, warm with wine and the thrill of the place, the Blackguard turned into the narrow white-washed hallway, sloped a little upward toward the front room, and ducked through into the crammed mudroom and out through the battered door to the garden beyond. Cool autumn air rushed into his lungs and he stood a moment under the glare of a broad crescent, clearing out the heavy lamp-smoke and hauling his brain back under control. There in those last moments he had been in a kind of calculated rage of excitement for the hunt had called to him and his blood could not resist that. He had been aware of their eyes—of Marcy’s eyes—watching him intently. He had been aware of his spurs waiting for him to win them back. He had been aware of much, and the alchemic concoction had nearly driven him mad.
With a little jink he refitted his spurs in his grasp and began walking up the garden path, aware of a whippoorwill calling from the pond down the way, aware of the silvered night-light glistening on the grass and the leaves of the trees. It was a beautiful night—like a plunge into a cold stream. He walked through the garden and up to the lane with all the noise of an owl on the wing; with a little familiar creak he set back the wicket latch and stepped out onto the road.
Almost at once he was conscious of someone approaching him and he flung up his head, perceiving a little figure half-running through the dark toward him. It came out from under the tree shadows and stood in the blazing light, stopping within a few paces of him.
By the twelve houses, it was a girl.
He frowned, glancing back the way she had come. The road was empty and there was no sound of human foot or horse’s hoof to be heard in the silvered filigree night.
“Sir,” the girl went on breathlessly, “can you help me? I am trying to find Majester Chlorus’ house. Do you know where it is?” Her tone was wrung with concern.
And she was lost.
“Do you not have an escort?” he inquired. “You should not be out alone at night.” And especially not in front of this particular house.
She exuded an aura of perplexity. From the midst of a mass of long, curling brown hair which stood out from her head like the mane of a lion her enormous pale eyes stared at him, brows puckering. “No. I was riding with Charigold—” she gestured back down the lane. “I would have made it home sooner, but I’ve only just come to Mithras and I don’t know my way around.” She gazed about her, fists clenched at her sides. “Things looked so much clearer in daylight.”
During this artless speech, the Blackguard had got a good look at her. She was small—of age, but quite diminutive, with a slip-figure, pale skin, and a face that narrowed beneath the cheekbones and allowed a good grip about the mouth for a hand his size or larger. She was the perfect prey.
His voice hardened. “You ought not to have been let out at this hour. Your friend ought to have sent a manservant with you.”
She swung back to him, surprised by this. “But—I don’t need to be walked like a dog! I would be well if only I knew where I was!”
Feeling that his story about the chit, which he had constructed for the amusement of the others, was becoming real in front of him, the Blackguard began to wonder if he ought to scare some sense into her. It would be an easy thing. She was a pretty little creature, probably rather simple and tender-hearted, sensitive as a highly bred filly. It would be an easy thing…
Aloud he said, “Which street does Majester Chlorus live on, do you know?”
She cupped her hands together and pressed them over her mouth, pondering. “I think…perhaps…Autium Way…? He is my uncle,” she added, seeming to think this helped to locate him.
The Blackguard’s shoulders relaxed. She was a truly artless chit, even a trifle amusing. “I know the road. I will take you home.”
“Will you?” she cried, coming forward a step. “Oh, I am so—glad—I…” Her voice trailed off; her blue eyes sharpened, widened, catching a view of his face. He started, alarm ringing in his brain. “Oh!” she cried. “Oh! You are the author of The Colour of Death! You are—”
He crushed his finger over her soft little mouth. He felt the lips gather into a surprised pucker. “Shh!” he commanded; after a pause, he took his hand away.
Her hands stole over her mouth—frightened, not because he had touched her rather suddenly, but because she had almost blurted out his name. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “Are you working?”
Very clearly, he thought, I could wind you around my little finger, couldn’t I, and you would not mind. “Yes, after a fashion. But now I must take you home. Your uncle will be worried about you.”
Rather in awe of him, she allowed him to draw her alongside and walk her by him down the shaded lane. But after a few paces she stopped of a sudden, drawing up one leg like a horse favouring a hoof. “Oh dear! I am so sorry. I must—I think I have—my lace,” she explained. “It has come undone with my running.”
She sat down at once on the low stone kerb of the roadway, thrust out her right leg, and hauled her riding habit up to her thigh. The Blackguard started back, thrown into a fit of silent laughter and surprise. He did not have the heart to tell her how indecorous she was being; he could only stand, hands on hips, still holding his spurs, watching the little chit paw at the laces of her tall riding boots until she brought them into order again—and glad all the while that it was he who had discovered her pattering about at night and not a man like Marcy.
“There!” She leapt to her feet, striking her skirts down. She beamed up at him. Their difference in height was very great; she bare came to his shoulder while she stood in her heeled riding shoes. “I am so sorry.”
“It is better now?” he asked, humoured.
“Yes, it is better now.”
He gestured toward the lane and, with a little bob of her head that was at least some vestige of a good girl’s upbringing, she fell into step beside him again.
“I am Jinievere, by the way,” she began conversationally when they had gone a few paces. Shyly, she knocked the sides of her fists together. “And, of course, I know who you are.”
He turned to see her head bent, riotous hair falling over her face. He could hear her skin blushing.
“I’m—I really—I love your books, sir. You have such a way of capturing the setting and making me feel that I am really there. I would adore being able to write like that.”
While he could not help thinking that a girl who had read his literature ought to have known better than to be caught out at night unattended, it did not escape him that, for the first time in a very long time, he did not feel a sense of judgement extending from his interviewer, as though he were a kind of mythic creature which must be examined and understood. The girl was starkly in awe of him, and it was a new and curious feeling to experience.
“Do you write at all?” he asked.
She did not lift her head. “A little. I try. I know it isn’t very good, but I like it. Sometimes.”
The Blackguard’s lips kicked back in a smile. “It is a good beginning. When you love it, you will make it good.”
Jinievere looked up from her clasped hands, biting her lower lip. “Do you think so, sir?” she begged of him.
“I know as much. It was thus that I became proficient.”
“Did it take long?”
He had to turn his head to hide his amusement. Her enormous eyes followed him like a lovesick pup. “I think that it takes differing times for differing people. The time is of no consequence. We will, no doubt, have God’s eternity with which to hone the art.”
“Oh yes!” she cried, seeing this truth so clearly before her that she started like a cat which has had a rock dropped next to it. “And I was so crestfallen for I have been working since I was twelve. I am seventeen, now,” she added proudly, swinging her massive mane round at him. “And you are—thirty.”
“Not until the winter,” he corrected her gently, thinking in the back of his mind that she had a pathetic ageless grace about her which would probably never grow old and had nothing to do with the fact that she was seventeen. Indeed, he was surprised to discover himself hoping she did not outgrow this pet-like innocence. It greatly amused him.
“It is of no consequence,” she said with affected gravity. Her accent became Refined Honour, mimicking his own. “It will be winter soon. But thirty is so old!” she exclaimed, returning to her own voice.
“Not so!” he protested. “Not once you have reached it, in any case. But I see you have been watching me quite closely!” he added, giving rein to laughter at her expense.
She coloured. For a spell she walked in silence, boots crunching the gravel underfoot; the Blackguard’s feet made no noise. At last she prompted shyly, “I don’t mean to pry… Was that—was that a dice house back there?”
There was a telltale note of worry in her voice which caused him a sense of relief: she was not insensible of danger, after all. “Yes.” His eye was drawn upward as the shadow of a hunting owl drifted across them. “And you must thank God it was I who came out and found you, and not someone else.”
He was grateful to see her shoulders shudder, but this also put him in mind of the cool air and he wondered if she was a little chilled as well. “What did you do in there? Am I allowed to know?” she added, swinging round with her blue-planet eyes gleaming at him with concern. In that worshipful gaze, the Blackguard saw no thought that he had done anything unscrupulous.
I seem to have wrapped her round my little finger already.
“I was playing for my spurs,” he explained. He held them up so that the light slid across them as they walked, the jagged blocks of shadow quenching the metallic light as they passed under the trees. Jinievere’s hand stole out and she touched one briefly before drawing away again. “Do you care to know why?”
Again the pup’s eyes, luminescent, fixating on his face.
He chuffed softly and twisted one of the spurs, pausing in a bit of light so that he could see the thing that he did. The chit stood on tiptoe, peering over his forearm. He sprung a latch, twisted back the metal half-circle, and drew the rowel off, revealing a hollow place within the neck. A piece of paper whispered in the movement; with two deft fingers he drew it out and held it before Jinievere’s face.
“I was winning that.”
“What does it say?” she whispered, gazing on this magic with such rapt attention that her body trembled with the excitement.
“It should tell me who I am looking for. And here.” He put the dismantled spur and its twin into the cupped palms she held out and fell to unrolling the little scrap of paper. It would be hastily written. Darren’s writing was always swiftly-paced and nearly illegible. He tipped the paper to the light.
The man is Marcy—but I think you already knew that, my lord. Still looking for his warehouse. Give my regards to the Dragon’s Eye.
Jinievere gasped softly. “The Dragon’s Eye!” she whispered. The Blackguard glanced at her from the paper. She had her hands clenched over the smooth ring of the spurs, knuckles pressed against her lips.
She has blundered into what she thinks is a fairytale.
His heart clenched.
Silly pet! Ought to know what fairytales are really like.
He pressed the slip of paper between his palms until all that was left of it was a sideways drift of ash. With a smoking palm he took back the spurs and they continued on. He was thinking of Marcy now, and wondering how soon Darren could locate his warehouse. He had a great mind to help, and rather wished he could call upon the help of his—
“What is in the warehouse?” asked Jinievere.
The Blackguard walked a space in silence. “I think it would be better if you did not know.”
He knew she had looked at him then, sharply, curious and yet startled by her hero’s forbiddance. It seemed to shock her with a new sense of dread. She drew closer; after a slight pause, he felt her hand slip inside his own. On instinct, he closed his fingers over hers.
They walked for some time in that way, side by side, the Blackguard’s long, fine hand growing accustomed to the soft paw inside his grasp. The night was cool and clear, blood-rousing, and the man found himself the willing victim of a surprisingly powerful possessive nature, dredged up out of a sleeping genius. It was a sense much like rage, and he liked it. Glancing aside from time to time at the silver-lit curve of button nose beside him, he wondered if the girl knew what she had awoken.
“Pet,” he said at length, “are you easily frightened?”
She looked up at him, that soft little mouth drawn into a surprised vowel shape. “No. I don’t think so.”
He showed his teeth in an All Hallows smile. “Good. Then do not be.” And he swung round to face the road behind, sharp eyes picking the figure out of the gloom. “Come out, sirrah!” he called with a lashing taunt. “I know that you are there.”
Marcy came into the light, a sword drawn in his hand.
“Good evening, Marcy,” said the Blackguard. “How may I help you?”
“You can put away your cool talk, Blackguard. It is not my style.”
The Blackguard sniffed like a horse. “I cry you mercy, I was born with that. I cannot give it up so easy.” His eye fell to the man’s sword, noting the angle at which he held it, the flexibility of the elbow, the strength of the wrist. “Is there any other way in which I might oblige you?”
The heavy face shadowed with the clench of the brows. “Do not take me for a fool, sir! I know there is something to those spurs, and I rather fancy it has much to do with myself.”
Again, the Blackguard indulged in a soft little laugh that could cut a man’s pride like a razor. “Are you much used to making conspiracies about yourself?”
“Show to me the spurs,” the man demanded bulldoggishly.
It did not escape the Blackguard’s notice that to kill Marcy now would be to render superfluous the discovery of his warehouse. Yet he suspected Marcy would have a second who would just as easily take his place, and the work would go on with very little upset.
He wondered what had become of Darren.
With a great show of giving in, as though half-humoured and wholly bored by the ordeal, the Blackguard took his spurs out of his doublet pocket and tossed them underhand at the man’s feet.
“There,” he said in the voice of a cat stretching. “The spurs. Art happy, thunder-brow?”
Marcy held up his hands. “Dost really take me for a fool?”
The Blackguard, too, flung up his hands and gazed around in theatrical despair. “Now what do you want? I gave to you the spurs!”
“Yes,” said Marcy, “who would not let them go without a fight over dice. The thing I want is no longer there, I think.”
The Blackguard was silent for a moment, fallen into stillness. At last he said, “You are right. I had taken you for a fool. Permit me to do so no longer. For instance, I think it unlikely that you should have come after me without reserves. Am I correct?”
Marcy did not betray a glance to either side. But the Blackguard was already beginning to sense men closing in around them and he asked himself quite seriously what he meant to do. It was only a matter of a few moments before Marcy took note of the girl. The Blackguard would have to decide quickly.
“You are correct.” Marcy took a step closer, shifting into a long broken shadow cast by an elm-bough. “You are outnumbered seven to one—”
And now he has noticed the girl.
The darkened head turned. “Who is this?”
The Blackguard was conscious of Jinievere standing rigid beside him, hands at her sides, clenched into fists. The ephemeral fairytale was gone from her demeanour: she was taking this interchange with a morbidly serious mind. “My witch-accomplice,” said the Blackguard glibly. “She can catch the Lower Light in her hair and make a net of it.”
“Don’t gammon with me,” said Marcy smartly.
“I cry you mercy.” The Blackguard lifted his shoulders. “It is of a piece with me.”
“Give me the girl and perhaps I will consider being merciful.”
The hackles lifted on the Blackguard’s neck. A strong cold wind, blowing down the lane, lifted the pulse in his body to such a level that he could feel the ground gathering underfoot—he could feel the backflung tree-branches, the soft glint of light on a man’s drawn knife, the taut-drawn strap of Orion’s belt…
He drew his hand before him, palm upward, in a circle.
He did not hear Marcy’s call to attack: he felt it, as one feels the reverberation of a drum which has been struck. His sword was in his hand as if it had grown out of his arm. A pall of silence fell over his world; everything stood out in relief. The ground beat under his feet as he ran forward three steps; the long piece of cavalry steel crashed against Marcy’s and felt to the Blackguard like a sky of stars coming out in summer. There was a strange sense of beauty in every sensation that cascaded over him, but no sense of joy. In Marcy’s grim face he could see a reflection of his own, silent, like a death-mask, intent to kill.
There was no joy, but there was also no fear.
Marcy was a good blade, but the Blackguard was better. He hammered him down the lane, blow by blow, and he had the man down on one knee with his sword rasping against the other’s, flinging Marcy back at a harsh angle with his arms above his head. With a few deft twists and a thrust he would have the man finished, and he would trust to God that the rest of the operation would not be ruined.
A scream of pain cut through the silence. His foot came up, striking Marcy in the jaw so that the man was sent over onto his back with a broken jawbone and a nose spraying blood. Turning, deluged in sound again, the Blackguard saw Jinievere only a few paces from him, having kept as close as possible, huddled on the ground with her face in her hands. She was screaming and thrashing—and across from her stood a man coaxing a whipcord back into his hand.
A rage too large for his body flooded his veins. The high possessive blood-fire of the ancient thrones and dominions coursed through him, breaking his voice until it sounded like the voice of a dragon.
“No one—” he came forward, sword shredding fire from its blood-groove “—no one ever—ever—ever—ever—EVER—HITS PET.”
The thing they had unleashed exploded in their faces. Somewhere he heard a man cry, “By the gods—it’s—” and then he had swung, shoving up his hand into the man’s face and compacting all the bone into the back curve of his skull. The side of his hand contacted the whipmaster’s jaw: he watched the bone break beneath the skin in a hundred tiny fragments: with his other hand he took the front of the face and pulled it off onto the ground between his feet.
Two down, one crippled.
Four to go.
Let us dare.
He drove his sword into one man’s body, all the way up to the hilt until, in a distant sort of way, he felt the gut-blood of him rush down onto his fist. No one was near Jinievere now; the few left alive were trying desperately to make an escape, but the Blackguard had had enough of them. The ground was repulsed by them. The tree-roots seemed to recoil in revulsion. They had tempted his wrath: they would drink it—they would drink it all the way down to its dregs.
With both hands he hauled a man’s arms behind his back until he heard the spine crack. He released; as the body was falling he drove his fist into the back of the man’s skull, killing him upon impact.
Four down, one crippled.
He broke a man’s thigh with a destrier’s kick: the scream tore through the dark wood. He caught the sixth man as he made a lunge to get away, caught him through the ribs with both sets of fingers, up to his elbows in blood, and closed his hands, feeling the ribs crunch together in his grip.
Now there was only Marcy.
Breathing heavily through his nose, scarlet light ebbing and flowing around his face with each breath, the Blackguard strode to the dazed, broken body in the roadway. Bending down, he hauled it up by its doublet-front. Out of an upward spray of blood Marcy glared back at him, unable to move his jaw to speak. The Blackguard was glad of that.
“You should have let me alone,” he said softly. “But I suppose your neck would have broken either way.”
He took the head between his hands and wrenched it, swiftly, cleanly. The body fell limp.
When he turned to her, Jinievere had stopped screaming and knelt in the roadway, her face in her arms, trying with a visible force to choke back her sobs. Brave chit! She had taken a whip across the face and she was trying not to cry like a girl. The Blackguard knelt in front of her and drew her up by her shoulders; blood spattered onto his knees and he got a glimpse of a clenched face, eyes half-shut against pain and tears. The score ran at a sharp angle across both cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
“Ow!” she said simply, and bit her lip to keep quiet.
The physic in him came uppermost. He slicked the blood off his hands, his motions quieted and gentle; with a palm across her face he pulled the lips of skin back together, sealing them off. Her skin was supple and fresh: no scars would be left. Her big blue eyes stared out at him from between his splayed fingers, still swimming a little, blurred with light and water.
“There, that is the skin of you.” He took his hand down. “How are you on the inside?”
She sniffed and touched her face experimentally—not surprised, he saw, to discover the wound was gone. “A little shaken,” she confessed, “But I’ll be well.”
His mouth kinked. “Not easily afraid?”
Jinievere frowned severely and shook her head.
The Blackguard favoured her with a murmured, “That’s a good girl,” which brought the colour to her cheeks in a trice. Like one coaxing a brood mare up from her first delivery he got her to her feet and held her for a moment to be sure she could keep her legs under her. But she appeared to have an iron, stubborn streak in her, for she balled her little fists and straightened her back, very white, but very determined.
“Are they all gone for good?” she asked, as if it were a novel.
“I doubt anyone is coming after me.” He grasped his sword belt and hefted it back to centre. “But I want to know what has become of my friend.” He regarded Jinievere for a moment, wondering, if the worst had happened to Darren, if she could stomach walking in on such a spectacle. Her eye was hesitantly flitting from body to body already; her mouth compressed and he could sense her teeth grind, but she took it gamely. His gaze lifted to her hair, which had become even more of a wreck than before.
You know that she would gladly be flung into every corner of every room from here to Maresgate, if only she could tag along after you.
Her gaze whipped to his. “What is the matter?” she demanded in a husky whisper.
The Blackguard kicked back his head, shaking it. “We will go be sure that Darren has not come to a dog’s end, and then I will take you to your uncle’s house. An’ sure he will be frantic for you. Then tomorrow I will come by as myself and offer for you.”
Jinievere stared at him with the first truly serious expression he had seen on her. Something like horror had come over her, horror and something much like stomach sickness. “Oh,” she gasped; then, “Oh! Oh, don’t! Please don’t! Don’t gammon with me, sir!” And she burst into tears, backstepping swiftly with her face hidden in her hands. “Please—please—anything but—please, don’t!”
“I do not gammon, Pet,” he assured her, realizing how just how deeply her infatuation with him ran. “I think we would suit famously. Don’t run,” he added, lunging forward and grasping her wrist. He was strong—he could have crushed her skull with one hand—but he did no more than close his fingers over her arm. She stopped and shrank into a little huddle. “Don’t run.”
Her words did not come very clearly through her tears. “Why—why did you—why did you—come? I wish you—had never spoken! Don’t tease me! I couldn’t bear—go away! Why—why—why me?”
Pitying humour clenched in his chest. “By the twelve houses, girl—why not you? Anyone can tell you are heels over head in love with me. Don’t pull away! You will hurt yourself. Also it is very clear in my mind that we will do very well together. I had made up my mind about it thirty minutes ago, so if you suppose this is all because I fought for you and patched up your face, your romantic spirit is mistaken!”
She flung down her hands and began what would have been a spirited denouncement of her charms—which were, to the Blackguard, readily apparent and blissfully artless—but he had been expecting that. In a rush he had caught her up, gently but firmly, and had closed that soft little mouth with its first kiss. She was too surprised to struggle, so he had the opportunity to enjoy it as much as she did. She did not have much grace in her kiss, but that was half the charm of it. He broke off with a swift soft laugh and put her down, drawing back to see the face shining up at his.
“I told you, I do not gammon, Pet,” he recommended.
Her little hands came up, clenched, pressing against his doublet-front. “I—I am going to cry,” she said thickly. “I am sorry. It is so stupid of me. I am so happy.”
“If you like.” He took her hands down and drew her along beside him. “You may do whatever you like. I should warn you, I have a strong mind to spoil you to distraction. You are adorable.”
“Yes. And remarkably competent in a scrape. One gets into those around me. I am glad you have that skill.”
Her feet skipped beside him. “Oh, I will do anything—anything! And—and you really mean it?”
He lifted his head, watching the long silver patterns swelling among the shadows of the road. The owl came back, watching them as it floated by. Soon it would become too cold to be out of doors. “Every once in a long while, a princess gets her white knight.”
After a catch in the silence, she prompted, “And the white knight likes that?”
He dropped his gaze, his face stolen over by the shy little smile which was his habit. “The white knight is rather relieved. He does not like being alone.”
She took his hand and pattered beside him, head upflung and her little button nose already displaying an air of pride. “I am glad. I know I’m not majestic and I know I’m not witty…or smart… But if—if you think I will suit… Oh!” she cried, stopping and pulling back on his hand.
He swung round, still clasping her hand. “What is it?”
“My boot lace! It has come untied again.”
The Blackguard kicked back his head and laughed.