Thursday, August 27, 2015

WIP Thursday: Thick as Ice, Chapter 4c

On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week Madd and Vorgell disagree about cherries, and Gillja delivers ominous news.


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Thick as Ice, Chapter 4c


The first thing Vorgell noticed when Madd and Petal rejoined Gillja’s departing entourage outside the Duke’s palace was how red and delicious-looking his friend’s lips appeared to be. Rosy and stained and utterly maddening.

It didn’t help that Vorgell had spent his time watching Duke Abiddes’ wandering hands and delivering snarls whenever the Duke encroached upon too much of Gillja’s curvaceous skin. She had explained his mission ahead of time and Vorgell had embraced it with vigor. It was in his best interest to nip the Duke’s ardor in the bud; had anything overtly amorous succeeded in taking root, Vorgell suspected he might have wanted to join in, if not with Gillja and her paramour, then at the very least with one of the pretty serving boys—or perhaps the naughty statue in the alcove, which wore a most intriguing wink. Fortunately, Gillja had been as determined as he to fend off the Duke.

As they left the grounds, Madd fell into line beside Vorgell and cast him a look that asked how things had gone.

“Don’t ask,” Vorgell growled.

“Erotic statues? Any worth stealing?”

“Perhaps, but I overheard the conversation and I don’t think this Duke is a man we should provoke. He’s working in hand with wizards.”

Madd looked unimpressed. He ducked his head to the side as Petal made the leap from his shoulder to Vorgell’s. “All I learned is that the Duke has a very good cook who turns his nose up at poison because it puts off the taste of his cooking.”

Remembering the dishes he had seen, and smelled, Vorgell sighed. How he had craved to take even the smallest taste of a few of those morsels! He had even glimpsed, for but a moment, the most heavenly of all treats from his homeland, dangling like ominous rubies from the Duke’s fingers as he fed them to Gillja’s painted, eager lips. He looked down again to see Madd grinning while extending a hand filled with several round, dark red fruit.

“Cherries?”

Scurrian cherries! Larger than even the Duke had brandished and of a red so black demons would rejoice if it were their blood.

“You stole from the Duke? While we were his guests?” The accusation did nothing to prevent Vorgell’s mouth from watering.

Madd’s grin retreated. “Do you want them or not? Because I nearly ate them all, and I can still eat more. These damn things are delicious.”

Yes, they were. Vorgell was not about to waste so golden an opportunity. “I have not eaten these in years! You are… the best of friends, and I name you the most generous also. A thousand thanks!” He gathered the cherries into his hand and popped the first sweet orb into his mouth, biting through the flesh and crunching down on the pit, much to Madd’s alarm.

“Tell me you did not just break a tooth.”

Vorgell happily chewed, relishing the distinctive crunch and the heavenly sweet juices on his tongue. “Of course not.”

“Good, because a spell that can mend a broken tooth is beyond anything I can work. We’d have to go to a proper healing witch for something like that.” Madd shook his head. “Did you seriously just eat the pit?”

“The pit’s the best part, once you crack it.” Vorgell tossed a cherry into the air and as it came back down neatly caught it between his teeth. His boyhood skills were still sharp as ever!

“Which proves you’re an oaf, if you think that. Cherry pits are poison.” Madd was having none of it. Even Petal was protesting, digging in her talons and wrapping her tail around Vorgell’s neck to keep balance from his tossing and catching. “Trust me on this. It’s not magic. Even people who aren’t witches know better than to eat the damn things. People grind up those pits and add them to the muffins of folk they want to kill. Believe me, back in the kitchen I watched those cherries like a hawk.”

“A job for which Gillja chose wisely,” Vorgell affirmed. Madd was nothing if not meticulous about threats. It was also true people in Scurrian villages would die mysteriously during cherry season. Perhaps munching on pits was not the best use to which his teeth could be put. The cherries were beyond tasty without the crunch. He offered the last one in his hand to Petal, who turned up her nose. Why she would prefer mice to cherries was beyond him. He ate it and found it was even sweeter than the ones before.

He turned back to Madd, only to find the witch glaring at him. “Do you have any more?”

“Not if they’re going to kill you.”

“I promise to not bite down on the pits.”

They had passed beneath the Peacock Gate and were making their way down the Avenue of Bells. It was a merry street.

“Please, Madd,” Vorgell wheedled. By the way his friend’s hip pouch bulged, he was certain there were more of the fruits to be had.

“I wanted to make you happy, not kill you or break your teeth, all right?” The rosy stain on Madd’s lips added to their appeal along with the lovely way they moved, the flush in his cheeks and shimmer of heat in his gaze. “Slurpy noises, cherry juice in your beard… those I can live with. I should have given them to you when we were home.”

Home. Where they could be alone, and use cherries in intimate ways. Even now, if they kissed, Vorgell would taste cherries on Madd’s lips, on sweeping his tongue across those smooth, even teeth. Madd had very pretty teeth, rare for someone who had lived a life on the streets. But then witchkin had much readier access to healing magic. Just the thought of cherry nibbles and lips that left cherry-red stains, made Vorgell’s nipples harden and his cock push with interest against the stiff leather cup he wore to prevent public embarrassment.

Yes, getting Madd home, or anywhere else they could be alone, was the best idea Vorgell had heard all day. Once there, he could show Madd a proper thanks for having thought of him, even if it had involved stealing from Gillja’s suitor. In fact, Vorgell both wanted to let his heart turned to syrup and give a yell of triumph.

Cherries from Madd were worth more than rubies from anyone else.

They nearly made a clean escape upon reaching Gillja’s fine house, only for the nimble Baroness to exit quickly enough from her palanquin to stop them.

“Wait! Before you go,” she said, shaking off a bit of dust from the hem of her gown. “I have word of another job for you.”

“We don’t need a job,” Madd started to explain. Perhaps he was thinking the same things Vorgell was thinking, about cherry nibbles and kisses. It was also possible he was simply thinking the several rubies at home in their makeshift vault would last them the rest of the year.

“You need this one,” said Gillja. She looked sympathetic. “Ibeena is calling in her favor. She told me to tell you she expects to see you this day, and no later.”

Madd’s shoulders slumped. Vorgell knew how painful it was for Madd to deal with other witches, especially the powerful females of his kind.

“Do you know what this favor is?” Vorgell asked, because Madd was too despondent to do so.

“Yes, but… I think it best if Ibeena explains what she wants.”

“Sure,” said Madd. He attempted a laugh, but the result was far from convincing. “Can’t you at least give us a chance to prepare?”

Gillja shook her head. “It’s not a dangerous task. Go to her. Let her tell you.” With a pat on Madd’s arm and an encouraging smile at Vorgell, she turned and entered the door to her dwelling.

Walking away from Gillja’s no longer filled Vorgell with thoughts of a pleasant afternoon. Almost as if their feet understood the doom placed upon them, they turned not toward Thieves Wart but rounded the corner and began to trod uptown. Ibeena currently lived at the center of the aptly named Rag Market, where the city’s rag-pickers dumped and sorted and repurposed their wares.

“Whatever this is,” Madd muttered glumly, “it’s not going to be good.”

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I enjoy feedback and am always happy to discuss readers’ thoughts or answer any questions.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

WIP Thursday: Thick as Ice, Chapter 4b

On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week’s in shorter to round out the chapter. While Vorgell safeguards Gillja, Madd engages in a bit of petty thievery.


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Thick as Ice, Chapter 4b


The kitchen was even hotter than the stone courtyard outside and even the basilisk was unhappy. Petal didn’t like being leashed—which had been necessary to get her to leave Vorgell—and being forced to wear a hood made her surly. She dug her claws into the fabric of Madd’s linen shirt and grumbled in his ear. Her presence on his shoulder wasn’t exactly his idea of fun, either. He lacked Vorgell’s size and broad build. The damn basilisk was heavy.

The cook’s name was Barto. Rotund and sweating, he banged yet another pan down upon the grate.

“How much cookware do you break a month?” Madd asked.

A single eye the color of milk turned his way. The other was sunken and lidded. “None. How many poor souls does that creature of yours turn to stone?”

So that was it. Barto was unhappy the servants had run off. Basilisks had that effect on a room. “None,” Madd said, though that was patently untrue. He’d never considered lying a truly bad practice. “Mostly she wants things alive, so she can eat them. Do you have any rats about?”

He had the cook’s attention. “Rats?”

“Mice will do. Believe me, the rat population of this city would be even worse than it is if not for Petal. The part of town we live in is practically rat-free.”

“If anyone is still alive in it.” Barto threw cuts of meat into the heated pan and began stirring. All of his help might have run off, but he was still charged with feeding the Duke and his guest. “Watch all you want, you won’t see me being underhanded.”

“Trust you completely,” Madd said. Another lie. He didn’t trust him at all. “But I do notice you are wearing several lidded rings. I especially like the skull one.”

“Oh—compartments, you mean? Spices. Pepper. Cardamom. I like having them on hand.”

Magic against poison was tricky. Madd had learned a few spells from his Gran that neutralized the most common ones, but a truly proficient poisoner could defeat all but the most skilled witch. He narrowed his gaze and wondered yet again why Gillja had thought him even remotely suited for this job. The only possible answer was that she didn’t truly fear the Duke meant her harm.

So far, at least, none of his spells had detected danger.

He looked around at the wide assortment of foodstuffs on the tables. “You’re certainly going all out for this little lunch. Is this the usual fare? I’m surprised the Duke isn’t a fatter man.”

Barto laughed. “He’s a vain man, is what he is. Likes to show off at the table. Only the best. He does so for all the ladies, to be sure, but this one… for this lady he ordered the rarest and finest. Dove hearts. Little fish eggs from the east. Scurrian cherries dark as night—”

The cook continued to ramble on, but Madd had stopped listening at the mention of Scurrian cherries. Vorgell talked about the fruit as though they were the favorite treat of the gods. Of all the things Vorgell missed about his native land, the local cherries were top of the list. A quick scan of the table turned up a bright yellow bowl heaped with big, plump cherries of a red so dark they were nearly black. He reached to try one for himself.

A cleaver came down within a hair of his hand and buried itself beside the bowl. Madd snatched his hand back and glared at Barto, who stood over him and was the very picture of fury.

“Thief!”

“It’s a fucking cherry!”

“It’s the Duke’s cherry. Each one cost him as much as a goose egg. Far too fine for the likes of you and me.” Leaving the cleaver, the cook picked up the bowl and moved it across the room, setting it on a pedestal near the window where they could warm to optimal sweetness in the sun, the way his Gran had always done with peaches.

That did it. Madd no longer cared if the cherry tasted like the best damn thing he’d ever put into his mouth. He was going to get some Scurrian cherries. They were… perfect. Beautiful, plump, rare… he could already see in his mind Vorgell’s smile when they were put before him.

“You know,” he complained to Barto, “that wasn’t very nice, calling me a thief.”

“For all I know, you are one.” He was back at his stove, spooning some tiny bits of meat into a sauce. “Thievery is a preferred occupation for a witch.”

“Nothing worse than what dukes do, just not on as large a scale.”

“Pay me for my labor and I shall call you whatever you wish.” Barto lifted a cup and trickled cream into his pan. Whatever he was making required great attention to timing.

Madd cocked an eyebrow. “How about it?” he murmured to Petal. He untied and removed the hood from her pointy head. “Time for you to hunt some rats.”

Petal seized her freedom immediately and leaped from his shoulder to the table, and from there to the floor, where she bounded toward the pantry, leash snaking behind her.

“Basilisk!” Barto screamed. With amazing grace for so fat a man, he jumped onto a chair.

“She excels at escape! Save yourself!” shouted Madd. “I’ll get her!”

“My dove hearts will overcook!”

“Then for the sake of the gods, tend them.”

Madd dove to the floor—though in the opposite direction of the basilisk, but who was paying attention—rolled toward the window, and—as he leaped back onto his feet—pocketed two handfuls of the cherries into the pouch he always carried. They made a bit of a bulge, but… he took another handful. He made another dive and ended up sitting on the floor with his back to the cabinetry, which suited him quite fine. Doing so better concealed how round his pouch had become, and was cooler besides.

Petal emerged from under a cupboard, rat in jaws. The cook, who had scrambled back to the stove to tend his simmering dove hearts, shot her an anxious glare. She darted back under the cupboard with her prey.

“See?” Madd assured him. “Best ratter in Gurgh.” The loop of her leash lay within reach, so he planted his heel on it. “Got her.”

“Don’t make her angry. Not until I am done with my dove hearts and present the Duke and his guest with their lunch.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“At least down there, you are away from the food.”

True. Not that it mattered. Madd waited until Barto was bent over his oven and arms deep in pies before he teased out a cherry and popped it into his mouth. He bit down, the fruit splitting between his teeth, and all the wine heady sweetness of Scur’s short summers burst across his tongue. He closed his eyes with a happy smile.

Damn.

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I enjoy feedback and am always happy to discuss readers’ thoughts or answer any questions.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

WIP Thursday: Thick as Ice, Chapter 4

On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. Last week was a long one (long enough to be a full chapter, so I made it one). This week’s episode is shorter, as Vorgell and Madd accompany Gillja to meet a mysterious suitor.


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Thick as Ice, Chapter 4a


Vorgell adjusted his grip on his Scurrian axe and kept sharp senses on the crowd that parted to let the Baroness Gillja’s palanquin pass. He was skilled at many things, but his immediate task was to walk with the palanquin, heft his weapons, and look like a man ready to lop off heads at a moment’s notice. This he did with ease. Among other things, he knew how to lop off a head and displayed the kind of muscle needed to do it. For this and other reasons, perhaps his fearsome scowl or the basilisk perched upon his shoulder, onlookers took him as a threat and stayed well clear of the Baroness.

Though he preferred bodyguard work to thieving, at which he would be only middling if not for Madd’s magic, and it suited his strengths, the job possessed little stature and he actively disliked some of the men he’d been hired to protect. Scoundrels, most of them. The kind of men who robbed entire kingdoms, siphoned gold from temples, and condemned rich and poor alike to misery through lawmaking and taxes. He’d been tempted to kill a few of them himself, except that to do so as a bodyguard was a dereliction of duty.

Gillja, on the other hand….

The palanquin wobbled to a halt just shy of the wall surrounding the Quarter of Peacocks, wherein they would find their destination, and Madd climbed out. It wouldn’t do for Gillja to pull up at a suitor’s palace and have a man climb out of her conveyance. As soon as said man was out, the group started walking again.

“So, what did the two of you talk about?” Vorgell inquired.

“Moon charms. See the moon there?” A pale silver orb hung just above a purple-flowered tree. “I pulled a little magic into a necklace she’s wearing. My Gran made the necklace originally out of moonsilver. A talisman like that wards off all kinds of spells.”

This seemed unlike Gillja. The fact that she was witchkin was a closely guarded secret. Most of the city’s witchkin, a poor and persecuted lot, were not aware she was one of them. Madd knew, but only because he and Gillja had met and bonded through the late and unlamented Baron Flemgu. Bizarrely, each had helped free the other.

They stopped again, this time facing a gate in the wall. Two immense statues, peacocks gilded and enameled with jewel colors, stood to either side of the passage and arched graceful necks toward each other, their dipping heads forming the shape of a heart. The gate looked very loving, but Vorgell had never been able to make sense of it: from what he’d seen, most denizens of the Quarter of Peacocks were quite murderous. That included the guards.

He gave the two who scrutinized the palanquin his most menacing glare and they moved to the next visitor.

Ahead, just around the corner of a much smaller dwelling, loomed the palace of Duke Abiddes. Vorgell frowned.

“I don’t like it,” he said. It was only the truth. The palace was constructed all of black marble and was certain to be oppressively hot. The sinister aspect was not helped at all by displays of grotesque statuary. The stone dragon crouched atop the steps was twisted, its spine distorted as if it had been broken and its feet balled with malignant growths.

Petal craned her neck and stared at it.

“Give up. It’s already stone,” Madd said. His dark eyes scanned the entry for signs of wards.

Guards and a man appeared atop the steps. Like his palace, he was sturdy and dark, with black hair, a pointed beard on his chin, and eyes so cold they concealed all trace of his soul. When he walked to the bottom step, they could see he was also short. Pleased, Vorgell ever so lightly tightened his grip on the axe. For a short man to look up at him, the man must expose his throat.

The palanquin’s curtain moved aside and Gillja stepped out. Vorgell noticed that she did so artfully, extending a long and beautifully-shaped leg before angling out her lovely body and letting slip the veil from her waterfall of sun bright hair. No Sun Virgin could have been more stunning—and Vorgell had his pick of those when it came to bodyguard duties.

“My Lady,” the Duke murmured, taking her hand in his and lifting it to his lips.

“You wanted me to see your house. I am here with my escort.”

The Duke’s gaze swept the two men who were clearly not dressed in her livery. “We agreed there would be no wizards. The one looks like he could be a witch.”

Madd’s heritage was rather obvious. Only Gillja’s was not. “He is trusted.”

“Not by me. He cannot join us”—Abiddes held up his hand to indicate he had more to say—“but he can remain with the staff. In the kitchen, perhaps? To oversee your meal?”

Vorgell caught Madd’s narrowed gaze and understood. If Abiddes’ kitchen staff were not careful, the Duke would find himself plagued by the Blistering Trots. Doing so would require a bit of magic, of course. Perhaps, before the fine folk moved to the drawing room, Madd might find some way for the two of them to spend a few minutes alone. Vorgell’s cock plumped at the thought and he flexed his thighs to create some ease in his loincloth.

It took him a moment to refocus his attention on the conversation.

“… cannot possibly keep that axe. It’s too… serious a weapon.”

“A sword, surely.”

Abiddes perused Vorgell’s sword. “Too much longer than those of my guards.”

“Then we shall rid all of them of their swords.”

“There’s the small matter of the basilisk…”

She shook her head. “We negotiated this already. It will accompany the other to the kitchen. There only your cooks risk being turned to stone if they threaten the witch.”

“Which of course I would never do.”

“Of course not. It’s but a safeguard.”

“Which leaves us only with him to consider,” said the Duke. He and Gillja slowly ascended the stairs as they conducted their negotiation. Vorgell and Madd, and the guards, followed. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but he is much larger than any of my guards.”

“I like that about him. And I will not be without a chaperone. Would you feel more comfortable if I say you can have two guards… and I have but this one?”

The Duke stroked his neat little beard. “My two on one side of the room, him on the other?”

Gillja smiled and placed her hand on his arm. “And me with you on a lounge in the center of the room, yours for the rest of the morning.”

He smiled to show his fashionably pointed teeth. “Would I could halt the sun.”

Vorgell didn’t like the sound of that. But when the Duke’s man came to take away his axe and sword, he handed them over.

And when Madd walked off with Petal on his shoulder and one of the guards leading the way toward the kitchen, Vorgell knew he’d have to do better than flex his thighs if he was to banish his stiff cock. He thought of the least pleasing human he knew—the old witch Ibeena—and prayed the Duke did not collect erotic statuary.

If that did not work, he risked sporting an dangerous weapon.

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I enjoy feedback and am always happy to discuss readers’ thoughts or answer any questions. Oh, and here is the adorable character my husband got for me at GenCon. 

Not quite a Vorgell action figure, but it does have blond hair and a cute little dragon! 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

WIP Thursday: Thick as Ice, Chapter 3

On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week, Madd and Vorgell don’t talk about last night—and are asked to perform a service for a friend.


And here is a picture from GenCon, where I met with Lexi Ander, one of my favorite authors! Fan girl!

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Thick as Ice, Chapter 3


Crash! A muffled grunt pierced the fog of Madd’s sleep. The next crash was louder.

He bolted upright in bed and groped for his knife, realizing at once he was in the wrong fucking bed. His bed would have had a knife sheathed in the corner of the mattress. This bed—this big bed—was Vorgell’s. And without Vorgell in it. He jumped the space between the beds and immediately found the hilt of his blade.

A shadow barreled across the opening of the alcove, followed by what sounded like the copper wash basin clanging to the floor. Hissing followed. Madd crawled to the foot of the bed and peered into the main room. Anytime there was Vorgell and a basilisk involved in a fight, it was smartest to stay out of the scuffle.

After several grunts and a yell, there was silence.

“Vorgell?” Madd’s short blade glinted in the spare light.

“Unharmed. But I could use some help with the burglar.”

“Another one?” Madd laid his knife on the bed and emerged from the shadows. “What do we have to do to stop these roof rats? Walk up and down the street hollering we have a basilisk standing guard?”

Just enough starlight filtered through the window to show Vorgell’s pale, nude form clearly. The big man grasped a gray unmoving figure, no doubt the burglar, by out-flung stiff arms. Crouched on the shelf above the unused hearth, Petal arched her back and grumbled warnings. While Vorgell lifted the petrified burglar’s torso, Madd stooped to help with the legs.

“At least he’s not as heavy as the last one,” Madd said. Together they carried the unbending fellow to the window and tipped him over. A resounding splash in the river below announced the invader’s final resting place. Madd leaned through the window and peered down at the disturbed water. “We have a problem. I think I see a hand.”

Vorgell grunted and sank onto the banked cushions of their cozy settee. “As soon as there’s a bit of light, I’ll go down and haul him over so he doesn’t show.”

“You had to do that last time, too. How many thieves does this one make? Nine? They’re piling up down there. It’s the dead of summer. What if the river dries up?” There were always fisher folk about. Someone would notice if stony hands or heads started poking above the water line. And if anyone summoned Tagard’s Night Men….

“Stop worrying.” Vorgell’s teeth flashed through a grin. “Join me and let’s continue our snuggle.”

Madd sighed. Was the man serious? Because he knew the answer to that, he walked over and plopped onto the cushions. “I think we should move.”

Vorgell’s warm arm looped around his shoulders and tugged him close. “But I like this house. It’s private and hard to reach. Only nine burglars have made it in.”

“That we know of.”

“Yes. And it’s good fortune that when neither we nor Petal are here, neither is our treasure.” Soft predawn light had begun to fill the east-facing window. A glance at Vorgell’s face revealed a frown. “I have been thinking.”

That was never good. Madd suppressed another sigh.

“I think we need to find a good location and undertake the gathering of a hoard.”

A hoard? “You mean… like a dragon’s hoard?”

“Perhaps not so much as that.”

“Good. Because we’re not that good at thieving and I don’t care how fierce Petal is, she’s not a dragon.” He could swear the basilisk squinted at him. The pink glow of reflected dawn in her faceted eyes matched the rosy feathers of her crest and tufted tail.

“Have you ever seen a dragon?”

“No,” he admitted. “But I have seen a dragon’s egg, and the one she hatched from didn’t look at all like one of those. Even your mighty sinews would have trouble carting one of those around.”

Vorgell appeared to ponder that as he stretched, displaying his broad hairy chest and taut, muscled belly. The basilisk, seeing an opportunity, leaped to the window ledge and scampered from there to the floor, then up onto her favorite human, where she nestled into the fur on Vorgell’s chest and chittered for attention. Vorgell immediately set to scratching the beast. Madd belatedly realized his own naked state. Not only was he not nearly as impressive as his companion, his cock was sticking to his thigh, and—yes, he ascertained upon tightening his ass cheeks—he really had done what his half-pickled mind remembered. For the first time since escaping from Flemgu, a man had played with his ass. And afterward he’d made a damn fool of himself by crying in Vorgell’s arms.

All because his idiot ass couldn’t tell the difference between Vorgell’s fingers and Flemgu’s prick.

He came back to his senses when Petal sneezed and basilisk snot speckled his right arm. He wiped at it with disgust.

“You’re still trying to kill me, aren’t you?” Maybe she had gotten used to hearing his heartbeat while her unborn body served as the magical lock on the love collar Flemgu had forced him to wear, but he was convinced she’d never forgiven him for her imprisonment.

Snot aside, at least they’d reached a kind of truce. He didn’t interfere with her scratching sessions with Vorgell and she didn’t interfere when he and Vorgell had sex. There’d been considerable risk at first. Seeing him pound his cock into Vorgell’s ass could be mistaken for an attack. No doubt Petal would rejoice if it was the other way around.

Noticing something, he took another, closer look. If he wasn’t mistaken… yes, Petal looked bigger than just the night before. He reached over to run his hand down Petal’s feathered crest and spine. Her scaly body felt softer, the skin not as dry. “I’ll be cursed. She shed her skin again.”

He got down on hands and knees on the floor and began searching.

“Good girl.” Vorgell’s deep voice thrummed with amusement. To Madd, he said, “You look fetching in that position.”

“Screw you. I’m going to trade this one for more Sunless potion. You go through more of that than I do mead!”

Where was the damn skin? It would be just their luck if in the fight either Vorgell or the burglar had reduced the delicate shed to bits and pieces. Finally, on the floor just underneath the window, he found a translucent husk still shaped more or less like a young basilisk but flayed open at the belly. Coin in the purse!

Madd snatched it up. Basilisk skins were eagerly sought by the very witches he most needed to trade with. He returned to the cushions and sat beside Vorgell again. While there, he reached out to gently scratch the bumps atop Petal’s shoulder blades, prompting the creature’s eyes to close and its throat to rumble. Vorgell wasn’t the only one who knew how to scratch a basilisk.

“You haven’t said anything.” He craned his neck. Vorgell opened one eye.

“Not all things need saying.”

Madd nodded. A nod in this case said as much as words. He was thankful Vorgell didn’t want to talk about last night. Things were better this way.

Vorgell was better this way. In the early days of their acquaintance, the barbarian had required explanations. Now… they had settled into each other, like well-worn leather boots that had molded skin to skin. Easy and free from blisters. Like now. Their silence held as many comforts as compromises.

“Let’s dress,” Vorgell said a few minutes later, after Petal had had enough of them both and scooted off to hunt. “The sun rides into a new day and we have a burglar to conceal from the fisher folk!”

By the time Madd had pissed, scrubbed his teeth, and used the last of the water in the pitcher to wash every bare inch, Vorgell had already left. Finding him again would be easy. He’d be down by the water, having probably given the visible part of the burglar a shove, and singing one of his Scurrian ballads full of unpronounceable names while wielding a sponge. It had taken months of refusing to suck the big man’s cock until he’d bathed, but Madd had finally persuaded Vorgell that frequent bathing was a good thing. If more bathing meant more sex, Vorgell was all for it.

After donning lightweight trousers and a loose linen shirt, Madd picked up his fancy clothes from the night before. He might as well air them before he put them away. Fine men wore fine clothes, and he’d paid top coin for these. Too bad wearing quality never did a thing for him; all he got for his trouble was to attract the wrong kind of man. Vorgell didn’t care what the fuck he wore, or if he wore any clothes at all.

Hearing a baritone bellow of song through the window, Madd laughed. Summer days in Gurgh were hot and brutal, and Vorgell would just as soon wear nothing more than short leggings, a swordbelt, and yards of sweat-slick, sun-kissed skin. If not for Madd’s constant applications of magical Sunless potion, the crazy oaf would be redder than the damn rubies he’d hidden within one of the hearthstones. Before leaving, he folded the shed basilisk skin and tucked it into the pouch in his waistband.

Madd closed the door behind him and whispered into the spell lock, then jogged down the steps and took a turn through the garden toward the river.

The morning was mercifully young and heavy mist still clung to riverbank as he followed a burdock-lined track that led to the water’s edge. As Madd had expected, Vorgell had finished bathing and now occupied his favorite fishing spot. The big man sat upon a part of a crumbling jetty that still lifted its crumbling stones above the waterline. What Madd hadn’t expected was to see him talking with Reannry.

When Vorgell lifted his head and acknowledged Madd with a smile, Reannry turned. Her lips remained still and her gaze level, betraying no sign of what she thought. Madd was convinced she disliked him. Most witches did.

“Don’t talk too loudly,” Vorgell said as he pulled in his line, displaying a fat worm on the hook, and tossed it out again. “You’ll scare the fish.”

“Not a problem,” Madd mumbled. “Loud noises make my head hurt.” At the moment, he hated everything from sunlight to the damned chirping birds. He closed his eyes, grateful for the peaceful soft slap of the river against old stone.

“We were drinking last night,” Vorgell explained.

The explanation was hardly necessary. If anyone understood their penchant for drink, it was Reannry. One moonlit night, after a round or several of drinks with Tagard and hearing the thief king lament his longing for a female to woo, they’d dragged him to Reannry’s house and encouraged him to subject her to bawdy ballads and bad poetry. Even Vorgell, who she liked, hadn’t quite been forgiven.

“I was telling Vorgell that Gillja wished the both of you to escort her on an outing today in the city—if you are available.” Even when merely delivering messages, Reannry managed to sound annoyingly pert. Madd thought her confidence stemmed from her being Baroness Gillja Hargold’s half-sister… and a powerful witch.

At least Reannry was talking to him directly. That wasn’t always the case. Madd opened one eye to show her he was paying attention.

“She’s visiting a nobleman in the Nightingale Quarter,” Reannry embellished. “Marriage negotiations.”

“Marriage?” That didn’t sound right. Still, Gillja had been widowed for nine months, which was long enough to satisfy suitors she would not burden a new husband with Flemgu’s progeny.

“I told her it was too soon.”

Which could only mean the man was powerful or good-looking—or that Gillja had some other reason. Madd shrugged. He didn’t particularly care what the people who hired him were up to. It was just that he actually liked Gillja. For all that she’d been Flemgu’s wife, the woman had been just as much a prisoner. During his time with the baron, Gillja alone had ever treated him well. She and Vorgell were the only two people he could honestly say he trusted.

“She has her guards, of course, but”—Reannry glanced over at the man doggedly throwing his line back into the river—“Vorgell has a more fearsome reputation.”

No wonder. In the last few months, Vorgell had slain three assassins and simply maimed a mercenary as a matter of professional consideration.

Madd frowned. “We were planning to rest today. Look at Vorgell. The man’s fishing. He’s too tired to look fearsome.” In fact, Vorgell looked surpassingly alert for someone who was making a show of paying no attention to Reannry and her proposal at all.

“If Gillja can accomplish her mission by midsun, the remainder of the day will be yours to do with as you please.”

How convenient. How delivered with just the right pretense of including him in the decision. It was just the kind of job Vorgell would agree to—and then cajole Reannry to make it appear Madd ’s involvement mattered. Either it was a ploy to spare his feelings, or protective Vorgell thought it necessary to keep an eye on him. Either reason smarted.

“Sure. Why not? By any chance did Gillja ask for me too?”

“She did.” Reannry answered readily enough to surprise him. “She wants Vorgell for appearances and you for glamour.”

That part rang true. Madd often used spells that concealed him from people or made him less visible in certain situations. Such magic was simple, though few witchkin males could collect enough magic to work it. He had never revealed to anyone how he did so—not out of any shame for his sexual preferences, but because knowledge of how he acquired magic would endanger Vorgell. Gurgh’s witches—and wizards—would go to any length needed to gain access to a reservoir of unicorn magic.

“We’ll be there. Give us an hour.” It might take that long for his friend to catch a fish.

Tagard appeared on the path just as Reannry was leaving. They nodded to each other, but that was the extent of their greeting. Despite his and Vorgell’s drunken effort, the two witchkin had never hit it off. It was just as well. Tagard wanted to associate as little as possible with witch Circles—and Reannry ranked high in the Circle of Stones.

“What did she want?” Tagard asked. An early riser like Vorgell, he had probably been awake since the crack of dawn.

“A job. Protecting Gillja.”

“Good to see the both of you are accepting worthwhile work.” Tagard was one of the handful of people in Gurgh who knew Gillja Hargold, Baroness of Stormfell, was of full witchkin blood. Witchkin aristocracy was older even than that of Gurgh’s highest lords, but most witch blood had been purged from the current ruling lineages. Protecting what witchkin royalty remained was something of a priority. “You have something for me?”

A distant gonging from the city at their back announced that dawn’s first light had touched the golden dome of the Sun Temple. Madd fished inside his waistband pouch to retrieve two rubies he’d held aside. He found them under the basilisk skin. He noticed the way Vorgell looked up, alert, as he handed the gems to Tagard. “Your fair share. The big one for the phoenix net and the other for percentage.” To Tagard’s lifted eyebrow, he added, “I gave you the biggest ones!”

The man laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Where would we be without trust, eh?” He tucked the gems into his belt and looked out into the misty distance. It was too early yet for other denizens of Thieves Wart to be rising, though there would be a few stumbling toward home. “I like morning. Morning reveals the seasons. It smells like summer’s passing.”

“Oak leaves are darker now. Maples, too.” Madd had spent time enough in the countryside, first with his mother and then his Gran, learning the nature lore of his kind. Summer was still high, but turning old.

“Coming up on the end of your debt. Yours—and his.” Tagard’s observation sounded casual, but of course it wasn’t.

“That’s a good thing. Doesn’t mean we can’t do business with you still.”

“Be a shame to cut the two of you out of the best jobs.”

“Maybe one or two of those jobs could somehow find their way to us.” He knew he could provoke Tagard a little, though only so far. “We’d pay a tithe. Just like all the other thieves.”

Tagard nodded. He might not like that two of his most accomplished minions would soon be striking out on their own, but the loss was made more palatable by knowing Vorgell and Madd would respect his dominion. There was plenty of wealth for all. His real interest was in controlling the distribution as a means of staving off territorial conflict. Thieves preying on and stabbing each other instead of fat lords and heavy-pursed merchants was not in the best interests of his profession.

Madd saw no point in telling Tagard about the nine petrified corpses lurking at the bottom of the river just on the other side of a bank of rushes.

“Stay in touch,” Tagard warned. He sniffed the air. Madd wondered what he hoped to find, considering the wind was blowing downstream. “Something’s afoot. Too much coin on the move. I’d appreciate it if you come to me with anything you learn while doing your little favor for the Baroness.”

“Hah!” Vorgell gave a great yell and jerked on his line. A long, plump whiskerfish flew up out of the water on his line and he grabbed it in his fist. “Breakfast!”

Tagard lifted an eyebrow. “He’s pretty good at that.”

“Yeah. Raised by bears, I think.” Madd cocked a grin at Tagard. “We’re not going to eat that scaly thing. We’re going to take it to the fishmonger at the end of Crooked Alley and get coin. Then we’ll use the coin to buy sticky knuckles from Old Lady Basket, under the big mulberry tree.”

“Part of the local economy, then.”

“We do our part.” Madd figured Vorgell’s appetite for sticky knuckles kept a roof over the old woman’s head. And he knew as well as anyone Tagard’s witchkin penchant for looking after the welfare of Thieves Wart’s aged mothers.

Nearby bulrushes rustled. Umbels of brown seed pods clacked. A pointy nose, two nostrils, and a scaly green head poked out of the tangled plants. A rat’s tail dangled from Petal’s beak. Tagard turned his back on them and repeated, “Stay in touch” before walking quietly away.

“Nice work, making him move on.” Madd could almost believe the basilisk did these things on purpose. He looked over to see Vorgell striding surely along the toppled remains of the jetty, fish firmly in hand.

“Come along, little mage. I have a fat fish to sell and a belly to fill, with no time to lose! Reannry said Gillja wants us by second bell.”

“Second bell! Seriously?” How long had it been since he’d heard first bell? Madd hunched when Petal sprang onto his back, using his body to launch herself onto Vorgell’s passing bulk. He glared at the impudent creature now perched on his friend’s broad shoulders. Did no one respect his dignity?

Resigned, he quickened his pace until he walked at Vorgell’s side. At least the wily barbarian was respecting that they were to call upon nobility, because he was wearing both trousers and a shirt—and three weapons.

(to be continued...)

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I enjoy feedback and am always happy to discuss readers’ thoughts or answer any questions. The foundation is set. Time to move into the meat of the story.