“You’re going to murder Lady Inara,” she said, not taking her eyes off the keep. “You’re from Canton, aren’t you?”
“What?” Peter sounded shocked and… there was something else besides shock in his voice. It was a dangerous tone.
“Is it true, Peter? Did you come from Canton’s Song?”
She looked at him now, her gray eyes finding his green ones. Even now she wanted to give in, to go with him. If she did, the keep would be hers. If she kept following… The Path of Kings is long and full of pain.
“Yes,” he said warily and frowned. “But I was just a boy, exchanged as good will by Lord Canton to the Lady and her knights. She didn’t care though and hung the messenger who brought me. She didn’t hang me but gave me to Sir Corgan.” He looked at her, wary. “Why do you ask?”
“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered. “Peter, I know… I… I know.”
His body went stiff in her hands and his eyes looked suddenly wary, like a rabbit who has spotted the wolf. They changed then, almost as quickly, into the wolf instead and Skyah took a step back. She tried to step back, rather, but the wall of the inn was there. There was nowhere to run from that gaze. His jaw tightened and his hands dug into her forearms. She squirmed.
“I…” he stuttered and dropped his hands. He looked back towards stable yard, and then towards the inn. She was afraid he would leave her, and she made to touch his arm, clutch at his gambeson. He was sweating and the smell of him filled her head. Don’t go, she pleaded silently. Peter, turn away from this!
“Please,” she whispered. “Peter, no one knows… you can, you can walk away.”
“Can I? Truly?” he said, still not looking at her. She nodded, though he couldn’t see.
“Yes! Please, come here, come with me.”
She held out her arms to him.
He turned back. A wince cut his features but he slid between her arms. She pulled him close to her, arms close around him. His hands cupped her chin and his lips found hers. She closed her eyes. I’ve done it, she thought, holding him tightly. I’ve saved him. The dream of the thrones came to her again, and the little girl that was not hers. The Path of Kings, the shadow said. What will not be. The widow’s walk, Peter’s embrace, his kiss, his love all flooded into her mind. It was a True Dream, can I really save him?
She wanted to believe she could and clutched him tighter. Please Peter, stay with me! She would give herself up to him if it meant he would stay, that he would not go and hurt Lady Inara. Do I love you? The idea seemed reckless, but she felt love reckless. “You will know love, one day,” Henric had told her. Is this what love is? This heat? This… wanting?
“Peter,” she whispered, the kiss breaking. His hands were beneath her tunic and she felt her wrappings pulled away. Rough-skinned palms and fingertips touched her, painfully at first but then gentler, more careful. She gasped, her fingers gripping his dark hair. “Stay,” she pleaded. “Take me somewhere and stay.”
He pulled back, his hands sliding down her sides. It made her shiver and her eyes closed. When he spoke, his voice seemed pained and wet. He might have been crying, but she could not bear to open her eyes and see.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Forgive me, some day.”
“Peter–” she said, her eyes snapping open. Pain struck her in the side of the head and stars exploded in her eyes. Her limbs went all to water and she fell. As she slipped into blackness, she felt herself being lowered to the ground with careful arms. Peter’s voice whispering something in her ear, something she heard but never understood.
“Are you all right, sir?” The voice was a boy’s, a young boy’s. It sounded so far away in the darkness. She felt someone shaking her, but for a time all she heard was the voice. Slowly, as if waking from some slow, meandering dream, she clawed her way to wakefulness. Her eyes fluttered open, the sunlight bright and painful. Standing over her was the stable boy, Pate.
“I heard a noise, sir squire, came to see,” he said. “Someone hit ya with this I think? Or ya fell on it.” He held up a rock for her to see. She couldn’t imagine why someone would hit her with a rock. Or had she fallen? Where was she? She turned her head but saw only the mud and brick of a wall, the sunlight of a yard, and wooden slatterns of a stable. She was in an alleyway. Peter had kissed her in that alley. Peter had…
Peter had hit her in the head with a rock. The realization made her sit up so fast that her head swam and she groaned, falling back down as another explosion of stars danced across her vision. It took a few more moments for them to clear, and when they did Pate still sat over her, crouched on his heels, his good arm wrapped around skinny knees, his deformed arm clutched against his chest.
“I’d go see the Thane, sir, uh squire but I ain’t know where he is,” Pate said, shrugging bony shoulders. “The Lady keeps one, up in the castle, but he don’t come down for the likes of us.”
Lady Inara! It all flooded back to her in that instant. Peter taking the coins with a flashing grin, Peter talking to the man in the brothel with the scarred-face and that same man again in the stable. They were going to murder Lady Inara and no one knew it but her.
Skyah stood on shaky legs. The straps that she had worn around her breasts were loose and she reached beneath her tunic and ripped them away. Pate stared at her, his large brown eyes even larger as they widened.
“You’s a girl!” he said.
“I’m a squire,” Skyah told him and blinked away the last of the stars floating in her eye sight. “There is a chestnut in there named Dogger, my horse.”
“I remember, I always remember horses sir, err… my lady.”
“Squire,” she said and exhaled a held breath. “I need him saddled and barded with any spare leather. Do you know how to bard a horse?”
The boy smiled faintly. “Yes uh… Squire, I was a paige to me Da once, but he died and no other knight would take me on account of this hand.” He held up his thin and deformed left arm. “Don’t work so good, but I can bard your horse.”
“Well,” Skyah said and put a hand on his shoulder like Sir Henric always did when he’d done something good. “You’ll be helping your Lady out today if you bard Dogger.”
Retrieving her armor, Sky re-buckled the gambeson, retrieved her mail and helm and grabbed up her quarterstaff. She rushed up the stairs to her room, hoping to find Sir Henric, but found no trace of him. He wasn’t in the common room either when she looked in through the window. He wouldn’t believe me anyway.
Pate was laying thick leather wraps across Dogger’s middle and cinching the saddle straps tight when he walked in. The horse stood perfectly still, his head high and nostrils flaring. Skyah stroked his nose and neck but spoke no words to the horse. The two of them had a silent partnership. There was no need of comforting words for Dogger to understand her. The animal simply… knew, without words. “Dragon’s blood,” Sir Henric had spat when Skyah had asked him about it. “They say the Witch Queen can talk to animals and see with their eyes. Unnatural things.” She never spoke of it again to him.
The boy was good at his job and finished quickly. The barding was crude made mostly of unfinished saddling leather but it would turn aside a weak blow. Skyah helped him finish, making the straps tight and securing her helm to the saddle. Horns shouted in the distance.
“The Lady’s coming down from the Keep,” the boy said with a smile. “It’s her Crowning Day ya know. Raised from common folk like us, she was.”
“What raised her to nobility?” Skyah felt the need to know as she cinched the last strap. “What did she do?”
“The women raised her,” he said. “She ousted the old ruler with them women from the Peaks. He used to take one every month and rape her public-like. She put an end to it. If you take my meanin.” The boy put a finger across his throat and Skyah nodded.
“You know a lot for a stable boy,” she said with a small smile she couldn’t help but show.
Pate shrugged. “I hear things, people talk like I’m invisible and such.”
Be invisible. Skyah knew exactly what he meant.
Dogger was armored and saddled with such efficiency that Skyah was impressed. The boy had been faster and more attentive than she had ever been with Sir Henric’s horse. He would have made a good squire, had his arm not been deformed. She told him as much when she mounted and took up her staff from where it leaned against the wall.
“Thank you,” the boy said, his smile a little shy. He had his head down, looking at the hay. “Beggin yer pardon but… well…”
“What is it?” Skyah asked, sorry the boy was so flustered with her. She was only a squire, not a knight to be stuttering over.
“If’n it be okay I…want to go with you.”
The boy was backing away as Skyah wheeled Dogger around. She frowned at him and Pate looked suddenly afraid, like she might draw that sword and use it on him. She looked at him, a skinny boy with a deformed arm and no shoes. He could care for a horse but what good would he be against Peter or the scar-faced man? Skyah doubted she would be any good against them.
“Your place is here,” she said, trying to sound reasonable. “Tell Sir Henric where I’ve gone.”
The boy ducked off to the side and rummaged in the hay for a moment, returning with a wooden shield. Round and almost as tall as he was, the shield bore a House sigil that she didn’t know. A golden harp sat across a green field. “My Da’s shield,” Pate said. “I took it when they brought his body back. I can help!”
The look on his face was so desperate that she almost said yes. She could use some help, but how could she endanger this boy? He’d be killed, and for what? Surely it was a noble cause, a worthy cause but… he was just a boy. And you are just a girl, she thought and her face burned red. She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, Pate.”
“But I can help you!” he cried. The boy hefted the shield and his claw-like hand seemed to twitch and curl in on his chest. He held it with his other hand. “People don’t look at me like you do,” he said. “You know, like I’m a person. Women do sometimes. Like me own mother used to before she… she died. I want to help you, sir, Squire, my lady. Please!”
Sympathy welled in her then and she bit her lip.
“My father’s name was Pate,” she said and for the first time, believed it. The gods, all three of them, had not mattered much to Skyah as she was growing up. There had been priests and wisewomen who told her all the stories about how the Fates worked, how the Weaver wove the strands of your life, the Judge picked which ones you deserved and the Destroyer cut them at their ends, but she’d never really believed it. Somehow, this boy having that name made her believe just a little. She smiled.
“Take me with you, Sir, my lady,” the boy said, his voice pleading. “Ain’t nothing here but this war you see? I… I can be a good Squire again, you see how I do with horses? I can clean your armor too! I do good with those, everybody says so.” He was shifting his weight, keeping the shield steady in front of him.
“I can fight, watch your back! Please Sir, my lady?”
Skyah rode Dogger close and sighed. “I’m only a squire, but if I ever become a knight, I’ll come back for you, I promise.” They were both looked down on, ignored, invisible. She would prove that otherwise today, and if she could, she’d give Pate that same chance. But not today.