Chapter Five: The Boredom of the Scarlet Rat

Mikey sat at the very top of a tall peaked roof, very still so she wouldn't knock any tiles loose or fall. From here she could see most of her city laid out before her like bright jewels spilled out on a picnic cloth. Kor Opan was the capital city of the Divine Kingdom. It was called the Divine Kingdom because people believed its king was actually descended from the Sun God. Mikey was pretty sure that wasn't the case since she knew the king was an earnest young man with a penchant for trouble. Very few people believed that Mikey and the king were friends, since Mikey was a thief and the king was, well, the king. But then again, those same people believed Mikey was in fact a young man. She kept her true nature a carefully hidden secret since the Thieves Guild didn't accept women into their upper ranks. The best a woman could hope for was to be trained as a pickpocket or a lookout for large operations. And the lookout role usually included being a whore. The worst a woman could expect involved being a whore, but also a slave; mere property to be used and discarded with the trash.

Mikey knew from her earliest years that she was meant for something great. Her father's uncle was the greatest thief in the history of the guild, which automatically placed her family in the precarious position of being admired and expected to continue performing at an elevated level of skill. Her father had always been disappointed that he had no son to follow in his footsteps, but he had loved his daughter to the point of violating guild law by teaching her the trade. By the time she was nine years old, Mikey could creep unseen into any building in the city and could lift the purse of anyone she passed on the street. It would have been a promising start to an illustrious career, if only she had been a male child she could have displayed her skills and her father would have basked in the admiration of the entire guild.

She still remembered the proud look on her father's face as she learned the trade. His pride lasted until the day he died, killed by the city guards after someone called them while her father was stealing the Emerald Crown from the wealthy merchant Zavius Gray. Mikey was still hunting the thief that had turned traitor to the guild and made himself responsible for the death of her father. Thus far, she had little to go on; there had only been the girl standing lookout that night as a witness. She had told Mikey later that she had turned a trick early that evening for a man who'd muttered something about getting vengeance on a tradesman that had gotten an advancement the man felt was his by right. She hadn't thought anything of it, since there were many men in the city who felt they'd been denied some great fortune by another. But then she had seen the same man talking to a city guard shortly before the guards brought an end to Mikey's father and his caper. She said the man's name was Karson. Not a lot to go on without a description of the man, and that was beyond the girl's ability to provide. All she'd told Mikey was that he was average; average height and weight, brown hair and eyes. There was nothing to distinguish him, except perhaps that he'd been slighted by Mikey's father at some point.

Her mother was dead long before that fateful night. Mikey barely remembered her, only dim images of a pretty woman with flowing dark hair and a face that could easily flash from anger to laughter. On the night that her father died on the sword of a city guard, Mikey became at once the head of the greatest family of thieves in the city of Kor Opan and an orphan. She smirked briefly at the thought of being the head of the family, since she was the family. The Guild now thought the Bartolli family was dead and gone, a mere memory, or a Guild legend. They forgot the existence of Michaelina Bartolli, since women were of little importance when it came to the Thieves Guild. Mikey didn't mind that at all, since it kept people from looking into her past, made it easier to pretend to be a young man of no family or prospects who just happened to have an uncanny ability as a thief. So Michaelina disappeared into the darkness of memory and Mikey the Scarlet Rat rose to fame in the very Guild that had scorned Michaelina.

Mikey pulled her attention back from memories of the past and focused on the task at hand. She had one goal left now to claim the title of greatest thief in the history of the Guild; she needed to steal the Emerald Crown that had cost her father his life. The house she perched on was across the water from the Gray Manse, home to the merchant family that had held the greatest treasures of Kor Opan outside the royal family. The estate occupied a small island in the middle of the Serpent River on the Eastern edge of the city in imitation of the Royal Palace that occupied a larger island in the river on the Western edge.

Mikey spent hours each week sitting up on rooftops near the Gray Manse, studying the patterns of guards and other activity. She was getting near the point where she would feel comfortable enough to try to explore the inside of the estate. She had already explored the walls, and a small amount of the interior grounds. All that was left for her at this point was the inner buildings to discover the whereabouts of the treasure vault. Once she had that information, she could make her attempt. She finally permitted herself to notice the stiffness in her legs and back, the chill seeping through her gloves and up her arms. The evening had deepened and brought a chill breeze down from the North. Mikey told herself she had seen enough for this night, time to go down and find a mug of something tasty enough to kill the poor taste of the inn's attempt at cooking.

She rose, turned to her right, and slid down the roof tiles in a single graceful movement that belied any muscle stiffness or chill. As she neared the edge of the roof she launched herself out into empty air, back arched like the spine of her slender sword, then tightened suddenly into a flip that gained her a few extra feet of distance. Her outstretched hands found the flagpole that extended out from the counting house beside the manor house that was her favorite perch. She used the pole to lose some of her momentum, and then flipped into the air in a new direction toward the alleyway beyond the counting house. She caught the edge of a stone railing on the next house for an instant, listening for sounds of alarm or pursuit. A thief's life can be a nervous one, at least for thieves that survived.

Satisfied that she was clear of danger, Mikey dropped lightly to the cobblestones below and ducked fluidly into a shadow. She was startled to collide with a warm body in the shadow instead of the brick wall she expected. She whirled, attempting to draw her dagger only to feel a heavy hand clapped to hers effectively blocking the dagger.

"No need for blades yet," a warm voice said in her ear. She relaxed immediately, recognizing the voice.

"Unless you keep your hand where it is," she answered with mock ferocity. The man chuckled softly, released her dagger hand and stepped away with a bow.

"Your highness," he said lightly as he bowed to her.

"Your Majesty," Mikey said with a short bow of her own. The man was her friend and favorite companion, though she was surprised that he was here. He went by the name Dobb when he roamed the streets with her looking for trouble. Well, they actually tried to avoid trouble, but it usually found them anyway. Mikey punched his arm after they'd had their laughs.

"You are getting better with your stealth," she told him. "I was going to stick you that time."

"Well I'm glad you told me it was because I surprised you, then," Dobb answered. "Else my feelings might have been hurt."

"And your ribs," Mikey said with a laugh. Dobb smiled at her.

"Only if I let you stick me with that tiny little blade you call a dagger."

"So you think you could stop me?" Mikey flashed the blade out of its hidden sheath and held it out in front of her. Dobb raised his eyebrows and quirked that half smile of his that she liked so well.

"Stop you? Probably not, but we would have died together then," he flicked his eyes downward and she followed the gaze to see his dagger held low and pointed almost in her direction. She considered it a moment and then replaced her own blade in its normal concealment.

"I take it you weren't really sure it was me? Or did you want to…play?" Mikey asked archly. Dobb laughed loudly this time.

"Ah, no," he answered. "Any man fool enough to ‘play' with you deserves to be cut."

"You have learned wisdom, haven't you," she said with a smile. "I would be quite willing to give you a matching scar, you know. Only half price, seeing that you are a friend and all." The first time they'd met, he'd been foolish enough to try her blade and had been left with a six-inch gash across his right side as a lesson. She still wasn't sure why he had worked so hard to become her friend after that encounter. She was pretty sure that her secret was safe, but she sometimes thought that Dobb was interested in the slender man as she was pretending to be.

"Actually it wasn't hard to be here waiting you know," he said quietly. Mikey bit back a quip as she could see honest concern in his blue eyes. "Anyone who walks these streets in the early evening might be lucky enough to see you descend from your perch. Though the first time I saw it I thought for sure that the Rat was seeking some cheese in the counting house."

"A chance sighting doesn't concern me overly," she said.

"This wasn't my first sighting," he told her with a hard look in his eye now. "Nor the second or even the third. I've seen you enough times to know precisely which shadow you favor when you land and to be here waiting for you. I've seen others that appeared to be watching this spot on other nights. You are getting careless."

Mikey was silent a long moment, anger fighting with embarrassment. Dobb went on, speaking more softly and leaning closer, "tonight my blade found another pretending to be one of your thieves." Mikey was surprised again.

"Who was he? Could you tell?"

"Beneath the rags he wore the gold and blue of the Citadel Guards" Dobb whispered. Mikey swallowed hard, the Citadel Guards were tough experienced soldiers and they were responsible for dealing with threats to the King.

"Then the… King will be irritated that you killed one of his men?" Mikey said finally. Dobb shook his head.

"He was no one I've seen before, and I know all the men in the Citadel Guards. If I don't know him, he's a spy." Mikey thought on that for a minute longer, and then slapped Dobb's shoulder again.

"Let's not brood on it, or at least let's go find some ale and food to fuel our brooding if brood we must," Mikey said and turned to walk down the alley. Dobb snorted amusement and fell into step with her. Mikey thought about what Dobb had told her. The man he'd killed could be a spy, she supposed. Causing trouble between the thieves guild and the King would certainly destabilize the city. Outside forces were probably not aware that the two highest powers in the city were good friends even though their traditional roles were at odds with one another. She and Dobb would talk first to each other if there were ever serious threats to either one's safety. Mikey had warned the Guild to avoid direct confrontations with the Guards and to stay away from the King. Thus far, they had obeyed. Mikey guessed that there were one or two of the smarter thieves that had figured out that the Rat's friend Dobb was more than he seemed, but she thought they were either not smart enough to figure out he was the King or they were smart enough to keep silent.

Another thought occurred to her. The merchant prince Zavius Gray had enough wealth to pull off something like this. And if he had any idea of what she was planning, he might have the motive. She slowed her steps a moment and let Dobb catch her up. When he was close, she whispered "Gray?" Dobb's left eyebrow rose in a familiar gesture of question.

"Possibly," was all he answered. She took another quick glance at his face. If she didn't know better, she would think her friend was furiously angry. They walked on through the dimly lit streets passing very few people. They were mostly men out in search of drink or companionship this time of night. The honest folk who lived in this district would have been home before now, gathered at their hearths and tucking children in beds. Mikey sighed.

"Pig or Goose?" Dobb asked her.

"Hmmmm, I would usually choose the Goose," she answered.

"Pig it is then." He turned away from her suddenly heading down another street. She ran a couple steps to catch up. The Silver Goose was an inn she liked, being cleaner than most inns in the quarter. They had better food than most as well, yet it wasn't so prosperous that she would draw attention keeping her hood up and sitting in a corner. It irritated her that she needed to rethink her habits now that she had evidence that someone was watching her. Dobb usually preferred the Goose as well, but he also seemed to enjoy the Pig's Bristle. The Pig was a dirtier establishment with worse food, but their beer was excellent. There were usually several brawls on a typical night. Mikey thought that Dobb suggested the Pig because of the beer, but then wondered if he didn't prefer it for the serving girls there. They did tend to be feistier than the girls at the Goose.

They turned another corner and saw the torches burning bright at the front of the Pig's Bristle Inn. As they got nearer, a man came flying out through the door to land in a sodden heap at the curb. A large woman stepped out the door and shouted at the man, "Benny for the love of the gods just go home, you sorry pile of shit." She turned to go back inside and caught sight of Mikey and Dobb. "Mikey! Where have you been love? And why, dear gods, did you have to bring that scruffy Dobby with ya?" Mikey laughed and gave the woman a hug. The return hug threatened to break ribs. Dobb was then treated to the same treatment, but he took it better, lifting the woman from her feet.

"Careful who you call scruffy, my beautiful Lady Jane," he said with a laugh. Jane blushed, or so Mikey thought. It could have been the torchlight, she supposed. It was easier to believe that than that Jane blushed.

"You two here for food and drink? Or are you just trying to slink on by and up to no good?"

"We're here to see you of course," Mikey said.

"Is that so?" Jane said sternly. "Guess I'd better feed ya two and pour some beer down yer gullets too. You always were too thin Mikey."

"That's just because I'm not fast enough to beat you to the best food, love," Mikey told her slyly. Jane laughed, and Mikey watched in admiration. Jane was a large imposing figure of a woman, but not fat. She stood well over six feet tall and weighed as much as most large warriors. She was pretty in her way, Mikey supposed, but what she really admired about Jane was her thirst for life. Jane never did things halfway. When she laughed like she did now, it was with fists on her hips, head thrown back, and a booming voice.

"C'mon in you two scoundrels, let's get you a table and some food." She led them into the inn, and said over her shoulder as they entered the room, "And mind you don't bruise my serving girls this time, Mikey." She led them to a table in the darker corner of the room, near the fire but far enough away from the mob to give them a little privacy. Jane strode off to see about their food and drink, leaving the two friends.

"You bruised the girls the last time you were here?" Dobb said with that raised eyebrow. Mikey said nothing, but looked back at him with a look of innocence. Dobb shook his head at last and sighed.

"And you didn't bruise Jane with your greeting just now?" Dobb laughed long and hard at that.

"As if anything could bruise that Amazon," he said finally as he wiped tears from his eyes. "If the King had ten like her, the kingdom would never fear attack."

"If the King had even one like her," Mikey quipped back, "He would always do exactly as he was told."

"The King is a wise man," Dobb said seriously. "Or so I'm told." One of the serving girls, a tall, beautiful girl with dark hair and mischievous eyes, brought two large tankards of the local ale in one hand, and a platter of steaming roast beef and bread in the other. Dobb reached for her backside as she laid the fare on the table and she dodged expertly. He laughed as she walked away. "She's new," he said to Mikey once the girl was out of earshot.

"That's Jane's niece if I'm not mistaken," answered Mikey. "Which puts her out of bounds for a sensible man."

"Good thing I'm not sensible then," he said with a wicked grin. "I'll be right back." Mikey watched with a grin as her friend wove his way through the crowd in pursuit of the girl. She leaned back in her chair and sipped on her beer. She was just reaching for a hunk of heavy bread when Jane came and sat at the table with her.

"I fear for your niece, Jane," said Mikey.

"I don't," Jane answered. "That man has already chosen his love. Anything that happens here is only for play or for show." Mikey raised her eyebrows as she thought about that. "Besides, Megan can take care of herself. She'd have to in order to work here."

"Do you know something that I don't?" Mikey asked the larger woman. Jane looked smugger than a cat with a prize canary. "Who is it?"

"You, of course, you silly twit," Jane answered with a laugh.

"You mean he really does favor men?" Mikey asked in surprise.

"Oh no, not that one," Jane said. "He's just interested in women and in one fair lady in particular."

"You mean he knows?" Mikey sat up straight and put the tankard down with a thump. "How could he? Who told him?" Jane threw back her head and laughed her great booming laugh. Several of the other patrons turned to look at them to see what was causing the ruckus.

"He loves Michaelina, not the Scarlet Rat," Jane said very quietly. "The signs are there for any with good eyes, and Dobb has very good eyes. They're pretty ones, too." Mikey frowned at her. Things were not going her way tonight. She really couldn't decide how she felt about this news, whether to even believe it. Jane was one of the very few people who knew her real identity, as she had long been a close friend of the family. That friendship was the real reason that Mikey usually avoided this place. The Bartollis had been known here and there might be someone that would see the family resemblance if they looked too closely. Hence the show that Jane put on when they'd come in about bruising the serving girls, helping to reinforce the disguise that she was a young man and not a woman. But that friendship also meant that Mikey was often a target for Jane's humor.

"If it weren't for his feelings and the love I bear for you, I might have dragged Dobb off into the cellar a long time ago myself." They both laughed at that.

"That might be good for him," Mikey told the bigger woman. "It might teach him humility."

"I thought you taught him humility with your dagger the first time you met?"

"A man like Dobb needs reminding once in a while," Mikey chuckled.

"I really am glad you came in tonight," Jane continued quietly. "I was about to send word through the Guild. Word has it that a certain merchant has put a large price on your head."

"I knew that," said Mikey. "Gray has been angry with me ever since I stole his undergarments from his mistress's bedroom while they were otherwise occupied."

"The word now is that the bounty has been increased and that it is only being offered to someone from outside the city. Maybe more than one group as well."

"That I had not heard," Mikey said. She felt a chill rising at the thought. She knew the local assassins by sight, even when they wore disguises. But someone from outside Kor Opan would be a true danger if they were any good. "That seems like a lot of trouble for one pair of undergarments." The famous theft had greatly amused the Guild, and caused Gray a fair amount of embarrassment when his wife heard the story.

"Perhaps you shouldn't have hung them from the flagpole in the city square, then?" Jane laughed as Mikey tried to look innocent.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," she said. "Though if I had known the trouble he would cause over it I might have hung him from the flagpole instead of his intimates."

"Now that would have been a sight to see," Dobb said as he walked up to the table from behind Mikey. Dobb slipped onto the bench beside Jane and raised the tankard of ale quickly to the side of his face.

"Maybe you'll be wantin' a slab of raw meat for that, instead?" Jane asked with a nasty chuckle. Dobb set the tankard down and Mikey saw a very red hand print on the side of his face.

"I thought you preferred to grab girls from behind?" Mikey taunted.

"I did grab from behind," sighed Dobb. "Jane, that niece of yours turns nearly as fast as Mikey."

"Good thing she didn't have a blade then" said Mikey with a wink.

"I never let my girls use blades," Jane said with a straight face. "Unless the customer requests them and pays the extra fees."

"Tell me more about this service, Jane," said Mikey, leaning forward.

"You want to be ‘served' that way?" Dobb was incredulous.

"I might be willing to pay the fees for you to be served," she told him with a bland expression. She winked at Jane as Dobb put his face down in his hands.

"Why is everyone out to get me?" Dobb whined. Jane put one arm around his shoulders as if to comfort him.

"It's the way you walk, laddie," she told him. "It drives the ladies wild with the desire to hear you whimper like a little boy." Jane and Mikey held it in as long as they could, then both burst out laughing. Dobb just sighed and held the tankard against his cheek once more.

Mikey and Dobb had satisfied their hunger for food and were still working on satisfying their desire for ale an hour or so later. Jane had gone off to see to the business of running the Pig's Bristle, leaving the two friends alone at their table, except for the frequent visits from Jane's niece Megan when she brought more tankards. Dobb was quiet when she came to the table and kept his eyes elsewhere, which caused Mikey and Megan to share knowing glances and amused smirks. Mikey had just murmured her thanks for another round and watched Megan walk away with a decided flirt to her skirts when Dobb leaned toward her across the table.

"Back to our earlier discussion," he began. Mikey raised her eyebrows, trying to remember which conversation he was referring to. "It would seem that a certain merchant is out to get both of us in trouble."

"Ah," Mikey replied with a sigh. "That conversation." Dobb snorted laughter.

"You haven't had that much to drink yet, my friend."

"Not for lack of trying," Mikey said. "I thought our merchant friend was out to get me? Why do you say both of us?"

"Because if he kills you I will kill him, and there are many lords in the city that would take offense at that, for one thing." Dobb took another gulp of ale. "And for another, the man I killed earlier was wearing the colors of the Guard. Someone wants the thieves to think the King had you killed. How do you think your Guild would respond to that?"

"There would be quite a few throats slit, for certain," Mikey said without pause. Mikey was sitting where she could see the people coming and going in the inn by watching the reflection in a polished shield hanging on the wall. Dobb was facing out toward the room, his back to the wall. Mikey's back was exposed to the room, but with the reflection she could see any threat coming. Just now she noticed a person entering the inn that somehow struck her as odd. While talking with Dobb, she surreptitiously watched the newcomer to figure out what made her think this person was out of place. The stranger was heavily cloaked and had a hood, almost a cowl, concealing his or her face. Mikey was mildly curious as to why the person was hiding. The weather hadn't been chill enough at night to warrant a cloak, although some travelers from the South felt the chill sooner than residents of the city.

"And lastly, if that merchant prince succeeded in harming you," Dobb said quietly, "there would be no place for him to hide from me. No matter the cost." Mikey looked into Dobb's eyes and became very uncomfortable with the intensity she saw there. She had the distinct impression a revelation was coming that she didn't want to face. She couldn't very well leave the table without being obvious that was avoiding something, so she lifted her tankard and drank deeply. While the ale ran down her throat she heard the mysterious stranger say something to Jane that she couldn't quite make out, and then Jane's louder response.

"Michaelina Bartolli, you say?" Mikey choked in shock, nearly spraying Dobb with ale. "I haven't heard that name in many years, the Bartolli's are all dead and gone, friend. I'm afraid you're mistaken."

"Mikey? Are you OK?" Dobb half rose to come to Mikey's aid. She coughed and spluttered, trying to tell him that she was OK. The stranger seemed to have unusually good hearing. Mikey watched the reflection of the hooded and cloaked form turn abruptly toward their table. Though she could make out no features beneath the hood, she distinctly felt the gaze of powerful eyes staring directly into her own.

"Ah," said the stranger, a breathy soft feminine voice. "The Scarlet Rat is here. He will do nicely." Mikey didn't miss the emphasis on the pronoun. This was someone who knew more than one dangerous thing. She lowered a hand to her sword belt and prepared to fight her way out of the inn.

Several patrons reacted to the announcement of the Scarlet Rat's presence in different ways. A couple of scruffy young men in one corner raised a cheer; most likely a couple of journeymen thieves, Mikey thought. Three wealthier looking patrons in the center of the room, merchants most likely, choked on their ale and made for the door as quickly as their heavy purses let them move. Mikey's practiced eye made the combined wealth of those purses to be nearly four hundred gold pieces. She sighed at the loss, but she made it a practice to never steal in Jane's establishment anyway. She felt that would be too much like stealing from family. Of course, the shadows in the streets outside were another matter altogether.

What sent a chill through Mikey, though, were the seven men spread throughout the room that looked calmly at each other and then began moving from their seats to block doorways and form a cordon surrounding Dobb and Mikey. Jane began threatening those men to hold the peace; one of the men backhanded her, knocking her to the floor. Mikey and Dobb both reached for blades at that, but the mysterious stranger was closer and faster. She, for the hand that reached out of the concealing cloak was definitely a woman's, seemed to gently touch the offender on the forehead. The man just stared at her for an instant, and then he began to scream and clutch at his head. He started tearing at his face as if trying to remove something embedded beneath the skin of his face. Screaming, he ran from the door of the inn and was no longer a threat. His compatriots looked at the stranger, then at each other, then drew swords and daggers and closed in on Mikey and Dobb. Unnoticed by the ruffians, the stranger extended a hand to Jane and helped her to her feet.

"Whoa there lads," said Dobb, pointing at Mikey. "I'm not with him, just sharing a drink." Mikey controlled a smile at his tactics, as two of the men were stupid enough to take him at his word and turned away from Dobb and toward Mikey. It was the last mistake they would ever make, since Dobb threw a dagger at the farther one and then slashed the closer ruffian with his sword. Both men went down, and now they faced four men instead of six. Dobb grabbed at Mikey's arm, shouting at her to run.

"I'm not leaving you against four assassins," she answered heatedly. "Even if they are stupid."

"They don't want me," Dobb answered. "They want you." Mikey laughed at him, and gestured at the two dying men near his feet.

"Oh no," she said. "They wouldn't want you at all." Dobb chuckled, making the sound more threatening than any battle shout. The remaining assassins looked nervously at each other but stood their ground. One of the men stood forward in an attempt to look bold and confident.

"Stand down thief, we are the king's own guard," he said loudly. Mikey watched Dobb carefully in her peripheral vision, noting the slight shake of his head. More counterfeits, she thought.

"Well why didn't you say that at once?" she answered while lowering her blade. "Then of course I will surrender peacefully to you." Mikey held her sword, point down, loosely extended toward the man. Her target smirked and stepped forward to reach for the sword. He was still smirking when Mikey slashed across his throat, nearly removing the man's head. She turned slightly toward Dobb and laughed. "Yep, they're stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice." Dobb laughed heartily.

"Aye but you only got one," he said. "Whereas I got two of them." Mikey whirled toward him as if she were flashing angry at him. The remaining assassins seemed caught up in the drama. Definitely not the smartest assassins around, Mikey thought.

"What are you saying?" Mikey yelled at him. "You think this is some kind of game where we keep score with lives? Goddess, man! How can you be so callous with living souls?" As she gestured in anger, she slashed again with her sword and took out the throats of two more men. The remaining man goggled at the bodies and bolted out the door.

"That's three for me," Mikey said smugly. "You buy the beer."

"Damn it Mikey," Dobb said. "I always buy the beer."

"That's because you're so good at it." Mikey smiled at him and slapped his shoulder.

"Let's see what we're dealing with here," Dobb said as he crouched beside one of the fallen men and began checking his clothing for clues.

"Leave it Dobb," Mikey said softly. "We still have business here." Mikey gestured slightly in the direction of the hooded stranger. Dobb grunted and stood up, staying ready but letting Mikey set the tone. The two young thieves in the corner were still cheering for the Scarlet Rat, and kept at it until Mikey gave them an ironic short bow, flourishing her sword.

"Well done my friends," the stranger said quietly. She apparently didn't want her words to carry far, though Mikey noticed the thieves and even Jane leaning toward her trying to catch all of what was said.

"Friends?" Mikey asked quietly with a light tone. No need to provoke a fight with a magic user if it wasn't necessary, she thought. "Have we met before?" The stranger didn't answer at once, but moved a little closer. Mikey tensed, her blade point rising ever so slightly. "I think that's close enough until we have some answers."

"I swear to you I mean you and your companion no harm," came the answer. "But perhaps we could do better with fewer ears to hear our conversation?"

"Mikey…" Dobb began, and then fell silent again. Mikey was thinking fast, and yielded to an urge she couldn't quite explain.

"Perhaps you gentlemen wouldn't mind continuing your celebration elsewhere?" Mikey said to the younger thieves.

"But Rat… what if this stranger…" Spluttered one of the thieves. The second tried to quiet his companion before he angered the leader of their Guild.

"And what will you do that I cannot?" Mikey answered, letting genuine irritation tinge her voice. "And if we are speaking of obligations, shouldn't you two be working?" Both thieves gulped visibly, bowed, and bolted out the door.

"Perhaps they were here to steal the ale?" Dobb chuckled.

"Hush you," Mikey hissed, still focusing on the stranger. Jane stood quietly in the room near the door. She could shout for the Guard if things turned ugly. Mikey thought it would be strange for the woman before her to want to fight them now after helping them and then being kind to Jane. She guessed that Jane was thinking along similar lines since she wasn't interfering at all.

"I know who you are," the stranger said very quietly, even though there weren't any more people in the room beyond the four of them. "I know both of you, actually. I have things to discuss with you, and when you have heard me out I expect that you will accompany me on an errand more important than any you have faced."

"Lady," Dobb said affably, "I'm nothing more than what you see. Maybe that's what you know?" The stranger laughed softly, a musical sound.

"Perhaps you are what I see, but you are certainly more than most people see, Your Majesty." Dobb stood very still, Mikey watched the color drain from his face. Jane's face was even more interesting to watch, though. She looked at the stranger, then at Dobb, then at Mikey, and then she blushed a flaming red and put a hand to her mouth. Mikey very nearly laughed out loud. She'd never told Jane who Dobb really was, though her friend knew that he was more than he pretended to be. Jane had apparently thought him a minor noble or wealthy merchant out for adventure.

"And you, Michaelina Bartolli," the stranger continued as Mikey raised a hand to her own mouth in surprise. "You I know quite well, though we have never before stood face to face." This time, Dobb's was the interesting reaction. Instead of blushing or acting surprised, he looked smug as if he'd just been given confirmation of something he hadn't been entirely sure of. Mikey rolled her eyes and sheathed her sword. This night just kept getting better.

"I knew it," Dobb said triumphantly. Mikey looked at him sternly, and Dobb closed his mouth but still kept grinning at her. She thought of several things she could say to him, and discarded each one.

"Ok, it's true that I'm a woman," she said finally. "But if you try to grab my ass you'll get that matching scar."

"Yes ma'am," he answered with mock humility.

"Who are you?" Mikey said to the stranger.

"That will be difficult to explain," she answered. She stepped forward and sat on a bench facing Mikey, motioning for her to sit as well. After a moment, Mikey sank to a chair and folded her hands in an attitude of waiting. The stranger glanced around the room quickly, and then raised her hands to her hood. As she pushed back the cowl, Mikey had a strange sense of vertigo.

As a child, her mother had taken her to the Church of the Light, insisting that Michaelina should know the religion that her mother had grown up with. Hoping to balance the gifts and training Mikey's father was giving her. In the church was a statue of an unnamed goddess forgotten off in one of the alcoves along the side of the sanctuary. Mikey had once asked one of the priests who the beautiful lady was and was told her name had been forgotten but that she had been a goddess of great power from the earliest days of the people who lived here before the kingdom was founded. The face had always struck Mikey as oddly familiar, though she was certain she would remember meeting a woman so striking in appearance. And now she was looking at that same face on a living woman.

"My name is Melissa, but no one remembers that name I'm afraid. They call me the Seeker because I have been wandering far looking for people that will help me set things right." Melissa looked at Dobb and gestured him to a seat. "Jane, could I please have a glass of mead?" She said over her shoulder. Jane started and then moved off to the kitchen in search of a glass.

"My story is long and one that will be hard for you to accept if told in one sitting," she raised a hand to silence their objections. "I swear to you that what I will tell you is true. But it will be hard to understand, and will be best told over time. Time is something we don't have much of, unfortunately."

"Gray is bound to have more thugs to send," said Dobb. "Perhaps we should relocate for this discussion?"

"He doesn't have enough men in the city to cause us much concern," Melissa answered. "Morning will be another matter. I would advise you both to be on your way before sunrise if you wish to avoid more… unpleasantness."

"Wait a minute, I never agreed to help you," Mikey said. "Why should either of us take on this errand of yours?"

"The best reason is that you have no real choice in the matter," replied Melissa with a smile. "Of course, I could lie to you, or try to, but I promised honesty. Have you noticed yourself feeling bored lately? Noticed that nothing new has happened in your life? Until tonight, that is."

"Dull and boring are virtues when it comes to ruling a kingdom," Dobb said with a smile. "I've never complained when things are peaceful." Mikey sat quietly, lost in thought over the questions.

"Yet even you, Your Majesty, have planned an event concerning our master thief for some time," Melissa told him. "You don't strike me as a man who is unable to make a decision. Why then has it taken you so long?" Dobb looked guiltily at Mikey, but she still seemed unaware. Finally she stirred.

"I have felt like things have come to a stop lately," Mikey said hesitantly. "Earlier tonight, Dobb was making it clear that I have fallen into a predictable pattern, something that is death for a thief. If I were listening to a bard tell my story, I would feel like he had stopped to visit the outhouse, and forgotten to start again." Melissa chuckled.

"That's a rather apt way to put it actually," she said. "Yes, the errand I have for you does relate to this problem. The reason you have no choice is that things will go on exactly as they have up until today unless you free a prisoner from his torture and captivity. I need your talents, more, I need you."

Jane reappeared with a glass of mead for Melissa, and set the glass quietly on the table beside her. The normally boisterous innkeeper seemed unusually subdued. She actually curtseyed and backed away to the edge of the room again as Melissa sipped from the glass. Mikey half smiled, wondering if Dobb was noticing the change in behavior. Apparently, Dobb's real identity was a bit more than Jane was prepared to deal with. Of course, Mikey thought, his revealed feelings for me are a bit unsettling, too. There would be time enough for that, later.

"Alright, suppose I do this thing for you," Mikey said to Melissa. "What's involved?" Dobb started to object, but Mikey cut him off. "I am unwilling to continue being a target for Gray's idea of assassins. These tonight were stupid and easy to defeat, but that won't always be the case. And if he sends more at once, you might be forced to call for help, which could prove more than awkward for the both of us."

"You're right," Dobb sighed at last. "But if you're going then I am as well." Now it was Mikey's turn to object, and he cut her off in turn. "We still have things to talk about, Mikey. And there is no way I am going to let you get out of that so easily. Unless you find me so ugly in truth that you would never consider caring for me as more than a friend?" He raised his eyebrows trying to look as though he were merely bantering with her, but she thought she saw real fear of rejection there. That realization was enough to stop her retort before it passed her lips.

What do I feel for him? Mikey thought then. He's been a dear friend for a long time, almost since they met. But now she was faced with the thought of something more than friendship and it scared her. It frightened her badly, now that she faced it. "No, not ugly at all," she told him at last. Then she turned back to Melissa.

"Very well, what is involved for us, then?" Melissa just smiled knowingly, a look which made Mikey feel both embarrassed and angry at the same time. She held her tongue though, suspecting that there would be no winning an honest fight with the woman.

"I want you to travel east to a place in the wilderness called, I believe, the Parson's Tower. I will meet you there," Melissa told them.

"We aren't going together?" Dobb asked.

"Not at first, no. I have two more people to recruit before we leave on our journey." Melissa paused before continuing. "Once you reach the tower, you will meet two others that have already committed to the task. I think that meeting will go better if you bring a skin or two of mead. Your choice, of course, but I'll make the suggestion just the same."

"Mikey, I'm not sure I like the sound of this…" Dobb sounded like he was considering changing his mind. Mikey was hesitant herself, and yet she felt strangely compelled at the same time, almost as if her will wasn't her own when talking with Melissa.

"Dobb, listen," she told him. "Gray is in motion and will be coming after us. You and I both know that. You can hide in the palace, and I could hide in the Guild Hall for a short time, but the end will be the same. Leaving the city would be a good idea for me anyway, and I have the strangest feeling this is something I have to do. Are you sure you won't stay here?"

"I go where you go. I mean it," he told her firmly.

"Then we are going to the tower first and we'll see where that leads us." Mikey looked at Melissa. "How long do we have to get to the tower?"

"No longer than a fortnight," Melissa told them. "We must all be together by the new moon or I fear there will be no way to succeed."

"Jane?" Mikey said louder, "Can you help us out with some provisions?"

"Of course, Mikey," she answered. "Though perhaps you would be better off traveling with the King's Guard and eating better fare than I can provide?" Mikey stifled a laugh at her subservient manner.

"My beautiful Lady Jane," Dobb answered with a big smile, "I have enjoyed the fare at your table for more than two years now. What makes you think that will change?" Jane blushed and curtseyed again, and Dobb laughed and went to her and, taking her hands, lifted her to her feet. "When I am here as Dobb, I am always your scruffy friend. Bowing is only for when I wear a crown and stuffy nobles are watching. Promise me?" Jane smiled, hesitantly at first, and then with her more customary impishness.

"Aye, laddie," she said, "if that's the way ye want it." Dobb kissed her cheek and hugged her fiercely.

"That's the way I want it," he told her.

"But you promise me that you will treat our Michaelina with all the tender respect she deserves, or King or no, I'll draw steel across yer backside."

"I do so promise," Dobb answered, raising a hand to swear.

"Don't I get any say in this bartering?" Mikey said in exasperation.

"Of course not lad… er… lass," Jane said. "Just let me take care of you as I have since your father died. Ole Jane knows what's best for ya." She winked at Dobb and moved off to see about gathering some provisions for them.

‘She has a good heart," Melissa said as she watched Jane leave.

"I suppose," Mikey pouted. "Bossy, but with a good heart."

"We should leave word before we go," Dobb said. "While I am committed to going, I do have responsibilities. As do you, I believe." Mikey sighed.

"Is there someone to whom you could pass a message through Jane?" Melissa asked. "It would be better if you leave directly from here and get well clear of the city before daybreak."

"I can disappear for a time without warning," said Mikey, "But the King can't go missing without causing a stir."

"True," answered Dobb. "But I may have a solution to that. If we head east a day's walk we reach the forest. The Royal Hunting Lodge is just beyond the edge of the forest, and my huntsman is there. We can get horses and gear, and I can leave word with him."

"That could work," Mikey said thoughtfully. "I'll pass word to the Guild through Jane that I'm laying low until Gray gives up the hunt."

"You seem to be ready to move out, and don't really need my help for this part," Melissa told them. "If you don't mind, I will move on to recruit our remaining members." Melissa stood up and raised her hood once more. In a moment, she was the faceless stranger they had first met a short time before. "I will meet you at the Parson's Tower within one fortnight, then. Travel carefully and swiftly." So saying she turned away from them and took two steps. By the second step, Melissa had completely disappeared from the room.

"Well now," said Dobb. "That's a fair trick."

"Maybe she will teach me that trick," said Mikey.

"I don't think our economy could withstand you having any more advantages, my Lady."

"When this is over, I still owe Zavius Gray a long conversation," she replied. "A trick like that might be very useful for that."

"We'll have time to plan that meeting, but let's get our gear and set out. If we are to believe this is all on the level then we need to get moving," Dobb told her.

"Aye, let's see what Jane found for us," Mikey responded.

As it turned out, Jane had found them a pair of heavy knapsacks to conceal the goods she was sending with them and to make them easy to carry. She had provided them with food and drink for two days, three if they were frugal, just in case they were forced to delay their arrival at the hunting lodge. She also gave them a pair of mismatched cloaks and hoods for both warmth and concealment. Added to what they carried with them already, they had enough to face a short journey without concern.

"Thank you Jane," Mikey said as she hugged the bigger woman. "You are a good friend, now as always."

"Of course, lass," Jane answered huskily. "It's what your parents would have wanted, and the least I could do for one so dear." Mikey let her go and stepped back, making room for the King. Dobb took her hand and kissed it as if she truly were a lady of the Court. Jane was startled but seemed delighted.

"Thank you Jane," he said simply. "And I trust you will be as discrete about my real identity as you have been about Mikey's?" Jane curtseyed, playing the part of a great Lady of the Court.

"As my lord wills," she said firmly. As she stood once more Dobb hugged her and gave her a kiss.

"And that's from your scruffy friend Dobb," he said.

"Dobb!" Jane exclaimed. "Never make Mikey jealous; I don't want her daggers pointed in my direction and neither do you."

"That is simple truth," he replied seriously. "Never fear, I learned that lesson two years ago."

"Be well you two, and travel safely," Jane said to both of them. "Do what you have to do and come home."

Mikey just smiled at her, then slapped Dobb on the shoulder and headed for the back door of the inn. He smiled at her as she started off, then Looked at Jane and winked. Stepping quickly, he caught up with Mikey as she was pausing to listen at the back door. Satisfied that no one was making noise near the door, she risked a fast look. "All clear, let's go."

"Right behind you," replied Dobb. They stepped out into the alley behind the inn. When Mikey started in the direction of the east gate, Dobb laid a hand on her arm. He shook his head slightly when she looked back in question. He pulled her in the other direction that would lead toward river, past the Gray Manse, and ultimately to the north gate. Mikey raised an eyebrow in response then nodded and moved in the direction he led. It would be smart, she thought, to get a look at what Gray was doing as we pass. And he would expect her to go any other direction to avoid his men. She grinned fiercely in the darkness, thinking about the surprise she would give him after this business was done.