Chapter Eight: Almost Like a Vacation

Mikey and Dobb made it to the edge of the city without incident. They sneaked out of the city using one of the Thieves Guild exit routes, which involved a grappling hook and a long rope to go over one of the walls. Dobb was amused by the adventure, and kept telling Mikey that he could have arranged for one of his trusted guards to let them out of the gate. But Mikey had overruled him, saying "If you're going to do something, do it right."

And so they found the right spot along the eastern wall and then Mikey whistled three times, paused, and then once more. Nothing happened for a long moment, and then Mikey whistled twice more.

"Are you doing something, or just trying to impress me by imitating bird calls?" Dobb asked her.

"We're waiting for something," she told him.

"We're waiting for what, exactly?" A length of rope fell from the darkness above and slithered over Dobb's head and shoulders.

"We're waiting for that," Mikey said with a laugh. Without any further comment, she began climbing up the rope and was quickly out of sight in the darkness. Dobb sighed and began climbing up after her. He was sweating heavily by the time he reached the top of the wall and stood panting and hunched over. Mikey looked as though she hadn't exerted herself at all. Mikey stood silently looking at him while he recovered his breath.

"I think you need more exercise before you'll make a decent burglar," she told him. Mikey kept her voice low and husky, more conscious now that she needed to pay attention to her disguise. She was confused by the change in her relationship with the king, and tended to be herself around him. But as long as she needed to bear the persona of the Scarlet Rat, she needed to be careful how she acted around others. There are so very few people I can trust, Mikey thought. She turned to the other man there, a city guard Dobb was annoyed to see. "Thanks Bran, he's got your coin," she said jerking her thumb in Dobb's direction.

"I do?" Dobb asked, startled.

"Two half-crown pieces, if you please," Bran told him.

"That seems like a lot," Dobb told him. "How about I give you one half-crown?"

"You could do that, I suppose. Course, in that case I couldn't guarantee the rope wouldn't accidentally come loose halfway down. I really do care about Mikey's safety, but you I don't know." He busily coiled up the rope and soon held it over one shoulder.

"I think I see your point," Dobb said wryly. He counted out the required pieces of silver and handed them to the guard.

"Pleasure doing business with you, I'm sure," Bran said. He threw the rope down the outside of the wall. "Have a good time Mikey."

"I will, my friend," she told him as she swung her leg over the parapet. "Give my love to your wife and kids."

"I'll do that. She'll be glad to hear you're still alive and well." Bran smiled.

"That makes two of us," Mikey said with a low chuckle.

Dobb followed her over the edge and down the rope into the misty gloom below the wall. He imagined that at any second, Bran would detach the rope and hook and it would all come down on his head. Hence, he found himself sliding down fast enough to cause significant heat in his hands. As soon as he hit the ground, the rope snaked away into the air disappearing completely.

"Interesting business he has there," he said quietly so his voice wouldn't carry far. "Not bad, first I pay him to guard the city, and next I pay him to violate that trust."

"He and his wife have four children to feed and she never fully recovered from a bout of the river fever," Mikey told him softly. "Bran's wife worked for me a few years ago as a lookout to earn the extra coin they needed to feed their kids. That is, until she got sick. Guards don't apparently make a lot of money, so with his wife out of work and his meager pay, he had to find a way to make up the difference. He does, however, take great care who he helps this way. And to my knowledge he never lets people in to the city this way. So please don't make things harder for them."

She led the way off into the darkness and Dobb followed her lost in his thoughts. As far as he knew, his guards made enough to support a family, so unless something was very wrong in the way this man was being treated, there had to be another reason for his need. He made a mental note to look into how the pay was distributed and how much the average guards were paid compared to the cost of living in the city. It might be time for some changes, he thought.

Away from the gates of the city, and here among the few trees allowed near the wall, the darkness was complete. Mikey seemed to be able to find her way just fine, and after a few minutes of fumbling along behind her he felt her hand take his. He liked the feel and thought maybe she wanted to feel close to him as they walked. Her insistent pulling made it clear, however, that she was impatient with his fumbling and wanted to lead him so they could move faster. They went on like that for nearly an hour before there was enough light for even Dobb to make out the terrain they traveled. When she let go of his hand he felt a pang of true regret.

Mikey happened to look at him as she let go, and she must have seen something of his emotion in his eyes, because she blushed and looked away. Dobb was confused all over again. He knew that at the very least she thought of him as a very close friend. His feelings for her went deeper, but he sensed that she would need time to decide what she felt. He wisely kept his comments to himself and tried to give her the time and space she needed.

"So where exactly is your hunting lodge?" Mikey asked him as they walked. "I know 'east to the forest' but I have no clear idea how to get there."

"The eastern trade road will take us close," he said. "I thought we'd follow the road until it crosses the Black River, and then follow the river north to the lodge."

"That sounds easy enough," she said cheerfully. "I have to admit, you need to lead from here. I've never been farther than this from the city."

"Really? I always thought you so worldly that you must have traveled," he said. Mikey's eyes narrowed.

"Define 'worldly' if you please," she said with mock lightness. Uh oh, he thought, I put my foot in that one.

"Worldly, as in aware of cultures and customs of many peoples," he said.

"Oh." She thought about it. "So you were complimenting me rather than calling me a slut?"

"I would never… How could I… you can't think that I…" Dobb stammered, his face flaming red. Mikey laughed at him.

"Gotcha," was all she said. He stopped dead in his tracks, and she walked on several steps before turning to face him. "Well?"

All he could do was laugh in the end. He decided that anything he said at this point would at best only amuse her further, and at worst make her angry with him. He shook his head and walked to meet her. "Yes, you got me," he said, his tone implying another meaning. Now it was Mikey's turn to blush, and she quickly turned away and walked down the road.

They walked together in silence for a long time. The light was growing before them as they walked into the sunrise. The horizon was already growing red and the gray sky was becoming blue and gold above them. Dobb looked back over his shoulder every so often to see if they were being followed, and on one such occasion he touched Mikey's arm to stop her.

"Look at that," he said softly. Mikey turned to look where he indicated and caught her breath in wonder. The rising sun was just touching the topmost towers and domes of Kor Opan, setting them afire with golden-red light. "She's a jeweled brooch on the mantle of the world."

Mikey looked at the beautiful scene, and then over at Dobb's face. He was watching the sun play on his city, and she gazed a long time without his awareness. This man was much more than any other she had ever known. He was a true companion whether thieving, fighting, or carousing. He was wise in his own way, and gentle. Yet there was the strength of tempered steel beneath the surface. And now she discovered the soul of a poet. She was amazed. She shyly reached out and took his hand, this time just wanting to feel his touch and not to lead him anywhere.

Dobb looked deeply into her eyes without speaking for a couple minutes. "Truly I am blessed," he said at last. "I look from earthly beauty to divine beauty." She almost kissed him right then, but she was still afraid to ruin their friendship. For all her worldliness, as Dobb put it, she was very inexperienced in love. Pretending to be a man hadn't left room for the normal education of her heart. Dobb seemed to understand this, and just gave her hand a squeeze before turning back to the eastward journey. Mikey followed, still holding his hand.

They passed a few solitary travelers during the day, greeting some with a wave, and ignoring others who seemed wary of strangers. Around noon they were passed by a trader's caravan heading east. The wagons and horses stirred up the dust, leaving them coughing and choking. Dobb was about to make a joke with the trader following near the end of the line of wagons, but suddenly snapped his mouth shut as he saw the man's colors. The traders of the region wore ribbons of colored material to show their affiliation. Wealthier merchants wore silk ribbons; poor merchants used cotton, and various other types in between. This man was wearing a pair of black and white silk ribbons, edged in lace. The mark belonged to the House of Gray. This caravan was owned by Zavius Gray, Mikey's enemy. He touched her on the shoulder and gestured to the meadow alongside the road.

"Let's get out of the dust for a while and let them pass," he said.

"Aye, if I get any more dirt in my mouth I may be able to plant my own crops," Mikey answered. Dobb chuckled.

"Gray's men," he said softly as they stepped off the road into the green knee-high grass.

"I saw that," she answered. "If they're looking for us, it's too late to avoid them or to keep them from reporting back. I didn't see whether anyone left the caravan before they passed us."

"It might be wise to let them get out of sight and then cut across country from here. What do you think?"

Mikey thought about it. She had no experience to draw upon. Her whole life had been spent within sight of the city or within its walls. Still, the king had some woodcraft; he had spent time hunting often before they met. He still came out here from time to time to escape the demands of the throne or to entertain a group of nobles away from the splendor of the city.

"Do you think they would send a message?" Mikey asked.

"If they wanted to, they probably already did," Dobb told her. "That's what I'm afraid of. We need stealth and speed, not an open fight. Neither of us would do well if Gray sends a troop of soldiers."

"Then that gives us our answer, doesn't it?"

Dobb nodded and then sat in the tall grass as if they were taking a break. They took out a little food and their water bottles. They rinsed the dust from their mouths, spitting it into the grass, and then ate a bit of bread and cheese while watching the wagons disappear into the distance. When the wagons were nearly out of sight around a bend in the distance, they packed up and stepped back onto the road. They both looked carefully into the distance in either direction to make sure no one was watching them. At least, no one that we can see, thought Mikey.

They hurried across the road, quickly moving into the tall grass on the north side of the road. There were trees ahead of them that would offer some protection from unfriendly eyes. They crouched down low in the grass as they ran, knowing that if anyone was close, they would be seen, but hoping that anyone watching would be farther away and thus unable to clearly see where they were heading.

They were out of sight of the road, but still within hearing a short time later when they heard the sound of horses galloping on the road. They stopped and listened to the sound, gauging which way they were going and approximately how many there were. They looked at each other.

"Headed away from the city," Mikey said. "Shit."

"My thoughts exactly," Dobb replied. "We left the road just in time I think. It sounds like they didn't stop, but we better keep moving."

"How far is it to the lodge?" Mikey asked as they walked briskly north through the scrub trees and tall grass.

"If I had to guess, I'd say around four, maybe five miles," Dobb answered.

"So we have maybe a couple more hours till we can call for help then if we need it."

"Something like that, yes, although I'm not going to count on being able to call for help. I don't know for certain who will be there beside my huntsman and a couple stable hands."

They were climbing a slight rise now, and could see for a few miles in between the occasional tree. They could even catch glimpses now and ten of the road they'd left behind. Mikey kept looking back over her shoulder, an indication of her normally nervous lifestyle. It was during one of these glances back at the road that she saw the band of horsemen returning from the east.

"Dobb, I think we may have a problem," she told him. Dobb stopped and looked back in the direction she was looking.

"I don't see… wait, yeah I see them now. Looks like nearly twenty men, lightly armed," he said. "They look like more of the ruffians we dealt with last night."

"I have this terrible thought suddenly," Mikey said with a sinking feeling. "We didn't try to hide our path at all."

"The grass will hide it somewhat," he told her. "But if they have any kind of tracker, they'll be after us very soon."

"Damn, I'm too tired for much more of this," Mikey said with a sigh. "It was a long day yesterday, drinking and fighting last night."

"And then traveling ever since," he finished her thought. "I'm about out of energy myself. But we don't have a choice. Think you can run?"

"A thief can always run," she told him with a chuckle. He grinned back tiredly and led on into the trees, angling off to the west to find the river. They ran at a long loping gate, trying at once to move quickly and at the same time conserve what strength they had left. Even so, they were stumbling and nearly falling from fatigue when they found the fence that marked the edge of the king's estate.

"We need to be careful of the dogs," Dobb said wearily.

"I'm not afraid of dogs," Mikey replied.

"My friend, everyone is afraid of these dogs." He glanced around to get his bearings. "The house is that way. When the dogs challenge us, stand perfectly still and let them approach. For the love of the gods, don't pull a weapon or run. I don't want them to hurt you."

"I've been around the big dogs people use to guard their valuables. In my line of work you have to learn to deal with dogs."

"Just trust me, alright? These dogs aren't what you're used to." Dobb led the way across short grass and through the garden-like landscaping. They had gone a hundred yards or so when they heard the first dog. Mikey jumped about a foot when the booming bark sounded off to their left.

"Oh my, that sounds like a big dog," she said in surprise.

"Just wait until he gets closer," Dobb told her over his shoulder. "He's still quite a ways off."

"Really?" Mikey suddenly felt very nervous. More booming barks sounded, each getting closer. Finally, they were coming from many sides and sounded like thunder in her ears.

"That's it, we wait here." Dobb stopped and bent over, panting hard.

"We can go farther, c'mon."

"No, actually that would be most unwise," he told her. "Remember what I told you, stand very still now. They won't hurt you if you stay still and by my side."

Mikey saw a dark shape bounding through the foliage near the fence line, coming along behind them. She was sure that it was a horse, but she couldn't make out a rider or any tack. Then the horse barked one of those booming barks and her jaw dropped.

"That is a dog?" Mikey said in awe.

"Aye, a very special breed," he said softly. "Hush now, love, please." Dobb stood straight with his hands turned outward and didn't move. The huge dog coming toward them at an easy lope was joined by three more from different directions. They were easily the size of small horses, standing four and a half feet at the shoulder. They had rough fur in gray and black tones, making it hard to see them when they ran through foliage and shadows. They had intelligent eyes, a bright golden color, and they were very direct with their stares. "Mikey, don't stare at them, they might think you mean to challenge them."

The biggest dog walked forward to sniff at Dobb's outstretched hands. He wagged his tail once or twice, plainly recognizing the king. The dog stepped back and gave one piercing howl, and then sat down and chuffed. The other dogs sniffed the king, one by one, their tongues were lolling out now. Mikey kept still; she could tell they were watching her very carefully even though they never seemed to glance directly at her. They stayed that way for nearly five minutes before they heard the sound of a horse approaching.

The rider pulled up short when he saw them standing in the center of the dogs. He whistled once and the dogs all ran to his side for treats given out of a leather bag the man carried. Then the dogs loped off again into the trees and vanished.

"Nice timing, I thought Thorn might decide to use my friend for a chew toy," Dobb said as he walked to greet the man.

"He doesn't look like he has enough meat to keep Thorn busy for more than a few minutes," the man answered with a wry smile. "Greetings, my liege," he said with a bow.

"Well met, Thomas. We need to get inside and out of sight for a while," the king said. "We are being pursued."

"Do you want the guards?"

"No, there are only about twenty," Dobb said casually. Mikey just gaped at him. "Why don't you just run them off for trespassing, and let the dogs have some fun to sort of encourage them to run?"

"As my king commands," Thomas said with a hearty laugh. "Would you like my horse, your majesty?"

"I think we can make it the rest of the way, thanks. Besides I don't know where they will cross the fence. You might need to cover some ground."

"I will meet you at the house then, my liege." Thomas tipped his hat to them both and mounted once more. He gave a loud trilling whistle as he trotted off toward the fence.

"Ok let's go," Dobb said to Mikey.

"I almost want to stay and watch," she told him. "But those beasts terrify me."

"Imagine being on a horse when the whole pack comes charging at you," he said with a wicked laugh. "I don't know about you, but I could really use a bath, some food, and then some sleep."

"I like the way you think," she said with a tired grin.

Another ten minutes of walking brought them in sight of the hunting lodge. Mikey was amazed to see that the king's humble lodge was a mansion with at least thirty rooms, and several outbuildings. They approached across a paved patio surrounding a large carved granite fountain. Dobb led the way up to a set of glass doors and inside to a cool room lit by a massive chandelier made of antlers. Mikey supposed the antlers made the nobles feel like they were roughing it while servants brought their food and wine. On the other hand, thought Mikey, I could enjoy being waited on and served for a time. Except that someone might discover more of my secrets than would be good for me.

A older woman entered the room from the hall. "Your majesty, we had no word of your arrival," she said while curtseying to him.

"I apologize for any inconvenience Mathilda," said Dobb smoothly. "My friend and I made a rather sudden decision to visit the countryside."

"Out carousing again and got caught by a girl's father?" Mathilda asked him with a wink. Dobb laughed loudly.

"Nay, never caught," he said to her. Mathilda laughed with him. "Mikey, Mathilda is the Head Mistress of the house. She's served our family since before I was born."

"Mikey?" Mathilda said. "Surely not the infamous Scarlet Rat?"

"Oh surely not," Mikey said, regaining her composure. "Would the king be in the company of a famous thief?"

"Of course he would," Mathilda said. "After all, he sits with the city council regularly." She laughed again, and Mikey still wasn't sure how the older woman really felt about her. The king obviously trusted her, but Mikey had trouble trusting most women. "Shall I send servants up to help you and your guest, sire?"

"I think we can manage, though if you could see that Mikey gets a suitable room near mine I would be most obliged. I think we would both enjoy a hot bath, some food and wine, and then a few hours of sleep at least. It has been a long day already."

"If I might make a suggestion, lord," she answered. "I can have food and drink brought to the sitting room by your suite and you can dine while the bath water is being heated in your rooms."

"Now you see why she runs the whole house," Dobb said to Mikey. "That sounds like the perfect idea, Mathilda, thank you."

"Do you need someone to guide you to the room, my lord? Or do you remember the way?" Mathilda said archly.

"I only need a guide when we drink the autumn ale," the king said with an embarrassed laugh. Mathilda just smiled. Mikey could see there was a story behind that one, but she didn't ask.

"Very well, lord, I'll make the arrangements." With another curtsey Mathilda left to organize everything.

"This is your hunting lodge?" Mikey asked him once they were alone.

"Yes, my home away from home," he said deprecatingly. "It isn't much, and I must apologize if it seems too rustic."

"Oh for the gods' sake," she said, giving Dobb a hard push, sending him into a wall.

"Really, Mikey, I'm too tired to fight back just now," he said chuckling. "Let's get settled and hope the food is fast. We might also be able to see some of the action from the balcony if we're lucky."

Mikey quirked an eyebrow in question, then remembered the pursuers and the waiting mammoth dogs. "That sounds like fun," she agreed enthusiastically. Dobb led the way into the hall and up a grand staircase to the second floor. From there they made their way down a long hallway to a medium sized room that was open to the hallway and had another set of doors set with precious glass panels. Glass was hardly rare in Kor Opan, but you had to be fairly well off to afford to use it extensively for windows and doors. Mikey had never before seen so much glass used so casually. But then again, she thought, I've never been in a palace before. She'd seen glass windows at the Gray Manse while learning the guard's patterns, but even the wealthy merchant didn't have so many wide doors made of framed glass.

Mikey felt very unsure of herself seeing Dobb in his native environs. How could he really want to be with her? She certainly didn't belong in this place, maybe she did have a great deal of wealth herself, stolen from her victims over the years, but it came nowhere near this scale. She became very quiet as a result of her uncertainty. Dobb was chattering on about things they could do or see while here, unaware of Mikey's growing discomfort. I could fit in here as his rough friend, she thought, but I could obviously never be more than a plaything as a woman, and that's one role I won't play.

They suddenly heard horses and men's voice raised outside the mansion. Dobb signaled her to join him by the doors, being careful to stand in the shadows where they wouldn't be seen from below. She looked out in time to see Thomas sitting his horse in the roadway below, and the band of Gray's men come riding up the road.

"That's far enough, lads," said Thomas loudly. "What is your business on the King's land?" The men looked at each other hesitantly, apparently unsure about angering the king with their mission. One of them walked his horse forward a couple of steps and confronted Thomas.

"We have come on the trail of a wanted criminal," he said. "We seek the Scarlet Rat and followed his trail to this estate."

"Is that so," replied Thomas scornfully. "You are not king's men, how come you to seek a criminal without his leave?"

"We hunt the thief on the word of Lord Zavius Gray, and that is all the warrant we need."

"Perhaps you can get away with that when the king's guards aren't near," said Thomas. "But not here on the king's private estate. You are trespassing, and the king has authorized me to deal harshly with such as you."

"I think you should count my men and decide how long you think you could stand against us," said the leader with an arrogant laugh.

"And I think you should start running now," said Thomas with a laugh of his own. The leader of the band snarled something to his men and moved to attack Thomas. He never made it, though. At that instant, Thomas let out a piercing whistle and the band was immediately surrounded by the thunderous baying of the dogs. Mikey had been frightened of the four that confronted them earlier. But that was nothing compared to the sight of sixteen of the huge animals running directly at the band of men.

The leader tried to get some semblance of order as they turned to face the onslaught, but he was unprepared for the reaction of the horses. The poor terrified beasts reared and bolted, more than one man was thrown to the ground as his mount ran madly for the perceived safety of the long road stretching away from the house. Thomas was laughing loudly, and Dobb was laughing at her side, but Mikey was nearly as terrified as the men outside. She could imagine the huge dogs devouring the hapless men that had fallen.

"Dobb, can't you stop them? They'll kill those men…"

"Look closer Mikey," he said calmly. She looked where he pointed and saw that the dogs were growling ferociously and nipping at the horses and men, causing a vast panic, but they had not actually drawn any blood that she could see. Mikey felt a sense of wonder that these dogs could be so effective while not killing or maiming anyone.

That didn't last long for the leader, however. He made the fatal decision to strike at one of the dogs with his sword, causing a yelp of pain as the dog went down. He called to his men that were still within earshot "Help me kill these curs!" Some of them turned, mastering their horses long enough to start toward him. They were looking right at the man when the other dogs got to him. Mikey swallowed hard as she watched them go down under a wave of the huge dogs. Neither horse nor rider came up again. The dogs killed them within seconds and then turned back toward the other ruffians, their mouths bearded with blood. That was the end of it; they all bolted for their lives.

"Thorn!" Thomas called. The lead dog ran to his side. Mikey half expected the dog to salute, so crisp was his response. "Give them a run, but don't kill unless you must. Go!" the dog barked twice and four more dogs pelted after him in pursuit of the riders. Thomas dismounted to tend to the hurt dog, which was already back up on its feet, though limping. Dobb touched Mikey's arm and then drew her inside.

"The action is over, and I doubt we will feel like watching the cleanup," he said kindly. "Now you see why I said not to move and not to draw a weapon."

"Yes, I understand that now. But Dobb, why keep those monsters?"

"Monsters? Perhaps, but they're my monsters," he said with his lopsided grin. "Thomas would tell you they're his faithful and beloved companions. They really are gentle with people they know and trust. When I was a child, I played with their pups. Probably what makes me like you so much." Mikey hit him hard on the shoulder. Dobb just laughed, and then rubbed his shoulder.

"Where are they from?" Mikey asked. "I've never heard of such beasts."

"They're descended from dire wolves, and the only ones of their kind," he told her. "An ancestor of mine found a pup that was starving and dying. He nursed it back to health and found that it considered him a pack mate. He later captured a couple more pups at huge risk, and then bred them. Believe it or not, these are actually smaller than the true dire wolves, but they've retained all of their intelligence and ferocity. What they gained was a place they could live in safety, and gentleness toward people that earn their loyalty. In exchange, they serve my house."

"How many are there?"

"You aren't planning to rob my hunting lodge are you?" Dobb said with narrowed eyes. Mikey laughed and after a minute, he did too. "There are about thirty dogs all told, including four pups. There are always some roaming the grounds of the estate, and a few that stay close to the house. They provide unparalleled protection for everything short of a military invasion. Even then they would kill a lot of soldiers."

"That I completely believe," Mikey said with heartfelt emotion.

"Lunch is served my lord," Mathilda said from the room's entrance. Mikey turned to find the Head Mistress directing several other servants in laying out plates and serving dishes of various roast meats, cheeses, and breads. There were bottle of two different kinds of wine and a large pitcher of ale. A serving man about Mikey's age came to her with a steaming bowl of water. She looked over at Dobb to see what she was expected to do and saw him washing his hands and splashing some water on his face and neck. She followed suit a bit more delicately, trying not to spill any water. When she was done, she took the towel drape over the man's arm and dried her face and hands, and then thanked him. He bowed and then backed away. She joined Dobb at the table, taking her seat before anyone could think to hold a chair for her. She didn't want them doing anything for her; it embarrassed her in some odd way.

Once the king was seated they began helping themselves to the food with wild abandon. Mikey had nearly cleared her first plate before thinking to pour herself a glass of ale. She raised her glass and said "Gods save the king!"

"And may they bless our journey," he replied, raising his glass to her in return. They ate in silence and then at last pushed back from the table content and sleepy.

"That very may well be the very best meal I have ever tasted," said Mikey.

"I will pass your compliment on to Cook, my lord," said Mathilda as she entered with the servants to clear away the meal. She watched over the proceedings until the other servants had left the room. "Will there be anything else my liege? My lord? Or shall I lead you to your rooms?"

"I'm not a lord, Mathilda," said Mikey with some embarrassment. "You can call me Mikey."

"As you wish, Lord Mikey," she said serenely. Mikey sighed.

"I think we're finished here, Mathilda, thank you. If you would kindly see that Mikey has what he needs, I will see myself off into a bath and then some sleep," said Dobb. "I will see you this evening perhaps," he said to Mikey. "Sleep well."

"And you," answered Mikey. She watched the king walk away to his own suite, and then followed Mathilda to a suite of rooms set aside for her.

Mikey had to control a gasp as she entered the suite after Mathilda. The rooms were simple by royal standards, perhaps, but it was a finer place by far than any that Mikey had stayed in. She had been in lord's chambers that were less refined than these. Of course, it was dark and I was robbing them at the time, thought Mikey, so I might not have made a fair assessment. The first room was a sitting room with a small table and several comfortable chairs. The next room was the bedroom, and the bed itself was amazing. It had to be big enough for four people to sleep in without anyone falling out. It was piled high with the finest linens she had ever seen, and had seven pillows! She couldn't wait to see if it was as soft as it looked. Mathilda then showed her into the bathroom. Mikey found a steaming hot bath waiting for her, and a pile of clean towels. There was a large glass mirror in one corner with a small desk in front that had various colognes, soaps, and oils on the top.

"Will you be wanting someone to assist you while bathing?"

"Uh no… No, that won't be necessary," Mikey said, her face flushing as scarlet as her namesake.

"I will leave you then," said Mathilda. "Sleep well, my lord."

"Thank you Mathilda, I'm sure I will." Mikey wasn't sure if she'd heard a slight emphasis on the word lord or not. It was possible she might have imagined it. She looked sharply at Mathilda as the older woman walked out of the suite. She waited until she heard the door close and then went out to lock it so she wouldn't be interrupted.

Then she slowly stripped off her dirty clothes and got into the bath. Sometime later, she awoke feeling chilled and realized she'd fallen asleep in the bath. She climbed out of the tub and used a clean towel to dry herself. Then she climbed into the great bed and decided that it was, indeed, as soft as it looked.

Mikey awoke suddenly, feeling disoriented, unaware what had startled her from slumber. She listened to the room without opening her eyes. After a moment, a sound caught her attention, the sound of someone moving stealthily in the room. She opened her eyes slightly and tried to see who was making the noise. Mikey immediately saw the form of a woman moving around the room, lighting candles. She pretended to wake slowly, yawning and stretching, and saw the woman turn. Mathilda bowed slightly to her as Mikey levered herself up in bed, careful not to drop the covers and reveal too much.

"My apologies if I woke you, my lord," she said.

"I seem to recall locking the door when I got into bed," Mikey told the older woman.

"And so you did," Mathilda answered calmly. "I used a master key to open the door so that I might light some candles to give you light. I was concerned you might find it disconcerting to awaken in a strange place without light."

"It wouldn't be the first time," Mikey said under her breath. Mathilda cocked an eyebrow but said nothing. "That was thoughtful of you, thank you."

"I had another purpose in coming here alone," Mathilda continued. Mikey slipped a hand under her pillow, looking for the dagger she habitually kept there when she slept. "You won't need your dagger, if that's what you're searching for. I mean you no immediate harm." Mikey thought that was an interesting way to express that thought.

"What is it you have on your mind?"

"If I were to tell you that I am aware that our king spends time with the Scarlet Rat, and that I bear no enmity toward the thieves guild master, would that make you more comfortable?"

"Perhaps, though I'm not saying that has anything to do with me, you understand." Mikey was intrigued in spite of herself. She had a notion this woman was more than a housekeeper.

"Of course," Mathilda replied with a slight smile. "Would you mind if I sat?"

"Please, make yourself comfortable."

"Thank you," Mathilda said as she settled on a chair near the foot of the bed. "If we may drop the pretense about your identity, I will get straight to the point. I knew the man who was your predecessor, fairly well actually."

"Is that so? And that has what to do with me?"

"Please, if you would indulge me a few moments, there is more information that will help you understand my concern." Mathilda waited for Mikey to respond. When she didn't, Mathilda nodded slightly and then continued.

"Your predecessor's name was Kevin Bartolli, a gifted thief and a brave man. Many people were saddened by his untimely death. What most people do not know, however, was that he was working for the King when he died."

"But I thought he was killed by the king's guards? Hard to think he was working for the man responsible for his death."

"If they truly were the king's guards, then yes you would be correct," Mathilda was unruffled by Mikey's skepticism. "If we were to assume that they were not the king's men, but merely wearing the clothing of the guards, what might you think?"

"That someone was trying to foment trouble between the king and the thieves guild?"

"That was my assumption at the time, and I still believe you are correct. The man that called these false guards down on master Bartolli was a spy that I have traced back to the Wraith Army, before they invaded Kor Opan. He was never again seen in the city." Mathilda paused a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Mikey felt confused but curious at these bits of information. She wondered if her father truly had been a royal spy. It fit with what she could remember of his character. He had cared greatly about the safety of his city and the people who lived there. He had once explained that it was because happy, peaceful people were easier to steal from, but Mikey thought it went deeper than that. If what Mathilda was telling her was true, then her father had not only believed in the peace of the kingdom, he had done something to protect it. She found that appealing.

"So," Mathilda said suddenly, pulling Mikey back to their conversation. "My first question is this: do you know anything about Kevin Bartolli's family?"

"I know his wife died many years ago, well before his death," said Mikey cautiously. "I know they had a daughter."

"Do you know the whereabouts of the daughter?"

"No one talks about her at all in the guild or in the city."

"That doesn't answer my question, Mikey," said Mathilda with another of her calm smiles.

"Why are you seeking the daughter?" Mikey asked. Mathilda stared at her for several minutes without speaking, and then finally gave a big sigh and laid her hands open on her lap in a gesture of concession.

"You may have surmised this, but I am more than the head mistress of King Niall's household. I also run the intelligence service for the kingdom. Kevin Bartolli was working for me, on the condition that I protect his daughter." She paused, watching Mikey's eyes carefully. "That daughter disappeared the night Kevin Bartolli died and I haven't been successful in locating her ever since, though not for lack of trying."

"I do know where she is," Mikey said softly. Mathilda smiled.

"Is that because you are Michaelina Bartolli?" Mikey was stunned by Mathilda's shrewd guess, and her eyes must have betrayed this because Mathilda smile broadened. "My dear, I am truly impressed at your skill in changing your identity. I never thought of the Scarlet Rat as more than a companion of King Niall when he went tavern crawling, and then as I learned more of your exploits when we were invaded two years ago by the Wraith Army I began to watch you more carefully, thinking you would be a fine recruit for the service."

"Is that when you suspected I might be Michaelina?"

"Oh no, dear," Mathilda said with a chuckle. I didn't suspect that until I saw you here today. Your dark hair and light complexion, your gray eyes, all these things are uncommon in Kor Opan, yet they marked your parents, particularly your mother. You look so much like your mother and father that I knew you must be a relative. But from everything I knew of the Bartollis there were no other relatives. That left one conclusion, well, two conclusions if I were to accept that age was dulling my powers of observation." Mikey laughed along with her at that thought.

"Does King Niall know of your true identity?" Mathilda asked.

"He learned of it last night," Mikey answered. "He seemed very relieved at the news."

"I'll wager he was," Mathilda laughed. "I know he couldn't come to grips with the feeling of being attracted to a man. He'd spoken to me at one point about how much I knew about you, and whether you might be a woman pretending to be a man. I must admit I dismissed the idea. I'm ashamed to miss that, but I am impressed, as I said earlier, that you carried it off so well. You have no idea of the complications it would have brought my life if the king were to fall in love with a man. It would have been somewhat more difficult to produce an heir to the throne."

"I can just imagine," Mikey said laughing. "Has Dobb… Has Niall said anything more about being… attracted to me?"

"Not to me he hasn't," Mathilda said. She seemed to be weighing Mikey very carefully. Mikey wondered then just what would happen to her if this woman decided that she was unworthy of the king, or worse, that she was a threat to him. She had an image suddenly of being fed to huge dogs. She shivered.

"What are your feelings for Niall, if I may ask?"

"I haven't decided," said Mikey with some heat. "And they would be my own business even if I knew." Mathilda bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment.

"I meant no offense, my Lady."

"Mathilda, I'm still no lord or lady," Mikey said with a chuckle, her anger apparently forgotten as quickly as it came.

"That's not quite true, Michaelina. Your father was granted a baronetcy for his service. You inherited that title when he died," Mathilda told her. "Did he never mention that?"

"No," Mikey said. "It must have slipped his mind."

"Well Baroness," Mathilda said. "Regardless of how your current adventure turns out, I hope you will consider following in your father's footsteps."

"Dying at the hands of foreign spies?"

"Heavens, no," Malthilda responded sharply. "I mean that I hope you will consider serving the crown and putting your obvious skill to work defending the kingdom."

"I will certainly consider it," said Mikey quietly. "I hope you will understand that I cannot give you an answer yet, I need to focus on my quest before I can consider any change in career."

"Of course, I only ask that you do your best to protect King Niall while you are together. Now, I am guessing you might be hungry again. King Niall is downstairs waiting for you to join him for dinner."

"I really don't have any clothes suited to dining with the king, Mathilda. Could I just have something sent up here?"

"I believe I can help in that regard," said Mathilda. "I presume you would be most comfortable maintaining the illusion of being a man?"

"I'm not ready to change that much," said Mikey. "At least, not yet."

"The king has some clothes here from his teenage years," Mathilda said. "I will find you something that will be suitable."

Mathilda had waited for Mikey to dress and then had led her to the dining room downstairs where Dobb was waiting for her. Not Dobb, she thought, he is King Niall in this place. Mikey came into the dining room, following Mathilda. She was wearing black colored hose surmounted by a scarlet tunic. She was also wearing a light cloak of silver silk clasped with a silver chain. All in all, Mikey thought, Mathilda put together a nice look for the Scarlet Rat. She had seen herself in the mirror after donning the borrowed clothes and thought that she now looked the part of a young Baron of the kingdom rather well. The silver matched her gray eyes and the black was but a shade darker than her hair. Niall looked up as they entered, and Mikey could see him catch his breath. She felt a small warmth growing as she saw his admiration.

"You clean up very nicely, my friend."

"Thanks to some of your old clothes, I understand," she told him. She saw him glance at Mathilda questioningly and saw the older woman nod slightly.

"It seemed fitting Your Majesty, the Baroness prefers to maintain her accustomed attire. I offered the use of some clothing that might fit well enough. If you agree, I thought I might send some along with you for the journey."

"Baroness?" Niall asked.

"Her father's title, it was granted by your father before his death."

"I see," he answered. "Well, would the Baroness care to join me for some dinner?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," Mikey said with a bow. "I certainly feel like nobility in these clothes, although I don't know how well they will serve on our journey. I really don't know what to expect along the way."

"I'm sure Mathilda can find some things that will serve you well," Niall said. "Although, if she sends things that look that good on you, I won't be able to concentrate."

"I'm sure that a dagger stuck in your backside will help you to focus," Mikey told him sharply. The king laughed at her as though she were jesting. Mikey was torn again; on the one hand she was pleased by his attraction to her, while on the other hand she doubted her own beauty and ability to make her way in the world as a woman. She ruthlessly pushed the part of her that was thinking about asking him to teach her about the things men and women do together into the back of her mind. It went, pouting.

Their dinner was served not long after that. Mikey focused on emulating her friend's movements. She was conscious that if she were to choose to move in his societal circles she would have a great deal to learn. No better time than the present, Mikey thought. She was so focused on learning the etiquette, that she was unable to provide much in the way of conversation during the meal. At one point, after they had finished the main meal and were pausing to drink coffee while waiting for the dessert to be served, Mathilda entered the room.

"If I may be so bold, Baroness," she said to Mikey. "You either learn very quickly or you have experience among the gentry."

"First time, I'm afraid," Mikey said.

"You would indeed be a formidable opponent, then. I certainly hope His Majesty can persuade you to take a place within the Royal Service," Mathilda said, glancing slyly at King Niall.

"That will depend on what the King offers me by way of enticement," said Mikey with a laugh. As Niall sat forward, obviously interested, she realized she had just seemed to make an invitation. Cursing her careless tongue, she added "Gold, jewels, whatever a baroness needs to be successful." The King looked amused but chose not to reply. Mikey thought she had dodged that one, but only just.

"Will you require a guide back to your rooms, Baroness?" Mathilda inquired.

"No, thank you Mathilda," Mikey said. "I believe I will find my way."

"Then I will bid you good evening," Mathilda said with a bow.

"Mathilda," said Niall. "Would you please see that our supplies are ready for us to leave tomorrow?"

"Of course, Your Majesty. I have already set everything in motion."

"Excellent," he replied. "Good night then."

"I don't really need a dessert, do you?" he asked Mikey after Mathilda had left the room.

"What do you have in mind?" Mikey asked warily. She was worried that he would try to persuade her to spend the night with him, and she was prepared to remind him that she was better with a dagger than he was.

"I thought we visit the puppies," he said, surprising her. "I always like to check in with them so they don't forget me while they're growing. I thought you might like to see them and we won't have time tomorrow before we leave."

"Alright, that sounds like… err… fun."

Then he grinned broadly and then pushed back from the table and rose. He came around the table and held Mikey's chair as she rose. He then led the way through another part of the mansion, and out a back door. Mikey could smell more food and heard the sound of cooks and guessed they were very near the kitchen. Once outside, they passed along a covered walkway that connected several low buildings with the main house.

"The first building, and the largest, is the stable," Niall said. "These other buildings on the right are for the dogs and their handlers. It takes a lot of work to feed these monsters, as you call them, and the handlers take care of that. Thomas leads hunting parties on a regular basis to bring back wild meat for their food. The dogs even let us share in their meat from time to time." He laughed, clearly enjoying the idea of the humans being owned by the dogs.

"Will it be alright for me to be near the dogs?" Mikey asked nervously.

"They know your scent now and know that you are permitted here with me," he told her seriously. "That won't change unless you were to try to attack me, Mathilda, or Thomas. Or if any of us attacked you."

"Aren't the parents protective? Is there anything I need to worry about with them?"

"Not especially," he told her with a smile. "You learned the basics this afternoon. And you've already met the alpha male, Thorn. You will have to be presented to his mate, Bramble, but I'm sure she will like you. Once they approve, you can visit the puppies."

Niall led the way into the first of the dog's buildings, home to the alpha pair and their offspring. Once inside, Mikey saw the building was mostly one big room similar to a stable but without the stalls. There were piles of straw and a few large furs spread here and there. On one such pile, near the front of the building where they had entered, lay two of the huge adult dogs. Mikey had the oddest feeling of shrinking as they approached the dogs slowly. Thorn, the male, looked at the two of them without reaction, panting slightly. The female, Bramble, growled softly in her throat at the sight of Mikey. Mikey stopped and stood very still as Bramble rose from her bed and approached them. She was nearly the size of her mate, and her massive head rose above Mikey's causing the thief to look up to meet the dog's gaze. Bramble came close and sniffed first Niall and then Mikey. After Mikey had been sniffed thoroughly, the most frightening experience of her life, Bramble wagged her tail a couple times and walked back to her bed and rejoined Thorn.

"There you go," said Niall. "You've been approved."

"I don't want to ask what would happen if she didn't like me," said Mikey quietly.

"No," answered the king. "You probably don't want to know that."

"So where are the pups?"

"May we see your children?" Niall said, addressing the pair of dogs. Mikey thought he was being silly at first, but then Bramble made a chuffing sound in response. Apparently the sound meant yes, because at once four dogs came running into the room from a door farther back in the building. Mikey thought they were normal large dogs, though they were easily the largest dogs she'd seen, other than the adults she'd seen here today. They were the size of larger hunting dogs, yet still had the clumsy charm of puppies. Mikey fell in love with them right away as they gamboled around her and Niall.

"Oh my," she exclaimed. "Aren't you all the cutest babies ever?" Niall looked at her sharply and then laughed. The puppies surrounded Mikey and then promptly knocked her down so they could lick her face and sniff her properly. He was about to rescue her but she was laughing so hard he didn't want to interrupt.

Three of the puppies had the typical coloration matching the adults they'd seen. The fourth was solid black and had startling blue eyes. That odd pup immediately took a liking to Mikey. "Who are you, precious?" Mikey asked, holding the dog's head in her hands and scratching her jowls. The dog looked to be in dog heaven at the attention.

"We call her Sapphire, because of her eyes," Niall said. "She's the first black dog from this line in a hundred years." Niall sat down near Mikey and let the puppies climb over him. He wrestled with the three normally colored pups. Sapphire stayed close to Mikey, the pup was quiet and kept staring intently at Mikey whenever she looked away. As soon as Mikey looked at the pup, Sapphire would pretend to be interested in something else. It became a bit of a game between the two of them before long.

The two of them played with the dogs for more than an hour before getting tired of the rough play. Now I know what it feels like to be a chew toy, Mikey thought with a smile. She was quite over her fear now and was even able to pet Thorn and Bramble a while when they permitted it. These animals were intriguing to Mikey. They were at once loveable and dog-like, and yet they were deeply powerful beasts that seemed a force of primal Nature when aroused. She decided that she felt quite privileged to be accepted by them.

"Thank you for sharing your children with me," she said to Thorn and Bramble without a trace of self-consciousness when it came time to leave. She was smiling broadly when Niall led her back toward the house.

Mikey thought she heard a small sound behind her and whirled to confront an attacker. There was no one there. She stood still a moment, letting her heartbeat slow again, and then became aware of a pair of blue eyes looking at her from the shadows. "Sapphire, it's you. You startled me." The black dog approached her with her tail wagging and her red tongue lolled out one side of her mouth.

"Sapphire, no," said Niall firmly. "Go back to your bed, it's time for sleep little one." Sapphire looked abashed and slinked back to the kennel building. "I think she really likes you," he told Mikey. "I hope you will stay around and not break her heart."

"I will definitely want to visit her again," Mikey said with a happy smile. "It's you that I'm not sure about." Niall feigned a hurt expression and Mikey laughed. She punched him in the arm and said, "Does this house of yours happen to have any ale in it?"

"Of course," he answered, rubbing his shoulder. "We try to be civilized here in spite of letting you in." Mikey tried to hit him again, but he was too fast this time. He ran from her toward the mansion, laughing like a madman. She was laughing as well by the time they reached the kitchen.

They were so busy enjoying each other's company they failed to notice the black shadow with the blue eyes following them.