Chapter Deena and Leanna
"I know you'll find it uncomfortable, but there literally isn't anyone else I can send without making it obvious to her that I suspect her of illegal activities."
Deena nodded. Looked at the address. "She's renting this house?"
"Buying it. I need to find out how she came up with the money."
She nodded. "Right." She saluted and headed out. The soon to be ex-wife of the King's head of intelligence suddenly coming into money was no laughing matter. But Dad had _never_ brought work home. _Never_ talked about _anything_. It couldn't be what it looked like. She walked home, changed into civilian riding clothes while her almost-four year-old told her all about her day.
Deena felt guilty, sending her back to Marti, and wondered how the Karista Bay witches coped. Yellow had passed on the news about Beige and her new quadruplets, and apparently four other sisters had had seven babies among them. Six of the eleven were boys. Oh, shock and horror! Deena swore to never, ever, even _look_ lustfully at Xen when around the combined influence of the God of Just Deserts and Lady Tromp.
She ducked through the Corridor to borrow a horse. The bay mare rather embarrassingly named Tit came trotting at Q's request and Deena headed for the east gate. One of Xen's dogs, a mottled gray and black bitch named Barracuda followed her, and ignored orders to Go Home. Poor things were lonely, with Wavelength being sent to school in Ash and getting witches training afterwards. Bored, because Xen was mostly in the office these last few weeks.
Karista had outgrown its defensive walls a century ago. Ten miles beyond the walls the houses started spreading out a bit, and another two miles down a well kept street she stopped at the address her father had given her and eyed the house. Pretty, with a flower garden in front and she'd guess an acre of land behind. She dismounted and looped a rein through a ring on a post. "Now, pretend you're tied up." Tit pricked her black tipped ears and nodded. Smart Horses. Worse than Hell Hounds. She dropped a repressive glare on Barracuda, who laid down and looked submissive.
She walked up to the door and pulled the bell.
A young woman in a crisp maid's dress and apron answered the door. Deena blinked. "Is Leanna Janic here?"
"Yes, Miss." The girl stood blinking at her, stupidly.
"Please take me to her." Maybe the Evil Step Mum is the housekeeper?
The maid walked away and Deena followed her silently through the house and out the back doors. The garden was nicely landscaped. Her mother was sitting on a bench inspecting colored balls of . . . "Puppies? Hello Mum, I never knew you liked puppies."
Leanna looked up in surprise. "Why Deena, fancy seeing you."
"You certainly are looking good." No flattery there, she'd lost weight, and had a marvelous haircut, bleached it and brightened the color subtly. "In fact you look terrific."
"I've been working at a beauty salon, doing their books. The puppies were a stroke of good fortune. What do you think?" She handed the grunting handful to Deena.
It was striped purple and white. "Is the dye healthy for puppies?"
Leanna laughed. Her teeth were nice and white, too. "They aren't dyed. It's natural. They are all the rage. I'll sell that one for a round thousand royals."
"A thousand . . . Well. I see I needn't have worried about you. I was afraid you'd moved because you couldn't afford to live in town."
"Oh no, dear. I should have dumped your father years ago. I feel wonderfully free."
Deena stayed for lunch, and chatted about her brothers, the older in the Army and the younger in school. "Dad has a nice apartment. He talks about buying a house, but why? Dero will be out of there in two more years, and it's not like he has time to potter around in a garden."
"No. He never had time for anything but work." Harsh, but close to true. "Mari, bring the babies down, won't you? They aren't exactly family, but I'm going to raise them properly. Those maids haven't a bit of sense between them."
Deena admired and held the tiny girls, Mira and Izabeth. "So if my soon-to-be-divorced step-mother is practically raising them, does that make them nearly my sisters?"
Leanna chuckled. "I'd say nieces, except I'm feeling much too young to be a Grandmother."
Deena walked out a bit less dissatisfied with life, until she saw Barracuda, enjoying relations with a big black dog. "Xen is going to _kill_ me."
She reported back to her father. "If you can find out which beauty salon, I can check it out when she's not there."
"The Beautiful Woman. At the corner of Peach and King Haro."
"Oh, I know that one. I can get all the gossip from my fellow witches." She frowned. "Sandy said something about giving the beauty shop lady some puppies, and I assumed she meant Hell Hounds. Good grief. Those funny colored dogs make more sense if they're the result of witches practicing transformations."
"And Leanna is selling them for a thousand a pop? Old Gods. However, she seems to be making the money legitimately." Her father snorted. "Well, good for her. Thank you, Deena."
"I enjoyed it. Got rid of my residual guilt, too."
"You shouldn't have had any. I'm the guilty party."
"Well, it looks like you two are both better off apart, so we might as well toss the guilt altogether."
It was almost dinner time when she got back home. She unsaddled and brushed Tit and turned her out. The smart horses knew how to use the corridor, so the mare could stay or go as she wished. The house was fairly quiet, clanking from the kitchen and Xen talking in the parlor. No, reading. Kinkajou was in his lap, Vince and Kelli on the floor in front of him. All three cheered as he finished up the gruesome demise of the wolf.
"But of course, all you lot being witches and wizards and mages and so forth would no doubt not need to find a handy woodcutter to handle a mere wolf." Xen grinned over his shoulder. "Right, Deena?"
"Umm, I think they might need to get a little bigger before they could handle wolves." Deena stomped firmly on a desire to take her daughter's place on Xen's lap. Professional. I am very professional. And I'm a witch. I don't go all over gooey about a mere male.
"Hmm, maybe. So, what is Mrs. Houseman cooking tonight?"
The kids jumped up and ran off to find out, and Easterly and Garit walked in the back door, talking about the upcoming bandit sweep and any temptation she might have felt was gone in the busy swirl of their communal dinner.
Late Winter 1401
Lizard had a problem.
Well, if you counted his family, _lots_ of problems.
But his immediate problem was Beastly. Beastly wasn't feeling well, and Lizard had a horrible suspicion that his second hero was to blame. Which meant he had to decide whether to dose the horse, like Kevi had said, or go to his first hero and tattle on Kevi. Kevi had put something in the water for the cows – and old gods! They had all acted like they were fertile for a week! The bull had had a great time. But Beastly had jumped the fence and drunk that water too.
Lizard waffled, but the simple fact was that he had no idea how to find his cousin Mortimer. Which meant that he would have to trust Kevi.
He pulled the cork out of the wine bottle and poured some into the rusty bucket.
Beastly sighed and sniffed. An ear swiveled around and he stuck his nose in the bucket and sucked it all down.
Kevi hadn't said how much . . . Lizard decided to save the rest. Mouse whistled from the orchard, so he tucked the bottle behind a bush and ran to help. There was fruit to pick and take to town in the morning – hopefully with Beastly pulling the cart, not a milk cow.
Ericka slipped out of Aumt Elma's and looked to see what Lizard had hidden. Wine. Figured. Kid was going to be a sot just like the rest of the family. She took a sip. Good stuff, too. She took the bottle away with her when she headed home.
She just hated to cover up her new complexion with heavy makeup, but she didn't want Tyrone to catch on yet. Preferably not at all. Nielle did the same, but Nabelle begged off, saying she felt odd.
"I don't see Dare, either." Ericka craned her neck to look up the street toward that club.
Neille snickered. "Ericka, that elixir has cured him completely. He keeps coming over. You know?"
"You're kidding? I mean, he's not serious is he? He's a cousin."
"Well, he's certainly got a bad case of the hots, and he isn't chasing the others, just me." She sounded pretty smug.
"Huh. Well, it's not illegal to marry a cousin." Ericka caught Jesso Highland's eye and popped over to see if he had any money. She was right back. "No joy until auction night. Tomorrow and the next day will be a lot more fun."
"Me and Dare, we've been thinking we'd head for the Gold Rush Territories." Neille chewed a fingernail. "It's not like I don't know how to make plenty of money if the gold mining doesn't work out."
"Well, yeah, but gold mining sound even harder than farming, you know?"
"If we don't strike it rich, I suppose we'll be back."
Now Lizard was really worried.
The cow had gotten the fruit to market, but Tyrone had seen. And come right over. "You finally knock that vicious brute on the head?"
Jek shrugged at his nephew. "He's a little under the weather. Colic, I suppose."
"Huh, too bad. Horses die of colic. In fact, you ought to try and get him down to the auction, get some money out of him before he dies."
"Oh, no. I couldn't sell Mortimer's horse."
Lizard sighed. Uncle Jek never stood up to anyone. Even cousin Mortimer, his number one hero pushed him around. He just happened to push him the right direction.
"Well, whatever. Damned big horse to bury, unless you eat him, I suppose, but you don't want to wait until he's dead if you're going to." He reached out and Lizard ducked a slap. "Don't look at me like that. _I_ don't have anything to do with the maniac. _You're_ the one who's fed him something bad."
Lizard hissed angrily, but he remembered Kevi . . .
Tyrone rode back to the farms on the cart and walked out to look at the miserable horse. "I'll dose him up with some happy dust so he's not hurting and walk him down to the auction."
Beastly was so miserable he barely laid his ears back when Tyrone walked up and blew powdered poppy in his nostrils. Then he staggered back, wobbled in a circle and fell down.
"There. Give him an hour and he'll be happy as can be." Tyrone swaggered in the back door and got fed, just like everyone else. Lizard jumped up and down in frustration and finally lit out for town. He stared at the Corridor. Gulped and followed a carriage through. He flinched back from the noise, and got bumped out into the street. A huge street, with wagons and horses and people everywhere. And everywhere he looked there were buildings. Stone and brick and wood. Large and small. And by the time he'd figured out how to not get killed on the street, he was also very lost.
Everywhere, people were coming and going from Corridors. Lots of Corridors. And he had no idea which one was his.
He looked around frantically. There was a man in a uniform a lot like Mortimer's. He sidled up uncertainly. This fellow didn't look at all friendly.
"I'm looking for my cousin. He's in the King's Own. Do you know where I could find him? His name is Mortimer."
The man snorted and pointed. "Go that way about ten blocks, then cut to the right two blocks. Three blocks up you'll see guards about. Ask them."
"Thanks." He ran off in relief, dodging all the people on the sidewalks. "Ten blocks. Ten blocks." Turn before or after the tenth block? He turned before and went two blocks, turned and started seeing lots of uniforms. People coming and going from buildings. Huge fancy buildings. Palaces. He slunk along, overawed and uncertain. There were so many people in uniforms.
"Got a problem, kid?"
Lizard jumped and looked at the man behind him. "I'm, I'm looking for my cousin. He's in the King's Own."
The man raised his eyebrows. "Well, you're in the right place. This cousin got a name?"
"Mortimer. Mortimer of Easterly Farms."
The man's eyes narrowed. "Easterly." He bit a knuckle. "Mortimer Easterly. Right. Wait here."
The man dodged across the street and into a building. Lizard shifted from foot to foot, and squirmed while the people walking by looked at him like he smelled. Well, he'd been working since before the sun was up. He had a right to smell.
And suddenly there his cousin was, walking out of that building. Madder than hell, to look at him. But he relaxed his face and went back to looking like a stupid lackwit as he crossed the street.
"Lizard? What's wrong?"
"Tyrone's going to sell Beastly. He was a bit colicy and Tyrone blew some poppy up his nostril and says he'll take him down to the auction to sell."
Mortimer muttered something under his breath. "C'mon." He led the way further up the street, and then cut over to the biggest barn Lizard had ever heard of. There were rows and rows of stalls. Lizard followed Mortimer until he stopped at a stall. Bandit. Of course. But who'd have thought she'd be kept in a place like this. Like for Royal horses and stuff.
Mortimer saddled her up quickly, mounted and held his hand out. "Get up behind me. Put your foot on mine and there we go."
Lizard sat on the full saddle bags and held on to his cousin's belt. It was pretty bouncy back here, and Mortimer looked be in a bit of a hurry. He took a different path, through a bewildering bunch of small streets and came out suddenly on the street with all the Corridors. "How can you tell where they go?" Lizard yelled over the street noises.
"Do you see those letters over the top? They spell out the town it goes to." He turned Bandit though one and suddenly they were back in Grantown.
The sun was just setting when they got to the auction barn. Mortimer headed into the office, Lizard trailing apprehensively.
"Seen Tyrone tonight?" Mortimer smiled at Mr. Henri who ran the sales.
"Yeah, he just brought in that horse your dad uses to haul a cart around."
"Huh. You'd think by now he'd know to not try and sell my stuff."
He moved off then, and walked out the holding pens.
And there was Tyrone, with Beastly. Talking to some farmers. ". . . big strong fellow, as you see."
Lizard backed away suddenly, staying out of sight.
"So, Tyrone. Fancy seeing you here."
There was a long silence. "Mortimer. Er."
"Let's go have a little family discussion, Tyrone." Mortimer pulled Tyrone into the dark outdoors.
It sounded like a rather painful family discussion.
Mortimer walked back in and led Beastly out. "We've decided to not sell him." he told the farmers.
Lizard scampered around and met him out front where Bandit was tied.
Mortimer was looking Beastly over under the lamplight. Lizard squirmed. "I think he might have been poisoned. A friend, he gave the cows something a couple of weeks ago, and I think Beastly got into it. Tyrone said if he was colicing we should sell him before he died."
"Do you know what your friend gave him?"
Lizard shrugged. "It looked like wine. It was supposed to make the cows breed."
"Oh. Old Gods. Not that wine. Beastly as a stallion doesn't bear thinking about." He sighed. "However, whether or not that is the problem, it's also the solution."
He dug into a pocket and pulled out a two royal note. "Pop into Samo's and get a bottle of red wine. We'll be walking slowly home."
Lizard loped down the street, looking back uncertainly. What was this wine Kevi and Mortimer both knew about? Surely not those stories about the wine of the gods. Those could not possibly be true . . . A stallion? Wow. There was good money in stud fees.
He caught up with them a mile down the road. Poppy or not, Beastly wasn't feeling good.
Mortimer pulled a canvas bucket out of his saddle bags and poured half the wine into it. Then he added something from a small flask. That brought Beastly's head around as he smelled it, and gulped the whole half bottle.
"Poor fellow. Poppy and alcohol can't be a pleasant combination. Not to mention, he's eleven years old. A bit late for puberty." He dripped some more of his secret ingredients into the half bottle of wine and corked it. "Come on, Beastly. Let's head home."
Lizard got to ride Bandit, very much to his delight. The mare was of a smaller lighter build than Beastly, with a springy trot and plenty of energy. "She's Beastly's dam, right? Who's the sire? A big draft horse?"
"We don't actually know. She wasn't bred on purp . . . Oh." He snorted and then started laughing. "Old Gods! I totally forgot about her getting out with that dun. Well. That explains why he's so good at following commands."
"She let herself out of a stall at a place that has a big dun draft horse. Incredible old wreck. Thought at the time he was a gelding. A whole lot later I learned that he's . . . very smart." Mortimer was studying Beastly thoughtfully. "Beastly, once you're feeling better, perhaps we should have a long talk about what you want to do with the rest of your life."
The big horse snorted and shook himself. His ears pricked up and he started prancing. Bandit laid her ears back and snorted warningly at him.
"And, no. I wasn't thinking about you as the Wild Stallion of the Three Rivers. So behave."
Mortimer locked him in the barn over night, and when Lizard took a look in the morning he had balls. Small ones. "Wow."
Mortimer snorted. "I've got to get back to work." He looked up suddenly at the horse and grinned. "I've got some people and horses that I think you should meet."
Lizard frowned. "Are you taking Bandit?"
"Yep. Until Beastly is a bit better trained she'll still be my main riding horse. Maybe I'll find a good stallion to breed her too. On purpose this time. Hmm. Pyrite. Yes." He frowned a bit a Beastly. "I'll leave you here for a while. You need to adjust to the hormones and all that before I get Xen to adjust things back. And I'm sure Pyrite will be delighted to fill you in on how to be a really great war horse."
Beastly's ears pricked, and he nodded.
Mortimer looked down at Lizard. "And watch out for that fellow who gave him the wine in the first place. It's a damned inconvenient trick to play on someone else's livestock. I'm glad you came and got me, but, umm, next time, just ask for Captain Easterly. I don't much like Mortimer, as a name."
"Captain Easterly. Right."
"Stick him back out to pasture if he's still feeling good in the afternoon. I'll be back soon."
Captain Easterly. That is so posh. So not like the rest of our family.