The fire spat sap. A log settled with a soft thud. Outside, wind-driven snowflakes kissed the glass panes of the window. I could not hear my own breathing. I waited. I waited. I was a suspicious fool. A slave to old fears. I waited. The guests would be there. I’d be missed. Nettle and Molly would be furious with me. I waited.
The door eased open; someone weaseled inside and then pushed the door silently closed again. I couldn’t see him. I smelled perfumed oil and heard the rustle of rich fabrics. Then a slight figure detached itself from the shadows and flowed toward my child’s cradle. He did not touch it nor lift the veil, but leaned closer to peer at my baby.
The youngster was well dressed in a silk shirt with an embroidered vest. He wore a silver necklace and two silver rings in each ear. The perfume was his hair pomade: His black curls glistened in the firelight. He stared down at Bee. I imagined her looking up at him, wondering if he meant her harm. He was completely absorbed in his scrutiny of her. I moved. When he lifted his hand to move the lace that veiled her, my shining blade swooped in on his throat. I pressed the flat of it hard against his flesh.
“Step back,” I advised him softly, “and I’ll let you live. At least for a little while.”
The boy’s intake of breath sounded like a sob. He held his hands open and pleading before him as the pressure of my slender knife moved him away from the cradle. I guided him backward. One step, two, three. His voice shook as he said, “Lord Chade said you would catch me. But Lady Rosemary insisted on sending me.”
I cocked my head like a listening wolf, trying to decide if I heard truth. “An interesting gambit. Those names could be seen as chinks in my armor. Another man might laugh and release you, send you back to your masters with a warning that you need more training.”
“I’ve only been with them three months.” There was relief in his voice.
“I said, ‘another man,’” I reminded him in a deadly voice. “Not me.” I put myself between the assassin and my baby’s cradle. “Strip,” I ordered him. “Down to skin. Now.”
“I—” The boy choked. His eyes flew wide open and he all but crossed his arms over himself. His voice went a notch higher. “Sir! This is unbecoming of you. No. I will not.”
“You will,” I informed him. “For I won’t be satisfied until you do. And I have no reason not to raise an alarm and then take affront at your being here. The Farseer throne sends an assassin-spy not only into my house, but into my child’s room? Tell me, boy, what do I have to lose? And what will Lady Kettricken have to do to erase this embarrassment? Will Lord Chade and Lady Rosemary admit you are theirs? Or did they warn you that they would distance themselves if you were caught?”
The youngster was breathing raggedly. His hands were shaking, I was certain, and he struggled with an endless row of tiny pearl buttons. Pearls! On their newest assassin! What was Chade thinking these days? If he had not been in my child’s room, I might have found such foolishness amusing. But nothing was humorous in this attempt. My blood moved cold in my veins.
I heard the rustle of silk and then a soft thud as he dropped his shirt to the floor. “An interesting sound for a shirt to make as it falls,” I observed. “The rest, please. Without delay. I’m sure we would both like to have this over with as soon as possible.” He had to bend down to peel his trousers and stockings off. A trick of the firelight caught the gleam of tears on his cheeks. Better his tears than Molly’s or mine, I thought. “To the skin,” I reminded him, and his smallclothes joined the heap on the floor. A short time later, I added, “You look chilly. Go stand by the fire. And don’t move.”
The lad moved with alacrity. He turned his back to me, and then twisted back to watch me. He was hugging himself despite the fire behind him while I systematically went through his garments. Tiny pocket seams gave way with small ripping sounds. My blade made a shush as it slid though fine silk. I was proud of that. It takes a sharp blade to part silk. Then I was finished.
“Only seven?” I asked him. I lifted my eyes to watch him as I let my hands check each garment and boot again. I set my plunder out in a short row on the floor before me. “Let’s see. Two poisons to mix with liquid, one toxic dust, a sleeping powder, and an emetic. So much for the hidden pockets. A tiny shoe-knife, scarcely worthy of the name, a set of lock picks, and a block of soft wax … for what? Ah, impressions of keys. Of course. Now, what’s this?”
“That is what I was to leave in her crib.” His voice was stiff, thickened with tears. “For you to find. As a proof that I’d been here.”