Charlotte felt uneasy as the moments passed by and Rone had not returned. Compulsively, she put her hand into her bad and rummaged until she found the leather bag that was stuffed with her gold. An itch in her mind had made her believe that somehow, in the rush out the door of the inn, she had left it behind. There would be no getting off of the Green Isle without that long-hidden cache, and feeling its immense weight, the majority of what she shouldered on her flight from Cataling.
Rone had proven his word to her with that bag of money, enough to buy himself a title if he so desired, though the test had been unexpected. A day out of Cataling, while still climbing into the dry highlands, he had discovered it while repacking their bags, convinced that she was struggling too much with the weight. He had nodded to her and told her to hold onto it until he earned it; Charlotte knew he could have quite simply killed her for the money and never bothered with her promise of payment by her uncle.
“Charlotte the Red, I presume?”
Charlotte flinched at the soft-spoken voice, and looked up to see a plain-clothed man with a well-trimmed beard sitting down across from her. She reached for the pistol, folded in her lap amidst her skirts. Trying to calm herself, she eased back the hammer and pushed up the frizzen, feeling for the grit of the prime.
“My name is Dem. I am not here to return you to your husband, so please don’t shoot me.”
“You work with the other man, then?”
“I don’t know who the other man is to you,” Dem said, raising his eyebrows. “I’m just here to get you out of the cook pot, so to speak. Vindrel’s company should be getting here soon, but I know of a few ways out of this particular social area.”
Dem looked at her and frowned. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get you out of-” Dem flinched and cut off his words.
“You make interesting friends when I’m not looking,” Rone said. He was standing behind Dem’s chair, his pistol, mostly obscured by his open jacked, was pushed up against the man’s neck.
Dem put his hands on the table. “I have a safe house for you, at least until you can get aboard a ship and get out of here.” He turned his head to look at Rone. “You’re running out of options, sir.”
“You work for the count as well?”
“Not directly. I aim to keep you out of Vindrel’s hands, and that should be enough.”
“So that was him, and he’s he knows we’re here.”
“Who?” Charlotte said.
“A captain of the Cataling garrison,” Rone said. “You never met him?”
“No,” she said. She looked to Dem. “How will you help us?”
“He won’t,” Rone said.
“I’ll slip you out the back door and take you somewhere safe. There are a few ways to cut through to the Garden Wall that you likely don’t know about.”
“I have a room upstairs,” Rone said. “We’ll need to change our clothes.”
“That can wait,” Dem said. “It must wait, really.” Rone stood still for agonizing few moments. Dem turned to him and said, “I wish I could say it doesn’t matter to me if you come or not, but my ass is on the line here too.”
The crowd cheered as the musicians finished a song.
“Let’s go,” Charlotte said. “Sitting around is worse than running.”
“Fine,” Rone said. He tucked the pistol back into his belt and picked up his bag. “Lead the way…”
“Dem.” He gave Rone a disingenuous smile and stood up.
They followed the lanky man past the fireplace and around a corner to small room with tables overflowing with food stuffs. A short door stood at one end. Dem casually flipped it open and ducked in, lowering himself down a steep stair into darkness. Charlotte went next with the musket.
“I can’t see anything,” she said.
As Rone began to duck in, a sharp voice rang out.
“Hey! What are you doing with my larder?” It was the barkeep, and he came stomping up to Rone, picking up a small club from beside the entryway.
Without hesitation Rone kicked the man in the belly, doubling him over before he could wield his club. Rone then tipped over a table of vegetables onto the man and ducked into the cellar. A serving woman that was walking by cried out as she saw the scene and ran away. Voices in the common room answered her.
Before he shut the door Rone yelled at the barkeep, “Your kitchen is slow as shit. I ordered soup half an hour ago!” He slammed the door and looked for a latch for a moment before descending down the stair. At the landing a small cellar, stone floored, spread out. A dim light cast by a small lamp illuminated the low-ceilinged room. Barrels and kegs leaned against one wall, and bags of flour against another.
“That your idea of a joke?” Dem said.
“You bet,” Rone said with a chuckle. “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.”
Dem scoffed and moved toward the far end of the cellar. He stood on a barrel and pushed against the ceiling, revealing a trap door. Moonlight spilled onto the floor as Dem reached down and picked up a crossbow, then threw it up into the light. He pulled himself up and out of the cellar.
His hand stuck down. “Give me your bags.”
Rone pulled his bag off and handed to Dem, who lugged it out and set it on the street beside him. He followed with Charlotte’s bag.
“The girl next,” he said.
Rone ignored him. He handed his pistol to Charlotte, who, lacking anywhere else to stash it, stuffed it between her breasts, and then pulled himself up and out of the cellar. When he was clear Charlotte came and stood on the keg, her arms uplifted, and Rone quickly grasped her elbows with two hands and lifted her up. Dem had already moved to the corner of the inn and was gazing away, reloading his crossbow. He looked back to Rone and held a finger to his lips, then motioned for them to come.
They both quickly shouldered their burdens and came forward. The sound of boots and voices filled their ears as the passed out of cover of the building. A quick glance down the side of the building revealed men armed with long guns and pikes laying hands lightly on modestly clothed men and women as they exited a bar. Occupied as they were, they did not notice the trio as they slipped into another alley.
“Here,” Dem said. He pointed to an opening in the alley that seemed to beneath one of the buildings. Stars, wet with condensation and slime, were going down into a darker pathway.
Charlotte covered her mouth with her hand. Rone motioned her down, and she followed Dem. She had to keep her hand against the side of the stairwell to keep from slipping, and she had to kick out with her feet on each step to stop herself from tripping on her skirts. At the bottom Dem swung open a small iron gate, revealing a long open sewer that ran perpendicular to the alleyway before curving away some yards ahead. The entire thing sat some six feet below the level of the street, with small bridges and even entire buildings going overhead, blacking out sections of the path.
“Don’t worry, we won’t be down here long,” Dem said. They followed him through a short, straight tunnel that ran under a building before revealing star and moon on the other side. Openings from the street cut into the walls here and there, with water and other refuse dripping from them. When they could, they walked along the dry edge, but in a few places obstructions forced them to step quickly through a few patches of sewage. They passed two more stairs and walked along a long curve before Dem motioned them to step up and out. When they reached the top of the stair they found themselves in an unfamiliar street. A long ivy-covered wall lined one side. The street was quiet, nearly soundless, and their footsteps echoed loudly.
“I hope you’re up for a bit of a walk,” Dem said. “My place is down this lane. Almost to the outer wall.”
Dem turned away, and at that moment, Rone struck. He swiftly kicked at Dem’s back leg, striking the back of the knee. Dem began to collapse, but even with his heavy pack, Rone was already moving swiftly to bind the man. He twisted Dem’s arm causing the crossbow to drop to the street. It released as it hit, sending a bolt flying against the ivy-covered wall with a dull thud. Rone’s dagger was instantly in his right hand and against the small of Dem’s back, his other arm wrapped about the man’s neck.
“Stop!” Charlotte cried, fumbling the musket to the ground. “No, Rone!”
Rone did stop, but did not remove the knife, which bit still slightly into Dem’s jacket, tearing the cloth. Dem, still struggling against the hold, had his back arched and was kicking to stop himself from falling onto the blade.
“Why should I stop?” Rone’s voice was cold and distant.
“He helped us.”
“Only to help himself, or the count, who is his employer, I reckon. He killed for that employer little more than an hour ago, and he will kill me if he gets the chance. We have no friends here. You should know this.”
“I don’t care. Please.”
Rone took a deep breath, but whatever thought he had brewing, whatever rebuttal he was stewing up, was lost as the sound of hooves echoing filled the silent street. He pulled away his dagger and struck Dem on the temple with the pommel. Dem collapsed with a groan.
“Quickly!” He grabbed Charlotte’s hand and pulled her down the street. They ran with all the speed they could muster.