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The Scroll Thief: a Tale of Ithian comes out in print on 1st December. The ebook is currently available. To have a bit of an early celebration, here’s a section featuring the lawman Trask and former courtesan Halia, a chalk and cheese couple if ever there was one.
The horse trader didn’t have the most noteworthy reputation in the city, but he was more honest than most. The animals weren’t fed Dew to make them look stronger and brighter. But it also meant that the mounts they needed would cost them.
Mind you, thought Trask, sickly horses would cost us a hell of a lot more if it came to a chase.
Cerys had watched their inspection of the animals with a sceptical eye before interrupting as Trask made to select one.
“No. She’s too old.”
He frowned at her. “How do you know?”
She fixed him with that tight-lipped glare. “I come from Fean, famous for the horses bred there. I grew up on a ranch and unless I’m wrong, horses haven’t changed that much.”
He backed down, leaving her with Malachy, and joined Halia, who sat at the edge of the enclosure. She glanced at the sword Malachy had given him when he asked for a weapon, the same one she had held on him in the hall. Whatever she thought about his possession of it now, he couldn’t tell. She bore a hard-to-read expression. If the weapon belonged to Malachy he had no great attachment to it. Perhaps they were just practical enough to let the known swordsman carry the sword. Perhaps she didn’t really care. On noticing his scrutiny, she looked back at her brother and Cerys.
“She’ll pick the best he has and Malachy will argue the price down,” she assured him. “Not very far, but enough. If we need the money we can always send him back to steal it later.”
“No. That man is only trying to make a living.”
“Aren’t we all?”
He didn’t answer. Two women were picking out vegetables at a nearby stall. His ears pricked up at a snatch of their conversation.
“But they don’t know who His Lordship is, just that he seems like a gentleman, pays for the best, selects a girl and then…” She made a slashing motion across her throat.
“But in the Silken Jade…” her friend began dubiously.
Halia started to say something to him, but Trask caught her hand, squeezing it to silence her. He stood, pulling her after him towards the next stall, a baker’s.
“What are you doing?” she asked indignantly.
“I’m getting you some sweet pastries,” he told her, his steely gaze fixed on the two women. “Don’t argue. Just be quiet.” He jerked his head towards the women and then fell in beside them. Halia’s face fell and she slipped around to his other side, clinging to his arm like a lover.
“I know them,” she hissed.
But Trask didn’t reply. He gently squeezed one or two of the sweet cakes on offer, testing their freshness, for all the world trying to pick the finest one for her, an indulgent, if poor, lover. The baker’s boy glared at him, but Trask paid him no mind.
“It’s at least five girls in the last two months, all over the city,” the first woman went on. “It’s that Animus, I heard. It would take an animal to do that sort of butchery.”
“But wasn’t the High Enforcer in jail when this last one happened?”
“Who knows what they can do? Beliat’s boy is a guard and he said that Trask went clear through the walls to escape from Hopewell. He said the man’s a demon.”
Trask gritted his teeth. If this ever got sorted out, if he ever got his job back, he would find Beliat’s son and show him what a demon he could really be.
Halia pulled back from his tightening grip with a small cry and the scarf dropped from her face. The women looked around sharply.
“What is it, love?” Trask asked tenderly, pulling her to him and tilting her face up to his, hiding her from the others.
“Nothing,” she managed, just embarrassed enough to sound convincing. “I just stubbed my toe.”
He sensed her panic. If she said the wrong thing, those women could identify them. He had to shut her up and quickly, to turn the attention of those suspicious old biddies away.
“No one ever accused you of grace.” He laughed and bent to kiss her.
Halia froze as his lips met hers, her body hardening in his arms. He thought for a brief, desperate moment that she’d pull away in outrage, reveal their masquerade to the whole market, and pinpoint them to every guard and informant for miles around.
Then her body melted against his, sleek and compliant and all too intimate. She returned his kiss with a passion he had never experienced and a skill for which he found himself completely unprepared. His breath caught in his throat and his pounding blood centred on his groin. The pastries fell back into the stall as he caught her other hand and pulled it to his chest. Deep in her throat Halia uttered a groan, so quiet and smothered by their kiss that only he could hear it. Her fingers burrowed into the folds of his shirt, their tips brushing against the skin beneath and sending sudden sparks of desire shivering through him. Her perfume surrounded him, addling his mind, filling his senses. He stroked her hair through the scarf and held her to him, never to let her go.
The two women laughed gently as Halia pulled back and hurriedly wrapped her scarf around her face again.
“People will talk, love,” she said, a note of warning in her soft voice. “Maybe we should forget the cakes and just go home.”
Unable to think of a single argument, Trask allowed her to lead him back towards the stables, like one bewitched. Once they slipped around the corner, Halia slapped him hard across the face.
“Don’t ever do that again. Not even if our lives depend on it. Don’t come near me, don’t touch me, and don’t ever use me to eavesdrop on people.”
He caught her wrist before she could hit him again, twisting it up behind her back and holding it there. Her mouth opened in shock when he didn’t immediately release her, and then her expression stained with fear.
Good. She’d made a fool of him and he didn’t take that sort of thing lightly. She wasn’t invincible and it was time she realised it. No one was.
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