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lady thief Page 17


  “Years,” I breathed.

  “Years!” he roared, stepping forward. My mother looked up, though, and caught his arm.

  “Wait. When can we see Joanna?” she asked. “She’s here, isn’t she? We thought she’d come with you.”

  I stood from the chair, needing to feel my knife, needing to be able to move if my father lunged for me. “No,” I said soft.

  “So she married after all,” my father said. “Where? In London?”

  “No,” I said, and my face twisted, my eyes filling.

  “Where is she?” my father demanded.

  “She died,” I whispered. I felt like crying but the tears didn’t come. I had cried so much for Joanna; it didn’t seem right to cry now when it were their turn to mourn her. I turned and looked at my parents, shamed. “In London. Three years ago.”

  My father roared and came toward me, but I ducked away from him as my mother wailed in pain. “Where is she!” my father bellowed.

  “My girl—” my mother cried, sobs stabbing in the middle of her words. “My only—girl is—dead—”

  “What?” I asked, but I weren’t sure if I even really said it over their hollering. My father continued to rant at me, yelling and coming after me, making me shift round the room. “Mother! What did you just say?” I demanded.

  “You killed our daughter!” my father screamed. “You killed our daughter! You took everything we ever had and never gave a damn about us! We never would have taken you in if we knew you would kill Joanna!”

  This stopped me dead in my tracks. “Taken me …”

  He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard enough that I thought my head would wrench straight off. I couldn’t stop him, couldn’t much think. Taken you in.

  My hand jerked and hit my chest, and searing pain made me gasp, jerking to life. I drew the knife and angled it at his throat. He let me go, madness in his eyes.

  “One of the other things I’m good at,” I told him. “Knives.”

  His face twisted and he spat at me. “You are not my daughter. You never were.”

  “Marian.”

  My head twisted to look at Gisbourne, standing in the doorway. “I believe you are needed elsewhere at the moment.”

  He folded his arms, looking at my father, and even if the kindness came from Gisbourne, I took my chance and left.

  But I didn’t run.

  I were done running.

  I went to the tourney grounds, but not the the dais where I were meant to sit. I went into the crowd and found Much. “Rob told me what happened,” he told me.

  My face dropped. How did Rob know? Did everyone know?

  He were looking at my hand, though, and suddenly the world spun into sense.

  “I’m sorry,” he told me.

  “It won’t change a damn thing,” I spat, waving him off. “You taught me that.”

  His shoulder touched mine. “Still.”

  “No John?”

  He shook his head.

  “Will you do something for me, Much?” I asked.

  He nodded. “Of course, Scar.”

  “You can’t yap about it,” I told him, looking toward him but not at him.

  “Even to Rob?” he asked.

  “Sort of. It has to be me what tells him, not you, Much.”

  “All right. What is it?”

  I scratched at the velvet on my gown, trying to push blood into my cold fingers. “Find out if anyone knows of someone who gave their baby to the Leafords.”

  He stared at me. “You mean …?”

  I nodded. “I think. I don’t know.”

  “You, or your sister?”

  “Me,” I said soft. “And fast as you can.”

  He nodded. “The monks might know. They would have cared for your mother in childbirth—or noticed the lack thereof.”

  “Or Lady Thoresby. Her mother were a midwife too.”

  He nodded. “I’ll find out, Scar.”

  A grunt rang out and we turned back to the field. It weren’t Rob fighting. “How has he been doing?” I asked.

  “Fought twice. He’s winning, but my guess is they’ve been ordered to hurt him more than beat him. He’s taking punishment.”

  I pushed my shoulders back. “One more day, Much, and it all changes. Forever.”

  He squeezed my good hand. “I’ll go and find out, Scar.”

  “Thank you.”

  Much left, and I went to find my next quarry. He were there, in an overloud red felt hat, selling a crowd on some story. I moved into his sight and motioned to him, and it took him a moment to end the story with a flourish and collect some coin before coming over to me.

  He flipped me a coin. “For the lovely lady,” he said with a bow.

  I caught it, then tossed it back to him. “I don’t want your coin, Allan.”

  He raised a charming eyebrow. “Then there’s something the lady does want?”

  I met his eyes dark and true. “Confidence.”

  He straightened, and the playman fell away. He looked at me. “I am a confidence man, Lady Scar. And at your faithful service, if you wish it.”

  “I do,” I said soft. “I need information.”

  “On what?”

  “Lord Leaford’s daughters.”

  He squinted. “It would seem you have the natural advantage to that information.”

  My pipes were thick. “I don’t. And I don’t know if this was said to wound me or if it’s true, but they—my parents—rather, the Leafords let me think I’m not their natural daughter.”

  His eyebrows rose. “Then to whom does the fair thief belong?”

  “That’s your bit to find out.”

  He bowed and kissed my hand. “It shall be done.”

  “Thank you, Allan.”

  I went back to the castle, and I walked past Rob’s room. I wanted to wait for him to return, to tell him everything, but it felt too raw, too new, too strange. And tomorrow would decide it all—he needed rest.

  I continued on, praying my night would be the only sleepless one.

  Gisbourne were waiting in the chambers. He raised his eyebrows. “I was not sure that you’d return.”

  I raised my chin. “My parents can say what they want, but that don’t change that I’m married to you, and that don’t change that I want that annulment. So I’m here.”

  He nodded slow. “All right.”

  “But I ain’t faking this anymore, Gisbourne. I’m not talking in the fancy way you want, I’m not wearing these damned skirts, I’m not going to supper tonight, and I’m not smiling and scraping to your princess. None of it.”

  He shrugged. “Fine.” He sat before the fire. “Though I would recommend at least wearing the dresses. I haven’t any men’s clothing that would fit you.”

  I crossed my arms. That were worth thinking over, but I weren’t going to say such to him.

  He nodded and didn’t speak no more.

  Gisbourne ordered the servants to bring an early supper to our chambers, and we ate in silence. He retired early and I stayed up, watching the fire, my stomach a knot.

  Chapter Twenty

  The morning came in hard. Shadowed skies blew out over Nottinghamshire, hailing the castle and grounds with snowy breath. I watched it through the window, and it did nothing to ease my heart. The cold and the damp would change the tension of the bows and arrows. But Rob wouldn’t never shoot without testing his arrows first. I wondered if they would let him use his own bow.

  No. Why would the prince ever give Rob any such gift?

  Rob would be fine—he knew any bow well enough and were no stranger to such weather. He were leaps and bounds better than Gisbourne if he had his own weapon, his own arrows, his own target. With such things taken from him, they’d still be a fair match. Rob would win. Rob had to win.

  Or, at least, I prayed it were so.

  With de Lacy out of the way, it were truly a contest between Gisbourne and Rob. Gisbourne slept sound as I watched and worried and ached. Gisbourne we
re in the best condition he could be. What if Rob hadn’t slept a lick? He were good with his weapon, but would he win?

  I looked at my husband and thought of de Lacy’s hand. What would they do to Rob to keep him from winning? It seemed they were trying to beat him down yesterday, and it had been close to working. But he were still in for the archery, and I knew the prince wouldn’t never let it be won so easy.

  My hand burned and I wondered what price Rob would have to pay for being the people’s favorite.

  Gisbourne stirred and I tucked the blanket tighter round me. “Close the damn window, you crazy woman,” he grunted from the bed.

  I didn’t. I stared outside, watching the swirls of snow like it were meant to sweep me into it, steal me away into its silence. Snow were a thief of noise, of sun, of darkness. No day would ever be bright and no night would ever be truly black under its curtain, and all that were under it fell silent and still.

  It were a fair perfect thing for the archery competition.

  Gisbourne cursed and threw off his blankets, bellowing for Eadric to come and dress him.

  I felt Gisbourne’s eyes on me, and I looked to him. “Do you fear for your beloved?” he asked me, smiling dark.

  “Always,” I told him. There didn’t seem any need to lie or bluster about now. “I think that’s the nature of loving someone. I fear for him with every breath.” I met Gisbourne’s eyes. “But I also trust with every bit of my heart that he can trounce you.”

  Gisbourne’s smile twisted. “Don’t think for a second, my dear wife, that Prince John will ever let a vagabond be named sheriff.”

  “And your honor can stand that?” I asked. “To win, knowing it were all false?”

  “False?” he asked, chuckling. “No. The prince promised this seat to me long ago and he damn well better deliver. The winner isn’t the falsity; it’s the entire game. It’s been nothing but a farce from the start.”

  “And what of me? What did he promise you to marry me? You say it were a bribe, but I don’t understand why he would ever do it.”

  “You’ll figure it out.”

  “I think you’re lying. Most because if the prince bribed you to marry me you’d never grant me an annulment. You’d never even think of it.”

  His eyes met mine, dark and level. “He’s toyed with me for long enough. I have followed the letter of his orders. I don’t give a damn if he doesn’t like it.”

  Staring at him, I almost believed it. I shook my head, looking out at the snow. “That ain’t the way of it at all, is it? You will always fear the prince and his wrath.” I laid my head on my knees as winter wind blew over my face. “You’re just his dog. That’s all you ever were.”

  He made a grunting sort of noise but didn’t answer. Eadric came and began to dress him, and after a while, Mary came for me, in what I hoped would be the last day I ever sat in noble dress.

  The nobles’ dais were bigger and fancier than before. The prince, Eleanor, Isabel, and Winchester were all on a platform higher still, the rest of us flanked out more careful than before. I were closer to the edge now, displayed, and I felt like some weak thing they had trussed up to remind Rob to keep his place.

  A horn sounded and the contestants took the field. They high-stepped over the falling snow—which, in fair amusing fashion, pages were sweeping idiot-like from the field of play—and came to the cleared space several feet from the nobles’ dais, full across from the heaving, cheering, wild throng of common folk.

  The men looked different now. Free from the metal of armor, it weren’t a game of defense now. Each man were bare of all but his skill.

  Rob glowed. He were red-cheeked from the cold, but more than that, his eyes were bright, a lush blue like fall sky that every flake of snow seemed to make brighter, bolder, more beautiful. His shoulders were square and strong, standing firm against the world.

  His eyes met mine and his smile were quick and sly, a slip of the old Rob I knew before the nightmares had begun. The Rob that were every inch the hero of the people. My blood ran hot and I smiled back at him.

  It would stand. Whatever strange and awful tricks Gisbourne and Prince John had devised, whatever the outcome, I felt it in my heart that the world would be right again. Even if it weren’t Rob, a lawful sheriff would take the seat and the people would eat, and live, and be free from such tyranny as they had known. Good would stand, and evil wouldn’t win out this day.

  Their names were called, and Prince John welcomed them. He explained the game—four rounds with a target that would be more removed with each round, and anyone that missed the inner circle were eliminated. Best shot would win the game, the prize of the golden arrow, and the seat of sheriff. Him what won were to take his oath as soon as the game were done.

  There were five targets; the first distance were twenty paces from the mark. It were a shot a child could make, but it were meant to be easy. The men took several minutes to practice, testing the spine of the foreign arrows, testing their bend. How supple the spine of an arrow were changed everything in the way it flew, and it weren’t something you could know without flying them first.

  The horn blew for the start of the first round. Fifteen men were competing, and the first five stepped up. Gisbourne were in them.

  Edward Marshal were overseeing the competition, and he stood to the side, half between the target and the archers. He raised his arm, and they pulled arrows from the quivers staked into the ground, and five creaks sounded as the archers drew the strings back, fixing their bows with that lovely tension that set an itch in my hands.

  I looked at Gisbourne. His stance were perfect, balanced, easy, and sure, his arms filled with strength and power that the bow didn’t bother with. All a bow cared for were the beat of your heart, that tiny space between beats, between breaths, when your mind were clear and clean and the arrow could slice right down the center of it.

  Marshal’s hand dropped, and four arrows flew. Gisbourne’s took a moment to fly, and I could feel it, him waiting for that perfect half-breath.

  His were the only one to hit the center ring, and as the others gaped at him, he turned around and smiled at me, wide and brash. I nodded to him. It weren’t within me to try and say he weren’t an epic marksman.

  Five more stepped up, and Robin were in that wave. He rolled his shoulders and smiled at the crowd, and they cheered for him. He could make this shot blind, and they all knew it.

  His arrow hit center. Of the other four, three more hit the inner ring.

  Robin turned to me and winked as they left the marks. The last five moved to the marks, notched, drew, and let fly. Three more arrows hit the inner ring.

  It were a fair paltry showing, to be true. Even with a broke hand I could have made that shot.

  Eight archers moved to the next round, and the herald sounded the horn, causing four small pages and one overtall page to run hell for leather over the snow, churning up flakes behind them and even kicking snow onto their own backs. They grabbed the targets and hefted them up.

  “One!” Edward Marshal bellowed to them. They all took a pace. “Two!” he cried, and they moved again. He did it eighteen more times till they had moved twenty paces.

  Isabel were the first to titter. The lanky lad’s target were the full length of a man farther than the other four, and Marshal yelled and waved his hands till the red-faced boy brought it back in line. The whole court and stands laughed at the show, but I were silent.

  Five men stepped up to the marks, Gisbourne and Robin at opposite ends of the line. This time their brash and boastful looks weren’t for me. They looked down the row to each other, and I watched as Gisbourne grinned and nodded, and Robin just inclined his head with a touch of a smile.

  Marshal’s arm fell, and only two arrows flew; the third, a smaller man, waited a breath, same as Gisbourne and Robin. I watched as Rob’s eyes drifted shut right before he let the tail of the arrow go.

  Rob, Gisbourne, and the short one advanced.

  In the next wave, t
wo more advanced to the next round. It seemed silly, really; already, their lack of skill were showing and their arrows were just in the bounds of the inner circle, where Gisbourne and Robin’s were true and hard to the center.

  The horn blew again, and this time the sweeping pages set to the fields and the players withdrew. Eleanor and Isabel stood, handed off the dais by Winchester and the prince. I stood too, swaying toward Eleanor like I were naturally drawn to her, but Isabel stepped quick to me. “Come, Lady Leaford. My legs want for walking.” She hooked her arm through my good one like a man might, and drew me off with a wave to her ladies to leave us.

  “I don’t care if you tell anyone, you know.”

  I looked to her. She raised her chin, and her pale skin against the snow seemed bright like oyster shells. “Your Highness?” I asked.

  “That Lady Essex was attending my husband so late. Gisbourne was quite upset about it, but if you think I will waste breath trying to convince you not to tell the court, you are mistaken.”

  There weren’t much like getting fingers hacked off to make you forget an adultery or two. “It’s not my place to say such or judge,” I told her honestly. “But I don’t hold no thoughts of your husband being a great man.”

  Her head whipped to me in such a way what sent her dark curls flying, lush like suede and making me miss my hair, my only bit of vain. “He is a great man. All great men cannot be held accountable to the standards of peasant marriages.”

  “It ain’t about nobility,” I snapped back. “Faithfulness is God’s own law. It’s a commandment. Break it or don’t but don’t say that nobles aren’t accountable.”

  “Royalty is picked by God,” she told me. “They rule by the right of God. That’s why it’s a mortal sin to spill their blood, to dishonor them. And John is no different.” She tossed her hair again. “Besides, I hold no illusions that he ever loved me for more than the gold I brought him. I know him better than he thinks I do, you know. I see him looking at that French tart Isabelle—like two more letters without sound makes her name so much more elegant than mine—and he doesn’t care for her beauty. He sees French armies, French power. French gold. When he wants beauty he’ll turn to Lady Essex.”