The King’s Road

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/106246.html)

It had all happened so quickly.

Consciousness crept back in slowly, reluctant to be complete: like dawn breaking on a dark and cloudy day. Her head hurt, and fresh pain seemed to jostle into it with every rocking, jerking movement under her. She was, Cybele became dimly aware by degrees, slung face-first and sideways over the withers of a galloping horse, close against the knees of some rider who was holding her steady with a hand in the small of her back. Her arms were stiff, her wrists bound together behind her. She could see nothing, and perhaps it was the darkness in part that accounted for her confusion; some scarf or cloth had been bound around her eyes.

As more of her sense returned, she could remember a bit more of what had happened, although only in panicked and bewildering flashes. The coach had been on the King’s Road, on the way back from her shopping day at the port to help the servants prepare for the inspector’s arrival, had just entered the velvety night-shadows of the wood, and then the air had been shattered by the thunder of muskets from off in the trees — she had heard shouting, the coachman and shooter from the front as well as other, strange male voices, and then more gunfire and the new thunder of hooves much nearer by — and in her alarm she had thrust her head to the curtained window in spite of her nurse’s startled protests from the other bench, to try to see what was happening. And then, rapid and disordered, the shocking strength of an arm around her shoulders and another around her head, pulling her in spite of her startled scream through the carriage window and fully onto the horse racing alongside; and some glass vial held near her nose and mouth, its shape bumped against her in all the clumsy motion of her captor’s gallop, a handkerchief around her lower face sealing in some poison odor…

She had no sense of how long ago that had been, or how far they might have come from her coach, the road, and her protectors in the time she’d been in her swoon. It mattered little anyway, she supposed — feeling numb and bleary, scarcely able to think. She was captured: taken by brigands to God knew what purpose. Had the others escaped? Dour, boring, constant Kate, and the driver and shooter… were they all whole and safe? Returning even now (or some time ago, perhaps) to the manor, at a blinding speed, to tell her father the awful news? Or…

Cybele wriggled on the horse, feebly at first. When that failed to accomplish anything, not even disheveling her blindfold, she found the strength to kick her feet instead — and at once the hand on her back pressed down with more force, repressive instead of secure.

“None of that, foolish,” a voice said from above her. It was male, so deep it growled like thunder, but strangely pleasant for all of that; there was a tone to it that was almost jovial. Although at the moment that only made her stomach sink. “If you fall, you’ll be trampled.”

She tried to speak — to snap at him, or to ask after her companions, or ask any number of the other questions whirling around her mind like tormenting ghosts. But her throat was too dry to squeeze words through, and her head still too foggy and unsteady, with the drug and darkness and motion. In the end, she only fell still again; and after more long moments, her consciousness again clouded over and was gone.

She only stirred again when she was lifted down from the horse’s back, and heaved across some muscular human shoulder instead. They had stopped, plainly, and there were voices and laughter and the crackle of a fire all around, although her eyes were still covered and she could see nothing. She was carried through the midst of these unseen others, most of whom seemed to pay her little mind. As her head cleared, she began to struggle again; but her captor only laughed, in the same deep, rich voice she’d heard before, and patted the small of her back where he held her, as though she were a misbehaving child.

In time, the man carrying her stopped, and she was surprised to be lifted again and set down on her feet on solid ground. She had time to feel bare earth under her slippers, and a crackle of fallen leaves around her feet, to smell a breath of breeze that carried loam-and-leaf smells of the forest — and then none of it mattered much, because large hands had gripped either side of her head, and drawn the blindfold away.

She was facing the fire she had heard before, and the sudden brightness of its light made her wince, after so long with her eyes covered. It had been built in a forest clearing, much deeper in the woods to the manor grounds’ west than she had ever been: thick trees closed in every side, and the trampled dirt that lay underfoot led off in paths in several directions, cutting through underbrush that was otherwise so thick it looked as though it would drown a traveler at once. Horses had been tethered out along these trails, just beyond the reach of the light, and most of these were eating contentedly from the bags draped round their muzzles. There were rudimentary signs of a camp struck: blankets for sleeping, stones and logs pulled up around the fire for seats, packs and swords and muskets set carefully aside out of the easy reach of passing feet.

Between her and the campfire were loosely ringed some dozen shadowy man-shapes, most standing nearby, a few sitting closer to the flames. Her eyes had not yet fully adjusted to the light, and with it so strong behind them, she could make out none of their faces. The man with whom she had ridden was still behind her, and when Cybele craned around to catch a glimpse of him, she was alarmed wide-eyed; he was not only even larger than she had dimly sensed, taller than her by head and shoulders and nearly twice as broad, but bearded and wild of countenance, an effect which his broad grin at her regard only worsened. He was dressed handsomely, if a bit shabbily, but looked as though he might be better suited to a dock-worker’s rags. She turned away again, swiftly, her heart fast in her throat. By what sort of monsters had she been taken, that this — brute had been the one entrusted with their captive?

By now her vision had cleared somewhat, but she found no answers in what she saw. The men around the fire were all strangers, of course, and she could find nothing in their faces or persons that meant anything to her. Most were young, all appeared travel-worn and dusty and strong, and all were dressed more or less like her own captor: with dignity if not with wealth, not a one in careless shirtsleeves. Only a few wore hats, but that was to be expected. Some were focusing on other tasks around the fire, some watching her with amused interest. From these she turned her eyes away, trying to scowl, her pulse thumping. It was all too easy to imagine what such smiles could mean — what such loathsome creatures could intend to do with her.

It was as her gaze turned straight ahead again, however, that she saw one of them approaching her, and focused her attention in on him in new alarm. This one was tall, and looked older but rather slimmer than the rest, narrow-shouldered and long-legged under the lines of his coat and breeches. He did wear a cocked hat, turned aside like a soldier’s, and was clean-shaven, with a narrow, arch, handsome face — only made all the more so by the lines about its eyes and brow, and with features that were strikingly sharp and finely-cut, almost pretty. Like the rest, he smiled as he came near, and the sight of it made Cybele’s brow curdle yet again. It was hard to tell if what she saw there was cruelty or mischief, but it was just as hard to say which she would hate more.

“The young Lady Dalton,” the man said, and swept off his hat into a low bow. His hair, Cybele saw, was dark beneath it, thick and glossy and held back in a short tail at the nape of his neck, threaded through with silver at the temples and in glints throughout. She was surprised by his voice; his age and carriage had made her expect it to be nearly as deep as that of the man holding her bound wrists, but what came instead was a sweet, musical tenor. “We are honored by your presence.”

And at that, at last, Cybele could find her voice; it was a struggle to produce it from the rapid rise and fall of her chest, but at least she was relieved to find herself the struggle’s equal. “Where have you taken me?” she asked — tried to demand, in spite of how her voice tried to shake. Trying to stay calm and keep her wits. She drew herself up as high as the hands holding her would permit, meeting the man’s eyes as boldly as she dared. “Who are you? What have you done with my guardians?”

The smile the man gave her at that was not precisely kind, but she fancied it had softened a bit since the last. If still laughing at her, it seemed more at her concern than at the incongruity she must cut: her hair beginning to tumble loose from the strain, heavy white gown dragging in the dust vagabonds had trampled. “Your traveling companions are safe, on my honor,” the man said, replacing his hat. “After all, what sense would there be in kidnapping and then leaving none to carry the demand for ransom?”

The man behind her laughed again, earning a repressive look from the man before her, but Cybele scarcely noticed either. For her part, she was hard-pressed just not to slump with relief — misplaced or no. Kidnapping was little cause for celebration, but at least if they intended to earn payment for her safety, her safety was at least for the moment ensured… so long, of course, as it looked as though her father was likely to pay. Still, the news renewed her strength, and that in turn let her find not only her tongue again — but her anger, a sudden and welcome red throb in her chest.

“And what honor does a kidnapper have?” she said, straightening her shoulders again to boost the retort with defiance. “I suppose you have answered my other questions as well: plainly you are criminals, and where you have taken me is a den of thieves.”

The man in front of her had raised his eyebrows, and Cybele thought there was genuine surprise behind the patient tolerance in his gaze, but one of the others around the fire who had been listening beat him to his answer. “Quite a mouth on that one, Annie,” he called, head raised from the dagger he was whetting with a frown dragging at his brows. “You going to let her talk like that?”

“She can say whatever she chooses,” the man (Annie, had the bandit said? what a curious diminutive, even if he were perhaps called Andrew, or Anatole. Or had she misheard, had it been Andy instead?) said equably, his arms folded over his breast. His eyes still rested on Cybele’s, and although their dark intensity had begun to become uncomfortable she held them gamely, her head tossed back. “As long as she understands that it will change her situation very little.” He looked her over for a long moment, appraising and curious, and then at last only nodded at whatever he saw. “Kidnapper I may be, my lady, but I assure you that by no means are honorable folk and dishonorable professions mutually exclusive, particularly not in such times as these. You are my hostage to fortune; but likewise, my fortune is your hostage. Your servants are well, and so are you. Perhaps on that basis you’ll trust my motives at least enough to cooperate.”

That was more or less what Cybele had just thought herself, although with rather less absurd prettiness. She scowled, turning her gaze at last down away from his. “Why should you need me to cooperate?” she said, down toward her feet. Instinct held her back from true rudeness, but she fought it; the anger was far greater comfort than her fear. “You already have me trapped and bound.”

The man sighed, but to Cybele he sounded amused all over again. “…Yes, I suppose so. Please do forgive me for my efforts to be cordial.” That made her snap her scowl back up to face him, but he appeared to have lost interest in her altogether — which to her relief only incensed her more. “In any case, rest well tonight. We’ll have another hard ride in the morning.”

And that, at least for the time being, seemed to be the end of that; her kidnapper, still nameless beyond the peculiar thing his companion had called him, bowed this time in little more than a nod and then turned away. He returned to the sides of his men, who talked and laughed with him in a lower tone Cybele could no longer hear, and although her eyes followed him with a fierce intensity that again surprised her, he would not turn to look at her again.

She was escorted by the man who had ridden with her to one of the heaps of blankets, out of the main bustle of the fireside but by no means out of sight. He untied her hands before gesturing her — with more mocking subservience that she ignored — into the makeshift bed, and then sat beside her with a dragon in his heavy fist, keeping the pistol plainly in her view. She turned away from him as she lay down, and closed her teeth tightly even as she also closed her eyes.

Her older sisters had always teased her for a coward and a weakling, since they had all been small; Cybele the youngest and the smallest, pale and soft and timid, without any of the unseemly boyish inclinations that had made their father clutch his head in mock despair, bemoaning his two eldest daughters who would never be married, until they would fall on him in his armchair in a laughing, wrestling heap. Cybele, who never wriggled away from dresses, who abhorred dirt and insects and reptiles, who would prefer to sit indoors with a lapful of needlepoint rather than bowl on the rear lawn on sunny days. Who wept at a moment’s notice, for a bruised elbow or a torn hem or a wounded bird. They had been as baffled and amused by her as these brigands were now, fond and protective as was their father but as ultimately exasperated as well. And in whispers at dinner and in the playroom it was always Cybele the coward, the crybaby, who ran quailing from a handful of earthworms and kept neat ribbons in her hair, and always sat perfectly, invisibly still.

The blankets were scratchy and smelled of horse, the night cold, the clearing still noisy and bustling if only at a distance. And Cybele lay still now, certainly, and for now could even believe herself invisible. But her eyes were dry and hot all night, even long after all her captors but the guard sitting beside her had gone to sleep, and even as all slept around her they stayed open in the dark.

She was weak, but no coward. And she felt no need to cry.

The morning’s ride was as hard as promised. Cybele’s eyes were covered again; she had no idea of what purpose this could serve, as surely they had passed outside of all the land she recognized in the first hour’s ride, but all her attempts at protest went unheard. To her relief, however, this time she rode sitting upright — and not with the hulking thing who had kept her the night before, but behind the kidnappers’ apparent leader, the dark-haired man with the hard, humorous eyes. She was rather less relieved by this last than she might have been, however, and even less to find her wrists lashed this time with her arms around his middle, but all the haughty protest she tried to summon, to cover her discomfiture, seemed to come out querulous and petulant instead.

“Do be still,” the man said at last, cutting her off, in weary and irritable tones. Although she couldn’t see him, the sound of his voice and rustlings of his person suggested he was still adjusting his straps and tack, rather than turn to look at her. “Your wrists, I assure you, can bear far greater insult than can my ears.”

For a moment after that, Cybele could only splutter. “How dare you be so rude to me?” she demanded at last, staring hard into the darkness of her blindfold to try to will the last of her blush away. Amidst whatever else he was doing, his shoulders shrugged.

“Only because you’ve made it so plain that it would be useless to be polite.” His weight settled back on the horse, at last seeming satisfied. “I’ve been called many things in my life, but never a wastrel.”

…To be honest, she could think of little answer to that. “What if — I should lose my balance and fall?” she tried once more, instead. “I’d drag us both from the horse.”

He sighed, which again she could mostly feel in the shifting of his shoulders. “And likely my horse down atop us, and kill us both,” he agreed, with a pleasant good cheer she did not find appropriate. “I have a suggestion, your ladyship.” He snapped his reins, squeezing his mount with his knees as he finished: “Don’t fall.”

And they were pounding away over unseen trails, his waist hard and lithe in the circle of her arms, her breast pressed to his shoulderblades. His riding coat was worn to softness against her skin where it touched, his body warm and blocking the wind from her face, and she grimaced and turned her cheek away. A worse insult than any other he’d dealt: that she should be made to find his presence, and his nearness, pleasant.

It was a long, rough journey, spanning most of the day and jarring her countless times with their speed and the unevenness of the terrain. It was impossible for her to know how her captors evaded other riders — in broad daylight! — or if even they did; perhaps they were able to disguise her at their center, or to stay out of easy sight. At some point, some change in the quality of light or the rushing of the air made her quite sure, they broke free from the woods again and into meadowland, but she had not the faintest idea in which direction. Possibly they had left civilization entirely, broken loose into the uncharted wilderness all around, of which her governess had so often warned her.

They stopped only once, at midday, for a brief meal of journey-bread she tried to refuse — and failed, having had only the water her captor had offered her now and then throughout the ride. It was near dusk again when they arrived, the horses pulled up to a plodding, heaving trot and then a walk and then a stop, and then slowly came new shouts and conversation and groans from the long travel. And Cybele found herself unbound and helped down, and then unblindfolded again; and saw herself and her kidnappers to be in front of an unremarkable, sprawling cottage, in the midst of what appeared to be, in every direction, only oceans of bare green farmland.

“Where are we?” she asked, forgetting herself in her surprise. The leader, already starting away, glanced back at her with an expression of bemusement, as though it had quite escaped his mind that she was there.

“Home,” he said succinctly, and nodded over her shoulder. “Connelly will show you where you’ll be quartered.”

And then he had left her, striding on to converse with the other riders. And the sinking certainty in her belly was only confirmed when she turned, and indeed found Connelly to be the name of the same huge man she’d ridden with before.

The house was, to her even greater surprise, not only handsome inside but quite cozy, if a bit bare. It ceilings sloped even lower than those in the poorer shops at port, and the plank floors creaked even below her slight weight, but the rooms she passed through were well-kept and the few furnishings they had were well-suited and well-made. She was marched up a narrow flight of even creakier stairs, down a hallway over a scuffed but lovely rose-colored rug, and into a narrow corner room that actually held a few simple comforts: a bed, a chamberpot, a large basin of water with a cake of soap and a rag, and a wooden stool to one side, nothing more. But for a moment, all the same, she could only stand in the center of it and stare around her, utterly bewildered; if she had had any idea in mind of what, exactly, being kidnapped entailed, this was certainly nothing like it.

Except, perhaps, for the last thing she noticed, again with a sinking heart: how the sole window was fitted with iron bars.

“Just for caution’s sake,” Connelly rumbled from behind her, and she turned back to him with her face tight and brow knit, infuriated to find him smiling at her again. “It’s too far a drop for a lady, and we feared you might be rash.”

“Such consideration from dastards and thieves,” she snapped back — amazed at herself again, but wasn’t it as the bandits’ leader had said himself? As long as there was nothing to be gained by good manners, surely bad ones couldn’t be so great a sin. “I don’t need your concern; leave me be. Or am I to have no privacy at all?”

Connelly only looked at her for a few seconds longer — his obvious surprise warring with annoyance and a touch of disgust, the latter of which she had to confess she did find a bit alarming on his broad, reddened face. Finally, he only shook his head; and without another word, withdrew from the room, closing it behind him.

It didn’t entirely surprise her to hear no rough clack of a key in the lock, from without. Why should she be locked in? They were everywhere in the house, from the creaking thunder of more footsteps from downstairs and the muted chatter of voices, and every one of them aware of her possible escape. If she tried to run out the door she would be caught a dozen times over before she could take two dozen steps — and even if she did make her way out the door, what then? Only open meadows for miles in every direction, and only her slippered feet on which to make her escape.

…And that thought, where nothing else had managed, did manage to pierce past her anger and her put-on bravery, and shake her heart. Her lips trembled at last, but she pressed them together to still them. No. There was still no room for that. Not now; and not until all of this was done.

It was perhaps half an hour later when she heard more footsteps outside, and voices; and paused, frozen over the basin with the rag dripping in her hand and her skin slick with water. At the first male voice she had clutched the low neckline of her chemise, which she had stripped to before beginning to wash, up higher on her chest as though that would somehow cover her, and there it remained in a tight fist as she listened.

“How is she getting on?” It was their leader: coming closer from some distance away, keeping his voice pitched low. And Cybele was irritated in the extreme to find her skin prickling up in gooseflesh, just faintly, at the thought of that one standing just without the door where she was bathing.

“Well enough, I suppose,” came Connelly’s rumble in reply, which helped at least to relieve that indignity somewhat. He was much closer: standing guard just outside, most likely, although it sounded as though he were moving off as they spoke. “But Dubay had the right of it — the tongue in that child’s head! Mother of God! Spoiled rotten, I shouldn’t wonder — if she ever really — ”

“Mind your own tongue,” the leader said, sounding annoyed again, but that she barely heard; they had already moved some distance away, their voices vanishing down the upstairs hall. Finally she could relax, and her stiff fingers let go of the crumple of her chemise as she sagged over the water. Her breath stirred its surface, and after a moment she opened her eyes, to watch her own faint reflection ripple and sway.

She was sure to be sought out and forcefully, with or without the intent of paying the demanded ransom; that at least was a source of some comfort. Witnesses to her kidnapping had been sent ahead at once, by all accounts, to tell of it, and even past that there was another heavy weight to her advantage: the timing was something of a miracle, as the guest she had been shopping to prepare to help host at the manor had been none other than a royal inspector. There had been many rumors of banditry and highwaymen along the King’s Road as it passed through Lord Dalton’s lands — cruel irony that she had thus far paid them little mind! — and the inspector had come from the palace to investigate the crimes and ferret out the miscreants responsible. He had been meant to stay at his lordship’s manor, of course, and Lord Dalton had been on edge for the visit for some weeks now; as his anxiety spread naturally throughout the household, Cybele had been at pains to help her mother and the servants arrange things to his satisfaction. Surely if, upon his arrival, the inspector found his host’s youngest daughter kidnapped, he would have no choice but to help see her rescued?

But…

Whether they truly meant to harm her or not, in spite of their leader’s claim, she had no way of knowing; and nor did she have any assurance that her salvation would come in time, or indeed at all. All she did know was that she could hardly trust in either the word of brigands or the swiftness of her rescue, not at this great a distance. Much as she might want to believe that all would be well, it would be madness to trust her belief with her life itself: a child’s naivete, and although only barely of marrying age, she could no longer be content to be a child. She could not only cooperate, as that infuriating man had suggested, and wait meekly to be ransomed, in this cell in a bedroom’s disguise.

She had to do something. She needed a plan.

It was well after sunset, and several hours of pacing the boards of her room and worrying her fingernails between her teeth, when she began to know what it was she needed to do. The weight of the knowledge settled heavy around her heart, aching there like a stone in her breast — but neither could she say it was without its queer excitement.

The key, she had thought, was the bandits’ leader. She had heard his voice several times as the evening wore on, along this same hallway as housed her own room; and he had called this place home, not a prison for her or a way station from which he would travel on. He must have his own quarters here as well, and very likely somewhere in the upstairs corridor, from how many times his voice had passed through here with nothing to do with her. She would go to him, before her door was locked against her for the night (if they even intended to do so while they slept — or perhaps they slept in shifts?), and she would — offer herself to him. Allow him to seduce her, if he was inclined to seduce, or if not claim to be frightened and let his man’s desires steer them the rest of the distance. He was a rogue traveling with a band of other men; surely it couldn’t be that difficult, even if he did imagine himself honorable in some deranged way. And when she had gained his confidence, and lowered his guard, let him grow bold and careless in his certainty of conquest over her… his own weapon would serve to end his life.

She had never even begun to contemplate murdering a man before in her life; but in these circumstances, with her own life in danger, the thought actually brought a pleasant, galvanizing speed to her pulse and breath. Perhaps she would even take his sword and strike off his head with it, like in the story of brave Judith. Then it would be out his unbarred window, and a horse stolen from the stables, and she riding home before the moon had even sunk low. And once she was armed, if any of the others caught and tried to stop her — well, they would learn their mistake just as quickly, in thinking so little of what a woman could do.

It was difficult to say how far she would have to take the initial ruse, though. She supposed it was possible that her maidenhead might end up a sacrifice to her plan; but she accepted that risk with a calm that faintly surprised her. It would be a small price to pay to save her life, and if she did ever marry, surely it would be to a man kind enough to understand. …And more to the point, the thought was not without its own tiny, exciting, frightening attraction. The bandits’ leader was nearly her own father’s age, she thought, but still very handsome, as she kept noticing; in fact, the thought of her hands around his narrow waist had recurred to her several times as she had worked through her idea for escape, as much as she tried to push it away. The thought of being forced to lie with him before killing him was… not nearly so repellent as it could have been.

So all that remained now was to find the nerve to do it.

That came a few hours after a bandit she didn’t recognize had brought her a small, plain evening meal, and the whole cottage had settled down to relative quiet with the deepening dark. Her hair was still loose from her washing-up, and after a moment’s debate she didn’t bother pinning it up again; at worst he wouldn’t notice either way, and at best its lying unbound would seem to him suggestive and wanton. She took several deep breaths, her shoulders rising and falling, her fingers pressed over her lips as she gathered herself… and then at last, she stole out of her room, treading as softly as she could along the hallway to keep the boards from sounding underfoot. She could hear no voices from the other rooms or from downstairs anymore, but didn’t for a second let herself believe that precluded caution.

They had given up guarding her room, was the first thing she saw; a plain wooden chair sat just outside the door, in the hallway’s corner under the eave, but its scuffed seat was empty. Although it worked to her advantage, for the moment she actually found herself feeling indignant. Did they think her completely helpless, after all? Without a single wit in her head?

And then she first caught, and then steeled herself. Well, they would see soon enough, wouldn’t they?

The upstairs corridor spanned to either side at the top of the stairs, and then another leg of it stretched forward away from them, so that the total formed the inverted shape of an uppercase T with a staircase descending from its top bar. The room where she had been housed was at one end of this bar, and though there were other doors along the spur that led forward from the staircase, there was only one at the far opposite end from her own. Whoever occupied that room would be in the best position to catch a prisoner, should he hear her trying to escape from the other side and down the stairs. She had no way of knowing for certain — but it was by far her best guess. And if she were wrong, and the room were empty or even occupied by someone else… well, she could improvise.

Now standing before the far door, Cybele took one last deep breath, and knocked.

…She had been so prepared in her mind for failure that she hardly even knew what to do when it was the leader of the bandits who answered. Fortunately, though, neither did he seem to at first. He pulled the door wide in a swift, sweeping arc, hatless and in his shirt and waistcoat now and a good deal more rumpled than she had seen him before, with some word of irritation already plainly on his lips — “What — ” — and then it died there with a deep frown when he saw who his visitor was. For a moment they only stood gawping at each other. It might have been a bit funny under other circumstances.

Eventually his confusion seemed to resolve itself at least partially, and his brow brow lifted if not smoothed. “Ah,” he said, and then, “Is there something I can help you with?” — and God help her if he didn’t have the nerve to sound amused by her again.

She struggled against rage, and then struggled against panic, and ended up with something in between; and in the midst of it the beginning she’d prepared came bolting from her mouth in a clumsy tumble, without any wit or care or seduction at all. “I’ve never been away from the manor for so long,” she said — so fast and shaking that even though that much was true, it came out sounding like a lie. “I was frightened to be alone.”

He only stood staring at her for a moment longer; so long she began to panic all over again, certain she had seen through, that he knew what she was about, that at any moment he would call for aid and she would be dragged back to the cell they had rigged for her in ropes or irons. And then, finally, he did the last thing she would ever have expected: fetched a deep sigh, and pressed a hand over his brow. Although not before she could see how much softer the expression there had become.

“Good Lord, you really are just an infant,” he said, mostly to himself by the sound; his tone of voice was far different than any other she had heard from him so far, low and rueful and… almost kind. Still, she started to bristle at what he had said — but then he was standing aside, and pulling the door wide, and she had to bite her tongue in her surprise, to keep from wasting her unexpected success. “Oh, come in, then. I’m not certain what hospitality one offers prisoners, or I would do so; but all the same, you’re welcome to such as I have.”

She made her way gingerishly past him and into the room, not certain for a moment even what to think or feel about her tentative victory. The room, now that she could see it fully, was likewise almost nothing like what she might have expected: at first glance, only an untidy sprawl of books and papers, strewn across every available surface, like drifting leaves in autumn. Beneath them were a round wooden table and chairs near where she stood and a small sofa beyond, a modest dresser, and a bed in the corner rather larger than the one in her own allotted room. From that last she had to turn her eyes quickly, trying to quell the sudden color from her face by sheer vicious will. This was a game of life and death now, from the moment she had entered this room; she had no room to quail.

“Am I the first prisoner you’ve had, then?” she made herself say at length around the heart in her throat, turning back to him just as he shut the door. “Have you never kidnapped before?”

He looked at her from before the door, his arms folded, his expression warring again between weary patience and sour amusement. “No, in fact, in spite of your many clever rejoinders we’ve never made a career of it.” At her look he shrugged, a more elegant gesture than ever with his slightness unprotected by a topcoat, with a slight twist on his mouth. “We merely find ourselves in somewhat challenging financial straits, of late.”

“Oh.” She clutched her own arms around herself, looking away from him; but that only led back to the bed again, and that was no good. “…I did think you all seemed a bit new to the practice.”

“Well, I am very sorry to have disappointed your expectations.” He came forward into the room at last, and she looked up to find him crossing to the dresser. “Would you care for a brandy? Or are you so young that that would be scandalous?”

“I’m of age!” she said first, hotly — and then caught herself back in time to reconsider, and softened her voice by force. “But… no, thank you.”

“Hmm,” was all he said to that, although with an even deeper twist to his mouth that made her crosser than ever. “Sit down, please. Anything on the furniture won’t be harmed by being sent to the floor.”

Cybele met this request with a certain skepticism, but in the end she brought herself to gingerishly pluck a stack of foolscap from one of the chairs around the round table. She could make little sense of the spidery hand that covered it, but thought it appeared to be a fragment of some ledger of accounts. Curious. She perched herself in the chair once it was clean, sitting barely on its edge, her hands braced on her skirts to try to hide the tension thrumming in every inch of her. The bandits’ leader, for a mercy, only ignored her, pouring a brandy from a modest decanter pushed back on the dresser’s top.

“You’re comfortable, I trust?” he asked without looking at her as he did, before finally turning back to her with the snifter in hand. “I suppose it isn’t his lordship’s house, but I see no need for you to suffer in our care.”

She tried not to scowl again, tried to be at her most meek and vulnerable to seduction, but couldn’t seem to help herself. Infuriating man! “I wouldn’t call it suffering,” she snapped, “but neither am I comfortable in your ‘care,’ as you say. How could I be at at ease at all in a house full of criminals?”

He sighed again, and this time actually had the temerity to roll his eyes at her, as he cleared another chair and sat down. “Ah, forgive me again. I keep forgetting how grievously courtesy seems to offend you.” He sipped his brandy, eyeing her over its rim. “I might remind you, however, that I did assure you that you are quite safe while we await your ransom. Nor is there any need to take this situation so much to heart, your ladyship; I’d much prefer it if we could both consider it a… business transaction, of sorts.” He lifted his glass to her slightly, inclining his head. “I assure you, my men and I would never have taken you if our need had not been dire.”

She crossed her arms again, but at last she had managed to rein her temper back in again; she was able, this time, to at least summon the pretense of bowing her head forward, letting her hair cover her face as though in shyness or submission. “…Very well,” she said at last, keeping her voice softer now, and rather pleased with the effect. “It isn’t as if I have any choice, in any case.”

To her vindicated pleasure, that actually made him smile at her, she saw from the corner of her eye. It was a startling new version of the expression on his face: warm and sympathetic, rather than coolly amused, and quite transformative. If she hadn’t thought him handsome before, she certainly would have now, and all at once she had to fight the confusing influence of another distressingly pleasant flush all down her person. …And equally confusing, she was forced to admit to herself, was what he had said; she found herself actually a bit thrown by it on top of her feigned shyness, cast into a new uncertain doubt. She intended to be lulled into no such false security, of course, but in that phrasing, it did make a sort of sense… and there was some cause to doubt that he and his company were actually criminals of the most hardened stripe. Was she really sure she should…?

But at last will reasserted herself, and she set her resolve anew. No. This wavering was exactly what he wanted; it was only childish innocence again, to believe these men harmless victims of circumstance and their intentions for her pure. Whatever he might say, slaying him would not be murder — only the virtuous victory of blood shed on the field of battle.

With that thought returned to her with all due vigor, she took a moment of his inattention — he had frowned at one of the papers she had disarranged and leaned forward to push it aside — to cast a surreptitious glance around the room for weapons. His pistol hung atop his coat, from the back of the door, but she didn’t think she could retrieve that without his notice; if she moved in that direction at any point he might think she was fleeing, and be alarmed. She could see no sign of a sword, and couldn’t remember one at his hip now that she thought of it. Perhaps he didn’t carry one… but what there was, she saw with a slight widening of her eyes that she then quickly hid when he glanced at her again, was a large, handsome hunting knife, strapped to his own hip. There was no more question, then; that was perfect. Even as he lowered himself onto her, meaning to end her virginity (and again she was very annoyed to find herself reddening, and had to hide it deeper in the sheaves of her hair), she would in that instant steal her hand to his hip where it lay, and —

“Are you quite all right?” he interrupted her train of thought, making her cross with him all over again if a bit more able to disguise it now. When she glanced up, startled, she found his head ducked down to frown at her sideways, as though he had been trying to peer under her screening hair. “You look tired. You should sleep; you’ve had a long day of it.”

For a second she was so startled that she nearly lost all grip on her tongue, and missed what an unexpected opportunity his concern had offered. But this was it, this was her chance — if she went about this just so — At the last moment she fumbled herself under control, and again blurted out with such unpracticed care that she winced inside: “Could I stay here for the night?”

And for one too-brief moment the bandits’ leader looked entirely nonplussed — which might have been rather satisfying, under the circumstances, had it not also been so curiously galling. “Erm,” he said at last, and again she only wished she could be smug at having finally robbed his rather snide eloquence from him. “…Why?

…Which was most certainly a good deal less pleasing, if only for vanity’s sake. It was a bit of a struggle to keep from drawing herself up and huffing from the room, but she managed it with an effort of will. “I’m frightened to sleep alone in that empty room,” she said instead, dropping her voice nearly to a whisper both for effect and to keep it from sounding annoyed: God in heaven, did he on top of all his other faults have no idea how to seduce a helpless young girl? “I… I won’t trouble you…”

There was only more long silence from the leader, through which she wanted but didn’t dare to look up from her hair to judge the look on his face. Finally, he fetched another, very deep sigh, and stood up from the table. “If you must… well, then very well. The bed’s large enough to share, I suppose; go on to sleep, and I shall be along presently.”

And she had to actually bite her tongue this time — at the combination of his sheer presumptuousness with that long-suffering tone. As though she were some sort of a chore!

Still… it was a victory, she reminded herself, taking deep slow breaths to control her temper as she stood up and turned to face down the bed. She would take it, and avenge all her insults later. In the meantime, she bit her lip — cast one swift glance back at the leader, who was removing his cufflinks and appeared to be ignoring her — and divested of only her shoes before settling onto the side of the large bed nearest the wall, curling inward. Waiting, her heart hammering in her throat afresh in spite of all her efforts to be calm and cold and ready. At any moment he would come to her, wrap his longer body around behind her; touch her, at her bosom or throat, or lift her hair aside from its long waved spill on the ticked pillow…

And in spite of everything — her nerves, the ugly circumstances, the vagabond she shared this room with, the blood she intended to spill before he had any more of his way with her than necessary — a steady flower of heat was building in the cup of her hips, and a hot wetness dewing at the tops of her thighs were they pressed together. It was the thought of his hands at her breast that had done it, and she permitted herself the small distraction of dwelling on it; they were long and lean and graceful, finally free of his gloves as they had been in this private room, and she could almost feel one of them gliding over her gown and then under its edge, under her more intimate garments, to ravish her skin and rake over her nipple with the calloused tips of its fingers. And deeper still, undressing her, through the thicket of her gown and corsetry to cup her sex in its palm — to steal again what it had no business taking and shame her with how plainly it spoke of her want to be taken…

With a soft sigh of breath, the last lantern in the room was extinguished, at least hiding her cresting blush. She lay breathing fast and far too aware of his movements, barely visible as they were in the scant silver moonlight from the window: his dim silhouette doing something that might have been freeing its hair from the short tail, shifting with two faint clunks that must have been the tumbling of his boots, and then a long rustle of fabric and motion about the torso that she thought, heart higher in her throat than ever, must be his stripping off his waistcoat to only shirt and breeches. And then soft footsteps over the creaking floor, and a sigh… and then the bed shifted under his weight, and there was sudden air and warmth and motion at her back, and he lay beside her in the dark.

And lay there.

And lay there.

And, she saw when she finally rolled her shoulders back to frown her incomprehension at him, was lying with his back turned to her, at the edge of the bed, his body touching hers not in the slightest. His side rose and fell; and if he wasn’t asleep yet, then no doubt he meant to be.

And now, now… this was not only quite personal, but definitely war.

She took one brief moment to try to stop actually trembling with fury (and, she would never have admitted under torture, more than a touch of hurt, embarrassment, and disappointment as well), and shifted herself toward him, pressing herself along his back. His warmth all along the front of her body sped her pulse again, made her ready… but he only shifted his weight slightly, and let out a soft dry breath, and did not move. Her brow knitted harder than ever in the dark. Fine, then. If he was so repulsed by her that he was going to require her to play the succubus, to simply ply at him until he was finally overcome —

She slipped an arm around his waist, scarcely able to believe her own daring, and laid her palm flat against his belly, hot and firm through the thin weave of his shirt. She could reach down from there, she supposed, that would certainly be the most direct, but in the end only flushed in her cheek against his shoulder and lost her nerve. Instead, for now at least, she slid her hand up instead, skimming the muscled lines of his trim stomach, and up further still to his chest…

Where her hand encountered, with sudden full-palmed directness, the unbound softness of two small but unmistakable breasts.

“What on earth are you doing?” the bandits’ leader asked into the dark, sounding entirely nonplussed all over again, just at the very second that Cybele yelped and started back with enough force to knock her head into the wall behind.

There was what seemed like a very long second where all she could do was splutter. “You’re — a woman!” she found in her mouth at last, high-pitched and cracking. The leader rolled over onto his — her! — back in the bed, propping up on both elbows to regard Cybele with a moonlit expression of utter bemusement.

“Er — yes, for some time now,” she said. Even in the dim light, Cybele could now see much more of the evidence: the swell of her slight bosom and rounded curve of her hips and waist, plain in the thin shirt without the heavy brocade of her waistcoat to shield them, even the way her loosed shortish hair softened the angles of her face. Still handsome far more than pretty, but unquestionably, combined with all the rest, feminine. “What did you think I was, a wheelbarrow?”

“A man!” Cybele blurted again, and then flushed for no reason she could think of. Except, perhaps, at revealing that it was a man she had thought she was fondling only seconds before. “As you well know — you deceived me!”

The woman blinked at her. “At what point, exactly?”

“Well — all of them!” The woman’s expression remained blank, and Cybele fumbled again. “You… you’re dressed as a man!”

Now an expression was beginning to creep back onto the woman’s face: a slowly dawning amused exasperation. “I’m dressed as a person who’s been riding in the woods for five days,” she said, with a tone to it now that reminded Cybele a bit of her governess correcting a wrong answer. “The two are often one in the same, but I assure you, by no means exclusively. I hope you will forgive me if I didn’t don a wig and ballgown for the occasion of your kidnapping.”

It did take Cybele a moment to compose an answer for that. “Well… I…” She cast about again, for no real reason other than offended dignity. “…I should tell your men! What will they think, when they discover — ”

“Very little, as they’re all well aware,” the woman interrupted her, rather more impatiently, her mouth set dourly as though against a grin. “I’m afraid you’re the only one who seems to have been confused. …For heaven’s sake, you can’t be serious. Isn’t that why you came to my room, instead of any of the others’? Isn’t it your concern for your virtue you’ve been flouncing on about?” Cybele was caught quite aback by that for any number of reasons; she dropped her eyes away as she tried to catch her tongue, and a second later the woman sat up a bit, looking at her more closely. “…Hang on, then — if you did think I was a man — ” When Cybele only colored and bit her lip, turning her face away, the woman let out a gusty sigh. Her voice, when she spoke again, had far more laughter in it than ever, which did nothing at all to help. “Saints preserve us. Does your father know you go about climbing into bed with brigands twice your age? I mean to say, have you made a hobby of this?”

Cybele whipped her head back to glare at the bandits’ leader, still blushing but still able to summon some pride. “Shut up!”

The woman only sighed at that, and shook her head; she was smiling, though, broadly, and more honestly than Cybele had yet seen. “Well, be that as it may… I do apologize once again if my habits have confounded you, but I can promise it was not my intent to disguise my sex. Although — ” Sudden, genuine realization seemed to have struck her; and her smile faded at length to a more serious, and somewhat kinder look. “It does occur to me that I’ve neglected to introduce myself, for which rudeness I can only beg you pardon me. My name is Anne — Annie, to some within my confidence. And, though it embarrasses me to admit it, ‘Red Annie’ to some of those outside it, who know me only by reputation. Which is more than a little curious to me, given how relatively little blood I’ve shed in my time, all things considered.” She inclined her head slightly, in Cybele’s direction. “And you?”

“Me?” So she’d heard right after all. All of this was honestly a little too much for Cybele; her head was starting to spin. “What about me?”

The woman — Annie, after all — smiled again, with no apparent malice. “You’re Lord Dalton’s youngest daughter, that much I know. But since I’ve done the same courtesy for you, you might tell me your given name.”

She was left fumbling again, completely flummoxed. “I — ”

“Oh, don’t sit there quailing.” Annie sighed, pushing hair back from her face. “You were making free with my bosom a moment ago; telling me your name can scarcely be more intimate.”

Cybele flushed again at that, and was again so thrown off her balance that she ended up answering before she could consider. “…Cybele,” she said, in a voice so faint and soft she could barely hear herself. “I’m Cybele.”

“Are you really? How unfortunate.” Cybele scowled at that freshly, but she’d had no time to do more than open her mouth before Annie had interrupted her. “I hardly dare to ask with what names your sisters have been saddled.”

She had meant to answer hotly yet again, but that managed to derail her. “…How did you know I had sisters?”

And perhaps it was her imagination — but she thought for a moment, Annie looked surprised by that question. An inward, rueful sort of surprise, whose meaning Cybele could not quite determine. She recovered quickly, however, if indeed there was anything to recover from, and fixed Cybele with another small patient smile. “Everyone for miles knows Lord Dalton has nothing but daughters,” was all she said. “It’s considered a great hardship under which he bears up exceptionally well.”

…Well, she supposed that was true enough, if somewhat cruel when phrased that way. “They’re called Phoebe and Tethys,” she said anyway, with perhaps a touch of stubborn dignity.

“Good Lord. The man ought to be stopped. An education is a laudable trait, to be sure, but that’s no cause to hang it for an albatross on one’s children.” Annie shook her head, and then yawned into the back of her hand. “Well, then, Cybele — I’m a bit weary myself. Might I convince you now to go to sleep, and put all of this absurdity behind us?”

And Cybele hesitated for a moment, not really sure how to respond, to that or to any of this… and then finally, after long seconds’ pause, could only mutely nod her head.

And then lie awake in the darkness, again with wide-open eyes, thinking as quickly as she could.

It changed nothing, ultimately. She was forced to admit that it did feel like somewhat less certain ground, to kill a woman rather than a man; although a woman herself, and by all appearances a far frailer one than Annie, there was still some part of the inner nature of her breeding that protested the idea. But it changed nothing, it could change nothing, at the coldly logical heart of the matter. She was still, in every detail save one, the man Cybele had thought: a common criminal, who held Cybele’s life in her hands and the hands of her followers. If the threat to her chastity seemed somewhat less imminent than it had, that was hardly the crux of the matter… and if, even having learnt the truth of Annie’s sex, the threat’s removal felt like something of a curious loss, then never mind that in the slightest. What though the warm, attractive, infuriating person beside her in this bed still made her pulse oddly quick? It couldn’t turn her aside from her intended course.

Indeed, Annie was likely even less on guard for such things than she might have been otherwise: lulled into false security by Cybele’s bewilderment, and perhaps by imagining that Cybele now felt herself safer. This was her time — perhaps the only time she would have.

She waited for a long time, what felt like hours, until Annie’s breathing had fallen slow and even beside her, and taken on the rasp that spoke of sleep. Then, moving as quietly and carefully as possible, sat up in the bed, and pulled herself forward — to its foot rather than to the side, which would require her to climb over her company. She slipped off the bed and onto the floor, and stole across the patch of faint light from the window to the dresser, where Annie had made ready for bed. Intending to sleep rather than ravish, she’d taken off her knife from her hip in that process, and if this was where she had left most of her things, then…

She found its sheath in only a few moments’ fumbling, trying to keep her fingers quiet in drifts of paper (what on earth could a bandit need with so much paperwork?), and bottles and books and other various items she couldn’t identify. At last, near the far end of the dresser’s top, her hand strayed to a shape she knew at once for the knife’s sheath; she squinted and felt her way to its inlaid handle. When she drew it out, it gleamed back what little light there was: a handsome tool, but sharp, and with no nonsense to it whatsoever. She tested it lightly on her thumb, and smiled a touch tremulously. It would serve.

Knife in hand, she crept back to the bed: around the outside, this time, to where Annie lay asleep, facing outward. She could see a little more on this side of the room, with the angle of the light, and kneeling beside the mattress, she let her eyes linger on Annie’s face for only a few brief seconds before casting them downwards. The telltale breasts rose and fell; the neck of her shirt, unbuttoned halfway down to her chest, exposed the slim white column of her neck, almost framed it, beautifully. A few dark strands of hair tumbled across its side, the contrast stark and handsome. Cybele’s heart sped again, in mingled adrenaline, fear, and excitement — even desire. Could she really intend to do this? Was she really so brave, so fierce?

Yes, a voice scarcely hers rang in her mind all at once, full of vigor and triumphant savagery.

It was all the hunting-horn she needed. Her lips drew back from her teeth in an unconscious snarl, and her hand flashed out, blade-first —

And without her eyes ever opening or any change in her breathing, Annie’s hand flashed up and caught Cybele’s wrist, with the knife still long harmless inches from her bare neck.

“Don’t, please,” she said, over Cybele’s strangled yip of surprise, her voice was drowsy but quite clear; “that’s very irritating.”

For a few seconds there was nothing Cybele could do but kneel frozen and stare at Annie’s still-closed eyes — her heart hammering, her breath short and harsh. Finally she got at least enough of a hold on herself to struggle, but it was little use; Annie’s hand held her wrist fast. “Let me go,” she hissed through her bared teeth. Which at least made one of Annie’s eyes crack open, and regard her at last.

“Oddly, I’m disinclined.” She opened both her eyes then, winced a little, and then while still holding Cybele tightly, pushed herself up again on one elbow and plucked the knife away from Cybele’s grip as though taking a rattle from the fat hand of a toddler. She slid the blade absently under her pillow, and Cybele watched it go with fierce, aching despair. “I am growing quite weary with you,” Annie said presently, turning back with a sour look to eye Cybele again. “I do understand your fright and discomfiture, even in spite of my repeated assurances of your safety and the fact that no harm has come to you as of yet, but I’m afraid I must draw the line at cutting my throat.” She appeared to consider for a brief moment — and then without warning, took her grip on Cybele’s wrist, and pulled.

With another startled squawk, she was tumbled forward off her knees, to sprawl face-down across the bed before Annie’s hip. Her other hand landed on the mattress to brace herself, and Annie’s other hand caught its wrist just as easily, pulling it away behind her back. She had sat up by now, to lean over Cybele, and in a bolt of alarm Cybele grasped at once what Annie was trying to do, to bind her hands behind her — and on the force of her panic she wrenched her hands apart, against Annie’s grip. Alarm lent her unsuspected strength, the direction offered her perhaps the best chance for resistance, and her sudden ferocity took Annie by surprise; she managed to wrench both her hands free, her arms thrust out to either side. And then, her blood still up, not thinking but only acting on some beastly instinct, she shot them forward — and at the same time pushed up from her knees, knocking full force with shoulders and arms into Annie’s middle.

Her strike knocked a gasp of air from Annie’s mouth, half her weight landing on Annie’s on the bed. Before Annie had a chance to recover, Cybele scrambled both legs under and flung the rest of her weight forward, landing on Annie’s prone form in a tumbled sprawl. Annie grabbed for her wrists again and she wrestled back — without much success, but without much purpose she knew, either, only scratching and kicking and flailing at her in a tumble of wild limbs that would have made Cybele feel faint to imagine from herself only some days before. Her teeth were still bared, she only scarcely knew, and she was trying to hook her hands into claws, to scratch at her captor’s neck or face. Annie held her, though, and seemed to be gathering some wit back to herself again —

And then suddenly, before Cybele entirely knew what had happened, the world had flipped about on her, her weight and Annie’s reversed. Suddenly she was the one on her back on the mattress, Annie holding both her wrists in one hand, the weight of Annie’s slim lithe form holding her down. One of Annie’s knees had planted firmly in the fork of Cybele’s sprawling thighs, holding her legs by pinning her gown between them to the bed; she gasped, brought back to herself all at once by the hot pressure between her thighs, piercing through all the swaddling of fabric to light all the nerves in that place. She was wet there again, almost swimmingly so, some vagary of all this wrestling and fury having twisted around until it became that far stranger excitement again, and all of her seemed to throb with a half-aware longing. She writhed, half to throw Annie off and half for its own sake, and Annie’s thigh dragged against her and left behind a pleasant ache.

Annie, meanwhile, mute but breathing quickly and with her face set in frowning, thundery concentration, ripped one-handed the casing from one of the pillows beside Cybele’s head, and rolled it into a cord against the mattress. When she brought it up toward Cybele’s hands, though, pinned as they were above her head, Cybele flashed her head forward like an adder and sank her teeth into Annie’s palm. She yelped aloud — bringing a fresh stab of savage delight to Cybele’s chest and, oddly, another hot wet flush to her sex — and dropped the casing, drawing back her hand and glaring down first at it and then at Cybele in startled rage.

“You bloody little weasel!” she snapped, and for the first time, the first time ever, Cybele could hear genuine anger in her voice. The pulse of feeling through her this time was more than a little apprehensive, but she hid her fear — baring her teeth again in an animal’s snarl.

“I only wish I were rabid,” she spat up at Annie — who did at least seem to be recovering her composure, for good and ill. Her glower this time was merely mistrustful, exasperated.

“Well, don’t despair of it yet — ”

She took up the casing again, keeping carefully out of mouth’s reach this time, and set about binding Cybele’s hands with it, pulling them down behind Cybele’s own back in the process. She thrashed her body under Annie’s, purely to be interfering… but when Annie answered by pinning her knee even more firmly in place, holding her down and pushing against her, she could scarcely bite back her moan. What was happening to her? She was hot all over, desperate, trembling. She hardly knew what she would do if she did escape.

Cybele’s hands attended to, Annie put her own on the mattress to either side of Cybele’s waist instead, hemming her in as though to keep her still. In this state even their harmless touch was maddening, and at last, some part of Cybele gave in. She squeezed her eyes shut, biting her lip, and turned her face aside into her own shoulder. She was vaguely aware of Annie hesitating, drawing breath, some question on her lips — but before it could be asked, she let her writhing focus and surge, and ground her hips nakedly forward against Annie’s thigh.

Only silence from Annie now, and stillness — whether shocked or appalled or amused, she had no way to say. She did it again, instead of trying to think, and had to muffle a faint cry against the pillow at the burn of pleasure in her loins. And again, and again, until it all became one hungry, shaking squirm.

“Weasel indeed,” Annie’s voice broke the silence — almost making her jump. It sounded out of breath… but again, almost amused. “Just how badly did you want to be ravished?”

Cybele flushed again, miserable with embarrassment but driven beyond the point of caring. All her tension, of all varieties, had been wound to a point of breaking strain for hours now; this seemed the only possible release, and she grasped for it with no strength left to pull herself back. She no longer knew what she wanted or why, only that she was terrified and burned with some unsuspected interior fire.

After another long pause, she barely heard another faint sigh of breath from Annie, and there was dim movement above her that made her gasp amid the small jerking thrusts of her hips. “I hardly know what to make of you,” Annie murmured — with the sheer nerve, some small and distant part of Cybele was coldly aware, to sound almost calm for its breathiness, even teasing. Her weight shifted, lifted, and for a second a small cringing sound tried to escape Cybele’s lips, out of fear that she might be abandoned —

“Don’t you kick me, little beast,” Annie’s low, warning voice came instead — and for a moment her leg did draw away, making Cybele bite her tongue on a crushed whimper. But her knees were planted again a moment later to one side of Cybele’s hip, and then a hand had come back close to the place Annie’s leg had vacated, yanking up the skirts of Cybele’s gown in rude fistfuls. Another strayed almost lazily over its bodice instead — and then slipped under it, under her chemise, again, just as she had daydreamed some hours before. Cybele gasped, her voice sounding loud to herself in this dark, strange room, and then bit her lip again to keep all other sound inside. Cool fingers pressed her skin, then inched along it, finding a nipple at the tip of the longest one at last and then flicking it across —

In the meantime her gown had become wholly disarrayed: skirts rucked up around her waist in a heap of messy, crinkling folds. Annie’s hand dug with a firm, businesslike air into the thicket of her petticoats, hitching them aside too, and then at last was pulling the thinnest layer of her chemise up to her waist, having to tug to move it along past her pinning legs and hips.

“Can’t imagine how you bear all this frippery,” Annie muttered again, almost as though to herself, through the last of this work; and then it was done. Cybele gulped air, her face pressed fully into the pillow now and burning there, helplessly naked below her waist with her hands pinned uncomfortably under her lower back, not knowing entirely what to expect and unable to try to think. She could only squirm, waiting for whatever would happen.

The hand that came to rest at the fork of her legs was only partly a surprise. It wasn’t something she had never done herself before, come to that, after being sure her sisters were asleep in their shared bedroom; biting her tongue then, as now, to keep from bringing herself to shame. But just now anything would have startled her, and for all her clenching teeth a muffled sound tore from her throat anyway, to be half-buried in the pillow against her mouth. There was some sound from above her, amused or pleased, and fingers — just as callused as she had imagined, and otherwise smooth and dry — dragged stroking through the wetness between her open, naked lips. The others, tucked inside her gown’s stomacher, continued their work, as these assumed theirs: long strokes that started quick between her lips and ended slow and lingering at the center of sharp, crackling feeling that topped them, a tiny nub of flesh she had only dared tiptoe around in her own explorations. But her captor, this Annie, took charge of it with a calm, casual assurance — diverting around it with two gentle fingers at first, rubbing against it only the indirect pressure of the flesh around it, and then with soaked slipping fingers setting up a delicate tracery around its tiny and fragile curve. As ready as she was, as wanting, it was not only not too much but rather too little, and with her teeth in her lip again she crested her hips and keened until Annie consented to bear down with greater force.

She was burning. Her hands were tied, she was captive in this place, her most secret parts were being caressed by a strange woman and she was burning, and she cared nothing for any of it; she wanted the hands on her to stay where they were, she wanted to burn. She supposed, far back in some dim heat-hazed corner of her rapidly vanishing mind, that she was the animal that Annie had said: falling into heat in Nature’s courses, rutting against the hand between her thighs with no care for the higher workings of her mind. For now, the thought only slickened her further, only made her feel herself spinning toward a familiar, delirious edge. Her pulse throbbed high in her neck, both her nipples hard as pebbles and tingling from the attentions of the hand at her breast; her hips rolled, encouraging, begging, and three of Annie’s fingers pressed and strove in hard, tiny circles on that blinding, glorious spot —

Cybele yelped — cried out loud — her eyes shut as tightly as ever but her mouth open with desperate sound. There was too much, she was slipping, and then she was over the edge: at sea in a searing whiteness, her muscles clenched and shaking and taut. Her whole back bucked itself up off the mattress, drove herself into Annie’s hand, into everything. She pumped her hips, again, three more times, cresting and topping the frantic rhythm, at her highest point… and then slowed, and stopped.

And finally collapsed back in a panting, trembling heap, all of her feeling sprung and aching, and beyond all hope of escape.

At length, Annie’s hand withdrew, as she still lay trying to gather her breath, eyes closed against darkness. Cybele was nudged gently aside, and Annie lay back down beside her; her own breathing was quick but shallow, although its sound seemed oddly distant. Her skirts were smoothed back down around her, at least to the knee or so, with it too much bother to set them entirely back in place. She made a soft, murmured sound to no purpose, finding herself unable to move… and presently was gathered into a warm arm and against a narrow, muscled chest, with care and even affection, as though she were a child that had dozed off trying to stay awake too late.

And just like that, when she would never have imagined it possible, Cybele fell asleep: resting against the woman who had captured her, her hands still tied.

When she woke the next morning, the light was bright and full across the bedroom, sparkling in the dust-motes that drifted above the table’s paperwork and the disarranged sheets, and Annie was gone. It took long, disorientated, terrified moments of breathing quickly and staring up at the ceiling to put back into some sort of order where she was and what had happened. Fortunately, however, by the time Cybele did, she had also become aware that either through the thrashings of sleep or some charity on Annie’s part, her hands were now untied; and she was able to slip out the bedroom door again in an agony of dismay and discomfort. There was still no sign of anyone in the upstairs corridor, but she could hear the bleary, cheerful bangings and voices of morning in the rooms downstairs. At the very least, they covered her footfalls as she crept back to the cell that was hers, and there she was able to restore her composure somewhat.

In the bright and bland clarity of day, it was nearly impossible to decide what to think of what had happened the night before. Some part of her wanted to insist it had all been a dream, and she had to confess it was difficult to deny. Difficult, with her gown cleaned and hair brushed and pinned up again and her solitude restored, to imagine that any such wild strangeness had ever been a part of her life, even kidnapped and in straits as dire as these. And as trying to probe deeper into her memory simply destroyed her nerve with one flushed and shaky stroke — eventually, she simply gave up, and decided to just behave as though it had been a dream.

And although she was apprehensive in the extreme at first, when she finally saw Annie again — here and there around the house, as Cybele gradually mustered the courage to take advantage of her apparent freedom to explore it — it only served to aid her in her nervous dismissal. She had feared Annie might cast her some strange, laughing (or smouldering, she thought with a faint flutter in her chest) look, or even be inclined to tease; but instead, she treated Cybele only in the same half-pleasant, entirely maddening way that she had before. And perhaps with a faint, sheepish look to her own gaze, as though regretting some social gaffe. Which was both a relief, and curious, and if perhaps also a bit of a disappointment and a bit galling as well, then Cybele would never have admitted that, either.

That day passed without incident, and slowly others came to follow after it: first one, then another, then several all much the same as the last. No harm came to her in the bandits’ house, and a part of her even came, very slowly, to believe that it might be true that none would. Curious though it was, she began to find a kind of normalcy — aided, perhaps, by the power of simple human adaptation. The mind, she was learning, could make its home in any situation, given time and repetition enough, in spite of whatever dangers or cares. …Or perhaps, instead, it was that in her mind that concern simply became overshadowed by other, greater ones, slowly growing and gnawing in her breast.

She began to wander: first just daring to set foot outside her room, to look out a larger unbarred window, and then expanding into longer investigations, of the downstairs rooms. The bandits still met her with a certain amusement at her expense, and watched her closely, but they did not molest her, nor indeed, if she let them be, even speak to her. All, that was, save Annie; who always, for good or for ill, seemed to take an interest.

“You have a library?” Cybele was unable to keep from blurting, the day she stumbled into it and caught Annie there. Annie, who was standing by one of the bookcases — it was not a very large library, as none of the rooms in the farmhouse were very large, but the bookcases filled the room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling — glanced over at her, an eyebrow raised and one gloved finger still in her book. She then took a brief, ironic glance around herself, and then returned her gaze to the tome.

“So it would appear.” She flipped a page. “But as that much was obvious, I suppose you were less inquiring and more affecting incredulity to be unpleasant, and that being the case I shall resolve to ignore you.”

“I’m not being unpleasant,” Cybele said — with a scowl between her brows again, but that was hardly anything new around Annie — and came forward into the room enough to close the door behind her, just for spite. “I was only — surprised. It’s such a small house.” Annie’s mouth quirked, although she didn’t look up; and Cybele found herself biting her lip, uncertain all over again. “…It isn’t that you have books that surprised me. Your room is covered in papers, and — you speak as though you have been educated.”

“Mm,” Annie said, her eyes still on the page — and thus mercifully missing Cybele’s sudden startled flush when she realized to what she had referred, if perhaps not the hitch in her words. “That’s because I have. And oddly enough, the act of kidnapping a baron’s daughter does not at once negate one’s letters.”

Cybele’s scowl deepened. “I never said it did.”

That actually seemed to give Annie pause; she looked up at last from her book, and her eyes were first slightly wider, and then softened with a faint smile. “No; your pardon. I suppose I shouldn’t try to predict you, as you might take it upon yourself to try to be unpredictable.”

Cybele opted to ignore that, and instead came to sit down at the table at the room’s center, smoothing her skirts under her as she did. “Were you highly-born as well, then?”

Something in the question seemed to make Annie’s mouth twist up again, but if so, she made no other sign of it. “Once upon a time,” she said, and replaced her book on the shelves, wandering toward the table herself. “Very long ago.”

“Oh.” Cybele bit her lip again, fidgeting and then making herself settle her hands together in her lap, ladylike and still. “…Did something happen?”

“You could say that, yes.” Annie sighed, although with little apparent irritation. “I’d just as soon not discuss it, if it’s all the same.”

Cybele inclined her head, trying to feel cross in order to combat how she felt suddenly abashed. She’d begun to wonder, as time went on, if everything Annie had said on that first night might not have been the true way of things; if they were no band of highwaymen (and one highwaywoman, she supposed) but only a group of comrades who had been forced into Cybele’s kidnapping as an act of desperation. It was, she had been surprised to slowly find, a curiously comforting thought. There was something alluring in thinking of Annie as desperate rather than criminal, downtrodden but noble — beyond even the fact that it absolved Cybele from trying to kill her again, which she didn’t think she could probably do anyway. And she had been safe, in the time she’d been here.

“You said that you only took me because you had a great need,” she voiced some of this at last — lifting her head to where Annie stood leaning against the table, turning her head to frown at a few other books stacked on its edge. “Financially speaking, I mean. Did you not before? …Did something happen to you, to cause that?” A sudden idea was blossoming in her mind, carrying her mouth along in its excitement: a relative stricken with illness and an expensive foreign doctor, or perhaps another wrongly imprisoned and his bail set too high — some noble cause, something that would surprise and shame her but then allow her a dramatic, teary forgiveness… “If it’s something desperate — my father is a very generous man, is all I mean. There’s no need for all of this — ”

But she was startled out of the middle of her thought by Annie’s laughter — full-throated, loud, and carefree. She looked up in a startled frown to find Annie’s head tilted back, the short tail of her hair brushing her collar. “God save us, child,” Annie managed after a second more, still laughing, at last returning her gaze to Cybele with a glint of water at the corners of her eyes. “No, in fact, I don’t believe your father would take much of a kindly interest in the plight of his daughter’s kidnappers, generous man or no.” Cybele opened her mouth to say something — staring down at the table’s surface now, her face burning — but Annie had not finished. “And furthermore, I can assure you, our burdens are of a very ordinary sort. Sorry though I am again to disappoint you.”

“I only thought I would ask,” Cybele told the table, in a muted, furious tone; it was easier to embrace the anger than the embarrassment. When Annie spoke again, though, it was without laughter, and that made her dare to look up — to find her expression far gentler. Perhaps even a bit apologetic.

“Yes, I know,” she said, in a softer tone than Cybele thought she had heard before; “Forgive me, I shouldn’t have made light.” She paused for a moment, more as though considering than hesitating. “It was kind of you.”

And if that struck a bit of a wrong note in itself, well… Cybele decided from the time being to take it and be content anyway.

Of course, there was the other problem even besides all of the obvious ones, and it came into full being slowly in Cybele’s mind as the days passed. The problem, of course, was that there were days. As wrong-footed and foolish as she felt settling in and becoming accustomed to her imprisonment, she had time to do both, because entirely too much time was passing. Her father and the King’s inspector had not yet rescued her; in point of fact, her father had not yet ransomed her, nor indeed did it seem to her that he had even made any contact with the men who had taken her. The fear started small at first, as though from a tiny seed planted in her mind, and then slowly grew into a full panic-bright flower as more time drew by. What was taking so long?

That fear was tangled with another, more nameless variety of resentments and concerns, ones that she found harder and harder to dismiss as the silent days drifted by. Moan though he might over his unladylike, undisciplined elder daughters, her father had always unquestionably favored them, at least to Cybele’s mind. He had longed for sons, Cybele’s nurse had once let slip, and in their absence had been surprised and secretly pleased by Phoebe and Tethys’s passion for riding and sports and roughhousing, their unfeminine habits and dauntless bravery. When his wife grew heavy with child a third time, however, he had dreamed that a boy might come at last (this Cybele’s mother had let slip instead, telling humorous stories of his preparations and purchases while she was indisposed), letting him at last discipline his spoiled girls into some semblance of proper womanhood. Cybele, little Cybele who wore her dresses gladly and was frightened of her own shadow, must then have come as something of a nasty shock. He had never so much as intimated as much to her, of course — would never have dreamed of it, she was sure — but something of his disappointment and bewilderment had always shown through, all the same. It was Phoebe and Tethys upon whom his attentions were lavished, for good and for ill, throughout their adolescence and eventual adulthood; whom he scolded and bemoaned and invited to shoot game with him and shook his head at wearily when they laughed in their suitors’ faces. Cybele sat quietly, and did what she was asked, and attracted no attention, and as such he had always given her relatively little. She was praised, her example held up to her sniggering sisters to train their behavior into line, and otherwise, ignored. It was easy enough, after all: to ignore someone who didn’t speak until spoken to, and who did only what she should.

Suppose he didn’t mind that much that she had been taken? Suppose he was, if not refusing to pay the ransom, then taking his time with his options — suppose that she was more concerned with her safety than he?

These were foolish, ridiculous thoughts, of course; childish whimsies and megrims, sullenness and anxiety making shadows on the wall. But even telling herself so could not entirely dismiss them — and less so, by degrees, as time went on.

Which was how at last she found herself, once again, standing in the hall outside Annie’s door of a night, knocking on it with an urgency she could not disguise.

Annie emerged at some length this time: appearing, when the door opened, at its crack with a sheaf of scribbled foolscap still clutched in one hand, looking distracted but not so irked as she had before. Her shirt was open at the throat, and her brief hair down, which all told made Cybele feel sillier than ever for ever thinking her a man. “What is it this time?” was her greeting, in spite of her apparent lack of rancor. Cybele almost turned about and left again at once — but in the end, her need was too great.

“Have you heard anything from my father?” she blurted instead, her hands clenched in her skirts. Annie looked first startled — almost caught, like a wild thing both alarmed and chagrined by the net — and then frowningly thoughtful, and then neutral again.

“No, not yet.” Of course she could hardly lie; if there had been overtures made or terms set, the house Cybele had been wandering so thoroughly would have been abuzz with it. Annie paused, as though to think. “I wouldn’t be too concerned, though, you know. Surely it’ll take some time to collect the capital and send a — ”

“It’s been a week!” Cybele broke in, and was shocked to hear herself nearly shouting it: her voice spiking shrill and cracking, on the point of stamping her foot in frustration. Her panic had blind-sided her all at once, made her its mount. “We rode here in a day! It can’t be taking this long, it can’t, it makes no sense!”

By now Annie was staring at her, her face unreadable, and Cybele dropped her head down to squeeze furious burning eyes shut, clutching herself. She looked up, though, after a moment’s hesitation, to find that Annie had stood back from the door, and now was gesturing Cybele into the room with her eyes sweeping the empty hallway, as though for eavesdroppers. Cybele hesitated for more than an instant herself on the room’s threshold — far too fresh a memory, what had happened here the last time! — and then entered, turning once she stood by the table to face Annie as she closed the door.

“Of course we didn’t tell his lordship to send someone here,” she said in a lower, patient tone, as though Cybele were a very small child throwing a tantrum. “Even if we could keep you hidden, it would be preposterous foolishness. A place was arranged for him to leave a message — ”

“And he hasn’t made use of it!”

She waited to see if Annie would try to deny it now, but she didn’t; only switched her papers to her other hand so she could squeeze the bridge of her nose in her gloved thumb and fingers. “You’re giving me a headache. What are you implying exactly? That your father doesn’t want you back? I rather extremely doubt that.” Cybele’s gaze faltered again, and Annie dropped her hand away, sighing. “Look — perhaps he hasn’t any intentions of ransoming you, but has decided instead to mount a rescue. Call down the law upon our heads, arrange a marauding mob, and steal you back in some very dramatic and romantic way. Would you prefer to believe that?”

Something in that particular phrasing rankled, but Cybele couldn’t even find the heart to be infuriated. “But — if he did that, he couldn’t be assured I wouldn’t come to harm in the meantime. There’d be no telling what you might do.” She lifted her eyes back to Annie’s, almost pleadingly so. “What will you do, if he doesn’t follow your terms?”

“We won’t harm you,” Annie said shortly, coming forward past her to set the paperwork down on the table. Looking at it, not at Cybele. “Don’t be foolish.”

“I’m not being foolish. You’d have to, wouldn’t you?” She looked hard at the side of Annie’s face, but Annie didn’t look at her, didn’t answer. “If you won’t harm me whether he pays or not, you have nothing with which to bargain. If he tests you — ”

“That’s enough,” Annie cut across her, her voice quiet and mostly composed — only sharp around the very edges, only enough to make Cybele fall silent again. Finally she looked up, her eyes opaque but steady. “Don’t presume to tell me my business, and don’t leap to wild conclusions. All I can tell you is that a week isn’t a very long time, on a relative scale. We’ll see what happens, and everything will be decided accordingly.” She hesitated one more time, then sighed, and turned to lean her hips and hands back against the table, still fixing Cybele with a weary look. “But I can also tell you that, in my opinion, violence is the nearly exclusive province of those with weak minds. I don’t doubt your father, and his companions and colleagues, are all wise and intelligent men; but his lordship must be in this situation also a man beside himself with worry for his daughter’s safety, and if I found myself unable to outwit even a very clever gentleman in such straits, I should be far more disappointed than ever I would be by the loss of your ransom.” She tilted her head down slightly, to more fully catch Cybele’s downturned eyes. “I promised your safety, your ladyship. It would take extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances to cause me to renege.”

…There were a number of things in that to which Cybele might wish to object, but in the end they were lost in far too severe a tangle for her and she let them slip away. The only one remaining in her grasp, at last, was the one she spoke in nearly a whisper: “Perhaps he isn’t so beside himself at all.”

Annie tilted her head. “I beg your pardon?”

“He…” Cybele looked away, farther than ever, staring without seeing into a corner of the room. She hardly even quite intended to say more, but somehow it came spilling out of her mouth anyway: sounding more quivering and childish and foolish than it had even been inside her head, but also impossible to stop. “He, and my mother — they’ve always favored my sisters. I do as I should, and try to be appropriate, and… instead of making them fonder of me, it seems to only make me easier to see through.” She broke off for a moment, biting her lip, and then could not keep from giving voice to the final, most desperate fear that had been locked in her heart: “Perhaps he hasn’t even noticed I’m gone.”

Annie was silent for a very long moment — so long, in fact, that even Cybele’s frozen mind began to wonder if Annie hadn’t also forgotten she was ever here. When Annie’s gloved hand touched her chin, therefore, and turned it to the side so Cybele’s wide-eyed face aimed toward hers again, it startled her quite badly, made her jump. Annie looked long into her eyes, holding her cheek; and again, whatever was in her eyes was touched with exasperation but softer and kinder than Cybele had grown accustomed to from her — and yet, impossible for Cybele to entirely read.

“I think you must be the most ridiculous creature I’ve ever encountered,” Annie said — but with a kindness in her voice as strong as in her eyes. It made her words easier, more palatable. “You’re being petulant, self-pitying, and childish. You’re Lord Dalton’s youngest daughter, not his best-behaved pet.” She met Cybele’s eyes, chasing them when she tried to look away. “You do him a grave dishonor, to suggest that he would forget you the moment you absent yourself — as he would a pair of mislaid spectacles.”

Cybele bit her lip again, her brows creased, and managed to drop her eyes away at last. “What will you do with me, if nothing comes?” she asked, nearly in a whisper. Annie, still holding her chin, sighed.

“I don’t know, Cybele.” Her voice was still gentle, and under the circumstances Cybele didn’t even notice the use of her given name. “And I am quite confident I’ll never need to.”

They were both silent for a moment, Cybele thinking, Annie perhaps waiting. She looked up at Annie at last with a small, fragile smile, both chagrined and sad. “…If only you had been a man — perhaps my father would be more concerned, or at least more immediately.” Annie was already rolling her eyes at that, but she looked amused, and Cybele pressed on, emboldened and a little cheered. “Or if he didn’t rescue me, I could marry you, for spite.”

“What a generous spirit you have.” Annie sighed, although she still had not removed her hand. “I’d make a terrible husband, I’m afraid.”

Cybele frowned — and dared, for almost no good reason, to wrap her hand around Annie’s gloved one at her face, clasping it only in her timid fingers. “No, you wouldn’t.”

“Certainly I would. I’ve a sharp tongue and no reliable source of income, and I’m old enough to be your father. …Or mother. One of them.” She let Cybele take her hand away and simply hold it, albeit with a faint air of patient toleration. “What puts such peculiar ideas into your head to begin with?”

“You’re not so old,” Cybele said in a murmur, stepping closer and folding Annie’s hand to her breast, ignoring the question. Annie laughed at that, her fingers twitching. There was actually half a smile on Cybele’s own face now, she felt with something like wonder; but it fell away soon enough, and she was left again unable to look into Annie’s eyes. “Might I…”

She lost her courage somewhere in there, though, and finally Annie had to tilt her head frowningly again. “What?”

Cybele bit her lip harder than ever, staring down at the boards until her eyes watered. “…Might I stay here again tonight? With you?”

Annie was silent for a moment; a moment that felt extremely long, years long. At the end of it she laughed again — but something about the sound of it made that not as bad as it could have been. “That all depends. Are you planning to try to cut my throat again?”

Cybele flushed in spite of herself, for no really good reason if several middling fair ones. “No! I…” She floundered a moment, then took a breath and attempted to collect herself, throwing back her hair and attempting haughtiness. “What would it matter even if I did? You’d only stop me again.”

“Perhaps; but that’s a game I’d just as soon not play too many times as I’m trying to sleep, if it’s all the same to you.” Annie paused a moment, and from the corners of Cybele’s eyes appeared to be looking at her seriously. “…Are you certain of this?”

“Yes.” It came out in scarcely a whisper, but Cybele couldn’t see how she would have managed more. “I… I don’t want to be alone, that’s all.”

Another long, grueling pause from Annie, and then, at last, another sigh. And then, there were warm arms about Cybele’s shoulders — freezing her where she stood, and gathering her in against a warmer, narrow breast. She only stood tense and caught for a few moments, too startled to think or move… and then at last, relaxed into Annie’s grip, settling against her and resting her cheek near the top of Annie’s vest.

“For heaven’s sakes,” Annie’s voice grumbled, somewhere over her head; Cybele could feel both the vibrations of her voice and the rising of her breath in Annie’s chest, against her ear. “I’ll be lucky if your father doesn’t see me hanged for all this, you realize.”

“Wouldn’t you be anyway?” Cybele mushed out against her shirt, and Annie laughed, surprised and true, warm into her hair.

When they had made their way to the bed and Cybele sat on its edge in bare feet, Annie still standing before her, she reached out without looking up and took the lower wings of Annie’s vest in two crumpling fistfuls. “Will you kiss me?” she said, her voice soft but not weak. “I want you to kiss me.”

There was another brief moment’s pause. “I don’t think — ” Annie began, but Cybele cut her off — looking up finally, her brow and lips set in a frown.

I do.” She let the vest go, only pressing her palms flat to Annie’s stomach; pushing her hands upward, the rough brocade leaving a faint burn on her palms and fingers. Annie gazed down at her, her expression somewhere between amused and dismayed — and a bit heavy-lidded as well. “I don’t want to be fond of you, but I am,” Cybele said, still frowning, and now she sounded petulant, but couldn’t bring herself to mind. “You’re rude to me and you treat me as though I haven’t any sense, but your must frustrating habit by far is of sometimes being both kind-hearted and terribly attractive. I wish you wouldn’t, but I can’t help myself, and… I’m so far from home. There’s no one to protect me, but… neither is there anyone to mind.” She looked back up at Annie, eyes wide, even pleading. “When I’ve been ransomed, you can forget all about me, I suppose. But I want this now.”

“I don’t think I’m likely to forget you anytime soon,” Annie said — but she was smiling, and almost affectionately. Her hand touched Cybele’s hair, and Cybele let her eyes drift closed, her cheeks flushed. There was a sigh from above her, and then movement under her hands. “All right, then. Far be it from a criminal to be morally responsible.”

Annie’s mouth was warm, almost dry at first, until Cybele pressed it for greater depths. She crouched at Cybele’s knees and her hand tangled in hair at the nape of Cybele’s neck, Cybele’s shy arms looping around her shoulders; and their tongues slowly came to fence and tangle as their mouths came open and wetter by degrees. When Cybele lay backward, too dizzy and strange in her mind to remain upright any longer, Annie came with her, rising from the floor and stretching out alongside Cybele’s form sideways on the mattress, kicking off her boots somewhere along the way. Her hand slipped its way down in time, almost teasingly, to rest at Cybele’s breast, and when after some time Cybele drew it instead to the lacings of her gown’s upper, it went willingly enough.

She sat up again at Annie’s urgings, blushing as half her undone gown as slipped off into her lap, and then Annie’s hands were pulling at hers again, drawing her up all the way to her feet beside the bed. Annie stripped the gown down and away with a businesslike authority; it would have been like being undressed by one of her maids, except for her quivering and the sudden overpowering hot flush between her thighs. Annie dispensed with the petticoats as well, and after a moment’s critical glance, Annie took both Cybele’s hands in one and lifted them over her head, and stripped off her chemise from its bottom hem up. She let it slide over her freed hands and then wrapped them back down over herself helplessly, hot-faced and naked in the thread of cool breeze drifting in the open window. It didn’t help when Annie cast a long glance down her, smirking, and she flushed harder than ever and scowled.

“Fine, then,” she said — nearly a snap but too breathy — and pushed her hands against Annie’s chest instead, pressing her down to sit on the bed’s edge. Before Annie could react, Cybele climbed into her lap, a knee on either side, and set to work on Annie’s vest, parting buttons from holes with trembling fingers.

“Now, wait a moment,” Annie began, still with that infuriating calm — but Cybele only lunged forward to catch her mouth in a kiss, and failed to wait at all.

She was narrow and hard as her own knife, out of her riding clothes, a straight line but for the smooth curve of her hips and slight swell of her bosom; and when the lantern had finally been doused and Cybele rolled atop her body in the dark, pinning down Annie’s smooth nakedness with her own and pressing clumsy, eager fingers into the gap of Annie’s slim thighs, she was gratified to hear the laughter dry from Annie’s voice at last.

And by how her sleep was much deeper this time, when Cybele crept naked out of her bed and across the floor, silent as a shadow.

As quietly as she could she took up Annie’s breeches from where they had fallen on the floor and slipped into them — with a brief thrill of scandal at the unfamiliar feeling of fabric embracing her inner thighs and sex. They were too long by some distance, but Annie’s boots were only a little too large, and once the breeches had been tucked in their tops the overhang was hardly noticeable. Annie’s shirt and vest were next, and both fit her acceptably, if rather more tightly than Annie wore them. She tucked the shirt as well, and after a moment’s consideration, wrapped her hair in a twist and stuffed it down the back of the shirt’s collar. Crossing to stand in front of the oval mirror in one corner, she was at pains to mute every fall of the boots’ heavy soles on the wood.

Her darkened, moonlit reflection caught her breath in her throat. It couldn’t be quite right, and she was too short by full long inches, but… seeing only a shape in the dark, she would have sworn she was looking straight at Annie.

It would have to be enough, she thought, firming the line of her mouth. The cloak would make up the difference anyway, hide her far larger bosom and shorter, thicker legs, while Annie’s hat would serve to conceal her paler hair.

She took both from the back of the door and put them on, and then paused when doing so revealed the pistol-belt hung beneath. After only a few seconds’ consideration, she took that too — again muffling its clanking as much as possible — and strapped it around her own hip. She didn’t want to shoot any of the men, or indeed anybody if she could help it; but there was no way to be sure of what would happen, or what other dangers she might meet on her way. Better to take it and be safe than leave it and find herself sorry.

Standing at the open window, her hands already on the sill, she paused once more, and looked back over at the bed. In the dim Annie was only a sprawling landscape under a snowfall of sheets, flat on her stomach, the dark untidy tumble of her hair all that was visible of her head. Cybele bit her lip, and hovered there rather longer than she should have, only looking. A part of her wished, even now, that it had been all ruse: that all of her words had been lies, and all her desire feigned. It would have been easier, that way. But she couldn’t even pretend.

She clung to the windowsill, sat down on its edge, and slipped herself through feet-first. Eased herself down until she was dangling full-length from the sill, the cloak billowing around her in the night wind. The air was deliciously fresh outside, the air pierced by faint calls of birds from the distant woods. And after a moment to pray that the ceilings downstairs were really as low as they had seemed — she let go.

The sound of her impact seemed very loud to her ears, and she stayed crouched on the ground for a long moment afterward: waiting for the bolts of pain in her calves to ease, and to see if any of the men downstairs had heard her land. But no one seemed aroused; perhaps the whole house was abed already, and even the guard at the door nodding off by now. She had grown complacent, and they complacent in her complacency.

If only she could claim she’d planned it this way. But no matter.

She fled to the stables at a silent run, cloak streaming behind her. There was a guard round the front, so she slipped in the rear door, and was able after only a moment’s panicked mind-wracking to select the horse that Annie had ridden, when they’d brought her back. It seemed disgruntled, but allowed her to prepare and tack it in a fast trembling fury (grateful for the first time for all the times her sisters had bullied her into sharing their hobby) and then lead it outside. And then she was mounted — spraddle-legged like a man, and again some part of her secretly thrilled with the oddity of it — and off.

She’d gotten perhaps some few yards away before the guard outside the stable hailed her — and was so startled by it that she nearly lost her composure and spurred the horse ahead, pounding off into the darkness at a gallop in her panic. At the last second, though, she collected herself with some effort. That would raise the alarm at once, of course; and there was, after all, no need.

“Where you off to at this hour, then, Annie?” the man called. He was one she didn’t recognize, whom she had spoken with little; a grizzled older man with what looked like the red flush of drink in his nose and cheeks, but steady eyes and hands that gave it the lie. Cybele took a deep breath as she pulled up her horse, and wheeled it around to face him, trying to prepare her voice to come out in a lower register.

“Only for a ride, to clear my head,” she called back — and winced faintly at how little like Annie she sounded. Still, perhaps at this distance and volume, he wouldn’t notice. “I couldn’t sleep.”

The man laughed at that, for reasons at which Cybele could only guess. “Well, I can hardly blame you for that,” he answered with good humor all down his voice; and at last Cybele was able to relax, letting out a long breath inside the cloak. “Just be back before dawn, eh?”

“Of course.”

And with that, he only lifted his hand and returned to the stool where he’d been sitting before the stableyard, whittling; and, as difficult as it was to even imagine, it dawned on Cybele with slow wonder that she was free.

She rode: across the vast expanse of farmland that surrounded the strange house that had been her prison, straight into the dark thick of the woods. She had no idea which direction would lead her home, of course, but she felt certain if she only rode long enough, she could find some sort of help.

For a wonder, that, too, turned out to be true; after some hour or two of riding what she judged by the stars to be east, she came across another clearing of the trees that had been turned to a plot of farmland, and a farmhouse at its edge where lights still burned. Leaving on the hat — perhaps these simple folk would take her for a man as she had Annie, and that would simplify matters somewhat — she knocked at the door, and tried not to sound too breathless as she made her inquiries.

Pointing with a large, ruddy hand out into the night, the man of the house told her northeast by some forty miles; and it was all Cybele could do to contain her surprise. So short? That was no more than a few hours, surely not the day’s ride it had taken them at full speed. Had her kidnappers simply led her in circles after leaving the King’s Road, to give her the false impression of some great distance? She supposed they must have.

It seemed as though that realization should have made her angry — but as she thanked the farmer and mounted her horse again, all she could feel was relief. She would be home before the sun rose.

By the time she reached the part of the King’s Road that led into her father’s estate proper, she had no sense of the time, but judged it still lacking a few hours of dawn. It had been a long, fast ride along the dark wooded trails, wanting to push the horse faster still but not daring for the uncertain terrain; at a few points she had actually very nearly nodded off in the saddle, and had at last to jerk herself back awake by focusing on her anxiety again. The woods were full of strange noises, insects and animals and rustlings in the trees, and it was impossible to tell if some of them might actually be far-off hoofbeats. But thus far, she had seen no one.

Now on the open, finished road, she urged the horse on faster, excitement rising in her throat. She was nearly there, she was going to make it —

And then, when she had actually split off from the road onto the narrower carriage-path that led up to the front door, when the darkened manor-house itself loomed in front of her and her eyes had begun to blur with happy tears… that was when she finally did hear hoofbeats, behind her.

She was so distracted that they didn’t enter her consciousness until they were nearly upon her, and by the time she whipped her head around, eyes wide, it was too late. The rider at her back bore in like dark thunder, in a thunder of furious galloping and flapping coat — the other horse tore up to the side of her own with sickening oiled speed — and strong, thin arms simply shot out and grabbed her around the waist, hauling her with a cry out of her saddle and onto the other mount.

She thrashed, fighting the arms around her, and they tightened with repressive force; she paid no mind, however, and somewhere in her flurry of frenzied kicking her captor lost their precarious balance. They tumbled from the second horse as well, to a crouched heap on the ground, and she tried to scramble away — was caught again, hauled back against a lean, strong body, a hard hand clapped over her mouth —

“You stupid, reckless, infuriating child,” Annie’s voice hissed in her ear — widening her eyes, and not because it was a voice she was exactly surprised to hear. Rather, by the sound of it — the way it shook and strained with something very like fear. Cybele stilled — more in alarm than in acquiescence — but Annie’s arms loosened not at all. “Hold still, be quiet, and listen to me. You, and I, and your father, are in terrible danger right now, greater than any you’ve been in thus far… and little though I want to, you’ve left me no choice but to break my word and tell you the truth, as quickly as possible. So be still.

“First of all: you haven’t been kidnapped, at least not for ransom. Your father asked me to take you from the road and hold you captive, for your own protection.” Cybele’s face was already pulling into a stunned, uncomprehending frown, as she stared wide-eyed over Annie’s muffling hand and up at the house (so close!) looming over them, but Annie’s low, fast, furious voice didn’t pause. “There is an inspector of the King, currently visiting your house, ostensibly to investigate reports of marauders on your father’s lands. Lord Dalton, however, knows the man’s true purpose: to find evidence that your father is in collusion with myself and my men, ourselves the marauders he seeks.”

Annie drew her head backward from Annie’s palm, quick enough she managed to escape. “What?” she whispered — hardly even knowing why she didn’t simply scream. “My father wouldn’t — ”

“But he would, and has,” Annie said, barely a hiss and deadly even. “We have been working together for nearly ten years now; which in turn is why he trusted me to remove you while he and the inspector play their game of cat-and-mouse.” She reclaimed her grip on Cybele’s mouth, almost as an afterthought. “Far from forgetting you, Lord Dalton is deeply concerned for your well-being. He described you to me as ‘delicate,’ which I feel now in retrospect evidences on his part either a shocking dishonesty or a profound lack of insight into your character, and expressed his keen desire that you be taken from harm’s way, while none the wiser of the danger that faced him. If the inspector left frustrated, I was to pretend you had been ransomed and return you to your home; and if he found cause to arrest your father, I was to spirit you away, so that you at least would survive his execution.”

“Execution?” Her whispering voice came out still muffled into Annie’s bare palm this time, but at least Annie was then kind enough to pull it away slightly. “Why… why should he be executed only for colluding with bandits? Surely — ”

“Well, that’s the trouble, you see,” Annie cut her off, a grim smile shaping her words. “I’m not a bandit, but a traitor to the crown; and the crime for which I’ve put your father under the knife is sedition of the highest order.”

But Cybele barely heard the latter half of this, barely saw anymore the towering house, or felt Annie’s clamping arms. Her eyes were going wider still, huge in her head, as inside her mind with a series of clicks a number of things began to fall into place.

Red Annie,” she whispered, wondering; and her voice was so soft this time that Annie took her hand away entire. “You’re — you’re Anne Gaudin! The Duke’s daughter, from the stories — you — ”

“Yes,” Annie agreed, still sounding bitterly half-amused. “I did. What the stories daren’t say, however, is that my father was a petty tyrant and a madman both. When I was no older than you are now he tried to have my younger sister to bed, and when she and my mother resisted, painted the walls with both their blood. When he came for me, I put a knife through his eye, and ended him. But one does not report such things of the cousin of the King; not when the King himself is baying for the murderess’s blood. If you like, though, you may take this opportunity to feel justified in all your fears, as you have been captive all this time of a quisling and a parricide.” She sighed, seemed to try to collect her thoughts. “I fled across the border, to the keep of Prince Edward: to my fortune, a just and generous man. I pledged to his service at once, and since then I have done my best to aid him in his quest to invade and conquer his Majesty, and restore some sort of sanity to my homeland.”

“But — ” Cybele could make it that far and no further; her head was all in a whirl, spinning in too many directions at once. “But — ”

“Then, perhaps two years before you were born,” Annie pushed on, as though she hadn’t heard, “your father — an officer in King Dorian’s army, in those days — was taken captive as he fought in a skirmish at the southern border. Have you never heard this, from him or your mother or sisters?” Cybele shook her head, slowly as if in a dream. “At my request, my commanding officer spared his life; and I took the opportunity to explain to him a number of things about his Majesty and his reign that Lord Dalton had merely suspected before. Your father is a man of conscience and reason, and within a month he was not our prisoner but our ally. He returned to his own lands and home as a spy, pledging to aid us however he could… and has made good on that promise by helping myself and my men smuggle Prince Edward’s soldiers from the port and along the King’s Road within the lands in his holding, under the guise of banditry. Thanks to his help, by now a force some thousands strong is bivouacked under King Dorian’s own nose; and if our luck is in, within the year we’ll see him overthrown.”

Annie took a long deep breath, at last, and let it out on a sigh. “Unfortunately, his Majesty is as canny as he is cruel, and he’s come to suspect your father’s crimes. He only sent his inspector to prove them — and so Lord Dalton entrusted you to me, for fear that under King Dorian’s law, you and your mother and sisters could be taken in bond as a criminal’s property. He doesn’t ignore you, you silly little mouse, he fears for you more than any other — and didn’t want to frighten you by telling you the game, or subject you to the hardships of fleeing in the event of his arrest.” She sighed again, quick but deep. “I rather think, though, that he could have saved us all a good bit of trouble.”

For a moment, Cybele could only grasp: trying to find some thread in all of this to follow. Could it even be true? His Majesty a monster, her father a traitor? Could —

But she had no time, either to reply or to think further — because then she heard footsteps, and at last her eyes refocused to spot a dark figure hurrying up the lawn toward them.

Annie tensed at her back, as though preparing to flee, but relaxed when a patch of moonlight brought the figure’s shape clearer; and Cybele’s heart leapt in her chest. Even in the dark, she at once knew the silhouette.

“Father!” she said, her voice a sharp, hissing gasp. She could no more have helped herself than she could have stopped breathing. Annie made some sound of near-agony, but she was scarcely even aware. The approaching figure stuttered — and then rushed closer, almost at a run, to where they stood.

“Cybele?” Lord Dalton’s voice cut through the dark: muted, but as deep and graveled as ever it was. Now she could see the sharp, stern lines of his face, his brief silver hair without his wig, his tall narrow frame in disheveled shirt and breeches. “What on earth are you — ” His eyes cut upward then, to Annie, behind her, and he stopped in mid-sentence in his surprise — which quickly drew down into a thunderous frown. Annie sighed again, and let Cybele go, coming a few steps toward him even as Cybele flung herself the short distance into his arms.

“I’m incredibly bloody sorry, Percy,” she said from behind, in a similar undertone. “I’m afraid she escaped, and made it this far before I could catch her.”

Cybele had never heard anyone but her mother call her father by his given name in her life, but he seemed unfazed: only freezing a moment with his dazed arms around her, and then heaving a gusty sigh into her hair. “Good Lord,” he said, sounding both shocked and rueful. “Then I suppose they were your horses I heard around front. Nor do I know who else might have heard — you must be off at once, I beg of you.” He drew back a little from Cybele, holding her shoulders instead and looking down into her face. “Cybele, my darling — I’m so sorry for all of this. I wish you could understand, and I don’t have time — ”

“I’ve just explained,” Annie interrupted. Cybele’s father looked plainly relieved — and suddenly Cybele could hold back nothing any longer.

“Father, is it true?” she burst out, clutching at his arms around her shoulders. Staring up at him pleadingly, and he holding her eyes with what looked like an effort. “Can it be true? All of this… are you really — ”

“Yes.” His look was hard, and unhappy, and firm. “If Annie’s told you that I’ve betrayed his Majesty — then yes, it’s true. And the only thing I regret is that I’ve put you girls and your mother in danger by doing it.” He let out a long sigh. “Cybele, I love you, and I hope that one day you can understand. What I’ve done, I’ve done for your sakes — ”

“And it will see them in their graves,” a cold, deep, unfamiliar voice cut him off.

Both Annie and her father froze, and Cybele whipped her head around just as the man who had spoken emerged from the shadows of the manse up on the hill. He was tall, strong, perhaps her father’s age, a man with a narrow beaky face and hard eyes in dark pools in the night-time shadows. He wore a plumed hat, and a cloak with a badge… and suddenly, her heart sank with understanding.

The inspector had been listening.

“I believe I heard horses long before you did, Lord Dalton,” he said, in that same smooth, pitiless voice, walking closer as he spoke. A slight twist at the corner of his mouth deformed the words. “I slipped outside the house, thinking I might arrest some of your bandits in the act.” His eyes cut to Annie, and down her. “I see now that I was rather more than right.”

Lord Dalton let go of Cybele’s shoulders, and stepped away from her reaching hands toward the inspector. A moment later Annie’s hand clasped Cybele’s elbow, and though she tried to tug away it managed to pull her some paces back.

“Well?” the inspector said when the silence had spun out long; now he finally stood in front of Lord Dalton, facing each other down in the moonlight. “Have you nothing to say for yourself?” He gestured toward Annie in one broad sweep. “On one night the same as any other I find you in the company of one of our kingdom’s most pursued criminals, confessing your own treason to your daughter — the very one you’ve just been telling me is away on family business.” He cocked his head on one side, smiling almost gently. “Would you perhaps care to explain to me how this is all a misunderstanding?”

Lord Dalton’s head remained high, staring into the man’s eyes; and Cybele’s own head throbbed with a whirlwind of guilt and terror and bewilderment. She wanted to speak, but couldn’t — could hardly even think.

“I have nothing to say,” her father said with dignity. “This is scarcely more evidence than I think you believed you had before, Pelletier; if you wish to arrest me, by now I have no doubt that you will find whatever grounds you feel necessary.”

“Arrest you?” Pelletier inquired, still smiling. “Oh, no, Dalton. I fear there’s no need for that.”

And then all in one motion, he had drawn a pistol from his cloak: gleaming in his hand in the moonlight.

Cybele cried out, and Annie caught her arm again — but she could hear the click as Annie clenched her teeth. “His Majesty’s instructions in your case were quite explicit,” Pelletier said, his voice even and calm as he cocked the hammer of his gun. “As soon as I was sure — to see you dead. And of course, your family afterward.” His smile grew, fractionally, when Lord Dalton jerked. “I confess I had not expected the added pleasure of slaying Red Annie; but sometimes life hands us unexpected treasures, is it not so?”

“This is murder, Inspector,” Lord Dalton said. His voice was still low, but now slightly shaking, to Cybele’s alarm. “Surely his Majesty cannot expect — ”

“Ah, but he can.” Pelletier inclined his head slightly, his smile by now almost a grin. “And I must tell you, your lordship: I am quite sure.” His hand tightened around the grip. “Goodb–”

No!

Cybele’s cry was nearly a shriek; it broke in the middle, but it was enough. Pelletier glanced around, for only a second, startled momentarily out of his concentration —

But since Annie’s pistol was already out in her hands, a moment was all she needed.

She fired the gun empty into his chest, and the night exploded with thunder. The gun’s kick — so huge for its size! — nearly drove her backwards, and the last few shots flew harmlessly past him; but there was no need for them. She stood only a few paces from him; and the dragon’s fangs pummeled his heart, sending him jerking and twitching back like a scarecrow in the wind, blood bursting from his chest and mouth. His expression, as he tumbled to earth, was one of vast, comic surprise… and then his pistol tumbled from his hand, and he lay still.

No one moved for what seemed like a very long time.

Finally, Lord Dalton stepped forward with apparent unsteadiness, and knelt beside Pelletier’s body. He felt at the man’s throat with an unsteady hand for a moment — surely an absurd gesture, at this point — and then looked up straight at Annie, and with a blank fixed expression shook his head very slightly.

Cybele dropped the pistol, which startled both Annie and her father when it landed with a thump at her feet. She pressed her hands, very slowly and tremblingly over her mouth. “I killed him,” she whispered through them, and then she was shaking everywhere, unable to stop. “I… I’ve killed a man.”

There was another long silence… and then, finally, Annie bent down, and picked up the gun from in front of Cybele. She held it up in front of her, turning it over, and then quite suddenly reached around Cybele’s waist, unfastening the gunbelt from it. Cybele flinched, but by the time she turned Annie already had it off her, and was buckling it around her own middle one-handed, the pistol held aside in her other.

“No,” Annie said — casually, matter-of-factly, as though Cybele had made some prediction of the weather and she disagreed. “No, not a bit of it. I think that actually, you’ll find the rounds in the body came from the pistol of one Anne Gaudin.” She looked at neither of them as she spoke — only at the pistol, as she prepared its holster and then put it away. “Better known in these lands as Red Annie.”

Yet another silence; even longer and more thunderstruck than either of the two before.

At last, Annie glanced up at Lord Dalton; and her expression was the mild, half-amused one Cybele had come to know so well. “I think, Lord Dalton, that you’d better take that body straight to the Chief Inspector in the morning,” she said, as though it were just occurring to her. “And be sure to tell him how the brave Pelletier discovered that it was not marauding bandits in your lands at all — but traitors, using your own patch of the King’s Road for their misdeeds. And they then slew him for his troubles.” Her eyes locked on Lord Dalton’s, and held fast. “It is a thrilling story, and I’m sure he’ll be all ears.”

“This will treble the price on your head, and that’s if you’re lucky,” Cybele’s father said after a short, measured pause — but Cybele was shocked to hear that he sounded almost as bitterly amused as Annie. “You can ill afford for his Majesty to call out a fresh hunt for your blood at a time like this.”

Annie shrugged, folding her arms now that her pistol was stowed. “My work is mostly done, to be honest. I can remove myself to safer climes and let my men finish what I’ve started.”

Lord Dalton rose at last, looking deep in thought as he dusted his hands clean… and finally looked at Annie again, and nodded, slow and grave. “Then you have more of my gratitude than I can ever repay,” he said, softly. “Godspeed, Annie, until we meet again; and know that you have more honor and courage than ten loyal men, as far as I’m concerned.”

And Annie only arched an eyebrow at him, as though he had made a joke. “That was very nearly a compliment,” she said drily. “Take care of yourself, Percy. And all your fine women.” And at last, she bowed to him herself. “My horses are around front, you said?”

He nodded, and she answered it; and Cybele’s heart was in her throat all over again, seeming to stop it up. She wanted to say something, anything, to Annie — to burst with tears and apologies, even with the pure sorrow for her loss, now that it was a sudden inescapable fact — to tell her how deep her own guilt and bewildered, horrified gratitude. To throw herself forward into Annie’s arms, and pour out all the bursting confusion of her heart.

But her voice would not come, and there seemed to be nothing she could say. And before she could find and struggle out a single word, Annie had already turned, and gone.

———

The street was dingy and rain-washed, a narrow trickle of cobbles through the city’s seediest part, and Cybele hurried to tie her horse to the post at its side and be gone. She pulled her hood closer over her head as she crossed to the door whose rotting number matched the one in her memory, and slipped inside.

A man sat feigning to sleep in a chair just inside, before the flight of cramped stairs; just before his eyes opened she saw, with a tiny smile but no real surprise, that beneath the mustaches and ragged cap, it was Connelly. He sat upright, frowning up at her, but before he could speak she simply pulled back her hood and shook her head. His eyes widened — and then he broke into a broad smile. She found it no longer looked so wild to her at all.

The stairs were silent under her feet, the upstairs hall cramped and untidy, littered with dust. When she came at last to the door at the end of the right side, she rapped on it —

And when it opened, stood once again face-to-face with Annie at the crack of a door, for the first time in some six months.

She did not look exactly the same: her face looked more lined, and weary, and Cybele would have sworn there was more silver in her hair now than there had been before. Her clothing was not so handsome, more disheveled on her, although perhaps that only showed that she’d lost weight, and there were dark spaces under her eyes. But when Cybele tossed off her hood again, and looked up into her eyes, an expression broke slowly across her handsome face — patient, amused, exasperated, kind — that had her all Annie again, all the way down.

“What is it this time?” she said. As though they were still in the farming cottage, and Cybele never gone from just down the hall. Under her gaze, Cybele tried to look mature and superior, and not anxious in the least.

“My father has left the kingdom,” she said, without preamble or giving any answer just yet. “He put it about that we were all retiring to our summer home in the south, and then fled with my mother and sisters to Prince Edward’s care. They’ll be safe until the coup at least, so he says.”

“And you didn’t go with them?” Annie inquired, conversationally, leaning on the jamb. Cybele shook her head, her eyes never leaving Annie’s. This was where she would need all of her courage, after all — all her reckless stubbornness that had so vexed Annie in the first place. To be a little beast.

“No,” she said. “I came to help you. To join you.”

Annie’s expression became more politely incredulous than ever, but she pushed on blind, not letting herself stop long enough for nerves to seize her. “I’ve spoken to my father a great deal about all that’s passed between you. Your cause is a great one. If I can help, even in some small way, if there’s anything I can do at all to be sure of our victory… Perhaps my father is too well-known a face, and cannot help you, but — I am not so constrained.” She lifted her chin, her eyes locked on Annie’s. “Wherever you go from here, however you may throw your hand in in the coming battle… you have my arm as well.”

Annie was still looking at her now, her expression as nonplussed and interested as ever. She stayed that way for long moments after Cybele had finished speaking, and was only waiting: her head held high, shoulders thrown back, ready for anything and everything.

At last, after long moments, Annie said, “And what did you have in mind, exactly? Pink Cybele, scourge of the easily intimidated?”

Cybele folded her arms over her chest. “Are you going to let me in or not?”

And, after another few seconds’ pause, Annie’s smile grew by fractions; and she stepped aside to hold the door wide, and let Cybele in.

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