Friends in Low Places

by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

“I beg your pardon?” Catalina said. She had long since learned that politeness was the best cover for panic.

Capitán Noguera, however, did not seem to agree in this instance. “I see no reason why you should need it, my lady,” he said, with perhaps a touch of impatience concealed behind his broad and generous smile. “The only thing that the moment demands is your answer.”

Well he might believe so, Catalina could spare just enough time to think, in the midst of her fast and frantic calculations. He was the only one here who had been even slightly prepared for this, not to mention that there was no good answer possible. Yes was entirely out of the question, and without even trying she could see a hundred pitfalls in no, not least of which was needing the man to continue to work for her. Could she delay him? Charm him with coquetry and make him believe that she might eventually agree, and use the time she had bought for her extraction? No, damn it all, no — that would only make it worse in the long term. She just needed time to think, and there her capitán de flota sat across his desk from her, staring at her, with every second seeming to tick away in one more tightening muscle of his smile.

In the end, Catalina found no recourse but to make the strategic decision to employ no strategy at all. “Then my answer is no, I’m afraid, captain,” she said, and gentled the blankness out of her face into the kindest and tenderest of looks she could manage. “I’m humbled and flattered by your offer, of course, and I thank you for it. But my responsibilities to my house are simply too many to begin to consider marriage at this moment. I hope very much that you can understand.”

To his credit, and her great relief, Noguera controlled himself. Catalina had heard that he had always had a temper with his crews, and to be quite honest she found it all the more disquieting that she had never seen a trace of it herself; and yet she’d had no desire to be treated to her first performance, all the same. “I see,” Noguera said only, after a long pause, and though his voice and posture were stiff and his eyes dark with thunder, he spoke with measured calm. “I confess I’m most disappointed to hear that. Will you not reconsider, my lady? I think you will find me to be a constant and reliable servant of your family’s fortunes, if you will recall, and there are many in Baluartes who will vouch for the quality of my character.”

“Certainly, I have not the slightest doubt of that,” Catalina said, in the most soothing tone she could muster that didn’t make it too plain that one was being soothed. “The fault is most certainly not in you, but in my own preoccupation. Please accept my deepest regrets, truly.”

“But surely your preoccupation would only be eased by a husband who could help to bear some of your burdens?” Noguera pressed, no sooner than she had dared to hope the matter was closed. Catalina kept softening her expression to the point that it seemed it would drip all over the floor, to counter how she wanted to clench her teeth. Noguera’s character was no concern of hers, as far as she saw, but his persistence was well on its way to making her scream.

“In time, I hope, if God wills it,” she said, all sweet honey and light. “But for now, alas, I fear He will not spare me the time to be a bride, even of the most worthy of men.” And then before Noguera could muster his next volley from the cannons, she had gathered herself up amid all the crinkling and resettling of her gown, and nodded her head to him probably far deeper than he warranted, just for the sake of securing her escape. “Please excuse me, then, captain. I have a number of household matters to attend to this afternoon.”

Neither did he seem to have any objections — although it could be just that she had fled his office too quickly to hear them.

With the closed doors between them, at last Catalina could seem to breathe again. She paused a moment to collect herself, shutting her eyes as she took in the welcome silence out in the hall. Only then did she move, and bypass the front staircase altogether, in favor of a small unassuming door at the back of the upper story that she knew to lead to a far less grand set of steps on the dock side of the building. It always struck her a bit silly, how much everyone insisted she only see this polished front face and the gentility of Noguera’s office, and never be subjected to the dust and rats and salt-crusted stains of the common dockside warehouse it sat atop. As though she hadn’t spent her childhood playing with grubby fishermen’s sons in half a dozen just like it, no matter how her mother would scold her father afterward over the state of Catalina’s dress. Her father would always only laugh and say it was good she was taking an interest.

The salt air and wind along the docks was profoundly welcome after such an unexpectedly stifling time indoors, and so was the sight of the broad, waving expanse of ocean out beyond the pilings. Catalina had always loved looking out over the water, the sense of freedom and openness it seemed to embody. No matter that she had never gone out upon it herself, even while her family’s fortunes did unceasingly.

She was a bit out of place here, though, passing the strong-backed sweating men loading cargo from warehouse walls into ships, and the packs of seagulls shitting merrily on the quays. Best to make her way toward the street with all haste, no matter her reluctance. Catalina had only just begun to do so, though, when someone called out to her, just as she passed the moorings by her own warehouse. It made her pause, and turn frowning toward the voice.

“Good afternoon, Baronesa!” it called again. And then it was followed by a person, swinging over the rail of La Cazadora onto her gangplank and into view.

The figure was one Catalina recognized, albeit hazily. The fact that, had they not been on such different levels, it would have risen at most to the height of her sternum did aid in the matter. One of the small band of mountain-folk that Noguera had brought back as crew and staff from the frozen coasts of the far north: Catalina had never met any of their kind before in person, only heard travelers’ stories, and had tried not to be too gawkingly curious when they had arrived. The one striding down to her now, beaming, had always stood out by virtue of being the only one who appeared to keep clean-shaven, rather than brandishing a truly impressive beard.

“I don’t mean to keep you, and I hope you’ll pardon my presuming,” he said as he came up before her, bowing flourishingly to a stop. “But I couldn’t let our lovely employer pass without wishing her the best of the day.”

“It’s no presumption to be wished well,” Catalina said, and found herself unable to keep from answering his smile as she took in his person. He was sturdy as well as short, gently but firmly rounded around his brief limbs and broad trunk, and he dressed in a gentlemanly if mildly rakish style, in tall boots and breeches and rolled-up shirtsleeves with a brocaded vest overtop. He cut quite the figure, all told: with a short shag of very light-colored hair, pale as spider-silk, its sides shaved up close to his scalp, arresting eyes that were almost as colorless, and skin of a ruddy pink in general but particularly so along the tops of his cheeks and forehead, where it was clear the Baluarten sun had done him no kindnesses. Beardless or no, there was nonetheless an unquestionable look of wildness to his broad handsome face, as well — between the nose slightly misaligned from past injury, the deep scars drawn up one cheek from his jaw and down into the other eyebrow, and the slightly uneven lines of dark ink embedded down the center of his face from forehead to chin and from cheekbone to cheekbone across the thickened bridge of his pugilist’s nose. Yet the brilliance of his smile (and, perhaps, his stature) would not allow any of it to become intimidating. “A good day to you as well, er … oh, no. I’m so terribly sorry–“

He was laughing, though, waving that off. “Not at all! I’m pleased to reintroduce myself. I’m known as Loren St. Ymir, at your service, your ladyship.” He managed to fit another deep bow in there, and pressed a respectful kiss to the back of her hand in the bargain. The audacity of that really was probably a bit much, and yet it was charming enough to actually flutter her stomach in a thoroughly embarrassing way.

“The pleasure is mine,” Catalina said, and did her best to cover it with her respectful nod. “How are you finding Baluartes, if I may ask?”

“Oh, she’s a beautiful city,” this St. Ymir said, somehow brightening even further with enthusiasm as he straightened up. His accent was surprisingly faint, only giving a bit of a lilting, fluting cast to his words. “So much light and color! Where I come from, the human cities all seem hunkered down under the hills against the cold, but this place seems to sprawl out like a cat in the sun. And so much sun — I’m beginning to see why your kind like it so much.”

More amused and charmed than ever, Catalina opened her mouth to respond — and then was brought up short by another shout from the deck of the ship, deeper and gruffer. “Hei! Loren!”

St. Ymir winced a bit even as Catalina looked up to see another of the mountain-men leaning over the rail, bushy brows beetled in consternation above his prodigious beard. It and the hair of his head were not quite so pale as St. Ymir’s, a light brown threaded iron-grey, and while he might not have been much taller than St. Ymir, he looked as though he might be fully twice as broad from side to side. He barked some other sentence in the strange, rolling language Catalina could barely even recognize, but then broke off all at once, and his furred-in eyes widened as he craned out a bit alarmingly further over the dock. “Is that the Baronesa de Benjumea y Serra yourself?” he called this time, in a version of the local tongue as surprisingly lightly-accented as St. Ymir’s. “I beg your pardon very much, your ladyship. For myself and that fool in front of you, shirking work and being a nuisance both.”

“There’s no call to be rude, Hallstein,” St. Ymir called back with an irritated little frown between his much tidier brows, although Catalina couldn’t help but notice his tone was a bit subdued. She bit the inside of her cheek against another smile, and merely lifted a gracious hand to the fellow back on La Cazadora.

“Neither of you requires pardon, sir. Mr. St. Ymir was only being so gracious as to bid me a good day.”

“I did say I didn’t mean to keep you, though,” St. Ymir said, turning his attention back to her with a grateful smile that might also have had a bit of cheek to it. “Are you returning to your estate, your ladyship? I don’t suppose you would do me the honor of letting me accompany you? Surely it’s not safe for so grand a lady to travel the city alone.”

There were more than enough people in this selfsame city who would consider Catalina no kind of lady at all, let alone a grand one, but it would be both churlish and needless to say so. And honestly, her parents would probably prefer she went accompanied through the streets if they had any say, if only by a common sailor in their employ. The fact that she found herself charmed beyond all reason by this gregarious little man, and that walking the streets with him would baffle and incense exactly the sorts of people she most secretly liked to baffle and incense, was surely immaterial to the decision. “In fact, I would be most grateful,” she said, and proffered an arm that he took eagerly, if at a slightly awkward angle. “If, of course, that would not be keeping you from your duties, to the inconvenience of your fellows?”

She delivered this last at a slightly higher volume, and with her eyes raising pointedly toward Hallstein, still stood at the railing. To the credit, in spite of a slight visible sigh, he clearly conceded the game at once.

“Not at all, our first duty is to you, your ladyship,” Hallstein called down, resigned. “Just look sharp getting back, Loren.”

St. Ymir nodded up to him, but it was already in the process of steering Catalina around to start heading toward the main street. She allowed herself to be steered, and smiled when some ten steps away St. Ymir said in an undertone, “I’m in your debt twice over, your ladyship.”

“I’m certain I have no idea what you mean,” Catalina said, and answered his knowing smile with her own. “Shall we go by way of the market? It’s near closing, but surely some of the stalls will still stand.”

They took what proved to be a most agreeable and languid stroll through the heart of the city up to the Benjumea y Serra estate to the north, with St. Ymir alternating between flattering her at every turn and regaling her with comical stories of his adjustment to life on the southern sea. It made for a surprisingly pleasant afternoon, in the wake of the unpleasantness that had come so shortly before, and Catalina was sure by the time they reached the gates that she was as grateful to St. Ymir for the distraction as he had been for her emancipating him from watchful eyes. They bowed and curtsied one another farewell, and she passed through the gates with a lighter step and heart. Perhaps all would be well with Noguera, after all; he wasn’t a foolish man, and whatever differences in their rank, he knew just as well as St. Ymir plainly did where his fortunes lay.

She only wished she could believe as readily that the choice had been the right one. No matter how obvious it had seemed.

Still, her improved humor was only made more so when, before reaching the main doors, she spotted Élise sitting out on one of the terraces. It was more difficult than it might have been, as her school-friend sat with her book so deep in the shadows of the colonnade as to be nearly lost altogether, no doubt to defend her creamy skin against more of the freckles of which she so often complained. When Catalina raised her hand, however, Élise saw her and waved back, and even rose to brave the sun in meeting her.

“Has Antonio hounded you out of the house so soon?” Catalina teased, even as she reached Élise and they exchanged kisses to each other’s cheeks. 

Élise laughed, drawing back to only hold Catalina’s hands. “No, he’s been a perfect gentleman, if you can believe it.” Her soft, lilting accent always seemed to catch on the peaks of the words, and pool in their valleys. Catalina was quite certain it was far better than her own had ever been at the Université, however. “I just fancied a bit of fresh air, without your grandfathers’ portraits glowering.”

“That’s just how their faces were, I’m told.” She settled at the other side of the little tea-table Élise had occupied, and let out a sigh she hadn’t entirely been aware she was holding in. A bit more of her earlier sobriety couldn’t help but come back over her. “Might I confide in you a moment?”

“Juicy gossip, I hope,” Élise said, smiling, though her pale eyes were kind and thoughtful. Catalina tried for a smile back before continuing.

“I’ve just come from answering an invitation from Capitán Noguera, to meet him in his office at the docks,” she began, trying to pick her way with care. “I had assumed he wished to discuss the upcoming shipment to Eastport, but I’m afraid he… proposed, instead.”

Élise’s eyebrows had climbed quite high, but otherwise she had a prudent way of buttoning up her thoughts behind a smile. “That is quite a way to phrase it,” she said, almost on a laugh, although it was still gentle. “I take it the captain’s feelings aren’t mutual, then?”

“Well, it’s hardly a matter of feelings.” Élise tilted her head, though, and Catalina sighed. “It’s a business proposal on his part. My family depends upon his skill as fleet-captain in managing our imports and exports, and he depends upon our patronage. So why not formalize the matter with a contract of law? Which is sensible, of course, from all perspectives. And I can hardly claim he isn’t a worthy and respectable gentleman.”

“But?” Élise prompted, after Catalina had lapsed into silence. Catalina managed a wan smile, then looked at her folded hands in her lap.

“But it seems so cold, to marry for business,” she admitted, mostly to their backs. “So invasive. This one thing in my life that might concern only me, and I’m asked to consider also selling it away in service of what’s left of this fleet, which I’ve already spent every day since I was of age trying to save. …Is that childish of me? Foolish? It seems very much so, when I think on it with any logic.”

A much paler hand clasped over her brown one, and she looked up to find Élise smiling at her over them, with a deep, sad fondness. “I don’t think that’s my place to say, and I don’t really think you’d listen to me if I did,” Élise said, making her snort a guilty little laugh. “But you have a right to choose what will happen to you, as well as your family’s ships. The captain sounds good enough when you describe him like you have, but if you balked at the idea, then perhaps there was reason.” Before Catalina could even begin to ponder that somehow startling idea, however, Élise went on: “You didn’t tell him yes, though, did you?”

“No,” Catalina said, and sighed. “But I question it now. Should I have?”

“If you didn’t want to, why should you?”

Catalina tried a smile, though it fell a bit flat. “The things that we want to do aren’t always the right ones.” Élise didn’t appear moved by that, and Catalina hadn’t much expected her to. She looked into Élise’s eyes, unhappy and frank. “We’ve lost two more of our oldest standing contracts since the last battle in the east, and ones we could ill afford to lose. I’ve said it before: no one wants to be seen any longer doing business with a family, no matter how long-established, with the audacity to still wear its heathen ancestors’ name and skin in public. Not in such times as these. And I know you would say I should damn them all to hell and be done with it, but…” Élise only nodded when she lapsed, though, and the sympathetic anger in her eyes was no less sympathetic for its heat. Catalina could only sigh again. “Noguera is… he’s of common birth, but he is well-respected. And he certainly better looks the part of a nobleman of the kingdom, as people see it now, than do my father or brothers, or least of all myself. He implied as much in his proposal: of course he wasn’t so indelicate as to say that he could bolster our waning reputation with his upstanding bloodline, but it certainly might as well have been spoken. And he isn’t even wrong. From any strategic perspective, it would be wise, to marry him. I feel sure my grandfathers would be most disappointed that I had given up an opportunity to be so shrewd.”

“Your grandfathers didn’t have to go to bed with their strategies,” Élise said mildly, smoothing at the cover of her book. 

Catalina stared at her wide-eyed, and then could only burst out laughing. “Élise!”

“What? It’s true.” Catalina just shook her head, and Élise smirked, before sitting forward toward her. “So if I have this correctly, your concern is that you’ve made a stupid decision by declining to shackle yourself for life to a man you don’t want to wed, for the sake of the business you already spend every other part of your life on, and in service of appeasing the disgusting prejudices of your countrymen? Does that more or less describe it?”

“Don’t be condescending,” Catalina said, rolling her eyes a bit, and Élise’s smirk grew broader than ever.

“Why should I not?” Though Catalina could have answered that a half-dozen ways, she might not have been able to make much of a case for any of them. Élise gentled her tone before she could anyway, though, taking Catalina’s hand again. “Lina. No one questions for an instant that you care, or that you’ve ten times the merchant’s acumen that even your father ever had. I swear I heard him say as much at breakfast just this morning. It’s one thing, and a very reasonable place to draw a line, I should judge. The captain will continue to serve you; he’d be a fool not to, after all you’ve done for him. It seems to me that the only thing about this decision that isn’t perfectly fine is that you’re troubled by it. And that much you can remedy yourself.”

…Well, that was certainly a way of looking at it, and not even an unfair one, at that. Catalina took a deep breath, and then smiled, and squeezed Élise’s hand. “You’re right, of course. I’ll try not to dwell on it any more, at least not for long.” Élise looked at least somewhat mollified by that answer, and after a moment Catalina drew up to her feet. “I won’t disturb your reading any further, at least; I have quite a bit of bookkeeping to catch up. You’ll be at supper tonight, won’t you? Or have you tired of your visit with us already? I could scarcely blame you.”

Élise grinned, which always managed to make her look more like the girl Catalina had first met than the woman she was now. “Tire of being clumsily wooed by the handsomest fritterer and layabout in all the city? Impossible.” Catalina couldn’t help laughing again at that, and when she passed into the cool shadows of the colonnade and into the front hall, her steps had lightened again, if only a little. It was still more than enough to be worth being grateful for.

The rest of the day passed ordinarily enough: much work only barely interrupted to eat with Élise and all of her family who were currently at home, and then only just managing to drag herself into her shift and douse her candles at the end. Catalina fought the anxious spin of thoughts and numbers around her head for a little while in the dark, and then gradually the dark won out, and dragged her down into sleep.

It was still dark, however, the next time her eyes opened — springing wide with a quickness to her breath she did not immediately understand. She couldn’t see or hear what could have woken her at first, and she only lay trying to orient herself, to account for anything out of place.

Which was when a smallish but sturdy and callused hand pressed gently but firmly over her mouth, in the same second she realized the bed was tilted with unfamiliar weight.

“I don’t mean you any harm, Baronesa,” a low voice said near her ear, even as she was struggling upright with her high sharp noise of alarm muffled in that strange palm. “So I’d be very much obliged if you wouldn’t scream, or anything of that sort.”

Breathing hard through her nose, her heart hammering, Catalina tried to look as much as she could to the side, with the hand not quite letting her turn her head. In the cracks of moonlight through her bedroom, she could see just enough shape and color to let the familiarity of the voice snap into sudden context — if one that was still baffling. The person leaning over her bed, covering her mouth in the dark, was the mountain-man called Loren St. Ymir, who had just walked her back from the docks this same afternoon. As surely as she recognized him, after such a pleasant time just lately spent in his company, she found herself questioning it sheerly out of being so little able to credit it. Certainly she would never have dreamed St. Ymir capable of any sort of foul play; he had been charming, pleasant, and beyond respectful at every turn, and owed his livelihood to her and her family in the bargain.

Before her mind could chase itself in too many circles of bewilderment, however, St. Ymir spoke again. “I’m awfully sorry to have to intrude on you like this, your ladyship,” he said, still in an urgent undertone and without seeming quite willing to release her yet. “Something’s happened that you should know about, though, and I couldn’t think of another way to let you know in secret quick enough. You’re in danger, and I want to help.” He paused only a second, and then asked with a humility that was more than a bit absurd under the circumstances: “If I let you go, your ladyship, will you at least let me explain ahead of deciding whether to yell for someone?”

Catalina stared at him sidelong a moment, sure her eyes were still huge enough to be mostly whites in the moonlight. Then, at long last and with no small amount of trouble in her mind, she slowly nodded.

St. Ymir nodded back, and with what might have been a stifled deep breath, he withdrew his hand from across her mouth. He pulled back, as well, to where he could crouch beside her bed rather than be clambered up on top of it, a small gallantry that could only stand as another absurdity in the moment. Catalina continued to look at him wide-eyed and still, but when she made no sound as she had promised, he continued.

“Thank you, your ladyship. You know La Cazadora shipped out for Eastport with the tide tonight?” She nodded, and couldn’t help a slightly skeptical expression that made him grin bashfully — another surreal touch. “Ah, the more fool me, of course you do. The rest of my kin sail aboard her, too, like we always do on that circuit, while I stayed behind this time. But begging your pardon, your ladyship, here’s what you don’t know: we’re no crew, at least not by our regular trade. We’re smugglers. And alongside your honest shipment of goods, that trip’s a smuggling run, just as it has been every time since we joined up.”

Catalina stared at him for another moment, but after this one she found herself struggling for words, as well. “That’s not possible,” she said at last — keeping her voice very low, though, still unwilling to risk alerting the rest of the house. “I inspect all of the manifests, and the figures for the cargo weight–“

“But the one who supervises the actual loading is Capitán Noguera,” St. Ymir said, with both an apologetic little duck of his head for interrupting, and a slight wry twist at his mouth. “And he’s the one who hired us back home, knowing full well who we were, I’m afraid.” He waited for a breath, but when she could find nothing else to say to that, he went on. “My kind brew a spirit, and we have done for generations out of mind — I don’t know too much about how it gets made, but it’s a clear stuff made of underearth-growing things, and shockingly potent, if I do say so. Of course in the Isles, there’s stiff taxes on such things, and quite a clamor for them, at the same time. A lot of the less reputable folks of our kind — like myself and Hallstein, for example — can make a good living by getting cheap stock of akvajord off our connections at home, and then finding a ship whose captain agrees to hide it in the hold on shipping routes and help keep the officials from charging duties, in exchange for a cut of the profit. That was the deal we made with your captain, with you to be none the wiser, your ladyship. I’m most sorry to have to tell you so.”

Catalina had no immediate response to that either, but the wheels of her mind turned in a half dozen other directions just as quickly. “Why did you stay back to tell me this, then?” she settled on to ask next, still in half a whisper. St. Ymir looked a bit pained, but answered gamely enough.

“Because tonight, the captain came to Hallstein and the rest of us with a proposition. He said… begging your pardon, your ladyship, I’m editing this quite a bit because he was much more ungentlemanly, but he said he was through with working under… you, and he’d devised a scheme to take the whole fleet for truly his own. We’d make landfall at our secret spot before Eastport this run, as usual — but we’d get caught on purpose. The authorities would seize the goods, our crew would make it clear the poor captain’d had nothing to do with it before disappearing into the night, and with your family’s name on the register, your ladyship, you’d be left holding the bag. The barony’s assets would be seized in the name of overseas cooperation, and given Noguera’s standing with you all, he reckons they’d transfer to him, instead. Then he swore we’d join up again and we could do double the business, without having to hide it from your ladyship’s eyes.”

He stopped there, and she was glad; it was more than enough to take in already, without adding any more. Catalina did her best to think through her shock, though, bearing down her full focus on the whirl of her thoughts. Was this a petty revenge for turning down his proposal? Surely to some degree, if avarice alone had never driven Noguera to this point before. But she’d had no idea of that, nor that this was possible, would never have suspected it of him; it seemed entirely unlike the Noguera she knew to behave in such a way. It was chilling to think of how little she might then have known him, after all, for so many years.

“But you think that, being willing to betray his employer, he might as easily do the same to you and your kin?” she asked, slowly, after a moment to arrive there. “That rather than let you escape, he would let you be hanged and take with you all knowledge of his scheming?”

St. Ymir hesitated, and then tilted his head. “Well… it’d crossed my mind, your ladyship, I won’t lie. Hallstein thinks he’ll be good as his word since if we got taken alive we could sell him out, but I’m not as willing to lay odds on us getting taken alive. I don’t rightly know, if I’m honest. But more than that… well, I suppose I don’t blame you if you don’t believe me, your ladyship. I’m a foreign criminal who’s been double-dealing behind your back, and not even the same sort of person as you, at that. But the honest truth is, I’m here because I just think it’s ugly, what he means to do. You’re the only one in any of this who’s done no wrong at all, and you’ve always been pleasant in person and paid a fair wage. That’s good enough in my book for me not to want to see a lady in irons — especially not so beautiful a one, if I may say so.”

He probably oughtn’t, especially crouching by her bedside in the dark of night, but Catalina was still reeling enough to be quite willing to let it slide. “I begged off the voyage claiming I was poorly, and I’d make up the work later,” he went on, after a breath to collect his thread. “Hallstein didn’t love it, and he might well have been suspicious what I was up to, but he didn’t say anything if he was. And as soon as the ship was out of harbor and I could be sure of none of them catching me at it, I came straight to you. I wish I could’ve before they set sail, and I beg your forgiveness, your ladyship. If he’d ever caught wind I meant to do it, though, I’m sure the captain would’ve been glad to wrap me in chains and toss me overside a mile out.”

Catalina nodded, slowly. “I would not have wished you to risk that for the sake of a ship, Mr. St. Ymir. And yet, with her already at sea…” She allowed herself the luxury of rubbing at the sleep still lingering around her face with both hands, like a little girl vexed to be roused too early. “Any message I send ahead to Eastport would risk arriving too late, and I mislike the idea of informing the local authorities that a ship of mine is on its way with contraband aboard. It’s… difficult to predict how that would be taken.” St. Ymir nodded, a twist of grim humor at his lips. Catalina let her eyes unfocus as she thought, rubbing fingers over her mouth absently. “It would make the most sense to send another ship after them… but La Hija de Luna won’t return for another week at best, and Dafne just left port a few days hence. And even then, there’s the difficulty of finding a captain who isn’t more loyal to Noguera than to our family…”

“Well, not to interrupt your thoughts, your ladyship,” St. Ymir put in humbly, when she had trailed off. “But I think there’s another option.”

Catalina focused back on him at once, her eyebrows raising. “And what is that?”

“It’s just — from here, a ship has to head west and pass through the strait, and around the end of the continent, yes? And then double back to the northeast. But going overland straight north, it’s got to be half the distance to the crossing at Nordistes. It’d be a close race and a long ride, to be sure, but swapping horses a few times could have us there in time to take a ship and intercept them before they reach the coast.”

“That’s–” Catalina could feel the wideness of her eyes, but also couldn’t find enough cause to dispute the suggestion. “That’s quite ingenious, actually. ” She had lapsed into silence again and gotten a good distance down the path of thinking out logistics when her attention suddenly snapped back, and her eyes to St. Ymir again. “…’We’?”

“Ah, didn’t get that one by you, did I?” he just said, though, and with every evidence of good cheer. “Of course, your ladyship, I’d be the first to volunteer to accompany you. It seems the least I could do to apologize for taking advantage of your good will all this time, not to mention letting the ship sail before coming to tell you the truth. If you have a guard regiment or the like that you’d want to bring along too, of course, I–“

“Hardly,” Catalina admitted, with a difficult little smile. “That luxury, like much of what our household once had to hand, is gone by now, I’m afraid.” St. Ymir looked cautiously puzzled by that, but he didn’t question, and there was no time to explain. “No. If speed is of the essence, it would be better just me.” After only a moment’s hesitation, she added, “Us, if — you insist. I wouldn’t want to drag anyone else into this matter, but if you volunteer, I must admit that I feel you have proven your valor and honor both enough to let me accept you as a companion.”

“I hope to be worthy of that honor, your ladyship,” he said, more humbly than ever. “Shall I meet you at the docks in the morning dawn, then?”

Catalina hesitated — she didn’t want to waste any time at all, now that she knew the crisis at hand, and sleep would be difficult to find again; but at the same time, she’d had so few hours of it before now that she would be quickly useless without more — and then nodded. “I shall be there with the first of the dawn. Overland may be faster, but I still don’t think we’ve time to waste; and as many know me in the city, it would be best to leave it before the day has fully begun.”

St. Ymir nodded, and then gave her a bashful smile as he glanced over his shoulder. “I’ll, ah, just see myself back out the window I came in by, then, shall I?”

“…Ah.” Only then did Catalina realize that had still been an unresolved question, and she looked around belatedly to see that, indeed, there was a grappling hook with a narrow line fixed over the sill of her open bedroom window. How on earth had she slept through that? “That… might be best, yes. Just to avoid the risk of any, ah, unfortunate misunderstandings.”

“As you say, your ladyship,” St. Ymir said. And if he might have been stifling a smile, or had any other thoughts on the matter, he took them with him, quite ably, out her bedchamber window. When he had gone, Catalina rose at last, unable to help herself, to clutch her shift around herself and creep to the window to peer out afterward. St. Ymir was already on the ground, and as she watched he retrieved the hook from the window, with one practiced flick of his hand that spoke more volumes of his criminal associations than any admission of smuggling from his lips ever could have. As well aware as Catalina was that she should be scandalized, she found herself only able to be amused, instead.

And then in looking up at the hook, he seemed to have noticed her at the window, because he tipped one last cheeky little salute and dipped one last cordial little bow, from down below her in the edge of the east gardens. And absurd though it felt, it was everything Catalina could do to give a small wave back, before pulling hastily back inside her bedroom and shutting the window in a strangely breathless and flush-cheeked flutter.

She actually had quite little in the way of finery, as these things went, and what she had was barely even merited by going about the city, let alone sneaking out of her house in the early hours of the morning to go sit a horse all day. When she woke still in mostly-darkness, Catalina opted for boots, breeches, and a sensible loose-armed shirt rather than a dress, and endured the struggle of several minutes it took to tie up the thick and prankish dark mass of her hair. A few necessaries in a rucksack, a hastily-scrawled note tucked under Élise’s door, and her fine Manchano sword (which had been mostly gathering dust up on her wall as her free time for practice dwindled) buckled around her hips, and she was ready to creep out the front hall as silently as she could — a fortunate luxury, given how much less gracefully than St. Ymir she might have been able to take the window. It was easy enough, and she met no one on the way, servant or family. Really, St. Ymir might have guessed that she had no regiment of guards at her command by how uncontestedly he had made his way into the estate. Then again, given the skill he’d displayed with climbing into her bedroom window, he might have had reason to simply estimate his own abilities that highly. 

The first rays of the sun were just breaching over the line of the shore to the east when Catalina arrived at her docks, and sure enough, St. Ymir was lingering by the warehouse, a pack over his shoulders as well. He straightened up when he saw her and raised a hand, and they hurried to meet each other, painted in pale-rosy early light. 

The distance closed, St. Ymir looked up at her from more than a head below, his sun-scored face looking pinker than ever in the light.. “Best to head for less reputable parts of the city at this point, your ladyship,” he said in a low voice, in spite of the relative quiet of this part of the docks.. “It’ll be easier to get some decent horses and still pass unremarked.”

She hesitated, and then smiled a bit, hoping it wasn’t too awkwardly. “Considering that you’ve given me the chance to save my livelihood and plan to chaperone me for some 900 miles, Mr. St. Ymir, I do think you could consider yourself permitted to call me Catalina.”

His eyes widened to a point that was both slightly comical and impossible not to be deeply charmed by. “I’ll… take that under advisement, with my thanks, and we’ll see how I do at putting it into action,” he said, with an unsteady little laugh that she answered. “And that being so, your l– erm, you might just as easily call me Loren.”

“I shall do my best as well,” Catalina said. And as sternly as she could, she ignored her little interior flutter at the bright pleasure in his smile.

The Benjumea y Serra family kept no horses of their own for riding, mostly going by carriage on the rare occasion that walking wouldn’t suffice, and Catalina had never been entirely comfortable with being horsed. Still, whether or not St. Ymir — Loren — noticed her discomfiture around the potential mounts at the trader’s they visited, he nonetheless managed to select her a lovely black mare so gentle and docile even she couldn’t be much intimidated. Not surprisingly, he also chose a rather diminutive chestnut for himself. Catalina let him pick them out and haggle for them, as he seemed to know the proprietor already, but when the deal was set she stepped in and paid before his gentlemanly tendencies could stretch to the point of absurdity.

And then they were riding out of the city through the northeastern hills, into the sprawl of villages and farmland beyond, and then within another hour’s time into quiet forest. The early morning was pleasant this time of year, at least, cool but not cold and clear enough for the appearing sun to bathe the whole sky in its glorious train of colors, high above the tips of the trees.

It was at this point, approximately, that the cold grip of reality began to settle around Catalina at last. She was, quite indisputably, really doing this absolutely insane thing she had decided at a moment’s notice in the middle of the night: riding out on a journey of weeks with a man who was still by and large a stranger to her, at a pace that would hopefully not exhaust the horses too quickly but that would surely bear heavily on their riders, to try to stop her own fleet-captain and a band of smugglers from framing her for crimes that she had no hand in, in order to steal her merchant fleet right out from under her and her family. It was madness at worst, high melodrama at best. In a life of steady, thoughtful, calculated decisions, here she sat, doing a thing that would be considered rash and impetuous by even her most spontaneous opposite.

That thought should not have been as exhilarating as it was terrifying, and she resolved to ignore the sensation as thoroughly as possible,

Instead, she focused her attention on her companion, who at least was gracious enough to be worthy of a great deal of attention. If she was caught between panic and excitement, Loren seemed as they rode to simply be in a pleasant, cheerful mood — as though they were away on some diverting outing, and he looking forward to the chance to explore. Catalina even supposed for a moment that it might well truly be the case; it wasn’t his livelihood, freedom, and family honor at stake in this journey, after all. But then she thought of his fellows aboard the ship, whom he suspected Noguera might intend to betray to the hangman’s rope, and the thought seemed suddenly uncharitable. She had enough skill herself at hiding her true feelings behind a smile that it would be blithe indeed to take everyone else only at face value.

Particularly Noguera, it seemed, on the subject. That was also a blow she had not quite stopped reeling from, and a weight in her mind that sat heavy and rankling no matter how she tried to move past it. Her father had hired Noguera when she had still been that young girl playing among the warehouses, and from time to time the captain had been invited to dinner at the estate, always arriving with some small treasure from distant lands to press into the hands of his employer’s array of children. She had grown up with him as a fixture, and when she had returned from school to take over the shipping business for her father’s retirement, he had still been there, seemingly as constant as the sea itself. But if that were so, it seemed he was also just as possessed of lightless depths, where the waters turned cold and only strange and slimy things chose to swim.

Fine, she wanted to say, if only to herself; let it be so, he is no longer any concern of mine. But it never worked so simply, did it? Not where feeling was concerned.

But she had meant to think of Loren, not Noguera, hadn’t she — in spite of the way her mind seemed to keep twisting and skittering away from what she wanted, like her hair had when she’d gone to tie it up. If nothing else, her current companion was a (somewhat concerningly) more pleasant subject.

She urged her horse up alongside where his had drawn a few steps ahead, and paced him with little trouble; the sweet mare really was so well-broken she seemed to respond more to Catalina’s thoughts than her command. “We should keep to the east when we can, and follow the coast,” she said when he glanced at her, if only for a grab at something distracting to talk about. “That will lead us around the mountains, and we can turn north when the water does. The melt can make the passes treacherous in spring.”

Loren nodded, with a slight grimace. “That sounds more than fine to me. I know how funny it sounds for someone like me to say so, but I’d just as soon avoid passing through mountains whenever possible, when I’m traveling, just due to past experience. Those sorts of roads make it easy to get boxed in, especially if a local sheriff decides to take an interest in you.”

It still startled Catalina so much to hear him talk that way, even amid all of this — like a criminal, even though he was one by his own so recent admission. Not to mention how easily it came from his lips to speak about it. She supposed she didn’t expect him to be ashamed of it, exactly, but she wasn’t sure what she might have expected instead. At least a bit of evasiveness, perhaps — that being a much more familiar thing in her life to date. “If it isn’t too terribly rude to ask, how did you come to take up a life as a smuggler?” Catalina asked, blurting it out all at once before she could even stop in horror to keep herself from prying. Loren glanced at her, a smile playing on his mouth but an eyebrow raised, and she was thankful her dark cheeks mostly hid the flush she could feel rising. “I only mean to say, it seems like a bit of an eccentric choice of profession for you. Given that I have such recent and memorable evidence of your honesty.”

“Only in the one context, to be fair,” Loren said, cheerfully. “Ah, it’s simple enough, your — er, sorry. Your people know my own for mining and smithing, and it’s true, we do quite a bit of mining and smithing. Where I’m from, there are a lot of very old, established families who own mines or smithies, and make huge profits, and run the place. Then there are people whose families don’t own mines or smithies, but who get hired by the ones who do to work in them, and they make a lot less profit, but get by all right, I suppose. And then there are the ones, like me and Hallstein and all the rest of our gang, who have the bad fortune to be born to such absolute nobodies that we can’t even get work making other people money, so we usually wind up moonshining or stealing or smuggling or fencing, instead. And then any time we get caught at it, as far as the rich people are concerned, that proves what they’ve always said about us, and they pat themselves on the back for having the good sense not to give us a livelihood in the first place.” Even as Catalina was still staring at him in the wake of that, he shrugged, and shot a wry little smile over her way. “It keeps things going the same way they always have, which seems to be what the rich ones of us like best. And why wouldn’t they, I guess.”

“That’s…” Awful, she wanted to say, but could she, really? Could she really claim her own society was so different as to let her pass judgment? On the matter of inherited names and prestige, those things were all that kept her own family from ruin as the national mood waxed jingoistic, and even that much barely and not for much longer, perhaps. People in power did like for things to stay the way they had always been, no matter where or what they might look like; and if the way things had always been didn’t serve them best, they’d decide things had always been a different way, and all agree to believe it.

Catalina drew herself out of those thoughts with effort, though, as she’d never actually finished her answer. “That seems wrong, but in a most familiar way,” she settled on, and Loren matched her wan and tired smile in knowing kind. “I’m sorry that you’ve been put in that position, then. And I hope my asking, which was born of ignorance, did not come forth as sanctimonious instead. That would be anything but my place.”

Loren shrugged, though he was smiling, and she thought in earnest. “I wouldn’t hold it against you, even if so. There’s a reason I don’t tend to lead with it in introductions.” Catalina was startled into laughing into her hand, in spite of herself, and Loren grinned over at her, the soft morning breeze tousling at his very short hair. “As lives of crime go, though, smuggling’s always sat much better with me than some do. It’s hard to find a target for thieving who can take the pain of the loss and won’t be more trouble than they’re worth, and I very much don’t care for violence when it can be avoided. That’s one thing that got me running with Hallstein in the first place: he feels the same way, and by and large so do his crew. Or if any of them don’t, they hear about it from him, and that’s not a pleasant conversation.” Catalina could feel her eyebrows climbing higher than ever at all this, to a point that was most likely rude, though Loren fortunately seemed not to notice. “Smuggling, though? Most times that’s just taking money from kings and governments, who wouldn’t even be doing much with it besides sit on it like a brooding goose. Fine by me. And more of it than you’d expect is just making deals, getting clients and keeping them happy, and keeping track of accounts. Not that different from a lot of what you do, I imagine, apart from the small matter of, ah, legality.”

“That’s… true, I suppose,” Catalina said, although she couldn’t suppress another laugh bubbling out of her — not mocking, and she certainly hoped it didn’t sound that way, but only surprised and delighted by the comparison. Imagine; all this time her work had just been the legal form of smuggling. “Do you all share all of that work together, if I may ask? Or do you specialize?”

“Oh, it depends, it all varies from job to job. We do each have our niches that we do best with, though.” Loren glanced over at her, pausing to duck under a low branch, and at whatever her expression might have been he broke into a fresh grin, equal parts bashful and proud. “I tend to fall into the ‘keeping people happy’ side of things, personally. Getting to know the people we work with, keeping agreements solid, making sure we all stay friends. I seem to have a bit of a knack for it, I guess. Aron, a friend of mine on our crew, calls me ‘silver-tongue,’ and he says I could talk a frog right into a pot and it would wind up thanking me for the boiling. I can’t say whether he’s right, myself, seeing as I haven’t yet run across a frog that stayed to chat.”

“I can certainly see how that is work you might be suited for, at least,” Catalina said when she could recover from her giggles this time, but at least felt her cheeks warm only slightly at it. Loren beamed at her a moment, before seeming able to restrain himself to a more modest composure.

“I’m pleased to hear you think so,” he said, with a little smile that might have been a touch sly. Catalina couldn’t be sure, as there was no way she could look at it for long.

Catalina had resolutely told herself that the ride would be the least of her worries, even if she had little experience with long days in the saddle, but that quickly proved to be the lie that deep down she had known it was. After pushing their mounts at a firm pace from the break of dawn, she was already a dreadful collection of aches by mid-day, every jostle making her wince. She could barely hobble for the first few moments after dismounting in the village they paused in, for a brief rest and to acquire a few more provisions if they could. Even finding her feet in the first place was a matter of long shaky moments holding on to the side of her mare, who whickered at her gently, as though reproving her for carrying on so when her mount had been the one doing all the work.

Still, she managed in time to join Loren in the small open-air market, and help select a few extra water-bags to fill at the village well and some provisions that would travel well. Kindness also moved her to steer them to the saddler’s stall she spotted, and inquire after a significantly shorter set of stirrups than those Loren had been frowning at all day.

The saddler, a large and weather-reddened fellow with copious bushy mustaches, was well-supplied and agreeable enough. After following them back to the horses with a handful of possible modifications, he asked only which saddle to make the changes to. “He rides the little chestnut, if you please,” Catalina said as Loren was still catching up, and then stood back as the gentleman nodded and set to unbuckling the tack to be worked on. Only after a moment of that, though, did she notice the most curious look that Loren was aiming up at her.

“Is… something the matter?” she asked, blinking back down at him, a bit discomfited. Loren hesitated, and then laughed a bit, seeming to catch himself as he shook his head and try to put his expression back in order.

“No, no, not at all. I was just surprised, but it’s fine.” Catalina blinked at him, frowning, and he clarified, with a slight smile. “You called me ‘he’ — and I think you said ‘Mr.,’ before. Just not used to that.”

“You…” For a longer moment than she should have been, Catalina was completely, blankly mystified, just staring into Loren’s mild and patient face. And then understanding had crashed over her all at once, and she was pressing a hand over her mouth with her eyes wide, and her face hot enough to catch fire to her hair. “Are you — Oh no. Oh, I’m so terribly sorry! I shouldn’t have assumed — but you — oh, dear, really, I’m so dreadfully–“

“It’s fine, it’s fine!” Loren was already trying to break over top of her, laughing again — and then when she couldn’t seem to catch hold of her own stumbling, Loren picked up her hand and lightly squeezed it. “Catalina. I promise, it’s fine. I know folks can get pretty worked about that sort of thing, never understood it myself, but but you haven’t offended me in the slightest, I swear. Quite the opposite.” At first that could only speed the whirl of her flustered confusion — not helped at all by the senseless little flutter all through the middle of her, at Loren’s daring her given name for the first time — and Loren just took pity and went on. “Honestly, he works about as well as she does: which is to say, it’s not quite right, but it’s not wrong enough for me to be fussed about it. Hallstein calls me she and her since that was the midwife’s opinion on the matter, and he’s known me at least that long. The rest take their cue from him, and I don’t mind it, so that’s all right. But if he makes more sense to you, that’s just as well with me. Really I’ve never fit tight in either pot, as far as I’m concerned. But your language’s only got the two words, so pick whichever one you like whenever you do, I say.”

Catalina tried her best to collect herself before speaking again — if only to spare Loren any more of trying to make her feel better for her own error. She attempted a smile, instead, and squeezed back with the hand she couldn’t help noticing Loren still held. “So long as you are certain you would tell me if you did have a strong preference, or if either choice offended,” she said. “A matter of selecting a few different words is a very small one for the sake of my traveling companion’s comfort.” Loren smiled broadly at that and nodded, though, which heartened her. “Is it common among your people, to feel so?”

Loren shrugged, which she supposed was fair. “I couldn’t say, but I imagine it’s about as common as it probably is among yours. Just not many people have the luxury of saying it. A life of crime also means not much to lose by acting funny, at least by polite society’s standards.”

That surprised Catalina into laughing again, but with agreement rather than disbelief. “I’d never considered it, but I suppose that’s true.” She paused a moment, considering — and at last, she managed to let her hand slip from Loren’s, as well, as strangely reluctant though she found herself to do so. He, or she, or both or neither as the case might be (she could sort it out in her thoughts later, without having to trouble Loren about it), let her go quite decorously, for that matter. “…I had wondered why you didn’t wear a beard, when all of your fellows do. It seems foolish now that I didn’t think more of it.”

To her surprise, though, Loren gave that a wave of a hand and a head-shake. “Oh, no, I just don’t care for them — too itchy. My mother, though, I hear when I was born she had one braided down to her chest she was powerfully proud of. But she finally got tired of my little hands yanking at it, and sheared it off.”

Catalina stared again, and then broke into laughter, unable to help herself. It seemed as though it must be rude, but Loren only grinned, so she could hope it wasn’t too badly so. “I have no idea if you’re only teasing me or not.”

“And you might never be sure,” Loren said, and winked at her; and then had slipped away to go refill their water, before Catalina could produce any appropriate indignance.

At Loren’s gentle insistence, after finishing the day’s ride they took small, bare rooms for the night in a roadside inn, some ways north of the province’s capital city. Catalina hadn’t the strength by then to argue with the idea, even if she’d wanted to. She slumped over their shared table in the common room and fueled herself as best she could with bread and cheese, olives, and an unseasonably heavy fish stew, and then on finding her mattress immediately slept like the dead until daybreak. After such time as she could spare at her room’s basin in the morning, wincing and daubing at her most chafed places in the vain hope she might prevent all-out sores, she dressed and met Loren at the horses again. And then it was more of the dreaded same: day in, and then day out.

For all the tense urgency and limited time of their mission, the most difficult part of it truly was its tedium. The scenery they passed through was lovely, certainly — high rocky coast and forest and plain, rolling hills, with the framing backdrop of mountain peaks stretching away to the north and west — but it palled quickly in the face of an aching bottom and the prospect of twenty more miles before finally being able to rest. At the least, though, Loren was pleasant company, and talking with him did help to pass much of the journey, as well as keeping her distracted from her pains.

They spoke often and at length as they rode, in fact, learning gradually more and more about one another that they might never have had occasion or need to know otherwise, but that seemed of value now all the same. Catalina spoke of her family, and their business, and their declining fortunes, the reasoning for which seemed to baffle Loren even as she accepted it readily enough. (“Huh. If people where I’m from had to shun everyone descended from someone they’ve decided to hate, they could never talk to anyone again. Everyone’s done a lot of mingling, and there’s not much to do in the winter but hold grudges.”) Loren, meanwhile, told Catalina outrageous tales of his childhood learning to pick pockets and scour merchants’ stamps off cargo, not to mention more than a few adult exploits that sometimes veered lascivious enough to make Catalina blush wildly. Loren also told Catalina about her fellow smugglers, which seemed to be the closest thing he had to a family of his own these days: Hallstein’s swaggering and bellowing but also his rough and almost paternal kindness, her wild and hilarious friendship with Aron and strutting rivalry with Ingvar. And perhaps, more and more, Catalina could spot a hint of melancholy and anxiety passing through the lines of Loren’s face, when he spoke of them, although it was never quite possible to feel sure.

By their fourth day on the road, Catalina’s most tender areas seemed at least to be going to callus, and they turned with the bend in the coast as planned. Then there was nothing for it to simply ride some 750 more miles due north, until they reached Nordistes and the northernmost shore. And hope they did it quickly enough, and the tide did not favor Noguera’s plans.

They crossed the border into the northeastern kingdom like thieves in the night, clambering over nearby bare hills under cover of darkness rather than submit to the troubling matter of trying to explain at the checkpoint what their business was. Catalina couldn’t help being both a bit scandalized and a bit thrilled with herself at this flouting of the law, although she thought to say anything of the sort to Loren would make her seem childishly naïve in the extreme by comparison, even if he would be too polite to say so. They went unchallenged, at any rate, and pushed north between pastureland and woods, sleeping sometimes in roadside rooms and sometimes in blankets on the ground, the stars for a canopy. Having earned her highest level of education in it, Catalina spoke the language quite well, but she was both surprised to find that Loren did as well, and then surprised at herself for being surprised. Loren spoke Catalina’s own language extremely well also, after all, didn’t she?

It was a little over a week into the journey when they plunged into truly deep, hilly forest: the southern wildlands of her home nation of which Élise, with her taste for fashion and for very particular shops’ wine and fruit and bread, had always been roundly dismissive. At times their roads dwindled to barely-beaten track through the undergrowth, and Catalina could feel both of them tensing at how it slowed the pace of their fresh set of horses, having to pick through with such care. The shadows were sometimes so thick it could make high noon appear like twilight, and the heavy rustling of trees and calling of unfamiliar wildlife made for an eerie accompaniment to their steps.

Deep in this unsettling atmosphere, Catalina at first thought her mind was playing tricks on her. The extra rustlings she heard must just be the wind rising further up in the canopy; the strange sense that their footsteps were sometimes doubled, only an illusion of the close and unfamiliar terrain. But when Loren pulled up to a stop and held up his hand, as Catalina halted beside her, she could only feel at once that she should have said something sooner.

“We’ll keep walking a moment, but get ready to gallop, on my signal,” Loren said before Catalina could say anything, with a pleasant, bland expression and his voice low enough to carry only to her. “I hate to risk it in this terrain, but I think it’s the best option. I can’t be sure how many there are, but it’s more than there are of us. If they don’t know we know, we can use the advantage to try to run.”

Catalina nodded, trying as hard as she could to match the neutrality of Loren’s expression. “I’ll be ready,” she said, keeping her voice similarly low. “Let’s go.”

Loren nodded and gigged her horse forward again, and Catalina followed close behind, watching intently. They moved through the underbrush for a few more seconds, Catalina at pains not to show her tension in the posture of her body… and then Loren raised his hand and dropped it, in one swift motion. As one, they urged their mounts into sudden bursting speed, and they were off, trampling pell-mell over the trail as fast as was safe and maybe more.

The sly, sneaking sounds in the forest around them gave up the ruse at once, turning to shouts and the pounding of pursuing feet. A deafening crack like thunder even split the air from quite some distance behind, and the trunk of a tree up ahead, a few feet wide of the trail, exploded into a shower of bark and a crater of raw, blackened white wood. At least one of the bandits had a pistol, then, some cool part of Catalina’s mind filed away within itself, even while she was busy urging her horse faster and tucking down close to its neck, both to aid its speed and to dodge the whipping of branches along the trail. Their lead would be the best protection against such a gun, as long as they could maintain it; in her admittedly limited experience, all but the best of those weapons were nigh-on toothless beyond a few dozen yards’ range, their aim too poor or powder too weak or both.

They stampeded through the forest, surely only avoiding a broken leg by the purest of miracles, and the sounds followed, harrying them. Soon enough, it was clear that the steps had changed from running human feet to what she had dreaded hearing: more pounding hoofbeats. They were far enough behind for now, it had surely slowed the bandits at least slightly to have to pause to mount, but–

Up ahead of her, Loren made a sudden large, dramatic gesture to one side, toward the trees and brush-cover along the trail. Then, before Catalina could even begin to interpret what that might be supposed to mean, he had unhooked his feet, gathered himself in a crouch, and sprung straight out of the saddle — off to the side, to dive into the undergrowth and vanish, with his horse running blithely on ahead empty-saddled. Catalina wasted precious seconds in sheer startled alarm, but then there seemed to be only one course of action. She slipped her own feet out of the stirrups, drew herself up as best she could, and also leapt free the way Loren had.

She hadn’t seen Loren land, of course, but was quite certain that it must have been with more grace than she managed herself. Catalina struck on her side on the forest floor hard enough to rattle her teeth, jabbed in a half-dozen places by roots and rocks and brambles, and rolled with her momentum for a few wild seconds before managing to catch herself up panting for breath. There was rustling alongside her even as she was gasping and collecting herself, and then Loren was at her side, clasping her waist and shoulders to help her upright.

After only a few seconds’ urgent whispers to confirm the plan Catalina had suspected, Loren helped boost Catalina up into the low branches of a tree that overhung the trail (clearly trying to be decorous, but of necessity still needing to grip her in a few areas that were distractingly warming), and then clambered up behind her, surprisingly graceful at it for his squat stature. It was only seconds before the clutch of bandits rounded the last turning in the undergrowth, five in all by Catalina’s count. As soon as they were in view, Loren’s hands were in motion, as she steadied herself on the branch with her knees: sending little flashes of silver whipping into the air so quickly that only for the half-second they were in Loren’s hands could Catalina see them for throwing-knives.

The result was impressive. One bandit’s cloak was pinned by two knives to a tree-trunk, and its fabric proved sturdy enough that he was dragged off-balance by his galloping horse and wound up pulled from its back. The strap of another horse’s saddle was cut deeply, and snapped in the next second, its rider slewing wildly to one side and then falling as well, in a pinwheel of limbs. Another horse shied just from the sight and sound of the deadly rain, stuttering to a stop and prancing sideways in spite of its rider’s shouted curses. And the one bandit Catalina saw openly carrying a pistol had dropped it a second later, cursing also and clutching at bright blood on his glove.

The one remaining rider was the one in the lead, and had simply been approaching too quickly for Loren to disable, but Loren nonetheless wasted no time taking advantage of his work. As the horse passed under their branch, Loren simply drew herself up and dropped onto it: first throwing it off-balance with her weight, where it landed heavily near the withers, and then throwing the last man bodily overside and into the dust.

With all of the bandits either unhorsed or unbalanced, Catalina could scarcely have missed her opening. With sword drawn, she also leapt from the branch, letting her legs fold under her as she landed as she’d been taught by sword and dance tutors alike. Loren seemed to have the front rider well in hand, and Catalina darted instead at the man who was still in the saddle, but struggling to bring his panicking horse to bay. She didn’t think she’d have the strength to drag him off the saddle the same way Loren had, so she did what seemed most efficient: swung her sword high to neatly lop the reins in half, so the man was left holding their limp and unconnected length. Then she seized the nearest short end in one hand, bringing the horse still and containing the dangerous stomp of its hooves, while with the other she whipped the point of her sword up to the man’s throat.

“Throw your weapons down, please,” Catalina said, in the man’s own language. And winced a bit inside at the delicate, well-bred way the words shaped in her mouth. Well, nothing for it now.

The man stared back at her for a few quick beats of her heart, to all appearances numb and disbelieving. His face and head were uncovered, displaying the ruddy squareness of a farmer’s son in the former, and a spill of dull brown hair lank over his forehead from the latter. At last, however, he moved: his throat working by reflex with her sword-point light against it, as he unhooked his own sword-belt and tossed it away, and then the dagger strapped to his boot when she nodded to it.

There were scufflings and footsteps now to one side, however: no doubt the unhorsed men were collecting themselves, and making to charge her. Before Catalina could even turn, though, there was another soft whiff of displaced air and a meaty thud, followed by another grunted curse. On pivoting to take in her other opponents, she found that one man had gone to one knee to yank at another throwing-knife pinning straight through his boot to the ground — making her wince inwardly — and that Loren was already darting past her to meet the remaining two.

In his hands now were a pair of longer, sturdier daggers, designed for melee rather than throwing, and almost more like short-swords against his proportions. For all of that, though, they seemed to slow her not at all, nor did her stockiness: she came at the bandits like a dervish, holding herself lower to the ground than ever to remain elusive, striking at openings and weak points in what was mostly a blur of steel. The taller men were still struggling to meet him with longer and bulkier blades, and were simply no match. Loren ducked under one blow, somersaulted past another, and came up with quick hands snatching away the men’s spare weapons and tossing them into the brush. Even before Catalina could recover from her startlement and run the full way over to help her, Loren had just as quickly produced a loop of rope from the same mysterious depths of her coat as had come the knives, and between meeting a sword on her crossed blades and then spinning aside so the two men almost ended up cutting at each other instead, she managed to loop the rope around their wrists, bind them together, and cinch it tight. Catalina arrived just in time to hold them at swordspoint, while Loren first firmed up his work into iron-clad sailor’s knots, and then wrested the swords from their resisting hands.

“There now,” Loren said, also in the local tongue, as she stood back and beamed round at them with daggers still dangling from her hands. The bandits made for quite a sight by now: one still horsed but fully disarmed, the one Loren had knocked to the ground incapacitated, one still struggling to free his wounded foot, and two weaponless and tied together in humiliation. Even seeing it with her own eyes, Catalina could scarcely believe that they’d done all of that in just a few moments, and Loren most of it. “Now that’s settled, maybe we could negotiate like civilized people?”

The man yanking at his boot roared a partially muffled but decidedly uncivilized reply. Under the circumstances, however, Catalina supposed that it was only to be expected.

Loren tutted, though, shaking her head, but then the still-horsed man spoke up from where he hovered cautiously off to one side. “What do you want, midge?” he said, in a bitter and truculent growl. “An apology?”

“Nice as that would be–” Loren began, with twice as much daffy charm as ever, but Catalina interrupted as politely as she could.

“And I will thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head to my companion, sir,” she said — head haughtily high, and no longer regretting in the slightest the superior tone her education provided her. The man on the horse stared at her with dully hateful eyes and said nothing, but Loren flashed her a quick grin that both warmed her all through and made her thoroughly glad she had raised the objection.

“Well, we’ve all got to make a living, haven’t we?” Loren continued smoothly afterward, as though he’d never been interrupted. “I can hardly hold it against you gentleman seeking your fortunes with the skills you have, after doing the same thing myself for so many years. And now all the fuss is over, and no harm done, I say. So why don’t you be on your way, and we’ll be on ours? And if you’d like to take an extra step to honor our generosity in this matter, I’d suggest you could consider finding some better targets than simple travelers, just trying to make their way in the world.”

One of the bound men had jerked his head up, and spat now copiously at his feet, his eyes blazing with what would surely be murder were he not so thoroughly disarmed. He opened his mouth to speak, or more likely to shout — but Loren, surely seeing just as clearly as Catalina did, cut across him again with voice slightly raised.

“Or, if you’d rather force the issue,” she said, more sweetly than ever, “we could always hand you over to the lords of the forest, who have one of their larger arbors… oh, around fifty miles to the northwest of here, I think? It’d be a bit out of our way, but I’m sure they’d be very interested to hear what right you claim to have to robbing passers-by in their wood.”

And that, at last, did seem to give each of the bandits pause, with carefully-controlled expressions that might have been concealing fear. Catalina found her curiosity piqued by the reaction: she’d heard mention of les sylvestres before, but knew so little of them personally that she might have considered them only myth, had she not thought much the same of the mountain-folk before meeting Loren and his fellows. The forest lords were said to be at least as elusive, a long-lived and ethereal people keeping mostly to their strange vegetal cities at the heart of the continent’s wildest places. It would seem, however, that here in this countryside, they were at least familiar enough to be considered a threat best avoided.

“I think that’s nothing you nor we want, and likely a bluff besides,” the man still on his horse said after long moments, but with a very grudgingly more cordial tone. “But so be it. If you want no more trouble with us, then we want no more with you either. Get on your way and out of these woods, and be damned to you, I say.”

For all their heat of a moment ago, on consideration none of his fellows seemed to have any argument, either. There were dark looks and a bit of muttering, but no objections. Loren nodded, with bright good cheer, and swept forward in the same bow that Catalina had so recently considered a bit much for the dock of a cargo-ship, let alone for a bloodied and trampled forest trail.

“That’s a sensible decision, gentlemen. Then it’s agreed: we’ll each go our separate ways, and wish each other well, and that’ll be the end of it.”

One of the injured men definitely spat another something scatalogical after them, as they were turning to make their way back up the trail past the downed man and toward their wayward mounts. Still, if Loren wasn’t inclined to pay it any mind, then Catalina supposed she had no reason to either.

No one followed them up the trail while they were looking for their mounts, at least, as far as Catalina could see. They found the horses no more than a mile ahead, just beyond a break in the woods to open prairieland, where the foolish animals had apparently tired of running riderless and stopped to crop grass instead some distance apart. With a bit of coaxing and teamwork, they were recaptured handily enough, and Loren helped Catalina to remount before using a roadside boulder to climb back in the saddle herself. Once orientated, they steered the horses north again with some haste, with no need to discuss the matter. The truce they’d left on had been tenuous at best, and it would be unwise to linger.

As though to drive home the point, however, just as they were setting off, there were sudden approaching crashes of motion and voices from the tree-line behind them. Catalina’s heart gave a startled thump, and Loren tensed, and hissed “Ride hard!” sidemouth at her before urging his horse from its walk to sudden speed. It was a second too late, however: another ringing roar of pistol-shot split the air, and this time, the shooter was too close and their luck not fair enough. A startled, grunting cry wrenched out of Loren, her body jerking in the saddle, and even as they galloped away from their pursuers Catalina could see her hunching over, and holding an increasingly bloody place on one side below her arm.

Catalina rode with her heart in her mouth, trying both to stare at the wound and not to look at it. She could think of nothing, coax no single thought out of their panicked swirl: the sight of the blood on Loren’s coat drove all sense from her head, even if she hadn’t again been so preoccupied by the rush of wind in her face and the pounding and rocking rhythm of the horse beneath her. The thundering of blood in her ears was so great that she would never even be sure whether there had been another shot, or if that was the only one. But there was nothing to do but ride. Whether Loren might be all right or not, neither of them would be for long unless they fled as quickly as they could.

It was at least one sliver of fortune, at least, that now the terrain favored them more. The ground remained clear for a long ways ahead, the beaten-down track leading them through high grassy hills and sprawling rocky open land, with the curves of the forest only sprawling in the distance around them like the parted edges of a curtain. As quickly as the bandits had followed them, it wasn’t even certain that they’d managed to collect and mount their own horses again before doing so, and they no longer had the advantage, might not even dare show themselves under so much open sky.

And sure enough, when Catalina gathered herself enough to cast a terrified glance back over her shoulder, she saw no one in pursuit. When each backward look only revealed the same, the further they drew away from the edge of the wood, she could gradually begin to believe that no one would follow. It had only been, quite literally, a parting shot; it would seem that otherwise, for better or worse, they had escaped.

“I’m fine,” Loren protested, right away and then again and again, when they had finally come far enough away and the horses become so exhausted that they dropped back to a walk again; “I mean it, it’s just a scratch, just a little graze, nothing to worry about,” but he kept saying it through such a pained tooth-gritted smile that Catalina was not to be put off. With the initial panic past, it was true that the wound certainly didn’t seem to be mortal, or even disabling — but that hardly made it no cause for concern, to her mind.

Catalina called them to an early halt the next time they passed through a little village with a wayside inn and rooms to let, and would hear no argument. Loren stifled a groan as Catalina helped her down off her horse, and another when she made a makeshift binding for it of a torn shirt, but otherwise she seemed in good enough spirits, at least. The landlord of the inn gave them a thoroughly skeptical look before agreeing to rent them rooms, but Catalina couldn’t be certain whether that was because of Loren’s bound side and sweaty pallor, or only the curious picture the two of them made in general. He was hardly the first one on their road to be perplexed by it, after all.

After asking for a meal brought up later, she carried both their packs up the stairs over Loren’s protest, leaving him nothing to do but limp up after her. Catalina had no sooner closed the door and set their things down in one of the adjoining rooms before she sat down on the cot (the better to see any part of Loren’s torso, all things considered) and reached for her temporary bandage.

“Really, Catalina, you don’t need to make a fuss!” Loren said at once, with a slightly alarmed little laugh — although she made no move to draw away. “I can see to it myself. You should go and get some rest before supper.”

Catalina only lifted her chin, however, meeting his gaze with pert and steady challenge. “If you’d be uncomfortable…” she began meaningfully, before letting it trail off into decorous silence instead. Loren looked startled for a moment, and then clearly saw what she was about, letting a breath out in a small long-suffering sigh.

“No, not at all,” she said in tones of resignation, and stepped closer to let Catalina at the injury. Satisfied, she untied the cloth again from around Loren’s middle, gently pressing Loren’s hands aside when he tried to help. Catalina was a bit surprised and pleased to see that the added fabric had not been bloodied to speak of; the wound must have either stopped bleeding as they rode, or the bleeding slowed so much that it might as well have. She peered at the tattered and shredded places in Loren’s coat and vest, and then glanced up at her, and Loren took the unspoken suggestion with a nod. He tugged out of the coat and hung it on the single bare hook beside the door, and then unbuttoned the vestt with greater speed and grace than Catalina would have been able to muster. She set her studious focus on Loren’s injury, to avoid either rudeness or a blush, but couldn’t help a bit of curious awareness of the swell of her chest — which was rather more pronounced without the vest, but still not so much so as to entirely demolish ambiguity. It was hard not to wonder what faulty assumptions other people might make about him, one way or another, whether they were foolish enough to blunder into doing so within his earshot or no.

Well, more pressing matters demanded her attention at the moment, at least. The fabric of Loren’s shirt was both tattered and soaked brown with stiffening blood, over an alarmingly large area of his side. Catalina tugged at the tails, trying to ease them loose of Loren’s breeches so she could pull them up and see, but Loren let out a sharp hiss at the first pull of the cloth away from skin. Catalina looked up in alarm, but found Loren already waving her onward dismissively, despite pulling her features into a grimace of anticipation. Catalina tried to be gentler in her second attempt, all the same, and Loren made no further sound, although his hands at his sides clenched into white-knuckled fists. There was more blood under the shirt, of course, smeared all across Loren’s side by their ride, trying tackily to glue it down to flesh.

For all of that, though, the wound itself was small enough to mute the long clamor of Catalina’s adrenaline somewhat — although by no means entirely. It was a short and shallow furrow streaked along the soft, rounded flesh of Loren’s side, no more than the length of Catalina’s thumb and less wide across, although it stood out an angry wet red even amid all the blood around it. The ball had mostly passed Loren by, however, and scarcely seemed to have dug much deeper than the skin along its path. Enough of that had been stripped away that it had plainly bled copiously at first, but as Catalina had suspected from the state of the makeshift binding, it had already clotted along its surface, and there was almost no new blood anymore. If she could clean and bandage it before it closed over much more, it might well not even need to be stitched.

“I imagine it feels dreadful enough, but I think you will be safe from it, at least,” Catalina said, and looked up to turn the pure relief of her smile up to Loren’s gaze. “A few inches to the left, however, and it would have been a very different matter. Your luck was fair indeed today.”

“Like most every day, I find,” Loren said, with a cheeky enough grin to mostly disguise how pale she still looked, even well beyond her ordinary complexion. “I told you it was nothing, didn’t I?” Catalina gave her the most unamused look she could muster, but also pushed up to her feet, going next to the room’s basin for some water and the small cake of soap.

“I can clean and bandage it, and then I think you should be well enough as long as you treat it with care,” she said over her shoulder, and then paused with a frown. “Do you have any liquor, by chance?”

“Celebrating so soon, are we?” Loren said, though he did it with a wink that made Catalina roll her eyes and fight a smile. It was good to see him feeling well enough to tease her, at least. “Actually, yes, I’ve got a flask of our product I usually keep on me just in case. For samples, like. You never know.” Catalina chose not to comment on that, and favoring her side, Loren limped over to dig into one of the packs. “One slug in my gut and one on my side ought to be enough to make me forget I ever knew what pain was to begin with.”

He’d found the spirits by the same time Catalina returned with supplies, which allowed her to favor him with a skeptical look of amusement. “Well, I hope you won’t overindulge,” she allowed, before settling back in amid his laugh. “Could you… ah…”

She found herself thoroughly unable to finish the sentence, however, and all at once fighting the blush she had thus far managed to avoid. Loren gave her a curious look at first, and then understanding dawned, and she gave a rueful little chuckle as she plucked at the front of her shirt. “Ah, better to have the whole thing off, then? I didn’t want to… make you ill at ease, but I suppose it’s the practical thing. The shirt’s done for, at least, to be certain.” He set about the buttons in a similarly matter-of-fact manner for which Catalina found herself grateful, for all that it did not quite precisely relieve her of her difficulties in sorting out where to set her gaze. When Loren shrugged out of the shirt entirely, there was simply — a great deal more in the way of curves of creamy, lightly freckle-spattered flesh, lightly traced here and there with soft blue vein-lines, than Catalina felt that she was prepared to handle in a dignified fashion.

Cleaning away a substantial amount of blood did help to distract her, though, as did when immediately afterward, Loren unceremoniously dumped a small quantity of clear thick liquid from the flask down her own side, and burst at once into a long harsh groan and a short spate of cursing. She apologized for the latter at once, but Catalina waved it aside; she’d grown up alongside shipping docks and was not nearly so sensitive to coarse language as everyone seemed to assume, and if anyone had earned the right to it, it was Loren. True to his word, Loren also took a long and deep drink from the flask next, while Catalina set about binding up his wound with some clean and herb-bundled linens she’d put in her pack for just such a purpose. She focused as much of her attention on it as possible, to keep it from being drawn away to the bob and flex of Loren’s bare throat with each swallow.

Finally, done and satisfied, she would consent to allow Loren to sit down on the bed as well. She did so with a sigh of plain deep relief, and a scrub at the sheen of sweat on her face. Once he opened his eyes, he turned them to regard Catalina with a seriousness that sent another flutter through her pulse — especially in such proximity and in Loren’s state of undress.

“Thank you, Catalina,” she said, and gave her a much more solemn, small smile. “I think you’ve had more of a care for my life today than I have myself on some others, and that’s nothing to take for granted. I really do appreciate the concern, needed or no.”

Flustered, Catalina could only keep meeting her eyes in the quickest of glances, although she answered the smile more readily. “It is very much my pleasure, and I think the least that I owe you, as well,” she said, softly, her voice faint and dry in her throat. “You would not be on this journey were it not for me, and so I hold myself responsible for any wound sustained in its course.”

“I wouldn’t be on this journey if it weren’t for my criminal cohorts and myself smuggling on your ship,” Loren corrected her, with a growing bit of a grin; “so I think you could consider any wounds of mine to be nothing but justice served, if you were of a mind. But I count it to your credit that you don’t seem to agree.” He regarded her another moment, and his expression softened back to that previous smile, growing smaller but warmer all at once. “If I can give my honest opinion, I think most any other woman who found herself highly-born, beautiful, and very brilliant would consider that more than enough to be going on with, and stop short of being most kind and considering as well. But you’re set on overachieving in every sense, from what I’ve seen.”

Catalina had now gone past flustered into a furiously warm flush, and could only cover it by struggling to laugh even as she now looked fully away. “My brothers have always called me a bit of a show-off,” she admitted, making Loren laugh. “I — don’t think it was for any such reason, though.” She glanced up at Loren as much as she could dare, and smiled with much more true warmth herself, even as she let her gaze slip away again. “I… am very pleased, though, to hear you think so. Although I believe it is only the consideration that you, or anyone, is due.”

“Well, that’s sort of exactly what I mean,” Loren said, her mouth touched by a bit of a grin again. They sat like that for a moment, in a silence that had grown not-unpleasantly taut-feeling between them, and then Loren reached down to the counterpane to take Catalina’s hand, and lift it in his own up to his lips.

It was not an unfamiliar gesture by now, given Loren’s tendency toward absurd displays of charm, and one to which Catalina had at least tried to become accustomed. And perhaps it shouldn’t have felt so much different with both of them sitting on Loren’s soon-to-be bed in this inn, and Loren bare to her waist… but even if so, it did, all the same.

And no sooner had Loren withdrawn Catalina’s hand from his lips, his smile starting to be a bit self-conscious as it showed again, than Catalina had flung herself forward in spite of all sense and reason in the world, and replaced her hand with her own mouth.

It was surely only seconds that she remained there, shocked into bewildered stillness at her own daring. All the same, it felt endless. An infinite stretch of time, in which to notice a thousand details with crystal clarity. Loren’s lips, warm and startled-open against hers, and the smooth brush of her skin against the front of Catalina’s shirt. The sink of the cot under her weight as it leaned in to share space with Loren’s. The thumps and voices from the common room downstairs, and the quiet of this upper floor, so relatively early in the day. The heat of Loren’s breath and her own, mingling across her lips.

Then rational thought had fought its best to catch up with her again, and Catalina found herself mortified and chagrined, certain that she had trespassed on a boundary. She began to draw back, sorry, apologies on her lips — but then Loren caught her gently around the back of her neck with a small but coarsened hand, and drew her back to replace every regret there with another kiss, instead.

Catalina’s heart stuttered in her chest, and a soft shaky breath escaped her in spite of herself. No sooner was she invited than she surged back into Loren’s mouth, and then his arms, as they wrapped her with increasingly confident eagerness. Her lips slid open slightly against Loren’s, new wetness at their meeting, and she couldn’t stifle another soft urgent sound as she pressed forward — and then immediately startled back, when Loren hissed a bit against her mouth in a way that did not sound particularly pleasant.

“I’m so sorry — your side–” she managed, out of breath and horrified again and embarrassed; but Loren was already laughing, quite genuinely, which at least helped relieve one out of the three sensations.

“I’m flattered to be so irresistible you can’t even give me long enough to stop bleeding,” Loren said, and winked, but then laughed again much more kindly and put a warm familiar hand on Catalina’s back in apology, at the sight of her expression. “I’m fine, Catalina, no harm done. More than worth it, as far as I’m concerned.” That managed to win a flustered, undoubtedly silly little smile out of Catalina, especially when Loren reached up (with the arm on her good side) and tucked a strand of hair aside, to softly trace the line of Catalina’s cheek. “I’d be more than happy to repeat it, in fact, so you can practice going easier on me.”

“I will, I promise,” Catalina said, half-laughing in a whisper that was already near Loren’s lips. And then they were kissing again, Loren’s fingers smoothing and twining at the escaped tendrils of her hair, Catalina’s own hands planted firmly on the mattress to avoid any further trouble.

She found some of a different and far more benign kind shortly, though: in the form of Loren’s fingers tracing down instead to lightly line out the curve of her ear, and then linger tickling down the side of her neck. Catalina shivered, strongly, and then felt heat rise in her face at the way Loren’s lips curved against hers. He drew back after another moment, though, dismayingly, although he didn’t allow her to go far this time.

“I… don’t want to be presumptuous about where this is going, but…” Loren began, delicately. Catalina opened her eyes, breathing with parted lips as she regarded Loren, and then offered her a more sure and even mischievous smile, taking confidence from the heat in her pale gaze.

“I very much do,” Catalina said — startling Loren’s eyes wider and warming his expression even further, all at once. It was an extremely satisfying thing to be able to do. After a few seconds of catching her breath, though, Catalina did remember a touch of consideration. “Perhaps… it might not be the best time, though. With you just injured–“

Loren grinned at her, and brushed the outline of her cheek again. “Oh, on the contrary, I’d be happy to have the best distraction I can think of.” That startled Catalina into laughing, half-self-consciously, and Loren pressed another short impulsive kiss into her mouth before drawing back to finger lightly at the collar of her shirt. “May I?”

Catalina swallowed, and then nodded, not really trusting herself to speak. She tugged some of the spills of her unruly hair aside, away from her collar, and felt every drop of blood in her seem to rise and rush along her skin as Loren’s fingers caressed and then unfastened a button, and then another, and another still. She parted them at a pace that managed to seem both torturously slow and also over before Catalina knew it, and then pushed the open wings of fabric gently backward off Catalina’s shoulders and arms, letting her shrug free before setting the garment neatly aside. Loren took a moment to survey the short, practical stays that restrained Catalina’s breasts and waist (and well he might need a moment, Catalina supposed, clearly being in the habit of relying on the more masculine structures of a sturdy close shirt and waistcoat to do the same rough task, but the long regard seemed to make her burn even hotter all the same), and then began the deliberate work of unlacing those at the front as well. Catalina tried her best to help where she could, without interfering; Loren could really only use the one hand well at the moment, after all.

They pulled the garment away together until she and Loren were a matched pair: Catalina’s dark skin and peaked nipples seeming even darker in contrast to the cream and pink of Loren’s, her own breasts positively dwarfing Loren’s chest but the curves of her belly far softer and gentler than the very firm roundness of Loren’s. Much as the comparisons might have fascinated Catalina’s mind, however, Loren only let out a sighed breath of pure indulgent pleasure, and leaned in to stroke a firm tender hand all up along Catalina’s side to cup her breast. It left gooseflesh scattered all behind it in its wake.

“You’re just gorgeous,” she murmured, almost directly into the curve of Catalina’s shoulder — which did nothing at all to ease the pebbling up of her skin. “I’m sure you must know, but I think it needs repeating.” She pulled her head back just a little, enough to see her work as her thumb rolled once, softly, over Catalina’s nipple, jerking it to even tighter attention and making Catalina gasp and jolt a bit. “Is this good? Should I be even more presumptuous?”

“I wish you would,” Catalina said feelingly, even as it was unsteadied by a touch of a laugh. Loren answered it, grinning brightly and irresistibly as ever up at her, and then braced with his good arm on the mattress as he leaned down to lave his tongue over the hard little nub. Catalina whimpered deep in her throat, and couldn’t help but shift where she sat, squeezing and rubbing her thighs together against where she was already urgently wet. Loren’s smile pressed to her breast, and her nipple slid between wet, soft lips to the merciless flickering of Loren’s tongue-tip. Catalina caught at Loren’s shoulder — keeping her hands carefully high and clear of danger, even in the midst of her gasping and the hitching motions of her hips. Her head buzzed with want, skin hot under Loren’s seeking mouth.

Then, very soon, Loren’s hand was gently guiding her down to her back on the mattress, to lie fully reclined while Loren leaned over her (as best she could, anyway) and stroked the bare lines and curves of her upper half. After several luxurious moments of Catalina squirming under that attention, Loren moved down along her body to tug off her boots and stockings, and then Catalina unfastened her breeches herself so that Loren could also slide them away along her legs. Only when Catalina was entirely bare did he return, pressing kisses to her breasts and running a hand up along the inner side of her thigh that made her arch and gasp a wanton, breathless, “Yes.”

Smiling into Catalina’s skin, Loren raised her hand agreeably higher, to where it pressed firmly at last to Catalina’s sex as a whole, welcomely warm in a place so wet that the open air chilled it. Catalina hitched more hungry gasps of breath, and spread out her thighs without conscious thought, welcoming Loren’s hand in. He answered by stroking his fingers more deliberately over her lips, and between them, slicking easily through their wetness and coating themselves in it while she whimpered and trembled. Then they were bringing her own slick to her clit and rubbing in soft circles just around its edges, teasing it harder still.

Loren lingered like that for a few more long moments, propped carefully on one arm above Catalina as his other clever fingers made her grow desperately wider and wetter, her body flushing feverishly hot. Then, some incalculable time later, she pushed up again and down alongside Catalina — mercifully without ever fully removing her hand — to settle down with slow gingerish care to the bed between Catalina’s thighs.

Catalina had no time even to encourage or beg. No sooner had she realized, heat-hazed, what Loren was about than he had set to work: burying his face between her thighs and licking eagerly between her folds, around the slick fingers that were still at work on her clit. Catalina was still crying out, digging her fingers deliriously into the sheets, when the two changed places, fingers stroking and parting her, tongue a hot busy flicker of wet softness against that most sensitive place. She shuddered with that and lost all track of herself and her thoughts, until Loren again set her hand to doing all the work and lifted her head a moment, gaze hot and intent up at Catalina.

“Should I put my fingers inside?” he asked low, and Catalina nodded hard enough to further disarray her hair around her head, out of sheer eagerness. She was faintly aware of Loren’s smile, but only for an instant before he was moving to reapply himself as Catalina had just wordlessly asked: his tongue inscribing soft circles above, his two fingers seeking and parting and then pressing, sinking, into slick welcoming flesh below.

It had been long enough since Catalina had done anything of the sort that their pressure was first lovely, and then a momentary bemused discomfort as her body tried to sort out the meaning of the situation, and then — with a second or two of concentration — all at once a pleasant, satisfying slide again. To be quite honest, Loren was actually being even more cautious with her than she might have preferred, sinking into her with such slowness that she thought she could feel every individual fraction of an inch that she yielded. She canted her hips up in response, both out of urgency and to ease the way, and accomplished the latter so thoroughly that Loren’s knuckles were up against her outer lips with a sudden swiftness that made Loren make a faint noise of surprise. Catalina bit her lip to fight a giggle, but gave up the trouble when Loren laughed a bit too.

“Is my pace not to your liking, your ladyship?” Loren asked, a gentle tease, even as she was letting her free thumb replace her tongue and her fingers relax back out an inch, only so they could quickly retake it. Catalina’s eyes had fluttered mostly shut by this time, but she grinned into the curl of her fingers beside her lips, even as she was panting quick breaths through her parted lips.

“It’d be graceless to rush you,” she managed a second later, in irregular bursts of a small, airless voice; “but I must say this is — no time to forget what to call me.”

Loren laughed again a little, under his heavy breath, and pressed a kiss first to her inner thigh and then directly between her legs, making her jump and gasp. “Catalina,” he amended, in a soothing tone so warm and tender it had rather the opposite effect of soothing on her just at the moment. “Forgive me. You’re so beautiful it’s very tempting to take my time.”

Catalina smiled, shaping the few more words she could muster when she could again. “I don’t mind your taking it — just please, not too much.”

“On my honor,” Loren agreed, a smile in his voice, and then his tongue was back upon her a moment later. And then all words were gone, perhaps forever, as Catalina was straining up her hips and whimpering deep in her throat again.

Loren was as good as her word, as well, reapplying herself to the task with renewed vigor. The fingers inside Catalina pressed deeper, then slid slightly back, again and again, satisfying at their depth and sensitizing where they rubbed along her inner flesh and against the outer edges of her folds with Loren’s knuckles. And with them pressing her apart, Loren’s tongue could flick over her clitoris easily, jolting little bursts of delicate, intense sensation atop every stroke below. Before long Catalina had her legs propped up wide, her fingers that weren’t gripping the sheets now combing restlessly at the very short ends of Loren’s hair, her mouth wide around every gasping little cry that broke out of her in a steady rhythm. Every part of her seemed to be lighting, sparking, building toward the edge of ignition.

And then she had reached it — and her back arched into a tortured curve and her voice broke loud and full on a much longer, wavering sound, as sensation burst over her in shuddery waves. It seemed to come endlessly, for ages, for longer than she could bear, all of her feeling as though it would shiver apart under it and dissolve into warm nothing. She shook with it until the point when it had just begun to edge toward becoming discomfort, and then at last her muscles eased and thighs relaxed back towards each other, releasing her to only occasional shivers. Loren slowed and stopped, and then withdrew his fingers with smooth delicate care amid the pulsing and fluttering of Catalina’s innermost muscles.

For a moment Catalina only lay like that, a delirious wreck of herself on her back in the tangle of the inn’s bedding. Loren lay on her uninjured side between Catalina’s legs, stroking her thigh and hip with a proprietary hand, every evidence of contented smugness writ across every line of her.

“If this is your performance with an injury, then — I should be afraid to see you at full strength,” Catalina managed to gasp her way through at last, with her eyes lightly shut and one arm slung across her sweaty forehead, if only because that smugness was so well-earned. Loren’s shoulder, pressed against her inner thigh, shook with laughter.

“I’m pretty sure I should take that as a compliment.”

“You should.” Catalina blinked her eyes open again to smile blearily down at Loren, and then urged his shoulder upward, to lie just as carefully overtop her and kiss her. They took a moment’s luxurious time at that, before Catalina withdrew again slightly to offer another smile. “Shall I see how I compare, then? With all due caution?”

To her mild and not entirely pleasant surprise, though, Loren shook her head, and then kissed Catalina’s hand and hastened to explain before she could become properly unsure of herself. “I’m grateful for the offer, and just as grateful for asking first,” she said fondly, and stroked back a bit of Catalina’s sweat-sticky hair from her cheek. “As it happens, when it comes to this sort of thing it’s my strong preference to just give and not receive. Which you should understand is no slight on you or how lovely you are in the least; quite the opposite, in fact. I can indulge in every last thing I want by indulging you, if you’ll only be kind enough to let me.”

“I would be a more tremendous fool than I am to disagree,” Catalina said after only seconds’ hesitation, with a small helpless laugh that Loren answered. “If it isn’t — from a sense of obligation, or fear of imposing, but your true preference” –here Loren nodded, with enthusiasm and an encouraging smile– “then of course, I’m happy with whatever you wish.”

Loren’s smile stayed sweet only a moment longer, before turning slightly wicked. “Oh, I see. And if I wish to see just how soon I can do the same thing all over again, only maybe better…?”

“Oh, may God protect me from such a fate,” Catalina said, as dryly as she could muster; and it was amid much laughter that Loren fell back over her again and set back to kissing her, and eventually back to pressing between her legs, at such length that ultimately Catalina had to hide in the bedding for modesty’s sake when the landlord’s knock came at the door with supper.

It wasn’t so much that the ride went more smoothly from that point onward, as that it seemed there was no amount of saddle-sore weariness that a truly spectacular night’s devilry in bed couldn’t salve. Catalina found herself in remarkably better spirits as the days wore on — luckily without further violent incident — and actually able to enjoy their journey a bit in spite of its grave purpose. And if she found herself feeling a giddy fluttering in her chest and belly more now when she glanced over at her riding companion, not less, well… that was no one’s concern but her own, in her opinion. At least if Loren caught her at it now, at worst he only raised an eyebrow a bit and gave her a knowing little smile, apparently just for the pleasure of seeing it fluster her thoroughly, until the next time she could shove him behind a closed door and herself into his arms.

Given the circumstances, it was almost before Catalina knew it that she found they had been riding for perhaps a fortnight, and the northern coast was drawing near — enough to begin to ratchet the anxiety up in her throat again when she thought of it. All at once, they had reached the southernmost parts of Elanciers, and had only to skirt around the western edge of the great city before they would be in the last leg of their journey, with no real waypoints left before Nordistes and the sea.

As well as she might have felt she’d come to know Elanciers, outside its true heart her surroundings were entirely unfamiliar to Catalina. Even the approach from the south she’d made by carriage to and from the Université, and hadn’t really recognized in itself from horseback. Now they made their way to the river crossing with their horses’ hoofbeats ringing off the cobbles of the silk workshop district, through a warren of low buildings at odd angles with covered walkways run all between them and pungent whiffs of dye in the air, and she might as well have been in a city she had never so much as visited before. They were planning to find a place to rest along the northern outskirts, and dark had fallen already, bringing with it a surprising quiet to this neighborhood; candles burned still in some windows, and here and there men and women chatted and laughed in doorways over cups of cheap wine, but that seemed to be all. They passed unremarked and seemingly unnoticed, when they did pass people, but to Catalina every sound they made seemed deafeningly loud.

Nor, it seemed, was she wrong to be concerned.

After what had happened in the southern forest, she would have thought that she was still on the highest alert for any signs of being followed, but the bandits they had met before had been clumsy pursuers by comparison. By the time she heard a footfall and saw a shadow cross the lantern-light, they were already surrounded. Dark-clad indistinct figures snapped suddenly into her awareness, in the shadows on all sides: in doorways, in the mouths of alleys and the dark places of the road ahead, even perched on low eaves and rooftops. Catalina’s heart burst into immediate thunder, and she pulled her horse up sharply, about to cry out to Loren — but she had seen it too, of course, and stopped her horse as well, alert and taut. Her hands had dropped the reins and rested just behind them, and Catalina thought she could see glints of steel in their grip.

One of the figures in the road ahead, slim and black-clad and hooded, stepped forward then. The person was raising a pistol, and Catalina’s chest seemed to squeeze in on itself tighter than ever. The barrel was trained straight at Loren, and they didn’t have the protection of distance now — at this range, a shot would do much worse than graze —

“Drop your weapons and let her go,” the person said: with thunderous command, but not in any other way what Catalina would have expected. The voice spoke in Catalina’s own language, for one thing, and it was a woman’s: musical and lovely for all its harshness, and only lightly burdened with the local accent. And… extremely familiar.

Élise?” Catalina barely managed, in a choked disbelieving gasp.

The dark-clad woman froze very still for a few seconds — and then reached up and yanked back the hood from her head, exposing it to the lantern-light. It was Élise, as unquestionably as  impossibly. There was no mistaking the gleam of the light off her copper-colored hair, even tied back as severely as it was, nor the pale and well-loved lines of her face. Her expression, however, was one Catalina did not think she’d ever seen there before: one of cold, certain, violent determination. And she had not lowered the pistol, nor looked away from Loren.

“I won’t ask a third time,” she said, with force, her gaze boring holes into him. “Throw down the weapons and release her, brigand, at once. I will not hesitate to shoot you, nor spare it a moment’s regret.”

“Élise, what are you–” Catalina started to sputter, but Loren moved first, and it was on her that Élise’s attention was still trained. Slowly and deliberately, she stretched her hands down and dropped the throwing-knives from them; they made a soft and musical tinkling rattle, striking the cobbles. Then she lifted her hands in the air.

“There. Done.” Loren’s voice was calm and almost light, but he was not smiling now, and Catalina could see his caution in every line of him. “As for the Baronesa, I’m afraid I can’t release someone I don’t have captive. She’s here of her own volition.”

“Be silent,” Élise snapped, and to Catalina’s great alarm she cocked the pistol further than ever. “I know too much of you to care to hear your liar’s tongue.” Her gaze flickered to Catalina a moment later, however — and softened at once, becoming all at once something that was familiar and well-known to her instead of entirely foreign. “It’s all right, Lina. Come away. Whatever he’s done or told you to bring you here, it’s–“

“Élise, stop!” Catalina finally shook off her numb horror enough to cry out — and that, at last, finally seemed to break through a bit, both widening Élise’s eyes and relaxing her hand by one precious fraction. “It’s the truth — Loren hasn’t coerced me here, or forced me in any way. He’s helping me! He told me–“

“And you trust what he told you?” Élise cut across her, and there was a touch more of the coldness back in her eyes. “A criminal taking advantage of your own enterprise for God knows how long?”

“Yes,” Catalina said. She had lifted her chin without fully realizing it, and looked down from her horse at Élise in a way she would never have thought to look on her dearest friend: with the stony, challenging forbiddance that she had used to face down some dozen different traders around the city, as they sneered at her from behind their sheens of politeness. “And if you’ll put away your own weapon, and call off whoever these people are, and listen to me, I shall tell you why.”

Élise stared at her, for the space of a few long breaths. The coldness in her eyes lingered, but gradually as the moments passed, it became troubled: a shadow of uncertainty in her eyes, the start of a crease between her brows.

At long last, very slowly, her hand holding the pistol began to relax further still, and lower back to her side. And only being able to fully breathe again let Catalina realize for how long now she hadn’t been.

“I left you a letter!” was the crowning absurdity Catalina found herself exclaiming, some hours later, at the skeptical look Élise was giving her now that all had been said. They were seated around a campfire in unclaimed farmland on the northern border of the city’s lands, the dancing light of the flame painting Élise’s pretty face in burnished reds and oranges. “I wasn’t able to explain everything, I know, but–“

“I thought she must have forced you to write it,” Élise confessed, and Catalina could almost hope that was the beginning of sheepishness she heard in Élise’s voice. It wasn’t a strong hope, though. But it was pleasing, at least, to hear how smoothly Élise had adopted her own habit of simply calling Loren by she or he by alternating turns, and without question. “Or that he had spun it as a false tale to lure you north, and meant to spring a trap on you once you had come far enough from safety. I’m still not convinced that isn’t his purpose.”

“If it is, he has now shown over 800 miles’ worth of commitment to his trap,” Catalina said, as levelly as she could, with slightly narrowed eyes. Élise only met her gaze a moment, and then sighed.

“It’s not impossible.” Catalina didn’t answer that, though, and Élise went on. “Surely you can’t mean to say that I had no reason to suspect foul play? None at all?”

“Not if you trusted my word, no!”

“It’s not your word I didn’t trust,” Élise said back, a touch sharper, but she relented again almost at once. “Lina, tell me honestly: even if I could credit Noguera plotting against your family, one of your foreign mountain-man sailors breaking from the ruse out of the goodness of his heart, and the solution of racing a merchant ship overland for nearly a thousand miles… could you really have expected me to stomach that you, of all people, had abandoned all of your responsibilities and run off into the middle of the night with a handsome smuggler?”

Catalina opened her mouth — and then, just as quickly, closed it again. And struggled for quite a few moments before she could seem to say anything at all.

“That is… possibly… not an unfair point,” she managed at last — very nearly through her teeth. The smile that Élise finally graced her with in answer, however, almost made it worth it.

“However I may feel about this St. Ymir, at least, I am very glad to see you free and unharmed,” she said, and reached out to take Catalina’s hand in her own dark-gloved one. “Please believe me about that much, at least.”

“I do,” Catalina conceded, with a slight sigh of her own, and even squeezed Élise’s hand back without begrudgement. “And I suppose I am quite grateful to know that if I were kidnapped, you would pursue the matter with this much vigor.” Élise let out a little laugh at that, and Catalina found she could smile back briefly, before glancing around again at the other men and women working and talking around the fire. “But… are you going to tell me who these people are? You haven’t really said.”

And Élise’s expression did shutter again at that, making itself more opaque. “Friends,” she repeated. “Ones who I knew I could trust to help me track you, and get through the country to you quickly.” And perhaps at first she really meant to say no more; but Catalina’s expression did eventually crack her, making her sit back from Catalina’s hand and drop her eyes. “…What do you know of what’s been happening on the other side of the border, since we were at the Université together? In Elanciers in particular?”

Catalina frowned, but when no more seemed forthcoming, she gave it true thought. “Not a great deal, I admit, apart from tariffs and regulations. Perhaps there’s been mention of some sort of unrest in the city, among the poor? To be honest, I didn’t think much of it.”

Élise was looking at her again now, with a hard and bitter sort of little smile, and one of her companions who was tending the fire close enough to overhear turned to stare and then snort with what almost looked like loathing. Catalina avoided the man’s gaze quickly, in discomfort; at least she could be more sure Élise’s contempt wasn’t directed at her. “It’s a bit more than ‘unrest,’ were you to ask any of us, and it’s not just the poor, although it is most on their behalf,” Élise said. “Though I can see why it would come framed that way — a few pitiable wretches squalling ungratefully.” She paused a moment, gathering her thread, and then held Catalina’s eyes as she went on. “In truth, there are many of us, and we have come to decide that it can no longer be borne, how in this nation the few with everything hold in chains the many with nearly nothing. We have come together to rise up in the name of equality and justice, and build a better society from the shambles to which this one has fallen. We have already succeeded in demanding our voice in government, and we are resolved that if the monarchy and the nobility continue in their trembling to oppose us, we are prepared to do far more than that for the sake of freedom.”

The silence that fell after she had finished speaking seemed to thunder. For long moments Catalina could only stare at her, struck entirely dumb. A month ago, if she had been asked if she suspected her school-friend, who had excelled in rhetoric and sometimes actually sighed over a lovely pair of shoes, could be part of a revolutionary group bent on overthrowing her home nation’s monarchy should it resist reform, what would she have said? Nothing, probably, out of sheer incomprehension of the question.

And yet, a month ago, she could never have imagined that a great many things could be true that now evidently were.

“But–” She sputtered slightly, grasping at what felt like a hundred loose threads to find one to follow. “If this — group of yours is so opposed to the nobility, why would they help you to find me?” She lowered her voice instinctively before adding, “What do they make of your Madame Félicité, for that matter?”

Élise let out a humorless little laugh, although it was not so harsh as it could have been. “Sweet Lina,” she said, with a twist at her mouth. “As clever as you are, sometimes you just don’t see things as they are. Don’t you remember the awful girls who would sneer and snicker behind their hands when we passed by — or did you truly not notice? My fellow citoyens know me, as everyone sensible does, for exactly what I am: a chambermaid’s daughter. Neither a kindly gentlewoman’s sponsoring me for a proper education, nor any number of summer holidays at your ancestral house, can undo that.” Before Catalina could even properly manage to either cringe at or question this, however, she was going on. “As for you… I have enough friends to be able to call in a favor on behalf of another, whoever she might be. But I think if they knew as much of the situation as I do, my companions would also see you as I do: an honest and good-hearted tradeswoman who only happens to have a noble title attached, and under the circumstances, no less a victim of your rulers and aristocracy than we are of ours.”

Catalina had no idea how to even feel about that, much less how to respond. “This is — quite a lot to take in,” she said at last, picking her words carefully, and Élise only nodded. “Leaving that aside… what happens now? You know I don’t intend to return until I’ve seen this matter through. Or did you mean to simply bind me and drag me home?”

“Hardly,” Élise said, and there was a rueful smile to it now that let Catalina relax a little. “If this St. Ymir’s word can be trusted — and I am nowhere near convinced of that yet, mind you — then I do agree that it is a serious matter. So I only want to accompany you, and give aid where I can.” And keep a close eye on Loren, she did not say, but Catalina supposed by this point there was no need to. “The matter of retaking your ship is one that my comrades will quite firmly feel is only your own business, I am sure, but I have no doubt they will aid us as far as Nordistes. From there, it will be we three against Noguera, and St. Ymir’s fellows too should they oppose us.”

That was a question Catalina hadn’t quite dared to face herself, nor did she know whether Loren had managed to, but for now she only nodded and flashed a quick smile. “That is better than we had before,” she said, with a gratitude she meant; “and I could only welcome you, Élise.”

The broad and warm smile Élise gave her in answer only made her more thoroughly convinced she had spoken rightly.

Loren had absented herself prudently for this discussion, if still under the watchful eyes of Élise’s allies, and to her regret Catalina did not see her again before it was time to settle into a bedroll a short distance from the fire. She rose again and slipped away not long after, though, to seek out a discreet spot to attend to nature’s necessity, and was arrested as she approached the nearby treeline, by familiar voices talking low just beyond it.

“–for her to decide, Miss… err,” she caught Loren’s voice saying from the shadows of the woods, as she crept closer to listen with only the slightest twist of shame. “Sorry, I only know that Catalina calls you Élise, but if there’s something you’d prefer…?”

There was a pause, and then Élise’s voice answered, cool and tart and barely carrying beyond the underbrush. “You don’t seem troubled by being overly familiar on the whole,” she said. “But my family name is Granville; if you would rather call me by that, be my guest.” There was a pause, and then Élise went on. “And yes, I suppose it is. But even that being so, I would like to hear from you: what are your intentions with her?”

There was a pause, as Catalina gaped at nothing, and then the sound of a little burst of Loren’s uncomfortable laughter. “Sorry, what’s that? Are you asking if I — if I plan to marry her? I don’t think that’s really up to me.”

“No, it isn’t,” Élise replied, colder than ever. “But a great deal else is.” There was another brief silence that Catalina dearly wished she could see, and then Élise sighed and seemed to relent, as her voice came next in a somewhat thawed tone. “Catalina is brilliant, but she’s lived a quite sheltered life. She can be naÏve to some of the most critical of matters, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard her utter even a hint of a romantic entanglement before, although I’ve hardly been able to keep her under my watchful eye. I only mean to say, if this isn’t a serious matter for you, only a moment’s dalliance… then once this all comes to an end, one way or another, I think it would be best if you didn’t linger afterward. To avoid the risk of, shall we say, mismatched expectations — if of course that damage isn’t done already.”

Catalina was still smarting with such indignance over what Élise had said of her — whether she could have truly argued the matter as much as she wanted to or not — that she very nearly missed Loren’s response altogether. As it turned out, that would have been unfortunate indeed. “And if that’s not so?” he said a moment later, steady and measured. “If it is serious?”

Another pause followed, even as Catalina’s hand was flying up to press over her mouth in her warm face all in spite of herself. “Then you will have to let me know how her brothers react to that,” Élise said, and sounded both amused and almost thawed all the way to warmth. “I’m certain it will be most entertaining.”

Loren began to say something else to that, and Catalina would have very much liked to hear it; but as it happened a twig snapped under her shifting foot right at that instant, and she was forced to flee for fear of discovery. And then lie later in her bedroll only staring up at the starry expanse of the sky, trying in vain to control her breath and her pulse enough to sleep, wondering in too many directions at once what the future might hold.

The remaining miles to Nordistes passed in a blink, safely escorted by Élise’s companions. As Élise had said, however, they absented themselves at the coast, leaving only the three of them to the rest. Catalina leased a small sailing-ship at the docks, and they all passed a short, tense wait for the day Catalina and Loren judged La Cazadora would be entering the channel. Then they set sail at the break of dawn, with Loren directing them and the weather kind enough to favor them: not stormy enough to make navigation impossible on such a little craft, but enough to put plenty of wind behind them, and for the lowering dark clouds to make them more difficult to spot on the sea.

They rounded to the south and doubled back when they spotted La Cazadora‘s sails in the distance, the better to creep up behind her and slink under her flank unseen. No alarm seemed to have been raised by the time they’d come alongside, and Loren’s grappling hook made another appearance, catching almost soundlessly on the deck rail above and letting them all clamber up along the side. And then they were aboard: keeping low and out of sight amid the rope and cargo on the deck, the sounds of Loren’s fellows calling to one another about their tasks both distant and far too near.

And indeed, they’d only made their stealthy way a few feet toward the steering cabin when a familiar deep voice called from the side: “Ah, Loren, good to see you feeling better. Enough to chase us down and board us with the big boss you betrayed us to in tow, no less!”

Catalina just had time to see Loren freeze, a tight empty expression on his face, before she had fully turned to face Hallstein. With a pound of rope over his shoulder, a massive workman’s hammer in his hand, and weeks’ worth of the sweat and dirt of sailing sitting on him, his height was easy to forget: he did not look like a small man in the slightest. Loren turned to face him slowly as well, with a casualness that did not hide how close her hands were to where Catalina knew her daggers were stowed in her coat.

“I haven’t betrayed anyone, Hallstein,” he said, plainly keeping his voice very carefully measured. “But you need to turn this ship around. Getting caught on purpose, with a man we already know for a double-dealer? I told you it was a bad idea from the start. He’s not going to let us walk away from this… and more than that, it’s wrong, and you know it.” She took a deep breath, kept subtle beneath her coat and vest but still clear to Catalina’s eyes. “I know you do, since you taught me everything I know about it.”

Did Hallstein flinch? Catalina didn’t know the ways of his wild face well enough to be sure. But he did say something back a moment later, in their own language: impossible for Catalina to understand, but cold and furious beyond what she could miss. Loren did flinch, but responded in kind, still striving for calm, and Hallstein barked a mirthless laugh before a second’s silence, and then a much shorter answer.

“I assume that was a no,” Catalina said, quietly, without taking her eyes off Hallstein. Loren let out a sound that was almost a laugh of her own.

“You’re not wrong,” she said, also without turning, and then pushed back her coat and drew her daggers. Hallstein began to lift that alarming hammer in kind, and Catalina could now see others of the short squat men, elsewhere on the dock and in the rigging, beginning to turn to look at the forming scuffle, or crowd in closer. “Get to Noguera. I’ll hold this off the best I can.”

Catalina wanted to linger, wanted to argue — but she caught sight of Élise over Loren’s head, looking at her sharply, and gave it up almost at once with something like despair. “Please be careful,” she only said in the end; and perhaps it was more worth it, for the way Loren gave her a quick look up and a brief smile.

Then she was running for the steering cabin — half-aware of Élise stepping up behind her to stand at Loren’s back and draw her pistol. Something to be grateful for at least, that whatever Élise had said of trust, the situation made it plain where to throw in her hand. Trying to shut out the beginning sounds of shouts and movement behind her, Catalina rounded the cabin to its entrance–

And found Noguera standing facing her before the ship’s great wheel and controls, his sword already out in his hand and pointed back at her.

Her own was drawn in a flash, and their sword-points accused each other, their eyes locking. He was a full head taller than her and at least three stone heavier, and the bandits some weeks past had been the first time she’d ever drawn steel in earnest against another person. But she was very much in earnest now.

“That ungrateful runt,” Noguera said, before she could speak: a low musing rumble, not really to her at all. “Did it cost much for her to sell us out? After all I’ve done for them?”

“Call an end to your scheme, captain,” Catalina said — not even bothering to respond to that question, and with all the calm she didn’t feel. “Sail straight to Eastport, and deliver my honest cargo, and I’m willing to let the matter go peacefully. Your departure from my employ may be an amicable one, as far as all others are concerned. I will even provide a reference.”

Noguera let out a humorless laugh of his own, his lip curling. “Who do you think would accept it?” His voice rang in the small space, cold and bitter and contemptuous. “I was your last chance to save the sinking ship you’ve kept me lashed to, and you deserve the ruin that waits you at the bottom when I cut loose. The nerve of it–” He struggled briefly, a dull furious flush rising in the skin behind his beard. “I toil away half my life in the shadow of your foul and rotten bloodline, and when at last I have the generosity of spirit to abase myself to receive my due… to be dismissed like some pestering lout on a street-corner, and by a mongreless–“

“Yes, what sensible woman could resist such sweet courtship?” Catalina said, managing to keep even her taut voice as dry as bone. And then, when he was still distracted by her response, launched herself — all at once, with full force, sword first.

The element of surprise did win her a bit of ground: he was unready and her attack drove him back, staggering into the ship’s steering column. That same stumbling-block then served him as a support, however, and let him firm his blocking sword against hers and then throw her backward in kind. She let the momentum carry her back out of the cabin and onto the open deck, fluid and loose, ready to dart and dodge aside when he came after her. The wind whipped at her tied hair and at the captain’s coat, the creak and flap of the sails overhead a thunder in her ears.

Their swords sang against each other, with first one clash of steel and then another, and then so many so quickly that the sounds could scarcely be separated. Noguera’s mass was much greater, true, and his strikes were powerful, but Catalina was faster, able to whip to the side or dance out of reach before he could land them. She nearly caught him out from behind a time or two, making use of the full expanse of the deck, before he seemed to catch on to the game. Then, just as quickly, he began putting his greater reach to better use: blocking her escape to one side or the other with a quick flash of his sword, a forward lunge of his leg, boxing her in. Cornering her, gradually, up against the rail.

Damn it all, he was actually good — a far better-trained and more seasoned opponent than the slapdash gang of bandits had been, as she might have expected. Catalina found herself gritting her teeth, her pulse thundering louder and louder, as she struggled to keep turning his blade aside on hers and evading him.

She held her own, though, as long as she could. Sweat trickled from the edge of her hair, and she was increasingly aware of the rail’s closeness at her back, and how beyond it was nothing but the open sea. Noguera struck at her from one side, and with a jolt of adrenaline she thought she spotted an opening at his neck on the other, and lashed at it — but it was a feint, damn it, of course it was. Noguera’s bearded mouth split in a second’s flash of a savage grin, and reversed the momentum of his sword quick as anything, catching and trapping hers and swinging it in one hard fast half-loop to point at the ground. Their eyes locked, and there was nowhere to run: from here he could throw his elbow into her belly or throat, or simply fling her overside–

But before he could do any of that, there was a loud click at his back. And Noguera froze still, with his sword still pinning Catalina’s down. The look of savage triumph that had been on his face at his impending victory began to sag, all at once, into blank incomprehension.

“Unpack yourself, captain,” came Élise’s clear, cold voice over Noguera’s shoulder. When Catalina could shift enough to one side, she could just see Élise standing behind him — as well as a bruised and bloodied-looking Loren staggering along supported between Hallstein and another of their fellows, even further behind. “Or the wind will be blowing through you before you can draw breath to move.”

Catalina might not have been able to see the pistol at Noguera’s back, but she was quite certain he could feel it. And when his sword clanged to the surface of the deck, freeing Catalina’s again, it was loud enough for all of them to hear.

In the end, they left Noguera bound and stranded on the coast of one of the small islands in the channel: one of the ones that seemed to have more sheep on its hills than human habitations, and no seagoing vessels to speak of. By the time the captain managed any kind of return to mainland civilization, La Cazadora would be sailing back to Baluartes free of contraband, and any accusations Noguera made would sound like the ravings of an addled, livestock-smelling fool. Loren, in particular, seemed to find the solution most amusing.

“How did you convince Hallstein, in the end?” Catalina asked him as they sailed on toward their deliveries, minus only one captain. They sat together with Élise by the rail, with Catalina again tending Loren’s wounds: his poor face was a bit of a black-and-blue mess for his valiance. Not, based on his scars and nose, that it was the first time.

Loren grinned, though he winced as it pulled, and shrugged. “I didn’t, exactly. He just beat the hell out of me until his only choices were to kill me or finally listen to me, and he couldn’t kill me. The old softy.” What might have been a small suppressed snort came from Élise, although it seemed like too much to hope. “He finally just said, ah…” Loren paused a moment, and then became a touch charmingly pinker than normal about the cheeks and ears, as she avoided Catalina’s eyes. “Well, that if I had gone and — fallen for some rich noblewoman, that was my own problem, but if I was really going to be stubborn about it, he’d just as soon not get greedy and risk everyone’s necks after all. Only he was, ah…”

“More ungentlemanly than that?” Catalina guessed — though she was smiling, and more than a little flushed around the edges herself. Loren gave her another, bashful little grin, but one with a bright spark of pleasure in it as well.

“Maybe a bit.”

After another quiet moment or two, patting with clean water at Loren’s wounds, Catalina pursued what she least wanted to, as well. “So what will you all do now?” Loren glanced at her, and she turned her eyes down to her hands’ work, smiling but avoiding his eyes. “Without Noguera’s deal, I mean. Will you stay in Baluartes, or…?”

“I actually had a thought that might help,” Élise said unexpectedly — making both of them turn to look up at her in surprise. She was looking back at Catalina, though, with a very warm and almost playful smile about her lips. “It seems you have a vacancy for a fleet-captain, no? I had wondered if you might be willing, rather than taking on another seasoned gentleman like Noguera, to… train up your own.” Her eyes locked with Catalina’s, meaningfully, an eyebrow raising. “You know I’m a quick study, and the loss in experience might be worth the gain in loyalty, under the circumstances. And I have some friends who might be very interested in a cargo ship with, say, some extra space for transporting munitions and supplies, along the far less scrutinized sea routes.”

Catalina could only stare at her a moment, and Élise looked back steadily. And as wide as she could feel that her own eyes were, and as unthinkable as the idea might have once been… could she really say she hadn’t seen some sense, in the things Élise had said? Could she really mind so much, what might come next?

“Well,” Catalina said, slightly clearing her throat and striving for evenness. “That being so, it… sounds as though you might have need for a crew of smugglers.”

And the brightness of Élise’s and Loren’s smiles both, aimed at her, were really all the certainty she could have needed.

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8 thoughts on “Friends in Low Places

  1. A swashbuckling adventure, hurrah! Loved Loren instantly (ah, rogues!), loved how everybody got a chance to be awesome pretty much nonstop, and especially loved the fluid use of pronouns. I’m thoroughly impressed at how smoothly that reads — the swaps feel natural and aren’t at all confusing.

    The art is gorgeous, and really captures the contrast between them beautifully. Catalina looks downright touchably soft, and I adore all of Loren’s freckles!

  2. I ADORED this! It’s got everything a good story should have – double-crosses, swashbuckling, revolution, gay sex, non-binary dwarven characters, you name it! Plus despite being a longer piece I never felt like it was dragging thanks to excellent pacing and writing, and I was always excited to see what was going to happen next!

  3. Oh gosh this hits the perfect ssbb sweet spot for me where I can appreciate the influence of the inspiration of these characters and ALSO be delighted on how you’ve made them your own. I am such a sucker for a “criminal with a heart of gold” type story and for any time that tending an injury turns into sex and this was just fabulous on all fronts.

  4. Loren’s great, and the different cultural and racial underlay is very interesting too. I really enjoyed it

  5. I rather enjoyed wading around in this story and letting it show what all is based in reality (of a sort) and where things veer off in a different direction, and Catalina is a delightful protagonist to be around in general. She has so much more personality than a flat “daughter of nobility” cutout, while still being permitted to have flaws for her to struggle against during that saddle-sore-filled trek north! Loren’s whole deal, from his history to her stature to his ever-shifting pronouns, was fun to have revealed over time, as well. And of COURSE Élise is semi-French. Who better to make a stink in the face of Renaissance-adjacent aristos?

    Fantastic art this time around, of course! Catalina’s body is so lovingly detailed and Loren is allowed to be present (and half-naked) without his own anatomy feeling weirdly focused upon; the illustration strikes a good balance between mutual raunchiness and putting Catalina and her clearly quite noisy orgasm center stage. They’re both having such a nice time, you know? I also like the subtle red lighting from the corner and how it warms up the image just a little bit more than before.

  6. this was a really nice adventure with the politest main characters. it was endearing how considerate they were of each other. i enjoyed the ending as well! nicely wrapped up with everyone meeting a proper ending. :)

    and major props to the illustration! a sexy fit to the story ;)

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