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Finds but riddling shrift

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Baron of Pirate's Swoop George Cooper may have become, but that didn't make him soft, nor a fool. His ear stayed to the ground, and if he pulled up his hood and spent an hour or two in a corner of the old Dancing Dove to hear the gossip, well, that was nothing more than sense.

And so, when the talk one winter night kept circling round to a dark-tanned boy with a juggler's knack who was giving the underworld strange shivers and general uncomfortableness on account of him clearly not seeming all he was, George was there to hear it, and take an interest. Juggling was not a pleasant trade; he couldn't for the life of him understand why anyone would take it up who had a choice. He had a few days in Corus - Alanna was at court, miserable as a caught bear in formal clothes and noble manners, but doing her duty as she always did - and he had the time to spare. The next morning, when the sun came up, George kissed his wife and went down into the Lower City.

It was a cold day, but not bitter, and the snow covering the paving stones was little more than a pale dusting. Nevertheless, when George rounded the corner where the boy, according to rumor, habitually plied his trade, he gave a sympathetic shiver. By his complexion, the juggler was a southerner born, and had been living in more sun-washed regions until very recently. The lad must be freezing, working out-of-doors in a Tortallan winter when he wasn't accustomed to it.

He was a slender lad, more than usually tall but gawky and gangling in his height, like a young animal not yet accustomed to adult proportions. His dark hair was tied back into a horsetail, carefully finger-combed, though curls and snarls still escaped the hold of the band. His face was long and young and oddly open for a streetworker, showing clear traces of sorrow and suffering and guilt and power to eyes that looked closely. His eyes were shadowed, and his teeth gleamed white as snow against his brown skin.

In his quick longfingered hands, coins juggled from palm to palm became doves and fluttered away toward the winter sun, only to fall back down in a rain of bright tissue-paper spangles. Cards shuffled and danced in bright-colored patterned wheels, faces always outward. Blood-red flowers grew up in an instant out of the snow, and then bloomed. But George could tell, watching, that it was all true sleight-of-hand, no magecraft involved in creating the dancing illusions.

He was more than decent at his trade, but he worked at it quietly, without speech or shouting, and so his performance was more eerie than cheerful. George raised an eyebrow; it was an odd tactic, if the juggler wanted to make coin. Peering surreptitiously down at the lad's store of remuneration, he found it slight. Too slight to live on. So the boy could do the tricks, but not live on them? That, in combination with his strange open face, was enough to mark him out. He didn't belong.

There was a story here, and George Cooper wanted to know what it was. Call it curiosity, or instinct, or just plain meddlesomeness. He left a coin, and turned away.

*

When he made it back to the palace that evening, he found Alanna already there, in the process of unpinning her earbobs. “Let me, darlin' girl,” he said, leaning down to unhook the delicate gold.

She started, and shivered. “George, leave off! Your hands are freezing!”

“And gods forbid you get cold,” he laughed, kissing the edge of her ear as he finished extricating the dangling jewel.

“Ugh, don't remind me. At least I had company today in complaining about Jon's dratted drafty castle - the Carthaki emissary didn't think much of our climate, I'm afraid.”

He pricked up his ears. “Carthaki? What does Carthak want with us, exactly? Doesn't that popinjay of an emperor they just crowned prefer to keep his own counsel?” Because Alanna hadn't been wrong - his hands were cold - he busied himself ladling out two steaming goblets of mulled wine from the basin where it'd been left heating.

Alanna sighed, and took the cup he handed her, drinking deeply before she answered. “We'd hoped so. But apparently Ozorne's losing allies he's chasing a black robe mage that he believes defected to us, or else fled north.”

He whistled at that. “A black robe? You don't misplace one of those every day!”

“The reward on him's high enough. Ozorne's obviously not happy with the idea of us gaining what he's lost. It was all Jon could do today to convince his emissary that we're not concealing the mage, or challenging Carthaki justice.”

It was all tickling away at the back of George's mind Carthak, high magery, the dark-skinned juggler, the jangle-shivers in his Sight. But he'd not say anything until he was sure. Unlike the juggler, he liked the flourished style of the mountebank revealing all. “Would Jon challenge Carthak, if he gained a black-robe in exchange? Just hypothetically.”

Alanna frowned, and wrinkled her nose. “I don't know," she said. “Ozorne would be a nasty enemy to have. I'm not sure it'd be worth it.”

Softer, he asked, “What about to protect a boy from that same nasty enemy?”

She looked at him askance. “What do you know?”

“Nothing, yet. Soon enough.”

*

Near half a week elapsed before George could find time to return to the Lower City, and in the course of those days several inches of snow fell. When he returned to the juggler's corner, he found the boy sitting huddled up beside a small fire, holding out long-fingered hands to the warmth. The juggler didn't notice him until he was quite close; then he started violently and would have skittered backwards if his back hadn't already been to a wall. “I can move much more quietly than that,” George told him. “You're not much good at this being on the run business, are you? More used to University ways, I'll wager.”

He'd clearly been doing badly - his face had a pinched, hungry look about it, and his general air of unkemptness contrasted sharply with the care for appearance George had observed in him before. Thinner and paler, he looked all angles and bones, stretched out and elongated.

The lad's dark eyes opened wide, anxious and fearful. Aye, this one was running from something something nasty, he'd be sworn. That particular cold-fingers-down-the-back feeling never indicated pleasantries. “How - what do you know about me?” he said in a warm tenor voice, cracked with upset and disuse though George suspected he habitually spoke in hesitant stops and starts.

“Not as much as I'd like, laddybuck,” George said, “but enough to know that you could use my help. Let's start with your name, shall we?”

The juggler looked at him for a long moment, dark eyes mesmerizing, and George had the distinct and uncomfortable sensation of being weighed and measured, held there by the juggler's gaze. At last, the lad relaxed, and stretching chapped lips in a grin he said, “My name's Arram Draper. I'm the runaway from Carthak - I assume Ozorne's been looking for me?”

George nodded, and unclasped his fur-lined cloak from around his shoulders. “Here, you look half frozen. Put that on and come with me, and we'll see what we can do.” Pulling the boy up with a firm hand, George wrapped the shivering mage in warm fur, and then led him off through the snow.