The earrings were not the showiest, nor were their gems the most valuable. Anyone with an eye for gems would have looked to the Queen instead: Eddis was wearing a magnificent pair of diamonds set in gold. They were, for once, perfectly matched to her formal gown and tiara, but the effect was rather ruined by the fact that they were so heavy that she pulled idly at her earlobes while talking to guests.
No, the ruby earrings that adorned the ears of the salt merchant's eldest daughter were nothing in comparison. Yet Gen's fingers ached for them, as did his memory, and he couldn't think why. Never one to question an instinct - instinct had saved him many times - he danced with the salt merchant's pretty daughter, who unfortunately turned out to be an astute judge of character and watched Gen with the eagle eye of a matron thrice her age.
Thwarted in his immediate desire, Gen spent the rest of the evening getting drunk and dancing with everyone he could find, until a handmaiden in a lovely aquamarine dress took him by the wrist and swung him down onto a marble bench.
"The Queen respectfully requests that you desist from whatever you are planning and go to bed, Cousin Eugenides."
He peered at her, blearily. "Are you my cousin? You look too young."
"My father is your uncle Athanasios. My request comes from the Queen."
She was a slight girl, but she had the strength of a swordsman, and the calluses, too. She hauled Gen up to his feet and politely but implacably escorted him from the room. With a stern glance, she closed and locked his door.
Safely locked in his chamber and his cousin Euthalia, whom he knew perfectly well, discharged of her duties, Gen dropped all pretence of being drunk. Eddis had kindly played along with Gen's public display by sending him away to sleep it off, though it had taken a little longer than he intended, as Eddis had been distracted by the salt merchant's relentless negotiating. Clearly she knew he was up to something, as she'd sent Euthalia to remove him; his cousin, one of the few women who trained to fight as the Queen did, was known to be an upright young warrior, more rigidly honourable than the male soldiers. Everyone who watched her lead him out would have no doubt that she would follow the Queen's order to the letter and return him to his rooms with no chance of escape or diversion. If she said that Gen was safely in his rooms, everyone would believe it.
Gen changed out of his fancy party clothes - that gold-embroidered collar was beautiful, but itchy - into simpler, dark grey garments, and rifled through his desk drawers looking for the perfect tool. He found the blunt fishhook, attached it to a black silk thread, then climbed out the window and up onto the roof.
Attolia put her hand on Gen's chest. "Wait. You're asking me to believe that you fished the earrings from the girl's earlobes?"
"I did!" Gen grinned. "She was much more relaxed once she was safely distant from the notorious Thief of Eddis, and was making eyes at one of my cousins." He sighed. "It would have been a good marriage, too. But he's dead now, and she's probably married to another excellent prospect by now. Still, the point is, I cast my line and caught two fine ruby fish."
Attolia made the little humming noise that meant she didn't believe a word he was saying. It had taken on a fond tone more recently, or so Gen liked to think.
"So then you took those earrings, trotted down from your mountains, crept into my palace, and put them in the box with my ruby headband."
"Oh, no. What in our lives has ever been as simple as that?"
As thanks for the flash of inspiration, Gen put the earrings on the altar of Eugenides, , adding it to all the other shiny things he had dedicated to the God of Thieves. The earrings looked particularly lovely next to a golden cloak pin in the shape of a ruby-eyed hound. Gen's grandfather had removed it from the possession of a particularly rude diplomat from Sounis. Legend said that he took it so deftly that the man's cloak hadn't fallen to the ground until he tried to storm out of the negotiations.
Like the eyes of the dog, the rubies were a pretty raspberry colour, most likely from the town of Styberra to the north of Attolia, rather than the deep purplish-red of the gems traded from the far East. The Eastern gems were worth far more than the local ones, but even so, the town of Styberra and its rubies had always been fought over. The town lay near to the border and had changed hands frequently, and only a hundred years ago it had been part of Attolia. That rang the bell of Gen's memory, and he realised where he'd seen gems of this kind before: they were in the headband that Attolia always wore in public, in imitation of the Great Goddess Hephestia. Gen thought this was daring – attracting the attention of the Gods was always a dangerous affair – but he could understand why she had decided it was necessary. Unlike Eddis, she faced a hundred noblemen with plausible claims on her throne, and the more authority she could muster, the better. It was much harder to raise military support for killing someone linked, no matter how tenuously, to the Great Goddess. Priests and Priestesses had protected themselves with that logic for generations, so why not a Queen?
The salt merchant and his daughter would be travelling into Attolia next. Perhaps some small God was watching over the girl, and didn't want her to attract the wrath of the Queen. He hadn't seen anyone else wearing rubies that colour in Attolia, at least, no-one but priestesses. With a sigh, Gen bowed deeply to the altar and left the ruby earrings there. It felt right, and since his adventures with Hamiathes' Gift, that sense of rightness was the best guide he had to the affairs of the sacred beings beyond this plane.
"I thought," Attolia said, "that once something had been offered to your God, it could not be taken back. You told me that you would steal your cousins' favourite things when they tormented you, and leave them at the altar where they could not recover them, but had to bear seeing them every time they passed that way."
"Under most circumstances, you would be right. You're so good at being right."
Attolia poked him in the side, where she had found that the Thief was rather ticklish. "Don't mock."
Gen squirmed away and put on a sad face. "Sometimes I think you don't know me at all. The great majority of my words are nothing but mockery."
"Not of me," she replied, with great confidence.
"And my mask is ripped away! No, it's true that no-one may take something that has been offered to Eugenides, but that isn't what happened."
"I need you to return to Attolia," Eddis told Gen as they sat in the library.
"It's too soon. I barely escaped with my life last time, and I doubt the Queen will welcome me."
"The whole point, Gen, is that nobody sees you."
He laughed. "And when you find me Khthonia's Helm and make me invisible, then I shall travel unseen. No, I will find no difficulty in her palace, but I have to reach it first. And in Attolia, every petty baron buys secrets on the chance that they can use them against the Queen."
"Poor thing." Eddis shook her head. "If only she didn't constantly try to depose me, I'd want to help her." She grinned and plopped an empty brass oil dish on Gen's head. "There, sir, your mighty helm."
"Thus protected, I shall undo Attolia at once!" Gen leapt to his feet – managing to keep the dish perfectly in place – and wobbled his way into a shallow bow.
"Silly." She swiped the dish from his head and left it on the window sill. "Please, think about how you can steal Attolia's secrets for me. She's far too close to the Mede these days. And I'm sure that you're smarter than all the barons of Attolia put together."
"I'd say you were flattering me, but it wouldn't be hard to be smarter than that lot of scoundrels and bandits," Gen told her, still managing to preen a little. "I'll work something out, I promise."
He did, an elaborate plan of distraction and double-crossing, then discarded the whole thing as a bad idea. Eddis needed that information, and only Gen could find it. Eddis's very best spies were busy attempting to ingratiate themselves and their silver coins into the court of the Mede. Gen didn't envy them that task, though it meant that more local work fell on his shoulders. No, all he needed was a merchant who could keep his mouth shut – a rare fellow, but Gen knew a few – and a heavily laden wagon with a false compartment. Better: an ox-drawn timber wagon with a hollow log just Gen's size. Attolia needed the Eddisian timber almost as much as Sounis did, and he should have no trouble sneaking into the capital and from there into the palace. He sighed, and decided to start growing out his beard as a disguise for the journey, glad of his dark colouring that made his scanty beard look more advanced than it truly was.
"I think I prefer you beardless," Attolia told him. "If you ever need to grow one for nefarious business on my behalf, however, of course I will permit it."
"Permit it?" Gen took her hand and ran her fingers over his stubbled face. "If I ever grow my beard again, you will be astonished and awed by its magnificence."
Attolia shook her head. "I suppose if you grew it enough, you could hide weapons in it. That would be impressive."
Gen touched her long, thick plait where she kept a tiny knife, even when safely alone with her husband. "You are far ahead of me on that count."
"Eddis once told me you lie as often as you breathe, and she was right."
He shrugged. "It was a compliment?"
"I am not offended. You have ways of showing me truth when you wish it. I think perhaps the lying is simply a consequence of your inability to be silent."
"You wound me…but there may be some truth to your barbs." He clutched his heart pathetically to make her laugh again. It was a precious sound, and one he heard more and more.
Philon the taciturn timber merchant was dubious about taking Gen into the city, but he agreed nonetheless. Unfortunately, travel with Philon and his equally close-mouthed family was extremely dull. Their ox-drawn wagon moved down the hills at a snail's pace, and Gen quickly remembered why he preferred to go places with the chattier sort, despite the risk. The four family members could go an entire day with barely a word to each other: the merchant let out the occasional grunt, the wife talked more to the oxen than to her husband, and the son and daughter-in-law spent their time conscientiously and tediously checking all the ropes on their heavy load of felled trees. Gen tried singing, telling stories and eventually juggling – the least of a thief's arts – but failed to raise so much as a smile. Thus it was a great relief, rather than a cause for alarm, when their road joined with another and a slow-moving merchant caravan joined them.
Demosthenes the Attolian oil merchant – also carrying a smaller but valuable load of early apples on his ox cart – was a much more entertaining man, travelling with his two youngest children while his Eddisian wife and older sons and daughters managed their oil mill at home. The children appreciated Gen's stories and attempts to teach them juggling after the endlessly dull trip from the olive groves. Gen represented himself as an Eddisian horse trader, travelling to Attolia in an attempt to bring some new blood to his stables. Though few knew it, Gen had a keen interest in horses: he liked to know how to best avoid them, and, if they were entirely unavoidable, how to choose the least troublesome mount for himself.
"Ah yes, must get pretty inbred up there in Eddis," Demosthenes joked. "Snowed in five months of the year, huddling for warmth in the stables…"
"Luckily, I don't have any sisters," Gen lied, happy to overlook the common insult against Eddisians now that he had someone who would actually talk with him. Demosthenes clapped him on the back and laughed.
"So, a horse trader with no horse?"
"I was robbed of my horse, not two days after I crossed the border into Attolia. Say what you like about Eddis, we're hospitable to our guests."
"Only because if the snows come, you're stuck with them! Still, that's how I found my wife one early winter, so I shouldn't argue the point." He glanced over at the timber wagon and shook his head. "So you've been riding with this dour lot? A wonder you weren't struck silent yourself! I suppose bandits are going to take a look at them with their big fists and sharp axes, and wait for easier prey."
"They were very kind to me," Gen protested, feeling in a vague way that he should defend his countrymen as individuals, if not en masse.
"Ah, there's no shame in being robbed. Happened to me often enough that I trained the children to use crossbows. Fine shots they are, too. I always carried one myself, but bandits know perfectly well the time it takes to reload a single weapon. Three crossbows, now, that's a better defense. And having those mighty woodsmen and their burly wives with us is better again."
The rest of the trip down to the sea and thence to the capital was far more fun with Demosthenes and his lively children, and thankfully Philon and his family were a little drawn out by their antics, though they certainly hadn't been by Gen's. The road became busier and the risk of actual bandits – not just Gen's imaginary assailants – faded. The last night before they reached the outskirts of the sprawling capital, Gen was surprised to realise that he'd miss both families. It might be a while before he actually spoke to anyone again. The livestock markets were outside the city proper, so Gen was to bid an ostensible farewell to the group there while the carts travelled on into the city.
"Stay the night, go in the morning," Demosthenes told him, and Gen agreed. It would be easy enough to double back and hide in his hollow log in the grey dawn light, so why not spend a final night drinking with friends? He thought twice about it when he realised where they were camping: along with half-a-dozen other travelling groups, they were in the grassy courtyard of an old temple to Periphys, the Goddess of the Wind. Attolia supposedly worshipped the New Gods, but although there were no priestesses or acolytes here, local people had kept the small temple in order. The metal strings in the tall windows, designed to play eerie music when the wind blew, were long gone, but the small building itself was intact and the well in the courtyard clean. That, and its short distance from the outskirts of the city, explained why it was such a popular stopping place for travellers, but it certainly didn't make Gen feel any easier to be there.
Attolia turned onto her back and stared up at the stars. Mentioning gods was never a smart idea around her: she still had not forgiven them for the harm she caused to Gen, nor had she forgiven herself.
"I suppose you find it fortunate that we are on the roof and I cannot simply storm off," she told Gen.
"It's not deliberate!" he protested. "The gods creep into many of my stories. And when do we have a chance to speak to each other at such length, except when I have stolen you from your chambers and we hide away here?"
"At least you bring a blanket these days," she said, not entirely conceding the point – but not moving further away, either.
Gen woke in the night to hear the Aeolian harps of the temple playing their strange song, a different sound here by the sea than in the mountains of Eddis. It wasn't until he awoke fully that he remembered that this temple no longer had the metal strings in the windows. He arose from his bedroll, knife in hand for all the good it would do, and crept past the sleeping travellers towards the temple. Everyone was asleep, even a bullock-driver's son who the group had paid to keep watch for the night. Gen considered giving him a hard kick in the rear, but then realised he couldn't hear the boy breathing. He couldn't hear any noises at all apart from the quiet sound of the Aeolian harp; not the wind in the trees, not his own footsteps.
The temple glowed white in the moonlight, the narrow windows black lines, and Gen forced himself not to hold his breath as he approached. Inside the temple was a woman dressed all in white, a woman he had seen before. Moira had her trailing scroll, as she had had when Gen had seen her in the temple that held Hamiathes' Gift, and her long white peplos hung from her body and draped on the floor in a sea of white fabric, so that Gen could not see where the scroll began or ended.
He bowed as deeply as he could force himself, too afraid to take his eyes off her. The moonlight fell through the narrow windows and marked out prison bars on the floor. Moira sat in shadow, but still glowed like the marble walls of the small temple. Gen knew that he was not to approach, the bars of light as prohibitive as the iron of a well-made cell. She looked up after a few moments, her face calm and kind.
"You cannot give your fate to another, not even to a god," she said. Her voice made Gen think of his mother, though she had never in her short life sat as still as Moira did.
A cloud rolled across the moon and the temple darkened. By the time Gen had blinked once, the goddess and the bars of moonlight were gone; the missing harps silent. He turned in silence to return to his bedroll. Now that the music had stopped, he could hear the others again, the normal little noises of sleep, the oxen shuffling about, the leaves overhead rustling. The bullock-driver's son was wide awake as if he had always been, conscientiously watching over the encampment as he had been paid to do. He nodded at Gen.
Gen sat down on his bedroll, unable to sleep. A light breeze from the direction of the temple disarrayed his hair, and he reached up to comb it back with his fingers. As he did, his wrist brushed his earlobe and he realised that something was there, something familiar. It was a ruby earring.
With a sense of dread, he reached to his other ear – the one that wasn't pierced – and found the other earring hanging there from a hole through his earlobe that was as healed as if it had been there as long as the other. He quickly pulled the earrings free and held them in his hand. The moonlight returned, making them glimmer darkly. They looked more bloody in this light. He thought of the previous time he had seen Moira, at the entrance to the court of the gods; and he thought of the Great Goddess he had seen there, in her gold ribbon headband set with rubies. In the semi-darkness, the stones had been exactly this colour, as if she, too, found her rubies at Styberra.
He pinned them to the inside of his shirt, over his heart, and thought of the woman brave enough or desperate enough to imitate Hephestia.
"I will never forgive her. Any of them," Attolia said, flatly.
"You have never had a forgiving nature." Gen stroked her pale arm and did not pull away when she wrapped her warm hand around the stump of his wrist. His good hand he used to brush the stray hair from her face. The breeze was stronger on the roof than inside the palace, and it ruffled her carefully oiled and plaited hair.
She sighed, unwilling to deny this moment they shared, despite the suffering that had led to it. "You distract me."
"I think it was you who distracted me. Otherwise I would never have been caught."
Attolia smiled, a tiny curve of her lips that was nonetheless clear to Gen. "If it takes both my distractions and the intervention of gods to catch you, I am at least glad that I may keep you."
He kissed the corner of her mouth, where there was a hard line that had once been a dimple. "I am your gift."