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A Swatch of Red

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The life of a Fourth Finger didn't leave much time for side projects, but Mathias Shaw hadn't become the youngest recruit to the Stormwind Assassins by being a slackabout.

Nor, as some whispers claimed, because his grandmother was the head of the guild. That had just ensured him a childhood of intense training that gave him the edge.

Nepotism didn't prevent his Thumb from giving Mathias every shit job it was possible to scrounge up. If anything, Waltion took unholy glee in assigning Mathias the shittiest jobs. Too many bodies dumped in one spot had clogged a canal drain? Get Shaw-the-younger to clear them out. Need a runner to take provisions to all the Third Fingers spread throughout the city on surveillance? Hey, Pinkie!, Waltion would cry, and even though there were a thousand Fourth Fingers, Mathias knew the Thumb meant him.

Mathias mopped up the last bit of rinse-water from his current shit-job. A literal shit-job, this time. Waltion has sent him to scour the ramparts under the gryphons' aerie -- Mathias didn't know why, but he suspected there was a scuffle planned for later, and the First Finger assigned had requested that the ramparts be clean so he didn't slip in shit and fall into the moat. Such were the lessons one learned when one was a Fourth Finger.

Mathias didn't plan on being a Fourth Finger for long.

Dumping his rags and brush and bucket for the stable hands to find later, Mathias took to the rooftops. Roof-walking was easy in the district spreading out from Stormwind Keep. The houses were old, squeezed together like a zit about to pop. The greatest danger was that a runner might garrote himself on a laundry line.

Mathias had never garroted himself. He'd never fallen, or misjudged a gap, or stuck his foot through a rotted shingle, or--

Something pinged off his shins, a filament too fine for sight to catch. A nearby wooden support creaked and see-sawed on its axis. While Mathias was busy analyzing that threat, another beam with a large stone block as counterweight swung in a great arc and caught him in the gut. He doubled over the beam, and it carried him out over empty space and a three-story drop to the cobbled streets below.

Mathias scrabbled to hold on to the beam, lungs crushed and straining for breath. Not-falling came first. Breathing second.

"You're not an orc," said a very peeved-sounding voice.

Mathias knew very well he wasn't an orc, but he didn't have breath to call the speaker an idiot. His lungs convulsed once, twice, and then finally decided to work again. He sucked in a sweet gulp of air and immediately started coughing.

"Won't know if it works proper unless I test it on something the right shape and mass," muttered a slight, wiry boy who still managed to be bigger than Mathias -- but then, Mathias was small for his age. The boy knelt to inspect the broken filament, looked up at the see-saw beam that had distracted Mathias. Then he turned that glare on his victim. "I need an orc."

"What the fel are you doing, setting traps for orcs in the middle of the city?!" Mathias shrieked, sounding more like a frightened, 10-year-old boy than the darling of the assassins' guild. "All the orcs are outside the city! Idiot!"

"I know they're outside." The other boy stood and wiped grease-smeared hands on a red bandana dangling from his belt. His fine features pinched into a scowl of disdain. "I'm not setting traps for orcs. I'm testing traps for orcs. You just spoiled a whole afternoon's work."

"Well, I'm sor-ry," Mathias said.

"Apology accepted." The boy turned away and began fiddling with the see-saw support. Mathias' snark drained away. He could try to climb back to safety, but the unstable beam he dangled from creaked and swayed with every move he made. He wasn't sure he should trust his life to the solidity of something built by a strange boy his age.

A Finger couldn't afford pride; it got in the way of business. That's what his grandmother always said. Mathias swallowed his and cleared his throat. "Excuse me. Could you please help me down? Er... back? To the rooftop, I mean."

The other boy kept working for several breaths. He glanced over his shoulder, brows raised as if surprised to see Mathias still dangling like a fish. "Oh. Of course." He pushed the hanging stone in an arc, and Mathias swung back to the solidity of the rooftop. "The way you were leaping about, I figured you could climb back."

Mathias decided not to admit that he didn't trust the boy's workmanship. "So why are you testing traps for orcs up here?" He swung the stone back, followed the path of a wooden rod up to the see-saw joint. So. Not a distraction. They worked in tandem somehow.

This... could be useful.

"Because testing them in the streets might harm passers-by." The slightest smirk curved the boy's thin lips at Mathias' snort. "And because papa has real commissions to work on below, but he said I could have the rooftop if it would keep me out of trouble. If these traps work, we could set them up along the road or the approach to the city to stop any invaders."

No. They couldn't. Mathias could point out a dozen tactical flaws in that idea. But spread these across rooftops...

"Why are you up here," the boy asked. He crossed his arms. "Are you a thief?"

Sometimes. "No. But I'm looking for one. He visits his fence every rest-day at three bells. I've been trying to follow him after that, but no luck so far."

And not today, either, Mathias thought as three bells sounded across the town from the Chapel of Light. His shoulders sagged. Next rest day. And the one after that. Every rest-day he could get away from other duties, until he'd hunted his quarry down.

Something light rested on his shoulder -- a fine-boned hand, grease embedded under the nails and in the whorls and callouses. "Sorry my trap made you miss him."

Mathias shrugged. The boy's hand fell away. "You want to make it up to me, you could show me how to make one of these things. I bet I could use it to trap him."

The other boy snorted. "Do you have any idea of the mechanical complexity of..." He shook his head. "Tell you what. You help me, and I'll build one for you. Figure this thief of yours is probably closer to orc than you are."

No, Mathias thought. His thief was much worse than any old orc. "Deal," he said, spitting into his palm and thrusting out his hand. "I'm Mathias Shaw."

The other boy grimaced, but spat into his grease-smeared palm and took Mathias' hand. "Edwin VanCleef."


Mathias grew endlessly inventive in finding -- or creating -- pockets of time to spend teaching and learning from Edwin. The stonemason's son was older than Mathias had thought -- fifteen! -- but he was small, wiry, and prone to fits of absent introspection and sulks when things went wrong, which made him seem younger.

He knew how to make explosives of all sorts, and he showed Mathias how to create everything from little distraction crackers, to smoke-bombs, to something that could put a pit in solid stone big enough to fit Mathias' head. And Edwin was brill about figuring out how to turn a boys' environment against him. Once Mathias started teaching him the ins and outs of roof-walking, Edwin only got more inventive.

"You know what would be wicked?" Edwin paused at the edge of a rooftop, gazing across a gap wide enough to give any roof-walker pause. "If we set up a trigger-plate here at the most obvious launch point, and it activated two arms with buzz-blades attached to slice up from the gap and bzzzbzzzbzzz a thief in thirds. He'd be too busy trying to make the jump to worry about something popping up to eviscerate him."

And Edwin was delightfully gruesome. "You could do that?" Mathias whispered, torn between hero-worship and incredulity. Edwin would never make an assassin of the First Finger. He was too flamboyant where a finger worked in silence. But he had the coolest ideas. Mathias' grandmother Pathonia would love him. Which was all the more reason to keep him secret.

Edwin kicked a rock off the edge of the roof. "I could with money and workmen, but it'd be easier to just weaken the roof here and put a bunch of spikes in the room below."

Mathias sighed. It was almost as gruesome, but nothing next to buzz-blades slicing a man in trine. "Wouldn't work. Roof-walkers know to look for weaknesses."

Mathias had managed to shift Edwin's obsession from orcs to the thief Mathias stalked. Edwin was now almost as driven as Mathias to catch the man. He scowled at this recurring objection. Whatever trap he devised, it would have to fool a man used to looking for such obstacles.

"Right. Right. So, show me again how to do that cat drop move."


"What do you want with this fellow, anyway? Did he steal something from you?"

Mathias stilled, unease slithering up his spine like a jungle asp. A wash of hot guilt followed. He took a breath. Two.

He and Edwin were lying in wait along one of the many paths the thief liked to take when he left his fence. Edwin's trap -- an augmented version of the one that had originally caught Mathias, save that the boom was designed to break -- lay in wait as well. Months they had spent designing and building the trap in secret, and more months waiting for the thief to finally take this route across the rooftops of Stormwind's highest buildings.

And not once had Edwin questioned why.

Not now, Mathias prayed. Aloud, he said, "Yeah. He took something," going for the same tone his grandmother used when someone was asking too many questions and were subtly being given a choice between holding their tongue or losing it.

Edwin was immune to subtlety. "What did he take?"

"Something of great value." Mathias' reticence was consumed by a swarm of dread excitement when he spied a shadow moving across the rooftops.

"What? A jewel?"

"More precious. Shutup. Someone's coming."

They both fell silent, anticipation charging the tension between them as the figure tucked and rolled and leapt and dodged with all the grace and economy of a seasoned roof-walker.

"Now," Mathias whispered. He couldn't see the wire that the runner tripped, but he saw the brake pivot on its see-saw axis, saw the stone drop, the boom swing. He heard the impact like a truncheon beating a side of beef, the man's cry as he was swept out over the edge of the rooftop. He clung to the boom just as Mathias had, but that did him no good. The beam broke and sent him plummeting to the street below.

"Ha! It worked! You did it!" Mathias leapt from his hiding place, fist raised in victory.

Edwin stood as well, but his face was drawn, eyes wide, skin pale as old cheese. "It... it worked." He ignored Mathias' impromptu jig. "He... he'll be all right, won't he? That fall..."

The fall. Mathias stopped dancing, a lifetime of training reasserting itself. The fall might not have been enough to kill the thief.

"You're right. We have to be sure." He raced across the rooftop. Edwin followed. Clumsy, slow, but he followed.

Mathias shimmied down a pipe, hung from a balconette by his fingers, used an awning as a springboard, and landed in the empty lane where the thief had fallen. The man curled on his side, groaning. Gleaming white bone had broken through flesh and fabric, thrusting up from his bent legs like he'd gained an extra joint.

The man groaned again. Definitely still alive. Mathias drew his blade and crept closer.

The thief's pain-glazed eyes wandered, fixed on Mathias. He wet his lips. "Boy. Boy, go... get help. Priest. I'm hurt."

"You'll get no help from me, murderer," Mathias whispered, lifting his blade. The man's brow furrowed, landing on the white cuff of Mathias' sleeve, and the stray red thread sewn through it, almost as though by accident.

The man's eyes widened. "Too young," he rasped. "You're too young to be First Finger."

"I am. My mother wasn't."

The man brought up bloodied hands to fight Mathias off, but he had no strength. Mathias slid the blade across the man's throat -- the long, slow slice, he'd heard the First Fingers call it. The man's half-formed protests died in a puddle of gurgles and surprise.

"You... killed him."

"Yeah." Mathias wiped his blade on the thief's coat. He stood and looked back at Edwin. "Now we dump the body."


"I don't think we can be friends," Edwin said to Mathias after they'd dumped the body and rinsed off at the Slaughterhouse Row pump. Those words and Edwin's solemn, resolute frown dogged Mathias all the way back to SI:7, the more public façade for the Stormwind Assassins.

He was met by his Thumb. Waltion's thin face was drawn into a frown just as grim as Edwin's had been, proof that the leader of the Fourth Fingers knew what his littlest pinkie had been up to.

I don't think we can be friends. Waltion looked like he might share Edwin's sentiment. "So you decided to skip the other ranks and promote yourself to First Finger, did you?" There was no tousling of hair or dramatic, put-upon grimaces from Waltion this time. Just crossed arms and a cold, blue-eyed assessment. "She wants to speak with you. Go up."

No question who 'she' was. Mathias hopped the steps two-at-a-time in his rush to face someone who might appreciate that he'd taken down his mothers' killer, a man who'd remained free from justice for years.

His grandmother stood at the casement, arms crossed in an echo of Waltion's posture, gazing out into the city. Mathias paused at the top of the stairs. Pathonia's cheeks were wet, and she was blinking too quickly, though the day was overcast with no sun to cause her to scowl so. She turned, and the backlighting from the window shrouded her expression in shadow.

"If you were Thumb, what would you do?"

That was the last question Mathias expected to have to answer. "G-grandmother?"

"I am not your grandmother just now. You are a Fourth Finger who has far over-stepped himself, and I am your Master. So. If you were master here, and were faced with such gross disobedience and rank incompetence, what would you do?"

"He killed mother." I don't think we can be friends. Mathias bit back tears. Six years, he'd been dreaming of this day, of his revenge, and now everybody was treating him like he'd done something wrong. "He killed my mother, and you. Did. NOTHING!"

Mathias stopped, face red, chest heaving. He wiped tears and snot on his sleeve, but he didn't flinch away from his grandmother's shadowed glare.

"I did nothing. And someday, when you are in my place, perhaps you will understand why. Assuming you ever make it to my place, which I doubt seriously at this moment. Much relies on your answer. What would you do in my place?"

Mathias mumbled his answer. The tears and shouting had broken through his obsession, and now he felt like a fever victim -- exhausted, but clear-headed.

What the fel had he been thinking? He'd been trained better than this. By her.

"Pardon? I didn't hear that."

"I said, punish me."

"Yes. How? The Stockade? You can get out. Demotion? You're already a Fourth Finger. Cleaning the garderobes?" A pause. "You're already a Fourth Finger."

Mathias' lips twitched at her joke. At least, he thought it was a joke. And perhaps if she was making jokes, he was forgiven. Perhaps it was the disobedience, and not the death, that upset and disappointed her.

He didn't want to disappoint his grandmother. She was the only family he had.

I don't think we can be friends. Mathias couldn't accept that. He just needed time to make things up to his grandmother and Waltion. He needed time to bring Edwin around. And if a Fourth Finger didn't have a moment to spare, then the other fingers had even less.

He couldn't be promoted. He had a friend to win back. "You could make me stay a Fourth Finger until every other Fourth Finger has been promoted or washed out," he said. "I think there's a lot I still need to learn."



"Every damned moment I'm not in the rubble I'm on what's left of the rooftops. How is it you're still better at this than me?" Edwin demanded. He sagged against a half-collapsed wall that had once been the Chapel of Light and wiped sweat from his red face.

Mathias was panting too hard for true laughter, but he managed a few triumphant chuckles. "Because you're just doing it for fun and profit. My life depends on me not falling on my ass behind enemy lines."

He leaned down from his perch atop the broken wall to claim a victory kiss. Edwin's lips were clammy and tasted of salt and Mathias didn't care a whit because kissing.

Edwin batted him away, but not terribly vigorously. "I told you. Not in public."

Mathias used Edwin's batting to take a controlled tumble from his seat. Predictably, the other boy tried to catch him, and they both ended up sprawled on the street beside the wall.

Mathias straddled Edwin to pin him in place and looked around. "There's nobody here." The orcs had decimated the city, the prince and his people had fled to Lordaeron, and even though the orcs were now gone and the nobles and common folk returned, the city was still a no-mans-land of hard battles and broken homes. Only the people who'd stayed to fight, like Mathias and Edwin, and a few looters too foolish to know better, wandered what was left of Stormwind now.

"You know what I mean." Edwin sat up, though he didn't push Mathias from his lap. Another victory.

And so it had been for them for the past five years. Even as the orcs laid siege to Azeroth, Mathias laid siege to the stonemason's son. Edwin had once said they couldn't be friends, but he couldn't resist learning more secrets of roof-walking, and having a friend to help troubleshoot his traps, and having an ally when the orcs came to Stormwind and the traps became a vital part of the guerilla war waged against the incursion. Edwin denied the growing tension between them, and then one day after a harrowing flight from marauding orcs, he'd thrust Mathias against a tree and kissed him silly.

Now kissing was welcome. It was the rest they were stalled at. Mathias handed Edwin a skin of water. Edwin drank half of it, and let the other half pour over his head and face and chest.

"We could go somewhere not-public," Mathias said, watching the trails of water, the movement of Edwin's throat as he drank again.

"We have more traps to dismantle before some other idiot refugee sets one off." Edwin wiped his mouth with his sleeve and handed the skin back to Mathias. "I wish they'd just stay in the camps."

Mathias did too, but he couldn't very well agree with Edwin. That wasn't how their friendship worked. "It's their city. They just want to come home."

"If it was their city, they should have stayed to defend it instead of running to Lordaeron," Edwin spat. His chest heaved, and his face was red now from anger rather than exertion.

Mathias understood that anger. Edwin's father had stayed to defend their home, and it had meant his death. Mathias stroked Edwin's damp hair, then urked when the other boy wrapped his arms around Mathias in a tight, desperate hug.

Mathias held Edwin, pressing his face into the young man's neck. Comforting. He was supposed to be comforting. But a droplet of water tickled his nose, and he couldn't stop himself from sipping it off Edwin's skin.

Edwin tensed, then sighed and shivered and pressed harder against Mathias.

Invitation enough. Mathias leaned in and sucked moisture from his neck. The other boy's hands came up to Mathias' shoulders, but he didn't push away. He whimpered, and his groin jerked against Mathias'.

Tugging Edwin's red kerchief to one side, Mathias followed the water down to the base of his neck. Edwin's fingers dug into his shoulders, bruising strong for all that they were slender. Mathias ground his hips into Edwin's, used his weight to push the other boy to the ground. A pulse fluttered against his tongue. He latched on and sucked hard.

Edwin squeaked, the bulge of his cock bumping against Mathias'. They both groaned at the contact, and then there was more pressing and sucking and Mathias found his hope rising for half a second that Edwin might finally--

"So are you going to go back to killing humans again, now that the orcs are gone?"

"What?" Mathias released Edwin's neck, noting the bruise raised there with clinical interest. The question was meant to divert him, but it was still unexpected. They never spoke of such matters, and Mathias was always careful never to involve his friend in Hand business again, even when they were both fighting orcs in Stormwind's crumbling streets.

Mathias should ignore the question, or lie. All his training screamed at him that this was necessary.

"I'll back to doing what I was raised to do."

Edwin's cheek was pressed to his, their brows touching, as if neither of them wanted to look at each other for this conversation. "So... killing?"

" No!" Mathias pulled back. Edwin was pale now instead of red and overheated. Almost as pale as he'd been that day in the lane. Mathias studied his ring finger. His third finger. "That was... an anomaly. I just run messages. And listen. And sometimes I... actively listen."

Silence. Edwin snickered, and just like that, the tension broke. "Actively listen?"

Mathias tugged at the knot of Edwin's red kerchief, untied it and pulled it free from his friend's neck. "You know. At windows." His fingers traced down the front of Edwin's shirt. "Behind screens." Over his belt. "Under the cushions of Queen Tiffin's carriage."

Edwin gasped, possibly at the daring admission, more likely at Mathias's hand pressing against his crotch. Mathias grinned and went in for the kiss.

Edwin turned away at the last moment, and Mathias' nose bumped Edwin's cheek. "You know, someday you're going to say something ridiculous like that, and I'm not going to believe you." Edwin grabbed his wrist and plucked his hand away. "And I told you. Not in public."


Mathias' calf was suffering the mother of all charley-horses, and there was nothing he could do about it.

"Your Highness--"

"Majesty." Varian Wrynn's words were clipped. The newly-crowned King had quickly grown tired of correcting the advisors who were used to thinking of him as Prince-in-Exile.

"Er... yes sire. Apologies, sire. I only meant to say that such a project at this time... the coffers can't stand it."

"Terenas supported it."

"And is Terenas King here?"

A hesitation. A crack in the King's conviction? Mathias couldn't read the silence, and he couldn't see from his hiding place to determine what Wrynn's pause meant.

"My queen would also disagree."

"Your queen is a... lovely girl, sire. And as I've learned from my own sweet daughter, girls are fond of ruling from fine palaces, but we men must be pragmatic. Queen Tiffin--er..."

Another pause, just as Mathias was shifting to relieve his cramp. He stopped, all his weight balanced on the ball of one foot, his knees bent to his chest, his neck twisted sideways, his ear pressed to the top of the cabinet he was hiding in. He bit his lip to keep from groaning as his aching muscles protested the additional strain. If he was caught, he was dead, and he might even manage to take his grandmother with him. This King who had fled his city and left it to the orcs didn't have much reason to trust a spymistress he could scarcely remember. And even less if he found out said spymistress was spying on him.

Even if it was for his own good.

Talk, Mathias mentally screamed, not even caring at that moment that something must have caused the awkward pause in the debate. Play trumpets. Something!

"Well, go on, Lord Daval," said a lighter, female voice that Mathias knew very well from listening to it so much these past few months. Now he had to bite down on a chuckle. Lord Daval Prestor was about to get reamed.

"Y-your Highness--"


"Er. Yes. I wouldn't want to trouble you with--"

"Trouble me, Daval," the Queen said, syrup over steel. "You'll save my dear Varian the headache of having to repeat your inanities later. Now, I believe you were saying something about... pragmatism?"

The mumble of secondary conversations rose again, enough to cover any soft noises coming from the liquor cabinet in the corner of the King's council chamber. Mathias finished his shift, sucking in a breath at the creak in his joints.

How did old men like Elling Trias remain Third Fingers for so long? Mathias was only fifteen, and he felt like an old man already!

He missed Lord Prestor's response with all his moving and hissing, but he could guess it well enough. It was the same song the smooth-tongued noble had been singing since the orcs were rousted and the court returned to Stormwind. They couldn't rebuild the city, Prestor said. The crown needed to use what gold it had left to appease the nobles.

Tiffin was having none of that. "Nobles, my Lord, are a poor investment. Gold flows into the crown's coffers when the common folk prosper, and nobody can prosper in the ruin that is Stormwind. I am not a twit, Daval. I daresay I understand economics better than any man here. Hire architects. Hire soldiers as laborers now that they've no foe to fight. Command stone and lumber and nails and other building materials from Eastvale and Redridge, and then all those folk will have money to spend. They'll need staples at first, which will put money in the pockets of the crofter-folk and farmers in Westfall and Elwynn, and then the demand for luxuries will rise, which benefits the merchants and artisans. Your people must have money to pay taxes with, and they do not have it now. Rebuild Stormwind, my Lords, and you do more than repair a city. You repair an economy, and a people's pride and faith in their King."

The room fell silent again, but this time Mathias didn't mind. He was silent too, in awe.

Arranged marriage or not, how could the king not adore his new wife? Mathias was half in love with her himself.

A hand slamming on a table jolted Mathias out of his reverie. Tiffin's voice rose again. "The provisional head of the Stonemason's Guild has compiled this list of architects he thinks would be suited to lead the rebuilding effort. Men of skill and vision, all. Peruse it, my King, my Lords. Pick one at random, if it pleases you. But make haste. Your people starve while your nobles squabble for the choicest bits of the city's corpse."

The meeting dispersed soon after that, the nobles too shamed by their queen's disdain -- or perhaps only taking stock of the shifting power balance and finding her a more compelling ally than Prestor -- to remain debating the matter. Lord Prestor left, and the king with his guard.

Mathias waited until he was sure no stray functionary would return. He lifted the latch and climbed out of his cabinet.

He limped to the window casement, gritting his teeth as needles pierced his bones. He stamped his feet. It hurt more, but it speeded the process. He had to make haste before he was caught by some maid, but he wouldn't do anyone any good if he fell to his death because his foot had fallen asleep.

He paused at the casement, turned back and limped over to the council table. There, atop a scatter of papers, lay the list of names. Mathias scanned them, memorized them to report to Elling. He recognized most of the names from Edwin's rants. His friend had little respect for his fathers' contemporaries who had fled the city just when it needed them most, and even less after VanCleef-the-Elder had been killed at the height of the occupation.

Mathias found pen and ink. He studied the hand that had written the list. Looping stems, rounded bodies. An easy hand to copy.

Clearly, the provisional guildmaster of the Stonemasons was an idiot. Mathias remedied his idiocy with the stroke of a pen.


"You did what?!" Edwin shrieked.

"Calm down," Mathias said. He moved aside a stack of plans, unearthing a beat-up old sofa that was one of the few pieces of furniture to survive the collapse of the VanCleef workshop and home. Edwin had rebuilt the house -- So that it will never collapse again, he'd said with grim conviction -- but beyond a drafting table and a few salvaged chairs, he hadn't bothered to furnish it. And now it appeared he was decorating with plans. Stacks and stacks of plans. A whole city's worth of indestructible houses.

Dreams, Edwin called them. Fancies.

So why was he angry at Mathias for putting those dreams within reach?

"I will not calm down. Do you know who came to see me today? To interview me and rifle through my designs?"

"Lord Daval Prestor, I imagine." Mathias had weathered enough of Edwin's rants to be unconcerned by this one.

"Yes! A Lord! I'm only a journeyman, and an unknown, untested one because of this war." Edwin ripped off his bandana and paced, wringing his hands in it. An old habit, even though he was better about washing his hands now that he was almost a man grown. "I'm not supposed to be... It's too soon for me to..." He stopped before Mathias, looming, fists planted on hips. "This is not how guild politics work!"

"I've seen how guild politics work. The list your provisional master gave the queen was full of cowards who fled to Lordaeron. They haven't been here. They don't love this city. They're the worst of the worst. You're the best." Mathias grabbed Edwin's hands, tugging and smiling as winsomely as he knew how -- a smile that had even cozened his grandmother once or twice.

Edwin was no proof against it. He gave in to the tugging and tumbled onto the sofa next to Mathias. "I suppose there's no damage done except to my pride. Even a layman like Prestor will see I'm the least-qualified candidate. And the youngest. They'll never pick me."

Mathias twisted around, slung his leg over his friend's. His groin settled against Edwin's soft bulge.

Not soft for long. Unless Edwin decided to be angry. Mathias toyed with not telling him, but decided Edwin would be more angry if he didn't. He braced his arms on the back of the sofa and made his confession against Edwin's thin lips. Who knew such a grim line of a mouth could be such a temptation? "That's exactly why Prestor's going to pick you."

Edwin took Mathias' invitation, but pulled back from the kiss as the words registered. "What? Why?"

Mathias planted reassuring kisses along Edwin's jaw. "Because Prestor wants the project to fail. He wants to humiliate the Queen and wrest power back from her. He'll pick you because you look like the least-qualified candidate. And in so doing, he'll get the best, and the Queen and King will get the acclaim, and the people will get their city back. Mission accomplished, crown protected, minimal treason."

Mathias lifted his head, smirking at the gobsmacked look that had blossomed on Edwin's face. "What? You thought I added you to the list in hope of a reward fuck?"

"You are a madman. And I should end this... whatever this is. You're going to be the ruin of me." Edwin flipped him around -- well, Mathias let himself be flipped -- and pushed him over the arm of the sofa. He shoved his hand down Mathias' trews. His long, calloused fingers found Mathias' cock and wrapped around it. Mathias whimpered and pressed his ass back into Edwin's groin.

"So." Edwin's lips tickled Mathias' ear. His hand squeezed. Mathias' balls tightened in response. "Reward fuck?"



"She's yours?" Edwin asked.

Mathias rubbed his brows, a habit he'd picked up from his grandmother. He glared down at the bassinet sitting on the table between them like a gauntlet. "So says the mother."

"I see." Cold as Northrend, those two words. "And how, pray, did this come about?"

And clipped. Nobody did clipped like Edwin. Ten years of commanding the architects and masons and laborers of Stormwind, and of fighting the House of Nobles for every cent of the criminally-late payments, had given the man a surety that the boy had lacked.

"Edwin... you know I sometimes have to..." Mathias waved his hands in a gesture that bore no resemblance to the activity it referenced. "It's part of my job. It doesn't--"

"Mean anything. Of course." Edwin's jaw tightened. "Does anything to you?"

That question struck with the force of a blow. Mathias struggled to take a breath, to find an answer.

Edwin continued before he could. "Stormwind, I suppose. Everything is secondary to that. Even us."

"No. Not 'even us'," Mathias protested, even as he worried it was true.

"Don't lie. It's true for me, too, isn't it?"

"Edwin..." Mathias reached across the basket. A chubby pink hand swiped up and caught his sleeve. The white cuff with the red thread.

Edwin raised a brow. "She's definitely yours," he drawled.

Mathias became distracted trying to retrieve his sleeve from the grappling-hook fingers, only to lose his pinkie in exchange. His. Yes. He had little doubt of that. He looked up from the round, pink face happily gumming and drooling on his smallest finger. "I can't keep her."

"Isn't that what the mother is for?" Edwin pulled out the red kerchief he always kept -- clean these days, since he did little actual construction himself -- and pried Mathia's hand free, wiping the spittle away. When the pink-faced demon began to fuss, he wadded up the kerchief and stuck it in her mouth.

"This particular mother is definitely not for that." Mathias watched the child pull the wadded kerchief from her mouth and start to yank it about as she had his finger.

"Your people then. They seem skilled at raising killers from the cradle."

Mathias swallowed against a chill. He had no complaints about his life, but...

"Not for her."

"So what, then? Stormwind's orphanages are overflowing, and I can't build more until my workers are paid for the ones we've already built." Edwin had taken the kerchief back from the child and started to play a rousing game of peekaboo, lifting the red cloth over his face, and back down again. Up, and down. Squeals of laughter filled the architect's study, effervescent as bubbles, piercing as sunlight.

"I was thinking..."

Edwin looked up. Dropped his kerchief when he saw Mathias' expression. "No. Oh no. You have led me into every mad scheme that I've ever regretted. I am not raising your daughter."

"Edwin, think of the life she'll have, the daughter of the city's architect and savior. She could do anything. BE anything. I can't give that to her. Her mother definitely can't. But I can give her to you, and you can." Mathias tucked the kerchief back in the bassinet. Almost as though she recognized the decision being made, the little devil picked it up and waved it in Edwin's direction, making little fussing noises that weren't yet a full tantrum.

Yup. Definitely his girl. "She likes you."

Edwin frowned and plucked the kerchief from the kid's grasp. "You're a manipulative ass."

"I like you too."

"Hmph." Edwin lifted the kerchief over his nose. The kid stopped fussing. "If you really liked me, you'd do more to shift the nobles. Matters are coming to a head, and I don't know if I can keep quelling the unrest."

"I'll see what I can do," Mathias promised, because loyalty to Edwin aside, the last thing Stormwind needed just now was a riot.

"I'm sure you will." The kerchief dropped. Squeals of laughter filled the study again.

Mathias refrained from kissing Edwin only because it would interrupt the game. "Her name is Vanessa."


Mathias was spending way too much time at Edwin's of late.

It started in small ways. In the early morning hours after he'd 'creatively acquired' a few of the more interesting pieces from the most recent Nessingwary exhibit and delivered them to one of the guild fences, instead of going back to his narrow bunk at the SI:7 barracks, he diverted to Edwin's. After all, did anyone really care which bed he slept in? Or he'd break from casing the house of a rich merchant who was remiss in paying his taxes to have breakfast... and then lunch... and then supper, with the architect and his new daughter. The brief visits and little pockets of time grew until Mathias was spending more time with Edwin than he had since they were boys.

If Edwin noticed, he didn't comment. Work on New Stormwind had ground to a halt until the crown paid the masons and laborers for their work, so other than endless, fruitless attempt to meet with This Lord and Lady That, Edwin had little to do but putter around his workshop.

Mathias decided that nothing was more adorably terrifying than a driven genius with no project to occupy his attention. Edwin hired and fired a dozen nursemaids for Vanessa before dismissing them all as fel-touched dullards and half-orcen lackwits, and declaring that he'd tend to the snot-nosed brat himself.

Mathias lounged in Edwin's rumpled bed, watching the brilliant stonemason pore over tomes on child-rearing with all the intensity that he usually reserved for studying design and building techniques.

"She's not a Lordaeron buttress that you can just reverse-engineer," Mathias said when the other man failed to notice Mathias noticing him.

"No. It turns out children are much more complicated than spatial geometry. Did you know that sometimes, when she smiles, it's actually gas?"

"Er... I did not know that." Mathias crawled to the edge of the bed. "Gas. Really."

"There's a whole book dedicated to burping techniques." Edwin scrawled a note in his journal, frowned at the lack of light and lit a second candle from the first.

It was late. Vanessa snored softly from her bassinet in the corner after almost an hour of peekaboo with her fathers, and Mathias had rather hoped that after she was abed...

Hoped for something he should have known better than to hope for. He sighed and rose from the bed. Coming up behind the chair, he draped his arms over Edwin's shoulders and rested his cheek against Edwin's.

And burped. "Care to demonstrate?"

"You are an uncouth ass," Edwin said, chuckling. He turned in his chair. "And if you think I'm going to kiss you after you burped like that--"

"Then I'll kiss you." Mathias leaned in to steal a quick kiss. Edwin blocked his escape, catching the back of his head and holding him in place for a longer, deeper kiss. Tongues dueled, teeth clacked, noses bumped. The angle was awkward, and Mathias' back ached from leaning off-balance for so long.

"Your beard. It's scratchy," Edwin mumbled between kisses.

"I like my beard," Mathias protested.

"You're not kissing you. Enough of this nonsense."

Edwin pulled away. Mathias frowned. Nonsense? It had been uncomfortable, not terrible.

Edwin set the candles on the far edge of the desk and shoved books and papers aside. He hauled Mathias up onto the cleared space.

Oh. He'd meant it that way.

"You're shaving in the morning," Edwin told him, and cut off any argument with another kiss.

Mathias tugged the back of Edwin's shirt out of his trews and slid his hands up the smooth skin of Edwin's back. "I like that," he muttered between kisses. "Very commanding. Very... fatherly."

"Call me 'papa', and you're out on the stoop for the night."

Mathias nudged Edwin's chin up and scraped his teeth down the clean-shaven skin of his neck. Edwin leaned over Mathias, leaned in to the roughness. He rolled his groin hard against Mathias as if they were already naked and fucking.

Mathias pressed back just as hard. "I'm only saying, if Vanessa ever grows a beard, you are well-prepared to deal with the issue."

"You are an ass." Edwin fumbled with the various buckles of Mathias' leather jerkin. All of them had a purpose, but only some of them served to keep the jerkin closed. "Help me get this off. Light, man! How many knives do you have stashed away in this thing?"

"As many as I need." Mathias pulled off his jerkin, the padded chain underneath, and the silk shirt under that. Without all his protections to bulk him up, he was almost as slender as Edwin. And with so many years of working alongside his men, Edwin was almost as muscled as Mathias.

But far easier to strip. Mathias tossed Edwin's shirt aside and would have renewed the embrace, but Edwin stopped him. "Trews and boots off. And keep quiet. You wake her, and I'm leaving you to put her back down. I don't care if you're bent over this desk and seconds away from coming."

Mathias bit down on the temptation to say 'yes, papa'. He yanked off his boots, stripped out of his trews and smallclothes. They landed with a clank of buckles and a creak of leather next to his jerkin.

Edwin had undressed as well, and retrieved a flask of oil from wherever he stashed such things. The candlelight bathed his skin gold, and cast shadows across his wiry frame and muscles that made Mathias' mouth dry and his cock twitch.

Soft snores broke the silence. Mathias cast an uneasy glance at the bassinet. "Maybe we shouldn't."

"You're getting cold feet? To arms, to arms, it's a sign of the Fourth War." Edwin came up behind Mathias. He slid one hand around his waist. The other traced a line of puckered scars down his shoulder. Shrapnel. Mathias got it when Edwin had blown up an orc ballista, and afterwards they'd hid beneath the crumbled ovens of the old bakehouse, Edwin picking out each bit of metal while Mathias bit down on screams for fear they'd be found by the enemy.

As a Finger, he could be quiet. But he didn't like it. Quiet meant caution in the face of a threat.

Mathias whimpered and let his head fall back to Edwin's shoulder when the other man's lazy search found Mathias' nipple and pinched. "Maybe we should go into the other room."

"So that I can't hear her if something goes wrong? Do you know how often children die strangled in their own bedclothes?" Edwin whispered, teeth catching Mathias' ear. It was the strangest sort of sex-talk Mathias had ever encountered. And oddly arousing, how protective Edwin was, as if by dint of being Mathias', Vanessa was also his.

Something they shared. Something to protect and nurture. Something not Stormwind, nor bound up in its conflicting politics.

"This is what parenting is." Edwin nipped his lobe. "This is what folk have been doing since we lived in caves." Flicked his tongue along the shell of Mathias' ear. "Keep the screams to a minimum, and it'll be fine."

Mathias nodded, unable to open his mouth to agree because Edwin's teeth were nipping down his throat, and he feared that alone was enough to make him too loud if he tried to speak.

The second test of his resolve came close on the first. Edwin's hand wrapped around Mathias' cock. No teasing. Edwin didn't tease like others did. He just grabbed and stroked and left Mathias choking back a shout.

"Give me... that damned... kerchief," Mathias panted between each stroke. He was already fighting between thrusting into Edwin's hand and pressing his ass back into Edwin's naked groin. He couldn't wage a war on a third front.

Red flashed at the edge of his vision. He grabbed the kerchief and gagged himself. It wouldn't muffle a true scream, but at least it served as a reminder.

And it appeared to amuse Edwin. "Interesting choice. Here. Raise your leg... ah." Edwin pushed Mathias against the desk and lifted his knee to the edge, spreading him. Oil slick fingers slid down the crack of Mathias' ass, around the sensitive anal ring. Mathias tightened against the threat of intrusion. He bowed his head, rested his brow against the ridged cover of a book, forced himself to relax.

Edwin pressed soft kisses down Mathais' bowed spine. Now he teased. One oil-slick hand stroking Mathias' cock, cupping his balls, nails scraping lightly through hair and across skin. The other hand circling, dipping, circling again, and then dipping further. Stretching Mathias.

Mathias bit down on the red kerchief, arched his back and lifted his ass to the press of Edwin's fingers. A second digit joined the first.

First Finger. Second Finger. If he manages all five, I'll die, Mathias thought, and choked on something that was more whimper than giggle.

"Something amuses?" Edwin murmured. His cock bumped against Mathias' hip, but he was patient. Thorough. He wouldn't fuck Mathias until they were both ready.

"Just thinking that maybe I should have recruited you," Mathias tried to say around the gag, but it emerged as a series of murphs and murples, making him sound like a murloc, which made him whimper-chuckle even harder.

His chuckles caught on a gasp when a third finger joined the first two. His skin felt charged, like lightning was about to strike him, his body confused between the pleasure and the pain of it. He half-crawled atop the desk, raising his ass in case Edwin had any doubts he was ready.

"I'll assume you're not laughing at me, then," Edwin drawled. He withdrew his fingers, shifted position behind Mathias. His cock nudged the stretched entry. Stretched. Not stretched enough.

The toes of Mathias' supporting foot curled against the wood floorboards, his hands fisted around sheaves of paper, crumpling them into wads, when Edwin pressed into him. It was too much. He couldn't take it. Sweat slicked his skin, dripped on the cover of the book beneath him. His balls pulsed and his cock twitched with pre-cum. Edwin caught it and smeared it over the head.

The gag caught Mathias' whimpers, caught each grunt that emerged in response to Edwin's slow, deep thrusts. Mathias fought the war in earnest now, surging into Edwin's hand, pounding back onto his cock, destroying every piece of paper within reach of his clenching fists. The fingers of Edwin's free hand dug into Mathias' hips hard enough to bruise. Grunts filled the room, and the rustle of paper, and the creak of the desk, and the slap-pound of flesh hitting flesh.

Mathias' orgasm surged hard and quick. He would have forgotten himself and shouted it to the world, but Edwin's fist shoved between Mathias' teeth, shoving the gag deeper, catching the screams like a cork in a bottle.

Which didn't stop Edwin's grunts from growing louder. He pumped Mathias' cock for all its seed and sped up his own thrusts. Mathias lay breathless and pliant beneath him while Edwin finished. His softening cock twitched in tired sympathy at the pressure of Edwin's come spewing inside him.

Edwin collapsed atop Mathias, a sweaty, panting blanket. They both turned their heads toward the bassinet in the corner, where emerged soft snores and the occasional coo.

Mathias smiled and pulled the gag down around his neck. He couldn't twist around far enough to see Edwin, but he could feel his lover's cock still full inside him. He didn't want to move, didn't want to break the spell of warmth and love and home.

"I'm keeping this," he said, tugging on the kerchief.

"Go ahead." Edwin pressed a kiss to his temple. "I've got dozens."


Someone had set fire to the trees along the canals. The flames painted the autumn-touched city in angry reds and oranges and coughing black smoke and shadow. Glass crunched under Mathias' boots -- the looters had already started -- and a turn around any corner might lead him to another tableau of madness like he hadn't seen since the war left Old Stormwind in ruins.

He could still barely fathom it, that Edwin had done this.

Mathias should be fighting the madness, quelling the mobs, hunting down the true cause. Anything but running home like a terrified civilian.

Home. Edwin's home. Because whatever escape route the architect had planned, he wouldn't leave Vanessa behind.

Mathias told himself that was why he was racing back now. To save Vanessa. The promising life of a stonemason's daughter was a far cry from the future she would face as the spawn of a traitor. Better to raise her as he'd been raised.

Edwin, he feared, would not agree.

He turned a corner into Old Town, the only portion of the old city that Edwin had been able to salvage, and met another mob throwing rotten fruit, rancid meat, gryphon dung, and whatever else came to hand at the Stonemasons' guildhall.

At least half as many masons and other guilded workers ranged out before the hall with cudgels and scowls, ready to protect it against the mob.

"The Queen is dead! Down with the Masons!" someone shouted, and his cry was taken up as a chant by the crowd.

"The builders were betrayed! The crown cares naught for you!" one of the masons screamed back. A stone caught him in the shoulder. He raised his hammer in threat.

The stone struck a spark on both sides, a symbol of this entire debacle. Mathias fled before he could get embroiled in the incipient riot. Edwin wasn't here. If he was, he'd never allow his people to face the crowd alone.

A stone Mathias focused all of his ire and despair into a single punch to the gut of a rotund butcher spewing venom against the stonemasons. The man doubled over, vomiting into the street. Mathias refused to feel any guilt. The butcher had been in his way.

A stone. How could a tiny rock do such harm? Kill a queen. Break a city?

Ruin Mathias' life.

He evaded the mob in the square only to come upon another one amassing outside the VanCleef townhouse.



"Come out and face justice!"

A squad of Stormwind guards trooped into the square behind Mathias, and for one breath, Mathias had hope for the order they represented.

The guards were forced to draw blades and move the crowd with the flat of them to make them part. The captain unrolled a scroll, and the crowd hushed into a sullen quiet.

"Edwin VanCleef, you are ordered by the King's high council and in the name of Lord Bolvar Fordragon to submit yourself to the king's justice. Come out, and we will see you safely to the Stockade to await trial for your crimes."

The crowd roared at this, some in approval, but more calling for blood instead. Mathias groaned. There was so much wrong with the captain's decree, he didn't know where to begin.

"Sir, do we even know if VanCleef is within?"

Starting with that, and ending at the prison Edwin had built.

The captain ignored the concerns of his squadmate. "We'll find out soon enough. Tibbs. Mandragal. Break down the door."

Mathias cry of protest was drowned out by the cheers from the mob. He elbowed his way past a pair of skinny rat-catchers and grabbed the captain's arm. "Stop. Think. The Chief-Architect of New Stormwind will have built protections. You're putting your people in grave danger."

The captain yanked his arm out of Mathias' grasp. "And who are you? Some friend of the regicide?"

Mathias dug nails into his palms to control his urge to shiv the sneering idiot. It was dangerous to say anything, but he didn't want more blood on Edwin's hands if it could be helped. "I'm one of Pathonia's people. SI:7. And I'm telling you, it's suicide to charge through that front door."

The combination of names seemed to forestall any arrest the captain might attempt, but it didn't erase his sneer. "Such are the risks faced head-on by any true servant of the king. Guards! Let's get in there and pull that worm out of his hole."

Mathias flushed hot at the insinuation that he was a coward because he worked from the shadows. He turned and pushed his way through the crowd. Let the fool to his fate. Edwin was no more here than he'd been at the guildhall.

Mathias took to the rooftops. The flames from the trees lit them in hellish relief, and Mathias spotted the smoke from other fires all through Old Town and the trade district. Some idiot had decided to ring the bells of the new-built Cathedral of Light non-stop. Because what the city needed just now was a bone-jarring peal of bells to incite it to further madness.

An explosion sounded from the direction Mathias had come, eclipsing even the noise of the bells for a few moments. Mathias clenched his teeth and resolved to be more careful in his path. He might be the better roof-walker, but nobody matched Edwin for laying traps.

A dark shadow passed over Mathias and was gone just as quickly -- an owl or one of the gryphons pressed into service to quell the rioting. It drew his eyes to the bare stone walls of the stockade.

What had the guard captain said? That Edwin would be escorted there in safety?

And Mathias had scoffed because Edwin had built the place, and if Edwin was good at building traps, he was even better at making sure he always laid in multiple routes of escape for himself.

That would go double for any prison the man built.

It wasn't much of a hunch, but it was better than anything else Mathias had. He headed in the direction of the Stockade.

He passed more mobs in the trade district, looting, tearing down scaffolding, ripping up potted flowers and bushes and throwing the pots through the windows of honest merchants. Tiffin had been loved, but there was more here than sorrow over the murder of a beloved monarch, a fury and dissatisfaction that Mathias and his fellow fingers should have seen. A dormant firestorm that Pathonia should have seen coming.

He was skirting a suspicious-looking framework of wood and brick and rope when a flash of red caught his eye. Not fire, and not blood. A true crimson he knew very well.

Mathias fell flat at the edge of the roof and peered down into the courtyard. Edwin stood almost directly beneath him clutching a familiar bassinet. A pair of Stockade guards and a half-dozen thuggish rioters probably deputized on the moment were backing Edwin into a corner. The thugs had the look of bruisers who took money for work and didn't bother asking what the work was, and the guards didn't look much better.

Mathias calculated: the drop, the numbers, the chance he could talk Edwin into surrendering.

Poor odds, but the alternative was worse.

The wind whispering past his leather jerkin was the only warning the guards received. Mathias buried his dagger deep in the gap between gorget and ill-fitted pauldrons. The force of his drop was enough to crush the man's collarbone and drop him without a sound. Mathias left the blade hilt-deep in flesh and thrust his off-hand dagger under the arm of the second guard. The blade sliced through the leather straps of the man's cuirass. Metal grated against metal. The plat sagged and threw the guard off-balance.

Mathias lobbed a few throwing daggers in the direction of the thugs, received a few pained cries in return, but the men were already breaking and fleeing the courtyard.

Which left only the two guards, one bleeding his death into the cracks between the paving stones, the other struggling to bring his blade around, dagger still buried into his side.

Mathias pulled a third blade from the small of his back. He grabbed the neck of the guard's cuirass -- nobody had given him a gorget, even an ill-fitting one -- and pulled him close by it.

"I'm sorry," he said, and buried his blade under the man's chin.

He let the guard slump to the ground, wiped blood from his face, retrieved his other two blades and the throwing knives. If he left evidence, Pathonia wouldn't be able to disavow knowledge of this. Also, she'd be livid at his sloppiness.

"So, what's it to be now? Are we next?"

Mathias snatched up the last of the throwing blades and turned. Edwin remained in the corner clutching the bassinet.

Don't be an idiot. I'm not going to..." Mathias stopped before he admitted his collusion aloud. Dropping the guards hadn't felt like treason, but there was no equivocation for what he was about to do. Edwin wouldn't yield, and Mathias didn't think he could press the fight.

"You could turn yourself in."

"Or you could come with me," Edwin whispered. "The king is weak, the House of Nobles corrupt. I didn't incite this riot. You know I didn't. This is my city. I've poured my life into it. These are my people, and I've done everything to see them safe and sheltered and fed and prosperous. Why would I destroy that? What does this fighting serve, save to ruin everything I've worked to build. Why would I incite that?"

"If not you, who?" Mathias asked, though he could answer his own question with a half-dozen names.

Edwin's shoulders slumped. He rubbed his face. Stubble shaded his jaw. "Who knows? The same person who threw the rock and slew the queen?"

"Then I have to stay to ferret out the true traitors."

"And I won't stay as scapegoat for a corrupt regime."

That was it. There was no fixing any of this. The only thing Mathias could do was prevent it from getting any worse. "Give me Vanessa."

Edwin clutched the bassinet closer. "Like hell I will."

"Remember why I gave her to you? Think about what's happening now, the danger you're in. Do you want to drag her with you into exile? Do you think that's best for her?"

"I think it's better than being raised a killer in service to a government that is built on the sweat and tears of its people, that exists to rob and subjugate them, rather than to serve them." Edwin squeezed back into the corner. He lifted Vanessa out of her basket and threw it aside, cradling their daughter close like a shield. Vanessa hiccupped and broke into a wail.

"Listen to yourself," Mathias said, taking a step closer. The cobbles were sticky with the murdered guards' blood. "A life as a hunted criminal is better than a life as--"

"A legal one? Yes, Mathias. It is. I am sorry."

The apology rang off, as did the way Edwin groped the stones of the wall, but Mathias only had a moment to wonder why. A shadow blocked the light from the city on fire. He looked up. Saw a dark tangle of wood and brick and rope, and then blackness.


His grandmother was sitting next to Mathias' bunk when he came-to. She waited quietly as a priest examined him and pronounced him to be well enough and with a 'head like stone'.

When the priest left, his grandmother gave him all of two seconds to collect himself before she started in. "Guards? Really?"

So much for hoping she didn't know. Mathias pushed himself upright, and then to his feet. He was in his nightshirt. He needed pants. And boots.

And a blade, and some way to track his former lover.

"I had reason to believe they were going to kill him, and word has it Fordragon wanted him alive."

"So you let him go instead. Here." She threw a pair of butter-soft leather trews in his face. Buckle-less, thank the Light, or his head might have exploded.

"I didn't let him go. He got away. If you hadn't noticed, he dropped a house on me."

"A small one. And the child?"

Mathias froze. Swallowed. Concentrated very hard on threading his foot through the leg of the trews. She knew. She'd probably known all along. He'd been a fool to think he could hide anything from her. "Gone also. I'll get her back--"

"You will do whatever I command you to do. Last night proves that you are more than ready to move up to First Finger. I'll leave you a day to recover. Tomorrow morning, you're Renzik's."

First Finger. Mathias wondered if he might be sick all over his grandmother's soft leather boots. He found his boots under his bunk. Pathonia watched in silence as he worked them on as slowly as he had the trews. She knew what he wanted to ask. What he had no right to ask.

Was she waiting out of a sense of affection, or to see if he'd hang himself with his own rope?

He stood. Swayed. Steadied himself. He found his belt with its pouches and poisons and scabbards, and he fastened it around his hips. He wondered if she knew the significance of the red kerchief tied around the thick leather.

Stupid thing to wonder. Of course she did. "Do you have a specific client in mind? For my first appointment?"

Pathonia studied him for several moments. "No. No. Time enough for that. Perhaps by the time you take my place, it will no longer be an issue." By which she meant that Edwin would be dead or captured. She sighed and ran her fingers over her brows, smoothing them. "I've a lesson hard-learned that I don't believe I've ever shared with you: Never pit your fingers against loved ones. It's as good as chopping them off."

She looked old in that moment, this woman who had always seemed to him as timeless and indestructible as stone. Old, and tired, and... sad.

He'd not seen her sad since he'd killed his first man. Questions roiled in his belly -- how had she learned that lesson? Who had she sent and lost?

Why had she left his mother unavenged?

Who had his father been?

Mathias turned heel and quit the room before he could ask. Someday, he'd take her place. Some day, he'd be Thumb. Time enough to face hard truths. About Edwin, the man he loved. And about the thief, his first kill.

For now, he didn't want to know. He didn't want to think about the past or the future. He just wanted to kill something.