A Silent Game of Spies

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He swung past the carts. Gobin – what a foul little man. All whore peddlers were foul. One day, Gobin would get his. If Rogue didn’t see to it himself, then someone else would, but Rogue despised the man just the same. Such a travesty required just to get your boot in the damned door.

Rogue knew the way down the packed pathway by now. He inserted his head between Ishbel’s curtains. He wasn’t sure what kept him returning. Perhaps it was that she was – genuine. In a Land of so many insincere folk – the girl was genuine. Direct, perhaps a bit too much so.

He had always enjoyed the environment of Pavilion City – the billowing silks and amazing smells and sights. One could easily get lost in here, which was both a boon and a peril. Invisibility was both a proclivity and a requirement for Rogue and he found it here more often than not.

Ishbel was brushing her dark hair absently, her green eyes staring out at the vast, far-reaching grasses of the other side of her pavilion. She was wasted here. Silently, he laid the requisite two silvers on her bureau. Sneaking up on people was part of the requirements of his occupation.

“Well, come on, then, if you’re coming in,” she said.

His eyebrows rose. “How did you know?”

Ishbel turned around. “Heard the boots outside stop in front of my entrance. Some men, they like to just – watch.” She shrugged. “That it was you, though, that….” She smiled. “You’re almost becoming a regular.”

Rogue scoffed and let his rucksack slide to the ground. Ishbel stepped over and inspected his face.

“Well, the black eye’s gone.” She stood back and looked him up and down. “And you’re still standing, and there’s no blood.” Ishbel cocked her head to the side and nodded. “You’re making progress.”

Sarcasm. He knew noblewomen would never mock a man, nor speak so in such a tone. Nor would most women, nobly born or no. But Ishbel, a slave, a whore, had no reason to speak otherwise, and had certainly earned the right to speak as she liked, especially as she had no other rights. Perhaps it was her repartee that he enjoyed, Rogue mused off-handedly.

Although, if it were not for this business arrangement, he thought as he sat down to pull his boots off… there would be much, much more of Ishbel that he would enjoy.

But business was business, and you never mixed business with pleasure. That was the first thing he had learned in life, Rogue mused as he rubbed at a small scar on his hand.

“So. You’re back so soon,” Ishbel commented as he sat down on her bed.

Rogue was back – three weeks, if that. He leaned back on the pillow, thinking. For some reason, the blowing of the breeze and the scented jasmine in here always helped him relax enough to think. Today, though, he just could not concentrate….

“Have you learned anything new?” Rogue asked. Perhaps Ishbel’s information would prod his jumbled mind out of its confusion.

“Oh, and haven’t I,” she told him. She sat down behind him on the bed. “And I made special note of it – I knew you would want to know. More furs and silks and satins and gowns and frocks than you can imagine went through here last week, and I think the week before, but I wasn’t paying too close attention at the time. If I guessed, I’d bet even some nice men’s outfits slipped on past. Somewhere, some royal or noble gave quite a party. I haven’t seen that much go through in a long time. Not since – I can’t recall.”

Rogue sat up and nodded. “A wedding party traveled through from Tortoreen to Corstarorden.”

Ishbel leaned back on the pillows. “A long trip,” she commented.

“Gods, it’s hot in here.” He stood up and rolled the reed blinds down part way to shut out some of the afternoon sun. Then he pulled off his vest and tunic and folded them on her bureau. Much better.

Just as he started to lay down again, Ishbel tut-tutted at him. “And I thought you were making progress. Look at that. And that….” She traced a finger across his half-healed knife wounds from the Market Place in Tortoreen.

Rogue slapped her hand away and told her, “If I wanted a woman to nag me, I’d get a wife.”

Ishbel hmmphed at him and told him, “Maybe, if you had a wife, you wouldn’t have all these –” and she waved her hand up and down with disdain at his torso.

Rogue looked down. A few scars stood out worth making note of. He glared at her.

“As it happens, that’s part of the reason I’m here. I wanted to know if you’d heard of anyone in that wedding party. They would have traveled past not long ago, and I wanted to know if you’d heard any information.”

Ishbel sat back on her knees on the bed and shook her head. “Sounds like they traveled through when they bought all those clothes, but I never heard anything about a destination. Why are you so concerned?”

Rogue shrugged. “What we spoke of before.” He laid back on the pillow and crossed his hands behind his head.

All traces of levity left Ishbel’s face. “Hard to forget.”

“I think I’ve got more of that puzzle now.” Rogue sighed, then looked at Ishbel. Odd, the way he trusted her. He couldn’t imagine anyone who would agree with the idea to trust a whore with such secrets, but there was just something about her. He couldn’t unravel her.

Rogue paused for a moment. Then, “I happened to be in the Market Place in Tortoreen. Call it a very opportune moment. The Royal Princess of Tortoreen was suddenly set upon by assassins – her guards missing, paid to leave. And – well,” and he gestured at his wounds.

“You saved her life?” Ishbel asked.

Rogue rolled his eyes. When she put it like that, she made him out to look like some bloody hero. He glared at her and nodded.

Ishbel smiled slyly. “You see, what’s it like to have a conscience, Rogue? I knew you’d find one soon enough.” She patted his arm.

“A conscience. Really.”

“Of course. You saved a Princess’s life. If that doesn’t count as a conscience, I can’t imagine what does.” And Ishbel leaned over top of him and placed a tiny kiss at the very top of his hairline.

Rogue rose an eyebrow. That was the most forward she’d ever been.

“What was that for?”

“An award for merit.”

He shook his head. “Right.” He coughed, uncomfortable suddenly. “Well. So – this Princess. Nearly assassinated, and because she’d found out a lot of information about the important nobles on the King’s Royal Council. She told me a good deal of it – illegitimate trading, smuggling, a few others. Fifteen years old, and she’d found out all these things about the Council Members. Suddenly the King marries her off to an older, minor Duke clear across the Coastals who just lost his wife. I suggested she change the venue to the groom’s home instead of the Royal Palace, so the wedding party traveling through is what you probably witnessed last week.

“What say you to that?” he looked at Ishbel, who had laid against some pillows next to him.

“Simple. I’m the King, my daughter steps out of line, my Councilors complain, I send her as far away as I can. You have to please the people,” was Ishbel’s nonchalant response. She’d propped one leg up on the other and was studying her hand.

Of course. From a – well, a slave’s – point of view – he just couldn’t bring himself to consider Ishbel as a whore – she put it not from the Princess’s point of view but the King’s. He did it to please his Councilors. As someone who had worked her entire life pleasing others, Ishbel offered a unique perspective.

Rogue, of course, had arrived at that conclusion himself. However….

“Well then, next to Tortoreen is S’hendalow. A young, attractive, unmarried King just took the throne. S’hendalow and Tortoreen have kinship already between them. Now, Ishbel, you’re the King, with your daughter….”

Rogue watched her. He loved watching her consider ideas – she was so wasted here.

“And he didn’t marry her off to the King next door?” She paused. “You know why, don’t you? With all the information she has, she and the S’hendalow King would hold it all over Tortoreen. And S’hendalow could act on it at any time. Or not. With other countries, even. Tortoreen would always be worried. Give a girl a little power, you better step out of her way,” remarked Ishbel casually.

Rogue had come to the same conclusion as well, although he hadn’t thought too much about a woman having power being so intimidating suddenly.

“Why do you say that? About women in power?”

Ishbel rolled a green eye up at him and snickered for a second. “Even down here, we’ve heard of the Ice Queen. I heard a song about her just last week with the minstrel troupes playing. “Now every man, Bows all that he can, They hide all the knives, From all of the wives, Oh, what’s a crown to a King?” Ishbel sang.

Well, that was one he’d not heard yet. Rogue traveled too much to hear many tunes sung.

“Not just that,” she added, “but a woman with knowledge could be dangerous. She might not even decide to share her information with her husband the King, but act on it all by herself. That’s what I’d do. Why give a man all the credit for everything I’ve done myself?

“All through history, men have been Kings, but it’s women who are truly the power behind the throne. A woman can make her man unhappy no matter who he is, King or stable hand. And if he’s a King, then his country’s in for a rough time of it, until he makes up for himself.”

Rogue had enjoyed this commentary, realizing, of course, that Ishbel was right. Once again, her unique perspective proved instructive.

“But –”

And Ishbel stopped. She laid a hand on Rogue’s. “What I don’t understand is – if the King announced this pathetic little betrothal all the way across the Coastals to get her out of the way, to some little Duke, then that made all of his Councilors happy, which would have made the King happy. So then why would someone assassinate her? She’s already been neutralized.”

Rogue sighed. “When I dropped her off at the Palace, she wondered if maybe her father the King had arranged it….”

Ishbel sat forward, indignant. “What! What a bloody animal! Assassinating your own daughter, and right before her wedding!”

Then she settled back, thinking. Suddenly she sat up and turned around on the bed to face him. “You know, it’s actually brilliant.” Her face was serious. “Disgusting, but brilliant.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked, curious.

“Well, if he’s engaged his daughter to some man all the way across the Coastals, that makes his bloody Councilors happy. But if she’s killed in the square there right in plain view, or anywhere at home, it could be made to look as if the Duke ordered an assassin, because he’s mad with grief at having just lost his wife, and he wants to get out of the betrothal without upsetting the King.

“So she’s dead, with all her information, no one will know what really happened, to the relief of the Council, and Tortoreen can then kill the Duke and take his estate for bride price. Isn’t that how bride price works? What’s he got that the Tortoreen King wants? Anything? Or just an out-of-the-way location?” asked Ishbel.

Rogue stared at her. Why the bloody hell had he not puzzled that out? That was exactly what he had been trying to figure out – and missing.

He shook himself for a moment. After asking around enough, he’d learned of the Duke of Mendellion that Princess Theldry was to marry.

“The Duke’s estate is the northernmost estate in Corstarorden, on the water….” And then Rogue leaned his head back against the bed with a sudden revelation. “…On the Storden border….”

Ishbel’s mouth dropped open. “Storden. And there are still plenty of those little shits running through here. And everyone knows it’s pirates that the Tortoreen really are. An ideal location, across the Coastals. Perfect arrangement, the location and the Stordish,” Ishbel proclaimed.

“Tortoreen – and Storden….” Rogue mused. “I didn’t see any Stordish while I was in Tortoreen, so unless they were hidden somewhere….”

“Nothing of S’hendalow?”

Rogue shook his head. “No, all I hear is that the new King is shaking things up in his government, and that war is not first on his mind. I did hear that he’s building ships, but….” Rogue shrugged. If the new King was smart and had heard anything new going on around the Land, then he was preparing for it like an incoming storm, the same as every other country.

“Then Tortoreen is aiding Storden somehow, or else those boys are hiding in the Free Lands….” Ishbel shrugged.

Rogue shook his head. “Not many of them in Free Lands. They’re headed East somewhere.

“So, with horses, lumber, iron, Stordish soldiers heading East, and a Tortoreen princess sitting off the Stordish-Corstarorden border….”

Ishbel’s eyes grew wide.

This was truly taking shape. Rogue normally kept to the South, but this was information he had to pass along, and certainly more he had to confirm….

“Ishbel, I may be gone a while this time. Here –”

Rogue sat up and rummaged around in his rucksack. He pulled out a small book, something she could easily hide. “I’ve been meaning to give this to you.”

Ishbel accepted it gingerly and made a face at him. “What’s this?”

“Something to do during your off-hours. When you know you won’t get caught. I know you can read, just – something else to pass your time.”

Hmmm. She was still giving him that look.

“Let us say that it is part of our arrangement, shall we?”

Ishbel looked with distaste at the book and wrinkled her nose. “Very well,” she sighed, and stuffed it deep under her mattress so that Gobin wouldn’t find it.

Rogue knew that whores – slaves in general – were rarely allowed to better themselves, and so she would need to be cautious, but if anything, he knew Ishbel to be clever and she would see that Gobin never found the book. It was only a child’s version of the History of the Lands, after all, but she had such a keen mind.

“Right, then. My time is nearly up as we speak,” Rogue stood and pulled his tunic on. As he stuffed it in his trousers, he told her, “Listen for anything about ships, or water, Navy and maritime information. Most of this wood is being used to build warships. But it might also be used to build war machines. Neither is good.” He pulled his vest on and shouldered his rucksack.

“Remember – go forth and commit more acts of meritous behavior,” Ishbel held up a finger to direct him as he started to leave.

“Meritous behavior.” Rogue smiled faintly and shook his head.

“Yes, it’s called a conscience.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “I know what it is. Even if it is a bit rusty.”

Ishbel cocked her head and smiled primly then. “I could – help with that, you know.”

Rogue understood exactly what she was referring to. He had women whenever he wanted them. This one. Damn all the gods. Business was business.

He smiled. “That – isn’t rusty at all. But I don’t mix business with pleasure.”

Rogue took her hand and laid two silvers in it this time, so she wouldn’t be offended, and rolled her fingers over them. Ishbel caught the implied meaning behind the gesture and smiled.

As he left her pavilion, he wondered whether the line between business and pleasure wasn’t blurring a bit….

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