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I don’t believe that I ever quite lost my senses entirely. I was aware of little that was definite, but I could hear vague, indecipherable sounds all around me, and I was aware of motion.

Presently, I was aware of being wrapped in something, in cloth, and of being carried; I was curled up in someone’s arms, and being carried in that somewhat awkward manner with my head against that someone’s shoulder.

My body felt leaden, and it was an effort to so much as lift my head, but this I managed to do. Opening my eyes left them dazzled by brightness, and it took several breaths for them to adjust and to regain their focus.

It was, it seemed, my latest friend and benefactor that was carrying me; I’d not had too much opportunity to be close to him, of course, but the face was familiar, especially the set of his eyes. Where I was, I couldn’t see the rest of him to confirm that, and I was still vague enough that putting names to faces was difficult.

I made an effort to ask where we were, but I’d only got so far as “Where” when I was interrupted.

“Oh – you’re still with us? Thank heavens – we thought that woman might have fed you something unpleasant.”

“We’d best make sure of that, Lieutenant,” a voice called back. “In here.”

I was brought into a small room – a physician’s office, it seemed, and the surface I was laid upon, halfway between a bed and a table, seemed suitable for such.

“It’s a good sign that you’ve come round so quickly, at least,” the other voice said – Roberts, that was her name. “From what Lieutenant Martin said, she had you in her claws for – what? – five hours? What with everything that happened, it could be simple shock that took you, but we’ll have our company physician be sure of that.”

“How long has it been?” I managed to ask.

“Not long. Ten minutes or thereabouts,” the lieutenant offered. “Your, ah, friends told us some of what’s been happening.”

“I’ve taken the liberty of reversing some of the proclamations Trellig had put into place,” Roberts announced. “The most important ones are spreading by courier now, and I’ll ensure the others are known about come morning. I’m confident that once the Duke hears of what’s been going on here, he will see them confirmed. In the meantime, your companions have gone to fetch some others of your number, as I understand it.”

The Duke.

Who was currently going to the Capital.

To marry a Duchess.

And Trellig had promised that they’d not have much time to enjoy each other.

I sat bolt upright, fighting to free myself of the blanket that had been wrapped around me. “We need to get back to Nordport,” I urged.

“Well, certainly, if you’ve been shepherding one of the royal family you’ll need to go there,” Roberts agreed. “As a gesture of apology and good faith, I will of course ensure that a carriage is made ready -”

“Too slow,” I cut in. “Did anyone happen to bring my clothing?”

“Well – it’s here, yes,” Zachariah Martin said, “but -”

“Hold on there,” Roberts cut in, putting a hand on my shoulder. “You’re going nowhere until the physician looks at you. And even if she’s done enough to you alone to earn herself a trip to the gallows, some of the things you’ve said of Trellig’s plans will need -”

“Trellig’s plans are the problem still,” I insisted. “Captain, the woman was trying to set the Duke up as the King, and herself as his Queen. There’s only one way he could do that if he marries another Duchess, and I learned from her that she already had plans to take it.”

“What? He couldn’t name her his Queen unless – oh. We are dealing with a ruthless woman, after all.” Roberts shook her head. “How could I forget? Still, presumably she was going to give them some time, to be confirmed as King and all – else Dentry would be the clearest runner for the throne among them.”

“Not if the assassins put the blame on her,” I replied, reaching over for my breeches.

“Hold on, hold on. At least let the physician look you over,” Roberts insisted again. “Your friends will need to come back to the city as it is – hells, even if you mean to ride to Nordport alone, it would take us time to get some mounts ready for you.”

Despite my frustrated urge to be moving, I had to concede that. I’m not sure I did so with good grace, but I at least made an effort to submit to the physician’s attentions in a cooperative manner. Once he’d pronounced me none the worse for my ordeal, I was finally allowed to dress.

By that time, my companions had in fact returned to the city, and in their full number; I found myself caught up in Rebecca’s arms before I had quite convinced myself that, yes, she was here before me in one piece; at that point, though, it took me no coaxing to respond to the contact in kind, pressing my snout against her neck and drawing in the scent of her.

“Thank the heavens you’re alive,” I said, not caring that my words might be somewhat muffled. “I thought I might never even learn what had come of you, or that…”

“Shh.” She rubbed behind my ears, gently, tenderly. “The last few days have been somewhat tense and uncomfortable, but not nearly so eventful as I hear you’ve had in town.”

“That’s not the half of it.” Reminded, I drew back and took hold of Rebecca’s shoulders, filling her in on Trellig’s plans – starting with how she’d fooled the Duke, right along to her intentions of having his wife-to-be murdered before they could even settle into their roles.

“We need to get back to Nordport and warn them,” I insisted. “I’ve no idea from what quarter the assassins will come, nor even when, exactly – but they’ll probably want to stay close for long enough to plan their move. If they were to just kill and run off, they’d not leave the trail that Trellig wanted them to.”

“Heavens. She might have taken the simple step of suborning some of Dentry’s own guards,” Rebecca said, her head jerking up. “And arranged for a word in the right ear about it. You’re right. We need to get back to Nordport, and we need to be much quicker about it than we were on the way here. Horses. We’ll need horses.”

“Those I can supply,” Captain Roberts cut in. “I’ve taken the liberty of having Lieutenant Martin ready some mounts for the lot of you, and cut orders such that you can request fresh mounts at any of our guard stations. I think it best he goes with – he knows the animals well enough, but he’s also known to the Duke, and can bear him word of what’s happened here.”

Rebecca looked over to Elizabeth, who nodded. “He seems to be a reliable sort of fellow. He has his heart in the right place, that’s certain, not such a horrible sort by far as the unlamented Captain Trellig.”

“He’s a good man,” I confirmed. “Wants to do the right thing. Certainly, he was horrified by what his own captain was doing, and not only because she might have got her eye on him.

“If he’s known to you, then, very well. When can we leave?”

“As soon as you’re ready, by this point.”

“Excellent.” Rebecca turned toward me, and suddenly paused. “Ah… Edmond, can you ride?”

Of course, there was always a complication. “I’ve never done,” I admitted.

“Oh, hells,” Elizabeth muttered. “We can’t leave you of all people behind, or following slower in a carriage. But a hard ride such as we need to go on now is not going to be pleasant on a green rider.”

Well, that certainly wasn’t encouraging.

“There’s no help for it. If the worst happens, I’ll need to be laid out for a while after we do what needs doing. Let’s just get it over with as fast as we can – the Duke’s already got a lead, and even he had to be pushing hard to make Nordport in time for his own wedding.”

“Too right,” Roberts sighed. She turned toward me. “I wish you could stay and help put Trellig’s full crimes to the question, but be assured, the only time she’ll see the outside of her cell is on the way to the gallows. We’ll not let her lot loose to prey on anyone else.” One of her hands stuck out towards me. “You’ve the thanks of Wafret for that.”

Feeling more than a little bit self-conscious, I reached forward to clasp her hand in mine. “I was providing for my own freedom, Captain. But I’m glad she won’t put any new harm in motion.”

She gave my hand a firm shake before releasing it. “Godspeed to you all,” she prayed, stepping back and delivering a crisp salute.

The horse that had been kitted out for me looked no bigger than any of the others from a distance, but once I actually came up to him, he was a big black brute of a beast, and the way he looked at me, I instantly got the notion that he already didn’t like me. But Lieutenant Martin helped boost me into the saddle with a reassuring smile. “He’s good at balancing a green rider,” the man assured me, “and he’ll follow the others without needing much direction from you. Just hold onto the saddle horn – leave the reins alone unless you have something to tell him.”

Oh, I was holding onto the saddle horn, all right. Trying not to crush it under my fingers, but definitely holding onto it. “I hope you’re right there,” I said, peering with some anxiety at the cobblestones. Somehow, being two or even three storeys above the street didn’t feel as high as this.

And then the beast actually started moving, and staying in place was all I could do. Once we were out of the city and he started running, it was even worse.

By the time we stopped for the night, at a post on the edge of Wafret duchy, we’d swapped mounts twice and my entire body felt like one gigantic bruise. Jacob took one look at me and had me down some vile-tasting bitter concoction, which could be said to have killed the pain, in the sense that it put me right to sleep. It was far from a restful slumber, and when I was woken by means of a shake to my shoulder, I was still in a fairly substantial amount of pain; but a somewhat smaller dose of the stuff, combined with some efforts to cushion my saddle, at least allowed me to grit my teeth and get on with the day’s ride, our relief mounts now coming from Army stations under the combined authority of Elizabeth’s rank and Rebecca’s signet ring.

The chill in the air forced us to moderate our pace somewhat,which wasn’t as much of a relief as it might have been; if the pace was slower, it still felt just as jarring to me. Jacob considered dosing me again around midday, but he was so doubtful over the thought of giving me so much of a potent drug that I asked if he had anything somewhat less perilous, if less effective; he did not, which made for an uncomfortable ride indeed to the next post, whose physician thankfully did. It didn’t make the pain go away quite so well, but it also left me more aware of the world, and Jacob hesitated much less in giving me further doses.

The days stretched out to five, agonizingly; by the time the walls of Nordport came into view – so familiar, yet so strange seen from outside of them – the wedding of the Duke of Wafret and the Duchess of Halston was already past, though still the talk of the town. Thankfully, both had been seen still alive within the hour of our arrival – but how long that might last, who could say?

My saddle sores would just have to ache for a while longer. There was still work to do.

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