Rat took a lifetime to show up. Bernard never said anything about the business he had sent the boy on, though Amy spent as much time prowling around the inn hoping for a word or two as she did holed up in her room. She might as well have hoped for divinations from a stone. Bernard never moved once the entire time.
She’d just made up her mind to go look for Rat herself when he burst through a hole in the wall and rushed for her. She bent down to collect him, and felt his small body tremble as he climbed into the pocket of her tunic.
She smoothed the pocket over him, soothing him with her fingers until the trembling stopped, and then she turned to Bernard. “Just what sort of business did you send him on?”
He looked down at her pocket, and then away.
If he thought that was going to get him out of answering, he was wrong. She stalked across the room, and turned the chair closest to him so they were facing each other. “What business?”
He shifted under her glare, but it was her tone that finally drove a response from him. “The Duke no longer has any messengers. Rat was needed for deliveries.”
Rat shivered again, and Amy felt an uncomfortable weight sink into her belly. “Who were you sending messages to?”
“The possible spies.”
Shocked fury ripped through her at those words. She leapt to her feet, then eased back when Rat whimpered deep in his throat. “I told you not to drag us into your game. I told you people would be hurt, die. Why didn’t you listen?”
He looked at his shoes, the fire, anywhere but directly at her. “He was protected.”
“With what? A ward spell? What happens when the ward wears off? Do you really think the assassins will forget all about it in a week?”
He met her gaze at last, his expression hardened. “Do you really think I won’t continue to protect him?”
She hated herself for trusting him, even if that trust had been purely brought on by exhaustion. Who did he suspect as a spy? Schreber? One of the bear brothers? The Wolf herself? Had Rat been sent to all of them? She felt rather than heard him whimper, and guessed that he had.
Bernard pressed his lips together in a firm line. “The Stronghold is the only thing standing between us and true justice. What if you could go out and join the Wolf Trap clan just like you were a full-fledged indel? What if Molly could get a job in a noble household instead of taking the few desperate people who make their way to her inn? It could be a different world.”
Amy glanced around the room. It was deserted in the wee hours of the morning, after all, farmers didn’t gamble when they had to sleep. No one would overhear them if she spoke.
“If an indel is taking these messages for you on behalf of an indelfy, I would say it already is a different world,” she said.
He flushed, but didn’t drop his gaze. “What about Molly?”
“Molly is the owner of a very successful business. If that isn’t what she had in mind for her life, that’s just too bad. You could do worse than even being an indelfy. You could be uninvoked.”
His eyes widened in surprise, then hooded as if she’d said something he didn’t expect. When he spoke again, his tone was a plea. “I can protect you. Why won’t you help us?”
“Like you protected the rest of the Duke’s messengers? Thank you, but no. Why are you even staying here? There’s room at the palace. Get out of here. No one is going to help you.” She patted Rat, relieved when he moved to poke his head out of her pocket and glare too, instead of continuing to hide.
Bernard got up and closed the distance between them. She wanted to back away, but forced herself to hold her ground.
“You know something.”
“Stay out of my face,” she snarled.
She expected him to hit her, or worse, kiss her as if passion alone would make her talk. But his mind had, to her horror, gone somewhere else. He tickled her. She squirmed away from his touch, gasping with a mixture of anger and the laughter she couldn’t quite suppress. “Stop that!”
She couldn’t flee, she thought with a growing sense of helplessness. If someone stumbled down from one of the rented rooms and saw her, she’d lose more than just respect.
“Leave us alone. I told you we can’t play that game.”
She backed away from his wicked fingers until she was pressed against the walls, laughing and growling both at the same time. She couldn’t get enough breath to call for Molly. She didn’t want to either.
“Tell me who it is.”
She managed to get hold of his fingers and squeezed them until he could no longer tickle her. “You never did take no for an answer.”
He could have pulled his hands away, but chose to let them rest inside her fingers instead. “Whoever it is you’re protecting has stepped up the pace. I can’t afford to play nice anymore.”
She leaned against the wall, and studied him closely. “Stepped up from killing messengers? How so?”
“Come with me to the castle and see for yourself.”
She felt rather than saw a movement behind him, and adrenaline spiked her system. “I have to go.”
He tightened his hold on her. “Give me something first.”
His words converted her fear to anger in a flash. Amy struck at him, and had the satisfaction of feeling a chip in her nail tear his skin. “Leave us out,” she snarled, and left.
He didn’t even raise a hand to wipe the blood away.