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Bee grinned, a wide, happy, smile. And looked, for the first time ever, like a child. "Hey, Shep comes in, tells me he can clean up his half faster than me, what'm I going to do?"
"Prove him wrong, I expect," Kess murmured.
"'Course." Bee's grin became smug.
Mac's smile was more like a grimace. "Time to buzz, little Bee. Come back tonight to collect."
Bee was already mostly out the door. "I will!"
"You made a bet? With Bee?" Kess winced. "Sorry, I should have warned you. You get taken for much?"
"Like I'm going to get taken by an eight year old." Mac stowed the empty kettles with neat precision. "It was just to get Bee going."
"Did you throw the race?"
"No." He glanced over. "Which is a little embarra.s.sing."
"I won't tell anyone." She turned away so he wouldn't misinterpret her smile. "You two get along. I'm glad. Bee is..., well, Bee." She thought of Lucius, and the t.i.the, and smiled again. "Can be a bit of a handful."
He shook his head. "Bee just needed to know I was an addition. Not a replacement. You know? My sister was..." He stopped so sharply Kess could have cut herself on the edge of the silence.
It was easiest to balance on that precipice by moving carefully around it. "Mmm. You washed the linens, too. Thank you."
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, okay. I fixed the old wringer."
"You fixed my wringer?" She ran for the laundry. When he came in, she was turning the crank, thrilled.
"How long has it been broken?"
"It never worked. I found it, a couple years ago. Ash said it would be kindest to bury it."
"It wasn't dead," Mac said, "Just sort of... sick. I cleaned off the rust. It needed a clamp, right there, and a spring."
"I may just have to marry you." His sudden flush was unexpectedly sweet. "I shouldn't tease. But thank you. For all of your help these past few days."
He ducked his head. "Ash asked me. To help. Asked me."
There was enough wonder in his voice to make her blink. "Ash is careful about who he trusts. So am I. Now," she stood, leaving him to sort that through, "I'm going to get dinner started."
She knew he was there the second she stepped into her bedroom. In a city of grey and black and brown, her room was a world of color. Lush plants, thick books, fat cushions. And there, in the midst of it all, a note of darkness that made all the colors more real.
Ash reclined on her bed, longs legs stretched out. He looked less relaxed than quiescent. At least, for the moment.
It was always a point of silent, stubborn pride with Kess to act even more casually than he. "So. Is there news of our Western friends?"
"They are not quite twelve in number. And they are not our friends."
She lit a lamp, a trio of candles. "No, I suppose not."
"They killed Meyer," he said. "Last night."
"Oh." That was bad. Meyer was, when sober, a pa.s.sable cobbler. When drunk, which was usually the case, he was more often found in a tavern brawl than his shanty shop. A big man, a canny fighter. Dead, now.
"So you will keep your shadow a while longer."
She nodded. "Good."
He quirked a brow. "How fares our young G.o.dling?"
"To be entirely honest, I can't imagine how I got by without him."
Ash propped himself on his elbow. "And how am I to take that?"
"However you like." She flicked him a glance. "He fixed the wringer, you know."
"Ah, I see I shall have to be on my mettle."
Rain fell on the roof, a dismal autumn rain, promising a hopeless winter. But her room was jewel of warmth and color and light. She leaned in, put a hand over his heart. "You always are."
"Can I ask you something?" said Mac.
"Add a handful of that sorrel, there. Good. Yes, go ahead."
"Why does Bee call me Shep?"
"Oh. Um." Kess could feel her face coloring. Dammit. "It's, um..." She sighed. "It's your hair, Mac. Your skin. You look so... fresh. Like every artist's idea of the n.o.ble shepherd."
For the sake of morale, her own, she did not add 'G.o.dling'. "In fact, there's a painting, quite a famous one, up at the College. You could have walked night off the canvas."
He shook his head. "Huh. Wonder if Bee saw that painting?"
She considered that. "I wouldn't be surprised. Bee gets around."
"Reckon. Bee was the first person I met in the Darks. It was Bee who brought me to Yil."
"Really?" That was very interesting. Given how aloof Bee kept from both Haps and Canes.
"Mmm. You know, when we first met, Bee reminded me of my sister. But sometimes now, I think it's my brother." He looked over.
"Well," said Kess. "The Darks is no place for a girl. You understand?"
Mac stirred with measured strokes. "You're a girl."
"That's how I know." In the eight days he'd been her shadow, this was the most personal Mac had been. "I'm from uptown originally, you know."
He nodded, kept stirring. "You don't sound the same as everyone else."
"My parents died when I was eight. It was a bad time. I wandered out of the house, ended up not far from here. Didn't mean to. I was practically delirious. Here in the Darks, that made me bait."
She gave his hand a nudge. He returned his attention to the simmering stew. "This kid found me. Him and his skinny little friend. They got me something to eat, found us a place to sleep. Showed me around. And when I was finally coherent, they took me home." She tasted his batch of stew. "Not bad. A little more salt, I think."
He added a generous pinch. She expected a number of questions, but not the one she got. "How did they die?" he asked softly. "Your parents?"
"Largepox." Time to risk it. "Yours?"
A brief nod.
"And your brother, and sister?"
His voice was soft, with sharp edges, something broken and not yet mended. "It ate my whole family."
Behind those words, Kess heard others. That asked, how was he to be a son, a brother, without them? She knew that echo. Remembered it well. "So you came to Senneville?"
Mac rolled his shoulders, as if preparing for a fight, or some terrible ordeal. "They used to talk, my parents, about the College. You know, about me going there. Later." He didn't look up. "Not that it matters anymore."
And right there, Kess knew she had him. It was like a note of music, but made of light, singing inside her head. "I went, you know. To the College."
He looked up. Truly surprised. "You did?'
"Mmm." She kept her tone casual, dimly surprised she could hear it through the singing. "Three years. I still have all my books, All my notes and letters."
Mac turned back to the stew. Stirred as if the fate of the Darks and all of Senneville resided on it. Kess could practically see longing hovering about him like fog. And knew he would not allow himself to take what he so desperately wanted. Ten years in the Darks had taught her at least as much as three in the College. You had to give before you could take.
She let the afternoon work itself out. Then, in the lull before the Canes descended, when Brother Marcus had arrived to supervise the stew, she made her move. "Do you think you could try to convince Bee to stay with us a little longer tomorrow? To spend the afternoons here? It's dangerous out there right now."
"Yil told me about that man Meyer," he said with a frown.
"I don't like the thought like of Bee out there alone," she said, pushing it just a little further. "If Bee won't stay with the Canes, here would be just as good."
"I'll see what I can do," he said.
"I know I can count on you," she said, then busied herself with the rolls, confident her wild young shepherd would find a way to keep the most flighty of the Darks denizens safely grounded.
And she would see to it that there was plenty to occupy the two of them. Plenty of books, of notes, of letters. All the learning one could imagine, or desire.
Several days later, watching Bee peer avidly at the pictures in yet another atlas, Kess sighed. "Don't get me wrong. I'm immensely grateful that you managed to get Bee to spend some time here. But Bel's eyes, it makes me feel superfluous. I've been trying for months. You got it right first time."
"Hmm?" grunted Mac, without looking up from his book.
She patted his hand. "Never mind. I appreciate your keeping us company."
"And such sparkling conversation."
With effort, he tore himself out of his reading. "Sorry, did you say something?"
Kess barely restrained a grin. "Nothing important. I'm going to finish the rolls."
Mac put down his book and stood. "I'll help."
Drat. Kess was irritated with herself, but knew better than to argue. Mac might revel in the study she provided, but he refused to allow himself to be diverted from what he perceived as his duty.
Mac stoked up the oven. "Money talks with Bee."
She paused, dough in her hands. "You pay Bee?"
She laughed. "That rat. I pay Bee."
He slid another tray into the oven. "You pay Bee to work. I pay Bee to keep you company."
Kess shook her head. "I can't allow you to be out of pocket for this."
But he shook his head. "I'm not. Ash gave me a special stipend. Because I'm not earning while I'm here. But it's important to him that I stay. You know... I mean, you and Ash... I mean, he thinks..." He trailed off, face fiery.
Amused, she took pity on him. "Indeed. You've been a great help to me."
They worked in companionable silence for a while. Then, Mac said, "I think I understand."
She handed him the last tray. "Understand what?"
He closed the oven, busied himself tidying. "Understand how it works. All of it. Ash, the Canes. The Haps. Johns."
All at once Kess gave him her full attention. It was always important to handle this part carefully. "Yes?"
His voice wasn't diffident, but considering. As if picking its way over a rocky riverbed, where a ducking might be the least of the consequences. "I mean, Canes know the rules. And Haps have their own rules. And we all talk about being ready to square off, all the time. But these past few weeks, here, I've noticed there's no fighting."
She dried her hands, put down the towel so she wouldn't fuss with it.
Emboldened, or at least rea.s.sured by her silence, he went on. "It makes sense, in a way. But it wouldn't work at all if there wasn't a place to rest. One sanctuary, where everyone is safe. The Angel's Kitchen."
She said, "I'm no angel."
He grinned. "No, I don't think so. My guess is Ash named the place. Probably as a joke."
That was, of course, correct. "Was it the Silesian Histories that tipped you?"
He looked impressed. "Is that what I'm reading? No wonder it's so interesting. I mean, yes, there's a hint of the idea in it, but mostly it was the frontispiece." She must have looked uncomprehending. "You wrote your name it. Kessily Kehnap. Cane-Hap. It just got me thinking."