Calli would be damned if she was going to wear a gown to meet Micah, even if he had summoned her to the Speckled Boar, one of the most up-market wine-houses and eateries in Highmast, the harbour city where they both lived. He could apparently click his fingers and make her appear, but he certainly couldn’t make her dress up for him. Not now. Not ever.
She’d tried her hardest to persuade Dryvus, her mentor and boss, that they shouldn’t go to meet him at all. It was surely a trap, despite what he’d promised as a ‘gentleman and a thief’, she knew that Micah had no intention of honouring his bargain, that he would take more than he returned that night—but Dryvus had been steadfast.
“We need that invitation,” he had insisted. “We have no other way to the palace summer ball, and we have worked too hard not to get it now. And anyway, I confess myself curious to meet the lad who gets you all flustered, Calli.”
He doesn’t get me flustered, she thought crossly as she stomped through the streets, a scowl tattooed upon her face, her red hair plaited up forebodingly, giving her a stern, utilitarian look. I just do not like the fact that he has bested me twice in a row.
Still, she comforted herself grimly, third time’s the charm.
The Speckled Boar sat on the upper half of the city, over main bridge, but probably not half as high as it wished to. The further one climbed up that steep slope, the nearer one got to the Seasalt Palace and all the aristocratic estates which jostled around it, vying for elbow room. The Speckled Boar was high enough that the merchant classes dared not enter, but low enough that the true aristocracy probably did not bother to patronise it either. All in all, she wondered how the snobby little establishment survived. No one could pay their bills with pretensions.
Still, it clearly attracted some clientele, for as she stepped into the vestibule of the eatery, she saw that more than half of the well-spaced tables were filled, and some patrons loitered at the tastefully hushed bar too.
Hastra and Gregyr were at one of the tables already, pretending to be a father and daughter, and Hastra flicked her a wink as she entered. Calli knew Dryvus was here somewhere, too, though she couldn’t break through his disguise yet. For someone as round as Dryvus was, he was surprisingly adept at disguising himself. She’d have thought there was magic in it, if she didn’t know that Dryvus was steadfastly against all such things. He considered it cheating. It took all the fun out of life, he said.
“I have a meeting with Lord Micah Dawlish,” she said sullenly to the uniformed server at the door, checking off names on a list and looking her up and down with undisguised scorn, taking in the tunic and breeches she wore. She returned the look three-fold. The man looked ridiculous in a pretentious knock off of a noble man’s outfit, flouncing cravat, silk breeches and waistcoat, a brocade tunic.
You are no better than me. These men will never accept you as one of them, no matter how ‘well’ you dress.
She held his gaze steadfastly, refusing to blink.
“This way, my…lady.”
She pretended she hadn’t heard the scornful hesitation and swept after him, to the quiet nook deep within the shadowy recesses of the luxuriously lit room that he showed her to, with as much grandeur as if she had been wearing a ball-gown of silk and pearls.
Micah was already waiting for her when she arrived, still acting the nobleman, lounging against the back of his chair, rolling a wine glass between his fingers. He laughed aloud when he saw her. Damned impudent swine is always laughing far too much. I’ll wipe that smirk off of his face one of these days…
“Beautiful, as ever, Lady Carlotta,” he grinned. “I do, however, feel rather over-dressed now. Thank you, you can serve the appetisers. Lady Carlotta is a busy woman. She won’t want to linger too late tonight.”
The server pulled out Calli’s chair for her, and suspiciously Calli lowered herself into it. They both waited until the server had left them before they started speaking.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Micah began as Calli said:
“Well then, where is it?”
They both hesitated as they talked over each other, then Micah laughed again and Calli scowled more deeply.
Micah leant forwards and poured her out a cup of wine.
“No, thank you,” she said primly, folding her arms. “I remember what happened the last time I took a cup from you.”
“I’m not here to poison you.”
“No? Why are you here then?”
“Let’s not rush to business, Cal, we’ve got the whole evening ahead of us.”
“This is not a date. It is a business meal. So tell me what you want or I’m saying goodbye and walking out that door right now.”
The server came back with two steaming plates. Calli flinched. She had never had a meal where servants brought food to you at the table before. Sometimes, in alehouses, a barmaid would top up your cup on her way to somewhere else, but to be sat and served like a nobleman…no wonder they charge such extravagant prices here…they let the common-folks pretend to be aristocracy, just for one night.
Calli prodded the thing on her plate suspiciously. It was a small, white and circular, drizzled artistically in red sauce with a leaf besides it.
“Wyvern tongue. Very hard to come by and very expensive. A delicacy, apparently.” Micah winked at her, spearing a piece on a fork and popping it into his mouth in one bite. He grimaced. “And very sour, too,” he added pulling a theatrical face.
She folded her arms, glaring at him.
“Stop it. I mean it. The fancy eatery with the fancy food and the fancy clothes and the fancy wine? It’s ridiculous. Give me back my invitation and tell me what the hell you want.”
“Just try it, you might like it,” he urged, gesturing at her plate. “You might never get another chance.”
“Yes, because I’m going to go to a place of your choosing and then eat anything you put in front of me. What kind of fool do you think I am?”
He hesitated. Calli growled and got to her feet, scraping her chair back loudly in the quiet, decadent atmosphere of the Speckled Boar. She could see Gregyr motioning at her anxiously from across the hall, trying subtly to communicate that she should sit back down, but she was fed up. She was not going to be played with any longer.
“Goodbye,” she said pointedly. Micah grabbed at her wrist.
“Alright, I’m sorry, please.”
But she’d already pulled her wrist free. He hesitated again for half a moment and then fell in behind her as she strode towards the door.
“Don’t you have a bill to pay,” she sneered, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at the table they had discarded.
“They’ll send it on to the Dawlish house, I’m sure.”
“Won’t the Dawlishes notice that they haven’t actually been to the Speckled Boar recently?”
But Micah waved a dismissive hand as he scurried after her out onto the street.
“The Dawlishes have lots of money and absolutely no sense. They don’t bother themselves personally with any bills under a hundred crowns. They just wave their hands at a servant and get someone to pay them. Why do you think I use their name?”
Must be nice.
“Please, Calli, please stop, I want to talk to you.”
He stepped in front of her in the street. She pushed him away hard, but he grabbed her wrists and pulled her with him, dragging her into the alley around the back of the Speckled Boar, which was less ostentatious than the frontage. Calli saw Hastra hurrying past, cursing, looking for her. Gregyr and Dryvus hadn’t followed. No doubt they were still around here somewhere.
“Give me my invitation, and then talk. No more fussing.”
“How about a new deal? I give you your invitation back and you go somewhere else to eat with me. Somewhere you choose. Whatever you want.”
Calli considered this. Then she held out a hand. He went to shake it but she tutted and punched him on the arm with the other hand, but not too hard.
“The invitation, you dolt.”
He grinned at her and fetched it out of an inner pocket. She held it up to the moonlight, squinting at it hard, making sure it was the absolutely right one this time. It had the mage-witched watermark on it, and all the right names.
It was real.
She clutched it tightly in her hand, refusing to let go.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s get something to eat. But you’ll want to get changed out of that. You won’t last five minutes where we’re going wearing that get up.”
He grinned at her in relief, and pulled his cravat and waistcoat off.
Barely, but it will have to do.
He discarded them to the floor carelessly, as if they didn’t cost good money, and she almost bit a retort out at him, but she held it back. If he wanted to waste his coin, what was that to her? No doubt it was charged to someone else’s account, anyway.
“Come on then, if you’re coming,” she snapped impatiently, striding down the steep slopes towards the lower half of town. The better half of town, she always thought. Certainly the less pretentious part of town.
Micah had to hurry to keep up with her.
“Where are we eating then?” he asked as she strode forwards through the streets. She didn’t dare lead him through the back alleys dressed up in his nobleman’s disguise. Oh, she was sure Micah could take care of himself, but he played the nobleman well with his overflowing arrogance. She wouldn’t want one of the street gangs to mistake his act for the real thing and try to mug him.
So, she kept to the wide, straight path which led right from the Seasalt Palace gates all the way down to the docks. They wandered along the front, past the navy dockyards and the nobleman’s harbours towards the merchant quarters, where Finchley was just about to pack up for the day. She ran up to him hastily, flagging him down.
“You’re in luck, Cal,” Finchley grinned. “Five minutes later and I’d have gone.”
“I’m always in luck. I’m a very lucky woman. Well then, Micah, pay the man,” she added sourly. “You can’t charge everything to the Dawlish account down here. Finchley doesn’t take credit.”
Micah pulled a face but rummaged in a pocket and pulled out a handful of coins obediently.
“Will that cover it?”
Finchley poured through them. He shrugged.
“It’s the end of the day, and Cal is a friend. It’ll do.” He pocketed them and then winked at Calli. “Give him hell, girl.”
“I intend to,” she grinned back, and Micah laughed as she handed him his bag of whelks. “Come on, let’s go and sit down by the sea and eat them.”
The sun stayed out late in these warm summer nights, and the shadows were long across the floor, as they wandered down the walkway, cradling their bags of food.
“Most cockle-sellers are done by lunchtime,” she told him as they wandered. “They get up early at dawn to find the cockles and whelks, soak and cook them on the carts and they’ve finished up by lunchtime. But Finchley pickles his in wine. It makes them last longer, so he can sell them over two days, instead of having to get them fresh each morning.”
Micah looked dubiously at the squidgy wet things in his bag as he walked. She couldn’t help but laugh at his expression, as they wandered down the dockside.
“What? You’ve never had whelks before?” she asked.
“I can’t say that the thought of eating sea-snails has ever appealed.”
They sat down on the edge of the dock, their feet swinging companionably off of the wood, side by side.
Don’t trust him, Calli, she reminded herself. He knows too much about you and you know too little about him.
She popped one of her own whelks into her mouth savouring the salt and wine flavouring. Micah followed her example and then grimaced.
She shook her head. “I don’t get how you can be happy to eat wyvern tongue but get squeamish at whelks. How can you live at Highmast without ever eating whelks? Days were that I lived on these damned things. They’re easy enough to slip from the cockle cart when you don’t have any money. Just grab a slimy handful of them on your way past, and, of course, they’re already cooked so you don’t need to worry about that. What?” she added, frowning at his strange expression.
“Nothing,” he said quickly, popping another one in his mouth and turning out to face the lapping waves swelling up towards them.
But Calli, far too slowly, had pieced all the clues together.
He was at Adderforth’s ball, too, she reminded herself. I thought that he had snuck in like me, but…and Lady Hurstmere recognised him…he’s never had whelks and he sends bills to the Dawlish house…and he has a strange look of curious pity when I talk of my former life…
She leapt to her feet, scrabbling away.
“By all the demons down below, you are a Dawlish, aren’t you? I thought it was an alias, that you were playing a part, but it’s not. You actually are a nobleman’s son.”
“Calli,” he said, getting to his feet, too, reaching out a hand for her.
“No,” she pushed him away hard, dropping her whelks and sending them scattering over the harbour boards. “No. I’m not going to be some adventure for the bored little rich boy to play. I’m not going to be that thing you do to get life experiences or rebel your father’s expectations before you fall into the family business and marry the heiress.”
“It’s not, that’s not…” he seemed flustered for once, unable to get his words straight, his usual charm abandoning him. “Look, yes, alright, I am really a Dawlish, but I can’t help that. I don’t want to be like my father. I want to join Dryvus’ gang.”
She couldn’t help the laugh that burbled out at such ridiculous words.
“I’m serious!” he protested. “I’ve heard such amazing stories—and you know I have talents. I broke into Adderforth’s rooms, the same as you. I picked your pocket when you weren’t looking. These were no easy feats, and it was all to prove myself, to get Dryvus’ attention. I can do this, Cal. Don’t think that just because I was born into privilege that I can’t work for the things I want.”
She hit him on the arm, not playfully like she had before, but hard, throwing all her anger behind it. And then, because that didn’t seem like quite enough, she did it again. And again, and again until finally he caught her fists and pulled them close, pulling her close, until they were almost chest to chest. Their breath mingled together in the gloaming, hot and angry.
“I’m not lying to you this time,” he said, and damn him to the deepest of all the circles of hell, there was an earnest glint in his eyes she might actually believe.
But it’s not enough. It’s just not enough.
“The sneaking, and the pick-pocketing and the lying, it’s just a game to you,” she spat the words out at him, like a cornered, furious cat. “It won’t matter in the slightest if you get caught. Your daddy will just buy you out of trouble like always. But it’s my life, Micah, and I’ll face the noose if I’m caught.”
“No. Goodbye, Micah. I mean it this time.” She turned on her heel, marching away from him, not even sure why her eyes were blurring with tears, only that she was so wretchedly angry, and she couldn’t help feeling that Micah had bested her again, even if she wasn’t quite sure how. She could feel his gaze following her up the dockside forlornly, even as she fled.