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The worm wind is the night wind. Cool and moist and bearing strange scents, it flows from the east, out of the dark lands, all the way to the steep flanks of Sunbreaker and her children. There it condenses into fog, a heavy, clinging fog that fills the throat and smothers all sound except for the plink of water dripping off eaves.
And the skittering noise following Alice Standish up Pickaxe Street.
Alice stopped, tightening her grip on her shopping basket, and peered uselessly into the whiteness that shrouded her. Finlochen was as safe as any city could be, now that Ned had driven the Usurper out, but a woman alone still needed to be alert, especially in such heavy fog. A murder could happen at your very feet, and you’d never know it.
Silence. Wondering if she’d just heard the trickle of water in a downspout, she climbed a few more steps and it happened again, almost under her feet. Skittering steps that stopped when she did. Gently, Alice set her basket down and slid a small dagger out of her sleeve, holding it out of sight in the folds of her skirt.
Tick. Tick. Silence. Tick.
A tiny, hesitant, chirp.
With a snort of laughter at her own foolishness, Alice slid the dagger back up her sleeve and waited patiently until the guinea, no more than a foot tall, its ears laid forward ingratiatingly, inched toward her out of the fog. It had its tail clutched in its hands, and its faceted, golden eyes fixed on her shopping basket with obvious hope.
Alice, moving slowly, knelt on the mossy steps and offered an apple. The guinea had a hard time deciding which was more important, its tail, or an apple, but it finally let its tail go to take Alice’s offering, easily the size of its head, in its tiny, human-like hands.
It bowed, she bowed. Bearing its prize aloft, it darted back into the fog. Alice stood, shaking out her damp skirts. No one had ever proved it was good luck to feed a guinea, but she had more than enough, thanks to Ned–even if he was being obnoxious in not letting her leave Finlochen–and there was no harm in sharing. Still smiling, she started back up the steps.
And bounced off a hard chest.
A stunned moment as she stared at black leather sewn with strips of wolver fur, manacles dangling from a studded belt. Her eyes traveled up, snagged on the crown branded on one stubbled cheek, couldn’t see past it to anything else.
Bounty hunter. Her breath stopped, the air too thick to breathe.
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