‘I daresay.’ Wist sighed. ‘That’s how it is with things missed.’

By then, Lamb was fording the people-flooded street, shag of grey hair showing above the heads around him for all his stoop, an even sorrier set to his heavy shoulders than usual.

‘What did you get?’ she asked, hopping down from the wagon.

Lamb winced, like he knew what was coming. ‘Twenty-seven?’ His rumble of a voice tweaked high at the end to make a question of it, but what he was really asking was, How bad did I fuck up?

Shy shook her head, tongue wedged in her cheek, letting him know he’d fucked up middling to bad. ‘You’re some kind of a bloody coward, Lamb.’ She thumped at the sacks and sent up a puff of grain dust. ‘I didn’t spend two days dragging this up here to give it away.’

He winced a bit more, grey-bearded face creasing around the old scars and laughter lines, all weather-worn and dirt-grained. ‘I’m no good with the bartering, Shy, you know that.’

‘Remind me what it is y’are good with?’ she tossed over her shoulder as she strode for Clay’s Exchange, letting a set of piebald goats bleat past then slipping through the traffic sideways-on. ‘Except hauling the sacks?’

‘That’s something, ain’t it?’ he muttered.

The store was busier even than the street, smelling of sawn wood and spices and hard-working bodies packed tight. She had to shove between a clerk and some blacker’n black Southerner trying to make himself understood in no language she’d ever heard before, then around a washboard hung from the low rafters and set swinging by a careless elbow, then past a frowning Ghost, his red hair all bound up with twigs, leaves still on and everything. All these folk scrambling west meant money to be made, and woe to the merchant tried to put himself between Shy and her share.

‘Clay?’ she bellowed, nothing to be gained by whispering. ‘Clay!’

The trader frowned up, caught in the midst of weighing flour out on his man-high scales. ‘Shy South in Squaredeal. Ain’t this my lucky day.’

‘Looks that way. You got a whole town full o’ saps to swindle!’ She gave the last word a bit of air, made a few heads turn and Clay plant his big fists on his hips.

‘No one’s swindling no one,’ he said.

‘Not while I’ve got an eye on business.’

‘Me and your father agreed on twenty-seven, Shy.’

‘You know he ain’t my father. And you know you ain’t agreed shit ’til I’ve agreed it.’

Clay cocked an eyebrow at Lamb and the Northman looked straight to the ground, shifting sideways like he was trying and wholly failing to vanish. For all Lamb’s bulk he’d a weak eye, slapped down by any glance that held it. He could be a loving man, and a hard worker, and he’d been a fair stand-in for a father to Ro and Pit and Shy too, far as she’d given him the chance. A good enough man, but by the dead he was some kind of coward.

Shy felt ashamed for him, and ashamed of him, and that nettled her. She stabbed her finger in Clay’s face like it was a drawn dagger she’d no qualms about using. ‘Squaredeal’s a strange sort o’ name for a town where you’d claw out a business! You paid twenty-eight last season, and you didn’t have a quarter of the customers. I’ll take thirty-eight.’

‘What?’ Clay’s voice squeaking even higher than she’d predicted. ‘Golden grain, is it?’

‘That’s right. Top quality. Threshed with my own blistered bloody hands.’

‘And mine,’ muttered Lamb.

‘Shush,’ said Shy. ‘I’ll take thirty-eight and refuse to be moved.’

‘Don’t do me no favours!’ raged Clay, fat face filling with angry creases. ‘Because I loved your mother I’ll offer twenty nine.’

‘You never loved a thing but your purse. Anything short of thirty-eight and I’d sooner set up next to your store and offer all this through-traffic just a little less than what you’re offering.’

He knew she’d do it, even if it cost her. Never make a threat you aren’t at least halfway sure you’ll carry through on. ‘Thirty-one,’ he grated out.


‘You’re holding up all these good folk, you selfish bitch!’ Or rather she was giving the good folk notice of the profits he was chiselling and sooner or later they’d catch on.

‘They’re scum to a man, and I’ll hold ’em up ’til Juvens gets back from the land of the dead if it means thirty-five.’



‘Thirty-three and you might as well burn my store down on the way out!’

‘Don’t tempt me, fat man. Thirty-three and you can toss in a pair o’ those new shovels and some feed for my oxen. They eat almost as much as you.’ She spat in her palm and held it out.

Clay bitterly worked his mouth, but he spat all the same, and they shook. ‘Your mother was no better.’

‘Couldn’t stand the woman.’ Shy elbowed her way back towards the door, leaving Clay to vent his upset on his next customer. ‘Not that hard, is it?’ she tossed over her shoulder at Lamb.

The big old Northman fussed with the notch out of his ear. ‘Think I’d rather have settled for the twenty- seven.’

‘That’s ’cause you’re some kind of a bloody coward. Better to do it than live with the fear of it. Ain’t that what you always used to tell me?’

‘Time’s shown me the downside o’ that advice,’ muttered Lamb, but Shy was too busy congratulating herself.

Thirty-three was a good price. She’d worked over the sums, and thirty-three would leave something towards Ro’s books once they’d fixed the barn’s leaking roof and got a breeding pair of pigs to replace the ones they’d butchered in winter. Maybe they could stretch to some seed too, try and nurse the cabbage patch back to health. She was grinning, thinking on what she could put right with that money, what she could build.

You don’t need a big dream, her mother used to tell her when she was in a rare good mood, a little one will do it.

‘Let’s get them sacks shifted,’ she said.

He might’ve been getting on in years, might’ve been slow as an old favourite cow, but Lamb was strong as ever. No weight would bend the man. All Shy had to do was stand on the wagon and heft the sacks one by one onto his shoulders while he stood, complaining less than the wagon had at the load. Then he’d stroll them across, four at a time, and stack them in Clay’s yard easy as sacks of feathers. Shy might’ve been half his weight, but had the easier task and twenty-five years advantage and still, soon enough, she was leaking water faster than a fresh-dug well, vest plastered to her back and hair to her face, arms pink-chafed by canvas and white-powdered with grain dust, tongue wedged in the gap between her teeth while she cursed up a storm.

Lamb stood there, two sacks over one shoulder and one over the other, hardly even breathing hard, those deep laugh lines striking out from the corners of his eyes. ‘Need a rest, Shy?’

She gave him a look. ‘A rest from your carping.’

‘I could shift some o’ those sacks around and make a little cot for you. Might be there’s a blanket in the back there. I could sing you to sleep like I did when you were young.’

‘I’m still young.’

‘Ish. Sometimes I think about that little girl smiling up at me.’ Lamb looked off into the distance, shaking his head. ‘And I wonder—where did me and your mother go wrong?’

‘She died and you’re useless?’ Shy heaved the last sack up and dropped it on his shoulder from as great a height as she could manage.

Lamb only grinned as he slapped his hand down on top. ‘Maybe that’s it.’ As he turned he nearly barged into another Northman, big as he was and a lot meaner-looking. The man started growling some curse, then stopped in the midst. Lamb kept trudging, head down, how he always did from the least breath of trouble. The Northman frowned up at Shy.

‘What?’ she said, staring right back.

He frowned after Lamb, then walked off, scratching at his beard.

The shadows were getting long and the clouds pink in the west when Shy dumped the last sack under Clay’s grinning face and he held out the money, leather bag dangling from one thick forefinger by the drawstrings. She

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