The clerk shrugged helplessly.

“We’ve still to sell off the Fetch,” said Berry dubiously, “but it won’t run to anything near the value of our place in Clearcreek. And besides, we need that money to take home to live on next year.”

Remo glanced at Barr and cleared his throat. “Barr and I-anyway, I still have my salvage share from the cave,” he offered. “I could, uh, pitch in.”

Barr swallowed, and with an effort, got out, “We.”

Whit, Bo, and Berry began vigorously explaining to Clerk Bakerbun all the reasons why his legal demand made no sense; the clerk’s shoulders stiffened, and his face set.

Fawn slid back under Dag’s arm, and whispered up to him, “Dag, this is crazy! These Graymouth folks have got no right to Whit’s money, or even some part-fee. They didn’t work hard or bleed or risk their lives to earn it. Wedding papers shouldn’t cost that much! Do you think it’s a cheat? Does that fellow figure us for up-country folks just bleating to be skinned?”

“How would I know?”

She cast him up a significant look. Dag sighed and eased open his groundsense, despite the discomfort pressing on him from all the suddenly unhappy people sharing the room. Less the raccoon, who was now dozing on a chair.

“His ground feels more stressed than sly,” he whispered back. “But if he’s setting up to angle for a bribe, I’m blighted if I’ll let my tent-brother pay it. Not for this.”

Fishing for an illicit bribe would be easy enough to handle. Just troop downstairs in a body and loudly demand explanations from as many folks as possible. The truth would out, and then the clerk would be in hot water. Dag didn’t take the fellow for that sort of foolish. No…

Dag guessed this mulishness as overblown conscientiousness, crossed with an underlying contempt for odd shabby people from Drowntown.

Arguing with the man might merely make him climb up on his high horse, send Whit and Berry off on their journey unwed, and be happily confirmed in his low opinion of the morals of river folks. Dag’s annoyance increased.

Irrelevant as all this paper ceremony seemed to Dag, it meant a lot to Whit and Berry, both so far from home; possibly even more to Whit than Berry, this being his first venture into the wide world, and anxious to do right by his hard-won river maiden. Blight it, the happy day that Fawn and Berry had worked and planned so hard to create should not tumble down into distraught confusion, not if Dag could help it.

And I can.

Quite quietly, from behind the clerk, he stretched out his left arm, and with his ghost hand-ground projection- shaped a reinforcement for persuasion. Such subtle work was invisible to all eyes here, but not to Barr’s or Remo’s inner senses; Remo’s eyebrows climbed. Barr’s jaw dropped, then his lips shaped outraged words, You dare…!

Dag did not attempt too much detail, just a general trend of feeling.

You like these hardworking young folks. You wish them well. You want to help them out. That far-off Clearcreek woodlot isn’t your responsibility. Let that lazy Clearcreek village clerk do some work for a change. These youngsters are going to go away up the river and you’ll never see them again. No problem for you. Such a cute couple. He let the reinforcement spin off his ghost fingers and into the back of the clerk’s head. As an added bonus, the clerk wouldn’t have a headache for the next several days…

Necessarily, Dag accepted the little backwash from Clerk Bakerbun’s ground into his own, so as not to leave the man blatantly beguiled.

The clerk rubbed his forehead and frowned. “You say you’re heading back upriver right away?”

“Yes, pretty soon,” said Berry.

“It’s irregular, but I suppose I could leave out mention of the disposition of the property…” He paused in an internal struggle. “If I put in a notation for the Clearcreek village clerk to add the information later. It’s his task, properly.”

“Very sensible,” Dag rumbled. He followed up with a wave of approval.

With no groundsense, the clerk would not be able to tell whether this happy feeling was coming from outside his head or inside.

Fawn glanced appraisingly at the clerk, at Barr and Remo, at Dag, and pressed her lips together.

The clerk rubbed his forehead again, then turned a brighter look upon Whit and Berry. “You seem like nice young folks. I guess I’m obliged to get you off to a good start…”

After that, events followed a course more like what Dag had experienced in West Blue. The clerk had a set of standard promises written out, prepared to lead the couple in their spoken responses. He seemed surprised when both were able to read them off the paper for themselves, each adding a few variations stemming, Dag supposed, from Clearcreek and West Blue local custom. Whit and Berry bent and signed both books, the clerk signed and stamped, and the witnesses lined up to take their turns with the quill.

The clerk seemed equally surprised when he was not called upon to countersign anyone’s X. Bo’s handwriting was labored but legible, as was Hod’s, but only because he’d been practicing along with Hawthorn.

Fawn caught her tongue between her teeth and wrote her name square and plain. She hesitated over what to put for occupation, glanced up the page at Whit’s entry, and settled on boat cook.

She then looked up, suddenly awkward. “Dag, what’s our place of residence?”

“Uh… just put Oleana. For now.”

“Really?” She gave him an odd look that even his groundsense could not help him interpret, bent, and scribbled.

Dag’s turn came next, and he also found himself unexpectedly flummoxed by the empty, inviting occupation space. Patroller? Not anymore.

Medicine maker, knife maker? Not for sure. Vagrant? Mage? His own unsettled ground gave him no clue. In some desperation, he chose boat hand, too. It wasn’t a lie, even if it wasn’t going to be true for much longer.

Remo, after his name, signed Pearl Riffle Camp, Oleana, and patroller, adding after a check up the page at the general trend of things, and boat hand. Barr copied him. Berry and Whit made sure Hawthorn had his turn in the new Bluefield-Clearcreek family book, Whit hovering with a handkerchief ready to mop any accidental blots. None occurred.

And it was done, apparently. Or at least Whit and Berry blew out their breaths, looked at each other a bit wildly, and fell into a heartfelt hug and kiss-part joy, but mainly relief.

The clerk dutifully shook hands all around and offered congratulations.

Dag made sure the company did not linger. He didn’t know how fast his persuasion would wear off, though he hoped it would last for some days, by which time the events would be well blurred in Clerk Bakerbun’s mind by the press of his other work, and he would be in no mood to reexamine the dodgy fix-up.

No more than I.


Descending the steps to Drowntown, Berry shot a wide grin over her shoulder at Fawn; Fawn grinned back in equal delight. They’d switched places, Whit and Berry holding hands hard, Fawn clutching Dag’s hand scarcely less tightly. Barr and Remo followed. But when they came to a landing where the stairs doubled back, Barr’s grip fell on Dag’s shoulder.

“Hold up, Dag,” he growled. Dag came to a halt, staring blandly out over the riverside.

Fawn turned, surprised by Barr’s tone. Remo, after a glance at the two tense faces, waved Whit and the rest of the party on. Whit raised his brows, but thumped on down the boards after the rest of his new Clearcreek in- laws.

Barr’s strong teeth set. Through them, he said, “You planted a persuasion on that clerk fellow.”

Dag’s eyelids fell, rose, in that peculiar Daggish I-am-not-arguing look he got sometimes. It could be very aggravating, Fawn knew, to the person on the wrong side of the non-argument. She touched her lips in dismay. I thought that might have been what happened back there. Though she could not perceive groundwork directly, Barr

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