stretched her back out, wiped her forehead on one glove, then worked the bag open and peered inside.

‘All here?’

‘I’m not going to rob you.’

‘Damn right you’re not.’ And she set to counting it. You can always tell a thief, her mother used to say, on account of all the care they take with their own money.

‘Maybe I should go through every sack, make sure there’s grain in ’em not shit?’

Shy snorted. ‘If it was shit would that stop you selling it?’

The merchant sighed. ‘Have it your way.’

‘I will.’

‘She does tend to,’ added Lamb.

A pause, with just the clicking of coins and the turning of numbers in her head. ‘Heard Glama Golden won another fight in the pit up near Greyer,’ said Clay. ‘They say he’s the toughest bastard in the Near Country and there’s some tough bastards about. Take a fool to bet against him now, whatever the odds. Take a fool to fight him.’

‘No doubt,’ muttered Lamb, always quiet when violence was the subject.

‘Heard from a man watched it he beat old Stockling Bear so hard his guts came out of his arse.’

‘That’s entertainment, is it?’ asked Shy.

‘Beats shitting your own guts.’

‘That ain’t much of a review.’

Clay shrugged. ‘I’ve heard worse ones. Did you hear about this battle, up near Rostod?’

‘Something about it,’ she muttered, trying to keep her count straight.

‘Rebels got beat again, I heard. Bad, this time. All on the run now. Those the Inquisition didn’t get a hold on.’

‘Poor bastards,’ said Lamb.

Shy paused her count a moment, then carried on. There were a lot of poor bastards about but they couldn’t all be her problem. She’d enough worries with her brother and sister, and Lamb, and Gully, and the farm without crying over others’ self-made misfortunes.

‘Might be they’ll make a stand up at Mulkova, but they won’t be standing long.’ Clay made the fence creak as he leaned his soft bulk back on it, hands tucked under his armpits with the thumbs sticking up. ‘War’s all but over, if you can call it a war, and there’s plenty of people shook off their land. Shook off or burned out or lost what they had. Passes are opened up, ships coming through. Lots of folk seeing their fortune out west all of a sudden.’ He nodded at the dusty chaos in the street, still boiling over even as the sun set. ‘This here’s just the first trickle. There’s a flood coming.’

Lamb sniffed. ‘Like as not they’ll find the mountains ain’t one great piece of gold and soon come flooding back the other way.’

‘Some will. Some’ll put down roots. The Union’ll be coming along after. However much land the Union get, they always want more, and what with that find out west they’ll smell money. That vicious old bastard Sarmis is sitting on the border and rattling his sword for the Empire, but his sword’s always rattling. Won’t stop the tide, I reckon.’ Clay took a step closer to Shy and spoke soft, like he had secrets to share. ‘I heard tell there’s already been Union agents in Hormring, talking annexation.’

‘They’re buying folk out?’

‘They’ll have a coin in one hand, sure, but they’ll have a blade in the other. They always do. We should be thinking about how we’ll play it, if they come to Squaredeal. We should stand together, those of us been here a while.’

‘I ain’t interested in politics.’ Shy wasn’t interested in anything might bring trouble.

‘Most of us aren’t,’ said Clay, ‘but sometimes politics takes an interest in us all the same. The Union’ll be coming, and they’ll bring law with ’em.’

‘Law don’t seem such a bad thing,’ Shy lied.

‘Maybe not. But taxes follow law quick as the cart behind the donkey.’

‘Can’t say I’m an enthusiast for taxes.’

‘Just a fancier way to rob a body, ain’t it? I’d rather be thieved honest with mask and dagger than have some bloodless bastard come at me with pen and paper.’

‘Don’t know about that,’ muttered Shy. None of those she’d robbed had looked too delighted with the experience, and some a lot less than Red others. She let the coins slide back into the bag and drew the string tight.

‘How’s the count?’ asked Clay. ‘Anything missing?’

‘Not this time. But I reckon I’ll keep watching just the same.’

The merchant grinned. ‘I’d expect no less.’

She picked out a few things they needed—salt, vinegar, some sugar since it only came in time to time, a wedge of dried beef, half a bag of nails which brought the predictable joke from Clay that she was half a bag of nails herself, which brought the predictable joke from her that she’d nail his fruits to his leg, which brought the predictable joke from Lamb that Clay’s fruits were so small she might not get a nail through. They had a bit of a chuckle over each other’s quick wits.

She almost got carried away and bought a new shirt for Pit which was more’n they could afford, good price or other price, but Lamb patted her arm with his gloved hand, and she bought needles and thread instead so she could make him a shirt from one of Lamb’s old ones. She probably could’ve made five shirts for Pit from one of Lamb’s, the boy was that skinny. The needles were a new kind, Clay said were stamped out of a machine in Adua, hundreds at a press, and Shy smiled as she thought what Gully would say to that, shaking his white head at them and saying, needles from a machine, what’ll be thought of next, while Ro turned them over and over in her quick fingers, frowning down as she worked out how it was done.

Shy paused in front of the spirits to lick her lips a moment, glass gleaming amber in the darkness, then forced herself on without, haggled harder than ever with Clay over his prices, and they were finished.

‘Never come to this store again, you mad bitch!’ The trader hurled at her as she climbed up onto the wagon’s seat alongside Lamb. ‘You’ve damn near ruined me!’

‘Next season?’

He waved a fat hand as he turned back to his customers. ‘Aye, see you then.’

She reached to take the brake off and almost put her hand in the beard of the Northman Lamb knocked into earlier. He was standing right beside the wagon, brow all ploughed up like he was trying to bring some foggy memory to mind, thumbs tucked into a sword-belt—big, simple hilt close to hand. A rough style of character, a scar borne near one eye and jagged through his scraggy beard. Shy kept a pleasant look on her face as she eased her knife out, spinning the blade about so it was hidden behind her arm. Better to have steel to hand and find no trouble than find yourself in trouble with no steel to hand.

The Northman said something in his own tongue. Lamb hunched a little lower in his seat, not even turning to look. The Northman spoke again. Lamb grunted something back, then snapped the reins and the wagon rolled off, Shy swaying with the jolting wheels. She snatched a glance over her shoulder when they’d gone a few strides down the rutted street. The Northman was still standing in their dust, frowning after them.

‘What’d he want?’


She slid her knife into its sheath, stuck one boot on the rail and sat back, settling her hat brim low so the setting sun wasn’t in her eyes. ‘The world’s brimming over with strange people, all right. You spend time worrying what they’re thinking, you’ll be worrying all your life.’

Lamb was hunched lower than ever, like he was trying to vanish into his own chest.

Shy snorted. ‘You’re such a bloody coward.’

He gave her a sideways look, then away. ‘There’s worse a man can be.’

They were laughing when they clattered over the rise and the shallow little valley opened out in front of them. Something Lamb had said. He’d perked up when they left town, as usual. Never at his best in a crowd.

It gave Shy’s spirits a lift besides, coming up that track that was hardly more than two faded lines through the long grass. She’d been through black times in her younger years, midnight black times, when she thought she’d

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