SPIDER raised his eyebrows. No explosion."You were right," he said. "They're gone and they've taken Lavern's body with them."Gone to the Rathole. Gone behind the wards where they couldn't be touched. He braided his fingers, thinking. Cerise, Cerise, Cerise. Such workmanship with the sword. A single strike per body, flash stretched over the blade - an almost forgotten skill. But who was with her? Who was the second person in the boat?"What now?" Ruh's yellow eyes regarded him."We could return to the base." Spider smiled. "But then there is that trace of odd blood in the water. There were three people in that boat. One of them was Cerise, we know that. One of them was her cousin, the thoas. The question is, who was the third person? The thoas had bled and was poisoned. From what we know, it was likely copper poisoning, which would rob him of consciousness. Cerise wouldn't be able to move him by herself. She had help from her passenger, who was likely a man and a strong one. I want to know who he is. Aren't you curious, Ruh? I'm curious. It's such a nice little cottage. Looks very hospitable. I think that I shall call on them."CLARA tugged at the woolen blanket, freeing Urow's feet. He couldn't sleep with his feet covered and usually wriggled until his clawed toes emerged from under the blanket. Her gesture served no purpose now. Urow had sunk so deep into his herb-induced sleep that a roar of an ervaurg in his ear wouldn't wake him. Let alone the feel of wool on his feet.She brushed his hair from his forehead, feeling the cool skin of his face. The fever had ebbed, and his breathing slowed to an even rhythm, still a touch too shallow, but steadily improving. Her fingers traced the deep lines at the corners of his eyes. The laugh lines. He called them Clara's wrinkles. He claimed she was responsible for most of them. Before meeting her, he hadn't laughed enough to make them.She felt tears swelling up and held them back. She had almost lost him. Just like that, he would've been gone, ripped away from her.For a space of a breath she closed her eyes and dared to imagine what it would be like if he were no longer there. His smile, his strength, his voice, all gone. Her throat hurt. She tried to swallow and couldn't, struggling with a hard lump until it finally burst from her mouth in a small sob. Nothing would ever be the same. Gods, how do people survive that?She opened her eyes. He was still breathing.My Urow.She blinked the tears from her eyes and looked away to keep from crying, looked to the walls of the room, which bore bundles of dried herbs and small wooden shelves. An assortment of knickknacks filled the shelves: a ceramic cow, painted deep red; a tiny teapot with bright red stars of bog flowers painted on the pale green; a small doll in a cheery yellow and blue dress. She had always wanted a girl, ever since she gave birth to Ry nineteen years ago, and so she had bought the doll, determined that one day she would give it to her daughter. Her gaze traveled to the crib. She finally had her wish. Took three boys, but she had her little girlie. Everything seemed to be going so well . . .Why? Why did the feud have to flare now? Was it because they were happy?Urow's fingers moved under the blanket, and she bent forward, afraid she woke him up. His lips moved a little, but his eyes remained closed, his breathing even. Still asleep.She could sit like this till he awoke, watching his chest rise and fall. For a moment it was almost too tempting, but then she had three boys to feed and the dinner wouldn't make itself. Clara let her fingers graze his cheek one last time and rose.On her way to the kitchen, she paused by the shelf and picked up the doll. The painted blue eyes looked at her. A single line made a happy smile on the doll's face. Five months ago, when she gave birth, she had decided that she was going to wait until Sydney grew big enough to play with the doll before she would give it to her.Life was too short and ended too suddenly. If you didn't take advantage of what you had today, tomorrow it might be ripped from you.Clara tugged the doll skirt straighter and took a step to the crib. Sydney lay curled; her blanket kicked free, the dark fuzz of baby hair sticking straight up from her head. Clara tucked the doll in the fold of her daughter's little arm and put the blanket over them.In the kitchen she fired up the stove and checked the fish stock she'd made in the morning. She'd clarified it a good two hours ago by stirring a beaten egg and crumpled eggshell into the pot and carefully simmering it at a near boil to separate the grease.It needed more pepper. She checked the glass jar, but there was none left. She could send Gaston out for some water-bright. It wasn't as good as real pepper but would do in a pinch.But then, one of the boys had to stand guard. With Mart and Ry gone, only Gaston remained to keep watch. Those were Urow's rules, and she would follow them to the letter. Especially now. The soup would survive without the pepper. Besides, when the two oldest returned from herding the rolpies into the shelter, she could ask one of them to fetch some.You'd think we are at war. She dropped the sieve into the sink, irritated, stirred up the fire to warm up the stock, and reached into the cold box for the widemouth fish caught by the boys the night before.The odd thing was, she liked Gustave Mar. She never cared for Genevieve that much - too smart and too . . . not prissy exactly, but too . . . too something. Like she was just born better than they were, with better manners and a prettier face, and she wasn't unapologetic about it either, as if that was a natural thing to be. Genevieve made her feel like a stupid mud rat. Clara had never cared for the woman, and her daughters weren't much better either.Clara hacked the fish's head off with a cleaver and filleted it with deft precise strokes. But Gustave was always pleasant, she had to admit that. Still, he was gone now, and nothing would bring him back. And even if it did, how many lives would it take to rescue him? Nobody was worth that much blood. No matter what that daughter of his thought.The stock was close to a boil. She bent and scraped the fish bones off the cutting board into the garbage vat and saw feet in black boots in her kitchen.Clara straightened very slowly, her gaze rising from the boots and black trousers to the jacket, to the wide shoulders, and then to the face above the dark collar. It belonged to a blond man of indeterminable age, somewhere between late twenties and early forties. The face was pleasant enough. She glanced into his eyes and froze. They were empty and stone-hard. Trouble eyes. Fear shot through her.How did he get by Gaston? She'd heard no noise, no commotion."Limes," the man said, offering her a handful of the bumpy citrus fruit. "You'll need some for the fish soup, so I took the liberty of picking some up on my way through your storeroom. I understand the trick is to cut them paper-thin so they'll float on top of the soup when you pour it into the bowls."Those eyes, they made her want to raise her hands in the air and back away slowly, until it was safe to run for her life. But there was nowhere to run. This was her house. In the next room Urow and the baby lay helpless. Clara kept her eyes firmly on the man's face. Stay asleep, Sydney. Stay asleep, because if he gets you, I'll do whatever he says."Well, are you going to take the limes or aren't you?"She opened her mouth, knowing that saying anything was a mistake and unable to help herself. The words came out hoarse. "Get out of my house."He sighed, put the limes on the counter, and leaned against the cabinet, like a black crow come to caw on her grave. "Two people came here less than eight hours ago. They brought a thoas with them and left him in your house. That thoas, who is he to you? Your husband, perhaps?""Get out," she repeated, moving back. The cleaver in her hand was useless. He'd take it away from her and chop her to pieces with it."I see. A husband, then. He was hurt. My sympathies. I hope he recovers." The man nodded gravely. "But he doesn't interest me as much as the two who brought him. One of them was Cerise Mar. I'd like to learn about her companion. I want to know everything about this other person. Looks. Age. Accent. Anything that you might find helpful to contribute."He smiled at her, a bright dazzling smile. "If you tell me what I want to know, I'll depart and let you get back to your cooking. That stock smells divine, by the way. So what do you say?"He fixed Clara with his stare, and she hesitated, suddenly panicky, like a bird caught in a glass cage. The menace radiating from him was so strong that deep inside she cringed and tried to shield the gaping hole that sucked at the bottom of her belly."It's an honest offer." He leaned forward. "Tell me what I want to know and I'll vanish." He weaved his long fingers through the air. "Like a ghost. An unpleasant but harmless memory that will fade with time."His stare offered reassurance like a crutch, and Clara realized that he wasn't bluffing. He wouldn't harm her if she told him what he wanted to know. She felt the need to please him. It would be so easy . . .But he had hurt Urow. The thought sliced through her hesitation. He or someone who worked for him almost took her husband away from her. He would take her children if she let him."I'm afraid that I'm rather pressed for time," he said.Clara took a deep breath and threw the cleaver at him. As he caught the wide spinning blade by the handle, she swiped at the stock pot off the stove and hurled it at him.The boiling stock splashed over the man in a wide shower. She dashed away through the doorway, leading him away from the baby, away from Urow.An animal snarl of pure rage whipped her into a frenzy. She scrambled through the familiar cluttered rooms, through the den to Ry's room, to the window. Her fingers grasped the windowsill and she pulled herself up.A steel hand clasped Clara's leg and jerked her down with impossible force. She screamed as the back of her head hit the floor. He jerked her ankle up, nearly lifting her body with one hand. His eyes burned her with deranged fury. Somewhere deep inside a small part of her refused to accept what was happening, stubbornly chanting, It's not real, it's not real, it's not real . . .The heel of his left hand hit her knee. Her ears caught the sharp snap of the broken bone. In the first second she felt nothing. And then the pain ripped from her knee through her femur into her hip, as if someone poured molten lead into her leg bone. Clara screamed, clawing at the air."Hurts, doesn't it," he snarled.She barely heard him, trying to roll, trying to draw her ruined leg to her. Oh, Gods, it hurts so much, it hurts, oh, Gods. Help me!He wrenched her ankle higher. She saw the cleaver in his hand and shook, her eyes opened wide and frozen with shock. No. No, you can't do this to me. No.The cleaver fell in a shining metal arc. Ice bit her, and then he was holding the bloody stump of her leg, her foot still in the brown shoe. He tossed it aside as if it was a log. It hit the wall and bounced, leaving a bloody smudge.Blood fountained from the stump in a crimson spray. She couldn't speak, she couldn't breathe. All sound fled the world and time slowed to a terrible crawl. She saw the man's lips move, and then he twisted, shockingly fast to her underwater-sluggish eyes. He leaped up over her, and through the window. Glass fragments showered her like a glittering rain, falling, falling . . .Urow's face swung into view, his fangs bared, eyes burning with mad rage. She saw him drop the enormous crossbow. He had been meaning to mount the thing up on the roof for ages. It was too heavy for him to wield. How silly.His eyes met hers. His lips moved, but she couldn't hear him. He looked so scared, like a lost child. Don't be frightened, darling. Don't be.She could feel the darkness encroaching, ready to pounce on her. She tried to reach out to him, to touch his face, but her arm wouldn't obey.I think I'm dying.I love you.