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CHAPTER 4

Mirin stretched languorously, her golden hair falling over her breasts in a parody of modesty. Seeing the sunlight filtering through the shutters, she rolled her eyes. How could she have fallen asleep last night! Probably from utter boredom.

She stole a glance at the man snoring noisily on the bed. He was fat, smelled like a brewery, and had skin like a bloated fish. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, then clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh; he was also nearly as rich as the High Patriarch!

She cracked the shutters and peeked out the window, squinting at the brightness. She rarely saw the streets of Avacar at this ungodly hour; she should be curled up under the silken coverlets of her own bed, sleeping away the weariness of a hard night's work, dreaming foolish dreams.

She smiled and yawned. How bright everything seemed, how alive! The ordinary, the mundane, took on a polish, a sheen, in the light of day: the plump baker, his apron overflowing with breads and pastries, his cap perched jauntily on his head, singing the praises of his wares; the herald boy, his grimy face standing out against his garish shirt, his high voice piping the latest news, his hands painting pictures of the stories he told; the pretty young mother, her skirts swirling as she navigated the crowded street balancing a babe at her breast in one arm and a water jar in the other, holding her head high, yet blushing as she pretended to ignore the racy compliments being directed her way.

Mirin sighed and rested her chin on her folded arms. The sun felt so good; she'd have to do this more often. A snort from the bed reminded her why she did not. Rolling her eyes, she looked to the man. He was still asleep, thank the gods. She turned back to the window.

In the moment it had taken her to turn, the scene in the wide street had been transformed. Now it seemed every person who lived, or worked, or begged on Derrin Street had flung open their doors and rushed out. Shopkeepers, merchants, craftsmen, maids, cripples, beggars, old folk, children, even the dogs, poured into the street, practically filling it. Even old Regnym, the moneylender, who never ventured more than a few feet from his piles of gold except when she walked by, shuffled out into the crowd.

Leaning further out the window, Mirin craned her neck to see. She caught her breath. Lytha had told her the knights were returning, but she hadn't believed her, fool that she was. She bit her lip and glanced to the man snoring in the bed. Except for the occasional raw-boned young noble determined to celebrate his impending glorious death on the holy crusade in her arms, she'd had to endure customers like this one for over two years. She turned back to the window and smiled radiantly. No more!

She took a long, deep breath, let it out, then scanned the approaching knights for familiar faces. For a moment, her smile faded. There were so few.

She shook her head. This was no day for sorrow; this was a day, an hour, a minute, a second for joy. She returned to her inventory. There were a few old acquaintances. Mirin smiled and waved to each of them, though she couldn't remember their names.

Then she saw the face of one she had hoped, gods forgive her, wouldn't return. His name she had not forgotten: Maddox of Yorgren. With that arrogant smile, that priceless armor, that holier-than-thou air about him, huge and resplendent, he looked the very picture of a valiant, seasoned knight as he acknowledged the cheers of the crowd. But Mirin knew better. She knew him very well, too well. Shrinking back from the window, she swore under her breath.

She counted to twenty, then dared to peek out. Maddox was past. Her eyes met those of a handsome young knight with long, brown hair that fell to his shoulders in waves. His eyes smiled up at her, drifted lower, quickly returned to her face. Glancing down at herself, she saw that her hair did not provide the measure of modesty that she had intended, after all.

With a wide smile, she leaned out the window a bit further, winked, and blew a kiss. The young knight's eyes grew as huge as his smile, and Mirin could see the red creeping up his cheeks. Only the firm arm of another knight got him moving again.

As he rode on down the street, turning back every few steps, Mirin laughed delightedly behind her hand. What a glorious day! She swiftly calculated what the coming night's take would be. The young knight looked rich, very rich. She knew quality, and if the craftsmanship of that armor, the pure lines of that charger, the breeding behind that profile were any indication, she would do very well for herself. Very well. She rested her elbow on the windowsill, cupped her chin in her hand, and began to consider how best to meet him.

Suddenly, the crowd in the street grew hushed. Mirin saw the gilded litter of the High Patriarch passing beneath the window. She drew back and, for a moment, tried very hard to put the thoughts she had been thinking out of her head. She waited till the man on the bed had drawn in ten great snorts and let them out, then took her place at the window and returned to her plans.

The street had filled behind the High Patriarch's litter. She could no longer see the young knight. But she would. There was not a doubt in her mind.

Mirin knew all the inns and taverns in Avacar; she'd look for him in every one of them if she had to. Of course, she thought, there was no need going to the Cock and Crow or the Whistlepenny or their ilk. She turned up her nose. No, the young knight would visit only the most respectable establishments.

She would find him. And then she would welcome him home to Brennor in the way that only she, the most expensive whore in Avacar, could.

The street had once again become alive with sound. It began with a murmur, built steadily, became a roar. Mirin leaned out the window. Riding as swiftly as he could up the crowded street, was a tall man on a black charger. She leaned out further to get a better look. Now she could see the short, black hair, the fine raiment. The Defender of the Faithful! Swiftly, without thinking, she reached back and grabbed the edge of the covers and pulled them over her breasts.

She had never seen Gabriel of Morevale before. She had to smile as it occurred to her that they usually kept different hours.

He was so tall! It was not just that his horse was huge, though it was indeed the largest charger she had ever seen. When the street had become so thick with cheering people that he could make no further progress without riding them down, he had got down from his horse and walked among the mob, head and shoulders above everyone.

She hadn't known he was so tall; she hadn't known he was so handsome. Mirin blushed with shame and glanced down to make sure the covers hadn't slipped. She'd expected him to be like Maddox, she supposed, not nearly so tall but twice as broad through the shoulders: powerful, formidable, regal. She smiled. Gabriel of Morevale was all endless legs and arms, and his hair was sticking up in places from the golden circlet on his brow. But his dark, lean face looked as if it were chiseled from stone.

The pretty young mother she had seen earlier held her babe up to him. He leaned down from his great height and gently laid a huge hand on the child's head, then flashed a warm smile and moved on. The young mother's face glowed as she hugged her baby to her breast, her eyes following the Defender as he made his way slowly down the street, the great black horse following him like a dog.

Mirin watched him until she had stretched so far out the window she was in danger of falling. The people in the street, with the exception of Regnym, had vanished along with him.

She sighed as she drew back and closed the shutters. Looking down at herself, she saw the vestiges of her night's work, the sweat, the saliva, the spoiled fruit of her labor. She positively stank with it. She felt tears stinging her eyes, and she never cried. Suddenly she wanted to just go home, to bathe, to crawl into her bed, to pull the covers over her head. She'd take the alleys. She'd be there within minutes.

With infinite care, she inched her long legs over the side of the bed, then held her breath as she slowly eased herself up. Without a sound she drew on her gown, slipped on her shoes, and scooped up the pile of coins lying on the chest. As she did, sunlight touched the gem in the new ring on her finger. She paused a moment and held her hand up to the light; the amethyst flashed with the color of her eyes.

She glanced back at her patron and shook her head in disgust. Her eyes lingered on the velvet money pouch that he'd jingled so boldly last night. No, at least she was not a thief! With a shudder, she tiptoed to the door and eased it open, slipping out with the speed and grace of a cat.