As a base for a criminal empire, Harrenwick had one very serious drawback that occurred to me within five minutes of my arrival. It certainly was not the spot I'd have chosen.
I summed up my reservations to Ned as soon as we met. "The town's a piss-poor dump and there's nothing in the place remotely worth stealing. Why set up shop here?"
Ned looked smug as he ushered me into the back room of The Green Dragon Inn. "Ah, Corrine; you see, for me, that is just one more advantage to the place. I'm only going to be organising things from here, and I don't want to stir up trouble locally. You don't want to crap on your own doorstep, so why not choose a doorstep that's..." Ned's voice faded as his metaphor died on him. He shrugged and continued. "And there's a lot of other advantages to Harrenwick."
I dropped onto one of the chairs and looked around. To describe the place as run-down was missing a good opportunity to use the word derelict. I'll admit that I've stayed in worse accommodation, but only because I was manacled to the wall at the time.
Ned pulled another chair across. The years and the weight were starting to catch up with him. The chair legs creaked when he sat and his features were losing their definition. Despite this, he was still both good-looking and (more importantly) rich enough that plenty of women would have been interested in him. However, I was not one of them and Ned knew it, although this did not stop him from positioning his chair far too close for my liking. It was the main drawback to doing business with him. Ned was the sort of man who would not take "no fucking chance" as an answer.
In the past, he had not been too much of a problem. I pass as a boy and the damage to his reputation if someone not "in the know" had spotted him making a play for me was enough to keep him, and his hands, at bay. Unfortunately, the Green Dragon was completely devoid of spectators - well-informed or otherwise. Still, I didn't think that the situation would be beyond my ability to handle. I just had to keep the conversation strictly to business matters. Ned was a reliable fence, and I had some warm merchandise to part with.
"Such as?" I repeated.
"It's thanks to Earl Douglas." Ned's tone suggested a private joke.
"A friend of yours?"
"I don't think he has any friends."
My look invited Ned to continue. In the context, it was impossible to be sure whether "Earl" was a real title or the nickname of an underworld boss, and I wanted more information before risking a faux pas - with underworld bosses these can be fatal.
"Harrenwick has poor farmland and no natural resources to mention. It's never been a wealthy province, but back thirty years ago it was doing alright. It sits in the middle of some far more wealthy regions and a lot of trade routes used to go through here. There was a thriving market, and half a dozen inns, plus blacksmiths and other businesses. But then Douglas became earl and he wanted money, so he slapped taxes on all the goods that came through. Merchants started to use other routes, so he had to raise the taxes to get the money he wanted, which meant that still more merchants avoided the place."
"Did no one see fit to explain to him the law of diminishing returns?"
"Maybe, but he didn't believe them. After thirty years with him in charge, this is the only inn left in town and there is no market. I was able to buy The Green Dragon for next to nothing. There's good roads, but the only travellers who come through are people in a hurry with nothing of value on them. They don't hang around and interact with the locals." Ned sat back slightly. I could tell from the smile on his face that he was thrilled by his own cleverness. "So nobody is going to give any thought to my contacts when they slip through here. It's the perfect spot to be the hub of my organisation."
I shook my head. "The law will catch on to you before long."
"They're already taken care of. A few years back, Douglas had a major campaign against all the local criminals. He really pushed the town watch into taking risks - a couple of them were killed and maimed. Then, once the crime rate had dropped, he told the officers that now there was no significant crime in the area, they didn't justify getting the same pay, so he dropped their wages." Ned's smile was splitting his face. "Do you have any idea how easy they were to bribe? I could pay them nothing, and they'd still leave me alone, just to spite Earl Douglas."
I thought about this for a moment. "Exactly what sort of idiot is Douglas?"
"You can judge for yourself. In an hour's time he's going to be giving a speech to the townsfolk. We can go and listen." Ned leaned forward again and put his arm around my shoulders. "But business first. I think you have some things that you want to show me."
I shrugged his arm away, but restrained the urge to take any more forceful action. I have my pride, but money is more useful, and I doubted that I would get the best price if I broke his fingers off. That could wait until after the bargaining was complete.
Earl Douglas was tall, sallow and on the wrong side of fifty. When not speaking, his lips were clamped in the sort of tight line that can only be mastered by years of practise at looking miserable. You couldn't see him without the word "desiccated" coming to mind. His clothes were simple, dark and a tribute to the na-ve idea that, with enough black dye, anything can project austere good taste. In Douglas" case, the dye was fighting a losing battle against threadbare cloth, moth eaten trimmings and styles that were thirty years out of fashion.
His speech was couched in the language of formal declamation, but amounted to his belief that the people were lazy, stupid, incompetent, dishonest and sneaky, but primarily lazy, and that he was no longer going to be so nice to them. He then announced changes to the legal system that were variations on the theme of anyone caught being lazy would have their ears cut off with a red hot knife.
Within thirty seconds of his speech starting, I had a pretty good idea about what sort of idiot he was. He had ruined his fiefdom's economy but had managed to persuade himself that it wasn't his fault. The rich are always convinced that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. Douglas had gone one step further and decided that they were clearly responsible for his own (relative) poverty as well. He wanted everyone else to work harder, in the hope that it would get him out of the hole he had dug.
My gaze drifted around the scene. There were certainly enough poor people to blame. Harrenwick had to be one of the most destitute spots in all the kingdoms. Few in the audience were dressed in anything better than rags, and that included the nobles on the raised platform behind Earl Douglas.
The faces present held a range of expressions: the townsfolk looked angry, the guardsmen looked embarrassed, Earl Douglas looked self righteous, and everyone else on the platform looked as if they were pretending that they weren't there. My eyes caught with those of a woman standing just behind the earl. For a second, her expression shifted to something like surprise, as if she had recognised me, but then it returned to blank indifference.
She was the only woman on the platform. From her clothing, it was impossible to guess her social standing. Presumably she was someone important, but her attire was notable in the absence of jewellery. Most earls would not give the hooded cloak she was wearing to their kitchen staff. Even the hand of a skilled seamstress could not disguise the repeated repairs.
Earl Douglas" speech moved on to his closing remarks, which were a summing up of how much he hated laziness, and then he, and the other notables, left the town square with their escort of guardsmen. The crowd broke up with a speed that suggested people were worried that dawdling might constitute grounds for ear removal, but as they hurried away, I heard plenty of comments which, if taken literally, would mean that Douglas" mother had sexual inclinations of a barnyard nature.
After the meeting, Ned gave me a quick tour of the town. There was not a lot to see, but the well worn condition of the stocks, pillory, whipping post, gallows, gibbet and ducking stool showed that a common thread ran though all Douglas" previous ideas about how to turn his fiefdom's economy around. I doubted that his latest scheme would be any more successful, and would merely put the last nail in the coffin of the ear-ring trade.
"Who was the woman behind Douglas?" I asked Ned, once we were back in the Green Dragon.
"Lady Isobel, his wife; poor cow."
"She's a lot younger than him."
"It's his third wife. The other two died, by all accounts with expressions of relief on their faces."
"I'm wondering if I've met her before."
"You might have. I know that I did. Her father was responsible for me giving up working as a thief." Ned moved closer as he spoke.
I edged away. "How?"
"He was the one who had the stripes put on my back. After that, I decided working as a fence held less risk."
"Do you think she might remember you?" I probed my memory, wondering if it might have been Ned that she'd stared at, rather than me.
"I doubt it. It was ten years ago. She was a child at the time, and I was just another small time crook being whipped around town at the cart's tail. Her father is Duke of South Runward. She's been married to Douglas for less than a year. Rumour says it was something to do with political manoeuvring over concessions on copper exports"
"That gets said about all aristocratic marriages. How many copper concessions can there be?"
Ned got closer again. He lowered his voice and shoved his hips forwards. "I don't know, but I'd be happy to make a few concessions of my own to you. In fact, I could offer you a very big concession... a real man-sized concession. How about it?"
This time I stood my ground. "Ned. The answer is NO. Do us both a favour and stop acting like an arsehole."
He was undeterred. "I know your reputation, the Queen of Magpies, the famous thief who only shares her bed with women. But you should give men a chance. You might like it, with the right man."
"Do you want me to say no again, or shall I go straight to a knee in the balls?"
"I can't believe that you really mean that." Despite his words, he stopped outside knee-range, but he kept up the smile and lover's murmur. His hips were gyrating faintly - either in the hope that I would find the sight erotic, or that I couldn't hit a moving target.
"Then taking a step closer will be an enlightening experience for you."
"Oh, come on. I know that you'd like it. I'm very good in bed."
"That's not what I've heard."
That line brought him up short. The sudden transformation in his manner was comical. I've always found it effective when you change the script without warning.
"Who have you--"
Ned didn't get the chance to question the slurs on his virility. We were interrupted by the door of The Green Dragon opening and two women entering the inn. The first was Lady Isobel. The second hung back in a way that implied she was far less important.
Ned immediately turned to the new arrivals. There was an awkward moment before he remembered to return his hips to a position more directly in line with the rest of his spine, and a slightly longer awkward moment before he gave a clumsy bow. "My lady. What may I do to assist you?"
Lady Isobel advanced regally. "I understand that you might be able to obtain certain items from outside the Earldom."
"I can try, my Lady. If you let me know what you want, I can give the word to people passing through. One of them might be able to drop off whatever you want on their return journey."
Lady Isobel nodded. "That would be very helpful of you. I need some cloth for... alterations to my gowns. My maid can inform you of my exact requirements. She has samples."
From her hesitation on the word "alterations', I suspected that the intended modification was what most ordinary folk would call "patches'. It must be awful to be an aristocrat and therefore unable to admit that you couldn't afford new clothes and would have to repair old ones.
Isobel turned to the woman behind her and gave a little shooing gesture which clearly meant that the maid was to be the one who would have to stand in close proximity to Ned and pass on the details. Accordingly, the maid scurried across the room, but before she reached Ned's side, Lady Isobel spoke again.
"No. It would be better if you went outside. You need daylight to see the colours properly."
The maid backtracked and left the room. Ned followed, pausing every two steps to give a little bend from the waist that looked more like a precursor to vomiting than a bow, but I guess he meant it as a sign of respect.
This seemed to be as good a time as any for me also to leave. I gave an even clumsier bow than Ned's (although I can give a fairly good formal bow, when required, but I felt a certain gaucheness would fit better with the situation) and edged towards the door.
"Excuse me, my lady. I must be off."
Lady Isobel waited until I had drawn level with her before speaking, her voice too soft to be heard by anyone standing outside. "Please. Before you go... I wondered..."
No matter how eager I was to be gone, you can't run off when nobility are talking to you. "Yes, my lady?"
"I was just wondering... if your name would be Corrine."
That one hit me like a kick in the guts. My life literally depends on me not being recognised. My eyes shot to the doorway, expecting to see a couple of watch officers blocking my escape, but none were in sight.
I looked back. "Why might you think that, my lady?"
"Because it was the first name that came to mind, when I thought of a woman, disguised as a man, who would be keeping company with a convicted thief, albeit a supposedly reformed one."
"I, er..." My confusion and panic were growing. She had recognised my sex rather than my face. Most people need to see me stripped naked before they're absolutely certain that I'm not an adolescent boy. "How do you know..." I broke off again, cursing myself. Lady Isobel could not be utterly sure of my identity, else she would have come with guards, but now I had confirmed her guesswork.
"I've always been observant. I notice things. And I have a good memory for faces. I remembered your colleague." She put her hand on my arm. "Please, don't worry. I'm not going to have you arrested. In fact, I want you to do something for me."
"I don't know what you have in mind, but I think you have the wrong person. I don't work for hire, and I can't do half the things the songs about me claim."
"I'm sure you could do this, and it would mean so much to me."
My eyes fixed more firmly on Isobel's face. Curls of blonde hair escaped from under the hood. Her nose was small and ever so slightly upturned. Her cheekbones were chiselled just enough to counteract the big green eyes and soft mouth, and make her look like an adult rather than a child. She was twenty two at the most. Lucky old Earl Douglas! Speaking for myself, I wouldn't have needed the copper concession to be interested.
"I..." Isobel's gaze dropped to her hand on my arm. "I hate my husband."
You and the rest of the Earldom. There had to be something else. "And what do you want with me?"
"There is only one thing he values. I want you to take it."
"What?" My voice rose, mainly in disbelief. Was there anything in the piss-poor town worth stealing?
"He calls it his Golden Dove."
"Is it valuable?"
"My husband says it is."
"Then it will be kept secure." Although, in saying this, I was being rather disingenuous. I like to think that nothing is too difficult for me to get my hands on.
Isobel bit her lip nervously. "Tomorrow morning, Douglas is going to visit another province, to sign a treaty. He won't be back for three days. The house will be lightly guarded in his absence."
"Will he leave the Golden Dove behind?"
"Yes. I'm certain of it. And I'll make sure you can get in. There won't be a guard on the outer wall of the manor, and there's a kitchen door that will let you into the inner courtyard. I'll see that it is unlocked. You'll find the Golden Dove on the top floor of the main house. Take the door on the right after coming up the stairs, into his private rooms, and then take the door diagonally opposite where you enter."
I drew a deep breath and rubbed my face. "So that's the what. Now tell me why you want me to take it."
"My husband is a cruel man. I... He..."
The break in her voice caught me up hard. "Does he hurt you?"
"He hurts everybody, one way or another. I'm just near to hand." Her eyes sought my face again. I could see that they were filling with tears. "But what can I do? This is his fiefdom. I am his wife. I have to use what I can. You're a thief; the most famous thief in the world. I've heard all the songs about you, the Queen of Magpies. This is the one thing you can take that will really wound my husband."
She had me. I've always been a soft touch for damsels in distress. And anyway, it was a chance to crap on Ned's doorstep.
Earl Douglas" clothes weren't his only possessions that had seen better days. The back of his manor house was in desperate need of repair. The century old mortar powdered beneath my fingers and toes, allowing me to get a grip on the bricks beneath. The night was warm enough so that going barefoot caused no discomfort, but even without this added advantage, the climb was easy enough to set children on as a game, and the river flowed beneath, lapping right up to the rotten foundations, so you wouldn't need to worry about the little darlings falling off. However, given the circumstances, I'd rather avoid the dunking if I could, and there was always the slight risk that I'd land on the rowing boat I had "borrowed" to get there.
Apart from the easy access and abundant handholds, the wall had the additional advantages of being neither overlooked nor illuminated in any way. I had at least an hour before the moon would travel far enough west for its rays to touch the back of the house. This was plenty of time to get what I'd come for and leave.
Earl Douglas" enclosed estate was at the edge of town, abutting onto the river. It was divided into two by an inner wall. The smaller section was a courtyard, around which were stables, guardhouse, kitchens and the main house. The larger part was gardens, both ornamental and for food. Even his lordship had to do what he could to make ends meet, although I suspect he was not yet quite poor enough to be forced to dig the vegetable patch himself.
I'd been able to lay my hands on a rough map. This showed the kitchens as backing on to the dividing wall, which made Isobel's story of a doorway to the garden sound plausible. However, I had decided not to use her suggestion for my entrance - partly because of fear of betrayal, but mainly because, as a professional thief, I don't like amateurs telling me how to do my job.
The windows facing the river on the ground floor had bars over them. The iron was rusty and would have taken no more than twenty minutes to saw through; however the windows on the floor above were bar-less and just as accessible. Within minutes, I was balanced on the ledge outside one. The catch was of the type that can be opened by slipping a knife blade through the gap and lifting. The only possible rational for the design is that householders are hoping thieves will think it degrading to tackle anything so easy.
My map did not extend to details on the layout inside the house, so I was going to have to work from Isobel's information. The first step was to find the stairs to the top floor. The room I had entered was in darkness, but a thin line of light beneath a door showed the way ahead. It also showed that the house was not totally deserted.
Earl Douglas had left early that morning. I hadn't bothered turning up to wave him goodbye, but from the reports of his retinue, there could not be more than ten guards left behind, and a similar number of domestic servants. In my experience, servants are a bigger hazard than guards. The guards follow predictable routines, but you never know when a housemaid is going to turn up to do a spot of late night dusting.
I crept across the room and edged open the door. Some way off, a chorus of deep voices were agreeing that Joe had no fucking hope of swinging it. After two further minutes of listening, I was confident that the speakers were stationary, and not about to move anytime soon. I had also learnt that Pat and Joe were both sick tossers, Del's farts smelt worse than anyone else's, and that the new barmaid at the Four Horseshoes had a nice pair of tits. Either the speakers were guardsmen, or Earl Douglas employed an unusually butch type of housemaid.
To my delight, after slipping through the doorway, I found myself looking at a staircase. No lanterns were lit on this level of the house, but faint lights glowed both above and below, enough for me to appraise the scene. The walls were devoid of paintings. The furniture was sparse and in poor repair. The rugs had worn through to the backing. Of more direct concern were the floorboards, which were visibly warped. However, even the flattest of floors can creak; hence the traditional thief's prowl, where the weight is transferred evenly from foot to bare foot.
At the stairwell, I paused and looked down. The guards were not in view, but I guessed they were gathered in the entrance hall below. From the voices, there had to be at least three, but the frequent request of, "Oi, pass me the bleedin" bottle, will yer," made it clear that they were taking a relaxed attitude to security in their lord's absence. I blew a kiss in their general direction, and turned to the stairs up.
A single small oil lamp lit the landing at the top of the house. Four doorways opened onto the area. Following Isobel's instructions, I went straight to the one at the right. The room beyond stretched the width of the house. Moonlight flowed in through the windows on one side, clearly revealing that the earl's private quarters were no more opulent than the rest of his residence, but equally, they were no more run-down. I guess there is a limit to how threadbare a rug can get before it disintegrates completely.
My final destination, when I reached it, was completely in the dark. After a moment of deliberation, I decided to risk a bit of illumination - a decision in part prompted by the sight of a five pronged candelabra, conveniently waiting on a nearby cabinet. Grabbing it, I returned to the lamp on the landing for a light.
On my return, I saw that this was clearly someone's bedroom. A huge curtained four-poster dominated the room. The only other furniture was a massive wardrobe with an ornate top, a couple of rickety chairs, a washstand, and an iron bound chest under the shuttered window. The few personal possessions on show had a feminine theme, so the room was more likely Isobel's than Douglas', although my delving through the wardrobes of the rich have turned up a surprisingly high number of noblemen with a taste for wearing women's undergarments. Of course, with my own style in attire, I'm not in a position to pass comment, even if I wanted to, and it's possible that a silk chemise simply provides the best protection against armour chafe.
The chest seemed the most likely location for the Golden Dove. Some of these old boxes have very complex locking mechanisms built into the lid. I was half hoping that this would be one of them. The absence of challenges so far was starting to get tedious. I placed the candelabra on the washstand and then knelt before the chest. But, before I could try the lid, a soft noise scuttled through the silence of the night - the unmistakable sound of somebody stirring, and pulling back curtains. I leapt to my feet and spun around, just in time to see Lady Isobel, emerging from the bed.
For a while, we stood, staring at each other in silence. Her nightgown was unique among the apparel I had so far seen in his lordship's household, in that its thinness appeared to be due to design rather than age. It certainly left very little to the imagination.
"Didn't you go with your husband?" It's amazing how a small surprise and a half naked woman can reduce me to asking the obvious.
Isobel was clearly amused by my inane question. She made it worse by answering. "No."
"But the Golden Dove is still here?"
"Where is it?"
"It's here." She started to walk towards me, slowly and deliberately. "His "Golden Dove" is Douglas" pet name for me. It makes me feel sick." Despite her words, she was smiling, getting closer, until she was within arm's reach. She looked up at me, her eyes dancing in the candlelight. "I'm his Golden Dove. And you are going to take me, aren't you?"
Her smile made her meaning very clear. Her gaze ran over me, pausing unashamedly at my groin and chest, before fixing back on my face. I felt like a lamb that had just been dropped into a wolf's den.
A surge of anger bubbled up inside me. Lady Isobel had tricked me into wasting my time, thinking that she could use me like a cheap slut, and I don't know which part was the more irritating. However, with a squad of guardsmen downstairs, I was in an awkward situation. Getting out of the place without the alarm being raised was going to require tact. And, to be fair to Lady Isobel, if she'd been listening to the bard's songs about me, she could well have got the idea that I'm physically incapable of saying no to any woman. For some reason, nothing inspires quite the same degree of poetic inventiveness as my love-life. If the songs were about anyone else, I'd probably find them incredibly funny. You can always spot the ones that have been penned by virgins.
Isobel was now scant inches from me. I took a step backwards, which achieved very little, since she immediately countered by taking another step forwards.
"Um... your ladyship... I don't... er..." My glib tongue and ready wit were not functioning at the level I would have liked.
It was ridiculous. Isobel was three inches shorter than me, and almost certainly did not have a daily exercise routine designed to practice climbing walls and outrunning guards. Nor was she an infamous criminal, with a bounty on her head in a dozen kingdoms. So why was I the one feeling like a helpless, so-to-be victim? While pondering the answer to that question, I made another pointless retreat.
The backs of my knees banged into a chair. I was off balance, and Isobel had me too hemmed in to be able to do anything other than collapse onto the seat. The feral grin on her face widened as Isobel hitched up her nightgown and then sat down on me, straddling my legs.
Her chest was at eye level. The view was quite magnificent. The top of her gown revealed so much cleavage that it was more a frame than a cover. My eyes opened so wide that my eyelids ached, but somehow I mustered the self-control to avert my face and concentrate on breathing.
This was no defence. Isobel lowered her head. Her lips brushed my cheek, and then her teeth grazed my ear, gently tugging on the lobe. I felt her breath stirring my hair and then something ran around the inside of my ear. I assume it was her tongue, because I can't imagine what else might have been in her mouth, but the effect was like a small lightning storm.
A charge shot down my spine, knocking my stomach and guts aside on the way. The pulse balled in my hips and knees before ripping down my legs, bouncing off my toenails and rushing back to hit like a fist between my legs. The hairs on my neck stood up, danced around and then sat down again. My heart and lungs tried going backwards. My brain turned into melted cheese.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I reconsidered my ideas about leaving. Although saying this flatters the state my head was in. At that moment, I couldn't have answered the question, "What is your name?", let alone been able to deal with such complex hypothetical issues as, "What do you want to do?"
Isobel pulled back slightly. I turned my head so our eyes met. For a moment, her smile faltered. Unexpectedly, I saw doubt and nervousness peeking through the cracked fa-ade, and realised that she was not nearly as confident as she was acting.
She caught her lower lip in her teeth, before the smile returned, but less predatory than before. "Please?"
It was the deciding point. At least she wasn't taking it completely for granted that I was a cheap slut.
Isobel lowered her head again. Her lips moulded onto mine, sucking and nuzzling in soft combat. Her tongue slipped into my mouth at the same moment that my hands slipped under her nightgown.
The skin on her thighs was warm and smooth. I squeezed gently on her hips, filling my hands with her soft flesh, and then my arms curled up her back, to the contrasting hardness of bone under skin. I pulled her closer to me as our tongues pressed harder against each other. There was barely room for my right hand to squeeze into the gap between us, but I managed it. The weight of her breast nestled in the palm of my hand. My thumb rubbed across her nipple.
Isobel broke away from the kiss. She threw her head back, gasping. My eyes travelled the length of her throat, before returning to the breast in my hand. Warm candlelight heightened the pink blush on her skin. My fingers curled, taking a grip around the areola and pulling the protruding nipple in the direction of my mouth.
The only things holding the front of Isobel's gown together were three small lace ties. These now gave up their doomed battle to protect her virtue and fell open. Isobel made no attempt to stop the gauzy material slipping from her shoulders to the floor.
Her nipple was hard under my tongue. I released my grip on her breast, and wrapped both arms around her waist, pulling her into me. I wanted to fill my mouth with her. Isobel's fingers dug savagely through my hair. I could hear soft whimpers torn from her throat. Her hips surged rhythmically against me, in a way that suggested the action was not under her conscious control.
Eventually, Isobel pushed away, sliding down slightly on my lap. She peeled one of my hands free from her back, as if in readiness to stand, but she had other ideas. My disappointment lasted only as long as it took to work out her intention. Keeping a firm grip on my wrist, Isobel guided my hand down, and pressed it into the tiny gap between my lap and her pubic mound. I parted my knees as far as her weight on me allowed, giving my fingers more space to burrow towards their goal.
Isobel's body jolted as if punched. She was wet. I was sure that I was too. My fingers explored her, while my eyes were locked on her face, watching my actions mirrored there. Isobel's eyes were scrunched shut. Her mouth was open, lips pulled back wide. Her forehead and cheeks were lined in contortion. It might have been the face of a woman in agony - but it wasn't. All intense responses look so similar on one level, and so very different on another.
Tremors were running through Isobel. Her torso was heaving in a battle to draw the air into her lungs. Without my supporting arm around her, I am sure she would have fallen. She was very close to the edge, but then she moved away sharply, breaking the intimate contact with my fingers.
She hung her head, panting to reclaim her breath. "Please, I need..."
Instead of finishing the sentence, Isobel slipped off my lap. Her hands went to the laces on my jerkin. I sat passively, only raising my arms when prompted, so that she could draw my shirt and jerkin off over my head.
Once I was naked from the waist up, Isobel knelt, and then pushed my knees wide apart, so that she could shuffle closer. Her lips and tongue traced damp lines across me. Wisps of blonde hair tickled the sensitive skin of my breasts. The caress of her mouth was slow, gentle and subtle, arousing rather than satisfying, teasing my body into needing more.
Now I was the one gasping. Once I reached out to hold her, but she caught my wrists and pressed them back against the sides of the chair. Her hands then travelled to the belt buckle at my waist. And all the time, her mouth continued its leisurely journey across my skin. I was aching from the touch.
My belt fell open. Isobel drew back and stood, while reaching out a hand to grasp mine. She tugged me to my feet and then clasped me close, breasts squashing breasts. As we kissed, her fingers slipped under my waistband and slowly rolled the material over my hips. The last of my clothes hit the floor with a soft rustle.
My legs were struggling to support me. When Isobel pushed me onto the bed, my collapse was suitably inelegant. I kicked the top covers aside and squirmed around until my head was on the pillow. Isobel appeared to be in a marginally better state than I was. Before joining me, she took the time to pull back the curtains fully and re-position the candelabra. Evidently, Isobel was the sort of woman who liked to see what was going on.
I lay on my back. Isobel crawled onto the bed and sat astride me, pinning my arms to my sides. I felt her wetness on my stomach. She then leaned forward, resting her hands either side of my head. Her breasts hung low over my face, but she teased me, keeping them slightly out of range of my questing mouth, and pulling back whenever I craned my neck to follow.
"Stick your tongue out." The order was delivered softly but decisively.
I obeyed. My eyes met hers. The predatory smile had returned to Isobel's face. She studied me intently and then lowered her body until one nipple grazed the tip of my tongue. Again she teased, moving out of reach and forcing me to extend as far as possible.
"I guess that will do." Her tone was one of approval.
Isobel raised her body and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing me down the bed. The force would not have been enough to move me on its own, but I was more than happy to assist.
Soon my face was beneath her. The warm musk scent of her desire was overpowering. Yet still she held herself just tauntingly too far above me. However, now my arms were free. I clamped them around her thighs and pulled her down onto me. My tongue drove into her.
Isobel shook and writhed in convulsive spasms, as if trying to get away from me, but I was not about to let go - not that I think she wanted me to. The time for teasing was over. Remorselessly, I set my tongue to work on her, sliding through the soft folds of skin, alternating between light probing with the tip and harder pressure from the centre. Isobel's body bucked in response to each caress.
She hit climax. For a moment, Isobel froze in an image of ecstasy. Her head was thrown back and her hands tightened into fists, crossed in front of her. A high note, like a whispered scream, issued from her mouth. And then she collapsed onto the bed.
I squirmed out from under her, still nibbling whichever bit of flesh was nearest, and waited for her to return to her full senses. Eventually, Isobel rolled onto her side and looked at me, languid and smiling. Her finger traced a slow line upwards from my navel.
"Your turn next, and I have something I think you might like."
Her words were slightly worrying. I hoped she wasn't basing my supposed predilections on some of the more outrageous songs. Although I was in a sufficiently aroused state that there was not a lot that I would have been unwilling to try.
By way of answer, Isobel reached under one of the pillows and pulled out a leather phallus, complete with harness. "Have you seen one of these before?"
"Do I look that naive and innocent?"
Tactfully, Isobel did not answer the question, and only asked, "Do you mind?"
In fact, the dimensions were so modest that I doubt anyone could have objected. Despite my previous words, I don't think I had ever seen one quite so small - usually they are large enough to cause at least a slight twinge of envy in most men. Possibly, Isobel had needed to secrete it about her person in order to sneak it into the house, although if that were the case, a couple of obvious hiding places spring to mind.
Isobel slipped her legs through the harness and tightened the strap around her waist, employing deft movements that implied she had done it before. She pushed me onto my back and lay on top of me. I could feel the hard core of the phallus pressing into my stomach.
For a minute or more, Isobel kissed me, unhurried and thorough, before shifting down a little. I opened my legs obligingly. She had definitely done this before. Without need for hand guidance, the tip found its mark. I felt the shaft opening my lower lips and then the length of it, slipping into me, slowly but firmly, until the base made contact with my body. It felt good - better than good.
Isobel rode me. The centre of my existence became the hard friction of the phallus as it moved in and out of me. Isobel thrust with a slight twisting motion, triggering waves of sensation, inside and out. I was lost. The storm between my legs grew, surge by surge, sweeping me along helplessly. My climax exploded, ripping my body apart into chunks of pure pleasure.
Slowly, I reformed on the bed. Isobel still lay on me, although now she was still. She smiled down at me. "How was that?"
"You know, I've never done this before with..." Isobel paused. "...anyone famous. I've heard all the songs about you."
"They're all lies."
"Well, it's true that I steal things."
"And sleep with women."
I shook my head. "Oh no. This was the first time." But then I spoiled the effect by giggling.
"Liar." Isobel kissed the tip of my nose, and then removed the phallus from me sharply enough to make me gasp. "I haven't finished with you." She loosened the strap at her waist. "I want you to wear this, but first..." She reached under the pillow again and pulled out another set of long leather strips. "I want you to tie me to the bed."
I considered the pillow, wondering how many more surprises were in store beneath it, and then looked back are Isobel.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Why shouldn't I be?"
"Because if you pay any attention to the songs, you'll know that I'm a devious villain. Who knows what I might do once you're helpless? You can't trust me."
Isobel gave me a little sideways smile. "Oh, I don't. That's where the thrill lies."
Later - a lot later - Isobel raised herself on one elbow and looked down at me. I was amazed at her stamina. I could barely summon the energy to raise my eyebrows. Every bone in my body had turned to jelly. My muscles had forgotten how to move and I couldn't feel my legs.
Isobel caught her lip in her teeth thoughtfully. "Now, is there anything we haven't done?"
"Standing up in a hammock?"
She snapped her fingers in mock frustration. "Drat! Our only hammock is off at the seamstress for repair." Her smile faded as her eyes continued their slow appraisal of me. "You're not bad, you know. And I have missed this so much." She sighed. "I haven't had a chance since I married Douglas. Spotting you in the crowd was too good an opportunity to waste."
"Why did you marry Earl Douglas?" I knew it was a silly question. The answer would be politics - the aristocracy do not marry for love. I really wanted to ask about the woman (women?) that she had indulged with before, but thought it more tactful to approach the subject obliquely.
"I didn't get much choice." Isobel swung her legs off the bed and stood up. "I always knew I'd be married off to cement some alliance or the other. Douglas didn't seem so bad at first." She scooped up her nightgown from the floor. Instead of putting it on, she went to her wardrobe. "But if I'd known what a stinking bastard he is, I'd have considered opting for a nunnery instead."
When she shut the wardrobe door, she was holding another nightgown in her hands. This one was more in keeping with the rest of Earl Douglas" household. It held the level of eroticism you generally associate with your grandmother. The material was frayed, and worn so thin in places that it was nearly as transparent as the first nightgown that I'd seen her in.
Isobel continued talking as she pulled it on over her head. "What do you reckon... the nuns... how many of them are there just because they don't want to get married to a man? And what would be my chances of linking up with one who was interested in something better?"
"You could always try to make converts."
"That might be fun. But anything would be more fun than being married to Douglas." She smoothed down the nightgown and began fastened it to the neck with a row of small horn buttons. "I can cope with a temper. My father has one, but you just see his face and know to leave him alone for a few hours. With Douglas, he is permanently in a bad mood and looking for someone the scapegoat. He is vicious, humourless and stupid." Her hands paused for a second. "And, for all his temper, my father has never once struck my mother." Her eyes fixed on mine and then she returned to the last few buttons. "Which is why I'm going to do this."
I struggled up onto my elbows to get a better look at her. A frown started on my face. Her last words and her actions in dressing held a purposefulness that gave the strong impression she had a goal in mind. Had I missed something in the conversation? As I watched, Isobel walked to the doorway and opened it. My frown grew. Surely it was me who should be going, not her?
For a few seconds, Isobel looked into the darkened room beyond, before turning back to me and smiling. Then her hands rose and took a grip on the neck of her gown. She yanked at it with all her strength. The horn buttons flew off and bounced across the floor. The material put up no more of a fight, but the sound of tearing cloth was drowned out by her scream.
I jerked upright. "What the--"
Isobel did not hang around to explain. With another ear piercing scream, she fled from the room.
What I did next was incredibly stupid, and my only excuse is that I had just fucked my brains out. I leapt off the bed and chased after her.
She didn't run very fast, and I caught up with her on the landing at the top of the stairs. I grabbed her arm and swung her around to face me. "What is--"
Another doorway opened. The woman standing there was of the sort usually described as a matron. She was about fifty, overweight, with iron grey hair and an offended expression. I don't believe this last part was due to anything in particular - it was just her habitual response to life. She was wearing a nightmarish yellow tent that pulled in tight at all the wrong places.
The three of us stared at each other in an absurd tableau of surprise - me naked, Isobel in the torn nightgown, and the matron in head to foot yellow. I couldn't help wincing. I would have walked through the main square on market day, dressed in either my or Isobel's attire, in preference to the matron's monstrosity. But I didn't have long to ponder her appalling taste in fashion. The matron took a mere instant to agree that screaming was the appropriate response to the situation. Her voice joined with Isobel's in attempting to lift the rafters. From the bottom of the stairs came shouts from the guardsmen.
At this point, my brains decided to make a belated return. I let go of Isobel's arm and raced back the way I had come. In my estimation I had, at most, a ten second lead on the guards.
I slammed Isobel's bedroom door shut and looked around desperately for something to barricade it with. Unfortunately, everything was either too heavy to move (like the wardrobe) or too flimsy to be worth bothering with (like the chairs). I darted across the room, opened the window and flung back the wooden shutters. Moonlight flooded in. Below was the river - meaning I could dive out in relative safety, but my clothes were scattered and I didn't have time to find them all. The sound of the guardsmen was getting close.
It is sage advice never to put modesty before getting caught (at least this would have been sage advice, had anyone ever given it to me) but this was not the reason for hesitating over the dive into the river. I just sincerely doubted my ability to slip away through the town unnoticed, while stark naked.
My eyes fixed on the wardrobe. It was over ten feet high, which left barely a one foot gap between it and the ceiling. It was in a dark corner. It agreed with my human-fly instinct to go up when in trouble. I took a running jump, caught hold of the top and hauled myself up. My toes found purchase on the edge of a panel, and then I was over the top and headfirst into several decades worth of dust and a large social gathering of spiders and woodlice.
The concealment potential of the wardrobe was even better than I had hoped. What had looked like a deeply carved relief top, was in fact, little more than a thick fretwork pelmet that had been tacked on to make the furniture look taller and more ornate than it truly was. I was lying in the well, and had just got myself flat when the door burst open and the unmistakable sound of running guardsmen filled the room.
"He's jumped out, sarge," one of them shouted, presumably on seeing the open window.
The "he" left me feeling strangely relieved. They obviously hadn't seen me. However, the matron now belonged to the select group who would not mistake me for a boy, and I was sure that she would set them straight before they began their hunt. Isobel, of course, could be even more positive about my sex, although I wasn't sure how many details she'd want to pass on.
Cautiously, I slid across the wardrobe top, until I could peer through one of the holes in the fretwork. Four guardsmen were gathered at the window.
"How many were there?"
"I can't see anyone."
"Call out the watch to hunt the wharfs."
This last comment came from the guard with extra dangly epaulettes on his shoulders, which most likely meant that he was the sergeant. He turned to go, about to lead his men from the room, but came to an immediate halt. The choked expression on his face warned me that he had seen something startling.
The cause for his discomfiture was immediately apparent. Isobel stood in the doorway of the room. The shredded state of her current nightgown made it even more revealing than the first. Between the moonlight and the candles, there was enough illumination to see that the sergeant was blushing. He took two careful steps forward, but Isobel was showing no sign of moving, and I suspect the guardsmen's book of etiquette contains little advice about manhandling your boss's near-nude wife when he is not there.
"It was awful... awful. She was a monster," Isobel sobbed.
You could almost hear the sound of the guardsmen's minds whirling at the pronoun.
"I was... was sleeping. And she broke in. She's... a... that thief... the magpie they sing about." Isobel was putting on a wonderful display of hysterical anguish. "And she... she... she ravished me."
In synchronisation, the guardsmen's heads all snapped towards the bed. And there were the damp and dishevelled sheets, the sweat stained straps attached to each of the four bed-posts, and most incriminatingly of all, the leather phallus, complete with harness, lying on a pillow.
Isobel took a half step forward and then dropped to her knees, her face buried in her hands. "It was terrible... terrible."
With a bit of care, it would now have been possible for the guardsmen to have edged past her, even though flashes of yellow showed that the matron was lurking in the doorway. However, from the expressions on the men's faces, you could tell that none of them was planning on going - not when there was the faint chance that Isobel might reveal a few spicy details.
Isobel's hand wavered dramatically in the direction of the pillow. "That, that thing she used. Oh... have you ever seen anything so monstrous? Why would anyone make such a thing? Look at how big it is! My sweet husband is not half the size."
The men's heads swung back to the bed. Their eyes fixed on the phallus. Five seconds passed while they added up the implications of Isobel's statement, and then a high squeaky noise came from one of the guards at the back and he looked down sharply. I don't think it was because he had just trodden on a mouse. The youngest even went and stood by the bed, staring down with the expression of a man who is fighting hard not to laugh.
And there was more to come. Isobel drew a shuddering breath. "She is a depraved beast... so unlike my gentle Douglas. She went on, and on, and on and on. I thought she would never stop. I have never... never known..." Isobel broke off in a succession of sobs. "Who would think that a woman could be such an animal? Have you ever heard of anyone so insatiable? My dear Douglas... why, with him, I can count to five and he is finished."
My initial surprise faded as I worked out just where Isobel's revelations were going. Douglas did not have much of a reputation left to destroy, but she was going to hit at the most sensitive part of any man's ego. Isobel was putting on a breathtaking performance and had her audience hooked. The guards looked as if they couldn't believe either their ears or their luck to be present at such a noteworthy event. A wave of yellow flowed into the room, but like the guards, the matron was clearly too titillated to want to cut short the revelations.
"That thing... it is so large, and so hard. Look... see, you cannot bend it. It was awful. Will she have harmed me? Surely a woman's parts are not able to take such treatment from something so rigid? And so... so... so large?"
The matron opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Wisely, she closed it again. The guards were giving every impression of being men battling to maintain their composure, or at least their silence. Their attention was locked on Isobel, and surprisingly, in my estimation, not for the normal reason that a group of men might stare at an inadequately dressed woman. They simply dare not risk catching anyone else's eye.
Isobel appeared oblivious to the effect her words were having. "And she... she sucked... sucked on my breasts... as if she were a babe in arms. Have you ever heard of an adult doing such a thing? Why my dear husband is too... mature even to want to touch them."
By now, the sergeant's face held the sort tight lipped, bugged eyed expression that you normally associate with terminal constipation. The youngest guard turned sharply and buried his face in the bed curtains. His shoulders were shaking.
"She used some witchcraft on me as well. I have never known anything... anything like it. But when she... used that... that..." Isobel's hand gestured towards the bed again. "That thing. I felt a... a... wave build up inside me and then it... it surged through me. It was like a sneeze... only stronger, and... I know it was some sort of magic because... because if it had not been so awful... it might have been... have been... pleasant. It was some horrible enchantment. I know it... I know it." Isobel let her hands drop from her face and stared up at the sergeant. "What sort of wicked magic is it? Have you ever heard of a feeling like that?"
The sergeant shook his head, probably because it was safer than trying to answer the question.
I hadn't needed that last outburst from Isobel to be sure that her revelations were more invention than truth. It wasn't that no man was could be such an incompetent lover (over the years I've heard enough complaints from friends who aren't of my own persuasion) but I had personal knowledge that Isobel was not the innocent she was playing. It did not matter. I was clearly the only one in the room with such doubts.
"She was so unlike my sweet husband. Douglas is always so kind and gentle with me. He is delicate and soft, and so much smaller... half the size, I swear it... or less. He is so undemanding." Isobel gave way to another burst of sobbing.
The youngest guard had gone as far as chewing on the curtains to stifle his laughter. One of the men at the back had his hand clasped across his mouth. The other was studying his boots and only flicking quick glances in Isobel's direction. The sergeant's lips were pressed together so tightly that you could see them quivering with the strain. I know that they had all been drinking downstairs - how much longer could their bladder control last?
"She said she would come back tomorrow night."
"We'll protect you, my lady." The sergeant's voice was a high pitched yelp.
The sound of it knocked the matron out of her state of stunned inaction. Belatedly, she seemed to realise that she should be protecting the earl's wife from the prurient curiosity of guardsmen. Her duty undoubtedly lay in getting the details down in private, so that she could share them later with a few close friends who would enjoy being scandalized.
She bent down and put her arm around Isobel's shoulder. "Come my dear; leave the guards to their work. They will catch this monster."
Isobel let herself be raised to her feet, but she carried on with her hysterics. "She can't do it again. Surely... surely she can't?"
"No. She will be in the dungeon by tomorrow," the matron cooed.
"But... if she were not... surely it would still be impossible."
The matron led Isobel from the room, with an arm around her and mumbling, "There, there, there. It's alright now."
"My dear lord says that no man can perform the act, more than... more than... more than..."
Isobel and the matron disappeared from sight, but her last words floated back clearly from the room beyond. "...more than once every ten-day."
The four guardsmen remained frozen in place, while the sound of Isobel's sobs faded away. At last, the sergeant cleared his throat, and spoke in more manly tones than before.
"Right. Well. We need to... um... search for..." He swallowed audibly. "And someone must take word to Earl Dickless... I mean Douglas."
I suspect that the slip was deliberate. Regardless, it was the final blow to the guard's self-control. The young one let go of the curtain with his teeth and dropped to the floor, gurgling. One of his colleagues only remained upright by clinging to a bed post. Another had his arms wrapped around his waist and was bent double.
The sergeant stumbled to the bed, while making sounds like a choking cart-horse. He picked up the phallus and made a big show of measuring the half-way point. The pantomime produced fresh wails of laughter from his men. All of them were wiping their eyes.
Had there been the slightest vestige of truth in Isobel's claims, I would have been outraged on her behalf, that the ordeal she had described was receiving so little sympathy from the men who were supposed to be her protectors. As it was, I just wanted to kill her.
Another five minutes passed before the guards had recovered enough composure to be able to stand up straight. The sergeant still had tears running down his face, but he'd managed to get his breath back.
"Right. We need to get word to the watch, and start searching the town. We need to um..." He paused. "We need to get the word out."
At this, you could see the idea simultaneously occur to them all, that the story was just dieing to be told to as many people as possible, as soon as possible. They left with surprising haste, after pausing only to gather the evidence. The sergeant led the way, holding the phallus before him like a mascot - a mascot that was visibly quivering.
I waited until all sound of their footsteps had gone before climbing down from the wardrobe. As part of the evidence, they had taken my clothing. The first thing was to find suitable replacements.
Isobel's wardrobe did not seem a likely source for anything I might consider wearing, but I checked it out anyway, before leaving. Her first nightgown would make a suitable memento of the evening - if I survived. I then began to work my way through the house.
The third room I entered looked to be Earl Douglas" bedroom. I doubted whether it would be more fruitful. His lordship was a few inches taller than me, but the main problem I envisaged was that, despite their worn condition, his cloths were still blatantly of too fine a quality to pass without notice in my usual haunts - and black is not really my colour.
I was about to turn away when a noise from outside distracted me. I went to the window and peered out. Douglas" room overlooked the courtyard. Below me, a mixed group of guards and servants were gathered by the gatehouse. One of the men who'd been lucky enough to witness Isobel's performance was evidently giving a dramatic re-enactment of the event, and his audience were every bit as appreciative as the original one, although rather less restrained. Several were clinging to each other for support. Hysterical screeches rang out. One of the servants was guffawing so hard that he fell over.
Despite myself, I couldn't stop a grin crossing my face. I was furious at Isobel, but I had to admire her imagination. If I got out of Harrenwick in one piece, I might even have a good giggle about it as well.
Earl Douglas was intensely disliked by all, and Isobel had just given his vassals the sort of ammunition they could not have dared dream about. It was a sure bet, at that very moment, the rest of the guards were rushing off to spread the word. By tomorrow nightfall, every man, woman and child in the fiefdom would have heard about Earl Dickless.
Isobel had lied, both to me and everyone else. The whole thing had obviously been a planned charade from beginning to end. But about one thing she had clearly told the truth. Isobel genuinely hated her husband.
I eventually found some vaguely suitable clothing in a chest in a guest room, and even picked up some shoes and a small knife. The quality of the material was still a touch on the expensive side, but by the time I'd used it to wipe off the all-over coating of dust, cobwebs and crushed woodlice that I'd acquired on top of the wardrobe, it was fairly inconspicuous.
Leaving by the same route that I had arrived was unadvisable. By now, the moon was falling on the rear wall. The chances were that the guardsmen would be too busy spreading the story to think about doing anything else. I reckoned it would be noon tomorrow before they remembered that they were supposed to be looking for me, but I didn't want to take the chance. The garden door that Isobel had spoken of seemed like a safer bet. There was little risk of stumbling on a sentry by accident; the sound of laughter would give his position away.
I crept through the house. I had hoped that people with friends would be out telling them the news, and that people without friends would either be sleeping or sitting alone in their rooms, wondering why nobody liked them. However, as I tiptoed down the stairs, I heard the faint sound of talking from the ground floor.
The voices apparently belonged to two elderly gaffers, who were indulging in the typical repetitive conversation of their ilk - Nah. It's not a patch on the debacles we had in my youth - although the lifetime's experience they brought to the discussion did impress me in several respects. I hadn't known there were so many possible variations on "hung like a dormouse'.
Apart from these two, the house seemed deserted. The earl's servants must have been the friendly sort. Or maybe even the most socially inept had realised that, with gossip of this quality to dispense, the whole world would be willing to offer you a drink.
I found a suitable window on the side of the house, overlooking my route ahead. The kitchen was detached from the other buildings, to minimise the risk of fire spreading. The gap between it and the main house was about ten yards of open ground, but in deep shadow.
I had just reached the ground, when the sound of footsteps made me cower back into the darkest spot I could find. The kick of fear, thinking I had been spotted and that someone was coming to seize me, faded almost before it started. The speed of the steps betrayed nothing so purposeful. In fact, the rhythm was more like that of drunks leaving a tavern.
Soon, two guardsmen came into view. Presumably they were on patrol, but they were certainly not on the lookout. One of them was mincing back and forth. He had his hand at his groin, balled into a fist, except for his little finger, which was hanging down and flapping from side to side about as he went. His comrade was staggering along after, holding his sides and whimpering.
I waited until they were out of sight before moving, although it was hardly necessary. I suspect that nothing short of tapping them on the shoulder would have got their attention.
The window locks on the side of the kitchen were of the same easy-pick design as the rest, and unlike the door, could be reached without leaving the shadows. Within seconds, I had one open and was inside. The small room I entered was a pantry, heavy with the aroma of cheese - either that, or the cook's socks were in dire need of a wash.
Light glinted under the door, which was an unwelcome sight. The night was well advanced. Would the servants already be at the task of baking the next day's bread? Cautiously, I edged the door open. Silence held for a second, and then a voice rung out - a voice that I recognised very well.
"Oh Hannah, I must comb my hair. I can feel... it is knotted where she touch it. I must comb it. Right now."
"No, no. I must comb it. Go get my comb. Now. Right now."
Evidently Hannah did not bother to argue further. I heard the kitchen door open and shut. I was about to make my own exit, and find an alternate escape route, when Isobel spoke again, but louder and without any histrionics.
"It's alright Corrine. There's nobody else here. You can come out from the pantry."
I wouldn't have trusted a word she said, but equally, if she were lying, there was no hope of escape, regardless of what I did. I pulled the door fully open and stood in the entrance, hands on hips.
Isobel sat in front of the kitchen fire, with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She had been facing the chimney, but was now twisted around on her chair to smile at me. Her expression showed absolutely no awareness of the fact that I might wish her harm, or of the large number of knives, choppers, and meat mallets conveniently to hand. I glared at her in silence while I tried to control the urge to grab the nearest weapon. Violence is not my way, but this was one occasion where I was very tempted.
"I knew you were there, because I saw the reflection of the door opening." Blithely unconcerned, Isobel indicated the polished bottoms of a row of hanging pans. "I didn't think you'd jumped out the window. And I hoped you might try to leave this way... sitting by the fire made a good excuse, to wait here. I wanted to talk to you."
"That's strange, because I think I want to murder you."
Isobel laughed and stood up, beckoning me over. "Don't be silly. Not after the fun we've had. You were quite safe, you know. I had it all sorted out for you to escape from the dungeon. I'm impressed that you didn't need my help."
I advanced slowly, while my mind scrambled to keep up. "Don't you think it might have been polite to let me in on those plans?"
"I thought about it, but I didn't know if your acting would be up to playing the part. And my scheme required very exact improvisation. I wanted the guards to hear me say--"
"I know. I heard. I was on top of your wardrobe."
"Really?" She paused, thoughtfully. "It must have been dusty up there."
I was now close enough that I could stare down into her eyes. I could cheerfully have throated her, but I had to admit that she had a point. As a thief, I've done my share of role-playing, but when I thought of the range of performances she'd put on that night, I knew that I simply did not belong in her league. But I was not about to forgive her.
"No plan is ever mistake-proof. I could have ended up on the scaffold."
"Believe me; I wouldn't have let you come to any harm." Isobel caught hold of my hands and lifted them briefly to her cheeks. "Depriving womankind of these would be an appalling waste of talent." Her eyes danced up to meet mine. "Smile. I meant that as a compliment."
It doesn't happen very often, but Isobel had me completely speechless.
Two external doors faced each other on opposite sides of the room. She started to back me towards the one that would lead to the gardens, talking all the while.
"We haven't got long. Hannah will be back soon. But, I want to thank you, for everything. I enjoyed... what we did together, but you must know that. And also..." A smile of pure mischief spread across her face. "Nobody is ever going to take Douglas seriously again, but he won't get to the bottom of the rumours. I very much doubt that anyone will ever tell him exactly what I said. He'll just get the simple story of the Queen of Magpies, breaking into his house and abusing his wife. That will be enough of an insult to his manhood, and he'll never know the half of it."
She let go of one of my hands, and opened the door. She then reached into a nearby pot and pulled out a small velvet purse, which she pressed at me. "For authenticity, you should take this. There isn't much, just a few things Douglas left lying around his rooms... coins, a brooch, two rings."
I stared in confusion at the purse that now rested in my palm. "What..."
Isobel sighed. "You're supposed to be a thief, remember?"
Her expression was a mixture of exasperation and amusement. One corner of her mouth twitched sardonically and then something softer slipped across her face. She grabbed the front of my shirt, pulled me down into a long, slow, and surprisingly tender kiss, and then shoved me out backwards into the night.