The Urchin’s Song
London, England, 1485
That was until the autumn of 1485, when she found herself pinned against a grimy, piss-slicked wall of a London building.
“Can I help you, sirs?”
At hardly eighty pounds soaking wet, there was very little she could do to help them — let alone herself.
A fat forearm wedged between her jaw and her chest, and Agnes recognized the silk doublet of a nobleman. His large fingers hooked into her tunic, dragging her forward before knocking her back against the brick again.
“Look at me —” her assailant demanded, before another set of hands seized her chin to force her head up.
“Oi —” she protested.
The forearm squeezed tighter against her throat.
Standing over her was the mouse-haired son of one Mr. Bailey of Brighton and the man’s plump, redheaded comrade.
“Oh, Mr. Pate Bailey, I take it.” Agnes chuckled companionably. “You’re lookin’ well. I don’t believe I’ve met your fr —”
A hard slap caught her, sending her cap flying to the ground. The white locks of hair she had hidden beneath it fell around her shoulders, but the girl was distracted by the taste of blood on her tongue.
“This is the thief,” Pate announced.
“Red-eyed like a devil and all,” his companion added, stepping back to cross himself. “I thought your father was going mad in his old age.”
“Mad enough to give a chest of gold for a little girl’s schemes.” Pate’s grip tightened into Agnes’s clothes, and his arm on her throat grew tighter. “And I’ll have it back, plus what you’ve promised. Else it’s the gallows for you, girl.”
“N-No!” Agnes choked out. “It wasn’t —!”
“No?” Pate eased his arm off her neck. “It seemed like a scheme to me. Unless you can produce your Spanish friend and his gold.”
Agnes coughed and cleared her throat before smiling.
“Señor Lechuga Rojo is grateful for your father’s generosity,” she began with a practiced formality that fell away as she continued. “The Señor should arrive in London any day with two chests for repayment. I’ve his letter right here in my pocket.”
There was no letter, just as there was no Lechuga Rojo, and while soft hands felt through the front of her tunic — undeterred by her squirming and warnings to watch himself, the urchin glanced up. The haul she had taken from Mr. Bailey had been enough to settle her own debts, with enough left over to buy some clothes from a gentry boy.
They did not fit well, but with luck, it would be enough to convince a guard to come to her aid — if she could even find one of the louts.
A difficult thing to do, given the brightness of the sun that day and her devil eyes being ill-suited for things such as seeing.
She did not find a guard in the throng of indifferent passersby, but she saw a dark shadow.
Dark hair, red clothes and dark skin — a blackbird amid a flock of doves. The girl called out.
“¡Señor! ¡Hola, hola!”
The blackbird stopped, and the smudge of his face turned in her direction.
Pate glanced over his shoulder and dropped his arm in momentary bemusement. The girl straightened her tunic and gathered her cap, waving the men aside as she did so.
“Perfect timin’ innit? Pardon me, lads.” She squeezed between her assailants. “I need to have a word with the Señor.”
She closed the distance to the blackbird and found him to be wearing proper noble attire — much nicer than even that of Pate Bailey’s. At his side, similarly dressed, was a companion as fair in complexion as he was dark; like sunshine with his golden head.
Lord Blackbird seemed to be attempting to determine how best to arrange his face. Confusion, amusement, irritation — they all managed their way across his features in short order.
The girl bowed, whispering rapidly. “Listen, those two are gonna kill me. They tracked me from Brighton sayin’ I owe their father some money — and aye, I do, but he’s tryin’ to make me do sinful things to pay him back or it’s my neck.” Agnes raised her head and folded her hands before her in a plea. “You speak Spanish? I can a bit, but… it may be better if you don’t talk. Please, sire, please help me.”
“Yes, Dorian,” Lord Sunshine offered with a smile. “Can you manage not to talk?”
“On another day, perhaps,” Lord Blackbird offered flatly. “But in the face of so… interesting a circumstance, I might find it more challenging than not.” He paused for a beat. “I have never been particularly fond of sinful things — debt, notwithstanding.”
“That supposed to be Lechuga?” Pate’s voice sounded closer and rougher where it approached from behind her.
Agnes spun around on her heel, snapping in the man’s direction. “Oi —” She clapped her hands and stamped her foot as if scolding a dog. “That is Señor Lechuga Rojo, a man of great wealth in Spain. You ought to be bowing.”
They did not.
“Pitiful,” she said. “Perdone, Señor.”
“No es nada…” the blackbird — Dorian offered distractedly.
His attention was fixed on the pair who were standing before him, and Agnes could sense the sharpness of his dark-eyed attention more than she could see it.
“Bowing will not be necessary, gentlemen. My… companion is inclined to be overprotective.” His mild Spanish accent sounded thicker.
God bless this man for saving her hide.
“Of course I am!” She threw her arms around the Spaniard’s middle to whimper into his stomach. “When I found out Monsieur Chou had imprisoned you —”
The blond nobleman interrupted her efforts with a snort and exhaled softly.
It earned him a glare from Agnes, and she released Dorian to offer Sunshine a warning pinch of her thumb between her teeth. She hid the gesture with a wipe of her fingers beneath her eyes and sniffed.
“We were so fortunate for Mr. Bailey’s charity….” She turned to face the other men, placing her hands on her hips. “If not his confidentiality… He sent his boys to have me hanged.”
Pate’s brows furrowed so deeply that he might have made a permanent crater in his face.
Agnes lifted a finger in the younger Bailey’s direction. “What is that you’ll be damnably lucky if I don’t turn you in for trying to strangle me in the bloody streets like a common criminal.” Her hand dropped to her side, and she shrugged. “I’d say Mr. Bailey would be fortunate to be paid at all, but the Señor has already sent the trunks ahead to your father’s. So if we’re quite done?”
“No, no —” Pate sputtered, lifting a palm. “I’d want an address to reach you, Señor.”
“Of course you do,” Agnes interjected, reaching into the pocket at her side. “Why wouldn’t you want to cause more trouble than you already have? Here it is then, my father’s address. We expected the Señor to be our guest during his stay.” She yanked a folded piece of parchment free, and all but shoved it in Pate’s direction. “Cambridge, if it pleases you to make the journey, sirs; though I doubt after this spectacle you’ll be at all welcome with the way you’ve treated us.”
“Indeed,” Dorian said. “It has been quite the journey from the continent, and I am looking forward to seeing my… old friend.” The darkness of his crown dipped slightly. “You will accept my apologies for any inconvenience my delayed arrival has caused, and of course, my thanks.” His voice edged towards a warmer amusement again. “Monsieur Chou is not known for his merciful nature.”
Agnes slipped an arm through Dorian’s, tipping her cap to the gents as she encouraged her accomplices to move along.
Thankfully, they went with her, and once out of sight of the Bailey party, the blond lord chuckled.
The girl grimaced, detaching herself from her blackbird.
“Oh, proper funny, innit? You’re a shite actor, if you don’t mind me sayin’.” She directed the remark to the blond. Dorian, however, received a flash of a smile. “You were wonderful, though. My thanks, m’lord, truly. I don’t know what they might have done.”
“Have you hanged for fraud and theft, I would assume.” Lord Sunshine’s voice was mild.
“If there is even enough of her to weigh the rope,” Dorian added dryly. “ Lechuga? I’ve been called many things in my life, but Red Lettuce must top the list for ridiculous.”
“Aye, well, if I’d thought for a bloody moment I was goin’ t’be found in London, maybe I’d have picked a proper Spanish name and not something just for the fun of it,” Agnes replied.
That… was a problem. London was growing every day, and it should have been safe enough. It was likely to be a death at the stake before a rope ever found her neck, if she was caught again. The Cambridge address would only buy her a few days at the most.
She needed somewhere to hide, and studying the two lords before her, the girl’s smile broadened.
“But, now I’m in your debts proper, m’lords. Well, Lord Dorian’s at least. M’Lord Sunshine is fortunate to be so pretty for as piss poor as he is at a lie.”
“My pride.” Sunshine smirked.
Agnes waved dismissively. “I can read and write. I know arithmetic too — and I can lie. You can’t get much better than someone who can lie and lie well. You’re sure to find a use for it. An’ being that my father is about as real as the Señor, we haven’t got an address but yours to go to — so, if you’ll lead the way, m’lords.”
Dorian flashed a crooked smile of his own and spoke easily, “Ah. But I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, imp. If I am to be owed — by an admitted liar and suspected thief no less — I think we should at least be on the same footing for acquaintance. What are you called, child?”
“Mm, now that is a trick, innit?” The girl offered, and her smile did not diminish. “I’m called plenty of things. Not all of them as nice as liar or suspected thief, either.”
“It is like looking into a very filthy reflection, is it not?” Lord Sunshine reached out to take a twist of her hair. He lifted the whiteness of the lock with a measure of interest. “You might wish to pick a name before I decide on Milk to suit.”
“Aw, you’re a shite. How about Eden? That one’s nice and pretty. Proper noble soundin’ too, ain’t it? And so you know, I can do accents. All sorts of them. Add that t’the list of benefits that come with bringin’ me home. I’ll sound like I was born n’ bred a gentlelady if you need.”
“I’ll believe as much when I hear it,” Dorian said dryly. “Eden will do. But I’m afraid I’m not the one you must convince to bring you home, Kitten. That would be Lord Sunshine over here.”
Lord Sunshine was still regarding her with an odd amusement, but it faded into a more solemn look that was almost too intense in the way it drifted over her.
“I am Lian Redmond, the Earl of Rosse. I suppose you will not be the first kitten we have brought home. Perhaps you will fare better than the last.”
Eden eyed him warily. “What happened to the last kitten?”
Lian Redmond smiled and shrugged, before nudging his head toward the street. Dorian fell into step next.
She only hesitated for a moment before following.
It was hardly as if she planned on staying forever.
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