LONG Celta Thursday, Cut Plot Thread from Heart Thief: I ALWAYS have too many plot threads going. Really. I added this one to Heart Thief, then changed my mind because I could see it would get too complicated.
A corner of Ruis' mouth quirked. It had been easy for him to breach the T'Birch Estate and find the laundry. The dress D'Birch had worn for the summer bazaar was going to be an underdress for a new opera gown. Ruis had inserted the emeralds into a thick hem of the dress sleeve.
Someone bumped into him. He grunted.
Plump, female fingers clutched at his cloak, dark eyes peered up at him. "Finally, it's you! I must speak with you!" she hissed in his ear.
He looked down at the pale face of a young woman, Ella, a distant cousin. He fisted his hand and wondered how he should deal with her.
She grabbed his shoulder with a strong clutch. "I visited that hovel you used to live in and followed you from there. It was hard, I could only see your boots. You must help me!"
Ruis scowled at her. "You will rue the day that you told anyone that you saw me."
She paled and shrank back, then gestured to a large basket covered with a blanket. "If you won't help me, you must help him!" She turned and scooped up a bundle from the basket.
It wriggled. Another Fam? It made an odd little sound, sending a shimmer of grue up Ruis' spine.
She tossed aside the corner of the blanket. "My son," she said bitterly. "Every child is welcome on Celta. Isn't that the old saying? Because our population is so low, still?"
Her laugh scaled high until Ruis clamped a hand over her mouth and glanced around to make sure they were still unnoticed.
He needn't have worried. Everyone's attention was focused upon the glittering and plumed parade mounting the steps. The nobles in all their glory, and commoners flaunting their wealth.
Samba slunk toward them with a questioning mew. What's happening?
While he was distracted, Ella placed the babe in Ruis' arms. The tiny body felt surprisingly comfortable and settled in his hold with a huge smile.
Who? Samba batted a paw against his leg, angling her head to catch the scent of the bundle. She rotated an ear, grumbled a throaty purr. I want to see.
Ruis squatted, carefully keeping an eye on his ever-curious Fam. The cat touched noses with the baby boy and hopped back, grinning. Like you. This Tom-kitten is like you. Are you his sire?
A wave of revulsion swept through Ruis at the thought. Not only at having sex with Ella, but with propagating a child that might be as cursed as he. And then he realized what both Ella and Samba were saying. The boy child was a Null. His grip on the infant tightened but the baby only cooed.
Samba mimicked it. That is a nice sound. She did some variations.
Ruis' mouth twitched, then he met Ella's gaze. Her eyes showed deep bitterness, her pouty lips thinned and turned downward. "I've been disinherited, just as you have. For producing a Null, a defective child." She shuddered. "Bucus' eyes were wild and mean. I think he means me – us – harm. What am I to do?"
Ruis drew in a deep breath. He was totally without any sort of knowledge about children, about familial support. But he knew one thing, he would die to protect this child. He would do anything to make sure the babe grew up strong and confident. He would not let what happened to himself occur to the baby.
"What's his name?" Ruis asked.
"Ellhorn," Ella said.
"A good Elder name. What of his father?" Ruis' didn't remember his own father, who had died a year after his son was born, following Ruis' mother into the cycle of rebirth.
Ella hunched a shoulder. "A passing fancy. I couldn't tell him of this."
Ruis grit his teeth. "No, of course not."
Ella gasped and drew back into the shadows. "The T'Elder glider!"
Ruis slid deeper into the darkness himself. Samba jumped in the basket.
The glider was caught in traffic, a block away, but the ostentatious holo of Bucus T'Elder's arms hung above it in sickly lime green and blood red.
"Get out of town. I can't protect you here," Ruis said.
"You! A banished thief under execution? You can't protect me anywhere."
Ruis slit his eyes. "Then why did you come to me?"
"You're a thief. You can get gilt. I'll need it."
The tang of distaste flooded his mouth. Except in impulsive anger, he'd never stolen anything beyond which would meet his own needs. He ignored her insult.
"You'd best go to Gael City--"
"Gael City is too close." Gael City was three days southeast by glider if the Owen pass was open through the HardRock Mountains.
"I'll give you what I have." Ruis reached into his money belt and brought out the sheaf of golden softleaf giltnotes.
Ella snatched them and started counting. She muttered under her breath as she tallied them in quick, greedy fingers. "Only twelve thousand gilt?" She sounded appalled.
Ruis' gaze flickered over her. What had been a fortune to him was little enough for a once-spoilt T'Elder Daughter. Typical of all the born noblewomen he'd ever known. Except D'SilverFir. He shut off the intrusive thought of her.
"It's all I have." He fished the last EarthSun that had escaped the GuardsMen from a small, secret tuck in his trous and pressed it into her hand. "This, too. It's enough for you to find a small place in Anglesey.
She blinked at the uncut EarthSun and sniffed. "Alfriston maybe, but not Anglesey. I don't know--"
"Or you could leave the babe with me." He heard the words issue from his mouth in complete surprise.
"I know exactly how Ellhorn, a Null boy, will be treated. Who better?"
She drew herself up into a haughty stance. "I can take care of my own son."
"Very well. But do not let him be abused. And keep in touch." He saw the hesitation in her eyes and added. "I might be able to send more gilt later." He'd have to take up thieving again, in earnest, to do so. "How will you support yourself?" Ruis asked.
She blinked at the gilt and gem in her hand.
Ruis snorted. "You'd best budget that well. Do you have any of your own gilt?"
Anger and hurt showed in her eyes before they flooded with tears. She dashed the wetness off her cheeks. "Bucus cut me off without a silver sliver!" Her bottom lip trembled. "I know I get NobleGilt from the Council, but he's always taken it."
She sniffled and her mouth pursed. "But I have a Flair for wine. I'm an excellent judge of wine, my taste is superior. I worked in our vineyards for several years during the season." She sniffed again. Ruis hadn't even known that T'Elder had vineyards.
Her gleaming eyes calculated the gilt as she stuffed it deep in her bodice. "I guess I could open a shop. I can become a merchant!" Her mouth soured again and she cast a disparaging glance at her son. "That it has come to this. Well, I suppose I must take him, though he seems to like you well enough." She sniffed again. "Like calls to like, as they say."
Ruis felt reluctant to let Ellhorn go. Ella plucked the baby from his arms.
"Be sure to care for him, and let me know where you are so I can send more gilt."
She stepped away. "I will. I'm leaving. Your Nullness is so much stronger than his. It's awful."
"As you say." Ruis made an elegant, if mocking, bow.
She didn't seem to sense his sarcasm and nodded regally in return. Ella toed Samba from the basket and replaced the baby.
"Fare thee well." She pivoted on her heel and trod down the steps.
"Thief! Thief!" cried Uncle Bucus.
Ruis pulled his cloak around him and shrank back, then saw Bucus was pointing at Ella.
Her eyes widened, her face paled and she took off at a lurching run.
"Samba!" Ruis said.
Samba darted onto the steps, threading through legs and hobbling people, dashing in front of Bucus. He stopped on the edge of a stair, wove back and forth, then caught his balance, kicking at the Fam.
"Thief!" Bucus shouted again. "After her!"
Ruis gritted his teeth. Bucus obviously had no imagination, everyone against him was a "thief."
Now Bucus jumped up and down. "She's a thief. She has stolen valuables from my estate, from the T'Elders!"
"Is that so?" D'SilverFir asked coolly.
Ruis' thudding heart seemed to miss a beat, his breath lodged in his throat. She was the epitome of graceful breeding, everything a noble lady should be. Everything his cousin Ella was not.
Bucus went motionless. "Judge D'SilverFir."