I had not gone far when I heard footsteps crunching on the pathway behind me. Glancing back, I saw Web. Beside him slogged a weary Swift. The tops of his cheeks were very pink and I suspected the boy had overindulged in wine. Web nodded to me, and I slackened my pace to allow them to catch up with me. “Quite an occasion,” I remarked idly to Web when he walked beside me.
“Yes. I think the Outislanders now regard our prince as wed to their narcheska. I thought this was only to confirm the betrothal before her mother's hearth.” There was a note of question in his statement.
“I don't think they make any distinction between couples marrying and couples announcing that they will marry. Here, where property and children belong to the women, marriage is seen in a different light.”
He nodded slowly. “No woman ever has to wonder if a babe is truly hers,” he observed.
“Does it make that great a difference that the children belong more to the woman than they do the husband?” Swift asked curiously. His words were not slurred, but when he spoke, I could smell the wine on his breath.
“I think it depends on the man,” Web answered gravely. After that, we walked for a time in silence. Whether I would or no, my thoughts wandered to Nettle and Molly and Burrich and me. To whom did she belong now?
As we drew near the cottage, the town around us was silent. Any folk who were not at the wedding festivities in the mothershouse were long abed. I opened the door quietly. Thick needed all the rest he could get; I did not wish to wake him. The slice of light that we admitted to the cottage showed me Riddle lying on the floor beside Thick's bed. One eye was open and his hand was on his bared blade arranged beside him. When he saw who it was, he closed his eyes and lapsed back into sleep.
I remained standing motionless by the door. There was another intruder in the cottage, one whose presence Riddle had not noticed. Large and round as a fat cat, yet masked like a ferret, he crouched on the table, his bushy striped tail sticking straight up behind him. He looked at us with round eyes over the hunk of our cheese that he clutched in his front paws. The marks of his sharp teeth were clearly visible in it.
“What is it?” I breathed to Web.
“I think they call it a robber-rat, though rat it is clearly not. I've never seen the like of it before,” he replied as softly.
The robber-rat stared past us both, his entire attention fixed on Swift. Like a whisper against my senses, I became aware of the Wit flowing between the two. There was a smile on Swift's face. He stepped forward, pushing between Web and me to do so. I lifted a hand to reach after him, but before I could do so, Web's hand fell on the boy's shoulder. He jerked Swift back, startling the robber-rat with the abruptness of his move. Aloud, he told the creature, “Take the cheese and go.” Then, in the harshest voice I'd ever heard him use, he demanded of Swift, “What did you think you were doing? Have you not heard one word of anything I've tried to teach you?”
Robber-rat and cheese were gone in a flicker of motion, vanishing through the open window with a flick of striped tail.
Swift gave a cry of disappointment and tried to wrench himself free of Web's grip. The stout man's hand held him firm. The boy was angry, mostly I think in response to Web's visible anger with him. “All I did was greet him! I liked the feel of him. I could sense that we would go well together. And I wanted—”
“You wanted him like a child wants a bright toy on a tinker's tray!” Web spoke severely and there was no mistaking the condemnation in his voice as he released Swift's shoulder. “Because he was sleek and swift and clever. And he is as young and foolish as you are. And as curious. You felt him reach back to you not because he was seeking a partner but because you intrigued him. That is not a basis for a Wit-bond. And you are not old enough or mature enough to be seeking a partner. If you attempt that again, I will punish you, just as I would punish any child who deliberately put himself or a playmate into danger.”
Riddle had sat up and was regarding the discussion with open-mouthed astonishment. It was no secret to anyone that both Web and Swift were part of Dutiful's Witted coterie. I shuddered to think how close I had come to betraying myself as Old Blood. Even Thick had opened one sleepy eye to scowl at the argument.
Swift flung himself disconsolately into a chair. “Danger,” he muttered. “What danger? Is it dangerous that I might have someone that cared about me, at last?”
“Danger that you would bond with a creature you know nothing about? Has he a mate and kits at home? Would you take him from them, or remain here on this island when we sailed? What does he eat and how often? Would you stay here with him for his life span, or take him away from all others of his kind when we left here, condemning him to remain forever mateless? You took no thought for him, Swift, nor for anything beyond the connection of the moment. You're like a drunk, bedding a young girl tonight with no thoughts for the morrow. It is not a behavior I can excuse. No true Old Blood would.”