Books & Broadswords

Books & Broadswords Volume One cover. White text and sword, book, and magical icons on a purple dragon-scale background.
Part of the Books & Broadswords series:
  • Books & Broadswords

This novella-length volume includes two romantic fantasy stories set in a shared world, each with a guaranteed happily ever after, plus a new bonus epilogue.

Books & Broadswords

The only thing Feora likes more than stealing the king’s gold is using it to buy books. But when a handsome, persistent knight interrupts her day, Feora must decide if saving his life is worth revealing her true nature.

Rocks & Rapiers

Zenira never wanted to sell her rock collection, but when the new landowner raises her rent, she’s out of options. Armed with a sketchy rumor about a collector who will pay for stones others might consider worthless, Zenira sets out, but she’s met with an icy scowl, a muddy manor, and the overwhelming urge to mend the mess—owner included.

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Books & Broadswords

Chapter One

I set the royal mark on the counter, and the merchant’s eyes glowed, first with greed, then regret. “I can’t make change for that,” he murmured, his gaze on the gold coin. “You’ll need to go to the bank.”

“I don’t want change,” I replied quietly, trying to keep the barely contained excitement out of my voice. “I want books.”

The merchant laughed and swept an arm toward the corner of the shop I’d already perused. “You could buy every book I own, and I’d still have to make more change than I have. Go to the bank.”

“I will take them all. Use what’s left to pay off the balance of whoever needs it most.”

His eyes widened. “You’re serious?”

“I am. I made a list of the copies I want. Do you have boxes I can use?”

The merchant nodded and hurried off to find some empty boxes before I could change my mind.

He took the gold coin with him.

I moved to the shelves and started making stacks of books. When he returned with two large crates, we loaded books into them with quick efficiency. He helped me carry the first crate outside to my waiting handcart. He frowned at the cart and slid an assessing glance over my slight build.

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He shook his head with a quiet sigh. “You won’t be able to haul all of this by hand, but with the change you’re owed, you can buy a pony and wagon. Wait here, and I’ll get someone to find one for you.”

I stopped him with a hand on his arm. “No need. The cart has a clockwork-assist. I will be fine, but I appreciate the offer.”

The merchant looked skeptical, but he helped me load the rest of the books without a fuss. He watched me pull the cart away, easy as you please, and his worried frown morphed into a smile as he waved. “Thank you! I’ll have more books next month, if you’re interested.”

“I’ll check in the next time I’m in the area,” I assured him.

I passed a few people on my way out of town, but none of them paid me any mind. The road was empty and the sun was warm, so I made good time. It was midafternoon when distant hoofbeats broke the silence.

The rider was pushing their horse hard, so I moved to the edge of the narrow track to give them room to pass. I shook out my arms and used the excuse to take a break and enjoy the sun.

A massive black horse rounded the far bend at a full gallop. And perched atop it was a knight in shining silver chain mail with a huge broadsword strapped to his back. My lip curled, and it was an effort to smooth a pleasant look onto my face. Knights were the worst. High-handed and single-minded, they would rather stay doggedly obedient to their rotten king than listen to reason.

This one was handsome enough, as they often were, with short brown hair, dark eyes, and fair skin tanned from days in the sun. And not two brain cells to rub together, no doubt.

He reined in his horse as he neared, and my thoughts of a warm fire and cozy books began to wane. I didn’t have any desire to deal with a knight today.

The horse’s lungs bellowed, and the poor creature was lathered in sweat. It shied as it neared, even though I stayed perfectly still.

The knight swung down from the saddle, but rather than ignoring his steed, he loosened the girth, took a cloth from his saddlebag, and started rubbing the horse down. “A moment, my lady,” he said as he worked. “After I care for Percy, I will speak with you, if you’ll allow it.”

My eyebrows rose, both at his polite greeting and his concern for his horse. Perhaps I’d judged him too soon, because Percy was a whimsical name for a warhorse. Most were named Killer or Vengeance or Thunder or something equally ridiculous.

The knight caught my look and gave me a slightly embarrassed grin. “My sister breeds warhorses, and my young nephew picked this one for me—along with the name.”

“It’s lovely.”

His smile grew, and he ducked his head. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, as young and fresh as green spring leaves.

Once he finished wiping away the worst of the sweat, the knight led Percy in wide circles to cool down. I sipped from my canteen while I waited to see what he wanted. Both man and horse moved with the lithe grace of natural athletes. The horse didn’t surprise me, but the man did. Knights were often overfed and overconfident, relying on reputation and brute strength rather than skill. If it came to a fight, he would be more dangerous than most.

Once the horse was cool, the knight returned and bowed. “I am Sir Ansel, at your service.”

This close, I could see that his eyes were a dark brown, the warm color of rich soil. His hair was several shades lighter and clipped close to his head. He had a square jaw and a strong nose that were softened by a mouth that seemed to constantly smile. He was even more handsome up close.

I blinked and mentally shook my head, then responded a beat too late. “Feora.”

“Lady Feora—”

“Just Feora,” I interrupted.

He grinned at me, undaunted. “Just Feora, the road is too dangerous to travel alone. There was a dragon attack here less than two weeks ago. Please allow me to accompany you to your next destination.”

“How many people did the dragon kill?”

Ansel blinked at me. “None that I am aware of, but a carriage full of the king’s gold was stolen.”

“Then I hardly have to worry, since I don’t have a carriage full of gold.”

“There are other concerns besides dragons, my lad—Feora. Bandits have been sighted in the nearby hills.”

“On a dragon-blessed road?” I asked in disbelief. Surely no bandit would be so bold.

“I don’t know about blessed,” he said. “After the dragon steals its treasure, it moves on. The bandits can operate for weeks or months before they have to worry about another attack.”

I hummed an acknowledgment as my thoughts whirled.

“The king has tasked me with hunting the dragon, but until the next sighting, I’m hunting bandits.”

I waved at the road ahead. “Go on, then. Clear the way.”

“You are a more tempting target than a knight, I’m afraid. I can’t ensure your safety if I’m not with you.”

I pointed at the sword hilt sticking out of my cart. “I can take care of myself.”

“They’ll take away my knighthood if I let a beautiful woman venture into dangerous woods alone,” he said with a teasing smile. “Please reconsider.”

I snorted at the flattery. My looks were perfectly average. My hair fell in dark waves past my shoulders, my eyes were just as dark, and my face was neither beautiful nor ugly. My most notable feature was my delicate-looking build, but I would disappear in a village of any size at all, overshadowed by the true beauties—and that was exactly how I liked it.

“No, thank you,” I said, then gestured down the road. “Off you go.”

He bowed. “As my lady commands.”

Chapter Two

The dratted knight was once again waiting at the next bend in the road. For the past two hours, he’d ridden ahead as directed, but only as far as he could see me, or very slightly farther. Then he waited for me to approach before riding forward once more. He hadn’t said a single word to me, hadn’t even lifted an arm in greeting, but he was escorting me nonetheless.

It was two parts infuriating and one part intriguing.

“Wait,” I called as he turned to continue. “If you’re going to keep this up, you might as well ride with me.”

His smile rivaled the sun, and my stomach did a weird little flip that I’d never felt before. Maybe the food at the last tavern hadn’t agreed with me.

“Are you heading to Slyphon?” he asked.

I hadn’t been, but I guess I was now, so I nodded.

He gave my cart a dubious glance. “It’s three days on foot. Do you have sufficient supplies?”

He couldn’t know the crates in my cart held only books, so I lifted my chin. “Of course. Do you?”

He patted the various saddlebags and bundles strapped to Percy. “I always carry extras, just in case.”

Then the exasperating man dismounted and tried to hand me the reins, even as Percy danced sideways. “I will pull your cart while you take a break,” he offered. “Do you know how to ride?”

“No, and I don’t need a break.” Belatedly, I remembered my manners and tacked on, “Thank you.”

Now that I’d let him join me, he refused to ride while I walked, no matter how much I insisted I was fine and his armor was heavy. He wouldn’t budge, so we started forward again side by side, accompanied by a soft symphony of clinking armor, shod hooves, and creaking wheels.

But it wasn’t long before Ansel was regaling me with stories of his travels. His voice was smooth and soothing, like the best kind of tea. He was a natural storyteller, and his stories were funny and self-deprecating more often than not. The hours slid past, until the sun began to sink behind the trees.

“There’s a stream up ahead,” the knight said. “We can make camp nearby.”

I shivered as the wind cut through my clothes. I hadn’t planned to stay out past sunset, and certainly not with a knight. Once he fell asleep, I would slip away.

Ansel led me to a small clearing that had the look of a frequent travel stop. A ring of stones served as a fire pit, and a small pile of chopped wood waited nearby.

After a subtle glance at me, the knight dropped Percy’s reins and started collecting kindling. The warhorse waited patiently, nibbling on the grass at his feet, while Ansel quickly built a fire.

I moved toward the stone ring as soon as the flames leapt toward the sky. Blessed warmth sank into my outstretched fingers.

Ansel turned to unsaddle his horse, and I crept closer to the fire. A moment later, warm, heavy material settled over my back and shoulders. I glanced up at the knight in surprise and started to shrug it away, but his big hands pulled the cloak together in front of me, cocooning me in warmth.

“As I said, I carry extras,” he murmured. “Keep it. Please.”

I swallowed and nodded, and he graced me with another radiant smile that made my stomach tremble.

He turned back to his things, rummaging around until he found a pot. He held it aloft like a prize. “I’ll go fetch water and let Percy drink his fill. Shout if you need me.”

I nodded again, and the knight and warhorse disappeared into the trees. The stream wasn’t far, but I would be difficult to track in the growing darkness. Now would be the perfect time to leave, but the fire was warm, and I was strangely reluctant.

Ansel had been gone for less than five minutes when the first bandit slithered from the cover on the opposite side of the clearing, a drawn bow in his hands. His lips twisted into a mockery of a smile. “Stay quiet and we won’t hurt you,” he lied. “We just want the cart.”

“You dare attack travelers on a dragon-blessed road?”

The bandit laughed and waved an arm toward the sky. “Do you see a dragon here?”

My smile turned sharp. “Come and take it, then, if you think you can.”

Rather than wondering why a waif of a woman was taunting him, the bandit moved closer, five more rough-looking men on his heels. I flexed my hands under the cover of my cloak as my instincts awoke.

They were trying to take my books.

My treasure.

Mine.

The leader stopped in front of me, his face awash with covetous desire. The first swipe of my claws destroyed his bow, and the second destroyed his throat. He fell to the ground, dead before he knew he was under attack.

The others barely had time for surprise before they, too, met their ends.

I turned to take my cart and flee but paused at a distant shout and the sound of ringing swords.

The knight was fighting.

I told myself that it wasn’t my battle, but the memory of his smile as he’d given me the cloak proved the words a lie.

I grabbed my sword and headed for the creek with a hissed curse.


When I arrived, the knight was outnumbered four to one, and the bandits were not fighting fair. Ansel was still standing, thanks to his armor and his sword’s longer reach, but he’d taken damage. The two bodies on the ground proved he’d dealt some, too.

The first bandit didn’t even notice me until my sword ran him through.

Ansel’s eyes widened in alarm, and I wondered how I must look.

“Feora, run!” he shouted, and it was so surprising that I actually took a step back before remembering that they should run from me.

I roared a battle cry and launched myself at the next bandit. I batted his sword aside and swung for his neck. He did not survive.

Ansel used the distraction to kill one of the remaining bandits. The other took a wild swing at me. Ansel shouted a warning, but I blocked the blow with my arm.

Rather than biting in, the sword bounced away, ringing as if it had struck stone. The bandit paled, and my smile grew. He turned to run, but he died before he took the first step.

When it was just the two of us, Ansel didn’t lower his sword, and sadness filled me. I didn’t want this knight’s life to end tonight.

“We don’t have to fight,” I murmured. “I have no quarrel with you.”

He planted his sword in the ground a moment before he collapsed to one knee. Blood painted his lips, his wounds worse than I’d thought. “Lady Dragon,” he whispered.

Then he fell face first into the dirt.


Rocks & Rapiers

Chapter One

Wading through shin-deep snow all morning had given me plenty of time to reconsider the wisdom of plans conceived in the dark, desperate hours before dawn. But I was desperate, so I trudged onward. This would work.

It had to work.

I was wearing two pairs of socks and fur-lined boots, but my toes were starting to go numb by the time the remote manor emerged from the trees. It was hard to pinpoint exactly why, but the dark stone facade felt unwelcoming in a way that made my instincts prickle. Only the brave—or foolish—would approach such a place.

Unfortunately for me, I was both.

I hitched my pack higher on my back and made my way to the entrance. A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold worked its way down my spine, but I hadn’t come this far to turn back now.

My mitten-covered fist barely made a sound on the heavy door, so it didn’t surprise me when no one answered. I knocked again, and again, and then I tried the handle.

The door opened.

“Hello!” I called through the crack. “Is anyone home? I’ve come to barter!”

Resounding silence answered me. I pushed the door open wider and tried again. “I’m just going to wait inside, if that’s okay with you.”

I stomped the snow from my boots and eased through the doorway. It felt wrong to enter someone’s house without an invitation, but for all the place appeared abandoned, it was warm.

The door closed behind me with an ominous thud. I immediately tried the handle again and the door opened. I was not trapped. I let out a slow breath and tried to get my pulse to settle.

“What are you doing in my house?” a deep voice demanded from directly behind me.

I screeched as my heart leapt from my body. I twisted so quickly my pack overbalanced me, and I ended up on the floor, staring up at the most striking man I’d ever seen.

Tall and blond, he would’ve been handsome if his frosty stare hadn’t been exactly as unwelcoming as the manor’s facade. He stared down his straight nose at me, and did not look impressed at what he saw.

My shoulder-length brown hair was usually neat and straight, but the wind had tangled it into a snarl, and my clothes were well-worn and damp from the snow. My hazel eyes were unusual enough to garner a second glance, but this man could give icicles lessons on how to be cold and forbidding.

I huffed at him and climbed to my feet with as much dignity as I could muster—which wasn’t much. “I’m here to barter,” I repeated, unsure if he’d heard my initial shout.

“How did you find this place?”

“I followed the path.”

At this, he frowned. “From the village?”

“Yes?” I hadn’t meant to make it a question, but where else would I be coming from? “I’ve brought rocks to trade.”

One pale eyebrow rose over his icy blue eyes. “Rocks?”

“Yes. I’ve heard you will trade for interesting rocks. I have a collection I’ve been gathering for years.”

His expression gave nothing away. “From whom have you heard such?”

“You know… people,” I hedged with a breezy wave. In point of fact, I’d heard a sketchy rumor several years ago, then the person I’d heard it from had disappeared without a trace, hopefully to their new life of fortune and not into a shallow grave.

I had a sword and the skill to wield it, so I wasn’t too concerned. Though, looking at the man before me, perhaps I should’ve been. He was unarmed, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. He was lean and muscular, and if he caught me, he’d easily overpower me.

“Show me what you brought,” he said at last.

Relief nearly buckled my knees. I looked around the empty entryway, then promptly wished I hadn’t as my instincts forcefully demanded I banish the dust and restore the room to cleanliness. The grime clinging to every surface rang like a discordant note, overpowering the house’s lovely underlying chord.

I swallowed and pretended I couldn’t see the neglect or hear the house’s song, muted though it was. The entry was nice and warm, but there wasn’t a single table to be found. I glanced at the man. “Don’t you want to move to a sitting room or study or whatever kind of room a fancy house like this has? Preferably one with a table?”

And preferably one that’s clean. I mentally crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The man gave me a long-suffering sigh, but he turned and started down the hall. “Follow me.”


The blond man led me deeper into the building. The hallway was as warm as the entryway but just as dusty. Cobwebs clung to the corners of the ceiling. Someone had made a half-hearted attempt to clean the floor, then tracked muddy footprints in.

My fingers itched with the need to set the house to rights, to smooth out the dissonant notes until the song was bright and clear, but I wasn’t here to work.

“I’m Zenira,” I said as a distraction.

The man continued walking in silence, as if he hadn’t heard me, but I wasn’t so easily dissuaded. “And you are?”

He slanted a dark glance at me over his shoulder. “Busy.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Am I keeping you from your important work of lording over the local peasants? Because I’m certainly not keeping you from cleaning.”

The last part was mumbled, but he stopped and turned all the way around, a dangerous look on his face. “What did you say?”

I gestured at the fancy house surrounding us. “You are the lord of this county, aren’t you? If so, you’re doing a poor job—on multiple fronts, it seems.” I squinted at him, reconsidering. “Or are you a smuggler?”

“I am neither, which you should be grateful for, assuming you actually planned to leave here alive.” His eyes flicked down to the rapier hanging at my side. “Can you use that?”

Fear finally caught up to me, and I swallowed. “Yes. Am I going to need to?”

Rather than answering, he turned and opened the nearby door. “Your table, as requested.”

He’d brought me to the dining room. A table big enough to seat ten filled the room, and its polished surface gleamed in the lamplight. Finally, one thing in this house was clean.

I shrugged off my pack, then reconsidered my plan to put it on the table. Who knew what the grouchy man looming behind me would do if I put so much as a single scratch on his fancy tabletop. Better to be safe.

As I set the pack on the floor, my stomach growled. I ignored it, but the man sighed. “Wait here. Do not leave this room until I return. Do you understand?”

Embarrassment heated my cheeks. “You don’t have—”

The door clicked closed behind him. He moved far too quietly for such a tall man. Smuggler was starting to look more and more likely.

I draped my cloak over one end of the table, then laid out the rocks I’d brought. This was my entire collection, gathered over the course of my thirty-one years. Most of it was hardly worth mention, except for sentimental value, but I’d brought everything, hopeful that something in the hoard would catch his eye.

Maybe he would like the geode with the pretty purple crystal inside. Or the smooth white rock with the tiny fossil embossed on its surface.

Or maybe he would like none of it and this trip was a waste of time.

My stomach growled again, upset about the lack of lunch. I had a muffin in my pack, but I hadn’t wanted to remove a mitten to eat it, so I’d ignored the hungry grumbles.

Once I’d arranged the collection into neat rows, I hovered awkwardly next to the table. I didn’t dare sit on any of the delicately carved chairs. They looked like they’d collapse in a brisk breeze, and I couldn’t afford to replace one.

The man returned a few minutes later, carrying a tray topped with a steaming bowl. He set the tray on the end of the table not covered by my cloak, and I tried not to look too hopeful. Perhaps he’d just gotten hungry and now expected me to watch him eat.

I dragged my eyes away from the bowl and ordered my stomach not to embarrass me further.

“Sit,” the man said, pointing at the chair next to the tray. “I will examine your collection while you eat.”

I eyed him warily. “What will the meal cost me?”

His spine stiffened, and the dangerous look returned. “You are a guest in my house, however unwanted. Do not insult my hospitality by presuming that I would demand payment for food.”

“I meant no insult, but I’ve learned it’s best to be clear.” Especially with people in positions of power.

“Eat, Zenira. The meal is freely given, and I expect nothing in return.”

I rounded the table and pulled out the chair, surprised that it was sturdier than it appeared. Still, I perched on the edge, unwilling to risk damaging it or staining the upholstered cushion.

The bowl was filled with a thick potato soup that smelled absolutely divine. I’d burned a lot of energy traipsing through the snow, and the soup was warm and filling.

While I ate, the man examined every rock, fossil, and crystal I’d brought with a thoroughness that told me he either knew a lot about rocks or nothing at all.

Or he was stalling for time.

The last was proved true when I carefully set my spoon next to the empty bowl, and he immediately said, “I will pay you ten silver for the lot.”

“You want them all?” I asked, sure I’d heard incorrectly. I’d expected him to choose two or three of the best specimens, not all of them. Most of the rocks were far more sentimental that valuable, and parting with them would wound.

When his chin dipped in agreement, I swallowed. I needed the money, and they were only rocks. There were a thousand more just outside the door. But those weren’t mine.

“Can I keep a few?” I whispered.

“The offer is for the whole lot. Take it or leave it.”

I clenched my fingers together. Years of my life, gone in a heartbeat. But ten silver was more than I could make in three months, and it would be enough to keep me housed this winter.

Hopefully.

The local landowner had unexpectedly passed away two months ago, and now the distant relation who had inherited wanted to evict me and rent the house to a tenant who would bring in more money. I’d had a perpetual rental agreement that locked in my rent, but it wasn’t in writing, so the new landowner refused to honor it.

He’d set the rent to what a tenant farmer with a successful harvest would pay. He knew I couldn’t afford it, and he didn’t care in the slightest.

Most of my neighbors were in similar straits, and everyone was scrambling to scrounge up enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Jobs were thin on the ground.

I touched the sparkly rock I’d picked up while on a walk with my mom. I’d been so sure that it was filled with gold or treasure, but it was just bits of quartz. Pretty, but worthless.

I refused to make the obvious comparison. I was not worthless, no matter what the landowner or the king and his knights thought.

I blinked back tears and nodded at the nameless man. “Ten silver. I agree.”

The soft clink of coins on the table very nearly broke me, but I straightened my spine. This was why I’d come. I should be grateful that anyone even wanted rocks.

Life had stolen most of the other reminders of my mother, so why not this one, too? At least I’d gotten a meal out of it, and my toes were starting to thaw. My trip back would be faster without the extra weight in my pack, so I’d make it well before sunset.

It was fine. Everything was fine. The part of me that felt like it was laid bare and dying would just have to get over it. If I didn’t have money for shelter this winter, then I would literally die.

The man gestured at the ten silver coins, neatly laid out for easy counting. I only hesitated for a moment before swiping them off the table with a nod. I partially unlaced my boot so I could get to the hidden pocket I’d added inside, and my toes throbbed.

Maybe not thawed after all.

I secured the silver then laced the boot tight. By the time I was done, my collection had disappeared. It felt like a dagger to the gut, but I kept the tears locked behind iron will.

My pack was featherlight as I swung it over my shoulder. The damp cloak went on next, and then I had no more reason to linger in the warmth. I dipped my head at the man who had given me another few months to live.

Maybe it would be enough.

Chapter Two

The manor door closed behind me with quiet finality. The wind sliced through my cloak with bitter teeth, but I couldn’t afford a heavier one, even with the silver in my boot.

I followed my own footprints back toward the village. With every step, it was a struggle not to turn back. Leaving my collection behind was difficult enough, but leaving the manor in such a sorry state went against my every instinct. The discordant notes haunted me, begging me to smooth them away. Only the thought of the unnamed man’s frosty expression kept me on the path.

My cottage was cold and dark by the time I made it home, and my fingers and toes were icy. I built a small fire in the stove with the last of my coal. Tomorrow, I would need to buy more.

This morning’s gruel had congealed into a solid brick, but I put the pan on the stove and added a little water. I could go to the tavern for dinner, but I needed every piece of silver in my boot just to cover rent, and my savings were already depleted. I couldn’t afford a solicitor to fight the landowner, so I’d be forced to move in the spring, which meant economizing everywhere I could.

I ate huddled in a blanket next to the stove. But for all my cottage was bare, it was clean, and its song was clear and happy. The manor’s state lingered in the back of my mind, like a partially remembered thought or a half-finished job.

And no matter how many times I reminded myself that it wasn’t my problem, I couldn’t quite escape the desire to set it to rights.


I awoke the next morning tired and grumpy. I hadn’t slept well at all, and something must be done about the manor’s state, frostiness be damned. I shoved a week’s worth of clothes into my pack and doubled up my socks for another long trudge through the snow.

First, I stopped at the landowner’s secretary’s office and paid my rent. The man accepted the payment with a pained grimace. He, too, lived in the village and had no doubt gotten an earful from all of his neighbors, but it wasn’t his fault his new boss was a such an ass.

I sighed in resigned relief as I stepped outside. Now I had three months of breathing room to find a new place to live.

And a potential job just waiting for me to grab it.

The trip through the snowy forest wasn’t any more pleasant, but as the manor finally came into view, I felt lighter. I pounded a fist on the door and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I knocked again, and when that didn’t result in the door opening, I tried the latch. It was unlocked, so I let myself in with a shrug. If the owner didn’t want me inside, he should’ve locked his door after yesterday.

“Hello!” I called as the door closed behind me.

The man appeared at the top of the stairs, frosty glare firmly in place. “You again.”

It wasn’t exactly the most welcoming of greetings, but I forged ahead anyway. “Me again,” I confirmed. “I’m here for a job.”

“I don’t recall posting any jobs.”

“You need someone to clean your house, and I need money. Hire me as a maid for a week, and I’ll make the floors gleam. I’ll clean the entire house for twelve silver plus room and board.”

His eyebrows rose. “Most maids make a single silver in a week, if that.”

“I’m not most maids. If you’d like to hire a dozen others to do the work, you can. But someone needs to clean this house because it’s a disgrace.”

He descended the steps in silence, and I wondered if I was about to be tossed out into the snow. He stopped close enough that it would be difficult for me to draw my sword and took a deep breath.

Something like surprise crossed his face before he smoothed it away. “Very well. One week, twelve silver. But if you don’t finish the entire house, I won’t pay you the full amount.”

“That’s fine,” I agreed before he could change his mind—or think to negotiate. “If you’ll point the way to the staff quarters, I’ll change and get started. How would you prefer to be addressed?”

“Baldric.”

“Very well, Lord Baldric, thank you for this opportunity.” I dropped into a passable curtsy.

“I’m not a lord,” he said. Before I could correct myself, he asked, “Have you eaten lunch?”

My stomach remained blissfully silent. “Not yet.”

He pointed up the stairs. “Choose any room on the second floor except the one at the end of the hall, then meet me in the kitchen.”

I curtsied again, but Baldric was already turning away. I climbed the stairs to the second floor. It was only marginally cleaner than the floor below, and I winced. The thick carpet runners in the hallway desperately needed a good beating as well as a snow scrub. Luckily, we were in the season for it.

I wanted to stay as far as possible from the double doors at the end of the hall, so I opened the first door I came to. My breath caught. The bedroom walls were coated in pale peach plaster, and the delicate furniture was painted a complementary light green. The whole room reminded me of spring, and I couldn’t believe Baldric was going to allow me to stay here for a week.

A fine layer of dust coated everything, the room’s hum off-key and grating, so I set my pack on the floor and carefully changed into a gray working dress, white apron, and sturdy slippers. The rugs would have to wait until my toes thawed once more.

I tied my straight brown hair back with a white kerchief, then peered at myself in the dusty vanity mirror. I looked respectable enough now, but I would be coated in grime by the time I finished for the day.

I returned to the ground floor while mentally compiling a task list. I’d need to see the other levels before beginning, but if they were anything like what I’d already seen, I’d have my work cut out for me.

At least while Baldric was awake. Once he was safely abed, I could work faster.

Much faster.

I pushed the door open into a surprisingly clean kitchen filled with the delicious aroma of chicken soup. For the first time, the house’s chord was unmarred, a deep lovely sound that made me smile.

Baldric sat at the end of the battered table with a steaming bowl in front of him. He’d placed another bowl—presumably for me—on his left, where my back would be to the wall.

I’d left my sword behind, but I had a small knife hidden in my apron’s front pocket. I circled the far end of the table, then pulled out the stool and sat. “Is the cook not joining us?”

“I don’t have a cook,” he said.

No maids, no cook. In fact, as far as I could tell, he didn’t have any household staff at all. What kind of person was wealthy enough to have this fancy house and spend silver on rocks, but didn’t have staff?

Someone who didn’t want anyone poking into his business, most likely.

I shook my head. It wasn’t my concern. Once the house was clean, I’d be on my way. I pulled my bowl toward me. It was filled with a hearty chicken and noodle soup that had actual chunks of chicken in it. He’d also given me a cup of clear, cold water, along with a cup of tea.

“Thank you for the food,” I murmured.

His eyebrows rose slightly. “If you’re planning to clean this entire house in a week, you’ll more than earn it.”

I nodded in agreement. It was clear that he didn’t expect me to finish the whole house, but if he kept feeding me like this, I might get done early.

We ate in silence. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, but it also wasn’t as awkward as I’d expected. I finished the last of my soup, then drained the final drops of tea from my cup.

“There’s more.” Baldric tipped his head toward the pot on the stove.

“I’ve had plenty, thank you. Leave your dishes in the sink, and I will do them later. I’m going to start with the upper levels.”

His pale blue eyes caught mine. “Locked doors are off limits. I will not count them against you.” His expression tightened. “If you attempt to bypass the locks, I will kick you out with nothing.”

I smiled at him. “I understand.”

But I couldn’t leave part of the house grimy. Thankfully, as long as I was careful, I wouldn’t need to open the doors at all.

COLLAPSE