Scarlet Page 2

I took out one of my daggers. It were a little rough, but I had filed the blade down sharp. It made me feel a little bit easier, having all these eyes on me, if I had a knife in my hand. “I were bored. I went for a lookabout.”

“Scar, you can’t just—” Rob started.

“Neither you, Your Grace, nor you, John Little, can tell me where to go or not go.” Much leaned forward and I glared at him. “Don’t even think it, Much.”

John’s mouth tightened. “You’re not going back to the prison without me.”

“You can’t quite squeeze into my entrances, John.”

“And you can’t quite take a punch, Scarlet.”

“No one’s been able to catch me to try it.”

“You caught the rough end of something one time,” he reminded, pushing his thumb over the thin scar that ran the length of my left cheekbone.

Fury pounded behind my eyes and I grabbed his wrist, twisting it and pressing my dagger to his vein.

He pulled his hand away slow, his mouth twisted in a bit of a smile. “I’ll go with her to get Freddy, Rob.”

Rob were scowling. “Fine. Just get him out of there, and look after Scar.”

“Honestly,” I spat. I could look after myself, after all.

“And Scar, you look out for John. We look out for each other,” he reminded me. “That’s what a band does.”

I frowned. “You blackmailed me into this, remember? I’m in no one’s band,” I told him. Every time I said that, he looked like I kicked his kitten.

“Thought no one made you do anything against your will,” Rob said, crossing his arms.

“They don’t. I can choose whatever I wish. I just chose to help you instead of being sent to prison.”

“And you’ve been choosing that for the past two years.”

I crossed my arms. “Yes. It ain’t like I can’t leave anytime I want.”

His blue eyes caught some of the candle flame and flickered it back like his eyes were wicks. His head bent forward and the blue of his eyes felt more like a riptide. A rakish smile slipped over his mouth. I sucked in a breath, trying not to notice.

“Then it’s not blackmail, is it, Scar?”

My mouth tightened.

“We look after each other,” he repeated. He looked to the others. “Much, get over to Freddy’s mother, make sure she’s calm. I’ll get them enough food for a while.” Rob looked out the door, toward the tavern. “It won’t answer the larger problem, though. First, we’ll have to hide the other Cooper children too.”

“Whole family,” I said.

Rob nodded. “And we have to make sure that every other family can pay. We have less than a month before tax day, and how much do we have stockpiled?”

Much sighed. “To cover the villagers’ taxes for them? Not near enough. And what we do have is needed already—the people barely have enough food and money to survive, much less be taxed on.”

“It’s stupid to do this every time,” I said. They looked at me like I were Satan. “It is! We scramble to keep everyone floating and then the sheriff just sinks us harder.”

John rolled his eyes. “Sorry you have to work so hard, you lazy thief?”

“It ain’t getting us nowhere,” I snapped, glaring at him.

“She’s right,” Rob said. “We’ve seen already it takes more to stop the sheriff than just to protect the people.”

“Don’t see why you don’t just go blazing in there,” I said. “You’re the rightful earl. You grew up as such. All the people still think you’re their lord.”

“I was,” Rob reminded. “But now I lack the right and the army to take it back, Scar.”

I shrugged. “I could kill him.”

“You wish you could kill him,” John said with a snort.

I kicked his shin and he gave a low grunt.

“Killing him wouldn’t restore my right. Not after Prince John named my father a traitor—after he was already dead and while I was away and unable to defend his name,” he said, pausing as his fists went tight like bowstrings. He shook his head. “Prince John stripped that right and gave it to the sheriff, so unless the prince has a change of heart, killing this sheriff will just allow a new one to rise. Regardless,” Rob said, “we need to grant the people some kind of reprieve. They cannot endure this oppression.”

“Sheriff stands on money, guards, and meanness,” I said.

“Money he taxes back,” Much reminded.

“Guards he pays with the money,” John said.

“A perfect problem,” Rob said. He sighed. “And one we can’t be concerned with right now. We need to focus on getting the people enough money to survive tax day—and enough meat to survive the night.” Rob nodded and stood, and I raised my eyebrows.

“Not so fast. It ain’t the only information I have. There’s more. And it ain’t good.”

“What is it?”

“Nottingham’s bringing in a thief taker. From London. I didn’t catch the name, but I’ll get it.”

John looked round. “Why should we worry about some mercenary who catches thieves?”

Much turned to him. “John, we all could very easily be tried and hung as thieves. We steal things.”

“Do you know of any thief takers?” Rob asked.

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