“Listen.” Jasper leaned forward towards Kearney. “In about a week, I’m going to have a job. It might be tricky and it might be dangerous, but I’ll be watching your back, and I’ll pay well. I can’t tell you more right now – but can I find you if I come around here?”
The kid shifted a little from foot to foot. “Old barn, about a mile out of town that way,” they gestured.
“Okay. I won’t show up unless I have some work for you and I won’t invade your space, but I might have something I need help with. One thief to another, as it were.”
Kearney looked at him, then looked at Mélanie, and then back at Jasper. “So why me and not her?”
“Well, for one thing, she’s not a thief. For another, Mélanie’s skills lie in another direction. And for a third thing, this is something I’m doing, more or less for Mélanie.”
He was? What? What was he-?
“If it’s a birthday present,” Kearney told him dryly, “I don’t think you’re supposed to do all the negotiations right in front of her.”
“It’s not – Mélanie, dear, when is your birthday?”
She ignored the way Kearney was chortling. “I, ah, September 6th.”
“Probably not a birthday present, then, as I’d rather be done before that. Maybe a welcome gift of sorts.” Jasper flapped his hand. “It’s not quite that and it’s not quite a surprise-”
“She looks surprised,” Kearney pointed out helpfully.
“Well, that’s true, yes. You’re quite… something, aren’t you?”
“Yep.” Kearney grinned. “I’m definitely something. That’s what everyone says. That Kearney is something all right.”
Mélanie giggled. “But it’s a nice something, more or less. You have to admit that much, Jasper.”
“I suppose I do. All right, Kearney. If all goes to plan, I’ll be contacting you in a week or two. Here.” He passed over a hand pie and a small bin of blueberries. “Take two other things you want, that ought to be the right percentage.
Kearney looked at the food and then at the things packed up. After a thoughtful glance at Jasper, Kearney pulled a soft shirt from the things that hadn’t been sold and one sausage from those that they’d gotten in payment. “This good?”
“That’s fine. Do you need more?”
“Nah, this is what I worked for. This is good.” A bright grin suddenly shone from Kearney’s face. “So if I need work again, should I try to pick Mélanie’s pocket again?”
“Probably not. I doubt that neither she nor I would be as understanding a second time – although Mélanie is an amazingly understanding woman and I might be wrong. Just come by the table. But I think I’ll see you again before the next market day.”
“These surprises…” Kearney gave a head shake. The sausage disappeared into a pocket. “Safe travels.”
“You, too, kiddo.”
Mélanie was beaming at Jasper as they got back to their wagon, as they loaded up their new goods and coaxed the horses away from the stable-master they loved so much, as they paid the stable-master and rode out of town. Finally, when they were out of earshot and sight of the village, he reached over and tousled her hair. “You’re making me feel like I did something right.”
“You were very sweet and patient with Kearney.”
“Only because the kid didn’t hurt you. If you’d been hurt, it would have been different.”
“You don’t have to-” She trailed off at the strange look on his face. “What?”
“Well, technically, I do. I protect you because I feel strongly that you deserve protecting, but it’s part of what I agree to when I agree that you’re mine. Has nobody else ever told you that?”
“I – no, no,” she stammered. “No?” she tried again, at the darkening expression. “My Mentor didn’t tell me much about Keeping at all, except ‘don’t do it.’”
“I would like to burn them all to the ground,” he growled, “every one who hurt you.”
“That’s, uh, that’s a little extreme?” She thought about trying to move further away from him on the wagon bench but worried that would just make him angrier.
“It might take some time.” He made it sound like he was agreeing with her. “I’ll start with the slavers.”
“With the – oh no. Is that what you – Kearney – Jasper!”
“Mélanie.” He grinned at her. “I hardly think it’s cause for an “oh, no.”Want more?