Keira awoke to find the ground moving beneath her. She started to her feet, nearly falling backwards before a strong hand steadied her waist.
"Never woken up in the back of a wagon before?" A young man looked into her face, rich green eyes crinkled into a smile that was rather lopsided by the time it found its way to his lips. When Keira didn't answer, the man shook his head.
"The highwaymen keep their ale lanced with a strong sleeping draught." He leaned toward her with a gleam in his eye. "I've heard Grove hasn't slept naturally since his first kill." The man smirked. "Of course, I've also heard he made his first kill when he was nine."
Then he'd beaten her by a year. Still groggy, Keira managed to ignore this thought and instead focused on steadying herself, jerking into a seated position.
The wagon was nearly empty, carrying only Keira, the man before her, and a dog snoozing in the corner. Ahead rode the bandits, two dozen of them, with their huge captain at the head.
The man looked somewhat puzzled. "Well, he's their leader." Chuckling, he added, "You can't have missed him."
"You're not a highwayman." Keira didn't have to ask.
The man shook his head, extending his hand warmly to grasp hers. "Aiken. I'm one of their conquests, like you."
"Why did they let you…?"Live, she couldn't bring herself to say.
Aiken seemed to understand her, turning to face the road behind them. "You'll just have to see." She couldn't read his expression, but her mother's image was drawn to her mind, suddenly so small and frail, staring out the window blankly, across the field to the old barn where her husband had...
The wagon hit a stone in the road, bumping Keira out of her reverie.
"We're only a day's ride out from the Capitol, you know." As the sun broke through the heavy forest trees, Keira saw his hair glow amber, before turning a mousy brown as the shade deepened.
"Why would a band of outlaws go anywhere near the Capitol?"
"The Web, of course." Aiken pulled a shining green apple from the sack at his side, unabashedly crunching as he spoke.
Keira merely looked at him.
"You haven't heard of it? And they told me you studied in the Capitol for years!" He swiped the back of his hand across his lips, still wet with juice. "It's a black market. The Rustlers make the journey several times a year, trading their bounty with Old Mag for as much gold as they can haggle." Aiken smiled. "Of course, none of them have the head for it, so I do most of the talking."
"Just how long have you been with these men?"
Keira blanched, lowering her voice. "And you still haven't managed to escape?"
Glancing quickly to the cart's driver, Aiken shoot his head roughly.
She slouched, dropping her head back, flinching as it hit wood. Then she might never leave these highwaymen. After the whole journey, she had merely traded one servitude for another.
"Are they cruel to you?" She opened her eyes, peering through the thick oaks to see the faint sky. The once beautiful tree tunnel felt like a cage.
Aiken did not answer for a moment, breath hitched. "Not to me," he breathed.
"Thief! Healer! What've you got to keep in such confidence?" A rather fat highwayman rode up to him, the horse he sat upon mirroring his physique.
Aiken smiled deftly. " I was wooing her, or couldn't you tell?"
Guffaws riddled the outlaw's belly, which rippled against his horse's neck. "Oyy! We got heya couple a lovebirds!" Kicking the plump mare into a trot, he rushed off to share the joke.
Keira looked at Aiken with curiosity.
"Well don't let that comment go to your head," he teased.
"He called you 'thief"".
Aiken shrugged. "That's a crude term. But I suppose that's what I am. Was, until they caught me."
Something familiar wrung in her bones, though she could not place it. "And that's why they keep you? What do the Rustlers want with a common pickpocket?"
Frankly, he said, "Well, I'm not a common pickpocket. I was very skilled. The called me Renard."
"The Fox!" Keira sat straighter, studying him with a touch of disgust. "You're a mercenary."
Aiken looked surprised. "Is that what they say? I'm no mercenary, I'm a spy. I steal information, but I've never killed anyone."
"Why get dragged into all of that?"
"We needed the money. It started out as just pick-pocketing, and then I outgrew that. Some Smudge hired me to eavesdrop on his business partner, and suddenly I had all the work I wanted."
"It doesn't bother you?"
He chuckled. "Why should it? I help one Smudge get rich, and the next week I steal the blueprint for his new steam engine and sell it to his competitor."
Keira laughed as well. "That's my kind of justice." She thought of something then. "If you're so sneaky, why didn't you escape years ago?"
Her thoughts kicked into gear. "You're the Fox! You stole the King's seal! You can be invisible at a whim! And after two years you haven't managed to escape from the biggest oafs on the highway?"
Aiken merely took off his boots and set them aside.
Keira was outraged. "You coward! You're no better than a highwayman yourself! How dare you pretend to be their captive, and speak to me like we're allies."
Still he said nothing.
"You won't even explain yourself? Well, fine. I'd have found better company in that ratty old mutt!" With that, Keira crawled over to the dog, and sat simmering in the corner for the duration of the day.
That night, Keira and the Rustlers did not stop to camp until the moon was high in the sky.
An old villain handed her a burlap coverlet, smiling toothlessly as she curled up close to the fire. Keira could see sparks flying from the pit, but even as she shut her eyes their silhouettes danced. She mulled on this, weighing the light against the cold air she knew would greet her face as soon as she turned away from the fire.
"Do you really think I'm a coward?"
Keira started, opening her eyes. Aiken sat beside her, his curious hair seeming to glow from the fire's heat. All thoughts of sleep vanished when she saw his expression. His eyes were cold as a knife, lips flat and vaguely inhuman.
She stuttered, "Wh-" transfixed by the man, so charming in the daylight, but fragile now. "What?"
"You said I'm a coward." Though his face was nearly vicious, Aiken's voice remained unchanged, the same deep silk of that morning.
"I didn't mean it", the words slipped from her lips before she had even thought them.
"Yes, you did." His eyes never left the flames.
"Well... I was rash. You could've lost your life escaping, especially unarmed as you are."
Aiken turned away, "I could have left them a hundred times. This very minute, I could be gone."
Keira looked at him fiercely. "Then why aren't you?"
Creases framed the boy's closed eyes. "They know where I live. Where my family lives." His voice choked. "The man I traveled with told them I'm from Basq."
"Why would he do that?!" What a wretched, spineless traitor!
A lopsided smile crossed Aiken's face. "They tortured him." His lips quivered, eyes still shut tight.
"Oh." The air left her lungs with that. "Well, at least your family's still safe." She tried to joke.
Aiken had no smile for her.