"The thing is," Tulio says, "we've always specialised in short cons. The shorter the better. Loaded dice, remember?"
"Surely," says Miguel, in his expansive way, "if we can pretend to be gods...!"
"Badly," Tulio says. "We pretended to be gods, badly."
"Eh, to be fair to you guys," Chel says, "you fooled most of El Dorado."
"Except the chief," Tulio says.
"And Tzekel-kan," Chel allows.
"And you," says Tulio, flicking the underside of her chin with one finger before he resumes pacing.
"That's not many!" says Miguel. "That's just--"
"Everyone who actually met us?" says Tulio.
Altivo snickers and leans down to nudge at the side of Miguel's head.
"You see?" Miguel strokes the horse's nose. "Altivo agrees with me. We can do this, Tulio."
Tulio pulls to a halt and levels an expression at the both of them that says, clear as birdsong at dawn, what he thinks about Altivo being allowed to cast a vote in this matter.
"I'm in," Chel says, hugging her legs. "Tulio, it'll be fun."
"Ha!" Miguel says, melodious in triumph. "Three against one."
"Two against one, and I still--oh, come on, don't," Tulio says irritably, when Miguel's eyes widen in entreaty.
Chel sympathises. Miguel has eyes as clear and wet as young plants after the rain, and he's well aware of how to use them.
"Come on," Chel wheedles. She leans sideways until her shoulder bumps against Tulio's leg, and feels a thrill of warmth when he strokes a hand over her hair. "Nobody comes up with plans like you do."
"That," says Tulio, still with one wary eye on the horse, "is true."
Miguel meets Chel's gaze for a quick moment, and she grins at him.
The country of Spain is, more than anything else, grey. The streets are grey. The buildings are grey. It's a colour Chel associates with a tight sensation on her skin and the sky-spirits snoring as the clouds roll across the sun, so for a long time she feels constantly on edge, waiting for rain.
"It's all very boring, I expect," says Miguel.
"Well, after El Dorado..."
Chel looks around them. They are, nominally, at the market in order to buy necessities and costumes. So far Tulio has absently pocketed several small items right under the noses of the stallholders and Miguel has amassed a devoted gaggle of small children by juggling eight apples at once. The people are overdressed and the sounds are layered and strange and everything is new, new, new.
"I was stuck there for twenty-three years!" she says. "Believe me, even you would have gone crazy within a month."
"I, yes, well. Probably," Miguel says. He runs his fingers through a bag of grain as they pass a stall, ignoring the glare this gets him from the woman behind it.
Tulio glances at him but Miguel doesn't look up.
"Chel's right," Tulio says. "Keeping you entertained is exhausting. You have the attention span of a flea."
"How dare you!"
"A drunk flea."
"Who would waste wine on a flea?" Miguel demands. "Besides, I--ooh, look at those hats."
Tulio opens his mouth triumphantly, then closes it again. His eyes narrow.
Miguel's whole face twitches.
Tulio digs his elbow so violently into Miguel's side that Miguel stumbles, nearly knocking over a pile of bread, and laughing bright as sunshine on water.
"You know I'm right," Tulio says. "Remember that time in--"
"Oh," Miguel groans. "You have to bring that up, do you?"
Chel bites the side of her lip, where her smile tastes like the oranges she ate for breakfast. In El Dorado she took one look at this partnership and gambled on the hope that it would be easy to insinuate herself. And it was, for a while.
It took her the whole chaotic journey back to Spain to realise that she'd only just managed to get her foot over the threshold. Chel's new partners in crime speak a language of jokes and history and instinct. Its nouns are rehearsed insults and its idioms are obscure: the theatre fire in Seville; the thing with the bacon and the pack of dogs; that midnight sword fight along the ruined wall; what happened with the girl in Barcelona.
Miguel and Tulio, Tulio-and-Miguel, is an entity more impenetrable than Chel had anticipated.
But despite that and despite the weird taste of the bread, and despite the buildings that promise rain, she wouldn't be anywhere else. Everything is new, everything is not El Dorado. She's out. She's stolen herself an adventure and she's not giving it back.
"He's Cortez's nephew."
"Yes," says Tulio. "Well, cousin. Second cousin? Something like that."
"And Altivo is Cortez's horse--sorry, sorry, now get your nose out of my armpit, there's a good boy. Altivo was Cortez's horse."
"You don't think there's a chance he will...recognise him?"
"Recognise a horse?" Tulio says. "Yow. Altivo!"
Altivo does the prissy wide-eyed prance of: whose hoof just stepped on someone's foot, certainly not mine, no, definitely not!
"He's a very distinctive horse," Chel says, soothingly.
"Right," glares Tulio, hopping.
"We'll disguise him!" says Miguel. "It'll be easy."
"I really don't think the horse should be at the top of things we have to worry about here, Miguel."
"I don't think there should be a list," Miguel says. "But that doesn't seem to have stopped you."
Tulio puts a defensive hand on the stable wall, where he's been writing the list in charcoal. They're hiding out here instead of their rooms in the inn because Tulio's paranoia is matched only by Miguel's insistence that Altivo gets offended when they leave him out of the planning process. Bibo is rolling happily to and fro beneath Chel's bare feet.
"Tulio, you're making this too complicated," Chel says. She nudges Bibo aside, pushing herself off the hay bale and upright. She puts a bit of extra sway in her step, to make sure they're paying attention. "We have something he wants. We just have to lay the bait."
She nods at Miguel and he unwraps the small square of fabric that holds her earrings, a few thick discs, and the three flattened horseshoes that they only wrangled off Altivo when the fourth was lost at sea, leaving him unevenly shod. Chel laughed for ages when she realised that the pieces of metal attached to his hooves weren't just for decoration, as the goldworker who first attached them would have assumed.
Gold can't protect anyone or anything. It's soft, it's easy, it's what you use because there's nothing else lying around. The fact that she's now found herself in a country where a man can be stabbed in the street for a purse of it is...strange, to say the least. But she managed to bait Miguel and Tulio by sensing their greed even in the midst of El Dorado's plenty; all in all, this con is a simpler one.
"It seems a shame," Miguel says, "to melt it all down. It's the only souvenir of El Dorado we have left."
"Ahem," says Chel, raising her eyebrows.
"No, Chel, I didn't mean--"
"Relax, Miguel." She kicks his leg. "I'm teasing."
"I know, but we have to get it reworked," says Tulio. "Altamirano isn't the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but it has to look a bit Moorish or he's never going to buy the story."
Chel, despite herself, looks at the list. The things that Tulio has identified to worry about encompass every aspect of the con. The list begins with Miguel baiting the hook, moves on to herself, and loops around to include Tulio's bit part as the authenticator--Tulio will worry about anything up to and including his own self, it seems.
"Now," Tulio says, nodding at her. "Go over it again."
Chel laces her fingers in front of her and bats her eyelashes. It's like learning to recite the tales of gods and heroes, only more fun. "My name is Marina al-Fihri de Haro y Castile. I am descended directly from the Moorish kings, and the orphaned heir to my family's land."
Tulio cuts in, pointing at Miguel. "In which, you have fortuitously discovered, is buried her royal great-grandmother's fortune."
"Her features aren't Moorish," Miguel objects.
"She's of mixed blood," says Tulio, impatient. "Besides, do you see anyone else like Chel wandering the streets? Do you think Rodrigo Altamirano is going to believe that two criminal nobodies and a horse managed to haul an exotic princess and a huge pile of gold back from the New World, in a rowboat?"
"Princess?" says Chel, trying not to laugh.
"It's not a good story unless you're a princess," says Tulio.
"You're a princess to us," says Miguel, grinning at her.
"Stop flirting," says Tulio, but not like he actually cares. "She's dark, she's got gold, she's Moorish. End of story. Please, Miguel, resist. The urge. To embroider."
Miguel's face feints towards the pleading expression that means he's going to argue and he's absolutely going to win, but Tulio lifts a finger threateningly and he subsides.
Chel nods. "A simple con is a good con."
"All right!" Tulio says. "All right."
Chel giggles. It's late and her nose is smushed into Miguel's thigh; he still smells of the paint-for-shoes he used to turn Altivo into a dramatic black stallion. A dramatic black stallion prone to leaving dark smudges on things when he rubs up against them.
"Silence, please!" Tulio raises his arms dramatically. The cup in his hand wobbles, but there's not enough wine left in it for any to spill out.
"Why do you get to tell it?" asks Miguel.
"Because I tell it correctly!"
"You tell it boring...ly."
"And you insist on adding things for dramatic effect."
"Tell it together," Chel says. She flips herself around so that she can rest her head properly on Miguel's leg and watch Tulio where he stands, swaying a bit, poised like a history-teller at a feast, lit by the strong glow of candles and a silvery wash of moonlight. She's just drunk enough that she feels loose and comfortable and has to work to focus her eyes. It's nice.
"We were in Barcelona," Tulio says.
"Obviously," says Miguel.
"We'd known each other--what, a year?"
"Almost two," says Miguel. "You remember, because there was the winter when--"
"Yes, yes, of course."
"Barcelona," Chel commands.
"Having just...come into some money..."
"By not entirely legitimate means."
"We took ourselves out on the town," Tulio says, "and fell in with some musicians. Well, I say fell in. Mostly we bought them drinks, and one of them gave Miguel a guitar lesson."
"And," Miguel says, "there was this girl."
"What was her name?" Chel asks.
"Inés," the two of them say at once.
Chel smiles and loves them both a little more. She has no intention of becoming a story tossed between these two, what happened with the girl from El Dorado, but if she did, she'd like them to say her name like that, in exactly that fond and vaguely awe-struck unison.
"God, she was lovely," says Miguel. "She danced like--like all the sunsets in the world, put together and whirled around."
"We made complete fools of ourselves. Which was unusual," Tulio adds, waving his now-empty wine cup for emphasis, "because we don't often like the same girls."
"One in every ten," Miguel says, with surprising authority.
Tulio's mouth twitches. "You always know the odds," he says. "And then you ignore them."
"So we tried to impress her," Miguel says. "It got, ah, out of hand."
"I cut half of my hair off," Tulio says. "Miguel tried to leap over the fire, and burned his toes when his shoes caught alight."
"All she did was laugh at us, so after that we decided--"
"--by mutual agreement--"
"--to leave it a gentlemanly draw."
"But," Tulio declares, and really, he's one to talk when it comes to dramatic effect, "apparently, there's more to this story."
"Not a lot more," Miguel protests. "I woke up, I went back to the fire for some water, and Inés was still there. We got to talking."
"Talking," says Chel, suddenly restless. She sits up, stands up, pulls the cup from Tulio's hands and sets it down. She winds her arms around his neck. "Like...this kind of talking?"
Miguel, still slumped back against the rough headboard of the bed, reaches for the wine bottle and turns it almost fully upside-down against his lips. His throat moves as he swallows.
"Something like that," he says.
Chel looks back at Tulio and presses on the nape of his neck--come on, play along--until he bends down to kiss her. His mouth is warm and uneven and tastes of wine.
"Yes, but your hands are in the wrong place," Miguel says. "She put hers on my, um--"
"Oh," says Chel.
She moves her hands downwards and delivers a light slap before letting them roam over Tulio's ass.
"Scandalous," Tulio murmurs, blurring the word. "What else did she do?"
Miguel doesn't tend to watch when they're affectionate with one another. He'll make all sorts of noise about giving them their privacy, or the fact that he shouldn't be forced to sit through such disgusting displays.
He's not looking away now.
"She liked to kiss," Miguel says. "We didn't do much more than that, but she--she was very good at it."
Chel giggles again at the silliness of it, softly into Tulio's chest, and it turns into a caught breath as his hands glide up her sides. It's cold in this room but her skin is gathering heat.
"You heard him," Tulio says, tilting her face up.
Chel opens her mouth to the kind of deep kiss that she could lose herself in, the kind of kiss that promises better things. Her restlessness is everywhere now, heavy in all the cracks of her body. The bed is just--just there, and Miguel is--
"I got my hands into her hair," comes Miguel's voice.
It takes everything Chel has not to buckle at the knees when Tulio slides his long, clever fingers right into the mass of her hair, firm and caressing against her scalp, ticklishly wonderful like the whisper of wind against wet skin. She shivers all over and moans as he kisses her again, moving her where he wants her, dragging her mouth against his with the strength of his grip.
"I," Miguel says. He has to clear his throat. "I," he says again, and his voice is dry and Tulio goes tense where he's pressed against Chel, and now it's not silly any more.
The coolness of the air glides over her as Tulio clears his throat and steps away. His face jerks into a smile.
"It sounds like you and Inés had a good time, you scoundrel. Sneaking off and breaking your word like that! Does our friendship mean so little?"
"Breaking my word?" says Miguel. "As if you--"
He stops. His voice has gone sharp as the new-honed edge of a knife and it slices the room into silence.
"As if I what," Tulio says, equally dangerous.
Chel finds herself holding her breath. Miguel's eyes flick to her, and back to Tulio, and Chel realises with a rush of nausea what this is about, in the heartbeat before Miguel's body sags and he climbs unsteadily off the bed.
"Nothing," he says. "It's late. I'm--I'm going to bed."
Miguel goes to the other room--the door closes behind him with a snick--and Tulio splashes water on his face from the bowl by the window, not speaking, as Chel smooths the covers and then climbs beneath them. She bites the inside of her cheek and thinks, hard.
Miguel would have stayed in El Dorado. If it weren't for luck, for circumstance, one stupid stuck sail, he would have stayed and Tulio would have left him there, after parting in anger about promises made and broken. They would never have seen each other again. All this time the two of them have been uneasily carrying around that knowledge and that hurt, but as far as Chel knows they haven't exchanged a single word about it. Have they?
Have they even been alone with one another, since they left El Dorado?
Chel rolls onto her back and gazes thoughtfully at the ceiling. What she'd thought of as a fight long forgiven, a rendering apart that was made easily whole again, is anything but. They've held themselves together this long, but now the strain is showing. The grey light of Spain carries their history with it and it's gleaming through the cracks.
This is big; this could endanger the whole con. She should have noticed it sooner, she should have been looking. She's dropped her guard, with them. Lulled into happiness. She should have known better.
And now, Chel tells herself, she has to fix it.
"This is Don Altamirano, the man I told you about."
"Enchanted, Doña Marina," the young man says. He bows so deeply over her hand that Chel hears a creak.
Chel keeps her eyes lowered--modestly, Tulio told her, and then had to explain what it meant--and expresses her own pleasure in a soft voice.
"We met over drinks," Miguel tells her. "He heard me talking about your situation, and he told me that he's in the market for an estate which he can build up exactly as he wants it."
Actually, Altamirano had heard Miguel talking loudly and fake-drunkenly to the innkeeper about the pieces of gold he'd found half-buried on an estate well out of town, and the gullible young heiress who was so desperate to buy herself out of debt that she'd probably let the land go for a song.
This is one of those cons that disguises itself as another con. Tulio's eye for people's weaknesses sits well with Miguel's instinct for softening them up, and they picked Altamirano almost on sight as being bored enough and impressed enough with himself that he'd play right into their hands.
"My family is looking to expand their interests here in Spain, as well as abroad," Altamirano says.
"Did you know," says Miguel, "that Rodrigo's mother is related to Cortez himself?"
Miguel does a remarkable job of being a person's new best friend, none too bright but very eager to please. You wouldn't think him capable of anything but sunny charm and melodramatics.
Chel finds herself thinking about the knife that his voice pulled on the conversation three nights ago, and has to remind herself to focus on the con at hand.
She heaves a sigh. "It's true, my family has lost most of its splendour over the years. The house is in disrepair and the olive groves are barely fruitful. I have land, but it's useless to me."
Rodrigo Altamirano's vague features pull into excitement and he darts his eyes at Miguel. Chel keeps her vacantly shy expression on while fighting the urge to cackle. He's an excellent mark; he loves the idea of intrigue but he couldn't act to save his life, while Miguel and Tulio and Chel have all had to do exactly that.
"It sounds like a good investment," Altamirano says. "I'm sure with some time and effort the land would again prove...fruitful."
Another dart of his eyes. Chel blinks at him in awe. How has this man not been fleeced before now?
"I am so grateful that you would consider helping me, Don Altamirano," Chel says. "Please excuse me, now, gentlemen. I'm already late to meet someone to beg for an extension on a loan."
Altamirano shakes his head. "I wish I could spare you such unpleasant tasks, my dear lady."
"You are so kind," Chel says. She might be overdoing it with the soft, gushing voice, but she's got no idea how to deploy her body to best advantage in this outfit, so she's using what she's got.
She gives one last flutter of her eyelashes for good measure, picks up her ridiculous skirts, and allows herself to be bowed out into the hallway.
Then she knocks on the door to the next room until Tulio lets her in. He quickly pulls her across to the wall that the room shares with Miguel's, where he hands her a cup. Chel knows this trick by now. She puts one end to the wall and the other to her ear, and Tulio does the same beside her.
"You see?" Miguel's saying. "I stumbled across those pieces when I was sleeping in a barn on her property--she never goes there, it's as ramshackle as she said--and it was easy enough to befriend her. I think she's lonely," he adds.
Chel makes a face at Tulio, who shrugs.
"I have read," Altamirano says breathlessly, "that most of the Moorish treasure from the last century has never been unearthed."
"Have you been to Cordoba? Have you seen La Mezquita? The Moorish side of her family funded half of the construction, and it's said that they hoarded two gold pieces for every one that they spent."
"And she has no idea," Altamirano says.
"None at all."
"One almost feels bad about it," says Altamirano. "Cheating such a young and beautiful woman out of her family's fortune."
"Almost," says Miguel.
Tulio pulls his cup away from the wall so he can do a silent dance of victory beside her, and after a moment Chel throws her hands up and joins in.
"You've never said what your reasons were," Tulio says.
"For leaving El Dorado."
"Tulio," Chel complains, against the warm skin of his arm. "Sleep."
"No, I remember. You said: you've got your reasons, and I've got mine."
Chel goes still. She runs her tongue around her mouth and then over her lips, chasing moisture.
"Why does it matter?" she asks. "I'm here now."
"What were you running from?"
Chel shifts around, getting her elbow onto her jealously-guarded section of the pillow so she can prop her cheek on one hand. She takes longer about it than she needs to, using the pause so that the drowsy embers of her mind can catch fully alight. Tulio's eyes are serious and his hair is doing the thing it does whenever it senses freedom, which means the ends of it are trying to escape in thirty-seven darkly curling directions all at once.
"The men, of course," she says. "None of them were my type."
"Oh, yes, obviously. All those bronzed bodies and chiseled muscles," says Tulio. "That must have been a real hardship for you."
Chel leans down to hum a kiss against his shoulder. "Hmm. But maybe I prefer pale and weedy."
"Weedy," Tulio splutters. "No, wait, hold on, we were--I was asking you--"
"Were you?" Chel says, stroking her hand down his bare stomach. Down, down. Tulio's too much of a con man not to recognise misdirection, but a con man is still a man.
"Gnh," he says. "Ah! Ah."
"I said the men weren't my type. Haven't I told you about Lela?"
"No," Tulio says. His voice goes high and rapid. "No, no--yes, ohhh my God, keep doing that--no you have not told me about Lela, don't think I don't know what you're doing, by the way, we'll revisit that later, now who is Lela, tell me everything right now."
"Lela," Chel purrs, "was a close friend of mine."
"You're evil." Tulio's pupils are dark and his breath is loud. "You're an evil woman, Chel."
"Don't you want to hear how close?"
"Right, that's it--"
Chel shrieks, delighted, as he grabs her and rolls, getting her underneath him. She loses her grip but she can feel him hard against her leg, rubbing slowly back and forth.
"Keep talking," he says, hoarse.
So Chel sucks in a breath and tells him about Lela, in a wealth of detail--of which only fifty percent is totally made up--until she can't keep her sentences straight because she's gasping with her head thrown back on the pillow and Tulio has those fingers of his--so long, so clever--buried deep inside her.
He ducks his head and drags his tongue over her, right where his fingers disappear. Chel's body is ringing like a struck temple gong.
She buries her hand in his rebellious hair and holds on.
"What was that?" Tulio demands. "What are you doing?"
They're skulking behind a pillar; Chel leans her head around it in order to glare in the direction of the bar.
"Give me a moment, I'll go again," she says. "I'm usually good at this."
"Oh, we know," says Miguel. He's sitting on the table, idly plucking at his guitar.
Tulio reaches out without looking and punches Miguel's arm. "You couldn't even get the powder into his drink?"
"He wouldn't let me buy him a new one."
"Chel. Sweetheart." Tulio takes a deep breath. "I'm sure I don't need to remind you that this is a fairly important part of the con. If we can't get hold of his keys and keep him away from the university tomorrow morning, then my chances of convincing Altamirano that I'm a scholar of Moorish antiquities are--"
"Tulio, I know! And I'm trying!" Chel protests, grabbing hold of her bodice and wriggling within it. "It's this dress."
"It's the fashion," says Miguel.
"I know, I know."
"And you'd be too cold if you wore, um, your old clothes."
"Cold, among other things," mutters Tulio, but he looks wistful.
"Even Spain isn't cold enough for this much fabric," says Chel, wriggling some more. "It just gets in the way."
"You should use your hips more," says Tulio.
"Are you telling me how to use my body?"
"No!" Tulio snaps. "Yes! Augh." He grabs his hair.
Chel glares. "Oh, really, mister body-language-expert. If it's so simple, then why don't you seduce him."
Tulio pauses with a double handful of hair, staring into her eyes.
"Fine," he says.
The guitar in Miguel's hands gives an alarmed twang.
Tulio stands straighter, smooths back his hair, and reaches right into Chel's bodice with two nimble fingers to grab the square of paper folded around the sleeping-powder. The only good thing about this dress is the storage potential.
"If you want something done right," he grumbles.
Then he stalks his way over to the bar, elbows his way into their mark's personal space, and proceeds to flirt with an intensity that Chel recognises as a person only could if they'd once found themselves on the other end of it.
The scholar at the bar looks alarmed, then intrigued. Tulio beckons for more drinks with an imperious flick of his fingers. The scholar wraps a hand around the tankard as though it'll protect him; Tulio leans against the bar in his angular, confident way, and smirks.
Next to Chel, Miguel is vibrating in distress or something more intimate, the guitar now dangling forgotten from his fingers.
"Dear God in Heaven," he says.
"But...he doesn't even have hips," says Chel.
"You know what, I like it," Chel says, looking around at the dried-up trees and the gentle slope of the hills.
"Good," Miguel says. "Welcome to your family estate, Doña Marina." He leans back against the crumbling wall and watches as Altamirano's figure stumbles before stepping inside the barn. It's a chill, bright day, and Chel is finally grateful for the woollen shawl that she has draped over her shoulders.
Altamirano is in there for a long time.
"Seriously, Miguel, how well did you hide this gold?"
"It's barely beneath the surface," Miguel says. "I swear, if I have to go over there and help him--"
"Tell me again how this woman knows Tulio."
"Hah," says Miguel. "Nelida? He tried to con her, years ago. Apparently she caught him at it and laughed, and then taught him how to do it properly."
"Hm," says Chel. There's a spark in her belly like spiced meat sitting uneasily. It's not a familiar sensation. "You should have bargained her down to five percent."
"Now, be fair, she let us knock down a wall of her country house and drag this idiot around her lands," says Miguel. "And she lent Tulio the title deeds so he can make a copy. Ten percent is reasonable."
"Five percent would have been reasonable," says Chel. Her belly is sullen.
Miguel looks sidelong at her. "Chel, Nelida must be pushing seventy by now."
"I'm not allowed to be jealous?"
"Don't you ever get jealous, Miguel?"
Miguel looks at her, suddenly wary, and Chel digs her fingernails into her palm but stands her ground. This is important. This has to happen.
Miguel surprises her.
"Fine," he says. The honed edge is back in his voice. "You want me to talk about it? Fine. It was completely unfair of him to label you off limits and then go for you anyway. When we both met you at the same time, and and obviously we both--I mean--"
"One in ten girls, huh," Chel says. "Lucky me."
Miguel's quicker at her moods than Tulio is, sometimes. He hears the bitterness.
"You think I'd have gone for whichever of you made the first move? You think this wasn't my choice?" She stands in front of him and spiders her fingers up his chest, echoing her own actions in her own city all those months ago. "I seduced him, Miguel. If you have a problem, your problem is with me."
Instead of the question she wants, the question she expects, there's silence.
"I do know when I'm being manipulated," Miguel says. "This is my job. Chel, what are you doing?"
"Why him?" Chel says. "You want to know. Why him and not you."
"Yes," Miguel says.
"Because I knew he would crack first," Chel says, merciless even to the stab of guilt this creates in herself. "I haven't told him that. You tell him, if you want. But this is my job too, Miguel. I know how to read a mark."
More silence. Chel drops her hand from his chest and bites her lip, waiting.
"How much of that is true?" Miguel asks.
"I don't know," Chel says, honestly. "But it doesn't matter now, does it?"
"I suppose not," he says. "Now."
"I did suspect," he says. "I mean, I thought you might be--playing with him, just to make sure he wouldn't back out, or leave you behind."
"You were afraid for him," Chel says.
Miguel sighs and looks at the sky, which today is the same shade of coldly improbable blue as Tulio's eyes.
"It's usually me, by the way," he says, light. "I'm the one the ladies tend to go for."
"You liar," says Chel, but Miguel picks up her hand and rubs a thumb over her knuckles, and angles a smile at her, and suddenly she believes it; suddenly she's hot with challenge. Like a splash of light across closed eyelids she remembers kissing Miguel in farewell, when they thought they were leaving him behind. She knows when a man wants her. She always has.
"Aquilino!" shouts Altamirano, excitement in his voice.
"That's you," Chel says.
"Yes, thank you," Miguel says.
He looks down at her knuckles as though to memorise them, drops her hand, and gives her a quick wink before jogging over to the barn. After a while, he and Altamirano emerge, both of them with the air of someone repressing a secret.
Chel assumes a curious expression as they approach. In the next con, she promises herself, she won't get stuck playing the princess. No matter how good a story it makes.
"What is it, Don Altamirano?" she asks.
"Nothing, my dear. I was startled. I saw, ah, a rat."
"A rat," Chel echoes. Miguel makes a frantic motion at her with his hands. She raises her voice: "Oh, how horrible, a rat," and pretends to shudder and swoon.
Miguel catches her.
"Nice job," he murmurs.
"Who is this?" Chel asks.
"This," Miguel declares, "is Señor Esparza, from the University of Salamanca. He has been visiting with Don Altamirano about something entirely unrelated. He will show himself out now."
"That was very rude, young man," says Tulio, peering at Miguel from beneath a velvet cap that makes his face look even pointier than usual.
"I'm so sorry, Señor!" Chel says. "Please, don't feel like you have to rush off. I'm sure this won't take long. You can continue your visit when we leave."
"Er," says Altamirano.
Miguel digs an elbow into the man's ribs. "Now that Esparza has finished his, ah, authentication," he says, "I'm sure there's no harm in his remaining here."
"Are you any closer to making a decision, Don Altamirano?" Chel says.
In the pause, Chel's stomach tries to twist itself over like Turkish sugar floss.
"Well," Altamirano says slowly, "the thing is--"
"Wait!" Miguel says, throwing his hands out. "Stop!"
Every eye in the room turns to him. Chel doesn't dare look at Tulio.
This is not part of the script.
"I want to make my own offer for the land," Miguel says.
"Aquilino," says Altamirano. "What is this?"
Miguel, with a steely nonchalance that that Chel can't help but admire, doesn't even look at him. He turns to Chel instead.
"You heard me. What do you say?"
Altamirano is gaping now. "But--you said you didn't have enough money to make the deal on your own! You--you had to sell me your horse, in order to pay for this pompous scholar's services."
"Excuse me," huffs Tulio.
"I may have been less than honest about my circumstances," says Miguel, hovering masterfully between apology and greed. "Rodrigo, I needed your name. I needed your resources."
"What is going on?" Tulio says. "Am I still needed here?"
"Señor Aquilino?" Chel says. She looks from one of them to the other. "Don Altamirano?"
"I can get cash," says Miguel. "Give me a day."
Altamirano's weak eyes crease with a wildness that looks almost painful. He takes a deep breath and grabs Chel by the shoulders; she has to shove urgently down the instinct to twist away and hit him.
"Sell me the land, Doña Marina. Just me. I'll give you more for it than he can, I guarantee it. And I swear to you, your family's estate will be in good hands. I will rebuild."
Like this, spurred by panic and impatient emotion, he's almost convincing.
Chel lets her mouth tremble. She looks at Miguel again--"Don't listen to him, Marina! Aren't we friends? Didn't I make all of this possible?"--and then up into Altamirano's face.
"I--I should do what is smartest," she says shakily. "For me, and for what remains of my family's name. Right?"
His hands tighten on her shoulders.
Chel thinks: got you.
"Oh, don't even start with your what was that," Miguel says. "That was improvisation. I know you're familiar with it."
"I told you not to embroider!"
"It worked, didn't it? He's ready to hand over the money."
"That's not the point, Miguel!"
"I know, you have to be in charge, you have to be the one with the plan."
"You think I like it?" Tulio shouts. "You think I--do you even know how stressful it is, to be the person making all the decisions?"
"Really. How does that work, then?"
"Guys," Chel says sharply, gesturing around at the wooden walls of the inn bedroom.
Tulio drops his voice. "If it's always my call, then whatever the consequences turn out to be, I'm the one who's responsible. Nobody else. I have to worry about everything, for both of us, it's exhausting."
"Christ, is your ego really that large? Everything's your fault, then, is it?"
"Isn't it?" Tulio says.
Miguel looks like a man lost in a new world without even the most cryptic of maps to guide him.
"Tulio," he says, and stops.
Tulio starts to reach a hand towards Miguel, but his fingers curl back into his palm like a fern doused in hot water, and he glances at Chel. She wants to scream at him for it.
"You--no," Miguel says, and turns on his heel and heads for the door.
He walks past Chel; she grabs him by one arm and holds him there, on the spot. Her heart is trying to rattle its way through the skin of her throat.
"It's not that you saw me first, is it, Miguel? It's that you saw him first."
Miguel's face is one of the most expressive things Chel has ever seen, larger than life, like a mural or a sculpture that won't stop moving. Looking at it now makes her feel frantic, like she should put her hands on it, one on each cheek. She should mould the clay of him into something that isn't going to break her heart.
He inhales, about to speak, and then pushes past her without a word. He doesn't stop at his own room. She can hear the thumps of his feet on the stairs.
When Chel looks back at him, Tulio's face is white and his eyes are glittering.
"What did you mean?" he says.
"Go after him," Chel says.
"No," Tulio says. "What did you mean, he saw me first?"
"Gods, enough," says Chel, abruptly at the end of her patience. Improvisation. She can do that. "Tulio, neither of you would know how to live without the other. I never wanted that for you. You get that, don't you? You have to sort this out. You can't keep going like this."
She sees the moment when his legs give out. He catches himself on one hand, on the bed, and sits. Chel has seen Tulio half-drowned and half-singed from battling monsters and magic and the very forces of water and rock, and he looked less tired and less scared than he does in this moment.
"You make the decisions," she says, gently, moving to sit next to him. "He's waiting for you to decide."
"And if it goes wrong?" Tulio says. "This is why I--no, I won't, it's too big. One of us still has to know how to quit when we're ahead. I can only see two ways out of this. Either it all falls apart, and he leaves, or...we pretend that everything is the same as it was. We pretend until it works."
That's not very creative. Chel can see at least three other options. What she can see stretches from here to the horizon, that flat stretch of watery grey, so much vaster than the distances she's been used to.
"You don't like long cons, Tulio," she says.
"I'd do it for him," Tulio lashes out, "I'd do it to keep him."
"For the rest of your life?"
She wonders if Tulio will hit her. Probably not. His fists are low down on his list of ways to cope with anything, anger included, and in a few moments' time he will work out that he's not actually angry. He breathes loudly, as if through water. In his face is the realisation that the words have never lined up in this way before, like those clever glass lenses set in a long tube, one in front of the other, allowing him to see clearly something that's always been there.
"Yes," Tulio says, wondering.
Maybe you have to grow up with a flat horizon, to become so blind to the vastness of it. Maybe it only looks flat until the glass lines up.
"Yes," says Chel. "Me too."
Their eyes meet.
"Now this is more like it!"
Miguel outright twirls into the room, only pausing to throw the bags of money into a cupboard before collapsing onto the bed. Which is huge. There's a fire warming the room, and an actual standing bath, and Chel is going to have dreams about the food-smells that were wafting through the common areas.
"Oh, I like that we had to move," she says. "Let's stay here."
"Only for a day or so," Tulio says.
"Tulio, we've won, you're allowed to stop worrying now," Miguel says. "I wish I could see his face when he realises that there's no more gold buried there. Or when Nelida turns up with the real title deed." He drums his heels and palms against the bed like a young boy drunk with excitement and too tired to sleep. His pleasure is infectious, his mood as unsullied as it has been all day, as though last night's argument never happened.
There's this that Chel knows about con artists, about people who can act to save their life: they often won't consider saving it in any other way. When in doubt, pretend.
Chel laughs, kicks off her shoes and launches herself on top of him in a flurry of skirts and lace. Miguel yelps as her elbow hits a soft spot, then hugs her one-armed and smacks a kiss against her hairline.
"You were fantastic, Marina al-Fihri," Miguel crows. "We should celebrate, we should--Tulio! Why are you just standing there? If I know you, you should be up to your elbows in the money by this point."
Chel blows some of her hair out of her eyes and catches the look on Tulio's face. She kneels up and drapes her arms around Miguel's neck from behind, loose and fond. From any angle it could be mistaken for nothing more than friendly. She's thinking about brightly painted kites on the end of strings, betraying with their movements each tiny shift in the wind.
Tulio has pulled a plush chair over and set it facing the bed. Now he sits down.
"Right," he says, with the air of a man steeling himself for execution.
"What? What are you doing?" Miguel says.
"Me, I'm holding you down," says Chel. "So you can't run away this time."
"Are you sure you shouldn't be holding Tulio down?"
Tulio's feet pause where they're jittering like nuts in a hot pan. He lifts a rude finger.
"Tulio," Chel says.
"Tulio," Miguel says, differently.
This time Tulio lifts his whole hand, like he's calling for silence, like he's about to beckon for drinks. Like a man hoping that with enough luck and enough strength he can will a volcano into quietude.
"I never apologised," Tulio says. "I should have."
Chel's weather-kite arms can feel some of the tension leave Miguel's body. Miguel has the same personality as Altivo, as the kitchen cat at the previous inn that wouldn't stop chasing Bibo: he'll snap if he thinks you don't like him, but he'll go soft-bellied and liquid and easy in the face of real affection.
"Nope, the chair isn't working," Tulio says.
"Who are you--" Miguel starts, but Chel applies a very little pressure to his neck with the side of her wrist and he shuts up.
Tulio gets out of the chair and paces, two steps away and two steps back, winding himself up with the motion until he looks straight at Miguel and bursts out with:
"I'm sorry that I made you promise not to do something and then did it myself. I'm sorry that I made you feel like you weren't a priority, that I didn't care if you stayed or left."
Miguel's body propels itself off the bed, urgent. Chel allows it. She wasn't holding him that tightly, and besides, she thinks, he's heading in the right direction.
He grabs onto both of Tulio's forearms and gives them a convulsive single shake.
"No, Tulio, I'm sorry, I--"
"Let me finish," Tulio says. But he curls his own hands beneath Miguel's elbows. "I'm sorry I broke my word. I swear I'll never do it again. Or at least," he adds--Tulio with his innate sense for details, for possibilities, for pragmatism--"if I have to, I'll talk to you about it."
"I admit," Miguel says slowly, "the circumstances in El Dorado were...extenuating."
Chel leans back on her hands, crosses her legs and grins. "I've never been called extenuating before."
"I'm not going to leave," Miguel says. "Tulio. I'm not going to leave."
"I'm not going to let you," Tulio says.
It sounds like they're saying something else entirely.
For a few breaths they just stand there, holding one another's forearms, Tulio having arrived at the end of his script and Miguel still anxious for his cue, the two of them stuck hovering there like a ball in the very centre of a hoop. Chel rolls her eyes. Where's Altivo with his cheating hooves when you need him?
And then Tulio makes a frustrated noise in his throat, gnurgh, visibly scrapes up one last burst of courage, pulls Miguel forward by both of his elbows and kisses him.
Chel collapses onto her back and punches the air, giddy with relief. The bed is so soft she barely bounces, and the cover is smooth as flower petals. By the time she pulls herself together and sits up again, the kiss has progressed.
She thought she was prepared for it; she's been nudging them in this direction for so long now. Since they arrived in Spain, and maybe before. She thought she knew what it would be like.
Miguel and Tulio have been partners a long time. She doesn't know how long they've been in love, but she thinks she'll know them well enough, soon, to guess at it. Chel's never existed so closely in the same space as something she wanted without losing patience and taking it, and the spaces here have been so very close: room after room, year after year, cellars and ships and inns and forest floors, Miguel and Tulio, Tulio-and-Miguel.
She thought that when she finally dragged them to this point it would be...explosive.
Tulio's fingers lie on Miguel's neck, his thumb at the centre of Miguel's bearded chin. Miguel's fingers are wrapped around Tulio's wrist, as though he was startled at the touch and then forgot to be startled. They kiss like people in a dream, taking their time. Despite herself Chel ducks her face away for a few seconds, listening to her pulse, before she exhales in full slow confidence that she's part of this, she's supposed to be here. She looks back.
And then Tulio's eyes flicker, there's a wicked twist to his mouth where it's working lazily at Miguel's, and Chel inhales and grabs a handful of bedclothes more or less on pure muscle instinct, because that twist of the lips means hold onto something.
Fast as a darting wasp, Tulio gets his hands on Miguel's shirt and yanks up, breaking the kiss. Miguel stumbles, and then his purest and sunniest laugh comes muffled through the shirt tangled over his head. He gets his own hands into the mix and Tulio's palms flatten, greedy, whenever they come into contact with Miguel's bare arms or another patch of exposed chest. When Miguel's head finally emerges, the shirt worked off and dropped to the ground, his hair is a haybale mess.
"I thought you liked that shirt," he says.
"I lied," Tulio says, reaching for his waist.
Miguel laughs again and sways into him. "How dare you, is there no trust between us, ah," as Tulio leans down and bites at the junction of neck and shoulder, then mouths over it with little flicks of his tongue.
Chel's always loved how easily Tulio can haul her around, use his height and the length of his limbs to put her where he wants her. It's fantastic in a different way to see him use the same tricks on Miguel. To see Miguel gasp and cling to him, eyes hazed over with need, when Tulio gets a leg between both of his and leans into it. Chel's stomach clenches with heat as Tulio moves Miguel's arms to be folded behind his back and then holds them there, using his leverage to the full. Tulio's rough with him, she realises, in a way he's never once been with her.
It's a revelation that Chel's body is more and more interested in. She keeps her eyes trained on the way Tulio bites at Miguel's lips and she removes her clothes, piece by piece, tossing each ridiculous garment off the side of the bed with a vindictive flick of her hand. With the fire going, it's more than warm enough.
She lounges on the bed, arranging herself a bit, so when one of them finally remembers to glance over at her--Miguel, she notes, with the vague intention of rewarding him for it later--she's naked and sprawled, arms clasped behind her head.
"Don't mind me, boys," she says. "I'm very comfortable."
Tulio gives her a look that's heavy with gratitude and light with desire, and sets a hand between Miguel's shoulderblades.
"You could be more comfortable," he says, with a small shove.
Miguel's fallen into the rhythm of Tulio's handling by now; he anticipates, and doesn't trip at all as he climbs onto the bed.
"I see, you have a plan," Chel says.
"You know me, sweetheart," says Tulio.
Chel lifts a foot and finds Miguel's hand with it. He wraps the hand obediently around her ankle and moves closer, closer, trailing his fingers up the underside of her calf. Chel's seen him touch guitar strings in that sweetly gentle way. It makes lines of sensation appear on her skin as though painted there, and her nipples tighten.
"You're too dressed, Miguel," she says.
"I'm too dressed?" Miguel protests, rubbing his thumb over her bent knee. She can tell he's noticed the nipple thing, because he's not quite succeeding in dragging his eyes up to her face. "Tulio hasn't taken off anything!"
"Mm, but I think Tulio wants us to get started."
Miguel's flushed lips part and the side of his fingernail slips and digs in, oh, interesting.
"I think Tulio wants to watch," she adds, to check her hunch.
Miguel shivers and drops an open-mouthed kiss on her knee where his fingers were, sweeping his whole hand further up-up-up her leg.
"Take your damn trousers off, Miguel," says Tulio, amused.
"Hey, no need to rush him," says Chel. Her breath hitches in the middle of it.
Miguel, who's not without his own wickedness, lifts his hand away just before it can get anywhere useful, leaving Chel's hips to twitch in yearning distress. He beams down at her, managing to make eye contact this time, and shifts to the side of the bed so he can divest himself of his shoes and trousers.
Suddenly hungry for skin, Chel moves and drapes herself over his back. It's the same pose that they were in earlier, the two of them on the bed and Tulio off it, but now she's got her breasts pressed against the strong breadth of Miguel's shoulders and she's looking down his body to where the trail of blond hair on his stomach becomes a darker thatch of hair above the interested jut of his cock.
Chel, who's known enough men to know when to brace herself for their insecurities, can't help glancing at Tulio. But there's nothing on his face but the same fascinated hunger she's feeling herself; thank the gods for that.
As always when she finds her thoughts swaying idly religious, Chel has to bite her lip against laughter. She wonders how well a breathy my only wish is to serve the gods would go down right now. Maybe she'll save it for next time. Oh, there will be so many next times.
Time for that reward, now.
"I'm going to," she says, and Tulio says, "Yeah, you should." His eyes are liquid and intent and very dark, and he's working slowly at the laces of his shirt.
Chel's mouth is dry with desire. She keeps her chin hooked over Miguel's shoulder, reaches around the side of his hip and takes him in hand.
"Oh God." Miguel's head falls forward. His own hands do a dance of awkward indecision, coming close to closing over hers, and finally he shoves them under his own legs, surrendering to Chel's control.
"Good," she purrs. "What do you think, Tulio?"
"Faster, I think," Tulio says.
Miguel's cheek is pressed against hers, already slick with a light layer of sweat, and now it heats up. If Chel pulled back far enough to look at it, she thinks she could probably see the blush, but she's concentrating on keeping her grip firm as she takes the suggestion and speeds up.
Tulio, now shirtless, takes a deliberate step forward and kicks Miguel's legs further apart. He isn't careful about it. Miguel makes a broken sound and his hips try to buck up into Chel's hand, and Tulio shifts on his feet like his trousers are full of itching dust. He keeps his eyes fixed on Chel's hand as he finishes undressing, and Chel doesn't blame him. It's a good view, the way her fingers only just meet around Miguel's pale cock, the way the soft head of it appears and disappears in the circle of them.
She stops as soon as Miguel is all the way hard, unlaces her limbs and gets some space between them, catching her breath. She's slick between the legs and starting to ache in very specific ways, and she's curious as to what Tulio has planned for next.
Apparently, it starts with him joining them on the bed. He touches Miguel on the shoulder as he does so, light and brief like he's still not sure of his welcome, and reaches out to gather Chel into his arms.
"Hey," he says, gentle.
Chel curls into his lap and kisses him, settling herself with the familiarity of it, even as part of her wants to see how far she has to push him before the gentleness breaks and she gets a taste of those gorgeous rough edges.
That can be for another of the next times.
Tulio cups her breasts and kisses her, deep like he's trying to push the taste of Miguel into her mouth, and Chel has a little shock like touching someone who's walked over wool as she realises that she hasn't kissed Miguel yet, for all that she's had his cock in her hand.
Tulio kisses her once more and then turns her so that he's sitting upright against the cushions at the head of the bed and she's half-sitting, half-lying on her back between his legs. Miguel is watching them. Finding herself like that, bracketed and scrutinised, Chel's stomach squirms a bit and she realises what a vulnerable position it is. Miguel gave himself up to them like it was nothing.
"All right?" Tulio says, barely a whisper above her.
Chel nods. She can't look away from the desperate green of Miguel's eyes, the way he's barely moved from where she left him. She wants to lick his hipbones. She wants his head between her legs until her thighs are pink and chafed. But she really wants what Tulio's about to make happen.
"Go on, Miguel," he says.
Miguel might have realised the same thing, about the kissing. He leans over her, holding himself up by his hands and knees but capturing her mouth in a soft, greedy series of kisses. Chel takes his face between her hands and doesn't let him go until she's satisfied that she knows the full taste of him.
The daylight is dying and they're lit by the fire, now, which calls up little shadows and golden planes on Miguel's body as he kneels between Chel's spread legs. Tulio reaches out above her and runs his fingers down Miguel's cheek like a newly blind man learning by touch, and Chel thinks of cats again as Miguel turns into the contact, trusting, almost adoring.
Tulio's thumb stops at Miguel's lower lip. Miguel opens his mouth with casual deliberation and tilts his head forward to capture it; Chel sees a flash of his tongue, wickedly pink. She feels a twitch of Tulio's body which might have been in response to Miguel using his teeth, and Tulio crooks his thumb to smear the slickness over Miguel's lips before pushing it back inside. It's a small action, but somehow the more intimate for it, like they're both still so fresh and raw with what they've confessed that this is more than enough. Like they'd burst entirely into flames if too much skin touched too much skin. Chel fixates on the wet sounds, the entranced look on Miguel's face, and has to clamp her own hands into fists so that she doesn't start rubbing shamelessly against them.
"All right," Miguel says, hoarse, when Tulio finally pulls away.
Tulio gets his hands at Chel's breasts again, and his thumbs brush over her nipples with no rhythm at all. One of them is still wet from Miguel's mouth, leaving little air-chills behind. Miguel is teasing at her too, dipping easily into her with the tips of his fingers, only to the first knuckle, but at an angle that drags against the most sensitive parts of her every time.
Chel can't help making mm mm noises in her throat, tossing against Tulio's chest as she tries to push down into Miguel's hand, the soles of her feet hot and sliding on the petal-soft fabric.
After a while of this Miguel pauses, looking down at her opening with a considering expression, like he's going to do something polite and gradual and finger-by-finger, when Chel is going to bite something off someone if she doesn't get what she needs.
"Enough," she manages, "it's--it's enough, Miguel, please."
"Yes," Miguel says, not moving, and maybe the pause isn't just for her.
He hooks one of her knees over his thigh as he lines himself up, and Chel feels the wash of shyness that always comes over her when it's someone new, no matter how much she likes them or how confident she is in their desire for her. It's quick; it passes.
For a moment it seems like Miguel has grown more fingers purely for her benefit, and then she realises it's Tulio, dragging his fingers over her as though to marvel at the wetness there before he uses two of them to spread her. She feels swollen and nervy and like a snake has crawled into her spine, and when Miguel pushes into her she cries out more from relief than anything else.
"Take it slowly," says Tulio, the traitor.
Chel rakes her nails down the side of his leg in protest.
"Easier said than, ngh, done," pants Miguel.
But he does it, sinks into her at the speed of a shadow creeping towards a clock line, until finally Chel changes the angle of her bent leg and uses it to wrap around his ass, tugging him fully in.
Above her, Tulio exhales raggedly. She wonders if his fingers are down there still, with Miguel's cock sliding against them; the thought makes her clench down around Miguel, dragging a gasp from him as he pulls out a few inches.
"I will kill you both," she pants, "I will--Miguel, move."
"Do it," Tulio says, "all at once, now now now--"
When Miguel's hips snap forward it feels so good that Chel almost sobs. She's not sure if she's more after distraction or revenge, but she starts talking as well.
"See, Miguel, this is what he'll be like when you have him, he'll tell you exactly how he wants it."
Miguel makes a noise of pure surprise and shoves into her again, even harder than before, pushing her higher up Tulio's body. Light shoots all the way up into Chel's ribs, where it burns and burns, gloriously. She turns her head into the curve of Tulio's throat and says, "I'll talk you through it, it feels so good, so so good, so stretched and full."
Tulio mutters, "Stop, stop talking," wrecked, and Chel says, "No," and sucks at his skin.
Miguel has his hands at her waist, holding her in place for stroke after stroke, but now he's staring above her head at Tulio, who cranes his neck forward and kisses him.
That's what tips her over the edge, in the end: being pressed between them in their urgency, stretched open, too hot, watching the frantic and messy glide of their mouths--
Chel finally gets her hand over herself and it only takes two rough circles before she's shaking, shaking, and hearing herself cry out. Miguel pulls back from the kiss and gently works her through it, and it's not long before he pulls out and strokes his hand over his cock until he's spilling onto her stomach with a startling splash of heat.
Tulio makes a sound like he's hit the ground from a height, needy and breathless.
Chel uses the last of her energy to wriggle her body against the hard length of him, a gift, and then she rolls to the side and lies near the edge of the bed feeling like a lizard drunk with noonday heat.
Tulio's body is tense against the cushions, his cock flushed and leaking. He reaches down to take hold of himself, but Miguel knocks his hand aside.
"I'm improvising," he says, to Tulio's look.
He lowers his head with agonising slowness to take Tulio in his mouth.
He keeps his devastating eyes open the whole time.
Tulio's chest heaves as Miguel's cheeks hollow out, as Miguel's tongue circles him in tight curls. He has one hand in Miguel's hair, pulling and smoothing at it in turn, like he's too scattered to keep track. This probably wasn't in his plan.
Good, Chel thinks. Good.
Tulio fumbles with his free hand until he finds one of Chel's, and he laces his fingers tightly through hers, keeping her connected, all of them breathing and glowing in the firelight.
Chel almost trips over Bibo as she leaps through the door, out of breath and with her feet throbbing from careering through the streets in these shoes. Tulio and Miguel have the money spread out over the table and they're being morons about it, just as they were when she left.
"We have to leave!" she gasps. "Now!"
Tulio looks up from where he's been rubbing his cheek dreamily against a large pile of money. "Why?"
"I heard his cook talking about it in the market. Altamirano wrote away to his mother in Madrid. She actually knows the nobles of Haro y Castile, and she knows where their lands are. And where they aren't."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," says Miguel. "He didn't look that smart."
"He wrote to his mother?" Tulio says.
"That's not all," Chel says. "Altivo got bored and decided to leave early."
Altivo's ears are always pricked for his name. The sound of his excitable whinny drifts up from the street.
"Next time, you ridiculous horse, you do not get a vote," Tulio shouts. "Fine. Right. What's the damage, Chel?"
"He's gathered his friends and called in the city guard. They're combing the city. Come on."
Miguel and Tulio look at one another.
"How do you feel about," Tulio starts, and Miguel says, "Not far enough."
"France?" says Tulio.
"Toulouse is nice this time of year," Miguel agrees.
"Right," says Tulio, firm, and the two of them spring into action--scrambling the money together, cramming things into bags, yelling out the window for Altivo to be ready.
"France?" Chel says, laughing.
"Oh, don't worry, you'll love it," says Miguel. He pauses in passing, snatches up her hand and drops a kiss in the palm. "Trust me. Trust us."
"Not in a hundred years," Chel promises him. "You play with loaded dice."
Miguel sucks in an indignant breath and spins on his heel. "Did you hear the lady? You play with loaded--" but Tulio's there already, bag slung over his shoulder, stepping close and stopping Miguel's mouth with the press of his own. It's a firm, lush, confident kiss that makes Chel's face tingle to watch.
"Hmm," Tulio says, when he pulls away. Miguel looks blissful and smug. "That's useful. I should have tried that years ago."
Chel's already kicked off her shoes and ripped her silly, heavy skirt from hem to thigh, all the better for riding and for speed. She reaches out and grabs them both by the wrist, one in each hand.
"Boys," she says. "Let's run."