As soon as Crow woke up the next day, Hazel was at his side to find out how he was feeling. She prodded him for specifics, wanting to know exactly how he felt better or worse than the day before. However, as much as she tried to narrow down a reason for his sudden coughing fit yesterday, he couldn’t give her any clues that would explain why the medicine wasn’t helping. As far as he knew, he felt just as good today as he did before. He had woken up around midafternoon again and had very little fatigue. The only thing that was different was that he had a bit of soreness in his chest from what he guessed was another bruised rib. Aside from that, it was almost as if the coughing fit had never even happened.
Eventually, Hazel gave up and left him alone, and he headed outside to look for the others. As he walked along the riverbank, he found them lounging around the fallen tree where he had spent his evening two days ago. Simon was reading a book, while Rikki watched Alistair try to cast a fishing line he had picked up at a market. The thief didn’t have a rod. Instead, he simply wrapped one end of the string around the palm of his hand while he threw the other end into the water. It was an amusing sight.
Crow stepped over to sit beside Rikki, who greeted him with a smile. “How are you doing?” she asked, glancing him over as if trying to figure out the state of his health just by looking at him.
“Better,” he said simply, watching as Alistair attempted to cast his makeshift fishing line again. “Has he caught anything?”
“Nope,” Rikki snorted. “But he’s convinced that he’s going to catch us a fish dinner, and he said he won’t stop until he does.”
“Doesn’t he know fish are easiest to catch in the early morning?” Crow turned to her in amusement as he recalled when the fishermen in Farhill would go out on their boats. “He’s not going to catch anything in the middle of the day.”
“That’s not going to stop him from trying,” Rikki laughed. Leaning a bit closer to him, she lowered her voice, “I’d bet anything he’s going to get frustrated soon and go after them with his bare hands.”
“I’d enjoy seeing that,” Crow grinned, looking back at Alistair as the thief cursed and drew in his empty line again.
“That’s the only reason Simon and I are still hanging around,” Rikki snickered. “Although I’m not sure how much longer Simon will stay now that Hazel is done with you.” She glanced over her shoulder at the blonde thief. “He’s been waiting for her, so they can go off somewhere to be alone.”
“Really?” Crow raised a brow, glancing over his shoulder as well. “I honestly didn’t expect him to move that fast.”
“He really loves her,” Rikki sighed, resting her chin in the palm of her hand.
“It seems that way,” Crow nodded, turning back to her. “Although I never did take him as the type to sleep with a woman unless he really cares about her. In all the time we’ve been traveling together, I’ve never seen him sneak off to be with anyone.”
“Come to think of it, neither have I,” Rikki mused in agreement. She gave a small shudder. “Gods, either the man has the willpower of an ox, or he’s never slept with anyone before.”
Crow met her gaze and exchanged a look of surprise as they both made the connection at once. “Do you think—?”
“I’ve been living with him for a lot longer than you have, and even I’ve never seen him with anyone before,” Rikki shook her head. “I think she’s his first.”
Crow whistled softly, glancing furtively back at Simon, “Well, good for him, I suppose. I’m glad he found someone he thinks was worth the wait.”
“Me too,” Rikki agreed softly. As she spoke, her brown eyes wandered over Crow, and she bit her lip, looking away again with a faint blush on her cheeks. “We should take a walk,” she said suddenly. “Just to get away for a while.”
Crow looked back at her and frowned. “Darling, you know I can’t do that anymore,” he said quietly. “I’m faithful to Penelope now.”
“I know,” she met his gaze with a sly smile. “But no one else here knows that, and you said you don’t want them to figure it out, right? They’re going to find it suspicious if we suddenly stop sleeping together.” She leaned in a bit closer to him, keeping her voice low. “All we have to do is leave here together and they won’t know the difference. You get to keep your secret, and you’ll have me as a cover up if anyone starts to question you. It’s a win win.”
Crow shifted his weight, “I can’t ask you to do that for me.”
“Come on,” Rikki nudged him. “I’m offering. Besides, it will give me a chance to spend more time with you, which is the most I can get out of you these days.” Her smile faded slightly. “Now that I know our time is limited, I want to make the most of it while I still can.”
Crow held her gaze for a moment before giving a reluctant nod. “Alright,” he said. “If you’re certain you can handle it, then we can go for a walk together.” In the next moment, he chuckled softly, shaking his head. “You know, this is the first time we’ve ever said we were going on a walk and actually meant it.”
“Funny how times change,” Rikki murmured, averting her gaze to hide her wistful expression from him. However, it wasn’t long before she turned back to him with a grin, “Anyway, we should get going before Hazel comes and steals Simon away, or the whole point of this plan will be moot.”
Suddenly, they both jumped as Alistair cursed loudly and threw his fishing line aside. “That’s it,” he snarled. “I’m coming after you scaly bastards myself!” Haphazardly rolling up his pant legs, he stormed into the shallow water and plunged his hands in as he began trying to catch the fish by himself.
Crow and Rikki bursted out laughing at the sight. “Alright, I think that’s our cue to go,” Crow snickered, rising to his feet and offering Rikki a hand to stand up as well. He wanted their act to look believable, after all.
Their timing was perfect. As soon as Rikki was on her feet, Hazel walked up from the camp to collect Simon for their own retreat. Rikki glanced at them and laced her arm through Crow’s. “We’re going on a walk,” she said, smirking up at him coyly before returning her gaze to the others. “We’ll be back before dinner.”
“It’s about time you two made up,” Simon snorted, predictably assuming that ‘walk’ was an innuendo.
Hazel glanced between her suitor and the female thief before narrowing her eyes at Crow suspiciously. He gave a subtle shake of his head, silently praying she would understand his gesture and figure out it was all just a rouse. Considering the fact that she was supposed to be meeting with Penelope and the physician that night, he didn’t want her to go spreading any rumors that he had started hooking up with Rikki again.
Fortunately, Hazel seemed to pick up on it quickly enough. “Well, the same goes for us,” she said, wrapping her arms around Simon’s waist and looking up at him affectionately.
“Wait just a moment,” Alistair looked up at them all and frowned. “You’re all ditching me?”
“Looks like it,” Crow shrugged and then winked at him teasingly. “Good luck catching your fish.”
“I get it,” Alistair shot him a glare. “You all don’t think I can catch anything. Well, I’ll prove you wrong. Just wait—by dinnertime tonight, I’ll have caught enough fish to feed the whole lot of you!” As if to prove his point, he turned back to the river water and lunged at another trout that swam between his legs.
“You do that,” Rikki said blandly. Giving Crow’s arm a tug, she took the lead as they began walking into the woods. “Come on, let’s get out of here before he makes us join him in there.”
“No arguments here,” the thief nodded, hastily following after her as they headed away from the riverbank. Despite his words, he was quick to put distance between them and the others so he could distance himself from Rikki again as well. Even though he knew it was just an act, he felt uncomfortable about having her so close when he knew she still had feelings for him. If there was even the slightest chance that she would try to act on those feelings, he wanted to have a safe interval of space between them, so he could end it before anyone crossed any lines. He just hoped she was right that this trick would help him keep Simon and Alistair from ever realizing the truth about him and Penelope before the end of the war.
Around sunset after dinner, Hazel made her way through the forest to Myrefall. After being with Simon for the first time and having a pleasantly filling dinner—as expected, Alistair had only managed to catch one small fish, which he ate while the rest of the group enjoyed a hearty stew—she was in a much better mood coming into this meeting tonight. She was hardly even bothered by the fact that the two women she was going to meet with were of noble blood. As long as she and the physician managed to figure out what was wrong with the medicine she had been using on Crow, she had a feeling this wasn’t going to be such a terrible night.
When she reached the tavern, she found an empty table near the far-right corner of the room and sat down facing the door. Drumming her fingers impatiently on the wooden surface, she waited for the noblewomen to arrive so the meeting could begin.