The best place to hide turned out to be up a tree. It was a fir tree, with close together branches and thick blankets of needles. And in the middle of summer, it was nearly impossible to see through one side of it to the other. It was situated a little bit up the hill and to the east from Raddig's farmhouse, but it was the closest Buck could get without crossing the wall into Raddig's land, and he felt that would get him noticed quicker.
As he scooted forward on his belly along a branch, he screwed up his eyes to see through the wall of needles. He spotted the farmhouse just on the edge of the farm, with a narrow space for a path behind it, and a little decking poking out from the front. Buck hoped that would be where Erson and Raddig appeared when they reached the farm.
He'd followed them back from that night's revelries, having faked drinking alcohol all night to make sure he was in the clearest mindset possible. The tree he'd scoped out earlier in the day, and would have gone to get set up sooner if he hadn't been in charge of announcing the night's acts again. Somehow the list of viable talents had increased, as more and more people picked up instruments for the first time and discovered a knack, and in some cases a love.
There they were. Buck could only see the backs of their heads as they looked down on the valley below them, each of them with a thick cloak pulled tight around themselves. He thought maybe they were holding hands, but tried not to look in too much detail. All he was here for was to see if Erson gave Raddig a gift, and then what Raddig did with that gift.
Unfortunately, it turned out that their voices carried.
"You know, you could get up and do something one of these days," Raddig said. Buck winced at the blunt harshness in his voice. Was he witnessing a fight of all things?
"I have duties to perform, unfortunately," Erson said, his voice deep and serious.
"What duties?" Raddig scoffed.
"Well, I don't entirely understand. But Myal and Buttane seem to have got a handle on things. I just go along with what they ask of me. It seems to make Myal the happiest I've seen her since our father went off to the war effort." Erson's voice sped up towards the end, and louder as his argument developed.
"Whatever," Raddig said.
There was a long moment of silence. At one point Buck scratched his nose and a few pine needles scattered to the ground. He felt certain they had heard him.
"I have something for you," Erson said.
"Oh?" Raddig asked.
There was a shorter silence, then Erson said, "For you, my love." They turned to face each other and Erson handed Raddig a flat parcel of thin paper tied up with string.
"Ah, thank you," Raddig said. He untied the parcel and let the paper drop to the ground. As he held up the contents, Buck saw that it was a purple shirt of some kind, presumably trimmed with real gold or diamonds or some such.
"Well, let's see it on you," Erson said, nudging him.
Buck started. He really hoped this wasn't the start of a more intimate moment.
"Perhaps another day," Raddig said, "I'm all stiff from the dance."
"Shall we go inside?" Erson asked. Buck had worried about what he’d do if they disappeared from sight – should he sneak up from the window? But he’d decided just to keep an eye on the building, be sure he knew when Raddig left.
"Actually, I'm just realising how tired I am," Raddig said, "My whole body is stiff. I think I need a rest."
"Oh, okay," Erson said. He stood with his hands at his sides, fidgeting with the thick material of his cloak. "We can meet up tomorrow if you like? I could sneak out early?"
"I work in the palace tomorrow, so I'll see you there," Raddig said.
Erson nodded. "Sure thing. I guess I'll go now." He smiled and offered Raddig a small bow. "It's been a pleasure."
"Yes, it has," Raddig said, leaning forward to give Erson a quick kiss.
Buck gasped as Erson practically melted! Just at that little peck on the lips. He watched aghast as Erson grinned and waved at Raddig, then jumped down off the decking into the farm. As he walked off he wondered how in all the valley he hadn't noticed Raddig's coldness, his shortness, how little of a care he had for Erson's feelings.
Buck was still ranting internally when Raddig turned around and headed inside the farm house. He leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and settled in for a long night, but at least he'd have his fury to keep himself awake.
He thought about his conversation with Erson and Myal the day before. He’d almost tuned out after the talk of Raddig, his plans busy formulating in his mind. But there had been a hefty revelation afterwards as well. Erson had spoken about what the queen had discussed with him.
“She looks at me very seriously, eyes narrowed,” Erson had said. Myal had squeezed his arm and smiled with pursed lips. Erson had put his other hand on hers, then went on, “And I know something big’s coming. And yes, it’s the big moment. It’s finally official. She’s disinheriting me.”
Myal had dropped his hand and stopped walking, whirling around to face him. “She what?”
“Well, unless I can assure her I will provide heirs for our royal line,” Erson said. He shook his head and stared at the ground. “Maybe I should just marry Pires.”
That had caught Buck’s attention, and ensured this chat remained stuck in his memory. They had moved on from there, Myal determined to cheer Erson up with talk of how the coming festivities were shaping up. But he remembered that part well enough to review their exact words in detail.
As it turned out, he didn't have to wait much longer than it took him to run through the conversation in his mind. It was perhaps about twenty minutes -conventiently the amount of time it would likely have taken Erson to get back inside the palace - before Raddig re-emerged from the farmhouse and once again jogged down to the front of his farm.
This time he vaulted over his wall and started to sprint off, so Buck had to shimmy as fast as he could down the splintery bark of the tree and run after him. He knew where he'd be going, the question was just if he could catch him in the act of selling this one. Buck's knees felt like they were going to shatter as he thundered down the hill. He was catching his entire weight on them, falling more than running. But before they had the chance to split he was back on the path and tearing along it.
He could see Raddig off in the distance, also sprinting, with what looked like a package clasped tightly under his arm. Buck started to sigh with the relief, but by now his breathing was so ragged that he just spluttered and thumped himself on the chest. He shook his head, tilted his body forward, and kept running.