I stared fixedly at my shoes, avoiding the gaze of the entire gathered assembly. I'd known this day would come ever since I hooked up with Michael 5 years ago- sooner or later, one of his crazy schemes was bound to land me in trouble so deep that even I couldn't get out of it. And when this whole mess started, I thought I'd accepted that that day had finally arrived.

But this?

"No. No way. Absolutely not. You can't. I won't. That's crazy, you're all crazy..." I realized I had been going on in this vein for some time, but I couldn't stop my traitor mouth from running even as my brain screamed no use, no use, no use.

Michael, the motherless bastard, was grinning. "'Tis no less than you deserve, Fisk," he said, halting my tirade.

"Nobody asked you, Mike," I growled, adding my best glare to the insult of his least favorite nickname. The lunatic didn't even twitch. I tried to scan the crowd for a friendly, sensible face, but even Kathy seemed to be trying to hold back a laugh. Letting out an animal-like groan, I turned to face the dais once more.

The High Liege stared back at me, his own well-bred face amused. I must be more entertainment than the old stiff-neck had seen in years- though now that I'd met him, I knew he wasn't actually as stoic as he had to act in formal company. Nor that old, either. In fact, he'd become decently good friends with Michael and me this past month... which only goes to further prove Jack's point that your friends will get you into more trouble than your enemies ever could.

"Don't make me do this." I wasn't above begging if it would get me out of this. "Please. Give it to Michael. Give it to Kathy. Hell, give it to Trouble, I don't care, just don't give it to me."

"You know, Master Fisk, most people dream of this," the High Liege commented. Only someone who knew him well would hear the amusement in his voice.

"Most people aren't con men!" I shot back. I hoped this would offend some of the gathered nobles at least, who may not have heard of my past, but I saw no noticeable change in the surrounding crowd. My nervousness clicked up a notch.

"Master Fisk, in the course of a month you have helped save my life, the life of my son and only heir-" he paused to smile fondly at the pompous, arrogant 18-year-old who had somehow wangled his way to stand next to Kathy... again. Kathy, I noted with satisfaction, was doing very well at ignoring him. "-and exposed a traitor that would have seen our country torn apart by civil war. Surely you would not deny me offering this small honor as a token of my gratitude."

It was getting difficult to breathe at this point. Guards were covering every exit, and while they hadn't taken my boot knife, it would do me no good to attack someone in the High Liege's own palace. Friend or no friend, I wouldn't live much longer after that- a ruler's generosity only goes so far. It was really starting to look like there was no way out of this one. But still...

"A knight?" I moaned, wishing with all my heart that I could just sink through the floor and disappear forever.

The High Liege fought back a grin that would have been entirely too un-High-Liege-like for the present company. "Indeed. For heroism in service of the United Realm."

Despite having said this to Michael probably a million times before, I'd never fully understood its truth until that moment- heroism is vastly overrated.

"I can't! I'll never be able to show my face in public again!" I cried, more from sheer stubbornness than a real hope that it would do any good. Sure enough, the High Liege merely hid an exasperated look, although Michael laughed aloud.

"Think of what this might mean for you, Master Fisk," the High Liege said, in the wheedling tone peddlers use to make their overpriced wares seem more desirable. "Your sisters would be well provided-for for the rest of their lives."

That was low, bringing my sisters into this. Unbidden, a picture of Lissy sitting in this very palace and wearing the finest gown the realm could offer blossomed in my head. She would love this place, in all its glittering finery. And Anna would never have to work again... I shook my head to clear it. "My sisters are already well provided-for. Max is a well-respected judicar who can support Anna, Lissy is happily married to a successful craftsman, and Judith is more than capable of taking care of herself. They don't need me any more than they ever did."

Someone, probably Kathy, hissed angrily at that last statement, but it was the literal truth. I was no longer a part of my sisters' lives- although once the events of today became known, my weasel of a brother-in-law would more than likely let me back in, if I wanted to go.

The High Liege seemed to have lost the thread of his argument, for he offered no counter to my unexpected reply. Michael, unfortunately, knew me better.

"You know, Fisk," he said lightly, in such a conspicuously innocent tone that I was immediately wary, "if you were knighted, and ennobled, with the friendship of the High Liege, you would be one of the most influential people in the realm. Someone like my father would consider you a person worth an alliance with. Mayhap even worthy of the hand of a richly-dowered, Gifted, sharp-minded young noblewoman." He kept his voice demure, as if he was only discussing the weather. "And mayhap such a noblewoman would be saved from a marriage of state and instead be allowed to wed the man she truly loves."

A babble of chatter rose from the crowd of nobles at my back.

"MICHAEL!" I yelled, my face burning hotter than the sun of the great southern desert. I would not look at Kathy. How dare he use my... feelings... toward her against me? How did he even know? I'd certainly never said anything about it to him, nor had Kathy, I was sure. I'd just have to kill him, that's all, because there was no way I'd ever be able to look at Kathy again...

"Fisk." A quiet, choked voice called my name, making my heart turn over. I couldn't just ignore her, could I?

I turned around and looked at Kathy. Her gaze met and held mine, her expressive eyes shining with hope and something that looked suspiciously like lov-

I had to change the topic, now. Whipping back around to face the High Liege, who had watched the whole farce with considerable interest, I collected whatever shred of dignity I had left and demanded, "What about Michael?"

The man seemed surprised. "What about him?"

"He did every bit as much as I did in this latest heroic disaster," I replied, looking the High Liege dead in the eye. "And he's the noble-minded do-gooder you want for a knight. He's dreamed of being a knight errant his whole life- heck, he's been a knight errant for five years now." I ignored Michael's derisive snort from behind me. "You need to knight him, not me."

Michael's tension was nearly palpable, and I could tell that ever since the High Liege had announced my "reward", he'd wanted to ask about himself but hadn't dared. Now we both waited in nervous tension for the High Liege's answer.

He sighed and rubbed his hand over his chin in the manner of someone who wasn't sure how to deliver bad news. Motioning for Michael to come forward and stand beside me, he said, "Unfortunately, Master Sevenson, by the ancient laws of the realm I cannot bestow a knighthood on an unredeemed man, however great his service to the crown."

Michael said nothing to this, only hung his head slightly in defeat, as if he knew the law was the law and accepted it. I was not so passive. "He deserves it more than I do!" I said hotly, glaring at the High Liege. "He's the most sickeningly noble, self-sacrificing man I've ever met, and you're just going to cast him off because of some tiny little marks he got five years ago for something that wasn't even his fault-" Michael's boot heel came down on my foot hard, breaking off my defense of his character. I met his glare with one of my own, but neither of us were able to express our displeasure before the High Liege spoke again.

"Master Fisk, I have no intention of 'casting him off.' As you so amply pointed out, I am deeply indebted to the both of you, and if you would allow me a moment to finish, I believe I have a suitable payment for that debt, at least equal in value to yours."

Michael stiffened beside me. I, properly scolded, said nothing, though I was sure that whatever wealth or land the High Liege had to offer would not be worth near as much to Michael as a true knighthood. With a feeling of resignation, I watched as the High Liege picked up the gavel used to pass judgement on important state affairs. But then he began to speak, and all rational thought promptly flew from my head.

"Michael Sevenson of Seven Oaks, bring thee forth," he proclaimed, the high speech ringing clear through the suddenly silent room. I'd only heard such words once before, at Michael's sentencing five years ago. If the high speech had been intimidating when Baron Sevenson used it, in the High Liege's voice it carried enough power to level a mountain. Michael seemed to be pulled forward almost not of his own accord. "Michael Sevenson, thou hast done thy honored realm a great service, and in so doing, thou hast paid thy debt to thy fellow man. No more shalt thee bear the marks of thy broken trust, for thou hast restored thine honor before thy sovereign. Henceforth from this hour thou art declared to be redeemed in the eyes of thy countrymen." He struck the gavel on the sounding block, marking the proclamation as the official and unalterable law of the High Liege.

For a full two seconds, nobody moved. At least I don't think they did. I can't be completely sure because an odd roaring sound seemed to have filled my ears, drowning out whatever noise the others might have made. I knew the history from Father's books- in the several centuries worth of time since the foundation of the realm, only two permanently unredeemed people have been pardoned by the High Liege. Only twice in all of history, and none at all in the past 200 years. Yet here Michael stood, mouth open like a codfish, completely free for the first time in his life. Free. Free to go wherever he wished, do whatever work he fancied... Baron Sevenson be hanged!

My muddied mind became dimly aware of something, and I looked up. The High Liege had stood, and unbelievably, was clapping. I watched in awe as the whole room, all the most powerful nobles in the realm, broke into a tumultuous applause. Kathy ran from her place in the crowd and threw her arms around her brother, who still seemed to be in a kind of shocked trance. That's when I realized I was also staring like a ninny, and quickly added my own applause to the fray. By the time the noise faded, Michael was red as a beet, and I thought perhaps we were going to be even after all.

The High Liege returned to his throne on the dais, and the assembly fell quiet again. Apparently there was more to be said. He gave Kathy a pointed look, and she reluctantly released Michael, hesitated, and then lightly brushed her lips over my cheek before returning to her spot in the crowd.

It was suddenly very difficult to concentrate on the High Liege's words.

"Master Sevenson, if you will return to this room at noon on the morrow, the ceremony will be performed to remove the marks from your wrists, so everyone will know your corrected status."

"Oh." That seemed to snap Michael out of it. He took a deep breath, then put on his this-might-all-go-to-hell-but-I'm-going-to-do-it-anyway-because-it's-an-adventure smile, the one that, in my vast experience, has never really boded well for either of us. "Thank you very much, my lord, but 'tis really not necessary."

The High Liege looked understandably confused. "Pardon, Master Sevenson?"

Michael shuffled under the ruler's gaze. "Words cannot describe how grateful I am for your gift of redemption," he began formally, with a very uncharacteristic shyness. "And I gladly accept my renewed status as your legal subject, but..." He paused and glanced sideways, telling me without a doubt that whatever he was about to say, I wasn't going to like it. "I'd rather keep the marks, if 'tis all the same to you."

I stopped dead. This was an unprecedented level of lunacy, even for Michael. "What? You're going to keep them? They've made your life a living hell for the past five years and you're going keep them? You-" Losing the ability to form intelligible sentences, I groaned and ran my hands through my hair.

"Forgive Fisk, my lord," Michael said to the High Liege. "He's quite overly fond of dramatics."

I couldn't even defend myself in my speechless fluster. The High Liege spared a polite chuckle at my expense, but even I could tell he was more interested in what Michael had just asked. "Master Sevenson, you must admit he has a point. Why should you wish to remain marked when you deserve better?"

Michael didn't flinch, despite the piercing gazes of everyone in the room. "These marks on my wrists never meant to me what others said they did. I received them for a noble deed- a misguided noble deed, mayhap, but 'twas my own choice, and even after the hardships of the past five years, I don't regret my actions. With these marks I've been able to travel, to see people in all walks of life, and I'd like to think I aided many in my work. These tattoos, to me, represent me doing what is right for MY life. Making my own decisions and being my own person. I know that my honor is bright, and no mark on my wrist has ever changed that. So I'd like to keep them, by my lord's leave."

The High Liege just blinked at him, stunned by this speech. I was almost as surprised- I'd heard Michael plead eloquently on the behalf of others, but never for his own sake. Still, he had to know that what he was asking was not only crazy, but impractical. "What happens when your shirtsleeves slip? Or it gets hot and you want to roll them up? Or a guard asks you to show him your wrists? Or-"

"Fisk," he said, rolling his eyes. "'Twill not be difficult to conceal."

Which may just be biggest outright lie Michael had ever told in his life. "Um, should I remind you how many towns we've been kicked out of?"

"Fisk..."

I ignored him. "Oh, that's right, I lost count. Because you couldn't be inconspicuous if your life depended on it-"

"Fisk..."

"-so the next time you risk your neck helping someone out of a brawl or whatever and the guards haul you in and check your wrists, you think they're going to listen to you explain that you aren't actually unredeemed, you just wanted a souvenir-"

"Fisk!"

"WHAT?" I finally paused my rant and crossed my arms, waiting for whatever idiotic excuse Michael had come up with now.

He opened his mouth, then shut it, as if reluctant to explain. He cast a wary glance towards the crowd of nobles, who probably thought this whole thing was the best show they'd seen in years, then finally took a deep breath and said, "'Twill not be a problem... because 'twill not be anything there for them to see."

Before I could really comprehend what he meant by that ridiculous statement, Michael untied his shirt sleeves and then his wrist cuffs, letting the thick leather bands slide to the ground. The skin beneath seemed almost ghostly white in contrast to the rest of his well-tanned arms, making the black tattoos appear all the more stark and incriminating. He traced the inked lines with a finger, as if considering them for the first time, then laid the opposite hand over each wrist and closed his eyes.

I'm not entirely sure what happened next. Not being Gifted- gods be thanked- I know very little of magic, let alone the kind of power Michael deals with. But several of the nobles nearest to us, including Kathy and the High Liege, shivered suddenly, as if they had sensed something I could not. 'Of all the times for Michael to decide he wants to play with magic...' I thought, but then he unclasped his hands, and it was suddenly all I could do to remain standing.

His wrists were as unmarked as a newborn baby's, pale skin showing not even the faintest trace of ink.

There really should be a limit as to how many times a man can be shocked speechless in the course of an hour, but I'd never been that lucky. After several seconds of staring at Michael's unblemished skin, I managed to break the grip on my frozen tongue.

"You IDIOT!"

"What?" Michael asked, raising an eyebrow at my outburst.

"All those years... All those times we were kicked out of town, or sneered at by respectable folk, or cheated out of pay, or beaten up, or accused of murder and nearly killed because of those ridiculous tattoos, and you could have gotten rid of them anytime you wanted?" I was actually angry- our lives could have been so much easier without those marks on his wrists- but I was even more upset for what I could not say. Michael's magic may not be the secret it had been, but it was still completely stupid to use it in full view of the country's most influential nobles! Anyone could be there, and want to use Michael's power for their own gain. He was putting himself in danger, and for what?

"'Twas not that simple," the moron replied, addressing the entire court. "The marks aren't really gone." He briefly covered his wrists with his hands again, and lo and behold, the familiar black tattoos seemed to reappear under his touch. He left them there as he continued. "My... my power can only make things magica, not un-make what 'tis already magica. I cannot remove the magica ink myself, but if I add a bit of magic to the skin beneath, it enhances skin's ability to keep contaminants out and masks the presence of the ink for a time." The stares that met this "explanation", mine included, made Michael duck his head in embarrassment. "At least, 'tis what I believe occurs. I doubt there is any way to know for certain."

I shook my head. "That doesn't explain why you haven't hidden them before!"

He looked at me with gentle impatience, as if I should know the answer. "'Twould have been a lie."

My powers of speech fled me again. There were truly no limits to Michael's idiocy.

"But... Michael?" Kathy said, the disbelief in her voice ringing clear in the silent room. Even if you know your brother has magic, it still takes a little while to get used to seeing him use it. "You can't just... magic your tattoos away at any time, can you? What happens when you get caught unawares?"

One of many reasons I love Kathy is her possession of the common sense that her brother so conspicuously lacks.

"Then I shall take the consequences, as I have for 5 years now," he replied, unperturbed. "Surely 'twill not happen often."

When Michael makes a claim based solely on optimism, it's usually a good bet to expect exactly the opposite. The High Liege seemed to understand this as well. "Master Sevenson, I must insist that you accept my offer. Your wise sister is correct; if something unanticipated were to occur, you would be seen as nothing but a rogue."

That stopped me. Nothing but a rogue... Those four little words brought me back to another time, another life. A life where no one cared for me and I for no one. A life of running, hiding, stealing, cheating, and running again, with no end in sight save that of prison or the noose. A life without friend or purpose. A life that was about to become extremely painful when a complete stranger, a foolish, upstart young nobleman, volunteered to pay my debt and take me into his service. He'd called himself a knight errant, and eventually taught me what that meant- that no one, no matter how poor, or small, or completely idiotic, is worthless.

Not even a failed brother-turned-rogue like me.

"My lord," I said, directly addressing the High Liege. "Do you suppose Michael would be considered 'nothing but a rogue', as you put it, as the personal squire of the realm's newest and most famed knight?"

It was almost humorous, watching as one by one they realized the implications of my question. The expression on the High Liege's face was magnificent, but even he didn't look as dumbfounded as Michael, whose expressive face morphed from confusion, to shock, to incredulity, to just the tiniest bit of apprehension. He knew as well as I that if I accepted the knighthood, my life as I knew it was over. As soon as the events today got out, neither Michael nor I would ever be anonymous again. He'd be sung about as the first unredeemed man in over 200 years to clear his name, and I'd be praised as- dare I say it?- the last true knight.

But then my eyes fell onto Kathy's face, who realized what my offer meant for her brother, and I knew I was doing the right thing. For fame could have its advantages- no one I endorsed would be mistreated by any man, no matter what marks they may have on their wrists.

I took a deep breath, ignoring my rapidly pounding heart, and met the High Liege's gaze. "I accept your offer of knighthood, my lord, under two conditions."

"Yes?" The poor man seemed rather swept away by the rapidly turning series of events.

"First, Michael Sevenson is to be my personal squire, and I have ultimate authority over his status. No one, not even your own Guard, is to mistreat him without my permission."

"Fisk," Michael squeaked, sounding pained. Against my better judgement, I looked at him. His eyes told me everything he could not- his gratitude, his protest at my doing anything for his sake, his hope for the future, even his rueful appreciation for the irony of our reversed roles. I saw in our brief exchange our lives once we leave this place- a rogue and a knight, and perhaps even a fair lady, traveling the realm in search of good deeds and adventure. Together. With a good deal of money at our disposal.

Maybe heroism isn't quite that overrated.

The High Liege almost smiled. "Very well. And the second condition?"

"Please, for the gods' mercy, don't knight me Sir Nonopherian."

"As you wish... Sir Fisk."