Authors: John Houser
FLY UP INTO THE NIGHT AIR
by John Houser
Copyright 2011 by John Houser
All Rights Reserved.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
The white-clad sister pointed. Harte followed her extended finger across the ward to a still form occupying one of the narrow cots. Tangled, chestnut hair draped the boy's shoulders. One bare arm trailed off the side of the cot, much as a fisherman's arm might trail off the side of his skiff on a hot summer day. From Harte's side of the ward, he looked quite peaceful resting sunlight from the narrow windows. Harte left the sister and walked over to the cot. From the closer vantage point, his peaceful fantasy quickly dissolved. Hair on the right side of the boy's face was matted to his head. Dried blood filled his ear. His right eye was black, and the whole right side of his face was swollen. Even with the damage, Harte could see the boy was beautiful.That skin has never felt a barber's blade.
"You'll have to look under the blanket, if you really want to know what they did to him," the sister called from the other side of the ward. "Sister Grace was mad. That's why she sent for you."
Harte realized with a start that he had been staring and tried to relax his expression into something closer to detachment. "She said his name is Raf?"
"Yes," said the sister.
"Raf, are you awake? Can you hear me?"
Raf groaned and drew his bare arm under the blanket. "Get off" he mumbled, "It hurts. Get off!"
Harte glanced around the ward to see if anyone was listening. Most of the patients were asleep or too wrapped in the drama of their own mortality to pay much attention. One young woman watched from under a matted sheath of black hair. Her chemise had slipped down to expose the swell of one breast. Harte looked away quickly.
"Raf, they're gone now. Wake up. I need to ask you some questions."
After a moment, Raf opened the eye that wasn't swollen shut.
"I need to see what they did to you."
"Why?" Raf whispered. "Who are you?"
"My name is Harte Walford. I'm a presenter advocate. Do you know what that means?"
"You send folks to gaol." Raf tried unsuccessfully to sit up. "I didn't do nothin'."
"Steady. I'm not here to send you anywhere. I've come to find out what happened to you."
"Wha d'you care?"
"It's my duty. I must know what's happened to you, if I'm to do anything about it." Harte tried to lift up the blanket.
"No! It's none a yer business. Leave off!"
Harte looked over at the sister and shrugged. "I guess I've seen enough ..."
The sister straightened up. "Have you?" She marched over to the boy and swept his blanket back before he could react. The boy's lean chest and rib cage were bruised as if he'd been kicked repeatedly. But it was the sight below that made Harte cringe. The boy's testicles were swollen to twice normal size. His penis was torn and crusted with dried blood. Harte examined the damage briefly before turning away as the blood drained slowly from his head to form a cold pool in his gut. He pulled up the blanket with shaking hands.
The boy lay stiffly, hardly seeming to breathe at all.
"What--" It came out high and raw. Harte cleared his throat and tried again. "What happened to you?"
"Some toff beat me."
"Why would he do that?"
"I don't know," said the boy.
"It looks as though you were kicked," said Harte, "by someone wearing hobnailed boots."
"I guess he wasn't satisfied with the goods."
Harte felt his face heat.
"Hush! There'll be none of that kind of talk in here," said the sister.
* * *
"After that, the boy tired and closed his eyes. I asked him if he knew who had kicked him, but he would say nothing else." Harte continued the story for his friend Griff, as he hunched over a mug of ale at the Ragged Crow. "I really don't know why Sister Grace sent for me instead of the watch." Harte looked at Griff apologetically. "Your men would have been more suited to deal with this sort of incident than a presenter advocate, but I guess she thought my family might influence the council."
As he told the story, Harte's eyes wandered over the battered features of his favorite tavern. The oak bar was nicked and dented from enthusiastic use--in sharp contrast with the faultless polish of the dining room table at Walford House. The journeymen who made up most of the noontime crowd in the Ragged Crow were still young, many close to Harte's age, but no longer apprentices; they were secure in their skills and earning enough for beer and bread. But for the most part, they were not yet masters in their guilds. Their easy laughter reflected confidence (and probably the lack of a master's cares).
Griff's broad face was nearly expressionless as he listened. "She thinks the watch don't do enough for the ... poor. What exactly did Sister Grace ask of you, anyway?"
"I didn't speak to her. I flew from the house this morning to avoid my father--he would surely think this case a waste of my time. Sister Magda took me to see the boy."
"Will you be wanting any help?"
"I'm going to go down to Dock Street to see if I can find any witnesses. I'd like you to come."
Griff draped his face in something closer to its usual merry garb. "I suppose I'd better. Lord knows what might happen to you, if you go alone. Especially, in that get-up."
"My thanks for your indulgence. You know that I must make a show when I'm working."
"Must your sleeves be so ... extravagant?" Griff spread his arms and nearly knocked over his mug.
"Do you think them excessive? It's the latest fashion. I don't suppose you're aware of it," said Harte, a little stiffly.
"Fashion is not for the likes of me. I'm just a poor watchman."
"And I'm just a poor lawyer."
Griff finally loosed his smile. "Now, you're contradicting yourself."
They walked out of the tavern and turned down the cobblestoned street towards the river.
In the faint, pre-dawn light, his horse's diaphragm worked like a smithy's bellows, its nostrils flaring with each steaming breath. Stilian crouched awkwardly over the saddle, gripping the reins tightly, nearly losing his seat with every strike of the horse's hooves. He cursed as a wet branch, invisible in the near darkness, whipped his face from the side of the narrow lane. Finally, as the first rays of sunlight broke through the brown and gold leaves, he relaxed into the saddle and began gradually to slow his horse.
He stretched and began to relax the blocking that he'd been maintaining for the past week. He drew a breath pungent with the smell of wet and decaying leaves, and shivered a little as the sweat from his frantic gallop dried on his skin. When his horse had cooled sufficiently, he brought it to a gradual stop. "Whoa Petar! Let's rest a moment, my friend. I haven't your enthusiasm for running." He slid off his horse and wrapped the reins around a tree branch near a patch of green grass, then pulled an ornate, folding writing desk from his saddle bag. Finding a seat on a fallen log, he set the desk across his knees and unfolded its wings. He carefully removed a small bottle of ink from its compartment and unstopped it. Then, taking a quill from another compartment, he began to write.
I'm sorry I have been so slow to respond. What atrialthis last trip has been. I am composing this letter to you on the old road that leads from Saddleback towards Long Field and then on to Walford's Crossing--the next stop on my circuit. It is one of those fall days when the air is so clear that everything looks unnaturally sharp; it looks as if you just opened a window you hadn't realized was closed. (Perhaps it's just my head clearing from the galling blasts my customers have been aiming at me for the past week.) I sometimes wonder what I hoped to accomplish in this profession. Sure, we bring murderers to justice now and then, but most cases are clear enough without the help of a judge veritor. The jealous husband or disappointed suitor who did the deed is almost always known to the community. The places circuit riders visit, after all, are small by definition--too small to have a permanent legal apparatus. I find few secrets in the farming villages and forest dells. I know with greater certainty when someone is lying, but rarely do I catch someone in a lie that is not transparent to most present.
This last case was typical: a man was killed in a drunken fight with his chum over a woman. She was neither the man's wife nor his lover, mind you, but a pretty serving girl who was just flirting to raise her tips. Neither of the poor wretches involved actually meant to hurt anyone, but a knock on the head with a wine bottle will kill as quick as a sword, and one of them happened to find a bottle in his hand at just the wrong instant. They will both pay with their lives.
What an grim banquet I was served: first, the survivor, whose remorse was not strong enough to keep him from attempting to lie to save his life. Everyone knew he was lying. Some would have let him get away with it. I did my duty. Then there was the victim's wife, who was as angry at her husband for flirting with the barmaid as she was angry at the idiot with the bottle. The worst of my meal was the victim's mother. The dead man was apparently her only son. She would have gone to the grave in his place if she could have. Her anguish left me sick to my stomach and with a head ringing like a blacksmith's anvil.
Any magistrate could have handled the case, but as they say, "The judge must come, when the murder's done." I was so eager to leave this morning, I'm afraid I was only imagining the glow from the east when I shook awake the poor stable hand and got my cob, Petar. I would have left last night, but I dulled my senses with a bottle of the same vintage as the murder weapon and was not fit to ride. I wish I could find the truth without having to rub myself raw with it. Our canny ancestors must have been quite beaten down in the wars to have accepted such a limited role in society and one that is such a grind. On the other hand, I find the noise less painful in the smaller communities.
I must be getting on. Yours in all states, clear and muddled,
Dock Street was the oldest part of Walford's Crossing. Heavy drays delivered vegetables here from the towns and villages of the eastern plains to be loaded into river boats for the trip down the Bug to the market at Bugport. On either side, there were stone warehouses, merchant's counting houses, taverns, brothels, and inns where boatmen stayed between trips. By day, it was populated with merchants in fancy dress, teamsters, dock hands, and river rats. At night, it was where men found drinking companions, bawds, or pretty boys for the night (or more likely groping hands and sucking mouths as for exactly as long as their coin lasted).
"Where did they find him?" asked Griff.
"Under the archway that leads into the courtyard at Trast and Son."
"I know Trast and Son. It's across from the Red Rooster." Harte and Griff looked at one another sideways. Everyone knew the nickname forthatnotorious place. "It'll be hard to get anyone to admit to being there, much less to seeing anything, Harte."
"I know, but we must try."
"Where do you want to start?"
They spent the next hour talking to anyone they could find to ask and getting nowhere. They examined the area where Raf was found, but despite a careful look, they found nothing but dirt and a few dark drops that could have been blood.
Eventually, Griff straightened up, placed an a hand on his waist and twisted backward for a slow stretch. "This teat is dry, Harte. There's nobody about now that will know anything. We'll have to come back tonight, when the bawds and pretty boys are out."
"So why have we been wasting our time?"
Griff relaxed from his stretch and shrugged. "You're in charge."
"You couldn't have said anything?"
"It's your place to lead."
"Aye, and you can't do a roundabout without crushing your partner's toes. Let's get something to eat. Isn't that place with the delightful rolls around the corner?"
Harte and Griff parted ways after they finished lunch: crescents stuffed with onion, herbs, and savory pork. Griff headed back to Watch House, on Market Square. Harte went home to write some notes on what he'd found out from the morning's inquiries.Little enough.
* * *
Harte was seated in the library, when his father came in through the arched door from his study. Councilman Magistrate Gastir Walford was uncharacteristically crude. "I hear that you were sniffing around some little waif at that hovel operated by the Sisters of Mercy, this morning." Councilman Walford passed a hand over his trim, light brown hair, and blinked his hawk's eyes. "What were you doing there? You couldn't be thinking a boy like that's got the coin to pay for an investigation could you? Or the clout to get the council to pay for it? Why do you waste your time?"
Harte wondered what had set his father off. "They beat the boy cruelly, Father. Somebody ought to look into it. And it's not like the council is rushing to assign me cases. I don't know why they appointed me, if they didn't think I was good enough to do any work for them."
"You must build your reputation, boy." He spat the words out. "You don't do that by championing pretty boys or the Canny, with their minds in the gutter. They appointed you, because I told them too. I told them you would serve their interests, as I have. Is this some kind of joke, to show up your father?"
Harte counted a row of leather-bound law texts before answering. "This doesn't concern you, Father. It's about justice for the boy. What do the Canny have to do with this? Did you hear something?"
"Who is this boy? Justice is for those who have the coin to pay for it. The sooner you learn that, the better off you'll be." Harte's father pushed back his hair and sat down at the table, his hooded eyes scanning Harte's papers.
Harte picked up his notes and left his father without speaking. He didn't believe that. He would never believe it. Harte ran up the stairs to the second floor, and through the door to his suite. Slamming the door, he flopped onto the couch in his sitting room. Somebody saw that boy get beaten. Tonight, he would find a witness.
* * *
Harte and Griff met outside the Ragged Crow at eleven bells and started down the hill towards Dock Street. Both were dressed in plain, dark clothes. But Harte's shirt was made from fine linen, and its sleeves still had the full cut of the latest fashion.
"This time, do me a favor, Griff," said Harte. "Help me talk to these people."
Griff imitated Harte's high-toned accent. "You know, they're not really my set."
Harte ignored the taunt. "They're even less mine. You look as if you might visit Dock Street now and then."
"You'd be surprised who goes down there. My rank can't afford that kind of fun. We have to sleep at night."
Harte grinned. "You accuse mine of debauchery?" Harte feinted right and attempted a left jab. Griff stepped neatly aside, gripped Harte's wrist, yanked him off balance and twisted his arm up behind his back. "Ha! Try that with the watch."
Harte struggled in vain, then relaxed. "I yield, I yield. I studied law, not wrestling!"
"So you say. Are you sure it wasn't haberdashery?"
"Leave off, about the clothes. I have a position to maintain."
"Said the peacock to the swallow."
"Swallow, my--" said Harte as they stepped onto Dock Street.
"I'd be happy to swallow yours--" said a low-pitched voice from the shadows. A woman in a frayed shawl moved partially into the light. "--for a price. Is it a big one?"
Griff smirked as Harte choked. "No, I don't think he's in the mood yet. Maybe later." He waved the woman off, and ushered Harte down the cobbles. "Come on Harte, the Angry C--the Red Rooster's this way."
* * *
Harte followed Griff into the Red Rooster and paused. The room was low-ceilinged and dark. The plank floors were covered in damp sawdust. It smelled of sour beer and smoke weed. In one corner, a man was juggling a couple of apples in front of a table of rowdy young men. The men flipped coins into a pile. When they were done, someone tossed another apple to the juggler. Now three rotated over the table. The men tossed more coins, and the juggler caught another apple. The pile grew until beads of sweat popped on the juggler's brow. Finally, one too many apples sent the lot tumbling to the floor to shouts of laughter and groans from the gamblers. It looked like any other tavern, thought Harte in surprise, except that he could see no women in it. A harried troop of boys rushed from bar to table and back again, serving beer and plates of food to the men who occupied every table.
Griff motioned to Harte and headed for the bar. Behind the bar, a big, middle-aged man with heavily muscled arms and thick wrists used a bucket to sluice spilled beer from the counter behind the bar. He looked at Griff and raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
"Something I can get you?"
"Two barley ales, please."
Harte joined Griff at the bar and waited, while the barkeep poured the ale from a barrel that was chocked on the back counter. "Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"
"My name is Harte, and this is Griff. We're ... trying to help out a friend. There was a boy beaten across the street from here, last night."
"Ain't nothing unusual in that."
"He was left for dead, under the archway at Trast and Son. We're looking for anyone who saw anything."
"Why? The watch don't bother with what passes down here at night." He looked pointedly at Griff. "Do they?"
Griff's face reddened. "Not generally, no."
"So what's your interest?" The man shifted his gaze to Harte. "You say he's a friend of yours? I ain't seen you in here, before. Raf isn't the type to stray very far. Specially not up hill." His eyes rested on Harte's sleeves. "That's a fine shirt."
Harte kept his gaze steady. "You called him Raf. I take it you know him."
"He's a regular body, you could say."
"Was he in here last night?" said Harte.
"Like as not." The barkeep shrugged. "I couldn't say for certain. It was very busy." He drew a rag across the bar. "We're always very busy."
"Is there someone who might have noticed when Raf left?"
"Hold up! I didn't say he was here. I said he might've been."
"Would this help you remember?" Harte place a gold coin on the bar, in front of him.
Griff quickly shifted his body to shield the coin from view. "Watch what you flash around here," he hissed.
The barkeep passed his hand over the bar. When Harte looked down, the coin was gone. The barkeep glanced around the room, to see if anyone was paying undue attention. "That Raf, ya see, is fond of dancing. Last night, he had some coin--found a customer early, I think--and had three or four ales. Anyway, he was dancing on a table. You know, to warm up the house, stir up a little interest. He got lots of attention, but I didn't see anyone leave with him."
"Did anyone leave about the same time?" Griff asked.
"Not that I--well, Peli was still following him around. He's a new one, come around here a few weeks ago. Real young; spots on his face. He sort of latched onto Raf. Looked up to him, I guess." He grunted. "Lord knows why."
"Have you seen him tonight?" asked Harte.
"If we were to buy another round and drink it, say, at that table by the door, would you flash us a sign if he comes in?"
"I'll not be rattin' out any of my customers. We keep an eye out for our little family, here at the Angry C--Red Rooster."
"Right." Harte looked him in the eye and placed another coin on the bar in front of him. "Just nod or something."
Griff and Harte settled at the table by the door and ordered another round.
"Do you think there'll be any table dancing tonight?" Harte asked idly.
"Do you think you'd like to watch?"
"Of course not."
"Of course not," Griff mimicked.
* * *
"Look!" said Griff. A young boy had just entered the tavern and was drifting towards the back. "Do you think--?"
"Maybe. What's the barkeep doing?"
The barkeep looked casually over in their direction and nodded slightly before turning back to his bar.
"I'll go and talk to him," whispered Harte. You keep an eye on the door, in case he spooks."
Harte worked his way over toward where the boy was trading greetings some men. One of the men gently shoved the boy away. "A bit young for it, aren't you? Git."
Harte stepped up behind the boy and tapped his shoulder lightly. The boy jumped like a startled rabbit and twisted around. "Huh!"
"Whoa, there," said Harte. "I'm not here to trouble you."
The boy was thin as a reed, with straw blond hair, light blue eyes, and a narrow face. He looked about fourteen or fifteen, and while not tall, he had the slightly awkward carriage that can follow a sudden growth spurt.
"What do you want?"
"My name's Harte, Peli. I want to talk to you for a moment. Are you hungry? Of course you are." Harte steered the boy over to the table by the door and motioned to Griff. "What would you like?" Griff slid into a seat across from the boy. Harte continued talking quietly and steadily in a smooth, quiet voice that you might use to soothe a skittish horse. "This is my friend, Griff. Griff, would you get something for us to eat? Maybe some of those nice sausages? And a cider for this fellow? Thanks very much." Griff nodded and headed back to the bar.
"What do you want?" Peli repeated.
"Griff and I are trying to find out what happened to Raf last night. We know you were there, Peli. Don't worry, we just want to find out who hurt Raf. What exactly did you see? Tell us what you saw."
"I didn't see anything. They just started hitting him. He yelled a lot. Then he fell down, and they kicked him."
"Ah, they hit him first. Did they say anything?"
* * *
Griff stood back from the table with a plate of sausages in one hand and a mug in the other. Watching Harte talk to the boy was odd. There was something almost mesmerizing about the way Harte gazed into the boys eyes as he talked. He seemed not to listen to the boy's answers at all, but asked question after question, one following another, as if any pause at all would break the spell. The boy's answers were nearly inaudible.
"What kind of motion did Raf make with his hand? How did the man react? Who was the one who did the kicking? Would you recognize him again, if you saw him? What was he wearing? Was there anything unusual or distinctive about his clothes? Was he wearing shoes or boots? What kind of boots?"
Eventually, Harte closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Griff lurched into motion and sat back down at the table. He placed the plate and mug in front of the boy. The boy started to eat rapidly, still staring at Harte.
"Are you going to help him?" the boy asked.
"I'm going to try."
* * *
Griff was uncharacteristically quiet as they walked up the hill, at dawn.
"All right, speak up," said Harte.
"It's no matter. I've never seen you like that."
"I was trying to determine what happened."
"And you got more out of Peli than I thought likely. You had him mesmerized." He was silent for a moment. "Peli said that the man who stamped on Raf had a black and white striped, fur collar, on his cloak. That's not a common article. If we ask around, we might find someone who's seen that collar, or who knows the man who wears it."
"Yes, we might find someone who remembers seeing it," said Harte slowly, reluctant to meet Griff's eyes. He looked up the hill instead, towards the market square and its neighborhood of mansions.
"What, you don't think it will work?"
"No, it might work. We'll certainly need to do that. But I have someone I want to visit, first. Bless the Sisters, but I'm tired. Let's go home and get some sleep. I'll send you a note at Watch House, when I need you."
Griff seemed a little put out. "Who are you going to visit?" When Harte did not answer, he put up the hood of his cloak. "Don't you want me with you?"
"No, not for this."
"Is she pretty?" Griff tried. But Harte would not be baited.
Stilian found a place by a small stream that meandered near the road, and stopped to eat. He slid off of his horse and looped the reins over his saddlebow. "You won't wander off, Petar, will you?" The cob's only answer was to drop his head and begin to tear at a patch of grass near the stream. "Good idea." Stilian unstrapped his saddle bags and pulled them off. Laying them out on the grass, he rummaged around for the bread and cheese he'd packed for the midday meal. While he gnawed at them, he pulled a letter from a pocket.
I cannot begin to tell you how much we miss you and want you home. It does not matter that we must necessarily share in your burden. You say that you cannot return, that it is too hard sharing the pain of your loss. Can you not find some joy in your memories of Kit? We know that you will always miss him, but has the sharp edge of your pain not dulled a little with time? Must we lose you forever, too? Please come home after you finish your current circuit, even if only for a few days. Thalia and I will be together at Grayholme for the solstice.
Thalia and I miss you terribly,
Stilian folded the letter away and squinted at the sunlight sparkling on the surface of the stream. Perhaps he should try to go back to Bugport or Grayholme. But he was not ready. Kit's loss was too raw. The influenza had taken him in less than the four days it took to travel from Bugport to Grayholme. The shock of it still set him shivering in quiet moments. If only he hadn't been so far away, he would have known Kit was sick. He would have returned sooner--perhaps to die with him. Stilian leaned back against his saddle bags, closed his eyes, and whispered, "We bonded for life, Kit. How was I to know we had so little time?"
When they met, Stilian had been fifteen, skinny, and with big hands and feet. He'd found his way to Bugport on his own after running away from his family: a stiff-necked father and muscle-headed brothers who had no use for the Canny--and even less use for a skinny runt who shamed them.
Stilian tumbled off the hay wagon in the Bugport's market square and marched straight across to Blue House, where one applied for schooling with the Canny at Grayholme. There wasn't much point in sightseeing; he had no food or coin left. Inside the building, he found a large, cold room with a stone floor and three rows of small desks. A group of seven or eight boys and girls populated the seats, all anxiously peering around or whispering to one another. Most of them appeared to be three or four years older than Stilian. The sight almost sent him back out the arched entrance again. What were they waiting for? Either you could sense the feelings of people around you, or you couldn't. He certainly could. He was practically nauseous from the waves of anxiety coming from the applicants.
At the front of the room, an old man with a gray beard and dark blue tunic sat behind a small table. There was some kind of insignia on his right shoulder that Stilian didn't recognize. Before moving forward, Stilian tried to sense what the man was feeling, but there was nothing he could be sure of. Either the man was feeling nothing--unlikely--or he was hiding his emotions. That idea intrigued Stilian, and he stepped further into the room. He'd never met anyone who could hide from him--not if he was really trying.
Whatever the man was doing to block him, he was clearly the person to whom Stilian needed to speak. So he strode up to the little table, looked the man in the eye, and spoke firmly. "Good morning. Are you the person I should talk to about going to Grayholme?"
The man looked up at Stilian and smiled. "Yes, that's right." He handed Stilian a piece of paper. "Did you come to pick up an application? Here, take this home. Bring it back when you're ready."
Stilian inspected the paper unhappily. The first questions on it asked about his parents and the location of his home. He wasn't particularly eager to broach either topic. "I thought you take anyone who's canny."
"Generally, yes, we do, if your test shows talent and your parents agree."
"What if you don't have any parents? I mean if they're dead or something."
Gray Beard looked carefully at Stilian. "Are your parents dead?"
Stilian knew he shouldn't lie, even though he wanted to. "My mother is. My father isn't dead. But I don't live with him anymore. He doesn't want me, because I'm canny, and it makes him angry." He paused. "And my brothers call me Runt all the time."
"I see. Does your father know that you've come here?"
"I left him a note when I left."
"It would have been better if you'd brought him with you." The man pulled his beard. "You'll just have to go home and get him to help with the application. He has to sign it, you know."
"But I can't go home! I came all the way from Rosset's Grade. It's too far to walk, and I've no more coin!" Stilian's voice rose with each sentence. "I can't go home." Stilian looked at the door behind the man's desk and considered whether he could dash past the man. There must be someone inside he could talk to. Just then the door opened and a gust of warm air and the smell of fresh bread heralded the arrival of a young man in a brown watchman's uniform. The watchman bit off small chunks of bread and ate them as he took up station beside the door. The smell make Stilian's stomach growl.
"Justin, you're back. Good!" said the old man. "I think I may be needing your assistance."
Justin waved and kept chewing. "Whatever, you need, Judge Veritor."
Judge Veritor! Stilian froze where he was standing. This man was a judge veritor? Stilian had never seen a judge veritor. Rosset's Grade was too small to have one. Even the circuit riders didn't come far enough up into the Ragged Hills to get to Rosset's Grade. To be a judge veritor, this man had to be canny, and he had to have the truth reading skill. Such people were rare and powerful, because they presided over important trials for crimes like murder or treason. The only position more important open to a canny person, was that of King's Fool, and there was only one fool.
Stilian straightened his back and wiped his nose on his sleeve. What could he say to this man to get him to agree to accept his application? The judge veritor seemed to be considering as he gazed at Stilian. Stilian tried to look worthy, while fighting a sudden impulse to escape the waves of anxiety buffeting him from the benches. His stomach growled and his attention strayed to the young man in the watch uniform just as he raised a hunk of bread to his mouth. With the flash of a wedding ring on the man's left hand, Stilian became aware of a strong and irritating new feeling. He jerked his head at the man and blurted, "If he's feeling guilty about wanting the blond girl, why doesn't he go home to his wife?"
The judge's gaze sharpened. "Being a successful member of our community demands both sensitivity anddiscretion. If you have onlyoneof those, maybe Grayholme isn't the place for you." Stilian's heart beat in his ears. He was afraid he'd destroyed his only chance at a place with people like himself. After a long moment, the man smiled and pulled his beard. "That's more becoming." He got up decisively. "Come this way, please. What's your name, boy?"
* * *
The corner's of Stilian's mouth twitched. He missed Judge Hugh. Someday he would go back. But not while he awakened every night from dreams of Kit.
Harte stuck his head into the solar to see if his mother was at her usual place in the cross-hatched light of the bank of mullioned windows. "Hello, Mother, how are you?"
"I must be fair indeed, to be honored by a visit from the Honorable Presenter Advocate, Harte Walford." Amalia Walford wore a plain, yellow, day dress and an apron, which was smeared and spotted with paint of various hues. She stood in front of an easel and held a palate in one hand and a brush in the other. She rocked from side to side and hummed tunelessly as she regarded the canvas before her.
Harte grinned. "Tis I who am honored to be in the presence of such fine and famous artist."
"Infamouswould be more accurate. I'd give you a hug, but I'm covered in pigment--although a little color wouldn't damage that livery. Why so formal today?"
"I was hoping to get you to come with me on a little social call."
"A social call! Who are you, sir? Surely you are not the sonIraised. He had to be dragged by his ears to join his mother on a social call. What extraordinary circumstance warrants this revolution?"
"I want to visit Megan Greer."
Amalia put down her paint brush and looked at her son. "I thought that was over."
"It is. But we're still friends. I want to ask her something. And I want an excuse to see her brother."
"Her brother! This is getting stranger by the minute. Oh wait. I see. This is not a social call at all. This request has a legal angle to it, doesn't it. You woulduseme."
"I knew there would be no fooling you."
"If I'm to be your accomplice in this, I want to know what it's about."
"I'm investigating a beating that took place on Dock Street. But that's all I can tell you right now."
Amalia's eyes narrowed. "This wouldn't be the cause of my husband's sour expression this morning, would it?"
"I wouldn't know."
"If you want my help, you're going to have to do better than that."
Harte sighed dramatically and winked. "Doesn't anyone in this family have any faith in me? Couldn't you just trust me once?"
Amalia smiled sweetly. "I love, trust, and respect you, my son. I also require that you tell me the reason for your request." Amalia gazed at her son, expectantly.
"You won't like it."
Amalia rolled her eyes. "Get on with it."
Harte looked around the sunlit room as he considered what to tell her. It seemed wrong to speak of sordid behavior and violence in such a bright and clean space. "Fine. Two days ago, I received a note from Sister Grace of the Sisters of Mercy Hospital."
* * *
"And you really think that Brin might have had something to do with it?" Amalia Walford was skeptical.
"I'm certain I've seen Brin wear a cloak with a collar like that. How many such can there be in this town? That cloak must have cost a pretty penny. It's too flamboyant for most folk."
"You are right about that. But if Brin was down Dock Street, are you prepared to take on his father? The Council will want nothing to do with this. Brin's father will certainly try to get you dismissed. At the very least, you'll never see any coin for your work. I can see why your father's upset."
"I told you that you wouldn't like it."
"And you were right. On the other hand, I don't like what was done to that boy any more than you do. What do you plan to do, if you find that cloak?"
Harte thought out loud. "I'll have to get a warrant to remove it from the house. That will take a magistrate's approval. I'll have to keep quiet, until I'm ready to act. I can't ask Dad; it would not be proper."
"He wouldn't do it anyway."
"No, I suppose not."
"The Council wouldn't approve it, so they're out. It will have to be another magistrate. Of course, a judge veritor could do it. But who knows when we'll see one of them, and the council would have to approve payment for a judge veritor. It always seems to come back 'round to the council, doesn't it." He paused. "There's one other way: a judge veritor can take over any case he or she thinks is not being handled properly. It's called invoking truth's privilege. But they rarely do it. And I'd have to find one--not to mention--convince him to act."
Amalia placed a finger on the end of her nose. "That cloak isn't going to be enough to prove anything, I don't think. What you'll need is somebody to identify Brin--if he was there." She used her finger to draw an imaginary picture. "You need a likeness of him to show to people who might have seen him."
"You could do that for me. You could draw him."
"You're really determined to do this?"
Harte was adamant. "I didn't study the law in order to be a gopher for the town council."
"If you pursue this, you'll likely not be anything for the Walford's Crossing Town Council. I wouldn't try bringing a judge veritor into it, either. You know how the councilmen feel about the Canny. They would have no-one to gainsay them."
"I don't care. I never wanted to work for them. That was Father's dream."
Amalia gazed vaguely at the painting on the easel before her. It depicted the Bug River from a vantage point just behind shoulders of large raptor. She spoke softly. "It's a lot to ask, that I assist you in capsizing your career."
Harte tried to catch her eye. "Aren't some things more important than a career? Please, Mother. Don't worry about me. Do it because the boy deserves justice."
Amalia picked up her brush. "I'll think about it."
The light had faded to blue and the air had cooled, when Stilian stopped to set up camp. He shivered as he rushed to settle Petar and collect wood for a fire. It was going to be cold tonight. The pale light of the crescent moon would only make it seem colder. As he worked, he thought of another cold, moonlit night, almost eight years before.
* * *
Stilian wondered if he was ever going to get anything to eat. After leading him out of the room with the wooden desks, the judge took Stilian down a corridor and into room that appeared to serve as a sort of watchman's duty lounge. Two sturdy young men in brown uniforms were playing cards at a table. Both stood when they saw the judge.
"What can we do for you, Judge Veritor?" said the taller one.
"I'm afraid that I need your help. Matt, would you please go and spell Justin in the applicant's hall? I must send him on an errand. Poul, would you please keep an eye on this young man until I get back? His name is Stilian."
"Yes, Judge Veritor," they answered.
The time passed pleasantly enough after the judge left Stilian with Poul, if slowly. Poul taught Stilian how to play Star and Hammer. Stilian won, until Poul grumbled, "You're young to be one of them. Never any point to playing cards with you lot, is there?" After that, Poul retreated to a cot set in a niche in the corner of the room and announced that he was taking a nap. "You might as well do the same." Never mind that his was the only cot. "Don't bother to try and explore. I'll hear you open the door, and I'll not be pleased to be wakened."
After pacing for at least a bell, Stilian decided to try the door anyway. But before he could do so, it swung open to reveal Matt and another boy about Stilian's age. The boy had spare features and light brown hair that stuck up in tufts. He was dressed in a simple tunic and leggings with holes in them. Staring at the newcomer, Stilian wondered if anyoneevergot anything to eat around here.
"This is Kit. His application was just accepted. You're to room together tonight. Kit this is ..."
"I'm Stilian." Kit nodded as Stilian eyed him.
Matt stepped over to the cot and shook Poul's shoulder firmly. "Wake up Dunderhead!"
Poul groaned and rolled to his feet. "Leave off. Can't a fellow get a little rest, now and then?"
"When have you ever done anything to earn a rest? The judge wants you to take these two down to the kitchen and get them fed. Then deliver them to the matron to find a room in the dormitory. After that, you can spell me in the applicant's hall."
"Aye, what you said."
The kitchen was a wonder to Stilian--and to Kit too. Kit spun in round-eyed and ravenous awe. It wasn't so much the quality of the food as the quantity: a roasting pig in the walk-in hearth, chickens roasting in the hearth, more chickens hanging from the rafters waiting to be plucked, fresh loaves of bread cooling in a basket, cheeses in large rounds, and sacks of squash and yellow apples. Kit asked the cook how many lived in the dormitory.
"It varies depending on the time of year and the term, but around about 50 or so stay here. With the blue robes and servants, I feed about 70 every day."
"I thought the Canny all lived at Grayholme. Why are there so many, here?"
"Don't you know?" said Kit. "This is Blue House. This is where they train judges veritor."
"That's right," said the cook. "It takes them two years before they can wear the heart and holly."
Stilian must have looked like the village idiot. Then the light dawned. "Oh. The badge on the judge's tunic: it had a purple heart on it--and holly leaves."
"I plan to be a judge veritor, when I've finished school," remarked Kit.
"You'll be one of only a few, then." said the cook. "There's many more go to Grayholme than come back here for training. Now shoo, both of you. You can eat through there, in the dining hall." The boys grabbed their tin plates and passed into the empty hall.
"Where is everyone?" Stilian asked.
Kit shrugged. "Must be between terms. You're as hungry as I am."
"Did your father bring you, or did you have to walk like I did?" Stilian asked.
"My mother came with me. We walked together from Longfield. We haven't had a horse since Tallboy died."
"We have four horses on our farm. But they're draft horses, so nobody rides 'em much. I walked here myself from Rosset's Grade. That is, I walked most of the way. I got a ride on a hay wagon from Talson."
The boys talked while they munched the bread, apples, and cheese offered by the cook. They talked while the matron showed them the room where they were to stay. They talked until it was dark, and the moon swung lazily round to their window. On the farm, Stilian's brothers had never had much time for him. They were older, bigger, and well--dumber. Kit, it turned out, was the same age as Stilian, and he was skinny, too. But he was lucky; Kit had a mother to look out for him. When she figured out that Kit was canny, she reacted like it was awonderfulthing. Kit told him how they'd traveled together to the local Magistrate's office to ask about schooling at Grayholme. Then they'd planned the trip here to apply. Stilian wondered whathismother would have done, if she'd lived long enough to find out that he was canny.
The room they were lodged in was simple and clean. It had two cots, two small chests, a small table, chairs, and a fireplace. There was a window on one side of the fireplace, which looked out onto a courtyard. It smelled of wood smoke, candles, and wool. Stilian would have thought it downright comfortable, if it hadn't been for the lack of wood for the fire and the steady draft from the window.
When the boys finally started nodding and shivering at the same time, they decided to go to bed. It was too cold to undress, so they took off their boots and huddled under their blankets. Later, the wind came up and the air got colder and colder, until Stilian could see his breath in the moonlight flooding through the window.
"Kit!" Stilian called softly, "Are you cold?"
"I'm freezing!" whispered Kit.
"We'll be warmer together."
Harte met Griff for a meal at the Ragged Crow. He talked rapidly, while he poked idly at a meat pie. "The plan is for Mother and I to visit Greer House on a social call, ostensibly to visit Miss Megan. While I'm there, I find a way to search for that cloak. Meanwhile, my mother will find an excuse to make a drawing of Brin. If I find the cloak, you and I will use the drawing to find a witness who can identify Brin. Then I'll have enough evidence to take to a magistrate. We'll get a warrant to remove the cloak from Greer House. Then--"
"The sun will change direction and fly off into the heavens, leaving us all in darkness." Griff captured Harte's waving fork and placed it back on the table. "How can you possibly think this will work? There are so many holes, it'll unravel like a moth-eaten blanket. Even if you get into Greer House long enough to look around without having to engage yourself to marry Miss Greer, how are you going to arrange to be alone long enough to search the place? How is your mother going to draw a likeness of Brin? He probably won't even be there."
"What would you do?" Harte pointed his fork at Griff.
"I would talk to the victim again--you said he was called Raf, right?--and see if he will confirm the description of the cloak, before I'd go haring off to throw myself under a loaded dray."
Harte began to sort his carrots to one side and peas to another. "Why is it that everyone thinks I'm out to destroy myself?"
"Aren't you? What do you hope to get out of this?"
"I've been bored stiff, since I came home. I hate working for the council. I want to do something--just because it's right."
Griff sighed. "What do you want me to do?"
"You had a good idea. Let's go to see Raf again."
* * *
Sister Marta informed that Raf was asleep when Harte and Griff arrived at the hospital. She escorted them down the long row to his cot, as she had when Harte visited the first time. Harte felt the cold of the stone flagstones seeping through his boots. He felt assaulted by the smell of the place: two parts vinegar to one part vomit. But Griff seemed unaware of the smell as he smiled at the sister.
"What did Sister Gracesayto you in that note, anyway," she said. "He's not the long lost son of a merchant prince. Nobody will pay you to advocate for him."
"I know. This is Patrol Leader Tarren of the watch. He's assisting me with the investigation."
The sister gave Griff a long look. "Yes. Master Griff is known to us."
Harte glanced at Griff and raised his eyebrows. "Apparently, I'm not the only one fond of hopeless pursuits."
Griff shrugged and looked steadily back at the sister. Harte made a mental note to ask Griff about his connection to the hospital. The sister leaned down to tuck in the edge of Raf's blanket and Harte's shifted his attention to the boy. Raf looked worse than he had the first day. His bruises had deepened and turned shades of green and yellow. His right eye was still swollen shut. In addition, his breathing had a catch in it.
"Don't tire him out. He's not feeling well today," said Sister Marta, as she turned away.
"Thank you, Sister," called Griff.
"Raf, I'm sorry to bother you. But we need to ask you some additional questions. Raf! Will you look at me?" Harte shook Raf's shoulder, gently. "I want to talk to you."
Raf opened his good eye. "I'm tired." He coughed weakly. "What do you want?"
"Raf, what was the man who kicked you wearing? Was there anything distinctive about it?"
"Hobnailed boots. He were wearing hobnailed boots."
"Yes. What else was he wearing? What color were his clothes?"
"It were dark. I couldn't see his togs, because he were wearing a cloak. Fancy thing with a black and white, striped collar."
"No, I guess you wouldn't be able to see his clothes, in that case." Harte straightened up and sent a triumphant look towards Griff. "Go back to sleep, Raf."
"I don't see why you need me, Harte," complained Griff. "You do all the talking."
"You're my witness." Harte grinned. "And you're good with the sisters."
He caught the hint of a smile on Griff's face as they walked out through the tiled lobby.
Stilian peered out of his tent at the pouring rain. It hardly seemed worth getting up. He looked around for Petar, and found the cob with his head down, nibbling late season grass under a tree. "It seems you're resigned to your fate," he muttered. Stilian slid back down into his blanket roll and prepared to wait out the rain. Walford's Crossing would have to wait for better weather. He patted the letter folded in his pocket. Hugh would have to wait too. Everyone would have to wait.
* * *
Stilian and Kit were retrieved by the matron the next morning and told that they should wash up and go down to the dining hall, where they would meet with Judge Hugh.
"Who's Judge Hugh?" Stilian asked.
"Why, he's the man who brought you here yesterday! Not like him not to tell you his name. Some of them judges get so used toJudge Veritorthis andJudge Veritorthat, they forget they have a name like a normal person. But Judge Hugh's not like that. He says, 'it's incumbent on the Canny to try to make normal people feel at ease.'"
When Kit and Stilian arrived at the Dining Hall, Judge Hugh was already seated at a table with a group of mostly older men and a few middle-aged women, all in dark blue. Another table had a group of watchmen in brown uniforms. A table by the door to the kitchen held another group of plainer looking people, some of whom Stilian recognized from the day before, including the matron and cook. Judge Hugh must have been watching for them; when they came in, he stood up and motioned them over to his table.
Raising his voice he announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce our new friends, Stilian and Kit. They will be staying with us for a little while, until we can send them on their way to Grayholme." Putting his arms on their shoulders, he explained, "Between terms we don't stand on ceremony. We all eat together in the Dining Hall. Meals are at seven, twelve, and six bells."
Stilian wasn't sure why anyone would want to stand on ceremony--or why they weren't standing on him today--but he paid special attention to the meal times, as he planned to do some catching up with regards to eating. Then Judge Hugh took them over to the staff table, because, he said, "You'll probably get fed better over here. Less competition." He winked at Stilian, as he turned to go back his own table.
Kit smirked as he sprawled next to Stilian. "Youarehungry. Steady, but sort of cool, like a still pond. Maybe I'll start calling you Still. Judge Hugh is nice. He feels like a warm bath." He closed his eyes. "Or a hot spring--in a garden."
Stilian wasn't used to people talking about feelings, much less the kind of feelings that meant you were canny. "My father didn't like it if I talked like that. He said it wasn't proper." Kit opened his eyes and looked at Stilian sharply, but didn't say anything.
"We're used to it," said the matron. "Won't nobody mind in Blue House, so long as you're nice about it. But you'd best keep it quiet-like, when you're out and about. Even in Bugport, there are some folks that don't much care for it. Makes 'em uncomfortable wondering what you know about 'em."
As they were finishing their breakfast, Judge Hugh came over to stand the end of their table. "Kit, your application is complete. We can send you on to Grayholme as soon there's a shipment or courier ready to go that direction. But Stilian, I still have to get your father's permission. We don't need to feed anyone's paranoia about stealing children. I sent a courier with a note and an application to the watch office in Rosset's Grade, but he will take a few days to get there and a few days to get back. That's assuming your father signs the application right away. You're going to have to wait here for a week or more, I should think." He faced Kit. "That leaves you with a choice, Kit. You can go to Grayholme now. Or, if you want, you can stay here until I get Stilian's application in order, and the two of you can travel together."
Kit turned incandescent as soon as the Judge mentioned the school at Grayholme. But he took a sharp breath and looked at Stilian with wide eyes when the Judge said that Stilian had to stay. "Still's ma is dead, you know." Kit paused and shifted his gaze to the Judge. "And I think his da hit him or something. What happens if he won't sign the application?"
The judge lowered a knee onto the polished parquet floor and examined Stilian at close range, his face grave. Stilian felt his face grow hot and decided to check the floor for cracks. "I see," said the Judge, nodding. "There are other things we might try. But let's cross that bridge when we come to it." He turned his gaze to Kit. "You're staying here to wait with Stilian, I take it."
Kit's face was set. "Yes. I want to go to school, but I'll wait for Still."
"Well!" said Judge Hugh, putting a hand on the table and pushing himself slowly to his feet. "That's settled."
* * *
For the next few days, Stilian and Kit mostly talked or played games in one of the empty classrooms. They tried to get into the library, but one of the judges told them that it was for faculty and law students only, and that they would probably find it boring. Stilian knew the man was annoyed by their laughing and talking, but he didn't say anything.
On the fourth day of their stay, they were poking idly around amidst the stacks of old desks and chairs in the attic of the classroom wing trying to decide what to do, when Stilian heard a commotion in the courtyard. He and Kit looked down through a dormer window and saw young men pouring through the big gates and into the dormitory wing on the other side of the courtyard. There was a large wagon with the livery of the postal service on it parked inside the gate. A rowdy group laughing loudly as unloaded boxes and trunks. The students were returning to Blue House.
"I wonder if they ever get tired of school? Look how old they are. Why, they're practically middle-aged," said Kit.
"You can't wait to go to school at Grayholme."
"Yes, but I'm not like most kids. Most kids in Longfield hated school. I had to pretend that I did too, so they wouldn't pick on me. Did they tease you?"
"Sometimes. It was mostly because I was skinny and not very good at games."
"Oh." Stilian rubbed the dust from the window pane before him. "You like to read, don't you?"Kit asked.
"Yeah, but I haven't done much. There are too many chores to do on the farm, and Father doesn't like to see me sitting still. He says reading is idleness."
"I don't like your father."
* * *
The next night, Kit woke Stilian from a dream. "Quit shoving me!" said Stilian, opening his eyes to faint starlight.
He felt a tug on the covers as Kit moved in the dark. "You were talking in your sleep."
"I was dreaming. I was lying in a field and my mother was there, singing to me. Then a storm came and we ran inside, only it wasn't our house and it wasn't my mother, it was Miss Gorse, our school teacher, and she told me I had to take a bath."
Kit yawned audibly and rolled onto his side. "It's all right. The judges are pretty nice, most of them. Go back to sleep."
After a moment, Stilian sighed and curled up against Kit's back.
* * *
The next day, Stilian told Kit he wanted to see what was in the library. "Nobody's in there before breakfast. I checked this morning, on the way from the bath house, and it was empty. Let's get up early and see what books they have." Kit did not require much convincing. He wanted to see the books as much as Stilian did. So the next morning, they got up as soon as they could see a pink glow at the horizon. It was cold, so they tiptoed down to the library with oil lamps in their hands and blankets wrapped around their shoulders.
The library was a large room with built-in shelves that went all the way up to the ceiling. There were ladders that you could slide from side to side to get to the high shelves. Heavy tables and chairs occupied center of the room. Set into the corner between two walls was a large stone fireplace--empty and cold at this hour. On either side, the walls had tall, narrow windows set in between the shelves. Above the mantle, there was a large portrait of an impressively bearded, old man in a blue tunic who was holding a jar in one hand. In the jar, Stilian could make out a purple heart. The old man was fingering a twig of holly leaves, which was pinned to his shoulder. Stilian found the picture rather gruesome, but Kit laughed at it.
As soon as they'd taken stock of the room, they set down their lamps on a table and started to survey the books. Not surprisingly, most of them were about law or courtroom procedure, but there were also books about history, economics, agriculture, and even theater. Stilian found one with drawings of scenes from famous plays, and took it to a table to examine more closely. Kit discovered a history of ancient warfare that had descriptions of famous battles, including a few from the canny wars.
It began to get light outside. Stilian paid little mind, as engrossed as he was in his book. Eventually, the door opened and a man wondered into the room. He was holding a breakfast roll in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. He chewed slowly. "I wondered who was up before dawn, so early in the term. You can see the lamplight from across the courtyard, you know." He put down his roll and tea, bent over to look at Kit's book and rested a hand the boy's shoulder. "Aren't those battles a little heavy going before breakfast?"
Stilian tried to read the man warily, but the man's emotions were shielded. "We just wanted to see--"
"We weren't going to take anything," said Kit.
The man smiled and Stilian saw that he had crow's feet around his eyes and deep grooves around his mouth. He reminded Stilian of a fish merchant.
"No, I don't believe you were." The man removed his hand and picked up his tea and roll again. "You know, I have a private collection over here, which has some books in it that you might enjoy more than those old tomes. Let me show you. If you like what you find, I'll let you take a few with you, so long as you promise to bring them back before you leave."
"You'll let us borrow some books!" Kit grinned.
The man smiled back at them. "My name's Angus, by the way. I'm the librarian. You are masters Kit and Stilian, I expect."
* * *
The next night, Stilian found himself dreaming he was back home at the farm, sleeping in the loft of the farmhouse with his four brothers. In Stilian's dream, he was back in his old bed with his brother Arnost. Arnost was stroking himself. Instead of turning his back to Stilian, Arnost rolled towards Stilian, and laid an arm across his chest. Stilian felt himself hardening as his breathing synchronized with his brother's. He awoke from the dream in a panic. But it was not Arnost whose arm was lying across Stilian's chest. Nor was it Arnost's cock that was pressing his thigh. It was Kit's.
Stilian's heart thundered in his chest, but he was too ashamed and confused to move. Kit, becoming aware of Stilian's feelings, pulled his arm back, and rolled away. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean to upset you. I was just horny."
Kit's lack of concern was a cool sheet against Stilian's skin. But Stilian's breathing grew even more ragged as he sensed Kit's sympathy. "I dreamt that you were my brother, Arnost. He thought I was a pervert because whenever he touched himself, I felt it, and I got hard too."
"Everybody pleasures himself. At least boys do."
"Maybe, but they don't do it together. Not brothers! But I couldn't help it. My brothers knew I felt it whenever they touched themselves. They hated me for it. It embarrassed them."
Kit was silent for a moment. "I am as you are. I feel it when you are randy, just as you felt it, when I was tonight. I don't think it's wrong. It's just how we feel. Do you blame me for feeling happy when you feel happy, or sad when you feel sad?"
"Then, wipe your eyes and go to sleep."
Stilian tried, but he lay awake for some time thinking of the home he had left.
* * *
The small farm house had three rooms in the lower level: the kitchen, Father's bedroom, and a small parlor. The back wall of the house was shared with the barn. A large stone fireplace opened on one side to the kitchen, and on the other, to the parlor. The chimney went up through the center of the upstairs loft to provide some warmth in the cold months. A dormer window with shutters allowed in some air. The loft had room for three small cots. With five brothers, that meant that only Andrei, the oldest, got to sleep by himself. Stilian slept with his brother Arnost, who was one year older.
Stilian didn't mind curling up with Arnost against the bitter cold that swept down from the Ragged Hills in the dark months of the freeze. But sometimes the loft was just too small. Andrei snored. Bogdan had problems with his gut and farted a lot. But it was the shame from which Stilian had fled. From the time Andrei grew his first pubic hair, there always seemed to be someone jerking off. It was understood among the boys that you might do it, but like visiting the privy, you did not discuss it, at least not in front of Father. A beating was the likely result of that folly.
The proper response to someone jerking off after the lantern was dimmed was to pretend you didn't hear it. If you were horny and you got a boner, you took care of it as quietly and efficiently as possible. This careful obliviousness lasted until the year after Stilian began to grow a dark thatch of his own. The problem was that Stilian's canniness came in with his pubic hair. Before long, when his brothers were feeling randy, so was he. It didn't matter if he touched himself; as soon as he felt the familiar earthly heat from one of his brothers, his cock went up like the tail on a startled deer. As his brothers beat to their private rhythms, so did he. When they came, so did he, whether he would or no.
It didn't take long for his brothers to notice Stilian's problem. At first, they teased him. The randy runt would grow hair on his palms. Maybe he should keep a bucket by the bed. Then there were sidelong glances, muttered comments, and finally open name calling. The runt was sick. He was a pervert. He was degenerate. Stilian's worst fear was that they were right, and he began to hate the tyrannical new body that had him in constant fear of embarrassment and humiliation.
Matters got worse during harvest, when the family was working late into the evening to bring in the crops. One day, Arnost stayed home with a fever. The sick boy was upstairs in the loft, where he was supposed to be sleeping. The boys gathered around the table for a late, cold, supper. But Arnost must have woken up from his nap feeling better. Finding himself alone, he took advantage of the rare privacy and began to stroke himself. Unfortunately for Stilian, Arnost neared his finish just as Father began to thank God for the bountiful harvest. Stilian, slouching in his seat to hide his erection from the sharp eyes of his brothers, froze, and tried desperately to think about something else. It was no use, and soon Stilian was breathing hard in time with his horny brother and trembling with the effort of staying silent. As Arnost came, Stilian shuddered and spurted into his britches. An unmistakable musky smell rose into the evening air. Stilian returned to himself to find his father staring at him with a thunderous rage working his face.
"What is this blasphemy! Would you mock the Lord's grace?"
"I meant no blasphemy! It was Arnost. I felt him. He--"
"Arnost is upstairs. You blame your brother, who is sick with a fever, for your sacrilege? What has he to do with your, your--I do not have words for it. Come with me." He lifted Stilian bodily from his chair and dragged him through the door into the barn. "Strip." He took a whip from the wall, where he kept it for occasions when he felt the boys' behavior warranted it. "Bend over." He laid a stripe on Stilian's butt and continued to whip him long after Stilian could no longer hold back his cries. That night, Stilian's brothers told him that he could no longer sleep in the loft. Andrei said, "If you would rut in public like a beast, then with the beasts you will live."
Harte stood inside the waterfall, watching water run down the thick panes of hand-made glass that formed the skylight and outer wall of the solar. A strong breeze ripped and tore gaps in the grey clouds, periodically lighting up the windows and putting a spotlight on one of the paintings mounted on the walls of the room. The room was a gallery for his mother's work. As a child, he had spent many hours watching her paint here. She had a strict rule. He was not allowed to touch the brush or the paints; they were her magic tools. But he was welcome so long as he was quiet and did not disturb her.
Blinking, he wrenched his mind back to the present. "Here's my plan, Mother. After we get settled in the parlor with tea, you'll keep Megan and her mother busy, while I excuse myself to use the water closet. I'll look in the mud room to see if I can find Brin's cloak. If anyone catches me, I'll explain that I left my cigar case in my coat pocket and came to get it." Harte began to pace back and forth in front of his mother's easel, while Amalia fidgeted.
"You don't smoke, dear."
"I've just started. That's why I keep leaving my cigar case behind."
"You'd better borrow one from your father. You're not concerned about tipping off Brin that you're interested in his cloak?"
"He'll not likely be home. We'll go Saturday afternoon. He'll be betting on the horses, I'll wager." Harte smirked at his own wit.
Amalia was too tense to be amused. "Just what am I to say to Mrs. Greer, while you wonder about the place looking lost? You know I'm not good at small talk. We must at least pretend that we have some reason for a social call."
"I thought it would be enough for me to express a desire to see Megan again."
Amalia stopped moving. "Oh no, Son. That would be cruel. There's only one reason a boy like you calls on a girl like Megan. Even if Megan knows better, you'll have Mrs. Greer hearing wedding bells. She'll make her daughter's life a misery."
"What about an invitation? Yes! To a winter solstice party. We haven't had one of those since for years."
Amalia picked up a brush and began to swirl it around in a flask of turpentine. "That's because your father doesn't care for big parties."
"But he'll agree to it, because it will be a chance to socialize with the other members of the council. And if we invite Brin, he might even be dumb enough to wear that cloak."
"Don't underestimate Brin." Amalia wiped her brush with a rag. "He'll know, soon enough, that you're investigating Raf's beating. If he did it, he'll be more careful than that."
"Maybe. But he might just be arrogant enough to assume that no one would dream of going after him for a simple beating."
Amalia threw down her rag and sat down, looking grim. "Nobody elsewould."
* * *
Plans for the social call and the party were well under way, when Harte received a note from Griff saying that it was urgent they meet at the hospital. Raf was sick and wanted to talk to Harte. Harte wondered why Griff would be delivering such a message. How was he known to the sisters at the hospital?
When he got there, Griff was pacing at the entrance. "Come on, he doesn't sound good. Sister Grace thinks he might meet God today."
"Her phrase. Sheisa sister."
Raf's breathing was labored, when Harte knelt by the cot. He looked scared as he struggled for air. "I'm here, Raf. What is it? What do you want to tell me?"
"Peli," the boy whispered between gasps. "Came. Somebody threatened him. Scared they will hurt--" He paused to breathe. "He's green. Don't know who to trust." He blinked. "If I can't protect him anymore." He opened his eyes wide. "Will you?"
Harte nodded and brushed back Raf's hair. "Griff and I will look after him." If Griff was startled to be recruited for the job, he didn't show it. At that moment, a sister in a spotless habit entered the room and trotted towards Raf's cot. Harte withdrew his hand hastily.
"You must be Mr. Harte Walford. I'm Sister Grace. Please don't tire Raf. He must rest. Come this way; I want to speak with you."
Harte touched Raf's shoulder lightly, then got up. "I'm pleased to meet you, Sister. I would be honored. I take it you know my friend, Patrol Leader Tarren, of the watch?"
Sister Grace smiled as she turned and trotted towards the door. "Yes, Griff is known to us."
Harte motioned, "After you" to Griff, and raised his eyebrows. Griff shrugged, and set off after Sister Grace. They followed her out of the ward, down the corridor, and into a combination office, school room, and chapel. The cramped room held a desk, a small bookshelf, and an incongruous, finely made table surrounded by crude wooden chairs.
Sister Grace motioned for them to sit down. "May I offer you tea?" As she turned away to pick up a tea service from her desk, Griff violently shook his head.
Harte frowned at him, not wanting to be rude. "Certainly. Thank you very much."
Sister Grace turned back and set a cup before each man. "Thank you for coming to see Raf. I'm sorry I have not been available to greet you on your previous visits. Sister Magda tells me that you have seen the boy twice. I'm grateful for your interest."
Harte took a sip of tea and nearly spat it out again. Griff grinned.
"Oh dear. I'm afraid I may have made the tea a little strong again. It's an old habit you see. Strong tea for long nights in the wards. It's good for keeping an old nurse awake, but not a very social drink."
"Oh no. It's quite all right. I like mine strong," Harte managed. "It's a bit unexpected is all. If you don't mind, what was it that made you think to send that note to me? I'm not the best known of Walford's Crossing's presenter advocates--being new at it."
"I knew your mother, you see, before I became a sister. She'd not remember me, but we attended dancing lessons together, a very long time ago. Your mother was quite passionate about things that other girls of her class were not passionate about: art, history, what to do about the Canny. We got along."
"Dancing lessons. I shall have to ask Mother about that."
"There was another reason. You made an argument, in front of the town council last year, which was reported to me. You argued against the practice of allowing parties to a case to hire the magistrate or judge veritor. I heard you were quite compelling. But I'm not surprised you were not successful; the council will have to pay if the parties don't."
"I'm surprised that you follow such issues," Harte admitted. "I have found it hard to interest my colleagues. Short of announcing that there's a canny spy in chambers, it's difficult to wake them from their complacence."
"They are not complacent, they attend to their self-interest," said Griff.
"We who serve the poor must attend to politics as well--if we are to be effective," said Sister Grace.
"It seems that you have had help staying informed." Harte eyed Griff speculatively. Griff looked back, wide-eyed.
"God provides," said Sister Grace, watching Griff.
"Hmm." Harte blew gently on his tea. "How can I help you, today?"
Sister Grace would not be hurried. She sipped her tea before continuing. "I understand that you have made inquiries into the incident during which Raf was beaten."
"Yes. I, we--Griff and I have made inquiries. I'm afraid we have not discovered the culprits, yet."
"I wonder if it has occurred to you ..." Sister Grace put down her tea and made a minute adjustment to her wimple. "I fear that Raf will be called to God soon. If he is, the issue of his beating could take on rather more weight, don't you think? One could argue that his death was the responsibility of the man who beat him. I am not a legal scholar as you are, so I cannot speak to the law, but I can speak to the moral issue."
"Yes, and capital casesrequirea judge veritor. But it would be a difficult argument to win. There is little precedent to support such a position, and cases are won and lost on the sympathy of the council of court. The advocate would be certain to paint Raf as immoral, as a mere--" His face grew hot. "You are aware how Raf made his living?"
Sister Grace pursed her lips. "One cannot serve the poor for very long without coming tosomeunderstanding of the ways they are led into temptation and depravity."
"Yes, I suppose." Harte let his eyes wonder around the room where they came to rest on the cloth covered altar at the back of the room. "They would use that against him, you see, as they would anything else they thought would gain them traction with the council of court."
"Raf is not a bad sort," interjected Griff. "He's been trying to help Peli."
"Who is Peli?" asked Sister Grace.
"He's a boy that Raf has been ... mentoring ... down on Dock Street. Peli saw the beating, and Raf says he's been threatened now, as well."
"You must bring him here, immediately," pronounced Sister Grace, leaning forward to rap her knuckles on the table.
"This is hardly the sort of place--"
Harte was pretty certain that Sister Grace actually stamped, but it was hard to tell because the floor was stone. She interrupted him. "This is exactly the sort of place he should be. You will find him and bring him here. We shall protect him." Sister Grace was a bull in a field of heifers.
Harte said the only thing he could, in the face of her determination. "Yes, Sister Grace."
"Did you decide to come here when your brothers made you sleep in the barn?" Kit and Stilian were sitting cross-legged by the fire, looking at the books that they had borrowed from Angus's special collection.
"I didn't know what to do at first. It was harvest, and I had to work like everyone else. But after we finished getting the crops in, we went back to school. Our teacher, Miss Gorse, noticed that I--that I wasn't washing very much, because my brothers wouldn't let me share the bath water. We have a big tub we haul into the kitchen, once a week. We warm water on the stove, and take turns. But after they threw me out, they wouldn't let me into the kitchen while they were bathing."
"So you stank."
Stilian closed his eyes. One of his earliest memories was watching his father and neighbors cut the wheat at harvest. He was too little to help, but his mother brought him out to the fields, when she and the other women brought food and water out to the men. The sun was high and hot, and the men's shirts were stained with dust and sweat. They took turns cracking jokes and laughing as they passed around earthenware jugs of water, baskets of biscuits, and apples. Stilian didn't understand their jokes, but he was excited by their good spirits and ran in circles around them and laughed too, until his father swung him up onto his shoulders. His father's shoulders were hard and he smelled of sweat, but Stilian cried when his father set him down and pushed him back to his mother.
"I guess I kind of got used to it during the harvest. But Miss Gorse asked me why I wasn't washing, and I could tell that she liked me, so I told her that I could sometimes tell what my brothers were feeling, and that they didn't like it, and that I was sleeping in the barn. She got mad when I told her about the barn, but I made her promise that she wouldn't say anything to Father."
Stilian got up to put a new log on the fire. "Our schoolhouse isn't like the big ones that they have in Bugport. It's one room for classes and another room with a pump and stove for the teacher to stay in during the school year. Anyway, Miss Gorse started letting me use her tub to wash up in, when I needed to, so I wouldn't smell so bad."
"What did your brothers say about that?"
"They didn't know. They probably thought I was washing in the horse trough or something. I left for home when everyone else did, and then circled back to the schoolhouse. Anyway, she figured out that I might be canny and told me about the school at Grayholme." Stilian paused. "Before that, I didn'tknowthere was a place for people like me."
Kit was silent for a moment, then grinned and poked Stilian in the stomach. "Just think, if you'd washed a little more often, we might never have met."
* * *
Justin found Judge Hugh at his desk, soon after arriving back at Blue House.
"How did it go?" asked the judge.
"Much as you thought it might. He was torn between getting rid of the wretched blasphemer and losing a farm hand. He never asked how the boy was doing. I did as you suggested and quoted him a price for transporting the boy home. That changed his tune soon enough."
"I'd prefer it if you didn't mention that to the boy."
* * *
The matron came and found them in their attic haunt. "Stilian! Kit! Are you up there?" she called from the bottom of the stairs. "Judge Hugh wants to see you in his study."
The boys tumbled down the stairs. "What's he want? Did he hear something?" Stilian asked.
"You'll have to ask him that. But he didn't look like bad news, I don't think."
Judge Hugh was reading some papers at his desk when they went in. "Ah, boys. Thank you for coming. I've received some good news." He smiled tiredly at Stilian and tapped on an envelope on his blotter. "Justin returned today from Rosset's Grade. Your father has signed the application for Grayholme. You are both our responsibility now--at least so long as you stay in school. Your father decided to do what was best for you."
Stilian didn't quite know what to do with his face, but Kit jumped into the air as high as he could. "Yahoo!"
Stilian mustered a wobbly smile through stinging eyes.
"When can we leave?" asked Kit.
"Tomorrow, if you want. There's a train of drays due to take supplies out to Grayholme in the morning. We'll be sorry to see you go."
* * *
Kit jumped off the back of the supply wagon and jogged along side. Their route towards Grayholme followed a rutted track along the Bug River as it flowed slowly through the last of the inland plain. Later, as the river picked up speed and prepared to rush through Windy Gap to the sea, they would split off and climb the shoulder of the coastal range to the shelf where the small community of Grayholme perched between hill and mountain, above the Gap.
"Did you see that eagle snatch a fish right out of the water? I wish I could fly like that." Kit threw out his arms and swooped.
Stilian laughed and swung his legs back and forth off the back of the heavy dray. Between his dancing feet and waving arms, Kit looked younger than his fifteen years. Joy seemed to radiate off him like steam from a boiling pot. It left Stilian warm and a little breathless.
"Matron told me they make kites at Grayholme out of silk and reed that are so big they can lift a man right off the ground. They fly them from the hillside over Windy Gap."
"Right off the ground!"
"That's what she said." Kit frowned. "She might have been pulling my leg."
Stilian laughed. "Who could kid about a thing like that?"
They neared the end of the second day of a four day journey. The Coastals looked closer and higher with every mile. Their driver, Bran, one of the teamsters who was responsible for the big drays that carried supplies over this route, said they would see Windy Gap tomorrow, and start the day-long climb to Grayholme the morning after that. "You might as well get off and trot on up from there, for you'll surely go faster than these heavy lugs--even after we add extra teams at Bug Station."
Later, as the setting sun turned the sky orange behind the Coastals, they made camp by the river, and the men built a bonfire to ward off the late autumn chill.
"Won't be long now before those mountains'll be wearing a winter shawl," said Bran. "Once the snow comes, there will be no more wagons up the Ramp, 'til the thaw. You'll not see us for three months or more."
The next day was long. They reached Bug Station, where fresh horses were corralled at the bottom of the Ramp, after sundown. Kit insisted on setting out their blanket rolls under a wagon, saying that he wanted to "see Grayholme as the sun rises."
Bran chuckled, "You'll be back in the station lookin' for a warm bunk, soon as that fire dies down, I'm thinkin'." But Kit was not dissuaded. That night was cold indeed, and Stilian woke to find Kit fitted around him like a spoon to melon. The sun was rising and had turned the Coastals pink. Just barely visible, far up the hillside, at the base of the nearest peak, the morning sun warmed the gray stone walls and towers of a toy castle.
"Kit! Wake up. Look, look!"
After a morning wash and a last farewell to the now raucous Bug, the boys made lunch packets from the teamster's supplies and set off up the Ramp to Grayholme.
Griff delivered a note from Sister Grace as Harte was sitting in the solar with his breakfast tray.
"Will you eat?" Harte asked.
"I cannot. I'm due at Watch House." Griff handed Harte the note. "From Sister Grace."
Dear Mr. Walford,
I am sorry to inform you that Raf joined our Lord this morning, around four bells. We must turn our efforts towards the living now.
Where is Peli?
"Shit! You know about this?"
Griff nodded. Harte crumpled the note and threw it on the floor. He pushed his tray away and closed his eyes for a moment. "I suppose he'll be buried in the pauper's field."
"Likely, already has been. The sisters don't wait around when there's no family."
"Oh no, he had a family. He just wasn't telling us about them. Maybe he told Peli."
"She is unrelenting, you know," said Griff.
Harte rubbed his forehead. "I had that impression. Can you get away tonight? It seems we must deliver Peli into ... sanctuary, before we do anything else."
"I can meet you at the Ragged Crow at six bells. How are your social plans coming?"
"We will go to Greer House on Saturday. The solstice party is the following week."
Griff nodded. "Good."
After Griff left, Harte closed his eyes and remembered his grandfather's death the year before. It was like Parliament had convened in Walford's Crossing. Luminaries from the capital and every community of size had visited to pay their respects and follow the funeral train out to the cemetery on Camp Hill. Street vendors sold sausages to the crowd. Raf's burial in the pre-dawn darkness would have been very different. He saw a cloaked and hooded man leaning on a shovel and a pair of sisters pushing a dog cart.
* * *
Harte arrived at the Ragged Crow early that night. He took a place at the bar and motioned to the barkeep for an ale. The place was full with a mixed crowd: a group of woolen merchants, a table of woodworkers powdered with saw dust, a teamster in a wide-brimmed hat, the usual journeymen, some shopkeepers and clerks--many stopping by for a tipple after closing their businesses for the day. He had run into his father on the way out the door. His father had asked where Harte was going.
"The Ragged Crow. I'll be out late tonight."
"I can't see what you find appealing about that place. The people who drink there are not of your station. How can you expect to advance yourself, if you spend more time with them than with your own kind?"
"Father, what do you know aboutmy kind? Maybe theyaremy kind. I'd rather spend my time with people who work for a living than spend it scratching the backs of the wrinkled old goats in the council. Anyway, I'm meeting a friend there."
"Those old goats supply your coin--and I'm one of them. You'd do well to remember it."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way."
His father had turned and walked into the house without replying. Now, Harte sat watching the men laughing, talking, playing cards, and felt himself removed from the crowd, as if he were watching them through the wrinkling air over a fire.
"Are you going to buy me one, or do I have to part with my own hard-earned coin." Griff settled onto a stool next to Harte.
Harte waived at the barkeep again. "Don't I always?"
"In truth, you do. It's one reason I bide with you."
Harte's halfhearted attempt at a rejoinder was drowned out by a burst of laughter from a card table across the room. A group of men rose and settled their cloaks around them, before heading out into the December evening. One of them was Brin Greer. His cloak did not have a striped, fir collar, but it wasfur-linedand warm. Harte noted, however, that Brin was wearing hobnailed boots--as were a number of his companions. They were a popular affectation of wealthy youth that was designed primarily, Harte suspected, to irritate their elders. Harte's own boots were lightweight, pointed at the toe, and highly polished. He stared down at them, thoughtfully.
"Just how many of those have you had?" Griff asked, pointing at Harte's ale. "Don't you think it might be interesting to follow them?" He nodded towards the departing group.
Harte perked up. "Yes, actually, it would." He put some coins on the bar. "Let's do it."
They worked their way through the crowd to the door and out into the cold. "I hope Peli has someplace warm to stay tonight," said Harte.
Griff rolled his eyes. "Sister Grace will warm our hides if we don't find him."
It seemed that Greer and company were headed down towards Dock Street. Harte and Griff sauntered town the hill behind them, trying to look as relaxed and unhurried as possible, while keeping the group in sight. When they got to Dock Street, the group turned towards the Red Rooster. But they passed it and continued on. Harte pulled Griff into an empty doorway.
"Would you continue to follow them? I want to know where they go and what sort of entertainment they find. While you do that, I want to visit the Angry Cock again to see if the anyone has seen Peli."
Griff stifled a snort at Harte's use of the notorious tavern's nickname. "Sure. I'll meet you back here in an hour or two. You don't seem to need my assistance in that place, anyway."
Harte swallowed a retort at Griff's jibe. "Good. Stay well back. Don't let them scent you."
Still smiling, Griff slipped off into the night. Harte glanced up and down the street, then took a breath and marched into the Red Rooster. It was as crowded as before with men from all stations and walks of life. The men at the tables mostly ignored the newcomer, but the line of men standing at the bar turned to look at Harte. A few even made a show of looking Harte up and down. One burly young tough stared directly into Harte's eyes until Harte blinked and looked away. Harte took a place at the other end of the bar and waited for the barkeep.
"You again? What'll you have tonight? Ale or somewhat stronger?"
"Ale, please, and some information."
"I've drinks to pour. Why don't you bother someone else?" He looked at Harte speculatively. "There's a few here tonight might care for a private chat with a shiny bird like you."
Harte leaned forward and spoke quietly. "I just want to know if you've seen that boy again--Peli."
"Nope, haven't noticed him." The barkeep left to answer a wave from a customer.
Harte was looking around the room to see if there was some place less conspicuous where he could wait to see if the boy appeared, when an oily tenor spoke up near his right ear. "If it's boys you're looking for, I can show you a fine selection."
"What? No, I don't want--I'm looking for a particular boy. It's important that I find him." The man standing next to Harte was thick-waisted, with a sunken chest and thin arms. His clothes were expensive and stylish, but exaggerated.
"I'msureI could find anotherjustlike him. What are you looking for? Let me guess: blond, skinny, smooth-chested? Or maybe with a cute little trail leading down here?" The man slowly ran his finger down Harte's belly until it rested gently on his crotch.
Harte's face heated, and he stepped backward. "Please keep your hands to yourself, sir. I do not require your assistance inanyway."
There was a grunt from behind Harte and a languid drawl. "Careful now. That was my foot you just trod on." The man stepped around into view. He was tall, lean, and dressed plainly but expensively, in black. The collar of his cloak was trimmed in soft leather. His black hair was longer than the fashion and contrasted sharply with his pale skin. "Mr. Blud," the man said, "I don't think this fellow's in need of your services. In fact, I don't think anyone here is in need of your services. Perhaps you should try another establishment--" He paused. "Now." Mr. Blud shrugged and turned to leave. The newcomer watched as Mr. Blud made his way out the door and then sighed.
"I'm sorry about that. I hope you don't hold my little establishment guilty for his offense? Perhaps I could compensate you for enduring Mr. Blud with another drink?" He caught the barkeep's eye and pointed at Harte's mug.
"You are the owner?" Harte asked.
"I have that honor."
"I see. Perhaps you can help me. My name is Harte Walford. I'm looking--"
"For a boy. So I heard. Perhaps it would be better if we were in a more private place before you use that phrase again. It leads to misunderstandings." He nodded at Harte's drink. "Why don't you bring that with you, and we can have a little chat." He led the way through a curtain in the back of the room and up a stairway to a heavy door. He removed a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. "After you. You'll find a couch along the left-hand wall. Please be seated, while I light a lantern." He stepped past Harte and moved confidently into the dark. Harte heard the sound of a match and saw the flare of a lantern. He blinked in the sudden light and looked around. The room was large, but had a low ceiling. Heavy wooden beams crossed to form a pattern of inset squares above. The sides of the beams were carved with figures, human and animal, engaged in various natural pursuits. In between the beams, the ceiling was painted dark blue and punctuated with small white and yellow stars. The floor was covered in intricately patterned rugs of red, tan, and dark blue. On the other side of the room was a fireplace, with a rectangle of tile mosaic before it, and a polished mantelpiece above it--also fancifully carved. Harte found himself standing in front of a leather covered, maroon couch.
"Sit, please sit." The tall man moved gracefully to the far end of the room, picked up a small table and set it down in front of Harte. He mimed setting a drink down on the table. May I offer you something to eat, Mr. Walford? Or should I say, Presenter Advocate Walford?"
Harte was so engrossed in examining the exotic setting that he took a moment to register the use of his name and title. "You know who I am. But you, sir, have not done me the honor of introducing yourself."
"An oversight for which I apologize. I am Anton Soloni." The man waved. "This is my home."
When they had finished their climb from the river, the boys came to a rocky open pasture where sheep and goats were busy trimming the late season grass. After the pasture came a short stone wall with gate in it and a sign which read,Welcome to Grayholme. In smaller letters under that, it continued,Please shut and latch the gate behind you. Ahead of them, they could see the town nestled below the mountainside, between a rocky slope and the steep drop to the rushing Bug. But there was another mile of fields, now barren and waiting for the thaw, before they came to another gate. This one was higher and had a watch tower on it. To his disappointment, Stilian saw no warriors manning the gaps in its battlements. If Grayholme had enemies, she had forgotten them. Once again, they unlatched and passed through the gate, noting another warning carved into a piece of wood and nailed into place.Please close and latch the gate behind you. Do not, under any circumstances, allow the goats to follow you into town. They wreak havoc in the market. Thank you for your cooperation." Kit laughed, and bowed Stilian through the gate, intoning "After you, sir!"
Houses started inside the second gate. The first ones were wood, with carved lintels and bright blue doors and shutters. Farther into town, a slightly larger set of old stone houses, also with characteristic blue doors and shutters, surrounded a central market square. In the waining year, the market boasted only a few merchant's stalls. Stilian saw one covered with striped awnings, where he saw a barrel of apples and boxes of tiny cabbages and rutabaga.
Beyond the market, there were streets of fancy houses and businesses, their stonework decorated in bas-relief. At the highest point under the face of a huge stone outcropping, Stilian saw an imposing edifice that could only be the school of Grayholme. It was made of the same stone as the houses in the square; a clear gray that sparkled when the sun hit it. The building looked like it had grown into its current shape over many years. It was mostly four stories high, with various additions and afterthoughts. The roofs were green, as at Blue House. (This condition had led to some confusion for Stilian until Judge Hugh explained that Blue House was named for the color of a judge veritor's tunic, not for the copper roof. When Stilian protested that the roof was green, not copper-colored, it led to an explanation about verdigris that left Stilian wishing that he had kept his questions to himself.) There were dormers growing from the sloping sides of the roof. Three large wings with various smaller outcroppings surrounded a central courtyard, which was enclosed in the front by a stone wall with an ornate gate. Next to the gate, there was a small gatehouse. This was where Stilian and Kit announced their arrival, and asked to see the mistress.
* * *
Mistress Thalia Moor was met on the way from her office after three bells. A bemused gate warden who told her that two boys were at the courtyard gate asking for her. "They look to be about fifteen summers each, and bright as a pair of oranges. Said their names are Stilian and Kit."
"What have we here? Two wondering waifs come to the doors of Grayholme demanding that we accept them into school?" Thalia cocked her head to one side and looked at the boys as they stood by the gate. "Where are your escorts? Hugh would not have sent you from Blue House on your own."
Words tumbled out of Kit in a rush. "The drays are too slow. We left them this morning at the station, at the bottom of the hill. They'll be here soon. Our driver, Bran, said we could run ahead. He gave us this letter for you. He said to ask for the mistress. I think it's from Judge Hugh, but he didn't say." Stilian was too busy gazing around to say much of anything.
In response to Thalia's expectant look, Kit punched Stilian in the arm. "Give her the letter, Still!" Stilian reached into his pack and brought out an oilskin-wrapped packet. Thalia recognized Hugh's writing on the cover, and smiled at the thickness of it. "Todd, why don't you take the boys to the kitchen and ask the cook to get them something to eat. I'm sure they're famished after their hike up the Ramp. Have the cook send them to my rooms when they're done." She tucked the envelope under an arm. "That will give me a chance to read this."
With the boys on their way, she crossed to the south wing and took the stairs up to her rooms on the second floor. They were plain and cluttered with papers, books, and mementos from former students. Two tall, multi-paned windows let in the light and framed a view of the Gap and Southern Coastals that could still take her breath away when she opened her eyes to it in the morning. A door on one side led to her sleeping room. On the other side, she had a small parlor, with a fireplace and couch that she could use for entertaining guests. Hugh always complained that her rooms were too cold and tried to get her to take a suite facing the courtyard, but she would never give up the view. She sat down to read.
How I miss you, my bonded, and wish our duties did not keep us apart so much. I am left feeling your bright light only in my dreams. Blue House engages my mind, but my heart lies with you at Grayholme. I count the days until I will see you again, in the thaw.
If I am fulsome, it is the business at hand, which has warmed these old bones. I send you Stilian and Kit for schooling at Grayholme. Their applications are enclosed. Kit seems young at first glance, particularly given his open, exuberant manner, but he is surprisingly wise in the ways of the world. His mother brought him to apply two weeks ago in much the normal way--if three or four years earlier than most. How sensitive he is! It is such a natural part of him that he often forgets that what he feels is not accessible to others. If Kit were our only catch this season, it would be an extraordinary one. But we are blessed with Stilian as well.
Stilian has had a more difficult transition. His sensitivity came on early, and at the worst possible time for a boy. He grew up in a tiny farm house in the northern foothills with his father and four brothers. His mother died when he was very small. From what I gather, the boys lived close, sleeping in a tiny loft together. When he started to feel everything his brothers did ... well, you know how boys are at that age. He must have wrung himself out! Unfortunately, his father is both ignorant of the Canny and religious. With many rural priests still teaching the faithful to be wary of any sexual experience outside of the act of procreation--and that only in the marriage bed--you can imagine the man's response when he found out what was happening. I'm afraid Stilian was abused.
Which brings me to another issue: I believe that Stilian and Kit are well on their way to bonding. I cannot know precisely how far their journey has taken them or to what degree their closeness has led them to physical intimacy. I do know they have kept us up nights, despite our housing them on an empty floor as far away everyone else as we could put them. How they shine when together! It has been like sleeping with the lantern lit. I'm afraid they will be as exhausting as twin infants, until they learn to shield. If indeed they bond, they will have to come to terms with the nature of their relationship. Stilian, in particular, will need help in getting over the shame his father has beaten into him. I need not tell you your job. I entrust them to your care.
Until we are together again, I shall hold you in my heart.
Thalia folded the letter and put it on the desk in front of her. "My love, what gifts have you sent me now?" she whispered. There was enough suspicion and distrust of the Canny. Sometimes she caught herself wishing that they didn't have to deal with the added burden of early bonding. In a society that typically arranged marriages to ensure the greatest possible economic or political benefit, bonding for love was socially disruptive--particularly when the partners were of the same sex. But the strength and intimacy of the connection that linked the Canny could not be denied. To do so would be to reject the very gift that made them who they were. Thalia closed her eyes and sat silently until she felt the boys coming to see her.
Griff sauntered behind Brin Greer and his companions. They appeared to enjoy their promenade along Dock Street, exchanging repartee with the various men, women, and children who offered their services along the way. Eventually they arrived at a prosperous establishment with well-lit windows and gaily painted doors and shutters. From inside, Griff could hear the sound of music and laughter. Greer's party knocked on the door and were admitted immediately. Evidently, they were known or their arrival anticipated.
After the door closed, Griff circled the building. Through one window, men and women danced together before a small string band. Through another, he saw gaming tables surrounded by gamblers and onlookers. A third window looked in upon a busy kitchen, with a red-faced chef and serving staff bustling in and out. Griff sighed. Madam Truman's was not a place where the watch were welcomed. Eventually, he found a moderately protected spot in an alley across from the front door where he could observe, drew his cloak tight, and settled down to listen to his stomach growl.
* * *
Soloni dropped lightly onto the couch next to Harte and draped his arm along the top of the back. "Now, I hope you will not be offended by directness, but who is this boy you are so eager to find, and what makes him of such interest to one of your station?"
"He was witness to a crime--a beating. I have reason to believe he has since been threatened. I would see him away from this place and into a safer one."
"Forgive me, but there are many such crimes committed in the area. Am I to believe that the town council has suddenly determined Dock Street's citizens worthy of protection?"
"I am pursuing this case on my own authority."
Soloni's eyebrows rose. "That is perhaps even more improbable. What did this boy do to so grasp your interest?"
Harte straightened his neckcloth. "Nothing. I made a promise, that's all."
"Another boy, the one who was beaten. He died this morning."
Soloni narrowed his eyes. "I see. I suppose that kind of promise is not easily broken by one such as yourself."
Harte tugged at one sleeve, impatiently. "What do you mean, one such as myself?"
"There is no need to be offended. I meant to compliment you."
"Why do you care what I want with the boy?"
"Mr. Walford. While we may do it imperfectly, we try to protect our own here." Saloni stared at Harte, his expression uncompromising. "And while I discourage young men of Peli's age from coming here, I understand their need to do so. They are part of our family."
"Then you know who I am looking for."
"Yes, I expect my staff to report to me such matters as concern our little community. Word of your first visit eventually make its way to me. Unfortunately, it did not do so until after you had departed, or I might have saved Peli the trouble of speaking with you, or should I say, the trouble of being seen speaking to you."
"He saw the beating. I would have had to speak to him."
Soloni smiled gently and placed an ankle on one knee. "Quite. Perhaps you would be interested to hear that there may have been other witnesses. Some of them might actually know the man who did the beating."
"I would speak to them."
"Yes, but would they speak to you? I think not. They are older and wiser than Peli."
"Perhaps. But somebody must talk, if I am to present the case to court."
"Do you really think it wise to pursue such a case? What good can come of it? Any accusation is likely to result in more attention to this community than it wants. I confess, I'm having difficulty ascertaining your motivation for such a course of action. Have you some grudge against this man?"
Harte looked up at the carving on the beam above the couch, which depicted a pair of nude hunters pursuing a herd of deer. They ran in a crouched position as if reading a trail and carried spears over their shoulders. "Isn't what he did to Raf enough?"
Soloni sighed. Uncrossing his legs, he leaned forward. "Perhaps I have become too cynical. If Peli were to come into your keeping, what would you do with him?"
"Sister Grace of the Sisters of Mercy Hospital has expressed a strong interest in protecting him."
"Sister Grace. Oh dear."
"Do you know her?"
Soloni closed his eyes. "We have had occasion to be ... allies. We do, after all, share some of the same goals, although our methods tend to be rather different. She can be somewhat rigid." He opened his eyes to regard Harte. "Are you certain the boy would thrive under her care?"
"My friend, Griff, vouches for her. I believe she is tolerant. It was she who brought Raf to my attention."
"Really! Now that's interesting. Perhaps I have misjudged Sister Grace." Soloni stood up. "I will consider what to do about Peli."
Harte remained seated. "I believe you know who beat Raf. Will you not tell me?"
Soloni dropped his head to one side and looked down at Harte. "Would you have me betray my own commitments, so that you might honor yours? I think you must discover him for yourself."
"What commitment could you have to protect this man?"
Soloni tossed his head impatiently, dark hair flying. "You really are impossible."
"The man stamped on Raf's genitals with hobnailed boots." Harte rose slowly. "Have you no guidance for me?"
Soloni winced. "You defeat me. I will do this: if you tell me what you find, I will, if I may, confirm or deny it. That is all I will do."
"That, and tell me where I can find Peli."
Soloni threw up his hands. "Sir, I must rest. You exhaust me."
Harte allowed himself to smile. "Thank you. You have been most helpful."
Soloni led Harte back down into the tavern and left him at the bar, saying only, "If you need to contact me, leave a message at the bar. Someone will notify me."
Griff arrived shivering, soon after Harte returned to his place at the bar. "Do you suppose they serve mulled wine here?"
"I don't think it would do much for your image," said Harte.
Griff smiled. "I should care what these fellows think of me?"
Harte gave Griff a long look. "You seem to care what I think."
"Hah! You mistake caring for a desire to avoid harder labor."
"Well, the work here was hard labor tonight."
"The place is certainly full of hard laborers."
Harte sniffed. "I hardly noticed."
"No? If they stare any harder, they'll burst their britches."
"Burst out laughing, mayhap."
"Didn't you say something about a hot drink?"
"Before you belabored me with your comments."
"Do you find me hard to work with?"
After they stopped laughing, Harte asked, "I must tell you. I met the most extraordinary man tonight!"
Griff raised his eyebrows.
* * *
Amalia Walford spun before her son. "Do I look suitable?" She wore a lilac gown of raw silk with imported lace trim.
"Megan's mother will be green."
"I thought mauve was in this season?"
Harte groaned. Amalia smiled innocently. "You have the invitation?" Harte asked.
"Give it to me. I have a better idea for what to do, once we get there."
* * *
When he finished explaining his plan, Harte adjusted his sleeves, took his mother's arm and swept down the staircase and out the front door to where their barouche awaited. "Greer House, please," he said to the footman.
At Greer house, the door was answered by a maid. Amalia gave her card to the girl. "I am Mrs. Walford, and this is my son, Harte Walford. We have come to visit Mrs. and Miss Greer."
"They are at home today, Mrs. Walford. I'll tell them you are here. May I take your things?" She reached for Amalia's cape and Harte's coat. "If you'll follow me?" She took them into the library. "I'm sure they won't be long."
Amalia sat down to wait. Harte examined the book shelves. A minute later, Mrs. Greer and her daughter Megan arrived.
"My dear, it's so good to see you!" said Mrs. Greer. "It's been so very long."
"Yes, you're quite right, Agatha. Megan, how pretty you are in that blue! Don't you think so, Harte?"
Harte bowed. "I have always found Miss Megan to be extremely attractive, no matter what she wore."
Megan rolled her eyes. "You are quite extravagant, sir! More than I merit."
"While Iamextravagant, I'm certain that I am far less so than you deserve."
Mrs. Greer seemed slightly confused by this last. "You know Amalia, half the time I have no idea what these young people are saying."
"It's the half that Iunderstandthat worries me," said Amalia. "How is your husband, Agatha? And Brin? Is he home today?"
"Oh no, he generally goes out with his friends on Saturday afternoon."
"Oh," said Harte blandly. "I thought to say hello."
Megan looked at Harte suspiciously. "You've hardly been in the same room together, since you finished school."
"Now dear, Mr. Walford's only being sociable," said Mrs. Greer.
"That reminds me, Agatha. I have something I want to give you." Amalia patted her sleeves and looked around as if she was missing something. "Harte, dear, I don't seem to have the--"
"Don't you remember, Mother? I had it in the barouche." He patted his pockets and managed to look confused. "But I don't seem to have it now. Perhaps I left it in my cloak?" He bowed. "Ladies, if you'll pardon me. I'll go check." Harte stepped quickly to the door. "I won't be a moment."
Outside the room, he looked around to see if the maid was anywhere in sight. She was not, so he stepped quickly to the closet off the entrance hall, where he had seen her put his cloak. He took out his cloak, in case anyone should see him and wonder what he was doing, and looked carefully through the closet. There was no cloak matching the one described by Peli.
"Maybe he keeps it in his room?" he muttered.
Harte returned his cloak to its place and was hesitating at the bottom of main staircase, when he saw Brin Greer reflected in a framed mirror across from the steps, coming down the hallway from the back of the house. Harte stifled a gasp, moved lightly back to the library door and stepped in, unsure whether or not Brin had seen him.
"There you are, dear. Did you find it?" asked Amalia.
"Yes, here it is. It was in my pocket the whole time. Silly of me." Harte took the hand written invitation out of his pocket and gave it to his mother.
"Agatha, I wanted to give this to you in person, because I would so love for you to come. We are having a little party to celebrate the winter solstice next Sunday. You're all invited of course. I do hope your husband and Brin can come."
As if on queue, Brin Greer opened the door to the library and swept inside. "Mother, I saw you have company. Who is--ah! Harte. Mrs. Walford. How pleasant to see you."
Harte nodded stiffly. "How are you, Brin?"
"Fine, fine. How is the family? Your father well?"
"He's doing well. I'm terribly sorry we can't stay to chat. We stopped by to invite you to our solstice party next Sunday. I do hope you can come. I'm terribly sorry to rush, but we must be off. So much to do ... " He shrugged helplessly. "Mother, do come along." He took her arm and steered for the door.
"Oh my, must you leave so soon?" said Mrs. Greer, ringing for the maid.
"I do look forward to seeing you all on Sunday!" said Amalia.
Harte and his mother stepped out into the hall to wait for the maid to retrieve their outerwear. Once properly attired, they rushed out into the fading light of the December afternoon.
Back in the barouche, Amalia examined Harte. "You have gone pale! Did something happen?"
"I could not bring myself to speak to him. I saw him come in. He was wearing the cloak with the black and white, striped collar."
"Ah," sighed Amalia. "So it begins."
* * *
"We must find Peli." Harte and Griff were at the bar in the Ragged Crow, half empty mugs in front of them.
Harte spoke urgently. "I don't dare bring the case forward, until we have him safe. He will have to testify, or we will have to find other witnesses. But if it was Brin that threatened him and I made an accusation now, I'd surely put him into jeopardy."
"Do you want me to go to Greer House for the cloak?"
"No, we need better evidence before I can go to a magistrate to get a warrant--even if the magistrate turns out to be my father." He murmured to himself. "Especially if it turns out to be my father. No, we have to find Peli. Then we have to get another witness, before we can proceed. And it's imperative that Brin not know what we're about, or he'll destroy the cloak. Pray he did not see me in the hallway."
Griff drained his his mug. "What do you want me to do?"
"Take this note to the Red Rooster. Give it to the barkeep. Round up a troop of your friends from the watch and have them meet us in front of the Red Rooster at eleven bells." He aimed a grin at his friend. "Tell them to wear their browns."
Griff frowned. "What are you doing to do? We toe a narrow rail on Dock Street. If you upset the balance--"
"I'll be careful." Harte raised a figure in the direction of the barkeep. When the barkeep slid a fresh mug into place he took a long pull. "I'm must speak to Sister Grace again."
"Better you than I," Griff challenged in his gaming voice.
Harte raised his eyebrows and looked down his nose. "I, better than you."
"You are my better."
Harte smirked. "I claim to better you--by a length."
"An unsubstantiated claim."
"A substantial claim."
"A claim which had better wait for another place."
"Better not Grace's place," said Harte.
"Not a claim to place at Grace's place."
Harte laughed. "Peace, friend, you have bettered me! Please go deliver that note. I must think."
Griff grinned and trotted out, throwing over his shoulder, "See you at your favorite tavern."
* * *
At the hospital, Sister Magda, in bloodstained whites, led Harte to Sister Grace's office. "I'm surprised to see you here without Peli. She'll not leave you be until you find him, you know. She lost one, and that has made her mad."
"We share that affliction, Sister. I hope we can achieve a cure together."
"God's grace, then."
"Yes, that one."
Sister Magda permited herself a small smile as she opened the door to the office. "Sister Grace, Presenter Advocate Walford is here to see you." She motioned to Harte.
"Please come in, Mr. Walford. Tea?" Sister Grace remained seated at her little desk. She looked tired, but her whites were immaculate.
"Please no--no thank you Sister. You are well?"
"I'd hoped I would see you next when you delivered Peli to our care."
"Yes. I would consult with you on that matter."
Sister Grace raised her eyebrows.
"I believe I have made a contact who might help in bringing the boy back to our care. However, I may need to--I feel that some reassurance ..."
"You stutter like a patient describing the pox."
Harte cleared his throat. "You are very direct. Well, then. The boy is known to be of the sort who are attracted to persons of their own sex. While the law does not speak to this matter, the Church is--"
"Sometimes inclined to forget its own teachings." Sister Grace's eyes were hooded.
"You understand my problem then."
"I wonder ifyoudo." She examined Harte for a moment, then sighed. "I believe we are all God's children. To love and to be loved is God's greatest gift. I would deny that tonoone. But I also do not mistake carnal activity with love, particularly when the transaction in question is of a commercial nature. I would protect the boy from that degradation."
"How would you care for him? Where would he stay?"
"We have rooms for staff on the upper floor. I intend to offer him room and board, in return for help in the wards."
"He would have a choice then?"
Sister Grace rose in irritation. "This is not a gaol."
"I'm sorry. I did not mean to accuse you of--"
"You think me intolerant."
"I have no evidence of that."
"No, you don't." She sat down again. "However, you are quite right about the Church. It has adapted very slowly to change. Since Grayholme was founded, it has begun to remember its origins. I believe the church is not without its own experience of sensitives." She tapped the side of her head. "Some of the saints exhibited a very--canny--sense of those around them. I believe their compassion was driven by great empathy. Their tolerance and love are part of our teachings."
"The boy may continue to seek the company of men."
"I would give him time to be a child a little longer--and an education if he would have it. After that, he must find his own way." She pointed to the table and chairs in the center of her office. "Others have benefited from my efforts here."
"Yes. I begin to understand that, Sister Grace. I hope to bring Peli here tonight. It may be very late--"
"We keep a watch all night. I will instruct my sisters to wake me when you arrive."
"Good." Harte stood. "I--"
Sister Grace shook her head. "Get the boy. I am impatient."
* * *
Harte stepped from the shadow of a brick entranceway as Griff sauntered up to the Red Rooster with a troop of four watchmen at his back. They were dressed in the earthen brown uniforms of their service, each with a baton and insignia glinting in the torchlight. "Oh dear! We will have to find some place to hide you, or Soloni will surely complain about lost business, won't he?" Harte was in the most bland of his old clothing, including a hooded cloak that left his face mostly hidden.
"You asked for uniforms, didn't you?"
"I did, indeed." Harte inspected the men. "We'll have use for you tonight, I expect. But until we do, do you suppose that you could find somewhere to remain out of sight? Not too far away; I'll whistle when I need you." He turned to face the Red Rooster and demonstrated with a piercing whistle that might have woken the dead. Shadowy figures could be seen fleeing down Dock Street like cockroaches scuttling from a sudden light.
"Make up your mind! Are you trying to attract attention?"
"That will do, I think. Now if you would please be so good as to disappear?"
"Appear, disappear. Am I a jack-in-the-box, that I should pop in and out for you?" Griff said, frowning.
"Hush now. Off you go. I'll explain later. Thank you very much." When the men were out of sight, Harte entered the Red Rooster and took up a place at the bar. There was a wary undertone to the conversation in the room. In short order, a space opened around Harte that was only filled when Soloni appeared at Harte's right hand.
"Are you content? You could have hired a troupe to perform a morality play, and it would have cost me less business than that little show you put on out there. The Watch is not welcome here."
Harte was unmoved. "Don't you think that's part of the problem? Iamsorry about your business. I take it you received my note?"
"Let's discuss it upstairs. You make my customers nervous." Soloni ushered Harte firmly towards the back.
Upstairs, seated with a glass of wine in his hand, Soloni still managed to look hurt. "I thought we had an understanding."
"Where is Peli, then?"
"These things take time. The boy is frightened. He wishes to remain where he is."
"I'm afraid he is not safe where he is. I believe I know who beat Raf. But to bring him to justice, I must have witnesses. Getting those witnesses will call attention to Peli and quite possibly endanger him."
"You mean to pursue this vendetta."
"It is not personal."
"So you say. Yet I wonder if I have misjudged you. My friends tell me that you were once connected to certain young swell's sister. Could he have had something to do with your subsequent disconnection?"
"No. I'm afraid we came to a mutual understanding without any aid from Brin--" He came to a precipitous halt. "I wonder why you should choose to mention this person just now. We are talking about Brin Greer, are we not?"
"It was his sister you were seeing, was it not?"
"I am more concerned with recent events."
"So am I." Soloni stood and went to the window. He looked down at the touch lit street, before turning back to Harte. "What do you intend to do with the boy?"
"I have spoken to Sister Grace. I believe she has the boy's best interests at heart. She offers room and board at the hospital, and she proposes to educate him. You need not look so skeptical. She told me that she believes that 'to love and be loved is God's greatest gift.' She would deny it to no-one."
"A pleasing sentiment. What will she do when he brings home a boyfriend?"
"I don't expect she'll allow that in the hospital, but I think she'll not condemn him for anything he does outside of it."
"He'll be lucky if the rest of the world takes such a benign stance. Will you vouch for her?"
Harte held Soloni's gaze. "Yes."
Soloni wavered. "Do you think he'll be safe in the hospital?"
"I propose to keep him out of sight for a while." Harte proceeded to explain his plan. "All that remains is for you to get him here tonight."
Soloni began to pace. "No, I cannot permit you to do that here. You must take him somewhere else. You have done enough damage bringing your troop here tonight." He thought a moment, then smiled. "There's a better place for this drama to occur. You may appreciate the idea."
* * *
Harte left the Red Rooster weaving just slightly. A few paces down the road, he began quietly to whistle a popular drinking song. As he moved slowly along, a figure detached himself from an alley entrance and paced him.
"That's not quite the whistle I expected. My ears aren't ringing from it."
"There has been a change of plan. Get your men and bring them to the alley next to the Peacock. You know the place?"
"Yes, of course. Why am I surprised that you do?"
"Myknowledge is newly acquired. Wait in the alley, out of sight. I'm going there now. When I come out with the boy, you'll know what to do."
"I'll know what to do. Right."
Harte saw the flash of white as Griff rolled his eyes. "Oh all right, pickle puss. Here's what I'm going to do."
Petar and Stilian passed through a stand of oak and out onto the open plain. The land dropped gently down to a hazy lowland, where he could make out the glint of water. It was the Bug. He need only follow her gentle progress downstream for another few miles, and he should be able to see Walford's Crossing. "Come on Petar, it's only a little farther and there'll be oats and a nice warm stall for you. I may be reduced to a horse's company, but I'll not see you suffer for it."
* * *
Some hours later, Stilian shifted uncomfortably on a straw-filled mattress. He knew from long experience that there was no point in trying to sleep. There were too many people around, and there was too much noise in his head. It was always this way, the first night in town. It took him at least a day before he could bring his training to bear and filter out the murmuring wash of people around him. As he often did on such nights, he got out of bed, slipped on his britches, tunic, and heavy cloak, and found his way out into the night. Walking would not drown out the noise, but it would help to tire him.
He stopped by to visit Petar in the stable behind the inn. The horse nickered softly as he reached the stall. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket, unwrapped the apple core he had saved from dinner, and held it out to the black cob. "There you go my friend. You see, I think of you all the time." He patted the horse's neck, then left the stable and headed down the hill, towards the river.
Harte sat down at the bar of the Peacock and looked around. His reaction to what he saw was visceral. The behavior of the men at the bar was not so different from the Red Rooster; each man who entered was fully examined, and, if not found wanting, treated to long, direct looks the meaning of which could not be mistaken. Those looks were easy enough to ignore. It was the stage at the back of the room that cramped Harte's gut. There seemed to be a sort of variety show in progress. A succession of boys in women's gowns, their faces painted to create exaggerated lips and large eyes, danced, sang, or told jokes to the raucous crowd. Another group of young men and boys circulated around the room, wearing only loin cloths. Periodically, their whispered communications with patrons resulted in a deal, and the patron and his chosen companion would take the stairs at the back of the room.
"Perhaps you are in need of my services, after all?" said a familiar oily voice. "After all, you have come tomyestablishment this time. Was my unfriendly colleague unable to meet your needs?" It was Blud, the man Soloni had expelled from the Red Rooster on the night they first met. Harte felt his expression stretch into a grim rictus. "It is only your bar that interests me tonight, sir."
"I'm sure they will line up to accommodate one of your quality."
"You misunderstand me,sir. I wish only to drink."
"Whatever your taste, a man of your rank makes a pretty ornament for my humble business."
"I have no wish to occupy your time, sir. I'm sure you have other things to do."
"Alas, that is so. Do let me know if you conceive any desire I may accommodate."
Harte simply stared into his drink until the man left. It was perhaps fifteen minutes later that he was aware of a draft from the door and turned to see who had entered. It was Peli. The boy was ragged, dirty, and thinner than ever. He looked around quickly, then moved towards the darkest corner of the room. Harte got up quickly and glided silently into step beside the boy. "Peli," he spoke quietly. "You look as if you could use a good meal. I think we could do better somewhere else, don't you?" Peli twisted and looked as if he'd like to flee. "There's no need to be afraid. I only want to speak with you."
"I already told you everything I know. I can't talk to you."
"Certainly not here. We should go somewhere you're not known."
"I don't want to go anywhere with you."
"Are you sure? You will do better with me than you will do with anyone you meet here.Ionly wish to speak with you." Harte removed a hand from his pocket and jingled some coins. Harte watched the boy's stomach enter the debate. "One of these could feed you for week."
Peli swallowed visibly. "All right. But I pick the place."
"Suit yourself." Harte led the way out the door and into the center of the street. Then, grabbing the boy's arm firmly, he made for the alley across the way, as if that had been their destination all along. When the boy resisted, he exclaimed loudly, "What? You would take my coin and refuse your duty? I'll not be cheated by the likes of you!"
"We made no agreement! Let me go!"
"I'll have you or my coin!" yelled Harte, his outrage complete.
Suddenly, from the alley emerged Griff and his troop of watchmen. "Halt! Who yells?" said Griff.
"I caught this thief picking my pocket," said Harte.
"I took nothing! He said he wanted to talk--"
"Hush Peli," whispered Harte. "It's for your own good." He continued loudly, "The boy is a thief!" Peli continued to struggle in Harte's grip.
"We'll be the judge of that!" Griff directed his men, "Hold them both, while I search the boy." He patted the boys pockets, then reaching into one, he seemed to pull out a small gold coin. "What's this then? If you are no thief, you are a wealthy ragamuffin. I think you will come with us tonight. Sir, I must ask that you come along as well, if I am to collect your story."
"There's no need. If you'll just return my coin, I need no further redress."
"I must insist. If you want your coin, you must come give us your story."
Harte become angry again. "I would continue my evening in better company!"
"You,sir, are insulting. Bring him too--by force, if he will not comply otherwise." The troop marched quickly down the torch lit street, towards the bottom of Hill Street.
"Let me go! Let me go!" cried Peli, increasingly frantic. Harte tried again to reassure him, but the boy was too frightened to listen or comprehend.
It was then that a new voice spoke out quietly, but with an intensity that penetrated the tumult. "Perhaps I can be of assistance."
Harte's first impression was of height and leanness. Then he looked to the man's face and saw sharp cheekbones and angular features, in a face like an cracked statue.
"What concern is it of yours?" asked Griff.
"The boy's distraught. He feels himself betrayed and threatened. I can perhaps help determine the truth of the matter." The tall man swept open his cloak and displayed the blue tunic and insignia of a judge veritor.
Griff spoke with some feeling. "Of all the times ... "
Harte nearly buckled at the knees. After a few deep breaths to recover himself, he spoke quickly and quietly. "Sir, your assistance would be very welcome. But the safety of this child depends on us getting off the street." He looked directly into the man's dark eyes. "Will you trust that I have the boy's best interest at heart?"
"I believe you have--" The man paused and surprise briefly cracked his impassive facade. "It seems there's a more complicated story here than I thought." He addressed Griff and his men. "I'll accompany you to your destination. Let's not delay here. What's the boy's name?"
"Peli. I'll see that nothing bad happens to you. Do you know what a judge veritor is?"
"Some kind of lawyer?"
"Well, yes, but it's my particular job to see that everyone tells the truth." He looked at Harte again. "I believe this man wants to help you."
"Then you must not be very good at your job. He lied about me."
"We shall have to see about that. But for now, we are all going somewhere where we can talk." He put his hand on the boy's neck. "I think some food might be in order as well, Officer."
"You'll get no argument from these lugs, Judge. Let's go."
They marched up the hill and across the square to Watch House. Once inside, Griff directed them to a ready room that had a suitable table, chairs, and roaring fire. He directed one of his troop to bring hot tea and something from their kitchen.
Stilian waited until all the watchmen had left except Griff, then turned to Harte. "I am Judge Veritor Cast. Now, sir, you have an explanation to make, for you may not want to hurt the boy, but the boy is utterly certain that you have betrayed him."
* * *
"My name is Harte Walford. I am a presenter advocate for Walford's Crossing. This is my colleague, Watch Patrol Leader Griff Tarren. Patrol Leader Tarren is assigned to help with my investigations. You have been introduced to Peli. To explain our interest in Peli, I must first tell you about Raf."
Stilian examined the man across from him carefully as he listened to his story. Presenter Advocate Walford was young for his position--about the same age as Stilian. He had a narrow face, straight brown hair, lush eyelashes. He was shorter than Stilian, but had broader shoulders. Kit would have called him fine.
More interesting, he was hard to read. He was definitely not lying; his light did not seem muddy or mottled. In fact, he shone uncommonly bright, but there were layers. It was like watching a theatrical production with scrims. As he talked, one would light up, and then slide away to reveal another. It was distracting but oddly soothing, perhaps because other people seemed to fade in his presence.
Now that's interesting!He would swear that the presenter advocate was feeling a bit heated. Nor was it Patrol Leader Tarren or the boy who attracted him. No wonder he had responded so strongly when Stilian appeared. Stilian wanted to laugh; the man had been worried about the boy, caught in a deception before a judge veritor, and--to top it off--finding his britches tight.
Harte faltered. "Does the situation amuse you?"
Stilian tried to relax his expression to deadpan. "No, it does not. But Sister Grace does rather remind me of someone I know. Please forgive me. You were speaking of Peli's visit to Raf at the hospital. Please continue."
"I was taught that speaking about someone as if they were not present is not polite," said Peli, peevishly. "And you both told me that I would get something to eat, and yet I'm still sitting here with my stomach growling like a mountain cat in heat."
Harte smiled. "Fair enough. We did promise you something to eat, Peli. Griff, could you see what's--" At that moment, the door opened and one of Griff's men came in to bend at Griff's side and whisper in his ear. Griff looked at Harte sheepishly, while tapping on his purse. Harte sighed, took out a coin and gave it to Griff, who gave it to the watchman.
"That ought to cover your expenses."
"You didn't have any trouble finding a coin inmypocket, even when it wasn't there," said Peli.
"That was theater," said Griff.
"I wasn't playing," answered Peli.
"Peli, perhaps you'd like to tell me about your visit to see Raf, at the hospital," said Stilian.
"I suppose. I went because I was scared, you see. I've been sleeping under this old boat by the river, not far from the Angry--Red Rooster. Anyway, this man came by in the morning, while I was washing in the river. He came right up while I was butt naked and freezing my arse off in the river and sat down on top of my clothes. 'What do you want,' I asked him. But he just watched me shivering and grinned. I was about ready to make a run for it, naked or not, when he said, 'If you know what's good for you, you'll forget you ever knew anyone named Raf.' I said I didn't know anyone named Raf, but he just looked at me. Finally, he stood up, picked up my clothes and threw them into the river. He must have left while I was scrambling around to pull them out before they sank or floated away. That was right cruel, it was! It took me all day, shivering in the kitchen at the Angry--Red Rooster--to get dried out and warm again. Anyway, I went to see Raf the next day. I told him what happened, so he'd know it wasn't because I didn't like him anymore, if I didn't see him again for a while."
"What did this man look like?" asked Harte.
"He was like a big black bear. He had a back beard and his clothes were all black and he had a fur-lined cloak.Hewasn't cold."
"Would you remember his face, if you saw it again?"
"I guess. I was mostly wanting to get out of that river, but I think so."
"Do you remember anything else about him?"
"He was wearing those hobnailed boots."
"Was there--" Harte broke off as the door opened again. This time, the man who came in was bearing a large platter of stuffed crescent rolls and a generous bowl of winter stew. Peli did not require an invitation to help himself.
"I take it that you and Griff cooked up this idea to rescue Peli?" said Stilian.
"He did the cooking; I just stirred the pot," said Griff, happily throwing Harte to the wolves.
"And what were you going to do with him, once you got him away from Dock Street?"
"Sister Grace wants him at the hospital. She'll give him room and board in return for help in the wards." Harte thought it prudent not to mention the schooling part in front of Peli.
"You could have mentioned that to me," Peli grumbled, from the depths of the stew bowl.
"I apologize for that. I thought it important that your arrest look convincing."
"It did look that," said Stilian. "What do you think of the idea of staying at the hospital for a time, Peli?"
"I don't know. Sister Magda seemed all right, when I went to visit. But religious folk, they don't like my kind very much. That's why I had to--why I don't have any family any more."
Harte watched Stilian's eyes narrow at this. "This Sister Grace. Is she intolerant? Would she blame him for his feelings?" said Stilian.
"I don't believe so, but I think perhaps Griff could tell us more, couldn't you, Griff?"
Griff sat up in his chair. "Sister Grace is all right."
"Surely, you have more to say than that. She raised you, didn't she?"
"She told you?"
Harte allowed the hint of a smile to curl the sides of his mouth. "No."
"Oh." Griff looked chagrined.
"Why are you reluctant to speak of it?"
"Not all orphans achieve their condition by accident," Stilian murmured.
"I don't know," said Griff. "I--Sister Grace treated me well enough."
"You believe she will treat Peli well?"
"Yes, of course. I would never have agreed to the arrest--rescue, if I didn't trust her."
Stilian examined Griff. "No, I don't believe you would have. Peli, are you satisfied?"
After Peli had finished eating, his head had drooped lower and lower towards the table. Hearing his name, he jerked upright and blinked. "Huh?"
"He doesn't seem overly concerned to me," laughed Harte.
"Perhaps we'll ask him again tomorrow. In the mean time, I am satisfied," said Stilian, finally returning Harte's smile. "You may deliver him to his sanctuary."
"Good. It's late, and Sister Grace will be ready to personally introduce us to God, by now. Judge Veritor, may we escort you to your rest as well?"
Stilian blinked. "You may have to. I'm not quite sure of the way ..."
"Where are you staying, anyway? Usually the circuit riders stay with one of the council families. Had you done that, I would have known you were here."
"I did not want to impose so late in the day. I took a room at the Plucked Duck."
Harte looked at Griff in dismay. "We could do better than that here at Watch House," said Griff.
Harte shook his head. "No, the judge will want some place quieter, I think. Why don't you come home with me, Judge Veritor? We have a plenty of room. There are only my parents, Cook, and Theobald at night. The rest of the help live at home."
"Please, enough ofJudgefor now. Call me Stilian--at least in private."
"That will take getting used to," said Griff.
"Will you come to Walford House?" repeated Harte. Harte hoped that the appeal of a big house, nearly empty of people, would be hard to ignore.
Stilian shrugged. "I cannot refuse your generosity. However, I must retrieve my horse and saddle bags from the inn."
"I have a better plan. Why don't you come with me, while I deliver this drooping sprig to Sister Grace. It's not far from the hospital to the house. Griff can round up some help to retrieve your horse and belongings."
Griff raised his eyebrows, but agreed readily enough. He turned to go, but swung back with a shrug.
"What now? Oh." Harte fished in his purse for another coin and placed it in Griff's outstretched hand. "Apparently, the council has forgotten to award you an income."
"Expenses, you know," grinned Griff.
Harte looked at the now sleeping Peli, sighed, and picked him up gently. "Follow me. It's not far."
* * *
If Sister Grace had ever gone to bed, it was not apparent from her appearance. Her whites were as immaculate as ever. But it seemed that her courtesy was gone with the daylight. "This is Peli, then?"
Harte was tired, as well. "Am I in thehabitof delivering street urchins to your door? Who else? Peli, wake up. You are delivered!"
Peli mumbled. "Let me sleep, Papa."
"Papa! There are no candidates for that position here," said Harte, grunting.
"There is no need to wake him. If you would carry him just a little farther, I have a cot prepared." She sniffed. "We shall have to burn the sheets in the morning."
Harte carried the boy to the cot indicated, in a corner of one of the wards. "I thought you said you would put him above."
"Not until he gets a bath."
Peli settled, Sister Grace turned to Harte and Stilian. "This man can be trusted? You have not introduced us."
Harte was feeling the imp. "I believe he can be trusted, Sister. Then again, you may wish to judge for yourself. Sister Grace, this is Judge Veritor Cast."
Sharing the impulse, Stilian swept back his cloak so that his blue tunic and insignia were displayed and bowed extravagantly. "I am very pleased to meet you, Sister."
For the first time since Harte had met her, Sister Grace seemed to lose her self-possession. She started a curtsy, but caught herself before it was half complete and nodded instead. She gave Harte a hard look. Eventually, her words returned. "I am pleased to meet you, Judge Veritor. Your visit is an unexpected honor. Perhaps we might return to my office for a few minutes. May I offer you tea?"
Harte thought of trying to warn Stilian about the tea, but decided that it would be unfair to deprive Stilian of the initiation rite. He said only, "We should not keep the judge too long, Sister. He has had a long journey and an extended introduction to Walford Crossing's nighttime charms."
After they were seated in her office, Sister Grace handed the judge a cup of dark tea. "So, are you here about Raf's case? I confess Mr. Walford has moved rather more rapidly than I expected."
Harte looked at Stilian. "I wish I could take credit for Judge Cast's arrival. I'm afraid his introduction to the case was less organized than I would have liked."
"Then why are you here, Judge?"
"I am a circuit rider, Sister. It was pure chance that I arrived here today--yesterday."
"I see. Perhaps it was not entirely chance, Judge. God's motives are not always clear, but I believe he does act in the world."
Stilian's face became stiff. "Quite."
Sister Grace perched on her chair before answering. "You are not a believer, sir?"
"You are perceptive, Sister. I have my quarrels with the Church."
Sister Grace's eyes narrowed a fraction. "I spoke of God, sir, not the Church."
"So you did. I shall endeavor to distinguish between the two." It was then that Stilian took his first sip of tea. Harte was impressed with the speed with which Stilian concealed his grimace. He watched Stilian put the cup down carefully.
"Will you involve yourself in the case?" asked Sister Grace.
"That's for the town council to decide, isn't it?"
"Not if the case is determined to be capital."
"Sister Grace believes that the man who beat Raf is morally responsible for his death," Harte said, "even if the direct cause was influenza."
"I see." Stilian tapped a finger on the table. "I'm not sure there is a legal argument there."
"Nor am I," said Harte.
"But you are a judge veritor! You could choose to involve yourself, regardless of the decision of the town council," Sister Grace said.
"That is rarely done. The circumstances must be extraordinary."
"Shouldn't the death of a child be extraordinary?"
"You are a philosopher, Sister."
Sister Grace pursed her lips. "I am awoman."
The room was silent for a moment. "Perhaps we should take up the question again, when we can direct some sunlight on it," Harte said, finally.
Sister Grace stood. "Yes. I am rude. I must not impose on you. Thank you for bringing Peli to us."
It started the day before the winter solstice party. First, men came to set up a temporary grandstand in the yard behind Walford House, facing the proposed site of the traditional bonfire. They quite destroyed the cook's herb garden, not realizing, they explained, that there was an herb garden under their feet, "it being the freeze and all." Their explanation did not mollify the cook. There followed an endless stream of delivery boys and carts, with supplies of food, drink, ribbon, holly, wood for the bonfire and other party supplies. The morning of the party, the caterers arrived. Through his window, Stilian could hear the cook inform them that they were there just to help her "get it all to come out, together like, at the right moment." Of course they had their own ways of doing things, which were not necessarily her way of doing things. Finally, the musicians set up a bandstand in the great room. By the time the squabbling cacophony was complete, Stilian's head was ready to explode. The house that had felt a quiet haven when he first arrived was all but unbearable.
Harte's genuine distress when he became aware of Stilian's discomfort was charming. "I'm so sorry, Stilian. The house is usually so quiet. It's just this party; it's got everyone in such an uproar. Cook's fit to be tied." (Apparently, she used no other name.) "Father is determined that everything be just so--to impress the council--and won't leave any detail untouched, and Mother ... well, I think Mother's actually enjoying herself. Anyway, I'm so sorry about the noise. I just didn't think--I quite forgot actually--about the party when I invited you to stay here. You are invited of course. Father and Mother quite insist that you should attend. And there's the reason we planned the party in the first place: Brin Greer and his family will be here." Listening to Harte's engaging, anxious chatter Stilian decided, was almost worth his pounding head.
Harte explained about the cloak, the visit to Greer House to deliver the invitation, and his sighting of Brin wearing the incriminating garment. "Now that we have got Peli out of harm's way, we can try to get better witnesses--evidence that I can bring before a magistrate--when I request a warrant to search for the cloak."
"I see. I take it that Greer is from a wealthy family."
"Yes, and they have great influence in the council. The evidence will have to be very strong for any magistrate, even my father, to grant such a warrant. My father thinks I am a fool to pursue this case."
They were sitting on a couch that adorned the bedroom where Stilian had taken up his temporary residence. Stilian focused his frayed attention on Harte. He wondered again at the strength of Harte's feelings. Not since Kit had anyone shone so clearly in his perception. He closed his eyes. It would be pleasant to lose himself in this man.
Stilian became aware that an unusually long silence had fallen in the room. He reviewed Harte's comments until he could bring forth a suitable reaction. "You are no fool. We are much alike, I think. I determined to study the law in order to--" He shook his head. Why had he studied the law? What had driven him to leave Kit at Grayholme and study at Blue House? In the trauma of Kit's loss, he seemed to have lost sight of that time and his obsession with integration. He had wanted to find a way for the Canny to take a more prominent role in society. He didn't want other canny children to experience the abuse he had, and we was sure that if the Canny were more visible, they would become less threatening. But since Kit died he had withdrawn into his grief. He had to throw off his distraction, a dog shaking water from its coat.
"I thought that being a judge veritor, that being a visible representative of the Canny, might help other canny children. When I was a boy, I knewofthe Canny, but I knew nothingaboutthem. When I started to experience--to be aware of other people's feelings--instead of rejoicing in the connection, I felt myself a monster." He examined Harte's face. "Apart from the fool, a judge veritor is still the only visible, respected, role model for a sensitive outside of Grayholme or Bugport. You are surprised. Perhaps we canny should learn to talk more of our experience; I'm afraid we get out of the habit at Grayholme."
Harte bowed. "I am honored to receive your thoughts. You will come to the party, won't you? My mother and father quite insist. There will be dancing and singing."
Stilian closed his eyes.Singing."Yes, I will come."
* * *
The morning sing at Grayholme was Stilian's great pleasure. Singing allowed the Canny to congregate without stress. Singing focused the mind, calmed the emotions, became a collective experience. But Stilian didn't care much about the community building aspect of the sing; that was for Mistress Thalia to worry about. He loved the music. He closed his eyes and imagined the morning's chorus as a big cake layered with harmonies of dark chocolate and cream and decorated with the fruity tones of the alto and soprano soloists. His empty stomach vibrated with the sound until he felt sure the chorus must bring the whole mountainside down upon the school.
"Not hungry, are you?" Kit laughed, as they walked out of the Great Hall and down the corridor towards the dining hall. "I'm starving."
"Do you ever wonder why they have the singbeforebreakfast? I'm certain it must be for the pacifying effect. It encourages decorous table manners and saves crockery."
"Right. It must not work on everybody."
"You think me indecorous?"
"Maybe it's just wishful thinking." Kit put his arm around Stilian's waist and gave him a quick squeeze.
Stilian stiffened, and Kit started to remove his arm, but Stilian forced his shoulders to drop and put a hand over Kit's. "I'm sorry. I know that nobody minds. But even normal couples aren't expressive in public, where I grew up."
"It's been four years. We've been together a quarter of our lives."
"Maybe when it's two thirds, I'll be what you deserve, Kit."
"Hush. Being with you is all I need." He dropped his hand down from Stilian's waist and pinched. "And anoccasionaltaste of this."
"Ha! The morning bell must be wired to your anatomy. I blush to think what it must have been like for everyone before we learned to shield."
"You still can't shield."
* * *
The band had just blared into life and brightly costumed guests were drifting towards the dance floor to begin celebrating the return of the sun, when Harte heard Theo announce new arrivals. "Councilman and Mrs. Greer, Miss Megan Greer, and Mr. Brin Greer." They had been relieved of their outerwear at their entrance to the house, but Harte's eyes were drawn anyway to Brin's collar. No black and white stripes were in evidence. He considered a trip to the foyer, where a rented servant would be taking hats and capes or cloaks, but rejected the idea. What new thing could he learn? Instead he set out across the room to greet the new guests. It would not do to tip off Brin that there was anything amiss. When he arrived, Father was greeting Councilman and Mrs. Greer, and his mother had taken Megan's hand in her own.
"Councilman, it was so good of you to come."
"Gastir, my friend, I wouldn't miss it! Always loved a good bonfire on the shortest night of the year. Warms my old bones to think that the sun will be rising sooner. Worthy of a celebration!"
"Mrs. Greer, you look stunning in that dress," Harte's father fawned. "I don't know how you ladies keep coming up with new ways to charm us men, but I thank you for it."
Amalia was not to be outdone. "Megan, how do you manage it? You are more lovely every time I see you."
"Oh, Mrs. Walford. I am only trying to keep up with you!" said Megan.
"Brin! So good to see you, my boy. It's been too long since you've visited. You must tell me how things are at the trade exchange. Harte, step over here and greet your old schoolmate."
"Brin, good to see you. I was sorry we had to leave so quickly last week. But here we all are now," said Harte.
"We should catch up, Harte. It seems we've gone in different directions since our school days. I've heard so little of you since you left for law school." Brin smiled distantly.
"We do seem to ride in different orbits," said Harte. "Megan, I particularly like that color on you. It brings out the color in your cheeks."
"Thank you, Harte. You have such good taste in clothes. It's a pity you must spend so much time in lawyer's black these days."
"Indeed. Perhaps I shall rebel and found a new tradition for the profession: crimson instead of white throat scarves."
Megan laughed. "To think we all had such high aspirations, once."
"I aspire to drink," said Brin, looking around for the bar. "You'll excuse me, Harte, while I run down one of the servants."
"Try not to damage the girl, Brin," muttered Harte.
Megan's ears were sharp. "Oh Harte, you are in high humor tonight."
"Sorry Miss Megan, I was aiming lower."
Megan widened her eyes and pretended to fan herself. "Oh dear. Why don't you ask me to dance? That should improve your disposition."
"Indeed!" Harte offered his arm to Megan. "But haven't you a new beau to squire you around? I would not keep you from him." They moved onto the dance floor where lines were forming for a traditional pavan.
"I've found none worth taking up," Megan said as she curtsied to her partner.
"Perhaps you need to cast a wider net," said Harte, leading her by the hand in a slow roundabout.
"If I want to catch a cold fish," Megan whispered as she passed by Harte to take the hand of a new partner.
"Should I have suggested a web instead?" Harte replied when she was passed back to him.
When the dance ended, Megan took Harte's arm. "Well, lady spiders do get to dispose of their husbands, once they're finished with them. There is some appeal in that!" Megan cackled like a hag. One of the new, less choreographed dances began and Harte put his hand on Megan's back and guided her for an open space.
"Have you experienced other disappointments--besides me?" Harte asked.
"None have raised my hopes high enough." They spun in silence for a minute. "Harte, who is that tall man who is staring at us from the corner?"
"Ah! That, my dear, is Judge Veritor Cast. He is a circuit rider who is staying with us while he is in town."
"Then he is canny. You must introduce me. They say, you know, that they make fabulous lovers. But they rarely consort with regular people."
"Hmm. You are hardly regular." Harte guided Megan over to Stilian.
"Judge Veritor Cast, may I present Miss Megan Greer."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Miss Greer. I did not intend to interrupt your dancing. You make a pleasing couple."
Harte looked at Megan and laughed a little bitterly. "I suppose it depends on whom you wish to please," said Harte. He stopped when he saw the skin above Megan's nose pinch.
Megan spoke brightly. "You must tell me, Judge Cast, what it is like to be a judge veritor. Do the ladies in every town claw to be the first to ask to you tea?" Unaccountably, this caused a charming rose tint to appear on Judge Cast's angular features. Perhaps the judge was unaccustomed to ladies as forward as Megan. "Oh no. I see that I have embarrassed you." She smiled serenely. "I am sorry."
At that moment, Amalia bustled up. "Harte dear, would you mind very much supervising the men in the yard? They have been at the punch already and they are about to start the bonfire. I'm afraid they will set the house ablaze." She pulled Harte aside. "You really mustn't monopolize Megan, dear. She really should be using this chance to meet other young men."
"Yes, Mother. I suppose you are right. How awkward it is that we actually enjoy one another."
"You have no cause to get snippy with me. You know what I mean."
"Yes, unfortunately, I do."
"Go make your father happy, and chat with some of his friends on the council. He's right you know. You really can't afford to alienate them all."
"I'm sure it wouldn't hurt to introduce the judge to them." Amalia spied a councilman wandering by with a nearly empty wine glass in his hand. "Hah!" She gracefully deflected the councilman's path towards her son. "Councilman Hardy, my son has someone he'd like you to meet. Why don't you let him introduce you, while I find you a fresh glass of wine?"
* * *
Councilman Hardy had moved on to more entertaining pursuits when Harte spotted Councilman Greer returning from a trip to the yard. "Stilian, there's Greer's father, Councilman Greer. Do you want to meet him?" He took Stilian's elbow and turned him towards the councilman.
Stilian frowned. "The father of the accused?"
"He hasn't been accused of anything yet, and you must not let on that you know anything!"
"Certainly not. By all means, introduce me." He strode briskly towards the councilman. Harte hurried to catch up. Councilman Greer's eyes widened when he saw the blue tunic of the judge veritor.
"Councilman Greer. This is Judge Veritor Cast. He is staying with my family while he visits Walford's Crossing. Judge Cast, may I present Councilman Magistrate Greer."
Councilman Greer frowned. "Good evening, Judge. I was not aware of your visit. Is there some business that brings you here?"
"Walford's Crossing is a stop on my circuit, Councilman."
"I don't recall having met you before."
"No, I am new to this circuit."
"Your predecessor--I'm afraid I can't recall his name--his practice was to come when called. He took care to inform the council of his plans."
Harte was appalled at the councilman's manner. Stilian's face merely took on a stonier quality. "I suspect he found larger communities tiring. That is not unusual among the Canny."
"Better for all of us, I should think, if that were the case with all of you."
"Why, Councilman? Do you find my visit inconveniently timed?" Stilian's tone was light, but his face hard.
Councilman Greer's cheeks flushed. "What are you implying?"
Harte hastily interjected. "I'm sure the judge did not mean to imply anything, Councilman. Stilian, I see your wine glass is empty. If you'd like to follow me, I'm sure we can remedy that." Harte took Stilian's arm and guided him away from the councilman.
When they were out of sight of the councilman, Stilian's face softened. "It would have been better had you not used my given name, Harte. I'm afraid you may have given life to the councilman's fears of conspiracy."
Harte felt the blood drain from his head.
"Steady. I know you did not mean to do it," said Stilian.
"I had no idea he was so prejudiced."
Stilian peered into his empty glass. "He's hardly unique."
* * *
Hours later, Harte was slumped on a three-legged stool by the bonfire listening to the last revelers sing, when he discovered a slightly swaying judge looming by his side.
"Judge Veritor, sir! I'd have thought you'd have escaped by new--now."
"D'you know that the consumption of spirits'll con-sid-er-a-bly reduce a canny person's range and sens-i-tiv-ity?"
"No." Harte said, looking up at Stilian. Perhaps it was the flickering light, but his face seemed softer than usual. "I was not aware of that ... int'resting fact. Remind me to send you a couple of bottles of my father's blest--best."
"Yur too kind."
"Do they ming such in Grayholme?" Harte giggled. "No, do people like t'sing in Grayholme?"
"We sing all the time. Every day. Singers are highly honored in Grayholme."
Harte giggled. "Like the sisters?"
"Not so much like the sisters."
"I got an idea. Let's get those bottles of my father's, right now. Father's bottles. We can go have a glass in my sitting room, by the fire. It's getting clod--cold out here. These people are drunk."
"Thas a fine idea."
Harte stood up carefully. "Go up. I'll get the spirits and meet you in my rooms. I have to clear my head."
* * *
In Harte's sitting room, there was a comfortable couch in front of the fireplace. When Harte arrived, Stilian was putting a new log on the blaze.
"That feels good," Harte said, turning his backside to the fire. "You could have called the maid to do that."
When Stilian finished with the fire, Harte handed him a pair of wine glasses. "Hold these, while I open this bottle. Here." He poured them each a glass. "To fairness and justice for all, no matter who--who their fathers are."
"Fairness and justice for all fathers' sons," said Stilian, smiling.
"All fathers' sons." Harte touched his glass to Stilian's.
"Sit down, sir."
"I believe I will." Stillian sat down heavily, holding his glass with both hands. "Do you know, you are a very good dancer."
"Why thank you! It's one of few accomplishments."
"You are too modest. That Greer girl. D'you know she loves you?"
"I need another drink." Harte got up and poured himself another glass.
"You evade the question."
"No, I'm preparing to respond." Harte sipped his wine and spoke slowly. "Yes. I believe I do know that she loves me. But you see, she knows that she cannot have me, because ... because I do not want her. But I care for her very much."
Stilian looked into his glass. "You must take care that you do not hurt her."
"She knows that she cannot have me."
"She can still be hurt."
Harte closed his eyes. "Everyone can be hurt. May I ask you something, Judge Veritor?"
"I'm not judging now."
"Yes, yes. But can I ask you something?"
"Is there someone that you miss--particularly--back at Grayholme?"
"Are you asking whether I'm bonded?"
"Is that what you call it there? We engage. Engage to be married." He leapt up, nearly landing in the fire, and swept out an imaginary sword. He raised it to an elaborate salute. "It's like going into battle."
Stilian smiled at Harte. "I'm not bonded." His smile faded at the edges. "I was, but he died."
Harte collapsed back onto the couch and was quiet for a time, digesting this.
"You said he."
"Yes," answered Stilian.
"Relationships of that type are accepted among the canny?"
"Yes, and acknowledged."
"I did not know that," said Harte, closing his eyes. He pictured his father in his magistrate's robe standing next him. Harte wore the formal suit of a bridegroom. A tall white-haired gentleman led a veiled bride towards the alter. When they reached the waiting pair, the white-haired man reached up to unveil the bride. The veil lifted to reveal Stilian's stern visage. Harte put his hands to his head and shook it from side to side.
"We don't speak of it much outside of Grayholme. Some would condemn that which they don't understand," said Stilian.
"Why did you tell me?"
Stilian glanced at Harte. "You ... had need of knowing."
"I had need of knowing." Harte's rested his head on the back of the couch. "I need ..."
Stilian waited to find out what it was that Harte needed, but no information was forthcoming. "You need sleep, my drunken friend." He got up from the couch, painstakingly extracted Harte's wine glass from his hand, and put it aside. He knelt on the floor and pulled Harte's boots off, then lifted Harte's legs and swiveled them onto the couch. He got a blanket from the bed and laid it over the sleeping figure, then leaned over and kissed Harte on the forehead, nearly falling over in the process, before leaving the room.
* * *
Kit and Stilian have arrived at Grayholme. I'm sorry this letter has been so delayed. I have watched for a dray or merchant train every day, but none passed through the gap until today.
Oh my beloved, I hardly know whether to thank you or curse you! We have not seen such a pair for a long time. They shine brightly indeed. They arrived in the morning, traipsing up to the front gate by themselves and demanding to see "the mistress" as soon as possible. Don't worry, the drays arrived some hours later, as scheduled. They had persuaded their temporary guardians to let them walk ahead from Bug Station. To have young legs again! In any case, by the time they made it to the gate, I was already on my way down. Their excitement at arriving, their joy in one another's company, the trepidation about what they would find--all were all apparent from at least two hundred feet away. I'm sure our stronger talents knew they were on their way from Market Square. They are bellows to each other's fires. I confess, I thought briefly of housing them separately, but rejected the idea as cruel. Needless to say, we started them on dampening and shielding exercises immediately.
The boys are learning to tamp their fires, but much as we love them, they are still a trial. Yesterday, being Saturday, it was bath day, and the boys went to clean up. I won't go into detail, but apparently Kit was feeling a bit more randy than usual. (Even this grandmother has noted that Stilian is a remarkably handsome boy, with those great long eyelashes and lean muscles of a greyhound.) Anyway, Kit became aroused and Stilian, despite his shame, could not help responding. Quite suddenly, they found themselves entirely alone in the baths, although I daresay there are some who would have happily joined them had I not passed the word that the boys were to be left to find their own way.
My dear, I cannot know if that was their first time, but I have no doubt as to what ensued. (I will be dreaming volcanoes and hot lava for weeks.) Nor can I doubt their bonding. But we will wait to acknowledge that bond until Stilian is more comfortable with his feelings. I must speak to him about his father. Even so, I fear I will make matters worse by letting on that I know how he feels. Our capacity for denial is so strong! The boy must know that he flares like a signal fire on a mountain, yet he behaves as if his feelings don't exist, so long as he doesn't acknowledge them. Poor Kit! He knows exactly how Stilian feels about him--he is a beauty in his own right--but he knows he must go slow or risk rejection.
How I wish you were here with me to share in this experience! I dream of our first summer together, when the very air seemed alive with you.
I reach for your familiar touch,
"What's the next move, Chief?" Griff and Harte sat at their usual table in the Ragged Crow.
"I don't know, exactly. Maybe I'm just digging a privy in the rain, Griff. We need another witness, one that's credible, one that I can take to a magistrate. Lord, my head hurts."
Griff smirked. "I take it you sampled your father's cellar, last night."
Harte merely groaned in response.
"You know, I have a radical idea."
"Spill--before I do."
"That bad?" Griff's face wrinkled in concern. "Maybe we should talk about this later."
"I believe I sampled every vintage in the cellar. No, what's your idea?"
"We have scented the people who saw the beating, but not those who were involved with it. It's time we talked to Greer and his friends. We we were afraid we'd endanger Peli, before. But now?"
Harte was abashed. "Of course. You are absolutely right. I'm gladyourhead is not threatening succession."
Griff tapped his fingers on the bar. "To do it properly, we need to interrogate more than Brin. Who, among Brin's friends, was there?"
Harte sighed and straightened. "I don't know, yet. But I will. If I'm lucky, I'll have you some names tonight. You can round the men up and take them to Watch House for questioning tomorrow." He watched Griff drain his tea. "It's time we took the traces off this bird."
Griff set his cup aside and looked at Harte. "I'll not ask you again. Are you sure you want to follow this road?"
Harte peered at Griff through aching eyes. "I realized something last night. I have nothing to lose."
"You mean, apart from your position--and your father's respect? Will Soloni's people share that assessment?"
Harte shook his head and wished immediately that he hadn't.
* * *
A little after the midday bells, Soloni raised his napkin to his lips and wiped daintily. "Are you sure you won't eat?"
Harte toed the pattern in the carpet, which resembled a corn maze. What prize awaited at the center? "No, thank you."
Soloni spoke without looking up. "Scrambled eggs and smoked fish are not appealing, this morning?"
Soloni shrugged and sipped his tea. "The demands of my business keep me up at night. I hear you have a guest at the Walford manse."
"Yes, a circuit rider."
"Do you believe the case merits a judge veritor?"
Harte stamped impatiently. "He is not here at my bidding."
Soloni smiled. "But he may prove handy."
"It's possible. Listen, my head hurts. I lack patience for an inquisition. I came here to--"
Soloni pushed his tea cup gently away. "To inquire of me, surely."
"I want to know who else was with Brin Greer on the night he beat Raf."
"You have been slow to ask this question."
Harte placed his palms over his eyes. "I did not want to endanger Peli."
"And now that Peli is safely in the hands of Sister Grace--hedideventually make it to the hospital?"
Harte lowered his hands. "Of course. He was snoring with his mouth open the last saw him. It was very endearing."
"Really? Well." Soloni stood up and paced to the window. "I propose that you should direct the warmth of your attention towards someone else for a while. While I do find your company entertaining, it comes at a price."
Harte ventured a smile. "I suppose Mr. Blud was unhappy with me for mounting that little drama on his doorstep."
Soloni turned around and returned to the table. "With both of us, I'm afraid. You enjoyed that entirely too much."
"Mr. Blud is of no concern to me."
Soloni sat down. "Really? He has been known to threaten exposure--"
"What have I to expose?" asked Harte.
Soloni rested his elbow on the table and his cheek on his fist. "What indeed? In any case, I think you should ask your friend from the watch where Brin goes at night for entertainment. Perhaps the proprietor of that business will appreciate your regard more than Mr. Blud."
"You mean Truman's?"
"You know the place?" Soloni raised his eyebrows.
"It is very popular among a certain crowd."
* * *
Harte sat on the public dock at the south end of the Dock Street as the sun lowered in the west, and watched small patches of river ice drift by on the Bug. After he left the Red Rooster, he'd hired a boy to deliver a note to Griff. Now, he was waiting until it was time to meet Griff at Truman's. It would not be hard to identify Brin's friends if they visited again. They were, after all, mostly Harte's boyhood schoolmates. There would be no going back, after this. They would shun him--or worse.
The sun's last rays warmed the icy sheets to red and caused painful reflections off the small ripples between the ice flows. Harte closed his eyes and let the sun warm his face. What had that strange man said to him last night?I had need of knowing.No, it was not knowing he needed. It was hope. Hope that there might be place for him somewhere beyond Walford's Crossing.
* * *
Harte whistled softly and fell into step as Griff passed by. "I wonder if a uniform might have been more appropriate tonight."
Griff ran a hand through his short hair. "They will know who we are. Both of us, I should think."
"I suppose I have begun to make a reputation for myself, haven't I?"
"Not the one your father had in mind, huh?" laughed Griff.
"My father cannot see beyond his own ambition."
"And your ambition?"
Harte grinned at his friend. "Has me wondering Dock Street at night."
They arrived at Truman's establishment to find its gaily lit windows frosted from the cold. Were it not for the neighborhood, it could have been wealthy family's mansion, lit for a party.
"After you," said Griff.
Harte marched up the steps and opened the door. A young woman in a low-cut gown nodded at him from her post just inside. "Welcome to Madam Truman's, gentlemen. Come in. May we take your cloaks? There is dancing in the parlor. Or would you like to start with a bite to eat? We have roast loin of pork or smoked eel, tonight."
Harte looked at Griff. Griff placed a hand on his belly. "I think a table in the dining room would be fine."
"As you wish, sir."
They had just started their main course, when a handsome, middle-aged lady made her way over to their table from the direction of the bar. They stood as she approached. "Madam."
"Oh you mustn't make a fuss, gentlemen. Would I be imposing if I joined you for a moment?"
"Certainly not, Madam." Harte pulled out a chair for her. "I am Harte Walford. This is Griff Tarren. I don't believe we've met?"
"I'm Alice Truman," she said, settling onto the edge of the padded chair.
"Ah," said Harte. He and Griff reseated themselves.
"I make a point to welcome all my new customers," said Madam Truman. "You are enjoying your meal?"
"The pork loin is fine, but the winter root casserole is magnificent," said Harte. "I must describe it to Cook."
"I'll tell my chef of your appreciation. Perhaps it'll inspire him. And you, Watch Patrol Leader? How do you find the eel?"
Griff swallowed hastily. "It is a rare treat, Madam."
"Your employer is generous."
Harte felt his smile become fixed. "Patrol Leader Tarren is employed by Walford's Crossing, as are all the watch."
"But he does your bidding, Presenter AdvocateWalford, does he not? Chasing minor thieves and such. I trust that you are here tonight to engage in more pleasant pursuits?" She motioned to the bar. "There are a couple of our young ladies now. I'm sure they would find it quite charming to lead handsome men such as yourselves on a chase."
"Regretfully, Madam, I must decline such a pursuit. We are here on business."
"Then I fear I may also have cause to regret. Why are you here?"
"Our needs are simple. There is a certain man who frequents this place. We want to know who visits with him."
Madam Truman tapped her fan. "You cannot imagine that I would divulge the names of my customers."
Harte shrugged. "We are quite comfortable here, observing. I'm sure Mr. Greer and his friends will visit again ... eventually."
Harte waived in the general direction of the window. "We could wait outside, I suppose. But it is so cold! We would certainly require some sort of shelter: a temporary pavilion perhaps, a good fire, some of Patrol Leader Terran's men to feed it ..."
Madam Truman smiled sourly. "You are fond of theater, Mr. Walford. Perhaps I should offer you the use of a peephole?"
Harte glanced at Griff's impassive face. "That would not be to my taste at all, madam."
"I must not be seen speaking to you any more than I already have." She produced something from her sleeve and slipped to Harte under the table. Harte felt the thick and embossed print of a card. "One of my ladies will meet you at this address tomorrow morning, at ten bells. Enjoy the remainder of your meal." She pushed her seat back and swept off.
Griff raised his eyebrows. "You do seem to have a way with women. You have them blowing hot and cold."
"Leave off, Griff."
Griff stabbed a piece of eel and began to chew. "This eel's really good. Maybe it would have suited you better than the pork."
Harte picked up his fork and addressed his winter roots. "Were I paying any attention, I might accuse you of mockery."
Griff was the picture of innocence. "I can't imagine what you mean."
* * *
The next morning, Griff and Harte met at the entrance to Watch House. Harte strode away as soon as Griff came down the steps.
"Where are we going?" asked Griff, as he lengthened his stride to keep up with Harte.
"It's a tavern that caters to ladies. The Needles."
"I wonder if it is connected to Madam Truman," said Griff, looking out towards the river.
Harte turned his head look at Griff. "See the things you pick up, while associating with me," said Harte.
Griff glanced back. "Oh, I am continually amazed at what I see associating with you."
"Here," pointed Harte. "I believe it's this way." They turned down a street which would have been shaded in the summer by a stately row of oak trees. In winter, the tree boughs left a jumbled pattern of light and shadow on the cobblestones.
"You've been to this place before?" asked Griff.
"No, I asked my mother," answered Harte.
"Surely she would not--"
"No, no, but she enjoys gossiping with the servants."
"Really!" Griff raised an eyebrow.
"My mother is not a snob."
Griff paused, in thought. "Maybe it is impolite to ask, but how does she put up with your father?"
"I don't know," said Harte. He looked down the line of barren limbs. "Perhaps he was not always as he is now."
"People do change."
"Do you think so? Are our courses not fixed at birth? Do you believe that we may wrench ourselves free and choose a new orbit?"
Griff chuckled. "Sister Grace says that God sets the rules of play, but we play the cards."
"An odd metaphor--for one of her calling."
"She is no more odd than your mother."
"I did not mean to offend."
"You did not." Griff was silent for a moment. "When I was a child, I wished for a real mother, one I didn't have to share with the hospital or with God."
"I'm sure you were no more selfish than other children."
"Was that selfish?"
The tall oaks left behind, they came to a small square that sat above a bluff, overlooking the Bug. In the clear, cold air, the river was a bright ribbon looping through the plain. Harte wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself. "It's colder now. We will have snow soon, I think."
"We're due for it."
"There it is. On the corner." They blew into the narrow building with a cold gust and alighted at a table along one wall, settling their cloaks around them. Harte looked around. At nearly ten bells, it was early for lunch; there were few customers. An old woman in a black dress and shawl sat in a comfortable looking armchair by the fire. She was knitting rapidly, between sips from the mug at her elbow. At a nearby table, two younger women in bright head scarves spoke quietly, their heads close together. Perhaps his mother loved to hear of such places because she could never visit them. As Harte looked around, Griff went to the bar and brought back two mugs of hot cider. Just as Harte heard the church on the opposite corner of the square ring the hour, a young woman in a plain gray dress and long winter cloak entered the tavern. After glancing around briefly, she came straight to their table.
Ignoring Griff, she addressed Harte. "You are Mr. Walford?"
Her hair was long but tied back tightly behind her head. Harte thought she might be quite pretty in a different dress and with her hair less tightly confined. He nodded. "I am."
She spoke softly. "I cannot stay. I'm to give you this." Putting her back between their table and the rest of the room, she retrieved a small purse from a pocket sewn into the lining of her cloak, and took out a note. Handing the note to Harte, she turned to leave.
"I am only a messenger, sir. I know nothing of your business. Good morning." She walked rapidly towards the door. Harte watched Griff follow her barely swaying hips until she left the tavern.
"Well, that was hardly illuminating," said Griff, turning to look at Harte.
"On the contrary, my friend," said Harte, handing the note to Griff. It was neither addressed nor signed. It consisted of three names and a scribbled note: "Do not visit again."
"Do you know them?" asked Griff.
"All three. This is a small town. None well, I'm glad to say. "
"It's smaller for you," said Griff. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to request that they each visit Watch House to discuss a certain matter. If they decline, insist on it."
Griff stiffened in his seat. "As you say, Presenter Advocate Walford."
"Thank you, Patrol Leader Tarren. Send a note to my home when the first is ready for questioning. Please arrange to have someone present to witness and to take notes."
They sat in silence then until they had finished their cider, and then pushed out into the blast.
The preparations for Stilian and Kit's bonding ceremony are moving along rapidly now. They have chosen a date during the thaw, when the low fields should be fresh with new blooms, but not yet in riotous excess. There will be the usual food and drink--including fresh vegetables, if the weather cooperates. How I look forward to the first asparagus and peas! Rutabaga is fine, but I long for greens!
I digress. Kit will solo in the new multi-part that Kate wrote, if he can memorize his part in time. The boy is incorrigible! When he is supposed to be at the games, he is in the Library with a book. When he is supposed to be studying history, he is wandering the fields or climbing some terrifying rock face. In desperation, I have asked Stilian to try to help him manage his time, but to no discernible effect. Stilian, on the other hand, has taken to his studies to a degree wholly unexpected--particularly by him. He has an aptitude for rhetoric and letters. You may have a prospect for Blue House, my love, though I should hate for you to take him away from me. But he seems the type: where Kit is content to live in the world, Stilian is determined always to change it.
You will come in the thaw with the first drays? The boys ask after you; they want you here for the ceremony.
I yearn for your warm hands and constant song,
"Will you walk with me, Harte?" Harte looked up from the book he was trying to read to find Stilian looming. "I must stretch my legs," the tall man said.
Harte grimaced. "Walk? I might as well. I'm achieving nothing here." He shook his head, "I am terribly impolite am I not?" He jumped up to bow. "I would be delighted to accompany you on a walk, sir."
"I welcome your company." They were silent as they went to get their cloaks and hats. Stepping outside, Stilian laughed. "It's hardly the day for it." The sky had darkened with clouds. "The sun has shuttered up and retired early."
"Let our company be as a lantern in the gloom," Harte recited.
Stilian led the way in the direction of the river. "You read Mawset, I take it."
"Now and then. How long will you stay in Walford's Crossing?"
"I don't know exactly. Usually, I wouldn't stay unless there were a case to hear." He rested his hand on Harte's shoulder for an instant before letting fall. "Peace man. I am not leaving yet."
Harte was acutely aware of having said nothing to warrant this reassurance. "Will you not be expected at the next town?"
"Our schedules vary depending on the cases we are offered. Some are more appetizer than banquet."
"I hope to serve a course," said Harte.
Stilian smiled. "Your father would have you change course, I think."
Harte chuckled. "Has he spoken to you?"
"No, but he arrived home a little before we left." He rubbed his hands. "His--concern--was apparent."
"Then this walk was not entirely spontaneous."
"Not entirely," said Stilian. "I thought you might like a little warning before you speak to him. But I value your company, regardless of the circumstance."
Harte pointed back over his shoulder towards Watch House. "We began questioning Brin Greer's friends this afternoon. I'm sure word reached my father shortly after the first interview."
"Have you made progress then?"
"We have just begun. But the weave of their story begins to fray. We shall pull on some threads and see what unravels."
Stilian blinked. "It's the first step--getting a magistrate to agree that there's sufficient evidence to continue--that worries you?"
"Yes," said Harte. "I feel certain that we can make a case, if we can get past the initial hearing."
"Will you argue that it should be considered a capital case?"
Harte stopped on the path and dug a toe into the frozen earth. "I am troubled by that conceit. It would set a powerful precedent."
Stilian nodded. "So it would. I'm glad you see its impracticality."
Harte watched Stilian's face carefully. "Would you consider intervening if the case came to trial as a lessor criminal matter?"
Stilian pulled his lips to one side and made a small sound. "I would have to be present in the courtroom and aware of witnesses lying. My presence would, in itself, be extraordinary. Normally, we appear only at the invitation of a town council or other convening body."
Harte felt a knot loosen between his shoulders. Why did the idea make him so nervous? "Other convening bodies being, as I recall, the shire--that is to say the Mooten Council--Parliament, or the king."
"And both Parliament and the king only act on matters of state--foreign affairs, taxes."
"That leaves the shire," said Harte.
Stilian nodded down the path and started walking again. "Who represents Walford Crossing on the Mooten Council?"
"My father attends at Bugport." Harte gazed across the river to the southwest, where he could see tiers of fences and fields rising slowly towards the distant hills.
"He would not likely take up the case in his present state of mind," said Stilian.
Harte heard a bitter note in his laughter. "He never acts without a vote of the council."
"There is considerable animosity towards me amongst the council," said Stilian. "Greer wasn't the only one, just the most obvious of those at the party. They distrust the Canny, and they see our role in their affairs as an imposition. They're not alone in this. My colleagues report similar attitudes, especially in the larger towns which have professional magistrates."
"A cynic might suggest that they find judges veritor harder to purchase." Harte kicked a pebble down the path to disappear, one among the many. "I heard talk of a bill in Parliament to make the magistrates of an equal stature with judges veritor while I was in law school at the capital, but nothing seemed to come of it."
Stilian nodded. "Yes, we tracked it at Blue House. The old king quashed it before he died. But the young king--it's not clear where he'll rest his weight. An old friend and mentor of mine thinks that he may be falling under the influence of a faction which seeks to weaken the role of the Canny. They would banish the fool and make judges veritor no more than traveling magistrates. As a means to their end, they inflate the fears of the people, spreading false rumors about the Canny in market squares, posting broadsheets with exaggerated tales of dark powers." Stilian paused, frowning. "It's dangerous nonsense! Bugport is secure. We have deep roots there, but there have been demonstrations in the capital. I fear our long peace may be over."
Their walk had taken them to the river bank north of Dock Street, in a low lying area that served as a commons because it was subject to periodic flooding. Willow trees ringed a field of grasses and reeds that bordered the riverbank. An earthen path wound among the stands of reeds. As they continued, a first fall of snow clouded the air. Harte watched the dark surface of the river moving restlessly.
"It's very peaceful here, away from town," said Stilian. "I can relax."
"What's it like? To sense another's emotion?"
"It's difficult to explain." Stilian looked out over the rippling flow. "There's a rare medical condition called synesthesia, which can afflict people who receive a head injury. It causes people's senses to become confused. They see sounds, hear sights. It's a little like that. We canny experience people in different ways. I am what we call a sighter, which means for me it's mostly visual. Sometimes I perceive a shading--cloudy or dark when someone is angry or upset, bright and steady when he is happy. Lying causes colors to mottle. Rarely, I may hear a constant whining at the edge of my hearing."
"How strange. How do I appear to you?" Harte asked.
"Are you sure you want to know?"
Stilian hesitated, looking into Harte's eyes. "I don't wish to condescend, but people would often rather not know themselves fully."
Harte broke away from Stilian's gaze but was unwilling to give up. "You will stop if I ask you to?"
Stilian sighed. "Of course. But the genie of self-knowledge is hard to put back into the bottle."
"Remember that childhood game, Truth or Dare?"
"Yes, few adults play that game, as the stakes become higher as you gain in experience."
"Please," Harte insisted. "I would know how you see me."
"Very well. You are complicated: bright, very bright, in my senses, but changing constantly like the scrims on which they shine colored lights in the theater." Stilian hesitated.
"There's more," Harte insisted.
Stilian took a measured breath. "I cannot block you, Harte. I feel a warmth from you. It's always there. It is very pleasant. Like a touch. I don't wish to be separated from it. But you have denied yourself for a very long time. You flick from feeling to feeling in a mad chase to escape yourself." He smiled. "I would help you rest, if I could."
"I do not know what to say."
Stilian sought Harte's eyes again. "I require nothing from you."
The small flakes that predict a heavy snowfall were coming down rapidly now. The snow covered the ground and obscured the path they walked on, until all was white.
"I don't want to go back," whispered Stilian. "But we would freeze if we stayed."
Harte laughed. "I would warm us both."
Stilian shied at this extravagance and would not meet Harte's eyes. But he smiled a little as he watched the snow flakes disappear into the river, before turning back towards town.
* * *
When Stilian and Harte arrived back at Walford House it was nearly half six bells, and fully dark. Amalia met them in the foyer. "Please change for supper. Gastir has asked that we eat together tonight. Stilian, he specifically asked that you join us. We'll eat at seven bells. Hurry now, or you'll be late!"
Harte looked a question at Stilian. Stilian gave a short nod in return. "I will join you shortly."
Harte's father was already seated at the table when Stilian entered the dining room. "Good evening, Judge Cast. Son."
"Father." Harte's tone offered nothing.
"Your mother tells me you were out for a walk. Is the snow very deep yet?"
Before Harte could answer, Amalia came in through the door to the kitchen. Councilman Walford rose and pulled out a chair for her. "Amalia, you know that's my favorite dress. Quite beautiful. Is there some occasion?"
"Why no, dear. I just wanted to look nice for dinner."
"Son, you were going to tell me about the snow," said Councilman Walford.
"I was?" said Harte. "It's nearing an inch, I should think. Coming down fast. Cook has the pantry well stocked I suppose, Mother?"
"Of course. We always stock up this time of year."
Are their words always so empty--and the spaces between so pregnant?What purpose did it serve to talk of the weather, Stilian wondered. There was a pause while Theo poured the wine, then Councilman Walford turned his attention to Stilian. "Judge Cast, you are, of course, welcome to stay as long as you have need--indeed you might find it difficult to leave just now--but I must ask, is there a particular case that keeps you in Walford's Crossing? I don't recall the council authorizing payment of a judge veritor for any pending business."
It's the courtesy before the dance."No, I have not been asked to hear any cases here," said Stilian.
"I see. Then Harte has not asked you to involve yourself with his current ... project?"
Stilian was careful to keep his voice neutral. "No, he has not asked me to involve myself."
"Harte, what is your assessment of your project?"
Harte spoke dispassionately. "The case involves the beating and subsequent death of a citizen of Walford's Crossing. It appears there were a number of witnesses to the crime. We are currently interviewing them to find out what happened."
"You make it sound so routine, son. I am informed that the person who was beaten was a prostitute who was engaged in soliciting at the time he was beaten. The persons you have chosen to question are prominent members of this community. Moreover, I am not aware of the council voting to pay for this inquiry."
Harte put down the fork he had not yet used. "I have chosen to pursue this investigation on my own authority, and I have paid for it with my own coin, as Patrol Leader Tarren will attest. That is my privilege as a member of the court."
Councilman Walford rested his fingers on the edge of the table. "Judge Cast, I'm curious, what's your assessment of the probable outcome of this inquiry?"
"I could not say, Councilman. Surely that's the job of a presenter advocate such as your son to assess. We magistrates and judges must let them play their role first, must we not?"
The councilman leaned forward. "But we all have a role to play in seeing that our legal processworks, and that the cases that are brought forward have some chance of succeeding?"
"True, but cases that are not brought to hearing havenochance of success. Is that not so? We mustengagein a legal process, in order for the process to work, yes?"
Stilian was relieved when Theo arrived with the meat course. He took a bite from the roast. He had little chance to chew before the councilman spoke again. "What about the merits of this case? I understand the boy who was beaten was soliciting, when the attack occurred. Such behavior is not to be tolerated."
Harte's face tightened, but he spoke lightly. "You are quite right, Father. Such violence should not be tolerated."
"You misunderstand me, Son."
Harte spoke bitterly. "You understand me perfectly."
"You are impertinent," said the councilman.
"Our laws do not prohibit sexual advances," said Harte. "Their intent is to discourage prostitution."
Councilman Walford took a sip of wine. "That includes soliciting payment in return for sex."
"Yes, which leads me to another question, Father. Who told you that the boy was soliciting? The evidence I have suggests only that he made a rude suggestion. Perhaps I should be questioningyouon the details of the attack?"
"You are intolerable!" Councilman Walford slammed his hand on the table.
"Gastir!" exclaimed Amalia.
"Never mind, Father. I can guess well enough to whom you have been speaking."
Stilian rose and took the wine bottle from the sideboard where Theo had left it. He poured himself another glass and returned the bottle.
"Perhaps, Harte, if you had gone to the family concerned, this matter could have been resolved in a less heavy-handed way."
"To what end?" said Harte.
"It might have gotten the boy better doctoring," Harte's mother pointed out.
"What about the next victim and the one after that?" Harte insisted.
"Are you saying there's a pattern of violence here?" The councilman's tone was dismissive.
Harte stared at his father. "I do not know if the man who beat Raf--for the boy's name was Raf--has ever done this sort of thing before. I do know that it happens all the time. The poor and the social outcasts who work on Dock Street--and it's theirwork, it's the way theysurvive--are victims time and time again. There is no justice for them, because they cannot pay for it. Councilmen fund justice only for their own kind. This boy Raf, Father, do you know what they did to him? He was beaten so badly they nearly knocked an eye out of his head. His torso was covered in boot prints, and his--manhood was torn."
"Harte!" pleaded Amalia.
"He was kicked repeatedly and stomped on with those damn hobnailed boots and left in the street for the crows to--"
"Harte! Stop!" said Stilian.
Harte ground to a halt. His was voice was rough. Stilian did not need to see his face to know that there were tears in his eyes. "I'm sorry. I cannot talk to you about this." Harte stood. "Good night, Mother." He strode rapidly from the dining room.
Councilman Walford slumped in his chair. "I don't know what to say to that boy. He'll throw away his career and his future in the council."
"Perhaps," said Amalia, "he wants a different future."
"I fear it does not matter what he wants now."
Stilian rose unsteadily to his feet. "Councilman Walford. I do not want to impose, but ... but I know you love your son. I wish you would tell him that. Good night, Mrs. Walford." Stilian followed Harte out. As he left the dining room, he heard Amalia's insistent voice.
"Gastir, you must let him go."
"I'm afraid he wants a future without his father."
Stilian paused on the stairs to hear the quiet answer. "I know. But a bird will peck even the hand that feeds it, if it be through the bars of a cage."
* * *
"Harte, may I come in?"
Harte stared into the fire. "Go away, Stilian."
"I will not," said Stilian, knocking again. "Please let me in."
"For God's sake, quit yelling through the door. It's not locked. What do you want?"
Stilian came in and stood swaying above the couch where Harte's flood had laid him rest. "I want to tell you something."
"What is it?" Harte placed a fresh log on the grate.
"Your father loves you."
"I do not need you to tell me that. Are you drunk? Sit down." Harte resumed his contemplation of the grasping fingers of fire that twisted upwards from the hearth.
"Probably." Stilian was not finished. "You could not know the boy would become ill."
Stilian's aim was better the second time. Harte's mind returned to the thought he'd sought to ignore since running from his parents. There had been no catch in Raf's breathing on his first visit. If he had approached the Greer family and asked for recompense in the form of medical treatment as soon as he had suspected Brin, would Raf still be alive? "Shit! Sit down, before you fall down. What do you want from me?"
"I want you out of my head," said Stilian.
"I could say the same!" Harte pointed to the wine glass that Stilian had carried from the dining room. "I thought the wine helps."
Stilian lurched into motion. He glanced at the wine glass as if surprised to find it in his hand, then shrugged. Dropping awkwardly onto the couch, he leaned over and placed the glass on the floor. "The others are gone." He wiggled fingers above his head. "Now there is only you."
"What am I to do?"
"Let me hold you."
"I have never--"
"Stop talking." Stilian took Harte's chin and pulled it towards him. Then, looking into Harte's eyes, he pulled Harte's head to his lips and kissed him gently.
It was the softness of his lips that surprised Harte.
* * *
I'm mired in Winter's sluggish grip, awaiting a trial that may not take place, and maybe, the start of something new. I'm in Walford's Crossing, living in luxury in the house of one of the town's oldest families, where I've made strange alliance with a scion of the town council, local presenter advocate, and budding radical. I exaggerate not. This beautiful man seems to want to replace our creaking gears of justice with burnished new ones that do not require the grease of influence. He insists on prosecuting a case involving the beating--and subsequent death in hospital--of a boy prostitute who appears to have made the unfortunate mistake of propositioning a councilman's son. Can you imagine a more quixotic enterprise? Yet on he trudges, even as the winter sludge freezes around him. Will the thaw beget new life from this weird alchemy? I cannot think of leaving until I see the first green tips break loose of the earth. I'm laughing, but at the same time afraid you will take this merely as evidence of too much drink. I am besotted, not entirely with wine.
Don't judge me too harshly,
P.S. Send this on to Thalia. She's used to my feverish embarrassments. SC
* * *
I enclose the latest from our wandering child. He seems to be experiencing some fever. He admits that he's drinking again.
In haste, as we prepare for exams,
* * *
You have been too long away from your love. Has the freeze so shriveled your sex and dried your juices that you cannot recognize the cause of Stilian's fevered state? Our boy seems seems to found the end of his long grieving in Walford's Crossing--with a lawyer!
I don't know whether to laugh or cry, so I'm trying both.
P.S. Get here for a visit soon.Retirethis endless separation!
Harte and Griff were at their usual places in the Ragged Crow. Harte's elbows rested on the bar. Griff had his back to the bar so he could observe the room. "Who will you bring in next, my friend?" asked Harte.
"We will have Caleb Stowe and Miles Groat tomorrow. Ten bells and two. You will come?"
"Yes. We must find a crack at which to pry. Griff, if I were to ..." Harte turned. Examining his friend's face for unusual luminosity or shading he wished, not for the first time, that he was canny. But his friend's appearance showed no lighting effects he could not attribute to the flickering lanterns that hung over the bar.
"What?" said Griff.
"What do you think of Judge Cast?"
Griff lifted the mug he had balanced on his knee and took a swig of beer. "You are the one who has been sheltering him."
"Yes. But you must have formed some impression."
"He is grave for a man of his years and rather blunt of speech." Griff wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Have you considered that it might not be a gift to be canny?"
"I am certain that it is not, however much I might wish for the talent at times--like this."
"He is well formed," Griff said, judiciously.
"You have noticed this, particularly?" Harte could not bring himself to look directly at Griff.
"I have noticed you noticing it, particularly."
"Oh." Harte had difficulty forming the words. But he had heard the smile in Griff's response. "You don't mind--" He swallowed. "--that I prefer men?"
Griff turned to face Harte. "Is your head made of wood?"
"It seems rather hollow at the moment."
"Harte. I have worked with you now for more than a season. If I cared what you are, don't you think I would have shown some sign?"
"Am to understand that you have known this thing about me for ... some time?"
"It's not a mole on your nose, if that's your worry. It is there, for those who would look. But it's no concern to me."
"I feel as a bird, lightened, and with a wild heart,"Harte quoted.
Griff grunted. "Well then, play raptor for me. We have men to harry today."