When Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my weekly day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of[Excerpt.]
When Thomas arrived the next morning – it was my weekly day of rest from work, so I was engaging in a particularly agonizing examination of the walls – I said, before he could speak, "I'm sorry about my bad temper last time. I get out of sorts occasionally."
"Not at all." His reply was cool, as were his eyes, which rested upon me heavily, like a block of ice. It came to me as I watched him that this young man, whatever his flaws might be, had received personal training from Compassion's Keeper. He could not be quite the fool he appeared to be.
I'm nothing if not flexible, as Sedgewick had pronounced on the day he tried me in a dozen different positions. I let the smile drop from my face and said in my normal voice, "Well? What brings you here?"
The coolness disappeared from his eyes, and he said, "The usual. See to your needs and all that. The dancing girls are on their way, but I'm afraid I couldn't fit the performing elephant into the stairwell."
There was a moment's silence, and then, despite myself, I burst into laughter. Thomas grinned like a boy and moved forward, keeping well away from me and resting his hand on his dagger. He inspected the rubbish hole first, then the water – going so far as to give the wall a lick – and then, satisfied, moved to the other end of the cell. "You're short a blanket," he said. "That's against regulations."
I snorted. "There aren't any regulations in the life prisons, or hadn't you noticed?"
"Well, there are customs." He was inspecting the blankets now, checking them for secreted objects. "Short-tail whip – that's the type used at Mercy. Compassion uses the black whip – longer range, harder to control. Four of the other life prisons use the straight whip – rather like a bamboo rod, but more flexible. The remainder use the bamboo rod alone. . . . Your cell could do with some tidying."
Yes, he'd been trained by a Keeper all right. I wondered whether he thought he was scaring me. "What type of bamboo rod?" I asked. "Imported or domestic? The type that splinter? We had a prisoner last year who came close to dying from the splinters alone."
"Those ought to be banned." He got up from his hands and knees from inspecting under my bed. I had retreated into the corner to allow him to do this without nervousness. As he dusted off his hands on his trousers, he said, "Mind you, if a guard does his work properly, he needn't resort to any of those." He looked over at me.
It was hard to say whether his speech was more effective as an apology or as a threat. I was beginning to think that I might have underestimated this young man....more
Michael laid down his riding crop and sat on the fountain edge, stretching out his long legs and saying, "Nobody warned me that scolding was s
Michael laid down his riding crop and sat on the fountain edge, stretching out his long legs and saying, "Nobody warned me that scolding was so great a part of whoremastering."
"It's part of being a teacher," replied Janus.
"You would know. Speaking of which, what is this?" Michael plucked a piece of paper out of his pocket and held it up for inspection. The gold seal upon it glittered in the late afternoon light.
Janus pulled himself upright, staring with disbelief at the paper. "Michael, have you been searching my room?"
"I've been searching all the rooms, to be sure we sealed up every mouse-hole. You should have picked a less obvious place to hide this than under your bed."
Michael glanced at the letter. "'Royal tutor.' 'By request of His Majesty, at the recommendation of your uncle.' It certainly sounds like something."
"It's a bribe."
"Of course it's a bribe. It's a handsome bribe. Why aren't you taking it?"
Janus sighed, reached over to pull the letter from Michael's hand, and tore the note into pieces. "Why aren't you still selling yourself, Michael? Even at your age, I'd bargain that men like that patron we met earlier this week would gladly pay for your services."
Michael raised his eyebrows. "That's not the same."
"Of course it's the same. My father, having failed through all other methods to break me away from highly unsuitable company, is offering me the biggest bribe he can produce. The letter doesn't actually say, 'If you take this job, you will never see Michael again,' but you know how unlikely it is that His Majesty and my uncle the prime minister would allow the royal tutor to spend his free evenings visiting the proprietor of a house of prostitution." Janus tossed the letter fragments into the fountain, saying, "I know what riches I value most, Michael, and I'm not prepared to give them up for a royal job."
We turned. Tice had taken shelter under a chestnut tree; his pipe glowed in the darkness of that shelter. His face was too shadow-Excerpt:
We turned. Tice had taken shelter under a chestnut tree; his pipe glowed in the darkness of that shelter. His face was too shadow-grey for me to read his expression.
Fairview could be blunt when necessity arose. "Tice," he said, "can we count on you in this battle?"
Tice paused to draw in a breath of smoke before replying. He was a large, stocky man – not the sort of man you'd expect to be a scout, which was how he had started his army career. Before that, he had served in the navy; most Landsteaders did, at one time or another, since all of the landsteads border the Bay. We have the finest navies in the Midcoast nations. I wish I could say the same about our armies.
It was during our naval years that Fairview and I had first met Tice. Now Tice contemplated his pipe, saying, "We go back a long ways, gentlemen."
"We do," Fairview agreed quietly.
"Back in those days, you two were just a couple of harum-scarum university lads – all full of jests and wild threats, the way boys often are. It was amusing to watch your posturing." He stroked his pipe-stem carefully. "Amusing, that is, until you sunk half my battle fleet."
We said nothing. All the tension of the landstead rivalries was present at this moment – the tension that had caused foreign nations to deny that we Landsteaders would be able to hold together our military alliance. Even our landsteads' political alliance, which had lasted nearly two thousand years, was forever on the point of breaking.
Suddenly, in the darkness under the tree, Tice's craggy face broke into a smile. "Frankly, gentlemen, if I must be on a battlefield with you again, I'd far rather be on your side. You can count on me to protect your backs."
I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding. Fairview said lightly, "And we'll do all we can to protect you and your men. However, you've ten years' more experience than we do in the army. I hope you'll be willing to give us advice, should we need it."
Tice stepped out from under the tree, tapping his ashes to the ground and grinding them underfoot with his boot. "First piece of advice: Go to bed. It's much easier to fight a battle when you've rested. Both of you have rings under your eyes."
"Are you planning to take that advice yourself?" I challenged him.
"I wish I could." His gaze drifted eastward. "I've persuaded the General to let me scout the hill this afternoon. I only wish I had time to send scouts further east."
"A recent map would help." Fairview adjusted the angle of his helmet; the rain was beginning to lighten to a drizzle. "If the General sent up an observation balloon . . ."
"I suggested as much to the General," replied Tice.
He said nothing more, so we could both guess how his suggestion had been received. We were all silent for a minute, until the silence was interrupted by a series of booms.
We turned to look east, but it was impossible to see far in the drizzle. Fairview shook his head. "The enemy certainly has its big guns there somewhere. I wish I knew where."
"At least they aren't shelling the camp presently," said Tice. "A brief respite. Gentlemen, if you will excuse me . . . "
I waited until Tice was well out of earshot before asking in a low voice, "Do you think we can trust him?"
Fairview shrugged. "Can one ever trust an Eighth Landsteader? Tice and his men have a reputation for honor. I suppose we'll see tonight whether they live up to it."
I looked sharply at Fairview. "You think the mounted infantry will lead us into an ambush?"
"Tice does seem to have taken great care to ensure that he would be in charge of the scouting." Fairview took out a cigarette, studied it, and then threw it away with a gesture of disgust. "Now I'm as bad as the war-fiends of whom the General is always complaining. The General is right about this much: we need to trust our allies in this war. If the Dozen Landsteads fall once more to quarrelling amongst one another—"
"—we'll lose this war." I sighed heavily. "The General is leading us, Tice is scouting for us, the Mippite guns are hidden somewhere. . . . I don't like the odds we're facing."
"Think of the women and children at Fort Frederick." Fairview spoke softly. Like me, he was unmarried, and knowing him, he would not have fathered any illegitimate children. But he had been raised by his grandmother after his mother died of influenza and his father died in an earlier war between the Ninth Landstead and the Sixth and Seventh Landsteads. He had a high opinion of his grandmother and of all women and children and creatures that are in need of help.
I furrowed my brow, thinking. Fairview's estimate of women was high enough that I wondered sometimes what was preventing him from marrying. But since I lived in fear that Fairview would ask me the same question, I had never raised the topic with him. . . ....more