The common room was filled with dozens of Seekers and guards, all trying to avoid looking at the man in the back of the room.
The common room was filled with dozens of Seekers and guards, all trying to avoid looking at the man in the back of the room.
Weldon Chapman, pausing at the doorway to check that the face-cloth of his hood was properly closed, surveyed the scene. The ploys that the men in the room were using to disguise their interest were various: a cup of beer held before the face, an absorbed study of a chessboard, and of course, in the case of the Seekers, the device they used with their prisoners – they simply kept the face-cloths of their hoods down, as their duty required.
Weldon doubted that the man at the back of the room was fooled by any of this. Indeed, even Weldon, without that man's skill, could see the tension in the onlookers' bodies, the flickered glances, the tight gestures, and the occasional twitch from someone who had let his nightmares become too vivid.
Weldon sighed, and then turned his attention to the one man in the room who was making no pretense of being interested in anything except the figure in the back. As Weldon watched, Elsdon Taylor flung down the playing cards he had been holding, said something to the other junior Seekers sharing his table, and left amidst their nervous laughter.
He did not, as Weldon had expected, go straight to the man in the back; he simply lifted his hand toward that man. The man, who was resting with his face turned upward toward the sunlight that filtered through the crystalline ceiling of the common room, and who gave every appearance of being asleep, raised his hand in exchange. Around the common room, there was a visible shudder at this evidence of the High Seeker's skill.
"There is something particularly frightening about having a genius go mad."
Weldon tore his eyes away from Layle Smith in order to look over at the High Seeker's love-mate, Elsdon Taylor. The skin around Elsdon's eyes was smudged with darkness – Weldon wondered how many months it had been since Elsdon had received a full shift's sleep – but otherwise the young man looked less weighed down than he had since his present trials began.
Weldon took hope from that, and from Elsdon's dark jibe. He knew better than to worry the High Seeker's love-mate with questions, though, so he simply said, "I was trying to decide whether I should bother him with work."
Elsdon glanced over his shoulder at the man lying motionless in his chair. "Do," he said, in the same soft voice with which he had spoken before. "If anything would make him go mad again, it's having nothing to do except documentwork. If you have a challenge for him, he'd welcome it."
"He ought to be back at work with the prisoners."
Elsdon sighed. "So I tell him. So the Codifier tells him. So the Queen tells him. Honest in my heart, Weldon, if the torture-god of Layle's native land came and threatened to rack him eternally unless he returned to work, Layle would simply repeat that he is not yet ready to place the prisoners at risk."
"Mm." Weldon stared down at the papers he was holding in his hand. "Perhaps I can persuade him otherwise. Are you leaving for bed now?"
Elsdon shook his head. "Not till he does. He doesn't yet trust himself that much."
Glancing once more at the men in the common room – who were now dividing their time between casting nervous glances at the High Seeker and casting curious glances at his love-mate – Weldon thought to himself that nothing could have made more apparent to the world the seriousness of Layle Smith's illness than the fact that the High Seeker felt the need for a chaperone. The fact that no such chaperone was necessary could not be known by the others. Weldon frowned.
"What your love-mate needs," he says, "is a stiffening of the backbone. He needs to be reminded that he is not a child, and that he owes responsibilities to the dungeon he runs."
Elsdon gave a crow of such pure delight that every head in the room swivelled to look at him. Elsdon ignored them, thumping Weldon on the back. "Oh, brave one," he said. "You should have been a soldier. I'll watch the battle from a distance. From a safe distance," he added with a grin in his voice.
"Fortunate man," Weldon muttered and walked toward the man at the back.
Whether or not the High Seeker's acute hearing had picked up the gist of the conversation, Weldon could be quite sure that Layle Smith knew from Elsdon's cry of joy that an attack was about to begin. The High Seeker gave no sign that he was about to strike back. Of course, he never did. Many a prisoner had learned that, when it was too late.
The common room was a newer room in the Eternal Dungeon, built at a time when one of Layle's predecessors had grown so tired of his confinement within the bleak walls of the underground cave that he had ordered a leisure place built that would provide sunlight to the Seekers who were otherwise deprived of daylight for the remainder of the lives. Weldon, whose own vow as a Seeker had come relatively late in life, nevertheless felt his limbs relax as the warmth of the early morning sun fell upon his shoulders. It was midsummer now – he knew that from the calendar posted by the dungeon's Record-keeper for the sake of Seekers who might otherwise forget what season it was. Summertime always made Weldon remember the last time he had been in the lighted world. The joy he had felt on that final day – the knowledge that he was about to receive a privilege that any prison worker in the queendom of Yclau would have envied – had been as pure and unadulterated as the blue sky above him.
He had met Layle by that time. He sometimes wondered whether the joy he had felt at becoming a Seeker had been connected with the knowledge that he would be able to speak daily with a talented young Seeker by the name of Layle Smith.
That was thirteen years ago. Now Layle was thirty-seven, Weldon was forty-seven, and the High Seeker lay motionless in his chair, as though dead.
"Sir," Weldon said formally.
"Mr. Chapman," the High Seeker replied without opening his eyes. "Tell me, are you bothered by nightmares?"
Weldon had to stop himself from looking over at one of the men who had twitched. "Not overly much, sir," he responded. "Why?"
"I am glad to hear that. Mr. Taylor was a victim of some very bad nightmares several months ago, when my condition was more serious. Now that I am slowly healing he is, of course, feeling much better. I remain confident that the nightmares will not return . . . provided that no one is so foolish as to try to hurry my cure beyond the point for which my mind is ready."
Weldon was still a moment. Then he pulled up a chair and sat down heavily in it. "High Seeker," he said, "I wonder why the Record-keeper bothers to assign prisoners to anyone besides you. If he sent all the criminals your way, the Eternal Dungeon would have a perfect record of breaking prisoners."
He thought he saw the faintest crease of amusement at the corner of Layle Smith's eyes as the High Seeker lifted his hooded head. "Since I am not seeing prisoners at the moment, the matter is moot. You wished to speak to me about another matter?"
Weldon wordlessly gestured to the papers in his lap. Layle glanced at the name written atop them and said, "Ah, yes. The Record-keeper does like to assign you the hard cases."
"The Record-keeper," said Weldon carefully, "is under the misapprehension that, since I dwelt so many years in the lighted world, I am privy to its secrets."
"You have dealt with difficult prisoners before."
"Not prisoners who confess that they have committed a 'most terrible crime,' but refuse to state what that crime is."
"Mm." The High Seeker leaned back in his chair. His gaze had not strayed from Weldon throughout the conversation, though from where Weldon sat, he could see that Elsdon had seated himself at an empty table nearby, out of earshot, and was busy scribbling with a pen.
Weldon flipped through his own papers for a moment before he found the one he wanted, with the High Seeker's initials in the corner to indicate that he had read it. He held it up for Layle's inspection.
For the second time, the suggestion of a smile appeared in Layle's eyes. "At least she was honest. Women who apply to be Seekers usually sign only their initials, not their full names. I sent her a polite note, explaining that she did not possess the quality we desire most in a Seeker. It is what I tell nearly all of our applicants."
"She is not the best candidate to be a Seeker if she commits a crime soon after you have rejected her application."
Layle said nothing, but the smile in his eyes increased.
Weldon felt his spirits lift accordingly. "You think she is innocent of any crime? That this is a ploy to visit the Eternal Dungeon?"
"A ploy to see me. She asked for me specifically when she was delivered here by her local prison."
"So I had heard. Perhaps it would be better, then, if you took this case."
Layle's gaze shot away from the paper. His smile disappeared, like warmth dissipating with the coming of evening.
"Sir," Weldon said quietly as he placed the paper back on his lap, "I know what you want me to say. But the best interests of the prisoner come first, and having reviewed the prisoner's records, I believe that it is in her best interests to be searched by you. If I search her, nothing will happen except that she will stall and refuse to speak until you come. That would be a waste of time I could spend with a prisoner who has actually committed a crime."
Layle's eye wandered away from Weldon, skimming the crowd of men that sat drinking, playing leisure games, and talking. "No doubt you will find a way around this problem."
"But, sir, you need only spend a few minutes—"
"Sir, if you will only listen to what I have to—"
"I cannot visit your prisoner!"
Once, when Weldon was considerably younger, he had awoken screaming from a vision of being sliced in half by the High Seeker's whip. It was but a nightmare, of course; Layle Smith had not carried a whip since his arrival at the Eternal Dungeon.
This was a worse nightmare. Weldon tried without success to remember the last time he had heard the High Seeker raise his voice. He tried to reply, but could not; he tried to move, but could not. He was trapped in place as effectively as a chained prisoner by the sight of the High Seeker, one yard from him, beginning to shake.
Weldon managed to tear his gaze away to look at the rest of the room. What he saw was like a battlefield after a cannon had been shot through it. Chairs were overturned; some of the chairs' owners were standing frozen in place, but others were missing, and Weldon guessed that a stream of guards and Seekers was presently fleeing down the hallway that led from the common room to the inner dungeon. Where they thought they could flee to, Weldon could not imagine. The guards, perhaps, were seeking the main exit to the lighted world, but the Seekers had no such option open to them, being bound by their oaths to remain in the dungeon.
Other signs of terror lay before him: broken glasses, overspilled wine, and chess pieces and cards lying still upon the floor. A shadow moved behind the bar counter, and Weldon guessed that the guard taking bar-tending duty today must have ducked down, in hopes that his presence would be forgotten. From the expressions on the faces of the other guards in the room, it was clear that they would have liked to join him, while the Seekers – normally the most imperturbable of men – were turning their heads toward each other, obviously uncertain what to do.
Only one man in the room did not hesitate. As Weldon watched, Elsdon walked forward, pen and papers in hand, and knelt next to the High Seeker's chair.
For a moment, Weldon could have cursed the young man for emphasizing to Layle his infirmity. But he underestimated the junior Seeker; Elsdon held out his papers and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but I need these initialled. Could I bother you?"
Layle took the pen from him in an automatic manner and flipped through the papers, reading them rapidly. Weldon, stealing a glance at the papers, saw that they were routine documents which could easily have waited until Layle was on duty again. He turned his gaze to Elsdon and saw that the kneeling Seeker had his eyes fixed upon Layle. For a brief moment, Weldon felt pain go through him, as cutting as a lash. Then he switched his attention back to the High Seeker.
Layle had finished initialling all the pages, and his hand was now steady. He gave back the papers and pen, saying quietly, "Thank you, Mr. Taylor."
Elsdon nodded without spoken reply, gave Weldon an impenetrable glance, and returned to his seat, where he calmly continued writing where he had left off.
Weldon could actually hear the sigh of the crowd as the men began to pick up the mess around them. Two or three guards, shamefaced, returned to the room. The bartender emerged from his hiding place holding a shattered mug, as though his only purpose in diving to the floor had been to help with the clean-up.
Layle pretended not to notice any of this. He said, in the same low voice as before, "Mr. Chapman, I trust I need not remind you of what event took place in this dungeon nine years ago, and what restriction was placed upon me following that event."
Weldon felt a hot blush cover his skin, from forehead to toes. "I am sorry, sir. It has been many years—"
"The restriction still applies. Naturally, the Codifier would permit me to visit your prisoner if he considered it necessary for the welfare of this dungeon, but I see no reason to request his permission. You have the experience necessary to break this prisoner."
"Yes, sir," Weldon murmured, casting a glance at the shambles nearby. Amidst the quiet storm of the clean-up operation, Elsdon sat like a rock, scribbling upon his papers.
Noting the direction of Weldon's gaze, Layle said, "I am afraid that Mr. Taylor has his own difficult prisoner to deal with at the moment. His prisoner has spun a web of self-deception that has tangled his soul. Regardless of whether the man has committed a crime, he requires Mr. Taylor's help."
Weldon did his best to gather his wits together, like an apprentice trying to chase down a ball of sinew-yarn that he has dropped. "Of course, sir. In any case, female prisoners are my specialty."
"I had not forgotten that. I am sure you remember this, but I will repeat the rules by which you abide: Ask the prisoner if she wants a chaperone present while you search her. If she prefers that you search her privately, be sure to have a guard keep an eye on you through the watch-hole every moment that you are inside the cell. The last thing I need is for one of my Seekers to be arrested upon a false charge of rape."
Weldon could think of nothing to reply to this, so he nodded. He found himself saying, though, "I am tempted to ask the Record-keeper to give me another prisoner."
Layle raised his eyebrows, but said only, "Well, you would have free choice. There are half a dozen prisoners awaiting Seekers at the moment."
"That many?" Weldon could not keep surprise from his voice. Usually new prisoners were assigned a Seeker immediately, since the period following their arrest was the time in which they were most vulnerable and therefore most likely to confess to any crime they might have committed.
Layle gave a brief nod. "We are rather short of Seekers at the moment, what with so many senior Seekers retiring or taking healing leave." He reached over to the table that stood between himself and Weldon and lifted his wine cup to his lips, draining it of its dregs.
Watching him, Weldon found he was cursing himself inwardly. It could not be at all easy for Layle, knowing that prisoners were languishing without Seekers while he himself, the most talented Seeker in the dungeon, was spending his days doing documentwork. Only a very strong conviction that it would be dangerous for him to go near prisoners could have kept Layle from rushing back to work and breaking all six prisoners in quick succession. The man must be in agony now, pulled between two calls of duty, and Weldon had made the matter no easier for him.
In an attempt to lighten Layle's mood, Weldon forced a chuckle and said, "Perhaps you should train my prisoner to be a Seeker after all."
Layle gave a snort of what might have been laughter, but said seriously, "Not if you put me on a Vovimian rack and set the wheel to the thirtieth level. I would rather run this dungeon with only one Seeker than allow an ill-qualified Seeker into a cell with a prisoner."
Weldon nodded slowly; he knew what Layle meant. They had both been in the Eternal Dungeon – Layle as a Seeker, Weldon as a guard – when Layle's predecessor, faced with a similar crisis of waiting prisoners, had allowed a new Seeker to take his vow of eternal confinement after only one month's training. As it turned out, the man was talented in certain respects but did not possess the quality that, as Layle had put it a while ago, "we desire most in a Seeker." And after the new Seeker had spent a week with one of the prisoners who had been waiting to be searched . . .
Changes were made after that. Strict rules were instituted, requiring a minimum of six months of training from new Seekers before they took their vows of eternal confinement. The offending Seeker, unable to be released from his oath, made matters easier for everyone by expressing a desire to spend the remainder of his life working in the outer dungeon, where he would not have contact with prisoners. Most importantly, greater precautions were taken to ensure that no prisoner would have the means to kill himself. But Weldon, who had guarded the prisoner, still visited the dungeon's crematorium every few months and lit a candle for the prisoner, hoping that the prisoner was receiving greater mercy in his new life than he had received in his old.
He still wondered whether he could have prevented the tragedy, and guilt still touched him late at night. He could only imagine the weight of guilt that Layle's predecessor must have felt until his death two years later. Weldon could well suppose that Layle, already heavily burdened with guilt over other matters, would not want to take the chance of allowing anyone to become a Seeker-in-Training unless that person had shown clearly that they possessed the quality which was absolutely necessary to a Seeker.
"Have no worries, sir," Weldon said. "I think this prisoner will be easy to handle. I will deal with her quickly and then pass on to another prisoner."
Layle's eyes touched his. They were green, like the trees Weldon had not seen in thirteen years, and their light touch was enough to bind Weldon to his place, half-risen from his seat.
Then Layle released him, turning his eyes away. "I am sure you will do your best, Mr. Chapman."
His voice was cool and dismissive. Sometimes Weldon wondered whether his memories of another voice – a voice young and uncertain, filled with hopes that would be dashed shortly thereafter – had come from his own imagination.
He nearly knelt – childhood habits died hard – but caught himself in time and nodded his farewell instead. He walked his way to the door of the common room, ignoring the stares of the men wondering what he had done to bring the High Seeker so close to madness again.
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
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.
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."
The cobwebs were the first to go; then came the bat droppings and the curled corpses of dead insects and twenty years' worth of accumulated du
The cobwebs were the first to go; then came the bat droppings and the curled corpses of dead insects and twenty years' worth of accumulated dust. That left only the floors to wash, the walls and ceiling to paint, the door to repair, and furnishings to bring in.
And then the third of sixty-three rooms would be ready.
Pausing to lean on his mop, Janus glanced wistfully toward the window. The rooms on this side of the house had the best view, pointing toward an open square: from where Janus stood he could see cool water pouring down from the public fountain. He sighed and brushed away the sweat from his brow, leaving a streak of dirt there. He wished that Michael's mother had chosen to give birth to him during the winter rather than the summer, so that his coming of age would have occurred in that season. That way, Michael could have bought his license for a house of prostitution during a cooler season to do work.
But then, if Janus had been able to remake the world the way he wanted it, there would be no houses of prostitution. He moved closer to the window. At an angle, he could witness the conversation taking place on the porch, though he could not hear the words being spoken.
The boy was seventeen or eighteen, well dressed for this part of the city. He was listening with grave attention to the tall man who was speaking to him. Michael, as always, shone like a new-risen moon. He had worn white for as long as Janus had known him, which provided a startling contrast to his dark hair and complexion. The first time that Janus had seen him, he had decided Michael looked like one of the good graces that people of old thought were messengers from the gods, bringing fortune to those who met them.
It was odd that this image had never left his mind, even after he had learned what Michael was. Frowning, Janus rested his chin on the mop handle, watching the negotiations take place; then, with a lifting of his spirits, he saw the boy shake his head and say something. Michael nodded, apparently in agreement. He spoke briefly, and then he and the boy shook each other's arms in farewell, and Michael disappeared into the house.
A moment later, Michael arrived at his doorway. In one hand he was holding a long, cloth-wrapped package, in the other a glass of water. Gratefully, Janus took the latter from him and drained it before saying, "I saw the boy. You didn't hire him, I trust?"
"Unfortunately, no. He's the best candidate we've had so far – seventeen, so we wouldn't need his parents' permission – but after I explained to him the terms of his contract, he decided he'd try for other types of work."
"Thank the graces!" Janus exploded.
Michael lifted an eyebrow. "He's of journeyman age."
"He's still too young. Michael, I thought that you were only going to take boys who were close to full manhood, ones who were just a little younger than us. . . ."
"Janus, try to be less innocent for once. How many patrons would we get if men walked in here and saw we were stocked only with nineteen- and twenty-year-olds? We'll need a few of the older boys to provide the leaven of experience, but the younger boys are what will attract the patrons."
Janus found he could not speak. It happened this way sometimes: he would go for days thinking of Michael as someone like himself, a civilized, compassionate person. And then a hardness would enter into Michael's voice, and in an instant he would become everything that Janus's parents had warned him against: an enemy stranger, a corrupt, vulgar person whom all of civilized society ought to shun.
Michael was kneeling now on the portion of the floor that had been cleaned, examining the contents of his package in such a way that Janus could not see the objects. Janus forced himself to ask, "What is that?"
Michael said, without looking up, "Necessary expenditures. Expensive ones, alas, but I can't afford to acquire shoddy equipment."
"Let me see." Janus knelt down beside him and pulled the cloth back.
He could not recognize most of the items before him, which he instinctively knew was a bad sign. He finally let his hand fall on an item he recognized – a hunting crop – and held it up toward the light. It was stiff, in the manner of whips used by carriage-drivers; the leather upon it was soft.
Michael took the crop from his hand, rose to his feet, and swished the whip through the air for a moment before bringing it down, hard and accurate, upon a cockroach crawling up the wall. The crushed victim fell lifeless from the wall. Satisfied, Michael sat down cross-legged and began to clean the remains of the insect off the crop with the cloth.
Looking over at him, Janus said, "You almost make me believe the story about you."
"The famous one."
"Oh, that one. Yes, it's true." There was no change in Michael's expression. He continued to wipe the crop clean, like a craftsman polishing his work.
Janus felt his stomach tighten. Once, early in their acquaintance, he had asked Michael tentatively what his work was like. Michael had responded in a flat voice, "I'm the one who controls what happens," and had left the matter at that, much to Janus's relief.
It was better not to know; Janus had instinctively realized that. Why was he committing such folly as to question Michael now? Yet even as he thought this, he heard himself say, "I don't understand how you could do that. To tie someone up . . . to hurt him . . ."
"They liked it."
Janus heard the change to plural and winced. "How can you be sure of that? Just because their bodies reacted . . ."
Michael sighed, placing the crop back with the other equipment. "Janus, a whore has a very great advantage over any other person in the world. Let us say you're a married man and you ask your wife whether she enjoyed her time in bed with you. If she says yes, you have no way of knowing whether she is telling the truth."
"So how does a prostitute know what the truth is?" Janus asked in a tight voice.
"By a simple test. He waits to see whether the man he has just beaten comes back and pays money to be beaten again." Michael rose to his feet and gestured to Janus, saying, "The furniture was delivered while you were in the servants' wing, clearing the kitchen. Come see what it looks like."
Janus could not help but notice that Michael had picked up the crop again, seemingly without conscious thought.
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