He saw his master's boat long before it arrived, skimming over the afternoon-bright waters of the Bay. The closer the lithe vessel approache[Excerpt:]
He saw his master's boat long before it arrived, skimming over the afternoon-bright waters of the Bay. The closer the lithe vessel approached, the deeper the sun dipped in the sky, and the more the grey clouds huddled together like cloaked guests awaiting the start of a dinner party. Meredith began to worry that Master Carr would arrive so late in the day that he and Meredith would be trapped there overnight, with a storm approaching. Then Meredith recalled that a house awaited them, with four walls and a roof to shut out the wind and the water – a haven on an island that he had always considered a haven, since the time he left it as a child.
The Bay, which sliced like a knife between the two shores of the Dozen Landsteads, was already growing choppy from the upcoming storm by the time that the skipjack anchored, a few yards from shore. By that time, Meredith was hiding in a grove of loblolly pines, so he did not see the yawl carry Carr from the skipjack to the island. However, he did hear the uncultured voice of a servant say, "You sure you don't want us to come back, sir? Looks like a rough place to stay the night, and there's a blow coming in on the tide."
Meredith did not hear Carr's reply, but it must have been reassuring, for when he peeked out again, he saw that the little yawl was being hauled aboard the skipjack, while Carr stood on the shell-strewn beach, his back to Meredith, his hand waving farewell to the crew who had brought him to the island.
The anchor came up, the rising wind bellowed the sails full, and the crew began the painful job of turning the skipjack and tacking their way back to the Western Shore from whence they had come. They would be eager to return home, Meredith knew, for tonight was the final day of the festival week of Spring Manhood, when servants would feast in honor of their masters.
Meredith had never attended such a feast, either as a master or as a servant. He never would, he knew. He would be embarrassed to be toasted by servants who believed him to be a master, and as for receiving the joy of toasting his own master . . . It was enough that he finally had a master, after so many years spent masquerading as one.
Or so he told himself.
Pushing aside all lingering longings to live the life of an ordinary servant, Meredith waited until the skipjack was well away. Then he walked forward to join Carr, who was standing erect on the beach, watching the slender, long-necked boat depart. Meredith reached Carr just in time to catch hold of his secret master, as the heir to the High Mastership of the Second Landstead dropped to his knees and began to wretch.
Alarmed, Meredith turned automatically back to his liege-service training, holding Carr's forehead steady while wrapping his arm around his master's back. As soon as the last of the vile black-green liquid was no longer pouring from Carr's mouth, Meredith ascertained that his master remained steady on his knees. Then Meredith released Carr, searched the pockets of his own jacket, and offered the heir what he could: a clean handkerchief and a small canteen of water.
Carr accepted both, though he drank only a single gulp of water before returning the canteen to Meredith. "Thank you," he said in a faint voice, forever polite.
"Sir, are you well? Shall I signal your boat to return?" Meredith turned his eye toward the horizon. The skipjack was probably too far now to sight any signal, but at this hour, when watermen made their way home to nearby Hoopers Island, many fishing boats would be travelling alongside this western beach of Barren Island, for the eastern channel between Barren Island and Hoopers Island was too shallow for navigation. Meredith could flag down one of the boats; or if his signal-flags were ignored, the house that awaited them still had signal-fires stored in its cellar.
But Carr was shaking his head. "I'm all right. It was a bad crossing."
Meredith looked again at the waves, blood-red now from the setting sun. The waves furrowed the Bay, as though a great plow had been drawn across it. On the horizon, the skipjack bobbed its way across the furrows.
He had entirely forgotten, over all these past, joyful weeks, a passing remark that Master M Carruthers had made one day, early in their acquaintance. "I tend to get seasick," Carr had said in the midst of a recital of the boat-mastering skills he planned to acquire during the coming holiday from school.
Carr tended to get seasick; and yet he had travelled here upon Meredith's invitation, on a stormy afternoon, rather than return to their boarding school on Hoopers Island on any calm day he could have chosen.
"I think I'll walk back to school," Carr added with a touch of his usual dry humor as he rose slowly to his feet.
He was quite serious, Meredith realized. At low tide, the channel between Barrens Island and Hoopers Island was shallow enough that it could be waded, albeit at the expense of wet trousers. It was by no means the sort of activity that the heir to a landstead should undertake. Yet it was clear that Carr preferred wading like a servant to taking another boat over the water.
Appalled now at his own insensitivity and lack of foresight, Meredith said, "Master Carr, if you prefer, I would be glad to have you stay overnight at my old house. It has two bedrooms," he added as Carr turned to look at him. He did not want his master to think that he was acting like one of those servants in boys' comics, seeking to seduce his master. Aside from the single kiss that Carr had granted him on the night of their pledges to each other, light touches on the arm were all that Carr had given him so far. Meredith was still glorying in having a master who showed him any affection at all; he did not wish to endanger his service by demanding more.
Now there was a slight quirk at the edge of Carr's mouth. "A dry bed on steady ground would do a good deal to heal my stomach, I'll confess. Is your house far?"
"Just a mile from here, sir, on the eastern beach of the island. If it should please you to come this way . . ."
His original plan, born during the anxious minutes spent awaiting the start of his entrance exam for university, had been to show Carr his childhood. To take Carr to see the old haunts of his early boyhood, where he had lived before he began his terrible, painful years as a bullied schoolboy. Here on this island were the hidden havens of animals that he had found and secretly watched during those early, happy years, living alone on Barren Island with his father, keeper of the navigation beacons on the island.
Now his father was gone, learning to be a sailor in the Dozen Landsteads's Oyster Navy, which enforced the oyster laws. The lamphouse where his father had lived for the last seven years, and where Meredith had stayed during school holidays, had been given over to another lamphouse keeper. All that remained of Meredith's childhood, aside from the school where he had too many painful memories, was this island and the cozy little house where he and his father had once lived.
"It isn't very big," he explained now as he and Carr made their way around the edges of a salt marsh. "Father bought it when he first rose to the rank of master. It only has a single storey, plus an attic. It had room enough for him and my mother and one or two children. Father's liege-master loaned him the money—"
"And your father paid back the loan?" Carr paused as Meredith went forward to raise a needle-spiky branch out of his way.
"Yes, sir. He paid back Captain Pembroke long ago. My father has enough money saved now that he could buy a larger house . . . but after my mother died, there were no more children, just me, and I'll be going to university next autumn. If I'm accepted," he added with a pang of worry. He was a good student, but until recently he had assumed that he would be attending the university of his own landstead, the Third Landstead University. The university he had actually applied for had different examination questions than he had anticipated; he was still not sure whether he had passed the exam.
And if he had not . . .
Uncharacteristically – for Carr was always quick to pick up on Meredith's worries and to find ways to reassure him – Carr said merely, "Are you sure that the house will still be in good condition? It has been many years."
"Oh, yes, master," Meredith replied quickly. "Nobody comes here anymore, so there would be no thefts."
Carr raised his eyebrows. "Not even hunters?" He waved toward a long-billed willet, half-hidden in the cordgrass.
"Not these days, sir. Back in my father's childhood, it was different, because of the least terns."
Carr creased his forehead. "The least what?"
It surprised Meredith still when his master, so skilled in talk of government and politics, would reveal himself ignorant of the wildlife that had surrounded him for years. "A seabird, sir. It looks a bit like a gull, but it's smaller, with a forked tail. It likes to nest in open spaces such as beaches, so it was easy prey for the hunters, who would sell the least terns' feathers to the millineries – feathered hats are very popular among the women. My father said that, when he was a child, the beaches on Barren Island used to be entirely white-and-grey like shadowed snow, so many least terns nested there."
He paused; Carr's eyes had wandered away from him. Meredith said quickly, "I'm sorry, master. It was of no importance. I apologize for having bored you with such matters."
His throat ached as he spoke. It had always been like this with Captain Pembroke's son too. Young Master Pembroke could tolerate very little of Meredith's chattering about the island's wildlife. Why, in the name of all that was sacred, was Meredith making the same mistake with Master Carr?
Carr shook his head slowly, as though barely hearing what Meredith had said. "No, I—" Carr stopped mid-sentence, leaning against the scaly trunk of a loblolly. There was sweat on his forehead.
Concerned, Meredith asked, "Master, do you wish to make use of me by taking my arm?"
Carr gave a weak smile then. "Meredith, I can think of many ways in which I wish to make use of you, but treating you as a cane is not one of them. Lead on, liegeman."
Meredith quickened his pace; the sky was growing dark, and he did not wish him and Carr to be lost in the pine-shadowed marshland overnight. As a child, he had spent many an evening sitting beside the pond near his house – really a tidal pool – listening to the mysterious sounds of leopard frogs, muskrats, snapping turtles, fiddler crabs, herons, and marsh wrens. His father had permitted this, once he had ascertained that Meredith carried an almost magical ability to calm any animal that initially considered him a threat.
But that was many years ago, and from what Meredith had already seen during their crossing of Barren Island, the island had changed over the years. This had been a brackish pond in the old days, a mixture of freshwater and salt, but now it was entirely a saltwater marsh; he could tell that from the change in plants. The cattails he remembered had disappeared, replaced by cordgrass. There were fewer animals too; the harsher conditions of the salt marsh had driven most of them away.
It was odd; he wondered how it had happened. Then he remembered (on the edge of his memory, like a smudge of land on the horizon of the Bay) the reason that he and his father had lived alone on an island where once hundreds of people had lived.
It had occurred around the time of his birth, the final abandonment of Barren Island. His haven, as he had always regarded it, had ceased to be liveable for most of the inhabitants, who had built their houses close to the channel between Barren Island and Hoopers Island. The water had crept in, inch by inch every year, and then acre by acre. The channel that had once been ankle-high at low tide now rose far higher than that. Barren Island had begun to submerge as the waters rose, eating away at the houses and farmland.
That was eighteen years ago. Meredith's chest felt suddenly painful, as though it had been hit by an oar. He knew – he thought he knew – what they would see when they emerged from the trees.
It took Carr a long time to speak when they reached the beach. Finally he said, "Well, perhaps wading across to Hoopers Island would not be so wise an idea after all. The water seems to have risen somewhat."
Meredith could not speak. He was Carr's liegeman. Indeed, he was Carr's servant, by choice rather than by official rank. He had dual reason to ensure the comfort and safety of the young man standing beside him.
Instead, he had invited his seasick master over stormy waves to visit an abandoned island and stay at a house that was crumbling into ruins. . . ....more
He came down the mountain one early summer afternoon, toward the end of what had not yet been dubbed the Hydrogen War. He was just in time t
He came down the mountain one early summer afternoon, toward the end of what had not yet been dubbed the Hydrogen War. He was just in time to catch the climax of the war.
His goal was to find a replacement for Melinda. Not that he believed he could. He had read the newsfiches. Yet he retained faint hope that someone like Melinda still existed and might want to be his companion.
Jet-cars passed him repeatedly. He ducked every time that happened, envisioning the car's riders staring down at him, even though the skyway was as high above him as the skyhomes that soared on their slender stalks. He had lived in such a home, once.
The groundhomes, where the poorer folk dwelt, worried him more. He sidled through the countryside, skirting the city of Cumberland at the foot of the mountain. Just as he was congratulating himself on his successful effort to avoid being seen, he rounded a forest and found himself facing a person.
He stepped back, intending to flee. But he could not, for the person was an old lady, and she was lying on the ground.
"Well, there you are," she said in a cheerful fashion, as though she had been awaiting him. "I figured that someone would find me eventually. It's this hip of mine. Makes it difficult for me to pick myself up when I fall. Will you lend me your arm?"
He'd as soon have cut off his arm and left it to do the work on its own. But he couldn't abandon her. With his heart thumping, he approached, taking care not to look her in the eye. He helped her up. It was like helping Melinda up after she had taken a spill, he told himself.
"Thank you very much, young man," the old lady said briskly when she was on her feet. "I used to have a cat who would squall something fierce when I fell down; she always attracted the attention of the neighbors. But last year . . . I still can't understand it. Why they killed all the pets, I mean," she added, as though it weren't obvious what she meant. "The Vovimians claimed their sonic weapons were intended to kill the dogs in the Yclau army, but to kill every pet in the Midcoast nations. . . . But here I am, chattering away." She smiled and offered her arm to shake. "I'm Mrs. William Allegany. You are . . . ?"
He said nothing. He couldn't have spoken, even if he were normal. Every pet, she'd said. Every pet in the four nations along the Midcoast of the Northern Continent.
He couldn't travel outside the Midcoast. He had no passport. Maybe he could buy an imported dog?
Mrs. Allegany's smile faded as it became clear he would not shake her arm. He should leave now, before matters worsened. Instead, he fumbled with a piece of paper from his pocket. He dropped it. Just an accident, that was all.
"Oh, dear." Mrs. Allegany looked down, then reached over with a gardening fork she had apparently been using to weed before she fell. She spiked the paper with it. "I can't bend down these days," she said with a smile. "Arthritis, you know. Is this yours? Or is it for me?"
He stared up at where the skyway remained thick with jet-cars. The paper was nothing to do with him. It had left him; it was no longer his.
But as he heard the paper rustle in her hands, he knew what it said.
Hello! My name is Melinda. I'm Phillip Schafer's service dog. Due to social neurosis, my master is unable to communicate directly with you. However, he can give messages to me, and I can give them to you. You don't need to write a message back. Just speak to me, and he will overhear what you say. Thank you! I'm so happy to meet you!
Mrs. Allegany raised her gaze from the paper, but only as far as Phillip's hands. He was holding now the collar, with Melinda's name upon it.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Mrs. Allegany said softly.
Phillip looked down at the dog collar, feeling tears prickle his eyes.
Having said this, Bat tossed another shovelful of dirt to the side and paused to wipe his brow free of swe[Excerpt:]
"Well, I've surely been schooled."
Having said this, Bat tossed another shovelful of dirt to the side and paused to wipe his brow free of sweat. The midsummer morning was clear, with not a cloud in the sky to provide them with shade. The trench they were digging remained too shallow at this point to throw shadows.
"Oh my blessed, you're right about that." Frank took up the refrain as his pickaxe chiselled another rock. "When I get my first job out there, and the master asks me what schooling I received here, I'll say, 'Why, sir, I was learned to break rocks.'"
Frank rarely voiced bitterness; that he did so now was a sign of how exhausted the boys were. Bat looked wearily over at the pails of water that Trusty had taken care to place near the boys. The water would last till sunset. He wasn't sure he would.
Bending down to scoop up a bucket of mud, Emmanuel said, "Might as well be in the Men's Penitentiary. Makes no difference to the work we do."
"Two thousand nine hundred feet long," Joe added as he reached down to lift Frank's broken rock into the wheelbarrow. "That's what the Super said the tunnel will be. Two thousand nine hundred feet times seventeen feet is—"
"Stop showing off." Emmanuel took a halfhearted swipe at him, then turned and shouted, "Hoi! Leave him alone!"
Bat turned to look. White-faced as he struggled to push another wheelbarrow full of dirt and mud and rock up the incline to the campus lawn, Mordecai was being blocked by one of the boys who worked in the main dormitory of Family Cottage Trustworthy – the "Big Dorm," as everyone called it now. Several of the other boys, who were assigned to take charge of the wheelbarrow once Mordecai reached the lawn, were laughing at the young boy's efforts to get past the barrier.
"We got to come over there and paste you?" demanded Joe.
Bat looked uneasily at where Trusty stood on the lawn. The young man was deep in conversation with the Superintendent, but it was unlikely he had missed hearing Joe's threat. For now, though, he seemed contented to let the quarrelling boys settle themselves.
The boys in the Big Dorm looked inclined to fight, if only to defend their honor, but at that moment Slow, with impeccable timing, returned from using the toilet in their cottage. He took one look at Mordecai and said, "Aw, that's too heavy for you. Let me help. We better help, right?" He turned toward the boys who had been teasing Mordecai. "Because we're big and he's little."
With the situation voiced in that stark fashion, the boys of the Big Dorm shrugged and moved forward to relieve Mordecai of the wheelbarrow. As they did so, Mordecai began to fall to his knees. Slow caught him and carefully escorted him back to where another packed wheelbarrow awaited him.
The boys of the Big Dorm took a second look at the small group digging the trench for the steam pipes, then evidently decided not to pursue the matter further. It was well known by now that the boys in the Little Dorm – as they'd been dubbed – were close pals who always protected one another. Separated at night from the other boys of Family Cottage Trustworthy, they formed their own little community, like a family within a family.
Bat watched Mordecai with concern as the young boy paused to lean against a boulder, panting. His legs were shaking. Joe, however, had turned his attention back to the work at hand. He said, "We got Comrade Carruthers to thank for this, you know. He gave the money for the steam plant."
Restored to his usual good humor by the pause in labor, Frank said, "At least we won't be cold at night."
"I'd never let you get cold, honey boy." Joe flung this observation over his shoulder as he bent down to scoop up more mud.
Emmanuel gave a snort then, and Bat and Slow exchanged smiles. Everyone in the Little Dorm knew that Joe had taken to sneaking into Frank's bed after lights were out. Even Trusty knew, because he'd caught them sleeping peacefully together one morning. Since it was clear that both boys were where they wanted to be, and since they were both fully clothed in their underwear, Trusty had confined himself to telling them that they'd best not take the matter any further than they had, or they'd be in trouble with the Night Watchman.
He had left them in an agony of curiosity as to what happened "further."
Bat had been amused. One week, not long before he was arrested, a childhood playmate of his had invited him to tea with her mother. The mother had proceeded to explain to him – with drawings, no less – what constituted "further" when it came to boys and girls, with an added explanation that he mustn't go too far with any girl he wasn't marrying. Then she had shooed them out of the room, saying, "Bat, you can go to Sally's bedroom now. I'm sure you two want to play." And they had.
Now, leaning against his shovel, Bat spared a thought of regret for Sally. She was so pretty that she'd likely be married by the time he got out of prison. In the meantime . . . His gaze wandered over to Emmanuel, who had removed his jacket and shirt to work, revealing from his physique that he was well on his way to manhood. Bat figured that, if he turned up at Emmanuel's bedside one night, Emmanuel would likely invite him under the sheets, in his easygoing fashion. They could go a lot further than Joe and Frank had. Bat knew by now that such arrangements were common in the House of Transformation, though always risky in family cottages not placed under Trusty's benevolent rule. The Superintendent, a widower who had no doubt served his liege-master in bed during his youth, had taken it into his head that the inmates' bed-play was "filthy."
Bat forced his weary limbs back to work. He liked Emmanuel, as he liked all the boys in the Little Dorm, but he had no interest in establishing the sorts of ties that might bind him here when the time came for him to leave. He'd declared that to Trusty on the first day, and he hadn't changed his mind since then. This place was a prison, not a home; he'd wait till he was out of here before joining himself with anyone else in love.
He'd missed part of the conversation; Emmanuel was saying, ". . . Most of the farms around here belong to him. The farmers are his tenants. No wonder he wants to place us out with the farmers. We're free labor to him, even when we're paroled."
Bat cast another quick glance in the direction of Trusty. Trusty had moved his conversation with the Superintendent a few yards from the trench, no doubt to prevent the Super from overhearing this conversation.
"Is the House of Transformation's farmer the Super's tenant?" asked Frank.
Emmanuel shrugged as he knelt down in the mud with his bucket. "Might as well be. He's married to Super's daughter. —Hoi, watch out." This was to Mordecai who was in danger of staggering in front of Frank's pickaxe, having returned from delivering his latest load.
Bat caught hold of Mordecai as Joe said, "I heard the farmer and his wife can't have children, even though they've been trying for years."
The other boys exchanged looks, but nobody voiced any doubts. Joe was always up to date on the campus gossip.
"But she's pretty!" cried Slow, who had not quite mastered yet the rules for how children were produced.
"She surely is," said Joe appreciatively as he paused to take out his matches, first glancing around to ensure that none of the boys from the Big Dorm were watching. Super and Trusty remained absorbed in their conversation. Slow went over to help Mordecai push the wheelbarrow up the incline.
A question had been forming in Bat's mind for several weeks. Now, with Mordecai gone, Bat blurted out the question: "Joe, did you have anything to do with that ferry fire that killed Mordecai's parents?"
Frank looked shocked. From the expression on Emmanuel's face, Bat surmised that this possibility had occurred to him too.
Joe simply gave Bat a sour look. "There were folks on that ferry. Not just men and women – kids too. I'm not a murderer."
"His master's boat was empty," Frank said in quick support.
"So why'd you set it on fire?" asked Emmanuel with mild curiosity. "'Cause you hated your master?"
"That fire?" Joe gave a wicked smile. "That fire was fun." He pulled out his box of cigarettes.
Emmanuel snorted again as he paused to drink another full dipper of water from one of the pails. Bat paused too. As Slow and Mordecai returned, Frank tossed dippers to them while Joe tamped down the end of his cigarette. Cigarettes were the most precious contraband on campus; inmates who were forcibly returned from parole would sneak back boxes of cigarettes and sell them for favors. Emmanuel, who received gifts of fruit from his mother through the mail, regularly exchanged the fruit for cigarettes that he gave to Joe. Emmanuel figured – probably correctly, Bat thought as he watched Joe lovingly strike a match – that this was the safest way to channel Joe's worship of fire.
"Can I try one?" asked Frank, staring at the cigarette.
"You ain't getting hooked on one of those coffin nails, boy," said Emmanuel as he placed Frank into a headlock. Joe laughed as Frank twisted free and thrust Emmanuel against the shallow wall of the trench. Newly returned, Slow pulled Mordecai to safety as the struggling boys thrust dirt all over the place. Bat dived to save the pails of water.
"All right, that's enough." It was Trusty's voice. The result of his arrival was striking. Frank immediately released Emmanuel. Bat rose to his feet, brushing dirt out of his hair and grabbing for his shovel. And Joe slipped the matchbox back into his drawers as he swept the lit cigarette behind his back.
"You're all here to work, not fight," Trusty told them. "Drink your water and get back to digging. Give me that." He held out his palm.
With a sigh, Joe handed him the cigarette. Trusty ground it underfoot as he said, "Matches too."
For a moment, it looked as though Joe would turn stubborn. Trusty tilted his head to one side. "You planning to eat supper tonight?"
The threat of the missed meal did its trick. With a deep heave of breath such as a martyred slave might emit, Joe took out the matches and handed them to Trusty. Slow had been looking exceedingly nervous during this conversation, but there was really no reason. Trusty never beat the boys in his care. At most, he'd tell the Super that a misbehaving boy deserved to be lowered by a merit-grade, but that rarely happened. Trusty anticipated and caught problems early on, before they had time to worsen, perhaps because he was an inmate himself.
Trusty treated the matches with the same contempt as the cigarette, dowsing them in a pail that held a bare inch of water. Emmanuel raised his eyebrows. The Watchman, they all knew, would confiscate matches and cigarettes from boys, and then he'd sell the contraband to journeymen who were being released from prison with a few coins in their pocket. Trusty could not fail to know that he was destroying a healthy profit for himself.
"Back to work," Trusty instructed; then he beckoned to Bat. Bat set down his shovel and came forward, ignoring the looks that the other boys gave him – the looks that the other boys always gave him when Trusty took him aside for a lecture. Without any word ever spoken between them, Trusty had established himself as Bat's private mentor, giving him a quiet word on the side whenever Bat began to stray from the straight path.
Bat wondered what he had done this time. He'd been trying for weeks to behave properly, though it wasn't easy, especially on week's end, when the cleric from the local chapel would stand in the transformatory chapel, thundering down his denunciations of the boys' evil ways. Afterwards, on the campus lawn, there would be drill inspection by the Superintendent, which was even harder to take, for the Super invariably had an "encouraging" word for each well-behaved family cottage about how far the boys had come from their days of ill repute. Bat sometimes suspected that the journeymen kept their family cottages in everlasting turmoil simply in order to avoid these speeches.
He and Trusty passed the boys in the Big Dorm and came out of the trench. The sun blazed like flames from a house-fire. Trusty, who was wearing a straw hat like those worn by all the inmates who did outside work, took it off to fan himself, one of the few times he had ever hinted that he suffered as badly as his fellow inmates.
Trusty looked tired. Bat had heard him get up during the middle of the night when he was fetched by the Watchman to fix some plumbing problem that had developed with the Super's toilet. He often did chores like that around the campus; Bat had overheard the Superintendent refer to him as "my man-of-all-work."
Now Trusty said, "Your transfer has come through. You start tomorrow morning."
He couldn't help hopping on his toes with joy. "At the campus farm? What about the other boys?"
"Harry is being transferred to the stables. The rest of the Little Dorm stays in the broom manufactory."
His spirits abruptly fell. He looked back at the boys. Emmanuel, Slow, Frank, and Joe were all laughing over a joke, but Mordecai, who was trying to turn the wheelbarrow around, looked as though he was about to pass out.
"Say, can't he be left off this work?" As he spoke, Bat pointed at the younger boy. "He's not made for this. He's a domestic, and he's too young to be hauling rocks anyhow. Even working the fields would be better for him than this."
Trusty took his time in answering. Finally he said, "You prepared to let him take the farm job in your place?"
The words fell like chunks of hot lead, searing through his insides. He looked back at the trench. Two thousand nine hundred feet, Joe had said. The tunnel would take months to dig. Months of shovelling in the blazing sun. . . ....more
At that moment, the door opened. A light spring breeze, fresh with the smell of Bay water, entered the store, along with a waterman, unmista[Excerpt:]
At that moment, the door opened. A light spring breeze, fresh with the smell of Bay water, entered the store, along with a waterman, unmistakable in his oilskin hat and coat and boots. Simmons caught a flash of the man's rank-mark on the back of his right wrist as he removed his glove: black.
The servant wasted no time in the doorway; he limped forward as Simmons's uncle said, "Ah, Sol. I'm glad to see you up and about. How's that leg of yours doing?"
"None too good." The servant's reply was so brief, and without proper salutation, that Simmons might have thought the waterman rude, but he noticed that the man had carefully removed his hat the moment that the owner of the general store spoke.
His uncle, at any rate, seemed to treat his remark as inoffensive. "I'm sorry about that – very sorry indeed. But you've found a new captain, I hear? How have the oysters been this winter?"
Sol shook his head as he removed a list from within his coat. "None too good neither. Way I figure, all the right good ones've been stole by those dredgers from the Western Shore."
His uncle sighed. "It's very sad, very sad indeed that there's such animosity between our landstead and the Second Landstead. That their boats should take oysters from our own territory . . . Ah, well, oyster season is over. And Captain Harvey is doing well, I suppose, if he could afford to hire you as his new man."
Sol shrugged as he laid the list on a lard barrel next to Simmons's uncle. "Needed couple more servants for his boat. He's still short a man. Come autumn, he'll be looking for more watermen."
"Really? He needs more crew, with all the watermen on this island?" Simmons's uncle took the list and peered at it through his spectacles.
"'Deed he do. He's like to hire a full-grown man, but an oyster-shucking boy would do." Sol's gaze wandered over to Simmons. After a moment, Simmons realized why, and he felt his face grow flush.
Travelling from the capital to Hoopers Island had been no problem; Simmons had simply hired a boat with most of the remaining money his father had given him for the brief period during which he would still need his family's income, before his liege-master should begin paying him. But Simmons's belongings had been a greater problem. He had not anticipated having to move them further than the bedroom that had long awaited him in the house of his liege-master's father.
With his plans turned awry, he had been forced to dispose of all but his most precious goods. Fortunately, school term had only just ended; he had been able to give many of his belongings to the servant who had tended his study-bedroom at Capital School.
His trunks, he had sent down to Hoopers Island by road. He had taken care to hire an automobile, naively believing that, with such a swift means of transportation, his trunks would be awaiting him when he arrived by boat.
His uncle had smothered a laugh when he heard this, then had patiently explained that most of the marshy roads between the capital and Hoopers Island were not yet paved. The roads on Hoopers Island were. The pavement consisted of logs and oyster shells.
Feeling very much an ignorant townboy, and envisioning the automobile wallowing in the mud – or even sinking without a trace in the marshes – Simmons had made do as best he could. His uncle, a portly man, had no clothes that would fit the new arrival, and his uncle's apprentice was several sizes too small. So Simmons – by now grateful for anything that would cover his body – had borrowed clothing from his uncle's manservant, a waterman who spent most of his days making deliveries by boat.
His uncle, looking up from the list and seeing Sol's gaze upon Simmons, seemed to realize the mistake that the waterman had made. Characteristically, he did not reprimand the erring servant. Placing his arm across Simmons's shoulder, he said, "This is my nephew, Jasper Simmons. His journeymanship birthday is coming next month, so he's staying with us this month while he decides which master he wishes to pledge his liege-service to."
Sol did not embarrass Simmons by asking, "Why did you wait till now?" But neither did he dip his eyes, as any well-trained servant would ordinarily do under such circumstances. All that he said was, "Right glad to meet you . . . sir."
The slight pause could have been taken any number of ways, but Simmons, staring into the waterman's eyes, suddenly realized that this was a servant who rarely addressed masters as sir.
Smiling at the special courtesy he had just been granted, Simmons said, "I'm glad to meet you as well, Servant Sol."
Then, and only then, did the waterman dip his eyes. And Simmons realized that he had been granted a deep courtesy indeed. Simmons wondered what, by all that was sacred, he had done to earn such honor.
His uncle squeezed Simmons's arm in some sort of silent accolade. "I won't keep you, Sol; I know you're busy. Some of these items will have to be wrapped. Your boat-master still docks at Back Creek? I'll have my apprentice bring the goods over, then."
"Master Simmons." Sol's slight nod of farewell encompassed both uncle and nephew; then he turned away.
At the doorway, he paused. Another man had just arrived, wearing a wool coat against the spring chill. He made some brief greeting, and Sol, hearing the man's refined accent, carefully stepped to one side to let the master enter.
"That's a good man," said Simmons's uncle softly as the door shut behind Sol. "A very good man. I'm glad you didn't take offense at his mistake."
"Why should I?" Simmons laughed as he turned to his uncle, but he kept his voice low as well, so as not to disturb the newly arrived master, who was now at the other end of the store, fingering a bottle of morphine.
His uncle raised his eyebrows. "Some masters would be very offended indeed to be mistaken for a servant."
"Oh, but I look like a servant at the moment." Simmons stared down at his shabby clothing. "It's not his fault. I suppose I ought really to change out of these, lest I mislead—"
A bell, higher in pitch than a fog-bell, interrupted his speech. His uncle glanced out the window facing the water and said, "Postal boat. It's early today."
"Shall I help you bring in the mail, Uncle?" asked Simmons.
"No, no, my lad. You stay here and tend the customers." His third-ranked uncle patted Simmons's shoulder somewhat awkwardly.
Simmons could understand why. He was still becoming used to it himself, his rise in rank. At school, he had always held the awkward position of being the son of a third-ranked master who was very, very rich. Now, after many years, the Third Landstead's House of Government had eased the lack of alignment between their family's wealth and rank by granting to Simmons's father the title of Envoy Extraordinary, assigning him duties in an overseas nation in the Old World and raising him to second rank.
Until that time, as a third-ranked lad, Simmons's choices were clear: as a journeyman, he could train under his father, under a third-ranked master, or under a second-ranked master – not under a first-ranked master, as he futilely tried to point out to his first-ranked schoolfellow Eugene on many occasions.
But now Simmons was second-ranked. He could train under a first-ranked master. He could even pledge his liege-loyalty to that master.
"I told you it would work out," Eugene had squealed, hugging the older boy on the day that Simmons received the news of his eligibility to be Eugene's liegeman. And Simmons had hugged Eugene back, stunned and joyful at this turn of events.
But it had not worked out – not in the end. . . ....more
It was the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the world was changing. Ships sailed the ocean, exploring the Old World that had been lef[Excerpt:]
It was the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the world was changing. Ships sailed the ocean, exploring the Old World that had been left behind long ago, in ancient times. A new faith swept the nations of the New World with fervor, promising the possibility of rebirth, not only in a future lifetime, but now. And in a small, sunny room of his castle that grew stifling hot in the summertime, High Master Fernao experimented with new ways in which to create sculptures.
Pip, his piece, stood for hours on end in the sculpting room, occasionally turning his eyes to glance through the window. Outside, fishing boats skimmed the waters of the Bay as they came to port at Solomons Island, offshore from where the High Master's castle stood. He could smell the scent of crabs as they scrabbled in their cages, desperately trying to escape their fate as they were unloaded onto the docks. He could watch as the fishermen secured their captives.
But he preferred to watch his master at work. While Pip stood in the heat, sweating and itching, High Master Fernao would carefully sculpt the cooling wax, revealing what lay within the wax. Slowly, ever so slowly, a face would emerge: a strong face, set with eyes that sought something beyond the horizon.
The face never smiled. Pip had watched the High Master try to sculpt smiles – had followed the High Master's orders to smile – but the smile was never quite right. . . ....more
He waited until Medinger was out of the way; then he brought the pistol up, two-handed, in a smooth arc that ended at the moment he pulled the triggerHe waited until Medinger was out of the way; then he brought the pistol up, two-handed, in a smooth arc that ended at the moment he pulled the trigger six times, in rapid succession.
The bullets flowed from his pistol as though eager to be away. When he had finished, he didn't bother looking at the target to see how well he had shot. He gestured to Medinger, who raced forth to change the target. The lad was back again within seconds, holding the used target and crying, "My lord, that was wonderful! I've never seen anything like that!"
He glanced up from where he was inserting a fresh magazine. Six bullets he had fired, but it was impossible to tell that, for they had all landed where he had aimed them: at the heart of the bullseye. All that could be seen was one small hole that every bullet had slipped through.
There were evenings when the bullets landed that way: straight and true and with the beauty that had once won Starke a reputation as the finest marksman in the Mippite army.
There were other evenings – far too many, lately – when Starke spent all his pent-up frustration in the claiming room, and then stared at the ceiling for several hours, lying in the claiming bed, smoking sweetweed, and thinking about his ill fortune at having become a prison guard. When he entered the shooting gallery on evenings like that, all his bullets went awry, landing no closer in than Landry's.
He was glad this was one of his good evenings. Feeling expansive in his charity, he asked, "Would you like to shoot a round?"
Medinger's eyes widened. Smiling, Starke handed him the gun as he said, "Careful – it's loaded and ready to shoot. Don't point it toward either of us, and keep your finger away from the trigger until you're ready to shoot." He made sure the lad was following instructions; then he turned to set aside the box that had held the extra ammunition.
The gun fired six times, in rapid succession.
Starke whirled round. "I didn't say that you could shoot yet," he announced in the awful voice he reserved for prisoners who failed to obey his commands.
White-faced, Medinger handed the empty pistol back to him. "I'm sorry, my lord. I mistook your wishes."
"In prison work, mistakes can result in death. You're not to touch that gun again – do you understand?"
Medinger nodded, his expression bleak. Impatiently, Starke gestured to the servant to change the target. Starke inspected the pistol carefully, then reloaded it a second time and slid forward the safety bolt. By the time he was finished, Medinger had returned. The lad placed the used target on top of the other targets.
Starke glanced at it, then away, making no comment. Medinger's expression fell further.
Starke handed him the empty ammunition box. "Put this back in place, and I'll take you over to the outbuildings. Be quick about it."
Medinger murmured an acknowledgment, and then he backed out of the room hastily. Starke waited until he was gone before looking at the target again.
Six bullets. Five had landed on the first ring. The sixth had landed on the bullseye.
After a minute more, he slipped the pistol into his jacket pocket and left the shooting gallery. Not his problem. Tom would have to figure out how to deal with a servant who had the ability to kill him. ...more
The "lads," the prisoners who were required to offer their service, fell silent. There were about two dozen of them – just enough to make a ti
The "lads," the prisoners who were required to offer their service, fell silent. There were about two dozen of them – just enough to make a tight line across the length of the wide gate. Tyrrell moved closer into his corner, until all the lads merged in his sight, and then he peered cautiously around the corner toward the guards.
Pugh spoke briskly. "Medinger?" He looked up at the balcony, where Medinger had just walked into view.
"Pass," replied the guard, leaning onto the balcony railing.
There was light laughter from the other guards. One of them said, "And you'll keep passing till the magisterial seats send us female prisoners."
"I know that you're not interested in claiming a lad," Pugh said in an annoyed voice. "You're not eligible, anyway. I'm asking about Keeper. It's his turn."
Medinger shook his head. "Our Keeper is passing as well. He's already left for town – didn't you hear the riot doors ring the alarm half an hour ago? He left when I came in from the auxiliary wing."
"What in Hell's name is wrong with Tom Keeper?" asked one of the guards, to nobody in particular. "Is he planning to act like a lovelorn man for the rest of his life?"
"He'll recover," said Pugh. "Whose turn is it next?"
"Yours, as you very well know," said Landry. "I don't think you've forgotten that you're second in rank here."
"Maybe we should wait until the night watch arrives," suggested another guard.
"They're not eligible to claim," said someone else. "They're on duty during claiming hours."
"Yes, but they always seem to arrive for duty at the same moment that the lad is brought out for his claiming. If we waited till they entered the outbuildings, then we wouldn't have the riot doors screeching just when the taking starts. The first few minutes are always the best."
"If you think I'm going to take a lad in front of you lot, you're mad," rejoined Pugh. "I don't put on performances. Medinger, is the claiming room clean? It was a pigsty the last time I used it."
"Bed-sheets were changed today," said Medinger, his voice clipped short. "New toiletries as well. And Keeper told me to remind everyone that this prison's regulations require the use of a sheath whenever there is penetration—"
The rest of what he said was lost in loud laughter that came from the other guards. His voice rising above the others, Landry said, "Fifteen drilling years he's been going on about that. It's like living with a schoolmarm."
"Oh?" said Medinger. "Well, you're welcome to drill naked if you like, Landry. What's the name of that lad whom Chambers gave the Damnation to, a few weeks before Chambers died?"
The laughter cut off abruptly. Starke, who had lit another cigarette, smiled as he said, "Medinger, you're wasted as Keeper's orderly. You should be in the army. They need soldiers who can shoot straight into the belly."
"The issue is moot." Pugh's voice had returned to his usual tone of boredom. "I always use a sheath. I wouldn't trust myself inside one of those filthy lads otherwise. Landry, are you and Starke ready?"
"Ready and willing," replied Landry, pulling himself back from the parapet in order to take hold of his machine rifle.
"Medinger, take charge of the switch."
Medinger remained motionless. "I'm on the night watch. I don't take orders from you, Pugh."
Pugh muttered something under his breath, and then said, "Niesely."
"On my way." Niesely mounted the right-hand stairway, taking two steps at a time. Pugh turned his head toward the gate.
Tyrrell ducked back in the brief second before Pugh's gaze swung in his direction. He looked over at the lads. He could only see the one closest to him, an older lad with lines of experience on his face. The lad's expression was set, but his hands were white-knuckled on the bars.
"You." It was Pugh's voice, flat. "The one with the rag on your leg."
The claimed lad's shout of rage was overwhelmed by the scream of the gate alarm. The other lads scurried back, leaving an open space next to the gate that was filled now only with two prisoners: the claimed lad, who was shaking his head over and over, and his mate, who had his hands on the claimed lad's arms as he spoke to the other lad.
Whatever he was saying, it was not reaching his mate. "No!" shouted the claimed lad, so loudly that he could be heard over the alarm. "I won't do it again! Not with Pugh!" He pulled himself away from his mate at the same moment that the alarm ended, taking a dozen rapid steps away from the gate.
"Wild lad!" The shout came from Ahiga, somewhere beyond Tyrrell's view. "All back! All ba—!"
The rest of his words were broken off by the sound of machine-rifle fire as bullets blazed thick into the prison.
I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant daysExcerpt:
I had trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why; sleep had always been my one blessing at Mercy, transporting me back to the pleasant days preceding my arrest. I usually woke with a smile on my face. But tonight, tired though I was, I found myself staring up at the ceiling, hour after tedious hour, wishing there were cracks there that I could count.
Some of the prisoners had started a debate the previous year over what was most painful about Mercy. Was it the separation from family and friends? The beatings? The humiliations? The backbreaking work? The rapes? The list went on and on.
I hadn't participated in the debate, which, like all such conversations, had taken the form of shouts exchanged between the cells. There was a reason I'd been granted the luxury of a single-man cell: my last three cellmates had been prepared to murder me rather than live another moment with me. Since the death of a prisoner was not, alas, one of the many pains permitted at a life prison, Mercy's Keeper had finally dealt with the problem by giving me a cell of my own – which, of course, had been my plan all along. It was irritating to have to endure being strangled three times in order to achieve what I wanted.
Particularly since I couldn't hope that the stranglings would be successful.
Though I had no desire to become chummy with the bog-scum who inhabited this place, my own unspoken contribution to the debate was that boredom was the greatest pain. Boredom didn't come often – most days after work I was barely awake enough to do whatever my present guard required of me – but when it occurred, it was excruciating, like being flayed slowly by a dagger. I often thought that, if I were ever broken into madness, it would be through such a spell of boredom.
I say all this to explain why, when I heard the cell door being opened at lamp-lighting time, my first thought was not (as one might expect), "Oh, no, not again," but rather, "Thank the gods, something new." I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to look.
He was a slightly built man; I could see that at once from the outline of his shape against the fire in the pit. With my eyes still dazzled by the newly lit lamps, I couldn't immediately make out the man's face, but I could see one of his hands, gripping hard the hilt of his dagger. That grip stopped my heart for a moment, but even my wildest imagination couldn't hope that the new guard would start our acquaintance by stabbing me, so I raised my eyes to his face.
And my heart stopped once more. I jerked upright in bed, twinging an old hip wound as I did so. I had been rather foolish during my first year, testing the guards in various ways. I winced.
The guard said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Not at all," I said through gritted teeth as I rubbed my hip. "I'll return the favor when I can."
It took no artifice on my part to sound annoyed, though the annoyance was aimed solely at myself. This was not the guard I had been preparing myself for. I had expected a rod-mutilating monster, and what I found myself faced with was a young man.
His face came full into the light as he stepped forward. Wearing the uniform of a Compassion guard, he looked even more like his father: he had the same thin lips and the same straight eyebrows. But the eyes were empty of all coldness – indeed, of all expression of any sort – and there was no smile on his lips, cruel or otherwise.
"My name is Thomas," he said. "I'm your new guard."
I noted the use of his given name rather than his paternal name, and with the instinct of a veteran fighter I dropped and made my attack accordingly. "Ah, yes," I said. "The son of Compassion's Keeper. I can expect great deeds from you, I'm sure."
His lips grew even thinner, but that was all; it seemed that he was well used to this mode of attack. He said, as though I had not spoken, "My job is to provide service to you during your stay at this prison, and to make your stay as comfortable as is possible under your circumstances. If you have any needs, I hope you will let me know of them."
I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then I gave a hoot of laughter that resounded through the entire level. The early-morning conversations across the fire-pit paused briefly, and Sedgewick, who was passing my cell, glanced in with narrowed eyes before continuing on.
"Let me – let me understand you correctly," I said, struggling to gain control of myself. "You'll give me any service I want?"
"Any service that is in accordance with the rules of your stay."
"But the only rule is that I should not be permitted escape, either through death or any other means. So you'll give me anything else?"
"If it's within reason, yes."
"Anything at all?"
"Tell me what you want, and I'll be able to give you a firm answer." His patience, I saw with delight, was wearing down.
"Fine," I said, leaning back and pulling off the blanket to reveal my body underneath. I had given up wearing clothes at bedtime several guards before. "I want you to come over here and service me on your knees." ...more
He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune toExcerpt:
He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune to be serviced by. The chill of the ground, combined with his wetness, had set him shivering, and he could taste blood in his mouth where his teeth had caught his cheek as he fell. In an automatic manner, he checked his teeth. They were all there, except for the four he had lost over the years, courtesy of past guards.
He allowed Bailey to pull him onto his feet, and as he did so, he realized that laughter echoed in the dark room. The laughter did not come from either of his guards.
He raised his head. He was in a large, high-ceilinged room. That much he could tell from the echoes and from the fact that he could not see the ceiling. Most of the room was lightless. But in the left-hand corner ahead of him, on a balcony about where he would expect a ceiling to be, sat two men lit by wall-lamps. Both wore dark blue uniforms, and both had their boots resting in a leisurely manner on the low, barred railing of the balcony. Both had rifles in their laps, and both rifles were pointed straight at Tyrrell.
Tyrrell felt his empty stomach lurch. One of the men who had been laughing called across the room, "Mercy's man! What gift do you bring us today?"
"Compassion's man!" Oslo called back in a casual manner that suggested he was acquainted with the other guard. "I have a prisoner transfer for you. Fresh meat for the banquet."
The rifle-bearing guards seemed to appreciate this small witticism more than Tyrrell thought it merited; they hooted with laughter. "Tenderizing the meat, are you?" asked the second guard, who held a cigarette between his lips.
"Oh, believe me," said Oslo, grinning, "I've poked the meat quite thoroughly to make sure it's well done."
Tyrrell rolled his eyes. Even Bailey winced at Oslo's poor wit.
The first guard lifted his rifle and set it aside. "Ah, what a pity we will not be able to feast at length on him at our banquet. But we are somewhat gentler on our prisoners than you are at Mercy Prison. How many fuckings a year do you service each of your prisoners with? One hundred? Two hundred?"
"We're working on raising the number." Oslo's voice held nothing but amusement.
"Whereas we are unlikely to see your prisoner more than once or twice this year . . . if that much." The first guard pulled his boots off the railing and leaned over the railing, remaining in his chair as he scrutinized the scene before him. The wavering light of the gas-lamps on the balcony wall moved shadows across his face, which was thoughtful. "Hard to say from this distance," concluded the guard finally. "Why the transfer?"
"Your Keeper knows. You can probably guess. His name's Tyrrell."
The second guard, who had removed his cigarette from his lips in order to tap it over a spittoon nearby, went suddenly still. The first guard raised an appreciative eyebrow. "Oh-ho!" he said softly. "So that's the way of it. I was wondering how long it would be before Mercy's Keeper lost patience with those riot-rousers he's been housing. What happened to the others?"
Oslo shrugged. "We'll know when we get back. The first decision our Keeper made was to arrange this transfer. Your Keeper seemed willing to take him in."
The first guard shrugged as he leaned back in his chair. "Our Keeper," he said, "has all sorts of grandiose plans for this prison, though whether any of them will come to fruit is another matter. I suppose that servicing riot-rousers is part of his plan. Will you break your fast with us? Starke likes to arrive early for his gunner duty . . ." He gestured toward the second guard. "But I prefer to extend my dawn break as long as possible. You're welcome to join me in the guards' dining hall. The night watch will be coming off-duty soon, and I can introduce you."
"Yes," muttered Bailey through gritted teeth. "Warmth. Yes."
Oslo ignored him. "Good food wouldn't go amiss," he said, smiling. "And I hear that Compassion Life Prison is famed for that."
More hoots of appreciative laughter erupted from the first guard, though the second was busy drawing a long lungful of smoke from his cigarette and scrutinizing Tyrrell with an expression he could not read.
"We promise to feed you only the best," replied the first guard, getting to his feet and reaching toward a hand-sized lever set within a small, red hatch on the wall. "Come to the dining hall when you've delivered your charge. You remember the way, I'm sure."
"I hope I do," said Oslo, beginning to tug Tyrrell forward into the darkness, "but everything may be changed here, from what I hear. Your Keeper seems to want to turn things upside down."
"We'll see," said the second guard as his eyes followed Tyrrell's progress. His voice was barely audible, and his expression was hidden behind a puff of smoke. "We'll see. . . ."
Thomas had assumed as a child that the reason none of the other children in town would play with him was because his father was a guard at oneExcerpt:
Thomas had assumed as a child that the reason none of the other children in town would play with him was because his father was a guard at one of Mip's life prisons. That was reason enough, he would eventually realize.
He stared across the road at the autumn-brown fields, stripped of the last of their crops for the season. He had made his own entertainment as a child, playing by himself amidst haystacks or hunting for deer in the mountains, once Starke had taught him how to shoot. But in the same year that he learned how to shoot, he had conceived the ambition of becoming a prison guard himself. He had not realized then that he was slamming the door shut to all future hope of daily contact with the townsfolk.
And if not with the townsfolk, then with whom? The other guards either despised him or humored him. His father was displeased with Thomas's radical notions, while Thomas's mother and sisters were puzzled as to why he failed to follow the lead of his father. There was his grandmother . . . But she had died when he was eleven, the last of her line to survive. Her absence had left a small grave in his heart.
There remained the prisoners. Thomas had always possessed his father's example to dissuade him from taking that path.
He stepped off the porch of his family home, reminding himself that he was neglecting his duty. Slowly, reluctantly, he made his way back to the holding prison.
In the brief time he had been absent, he would not have been surprised to see that the new prisoner had taken control of the prison cell, stripping the "men" among the prisoners of their status of leadership. But when Thomas arrived in the attic, he found that someone had managed to rip off the top half of the new prisoner's uniform. The new prisoner was standing at the far end of the cell, sharing the space with cobwebs, as sweat glistened on his dark chest. His palms were laid flat upon a couple of the cell bars he stood against, as though he were a hunted animal seeking escape.
Indeed, it appeared that the only reason matters had not gone further than this was that the cell's men had paused to argue.
"Look, it doesn't matter which of us goes first," said Valdis in an irritated voice. "We'll all be taking him in the end. None of us is claiming him, is he?"
"Him?" Shaking his head, Horace snorted. "I'm not even sure I want to fuck his filthy body."
Walker said something in a low voice that caused Delgado to nod vigorously. "He's right. Fuck him, then rid this cell of him." He drew his finger across his neck, and the new prisoner stiffened. Whether or not he understood exactly what was being said, it was clear from his posture that he gathered the gist of the men's plans. Yet he gave no sign that he would fight in defense.
"No killings," ordered Chase in an automatic manner, but he turned to the other night guard, Blythe, and spoke in a lower voice. "He deserves a bloody long killing. Did you hear what he did before he was caught?"
"Mr. Chase, please don't swear on duty." Thomas did not need to be told what the new prisoner had done. The case had been notorious. He kept his eye on the prisoner, seeking some sign of what action the prisoner would take.
Chase simply grinned at this reprimand. "Going to claim this one, Tom? You've waited long enough."
"No one will claim him," Blythe predicted confidently. He was watching as the prisoners drew straws to determine which would conduct the initial rape. "Not in any full sense of the word."
Thomas was inclined to agree. Even the so-called "lads" – who normally showed pity for any suffering endured by their fellow servants – were casting looks of scorn at the new prisoner. "He stinks," one of them muttered. "He stinks worse than Brewster, and he doesn't have Brewster's excuse." He cast a look at Brewster, an ugly prisoner who, after three weeks in the cell, was still unclaimed by anyone except the guards . . . for whom a "claim" had nothing to do with protection. Made the toy of the guards and all the men in the prison for days on end, Brewster had withdrawn into himself; he was sitting in a ball in the corner of the prison, rocking to and fro, humming tunelessly as he stared blankly forward.
"Let's thrust the new lad headfirst into the water-barrel," another lad suggested. "That will clean him well enough."
The new prisoner's gaze had flicked over to the lads. He was now gripping the cell bars hard. Thomas – who bore the primary responsibility of seeing that none of the prisoners broke out to freedom – mentally measured the new prisoner's muscles, wondering whether he had strength enough to bash in the head of any guard entering the cell. It seemed likely. But it continued to seem unlikely that the new prisoner would use violence as a means of escape. He simply stood still, awaiting the outcome of the discussions, his chin held high and his eyes defiant.
He would not end up like Brewster, Thomas guessed. No matter what restraint the new prisoner was showing now, in the long run he would not endure the trial being set upon him. He would return to his deadly ways, and then. . . In theory, prisoners were not supposed to be allowed to kill each other. By prison custom, though, the guards stood back and allowed the prisoners themselves to deal with any rogue killers.
"He's mine," declared Valdis. "The rest of you will have to wait a minute or two." Wearing a satisfied smile, he stepped forward.
The new prisoner's gaze flicked away from Valdis. Everyone else had turned to stare, including the night guards. "Tom," Chase said, finding his tongue. "It's prison custom. We don't interfere with a claim."
"That isn't a claim." Thomas kept his eyes on the new prisoner, who was meeting them square.
"Don't be difficult, Tom." Chase sighed. "You know your father's orders: we don't enter the cell any more, except to make our own claims. Come on." He placed an avuncular hand on Thomas's shoulder. "If it makes you squeamish to watch, you can wait downstairs."
"Yes," said Thomas, and saw a telling flicker in the prisoner's eyes. "Yes, I'm going downstairs. Deliver the prisoner to my room."
Chase stared. "Tom . . ."
"I claim him." Thomas turned away. "Bring me the Ammippian." ...more
"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previo
They had to settle the issue of sex first.
"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previous guard – under the stone bed-ledge on the other side of the cell.
Well, that was a direct enough answer. Or would have been, if Tyrrell had been the type to accept 'no' for an answer.
If he had been the type to accept 'no,' he wouldn't have spent two years persuading Merrick to become his cell-mate.
"Is it because . . ." He paused, wondering how to put this delicately. Because the Magisterial Republic of Mip had originally been colonized by the two warring nations of Yclau and Vovim, cultural clashes among Mippite citizens were inevitable. It was said that even Cecelia – the great Cecelia – had been rejected by a suitor's family, which was clearly a sign of lunacy in that family. Some of the Yclau-descended folk had strange notions about maintaining the purity of their families. Anyone ethnic or foreign or darker than a pasty shade of white was considered off-limits. That would make Tyrrell extremely off-limits. "It isn't because I was born in southern Vovim, is it?"
Merrick looked annoyed. "What, do you think I have something against players?"
Tyrrell straightened his spine. Like most emigrants from Vovim, he had acted in plays from time to time. Street plays, with no props other than broken objects dug out of the local garbage heap, but they were plays just the same. "Do you?" he responded in a challenging voice.
Merrick's mouth twisted. He was busy tightening the blankets on the bed-ledge with what seemed to Tyrrell to be unnecessary thoroughness, given that they were both about to go to bed. Unless – Tyrrell brightened at the thought – Merrick intended that they use only one bed-ledge.
After a moment, Merrick said, "The Bijou. The City Opera. The Frederick.. . ."
It turned out to be a very long recital. Tyrrell was impressed. "You've been to all the theaters in this city?"
"All the theaters in the whole of eastern Mip." Merrick mumbled the words.
"Gods preserve us – that many?"
Merrick glared at his blanket. "Does it matter? I've spent plenty of time with players. Let's move on to more important subjects."
Tyrrell hated to think what Merrick's idea was of an important subject. Probably how to strangle all the guards at Mercy Life Prison. He asked, "Is it because I'm short?"
Merrick sighed as he turned toward Tyrrell. "Look," he said, "you could be six feet tall, with dashing dark eyes, and skin a delicious shade of sepia—"
Tyrrell began to tick off in his mind which men in the prison fit this description.
"—and I still wouldn't fuck you. I'm just not interested in doing that. Not with you. Not with anyone here."
"Married?" Tyrrell asked sympathetically. So many men in the prison were, or had left behind love-mates, male or female, when they were convicted of their crimes and sent to spend the rest of their lives in Mercy Prison.
Merrick's gaze turned toward the flagstoned floor. "Hell."
"You don't have to swear at me," said Tyrrell reproachfully.
"I'm not swearing. I'm praying to Hell to rise up and kidnap you to his domain so that I won't have to continue this conversation. Look—"
And suddenly his voice was low, as low as it had been when he had finally made the amazing declaration that he would submit a formal request to his guard that he be transferred to Tyrrell's cell. So Tyrrell held his breath, because he knew that Merrick was never low-voiced – never, never, never – unless he was saying something that cost him a great deal to say.
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
The recipes weren't to my personal taste - I lost track of how many times butter was an ingredient - but I loved the interviews with Maryland farmers,The recipes weren't to my personal taste - I lost track of how many times butter was an ingredient - but I loved the interviews with Maryland farmers, restaurant owners, and watermen (and one waterwoman). I learned a lot about my own state, and even about some of the vendors at my local farmers' market....more