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Authors: D. M. Cornish

Lamplighter (10 page)

BOOK: Lamplighter
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“I reckon you did as boldly as you knew to, miss,” Rossamünd said matter-of-factly.
She gave a little start, as if this was the last encouragement she expected.
“You saw me take on those wretched bugaboos, then?” she said.
Felt, more like
. “Aye, miss.”
“I’ll not shrink from the fact that I did not defeat them alone. Oh no,” she declared with a flourishing wave of her hand, “my sisters and I did it together, mastered and destroyed the nickers.”
Rossamünd thought on the valiant fight the calendars had made as a troupe. “It was a genuine, heroical spectacle, miss,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a thing as happened last night.”
“So it was, I know.Yet they
made
me apologize!” Threnody seethed. “They made
me
apologize to that . . . that pompous muck hill.”
By “apologize” Rossamünd could only assume she had been made to repent of her clumsy, ill-advised witting; and by “pompous muck hill” she meant Grindrod, the lamplighter-sergeant. He thought she might consider herself fortunate not to have been made to apologize to the lampsmen and prentices as well—it was their lives she had endangered.
“Yet it was
we
who were refused at Wellnigh!” She balled her fists.
“Hardly seems fair, miss.”
“Hardly, indeed! Pannette dead! Idesloe dead!” the girl continued. “And
Dolours
insists
we
make amends like
your
lot were the worst done by! To think I actually wanted to join in with you clod-headed blunderers!”
“Don’t count me in too quick with the clodheads or the blunderers, miss,” he replied.
“Well, since you are but half the size of all the other boys I suppose it would be hard to do so.”
Rossamünd blinked at the sting of her insult. He knew he was undersized: his embarrassingly truncated fodicar was continual evidence. Dumbstruck and mortified that those near might have heard her, he realized she was no longer even paying him any mind. Instead she was looking up over his right shoulder. Rossamünd became aware of the looming of somebody there. He looked up to find Arimis Arabis at his back.
The oldest, most worldly-wise of the prentices, Arimis Arabis was top of the manning lists—both by letter fall and ability. The frankest shot with a fusil, he also considered himself handsome. Though Rossamünd could not see it, a gaggle of dolly-mops in Silvernook confirmed Arabis’ self-approval every Domesday, following him about on his jaunts about town and giggling at everything he uttered.
“Hullo to thee, Rossamünd,” he drawled, all charm and swagger. He leaned on Rossamünd’s shoulder and smiled knowingly at Threnody. He must have been down in the cell row cleaning up for eating and missed her petulant antics with the apple. “I see it’s true.We have a fair Damsel of Callistia among us. Would you care to introduce her?”
“No, he would not,” Threnody answered frostily. “Go away!”
Arabis’ grin vanished. “Just making friendly,” he retorted. He took his hand off Rossamünd’s shoulder immediately and straightened. “But you seem to know as much about being friendly as you do about witting.” He clapped Rossamünd on the back as he left. “Fair travels with that one, matey,” he sneered, and made his way to the other table and immediately began to talk to the prentices there. Laughter rose, and these boys glanced over at Threnody in disapproval.
Rossamünd glumly sucked at his food.
Threnody raised her chin a little higher—a telltale sign, he was beginning to notice, of impatience or anger or embarrassment.
“Did I hear your name a-right, lamp boy?” She was staring at him again. It seemed she needed someone to stare at right now.There was a vindictive gleam growing in her eye. “It can’t really be so, can it? Rossamünd?”
“Many folk find some fun in my name, though I don’t,” he replied evenly. “It is what it is and I am who I am.”
Threnody had enough grace to drop her gaze.
For a while they ate in silence. Rossamünd fretted vaguely and wished that, just for today, middens was not quite so long. Threnody poked at her food and screwed up her nose at the small beer.
“Too small by half,” the girl muttered at the beverage.
“It certainly is that, miss. Much better down at the Harefoot Dig,” Rossamünd returned, happy to punctuate the awkwardness.
“Anything anywhere is better than here.” Her face was tight and unhappy.
Rossamünd could not be quiet in the face of such misery. “I don’t understand. If all this makes you so wretched, why join us?” he asked.
“You’re an impertinent little lamp boy, aren’t you?” She sniffed loftily. “Since you inquire, I joined because I wanted to, why else?”
“Why not stay as a calendar?” Rossamünd could not reckon such a thing. Calendars were mystical, romantic figures who resisted the powerful and helped the destitute. They confronted monsters whenever these threatened and offered help wherever folk floundered. The way of a calendar was a goodly adventurous life if ever one existed: making life better, not just mindlessly destroying monsters for pay like Europe or the other pugnators.
“If you knew my mother . . . ,” she replied thickly, almost to herself. “If you, too, were pinned in the never-relaxing clutch of Marchessa Syntychë, the Lady Vey, August of the Right of the Pacific Dove, then you would understand. No choices. No schemes of your own.”
“But you
did
have a choice.” He could not help himself. “You chose to come to Winstermill and be a lighter.”
Taken aback, the girl pursed her lips. “That was a rare lapse of my mother’s. For once she let her grip slip. Mother and I are always at odds. I go left, she goes right. I say black, she says white. If I want something one way, she will always have it the other. If I was ever truly listened to—if what I wanted counted, if she had ever faltered for a moment and remembered that underneath that waspy bosom she has a heart and think me her daughter . . .” Threnody seethed—her haughty mien subsumed by anger. “And not just a tool to preserve her precious clave, then I might never have become a blighted lahzar!”
Skilly forgotten, Rossamünd listened, motionless.
“I wanted to serve the Dove as a spendonette, blazing away at monsters with my pistols, not . . .” Threnody pressed her knuckles against her brow, wincing. “Not spend the rest of my life swallowing down cures to quell revolting organs that do little more than ache!”
He knew enough about wits to know what she meant. Cathar’s Treacle, twice a day, else headaches, spasms or worse would beset her.
“But once transmogrification was forced on me—well, I chose the path of the lightning-throwing astrapecrith just like the Branden Rose—”
Rossamünd’s attention pricked at the mention of Europe by her more famous title, but he did not interrupt the talk bubbling out of the girl prentice like froth from an over-shaken beer bung.
“—But oh no! Dear Mother was not having that! I was ordered to become a wit because the clave needed wits, and a good calendar
always
obeys her august. I would never have managed so long but for Dolours.”
Middens was nearing its end. Other prentices were rising and depositing their pannikins, mess-kids and tankards on a broad palette for cleaning.
“Finally I made it all so terrible at home that Mother could bear me no longer. She’s agreed to this,” she said, looking about to show the mess hall and all the prentices, “only because it has made
her
life simpler, not through any care for me. And here I can become a pistoleer. Not quite the good calendar spendonette I wished for, but . . .” She shrugged, all angst submerged with baffling alacrity. “Well, you have my life’s tale before you, so return in kind: why have you taken up with the lampsmen?”
Though it was time to leave, Rossamünd paused in thought. “Because I had no choice either; because it was this or be cooped in the foundlingery forever. I’m a book child, and we get what we’re given and say thank you, like it or no.”
“How little we have in common then.” Threnody tipped her plate, skilly and all, into the pail just meant for the slops.
 
The attack on the calendars’ carriage so close to Winstermill had caused no small stir among the lighters. It was universally agreed that the six fusil-bearing lads should all be marked with a cruorpunxis for their part. It would be a small drawing of a drip of blood, as was commonly awarded when a prentice had a hand in the slaying of a monster but the actual killer was not clear. In the bosom of many a hardened campaigner there rose too a genuine, almost paternal concern for the batch of young lantern-sticks. Such was this concern, it prompted the Lamplighter-Marshal to cancel the prentice-watch and move drills and tutelage normally conducted in the fields below Winstermill back within the fortress walls. Consequently, that afternoon, targets—the handling, firing, cleaning and right use of a fusil—was to be held in a long foyer of dark, aromatic wood called the Toxothanon in the westernmost end of the Low Gutter below the beautiful Hall of Pageants.

Right, lads! Stand by twos at your lane!”
Benedict, the Under-Sergeant-of-Prentices, stood behind the gaggle of lantern-sticks. “After two months of this I am expecting good aim and handy reloading.” To those of Rossamünd’s watch he said, “As for you lads who prevailed last night, I am expecting to be dazzled.”
Standing in her own firing lane beside Rossamünd, Threnody took to the fusil with elegant aplomb, handling her firelock with an accomplishment equal to all but the frankest shot among the prentices. Much to Arabis’ wry dismay, almost as many of Threnody’s shots as his own found the center bull in the targets fixed to the great bales of straw at the farther end of the lanes. Benedict twice acknowledged her wicked aim and went as far as to say, “You might make yourself useful yet, young lady.” Her self-satisfaction was so clear, Threnody almost glowed.
Unfortunately Rossamünd, who was an indifferent shot at best, had the worst day at targets yet, missing many of his shots entirely, one ball lodging itself in a low crossing roof beam. His woeful aim did not, of course, escape the keen observation of the under-sergeant.
“Master Bookchild! For shame, not one solitary ball true, sir. Sergeant Grindrod would say your fusil work is a clattering, gaffing embarrassment and a wanton waste of powder. One night’s pots-and-pans for you. Let’s hope some good hours scrubbing will teach your arms to hold a franker aim.”
With sinking soul Rossamünd kept to the work: make ready, present, level, fire—over and over, till they were lined up for Evening Forming and the quiet tolling of mains brought a merciful end to the training day.
Entering the manse via the Sally—the side door and only correct entry for the prentices into the manse—and stowing their fusils in the armory cupboard, the lads made their way back up to the mess hall and food. While they ate their boiled pork, boiled cabbage and soggy boiled rice, Mister Fleugh, an under-clerk to the Postmaster, hustled into the mess hall crying,
“Post is arrived!”
An excited hubble-bubble warmed the room as the under-clerk extracted crushed packages and bent letters from a mostly empty satchel.
“Clothard . . . Onion Mole . . . Bookchild . . .”
Rossamünd found a letter slapped before him, its water-stained and slightly smeared address still clearly stating:
Master Rossamünd Bookchild
Apprenticed Lamplighter
Winstermill Barracks
The Harrowmath
Sulk End
. . . written in Verline’s unmistakable hand. Trembling with delight, he prized open the rough seal. Dated twenty-third of Brumis, it must have taken a week to make its way down the Humour through High Vesting and back up to Winstermill. It read:
My dear courageous Rossamünd,
Thank you, for your dear letter of the 13th of Pulchrys. What gladness we had at the news of your safe arrival—and my, what adventures you had! That Europa Branden Rose woman sounds very frightening, but what a thrill to meet someone so famous! You always wanted adventure, and had I been you I think I might have had my fill of it after such a journey. Little wonder you were at Winstermill fortress a week late. Still, far better late than absent.
My hope for you is that you are safe, that you are taking to your tasks with ease and that you have found like-minded souls there to share in further adventures, of which I am sure you are having many more.
Dear Master Fransitart is still determined to come to you. Time has done nothing to still his unease, and if, as you say, you know not of what troubles him, then I must confess to be at a loss. Craumpalin is no help. He and dear Fransitart worry like old women about you. In fact they seem to be having second thoughts about your life with the lamplighters, though since you say you are settling to the routine there they may be less troubled. I shall write more on this when I can.
What is joy, though, is that Master Craumpalin’s restoratives have begun their marvels on your dear Master Fransitart and he suffers much less from the strains and aches of his seafaring ways. Your old dispenser sent beyond the Marrow to his contacts (he called them) for the scripts, and they have answered wonderfully. I do not fret for dear Fransitart’s fortunes so much should he travel now.
Master Craumpalin is very happy with your report of how well his bothersalts performed. He bids me insist that you keep applying his nullodor, that you wear it at all times no matter where you are at. This was the first time I ever heard of such arrangements. I can only assume you know of what he speaks. He was in serious earnest when he declared this, so I offer to you to take him at his word and do as he bids.
Time for writing letters has come to its end, as anything worthy must.
Take great care of yourself. Return when you are at your liberty to do so. Forever your
P.S. Dear little Petite Fig (I am sure you remember her—how stoutly you defended her from the older boys). Well, the dear little one said that last night she saw Gosling moving about the street out front, spying on us from the lane across the way. Madam declared it impossible, but sent Master Fransitart and Barthomæus with him to see. Of course they found nothing, and we are all perplexed. Even the littlest fret, for he has already become a frightful legend though gone only a month. I did hear that the lad had tried to reunite with his family, but that they did not want him back. (Who could spurn their own child so? It defies fathoming, as Master Fransitart would say.) So perhaps he has taken up loitering about here for want of anywhere else to go? I can only hope naught will come of it. The thought of his presence oppresses almost as much as when he lived with us. Fransitart will think of something.
Write back to me soon.
BOOK: Lamplighter
7.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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