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Authors: D. M. Cornish

Lamplighter (8 page)

BOOK: Lamplighter
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W
INSTERMILL grew step-by-step before them. An ancient stronghold, massive and lonely upon the flat moors of the Harrowmath, it was familiar and welcome to Rossamünd already. He still marveled at the squat, gray cartography of its lichen-blotched roofs and their chimney spires, at the mightily thick outer walls and the foundations upon which the fortress was lifted high above the plain. When he had first observed it those two months gone he had thought it like some great, overgrown manor house, but now he knew the fortress to be much more. Once a small outpost of the Tutins of old, the fortress of Winstermill had accreted over the centuries: towers added, floors added, the whole mound of Winstreslewe built up and encircled with a thick wall. Once it had stood at a junction of trade routes; now it had grown over and submerged these roads in its footings. The western run of the Wormway and the north-south course of the Gainway made tunnels in Winstermill’s foundations and joined beneath the very fortress. As far as Rossamünd knew, these tunnels were called the Bowels—if they had any other name he had not heard it. In the evening, great grilles were lowered over their gaping mouths to prevent monsters and vagrants from setting up a home there, and mighty steams of repellents were regularly flushed through in the small hours of the morning to force out any unwelcome lurkers. These duties were reserved for the house-watch, and Rossamünd was glad of that. Not in all recorded history of the current Empire had a monster ever won its way into the manse.
The broad Imperial Spandarion that usually flapped proud and defiant above the battlements hung limp now in the day’s damp.The morning was already long, limes missed and second morning instructions well under way. Rossamünd had never felt so tired. Passing through the mighty gates, their arrival counted by the tally-clerk and his cursors, they were greeted by one of the house-guard calling down to them from the wall.
“Hoi there, me fellows! There’s Lady Dry-stick ready to lash us with her dim-wits.Wit us too, like ye did our mates!” News of Threnody’s actions had already traveled ahead.
“Don’t goad at her, chum,” came another. “She’s as likely to fish us as soon as fart, from what I hear!”
“Fish” was a vulgar term for frission. Rossamünd shot a look to Threnody, sitting stiff on the seat behind. The young calendar’s chin jutted high in supercilious display, yet she betrayed her anger with the clenching and unclenching of her fine jaw.
The donkeys’ hooves and carriage wheels made a harsh grinding in the white quartz gravel that formed a broad drive from the gate to the manse’s main entrance.The drive skirted three acres of paved ground known as the Grand Mead, which fronted the manse itself. It was large enough to contain kennels, several strong-houses, room for the parading and evolutions of the whole fortress and yet still allow for the frequent coming and going of carriages and other conveyances. There was even space for a well-tended green by the wall of the manse proper with benches and a grove of pines for the officers to sit beneath. Here a convention of territorial rooks would caw and cackle every evening before returning to their roost in the manse’s ridge-caps, eyeing everything angrily and keeping pigeons away. At the end of the drive stood the Scaffold, a single gaunt tree that Rossamünd had observed the night he first arrived.
As he walked by the curricle, Rossamünd watched a company of haubardiers working through drills under the shadow of the eastern wall, standing and moving in well-practiced order. He could not see the other lantern-sticks; they would be at readings now, suffering dire boredom in the Lectury with Mister Humbert. A post-lentum came through the gates, overtook them and rattled on to the covered stables to the right of the main building. The postilion blew his long horn to herald their arrival.
The post is here! The post is here!
its call declared.
Rossamünd felt an instinctive thrill, the sweet anticipation of a letter from a loved one—from Verline perhaps (it had been a whole month since her first missive), or Fransitart . . . or maybe even one from Europe.
It was obvious the arrival of the calendars was expected, for a welcome of officials turned out in their finest threads emerged from the manse. As Clement took the curricle through to halt before the front doors, the women were greeted first by Podious Whympre, the Master-of-Clerks. An officious man who smiled too much, he was dressed in sumptuous Imperial scarlet. He had only that year become acting second-in-command of Winstermill, and with the promotion his influence had grown. Joining him, and accompanied by all their particular secretaries, were other senior martial-bureaucrats: the Quartermaster, the niggardly Compter-of-Stores, the rotund General-Master-of-Labors and his Surveyor-of-the-Works, and a scowling General-Master-of-Palliateers. Even the rarely seen Captain-of-Thaumateers was in attendance. A small file of clerks—the chief of which was Witherscrawl—followed, along with a guard of troubardier pediteers in their bright lour-covered, proof-steel loricas and soft square pagrinine hats. Rather than their usual poleaxes, the pediteers bore high umbrellas to provide a roof against the steady drizzle.
Yet one among them refused to dress the dandy. A skulking fellow in a midnight-dark soutaine, he hovered at the Master-of-Clerks’ back and stared viperlike with ill-colored eyes of red orb and pale blue iris. This was Laudibus Pile, leer and faithful falseman to Podious Whympre. He could often be seen whispering at the Master-of-Clerks’ ear, a telltale saying what was truth and what was lie. To Rossamünd he was a false-seeming falseman, and he was glad he had little to do with this fellow or his master.
The one person missing was the Lamplighter-Marshal.
“Lady
Threnody
, you honor us at last.” The Master-of-Clerks bowed, a perfect study of civility. “And Lady Dolours. We are met again. It has been almost a year since you helped us against those brutish ashmongers in the Owlgrave.”
Dolours gave the man a tired, knowing look.
“And what relief it was,” the Master-of-Clerks continued without pause, spreading his arms to include the various lampsmen in attendance, “to receive report that our tireless lighters did rescue you this yesternight gone. How happy it is you have both arrived sound and intact.”
The bane had been looking most poorly but now she presented a hale front. “Clerk-Master Podious Whympre,” she said with a subtle frown at the falseman Laudibus a-whisper-whisper behind the man, “a delight.” She paused. “For the good deeds done last night I am grateful. Your Marshal is not present, I see. Matters more pressing keep him from us?”
DOLOURS
Even Rossamünd knew that the absence of the Lamplighter-Marshal was a great affront. Of all the officers of Winstermill, the Lamplighter-Marshal was not only the most senior, but also had the reputation as the most punctual and gentlemanly.
“Ah, ever-astute Lady Bane, you do your clave proud. The Lamplighter-Marshal, I am certain, would give sincere apology for his nonattendance were we able to find him.” Though the Master-of-Clerks’ face was apologetic, his eyes were bright.
Dolours stepped past and went to push through the gaggle of officers and clerks. “It is well, for proper meetings must sadly wait; our sister Pandomë is deadly hurt. I hear your physic Crispus is of fair repute. Would you consent to his immediately attending to her wounds?”
The Master-of-Clerks was obliged to step quickly, moving from the precious cover of his troubardier-held umbrella and leaving his falseman behind. “Indeed, madam, Doctor Crispus is a man of many parts,” he said, his smile broadening almost to a sneer as a troubardier hurried to cover him with a high parasol. “Alas, however, he is gone away to Red Scarfe to tend a disturbing outbreak of the fugous cankers. Ah, but all is not a loss! Grotius Swill, our surgeon and the physician’s locum, remains with us. He will serve, I’m sure.”
The calendars looked less than pleased.
“Whatever you might provide,” Dolours said wearily.
Even as the bureaucrats dispersed, the Lamplighter-Marshal, the Earl of the Baton Imperial of Fayelillian himself, hastened from the doors of the manse. He was a grand-looking old man with long white mustachios, although unfashionable; he wore no wig, rather his own hair kept short as a true lighter’s. His mottle-and-harness were simple—quabard over platoon-coat—worn easy and naturally. In a way he looked just like an ordinary lampsman, the most physically capable, shrewd and dangerous ordinary lampsman you might ever meet.Yet there was a barely perceptible atmosphere of weariness about him, a sense of harassment and overwork. He acknowledged the calendars warmly enough, saying through a rueful smile, “My most sincere apologies to ye, dear, dear Lady Dolours; what a bumbling scrub I must seem. It is unforgivable that I was not here in the first to meet ye.” Mustachios a-bristle, the Marshal flashed a look of veiled wrath at Podious Whympre. “I would have been more timely, but found myself needlessly summoned to the farthest end of the manse. I have only now been told of yer arrival.”
Nodding an obsequious bow, the Master-of-Clerks tut-tutted. “Those new clerks are quite useless. Unacceptable, sir, unacceptable. They shall be most particularly reprimanded.”
There was a small silence.
The Lamplighter-Marshal offered his hand to Dolours. “It’s clear ye’re unwell, m’dear. Let’s withdraw to the quiet of my duty room. I hope its comforts will make amends. How is yer bonny august, the Lady Vey? She sends communication?”
The two turned their backs on the Master-of-Clerks and, without a further word to him, went inside. With a pointed show of proper manners, Podious Whympre bowed to their retreating backs.
As the bureaucrats dispersed, two porters were summoned to carry Pandomë to the manse’s infirmary. Rossamünd had never—thank the Signal Stars!—been required to attend an appointment with the surgeon. Brought by especial request of the Master-of-Clerks, Grotius Swill, according to the common-mess rumor, held staunchly to the surgeon’s creed of amputating first and investigating later; of fossicking about far too much in people’s innards rather than administering the tried and proved chemical cures of dispensurist or physician.
How did the rhyme go?
Honorius Ludius Grotius Swill
Saws off your limbs, but eschews the pill;
For a cough he removes fingers, a sneeze he’ll take toes,
And fevers will cost you your ears and your nose.
Rossamünd shuddered—he would never allow someone to dig about inside him, and could not understand why lahzars and the like would pay to submit themselves to such abominable treatment.
With Threnody walking alongside her injured sister, he led the way through the empty vestibule down the Forward Hall and left through the right angles and long passages that led to the infirmary. They moved through the domain of the bureaucracy of Winstermill, a place that had a reputation as a strange and uncomfortable place for those not of the clerical set, even for experienced lighters. They passed white wooden doors from which would sporadically emerge a secretary, clerk or servant.These would pass in turn with a muttered apology or impatient sneer, to disappear in another white port along the way. Going deeper into the manse, the smoky perfume of the dark, venerable wood of furniture, beam and wainscot soaked the atmosphere. It grew strongest as they entered a large passage known as the Broad Hall. Several doors went at intervals down either side, the spandarions of the local city-states mounted between. The first door on the left was painted a pale lime green.
Through this was the infirmary.
Rossamünd stepped up and gave a reluctant tap. An epimelain answered almost instantly, her broad brown skirts and oversized apron filling the entire doorway.The woman’s expression exquisitely stated,
Yes?What do you want? I have no time for this!
without the use of a single word.
Hat in hand, Rossamünd bowed. “This wounded lady needs a physic’s mending, miss.”
The epimelain looked over him to the stricken calendar, to the porters, then to Threnody and back to Rossamünd. She gave a soft, high “humph,” turned and sashayed away. This was enough permission for the porters, who immediately went in, shoving Rossamünd aside.Threnody followed them without a thank-you. Within was a long hall, well-made beds down either side, pillows arranged identically against the wall with prim regimental exactitude, bed ends forming a squeezy aisle along which the epimelain’s skirts brushed and rustled noisily as she hurried between. A few beds were occupied, various ailing souls coughing or sighing in their discomfort, and another woman dressed similarly attended the bedside of one of the ill.
Behind a lectury desk was the person they sought: Honorius Ludius Grotius Swill, the carver of lamplighters, their surgeon. He was short and thin and sported a meticulous mustache and a fixed frown. Dressed immaculately, he sat with a flam-toothed saw in one hand and a hone gripped in the other, sharpening the blade to and fro, careless of the patients about him.
BOOK: Lamplighter
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