Authors: Hilari Bell
She turned away abruptly, dumped her dough onto
a floury cutting board, and started to knead, composing herself.
Fisk looked around the room, and something in the way his eyes narrowed made me look, too. I saw nothing extraordinary.
“Lenna, do you really believe your mother would send two innocent men to their deaths for money?” Fisk's question was so blunt that I winced, but Mistress Lenna only shrugged.
“That's what her note said. And I can't see her lying when she was about to die.”
“You think she wouldn't lie to you, but she'd help hang two innocent men because she felt bad about costing her family?”
Lenna spun. “I told youâ”
The door opened and a dark-haired man in a tanner's apron came into the kitchen. “These men bothering you, Lennie?”
So much for introductions. The boy, Ricky, tagged at his heels.
“No.” She wiped her eyes swiftly, leaving flour smudges on her cheeks. “They just came to ask a few questions about Ma. They're trying to help JudâMaster Maxwell.”
The man scowled. “That murdering bastard doesn't deserve help.”
We had both risen and I grasped Fisk's arm, but not in time to silence him. “It seems he had several helpers, your mother by marriage among them. I'd think you'd want to clear her name, along with his.”
Skinner stepped forward, clenching his fists.
“We're leaving,” I told him hastily. “Come on, Fisk.”
He let me pull him out to the street, which I did quite firmly. “Well, that was tactful. What were you thinking of, badgering that poor woman?”
Fisk smiled. “They kept the money.”
“You saw that kitchenâeven the stove was new. The children's clothes, the dishesâ¦they couldn't possibly afford all that after a long illness in the family unless they kept the money.”
“But a bribe is ill-gotten gains. The judicars would have awarded it to the hanged men's families.”
“Ah, but you're forgetting, old Max was never convicted. Never even went to a hearing. How can they take away the bribe if they don't convict the briber? No wonder the Skinners aren't talking. If we clear Max, if the truth comes out, they'll probably have to give it back. And they're already spending it. They must be delighted with the way things worked out. I'll bet our investigation gives them nightmares.”
I considered this. “They may have accepted the way
things turned out, but I don't think they're delighted. I think Mistress Lenna would rather see her mother cleared.”
“Maybe,” said Fisk, “but she's still wearing new shoes.”
We strolled between the busy work yards in silence.
“There's another thing that comes to my mind,” I said after a time. “Have you noticed how many tanners are involved in this? The killers, one witness, another witness's son by marriage. All tanners.”
Fisk frowned thoughtfully. “If Ginny Weaver saw it from her window, the crime must have taken place near a tanner's yard, but stillâ¦I don't know what it means.”
“Me neither. I justâ” A clear, mellow bell pealed, and Fisk looked startled.
“Mid-meal already? We're going to be late. I hope they save us something.”
“What are you going to do after mid-meal? Track down your old acquaintances, or start looking for the servants?”
“I'm going to take a nap,” said Fisk. “Or try to. My old acquaintances are nocturnal types. I'll be up half the night looking for them, so I'll probably sleep late in the morning, too.”
“'Tis no matter. I'll start tracking down the servants
tomorrow. This afternoon I'll buy some feed for Chant and Tipple and give them a brush. Trimmer did his best, butâ¦” When I'd looked into their stalls this morning, I'd been relieved to see that Trimmer had attended to the horses, and I appreciated his efforts. Still, 'twas not his work, and I'd resolved to take up their care myself.
Fisk and I parted then, for this was a good part of town in which to purchase hay, oats, and straw. At least that was what I told Fisk, and 'twas true, if not quite all the truth. The part I didn't tell Fisk was that I wasn't sure I could face another cozy family meal, with Mistress Anna shrinking from me and Maxwell wondering what crime I'd committed. Yet I might be able to help the Maxwells out of their predicament, and if there was anything else of worth that an unredeemed man could accomplish in this world, I didn't know what it might be.
This thought brought back the bleak mood I had all but forgotten in the interest of the morning's work, so I resolved to go on working. I arranged for the delivery of stable supplies and bought a couple of pork pastries at the market, after which I had nowhere to go but back to the Maxwells'.
Once there I mucked out the stable and curried both horses. The box stalls were large enough to keep
them comfortable for a few days, especially after a long journey, but soon they'd need some exercise. I wondered if the Seatons would let us turn them out into the orchard. If it was walled all round 'twould be safe enough, and horses won't harm a well grown tree, though they'll graze on saplings.
I was heading for the orchard to inspect the walls, largely for want of anything else to do, when the kitchen garden caught my eye. Last night in the dark I'd not noticed much, but now the loss of the Maxwell's gardener was apparent, for the dead growth hadn't even been cleared. The ground was frozen too hard to mulch the brown leaves into the soil, but at least I could haul them off to the midden. The idea of doing something else to earn my keep in this house, where I was so clearly unwelcome, appealed to me.
I located a shed full of tools and selected a hoe, a rake, and a pitchfork to load the small wheelbarrow, and soon I was busy. Being raised on a country estate, one learns much about growing things. 'Twas not the work of a country steward I objected to, 'twas the rooted-ness of it, being forever tied to one small piece of the Green God's earth.
I'd cleared the dry cornstalks and started on the vines when I heard young voices and turned to see Mistress Anna and Mrs. Trimmer leading the children
out of the orchard. Their cheeks were red with cold and laughter. 'Twas distressing to watch Mistress Anna's expression freeze when she saw me and clutched the children protectively to her skirts. That was the impulse of instinct, for she collected herself immediately and sent them off with Mrs. Trimmerâto weave juniper garlands, according to their shrill, excited cries.
Making Calling Night garlands is a family task, so I was surprised when, instead of following, Mistress Anna walked carefully across the muddy ground to where I worked. Her expression was neither shy nor frightened but fell somewhere between. There was nothing an unredeemed man could do to make her comfortable, so I simply nodded and hoped my own expression wasn't as stiff and unfriendly as it felt. “Mistress Anna.”
“Master Sevenson.” She clasped her hands as if she didn't know what to do with them. Then she turned toward a wooden bench, tucked under a bush that might be lilac, and sat down with the relieved air of a person who's found a way to make an embarrassing situation seem a bit more natural.
Intrigued despite myself, I leaned on the rake and waited.
“Nonny talked to us at mid-meal. About you.”
Her gaze dropped, but she went on determinedly. “He told us how you rescued him. How he might have been flogged, or even worse. I wanted to thank you. It's been hard for Nonny, and Iâ¦well, I wanted to thank you.”
“You needn't. Fisk has long since repaid any favor I did him. Indeed”âI offered her a wry smileâ“he's proved a most excellent squire.”
Her lips twitched at that, but she still looked nervous. “I wonderedâ¦You seem to be a gentle sort of person, and Nonny is so loyal to you. I wonderedâ¦”
“What I did?” I swept the rake over the ground and lifted a load of withered vines into the barrow. “Fisk didn't tell you?”
She shook her head. “He said that was your probâdecision.”
“How nice of him.” The complexity of the past fell heavily on my heart, and I stole an old line of Fisk's. “'Tis a long story.”
I turned back to the garden, hoping to end the discussion, but she went on: “It wasn't that so much. I just wondered ifâif Nonny had dragged you into trouble,” she continued in a rush. “He's a good person, the best brother anyone could have, but he isâ¦”
She thought 'twas Fisk's fault I was unredeemed.
“No, nothing of the kind. Fisk has
me time and again. Indeed, as far as dragging people into trouble goes, I'm afraid it's the other way round.”
Her eyes were full of hope and doubt. I couldn't let her think badly of Fisk, so I told the whole story after all. 'Twas as long as I feared, for she asked many questions and insisted on hearing each twist of the tale. The sun was dropping by the time I finished, and I was sitting beside her. She'd lifted her feet onto the bench some time ago, curling up like a child, with her cloak wrapped around her knees. Her eyes were bright with interest, and she'd laughed much throughout my account. And though she sobered when I told her how I'd been declared unredeemed, she no longer shrank from me.
“Well, I think it was quite rotten of Nonny to creep away without a word, though you're probably right about why he did it. I'm glad you followed him.”
“Truly?” I couldn't meet her eyes. “I'd wondered if I'm not bringing him more trouble than my help is worth.”
“Truly,” she said firmly. “Nonny hasn't had much luck with friends. Or family. I think your friendship is worth more to him than any trouble you could possibly bring.”
I met her eyes now, very directly. After all, I'd told
my taleâan exchange was due. “You say Fisk has been unlucky. Will you tell me how?”
She looked startled. “Hasn't Nonny told you?”
“He hardly ever talks about himself. Before I came here, all I knew of him was that he had sisters, and a criminal past. He also seems to be well educated, though he never talks about his schooling.”
“Oh, that was Papa. He taught both Fisk and Judith, since they had the brains for it and he had to teach. It wasâ¦Oh dear, I'd better start at the beginning.” She looked off a moment, ordering her thoughts.
“I think the beginning is actually before the beginning. My great-grandmother was a noblewomen, but born without Gifts. She had hopes for her daughters anywayâsometimes the Gift does skip a generation.”
And sometimes it breeds out of a line for good and all. Remembering the eerie glow of some of the apple trees last night, I could think of worse things than being Giftless. But I could see where this was leading and nodded for her to go on.
“Unfortunately her children were Giftless as well, and all her descendants. My grandmother married a merchant in a small town called Coverton, and Mama married the local schoolmaster's son. She could have done better; my grandfather was well off. But Mama
loved Papa. He wasn't handsome, but he was smart and gentle and merry. We weren't rich, but our house was always happy when Papa was there. He adored Mama, too, and said a scholar had no need of a Gifted wife.
“Papa had big dreams, you see. His own father had a university education, and though he couldn't afford to send Papa, he taught him well. Papa planned to write a thesis good enough to be accepted on merit and then go on to teach. To be part of a great university, shaping the world with knowledge. It consumed him, I think.” Her eyes dropped to her knees and she fell silent.
“'Tis a worthy ambition,” I said. So this was where Fisk's odd erudition came fromâhe was the last of a line of scholars. So how under two moons had he ended in manacles on a judgment scaffold?
“Yes.” She smiled sadly. “I suppose it is worthy. But not practical. Papa's father died, and he took over the school, working on his thesis at night. I was born, then Judith, and Mama was carrying Fisk when he finished it. He quit the school, moved the whole family to Fallon, and submitted his thesis to the university there.”
She stopped again, lips tight. The light around us
was golden with sunset, and 'twould soon be too cold to sit out.
“It was rejected?” I guessed.
“They said it wasn't original enough. The scholarship was fine, butâ¦It's the only time I ever saw my father drunk. I was just three, but I still remember it.
“He took odd jobs around the outskirts of the universityâtutor, printer's helper, things like that. And he started another thesis, but Fisk had been born by then and money was tight. So when he heard Ruesport was planning to build a university, he packed up the family again and we came here.”
I remembered the small, dingy shops and alleys of the old market. “But they never built it.”
“Not to this day. If they had, coming here wouldn't have been such a bad idea. Even if his new thesis was rejected, he could have gotten work as a librarian. That would have suited him. He spent every spare fract on books. His study held the biggest library in Ruesport, and he had books shipped to him from all up and down the coast.”
“Books can be a good investment; they sell for almost as much used as new.”
“I suppose. But it made no difference. He took odd jobs again, mostly tutoring other men's university-bound sons. He could have taught in any of the guild
schools, but he said he needed the time to work on his thesis.”
“Was his next thesis rejected too?”
“He never finished it. He didn't want to finish it, Master Sevensonâhe was afraid to. He'd change a paragraph, throw out a chapter, find a new line of reasoning, get another source. It went on and on. Mama kept it for years after he died, hoping to get it published, but when she diedâ¦”
“Nonny burned it.” Her voice dropped almost to a whisper, and her eyes held the memory of those flames. I was about to ask why, but she shook herself and went on. “Mama didn't care that we weren't rich; she loved Papa. We all did. He worked enough to keep us, and Mama took in a bit of sewing. Fine embroidery, like a noblewoman, for that was a skill her family had passed down. We used to help with the plain stitching when she had a big job, and we were happy. But then, when Lissy was six, Papa died.”