Authors: Hilari Bell
“But the dandy, Thrope,
Thrope, expects you to lock me up. Or worse.”
“What makes you say that, Michael Sevenson? He said I knew my duty, and I believe I do. You don't like my decision? I can always change it.”
We rounded the landing and started up the second flight of stairs. Sunlight gleamed at the top.
“Butâ¦” What was I arguing about? “No, it's fine with me. But who's this Maxwell you speak of?”
The sheriff stopped, pulling me to a stop as well. Standing on the same step, he was half a head shorter than I. “Maxwell is your friend Fisk's brother
by marriage. You didn't know that?”
“No, Iâ¦He once said he had sisters, but Fisk seldom talks about himself.” Fisk had been returning to his
No wonder he'd left his unredeemed companion behind!
“Well.” The sheriff started to climb again and I followed. “He'd better be willing to talk to Maxwell about you. If Max won't give warrant for you, you'll have to spend the night in a cell and get out of Ruesport first thing in the morning.”
The daylight was red-gold, crimsoning the stones of the Council Hall's antechamberâthe sun was setting. I had no desire to spend the night in a cell. “Fisk will vouch for me, but surely you don't need to bring this Maxwell into it? If you'd ask to see Fisk aloneâ¦” He might yet be spared the shame of having known me. And then I would go.
The sheriff snorted. “I'd not take young Fisk's word on the good behavior of a rabbit. It's JudâMaster Maxwell who'll vouch for you. Or not. And Michael Sevenson?”
We topped the stairs and stepped into the light.
“I said I've a notion that you're trouble. If you make trouble here, those stripes on your back'll seem like a maiden's slap. You clear on that?”
“Quite clear.” You woodenheaded son of a sow. I only hoped the mysterious Master Maxwell would take Fisk's word for me. If Fisk would give itâfor I now realized that he'd sneaked out on me like a thief and fled across a dozen fiefdoms simply to avoid the very humiliation that I was about to bring upon him.
chose to wear my second-best doublet for the “quiet family dinner with just one guest” for which my sisters had been preparing frantically all day. Even Michael's brother Benton's plainer giveaways might highlight the fact that my sisters' gowns were beginning to wear. And while I might have enjoyed showing up old Max, I wouldn't deliberately embarrass my sisters. I told myself yet again that I couldn't have brought Michael, that he'd be fine without me. If I repeated it often enough, someday I might come to believe it. I couldn't have brought himâI was going to embarrass them enough just by being there myself.
I'd arrived in Ruesport that morning, and the familiar scents of smoke and winter-wet wood carried me back to my childhood. I must have run through these
streets thousands of times, carrying Mama's sewing, or running errands for a few fracts. Great Fallon Road enters Ruesport through the Yarelands, and the small, neat house I'd grown up in wasn't far from the road. Some craftsman's family probably lived there now, and I wished them better luck than my family'd had. Though luck, really, had nothing to do with it.
I stifled the surge of anger with the ease of long practice, and I turned and rode Tipple briskly over Newbridge, which is higher than Highbridge and hasn't been new since before I was born. My memories of the Oldtown's streets were darker, and not nearly so enticing. The stews and slums on the other side of Trullsgate Bridge from the Oldtown held even worse memories, but they were few.
I made my way through the Oldtown's twisting streets to the tall, narrow house where old Maxwell had lived. The current owner's manservant told me he'd moved east shortly after his marriage. His expression was a bit odd as he gave me directions to Maxwell's house, but I ignored that in my pleasure at my sisters' good fortune. I knew the old man had money, but even a modest house in the neighborhood outside the east wall was something I'd had no idea he could afford. Unless he couldn't afford it and was only trying to impress his young bride.
A woman can pay a high price for a fine house and silk petticoats, but it shouldn't be too high in this case. Before I had let Anna marry a man nineteen years her senior, I'd checked his reputation with every whore in town. It turned out he almost never went to whores, but they'd heard enough to tell me he was normal in his tastes and kind, even to women he hired.
Anna looked relieved when I told her that, though she shook her head. “I told you, he's a good man. And he seems to love me quite a lot. I won't mindâ¦that is, I want to marry him.”
She didn't, but the alternatives were worse, for her, for Judith, and someday for Lissy, and neither of us could accept that.
It was the price he'd demanded of me that bothered Anna.
So it was with some foreboding that I located my sister's house in the east part of the city. It was smallish for the east, which meant it was large for anywhere else: a three-storey redbrick manor, with windows of the new, thin, diamond-paned glass which is so easy to break in through.
The wrought-iron gate in the high wall surrounding the house was stout enough, but it squealed when I opened it. The small front garden was tidy, and the fountain had been shut down for the winter, so it took
me a moment to realize why the place felt neglectedâno greenery. Every other house in town was trimmed with garlands of juniper, or holly from the marish. In this neighborhood some houses were already wrapped with ribbons, despite the fact that they'd be ruined if it snowed. But Maxwell's house was bare.
Perhaps they were gone. Perhaps I was too late, and the unnamed catastrophe (curse Anna, why couldn't she write a straightforward note?) had swept them all away.
My heart pounded as I tied Tipple to a tether ring on the empty fountain and climbed three steps to knock on the door. Anna opened it herself.
She'd grown plumper in five years, and wore a servant's stained apron and a white cap, from which frizzy brown curls escaped. For some reason, our hair had always been similar and not like that of either of our parents. Her eyes widened with recognition, then lit with joy.
“Nonny!” It was a shriek to split eardrums, but I didn't careâthe crushing hug that followed it would have made up for anything, althoughâ¦
“You know, Annie, I've been asking you to call me Fisk since I was nine. I'd think you could manage it by now.”
“I know.” She stepped free of my arms and wiped
her cheeks, looking me over anxiously. “It's just I don't think of you that way.” Her arms went round me again, not only hugging but pulling me over the threshold. “Oh, Judith, look. NonâFisk is here.”
“So I heard.” Judith too wore an apron, and smelled of silver polish. She was thin as a rail and hatchet-faced, with Father's lank hair. “Hello, Fisk. I see nobody's hanged you yet.”
Anna gasped, but the sardonic grin that went with the words was surprisingly companionable, and I found myself grinning in return. “Hello, Judith. I see nobody's married you yet.” It should have pricked, at least a little, but her grin only twitched a bit wider.
Max came out of a room to the left of the entryway, probably his study. He was a small, neat man, and if his hair was a bit thinner, and his face a bit more lined, that was only to be expected. The anger hardening his expression was new, for he'd had the cursed gall to be sorry for me the few times we'd met.
Anna stepped forward and said firmly, “Stop looking like that, Max. He only came because I wrote and asked him to. I think he might be able help us. And you know we need it.”
Confusion washed over his face, and when it receded, he looked tired. “Without consulting me? I'd think, my dearâ¦” I lost track of what he was saying
for a girlâno, a young womanâwas peering out of the study behind him. I knew who she had to be, for her resemblance to Anna was marked, though her hair was darker and more softly curled. If I'd passed her on the street, I wouldn't have known her. Ten to fifteen is a long time, and when I'd imagined her growing up, it had been as an awkward schoolgirl, like Michael's sister, not a young beauty.
“Lissy?” I asked, still not quite believing it.
“Oh.” Her eyes were wide. “Oh, Nonny!” She rushed forward and kissed my cheek, suddenly the impulsive little girl I remembered. But her shape as she hugged me was not at all familiar, and I held her away and looked her up and down incredulously. “You grew up!”
It shouldn't have surprised me, and Judith snickered. But Lissy laughed, and the flirtatious sparkle in her eyes stunned me further. “So did you. You were only a boy when you left.”
There was an awkward pause as all eyes turned to Maxwell, and I felt my hackles rise. Lissy was the only one of my sisters not wearing an apron, and if this was how he kept
part of the bargainâ¦
“Oh, very well.” His exasperated sigh left him thinner than before, as if something in him had deflated. “The way things are now, they could hardly get worse.
You're welcome to stay, young Fisk.” He held out his hand.
I folded my arms. “What, exactly, is going on here?”
“Mistress Anna!” A slamming door and a clatter of feet heralded the arrival of an oldish woman in the good gray gown of an upper servant. “Mistress! The pots on the stove look to boil their lids off. Who's this?” Her dark eyes were sharp as a crow's.
“I still want to knowâ” I began.
“Oh, dear!” Anna started toward the rear of the house, where the kitchen presumably lurked. “This is my brother, NonâFisk, Mrs. Trimmer. He'll be staying with us.”
“I didn't know we had company staying. I suppose you'll want me to ready a bedchamber, fetching out sheets, hauling a mattress about, cleanâ”
“Thank you, that would be splendid,” said Anna gently.
Mrs. Trimmer's mouth shut with a snap and then opened, but before she could speak, Maxwell cut in. “I'd like a word with you, my dear. If you don't mind.”
Anna, who hadn't paused for my question or Mrs. Trimmer's hectoring, hesitated in the doorway. “But we've a guest for dinner. If I don'tâ”
“I still wantâ”
“I'll take care of dinner.” Lissy darted in and untied
Anna's apron, whisking it over her own head.
“Thanks, Liss. Add the onions to the cream as soon as you get them chopped. And stirâ”
“I'll be fine.” Lissy smiled and swept out, and Anna followed Maxwell into the study.
Mrs. Trimmer turned beady eyes on me. “Humph. I've heard of you. I suppose you've gotten clever and come home to batten on the leavings. Serve you right there aren't any. I hope you're prepared to work.”
If Mrs. Trimmer had been wearing an apron, I might have taken that more kindly.
“I never work.” I smiled blandly. “If you're clever you don't have to. Are you a hard worker, Mrs. Trimmer?”
“That I am,” she announced. “And an honest woman to boot.” Then the insult caught up with her and she glared. I smiled back, and she turned and stumped up the stairs muttering, not quite under her breath, about gallows bait.
I made a mental note to check my bed tonight and turned to Judith, who was the only one left in the hallway.
“Not bad,” she said judiciously. “A little heavy-handed, but if you'd been subtle, she'd have missed it.”
“Why in the world do you keep that harridan?”
“Because she and her husband are the only servants who didn't quit when we stopped paying them.” Judith's eyes glinted. “Lissy considered it an act of betrayal when they all decamped, but I found it reassuring to learn we hadn't hired idiots.” She went through an open door as she spoke, and I followed her into what turned out to be the dining room. “I think Trimmer would have quit, too, but no one in their right mind would hire Mrs. Trimmer, so he's stuck here. And she does work. Just don't let her bully you.”
“Don't worry.” The dining room had paneling halfway up the walls, and plaster leaves and flowers around the ceiling. The blank white upper walls were designed to hold pictures, but there were none. Looking closely, I could see the holes where candle sconces had been taken down.
Judith, who'd followed my gaze, gestured to the heap of flatware gleaming on the long table. “This will be the next to go, so we decided to have one last dinner party before it's sold. At least that's the excuse. I think Max may have broken down and decided to ask for a loan.” She went to the buffet, dug inside for a moment, and tossed me an apron.
?” I laid the apron aside but sat and picked up a rag. You don't need an apron to
polish silver unless you're careless, which I'm not.
“I thought Anna wrote you. She said she was going to try. You took your time getting here.” She rubbed a fork briskly.
“I got the letter only a month ago. I came as fast as I could. And if you don't tell me what's going on right now, you'll be washing silver polish out of your hair!”
“Didn't Anna explainâ”
“You know what Annie's letters are like. She didn't say anything except that some hideous disaster had befallen you and I had to come at once.”
“But she's gotten much better aboutâ¦” Judith frowned, and my suspicion stirred.
“You think she was that vague deliberately? Why?”
“I'm not sure. She might have reverted to old habits under stress. Orâ¦”
“She may have thought you wouldn't be willing to come just to help Max.”
I snorted. “Just to help Max I wouldn't, but my family's fate is pretty well tied to his. What happened?”
Judith's eyes were distant. “It really started with the fireâ¦.”
It took the rest of the afternoon to get the whole story. It seemed old Max, along with most of the merchants in the city, was heavily invested in a convoy of
ships that was setting off to trade in Tallowsport. The ships hadn't even left the dock when a fire started in one of the shipyards, burning a shed full of pitch kegs, which then exploded.
“The fire went everywhere, Fisk. Dozens of people were burned and three men died!”
Eight ships had burned to the waterline, among them the ships Maxwell had invested in.
“So we lost a lot of money, but Max hadn't borrowedâit was just his savings.” We'd finished the silver by this time and were spreading the heavy linen tablecloth. It, too, Judith said, was to be sold after tonight. “I don't suppose you've acquired a fortune over the last five years?”
“No, but at least I didn't lose one. Go on.”
The real disaster occurred almost a month after the fire. Maxwell had judged a murder, an ugly case where two drunken tanners had raped and killed a traveling player who'd beaten them at a shell game. It was horrible, but it seemed clear-cut. There were two witnesses; one of them, a woman too ill to rise and go for help, actually saw the crime committed. The other had seen the two men enter the alley where the girl was killed. Both of them identified the tanners, whom Maxwell, quite properly, ordered hanged.
Then, over a month after the trial, the invalid killed
herself, leaving a note that she could no longer bear the guilt of lying two men to their death, and that she'd been bribed to identify themâ¦by Judicar Maxwell. The Judicary Guild ordered an immediate investigation. They had complete confidence in Max's honestyâthough that wavered a bit when they discovered that the other witness had left town a month before the woman's death. The guild audited Maxwell's books and bank account and found nothing suspicious until some bright young clerk had the notion to search Max's study. In a hidden compartment beneath a window seat they found another set of ledgers, for a bank account in Fallon. They were in Maxwell's handwriting and showed he'd received a large sum of money not long before the hearing, and paid out several smaller sums of money, one of which exactly matched the amount the woman's suicide note claimed she'd been paid.