Authors: Hilari Bell
When Judith told me the sum that was left, I whistled. “It sounds like old Max recouped his losses.”
Judith's eyes flashed. “If you'd been here, you wouldn't joke about it.”
I wasn't joking. At least, not entirely. But Judith went on, “He lost everything he cares about except his family. Not just money, but the respect of the community, his position. Hisâ¦place. He was framed, Fisk.
And they did a cursed good job, too.” Her expression was grim.
“Judith, are you sure of that? Anyone can beâ”
“Not Max. I've lived in his house for five years. I'm certain. He was framed.”
If Anna had said that, I wouldn't have paid much attention, but Judith had sat through the same lessons I hadâa scholar was trained to evaluate the facts. And Judith was Judith. Putting compassion above truth wasn't one of her virtues, but if Max had been framedâ¦
“By who then? And why?”
“That, dear brother, is the mystery Anna called you home to solve.”
“Me? The Judicary Guild already investigated. What does she think I can do that they didn't?”
“You can talk to people who won't talk to the law. It must have been some criminal who framed him, since he has no other enemies. And you have criminal connections in this town.”
Truth above compassion, all right. “That was a long time ago. For all I know, they've all been hanged by now. By Max, probably.” In truth, the criminals I'd associated with hadn't been the kind to commit hanging crimes, but I was in no mood to make concessions.
“You can't know that until you ask around, can
you?” Judith didn't need to tell me how urgent the matter was. We were setting the table with silverware that was about to be sold. “I know we have no right to ask you for helpânot anymore. Though in fairness to Max, I can see why he didn't want to end up in a position where he might have to hang his brother by marriage.”
“It wasn't that. I embarrassed him.”
Judith's eyes fell. “He did offer you money, to get started somewhere else.”
“So he did.” I smiled at the memory. “Quite a lot of money.” I had dumped it on his desk and walked out without a backward glance.
Judith winced. “Will you try anyway?”
“Do I have a choice?”
To say that I wasn't looking forward to dinner was an understatement. I straightened the lace on my cuffs as I walked down the hall toward the stair. The hall was dark, since lamp oil is expensive, but the landing that overlooked the entryway glowed with a blaze of light from below. As I drew nearer, I heard a babble of voices. Acrimonious voices. I quickened my steps. When I reached the landing, I looked down, and stopped dead.
The small crowd surrounding him included Maxwell and all my sisters, but it was Michael I looked at. His rough clothes were stained with blood. His hair, now grown back to shoulder length, was dirty, and the small scar on his jaw, not to mention the swelling bruise under his left eye, completed the picture of a particularly scruffy bandit. Or maybe it was the hard, closed expression on his face.
Michael had followed meâ¦for a full month? In midwinter? Why?
The man beside him wasn't actually gripping his arm, but the attitude was there. “â¦in a brawl, so he came to my attention.” The man was speaking to Maxwell. The details of his clothes, scars, posture, and words added up to just one totalâsheriff.
I seriously considered backing up into the shadows. My jacket was a dark red-brown and would conceal me nicely. No one had seen me yet. I still had time to avoid the worst of the humiliating scene that was doubtless about to occur. What in the world did Michael think he was
“He claims he's looking for your brother by marriage,” the sheriff went on, almost as if he was answering my thought. “Says he might be in trouble. I hadn't heard young Fisk was back, but I figured you'd know, and that you might want to take charge of this fellow.
I need to tell you, Max, he's unredeemed.”
The onlookers gasped, and Anna shrank closer to her husband. Michael's face set harder. Had he come all this way, exposed himself to this, because he thought I might be in trouble? Even after I'd run out on him? Of course he had. And I'd abandoned him. Because I was afraid of being embarrassed. Just like Max had disowned me.
I must have been out of my mind.
I stepped forward, letting my heel thump on the first step. “I'm Fisk,” I told the sheriff. “Can I be of some assistance?”
He took his time looking me over, and Maxwell rushed into the breach. “Sheriff Potter claims thisâ¦this person knows you.” His nose was pinched with distasteâhis eyes begged me to deny it.
“Well, he does. Hello, Michael. How come you're the one who always needs rescuing?”
Michael's controlled expression shatteredâfor a moment I was afraid he might cry. But he took a deep breath and summoned up a shaky smile. “Mayhap 'tis that I try harder.” His voice shook too.
The sheriff had followed this with considerable interest. Now he turned to Maxwell. “So he told me the truth. Will you give warrant for him? I'm not just
going to turn him loose.”
Maxwell's “no” and my “yes” clashed in midair. Our eyes met.
“I won't have an unredeemed man in my house.” It was firm, final, and dignified. I didn't give a tinker's curse.
“Why not? You've already got me, and Michael's a much better person than I am. Though I must admit”âI cast a glance at my employerâ“he doesn't look it.”
“No,” said Maxwell.
“He goes, I go.”
“No!” Anna stepped forward and caught my arm. “We're your family. You can't leave us forâ¦forâ¦”
“He claims me and you don't. Who do you think I'm going to choose, Annie?”
She flinched, then took a deep breath and turned to Maxwell. “We need Nonny's help. Give the warrant, Max.”
“No!” But it was more protest than refusal, and the tension along my spine eased, even before Maxwell went on, “He's unredeemed, Anna. The Gods alone know what he's doneâor what he'll do! I can't justâ”
“I thought we needed criminal types,” said Judith. “Isn't that why we sent for Fisk?”
didn'tâ¦” Maxwell looked at the faces of his
women, and his will crumpled. “Oh, very well. Yes, Rob, I'll give warrant for this Sevenson's behavior. I only hope I don't live to regret it. I've enough on my conscience as it is.”
Anna's arms went round him. “You won't regret it, dear. Nonny vouched for him.”
“I did? I don't remember doing anything of the kind.”
“Fisk!” Michael muttered though clenched teeth.
Maxwell looked pained. “What is your relationship to this person, Fisk?”
“He's myâ¦” They were all waiting. For the first time, I noticed several strangers in the crowd. Michael was no longer my employer. My debt to him was paid. It was guilt, combined with the beaten misery on his face, that stung me into the reply I made.
“He's a knight errant and I'm his squire.”
Their faces went blank with astonishment. It was probably the bravest thing I've ever said, and Michaelâthe coward, the rat, the traitorâgave me the same incredulous look as everyone else.
It was Judith who finally broke the silence. “Well, if you're going to bring him to dinner, you'd better wash him, whatever he is. I must say, Fisk, life's a lot more entertaining since you came home. If this is the drama, I can't wait for the farce.”
I took Michael upstairs to wash and change while the others got rid of the sheriff.
“Why did you say that?” Michael hissed as soon as we were out of earshot. “Now they think we're both crazy.”
“So? It's better than what they were thinking before. Besides, you are crazy. What are you doing here, Mike?”
“I knew you must be going into trouble or you would have told me. You
have told meâ¦Nonny.”
I winced. “It's short for Nonopherian. After that idiot philosopher who went around pulling crooked petals off flowers.”
“I know who Nonopherian was, and striving for excellence in all things doesn't make him an idiot. Though I admit, 'tis a mouthful.”
“I prefer to be called Fiskâ¦Michael.”
“Then I will never call you anything else.” The nobility of his words was undermined by the wicked satisfaction in his eyes. I reluctantly banished “Mike” from my vocabulary, even as he went on, seriously, “You really should have told me. You know I'd not let you face a problem alone, whatever it might be. Though it seems”âhis voice became grimmerâ“that I may do you more harm than good.”
The anger of shame hardened his face, and I wondered, suddenly, what his journey had been like. At least I could do some mending on his tattered pride.
“Well, I told you to keep your shirt on. But I'm glad you're here. I'm going to need all the help I can get.” I told him Maxwell's story, as briefly as possible, while he washed.
Mr. Trimmer, a willowy old man who'd been one of the strangers in the entry, brought up Michael's pack and assured us he'd stable Chanticleer with Tipple. I wondered if my family could afford to feed two horses, and concluded that Michael and I should buy some hay. I hoped he had the money for it.
Dinner was an anticlimax.
The second stranger I'd noticed in the entryway was the dinner guest, Benjamin Worthington. His long buttoned vest and jacket were tactfully subdued, but of excellent cloth and cut, and his manner had the subtle confidence that comes from knowing you're the wealthiest man in the room. He was clearly an old friend of Maxwell's and a favorite with my sisters, and as dinner commenced, I began to see why.
The addition of Michael demolished whatever seating plan Anna had intended. Maxwell sat at the head of the long table, with Worthington to his right and Anna to his left. As hostess, Anna should have been
seated on Worthington's right, but instead she set Lissy between Worthington and me, and Michael between herself and Judith. Watching her shrink from Michael's presence, it wasn't hard to figure out that she'd rearranged the seating to keep the unredeemed man from sitting next to Lissy.
Trimmer served the soup, cream with onions and potatoes. The conversation would have been stilted, but Worthington started an intense discussion by telling Max that the Shipbuilders' Guild had petitioned for permission to tear down the North Tower to expand the wharves. This caused an immediate outcry, for the towers were the lower town's oldest landmarks.
I'd been gone long enough not to care, though I understood the fervor it roused in the others. As Trimmer replaced the soup bowls with various vegetables and a roast goose stuffed with apples and onions, I took the time to study Worthington more thoroughly. Beyond his clothes, he was a large man, though not overly given to fat, passing into that unnamed time between middle and old age. He must have been ten years Maxwell's senior, and his hair, now half gray, would have been plain brown in his youth. Indeed, plain brown described him wellâhis speech and manners were those of a well-to-do craftsman with no
pretensions. Was his wealth self-made? If so, it betrayed a degree of ambition that nothing else about him showed. Watching him steer the awkward conversation into comfortable channels, I could see why my sisters liked him.
When the North Tower conversation died a natural death, he brought up the subject of shipping goods from the new mining towns. This was clearly a hobbyhorse of Maxwell's, for his quiet manner became quite impassioned as he spoke of manufacturers who used unskilled men to produce shoddy goods, bringing down the reputation of the town. He hadn't been that ardent when he asked to marry my sister.
“Make a good profit, do they?” I put all the interest I could into my tone, though I admit I said it only to annoy him. Max looked appalled and opened his mouth to replyâthen he realized he'd been gulled and scowled.
“They don't make as much as you'd think,” Worthington interposed smoothly. “But they've cut into the Smiths' Guild's profits enough to make them howl.”
“Not to mention the fact that their workmen have no guild to offer them security,” Maxwell put in, his voice determinedly level. “They hire men off the farms with the promise of good wages in the mines, and when they failâand without the support of a guild
they often doâthe men come here instead of going home. When they get no work, they take to begging, or even crime, and the expense of that falls on the whole town, not just the smiths.”
“'Tis difficult,” said Michael, “for men in the countryside. If a farmer has more than two sons, he'll be hard put to find a living for them, and apprentice fees come high.”
Everyone stared and he blushedâhe'd become so involved in the conversation, he'd forgotten his own situation.
Anna, who seemed to have forgotten it too, flinched away, but Lissy fixed her bright gaze on him. “Sheriff Potter said you got involved in a brawl, Master Sevenson. How did that come about?”
“'Twas foolish,” said Michael shortly. But Lissy's pretty, curious face would have thawed a glacier, and he relented and told of a dandy, a ribboned walking stick, and a dog. Both stick and man were evidently known to my family, for soon they were chuckling and, by the end of the tale, laughing aloud.
“Well, I think it's unfair that you should meet Loves-the-Rope Thrope as soon as you rode into town,” said Lissy, still giggling. “And I promise you MiâMaster Sevenson, we're not all that spiteful.”
“Please, call me Michael,” said Michael. Then he
realized they might not want to call an unredeemed man by his first name and fell silent.
“I must admit,” Maxwell put in quietly, “I used to think Thrope a pleasant person, despite his poor taste, but nowâ¦” He was staring at Michael's downcast face, probably realizing that Michael hadn't been unredeemed very long. Old Max was never a fool.