Thursday, July 18, 2013

Castles 60

60. In Stonebridge

            “I need to get you some boots,” Milo said, watching Tilde strap on leather sandals. She retrieved them from a small closet near the main doors of the Citadel where she left them in the morning.  During the day, she walked barefoot on the fortress’s worn stone floors, saving her shoes for Stonebridge’s rugged streets.  They exited the Citadel and began the short walk to Lora Camden’s shop.
            “I own boots,” Tilde said bitterly.  “And good sandals for everyday use.  Unlike many of the clothes I used to wear, they were mine before I married.  Unfortunately they reside in Master Adelgar Gyricson’s house, where I will never go.  I have only these fashionable leather shoes.  They must last me a long time.”
            Milo admired Tilde’s pride, at least in regard to Adelgar Gyricson.  “If I fetched your boots, would you wear them?”
            She looked at him suddenly.  “Don’t!  You must not give him reason to think I am alive or that you know where I am.”
            “Oh, I agree.”  Milo inclined his head.  “But if Master Gyricson were detained in one part of the city—being interviewed by a sheriff, for instance—burglars might enter his house and take a number of things.  He might not miss a pair of boots amid other losses.”
            “You’re sworn to defend the laws of Stonebridge, not break them.  Besides, he has servants in the house.”
            Milo chuckled.  “You are extremely noble, Tilde.  I defend the laws of Stonebridge for very little pay.  But I see your point.”
            Tilde touched Milo’s elbow, something she rarely did in public.  “Why did you tell Tondbert about Ody Dans?” 
            He looked at her and smiled reassuringly.  She’s worth having.  “Because Tondbert uses secrets.  Derian Chapman told me that Tondbert has proof of nasty secrets regarding many members of the Stonebridge Assembly.  That’s why they don’t remove him, even when his incompetence endangers the peace of the city.”
            They were nearing the shroud maker’s shop, squeezed between a cobbler and a candle maker.  “That makes no sense, Milo.  If Tondbert is as bad a commander as you say, why do you strengthen his hand?”
            “Lots of reasons.  First of all, Master Dans is the richest man in Stonebridge.  He’s ruthless, as you know, and dangerous.  Tondbert will undoubtedly find a way to inform Ody Dans that he knows about the Gyricson affair, and that may keep Dans from asserting too much influence.  Also, Tondbert may remember that I can sometimes give useful information.  It’s not that he would be actually grateful, but he might value my continued existence.”
            “So . . . you’re more afraid of Dans than Tondbert?”  Tilde’s question hung in the air, unanswered, as Lora Camden admitted them into her shroud maker’s workshop.  Bolts of white linen lay in a bin by the wall; a half-finished shroud, sized for a child, lay on the counter.
            “You’re a bit later than usual, Tilde,” Lora said.  She was a heavy woman with a plain round face.  “Fair evening, Sir Milo.  Will you sup with us?”  It wasn’t a purely friendly invitation; Lora expected payment for meals.
            “Not tonight, Mistress Camden.  I’ll have a word with Tilde privately, but I’ll sup in the Citadel.”
            “A word.”  Lora grinned broadly, showing misshapen yellowing teeth.  “Enjoy your talk, then.”
            Tilde’s room was upstairs, at the back of the building.  On the second floor, a narrow hall skirted the stairwell, leading from Tilde’s room to Lora Camden’s bedroom at the front, over her shop.  On the ground floor beneath Tilde’s room was a small space with a table and fire grate; this served the two women as kitchen and dining room.  As soon as Milo shut the door to her room, Tilde began unfastening her tunic.
            Milo stopped her undressing with a hand on her shoulder.  “Not tonight.  You need to understand.
            “I fear Dans and Tondbert in different ways.  Tondbert can get me killed by accident, through stupidity.  Dans might have me killed quite deliberately.  Obviously, I can’t trust either man.  But you and I live and work under Tondbert’s beak; he’s the immediate problem.  So it’s useful for him to think of you as a weapon against Dans.  He would protect you if he knew how.  More importantly, he will keep you secret; he’s good at secrets.
            “Mistress Camden undoubtedly told my Lord Commander about you and me weeks ago.  He didn’t think much of it then.  But now that he knows Adelgar is looking for you, he thinks he has a secret to use against me.  If I were ever to challenge him, Tondbert would threaten to tell your husband about me.  Strictly speaking, adultery is a crime in Stonebridge.
            “You see, then.  Tondbert values you very much, mostly as evidence against Dans, but partly as a yoke around my neck.  For a while, at least, you will be welcomed and protected in the Citadel.  In fact, in a day or two, I will suggest to Tondbert that there are yet empty rooms in the Citadel.  He might see fit to move you inside, away from possible discovery.”
            Tilde smiled.  “In that case, I might not need boots.”

            Lora Camden came out of the kitchen as Milo tramped down the stairs.  “Sir Milo!  That was a quick word indeed.”
            Milo bowed low.  “Sometimes a word really is just a word, Mistress Camden.”
            “Too bad.  Perhaps you will stay longer next time.”
            “Maybe I will.”  Something caught Milo’s eye, hanging on a peg on the wall.  Milo couldn’t remember seeing it before.  “What’s that, Mistress Camden?  Have you decided to start making hats?”  Milo stepped close to examine the object.  It appeared to be made of shroud linen, but on closer examination it couldn’t be a hat; it was conical and tall.  It would look ridiculous perched on someone’s head.
            Lora Camden cackled.  “No, Sir Milo.  Not a hat.  That’s a face shroud.  Have you never seen one?”
            “I have not.  In fact, I’ve never heard of such a thing.  It is made to cover a dead man’s face?”
            “Aye.  Sometimes a body is found and the face is, shall we say, unattractive—beyond the skill of embalmers.  As a sheriff, Sir Milo, you should know about these things.”
            Milo did.  “Like the man they brought out of the Bene Quarter two days ago.  Someone knifed him and left him face down in a sewer, and nobody touched him for four days.  Finally someone told a sheriff.  Tondbert sent two of the newest recruits to pack him off to the pauper’s field on a cart.  Afterward the boys said they had never seen anything like it.  Rats, they said.”
            “Just so,” said Camden, nodding.  “Now, I don’t suppose anyone bought a shroud for that one.  Wander naked in the after world, I suppose.”
            “Hah!  Do you really think wearing a shroud or not wearing one makes a whit of difference in the after world?”
            Lora Camden’s smile showed her teeth.  “What I think don’t matter, now, does it?  People like shrouds, and it’s a good thing.  Keeps an old woman in business, don’t it?”
            Milo inclined his head, acknowledging Camden’s practicality.
            She continued: “Sometimes folk do buy shrouds for bodies that ha’ been, shall we say, waiting too long.  They don’t want the kiddies to see, so they buy a face shroud.  Been a couple times when I was asked to make body shrouds extra long, for similar reasons, to cover feet or arms.  But the face—well, I make a half dozen face shrouds every year.”
            Milo exited to the street.  If he didn’t hurry, he would miss sup in the Citadel refectory.  Suddenly he stopped and hurried back to Lora Camden’s shop.  She came to the door when he pounded on it.
            “Sir Milo!  What is it?”
            “Mistress Camden, is the face shroud intended for anyone in particular?”
            “The one on the peg?  No.  I like to keep one on hand; never know when a customer will want it.”
            “Very sensible of you,” Milo said.  “Make another.  I’ll buy one, and you’ll still have one in stock.”
            A puzzled expression—but she said, “As you wish.”

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.


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