Thursday, November 14, 2013

Castles 77

77. In Down’s End

            Milo and Derian found Eulard Barnet’s house in quickly fading light.  Storm clouds from the west darkened Down’s End as they walked along avenues of proud brick houses.  This was clearly the wealthy section of Down’s End.  But they could not tarry to admire the houses’ grand features, because rain began pelting down in dark sheets.  They leaned into the wind and hurried to the fifth house on Alderman’s Row.  Three stories tall and made of brick and wood, the banker’s house had a covered space on the right where horsemen might dismount and carriages could discharge their passengers out of the weather.  Milo and Derian scurried forward to this dry spot, where they stood dripping and shaking water off their hats.  Candles behind glassed windows threw pale yellow light into the disembarkation space.
            On their left, a door opened, flooding them with brighter light.  A woman’s voice said, “You must be Chapman and Mortane.  Please enter.”  An oil lamp immediately behind the woman’s head threw her face into shadow.  “You may hang your wet things here.”  There were pegs lining the inner wall of a narrow space inside the door; several of them already held coats and hats.
            “Fair evening.”  Derian pointed to the water dripping from his coat.  “Except that it isn’t.” 
            “Don’t worry about that.  Father had this corridor specially built to welcome guests.  You see?  A tiled floor tilted to drain the water away.”  The woman shut the door against the wind.  She had porcelain skin and striking blue eyes, features Milo could see now with light to the side rather than behind her.  She wore a blue kirtle that matched her eyes and reached to the floor.  “I am correct, am I not?  Chapman and Mortane?”
            Derian bowed.  “Derian Chapman, merchant of Stonebridge.”
            Milo held his fist across his chest.  “Milo Mortane, sheriff of Stonebridge.”
            The woman arched her eyebrow.  “Really?  Of Stonebridge?  Father said something about you being from Hyacintho Flumen, brother to Amicia Mortane.  It doesn’t matter; Hyacintho Flumen or Stonebridge, you are welcome.  Sup will commence soon, as you are the last to arrive.”
            “May we ask your name?”  Derian’s voice was playful. 
            “Ada Barnet.  You’ve heard that name before, I see.”  A smile played at the corners of the woman’s mouth.  “Please tell me Avery is safe and whole.”
            Derian’s face expressed mock surprise.  “It seemed to me at court this morning that your father would rather Avery be hanged or whipped.”
            “My father is an ass.”  Ada stopped before opening a door.  Her eyes searched Milo and Derian’s faces.  “Is he safe?”
            Derian paused, so Milo answered.  “Avery is as safe as a person can be in Ody Dans’s house.  As long as he is useful to Master Dans, no one can harm him.”
            The blue eyes were troubled by this answer.  “Is he useful to Master Dans?”
            Milo nodded.  Derian said, “Oh, aye.  Aethelred Doin has money, so Avery is quite useful.”
            “He’s a hostage.”  All humor had left Ada’s expression.
            Milo leaned over the woman and touched her cheek.  “You would prefer him free.”
            Ada took his hand; the vivid eyes held his.  “Aye, Sir Milo.  I would.  And whole.”  She opened the door and led them into the supper hall.

            Earlier, after Milo, Derian, Kenelm and Amicia had departed the Down’s End courtroom, they had eaten mid-day in the common room at Freeman’s House, the inn where Kenelm, Amicia and Raymond Travers, Kenelm’s squire, were staying.  Milo gave Raymond directions to Dog of the Downs, sending a message to Eádulf that he and Derian would not return to the Dog until late.  Milo listened and approved when Kenelm warned Amicia that she needed to pay close attention while at Barnet’s sup and dance.  “You cannot speak effectively for Aylwin until you know the players,” Kenelm had said.  “Not all aldermen are equally important.  Which of them are the leaders?  Which of their wives have influence?  At least five aldermen will not be there tonight; what do those present think of those who are absent?  Which of them have marriageable sons?  Explain Aylwin’s need, yes, but listen, listen, listen.”
            Privately, Kenelm told Milo what he would have guessed anyway.  Amicia herself was part of Aylwin’s strategy, to be offered in marriage at the right time to the right family, if it would help create an alliance between Down’s End and Hyacintho Flumen.  Milo suspected that if he were in Aylwin’s position he might have done the same thing; nevertheless, in his heart he held this auction of their sister against Aylwin.  To Kenelm he said, “Find her someone gentle if you can.  She has to live with your choice the rest of her life.”
            After lunch, Amicia had gone to her room in Freeman’s House to dress for the evening.  Without her mother, Diera, or even Boemia to advise her, Amicia feared dressing improperly more than anything.  Milo told her to think what her mother Lucia might wear and to err on the side of simplicity.  “You might not believe it, Toadface,” he said, using a nickname from their childhood, “but you’re not bad to look at.  Scrub your face an hour before you go.  They will see a healthy noble woman, and that’s what they want.”
            Amicia hugged him.  “I’m glad you’re here, Milo.”
            Milo and Derian spent the afternoon tracking down Eni Raegenhere.  After following directions to a corral, to a warehouse near River Betlicéa, and to a disreputable inn called The Running Stag, they finally found him at the wine warehouse in the western part of the city.  Raegenhere said he expected Derian to look for him, so he thought to make the job easy by waiting with Chapman’s goods.  Milo paid Raegenhere fifteen golds, recompensing him for damage to his wagon at Stonebridge, and made him place his mark on a document stating that fact.  Since Raegenhere couldn’t read or write, they had to find a literate man who could witness the statement.  Thus they were the final guests to arrive at Barnet’s house.

            Alderman Barnet’s sup was a large room, not as grand as the great hall at Hyacintho Flumen or Ody Dans’s dining room overlooking River Betlicéa, but still a single room bigger than many peasant cottages.  At one end, near a door leading to the kitchen, stood a serving table laden with several steaming dishes.  The sup table was narrow (servants brought each dish from the board), so that the guests on opposites sides of the table could easily converse back and forth.  Oil lamps in sconces on the long walls filled the room with light.  A fireplace at the end opposite the kitchen provided warmth.
            Eleven guests joined Eulard Barnet and his daughter for sup, making a party of thirteen.  Someone made a joke about an unlucky number, suggesting that Barnet should have invited one more.  Barnet said there was a young man that he wished he could invite, but mostly so Sheriff Egnenulf could arrest him.  Ada frowned down her father’s attempted humor and hastened to make introductions.
            Milo had already met Eulard Barnet, Ada Barnet, and Simun Baldwin, the mayor.  He knew Amicia, Kenelm, and Derian well.  For him, the new people were the mayor’s wife Adele Baldwin, Sheriff Wies Egnenulf, Alderman Kent Gausman of the glassblower’s guild and his wife Hamia, and Alderman Todwin Ansquetil of the weaver’s guild with his wife Esile.  Adele Baldwin was middle-aged, medium height, fat and round, with thinning gray hair.  She exuded cheerfulness and kindness; Milo quickly decided she counted for nothing.  Sheriff Egnenulf, dressed in a dark blue tunic, was young, handsome, very fit, and somewhat dim-witted.  Milo got the impression Egnenulf had been invited mostly to be a dancing partner for Ada.  Kent Gausman had very full lips in a clean-shaven face; Milo wondered if years of blowing glass affected a person’s lips.  Hamia, the glassblower’s wife, was short, round, and considerably younger than Adele Baldwin; her thick black hair could have been a girl’s.  Todwin Ansquetil was an energetic man of modest height, about forty-five years old.  He had the thickest, hairiest arms Milo had ever seen, the arms of a blacksmith.  Esile, his wife, had to be at least twenty years his junior, and she was several inches taller than her husband.  With a prominent nose in a skinny face, she might be compared to a horse, but never called beautiful.
            As the evening progressed through seven courses of food into dancing, Milo evaluated the aldermen, their wives, and the mayor.  Eulard Barnet had outlived his wife and son; the pain of that second loss cut deeply.  The banker had great wealth, and apparently he thought it improper that Ada would inherit it.  Milo came to understand that the glassblower’s guild had little weight in city politics, corresponding to the glassblowers’ numbers and possessions.  In any case, Kent Gausman paid almost no attention to Amicia or the situation in the south; he attended Barnet’s party to eat and drink and hobnob with other aldermen.  In contrast, Alderman Ansquetil’s weavers’ guild had more members and influence than any other in Down’s End.  And his horse-faced young wife clearly had consequence in his thinking.  Before and after sup Esile would stand behind her husband and bend over his shoulder to whisper to him, often drawing laughter from Ansquetil.  The morning in the Down’s End courtroom had already convinced Milo that Mayor Baldwin was a crucial figure.  The mayor could make Eulard Barnet do pretty much what he pleased.  Simun Baldwin, Todwin Ansquetil, and—of all people—Esile Ansquetil; those are the players.  I hope Amicia sees it.

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


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