113. In Stonebridge
Kingsley Averill wasn’t particularly tall, but his long white hair and extremely erect posture gave him a dignified appearance. Perhaps that’s why the Assemblyman seemed a towering figure when Milo saw him at the door to Ambassador House. A much younger and shorter man with blond hair and rounded shoulders stood beside Averill. Milo strode quickly along the muddy street and would have called out “Fair afternoon” to the men except the door opened. Assemblyman Averill and his companion disappeared into the house before Milo could say anything.
Ambassador House was Lunden Ware’s idea. “The Ambassador from Hyacintho Flumen must have her own residence. You can’t cage her up in the Citadel of the Guard. She needs to be able to receive visitors on her own terms in her own space. You want the Assembly to trust you, Sir Milo, but no matter how open you and honest you are, they won’t feel safe coming to the Citadel.
“Lady Amicia already has her own guards, Kenelm Ash and that Travers, the strange armsman with the wandering eye. Now, I own a suitable house in town, not too big, that I’m not using. I’ll rent it to Amicia for a token amount—one gold for a year, let’s say. Assemblymen can call on her there. And who knows? It might happen that you could be present for some of those meetings. You will gain the trust of Stonebridge’s leaders more quickly if you meet them one by one on neutral ground. You can’t always be going to their estates or inviting them to the Bread and Brew.”
Milo wasn’t persuaded that a rented house counted as “neutral ground.” Amicia’s guests had to know that she was sister both to Lord Aylwin Mortane of Hyacintho Flumen and the newly invested Commander of the Stonebridge guard. But he approved of the idea anyway. If Amicia lived in the Citadel, it would look as if she were under his thumb.
Sloppy melted snow coated Milo’s boots with mud as he hurried along the street and then up stone steps to a wooden porch. Amicia’s rented house was a trim, attractive building: gray paint, glassed windows set in blue window frames, a roofed porch with a white railing, and flower boxes ready to be planted when spring arrived. The door opened before Milo could knock.
“Sir Milo! Welcome! Boots over there.” Raymond Travers pointed with his chin to two pairs of miry boots standing by the wall. Raymond’s blind eye moved constantly, looking this way and that, a distraction to which Milo had long ago become accustomed.
Milo chuckled. “The streets are full of mud, and Toadface wants to keep it out of her house?”
“Aye. That is, her women do. Lady Amicia hired a cook and a cleaning lady.”
Milo was pulling off his boots. “With what money? Kenelm needs to watch his budget.”
“I can’t speak to that, sir.”
“Commander Mortane, fair afternoon.” Kingsley Averill moved slowly, rising from his chair and inclining his head. “I am pleased to meet you at last outside of Assembly Hall. I introduce my son, Merlin Averill.”
Amicia wasn’t to be seen.
“Fair afternoon, Master Averill.” Milo bowed politely to the father and nodded to the younger man. “Master Averill. Your father attends every meeting of the Assembly, but I haven’t seen you there.”
“N-n-never g-g-go.” The blond man extended his right hand, and Milo reached out to shake it, realizing as he did so that the hand was deformed. It was red and wrinkled, with only a thumb and two stubby fingers, attached to a very short forearm. But Milo did not hesitate; he wrapped his hand around the claw-like appendage as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Why not? My friend Derian Chapman tells me there has been an Averill in the Assembly for two hundred years. Your father won’t be able to serve forever. You should make yourself known in the city.”
Merlin’s face crinkled in a smile, and he laughed quietly. His blue eyes matched his father’s. “H-h-how interesting.”
“Indeed.” The older Averill lifted an eyebrow and shared a glance with his son.
At that moment, Amicia came into the room, followed by a serving woman carrying a tray of drinks. “Please sit down, sirs,” Amicia said. “It will make things easier for Anna.”
Ambassador House was furnished with comfortable padded chairs. Even seated, with a glass of red wine in hand, Kingsley Averill held himself erect, as if his backbone had been affixed to a pole.
With his quite ordinary left hand, Merlin Averill raised his wine to his lips and immediately placed his glass on a side table. “Gunnara’s north hill. Two years old.” The corners of his mouth turned down. “Ugh.”
Milo noticed that Merlin’s stutter disappeared when he talked about wine.
“Excuse me?” Amicia blinked several times.
Kingsley Averill sniffed his glass. “Lady Amicia, my son has never learned to combine social niceties with wine. He invariably gives his honest opinion when it comes to the fruit of the vine. This particular wine was produced on the Gunnara vineyard west of Stonebridge two years ago. That was a poor crop, even for the Gunnaras, who have no pride in their product. Who bought this for you?”
“Well, Anna. Or Kenelm Ash. I don’t know.”
“Dear lady, some tasks cannot be entrusted to servants.” The elder Averill set his glass aside and smiled indulgently. “Don’t serve this to anyone. Pour it out. Tomorrow, Merlin will bring you as many bottles as you may need of a good wine, from our own cellar. If you want to represent your brother well, you ought to serve guests something drinkable.”
Amicia laughed aloud. “I am in your debt, Master Averill. But if I had picked the wine I’m sure I wouldn’t have done any better. I like the pear wine they sell at Freeman’s House in Down’s End.”
Merlin Averill looked aghast. “Y-y-you can’t.”
“I like what I like, Master Averill.” Amicia tossed her head, swaying her brown locks on her shoulders.
Merlin scratched his temple with his claw hand and grinned. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “L-l-lady Amicia.”
Milo and Amicia waited for several seconds. Merlin sat with a smile, saying nothing.
“Commander Mortane, I have read your report and examined the materials you submitted to the Assembly.” Kingsley Averill looked at Amicia and Merlin. “Is there some place where you and I might speak privately?”
Milo deferred to Amicia.
“Of course.” Amicia didn’t hesitate. “This room will do. Raymond, please stand guard outside the door, and admit no one. Merlin, if you come with me to the kitchen, you can explain to Anna and me why Gunnara wine is objectionable.”
Merlin Averill stood and inclined his head. “As the l-l-lady w-w-wishes.”
Kingsley Averill also stood. Milo mimicked him, not knowing why. Averill bowed to Amicia. “Thank you, Lady. This should not take long.” Milo thought: I must remember to treat Toadface like a lady, like an Ambassador.
As soon as they were alone, Milo and Averill reseated themselves. The older man eyed Milo appreciatively.
According to Derian Chapman, Kingsley Averill had long been one of Ody Dans’ chief rivals in Stonebridge politics. “I’m not really sure why,” Derian had said. “The Averills are not nearly as rich as the Danses, Wares, Bardolfs, or half a dozen other leading families. Kingsley Averill doesn’t seem to have much ambition when it comes to commerce. They’re certainly an old family. There’s been an Averill on the Stonebridge Assembly for two hundred years; an Averill led the fight against the sheriffs of Saltas Semitas, when the city refused to pay hidgield to the Le Grants.
“Averill almost never has any business dealings with Uncle Ody. He owns vineyards and grain fields southwest of the city, quite extensive holdings. But he never borrows money, nor lends it, and he hides his profits in a cellar—or so they say. I’ve not seen the inside of his house. I don’t think he trusts bankers, certainly not Uncle Ody. They say he pays his laborers more than other landholders, so it’s possible he doesn’t have much profit to hide.”
Milo was still considering Derian’s words when Averill spoke. “Hm. Sir Milo Mortane. You’ve turned the city upside down in eight months.”
“You overstate, Master Averill.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Commander, and accurate. As I understand things, you came to Stonebridge last summer with your squire.”
“And two horses—and my armor.”
The Assemblyman smiled. “Ah. Two horses and armor. In eight months you have become Commander of the City Guard. You have eliminated Bo Leanberth and his lieutenants. The Falcons, rather than using the demise of their enemies to terrorize the Bene Quarter, are cooperating with sheriffs of the Guard. Thievery and robbery have almost disappeared in Stonebridge.”
“It’s been cold. Even burglars want to stay inside and keep warm.”
“Modesty doesn’t befit you.” Averill paused. “And now you give the Assembly a damning report about various city leaders. Murderers, tax cheats, kidnappers, adulterers, and men who accept bribes—it seems our Assemblymen and other important citizens are no better than Hawks or Falcons. Do you intend to arrest us all?”
“A coup against the Assembly? Obviously not.” Milo spoke frankly. “There is not the faintest hint in my report of misdeeds by you or many other Assemblymen. Additionally, Tondbert’s ‘evidence’ in some cases amounts to very little. You should read the report carefully. Over and over, Tondbert’s materials say that one man said something about another man, or one person said that he overheard what someone else said to a third person. Rumors, fortified by supposition, and amplified by envy. Rather than danger of arrest, most of those who read the report should feel relief. Suppose I were foolish enough to arrest the citizens implicated in Tondbert’s secrets. With fair trials, most of them would not be proved guilty. It hardly seems wise to accuse prominent citizens of crimes they haven’t committed.”
Averill wrinkled his nose. “But city leaders have already been accused, in the report.”
“By Tondbert, not me. I have exposed his so-called secrets to the light of day. Sunlight will neutralize their poison, at least in most cases.”
“But in a few cases…”
Milo nodded. “I believe that murder has been done by powerful men in this city. Men have died in Euman Black’s silver mine. At least two guests have ‘fallen’ into River Betlicéa while at Ody Dans’ estate, The Spray. On at least two occasions logs have inexplicably rolled off wagons owned by Ham Roweson while carrying them to his mill, and twice men were crushed to death. Too often the powerful men of Stonebridge benefit from such ‘accidents.’”
Averill’s white eyebrows shot up. “Those were not the cases I had in mind. How can one prove an accident was not an accident?”
“I agree,” Milo said. “In all these cases, witnesses will come forward to affirm the useful deaths were truly accidental. My belief that murder has been done does not imply that arrests will follow. Which cases were you thinking of?”
“It seems incontrovertible that certain men, including Speaker Bardolf, conspired to cheat the city of tax receipts.”
Again Milo nodded. “Aye. There is good proof that Bardolf procured Ibertus Tibb his position as Clerk for Stonebridge. As City Clerk, Tibb kept false records that overstated Bardolf’s payments to the city. When the vintner Roalt Gervais discovered the affair, Tibb welcomed him into the conspiracy and falsified Gervais’s tax record.”
“Will you arrest and accuse them?”
“It seems I must. But it’s possible that Tibb will then name others. How many more Roalt Gervaises might there be? And if Tibb, the City Clerk, accuses someone of cheating, how can the accusation be refuted? How many of Stonebridge’s leaders can prove they paid all the taxes they owe? The situation could easily get out of control.”
Averill rose slowly from his chair and put his hands behind his back. “Commander, you have said publicly in testimony to the Assembly, and again in your written report, that you will strictly fulfill your oath to uphold Stonebridge’s laws. Therefore, you must arrest Tibb, Gervais, and Frideric Bardolf.”
Milo looked up at the Assemblyman. “If I do, the Assembly will need a new Speaker.”
“That is not your affair. The Assembly will choose a new Speaker as it sees fit. As you say, the situation might get out of control. But that also is not your affair. If the Assembly is wise, it will act to keep the situation under control. The Assembly, not the Commander of the Guard, must decide what the city will do. Your task is to carry out the policies set by the Assembly.”
Milo pursed his lips. “In other words, I must trust the Assembly and whoever the Assembly chooses as its Speaker.”
“Precisely.” Averill paused, raising a white eyebrow. “Notice, Commander, that we also must trust you. The stronger the City Guard is, the greater must be the trust we place in its commander.”
Milo rose and extended his hand. “You will find that I am worthy of trust, Master Averill.”
Averill shook Milo’s hand. “I’m glad we had this talk, Commander.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.