128. In the Stonebridge Citadel
A knock. Unlike his predecessor, Milo never bolted the door to the commander’s office. Tondbert’s many boxes of “secrets” had been removed, a handsome rug laid on the floor, and an armless lounge long enough to serve as a cot had been installed. The new commander’s comrades knew the door was unlocked; nevertheless, they protected his privacy vigilantly. It was common but unspoken knowledge that Daisy Freewoman sometimes visited him there. At the sound of the knock, Milo gently pushed Daisy/Tilde from his embrace, his hand on her rounded abdomen. He seated himself at his desk and she picked up a washrag.
The door opened only enough to show a face, revealing Alberta Day, the serving girl. “My Lord Commander, the Lady Ambassador is here.”
“Don’t make her stand in the hall.” Milo sprang toward the door. “Toadface! What are you doing in the Citadel?” But when the door swung open Amicia wasn’t alone.
“You ought to be careful, big brother.” Amicia grinned as she strolled into Milo’s office, trailed by Merlin Averill. “I’m Ambassador for the lord of Hyacintho Flumen. What would Assemblyman Verge Courney or Speaker Kingsley Averill think if you called me Toadface? You don’t need to worry about Merlin; I’ve already told him how you and Aylwin used to torture me with that name.” She tossed her brown hair and leaned close to Averill, kissing his cheek. “I also told him that ‘Toadface’ from you is better than ‘Lady Ambassador’ from most Stonebridge assemblymen.”
Milo matched her grin. “Well, if Merlin isn’t offended, I can call you what I like, can’t I, Toadface?” He turned to the assemblyman’s son, but Merlin Averill wasn’t following the banter between brother and sister. Averill closed the door behind him with his left hand and pointed with his claw-like right arm.
Tilde’s washrag slipped noiselessly from her right hand into the bucket of soapy water. “Hello, Merlin. Fair morning.”
“B-b-but…” Merlin Averill stammered. “A-A-Adelgar said you were d-d-dead. S-s-saw your body.”
“Adelgar erred.” Her lips pressed together, one end of her mouth tilted up. Tilde’s face had begun to fill out, due to generous portions eagerly supplied by the kitchen girls. And her hands weren’t as raw as they had been in the early winter, because Alberta Day and another new girl had lightened Daisy’s load. Though still a serving woman in the Citadel, Daisy Freewoman enjoyed kind treatment from sheriffs and servants alike. “He mistook the body he saw. Before that he misjudged the woman he married. He misjudged me completely.”
“I don’t understand.” Amicia’s eyes flashed between Merlin and the cleaning woman. “Who is Adelgar? Merlin, how do you know Daisy?”
The claw lowered. “N-n-not Daisy. Tilde. T-T-Tilde Gyricson. D-D-Dans saw her too, A-A-Adelgar said.”
“I will explain,” Milo said. “Please.” He indicated the padded lounge. Merlin and Amicia sat together, his left hand holding her right. Milo pulled his own chair from behind his desk to sit beside Tilde, who took the last guest chair. He spoke to Amicia: “I think you’ve met Daisy Freewoman twice since you’ve come to Stonebridge, on the two occasions I let you enter the Citadel. There were good reasons to keep you away, and she was one of them. As ambassador for Aylwin, you meet often with Stonebridge Assemblymen, and it would have been awkward for you to speak with them if you knew Daisy’s history. Merlin is correct, partly. Daisy was Tilde Gyricson until last summer.”
Amicia looked puzzled, but Milo cut off her question with a wave. “Adelgar Gyricson is a young merchant in the city. He borrowed money from Ody Dans to finance a commercial venture—selling Stonebridge lumber in Down’s End. He overestimated his profits and bought a house for his wife.” Milo touched Tilde’s neck. Her face was rigid, eyes fixed on something beyond the Citadel walls. “By overspending his resources, Adelgar put himself in debt to Master Dans. I forget the amount. At least two hundred gold.”
Merlin drew in a sharp breath.
Milo said, “Merlin understands the implications well, I think. I happened to be present, having arrived for the first time in Stonebridge, when Master Dans confronted Adelgar Gyricson with his demand for payment—at a dinner party, with armed guards, in Dans’s house, The Spray. Gyricson could not pay. Tilde Gyricson begged Dans to grant her husband more time. Dans refused. Adelgar would either pay or…”
“Fall into River Betlicéa.” For the moment, Merlin’s stammer vanished.
“Aye. The river. But Master Dans offered another option. Tilde Gyricson could discharge her husband’s obligation by prostituting herself with two men—immediately, right there in Dans’s dining hall. Alternatively she could serve two weeks with Dans in The Spray.”
Amicia was horrified, but did not speak. Barely more than a whisper, Merlin Averill: “He never told me…”
Milo nodded. “No. Gyricson would not want to admit what he did next. In the presence of the dinner guests, he pled with his wife to pay his debts for him.”
“Two men—and we are free.” Tilde’s lips barely moved as she repeated Adelgar’s words. “He sold me.”
“I sat next to Master Dans that night,” Milo continued. “And I think it important to say that was a moment of supreme delight for Ody Dans. Forcing Tilde Gyricson to his bed meant almost nothing. It was seeing Adelgar wittingly beg his wife to prostitute herself that pleased him.”
Merlin’s face registered disgust. “I have heard rumors…”
“In this case, not mere rumor,” said Milo. “To save Adelgar’s life, Tilde chose two weeks in The Spray. Degradation in private is perhaps less vile than humiliation in public. The dinner guests departed. After the two weeks, Tilde was free of The Spray but did not go home. Later, as an under-sheriff in the Guard, I found her on a bridge parapet. As one might expect, she refused to return to Adelgar. And she refused to live as a whore in Madame Strong’s house. As an alternative to the river, I persuaded Tilde to come work in the Citadel.
“Naturally, Adelgar searched the city for her. To seclude her, I moved Tilde into the Citadel—with Commander Tondbert’s blessing. Tondbert saw her as living evidence against Dans, should he ever need to accuse him. In the Citadel, sheriffs and servants know her only as Daisy Freewoman. In the Guard there are sheriffs named Freeman or Stoneman or Woodman; they know not to pry into closed histories.
“In my rounds in the city I found a body, a body enough like Tilde in size, coloring, and hair and sufficiently disfigured—with a few misleading details both Dans and Adelgar were persuaded Tilde had drowned. Adelgar abandoned his search.”
Amicia asked, “Is she still the wife of Adelgar Gyricson?”
Milo rubbed his chin. “You spotlight the error of my ways. By the laws of Stonebridge, if Daisy is proved to be Tilde, she is still Gyricson’s wife. This concerns me, since the child she carries is a Mortane and must carry that name. If the Commander of the Guard takes a wife, that fact cannot be a secret. Wives of many prominent citizens would insist on meeting her. As Merlin recognized her, others would. You see the difficulty we’re in. If I marry Daisy, Adelgar will discover that Tilde lives, and our marriage will be void. If I do not marry Daisy, our child is a bastard. Tilde proposes that she raise him here in the Citadel with the name Freeman, and that I adopt him when the time is right.”
This news stunned Amicia momentarily. Her eyes widened and flashed to Tilde’s abdomen, but she quickly met Milo’s gaze.
Merlin shook his head. “Y-y-your men know the child is yours. They know the mother. Any one of them…” Merlin raised his claw to point at Tilde. “Will be able to say, ‘That’s the one.’ Your secret will become known.”
Amicia recovered her aplomb. “If Daisy is to be mother to my nephew or niece, she deserves to be my sister-in-law. You must marry.”
Milo held out his hands, palms up. “I agree that we should. But if we do…”
Merlin scratched his temple with his claw-hand, an odd maneuver that required him to tilt his head to the right. Amicia turned to him, raising her eyebrows. She waved off Milo’s question without looking his way. “Wait,” she commanded.
The claw dropped, falling against Merlin’s side like a broken toy. “The s-s-solution is obvious. I will arrange it.”
Amicia, Tilde and Milo together: “What?”
He smiled broadly, enjoying the moment. “T-t-trust me. T-t-twill be an honor to serve the Lord Commander. Now, Amicia, our b-b-business.”
Amicia’s smile expressed unreserved confidence in Merlin. Milo knew they had been spending much time together. He wondered: What has he said or done that you trust him so? We must be careful, Toadface.
“Merlin has asked me to marry him, and I wish to accept.” She spoke evenly, without hurry. “When I set out from Hyacintho Flumen, I expected Kenelm Ash to negotiate some marriage that would benefit Aylwin. I tried to harden my heart, since I anticipated someone old or fat or smelling of sheep—or all three. I consoled myself that at least he would be rich.
“We very nearly made a pact with Master Barnet in Down’s End. He is rich, though not as rich as Todwin Ansquetil or Simun Baldwin; not as old as some; and not terribly ugly or fat. Nevertheless, it would have been disastrous. Eulard Barnet has not enough political influence to raise an army to help Aylwin, and he had no feelings for me. Your man Felix Abrecan arrived only just in time.”
She paused, looking contemplative. “I believe an alliance with the Averills of Stonebridge is as advantageous a match as Aylwin could wish. Strangely enough, it is to our benefit that Kingsley Averill has steadfastly opposed building Stonebridge’s army or trying to project Stonebridge power the way Ody Dans and Lunden Ware desire. If Averill does not oppose you, your proposals for the Guard will pass. Merlin and I have spoken several times with his father. We have not fully persuaded Kingsley, but it delights him to see Merlin taking an interest in city affairs. And so the Averill faction in the Assembly has acquiesced in the expansion of the Guard. As commander, you will have freedom to move against the Herminians. But you must win, Milo. If you take an army into the field and come back defeated, your support in the Assembly will evaporate.”
Milo pursed his lips. “I am aware that my future rests on victory. I remind you, Lady Ambassador, that I care nothing for Aylwin’s future. For what it’s worth, I think you have judged accurately; a marriage to Merlin serves Aylwin far better than a marriage to Eulard Barnet. But you speak as an ambassador. What about you, Toadface? Will you be content to marry this wine grower?”
“Speaking for myself?” Amicia pulled Merlin’s head close and kissed his cheek. She turned her brown eyes on Milo. “Aye. It was beyond my hope to find such a man when I left Hyacintho Flumen.”
Tilde asked, “Really? What did you find in Merlin?”
“I met a man who stutters, who therefore does not speak much. Not all who are quiet actually listen; Merlin listens. Through Merlin, I have learned about wine. Through me, he has learned about castles. We are friends; we can do much together.”
“Well said, Amicia.” Tilde placed her hand in Milo’s. “Well said.”
Milo nodded his agreement with Tilde. “You came to the Citadel for some reason. What do you want?”
“Your blessing on our marriage, silly. You are my older brother.”
“Kenelm is your guardian; you should ask him.”
Amicia tossed her head in her habitual way. “In Down’s End I would have obeyed Kenelm’s decision. Not any more. Kenelm is a soldier, a knight. I understand politics better than he does, and I know my own heart.”
Tilde laughed. “You’ve made up your mind, it seems. So why ask Milo?”
A shrug. “I know it sounds strange, but I love my brothers: little Eddricus, Aylwin, and even the Lord Commander of the Stonebridge Guard. He’s my brother. I’d like him to approve.”
Merlin’s blue eyes weren’t looking at Milo, but Milo thought he saw pride and affection in the gaze turned toward Amicia. “That’s easy,” Milo said. “Of course I approve.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.