An excerpt from his upcoming novel, Quillifer
by Walter Jon Williams
Text copyright © 2017 by Walter Jon Williams
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form
I can hear the waters of the Dordelle chuckling against the hull of our boat, see the silver moonlight
glow on the rim of our little window, taste the warm night air. Your lilac scent floats in my senses.
By the light of the moon I can see your open eyes, fixed on the dark corner of my cabin, but in truth
staring into your future. For you are beginning a new life, a life apart from everything you knew, and
you are anxious on that account.
I would help you sleep. I have begun life over more than once, and perhaps I can ease your concern
by narrating my own tale. So, come back to bed, my heart, and rest your head on my shoulder, and
I will stroke your hair and tell you how I came to become what I am.
I fear that my life may reveal more folly than wisdom. I will begin with an act of folly, then, as I
hang upside down three storeys above the street, and reflect on the workings of Fate. The wheel had
come full circle, and all in a flash: naught but two minutes ago, I had been sharing a warm feather
bed with Annabel Greyson, the surveyor's daughter; and now I was outside the house, three storeys
above the street, hanging near-naked in a brisk wind, while Annabel's father raged within, seeking
the villain who had debauched his child.
Who, of course, was me.
This is amusing now, and you laugh, but it was no laughing matter to be thus caught up in some
moralist's tale. I resolved to avoid the moralist's last scene, which would almost certainly involve
judgment, whips, and the pillory.
What is it about fathers, and brothers too, that sets them so firmly against the course of true love?
The Greyson house was like most houses in Ethlebight, narrow and deep, with the ground floor
built of solid masonry, and the upper half-timber floors projecting over the street. From the topmost
gable a roof beam extended, and on the end of the beam was a large black iron hook, used to help
lift furniture or supplies to the upper storeys.
I hung from the beam with the iron hook a few inches from my face, and hoped I would not find
myself hanging from the hook itself within the next twenty minutes.
The beam was slick with pigeon droppings. I tried to claw my fingers into the beam like a badger
digging after a burrowing rabbit.
I made my exasperated-bailiff face. All because she asked me to adjust her Mermaid costume. I
had complied out of a spirit of pure chivalry--I had complied with all Annabel's requests--and now
I found myself in this doleful condition, hanging above a shadowy abyss.
It has to be said that Annabel's generous nature had surprised me. I had been paying more attention
to Bethany Driver, another of the Mermaids, but Annabel had broken a lace and asked for aid, and
my fate had lurched onto a new path.
Some hours earlier, I had entered the house via this same gable, to avoid the groom that slept by
the door. Annabel had assured me that her father and his apprentices were away on a survey, her
mother was visiting relatives in Amberstone, and the only servant besides the groom was the deaf
old lady who lit the fires in the morning.
Perhaps the old lady wasn't as deaf as she seemed. Someone, at any rate, had to have sent a
message to Anthony Greyson the surveyor, who must have ridden half the night to show up at his
own door just as the dawn was beginning to brighten the eastern sky. The city gates wouldn't even
have opened yet; Greyson must have bribed his way past the guards.
Hearing the pounding and roaring at the front door, I reacted in an instant--I must admit that I was
not a complete stranger to these sorts of emergencies. I dashed up the stairs and left the house by the
same route I'd entered, though without all my clothing. In the dash up the stairs, I'd been able to tug
on only my shirt. My shoes hung around my neck by their laces, and I held my belt and leather purse
in my teeth. On my head was the cap, black velvet with the red piping and the brim turned up all
around, that marked me as an apprentice lawyer. My hose, doublet, and tunic were clutched in my
hands or piled in a disorderly bundle on my chest.
My situation was made worse by the fact that two of Greyson's apprentices sat on their horses
directly below me. I did not wish to fumble my belongings and make the two men wonder why it had
suddenly begun to rain clothing. Nor could I stay where I was: Greyson had only to look out the
window to see me hanging there, presenting to the viewer the most unflattering view imaginable.
Carefully, I sorted through my possessions, and threw my loose clothes over the beam in hopes
they would remain there for the next few minutes. I looked down and saw the broad hats of the
apprentices below, then rolled myself, as silently as I could, atop the beam. Pigeon droppings
smeared my front, and my hair, which I keep long because you ladies find it so pleasing, fell in my
face. The coins in my purse rang, as loud as an alarm bell at such close range. I made my screaming-infant face, froze in place, and tried to look down without actually moving my head.
If anyone had heard the pennies sing, apparently they hadn't thought to look up. Shuddering with
cold--or possibly terror--I managed to rise to hands and knees.
My pulse crashed in my head like a bowling ball thundering into an array of pins. Father Greyson
continued his roaring progress through his house, accompanied by the pleas of his daughter and the
toothless jabbering of the old woman. I decided it was probably time to leave my perch, and looked
The Greyson house had a tile roof. I had managed to cross it in reasonable quiet earlier, but if I
accidentally kicked a tile to the street, I would alert the waiting apprentices.
The house across the street, however, was thatched, and since both houses had been built to jetty
out over the street, the jump was perfectly possible. It wouldn't be completely silent, but it would
be quieter than a clattering tile, and once I landed, I'd be invisible to anyone below.
The difficulty would be that the opposite house was a bit taller than the Greyson place, and the
jump would have to be made with great care and sure footing to avoid falling short.
Yet the leap was feasible. I am tall and big-framed and, after spending much of my youth on my
father's killing floor, strong even for my size.
I considered whether or not to draw on my clothing before making the leap, and decided at least
to belt on my purse. I was finishing this task when I heard a bang behind me, and suddenly I was
illuminated with pale light as a lantern moved into the gable room.
A surge of alarm brought me upright, loose clothing in my arms and my bare feet planted on the
beam slippery with pigeon droppings.
I heard a cry from behind me as Greyson glimpsed me through the window, and I launched myself
for the roof across the street. My foot slipped in the droppings, and fear clutched my vitals as I
realized I was going to fall a little short. I threw my long arms out wide to seize as much of the thatch
as possible, and I landed with a great crackle and thump as my clothes spilled from my grasp. My
legs kicked out over the abyss, and I grabbed great fistfuls of straw to keep from plummeting to the
brick lane below.
"Thief! Thief!" Greyson's voice boomed out into the street, roaring the word that was most likely
to bring the neighbors awake--if he'd shouted "Seducer!," the result might have been laughter, plus
of course the besmirching of his daughter's name. Greyson was at the window, pointing at my bare
legs and buttocks visible in the light of his lantern. There were cries from the apprentices below, the
sound of clattering hooves as they wrenched their horses about.
I had lost my clothing. I considered myself fortunate that Greyson was unlikely to recognize my
backside, heaved myself to safety, rose to my feet, and ran.
"Catch him!" Greyson bawled. "Break his ribs! Then bring him to me!"
I took flight. By the time the apprentices' horses jangled into life, I had vaulted to another building
and sprawled on tiles with a clatter. Heart leaping in my chest like a mad animal, I scrambled to my
feet and ran over the ridgepole to the next roof. Jumping from one roof to another was a sport I'd
enjoyed when I was younger--I would race across rooftops with my friends, trying first to reach the
gun platform on the North Gate, or ring the bell on the roof of the Pilgrim's monastery, and all
without setting foot on the ground.
Though it had to be admitted, I'd always done this in full daylight, and I was long out of practice.
I'd let my rooftop adventures lapse after I'd become apprentice to Lawyer Dacket--it wouldn't do
for a lawyer's apprentice to be taken for trespass.
Out of practice I may have been, but pursuit lent me inspiration. Hurling myself over lanes and
alleys, landing on my feet or hands and knees or flat on my belly, I outpaced my pursuers until I
came to Royall Street, a grand thoroughfare too wide to leap. There, a shadow behind another
shadow, I took shelter behind an elaborate carved brick chimney, caught my breath, quelled my
hammering heart, and listened for the sounds of pursuit.
I heard horses gallop through the streets, and then the sound of hoofbeats slowed as the pursuit
failed to find its quarry. One horse came trotting down Royall Street, but I stayed motionless behind
the chimney, and the horse passed on its way. Eventually, the sound of pursuit died away altogether.
The rising sun began to gild the chimneys and rooftops of the city, and I again considered my
situation. There was vast Scarcroft Square and too many wide, un-jumpable streets between me and
my father's house, and at least some time on the ground was inevitable. And if I had to descend, it
was best to do it now, before it was full daylight.
Three sonorous strokes on a bell sounded through the still air. The Dawn Bell from the Harbor
Gatehouse, the signal for Ethlebight's gates to open.
There was little time to lose. I plotted a route that involved the least amount of time on the ground,
rose from my hiding place, and made two leaps across narrow streets, leaps that were much easier
in the dawn light. Making the second leap, I dislodged a colony of kitlings that had been perched on
the eaves. You have perhaps not heard of these, as they have but recently flown over from the Land
of Chimerae, but they are plump, furry, and winged creatures that have appeared in Ethlebight in just
the last few years. They are a little larger than rats, and they like to perch above the street until they
observe a mouse, a bird, or some other small animal below, and then they glide down on their furry
wings and pounce.
The name "kitling" is misleading, as the creatures best resemble a large dormouse, but they kill
vermin as cats do, which may account for the name. As they are small and useful, we have made no
effort to eradicate them, but we are wary. I am told that dragons too start small.
As I made my leap, I heard Greyson's call of "Thief! Thief!"--the surveyor had waited silently
in the street below, hoping to see me flying overhead, and the pack of dislodged kitlings had warned
him to look up, so there was another mad scramble over the roofs until pursuit again died away.
By now it was full daylight. The only advantage of the sunrise was that the wan autumn sun was
warmer than the chill autumn night, and I placed myself against the eastern side of a chimney, where
the sun might warm me, while I recovered my breath and my wits.
At least Greyson was chasing me through the city, and not at home thrashing his daughter. I
preferred not to think of Annabel trapped at home with the old roaring tyrant.
Soon there would be people on the streets, and to blend with those people, I would need clothing.
I decided to make a search, leaped to a large building, landed in a rattle of roof tiles, and looked
down into a courtyard. No laundry waved in the shadowed court, so I jumped to another building,
rose in a cloud of straw dust, and then saw my opportunity below: laundry strung on lines, an empty
washtub lying on its side in a pool of water, and no laundress visible.
Employing fingers and toes, I used a crow-stepped gable, a cornice, a soffit, a bull's-eye window,
an architrave, and a trellis to lower myself to the ground. Shaking a cramp from my fingers, I walked
barefoot across crumbling old brick and plucked a tunic, hose, and a doublet from the lines. I pulled
on the hose, and was about to draw the tunic over my head when I considered the state of my shirt.
There was nothing wrong with it, other than its being soiled by sweat, chimney soot, straw dust, and
pigeon droppings, but its condition would have degraded my new wardrobe, so I exchanged it for
a clean shirt from the line.
I would find a way to pay for the clothes. Stealing, I reassured myself, was beneath me.
Renewed, I began to walk toward the large gate that opened onto a lane behind the house, but
stopped when I saw I was observed by a boy-child who stared at me from a door. The boy was
dressed in a dirty smock and a single stocking on the left foot, and he gazed at me with vast blue
eyes. I approached him.
"Who is your mistress?" I asked.
The child wiped his streaming nose on his sleeve. "Mum's name is Prunk." At least to my ears it
sounded like Prunk.
I opened my purse and did some calculation. The hose were worth sixpence when new, and the
shirt perhaps a whole crown, save that I'd exchanged my own shirt, which was of finer cloth. The
doublet was battered, the tunic worn thin in places. And then of course there was the trouble I'd put
the household to. Say a crown.
I gave the child a crown. "Give this to your mother," I said. I added a halfpenny. "And this is for
The child stared at the silver in his palm. "Apple-squire," he said, and wiped his nose.
I had been called thief, which I was not, and now I had been called a pimp by an infant. I decided
I'd had quite enough abuse for the day. "For your mother," I said with finality, and walked briskly
to the gate, oaken-beamed and twelve feet tall. I climbed it easily and rolled over the top, then
dropped down into the lane.
In two minutes I was in Royall Street, walking at my ease.
As I walked along I gloried in my home city of Ethlebight, the great jewel at the mouth of the River
Ostra. The houses were built on the same pattern, with upper floors jettied out over the street. Gables
were crow-stepped, or rose in gentle curves to pediments or wooden towers or belfries. Bull's-eye
windows or narrow leaded glass panes glittered in the rising sun. Half-timber beams were carved in
the shapes of jesters, acrobats, gods, and fanciful animals, or with the solemn, respectable faces of
the burgesses who owned the buildings. The city was built on the soft ground of the delta, and the
houses tended to tilt or lean against one another, or rear up over the street like a bear about to fall
upon its prey.
By now, the city had come fully alive. Sailors surged up the road as if carried on a tide, legs spread
wide, straddling the pavements as if walking along the heaving deck of a ship. Knife sharpeners,
sellers of whelks and oysters, rag-and-bone men, pie and chestnut sellers, all moved along the streets
behind their handcarts, each giving out the distinctive, high-pitched cry peculiar to their trade. Monks
in undyed wool, servants of the Pilgrim, walked in disciplined silence on rope sandals. Servants
bustled on errands, the wealthy bustled in chairs or coaches, children bustled to school, and
apprentices bustled to the nearest source of ale. Dogs and pigs, which devoured the waste, wandered
freely; while cats perched on high gables and viewed all from a position of superiority. Drunken men
sang, drunken women screeched, drunken children darted underfoot. Carters rode in the press, their
wagons piled high with goods, surging along like galleons in the human flood.
My long legs carried me easily through the throng. I delighted in the familiar sights of my city, not
to mention the fact that I'd survived the night unscathed. My black velvet apprentice cap had
remained on my head through all the night's adventures. The tunic I'd acquired, striped in faded
green and thinning white, was stretched to the limit by my big shoulders; and the quilted doublet,
originally the deep red color called cramoisie, was a pale ghost of its original self. I was beginning
to think I had overpaid for my new clothes.
Still, having survived pursuit, I was in charity with all: I walked with a smile, greeted friends and
acquaintances, while with practiced skill I dodged small children, pigs, and filth.
I paused by the shop of Crook, the printer and bookseller, but the door was closed. Inspired
perhaps by the bound verse that he imported from the capital, Crook the businessman kept poet's
hours. I would try to visit later in the day.
I turned at the cry, and saw the urgent signal of Mrs. Vayne, the greengrocer. I avoided the
rumbling handcart of an oyster-seller and crossed the street to join her.
Mrs. Vayne was a large woman in a starched white apron and a boxy hat that covered her ears. Her
cheeks were red as the baskets of pippins piled about her feet. I saw at once the distinctive white-green apples nested in straw, and I felt my mouth water.
The grocer smiled with crooked teeth. "Ay, the first pearmains have come down the river. And you
know how your mother dotes on them."
"Can you send two baskets to the house?"
Mrs. Vayne nodded. "I've already set them aside."
I leaned over a tub of cresses and kissed Mrs. Vayne's cheek. She drew back in mock surprise.
"A forward creature you are," she said. "But for all that, you may have a forelle."
I picked the spotted pear from the greengrocer's hand and took a generous bite. I chewed with
great pleasure and dabbed at my lips with the faded sleeve of my doublet.
"Best send a basket of these as well." I took another bite, and my free hand snaked a pearmain
from its den of straw. Mrs. Vayne saw and pursed her lips in disapproval. I made my wheedling-infant face, and the greengrocer shrugged.
"The gages should come in two or three days," she said.
"Then I shall return in two or three days." I kissed her again, and she wiped pear juice from her
"You're not dressed for Dacket's office," she said.
"It's a sea dog I am today. I'm going sailing."
Mrs. Vayne crooked an eyebrow. "Does your master know?"
"I am on my master's business. Which I should no longer delay." I raised the stolen pearmain,
inspected it, and took a bite of the white-green apple. I crunched the pearmain happily, smiled, and
said, "Best make it three baskets sent to my mother."
"They will keep all winter," said the pleased grocer. "Provided you keep them in a cool room."
I looked over my shoulder and saw a pair of broad-shouldered men striding through the crowd.
Was it Greyson livery they wore? And were they bearing cudgels?
It was time to depart. I gave a wave, kicked away a pig that was investigating the beetroots, and
continued my walk, eating from either hand as the fancy took me.
Royall Street opened into Scarcroft Square, with its fountain surrounded by marble allegories, and
the glory of Ethlebight brickwork shone bright in the clear morning sun.
Ethlebight, sitting on its swampy delta, had an excess of clay, with more delivered every spring
by the flooding river; and the merchants of the town had made the most of this bounty. The city
produced bricks, millions every year--plain red brick for plain buildings, but also bricks of mellow
gold, of blue and purple, of black and brown. Some bricks were glazed with bright colors, pinks and
yellows and green.
Scarcroft Square was a fantasia of masonry, all built of the brick that formed the town's main
industry. The ivy-covered town hall, the guild halls, the grand mansions of the burgesses and the
local lords, the Fane, the Court of the Teazel Bird, the New Castle, the Grand Monastery of the
Seven Words of the Pilgrim . . . all blazed in the morning sun with color and light, red bricks and
gold, black bricks and blue, pink bricks and green, all the glazed, bright hues. These colored bricks
were laid in patterns, rose in spirals to support upper storeys, or twisted high to hold aloft the
chimney pots. The square itself was paved in brick, set with spirals, quincunx patterns, or pictures
of fabulous animals--mosaic done in enormous scale, with bricks instead of tiny tesserae.
We also produced glass, and the glazier's art was fully displayed: leaded glass, glass stained to
produce triumphalist pictures of the city's history, glass cut into cabochons or faceted like gems,
glass opalescent, etched, and enameled. The result was a square that glittered in the morning sun and
winked sunlight from a thousand faceted eyes.
A temporary theater was being built on the square, to support the players during the Autumn
Festival, and it was the only wooden structure in sight.
Another impermanent structure was the effigy of our much-married King Stilwell. His statue stood
on a plinth, and he wore armor and carried a sword, looking like the young warrior that had
triumphed in his wars against Loretto.
It was a tribute to the city's burgesses, who counted every penny, that the King's statue had been
made of some kind of plaster, then painted to look like marble. There was no point in cutting a figure
in stone, or casting it in bronze, when the King would sooner or later die and the image be replaced
by that of the next monarch. I had to admire the canny sense of thrift displayed by our aldermen.
In fact, I delighted in everything I saw. I felt my chest expand at the sight of the square, straining
the fabric of the borrowed tunic. I had spent all my eighteen years in Ethlebight, with only a few trips
to other cities, and I adored the city that had raised me, and also admired the bustling inhabitants who
lived within its walls.
Scarcroft Square was magnificent, but I knew I was seeing it at its height. The city was fading,
doomed by slow strangulation as silt choked its harbor. I pictured it fifty years hence: the grand
houses empty, windows empty, roofs sagging, colors faded, the square filled with windblown trash
. . .
It could not be prevented. Best not to think about it.
I tossed the remains of my pear and my apple onto the street for the pigs, then crossed the square
to a tall, narrow building with a crow-stepped gable. The glass in the tall, arched windows was
stained with figures of a warrior battling a dragon, this representing Lord Baldwine, an ancestor of
the current Duke of Roundsilver, who owns the building. Roundsilver is a wealthy peer, and owns
a great many buildings around the city, as well as his own grand house on the square. He spends little
time there, devoting his time to being at court along with all the other great nobles.
I admired the stained glass, with Baldwine holding up the severed dragon's head, and went up a
tall, narrow stair to a cramped office that smelled of paper, dust, ink, and vellum.
Lawyer Dacket, my master, stood in the center of the room, a paper in either hand. Dacket was a
spare man with a pointed beard, a melancholy, lined face, and the black fur-trimmed robe of his
profession. He wore a velvet hat like mine, but with gold tape and a gold pompon to show that he
practiced before the bar.
"Pearmains are in!" I said in joy.
My pleasure seemed only to deepen Dacket's gloom. "That would account for the juice on your
chin," he said. I hastily wiped it with my sleeve.
"Mrs. Vayne was generous with her samples," I said.
"You are dressed for holiday," observed Dacket. "I wish you joy of it, and of your apples." The
planes of his face shifted slightly. "May this office then hope you shall not return?"
I put on my learnèd-advocate face. "Loath though I am, sir, to stand in an abnegative posture and
contradict my learnèd colleague in any way," I said, "I desire the jury to observe, inicio, that while
your humble apprentice shall be absent today, that he is not in absencia, for though my mind may
be absent, my corpus shall absent be on the business of the court, videlicet, preventing Sir Stanley
Mattingly from being absent at the Assizes, and that absent evidence of jurisdiction, I pray the jury
to declare evidence of dereliction absent, and the Crown nolle prosequi."
This is an example of what my father would call "flaunting my knowledge like a vainglorious
peacock," forgetting that peacocks have no knowledge to flaunt, vainglorious or otherwise. Yet I find
that I must continually remind people of my gifts, for they are inclined to forget my education and
acuity. I expect it's because I am not impressive in my person: granted that I am tall and have broad
shoulders, and long dark hair admired by the ladies, but I am not handsome like my schoolfriend
Theophrastus Hastings, or as rich as the Duke of Roundsilver, or possessed of any degree of fame
like the Emperor Cornelianus when he was called to the throne. My father is a Butcher, which causes
some people to discount me. And of course, I am young and have not the authority that comes with
age, like that of Judge Travers.
And so I must offer my gifts to the people, and offer them continually, and without cease, so that
I may be something other than a nullity in their eyes.
My master, Dacket, listened impassively to my appeal. "The plea would receive a better hearing
were there not apple skin between your teeth," he said. "And what is this of Sir Stanley?"
Dacket's office had been pursuing Sir Stanley Mattingly in an attempt to serve him with a writ to
bring him to the Autumn Assizes, which would begin in two days. But Sir Stanley was not to be
found at his town house, or at his house in the country; and unless the writ were served, Lawyer
Dacket would be unable to prosecute him on behalf of his client, Mr. Morton Trew.
"And yet," I said, "Sir Stanley cannot be far away, as he stands as honorary master of the Guild
of Distillers, and must ride on their float in the Autumn Festival that follows the Assizes."
"You have found his bolt-hole?" Dacket inquired.
"I remembered that Sir Stanley's sister is married to Denys Buthlaw, and--"
"Buthlaw is moved to the capital, and his house here is closed. There is no guest lodged there; we
I raised a hand. "But sir, Buthlaw has another house, on Mutton Island."
Again the planes of Lawyer Dacket's face shifted. "Is that so?" he murmured.
"Remember that Sir Stanley is known as a great hunter and is ever trampling the fields of his own
tenants in pursuit of the fallow deer. And bear in mind also that Mutton Island is connected to the
mainland at low tide, and that directly across the channel is the Forest of Ailey, in which Sir Stanley
could ride and hunt to his heart's content."
A tenuous gleam appeared in Dacket's eye. "You have evidence that Sir Stanley is on the island?"
"Nay, sir. But Mutton Island seems worth exploring, if you can but provide me with a writ and
spare me for the day."
All traces of pleasure vanished from Lawyer Dacket's countenance. "Spare you for a day of
"On Kevin Spellman's boat. And I shall bring Kevin along to serve as a witness, should I find Sir
Dacket adopted an air of saturnine amusement. "I could do with a day on the sea. Perhaps I should
venture to the island on Goodman Kevin's boat."
I acknowledged this possibility with a gracious nod. "The sea air would serve to balance the
humors," I said, "and bring an attractive pink flush to your ears. But I urge your worship to bear in
mind Sir Stanley's history of violence--he is a dreadful man when his choler is up, and if you find
him with his hounds, he may incite them against you, not to mention what damage he might do with
his whip or his gun."
"Nay," said Dacket. "I applaud your devotion to justice, so great you are willing to fall beneath
the fangs of a pack of ravenous hounds. And yet"--holding out his hands with the papers in
them--"there are so many writs and other documents that must be copied before the Assizes."
"You have a clerk," I pointed out.
The clerk in question, bent over a desk, lifted his head to give me a basilisk stare from beneath his
"Goodman Dodson is fully occupied," said Dacket. "As am I." With a sniff, he viewed one of his
papers, then waved it in my direction.
"You may begin with a draft of a plea," Dacket said, "the formal plea for mercy on behalf of Alec
Royce, who cut a fern tree in the Crown Forest. Cutting the King's timber calls for death, but if the
judge is merciful, we may hope for prison or a fine."
I considered this. "Did you say it was a fern tree?"
"Ay." Dacket's attention had already moved on, as he browsed through a stack of through papers.
"Then there is no need to plead for mercy," I said. "The charge is baseless."
"Base-less?" Dacket mouthed the word as if he were tasting something foul.
"It's a new word. I invented it." Which, for the record, I had.
"We have a perfectly fine phrase, 'without foundation,' which will serve--and if it won't, we have
as well 'unfounded,' 'unsubstantiated,' 'unproven.' There is no need for this base-less." Dacket gave
me an austere look. "I advise you not to use these neologisms before a judge."
"Sir, I shall dispunge these innovations." Dacket gave me a suspicious look, and I spoke more
quickly. "Sir, our client is innocent."
Dacket's gaze firmed. "Royce has admitted the charge," he said. "He has been in the cells of the
New Castle for two months. There are no facts in dispute."
"Save whether the King's timber was cut at all," I said. "Timber is defined in law as 'that sturdy
vegetable matter which may be used in construction, to-wit: in a house or other structure, a bridge,
a boat or ship, a stile, a fence, et cetera.' A fern tree is too small and weak to be used in construction,
and therefore is not timber in the meaning of the law. The fern tree was mere superfluous growth,
like a vine or a periwinkle, which Royce removed in order to allow a proper tree to grow in its
Dacket remained motionless for several seconds, then spoke slowly. "I believe your argument may
serve," he said.
"If you desire," I said, "I will undertake the defense myself, under your supervision."
"Before Judge Travers?" Dacket waved a hand thoughtfully, a paper still in it. "I think not. To put
such an argument before Travers requires more tact than I have yet observed in you."
I put on my dutiful-apprentice face and bowed. "As ever," I said, "I defer to your wisdom."
Dacket nodded. "You may have the day for Mutton Island," he said. "But tomorrow, you will
apply yourself to your pen." He added the paper to a pile, then put the pile on a black, ancient desk
already covered with documents. "Tomorrow, you will not leave this office until you have copied
every item on this desk."
I nodded. "Of course, Master."
Dacket opened a narrow drawer and produced a sealed paper. "Your writ, signed by Justice Darcy.
Do not lose it: I would not vex the justice on the eve of the court by asking for another." He raised
a hand. "And don't get pear juice on it!"
I bowed. "I shall in all such matters obey."
"Then be off," said Dacket. "And if you are rent by a pack of dogs, you will have only yourself to
"So, what is this case about?" asked Kevin Spellman.
"Theft," said I. "The theft of a body of water."
"One can steal a lake?" Kevin asked. "I hadn't ever considered the matter."
Kevin was a sturdy, fair-haired youth, a friend of mine from our days at the grammar school. He
was dressed in brilliant blues and yellows, and gems winked from his fingers. He wore a broad hat
with the brim pinned up by a silver medallion, and an ostrich-feather plume. Even at leisure, even
on his boat, he wore the splendid clothing that befit his status, as the son and heir to a Warden and
present Dean of the Honorable Companie of Mercers.
The Mercers traded up and down the coast, and often abroad, delivering the wealth of Ethlebight
and the River Ostra to the rest of Duisland and to the world. Ethlebight's bricks and glass made up
much of their profit, but by far the most valuable cargo was wool.
The flatlands of the Ostra were ideal grazing country, and the river's headwaters ran through
mountains where sheep browsed in high meadows throughout the summer. Thanks to arrangements
made in antiquity between the craft guilds, the wool was bought from the shearers at a fixed price
by the Worshipfull Sodality of Washers, who washed the raw wool in the waters of the river. The
Washers sold their product to the Honorable Companie of Carders and Combers at a price arranged
centuries ago, and the Carders and Combers sold to the Benevolent Sorority of the Distaff, a guild
composed entirely of women, who spun the yarn in their homes, after which the wool found its way
to the Dyers, the Clothmakers, the Fullers, Scourers and Stretchers, the Nappers, the Burlers, the
Drapers, and the Taylors, and so on--but unless the product was sold locally, it all made its way to
the Mercer, who--unlike all the others--sold it for whatever the market would bear, provided they
sold it to another Mercer.
Kevin's father, Gregory Spellman, was the owner or part owner of eleven companies or
corporations, which in turn owned barges, ships, warehouses, and the piers at which the ships and
barges moored. And thanks to the profits of wool, the elder Spellman lived in one of the most
brilliant houses on Scarcroft Square, and was able to keep his son in the brightest, most fashionable
clothing, a walking advertisement for his wares.
"Water is a commodity like any other," I said. "It may be hoarded, sold, lent, and of course stolen."
"And Sir Stanley Mattingly is alleged to have stolen--a lake?"
"A river. And there is no 'alleged' about the matter; he did steal it, though there exists a bare
possibility he may have stolen it legally."
With practiced tread, Kevin and I avoided wash-water hurled from an upper floor, then turned onto
Princess Street, where we danced around the barrow of a gingerbread-monger. We passed, and then
Kevin, enticed by the odor of the gingerbread, returned to buy a loaf.
While the transaction went on, I eyed the street for men in Greyson livery, and continued my
exposition. "Sir Stanley Mattingly," I said, "sold a piece of grazing to a gentleman named Morton
Trew. The transfer was in livery of seisin--seisin in law, yes?--wherein the two parties went to the
land together, and Sir Stanley performed the rite of turf and twig in sight of two witnesses."
Kevin paid for the gingerbread and turned down the street. "Sir Stanley actually gave the man a
stick and a clod of dirt?"
Kevin looked dubious. "I've never heard of anything like that, and I've been present at any number
of transfers of property."
"These rites are not common in the city," I said. "But in the country, folk hold with old traditions
in transferring a freehold."
"And in the country, apparently they steal rivers."
"They do. Or at any rate, Sir Stanley does--because when Mister Trew came later to his field, he
found that his land no longer had the river that had originally flowed through it. Sir Stanley had
dammed the river and turned the water into a leat to power his new stone-cutting mill. As grazing
land is worth little without a source of water, Mister Trew desires to take Sir Stanley to court to
overturn the sale."
Kevin was thoughtful. "The river was dammed after the rite of rock-and-hard-place, or whatever
"Then I don't see how Sir Stanley can possibly defend his action."
"Ah." I made an airy gesture and put on my pompous-magistrate face. "That is where you fail to
perceive the supreme suppleness and flexibility for which the common law of Duisland is justly
Sniffing the gingerbread. "Apparently, I do not."
"Sir Stanley maintains, first, that the deed does not mention the river or any other water source--"
"And does it?"
"Alas," said I, "the river is not mentioned. And furthermore, Sir Stanley maintains that it was
perfectly clear he never intended to sell Mister Trew rights over the water, as is proved by the fact
that at the sale he did not perform the rite of water and porringer, where--"
"Where he would have given his poor victim a porringer of river water," said Kevin, "to go along
with his lump and his branch."
"I say it's fraud," said Kevin, "and to hell with the porringer."
"And Judge Travers at the Assizes is likely to agree with you, which is why Sir Stanley is careful
to avoid his summons. As Judge Travers is retiring, the next quarter's judge is likely to be Blakely,
who is some kind of cousin to Sir Stanley's wife, and who bears a reputation for sharp practice of
his own, and who therefore may appreciate the ingenuity of Sir Stanley's argument."
"One fraudster to another."
Indignation lifted Kevin's chin. "I shall tell my father to avoid any dealings with Sir Stanley. If
anyone in the Mercers Guild behaved in such a fashion, he'd be disciplined or expelled."
"Alas," said I, "there is no Worshipfull Guild of Landowners to enforce honest behavior."
A large, old house loomed on our left, the first floor of plain Ethlebight brick, the upper storeys
carved wood that projected over the street, with a thatch roof that projected farther still. My heart
warmed at the sight of my home, a friendly welcoming sanctuary after my cold night on the rooftops.
I turned inside and was followed by my friend.
The ground floor made up a butcher shop owned by my father, and the family lived in the storeys
above. My father shared my name of Quillifer, and I had been named after his own father, and his
father after his, the name stretching back into antiquity.
For all that I was wary around my father's weighty authority, it has to be said that I greatly admired
my senior. My father was not only Dean of the Worshipfull Societie of Butchers but a respected
alderman of the city, entitled to wear a gold chain on formal occasions, and often mentioned as
Ethlebight's next lord mayor. He shared my height and the broad shoulders developed from years
of wielding the cleaver and pollaxe. He kept his hair short, and shorn up around the ears, which kept
it from being spattered with blood. He wore the cap and leather apron of his profession, though in
fact he made most of his money from moneylending, speculation, and land-dealing.
My paternal grandfather had been the first in our family to learn to read, and my father was the first
to learn to write. I myself had been to a dame school for my letters, and to a grammar school for
writing and recitation, after which I apprenticed with Master Dacket. I was raised with books and
the beauties of poetry and the sonorities of ancient languages--for now with printed books,
education was no longer the domain of monks and nobles with private tutors. What would come of
that change, I felt the whole world would soon see. The profession of the law would allow me to
travel, perhaps to the capital and the court of the King. For our family was rising, and I intended to
rise as far as my talents would take me.
At the moment, my father was serving a well-dressed Aekoi, an older woman who had powdered
her golden complexion white and painted on her face an expression of fey, perhaps even malevolent,
interest. She had come with a human girl servant, who stood in the center of the room and stared
down the long hall behind the counter, the hall that ended in the open courtyard at the center of the
big house. I, standing behind her, could see a calf that had been slaughtered and hoisted head-downward by a chain. Its blood was draining into a large basin even as two apprentices, naked from
the waist, were taking off the hide.
None of the calf would be wasted at the House of Quillifer. The hide would be sold to a tanner,
the bones to a button-maker or handle-maker. The hooves would become glue. The meat would be
sold, to become roasts or steaks or chops, and miscellaneous organs put into pastry for kidney or
umble pie. The tripes would be cleaned and turned into sausage casings or fried chitterlings or white
tripe for soups and stews. The stomach would become rennet and would be sold to a cheesemaker.
Tongue would be roasted, lungs poached or stewed. The edible parts of the head would become a
gelatinized loaf known as brawn, and the bladder used as a container in which other parts of the
animal would be cooked. The heart would be cut into strips and cooked on skewers, the liver fried
or made into pâté, and the blood itself cooked down with spices to make a kind of pudding, or mixed
with oats and turned into blood sausage.
None of which was likely of interest to the servant girl, who probably ate meat only rarely. Instead,
she watched the apprentices at work, the fit young men, nearly naked, who worked up and down the
carcass with their sharp skinning knives.
I didn't interrupt the girl's reverie, or my father at the counter. Sweetbreads were wrapped in
paper, the result weighed, and the Aekoi woman's payment accepted. The Aekoi woman turned to
the daydreaming servant, observed her woolgathering, and slapped her briskly across the face. The
painted expression on the Aekoi's face did not change. The girl yelped an apology, took the package,
and followed her mistress out.
I waited for the customers to walk out of earshot. "That fair painted face charmed me not," I said.
My father shrugged. "Well. Not human."
"I've known humans to behave worse," Kevin offered.
My dad nodded in the direction of the departing Aekoi. "Her name's Tavinda. Her daughter's the
mistress of Lord Scrope, the Warden of the New Castle--the daughter may be earning the family's
living on her back, but it's Tavinda who looks after the pennies." He tossed the coins in his hand.
"She's always trying to barter me down."
Kevin was curious. "Have you seen the daughter?"
"Oh, ay. Fetching enough, if you like 'em golden."
"I've never"--Kevin searched for the word--"experienced an Aekoi."
"They are as other women," said the older man, and then--hearing his wife on the stair--added,
"or so I am told."
My mother, Cornelia, came down the stair, her white apron starched stiff and crackling, and she
stood on her toes to buss me on the cheeks. Graying blond hair fell out of her cap in corkscrew curls.
I basked for a moment in the warmth of maternal affection. "Why are you dressed like that?" she
said. "Are you not in the office today?"
"I'm delivering a writ to a man who would run if he saw me dressed as a lawyer's apprentice," I
said. "Kevin's taking me in his boat." I smiled. "And I arranged for Mrs. Vayne to send you three
baskets of pearmains, just come down the river!"
"Pearmains! Oh, lovely!" She kissed my cheeks again, and I allowed myself a moment of pleasure
in my mother's benevolence.
There was a clattering on the stairs, and my two younger sisters, Alice and Barbara, appeared.
They were twelve and fourteen, and had inherited the Quillifer height: both were beginning to
overtop their mother.
They were both attending the grammar school, the first women in our family to learn to read and
write. My father had initially been opposed to this innovation, but my mother had convinced him that
it would get them husbands from the better classes.
"We're going to the Fane to help decorate for the festival," Cornelia said.
All the fruits of the year were to be laid at the feet of the god. "Don't give him too many of our
pearmains," I said.
"He gets a basket of sausages," said Alice.
Actually, the god Pastas got two baskets, which my father handed to the girls. He kissed his wife
and daughters, and sent them on their way, then looked at his son in an expectant way.
"Are there any sausages for us?" I asked. "Sailing is hard work."
"Help yourself," said my father.
From the pantry I took some smoked pork sausages, slices of ham, a loaf of bread, a brined goat
cheese, and a hard yellow cheese. The food went into a leather satchel. I took also a jug of cider from
the buttery, and carried it and the satchel into the front room.
"I hope you find your quarry," my father said. "Otherwise, I'll have been looted for nothing."
"Charity to the wandering sailor is accounted a fine virtue," I said. "No doubt the god will reward
"Just possibly he may." My father regarded me with a careful eye. "Though I hope you have been
doing your duty to Pastas as well."
I looked at Kevin. "We have learned our lines."
"Let's hear them, then."
"Ta-sa-ran-geh," I recited obediently, and then Kevin joined me in the next part of the chant. "Ta-sa-ran-geh-ko."
The chant was ancient, so ancient that no one any longer understood the words or their meaning.
But it was known that the words honored Pastas Netweaver, god of the sea and principal god of
Ethlebight, whose great round temple stood four leagues above the town.
The temple of Pastas had once crowned the center of the city, but as the muddy River Ostra filled
in its delta, the city had followed the water and crept downstream over the centuries, and eventually
the huge temple was stranded in the country. Major ceremonies were still conducted at the great old
building, but a newer, smaller temple, called the Fane, had been constructed on Scarcroft Square for
The Autumn Festival, coming just after the Assizes, was one of the great festivals of the city, and
featured a ceremony at the old temple featuring the Warriors of the Sea and the Mermaids, each
impersonated by young folk from the city's leading families. Both Kevin and I were Warriors this
year, and obliged to wear antique bronze armor, carry weapons, dance, and chant the
incomprehensible words that honored the deity.
My father listened to the chant, nodding his head to the rhythm, and when we were finished, he
clapped his big hands once.
"Very good!" he said. "But look you, it's ren-far-el-den-sa-fa-yu, not ren-far-el-den-sa-sa-yu."
"We are corrected," said I. "Thank you."
His father pointed a thick finger at me. "The god knows when you care enough to make it right."
"Yes. Of course."
"Pastas has always had the best people in his service," said my father. "His priests are the most
important citizens of the district, who give their time and money freely." A look of scorn crossed his
face. "Not like those monks who serve the Pilgrim, and who are supported by our taxes no matter
what the King claims. Let King Stilwell but stop his gold one day, and those monasteries would be
deserted the next."
I had heard these opinions before, and Kevin too. But the recollection of the festival and its
Mermaids brought an uncomfortable memory to my mind.
"Father," I said, "I should forewarn you of the possibility that you may receive a call from Master
The master Butcher frowned. "The surveyor? What's the trouble?"
"A misunderstanding. You may remember that Greyson's daughter Annabel is a Mermaid this year
and . . ." My poise faded under my father's cool eye. I put on my innocent-choirboy face. "She asked
me to adjust her costume," I said.
"And you adjusted more than that, I suppose."
"It is possible Annabel will refuse to give my name," I said. "In which case your peace will not
My dad had received fathers on my behalf before, and did not seem unduly disturbed. "Greyson,
eh? I had thought the next would be old Driver, Bethany's father."
"It fell out otherwise," I said. I looked at my father. "At least I may be saved by my reputation as
a steady, sober young fellow, walking the streets with his nose in a book of law."
He answered only with a sardonic laugh, just at the moment when Mrs. Vayne's boy arrived
carrying the first basket of pearmains, and I took the opportunity to say good-bye and make my exit
into Princess Street. I and Kevin turned toward the Harbor Gate.
"Annabel Greyson," Kevin said. "I thought she fancied Richard Trotter."
"His name did not come up."
"And her father caught you? What happened?"
I preferred not to relive my moments hanging off the roofbeam. Instead, I looked at Kevin. "Are
you well shod?"
Kevin glanced down at the glossy boots that rose to his calves. "I believe I am."
"Those boots are too heavy," I said. "They'll slow you down." I smiled. "Remember, when Sir
Stanley sets his dogs on us, I need not run faster than the dogs, but only faster than you."
"The boots serve as armor against their bites," Kevin said. "These are good leather."
"We'll see." I passed among the carts and wagons that labored through the great River Gatehouse,
and from the paved apron outside I looked up at the great red brick city wall, thirty feet high, with
fifty-foot towers at regular intervals. The wall's outlines were blurred with vegetation, grass, and
bushes and even a few small trees growing through cracks in the masonry.
"Look at all that rubbish," I said. "Time for another Beating of the Bounds." In which packs of the
local children were gathered together and marched to every important point of the city, then beaten
with willow withes until they could remember Rose Street from Turnip Street, the Gun Tower from
the Tower of the Crescent Moon. After which they were lowered on ropes from the battlements to
clear away all the vegetation that had grown up since the last cleaning.
I still remembered the whipping I'd received from old Captain Hay, when at the age of ten I'd been
driven from one tower to the next. Hay had laid on as if he were flogging a mutineer.
That had been eight years ago. There hadn't been a Beating of the Bounds since.
I would speak to my father about it. It wouldn't do for the city to look so unkempt--and I was
happy the cleaning job would be undertaken by a different generation.
The lugsail rattled overhead as the sailboat came across the wind, and then it filled and the boat
surged forward, cutting the water with a fine, crisp murmur. Sunlight glittered from wavetops, shone
gold on the tall reeds that surrounded the channel.
I leaned against the weather gunwale and smiled up at the sun. Loafing about in boats is perhaps
my second-greatest pleasure, and my pleasure was only increased by the knowledge that I was
sparing myself a day copying documents.
Kevin tucked the tiller beneath his arm. "Do you think the god truly cares whether we sing sa-sa
or sa-fa?" he asked.
I squinted into the bright morning sky. "I think if the god truly cared about his worshipers and his
city, he wouldn't let the harbor silt up."
"My father hopes that we'll be struck by a strong-enough storm to blast open a new deepwater
channel. Perhaps he even prays for it." I looked at my friend. "Does your father pray for such a
"My father owns ships. He does not pray for storms."
"In any case, let us pray there are no storms today."
Kevin surveyed the brilliant blue sky, the small clouds perched high in the inverted azure bowl
overhead. "I hardly think prayers are necessary."
"Pray, then, that when we meet Sir Stanley, he isn't carrying his gun."
The sailboat raced along the channel, carving a perfect silver wake behind. Tall reeds rustled on
either side. Doomed, I thought.
The city of Ethlebight had at last come to the end of its centuries-long crawl down the banks of
the Ostra. Below Ethlebight the river spread into dozens of small fingerlike channels separated by
reefs of silt, each islet crowned by golden-brown reeds. The once-open bay had filled with alluvium,
and even the strong tides couldn't keep it clear.
The winding channels, surrounded by reeds taller than a man, were a daunting maze that required
an experienced pilot, but it was the silt that would choke the life out of the city. Already there was
no passage deep enough for a galleon, and with the galleons gone, Ethlebight had lost its deep-sea
trade with foreign nations. Only barges, pinnaces, hoys, flyboats, crumsters, and other such small
craft could now hope to gain the port, and ere long Ethlebight would become a city of ghosts. This
sad truth was why my father had encouraged me to adopt the law as my profession; as a lawyer could
work and lodge anywhere.
I loved my home city, but perhaps my fantasies were beginning to overleap its walls. I could feel
another world beckon, a world with more scope.
The tide had started to ebb before Kevin and I had set sail, and the current helped draw the boat
out through the vast, rattling sea of reeds. The channel split before us, and we bore right and were
at once confronted by a pinnace aground. She was a handsome little vessel, with a vermilion hull and
a broad ochre stripe, and on her canvas shimmered the waves' reflection. She had backed her sails
and put out a kedge anchor in hopes of towing herself off, but was almost certainly stranded till the
next high tide.
"Eighty tons," Kevin judged. "Too big for the port." There was sadness in his voice.
The pinnace flew the ensign of Loretto, the kingdom with which Duisland had been at war at least
as often as it had been at peace. In times of conflict, my city's merchants abandoned their
countinghouses for their quarterdecks, and sent their ships to seize the commerce of Loretto, or the
Armed League of the North, or Varcellos, or any other nation declared an enemy by the King. The
harbor of Ethlebight filled with their captures, the warehouses were stuffed with plunder, and the
pockets of the sailors grew heavy with silver. The privateers of Ethlebight were famous for bringing
the wealth of other nations to their city.
But now, in time of peace, no stirring action beckoned, and any large prize would run aground
trying to make the port. I waved to the stranded sailors as we passed, and the sailors waved back.
Within minutes the sea of reeds fell away, and our little boat pitched on the open sea. Sun-dappled
spindrift flew over the bows and stung my face. Kevin swung onto the new tack, southwest, and the
lugger raced along under a freshening wind. I stretched out along the thwart.
"The sun above, the sail full, the horizon boundless," I said. "Is it so strange that I prefer this to
the practice of law?"
Kevin looked at me from beneath the broad brim of his hat. "You don't care to be a lawyer, then?"
I considered this, and shrugged. "It is a path superior to many," I said. "And I must walk some
path, a path to take me into the wide world."
"Your father said, did he not, that you enjoyed argument so much, that you might as well do it for
I made a broad gesture and invited fantasy to fly into my words.
"I could become a famous advocate in the courts of royal Selford, or a member of the House of
Burgesses in water-girdled Howel, or a judge whose wisdom echoes down the generations. . . ."
Kevin grinned. "Why not all three?"
"Why not?" I echoed. "But yet, on such a day as this, I find myself stifled by the thought of
spending my life in dusty legal chambers, or pleading the case of some poacher or profiteer before
a drowsy judge--or for that matter drowsing on the bench myself, listening to advocates monotonize
Kevin laughed. "Monotonize. You just made that word up, didn't you?"
"Ay." I shrugged. "It's a little unrefined, I admit, far from my best." I looked at Kevin. "Your
father already sends you to sea, to do business abroad and meet with his affinity."
Kevin made a face. "And to encounter young ladies, with whose fathers my own father wants a
"Your plight does not stir my sympathy."
"You have not met the ladies in question. Either they simper and say nothing, or they demand to
know how much money I can expect to inherit, and how much of it will be spent on them." Kevin
shivered, then looked out to the blue horizon. "If you cannot abide the law, you know, you could run
away to sea. After twenty years, provided you survive war, pirates, and tempest, you might find
yourself the proud captain of a crumster, carrying tubs of tallow from port to port."
I made my sad-clown face. "It is a mournful picture you draw, cousin."
A gust heeled the boat, and Kevin drew the tiller toward me to keep the boat on the wind. I leaned
out over the rail to keep the boat in balance. The gust faded, and as the boat righted, Kevin's look
"My father and I need lawyers now and again," he said. "Contracts must be drawn up, debts
collected, defaulters pursued. We might be able to employ you--not in Ethlebight, where old Clinton
handles our needs, but in other ports."
I sat up with sudden interest. "Boats and the law!" I said. "Delightful duality!"
"I'll speak to my father. But when does your apprenticeship end?"
"Eight or twelve months, though it's really up to Master Dacket."
"And of course, you'll have to avoid jail or the pillory for seducing the Mermaid."
I preferred not to discuss Annabel. All too well could I imagine her beneath her angry father's belt,
or rod, or him hustling her off to a nunnery. There was nothing I could do to prevent it, for a father
possessed absolute legal authority over his daughter. If I could somehow break into the Greyson
home, free Annabel, and run with her, we might flee far enough to avoid her father's wrath--but
only to starve to death in some distant country, without friends, support, or money.
Again it occurred to me that fathers, as a breed, are unreasonable. Greyson had turned his own
house upside down, pursued me over half the town in the middle of the night, and doubtless now was
straining his imagination for ways to punish his daughter--and all because of a harmless dalliance.
What mad fury had possessed him, and why? He was doing far greater damage to Annabel's
reputation than ever I could have.
Why, I wondered, are the young denied the opportunity to be young? Why should we not love, and
be carefree, and enjoy our pleasures before age and care ruin them?
I thought of Annabel again, and considered that if I were a character in a poem by Bello or
Tarantua, I would be in agonies of shame and worry, perhaps rolling like a dog on the floor while
weeping and calling Annabel's name--and yet I was not weeping.
Was I deficient in some crucial element of character, that I did not feel such extremities of
anguish? Should I now be rending my garments, or hurling myself into the sea to drown?
Yet I could not see how my drowning would improve the situation in any way. Annabel would be
no better off for my death, or my torn clothing would make no impression on her father, nor for that
matter any loud displays of anguish. He would simply thrash me with the same fury with which he
had threatened his daughter.
I had not meant to do any harm. Surely, intentions should count in these matters.
Because I did not wish my thoughts to dwell on Annabel, or on my own lack of merit, I turned the
conversation to admiralty law, and so discoursed on jetsam, merit salvage, carriage hook to hook,
inherent vice, and laches, estoppel, and actions in rem, or "against all the world." Kevin listened
patiently--he probably knew much of this already--but if he were to trust me with some of his
family's business, I wanted to demonstrate my own thorough knowledge of the subject.
To leeward of us were islands with prosaic names: Cow Island, Pine Island, and Mutton Island.
At high tide the islands were surrounded by a turbulent sea, but when the tide raced away, the
retreating waters revealed mucky causeways that connected the islands to the mainland. The low
isles were a lush green and dotted with flecks of white, the flocks of sheep that formed most of the
islands' population. Mutton Island was well named; there were many more sheep than cows on Cow
Island, and more mutton than pines on Pine Island. The salt grass that grew on the flat country
around Ethlebight was perfect grazing for sheep, and produced a distinct flavor and tenderness in the
meat that had made Ethlebight mutton famous throughout all Duisland.
Kevin and I shared the jug of cider and bites of gingerbread as we passed the first two islands.
Kevin wanted to talk about Annabel, and I kept diverting him until we took the channel into Mutton
Island. We moored at the pier, and I left behind in a locker the cap that marked me as an apprentice
I did, however, take the jug of cider, and Kevin bore the satchel of food.
We gave the mooring line enough slack so the boat could ride the tide up and down, then walked
along onto the island. A shepherd, wearing a big straw hat and carrying a staff over his shoulder,
gave us an incurious look from amid his flock. His dog, far more interested, stood alert on stiff legs,
eyes fixed on the intruders.
We took the only path inland. White clouds of sheep drifted around us. The island was mostly salt-grass meadow broken by clusters of gray stone, and ahead I saw quickbeams and maples planted as
a windbreak, the maples already scarlet in the early autumn, and the green leaves of the quickbeams
right at the cusp of going gold.
We passed into the trees and saw in a glade a modest country house of red brick, probably intended
as a summer retreat for Sir Stanley's in-laws. Brown brick outbuildings and empty paddocks for
sheep stood dark in the shadows of the trees. I paused in the shade of a maple and considered my
"If we go to the front door," I said, "Sir Stanley could go out the back. Or he could have the
servants bar the entrance."
"We should hide and wait," Kevin said.
"The shepherds already know we're here."
I considered that it was unlikely that the lower servants would ever have been told why Sir Stanley
was hiding here, or indeed that he was hiding at all. I turned off the path and moved through the
grove. The first of the outbuildings was a woodshed, the second a stable with empty stalls, but with
a scent of horse that had not faded. Past this was a paddock with sheep still in it, and beyond a brick
creamery with a sagging thatch roof. I paused for a moment with my nose in the air, and thought I
scented a whiff of warm, fresh milk. I walked to the door of the barn, looked in, and saw a young
woman sitting by a milking stand, drawing milk from a sheep while other ewes, impatient for their
turn, flocked around her.
"May I beg a sip of milk?" I asked.
At my unfamiliar voice, the dairy maid turned on her stool, though her hands remained at their
work. She was about my age, and had a heart-shaped face under a blue cap. Her lips were full, her
eyes dark, her complexion rosy. I felt my interest quicken.
I nodded at the grandly dressed Kevin standing uncertainly in the creamery door. "I've taken the
young gentleman to the island in my boat," I said. "And it's thirsty work."
She looked at the jug in my hand. "Have you emptied your own jug, then?"
"It's variety I seek," I said. "That and a few words with a lovely maid such as yourself."
A few moments' light conversation with a pleasing young maid, I thought, will do no one harm.
Annabel Greyson was beyond my reach, perhaps forever. Surely, I had the right to seek a balm for
my wounded heart.
The woman's hands continued their work, twin streams of milk foaming into the pitcher. I eased
myself through the sheep clustering about the milking stand, and leaned against the wooden gate to
"I'm willing to share my cider, if you like," I said. "I imagine you see enough milk around this
"I'm paid mostly in beer and cider," said the dairy maid. "Cider is nothing to me."
"I'd give you wine, if I had it." There was a pause. "I could bring wine tonight, if you'd care to
She gave me a look from under her cap. "You would come all the way from town to bring me
"I have a boat, so why not? I would bring you a moscatto from far Varcellos. A wine as sweet as
the finest peach, as sweet on your lips as your smile." At the compliment I saw the smile tugging at
her lips, and I pointed. "There!" I said. "Sweetness itself."
I am not, I think, handsome, though some I believe find my countenance amiable enough. Were
I as pretty as my schoolfriend Theophrastus Hastings, say, I would scarce have to speak to women
at all; they would simply tumble into my arms as they tumble into his.
But because I have no great share of beauty, I must call upon other resources, chief among them
the art of conversation. I strive to amuse.
I also listen. It has been my observation that many who can declaim with the greatest actors of the
age are not as facile when it comes to hearing what others are saying.
The dairy maid finished with the ewe and brushed the animal off the milking stand. The waiting
ewes jostled one another in their eagerness to be milked, but one was quicker than the others and
jumped onto the small table. The maid took the pitcher and prepared to empty it into a bucket
standing by her feet.
"Ah," said I, "and may I not have a drink? The milk drawn out by your own clever hands?"
"If it's the milk you're really after, you can have some." She offered the pitcher. I took it and drew
in several drafts of warm, foamy sweetness. I deliberately left myself a white mustache, and returned
the pitcher. She laughed at the froth on my lip.
To use the tongue would be vulgar, I thought, and so removed the stain with a sleeve. She poured
the remaining milk into the bucket, and then began to turn to the waiting ewe.
"May I know your name?" I asked.
"Ella," she said.
"I am Quillifer."
Ella looked thoughtful. "I've heard that name," she said.
I leaned closer. "Will you share my moscatto with me tonight? I will bring it, but only if I don't
have to drink alone."
Ella looked at me slantwise from beneath her dark brows. "Surely, you can find drinking
companions in town."
"But none so lovely," I said. "None with such roses in her cheeks, hands so clever, or lips so
The roses in her cheeks crimsoned. "If you will bring the wine," she said, her voice a little throaty,
"I will help you drink it."
"The pleasure of the moscatto shall be thine. Where shall we meet, and when?"
She looked up at me, her hands jogging the sheep's udders. "Here. The creamery is empty at
"The hours till nightfall shall seem each a year." I leaned over her and put on my pleading-lover
face. "May I have a kiss to seal the bargain?"
"Not in front of the gentleman," Ella said, tossing her head toward Kevin. "He'll gossip."
"If not your lips, like a lover," I said, "and if not your cheek, like a brother; then may I kiss your
hand like a suitor?"
Ella removed her hand from the teat, wiped it on her blue wincey dress, and held it out. I brushed
the taut knuckles with my lips.
"Until tonight," I said. I looked up at Kevin, still standing uncertain by the door. "My gentleman
bears a message for Sir Stanley. Is he at the house?"
Ella resumed her milking. "Nay. He's gone hunting, and won't be back till the tide is out."
"That will be soon, will it not?"
Ella's lips twitched. "I know nothing of tides; I work in the creamery. But I know that my Master
Golding will be here soon, back from scalding the curd, and that you should be gone before he
"I will come back tonight," said I, "with the wine, and without the young gentleman." I darted a
kiss to her cheek--she gave a cry of mingled delight and surprise--and then I rejoined Kevin. We
two walked around the creamery and began the stroll to the ford.
"He will come at low tide," I said. "And brother, I shall need to borrow your boat tonight."
Kevin looked over my shoulder at the creamery. "You didn't think to ask if she has a friend?"
"There comes a time," said I, "when a man should shoot his own fowl."
"Perhaps, then," said Kevin, "a man should also own his own boat."
"When I return," said I, "I'll bring you a cheese. Or a sheep. Whichever you like."
Kevin sighed. "I shall have to content myself with a cheese. Yet now I am wondering why I came."
"A pleasant sunny day on the water, and yet you complain. You should have talked to the girl
yourself, an you liked her."
We placed ourselves beneath a maple on the path leading to the ford, and applied ourselves to the
satchel, and its bread, meat, and cheese.
Wind whistled in the high branches. Sheep drifted across the grass like foam on water. I began to
feel sleep tugging at my eyelids, and then I was started into alertness by the sound of a hunting horn.
"A recheat!" said Kevin. He was more familiar with the vocabulary of the hunt than I.
I cupped my ears. The mellow call, rich as cream, came from the north. I rose to my feet, then
jumped onto one of the lower branches of a quickbeam. Riding over the rich grass on the northern
horizon I could see a party of horsemen.
"Ay, they come," I said. "You might wish to take cover, stand at a distance; you are too brightly
colored. And hand me the satchel."
Kevin passed the satchel to me and withdrew farther into the glade. A dove flapped away as I
climbed higher into the tree. I could see the hunters coming on, hear the dogs calling--not the baying
of the hunt but a pleasant gossip within the pack. The hunting party was coming at a slow walk, the
horses and men tired with their morning exercise.
The quickbeam's berries were turning red with autumn. The wind chuffed overhead, rattling the
dry leaves. I pulled the writ from my pocket and took a firm grip on my leather satchel with its cargo
of meat and cheese.
The horn blew another recheat. I heard a door bang from the direction of the house, as the servants
bustled out to assist the hunting party.
The staghounds scented their home and bounded into the lead, barking amiably as they arrowed
for the kennels. Like a gray-brown river they poured along beneath my feet, followed by some of the
grooms. The hounds, grooms, horses, and hunters were all spattered with mud from crossing the
Sir Stanley rode in the middle of the party, a big man with a thick neck and long gray mustaches
that reached halfway down his chest. He wore heavy boots and hunting leathers and a goodly coating
of mud, and he held the reins in one hand and a braided whip in the other. His horse was heavy-framed and yellow where it wasn't spattered by ooze. Behind came the grooms, one bearing the
straight sword their master used to kill the stags once the dogs had cornered them, and another with
the gun used for hinds, who were less sport because they had no horns with which to defend
themselves, and therefore could be shot instead of attacked on foot. Behind came sumpter horses
bearing the bodies of the kill, already cut up and packaged and ready for the kitchen or the
smokehouse. The trophy heads were carried in a basket: a red stag and a fallow buck, and a small
but angry-looking boar.
My pulse beat high in my throat. I calculated my moment, then made my leap and landed in a
crouch just ahead of the rider, and to his left, on the side away from the whip. The big horse reared
and bellowed in surprise. The rider clutched at the reins.
"Sir Stanley! Sir Stanley!" I called out. I waved the satchel near the horse's head and provoked
more rearing. The hooves lashed out. Sir Stanley cursed, sawed the reins, and finally backed the
yellow horse down. Rage turned his face a brilliant scarlet. He turned to me and roared.
"What do you mean, waving that damned thing, you jack-in-the-box!"
"Hold this, sir. You may have broke the martingale."
I held out the writ as I feigned an interest in the horse's bridle; the yellow horse backed away
again, and out of exasperation, Sir Stanley snatched the writ from my hand.
"No, I see the martingale is all right," I said. I gave the knight a brilliant smile. "And sir, that is
a writ in your hand, and you are commanded by the justice of the peace to the Assizes."
Sir Stanley stared. The hounds had seen me appear as if by sorcery and came bounding back; they
surrounded me in a rough, boisterous crowd, as if in admiration of the trick I'd played on their
master. I am fond of dogs, and they of me, and I laughed and scratched their ears. Sir Stanley lashed
at the dogs with his whip.
"Down!" he said. "Down, you bratchets!" He snarled. "Stop that fawning! Tear him, tear him!
I danced away from the whip, the excited hounds still bounding around me. I pointed at the grooms
who were starting to gather, themselves equipped rather ominously with whips, guns, or bright boar-spears. "These gentlemen are all witnesses!" I said. "And if they are not enough, I brought a witness
of my own!" I brandished the satchel in the direction of Kevin, who--with what seemed a degree
of embarrassment, or perhaps well-grounded reluctance--emerged from behind his tree.
One of the grooms blew on his brass horn to call the dogs but was ignored. Sir Stanley made a few
more slashes with his whip before grooms rode into the melee and deftly separated me from my pack
of admirers. I ghosted away from the trail, found a groom behind me, as if to cut me off, and ducked
under the horse, which snorted and lashed out with its rear hooves. The hooves were no threat to me,
but they kept the other horses clear.
"I have done my duty, Sir Stanley!" I said, backing. "I will forego the customary tip an it please
you, and wish you good day." I waved. "The Compassionate Pilgrim save you, Sir Stanley!"
"Damn your Pilgrim!" The knight shook his whip in the air. The staghounds bounded and gave
excited voice. The groom blew another useless recheat.
"Good day, Sir Stanley!"
The knight propped his fist on his hip and glared after me.
"Who in hell art thou, thou impertinent louse?"
I left the question unanswered as I turned and made for the landing. Kevin joined me. We walked
Kevin adjusted his broad hat. "Dare I look over my shoulder to see if he's taking aim with his
"It is a lovely gun," I said. "I saw it in the hands of his bearer. Wheel-lock, the lock and barrel
chased with silver. Rifled, I daresay. And we know he is a good hunter."
"You offer no comfort."
"There is no comfort till we are out of range."
We left the shade of the grove and returned to the green, sunny domain of the sheep. Shepherds
and sheepdogs watched us with professional interest. Another recheat sounded from the grove.
"They summon the dogs," said Kevin. "Walk faster, thou impertinent louse."
I said nothing but increased the pace. Then from the grove, instead of the barks of excitement and
interest, came the baying of a hunting pack, and it was time to run.
Alarmed sheep gave their staccato bray and scattered before us. Sheepdogs barked warning. The
sound of the baying pack came closer.
Surely, I thought, he does not mean to kill us. If he wanted that, he would have used his gun. A few
ounces of flesh torn by the fangs of his staghounds should satisfy him.
Not wanting to be shredded, I ran and fumbled with the straps of the satchel. I heard oaths from
the shepherds, who feared the dogs would savage their charges. I considered lunging for one of the
shepherds and seizing his stick to use in my own defense, but decided that this was no time for the
pack to catch me wrestling a herdsman.
My throat ached as the cool air froze my gullet. I dared to cast a glance over my shoulder and saw
that the lead staghound was a mere twenty yards behind.
I reached into the satchel, retrieved a piece of ham, and hurled it into the air. I didn't look back,
but the tone of the yelping behind me changed: there was a short cry of interest as the lead bratchet
saw the offering and changed direction, then a peremptory bark as she challenged another dog for
possession of the treat. I heard a scuffle as a number of hounds disputed possession of the ham, and
excited barking as other hounds stayed to watch. I was surprised how long it took the dogs to
remember their business and begin their baying again.
Another slice of ham delayed the dogs a second time, and then a third; and after that, I was out of
ham, and resorted to the sausages. After the sausages were gone, I broke off pieces of cheese and
tossed them, and found they interested the dogs equally. By the time the pier was in sight, I was out
of cheese. I began flinging bread.
"Run for the boat!" I gasped at Kevin. "I'll keep them busy."
Tossing bread over my shoulder, I ran straight into the water, the cold so shocking that I would
have stopped dead if momentum hadn't carried me on. A wave heaved me up, and I plunged in, the
water a salt slap to my face. When I was chest-deep, I turned to face the pack of gray-brown
staghounds baying at me from the shore. I reached into the satchel and heaved a chunk of
waterlogged gingerbread into the midst of the pack. They were habituated to food flying to them by
now, and the bread disappeared into a seething gray-brown mob.
I heard the brass hunting horn tootling closer, and the sound of horses. I tossed bread. The first of
the grooms appeared just as I heard the crack of the filling lugsail.
"Behind you!" Kevin called.
I turned, saw the boat's bow approaching, and tossed the satchel aboard. I seized the larboard
gunwale as it went past, and rolled aboard as Kevin shifted his own weight to starboard to prevent
capsize. Kevin shoved the tiller and the boat swung its nose to the sea.
On the shore, Sir Stanley Mattingly was cursing and whipping his dogs. I rose to my feet, dripping.
I put a foot on the gunwale and grasped a shroud for balance.
"Sir Stanley, I thank you for your kind hospitality!" I called.
Vigorous obscenity pursued me across the water.
"Sir," I said, "you asked my name, and now I am pleased to answer. I am Quillifer, son of
Quillifer, the apprentice to Lawyer Dacket, and in two days' time, I shall have the pleasure of seeing
you at the Assizes!"
I offered an elaborate bow, and straightened in time to see Sir Stanley snatch his gun from his
bearer. I decided it was time to take shelter below the gunwale, and to pull Kevin down likewise.
The shot put a neat hole in the sail. By the time the knight had reloaded, the boat was well out of
The lugsail rattled overhead. "Friend," said Kevin. "May I trust you no longer to mock armed,
violent men? At least till I am safe at home?"
"We were in no danger," said I.
"Safe as long as the sausages held out, and Sir Stanley's aim remained poor."
I waved a hand. "He was aiming at the sail, not at us. He wouldn't want to be hauled up on a
charge of manslaughter."
"You have more confidence in his moderation than I."
"I'm hungry," I said. "The orgulous Sir Stanley has deprived us of our dinner."
"A new word I invented. From the Lorettan, orguilio, pride." I stared unhappily at the horizon. "I
should invent a new word for hunger."
"You are welcome to catch a fish."
"And you left the cider behind! For shame, Master Spellman."
I removed my soaked, chill clothing, and stretched naked across a thwart, in the sun. The brisk
wind dusted my skin with gooseflesh, but I was comfortable enough. I had been far colder when I
was hanging upside down from Master Greyson's roofbeam.
"Pity you won't be visiting the fair Ella tonight," Kevin said.
I gave him a surprised look. "Why would I not?"
"What?" Kevin laughed. "You want another race against Sir Stanley's pack? Or his bullets?"
"Sir Stanley is unlikely to march up and down his pier with his gun on his shoulder--he will be
asleep in his bed, or in the hall, draining the wine and brandy of his brother-in-law. The dogs will
be in their kennels, and the sheep in their pens."
"And Ella in the creamery, screaming for help and earning a reward for catching you."
I shook my head. "Friend, your skepticism is alarming in its degree."
"We've upset the whole household. Ella might be frantic in her desire to keep the others from
knowing about your arrangement, and the best way to preserve her innocence will be to denounce
"The lovely Ella? I can't imagine such a thing."
We argued the matter, and then found other matters to argue. By the time we arrived at the Ostra's
many mouths, the tide was rushing in, and carried us to the city with fine efficiency. The Lorettan
pinnace was still aground, but the crew were heaving at the capstan, and the hawser leading to the
kedge anchor was taut as a bowstring, tension shooting water from its fibers.
"Now," I said, as I began to draw on my still-damp clothes, "I pray you go to my master Dacket's
office, and there sign a paper that you witnessed my delivery of the writ."
"You won't go yourself?"
"He'll put me to copying documents, and I'll miss the meeting with Ella. I've already promised
tomorrow to the work, and I see no reason for an early start."
Kevin was skeptical. "And what excuse will I give for your absence?"
I tugged my tunic over my head. "You may relate the tale of our escape from Mutton Island.
Recount our heroism, the attack by dogs, the shot through your sail. And you may inform Dacket of
my injuries--embroider them as you like, but tell him how manfully I am bearing up, even though
the doctors have been called and my mother despairs of my life. You may then say how I expect to
be early at the office tomorrow."
"You are the expert in such embroidery, not I."
"You underrate your ingenuity. Remember that story you told Professor Mitchell, when we were
at grammar school and caught out of bounds."
"We were caned," Kevin said. "He didn't believe us."
I drew hose onto my legs. "But the story was a marvel! Were there not tritons, and some kind of
monster from the Land of Chimerae that flew overhead and darkened the sun?"
"Very well," Kevin said. "I will tell Lawyer Dacket you were taken by tritons."
Kevin found a place near the quay, dropped the sail, and tied the boat. I jumped onto the quay and
helped Kevin disembark.
"Are you truly mad enough to visit the maid tonight?"
"Oh, ay. 'Twill keep me out of trouble in town."
"Ethlebight will take comfort from that, but I will rest uneasy."
We marched beneath the great River Gate blazoned with the shield of Ethlebight, crenellated
towers and ships supported by the hornèd rams that represented the wool that remained the
foundation of the city's wealth. Kevin departed for Lawyer Dacket's office, while I carried my empty
satchel home to Princess Street. I changed my clothes, got more bread, meat, cheese, and a few of
the pearmains. Then I went to the buttery for a bottle of the moscatto, and another jug of cider for
On my return to the quay I tarried by a barber's shop, and there sought a preventative for
parturience. My last packet of sheaths I had left with Annabel Greyson, and I could but hope her
father hadn't found them, proof of her perfidy.
I returned to the boat, repaired the hole in the sail, and as soon as the tide shifted set out through
the cane, past the handsome pinnace that had finally won free of its mud bank, and was now creeping
up the channel under sweeps, with a leadsman in the chains calling out the soundings.
I am young, I thought, and a man; and whyfore should I not act the role of a young man? Enjoy
my pleasures before age and care ruin them?
No guard marched along the Mutton Island pier. Ella I found in the shadow of the creamery door.
We kissed for several long, fair moments, and then she took my hand and led me beneath rows of
ghostly round forms that hung from the roof beams--pendulous muslin bags, filled with curd and
dripping on the brick floor the last of the milky whey-drops. Beyond was a room with stalls intended
for sick animals. No ailing sheep were in residence, but there was straw to make a bed.
Make a bed we did, and stretched out our cloaks to fashion an inviting couch. I opened the
moscatto, with its flavor of sunnier, drier climes, and we drank and then licked drops of the sweet
wine from each other's lips. For some hours we dallied on the straw, sharing our pleasures, and then
I kissed Ella good-bye, plucked straw from her hair, laughed, and kissed her again before wrapping
myself in my cloak and setting off for the pier.
The fortified wine burned in my veins, and I felt a pleasant looseness in my loins. I found the boat,
cast off, and raised the sail. The moon soon set, and I found myself alone on the dark water, where
I nibbled bread and cheese, drank cider, and sang to myself as the brisk wind blew the boat along.
Youth will needs have dalliance,
Of good or ill, some pastance.
Company me thinketh the best
All thoughts and fancies to digest
Is chief mistress
Of vices all;
Then who can say
But mirth and play
Is best of all?
I put on my apprentice cap and pulled the brim down over my ears against the cold wind. I would
have an hour or two of sleep, I supposed, before reporting to Lawyer Dacket's for my day of copying.
I judged the harbor entrance by the stars, turned the boat for Ethlebight, and only then noted the
glow some distance inland. It wasn't the moon, which had set; and the sun would rise east, not north.
I had seen the aurora on cold winter nights, but the aurora was shifting color, massed spears of light
that advanced and retreated, and this light was steady. I stood, but could see no detail over the sea
of reeds that stretched between my boat and the city.
Fire, it was fire. Anxiety gnawed at my mind.
The tide was coming in: water gurgled beneath the counter as the boat flew toward home. The
glow grew brighter as I neared the city, and I saw red reflected on the undersides of scattered clouds.
In growing fear I sped from channel to channel. I thought that in the blustering wind I heard
clattering, and screams, and I hoped the sounds were only my own fancies.
At last the reed curtain fell away, and I saw my city on fire, flames silhouetting the towers and
battlements of Ethlebight's wall, and the main channel of the Ostra black with an enemy fleet.