Chapter Six: The Clerk’s Office

Click here to read from the beginning.

***

The rain had begun in full force by the time Jonathan Lytra and his companion left the palace. The prince had dressed in the dark blue coat that signified a member of the armed forces. A shining medal proclaimed his identity, as though anyone could be in doubt. He wore three flintlock pistols and kept spare powder and bullets in an oiled pouch on his belt. His brown hair had been re-brushed and tied.

Eva had no weapons, but was dressed sensibly in a plain but functional charcoal dress that buttoned up to the collar, with close-fitting sleeves. She looked much more subdued, less like a noblewoman than an assistant. But her eyes still blazed with the arrogance that came with status, and few who noticed her could really be in doubt of her superiority.

Jonathan waited until Eva had entered the carriage before he climbed in behind her. They said nothing to one another once the doors were closed, and the carriage set off with all speed. As it rattled down the broad avenue, its inhabitants seemed interested in looking at everything but each other, and Eva contented herself with peering out the window from time to time in the manner she had forbidden to her daughter the night before. But she was no longer in the prison carriage, being whisked off to answer impossible questions – now she was in the princes carriage, attended by the prince’s footmen. And there was nothing at all shameful in being seen in such company as that.

The clerk’s office was not so far from the centre of town, but they were forced to take a roundabout route that doubled or tripled their travelling time. There were roadblocks that prevented anyone from taking the road that led past the train station – and as it was one of the largest in the city, this naturally presented some problems as to transportation.

The scent of well-kept gardens and clean streets was slowly replaced by the smell of ash and smoke as they passed the station. This in turn was replaced by the more unsavoury smells that are ever present in an urban sprawl. The course of human life is rarely pretty, and never pristine, and here people were crammed into every possible situation with little care for the cleanliness of themselves or others. Eva turned pale and drew a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress to cover her nose. Jonathan almost wished he could do the same. They maintained silence.

At last the carriage pulled up to the clerk’s office. It was situated in an unassuming building with a whitewashed exterior and a blue-tiled roof. A modest sign at the door proclaimed that several others rented the space as well. The clerk’s office was on the second floor.

It had been cleared out in advance of their arrival, and as Jonathan exited the carriage and extended his hand for Eva, he caught sight of two uniformed men, standing smartly to either side of the entrance. He nodded to them and they saluted as he passed. The guards’ eyes flickered to the noblewoman beside him, but they were far too well-trained to comment on its strangeness.

To be certain of his guest’s safety, Jonathan took pains to precede her up the stairs to the second floor and into the office of the clerk. If he expected any obvious traps or hired gunman waiting in anticipation of their arrival, he was perhaps disappointed. There was nothing in the room but peeling paint, a scratched and dented floor, several filing cabinets, a crammed bookshelf, a writing desk and a chair, all in a similar state of dilapidation.

“Are you sure this is the man?” Eva asked archly.

“The materials in his possession seem to suggest it,” Jonathan replied. “He maintains his innocence, of course.”

“It is just – ” she knelt and tugged on a drawer doubtfully – “He hardly seems wealthy enough to afford the purchase and smuggling price of such materials.”

“Oh, he certainly wasn’t acting alone.” Jonathan waved the thought off with a sardonic smile. “Someone else must have paid for them, and given them to him.”

“I should think that to have a patron wealthy enough to do as you imply would have benefitted him a little more than this,” she returned. She pulled a stack of papers from the opened cabinet.

As she rifled through them, Jonathan approached the bookshelf and took one of the plain black books that sat squashed in beside all its brothers. It was a scrupulous and detailed account of transactions and audits concerning merchants, tradesmen, fishermen – he caught at least fifty names as he flipped through it. He was not familiar with any of them.

“The Falconer will have his hands busy with this,” he murmured. Then, a little louder, he said, “What have you found over there?”

“Bank transactions,” she replied. “Hundreds of them. You said he worked for the bank?”

“As far as I know,” Jonathan said.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure he was supposed to bring these away with him,” she said. As Jonathan approached her, she stood and held out one of the papers.

The statement documented a money transfer of no small sum. It had been paid following a ‘transaction of material goods,’ and at the bottom were the original signatures of both the client and the provider.

Daniel frowned at the paper. “Odd,” he murmured.

“What’s odd?” Eva asked carelessly as she opened another drawer.

“Didn’t you say that Daniel had answered to an urgent letter from Lord Shroud?”

At the mention of Daniel’s name her attention was immediately caught. She turned her head to look at him. “So I believe.”

“He’s listed as the recipient of these goods, whatever they are.” Daniel scanned the paper again, but the information was sparse. No list of materials transferred was present. “That makes two connections to him in this. The Falconer will doubtless be pleased.”

She sighed, and seemed to deflate. It seemed she had been hoping for some greater revelation. She began looking through papers once more. “There must be thousands of papers in here,” she said. “Were he pilfering from the bank somehow, is it so great a surprise that the name of a rich man would come up?”

Perhaps, thought Jonathan. But why would Shroud have signed for the goods himself? Such a thing was the housekeeper’s job – unless discretion required that no one else be informed. He was about to repeat his thoughts aloud when something made him pause – and listen. “Stop,” he commanded.

His tone was so forceful that Eva had lifted her hands from the drawer before she could think about what she was doing. “Why?” she asked. “What – ”

He put one hand up to silence her again. He narrowed his eyes, and cocked his head first to the right, then to the left. He held his breath and tried to listen beyond the beating of his heart, which had suddenly tripled in speed and sound. But beneath that, he could hear something.

Steady ticking.

He had no time to warn her. He could only lean forward, grab her by the hand, and wrench her away from the filing cabinets. He spun her around and pushed her towards the floor, but now he was being aided by the force of an explosion that surged out from a cabinet in the corner. The blast carried them both down in a tangle of limbs, his body arched over hers as a human shield.

It was not an explosion like the one in the train station had been, nor had it been intended for such a purpose. It was not meant to destroy the building –  only the cabinets and their contents, and the sharp, hot smell of burning paper and metal soon filled the room. It was over before either of them really understood what was happening. The skeletons of the cabinets and their contents stood awash in flame.

Jonathan pushed himself onto his elbows, and found himself staring into Eva’s wide, grey-green eyes. Her mouth was open in a soundless emission of terror. When she focused on him, her mouth snapped shut. But her hands, still clamped around his shoulders, betrayed the strength of her fear.

“Are you all right?” he asked. It was a stupid question, but she nodded. Her grip relaxed and he was able to climb to his feet. When he offered her his hand, she let him do most of the work to bring her upright again, and continued to lean heavily on his arm.

Burning paper fluttered like a flock of small, unconcerned birds. In the corner a merry blaze was going, but it had not yet reached the rest of the room. Shouts came from below, and they heard a distant thundering on the stairs. The guard was coming to see what injury had befallen their precious prince.

“There’s little to retain us now,” said Jonathan. “Shall we?” Eva nodded.

He was about to leave when he spotted one un-burnt piece of paper, crumpled on the floor. It was the transaction between Lord Shroud and his commoner compatriot. If nothing else could come of the day, at least he had this one piece of evidence. He stepped forward and bent to retrieve it.

A sound finally emerged from his companion. It was a muffled scream.

He turned back. Eva’s hands were clapped over her mouth and any sign of composure was gone. He started toward her automatically. “What…” he said.

“Your back,” she whimpered through her fingers.

He couldn’t see it, but suddenly he could feel it, penetrating the shield that his adrenaline had put up over his nervous system. Splinters bit into his skin and burned in his back. And when he reached back with his hand to check the damage, it came away wet with blood.

***

Click here to read Chapter Seven.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter Six: The Clerk’s Office

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