Tracks, Chapter Nine: Rain and Mud

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***

“Who was he?” Phillip said. He looked no better than usual – the circles under his eyes were dark as bruises and the flesh hung loose from his cheeks. His rich velvet collar no longer hugged his neck and beads of sweat could be seen where  his neck met his shoulders. He picked up his cup of wine with trembling hands. Perhaps if they weren’t so weighted down with rings, the Falconer thought, they wouldn’t shake so much.

“He was a man of trivial importance,” the Falconer replied. “Some part of the vaster network, but hardly clever enough to be a ringleader.”

The man had been caught trying to dig his way under the city wall, accessing some of the old sapping tunnels that had been under the city since the Dark wars. He’d acted confused when they first took him, then defiant, as though he could withstand their questioning. Needless to say, he didn’t think so now.

“So? What do you have from him?”

The Falconer pulled a sheet of paper from his coat-pocket. Unfolding it, he handed it over to the king. “A confession,” he began. “And two names. Jeremy Saul – that was the clerk His Majesty attempted to investigate last week – and Hastor Plumm. Our informant claims that Plumm is the man who made the bombs.”

“Mmm.” Phillip took another sip of wine and said over the rim of the glass, “Do you believe him?”

“I do not think we will find a man named Hastor Plumm in the city, whether he ever existed or not. As for Saul, he was very careful to destroy what parts of his office might still be of use to us after his bomb went off. My men have taken the fragments for analysis, but I doubt we’ll have relevant information in good time.”

“You will, of course, still look for this Plumm.”

“Of course,” the Falconer allowed. “And there may yet be names to extract from our dear friend. Perhaps he thought that jotting down one or two would suffice.” Yet he couldn’t know more than four or five of the other participants. No one so low on the ladder would have many names to give up.

“Very well. There is one thing more, Falconer.” Phillip pushed a small piece of paper across the table. It was signed and affixed with his seal. “Lord Enbar is to be the new ambassador to the Darklands. He was scheduled to leave last week. Every day he is delayed is a little more embarrassing to us – so unless he’s involved in this scheme, give this to your guards. They will allow his party past the city gate.”

The Falconer bowed. He recognised a dismissal. And he had much yet to do.

***

Rain and mud. It seemed to be everywhere. The rain trickled down his neck and somehow got between his skin and his shirt, making everything damp and cold even though he was wearing his leather alchemist’s coat. The tips of his boots were not, he had discovered, waterproof, and his toes hadn’t been dry for days now.

He’d gotten rid of his horse after the second day. He probably shouldn’t have stolen it in the first place – but speed was of the essence that close to Siege City. He could’ve gotten twice as much for the horse, he thought as he tugged his coat this way and that in a vain attempt to repel more rain. On the other hand, the man who bought it wasn’t the kind to go to the authorities. Better to cover his tracks than make a little more money.

From then on he’d walked along the road, begging rides from anyone going his direction. Sometimes they let him up, sometimes they pretended they couldn’t see him. Sometimes he had to show a little money first. And he hadn’t slept in a proper bed for nine days, since he’d bolted. Which made the sight of the Red Rose Inn the most welcome thing he’d seen since he’d passed through the gates of Siege City.

It was the only inn along this road for perhaps a day’s ride in either direction, and its size reflected the number of customers it was always sure to have. The long, low buildings were for the poorer ones, who could be sure of a meal, shelter from the elements, and good conversation, even though they’d have no privacy. In other journey’s he’d paid to sleep in those rooms. They provided a fun enough evening, though you always had to keep a hand on your most valuable items.

But not tonight. He skirted the wide buildings and headed for the taller one in the centre, the one for rich men. His privacy would be respected there, and no one would ask questions.

It didn’t hurt that someone else was paying his bill.

When he entered he removed his broad brown hat, shaking water from the brim. Then he approached the high, dark desk, where an apprehensive porter was eyeing him. He didn’t blame the man. He hadn’t shaved since he’d left the city, and his beard had always grown in rather patchy. Mud streaked his thin face and his hair was greasy and needed trimming. He looked more like a vagabond than a functioning member of society.

The porter was trained not to judge by appearances, but he did not seem easy until he’d read over the traveler’s note a good few times. Then he begged his guest’s pardon, but it would be a few moments while he alerted Lord Sand of the man’s arrival.

The porter was evidently hoping that Lord Sand would come down himself, denounce the wretch and have him turned away from the inn. But the servant he sent came back with a note and a purse, and the porter had to allow the scraggly traveler admittance.

“Room fourteen is free for you,” he said with evident disdain, and handed the man a key. The servant who had delivered Lord Sand’s note took his bag and preceded him up the stairs.

The room was likely the smallest the Red Rose Inn had available, but it was more than spacious enough for him. The room was well insulated, with soft rugs all over the floor and a tall bed that would have fit two of him with room to spare. A fire was already lit in the grate. The wide windows were shuttered and the noise of the yard was muffled to a discontent muttering. He felt warmer already.

“I’ll have a bath before my evening meal,” he said. In reply, the servant handed him a note.

Come directly to room 23.

***

“I hope you don’t mind the smell,” he said as he entered a minute later. He had shrugged off his coat and now that the shirt underneath was exposed for the first time in days, it exuded a faint whiff of mildew. Among other things.

The man he faced seemed not to care. He was impeccably dressed and bathed, as though he were about to receive an important guest, or go to the theatre. He wore a tailored waistcoat and silk kerchief, despite the warmth of his room. Currently, he was seated in a fat armchair with his feet up on a little stool. A book rested in one hand. “Help yourself to some wine, Mr Plumm,” he said, and gestured to a bottle of rich red wine sitting next to a plate of game. A half-full glass sat on the table just beside him.

“Please,” sneered the man as he picked up the bottle. “You know my name, just as I know yours.”

“I would not think you would wish to advertise your real name.” Daniel Gallow shut the book and set it down next to his wine glass.

“No one’s looking for John Bevy,” he said. “Not like you.”

“That is true,” Daniel allowed. “But you never know who might be listening.” He looked around the room as if to illustrate his point. It was a private dining parlour, set for two. Bevy took the hint and seated himself in front of a plate. “You can assure me that you came here quite alone?”

“Three days I’ve gone without seeing another soul.” He took a large bite of quail and washed it down with a gulp of wine. On the latter he coughed, and looked on the verge of spitting it out – then he seemed to remember where he was, and made an effort to swallow it instead. “Strong wine,” he commented.

“In the evening I prefer to have one glass of strong wine to three of a less potent variety,” Daniel said. “It helps me sleep.” He stood, and crossed to the table. “What will you do now?” he asked as he sat again, this time across from Bevy.

“Collect my money.” Bevy’s eyes flashed. “Disappear. I have a letter of apprenticeship from Daskill Lant that will get me work in Queensborough or some similar town.”

Daniel steepled his fingers. “I know Daskill Lant,” he said. “We paid him to acquire your materials.” He was frowning.

Bevy in his turn began to feel uneasy. He quashed the feeling with another bite of quail. “So?” he said, and took a sip of wine. It really was good when strong. He could see why a rich man might prefer to have it without water. But a poor man had to stretch a good thing, make it last. He had no doubt that Daniel Gallow had ordered the best wine the inn had to offer.

“So, when the Falconer finds him, the trail will inevitably lead to you. You, who left the city at such a perfect moment, with no apparent reason, just to look for work in a smaller city where you had no contacts and no hope to rise in rank. What was the point of calling yourself Hastor Plumm if your real name will soon be sought out in every alchemical den in the country?”

“Who says the Falconer will find Lant?” croaked Bevy. His throat was suddenly dry. More wine.

“The Falconer finds everyone, eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

“Well, if I can’t make my way, I’ll need something to live off.” Bevy glanced pointedly towards Daniel’s belt, where a fat purse sat attached by the strings.

The older man drew his thin lips back in what might have been a smile, but seemed more like a threat, a baring of teeth. He untied the purse and set it down on the table. Bevy paused in his eating to pick it up and appreciate the weight. “It’s good,” he said finally.

“It’s everything we agreed on.”

“Good, good,” he said again. “But that was before you put me out of work. How am I supposed to subsist without my endorsement from Lant?” He picked up the purse again. “Some secrets are heavy weights to carry,” he said ominously.

Daniel seemed unphased by his demand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out another purse. This was substantially smaller, but when he placed it into Bevy’s hand the man widened his eyes. “Gold,” he said simply. “Pure. It should help you on your new road.”

Bevy smiled, revealing browning, cracked teeth. “To your health,” he said, raising the glass. Daniel obliged, and they drank. The alchemist drained his cup to the dregs, and picked up the bottle. But it slipped from his grasp and clunked on the table. He stared at his hand. It had begun to tremble, and had turned deathly pale.

“I would drink to yours, but I am afraid it would do you no good,” Daniel said in a melancholy voice. Bevy turned wide, wild eyes on him. “It was in the glass,” he clarified. Bevy’s hands clenched convulsively. He opened his mouth, perhaps to shout, but the only noise that came out was a thin whistling as his throat began to close up.

“You were never as careful as we wished, you see.” He seemed to be apologizing. “Lant knew where you were going and who you were. Several of my agents saw you on the road. And…money.” He picked up both purses and swung the smaller one like a pendulum in front of Bevy’s rapidly discolouring face. “We knew you’d ask for more. And you’d bargain for our names. My colleague and I have risked it all for the sake of this one ideal. We can’t let you just sell it.”

Bevy’s clenched hands pushed down on the table and slowly he came away from his chair. His lips pulled back in one last sneer, and one leg moved forward. But his legs could no longer take his weight, and he sprawled on the floor, sputtering his last. Perhaps it was a curse, perhaps a prayer.

Daniel didn’t care, either way.

He had instructed the staff not to disturb him for the remainder of the evening. They would find the body mid morning, most likely, unless someone complained of the smell before then. And by that time, he would be deep into the tangled woods to the north, on his way to the next safe house.

***

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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.