Were they following me or are they just guessing?
Rushalentar used his SIGHT to peek around the stone edge of the doorway he’d ducked into, without exposing himself. The two guild proctors lingered on the corner across the street, with an excellent view of the servants’ door in the next block that was his original destination.
If they catch me with it, there’s going to be trouble.
He weighed the thick book wrapped in his cloak, and considered his choices. Waiting in a doorway in broad daylight was not appealing. He could BEND light past him, but since he wasn’t very good at it that was only effective for night use. The best thing would be to go all the way around the city blocks to the far side of the one he wanted and work back up to the alley behind the stable, out of their sight.
Well, nothing else I can do. Interfering old busybodies.
He sloped out of the doorway behind the two men and walked noiselessly away from them, turning right at the first alley, and took an alternate route along the streets and cut-through lanes until he reached the far corner of the block that the proctors were watching. He strolled a third of the way along and paused at the entry of the alley that ran through to the next street to wait for the foot traffic to thin out. He looked up at the huge guild house that occupied most of the block, everything on the far side of the alley, and he shook his head.
Someday. I swear, someday the mother house will reopen. I just don’t know how.
His eyes passed over the shuttered windows, the barred gates, and the whole massive five-story stone pile, derelict now, abandoned. No one left to pay for repairs, to heat the place, to keep it running.
Rush sighed and slipped into the alley. He passed the main guild building and reached the stable built up against the compound’s enclosing walls. Above him were the loft doors they used to load hay and feed, when they could afford it.
If Uncle Pitt can’t find anything else to sell, the horses will be the next thing to go.
He checked the alley in both directions—he had it to himself for now. The ground-level door below the loft was boarded up, so Rush settled his package carefully over a shoulder by tying knots around it with the cloak, and crept up the stonework of the wall, finding toeholds in the crumbling mortar. It wasn’t the first time he’d come in this way, but he preferred to do it at night where there was less chance of being spotted. The loft door was MONITORED but not secured. He suppressed the monitor, jimmied the simple latch, and tumbled inside, breathing a sigh of relief at coming home. Then he sneezed at the dust, twice.
After he refastened the loft doors, he peeked out through the small loft windows at the narrow end of the building. The proctors were just starting to cross over from their corner post across the street.
Hastily, he dumped the knotted cloak with its contents in the loft, and then tore down the drop ladder and out of the stable, trotting across the kitchen garden to the servants’ hall. Just before the entrance he paused to make sure there were no betraying bits of straw clinging to him, combed his fingers through his hair, and took a deep breath. He kicked the lower right corner of the wooden panel to bully the hinges into cooperation one more time, then pulled open the door and stepped in just as the first knocks pounded on the outer street door.
Gray-haired Rigolt walked toward him along the hall to answer the summons. He turned his head as Rush appeared and tipped it at the source of the noise. “Your doing, Master Rush?”
“I’ve been here all morning, Rigolt,” Rush said firmly, plucking one more wisp of hay from his shoulder and dropping it onto the floor.
The butler nodded, and proceeded at a dignified pace through the narrow hall. He opened the street door as if there were nothing unusual in the peremptory demand.
“May I help you, gentlemen?” he asked.
The two men wore their Council signs clearly on the right breast of their cloaks. Spring was just beginning, but the day was nice enough for the cloaks to be uncomfortably warm. The elder man said, “We wish to speak with Master Pittestapan.”
He cast a dark look around the worn entryway and the drab walls, where fresh paint had not been seen for many a long decade. “I understand that this is the proper entrance to use.”
Rush strode forward into their sight. “I’m afraid it’s the only entrance available these days, sirs. I will let my uncle know you are here, if you will please wait for a moment.”
The proctor nodded disdainfully, and Rush walked off in no great hurry to do their bidding, noting that Rigolt had shut the doors along the hallway before letting strangers into the house. Once out of sight, he trotted up the stairs to the second floor, taking them two steps at a time. He rapped twice on the nearest door, and then opened it in response to the voice within.
His uncle was still in his house robes, in the middle of the day. He’d clearly just arisen from his armchair. Rush couldn’t quite see which book he’d been reading.
“What’s all that racket about, Rush?”
“I picked up Truttelaran’s Compendium, but the council proctors are out and asking questions. They want to speak with you, didn’t say why.”
“Someone spotted you and reported it,” Pittestapan said, with a heavy sigh.
Rush raised his hands and shrugged.
“Stall them while I dress,” his uncle said. “What did I pay for it?”
“Two imperials and a quarter.” In response to the wince on his uncle’s face, Rush added, “The going price is four imps, so we can always resell it if need be.”
Pitt nodded wearily and waved him out the door.
Rush took his time returning to the proctors, contained at the doorway by the imperturbable presence of Rigolt.
“My uncle will be with you soon,” Rush said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Rigolt cleared his throat. “Perhaps the gentlemen would care to be seated in the… day room.”
Rush stood aside to let the proctors pass and brought up the rear. Rigolt led the party to the servants’ tea room at a stately pace. He paused after opening the door, blocking the view with his body, and Rush throttled a laugh as he pictured him waving someone out through the other doors before letting the proctors in.
It was a sad room, the furniture neatly arranged but the carpets worn and thin. The servants’ dining hall was below stairs and unsuitable for strangers—this room was where the staff relaxed on breaks, in a prosperous guild house. Nowadays it was where the entire shrunken household came together. Pittestapan had not descended so far as to dine with the staff in the servants’ hall, but he took his meals here, with his nephew, and averted his eyes from the holes in the curtains.
The elder proctor acquired a pinched expression but contented himself with saying, “Thank you, this will do. I knew Torch & Scroll had fallen on hard times, but I had no idea…”
Rush stiffened but said nothing. He was merely an apprentice, of no account before these proctors appointed by the Star Watch, even if he suspected they were quite lowly in their own ranks. At least he didn’t call us “Dusties.” Probably beneath his dignity.
“Rigolt,” he said, “Perhaps you could bring us all some refreshment. Gentlemen, please have a seat.”
The butler nodded and left.
The elder proctor turned to Rush. “Remind me of your name and rank,” he said.
“Rushalentar, sir, apprentice to Pittestapan.” He waited for the inevitable follow-up.
“You are, what, sixteen?” the junior proctor asked.
“No, sir, fifteen. I’ve been apprenticed for three years.”
“Since the death of your parents, isn’t it?” the elder proctor said. “But your uncle had no sister, is that correct?”
Rush kept his face expressionless. “I’m the son of my uncle’s brother, Torrtolapan.”
A look of horror crossed the junior proctor’s face. “Not in the same maternal line as Master Pittestapan?”
“No, sir. My mother was Arikinnam.”
The elder proctor commented to the younger one, “As I told you. She descends from Galivistam’s line. The Star Watch made an exception in this case, for the dignity of the guild.”
Since it would otherwise die out completely, Rush translated sardonically. The maternal lines that had traditionally contributed to Torch & Scroll were dissipated amongst remote cousins, as the main lines bred insufficient daughters to maintain the tie. His uncle was the last descendant of the final maternal line, his mother having had neither sisters nor daughters..
The Star Watch has no use for my mother’s line and, besides, as a male I can’t found a new line or continue the old one. All they did was postpone the demise of the guild for one more generation, as a courtesy to my uncle. As far as they’re concerned, it dies with him. After, what, fourteen generations? One of the oldest of all the guilds, if also the smallest.
His uncle’s entrance put a stop to this desultory questioning.
Rush rose, when the door opened, and so did the proctors, reluctantly. Pittestapan was dressed in his working robes, and stared down his nose at the strangers. Rush noted a new feebleness in his step and his stomach sank. He’s been ill again. His health is failing.
His uncle drew out the pause and then declared, “While it is always a pleasure to welcome proctors from the Star Watch, you have interrupted me in the middle of an experiment. What is it I can do for you?”
The younger proctor flushed but the elder held his ground. “We must all do our duty, Master Pittestapan.”
At his uncle’s nod, the man continued, “I am Garettanfin, and this is Briansesse. We were told that your apprentice was seen this morning buying a forbidden book. You know what happens when those who are not yet masters gain access to knowledge beyond their experience. Only masters, or those not of the craft may…”
“Who is it that so accuses him?” Pittestapan interrupted.
The two proctors looked at each other. “We may not reveal that, Master,” Garettanfin said. “Is it true?”
“Have you questioned the staff about the boy’s whereabouts?”
“The fellow who answered the door says he’s been here all day,” Garettanfin acknowledged.
“Well, then, you have your answer.”
The elder proctor pursed his lips sourly at the evasion, but refrained from pushing for more.
“If there is nothing else…” Pittestapan said.
Rigolt returned with Annix rigged out as a maid to carry the refreshment Rush had ordered. Briansesse looked at it longingly, but Garettanfin shook his head.
“Thank you for your time, Master.”
He gave Rush a hard look as Rigolt imperturbably escorted them out of the room, and Rush held his face still and nodded to him.
Rush, his uncle, and the housekeeper maintained their silence until they heard the outer door close, and then relaxed.
“We might as well enjoy ourselves, eh, Rush? I imagine you’re hungry.” His uncle snatched a roll from a basket without waiting for Annix to finish laying the contents of the tray out on the table.
When Rigolt came back in, Pittestapan told him, “Sorry to make your wife dress up unnecessarily, but who could tell how long they’d stay?”
“I find it impertinent of the Star Watch to interfere with our private matters, sir,” Rigolt said.
“You’d think they’d let the house die in peace, wouldn’t you? There must be someone who could use the library, I suppose. Can’t imagine what they would want the rest of this mausoleum for.”
“That’s not fair, uncle,” Rush said. “This was a fine guild.”
Pittestapan was working on his second roll and he waved it about in the air as he spoke. “It’s passed us by, nephew. The world. Look at all the work being done by the practical guilds. What have we to show for our fine research, eh? We’re little closer to the fundamental theories, and the practical guilds have no use for us.”
He buttered the roll and sprinkled it with cinnamon. “No, they’ll close the place for good after I’m gone. I’ve known that all my life.”
He looked over at his nephew. “I’m sorry I can’t do more for you, my boy. You’ll have to affiliate with some other guild once you pass your apprenticeship. They’ll never let you stay on—what would be the point, without a maternal line to keep the skills together?”
“You’ve done plenty for me, Uncle,” Rush said, “taking me in after your brother died. I’m very grateful, truly.”
“I know you are, boy. But remember, the other guilds will never accept someone from your mother’s line unless you get, um, creative about it.”
He refrained from expanding on the topic, but Rush was all too familiar with the minor wizards who made their livings in the poorer districts, unable to join the guild houses, not even the small chapters in remote towns much less in the capitol, because they would contaminate the maternal lines of the houses. If his uncle had had sisters to pass along the line, he would never have been allowed to apprentice to him, coming from a different line, a wild line.
His uncle patted his lips with a napkin and cleaned the crumbs off of his fingers. “Well, let’s see what you got. I’ve been wanting to add Truttelaran to the library for quite some time. Away with you now.”
Rush dashed off to the stable loft to retrieve his prize.
By the time the daylight was over and the worms in the street lights had woken up and begun to eat their fodder, their glows just beginning to shed a warm light, Rush was already in place, watching Nikelbeele’s shop door from the shadows of an alley across the street. He could smell the pungent aroma of the nearest lantern, but was well-shielded from its illumination.
The seller of books and other rare treasures stood outside his shop door and turned the lock. Rush felt his application of MONITOR to both door and shop windows, and he tensed in anticipation. The elderly man always took the same way home, and he’d pass right by him.
When Nikelbeele approached the alley-mouth, Rush dropped the BEND that had helped divert the light around him and spoke softly. “Nikel, it’s me. Lean over and tie a shoe, or something.”
Without the least flicker of surprise, Nikelbeele knelt down with a puff for his stout belly and busied himself with a shoe tie. “Did they catch you, then?” he muttered, out of the side of his mouth.
“Not this time,” Rush said quietly. “What happened? Do you know who ratted on me?”
“I didn’t see it, boy. None of the regulars would do it, but there were a couple of new faces about.”
“Tell me. I can’t let it happen again.”
Nikel glanced sideways, discreetly. “Not going to do something stupid, you? That’s no way to treat your uncle.”
“Nah, I just want to know who, so I can give them the slip next time.”
Rush crouched down in the shadows alongside the old man. “You know me. The more I can find out, the better I like it, and the safer we’ll be, Uncle Pitt and me.”
“Aye.” Nikelbeele paused, and then made his decision.
“There was a young fellow, older than you. Wore lenses, he did, and a blue cap. Don’t know ’im, today’s the first I saw ’im.”
“And then the girls were there.”
“What girls?” Rush asked. The light worms were glowing more brightly, and he edged back further into the shadows.
“They’re new, too, last couple o’ days. Two of ’em. Don’t look too good. Maybe they wanted the reward.”
“But how would they know to report me?” Rush asked.
“Don’t take much—ya hardly look old enough to be legal.” He watched Rush’s shoulders sag with amusement. “Don’t worry, boy, time will fix that, soon enough.”
He straightened up and Rush stood up in the shadows to match. “The proctors came by right after you left and asked about you, by name, they did. I can’t tell you who told ’em. Might a been someone else.”
“Thanks, Nikel, I ’ppreciate it.”
Before Nikelbeele could finish smoothing down his vest to continue on his way, Rush popped out with, “Oh, I forgot to ask. Any luck finding Godegroven? Not the Reflections on Trees, but the Natural Balance?”
“And who wants to know, your uncle or you?”
Rush hung his head, but the book-seller chuckled. “I’ve got a line out. I’ll let ya know if I can get a hold of it. Meanwhile, you stay out of trouble, boy, or you won’t get to read much of anything else.”
He walked slowly on down the street, the echo of his low laugh traveling back to Rush’s ear.
He’s right—mustn’t get distracted. If I can’t find out what happened today, I’ll never be able to come back here safely, not for three years, anyway, and Nikel’s the best, this side of the river.
He re-assumed the BEND. It wouldn’t stand up to full light, but it helped the shadows cover him. He slipped carefully onto the walkway in front of the buildings, dodging both the pools of lantern light and the handful of pedestrians, and hugged the front of the darkened buildings where he could. The smells and dirt up close to the walls kept most passersby further away. This wasn’t a street for meat and drink, and the shops were closed or closing by now.
It makes sense that it’s someone new who turned me in. But who would know my name that’s a stranger to Nikel?
He crossed over to the opposite side, a block below Nikelbeele’s shop, just another shadow moving in the dimly lit street. Before him a man ambled loosely. Rush wanted to pass him, but his steps were too unpredictable, and he reeked of ale and other, less recognizable odors. He stopped dead unexpectedly at the entry to an alley, and Rush only just managed not to run into him.
The drunk took a few steps in and fumbled with his trousers. Rush was about to walk on by when he heard him exclaim, “Oh-ho, whadda we have here?”
There was a frightened inhalation, and the man continued, “Hiya, sweeties, it’s your lucky day. The both o’ ya.”
Rush followed after, silently, and saw two girls getting up from their hiding place behind a stack of empty boxes. The older one had a knife and was holding it in front of her. The steel flickered nervously in the light from the street lantern out beyond the alley’s end. The younger girl crouched at her feet and groped for a weapon. Their faces were smudged, and their clothes filthy, but they didn’t cower at the threat or waste their breath pleading.
He reached down himself to pick up a stone, and he thought the older girl could see him, through the BEND, but her eyes went back immediately to the drunk who advanced obliviously in their direction, his arms outstretched.
“Come to Papa,” he said, beckoning with one arm. “Lesh have some fun.”