“Stop, thief! Help!”
My partner, Aolani, sprinted after the miscreant before the cry stopped. The robber twisted and turned, apparently hoping to lose us in the dusk. But Aolani had been born and raised in Dargon, and she knew the streets very well indeed. A fast runner, she had helped run messages during the war and, in fact, had received a commendation for her feats of running endurance. I knew that the thief did not have a chance.
By this time the culprit had reached a small alley that turned away from the main street. At the corner, he glanced back for a moment before tucking the little purse inside his tunic. He grabbed something shiny from his belt and rushed into the alley. We were close behind, and as I reached the turning moments after Aolani, I saw her throw herself at him with a flying tackle; they both fell in a tangled mess of feet and arms. The two of them rolled on the ground, and then my partner groaned. The thief dragged himself up, gasping for breath, and staggered away in a quick shuffle just before I reached them. It did not even occur to me to follow the robber when my partner was lying wounded. The young cutpurse had already gone half-way down the street, and although I felt a twinge of guilt for letting him get away, my attention was on Aolani.
Breathing heavily, I knelt next to her. She was lying on the ground with her eyes closed as rivulets of blood flowed down her body. I lifted her up into my lap, my stomach tightening at the sight of so much blood, something inside of me freezing as I recognized the severity of her wound.
“Aolani!” I could not even draw breath to curse.
“Bleeding mongrel got away, eh?” she said in a half-question, exhaling and closing her eyes.
I looked down at her in pained silence, my heart thundering fit to be heard at the keep on the other side of the river. When I did not reply, she opened her eyes and managed a smile that ended in a grimace.
“Don’t, for the sake of the Stevene, lose that control … I’ll come back to haunt you if you do …”
The words trailed away and then her eyes stared up blindly. In that single moment, I could feel all the sorcerous restraints she had helped me exert over my emotions begin to erode. The walls within my mind trembled and I keened as I realized for the first time how alone I was against the beast inside.
Ilona Milnor, a lieutenant in the Dargon town guard, was awakened by a shrill whistle outside her home.
“What? Not another fire,” groaned her husband, Kalen Darklen, also a lieutenant in the town guard. Over the past two sennights, two of the warehouses down by the docks had been burned. Luckily, they had been empty, and the fires had been quenched easily enough because the warehouses were close to the river.
“I’ll be back soon. Go to sleep.” She dressed in a hurry, pulling her shoulder-length brown hair into a rough ponytail secured by a ribbon, and was on her way out within a mene. A tall woman, she had pretty features, although endless time spent outside had resulted in crow’s feet around her eyes.
As Ilona reached the docks, she saw that this time it was the very last warehouse on the riverbanks near the marshlands north of the causeway. Her heart sank as she realized the building was not empty. Her team of ten guards, all volunteers of the fire guard, was already there. The water cart had been left near the half-burned warehouse the previous sennight, and someone had filled it and brought it along.
One of the guards, Coressa DaVrice, shouted as she saw Milnor, “Lieutenant, the building has corn and barley in it.” A recent volunteer in the fire guard, DaVrice was a woman who took her work seriously. Flinging water at the base of the fire, she continued, “I don’t know how much of it we’re going to be able to save.”
Milnor grabbed the final bucket and began to help her, noting that the other guards were engaged in the same activity at different locations around the building. “We must save it, Coressa,” she answered between buckets of water. “We must save as much as we can.”
The building was not large, and the lookout she had posted had done a good job and raised the alarm at the first sign of smoke. Milnor sighed and hoped that DaVrice had overestimated the danger.
“The cart’s almost empty, sir,” DaVrice shouted.
Sergeant Cepero, an older man, came running from the other side of the building. In spite of the lateness of the bell, he was still in uniform. He addressed Milnor between gasps, “Garay and Tarb are using sackcloths to beat down the flames on the other side. Some of the townspeople are out there on that side — it’s where we need the most help.” The two guards he referred to had been a part of the fire guard from the day Milnor had created it and were experienced in quenching fires. She knew that the two of them would guide the civilians’ efforts in the right direction.
Without waiting for her to reply, Cepero bent and lifted the front of the cart. “Come on, DaVrice, let’s go, let’s go,” he shouted.
The front of the cart had two poles extending outward from each side, and a third pole that connected the two extensions; in effect, creating a handle. Before Milnor had appropriated the cart, it had been used for moving horse dung from the stables. She watched as Cepero dragged the cart behind him and DaVrice pushed it. They ran down the street past two or three warehouses to the docks where they could get water from the Coldwell. Milnor dimly saw another guard walking away on the other side and her eyebrows contracted in perplexity. It looked like Streed, a town guard, and he was not a volunteer in the fire guard, unless Cepero had brought him along. Then Espen, another fire guard, came running from the other side, gasping her name and she returned her attention to fighting t he fire. He threw two sopping-wet sackcloths in front of her and took off behind the disappearing cart to help them haul water.
Milnor began to beat the flames with the damp sacks. The warehouse was a one-story affair, and roughly rectangular in shape, built from a combination of wood and brick. The southwest corner of the building appeared to be where the fire had started. It still burned, although it was not spreading; Garay and Tarb, along with the help of the townspeople, had managed to contain the flames from moving further toward the docks.
Those who had gone to get more water in the cart returned. DaVrice came up to her and flung a bucket of water at the base of the fire. The area Milnor had been working on let out a huge belch of smoke, but the fire died. She threw down the sackcloths and grabbed a bucket.
“Cepero, get the others,” she gasped, wanting everyone to hit the area with water at the same time. He understood her intentions immediately. Moments later, two guards came running from the west side of the building. They grabbed a bucket each and began to work.
After what seemed like a long time, perhaps a bell, perhaps two, Milnor drew in a deep breath, and promptly coughed. The fire itself was out, but there was smoke everywhere.
“It’s done, Lieutenant,” Tarb said, trudging up to her. Garay followed. Slowly, one by one all the guards came up to her, most of them coughing. The townspeople had left already, exhausted from their efforts. The fire guard stood around her, the discipline of reporting after an assignment carrying over even to this, a volunteer task.
“Excellent work,” she murmured, almost swaying with fatigue. “Thank you all for helping. Now, go get some rest. Cepero, I want to talk to you. We need to find out who’s behind this. It’s by Lord Dargon’s own luck that no one has been seriously hurt so far.”
The others dispersed, grim looks on their faces as they contemplated what she had just said.
She and Cepero began walking towards their lodgings, which were located close together. “Sergeant, you do realize we have someone who is deliberately setting fire to these warehouses, don’t you?” she began.
“Of course, Lieutenant. One might have been an accident, but this is the third. We have to double the night shift guard, and have them walk down the Street of Travellers more often,” he responded.
“Make sure the lookout stays alert. You know as well as I do that sometimes fires can start again from the embers. And send a page to ask him to come see me tomorrow after he’s rested.”
“Straight, get some rest, Lieutenant; you’re asleep on your feet.” It was said with paternal solicitude and Ilona smiled her thanks. They had worked closely together for many years and, while he maintained a respectful distance before the other guards, in private he treated her like a daughter.
“What have you done with it, you flea-bitten cur? This is one Round short!”
I looked down at my wife, Fidelia. About a hand shorter than me, she had blond hair that fell in long ringlets past her shoulders, light blue eyes, a pert nose and rosebud lips with teeth like chips of gray marble. Everything about her combined to make an almost perfect picture, marred only by her strident voice and her speech, which was interlaced with oaths and slang used by the roughest of men.
“I used it to pay for Aolani’s funeral,” I said shortly. “The cremation was a sennight ago.” I sat down before the small table and began to take off my boots.
“You used our money to pay for her funeral? And a cremation at that? Kale, a whole Round! Why, is she too good for an ordinary funeral like the rest of us that you had to go and pay extra for a cremation?”
The town bell tolled the time, and the sound echoed in the small room. I sighed. “Aolani was a Stevenic Theosayer and you know they cremate their dead.” While most Stevenics believed that the Stevene had been hanged, a small group who called themselves the Stevenic Theosayers believed that Cephas Stevene was killed by fire; therefore they cremated their dead as a mark of respect.
“Whatever. They can believe whatever they want. What I want to know is this: why should you pay for the funeral? I wanted that money, Kale. I had my eye on this beautiful fabric that Leana Mudge agreed to make into a dress for me. I was going to use it for that dress, you — you pus-ridden worm!” She was breathing hard, glaring at me with her beautiful blue eyes.
“Aolani was my partner, Fidelia; I owe her at least this much,” I said wearily.
“Oho! What the fark did you owe her for? You roll with her?”
I winced. “Fidelia! Mind your tongue. Aolani was a good woman. She was a guard and my partner; that’s all.” I rose and put my boots away tidily near the door. She had been more than just my partner; she had been the one who had first realized what was inside me — her magic had recognized mine. Another wave of sorrow at Aolani’s death joined the living grief that lived inside of me, a being that kept company with the monster that already lived within.
“That queenie! You should have gotten a man as a partner. She stole my husband, my –”
I interrupted, “Rubbish, Fidelia. Do be sensible. Aolani was my partner, nothing more.” Partners in the guard and partners in the magic, we had been friends, a friendship based on years of growing up together, playing pranks together, and then, as we grew older, searching for understanding of the magic that lived inside her, and inside me. We had never been interested in each other that way; she had been my friend, not a woman I had wanted to have a relationship with.
“Ha! Partner, my foot! Do I look like a foolish virgin to you, that you can tell me all these stories? I know you were rolling with her. And what happened to the dress you bought her? I know you bought her one — Leana Mudge told me she saw you at Della’s shop. You were rolling with Aolani and I hate you!”
My breath was in rhythm, synchronized to the incantation I was muttering under my breath, so holding the fire back was easy. But the sheer anger that ran through me at Fidelia’s uncouth and vulgar words swept past my control; my hand rose. As if I were watching from outside of myself, I saw it rise and slap her. There was blissful silence at last.
Fidelia was looking at me with tears in her eyes, a hand cradling her undoubtedly sore cheek. Her lower lip trembled, and I felt guilt overwhelm me. I should have stopped; I should have reined in the anger; I should have … I sighed at my own useless regrets and stretched out a hand to Fidelia, almost in supplication. She stepped back with a teary hiccup, the momentary spell broken, and turned to exit the room leaving me a parting gift of more hateful words. “Scum! I curse the day I married you! If I were to tell my uncle Roman about you, he would –” she gave a sob and left.
I sighed. I agreed with Fidelia in that at least. I wondered why I had married her: my beautiful wife, Fidelia. More to the point, I wondered why she had married me. I had, at least, had the excuse of thinking that the beauty outside reflected what was inside. Now, four years later, I had yet to discover what I had got from this marriage other than a shrewish fishwife and days full of acerbic torment.
“Dada, Mama angry?”
My little girl, not quite two years old, stood by my leg, tugging at my trousers for attention.
“Charity, honey.” I bent, lifted up the tow-headed moppet into my arms and kissed her. “How are you?”
“Me hungry, Dada,” she replied, her lower lip trembling just this side of a pout.
I sighed. She was so like her mother in looks that sometimes I couldn’t bear it. “C’mon honey, let’s get you something to eat.”
The following afternoon Milnor walked briskly back to the guardhouse, wanting to reach the guardhouse before Cepero left.
“Lieutenant, what are you doing back here?” he asked, his voice rising in surprise as he saw her in the corridor leading to the outer door of the guardhouse. “I was just leaving.”
“I had a talk with Urs,” she said. “Come with me, Cepero, I want to discuss the fires with you.” Urs was a young orphan whom Milnor was trying to recruit into the guard, but with little success thus far. He did, however, make a great lookout. As they walked down the dim corridor, she continued, “Urs told me that he saw a guard outside the warehouse just before it had started to burn.”
“That’s impossible. I don’t believe it.”
Milnor sighed. “At first, I couldn’t believe it either; yet I’ve known the boy for five years and I’ve never known him to lie. Besides, why would he lie, and that too about a guard?”
They had arrived at Cepero’s office by then, and Milnor entered the dark office while Cepero continued down the corridor to where it turned off abruptly.
He yelled, “Page! Torch!” and then returned to enter the office, which was a rather large room with a window overlooking the front entrance to the building. At the moment a bright moon cast its light through the window. Three large desks sat in the center of the room; Cepero shared his office with two others. Soon they heard the sound of running. A young boy came in and handed a torch to Cepero, who reached up and lit the two wall sconces.
“Thank you, boy,” he murmured. The boy nodded and left.
Cepero picked up the conversation where they had left it. “Well, Urs keeps away from guards; you’re the only one he talks to. If I need him to do something, I have to send a page.”
“That doesn’t mean that he lies. Roman, I would know if he lied. He said that the guard he saw outside the warehouse was a man taller than me, with fair hair, well-built and muscular.”
“What if he was mistaken? Perhaps in the light he mistook the uniform. Maybe the guard had been on walk-duty or simply had been going home after his shift. There could be any number of innocent explanations. Did Urs recognize the guard?” Cepero’s tone was reasonable.
“No. He said that the guard was taller than me, with fair hair, and was well-built. Urs seemed to think that he had seen him before on walk-duty, probably within the past month.”
Cepero walked around the desk to open a large book, the duty roster, and began to mutter to himself. “Let’s see, someone who came off walk-duty within the past month. Shall we start from the first of Yuli? Wait; there was no duty change between the first and tenth of Yuli. I think we may need to go further back.”
“Let’s say the twentieth of Yule,” Milnor offered.
He nodded. “Straight. DaVrice and Espen changed on the eighteenth of Yuli. Mayandi and Kanchani are still on. Aolani and Streed changed from walk-duty to guard-duty at the keep on the twenty-eighth of Yule. They were patrolling with Quot and Westerly, who are still on walk-duty. I took Streed off when Aolani was killed. Streed was supposed to go back to patrol on the first of Sy, but …” his voice trailed off as he continued to pore over the roster.
“We haven’t found a partner for him yet, have we?” Milnor asked, tapping her boot against the side of the desk.
“Not yet. He’s going to be on guard duty in the marketplace for a while. Who’s left? Garay and Tarb. They rolled off on the thirtieth of Yule and went back on, on the second of Sy,” Cepero murmured.
“Streed, Mayandi, Garay and Tarb are the only male guards who came off walk-duty within the past month. Mayandi has dark hair, and Garay is barely taller than me. My guess would be Streed or Tarb — they’re both a good finger taller than me; they’re both well-built, and they both have light hair,” Ilona said, staring out of the window at the tallest of the keep’s towers, the one visible from the guardhouse. Between the moon’s gray light and the thin fog that was rising from the Coldwell, it appeared shrouded in mystery.
“I don’t think we can go on a hunt within the guard, Ilona.” Cepero frowned, his forehead creasing. Ilona looked back at him and realized that he was upset by the idea; his forehead always creased like that when he worried.
“We may not have to.” Ilona met his eyes, knowing that she owed him the truth. “I saw Streed at the corn warehouse last night.” Seeing him frown, she added, as if throwing a lifeline to someone in a swamp, “You didn’t bring him to fight the fire, did you?” If he had, then Streed had been there to help the fire guard — an innocent explanation for his presence at the warehouse.
He shook his head slowly, absorbing the implications of what she had said. “Do you think it’s him? How can you be sure?”
“I can’t be sure; I’m not sure. He’s your niece’s husband and he’s worked under you for some time. You tell me: do you think he could have done it?”
“But why? Why would anyone do such a thing? It’s pointless.”
Ilona sighed. “That’s what I can’t stop thinking about, that I don’t understand why.”
“Actually, I have a suggestion for you,” Cepero paused for a moment to close the duty roster. “I think we have to understand how this happened before we can understand why. For that, I think you should examine the burned warehouses to see what you can find. Westerly — you remember him, don’t you? He’s a fine tracker. Why don’t you take him and see what you can find?”
“That’s an excellent idea, Roman. Where is Westerly? Have him meet me outside –”
Cepero interrupted her. “Ilona, you need to get some rest. We didn’t finish with the fire until almost the ninth bell of night, and here you were at the guardhouse by the second bell this morning. Why don’t you go home, and I’ll leave a message for Westerly to meet you outside your lodgings at, say, the third bell in the morning? What do you say?” he asked persuasively.
“Oh, straight, look who’s talking,” she said, letting out a small smile. He grinned and opened his mouth to rebut, but she cut in, going back to the more serious topic. “But, just in case, I think we need to have someone follow Streed.”
Cepero looked troubled, obviously unwilling to accept the idea. Ilona wondered if he were against the idea because of his protective attitude toward Streed, who happened to be his niece’s husband, or his feelings about wrongdoing within the guard.
He objected, “But he knows almost all the town guards. I’d have to get someone from the ducal guard to do it, and even then, who knows? Streed may recognize the guard and realize what’s happening.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I have an idea.” She decided she would get Urs to follow Streed. That would take care of the annoying detail of Streed potentially recognizing another guard.
She slid off the side of the desk and as she reached the door, threw over her shoulder, “I’ll see you later, Roman.”
I walked along the Street of Travellers at a rapid pace, turned into Ramit Street and made another right turn down a small alley, praying that my salvation would be available. Stopping at a door on the left, I raised my hand to knock, when it opened and a figure stood revealed. The man was clean-shaven and neatly dressed, but his dirty beard, flecked with blood and spittle, struck a discordant note in his appearance. As soon as he saw me, he turned and led the way upstairs, coughing all the while. He was Jak Ylman, a strange man who peddled herbs and little magical charms to gullible souls. The efficacy of his charms was questionable; the potency of his herbs was not, herbs which gave me blessed peace from the monster in my mind.
The room we entered was small and square, the lone window closed tightly against the sun. A small desk in a corner, a shelf against one wall and a bed against another wall were the only pieces of furniture in the dingy room filled with mephitic odors. I took short breaths, trying not to gag as my mind identified each smell: sweat, vomit, excretion, blood, and pungent herbs. Two mortars, a pestle, and a burner sat on the desk.
“Jak?” I enquired.
“Yes. You have money?” Jak Ylman’s voice was gravelly, as if he spoke but rarely.
“Here.” I handed over a fistful of Bits.
He grabbed it, breathing hard, carefully counted the coins and even more carefully put them away in the desk, an item that boasted a drawer with a lock. Then, from a shelf that stood against the far wall, he pulled a small pouch and handed it to me. I took it thankfully and left the room.
As soon as I reached the outside, I breathed in, leaning against the side of the building. I swallowed the herbs and waited. The fresh, damp-scented air filled my lungs as I strove to get the noisome stench of the room out of my nose and out of my mind. Now that I was in the open, the restraints against the monster wavered dangerously, and each fetid smell took on a color in my mind; the sweat became stale yellow, the vomit a rank orange, the blood a putrid brown and the herbs a musty green. My breathing slowed to the beat that Aolani had taught me as I strove to contain the images in my mind. The sound of the air through my throat grew louder and louder in my mind, crowding out everything, until I could see nothing else and then abruptly the white wall appeared. At last the herbs started working and the white took on the gentle hues of the colors of the rainbow; my control grew correspondingly until I sighed in relief.
Milnor approached the guardhouse thinking of her activities during the past two bells. First thing that morning, she had examined the warehouses with Westerly’s help for anything that would point to the identity of the culprit. While he had measured the boot prints at the warehouses, she had taken a sieve and sifted through the mounds of ash at the warehouses. They had searched for anything to indicate how the fires had been set, but all their efforts had given rise to nothing save the satisfaction that their examination had been thorough in the extreme.
There appeared to be no other avenue except to investigate Urs’ description of Streed’s activities during the time he had followed the guard. Milnor quickened her step, wanting to share the new information with Cepero.
He was in his office talking to Streed, and when he saw her at the doorway, he beckoned her in. At that bell of the day, the other two sergeants who shared Cepero’s office were out patrolling.
“Come in, Lieutenant,” he said formally. “You know Streed? He’s been reported for falling asleep on duty.”
“What? Are we that short-staffed that we’re putting people with insufficient sleep on duty?” she asked sharply.
“No, ma’am,” Cepero answered at once. “Streed has been working single shifts on compassionate grounds because he lost his partner about three sennights ago. I have Quot and Westerly and a couple others doing double shifts, and DaVrice even pulled a triple shift last sennight.”
He sounded indignant, Milnor thought, momentarily amused. Cepero believed that proper rest was the key to good work.
Cepero turned to the other guard and continued, “Streed, I can’t condone this simply because I’m Fidelia’s uncle. A rule is a rule for everybody. I’m going to put you on report. You’re losing all your off-duty for the next month and –”
“Wait, Sergeant,” Milnor interrupted, wanting to stop Cepero before he ordered Streed to work every day for the next thirty days. Also, this seemed to be the right opportunity to address the doubt in her mind about Streed’s presence at the warehouse that night. She decided to take a circuitous route to the question. “Why did you fall asleep on duty, Streed?”
“I was tired, Lieutenant.”
Milnor looked at him, taking the time to really see the man behind the anonymous face of the guard. He was tall, taller than both Cepero and she, and despite his light hair and blue eyes, his face was more homely than good-looking. A wide forehead gave onto a nose that had been broken at some point and had healed with a sharp curve, giving it a rather beakish look. His eyes were rimmed with red, with dark bags underneath, while his voice was pleasant. Yet she was conscious of something about him which appealed to her femininity on a certain level.
She squashed the thought mercilessly, angry with herself for allowing it to surface at her place of work.
“Why are you tired? You have been going off-duty, haven’t you?” The guards worked on a rotation of five days on and two days off. Sometimes, when some guards were sick or injured, other guards had to forego their two days off, but Cepero had already confirmed that this was not the case with Streed. Milnor wanted Streed to acknowledge that, despite being short-staffed, they had treated him with sympathy, allowing him the time to grieve for his lost partner.
“Streed, I’m trying to help you. It might be easier if you talk to me,” she said, trying not to show her impatience at his monosyllabic responses.
“There’s nothing to say, ma’am. My daughter has been ill, and it’s been a hard few days,” he said.
Cepero broke in angrily, “What? Charity is ill? Why didn’t you tell me?” Milnor could understand his concern; she knew that the older guard was fond of children and especially of his niece’s daughter, who was a charming little girl. Milnor found it amazing that such an ill-tempered woman as Fidelia could have birthed such a sweet-tempered child.
For the first time, Streed moved from his stiff posture. His eyes moved away as well, to the window. “She’s fine now, sir.”
Milnor could not shake a feeling of unease when he failed to meet her eyes. He was rubbing his palms against the side of his tunic, and he twisted one foot in the direction of the door. It was certain that he was lying about his daughter.
She approached the issue directly. “What were you doing at the corn warehouse the night before last, Streed?”
“Me? I wasn’t there, Lieutenant!”
“Are you sure?”
Cepero looked at her, a small crease on his forehead, a sign of his worry. She didn’t know what he saw in her eyes, but when he next spoke, it was to follow the line of questioning she had started.
He said grimly, “Don’t lie, lad, or it will go the worse for you. Don’t think that just because you’ve married my niece Fidelia, I’ll make it easy on you. Tell us: what do you remember about the night the third warehouse burned down?”
Milnor wondered whether Cepero was merely following her lead, or whether he truly believed that Streed was lying. Then she realized it didn’t matter; one glance at Streed was enough for any experienced questioner to conclude that he was indeed lying. Small beads of perspiration dotted his forehead even though the office was not that warm. The previous day’s fog had not dissipated completely, and there was a damp chill to the air, despite the sunlight that streamed in through the open window.
“Nothing, sir.” He still did not meet either of their eyes.
“Streed,” Milnor said, letting a note of implacability enter her voice. “Start from the morning. What did you do?”
“I was on guard duty here at the guardhouse. When I went home, I had another fight with Fidelia and then I went to sleep.”
“You lie.” Milnor moved, quick as a cheetar, from her usual position perching against the side of the desk to face Streed. Even though he was taller than she was, he cowered before her at the sight of the fury on her face. “You lie. Tell me the truth, or I will have you thrown into the dungeons.” The lower levels had devices, presently unused, that were the stuff of nightmares.
“It wasn’t me, I swear, by the Stevene,” he began to yell, his eyes wild.
“Then tell me the truth!” she shouted.
As Milnor stared at him, his eyes began to darken and he was trembling. He seemed to be taking her dungeon threat seriously. She opened her mouth to disabuse him of the notion when there was a clattering sound near the door. As she turned toward the door, the wall sconce blazed up. A boy entered the office. “Lieutenant, the Cap’n wants you in his office.”
“The sconce …” Milnor looked back at the sconce and stared, mouth open. It was unlit, and quite dead. Had she imagined it? She closed her open mouth and turned back to stare at Streed, who still trembled; but his eyes were quite normal.
“What about the sconce?” Cepero asked, glancing at the sconce and then at her.
She checked it again, but it remained unlit, making her wonder if she had imagined it all. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” she said, deciding that she had imagined the whole thing. She had fire on the mind, that was all. That, combined with seeing the page who usually brought the torch for light had been why she’d thought the sconce was lit. Turning to the boy, she continued, “I’ll be right there. You can go.” She watched him salute and trot away.
“I didn’t do anything. Let me go, sir,” Streed said, his voice trembling.
Milnor stared at him, debating whether to hold him or let him go.
She did not look forward to endless repetitions of the same questions to be met with the same denials. While she suspected him, she had no proof, no witnesses and no idea of why, and his denials were strong.
She had to make a decision at once; Koren was waiting for her and no doubt wished to know the progress on this investigation. He would not be pleased with her if she jailed a man without any proof at all. Urs was following Streed, so if the latter did do anything that seemed even remotely suspicious, Urs would let her know. Quelling her instinctive reaction to put Streed in one of the cells, she said to Cepero, “Send him home. Get some rest, Streed.”
After he left, she turned to Cepero and said quickly, “Urs told me that Streed goes to a boarding house off Ramit Street often, to visit a Jak Ylman. I’m going to see him after I speak with the captain.”
As I entered my home, Fidelia was teaching Charity to eat on her own. I stopped silently and watched them, smiling as my beautiful daughter slopped stew all over her face.
Fidelia laughed and said, “Honeypear, not like that. Slowly. Mmmm. You like that don’t you?”
Mother and daughter laughed at each other and I laughed too.
Fidelia looked up and her smile faded. She turned back to the child and said, “That’s enough for today, dearie. Come on.” She hefted the child into her arms and stepped into the next room.
It was more than a bell later that she returned to the front room, and later still before she spoke a word to me. “So where were you last night?” Her voice was soft, and she was folding a tunic and making a huge task of it.
I looked at her warily as I spooned stew into my mouth, wondering what kind of mood she was in. “Right here,” I muttered. I’d begun needing more of Ylman’s herbs than before simply to quieten the sound of the monster as it pounded against the restraints I built. The truth was that Aolani’s incantations no longer had the same strength that they’d had when she had been alive.
“Don’t lie,” she said. “You weren’t here for three bells. You think I don’t notice, but I do. What do you think I am, an idiot?” She rose and put the tunic away on a shelf against the wall and then, without waiting for my response, continued, “Aolani’s dead, so who is she? Tell me if there’s someone else, please, Kale.” Her voice trembled.
“Fidelia, please. There is no one else.” I sighed. I felt tired of trying to convince her that I cared for no other woman save her. I wondered if that were true any longer, although it had undoubtedly been true when we had married. The exhaustion in my limbs from lack of sleep seemed to absorb all conscious thought, leaving me defenseless against the fire in my mind. It glowed evilly, the banked embers beginning to spark and flame here and there.
“I followed you yesterday,” she said, standing motionless before the shelf. “I saw you go down the Street of Travellers. You went to that whorehouse, the Shattered Spear, I know it.”
I looked at her back and wondered if she was crying. “Did you see me walk into the Shattered Spear? No,” I answered my own question, “because I didn’t. There’s more than one place on the Street of Travellers.” The flames in my mind began to leap at my indignation and I scrambled for control. Fidelia’s accusal was an obscenity to one such as I, who believed strictly in the sanctity of marriage as advocated by the Stevene.
“Oh, so there’s another whorehouse that you go to? Tell me, Kale, I want to know. If I were to tell my uncle Roman –”
I interrupted her, “I am sick of hearing you talk about your uncle Roman. No more, Fidelia. Why your mouth can’t be as sweet as your face, I will never know. I was fooled by your pretty face when I married you.” I rose and began to pace the small room, the anger inside me demanding an outlet other than the fire that threatened to overcome my control. I began to breathe slowly, muttering the incantations under my breath, desperately hoping that they would work.
“What are you saying? That I’m not good enough for you? That only Aolani was good enough for you?” Fidelia’s voice began to rise. She turned to face me and I knew I had been mistaken in thinking she was crying.
I snapped, “She was my partner, for Stevene’s sake! Can’t you at least be respectful of a dead person?” Dead, dead, dead. Because of me, me, me. The flames mocked. The colors wavered. The monster beckoned, grinning at me evilly through the holes in the colored wall.
“I’ll say whatever the fark I want in my own house. Who’re you to stop me? You can have as many women as you want and I’m supposed to stay at home, chaste? Well, I have news for you, you shitty excuse for a man, I take my pleasures outside the home just like you. And if you think Charity’s your child, you’re more of a fool than I thought you were.”
There was a sudden silence before the sound of a slap filled the air. The holes in my control were larger! I patched them hurriedly and painted over and over, but the colors ran, bleeding into the white.
“That’s it! That’s the last time you hit me. I’ll tell my uncle Roman — Ah!” Her voice rose as the hem of her gown caught fire. “Kale, stop it, stop it!” She began to beat at her dress. “No!” She screamed.
I gasped and blinked. Horror ran through me as I realized my control had failed, and in that one instant, the monster escaped. I needed to protect Fidelia from the beast within, and my breath came in quick gasps as I struggled to put away the waves of shame and guilt that threatened. Whispering the incantation, I slowed my breathing to its rhythm, building up the wall against the beast. I painted quickly, with thick strokes, darkening each color twice before proceeding to the next one, but the flames had already diminished and soon there was nothing but smoke.
Later that afternoon, Milnor entered Cepero’s office deep in thought. The duty roster lay on his desk, but Cepero himself wore a strained look, the crease on his forehead back in evidence.
“Lieutenant,” Cepero’s voice was formal.
“Sergeant,” she replied just as formally and approached his desk.
He said, “Westerly stopped by and told me that he looked at each and every boot print that he found in all three of the warehouses. He measured them and he drew out the boot prints on sand, and got everyone from the fire guard to lend a boot for his exercise.”
Milnor nodded, remembering when Westerly had asked for her own boot.
“Well, he found Streed’s boot print in every warehouse.”
Milnor perched on his desk and said, “I have some news for you too. I found out that Streed visits someone at a boarding house off Ramit Street.”
Cepero frowned and opened his mouth to speak but Milnor beat him to it. “The boarding house that Streed goes to is owned by an old woman and when I talked to her, she told me that this Ylman is very odd. Apparently he goes out at all bells, sometimes returning from the docks smelling of fish, and sometimes returning looking like he had lost a fight with more than one person. Anyway, she told me that she has seen Streed buying herbs from this Ylman. Who knows what these herbs are doing to him? I think Streed’s our man, don’t you?”
“I hate to say it, but I think you’re right,” Cepero said unhappily.
She smiled. “You hate to say that I’m right?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.” The sergeant chuckled. “Did you meet this Ylman?”
Milnor nodded. “Yes, I did. He seemed ordinary, but like the old woman said, there was something that wasn’t quite right about him. He was clean and neatly dressed, yet there were bruises all down one side of his face, and from the way he walked, it certainly looked like someone had given him a good drubbing. And every time he coughed, he coughed blood.
“But, about Streed, do you want to go to his house and bring him in?” Milnor swung a booted foot against the side of Cepero’s desk.
“Straight, I do.” He put his feet down with a stomp and rose to put away the duty roster in the chest that stood against the side wall.
Cepero reached up on the wall behind him to quench the flame in the wall sconce. The two of them walked companionably through the darkened corridors and out the side doors. The moon, Nochturon, was out but its light was dim in the twilight. It was a pleasant evening, and Milnor took a deep breath of the air, enjoying the smell of the river and the few summer roses that had bloomed in the front courtyard of the guardhouse.
“How are you and Kalen doing? Baby soon?” Cepero asked paternally.
Milnor made a sound that was a part-gasp and part-laugh. “Roman!” she chided, surprise reverberating through her voice.
“Well, you’ve been married –”
“It’ll happen when it does. If it does,” she said firmly. “What about you? Who’re you seeing now? How about that pretty cook, Mayda?”
He laughed. “Oh, no. She’s devoted to that captain. Besides, I’m scared of her.”
It was Ilona’s turn to laugh.
Cepero said severely, “It’s been a long time since you laughed. You’ve let this whole situation with the firebug tie you up in knots. You’ve been a guard for a long time, Ilona. How can you function if you let something worry you like this?”
“You’re right. I won’t,” she promised. “Back to the firebug: what I want to know is how Streed burned up the warehouses.”
“You’re convinced it was him?” Cepero’s voice made the statement a question.
She understood why he asked her again; it was better to be sure. “Aren’t you? We didn’t find any boot prints that didn’t belong to either the fire guard or any children who may have wandered in. The only unaccounted boot print was Streed’s. Then Urs told me he saw him at the warehouse before the fire. I myself saw him during the fire. He’s been falling asleep on duty, which means he’s not getting enough sleep at night. Both Urs and the old woman at the boarding house say that he’s been going there to buy herbs from a man who’s crazier than anyone I’ve ever met — who knows what he sold Streed?”
“Hold on a mene here,” Cepero objected. “I grant you that we can place Streed at the warehouses and at the boarding house because Urs saw him there. Does that mean we know for certain that he bought bad herbs from that man in the boarding house? Or that Streed set fire to the warehouse?”
“Roman, I spoke to Jak Ylman and he said that a guard had been buying an herbal mixture from him, herbs that he says are innocuous that he blends himself. When I asked him for the mixture, he said he was out of them and he would have to go searching for the herbs again. We can go back and check into it tomorrow, but for now, let’s talk to Streed. Who knows, it may simply have been an accident.”
I walked down Ramit Street, brooding upon the injustice of life. Aolani had been my stability and my mainstay amongst the pillars of flame that marked my soul. She had helped me control that which gave rise to the heat and fire. When she had died, those ties had started to loosen, until now, when they were finally free.
The monster laughed at me I crouched in the shadows within my own mind. Sometimes, the creature wore Aolani’s face, and at those times, I wept tears of fire. Sometimes it took on Fidelia’s face and beckoned me into its embrace, leading me to an ecstasy that I had never known and a peace that I had never felt before. The only thing that helped was Ylman’s herbs, which gave me sanctuary from the being that dwelt within, and even that relief was fugacious, temporary. I dared not think what I would do when the herbs became useless.
When at last I reached home after my little detour to the boarding house on an alley off Ramit Street, Fidelia was waiting for me.
“Well, look who’s here,” she marveled.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked shortly. “I came home early to spend some time with you, and is this the reception I get?”
“What, didn’t the Spear have a woman for you today?”
“Fidelia …” What was there to say? Lately she seemed more on edge than usual. She saw other women in every shadow, and a waste in my every expense. I did not understand where such thoughts came from. “You know I don’t have any other women,” I began in a placating voice. “You’re my wife and Charity is my child.”
“Ha. You remembered that I’m your wife. What’s happening to you, Kale? Why won’t you talk to me?”
There were tears in her voice and I could not bear it, remembering the tenderness in our life before Aolani had become my partner. Fidelia had suspected that we had a secret; unfortunately, I could hardly tell my wife that my partner was a magician who helped me control my monster.
When I had refused to talk about Aolani, Fidelia had assumed that we were having an affair.
“Don’t cry, Fidelia,” I murmured, approaching her. “Charity — is she my child?” I could not even begin to accept that she was not mine.
The very thought wounded something deep inside of me that was already fragile; the landscape shook, the tremors starting from the foundation deep underneath the colored cage that restrained the monster.
She sighed. “You want to know if I was unfaithful. What about you? Until Aolani died, at least it was just her. After she died, you’ve become a rutting animal.” Slowly her voice changed until by the end of her sentence, her tone had become a weapon.
“Fidelia, you know that’s not true. You take that back, this instant, or, Ol help me, I will hit you,” I threatened, the mention of Aolani making a mess of any control that I had. The wall would crumble if I could not shore up the foundation.
She laughed and it was a brittle sound. “Yes. That’s what you will do. What else are you capable of?” Her voice changed again and there was a tear at the corner of her eye. “Kale, what’s happening to us?”
I was too angry to respond to the entreaty in her voice. “You told me that Charity is not my child. Is she or not? Tell me.” The vibrations spread through the wall, cracks going through each level, and the colors began to bleed into one another.
“Kale, stop it! Your hands are hot. Stop it!” She began to cry.
I sensed the real panic within her and took a deep breath to control my anger. I paced around the small front room, from the table to the door and back again. “Straight. I’m calm now. Tell me: is Charity my child?”
Loud knocking at the door interrupted; we both ignored it.
“What do you care whether Charity is your child or not? You’re a monster and I hate you and you hate me,” wept Fidelia. “I’m pregnant, and this is what I’m going to tell my second child: your father is unfaithful, so he isn’t really your father.”
“Fidelia, that is the silliest thing you’ve said in a long time,” I said in a long-suffering voice. I lied without any compunction. “I don’t have any magic and I’m no monster.” Her words sank in and I stared at her. “What? You’re preg–”
The knocks sounded again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Fidelia snapped. She wiped away her tears with the back of her hand and walked across the room to open the door. “Uncle Roman! Lieutenant! This is a surprise. Come in.”
“No,” I said under my breath. “Not now!” I knew they were here to arrest me; I knew it as surely as I knew that Charity was my own child. I felt a hysterical laugh struggling in my throat. If I let it through, the fire would come with it.
The lieutenant and the sergeant entered the small room, staring at me. Each pair of eyes bored into me with accusation. I was guilty; I had allowed the fire to rise from inside of me; I had permitted the fire to destroy the warehouses.
“Kale, no. Kale, stop it! Kale!”
It was all my fault; I knew that now. I had failed to save my partner. Aolani, the fastest runner in the guard, was dead because of me. And Fidelia had said Charity was not mine! Each little guilt piled up until it swept away my wall of control.
“No! Kale! Kale!”
Faintly, I heard someone calling my name; dimly, I felt someone shake me. But guilt held me in its grip and my doubt tightened the chains. I heard the rattle of Aolani’s last few breaths and I saw the blood flowing out of her body; I heard Fidelia say Charity was not my child and I saw Charity smiling at me. I smelled fire and then –
Fidelia screamed, her arms on fire from where she gripped me. The long sleeves of her gown were burning, with a bright orange flame.
“Stevene! No!” I screamed with her, beating at her arms.
Someone pulled her away. I tried to see who it was, but the flames rose high, blocking my view. Each flame formed itself into a face, the same face: Aolani’s face, mocking me. My failure to save her stared at me from the fire, the heat first singeing, then scorching my body. I embraced it gladly, peace enveloping me even as the thing inside me grew and grew. It burst through all of my restraints; the control that was a living wall composed of all the colors of a rainbow bleeding into a bright yellow, then orange, and red, and then the color of true flame.
My eyes burned with the effort of seeing it and I closed them; but the images were imprinted on my eyelids and I could see the thing grow, consuming what lay in its path.
“– not breathing!”
Someone was talking, but I was past hearing, past listening. It owned me now, wholly, entirely, completely. I relished being under its power, having it absolve me of my decisions, my guilt. I was its faithful devotee, its slave, and it was my master, my owner. It writhed; my whole body shook with the energy. It consumed me from the inside out, growing until there was no separate me and no separate it, until the two of us were united, were one being. It needed more — I needed more. I struggled to give it more, to get more. The body was fuel, and we, it and I, consumed the body eagerly, with relish. The fire was delightful and the flames were wondrous … we consumed and were consumed until only gray ash remained.
Milnor stared at the pile of ash on the floor. “Is it really him?” she wondered aloud.
Fidelia was crying, loud, ugly sobs that were better wept in private, but her husband had just … died. Milnor felt her thoughts stumble over that idea. Cepero had held Fidelia back from going to Streed, and he had also put out the fire on the sleeves of her dress, while she, Ilona Milnor, lieutenant of the guard, had just watched the spectacle before her.
She crept forward and touched the ashes that remained. They were warm. Milnor swallowed as it hit her: the investigation was over, and there was no need to go and question anyone again. She swore. How in the name of Ol was she going to explain this case to the captain?