Chapter 1 - The Master Courier's Gift by A.J. Hall
I had been awaiting the call for over forty years. The sands of opportunity were almost run through. In two days’ time I would hand over the keys of the mail-station to the new head, whoever he might be, and with them my still-born hope.
The house and garden, too, would be the incomer’s before fifty turns had passed.
The house was neither here nor there, living quarters tacked on as if in afterthought to the side of the station house. I’d hardly enjoyed more privacy there than in the barracks and sleeping cells that had been my lot when first I’d joined the service.
The garden, on the other hand —
I’d known, the first day I’d seen the station house, jogging down the long, slow, curve of the highway, spotting its huddle of low, lime washed buildings amid scraggly, over-grown fruit-trees round the opening bend of the road.
I could make a paradise of this place.
God, time. Sharp-edged, the eye of memory saw the hillside still clad in its original bare umbers and siennas. Now the station-house was lapped in shade, the gardens lush and tumbling down the slope, above them vines in serried ranks.
Royal messengers, riding inward from the coast, had learned to bring cuttings, tubers or precious seeds from the Indies: East or West, I didn’t care, so long as they took root and thrived. Apprentices, sent here to be instructed in the arcana of the mails, I put to planting out and thinning. A kindness, really. I’d served most of my apprenticeship in a big granite building in the second city of the realm, with hardly a blade of grass or a potted rosebush for furlongs around. Satan found work for idle hands there, all right.
Not in my station house. Not here. Here, even the courier horses did their bit to keep all growing green.
The fruit trees were no longer straggly, but well-tended, thinned and pruned, white with blossom in spring, laden with fruit in autumn. The garden they shaded was a marvel and a glory.
And, in two days time, someone else’s.
Still, no point repining. When a man takes oath to the service he puts his life permanently at the disposal of the mails. You can’t predict what they’ll demand of you. When the service determines you’re done, that, too, you accept without a backwards look, without recriminations and without regret.
Well. Maybe one regret.
Time again. Time and dark. Ten years old, I must have been, back in my home village at the arse-end of nowhere.
Venturing from the bed I shared with two young brothers was an agony of daring, the tiled floor burning my soles with frost. I broke the ice in the jug with a fist; the water was cold as sin. I can still see steam rising from my hands as I poured it over them.
The moon was setting as I pushed open the back door, and faced the terrors of the dark yard.
Wolves were rumoured to have been seen in the village, hollow-flanked and desperate with the harsh winter. What else moved in the shadows? Robbers — bandits — the ghost of Old Jackson, who’d fallen asleep under a hedge on Christmas eve, on the way back from the tavern, and never woken again —
But the bell had rung. There was a customer at the forge, early as it was, and I’d be wanted to work the bellows and lug buckets from the well. Hard work and tedious: already I’d started to wonder, “Is there nothing more to life than this?”
Father was with the customer, an immensely tall man wrapped in a dark cloak. His horse stood in the stall, resting one hind foot. A cast shoe — that explained why he had come so early to the forge.
Unbidden, I scrambled up onto a barrel and reached down one of the pewter tankards hanging from nails in a beam.
“Honoured sir, the morning is cold. May we invite you to take a mug of mulled ale?”
They were the same words Mama always used to customers of quality — until three weeks ago, that was, when the last little brother or sister (no-one had told me which) had been born dead, and she’d stopped doing anything but lie in bed, looking at the wall. But the words felt wrong in my piping, thin voice; the stranger’s winged brows went up and the shadow of a smile crossed his lips.
Still, he responded civilly enough. “I would — so that I have time to drink it with the leisure it deserves. My journey does not permit me to linger without cause.”
He cast a sidelong glance at the forge fire, newly awakened from its overnight banking. Father shrugged and spat, sideways.
“We’ll not be getting aught out of her for a quarter-turn or more. Plenty of time to break your fast.”
The stranger inclined his head. “In that case, my thanks.”
The yard was less intimidating on the way back, perhaps because someone had taken down the shutters over the kitchen window and lit a lamp. Ruth, my eldest sister, stooped over the kitchen fire, bringing it to life. She barely turned her head as I entered.
“Is it a lord? Will he need food?”
“I’m not sure what he is. Whatever we’ve got.”
“Yes, well —” Her expression, that of a harried house-keeper, eking out her stores in the last weeks of winter, was likewise borrowed from Mama. It sat awkwardly on her, too. “I’ll contrive something. Get him his ale, at least, and be smart about it.”
“Ma’am!” I saluted, and vanished into the pantry, where the barrel lay on trestles.
When I returned to the forge the fire had started to blaze; not hot enough yet, even with the bellows, but well on its way. I set the brimming tankard carefully on the bench beside the stranger and said, “Sir, may I take your cloak?”
“Thank you.” The stranger shrugged it off; I staggered beneath the weight of wool and fur. A cylinder of bright metal — gold, I’d thought at the time; brass my later self corrected — clattered down onto the flags. I reached for it, but was forestalled by the stranger’s emphatically placed boot, which stopped the cylinder’s further rolling and all-but concealed it from view. He stooped, picked it up, and tucked it away in some recess within his inner tunic.
“Thank you. But no-one may handle this save I and — one other, when I reach the end of my journey. Whenever that may be.” He turned back to contemplating the furnace fire, as if by staring he could make it burn hotter.
Father jerked his chin in the direction of the bellows. I went to my post.
I’d glimpsed the coat of arms imprinted on the wax seal that covered the cylinder’s end. My memory was sharp. Later today, if the demands of the forge permitted, I could go down to the church, and ask questions. Not that the priest would give me much, but his young curate — gangly, townified, a fish out of water — he might be an easier lemon to squeeze.
Back in the present day I smiled, wryly. Small wonder that young priest had baulked at the question. Even had the cleric known the answer, he could not have unfolded the mystery to an outsider. I’d been five years myself in the mail service before hearing anything more than wild stories about special messages, coming late and out of season, heralded by coded taps on back doors and verified by passwords and counter-signs.
Messages that set armies on the march and brought ducal heads to the block. Messages of fortuitous deaths and calamitous births. Messages that must be couriered by a station-head in person, through whatever perils the road might offer, and given only into the hands of the King.
Such a summons might come only once or twice in a career. (Or never.) If one came, it was fraught with peril. Legend asserted at least two station-heads had died at the hands of a King enraged by the contents of the message-tubes they’d brought him at such cost and effort. (Perhaps the winged-browed stranger had been one of the two. There had been something in the way he had looked into the forge fire which suggested he foresaw no good outcome to his journey.)
But still, to have done it, even if only once, and have the memory to take forward into whatever kind of existence would be left to me, once the mails spat me out —
I reached across my desk to the pile of inventory rolls. Whatever I might regret, the station would be handed over with every brass nail accounted for.
The station sank into night quiet. I added up another column of figures, saw the ink scratches waver on the page, as if about to detach themselves and fly off, and yes, here they were, hovering in a close dark cloud above the paper — odd, how I’d never noticed that habit of theirs before, but, of course, that was because they saved their swarming for the summer evenings, and in other years I’d been out in the garden. Though there must be a swarm outside, too, since they were tapping on the shutters, asking for admittance, but that would be wrong, since if the two swarms mingled then I’d never get the columns to add up, and so couldn’t hand over the station in good order. And yet the swarm outside was getting noisier and noisier. Something would have to be done.
I opened my eyes. The lamp was guttering low, the room in shadow. The stack of papers had left creases on my cheek where I had been leaning on it when I dozed off. The noise, though — the scatter of thrown gravel against the shutters — that was real.
I opened my mouth to shout to whoever it was to go round to the courtyard and ring the bell for the duty sergeant, like a normal person, when the implications hit me.
Late at night. Direct to the station-head’s quarters. A caller come to the window, out of season.
I went over to the shutter. “Who calls?”
“One with urgent need to avail himself of the mails, who requires your uttermost speed and discretion. I ask in the name of St Gabriel, archangel, and in that of his grace the King.”
The answer came so pat that, for a second, I wondered if I still dreamt. I’d had such dreams before, vivid and lifelike in every detail. I pinched myself, hard, on the stringy flesh of my upper arm, and felt authentic pain.
“Sir, my pardons! I shall be with you in a moment.”
Suppose it were a trap? But there was a bell to hand; furthermore, the apprentices and junior couriers were sleeping only the other side of the wall. In any event, you don’t spend your life in the service of the mails without learning a few tricks. I picked up the pewter candlestick, hefting it comfortingly in my hand. If it were some wandering bravo out there (how could such a one have stumbled across those exact words?) he’d get more than he’d bargained for.
The tall, cloaked and hooded figure standing under the door’s overhang was so like another man I caught my breath. Then he was inside, closing the door with a smart kick from one booted heel.
“Forgive me for remaining covered beneath your roof.” His deep, authoritative voice awakened decades-buried memories. “But those who may have an improper interest in the message you carry will be equally inquisitive as to who gave it to you.”
I contrived an off-hand nod, as if the thought I might be captured on the road and put to the question had already arisen and been filed under hazards of the profession. I realised I was still gripping the pewter candle-stick. It clinked as I set it down on a nearby chest.
“I assure you, I pose you no threat.” Amusement was audible in the stranger’s voice. “Save, of course, by the inherent perils of the task I demand.”
“Those fall within my duty. My body and my life, if need be, are owed to the mails.”
“To an abstraction?” The stranger paused, then shrugged. “No matter. Doubtless your abstraction requites you as well as any corporeal master. I suppose, likewise, your abstraction would hold it against you should we omit the formalities. Facilis descensus Averno, noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis.”
For a moment I gaped, and then the routine took over, practised in secret, in darkness, against this very moment. “Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, hoc opus, hic labor est. Yet, sir, if my duty requires it I will carry your message to the very threshold of Hell itself.”
“Only to the threshold?” The sardonic note was back in the stranger’s voice. “Still, one can credit Mycroft the First with having sufficient self-knowledge to approach even so near to the heart of the matter. Are we done? Time is short, and, I assure you, I can sail through any like cantrips you pose for me.”
I did not doubt it. Mindful of the boy who had travelled so long and so far only, it seemed, to circle back to his starting point, I said, “May I invite you to take refreshment?”
“By all means, let us both do so.” Under the shadows of his hood, the stranger’s teeth gleamed white in a brief smile, or perhaps a grimace. “You have a longer ride in prospect than I do. And a harder one. When it comes time to bait your beast, avoid the station houses. Not all those who profess allegiance to your abstraction cleave to it undivided. Furthermore, your face and rank are known. If you take the well-trodden routes, your errand may be surmised. There’s a farm-house or so in the back-hills above the city — unroll your maps, I’ll show you where — that will give you help on your journey. Without question, if you show them this.”
He reached inside his cloak, and pulled out a oblong of stiff fabric; a knife-and-fork case, or something of the sort. It was covered with dense white silk stitching, surprisingly clean for something from a traveller’s pack.
With a certain self-consciousness, I found a square of linen and wrapped it before tucking it inside my own jerkin. The stranger nodded.
“And now, to business. Food, first. Then maps.”
I brought out from the pantry bread and oil; dried ham and cheese and some spring onions pulled that very morning from the soil. The stranger fell to with a focussed intensity only just the polite side of ravening. I ate without appetite but with despatch and efficiency. Who knew when I might have leisure to eat again? One could not delay the King’s own mails by falling faint with hunger, like a green-sick girl.
The meal over and the maps consulted and duly marked, I pulled out a bunch of keys — cherished for years against this very day — and unlocked the inner compartment of the strongbox. Green-sick was about the size of it. My hands trembled so much I fumbled with the lock and then yanked the inner compartment open with a squeal of metal on metal so loud I feared for a moment it would awaken the whole station.
Besides the station-head’s most private and particular seal there were two brass message tubes in there. I pulled one out, contemplated leaving a note to my successor that he needed to acquire some more, recalled there had only been two — these very two — when I had assumed command of the station, and pushed the tube across to the stranger.
The stranger pulled out a bundle of papers from inside his jerkin, tightly rolled and tied with twine. He eased them into the tube, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth when, for a moment, it appeared they were too bulky to fit. Once they were in place he picked up the brass stopper and, with the point of his knife, scratched a few quick runes on its underside before ramming it home.
“Wax, now,” he said crisply.
I blinked. However, the sealing stick was to hand and the lamp lit. It might not have been instant, but within a respectably short time the message tube was sealed and stamped with my particular imprint.
I rose and looked for my boots but the stranger waved me to sit down again. His hood had fallen back slightly; I glimpsed a tousle of black hair.
“There is one more thing. There is a message which must notbe put in writing. You must learn it of me, word for word, and recite it into the ear of the King, yourself, none overhearing you.”
My heart beat hitched, then set off thudding at double speed. It was, I believe, at that very moment when sense and nerves together united, and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the moment I had dreamt of for three-quarters of my life was truly upon me.
I ducked my head, ashamed lest he had spotted the rapture on my face, like a man caught in the very pinnacle of the act of love. When I had control of my voice I said,
“Sir. Teach me.”
Three and a half days later I drew rein at the top of the hill overlooking Gaaldine’s capital. I had been there only twice in my life, the first time in my new-minted livery as station-head, bearing the district’s official and illuminated declaration of loyalty and support to King Rollo on his accession. (The second time had been on more private and less seemly business, extricating Ruth’s youngest from a scrape involving a linen-draper’s so-called widow.)
It was late afternoon. The sun slanted down into the valley, turning all below into a golden haze out of which the clustered spires and towers of the city poked like the fighting tops of ships of war. On the far slope the crenellations of the old castle glowered down, magnificent even in ruin. There, to my right, the white painted walls, coppered roofs and abundant pleasure grounds of the Palace sprawled across the hill’s flank, down to the curling gold snake of the river, which lay pinned across the valley floor by its famous seven bridges.
I inhaled and set my shoulders to a parade-ground posture, wincing. It was long since I had ridden hard for days on end. Further, even when young and supple, I had never borne such a terrible load. Since I had accepted the message I had managed less than half a turn’s sleep at a time, all racked with nightmares of loss and theft. When I woke, which was often, it was to the pain of fingers cramped round the tube’s smooth circumference.
Even during waking hours my burden cast a strange film over my eyes. As an active rider my chief pleasure had been in the bustle and jostle of the road, with its endless pageant of fellow-travellers.
They were all there still: the pilgrims and wandering scholars, goodwives carrying ducks, chickens and cheese to market, shaggy-ponied traders from across the mountains, and, here and there, the odd camel, picking up its great splay-toed feet with a dowager’s disdain for the dust beneath. Nevertheless, I saw everything through a distorting glass. Those carters, cursing each other to Hell and back with the ease of long fellowship: had not their eyes lingered a little too knowingly on me? That old priest of the Orthodox church, ambling along on a mule which knew the road so well its rider could remain absorbed in his Greek testament: was he truly only interested in the fruits of the spirit or was he reckoning on the bodily rewards he would earn should he bring my message to the Patriarch of Constantinople?
That cursed brass tube took all savour from my meat; all refreshment from my rest; all charity from my relations with my fellow man. The thought of it galled my mind, and its physical presence my skin. I carried it in a leather bag around my neck. Before the first day was out the strap had rubbed a raw place, despite all I could do to pad it with my kerchief.
Salt sweat trickled down from my brow and stung in the wound. As the jogging minutes turned to hours, the prickle of discomfort became slowly and steadily unendurable, like the torment devised by some especially subtle demon to requite a very particular sin. Eating with one’s mouth open, say, and spitting half-chewed gobbets across the common table with each ill-timed guffaw. (Thank the Virgin, Norris was the new man’s trial, now.)
During that interminable ride every old courier’s trick I’d learnt to ward off saddle-soreness had proved themselves insufficient for a courier this old. The stench and stains of some of those failed remedies (“a beefsteak, applied good and raw to the arse” being chief among them) was thick even in my accustomed nostrils. In less than half a turn I would be in the presence of the King.
Even as I articulated that thought to myself, I still did not believe it. His grace would be away from the capital on progress — he would be indisposed to hear me, no matter how fervently I made my case — something would prevent the consummation of this mission.
Which was why it came as a great anti-climax that the guard at the gate merely saluted and said, “At once, sir!” when I presented myself, recited my rank and station and said, “Here on privy business, pray refer me to your commanding officer.”
When I repeated the same formula to the officer of the day, his brows went up but, rather than the expected challenge, he rose and beckoned a page boy.
“Tell Mr Secretary Fullerton we have a courier. A privy courier.”
After a short wait — the officer did not offer me a seat and, since I feared that if I once sank down I should never rise again, I did not ask it — a short, fussy little personage in black brocade robes appeared, steel spectacles perched on his nose.
“Well, well, I am led to believe you carry an important and highly secret missive. I am the secretary to the King’s own Council. Give it over, then.”
I stiffened my posture, gritting my teeth against the resultant ache. My features set into a mask. I made my voice equally stiff and wooden.
“Sir, as I have already said, more than once, I am here on privy business. Pray refer me to your commanding officer.”
He made a fussy little “tsk, tsk” noise. “Young man, did you not hear what I just said? I am the secretary to the King’s own Council. In short, I answer only to his grace himself.”
Young man? Every muscle in my body could give him the lie direct. Though when it came to relative ages — well, there could only be five or ten years between us, but this Fullerton had the air of a man born prematurely aged. I could snap him like a dry twig — if only I were not so tired.
With an effort, I avoided swaying on the spot. “Quite, sir. As, in this matter, do I.” For the first time, I raised my hand to the slight bulge beneath my shirt-front. “I carry that which must only be placed into the hands of the King’s grace himself. Himself alone.”
“Ah,” Fullerton breathed. “One of those. Well, I suppose it explains the smell — as far as that can be explained, at all events. Well, in that case, follow me.”
He set off at a brisk pace, which I would have found challenging even if I had been the young man he had chosen to consider me. As it was, my much-tried legs could barely support me as I followed hard on his silk-pantofled heels.
We went down, always down, through a maze of sloping corridors, and multiple flights of broad, shallow steps. The Palace walls stayed smooth and dry. I extended fingers either side from time to time, in order to make sure. That was the only assurance I had that I was not being dragged into the bowels of the earth. Even then, my imagination flung up visions of palace intrigues: my mission failing even at the gates of success and me cast away into some oubliette at the roots of the Palace, to rot in the dark, screaming my message forever to the unhearing stones.
To the relief of my loudly protesting joints, we at length arrived at a solid, undistinguished oak door. I barely resisted the urge to prop myself upright against its frame. Fullerton shot me a beady glance above the steel frame of his spectacles, as one who should say he’d expected no better of me, before knocking.
The door was opened by a burly, bald-headed man wearing nothing but a pair of loose cotton trousers and a pair of sandals. Fullerton behaved as if this attire was entirely unexceptionable. Perhaps, at Court, it was. Without a word, he led me through into a sparsely furnished but elegant reception chamber, with olive-wood benches lining the walls and a richly-inlaid polished floor.
“Strip, please,” he said, tossing the words back over his shoulder as he made for another door at the far end of the windowless chamber.
“What? I — “
Without acknowledging my protest, Fullerton passed on into the farther room. The burly man walked closer to me, stretching out his hands with an implacable air. I surrendered to the inevitable. It even made sense, not giving me an opportunity to approach the King with concealed weapons.
Guided by the burly one’s gestures, I stripped completely: socks, under-drawers and all. Shedding those sticky, stinking garments was, truly, a pure relief. I retained only the leather bundle about my neck, into which, after a moment’s hesitation, I slid the white linen bundle containing the stranger’s embroidered token. It had, as promised, stood me as passport on the journey south. In these trebly strange surroundings I had no intention of giving up any slight talisman I possessed.
The burly man lifted the bag on its leather strap and looked inside — I tensed — but on seeing the sealed cap of the message tube gave a nod, as if to indicate all was explained. He let the bag fall, handed me a cotton wrap to swathe my nakedness, then gestured towards the further door. It opened before I could touch the handle. Fullerton, wearing an unreadable expression, whisked out past me. A ham-sized palm between my shoulder-blades propelled me into the dim interior of the room beyond. The door closed and I was on my own.
On my own, of course, being a relative expression.
I found myself in a steamy, aromatic space, lit dimly by oil lamps hanging from brackets half-way up the walls. A stone bench had been built into the walls or perhaps carved out of them: it ran the whole way round the room, except where it was interrupted by marble basins which jutted out and into which water ran endlessly through bronze lions’ heads with ever-open jaws.
In the centre of the room was a marble plinth, perhaps three feet high and fifteen square. Towards the nearer edge of it a naked man was lying prone. Two more muscular men, dressed (or undressed) like the one who had granted me admission, stood close beside the plinth. One held a shallow pan of some bright metal; the other, a thin cotton bag, from which white soapsuds dripped.
I had, it was quite apparent, been brought into the Palace bath-house.
“Ah,” the man on the slab said, raising his head the barest fraction. “You bear a message, I believe.”
Absurd as it felt, given my near-nakedness and his absolute embodiment of the state, I drew myself up into a parade-ground posture.
“Sir, my message is for the ears and eyes only of the King.”
He might — it was hard to tell in the gloom — have rolled his eyes at me. “Then I am happy to inform you that you’ve reached your objective. Oh, do catch up.”
He gestured, and the two attendants urged me forward. I dropped stiffly to my knees beside the slab. I had not planned it that way, but it brought us eye to eye. At this angle I could be in no doubt. The features of the man on the slab were replicated several times over — though not as often as I might have wished — in the contents of my purse.
“Your grace — I — ” My hand went to the leather bag round my neck, and I extracted the brass tube, extending it towards him. He regarded it, then blinked with an exaggerated weariness.
“My good man, you can’t break the seal on that in here; the ink would run.” He paused, considering. “That is, I take it there are papers in that?”
What else would there be? Just in time, it occurred to me that the King would have more knowledge of the possible contents of his couriers’ brass tubes than I.
“Well, we’ll come to them in due course. Oh, do get up.”
That proved easier said than done. My joints had locked; it took all the efforts both of me and of one of the burly attendants to get me even into a sitting position on the edge of the slab. The King looked me up and down and appeared to come to a decision. “Lie over there.”
It was the far corner to the one on which he lay, on the diagonal. To be fair, I suspected this was less his grace standing on his Royal dignity and more a perfectly reasonable desire to put as much distance between him and me, given my current state.
This suspicion was reinforced when one of the muscular bath-men gestured pointedly for me to roll over on my front and, on my doing so, began scooping water over me with great vigour. As the King made no objection, I could only assume it was at his direction or, at least, with his approval, which came to the same thing.
“Now,” his grace pronounced, when I was in the undignified position of being smothered completely in suds, “can you tell me anything about the messenger who handed you the — whatever it is you’ve brought here?”
“Your grace!” I jerked my head up and then grimaced as it caught my neck at an awkward angle. The bath-man gave a grunt of disapprobation and pushed me back down to the slab again. He commenced pummelling my back; a delicious agony as he beat out every kink in my much tried muscles.
“Yes?” The King’s voice had almost no inflection, yet even within the steamy heat of the bath-house I felt a cold chill down the remnants of my spine. That one as lowly as I had dared think of crossing his will —
I chose my next words with extreme care. “Sir — we are not alone. I was told — by that messenger — that what I had to say I must say only to your ears, sir.”
“And so you are. And so you do.” His voice was muffled; his face resting on his forearms while his own body received the other bath-man’s attentions. “These attendants cannot hear us.”
He paused. All the rumours I had heard about the Sultan mutilating his servants to fit them for specialised duties galloped through my brain. But in Gaaldine? I buried my own head on my hands, lest my expression betray me.
The King’s voice resumed, mellifluous but with a hint of steel.
“Burst eardrums are a surprisingly common fate in war. Especially for those serving as gunner’s mates or the like. And you would surely not have the Crown abandon subjects so grievously injured in Our campaigns?”
It was not, thank the Virgin, a question expecting an answer. Nevertheless, my sense of chill deepened. It might not be the deliberate bodily outrages practised by the Sultan. Nevertheless, there was something a trifle inhuman about going through lists of the wounded to find those whose injuries might be turned to account — or, more likely, having that cold fish Fullerton do it.
As calculating, perhaps, as arranging to meet a privy messenger in a bath-house.
I absorbed that thought. The longer my mind lingered on it, the more unpleasant the implications
Despite the King’s carefully staged informality, inside this bath-house I was more completely within his power than if he’d received me in full state at a grande levée. Why, without my under-drawers, I couldn’t even run away (if my protesting limbs could be brought to contemplate such a motion ever again in this world). By my own demands I had ensured that only three people besides those in the bath-house even knew of my presence in the Palace.
If I disappeared, my absence would occasion less curiosity than pity. A station-head on the eve of retirement, vanishing into the night rather than see his lifetime’s work in the hands of another? It might occasion a day or so’s comment in the service, but certainly no surprise.
My hesitation trespassed too far upon the King’s patience, it appeared.
“Sir. You asked about the messenger who entrusted his papers to me and bade me bring them only to you. He did not let me see his face — he remained covered under my roof.” In case this sounded a trifle weak, I added, “He appeared to have the greatest familiarity with — with the appropriate passwords and countersigns. Indeed he seemed almost —”
I cut myself off. The unknown messenger had brought me my heart’s desire, no matter how double-edged it had proved. Also, part of my mind still associated him with that other messenger, who must also have been bound for the Palace on “privy business” and whose bones now lay who knew where?
Too late. The King had reared up on his forearms and was looking straight at me, with a look that no dissembler could hope to withstand. Not and live.
His voice dropped to a purr. “Complete your sentence, courier. Precisely as originally intended.”
It would do no good to protest that intention had very little to do with whatever might come out of my mouth in these circumstances.
“Um. Sir — your grace — I had proposed to say, ‘He seemed almost contemptuous’ — not, that is, of the message, nor indeed of the need for secrecy, nor of the honour of serving the Crown, most assuredly not —” (I had no such confidence, and suspected the King knew it, but he let it pass) ” — but of the formalities, as if he had gone through them many times before.”
“Had he, indeed? Go on. As precisely as you remember.”
“Sir, I have little to relate. He warned me to have care not to change horses at the station-houses — he said (sir, I repeat only what I was told) — um — ‘Not all those who profess allegiance to your abstraction cleave to it undivided’.”
“‘Your abstraction’? Oh, the mail service. I see. Cynical both as to the necessary procedures and as to the institution itself. Very bad. Proceed.”
I spared a ghost of a prayer for the unknown messenger, both that he would escape the King’s wrath for his presumption and, to the extent that he didn’t, would not lay too great a share of blame on me for it.
“He made me learn a message, sir. One he would not commit to paper, and which he insisted I might only convey to your ear alone.”
“Did he, indeed?” the King breathed. “Well, by all means. Let me not hinder you further. Let me have it.”
For one appalling, endless moment my mind went completely blank. I could no more have recalled the message than made an address to the Great Khan in his own tongue. My mouth dropped open and my eyes cast frantically about for inspiration. Thank the Virgin, a chance alignment of the bath-house tiles called to mind how the kitchen floor of my quarters had looked that night. On the instant the message was back in the forefront of memory, polished and entire as if carved out of holly wood.
I took a deep breath.
“Whence came it? Of the old wolf’s last getting.
Where should it lie? In the halls of his fathers.
Where was the sun? It swam on the water.
Where was the blossom? White on the thorn.
Where was the shadow? Dark on the hearthstone.
How was it stepped?
North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one; all under the rose.
Who brings it home? The one who sees clearly.
Why must they bring it? For the sake of the land.”
I trailed to the end. The King blinked, once.
“So he insisted you learn it by heart, did he? Well, what did you make of it?”
I could have said it was not my place to make anything of it. That would have been a properly servile answer; maybe even the one he expected of me. During my time in the mails, it had never paid to exercise curiosity about the contents of the mail satchels. But the King had already proved himself no fool and I had been days on the road, with nothing else to think of. Worse, by far, than an admission of improper curiosity would be a lie. Worse still a clumsy lie.
“It — it seems to be directions for finding something, sir.”
“So it does.” Thankfully, he elected not to question me on what the something might be; the curious shifting of pronouns in the verse in question had left me with queasy suspicions on that head. “Though you will, of course, have noted the large flaw in those directions.”
I had, of course. “It leaves out where one should begin the search, sir.”
“Quite so.” He looked across at the bench on which the leather bag containing the message tube rested. “I hardly suspect your informant of anything so unsubtle” (he made the word sound like an oath) “as putting it into the message tube. Far too simple. Far too official. Especially for someone who insisted you avoid the station houses because he couldn’t trust the mails.”
“Oh!” I sprawled round on the slab, slithering like a landed fish. “He did give me something — that is, sir, it’s only an embroidered pen-case or such —”
A pen-case which had immediately caused doors, stables and larders to be opened to me without question in a couple of remote farms in the hills above the city, nevertheless. I silently cursed myself for a fool.
“And do you have it with you?” the King enquired, his voice cool but with strain audibly leaking through. I nodded towards the leather pouch.
“I brought it in with me, sir.”
He sat up and gestured eloquently and very fast with his fingers. The bath-man who had been washing him bowed, then picked up the pouch and extracted the white linen wrapped packet. He handed it to the King, and without waiting for further instructions unhooked one of the oil lamps and held it close besides him. He stroked the pen-case surface with his thumb and then gave a small grunt; whether surprise or satisfaction I couldn’t tell.
I inclined my head in his direction. For a moment he appeared to think of putting it away, but then he nodded, as if acknowledging a point made by someone invisible. “Well, you’ve carried it. You could have read it any time; that is, if you’d taken the time to observe. Observe now.”
He passed the case towards me. It seemed the same as ever: a stiff rectangle, covered on both sides in dense white embroidery. Then I saw how the light was falling on different stitches differently, bent my eye closer and the message — done in stitching set at a slightly different angle to the lie of the other embroidery — leapt out at me.
“De profundis clamavi ad te,” I read. “‘Out of the deeps have I called unto you’.”
The King exhaled and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. It was, indeed, extraordinarily steamy in here. It must have been pooled sweat I saw him wipe from the corner of his eyes.
After a moment, in a rather more subdued voice than he had used before, he said, “Gondalian whitework, but not the work of an expert, if I judge correctly. Though perhaps the product someone with a great facility for mimicry, who’s often seen such an expert at work …Thank you.”
That shook me. I had not expected thanks — I had, in truth, not expected any of this.
The King rose. I caught at my cotton wrap and rose too.
“We should repair somewhere where I may look inside that tube. It may have more importance even than I had thought.”
The bath-men towelled us down and led the way through yet another door of the ante-chamber, this time into a sunny relaxation room, with fretwork screens over windows which let in a refreshing breeze and couches on which we could cool ourselves.
The King broke the seal on the tube and, after a moment’s frowning consideration of the runes on the underside of the stopper, extracted the bundle of papers. These he perused with care, a slight, twisted, amused smile about his lips. After some time he raised his head.
“Did this weigh you down on your journey?”
Again, instinct told me to tell the full truth. “Indeed, sir, very much.” I raised my hand to the chafed place on my neck. “You can see the marks it left.”
Though not the inner ones.
The King smiled. “Small wonder. You were bringing me a fortress.”
A fortress? But there was no point in asking more; the King’s face told me as much. In any event, I suspected him of using the indiscretion as a cloak. However heavy the secret contained within the brass tube, the real message had been transmitted earlier, in the bathhouse itself. I might in due course hear of a fortress taken by storm or some attainted lord giving up its keys, and guess I had played some small part in bringing that to pass.
De profundis clamavi ad te. I would never hear the truth of that, this side of the Day of Judgement. And, judging by the King’s face, it was safer so.
In any event, he was gesturing towards the windows. “You were fortunate in not having your ride delayed. There are thunderclouds massing over the hills; we shall have a storm very soon, I gauge.”
He had turned to talking of the weather; most certainly I was being warned away from speculation. I groped for a suitable response.
“It was a very dusty ride,” I essayed. “Rain to slake the dust will be welcome.”
The King nodded. “And, doubtless, you will have been concerned for your fruit trees, given this long dry spell. Apprentices with buckets can only do so much, one imagines. And it must be tedious, ensuring they don’t water plants while the sun is still on them and shrivel all together. Though maybe, now, when they learn where they are going, the apprentices read up on gardening, in advance?”
“You’ve heard of my garden?” I said, dumbfounded, and then, belatedly, “Sir.”
“Ah, yes,” the King said. “From time to time, at the appropriate season, one or other of the Royal messengers procures me a basket of your apricots. Very fine. An insipid fruit, often, but you must do something special in cultivating yours.”
I tried not to let my feelings show. I’m a man brought up to hate waste. By and large, I’ve found my colleagues in the mails to be of like mind. So I’d espaliered the apricot bushes along the wall bordering the burial plot next to the station-house. They got sunshine there, protection from rough winds and all the nourishment they needed from the soil — rather more than they needed, in sickly seasons.
Belatedly, it occurred to me that this was not the sort of information those who ate the fruit had any pressing need (or, doubtless, desire) to know.
The King gave a small sigh. “Your work has more in common with mine than you think, gardener. Has it not occurred to you that kings, too, do much of their work on the backs of corpses? Though rarely with such sweet or unblemished outcomes.”
Rumour had always credited the Royal house of Gaaldine with having the Devil’s own faculty for seeing into the thoughts of men. I had never thought to witness it for myself. Still, it was but one shock among the many I’d suffered that day. Perhaps I was becoming inured.
He eyed me a little longer. After a moment, he sighed again.
“Secrets, like fruit, spoil sooner than you might think. Often the most-prized intelligence is that which spoils the fastest.”
I nodded. So it was with wild strawberries. You had to eat them before sunset on the day on which they were picked, otherwise they had the taste and texture of wisps of wool.
“The principal part of the news you brought is of that kidney,” the King continued. “However, while it remains fresh, it is an object which many will pursue without scruple. Without any scruple.”
Cold dread coiled in my gut. Still, I had my pride. As I had to the hooded stranger, I said, “My body and my life, if need be, are owed to the mails.”
The King’s eyebrows arched. With a horrible sucking sensation in the pit of my stomach, I realised in my heedless insistence on proclaiming my own honour, I had slighted his grace.
“Sir, my pardons, I — in the heat of the moment my tongue outran me —”
He raised a silencing hand. “Spare me. You are overlooking the obvious. Most men do. Whatever you conceive you owe to the mails, as of —” He looked at the big German clock on a side table. “As of twenty-five turns ago, they owe you nothing.”
Had he been a man of lesser rank, I would have struck him down where he stood. A lie cannot cut deeper or leave a more ragged and festering wound than those truths a man has spent years concealing from himself.
The mails had given me companions, a garden, a hope. The companions would doubtless think of me occasionally, but not trouble to seek me out. Nor would I be one of those revenants I’d encountered over the years, who haunted the station-houses, unable to relinquish their last shreds of connection with the mails, laughed at by the apprentices behind their backs.
The garden was now someone else’s. As for the hope, it had been fulfilled beyond expectation.
Odd, how that last hurt even more than the first two.
I closed my eyes. There was no point in either anger or fear. I had come to the end of myself, and that was that. What became of the husk was of no account.
I heard a door open and then close again.
“Time you were dressed and on your way,” the King said.
I opened my eyes to find a pile of freshly laundered clothing beside my couch. Not my own: they were of finer materials than any I could have bought myself. Not gaudy, though. They displayed the sober good taste of a gentleman in easy circumstances, who had no inclination to make a splash.
“On my way?” My tongue was thick in my mouth. I wondered, with more than a tinge of horror, if I had in fact allowed myself to doze off in the Royal presence.
“Why, yes. I have no intention of allowing your intelligence to fall ripe into the hands of others, however little care you may have for your own safety. As it so happens, a dear friend of mine has recently come into possession of a country estate. Good land, so I am assured, but over recent years sadly neglected. And, in some parts, worse than neglected. The pleasure grounds, for instance — ” The King permitted himself a shudder.
I winced in sympathy. I could picture them. The current fashion for formal gardens laid out after the French manner required not merely a very precise eye for aesthetics but an army of highly trained gardeners and a very great deal of money. Further, I had never heard of any way of dealing with a bungled formal garden project except by cutting one’s losses and starting again.
The King continued on, ruminatively. “And my friend has very little experience with the management of land, and is, in any event, not from these parts and so unfamiliar with our climate and its possibilities.”
I saw my road unfolding before me. “It would seem in such circumstances, sir, that it might be wise to take counsel from one who has experience?”
The King’s teeth gleamed white as he smiled. It reminded me vaguely of something, but the memory evaded me. “Quite so. Given the mails have finished with your services, might I trouble you to spend a few weeks — a month or so — in giving my friend that counsel?”
It was the King; it was not, therefore, a request. Especially not given the sub-text. No-one would look for a messenger who might have secrets to spill in some obscure country estate.
But it was, after all, a garden. More than a garden. A Prospect. A mess to be put to rights.
I bowed very low. “Your grace, the pleasure will be all mine.”