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The high, shrill scream of a young boy rose through the house, and Lissa leapt out the door of her chamber and down the stairs so fast that she was at the entrance before her husband's sons could come from the workroom behind the shop. The servant boy was pressed back against the door he had just opened, straining away from the body that had tumbled in when its support had been removed. Screams rose in Lissa also, but terror bound her throat too tight to free them. Not only was Peter dead, but he had been tortured.
Lissa put out her hand and clutched at the screaming boy's shoulder, more to steady herself than to silence the child, but he turned and buried his face in her skirt and was still. In the next moment she was thrust roughly aside.
"God! God!" Her eldest son-by-law's voice was thick with grief and shaking with fear, but he grasped his father's shoulders and ordered, "Edmond, help me."
The younger son bent to lift his father's feet, then uttered a muffled cry and turned aside to retch as the legs bent unnaturally. Lissa gasped and looked away, freed by the sickness that nearly overwhelmed her from staring at her husband's mutilated body. In turn, the sickness was reduced to insignificance by a new wave of horror. Had her father committed this crime?
"Out of the way," young Peter snarled, pushing Lissa back into the shop and breaking her hold on the servant boy. "Go up to your chamber and stay there, you fool."
He turned away from Lissa then and growled something about "the guard coming before—" at his brother, but Lissa fled up the stairs without really listening. The notion that had seized her was too dreadful, too powerful, to allow room for any other problems.
Lissa had never completely understood why her father had forced her to marry Peter, a man thirty years older than herself and with two grown sons to be his heirs. Had her husband been childless, the marriage would have made some kind of sense because Peter de Flael was a skilled and successful goldsmith and very rich. Then, had she conceived a child, his wealth would have been hers and her child's when he died, which could not be many years in the future in the natural course of events. But with two young and healthy heirs already alive, the possession of Peter's wealth could not have been her father's purpose.
Lissa could almost have believed her father had arranged the marriage out of sheer spite, to punish her for periodically demanding that he find her a husband who could be a good partner for her after he died. But her father had transferred to Peter's control a far greater dowry than Lissa had ever expected to bring a husband. Of course, everything her father had would be hers eventually, since she was his only heir, but William Bowles was not the man to unloose his grasp on half a farthing while he was alive, much less the hundred marks he had paid over to Peter. Although Lissa still did not know the specific reason for the marriage, she had finally concluded that it was part of some business arrangement—and that Peter had somehow cheated her father.
It was all she could think of as she fled up the stairs and stood just inside the door of the solar with her arms crossed tightly over her breast, as if the grip could hold back her shudders of fear and revulsion. Peter had cheated William Bowles, and now Peter was dead.
Then Lissa closed her eyes and swallowed hard. I am a fool, just as young Peter said, she told herself firmly. I am building a whole castle of guilt out of two pebbles—two quarrels that I did not even hear clearly nor understand. She deliberately relaxed her arms, let her hands drop, and took a deep breath. Then she tried to fix her mind on what she must do next, but there was little to do. She could not even lay Peter out yet. Surely the alderman's officers would want to see him as he was when they found him.
She had not heard anyone go out to inform the alderman of the evil that had befallen their household, but Lissa did not doubt that young Peter would by now have sent Edmond. She thought she had been too locked into her own private horror to notice, and the question of her father's involvement rose again, but she fixed her mind on what her sons-by-marriage should be doing and what they might forget. Would Edmond have the sense to fetch a priest after he notified the alderman? But Peter was long dead. Would the priest be willing to shrive him? Would he be refused burial in consecrated ground if he was not shriven? Tears stung in Lissa's eyes. Poor Peter! Poor man, to come to such an end! No, she would not permit that. If young Peter and Edmond would not do it, she would find a priest who would say he believed Peter had been shriven and who would allow burial in holy ground.
She sobbed twice and then wiped her eyes. Lissa was sorry for Peter, grieved by the terrible death he had suffered, but she did not pretend to herself that she felt great sorrow at having lost him. She had not wanted to marry him, and they had not been man and wife for long enough to build affection. What was more, she no longer believed Peter had loved her, as she had thought when she was first told of the marriage. In fact, by now she had not the faintest idea why he had married her, although she had assumed when her father had ordered the marriage that Peter had proposed it because he desired her. The pleasant delusion had been supported at first by the exquisite betrothal gift Peter had sent—a necklet of golden dolphins with emerald eyes, leaping through a foam of tiny pearls. And the box in which the necklet had been presented was almost as beautiful as the gift itself, all carved and inset with different perfumed woods.
The gift had all but reconciled Lissa to the marriage, although she had had renewed doubts when she realized that Peter had added virtually nothing to the large dowry her father had provided. But at the wedding Lissa thought she had discovered the reason for that. It seemed that Peter had paid directly to her father what he should have added to her dowry. Lissa had been furious with William, but not with Peter, who had seemed willing to give up what he had the right to hold in trust for her and use himself until he died.
Because of Peter's seeming eagerness to have her, Lissa had thought that despite his age the marriage might be a good thing for her. It would be a pleasant change to live with a man who valued her. Her father had not. He had never forgiven her or her mother for the fact that she had been born a female. William had found her too useful to mistreat, even after her mother had died—and he was afraid of her uncles, who had beaten him nearly to death for striking her mother—but his cold distaste for her had never changed.
What would she do now that Peter was dead? She did not think she could stay in his house for more than a few days after his burial. Peter's sons hated her—and she did not know why that was so either. Perhaps they believed she would try to turn their father against them, but they must have known that was impossible. During the month she and Peter had been away at his small estate near Canterbury, she had come to realize that Peter did not love her at all.
She would have to go back to her father's house. Lissa found her hands were trembling and her whole body was ice cold. She discovered suddenly that she had not rid her mind of the fear that her father had done this dreadful thing. But the idea was ridiculous. Her father could not have done it. He was too fearful, too cautious, to take such measures no matter how great his rage and resentment. More likely it was that friend of his, Hubert de Bosco, who had been somehow involved in her father's relationship with Peter. Lissa shuddered again, one hand creeping up to press against her lips as she imagined the pain and terror her husband must have suffered at de Bosco's hands.
A scratch at the door made her jump and gasp. She whirled to face it, her eyes wide with fear, but when the scratch was repeated, she realized it was far too soft to herald the arrival of her sons-by-law. Neither of them would have been so gentle. It must be the maid, who had been roused and come in from the hut in the back. Peter had never permitted servants to live in the house because he feared they would steal the gold and jewels he kept. They were locked in strongboxes, but he had not considered that sufficient protection—not even against the old woman who had come with his first wife and served him for so many years.
"Come in." The words sounded in her mind, but only a faint croak passed her lips. Lissa cleared her throat and tried again. "Come in."
The door swung in, but the face that peered fearfully around it was not that of the maid. It was Witta, the little boy she had brought with her from her father's house because she was so sure her father would drive him out. She had found the child half starved and nearly frozen in a doorway. Although she knew it was foolish, that he might be a thief or an apprentice who had been dismissed by his master for bad behavior, she had taken him in. He would not tell her how he had come to be there, only his name, Witta, and he had sworn again and again that he was not a thief or a runaway but an honest boy looking for work.
The child's eyes were still enormous, and he was shaking. Instinctively, Lissa drew him in and patted his shoulder. "It is dreadful, but there is nothing for us to fear," she said, not really believing it. "Has the alderman sent his men? Am I wanted?"
"Master Peter never sent for the alderman," Witta whispered. "He and Master Edmond have harnessed the horse to the cart and carried out the strongboxes. I think they are going away."
"Going away?" Lissa repeated unbelievingly. "But their father—" She stopped because it was ridiculous to repeat what she and the boy both knew, that Peter had been cruelly murdered and it was incredible that the sons would do nothing. "Where is Master Peter—my husband?"
"They left him lying on the floor." The boy's chin trembled and he could not continue.
Lissa put both hands to her head and squeezed as if the pressure could push out what she had heard. She knew Witta could not be lying, but she could not believe what he said either. Her impulse was to rush down and see for herself what was happening, but she was afraid. And what could she do? Peter and Edmond would pay no attention to what she said and might be tempted to silence her so she could not set anyone on their trail.
"Quick," she said to the boy, "if they are in the back, go out the front. Run to Alderman Goscelin's house. I am sure he will remember that you are my servant. Tell him that Master Peter has been murdered, and—"
"And about young Master Peter and Edmond running away?" Witta asked, a malicious gleam diluting the fear in his eyes.
"N-no. No, do not say anything about them."
Lissa knew that young Peter and Edmond had relieved some of their rage over their father's marriage by tormenting the servant of their new mother-by-marriage. She kept the boy out of their way as much as possible, but, quite naturally, he disliked them. That knowledge suddenly presented Lissa with a much more rational explanation of their behavior than the one Witta had suggested and she, because she was still shaken, had accepted.
"You are a silly boy," she went on, more briskly and with a chiding note in her voice. "Master Peter and Master Edmond are not going away. I am sure they only wish to remove the strongboxes to a safe place. But I still think it wrong not to tell the alderman at once what has happened. Perhaps there was someone in the street who would remember men who passed bearing a burden, or perhaps someone heard a noise and looked out. Such memories might be lost and with them any clue to—"
Lissa stopped speaking abruptly and bit her lip. Did she want any clue to Peter's murderer discovered? What if the clue led—she did not finish the thought, just pushed the boy gently out of the room, whispering, "Go. Go."
She must put any notion of her father's or de Bosco's involvement out of her mind. Why should she blame them because of one small incident? It was true she had been surprised when her father had invited de Bosco to her wedding. Surprised, at least, until right after the ceremony when she had seen her father and his coarse and brutal friend hem Peter in, one on each side, and draw him away from the guests. That was when she guessed that her father had given her to Peter as part of some business arrangement from which he expected extraordinary profit, enough profit to compensate him for the loss of her services and her large dowry. She had also guessed that Peter was to fulfill his part immediately and that de Bosco was her timid father's threat.
It had annoyed Lissa that her father could not wait until they left the church. She felt her husband should remain beside her at that moment, and she had watched them through the group of well-wishers surrounding her and had seen Peter pass something into her father's hand. But surely that had been the money or jewels that should have been pledged to enlarge her dower portion. There must have been something missing from whatever Peter handed over, perhaps one particularly valuable jewel or some talisman that would open new trading sources or markets. Yes, that was reasonable and would explain both the arguments and that insane scene as she and Peter were on their way to Canterbury, when her father demanded they come to his house, insisted that she strip naked, and ordered his mistress to examine her clothing, even search through her hair.
Lissa's lower lip crept between her teeth again, but the grip was gentle, a sign of thought rather than fear. Considering her father's harelike nature and de Bosco's boarlike one, was it not far more likely that de Bosco had acted on his own if he had killed Peter? Doubtless he had had hopes of obtaining what Peter had promised her father and withheld. William was far more likely to lay a complaint with the king's justiciar and sue Peter than try to do him physical harm. Her eyes gleamed briefly and she released her lower lip to purse both in contemplation, but then she sighed and shook her head. No, her first idea was best: She must put both de Bosco and her father out of her mind. She was aware of William's cowardice, but others might not know how deep it ran, and any hint of de Bosco's connection to Peter's murder would lead right back to her father.
Besides, there was no necessary connection. Now that her shock had passed and she was able to think again, it was clear that if Peter had cheated her father, he had probably cheated others too. And there was the matter of usury as well. Perhaps Peter had lent money at too-high interest and some poor soul trapped by his greed had become desperate enough and bitter enough to want Peter to suffer agony as well as death. Lissa did not know for certain that Peter was a usurer, but nearly all goldsmiths lent money at interest—they called it a "fee" for their services, since usury was a sin. Cynically Lissa wondered if they thought changing the name of what they did could fool God. She hated that part of the goldsmiths' trade as much as she loved the beauty they created with their skill.
She had been dreading the day when Peter would demand that she take up her share of the burden of the business. Unable to think of any other reason for Peter to have decided on her as a bride once she realized her husband did not have a grand passion for her, Lissa had assumed it was for her skills as a keeper of accounts in addition to the ordinary womanly accomplishments. She had not feared the work—she had loved every part of her duties as her father's assistant, although she would have preferred a few compliments instead of constant complaints. Buying and selling she found fascinating, but she could not rid herself of the idea that charging a fee for lending money to someone already unfortunate enough to be unable to pay his expenses was a dishonest way to make a profit. She had not wanted to be responsible for keeping accounts of such transactions.
Lissa's wandering mind was recalled to the fact of her husband's death when, faintly, she heard the groan of an axle and the gritty noise of wheels on stone. She ran to the back of the chamber and loosened the shutter on the window so that she could open it a crack and peer out. Young Peter was on the two-wheel cart that was used mostly to move household goods from the London house to the one in Canterbury. The horse was just passing out of the gate into the alley that ran along the walled garden to a lane connecting Bread Street and Friday Street. Edmond was waiting by the gate, and he shut it as soon as the tail of the cart passed through.
Lissa was surprised by the sense of relief she felt as Peter and Edmond disappeared before the alderman's officers arrived. She was a little ashamed of it, but she wanted a chance to tell her side of the story first. Not that there was much to tell, she thought, if she did not wish to implicate her father. She must say—and then Lissa realized that she was in no condition to say anything to anyone. She was still wearing her bed robe; she was unwashed, and her hair was undone. And that realization made her conscious of the absence of the maid. The old woman resented her for having replaced her original mistress, but she had performed her duties efficiently if grudgingly.
Could the woman be afraid to come past Peter's body? Witta had said the sons had left it just lying on the floor. Lissa tightened her muscles against a new spate of shivering. It was wrong. Her husband had not cared for her as she first believed, but he had not been cruel when he had taken her maidenhead, and he had been courteous, if cool, in the six weeks they had been married. It was wrong for her to leave him without dignity in his death, sprawled, all twisted...Her hand flew to her mouth as a memory of Peter's broken limbs sent a wave of nausea through her, but she gritted her teeth and started down the stairs.
Peter lay in the shop, on the floor, as Witta had said, but at least he had been decently covered. A shaken sigh eased out of Lissa, and she came down the rest of the stairs. She glanced quickly around the room, but the maid was not anywhere to be seen, and there was no sound from the workroom. Lissa made a wide detour around the body, almost running through the workroom and out the back door. The kitchen shed was as empty as the house, however, and Lissa stopped.
Where could the woman be, she wondered. She had not gone with Peter and Edmond. Had she run away? In blank bewilderment Lissa's eyes swept over the winter-blasted garden, pausing suddenly at the door of the hut in which Witta and the maid slept. There was a stick lodged against the door, which opened outward, locking the maid in. Furious and shivering with cold, Lissa ran through the garden and pulled away the stick.
"Come out, Binge," she called, pulling the door wide, and as the maid came forward, frowning, her lips tight with rage, over her toothless gums, Lissa added, "Something terrible has happened. Master Peter has been killed."
The maid's wrinkled mouth dropped open with shock. "Killed?" she gasped. "No! His leman could not have been so jealous. She was only a common whore. She would have been glad to see him come to her again. She would not dare—"
"There was no woman," Lissa cried. "I knew Peter was in trouble when he did not come home last night." But she could not go on because her teeth were chattering. She gestured for the maid to follow her and ran back to the house. In comparison with the bitter cold of the garden, the workroom was warm, even though the fire that Witta had started from the banked embers had burned down. "Fetch me water for washing and come up and help me dress," Lissa said when she could speak.
"Where are young Peter and Edmond?" Binge asked.
Lissa shook her head. "I do not know. They took the strongboxes away. I suppose their father left very strict orders about what must be done. They—" She swallowed. "They left him lying on the floor of the shop."
"On the floor?" the maid repeated.
Lissa drew in a shaken breath. "I sent Witta to tell the alderman. He will be here or his officers will come soon. I must be dressed—"
She broke off as it occurred to her that it seemed like a very long time since she sent the boy out, and Alderman Goscelin's house was no more than a single street away. Had Witta been so frightened that he had run away instead of carrying her message? Then she took another deep breath. It was more likely that she had lost her sense of time and that it had not been as long as she thought. The alderman might not have been dressed. His servants would have made Witta wait. And then Master Goscelin would have had to send for his men. He would not come alone; he would need witnesses. Lissa repeated her order to Binge and fled, averting her head as she passed Peter's body.
In the bedchamber at the front of the house she busied herself with building up the fire and laying out a simple dark blue tunic and pale gray gown. When Binge brought up the water, she washed and then dressed, her ear cocked for any sound from the shop below, but there were only faint noises from the street, no knock on the door. Finally she opened her husband's clothes chest and began to look through the garments. But when everything was done, his best gown shaken free of wrinkles and fresh underclothing chosen, she and Binge were still alone.
"Where are they?" she whispered, not knowing whether she meant Peter's sons or the alderman and his officers.
At last, able to delay no longer, Lissa gestured to Binge and went down. She bade the maid fetch two stools from the workroom, and she herself lit two candles, carried them in, and set them on the shop counter. Somehow it seemed wrong to open the windows, so she and Binge sat down in the dim candlelight a little distance from the corpse.
Lissa's mind was an utter blank by the time the door was flung open, letting in a flood of sunlight that blinded her. Startled, she jumped to her feet, flinging up a hand to shield her dazzled eyes.