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Kharl stood at the front window of his shop, looking westward for a moment at the wedge of twilight sky visible between the slate roofs of the buildings on the far side of the narrow Crafters' Lane. A single lamp was visible through the middle window of Gharan's quarters, above the weaver's shop. Next door, at Hamyl's, both the lower floor and the rooms above were dark. That wasn't surprising, Kharl told himself, since Hamyl's consort had taken the children to her parents' holding to help with the early-midsummer gathering. That had left the potter free to indulge himself at the Tankard, and the lane peaceful, since Kharl's neighbor, the scrivener Tyrbel, was a widower and kept a quiet establishment.
Lowering his eyes, the cooper glanced at the five barrels in his display, all tight cooperage from the best white oak, ranging from the hogshead to the standard barrel and down to the quarter barrel and the fine-finished fifth barrel with the brass spigot, used by anyone who wanted to store and dispense expensive liquids, mostly spirits. Then he barred the front door and closed the shutters behind the lead-glassed panes that his grandsire had installed before Kharl had been born. At that time, glass windows had been considered particularly foolish for a cooper, unlike a goldsmith or an artisanor even a weaver or a potterwho had to display work to attract buyers. Times had changed, and most shops along the lane had come to display their wares behind windows.
"A barrel's a barrel. So's a hogshead. People buy barrels because they need barrels." Kharl smiled as he recalled the acerbic words of his grandmother, who had never let his grandsire forget what she regarded as the foolishness of the glass.
Foolishness? Kharl didn't think so. He still got orders from passersby who otherwise hadn't thought about barrels. Not many, never more than one an eightday, and sometimes only a few a season. Over time, though, the windows had paid for themselves.
He picked up the lamp and walked toward the rear of the shop, past the high racks that held the billets he would form into staves. Most of the billets were oak, white for the tight cooperage and red for slack. There were also some billets of tight-grained black oak, and a few of chestnut. He passed the workbench and the tool rack, with every tool in place. On the left side of the rear wall was the small forge where he sized and shaped the hoops for tight cooperage. Beside the forge on the brick flooring was the fire pot and, beside it, the steaming ring. The faintest smell of ashes and charcoal drifted toward Kharl from the banked coals of the forge.
Just short of the rear wall, and the door to the loading dock, the cooper stopped and looked at the fifteen white oak barrels waiting there. Each was identical to the next, with the iron bands, set just so, and the smooth finish, with a medium toasting on the inside. Korlan was supposed to pick them up in the morningpick them up and pay the balance due. The vintner had taken the first fifteen barrels an eightday earlier. Kharl only hoped that the vintner did not come up with some excuse, as he had the summer before, waiting almost two eightdays before showing up, but, then, that was the problem in dealing with someone who lived more than ten kays to the south of Brysta.
Kharl half smiled, then nodded, and turned, the carry-lamp in hand, to head up the stairs.
"…silvers and coppers are not for me,
but a pretty girl whose charms are free…"
He frowned. Had he heard singing in the alley? The Tankard was four doors toward the harbor, but seldom did roisterers come wandering down the alley, even early in the evening. Kharl cocked his head.
"…for when there's no lamps to see,
any woman's as fair as fair can be…"
"No…let go of me!"
The woman's voiceno, it was a girl's voicewas familiar, but Kharl could not place it. He moved to the far side of the loading dock and swept up the cudgel in his left hand, then, leaving the lamp behind, eased the door open.
"Let me go!"
"…mean you no harm, little woman." A raucous laugh followed. "We'll even pay you for what you give others for free…"
"Let go! Let…mmmpphhh…" The girl's words were choked off.
Kharl closed the door behind him so that he would not be silhouetted by the light from the lamp. He glanced toward the Tankard, but saw no one. He looked back to the north. There, less than a rod away, perhaps less than ten cubits, in the fading light and the dimness of the alley, were three figures that Kharl could barely make out. Two men held the girl, a thin figure with dark ringlets over a green summer blouse. The hair and the blouse belonged to Sanyle, the youngest of Tyrbel's daughters.
One of the men had Sanyle's arms cruelly twisted behind her, and the other had his hand on her shoulder, pulling the summer blouse down. Both men were laughing.
Kharl took three quick steps, then two more, bringing the cudgel up.
The nearer man, the one who had started to rip away Sanyle's blouse, turned. A blade hissed from the scabbard at his belt.
Kharl took another step and struck the blade and the man's hand with the cudgel before the man had finished turning toward the cooper. The shortsword dropped on the cobblestones of the alley with a muffled clank.
"Ah…swine-slime…misbegotten…" The youth jumped back, cradling his hand. The dark blue velvet of his tunic was almost lost in the dimness.
The second man let go of Sanyle, and his right hand darted toward the hilt of his blade.
"Don't…" growled the cooper. "'Less you want a broken arm. Just let her go, and back away and head back where you came from. Have fun with your own or those you pay."
As soon as the man had released her, Sanyle slipped away into the shadows. There was a glint on the heavy brass key she held, and then the rear door of the structure beside the cooperage opened, and quickly shut.
"You can't do this." The taller young man, who was still half a head shorter than the cooper, kept his hand on the hilt of his blade, but did not draw it. "You don't know who you're talking to…"
"Doesn't matter," growled the cooper. "Don't force girls barely old enough to know the difference 'tween boys and men."
"They're all the same."
Kharl raised the cudgel slightly. "Back off, little man, 'less you never want to use that arm again."
The shorter youth scooped up the fallen blade with his left hand and backed away. After a moment, the taller one followed.
Kharl stood watching until the two were out of sight, and until the alley was quiet once more. Then he turned and reentered the cooperage, wondering from what merchants' houses had come the overdressed and spoiled youths. With a snort, he set down the heavy cudgel and barred the door.
After reclaiming the lamp, he started up the steps to the quarters above the cooperage. His boots thumped heavily on the wood, and the fourth step creaked, as it had for years.
Charee stood just inside the door at the top of the stairs. Shoulder-length black hair was bound back from her face, making it seem even narrower than it was. Her green eyes were cool. "Your supper's cold. Thought you were coming up sooner."
"I was. Heard something out back. Wanted to make sure that it wasn't someone trying to break in. Just a pair of youngsters thought they were men, drinking too much for ones so young." Kharl had no intention of saying more about the would-be bravos. For all her virtues, Charee lacked onethat of circumspection. The young men could scarcely have picked out one crafter in gray from another, not unless Charee told the entire lane. Because she well might have, while suggesting that Kharl was being foolish, Kharl saw little point in calling attention to the incident. Sanyle would doubtless tell her widower father, but the scrivener was more than taciturn, as were his children.
"Won't you ever leave well enough alone, Kharl? Leave the roisterers alone. Or if you must, call them to the attention of Lord West's Watch. That's what he draws his tariffs for. You've got a consort and sons that need you…"
"My hard-won coins, leastwise." Kharl shut the door to the stairs and the shop below and walked toward the washroom on the right side of the landing.
"Let's not be starting that again."
Kharl forced a smile. "I won't, dearest. I need to wash up." The pitcher on the wash table was full, and the basin empty and clean, with a worn but clean gray towel and a narrow bar of fat soap laid out on the left side. He closed the washroom door and began to wash, enjoying the faint rose scent that came from the petals in the soap. It took time to get the sawdust off his face and hands and arms, and out of his dark beard, short-cropped as it was.
When Kharl stepped into the main room, it was still warm from the day, but the harbor breeze blowing through the open windows offered a welcoming coolness, even if it did bear the scents of salt and fish and caused the two wall lamps to flicker.
The cooper walked toward the round table where Arthal and Warrl waited, their eyes following him, but not exactly looking at him.
"Did you finish your lessons?" Kharl's eyes fixed on Warrl, his younger son, by three years.
"Yes, ser. I did." After a moment, the younger boy asked, "How much longer will I have to go to Master Fonwyl?"
"Until he says you can read and write well enough to pass the craft-master's tests." Kharl seated himself.
"I don't see why," interrupted Arthal. "It's not as though we'll ever have the golds to post the bond for mastercrafter."
"Maybe so, and maybe not," replied Kharl. "But if you get the chance, I don't want you looking back and complaining that I didn't prepare you. Reading and writing aren't something you can pick up easy-like when you're older."
"But what use is it if you're not a mastercrafter or a merchant or a lord? You scarce have a chance to read a broadsheet"
"But I can, and once or twice it's saved me good coins. Enough." Kharl managed not to snap. "Let's enjoy supper."
As if she had been waiting for them to stop, Charee lifted the heavy cast-iron stewpot off the stove and carried it to the table. There, she set it on the well-browned trivet in the center of the oval oak table that had been one of the first pieces of actual furniture that Kharl had made after he had taken over the cooperage.
His consort set the large basket of afternoon-baked bread on the table and seated herself at the opposite end of the oval table from Kharl. Kharl began to ladle the stew into the chipped brown crockery bowls that had come from Charee's mother.
"Smells good," offered Kharl.
"It does," added Warrl.
"More summer squash and potatoes than meat," murmured Arthal.
"It's tasty, and it's hot, and you didn't have to spend the day cooking it," Kharl pointed out. "If you'd rather not eat, you can leave the table right now."
"No, Da…I'm sorry, Ma." Arthal's voice was barely apologetic.
Kharl didn't feel like calling his older son on his borderline rudeness, not after a long day finishing the last of the barrels for Korlan, especially when he knew that Arthal would just make some other comment.
"What was going on outside, Da?" asked Warrl.
"Just some young fellows who'd had too much at the Tankard. Had more ale than sense, and didn't know it."
"Will the Watch catch them?"
"They settled down," Kharl said, after taking a mouthful of the stew, still warm and peppery, despite Charee's comments about it getting cold. "Good stew." He broke off a chunk of the crusty bread, then dipped it into the stew before chewing off the dipped end. "Good bread."
"They'd better settle down," offered Arthal. "Lord West likes Brysta peaceful."
"The justicers worry more about thieves and killers," Kharl said, taking a swallow of the warm ale, really only about half a mug for each of them, but that had been all that was left in the quarter barrel in the cellar, and he couldn't afford any morenot until Korlan paid him for the wine barrels.
"Cossal said they hung three brigands in the Justicers' Hall on twoday," added Warrl. "He was there."
"They hung three men. That's true. They might even have been guilty." Kharl had his doubts that everyone hanged was as guilty as charged.
"Does it matter, if one brigand is strung up for something he didn't do?" asked Charee. "Anyone they catch has done more than enough anyway. Weren't for Lord West, we'd have thieves overrunning Brysta, like in his sire's time."
"That was a different time," Kharl said. "Fairven had fallen. The more powerful steam engines had exploded. Many trading ventures had failed. People were starving, and white wizards were everywhere."
"Better the whites than those blackstaffers from Recluce," Charee sniffed. "Them and their fine clothes, and their noses in the air. Think they know everything. Father Jorum says that we're all equal in the eyes of the Sovereign."
Kharl wasn't about to get into debating the opinions of the priest of the one-god believers. "I can't see as they harm anyone, but it's better that they stay in Recluce." He took another chunk of bread and wiped out his empty bowl with it. "Good dinner, dearest."
"How would we know? The lords won't touch 'em, not unless they're caught doing something right awful. Merayni, she listened to one of 'em, last winter's end it was, and he was telling terrible tales. Terrible tales."
"What kind of tales?" asked Kharl, in spite of himself. He had his doubts about Charee's older sister Merayni, although Merayni was certainly good-hearted, and she and her consort were more than successful with the pearapple and peach orchard that Dowsyl had inherited from his father. He paused. "Didn't know blackstaffers got so far south as Peachill or Eolya."
"They get everywhere, Merayni was saying, and the tales he told! Terrible, she said. About how a body can't even walk across some hills in Candar without turnin' black and shriveling up and dyin' right there on the spot."
"That may be," Kharl replied. "That's Candar, and not Nordla. Lord West is lucky to have one or two wizards that he can count on. Rather have him with wizards than some of the other Lords of the Quadrant."
"This young blackstaffer, he said that the lord's wizards weren't proper mages. 'A course, Father Jorum says all wizardry is evil."
"I wouldn't know if they're proper wizards." Kharl tilted his mug to get the last drop of ale. "I'm a cooper, not a wizard or a lord. That's their business. Mine's barrels. Solid barrels."
"Terrible stuff, magery." Charee sniffed again. "As bad as thieves and brigands, if you ask me."
"I'm sure there are good mages and bad ones. There are good lords and bad ones, good coopers and bad ones."
"No such thing as a good mage, if you ask me. Lord West can have them all. Be better if he hung 'em."
"That's what lords are for. Deal with raiders, and invaders, and brigands, and mages. Rather be a cooper."
Warrl yawned. So did Arthal.
"You two can take the bowls to the wash table," Charee said.
"Wish we had a sister, like Aubret does," mumbled Warrl. "Do all the dishes."
"You don't have a sister," Charee said. "Two of you are enough."
"…always say that…" murmured Arthal.
"Did you say something?" asked Kharl.
"I didn't think so." Kharl pushed back his chair and walked to the window, letting the cool evening air flow around him. He hoped that Korlan would pick up the barrels in the morning.
Copyright © 2004 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.