“Walter Jon Williams is always fun, but this may be his best yet, a delight from start to finish, witty, colorful, exciting and amusing by turns, exquisitely written.” —George R. R. Martin
From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Walter Jon Williams comes an adventurous epic fantasy about a man who is forced to leave his comfortable life and find his fortune among goddesses, pirates, war, and dragons.
Rogue. Joker. Lover. Reluctant soldier.
Quillifer is a young man, serially in love and studying law, when a family tragedy throws him into the world to seek his fortune. A charmer rather than a fighter, he soon finds himself embroiled with a bandit gang, caught up in vicious court intrigues, and the plaything of an angry, beautiful, and very jealous goddess. While he struggles to establish himself in the capital, the country finds itself pitched into a civil war, and Quillifer, a unwilling soldier at best, finds himself caught up in the action, and able to tip the scales of fortune.
Quillifer, with its engaging hero and his exploits with lovers, brawlers, warriors, and privateers, is a book that bursts with life. It’s the first volume in a new epic fantasy by bestselling and award-winning author Walter Jon Williams.
About the Author
Walter Jon Williams is the author of thirty volumes of fiction, in addition to works in film, television, comics, and the gaming field. Williams has appeared on the bestseller lists of The Times and The New York Times. He is a world traveler, scuba diver, and a black belt in Kenpo Karate. He has twice been awarded the Nebula Award.
Read an Excerpt
can hear the waters of the Dordelle chuckling against the hull of our boat, see the silver moonlight glow on the rim of our little window, taste the warm night air. Your lilac scent floats in my senses. By the light of the moon I can see your open eyes, fixed on the dark corner of my cabin, but in truth staring into your future. For you are beginning a new life, a life apart from everything you knew, and you are anxious on that account.
I would help you sleep. I have begun life over more than once, and perhaps I can ease your concern by narrating my own tale. So, come back to bed, my heart, and rest your head on my shoulder, and I will stroke your hair and tell you how I came to become what I am.
I fear that my life may reveal more folly than wisdom. I will begin with an act of folly, then, as I hang upside down three storeys above the street, and reflect on the workings of Fate. The wheel had come full circle, and all in a flash: naught but two minutes ago, I had been sharing a warm feather bed with Annabel Greyson, the surveyor’s daughter; and now I was outside the house, three storeys above the street, hanging near-naked in a brisk wind, while Annabel’s father raged within, seeking the villain who had debauched his child.
Who, of course, was me.
This is amusing now, and you laugh, but it was no laughing matter to be thus caught up in some moralist’s tale. I resolved to avoid the moralist’s last scene, which would almost certainly involve judgment, whips, and the pillory.
What is it about fathers, and brothers too, that sets them so firmly against the course of true love?
The Greyson house was like most houses in Ethlebight, narrow and deep, with the ground floor built of solid masonry, and the upper half-timber floors projecting over the street. From the topmost gable a roof beam extended, and on the end of the beam was a large black iron hook, used to help lift furniture or supplies to the upper storeys.
I hung from the beam with the iron hook a few inches from my face, and hoped I would not find myself hanging from the hook itself within the next twenty minutes.
The beam was slick with pigeon droppings. I tried to claw my fingers into the beam like a badger digging after a burrowing rabbit.
I made my exasperated-bailiff face. All because she asked me to adjust her Mermaid costume. I had complied out of a spirit of pure chivalry—I had complied with all Annabel’s requests—and now I found myself in this doleful condition, hanging above a shadowy abyss.
It has to be said that Annabel’s generous nature had surprised me. I had been paying more attention to Bethany Driver, another of the Mermaids, but Annabel had broken a lace and asked for aid, and my fate had lurched onto a new path.
Some hours earlier, I had entered the house via this same gable, to avoid the groom that slept by the door. Annabel had assured me that her father and his apprentices were away on a survey, her mother was visiting relatives in Amberstone, and the only servant besides the groom was the deaf old lady who lit the fires in the morning.
Perhaps the old lady wasn’t as deaf as she seemed. Someone, at any rate, had to have sent a message to Anthony Greyson the surveyor, who must have ridden half the night to show up at his own door just as the dawn was beginning to brighten the eastern sky. The city gates wouldn’t even have opened yet; Greyson must have bribed his way past the guards.
Hearing the pounding and roaring at the front door, I reacted in an instant—I must admit that I was not a complete stranger to these sorts of emergencies. I dashed up the stairs and left the house by the same route I’d entered, though without all my clothing. In the dash up the stairs, I’d been able to tug on only my shirt. My shoes hung around my neck by their laces, and I held my belt and leather purse in my teeth. On my head was the cap, black velvet with the red piping and the brim turned up all around, that marked me as an apprentice lawyer. My hose, doublet, and tunic were clutched in my hands or piled in a disorderly bundle on my chest.
My situation was made worse by the fact that two of Greyson’s apprentices sat on their horses directly below me. I did not wish to fumble my belongings and make the two men wonder why it had suddenly begun to rain clothing. Nor could I stay where I was: Greyson had only to look out the window to see me hanging there, presenting to the viewer the most unflattering view imaginable.
Carefully, I sorted through my possessions, and threw my loose clothes over the beam in hopes they would remain there for the next few minutes. I looked down and saw the broad hats of the apprentices below, then rolled myself, as silently as I could, atop the beam. Pigeon droppings smeared my front, and my hair, which I keep long because you ladies find it so pleasing, fell in my face. The coins in my purse rang, as loud as an alarm bell at such close range. I made my screaming-infant face, froze in place, and tried to look down without actually moving my head.
If anyone had heard the pennies sing, apparently they hadn’t thought to look up. Shuddering with cold—or possibly terror—I managed to rise to hands and knees.
My pulse crashed in my head like a bowling ball thundering into an array of pins. Father Greyson continued his roaring progress through his house, accompanied by the pleas of his daughter and the toothless jabbering of the old woman. I decided it was probably time to leave my perch, and looked around me.
The Greyson house had a tile roof. I had managed to cross it in reasonable quiet earlier, but if I accidentally kicked a tile to the street, I would alert the waiting apprentices.
The house across the street, however, was thatched, and since both houses had been built to jetty out over the street, the jump was perfectly possible. It wouldn’t be completely silent, but it would be quieter than a clattering tile, and once I landed, I’d be invisible to anyone below.
The difficulty would be that the opposite house was a bit taller than the Greyson place, and the jump would have to be made with great care and sure footing to avoid falling short.
Yet the leap was feasible. I am tall and big-framed and, after spending much of my youth on my father’s killing floor, strong even for my size.
I considered whether or not to draw on my clothing before making the leap, and decided at least to belt on my purse. I was finishing this task when I heard a bang behind me, and suddenly I was illuminated with pale light as a lantern moved into the gable room.
A surge of alarm brought me upright, loose clothing in my arms and my bare feet planted on the beam slippery with pigeon droppings.
I heard a cry from behind me as Greyson glimpsed me through the window, and I launched myself for the roof across the street. My foot slipped in the droppings, and fear clutched my vitals as I realized I was going to fall a little short. I threw my long arms out wide to seize as much of the thatch as possible, and I landed with a great crackle and thump as my clothes spilled from my grasp. My legs kicked out over the abyss, and I grabbed great fistfuls of straw to keep from plummeting to the brick lane below.
“Thief! Thief!” Greyson’s voice boomed out into the street, roaring the word that was most likely to bring the neighbors awake—if he’d shouted “Seducer!,” the result might have been laughter, plus of course the besmirching of his daughter’s name. Greyson was at the window, pointing at my bare legs and buttocks visible in the light of his lantern. There were cries from the apprentices below, the sound of clattering hooves as they wrenched their horses about.
I had lost my clothing. I considered myself fortunate that Greyson was unlikely to recognize my backside, heaved myself to safety, rose to my feet, and ran.
“Catch him!” Greyson bawled. “Break his ribs! Then bring him to me!”
I took flight. By the time the apprentices’ horses jangled into life, I had vaulted to another building and sprawled on tiles with a clatter. Heart leaping in my chest like a mad animal, I scrambled to my feet and ran over the ridgepole to the next roof. Jumping from one roof to another was a sport I’d enjoyed when I was younger—I would race across rooftops with my friends, trying first to reach the gun platform on the North Gate, or ring the bell on the roof of the Pilgrim’s monastery, and all without setting foot on the ground.
Though it had to be admitted, I’d always done this in full daylight, and that I was long out of practice. I’d let my rooftop adventures lapse after I’d become apprentice to Lawyer Dacket—it wouldn’t do for a lawyer’s apprentice to be taken for trespass.
Out of practice I may have been, but pursuit lent me inspiration. Hurling myself over lanes and alleys, landing on my feet or hands and knees or flat on my belly, I outpaced my pursuers until I came to Royall Street, a grand thoroughfare too wide to leap. There, a shadow behind another shadow, I took shelter behind an elaborate carved brick chimney, caught my breath, quelled my hammering heart, and listened for the sounds of pursuit.
I heard horses gallop through the streets, and then the sound of hoofbeats slowed as the pursuit failed to find its quarry. One horse came trotting down Royall Street, but I stayed motionless behind the chimney, and the horse passed on its way. Eventually, the sound of pursuit died away altogether.
The rising sun began to gild the chimneys and rooftops of the city, and I again considered my situation. There was vast Scarcroft Square and too many wide, un-jumpable streets between me and my father’s house, and at least some time on the ground was inevitable. And if I had to descend, it was best to do it now, before it was full daylight.
Three sonorous strokes on a bell sounded through the still air. The Dawn Bell from the Harbor Gatehouse, the signal for Ethlebight’s gates to open.
There was little time to lose. I plotted a route that involved the least amount of time on the ground, rose from my hiding place, and made two leaps across narrow streets, leaps that were much easier in the dawn light. Making the second leap, I dislodged a colony of kitlings that had been perched on the eaves. You have perhaps not heard of these, as they have but recently flown over from the Land of Chimerae, but they are plump, furry, and winged creatures that have appeared in Ethlebight in just the last few years. They are a little larger than rats, and they like to perch above the street until they observe a mouse, a bird, or some other small animal below, and then they glide down on their furry wings and pounce.
The name “kitling” is misleading, as the creatures best resemble a large dormouse, but they kill vermin as cats do, which may account for the name. As they are small and useful, we have made no effort to eradicate them, but we are wary. I am told that dragons too start small.
As I made my leap, I heard Greyson’s call of “Thief! Thief!”—the surveyor had waited silently in the street below, hoping to see me flying overhead, and the pack of dislodged kitlings had warned him to look up, so there was another mad scramble over the roofs until pursuit again died away.
By now it was full daylight. The only advantage of the sunrise was that the wan autumn sun was warmer than the chill autumn night, and I placed myself against the eastern side of a chimney, where the sun might warm me, while I recovered my breath and my wits.
At least Greyson was chasing me through the city, and not at home thrashing his daughter. I preferred not to think of Annabel trapped at home with the old roaring tyrant.
Soon there would be people on the streets, and to blend with those people, I would need clothing. I decided to make a search, leaped to a large building, landed in a rattle of roof tiles, and looked down into a courtyard. No laundry waved in the shadowed court, so I jumped to another building, rose in a cloud of straw dust, and then saw my opportunity below: laundry strung on lines, an empty washtub lying on its side in a pool of water, and no laundress visible.
Employing fingers and toes, I used a crow-stepped gable, a cornice, a soffit, a bull’s-eye window, an architrave, and a trellis to lower myself to the ground. Shaking a cramp from my fingers, I walked barefoot across crumbling old brick and plucked a tunic, hose, and a doublet from the lines. I pulled on the hose, and was about to draw the tunic over my head when I considered the state of my shirt. There was nothing wrong with it, other than its being soiled by sweat, chimney soot, straw dust, and pigeon droppings, but its condition would have degraded my new wardrobe, so I exchanged it for a clean shirt from the line.
I would find a way to pay for the clothes. Stealing, I reassured myself, was beneath me.
Renewed, I began to walk toward the large gate that opened onto a lane behind the house, but stopped when I saw I was observed by a boy-child who stared at me from a door. The boy was dressed in a dirty smock and a single stocking on the left foot, and he gazed at me with vast blue eyes. I approached him.
“Who is your mistress?” I asked.
The child wiped his streaming nose on his sleeve. “Mum’s name is Prunk.” At least to my ears it sounded like Prunk.
I opened my purse and did some calculation. The hose were worth sixpence when new, and the shirt perhaps a whole crown, save that I’d exchanged my own shirt, which was of finer cloth. The doublet was battered, the tunic worn thin in places. And then of course there was the trouble I’d put the household to. Say a crown.
I gave the child a crown. “Give this to your mother,” I said. I added a halfpenny. “And this is for you.”
The child stared at the silver in his palm. “Apple-squire,” he said, and wiped his nose.
I had been called thief, which I was not, and now I had been called a pimp by an infant. I decided I’d had quite enough abuse for the day. “For your mother,” I said with finality, and walked briskly to the gate, oaken-beamed and twelve feet tall. I climbed it easily and rolled over the top, then dropped down into the lane.
In two minutes I was in Royall Street, walking at my ease.
* * *
As I walked along I gloried in my home city of Ethlebight, the great jewel at the mouth of the River Ostra. The houses were built on the same pattern, with upper floors jettied out over the street. Gables were crow-stepped, or rose in gentle curves to pediments or wooden towers or belfries. Bull’s-eye windows or narrow leaded glass panes glittered in the rising sun. Half-timber beams were carved in the shapes of jesters, acrobats, gods, and fanciful animals, or with the solemn, respectable faces of the burgesses who owned the buildings. The city was built on the soft ground of the delta, and the houses tended to tilt or lean against one another, or rear up over the street like a bear about to fall upon its prey.
By now, the city had come fully alive. Sailors surged up the road as if carried on a tide, legs spread wide, straddling the pavements as if walking along the heaving deck of a ship. Knife sharpeners, sellers of whelks and oysters, rag-and-bone men, pie and chestnut sellers, all moved along the streets behind their handcarts, each giving out the distinctive, high-pitched cry peculiar to their trade. Monks in undyed wool, servants of the Pilgrim, walked in disciplined silence on rope sandals. Servants bustled on errands, the wealthy bustled in chairs or coaches, children bustled to school, and apprentices bustled to the nearest source of ale. Dogs and pigs, which devoured the waste, wandered freely; while cats perched on high gables and viewed all from a position of superiority. Drunken men sang, drunken women screeched, drunken children darted underfoot. Carters rode in the press, their wagons piled high with goods, surging along like galleons in the human flood.
My long legs carried me easily through the throng. I delighted in the familiar sights of my city, not to mention the fact that I’d survived the night unscathed. My black velvet apprentice cap had remained on my head through all the night’s adventures. The tunic I’d acquired, striped in faded green and thinning white, was stretched to the limit by my big shoulders; and the quilted doublet, originally the deep red color called cramoisie, was a pale ghost of its original self. I was beginning to think I had overpaid for my new clothes.
Still, having survived pursuit, I was in charity with all: I walked with a smile, greeted friends and acquaintances, while with practiced skill I dodged small children, pigs, and filth.
I paused by the shop of Crook, the printer and bookseller, but the door was closed. Inspired perhaps by the bound verse that he imported from the capital, Crook the businessman kept poet’s hours. I would try to visit later in the day.
I turned at the cry, and saw the urgent signal of Mrs. Vayne, the greengrocer. I avoided the rumbling handcart of an oyster-seller and crossed the street to join her.
Mrs. Vayne was a large woman in a starched white apron and a boxy hat that covered her ears. Her cheeks were red as the baskets of pippins piled about her feet. I saw at once the distinctive white-green apples nested in straw, and I felt my mouth water.
The grocer smiled with crooked teeth. “Ay, the first pearmains have come down the river. And you know how your mother dotes on them.”
“Can you send two baskets to the house?”
Mrs. Vayne nodded. “I’ve already set them aside.”
I leaned over a tub of cresses and kissed Mrs. Vayne’s cheek. She drew back in mock surprise.
“A forward creature you are,” she said. “But for all that, you may have a forelle.”
I picked the spotted pear from the greengrocer’s hand and took a generous bite. I chewed with great pleasure and dabbed at my lips with the faded sleeve of my doublet.
“Best send a basket of these as well.” I took another bite, and my free hand snaked a pearmain from its den of straw. Mrs. Vayne saw and pursed her lips in disapproval. I made my wheedling-infant face, and the greengrocer shrugged.
“The gages should come in two or three days,” she said.
“Then I shall return in two or three days.” I kissed her again, and she wiped pear juice from her cheek.
“You’re not dressed for Dacket’s office,” she said.
“It’s a sea dog I am today. I’m going sailing.”
Mrs. Vayne crooked an eyebrow. “Does your master know?”
“I am on my master’s business. Which I should no longer delay.” I raised the stolen pearmain, inspected it, and took a bite of the white-green apple. I crunched the pearmain happily, smiled, and said, “Best make it three baskets sent to my mother.”
“They will keep all winter,” said the pleased grocer. “Provided you keep them in a cool room.”
I looked over my shoulder and saw a pair of broad-shouldered men striding through the crowd. Was it Greyson livery they wore? And were they bearing cudgels?
It was time to depart. I gave a wave, kicked away a pig that was investigating the beetroots, and continued my walk, eating from either hand as the fancy took me.
Royall Street opened into Scarcroft Square, with its fountain surrounded by marble allegories, and the glory of Ethlebight brickwork shone bright in the clear morning sun.
Ethlebight, sitting on its swampy delta, had an excess of clay, with more delivered every spring by the flooding river; and the merchants of the town had made the most of this bounty. The city produced bricks, millions every year—plain red brick for plain buildings, but also bricks of mellow gold, of blue and purple, of black and brown. Some bricks were glazed with bright colors, pinks and yellows and green.
Scarcroft Square was a fantasia of masonry, all built of the brick that formed the town’s main industry. The ivy-covered town hall, the guild halls, the grand mansions of the burgesses and the local lords, the Fane, the Court of the Teazel Bird, the New Castle, the Grand Monastery of the Seven Words of the Pilgrim . . . all blazed in the morning sun with color and light, red bricks and gold, black bricks and blue, pink bricks and green, all the glazed, bright hues. These colored bricks were laid in patterns, rose in spirals to support upper storeys, or twisted high to hold aloft the chimney pots. The square itself was paved in brick, set with spirals, quincunx patterns, or pictures of fabulous animals—mosaic done in enormous scale, with bricks instead of tiny tesserae.
We also produced glass, and the glazier’s art was fully displayed: leaded glass, glass stained to produce triumphalist pictures of the city’s history, glass cut into cabochons or faceted like gems, glass opalescent, etched, and enameled. The result was a square that glittered in the morning sun and winked sunlight from a thousand faceted eyes.
A temporary theater was being built on the square, to support the players during the Autumn Festival, and it was the only wooden structure in sight.
Another impermanent structure was the effigy of our much-married King Stilwell. His statue stood on a plinth, and he wore armor and carried a sword, looking like the young warrior that had triumphed in his wars against Loretto.
It was a tribute to the city’s burgesses, who counted every penny, that the King’s statue had been made of some kind of plaster, then painted to look like marble. There was no point in cutting a figure in stone, or casting it in bronze, when the King would sooner or later die and the image be replaced by that of the next monarch. I had to admire the canny sense of thrift displayed by our aldermen.
In fact, I delighted in everything I saw. I felt my chest expand at the sight of the square, straining the fabric of the borrowed tunic. I had spent all my eighteen years in Ethlebight, with only a few trips to other cities, and I adored the city that had raised me, and also admired the bustling inhabitants who lived within its walls.
Scarcroft Square was magnificent, but I knew I was seeing it at its height. The city was fading, doomed by slow strangulation as silt choked its harbor. I pictured it fifty years hence: the grand houses empty, windows empty, roofs sagging, colors faded, the square filled with windblown trash . . .
It could not be prevented. Best not to think about it.
I tossed the remains of my pear and my apple onto the street for the pigs, then crossed the square to a tall, narrow building with a crow-stepped gable. The glass in the tall, arched windows was stained with figures of a warrior battling a dragon, this representing Lord Baldwine, an ancestor of the current Duke of Roundsilver, who owns the building. Roundsilver is a wealthy peer, and owns a great many buildings around the city, as well as his own grand house on the square. He spends little time there, devoting his time to being at court along with all the other great nobles.
I admired the stained glass, with Baldwine holding up the severed dragon’s head, and went up a tall, narrow stair to a cramped office that smelled of paper, dust, ink, and vellum.
Lawyer Dacket, my master, stood in the center of the room, a paper in either hand. Dacket was a spare man with a pointed beard, a melancholy, lined face, and the black fur-trimmed robe of his profession. He wore a velvet hat like mine, but with gold tape and a gold pompon to show that he practiced before the bar.
“Pearmains are in!” I said in joy.
My pleasure seemed only to deepen Dacket’s gloom. “That would account for the juice on your chin,” he said. I hastily wiped it with my sleeve.
“Mrs. Vayne was generous with her samples,” I said.
“You are dressed for holiday,” observed Dacket. “I wish you joy of it, and of your apples.” The planes of his face shifted slightly. “May this office then hope you shall not return?”
I put on my learnèd-advocate face. “Loath though I am, sir, to stand in an abnegative posture and contradict my learnèd colleague in any way,” I said, “I desire the jury to observe, inicio, that while your humble apprentice shall be absent today, that he is not in absencia, for though my mind may be absent, my corpus shall absent be on the business of the court, videlicet, preventing Sir Stanley Mattingly from being absent at the Assizes, and that absent evidence of jurisdiction, I pray the jury to declare evidence of dereliction absent, and the Crown nolle prosequi.”
This is an example of what my father would call “flaunting my knowledge like a vainglorious peacock,” forgetting that peacocks have no knowledge to flaunt, vainglorious or otherwise. Yet I find that I must continually remind people of my gifts, for they are inclined to forget my education and acuity. I expect it’s because I am not impressive in my person: granted that I am tall and have broad shoulders, and long dark hair admired by the ladies, but I am not handsome like my schoolfriend Theophrastus Hastings, or as rich as the Duke of Roundsilver, or possessed of any degree of fame like the Emperor Cornelianus when he was called to the throne. My father is a Butcher, which causes some people to discount me. And of course, I am young and have not the authority that comes with age, like that of Judge Travers.
And so I must offer my gifts to the people, and offer them continually, and without cease, so that I may be something other than a nullity in their eyes.
My master, Dacket, listened impassively to my appeal. “The plea would receive a better hearing were there not apple skin between your teeth,” he said. “And what is this of Sir Stanley?”
Dacket’s office had been pursuing Sir Stanley Mattingly in an attempt to serve him with a writ to bring him to the Autumn Assizes, which would begin in two days. But Sir Stanley was not to be found at his town house, or at his house in the country; and unless the writ were served, Lawyer Dacket would be unable to prosecute him on behalf of his client, Mr. Morton Trew.
“And yet,” I said, “Sir Stanley cannot be far away, as he stands as honorary master of the Guild of Distillers, and must ride on their float in the Autumn Festival that follows the Assizes.”
“You have found his bolt-hole?” Dacket inquired.
“I remembered that Sir Stanley’s sister is married to Denys Buthlaw, and—”
“Buthlaw is moved to the capital, and his house here is closed. There is no guest lodged there; we have investigated.”
I raised a hand. “But sir, Buthlaw has another house, on Mutton Island.”
Again the planes of Lawyer Dacket’s face shifted. “Is that so?” he murmured.
“Remember that Sir Stanley is known as a great hunter and is ever trampling the fields of his own tenants in pursuit of the fallow deer. And bear in mind also that Mutton Island is connected to the mainland at low tide, and that directly across the channel is the Forest of Ailey, in which Sir Stanley could ride and hunt to his heart’s content.”
A tenuous gleam appeared in Dacket’s eye. “You have evidence that Sir Stanley is on the island?”
“Nay, sir. But Mutton Island seems worth exploring, if you can but provide me with a writ and spare me for the day.”
All traces of pleasure vanished from Lawyer Dacket’s countenance. “Spare you for a day of sailing.”
“On Kevin Spellman’s boat. And I shall bring Kevin along to serve as a witness, should I find Sir Stanley.”
Dacket adopted an air of saturnine amusement. “I could do with a day on the sea. Perhaps I should venture to the island on Goodman Kevin’s boat.”
I acknowledged this possibility with a gracious nod. “The sea air would serve to balance the humors,” I said, “and bring an attractive pink flush to your ears. But I urge your worship to bear in mind Sir Stanley’s history of violence—he is a dreadful man when his choler is up, and if you find him with his hounds, he may incite them against you, not to mention what damage he might do with his whip or his gun.”
“Nay,” said Dacket. “I applaud your devotion to justice, so great you are willing to fall beneath the fangs of a pack of ravenous hounds. And yet”—holding out his hands with the papers in them—“there are so many writs and other documents that must be copied before the Assizes.”
“You have a clerk,” I pointed out.
The clerk in question, bent over a desk, lifted his head to give me a basilisk stare from beneath his skullcap.
“Goodman Dodson is fully occupied,” said Dacket. “As am I.” With a sniff, he viewed one of his papers, then waved it in my direction.
“You may begin with a draft of a plea,” Dacket said, “the formal plea for mercy on behalf of Alec Royce, who cut a fern tree in the Crown Forest. Cutting the King’s timber calls for death, but if the judge is merciful, we may hope for prison or a fine.”
I considered this. “Did you say it was a fern tree?”
“Ay.” Dacket’s attention had already moved on, as he browsed through a stack of through papers.
“Then there is no need to plead for mercy,” I said. “The charge is baseless.”
“Base-less?” Dacket mouthed the word as if he were tasting something foul.
“It’s a new word. I invented it.” Which, for the record, I had.
“We have a perfectly fine phrase, ‘without foundation,’ which will serve—and if it won’t, we have as well ‘unfounded,’ ‘unsubstantiated,’ ‘unproven.’ There is no need for this base-less.” Dacket gave me an austere look. “I advise you not to use these neologisms before a judge.”
“Sir, I shall dispunge these innovations.” Dacket gave me a suspicious look, and I spoke more quickly. “Sir, our client is innocent.”
Dacket’s gaze firmed. “Royce has admitted the charge,” he said. “He has been in the cells of the New Castle for two months. There are no facts in dispute.”
“Save whether the King’s timber was cut at all,” I said. “Timber is defined in law as ‘that sturdy vegetable matter which may be used in construction, to-wit: in a house or other structure, a bridge, a boat or ship, a stile, a fence, et cetera.’ A fern tree is too small and weak to be used in construction, and therefore is not timber in the meaning of the law. The fern tree was mere superfluous growth, like a vine or a periwinkle, which Royce removed in order to allow a proper tree to grow in its place.”
Dacket remained motionless for several seconds, then spoke slowly. “I believe your argument may serve,” he said.
“If you desire,” I said, “I will undertake the defense myself, under your supervision.”
“Before Judge Travers?” Dacket waved a hand thoughtfully, a paper still in it. “I think not. To put such an argument before Travers requires more tact than I have yet observed in you.”
I put on my dutiful-apprentice face and bowed. “As ever,” I said, “I defer to your wisdom.”
Dacket nodded. “You may have the day for Mutton Island,” he said. “But tomorrow, you will apply yourself to your pen.” He added the paper to a pile, then put the pile on a black, ancient desk already covered with documents. “Tomorrow, you will not leave this office until you have copied every item on this desk.”
I nodded. “Of course, Master.”
Dacket opened a narrow drawer and produced a sealed paper. “Your writ, signed by Justice Darcy. Do not lose it: I would not vex the justice on the eve of the court by asking for another.” He raised a hand. “And don’t get pear juice on it!”
I bowed. “I shall in all such matters obey.”
“Then be off,” said Dacket. “And if you are rent by a pack of dogs, you will have only yourself to blame.”
* * *
“So, what is this case about?” asked Kevin Spellman.
“Theft,” said I. “The theft of a body of water.”
“One can steal a lake?” Kevin asked. “I hadn’t ever considered the matter.”
Kevin was a sturdy, fair-haired youth, a friend of mine from our days at the grammar school. He was dressed in brilliant blues and yellows, and gems winked from his fingers. He wore a broad hat with the brim pinned up by a silver medallion, and an ostrich-feather plume. Even at leisure, even on his boat, he wore the splendid clothing that befit his status, as the son and heir to a Warden and present Dean of the Honorable Companie of Mercers.
The Mercers traded up and down the coast, and often abroad, delivering the wealth of Ethlebight and the River Ostra to the rest of Duisland and to the world. Ethlebight’s bricks and glass made up much of their profit, but by far the most valuable cargo was wool.
The flatlands of the Ostra were ideal grazing country, and the river’s headwaters ran through mountains where sheep browsed in high meadows throughout the summer. Thanks to arrangements made in antiquity between the craft guilds, the wool was bought from the shearers at a fixed price by the Worshipfull Sodality of Washers, who washed the raw wool in the waters of the river. The Washers sold their product to the Honorable Companie of Carders and Combers at a price arranged centuries ago, and the Carders and Combers sold to the Benevolent Sorority of the Distaff, a guild composed entirely of women, who spun the yarn in their homes, after which the wool found its way to the Dyers, the Clothmakers, the Fullers, Scourers and Stretchers, the Nappers, the Burlers, the Drapers, and the Taylors, and so on—but unless the product was sold locally, it all made its way to the Mercer, who—unlike all the others—sold it for whatever the market would bear, provided they sold it to another Mercer.
Kevin’s father, Gregory Spellman, was the owner or part owner of eleven companies or corporations, which in turn owned barges, ships, warehouses, and the piers at which the ships and barges moored. And thanks to the profits of wool, the elder Spellman lived in one of the most brilliant houses on Scarcroft Square, and was able to keep his son in the brightest, most fashionable clothing, a walking advertisement for his wares.
“Water is a commodity like any other,” I said. “It may be hoarded, sold, lent, and of course stolen.”
“And Sir Stanley Mattingly is alleged to have stolen—a lake?”
“A river. And there is no ‘alleged’ about the matter; he did steal it, though there exists a bare possibility he may have stolen it legally.”
With practiced tread, Kevin and I avoided wash-water hurled from an upper floor, then turned onto Princess Street, where we danced around the barrow of a gingerbread-monger. We passed, and then Kevin, enticed by the odor of the gingerbread, returned to buy a loaf.
While the transaction went on, I eyed the street for men in Greyson livery, and continued my exposition. “Sir Stanley Mattingly,” I said, “sold a piece of grazing to a gentleman named Morton Trew. The transfer was in livery of seisin—seisin in law, yes?—wherein the two parties went to the land together, and Sir Stanley performed the rite of turf and twig in sight of two witnesses.”
Kevin paid for the gingerbread and turned down the street. “Sir Stanley actually gave the man a stick and a clod of dirt?”
Kevin looked dubious. “I’ve never heard of anything like that, and I’ve been present at any number of transfers of property.”
“These rites are not common in the city,” I said. “But in the country, folk hold with old traditions in transferring a freehold.”
“And in the country, apparently they steal rivers.”
“They do. Or at any rate, Sir Stanley does—because when Mister Trew came later to his field, he found that his land no longer had the river that had originally flowed through it. Sir Stanley had dammed the river and turned the water into a leat to power his new stone-cutting mill. As grazing land is worth little without a source of water, Mister Trew desires to take Sir Stanley to court to overturn the sale.”
Kevin was thoughtful. “The river was dammed after the rite of rock-and-hard-place, or whatever it’s called.”
“Then I don’t see how Sir Stanley can possibly defend his action.”
“Ah.” I made an airy gesture and put on my pompous-magistrate face. “That is where you fail to perceive the supreme suppleness and flexibility for which the common law of Duisland is justly famed.”
Sniffing the gingerbread. “Apparently, I do not.”
“Sir Stanley maintains, first, that the deed does not mention the river or any other water source—”
“And does it?”
“Alas,” said I, “the river is not mentioned. And furthermore, Sir Stanley maintains that it was perfectly clear he never intended to sell Mister Trew rights over the water, as is proved by the fact that at the sale he did not perform the rite of water and porringer, where—”
“Where he would have given his poor victim a porringer of river water,” said Kevin, “to go along with his lump and his branch.”
“I say it’s fraud,” said Kevin, “and to hell with the porringer.”
“And Judge Travers at the Assizes is likely to agree with you, which is why Sir Stanley is careful to avoid his summons. As Judge Travers is retiring, the next quarter’s judge is likely to be Blakely, who is some kind of cousin to Sir Stanley’s wife, and who bears a reputation for sharp practice of his own, and who therefore may appreciate the ingenuity of Sir Stanley’s argument.”
“One fraudster to another.”
Indignation lifted Kevin’s chin. “I shall tell my father to avoid any dealings with Sir Stanley. If anyone in the Mercers’ Guild behaved in such a fashion, he’d be disciplined or expelled.”
“Alas,” said I, “there is no Worshipfull Guild of Landowners to enforce honest behavior.”
A large, old house loomed on our left, the first floor of plain Ethlebight brick, the upper storeys carved wood that projected over the street, with a thatch roof that projected farther still. My heart warmed at the sight of my home, a friendly welcoming sanctuary after my cold night on the rooftops. I turned inside and was followed by my friend.
The ground floor made up a butcher shop owned by my father, and the family lived in the storeys above. My father shared my name of Quillifer, and I had been named after his own father, and his father after his, the name stretching back into antiquity.
For all that I was wary around my father’s weighty authority, it has to be said that I greatly admired my senior. My father was not only Dean of the Worshipfull Societie of Butchers but a respected alderman of the city, entitled to wear a gold chain on formal occasions, and often mentioned as Ethlebight’s next lord mayor. He shared my height and the broad shoulders developed from years of wielding the cleaver and pollaxe. He kept his hair short, and shorn up around the ears, which kept it from being spattered with blood. He wore the cap and leather apron of his profession, though in fact he made most of his money from moneylending, speculation, and land-dealing.
My paternal grandfather had been the first in our family to learn to read, and my father was the first to learn to write. I myself had been to a dame school for my letters, and to a grammar school for writing and recitation, after which I apprenticed with Master Dacket. I was raised with books and the beauties of poetry and the sonorities of ancient languages—for now with printed books, education was no longer the domain of monks and nobles with private tutors. What would come of that change, I felt the whole world would soon see. The profession of the law would allow me to travel, perhaps to the capital and the court of the King. For our family was rising, and I intended to rise as far as my talents would take me.
At the moment, my father was serving a well-dressed Aekoi, an older woman who had powdered her golden complexion white and painted on her face an expression of fey, perhaps even malevolent, interest. She had come with a human girl servant, who stood in the center of the room and stared down the long hall behind the counter, the hall that ended in the open courtyard at the center of the big house. I, standing behind her, could see a calf that had been slaughtered and hoisted head-downward by a chain. Its blood was draining into a large basin even as two apprentices, naked from the waist, were taking off the hide.
None of the calf would be wasted at the House of Quillifer. The hide would be sold to a tanner, the bones to a button-maker or handle-maker. The hooves would become glue. The meat would be sold, to become roasts or steaks or chops, and miscellaneous organs put into pastry for kidney or umble pie. The tripes would be cleaned and turned into sausage casings or fried chitterlings or white tripe for soups and stews. The stomach would become rennet and would be sold to a cheesemaker. Tongue would be roasted, lungs poached or stewed. The edible parts of the head would become a gelatinized loaf known as brawn, and the bladder used as a container in which other parts of the animal would be cooked. The heart would be cut into strips and cooked on skewers, the liver fried or made into pâté, and the blood itself cooked down with spices to make a kind of pudding, or mixed with oats and turned into blood sausage.
None of which was likely of interest to the servant girl, who probably ate meat only rarely. Instead, she watched the apprentices at work, the fit young men, nearly naked, who worked up and down the carcass with their sharp skinning knives.
I didn’t interrupt the girl’s reverie, or my father at the counter. Sweetbreads were wrapped in paper, the result weighed, and the Aekoi woman’s payment accepted. The Aekoi woman turned to the daydreaming servant, observed her woolgathering, and slapped her briskly across the face. The painted expression on the Aekoi’s face did not change. The girl yelped an apology, took the package, and followed her mistress out.
I waited for the customers to walk out of earshot. “That fair painted face charmed me not,” I said.
My father shrugged. “Well. Not human.”
“I’ve known humans to behave worse,” Kevin offered.
My dad nodded in the direction of the departing Aekoi. “Her name’s Tavinda. Her daughter’s the mistress of Lord Scrope, the Warden of the New Castle—the daughter may be earning the family’s living on her back, but it’s Tavinda who looks after the pennies.” He tossed the coins in his hand. “She’s always trying to barter me down.”
Kevin was curious. “Have you seen the daughter?”
“Oh, ay. Fetching enough, if you like ’em golden.”
“I’ve never”—Kevin searched for the word—“experienced an Aekoi.”
“They are as other women,” said the older man, and then—hearing his wife on the stair—added, “or so I am told.”
My mother, Cornelia, came down the stair, her white apron starched stiff and crackling, and she stood on her toes to buss me on the cheeks. Graying blond hair fell out of her cap in corkscrew curls. I basked for a moment in the warmth of maternal affection. “Why are you dressed like that?” she said. “Are you not in the office today?”
“I’m delivering a writ to a man who would run if he saw me dressed as a lawyer’s apprentice,” I said. “Kevin’s taking me in his boat.” I smiled. “And I arranged for Mrs. Vayne to send you three baskets of pearmains, just come down the river!”
“Pearmains! Oh, lovely!” She kissed my cheeks again, and I allowed myself a moment of pleasure in my mother’s benevolence.
There was a clattering on the stairs, and my two younger sisters, Alice and Barbara, appeared. They were twelve and fourteen, and had inherited the Quillifer height: both were beginning to overtop their mother.
They were both attending the grammar school, the first women in our family to learn to read and write. My father had initially been opposed to this innovation, but my mother had convinced him that it would get them husbands from the better classes.
“We’re going to the Fane to help decorate for the festival,” Cornelia said.
All the fruits of the year were to be laid at the feet of the god. “Don’t give him too many of our pearmains,” I said.
“He gets a basket of sausages,” said Alice.
Actually, the god Pastas got two baskets, which my father handed to the girls. He kissed his wife and daughters, and sent them on their way, then looked at his son in an expectant way.
“Are there any sausages for us?” I asked. “Sailing is hard work.”
“Help yourself,” said my father.
From the pantry I took some smoked pork sausages, slices of ham, a loaf of bread, a brined goat cheese, and a hard yellow cheese. The food went into a leather satchel. I took also a jug of cider from the buttery, and carried it and the satchel into the front room.
“I hope you find your quarry,” my father said. “Otherwise, I’ll have been looted for nothing.”
“Charity to the wandering sailor is accounted a fine virtue,” I said. “No doubt the god will reward you.”
“Just possibly he may.” My father regarded me with a careful eye. “Though I hope you have been doing your duty to Pastas as well.”
I looked at Kevin. “We have learned our lines.”
“Let’s hear them, then.”
“Ta-sa-ran-geh,” I recited obediently, and then Kevin joined me in the next part of the chant. “Ta-sa-ran-geh-ko.”
The chant was ancient, so ancient that no one any longer understood the words or their meaning. But it was known that the words honored Pastas Netweaver, god of the sea and principal god of Ethlebight, whose great round temple stood four leagues above the town.
The temple of Pastas had once crowned the center of the city, but as the muddy River Ostra filled in its delta, the city had followed the water and crept downstream over the centuries, and eventually the huge temple was stranded in the country. Major ceremonies were still conducted at the great old building, but a newer, smaller temple, called the Fane, had been constructed on Scarcroft Square for everyday use.
The Autumn Festival, coming just after the Assizes, was one of the great festivals of the city, and featured a ceremony at the old temple featuring the Warriors of the Sea and the Mermaids, each impersonated by young folk from the city’s leading families. Both Kevin and I were Warriors this year, and obliged to wear antique bronze armor, carry weapons, dance, and chant the incomprehensible words that honored the deity.
My father listened to the chant, nodding his head to the rhythm, and when we were finished, he clapped his big hands once.
“Very good!” he said. “But look you, it’s ren-far-el-den-sa-fa-yu, not ren-far-el-den-sa-sa-yu.”
“We are corrected,” said I. “Thank you.”
His father pointed a thick finger at me. “The god knows when you care enough to make it right.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Pastas has always had the best people in his service,” said my father. “His priests are the most important citizens of the district, who give their time and money freely.” A look of scorn crossed his face. “Not like those monks who serve the Pilgrim, and who are supported by our taxes no matter what the King claims. Let King Stilwell but stop his gold one day, and those monasteries would be deserted the next.”
I had heard these opinions before, and Kevin too. But the recollection of the festival and its Mermaids brought an uncomfortable memory to my mind.
“Father,” I said, “I should forewarn you of the possibility that you may receive a call from Master Greyson.”
The master Butcher frowned. “The surveyor? What’s the trouble?”
“A misunderstanding. You may remember that Greyson’s daughter Annabel is a Mermaid this year and . . .” My poise faded under my father’s cool eye. I put on my innocent-choirboy face. “She asked me to adjust her costume,” I said.
“And you adjusted more than that, I suppose.”
“It is possible Annabel will refuse to give my name,” I said. “In which case your peace will not be disturbed.”
My dad had received fathers on my behalf before, and did not seem unduly disturbed. “Greyson, eh? I had thought the next would be old Driver, Bethany’s father.”
“It fell out otherwise,” I said. I looked at my father. “At least I may be saved by my reputation as a steady, sober young fellow, walking the streets with his nose in a book of law.”
He answered only with a sardonic laugh, just at the moment when Mrs. Vayne’s boy arrived carrying the first basket of pearmains, and I took the opportunity to say good-bye and make my exit into Princess Street. I and Kevin turned toward the Harbor Gate.
“Annabel Greyson,” Kevin said. “I thought she fancied Richard Trotter.”
“His name did not come up.”
“And her father caught you? What happened?”
I preferred not to relive my moments hanging off the roofbeam. Instead, I looked at Kevin. “Are you well shod?”
Kevin glanced down at the glossy boots that rose to his calves. “I believe I am.”
“Those boots are too heavy,” I said. “They’ll slow you down.” I smiled. “Remember, when Sir Stanley sets his dogs on us, I need not run faster than the dogs, but only faster than you.”
“The boots serve as armor against their bites,” Kevin said. “These are good leather.”
“We’ll see.” I passed among the carts and wagons that labored through the great River Gatehouse, and from the paved apron outside I looked up at the great red brick city wall, thirty feet high, with fifty-foot towers at regular intervals. The wall’s outlines were blurred with vegetation, grass, and bushes and even a few small trees growing through cracks in the masonry.
“Look at all that rubbish,” I said. “Time for another Beating of the Bounds.” In which packs of the local children were gathered together and marched to every important point of the city, then beaten with willow withes until they could remember Rose Street from Turnip Street, the Gun Tower from the Tower of the Crescent Moon. After which they were lowered on ropes from the battlements to clear away all the vegetation that had grown up since the last cleaning.
I still remembered the whipping I’d received from old Captain Hay, when at the age of ten I’d been driven from one tower to the next. Hay had laid on as if he were flogging a mutineer.
That had been eight years ago. There hadn’t been a Beating of the Bounds since.
I would speak to my father about it. It wouldn’t do for the city to look so unkempt—and I was happy the cleaning job would be undertaken by a different generation.