Liegeman - Legion
Jim Ellison smelled Cascade long before he saw it, even before he heard it. When the stench got to the point that he could hardly breathe, he guided his horse to the side of the well-kept road, patting Ften's neck reassuringly when the huge Percheron stallion nickered questioningly at the change in their usual routine. Bending over his saddle, Jim buried his nose in the dark black mane, using the familiar, comfortable scent to try to bring down his sense of smell to a tolerable level.
It was times like this that he wondered if the Elderkin recruited his kind as liegemen as much out of mercy as how useful their gifts were in enforcing the great dragon's rule over their land. For a sentinel with all five senses enhanced, but without a shield companion to guide him, even the smallest village was a test in endurance. All that made it possible to stay long enough to do his duty, never mind live in one, was the long, solitary rides between towns. Normally, he wouldn't have been assigned to investigate a place as large as Cascade, but there had been no one to see to Elderkin Law there since its last liegeman died three years ago.
Casting an eye skyward, fully aware that Incacha flew high above him, blue velvet body and wings invisible at that great height, even to sentinel eyes, Jim muttered, "And the only reason the Brothers chose me is on the off-chance I might find a companion to woo in that mass of humanity." He snorted derisively at himself, having no illusion that any normal human would be able to tolerate him for long.
A soft chiding noise touched his mind, followed by a gentle urging to get back to the job at hand. Concentrating for a moment to send a wave of affection his foster-brother's way, Jim reluctantly sat up and nudged Ften into a quick walk. At least Cascade was a harbor town. With luck, by the time he reached the city limits the wind would have changed, blowing the worst of the stink out to sea.
Before long the road filled with traffic, both incoming and outgoing. Keeping his black cloak close around him to hide the black dragon-cast uniform he wore, Jim listened as he rode to the idle chatter of the travelers for hints of dissatisfaction or fear, frowning when he heard both, as well as a fair amount of frustration. The disgruntlement was prevalent enough that he decided abruptly that a change in plans was called for.
Though it had been his intention to go to the central Sheriff's office and introduce himself, he headed for the northeastern part of town where the stockyards were, according to the information Incacha had given him earlier. In his experience, a great deal could be learned about a populace by how they treated their animals. Given that he was obligated to ensure the gettles, especially, were well-tended and provided for, he had a good excuse for bypassing what some could consider courtesy by announcing himself to local authorities. To his mind, doing so would likely have been closer to giving advanced warning, and his first sight of the stock pens only confirmed his opinion.
Following his nose to the gettle compound by its sharp, spicy fragrance, Jim banished all expression from his face and arranged his cloak so his gun was easily accessible. Too many animals in filthy pens, no apparent water or feed troughs, and obviously untreated injuries - if he found the gettles in the same condition, someone would be in deep trouble. Wanting an idea of what he was heading into, he pulled a lock of Ften's mane painfully tight around his finger and cautiously stretched out his senses.
"Get out of my way," a man growled angrily.
"He's not well, Wilson. I swear, I swear he won't be able to make the flight to Tacoma and back, especially loaded. Use Mik-mik instead. Her birth nest was there; she'll instinctively head for it, no matter how little training she's had."
If Jim had been a cat, his ears would have pricked forward at the sound of that determined, cajoling voice. As it was he sat straighter, unconsciously urging Ften to move faster.
Wilson, obviously either the Herdsman or Wrangler for Cascade's gettle wing, snarled, "She can't carry as much as Tok-tok can, and I've been promised a bonus if the entire shipment arrives at once."
"I'm telling you, he can't make it. You'll not only lose the cargo and the commission, you'll be in trouble with the Elderkin. They call gettles 'little cousin' and take their welfare very seriously, much more seriously than they do other species, and people have been cast out of the Americas for abusing domesticated animals."
Curious now, admiring how subtly the threat had been made, Jim visually pinpointed the speaker, breath catching at the sight of him. Standing in front of a dark red gettle with mottled brown wings, a gracefully built young man in colorful wrangler's motley had his arms spread wide as if to prevent a tall, heavy gray-haired man from pushing past him. His blue eyes, the color of distant mountains, were sparkling with both intelligence and worry, and set in the face of an angel. Lush lips pressed tight when the Herdsman laughed derisively at him.
Under normal circumstances that would have been all Jim needed to call on the authority given him by the Elderkin Brotherhood. The man's next words pushed him into action. "I don't give a shit about those overgrown lizards and their laws. These beasts are mine, Sandburg, and they will earn their keep."
Giving Ften the signal to follow quietly, Jim slid out of the saddle and landed on silent feet, running at full speed for the gettle and its beautiful human protector.
"Oh, man, oh, man, obeying their Laws is the only way to keep the towns from being burned to ash and gone, and the people driven into the sea," Sandburg said earnestly, worriedly. "The Elderkin have done it in the past when Man's Curse had taken too strong a hold on the inhabitants. You do not want to be responsible for the death of a gettle." He inched backward as Wilson glowered at him, hands tightening into fists.
"Who do you think you are!" Without warning Wilson punched Sandburg in the stomach, landing another blow to his kidneys when he hunched over, arms going around his middle. "No one tells me what to do." He punctuated each word with another hit, his voice cold and deadly.
Keening wildly, the gettle swept its wings up and out, clearly ready to charge, and to Jim's amazement, Sandburg gasped out, "No, Tok-tok. No." He staggered backwards several steps, hands going up defensively.
Wilson unclipped a lethal looking metal spike with wrapped leather handle from his belt. "You say it can't fly; let's make sure of it."
As he stabbed at Sandburg, obviously not caring if he struck the man or the beast he guarded, Jim hit him from behind with both fists knotted together, square on the back of his neck. With a grunt of pain Wilson went to one knee, bracing himself with his free hand. Spinning to one side, Jim kicked away the homemade weapon and planted himself in front of him. Wilson surged upward, fist aiming for Jim's chin, but it never connected. Jim swayed back out of range, and grabbed the wrist in passing, thumb pressing agonizingly into the joint.
"If you don't want it broken," he said grimly, not breathing hard by an extreme effort, but wishing to appear stronger and more dangerous than Wilson, "You will get on your knees, now."
With a curse, Wilson swung again, but again Jim moved just past his reach. At the same time he added pressure, wringing a cry from the Herdsman. "I said down. Now."
Wilson went, face white from both shock at being bested and pain. "You have…" he gasped, "You have… no right… mine!"
"I have every right to grant Justice for man or beast, and you gave it to me when your duly elected representative confirmed my appointment as Liegeman." With a shrug Jim cast aside his cloak, showing off his high-collared uniform with the crest of flame made from red-orange fire opals on his tunic over his heart.
"False!" Wilson panted. "Faker!"
"My credentials are easy enough to prove," Jim said dismissively. "In the meantime, if you continue to resist, I will use lethal force. Do you understand? This is your only warning."
The hatred in the gaze that met Jim's was impressive, but he'd faced worse and with far more cause that the pathetic excuse for a man would ever have. Meeting it impassively, he waited until Wilson sagged down onto his heels, nodded once and released him. "Do not move. At all."
He backed away, not trusting Wilson's capitulation, until he could pick up the spike from the mud. Sparing a sidelong glance when he wanted to stare, he asked Sandburg, "Are you injured?"
"Not really. Thanks. Oh, man. Talk about timing. I think he was really going to hurt him." Sandburg stumbled to Tok-tok's side, stroking the long neck. "Easy, easy, sweetie."
Examining the sharp point, spotting traces of wyvern blood and catching the scent of it in the leather, Jim said to Wilson, "Nice tool you have here. Use it for a prod? Or worse?"
Most of his attention on the herdsman, he joined Sandburg beside the gettle, murmuring to it wordlessly in the deep, quiet tones only it and he could hear. It settled immediately, resting its great head on Sandburg's shoulder while Jim examined it with long sweeping strokes. He found several old, healed puncture wounds in the haunches, but when he reached its chest between the forelegs, he froze in place, unwilling for a moment to believe what his fingers were telling him. Anger possessed him, and he took a single step toward Wilson, struggling with the impulse to end the man, now.
Apparently reading his death in Jim's eyes, Wilson blanched, then covered his fear with a new blast of fury. He started to rise, but two things happened at once to prevent him. The first was a hoof the size of a dinner plate landing delicately on his shoulder, holding him in place; the second was Sandburg catching Jim at the elbow in a gentle grip to stop him.
"No," Sandburg murmured. "Justice first, Liegeman. Always, as given in your oath."
Oddly the reminder of a Liegeman's sworn duties frightened Wilson more than Jim's threatening stance. Between that and Sandburg's words, Jim was able to transmute his rage to determination. With a subtle gesture, he commanded Ften to guard the prisoner, repeating the order aloud so that Wilson would know what he had done. He added, "If you so much as sneeze, my horse will stomp you into the mud. He's very well trained and hasn't let a captive escape yet."
Jim gave that a moment or two to sink through Wilson's arrogance and went face-to-face with him. "He has, however, damaged a few in his time."
Without waiting for a response, Jim strode away, heading for the croft for the gettles, already expecting the worst. To his surprise, Sandburg went with him, Tok-tok in his wake, cooing conversationally as if Sandburg were his nest-mate. Sandburg cooed back, and Jim listened carefully, heart aching at the possibility they were actually communicating.
Blessedly that didn’t seem to be the case, and he dismissed the issue for the time being as he stepped through the low doorway into the croft. That, in and of itself was just wrong, but very indicative of how tiny the stalls were for the eight gettles curled on themselves on their beds, eyelids and wing tips fluttering in fear at his approach. Each was fastened to a wall with a collar and chain, and Jim wasted no time reaching for his lock-pick tools.
"Sandburg," he said, trying hard to keep the accusation out of his voice because he didn't want to believe that the wrangler could possibly be responsible for this travesty of care. "How long have you worked here?"
"Not quite three months. Please tell me you're going to take off those horrid collars." Sandburg went to the nearest, draping an arm over its back and scratching affectionately at where wing and back met, just under the defensive spines. "My name is Blair Sandburg; I'm a Student on my journeyman sabbatical before taking my professorial cap. I took this job because of curiosity about gettles and stayed because I couldn't bear leaving them to Wilson's concept of good husbandry."
From the grooves worn on the neck scales of the gettle, and the condition of the croft, they had been confined for years, not months. Hiding his relief, Jim said, "You don't have access to the keys?" He muttered nearly silently in old High Tongue at the beast he was freeing, reassuring it that he was a friend. It rubbed its muzzle against Jim's belly, calming the others with its acceptance.
"No, just the herdsman." Sandburg, pushed his hair away from his face, head hanging as if he were as guilty as Wilson. "I know, I know they need lots of room to stretch and flex their wings, and brightly lit, warm shelter, and should have dry sand beds, and, and, be allowed to hunt at least once a week, but there's no building large enough for them, and Wilson was afraid they'd hunt his milk animals and sheep grazing on the public land adjacent to the stockyards."
Throwing aside the collar with all the disgust he felt, Jim quickly examined the gettle, holding in a sigh of relief at discovering nothing that better food and care couldn't cure. A quick check of its stall showed that several layers of woven grass mats and a thick covering of straw had been put down to protect it from the wet soil that was the only flooring of the croft. Going to the next beast, he set about releasing it, pointing with his elbow at the bedding.
"Did you provide that?"
"Ah, yeah, I change it as often as I can aff… as often as I can." Taking down a pot of salve, Sandburg treated a bare spot on the freed gettle's shoulder where a scale had been lost. It cooed at him adoringly, and as soon as the collar Jim had been working on was gone, the beast it held joined his brethren at Sandburg's side.
"If they're not allowed to hunt, what are they eating?" Jim asked, moving onto the next animal. "And when? Are they getting any exercise besides their freight runs?"
Petting and soothing the gettles, Sandburg gave him a brief synopsis of the care he'd been allowed - and from his tone, allowed was a bit of a stretch as far as the truth went - to give his charges. As he spoke, Jim released all the beasts, examining each and finding all in roughly the same shape. They milled around, obviously unsure at what was expected from them, and he used the Old Tongue again, coaxing them out into the sunlight.
"Liegeman," Sandburg started hesitantly.
"I know how hungry they are," Jim said. "Wilson has earned a profit on those empty bellies; it is only right it be used to fill them. And if the sight of a gettle taking what is due offends the townsmen, then they will earn a fate they deserve. Has no one spoken against the mistreatment of the animals in this yard?"
Unhappily Sandburg admitted, "Not in my hearing, Liegeman. That does not mean they didn't think it; just that they didn't want to earn the wrath of the Herdsman."
"So now they've earned mine." Jim rubbed under the chin of the nearest gettle, thumbnail scoring along the deeply buried vein to give it pleasure. In the Old Tongue he said, "Hunt, little cousin. Hunt."
It keened, first questioningly, then in anticipation before spreading its wings, beating them until it launched itself into the air. The others quickly followed, and Jim watched them go, not surprised when a flash of blue told him Incacha flew sentry over them. Having done for them all he could for the moment, he went back inside the croft, leaving Sandburg to stare after his wards.
Kneeling in the empty stall that had to be Tok-tok's, Jim examined the bedding, surprised to find that it had been torn and frayed by fore claws. There wasn't as much straw, either, and when he visually followed the path left by its removal, he found that it had been mounded into a hole in the wall of the building, blocking a cold draft that would been painful for an over-tired and hungry beast. Hoping that the adjustments were instinctive nesting behavior, Jim double-checked the water proofing on his gloves and dug into the wet soil under the grass matting.
Almost immediately he found what he'd been looking for: milky white spheres about the size of grapes, clustered in almost the same way.
"Oh, my, god," Sandburg breathed, spotting them as he came inside. "Slithy eggs. That's why, oh, god, oh, god. How many of the gettle have the worms?"
"Only Tok-tok," Jim said flatly. "And he's too far gone to be saved. They'll have to burn down this building, and given how wet the ground is in the area, move all the pens. Each animal will have to be examined by a vet to guarantee they haven't been infected. God help us all if the Herdsman has sold contaminated meat." He cleaned his hands on the straw, stood, and left to deal with Wilson, Sandburg right behind him.
Mud on his front said that the herdsman had tried Ften's patience, and the black stare from the man as Jim approached warned that the fight was not over yet.
Taking the challenge, Jim announced calmly, "I am Liegeman James Joseph Ellison of the Chopec Elderkin clan, directed to enforce the Treaty Laws on the authority of the U.S government and the Elderkin Brotherhood, up to and including dispensing High Justice as needed. Who are you?"
"Louis Tieman Wilson, Herdsman of Cascade. This is my property; my animals."
"No longer." Jim removed an opal from his breast patch, placed it on his thumb, and activated it with a deft prick at its edge. Placing it in the center of the man's forehead and holding it as it painlessly burned into the skin there, he added, "I charge you with the neglect, abuse, and needless destruction of the livestock in your care. You are no longer a herdsman, or a resident of Cascade. You have twenty-four hours to be five miles beyond the city limits, carrying only what you can bear on your own back. Your assets will be liquidated at auction, the funds used to undo the damage you have done. If your family does not wish to share your exile, they will be granted a pension to see to their welfare. If you wish to appeal my decision, you must speak to your representative before you leave. He will contact you if the appeal goes in your favor."
Jim lifted away his hand, and Wilson instantly felt his forehead, fingers tracing the brand of the exile left by the opal. He roared and tried to stand again, but Jim simply slammed both fists on his shoulders, driving him back onto his knees. "Not yet," he ordered. "I still have business to see to here. Don't worry, the clock won't start ticking until I've seen to the legalities."
Snarling, but hunching forward as Ften nudged him warningly, Wilson subsided, no doubt planning Jim's painful, degrading death. "Get in line," Jim said to himself, and took a deep breath to prepare for what had to be done next. Ignoring the worried, wondering look Sandburg had aimed at him, Jim reached into his belt lining and took out a gold coin.
Handing it to Sandburg, Jim said, "Would you see that my actions are publicized in all the appropriate places, starting with the nearest sheriff's office, and hire an auctioneer? Tell the desk Sergeant I'll be in shortly to sign off on my official testimony." At Sandburg's concerned glance at the sky, he added, "I'll stay right here until you're back, I promise."
Though obviously still worried, Sandburg nodded his agreement and took off. Jim watched him go, surprised that his hearing latched onto him, giving him the strangest feeling that he ran beside the Student. More surprising was how easy it was to stay locked on him, and Jim inspected the other animal pens, relegating Sandburg to pleasant background noise.
Despite the Liegeman's order to go to the sheriff's station first, Blair ran straight for the nearest notary's office. Ignoring the aches from the drubbing Wilson had given him, he took the back alleys because they were drier and less crowded than the main thoroughfares, and he could move faster. On the way, every time he saw someone he knew in passing or a fellow pedestrian staring up at the sky, he would stop and pant out, "Liegeman shut down Herdsman Wilson; fed the gettles from the stockyard and let them go. Called it Justice for mistreatment."
He didn't exactly lie, and hopefully his version of what happened would counteract the wilder rumors that would likely already be spreading at the sight of an entire flight of gettles on wing. At the notary's, he quickly wrote up as accurate an account of the Liegeman's actions at the stockyard as he could manage, signed it, paid to have it notarized, and used some of the change to have copies made and posted on all the public notice boards. His next stop was at the newspaper where he spoke to an acquaintance that worked there, giving Cassie the complete low-down, right to the deadly slithy infection in the compound. The best auctioneer in town was only a few blocks over, and, he agreed to be at the stockyard at first light the next day, not without a certain amount of satisfaction at Wilson's fate, Blair decided.
From there he wanted to go to the courthouse to have Ellison's judgment entered into the official records, intending to make it clear that the Liegeman had initially acted on the behalf of the Elderkin's 'little cousins,' which would hopefully slow down any negative bureaucratic reaction. The only way to get there took him in the direction a sheriff's office, and Blair put on a burst of speed, hoping to get by it without being noticed. Luck wasn't with him. Deputy Burke stretched out an arm and snagged Blair by the collar as he raced by a doorway, easily hauling him back without so much as a grunt of effort.
Instantly Blair babbled, "Liegeman at stockyard, you gotta go help Wilson, he's been forced to sit in the mud while being stripped of everything he owns, the gettles are already loose and terrorizing the other animals."
For a moment he thought the short, bulky lawman wouldn't buy it, but apparently Blair's speed and route convinced him that Blair had been heading for him because he and Wilson were unofficial business partners. "Just one liegeman?" Burke rumbled, ambling away and dragging Blair with him. "Why couldn't Louie handle him on his own?"
"Caught him by surprise, I think," Blair said, relieved that he could be completely truthful to the all too suspicious Burke. He saw no point in revealing that Ellison had an enormous warhorse with him, the kind bred for intelligence and loyalty. Or that the gettles obeyed the Liegeman faster and easier than they would obey him, for some reason.
"Huh. I hadn't heard one was in town, which means I can handle this imposter any way I want without worrying about the lizards getting their tails in a knot. Not my fault if the real thing didn't identify himself right away." Burke ran his free hand through his skull-short blonde hair, sounding positively gleeful at the prospect of taking on a liegeman.
Stomach twisting in pain, Blair realized that Ellison was as good as dead. Burke had no intention of giving him the chance to defend himself or gain the support of the more upright citizens of Cascade. With Wilson to back whatever claim he made, Burke could shoot to kill without warning.
That left it up to Blair to make sure Ellison got one. Letting Burke tow him along, he pummeled his brain, trying to think of a way to alert Ellison to the oncoming danger. If he shouted or tried to raise a ruckus… wait, noise? What was it he'd read about how liegemen were chosen? Something about heightened senses… sentinels? If Ellison was expecting trouble, and he had to be, right, because as a liegeman he had to be experienced enough in human nature to know that abrupt change brought out the worse in people, so he'd be watching and listening, right? God, let him be listening.
"Lawman Burke, do I have to go back there with you? I could get in trouble, you've got the whole City Council on your side, since they approved you and the Herdsman as the stockyard owners, but if Liegemen Ellison accuses me of interfering, I'll be blackballed from ever working as a wrangler again." Blair tried to put subtle but definite emphasis on names and titles, hoping to catch Ellison's attention with them.
"I wouldn't worry about that, Sandburg," Burke laughed, turning Blair's blood to ice.
Of course, he won't want any witnesses to contradict whatever story he and Wilson comes up with, Blair thought, hoping the knowledge didn't show on his face. Before he had time to wonder how much longer he had, they reached the broad lane that led to the gettle croft. The scene at the end of it was much the same as when Blair had left; Wilson on his knees, the warhorse guarding him, Ellison staring into the sky overhead.
His warning hadn't been heard, then, either because Ellison was distracted or because Blair hadn't remembered correctly about the senses. Not sure if a shout now would make a difference, Blair took a deep breath and braced himself to wrench away. Before he could act, Burke pulled his gun from his side holster and aimed at Ellison.
Because the grip on him was intended to prevent him from escaping, Blair changed direction and rammed into Burke, apparently the last thing he expected. Burke staggered, shot going wild, regained his balance, and shoved Blair to the ground. Snarling, he pointed his gun at Blair, only to have it shot from his hand an instant later. With a howl of pain, he ran at Ellison just as Wilson did the same, springing up from the ground so fast the horse didn't have time to do more than rear, hooves flashing.
Scrambling to his feet, Blair chased the lawman and tackled him at the knees, managing topple him face first into the muck. Though the air was knocked out of him from the impact, Blair tried to roll away as Burke twisted to grab at him. He caught Blair by the pants leg, used that as leverage to get a handhold on the waistband. Kicking and squirming, Blair dragged himself by the elbows, intent on getting loose.
He didn't succeed, and Burke landed on top of him, weight ending any possibility of fleeing. A huge hand slammed into the back of Blair's head, pushing his face into the mud. Unable to breathe, he tried to get his hands and knees under himself, sliding through the slippery muck and bucking with all his strength. He won a good, deep lungful before Burke shoved him back down, kneeling on Blair's back to hold him down.
Sparks flitting through the darkness behind his closed eyes, Blair swatted and scratched at the fist pinning him down. In a second he was either going to be unconscious or inhaling dirt, neither of which promised to be beneficial for his health. Already he could feel the burning ache of suffocation in his chest, and his arms felt so heavy as he fought Burke, he could hardly move them.
From a great distance he heard a gunshot, then Burke wasn't on top of him any more. Thrashing to his back, Blair frantically scraped away mud until he could inhale through his mouth, then cleared his nostrils and eyes. As soon as he dared, he looked for his enemy, ready to give battle as best he could.
Burke was staring empty-eyed into the heavens, a hole in his forehead, blood and brain matter seeping into the soggy earth. Gagging, Blair turned away, right into Ellison's arms. Hanging on for all he was worth, Blair choked and gasped while sure, knowledgeable fingers traveled over his limbs, abdomen, and throat looking for injury.
As he examined him, Jim murmured, "It's okay, take it easy, Chief, take long, slow breaths, that's it, that's it. Forgive me that you had to see that. I was uncertain I could reach you in time. It was too near a thing as is."
"Closer than I ever wish to be again," Blair muttered. He ached from head to toe, and was suddenly so cold, his teeth were chattering.
Ellison whistled softly, apparently to summon his horse, because Blair heard the soft 'clop' of its hooves as it moved closer. "Thank you, Ften," Ellison said formally, and Blair had to wonder if it was because of how much the huge animal understood. Stretching up without loosening his hold on Blair, Ellison removed a small packet from a saddlebag, shook it free of its folds, and draped the resulting material over him. As a blanket it looked too flimsy to be of much use, but surprisingly, Blair felt warmer almost immediately.
"Ften, water, please. Bucket at pump." As the horse obeyed the polite order, Ellison undid another blanket, this time flipping it out so that it drifted down to cover Burke's corpse. Blair didn't watch, and as if his silent aversion were an accusation of some kind, Ellison said, "I did not desire either death, despite my rage earlier. The herdsman fell on his own pike while trying to take my weapon from me."
Amazed that he had totally forgotten Wilson, Blair peeked over Ellison's shoulder, spied the awkward sprawl of another body, and buried his face in the curve of Ellison's shoulder. "I didn't like either of them very much, and if I were asked to speak for them, I couldn't, but it is disturbing that I was involved in their deaths."
"They made their choices; this is one instance where I can definitely say a man's end came from his own mistakes." Ellison's voice was so cold, that Blair felt nearly compelled to defend Wilson and Burke. Not giving him a chance, Ellison went on. "I must seek out the sheriff's office to report the circumstances of their demise, and arrange to have experts brought here to read the ground sign before the rain washes it all away. Are you up to making a statement?"
"They'll arrest you," Blair said absently, futilely trying to rub away some of the muck on his face.
"That's good, Ften. Put it down right there." Ellison removed a glove and flicked another gem from his patch, dropping it into the water. To Blair he said, "It will be the last mistake any inhabitant of this city will ever make. Do you really think the Elderkin would send me into a place this size without providing me with reinforcements in case of need?"
Clutching at Ellison's tunic, Blair said urgently, "The whole city doesn't deserve to burn because of the scattered pockets of Man's Curse infecting it! Most of the people believe in the wisdom of the Elderkin, that Man's propensity for cruelty and greed needs to be curtailed, that these lands are a chance for humanity to outgrow the Curse forever."
"Yet it has taken root here."
Ellison took out his handkerchief, dipped it into the bucket, and wiped Blair's cheek. Primed for a cold clean up, Blair was happily startled to discover the water had been heated. It had been forever since his last hot wash, let alone hot bath, and he couldn't stop a sigh of pleasure. A second late he guiltily tried to commandeer the cloth to scrub himself.
Tucking Blair's hand back under cover, Ellison said, "If you are to witness for me, it couldn't hurt to look more presentable, and I can see where the dirt is - and the damage. This will help heal, as well." He paused, obviously choosing his words with care, and said, "Some of these bruises are old."
"Wilson had a heavy hand," Blair admitted easily. "Before you ask, I thought only to remain until an inspection turned up Wilson's abuse of the stock, but when I realized that the deputy assigned that task was in league with Wilson, I hung my hopes on a liegeman arriving to see to the gettles. Thank you for your timely arrival! "
With a grin that totally erased the austere image he projected, Ellison said, "We can declare ourselves to be even then, as by the time we reach the sheriff's office, half the town will have been in to ask if it's true a liegeman has taken over the stockyards, thanks to you acting on your familiarity of the local politics instead of my directions. Though the woman at the newspaper has enlivened the story considerably, from what I've heard. The deputies won't be able to pretend I'm not who I say I am, and it will be more difficult to conceal the evidence of Wilson's law breaking."
"You listened for me?" Blair asked in delight.
"You have a very…distinctive voice." Ellison stood, urging Blair to do the same with a palm under his elbow. "Steady, there."
Telling himself that he was being ridiculous, the liegeman couldn't have possibly started to use a more complimentary word, Blair asked, "Then why weren't you ready for Burke when he pulled his gun on you?"
To Blair's surprise, Ellison hung his head, jaw muscle jumping in agitation, covering his emotion by brushing at the mud on Blair's motley shirt so that it slid off cleanly. "I was Lost in one of my senses, as happens with my kind. Sight. Gettles in flight…."
"Oh, my, yes," Blair put in softly. "It's a glory even when all you can see is specks hundreds of yards overhead." He slapped at his trousers, glad that the dark gray weave hid the worst of the dirt embedded in it between the multihued cast-off gettle scales layered over the fabric.
Stepping back to survey the success of his efforts to tidy Blair up, Ellison asked, "Did you do the patchwork yourself? The stitches are tight and close; difficult to do as hard as the scales are."
"Yes, but certainly worth it when a playful bump from a gettle knocks you into a wall. Not only are the scales beautiful colors, but there is nothing like them for protection against the usual rough and tumble ways of the beasts. What amazes me is how lightweight they are." Blair lifted an arm to admire the bright jewel tones covering it, and Ellison used it to tow him toward Ften.
"How else would they be able to fly?" Ellison asked reasonably. "You'll have to do for now; we can visit the baths later. Ready?"
"As I can be." Blair took a deep breath and turned for the lane back into town. Before he took a step, Ellison put on his glove, mounted his horse, and bent over, offering his hand. "Ften is more than strong enough to carry both of us. Will you ride?"
Blair stared into the vivid blue eyes gracing a face of patrician perfection, and for a mad moment wished another sort of ride entirely was being offered. But liegemen didn't dally for sport outside of the mountain retreats where they made their home, or so he'd been mournfully told, and Blair only had about a year of his sabbatical left before he had to return to the University. Still, despite Ellison's claim otherwise, he owned a debt to the man, one that perhaps could be paid by acting as a second set of hands for him while he did his duty by Cascade.
Ellison waited for Blair to decide, somehow giving the impression that time had ceased to exist and there was only this moment, infinite and unchanging, where patience didn't need to exist. Was that part of him naturally, Blair wondered distractedly, or a skill learned from working with long-lived dragon kind? Admitting to himself that was just one of the many questions he wanted, almost needed to ask, he smiled and put his hand in Ellison's.
Jumping as Ellison pulled, Blair found himself sitting in front of the liegeman, clinging to the pommel of the saddle. "Whoa, high. Very high. Monstrously high."
"Don't look down," Ellison advised, with only a trace of humor in his tone, which Blair supposed he was entitled to. Despite that, after he directed Ften to cover Wilson's body with his cloak, he spread a hand over Blair's middle to hold him in place securely.
Taking the advice, Blair peered ahead, impressed by how much he could see from his taller vantage point. Because horses in Cascade were only used for public transport, emergency and delivery vehicles, Ften attracted a great deal of startled attention on his own. When people saw who was astride him, their expressions reflected fear and guilt, almost to the person.
That worried Blair, much more than the ones who furtively slid out of view. Criminals were not normally the purview of liegemen, as their trespasses were the concern of the local law officers. That didn't mean that they would be ignored if they stumbled into the path of an on-duty liegeman.
Ellison seemed to take the scrutiny for granted, but Blair could feel the tension in the hard body behind him. Without thinking he inched back, fractionally, until he was snug against the solid stomach, and pried one hand up from the pommel to lie over the one Ellison had on him. A silent sigh trifled with Blair's curls in the back, and Ellison pressed closer to Blair without visibly moving.
"You represent change to them, you know," Blair murmured. "Unpredictable, nearly whimsical, possibly radical. They fear that more than they fear being found guilty of Man's curse."
"Are you a Student of Man, then, Sandburg? Will you return to your university to educate physicians, midwives, nurses and teachers on why people do what they do, and how to use that knowledge to aid them in their professions?" Ellison breathed his questions into Blair's ear, sending a shiver down Blair's spine that was one of the most pleasant sensations he'd ever known.
Surprised his voice was steady, Blair said, "I am, though in truth, I think I may have been born one. My mother is an Entertainer. I traveled extensively with her as a child, even to the Old World several times, very often as the only youngster in the company of the adults. It seems I have always been seeking to understand why a practice is forbidden here, ignored there, and celebrated elsewhere."
"The Elderkin believe firmly in practical experience," Ellison said off-handedly, "and would approve of your journeys. I've traveled to the Old World, as well, as part of my training. Nothing communicates the Elderkin message of natural conservation and personal equality as clearly as seeing for yourself how ravaged and sickly too much of Europe, Asia and Africa is, even while a selfish, greedy few enjoy privilege and wealth. The disparity in condition will, I truly believe, catch up with the aristocracy sooner rather than later."
It was on the tip of Blair's tongue to ask where Ellison had been, specifically, and why he thought rebellion brewed there, but before he could speak, Ellison drew the horse up in front of the sheriff's office. He didn't dismount, and the momentary respite from silent stares they had found in their conversation dissipated quickly. When a crowd began to form, Ellison broke it up with a subtle order to Ften to prance about as if anxious. Blair wondered what he was waiting for, but remained motionless when Ellison kept him close.
After a few minutes a Deputy Sergeant appeared on the top of the flight of steps that led into the station, his men and women gathering on either side of him. Resting his hand on the grip of his weapon belligerently, he other hooked into his belt, expression bland. "Can I be of assistance, Liegeman?"
"Yes, I'd like to see your records of the inspections done in the stockyards for the past two years." Ellison's tone was polite, but unyielding, and he still made no move to dismount.
Pinning on what had to be a painful smile, the Sergeant said, "Please tell me you haven't been listening to tales from that good-for-nothing wrangler. He's been a problem from the time Herdsman Wilson took him on, and would have been dismissed before now if Wilson were less generous."
Blair stiffened, but didn't defend himself. Nor did it seem he needed to. Ellison said mildly, "On what do you base those allegations, Sergeant? Have you personally seen him cause trouble; have there been formal charges? Do you have any evidence at all besides hearsay from a man who has a clear motive for wanting an employee's character besmirched?"
The pain from the smile grew obvious. "Why Liegeman, he's a wrangler. What more needs to be said?"
This time Blair had to fight to keep silent. Wranglers were respected tradesmen anywhere but in Cascade, where Wilson had hired the worst of the worst because they came cheaply. Many, like Blair himself, had been common laborers with no training.
In a deadly cold voice Ellison answered, "Since when does a decent, self-respecting deputy draw conclusions based solely on the profession or social status of the people he or she serves? Now, where are those records?"
"I'm afraid they've been lost," the Sergeant said tightly, and Blair had no doubt that everyone present could tell they had never existed.
"Then I will speak to the officers who performed the last three inspections; I'll wait if they need to be summoned."
"Ah… Deputy Burke is not available."
"One officer?" Ellison said flatly, the question a subtle reminder that the law said the task had to be rotated among all the sheriff's men.
"Are you responsible for assigning the duty?"
Sweating, nervously tapping his belt, the Sergeant admitted, "Yes."
"Then you are in violation of both federal and Elderkin statues. Please remove your weapon and badge and surrender them to your next in command. You will be informed if official charges will be brought."
For a long, tense moment the Sergeant stared at the Liegeman, who returned it evenly, each assessing the threat from the other. The other deputies took no side in the silent struggle, though Blair thought a few, especially the women, were pleased at the lawman's predicament. Guessing that Ellison would want him out of the way so he could draw his gun if necessary, Blair circumspectly slumped forward, letting the saddle hold him place.
Finally the Sergeant broke, glancing about to see if he had any support from his own people or from the bystanders who kept a respectful distance from Ften's sharp hooves. Finding none, he swore viciously and ripped off the badge, throwing it to the ground. A heavy black man with a grim expression stepped forward, barely avoiding the gun the Sergeant threw in his face. When the Sergeant made a move to go back inside the station, the same deputy blocked the doorway, heading shaking stubbornly.
Once the Sergeant stormed away, Ellison circumspectly tapped Blair on the thigh, telling him to stay put, and dropped lightly to the ground. As he climbed to the top of the steps, he caught each deputy's eye. "Will you choose a new Sergeant by seniority or consensus? The post will be temporary until an official investigation of your station has been completed, and a new desk sergeant assigned."
After a few minutes of jockeying and muttered comments, the Sergeant's second was nudged forward. "I'm Joel Taggart; I'll fill in for now."
"Will you please send reliable officers to the stockyard to investigate the deaths there?"
Ellison's subtle emphasis on the word 'reliable' caused Deputy Taggart to pause, but he snapped an order to the man and woman who had urged him to step up. With quiet authority he said to Ellison, "Details, please."
Using a verbal shorthand that Blair found fascinating, Ellison described everything that happened from the time he'd arrived at the stockyard. Though he stood at attention as he spoke, much of his stiffness eased as Taggart listened attentively, asking sharp questions to clarify specific points. When Ellison was done, he half-turned to gesture to Blair to join them and give his statement. With what he could only consider a barely controlled fall, Blair dismounted and did as asked, acutely aware of the audience they still had.
When he was done, Taggart said, "This will have to be reported to the City Council." Blair heard a warning under the natural-seeming comment. One that didn't have anything to do with Taggart disbelieving Ellison's account and much to do with the likelihood the Council would be inimical.
"Of course. I already have several matters to discuss with them." Ellison eyed several of the deputies for no reason that Blair could discern, but which put them very obviously on their guard. "Such as, how were the Sergeant and Deputy Burke able commit their crimes without hindrance? Why did their own officers not stop them? It's plain they were blatant in their abuse of their position."
"Aye, we knew," one deputy muttered, turning away to hide her shame, Blair thought. "But there are a thousand small, hurtful ways a commanding officer can make a padfoot's life plain hell, and if you complain, well, you could end up alone when you should be able to count on your comrades-in-arms."
Showing no compassion, Ellison said quietly, "Why did you not count on them to begin with? Many are stronger than one or two, if you only speak up."
Blair saw more shame and some rising anger among the deputies, but Ellison ignored it. "It may be that Federal Marshals will come in and replace your force for a time. If the Council is difficult about the problems here, it may all become a moot point."
"Then on behalf of the City Council and Sheriff's department, may I formally request time to clean house?" Blair turned to see a tall, well-built black man stride up the steps, two at a time. Captain's bars decorated his shoulders, and he exuded authority as naturally as Ellison did. "Captain Simon Banks, formerly of the marshals, and if you had arrived two days later, I would have been again."
He offered his hand and Ellison took it. "Liegeman James Ellison. I take it you were originally hired as a sop to the citizenry complaining of corrupt officials and officers."
"Then blocked at every turn, if not out-and-out threatened to keep my nose out of any problem I wasn't directed to investigate by the council itself." Banks made the admission easily, but tacked on persuasively, "Which didn't stop honest people from coming forward and giving me evidence to present to the federal authorities, many fearing retribution from those they reported."
"Are you willing to make accusations against specific deputies or city officials?" The question sounded like a formality, as if Ellison thought it inevitable Cascade would burn.
"I am," Banks said firmly.
"Are there any in authority you would trust to act on behalf of the city and its citizens?"
Unable to hide a grimace, Banks nevertheless said promptly, "Bureaucracies are run more by the clerks and record keepers hired long-term for their expertise than by the elected administrators who come and go on the whims of their constituents. I have no doubt that what needs to be done, will be, and fairly, regardless of the changes that may be in the offing."
Ellison frowned deeply, and Blair could all but see an invisible scale in the liegeman's mind slowly tipping down in favor of destroying Cascade. "Business will continue on as usual," he said impulsively, putting a hand on Ellison's arm without thinking. "Merry, the basket maker who wove the grass matting for me without charge, will sell her wares to the many housewives and shop keepers who helped her gather the grasses when the need was explained. Toby, the stable boy, will continue to trap the rats that always plague the city, though he'll have to kill them himself now rather than bring them to the gettle croft for the small sport they provided. My favorite grocer, Mathias, will make his deliveries in the little wagon pulled by the horse he nursed back to health after buying it from Wilson rather than let him put it down because it couldn't work any longer."
"Widow Marlin will keep taking in sewing, along with whatever child needs a mother, a hot meal, a roof," an unknown woman said from the edges of the crowd.
"Smithy Kelso will shoe horses and lend his strong shoulder to any task that needs done for those too weak or ill to do themselves," another anonymous person said.
The crowd murmured names and deeds, sounding like a soft wind in the leaves, seemingly without repeating itself a single time. Head cocked to listen, Ellison stared down at where Blair touched him, apparently perplexed at being coaxed to temper his judgment.
Using that as his cue, Blair said into a moment of silence, "Have you ever been greeted by anything but rage, fear, defiance from the towns people you must judge? Surely the behavior of the citizens here prove that there is much good, much worth saving, in Cascade."
"If all the current Council Members were turned out with no possibility of ever holding a public office again, there would be a chance to rebuild a solid administration," Banks added.
Ellison continued to study Blair's hand, jaw muscle working, but he said slowly, "If their assets are seized as well, all of them, even personal items, until it is determined that they were acquired by legitimate means."
"Done." Banks gestured to several of the men he'd arrived with. "Right now, before they can flee or hide the evidence of their greed."
With a shiver only Blair could perceive, Ellison gently pulled away, leaving Blair feeling oddly bereft. "I do not have the authority to give Cascade a reprieve. One of the Elderkin Brothers will have to do so, and it is very, very likely they will demand proof that your city can be redeemed. I have no idea what they will consider appropriate."
"It's better than ash and gone," Banks said, his relief showing only as a slight relaxing of the tight line of his shoulders.
Doubtfully Ellison said, "Maybe in the long run, but for now - do you have enough men to safely carry out your orders?"
"There are marshals here, old friends of mine," Banks said with a promise of a smile. "Supposedly they're on leave, but in truth came because they were as worried as I was that I might not be allowed to depart unhindered by those who fear how much I know and what I could prove. They'll be delighted to do a little cleaning up."
"Very well, then. Bring the council members to the Dragon's Courtyard at the city hall as quickly as possible, and do not discourage towns people who wish to be present. I'll confer with the Brothers and announce their decision then." With a nod of farewell, Ellison left, taking Blair with him by placing a palm in the center of his back.
Faster than Blair would have thought possible, he was back on Ften, who picked his way carefully through the assembly before breaking into a trot. As soon as they were clear of bystanders, Blair asked diffidently, "You can decide to burn, but not to burn?"
"I'm human, and we can be talked into going against our better judgment," Ellison said mildly.
"And the Elderkin don't question your decision otherwise?" It wasn't until the hand over his belly clenched into a fist that Blair realized that he had obliquely asked Ellison if he had ever called for fire, though that hadn't been his intent. Or perhaps, if he were being honest with himself, not specifically.
"I would not have been sent to Cascade if they were not certain of my ability to do my duty." Ellison's answer was just as indirect. "A consultation with the attending Elderkin is normal procedure."
Before Blair could formulate an apology subtle enough to match Ellison's reserved manner, they reached city hall, riding around to the back to the ramp that led to the wide, flat rooftop deck. All cities and towns had a formal landing place for visits from the Elderkin, seldom used though they were. This one was in ill repair, with untrimmed tree branches over head and various obstacles on the floor making it difficult to approach from above.
Despite that, a magnificent specimen of dragon-kind sat on his haunches waiting for them, apparently not at all perturbed by the fact his perch was unwelcoming. Fully twice as tall as Blair was while on Ften, he had his wings tucked close and tail wrapped around his hands and feet, and Blair breathlessly estimated that he was probably twenty-five feet long from nose to tip, which meant his wing span was at least twice as wide. He was mottled in deep shades of blue, much the same color as the twilight sky, though his eyes were a vivid emerald green, with the vertical pupil a slightly deeper shade.
In the few moments Blair had to admire the Elderkin, Ften fearlessly mounted a broad platform next to the dragon that brought the riders eye-to-eye with him. Jim mystifyingly breathed deep and fast several times before tapping Blair to ask him to stay put and dismounting. He walked straight into the dragon's suddenly unfurled wings, as if into a hug, and laid his head on the great chest as the wings hid him from Blair's view.
Open-mouthed, Blair strained to hear the deep crooning from the dragon as he bent his head to Jim's level, which was vaguely reminiscent of the coos of a gettle, but clearly carrying meaning. Try though he might, he couldn't make out Ellison's part of the conversation, and he had to wonder if it was all business, or if Ellison had private things to say to his Elderkin friend. The thread of jealously under that possibility un-nerved him so thoroughly that he fidgeted in his seat, playing with the idea of slipping away.
Ften snorted and pawed at the planking underfoot, and Blair jumped guiltily. The dragon swung his head up, eyes catching and holding Blair's, instantly mesmerizing him. There was an energy, a power emanating from the dragon, waking a matching something in Blair that reached back, and he said without consciously deciding to speak, "I am Student Blair Sandburg, of Rainier University, recently wrangler to Cascade's gettles."
"Incacha, Chopec Clan, Elderkin Guardian, paternal kith and priest-guide to this sentinel. Is it true that you believe that this sore on the face of our Earth can be healed?"
With utter confidence that he vaguely grasped would shock him later, Blair said, "Yes. Not easily, not without pain, but it can be done, and should be done. Where you see rich soil for corrupt men to put down roots of cruelty and greed, unseen in the masking throng around them, I see the opportunity to learn how to end that as an unavoidable consequence of a town growing into a large city."
He leaned forward over Ften's neck to get closer to the dragon, for once not worried about keeping his balance. "Cascade reached this size because mankind needs a support system for scholars and researchers who seek to improve the quality of living and general health of our species. Because artists, musicians, writers and craftsmen need patrons to sponsor them, varied audiences to respond to their work, freedom to create with the distraction of earning their bread, that can only be found in a large population. Because many hands make onerous tasks lighter, such as building ships."
"Or weaving grass mats," Incacha murmured laughingly, a thread of smoke rising from the corner of his muzzle.
Blair chuckled and asked frivolously, "Have you ever seen a sewing bee? Talk about pooling resources, though I'm not sure it's the number of hands or the non-stop talking that gets the job done!" He grew serious again. "Cities such as Cascade are new to us here in the Americas. The only example we have are the ones in the Old World, and that's really only a model of what not to do. In truth, Elder, what harm can come from the attempt to repair the damage done by a few? You can always burn if we fail."
With an uncanny stillness that uneasily reminded Blair that he was addressing a specimen of the premier predator on the planet, Incacha regarded him thoughtfully for far too long. Finally he said, "Humans have an expression that fits here quite well - putting your money where your mouth is. Are you willing to do that, Student Sandburg?"
Swallowing hard, Blair said, "Within reason."
Another trickle of smoke escaped, and Incacha said, "Very well, then. For the next three days Liegeman Ellison will mete out High Justice to the Citizens of Cascade. All who feel that they have not been treated fairly by the courts or the lawmen, all who believe their case would not be justly tried for whatever reason, who think they have a problem that cannot be fairly solved by the system as it currently exists, may step forward to be heard. You will act as Ellison's aid-de-camp, and be held as responsible for his verdicts as he is."
Thankfully Incacha didn't seem to expect an immediate answer, and Blair thought fast and hard before asking, "And if I don't agree with his rulings?"
"You are asking us to trust your opinion on the worth of this city; we are asking you to do the same. We are not infallible, but we will try very hard to do what will benefit the most," Incacha said solemnly.
As far as Blair could see there was no option that wouldn't cheapen the stand he had taken or diminish himself in his own eyes. "I reserve the right to debate privately with Ellison before he announces his final decisions."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Ellison said quietly.
"Nor I." Incacha lifted his voice until it rolled into the sky like thunder. "Let it be known to all residents of Cascade that High Court will be held for three days, beginning at sunrise on the morrow on the central green, to continue until sunset of each day."
Blair hadn't noticed Jim slipping away from the cover of Incacha's wings, and tuned out the rest of the Elderkin's pronouncement to look over the throng now surrounding the deck on three sides. The dismissed council members had arrived while he was absorbed in his conversation, along with Banks and his deputies, a contingent of Federal marshals, and a wildly divergent mix of shopkeepers, business owners, dockworkers, teamsters, office clerks, bankers, homemakers, servants, barflies, street arabs, and just about every variety of professional who plied his trade in Cascade. It seemed as if all of them were focused on him, though in truth it was most likely the dragon that held their attention.
Behind the cover of Ften's flank, Ellison pressed a small purse into Blair's hand. "Take this and see to what needs done for our ordeal. We won't eat or drink anything that doesn't come from our own hand until the Court is over; please keep that in mind when you choose our provisions. Oh, and be generous with the coin wherever appropriate, to remind shopkeepers that we have nothing against wealth; just wealth carried on the backs of the impoverished. There's a Liegeman's campsite hidden a short ride from here. Ften knows the way, so take him with you, then tell him to find me when you're ready to join me for the evening."
Noticing the angry gentry, along with their hired guards, penned in by Banks' men, Blair whispered, "You'll be safe?"
Glancing at the prisoners, Ellison shook his head. "Right now they're convinced their current troubles are a storm they can weather. That once you and Banks have convinced me to leave, they'll be able to continue on as before. Oh, they'll complain loudly and frequently when Incacha strips them of wealth, following their corruption to all he can find infected with it, but it won't be until they realize that they'll never have the chance to recoup their losses that they'll become dangerous."
He summoned the promise of a smile. "There will be a small lull in the complications of your life, Student Sandburg. Enjoy it while it lasts."
"Blair, please. I have the feeling we'll be sharing a tighter space than the one I had with the gettles. Formality will only make it feel smaller, I think."
"If you will, then I'm Jim." A noisy rumble of discontent swelled from the prisoners, and he jerked his head around to study at them.
Doing the same, Blair returned his attention to Incacha in time to overhear, "… quite fond of math, actually. I have no doubt that the figures that you use to determine what items and services should cost what amount will hold no mystery for me. And yes, I am quite aware that it will take some time, and no, you will not be allowed to return to your homes until I am satisfied that you have a legal, legitimate claim to them and their contents. May I ask who owns the tenement buildings four blocks south of here? You? Excellent. I believe the top floors are empty; you and the rest of the defendants can stay there while we straighten these matters out. Surely they are in good repair and comfortably heated. After all, you expect others to live there for considerable sums…."
For Jim only, Blair murmured, "It might be more entertaining to listen to him hoist those greedy, self-serving would-be aristocrats on their own petard."
"I'll share the best bits with you. Now, groceries, Sandburg. Oh, and formal day wear would be appropriate for tomorrow." Jim slapped Ften lightly on the flank, putting him in motion.
With no choice but to hang on, Blair sent him an irritated glare, which he couldn't maintain in the face of the flash of laughter in Jim's eyes. Almost against his will he grinned, and clumsily took up the reins. "Okay, it's just you and me, Big Guy," he said to Ften. "And I sincerely hope you're as bright as I think you are, because I've ridden about six times in my entire life."
Ften chuffed at him in what Blair was willing to swear was amusement, and ambled along much more leisurely than he had when Jim had held the reins. That suited Blair just fine, and he gave directions with a careful tug and muttered left or right or whoa, let the carriage go through first. They arrived at the market without mishap and perhaps the growth of a tiny bit of confidence in each other, or at least that was Blair's hope.
The stop at the green grocer didn't take long - the selection wasn't very good this early in the spring, though he did find some large, sweet strawberries. To his surprise, once he was back in the saddle, Ften took off on his own, ignoring Blair's attempts to steer him. When he came to a halt in front of a bakery shop, Blair slapped his own forehead. "Of course, as much time as Jim has to spend on the road, I bet fresh bread is a treat beyond treats. And that gives me a few ideas."
He hurried inside, made several very careful selections, and went back out with a large, stale crust that he happily fed to Ften, filling him in on his plans as the horse munched. Far faster than would have been possible if he'd been on his own two feet, his errands were done, and he sat to one side of an intersection, uncharacteristically of two minds about where to go next. A bath was definitely in order, and on the one hand, the public baths had huge pools of hot water for soaking, as well as hot showers that he liked when washing his hair. There was also the possibility of companionship, however brief and superficial.
On the other, he kept most of his possessions, including his good suit, in a small closet in a home owned by a young couple who earned part of their living taking in boarders and travelers. The amount he paid for the service was small, but helpful to them, and on occasion when they'd had an empty room, he'd slept there in a warm, dry, spacious bed for far less than others were charged for the space. They would provide a bath for him - cramped, fast, and the minimum of hot water - and be glad of the extra money he could provide. Not to mention it would save another stop because his clothes were there.
Mentally weighing the pros and cons for both destinations, Blair let himself dwell a moment too long on the public baths and what could happen there. In his mind's eye he saw the circumspect approach of a tall, muscular man, heard the equally tactful proposition and retreat to a private corner. It would be so good, for all its furtive, hasty nature: a hot mouth in the right place, soft obscene sounds, smooth taut flesh against his own, male scent rich in the air, Jim's blue eyes beseeching…
Ften stomped impatiently, pulling Blair from his musings with a nasty snap of nerves in the pit of his stomach. Not only was this not the right time and place for such fancies, he reminded himself staunchly, but it was dangerous to give too much thought to knowing Jim in that manner. Not in the tight circumstance they would share for the next few days. Sighing he turned Ften toward the Patterson's house, releasing his thoughts of the public bath with surprisingly little regret.
The difficulty Incacha had coaxing the gettles into landing at the campsite just after sunset convinced Jim as nothing else could that he was doing the right thing by them. It just grated that he had no choice in the matter. One by one they dropped through the trees, crooning at him as they picked their way to his side. Wanting to be as sure as possible, he examined all of them again, nodding to himself in satisfaction. The beasts had had many years under better care than they'd received in recent times; they were strong, healthy, and physically capable of carving out a territory for themselves.
That didn't stop him from mourning for the decades they could have had to grow in other ways, if Wilson's greed hadn't made destroying their croft a necessity. Unless it was utterly demolished, they would attempt to return to it over and over, never understanding why they could no longer nest there. Better to trigger the next stage of their development, sending them toward adulthood.
Taking his time with each, Jim petted and praised, removing his gloves and placing them in his belt to feel along the line of bone at the leading edge of the wing to a tiny wedge under the joint. Reassured when he consistently found it thin and brittle, ready to break, which in the wild would have happened during the normal rough and tumble of life, he painlessly snapped it in half. It would take a while for the hormones trigged by the fracture to start working, and he dug out the treats he carried to dole them out, playing with the boisterous gettles as he did.
Eventually he fed a medicated one to Tok-tok, and sat on a ground cloth beside the fire, log for a backrest, and rubbed the beast's chin while it took effect. The other gettles piled around them, nuzzling and humming to each other in sleepy, contented tones. When he heard Sandburg talking softly to Ften as they made their way to the campsite, he debated shooing all the gettles away, but in the end didn't want to rob them or Sandburg of their farewells. From everything he'd learned about gettles, they would remember the coziness and companionship of the nest for the rest of their lives, though they would never know that comfort again. Better to let them have it as long as they could.
It was more than he'd ever known, and Jim shut down that line of thought before he could get maudlin. Almost reflexively he reached for Incacha's mind as a reminder of the family he did have, relieved when he picked up the drone of satisfied busyness. To his shock, there was an echo, a hint of another, not in the dim way he and Ften were aware of each other thanks to the Elderkin, but more like one person trying to locate another in an enormous maze by calling out.
Before he could pinpoint the source, Ften made his appearance, and Sandburg immediately slid off of him to run to the gettles, who cooed in ecstatic welcome. The horse looked so disgruntled, Jim eased away from the flight and their former keeper and went to him. Taking off the saddle and putting Blair's canvas bags in the lean-to he'd constructed, he murmured compliments as he gave the horse a thorough brushing.
That done, he caught the great animal's head between his palms, and affectionately bumped his forehead into Ften's. "Thank you for taking care of him," he said loudly, amused at himself for using a turn of phrase that could be interpreted different ways by different parties. Ften caught the ambiguity, and though he clearly didn’t understand it, bobbed his head in amusement. "Off with you," Jim ordered. "Back at false dawn." He patted Ften's flank as he went by to forage.
"Jim?" Blair said, obviously not sure if he had the right to question Jim's orders and just as obviously too curious not to at least try.
"The grazing isn't very good around here, not that the glutton needs it with the bread and strawberries you've fattened him on, and he won't be beyond earshot." Jim stepped into the middle of the increasingly restless flight and knelt beside Tok-tok, who was using Blair as a pillow.
"Hey, he deserves a treat for enduring me as his rider!" Suddenly unable to meet Jim's eyes, Blair watched his own hand pet Tok-tok along the lip line and added, "So do you. There's fresh butter, honey, and a jar of beer. Not enough of the latter to get drunk, but enough to wash down the meal in style." As if the idea had just occurred to him, he said, "Unless you prefer wine? It's not so late I couldn't make it on foot back down into town and be back in time for dinner."
"No, beer's perfect. In fact, if you don't object, I'd like to put the jar in the stream - it's glacier fed and very cold." Jim pressed gently into the small valley between Tok-tok's forelegs, hiding his disgust as the worms under the skin rolled and squirmed. It was hard to judge, given his rare contact with them, but he was fairly sure they weren't mature enough to pupate.
"Fantastic! You like it cold, too?" Blair studied what Jim was doing, losing much of the happiness that had lit him when he'd seen the flight.
"Especially when it's strong. As large as Cascade is, you have more than a brew master or two, I'm sure, all with their own philosophy of how potent their drink should be." Jim sat back on his heels and scrubbed at his eyes. Abandoning the lighter conversation, he said flatly, "You know what I have to do and why. Would you rather not be here?"
Mouth a tight line, Blair shook his head. "I'll stay."
Holding in a sigh, Jim went on. "When it happens, the rest of the flight will go into a panic and leave." He hesitated but made himself finish. "It's likely you won't see them again, and if you do, they won't recognize you."
"You've freed them completely!" Blair said softly, but horrified for all that.
"They are not domesticated animals, Sandburg. Sooner or later they must be returned to the wild. Because they can not ever go back to their croft, it will be sooner." Jim stood, and after scooping up the jar, hiked to the small stream a few dozen yards from the campsite. He lingered a while in the growing darkness, searching for trout in the water with the idle notion that fresh fish for another night 's dinner might be something pleasant to anticipate. When he heard the first keens of distress, he bestirred himself with an effort and returned to camp.
Tok-tok was on his side, something only very ill gettles did, and the others were nudging at him with their muzzles. Head bent so his hair shielded his face, Blair hugged the beast's head, whispering wordless sounds of consolation and comfort. Jim waited, listening intently until the gettle's heart stumbled, stuttered, and stopped. By some instinct, the rest of the flight knew their loss the same time as he, and abruptly silent, they backed away as one, swaying from side-to-side in enormous distress.
There was only one thing left to do for them and for Tok-tok. Jim flicked free a large opal from his patch and laid it in the curve of the gettle's haunch. In seconds the stone was glowing brilliantly, setting off the ones inside that he'd fed Tok-tok earlier in his treat. The light grew, expanded, took over the entire body before flaring into non-existence, taking the beast with it and leaving Blair hunched in on himself. Acting as a flock for the last time, the remaining gettles crept close to nose where their fellow nestling had been. When they found no trace, they suddenly scuttled away, wings working to send them into flight the moment they had clearance, still mute, as they would be until they mated for the first time, if they ever did.
Blair scrambled after them, seemingly unable to tear his eyes away as they grew smaller and smaller with distance. He stood where he was until long after he should have been able to see them, but Jim didn't disturb him. Instead he went through the provisions Blair had brought, focusing on food out of necessity, not desire. No doubt Blair considered him cold and uncaring for his practicality, the way most viewed Liegemen, but it couldn't be helped. Tomorrow would be hideous and they needed to be fueled and rested for it as they could be.
Using his saddle as a backrest, Jim built up the fire somewhat, then carved slices with his boot knife from the bread Blair had brought. Munching on one slice while toasting another, he deliberately savored the freshness and texture, dipping into the jugs of fresh butter and honey. It was, for him, a very rich, very flavorful meal, and gradually his chewing slowed as he rolled the wonderful tastes over his tongue.
He tottered on the edge of becoming Lost when Blair squatted down next to him and appropriated the loaf of bread. "Did you see the cheese? I like to toast it, too, and spread it with the butter."
A little discomfited by how easily Blair accepted his role in the loss of his animal friends, Jim said, "I scented it, but didn't recognize the variety. The only thing I'm sure of it that it's not made from goat milk."
"It's made by a butcher who learned his craft in Italy before applying to immigrate here. He calls it provolone. I call it delicious." Blair put a tin camp plate on the edge of the fire, and set the wedge of cheese on it so that one face was inches from the flames. "I like most cheeses heated this way."
"Fondue," Jim said reflectively. "French, I seem to recall. Except that's melted in a pot."
They casually discussed different countries and what they did with cheese and other foods, discovering they had visited many of the same places in the Old World, albeit years apart. At one point, Jim fetched the beer, and both were delighted at how well it complimented their dinner, though Blair pointed out that wine would have been more suitable for the strawberries they ate as desert. Finally, sated and more relaxed than he should have been given the circumstances, Jim stretched out until his toes were almost in the coals, and leaned his head back on his saddle.
Allowing himself to drift on the small pleasures of the moment, Jim was pulled back from becoming Lost yet again by Blair jarring him every so slightly with a nudge to his foot as he finished tidying up the camp. "Liegeman?"
"As you pointed out, Chief, we're going to be in very close proximity during a difficult time. While formality is an excellent social lubricant when dealing in passing with strangers, it can be very tedious hour after hour after hour."
Blair sat, turning so he was on one hip to face Jim. "I have a personal question to ask you and hoped that a reserved approach would soothe the sting of what could be viewed as impertinence."
Curious now, Jim sat up straighter. "Please, just ask."
"Isn't a liegeman supposed to travel with a shield companion? A guide to aid him in controlling the intensity of his senses and support him as he uses them?" There was more than curiosity in Blair's voice; true concern was there as well.
"Yes." Anticipating the next question and as forestalling it would give him control over how much he shared, Jim said, "Most sentinels find their guide while a youth, usually from family or playmates, much the same way one finds a spouse. I was not so fortunate. Incacha helps me considerably, but he's distracted right now, as does Ften while I ride him."
Both because he wanted to change the subject and because Blair deserved to know, Jim pointed to the sky. "He and other members of his clan are chivvying the gettles toward locales where they might find suitable roosts with enough hunting territory to provide adequately for their needs. Since they don't want to terrify the beasts or provoke them into a suicidal attack, the herding takes some, ah, delicacy."
Leaning back and studying the heavens as if concentration was all he needed to see his charges again, Blair asked, "They'll be watched over?"
"All their lives," Jim replied truthfully, if misleadingly. "Right now they're rejoicing in flight. They're going higher than they ever have before. They're faster, more maneuverable, their sight is sharpening until they can see a field mouse from a thousand feet up. Their elation in the changes will last for days, but the Elderkin will see to it that when they're ready to touch earth again, they'll be provided for until they establish themselves. That takes discretion as well, since the goal is for them to be self-sufficient, but not starve to death while they learn to live in the wild."
"It's good to know that," Blair murmured, eyelids bobbing sleepily. "To be able to imagine them taking delight in their freedom."
"More than that," Jim promised softly, his words slipping into a cadence that he somehow knew would lull Blair into much needed rest. "They'll grow and gain strength for decades, expanding their hunting grounds, learning cunning and discovering the power of their bodies. Centuries from now, when conditions are right, they'll feel the heat of breeding, and start the cycle over. When their hatchlings are ready to fly, but not ready to be on their own, they'll remember your kindness, if not your name, your affection and care, if not your face, the security of the nest you provided, and maybe, just maybe, permit a liegeman to take the young ones to live with Men."
Smiling, Blair squirmed in his seat until the log supported his shoulders, chin dropping to his chest. Jim waited a moment to make sure he was completely under, and shook out a thimbrane to cover him. Catching the corner between finger and thumb, he triggered its chameleon property so that it turned black, dappled with moon shadows, effectively hiding Blair. That measure of protection done, he put his gloves back on and settled down himself, dozing but senses still on alert.
When the moon was near the horizon, he heard a muttered curse a few hundred yards downhill of their camp. Shaking his head - he'd obviously wasted his time setting up warnings that only he could perceive - Jim rolled to his feet and went to Blair. Hand over Blair's mouth to stop any startled cries, he put his finger to his lips as soon as Blair's eyes popped open and helped him stand.
Quickly guiding him to the hoist he'd prepared, Jim kicked one of Blair's feet onto the log set into the rope, planted one of his own beside it, showed him where to grab the knot, and cut the rope to the counterbalance. As the rock dropped silently from the pulley, they were quickly pulled straight up into the canopy of the tree. With his free arm Jim hugged Blair close to his chest as they went up, telling himself that it was to muffle any noise he might make.
Blair didn't so much as yelp, though the arm he had around Jim's waist tightened painfully. Face hidden against Jim's chest, he quivered slightly, but still went willingly when Jim transferred both of them to the tree branches he'd built a blind into. Once he was certain Blair was secured into the tiny shelter, hanging onto the trunk with all he had, the thimbrane over him to conceal him from the hunters below, Jim silently swung to other branches.
Below five men crept into their campsite, knives out, only to kick at the coals of the fire in anger when they found it empty. Swearing furiously they fanned out, obviously looking for signs of which direction Jim and Blair had gone. Nodding to himself in satisfaction, Jim took out his blowgun and puffed tiny darts at target after target. Each time a smack and mutter about mosquitoes told him he'd hit his mark. When he was sure he'd gotten every one, and that the mild toxin on his darts would do their work, he returned to the blind, fitting himself to Blair's back to add his weight to the promise that he wouldn't fall.
Heartbeat slowly steadying, Blair relaxed by increments as they waited for the hunters to stop searching for them. Fear faded from his scent, if not entirely, and his frantic clutching of the tree trunk eased enough that Jim stopped worrying about splinters in his hands. Speculating that he was more upset by the height than by the attackers rampaging through their camp, Jim gave into temptation and slipped off a glove to run his fingers through Blair's curls.
Flashing a startled glance over his shoulder, eyes wide, Blair hesitated, but edged back into the petting. Much of the tension drained from his spine until Jim was all but cuddling him. For all the danger in the situation, Jim responded to the trust implied by laying his cheek next to Blair's, sighing soundlessly. It was such an odd time, odd place to find peace, but there was no denying the effect Blair's presence had on him.
It made waiting for the hunters to move on almost effortless. Blair stirred once when the men filtered out of the campsite, but Jim mutely pointed out where they had hidden themselves, apparently in hopes that Jim and Blair had only left for a short time on some errand or another. Several hours later they finally gave up, but Jim didn't stir until they were out of earshot.
When Jim stood and stretched, Blair spoke, the apology and worry in his voice telling Jim what his thoughts must have been while hiding had demanded silence. "I was followed, and you expected that would be the case."
"You were never in danger," Jim promised, putting on his glove before folding the thimbrane and readying the rope for their descent. "Right now you're the only thing standing between Cascade and the fire. If someone was foolish enough to attack you, the rest of the townsmen would tear them apart."
Sounding utterly bewildered, Blair cautiously stood, taking a firm hold on Jim's belt. "What good would it do to harm you now? It would only bring the flames faster."
"No doubt whoever sent our unwanted guests has convinced himself, as Burke and Wilson had, that he could kill a liegeman and suffer little or no consequence. The Elderkin have not had to resort to a vengeance Hunt in recent memory; to some humans, that is proof enough to believe they never will again."
"Wish I could argue with you on that," Blair said tiredly.
Jim hesitated, but Blair deserved to know what lay ahead of him. Nudging his foot into the sling, he took their weight without too much difficulty and began lowering them. "Tomorrow you will see worse than that, I'm afraid," he said around small grunts of effort. "Petty grievances that have been nursed too long, grudges that have festered, slights magnified by pride and miscommunication - all the wrongs that people can do to themselves and others that cannot be corrected by law because no crime has been committed. They will see me as a chance to find satisfaction against perceived offenses."
Despite how tightly shut his eyes were, Blair asked curiously, "How can you grant Justice, then?"
"I would think a Student would be aware that Justice is not necessarily for individuals - sometimes it must be for a family, a group, a community." Studying the terrain beneath them to be sure of his footing when they reached it, Jim added absently, "Once people have been reminded of that by the rulings I make, many will change their minds about presenting their cases."
"So maybe you won't need all three days," Blair said, barely holding in a gasp of relief that he was on solid ground.
Tugging the rope free and coiling it, back to Blair to give him time to compose himself, Jim shook his head. "The crowd will likely be larger on the second day. Everyone who believes themselves cheated or mistreated by the law, or who wants vengeance by calling doubt on sheriffs for crimes already tried, will be there. Only a very, very few will have legitimate need of Justice - the weak and vulnerable who have been hurt or abused but unable or unwilling to go to the law for whatever reason. We need to seek those out, and on the last day, actively search for them where they might be hidden from us by those who misuse them."
"Seeking them out - that's part of my duties, right?" Blair wandered through the camp, putting it to rights, muttering under his breath once about wasted food. Luckily the hunters hadn't found his garment bag; Jim had hidden it too well, apparently intentionally.
"You'll supervise the lottery that selects the cases, and will have the right to bypass it to bring anyone to my attention that you believe has an urgent matter to resolve."
Stopping mid-shake of a camp pot to remove the dirt inside, Blair stared at nothing and said, "How will I know? Everyone there will feel their problem is more pressing than anyone else's. I think I'll be able to tell if I'm being lied to, but your own troubles always loom so huge in your mind…."
Not sure it was the right thing to do, Jim confessed, "I've never sat in judgment for a large town - only small villages where the headman or local hedge witch acted as my second. I can tell you what Incacha always says when they worry about being fair and just to people they've known their entire lives, if that helps."
"Yes, yes it would. Elderkin wisdom, based on not just the centuries of the individuals, but the shared memories in Council - how can I not want to hear that?"
Jim crossed the small space between them and slowly laid his hand on Blair's chest. "Keep your wits about you, but listen with your heart."
A beautiful smile broke over Blair's face, contrary to the disappointment Jim usually saw when he shared dragon 'insight' to people who seemed to expect more profound guidance. "That sounds like something my mother would say."
"She must be an extraordinary lady," Jim said honestly, which apparently was the perfect comment to make because Blair brightened even more, sending him a quick glance filled with too many emotions for Jim to read. He resisted the urge to go to him and bury his nose in those rioting curls and use scent to confirm what he thought he sensed from him. It didn't matter, anyway. Blair was a Student who would return to academia, sooner rather than later.
That didn't stop Jim from relishing Blair's voice and the enthusiasm he shared so generously as he regaled him with tales of his travels with his mother until Ften quietly returned to the camp. Regretfully he turned the conversation to more serious matters, instructing Blair on his responsibilities for the Court while they broke their fast with porridge sweetened with the last of the honey. Putting him on Ften to be carried back to Cascade after their morning ablutions, Jim didn't allow himself to question why he watched them until not even imagination could provide Sight, and only then did he return to his own duties.
Though he really shouldn't have been, Blair was surprised to find Captain Banks waiting for him when he reached the Common. They were, after all, allies in the battle to keep Cascade from becoming ash, and the sheriff knew nothing about him save that he was a Student. After turning Ften's reins over to one of his men to have him stabled, Banks looked Blair over from his highly polished boots to his tidily braided hair, and the fine wool gray suit in between, nodded in approval, and held out his hand.
Shaking it, Blair asked, "Have you done this before? I've never even seen a Court, let alone participated, though I've read about them."
"A few times," Banks admitted. "Marshals get called to that sort of duty more often than the average lawman." He took out a small case and offered it to Blair. "Incacha says that this will allow him to safeguard you with less difficulty, and I'm to remind you that a crowd can become a mob in an eye blink, especially when desperation is the prevailing emotion."
Opening the case, Blair found a blood-red opal the size of a woman's pinky nail set as an earring. "My god."
"It'll go well with the waistcoat," Banks said, a hint of a smile in place.
Looking down at the brilliantly colored wrangler's shirt that he had had Mrs. Patterson cut into a vest while he bathed, Blair placed the jewel and said, "It seemed a good thought to keep my former livelihood at the front of everyone's mind. Student or not, I worked with gettles and saw first-hand the abuse that brought us to this pass. In effect, I laid the first complaint and received Justice as a result."
"It can't hurt," Banks agreed. "At the moment I can't say what the temper of the city is, beyond agitated. Those whose ears I trust tell me that few are disappointed that the high are being brought low, and the Elderkin's announcement that a standard wage for basic labor will be set, along with suggested rates for food, housing, and so forth, to curtail profiteering, is meeting general approval. Needless to say, rumor can turn that around with a few whispers."
"The Liegeman's opinion is that today will be relatively benign, if unpleasant." Blair eyed the people trickling into the square, setting up as if they were to enjoy a picnic, complete with blankets and baskets of provisions.
Unnecessarily straightening his navy blue uniform, Banks said, "The evening will be the true test of Cascade's mettle, for good or ill." He nodded at the notary taking her place at the side of the platform, pens and paper in hand. Gesturing at the covered boxes on either corner of the low platform that had been raised during the night, along with large hourglass sitting on a short table beside a comfortable chair lifted so that every one could see the occupant when seated, he asked, "Ready?"
Swallowing hard, Blair did his own quick check of his clothing. "As I can be. If memory serves, all will draw from the box on the left. A black pebble means they will not be speaking today, a white one with markings means they may have a chance. I draw from the box on the right and match to the one held by a petitioner, then go to the Liegeman to await his orders. That person has one turn of the glass to explain the particulars of his complaint. If the presence of another is required, a sheriff will be sent for him and another pebble drawn, that case seen to until the summoned individual arrives."
"Fairly simple, and I've rarely seen a situation where both parties in a case aren't both on hand in hopes they'll be able to speak first." Banks gave Blair a reassuring touch on his shoulder, then went to stand by the left-hand box.
Taking his post by the right, Blair whispered a sincere wish that all went smoothly. He'd barely finished when Incacha was simply in front of the platform, as if he'd been there all along. Sitting on his haunches with his arms crossed over his chest, head high and wings tucked tightly against his back, he looked more imposing and regal than any human being ever could. He waited impassively as a hush rippled out among the spectators until it gained a weight and presence of its own, crushing any impulse toward idle chatter or impatience.
With a theatrical sense of timing that would have won a smile from Blair under any other circumstances, Incacha finally said, voice carrying to the ends of the common, "Elderkin watched as man gained ascendancy on the other continents, turning the forests to deserts, the fertile soil to barren dust, rivers to sewers and lakes into cesspools. We watched as tyranny grew from a few with strength of arms and a talent for brutality; as cruelty became the norm and kindness an all but forgotten myth.
"And swore that evil would not come to our home.
"To that end we destroyed every ship that came within landfall on the continents that came to be called the Americas. We eradicated every castaway unfortunate enough to drift onto our shores. Humanity was an infection we fought without pity, though not without remorse for even then we had seen glimmers of greatness in you.
"One day a rickety ship, so battered and leaky it should never have been able to cross the ocean, dropped anchor just beyond the boundary we set for our territory. A solitary man, naked as the day he was born, rowed closer until he could swim to the beach, and then just stood there with his arms spread out from his side, hands palm up, for hours. It was clever of him, to engage our curiosity in such a way. Was he offering himself as sacrifice to save the others on the boat? Or challenging us in some obscure way that only another human would understand?
Blair blinked at the soft murmur from the crowd at the questions, as if they were children responding to a well-known story from a favorite teacher. The sound softened Incacha enough that he dropped down to rest on his stomach, chin on his crossed forearms, emerald eyes half-shut.
"The oldest and most curious among us, Shandozeer, convinced his kin that the man should be heard, indeed had earned it with his bravery. He landed in front of him, and said only, 'why?'
"The man replied, 'I have long heard that ship captains offered you riches to be allowed into your waters, and you refused with flames that destroyed the boat and crew alike. I have seen for myself that you will not tolerate the slaver ships no matter where you find them. I believe that this is because you value the same thing as myself - freedom.' He turned so that the scars from whips on his back were obvious. 'This was done by a lord who was angry, and I was close at hand. My wife suffered worse at the hands of his son, who fancied her for her beauty, caring not she was wed. I can only pray my daughter will not suffer the same fate, and that my sons will not be used as cannon fodder in some foolish quarrel between nobles who value nothing but riches.'
"Shandozeer said coldly, 'This is not our concern. Your kind is cursed with a taste for power, a lust for cruelty that has grown beyond all control.' The man bowed his head in acknowledgment of that simple truth, but did not retreat."
Again the people listening so attentively to Incacha stirred, whispering their pride in one of their own. Incacha nodded in acceptance and his own sort of pride, Blair thought, and waited anxiously with everyone else for him to finish the history lesson.
"The man said staunchly that not all humans were tainted with that curse. There were those who wished to be free of it; to live a simple life of grace and peace, cherishing hearth and family. To that end he would do whatever necessary to prove himself. He had only the strength of his body to offer, the power of his mind, but it was the Elderkin's to use as they would in return for sanctuary from oppression for the others. Surely there was something in mankind that they valued."
"Beauty," Blair said without thinking, but not alone.
"The ability to create, appreciate, even need Beauty," Incacha agreed. "So Shandozeer charged the brave man to grant him an act of beauty, which he did with such passion and joy that not a single one of the Elderkin gainsayed Shandozeer's call to bestow refuge in return for a promise from that man, all his kin, and all born to them in the future."
Straightening back to his full height, Incacha repeated the oath that all newcomers to the Americas made, that each person made when they gained their citizenship. "No one shall take from the land, be it beast, plant, or rock, more than they need to survive comfortably, for this is not man's domain, but the Elderkins'. All people, be they man, woman or child, will be treated with kindness and respect, all adults treated as equals."
Many softly echoed Incacha's words, earning them a long, slow blink of pleasure from the great dragon. "The promise is simple, and we keep it such, for we will not abide hiding deceit in the complexity of language. Over time, however, we have clarified as necessary, and now all know that hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, farming, mining and logging are to be considered privileges, not rights, and the Elderkin will determine the who, where and when of all these activities. You own the house you build, but not the land it sits upon. You own the efforts of your own labor, but not the raw material until possession is granted.
"Most importantly, we do not care what god you bow down to, what method you use to govern yourself, how you enforce your rules, as long as all are free. There are no slaves here, no indentured servants, no second-class citizens to be used against their will in any way, shape or form."
Incacha's tone became hard, unrelenting. "Break the promise between Mankind and Elderkin, become the carrier of Man's Curse, and be driven from your home, from our lands, back to the filth that your species fled from. We charged the first of you to make that promise to see that it was kept, to stop those who would break it and give justice to those injured by that breaking, and thus the Elderkin made their covenant with the first Liegeman. Many have served since, and today your fate rests with one of the best."
Without warning Incacha leaped into the air, making the departure of gettles that Blair had always admired seem weak and clumsy. As soon as he was on wing, the dragon breathed a stream of fire onto the spot where he had been, but instead of burning, it took shape, becoming a person made of flame that cooled until Liegeman James Ellison stood in front of the crowd. His perfectly tailored black uniform fit like a second skin, outlining his tall, well-muscled body, tunic flaring at the hips only enough to provide modesty. His trim waist was accented by a wide, highly polished black leather belt that held a weapon holster on either side, and his pants were tucked into knee high boots as brightly polished. The only color besides his cool blue eyes were the flames made of gems spreading from his shoulders down the outside of his arms, thinning until only a thin curl of fire covered the backs of his gloved hands. The stones had been so cunningly set that Blair had to blink to see that they were jewels, and not still flickering flames.
Giving the gathering a moment to absorb the impact of his appearance, Jim stepped onto the platform and said loudly, "Who seeks Justice?"
No one came forward, though an uneasy rumble spread through the assembly. Jim repeated himself with the same results, then an elderly woman swayed as if to take a step. Leaping down to move to her side, he gently cupped her elbow. "Good Mother, do you have a complaint to be heard?"
"Yes," she whispered, then visibly put her fear aside and repeated strongly. "Yes."
Jim guided her to the first box and stood beside her as she drew a stone, then led her back to her position in the crowd. As if her valor served as the encouragement they needed, others lined up with surprising decorum and order to take their turn as Jim seated himself. When most had returned to their places, Blair braced himself, then reached to take out the first of the white stones, holding it up so that it could be seen.
When no one admitted to holding the match for it, he frowned, and looked down at the elderly woman turning her white rock over and over. Jim must have been monitoring him very closely; he subtly shifted, drawing Blair's attention to catch his eye, and nodded ever so slightly. Taking that as a go-ahead, Blair went to her as Jim had, and drew her up to the platform. Though she quivered under his hand, she stood in front of Jim, straight and tall as Blair went to stand at Jim's right shoulder.
"Good Mother, please, speak."
"Banker Thomas will not give me my pension," she said calmly, but loud enough that most could hear her. "He claims that my deceased son withdrew all the money, with my permission, and produced papers to that effect. But it is not my signature on the form, nor my son's, and the notary who witnessed it is a member of Thomas' family."
Looking out into the crowd, Jim asked commandingly, "Are there others who have been treated so by Banker Thomas?" Several more elderly women, and one seriously bent and feeble man raised a hand, and Jim gestured to them to join him. Surrendering their stones to one of Bank's men, they gave their testimony, and after hearing it, Jim sent several sheriffs' to the bank to produce both the banker and his books. Sending the claimants to take a seat at the edge of the platform with Blair's help, he said, "Until Thomas is here - who is next?"
True to Jim's prediction, the next complaint was trivial and foolish, and Blair had to hide a wince of embarrassment from it. Two older men, successful in their profession to judge by their clothing, were in a feud over the boundary line between their properties. Each insisted the other had moved the markers each time after the surveyor had confirmed the location, apparently because a peach tree thrived at the very edge of the boundary.
Jim listened patiently as each had their turn of the hourglass, and at the end asked the first man to speak, "Who will inherit from you, and is that person here?"
"My daughter," he said with some bewilderment, motioning her to join them.
"Do you wish to inherit his house?" Jim asked when she was in front of him, much to Blair's - and everyone else's - confusion.
Clearly alarmed, and just as clearly not willing to be drawn into her father's fight, she admitted, "Yes. It's larger than my own, and located closer to the foundry where my husband works."
"It is yours." Jim turned to the shocked man gaping at him, ignoring Blair's gasp. "You will move into her house. If she can afford it, you should be able to as well, so I see no hardship. She will take up residence tomorrow."
He pointed to the other complainant. "Who will inherit from you?"
After several minutes of spluttering and trying to lie, the man blurted, "I have not decided; I have several children, and a much younger brother who has asked to be considered."
"Then none shall have it. It will be sold, but you will move into another residence tomorrow. The promise of the sell should be enough to provide funds for relocation if you should need them. Sheriffs will see that my orders are carried out." Jim dismissed both of them with a sharp wave. "Next!"
As Jim had said would happen, Blair saw the assembly grow smaller very quickly, and many white stones slowly went from hand to hand until they reached a deputy. Despite that, the majority of the cases were as petty as the property line one, and as the day wore on, they blurred together in Blair's mind into an unending procession of anger, frustration, and very often, disbelief when Jim made his pronouncement. Twice, a glimmer of hope in an expression, a line of shoulder and spine, untainted by baser emotions caught his eye, and he brought them forward ahead of others. Both times true Justice was given, lightening his heart in some small way.
At last the final complaint of the day was upon them. Two young women swore that the same man had been seduced away by the other. Jim heard them out as they grew more and more vitriolic, interrupting each other despite the warnings from Banks that they would be taken away if they did not respect the order of the Court. At one point, they would have come to blows, but Jim stood between them, barking an order to be quiet or be arrested for contempt of court. He summoned the man in question, but then studied him for a long moment before drawing him aside.
Blair was close enough to hear Jim ask kindly what the slender man wanted as an outcome. Jim didn't seem very surprised when he said, "To be left alone. I desire neither of them, and any affection they think I hold is in their own imagination, spurred by their mutual spite and nurtured by my sisters, each of whom want me wed to their chosen ally."
He ran his eyes over Jim boldly, pretending to be demure by doing so from under his lashes. "Perhaps the Liegeman is in need of… companionship? I would be eager to offer my services; I am a very good cook and baker, among other talents. Or if you have other tasks that I could see to?"
Astonished at the curl of pure jealously that hurt his middle, Blair aborted the impulse to take his place at Jim's side, possessive hand at his elbow where the little upstart could see it. Blessedly Jim said sternly, "I have a companion with me, and will not tolerate insult be offered him by a would-be usurper. Now, what fate would you have for yourself, and be honest about it!"
Sullenly the youth admitted, "In truth, I am good in the kitchen. An apprenticeship to a baker would suit me, but my sisters would not hear of it. I think they wish to keep my skill to themselves."
"I will see to it. In the meantime, I would suggest you go to the hostelry at the University and request boarding for a time. They will be expecting guests in the name of the Elderkin; a notary's confirmation will be sent as soon as possible." Jim dismissed the young man and engaged the two women in a last harangue at each other to give him time to make his escape, if he were wise enough to use it. This time when the women came to blows, Jim did nothing to stop it and Sheriff Banks arrested them.
That done, Banks stood at the edge of the platform and nodded at the setting sun. "We will resume tomorrow at dawn, as per custom and the Elderkin's announcement," he announced loudly. "In the meantime let me remind you that the laws for the protection of the participants of the High Court is very clear. If any harm comes to any of the claimants - Cascade will burn. If any attempt is made to hurt the Liegeman or his second - Cascade will burn. If coercion or force is used to prevent an injured party from coming forward - Cascade will burn. Harsh as that is, if we cannot do what is right, for all of us, if we cannot combine our will and strength to overcome those who care more for their own aims and ambitions than the welfare of our city, then we do not deserve to have it."
An unhappy, worried murmur rose from the crowd, but Banks didn't back down in the slightest. If anything, he stood taller. "One last thing - please keep in mind the penalty for offering false witness is to serve the sentence in place of the one wrongly accused. If you call a man a thief, and he is not, be prepared to be treated as a thief yourself. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen."
As Banks spoke, Jim stealthily drew Blair behind his chair, flipping up the edge of the fabric draped over it. He quickly dropped to the floor of the platform, pulling Blair down with him, and tugged the cloth back into place to make a small tent, thanks to a cunning arrangement of the chair, its construction, and the platform itself. Even a clever eye would not notice it from the outside, though Blair could see out somewhat through the dense material.
Sighing wearily, Blair sat facing Jim, hip to hip, and rested his forehead on the curve of Jim's shoulder, absently listening to the cries of wonder and ire as citizens in the crowd realized the Liegeman and his second were gone. A few of the voices came close to their hiding place while people searched for them, but he and Jim remained undiscovered, and after they faded away again, Jim relaxed somewhat himself.
Lips against Blair's ear, Jim whispered, "With luck, any ill-wishers will believe we went back to our camp, or one like it, but we have sanctuary in the town tonight. Banks has seen to Ften for us, so we only need to wait for full dark before slipping away to rest. I know you're hungry because we skipped midday meal; can you wait that long? If not, I am fairly sure I can navigate us to our quarters without being seen."
Though his stomach growled at the mention of food, Blair leaned back and took a hard look at the Liegeman, before slowly shaking his head 'no.' In the dim light Jim looked pale and tired, with pain tracing fine lines around his eyes and pinching his lips thin. During the course of the day he'd been fairly sure that Jim used his senses frequently, as if he could smell or hear or maybe see the truth of every dispute. He'd wondered if the Liegeman paid a price for that sort of intense concentration. Now the answer was obvious in Jim's barely hidden relief at being able to rest a bit.
"I'm used to skipping the occasional meal," Blair assured him so softly only he would hear. "And truthfully, last night's bounty and this morning's heavy breakfast have stood me in good stead. What I really want is sleep. As warm and cozy as it is in here, I'm afraid I might doze off, no matter the lack of a pillow or soft spot to curl into."
"I would let you if it were safe, though I don't know how well I'd do for a pillow," Jim whispered, a hint of a laugh under the words.
"Well, your uniform certainly is pleasant to the touch," Blair said, unable to resist a chance to satisfy his curiosity. "Is it true that it's made from the hide of an Elderkin?"
Obviously laughing now, Jim brushed the inside of his wrist over Blair's temple, the glove gliding as smoothly and sweetly as satin, though far more plush. "No, nor do I think any Liegeman would be able to endure the thought of wearing what was left of an old friend or mentor. It's made from the cast-off skin of a molt."
"Molt? Like a snake? But I thought dragons were warm-blooded, like us." Boldly Blair ran his fingertips over Jim's upper arm, closely inspecting the material covering it.
Jim subtly shifted into the almost-caress, encouraging Blair to keep exploring. "They are, but they grow very, very slowly as long as they're alive. The larger an Elderkin is, the older he is. But his scales cannot grow with him, so periodically he must shed a layer of his skin so that new scales can form. The last test of liegeman is to assist with the process, peeling old flesh from new without causing pain to the Elderkin or accidentally inciting him into an attack. It takes all five senses, working in concert, without the guidance of the Elderkin as he is nearly insensible from the flood of sensation from the procedure."
"I can't even begin to imagine," Blair confessed, boldly scrubbing his cheek into the hollow of Jim's shoulder, delighting as much in the powerful body under the tunic as the material it was made from. "Brand new skin, raw nerve endings - for a short time it must be like being a liegeman."
"Moreso as they don't have much in the way of a sense of touch under normal circumstances. Same with taste and scent. Their eyesight is incredible, but their hearing is much like a human's, though they can hear deeper tones than most men can." Jim peeled off his gloves, tucking them into his belt, making the muscles under Blair's cheek flex interestingly. "Sometimes I think that's why they're so fascinated by sentinels."
"Understandable if that's the case," Blair murmured sleepily. Catching himself snuggling into Jim as if he were a pillow, he struggled to pull himself upright.
Jim wrapped an arm around him to hold him close, playing with his hair until it was free of its braid. "Well, it certainly has its benefits, including this uniform, which keeps me warm and dry no matter how bad the weather, never needs washing, merely brushed off and aired out periodically." Taking a deep breath, he sat up straighter, as if suddenly aware that he was drifting into slumber himself.
With an all over shake, Blair yanked himself back to wakefulness, groping for the topic of their conversation. "The gems?"
"I've never bothered to look at them myself." Jim twisted his arm, studying the stones encrusted there. "Hmm, I'd say they were picked for color, not quality or material. Diamonds, rubies, citrines, amber, topaz, opals, cat's eye… I've been told the companion of a liegeman created the original design."
Blair bent close to the jewels flowing over Jim's shoulder, but still couldn't discern how they were attached to the uniform. "Difficult if not impossible to duplicate - credentials to prove yourself by, if having an Elderkin in the sky wasn't enough." He grinned. "They will make sneaking off into the night more difficult than not, though."
"No Liegeman has ever had difficulty proving himself, nor are there any records of imposters being able to pass as one for more than a short time. Any who say differently are indulging in wishful thinking, if not outright lies. In fact, the lie is often a symptom of underlying problems in a community. And we will not sneak. Our departure will simply be discreet."
Jim said the last so primly that Blair had to laugh, and he smothered it against Jim's chest. A huge yawn over took him, and he stayed where he was because of the fingers combing through his curls. He could feel and hear Jim's heart slow, and his breathing deepened, matching Blair's so they rocked together in one of the most comforting sensations he had ever known.
They didn't sleep - exactly. Blair stayed aware of their surroundings, but at the same time the peace filling him was so restful, it was better than sleep. It took an astonishing amount of will to pull away when Jim finally nudged him into motion. Apparently totally confident they would not be seen, Jim pushed aside their covering and spun on one hip to the edge so he could stand on the ground. Taking a fold of fabric from inside his belt, he shook out one of the sheets Blair had seen before.
"More molt skin?" Blair asked.
"Thimbrane," Jim said absently. "This one with a few special features threaded into it." He draped it over himself as if it were a cloak, and in the dark it passed for one. Producing another, he enveloped Blair with it. Hand companionably in the small of Blair's back, he strolled out of the park as causally as if they were merely enjoying the evening's clear skies.
They walked through the surprisingly quiet streets of Cascade without anyone noticing them in particular, and arrived at small stable without incident. Jim let them in through a back door to which he had the key, but not before pausing and doing what Blair ventured was a sweep of the building with his senses. He led Blair into a corner, and then up a short ladder to a nearly empty hayloft.
Only then did some of the tightness in his expression and too-stiff back bleed away. Taking that as a suggestion, intentional or not, Blair folded the thimbrane into his pocket, undid his top collar button and shrugged out of his jacket, stretching hugely once it was neatly hung on a peg. Setting aside his gloves, Jim began to shed clothes as well. His tunic seemed to be more difficult to remove once pulled from the confines of the belt, and Blair watched in fascination as he painstakingly stretched the high collar until he could tug it over his head. He hung the garment carefully, brushing and smoothing it until some inner standard of neatness was met. The long-sleeved undershirt was removed with dispatch, and Jim rotated each of his shoulders in turn, a hand on the joint as it moved, as if to banish aches from being held so tautly for so long.
Naked from the waist up, Jim braced a palm on a support beam and toed off his boots. The deed made the muscles of his back and bottom flex and move in the most intriguing, appealing, erotic way that Blair had ever seen, spinning a thin tendril of lust through his gut. He stared, dry-mouthed, as Jim undid his belt, placing it and the holsters on it within easy reach, then twisted his torso first one way, then the other, until his spine cracked.
He turned, probably to say something to Blair, but froze in place as Blair had been since Jim had started undressing. Their eyes met, and energy, not unlike what had issued from Incacha, poured between them, raising goose bumps on Blair's entire body. It was if thousands of hooks of pleasure had been set into him, pulling him toward Jim in gentle, tiny increments. Blair swayed, wanting so very much to succumb to that inclination, but waiting, needing, a sign from Jim that he would be welcome.
Lips parting, Jim inhaled deeply, his breath escaping a moment later on a barely voiced moan. Despite that, his hands clenched into fists, and he lost the ease he had just gained. "While I stand in Judgment, I am not free to pursue my own… interests. Do you understand, Blair? My choice would be otherwise, but for now I cannot do as I wish, no matter the consequences of waiting."
Spell broken, Blair rolled up the cuffs of his shirt, eyes on the small task as if it took all his concentration. "For now it is enough that you want me in return, a fact I admit to finding somewhat startling."
Stepping close enough that the maleness of him, concealed by clever cut and material, burned into Blair's tummy, Jim cupped Blair's jaw in one strong palm and compelled him to look at him. "It is not the nature of my kind to frequent the bath houses or ladies of the evening for base relief. It simply is not safe for us or those we might sport with. To that end, we are rarely tempted by mere physical beauty, though I fail to believe that you are not aware that you are beautiful. Spirit, true and powerful, such as yours, however, is a lure only duty can force us to resist."
Nuzzling into the hold on him, Blair sighed. "I was not seeking pretty words to fortify my pride against your rejection, but that is precisely what you have given me regardless, made all the more convincing because of the sincerity in them." Dredging a smile up from the pit of himself, Blair added, "Are you wooing me, Liegeman?"
After a loose hug, Jim stepped away, and knelt to dig into the straw piled into a corner of the loft. "Not intentionally. In fact, I have been told that I have no skill in that art at all, which can hardly be surprising as I've seldom had opportunity to practice it."
"Given the solitary ways of Liegemen, I suppose that is manifest." Blair removed his waistcoat, and sat on a convenient bale to remove his own boots, wiggling his toes in delight at the lack of constriction. His prod, on the other hand, complained mightily at its imprisonment, but Blair willfully put that protest aside, oddly content to wait for Jim's liberty to do as he wished.
Sitting on the floor beside him, Jim held up a sealed package. "What's left of last night's bounty."
"Excellent. Baker Seng's wares stay fresh for several days, and if we have any left when it does go stale, it's very tasty dipped and softened in soup or stew."
Despite the currents of attraction eddying between them, they ate their meal very companionably, and turned in for the night, sharing the small haystack with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Warm as the thimbrane blankets were, Blair still woke snuggled into Jim's side, his morning arousal twitching irritably at the barrier between it and what it wanted. To his delight, Jim acknowledged it and his own condition with a wry shrug that spoke clearly of men being at the mercy of their nature.
After they'd attended to their morning toilet and breakfasted on Jim's trail rations, Blair followed him to the front of the stable, half-expecting Ften to be in one of the stalls. All were empty, and he asked, "How will we reach the Common today? I would hazard a guess that casually walking there would result in a mob long before we reached it."
"Or an assassination attempt, though Cascade was more or less peaceful during the night," Jim agreed, keeping watch through the crack between the double doors.
Facetiously, as he knew full well no Elderkin would tolerate any burden on its back, he said, "Ah, then we will fly in on Incacha and make quite the entrance."
For a moment he thought his humor had gone amiss, but Jim flashed a brief grin at him. "Perhaps we shouldn't have released all the gettles, and flown in on them."
"Ouch," Blair said, miming pain. "With those spines…. Ouch, ouch. Though I dare say there have been more than one herdsman or wrangler who had to try."
More seriously than he expected Jim said, "If they did, they died. The force needed for either gettle or Elderkin to take flight is dangerous for a man because of how they're made, and the impact of landing, which does not look like much when those massive legs and muscles absorb it, is almost assuredly fatal. While the Elderkin have, in times of emergency, picked up a human in a sling or harness, it is an incredibly disagreeable method of transport."
"There speaks experience?" Blair asked, hoping for more.
"Unfortunately." Jim took him by the elbow and pulled him along as he suddenly opened the stable door barely wide enough for the both of them to slip through. He ducked down to minimize his height as he moved, threading between two sheriffs marching with twenty or so others in a cluster around Captain Banks, who was taking rare advantage of his rank to ride Ften. Walking quickly, Jim soon was at the head of the column, Blair with him, and, from the soft comments Blair heard from the bystanders, it was almost as if they'd appeared there magically.
Leaning down slightly, Jim said into Blair's ear, "Most will anticipate another spectacular arrival, such as Incacha provided yesterday. Today we do what many thought would happen then and arrive with the sheriffs."
"And tomorrow we will do neither, confounding any who hope to target us before we resume our duties," Blair said with sudden insight. "After yesterday's warnings, is the caution strictly necessary?"
"Yes." A muscle in Jim's jaw throbbed as he clenched his teeth, but he added evenly. "In fact, I can nigh on promise there will be an armed attack on either Incacha or myself before all is said and done. It is less likely you will be deliberately harmed, but when desperation reaches its peak, to others you will be no more than an obstacle to be removed if between an adversary and myself. Which is why you will make for safety instantly if trouble breaks out, and leave the lawmen and myself to deal with an assault."
Before Blair could reasonably point out that safety would be hard to come by if there was a disturbance, they arrived at the common, and he bit down on his comment at the sight of the day's audience. To his eye it was obvious that it had been well seeded with troublemakers and society's less fortunate elements. During his travels in the Old World, he had seen rabble-rousers work their vile skills and had first-hand knowledge of how a crowd could be transformed to a mob with the right words and a number of paid agitators responding as instructed.
"Jim," he murmured worriedly as the deputies cleared a lane for them to pass through to the platform.
With an easy leap up to the stand, Jim offered him a hand and used the action to whisper in his ear, "I know. Agitators. A plan is in place."
About to ask what it was, Blair noticed that the deputies were not taking up guard positions at the edge of the stage or at the entrances. Instead they slowly filtered into the crowd, exchanging friendly greetings with those they were acquainted. Occasionally a lawman would pause beside or in front of a person, studying them so intently that most were not able to meet their eyes. In more than one case, the individual would find that he had other matters to attend to and slunk away, regardless of the threatening looks sent after them by men Blair had marked in his mind as those who might benefit from a disruption of the Court.
Hiding a small smile both at the cleverness of the plan and the bravery in executing it, Blair took his post at the lottery box.
It was one of his few reasons to smile for the rest of the day, save when Jim had Banker Thomas arrested on federal charges for bank fraud and theft, pointing out dryly that forging the signatures himself so obviously using his own hand had been less than clever. While the outraged man was dragged away, Jim awarded the stolen pensions back to their owners from the banker's confiscated assets, as well as doubling the one of the woman who had stood up first. The murmur of approval was so heartfelt that Blair gained high hopes that any agitators left in the crowd would be unable to find a toe hold for their manipulations.
That hope waned as the day passed, with so few in true need stepping forward for Justice. Despite Banks' warning, there were several instances of false accusations, along with the same petty grievances as before. Miraculously, Jim always seemed to have the right question to ask, to find the right person to clarify each case, but people continued to step forward, as if unable to believe that they wouldn't achieve their vengeance or satisfaction or sought-for advantage.
One man, Nathaniel Strom, cadaverously thin and dressed in painfully new, ill-fitting clothes, made so bold as to accuse Captain Banks of taking bribes. He stood in front of Jim, smirk in place, obviously confident he had answers for any defense Banks might make.
The smirk faded into confusion when Jim ordered, "May I see your hands, please?"
"Your hands. Please."
Hesitantly, Strom did as asked, holding them in front of himself.
Jim conspicuously inspected them, then announced what Blair could see for himself from where he stood. "You have small blisters all over them, and more coming up on your face."
"I… yes, I do. I… must have gotten into something." Strom stuttered, confusion deepening.
"My first night in Cascade five men burst into my camp, unannounced and unwelcome, brandishing weapons. I marked each of them with a bit of poison - nothing lethal. It just leaves very itchy blisters that spread like poison ivy when scratched. Once on the hands, it transfers to anything touched afterwards. Are you one of the men involved in that attack?"
Paling noticeably, Strom put his hands in his pockets, but yanked them back out again. "No, no, sir, I swear, I was at the pub all that evening, there are those who can vouch for it."
"Then you must have something in your possession that came from the attackers. Turn out your pockets, please," Jim said calmly.
Strom spent several long minutes trying to convince Jim that it wasn't necessary, but eventually did as told, spilling an abundance of coins onto the planking that Blair stepped back from in aversion. Before he could pick any of it up, Jim retrieved a single one with gloved hands, indicating green corrosion on the edge. "Ah, then this is the source of your discomfort. Where did you get this currency, sir, and so much of it?"
"In payment," Strom blurted.
"Ah, I… an assortment of tasks, sir. If the wages were from criminals, I took it in good faith." Strom paled further as Jim simply studied him, chin in hand.
Voice threatening in its confident timbers, Jim asked, "If I were to ask your neighbors what your profession is, sir, and how you might come to be so well compensated, what would they have to say?"
"I… I…" Strom looked this way and that wildly, as if seeking for prompting from an ally. "Surely it's not necessary to question them; I can answer for myself."
Raising his voice so that it could be heard clearly over the entire Common, despite the mutters from the crowd, Jim said, "You are casting aspersions on the Captain of the Sheriff Department. Forgive me if I need more than your word on your character, especially with your pockets lined with cash from the very people determined to make Cascade suffer as they profit. Indeed, given that you have far more on your person than you need for good business practices, I am inclined to believe that you may fall into that category yourself. Tell me, sir, why do you seek to make a mockery of this court with charges I know for a fact to be false, as the Captain's home and personal effects have already been searched, and he has nothing that reflects more than a public servant's salary should?"
"I… that is… how can… " Strom kept flashing glances in every direction, inching toward the edge of the platform.
"If you are waiting for cries of ill treatment on your behalf from the audience, they had best not come from those inflicted with blisters such as your own," Jim said very, very coldly. "Any voice raised against this Court will be inspected for such, and arrested for public endangerment, as any assault or attempted assault on my person or this court, can and will be construed as a direct threat to the safety and welfare of the populace."
Standing, Jim walked to the edge of the platform, trying, Blair saw, to meet the eyes of as many people as possible. "The Elderkin have been persuaded from cleansing once by Student Sandburg. I doubt any would be successful a second time. I beg you, think before you act, lest flames be the answer to your deeds."
As he spoke, Strom slinked off the stage behind him, losing himself quickly in the throng, but not before several disreputable characters - all disfigured with a vicious rash, Blair noticed - started intercept routes toward him. Others imitated Strom and tried to leave unobtrusively, most with anger and frustration coloring their expressions. Jim simply returned to his seat and gestured for the next person to come forward.
Finally the last stone was drawn, the last complaint heard, and Jim stood again. "Are there any left who would have Justice?" It was considered a final opportunity to speak for any unable to make the lottery drawing earlier, and Blair honestly didn't think it was needed.
To his shock, Jim whispered to him, "Do not show your distress at her allegations, Chief. Though she does not know it, she's only a tool, to what purpose I can not yet tell."
Before Blair could respond, a lovely young woman he had earnestly courted for several months before he became a wrangler stepped up the stage. "I am Maya Carusco, and I would accuse the Court's Second of crimes against my person."
Mentally reeling from her accusation, Blair showed only calm courtesy, bowing to her slightly before retiring to Captain Banks' side. A flash of rage at his lack of distress touched her features in return, but to the crowd she presented only ladylike composure. Sardonically, as if she expected the Liegeman to be prejudiced against her no matter what, she made a show of displaying her unblemished hands.
"Ah, but wouldn't a lady wear gloves when forced to personally handle her own business transactions?" Jim said so quietly only those on the stand could hear. In imitation of her two-faced dealings with the audience, he said much more loudly, "May I hear the specifics, Miss Carusco?"
"Student Sandburg wooed me with promises of marriage and the future social position he would achieve until he seduced me to his bed. Once he sated his unnatural desires, ignoring my innocence and unwillingness in such matters, he abandoned me." Maya held herself stiffly erect, a pretty blush coloring her cheeks, as if the very memory was humiliating.
For Jim's ears only, Blair said, "I was working in an import/export house as an inspection clerk when I met her. Yes, I saw her socially, always under proper supervision; she has a duenda, Jim. Or had when I was keeping company with her. When she realized I was a Student and not an heir to the business, an impression she garnered because of the owner's paternal attitude toward me thanks to my mother, she dismissed me from her life with a few very scathing remarks. I never, ever was alone with her, and would not have touched her in any circumstances if she were a virgin."
Expressionless, Jim said to Maya, "There can be no Justice in matters of the heart, no matter how wronged a maiden or gentleman may be, for no physical or financial harm is given. However, if you should wish to pursue Student Sandburg for paternity for the child you carry, I can see to that matter."
Maya's face went white, and a hissed curse was heard from the sidelines of the crowd. Despite it, she put a hand to her breast as if her wrong had just been multiplied, and Blair had to admire her in spite of himself for her quick thinking.
Before she could speak, Jim added, "As you have asked for Justice, I have the authority to insist that you be examined by a physician to determine the extent of your condition. There are also tests to be done that will confirm paternity. Now, Miss Carusco, where is your chaperone?"
"My, my chaperone?"
"Surely a lady of your stature has one? What is her name and where is she? Will she be able to confirm the dates of your assignations with Student Sandburg?"
Haughtily, Maya said, "No, no, of course not. She was not made privy to my indiscretions with that cad."
Besides, Blair thought, maintaining his serene attitude with difficulty, Senora Aldana likes me. Regardless, she wouldn't lie for any reason.
"Then why is she not with you for support and proper chaperonage?" Jim's reasonable stance hardened into a polite scorn that made Blair wince inwardly. "Or will she name another if I ask who has ruined your virtue?"
"I… I found comfort in the arms of another when Blair deserted me." Maya's composure finally showed cracks as she clenched and unclenched her hands.
"Unfortunately you will need to pinpoint the dates you were intimate with either man. Please keep in mind, Miss Carusco, that a physician will be able to establish when conception occurred." Again he added quietly to her alone, "And Herdsman Wilson kept meticulous financial records, which include all of Student Sandburg's long, late hours of labor. The possibility of accidentally identifying a day and time when he was free to visit with you is relatively slim."
Visibly struggling to regain her arrogant demeanor, Maya countered with an angry glance at Blair that he affected not to see. "I do not understand what my current relationship has to do with the false promises Student Sandburg used to court me, nor the indignities he visited upon me when I succumbed to his lies."
"Do you have witnesses to those blandishments, or tokens of his courtship? No? Then I must take into account that your… character has suffered in the eyes of the court because of your other affair. Also, I am afraid you will have to be specific in your accusation of depraved acts." Jim said with a tiny, invisible from a distance, smile that made Blair's blood turn cold. "You should take into consideration that this is not Spain, Miss Carusco, where by custom only Church sanctioned martial pursuits are allowed. In the Americas much of what you would consider improper are thought to be merely entertaining ways to avoid becoming in a family way, or delightful appetizers to the main course."
While his tone and stance remained completely respectful, his words elicited more than a few giggles from the suddenly avid spectators. Hearing them, Maya spun to glare at them, then whirled as if to confront Blair himself.
Certain because of her tirade when she cast him aside that what she truly wanted was elevated status in a country that had no use for the airs and conceits of aristocrats, Blair took a gamble. "Maya, whoever told you that the wife of a Student is treated at the University and in Cascade social circles as the spouse of a tenured professor lied. Nor are there any funds or scholarships to support a wife. My stipend is barely enough to make sure I don't starve during my journeyman years."
Obvious fury rose in her, and she abruptly ran from the stand, talking to herself in her native language.
Jim didn't deign to watch her go, but summoned Blair to his side with a look. Apparently that was also a cue for the deputies to form up their marching positions again as they immediately lined up along the front of the platform. As he moved to join them, Jim announced loudly, "Tomorrow I ride to seek those who could not, for whatever reason, appear themselves at this Court. Once done, I will return here to proclaim Cascade's fate: flame or future. If I am hindered or delayed in any way, the default decision is fire, no reprieve."
With no more than that he dropped into the midst of the lawmen, taking Blair with him. Making no effort at concealment, he and Blair walked at the head of the column, leading the way to the Cascade courthouse. As they entered the grounds, deputies dropped by the wayside, obviously taking up sentry positions, until, when they reached the honored guest's quarters, there were only two left. Leaving those at the door, Jim set about making the rooms appear occupied, though Blair barely noticed, absorbed as he was in the sudden trauma Maya had introduced into his life.
As accustomed as he'd become to Liegemen's subterfuge and sleight-of-hand, Blair didn't so much as blink when Jim went to the closet and slid the floor to one side to reveal a tunnel with a ladder built into the side. "Honored guest," he murmured, automatically following him down.
"During better times for Cascade," Jim said quietly. "I doubt any but the Liegemen know this bolt hole exists, but it seemed prudent to wait until our adversaries had had several nights to hunt for us before trusting the secret had been kept. There are no signs any have used this since it was built, and I am certain no one waits below."
He reached bottom, stepped to one side, and guided Blair the rest of the way down and into a small room that felt as if it were below ground. It was Spartan in its appointments save for the large fireplace, clearly had been freshened recently, and, best of all, a small bathroom had been built to one side.
"Running water?" Blair asked, suddenly eager to be clean, already stripping off his suit jacket and laying it aside.
"Hot as well as cold, thanks to the boiler room on the other side of that wall, as opposed to the root cellar directly opposite it." With some amusement Jim added, "Go ahead and bathe. I'll see to dinner this evening."
Hardly hearing him, Blair opened the taps and adjusted the flow until it was barely cool enough to not to cook him. In very short order he was up to his chin in heaven, warmed through and through for the first time in ages, and for once with no need to hurry because of other demands on his time. Washcloth over his face, he soaked, mind drifting languidly from subject to subject, without rhyme or reason.
Eventually, Jim knocked on the doorframe, already stripped to his breechcloth himself. "There's rabbit in the Dutch oven over the fire, and apples stewing in the pot. Both will be done in another half hour or so."
Reluctantly bestirring himself, Blair said, "And I am quite well done, myself."
"I took the liberty of having Simon leave a change of shirt and undergarments for you when he saw to the necessities here," Jim said, handing him two large, plush towels.
Blair stared at him. "You asked the Captain of the sheriff's department to act as a chambermaid? And he did it?"
"He has a family here, and no true wish to relocate again, for the sake of his son," Jim answered off-handedly. "And Incacha trusts him for his own enigmatic reasons. Since we must have one ally we may have confidence in for any of our plans to work.…" He shrugged, voice trailing off.
Leaving the tub, Blair wrapped himself in one towel and padded into the main room to so Jim could bathe in relative peace and quiet, himself. After drying his hair and putting on his pants and socks, he puttered around, examining his suit to be sure of its condition, stirring the apples and checking the rabbit, looking for soap to launder his clothing. All of it served to distract him from the thoughts and the memories that wanted to rise up and take over his mind. In the end there were no more small tasks to occupy him, and he stumbled to a halt in the middle of the room, Maya's scorn burning over him again.
Though her contempt was harsh, the true damage to his heart and spirit was done by the parade of despair, anger, avarice, and maliciousness of the past few days that rode with it, as if inescapably linked to her. He had always thought the best of people, had seen it more often than not, but in light of recent experience, he could not help but wonder if he wore blinders of willful ignorance or perhaps pure idiocy. When he and Maya had gone their separate ways, he had attributed her bile to hurt and disappointment. Now he could only see her as another example of his naivety.
Adrift from the convictions that had always sustained him, Blair had a sudden, nearly overwhelming urge to retreat back to the calm, ordered world of the University. It was no disgrace to choose other academic pursuits than a professor's cap, and many carried more opportunity and cache. His teachers would welcome him with open arms, he knew, less disappointed that he returned too early than relieved not to have lost another promising Student to the lure of duty or adventure or love beyond the walls of the school.
Despite his reasoning, the wrongness of such a withdrawal resonated through Blair clearly, which did not ease his longing for the consolation of familiarity and constancy of scholarly ways. The bite of tears scored at the back of his eyes and throat, and he unselfconsciously hugged himself, blindly stumbling toward the bed and the oblivion of sleep. Before he could take a step Jim wrapped strong arms wrapped around him from behind, drawing him into a warmth and comfort he could have never imagined.
Bending his head so that he could whisper into Blair's ear, Jim said, "It is not you who were blind to character, but her, or it would not have been possible for her to be manipulated into such a public stand. I feel sorry for her. Her family sent her here, no doubt to spare her the fate of a younger daughter in a land where they are treated as bartering chips in the deadly battle for power and influence, only for her to fall prey to a more subtle game of control."
No more able to refuse the strength being so generously offered than he could have ignored warm sunshine after a winter of storms, Blair leaned back into Jim's bare chest, letting him take his weight, both moral and physical. "It's not so much Miss Carusco's perfidy as the quality being shown by the townspeople. I have always believed humanity was slowly succeeding in improving itself, even in the old countries."
Sounding confused, Jim said, "It is. Cascade wasn't burned as soon as the Elderkin learned of the corruption here. Do you know how many times Williamsburg or New York have been reduced to ashes, and how long it's been since the Elderkin have had to resort to that sort of cleansing?"
"Perhaps they've grown more tolerant," Blair said tiredly. "Given the sheer meanness of spirit I've witnessed during Court."
"Blair," Jim said slowly, and something about the way he held himself told Blair that he was about to be given a confidence. "Have you ever seen or heard of a physician using a poultice to bring an infection to a head so that it could be drained or cut out?"
"Yes, but what…."
"That is the main purpose of the High Court; to draw out the worst that the city has to offer, in more ways than one. While the average man has been occupied with the spectacle you and I provide, Incacha and the Federal Marshals have been quietly, definitively, dealing with dishonest and corrupt officials, lawmen, businessmen, career criminals, and would-be tyrants. Many have been exiled, a few executed - all dealt with as fairly and forthrightly as possible. Others have stepped forward to fill the vacuum those departures created, and, again, they are being scrutinized for their worth."
Jim hesitated, and Blair encouraged him by gripping his forearms. After a moment, he went on. "I believe that was why Miss Carusco was induced into making a public charge against you. Whoever was behind that maneuver believed that you could be manipulated through her should you use your current eminence to reach for position, yourself."
Twisting in the circle of Jim's arms, Blair blurted, "You can't believe that I would use this crisis as a tool to further my own goals!"
Resting his forehead against Blair's, Jim said bluntly, "Your courage has earned you the right to do as you see fit in that regard, and I would not begrudge it to you. Cascade has need of those like yourself to guide her on the right paths."
Jim shook his head to dismiss the topic, but didn't move away. "Tomorrow we will lance the boil we have so arduously brought to a head. While it is impossible to remove all the disaffected individuals in any community, as temperament and fate often conspire to make the worst of all of us, the overall result should be very positive. In fact, given the size of Cascade's population, there are not as many as I've seen in other communities. I would willingly wager that if we are successful, this should be a very good place to live for at least a generation."
Almost against his will Blair remembered the number of people in the crowd each day, and how many of those seemed desperate for some solution, any solution to the difficulty that plagued them to the point of risking High Justice. Nor had there been as many vocal or violent objections to Jim's often radical resolutions as he would have foretold, given the disposition of the spectators. Most telling, each evening when idle hands and alcohol could give rise to discontent for the rabble-rousers to employ, the streets of Cascade had remained quiet, according to Captain Banks' reports to Jim.
Slowly, Blair smiled, peeking at Jim through his lashes. "You're telling me not to give up hope; not to let Maya dictate my expectations for Cascade."
"Could anyone for long?" Jim drew away with flattering reluctance, reaching for his breeches and putting them on. "Dinner smells ready, and on the morrow we will need the fortification of a hearty meal. Have you an appetite?"
"I…" Blair considered the state of his stomach and ruefully admitted to himself that it had its own notions about his condition. "…am quite hungry. How did you come by rabbit, if I may ask?" Though honestly curious, he simply wished to turn to more mundane matters as a remedy to his emotional upheaval.
"There's a warren under that large lilac bush in the corner where the Elderkin's Perch abuts to the courthouse proper," Jim said distractedly, retrieving the Dutch oven from the fire. He opened it and the most marvelous scent drifted into the room. "While you were bathing I caught one and used the last of the bread for stuffing, mixed with mushrooms I found sprouting near the foundation. The apples came from the root cellar that hides the other exit from these rooms, and the cinnamon for them I carry as a matter of course."
Spotting the dishware on a small shelf beside the fireplace, Blair set about readying the tiny table for their meal. "Cinnamon? Salt, I can see, as it's needed for good health, but cinnamon?"
He and Jim moved around each other smoothly, as if working together were a dance they had practiced many times, but he caught the slightly discomfited expression his question caused. Mind racing, Blair slowly answered himself, "It's for your senses. If you must eat something disagreeable, you can use it to clear your palate."
"Or if a scent begins to overwhelm me and I do not have recourse to my usual methods for compensating," Jim said more casually than Blair thought he truly felt.
"Have you tried mint? Or perhaps vanilla?"
Mind racing over the everyday difficulties a sentinel must encounter, Blair couldn't prevent more questions from spilling. Blessedly Jim didn't take offense, but answered each with gruff patience. Eventually the rabbit was so many bones, the apples only a fragrance in the air, and their conversation had strayed to various medicinal uses of assorted herbs and spices.
In unspoken accord they cleared their dishes and readied for bed, fitting into the small bed with easy acceptance of each other's presence. Face to the wall, Jim curled snuggly around him, Blair still expected to stare into the night for hours, replaying those horrible moments with Maya. Instead he dropped off quickly, dreaming of riding with Jim on Ften through a dense forest unlike any he'd seen.
Jim woke from a light slumber to the sounds of fighting several floors overhead. He listened carefully, but decided after a few moments that Simon's people had things well in hand. A few more thugs would be off the street in very short order; a few more dishonest lawmen sitting beside them in a jail, waiting for prison or exile. Attrition was reducing the sheriff's department considerably, but at least Simon would be able to depend upon the men and women left. With luck he would have time to rebuild his force before the terror of Elderkin in the sky faded from the populace's memory, and they drifted back to their old ways.
Concentrating, he listened for Incacha in another way entirely, but to his relief, heard only the drone of many voices blended into one. He's in-link with the rest of the attending Brotherhood, he thought, in preparation for tomorrow. Emboldened by the relative privacy, Jim nosed into the curls at the nape of Blair's neck, inhaling deeply and loving the way the curls caressed his face. He hesitated, not wishing to make too free with Blair's person, but unable to resist taking the tiniest of licks to garner a sample of Blair's flavor. It was as lively and wonderful as everything else about the young man. Even the many minute sounds of his bodily functions suited Jim.
It was, he noted dryly, forcing himself to move a more respectable distance from Blair, an irony only another sentinel might appreciate. To find his companion, the being meant to guide him through the use of his senses for the greater good, while they fought separate battles to save the very people that made up that 'greater good,' was a bitter quirk of fate. While it spoke well of Blair's character that he didn't see the advantage he had with the public, the plain fact of the matter was that he would be desperately needed as a stabilizing influence while the new governing body was chosen and put into place. The common man would trust him, new council members would recognize his value as a go-between while they established themselves, prosecutors would rely on him to coax worried or terrified witnesses into testifying.
It would undoubtedly take the rest of Blair's journeyman sabbatical to extricate himself from the needy, clutching hands of the townsmen and administration, if not more than that. Still, Jim had no doubt that Blair would return to the University sooner or later. Not only was he not the sort to leave an important task unfinished, but the body of information that he could create from his experiences as a Guide for Cascade's reconstruction and Second for a High Court would be invaluable to the school and future generations.
Though he had no right, Jim felt a thrill of pride in Blair's intellect and empathy. Tomorrow would be difficult, but he had no doubt whatsoever that Blair would cope magnificently, liberally spreading his strength and compassion where it was needed. Greedily Jim wanted to keep as much of it for himself as he could, since it would be his only opportunity to enjoy the sensory freedom and enhancement a shield companion brought. Much as he desired that, common sense dictated that he act on his own as always. To have a taste, then fast again for the rest of his life - that was a misery he did not need to inflict upon himself.
Ften's warning squeal yanked Jim from his musings, and he was on his feet, running before he had time to do more than snatch up his weapons. Barreling first through the root cellar, then through the bilco doors, he crashed into a man doing his best to avoid Ften's hooves. A single punch removed him from battle, and Jim spun to drop kick another attacker who was swinging a knife at Simon. A stomp from Ften ended the danger from the blade even as Simon dealt the last standing assailant with an incapacitating blow. Two others, one clearly dead from Ften's efforts, had been dealt with before Jim exploded onto the scene.
Blair burst into view, running for Simon. "You're bleeding."
Clamping a hand over his upper arm, Simon growled, "Clever bastards must have had a watch on the horse. I am positive I wasn't followed from my office, where I've been sleeping under guard."
"Why wait until you arrived here, but not until Jim joined you?" Blair asked absently, reaching into Simon's pocket for his handkerchief.
"Most likely in the hope of intimidating me," Jim muttered. Whispering in the Old tongue, he calmed Ften, hands smoothing over the Percheron's flanks to find the wound he could smell before adding, "While it is encouraging, our opponents are beginning to believe that Cascade can burn, it is worrisome that they have decided that harming my allies will dissuade me from my duty."
Thankfully, it was a shallow cut, if long, and not where it would discomfit the horse while being ridden, and Jim gave him a reassuring pat along with a crooned promise he would see to him very soon. Turning to Simon, he nudged away Blair's fingers to examine the stab wound. It was deep, certainly painful, but not life-threatening or debilitating. Still, the blood loss could present difficulties, and Jim reached into his saddlebag for medical supplies.
Catching and holding Simon's gaze, Jim asked, "Would you be willing to bear a moment of intense pain in order to be able to use that arm with surety on the morrow?"
Eyes widening, Simon glanced at Blair as if he held the answers to the many questions that sprang to his lips, but in the end he said gruffly, "Yes."
To Blair, Jim said, "Would you be so kind as to hold his arm tightly against his chest?" At Blair's nod, he flicked a small, clear stone with his thumbnail, then pressed it into Simon's injury. Adding his own strength to Blair's, he held the limb in place while Simon stiffened, muffled a curse with an effort, and a second later, a scream.
"Breathe, Simon, breathe," Blair coaxed. "First a big, deep one, then let it go in small pants; try to count them until you need another deep breath."
Whether it was the distraction or relief from the technique itself, Simon relaxed fractionally as he did as instructed. When the last bit of warmth from the stone's healing properties faded, Jim stepped back, gesturing for Simon to shift and flex his arm. Amazement plain in his expression, Simon did so, staring at Jim all the while.
After a moment, he gave himself a shake, and turned toward the assailants scattered on the ground around them. "I'll fetch the deputies if you will keep watch here until their arrival."
Blair said lightly after he'd left, "One question, just one, because I believe it will serve to contain all the rest of the ones tormenting me."
Holding back a smile as he returned to Ften to smear numbing ointment over his slash, Jim said gravely, "One, then."
"You have no idea about the mechanics or construction behind that minor miracle, do you?"
"Not a single notion." Jim shrugged, both hands going wide. He put away the small pot and added, "Though when I retire as Liegeman, I will be allowed to study Elderkin crafts if I wish, for now, I need no more than access to the fruits of their labors."
Giving the night sky his attention, he mentally called to Incacha, but said aloud, "Contrary to the gossip I have heard, it is not dragon-kind's wish to keep humanity ignorant, but more a firm belief that we should discover the advantages and disadvantages of each scientific advance on our own. The why of that is a long, long, long discussion fit only to fill the endless hours of a winter storm in the mountains."
"I've heard their skills called magic, gifted to them by evil or unclean sources," Blair said questioningly, looking up himself as if to see what Jim could see. "Though my teachers say that any science that has progressed beyond a people's understanding of it would seem as magic to them."
"It takes no expert in human behavior to see that slander as simply another ploy by the power hungry to debase what they can't gain for themselves, and to use ignorance as a tool to control others. There is a reason that the majority of the countries in the Old World reserve education for the aristocracy and…. Ah, there, coming down from Cassiopeia. See?" Jim pointed to the constellation in question, frowning slightly because it was not Incacha arrowing down.
A moment later Blair rocked up on his toes, gripping Jim's forearm. "Oh, oh, my - magnificent! May I tell him that?"
"Her," Jim corrected absently. "Minzimtah, current clan leader of the Chopec. Carrying my armor as if she were a youngling sent on an errand."
Blair whipped his head around to stare at Jim, but before he could formulate a single word, Jim dropped to one knee, left arm over his chest, fingers curled over his shoulder. Imitating him, Blair quickly obeyed when Jim whispered, "Both arms over - you've no rank as yet."
Coming around the corner with several deputies, Simon took in their posture in a glance and looked to the sky even as he knelt himself, motioning frantically to his men to do the same. They did as ordered just in time. Minzimtah landed as lightly as if she were a feather instead of over forty feet of silver and white scales layered in a swirling pattern over tremendous muscle, her wings stirring up a localized breeze that nearly knocked several of them over. Placing the bundle of armor next to Ften, she cooed at the horse, obviously praising it as she inspected its injury. Ften nickered back contentedly, and with an extremely gentle head-butt to him, she turned to the humans watching her with various levels of worry and fear.
Ruffling her wings once, she sat on her haunches, surveyed the unconscious thugs on the ground with disdain, and said in her lovely, rich voice, "Good morrow to you all. Please, be comfortable; no need to stand on formalities." Directing her attention toward Jim, she added, "You've had a few difficulties, I see, Liegeman. And I see that you've coped admirably."
"Yes, ma'am." Jim stood, bringing Blair and Simon with him with a gesture. He fought the urge to squirm, as if caught by his grandmother while sneaking a treat from the kitchen, his usual reaction to the Clan leader. "Captain Banks has been the staunchest of supporters; most of this is his work."
With a considering eye cast toward Ften, Banks said, "I cannot take credit for it, Ma'am, in this instance. The warhorse deserves it as he would not allow me to dismount when we arrived here, sensing the attackers and raising the alarm before they could act on their deadly intent."
Thinking that the Captain obviously had a gift for diplomacy, Jim hid a grin at Minzimtah's preening pleasure, which she deserved as breeding the warhorses was her pastime of many decades. "Yes, Ften is one of our best. So much so that I have had several siblings bred for him from the same parents, one of which is being held in reserve for this Liegeman's companion, should he find one."
At that, she gave Blair her undivided attention, turning Jim's momentary humor sour in the pit of his stomach. He had been so sure that he'd buried his attraction to Blair deep, below the levels the Elderkin perused. While it would never occur to his foster kin to coerce a potential liegeman or shield companion, they weren't above matching-making, either, if they were convinced it was to the benefit of the individuals involved. By now he had good enough measure of Blair's personality to be aware of exactly how vulnerable he could be to Elderkin machination.
Without thinking Jim stepped forward to sweep Blair behind him with an arm, ready to say or do whatever was necessary to divert Minzimtah from him. Before Jim could disgrace his oath or earn himself exile, Blair beamed at her happily, power surging between them as it had when he'd met Incacha. It was, Jim realized with both pride and sorrow, an exchange between equals, meaning Blair was mentally gifted, though untrained. The tiny shred of hope he would have Blair at least once, which had persisted despite his best efforts to kill it, died with a huge howl of pain that he instantly shoved down where even he couldn't see it.
In the split second that took, Blair said delightedly, "It was such a wonder to see you on wing, Ma'am; like the moonlight come to life."
Twin streamers of smoke escaped from the corners of Minzimtah, and she sank down on her stomach, chin in hand, to be face-to-face with Blair. "You, young man, are every bit the eloquent charmer Incacha presented you as. And before you disclaim the compliment, please rest assured that particular trait has proven itself to be very useful in this situation. No doubt it will be called upon frequently while Cascade settles itself from this near miss."
"Then the decision has been made?" Blair asked eagerly, almost visibly pushing away Minzimtah's comments.
"Yes, though it will not be finalized until James has finished his ride tomorrow." Apparently willing to respect Blair's preference not to be made the topic of conversation, Minzimtah turned her head to Simon. "The Elderkin must take some responsibility for what has happened to Cascade. Liegemen are rare, and one strong enough to deal with the hardships of living in a city of this size, more rare still. Liegeman Taylor did well by you and your people until the last few years of his life, when so much of what he was faded with his dying companion."
"From what I have heard," Simon said solemnly, "He did his best even then. Many of those who came to me to bear witness did so in his honor and memory, recounting how he would not only expect it of them, but would have been proud of them for it."
"Has the Brotherhood given thought on how to prevent a relapse until a suitable Liegeman can be found?" Jim asked, vaguely grateful that he sounded calm, professional, if a bit distant.
"Are you not willing to serve Cascade?" Minzimtah countered blandly.
Without meaning to, Jim winced at the thought of coping alone with the city's stink and clamor, a hand going half-way to his head before he caught himself and forced it back down. Despite that, he said steadily, "I will do what is necessary, Ma'am. You know that. If Captain Banks will allow me to work closely with his department, I believe that we will suffice until a more suitable Liegeman is trained and seasoned."
He felt her disappointment and sorrow as he obliquely confirmed that he would be alone, but she kept it to herself. "Very well, then. If all goes well tomorrow, you will be assigned to Cascade until further notice. The Brotherhood will, on occasion, drop by to see how matters are progressing; a strong presence may be all that is required to discourage the rise of new oath breakers. For a time, at least."
"Thank you," Blair said very seriously, echoed by every other person there. Minzimtah straightened, regally inclined her head, and leaped for the sky, the downbeat from her wings nearly flattening everyone.
To a man they watched her fly away, Jim longer than anyone else, saying a final goodbye to the first being who had ever valued him for himself. If she thought Cascade worth the price of his life, so be it. For Blair's sake, if nothing else, he would do his best to keep the city respectable until he faltered under the torrent from his senses.
When the others stirred restlessly, he checked the horizon, nodding at the blush of dawn coloring it. "We've a long day ahead of us, gentlemen, and the quality of its end is by no means certain as yet. Captain Banks, if you will see to the disposition of our unwanted guests, Student Sandburg and myself will prepare. As we planned, Captain, unless you see some need for adjustment?"
Banks studied him as if suddenly aware that he had missed the undercurrent in the exchange between Jim and Minzimtah, but thankfully decided it was not the time or place to press Jim on the matter. "As planned, Liegeman." He strode toward the nearest thug, his people taking it as an order to get about their business.
Though he dearly wished to put a hand under Blair's elbow and guide him back into the cellar for a few more precious minutes alone, Jim sternly reminded himself his fate was sealed and went to tend to Ften. Aware of Blair's gaze on him, he inspected his handiwork on the percheron's injury, and, once he was satisfied that he hadn't overlooked anything, began to dress the horse in armor. Unsurprisingly, Blair quickly understood the organization behind how it was packed relative to how it was placed and stepped in to hand Jim the pieces he needed, or hold them steady as he fastened them.
After a few moments Blair said thoughtfully, "While I was procuring provisions that first day, you and Simon planned everything, down to how to evacuate if Cascade burned, didn't you?"
Shooting him an 'of course' look, Jim added, "It may have been a while since the last cleansing, but Liegemen, Marshals, lawmen - we all have strategies devised for the possibility, should they be needed. Some are general; some have been passed down from Liegeman to Liegeman based on specific probabilities. Improvisation is important, but we learned long ago that the majority of people are served best by understanding what may happen and the appropriate way to respond."
"I have been so caught up in the experience, I haven't had the opportunity to consider the many ramifications of our actions and those of the Brotherhood." Blair paused to examine a shin guard, eyebrows going up as he discovered it was made from Elderkin scale. Since it made perfect sense that a Liegeman would have access to them, as well as tools to work them into useful forms, he didn't comment, though his fingers lingered on the light, smooth surface.
"In many ways, Cascade's problems have just begun," Jim warned him.
"People's lives will be disrupted for many months," Blair predicted, turning the guard this way and that. "Businesses will be temporarily closed, trade interrupted, food and other necessities in short supply. It will be a while before suddenly open positions can be filled, new owners found, replacements brought in for craftsmen and tradesmen caught up in the dreams of wealth and power. Families will be torn apart, endangering the care and safety of children, the elderly. Cascade may still burn, at the hands of its own people, if the frustration and deprivation grow to be too much."
Taking the armor from him and putting it where it belonged, Jim said calmly, "You, and all those who have the city's best interests at heart will step forward and see to what needs done. There will be problems; they will be met with promptness and calm determination that will calm even the most anxious biddy."
He picked up his own armor, balanced it on his shoulder, and returned to the cellar room. Blair trailed after him, clearly deep in thought; just as clearly troubled by those thoughts. With the intent of redirecting him into more interesting and less disquieting considerations, Jim said, "Rainier is most fortunate to have a Student so deeply involved in Cascade's cleansing. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an academic on hand during either a High Court or a reconstruction."
"Nor am I aware of one," Blair admitted, lighting up with enthusiasm. "As any articles or monographs produced would have to touch on my field, regardless of the discipline of the Student involved, I would have come across them sooner or later in my own studies. In fact, given the body of work possible from this, I can't imagine every university on the continent not requesting a visit from the professor to speak personally to the student body, if not give seminars to select scholars. His or her reputation would definitely precede them."
"So it would have been very beneficial for them professionally?" Jim put in because he needed to know that Blair would be compensated in a way meaningful to him.
"Gods, yes, yes! At the very least, they would be granted nearly instant tenure as long as he or she were able to speak coherently in front of a classroom. If they were able to work cooperatively with professors in other fields, they would add considerably to the reputation of the school, attracting more students and gaining more alumna." Hands moving in patterns that beguiled Jim regardless of the suspicion they were random, Blair added in a long-suffering tone, "Though the Elderkin's funding is more than adequate for the fundamental needs of any university, alumna are the life blood for sundries not considered essential - such as that guest speaker, for instance. Not to mention they are key in the smooth operation of the university itself for services such as maintenance or basic provisions…."
As Blair spoke expressively of the odd economic position of any university, Jim dressed himself in his armor, strapping it in place with more practice than he wished he'd had. Before long he pulled on his uniform, smoothing it over the hard casing underneath. From experience he knew that he looked slightly bulkier, more muscular than usual, but not so much so that an observer would pick up on it. Despite its thin composition, the armor would turn aside blade or bullet with relative ease, though the latter would leave its mark on the flesh underneath.
Before he put on his gloves, Jim permitted himself one last unshielded touch. Though Blair had followed his example by dressing as well, before moving around the room to tidy it, folding the thimbrane from the bed and pocketing it, he had left his hair flying free. Catching a single curl and sliding it caressingly through his fingers, Jim said, "Perhaps I can assist with this, as we have no mirror available."
Eyelids drooping down, Blair murmured, "I'm accustomed to seeing to the task without that aid, but if you are of a mind to take a lover's privilege, I will not demur."
"It is a temptation." Jim straightened, hearing the approach of many horses. "Unfortunately, we do not have the leisure to indulge. The others are here." He cupped the side of Blair's face in farewell, then lost his heart forever as Blair nuzzled into the palm, sniffling lightly at his wrist, apparently for no reason other than the intimacy it evoked.
Everything inside Jim clenched tightly, almost painfully, but at the same time it was the most wonderful feeling he'd ever known. Stunned, he stood there paralyzed, and possibly would have remained so until Blair thought him Lost, if Ften's whinny of greeting had not cut shrilly through the room. Thanks to training his feet moved of their own accord in the direction of the sound and the answering calls, Blair trailing in his wake as if nothing special had occurred.
Darkly Jim admitted to himself that for Blair, nothing had, and he gritted his teeth, focusing on duty.
For the life of him, Blair had no idea why he was so startled to find four sentinels and their shield companions waiting outside. All had dismounted and greeted Jim by removing their gloves to grasp hands, crossing them at the wrist to mate left-to-left and right-to-right, murmuring in a tongue Blair tentatively identified as Elderkin. Even the warhorses welcomed each other and the Liegemen as well, milling around as they nickered softly, butting their heads into shoulders.
Perhaps he was so disconcerted because he'd read that Liegemen were generally solitary creatures, or because he'd become so accustomed to regarding Jim as Cascade's Liegeman, as if there were no others in the world. Blair was even willing to credit his distress to the mere sight of so much authority and power gathered in one spot, casually chatting as if they were the most common of folk. If the thought flitted across his mind that he was… envious ….of the bantering camaraderie among them, he dismissed it so quickly he could honestly say he never considered the idea.
Whatever the reason behind his reaction, Blair hung back, almost instinctively dropping into a scholarly mindset to observe the interactions between sentinels, guides, and warhorses. It was no revelation to him that Jim out-ranked the others, though he wasn't quite sure why he reached that conclusion, though he didn't think it was because Jim was the one given the task of overseeing the High Court. Nor did age seem to be a factor. Jim was by no means either the oldest or the youngest, as Liegemen and Shield Companion alike were a widely varied mix of age, size, gender, and coloration.
Still, Blair was positive that the others deferred to Jim. When they began casting assessing eyes toward him, not necessarily in a friendly manner, Jim confirmed his belief by calling them on it, sharply enough that most were contrite, looking away immediately. Yet none took offense at the reproof that Blair could see, and were congenial enough when Jim called him with a wave and slight smile to join the group. He introduced Blair, and despite years of practice at readily memorizing the names and faces of endless students, Blair could recall only a blur of wary, calculating expressions and bland words.
Blessedly, after a few minutes of conferring, the Liegemen mounted, each with their companion in front or behind them, according to who was the taller. Baffled as to why they would share when each had a horse of their own, Blair looked for an opportunity to ask Jim, but a full complement of federal marshals joined them as soon as they reached a main thoroughfare. The companions gave up their mounts to four of Banks' men, while Banks himself rode a magnificent roan stallion.
"Have you heard anything from the night watch that calls for us to amend our strategy?" Jim murmured to Simon as the marshals divvied themselves up between the liegemen. "And is that arm bothering you at all?"
"No to both questions," Banks said gruffly, the only clue to Blair's mind that he was more concerned about the upcoming morning that outward appearances suggested. "We did as Incacha suggested and selected witnesses the same way we choose potential jurors, and they, along with notaries, reporters, and care workers will be joining us as we march."
"In that case…" Jim took a deep breath, and raised his voice. "Shall we begin?"
Without any fanfare the assembly divided into five groups, each with a Liegeman, Companion, and Sheriff riding at the head. Setting off in different directions, they went into their assigned sections of the city to seek out those who needed justice. True to Simon's comment, the troupe grew in numbers as they walked until Blair and Jim were in the lead of a veritable parade. The observation amused Blair, the last cause for humor he had for the rest of the long, nightmarish day.
The first stop was a brothel, which momentarily confused Blair as prostitution, while not approved of, was not illegal. Then he remembered that historically, not all women were given a choice about joining that profession, and anyone determined enough to force another person into it would not be above preventing them from appearing at the High Court. Surrounded by sheriffs and marshals, he and Jim strode into the building as if they owned it, the sheriffs corralling the bouncers and owner while the girls were quietly, persuasively questioned and promised support if they choose to leave. Amazingly only two wished to change occupations; the rest claimed the house was as decent as such an establishment could be.
To Blair's dismay, the same could not be said at the next one. Jim had no sooner entered than he growled, literally growled, and stormed through the house room by room, obviously searching. Throwing open a door, he dove into the dark space, threw a naked man into the corridor, them came back out, carrying a young girl who could not have been more than eight.
"Witness!" Jim barked, revealing that under the blanket covering her, the child was bruised and bare.
"Witnessed!" Blair said firmly, taking the girl from him and heading back for the street. Behind him he heard a sharp cry, then a snap of what could have only been bone breaking. He didn't look back. It would be hard enough to comfort Jim for the necessity of High Justice without seeing the body in his mind's eye while he did. When Jim demanded that the owner of the establishment be brought to him, Blair didn't falter on his mission to turn the child over to one of the female sheriffs outside. Minutes later he shielded her as the corpses were removed, women weeping with relief as they stumbled out, leaning on the arm of sheriffs or marshals.
There was only one more brothel in the area of Cascade they were allocated, and it passed inspection with only a minimum of fuss. The hospital was next, then the one retirement home in the vicinity, and Blair spared a grateful thought for being spared dealing with doctors or nurses who were neglecting or harming patients. In fact, they had names and addresses of people that the medical staff had concerns about, for one reason or another. Jim thanked them gravely, and went on to the next target.
All-in-all they moved so quickly and efficiently Blair doubted that many of the townsmen had heard any of the details of the High Court's ride so far. That could prove to be a good thing, and after due consideration, he decided it was probably deliberate on the Liegemen's part. The next stop was a school, which made perfect sense to Blair, as children were vulnerable to all adults, but especially those charged with their care.
Before he reached the principal's office, Jim snarled softly, "Fear. This place stinks of fear. Not just the students; at least some of the teachers."
"We'll find the source," Blair soothed. "Summon all the personnel, then fire the principal in front of them. If they're relieved or grateful, he's the source; if they're smug, they're the culprits; if they're worried, they're in it with him."
"Good advice," Jim said absently, but he gave Blair's arm a gentle squeeze before going through the door.
In the end the principal and two teachers were fired, and the temporary replacement was greeted with such relief Blair felt confident the school would recuperate. Again names and addresses were provided for children thought to be at risk from parents or guardians. The next two schools were in better shape, though Jim had one student expelled for unrepentant bullying, sent home with two sheriffs to judge if the matter needed more attention. They spared the time to hold an assembly at the last to allow the pupils to question them about the habits and traits of the Elderkin. Apparently many of them had been told a variety of frightening stories, relegating dragon kind to a sort of bogey man that would punish small children for misbehaving.
Why that irritated Blair to the point of grumbling, he had no idea, though Jim speculated it was because he held high educational standards for all schools and not vigorously countering mistruths as prevalent as the ones the children held showed a lack of dedication to the profession. It was also, Jim pointed out, to be expected from a population that had lost respect for the system; why else would the adults consider Elderkin to be monsters?
From the schools they went from house to house, using both the information provided by others, and Jim's senses, backed, Blair speculated, by the Elderkin themselves. It was the most brutal of tasks. Over and over children were removed from home, one or both parents exiled, and twice Jim executed High Justice, once literally catching the abuser in the act. Thankfully, the majority of the caretakers for the elderly or infirm were blameless - most simply did not have the resources to provide for their demented or infirm charges. That was seen to, as well, each case dealt with on its own merits.
By the time the sun was westering, Blair was exhausted and heart-sore, clinging to the promise that it was the last day of the court and the night would be his and Jim's. The crowd traveling with them had waxed and waned over the hours as fresh walkers replaced those who had done their duty. As they returned to the Common, the throng swelled again, but the character of it changed until it was only able-bodied men and women, all showing grim, determined visages.
"Brace yourself," Jim said softly into his ear as they reached the street that led into the green. "Here is where the oath breakers and malcontents will make their stand." Head tilting, he listened intently for a moment, then added with a hint of relief, "Not many - only about fifty, and they have been unable to work themselves up to a frenzy as yet. There will be a battle, but we may be able to avoid too many casualties."
Blair could hear the rumble and throb of anger himself, but, swallowing hard, he said, "Let me speak. I may be able to persuade a few more to abandon this cause."
"Unlikely, as these likely have the most to lose or the greatest store of purposeless fury." Still, Jim slowed Ften to a bare walk, speaking quietly to Simon before drawing ahead of the others.
Within a few yards they met the leading edge of the would-be mob, fearlessly continuing until belligerent men carrying an assortment of weapons blocked their path. Leaning back into Jim's warmth long enough for a deep breath, Blair carefully knelt up on the saddle as Jim scooted back to make room, holding onto the back of Blair's trousers under his suit coat to steady him.
"For three days," Blair said loudly, trying to catch the eyes of those at the edge of the crowd, "A court has been convened for the sole purpose of righting any wrongs the citizens of Cascade felt had been done to them. Has anyone a grievance left? You will be heard, here and now. Is there any who is unsatisfied by the court's decisions? "
His answer was a generalized mutter of frustration and confusion, and those who stood at the front of the pack glanced at each other. They had not expected an offer to speak, and were unprepared for anything except force meeting force because that was what they would have done themselves had they been able to stir the assembly into a mob. Before they could regroup, Blair inched his way up, heart pounding madly, until he was standing in full view, Jim's chest providing a solid buttress to lean against.
"If you have no charge, why are you here?" Blair said, pitching his voice so that all could hear it. "Why are you listening to men who wish only to find a way to profit from Cascade's destruction? Or who wish vengeance against those who ended their criminal schemes and designs? They would rather see Cascade in ash if they cannot have it for themselves."
"Cascade will not burn!" One man shouted. "It's a lie told to stop us from freeing ourselves from those blasted lizards."
From deep inside himself Blair summoned a merry, loud laugh. "And why, pray tell, would they not burn if what they want is to rule you? Let me guess, you think they want to be worshipped as gods… no, wait, they want you to sacrifice your babies, your beautiful daughters or wives… Oh, I'm wrong, they are fattening us for their dinner tables." His amused manner turned abruptly serious, hopefully providing a contrast that would make them listen. "I've heard those lies from the lips of children today; I find it difficult to believe that grown men and women would continence them."
Changing tones again, Blair asked, "How many of you are from the Old World? Or have parents or family members from there? Friends, business associates?" As he expected more than a few nodded in acknowledgment of Blair's question, apparently without meaning to. "Did you believe they have lied about the conditions over there? Where a man can lose everything he owns on the whim of a bored aristocrat, be killed for the shoes on his feet by a man with none at all, suffer the cruelest of tortures, and No One Will Care Or Speak For Him?"
Another mutter, this one uneasy and unhappy, rose from the crowd and Blair pressed his point. "All of us are immigrants or descendents of them. If the Elderkin wanted anything from us besides intelligent company and our gift for the arts, they could have asked for it when the first of us arrived - and gotten it." Blair punched out his next argument. "They could have asked for damned near anything - and gotten it."
"Things change, people change," the same man from earlier yelled. "The lizards could have changed their minds."
Again Blair laughed. "So why not just tell us? Demand what they want? It's not as if we can stop them from taking it!"
He pointed to a woman who looked more confused than anything else, and made her the face of the mob. "Why insist that we be educated, help provide for the public schools and fund the universities? An unlettered man can be run roughshod over by a government of the rich with ease, as England and France have proved. Laws can be passed, forcing the cruelest of indignities on the common man, if he cannot read to understand the intent of legislation. Why support newspapers and notaries so that the truth is there for all to see, and ensure that punishment for slander is rigorously enforced? Why insist, above all else, that we treat each other as equals, if they, themselves, wish only to see us enslaved?"
Sighing, he slumped realistically. "One last thing, and I will leave you to act on your conscience. The Elderkin have already said that Cascade will be let be, save for the stockyards, which must be burned because a man who cared more for his pocket than the welfare of his fellow man allowed slithies to flourish there. Who will truly benefit from attacking the Liegeman or Captain Banks and his men, now? How will anger serve you or anyone here?"
Not giving them a chance to respond, Blair slid down, Jim's arms supporting him all the way, until they were wrapped around his shoulders, shielding his face from the crowd. "Please," he whispered. "Please, please, please, please."
"Your eloquence touched them," Jim murmured. "Most are uncertain what to do next."
"Please, please, please."
A sudden motion from Jim had Blair hunching into his living shelter just a shot sounded from much too close by. For the next few minutes he heard nothing but heated shouts, more gunshots, screams, and running feet. Peeking from the underside of Jim's arm, he saw slices of the melee' - faces familiar from his haranguing of the mob, daubed with glittering yellow, now contorted in rage and pain as they threw punches, stabbed with knives, or waved a pistol. Uniformed deputies waded into the foray, aided by citizens wearing armbands with badges pinned to them, to drag away the combatants one at a time.
In the background Blair could see the other Liegemen, weapons in hand, bringing down gunmen, clearly using the glitter to mark friend from foe. Twice he saw a sentinel flinch as a bullet hit them, but the armor did as it was designed and protected the wearer. Both times the companion put a hand on their sentinel's shoulder or arm until their charge nodded they were at the ready again. He wanted, needed to provide that service for Jim, and he turned his face into the scant bare spot between Jim's glove and sleeve just as a thud sounded a few inches away.
Shuddering, Jim fired his pistol again, and kicked out as Ften danced to one side. A curse answered the action, then a gurgle that Blair had heard before from a man in his death throes. He would have done what he could to help, but Jim tightened his hold on him, mumbling, "His choice, Chief."
An eternity later, which, after much conferring with other witnesses, Blair would realize was less than half an hour, an odd, heavy silence fell. Slowly, carefully, he straightened to survey his surroundings to find only sheriffs and marshals still standing, most bending over a foe to either restrain them - or cover their faces. A cry of pain snaked through the silence, releasing others to voice their own hurt, and newcomers in medical garb filtered into the scene.
"I'm needed for triage," Jim said heavily. "And I believe that you should speak with the notaries and news reporters as quickly as possible to give witness to this last act of the court. Please be sure the news that the stockyards will be destroyed by fire tomorrow morning is well disseminated; hire a cryer if necessary. The last thing we want is a panic, but it must be done despite the risk."
Blair summoned a smile, or a reasonable facsimile of one anyway. "I am certain that my friend Cassie is even now trying to make her way to our side. Events such as this are her life blood, and she demands accuracy of herself and her reports."
"That is what is needed most if the aftermath is to go smoothly," Jim said absently. "The girl child we rescued from the brothel - I want to find her 'clients' and see to them properly, among others, and I'm sure my colleagues will have similar cases that will need follow-up attention."
"And the bully that was expelled will have to be watched for a bit, or he will simply lay in wait for his victims as they go to and from school," Blair agreed. Sighing, he brushed his hair back away from his face. "So much to be done."
"One task at a time. Blair…." Jim hesitated, but drew Blair with him as he stepped carefully among the fallen.
He reached the side of another sentinel, and placed a hand on her shoulder as she knelt over a young woman. "Lexa, she's pregnant."
"No longer," Lexa said, her even tone not quite concealing her sadness.
As she spoke, Blair recognized Maya with a start of something very like sorrow mixed with equal parts relief and hurt. He would have knelt to offer what comfort he could, but even as he formed the thought, the sentinel gently closed Maya's eyes and dropped a scarf over her face. Blair stumbled away, the many deaths suddenly so much closer to heart and mind. Shrugging off a gentle grip on him that he distantly recognized as Jim's, he stumbled away, aiming for the nearest clear path he could see.
Almost as if she'd laid in wait for him, Cassie planted herself in front of Blair before he'd gotten too far, demanding details of the attack, as the fighters had kept a solid wall of strong backs between the noncombatants and the battle. At first he was able only to answer her questions mechanically, but the importance of giving her a precise depiction of events drew him back to himself. The horror of the deaths haunted the back of his mind, yet as Cassie repeated back what she'd been told for accuracy's sake, he acknowledged a simple truth: the aggressors had had multiple opportunities to do what was right. All had chosen their fates, just as Jim had said.
Reminded of him, Blair looked around, intending to break away from Cassie long enough to make contact with him - catch his eye, at the very least, though he wanted much more. Jim was nowhere in sight, and when Blair would have left in search of him, a woman diffidently approached him to ask if he could help find her son among the wounded or dead.
It was late evening before Blair could extract himself from the multitude of people wanting his assistance for one reason or another. If Simon hadn't stepped in, literally pulling him away to hide him amidst the bulk of a group of deputies, he might not have succeeded even then. Careful questioning told him that Simon didn't know Jim's whereabouts, and was not concerned about it. He added that Blair was expected to spend the rest of the night, in fact, the rest of the week, in the honored guest quarters, while he gathered the threads of his normal life back together.
As good as that news would have been any other time, it wasn't important at the moment. Dismissing the possibility of assistance from that quarter, Blair slipped away from his guard as soon as he could, drawing one of Jim's thimbranes over his head like a cloak to conceal his identity. Once alone, he stood under a shop awning, deep in the shadow, trying to think. Where would Jim go, now that the court was done?
The court, but not the task, Blair reminded himself sternly. Jim was committed to working with Simon until a permanent Liegemen could be assigned to Cascade. At the very least, he could lay in wait for him at the sheriff's office, but he was intuitively certain that any delay in reuniting with Jim would lead to a barrier between them Blair would never be able to breach. Why, he had no idea, but the urge to find him became an aching need that hurt his heart.
Casting his mind about for an idea, any idea, on how to locate Jim, Blair turned this way and that to peer along the street as if he would magically appear if Blair only looked hard enough, long enough. Ridiculously he wanted to call out to summon him to his side, to the point that he murmured Jim's name over and over, clinging to the edge of the wall as if to hold himself back from running madly in search of his missing… what? Friend? Lover? Neither word fit what Blair felt, and the ache grew worse.
The impulse to move became stronger, and he took a single step forward, jerking to a stop when his ear suddenly burned. Hand flying up to the all but forgotten dragon jewel in his lobe, he fingered the stone lightly, amazed that it felt so cool while his ear still stung from its sudden heat. Should he have returned it? Distractedly he took another step, freezing in place when the jewel heated again.
Confused beyond belief, Blair moved back toward his refuge, and the stone burned him again, more sharply this time. He thought for a moment, decided if forward was forbidden, as was back, perhaps he could move to either side. Sidling to the left he received a pleasantly cool tingle from the jewel, and with growing confidence walked in that direction. Simon had mentioned that the earring would allow Incacha to keep track of Blair, which gave him hope that the Elderkin somehow understood he sought Jim and was leading Blair to him.
Before long he was on the outskirts of the city, and the inky darkness that closed over the road gave him pause. Not all exiles left on the boats made available to them, and highwaymen were always a problem. Regardless, he went on after a moment, alert to every sound and hint of movement. Unexpectedly he felt the distinct sensation of being covered, as if by a great wing, and held close to the thud of an enormous beating heart. Reassurance and affection poured over him in palpable waves as real as the cool wind or evening sky. Blair had never known such cosseting, and to his amazement, his first reaction was tears.
Solemn sympathy followed on the heels of the care, but he was given a definite nudge to continue his journey. Confident of guardianship over him, Blair hurried onward, detouring onto a path through the woods when the jewel stung him again. The going was slow until the moon rose in a cloudless sky, fat and brilliant, lighting his steps with silvered rays, allowing him to almost trot. When the path reached a small stream, he received another signal to turn, and he made his way along the bank until he spied Jim sitting on tiny sandy beach, fingers of one hand trailing in the water.
Blair stumbled to a stop, his breath literally stolen away by the beauty in front of him. Naked, his sculpted body lovingly limned by the ethereal glow of moonlight, Jim seemed to be studying the wavelets from the stream that lapped against his skin. He had his knees up enough that his dry hand could drape over his ankles, and the expression on his elegant patrician features was one of aloof serenity, giving Blair the impression he had accidentally discovered a fey elemental taking on a mortal form for the marvels held in that shape.
When Jim didn't acknowledge him, though he had to see or hear him, Blair fought down the bitterest of disappointment, only then asking himself he should intrude on the first solitude and peace the liegeman had had since arriving in Cascade. After all, if Jim had wanted his company, wouldn't he have sought him out earlier or communicated a rendezvous through Simon? Or perhaps he could not, Blair suddenly realized, biting his lower lip. Jim had said that he was not free to act on his own desires until his duty was done; was he going to have to wait until Cascade was given a new liegeman?
The only reason Blair didn't turn tail and run was the faint, faint warmth from the dragon's jewel; they, at least, wished him to remain at Jim's side. Though why….
Jim's utter immobility hit him then, and Blair ran for him, splashing through the stream with utter disregard for shoes or clothing. He skidded to a stop and fell to his knees at his side, cupping the curve of Jim's shoulders in his palms. Cold, so cold, Blair thought frantically and leaned in to lay his cheek against Jim's, blocking his Sight.
"Lost," Blair murmured to himself, as much to Jim. "Which sense? Touch?" With great care he captured Jim's fingers, tugging them from the water and bringing them up to rest intertwined with his own between them. The action gained him no response, and Blair considered what else could be calling to the sentinel. A ground cloth of thimbrane lay beneath him, and while there was a soft breeze, it was steady enough that Blair couldn't see why Jim would be caught up in it. Just in case, Blair lifted his own make-shift cloak and dropped it over Jim as much as possible, both for the warmth and to block Touch.
To his surprise where the thimbrane met thimbrane, it sealed to itself, creating a partial shelter. Inspired, Blair quickly shrugged out of his wet clothing and physically nudged and pulled Jim until he was curled onto his side before snuggling up behind him as the thimbrane turned into a snug cocoon. It was warm and luxuriously supple, and Blair didn't hesitate to pull it over their heads, leaving a small opening for air. The material was transparent enough that he could see the wood and stream, or if an enemy should approach, but he had no doubt that an observer would see only an oddly shaped lump of shadow.
"Sight and Touch restricted," Blair said, rubbing along the outsides of Jim's arms to warm him. "Hearing? My voice should disrupt that. Taste is not an issue under the circumstances, which leaves only Scent." He inhaled deeply, considering, but could not find anything to remark upon: rich earth, dampness, clean male musk.
The latter sent a pang into his gut, but Blair had no difficulty setting it aside. Scooting up until he could cradle Jim's head against his breastbone, he thought the problem over as he gingerly chaffed along Jim's torso, relieved as warmth replaced the chill in it. Perhaps if Jim was Lost too long, coming back was no longer a matter of replacing one stimulus for another, but providing a landmark to navigate by. Obviously strong input was not effective; perhaps more subtle stimulation could be useful.
Determinedly holding that and nothing else in mind, Blair hummed an old lullaby his mother used to sing to him, dropping tiny kisses onto the crown of Jim's head. His strokes along Jim's body turned to out-and-out caresses, as delicate and fleeting as he could make them. Occasionally he would breathe gently across Jim's face or into his ear, watching the ripple of goosebumps the deed caused.
Eventually Jim's eyelids fluttered down, and all the tension in him melted away, leaving him as lax as a man deeply slumbering. Despite that, Blair didn't think he was asleep. His breathing was too quick, too high in his chest, and his nostrils would flare as he scented the air in far too purposeful a way for dreaming.
It wasn't until he moaned softly in pleasure that Blair realized what Jim had to be smelling. If Blair could distinguish Jim's natural fragrance in their confined space, his had to be a veritable bouquet of aromas for a sentinel. Much as Blair had ignored his own hungers, he could not help but react to holding Jim so intimately - to the point he'd had to ease his lap away to prevent his maleness from digging into Jim.
A quick glance told him Jim was similarly affected; indeed, his manhood rose tall and rosy-tipped from its bed of curls, vibrating slightly, as if in eagerness. Without meaning to, Blair whimpered, resisting the impulse to twist head-to-toe with Jim so he could taste the prize he unconsciously offered. Jim's eyes popped open at the sound, catching his gaze instantly.
Curling an arm back, Jim buried his fingers in the curls at the nape of Blair's neck, urging him to lower his head as Jim strained upwards to meet his lips. Their first kiss was more tender than Blair had ever imagined one could be, and so sweet his insides melted even as sharp tugs of lust made his length throb with urgency. With an inarticulate murmur, Jim drew away barely enough to inhale deeply, nuzzled lovingly at Blair's cheek, and kissed him again, opening his mouth to give more of himself to Blair.
Greedily, Blair took it, delving with an eagerness that Jim met, then surpassed as he turned in Blair's arms to embrace him more fully. Blair's erection brushed along Jim's back and side, drawing a small groan from both of them. Jerking away, Blair fumbled for something to say - an apology for taking advantage or a plea for more, he had no idea which he would articulate - but Jim arched up, hands clinging to Blair's shoulders.
"Touch me, please. Blair… oh, my, dear, God… Touch me!" Jim hid his face against Blair's chest, as if ashamed that he spoke of his need.
Trembling at the beseeching words, Blair enclosed Jim's length in a loose fist, thumb swirling through the incredibly silky fluid covering the cap. "Mouth," he insisted.
Lifting his face, Jim gave himself over to Blair's kiss, matching the mating of their tongues to the lift of his hips. His small, throaty cries of desire pierced Blair, driving away every need Blair had except the one to give this precious man utter satisfaction. He reveled in every thrust, in every quiver, as Jim surrendered to the demands of his lust. When Jim roared through his completion, Blair finished with him without so much as a touch, pouring his essence over Jim's own offering.
"Blair!" Jim gasped, his cock thrumming against Blair's palm. He turned Blair under him so their lengths slid against each other, their combined seed providing a slippery layer.
"More?" Shifting so that the pressure was just right, Blair added in an entirely different tone, "More!"
"Yes." Jim feathered a dry kiss over Blair's forehead. "Yes, yes, yes."
Each 'yes' was followed by another kiss on Blair's upturned features until Jim reached his lips. He nibbled and suckled at them, driving Blair mad for the proper use of his mouth, or better yet, his opening. Blair wrapped his legs around Jim's waist, settling his bottom into Jim's groin before squirming enticingly. To his shock, Jim drew back from the contact.
Groping for the most reasonable explanation, Blair panted, "There is enough spilled between us to ease the way, eager as I am for you."
With a moan as if he were finding release again, Jim raised up on his elbows, fingers running restlessly through Blair's hair at the temple. "I swear I am as eager - perhaps moreso as I have never had that privilege before in my life, Blair, yet I cannot. It is reserved, by oath and custom, for my shield companion alone, both the giving and the receiving."
Unbelievably more shocked, Blair blurted, "You've never… at all?"
"With a woman before I donned a liegeman's uniform and responsibilities, mostly in hopes of children. Since then hands and mouth only, so I am not unskilled; you won't be left unfulfilled, I promise." Jim rocked against him, burying his face in the curve of Blair's neck to fasten a suckling bite there.
Mind clouded with passion, Blair struggled to understand the meaning behind Jim's refusal, far more than simply disappointed that he was denied what he craved with such intensity. Why would the Elderkin demand such a sacrifice? Disallow the joy of such a vital connection to others? "Only your companion?" he asked, feeling stupid. "We… you and I… never?"
Hardness fading, Jim lifted away, face averted. "I would have it otherwise, but, yes, I will do as I pledged and wait for my guide to claim me as his sentinel. You have every right to refuse me, now; I waited too late to share that confidence with you."
Instantly wrapping arms and legs around him again to pull him back down, Blair said, "The situation was hardly conducive to discussing the personal information all lovers should impart before bedding one another - that and we were both swept headlong into intimacy."
Still Jim remained unyielding, all traces of arousal gone. Choosing his words carefully because he would not be accused of false promises so soon after Maya's betrayal, Blair said, "I will be content with what you may give me, and not cajole or pout."
"And after?" Jim rumbled. "When the night is done?"
Ah, Blair thought to himself. That was the source of Jim's disquiet; he did not wish to snatch at a crumb of affection, then do without for who knew how long. "It was in my mind that we could continue to work together for a time. There is so much left to be done for Cascade, and I truly believe I can be of assistance to you when Incacha or Ften are not available. And, after all, I can go many places it may be difficult to take either of them. If you wished to continue the physical part of our relationship, I would be honored."
At last Jim relented, relaxing into Blair's embrace, though he still did not meet Blair's gaze. "Only a fool would refuse such a generous offer, and I am not so much a one that I would turn away from a full plate when I am starved because the dish is not the one I requested."
Blair tucked a knuckle under Jim's chin and gently coaxed him into facing him. "Do you worry that you will miss an opportunity to find your guide because of your involvement with me?"
Smiling, despite a shadow in his eyes that Blair could not interpret, Jim said, "No, that is not a cause for concern." His smile grew sad. "At this point in my life, I must admit I am no longer willing to trouble myself at the lack of something I've never known."
A protest rose to Blair's lips of its own accord, but before he could voice it, Jim claimed his mouth, thoroughly and decisively. Much as Blair regretted the loss of abandon that Jim had gifted him originally, he willingly put it aside to rejoice in the pure blissful enjoyment Jim obviously took from kissing him. When he tired of ravishing Blair's mouth, he moved to the sides of his neck, and by the time he reached the small paps obscured by Blair's chest hair, Blair was awash in a sea of sensation carrying him inexorably towards climax.
Aware on some level that he had blurbled a litany of approval and encouragement all while Jim tasted him, Blair beat on Jim's shoulders as he moved lower and mumbled, "…hands and mouth… not unskilled… dear heavens, JAMES!"
Chuckling around the shaft filling his throat, Jim breeched Blair with a single finger, going unerringly to the nub hidden in his channel. With an incoherent shout, Blair drove down on it, then up into wet, hot suction, setting a brutal pace for himself. Any chance he had of slowing down to savor the pleasure bestowed upon him was obliterated by Jim's small noises of delight.
Despite the relief from earlier, he was fast at the edge of his finish, then tossed over when Jim stiffened, groaning in release. Shaking violently, Blair emptied himself into Jim's mouth, unable to so much as warn him to give him the choice of accepting it. Bolts of sensation knocked him free of himself, until he was aware of nothing but ecstasy and the burning bright presence of his lover.
He had not wit one left to wonder that he should see Jim that way, and before Blair could do more than note it, he slipped from paradise into slumber, murmuring Jim's name.
Though he supposed he should feel slighted that Blair nodded off almost instantly after their lovemaking, Jim knew only relief that he had the privacy to sort through his thoughts. Shifting so that he was on his back, Blair alongside him, head in the hollow of his shoulder, Jim idly played with Blair's curls and stared unseeingly into the deep shadows of the forest. Despite being sound asleep, Blair wriggled until he was snug against Jim, bodies fitting together as well as a hand into a glove.
His unexpected presence was a delight and a wonder and an agony that Jim had no idea how he would find the will to endure. It had been his aim to avoid Blair whenever possible during his tenure as Cascade's liegeman, and to never, ever be alone with him again. He'd seen the horror and revulsion in Blair's expression at so many needless deaths, and, unable to bear having that look turned toward him for his part in it, had left as soon as he could in good conscience.
Even if Blair accepted the blood on Jim's hands, he deserved better, much better, than to deal with the ugliness that was so much a part of a warrior's life. As long as he worked beside Jim, he would be exposed to it over and over. If Jim had been able to put time and distance between them, if only a few days worth, Blair would have been swept into a more fitting use of his talents.
Jim didn't have to see the dull gleam of the jewel in Blair's ear to know who was responsible for upsetting his plans. It seemed only fair to him that Incacha be as thwarted in his scheme as Jim had been. Blair had plainly declared his intentions toward Jim, and becoming his shield companion had been roundly dismissed. By custom and law, no one could question Blair's choice or attempt to sway him from it.
Which gave Incacha no room to play matchmaker and left Jim lying naked beside his heart's desire, forbidden to ever speak of being more than a casual lover to him. The frightening part was how badly he wished to court Blair to win him properly. Not because his senses had never been so clear or focused, not because he would falter, then fail once Blair dismissed him from his life, but simply because he was already in love with him and wanted nothing more than to devote himself to protecting and caring for Blair forever.
In the long run, he couldn't help but be glad of how circumstances had arranged themselves. He had meant it when he told Blair that he wasn't so much of a fool as to refuse what he could have while he could have it, and it was ultimately Blair's choice. Not that he could walk away now that he'd tasted what Blair had to offer. He would simply have to do his best to ensure that Blair had joy enough to balance out the bleakness Jim carried with him. Perhaps he had no experience in such things, but surely he could learn?
That was, Jim realized, the best he could do, and dwelling on things he could not change was a ridiculous waste of the precious time he had with Blair. Besides it sounded as if a raccoon had found Blair's shoes and was testing the leather to see if it was edible. His clothes needed drying, as well, judging by the damp, ready for mold, smell of them.
Reluctantly, almost painfully, Jim reached for the seam of the thimbrane and peeled it away. Letting it close over Blair, he went to one knee and picked him up, grunting a little under the effort. As he stood with his welcome burden, Blair scrubbed a whiskery cheek over Jim's chest, and mumbled.
"Go back to sleep," Jim said soothingly. "I need to tend to my campsite before I settle down for the rest of the night."
"I c'n walk."
"So I've seen, but as you have no shoes and not enough light to avoid obstacles, perhaps you should demonstrate your skill at being carried."
"Will't lead to dmsting other skills?" Blair said, managing to sound both drowsy and seductive.
His stomach chose that moment to grumble hungrily, and Jim chuckled. "Is that a request to cook for you again?"
"Well, yes, but maybe not right away?" Blair yawned, blinked, and kissed Jim's jaw. "Which 'minds me…" He yawned again, but went on determinedly. "Maybe should share quarters while you settle in; easier for me to learn to substitute for Incacha, find out what you need. Won't have to waste time sending messages or arranging to meet."
Blair scrubbed at his face with his fist, like a child. "Not to mention Wilson hasn't paid me in forever, and I have no funds for housing, which isn't your problem, but it would certainly be of assistance to me to have a roof over my head, however temporary."
"As my aide you'll receive a stipend, and you may stay in the guest quarters at the courthouse until you find better accommodations," Jim pointed out, more to appear unwilling for propriety's sake than because he disliked the idea sharing a home with Blair.
"Where we'll be staying," Blair argued, "Until we locate a suitable dwelling. You'll want close to the edge of town, and proximity to a stable for Ften, as well as easy access to Simon's office. Anything else I should know?" He frowned, more alert by the moment. "Clearly I need to have a long conversation with Incacha as soon as possible. Not only does he have access to information about sentinels in general, but as your friend, he must have specific details about your abilities that I should be made aware of."
"There may be a matter or two of note," Jim said solemnly, inwardly grinning at Incacha's reaction to being bombarded with questions. He carefully set Blair on his feet and knelt to stir up the embers from his campfire.
"I should write a list," Blair muttered, apparently to himself, as he sat cross-legged in front of the flames. "Visit the library to investigate what written sources there are so that a comparison can be made between what is available the Elderkin's knowledge. Surely Incacha will be patient with me, under the circumstances. After all, the research will have very practical applications."
Jim had a sudden mental image of Blair standing in a circle of dragons, head bent over a sheath of paper, glasses perched on the edge of his nose. "Now, tell me exactly how many times a night a sentinel may achieve physical satisfaction and what techniques work best to reach that pinnacle?"
Stifling a laugh, he reached for his pack to scrounge for food of some kind to refuel himself. No doubt it would soon occur to Blair to ask him directly about certain topics, and Jim preferred action to words whenever feasible, a personal detail that he was certain Blair would appreciate.
Frequently, if Jim had anything to say about it, and, for a while at least, he did.
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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Mary for the beta and to Patt for the artwork.