My father picked the worst possible time to die.
“You always tell the same story, or the same kind of story,” the student complained to the old master. “Your heroes are all the same.”
“History repeats itself,” the old man quoted: “Historians repeat each other. What kind of hero do you want?”
“Anything different. Not another brave, strong young man of humble origins and mysterious birth, anticipated by prophecy who overthrows an empire and brings peace to the land.”
The historian squinted at his student’s face. “What part of that tires you?”
“I’m tired of being preached to,” the student said, looking around the alewife’s house. Besides the two of them and the alewife, the only other occupant was a goose who had wandered through the open door, perhaps seeking shade from the hot September day. “I’m not a child to be bribed or threatened to good behavior with a fairy tale. –How about a story where the hero wins by being evil? Do you know a story like that?”
A kind of smile had crept onto the historian’s face. “You would be amazed the stories I know. History is the study of truth. It is truth in application. The human heart in the loner and the group, in the leader and in his followers. What people do and why. There is no situation you can imagine so screwed up I cannot give you a real story for it, and the real story will beat a fiction every time.
“You want to hear about a bad, weak man who goes from bad to good fortune. A hero thoroughly without virtue, who wins even so. I know such a man. You you will hear of him shortly. But while I call the details to mind, tell me — why do you want to hear such a story?”
“I don’t know,” the student replied, and thought a moment. “I suppose because it will be reassuring.”
“Reassuring!” the historian exclaimed. “How is that reassuring?”
“Well, if he’s able to keep what he doesn’t deserve then maybe I can keep what I have, too. Who can live up to a heroic standard? — Oh, are you just going to tell me a story where the Emperor wins? I know history has a lot of those.”
As the historian made to reply, a young man burst into the room, scaring the goose which went honking and flapping into the midst of the teacher and student. “Where’s your husband?” the intruder demanded of the alewife. “I need him right now.”
The alewife disappeared into the inner space of the small house. The man looked around impatiently.
“How did the inquest go?” the student asked him. “Did your father’s estate get settled?”
The man did not answer immediately, but the question seemed to move him to a kind of rage. Just then the little town’s superintendant bustled in.
“Nothing I can do for you, Justin,” the superintendant said. “An investigation’s an investigation. Your father could have been killed. You will probably be named.”
“But surely I can pay my father’s debts with my father’s estate,” Justin replied. “That shark is demanding repayment on time, and control of the estate is locked away from me. He wants to steal the farm!”
The superintendent took on the pained expression of a man unable to make everyone happy. “You can sign control over to the clerk–”
“–and then I’ve lost,” Justin said, “because Terry the shark controls the clerk and they can keep the estate tied up for years while he sucks it dry. This is not justice!”
“Law doesn’t have anything to do with justice, Justin,” the superintendent said quietly. “It’s just a means of resolving conflict.”
“If that were true, no one would tolerate the law,” Justin snapped. “Do not screw me, Bobbie.”
“I’ll do what I can when I’m called on,” the village superintendant Bobbie told him. “But remember – I owe Terry too.”
Justin stepped outside the alewife’s house into the hot September day. He stood about five and a half feet tall, a young man who was husky without being heavy. He had brown hair and brown eyes. His eyes tended to move slowly, but constantly around, as if he were in the habit of looking for something, except when he spoke to someone. When he spoke to someone he tended to look at their face constantly, without the polite breaking off that most people learn to do, and this caused people, until they got to know him, to think he had a fiercely combative nature.
Justin was still standing outside the alewife’s house a moment later when his good friend Melinda approached hesitantly. “How’d it go?” she asked.
Melinda was a village girl who wore a long rough cotton dress. Her hair was blonde and back in a bun. She had never broken the childhood habit of walking on her toes, and this gave her the appearance of being strangely ready, as if she might need suddenly to run in any direction. As she waited for Justin to reply she kept her head cocked, and her expression had an openness about it that seemed to say she could not keep secrets.
Justin looked at her awhile before replying. “No help at all,” he told her. Terry’s just too powerful.”
Melinda laid her hand on his arm. “You’ll find something.”
Justin’s gaze slowly moved around the village they both had lived in all their lives, as if he were trying to find something new there. “I don’t think so, Melly. I think the same thing will happen that always does. Terry will win. The question is how much I throw away fighting him.”
“Don’t think like that!” Melly urged. “It can work. It has to work! What will you do without the farm? You’ll have to sign on as a hired hand, and even if anyone nearby had enough work that they needed someone, there are so many workers you’d never find a living wage.”
Justin nodded. “I’d have to work for Terry.”
Melinda started back, showing suddenly the fiery side of her character. “You would never do that!” she said.
“I can fight his grab and get him angry, or I can try to cut a deal while he’s still friendly,” Justin told her. “Those are my choices.”
They began walking, falling easily in step together, the way good friends on well-known paths do. They passed the old mill at the stream with the abandoned half-built wall. The huge rotting waterwheel creaked ominously on its axel. They cut diagonal across the fallow field of the Jenson widow and helped one another up the crumbling retaining wall along the south road. In this way they entered the orchard of Justin’s dead father and silently walked among the long untended trees until they reached the farmhouse.
Melly and Justin went inside. It was early afternoon and many things on the farm needed doing, but the animals would not need tending for a few hours. Justin sat in the big cushioned armchair that had been his fathers, put his booted feet up on the wooden footstool, and shielded his eyes with his hands.
Melly regarded him from the doorway a moment, and went into the kitchen where lit a fire and began making stew. “Are you going to take it to court?” she asked.
“It’s not like that,” Justin replied, not moving. “They’re calling his death suspicious so they hold execution of the will. It’s not until they rule he died accidentally or find someone guilty that the property is freed up. But they’re not holding up the debt payment schedule.”
Melly turned her head. “Would it clear things up if you were put on trial?”
“I would rather not have it said I was tried for killing my father,” Justin replied. “And Terry doesn’t want that either because then I could pay him. They just want it immobilized.”
A hard persistent knock came at the door. Melly came to the kitchen doorway as Justin reached the outside door. The door was unbolted. Justin opened it and stared at the hulking man with the broken-toothed grin who stood outside.
“I think you have the wrong house,” Justin told him.
“Don’t think I do!” the stranger said, his voice strangely cheerful. “Justin Wingate? The man whose father recently died?”
Justin and Melly saw that the big man was wearing a sword.
* * *
Emperor Jeremiah rode along the mountain road with his best general, Elizabeth Pierce, and a small security contingent charged with their safety. A few guards who had asked for danger pay had ridden ahead disguised as rich and carefree nobles to draw out ambushers, and by the time the contingent reached the small cascade they believed the area secure enough to dismount and let the horses drink.
The Emperor was a small, neat man with straight black hair and a slightly nasal voice. He was handsome, almost pretty, and this in combination with his matter of fact manner often caused people who met him to make the dreadful mistake of doubting his ruthlessness.
He and General Pierce made an odd couple. There was nothing romantic between them, and never had been, but long professional association and kindred thinking had lent them a kind of family bond, which neither were aware of, but which had caused many observers to believe they were having an affair. They were aware of each other in that careless way that does not require being focused on one another, which we see between family members and in the closest friends.
General Pierce was a big, well-shaped woman with red hair and an easy physical presence like that often seen in successful military men. Next to her the Emperor seemed fussy, and when they bickered he nit-picked and she laughed him off. Emperor Jeremiah was at eye level to her chest, which filled out her uniform nicely, but this fact, which was so striking to others – even those in the Emperor’s inner circle sometimes confided they had never gotten used to it – had faded from the awareness of these two long ago.
“Eliza, I’ve been thinking a lot about Adriana,” the Emperor said. General Pierce did not reply immediately and he looked at her sharply. “What is it? Military problem?”
General Pierce shook off her thoughts. “I’m just thinking about troop strengths and travel times. Do you mean Adriana the clone or Adriana your wife?”
“The clone, Eliza,” the Emperor told her, as if she should have known better. “You’ve been teaching her chess. How is that going?”
“She brings out her queen too early. I can’t break her of it.”
“That’s not what I want to know,” the Emperor told her.
“She plays for fun and not to win,” Pierce said.
The Emperor grinned briefly. “That’s still not what I’m looking for.”
“What’s the problem, Jerry?” Pierce asked quietly.
“She likes you and she trusts you. She’s – what? – fifteen? It’s time for someone to tell her she’s a clone.”
The general laughed suddenly, once, and stopped short. “Sir,” she said, “there is no way in hell I’m getting involved with that.”
The Emperor looked at his general sidelong.
“Family stuff,” the general told him: “I don’t get into it. Not with my subordinates, either. Strict policy. Someone tells me they have something going on, outside pressure and –” she held up both hands. “I say hey, do what you need to and don’t tell me. I treat it like hostile magic. No-touchie.”
Jeremiah considered that for a moment. “Well, do you have any advice?”
The general gave him a kind look. “Jerry, did you not just hear me?”
The Emperor gave it up. “Fair enough. Isn’t it too early to get this dark?”
“It’s because we’re among the mountains. Locals call them the Giants. We get sundown early here.”
A guard brought them each their canteens, filled from the cascade. “We are ready to move on,” he reported.
It was quite dark by the time the Emperor’s contingent reached the small mountain fortress carved into the mountain face. They could not see the surrounding territory at all, but only the fortress walls and then the courtyard, which stretched out into shadow under the fiercely bright mountain stars.
A few people, both the local King’s and his own, were still awake in the torchlit main hall, but as a whispering attendant told him the King had retired, the Emperor went to the chambers assigned him without making a public appearance.
His own chamber, at least, was properly lit with magical lighting. Unclasping his cape and still in his riding boots, he made for the bedroom.
“Sir, the princess Adriana is waiting for you in there,” his manservant said.
Jeremiah wheeled around. “What’s the kid doing in my bedroom?” he asked. His manservant made a ‘I’m only a servant’ shrug, and Jeremiah continued on, more slowly. “’Princess,’” he muttered.
It was dark in his bedroom, and he brought up the magical light. The room was apparently empty, but there was a conspicuous lump under the covers of the canopy bed. Jeremiah weighed his cloak in one hand before tossing it over the wooden chair at his traveling desk. He sat on the edge of the bed.
“Hmm, what is this,” the Emperor said in a loud voice. “Clearly some assassin hiding in my boudoir.” The lump began to move slowly, and he prodded it with a finger. “Out, assassin! Confess or I will stab you through the blanket!” He propped himself on one elbow and prodded her again.
The blanket was pulled aside from beneath so the girl, who had tangled black hair and striking green eyes, could glare at him. “I was sleeping,” she accused.
“In my bed,” the Emperor said, and began tickling her through the blanket. This had a convulsive effect on the girl, who seem almost to explode into a frenzy of thrashing and yelling.
“No!” she yelled. “No– Stop!”
“What is this?” Jeremiah demanded: “Armpit hair?”
The yelling and struggling finally reached its loudest when the girl shouted, “Dad-dy! Will you STOP!” And Jeremiah did stop.
The Emperor settled back on his elbow again and regarded the young girl. His whole demeanor became quite still.
“You shouldn’t be sneaking into strange men’s beds late at night,” he told her. “It’s not decent.”
“You’re not ‘strange men,’” Adriana, the clone, replied. “You’re my dad.”
“Why do you call me that? You know I’m not your father.”
Looking up at him, Adriana moved her head on the mattress from side to side. “You are,” she said. “I want you to be. Even though I’m adopted. I always wanted you to be my father, so that makes you my father.”
“Bah, get out of here,” Jeremiah told her. “You smell like that horse you ride. You know I’m allergic.” Indeed, his eyes had started watering.
“Why did you have to wake me up?” the girl demanded. “The bed is big enough for the two of us.”
“Because you stink!” Jeremiah said, laughing as the tears rolled down his cheeks. “I’ll have to get new sheets–Out!”
“I’m afraid of my room,” the girl complained. “And I do not smell like horse!”
“Then I must be allergic to YOU!” Jeremiah told her, and grabbed her by the collar of her loose-fitting nightgown as she started talking about the bath she had taken. “You’re a big girl and you’re sleeping in your own bed.”
He hauled her out of bed by main force and dragged her protesting to the doorway. At the doorway, though, she stopped him when a note of real panic came into her voice. “Daddy, PLEASE!”
“What is it, kid?” he asked, his face wet with tears, his expression still one of quieting laughter.
“I really am afraid,” she urged. “I keep thinking about how Mom got killed.”
Jeremiah let her go as if she had stung him. “She wasn’t really your mother,” he said reflexively. “And there’s no way that could happen here. I wasn’t Emperor yet when that happened. People weren’t afraid.”
“I know, but – I think about her a lot. And I’ve never been this far from home.”
Jeremiah looked around. His manservant was standing far enough away not to be involved, but close enough to be addressed.
“Adriana is going to sleep in my bed tonight,” he told the man. “Bring a cot for me and place it alongside. Close enough the kid can touch me if she wants to in the night.”
“Sir,” the manservant said and, with a half-bow, left.
“I used to do that when I was a baby,” Adriana murmured, hugging him closely. “From my crib. You remember.”
“Yeah, sure,” the Emperor said, patting her. And he said, “This damn allergy. I wish I knew what it was.”
* * *
The document the unknown man with the broken-toothed smile, signed by the local baron, had shown Justin and Melly entitled him to sleep in the Wingate farmhouse and to eat at their table. They took him for a soldier, but he had explained he was a mercenary, a soldier for hire, and he told them he had further business with them when they were done with their farmwork. He had, he had said, a second document.
Justin had not permitted Melly to stay in the house alone with the strange man, and the two of them returned when the sky was dark.
They found the mercenary, whose name was Dennis, had lit a candle from his own pack and had already eaten half Melly’s stew.
He was sitting in the big armchair.
Melly and Justin ladled stew into bowls for themselves. Justin sat at the rough wooden table while Melly dug candles out of the room’s chest and lit them from Dennis’s.
“You said you had further business,” Justin told Dennis.
“We’re looking for a guide,” the big, hairy man told Justin in his strangely cheery manner. “Your name came up.”
“A guide to where?” Justin asked. “Why would my name come up?”
“We’re headed to West Rock,” the mercenary told him. “A few days’ travel from here. You’ve been there a number of times.”
“Many of us have been to West Rock and the way is clearly marked–” Melly objected, but Dennis held out a hand to quiet her.
“It’s well-paid, and you have come to the baron’s attention as someone in particular need of money. And you know the baron’s daughter well. He thinks she would trust you. Is that true?”
“We used to play as children. Is she coming?”
“She is already there. She was kidnapped out of the big house last night. My crew is traveling through, on our way to the capitol, and the baron commissioned us for the rescue mission.
“But we can’t just show up and expect her to cooperate with strange men. We need someone she knows.” Dennis from the armchair leaned forward to drop a sheft of papers on the table in front of Justin. “The job’s yours if you say yes by tomorrow morning. Otherwise we’ll bring a servant from the big house.”
“We played when we were kids,” Justin said carefully. “I wasn’t her favorite.”
“Maybe her favorite was the one who kidnapped her,” Dennis answered, standing. The mercenary took up his pack and his candle.
“Good night. The bed’s in here?”
He went into the master bedroom.
Justin picked up and read the paperwork. “What is it?” Melly asked.
“Permission from the baron to leave his land. And the promise of enough money to keep Terry quiet through winter. –‘Until I return’ is the wording.”
“Do you think the baron is keeping his eye on you?” Melly asked.
“More likely he wants to take Terry down a peg.” Justin shook his head. “It’s a marvel.”
“Oh, Justin, don’t do it,” Melly pleaded. “It’s not worth it.”
Justin grinned at her. “You’re just nervous, like women are. These things need to be done with courage.”
“No, Justin,” Melly told him. “Women have intuitions in situations like these. If you go you’re not coming back.”
“Oh, I’ll come back,” Justin said, and laughed. “I promise.”
Hearing that laugh, Melly shuddered.
* * *
Late that night a man walked in to a small, easily overlooked valley in the mountains. He wore a dark cloak and traveled light, with only a small pack on his back. The sentry, although alert, would easily have missed him if not for his boots crunching on the loose stone of the trail.
“Stop there!” the sentry called, picking up his pike and standing. “Name yourself, mister.”
The man turned slowly. Even considering the deep darkness of the night, there was something about the traveler that was hard to see, giving rise in the sentry’s mind to the momentary thought that the man was a ghost.
“Harold,” the man said simply.
“Should I know you, Harold?” the sentry, who in the daytime was a farmer and a fool to no one, asked sharply.
“No, I don’t think so,” Harold replied. “No one knows me.”
“Step into the guard-house, Harold,” the sentry ordered. “I’d see your face.”
His hands folded in front of him, Harold meekly obeyed. Still gripping his pike, the sentry followed him into the guardhouse where a small fire burned.
Harold turned. He had a hook nose, but to call it a hook nose did not do it justice. Its bridge was so high and so thin it called to mind the prow of a boat. Harold’s narrow face was three or five days unshaven, with a scraggly beard in that unpleasing half-grown state that needs but defies trimming, and dirty. His expression was mild and everything about him gave the impression of weakness.
The sentry relaxed. His first impression of this man, Harold, on the trail, had been of coolness, of composure. Now he saw the man was sweating heavily. The man’s cloak had been mended many times, and had dirt worked deeply into its fabric. A few small holes had worn through at the corners of his battered canvas pack.
“Harold. What’s your trade and where were you born?”
“I was born in Teshreville. I’m a teacher.”
“You’re a long way from your school, Harold. What do you teach?”
“Writing and figures. A little history, a little verse. I know many things some and a few things well. I wouldn’t have thought a small valley like this would need a night guard.”
“There are rebels in these mountains,” the sentinel told him. “What are you doing here? Where is your school?”
“I don’t have a school, sir. I travel, teach a bit for food, and move on.”
“You mean you beg,” the sentry sneered.
“Yes, sir. I beg.”
“You’ll find no work in this valley, and less charity. Sleep in the guardhouse. You can cook at this fire if you have supplies. You’ll move on come morning.”
“Yes, sir–” Harold replied, but the sentry already, shaking his head with contempt, had left.
These were the ways, therefore, that these three men slept that moonless night. Emperor Jeremiah slept on a military cot beside the great canopy bed where the teenage clone of his dead wife slept, who once whispered “Daddy” and put her hand on his shoulder, which he grasped without really waking up. Justin slept in the old bed of his boyhood, which he had newly graduated out of on the death of his father, but had returned to because a mercenary named Dennis with a letter from the local baron had claimed the master bedroom. And Harold slept on the floor a little away from the small fire in a little guardhouse in an unknown valley of farmers who had started posting night watchmen against the possibility of rebels.
All across the Kingdoms of the Bowl, that collection of once-feuding kingdoms, that were ringed by mountains on three sides and facing the sea on the fourth, that had in the last generation been brought together by Emperor Jeremiah under one banner, other citizens of the Bowl slept as their circumstance allowed. Some, like Milly, felt for no known reason this would be the last untroubled night they would have for a long time. Others, like General Pierce, knew the reasons and forecast, with varying degrees of accuracy and with varied predictions, how events would unfold. Most slept in ignorance of what the future would bring.
War was coming to the Empire of the Kingdoms of the Bowl: a terrible civil war that was smelled on the wind by some already, and that would creep up on others unawares, but that would leave none of them untouched. During all the horrors that followed, this was the night that these three men would think back to and say: I slept well that night. I slept well because I did not know.