Ververe 14, 1013
Christopher hurried across the courtyard, cursing under his breath. Of all the days to leave his most recent reports in the family apartments! There had been another robbery near the Glasonland border. Sir William had asked him to keep track of all the robberies and attacks, noting every possible detail that could be gleaned from investigation of the scene and questioning of victims and witnesses. Christopher couldn’t imagine what Sir William wanted with all of this information, but gathering it and keeping track of it were no real chore. It was even a way to stave off boredom — running Tower Prison in Glasonland had been much more complex and time-consuming than running the much smaller Albion prison.
Not that any of that mattered if he didn’t have the damn reports with him!
Christopher vaulted up the steps and into the tower given over to him and his family. “Sandra,” he called, “do you have any idea where–”
He stopped. “Oh. Er. Hello, ladies.”
Both Mistress Wesleyans and Nicole turned to him in some surprise. Christopher was certain he could detect the same arch smile on both Mistress Wesleyans’ faces — he had no idea how the brothers Joshua and Robert Wesleyan could stand being married to such similar women, but apparently both men had an appetite for liveliness that Christopher didn’t. Not that he had anything against exceptionally lively women, as a rule. He just didn’t want to be married to one. Give him a calm, restful Sandra any day of the week.
Nicole’s smile, however, was the most welcoming. “Hello, Christopher! Do you need Sandra? I can get –” She started to rise.
“No, no — don’t get up, Nicole, I’ll find her myself,” Christopher demurred.
“Aye,” added Mistress Wesleyan — Mistress Danielle Wesleyan. “If anybody is getting up, it’ll be me.” She winked at Christopher, rose and stuck her head in the kitchen door. “Sandra? Master Tower needs you.”
“Chris?” Sandra asked, hurrying out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her skirt. It did not escape Christopher that Nicole did not wait long before wobbling to her feet and waddling into the kitchen that Sandra had vacated.
He smiled, a trite nervously. “Good morning … you, er, wouldn’t happen to notice where those reports I was working on were, did you?”
“The ones you’ve been staying up half the night on?” asked Sandra.
Christopher flushed, hoping the other women weren’t listening … well, too closely. “Er … yes.”
“I would think they would be on your desk. I certainly haven’t touched them.”
“But I brought everything on my desk over …”
“Try under the blotter.”
“Under the …” He had blotted them as the last thing before he stumbled into bed, hadn’t he? “I’ll try that. Thank you. Ladies …” He nodded once more at the women, then dashed up the stairs to his desk.
He only had to lift the blotter to find the promised reports — just as Sandra had suggested. Wright bless Sandra. How was she able to keep track of him on top of the children, the housework, her own (finally) burgeoning social life? Christopher was the sort of man who managed the details of other men’s great projects for a living, but this was a degree of dedication that amazed even him.
He spirited the reports up his sleeve and hurried down the stairs. “Just where you said they’d be. Thank you, darling. What would I do without you?” He kissed her gently.
Sandra only beamed in response. Christopher outwardly smiled to see it, even if inwardly he sighed. They had been married six years, had three wonderful children, and still Sandra acted like he had showered her with roses and jewels whenever he gave her a simple, heartfelt compliment. At least nobody would give Cora and Susie the mistaken impression that they were lucky if a decent man gave them the time of day. Of that Christopher would make sure.
He nodded once more to Sandra’s friends, muttered a polite farewell, and left the room with as much of a whirlwind as he had made when he came in.
The guards mostly ignored him, and he mostly ignored the guards, as he made his way back across the courtyard. They were all used to seeing Christopher rushing this way and that. Even if being a guard at the prison was considered an easy job, even a dull one, Christopher tried to set a good example. It was a sleepy prison, and there were reasons for that that Christopher couldn’t help and wasn’t sure he wanted to help, but if anybody needed to be awake, it was him.
He opened the locked door to the courtroom, feeling, as usual, the odd chill rush over him. The courtroom was a solemn, sober place even when it was packed full of people to watch justice meted out. Empty, the room was positively ghostly.
But none of that was his concern right now. So he hurried past the lawyers’ tables, past the defendant’s dock, past the benches set up against one wall for the seating of spectators. There had never been enough spectators to fill all the seats in both galleries — not even for Lady Morgause’s trial — but they still were there, waiting for the trial sensational enough to bring every pair of eyes in Albion that could fit into its courtroom.
Christopher, however, had to head up. Up to the upper gallery, where the royal box was and the extra seating was.
And still he headed up.
The third floor landing was his destination. Going up any more would require going out the roof. On this floor, other than the landing, were two doors. One led to the suite for high-ranking wrongdoers awaiting trial or punishment. It was empty, now, as it had been since Lady Morgause had spent her final months in those small rooms. The other door led to Lord Pellinore’s chambers.
It was that door that Christopher opened. “Sorry for the delay, my lords,” he said as he entered. He included Tawiel Raben, the coroner who also acted as their clerk and secretary, in the apology with a nod.
“No trouble, no trouble,” replied Lord Pellinore. “It happens to all of us. Alas! One of these days, I fear I shall return home from my duties, only to find I have left my head behind!”
Christopher’s only reply was a smile. Lord Pellinore, he had decided some years ago, was perhaps one of the oddest noblemen he had ever met. The old man had had real reservations about allowing Christopher into the country and then making him the warden of the prison, but for all that, he had never been anything other than polite and even kind to Christopher as a person. Some might call that a mark of true nobility. Christopher would not disagree out loud, but he did have to wonder, if that was what true nobility was, why so many of the noblemen of his acquaintance (and in Glasonland, he had had a long acquaintance of noblemen) seemed to lack it.
As for Sir William, his only answer to Christopher was a slight smile. That, however, was not rudeness — at least, Christopher didn’t think it was. It was just that you needed to light a fire under Sir William to get him to be talkative, or else be one of his closest friends and family (according to Milo). Christopher simply wasn’t a member of the latter group.
However, he might light a fire under the knight with what he had found. “Here are the reports you requested, sir.” He laid them onto the table, the two copies he had painstakingly written out. Both Sir William and Lord Pellinore took one and began to scrutinize it.
Sir William was the first to lay his down. “You have to admit, sir, that there seems to be a pattern emerging.”
Lord Pellinore sighed. “Sir William …”
“The victims are all men of merchant stock — men who don’t have much cash, and perhaps not free papers if they’re from a city, but who were able to escape with some goods. Enough goods to enable them to make a new life here, in conditions not much worse than the ones they left. But you know the Church would take nearly everything they had as a bribe to allow them across.”
“Sir William,” Lord Pellinore replied sternly, “bribery is a weighty accusation — especially when leveled at our Holy Mother Church.”
“I’m not claiming that one would be able to prove bribery in a court of law, sir, but I am calling a spade a spade.”
Lord Pellinore made a face — the face he often made, Christopher thought, when Sir William had a point, but Lord Pellinore didn’t want to drop his stodgy magistrate’s caution long enough to admit it. “Perhaps — but might we at least, for the sake of argument, assume it is corrupt functionaries of the Church, laymen, taking said bribes?”
“As you wish, sir.” Sir William spoke in the tones of a man who didn’t believe that hypothesis for a minute, but who was prepared to pretend he did for the sake of his larger point. Christopher could not quite sympathize. Oh, he was willing to agree with Sir William that it was the Church itself taking those bribes, but Christopher had had it impressed upon him from his earliest childhood that you just didn’t say things like that about the Church. What was it in Albion that enabled men to raise their children as if it were possible to speak such things aloud?
“My point, however, remains. These men can’t cross over to Albion through — official channels without losing everything. So they must be trying to find another way across. Somebody must be taking them over. And that somebody — he’s either betraying them to thieves and footpads, or else he’s turning on the immigrants and robbing them himself.”
“Sir William, I am not sure we have the evidence before us to warrant that conclusion. You know as well as I do that borders are lawless places –”
“The pattern is the same, sir. Every time, the pattern is the same.” Christopher saw Sir William’s Adam’s apple bob once. “The robberies are all taking place in a rather limited area — that implies that the thieves only have one or perhaps two routes they’re using to smuggle people across. The thefts take place in broad daylight –”
“Which is not in itself evidence of collusion –”
“When the travelers are asleep, sir. There is still enough trade making its way over the border that thieves who don’t know exactly where to go might prefer to commit their crimes under cover of darkness. And let’s not forget the modus operandi — Master Tower? You took many of the statements yourself. What did you find?”
“Er … well, sir …” Christopher looked uneasily at Sir William. But Lord Pellinore was looking at him, and Christopher supposed he had no choice but to say what he had found.
“The thing about witness statements … there’s not much to be said, really, sir. That is — none of the victims witnessed much, or if they did, they’re not telling.”
Lord Pellinore blinked at him. “Come again?”
Christopher winced. That was the trouble with living your life in a prison and being tasked with the often-unpleasant duty of conducting interrogations and monitoring the highly-ranked condemned for any last confessions. You got to learn, very quickly, when someone was lying to you, or was telling less than they knew. And it was hard to hide that knowledge, even if you wanted to.
“Why on earth,” asked Lord Pellinore, clearly mystified, “would someone who was the victim of a brutal crime not tell all they knew?”
Christopher didn’t answer. He knew, of course. So did Tawiel, the other commoner in the room, without doubt. But if these nobly-born men couldn’t figure it out for themselves … well, it wasn’t for Christopher to tell them.
Sir William answered. “My lord, you have not seen those camps. You have not been there. And you have not seen the cities these men are fleeing. I saw Port Graal before the siege had entirely reduced the men to starvation, and that was enough for me.” He had a voice like flint, and behind his eyes was banked a dull, angry flame. Even all these months later, it would take very little to turn those embers into a conflagration. “They’re afraid of being sent back there.”
“As if we would do that!” Lord Pellinore gasped. “It’s not King Arthur keeping these men out!”
“These men have little reason to expect good treatment from men of power, sir.”
Lord Pellinore shot Sir William an incredulous glance, then turned that same look to Christopher, as if to ask, Do you believe this? Christopher couldn’t meet that gaze. It wasn’t good to let one’s superiors know that you were in agreement with a fellow inferior.
Lord Pellinore seemed to sense his disagreement anyway and leaned back, sighing. “Perhaps … perhaps, Sir William, you have a point there. But go on. The modus operandi.”
“The travelers were attacked while they were sleeping. Many of them report that they have no idea what happened, that they woke up in their tents, or else the open air, bound and gagged with all of their goods taken. And …” Sir William turned to Christopher. “Do you believe them, Master Tower?”
“The ones we found while they were still bound and bewildered? Aye, my lords. I talked to one of the guards — he thinks they may have been drugged. It would explain why they slept through all of their goods being stolen. Perhaps, when we found them, the drugs hadn’t quite worn off.”
“Drugged?” Lord Pellinore replied, eyes narrowed.
Christopher jumped. “Aye — aye, sir. That’s what –”
Lord Pellinore motioned for silence. Christopher shut up. But Sir William did not consider himself bound by the same strictures, for after a few moments of watching Lord Pellinore stare into the middle distance, fingers steepled together, he asked, “Sir?”
Lord Pellinore blinked, focus returning momentarily to Christopher and Sir William. But when he spoke again, his eyes were far away. “There was a string of robberies — while you were at Camford, Sir William, and before you came here, Christopher — on the docks at Port Finessa. Warehouse robberies. And in every case, the dogs guarding the warehouses were drugged. And there was another case …” Lord Pellinore stroked his chin. “Could the same drugs that work on a dog work on a man, I wonder?”
“So you believe me, sir?” asked Sir William.
It was Lord Pellinore’s turn to startle and blink as he returned to earth. “I …” He hesitated. “With the possibility of drugging, the odds of some kind of collusion or racket occurring do seem to increase.” He sighed. “I suppose we must try to plug those holes in the border. The King always seemed hesitant to do so, but now –”
“Sir, no!” Sir William protested. “You can’t. Not when so many are desperate to get out.”
“When they’re all being robbed blind? Sir William, it is only a matter of time before one of these robberies goes wrong and becomes murder. And, though, Christopher, your reports do not indicate that any of the female victims were … violated …” Lord Pellinore shuddered. “Well, if they were drugged, it’s entirely possible they were violated and did not even know it. And — even if they did know it, this is a crime that is not often reported. Sir William, we must take whatever steps are necessary to keep these people safe, and that means making sure they go through the official channels.”
“No, sir. At least — not necessarily. It could mean that we must make the unofficial channels safer.”
“What?” Lord Pellinore gasped.
“There are some travelers getting through without being robbed. That means one of two things. Either there are some — smugglers, let us say, who are honest and only mean to help, or else the thieves are clever enough to let some travelers through unmolested in order to give more hope to others. No matter which it is, we can attempt to collaborate with those smugglers and send guards to help the travelers once they get over the border. At the very least, increasing the presence of guards in that area ought to cut down on the amount of crime.”
“Sir William, this is a very expensive proposition –”
“Is it?” asked Sir William. He turned to Christopher. “Master Tower, how many victims are the guards finding?”
Lord Pellinore turned to him curiously, too. Christopher could only shrug. “One — maybe two a week. By that I mean parties, of course, not just individuals.”
“Is there a pattern to when the victims are found?” asked Lord Pellinore.
“Not that I’ve been able to determine, my lord.”
Lord Pellinore turned to Sir William. “An expensive proposition. We would have to divert guards to that area all the time in the hopes of stopping one or two robberies a week. Are you sure that simply plugging the holes in the border would not be a more efficient use of resources?”
“I think, sir, it depends how you look at it. Getting families into Albion who are able to participate in useful trades immediately upon arrival, instead of having to indenture themselves to lords and work for a pittance, wasting their talents –”
“Growing food to feed this country is hardly a waste, I would say,” Lord Pellinore replied.
“It is when they could be contributing in other, more lucrative ways, sir,” Sir William answered.
Lord Pellinore watched him, then he sighed. “Sir William …”
“I think it would be far more just to give these men the help we can, and well worth the expense.”
Lord Pellinore opened his mouth, closed it again, watched Sir William narrowly. “We will have to go to the King either way …”
“I know, sir.”
Lord Pellinore cocked his head to one side. He narrowed his eyes. And then — without warning — he laughed.
“Aye, I’m sure you do! And you know just how you’ll plead your case, don’t you? Very well, Sir William. Very well. We shall go to the King. We shall see what he says. And if you win your point … well, as disappointed as I shall be, for I know not how we’ll pay for this, I for one certainly will not be surprised.”