Endskel 14, 1014
Beau was putting the finishing touches on the very last paper he would ever write at Camford as a student. If he had the kind of mind that granted itself the luxury of sentimentality, of bittersweet feelings, he might have been moved. That is … if he had that kind of mind, and a bright future to look forward to. As things were …
There was no sweet in what he could see of the future. Just a whole lot of bitter.
He had never thought of freedom as something that he needed. Or even as something that could be taken away from him. It was like the air, wasn’t it? It was just … everywhere. There was nothing special about breathing in and out. Being able to leave his dorm, walk to a pub or to a store or the library — that was nothing to write home about.
But there had been times in Beau’s life when he’d had the wind knocked out of him. When he got it back, for a few minutes he’d reveled in the luxury of having air coming in and going out again. Maybe a few times over the next few days, he’d suddenly notice his own breathing and be amazed at the ease of it. Then time would pass. He would forget.
He was having difficulty forgetting now. Every time he walked out of the dorm, to class, to the library, to pubs and shops and just to go outside for a walk, some imp whispered into his ear, Is this the last time I’ll ever get to do this?
Wright, how he hated that imp.
That imp made him want to throw away his plans and just run — anywhere. To do anything. It screamed at him to seek shelter with the Robertians or the Pascalians, or run to Albion, board a ship going anywhere and get himself the hell out of Constantine’s reach. Maybe the pirates of Bledavik could use an astronomer and mathematician. Surely they needed somebody to help them count their gold? And hopefully that would be far enough away?
But there was his mother and Adrienne to consider. Thoughts of them were the only thing that kept the imp even a little bit at bay. When Beau reflected that running would mean that his own life was forfeit, the imp would laugh at him and ask him just who the hell he thought he was fooling. Constantine had said he would be safe, or at any rate kept alive, but how far could Beau trust Constantine? Constantine had had Francis put to death. He’d been judge and jury for him — and if it hadn’t been executioner, it was probably because he had too refined an image for butchery that wasn’t on the battlefield.
He wanted to cradle his head in his hands and groan, but he knew that would only draw attention to himself. If he’d been anybody else, he could have afforded that attention. All final papers and examinations were to be handed in by tomorrow, and plenty of students had reason to groan and curse their fates owing to that alone. But anybody who looked at him would know who he was and know the story had to be more complicated than that.
So Beau hunched his shoulders and bent again over his paper, as if what he wrote or had written would have any bearing on his future at all.
But as he re-read for the last time, the words battled for his attention with a yawning sense of loss. This paper, he was realizing, was good. Maybe the way it was written was nothing special. But the sparse, dry prose, explaining in detail the mathematical dance of the stars and planetoi, the wandering stars, that showed something. Thought. Talent. Given time and enough study, he could find something new about the stars and planets, he just knew it. Maybe he could finally crack the elusive code that stood between Simkind’s near-perfect ability to predict events in the heavens and its abysmal track record when it tried to apply those predictions to events on the earth.
It was not to be. The only codes he would be cracking anytime soon would not be the music of the spheres. It would be the dirt of political intrigue and scandal. Knowing Constantine, and understanding the meanings of the messages he’d been sent to crack over the past few months, it meant that instead of finding out something beautiful, something good, something that would benefit all Simkind, he’d be purchasing life for himself by sending other men to the block.
He stared at his paper. There was his future, rising up to face him. And it had nothing to do with the paper.
To hell with it. He sprinkled sand over the wet ink, blew on it, and waited the bare minimum of time for it to dry before rolling the parchment up and sticking it under his arm. What did it matter? The quality of his thought was good enough for him to pass. As for the polish — well, Professor Bentley was a brilliant astronomer, but he didn’t know a comma from a hole in the ground. Beau head read too many of Bentley’s books to imagine otherwise.
Careful not to meet anybody else’s eyes, he left the library and headed to St. Pascal’s Hall to drop off his paper.
When he opened the white double doors, there was a hint of mist in the air. But before he left the porch, it was gone. What remained was a perfect late-summer days. The air was just warm enough to make the idea of a cloak laughable without going to the extreme of making walking around naked seem sensible. If Beau turned his head and squinted, he could see hints of yellow, red, and orange tinging the now-green leaves. Fall would be in two weeks. He could almost smell the apples on the breeze.
Apples. There was an apple orchard back home. Beau had spent many springs and summers climbing those trees and swinging from their branches, and many autumns he spent sitting in their shade, munching on the harvest. Did Constantine’s men consider the orchard to be part of the estate’s grounds? Or did they hold it to be out-of-bounds? Would Beau have to spend this autumn watching the apples ripen and smelling their sweet scent without being able to go near?
Lord, if he kept thinking about this, he’d get depressed. He hurried those last few steps to St. Pascal’s.
His first and only destination was Professor Bentley’s office. But the professor wasn’t there. Hardly surprising, that: tonight was to be moonless, perfect for stargazing. Doubtless the Professor was sleeping now so he could spend the night observing. Luckily he had a box set up outside his door to collect the papers he’d be handed. Beau tossed his inside.
For a moment he stared at it, just one tightly-rolled scroll of parchment sitting atop its fellows. Plain. Anonymous. It would probably be read by the professor in less than an hour, a grade assigned to it, then swiftly forgotten about. Beau would graduate. And then …
He let the lid of the chest slam shut and left the Hall.
He needed something to do, someplace to go, some way to take his mind off … everything. Page’s! he thought. Yes, he’d go to Page’s, the book shop he most favored. There was bound to be something there that would hold his interest. And … he’d been meaning to talk to Norman Page, the proprietor, for some time now. He’d been putting it off, because talking to Norman would just make everything more real. But now that his final paper was complete, that he was in effect done with university, what more reason did he have to procrastinate?
So he walked, away from St. Pascal’s Hall, past St. Robert’s Cathedral, beyond the odd little street circle, to the closely-packed buildings that held Page’s on the ground floor.
Page’s was tucked between two other buildings that stuck out much further in the street. Beau pushed open the black door with the half-moon on top. He could still remember the first time he’d found Page’s, when he’d been a freshman, new to Camford and half-terrified of everything he saw. He’d taken the half-moon window over the door as a good sign, a positive omen. After all, what could be more friendly to an astronomy student?
He still felt himself lighten, relax in relief, when he walked into the store. But no sooner did he walk in then he stopped, hesitant. Norman was on the shop floor today, which was unusual for him. He spent most of his time in the back, wrestling with what he called his “device,” which he swore would revolutionize bookmaking as everyone knew it — but about which he would say no more. But that wasn’t the strangest thing.
He wasn’t alone. He was with a woman — embracing her?
No, it wasn’t a real embrace. Or at any rate, not a typical one. Norman greeted all his friends like that: a handshake that morphed into a hug, complete with what Beau thought of as overly-aggressive back-patting. Most women would object to that kind of treatment out of principle.
Not Cherry Andavri.
Beau shut the door behind him, and, treading as lightly on the floorboards as he could, started to peruse the titles on the table before him. Ugh — theology? Beau shook his head. Norman’s form of organization was always … interesting. There was one; Beau knew that much. It was fairly stable. But what the logic to it was, if there was any sort of logic at all, was impossible for Beau to decipher.
Then he saw another title that interested. On the Stars, and the Study Thereof, and the Attempts of Men to Guess the Future from Them. Well, that could hardly be more up his alley. Beau circled the table and flipped the book open — Norman never minded the customers browsing — and started to scan the introduction.
Many Things hath been said on the Ability of Men to find the Future from their Study of the Stars above …
“… it’s just slowing the work down a great deal, constantly having to re-make the molds.” Beau heard Norman sigh. He didn’t look up; that would be rude. But he couldn’t help hearing. “Especially that blasted e. I’m always running out of e’s.”
“You’re complaining to me?” asked Cherry. “Who’s designing the molds?”
“I know, I know.” Norman sighed again. “It’s just — there’s got to be a better way. I’ll never get the device working properly if I can’t manage to set a whole page without having to stop in the middle to make a dozen more e’s.” Norman shook his head. “And I have to thank you again, Cherry. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you to help me with the molds. Are you sure you have the time?”
Beau didn’t hear Cherry’s response. His eyes had locked on the page, and with that, his mind had shut to the world.
But most of this has been Folly, for the Lord Wright doth not write his Secrets into the Sky for any Man to read. No, the Lord only reveals his Will to the Minds of the holy and pure. Those based-minded Men who think the Future is an open Book …
Beau shook his head. Oh, bother. One of those.He flipped back to the title page — as he ought to have suspected, the author was a monk. Maybe that was why it was with a theology book.
However … Beau remembered that many monks wrote who wrote these kinds of treatises would repeat verbatim the arguments of their opponents, all properly attributed, the better to demolish them. The Church was happy enough to let them do that, even if the works in question were banned. Perhaps this book might have some of those excerpts, which could be useful …
Beau lifted the tome to a higher table and started to skim.
He didn’t find any evidence of that in the first few pages. This monk seemed rather full of himself and his own opinions thus far. Beau tried not to roll his eyes. He kept skimming.
Except … as he skimmed … he noticed something odd. This scribe seemed to have a remarkably even, regular hand. Some of the letters seemed almost uniform. Strange, Beau thought. He hadn’t imagined that anybody could have handwriting that was quite that … perfect.
And what a pity that such handwriting should be used to record such dreck for posterity. Beau tried not to roll his eyes or sigh as he put the book where he’d found it. He hated monks like this one, monks who assumed that the world was a closed book, and the only way to gain insight was to pray about it. Maybe the book was closed now — but someday, surely —
“Well, I’ll be heading home for the Robertmas holiday tomorrow,” Beau heard Cherry say. “But write to me if there’s any more molds you need. I’ll probably have time to do some carving when I’m home.”
“Really?” asked Norman, laughing as he drew Cherry into another of his handshake-hugs. “Your Cap’n won’t be dragging you out to the pubs every night?”
“Well, he just got married,” Cherry answered, “so somehow I doubt that.”
“He’s married? This is the same Cap’n you’ve told me so much about?”
“I know, I can barely believe it myself. But he seems happy, and, well …”
Beau watched Cherry shrug, then looked down, shamefaced, at the many little devices and machines Norman had scattered over this shelf. Norman was something of an artificer in his spare time, and he was usually happy to sell any of his “prototypes” to someone who had the money and didn’t seem likely to take the prototypes apart, improve on the design, and resell for a premium. But right now, Beau couldn’t see anything that he thought might be useful for him … or, some of them, for anybody.
“Well, you travel safely, Cherry! And enjoy your holiday!” Beau heard Norman say.
“Same to you. Tell your mother I said hello.” With one last wave, Cherry took her leave of Norman, passing Beau with a nod on her way out.
Beau nodded in return. Then he watched her as she left. He didn’t know why. It couldn’t just be that those skirts the Bledavikites favored happened to do wonders for a woman’s rear, and the brightly-colored sash Cherry had slung across her hips wasn’t helping a man to remain a gentleman. No, it was something … deeper than that. He barely knew Cherry, but she’d been a worth opponent, and more than that … she’d known who he was, and who his brother was, and she hadn’t judged him for that.
He was used to seeing her around — just like he was used to seeing so many other people around. People like Norman, Olyver, Gerard, Darius … and after he left? When would he see any of these people again? He didn’t even have the false hope of keeping in touch to keep him aloft …
“Hi, Beau!” called Norman. Some days he could be as chipper and cheerful as the yellow undertunic he favored. Sometimes it made Beau smile. Sometimes it made Beau want to smack him. Today was looking to be one of the latter days. “What can I do for you?”
Beau felt his own private leaden cloud of gloom drift back over the sun. Well, he’d come here for a reason, hadn’t he? He’d come in support of a lifeline. And he’d better get that lifeline sorted out now, before it was too late.
“I was wondering …” Beau said, coming closer. “Er … I’m heading home after I graduate …”
He didn’t get any farther. Norman’s eyes bugged. “Going home? To Glasonland? Are you mad?”
Beau didn’t flinch, but he wanted to. He hadn’t been too terribly open with many of his fellow-students about his family. It just seemed like a can of worms not worth opening. But Norman had been different. How many nights during Beau’s freshman year and Norman’s sophomore had they stayed up until dawn, philosophizing and imbibing in equal measures, both drunkenly swearing that they weren’t going to let their families hold them back? Norman had said he was meant for much better things than inheriting his father’s bookshop, that he wanted to be an inventor, that he wanted to change the world. And Beau …
Well, that just showed what happened to dreams. They were all well and good in the wee hours of the night, but given the bright light of dawn they vanished into the mist. Norman’s father had died just after Norman graduated, and look where Norman was now: running his father’s Camford bookshelf, supporting his mother and his younger siblings, and someday, surely, a wife and children. Being everything he swore he’d never become. And Beau? He used to think that nothing could possibly be worse than Francis succeeding and dragooning Beau into being his adviser and right-hand man. He had been wrong. And now he was walking right into that worse future.
“If you need a place to stay — or anything — stay here!” Norman offered. “We’ve an extra–er–we can get an extra bed! And I can give you a job! I could use someone else intelligent around here.”
“No, Norman, I can’t.”
“Oh, come on! I know you nobles aren’t usually much for jobs, but it won’t be that hard — and it can’t be worse than whatever King Constantine will do to you when he finds out–”
“I’m surrendering to his men as soon as I cross the border.”
“He’s got –” Beau bit down on his tongue. He’d never admitted this out loud to anybody else, out of irrational fear that saying it aloud would make it real. But how much realer could this get? “He’s got my mother and sister under house arrest, Norman. Please don’t let that get around.”
Norman’s jaw fell. “Oh … my Lord.” Norman swallowed. “Well–sure, I won’t, if that’s what you want. But–but are you sure? About–”
“I gave my word,” Beau shrugged.
“You nobles and your word …” Norman muttered, shaking his head.
“Doesn’t a man of business also need to be a man of his word?”
“Well, sure — but other businessmen will forgive you for breaking it if keeping it means suicide.” Norman shook his head. “I know he has your mother and sister, but surely there must be some other way –”
“There isn’t.” How many nights had Beau lay awake, staring at nothing, trying to think of another way? Surely if another way existed, he would have found it by now. Hell, he’d even considered running to Albion and throwing himself at the mercy of King Arthur, a suicidal course if there ever was one! He’d allowed his own sister to be tried, found guilty, and killed to keep war away from his door; why would he do anything better for a mere half-nephew who was a quasi-traitor? “And — and the King has some use for me. He won’t kill me.” Immediately.
“Truly? Are you sure?”
Norman blinked at him. Then he mused, “Well … if you’re sure …”
“I am.” Beau wondered how he managed to sound so certain. He didn’t feel that way. Maybe if he could act this well when he wasn’t even trying, he could keep on Constantine’s good side long enough to get his mother and Adrienne to safety of some kind. “But … but if you really want to help me …”
He shouldn’t be trading on Norman’s good nature like this — not when the other man’s eyes widened and he looked eager to help in any way he could. But Beau needed something, some kind of breath of air to keep him going. And surely Norman couldn’t get in trouble for it in Camford. “I–I’m probably going to be placed under house arrest when I cross the border. When that happens — if I’m able to write to you — will you send me books?”
“Just normal books,” Beau tried to reassure Norman — but of what? “Just … things to read. I know that you’ll always have the newest ones, or you’ll know where to get them. And you know what I’m interested in. If you like — you can send me titles, and I’ll send you payment for the ones I like, and you can send the books. How does that sound?”
Norman’s eyes narrowed. “I — I don’t know if I’d be able to afford shipping those to you.”
“I’ll pay for that.”
“But … that will be expensive, Beau,” Norman pointed out. “I–I don’t want to seem like I don’t want to help — but you’d honestly be better off ordering from Ludenwic or some other city closer to you …”
“I want to order from you, Norman.” Beau’s mail would doubtless be read — but Norman was someone he could trust to send him the books he wanted without any traps or strings attached. Maybe some would be added by the time the books got to him. But it meant something, to have them start off clean and pure. “Please?”
“Aww, Beau, if it really does mean that much to you–of course.”
“It does.” It would be a connection to Camford. A connection to happiness.
“Is that really all I can do for you?” Norman asked.
“Wright almighty. That isn’t much, Beau.”
“I know. But that’s not your fault.”
“Wright …” Without warning, Norman pulled Beau in for a handshake-hug — mostly hug. “You be careful, you hear me? And if there’s anything I can do for you …”
“There isn’t. But thank you.”
“Can I at least invite you for Robertmas dinner before you go?”
Beau shook his head. “I’ll be gone before that.”
“Well, damn.” Norman pounded Beau’s back before letting go. “You’d better come back here before you go. This can’t be goodbye.”
“I will,” Beau promised. After all, what would have to do in the next few days while he waited for the results of his final classes to come out?
He left shortly after making that promise. After all, there was nothing else that he had to say, and Norman still looked shaken by what he had said earlier. So he left. That was the least he could do for his friend.
Odd, how quickly the shoe could be on the other foot.
But when Beau got outside, he stopped. He took a deep breath. He looked around.
Right now, today — he was still free. He could still go where he wanted. Do what he wished. Talk to whomever he pleased.
And right now, he’d be mad to do anything else. He’d keep remembering that. And when the future came …
Well, he’d deal with that when it came.