There were times when Lieutenant Finna Buckley wondered why any soldier with a mite of sense would work as a Bailiff of the Queens Assize, even if the job had come with a promotion. And this was sure a time to wonder, seeing as how the plaintiff was trying to clamber across the advisors' table while hollering, "Lying bitch! Gonna chew your other ear off!" at the defendants' latest witness. But Finna's dubiety was brief, if heart-felt. Then she got busy pinning the cursing witness into her chair while two troopers of the local Queens Justice joined with the sergeant-marshal to wrestle down the plaintiff. They had to shackle the enormous woman's arms behind her back to get her to hold still, just one more afternoon's work preserving the dignity of the law during a circuit court session.
At least the Judge wasn't making matters worse. Any other daughter of a noble line would have been pounding her gavel by now and demanding silence, about as useful as nipples on a male. Abie Moorland merely lounged back in her armchair with her long fingers steepled and her mobile lips pursed pensively, watching her courtroom erupt into chaos.
Only after the witness and plaintiff had both been subdued, and the spectators' whooping and hollering had quieted some, did Judge Moorland lean forward and holler, "Settle down!"
She delivered the words like an outraged eldest sister who'd heard a middle sister sassing their mothers, using the tone that implied she couldn't imagine you disobeying. Even miners and lumberjills like those packing the courtroom had been raised to respond to her attitude. They settled.
The Judge continued, "Unless you want me passing my hat to fine the lot of you, you'd best restore order in this court. And that money I see better not be paying off wagers, or the Crown is taking a very hefty commission."
The gils and quinces that had been changing hands between the spectators disappeared like sliced ham on a veteran squad's mess table. Satisfied, Judge Moorland glanced over at the advisors' box. All the eleven representatives of property-holding families seated behind its railings straightened in their chairs and attempted assorted portrayals of dutiful attention.
The Judge sighed. "I suppose, gentlewomen of council, it will do no good instructing you to disregard the past few minutes. Nonetheless, you are going to try."
When she looked up at Finna, back to standing at her right hand, Judge Moorland's question was wryly polite. "Queens Justice entirely done?"
Finna gave the now thoroughly cowed witness her best baleful stare before saying, "Looks as if, Your Honor."
"Good. Let's get this trial back onto the pike." Shifting her attention to young Fai Pendle, whose pretty brown eyes still seemed a touch apprehensive behind her steel-rimmed spectacles, the Judge said, "Clerk of the court, read out that last question and the witness's reply. We'll continue from there."
All things considered, no one was much surprised when Judge Moorland ruled in favor of the defendants. And her finding must have been a popular decision since it left the spectators buzzing with satisfaction instead of murmuring with discontent.
As coins began surreptitiously changing hands again, the lead defendant, a mousy little towhead who was eldest of the sisters running Bear Summit's crib, gathered her documents, chivied her Advisor into motion, and scurried off. She likely wanted to exit before anyone else could think of something to blame on the men of the town crib. With ten girls born for every boy who made it out of the womb alive, folks always had an opinion about the nearest male's behavior.
A few minutes later, Finna was done briefing the county jailer on the finer points of confinement for contempt of court and turned to notice that Fai Pendle still seemed a little shaky as she initialed her transcript pages for the day. Most times, it would have been the job of one of her older sisters to settle her down, but Nina and Judi were busy over at the Judge's chair, discussing tomorrow's journey down-slope to the courthouse at Gregors Springs. Besides, Fai was shaping well on her first trip around the court circuit, and years of soldiering had taught Finna that bright recruits profited from prompt reassurance. When the youngster glanced up from her work, Finna met her gaze and tried looking benign.
She must have succeeded. Fai stopped shuffling papers long enough to ask, "Does that sort of scuffle happen often, Lieutenant?"
"Well, not too often. But cases in these high-country towns do get lively now and again, especially with land, liquor, or a man's services at stake. You'll soon enough learn what to do during a brawl." Finna yanked a thumb toward the Judge. "Take your example from Her Honor, and let Queens Justice handle any trouble. You just duck. Hide under your desk if you have to."
"Especially if you have records to protect," Nina Pendle added briskly from behind Finna.
Fai's gaze shifted to her sister, and her tentative smile widened into a grin. "I imagine I should be careful not to overturn my inkwell when I do so."
"Correct. Never damage the official paperwork," Nina said with dry approval. "Now let's go file these transcripts." She nodded at Finna. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Her Honor is ready to return to our temporary lodgings but wishes a stroll along the way."
Nina Pendle was a fine woman -- and a fine-looking one, what with the imposing Pendle figure and all -- but she would fall over in a dead faint if ever forced to speak the words "The Toad in the Puddle Tavern-Hotel" in any context outside of an official one. Still, every woman had her quirks. Finna nodded polite acknowledgment and went to attend on the Judge.
Bear Summit wasn't too wild for being so far up into the Pinnacles, one reason why it was a county seat these days. Even so, given the way some families of sisters held a grudge, Judge Moorland still shouldn't use those long legs to wander around without someone along to keep an eye on her. This afternoon, all the Judge seemed to want was enough of a walk to restore her nerves before she returned to the Toad, a properly modest goal given how swiftly night fell at the end of autumn in these parts. After pausing right outside the courthouse door to settle her high silk hat firmly on her head, the Judge rearranged her scarf, glanced over to check that Finna was ready, and then headed off down the muddy street toward the timber mill.
They walked without speaking, but their silence was comfortable. The sun was already lowering behind the forested western peaks, and jagged shadows of the ridgeline crept across the tall stone buildings crowding Bear Summit's town center. The scent of wood smoke, rising from stovepipes, strengthened as families got their suppers started. Husbands were likely welcoming groups of their wives home from stores and offices behind those barred windows, telling them tales of what the children had been up to today.
Outside, Finna watched her breath puff out into mist in the chill. A few mares' tails glowed pink high above the western horizon, a warning of changing weather. This evening's breeze smelt a bit like snow.
Finna silently thanked the gods that the court would be riding toward Gregors Springs tomorrow. Any storm during the autumn circuit was no jesting matter, and the Edge of the Realm Turnpike was the kind of road where unexpected ice could kill both mounts and riders. Better to be heading down-slope even if it did increase the chances of a miserable ride through cold and driving rain.
She suppressed a shudder at her memories from last year's autumn circuit. The winter loop, half traveled by sleigh, hadn't been much better. Finna would be glad when the planned railroad line out of Cold Brook pushed through Bear Summit on its way up to Queens Gap and the border forts. Even given cinders in your eyes, derailings, and the occasional explosion, steam locomotives were still better than exposure and grippe.
The Judge interrupted Finna's musings by clearing her throat. Then she cleared it again. If Finna hadn't known better, she would have sworn Judge Moorland was nervous. But the Judge's words came out sounding like always, easy in tone and phrasing if clipped into toplofty style by the Queens' diction.
"For once, the Toad bids to provide us with a quiet evening. We'll have the private parlor tonight, and our hosts promised to lay a good fire," the Judge said. She must have misread Finna's interrupted shiver as caused by the deepening chill.
Finna smiled sideways at her. "Have to admit, I look forward to that. Seems like we're always socializing in the taproom these days. Merrymaking's fine, but I've been saving up my copy of The Reef: A Tale of the Sunlands Trade for weeks, waiting for a peaceful evening."
"You'll have to tell me if it's any good. You know I enjoy a lively book." Then the Judge hesitated her way back into silence, maybe unsure as to how she could ask to borrow The Reef without presuming on her position.
Judge Moorland never acted as if she found reading novels low. She never acted as if she found much of anything low, likely one source of her skill at sorting out the cases committed to this rustic Court of Assize. Gentry too often confused refinement with virtue when dealing with their so-called inferiors if anyone asked Finna, which she imagined no one ever would. But Judge Moorland seemed to set store by qualities like quick wits and a yearning toward self-improvement wherever she found them, even in her social juniors, even in her bailiff. Handsome of her, but odd. The sort of eccentricity, in fact, that might end with one of the mighty Moorland family riding solo circuit in the high-country.
The Judge didn't seemed to resent her solitary exile if that was what this was. She strolled along, nodding amiably at both the townswomen and the workers who tipped their hats as she passed. Even an early rising whore, who pursed rouged lips into a deferential simper while gliding past them with falsely masculine grace, got a brief nod of acknowledgment, more than was strictly due to her station.
Right after their encounter with this first representative of Bear Summit's night fauna, the Judge turned back toward the Toad and quickened her steps. Nonetheless, the light of oil lamps was clearly visible in the gathering dusk, a yellow glow that shone softly through upstairs parlor curtains and street-level tavern windows, by the time they entered the Toad to be greeted by Tai Wheeler.
"Your supper will be ready when you are, Judge," she said.
After glancing at the grandmother clock ticking by the foot of the main stairs, the Judge raised eyebrows at Finna. "How does half past the hour suit you?" she asked.
A courteous question, and one offering plenty of time to visit the necessary before washing up at the basin stand in the room she was sharing with Mirre Tanner, the court's sergeant-marshal. Finna nodded agreement, and the Judge waved off Tai.
When they returned downstairs, Eldest Wheeler herself led them across the immense and busy taproom into the smaller private parlor. That room was built with the sturdy defenses required if a family traveled with a husband or brother and needed meals. Tonight its iron-bound door was only closed for the sake of privacy, not bolted, locked, and barred against possible husband-raiders. But once the two of them were within its thick walls, taproom noises fell away.
The parlor was otherwise unoccupied. Only one small table of the several it held was set for supper. Finna looked inquiry, and Judge Moorland said, "The Pendles proffered their respects and begged to report they would be spending their evening at the Temple. They took along the other clerks and our marshals."
Finna wouldn't have pegged the Pendles as being all that pious, based on their past behavior. But she supposed the prospect of the Edge of the Realm Turnpike could make anyone more devout. Besides, they'd likely be invited to stay to supper, and Temple sideboards were legendarily crowded with succulent delicacies.
The Judge had turned to tell Eldest Wheeler, "I hope we're not putting you out, tying up your parlor with just the two of us."
"Not at all, Your Honor," Eldest said.
Of course Eldest said no, but her denial sounded genuinely good-humored. Judge Moorland had attracted a deal of business to the Toad on all the evenings she spent in their public taproom, as the county's big bugs rushed to socialize with a woman of such lofty estate. It wasn't every day a high-country refinery owner could tipple with an aunt of the new Queen Mothers, and that extra attraction increased the custom a circuit court normally drew whenever it came to town. This final night's rare and unprofitable privacy was likely an easy exchange.
The parlor was lit only by its fire, that and a single brace of beeswax candles burning in pewter candlesticks on the corners of the granite mantelpiece. There was graceful acknowledgment of an easy exchange, Finna supposed, and then there was canny tavern-keepers avoiding waste. But at least Eldest Wheeler repeated her reassurances as she seated them, and again before reporting the bill of fare. Court always got offered a good meal rather than a common one, so the duck and venison would both be fresh.
"The duck," Judge Moorland said. "Small potatoes, stewed pumpkin, the relish, and some of your grand apple pie to follow. With the rat-trap cheese, I think."
"That sounds good," Finna agreed, and Eldest bustled off to fetch their supper.
Left alone together at the tiny table set so close by the hearth in the gloom of the vast parlor, Finna looked at Judge Moorland and Judge Moorland looked back at Finna. The Judge's dishwater blonde hair brightened some in the firelight, but the flickering light also dimmed her hazel eyes into shadowed inscrutability and threw her almost-too-strong features into relief. The effect sure was romantic. Melodramatic, even.
Finna shook her head. "Well, swaled if we don't resemble a pair of villains in a two-gil railway novel, sitting here alone like this."
The Judge looked surprised, then comprehending, and finally chagrinned. Finna was the one whose lips twitched first, but the Judge guffawed just as hard once they both began laughing. Like always, laughter suited her.
"Do tell," the Judge managed at last. "Now that you point out the resemblance, I feel as if I should be flourishing a forged will produced from my carpet bag before we huddle together, conspiring to disinherit a quintet of virtuous orphan sisters and despoil their virgin brother, as the shadows cast by ruddy firelight writhe darkly across the far wall to symbolize our corrupt intrigues."
"I'd buy that book," Finna said.
"Gods help me, so would I."
"I'll tell you what. If you'd like, I can read out some of The Reef after our meal while you work on finishing up your latest handiwork. If you can stand my diction, that is."
"Your diction is excellent aside from the occasional southeastern touch that merely adds zest to clarity. Were your mothers stationed somewhere east of Portsmouth when you were young?"
"That's right, as Queens Justice. And when they were recalled to their regiment during the Islander troubles, they stayed along that coast, fighting as marines." Finna hesitated before continuing with what could be a tasteless subject for many civilians, especially respectable women of the middling sorts. But she'd wager the Judge already knew some of this story from official paperwork. "They were too late winning stud services with the Order of the Sword. Before they'd gotten much in the way of babies from the military cribs, they were all killed, mostly in the Sureswift expedition. My handful of sisters and I grew up as orphans ourselves, if not very virtuous ones. Then, between that influenza a few years back and the Mayfair cannon raid, I lost three of those sisters. A barracks fire cost me another. My last went to the Temple, so I don't have any kin left to echo back how I speak. But I know my early duty in the coastal garrisons kept my accent strong for a soldier's."
The Judge only nodded, bless her. "A lot of hard fighting around the bays and swamps these past decades. Too many pirates, raiders, and smugglers for anyone's tastes."
"Glad the Crown's rebuilding the watchtower at Tuck Landing. They're improving the harbor breakwater, too, from what I hear."
"Humph. Glad my nieces had the sense to reclaim that land when they fairly could during the Wakecliff inheritance case," the Judge said, a fond smile warming her homely-handsome face. "They might often be as impulsive as their sire, my late brother, but they can be canny in a crisis."
Strange to think the nieces she was talking about so casually were the Queen Mothers. Still-- "Sounds like that judging was a good piece of work."
Finna's mild praise was enough to trigger a lively account -- one laced with affectionate pride -- of the complex legal maneuverings that ended with Tuck Landing back in royal hands. The tale took them clear through the apple pie. Whatever had sent the Judge out on circuit, it didn't seem to be a dislike of her relatives. Maybe she just didn't fit into Mayfair society. She sure enough was a radical.
"--but you've let me run on too long," the Judge was saying as Tai Wheeler cleared away the remnants of their meal. "Feel free to stop me sooner in the future." Looking up at Tai, she said, "Thank you. Never mind that bottle of wine I ordered set aside. We might want some punch later."
Ignoring what wasn't her business, Finna continued, "Well, it's often pleasing to bark for a while after spending so much of your day listening to other folks yelping." She waggled her eyebrows. "Besides, if you'd stopped sooner I would have missed out on a ring-tailed, rip-roaring story of conspiracy and mayhem in High Life."
Moorland snorted. "Oh, those. I have a peddler's pack full of those. I'd rather hear The Reef."
"Then I guess I owe you some reading as fair trade for an entire meal's entertainment," Finna said, and got up to fetch her book from where she'd left it over on the sideboard.
Once Tai Wheeler had departed with the dishes, Moorland went to fetch her carpet bag while Finna shifted a cushioned armchair from their table toward the fire, to where light could fall onto her book's pages without the risk of one too many sparks flying past the screen. Moorland had returned by the time Finna moved the other chair and found a footstool. After donning the spectacles she wore for close work, Moorland opened up her carpet bag and took out the blanket she was crocheting.
Hesitantly, Finna offered, "Looks as if that's coming along nicely."
"Almost ready to send back to Mayfair." The Judge looked over her spectacles to study Finna. "Remind me to take your measurements. You could use a warm sweater."
Finna suppressed a wince. The Judge's devotion to the recent craft of crochet was notorious all around the circuit. She had a habit of gifting scarves done up in strange stitches and stranger colors -- scarves that had to be worn anyway, given her station -- to those who had seriously annoyed her and upon whom she couldn't otherwise fairly retaliate. But at least the handiwork Finna had seen shipped back to relatives in the royal capitol had looked attractive enough. Finna would have to trust she hadn't seriously annoyed the Judge without realizing what she was doing.
Seems as if she must have given away her worry. Moorland's lips were twitching.
"Umm...I like evergreen?"
"With auburn hair and your dark skin and eyes? You should."
"Came from my sire, a crib captive from the Sunlands." Finna waved the book. "One reason I'm so eager to read this even if it might get everything wrong."
"Then, by all means, do proceed."
The next hour or so was a study in contentment. Maybe many women, with all their sisters, mothers, and daughters -- menfolk, even -- could take peaceful evenings spent in friendly company enough for granted to prefer roistering. For her part, Finna never got her fill of this easy pleasure.
Her armchair was comfortable. The fire was exactly right, warming Finna to the border of scorching but not beyond. Moorland's crochet hook flew along the rows of her blanket as she made the sounds that attested to appreciative attention. She chuckled at all the right points in the breathless narrative and at all the funniest wrong points, too.
Moorland even reached the end of her crocheting exactly when Finna needed a break from the reading. After holding up the blanket for a critical inspection, Moorland nodded briskly before folding it away. "There. A bit of sewing, and my royal nephew will eventually be amused by carnivorous bunnies. The palace staff will be thoroughly appalled, of course."
Well, now. That explained the tiny white fangs. But crocheted bunnies, even if they bit, still seemed kind of sweet. Rather than trying to sort out what she suspected of being some message between kin, Finna ventured, "Third child born a prince is great good luck for the realm." Reading family fortunes from the birth order of a son was an old superstition.
Here came that fond smile again. "Trust dear Lylia to be almost unbearably smug in her letters. She's developing theories about male education and wants to try them out on him."
"No reason not, I guess. He's royal, so his marriage prospects won't be threatened, and book-learning keeps a person busy. I also noticed, with the garrison guardhounds, that sharp fathers breed keen daughters. Do you think Queen Mother Lylia's notions will work?"
For some reason, the Judge's expression seemed both surprised and pleased. "Perhaps. In fact, probably. His breeding is promising on both sides. Prince Consort Jerin is quite intelligent, as is my son Cullen, his closest male maternal relative. Cullen would have enjoyed hearing this novel."
"Oh." Finna contemplated the unfamiliar notion of intelligent males enjoying exciting stories being read to them. From there, her mind skipped suddenly to the only places where someone common-born as her could've ever met men, and she felt a touch queasy. Given the priority she had as a recipient of the Queens Medal of Honor, she'd wondered if she was being weak when she shunned the Order of Sword cribs even if she had no sisters to join her in raising a family. All at once, she was glad she'd indulged her strange squeamishness about using drug-addled, captive males. "Reading out loud is good. Coaxes a girl toward literacy. I sure liked it, the few times I got a chance. Maybe you should send him a copy of The Reef if his wives will let him have a book."
Swaled if the Judge didn't direct that fond smile of hers toward Finna. "Good idea. I imagine they will." Then she eased back in her chair, and her expression became thoughtful. She cleared her throat. "Not that I meant to discuss my in-laws this evening. Lieutenant Buckley--" Stopping for some reason, she tried again, "Finna--" This time, when she trailed off, Moorland ran a big hand through her neatly cropped hair and gave Finna a half-amused, half-helpless look of appeal that was altogether compelling.
As Finna boggled at this, trying to beat back a strong and sudden wish for what that missing verbiage might be, someone had to start pounding on the parlor door. Sure enough, an interruption. What else could she expect during a mysterious and deeply fascinating moment while out on circuit court?
Finna didn't know she had scowled and dropped her hand to her Marine revolver until the Judge raised eyebrows. Instead of displaying any more temperament about interruptions, Finna got up and went over to the massive door, sliding open its peep slot. She was confronted by plump, unfamiliar features although Eldest Wheeler's remonstrating voice hinted she was also out there in the taproom, somewhere in the background.
"I need to see the Judge," the stranger said, in a voice both rich and confident.
"That's what her senior clerk of court is for," Finna told her. "Nina Pendle is prompt about making appointments, too."
The stranger leaned close enough to the other side of the slot for her speech to carry into the parlor rather than the taproom. "I appeal to the Queens Hospitality."
Well. Those words put a different complexion on the matter. Finna turned for orders, but she was already reaching for the bolt as she did so.
Judge Moorland was up from her chair and standing behind it, a good precaution that also added to her air of thoroughgoing annoyance. Her right hand was tucked into the unfashionable pocket of her suit coat, likely grasping the derringer that always weighed it down. Thunderous expression or not, the Judge gestured with her left hand for Finna to open the door. The Crown was very serious about any law intended to reduce feuding between families, and the claim of hospitality numbered high among these.
When Finna turned the knob and stepped aside, a small group followed the stranger into the parlour. Eldest Wheeler started to enter after them, looking about as worried as a tavern-keeper would ever let herself seem, but Finna blocked her in the doorway. The noise level in the taproom behind Eldest was already rising as the patrons speculated about what was causing this fuss. If trouble was coming, the Judge wouldn't have much of a wait for it to arrive.
Finna told Eldest, "Send to the Temple for the court staff and sheriffs. And have one of your youngers run a note over to the Queens Justice for a squad of troopers." That second message might be a waste of time. The troopers were likely out on doubled evening patrols to catch up after a day with so many of them pinned down in the county courthouse for the close of session. But she who didn't try began by losing.
Eldest nodded and hurried off. Quickly, Finna closed, bolted, and locked the door behind her, dropping the heavy bar into its slots this time. Then she turned her attention entirely to the new occupants of the parlor.
There were five of them, not necessarily related by the evidence of their dress and looks. The stranger at the door had shooed three women who seemed to be sisters into a dark corner away from the fire. Two of them were reassuring the tallest, still-cloaked third although something was offish there. The final newcomer was likely younger sister to the first, bidding to be plump some day if not now. She was the only one of them wearing a gun belt -- although that revolver sure hadn't seen much wear and neither had its holster -- and she and Finna eyed each other before they both turned toward where the Judge was standing.
"I'm Pera Showglobe," the first stranger was saying. "Doctor Pera Showglobe, of the Saltina Spa Showglobes." With a chance to see her in the firelight, Finna wasn't surprised by the introduction. The doctor was beefy enough not to be military but had the no-nonsense look in her blue eyes of someone used to blood, along with the fancy kind of silk vest and gold pince-nez typical of the prosperous physicians who ran the water-cure resorts down in Gregors Springs.
"That so?" was all Judge Moorland had to say. Her right hand was still tucked in her pocket. Her left hand had risen to grasp the lapel of her suit coat. The annoyance was giving way to considering neutrality.
"There's my younger sister, Doctor Justy Showglobe. Those are three of the Thrushes from Fastwater. Judge Moorland, this is Eldest Thrush. And Dimanny Thrush. As well as their younger sibling."
"Charmed, I'm sure," the handsome, middle-aged woman from the corner said as she came out into the hearth light. Something in her tone let you know she was anything but charmed if determined to make the best of matters. Something about her movements and gestures were teasingly familiar. It wasn't the family looks. Longish dun hair, clear skin with dark eyes, beautifully cut features, graceful limbs: they were very fine, but not ones Finna had ever seen before. Finna's hunch had something to do with the Thrushes' manner.
Before Finna could track down what was niggling at her, the middle Thrush also sashayed forward, her face nervous but determined. The youngest Thrush shrank back into the shadows.
Finna knitted her brows. The youngest; there was something especially offish about--
The Judge studied the Thrushes, turned to glower at Doctor Pera , and then turned back to the Thrushes. "Good evening, Eldest Thrush. Dimanny Thrush." She paused for a moment, sighed, and added, "Master Thrush."
"Oh, poo," said an unmistakably masculine voice from within the hood of the woman's all-weather cloak that the youngest Thrush still wore pulled forward. "Knew I'd give myself away."
Instinctively, Finna whirled toward the parlor door with her hand back on her revolver, presumably ready to fight off the phantasmal band of husband-raiders her overactive imagination expected to be bursting in this very moment. It was annoying to find the younger Showglobe had done the same thing. They eyed each other again and then both checked the door one last time before returning their attention to the conversation.
Well, at least Finna hadn't stood there gaping like a hayseed when she found herself unexpectedly in the presence of her first man. And that man was still talking. In a male voice. A young, virile male voice. "Can I take this cloak off now?" he was asking. "It's really warm."
"No!" his sisters said together.
"You didn't give yourself away; Judge Moorland is both a jurist used to weighing a situation and a noblewoman with experience of many young men," Doctor Pera told him at the exact same time. She sounded a little pedantic and a little exasperated, not much different than any book-learned elder would if she was tutoring her youngermost sisters.
But how the Doctor's "experience of many young men" had somehow made Judge Moorland sound like Queen Mother Katerin the Seducer, Finna would never know. She'd never spotted any lascivious tendencies, and she'd been watching with care.
Briefly, her gaze met the Judge's. Finna would swear Judge Moorland's lips twitched before she shifted her attention back to Doctor Pera and said dryly, "You're correct in noting my experience helped me with this diagnosis, Doctor. I'm glad for that. Otherwise I would despair of the feminine disguise I assume is all that stands between us and whatever group of man-stalkers made you claim the Queens Hospitality."
Doctor Justy spoke for the first time. "The Tamers -- they're horse traders out of Queens Gap -- well, they decided they wanted a husband. But we're betrothed to Derwin fair and square, his brother's price paid to his sisters and a valid contract signed." Her jaw set firm. "We're not giving in to crude physical threats, letting them abduct and abuse him merely because we're physicians." She grasped her revolver, looking both determined and about to blow off her toes if she didn't watch that grip.
"I would hope you wouldn't," Eldest Thrush said.
"Those Tamers. Nothing but border ruffians no matter how many crowns they have," Dimanny Thrush chimed in. "Certainly no better than we are."
"Pshaw! Justy, stop playing with your gun," Doctor Pera said. "More to the point, I believe the Tamers are presently searching, and probably incinerating, the Thrushes' boardinghouse up in Queens Gap under the misapprehension that Derwin has taken refuge there."
This time, Eldest Thrush's words were said half under her breath and were also likely rude, given Dimanny's slight wince and Derwin's sudden lean away from his eldest.
"Unless they spotted the falsity of the trail the other Thrushes and two of my younger sisters laid for them, which is all too likely. Then, by my calculations, they may catch up with us some time tomorrow. Certainly before we reach Gregors Springs." Shaking her head, Doctor Pera told Derwin. "You are a nuisance." The all-weather cloak somehow managed to appear offended, and she added, "An accidental nuisance. If it makes you feel better, consider yourself equivalent to an unexpected blizzard or avalanche."
Derwin tugged down his hood. "Oh I do hope everyone will pardon me. But, unlike a blizzard or avalanche, I need to breathe." He would have made an attractive Thrush sister, having the same delicate coloring, refined diction, and pretty features they did. As Dimanny went to pull his hood back up, his attempts at evasion also gave evidence of the same sort of solid, stalking grace the two sisters displayed. Like a tomcat's.
Finna felt her eyes narrow.
Eldest Thrush seemed to think it was time to intervene, perhaps to distract attention from her brother being a real handful. "Everyone knew you would be in Bear Summit this week, Your Honor. We couldn't go to the Queens Justice in Fastwater. They wouldn't listen to us Thrushes."
"Well. Now you interest me strangely," the Judge said, the tenor of her words ominous. She was pure catamount when hunting down officials lax about their duties. "Why ever not, considering how easily all this nonsense could spark off a feud?"
Finna interrupted, her military experience finally letting her fit this piece into the puzzle. "Did any of the officers or troopers in Fastwater know of your family's...out of town profession? Up in Queens Gap, socializing around the border forts?"
Dimanny stopped trying to pull up the hood in favor of looking dismayed, Derwin seemed brightly interested, and Eldest set her lips in a moue. "Some women are biased by past experiences," she said, one hand perched gracefully on her hip in an unmistakably masculine fashion.
Yup. She'd been a whore.
"We're going to be joining the nursing staff at the Saltina Spa after we sell the boardinghouse and swap our Fastwater house for a Gregors Springs residence," Dimanny said. "It's part of Derwin's betrothal contract." Which still wasn't a direct admission. Although nursing was one of the few respectable professions open to those who'd been Lads in the Evening, given that whores knew how to spot certain vital diseases and nervous imbalances. Ones that, come to think of it, were sometimes treated with the water-cure. At least, whores could become nurses if they'd been numbered among the fancier of their breed.
Okay. They'd been officers' lads.
The Judge held up her left hand. "Never mind all that. I'm still back at wondering why you passed by the Queens Gap Justice to continue down to Bear Summit. There's a great many more of them than marshals with me, and horse traders who commit arson would be enough evidence to counterbalance past occupations."
The Thrushes hesitated, but Doctor Justy seemed up to any direct challenge. Eyes determined, she said, "Aside from any lingering preconceptions, many of the Queens Justice up there are said to have a warm interest in the Tamers' border trading."
Swamp it, smuggling and bribery. Transferring soldiers through various Queens Justice garrisons was supposed to crop back such corruption, but it didn't always work.
"Can anyone attest to the details of this?" the Judge asked.
Both of the Showglobes looked to Eldest Thrush, who snorted. "I'd imagine some people could. If they weren't left stranded afterward anywhere between Fastwater and Queens Gap. And if anyone would condescend to listen to them."
The Judge nodded. "If your information is detailed enough to merit further investigation--"
"Your Honor, some women get very relaxed and talkative in the right circumstances." Eldest thoughtfully studied Judge Moorland for a heartbeat or two. "You grasp what I mean."
"Yes. Well, yes." The Judge cleared her throat. "I did have a husband, so yes."
"I understood that from the Borderlands Trumpeter's court columns," Eldest said, her words bland.
"Which is a matter apart from our current difficulty," Doctor Pera pointed out. "I am alarmed by the likelihood of a party of Tamers finding us alone on the Edge of the Realm Turnpike. Even if you do have a revolver and a rifle now, Justy , both of which I wish you would stop fondling. And we need to get Derwin promptly back to Gregors Springs. Although we're duly betrothed, I'd like to be married before midwinter. Early autumn is a healthy season to give birth in this region."
The way the Judge worked her mouth, she was trying to control a sudden grin. "I'm pleased to hear you have such optimistic premonitions about your familial prospects, Doctor."
"Derwin's virility is amazing. Eldest and I did the sperm test ourselves." She frowned. "So to speak."
Doctor Justy rushed in hastily with, "He's been carefully raised, too. A young man who knows how to perform his duties gracefully. All of them." Realizing she'd hit the same reef as her sister, she added weakly, "His biscuits are feather-light, and his floors sparkle."
"At least Justy thinks I'm good for something other than using my you-know, even if it is scrubbing floors," Derwin muttered, loud enough to carry.
Doctor Pera's snort was a beauty. "Oh, for the gods' sakes! Don't call it your 'you-know'. You're nowhere near that unintelligent or we wouldn't have offered for you, sperm test or no. And prissiness doesn't suit a doctors' husband who'll be helping with male patients. I doubt you'll ever have time for floors." Her brief pause was meditative, as she thoughtfully ran the tip of her tongue along her upper lip. "Although I do hope you'll be kind enough to fit in the occasional batch of biscuits."
For some inscrutably masculine reason, the scowling blush the doctor's words earned from Derwin seemed two-thirds pleased to one-third annoyed.
"Let's keep moving," Judge Moorland said, maybe just a touch doggedly. "Doctor Pera, Eldest Thrush, I assume you have the betrothal contract with you so you can formally request the Queens Hospitality under the legally applicable circumstances. Lieutenant, please find out exactly how much trouble we may face."
That left Finna having to approach the corner into which Dimanny and Doctor Justy had barricaded Derwin while their elders conferred. Finna was a lot more worried about Doctor Justy shooting someone by mistake than by their protective stances, but at least the danger of accidents helped her to ignore the nearby presence of a man. "Now, then. How many Tamers are we talking, here?"
Fists full of them, it turned out, with even more relatives and allies who might be interested in keeping news of their smuggling ring from spreading out. Sometimes the customs and laws that tended to make entire families go to the bad together led to nothing but pain.
About a quarter hour into this discussion, Finna rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, be joyful."
"Are the Tamers too much for the Crown to handle?" Doctor Justy asked, maybe feeling a proper degree of trepidation at last.
"Not in the long run, seeing as how Mayfair will take a Moorland's warning seriously. Likely not even in the short run since the Tamers won't know the Crown is involved yet, and might not have sent along enough riders to swamp us. That could've attracted enough attention for someone to decide to get between them and the border. I'm not fond of fighting, is all. Mischance can get you killed even during the easiest skirmish."
Derwin was the first to cut through the sticky silence that followed. "I could really use a drink of water," he said, his voice small.
"I'll get it," Doctor Justy told him, and hastened to the sideboard. That left both the Thrushes to stare at Finna, Dimanny with expert appraisal and Derwin with obvious doubt.
Finna wanted to stare with obvious doubt right back at Derwin but had abruptly realized it was her duty to look self-assured so as not to distress him any further. She settled for sticking her thumbs into her gun belt and trying a confident smile on him while vaguely wishing he was a girl so she'd know what else to say.
Reaching some obscure conclusion of her own, Dimanny abruptly shook her head and said to Derwin, "You need to sit down, honey, after that long trip. Stay here; I'll fetch you a chair." She went over to confiscate one of the cushioned armchairs from next to the fire.
This left only Derwin, still looking doubtful, to say hesitantly, "We rode for hours. I felt kind of sick until I fell off my horse. Twice." The last word somehow came out sounding proud.
Finna snorted. "You'll feel even better when you don't fall off at all. Until that happens, sounds as if it's just as well you're marrying doctors." Seemed that Finna's mouth had decided you talked to a young man like a very young recruit.
At least it worked. He snickered.
His sister came back with the chair right then and fussed him into it, and then his betrothed came over with a glass of water from the sideboard and fussed him into drinking it all. Finna seized her chance to go talk with Judge Moorland, who was free right now while Doctor Pera and Eldest Thrush sorted through paperwork they'd produced from the Doctor's medical bag.
"How bad is it?" the Judge asked. Someone should rub away that wrinkle from between her brows.
"Didn't think I could look forward to a ride down the Edge of the Realm Pike in unpromising weather any less. I don't know why someone in Mayfair hasn't been paying more attention to Queens Gap."
Judge Moorland filled her cheeks and then puffed out a breath of air without actually saying anything. Finna looked at her sharply but decided they didn't have time for the explanation right now. Instead she continued, "As your bailiff, I'd advise you to call a county posse, but they'd likely posse right off with Master Spunky Cute over there, and he doesn't deserve to end up in a crib. Given that, we'll have to make do with our marshals and whatever Queens Justice can be spared from preventing any pursuers from torching Bear Summit."
"Doctor Pera feels the Showglobes are influential enough in Gregors Springs that the local families will rally to protect them rather than steal Derwin from them. She's probably right; it's a civilized community."
From what Finna had seen, all the gentry who had started visiting for the water-cure were making Gregors Springs into a hopelessly high-falutin' town, but that led to the same result in the end. "We'll need some sort of plan besides the obvious logistics for the ride. Let me think about that."
Judge Moorland reached over to clap Finna on the shoulder. "You'll come up with something. In a crisis, you always do."
"Thanks. I guess." Her words sounded glum even to Finna's own ears.
At least they resulted in a brief, rare, and charming display of dimples before the Judge went to rejoin Doctor Pera and Eldest Thrush.
Noticing that Doctor Justy was clutching at that revolver of hers again while she talked to Dimanny Thrush, Finna was about to go over and get the doctor to shift her grip when someone else knocked. Finna detoured to answer the door. She'd wager no one would lose anything vital in the meantime with physicians so close to hand. And Derwin seemed kind of thrilled as he gazed at Doctor Justy.
Amazingly, Finna had enough sense left to step out into the taproom, close the door behind her, and tell Nina Pendle, "You'd best go in. Bar the door behind you."
Nina considered Finna for a moment, her head cocked, then nodded and went inside without another word. The door shut behind her, and Finna heard a determined, reassuring thud.
"Take the clerks and move Judge Moorland's luggage out of the husband's room," Finna told Sergeant Mirre. "It's the most secure in the suite, and we have witnesses to lock up and guard for the rest of the night. Queens Hospitality."
Mirre nodded, stolid as usual. She did go so far as to ask, "Real trouble?"
Finna only rolled her eyes, and Mirre nodded again before saying, "We'll carry our rifles. And bayonets. And unpack the extra ammunition."
"You do that."
An hour and a half later, Finna lay in her bedroom, staring up into the darkness and reviewing her arrangements one last time. She had set up the roster so marshals and troopers were paired on watch, but without overlapping shifts. If someone did realize a male was close to hand they shouldn't have anyone around they knew well enough to conspire with for long enough to cause trouble. The guards would wake her twice during the remainder of the night, and she could check--
"I can hear your thinking four feet away," Moorland said, her voice sleepily amused. With the Showglobes and Thrushes to safeguard, seniority had left the two of them sharing this small room. Finna would have arranged for them to be in these quarters together anyhow; the Judge was not going unguarded with so much trouble afoot.
Finna allowed herself the luxury of a sigh close to a groan. "I should sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a wicked ride."
"It will be. With an appallingly early waking before it to ice the cake."
Rolling over, Finna grumpily punched up her pillow. She wanted to lie here in the warm and friendly dark, gossiping softly together like close sisters in a family dormitory, but that made no sense at all. Especially under these circumstances. She had to settle for saying, "Yep, and some of us will have lots more appallingly early wakings that others. So good night to you."
"Good night," the Judge replied. The chuckle behind her words followed Finna into her dreams.
They would have left early anyhow to try and beat the weather. But now they would be departing during the first grey minutes of daylight to try and beat the Tamers.
Finna was out in the Toad's still-dark courtyard, keeping an eye on the growing cavalcade, when Doctor Justy emerged from within the stable block. A stablehand beside her was leading a horse. Finna glanced in their direction before returning her attention to the buckboard that transported the court's baggage and records. Then she turned toward Doctor Justy again to have a longer look at a sight impressive even by torchlight.
Well, she did need to talk with Doctor Justy if the doctor was in charge of the Showglobes' and Finches' mounts. Finna strode across the cobbles, swerving only to avoid some Wheeler sisters carrying a hamper full of provisions, to stop at arm's length and admire as Doctor Justy checked the cinch, bit, and bridle on her black mare.
"Now, there's a horse," Finna ventured.
The doctor looked over at Finna and grinned in the way of a woman who knows where all the face cards are hidden. "Yes, she's a peach."
Finna decided not to try disguising the degree of her interest. She only smiled back, letting her wonder show. "What a beauty. I've never seen a mare with exactly that arched neck, the chiseled face. Good, compact build, and look at those ears." A couple of soft, kissing noises, and the ears in question quirked forward. There was even a mind behind the equine magnificence.
"She's from a strain my family's been working on these past few years as a test of fertility and breeding techniques. We're ready to spread them out now that we think we've conserved their best features. This is Stature, out of Beautiful Boy and Guster. She's an exemplar of her breed: sweet tempered, even-gated, and adaptable. All that road she covered yesterday, and she'll still carry her rider through today's troubles."
With a snap of her fingers, Finna said, "I was meaning to ask if you'd need remounts."
"No. We'd put horses out to summer pasture between Teaboro and Fastwater in order to display them to the West Valley breeders. We planned to bring them home on this trip, scaring two crows with one pebble. When we ran into trouble and split up, Pera and I brought the best of them with us. That's why we were able to travel so quickly."
"Sure. By the way, about the rest of today's trip..." Finna raised her eyebrows and nodded toward the stablehand. Doctor Justy turned long enough to send the youngster back into the stable block for another horse.
Then she asked Finna, "More problems?"
Finna held up her left hand, palm out. "Nothing you don't know about already. I'd wager you've made the ride down to Gregors Springs more times than I have."
"Probably, but never in this season." Doctor Justy craned her neck to look over the Toad's rooftrees at the mountain peaks to the east. Now they showed bare hints of the dawn behind them, but the torches that had been set into sconces around the courtyard were still a necessity. You could tell more clouds were moving in from the west, heavy-bellied and gray.
Finna, who'd followed the doctor's gaze said, "You know we'll be riding through every minute of daylight just to reach Gregors Springs. If the snow and rain hold off, that is."
"If the Tamers hold off."
"Them, too." Finna sighed. "The youngest Thrush has to stay in the saddle today. There's no choice."
The hand that had been stroking Stature's withers slowed, and Doctor Justy nodded. "I'll take hi...her up with me if I must. Small as they are, these horses are tough. Stature can carry double for a while."
"Wouldn't want to founder her."
With a shrug, Doctor Justy said, "We won't. We have remounts." Her eyes hardened. "And, much as I love her, hard as I'd work to protect her, she's a horse. Even ignoring personal and monetary considerations--" her lips twisted "--the Thrushes are people. It matters."
That was the moment when Finna decided she liked Doctor Justy, scary grip on a revolver and all. "Sure does. What's your best guess about the Tamers?"
"Which guess? If they're after us? Probably. Pera knows how to predict behavior and so does Eldest Thrush."
"I'm more interested in when and where."
"Oh, given the distances, I'd agree with Pera about today. After all, only so many ways across the Pinnacles exist. But don't ask me exactly where. There's a reason we Showglobes stick to the turnpikes even with all the tolls. We tend to get lost unless we're navigating around a human body." Doctor Justy tilted her head, suddenly uncertain. "Maybe someone who patrols these roads would know more?"
"Likely, and we have good maps." Finna tried seeming tough, hoping it would be catching. "All right, we'll do our best and earn our luck. Which includes getting Miss Stature, here, out of all this fuss and feathers, so the youngest Thrush can mount without making a spectacle of herself."
"Oh," Doctor Justy said. "Of course." She had obviously somehow overlooked this detail. " I'll take care of that right away."
"Good." Finna had one last look at Stature, shook her head in amazement, and went to see to her own mount and the Judge's.
A half hour later, the Judge asked Finna, "Are we ready?"
"As much as can be," Finna replied. She touched the stock of her rifle, hanging in its leather holster from her saddle, for luck.
"Very well, then. Let's ride."
In novels like The Reef, the pursued rode away at a gallop, their horses' shoes striking sparks off the cobblestones as they fled from the villains hard on their heels. In real life, anyone who rode like that would be caught in half a day. Traveling fast with this party was more a matter of keeping to a quick but varied pace, and being sure enough horses were harnessed to the buckboard, than anything like a cavalry charge. The court's mounts would spend more time walking than galloping.
Not that the Edge of the Realm Turnpike would've rewarded much galloping. As soon as they rode out of Bear Summit and followed the first stream valley down-slope from the cleared farmlands, they ran into stretches of pike where the road snaked back and forth like some sort of dirt river. Even beneath the bare limbs of birch and maple woods and the dark-needled canopies of evergreens, the surface of the turnpike was well enough maintained for wagons to get through. Merchants and drovers would've complained otherwise, and the local toll-taker would lose her license from the Crown. But upkeep couldn't fix all the places where the road had to drop a killing distance at its edge down rocky slopes to the next switchback.
They also had to pass through cuts that had been blown with black powder straight into the mother rock. These stretches weren't difficult riding but were hard on Finna's nerves as she scanned the cliffs above them for ambushers. A few times, they crunched along stretches of gravel or clattered along planking laid on boggy pasturelands that often flooded but weren't underwater today. Yet. When they broke pace to cross a covered bridge, their horses' hooves beat an irregular tempo against the music of the rushing water beneath them. Finna would swear the stream was starting to rise. Somewhere, snow or rain must have fallen, be falling.
Whenever the turnpike gave her a clear field of view, she looked to the northwest. The perspectives on the Pinnacles were amazing but not what Finna needed. Just now, she was much more interested in the pale, diagonal streaks below the clouds surging along the high peaks. Snow was drawing closer even if nothing fell from the grey skies right above them. The stream hadn't lied. They were racing against a ticking clock.
At least the toll-gates weren't delaying them. As each came into view, Sergeant Mirre would sound the royal call on her pike-trumpet, and they could arrive expecting the gates to be open or the roped-together stakes lowered flat. Most times, that was exactly what happened. They only had to wait on one toll-taker, and she seemed more deaf than obstreperous. She sure moved fast enough after she spotted Judge Moorland. It did take some extra time to warn her about the Tamers although Sergeant Mirre's best parade-ground voice got through to her at last, her and everyone else across a quarter of the county.
During those first hours of the ride, Finna slowly worked her way up and down the column as they traveled, alert for trouble. Derwin was back to wearing his woman's clothing and all-weather cloak while clutching at Stature's reins. His kin and betrothed rode close around him. He only sometimes seemed like a sack of grain strapped into a saddle, so it must've been fatigue that made him fall last night. Still, today's ride would also be long. It was a worry.
When they had to pause at mid-morning to water the horses and check their hooves, and to give the riders a brief chance at the bushes and the hamper of provisions, Finna added another worry to her store. There was a change in the tenor of talk among the troopers and marshals that told her they knew who -- or what -- accompanied them. Nothing to be done about that right now. Their sergeants seemed to have them in hand.
And the buckboard was keeping pace. Judi Pendle had been driving, with Nina beside her busily studying a map of the local terrain for troublesome features as Finna had requested. Given that particular purse of Nina Pendle's lips, she must have found something, yet another worry.
However, Finna's biggest worry, short of snow or Tamers, was the nagging sense that she should be keeping closer to the Judge's side than she was.
When Finna paused by her for the third time, Judge Moorland said mildly, "Stop frowning at me. I'm no more likely to be shot from behind a boulder or atop a ridge than anyone else in this party."
Finna scowled at the mere idea.
The Judge spread her arms wide. "After all, I'm wearing the same cloak as your marshals. Even the same hat."
"And much good may that do. You still ride like an officer. A noblewoman."
A smile came and went. "As opposed to riding like a sailor."
"Riding like a marine who's spent a lot of days on horseback, thank you. It's part of my job to worry."
"My job, your job, Sergeant Mirre's job, Nina Pendle's, Eldest Thrush's, Pera Showglobe's..." Judge Moorland trailed off to shake her head. "I wish whoever it was back in Mayfair hadn't distracted you by making you primarily, rather than incidentally, responsible for my safety."
Although she wasn't really surprised, Finna still found herself asking, "There's some reason for you to think that?"
If the Judge's eyebrows climbed any higher they'd fly right off the top of her head. "I worked it out fairly quickly. Did you imagine it would somehow escape my attention that a smart and self-cultivated recipient of the Queen's Medal, one who had served with honor in both the marines and the royal guard, is a bit, just the merest trifle, overqualified for a position as bailiff in a rural Assize?"
"About as overqualified as a certain Judge standing not too far from here." Finna tried scowling again but gave it up for a half-snort, half-chuckle. She never could stay annoyed with Moorland for long. "Well, okay. I'll settle on worrying about this swaled circus we're taking to town. Best way to keep you safe anyhow. If keeping you safe was somehow my biggest job. Which, I would like to point out, I have not admitted."
"If I had ever thought I was truly your eldest in all things, rather than your sometimes forewoman and sometimes stray chick, I would never have permitted myself--" The Judge cut off her words, looking chagrinned. "Neither the time nor the place."
For a few thudding heartbeats, Finna studied Moorland. At last, Finna said, "You're only trying to whet my curiosity enough that I'll be clever about getting us alive to Gregors Landing."
"Is it working?" Moorland asked, her question wry.
"I guess we'll have to find out," Finna said, just as wry.
They returned to the road. In spite of competing distractions, Finna remembered to ride beside the buckboard on a wide stretch of the pike and ask Nina Pendle, "Did you spot any tricky places ahead when you were doing all that map reading?"
Nina frowned. "You may wish to ask someone who knows this area well if the so-called Shun Pike trail would be a faster route down from Queens Gap than the Edge of the Realm Turnpike. That trail will join with the turnpike not far from Four Ponds, well to this side of Gregors Springs."
Finna raked over her memory and then nodded, spurring forward to speak with Sergeant Mirre and Sergeant Lendlaw, the border veteran who led their Queens Justice detachment.
When applied to, Sergeant Lendlaw produced a juicy snort. "Tamers know a route that dodges the tolls? Might as well ask if gentry knows how to get around the window tax."
"You're familiar with the Tamers."
"Ayup." The Sergeant nodded slowly. "Not real popular anywhere along this slope, so the local families will tell you all about them. Never ran into any of the Tamers in an official way, mind, but I hear they're fast on the draw and full of themselves. Horse traders." She spat. "Smugglers, more like. Good riders, though. The Shun Pike would be a way for good riders to come up on us, seeing as how we'll likely be delayed at the Mowing Bridge."
"Thought they'd finished rebuilding that," Sergeant Mirre said sharply.
"Didn't start until after last harvest. Got the roof on but not the roadbed, just the beams. Roof's needed first to guard against snow when you're building late in these parts. Means we'll have to use the rope ferry across Pipers River, though. That'll take some time with so many of us, but there's no good ford for miles to either side with the brooks rising like they are."
Beside Finna, Sergeant Mirre's language was creative enough that Finna instinctively checked to make sure Derwin was a good distance away down the column. Seeing that he was, she asked slowly, "Does the ferry collect a toll?"
Both the Sergeants nodded. "Just like the bridge is usually a toll station," Sergeant Lendlaw said. "Township's using toll money to rebuild."
"So someone will be have to be out there today."
"I'd reckon," Sergeant Lendlaw replied.
Sergeant Mirre, more familiar with Finna, asked, "You have a plan?"
"Maybe. How good is Judge Moorland's word in these parts?"
They took her -- and the situation -- seriously enough to consider before they spoke. At last Sergeant Lendlaw said cautiously, "I'd deal with her on a spit and a shake. So would most of the families hereabouts, I'd imagine."
Sergeant Mirre nodded agreement. "I think that's about right."
"Well, okay." And now it was time to talk to the Judge.
When Finna explained her idea, Judge Moorland only said, "I'd rather throw money at this problem than have it throw lead at me. I'll need to be first across on the ferry, though."
Finna rolled her eyes. "I know."
Even though they were pushing harder now, they still needed another two hours to reach the unofficial intersection of the turnpike with the Shun Pike trail. Before riding through, they spent good time searching around with a telescope and listening to the woods. They finally rode by with rifles across their laps although they met no trouble worse than nerves.
The steep stretch of turnpike down to Pipers River cost them another half-hour's travel, but now Finna was grateful for the extra time. The problem on her hands resembled the old puzzle about transporting three guardhounds, three calves, and three bales of hay to a ship via a harbor boat. No matter how she figured, she couldn't come up with an arrangement for the ferry that gave everyone who needed it protection when Derwin was added to the accounts. Finna was one trustworthy bodyguard short. She sighed when she realized who would have to hold that gun. Then she shifted forward in the riding order to speak with the sergeants again.
They came at last to the Mowing Bridge, which stretched maybe three hundred feet from bank to bank, standing about fifteen feet above the rushing waters below. A work crew was on the opposite side of the river when the court rode up. The locals did seem to have barely started laying the bridge's flooring, something that was now a relief. The women working the ferry -- nothing more than a large raft that was winched across with ropes and a mule -- were on the nearer bank, checking the anchoring of the guide ropes. That was another, smaller relief.
Judge Moorland, Sergeant Mirre, and one of the troopers rode straight down the bank to make the first trip across the river. Finna didn't watch to see what happened. Negotiations were the Judge's responsibility, and she could be trusted to handle them well. Finna had duties of her own.
Dismounting, she ignored the troops mustering into crossing order in favor of getting out her spare pistol, still on its gun belt, from her saddle bags. Then she walked over to the buckboard.
As she'd expected, Judi was down from the driver's bench, studying the fresh dirt track sloping sharply to the river with the warily assessing eye of a decent teamster. Nina and Fai were rearranging the red leather trunks that carried the court's records to even out the wagon's load, double-checking that each trunk was closed tight and strapped shut as they went.
Finna called up, "Miss Nina Pendle, I need you. Halloo, halloo."
Nina stood upright in the wagon bed and frowned as she studied Finna. "Must we, Lieutenant?"
"Yes. We must." Finna tilted her head significantly toward where Derwin stood. The youngster was rubbing both hands up and down the back of his cloak in about the place where his posterior must be, failing entirely to be inconspicuous. As if drawn by lightly guarded liquor, two of the waiting troopers were drifting slowly in his direction. Doctor Justy seemed alarmed.
With her attitude speaking louder than words, Nina clambered down and stepped forward. Finna held out the holstered revolver so that Nina could rest a hand on the crown medallion in its grip, and then recited neatly and clearly as she had been taught. "Having heard the halloo to aid, do you swear by all the gods to enforce pursuits and protections by this Assize in the light of Crown law and in respect to the Queens' honor?"
"Congratulations, Deputy Marshal Pendle." Finna handed over the gunbelt, and Nina quickly belted it on under her suit coat before drawing the revolver and checking its cylinder with deft assurance.
Finna told her, "Stay next to the youngest Thrush. Don't let Justy Showglobe shoot someone by mistake. If anyone tries anything the least bit funny, you shoot her. I trust your judgment as to what counts as funny under these circumstances."
"I would hope, Lieutenant, that dear Papa left we Pendle sisters with a proper understanding of what exactly constitutes uncivilized behavior while in...rustic circumstances."
"That's grand. Try not to kill anyone, but it's a suggestion, not an order."
"Of course, Lieutenant. I'd certainly prefer not to fill out all those forms pertaining--" Turning, she'd caught sight of Fai gaping at her over a half-strapped dispatch box. Voice a touch sharp, Nina told Fai, "One who always carries a pen will be called upon to keep records. Better to refrain. But if one ends up needing to keep records nonetheless, it's best to write with a clear, bold hand. Finish shifting the trunks, Fai."
Fai closed her mouth with an almost audible click before opening it again to say, "Yes, Nina."
Moving her gaze to Judi, who immediately sobered from a grin, Nina added austerely, "I hope, if we have to wait very long for the ferry, you will find enough time to make the appropriate entry in the log of court personnel under posse commissions, subheading the halloo to aid." Then she marched off toward Derwin.
"Now you did it," Judi told Fai with sisterly relish. "You're going to be spending your first court recess loading guns with a blindfold on, over and over and over and..."
Shaking her head, Finna went to rein back the two troopers.
Another difference between real life and the escapades in novels fell under the heading of timing. In books, your pursuers came upon you at the very instant you set spark to fuse on your improvised mine that would blow you free of the fortress gates. In real life, they had most of the party and the buckboard across Pipers River and on their way well before the trooper Finna had sent up a tree with the telescope called down, "Riders cresting the far ridge! Squad and a half, maybe two squads counting outriders, no stock, no wagons."
That left all the time you could want for Finna, Sergeant Lendlaw, and the trooper to make the trip across the river and for the locals to chop through the ferry ropes. The workers wreaked some destruction on the ferry, too, before they moved off into the woods. There they'd likely join their fellows in fetching more rope and timber to fix this day's damage once the coast was clear.
Finna and her companions watched to make sure the workers were well out of rifle range from the other bank before riding on to catch up with the rest of their party.
"I'll tell you, that's going to cost crowns," Sergeant Lendlaw said, her words doleful. "Especially if those Tamers get touchy and fire what's been done with the bridge. Which they might since they still mayn't know the Crown's involved."
Finna snorted. "I hope they do. Arson against public property isn't some husband raid to be reviewed by county Witnesses or ruled on by local Magistrates. It rises straight to the Assizes. I'd wager the Judge would like the chance to speak with a Tamer or two. Wouldn't even have to crochet something to leave her mark on them."
The young trooper chuckled. "I'd surely pay some quinces to see that."
Her sergeant's growl at her was good-natured. When, a half-hour later, the keen-eyed young trooper pointed out a thread of smoke back in the direction from which they had ridden, Sergeant Lendlaw went so far as to allow herself to seem pleased.
For a miracle, nothing else had happened when they caught up with the rest of the cavalcade. The marshals and troopers seemed to have unanimously decided that if they couldn't have Derwin, no one else would get him either. Their attention was now properly, and bristlingly, on the countrywomen the party passed. True, Finna was noticing soldierly urges to show off that she would have most times squelched, but she joined the sergeants in letting preening pass by today. Preening put to use was a traditional part of military life, in her opinion.
Instead of fussing, Finna rode to join the Judge.
"Now, that wasn't very thrilling at all," Moorland said. "Well done, Lieutenant."
Smiling, Finna touched her hat. Her heartbeat always sped a little when she heard those words from this source.
"You and the court staff have earned plaudits all around. Given how much I prefer to keep tussling penned up within much smaller arenas--" Moorland's glance at Finna was rueful for some reason "--a typical trip down the Edge of the Realm Turnpike is all I could truly beg from the gods right now."
Soon after those words, the rain commenced.
Even after the rain stopped two hours later, theirs was a cold and squelching ride to Gregors Springs. At least their earlier haste meant they hadn't entirely lost the light before they rode into town. As they passed by the town square, the Pendles and the buckboard left the main cavalcade to head toward the Warm Waters Hotel where the court would reside for the next few weeks. Finna tried not to feel envious about her missed chance for an early session in the Warm Waters's bathhouse. Everyone else in their party would make the extra half-mile ride past town to the Saltina Spa, where the Judge could stow her witnesses safely away behind high and domestic walls.
Finna hadn't been out to the Saltina during any of the past circuit sessions. It proved to be impressively grand. The limestone walls of its main building gleamed in the last daylight as the setting sun descended beneath the cloud cover. There was even a clock under the peak of the steep slate roofing. The tall windows in the upper levels of the wings would allow a healthy amount of sunlight to enter the rooms despite the usual iron bars to block abductions of males. A wide outer courtyard had been discreetly secured against both wind and roguery by building high stone walls, topped by the proper spikes, between the handsome outbuildings. To one side was a big white house with its own, smaller courtyard and gardens, likely the Showglobe residence. To the other was a bathhouse all done up in marble with a fountain -- now drained against winter -- out front. The spa attendants at the outer gates were thoroughly armed. Even Finna would have considered allowing her menfolk to stay on the premises, if she'd had any.
Since Finna had sent ahead one of the marshals on a fast remount as a herald, the spa's outer gates were opened as they approached. Beneath touches of decorative gilt, all the pointy ornamentation on the ironwork was also very sharp. Finna turned her attention from this prudent detail to the courtyard and was surprised -- well, maybe a bit touched -- to see what must be the whole near-double-handful of remaining Showglobe sisters, from the eldest to the youngest, assembled on the paving stones and waiting for their betrothed as a few fashionably attired guests watched from a polite distance.
Derwin, who'd been slumping for the last hour, straightened in his saddle at the sight. After he'd somehow let Stature know he wanted her to stop moving, he almost fell off one last time while dismounting into the arms of a woman who Finna knew without asking was Doctor Eldest Showglobe.
Doctor Eldest was about as broad as their miner plaintiff of two days past, and wore her stethoscope like a badge of office atop an intricately embroidered green silk vest that was more suitable for Court than a courtyard. She should have seemed pretentious. But she also had the presence of the Prophet Joan and the personality to match. Right there in the spa courtyard, without hesitation, she opened her arms to Derwin.
He sagged against her for a moment before he straightened. "The Tamers chased us. We rode straight through from Fastwater to avoid them. But I didn't fall off at all today."
"Well done. A fine performance under trying circumstances." Doctor Eldest was also gifted with a voice like eggnog laced with good brandy, warm as a father's and certain as a mother's. If this was a sample of the Showglobe bedside manner, no wonder their spa was doing so well.
Almost as tall as Derwin, Eldest then held him out at arms' length and looked the traveling cloak up and down. Swaled if her eyes didn't twinkle behind her gold spectacles. "Are you intact beneath all that swaddling?"
"Pera and Justy rubbed me down with horse lineament last night. It smelled, but I think it worked."
"Function often overrules form in effective physicing, you'll find."
"I should say goodbye to everyone."
She studied him for a moment. "Yes, I imagine you should." Then Doctor Eldest turned him around, her hands still resting on his shoulders from behind.
Finna could tell Derwin took a deep breath before he reached up and undid his cloak. Eldest gathered it in, and Derwin stepped forward. "Thank you all very much," he said clearly and bowed like the young gentryman his marriage would make him.
"You're welcome," the Judge replied. She gravely doffed her hat to him.
Taken by surprise, the troopers and marshals sat staring until Judge Moorland spoke. Then they snapped to and raised a rousing, "Hip, Hip, Hooray!" It was a sign of the spell cast by Derwin's looks and manner that only one trooper had to be covertly clouted by a neighbor to choke off an additional, shouted comment that would have been unfortunate for everyone. After the soldiers' cheers had died down, their Sergeants moved them out promptly to ride back into town, the surest way to keep a charming moment pristine.
Then all of Derwin's betrothed gathered him up and swept him off into his new house amid a flurry of talk like "We'll have to check you for blisters," and "Were your bowels quite regular on the journey, dear?" and "Derwin! I lost another tooth! Want to see?" and "You'll note, Jinn, that even for the gentler sex, exercise in pure air is--" The Thrushes followed after this crowd more slowly, chatting complacently with each other, leaving some younger sisters from a Saltina staff family to lead off their mounts .
Only Doctors Pera and Justy remained behind. Doctor Pera swung down and went over to speak with the Judge, leaving Finna still up in the saddle next to Doctor Justy and her horse, another of those impressive new mares.
"He really is amazingly fertile," Doctor Justy said, her words abstracted. "We had no way of knowing he'd also be so..." She trailed off, gazing after her betrothed with a vaguely confused look of yearning that somehow seemed familiar to Finna. As if Finna recognized the emotions behind it from someplace else. Like keeping an eye on Judge Moorland during circuit courts for about the past four sessions.
Finna felt her lips twitch with the irony. "Well, I guess you can mention the 'also be so...' to him when you personally confirm his fertility again. He'd likely enjoy hearing the details."
Doctor Justy's chin snapped around, and she predictably started to fire up before she flushed instead and said, "An excellent notion. Thank you." She leaned across to offer a hand. "For everything."
They shook. Finna told her, "I'm tempted to take advantage of that gratitude to swing by during the next few weeks for another look at those horses you Showglobes are breeding. Likely too rich for my blood, but what a line of beauties."
The look her words earned her from Doctor Justy was oddly considering. Then the doctor glanced over toward where her sister was having quite the chat with Judge Moorland, back at Finna, back at the Judge, and her jaw went all firm again. She said, "I know Judge Moorland trusts your council. Is it true that the Moorlands are closely allied with our present Queen Mothers?"
"Yes," Finna replied warily.
"I've read the former Queen Mother Elder's letters to The Journal of the Crown Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. Very erudite for a noble's correspondence." She paused before rushing on with, "Maybe someone in the capitol would be interested in our new equine breeding techniques. We've collected ejaculate from our most promising stallions and divided it to breed mares without actual coitus in different pastures at varying times. That gave us a more accurate gauge of the effect of their surrounding on the dams' ensuing conceptions and pregnancies."
Finna looked at her, bemused. Then, as the real meaning and implications of what Doctor Justy had just said crashed in on her, she felt herself gape like a flounder.
Doctor Justy nodded approvingly, as if Finna had coughed on command.
Pulling herself together, Finna said, her words thoughtful, "So Derwin's amazingly fertile."
After chewing this over, Finna had to ask, "Is it true you doctors test your medicines on yourselves sometimes?"
"As well as medical therapies and techniques, yes." The doctor's voice was austere. "We Showglobes, for example, feel that self-testing is the most ethical approach in certain situations, at least when combined with a rigorous application of the methods of experimental learning." And wasn't that a locomotive of chewy verbiage hauling along an explosive proposal.
"Well." Not a really helpful start. "I'll speak with Judge Moorland about your...horse breeding technique. I'm sure she'd like to have dinner and chat some time soon. She's, umm, open to new thinking."
"My elder sisters and I had discussed that about the Judge, along with other reports about her integrity. It was nice seeing a reputation prove true for a change."
Judge Moorland and Doctor Pera had finally stopped talking, and the Judge was tipping her hat in farewell. Finna said a hasty farewell of her own to Doctor Justy and followed the Judge back through the outer spa gates, which closed with a definitive clang behind them.
The Judge seemed distracted as they rode. After a minute or two, she said, "That was interesting. Doctor Pera was fishing to find out if I could offer advice on some obscure matter of Royal Law without creating an unfortunate conflict of interest. She seemed especially interested in reports that I'm a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Men."
Finna nodded. "I'd bet she was." Unsure of how much else she could say on a busy road, she stopped talking.
There was a pause. "Or, from her hints, this could be a matter involving a letter of patent from the Crown. Doctor Pera claims Doctor Justy is brilliantly innovative, something which is more obvious when she is not allowed into the presence of projectile weaponry."
"I think Doctor Justy was also distracted by Master Thrush." Remembering her sudden revelation about Judge Moorland's attractions, Finna found she was adding, "I can sure enough understand that," before she could stop herself.
The Judge spent some time studying Finna. Then she said, her voice wry, "Of course he would turn out to be a young man of character on top of those good looks. Of course."
And that amazing fertility. Judge Moorland must suspect something of what was going on.
"Which almost guaranteed me frustration, didn't it?" the Judge asked, and sighed.
Yup, she suspected the chaos that lay ahead, all right. Finna told her, "Listen, I truly think we need to talk. Is there some way we could speak in private this evening? Maybe up in my room instead of down in the hotel's dining parlor? Mirre Tanner's likely going over to visit her friends at the local Queens Justice garrison for a good supper and a better gossip, so she'll be out of the room."
And now she had every bit of Judge Moorland's attention. Face serious, the Judge said, "Of course, Lieutenant. I'll find out if our hosts will make an exception this one time and send up some food and drink to your room."
Now, there was a sure bet, seeing as how the Judge was a Moorland. At least the request guaranteed a tasty supper if Finna could manage to eat. She'd still rather have shared mediocre rations and a pleasant evening with the Judge down in the saloon bar. And be able to watch the Judge smile. Without speaking, she nodded.
The prospect of a tricky conversation to come cast a shadow over the rest of the ride. Finna felt all nerves now, and the Judge was looking downright glum.
Yet another problem with suspense turned out to be the way it could waste a good bath. After a short night and a long day in the saddle, not to mention more worrying than she cared for, Finna should have been able to ease back into the hot waters of the tiled tub and forget her troubles. Instead she spent the time trying to sort out the social consequences of conception without coitus while lacking much of the book-learning she'd need to have clever thoughts about the matter. Even her not-so-clever thoughts about the matter filled her with a mixture of longing and trepidation. When she stretched out on the table for her massage, the bathhouse attendant commented on the tightness of her muscles.
By the time Finna was back in her room and dressed in a clean uniform, she was fed up enough to be eager for the knock on the door that meant Judge Moorland had arrived. Too bad it also meant supper had arrived, but their young waiter left quickly enough after they told her the food was fine three or four times. It only seemed to take a decade to get rid of her.
Once the waiter had shut the door at last, Finna ignored the quarter round of beef on the small table in front of her to say "Judge--" right as the Judge said, "Lieutenant--"
They both stopped. Then Judge Moorland nodded formally and said, "Please go first. You have that right." The Judge seemed to be bracing herself to listen, and who could blame her considering some of the possible consequences Finna had conjured up during her bath.
That might be why Finna fell to babbling. "Well, now we know why the Showglobes wanted nurses like the Thrushes around, ones who aren't touchy about bedroom matters and can keep their traps shut. They're still taking a risk although I sure understand why they want to know if their siring techniques will work with human males. That is, a human male. Uh, Derwin. Anyhow, I guess the Temple would say it won't work as a matter of faith, but I don't know. That professor who claims women started out as apes would likely maintain--" Then she stopped.
If she ever needed an illustration of someone knocked for a loop into a cocked hat, she was looking at a perfect subject. "Well," Finna said after a long silence, "I guess Doctor Pera didn't mention anything about the Showglobes having found a way to seed those new mares of theirs without the sire-stallions actually covering them."
There was an oddly ensnaring pleasure to watching the long features in front of her as the mind behind them went from a standstill to a gallop in maybe three heartbeats. The Judge took a deep breath. She blew it out again. Then she leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers. "No, not even a mention. Tell me."
When she was done, Judge Moorland said slowly, "Holy Mothers. This could change, oh, everything."
"That's what I thought, too. Especially for we common sorts. Well, and the menfolk, of course."
"And here I was worrying about finding out what was going on with the Tamers and the seeming permeability of the northeast border. No, not even that. I was actually worried about my own business, thinking someone had left a gas jet on in my dressing room when it was the light from the city burning down. There's a lesson for me."
Now it was Finna's turn to think fast. "I get it. Someone was paying attention to Queens Gap. You were sent out on circuit to investigate the high-country."
"Also to dilute my influence on my niece, Princess Lylia, until motherhood could temper her idealism with common sense. Good luck to that plan." The Judge made a motion of waving something away. "But, yes, there is interest in Mayfair in issues such as the Hightower influence on the crown governance of the western slope, and the way information is leaking to the Northern League. Too many matters around here are opaque to outsiders."
"Huh." Finna considered for a moment. "Leaking information. I wonder if the Tamers were really only interested in Derwin or they also wanted Doctor Justy. If you think about them being horse traders, a new strain on display, maybe some talk from stablehands about how the Showglobes established the breed so fast..." She trailed off at the look on the Judge's face. It was--
"That's a horrible thought. A horrible, brilliant thought." For someone using the word horrible, the Judge's expression wasn't very appalled. Instead, her gaze had bolted past fond and kept on going to reach something that sure looked a lot like desirous.
Moorland was also about to lean forward right into the cornmeal pudding. Her hazel eyes were sultry, her voice husky, when she almost breathed, "You're so often so clever."
"Umm...not always," Finna said weakly. She found she was wetting her dry lips with her tongue, leaning forward herself. It was an effort to say, "Seems as if I missed something obvious here."
That got her a blink. "Is that so?" Then Moorland looked down at the pudding, blinked again, and eased away. Her tone now as neutral as it would be in the judge's chair, she asked, "What did you think of Master Derwin?"
Confusing, but Finna answered, "He's a promising youngster, but he sure did breathe all the air in a room. The Showglobes will have their hands full." Shaking her head, she added, "Doesn't it figure that the first male I ever met would ruin the cribs for me forever? Not that I used them before, but an encounter like that does seem to be a classic chapter in the story of my life. Too much drama for my tastes. I want to read two-gil novels, not live them."
Moorland tapped her fingertips together. "I see. Would you mind if we kept discussing my personal business for a while? It seems as if all of human civilization convulsing with change might take a day or two to get going."
"I'll begin by noting that, in high society, when one pursues a liaison of passion, there are formal steps to be followed. One plans a private and intimate dinner for the woman desired which includes fine food, fine drink, and romantic, witty repartee. I now assume matters are handled differently between soldiers."
Finna was beginning to enjoy herself as her nerves gave way to something that felt a lot like hope. Or maybe yearning heating toward want. "Well, if a soldier is ragged enough to be inclined toward another soldier rather than a crib or a whore, she usually starts by asking, 'Feel like sharing a saddle?"
"I see." Those mobile lips of Moorland's quirked, even more fascinating than usual.
"That's the polite way of inquiring. She might be blunter. Or if she means to be truly persuasive, she might offer to polish the other soldier's brass and leather. That not only asks the question, but leaves her polishing the other soldier's brass and leather afterward to make good on her offer, which adds extra attractiveness to the question." Finna cocked her head. "Too bad that judges don't wear much in the way of brass and leather."
"No, I'm afraid we run more to silk robes and high hats. And overly ornate, high-falutin' capitol etiquette."
"Those formalities sounded pretty to me, but maybe you should make sure next time that the other woman is clear about what you're doing."
"Are you clear about what I'm doing?"
"Seems as if. I'd be happy to share your saddle."
With a rueful smile, Moorland -- no, Abie -- shook her head. "And so I fail again. It's amazing the Crown lets me write Accounts of Decisions. Not that I don't want to share your saddle, and polish your brass and leather, too, but there's something else I want more. It's too eccentric to be discussed, rather than merely lived out, in high life, so I'm not even sure of my own terminology, let alone yours."
Briefly, Abie's brows knit and then her smile blossomed into an amused grin. "Let's try resorting to our common touchstone. Pardners. I want us to be pardners like the charmingly odd pair of ancient prospectors who find and raise the kidnapped-then-abandoned infant heroine of high blood. Except with more polishing involved."
Finna cleared her throat. "You've noticed I'm a common bailiff." Her words hadn't been a question, but Abie made that "yes, get on with it" gesture with her forefinger anyhow. "And you're a Moorland, with all the heaps of family, in-laws, money, and politics that brings."
For maybe the first time ever, it was easy to see Duke Mother Abie Moorland in Abie Moorland, the Judge of Assize. "I somehow managed to settle my affections on a virtuous orphan, and that's about all my relatives can expect out of me in the way of political calculations about this particular situation." She snorted. "Would expect out of me. You have noticed which circuit I was assigned, I believe."
"You sure enough are a radical, Your Grace," Finna said, and punctuated the words with her most brilliant smile.
"I suppose I am." Abie stuck out her hand and gravely asked, "Pardners?"
"Well, I guess." Finna spat on her own palm and then grasped Abie's hand and shook. "Pardners."
"That was disgusting and yet somehow weirdly appealing." Without changing her tone a bit, Abie continued, "We're either shifting this food or ourselves right now. Your pick."
"Seems I am hungry after all that time on horseback. I believe I could shift some food into my stomach." Finna dodged a mock grab. "But cold beef's tasty, too, if the beef is good enough."
The beef was good since it was still tasty cold, as they managed to discover by using a rigorous application of the methods of experimental learning for a few hours.
Afterward, Abie sprawled out on the rumpled sheets, neatly licking the last bits of cornmeal pudding off of a silver spoon before she said, "This is the second night in a row when I can't imagine getting much sleep. At least the Gods are merciful in that our first day at a new courthouse is devoted to organization before the session officially opens. If I must make a mistake, I'd rather it involved the paperwork even if it was, say, the summonses to the Tamers."
"I just want to hear you tell Nina Pendle that," Finna told her.
Abie raised her eyebrows as if she was considering ruling contempt of court before she settled for wrestling Finna down and proving, one more time, that she could ride more than a circuit.
Although just riding the usual sort of circuit was already an impressive achievement if any court session could end with what this one would: maybe changing the world some, helping safeguard the border, gifting Finna with a partner, giving her a hand with doing her job of keeping Abie Moorland safe, and guaranteeing that her someday sweater would be a handsome evergreen and not crocheted in bright purple with little white tasseled thingamajigs hanging off it here and there.
Even on circuit, the gods could sure be merciful.