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In the Line of Duty

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Rathe walked in the door of the restaurant heavy-shouldered and worn, beaten down. Eslingen had had a bad day himself, an argument with some spice-buyers in Customs Point who had felt themselves cheated, and it had come to blows, though no real injuries. It meant Eslingen had ordered a small glass of spirits to lift his mood before Rathe came, but Rathe clearly needed it more. He pushed it across the table as Rathe sat.

Rathe took a heavy swallow, and as he set the glass back on the table, he said, "Does it get easier? Watching your friends and colleagues die."

Eslingen wanted the drink himself, now, too. It would be new, then, perhaps even today – points weren't often killed; it was considered too dangerous, as known culprits were likely to be made examples of, and no pointswoman would take fees on the guilty party's behalf. And it hadn't been in the broadsheets that morning.

"You learn to not be shocked," Eslingen said, slowly, "but you still miss them."

"Sofia's tits," Rathe swore, closer to a prayer despite the words, and finished the glass.

"Who was it?"

Rathe shook his head. "Nobody you'd know. Gaëlle Cazenave, at Manufactory Point. She was an apprentice at Hopes when I was a runner, and then was moved to Manufactory when she made full pointswoman." He swallowed, ran a hand over his face, and then said, "Knifed, while collecting drunks last night so they could sleep it off in the cells."

"They have the killer in custody?"

"There were three witnesses, and he was too drunk to leave the scene – no question of the point, and he'll hang for it," Rathe said, "but. Still."

A waste, Eslingen knew he wanted to say. One thing to march onto a field of battle, another to go like that, but he was glad that Rathe hadn't finished the sentence. They'd certainly been wary enough dealing with Mirremay's people, and Eslingen still saw enough violence in his job, to know that Astreiant wasn't all safe. Usually it ended before a death, though. Death was bad for business, mostly. Better to cause injury and have it stand as a threat against future misbehavior.

"You knew her, then, if she was at Hopes."

"Yeah." Rathe scratched at his head for a moment, then sat back as the waiter appeared with the bottle of wine Eslingen had requested when he arrived. It was a dry white from northwestern Chenedolle – to the west even of the Ile'nord – a grape that Rathe had ordered the last time they'd been here. Eslingen had been assured it would go with the restaurant's ordinary that night: late-summer squash, eggplants, tomatoes and noodles, with pieces of fresh cheese, herbs sprinkled on top.

Rathe picked at the food a little when it arrived, dragging slices of squash through the sauce one by one, and then set his fork down and said, "I'm sorry. We weren't close, but I knew her. She laughed often, and paid the runners more than she should have, and she was always willing to do favors for other stations. A good pointswoman."

"There's someone to miss her, then."

"She has two children – daughters, young ones. Under apprentice-age."

"Is there a sister to take them?"

Rathe shook his head. "No leman or husband, just Cazenave's mother. There's a little money, for helping maintain the families of points killed in the line of duty. It won't pay apprentice-fees, but it's enough to eat on. A seilling a week, I think, until the children are apprenticed or of age."

"Do the husbands and lemen of pointswomen without children…?" Eslingen couldn't finish it. Couldn't not think of losing Rathe permanently, after being unable to give him up at the end of summer. And to not even have the recognition of the loss in law...

Rathe glanced up at him, mouth twisting as though he knew already what Eslingen was thinking. He probably did, at that. "A lump-sum, equivalent to five years' wages."

That was more than some might get, Eslingen knew. A man's death, if he didn't own property or his own business, might not be offset at all to the woman who supported him, and motherless children might receive nothing at all, depending on the father's profession. The guilds in Astreiant were wealthier than those in most towns, and could probably afford to look after their orphans, though they might begrudge it, and there wouldn't be apprentice-fees.

"That's more than nothing," he said, past a mouthful of squash.

Rathe nodded. "It's better than most guilds get, even if the points aren't an official guild."

Better than most soldiers, Eslingen didn't say. Professional soldiers sometimes had families, but most didn't, especially not the noncommissioned ones. Not enough money in it, nor enough stability, to be attractive prospects for marriage. And they were too long away, and when a woman died on the battlefield the remains of her wages, and little more, were sent to her next-of-kin, if known. Many soldiers, Eslingen himself included, didn't have next of kin that they would acknowledge.

"Not many embroiderers die in the line of duty," Eslingen said instead, and Rathe flashed him a grimace. He had only eaten half his dinner, but Eslingen didn't fault him for it.

"The more they don't," he said, and finished his glass of wine. Eslingen filled it again, and then filled his own.

"I'm sorry I'm not fit company tonight," Rathe said, pushing his plate away. His shoulders settled, curving in, and he rubbed at his face with one hand.

Eslingen pushed up one of his coat-sleeves and heard paper crinkle in his cuffs. Phoebe in the Dolphin, he thought bitterly, Unfairness that can't be fixed, and in conjunction with Tyrseis, a cruel joke, and reached across the table to touch Rathe's wrist, where his fingers curled around the stem of the wineglass. He didn't know Rathe's stars, not properly, but Phoebe was one of the Pillars of Justice, and it seemed to have been truer than anyone would have liked.

"Fit enough, and nothing I'm not used to," he said. Rathe turned his hand, his fingers curling into Eslingen's.

"That's why I came at all tonight," he said.