Cycle forward: 1962 Clover, Autumn Waning week.
"These friendships colour the life of a public school boy in the same way that love colours life for the adult male; and indeed it is love; a particular type of love; an idealistic, un-self-seeking, Platonic love; a love that is based on service and devotion . . ."
—Alec Waugh, speaking in The Early Years of Alec Waugh of his time as a student at Sherborne School, Dorset, in the 1910s.
Master Meredith, whose entitlement to a last name had not yet been determined by the courts, was sitting in a window-seat overlooking the playing fields of Narrows School when the Third House bullies found him.
He had been daydreaming over a copy of The Tale of Celadon and Brun that the chapel master had given him upon the day of his confirmation to journeyman status, two terms earlier. The confirmation-day edition was of the sort thought suitable for the apprentice-aged students who were preparing for their journeymanship, which was to say that the most interesting bits had been omitted. It had not mattered. Meredith's own imagination had been able to supply the missing scenes, even if the details of those scenes were always rather vague in his mind. He had walked in once on Rudd when Pembroke was in service to him; that had resulted in the worst beating Rudd had ever given Meredith, but Meredith had treasured his memory of what he had witnessed, carefully erasing Rudd from the scene and placing himself in Pembroke's role. Sometimes the second party in his daydreams was Pembroke; more often, as the months passed, it was the Head of the Second House. But the latter possibility was even less likely than Meredith being called upon to serve Pembroke, so now he was simply daydreaming about Remigeus/Celadon and Brun, and wondering what Remigeus/Celadon had done that had caused Brun to love and protect him.
From outside came occasional booms and cheers from the playing field; the Seventh House was playing footer with the Twelfth House on this afternoon, desperately trying to improve its standings in the race toward the Spring Term Cup. Autumn still held court now; leaves were drifting down to carpet the lawn near the circular wall that formed the boundary around the circular grounds of the circular school buildings. Further into the New Building, in the direction of the inner circle, came the upraised voices of Fletcher and some other first-ranked students, arguing over whether it was fair play to use a crib. Meredith assumed that Rudd was not present for the discussion, or he would have settled the matter at once. The studies and dormitories of the second- and third-ranked students were quiet; nearly all of those students were in class at this time of day, though Meredith, who held one of the highest academic spots in the Lower Seventh, was excused from taking Service & Protocol class, probably because his House Master assumed that he already knew everything that could be said on that subject.
So he was simply sitting there, daydreaming about Remigeus/Celadon serving Brun, and not even touching himself, when suddenly he found himself surrounded by Fletcher and his gang.
He nearly fell out the window, onto the lawn. By the time he had realized that this was probably the only safe course he could have taken, it was too late. Leering at him, Fletcher snapped, "Stand up, Meredith. Have respect for your betters."
He set down the book and rose slowly to his feet, his heart pounding like waves in a storm. Fletcher's gang was a mixture of all three master-ranks; he could see that Jeffries, who was third-ranked, had skived off from class to hang around with the gang, which meant that Meredith wasn't entirely surrounded by his "betters." But of course they all knew that Fletcher was not referring to Meredith's provisional status as a third-ranked master. Fletcher had ceased even pretending that by Meredith's second term at Narrows School.
Eighteen terms with Fletcher, six sun-circuits, two tri-years. This was Meredith's nineteenth term; he had only two more terms left after this before he and Fletcher would part ways. If Meredith never met that first-ranked master again during every incarnation of his lives to come, he would be supremely happy.
In the meantime, Fletcher was a friend of Rudd's. It wouldn't do to antagonize him.
Fletcher had picked up Meredith's book and was examining its cover. "The Tale of Celadon and Brun. Well, well, dreaming about service, are you? I suppose that you're imagining what it's like to be Brun?"
The gang roared with laughter at this ironic statement. Meredith barely managed to keep himself from sighing. After two tri-years, Fletcher's tactics were becoming tediously familiar – which wasn't to say that they were any less painful.
"Excuse me, sir, but I'm scheduled to meet with House Master Nevins this afternoon," Meredith said in his politest voice. It was a lie, but one that would be hard to check on; the Third House's House Master rarely emerged from his study except during class-time, since he had decided that devoting himself to the appreciation of poetry was far more important than paying attention to the students who were nominally under his supervision.
"'Excuse me, sir, but I'm scheduled to meet with House Master Nevins,'" Fletcher repeated in a high-pitched voice that bore no resemblance to Meredith's baritone. "Isn't that sweet, fellows? He must have the Service & Protocol text memorized. One would almost think that he sleeps with it under his pillow."
The gang snickered. Meredith tried edging himself toward a gap in the crowd, then gasped with pain as Fletcher grabbed him. Fletcher was holding his prefects' cane, which he had battered into a point because he used it for picket practice in the summertime. The point sliced into Meredith's arm.
Fletcher took no notice of this, of course. "You haven't learned your protocol very well, Meredith-with-no-last-name. You should be kneeling down and asking me, 'What service do you require of me, master?'"
"You're not my liege-master, sir," Meredith said through gritted teeth.
This brought howls of laughter. Jeffries crowed, "Do you think Pembroke makes Meredith kneel down to him? Oh, I can't wait to tell Davenham – he'll rag Pembroke for weeks about this!"
"Well, why shouldn't Meredith-with-no-last-name kneel down to him?" Fletcher asked with a grin. "I'll bet he wants to. I'll bet he enjoys kneeling down to Rudd. In fact, I'll bet he wants to kneel down to all of us, don't you, bastard-of-a-slave?"
Meredith refrained from pointing out he wasn't a bastard and that slavery had been abolished tri-centuries before; that would only lead the discussion in the direction he was desperately trying to avoid. Instead, feeling one of his rare moments of courage, he said, "Sir, you're violating the Abuse of Power Act."
There was a sudden silence. Narrows School's Head Master, pleasant in most matters, had taken to tacking articles onto the notice-boards about the latest masters who had been sent to Prison City for abusing their power. The Head Master had made it quite clear that he would not stand for such misdeeds in his school, and that any student found abusing his power would be sent down summarily.
Too late, Meredith realized that the silence was merely a presage to an explosion of laughter. "What a chump!" cried Jeffries joyfully. "He walked right into his own trap!"
"The Abuse of Power Act punishes masters who abuse their power over servants." Fletcher always felt compelled to point out the obvious. "Are you admitting it, then? That you're a servant?"
He struggled to regain control of the situation. "There's a provision in the third section of the act . . . It's against masters who treat other masters as though they were servants . . ."
It was too late; nobody was listening to him now. Fletcher threw him against the wall; Jeffries, who was the closest, took the opportunity to punch Meredith in the ribs, and then Fletcher had Meredith down on his knees as he shouted, "Admit it! Admit that you want to serve us!"
Meredith was struggling to rise. It had never happened yet, but he always feared what would happen if the bullies began to think about creative ways in which he could serve them while on his knees. Certainly Rudd's mind moved that way, and if Rudd had shared tales of his fun . . .
Somebody slapped Meredith's head; his House cap, which he had won after twelve terms on the Third House's footer team, fell off and was trampled by a boot. Somebody else tugged at his uniform, announcing that he should be dressed in a servants' uniform, not a students'. He heard cloth rip and had a moment to wonder where, out of his small allowance, he would be able to find the money for a new uniform.
Then someone said, "Watch out! It's the Head!" and everyone fell silent.
Fletcher turned, looking annoyed rather than concerned. While Rudd hated being disturbed, he was unlikely to cane a fellow prefect within the Third House for ragging Meredith. If a prefect from another House had been ragging Meredith, that would have been an entirely different matter, of course; the Third House protected its own against outsiders.
It even protected a student whose status as a master had not yet been determined by the courts.
So Fletcher looked merely annoyed; then his annoyance deepened as he saw which lad the other students had parted to make way for. "Get the bloody blades out of here, Carruthers," he said. "You're in Third House territory. We don't welcome dredgers here."
The Head of the Second House didn't reply immediately. Master M Carruthers (nobody had been able to figure out why he only had an initial for his first name) was generally acknowledged to be the most popular youth in the Upper Seventh. At the beginning of term, there had been competition amongst the younger second-rankers of his House over who should fag for him, even though it was Carruthers's choice to make, not theirs. Meredith could not remember who had won the competition in the end; the decision had been made around the same time that Pembroke decided to have Meredith fag for Rudd. Meredith had been too aghast at the idea of fagging during his Seventh Form – fagging for Rudd, of all people – to pay attention to Second House gossip . . . though in moments of honesty, he had been forced to admit to himself that the competition to serve Master Carruthers had been of some interest to him.
Now Carruthers took a moment to look over the gang. Unlike Pembroke, who would have dealt with such a matter by giving everyone an icy look, there was no expression on the face of the Head of the Second House. Carruthers had always been a difficult young man to read. His voice was also quite bland as he said, "You're disturbing my House with your noise. I have first-rankers studying for their university exams. Indeed," he added in that same bland voice, "I was under the impression that this was also the study period for the Third House's first-rankers. And class time for nearly everyone else." His gaze lingered for a moment on Jeffries, who was beginning to look nervous.
"It's none of your bloody business," Fletcher replied. "This is the Third House; get out of our waters."
"Or we'll fetch the Oyster Navy," giggled someone else, and several more of the students laughed.
Carruthers ignored them. "It's my business if you're disturbing the study time in my House. Fletcher, you're a prefect. If you're not willing to keep order here, I'll have to go to Rudd. He's with Pembroke right now, isn't he?"
Fletcher's face went suddenly blank. Several of the first-rankers shuffled in place, exchanging glances. If there was anything one learned in the Third House, it was that Rudd disliked being disturbed when he was alone with Pembroke. He was inclined to cane any student who knocked on his door during such times. And since Carruthers was the Head of another House and therefore could not be caned by Rudd . . .
"Oh, dwell forever in afterdeath," snarled Fletcher, stepping away. "Come on, fellows. The Head Prefect of the Second House is too dainty to be able to stand a little noise. I guess we'll have to protect his gentle ears."
Carruthers gave the faintest of smiles, saying nothing. Several of the students glanced at each other, and then all of them were laughing, not at Carruthers, but at Fletcher. Everyone there had seen Carruthers on the playing field.
Fletcher looked as though he would explode like a footer ball, but one of the other first-rankers, still laughing, pulled him away. The rest of the crowd dispersed, leaving Meredith kneeling dishevelled on the floor.
He stared up at Master Carruthers. The Head was dressed in his flannels, having evidently been in the process of changing from footer, for his calf-length boots and bare knees were spattered with mud. The mud clung to the fine hairs on his thighs. His jersey was opened two buttons at the top, showing a sheen of sweat in the hollow of his neck.
Hastily, Meredith lowered his eyes, then remembered, too late, that this was as foolish an act as staring. Now warm with confusion, he raised his eyes till he could see Carruthers's face.
Carruthers had an unremarkable face. That was what everyone said. Unlike his father, he was neither handsome nor striking; the first time you passed him on the street, your gaze would glide right over him. His appearance was in no way special—
"You may stand up, if you like."
Meredith found himself on his feet before he knew he had moved. Carruthers's voice always did that to him, on the rare occasions that the Head took passing notice of him. Meredith would have been ashamed of his reaction, except that half the other lads in school had similar tales. Nobody had been able to figure out what magic lay in Carruthers's voice. It wasn't in the wording, for if any other master had spoken his words, those words would have sounded merely polite, almost deferential. Nor did Carruthers speak with a tone of aggression, like Rudd. His voice was . . . it was . . .
"Is that your cap?"
Masterful. That was the word for it. Meredith hastily grabbed his cap from the floor and then, since the cap seemed only a bit dusty, placed it on his head.
"Master . . ." Carruthers made the word into a query.
He swallowed and forced himself not to lower his eyes. "I'm Meredith, sir."
"Master Meredith – yes, of course." And oh, how glorious a happening – there was no mockery in Carruthers's voice as he spoke Meredith's provisional title. "Where is your liege-master? Is he in class?"
"No, sir. My liege-master is Master Pembroke."
There was something in Carruthers's voice that made Meredith dip his eyes again. He felt a flush of shame spread across his face at his action. He wasn't sure where to look. Not down – he knew that much, had known that much since the first week of first form. But staring straight into the eyes of the heir to the Second Landstead would be far too bold. He tried looking halfway up, but that simply left him with a view of the jersey clinging to Carruthers's torso.
"Your arm is scratched. Do you have anyone besides your liege-master who will take care of that for you?"
He could not have said why, at that moment, tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He shook his head, hoping that Carruthers would not notice this sign of weakness.
"You'd best come with me, then." Carruthers turned and, without another word, made his way to the door leading out of the Third House.
Meredith actually hesitated a moment, an act that would have earned him amazed stares from any other lad who had received an order from Carruthers. Nobody was in sight to witness his hesitation, though. Feeling like a hooked fish, he hurried after Carruthers.
An outdoors, covered passage served as the borderline between the Third House and the Second House, but Carruthers did not linger there; he pulled open the door to his own House, then waited for Meredith to enter first, as though the Head Prefect of the Second House had transformed himself into a servant. Meredith stepped over the threshold and found himself in the midst of a group of footer players who were emerging from the Second House's changing room, all neatly dressed now in their school uniforms. They had been laughing at some joke, but the laughter died as they caught sight of Meredith, wearing his House cap with the Third House's seal clearly woven below the school seal.
"Good practice," said Carruthers, coming in behind Meredith. His words of praise to the players held a faintly dismissive tone to them. The lads hastily retreated, but only as far as the end of the corridor. They stood there in a cluster, muttering as they shot looks at Meredith and their Head.
Carruthers had beckoned over one of the older lads. Meredith recognized him from the playing field as Arthurs, a first-ranked fifth-former who was Carruthers's closest friend. The two young men exchanged murmured words for a moment before Arthurs passed something into Carruthers's hand. Meredith caught a flashing glimpse of the object: a key.
Carruthers gestured, and Meredith quickly followed him to the door from which the footer players had emerged. Meredith walked in behind Carruthers; as he did so, Arthurs swung into place next to the door, as obvious a guard against intrusion as any lad could be. He did not look at Meredith.
Meredith paused just inside the doorway, uncertain. The voices of the Second House's footer players were louder now, though he still could not distinguish their words.
"We'd best shut out that noise, I think." Carruthers glanced up from the other side of the room, where he was pulling off his jersey.
"I'll do it, sir," Meredith replied quickly and turned to close the door. He suspected that half his motive for helping was to rid himself of the sight of the Head, who was now stripped to the waist. Meredith stared at the door, wondering what excuse he could use to keep his eyes turned away from the spectacle behind him.
Then he heard the creak of a bench-board near him, and he caught the whiff of mud mixed with tangy sweat. His mind – always the most visual of creatures – envisioned what was taking place behind him. And all his instincts, which he had tried so hard to tame, flew loose. Before he knew it, he was on his knees in front of Carruthers, saying, "Shall I take care of this for you, sir?"
Carruthers stared down at him, his eyebrows raised slightly. His father was said to confine his work to the office, but Carruthers had hard muscles, like that of a waterman who pulls up a heavy dredge-net daily. No doubt those muscles came from his time on his House teams. The smell of his body was stronger here: it was the smell of a master who has been laboring hard alongside his men to achieve his goals. Meredith's hands hovered in the air, inches from Carruthers's mud-spattered bootlaces.
And Meredith was – oh, the horror of it! – kneeling on both his knees, like a servant. He tried shifting his body so that he knelt on one knee, but that was no better; that was the position of a liegeman. A liegeman kneeling in front of a man who was not his liege-master.
Finally Carruthers spoke. His voice was matter-of-fact but deliberate. "If you have the inclination to do so, that is kind of you."
Meredith felt his face burn, even as his fingers, heedless of any warning he might send them, set to work. He well knew why Carruthers had been phrasing his orders so carefully since the conversation began – phrasing them so that they were not orders. No higher-ranked master was normally permitted to give orders to a liegeman outside his own House – or, in the case of a High Master and his heir, to anyone outside his own landstead. Without explicit permission from that liegeman's liege-master to give such orders, the high-ranked master would face the penalties prescribed by the High Masters' high law: fines, or, in the most scandalous cases, a sending down in rank. Meredith wondered whether Carruthers thought that the Third House lad kneeling in front of him was seeking to trap him into forbidden activity.
If so, Carruthers was evading the trap in an admirable manner. It was forbidden for Carruthers to give orders to a liegeman outside his own landstead, "but a liegeman may freely offer his service to any higher-ranked master, provided that it does not conflict with his duties to his own liege-master." That was what the Abuse of Power Act said, in the section on the abuse of liegemen. And so Carruthers was treading narrowly within the path permitted to him, and Meredith . . . Well, Pembroke had not actually forbidden his liegeman from serving other masters, had he? It was not as though Pembroke needed Meredith's service right now.
Or at any time.
So Meredith justified the matter in his mind, while guilt and uncertainty churned inside him. Nothing of this could have been guessed from his fingers, which nimbly undid the bootlaces, then carefully pulled off Carruthers's boots and socks. Meredith's hands were now filthy with mud.
"There's a sink over there." Carruthers pointed.
Gratefully, Meredith rose and made his way over to the basin, while behind him, a rustle of cloth told him that Carruthers was stripping himself of the last of his clothes. Resolutely setting himself against his instincts, which were telling him to go back and help with this part of the operation, he pumped cold water over his hands, watching the mud swirl around the bottom of the basin before disappearing into the drain.
There must be more than one pump in the changing room, for Meredith could hear the slide of metal against metal as Carruthers pumped water, probably in anticipation of a sponge bath. Meredith firmly shut this image out of his mind, concentrating his attention on using a washcloth to rub away the mud under his fingernails. Fastidious students found the school's plumbing to be something of a challenge; most students, such as Rudd, found the plumbing to be a downright insult. The water came directly from the school's wells, so there was no hot water except once a week, when the servants would prepare hip baths for everyone by boiling great vats of water. There were no flushing toilets either; the students made do with chamber-pots, emptied by those same servants. Even by the primitive standards of the Dozen Landsteads, Narrows School had a reputation for austere living.
Meredith had grown up with plumbing even more primitive: he was used to drawing up water from a well by way of a bucket, or to turning the spigot of a rain-water tank. He had never immersed himself in a bath before he came to Narrows School; all his bathing was done outside, in the rain. Moreover, the family outhouse he had cleaned regularly as a young boy was far more onerous a duty than his present duty of emptying Rudd's chamber-pot daily. Meredith was one of the few students who had never commented negatively on the school plumbing, which sometimes merited him odd looks from the other students.
"Waterman," Fletcher had once whispered to Meredith as they were leaving chapel, while all of the other students were rolling their eyes at the chapel master's feeble attempt that morning to argue that cold-water sponge baths would bring the young masters further toward transformation and rebirth. "I'll bet you're used to icy water in wintertime."
"So is your sister," Meredith had whispered back. In a scandal that had provided much ammunition for the gleeful students of the Second House, Fletcher's sister had eloped the previous year with a third-ranked captain from the Fifth Landstead. She was now living in a village on Smith Island, far from the comfortable life she had led as sister to the fourth highest-ranked master in the Third Landstead.
Fletcher had punched Meredith's arm, which had earned him a caning from the Head Master, who had overheard the conversation and therefore knew that Fletcher had started the dispute. That had been one of the few times Meredith had scored a hit against one of his bullies. It had taken him a month to rid himself of the subsequent feelings of guilt over having caused harm to a master.
Now Meredith stood by the basin, resolutely refusing to look behind him as Carruthers cleaned his naked body. The changing room, set against the outer wall of the students' building, was a pleasantly designed room. It curved the full length of the Second House's portion of the building, with light struggling its way through the lace-fringed shades that were currently drawn in order to provide privacy to the players as they changed into their uniforms. The autumn term was still young, so the room was warm. Someone must have opened a window behind the shades, because Meredith could smell new-cut lawn, as well as the pungent smell of the marshland surrounding the school.
"Let's look at your arm now."
Meredith cautiously turned round. Carruthers stood fully dressed in his school uniform: shoes, trousers, shirt, vest, and a dark blue blazer – blue to represent transformation. No doubt he was entitled to a House cap as well, but he was as bareheaded as always. His hair was the color of yellow cordgrass when sun shone upon it. His eyes shimmered grey like pebbles in a pond. His skin was darker than the usual milky-white shade that distinguished masters from servants; one of the more vicious rumors circulating in the Third House was that Carruthers's parents, who were notorious Egalitarians, forced Carruthers to do servant-work during holidays. Meredith refused to believe the rumor, if only because he could not imagine any servant standing by and allowing Carruthers to do work on his behalf.
Carruthers had turned toward a table beside the students' lockers and was pulling open a first aid kit marked with the symbol of the Red Circle, for Narrows School was one of the few Dozen Landstead institutions that was charitable enough to raise funds for that international, humanitarian organization. "Giving money to the Yclau!" Rudd had once said in anger. One of Rudd's ancestors had drafted the Embargo Act of 1912.
Carruthers – like his father – clearly had no qualms about using foreign technology, for he was pulling out the kit's contents, carefully selected by the school, so as not to contravene the Embargo Act: bichloride of mercury tablets, tincture of iodine, aromatic spirits of ammonia, carbolized petroleum jelly, rubber tubes for tourniquets, adhesive plaster, picric acid gauze, cascara tablets, crystals of hydrated magnesium sulfate, and crystals of potassium permanganate. The last item – used to treat poisonous snake bites – was next to useless for a kit used on a Bay-island school, but some of the school's students who came from the mainland were convinced that every harmless water snake they saw was a venomous water moccasin.
In a prosaic manner, Carruthers focussed his attention on the kit's scissors and roll of bandages. As he cut a small square of bandage off the roll, he said, "Two pieces will do for now, I think, until we've cleaned your arm."
He was holding the scissors awkwardly, and Meredith remembered suddenly that Carruthers had sprained his right wrist at the last footer match. Meredith cried: "Oh, please, sir, let me do that for you!"
A moment later, he would gladly have borrowed Carruthers's heirship dagger and plunged it into himself. Carruthers glanced over at him, but this time he made no comment upon Meredith's eccentric eagerness. He simply handed Meredith the scissors and stepped aside. Meredith cut the final piece, sweat slickening his palms. He could feel Carruthers's gaze upon him.
"There's a bench over there that you might feel comfortable sitting on." Once again, Carruthers was being exceedingly careful in his wording. Meredith went over to the bench; then, at Carruthers's suggestion, he dragged it over to the table where the kit lay.
He felt light-headed as he sat down. The bench – which had been carved with the names of generations of Second House lads – was irregular under his bare thighs. The day had grown warm enough that Meredith had changed, that afternoon, back into his apprentice-aged clothing: short trousers and no blazer, only a vest, with his sleeves rolled up. Now Carruthers had Meredith pull up his right sleeve further so that the cloth would be well away from the cut.
"Fletcher's work, I take it." Carruthers placed his hands around Meredith's forearm and gently pressed the skin next to the cut with his fingers.
"Yes, sir. His cane." Meredith was all too aware now of the firmness of Carruthers's grip, and the tenderness of his probing.
"We'll have to hope, then, that he hasn't been sticking his cane into the ground for picket practice recently." He let go of Meredith. "The cut doesn't look deep, but tomorrow morning, when the school physician arrives, you should go straight to the sanatorium and have him check on you. If you wish, that is," Carruthers carefully amended his command.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"He may want to treat you with tetanus antitoxin. In the meantime" – Carruthers's fingers were suddenly on Meredith's forearm again, squeezing hard – "I'll do what I can."
Meredith held his breath as Carruthers squeezed blood out of the cut, then carefully wiped off the blood with one of the pieces of sterile bandaging that Meredith had cut. "This needs a bit of antiseptic," said Carruthers, straightening up. He leaned over Meredith, reaching for a bottle labelled "Peroxide of Hydrogen."
Meredith forgot to let out his breath. Sitting as he was, his face was only inches now from Carruthers's chest. The strong smell of sweat on Carruthers's body had been replaced, after the sponge bath, with a sweet, salty scent that reminded Meredith of Bay water.
"Hold still," said Carruthers as he pulled back, adding, "if you don't mind." He poured a few drops of the antiseptic onto the wound. It fizzed, biting into the fresh wound. Meredith remained still and silent, as he had done when Carruthers had probed his cut and forced out blood.
He looked up from Carruthers's hands to see that the Head was watching him. "You're a player on the Third House footer team, as I recall?" Carruthers said.
"Ah. That explains it." Carruthers turned his attention back to the cut.
Meredith felt a warm glow cover him then. No further words were needed from Carruthers; the Head did not need to say, "You bear pain well." His sentiments were contained in the simple words, "You're a player."
"Now" – Carruthers turned his attention to the bandage roll – "all that we need do is cover this, and you should be fine till the morning. Hold this, please. . . . I mean, if you would like."
As he took the roll in his hand, Meredith could not help but notice that Carruthers was beginning to find it more difficult to phrase his commands as suggestions. No doubt that was due to Meredith's own idiocy at flinging himself into any task that Carruthers needed done. Biting his lip, Meredith watched as Carruthers carefully inspected the cut to be sure that it was now dry, then took the roll from Meredith's hand. The Head began to roll the bandage round and round Meredith's wrist, anchoring the bandage on the easiest part of his arm to cover.
As he did so, Meredith felt his vision shift, as though he had become dizzy.
This shifting of vision had happened to him several times in his life.
Concerned that he might be afflicted with an ailment, he had once consulted his father. After questioning him carefully, his father had said, "Ah, that's nothing. I've had that too. It's cycle back or cycle forward."
"You mean I'm remembering a previous life or one of my future lives?" Meredith had asked, intrigued.
"Or something that has happened to you in the past of this life or will happen to you before you die. It's nothing to worry yourself 'bout. It's just one cycle of time touching another, as time spirals upward. Everyone has that happen to them, sometime or another."
Now, watching Carruthers bandage his wrist, Meredith let his thoughts drift away from wondering what incident in the past or future had triggered cycle back or cycle forward. The incident need not have anything at all to do with Carruthers, he knew; it might be that someone had bandaged him in a past life or would do so again. There was likely no way he would ever know.
What interested him more was Carruthers's sure touch as he rolled the bandage round Meredith's wrist. Meredith was aware, of course, that Carruthers occasionally bandaged his own players when his House's medics were otherwise occupied. The fact that Carruthers had done service work for his lesser-ranked masters had been commented on throughout the school, particularly in the Third House, which always sought signs of weakness in its rivals. The Second House students – staunchly loyal to their Head Prefect – had maintained that Carruthers was doing, not medics' work, but physicians' work. The distinction was an important one, for medics were servants, while physicians were masters. But Carruthers himself had denied this distinction, stating that he was not about to let one of his players suffer needlessly, simply in order to prove to the school that he was sufficiently masterful.
Now, watching as Carruthers began to fold the bandage backwards in a spiral-reverse pattern, Meredith wondered whether the rumors about Carruthers doing service work during his holidays were actually true. Could it be that Carruthers had taught himself certain service tasks, not because he was forced to by his parents, but because he wanted to be able to care appropriately for anyone under his protection if no servant was available to carry out his commands?
"Why didn't your liege-master come to your aid?"
Startled, Meredith jumped in place. "Sir?"
"I'd gone to my rooms to have my servant wash me when I heard Fletcher. If I could hear his voice all the way up in the first-rankers' section of the Second House, your liege-master certainly must have heard him, even if he was with Rudd. Why didn't he come to your aid, when he heard Fletcher bullying you?"
"He—" Meredith's throat closed, and he had to try again. "Master Rudd doesn't like him to interrupt his liege-service, sir. And Master Pembroke is very faithful to his liege-master."
"I see." Carruthers's voice was as flat as it had been when he had spoken those same words some time before. "Then this isn't the first time this has happened?"
Meredith bit his lip, not knowing how to answer without disloyalty to Pembroke.
"I see." Carruthers's voice was very soft this time, so much so that Meredith glanced up at him to see what his expression held. He could not read what lay in the Head's face. As Meredith watched, Carruthers knelt down beside the bench in order to be closer to the forearm he was bandaging.
Meredith wondered how it was that Carruthers could make the act of kneeling look so masterful. Perhaps it had something to do with the care he was taking in bandaging Meredith's arm. Each time he reversed the direction of the spiral, in order to keep the bandage evenly placed along the curve of Meredith's arm, he put as much care into his work as though he were a captain mending his own beloved boat.
"Is it true about Rudd?"
"Sir?" Meredith dragged his attention back from Carruthers's hands, firm upon Meredith's flesh.
"Is it true, what Fletcher said – that you enjoy serving Rudd?"
"No!" The word was out, far too loud, before Meredith could recall it. As Carruthers glanced up at him, Meredith added hastily, "He's not my liege-master, sir."
Carruthers looked down at the bandage again. He had reached the cut and was being quite careful in placing the bandage over it. "So you must enjoy serving your liege-master."
How could he say that he had never had the opportunity to serve Pembroke, except on the playing field, where any lad might serve him? "I . . . I'm sure I would, sir."
Carruthers said nothing. Meredith, hearing his own words – hearing the confession in them – felt his skin turn hot. It was one of the few shames of his life that he had succeeded in hiding from the rest of the school: that he was of so little worth that even his liege-master did not call for his services. He had hoped beyond hope that he would be able to change that, before anyone guessed the truth.
Without looking up, Carruthers said, "I enjoy it too."
"Sir?" He sounded even more inane than usual, repeating the same word over and over.
"Not serving. Being served." Carruthers's voice was very soft as he trailed his fingers over Meredith's arm, apparently checking that the bandage was set in place properly.
Meredith did not know what to reply. Finally he said, "You must have lots of people who serve you."
"No. Not the sort I'm seeking." Carruthers raised his gaze then, and looked straight into Meredith's eyes.
Meredith struggled to look away. He failed. Carruthers's eyes – his ordinary eyes, neither handsome nor striking – held Meredith in place, as though Carruthers had set both his hands upon Meredith's cheeks.
The Head said softly, "If you should ever want to come to my rooms on some evening, when your other duties are done for the day, I could arrange for our enjoyment to be mutual."
He struggled to speak, struggled to breathe. Finally he managed to squeak out a single word: "Sir?"
"On the other hand," said Carruthers, as though he had not spoken, "if you would prefer not to, that's fine too. I'll still do whatever I can to protect you."
Carruthers looked down at Meredith's arm, and with a deft flick of his hands he tied the final knot in the bandage. Then he reached over for the scissors and cut the loose end of the bandage. When he spoke again, it was in an ordinary tone. "That's done. I have to go now; I'm due for a meeting of my House's prefects' council. When you're ready to return to your House, Arthurs will escort you." His eyes rose to meet Meredith's once more. On his lips was the faintest of smiles.
Meredith said then the only words he could think to say, though they seemed manifestly inadequate for the occasion: "Yes, sir."