1963 Fallow, Autumn Death week.
Pembroke (nobody used his first name except his family) would have preferred to have attended the Ninth Landstead University. That university had the best military studies program, for its landstead had gone to war most often with the other members of the Alliance of the Dozen Landsteads. Alternatively, he would have liked to have attended the Second Landstead University, in order to get to know better the young men he would undoubtedly be battling in warfare within a few seasons. He would even have considered attending the First Landstead University – that would have been a gift to his liegeman, who had a fascination with the only landstead which permitted the development of higher technology.
Instead, here he was in his own landstead, at the Third Landstead University. An act of service to his liege-master, who needed him there. Or so Rudd claimed.
Pembroke stood at the window of Rudd's room, on the top floor of the first-ranked masters' dormitory. Beyond the dormitory was nothing but lawn, followed by flat farm-fields spreading west in the direction of the faraway Bay. Down on the lawn below, the Dean's wife had spread out a picnic for her younger children. She was busy telling them a familiar fairy tale.
"Once upon a time there lived a young master who had two liegemen," she said, taking firm hold of her youngest son's skirt, so that he would not crawl away in the direction of the nearby picket game. "One of these liegemen was good and faithful, always eager to fulfill his oath to serve his liege-master. But the other liegeman was evil and rebellious, always eager to find a way to betray his oath to serve his liege-master. Now, it happened one day that the young master sighted the young sister of the High Master. And he fell in love. . . ."
Pembroke looked down at the postcard in his hands. It was from the First Landstead, as he could have guessed at once from the holographic image. On the other side of the postcard was a message from his liegeman: "My research goes well here, sir. If I may be of further service, please let me know." Nothing more. Nothing about him missing Pembroke. Nothing about him wishing Pembroke was there.
"For goodness' sake, Pembroke, stop mooning over your liegeman's postcard," said Rudd. "Come help me hang these pictures."
There was a passion in his voice that would brook no denial. Pembroke slipped the postcard into the inner pocket of his jacket, delaying the moment when he must turn around. There had been a time when he had responded to the fire in Rudd's voice with eagerness and joy. Those were the days when Pembroke had envisioned Rudd using his fire to lead their landstead to glory when he rose to power.
It had taken Pembroke too long – far too long – to realize that Rudd only directed his glorious passion toward trivialities. Food. Games. Paintings of half-naked girls. And, at one time, his favorite liegeman.
As he turned from the window, Pembroke didn't bother to glance at Rudd's bed. The days when Rudd had called upon him to give liegeman's service were long gone. Rudd's bed-passions were spent in a different direction these days. Moving forward, Pembroke held the latest painting so that Rudd could hammer its nail into the wall.
"Blasted servants," said Rudd as he did so. "Never here when you need them."
"Would you like me to do the hammering, sir?" Pembroke asked, trying to muster enthusiasm into his voice.
"No, I need you to hold the picture." Rudd moved back, his eyes checking the position of the picture. "You're all gloomy today. And why the 'sir'? You know you're allowed to call me Rudd in private."
At one time, words like that would have caused a thrill to travel down his spine. "Sorry. I guess I'm distracted by thoughts of the mid-term exams."
Rudd snorted as he turned away. "You should do what I do, and ignore them. I'm first-ranked, and everyone knows that you will be as well, as soon as I officially inherit my title and raise your rank. Nobody cares whether first-ranked masters study their books."
"Why are you here, then?" Nudging the picture slightly – it hung askew – he asked the question, knowing the answer.
Rudd shrugged, tossing the hammer onto his desk. It landed with a thud on his unopened governance textbook. "An easy enough way to pass the days till they give me my title. If I stayed in the capital, Fletcher would be dragging me into his business all the time."
Rudd's tone was sour. The two cousins had undergone a disastrous break in relations during their final days as schoolfellows at Narrows School, when Rudd had proclaimed to him that girls were far better bedmates than boys were. Fletcher, who had absolutely no interest in marrying, had taken offense at this insult concerning his taste in bedmates. Since then, the cousins had barely spoken, despite their nominal ties. To the amazement of everyone who had attended Narrows School at that time, Fletcher had turned out to be a reasonably competent regent for the late High Master's heir. Unfortunately, Fletcher's regency would end when Rudd turned twenty-one.
Rudd was saying, "One of these days, I must beget me an heir. Fletcher won't do as High Master, if I should die."
"Only one of these days?"
The words were out before he could call them back. Rudd's eyes narrowed as he turned to look at Pembroke. "What do you mean by that remark?"
Thank goodness he presently served as Rudd's secretary; he could offer a handy excuse for what he had said. "You're corresponding with Master Trundle's daughter. I thought you two had an understanding."
"Oh, her." Rudd dismissed the idea with a wave of the hand. "She's not high-ranked enough."
She was first-ranked. And that, Pembroke reflected, was as good as a confession concerning what Rudd intended to do.
But not quite as good as a confession. Pembroke looked out the window at the Dean's wife, who was continuing her tale of forbidden love. "And so the evil liegeman betrayed his liege-master, and the young master was discovered with his arms around the High Master's sister. Then the High Master, enraged, ordered that the young master be thrown into prison. . . ."
"This is boring," Rudd said, about nothing in particular. It was what he said at least once every day. "What shall we do?"
If they had still been at Narrows School, Pembroke would have known what he meant and would be eagerly pulling back the bedsheet. Instead, he said, "It's a pleasant day outside. We could go downtown."
Rudd snorted. "As if there's anything downtown to look at."
A difficult charge to counter; the town of Hurley had few charms, being made up mainly of the railroad, a canning manufactory, an ice company, and a sawmill. None of this would interest Rudd. In contrast, Pembroke was deeply interested in these signs that businesses in the interior of the landstead were still unaffected by the battles on the Bay between the watermen of the Third Landstead and the Second Landstead. If Pembroke had his way, that would remain the case.
He tried again. "There are girls."
"Just servant girls," Rudd countered, but Pembroke could see that his suggestion had hooked the fish. He glanced out the window again. The Dean's children were now rapt, listening to the end of the fairy tale.
"And so the young master married his beloved and became High Master. And the evil liegeman, who had faithlessly betrayed his oath to his liege-master, was banished forever from the landstead, while the good liegeman, who had remained loyal to his oath, was granted a high title. . . ."
How long ago had it been since his mother had recited that tale to him, and he had dreamed of one day being that loyal liegeman? How long now had he tried to stay faithful to that dream?
Rudd was moving toward the door. Pembroke glanced hurriedly round the room, saw nothing incriminating there, and hurried after his liege-master.