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Before (The Awakening #3)

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The year 364, the seventh month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

The townhouse was modest and old. It stood on University Row, not far from the chapel of the Queen's University. The only sign that this townhouse was different from the other mid-class houses on the street was a ring of rebirth, lightly carved above the door lintel.

Standing with Clifford in front of the door, Barrett looked at the lintel, the knocker, the wall-bricks, seeking some sign – any sign – that this was the right place. Nothing spoke to him except the ring of rebirth.

But this must be the right place. The townhouse stood near the chapel, and besides, Barrett had been here once before, four years ago.

More than once before, he reminded himself. His throat felt suddenly dry.

Clifford was standing beside him, waiting. They were both dressed in civilian clothes on this first occasion of Barrett's departure from the Eternal Dungeon since he had fled the dungeon four years ago, seeking he knew not what. He had been driven back to the dungeon, not by memories, but by a growing awareness that the prisoners of the Eternal Dungeon needed him.

Officially, the dungeon was now closed. The prisoners had been sent away, and only a skeleton crew of guards and laborers stayed to protect the Seekers, who by law could never leave the dungeon. Following the recent attack on the dungeon by revolutionist commoners, the royal prison was being rebuilt to provide for greater security.

Barrett and Clifford, neither of them currently assigned to guard a Seeker, had been politely asked to vacate the dungeon. Clifford's family lived in the countryside near the capital; he had a home to return to. He had invited Barrett to stay with him, if Barrett wished.

Barrett did not know whether he had a home.

Clifford was looking apprehensively at him. Barrett knew why. He could feel the cold anger on his face. The anger was against himself, but Clifford could not know that. It had been Clifford's idea to come here today – a long-delayed trip that Barrett had promised him four years ago.

At least, that was what Clifford said. Barrett still had few memories that far back.

Evidently deciding that he must be the one to initiate this ordeal, Clifford reached over and grasped the knocker. The knocker boomed heavily, like a chapel bell. There was a pause. Barrett was aware of children playing in the front garden of this house: three boys and four girls. None of the children were paying attention to him; they were engaged in a game of croquet.

The door opened, and Barrett's throat tightened.

Before him stood a woman nearing old age, perhaps in her sixtieth year. Although it was clear from her dress that she was mid-class, she wore an apron over her skirt, while her hair was hidden under a day cap, with only a few grey strands peeking out. She looked blankly at Clifford as she said, "Yes?"

Then she caught sight of Barrett. Her jaw slackened.

Barrett had to stop himself from taking a step back. His entire body was thrumming with heartbeat now. "Ned!" she cried. Before Barrett had time to wonder whether this was his own name, she cried further, "Ned, he's here! He's here!"

Clifford's hand slipped into Barrett's, a warm reminder of his presence and protection. Barrett's own hand was rigid like a rock.

Mercifully, "Ned" took little time to arrive. He was a cleric, his white suit spotless in the morning light. Embroidered on his jacket was the university seal.

He took in the situation at once. "Barbara," he said gently but firmly, turning the woman around with his hands, "we'll need some tea and pastries, please." He waited until the woman had retreated in a fluster; then he opened the door wide. "Please come in . . ." He hesitated, his gaze falling to Barrett's hand, joined with Clifford's.

"Thank you, sir," replied Clifford, freeing his hand from Barrett's. "I'm very pleased to meet you. I am Clifford Crofford."

The cleric blinked rapidly, evidently startled by this forward introduction. Then he seemed to take in what had been said. "Oh . . yes, yes. I recall your name. My son wrote—" He stopped abruptly, his gaze returning to Barrett.

Barrett felt as though his entire body were carved out of rock. He simply couldn't move. Nor could he change the expression on his face, which he knew was still of cold anger. Clifford tucked his hand under Barrett's arm, gently urging Barrett forward. Barrett took the difficult step over the threshold.

The cleric had managed to tear his gaze away from Barrett. "Please come this way," he said, turning to usher them forward. "I've just finished conducting the morning service, so we have several hours to spare before I must meet with the university president. —Do you smoke or drink?" he asked Clifford in a voice which clearly indicated that he did not, but that he was willing to indulge the petty vices of his visitors with gifts of smokes or alcohol.

As Clifford shook his head, Barrett looked at the paintings on the walls of the hallway they were travelling down. Scenes of martyrdom, of a slave kneeling to his master, of the slave dying for his master . . . This was clearly a Traditionalist household, untouched by the Reformed denomination that was more commonly followed in the Eternal Dungeon. Barrett, who possessed no memory of attending services, had only a vague notion of the tenets of his queendom's faith. He had gathered, though, that the Eternal Dungeon's ethical book, the Code of Seeking, held echoes of that faith. He was willing to listen, if the cleric should decide to spout a sermon.

The cleric seemed in no hurry to do so, however. Leading his two guests into a parlor and waving them onto a well-padded couch, he went over to a crystal decanter that appeared to hold nothing but water. The room was crammed with objects. To Barrett, whose own rooms held nothing but a minimum of furniture, a stove, some food, and a well-stocked bookcase, the decorations in the cleric's parlor appeared extravagant. Fancy furniture, scrollwork on the ceiling, wallpaper with gilded images of the university seal, a thick rug, more paintings of martyrdom . . . A bookcase caught Barrett's eye. He leaned forward, but he could see nothing but pious volumes of prayer in the glassed case.

Appearing to feel that a more formal introduction was required, the cleric said, "I am Cleric Boyd, chaplain of the Queen's University. You just met my wife. My sons and daughters are all grown and living in their own households. I believe that my youngest son mentioned that your father is a farmer?"

"Yes, sir." Clifford sat on the edge of the couch, grasping the cup of water that the cleric had just handed him. Barrett looked at the cleric's hand, offering him a cup. He looked away.

Cleric Boyd smoothly set the cup on the end-table next to the couch. Sitting down in an armchair opposite the couch, he said, "I am relieved to see that you are both unharmed. We heard, of course, of the attack on the Eternal Dungeon by those terrible, wicked men. I trust that they have all been hanged."

There was an easiness to his tone that caused Barrett's stomach to twist. Clifford hesitated before saying, "One of the leaders was a girl, sir. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, as were many of the gunmen. The other surviving leader . . . He was hanged, and his ashes were buried in our dungeon. I prayed the rites for him," added Clifford with surprising firmness.

Or perhaps not so surprising, Barrett reflected. He had long ago realized that Clifford's shy gentleness was matched by great courage.

Cleric Boyd was silent a moment, gazing at Clifford over the brim of his glass. Then he said quietly, "We heard that the dungeon was saved from further slaughter by the courage and wisdom of a small group of guards. You were one of those guards, I surmise?"

For the first time since his arrival, Barrett felt something more than apprehension. Clifford turned a little pink. "Thank you, sir, but it was really your son who saved us all."

"That news does not surprise me in the least. —Ah, thank you, dear." The cleric set his cup to one side as the woman arrived with a tea tray in hand. The cleric quickly rose to lift her burden. As he placed the tray onto the table between himself and the guests, the woman said, in a voice so high-pitched that it made her sound hysterical, "It will take a little while longer to bring the scones. They aren't yet ready—"

"Then you'd best tend them, dear." Again, the cleric's voice was gentle but firm. Evidently used to taking orders, the woman retired from the room.

"Ah." Left with the teapot, Cleric Boyd appeared uncertain what to do with it. "I apologize. This is our maid's day off . . ."

"May I, sir?" offered Clifford as he leaned forward. The cleric nodded, but he frowned as he watched Clifford pour the tea into cups. He waited until Clifford had handed Barrett a teacup and saucer before he said, "That is kind of you. I do not know how." There was the faintest note of disapproval in his voice.

Traditionalist, Barrett thought. He supposed that pouring tea must be a woman's job. The issue did not arise in the Eternal Dungeon; the maids there were far too busy to spend their time pouring cups of tea for the dungeon's many guards.

Without looking up from the cup, Clifford said, "I learned how to serve tea when I was still a boy. Fae always said that husbands and wives should know how to care for themselves, should one spouse grow ill or die."

"Fae?" The cleric paused from sipping the tea. His armchair stood next to the window; the morning sunlight on his suit was like a ball of fire rising at dawn. Barrett and Clifford he had seated in the darkness. Barrett wondered whether that was by chance.

"Fae and I were engaged to be married, some years ago." Clifford kept his eyes on his teacup, stirring it over and over, though the sugar he had added to it had long since dissolved.

"You divorced her when you met my son?" Now, at last, the cleric's condemnation, which had faintly underlain their conversation, came to the surface full force. He frowned as he scrutinized Clifford.

Clifford's head jerked up. He stared at the cleric. "Oh, no, sir! I would never have betrayed faith to her!"

His innocent shock was so great that Barrett wondered that the cleric did not immediately apologize for his rude assumption. As it was, the cleric's frown disappeared. He said quietly, "You were parted by circumstances beyond your control, then."

"She died." Clifford looked down at his teacup again. Tears had begun to ring his eyelashes. "On the night before our wedding. . . . I had just ended my year of mourning when Barrett— I mean, your son and I agreed to be love-mates. It's lawful for us to join in such a manner in the Eternal Dungeon," he added hastily, as though fearing another angry pronouncement from the cleric.

Cleric Boyd nodded. "I am familiar with your dungeon's Code of Seeking. My son presented me with a copy of the book, when he first became a guard in the dungeon, thirteen years ago. I do not agree with everything written in it, but it is a good document nonetheless. A document filled with the promise of death, transformation, and rebirth – our sacred cycle." He leaned over. "Son," he said, addressing Barrett for the first time, "do you still take sugar in your tea?"

Barrett froze.

A long, awkward pause ensued, broken only by the sound of the children playing in the front garden. Barrett found himself wondering who they were. Young nieces and nephews, perhaps? He had a vague notion that he had possessed cousins once, in those years before.

"Well." The cleric cleared his throat as he put the sugar down. "I ought to see what is keeping my wife. If you will excuse me," he said as Clifford hastily rose. Barrett remained where he was, a stone upon the couch.

"What's wrong?" whispered Clifford as he sank down onto the seat beside Barrett. In the hallway, the cleric's footsteps were retreating. "You haven't said a word!"

"Stranger."

"But he's your father!"

Was he? Barrett tried to remember. All that came to him was the memory from three years ago, when he had walked away from this same house as the cleric called his name and the woman cried. . . .

"Why can't you say anything to them?" Clifford asked softly, wrapping his arm around Barrett's back. "They seem like nice people. You told me four years ago that you were a great deal like your mother."

Barrett's throat closed in again. "Will say something wrong. Sure to."

"Barrett, you grew up with them. They've seen you make plenty of mistakes over the years."

"Not me." The feeling of wrongness had reached the point where Barrett could identify its source. "Not me. Their son."