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Stalk (Forge #1)

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The year 375, the fourth month. (The year 1886 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

Toler Forge walked down Main Street in the Alleyway district of the capital of Yclau, trying to decide whether what he was experiencing was spring.

The street around him offered few visual clues to help him. No trees grew on the narrow planks that served as sidewalks for the cautious; no flowers grew from the dirt road where most people did their walking, blithely ignoring the curses of merchant-men trying to drive their carts to the ramshackle stores on either side of the street. Only an occasional weed poked its head up, and the weeds had been there all through the long, hard winter.

Toler thought this was probably spring. The air was familiar: too cool to permit those who could afford such luxuries to shed their overcoats, but warm enough that the communal fires which had burned on every street corner for the past three months had been doused by the ragged-clothed boys and girls who built them.

Or perhaps the city's patrol soldiers had simply made another of their periodic sweeps through the Alleyway district, sternly eliminating any object that might bring brief comfort to the commoners living in this district.

Toler found himself frowning at the thought, and then he forced himself to relax. That was no longer his business, he reminded himself; he had put all that away when he donned his present identity. His goal this afternoon must be what it had been since he moved to this district: to escape anyone's notice.

He slowed and paused to look at his reflection in the window of a butcher's shop. There was nothing about himself, he thought, that might reveal him to the casual passerby. All he saw in the window was a grey-haired man wearing a commoners' suit, his arms full of books. New Year Festivals in the Queendom of Yclau, read the spine of the only book that he had turned outward. He supposed that sounded suitably harmless. He had not known he was carrying that book; he had picked volumes randomly off the shelves at the Commoners' Library, seeking to hide the sole book he had come there to borrow.

He realized suddenly that he was acting like a character in a ballad, examining himself in a reflection so as to give the balladeer the opportunity to describe his looks. His face, which until that moment had been cool if not downright stern, lightened suddenly as the corners of his mouth twisted into a smile. His love-mate would laugh if he were watching, he thought to himself. A character in a ballad was the last thing Toler wanted to be.

He turned back to his walk, stepping nimbly off the curb so as to avoid crashing into a stout old woman who was walking toward Darktown, with her head down. Others on the street were also headed in the direction Toler took. That was where most of their homes were located, and this was the hour when many of them were released from their manufactory work. Toler watched two young boys in manufactory clothes walk by, hand in hand, eliciting smiles from some of their elders who passed them. One of the boys, ignoring the crowd around them, leaned over and kissed his love-mate on the lips.

Toler turned his gaze away swiftly. He was passing the pawnbrokers now; in front of their offices was a long line of men and women, for this was the first day of the month, when rents were due. The men and women looked somewhat more cheerful than they had been when they stood in front of these shops during the icy winds of winter. Toler had spent most of that winter shivering beside a stove that burned low, because the coal that was supplied with the rooms he rented was often late in arriving and sometimes never came. He had wanted more than once to simply go out and buy his own supply of coal, but he dared not draw attention to himself that way. His neighbors already wondered how he was able to afford his rooms, when he never went out to work.

He ought to find himself a job, he thought, and then dismissed the idea at once. Jobs were hard to come by in the Alleyway district; he would be taking bread from the mouths of men who worked to support their families. Besides, jobs would bring him into contact with other people, and there would be questions – questions he might not be able to answer.

He had reached the bridge over the river. Behind him lay the manufactories and railroad tracks; ahead, incongruously, Main Street led to a hill that was crowned by the Queen's palace. He managed to keep himself from looking in that direction, instead stepping back onto the curb where a boy with patched trousers and no jacket was holding up a newspaper from the stack at his feet.

"Read! Read!" the boy cried in a high, unbroken voice. "More trouble for Vovim's King! Yclau's Queen pardons life prisoners! New High Seeker gives first interview to the press!"

Toler stopped abruptly, nearly causing a young woman holding a baby to knock into him. Mumbling an apology, he made his way over to the boy, who promptly handed him a newspaper. It was one of the independent presses, he saw, though from the way the headlines were worded, he gathered that it received most of its information straight from the mouths of the Queen's ministers.

His eyes scanned the front page of the newspaper. He rapidly passing over news that the High Seeker had made yet another public appearance, announcing that Seekers would henceforth be permitted to make visits to their families, provided that they wore civilian clothes during their time away from the Eternal Dungeon. No mention was made by the High Seeker of how the general populace might feel at having the royal dungeon's infamous prisoner-breakers sidling amongst them, undetectable.

None of this was Toler's business. Finally, Toler found the article he wanted. The Queen, in gracious consideration of the prisoners' penniless families, had agreed to release four of the five men who had been found guilty of conspiring to commit the horrendous kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of a young woman that had so shocked the queendom nine years before. The fifth man, the actual murderer, remained imprisoned for life. The city soldiers, when interviewed for their thoughts, expressed concern that the Queen's action would provide added trouble in a city already suffering under the disruptive activities of the Commoners' Guild. . . .

He became aware that the newsboy was standing at his elbow, looking expectantly up at him. Toler fished into a pocket and handed the boy a coin. "Thank you."

The boy looked at the coin, and then offered it back. "Don't you have nothing smaller, mister? I don't carry that much change."

"Keep the change," he murmured; he was busy reading the article again.  The Queen, the newspaper reported, had gone so far in her mercy as to pardon the twelve other conspirators who had not been captured during the week of the murder, and who were assumed to have gone into hiding. The leader of the Commoners' Guild, speaking to the press, demanded stronger assurances from the Crown that no further arrests would be made . . .

He felt relief pour into him. He had suspected that this would happen; there had been signs in the newspapers for months that the Queen was about to reverse her magistrate's judgment from ten years before. Still, it seemed an unlikely end to the story. And perhaps, he reflected grimly to himself, it was not the end of the story. Perhaps the Queen was only using this apparent pardon as a method by which to drive the remaining men out of hiding . . .

He became aware once more that the boy was watching him; this time the boy's eyes were narrowed in a hostile manner. He felt his heart jump, wondering how he had revealed himself. Then he saw that the boy's hand was white-knuckled around the coin, and he cursed himself within. He had wounded the boy's pride with his largesse. He wished his love-mate were here. Toler was too prone to make mistakes like this without his love-mate at his side.

He said quickly, "An elderly lord gave that to me, because I stopped to help him climb into his carriage when his driver was otherwise occupied. I tried to refuse the coin, but the lord wouldn't listen to me. I decided to get rid of the money, first chance I had."

The boy's face smoothed out, as though he had heard a particularly well-sung ballad. Since Toler had stolen the tale from a ballad, this was hardly surprising. The boy placed the coin in his pocket carefully, saying, "I know where to put the coin to good use, mister. Don't you worry."

Toler hesitated, wondering whether he had just supplied the boy with enough money to buy a week's worth of silver pot-herb. Mistaking the nature of his hesitation, the boy said approvingly, "It's a lot of money. Takes guts to give up that much."

Toler muttered something unintelligible, his mind wandering away to the fact that this conversation was not safe. He had been standing here for too long; he might draw attention to his presence.

He looked around quickly. All that he could see was the crowd that had been passing before: laborers, scantly dressed children, and weary housewives. He searched further and found an alleyway across the street, filled with laundry hanging from the railings of the fire escapes, and under that, a group of small boys pricking each other with knives. From the looks of it, they were playing Torturer and Prisoner, and from the sound of their conversation, they weren't sure how to torture.

Toler turned his attention back to the boy, who was saying, "I could give you something extra instead of change, mister."

"Oh?" said Toler, curious as to whether he was about to be offered silver pot-herb or bootleg rum or simply a particularly juicy bit of gossip. The boy looked about, as Toler had a moment before, and then beckoned to Toler, who obediently bent forward.

"A ballad," the boy whispered.

Toler's eyebrows shot up. The boy appeared nervous, as well he might. Toler guessed that the newsboy was not offering to sing him a tale of love lost in tragic deaths.

He hesitated. The boy, treating this as assent, scooped up his papers and hurried down the street a short way before disappearing into an alley. Toler considered leaving the boy to sing to the alley cats, but he supposed that would only make the boy afraid that Toler had gone to fetch the soldiers. Sighing, Toler made his way to the alley.

o—o—o

On a fire escape in the alleyway across the street, kneeling behind the laundry that shielded him from view, the observer broke his gaze away from the grey-haired man long enough to light the cigarette in his mouth. The cigarette did not contain silver pot-herb; the observer never took drugs when he was on the hunt.

He breathed smoke in slowly as he dropped the match and returned his gaze to the sight through the slight gap in the laundry. It was just like Forge, he thought with dark amusement, to spend an entire winter trying to escape from danger and then to walk into an alley in order to humor a boy's desire to sing. The hunter could have reached Forge in that alley with ease. But he preferred not to. He had gone to a great deal of trouble to set his trap, and Forge was about to come within reach of it.

The hunter kept his eye fixed on Forge as the latter moved further into the shadows of the alley, away from sight and sound of the street. He could see Forge clearly; he had always possessed good vision in the dark. It had proved handy in his profession. His mind, as always, was running rapidly through a dozen ways to capture, to disarm, to bind. It all came too pat to him. This man, he knew, was not like the others he had stripped of defenses; this man was far more dangerous. One small error by the hunter could result in disaster, and disaster could lead to death.

Forge's back was to him now. The hunter stood up, dropped the cigarette to the metal floor of the highest tier of the fire escape, and ground the cigarette under his boot methodically. It was time he was away, the hunter thought. He had work to do.

o—o—o

"The Ballad of the Life Prisoners," the newsboy announced.

Toler nodded in acknowledgment. He was sitting on a closed dustbin now so that he could easily see, with periodic turns of the head, both ends of the alley. If a soldier came down one end, he could delay the soldier long enough to give the boy time to run for freedom. Toler had no doubt of his own ability to escape arrest. He had far too much experience at that.

Rather than show irritation that Toler's gaze kept wandering away from him, the boy appeared to regard this as the needed proof that his dangerous ballad was being delivered to someone who deserved the contents. Standing straight and proud against the crumbling bricks, the newsboy began to sing.

The ballad, like so many other ballads Toler had heard over the years, began with something close to pure fancy. Five men, accused of a crime they had not committed, were arrested and sent to the horrors of the Eternal Dungeon. There they were systematically sliced to pieces by the hooded Seekers, reassembled, fried at length, with choice pieces of themselves making their way onto the Seekers' dinner table, and finally tickled for a week in an effort to make them falsely confess to the crime. Upheld by their determination not to betray their proud heritage as commoners, the men refused to confess. Gradually, the Seekers' will was weakened; the torturers began to plead, then to sob. By the end of the first part of the tale, the Seekers were making oaths to join the Commoners' Guild, disregarding the fact that, being highborn, none of them could become guild members.

The second part of the ballad had less fancy and more substance to it; the ballad-maker had evidently either attended the trial or read accounts of it in the newspapers. The five men, tried together, were defended by none other than the Mad High Seeker, who was now secretly bearing copies of the guild leader's ballads next to his heart. The High Seeker made a strong plea for the lives of the innocent guild leader and his followers. The words of this plea were so starkly unemotional that they stood out clearly as a mere transcript of the actual speech. The boy sang through this quickly, his eye on Toler; clearly, he was afraid of losing his audience. Toler did not move; he was enjoying hearing the cool, collected words of the High Seeker sung by a boy with such fervor.

The remainder of the account of the trial was a mixture of fact and fancy. The magistrate's heart melted at the High Seeker's impassioned plea. At the same time, though, the evil councillors of the Queen pricked the magistrate's back with their daggers. Caught between his conscience and his fear of the councillors, the magistrate appeased the powerful, ordering the five men to be sentenced to prison for life. They were removed from the judging room together, the guild leader giving a brief, reassuring smile to a young Seeker standing near the door, who was crying.

Toler stirred. Evidently regarding this as a sign of boredom, the boy hurried into the next exciting portion of the narrative, the commoners' time in prison. Whether any of the beatings, starvations, humiliations, and body-breaking work that the ballad claimed occurred to the prisoners there had actually taken place, Toler could not say: he had never been in a life prison, and no prisoner there had ever been permitted to communicate to the outside world what conditions were like inside. A hint that this might have changed in recent months came from a passage in the ballad where a guard, overwhelmed by the beauty of the guild leader's latest poems, had agreed to smuggle them out of the prison. The poems were supposed to be on topics of love and war, but hidden within each poem was a message to the guild leader's followers, urging them to remain strong and to continue the fight without him.

The final portion of the ballad, as far as Toler could tell from the newspaper accounts he had read, was little more than a simple recital of the facts. The Commoners' Guild, unable to find anyone who would help them pay the high fees necessary to start a suit for the life prisoners' release, resorted to publishing the guild leader's poems. The book was an immediate hit with the public, partly because many of the poems had no mention of politics in them. The ones that did, such as the Ballad of the Mad High Seeker, were sympathetic in depicting the lives of the highborn whose activities oppressed the commoners. This sympathetic rendering allowed the guild leader to obtain a highborn audience to whom he could address his brief, biting passages about the higher classes' neglect of the commoners' welfare.

The ballad which Forge was listening to inserted a few more standard ballad deaths, arranging for the councillors to murder the guild leader's family and burn some small children who dared to speak against the councillors' injustice. The ballad ended with the release of the life prisoners. However, in a sad touch that the guild leader himself would have approved of, the final lines of the ballad spoke of the twelve other innocent commoners, waiting to see whether it would be safe for them to emerge from hiding.

"That was well rendered," said Toler when the newsboy was finished. The boy beamed.

"You don't want to read that," he said scornfully, waving his hand at the papers he was selling. "You won't find any truth there. The Commoners' Guild knows the truth. You need to listen to our ballads to hear the real news."

"Is that one of Mr. Bainbridge's ballads?" Toler asked politely, though he already knew the answer.

The boy shook his head. "It's my ballad. Mr. Bainbridge only just came out yesterday morning. He hasn't had time to sing any ballads. But he will," the boy promised. "He'll tell what abuses take place in the life prisons."

"I'll look forward to hearing that," Toler replied as he stood up, dusting off the bottom of his trousers. He was indeed looking forward to the guild leader's new ballads; it would be interesting to hear what soft words Yeslin Bainbridge used to hide his hard message. A love affair between a guard and a prisoner, perhaps? Or an ode to moonlight falling in patterns through the bars of a cell? Or perhaps Mr. Bainbridge's most popular character, the Mad High Seeker, would travel to the life prison to examine conditions there.

He tipped the boy again, wording it as a donation to the commoners' cause, and escorted the boy safely back to his corner.