I have been wrong before, and often. Just before noon the following day, Bernard and me strode down the main street of Gatewater; my newly scrubbed boots tapping the road and my hat set low. The boardwalks were lined with townsfolk, a rare opportunity to take a break from their toil. They thought they were there to see a hanging and I meant to prove them wrong. Most wore looks of grim satisfaction, others of worry, and a few gave tiny nods edging on approval. At the end of the street was the Governor's house, a two-story building with a row of pretty windows and green shutters. It had a stone front and a wide porch with hitching posts. It wasn't the only two-storey building in town, but it felt taller and grander. I looked up at the sun, obscured by the clouds, as I tried to judge the time and chase the fear from my guts.
"I wasn't expecting a crowd." I whispered to Bernard.
“It’s not too late to get on that little horse of yours and make your get-a-way,” he said with a forced smile.
“A Stanton doesn’t run from the same fight twice.” I said with a nervous smile and he smacked my back, probably harder than he meant. I guess we were both nervous.
“I’ll walk up with you and we will face what we face together.”
“I’m glad for it, friend.”
I faced the long street where the crowds of townsfolk now spilled into the road; with some holding sticks or rocks, ready to hurl them at their surrendered prisoner. Before anyone could throw anything I unbuttoned my coat on account of the warmth of the day, and when I did every hand carrying a projectile simultaneously whipped down to their respective sides. This was followed by numerous dull thuds of objects hitting the ground. That's better, I thought.
I had polished the Professor to a high shine and the ram’s horn grip was clean; it stood out sharply against my white shirt. I took a look around and thought of Papa and how he had handled that mob without a gun. I was not quite like Papa, not yet.
As I began my march up the main street I could feel dozens of eyes on me. My leather coat swayed out from behind my boots; boots which I had adorned with my spinner spurs that clinked gently with every step. If I were to die today then I would at least look good.
The crowd began to close in behind me and followed me up the street. I noticed several nervous looking custos had taken up the march as well, following well behind and to the sides of me. It made me feel good to have earned that distance. I was just a girl, barely into my seventeenth year, and yet I commanded the respect of custos two and three times my senior. I don’t know if my pride was wrong, but I felt it anyhow. Even looking back I’m not ashamed of my attitude.
I could see the Governor’s house at the end of the road and I approached within thirty feet of the place. I became sharply aware of the shadows flitting back and forth inside those windows.
“Governor Ember!” I called out. “Lady Stanton of Hudson’s Landing addresses you!”
“Mortalis es?” Asked a high-pitched voice from inside the door.
"Step out and see!"
The door swung open and out walked a very short, very fat man with a dressy white shirt and a long jacket that had sparkling gold buttons. He was followed by a tall, lean man who couldn't have been more than twenty. He wore an iron glare and his long, dark hair was tied back in a pony’s tail. He wore no hat, but he had a large bore rifle strapped to him and that slung across his back. He wore no pistol and neither did the fat one. The tall man, Governor Ember I presumed, looked familiar, but I decided that he looked like his uncle.
“Lady Stanton,” said he with a flat stern voice, “I greet you and offer you the hospitality of my town, from one Governor to another.” This was a formal greeting for a political guest and I was about to reply when the fat man opened his mouth and shrieked, “You stand accused of aggravated murder!”
Governor Ember looked at Harkour with an exasperated expression and I could sense the custos’ shifting nervously behind me, their metal and plastick armours tapping. It was clear that Governor Ember would defer to Harkour. There would be no justice today.
Harkour waddled forward, his voice growing ever shriller as he laid out the case against me. “You carry a firearm outside of your jurisdiction! You came to Gatewater and colluded with the beekeeper, Bernard Garrett, to murder my son, Tilar Harkour, in cold blood! You met him in the road, unarmed and defenceless; you murdered him and a helpless guard that attempted to intervene! You then fled the scene of the crime and hid on the Garretts’ stead until we tracked you down, and you were called out by my bodyguard! How do you plead?”
I looked over at Governor Ember and he looked from my eyes to my pistol and back again. I could not decide if he was fore me or against me. Harkour screeched again and then shot a look at the Governor. The Governor kept looking at me, not angry or accusing, because he knew what happened.
“Silence only incriminates you further, murderer!” Harkour yelled. He had slithered near me and now stood just outside my sword’s range. I regarded him with a sneer as he paced back and forth, afraid to get to close to me. I felt the same pride as before, when the custos’ feared me too. Let them fear me. Let all unjust savages fear me, I called in my head.
There was a silence then, so profound it had a pulse through the crowd. I flexed my gun hand, just for effect, and Harkour’s eyes shot down to my fingers as I balled and relaxed my fist.
“Easy, Sam.” Bernard said behind me, just loud enough for me to hear.
“I’m guilty,” I said aloud. “But I acted alone.”
The crowd let out a collective gasp, which was almost comical. I wanted to turn around and glare at them, but I also wanted to stare Constantine Harkour and Governor Ember in the face to show them I was unafraid, which I was, intensely.
“Bernard only acted out of defence of my person,” I continued. "He should not be held responsible for my actions. Those two men attacked me from behind and were set to ravish me. I defended myself with Bernard’s help.”
“Lies!” screamed Harkour, reaching a new womanly pitch. “You plotted to kill Tilar and found your opportunity as he stumbled home inebriated from the saloon. You think so highly of yourself that honourable men would set upon you in the street just to possess you! Trollop! Harlot! Whore!”
Now, I had enough of the name calling and I flexed my gun hand again for show so that the word whore came out of Harkour's mouth in a strangled croak. I looked again to the Governor for some kind of help in silencing this fat slug of a man, but he wore the same look of hard indifference. The little hairs on my neck stood upright in defiance as I crawled ever closer to losing my patience with the both of them. I hadn’t noticed through the childish name-calling, but a small man in dark clothes with a large sword on his back had slipped silently from the crowd and was edging closer to stand behind Harkour. It was the rider that had spoken with Bernard. This must be Harkour’s bodyguard, as he called him. I hoped the pay was good because listening to that siren wail was worth two Governor’s wages.
I felt Bernard shift his weight behind me and I heard the creaking of his great leather belt as he flexed himself upright at the appearance of the rider. The rider regarded us coolly and without apparent interest. He wore no gun, but he carried a swagger that reminded me of little Billy Brown, the tanner’s son.
The crowd began to murmur and shift in the quiet. I put on my best cold stare and looked again to the Governor. He raised his pony-tailed head and looked me in the eyes. Where before I saw indifference, I now saw something else; I could see the desire in his eyes to stand-up to Harkour. He knew I was right. How many other girls had been set upon by the maniac son before he picked the wrong pocket? I thought.
Harkour followed my gaze and looked up at the Governor. He turned back to me and said quietly, “He cannot save you. You shall hang.”
“Why do you let this man speak like he is your master? Who's in charge of this town?” I called over my shoulder to the crowd behind me.
The crowd began to unsettle and a few brave souls replied with a rustle of voices, like wind in an autumn tree. I turned and faced the gathered townsfolk. “Is Constantine Harkour Lord of this land? Do you bend to his coin or do you trust in the will of your Governor, Thoroughgood Ember, and your Lord, Roger Ember?”
They wore looks half of fear and half of contempt; for me or the Governor or Harkour I could not say. It was quite possible they would turn on me as soon as support me. After all, I was a foreigner here, a stranger with a gun, demanding that they look down and grasp their stones and expel this man of enormous power. I’ll probably never know how close I came to being lumped out by the crowd, but in a few seconds Harkour’s man would unsheathe that steel of his and I would have to fight or die.
“There will be a trial,” said a cool voice from behind me. I turned and saw Governor Ember step forth and call out again, “There will be a trial!”
Well God’s teeth, someone in this town found their manhood! Harkour spun to the Governor, shocked, and screamed like a piglet with his fat head flaming red.
“She said she was guilty! Punish her or I will do it myself! I own you, Ember! I own your uncle too! Every Lord on the Council owes me favours and coin!” Harkour ranted and shrieked, but the Governor looked away and said again with a cool voice, “There will be a trial."
Harkour spun towards his bodyguard with such a fire in his eyes I thought he would surely drop-dead from the strain. The rider stepped sidelong so he was directly in front of me and the crowd began to draw backwards by degrees. I stopped paying attention to them and instead focussed on the rider and how he strode.
He was little, maybe twenty pounds heavier than I. He wore loose trousers and a shirt that tucked tightly, but baggy, in the arms. He was practiced with sword work, and I could bet you fifty quints that he would use the dancing swings of the Highland men when he attacked. All of this I surmised in the course of his one sidelong step before me. As he was armed with a sword, I would meet him with my sword. Fair is fair and there would be no repeat of Billy Brown; that unfortunate meeting was in a place and in a time that felt leagues and years behind me.
In the ritual, as duels are called, there was a code that demanded we both state our full names and then draw our swords simultaneously; to draw sooner than your enemy showed fear. I still had not moved from my spot and the rider, who still wore his needle-point spurs, stood solid as an oak and it made my blood jump.
“I am Boniface of—,” and with a whir I threw Prick as fast and hard as I could. End over end it spun until it slammed into the rider’s face. Old Boniface tumbled backwards and hit the dirt, not dead, but sleeping. The wrong end of my blade had struck the man. Oh well, I thought, a win's a win. The crowd half laughed and half gasped. I think they were expecting a great battle, but sometimes rituals just aren’t the best way to solve things. Since that encounter I have thought of several very witty remarks I could have used after beating Harkour’s man. My favourite was, “I don’t care who you are,” however, what I actually said was a very loud cuss word that doesn’t bear repetition. Thank the Gods that I hit the bastard.
The look on Harkour’s face was one of pure surprise, which mirrored everyone else’s look. Most likely my own eyes popped open at the suddenness that I had defeated the black clad rider. The Governor stepped forward and waved for me to follow him inside. I stepped up, leaving Prick where it was, hoping I looked tough, and hoping that Bernard would fetch it for me.
I brushed past Harkour, who moved aside for me and then bumped into the porch railing to get away from me. I wanted to snatch one of the gold buttons off his coat as a trophy, but I thought better of it and followed the Governor into his house.
It was a lot cooler inside and it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dim interior. Governor Ember had a butler waiting inside who held open the door and took Ember’s coat and rifle. I gave the man my coat, but kept the Professor. Ember led me to a sitting room that was filled with leather furnishings and animal heads in equal measure. It looked like the interior of the saloon and I wondered if Ember had decorated both. Just above Ember’s chair, in the corner, was what looked like a horse head, except for the large horn curving out of the bridge of the horse’s nose. I could not place the animal, though it was clearly a horse’s head, which I did not care for.
Governor Ember saw me examining it as I sat down and he said, “That’s a horde. A horned horse from the Uplands. They are shaggy animals with bony backs and violent tempers. They are terrible riding and they won’t pull a cart, so they are left as mustangs and hunted only when they threaten people.”
I pretended I wasn’t disgusted that he hunted horses and instead busied myself trying to button up the top of my shirt, but my fingers fumbled it.
“After a battle, small tasks with the hands are almost impossible,” he said. He seemed much more relaxed in here, away from Harkour. “Your father and my uncle were friends once. He was a good man.”
“He still is a good man,” I snapped back. I hated people talking about him in past tense. “He’ll come back or I’ll fetch him back.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“I seek him, yes.”
“When people go Beyond they usually don’t come back. In fact, the few people who claim to have been and returned are madmen who rant in strange languages and shit themselves.”
“There’s no need for foul language in front of a lady,” I quipped.
“Unless it comes from the lady herself, of course?” he smiled.
I went red and slunk back into the chair, wounded before changing the subject. “So, when is my trial? Will it be a jury or your judgeship alone?”
He wrinkled his brow. “That was your trial. You won.”
I did not answer him so he continued, “You’re a Governor. You are subject to the rules of trial by combat should you choose. Did your father never have a trial? I think I’ve had three or so in the last five years.”
Governor Ember lit a large cigar and leaned back in his chair. There was still something in his eyes that I did not like, something he was hiding. He glanced at me through a cloud of foul smoke, but quickly looked away.
“Will you be leaving Gatewater, Lady Stanton? You may have put down Harkour’s man, but Constantine will not stop there. He will find others to employ and you may not survive the next time. Besides,” he smiled, “the sooner you leave, the sooner I rid myself of Constantine.”
“I’m looking for my papa and I will not stop until he is found. If he came through this way I will find clues in your town. I intend to stay until I find some trace of him.”
He sighed, letting out a bluish-gray cloud. “What is the Beyond to you? Do you understand what it means to go there?”
I did not like his tone, so I tossed my hair and I tried not to look embarrassed. “People disappear sometimes, and when they do it’s said they’ve gone Beyond. Last winter my papa kissed me goodnight before bed and when I woke he was gone, but all of his things were still there. His gun was hanging in the closet, his jacket too. His boots were lined up at the front door, freshly scrubbed, but he was gone. Mama said that he had gone Beyond. Disappeared. But I don’t believe it. Nothing disappears without leaving some kind of trail.”
“I have known many people who have gone Beyond and I once believed what you do. But no one has returned sane and I don’t want to see a young lady like yourself get hurt. You have a life back in Hudson’s Landing and a good one. In a few years, you’ll be old enough to govern. You’re clearly quite capable with your arms and in time you’ll learn the other aspects of ruling. The Lords are not bad people; they only want to protect us from the twin evils of Technology and democracy. With enough experience, you might even become the first woman to serve on the Lord’s Council, but only if you don’t get yourself killed on this foolish adventure.”
His tone was not one of arrogance and it did not make me angry. In fact, he had a quiet charm about him and I actually liked listening to him speak. He rose and stepped to the window where he extinguished his cigar in a large ashtray shaped like a fishing boat.
“What say you, Lady Stanton?” He continued. “Will you accept that your father is not coming back? The people of Hudson’s Landing need you, now more than ever.”
“It’s not as easy as that. I cannot be Governor and I have no wish to be until Papa is safely returned. I know he’s still alive and needs me.” I did not mention Billy Brown and the fact that the townsfolk probably did want me back, if just to hang me. I did not believe in many gods like Mama did or fate like Bernard, but I did believe that some other extra-worldly force had compelled me into that horrible act, which forced me into fulfilling the wish that was in my heart; to be with Papa again, to feel his arms squeeze me tight against his chest and to hear his voice say my name.
“Well,” said the Governor. “You say as I expected. If it were my own father I would not rest until he returned.” He sat again and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Where do you begin?”
“I don’t know.” And I did not.
He looked at me seriously and I was glad to hear him give me his support. His serious look lingered overlong and I felt the blood rise in my cheeks. His butler entered quietly, with a pitcher of cold water, over which I thanked him too loud. I took a glass and gulped it down, not realizing my own thirst.
“What do you know of the other disappearances?” he asked.
“Almost nothing. It happened a few times in the Landing, but I never paid attention until it happened to Papa. I know that they are always the same. In the night townsfolk simply vanished, leaving everything behind except the clothes they were wearing.”
“That is the case in Gatewater as well. My custos' investigate, of course, but nothing turns up. One time, when my father was Governor, we had a case where a husband murdered his wife and made it look like a disappearance, but he was found out and tried for the crime. We do not lose many people, so the townsfolk just go on with their lives. Rumours spread though, like in any town. Some say they are kidnapped by flying lights in the sky or stolen for meat by Immortales, but these tales have no foundation. My doctor guessed that it’s perhaps an illness in the mind, a type of sudden madness that causes them to wander off without warning. Gods’ know there are enough types of unexplained diseases. In the end though, there is only rumour and tales.”
I shivered like someone had stepped over my grave. I did not like the idea of Papa being stolen by Immortales.
“When I was a boy, my great Uncle went Beyond and I came to think that perhaps he had gone back in time, to before the world went Bright, to teach those people how we live and to help them avoid catastrophe.” He smirked. I caught myself thinking that he looked half-cute, but I quickly washed that thought from my mind. How easily a handsome face made me forget the previous hour when this very man was willing to watch me die. Still, this man could help me. I needed food and some coin, not to mention a direction. I decided to play a little off-the-cuff to see if I could wrangle some coins from the Governor’s purse; Mama would not be proud, but a girl's got to use what she's got to use.
“You mentioned that madmen come back from the Beyond?” I asked in a soft voice. The Governor turned with a raised eyebrow and I leaned forward in my chair, easing off my gun belt. I fanned at my shirt, which was still unbuttoned, and I let the top fall open. I do not have great heaps of flesh, as some women do, but I have enough, and the Governor was as good as buried in my chest from across the room. I couldn’t help but smile. Men, for all their bluster about the stronger and the weaker sex, would always fall prey to a woman’s charms.
The Governor banged into his little side table as he made his way back to his chair and I noticed he was exceedingly red in the face. He sat down and made a deliberate attempt to look me in the eye, which just about lasted until he spoke.
“Lady Stanton,” he began and trailed off. “What was your question?”
“I asked about the madmen who claim to have returned from the Beyond. Where can they be found?”
He took a moment before answering. "There's an old asylum on the Eastport road, it was a church or an abbey at some point, but now it houses criminals and the insane. We send supplies there and sometimes their custos come to Gatewater on furlough. That's a good place to start."
I was about to ask him more when he interrupted. “You have no idea who I am, do you?” he asked with a sigh of half-laughter.
I suddenly became embarrassed and leaned back, thinking that he was calling my shameful bluff.
“My first name is Thoroughgood, but when I was younger I went by my middle name, Charles.”
It took me a second and then it dawned on me. “Charlie!” Why that scoundrel let me go on near forever pretending we had never met!
“You look so different!” I got up and he rose as well and I hugged him tight. When our faces were painfully close we paused and I regained my composure and slapped at his chest.
“You were going to let me die out there!” I yelled in a flush of anger. “Harkour’s bastard was going to cut me down and you just stood there looking at your Gods’ damned boots!”
“It’s not as easy as that, Sam.”
I was so flustered; I was hurt and heartsick and happy to see Charlie again after so many years. I wanted to cry and knock him flat at the same time.
“You wanted me to beat him,” I said. “You knew I would do it.”
“Tilar was here for two years terrorizing my town. I’m glad he’s dead. I didn’t know it was you until Harkour’s man came back from Bernard’s house with a description of you, carrying a gun, and I thought, well... maybe it was my old friend, Sam, from Hudson’s Landing. But I did not want to believe that you had gotten yourself into so much trouble that even I could not help you.”
“This is all a little much to take in, Charlie. You never told me that you were Roger Ember’s nephew!”
“We were kids then. I was fifteen for Gods’ sake. Please don’t be fierce with me, Sam. I didn’t know for certain if it was you until you walked up that street and stood at my doorstep. Harkour is a powerful man and you can’t imagine the dancing I’ve done to keep both he, and the town, from murdering me in my sleep. I wanted to shoot him down myself when he called you those names. But I had to let you defend yourself. Besides,” he smiled, “if I’d saved you, you’d be even fiercer with me. Remember when I left you in that hole? It was three days before you looked me in the eye.”
I had to admit it was true. I never liked being rescued. Still, I crossed my arms and turned in my chair so he would feel the sting of having lied to me. Charlie immediately looked wounded and took to picking one boot against the other. Perhaps I was being too hard on my old friend. He finally stood and walked to the window. It had begun to rain and he stared outside, looking at what I do not know. The way he stood with his hands in his pockets, shoulders back, brow furrowed, at ease and pondering life at once reminded me little of the boy I once knew.
I studied him as he studied the raindrops and I found myself thinking once again on how handsome he had become. His black hair had completely grown out and reached halfway down his back. He had a well-trimmed moustache and a little point of fur on his lower lip to accompany it, and he still had those big brown eyes and crooked smile. He was no longer the boy who trotted behind me those weeks in the Capitol; the boy who tried his best to keep me out of trouble, and the boy who failed entirely.
“Remember when we climbed into the larder through the chimney and I ate so much cake I thought I would be sick!” I laughed.
“I seem to recall,” he smiled, “that you broke into the castle and stole the cake meant for the reception of the Chancellor and then ate half of it in one sitting. Your father was furious, but when he saw how sick you were he didn’t even punish you. It’s no wonder you’re off adventuring instead of taking care of your fief.”
He went back to staring out the window, clearly considering something of grave importance. It was something Papa did too, something about a rainy window, I guess, that helped him think. I have often wished for the profound levels of concentration exhibited by people like Charlie and Papa. I’ve always been a scatterbrain with my thoughts. Though I am told I know much of the common sense, world smarts, they are called, I could never think very far ahead of myself.
I sat and played with the buttons on my shirt, waiting for Charlie to figure out his destiny or whatever he was doing by that rainy window. I finally rose and went to shake him back to reality. I kicked his end table and startled him. Without looking over his shoulder he took a long breath and said, “I suppose you will not stay long.”
“No, I shan’t.” I replied. “I’m already three months behind Papa and every day I delay I feel less like I will succeed.”
“I will look on Hudson’s Landing while you’re gone; make sure she's still getting on.”
“I would appreciate that. The deputy is a good man, Ernest Athelstone is his name. Papa said he was slow to act, but also slow to anger. The first was not the best quality, but the second made up for it. Papa trusted him, so I did as well.”
“I will see that you are supplied with food before you leave.” He turned and looked at me; he seemed very sad.
“I’m sick of people looking sad around me,” I said and looked down at my boots, for lack of a better place.
He came to me in a single step and I felt his gravity; his aura around me. It reminded me so much of our time together, long ago, when we stood before that bed and he kissed me, or nearly did. Charlie put a finger under my chin and lifted it up so I was looking up into his soft brown eyes. “I don’t know when I shall see you again,” he said.
I’m not prone to sentimentality, but being there with Charlie made me feel like a little girl again. I dearly wished he would come with me on my adventure, but I knew better than to ask. He would not abandon his people as I had done.
I smiled and batted his hand away before he did something ungentlemanly. We both laughed away the awkwardness and I hugged him and he hugged me back. When we broke the embrace I felt that I should never see him again as long as I lived. Now I hate feelings, so I turned and called for the butler to fetch my coat before I felt too much.
Charlie walked back to his window and stood there, watching me put on my coat. He did not smile anymore and neither did I. I shoved my hat onto my head, even though I was still indoors.
“Thank you, Governor Ember.” I said with a curtsy, which I meant to be cute, but instead he looked like I just shot him in the guts.“Bye, Charlie,” I tried again, and I turned quickly and walked through the darkening hallway and out of the house. I was grateful for the cold, wet wind that splashed my face. I drew in a long and slow breath, but even the fresh air and the cleansing rain was not enough to slow the pounding of my villainous heart.