The Daniel Hood Bookshelf
A sample chapter from my fourth book, "Scales of Justice" originally published by Ace in February 1998. Pointless title fact: I called this "Areopagus" at first, after the court in the story, figuring that if "Fanuilh" was pronounceable enough, I could get away with it. The good folks at Ace, however, decided not, and came up with what I'm man enough to admit is a pretty good pun. Pointless judicial fact: The Areopagus was an ancient Greek court which met on the Hill of Ares in Athens, and was referred to by Milton in the title of his philophical treatise "Areopagitica" (which I blush to admit that I have never read -- and have no desire to read).
The cover art is by Bob Eggleton. God bless that man's brushes!
SCALES OF JUSTICE
Acrasius Saffian - scholar of magic and judge of one of the Duke's circuit courts - went for a walk after a rainstorm and did not return. He made his home in Southwark, a city of steep streets and treacherous cobblestones: no one saw his fall, but no one doubted the result. An old man with brittle bones, Saffian had broken his neck.
Apart from the natural grief at the death of so old and long-serving an official, there was serious concern over the future of the Areopagus, the court over which Saffian had presided, and which was supposed to begin its spring circuit the very next day.
The common assumption in Southwark was that the court's departure would be indefinitely delayed - but Saffian's successor would hear nothing of it. The new Areopage had served for almost two decades as one of the late judge's investigative assistants, his quaestors, and her elevation to the post was universally acclaimed. Her decision that the Areopagus would ride as planned, with only a day's delay for Saffian's funeral rites, met with considerably less approval.
In large part the disapproval was based on the fear that the decision was the result of muddled thinking, the product of a deep but mostly unexpressed grief on the part of the new Areopage - for, in addition to being Saffian's successor, she was also his widow. Milia Saffian discounted the argument entirely, however, ignoring pleas from friends like Thrasa Priscian, a long-time intimate and a prominent merchant in Southwark, and from colleagues like Aedile Coeccias, the city's chief constable. Both begged her to reconsider, to allow more time between funeral rites and legal ones.
The widow stoutly refused, buried her husband in a single day and took up his work the next, arranging the complicated details of the court so quickly that it was able to depart only a day behind schedule. Unwilling to suggest that she was addled by grief - a notion belied by her efficient handling of the Areopagus' affairs - Aedile Coeccias and Mistress Priscian fell back on a more practical argument: with her advancement, the court now lacked a quaestor, and could hardly ride without its full complement of two.
Widow Saffian acknowledged that the court was short a quaestor, but did not seem overly concerned about it. She did, however, agree that if the Aedile or Mistress Priscian could find a suitable candidate and have him ready before the Areopagus departed, she would accept whoever they chose.
Since this was the only point on which she had shown any flexibility, they set about finding a new quaestor.
* * *
Toward sunset, Liam Rhenford paused his horse on a rise and considered the town of Warinsford on the banks of the river below. It was much smaller than Southwark, the city from which he had set out three days before, but it seemed a bustling place nonetheless. The town proper was a rectangle of closely packed buildings facing the Warin and surrounded by stout walls of stone, outside of which smaller neighborhoods straggled further north along the riverbank. Liam could make out a large number of ships moving on the water.
Where is the ford?
The thought appeared in Liam's head, but it was not his own - it came from from the tiny dragon perched on the front of his saddle. He laughed and reached forward to scratch between his familiar's wings, rubbing his knuckles along the black scales. The scales were strangely soft, ridged like moire-patterned cloth.
I don't know, Fanuilh, Liam thought, deliberately forming the words in his head and then pushing at them mentally projecting them at the dragon. Maybe there was a ford when they named it. There was certainly no ford now; he could make out a ferry poling away from the town to the far side of the river, and some of the ships looked fairly deep-draughted. Fanuilh snaked its head around on its long neck and peered at him with slit-pupilled eyes.
If there is no ford, they should change the name.
I'll speak to the Duke about it, Liam promised, scratching now at the yellow scales of the dragon's throat and underbelly. Behind them, a jingle of harness and the clop of hooves announced that the Areopagus had caught up to them.
A trio of Southwark Guards on horseback led the way, talking and laughing amongst themselves; their jokes were at the expense of people further back in the column, a straggle of clerks and servants and packhorses that had only just reached the bottom of the rise, still out of sight of the town.
"Quaestor Provyn's the talk of the courts," one of the Guards said, "for the splendorous contents of his wardrobe."
"His garderobe, more like," a second put in, provoking snickers from his comrades.
"Aye, he's the very cock of the dungheap," the first agreed. "It's the word bruited around the courts. My wife's brother carries wood for their fires, and all he heard these last two days was of how tricked up the quaestor was. They said he was wont to be jealous of his appearance - off to the baths four and sometimes five times in a sevennight - but now he's the clothes to match his pretensions. The next you know, nothing'll do but he wipe his arse with cloth-of-gold!"
Liam smiled to himself; he had only known Provyn for a few days but their appraisal did not seem far off the mark to him. Looking back over his shoulder, he could just see the quaestor, the vivid red and yellow of his velvet coat picked out from the drab colors of horse and road by the fitful light of the westering sun.
He certainly likes his clothes, Liam thought, steadfastly refusing to think anything worse. They would have to work together in the days ahead and he wanted to keep an open mind, however difficult the quaestor made it. From the moment they had met in Southwark three days before, Provyn had snubbed him rudely. A remarkable feat, considering we shared a room two nights in a row. He cut himself off, unwilling to complain any more about the other man, even silently.
In an odd way, he empathized with Provyn, and could not blame him for his antipathy. He's been with the Areopagus for ten years - worked his way up from clerk to quaestor - and you get the post through favoritism, just because two of your friend have a wildly exaggerated opinion of your skills as a solver of mysteries. What's more, the post is only open because of the death of a man Provyn knew and worked with for years. Liam frowned; considered in that light, it was no wonder the clothes-conscious quaestor disliked him.
His appointment was not favoritism, he knew. Both Mistress Priscian and Aedile Coeccias honestly believed he was a sort of human bloodhound, and the man best suited to the job. They had told him so, when they came to ask him to join the Areopagus on the night of Acrasius Saffian's funeral rites.
At first he had been of a mind to refuse the offer, if only because he did not want to be given the position solely through the influence of his friends. The more he had considered it, though, the more it had intrigued him. He had until recently been much involved in outfitting Mistress Priscian's merchant fleet for the spring trading season, but the ships had sailed and he now found himself rattling aimlessly around Southwark with nothing to keep him busy. Riding the court circuit would fill his time admirably; more important, it struck him as something of a good deed, and worth doing. If Widow Saffian was brave enough to fulfill her duties in the midst of her mourning, the least he could do was help. And if he had gotten the position through the influence of his friends, he would simply have to prove himself worthy of it.
He rushed through his preparations for the journey, and joined the Areopagus the next morning, at a caravan marshalling yard on the western outskirts of Southwark. Coeccias had come down to see him off, and they stood together at one side of the dusty yard, watching the column slowly coalesce. Liam had mentioned to the Aedile that it seemed an inordinately large train.
"Truth, that it does," the other man laughed, "but there it is: the Duke's bounty. Did I not tell you? All who ride with the Areopagus - with any circuit court, for the matter of that - are vouchsafed a brace of horses for their effects, from the Duke's stables. Y'are his officer now. You needs must ride like one - and dine like one and go to bed like one. All will be supplied on your way."
"Well, it's quite a berth you've fixed up for me, my friend," Liam said, smiling his approval of the arrangements.
Coeccias dropped his eyes to his feet and cleared his throat. "Truth, Rhenford, it's not so soft as all that."
"How so?" Liam asked, puzzled.
"Look you," the Aedile said, clearly embarrasssed, "you know I was strong against the court going out at all, as was Mistress Priscian, but Widow Saffian would not listen." Seeing Liam's look of confusion, he hurried on: "It quietened some of our doubts, I'll say, to know that you'd go. If it needs must ride, then we're both comforted to know y'are riding with it, for that...for that we have our doubts as to the wisdom of it."
Liam knew they had opposed Widow Saffian's decision, but he could not see why his friend seemed so nervous. Unless.... "Is there something you aren't telling me?"
The Aedile held up his hands in self-defense. "No, no - only that you should take care. There are strange doings in the duchy now, unheard-of crimes. I told you some of the crimes were of black magic, did I not, and that demons had been summoned?"
Liam nodded. "Yes, you mentioned it last night." He indicated his baggage, and the two sword hilts visible there. One of the weapons was a plain blade; the other was enchanted, a gift from a wizard he had once known. "I've taken some precautions."
"Well and well," Coeccias said. "Keep your eyes wide for the strange, but softly. Don't let the widow know you suspect aught is amiss."
She appeared then, her clothes black, a mourning veil covering her face, with Quaestor Provyn in tow. Between introductions and the fact that the column was almost ready to leave - the packhorses' loads secured, the people beginning to mount - Liam did not have a chance to ask his friend what, exactly, he was supposed to suspect was amiss.
* * *
Three days later, on the ridge above Warinsford, Liam decided that Coeccias had been overly concerned. He had seen no sign of anything out of the ordinary. He just likes to worry. Slapping the reins, he set his horse walking down the hill, only to pull up short when one of the Guards hailed him.
"Ho, Quaestor Rhenford! You'll want to wait there, Quaestor!"
"Eh? Why?" Of all the members of the Areopagus, the three Guards were the only ones he knew; he had met them through his acquaintance with Coeccias. They had taken him under their wing to a certain extent, including him in their conversation and filling him in on small details of court procedure. Which is good, he thought ruefully, since no one else seems to want to.
"Y'are to go into the town together," the Guard explained, "you and the Areopage and Quaestor Provyn. It's the way of it."
Then, from down the eastern side of the rise, he heard a call: "Quaestor Rhenford! Attend us there, if you will!" He recognized Widow Saffian's voice.
The Guard nodded. "It's what's proper."
Shrugging, Liam resigned himself to wait while the rest of the column reached the top of the hill. It seemed an age to him - from the beginning the court's pace had struck him as absurdly slow - but soon enough the others caught up, Quaestor Provyn and the Areopage in the lead.
"Y'are eager to start, I see," she said with a curt nod. She wore black, a simple but expensive riding coat and a voluminous dress that looked normal when she was standing but which had been cleverly divided to allow her to ride like a man. She was bony and thin, with a strong beak of a nose and wide gray eyes. "I looked for no less, Quaestor, but for this, we must enter Warinsford together."
"So they were just telling me, Areopage." He gestured at the Guards, who had meanwhile assumed a more professional air, unlimbering their long spears and setting them upright in their stirrups. Attached to the shaft of one was a rolled-up pennon.
"It is mere ceremony," she said, "but it's as well to stand on it. Guards to the fore, then, and Quaestor Rhenford, if you'll to my left?" Though couched as a suggestion, it was unquestionably an order. There was an obvious strength in her voice and her bearing that impressed Liam, all the more so when he considered her recent loss. Recent! he marvelled. It was only four days ago! In those four days she had managed to arrange both her husband's funeral and all the details of the court - no mean feat, in his estimation.
They started down the hill as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. The banner was unfurled, but in the dusk Liam could not make out what device it bore; he took up his position to Widow Saffian's left, reaching out one hand to steady his familiar. The Areopage had already re-immersed herself in her ongoing conversation with Quaestor Provyn, and the two ignored him. They had spent the days of travel deep in a discussion of the crimes the court was to try, a discussion Liam had tried to follow until he finally realized that they dwelt almost entirely on obscure points of duchy law, referring frequently to past crimes of which he had never heard. Moreover, they did not seem to expect him to pay attention; at one point Widow Saffian had implied - politely but unambiguously - that the discussion was for her benefit as judge, not his as investigator, and that he should not feel compelled to pay attention.
All of which would be fine, Liam decided, if they would just take a little time to have a discussion that was for my benefit. From working with Aedile Coeccias he had a vague idea of what was expected of a quaestor, but he was completely in the dark as to the specifics; he did not even know what crimes he would be investigating. There had been no time in Southwark to look at the detailed reports sent in by the local authorities, and once they were on the road Quaestor Provyn had made it clear that digging them out of the pack train would be far too much of an inconvenience. He had finally rebuffed Liam's requests with the sneering implication that if he was skilled enough to be chosen quaestor on such short notice, the reports would probably be of little use to him - his natural genius would suffice. Put off by the man's rudeness, Liam had let the matter drop.
So he approached Warinsford with mixed feelings - eagerness to get started, to see the reports and learn the procedural details he needed to know; and apprehension that his days since leaving Southwark had been misspent, that he was woefully ill-prepared.
Time to find out, he thought, as the gates of the town came into view.
* * *
By the time the court reached the town's southern gate, the sun had gone down. Flaring torches illuminated the town's southern gate, a broad tunnel between two squat towers. The Southwark Guards paused only to exchange a word with the squad of Warinsford Guards on duty, and then the Areopagus swept through, hooves clanging on cobbles now, echoes rebounding in the tunnel of the gate.
They clattered into the streets of the town proper, and after a few minutes winding through the dark, narrow streets, arrived at their inn. The Guards found their way without hesitation, though Liam would have been hard-pressed to say exactly what route they had taken from the gates. A sign showing three red foxes announced the inn as the Duke's Arms, a five-story stone building with two enormous bay windows looking in on a lively common room. Before they could dismount the door of the inn burst open and crowd of servants came boiling out, followed by a blond giant wearing a gray tabard emblazoned with three red foxes.
"Hail the Areopagus!" he bellowed, wading through the milling servants as if they were children to reach Widow Saffian's stirrup. He helped her down, then stood back and bowed deeply. "Milady Areopage, y'are well come to Warinsford - and may I be the first to offer my condolences. We feel the lack of your husband deeply. Villains across the duchy rejoiced when they heard the news."
One of the inn servants appeared at Liam's stirrup, but he brushed the man away and dismounted on his own, keeping hold of the reins in spite of the man's attempts to take them.
"Y'are kind, Aedile Cuspinian," Widow Saffian said in a formal tone, handing her reins over to a hovering servant. "I myself sorely miss him - but he would have it that we carry on his work. Quaestor Provyn is known to you, I believe." The men exchanged bows, and she turned to look for Liam, who stepped forward, still holding his reins. "This is Quaestor Rhenford, who has joined us for our circuit."
"Quaestor Rhenford," Cuspinian said, appraising him with a swift glance that took in the plainness of his travelling coat, as well as its stains. Then he made a slight bow, as if he had judged Liam and found him wanting. He had a manner of easy, open power about him, not just in his broad shoulders and strong hands, but in his hooded eyes and the way his lips seemed perpetually on the verge of twisting into a smirk.
With a wry smile, Liam returned a deeper bow. "Aedile Cuspinian." Coeccias had mentioned some interesting things about his counterpart in Warinsford, few of which were to his credit.
The two men locked glances for a moment, and then the Aedile turned to Widow Saffian and offered her his arm. "We'll in - you'll want to wash the road away, and then we'll dine. Come along, gentlemen." He strode off, the Areopage hurrying her stride to keep up. Quaestor Provyn scurried after, abandoning his horse to the nearest servant.
Liam lingered, politely but firmly fending off the inn servant, waiting for his boy to appear from the back of the column. Both Widow Saffian and Provyn were accompanied by bodyservants, but Liam, not realizing that he could bring a servant - and not having one to begin with - had been adopted on the first night by the son of one of the court's ostlers. The boy, who mumbled unintelligibly and toed the ground when asked his name, had curried Liam's horse and carried his bags faithfully and with a sort of reverential awe that made him smile.
"Master, if it please you," the inn servant began, just as the boy arrived and snatched the reins from of Liam's hands.
"I've got him now, Quaestor; you can go in. I've got him. Easy, Diamond," the boy said, stroking the horse's nose. "I've got him, and I'll bring your bags up as soon as ever he's put away."
Liam thanked him, keeping him only long enough to retrieve Fanuilh and his sabretache. Slinging the bag over one shoulder and letting the dragon perch on the other, he made his way into the inn.
Chaos reigned inside, baggage-carrying servants rushing here and there, shouting contradictory orders as they went, and it took Liam a few minutes to corner a woman who thought she knew where he was supposed to be staying. With many a fearful glance at Fanuilh, she led him through the crowded halls of the inn, up three long flights of steps and then down two shorter ones, and was only able to deposit him at the right chamber because the door was open, and Liam saw Provyn through it.
The other quaestor sat on a trunk in just his shirt and hose, being shaved by his valet, and barely nodded his head in response to Liam's greeting. Liam was used to this by now, however, and simply acted as if he were alone in the room. It was much larger than the ones they had shared on the road from Southwark, and much cleaner: the wood floor shone with a recent polishing and the bed did not smell musty. Three basins of hot water waited on a stand by the fireplace, in which a fire had just been laid.
He puttered for a while, retrieving a straight razor from his sabretache and then arranging the bag in a corner by the shuttered window. Fanuilh curled up on it, nose to tail, making itself as unobtrusive as possible; from the first Provyn had objected to sleeping in the same room as the dragon, but Liam had stood firm, pointing out that it made no noise, did not smell, and was an excellent guard. The other man gave in reluctantly, but Liam had felt it politic for his familiar to keep a low profile. Once the dragon was settled, he stropped his already-sharp razor and waited for the boy to bring his bags.
"That'll do," Provyn told his valet, his shave finished. "Lay out my clothes for dinner - the blue slashed velvet, I think - and have those from today cleaned. Cleaned well, mind you, not just waved near a bucket of hot water and then hung by the fire. That innkeep's wife lied like a very rogue, and knew not her station." This, Liam had learned, was part of his roommate's evening ritual: ordering his clothes cleaned and then complaining about them.
"In course, master," the valet replied from the depths of Provyn's trunk. Somehow his baggage always arrived in the room before Liam's. "Though fair is fair, master, and that sort of stain is passing hard to out."
"I know another rogue who knows not his station," Provyn said coldly, and turned away from his man's mumbled apology to face Liam. He was a fat man, not tremendously so but flabby, with drooping jowls and a belly that sagged over his belt. His black hair had receded across the top of his head, but it hung to his shoulders in the back and the sides, so that he looked like a lady wearing her veil in reverse. Rubbing idly at his pink, fleshy cheek, he considered Liam for a long moment, then gave a sigh. "I wonder, Quaestor Rhenford, whether y'have another coat. A cleaner coat."
Liam was so startled at being addressed that he dropped his razor; it was one of the longest sentences Provyn had ever spoken to him. "Oh yes," he said, quickly retrieving the razor. He looked down at his worn and travel-stained coat. "I brought some nicer clothes for when the court actually holds sessions."
"May I counsel you to wear your...nicer...clothes this evening? We're to dine with Aedile Cuspinian and his people at eight bells, and while I'm sure the reputation of the Areopagus can be of little moment to you, who are so newly created a member of it, it is a matter of pride for those of us who have served some time with it."
Liam bit back a sarcastic reply and forced a smile. "Of course, Quaestor Provyn. I'll wear my best - I don't think you'll be disappointed."
"My thoughts were more of whether Areopage Saffian would be disappointed," the other man said, drawing himself up into an indignant pose.
"Oh, I think she'll be pleased too," he replied, privately doubting if she would notice if he came to dinner in a sack. Probably comment on the magical and criminal applications of sacks. "Speaking of the Areopage, she said that as soon as we reached Warinsford you would be able to dig through your papers and find those reports for me. If I could have even a moment's glance at them, it would help me do my share in upholding the reputation of the Areopagus."
Provyn's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "She warranted that?"
Liam nodded, trying to make his smile as innocent as possible. Widow Saffian had vaguely promised that the reports would be forthcoming in Warinsford, though she had said nothing about 'as soon as.' "Since we're dining at eight, that would give me time for a quick glance at them, and then I won't come across as such an idiot at dinner."
After a moment spent trying to penetrate Liam's ingenuous expression, the quaestor snorted and gestured irritably at his valet. "Find Iorvram, and have him give you the small Warinsford chest. I'll dress myself," he added, as if it were a great sacrifice. The valet darted off.
"I really do appreciate it," Liam assured him, resuming his stropping with vigor to keep from laughing at Provyn's attempts to get into the clothes his servant had laid out. He managed to pull on his shiny satin breeches well enough, but got caught up in the lining of his jacket, which was of a pale blue that showed up well through the slashes in the dark blue outer layer. After watching the fat quaestor struggle to get his arms through the sleeves for over a minute, Liam took pity and held the jacket for him.
Grunting reluctant thanks, Provyn shrugged himself into the jacket and began buttoning it up the front. He sucked in his belly before doing up each button, and by the time he was done he looked much thinner and his face was a frightening mulberry color. Between the slashing and the silver braid that crawled around the hems and buttonholes, the jacket was a monstrosity, but even its garishness had not prepared Liam for the neck ruff the quaestor now pulled from his trunk and, wordlessly, handed to him.
"I haven't seen one of these for quite a while," Liam said, passing it around the other man's neck and searching for the fastener. And the last time was on a pimp in Torquay.
"They're no rarity - at least among the fashionable," Provyn sniffed. The ruff formed a plate around his head three inches wide.
Liam made a noncommittal noise and finally found the hook that held the stiff cloth together. "All done." He stepped away just as his boy arrived at the door, weighed down by a set of saddlebags, a writing case, a sailor's dunnage bag and two swords. Liam relieved him of his burden and sent him away with a copper coin as a reward. For his generosity he received a bright grin from the boy and a snort from Provyn.
"Not all rogues are servants," the quaestor opined when the boy had gone, "but all servants are rogues."
"That's why I don't have any," Liam said brightly, searching through his dunnage bag for a good suit of clothes. "Such trouble all the time - stealing the silver, being insolent, always underfoot. They're a curse, plain and simple." He found his green tunic and breeches and laid them out on the bed. They were a little wrinkled, but there was nothing he could do about that.
"Aye," Provyn said suspiciously, not sure if he was being mocked; the arrival of his valet with a heavy wooden chest prevented him from deciding. "On the bed," he ordered, and when the chest had been deposited, the mattress sinking several inches under its weight, he used a key from a pouch on his waist to open it. After a few moments of going through the contents, he pulled out two thin bundles of paper tied with red string, placed them on the bed, and carefully locked the chest. The valet took up the chest again at his gesture and left.
"These are the reports," Provyn explained, tapping them with his index finger. "I pray you to keep them in order, and not to lose any of the pages."
Liam nodded solemnly and picked up the bundles as if they were holy relics. He thought about asking if he should wear gloves while handling them, but decided that would be pushing the quaestor too far. Hesitantly, he asked: "Is this all?" Together the bundles contained no more than thirty pages.
"Aye," the other man said, his mouth twisting in a grimace Liam did not understand. "There're but two capital cases here. Now, we dine at eight, look you, and it would be a disservice to Aedile Cuspinian to be late. You'll not be too long?" When he had Liam's promise to be on time, he adjusted his neck ruff and left the room.
"What do you know, familiar mine," Liam said, after he had shut the door. "I've finally got something to sink my teeth into. Now, shall I dress or shall I read?" He brandished the reports at the dragon.
I do not understand why they could not give them to you earlier.
"Neither do I," Liam admitted. He played with the red string for a few seconds, wondering what Provyn meant by capital cases, and why mentioning them had seemed to pain him. "Well, at least I'll know what I'm looking into," he said. "Now - dress or read?"
Dress, the dragon advised. You do not want to be late for dinner.
"Right," Liam said absently, running his thumbnail along a length of red string. "I'll need to shave, too. These can wait."
He pulled a chair close to the fire, untied the string on the first bundle, and started reading.
And the excitement continues in the following chapters!
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