The Spark – Snippet 07

Buck had never been in a place like this; he sure didn’t want to go in. I didn’t either, to tell the truth, but I didn’t see another choice. I took the length of cord turned three times around my waist, tied a good-sized loop in one end with a square knot, and laid it over Buck’s head. He was trembling, but he didn’t fight me.

The leash wasn’t to hold him–it wasn’t tight and it wouldn’t tighten. It just meant that I was serious and he had to obey.

“It’s okay, boy,” I whispered. “I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

We walked to where May waited for us by a counter just inside the doorway. She turned to the ostler and said, “Here he is, Taney. Give him a kennel for a week, will you? Though I don’t know how long it’s really going to be.”

She knows everybody in Dun Add, I thought. I wondered who she really was. None of the women I’d seen in the park wore clothes as nice as May did, as simple as her dress looked.

“What’s his number?” said Taney, taking a square of paper from a spike and lifting a brush from his ink well. He was way heavier than he ought to be, but there were real muscles in his scarred arms.

“He doesn’t have one yet,” said May.

“Aw, Miss May!” Taney said wearily. “You know I’m not supposed to stable animals until there’s a number to charge ’em to.”

I brought my purse out from under my trousers. Before I could make an offer, May said, “Oh, come on, Taney. If you won’t do it for the Consort, do it for me. All right?”

“All right, all right,” muttered Taney. “But you know I shouldn’t.”

He wrote 413 down on the chit and slid it to me. May leaned over the counter and kissed his grizzled cheek. Taney turned his head away and said, “Aw, May,” again but in a soft tone this time.

“Do I…?” I said, but a boy wearing a leathern apron came down an aisle between the ranked kennels and took the leash.

“Where’s your chit?” the boy said. He turned his head sideways to read my slip of paper right-way-up and said, “Okay, four thirteen. Four Level is being fed right now. That okay for him?”

“Yes, that’s good,” I said. I turned my back so that I didn’t have to watch Buck being led up a winding ramp. He didn’t even whine.

I wanted to whine myself, though. I felt more alone than I’d ever been in my life.

“Now, let’s get you fed too,” May said. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me.

“I’m all right,” I said. I hoped that was true.

We turned to the right as we left the stables and walked along the pavement. I’d blinked my eyes clear by the time we turned into another high doorway, thirty feet along the way. This was like the common room of an inn. The forty odd men–they were all men–eating at the tables weren’t a tenth of what the hall could have held.

“What’s on offer today, Yoko?” May asked one of the men at the serving counter. “Oh, and will you give me a pitcher of water to put these in?” She gestured with the tulips in her right hand. “I meant to have them up in Jolene’s suite by now.”

“Stewed pork and collards,” the server said. He reached behind him for a pitcher, which he scooped into a tub of water. He raised his eyebrow at me and said, “Two bowls?”

“Please,” said May, taking the pitcher.

“I’ll get ’em,” I said as the server ladled two ironstone bowls full. He offered two horn spoons also, which I gripped between my left ring and little fingers.

I followed to the table where May was sitting. I’d have sat opposite but she scooted over on the bench and patted the end beside her. I set the bowls and spoons on the table, shrugged off my pack and stowed it under the bench, and finally sat down myself.

From the way people were staring, May didn’t usually eat on these scarred tables; which I could well believe. She lifted her spoon but paused when I took half the tulips from the pitcher she’d set in front of us. I retrimmed the stems at a slant, then traded and fixed the other half as well.

I put my knife back in the sheath under my waist band and tucked into the pork. It was wonderful. Granted that the cook knew his business–there were spices beyond pepper, and the pot hadn’t been stewed to mush as I’d expected–it made me realize how hungry I was. I was glad Buck was eating by now, too.

May was looking at me in amazement. “Ah…?” I said. “I figured the ends had dried out while you’ve been guiding me around. They’ll take up water better now. Besides, you’d used scissors to cut them and that pinches. A knife’s better if you’re putting the stems in water.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” May said. She took a little sip of the pork, then said, “What decided you to leave your home, Pal? I suppose Beune bored you?”

“No ma’am,” I said. “There’s plenty going on in Beune. We’re pretty close to Not-Here, you see, and you can never tell what’s going to drift across. Besides, I’m sort of a Maker and there’s always something new to learn, you know?”

May finished her big spoonful and then took more. I suspect she was finding she liked the pork better than she’d expected to.

“No, I didn’t know that,” she said. “I certainly didn’t know you were a Maker. Didn’t you say you wanted to be a Champion?”

“Ma’am–May, I’m sorry, I’m a Maker for fun,” I said. “I really like to learn things. But it’s the Champions who’re going to bring safety and justice back to Mankind. I can’t be a Champion on Beune.”

“I see,” May said, but she said it a way that made me pretty sure that she didn’t. She took another spoonful.

“May, if I can ask?” I said.

She looked sideways at me. After a moment, she gave me a tiny nod.

“You mentioned ‘the Consort,’ and then you said, you were bringing the flowers for Jolene?” I said. “Is that–”

“I mean Lady Jolene, the Leader’s Consort,” May said, turning to face me. “I’m one of her attendants.”

“Um,” I said. I’d pretty near finished my stew, but I managed to scoop a little more juice onto my spoon so that I wasn’t staring at May. “I guess that explains why everybody’s so respectful to you.”

That might sound wrong. “Not that they shouldn’t be, I mean,” I added. “It’s just that folks aren’t always as polite as they ought to be. On Beune, anyway.”

A man came up behind me. I didn’t think anything of it for a moment, but I turned when I realized he wasn’t walking on.

He was older than me but not old, thirty maybe, and starting to get a paunch. His clothes were good, with velvet piping on the jacket and down the legs of his trousers. I said, “Sir?”

“I thought you didn’t like men, little lady,” he said to May. He wasn’t shouting, but his voice was louder than it had to be. The cat jumped from May’s lap and vanished under the table.

I got up. I couldn’t get between the stranger and May, but I was right beside him. I was taller by a few inches, but he could give me more weight than just the fat he was carrying.

With me standing, May could push the bench back enough she could get up too.

She said, “I have nothing against men, Easton. I don’t like you, is all.”

“Look, you slut–” Easton snarled.

“Sir!” I said in his ear. “You’re speaking to a lady!”

“Shut up, kid,” Easton said without turning. “If you’re good, I’ll give you seconds after May services me.”

May slapped him, hard enough to spin his head sideways. People jumped up from their meals, and a couple benches fell over.

Easton’s left hand caught May by the shoulder; his right arm cocked back. It kept coming back because I’d grabbed his wrist. There were men like him on Beune, so I’d known what to expect. When Easton tried to grab me by the hair, I kneed him in the crotch and stepped back.

He didn’t go down, but he backed against the bench and banged it over. May had gotten clear and was in the aisle.

“All right, hobby,” Easton said in a raspy voice. He was bending over a bit still. “You’re wearing arms, so you’ll meet me on the field in an hour. Or I’ll have you whipped out of the city, whipped so you’ll be lucky to be able to walk!”

“I’ll meet you on the field,” I said.

It was funny, but now I felt better than I had since I got to Dun Add. This sort of business hadn’t been new to me since I was about five years old.