Excerpt--Aisling, Book One: Guardian
© Carole Cummings
“This one’s yours, Brayden.”
Dallin watched the leather folio skid across the desk and come to rest with a smart slap against his mug. Coffee slopped over the rim, and he scowled. Elmar stood grinning at the chief’s elbow, snorting wolfishly. Dallin ignored him. He’d never liked Elmar.
Lips pursed, Dallin wicked up his lamp and tipped a nod to Jagger. “Chief.” Swiping coffee from its flyleaf, Dallin opened the folio. “What’s this, and why’s it mine?”
“You’re good at this sort of thing,” Elmar supplied, still with that arsy grin. Dallin wondered what that grin would look like with a few less teeth. “That is, it’s within your purview of interest, I should say.” A waggle of thin eyebrows beneath a lank fringe of greasy brown hair. “A pretty little piece too, innit, Chief?”
Jagger rolled his eyes with a slight clench of teeth, then turned on Elmar. “Have you got that request to the Ambassador finished yet?”
Elmar’s grin finally fled. As did he. “Right away, Chief” was all he said as he scarpered.
Jagger watched the back of him with a sour grimace. “That’s the sort as gets shot by his own in the army.” Dallin covered his smirk as the chief turned back to him and waved a hand to the folio. “Witness,” he said. “There was murder done at the Kymberly last night.”
Dallin snapped his glance up. “Murder?” He stared. He’d lived in Putnam for more than twenty years, been a constable for nigh on ten of them, and yet, even after two tours in the cavalry and all the violence inherent therein, murder in the more civilized Putnam still gave him a mild shock. Dallin focused on the few sheaves of paper inside the folio. “And at the Kymberly, by the Mother.” He shot another glance at the chief. “Was it robbery?” The significance abruptly caught up with him, and his heart did a bit of a flip. “Not Ramsford?”
Medeme Ramsford—respectable proprietor of the respectable Kymberly, onetime companion, and best friend in the long years since.
The chief shook his head. “Master Ramsford is unscathed, but for p’raps a few bruised knuckles.” He shrugged at Dallin’s quizzical look. “He had to pull the brigand off the victim, and the brigand didn’t want to let go.”
“Bloody damn.” Dallin sighed in relief. “Is this the man, then?” He held up the prisoner profile. “There isn’t much here.”
“And I wouldn’t make bank on what is,” Jagger told him. “That’s the witness—or the instigator, depending on what you manage to wring from him.” A frown from Dallin got another shrug from the chief, this one a little uncomfortable. “It would seem that the fight started over who would keep company with this….” He took the paper and scanned it quickly, then handed it back. “This Calder.”
A prostitute. Bloody hell. Dallin slumped. Now he understood Elmar’s sly digs.
“And you want me to slap him around a bit.” His voice was flat, but he couldn’t keep his jaw from tightening. He’d thought that was finished, at least between himself and Jagger. “I never touched the woman, damn it, and I won’t be used as some sort of ogre to scare the whores into—”
“I want you to question him because I don’t fancy letting Elmar or Payton at him. Have I ever done else to make you think otherwise?”
The chief stared, gaze level and hard, until Dallin’s hackles smoothed again and he glanced away. “You have not, sir,” he said, chastened. In fact, he’d asked Dallin the question once, and when Dallin had testified that—as little as even he’d believed it—the woman had bounced her own head off the table before screeching her accusations, Jagger had merely nodded, accepted Dallin’s word, and signed off personally on all the reports. Dallin supposed it wasn’t Jagger’s fault the other smarmy gits wouldn’t let it go. Payton had bloody congratulated him. Slimy little shit. Dallin cleared his throat. “My apologies.”
Jagger accepted this with a small nod. “It isn’t like it was before.” His mouth set in a thin, bitter line. “These men aren’t veterans of Aldrich’s army like you and me—honor is something they talk about, not something they know, and it’s only got worse since Wheeler took command. People view this truce as a victory and affirmation that Wheeler’s ways are the right ones, not the capitulation it really is, and all the while, we become more and more like our enemy every day. Men like us are getting steadily pushed out of positions of rank and authority to make way for the types who would as soon pull a few fingernails as ask a simple question.” He shook himself with a surly snort. “Which is neither here nor there at the moment, but the bottom line is that as long as I am in charge here, we do things the old way—our way.
“Here is this Calder’s statement, and those of the other witnesses.” He slid more papers at Dallin. “The truth is, even had I not already decided as much, Ramsford asked that I assign you. He says you’ve been a friend to him, and he’s concerned for the… lad.” He cleared his throat. “And in truth, I’m not sure I trust any other with this witness. This man, this… this boy… I can’t tell.” The chief looked away. “I’ll say no more. Ask your own questions, draw your own conclusions, then report them to me.”
“But… wait—witness, not suspect?” Dallin lifted his gaze from the papers. “We have the murderer in custody, yes? So why did we bring this man in? Did no one interview him at the scene?”
“I interviewed him at the scene. I decided the… situation required further enlightenment.”
Dallin shrugged. “As you wish. But I’m not sure I understand what I’m to do with him. All these statements seem to say the same thing. One man killed another—one is on a slab, and one is in a cell. What exactly am I meant to wring from this one?”
Jagger sighed, pulled out the chair opposite the desk, and lowered himself into it tiredly. There were circles under his bloodshot eyes, and his skin was pallid gray. He must have been dragged from his bed for this some hours ago. He leaned into the desk and folded his hands atop it.
“The victim and the assailant were both Dominionites.”
Dallin’s stomach gave a little flip. “That’s….” He pushed a low whistle between his teeth.
“It is,” Jagger agreed. “The talks in Penley go bad enough as it is. The last thing Cynewísan needs is to give the Dominion an excuse to make them go worse. If I can help it, Putnam will not be giving them that excuse.” His big hands opened. “I’m sending a courier with a request to their ambassador for instructions on what they… suggest we do with this Orman.”
“The suspect.” When Jagger nodded confirmation, Dallin smirked. “May I suggest Corliss for courier duty?”
“You may. She’s due for a day away from the brood, I imagine—an overnight will be good for her. Anyway, she’s likely the only one I can trust not to get drunk and start a fight at the inn.”
Dallin loosed a mild snort as he flipped through the papers. “I wouldn’t take that bet.”
“A good subordinate allows his chief an illusion or two.”
“All right, then.” Dallin peered down at the papers, all innocence. “In that case I’ll let you believe I made the suggestion because Corliss is the better rider, and not because I’ll be chuckling myself to sleep tonight, imagining the looks on a bunch of Dominionites’ faces when they receive that request from a woman’s hand.”
“Ha!” Jagger sat back with a dreamy look in his eye. “A woman in trousers, no less. I think I’d pay to see that. Devious bugger, you are.” He grinned when Dallin gave him a modest little flourish of his hand. “Even if you weren’t so good at your job, I think I’d keep you about for sheer comic relief.”
Dallin took the gruff, left-handed compliment with a shrug and a stifled grin.
Jagger snorted, then turned serious again. “I’ll want your report ready for the afternoon’s post. I mean to send it on to their ambassador and ours, plus copies of everything we have to the Elders in Penley. I want them there with the morning post so Corliss can bring back….” He sighed. “Whatever word they choose to send with her.”
“Don’t suppose I could pull courier duty and let Corliss take the statement?”
“No, but it was a nice try. We need to go by the letter on this, no mistakes. The scrap is said to have started over this Calder person, and I’m not satisfied he’s been truthful thus far. I would know all I can before I send those reports.” Jagger shifted uncomfortably. “There was talk of conjuring.”
“There’s always talk of conjuring.”
“True. Still, two of the other witnesses—including Ramsford himself—said the victim, if you can call him such, and the assailant both seemed tranced, and this Orman accused as much during his interrogation.”
“Don’t they all,” Dallin muttered. “Do you believe it?”
Jagger sighed, weary, and rubbed at his stubbled chin. “As you say, they all claim witchery when caught. Still, I’ve met the man, and I must admit to… entertaining the possibility.”
Dallin looked again at the scant information he’d been provided. “His papers look legal.”
“They also say he’s from Lind,” Jagger told him. “And if that man is from Lind, or even from Cynewísan, I’ll don petticoats and ask you for a dance come Turning Night.”
Ah. Lind. Better and better. Shaking his head, Dallin tucked the page back into the folio and flipped it closed. “Never place a bet on which you have no intention of making good, sir.”
“Not unless you’re dead certain.” Jagger stood and turned to quit the room. “You’ll see.”
Dallin had never liked coming down to the gaol wing of the constabulary, set dark and dank in the basement of the great building where justice ground its wheels above and in the light of day. It was dim and moldy, the only light the oily flicker of smoky gas lamps set in sconces too few and far apart. And even though the interrogation rooms were set more toward the center of the cellars, at least fifty feet down and around the corner of the wide corridor to the left, still Dallin wrinkled his nose at the smells that breathed from the cell wing, permeating every pore of stone and brick: piss and vomit, stale liquor and fear, rancid heat from new fires built on the bones of the old. Death leached in somehow, snaking its darkling spice into brick and mortar, and Dallin shook his head at himself. They’d not lost one down here in seven years, and that had been the old caretaker who’d tripped over his own wash bucket and broke his tosspot neck. No angry ghosts. Still, Dallin couldn’t help the slight shudder as he slipped his holster from his hips and handed it over to the bailiff.
Beldon turned the book on the table with his wide, callused hands and handed Dallin a pen. “Sign in.”
Dallin bent to comply but couldn’t help a sideways glance as Beldon looped the belt around the holster, eyeing the cool metal inside it with greedy appreciation. “From Booker’s in Wedgewood,” Dallin offered. “A pretty sum, but it comes with proof and papers from Oxnaford.”
“And it sings?”
“True and sweet as a virgin lass on her wedding night.”
Beldon snorted. “Your witness is in there.” He jerked his head toward the heavy wooden door in the center of the stone corridor. “You’d best step along. Payton didn’t wait for you.”
Dallin frowned. “Payton? What’s—”
“He’s the one signed him in,” Beldon cut in. “Couldn’t’ve stopped him had I wanted to.”
The discomfort in Beldon’s glance gave Dallin pause. “You wanted to?”
Beldon sat back as he slid Dallin’s revolver carefully from hand to hand. “He spoke of having another go at the ‘poof enchanter.’” He said it with a disapproving curl of his mouth but hitched his shoulders in a What do you want from me? shrug when Dallin glared. “His words,” Beldon said. “But I wasn’t keen on the way he said ’em. The lad was already bruised a bit going in, but….” Another shrug. “I made sure Payton knew someone would be counting them on his way back out. I’ve bent my ear, but so far I’ve heard nothing to move me down the hall.”
Dallin merely nodded and tightened his jaw. He only just remembered to offer a curt “Thank you” over his shoulder as he made his way down the corridor.
He was almost hoping to surprise Payton in midblow or something when he swung the door open. He liked Payton only a little more than he liked Elmar. Both men were rather too fond of the more sordid aspects of their jobs than was decent; both men looked upon their constant striving to earn the responsibility of carrying a sidearm as a goal and a right to be had rather than the somber, ofttimes distasteful duty it was. But Payton was merely lounging on one of the wooden chairs, his handsome face smiling easily, perfect white teeth bright even in the dim of the lamps.
“Ah, Brayden, I wondered when you’d spoil my little chat.” Payton waved over the table. “You’ve not met this—” He cleared his throat with a shrug that was a bit exaggerated, but still theatrically elegant. “—gentleman.” The inflection made it all too clear that the intent was in direct opposition to the word itself.
Dallin said nothing, only pointed his gaze toward the huddled figure on the other side of the table. Dark hair worn long to his shoulders, but clean and kempt, hid the man’s face, and he had yet to look up. The shoulders were hunched, an attempt at smallness, perhaps, but Dallin could see that the build was lean and lanky. Height was not readily apparent, but the hands that stuck out from the ends of sleeves too long and loose were long-fingered, red and roughened with new chafing and calluses. The posture was one of resigned defeat, but there was nothing abject about it. Dallin sensed a hum beneath it all, an alert watchfulness that belied the weary set of the shoulders and hang of the head.
“Says his name’s Calder.” Payton tipped his chair onto its back legs with a laconic smile. “What was that first name again, Calder?”
“Wilfred” was the soft answer. “Wil.” The voice was quiet, nearly gentle, so why did Dallin get the impression the name had been shoved out from between clenched teeth?
“Mm.” Payton peered up at Dallin. “Wilfred Calder. Wil. From Lind.” He rolled his eyes. “Wilfred Calder, this is Constable Brayden. He’s to be your new friend, because frankly, you’ve bored me.” The chair thumped as Payton stood and moved aside to let Dallin have it. “I’ve got nothing from him we don’t already know. You handle it, Brayden.” The tone had changed from pleasant and conversational to cool disregard. “P’raps you speak the same language.”
Dallin let the slur go, but not the insolence. “Since it’s my case,” he said levelly, “I suggest you should not have been questioning a witness without my presence to begin with.” He kept his voice even but allowed a slight edge of menace into the tone. “See that it doesn’t happen again.”
Payton’s cool look turned sour. A glare he couldn’t possibly back up kept wanting to stretch at his face, but to his credit he kept his expression to mere calculation. Dallin let him look. Dallin had rank and seniority, his size, and Jagger’s ear; Payton had what passed for charm, his looks, and Elmar for a friend. Dallin gave him a moment to draw his own conclusions.
Thwarted, Payton turned his ire on the witness. “Wake up there, Calder, and give the constable his due respect.” The word curled up in sarcastic mockery. Dallin ignored Payton’s bit of a smirk but took a step forward when Payton gave a light cuff to the witness’s ear. “Look up and greet your new friend—he’s likely the only one you’ll have here.”
Calder flinched away from the blow but shot a murderous glare up at Payton. Dallin only just kept from snorting. It died in his throat when the man turned his head and leveled his gaze with Dallin’s.
It was like looking inside a liquid pool of verdigris, deep and dense, murky depths shifting with swirls of sage and emerald. Almost as though the black ink spots of the pupils lay buoyant, gently poised atop a shifting well of malachite. Not just looking at Dallin, but seeing him—seeing him profoundly, and into depths Dallin himself had never plumbed.
I know you, he thought, grasping at a purling wisp of recognition that slipped through the saner fingers of reason. No. No, I don’t, but… why does it feel like I should?
The face should have been pale, but layers of sunburn flaked about the nose, one atop the other, and a thin swarm of new freckles flecked the high cheekbones, as though the man had spent his life locked up in a dark room and had only recently got his first bite of the sun—and the sun had bitten him back. The features were sharp and angular, too thin and too young, but the eyes took all youth and buried it beneath darkling depths of years and sorrows this man could not possibly have lived. Dark circles bloomed beneath green eyes, and a bruise flowered and purpled along the right cheekbone, swept up past the temple and into black hair. None of it served to mar the comely features; none of it took away the sheer beauty.
Disturbed and disoriented, Dallin tried to pull his gaze away—couldn’t.
Is this what those men saw just before they’d come to blows? Was this witchcraft, as they’d claimed? Or merely the animal reaction of men confronted with something they’d never seen before and perhaps wanted to possess? A reaction, Dallin was dismayed to find, to which he himself didn’t seem immune.
Stop looking at me, stop seeing me.
Dallin shook his head, opened his mouth—a greeting, an introduction, he didn’t know, just something to shock him out of his own absurd stupor—but he was suddenly, embarrassingly mute. He rubbed at his eyes to cover it.
The movement brought Calder to action—he leaped from his chair, stumbled a bit as he backed over it, and then pressed his back to the far wall. Payton was instantly on alert. He took a step, but Dallin shot a hand out and held him back.
Calder was taller than he’d thought, Dallin realized with the small part of his normally analytical mind that was still working. Wider too.
He was only trying to make himself small, unthreatening. Remember that later—you might need it.
Payton was the first to recover, shrugging out of Dallin’s grip. “Sit down, sir.” He took a step forward, request and warning both.
“Aire,” Calder breathed, eyes locked to Dallin, disregarding Payton completely and vibrating now as though his bones would shake loose. “Gníomhaire!”
Payton snorted. “Oh, you’re from Lind, all right.” Disgusted now, he stepped around the table to right the chair. “I asked you to sit down, Mister Calder. I won’t ask again.”
Calder only kept staring, didn’t even seem to hear. “Guardian.” He spat the word like it tasted bad.
They all three stared—Dallin and Calder at each other, Payton shifting his glance between them. The fear and betrayal in Calder’s eyes mystified Dallin. People reacted to his size; it was a natural thing, double takes and instinctive backward twitches. Dallin had been used to it since before he’d sprouted his first patchy bit of beard. In the line of work he’d chosen—or had chosen him, depending on how one looked at it—it was sometimes a handy tool. Useful, and therefore useable. Still, this seemed a bit extreme. What have I ever done to you? he wanted to ask, and only just kept himself from actually voicing the question out loud. Instead he stood silent, staring into eyes that seemed to swallow his sense, set him swaying.
Bewitched. Calder wasn’t beautiful, Dallin decided. Those oracles he had for eyes just made one think he was. Even the fear was beguiling.
Dallin was still staring, trying not to feel so off, and only came back to himself when Payton cleared his throat.
“You will agree, Constable, that the witness has turned hostile and presents a danger to himself and the constabulary officers.” Payton held out his hand. “May I have your manacles, please?”
The benevolent, sympathetic part of Dallin’s mind registered the flare of panic in Calder’s eyes at the prospect of restraint. The rational part of it understood immediately the advantage of that fear.
Dallin tore his gaze away from Calder, blinking, then stared down at Payton’s open hand. Reluctance swept him.
Dallin could break Calder in half if he really wanted to. Shackles were hardly necessary. Anyway, the anticipatory gleam in Payton’s eye filled Dallin with vague disgust. He almost refused just for the pleasure of spiking the smarmy git. Still, it would take hours of steady pressure to get the same level of discomfort the mere threat of confinement had brought. Dallin calculated that carrying out the threat would ramp up that discomfort and save them all some time and trouble, perhaps trip this Calder into anxious confession before lunchtime. And considering the raised hackles at the back of Dallin’s neck, the swarming sense that something was going on right beneath his sight but not where he could see it with his eyes, magic seemed all too likely at the moment.
He handed over the shackles, their wide cuffs etched with charms and suppression spells. Dallin had always thought those engravings a silly pretension—now he only hoped the engraver hadn’t been asleep on the job.
The snap of the metal over his wrists seemed to pull Calder back to the room. His eyes widened, gaze turning bright with dread for a moment, before it deliberately dulled and sank to the floor. His shoulders hunched again, and he bowed his head. A perfect imitation of submission, but Dallin had no delusions. The calculation in his lack of resistance as Payton all but threw Calder into the chair and the limp defeat of his posture all but screamed buried defiance, calm cunning.
“Well, that was the most excitement I’ve seen in months.” The light in Payton’s eyes and the near pant as he breathed reminded Dallin again why he didn’t like this man. “I think perhaps I’ll stay after all.”
“No.” Dallin’s voice was calmer than he’d expected it to be, but his nerve endings were jittering, keeping the hairs at the back of his neck at rigid attention. “I don’t think you will.” He ignored Payton’s glare, merely stepped to the door, hauled it open, and stared, expectant. He’d like to think the flat look was a handy reminder that if Payton didn’t do as he was bid, Dallin could very well make him.
It worked. Payton loosed a small growl under his breath, then lifted his chin, straightened his coat, and swanned to the door. He shot a sour sneer over his shoulder. “Don’t think I won’t—”
“You’re not leaving me in here alone with him, are you?”
It was shaky, high-pitched, and frantic. Payton and Dallin both turned back to Calder, manacled hands clenched atop the table now, the dull look of defeat forgotten in new panic. Dallin could hardly credit it. He knew his size was intimidating, but this man looked at him as though he’d done murder right in front of him—as though he knew him and had cause to fear him.
It was unnerving. Dallin didn’t get unnerved.
“Out,” Dallin said to Payton, and when Payton didn’t move fast enough, Dallin let go of the door and let its weight swing it home. Payton didn’t yelp, but his arms windmilled a bit as he pulled them hastily through the steadily narrowing doorway. Dallin allowed himself a small smirk before turning back to the… he kept wanting to think of this Calder as a prisoner and had to remind himself he was merely a witness, manacles notwithstanding.
Dallin shook his head and pulled in a long steadying breath, then pushed it out slowly. Calmly, moving deliberately so as not to alarm again, he lowered himself into the empty chair, took up the folio, and splayed it open.
“These papers name you Wilfred Calder. Do you hold to the claim?”
Calder’s green eyes narrowed in confusion and suspicion. A slow nod was all Dallin got by way of answer. Dallin sighed. This would go hard—he could tell already. He mentally waved good-bye to another cup of coffee, and probably his lunch, and prepared himself for a long morning.
“They further claim that you are from Lind.” This time Dallin peered up, openly skeptical.
Calder’s gaze dropped and shifted to the table. “I’ve done no wrong.” His voice was soft again, but with threads of rebellious bravado. “Do you intend to keep me prisoner here, or…?”
“You are not a prisoner.” Dallin pointedly didn’t look when Calder’s hands shifted on the table, deliberately dragging the small chain across the surface. “You were witness to foul murder, and a statement is needed.”
“I’ve given my statement—twice. I saw a man who introduced himself as Orman beat another who introduced himself as Palmer to death. May I go now?”
Dallin nearly smirked, mildly amused at the cornered audacity. “I’m told they fought over who would keep company with you.”
Calder’s mouth screwed up in an uneasy scowl. “I encouraged no such contest. Nor did I want it.”
“So, they did quarrel over you.”
Calder’s eyes closed, and his head sank lower. Dallin could almost hear the inner shit, shit, shit at the accidental confession.
“Did they argue over price, one trying to outbid the other?”
A clench of the teeth this time. “I am no doxy.”
And there’s another.
“A witch, then?”
Calder snorted as though he’d expected the accusation. “Magic is illegal, but for those registered and sanctioned to practice by the Commonwealth.”
“I know the law, thank you.”
“As do I.”
“Then you know that failing to register is a minor infraction, and you’d not be likely to spend even a fortnight in gaol—if you confess.”
It wasn’t a lie. Failure to register was a small violation. Practicing magic without license, however, was decidedly not. And magicking with criminal intent was another matter altogether. Dallin had every intention of sharing those bits of information—after he got whatever confession there was to be had.
Calder’s head was still down, so Dallin couldn’t see his face, but he saw the jaw set rigid. “Men would see witchery where there is only vice. I cannot be blamed for another’s lack of control.”
“Vice, then, as you will. So, you accepted attentions from one and not the other.”
“I accepted nothing!”
Dallin let the slight roll of his eyes speak his doubt. “Do you say you didn’t intend to sleep with either man, or that you didn’t intend to charge them for it?”
Calder’s long fingers curled in, fisted, knuckles turning yellow-white. Heavy, pinioned silence.
“Prostitution has not been a hanging offense for decades,” Dallin ventured quietly. “A fine the first time, nothing more. If you cooperate, I can see there’s not even that, but I must—”
“I do not sleep with men for money.” It was almost a hiss.
Dallin lifted an eyebrow. The same mark, and hit harder this time. He went for a third. “What do you sleep with them for?”
“Why?” The sudden smile was coy and cold. “Interested?”
Not at all the wrath and loss of control he’d hoped for. “And if I were?”
The smile slid away. Calder looked down again. “You like to play with people, don’t you, Guardian? Makes you feel powerful, I expect.” He lifted his hands, chain jinking and jangling. “You already have all the power. Why do you prolong this? Can we just get on and have an end?”
Dallin resisted a puzzled frown. “All right—tell me who you really are, and I’ll see what I can do.”
The defeat was back again, real this time—Dallin could read it in the slope of the shoulders, the desperate grasping of the hands as Calder pushed his fingers into his hair and groaned, small and helpless. The body language was speaking volumes, but actual information was apparently going to have to be dug out from between verbal feints and weaves.
A livid scar drew his gaze, jagging around Calder’s left wrist and over the back of his hand to the knuckles, lumping the skin into tight pink puckers. Dallin noted it but put it aside.
“Just do it and get it over,” Calder whispered. “I’m tired and I can’t do this anymore. Stop playing, Gníomhaire, and just do it.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Because it is what you are. We should call things by their proper names, shouldn’t we, you and I? Now, of all times.”
Annoyed now, Dallin allowed a tolerant sigh. “I am Brayden, First Constable of the Province of Putnam.” He dipped his head in a small, ironic imitation of a respectful bow. “I suppose ‘guardian’ is a more delicate term than some would choose, but what is the other? Are you swearing at me? Or are you speaking in tongues? That in itself is enough cause for an accusation of magicking.”
Slowly, Calder lifted his head. Eyes that too obviously held back tears blinked across the table—curiosity, disbelief, and… something Dallin couldn’t name. Hope?
“You don’t….” Whisper-quiet, but not as shaky. Calder’s eyes narrowed again, and he tilted his head. “Guardian?”
“Brayden,” Dallin repeated patiently. “Constable Brayden.” He leaned in, a bit of concern now leaching through the irritation. Calder was far too pale beneath his unfortunate overdose of sun, and his eyes looked unfocused. “Are you well? Do you need rest, water?”
“Am I… well?” Calder stared like he was looking for something, trying to dig into Dallin’s head and pick apart what he found there.
Dallin stared back, wondering why he’d thought this man beautiful. Handsome, surely, in an angular sort of way, but nothing to stop one’s breath, nothing to merit a fight to the death for the honor of his company. The green eyes weren’t even all that spectacular, now that Dallin really looked up close—they were fine, certainly, clear and deep as forest pine, and unusual in one with hair dark enough to be called black—but still merely green. Perhaps there had been some kind of enchantment involved.
Abruptly, Calder shook his head, squared his shoulders, and leaned into the table. “Stable help.”
Dallin blinked. “Sorry?”
“I work in the stables of Ramsford’s inn—with my back and not on it.”
It was said with conviction and an earnest gaze. Dallin noted it and once again curved smoothly along with the sudden turn in conversation.
“You don’t look like you’d be much help in a stable.”
It wasn’t meant as an insult—Calder was nothing like to the sort. Not broad enough by half, for one, and not rough enough about the edges.
“I’ve no doubt I don’t look like I can do a lot of the things I can do. Looks can deceive.”
“No doubt,” Dallin muttered. “For instance, you don’t look like you’re from Lind.”
That brought a slight twitch, quickly covered. “Oh? And what do those from Lind look like, then?”
“Fair-haired, for one. Without exception.” Dallin noted the aborted reach toward dark hair. His smirk was entirely inward. “Like me, for two. I am from Lind. They grow them a bit bigger there.” He waited a moment for a reaction; when he didn’t get one, he went on, “Hill folk. Clannish. They don’t breed outside their own, and I’d venture to say that if there was a black-haired child born among them, he’d be strangled for a witch with his own cord before he’d drawn his first breath. The green eyes wouldn’t’ve helped. Superstitious lot, Linders.”
“Another man might seize upon the opportunity to point out the dangers of choosing constables from such inbreeders,” Calder observed mildly. He peered sideways at Dallin, looking for reaction.
Dallin didn’t give him one. He shrugged. “And your accent isn’t right. Oh, it’s very good, understand, but it’s off around the edges. Too flat on the vowels and not enough roll in the hard consonants.”
A moment of quiet as Calder looked down with a flush, then shifted a steady look back up at Dallin. “Perhaps I am a bastard, a shameful get on my poor mother by a black-haired brigand, and so we were forced to move about, never staying in one place very long for fear we’d be harried, possibly even stoned for witches by ignorant, inbred villagers.”
Dallin hid a smile at the bold diversion, and he mentally conceded the point. Very clever. And not a little bit twisty.
“Perhaps,” Dallin agreed. “And perhaps you are not who you say you are, and these papers are forgeries.”
Calder didn’t answer, instead asking, “Would you take these off, please?” He held up his hands. “You see I pose no threat.”
The manacles all too obviously bothered him—even more than being questioned about complicity in a murder, even more than being here, alone, for all intents and purposes locked in a room with a man twice his size, despite his controlled panic when he’d practically begged Payton to stay. Dallin indeed saw no threat from this man, but the advantage in keeping Calder on edge was becoming more and more apparent. Anyway, there was the matter of those suppression spells, and considering what had happened when he’d arrived, Dallin didn’t mind admitting he’d just as soon leave the cuffs right where they were.
“You seemed to pose no threat when I walked in, until….” Dallin opened his hand.
“A mistake.” Calder dipped his head, once again the picture of meek submission. “A foolish error. I thought…. I apologize.”
“That rather stuck in your throat, didn’t it?” Dallin tilted his head. “You thought what?”
Calder shrugged. “You are a very large man. You frightened me.” He smiled, tentative, then bent his neck again. Shrewd surrender, sweet and treacherous—a bullet in the soft, pulpy belly of a berry.
All right, so far they’d gone through anger and outrage, and now it had moved on to seduction. Resignation and weary surrender should be next.
It was slightly repulsive, watching Calder work his way through the routine like an actor in a play, and Dallin wasn’t sure he knew why he was almost disappointed. Not as challenging as he’d thought, perhaps, or….
You were impressed for a little while there. You thought he was above it, somehow. Why would you think that? This man is neck-deep in lies, trying to use his eyes and clumsy wiles to dig himself out from beneath them. Why do you hesitate to beat him at the game he chose?
No, not lies, not really—avoiding lies, stopping just short of them, as though it was some kind of morality code—but refusing to wade into truths too, skirting them with deflections, answering questions with questions, oblique accusations, righteous defenses. Calder hadn’t actually said he was from Lind, but he’d let the papers speak the lie for him, and each denial of more unseemly implications had the ring of truth to Dallin’s ears. Dallin would wager that every word Calder had spoken was a truth of some sort. It was breaking the code of those truths and maneuvering Calder into the things he wasn’t saying that would be tricky.
Dallin sat back in his chair, relaxing his pose. “Are you easily frightened?” He made his voice soft, a potential paramour expressing concern.
Calder looked down, demure as he slipped one shoulder up in a small shrug. Dallin didn’t miss the sinuous shift of the collarbone beneath smooth skin revealed by the pull of the half-laced shirt—didn’t miss the fact that it had the appearance of calculated deliberation.
Calder’s hands came up with a tink of metal, long fingers pushing black hair from eyes gone soft and distant. “I’m frightened only by those things over which I have no control.” A rosy little flush softened the fine spray of freckles over Calder’s cheeks. “Some have begged for the opportunity to bind me. Others have threatened it, even tried it, with no regard for my wants or fears. And now….”
Dallin tilted his head, encouraging. “Now?”
“Well.” Calder’s smile turned gently ironic. “Now you don’t have to beg, do you?”
The insult was clear and not wholly unexpected. Nonetheless, Dallin’s jaw tightened. “A slattern’s trick. You won’t find me so easily gamed.”
The soft acquiescence fled beneath a hot spark of anger. “I tell you, I am no—”
“Then stop playing at one!”
“You ask questions, I answer them—isn’t that how this game is supposed to go? And now I am maligned, again, because I play by your rules! If I’ve misunderstood them, do tell, so I can make sure my next step is well within your strategy.”
Edging on anger now, Dallin clenched his teeth. “What did you say to those men?”
Calder loosed a soft groan of weary frustration. “I said No, and Leave me alone, and was given a solid blow to the head for my trouble. Will there be charges for assault as well as murder? Or is the constabulary indifferent to crimes against someone like me?”
“Someone like you.” Dallin leaned in. “Tell me first what you are so I can decide the proper course.”
“You don’t even know what you are. Why would you believe anything I would tell you?”
That one gave Dallin pause. “What does that mean?”
Calder sighed. “Nothing. I’m… upset. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
Dallin didn’t believe that one for a second—every word that came out of this man’s mouth was calculated. “You’ve not answered my question.”
Calder was silent for a long moment, staring at his hands as his fingers picked at each other. Slowly he looked up, his expression fatigued but bold.
“You would make me a depraved conjurer because you want to think me a depraved conjurer. You think I look the part so you’ll fit me into it, no matter what I say.” He dropped his gaze and furthered softly, “Only remember that I could make of you a monster by the same logic.”
Enough. The man didn’t seem to know what a straight answer was.
Dallin snatched up the identification papers and waved them under Calder’s nose. “Who are you, really?”
Calder shifted an anxious glance to the papers. “They are legal and in order.”
Another not-lie/not-truth. Dallin allowed his voice to rise in volume and deepen in timbre, threatening. “Where did you get them? How much did you pay for them, and who sold them to you?”
“I’ve done no wrong!” Calder snapped, all pretense of calm regard or soft compliance gone. “I suffered attentions I did not want and find myself accused because of it! I had nothing to do with those two men—”
“Those two men tried to beat each other to death in order to give you those attentions, one succeeded, and now you evade my questions and play at seduction! Who are you and how did you drive sane men to murder?”
“How d’you know they even were sane?”
“Did you try to play them against each other?”
“No! I never even—”
“Cast a spell, then?”
“I’m not a witch, I wouldn’t even know how to—”
“Did you spurn one in favor of the other?”
“I was trying to spurn both, I didn’t—”
“Did you look at them the way you looked at me before?”
“I wasn’t—” Calder clenched his teeth, fisted his hands. “You see seduction because you want to see it, because you think you merit it! You assume I caused men to attack one another for the same reason you assume I’d even want you, when all you’ve done is try to bully and intimidate me, and then you look at me like you just found me on the bottom of your boot and call me things no man would suffer without a call to duel! You do these things because you can, because your size and your authority permit it, but I’d love to hear the questions you’d ask if I were your size and you were mine!”
His anger was contagious—Dallin found his blood rising and his heart tripping up in rhythm. “Where did you get the papers?”
“From the same place all citizens of Lind get theirs!”
Dallin growled and pounded his fist on the table, trying not to feel too much satisfaction when it made Calder jump and some of the color fade from his cheeks. “Why do you keep this up, when you know I’ve twigged? They’re forgeries—you’re as much from Lind as I am a third nipple on the Mother’s left tit.”
Calder’s glower was scathing. He sat forward, jaw twitching. “Prove it,” he snarled. “You have legal verification of my identity, and I have given my statement as witness and fulfilled my obligation as a citizen of the Commonwealth. Unless you can prove those papers a forgery, you can’t keep me here.” He pushed his hands at Dallin. “Let me go.”
“What did you call me when I walked in?”
Calder glared, teeth grinding. With a long breath, he swallowed and looked away. “I don’t remember.”
A blatant lie this time—the first one, Dallin was fairly certain, since he’d come into the room. Dallin noted the change in demeanor—from anger and defense to quiet anxiety—and silently congratulated himself on hitting another mark. He’d throw himself a party when he figured out exactly what it was.
“You called me by a name, like you thought you knew me.”
“Nonsense muttering,” Calder murmured, subdued. “I was frightened.”
“Of my size.” Dallin lifted an eyebrow. “It sounded like the North Tongue.”
A small twitch. It appeared there were marks all over the place. Perhaps if Dallin kept stumbling blind, he’d hit the right one.
“How would I know the North Tongue?” Calder wanted to know.
“You see my point.”
“I see that you’ve bound me and held me against my will when you have no cause for either. I was very nearly a victim. Would you have been so dedicated in your questioning of those two gentlemen if it were me lying on a slab?” Calder’s hands flopped on the table again. “Please.” Real entreaty this time, quiet and near desperate. “I’ve done no harm to anyone, and I want to leave now.”
Not quite a break, but at least a crack.
“How long have you been in the province? Why have I never seen you before?”
Calder slumped. “Perhaps you don’t get out much,” he muttered. “I expect that’ll be my fault soon as well.”
“And where were you before that?”
“I don’t…. Why won’t you just…? I’ve done no wrong. Why are you doing this?”
“Tell me who you are.”
“You have my papers. Please.” Calder scrubbed at his face, then peered at Dallin with a look of raw appeal. “You said I was not a prisoner. I have answered your questions. I have told you everything I can tell you.” Once again, he held his hands out. “Please. Either arrest me or let me go. I don’t even care which anymore.”
Of all the faces he’d seen this man don this morning, Dallin thought perhaps this was the true one: exhausted and miserable, saw-toothed terror blurring about the periphery. Pity rose, softening the hard edges of suspicion. Dallin didn’t believe for a moment that this man was Wilfred Calder from Lind. But he also didn’t believe he’d enchanted anyone into murder.
So what was he hiding, what was he hiding from, and why was he so afraid?
Dallin was only slightly moved, his pity tucked back behind duty and then hidden beneath the hard set of his face. Almost everyone brought behind these doors was pitiable in some form, whether hard-bitten villain or truly innocent victim, and long experience had taught him that most people hovered somewhere in between the two. Treating one like the other and alternating his approach—sympathizing, then victimizing—served to unbalance and confuse.
This man was not confused. Unbalanced, certainly, and agitated beyond the point many others had fallen into tearful confession, but no sobbing declarations hovered at his tongue, no indignant justifications. Instead he all but obsessed over those manacles, begging not for his life or forgiveness or anything so trite and unseemly as reprieve—he begged instead for release from the cold metal about his wrists, so fixedly that Dallin began to wonder if the discomfort they achieved had not somehow balanced out against his favor rather than in it.
He peered at the shackles, at the pink, knobby scar on the left wrist. Newish and thick, and reaching halfway about the blue-veined wrist, with the uneven healing marks of botched care and badly treated infection.
Looks like someone who’s spent his life locked up in a dark room, Dallin had thought when he’d first seen Calder. Now Dallin thought perhaps he’d been all too close to the mark. This man had been someone’s prisoner before. It was no wonder the restraints unnerved him so.
“Where did you get that scar?”
Calder’s hands curled into loose fists, withdrew. A slack shrug was all Dallin got for an answer.
“Who thought you so dangerous as to bind you? Have you been arrested before?”
Calder shook his head slowly. “No.”
“Then what did you do to merit shackling?”
A low chuckle, dark and bleak and maybe even a little bit crazed. “An offense almost as heinous as what I did this time.” Calder looked up, fixed a defiant stare on Dallin, and gave him the ruins of a desolate smile. “I had the audacity to exist.”
Rebellion and despair, obstinate mutiny and raw panic. Too many things clawed for domination in Calder’s gaze, and Dallin would swear that every one of them was a cryptic truth in a language he didn’t know how to read. This wasn’t about what happened at the Kymberly last night. Whatever this was, it made the Kymberly’s events small and unremarkable.
“You,” Dallin said quietly, “are in very deep trouble.”
Calder laughed, pure bitter irony, and rolled his eyes. “Nothing gets by you, does it?”
“No, not from me, not even from the constabulary, and it’s no small trouble, I judge. You’re hiding from something. No,” Dallin said more slowly when Calder twitched, “someone.” There—a slight wince and flinch. Dallin lowered his voice, spilled salt into the wound. “And you’re terrified.”
“If I were,” Calder answered, soft and resigned, “that would make you terribly cruel for tormenting a man already tormented.” He peered up at Dallin, eyes brimming wet now and once again gone glittering, liquid malachite in the sooty light of the lamps. “Are you a cruel man, Constable Brayden?”
The tears were no ruse, and the question no idle inquiry. Dallin sat back, eyes locked to Calder’s, absently pleased that the stare didn’t have its former effect. “It is possible,” Dallin ventured finally, “that I could help you, if you would but trust me.”
“Perhaps you could if I did. But since we find ourselves, quite literally, on opposite sides of the table….” Calder stretched out his arms so his hands splayed on the table, palms up. “Please. Let me go.”