A Gram of Silence

I saw her eyes, just the once: when she pulled me from Father’s house, her blindfold had come undone.


4. Dead Little Peter (1)

The Street of Houses was seven blocks from the Lodge, with a river and two stockades in between. A carriage had been arranged to take us there, but the horses grew nervous as Lucia approached and almost turned it over, so James decided to walk and let the Seneschal leave ahead of us. It was spring after all; the seasonal wind was blowing the city’s filth out to sea, making a stroll through the streets almost tolerable.

I walked on his left, clutching the briefcase of documents and contracts; Lucia was on his right, wearing a black tux and a black blindfold, as she always did when walking the streets. Slung across her back was James’ travel kit, a steel-casing container two meters tall, big enough to fit three of me inside. Fully replenished with yesterday’s deliveries, it weighed one hundred and thirty-six kilograms.

Despite the apparent urgency of the Seneschal’s request, James was in no hurry. We stopped by Mary’s Tea on the corner of House and 23rd to buy satchels of jasmine and chamomile. As per usual, James and Lucia waited outside as I haggled with lovely old Mary over the counter; no matter how much they said they welcomed his business, most places did not let him in, for he was always with Lucia and Lucia brought the smell.

When James saw me folding the receipt into his briefcase he raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m not reimbursing the chamomile. You’re the only one who drinks it.’

‘Lucia likes the smell,’ I said.

James turned on her; slowly, she gave the smallest of nods. ‘Funny,’ he said, ‘I don’t remember giving you that faculty.’

Following the 23rd led us to one of the many stockades littered around the city. On a wooden podium – resplendent with three bare flagpoles and a vigorous smearing of seagull whites – were three rows of pillories, half of them occupied. An old woman who was covered from head to toe in what looked like coaldust spat at us as we passed, but what little spittle she had only dangled for a while, then the wind whipped it away. The others didn’t seem to have the energy to look up.

The militiamen stiffened as we approached the checkpoint. One of them began sneezing violently, and failed to notice his green beret being blown away. Lucia caught it mid-air and was already handing it to James when the militiamen leveled their rifles and began shouting.

James silenced them by clearing his throat. ‘We’re going to the Lodge,’ he said, slapping the beret onto the militia’s head. ‘Up there,’ he gestured to the pillories, ‘any one put up for dead?’

As it happened, out of the two dozen guards on duty, no one knew when or why the prisoners were put there, or by whom. We’re just watching the road, they said; we don’t know them, they said. Apparently, no one was in command either. The tavern across the Square was open for business; it seemed the lot of them had been visiting, and forgetting all sorts of things.

James listened to them expressionlessly, tugging at the hems of his gloves now and again, as if they were ill fit. It has been a while since his last haircut, or last shave, or last tailor fitting. The stiff leather shoulders that used to hug his frame now hung loose, and the high collars of his coat hid poorly his patchy stubble, which has for weeks struggled to become a beard. If not for my diligent ironing, he could almost pass for a beggar. Almost.

We were let through easily enough; though few would recognize James by himself, they all knew Lucia. She was not a sight to slip the mind, and everyone knew whom she travelled with.

As soon as we were out of earshot James said, in his calmest voice: ‘I need a vacation.’

This was the first time he has ever uttered that unspeakable word. ‘Where would you like to go?’ I asked.

‘Where would you like to go?’

Perhaps he did not recognize what was implied with him asking such a question. ‘I have no time, Master,’ I said. ‘Neither do you.’

‘True enough,’ he sighed, ‘but there are places to visit, things to see beyond this maze of human filth.’ He gestured at the Iris as we crested a bridge. ‘The rivers I remember are green and full of trout, not…’. As ruined as my nose was, the stink was still palpable. The turbulent brown-green goo that oozed along the banks was indistinguishable from sewage. A gaggle of children, all in rags, huddled at the end of a rotten pier taking turns swinging a pair of what passed for fishing poles. They looked like they were having fun.

‘You’re tired, Master,’ I said. ‘I will send for the masseuse when we get back.’

James sounded amused. ‘You’re awfully keen on spending my money. Did we not agree on cutting overheads?’

When I told him about our safe overflowing with gold he gave a shrill laugh, loud enough that passers-by briefly forgot to pretend to not notice us. He’s been laughing like that more and more lately. It was rather unbecoming.

Two blocks later the streets grew wider, and the houses on either side retreated into increasingly lavish yards. The fences grew taller as well, with all sorts of spikes, hooks, and snarling gargoyles perched on top. Turning a corner, we came upon the second stockade, an archway of corrugated iron circled by two rings of sandbags. Two autoguns turned to face us atop spirally towers that seemed to have once been the staircases of some lofty mansion. The militiamen that called out to us wore old army uniforms, and carried rifles that practically squeaked on their straps; their green berets, on the other hand, looked musty and somewhat deflated.  

Two marching columns came to meet us. Apparently, the Seneschal had left us an escort fifty-strong, which seemed utterly nonsensical considering that we have just crossed a swarth of the city by ourselves.

‘It’s for show,’ James said as we walked with our new friends. ‘We have to arrive at the Lodge in formal reception, or the people would think something’s amiss.’

‘Those two issues do not correlate,’ I said.

‘Not to us, since we’re not idiots.’

The Lodge, in contrast to its title, was a sprawling complex with three walls and a moat filled with water from the Iris, which meant, embarrassingly, that it was surrounded by filth much like the rest of the city. Once inside its gates, however, it was like a different world. The west side was dominated by two massive greenhouses joined by a bridge of glass; inside it was a jungle. Opposite that was a forest of eucalyptus, through which the road wound up a gentle hill to a great mansion that overlooked the greater half of the city.

I gazed up as we passed beneath the shadows of the great trees. Such straight trunks, with thick fingers of ghostly white fanning out into narrow but sturdy canopies. Any house built within those branches would very much be safe.

Fifty or so smaller households, each with its own garden and three-story townhouse, lined the final stretch of the road like a huddle of ducklings trailing after the mother mansion. People came out to see our procession: children, elders, women. All wore black sashes around their left shoulders.

‘Well then,’ James chuckled. ‘I guess it really is as bad as he said. Do you see what’s happening?’

‘They’re in mourning,’ I said.

‘Yes, for little Peter. Do you remember him?’

The boy with the purple hair, calling for his purple friend, spasming on the Marisian rug. ‘Yes,’ I said.

‘We’ve kept that kid alive for…how long?’

‘Thirteen months, twenty-five days.’ When James gave me a queer look I added, ‘He…made an impression.’ Though he would never admit it, I knew for a fact that Peter had impressed him as well. No amount of gold or weight-throwing or arm-twisting would have convinced him to accept the Seneschal’s request otherwise.

James looked up at the Lodge with calm annoyance. ‘The boy’s slipped a dozen times before, but this time it was Harding’s new wife that found him. A girl of sixteen, with no idea what she’s doing. She went hysterical and woke the house before Harding could explain the…arrangement to her. So now the boy is dead, even though he’s no more dead than before.’

I could picture it well: maids and butlers running headless pretending to be busy, the pretty young wife raising the roof with her idiotic howling, and the red-faced Seneschal, in his wine-stained pajamas, storming out of the Lodge and into his carriage as everything went to riot behind him ‘To the dead man’s House!’ he would have shouted, and swore as gold slipped from his pockets with every bump of the road.

‘It’s his fault,’ I said.

‘Absolutely,’ said James, ‘which is why we’re being paraded.’ We stopped at the bottom of a great marble staircase. The Lodge, that mountain of azure and gold, sat at the top of about two hundred flights. ‘Run ahead now. There will be important names here to observe our work. Announce me properly.’

‘Like at that birthday party?’

‘Like at that birthday party.’

Four butlers in black tux escorted me to the door. When I glanced back – at the twin greenhouses, the forest, the small army gathered at the foot of the stairs, and James’ sloping shoulders, almost indistinguishable from afar – it felt as if I was afraid. My heart was fluttering, but that could have been the climb; my stomach was stirring, but that might be the chilly wind. The butlers looked nervous. One of them was very young, a teenager with a bed of pimples on his right cheek. He stared as me as if I should be as nervous as he was, as if this was a big deal, coming to the Lodge, seeing the Seneschal and his important guests.

But this was just another house, occupied by another drifting face, which, incidentally, had crushed some kaijin roots and should have a rash redder than a pomegranate right about now.

‘Perhaps you would like to change, Miss,’ one of the butlers suggested, an old man with a shiny dome, ‘into something more…presentable?’

‘Open the door please,’ I said. 

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