The Blue Star
Chapter 27: Winter Light
As Rodvard left the courtroom, Demadé Slair fell into step beside him. (The man was determinedly, if coldly, friendly; how to shake him off? instead of leading him home to Lalette and another of those conversations in three, where Rodvard felt himself so much hearing a language he did not understand that he always ultimately fled them for a book or the outer air.)
“Escholl is one of our best,” said the swordsman, kicking at the skin of a fruit, “but there’s a judgment I failed to understand.”
“Which one? The merchant who was confiscated for bringing wool-carts past the Mayern camp?”
“Ah, bah, no. He had money, the nation needs it; that’s crime enough. I spoke of the Baron’s brother, the noble Kettersel.”
“No more did I understand it,” said Rodvard. “As dirty a character as I ever saw, but the kronzlar let him go and praised him.”
“Oho!” said Slair. “It begins to come clear. What’s the tale?”
“Why, he was after his nephew’s wife—whether for her money or her body the most, I am not sure, but he wants both.” (He could not resist adding); “And it’s a poor task to break up a couple at any time, for it destroys two people’s chance of happiness for the temporary pleasure of one.”
“Not always,” said Slair, avoiding his eyes. “But I am interrupting. Is there more?”
“His only fear is that the Baron will die before the son, and so the right of remarrying the girl will pass to another family. I did not tell the kronzlar because it was not clear enough, but I think he was planning murder. Yet Escholl let him go.”
Slair laughed. “Bergelin,” he said, “do not lose your innocence; it may save your life some day, for no one will ever believe you are subtle enough to be dangerous. I said Escholl was one of our best; depend upon it, he thought more deeply than you, and without any witch-stone to help him. Why, it is precisely because Kettersel has murder and rape at the back of his mind that he was let go. For exactly the opposite reason, the court will condemn Palm as soon as there’s a pretext for a trial. Mathurin has arranged it so.”
“I am innocent again and do not quite understand the reason.”
“Yet you will dabble in high politic! Hark, now: are not all of the noble order enemies to the New Day by constitution, by existence? Are not all their private virtues overwhelmed by this public fault? The true villains among them will sooner or later dig their own graves and save us the trouble, bringing discredit on the whole in the process. But when you have one like Palm or the late Baron Brunivar, he’s dangerous; sets people to loving the institution because they cannot hate the man, and so must be pulled down by force ... For that matter, we need something to stir the people, make them fight for their liberty.”
“This seems a hard way,” said Rodvard, (trying to resolve the torsion in his mind).
“It is a hard life, and hardest for those who avoid battle,” said Demadé Slair; and Rodvard not replying, they walked in silence. (Would this new system somehow produce men of better heart and purpose? For he did not see how the hardness could be justified else. And now his mind fell to wagging between man-system, system-man, and he decided that the justification of the system would be that it produced better men generally, and not merely a few of the best. No, not that either, for that was to confuse politic with ethic, and each was itself a system; for the one would make men good without regard to their happiness, and the other make them happy without regard to their good ... Or what was good? Where was the standard? By the system of Mancherei—)
“Will you go on to the quays?” said Slair’s voice, suddenly, and Rodvard found himself three steps beyond the entrance to the Palace Ulutz.
“I am weary tonight,” said Rodvard. “Perhaps because I am so innocent that this affair of spying upon the minds of my fellows is somewhat unpleasant.”
He extended his hand to bid goodnight.
“Oh, I am going with you,” said the swordsman, and as he caught Rodvard’s glance of aversion. “I cannot bear to be without your company.” His face went sober as he quick-stepped beside Rodvard’s dragging feet up the entrance-walk. “This is Mathurin’s arrangement, also, in case it troubles you. Did you not notice those two men who followed us from the court at half a square’s distance? There will be another outside tonight. People’s guards.”
(A tremor of peril.) “But I have—”
“Done nothing but your duty to the nation. True; and for that reason precisely it is needful to guard you like an egg sought after by weasels. Do you think that the fact you bear a Blue Star is a secret? There are not a few persons who may be brought before the court that would rather conceal an assassination than what they have in their minds. You and I may have a fight on our hands.” His face lighted with pleasure at the prospect.
They paced slowly through the dead garden, along a walk so narrow that shoulders sometimes touched. Lalette could hear the tiny tinkle of the chain that bound Slair’s sword to his hip when that touch came; she knew he was stirred, and the rousing of emotion was not unpleasant to her. Beyond the slate roofs of the town the sun was sinking redly through striations of cloud; all things lay in a peace that was the peace of the end of the world. He turned his head.
“Demoiselle,” he said, “what will you give for news?”
“Oh, hush,” said she. “You spoil it. For a moment I was immortal.”
“I ask your grace. But truly I have news for you, and it should please you.”
“Sit here and tell me.” She took her place on a marble bench beneath the skeleton of an espaliered peach against the wall.
“You will not have to use your Art against the arch-priest Groadon. Does that not please you?”
“More than you know. What is the reason?”
“He has fled; slipped through the watch set on his palace and gone—whether to hell, the court or Tritulacca, no one knows.”
“I am glad.” She looked straight before her for a moment. “Ah, if things were better ordered.”
“You are not as pleased as you might be.”
“Oh, I am. But Rodvard—”
“What has he done? I’ll—”
“Oh, it’s no fault of his. You will tell no one?” She laid a cold hand on his warm one. “He has found who the heiress of Tuolén is, but does not know whether to tell Mathurin or not.”