Cover image

Monologue:
A Comedy of Telepathy

by Frederick J. Ross

Copyright 2011 Frederick J. Ross
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Richard Hansen.

Chapter 1

It began with a dream.

Her eyes opened suddenly. She was sitting in an easy chair, a cheerful fire in the hearth to her left. I’m awake. Broadcast! Broadcast everything! Automatically she had already begun to do so as she had been taught.

“Ah, you’re awake.” The dancing fire and the two lamps turned low on the mantel above it barely illuminated the room. She hadn’t seen the man sitting in the chair on the other side of the hearth. He leaned forwards, his face coming into the fire’s light.

He’s so young. He can’t be more than twenty five. It was a pleasant face, a face she would have found agreeable asking her to dance at a party. She shook her head. Her mind wouldn’t quite focus. But still she broadcast.

“Before you exhaust yourself, there is a telepathic damper on this whole keep. I am not a telepath, but it was checked by one and appears to be functioning. There is also a telepathic perimeter, so for your sake please don’t try to escape. There are no other nobles here, so there will be no occasion for it to be deactivated.” Her mind whirled. This was a prison specially constructed for her. But where? She might be able to signal visually.

“As you will see in the morning from the windows, this keep overlooks the sea on one side and fens as far as the eye can see on the other. You are a prisoner here, and I am your jailor.” He gave a wry smile. It was a smile she would have felt compelled to return under other conditions.

“And how long will I be held here?” she asked.

“Until further notice. A couple of months is what I was told. During that time, please treat the keep as if it were your own. The library two floors above is decent. The staff will see to your meals. We even have hot running water.” He stood. “I imagine you are still rather discomfited from being drugged and from the journey. I have had the maids lay out a light meal in the room above this, and linens for a bath. For my part, I am going to bed. You can find me in the office above the main gate in the morning if you have need of anything.”

She wanted to chase down his lithe form and demand to know why she was being kept here, where she was, but her body responded clumsily as she pushed herself from the chair. By the time she had sorted out her legs, the door had closed and he was gone.

It’s the aftereffects of the drug they used on me, she told herself. What would it have been? She would have used chloroform for the kidnapping, then prosperity flower extract to keep her under. Focus, she commanded herself. He claimed there is a telepathic damper. That seemed true. She should have gotten some response with her broadcast if there weren’t.

I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and none too clean. He had said there was food upstairs, and a bath. Would the food be drugged? She sat and tried to collect her thoughts.

A couple of months, he had said. The only thing she was involved in which had both the right time table and enough importance to justify putting her out of the way was the wrangling over an oligarch seat. She was too well connected, particularly in the church, to be killed or misused, or even hidden much longer than that. It was a waiting game. If there were really a telepathic perimeter around her prison, she would be unconscious as soon as she stepped into it, and stay that way until a commoner or a nontelepathic noble pulled her out again.

There was no reason to drug her, she concluded. Her stomach growled. She stood, more steadily this time, and took one of the lamps from the mantel. She turned the key at its base and the light glowed more strongly through the frosted glass. What is that cluster of furniture over there? Never mind, wait until morning. Those are windows, so I shan’t be in darkness forever, and that appears to be a spiral staircase.

A keep, he had called it, and the heavy masonry of the stairwell seemed to agree. Halfway around the staircase’s spiral was another small window looking out on blackness. She paused and felt for a latch. It opened effortlessly, and the smell of salt and the sound of breakers far below wafted in to her. That was a bad sign. It sounded like the keep was atop a cliff. The seashore was flat and sandy anywhere in the central lands around the capitol. It only rose into cliffs far to the northeast. She was a long way from home.

She shut the window and climbed again.

The light of her lamp fell across a landing, and into a room beyond. Peering into the dimness, she discerned what she took to be a large, canopied bed and a table with irregular shapes on it. My meal, I imagine. A few steps closer and the light confirmed it.

Other thoughts vanished. She sank into a chair at the table, pausing only long enough to set the lamp down, before falling upon the food. It was light fare—thin slices of bread with a light colored spread she barely tasted as she wolfed them down, a bowl of broth, a dish of pureed apples—but when it was gone her mind felt clearer and her body stronger.

She looked down at the light blue dress she had been wearing when she was seized. She sniffed it. The promised bath was the next order of business. And with that thought, she realized perhaps she should stop broadcasting.

The dream continued, silent and dark, a monologue of her musings. How big is the staff here? Can I suborn one of the servants? Best to try to get messages out, rather than escape myself. There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by, My clothes! They brought my clothes! My maid must have been part of this. Finally after much irascible grumbling about treacherous servants, Well, good night to anyone who can hear. Though with a telepathic damper, I suppose I’m talking to myself.

The dream was still vivid when Joseph opened his eyes in the first light of dawn. He rolled off his cot, pulled on his trousers, and climbed down the ladder to the main room of his house. A few moments coaxed the fire to life in his tiny stove, and he stepped out into the cool morning air.

On the way back from the outhouse he paused to look across the fields to the big house, then at the pink suffusing the sky over the forest behind his dugout. Then turning to his door, he went in, whistling. He whistled as he filled the kettle and put it on the stove, whistled as he measured out tea and oats for his breakfast, then paused when the woman’s voice from last night cried, Will you stop that!

“Pardon me?”

What kind of ass whistles before dawn? Then after a momentary pause, You can hear me! Thank heavens! I need you to go towait, are you in the capitol?

I would think a monologue in my own head would know that I have never been to Nevintown. Though if I’m answering you, I suppose we constitute a dialogue.

Cute, but you can at least go to the constabulary and tell them I’ve been abducted.

Have you now? And why would the constabulary care about a voice in my head being abducted? Not that your timing isn’t excellent, since I promised Jeb to go into town with him today anyway. The kettle whistled, and he poured hot water into his mug and over the oats in his bowl, then carried them both to the small table.

Jeb? Go into town? Where are you? A slight pause. As he was about to answer, she responded as though he had. Westfield? And you live in a one room house with a dirt floor! In disgust she added, He probably can’t even read.

Of course I can read, he answered, irked.

He heard that? You heard that? There was a touch of panic in the tone.

Of course I heard that. It would be strange if I didn’t hear everything voices in my head chose to say to me. They do have rather unfettered access to my attention.

Nonsense spilled through his mind as he spooned honey onto his oats, partial exclamations, suddenly chopped off. After a sip of tea, he finally said, Control yourself, voice, or I’ll have to drown you out. There was an impression of disbelief and annoyance. Very well. I know how to deal with this. ‘Give me wit and silvered tongue, equal to my tale…’

The Omnighastiad? the voice flared in surprise. Well, he can’t know more than a few lines.

Joseph smiled slightly, and complacently spooned oatmeal into his mouth.

‘…Let me remember from the start, when that great man, strong,

well traveled, trained, and cunning in deed, that Lord Omnighast,

Did hear the call of sundry men to take up doleful arms

And lead them massed to the darkest north…’

The roaring lines overwhelmed the occasional cries of protest that echoed in his head.

Chapter 2

Joseph didn’t pause in his recitation as he crossed the fallow field to the main house. The two draft mules were in the harness, craning their heads to look at the porch, where a plump woman with a wicker basket in her hand was haranguing an ox of a man. Joseph pulled himself quietly onto the porch at the side of the house, unnoticed except by the mules, and kissed the woman on the cheek while relieving her of the basket. “Good morning, mother,” he said warmly. “And you’ve packed us lunch!”

“Of course I’ve packed you lunch, Joseph. I was telling Jeb—” He smiled and nodded with the ease of long practice as he thought,

‘The heralds, at his command, went forth with braided, flowing locks,

and claiming hospitality from yeomen on the way,

went forth to the neighboring lands to bear Omnighast’s command

Which bid them arm themselves anew, and mass and march to him…

Joseph slipped the basket into Jeb’s hand and gave him a little push toward the wagon. Jeb moved his bulk unobtrusively down the steps and lithely jumped up to the wagon seat. Joseph nodded as his mother discussed once again the size of rope their father needed, then headed her off when she came again to the question of calico.

“Now mother, are you sure about the calico? You know there’s unlikely to be a high thread count in stock this time of year, and you remember how Jeb wore holes in that shirt two years back.” He turned to Jeb for confirmation, while thinking,

From Omnighast’s seat in Nevintown, Belan, that swift herald,

Took the great highway west, pausing only to give his news,’

“He doesn’t seem to have done this one much harm, though.” He led her off the porch and hopped up on the seat to finger the material of Jeb’s shirt. Jeb and the mules regarded him expressionlessly, and the voice in his head cringed as he began the enumeration of Belan’s stops:

in Dorcas, the spinner’s town, where the weavers paused their work

in Allen’s Cross, where the roads meet, and the miners bring their wares…’

“That’s true. If there’s no good calico, best see if they have some linen that Jeb might not go through too easily, though he does prefer cotton.”

‘in Idle Bend, that white gem, sprawled along the river,

and pausing only to tell his tale, he crossed the ancient bridge,

That monument on the Idle, and left its verdant banks…’

“We’ll see to it.” Joseph subtly elbowed his brother, who equally subtly tapped the mules with the reins. The mules reluctantly put their heads forward, snorted at each other, and started off. Their mother’s advice continued, while they called back an occasional, well practiced, “Yes’m” or “No’m,” and Joseph with particular relish recited,

‘Onto the golden plains of Westfield, the protected grain land.’

“And Joseph, mind you don’t let those shop women swindle your brother!” was her final shout, which elicited another “Yes’m” as the cart turned onto the provincial road.

At this point the voice in his head cried, Enough! I apologize! And combined with you yes’m’ing and no’m’ing your mother, I’m about to die laughing.

Very well. Now, monologue, why are you still with me since I woke?

First of all, I am not a monologue in your head. I am a very abducted noblewoman.

You don’t sound particularly distressed, Joseph told her.

I would appreciate it if you showed at least some instinct to spring to my rescue, she replied acerbically.

‘And having cried his warlike tale on Westfield’s peaceful roads…

Spare me! We’re coming to the end of book one, and I particularly dislike book two.

Why book two? Joseph tried to ask innocently.

Your thoughts leak as well as mine, you know, she told him, smugly. You just quoted, ‘From peaceful Westfield levies came, seven divisions Untried and young, with hope and valor, bearing light arms...’ with as much fatigue as I feel trying to plow through that catalog of troops. That’s all book two is! A catalog of troops. After all, who cares about light arms?

Don’t knock light arms. They got my father a land grant after he retired from the army.

You’re a soldier’s son? she asked in surprise.

Well, I’m certainly no nobleman.

Jeb spoke, an unusual thing. Often they would pass the entire drive into town in comfortable silence. The voice in his head laughed at Joseph’s feeling of being set upon from all sides.

“I had a strange dream last night, little brother.” Jeb paused and looked down at the reins. “I dreamt Bessie was foaling.”

“Jeb, Bessie is your fiancée, not your horse,” Joseph said distractedly. “Women give birth, they don’t foal.”

“I know that, Joseph,” reproved Jeb. “But she was foaling. And the little creature came out right and proper, and staggered up to its feet.” He considered the reins again. “It was a fine little filly.”

“Why are you telling me this, Jeb?”

“Well, brother, as father always says, you’re quicksilver to my clay. I figured you might know what to make of it. It was rather disturbing seeing my girl give birth to a horse. I wasn’t sure whether to go wrestle that stallion of her father’s until he confessed, or wipe the foal down with straw.”

Quicksilver and clay? she asked.

My father always says he spent his material producing a son in his image, and the rest of his children were elementals: clay, quicksilver, and fire.

Who’s fire?

My little sister has a temper, he told her, as an impression of a thin, black haired girl in a dire rage passed through his mind. Then, to Jeb, “Have you been thinking on starting a family of your own?”

“Well, yes—” he admitted.

“And how many human births have you attended?”

“Well, now, none—”

“And how many foalings, calvings, and lambings?”

“Quite a number, Joseph. I would be hard pressed to count.” Jeb had a way with animals, and sitting up with mares near their time or spending nights in cold pastures in lambing season fell to him more often than not.

“I’d say your mind just filled in a familiar event in a daydream, that’s all.” Joseph had an idea to distract him. “Look on the bright side. It was a fine filly, you said? Think about what kind of daughter you might call ‘fine’.” And be glad your dreams don’t wake up with you, he added silently.

I am not your dream! Look!

Joseph’s mind reeled at the double vision as a second set of sounds, sights, and smells assailed him. She was leaning on the stone sill of her high window, looking out over the cliffs at the roiling sea. Low storm clouds scudded overhead as a squall, its lightning just visible on the horizon, raced toward the shore.

She turned at a knock on the door. “Come,” she called.

The handle turned and a maid entered, curtseyed, and deposited a covered tray on the table. Returning to the door, she said, “Mr. Angelo said I was to ask you to join him for lunch in his office, ma’am.”

“Tell Mr. Angelo that I would be pleased.” Certainly, lunch with such a handsome fellow is no chore, her mind added, and then several more images.

Pardon me, but you do have an audience, Joseph reminded her. She flushed slightly.

The maid affected not to notice. “Very well, ma’am. I will fetch you at the hour. Will that be all?”

How dare you— she began, then to the maid, “Yes, thank you.”

You’re angling for book two, he told her flatly. The double vision vanished. She uncovered her tray with more force than was necessary, and Joseph bridled at her thoughts. When Jeb spoke again, they had been arguing hotly for some minutes, and his brother’s interruption came as a relief to Joseph.

“You’re right, Joseph. There’s a lot of joy in thinking what a fine daughter she would be.”

Joseph took a deep breath. You’re real enough for me. How long are we likely to remain connected like this?

Given that it started when I was brought here, several months, she thought sourly.

In that case, perhaps we should lay a few ground rules. I won’t take offense at your thoughts. You don’t take offense at mine.

I’ll try, she thought doubtfully, but don’t you quote epic poetry at me.

No promises. I love poetry, and I’m not going to give up the habit just because you’re in here with me.

Do you recite over breakfast on a regular basis? she asked.

Usually I don’t think at all over breakfast.

A typical man, came the response, but it was teasing. No, I won’t ask you to give up poetry. I love it myself, with the exception of some of the hoarier epics. There was a pause. Unless there is a better library than I expect here, I may be asking you to recite.

You don’t keep your favorites memorized?

I have too much else to keep in my head, thank you, The tone was sour again, and he received the echo of endless legal phrases, of prayers, of the rattling voices of gossips. But back to poetry. Do you know Mormighast’s sonnets?

He kept himself from laughing aloud as the opening line of the collection wandered through his mind, O dearest beast, thou bent and shuffling hag... At her prodding he continued.

Since, in that dark and dingy alleyway

One summer’s eve you struck me with your bag...

They giggled together over Mormighast’s parodies of the romantic sonnet, until the sun was well up in the sky and Jeb once more spoke.

“The preacher may say your mind’s a curse, little brother, but I’ve always thought it good to have you by.” Jeb clapped him on the shoulder.

“Thank you, brother,” Joseph said, touched, but somewhat alarmed. This was more speaking than Jeb often did for days.

The preacher says what? the voice in his head demanded in outrage.

Joseph laughed silently. The reverend Mr. Gren has long disliked me. Country parishioners are supposed to sit and contemplate and nod sagely during his sermons. Unbidden, times flashed through his mind when, as a small boy, he had been driven to distraction by contradictions in the sermons and had piped up in a clear, childish voice, “But, mama, before he said...”

You didn’t! There was bubbling laughter in the words.

Oh, there was worse. You see, Mr. Gren has books.

“Joseph, would you mind if we stopped on the way back at the Langtons’ farm?” Jeb asked him. Joseph momentarily lost his train of thought.

Books? she prodded.

“If I may suggest, Jeb, don’t tell Bessie your dream, or at least not the filly part,” Joseph told his brother, then to the voice in his head, I have never had enough books since I learned to read. The preacher never reads his. They’re for show. So I took to borrowing them. She caught compressed images of clandestinely opening the window of the cleric’s study, slipping in, rummaging among the shelves, then running back into the woods with a load of books, followed by more images as the window became less high and the shelves lower as the book thief grew.

Are you still ransacking the man’s library? she asked. You are, she answered herself at the involuntary image of him strolling silently up to the window last week, slipping in, replacing his last borrowings, and browsing for what he wanted next.

“But telling her I’ve been dreaming about starting a family with her would be fine, you think?” Jeb asked, after some consideration.

“Yes, I think that would be fine.”

And some of these were poetry? she asked.

Yes. I’m afraid I haven’t gotten around to returning a couple of those. Unbidden, for ten years appended itself to that thought. Now stop laughing. We’re coming into town, and folks think I am strange enough without the prodding of voices in my head.

“Now, mother’s list,” Jeb said pulling it from his shirt pocket.

Joseph looked over his shoulder at it, then up at the sun. “Let’s start with the sugar, cornmeal, and calico. Hannah at the store will be getting eager for her lunch—”

Lunch! I’ve spent the whole morning talking to you. I have to get dressed. He received an impression of flipping through fabrics and gritted his teeth against the double vision.

“—and if we pretend to be at odds we can drag it out until she practically gives us the stuff to get us to go away.”

“At odds?” asked Jeb, clearly puzzled.

“Do you remember how we argued over staying the night with the Kendricks that time?”

“Yes, I do. Mother had told us—”

“Precisely. Mother had told us. I’ll set you up and you just play the dutiful son.”

“Joseph,” Jeb began.

“Yes?”

Suddenly he received an image of her looking in a mirror. She was smoothing a dark red dress, then reached up and ran her hands over a pair of high cheekbones. Nothing to be done about the nose, she thought, as ever.

What’s wrong with your nose? asked Joseph, his attention split uncomfortably between inside world and out.

It’s pointed! And stop peeking!

I can’t help it if you show me.

“Do you recall what Hannah said to Bessie at the dance last month?” Jeb asked him slowly.

‘I guess that’s all you can expect from such folk,’ he remembered, and at her mental anger, thinking the sentiment was directed at her, sent on the rest of the scene with his brother. She calmed. “I do, Jeb,” he answered.

“I believe I shall be particularly ornery today, Joseph.”

The brothers exchanged slow smiles. One thing before you go drool over Angelo, he interjected as the maid appeared at her door. At her wordless and impatient response, he hastily asked, What’s your name?

The voice in your head is named Alison, she said, her acerbic tone back, as she followed the maid down the stairs. Joseph firmly pulled his attention back to his surroundings.

Chapter 3

The maid led Alison downstairs, across the sitting room where she had awoken the night before, and into a wide arcade overlooking the courtyard. She traced her hand over an undecorated stone pillar as she followed the maid around the arcade, toward a heavy wooden door over the main gate. The maid knocked, opened the door, and gestured her in with a curtsey.

Alison paused in the doorway. Angelo’s office was dominated by a bank of arched windows looking out over the fens. Their light streamed across a heavy desk at one end of the room, and an ornate table and two chairs set out on a colorful rug at the other. Angelo himself had just turned from the window.

He does look fine in that light, she thought, then sent an irked thought in response to Joseph’s mental laughter. And he knows how fine he looks. What a studied pose. “I don’t believe we were properly introduced last night,” she said with a smile.

“I go by Angelo here, though the staff insist on adding ‘mister’ to that.” He stepped lightly across the room to take her hand and bow slightly over it. “Please, sit. Claire will bring lunch in presently.” He pulled out one of the heavy chairs for her, then seated himself in the other.

“This is a fine piece. Southfield work, isn’t it? Of about a century ago?” she asked, tracing the carving in the woodwork.

“Well done.”

“A family heirloom? For that matter, is the keep yours?”

“You cannot seriously expect me to answer that,” he told her with a smile. “Please, Ms. Yewghast, we are both professionals, aren’t we?”

“It had to be tried,” she answered with a sigh. “Suppose you tell me the terms of my captivity?”

“Certainly.” He licked his lips, collecting his thoughts.

Monologue, you are broadcasting your fixation on his tongue, Joseph told her. It’s distracting me from harassing this poor shopkeeper She received an impression of Joseph talking a mile a minute while Jeb, wrinkling his forehead in uncertainty, appealed to maternal authority.

He’s distracting me, too. Mentally she grimaced, though her face remained still. Doubtless he was chosen for that as well.

“I’m sure we both know what affair has necessitated your removal. After all, you cleared your calendar of everything else,” he began, almost hesitantly.

“And arbitration is in two months. Of course. The terms of my captivity, please?” Trying not to laugh at Jeb playing straight man to Joseph’s antics made her brusque.

Angelo eyed her for a moment, taken aback. “The servants do not know where we are, nor my identity. They were engaged elsewhere and transported here. You need not waste your time questioning them. You will, of course, and they are well behaved, so it will pass some time. We are supplied by a cart once a week. I am the only person who deals with the teamster. There are no messages carried out.” He was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Come in.”

The maid, Claire, carried a tray with two covered bowls into the room. They both were silent while she placed them on the table, uncovered them, and left with a curtsey. Alison breathed deeply. “Fish soup. It smells excellent.”

“I see no reason to eat poorly.” Angelo picked up his spoon and quietly took a mouthful of the brown liquid. “Where was I?”

You know exactly where you were, Alison thought, neatly taking a spoonful of soup. The telepathic barriers.

“Ah yes. The damper and perimeter are both located outside the walls, as usual. I am the only one with access to them. Again, you will search to make sure that I am telling the truth, but the keep is a fascinating building, and again, it will pass some time. You are welcome to borrow any books from the office you wish, but the majority of them are in your library anyway. Please do not hesitate to call upon me for anything which will not conflict with my position as your jailor.”

“How kind of you.” I swear, Joseph, I am going to go insane before that shopkeeper.

Now, now, came back the answer. Her teeth have been gritted for five minutes. She will propose terms momentarily. Ah, there... Alison watched in fascination as the heavyset woman broke in on Joseph’s speech, and proceeded to practically give the sugar and salt to the young men if they would only stop arguing about rope.

“May I ask what you’re thinking?” Angelo broke in on her.

“Considering how to circumvent your security, of course.” She smiled, and took another spoonful of soup.

“Of course. Tell me, did you grow up in the capitol?”

“Angelo, I appreciate the attempt to make small talk, but for my capture you doubtless became intimately familiar with my past.”

He looked hurt. “I am your jailor, not your kidnapper.”

“Very well. Tell me, you are a member of Jarrod’s, aren’t you?”

“What club I’m a member of hardly matters.”

Why are you asking about where he plays cards?

I want to know how connected he is in the capitol, you dolt. No, she cautioned, no poetry now! I need to concentrate. To her surprise, Joseph relented. They ate in silence for a few moments. “Incidentally, what is the date?”

“The twelfth of Fivemonth.” She saw the wince in his eyes as soon as the words came out of his mouth.

I could have told you that, Joseph pointed out.

She smiled gently at Angelo while she considered that. In fact, you can do a great deal more than that.

Monologue, I am not sure that I care for your tone, but I must gossip at the post office now, since Jeb is incapable.

“Don’t concern yourself. The servants would have told me anyway.” She reached out and patted his hand on the table. “You’re doing quite well for your first time at this.”

He smiled thinly at her. “Have you finished your soup?”

“I have. It’s Jerrod’s recipe, isn’t it?”

“Mantlin’s,” he corrected as he walked over to his desk. His fingers paused as he reached for the bell. His jaw set, and he rang it with rather more force than was necessary.

Jerrod’s? Mantlin’s? Is this some kind of code? Joseph asked.

Clubs in the capitol. Of course it’s Mantlin’s recipe. Their chef is known for it. Mistaking it for Jerrod’s is almost an insult to a member of Mantlin’s.

“Of course, knowing that I have managed to get the soup’s recipe does you little good here.” Angelo crossed to the windows and looked out as the maid came in and cleared their dishes.

“No, but I might be able to convince your chef to give it to me.”

“You have but to ask, and I will give it to you myself.”

“Then I am asking.”

“I will make you a copy.” Silence descended again. Thunder rolled, followed by the sudden hiss of heavy rain. The door opened and Claire returned and silently placed dishes of white beans and boiled greens before them.

And this, Alison thought in satisfaction, is from Jerrod’s. I do believe he is trying to impress me. “Come, eat, Angelo. You and I both know this would be a sin to waste.”

“As a churchman’s daughter, you would know,” he said, and returned to the table with a forced smile.

The rain pounded on the windows as they ate in silence. She almost choked when Joseph suddenly asked, Can telepathy transmit taste?

Not that I am aware of. She chewed in satisfaction. It’s a shame, but only thought, sound, sight, and some emotion. “I warn you,” she said severely over the table. “I intend to poach your cook when this is over.”

A real smile crossed the young man’s face. My jailor is uncomfortably handsome when he smiles like that, she thought.

“In that game, I believe I can give as well as I get.” He chewed a mouthful of greens. “Are your chambers comfortable?”

“Very comfortable, thank you.”

“Have a look at the library after lunch. I believe it will please you.” The mask was back on his face now. She smiled acquiescence and silence descended again until Claire cleared their plates and brought in a fruit confection for dessert. They briefly chatted about its preparation, then the fad of regrettable fruit desserts that had run through the capitol’s clubs the previous year. Halfway through recounting a particularly disastrous sherbet involving apricots and peacock feathers, he suddenly went silent again, saying, “but I’m sure I’m boring you.”

She was annoyed. The story had already revealed as much about him as it was likely to, and he was an engaging raconteur. There was no reason not to finish the tale. She smiled blandly.

After Claire had cleared their dishes one last time, she stood and thanked him for lunch, offering her hand. He bowed mutely over it and she turned to leave. At the door she paused to look back at him where he stood by the table with his brows drawn together in a glower.

“Angelo,” she asked, “you’re not getting paid for this are you?”

His expression turned to shocked surprise as she slipped into the hallway. She contained herself until she reached her chambers, then collapsed into the chair she had awoken in yesterday and laughed until she had to hold her sides.

I missed something, Joseph informed her. Why are you laughing?

Angelo said he is my jailor, not my kidnapper. That’s probably true. She gasped for breath. I believe I have an admirer. She sobered. But it does make this whole situation yet more bizarre. I have trouble believing my opposition entrusted me to a lovesick amateur.

I caught flashes about oligarchs when you were discussing the “affair that necessitated your removal.” When I get out of the post office, I’d be curious to hear about it. As for admirers, your nose is pointy, monologue, Joseph reminded her.

Quiet. It’s nice to have admirers when you’re thirty three. She collapsed into laughter again.

Chapter 4

The brothers had dispatched their business in town, and stopped on the way back at the Langtons’ farm. The Langtons were neighbors, and Joseph had often enough sat at Pella Langton’s kitchen table while she chattered and plied him with cookies and milk. The habit had never died, and when her daughter Bessie had dragged Jeb off to the parlor, he found himself comfortably installed in the kitchen with a large glass of fresh milk and a plate of Pella’s excellent oatmeal cookies in front of him.

Does she think you’re still a child? Alison asked.

She does. It’s easiest to accept. Joseph contentedly dunked a cookie. He couldn’t help but recall flashes of conversations, of people asking his parents when he was going to go find land of his own, of his brother offering to take him into business in town, of halfhearted discussions about sending him off to get his teaching certification then taking him on in the town school.

Alison was silent for a moment, while Joseph munched and raised his eyebrows in feigned interest at Pella’s flow of chatter. The new heifer had foaled, the old mule was lame, and Benjamin Rutter’s daughter had been paying particular attention to that nice young man at the general store in town. “And I thought she might be sweet on you, Joseph. Such a nice match that would have been, and with your head you might have been an asset in the shop,” she said, but without conviction.

That had the sound of long use, Alison remarked.

Worn and polished, Joseph affirmed.

But why not send you off to become a teacher?

Joseph closed his jaw on a chuckle. I think they’re afraid of what I would say to the children. Anyway, I never encouraged the idea. Jeb shall marry Bessie and inherit the farm Our older brother Nathaniel is well established in town. Sister Moira will marry some creature and henpeck him, and I will live in my cottage, help Jeb with the place, and teach my nieces and nephews all the improper things Jeb won’t.

That sounded bitter, Alison remarked. Good heavens, Angelo was right about the library. She gave him a view of an old, leather bound volume. Now I am armed as well. Madwell’s ‘Voyage to the North.’ Your ‘Omnighastiad’ no longer frightens me.

I’ve never read that, though I’ve heard of it. Mr. Gren doesn’t own a copy. “No’m, he hasn’t mentioned anything to me,” he said in response to some rhetorical query about Jeb’s plans for marrying.

“Oh, I hope they plan it soon,” Pella continued, and then continued her chatter.

I promise to read you some tonight, Alison told him. From what I saw of Bessie, she and Jeb seem an odd pair. She echoed his own impression of Bessie back at him: small, slim, long black hair, dancing black eyes, and a continuous flow of cheerful energy.

They are. The story, like all other memories, bubbled into his mind in a series of flashes. He remembered the worried Pella reining up at his mother’s door to beg their help searching for the then ten year old Bessie. The whole family had turned out, Nathaniel sent to ask the other neighbors, mother with four year old Moira to keep watch with Pella, and Jeb and Joseph to assist their father and Richard Langton in the search.

Joseph had played on the Langtons’ lands as freely as his own and knew every tree. At seven he was already more voluble that Jeb, and was asked by the men to lead them to all their usual hiding spots. Joseph had seen Jeb crouching with one of the Langton’s dogs at the edge of the kitchen garden as he led the men off.

They had returned that evening empty handed, and now Jeb was missing as well. Lanterns were lit and the men set out again. Joseph’s impressions were dim, of swaying lights seen from a corner of the kitchen where he had curled up to sleep.

Jeb wasn’t lost, I take it, Alison conjectured.

Not at all. Late the next morning he arrived across the fields with Bessie leaning on his shoulder and two dogs cavorting around him. The scene of the adults questioning the pair, of Bessie answering, except for the occasional word from Jeb, and the general relief, swam through his mind. They’ve been inseparable since. Bessie’s a year older and always protected him at school. Joseph paused to sip his milk.

It’s strange. You actually stop thinking when you do certain things.

Oh, Mr. Gren had an unread copy of Moris’s ‘Exercises of the Soul’ that I found enlightening.

I would normally be surprised to find someone following the practices of an extinct, contemplative order of monks, but it almost seems in character. The thought had a wry sound. Anyway, that explains Jeb and Bessie. Their thoughts fell away to quiet musings as Joseph half listened to Pella and Alison browsed her library.

Perhaps this would be a good time to explain why you were kidnapped, Joseph suggested.

I was asked to aid in the decision of who should inherit an oligarch seat, she answered. Since I am the primary counsel for one of two main candidates, I assume this is the work of opposing counsel. At Joseph’s insinuation that kidnapping was a crime, not a court procedure, she laughingly told him, Oh, but it’s both. It follows very careful rules. Only kidnap counsel, never clients. A certain level of comfort must be maintained. It must be done with plausible deniability. There are people among the criminal classes that specialize in such things.

People like Angelo? Joseph jested.

No indeed, she told him in mock horror. I have already gathered enough information to track him down, and he will be facing rather serious charges.

Kick the poor, lovesick puppy, would you? Joseph teased.

Absolutely. I think he has read too many novels and expects me to swoon over him in our northern fastness. I wonder what his principal was thinking, and what Angelo himself was thinking.

And you would have done a far better job, I’m sure, he responded in mock seriousness. Then at her involuntary flashes of memory, Really. That’s rather disturbing.

As I said, it’s a game played by certain rules.

Yes’m. So how do you merit a place in the power games of our benevolent rulers, the oligarchs?

When your best friend since childhood asks you to help her capture a seat, you clear your schedule, she informed him archly.

Right. You used to splash each other in the pond as kids.

The pond was actually a pool in their garden, but yes, she answered, accompanied by visions of swimming with an auburn haired child missing both front teeth. I lived with her family most of my life. We even roomed together at university.

Not your parents?

My father is the hierarch of Nevintown, and wasn’t allowed to marry my mother. And she’s the head chemist in a factory in Pimsford, so they arranged for their old friends the Nevinghasts to foster me. She added, I’m very close to my father despite that. I usually spend two or three days a week with him. Brusquely, she changed the subject. Anyway, there were two claimants for the seat with nearly equally good cases. One was my foster sister, the other was her uncle Bryce. The rest were dismissed, and Maddy, my foster sister, and Bryce were told to patch up an agreement in three months, at which time it would come to arbitration.

And that’s when your friend came to you? Joseph asked, sipping his milk.

Oh, no, she came to me months before, when this whole thing began. Has that woman stopped talking since you arrived?

We’re talkative folk here in Westfield.

Rubbish. You and your brother don’t say anything but ‘yes’m’ and ‘no’m.’ Anything further was derailed as Bessie burst into the room, dragging Jeb after her. Jeb promptly sat down next to Joseph and swiped a cookie while Bessie leaned over the back of his chair.

“And you a grown man!” Pella scolded him, swiping at his hand with the dish towel perennially perched on her shoulder. “Next you’ll be asking for a glass of milk.”

Jeb looked sardonically at Joseph’s almost empty glass, while Bessie laughed. “Why, mother,” she said. “Here you’ve been plying Joseph as though he were five, and Jeb can’t have a cookie?”

I am vindicated, Alison interjected.

“Well, that’s so,” Pella allowed. “I suppose I do still think of you as a boy, Joseph,” she added apologetically.

“It’s all part of my nefarious plan to keep you in servitude, serving me cookies and milk until I’m old and grey,” Joseph answered, grinning and rubbing his hands together.

“He’s joking,” Jeb told Pella at her uncertain look, breaking his usual silence.

From in here, I’m not sure you are, Alison remarked.

Jeb’s my big brother. He doesn’t like people feeling uncomfortable around me. He hesitated, then added, A lot of the time I’m not sure if I’m joking either, though.

“And those are the first words you’ve said to me in months besides ‘good day,’ ‘thank you,’ or ‘please,’” Pella scolded Jeb. Jeb contentedly ate half of another cookie and looked at her mildly.

“Why, Jeb talks all the time, mother. You just have to watch his eyes,” Bessie told her. “You don’t think I would sit in the parlor talking to myself for the better part of an hour, do you?”

“Why not? I do,” Joseph said. Bessie threw him a quelling glance, while Alison accused him of taking advantage of those around him. I’ve been like this since I was a boy, monologue. There’s no help for it, and they expect nothing less. If I stopped, they would worry that I was about to do something unimaginable. Then, catching Jeb’s eye, he said aloud, “but we really must get going. There are chores waiting at home.”

That wasn’t a joke at all, Alison noted.

Chores or expectations?

Both.

Jeb stood, and Bessie followed him out the kitchen door while Joseph thanked Pella for the cookies. Pella followed him onto the porch and looked approvingly on as Jeb embraced the much smaller form of her daughter and smiled in response to her, “I’ll see you Sunday.” Jeb then climbed up on the wagon seat. Joseph leapt up after him and turned to ask, “You’ll be at the dance after service Sunday?”

“Of course! Who else would protect the other girls from you?” Bessie called back as the wagon pulled away.

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