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Callum Crofting – Turn 2

HIS MIND RACING, Callum stuffed the packet into the waistband of his trousers. As he shouldered his burden once more and started to stager down the street, he was thinking what he should do with it. The prospect of another journey to the Poste Restante certainly did not appeal, and if he handed the packet over to Mistress Dorthy she would only shout at him. She would shout at him anyway, most likely, but why give her more reasons?

As he carried the bundle of clothes through the stableyard, the grooms laughing at him as usual, Callum with a sinking heart saw the housekeeper standing at the kitchen door. 'And where d'you think you've been these two hours? You're not employed here to gad about the town, young man, and don't you forget it! When I tell you to fetch something, I want it fetched now, not next week!' She clipped him round the forehead with her knuckles, and he collapsed into a little heap under the bundle, protesting weakly. The grooms laughed louder.

'I-I was as quick as I could be, Mistress Dorthy, honest I was, but it was so big...'

'Silence! Don't answer me back! Why I have to put up with a good-for-nothing layabout like you I really have no idea! Now stop lounging about, you idle wretch, and get to work! The back staircase needs sweeping - and don't think I won't come and check on you!'

CALLUM'S HEART WAS heavy as he slowly moved the broom from side to side. There were two hundred and thirty steps to the back staircase, it went right up into the attics, and Mistress Dorthy had said she wanted each and every one of them clean enough to serve dinner off. He kept thinking of the packet he had stowed under his thin mattress. When would he get the chance to deliver it? What if someone found it first?

For some reason the image of Mary Huggett kept coming before his mind. Her sad, tear-stained face... what could have made her cry? He tried not to think about where she might have been, out all night.

Mary's face was swiftly dispelled by that of Stella Grundy, who clattered up the stairs towards him. 'You're back! Gosh, it's hot outside, isn't it! Was Dorthy very horrible to you?' Her broad face had sympathy all over it.

'Oh... no more than usual, really, I suppose...' Callum was warmed by her consideration. He pulled the bag of chestnuts out of his pocket, where they were by now somewhat crumpled and hairy. 'Here, Stella, would you like these?'

'Oh! How kind!' She clapped her hands together excitedly. 'Chestnuts! My favourite! How did you know!'

'Look, have you seen this, this picture on the bag?' Callum smoothed it out slightly. The image of the Wheel in flames, bright blue, revealed itself.

'Ooh, no, that's a bit creepy, isn't it?' Stella shuddered. 'I've seen it drawn on walls and things. You know, when they've broken a shop window or something, some Pang merchant or whatever, you see this sign painted up sometimes. Where did you get them?'

Callum described the scene he had witnessed in the Foyer. 'It was really disturbing. There was such a big crowd, and the Hierarch was really whipping them up, talking about fire-raising and so on. I'm worried there might be trouble here at the Embassy.'

Stella looked momentarily grave. 'James, the footman, said that there'd been quite a few people turning up wanting sanctuary here, people who'd been burned out of their homes or whatever, wanting to go back to Rangar. Some stupid street gang wouldn't dare attack the Embassy, though, would they! You do take things too seriously sometimes, Callum.'

He turned away exasperatedly. Why did no-one ever pay him any attention? 'Well, don't blame me if something happens, that's all! I think we should all be vigilant.'

She laughed. 'Don't worry, if I see a mob coming down the street with burning torches, I'll run and tell you straight away, Master Expert!'

CALLUM SEIZED THE opportunity provided by Mistress Dorthy's meeting with the coal chandler - some matter of a negotiation over quality and price - to sneak out of the Embassy, his heart in his mouth. He had made sure that no-one had seen him leave, although of course it was only a matter of time before his absence was discovered. It was now mid-evening, and he would be wanted to help wash up after dinner within a couple of hours: well, he might be back by then.

Since his experience in the Foyer that afternoon, Galena had become a slightly more threatening place. Now he looked, he could see the symbol of the flaming Wheel all over the place - painted up on hoardings, scratched on the pavement, blowing across the street on a scrap of paper. He kept touching the packet tucked into his waistband for reassurance.

There were plenty of people on the streets, and as Callum descended from the Cantonment into the old heart of the city he passed several groups of evening revellers, dressed finely, arms linked and voices raised excitedly. They seemed so carefree, their expensive clothes sat lightly on their bodies, they had nothing more to worry about than which Salemi restaurant to grace with their patronage, or which string quartet to talk loudly over while making sure they were being seen by the people who counted.

As he passed the Dower House, Princess Sharia's residence where she lived with her son Earl Flores, the Empress's nephew, Callum saw a smartly-dressed couple coming out of the elegant white building. The man was middle-aged, slim, with swept-back grey hair and a silver-topped cane. He was moving his hands animatedly as he talked. The woman on his arm was Mary Huggett. Her eyes were bright and her colour high, and she was nodding vigorously, biting her lip. Callum stopped still, staring, as they got into a carriage, the man calling out 'To the Old Guildhall, please!' From the way Mary was clutching the man's arm, they were very close friends at least. Yet he was old enough to be her father - older than her father, in fact, by his appearance. And he appeared to live in the Dower House, but he certainly was not Earl Flores. Perhaps he was one of the staff, but they would not be so finely dressed or get to use the carriage. It had drawn away now, and Callum soon lost it in the crowd.

Eventually he reached the Exercise Barracks, a long, flat building, its roof lit up with a series of blazing torches spouting yellow flame into the night. The big parade-ground was empty, and Callum made his way round to the front, which was guarded by two uniformed sentries carrying halberds. He hung back in the shadows for a minute, uncertain of what to do, before taking his courage in both hands and marching up to the nearer of the two. 'Excuse me, sir...'

The sentry did not respond, but merely carried on looking down his nose at a point straight in front of him.

'Excuse me, sir... I have this to deliver?'

Still without speaking, the sentry moved his halberd aside to allow Callum passage. He squeezed himself through the gap, a wary eye on the halberd's bright blade, feeling the weight of the guard's contempt, and passed through into the barracks.

Once inside, Callum was puzzled as to how to find Will Flint. Presumably he had rooms somewhere? But everyone who passed through this entrance chamber, which was lofty and hung with tattered old flags, seemed very busy and in a hurry, and he could not quite get up the courage to ask any of them. And everyone ignored him, as though he wasn't there at all. Eventually he decided to strike off at random down one of the passages and hope to find someone more helpful.

Just at that point a woman came into the barracks. She was of medium height, with long, straigh black hair, in her mid twenties probably, rather pretty and smartly dressed. She looked a little lost herself, looking around slightly anxiously. 'Excuse me, boy?'

With a start Callum realised she was talking to him. 'Er... yes, ma'am?'

'I'm looking for Captain Flint's rooms - can you direct me, please?'

Callum smiled, weakly. 'I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't work here - I'm looking for the Captain myself, I have a delivery for him.'

She smiled back. 'Well, we can't have both of us lost, can we? Let's find him together.' She strode up to one of the door guards. 'Excuse me, my man, can you tell me how to find Captain Flint's rooms, please?'

'Straight along that corridor, ma'am, and after five minutes you'll see 'is name on the left.'

'Thank you!' She returned to Callum, who had watched open-mouthed. Why were people always so unhelpful to him? 'Now, come with me, lad.'

AS THEY APPROACHED their destination it became apparent some sort of party was in progress. Callum's companion seemed to grow increasingly nervous, fingering her gown {which he had noticed looked a little elderly and worn} and tossing her rope of hair back over her shoulder.

Suddenly a door flung open, and a burst of light and laughter spileld out into the passage, carrying with it a tall, blond young man, strikingly handsome, dressed in bright blue dress uniform. He was carrying a silver wine goblet, and had slopped most of its contents down his front as he staggered through the door. He gathered himself up, shouting back 'Sarah! You minx! I'll settle with you...' and then caught side of Callum and his companion. He drew himself up straight{ish}. 'Doctor de Breine! Or may I call you Lirienne?' He bent to seize and kiss her hand. 'How delightful that you decided to attend. And is this fine young fellow your escort?' teasingly indicating Callum.

Doctor de Breine blushed. 'No, Captain Flint, he is here on private business with you.'

'Ah!' Flint turned to face Callum. 'What is it, lad?' His face, though florid and sweaty, seemed open and straightforward, and his eyes were very pale blue, above high cheekbones.

'I have a packet for you, sir, which was at the Poste Restante, and I collected it by mistake - I'm very sorry for the inconvenience, sir, but I'd taken it back to the Embassy before I realised...'

Flint was holding up his hands. 'Wait a minute! Let's go in, shall we, instead of gossipping out here in the corridor? Lirienne, my dear, Sarah's here already, she'll introduce you to the others. You, lad, come with me a moment.'

Callum nervously accompanied Flint through a large room with a table laid in the middle of it. The setting was exquisite silver and porcelain, ornamented with orange lilies, and sat around it were two other Guards' officers and two beautiful young women, both tall and blonde. One rose and greeted Callum's companion Doctor de Breine, but Flint led him onwards and through into a small bedroom. This was sparesely furnished in what Callum imagined to be a military style: just a desk, a washstand and a plain bed, on which Flint sat, his booted legs stretched out. 'Now, start again at the beginning. What's your name, lad?'

Soem minutes later, Callum had explained the whole situation, interlaced with many apologies. Flint had a serious expression on his face. 'You're sure no-one could have seen it while it was at the Embassy? This is such ill chance! One might almost think that de Vries arranged... no!' He took the packet from Callum, cut its strings with a wicked-looking dagger he produced from his belt, and quickly scanned the contents. From where he stood Callum could see that it was a single sheet of thick paper, with a painted crest at the top and a large wax seal below a sprawling, florid signature at the bottom. Flint's expression grew even more sombre. 'As I feared! They are moving, and quickly... lad, do you love your master?'

Callum jerked. 'Err... yes, I suppose so.' He had little contact with the Ambassador, James Huggett, but he had always seemed a kindly enough fellow.

'You may be able to help him, and me - how does that sound, eh?' Flint looked up at him quizzically. 'I have a message for him, and it's urgent it reach him tonight. We may already be too late! Thre are powers moving in this city that are hostile to all right-thinking folk, and Huggett's life is in danger - as may be those of the others of your household! I would ride and tell him myself, but it's important I not be seen - faugh!' He grimaced. 'What a filthy business is politics! But do you run back now, lad, and tell your master this - tell it to his own face, understand, and no-one else must hear. Tell him that Osprey - that's me, see? - has word he's to leave the nest tonight, him and all his chicks. Tell him not to delay a minute. Have you got that?' Rising, he gripped Callum by the shoulders, staring fixedly into his eyes as though to check the message was written on the back of his skull.

Callum nodded, his heart pounding. What could all this mean?

Suddenly there was a commotion in the outer room, and two screams. Flint leapt across the bedroom, bursting through the door, Callum following in his wake. Another officer had come in, her helmet askew and curly dark hair leaking out from below it. Her face was smudged as though with soot, and a fresh bandage around her left arm was soaked with bright blood. 'Will, thank the Dramaturge you're here! The squadron's been mobilised - there's a mob marching on the Pang Embassy, saying they're going to burn it down!'

Flint cried out, in a voice like death 'Too late! All for naught!'

Callum heard a voice screaming in his ear, deafening him, and only slowly realised it was his own.


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