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Callum Crofting – Turn 5

NO SOONER HAD the sunlight caught on the Gendarme's blade, or so it seemed, but Will Flint was in smooth swift motion, racing across to join the small group in the street. Equester Huggett was standing his ground, face thrust forward, but Flint slipped between him and the Gendarme and seized the latter's sword-arm in his right hand. There were a few moments of heated discussion, everyone's heads turning back and forth rapidly as one or other put in a remark.

Callum was surprised to see Stella's head peeping out from under his arm as he craned to see. She must have sneaked up behind him. 'What's happening? Are they killing Master? Isn't that Captain brave!'

'Stella! Stay inside - it's dangerous! Don't worry, Master'll be all right...' He wished he actually felt confident it was true. 'Yes, he is brave, isn't he...' No-one was ever likely to say that about Callum himself. Just the sight of a blade drawn in anger had been enough to turn the blood in his veins to chill water. But as he spoke, the sword slowly went back into its scabbard, and everyone seemed to relax slightly. Captain Flint and the Ambassador broke away and slowly walked back towards the Embassy, the Gendarmes following at a gap of ten paces or so. Callum and Stella hastily backed away from the window.

As he entered the building the Ambassador called to Mistress Dorthy to start preparing the patients to be handed over to the Gendarmes. Her face was disbelieving, but she obeyed, marshalling the staff to help. Callum was about to join in when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

'Not you, lad,' said Will Flint. 'Time for that little errand now, eh?'

CALLUM SLIPPED OUT of the back door of the Embassy, making sure he was unobserved. Even the grooms and so on were helping indoors, lashing the wounded rioters to stretchers and such like, so he slipped across the stable-yard and out into the alley unnoticed. If anyone were to know what he was about, there was a chance it might prejudice Miss Mary's safety, and that was a risk he dared not run. Just the thought of anything ill befalling her made him shudder uncontrollably.

It was still early enough for the streets to be fairly empty, and the sight of a servant-lad sprinting down from the Cantonment into the Old City was a common enough one that his passing raised no eyebrows. He stopped, panting heavily, by the side of the Dower House, Princess Sharia's residence, where he had seen her doctor Théophile Marchant helping Mary Huggett into a carriage the previous night. Was it really that recently? It seemed incredible that such a pack of events had taken such a short space of time.

He cast his gaze about from side to side, not really expecting to see anything of any interest. Any clues there might have been here would surely have been spotted by the Dower House staff. There were four guards on duty outside the gate now, Imperial Guardsmen, their helmets pulled far down over their faces and their plumes barely nodding, they were so still. He ran over the events he had witnessed to see if he had missed anything: no, there was nothing, really. He sighed and hurried on into the city.

The Legacy Barracks looked much less sinisterly forbidding in daylight, the sun shining brightly down on its amber stonework. In the yard outside a small troop of cavalrymen were exercising their mounts, trotting over a series of round beams placed on the ground. Each horse paced its feet with precision, stepping between the obstacles. Callum watched briefly, intrigued, as one of the riders bent and whispered in his mount's ear, as Flint had done the previous night. What was she saying: and in what language? He shook himself, remembering his mission, and with some degree of boldness asked the soldier on duty where he might find Captain William Devereux.

'You're in luck, sonny!' The man was young, his countenance open and cheerful, and Callum was almost taken aback by his unlooked-for friendliness. 'He's in his office right now, along the corridor there: fifth on the left!' He pointed along the other wing of the building from that in which Will Flint's rooms were to be found: perhaps the two regiments were kept separate. This wing was rather quieter and more dingy than the Imperial Guard's; in need of a lick of paint, Mistress Dorthy would say.

Finding the door with Devereux's name on it - it had above it an Imperial crest in a red circle, the significance of which escaped Callum - he knocked rather tentatively. At once the sound of voices within stilled, and a man cried out 'Enter!'

Callum's nerve almost deserted him - the speaker sounded rather fierce - and he was close to backing silently away. But the thought of Mary Huggett sustained him sufficiently to push the door and peer nervously around its corner.

The office was small and square, with a thin, high window the only source of light. The large desk which was its main furnishing was covered with sheaves of paper, all carefully ordered and pinned at the corners with coloured tags. There was a portrait of the Empress above the unlit hearth, and various military-looking documents with titles like 'Orders of the Day' pinned up to the walls in array. There were two men in the room, both in a dark-green uniform that was much less fancy that that of the Imperial Guards. The man behind the desk, who had spoken, was a captain, and was tall and distinguished-looking, his dark beard and moustache neatly trimmed and his face marked by a scar. The other, who had turned to regard Callum curiously, was a few years younger, probably not much more than 20, and was a sergeant. He had fairish ginger hair and a wide, inquisitive face.

'Well? What d'you want, lad? Don't just stand there like a fool, come in!' Captain Devereux {for it was he} barked.

Callum, clutching the edge of the door as though it were a lifeline, edged slowly round it into the room, his eyes downcast. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but his jaws seemed to have locked.

'We don't have all day, boy - do you have a message for me? If so, deliver it and be off!'

All at once Callum's self-control broke down, and words poured out of him in a flood. 'It's Miss Mary's been taken, sir, and the doctor too, and I was to find you for Master, and they were to go to the musical recital, and the coachman's dead he said, throat cut, and the Gendarmes took away all the wounded rioters, and we can't find Miss Mary...' he degenerated into snuffles.

The sergeant came over to Callum and put his arm round him, ushering him to a seat. 'Don't worry, lad, we'll help as best we can.' Through the mist Callum dimly registered his country accent: he sounded like the farmboys who came into market. 'Now you start at the beginning and we'll take this one step at a time. Who are you, who's your master, and who's this Miss Mary?'

'Oh, sir, she's the sweetest, kindest... I'm Callum Crofting, my master's Equester Huggett, the Pangaturese Ambassador, and Miss Mary's his daughter, and she's been taken!'

Devereux, who had been watching silently, now leant forward, his interest clearly taken. 'Huggett, eh? Then the riot you spoke of...'

'Was last night, sir, but this morning Gendarmes came and took away all the wounded people we'd been looking after, and Mistress Dorthy was certain the move'd kill some of them. But Miss Mary wasn't there, she'd gone out for the night with Doctor Marchant, but the carriage came home empty, and the driver found dead!'

'Who's this Marchant?'

'He's Princess Sharia's doctor, he lives at the Dower House, that's where they left from. But so I was sent to get you, to ask you to help find her...'

Devereux was frowning, and he absently adjusted two of the stacks of paper on his desk. His eyes moved from side to side, as though reading a piece of paper. Both the sergeant and Callum watched. 'Very well, lad, thank you for bearing that message. I'll return my answer to your master as soon as I may.' He turned back to the sergeant.

Callum was open-mouthed. He had been expecting Devereux to leap on his horse and bound into action. 'Oh, sir, please, I beg you to help us find her... what she might be suffering! And I'll do anything I can to aid you, sir, of course I will!'

'That'll do, lad,' said the sergeant kindly. 'Your master'll hear from the Captain.' He slowly walked Callum towards the door, and stepped out into the corridor with him. Once there, his expression changed to a sympathetic one, and he bent to whisper to Callum 'Don't worry too much about the old man's manner, lad - worse than his bite! It's just he's a bit busy and pre-occupied right now. He's a good sort, really, and you can be sure he'll do whatever he can to help your Miss Mary if he can, that's for certain. If you need to find us again, best come and look for me first - I'm Sergeant Marc Prost, and I'm quartered in the non-commissioneds' mess, over there a ways, see? Best that way, then you don't risk interrupting him.'

IT WAS A rather dispirited Callum who trudged back to the Embassy. He really could not say whether he had convinced Captain Devereux or not. Could he have handled the situation better? Well, yes, of course he could, if he had been braver, less timid, more decisive, bigger, more impressive, then he'd have walked in, banged his fist on the desk, said crisply 'Devereux, we need you!' and probably the Captain would have responded better: that was probably the sort of person he preferred to deal with. Like Will Flint. Well, at least he had obeyed Flint's instruction to keep his name out of the matter.

There were only a couple of patients left at the Embassy, those who had begged to stay, and Callum found the Ambassador talking to one of them, a middle-aged woman who looked like a merchant or something. Her leg was broken.

'... and I knew it was wrong, see, really, but that Chevalier de la Rose, he's got such a way of words on him - and so I thought, right then, if he says so it must be right. But it wasn't right, was it? to bring war against the guest in your midst, I mean, like the Saint says, it's a sin. And now this is the Dramaturge's punishment on me.' She began to cry.

'Don't fret, sister,' said the Ambassador, taking up her hand. 'You're not to blame: you were led astray by bad men, as the Lines have it: "they came amongst us with honey words, yet they were cunning as serpents and were wolves to our lambs". If you sincerely regret what you intended, then the Dramaturge will forgive you, for he is like a loving father to all of us.' As he glanced up, Callum could see that his own eyes were bright with tears. 'Ah, Callum, come with me. I'll speak with you again later, sister.'

As they walked back to the Ambassador's office, Callum gazed up curiously at him, wondering about this new side to his master he had not seen before. Huggett caught his glance and laughed slightly. 'Quite a Prompter I'd make, eh? Well, I should, I trained for the Church! If my sister had lived it would have been her to take the title and join the Diplomatic Service, and I'd have worked at some Playhouse in the country. But she was killed in the war... oh well! We must make the best of what the Script hands us, eh?'

Callum was emboldened enough to say 'But, Master, I thought your people didn't believe that, that you say we write our own Scripts? Isn't that why you're heretics?'

Equester James snorted with laughter. 'Out of the mouths! There's an element of truth in that, but you don't want to believe everything Hierarch Grazio says, Callum. The difference between our Churches is much more political than religious. It's more that we don't like taking orders from Palawan and Galena, so Grazio lets that paint us as dangerously seeking our own path through life... it's very clever, and it works if you don't think about it too hard, like that poor woman back there. But you're a bright lad, you can see that in anybody's life you sometimes get to make decisions, and sometimes things just happen to you: it's a mix! Anyone sensible knows that.'

EQUESTER JAMES LISTENED intently as Callum described his encounter with Captain Devereux. 'Not very helpful, eh? Well, either we hear from him or we don't. No point losing sleep about that! Look, here's what came while you were out.' He passed a small package across the desk to Callum, whose heart leapt uncomfortably into his throat as he recognized Miss Mary's handwriting on the outside. It was a blue silk hair ribbon, done up in a letter.

'No Captain Flint, but it doesn't say "No Callum Crofting", eh?' remarked the Ambassador. What about it, lad: care to join me?'

Callum could think of nothing to say, his concentration still absorbed by Mary's handwriting and ribbon.

'It's five now, so that gives us a little while for preparations. My guess is they'll take my sword from me, so I want a fall-back - I want you to carry this for me, I don't think they'll search you.' He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a silver-handled pistol. To Callum's horrified gaze it seemed the size of a cannon. 'Don't worry! It won't go off in your pocket! And with any luck we won't need it. I have a shrewd idea what those papers might be they want me to sign, but whether they'll give our little one back after or not's another question - eh? Now you must excuse yourself with the housekeeper: tell her I'm taking you to help me meet with some business interests from Rangar, or something like that. Any questions, or any ideas?'


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